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Review: Riding the Midnight Express

Riding the Midnight Express BILLY-HAYES

In Riding the Midnight Express, Billy Hayes has created a riveting one-man show, detailing his time in Turkish prisons and his daring escape, taking pains to make clear the distinctions between the movie version of Midnight Express and what actually happened. Hayes had been smuggling hash out of Turkey for some time before he was arrested in Istanbul in 1970. A combination of over-confidence on his part and changing international politics landed him in prison for 5 years.

One of the major misunderstandings caused by Oliver Stone’s sensationalist screenplay for Midnight Express is that Hayes holds any resentment towards Turkey for what happened to him. He still loves the country and that’s one of the major keynotes of this one-man show.

Further, the phrase “riding the midnight express” refers to the long, difficult journey Hayes faced after he escaped from prison, which is not detailed in the movie at all (it ends when he walks out of the prison). In the one-man show, this is actually one of the more compelling parts of the evening.

His story is packed with innate drama, and, with the help of director Jeffrey Altshuler, Hayes delivers it with an easy combination of personal charm and sly, subtle theatricality. Hayes has shaped his story into a well-crafted evening, but his real emotions about the story he lived through keep coming through, which makes it all the more gripping. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You

This play celebrates the joy of being different, being yourself, more than almost any other play out there, which long ago earned it a special place in my heart. The Sycamores are a family of happy eccentrics (who have always reminded me of my happily eccentric family), led by easy-going paterfamilias Grandpa Vanderhof (magnificently played here by James Earl Jones). When youngest daughter Alice (Rose Byrne) invites her fiancé’s straight-laced parents over for dinner, Grandpa and company find they must heartily defend their unusual way of life.

Director Scott Ellis has kept the proceedings appropriately fast-paced and light-hearted, paying careful attention to making distinctions among this household’s wide variety of personalities. David Rockwell’s set perfectly captures both the eclectic chaos and the liberated spirit Grandpa’s philosophy has unleashed.

Jones has always been capable of a light touch, it just isn’t what is usually asked of him. You Can’t Take it With You gives him ample opportunity to apply such a touch – this is, after all, a man who relishes relaxing into life. And the result is wonderful: gentleness backed up with kilowatts of reserved power.

This is definitely an ensemble show, though, and what an ensemble! It’s lucky that Rockwell has designed such a massive set, and surprising that the scenery hasn’t been entirely chewed away at the end of every evening (I mean this as a compliment, by the way). Julie Halston, as a soused actress, has one of the smallest parts in the show, but treats it like a full meal. Annaleigh Ashford hits the show’s sweetly hilarious tone most effortlessly as the forever en pointe would-be ballerina Essie.

The title refers to the money that 9-to-5ers and salarymen are forever chasing after, and to the fact that, in the final analysis, money has little to do with finding happiness here and now. And that’s a message that’s just as needed now as it was in 1938. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Love Letters

Love Letters Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow 2 photo by Carol Rosegg

Sentimental but often acerbic, minimalist but very rooted in realism, Love Letters portrays two friends, the artistic Melissa Gardner and the eloquent Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, who exchange notes, cards and letters with each other for over 50 years. It’s designed to be performed by two actors reading the letters from their seats, which makes it incredibly simple to produce – no set, two actors who don’t even have to memorize their lines – and as such has been incredibly popular in regional theatres. Hire two stars, hold just a handful of rehearsals, and start selling tickets!

It doesn’t hurt that this deceptively simple play is actually pretty darn good, a detailed look at two very different WASPs falling in and out of love. This is a world that Gurney knows well, and has chronicled better than any other playwright this side of Thornton Wilder.

For the first stretch of this Broadway run, Melissa is played by Mia Farrow, Andrew by Brian Dennehy. Farrow emphasizes the flightier side of this wild child – a choice that doesn’t really work for me, but I have to admit that Farrow commits to it and plays it for all its worth. Dennehy’s interpretation suits me much better; in his hands, Andrew’s love of writing (letters and otherwise) comes across as deeply sincere. No stuffed shirt he, but rather a sensitive and smart soul.

Love Letters is a rewarding evening of theatre, but I wouldn’t call it a deeply satisfying one. Worth seeing with these two, anyway.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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CD Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

CD Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

How much you enjoy this album depends very much you enjoy the very last phase of jazz legend Billie Holliday’s career. Her voice became very weathered, but more expressive than ever. Her interpretations of her songs became more heartbreakingly honest than ever. Not the rich-toned singer of years before, perhaps, but still an overpowering interpretive talent. And Audra McDonald absolutely nails everything about that voice. This two-CD set also includes the scenes from the show, which features a lot of harrowing life stories, detailing how that voice came to be so weathered. Intense stuff, but finally rewarding, especially in this format.

To purchase, click here.

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Review: The Cripple of Inishmaan

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN by MARTIN McDONAGH

When Martin McDonagh is at his best, he’s one of the greatest comic playwrights alive, and he’s at his best, unquestionably, with The Cripple of Inishmaan. Set in 1934 – decades earlier than most of McDonagh’s plays – Cripple finds filmmaker Robert Flaherty (whom we never see) arriving on the island of Inishmore to film his movie The Man of Aran. On the neighboring island of Inishmaan, where the entire play is set, crippled, orphaned Billy Claven (Daniel Radcliffe) longs to be in the film. And, in a series of hilarious reversals that are too good to give away, he actually gets his chance.

McDonagh joyfully skewers all the stereotypes about Ireland that were prevalent in the 1930s (and even today), that Flaherty’s heavily scripted “documentary” did little to change. Director Michael Grandage hits exactly the right notes of unsentimental affection, terse humor and brooding boredom, rendering McDonagh’s colorful picture of long-ago Inishmaan all too present and real.

Daniel Radcliffe may be a touch too inescapably handsome for this role, but he roughs up pretty well. It’s a physically demanding role, that requires you to move about with serious impairments of the arms and legs, and Radcliffe handles that masterfully. Add to that the sensitivity and nuance with which he renders all of Billy’s dreams and anxieties, and it may be his best stage work to date.

Other standout performers include the snappy Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna as the dotty shopkeeping Osbourne Sisters who look after Billy, and the bouncy Pat Shortt as Johnnypateenmike, the town news conveyer (and gossip). Best of all, though, may be June Watson as Johnnypateenmike’s scabrous and unrepentantly alcoholic Mammy. It may be the show’s smallest role, but Watson dives into it like a big juicy peach.

Finally, in Inishmaan McDonagh offers a guardedly hopeful and redemptive vision for pathetic “feckers” and hardnosed bitches, and, really, isn’t that most of us?

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Of Mice and Men

OF MICE AND MEN Franco, O'Dowd--_ Photo by Richard Phibbs

This play isn’t as relentlessly dark as I remembered it to be, there’s plenty of humor, and long stretches of camaraderie. Still, there’s no denying that Of Mice and Men belongs solidly in the genre of Tragedy. The play follows the unlikely pair of George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd), migrant workers in 1930s Salinas Valley of California, who dream of one day having land they can call their own. George is pugnacious and practical, Lennie mentally “slow”, sweet-tempered (but when he’s not, he’s not) and monstrously strong.

Of course the question on everyones mind is: how did James Franco do? He’s primarily known as a sexy movie star, albeit one of a very iconoclastic bent. Well, he’s actually pretty damn solid! The first scene was a little worrying – George was really raking Lennie over the coals when he should have just been scolding him with just a hint of annoyance. After that scene, though, Franco finds his groove, giving us the classic Depression “worried man” most of the time. He really catches fire, though. when George discovers his dreams just might be possible.

Chris O’Dowd, an actor known in the film world for his comic chops, is absolutely stunning, incredibly grounded in the role that could easily be all over the place. Sure there’s lots of comedy in Lennie’s part, but it only works if you play it with totally honesty and vulnerability. On that score, O’Dowd totally delivers. The marvelous Jim Norton is heartbreaking as the elderly and sentimental Candy.

Director Anna D. Shapiro skillfully navigates Steinbeck’s plot which is equal parts surprise and inevitability. The play is tightly constructed, but occasionally drifts into cliché. That only happens a few times, though, and overall this is a strong representation of a play that still resonates. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Lucie Arnaz

Lucie-Arnaz-photo-by-Agustus-Butera

The daughter of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, Lucie Arnaz has forged a career of her own, including originating the role of Sonia Walsk in the hit Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song. In “Spring Is Here”, her new cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle, Arnaz focuses on love in all its shades and phases, from light to dark, from promiscuity to devotion.

She covers the promiscuous side wonderfully with a sensuous take on “When in Rome”. Arnaz strikes me as a saloon singer, which is a good fit for the Carlyle – the performer most associated with the Carlyle, the late Bobby Short, always described himself as just that.

One of the most entertaining moments in the show is a song for which Arnaz herself wrote the lyrics, about a time when she was single, during the run of They’re Playing Our Song, and dating two dashingly handsome men of the theatre. Well, turns out they’re both gay and closeted! Arnaz found this out just as she was going away for the weekend with one of them, and on the train trip she wrote the bitingly funny “I Don’t Like It Already”. After the song she commented that over time she dated so many closeted men that she felt like she was wearing cedar chips.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening is Arnaz’s rendition of “Just a Housewife” from the musical Working. The song is an emotional powerhouse in the first place, and Arnaz gives it extra dignity and ruefulness. Really lovely.

Arnaz got winded about two thirds of the way through, not, I think, because she lacks stamina, but because the show itself is several songs too long – perhaps 20 minutes worth. Small quibble, that, when you’re spending that time with such a talented and witty host. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

 

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