Review: Hands on a Hardbody

Hands on a Hardbody (Photo by Chad Batka)

This is an above-average musical, but only slightly above average. The ideas behind it are certiainly intrigruging, but are inconsistently developed. Everyone in the creative team has done solid, sometimes even inventive craftswork – all in all, Hands on A Hardbody has some really great parts, but is finally less than the sum of those parts.

Ten Texans, hit hard by bad economic times, fight to keep at least one hand on a brand new truck in order to win it, as part of a dealership promotion, a new lease on life is so close they can touch it. I wasn’t convinced when I heard of the idea that it was great material for a musical. I’m still not convinced, now that I’ve seen it – it’s better than I expected, but again not by much.

Hardbody is by design an ensemble musical, but it’s almost too dogmatically ensemble-oriented. Everybody gets their big moment and their song, whether we’re interested in learning more about that particular character or not.

The happy side of this orientation: everybody in this very strong cast gets a chance to strut their stuff. Keala Settle as warm-hearted Christian lady Norma Valverde stands out, but that’s because the creative team have handed her the show’s strongest moment, a laughing fit that beautifully evolves into the show-stopping “Joy of the Lord”. Composer Trey Anastasio’s contributions are perhaps the most potent, “Joy” being just the most inventive and energetic of a collection of tuneful, emotional and driving songs.

The biggest problem for me: the vast majority of plot points are telegraphed very badly, you can see them coming from a great distance. I’m not sure whether this is more the fault of bookwriter Doug Wright or director Neil Pepe, but it kept me from enjoying discovering these people for myself. I didn’t hate this show, but I can’t whole-heartedly recommend it either.

For tickets, click here.

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Ronald Tavel’s “Kitchenette” – directed by me – is TOMORROW!

Kitchenette

I am directing – for one night only, TOMORROW, Sunday, March 24 7pm –  Kitchenette by Ronald Tavel, one of the first “ridiculous theater” plays ever! Adapted from Tavel’s scenario for the Andy Warhol film “Kitchen”, Kitchenette hilariously spoofs the making of an avant-garde movie. Tickets available here.

The cast:

Charles SchickCharles Schick (Filmmaker) recently acted in and co-directed Tennessee Williams’s In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel with Regina Bartkoff at 292 Theatre/Gallery in NYC where their paintings and drawings are currently on display. Even more recently (last week) he appeared as the Khoregos opposite Everett Quinton in a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea directed by Jonathan Warman at the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. Other recent credits include The Strangest Kind of Romance and Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, both part of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.

Wayne HenryWayne Henry (Mikie) is thrilled to be working with Jonathan Warman again. Under Jonathan’s direction, Wayne has most notably toured Provincetown, Mississippi & Tennessee in Tennessee Williams’s The Strangest Kind of Romance. Last year, Wayne appeared as Leonard in Theater 292’s critically acclaimed In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel with Regina Bartkoff and Charles Schick, and his play JAWS: the Musical was remounted to great reviews at The Broadway Comedy Club. His original short films are available at YouTube.com/HenryAndStein.

Tatiana GombergTatiana Gomberg (Jo) is thrilled to be working with these awesome people on this zany piece! She has performed Off and Off-Off Broadway as well as regionally and internationally. Her work in The Night of Nosferatu garnered her an NYIT award nomination for Best Featured Actress and her portrayal of a drone pilot in Hummingbirds earned her a Best Actress Nomination through the Planet Connections Awards. She also played leads in two seasons of classics at Theatre 1010 and toured the United States with TheatreworksUSA. tatianagomberg.com.

Nicholas GorhamNicholas Gorham (Joe) is a graduate of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts and has been performing in New York since the early part of the Century. After crossing the Canadian border, Nicholas had an awakening that theatre could exist without limitations and began to create his own work in the downtown Performance Art scene. Credits include The Goddess Ianna in Justin Bond Re:Galli Blonde (A Sissy Fix), Big Art Group’s Fleshtone and Nicholas Gorham: “One Drop Passing” at La MaMa, E.T.C. In 2011, Nicholas founded The Spectrum, a queer performance, rehearsal and art space in Brooklyn.

Regina BartkoffRegina Bartkoff (Mikey) recently appeared as the Nurse opposite Everett Quinton in a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea directed by Jonathan Warman at the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. She acted and co-directed with Charles Schick in In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel by Tennessee Williams at 292 Theatre. She played the role of Bea in Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws in the 2011 Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival and at La MaMa. Regina has played lead roles in Anna Christie, Savage in Limbo and Medea at 292 Theatre.

face 2Jonathan Warman (Director) New York Theatre: New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws (La MaMa ETC, featuring Mink Stole and Everett Quinton), Andru’s Head (new musical, featuring Brooke Elliott (Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva”), NeoNeo Theatre), American Fabulous (NeoNeo Theatre). International: Dreams Reoccurring (Clubul CFR, Iasi, Romania; Nu Festival, Timisoara, Romania), Break (Dublin Gay Theatre Festival). Regional: Heads (Omaha Magic Theatre), The Strangest Kind of Romance (Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival; Omnova Theater, Columbus, Mississippi; Theatre Sewanee, Tennessee). Notable assistant credits: Stage Directors & Choreographers Society 50th Anniversary Gala (Assistant to SDC Board President Karen Azenberg), Three Sisters (La MaMa ETC, dir. Richard Schechner). Proud member of SDC. He has served as Artistic Director of NeoNeo Theatre Company. For more info, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Billy Magnussen in New Play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

The point is often made that early 20th Century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies, while in the years since they have mostly been played as rueful, melancholy drama. In his new twist on Chekhovian ideas, Christopher Durang has rightly realized that it’s a matter of context – Chekhov’s plays could have probably been funny to early 20th Century Russians! (That Chekhov didn’t find Russian productions of his plays in his own time funny enough is a different and very complex issue).

In transposing Chekhovian characters to 21st Century Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Durang has made sense of how rueful melancholy can be hilarious. It might not make sense for us to laugh at landowners missing all the serfs they used to have, but we can easily “get” a fifty-something missing his three channels of black-and-white TV from the 1950s and 60s. It also helps that Durang doesn’t write in a realist style like Chekhov, but a style altogether more absurd and impishly laugh-seeking.

In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and his adopted sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) have lived their entire, quietly desperate lives in their family’s country house. While they stayed home to take care of their ailing (and now dead) parents, their sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver) has become a successful movie star. When Masha unexpectedly reappears with her twenty-something boy toy Spike (Billy Magnussen), the siblings’ stagnant lives are thrown into disorienting – but also exciting – chaos.

I should pause here for just a moment to say “HELLOOO, SPIKE!!!” Magnussen (pictured above) is a stunningly fit young man, and Durang has Spike disrobe at any opportunity. While that is more reminiscent of Inge than Chekhov, it is certainly very welcome in these quarters. And while Spike is meant to be a bit of a dim bulb, Magnussen’s athletically precise slapstick and whip-crack comic timing are very smart indeed.

Weaver, a longtime collaborator with Durang, gives what is easily the show’s most over-the-top performance, which totally makes sense for the narcissistic  self-dramatizing Masha. Neilsen, another Durang muse, is the most varied and textured in her portrayal of Sonia, a bipolar nut who truly blossoms by play’s end. And Pierce (who played a gay waiter in a Durang play at the very beginning of his career) gives the most Chekhovian performance as the gay Vanya, who quietly lusts after Spike’s bod but gives him a very big comeuppance by play’s end.

I liked this a lot – it hasn’t rushed to the top of my list of all-time favorite comedies, but it has instantly become my favorite Durang, and easily topped Chekhov himself; I always liked Chekhov contemporaries Ibsen and Strindberg a lot more, so it’s hardly surprising that I would like an affectionate, intelligent parody of Chekhov more than the original.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Cinderella

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In Douglas Carter Beane’s new book for the stage “revisical” of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s TV musical Cinderella, our heroine transforms France from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in one fell swoop! Alright, it’s only a brief moment in the show, which generally hits all of the expected marks of the beloved fairy tale. But it’s a perfect example of the delightful surprises Beane has worked into the show. This new Cinderella is witty, smart and fresh, while still having plenty for the kiddies.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein score has the verve they always had – lots of those soaring Rodgers waltzes – even if it isn’t filled with immortal standards like Oklahoma or South Pacific. Beane’s book has his trademark wit all over it, and crams a surprising amount of plot and ideas into its economical structure. Director Mark Brokaw has staged Cinderella with lots of skill, spectacle and energy, if without much originality or insight. The show’s great coups de théâtre all come from costume designer William Ivey Long, who provides us with several astoundingly magical onstage costume changes.

Laura Osnes sings the title role beautifully, even if she doesn’t play it with quite as much spunk as Beane’s new lines suggest. Santino Fontana is charmingly awkward as Prince Topher, Peter Bartlett appropriately oily as the corrupt regent Sebastian. Marla Mindelle and Ann Harada are probably the funniest stepsisters ever, much helped by Beane giving them more personality and less wickedness.

Marvelously wicked, however, is the divine Harriet Harris as Madame, Cinderella’s stepmother – but even she is less wicked than impulsively sadistic because of the hand life has dealt her. I’m not usually a fan of such psychologizing of fairy tale characters, but Beane has crafted Madame with unusual deftness and intelligence. She is probably his most successful creation in the show; Harris knows she’s got a great thing in hand and plays the living daylights out of it.

This Cinderella is far from the best musical I’ve ever seen, or even the best Rodgers & Hammerstein I’ve ever seen. It is, however, consistently entertaining and even occasionally thought-provoking – more so than many, many musicals out there. While I can’t say I loved it, there is no doubt I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Ann

Ann

Holland Taylor – currently most famous for playing the monstrous mother Evelyn on TV’s Two and a Half Men – has profound skills as a stage actress. So profound, in fact that she disappears almost entirely into the character of Democratic Texas Governor Ann Richards in the bio-play Ann. This one-woman show, which Taylor also wrote, began as a way for Taylor to understand what it was about this housewife turned politician patriot that affected her – and so many other people – so deeply.

Directed with a sharp eye by Benjamin Endsley Klein, Ann glides skillfully through serveral times and points of view, starting with a graduation speech in which Richards peppers her words of wisdom to the students with vivid stories from her life. We then shift – in a transition between set pieces seamlessly handled by set designer Michael Fagin – to Richards’ office in the governor’s mansion, where she blazes through phone calls to people as varied as her grandaughter Lily and then-Predient Bill Clinton. In between calls she mercilessly works her assistant Nancy Kohler (caustically voiced by Julie White).

While Taylor the writer got to the soul of Richards, it’s Taylor the actress who really gives Ann wings. Too the governor’s barbed wit, deep compassion and commanding intellect, Taylor adds her own electric charisma, even larger than Richards’s. And it certaily helps that wig designer Paul Huntley has nailed the “Republican hair” of this famously liberal pol.

I’m not sure this above-average one-person show is for everybody. It really depends on whether you like certain things: one-person shows in general, politics and Holland Taylor. I love all three, so I had a marvellous time!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Herb Alpert & Lani Hall

herb alpert and lani hall 2013

Although she was born and raised in Chicago, Lani Hall understands and communicates the soul of Brazilian music better than many Brazilian artists. She really gets the dark colors that give the oh-so-cool bossa nova its depth – what saxaphonist Stan Getz, the great jazz popularizer of bossa nova, perhaps too dramatically called its “fatalism.” She understands it so well that she can apply it to gringo standards like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” or “Anything Goes”, making those masterpieces even more dimensional than they already were.

In the cabaret show they are doing at the Cafe Carlyle, Hall, her husband famed trumpeter Herb Alpert, and the expert players behind them display outlandish spontaneity more thrillingly than I think I’ve ever experienced in a cabaret (except for the last time I saw them). Alpert is most associated with his group the Tijuana Brass, and was also a recording industry executive: he is the “A” of A&M Records, which he founded with business partner Jerry Moss. Lani sang with A&M artist Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, most famously on their hit version of “Mas Que Nada” – that’s where she got her Brazilain bona fides.

In the act at the Carlyle they perform selections from the two albums they’ve recently recorded together (the first time in their 33-year-long marriage that they’ve collaborated in that way), as well as stuff from a new one and a medley of Tijuana Brass hits. I can’t overstate the impressive and exciting musicianship in this act. Alpert and his excellent keyboardist Bill Cantos have structured the songs in intricate ways that leave abundant room for improvisation. They may play the same songs from night to night, but musically every performance will be utterly different.

Alpert is a breathtakingly soulful player – the brashness of the Tijuana Brass years now tempered with attention to innovations of younger artists like Terence Blachard – and Lani has that kind of liquid crystal voice that songwriters dream of. Most impressive of all was a reworking of brilliant Brazilian songwriter Edu Lobo’s “Viola Fora de Moda”, which Alpert has given a magnificently complex structure; it allows the powerfully present Hall and the band to lock into a groove and improvise their way into the stratosphere. Stunning.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Marilyn Maye

Marilyn Maye 2013

“The Marvelous Marilyn Maye” – it’s a phase that me and my husband have come to say with relish, and we get excited every time we get to see her. Ella Fitzgerald once called Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world”, and I can tell you that’s no exaggeration. There are younger singers who have more powerful voices, but I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve and vocal range, still the envy of singers many years her junior.

Her new show at 54 Below, “Maye-den Voyage”, features many of her signature songs, including “Golden Rainbow” and “It’s Today”. Her repertoire for the evening ranges from a stunning version of “My Ship” from Lady in the Dark and a dazzling New York medley to a rip-roaring “Blues in the Night”, and even Dave Brubeck’s big hit “Take Five”.

Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. This is a classic act in every sense of the phrase. Maye is a jazz-pop singer worthy of being included in the company of Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn or Blossom Dearie (whose “Bye Bye Country Boy” she pairs with “Lazy Afternoon”), and her phrasing is the finest I’ve heard in that style from a living singer.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. She’s been enjoying a New York renaissance, making critically acclaimed appearances all over town. If you love classic songs sung like they’re meant to be sung, it doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.