Friday, February 27, 2015

JOHN & JEN: Revival of Andrew Lippa's First Musical Boasts A Pair of First-Rate Performances

Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin
Photo by Carol Rosegg

We New York theatergoers like our psychologically damaged and damaging characters to be writ large:  our Phantoms, our Sweeney Todds, our Norma Desmonds.  So what to make of the Keen Company’s lovingly-conceived revival of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s decidedly under-wrought 1995 musical John & Jen, where it is neurosis rather than psychosis that is under the microscope?

To begin with, front and center, are the performances of the show’s two stars, the always splendid Kate Baldwin (Finian’s Rainbow and Lippa’s own Big Fish) and Conor Ryan (Cinderella and Fortress of Solitude). They share the stage and sing their way through a time period covering 40 years (from the 1950s to the 1990s) in the two-hour, two-act production that has virtually no dialog outside of the songs.

Both performers acquit themselves well with what amounts to a work that is more of a song cycle than a musical.  For this production—in the appropriately intimate space of the Clurman Theater at Theatre Row—they are nicely abetted by Sydney Maresca’s costume design (lots of quick costume changes throughout) and the excellent musicianship of pianist Lily Ling and cellist Melanie Mason, all under Jonathan Silverstein’s direction.  Perhaps Steven C. Kemp’s abstract set may be a bit jarring, but it does provide a variety of performance areas for the pair. 

While there isn’t a great deal of depth to the storyline, Ms. Baldwin’s character, Jen, does undergo an arc of development as she sets out to right the wrongs she believes she has committed. Mr. Ryan’s character, John, is more limited. That’s because there are two different “Johns,” an uncle and his nephew, each of whom is depicted from birth though the teenage years. Therein lies the lean and gently poignant plot, a tale of sister and brother, and of mother and son. 

In Act I, Jen and John are siblings, growing up with an abusive father. Jen, the older of the two by six years, forms a bond of mutual protection with John (“I’ll never let him hurt you; trust me!” Jen pledges in one form or another multiple times throughout Act I). That vow holds until Jen becomes a teenager, starts to rebel, and ultimately leaves home for college and New York City, where she quickly embraces the lifestyle of the 1960s—sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that is anti-establishment. When she reluctantly returns home for a visit, she finds that John, left to his own devices, has come to embrace his father’s values. In the hopes of winning Dad’s approval, he has enlisted in the U. S. Navy just in time to be shipped out to Vietnam. When Jen announces she is joining her boyfriend to start a new life in Canada, the pair have a falling out that is never reconciled due to John’s death in battle.

Act II opens with Jen newly returned to the U. S. with her young son, whom she has named John in memory of her brother, after breaking up with the boy’s father. She is resolved to making good her broken promise to her brother by never letting anything bad happen to her son. But her determination has turned her into one of those “helicopter” parents, always hovering over John until he, like his mother before him, wants nothing more than to escape. The show ends on the day of John’s high school graduation. He has been accepted into Columbia University’s writing program, though Mom is aghast at the idea of his leaving for New York, the way she had done many years before. Will Jen finally be able to let go and move on with her own life? 

John & Jen is structured so as to keep everything low keyed and within the range of normal neurotic family dysfunction. While Jen and her brother may have grown up in an abusive household, we aren’t given much information as to how bad it was for them. No monsters lurking in the shadows. No Carrie-like psychotic meltdowns. Jen’s sense of guilt is predicated entirely on her having left her brother behind to “hold down the fort” (one of the song titles) when she sought a new life for herself.   

Musically, the songs are designed to serve the story. There is none of the sweeping romanticism that Mr. Lippa would later use for the love story that lies at the heart of Big Fish. This is a different kind of love story, examining the love of a woman for her brother, for her son, and, finally, for herself. The score reflects this kind of interplay by evoking moments as they occur, without grand gestures or flourishes—the way that lives generally do unfold. 

In the end, the best reason to see John & Jen is to experience Mr. Lippa’s first musical in the pleasurable company of Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan, two gifted performers at different stages of their careers who work beautifully together.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

LADY, BE GOOD: Lady, Be Terrific, More Like

The wonder that is Encores! tonight opens its 22nd season at City Center by doing what it does best, offering up a glorious five-performance revival of the rarely seen Lady, Be Good, the George and Ira Gershwin musical that last appeared on Broadway in 1924, where it ran for 330 performances and starred a pair of hoofers who went by the name of Fred and Adele Astaire. 

The production is about as bouncy and bubbly as any you are likely to see these days, even with its paper-thin plot (original book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson) that is frequently interrupted by unrelated specialty acts—a vaudeville holdover that even in its time was starting to disappear in favor of stronger storylines (Showboat was only two years away). But when the plot steps aside for a couple of production numbers performed by the likes of the legendary Tommy Tune, who could possibly complain? 

What there is of a plot tells the story of a brother and sister, Dick and Susie Trevor, who find themselves out on the street merely because they haven’t paid the rent for 18 months. Dick (Danny Gardner) decides he will get them out of their predicament by marrying a wealthy heiress (Jennifer Laura Thompson) who has eyes for him, despite the fact that he is in love with the equally penniless Shirley (Erin Mackey). 

For her part, Susie (Patti Murin) falls into a scheme by which she will pretend to be the Mexican widow of the presumed-to-be dead Jack Robinson (Colin Donnell) so that she can get the inheritance. There is a lot of running around and silliness, and the requisite happy ending, of course. But, really, all of it is in the service of one of Encores’ best choreographed evenings (thanks to Randy Skinner and a very talented ensemble) and a whole trunkful of Gershwin numbers, starting with the show’s two bonafide and enduring hits, the title song and "Fascinating Rhythm."

Given that the show was written around the talents of the Astaire siblings, you can bet there are plenty of opportunities for Mr. Gardner and Ms. Murin to show their stuff.  Performing together, with other partners, or by themselves, both are outstanding dancers, and Gardner—dressed in white tie and tails—does a show-stopping tap number at the top of Act II. Truly, if anyone does a musical about Fred and Adele, these two should be high on their list to take on the roles.   

Also stopping the show is Tommy Tune, that six-foot-six bundle of dynamite, who, at 75, still can tap with the best of them. In Act I, he comes out all dressed in scarlet to perform “Fascinating Rhythm,” and in Act II, there he is again all in blue, with “Little Jazz Bird.” What a crowd-pleasing charmer he is!

The production is replete with top-notch performances, including Kristen Wyatt and Jeff Hiller as a wacky couple, and Douglas Sills as the underhanded attorney ("I'm not a quack," he bridles. "I'm a shyster!") who masterminds Susie’s impersonation of “Senorita Juanita.”

Encores! rightfully prides itself on getting the music right. In this case, diligent digging uncovered only a handful of songs for which there were extant orchestrations (by the likes of Max Steiner and Robert Russell Bennett). Rob Fisher,  Encores’ founding music director, used these to guide the creation of new orchestrations. He also serves as guest conductor of the excellent orchestra, which spotlights a pair of exceptionally talented pianists, Chris Fenwick and Greg Anthony, performing "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Lady, Be Good" as in-the-spotlight specialty numbers.

Thumbs up and three cheers to director Mark Brokaw and to all involved in putting together this joyous production. This Lady is more than just good; she is terrific!

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015


I just saw Constellations, an intellectually complicated yet emotionally…


I just saw Constellations, an emotionally complicated yet intellectually…


Someone told me about this play called Constellations


Constellations?  Never heard of it…


Whoa! I can see it will be impossible to write this review of Constellations from within the Multiverse in which it takes place.  So let us return to the more familiar Universe, the one where time flows from past to present to future, and where the paths we take lead us in one direction at a time. 

From the steady perspective of the familiar, imagine yourself living in a non drug-induced plane of existence in which everything you’ve ever done and everything you’ve never done take place simultaneously.

That is the premise of Constellations, playwright Nick Payne’s exploration of a relationship between a down-to-earth beekeeper (Jake Gyllenhaal) named Roland and an endearingly offbeat physicist (Ruth Wilson) named Marianne that unfolds within the latter’s realm of quantum mechanics and string theory. If an electron can be in multiple places at once, Mr. Payne asks, then why can’t we?

The pair meet cute at a barbecue, where the opening conversation is about the impossibility of licking the tip of one’s elbow, an act that Marianne declares holds the key to immortality. Roland, believing her to be flirting with him, tells her right off that he is with someone. 

Then … ZAP… the scene repeats.  Only this time, Roland says he’s just come out of a really serious relationship.   Then…ZAP… again… and then again... through various permutations.  In some of these, Roland is married to someone else.  In others, he is free as a bird and he and Marianne start to build a relationship.

The 70-minute play is made up of dozens of such small scenes that lurch forward and spiral back on themselves, bringing to mind something that Caryl Churchill (Traps, Cloud Nine, A Number) might have concocted, though with a lot of heart to balance out the intellect. 

Who would have thought that a play based on scientific esoterica could be so appealing? That’s thanks to the razor sharp direction of Michael Longhurst and the absolute command of the constant shifts in meaning and tone that Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Wilson bring to their performances. 

As the couple’s relationship blossoms through all of the ZAPS that mark the shifts, we find ourselves growing increasingly fond of them. Think of Constellations as a physicist’s version of Jan de Hartog’s popular two-character play from 1951, The Fourposter, that spans 35 years of a marriage.   

Constellations is undoubtedly an unusual work, and it can seem gimmicky – especially since it actually is based on a gimmick. It is absolutely the quality of the staging and the performances that make it a memorable experience, performances that are so solid that any idea of “stunt casting” goes out the window.  Mr. Gyllenhaal displays a Gary Cooperish charm, and Ms. Wilson is simply irresistible as the slightly offbeat physicist.

Adding to the intriguing nature of the play is Tom Scutt’s set design. The stage appears to be filled with balloons (though they might be subatomic particles). Surprisingly, one of the more touching images is that of these falling to the ground late in the play, a disturbance is the Multiverse and in the world as we perceive it through our limited and primitive senses.

More than anything, one leaves Constellations with a sense of wonder. What if we could live simultaneously within everything we've ever done or might have done?  What if we could choose which of the infinite number of paths to follow at any given time?  
What if we could lick the tip of our elbow?   

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

INTO THE WOODS: Careful the Tale You Tell

The Fiasco Theater’s production of Into The Woods, the suddenly ubiquitous Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical from 1987 now on view in its live theatrical incarnation at the Laura Pels Theatre, comes close but ultimately fails to capture the show’s complex balance between childlike naiveté and grown-up moral ambiguity.

A mashup of several well-known fairy tales, along with a new anchor story invented by Mr. Lapine, a part of Into The Woods always seemed to me to inhabit the same transitional landscape that is occupied by middle school-aged children, clinging to childhood while lurching toward young adulthood. As Red Riding Hood succinctly puts it, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot/And a little bit not…”

The young adolescent side of the tale is represented by Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (of beanstalk fame). As performed, respectively and quite well by Emily Young and Patrick Mulryan, these characters take themselves as seriously as any young adolescent would, so that their lines have a Roald Dahl-ish glow. (That’s a real compliment; no writer understands the pre-teen the way that Mr. Dahl did). Thus, we have Little Red Riding Hood singing:  
                                   Into the woods
                                   To bring some bread
                                   To Granny who
                                   Is sick in bed.
                                   Never can tell
                                   What lies ahead.
                                   For all that I know,
                                   She’s already dead.

And Jack’s heart-felt farewell to his friend Milky White, the cow (played here with unabashed whimsy by Andy Grotelueschen), includes the lines:
                                   Some day I’ll buy you back.
                                   I’ll see you soon again.
                                   I hope that when I do,
                                   It won’t be on a plate.

These are funny lines, but in order to be effective, they must be delivered without a trace of irony or tongue-in-cheek.

The good news is that this is the part that the Fiasco company and directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld get right, along with a wonderful makeshift set design by Derek McLane that gives the production the feel of one of Jo March's plays in Little Women, right down to the homespun costumes by Whitney Locher and a stageful of props that seem to have come straight out of Grandma’s attic. 

The problem lies with the adult side of the production, where—to cadge from something the Witch sings—the performances are not good; they’re not bad; they’re just nice. 

Even though roles are drawn from fairy tale characters (or in the case of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, fairy tale-like characters), we’ve still have to be drawn into the story. The relationship between the Baker (Mr. Steinfeld) and his wife (Jessie Austrian) needs to be a sympathetic one, so that when she falls into the arms of Cinderella’s Prince (Mr. Brody) and is later killed, we should be disturbed and moved (as we were when the roles were played in the original Broadway production by Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason). We should also find the Witch (Jennifer Mudge) to be a psychologically complicated character, a monstrous mother to Rapunzel and a scary presence throughout.

With this production, we have individuals who can sing well enough, but they always seem to be performing in rehearsal mode, having never figured out how to bring their characters to life. The charming homespun quality that works so well in support of the fractured fairy tales loses its effectiveness when we move into the morally murky grownup world.  And the gimmicks that were charming become cloying, starting with having the actors playing musical instruments (when have we seen that before?, and unnecessary, since Matt Castle does a whiz-bang job accompanying everyone on the center-stage upright piano). There is also the silliness embodied in having Mr. Brody and Mr. Grotelueschen take on the roles of Cinderella’s stepsisters, using a visual joke that became an instant classic (so why repeat it?) when Carol Burnett did her spoof of Gone With The Wind back in 1976. 

Into the Woods is a rich musical that is certainly worthy of revisiting, and it is strong enough to stand up to different interpretations. But let’s give the last word to Mr. Sondheim, who sums things up nicely through the voice of the Witch during the show’s finale:

                                   Careful the tale you tell.
                                   That is the spell.
                                   Children will listen.

And so will we, if the tale is told with proper care.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.