By William Wolf

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL  Send This Review to a Friend

Premieres of three one-act plays by Neil LaBute, a presentation by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, add up to a provocative program, with two particularly strong works following a problematic opener. All three are excellently acted.

The second play, “Great Negro Works of Art,” is set in a museum were a woman and man meet for the first time after connecting on the internet. Brenda Meaney as Jerri and KeiLyn Durrel Jones as Tom react favorably to each other at first. Tom is light-skinned but of African-American heritage. Jerri is white.

Despite the initial attraction, as they begin to view photos in the exhibition, a gap between them widens. Jerri feels Tom is becoming too dogmatic and hostile, while Tom finds Jerri rather ignorant about black culture.

LaBute explores their differences as the two walk around observing paintings and verbally spar with increasing intensity. We begin to wonder whether they can bridge the gap and take the relationship further. Both Jerri and Tom are likable individuals and sincere in their perspectives.

“Unlikely Japan” consists of a heartfelt monologue by the impressive Gia Crovatin as Katie, who recounts how she was watching television news of the mass shootings by a killer in Las Vegas, when she suddenly recognizes a name from her past as one of the victims. LaBute in the monologue emphasizes the pattern of watching news about frequent shootings routinely, but, when a victim is somebody one knows, getting shocked into considering the reality and tragedy of such a loss.

Katie and the victim had a relationship going when they were in high school. She had kept secret from him that she was also seeing another, but not knowing that, he bought tickets for them to go to Japan as his graduation gift to her. Katie describes how she was going to go through with the trip, but suddenly changed her mind, didn’t show up and left him stranded at the airport. That was the end of their contact.

Now, some ten years later, she regrets how unfair she was and speculates that had she kept her promise, life might have turned out differently, and perhaps he might not even had been in Las Vegas to meet his doom. She berates herself, but it is too late for such second thoughts. Crovatin is deeply convincing about the emotional trauma Katie is experiencing.

The show’s opener, “The Fourth Reich” is difficult to swallow. Although the monologue is skillfully performed by Eric Dean White as Karl, LaBute’s efforts to make us look at Hitler in a different way are shallow, and even offensive. Yes, Karl, admits, Hitler lost the war and he made mistakes. There were, of course, the six million Jews murdered, Karl acknowledges.

But the thesis is that we can’t just look at Hitler in a simplistic way. LaBute conjectures that there was much more to him. Karl displays a painting for us to look at, presumably a copy of one of Hitler’s paintings in his early effort to become an artist. The implication is that had he gained recognition as an artist, things might have turned out differently.

Karl expresses his feelings that there is much hope for the future, which he envisions as a very happy, agreeable world. I’m not sure of what LaBute is driving at, but the very idea of trying to see Hitler in a more human and perhaps more constructive light is simplistic and can make one squirm. LaBute needs a better play than this to develop such thoughts, whether serious or an attempt to critically satirize a Hitler supporter. LaBute directed “Unlikely Japan” and John Pierson directed “Great Negro Works of Art” and “The Fourth Reich.” At the Davenport Theater, 354 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed January 15, 2019.

CHOIR BOY  Send This Review to a Friend

Here is another case in which the performances exceed the caliber of the play. “Choir Boy,” a Manhattan Theatre Club presentation of the drama by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is yet another boy school story about lads dealing with homosexuality and growing-up anxieties. The difference in this situation is that the boys are African-American and part of a school choir, which offers the opportunity for singng impressively in addition to the tensions being exposed.

The cast under the direction of Trip Cullman is a stalwart one, especially with Jeremy Pope as the central Pharus Jonathan Young. Pope sings well and acts effectively in his role as a prep school student who is gay and emotionally needy even while he tries to assert himself with his urgent self-defining desire to make his mark leading the choir.

But the play abounds in plot clichés, seems overlong in its hour and 45 minutes without an intermission and abounds in predictable situations. Pharus’s nemesis is Bobby Marrow (a dynamic J. Quinton Johnson), an angry young man with complex issues of his own. Bobby is the nephew of Headmaster Marrow, played forcefully by Chuck Cooper, who tries to instill in students the need to respect fellow classmates.

Austin Pendleton makes the most of the interesting role of a white professor hired to elevate the students in education apart from their choir activity. His being white offers the opportunity for racism to surface, even though his credentials include having marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.

The various plot threads lead, as one might expect, to crises that heighten the drama. But much seems contrived. However, the choral singing, mostly of religious songs, but enhanced on occasion by some well-choreographed modern riffs, brighten the show. And always there is the assembly of fine performances that earned enthusiastic audience applause on the evening when I attended. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed January 10, 2019.

NETWORK  Send This Review to a Friend

For a change I can commend director Ivo van Hove, whose heavy-handed concepts often distort the works he stages. But this time his direction of “Network,” apart from my few caveats, is spot-on and exciting. Making the most of the star performance by the terrific Bryan Cranston, the director has done a spectacular job of staging this National Theatre production.

There’s not much point in comparing the theater “Network” to the film on which it is based. The theater has its own demands and opportunities. Paddy Chayefsky’s movie script has been adapted by Lee Hall for the new stage version and of course, liberties have been taken.

What van Hove has accomplished is creating a lively, busy and frequently hectic television studio atmosphere (excellent scenic and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld and video design by Tal Yarden) with a huge screen as a centerpiece. When Cranston as TV commentator Howard Beale is on air, he is photographed by camerapersons and his image is hugely projected on the screen. The style is carried throughout, with others similarly projected.

It all has a dynamic effect, and at one side of the stage is the busy area for make-up and other off-camera activity. At the other side are some audience members who pay extra for the privilege of sitting at tables. This offers little benefit to the show other than as a moneymaking gimmick, and de Hove could have done without it.

As those familiar with the movie know, Beale is having a breakdown in the midst of his mounting rage at what’s going on all around us in our screwed up world. Cranston, in an extremely canny performance, builds slowly to his climactic moment when he asks everyone to go to their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Van Hove milks this to the extreme, with the theater audience cajoled into joining in the chant and the mantra is repeated more often than it should be. Beale also works up agitation over the domination of TV by powerful interests, and when his listener popularity soars, he is exploited to the fullest by those trying to use him to advance their careers. There comes a point, however, when there is a desire to dump him, and evil strikes.

“Network” is performed at just under two hours without an intermission. But there is some extra baggage that should be eliminated. It is effective to show the turbulent romance between Tony Goldwyn as Max Schumacher and Tatiana Maslany as Diana Christensen, two ruthless climbers in the network depicted, but the marital showdown between Max and his angry wife, Louise (Alyssa Bresnahan), could be eliminated, as it takes up time and slows the overall thrust of the main plot.

There’s also a cheap shot at the end. Before we get to leave, there are projections of presidents being sworn in and stating that they will uphold the U. S. Constitution. One can sense what’s coming and intended—a mass audience booing when we get to Donald Trump. As much as I detest Trump as president and can boo with the best of them, I find van Hove’s gimmick sleazily taking away from the stature of the show itself—a gambit he could do without.

Amusingly, the play offers a specific sex scene (clothed) between Max and Diana in the area on stage next to the audience members, with the hot action projected on the big screen as Diana climaxes amid her titillating talk about TV programming ideas. I laughed when I noticed a few of the audience members seated very close to the couple pounding away but watching them on the screen instead of looking at the lovers in action right beside them.

Rising above even the best of the staging is the mighty performance of Cranston. At one point he descends from the stage to sit between two audience members and chats with them and on the night I attended a woman become an excellent foil. This is a new and potentially award-winning theatrical feather in Cranston’s cap, even more striking than his portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed December 9, 2018.

FABULATION, THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE (2018)  Send This Review to a Friend

Lynn Nottage’s play, set in Manhattan and Brooklyn, has been revived by Signature Theatre, and my reaction to this production is much in tune with the favorable review I wrote when I saw it in 2004 (See Search). Cherise Boothe is triumphantly dynamic in the role of Undine, whose downfall from her public relations success leads her to examine her life anew. My impression is that she stresses the comedy of the play more blatantly than the excellent Charlayne Woodard did in the previous staging, and so does director Lileana Blain-Cruz.

Boothe’s Undine at the outset seems too sharp to have lost all her money to her absconding husband and her carrying on hysterically comes across as more amusing than earning sympathy. However, as the play proceeds, one begins to feel for her more even though she doesn’t lose any of her edge.

For all the laughter the play generates, this is basically a serious story of a 37-year-old African-American woman, originally named Sharona Watkins, who, to get ahead in the right circles, has tried to erase her past even to the extent of saying that her parents are dead. However, when she goes broke, and we see all of her possessions seized by movers, she returns to her family in Brooklyn to stay a while out of necessity. She also discovers that she is pregnant.

What follows is a re-bonding with her earthy family, but with complications. As a result of a mission to buy drugs for her grandmother, she does a jail stretch. But she also joins a rehab group, in which she meets a decent fellow who falls for her. He is played by Ian Lassitter, the versatile actor who also portrays the sleazily sexy Hervé, the Argentinean husband who ran off with all the money from their joint bank account and left her destitute.

One warms to Undine as she emerges more and more as a person who learns to accept her roots and is able to relate to the love extended by the new man in her life. Still, the play never loses the pizzazz of the staging, with its very busy and proficient cast members. Each, with the exception of Boothe, takes on more than one role. The cast includes Mayaa Boateng, Dashiell Eaves, Heather Alicia Simms, Nikiya Matthis, J. Bernard Calloway and Marcus Callender.

The ending is in an entertaining and celebratory mode, showing that Undine’s journey of self-discovery has been successful and we can forecast happiness for her. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Reviewed December 22, 2018.

CLUELESS, THE MUSICAL  Send This Review to a Friend

Amy Heckerling has parlayed her 1995 film “Clueless” into a musical, which is being presented off-Broadway by The New Group. The story is based loosely, very loosely, on Jane Austen’s “Emma.” As fans of the film know, the setting is a 1990’s high school set in Beverly Hills and, as noted in the program, “a little bit in the Valley.” A key question for an audience is how much of ditsy high school airheads can you take?

The show’s big plus is the performance by Dove Cameron in the lead as Cher Horowitz. This year Cameron won a Daytime Emmy for playing both title characters in Disney’s “Liv and Maddie.” That and her other assorted credits have won her a young following, and she delivers with gusto in her “Clueless” role, a demanding one that goes a long way toward brightening the show.

Done up in saucy outfits designed by Amy Clark, Cher is a designer-shopaholic befitting her dad’s financial status and that of the economically upscale student body. Cameron is peppy and perky in the role, whether mindless about studies but clever at wrangling all-too-willing teachers into increasing her lousy grades, or ultimately, if not exactly believably, converting to a fighter for the environment. Cameron sings with enthusiasm (lyrics by Heckerling to period songs) and is adept at the timing required as director Kristin Hanggi integrates the action and musical numbers with precision.

Clark’s costumes go a long way toward adding color, especially for the gal students, whether the key players or the energetic chorus. Kelly Devine’s choreography for both male and female male students is zippy and high-school-hell-raising appropriate for the era. Hecklering nails the kind of conversations one might have heard from students in the 90’s (and maybe even today), as when Cher is castigated as only “a virgin who can’t drive.” But Cher sure does thrive on cheerful optimism.

The various plot threads are too thin to care much about, including the assorted relationships between Cher and friends and also with Josh (Dave Thomas Brown), the son of her father’s ex. We see the friendship between them budding into potential romance. Zurin Villanueva is effective as Dionne, Cher’s close pal, as is Ephie Aardema as Tai, the new girl Cher sees as ripe for a makeover.

The musical is consistently good to look at, thanks in no small part to the set that Beowulf Boritt has designed—a back panel with windows and doors popping open and shut, and what looks like a giant ribbon springing from the background and hovering over the stage.

The rest of the cast members, including Chris Hoch in multiple roles, fit neatly into the overall busy entourage. But despite all the show biz know-how and the especially entertaining Cameron, an avalanche of teenage vacuity may be more than some can take. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Reviewed December 24, 2018

CHRISTMAS IN HELL  Send This Review to a Friend

Although the York Theatre Company flashes a quality cast typical of its productions, the word cockamamie could have been invented to specifically apply to the book that Gary Apple has written for this musical. The actors work valiantly, but the story is so patently stupid that only occasionally entertaining numbers, for which Apple also has written music and lyrics, relieve the overall idiocy.

The York presentation is in association with Xmas in Hell LLC, La Vie Productions, Rays of NY Production Co. & Steve Wampold. There is plenty of blame to share, although audience members willing to suspend the need to believe may enjoy what is splashed before them.

I’ll cite just enough plot to give you an idea of what’s afoot. Davin, an eight-year-old youngster charmingly played by Elija Rayman, eats some fruitcake from hell. He is thus seized by Lucifer (Brandon Williams), which is evidenced by his naughty work in school, including composing a nursery rhyme ditty involving Jane loving Dick. His problematic behavior is described in a musical number by teacher Mrs. Huvey (Donna English). Davin’s dad, Richard (Scott Ahearn), is called to school by Principal Bolton (Ron Wisniski).

What follows is Charles having to rescue his son from the devil, who wants the boy for the son he can never have, involving Charles imbibing a lethal drink that sends him to hell to confront Lucifer. The story works in Charles Manson and a priest (Wisniski) who sends dying Manson to heaven instead of to hell (Charles’s descent there is a substitution).

If you think the story is only that, you’re wrong. There is a plethora of outrageous details and characters, with the cast members playing multiple parts. For example, English plays God and sings a duet, “You’re God” with Richard. There’s the sexily confrontational Galiana (Lori Hammel), who is in love with boogeyman Carl (Zak Risinger,) and they sing, “Hell Will Be Heaven With You.” There’s more, more, and more, including a lyric line, “If they boil you in oil, you’ll still be my goil.”

Another cast member playing various characters, including Detective Zanderhoff, who investigates Davin’s unlikely experience, is Dathan B. Williams. One of the songs I did enjoy was Davin’s singing “Somebody Owes Me a Christmas.”

The direction and choreography are by Bill Castellino, and music direction, arrangements and music supervision are by Logan Medland. James Morgan’s Greek-Roman style scenery and Yael Lubetzky’s lighting design combine to at least give the show some visual flare, especially in an explosive final number geared to proclaim that “Every Day Is Christmas in Hell.” Luckily for the York, a favorite theater group of mine, its other productions are generally the opposite of being as hellish as this misfire. At York Theatre Company at St. Peters, Entrance on 54th Street, East of Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed December 20, 2018.

THE NET WILL APPEAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Richard Masur plays the elderly Bernard in Erin Mallon’s two-character play “The Net Will Appear,” a presentation by Mile Square Theatre and The Collective NY. The other character is Bernard’s nine-year-old neighbor, Rory, played by Eve Johnson. The direction is by Mark Cirnigliaro.

Bernard’s hunger for a bit of peace and quite on his roof is interrupted frequently by the precocious Rory, and the basic idea of the play is to have them get closer in spirit and bond in a way that is meant to warm the heart. Age and youth.

Johnson is a talented young girl with firm command of her lines, gestures and stage presence. However, even though the play is short in length and performed without an intermission, Johnson’s constant barrage of comments, whether cute, perceptive or funny, can grate on one’s nerves. Chatter by a kid like her can get to be a bit much.

The set (designed by Matthew J. Fick) is simple, consisting of a partial view of two dwellings with outdoor space separated by a short gap. Bernard emerges climbing out of his window. Rory scoots in and out of her window. At curtain call she leaps across the divide with his giving her a helping hand and they embrace.

One may appreciate the skill of the youngster and look forward to seeing her in a play that is more substantial and less cloying. Masur, with a long career in the theater, does what he must to move from initial annoyance to affection, in addition to reflecting loneliness and loss. However, Mallon’s play only offers a very thin experience. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 646-892-7999. Reviewed December 13, 2018.

NOURA  Send This Review to a Friend

Playwright Heather Raffo, who also stars in her own work, packs so much into her plot, including a surprise twist, that the end result is rather diffuse. There are commanding ingredients for an audience to contemplate, but the play doesn’t have sufficient impact to leave one deeply moved.

However, in this Playwrights Horizons production, in association with Shakespeare Theatre Company, there are many striking moments tied to the underlying theme of Iraqi refugees trying to set up a new life in the United States. We see a struggle to hold on to cultural traditions and past roots in Mosul while attempting to immerse into the new environment and future life in New York.

But Noura, a meaty role that Raffo apparently has written for herself, is concealing something from her husband, Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi) as they prepare for a Christmas dinner. Included is their son, Yazen (Liam Campora), and long-time friend Rafa’a (Matthew David), who, we learn, has had a crush on Noura. Something else we learn is that Tareq is an old-fashioned male chauvinist, who, while he was perfectly willing to have sex with Noura before marriage, resents the fact that she allowed it.

The guest who arrives is the exuberant university student Maryam (Dahlia Azama), who, we are informed, is an orphan rescued and brought to America by Noura out of the goodness of her heart and desire to save a life.

Director Joanna Settle keeps the busy dialogue brimming as we get portraits of the various characters and their interplay. There is amusing attention to the preparation and serving of traditional dishes, but in a more serious vein Settle is meticulous in building an atmosphere ripe for puncturing.

By the time the inevitable revelation emerges, the lives of Noura and the others are jolted, but Noura in particular is left painfully exposed in attempting to cope with all that she has wrought in terms of her past and her deception.

If only we could feel more deeply about the outcome. At Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed December 11, 2018.

THE CHER SHOW  Send This Review to a Friend

The book by Rick Elice for “The Cher Show” musical assumes that Cher is such a complicated icon that three actresses are needed to play her at different stages of her life as well as discuss things within herself. This gives three actresses main roles--Micaela Diamond as Babe, Teal Wicks as Lady, and Stephanie J. Block as Cher the star. While the first two are good, this is sensational actress-singer Block’s show as she turns in a rousing performance.

But “The Cher Show” is primarily a flashy expedition into Cher’s life, embraced by glittering scenic backgrounds, dazzling lighting effects and enormous projections of conversations on stage. Above all there are the eye-popping, wildly conceived elaborate outfits for the Chers and the ensemble created by costume designer Bob Mackie, also a character in the show played by Michael Berresse.

There’s little depth to the book as it attempts to span developments in Cher’s life and career. In the second act the effort to sandwich in bio becomes over-extended and heavy. But seeking depth is not the show’s primary thrust. The main attraction is pure glitz, the kind that sets off applauding by Cher enthusiasts, who glory in the parade of familiar songs, with music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Daryl Waters. Block gets chances to turn on her personal vocal power to well-earned ovations. She also manages to nail the right tones in Cher’s speaking voice.

There is a very busy chorus of male and female singers and dancers (choreography by Christopher Gattelli). Of course, there is Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector) who woos Cher, and takes control as they move up the show biz ladder, control she bitterly resents. Later Bono returns as ghost after his accidental death in a ski accident.

We see Cher fall for Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik). (Cher has her daughter, Chastity, with Bono but Chastity is not seen in the show as coming out as Chaz, a transgender male). Cher longs for independence and controlling her life. Among other characters, Cher’s mother is played by Emily Skinner. We also get imitations of the Cherelles and the Dave Clark Five, as well as a Lucille Ball cameo.

“The Cher Show” isn’t for anyone looking for profundity. But it is a sweeping juke-box bio with a chance to ooh and ah at the costumes and enjoy performance highlights in the triple-duty depictions of Cher, and as previously pointed out, particularly the stint of Block as Cher, the star. At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed December 6, 2018.

THE HELLO GIRLS  Send This Review to a Friend

In World War I women were recruited into the U.S. Army as telephone operators and eventually sent to the front in France. But after the war they were not considered regular army veterans, and it took many years of fighting to get the pensions and recognition that they deserved. “The Hello Girls,” directed by Cara Reichel from the show’s book that she wrote with Peter Mills, who did the music and lyrics, is a delightful tribute to the real-life women, with pictures of some of them projected at the end of the show. As the program notes, while the characters are inspired by actual women and men, creative liberties have been taken.

What’s special about this production is that most of the cast members, in addition to providing affecting acting, play an assortment of musical instruments (music direction is by Ben Moss), and director Reich and choreographer Christine O’Grady keep the performers moving swiftly about the stage as the story unfolds.

There are men as well as women in the cast, but there is no forced romantic story, even though there is a possibility of one. The book sticks mainly to the subject, with the women eventually in combat zones despite initial objections. General John J. Pershing, played with amusing authority by Scott Wakefield, settles the matter, adding a funny double-entendre bit in which he says he has to get back to the base. But the base in this case must be spelled “bass,” the instrument he plays in the background when not emerging as the general in the foreground.

The musical numbers are catchy, and the lyrics are bright and intelligent, carrying forward the story of the women moving their way up and providing heroic service by keeping the phone communication lines open during battles. The lead woman, Grace Banker, is portrayed with charm and vigor by Ellie Fishman, who doesn’t play an instrument. Her excellent voice is her instrument. She sings with vocal strength and interprets the lyrics with feeling. The rest of the women in the cast, including Chanel Karimkhani, Lili Thomas, Skyler Volpe and Cathryn Wake all play instruments as well as join in the vocals.

Arlo Hill plays the male lead, Lt. Joseph W. Riser, who supervises Grace and retreats to the background on percussion when he is not trying to keep her out of the trench warfare zones. The other men, in addition to Wakefield as Pershing, who play the various soldiers include Andrew Mayer, Matthew McGloin and musical director Moss.

The stage set, designed by Lianne Arnold, also the projections designer, consists largely of various-sized platforms plus a background that suggests a huge switchboard and is enhanced by projections that give the production scope.

For those who want to know more, the saga of the women is detailed in print in the book “The Hello Girls” by Elizabeth Cobbs. As for the current musical, the story comes to light via winning performances and admirable creativity in the meshing of acting and musicianship, all so appealingly staged in this Prospect Theater Company presentation. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 646-892-7999. Reviewed December 3, 2018.


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