Review: Ever After

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This is totally charming! And with a cast that features personal favorite Christine Ebersole as well as Julie Halston, Tony Sheldon and a slew of similarly singular talents, Ever After is also eminently watchable. Oh and did I mention that the score by composer Zina Goldrich and lyricist Marcy Heisler is one of the more tuneful and solid I’ve heard in a while. I guess I’m a fan!

Paper Mill Playhouse is getting in the habit of doing several world premieres a season, and this new musical is based on the 1998 film starring Drew Barrymore and Anjelica Huston. It rings another change on the Cinderella story, this time taking the magic and fantasy element out of it. Instead of a fairy godmother you have Leonardo da Vinci, instead of “Prince Charming” you have a Prince Henry who resmbles a historical prince of that name (they stop short of total historical accuracy – that Henry actually married Catherine de Medici).

Happily, Ever After is a thoroughly satisfying entertainment. The score to Ever After is effortlessly in a traditional musical comedy vein, without even the slightest whiff of pastiche or nostalgia – no minor accomplishment. Ebersole is delicious as stepmother Rodmilla, playing her as more bitter than truly wicked. The creative team know what they have in Ebersole, and have given her the suitably dramatic “After All”.

Halston and Sheldon are toned down a bit from their more flamboyant performances; you won’t catch me complaining, however. If you can cast the very best, why not. Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall has delivered a sturdy and attactive production focused squarely on storytelling. There are a couple of numbers that seem to be there strictly to serve as dance spectaculars, but they are so much energetic fun that it is hard to quibble. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

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Playwright Christopher Durang has figured out why Chekhov should be funny – 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 altogther more absurd and impishly laugh-seeking.

In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now receiving a solid revival at Paper Mill Playhouse, Vanya (Mark Nelson) and his adopted sister Sonia (Michele Pawk) 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 (Carolyn McCormick) has become a successful movie star. When Masha unexpectedly reappears with her twenty-something boy toy Spike (Phillipe Bowgen), the siblings’ stagnant lives are thrown into disorienting – but also exciting – chaos.

I should pause here for just a moment to say “HELLOOO, SPIKE!!!” Bowgen (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.

Nelson 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. The other stand-out performance in this production is Gina Daniels as the fortune-telling Cassandra; Daniels’ combination of crack comic timing and warm sweetness is very winning. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Little Mermaid

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When I first saw wrongly-maligned Broadway Little Mermaid, I thought “what is everybody complaining about? This is solid musical theater entertainment.” It’s not visionary, not earth-shattering, just a tuneful love story that should thoroughly entertain the kiddies and divert the adults.

In case you somehow missed the classic Disney film on which the show is based, beautiful young mermaid princess Ariel becomes obsessed with the fascinating creatures that live on land – especially Eric, a particularly handsome human prince. In order to experience land-locked life, she has to defy her father the king, make a shady pact with an evil sea witch and prove to Eric that she’s the girl for him.

The current Paper Mill Playhouse revival replaces the Broadway production’s obsession with roller shoes (which didn’t thrill me) with more traditional – and more spectacular – “Flying by Foy” effects. Together with John MacInnes undulating choreography and Kenneth Foy’s whimsically operatic sets, these convey a fabulous underwater world much more effectively than their Broadway counterparts. In particular, “Under The Sea” makes up for the relatively small chorus size with fantastic jellyfish puppets and an array of other special effects.

The show’s biggest special effect, however, is the belt-tastic Liz McCartney as the witch Ursula, especially when she reinvents “Poor Unfortunate Souls” to thunderous applause. She owns the song as no previous Ursula has done, just legendary stuff. Put all this together with composer Alan Menken’s glittering score and Doug Wright’s light-handed book, and you’ve got a truly delectable salt water confection.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie

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This is exactly the kind of flashy, fun musical comedy at which Paper Mill Playhouse has always excelled. Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in (and all about) the Roaring Twenties, as young Millie Dillmount arrives in New York City, seeking all the excitement it can provide before she completes her mission of marrying a wealthy captain of finance.

It’s a vigorous and vital show, with an energetic score by Jeanine Tesori and a patchwork of other composers from Sammy Cahn to Arthur Sullivan (a handful of songs in the musical are from the 1967 movie of the same name on which it’s based). Director Mark S. Hoebee has keyed into that energy and delivered a production that’s appropriately brisk and delightful.

Laurie Valdheer plays Millie with great earnestness, an approach which gives the role an extra emotional pull. It also means that some moments that call for a twinkle in the eye don’t get that twinkle, but it’s a reasonable trade-off, and she certainly sings the hell out of her songs.

Lenora Nemetz is a hoot and a half as Mrs. Meers, a classically-trained American actress pretending to be a Chinese landlady. When Meers is in her Chinese disguise, Nemetz adds misplaced r’s and l’s where they never should be to sick-and-wrong comic effect. When Meers is being her tough-as-nails self, Nemetz delivers her lines with a deliciously vaudevillian bump, grind and panache.

The musical is ultimately a love letter to New York, which brings about a curiously wry tone when it’s being performed in New Jersey. Mostly, Thoroughly Modern Millie is intended to be dizzily diverting fun, and this production is that in spades.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Sound of Music

Elena Shaddow so owns the role of Maria in The Sound of Music that I never once thought of Julie Andrews while enjoying Paper Mill Playhouse’s opulently traditional revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. In the musical, set near Salzburg, Austria just before World War II, a postulant nun, Maria Rainer, is sent by her Mother Abbess to be the governess to the seven children of widower Captain Georg von Trapp. She teaches them the basics of music, starting a path that will lead them to becoming the world-famous Trapp Family Singers.

Shaddow plays Maria as much more of a nun than Andrews did, making the story of her falling in love with the children (and not incidentally the Captain) all the more poignant. Ben Davis is just as terrific as the Captain, splendidly conveying the loneliness and romanticism that bubble just beneath his stern exterior. Davis also excels at conveying the Captain’s deep patriotism as Austria faces a forced unification with Nazi Germany. The way Davis sings “Edelweiss”, there is no doubt that the Captain sings this paean to the Alpine flower as a deeply felt gesture of defiance.

The biggest star in this production, Frasier‘s Edward Hibbert, turns the opportunistic Max Detweiler into a charming Austrian version of Noël Coward. In general director and choreographer James Brennan has paid scrupulous attention to the way in which Rodgers and Hammerstein simply – and therefore powerfully – underlined the importance of music in nourishing the human soul.

James Fouchard’s set design is also a noteworthy achievement; at once lush and simple, it cannily marries realistic details with operatic, non-realistic frames. This is a more than successful revival, that not only communicates what’s wonderful about this show, but also vividly expresses its ongoing importance.

For tickets, click here.

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: Once On This Island

This is my first time seeing Once on This Island, the musical that first brought the musical theatre team of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens to wide acclaim. It did not soar to the top of my list of Flaherty & Ahrens shows – Seussical and Ragtime are still firmly ensconced up there – but I do now understand the appeal of its vigorous Caribbean-flavored score. It’s the show as a whole I have some problems with.

Once on This Island tells of Ti Moune (American Idol contestant Syesha Mercado), a peasant girl who rescues and falls in love with Daniel (the smoothly pretty Adam Jacobs), a wealthy boy from the other side of a fictional island in the Antilles. The island gods test the strength of her love against the powerful forces of prejudice, hatred and death.

My problem rests in the underlying feeling that the “exoticism” of the Caribbean is being exploited rather than explored. Flaherty & Ahrens bring up the issues of economic inequality on the island, but never really critique them (as they later did with racism in Ragtime and homophobia in A Man of No Importance). Daniel is essentially a rich boy who gets away with everything with no consequences – and that’s not okay.

That said, the Paper Mill production successfully emphasizes the musical’s considerable strengths. Director Thomas Kail has a real gift for pacing, and this Island clicks right along, with inventive, pared-down staging. Kenny Posner is one of my favorite lighting designers, and his work here captures the magic of this pseudo-mythical story. And Bradley Rapier’s athletic choreography is the engine that really drives this dance-heavy show.

In the final analysis, there is plenty here to entertain both adults and children. I’m just not sure I want the kiddies leaving with the essentially conservative message of Once on This Island.

For tickets, click here.