Curtain Up! REVIEWS

John Fredo and Loraine O'Donnell in Gypsy
John Fredo and Loraine O’Donnell in Gypsy

 

by ANTHONY CHASE

GYPSY at MusicalFare

With Gypsy, MusicalFare has taken on one of the most beloved musicals of all time.  Under the direction of Chris Kelly, with musical direction by Theresa Quinn, and choreography by Bobby Cooke, the production boasts a talented cast.

Every Gypsy is judged on the power of the actress who plays Mama Rose.  Here, Loraine O’Donnell takes on the challenge. With her bold belting voice and keen sense of comedy, this would seem to be a role she was born to play. Indeed, she is a powerhouse in the part.

Marina Laurendi is entirely endearing as Gypsy. John Fredo exudes charisma as Herbie, the candy salesman who signs on to manage a vaudeville kiddy act, because he likes kids and is crazy about their mother.  I particularly enjoyed Michele Marie Roberts, who gives us a silly hardboiled interpretation of the stripper, “Electra.”

The pleasures of Gypsy are numerous, including vivid characters, a brilliant script by Arthur Laurents, and some of the greatest songs ever written for musical theater.  These elements sustain this production through some shaky directorial choices.

Rose is a Depression Era mother of two girls, June and Louise. She clearly favors June and works with terrifying determination to promote the child’s vaudeville career.  When June flies the coop, Rose directs her attention to Louise, the daughter she has all but ignored.

Historically, the show was structured to accommodate Ethel Merman, a star with boundless stage presence and vocal power, but limited dramatic range. Interestingly, the MusicalFare production reveals just how much of the show is not centered on Rose at all, but on the characters who surround her.

Consider the show’s most famous number, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Unsure of Merman’s ability to handle the drama that the scene requires, the show’s creators devised a moment in which she could belt out a show-stopping tune, while the emotional power was generated by Louise and Herbie. Rose sings a song of optimism and determination.  Louise and Herbie look on in horror at her deluded and arguably callous obliviousness.

Over the years, elements of the number’s staging have become standardized. When Rose sings, “You can do it. All you need is a hand,” she typically holds Louise close, only to hurl her away into Herbie’s arms as she belts, “Mama is gonna see to it!” Louise always clings to Herbie, as Rose’s determination becomes more and more amplified and monstrous.

Previous to this scene, Louise has repeatedly dismissed Herbie as a mere manager.  In this moment, she recognizes that he represents her best hope for the salvation she and her sister had fantasized in “If Mama Was Married.”  From this moment forward, when Rose speaks to Louise, she will refer to Herbie as “Your friend Herbie.”

Surprisingly, in the MusicalFare rendition, Herbie and Louise are left entirely on the sidelines, while O’Donnell is left to sell “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and to generate the emotional wallop, alone.  I do not even remember Herbie and Louise touching.

The failure of the creative team in Snyder to unify the production around its central themes and plot is everywhere apparent.

In the opening sequence, set to one of the most famous overtures in the history of Broadway lands with a thud and starts the evening with a whimper.

Consider, as well, the pivotal scene between Louise and Tulsa, a chorus boy from the vaudeville troupe with whom she is clearly smitten. Tulsa confides in Louise his dream of having a nightclub act of his own. He sings “All I Need is the Girl,” and coaxes Louise to dance with him.

At MusicalFare, undeniably handsome Jonas Barranca plays Tulsa, and “All I Need is the Girl” has been staged to showcase his good looks and charm.  The problem? This song is not really about Tulsa.  It’s about “the girl.”

Moreover, this scene is part of a continuous sequence of events linking “If Mama Was Married,” to the moment when Louise looks in the mirror in amazement and announces, “I’m a pretty girl, Mama!” In this production, the number is a stand-alone charm song, not part of the dramatic progression.

Time and again, the focus of the scenes and musical numbers has been misplaced, and the trajectory of the plot is lost.

Certainly, there is no rule that classic musicals must be restaged as they have been done before.  In fact, one of the great delights of seeing various revivals of Gypsy is the chance to see each new performer place her personal mark on Rose as she mines aspects of Arthur Laurents’s brilliant script that were unexplored by the great Ethel Merman.

The reality is that, dramatically speaking, Rose cannot sell this, or most of the other numbers, alone.  Too much nuance is located elsewhere.  Deprived of context and texture, we get the impression of one hard-driving song after another, a Merman concert, not an emotional journey.  Only in “Rose’s Turn” do we see the full O’Donnell wattage – and that’s largely because, for that number, Rose is on stage alone.

 

Kelly Meg Brennan and Dave Hayes
Kelly Meg Brennan and Dave Hayes

 

Dinner with Friends

at Road Less Traveled Theater

Under the direction of Katie Mallinson, the Road Less Traveled production of Donald Margulies Pulitzer Prize winning play is sheer theatrical pleasure. The acting is flawless, with Kelly Meg Brennan, Dave Hayes, Lisa Vitrano, and Phil Farugia playing longtime friends at a crossroads in their lives and relationship.

As the play begins, Gabe and Karen (Hayes and Brennan) are entertaining Beth at one of their famously exquisite dinner parties. The hosts seem to have the perfect life, imbued with sophisticated friends and lofty pursuits. Something seems to be worrying Beth, whose husband, Tom, we are told, has had to go to Washington – again – thus his absence. Before the evening is over, Beth, emotionally at her wits end, will drop a bomb.  Tom is in love with another woman – a stewardess she thinks — and their marriage is over.

This revelation sets a deliciously engaging play in motion.

Each character reacts to this reordering of the lives the two couples have shared individually.  Gabe withdraws into silence; Karen into militant disapproval.

When, in scene two, Tom learns that Beth has shared the news in his absence, he is livid, convinced (correctly) that he has been branded the villain. The two are a model of acrimony and dysfunction, and yet, the scene ends with them having sex. Is either truly destroyed by this change in their relationship?

The play invites us to consider how all relationships necessarily evolve over time, and of the impossibility of truly knowing what is going on between two people.

In the second act, Margulies takes us back to the moment when Gabe and Karen introduced Tom and Beth, thereby allowing us to trace back the seeds of discord. In subsequent scenes between the two women and the two men, we see how resentment and maybe some very unhealthy jealously has always lurked beneath the surface of Beth’s feelings for Karen.  We see how Gabe and Tom have always had some fundamental differences in values.

The actors navigate this journey beautifully.  The audience is engaged at every moment.

Dyan Burlingame provides another handsome set, skillfully lit by John Rickus. Karen Albarella’s costumes successfully communicate character and set us backward in time.

One tiny quibble is the pacing of the transitions between scenes, which were untidy and long, especially in the final moment of the play, before the curtain call.  In a production as divine as this, I would have liked to see every gesture realized.

 

sweet bird of youth

 

Sweet Bird of Youth

Irish Classical Theatre Company

One of the great plays of the Tennessee Williams oeuvre, Sweet Bird of Youth follows the efforts of Chance Wayne, once the bright star of his generation in 1950s St. Cloud, Florida, to be reunited with the girl he loves.

Chance has returned to town in the company of movie star Alexandra Del Lago, convinced that this esteemed company and a movie contract in hand will, finally, impress the girl’s father, the most powerful political boss in town.  Now approaching 30, Chance is unaware that in his absence, his status in this corrupt little town has gone from deplorable to hopeless. His mother has died, and had been buried by charity. His girl, Heavenly, has sustained a surgery that has left her barren, a consequence of a disease she had caught from Chance. His current employ, as a gigolo to an aging movie star is unlikely to be viewed favorably by anyone. Heavenly’s father, Boss Finley, wants him castrated. (Really!)

The Irish Classical production, directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti with Patrick Cameron as Chance Wayne and Aleks Malejs as Alexandra Del Lago is highly satisfying. A first rate acting ensemble explores the desires and contradictions of these characters with clarity and focus.

Cameron is especially affecting as Chance, a young man who does not understand that the corruption of his past cannot be undone.  As Heavenly, played by Renee Landrigan, so eloquently observes, the right doors would not open for Chance, and so he went through the wrong ones.  Malejs, who has impeccable technique and the stage presence of a true leading lady, gets great mileage out of Alexandra’s delicious contradictions, her hard as nails drive and crippling vulnerabilities.

Landrigan is very good as innocent and ethereal Heavenly Finley, establishing a distinct contrast with Malejs’ hardened Alexandra.

The production highlights an exquisite divide in the script, whereby the women can still see the former innocence and promise in Chance Wayne, even in his corrupted state. Heavenly, Aunt Nonnie, even Miss Lucy and Alexandra try to save him. As in all great tragedies, it will be impossible.

Bethany Sparacio is fabulous as Finley’s kept woman, Miss Lucy, as is Colleen Gaughan as Aunt Nonnie, creating endearing but conflicted women who contrast with each other as do Heavenly and Alexandra.

Stan Klimecko, who seems to specialize in monstrous characters of American post-war realism, creates a particularly vivid Boss Finley.

Visually, the production seems to have shifted gears at some point, and still bears the remnants of an expressionistic staging with video projections by Brian Milbrand. I found these to be merely distracting, not enriching as in a similar treatment of another Tennessee Williams classic, Streetcar Named Desire at Torn Space Theater. Costumes by Dixon Reynolds are excellent as is light by Brian Cavanagh and sound by Tom Makar.  Kenneth Shaw has done the set.

 

lips1

 

Lips Together, Teeth Apart

New Phoenix Theatre

Continuing the theme of excellent acting in great American plays in the seasons opening productions, New Phoenix Theatre is giving a handsome and satisfying (if unconventional) outing to Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, directed by Greg Natale.

I am tempted to call this the regional premiere of the play, as a previous production at another theater so bowdlerized the script as to leave it unrecognizable in places.

This is the full play with a skilled ensemble.  Candice Kogut and Eric Michael Rawski play Sally and Sam Truman, a couple who have inherited a Fire Island beach house from Sally’s brother, who has died of complications from AIDS. They have invited Sam’s sister and her husband, Chloe and John Haddock, played by Kelli Bocock-Natale and Richard Lambert to spend the July 4th weekend with them.

The casting is unconventional and creates an unscripted wrinkle in the fact that John and Sally have had a sexual dalliance, and John wants to continue the relationship with his sister-in-law.  Usually, the two women are cast with actresses who are contemporaries.  To cast a middle-aged character actress in one role, and a youthful leading lady in the other, alters the equation, making John’s motivation to have the affair seem rather shallower than it might otherwise.

In this play, McNally again employs the device of monologues spoken to the audience, as he also does in Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and other plays, exposing his characters inner thoughts and sense of self, and imbuing the proceedings with philosophical heft.

Whereas the original production, which debuted in the early ‘90s at the height of the AIDS crisis, starring Christine Baranski as Chloe, Anthony Heald as John, Swoosie Kurtz as Sally, and Nathan Lane as Sam, seemed to suggest that the heterosexual world had an ethical responsibility to reach out to the gay world at a moment of crisis, this production seems much more firmly anchored in the self-absorption of these people and their isolation from the world at large.

In addition, Natale has guided the company away from the great humor that usually characterizes the play.  The effect is a more somber and contemplative evening, but one that is still engaging and pleasing.

Paul Bostaph has provided an excellent realistic set. Chris Cavanagh’s light and sound are superior. Costumes by Ms. Bocock-Natale are also very good.

 

Melissa Leventhal and David C. Mitchell
Melissa Leventhal and David C. Mitchell

 

Dear Lydia

By Larry Gray

Alleyway Theatre

Playwright Larry Gray is a favorite of Alleyway Theatre.  His Louisiana Trilogy was staged at this theater, all in one season, years ago, to great effect.  Dear Lydia is the ninth Larry Gray play to debut at Alleyway.

In Dear Lydia, now having its world premiere at Alleyway, we meet a former sports writer whose agoraphobia has sent him to the confines of his apartment, where he now writes the advice column, “Dear Lydia.” The plot involves his ability to give excellent advice but not accept it, and his daughter’s effort to lure her father back out into the world.

David C. Mitchell plays the sports writer.  Louise Reger, in an offstage role, plays his assistant.  Melissa Leventhal plays his daughter.  All give their characters great humor and warmth.

The play presents us with intriguing characters and a compelling dramatic situation. Without giving too much away, the introduction of the daughter into the plot is especially clever and fun.

The point of a world premiere production is to refine and develop the work.  In this case, while the characters and the premise are interesting, Gray will want to find a more engaging direction for the plot.  Characters do not a play make.  As I watched this debut production, I kept entertaining “what ifs.” What if the play started with our agoraphobic hero having made his way outside? What if the daughter’s needs were more fully developed, and so forth.  These are the sorts of questions Mr. Gray is sure to be asking as he considers what to keep and what to alter as he adjusts the dramatic adventure of his appealing characters.