“Half Time” hip-hop at Paper Mill Playhouse: Never Fresher

You’ll know how “Half Time” ends about five minutes in. So what; getting there is the fun part. And “Half Time” is fun. Its premise is simple enough (even to a fault, but anyway): a fictional New Jersey NBA team, the Cougars, is auditioning for a senior-citizen cheerleading squad. The catch, besides the minimum-age-60 requirement, is that their cheerleader routines will be performed to hip-hop rap accompaniment, movements and all.

Sounds far-fetched, right? But hold on; the musical, at Paper Mill Playhouse through July 1, was inspired by Dori Berinstein’s documentary “Gotta Dance,” about auditions in 2006 for the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets first-ever senior NBA hip-hop squad. Twelve women and one man actually became The NETSationals. If that baker’s dozen had included the equals of Georgia Engel, Lilias White, Donna McKechnie and André De Shields, the Nets might have been gone to the NBA Finals.

The “Half Time” Hip-Hop Cheerleaders

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A Grand Ol’ (Checkhovian) Opry in New Jersey: “Songbird”

Country music has never appealed to me. I might leave it on a rental car pre-set, but would never seek it out. If, however, it was all as flavorful as Lauren Pritchard’s music and lyrics for “Songbird,” I could become a fan. Her score is original in more ways than one. Titles like “Black Widow Woman,” “Whiskey Lullabies,” “Highway Fantasy” and a dozen more attest to its honky-tonk bona fides, but that DNA is enhanced by undertones of both rock and jazz.  Coupled with Michael Kimmel’s affecting book (and a nudge from a Century-plus-ago playwright), “Songbird” is a rare blend of foot-stomping rhythms and heart-tugging emotions, that Two River Theater Company is serving up with style.

“Songbird” is based, subtly and effectively, on Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” an 1896 play you need not have seen or read (or even heard of) in order to appreciate this multi-faceted  hoedown derivative.

Felicia Finley, center, and the cast of “Songbird” [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Welcome Aboard “A View from the Bridge” in Brooklyn Harbor

Playwright Arthur Miller maintained a lasting interest in his own plays, frequently popping in to productions unannounced. (I once spotted him at a performance of “Death of a Salesman” in New Jersey.)

Miller’s 1955 “A View from the Bridge” was inspired by a tale told to him by a Brooklyn water-front worker who had known the protagonist’s real-life prototype. The play was poorly received originally, but “while watching a performance,” Miller later wrote, “I saw my own involvement…suddenly the play seemed to be mine and not merely a story I had heard,” and he set about revising it. The result was – and remains – a stirring portrayal of a man’s psychological dilemma and the effect it has on his close and extended families. The fine Brave New World Repertory Theatre production is faithful to the playwright’s image and intent.

Catherine (Maggie Horan), left, Eddie (Rich O’Brien) and Beatrice (Claire Beckman) [Photos: Doug Barron]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Theatrical Alchemy: A Henry James Novella into an Off-Broadway Dance Play

Henry James’s 1903 novella “The Beast in the Jungle” is a melancholy treatise on unrealized romance and thwarted passion that unfolds in James’s characteristically elaborate prose. The same-titled theater piece inspired by the story is essentially a ballet, with intermittent narration and some spare-dialogue passages. Portrayed in flashback, it fleshes out some scenes and locations that are only alluded to in the book and adds developments and even characters that aren’t in there at all. There is also an overlay of sensuality that James scrupulously avoided.

Notwithstanding the story alterations, the overall mood is comparable. A cheery mood it is not, but as devised and staged at the Vineyard Theatre, the Dance Play is an immersive 100 minutes. With an original score by John Kander  (“Chicago” and “Cabaret” with late lyricist Fred Ebb), a book by David Thompson (“Scottsboro Boys,” Steel Pier”) and direction and choreography by five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman (“The Producers” et al), it could hardly be any less. Featuring world-renowned prima ballerina Irina Dvorovenko, superstar Broadway dancer Tony Yazbeck and an outstanding six-woman corps de ballet, this “Beast” should sooth – or at least divert – the staunchest James defender.

Tony Yazbeck with the “Beast in the Jungle” Corps de Ballet [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Moliere’s Comic Romp (with an edge): “Tartuffe” at Shakespeare of NJ

Last weekend I saw a play about a man who lies about pretty much everything. Despite claiming to be a stand-up guy – ardently religious even – he’d con you out of your socks given half a chance, and hit on your wife, groping her inappropriately (there’s another kind?) when your back is turned.

Sounds like a recently-written play about some politician or other high-profile hypocrite, right? Nope; it is the 350-year old “Tartuffe,” by French playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière, and despite its unsavory title character, it is damn funny. Especially as being performed at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

Sarah Nicole Deaver, left, Vicroria Mack and Mark Hawkins in “Tartuffe” [Photos: Jerry Dalia]

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Variety on Canadian Festival stages: a Preview

[This article was written for Digital First Media’s Michigan newspapers, where it ran on Sunday May 13, with reviews to follow during the summer.]

Ontario’s Stratford and Shaw Festivals are celebrated as much for their diverse programs of classic and modern plays and musicals as for their productions of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Separate and distinct from one another, the companies nonetheless have much in common. Both surround their namesakes with a wide variety of other works, performed in repertory over a six-month season. The rep system affords theater-goers the opportunity to see several productions over a weekend or even two in a one-day short-hop. That format also lures the finest North American actors, who relish the challenge of appearing in, say, “Julius Caesar” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the same day. (To wit: Jonathan Goad will appear as Brutus at 2pm and as Atticus Finch at 8pm at Stratford on Wednesday August 8.)

Four Shakespeare plays anchor the 2018 Stratford Festival season, with “The Tempest” and “The Comedy of Errors” already open, and “Coriolanus” and “Julius Caesar” joining them in June and July, respectively. Building on their record of creative casting, “The Tempest” will star renowned Canadian actress Martha Henry as Prospero (Prospera), and Seana McKenna is playing the title role of Julius Caesar. (No stranger to ill-fated rulers, Ms. McKenna was an electrifying Richard III in 2011.)  “The Comedy of Errors” goes a step (or two) further, with the two sets of twins in Shakespeare’s zaniest comedy being one-each male and female as well as one-each Caucasian and Black. (Well, why not?) The war-torn “Coriolanus” sticks with Shakespeare’s gender-roles, while bringing its malicious politics into modern relevance.

Julius Caesar (Seana McKenna) and Brutus (Jonathan Goad) [Photo: Clay Stang]

(*Trivia: Only two of Shakespeare’s plays unfold over just one day in just one locale. Answer below.)

Stratford’s annual musicals rival Broadway in talent and production values. Expect no less from “The Music Man,” which runs to November 3. . Appealing to a younger demographic, “The Rocky Horror Show” is also in the rotation, including some late-night performances to accommodate diehard fans.

Professor Harold Hill (Daren A. Herbert) leading the River City Boys (and Girls) Band.

Serious drama is represented by Eugene O’Neill’s searing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and the dramatization of Harper Lee’s iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Oscar Wilde’s comedy-drama “An Ideal Husband,” about a truly honest politician (it is fiction, after all) is also on the bill, as is a new play about the Bronté sisters. An English translation of a warm-hearted Italian play, “Napoli Milionaria,” about World War II survivors, and a timely drama based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” round out the season. Under Antoni Cimolino’s overall artistic direction, there is indeed ‘Something for Everyone’ at Stratford.


Variety also reigns at The Shaw Festival, nestled in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario’s wine region. Their namesake is represented by a Comedy Double-Bill and a traditional Lunchtime One-Act. Two of Shaw’s short plays about marriage, “How He Lied to Her Husband” and “The Man of Destiny,” are presented under the title “Of Marriage and Men” one of Shaw’s favorite – and wittiest – topics.

A Shaw one-act comedy, “O’Flaherty V. C.,” about an unusual war-recruitment effort, will play on select days at 11:30am. Its point, that a big war is not necessarily a great one, carries over into “Oh What a Lovely War,” one of the season’s two musicals. The other, “Grand Hotel,” weaves the stories of the staff and guests of the Grand Hotel into a sweeping choreographic vision. Adapted from a play that itself had a successful Broadway run, the musical ran over two years on Broadway. Already open at Shaw, it runs to mid-October.

For murder-mystery fans, Sherlock Holmes is on the case in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” while “The Baroness and the Pig” marks the Shaw Festival debut of Canadian playwright Michael Mackenzie. (While “Baroness…” might seem like a children’s title, the play carries a Mature Content alert. Hmmm…) Also on an adult topic, Sarah Ruhl’s backstage romantic comedy “Stage Kiss” is about two bitter exes cast in a play as lovers. Juvenile audiences are encouraged to attend “The Magician’s Nephew,” a magical plunge into Narnia.

Members of the cast of “The Magician’s Nephew.” [Photo: David Cooper]

Tim Carroll’s second season as artistic director also includes “The Orchard (After Chekhov),” transposing the Russian playwright’s theme to a British Columbia setting; “Mythos,” three one-actor plays derived from Greek mythology; and, in a first for the Shaw, Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” (Stratford staged Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” a few years ago.) And for those who plan way ahead, “A Christmas Carol” is on the horizon. The Charles Dickens classic will run November 14 – December 23.  “We don’t stop playing because we grow old,” said Shaw (who died in 1950 at 94), “we grow old because we stop playing.”

Both Festivals run mid-April to late October and both offer comprehensive brochure booklets with performance schedules, maps, transportation and lodging info and more.  Request Stratford’s by phone: 800-567-1600 or online at www.stratfordfestival.ca   For The Shaw booklet: 800-511-7429 or at www.shawfest.com 

(*Trivia answer: “The Tempest” and “A Comedy of Errors,” both on Stratford’s 2018 schedule.)

Blog, Canadian Theatre