Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW - JAN 2-8: Sweet Charity, Lucky Penny, Holden

January 4:  Sweet Charity

First show of 2017 for me was The New Group's production of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity. It is perhaps best known for its bouncy score (music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields), as captured on the original Broadway cast album with its iconic performance by the incomparable Gwen Verdon. It was later adapted for the screen, with Shirley MacLaine taking on the lead role. Debbie Allen was Charity on Broadway in 1986, and in 2015 Christina Applegate displayed plucky determination when she opened what was most recent Broadway revival after she broke her leg and was forced to drop out for most of the show's pre-New York tour.

For the current Off Broadway production at the Pershing Square Signature Center, director Leigh Silverman has opted for a stripped-down and intimate version of the musical, with little by way of design elements and with a far more somber undercurrent, as if the show were taking place during the Great Depression instead of the heyday of the "love, peace, and happiness" era of the 1960s.

In this production, our heroine, who goes by the name Charity Hope Valentine, absolutely wears her heart on her sleeve, despite being let down by every man she comes into contact with.  In the beginning, Ms. Foster literally throws herself at every fellow she sees. It's kind of pathetic, but the actress uses her great strength as a dancer and physical comic to give Charity's desperation the outsized exaggeration of a skit from the old Carol Burnett show. It is so over the top that we laugh in spite of our squeamishness.  

But don't be fooled.  In previous productions of the show, Charity at least ended up with her middle name intact and took her final bow with her eternal hope securely in place.

Here, however, when the last guy (brilliantly performed by Shuler Hensley as a walking bundle of neuroses) gives her the bum's rush at precisely the moment when she (and we) think she has a real chance at happiness, Ms. Foster dissolves into a pool of sadness that suggests that "hope" has abandoned our sweet Charity altogether.  It's a powerful image, but hard to take when the show has become of Mobius strip of unending crushing blows against optimism.

The rest of the cast is quite good, and the songs mostly work, though they do lack the oomph of earlier productions.  This is undoubtedly deliberate, especially as the big brassy orchestra has been replaced with a competent but decidedly small five-member band.  We miss the bigness on two of the numbers:  "Hey, Big Spender" and "The Rhythm of Life," both of which are downsized and basically tossed off as casually as Charity's erstwhile boyfriends dump her. 

And even though Sutton Foster gives it her all as a dancer, the otherwise very talented choreographer Joshua Bergasse cannot begin to compete with the memory of Bob Fosse's work on the original production.   

Bottom line:  Three cheers for Sutton Foster and for Shuler Hensley, but a quiet sigh for the overall downbeat production. 

January 6:  Lucky Penny

Fred Johnson
Photo by Zachary Zirlin Photography
David Deblinger
Photo by Zachary Zirlin Photography

Show #2:  A masterful performance artist and a gifted singer join forces in Lucky Penny, a wild ride through the life of David Deblinger, who shares tales of his dysfunctional life in this funny, intense, and unpredictable show at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.   

There's never a dull moment as various members of Deblinger's family and circle of acquaintances turn up in stories that may remind you of the Thanksgiving gathering of your nightmares. 

Yet even as he describes family fights and the really stupid things he did in his youth (some of them involving butcher knives and pellet guns), Deblinger manages to maintain a core of humanity and off-beat humor. The evening comes to its fullest fruition when he touchingly describes the time he spent with his father after the older man suffered a stroke and was later confined to one of those "facilities" we dread.    

Deblinger is joined in the production by musician/singer Fred Johnson, who provides splendidly rich renditions of songs that range from Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" to "Pennies From Heaven" and "God Bless The Child." These songs are performed during intervals that serve as breaks between scenes, each of them chosen to fit in thematically with the story that Deblinger has been telling.

Bottom line:  Under Ben Snyder's direction, it all comes lovingly together to make for a most rewarding and heart-felt evening.

January 7:  Holden

HOLDEN.  Photo by plate3.com

The final show I saw this week was George & Co.'s production of Holden, a play that takes place in the writing compound of the angst-filled, famously reclusive J. D. Salinger, noted author of The Catcher In The Rye.  

The play, at the New Ohio Theatre, takes its title from that book's alienated teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield.

Written and directed by Anisa George (she's the George of George & Co.), Holden takes us inside Salinger's head as he wrestles with his demons. They manifest in the form of two notorious individuals - John Hinckley Jr., the would-be assassin of President Ronald Reagan, and Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon. (The real-life Hinckley and Chapman were said to be big fans of The Catcher In The Rye).

They are there to both inspire Salinger to complete his nearly-finished latest novel, and to torment him with horrific memories of his time as a soldier during World War II.  The intense drama, which varies between darkly comic and just plain dark, focuses a great deal on the nature of violence, and makes pointed references to the kinds of random mass shootings we have seen far too much of in recent years.

To this end, another character is introduced. He's called Zev, and he's an outsider with no interest in Salinger or the others. Unlike Hinckley and Chapman, he's much more intrigued with the new era of violence. Indeed, his goal is to break the world's record for killing the most people in a single shooting spree.

Not exactly a laugh riot, but the play, the acting, and the directing are top-notch. The excellent cast includes Ms. George's father, Bill George, as the taciturn Salinger. Scott R. Sheppard is Hinckley, Jaime Maseda is Chapman, and Matteo Scammell is Zev. Joining them in the small and sweet role of Salinger's daughter Peggy, who craves his attention and is the only one who can draw him out of himself, is a young newcomer, George Truman.

Bottom line:  An intriguing work that examines both the struggles of one of the great contributors to American fiction in the 20th Century, and the nature of violence in a shaky world where the future is uncertain.

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.  

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