Monday, February 12, 2018

BAR MITZVAH BOY: Rarely-Seen Jule Styne Musical Produced by York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti. Mazel Tov to All Involved!

Julie Benko, Peyton Lusk, Lori Wilner, and Ned Eisenberg
Photo by Ben Strothmann

The York Theatre’s minimalist Musicals in Mufti production of the rarely seen Jule Styne musical Bar Mitzvah Boy reveals no rediscovered gem from the composer of Bells Are Ringing, Funny Girl, and Gypsy. But if the company has not managed to pull the rabbi out of the hat with this one, Bar Mitzvah Boy’s place in the composer’s canon, along with a book that does a fine job of capturing all of the mishigas surrounding that mix of religious rite-of-passage and social event in the life of pretty much every 13-year-old Jewish boy, makes it a must-see for Styne fans or for seekers after elusive musicals.    

Despite its weaknesses, Bar Mitzvah Boy is exactly the kind of work that fulfills the mission of Musicals in Mufti. Broadway it ain’t, nor is it meant to be.  Rather, it provides a showcase for bare-bones presentations of little-known shows that are often to be found in the footnotes of musical history. Although the original 1978 London production was recorded, it is out of print (high-priced copies are available on the secondary market). So most visitors to the York will be hearing it for the first time, myself included.

Musically, it seems that Styne and lyricist Don Black were constrained by having to shoehorn their songs into an already extant work. Bar Mitzvah Boy was written as a BBC television play in 1976 by Jack Rosenthal. It was very well received at the time, a bittersweet story, realistically told, about a working class British family planning on a bar mitzvah for their son. The script, which has been revised, adapted, and otherwise tinkered with on several occasions (the book for the current version is credited to David Thompson), manages to stay anchored with a blend of warmth, humor, and family tsuris that co-mingle without flying completely over the top, even when things begin to melt down as the big day approaches. Yet when Styne and Black were invited to join the team bent on inflating the show into a full scale West End musical, it does appear they were directed to write a utilitarian score to fit what was already in place.    

To be sure, in the Mufti production the songs are not exactly being presented in the best possible light.  The “orchestra” consists of a piano (played by Darren R. Cohen), the lyrics are sometimes muffled, and several of the cast members were chosen more for their acting chops than for their singing skills. Yet, the characters are well drawn, and the cast does a good job conveying the story with scripts in hand. 

Eliot, the boy on the cusp on manhood, is effectively captured on paper and in the fine performance by Peyton Lusk, who, in a happy bit of fun fact, was understudy for the role of Jason, the bar mitzvah boy in the recent Broadway revival of Falsettos. The script beautifully expresses the churning experience of young adolescence. Eliot is something of a smartass, a bit defiant, floored by the religious meaning of the bar mitzvah, scared about what the responsibilities of “manhood” will entail, and increasingly cynical about what he sees as the hypocrisy of the adults around him as they show themselves to be imperfect.  
Also quite good are Lori Wilner and Ned Eisenberg as Eliot’s parents, who sing the bouncy number “This Time Tomorrow,” a mixture of pride and relief that all the planning and plotzing will finally come to an end (“No more rotten relations. No more dizzy sensations.  All my heart palpitations gone”).  

A fine supporting cast is also on hand, with Tim Jerome as Eliot’s grandfather, Julie Benko as Eliot’s sympathetic older sister Lesley, and Neal Benari as the rabbi, who offers up a touching song about the universal presence of God, which makes for a satisfying ending after Eliot flees the synagogue on the big day. Also on hand are Casey Watkins as Eliot’s Christian schoolmate, and Ben Fankhauser as Harold, Lesley’s nebbishy boyfriend and the designated peacemaker whenever things get too tense.  As a nice touch, the show, directed by Annette Jolles, is sprinkled with authentic portions of Hebrew liturgy and Yiddish expressions that everyone pronounces with the right inflection.  

No one is likely to argue that the world needs another large scale production of Bar Mitzvah Boy, but thanks and Mazel Tov to the York Theatre Company for giving us the opportunity to catch this piece of musical history as part of its three-show tribute to Julius Kerwin Stein, aka Jule Styne. Next up: a Musicals in Mufti production of Subways Are For Sleeping.


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

OFF BROADWAY - Top Ten Shows of 2017

Another year, another 111 Off Broadway shows. That's how many I saw in 2017, from the 50th anniversary revival  of SWEET CHARITY early in January to HUNDRED DAYS two days ago.  

From these, I have selected the best of the best, my Top Ten list, in alphabetical order:

CHARM:  It has been fascinating watching how playwrights and theater companies have been striving to tell the stories of transgender individuals. Not surprisingly, the earliest efforts in recent years were clumsy and overly pedantic, and even efforts at casting transgender actors to play
transgender characters have been hit-and-miss. This play, written by Philip Dawkins, marked a leap forward. It told an engaging story about a 67-year-old transgender woman who
volunteers at an LGBTQ center, teaching a mix of etiquette and self-esteem to a group of disorderly street teens. It incorporated the kinds of still-necessary explanations for the audience, but within the context of the play rather than making us feel we are sitting at a lecture. (Great line: "Have pity on the straight people; they get confused so easily.") And it starred a transgender actress, Sandra Caldwell, in the lead role.  

DOLPHINS AND SHARKS:  Stellar writing, directing, and acting combined to tell the gripping story of a group of African American and Latino workers at a copy shop in Harlem, dealing with low pay, constant demands by an absentee
boss, and "what you gotta do" in order to survive. This fiercely comic, provocative, and at times harrowing play marked the professional debut of writer James Anthony Tyler, whose voice is just the kind we need to hear more of off and on Broadway.     

IN THE BLOOD: Suzan-Lori Parks' play grabbed you by throat and never let go as it related the story of Hester, a single mother of five children between the ages of 5 and 13, all of them living together under a bridge in an unnamed and indifferent urban environment. Some of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's works are densely abstract and difficult to stage convincingly, but this one was nothing short of breathtaking in capturing the lives of people who cannot win for losing.  

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM:  A joyful night under the stars at the Public Theater's Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Lear deBessonet directed, and Annaleigh Ashford
headed a cast that brought pure magic and a touch of Mardi Gras to Shakespeare's enduring comedy. In every way, it was a a treat for the eyes and ears.   

OF HUMAN BONDAGE:  A presentation by the Canadian company Soulpepper during its summer sojourn at the Pershing Square Signature Center. This production of W. Somerset Maugham's sprawling coming-of-age novel
(adapted by Vern Thiessen) was a perfect piece of ensemble acting, reminiscent of the kinds of plays the Royal Shakespeare Company used to bring to New York back in the day.  Hope they'll come back with more like this!

PIPELINE: Dominique Morisseau's brilliant play about an African American family all but torn asunder following an altercation between a high school student and a teacher at a private boarding school that was supposed to provide a safe and nurturing haven for a teenage boy. Namir Smallwood
gave a superb performance as the boy's mother, a teacher herself, but at the kind of urban high school she wants to keep him away from. The playwright showed a real determination to avoid painting anyone purely as either villain or victim. This was a stunner from the start to its intentionally uncertain ending. 

SCHOOL GIRLS: OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY: Jocyln Bioh's funny, viciously biting comedy takes the familiar story of snotty high school cliques and plunks it down into a private girls' school in Ghana, where it takes on a life of its own. The writing and the performances were as sharp as tacks as the girls participated in the well-established pecking order that
controlled their lives together. Things took a turn when a new student showed up, rivalries exploded, and the girls got ready to participate in a beauty pageant they all hope will lead one of them to being named Miss Ghana. A glorious production by all concerned.    

TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET: Another rising playwright, Jiréh Breon Holder, gave us a play that dive-bombed onto the stage of the Roundabout's Black Box Theatre, an incubator for exciting new works like this one.  The play recounted the experiences of two young black
couples in the early days of the Freedom Riders, the busing protest from the early 1960s.  It centered on the character of Bowzie (a mesmerizing performance by Brandon Gill), who has been offered the rare opportunity of a scholarship to attend the prestigious Fisk University but who is uncertain where his future lay as he gets caught up in the emerging Civil Rights movement.  The playwright managed in the course of the evening to explore issues of race, gender, power, faith, and politics in the black community without once losing sight of his characters.  A masterful achievement!

THE WOLVES: Sarah DeLappe's thrilling "girl power" play about a high school girls' soccer team. Wonderfully acted by a tight-knit ensemble, it is about the things we miss when we fail to pay attention to the seemingly random conversations
among girls. The playwright and the production perfectly captured the voices of these young women as they talk during their pre-game warmups in the course of a season.   

20th CENTURY BLUES: At the other end of the age spectrum, this play by Susan Miller captures the story of a group of women in their mid-60s as they gather at the home
of one of their number, a professional photographer named Danny (Polly Draper) who has taken portraits of the other three each year without fail ever since they met in the 1970s. The dialog and the splendid acting perfectly embodied the spirit of the women of the baby boomer cohort,  with all of their shared memories, trials, and successes. 


Link here for my list of the best of the year's Broadway plays: (Top Ten Broadway Plays - 2017) 


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.

Friday, December 29, 2017


Culled from the list of the 34 plays and musicals I saw on Broadway in 2017,  the following stood out as representing the top ten - the best of the best.  

Strictly by coincidence, my list includes five straight plays and five musicals. Here they are, in alphabetical order, and with my rationale for their inclusion.  

Straight Plays

1984.  Big Brother is watching you! This was a smart, literary, and disturbingly-staged version of George Orwell's dystopian novel with unfortunate parallels to the state of the world today. Not for the squeamish, but powerfully acted by a cast that included Tony winner and New York theater stalwart Reed Birney as the sympathetic-seeming O'Brien. I'll confess that I had to see this twice in order to get past the all-too-realistic torture scenes, yet nothing seemed gratuitous or inappropriate.       

THE CHILDREN. OK.  Another dystopian tale. It relocates the 2011 nuclear power plant meltdown from Fukushima,
Japan to the English coast. More significantly, it serves as a sly indictment of the baby boomer generation for the messes the aging population is leaving behind. The production benefits greatly from maintaining the original London cast and director, and from Lucy Kirkwood's smart and gallows humor-infused script.  Note:  This is still running until February 4 in case you want to catch it.  

INDECENT. Paula Vogel's examination of Sholem Asch's 1907 Yiddish-language melodrama GOD OF VENGEANCE, which featured prostitutes and a lesbian kiss. Asch's play was widely produced and well-received in Europe but ran afoul of censorship and the law when it journeyed to New
York. Ms. Vogel considered the play's themes and its history, and told the story through the eyes of the company of actors who toured with it. This was one of the best all-around productions of any play I've seen in a very long time, with brilliant and Tony-garnering directing by Rebecca Taichman and an exceptional cast that included Katrina Lenk, now wowing everyone in the Broadway musical THE BAND'S VISIT. 

JITNEY. August Wilson's 1982 play, a rich examination of a group of drivers for a pre-Uber car service, has been produced Off Broadway before, but this full-scale Broadway production more than made the case for recognizing it as a top-drawer entry in
Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. This was another stellar ensemble production, one that picked up a Best Revival Tony along with well-deserved nominations for its director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and actor John Douglas Thompson.  

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. In a word: hilarious. If you like old-fashioned slapstick comedy, this play about a third-rate acting company that runs into every problem imaginable will leave you richly satisfied. I may be splitting hairs, but this
kind of romp is a far cry from classical farce where everything seems, at least to my taste, to be too obviously clever. Here, it all seems to gloriously fall apart of its own accord.  Note: This is still running, with tickets available into March, in case you want to catch it.  


BANDSTAND.  An original musical with a heart and a brain, a great score, amazing dancing, and a super cast. It's about a group of talented jazz/swing musicians who are psychologically lost after their experiences of serving in World War II. They all suffer from varying degrees of PTSD and are thwarted by the fact
that life at home passed them by while they were away; their only support is one another. Corey Cott and Laura Osnes sublimely led the cast, and Andy Blankenbueller, who choreographed HAMILTON, served in that capacity here, and also directed. The show has unfortunately closed, but the original cast recording does a good job of capturing the score (Richard Oberacker wrote the music and he and Robert Taylor are responsible for the lyrics). This was far and above the best musical I saw in 2017.  

THE BAND'S VISIT.  An adaption by playwright Itamar Moses of the movie of the same title. It tells the story of the members of a small group of Egyptian musicians who have been invited to participate in a performance in Israel but wind up in the wrong town, where they are obliged to spend the night. If you are expecting ethnic conflict, you'd be wrong.  
Instead, it is a quietly sweet and touching tale, brought lovingly to life by a perfect cast, including the aforementioned Katrina Lenk and Tony Shahoub, a skillful actor who has become a regular on the New York theater scene. What holds it all together is the lovely, lovely score by David Yazbek, and David Cromer's gentle direction.  Currently running.

HELLO, DOLLY!  Actually, it wasn't the presence of Bette Midler that sold me on this production of Jerry Herman's 1964 musical, a show that I had never before seen on 
stage. Yes, the Divine Miss M, has the audience eating out of her hand, but the surprise to me was the show itself.  There is so much joy emanating from the stage, I defy you to resist. Kudos to all involved in this sublime revival! Ms. Midler leaves the show in a couple of weeks, but her replacement will be Bernadette Peters. Not so shabby.   

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. This delightfully staged and performed revival of the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical has the feel of a Caribbean folk tale that has been passed down and reshaped from generation to generation. It boasts joyful singing, clever staging, and charm by the bucketful as it relates the story of Ti Moune (an auspicious Broadway debut by 18-year-old Hailey Kilgore) who enlists the aid of the gods as she dares to defy the social strictures of her community. There is a dark side to the story, along the lines of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," but that does not diminish the many pleasures to be found here. Currently running.

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. It is probably best to be familiar with Nickelodeon's popular cartoon character, who
lives in a pineapple under the sea. For fans, this is a super-duper treat, brilliantly staged and performed and filled with music that was written for the show by 14 songwriters and teams, including Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, and They Might Be Giants. Nautical nonsense abounds, and it is more fun than a day of jelly fishing and a platter of Krabby Patties.  Currently running.


Link here for my list of the best of the year's Off Broadway plays: (Top Ten Off Broadway Shows - 2017)


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

JACK GOES BOATING: Sweet and Quirky Romantic Comedy Accentuated with Reggae and Ganja

A continuous waft of marijuana smoke and the sounds of reggae suffuse The Seeing Place Theater's production of Bob Glaudini's 2007 offbeat romantic comedy Jack Goes Boating at the Paradise Factory. But what at first appears to be a tale of a couple of stoner dudes and the women who put up with them proves to be much more, a quirky and affectionate play about two couples trying to fumble their way through - as one of the women puts it - “a lot of good things, and a lot of things you wouldn't wish on your enemy." 

Jack Goes Boating was first produced by the Labyrinth Theater Company ten years ago with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, but it has not been widely performed since then. It's a treat, then, to see the fine job The Seeing Place has done with capturing both the play's neurotic humor and its heartfelt tenderness, in an intimate setting that leaves you feeling as though you were eavesdropping on the lives of the characters.  

This production marks a departure for The Seeing Place, a company best known for its often visceral presentations of tough and challenging works by playwrights ranging from Shakespeare to Marsha Norman, Rebecca Gilman, and Sam Shepard. Their forays into comedy have been few, and have mostly focused on the dark (Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman) or the absurd (Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros). So, yes, Jack Goes Boating is not their usual fare. Nevertheless, it is one they have embraced with the same "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach that has marked all of their work over the past eight years, and the cast of four more than meets the demands of this gentler piece.

At opening, we meet Clyde (Juan Cardenas) and Jack (Brandon Walker), friends and co-workers in a limousine service run by Jack's uncle. Jack lives in his uncle's basement, and his biggest ambition is to land a job with New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority. For his part, Clyde has been unable to get past a long-ago period of infidelity by his partner Lucy (Candice Oden). Much of what we learn about the two men comes about during episodes of vaping and drinking and even some snorting, all set to a reggae beat; Jack is especially fond of "By the Rivers of Babylon" a recording of which often soothes his troubled soul in times of stress.  
Brandon Walker and Juan Cardenas
Photo by Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia

It's easy enough to mark these guys as clichéd models of arrested development, until we see them interact with the women in their lives. Lucy and Connie (Erin Cronican, who also directs) work together for an outfit that markets grief seminars for the newly bereaved. The pairing of Jack and Connie is, basically, a set-up by the other two, who think they might hit it off.

Candice Oden and Erin Cronican
Photo by Russ Roland

The heart of the play lies in the slowly warming relationship between Connie and Jack. This is challenging for both characters, each of them vulnerable for different reasons. Their slow dance toward each other requires a great deal of care. Connie, whose experiences with men have been difficult, is especially fragile in all this. 

For Jack, the possibility of a serious relationship is marked by deep-set insecurity, giving Mr. Walker the opportunity to tackle a different sort of role from the boldly assertive characters he has played in the past. Here he does an outstanding job of capturing Jack’s fear of doing the wrong thing with Connie. His scenes with Ms. Cronican are as gentle and tender as any I’ve seen on stage, emanating from a great well of trust. Hard to fake when your audience is seated no more than a couple of feet away.  

One of the pleasures of serial theatergoing (I see some 200 productions a year and review most of them for Upstage-Downstage or for another theater website) is the chance to poke around into some off-the-main-drag theaters of New York City, into the domain of some truly wondrous and adventuresome independent theater companies, collectively referred to as Off Off Broadway. 

Unfortunately, for reasons usually having to do with finances, many such companies come and go. Not so with The Seeing Place, which seems to find the way to keep things going year after year and production after production, while maintaining a ridiculously low ticket price. Going through my past reviews, I was surprised to see I've covered 16 of their productions, each of them showing a commitment to bringing something new to the table (otherwise, why bother?) Color me impressed, and let me urge you to check them out for yourself.  


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.