Review: A Chorus Line

There is no doubt in my mind that Michael Bennett was one of the greatest directors of musical theatre ever. He was a really good, even brilliant choreographer, but his directorial and dramaturgical intelligence is truly what made A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls things of theatre legend. Bennett possessed an unerring sense of how to tell a story with brisk economy and a profound gift for finding simple physicalizations for complex ideas. There is many a director-choreographer today that would like to think that they are Bennett’s equal, but the truth is that the very best barely come close.

Bennett may not have been the person who came up with the germ of the idea that became A Chorus Line (there have been lawsuits about the matter) – but there’s no question that he’s the reason it took the exciting, touching and profoundly expressive shape that made it the show that saved Broadway. Set during an audition for a mid-1970s Broadway show, A Chorus Line shines a light on the memories, dreams and fears of dancers vying for a place on a very small chorus line – only four dancers of each sex. Bennett’s imprint on A Chorus Line is so strong that most successful major productions have been reconstructions of his work by people involved in the original. In the case of the new Paper Mill Playhouse production that person is director-choreographer Mitzi Hamilton, a member of the workshops that led to A Chorus Line; she’s the basis for Val, the character who sings about “tits and ass” in “Dance 10, Looks 3”.

Hamilton has certainly put together one of the better acted and sung productions of the show I’ve seen. Gabrielle Ruiz sings “What I Did for Love” as beautifully as I’ve heard it done, and J. Manuel Santos gives the show’s crowning monologue, about a young drag queen and his family, as much depth and shape as I’ve ever seen it given. It’s a monster of a monologue, and as terrific as Santos is, I’ve yet to see an actor hit every moment in it.

Perhaps best of all, however, is Rachelle Rak as the very adult, smart and sexy Sheila. The role fits her like a glove, and there isn’t a moment, note or step of the role that she doesn’t hit full-on – sheer perfection. All in all, this is a stunningly solid version of a stunningly solid show, and surely not to be missed.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Marry Me A Little

This is my first exposure to Marry Me a Little, the Sondheim revue conceived by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene in 1980. So, I have no clue about its original form, which seems to be much much loved in certain corners. I like this version just fine – it frames an assortment of lesser-known Sondheim songs with a vague dialogue-free story about two lonely strangers.

Two singles, alone in their New York apartments (a floor away from each other) on a Saturday night, ruminate over romantic hopes, fears and regrets. There’s some hints of sexting and on-line “dating” that I’m fairly sure weren’t in the original, but they don’t detract. Lauren Molina and Jason Tam are definitely appealing, and although they sing well enough, they were clearly cast more for their ability to act a song – a smart move on director Jonathan Silverstein’s part and crucial to putting the plot across as clearly as possible.

Tam and Molina also do a terrific job of communicating that they are in different apartments even though they may be mere inches apart, much aided by Silverstein’s razor-sharp staging. Plus, when their imagination puts them together they have a lovely chemistry, essential to putting over Sondheim’s sophisticated lyrics about the rewards and dangers of romance.

Also very smart is Josh Bradford’s evocative lighting design which clearly delineates the border between reality and imagination (where these dreamers spend a good chunk of time). Steven C. Kemp’s set puts us immediately in a recognizable place – “Her” is a cellist, “Him” a poet, and this looks very much like the Williamsburg apartments of writers and musicians that I know.

Charming, occasionally touching or sweetly funny, this Marry Me a Little isn’t earth-shattering, it’s just a reasonably satisfying evening of musical theatre.

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Review: Betty Buckley

Among the principal pleasures in Betty Buckley’s recent cabaret acts have been clever specialty numbers that poke fun at some aspect or other of the Broadway musical. Her current act at Feinstein’s, “The Other Women: The Vixens of Broadway”, celebrates the second female lead – called the “other woman” in old Broadway slang, and “Featured Actress in a Musical” by today’s Tony Nominating Committees.

So, relatively early in the show, she sings a whip-smart, very funny specialty number called “But Play The Other Woman”, set partially to the melody of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy. It thoroughly demonstrates how “the other woman” has always received the best, showiest songs over the years. As a matter of fact, the number is so full of vocal fireworks that Betty wondered aloud afterward if it was too early in the act!

From beginning to end, she knocks every song out of the ballpark. Musical director Christian Jacob’s arrangements are complex and lush. In particular, his arrangement of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” goes so far in a moody, jazzy direction that it takes a little getting used to, but in the end really is luscious.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Buckley so at ease and whimsical, and it suits her very well. This is the latest in a series of acts that focus on the Broadway songbook, rather than the jazz and art songs that Buckley formerly used to populate her cabaret acts. I think she’s really relaxed into this approach, and is genuinely having fun – which ends up creating a lot of fun for us in the audience, too.

For tickets, click here.

Review: An Enemy of the People

I read Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People for the first time a couple of years ago, and it immediately became my favorite Ibsen play. It moves at an exciting clip, and has many comic moments – unusual for the usually highly serious Norwegian playwright. Plus, while Ibsen was often ahead of his time, he was unusually prescient here, shedding an uncompromising light on the dangers of pollution and how money and mediocrity can rapidly corrupt a democracy – sound familiar?

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (played by four time-Tony-winner Boyd Gaines in a nomination-worthy performance) discovers high levels of toxins in the water used in his town’s widely-renowned spa. But since the baths are the town’s main source of revenue, the powers that be array themselves against him with terrifying rapidity.

The dialogue in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation is particularly salty – though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is truer to Ibsen’s original, since sensibilities weren’t as uptight in 1882 Norway as they were in Victorian England. Certainly, she has more than successfully captured the sharp satirical spirit and almost delirious energy of the play. Stockmann is delighted one minute and devastated the next several times throughout the play. This tragicomedy turns on a dime and just keeps on turning; Lenkiewicz and Gaines both successfully delineate the good Doctor’s roller-coaster ride through controversy in an exciting, compelling way

Director Doug Hughes has turned up the volume on the passion of both the Doctor and the authorities opposing him; Richard Thomas is especially strong as Stockmann’s main opponent (his brother Peter, who also happens to be mayor). I really do love this play, which I can’t say for all of Ibsen, and I am really very satisfied with this production. Highly recommended!

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CD Review: “Carrie (Premiere Cast Recording)”

The latest incarnation of the legendarily troubled musical by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford is the first to receive a proper cast recording, and like the new Off-Broadway production the CD is an entertaining mixed bag, modestly tuneful and just bit campy, with flashes of truly grand music-drama. Its infamous 1988 Broadway run reportedly had some of the worst problems of tone and taste, in any art form, ever. This CD probably represents Gore and Pitchford’s vision for the show better than either production. In the singing department, Molly Ranson as Carrie can musically stand up to Marin Mazzie as Carrie’s hyper-religious mother Margaret – that’s a very good thing, since it is the scenes and songs shared by those two characters that have always been the best thing about Carrie. Mazzie roaring and wailing her way through those songs is certainly the best thing here.

To purchase, click here.