By William Wolf

BROADWAY BY THE YEAR--1943 AND 1951   Send This Review to a Friend

Throughout the years during which The Town Hall has presented the Broadway by the Year series, creator/writer/director/host Scott Siegel could be depended upon to come up with the right singers for songs selected from Broadway shows. Appealing performances are what have made the series so pleasurable--where else can you see so many talented people on the same program?--along with the versatile accompaniment contributions of music director/pianist Ross Patterson and his Little Big band.

In the latest show last night (March 25), which extracted numbers from 1943 in the first act and 1951 in the second act, the savvy choice of singers was as apparent as ever. Take “Oklahoma!” for example. That show revolutionized musical theater, so it was fitting to devote several numbers from it. Right off the bat William Michals emerged on stage to sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Oh what a beautiful voice. Michals sang without a microphone as was the case when the show was first performed. He has such a powerful, thrilling voice and such dramatic command of a song that it was worth going just to hear him.

Also from “Oklahoma!” was “I Can’t Say No,” and Laurel Harris performed it with the deliberately corny accent and shy-horny flirtatious manner that captured the way it was done in the original. Matt Weinstein and Madeline Hamlet teamed on “Oklahoma!’s “All ‘Er Nothin’,” giving it a cute and lively rendition. Robert Cuccioli, who, in the Michals vein, also has a rich voice and can deliver lyrics with force, contributed “Lonely Room” from “Oklahoma!,” and he sang in a duo with the superb Jill Paice to give fresh emotion to “People Will Say We’re in Love,” another from “Oklahoma!”.

While that was the major show of 1943, there were other intriguing ones that yielded songs to explore. I have written enthusiastically about Oakley Boycott before. She’s an original with a style of her own in delivering a number. She showed that again last night singing an intriguing version of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” from “One Touch of Venus.” Also from that production, “Speak Low” was sung by Darius de Haas, master of a soft and intimate style with ever-so-slow hand movements that help draw us into his orbit. “One Touch of Venus” also yielded “Very, Very, Very,” sung with a comedic edge by the very, very, very droll Stephen deRosa.

Another Broadway show in 1943 was “Something for the Boys,” which included a song with that title, and Laurel Harris gave it the flair needed to recall the spirit of that wartime era. It was “Oklahoma!” time again for the first act finale, and Michals returned to make the title number soar, with enhancement by the Broadway by the Year Chorus and the Broadway by the Year Dance Troupe.

Intermission time marched on with extra speed so that the audience came back to the year 1951. A major musical that year was “The King and I.” Darius de Haas sang “I Have Dreamed” with an aura of intense, intimate emotion, and Dongwoo Kang made a strong impression with “We Kiss in a Shadow.” Kelly Sheehan led “Shall We Dance?” from “The King and I,” with nicely choreographed partnering by the Broadway by the Year Dance Troupe.

The oddly titled show “Flahooley” included the song “Here’s to Your Illusions,” which Jill Paice sang. Paice has an exquisite soprano voice plus appealing stage presence, and she made the most of it interpreting that selection.

Two other chosen shows from 1951 were “Paint Your Wagon” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” The second act began with Robert Cuccioli offering a rousing “They Call the Wind Maria,” the unusual love song from “Paint Your Wagon.” Also from that show was “Wand’rin’ Star,” sung, again with much feeling, by William Michals.

Jill Paice poured heart and soul into ‘Make the Man Love Me” from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” That show also provided the opportunity for comedy and dancing via “I Like a New Broom.” Choreographer-dancer Danny Gardner, who choreographed this show in the series, did some fancy steps while having fun with a broom as a prop, including topping it with his jacket to make the broom suggest a dancing partner.

What do you think of the title “Bagels and Yox”? Yes, that was on Broadway in 1951, and to conclude the evening Stephen DeRosa came on with particular hilarity. I’m usually not one for appreciating an entertainer goosing an audience into singing. But DeRosa was riot performing “Chi-Ri-Bim” from "Bagels and Yox" and getting each side of the hall to sing the “bims and “bums” accompaniment, with DeRosa mischievously increasing the speed.

In addition to those mentioned, Holly Cruz served as staging consultant, Rick Hinkson as assistant director and assistant stage manager, and Joe Burke as production assistant. Members of the Ross Patterson band were Tom Hubbard on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums, led by Patterson at the piano.

The Broadway by the Year Chorus: Stephanie Bacastow, Oakley Boycott, Emma Camp, Pedro Coppeti, Madeline Hamlet, Emily Jones, Dongwoo Kang and Matt Weinstein.

The Broadway by the Year Tance troupe: Aaron Burr, Brad Frenette, Danny Gardner, Sally Glaze, Bryan Hunt, Brooke Lacy, Kim McClay, Kristyn Pope, Kelly Sheehan and John Wolfe. At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Reviewed March 26, 2019.

I MARRIED AN ANGEL  Send This Review to a Friend

This time New York City Center Encores! has reached back to revive the 1938 “I Married an Angel,” a Broadway show with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart and a book they wrote adapted from a play by James Vaszary. The concert style revival (March 20-24) was directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, with Rob Fisher as guest music director.

The Encores! presentation was highlighted by an excellent 29-member cast, the superb Encores! Orchestra, dazzling costumes designed by Alejo Vietti and overall visual appeal. This time abundant dancing played an integral role. As for the show itself that was explored, the Rodgers-Hart venture appears to have been a weak mixed bag. (A 1942 film version starred Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.)

Set in Hungary, the plot is from hunger. However, there is considerable delight derived from the performances and the dancing. George Balanchine choreographed the original production for his wife-to-be, Vera Zorina. In the Encores! revival Bergasse has freshly choreographed the production for his wife, Sara Mearns, who plays Angel. Mearns has been a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet since 2008, with a host of other important dance credits.

Mearns is a force to behold in this staging, and reveals acting ability as well as her dance skills. In the very contrived story-line, banker Count Willy Palaffi (Mark Evans) says he will only marry an angel. Presto! Descending from the heavens is Mearns, complete with her angel wings. Willy is smitten and soon the wings disappear.

The trouble is that Angel makes remarks and does things that seem more devilish than angelic and gets Willy into trouble. Nikki M. James as the sexy Countess Peggy Palaffi, Willy’s sister, sets Angel straight on how to behave as a woman (not a politically correct one by today’s standards) in a number called ”A Twinkle in Your Eye.” There’s not much point in detailing the various plot turns, except to point out that a crisis occurs when Willy’s bank is failing and confronting a run on it.

The best musical numbers prove to be “I Married an Angel,” “Spring Is Here” and “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street.” There is a lavish fantasy sequence “At the Roxy Music Hall,” which provides the occasion for some show biz stuff, and the opportunity for Hayley Podschun as Anna Murphy and Phillip Attmore as Peter Mueller to shine. Toward the show’s conclusion a flock of angels descend and one asks Angel if she can find a man for her.

So there you have it—an expertly staged revival of a relatively minor Broadway original with pleasures provided by the Encores! entourage and the exceptional dancing by Sara Mearns. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed March 25, 2019.

KISS ME, KATE  Send This Review to a Friend

A delightful revival of the musical “Kiss Me, Kate” is providing a large helping of enjoyment, with star performances by Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase and zippy staging by director Scott Ellis augmented by some sizzling dance numbers choreographed by Warren Carlyle. The music and lyrics by Cole Porter get the treatment they deserve, and the book by Sam and Bella Spewack cleverly double dips between Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” on which the musical is based, and the raging combat of the stars performing “Shrew” in a Baltimore theater.

The flipping back and forth between backstage shenanigans and on-stage Shakespeare works smoothly. O’Hara, who sings Porter songs gloriously with her elegant voice and appealing interpretations, a treat in itself, plays the strong-willed actress Lilli Vanissi, who is starring as Kate opposite her egotistical ex-husband, actor/director/producer Fred Graham, played dynamically by Will Chase, who stars as Petruchio. Graham is still in love with Vanessi, but she is set to marry a high-placed Washington military officer. The interspersing of personal relations between the stars off-stage and on is extremely funny.

Vanessi has put into her bodice a note that came with a bouquet of flowers mistakenly delivered to her dressing room but which Graham intended for someone else. When Vanessi reads it on stage while performing as Kate, she is furious. That provides extra anger to the punching and kicking between Kate and Petruchio, resulting in rears so sore that Graham has to address the Baltimore “Shrew” audience to explain why they could no longer ride donkeys in a scene that had to be cut.

On the night I saw the show, Stephanie Styles, who normally plays actress Lois Lane, cast as Bianca, was ill, and replaced by understudy Christine Cornish Smith. I am pleased to report that Smith was sensational. She turned on the sex appeal in flirtatious scenes, her acting and singing were superb, and so was her show-stopping dancing. Smith oozes star quality.

The dancing in the show by the ensemble and by Corbin Bleu, Will Burton and Rick Faugno sizzles. The “Too Darn Hot” number with Bleu, James T. Lane, Adrienne Walker leading the ensemble is a show-stopper. John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams as gangland enforcers sent to collect a debt from Graham, and subsequently entering “Shrew” as extras to keep an eye on their target, do a great job singing the witty “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” exiting the stage and repeatedly returning for verse after verse.

There are so many musical highlights in the Porter score. You can thrill to O’Hara’s rendition of “So in Love.” There is charm in O’Hara and Chase teaming sentimentally on “Wunderbar.” O’Hara’s bristling delivery of “I Hate Men” is amusingly vindictive. Chase, who has a powerful voice, makes the most of “Where is the Life That Late I Led.” Understudy Smith demonstrated impressively how she can bring freshness to “Always True to You in My Fashion.”

David Rockwell’s set design neatly alternates the backstage and stage door Baltimore theater locations with attractive scenery for the play staging. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes are colorful additions to the show’s overall look, and the orchestra, under the musical direction of Paul Gemignani, maximizes the memorable Porter score. There has been some tinkering to render the domination of a woman idea a bit more politically correct, but not enough to spoil the original. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed March 21, 2019.

WHITE NOISE  Send This Review to a Friend

Suzan-Lori Parks works up an ingenious idea in her play “White Noise.” presented by the Public Theater. Leo, played by Daveed Diggs (Thomas Jefferson in “Hamilton”), is an African-American who hears incessant noises and has had trouble sleeping since childhood. His insomnia has stifled his desire to be an artist. One night while walking in the street he is accosted and beaten by cops and the episode infuriates him, leading him to think that if he had been a slave as in olden days his white master could at least have protected him. The notion overtakes him and leads him to formulate a plan.

The play works within a framework of four friends from collage interacting in various ways. Leo is in a relationship with a white woman, Dawn, a lawyer played appealingly by Zoe Winters, who has become a defense attorney with one of her passions to beat the system for a minority client even if that client is guilty.

The other two friends are Ralph (an excellent Thomas Sadoski), a white man who is failing at his efforts to get a promotion as a professor and lack of success as an aspiring writer, and is wracked by life’s disappointments. He is in a relationship with Misha, dynamically played by Sheria Irving, who comically emphasizes clichéd blackness in her hip-hop style hosting of a streaming show in which she fields problems from call-ins.

Leo would like to marry Dawn, who clearly isn’t ready for it. We also learn eventually that Dawn and Misha have been having sex on occasion, which unexpectedly turns serious on the part of Dawn. The playwright gives each character a chance for a solo speech directed at the audience and revealing innermost bottled up thoughts and feelings.

But the real dramatic cascade is unleashed from Leo’s plan—a formal contract for Ralph to buy him as a slave to endure servitude for a total of 40 days. At first the idea seems preposterous to his friends, but Leo insists that the experience of giving him the protection he feels he needs in the face of a racially hostile world will help him achieve peace of mind and the $89,000 Ralph is to pay will wipe out his debts. It is, of course, a very bizarre idea, and although his friends express hostility to it at first, Leo’s insistence puts his request into effect, with lawyer Dawn notarizing it.

The concept triggers the explosion of black-white revelations that become the heart of the play, which turns crucially serious even with Parks’ deftness in sprinkling humor along the way. The key is that loser Ralph begins to enjoy the mastery over Leo, taking his ownership with increasing seriousness that enables him to feel more powerful in life at the expense of Leo. There is a harrowing scene in which Ralph, having done some research into slavery, forces Leo to wear a nasty metal slave collar. Worse, he exhibits Leo before a white male club, as well as assuming ownership of a Leo’s story and parlaying it into a New Yorker article.

The effect this ultimately has on Ralph and Leo, as well as on the women, brings the play to its climax and hammers home points about the heritage of slavery and Leo’s illusion that the limited status could give him the security he seeks. As for Ralph, the experience reveals his inner racism in enjoying the superiority that in the end turns him into self-loathing shame.

While the conclusion seems somewhat contrived, Parks achieves an intense exploration of race, feelings and sex in the quest for individual self-determination. Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director, has directed “White Noise” very effectively, especially in highlighting the actors in their most revealing moments.

I found it amusing that, with Leo and Ralph as expert bowlers, Eustis, with the aid of scenic designer Clint Ramos, includes a bowling alley in which balls are sped along to crash into unseen pins beneath the central seating area with accompanying sound effects. I can’t recall any such set-up in other plays that I have seen. Even if not intended, one might take the bowling as metaphorical, with the pins knocked down as pillars of race bias battered by Parks’ very inventive and sophisticated play. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed March 21, 2019.

THE MOTHER  Send This Review to a Friend

Before “The Mother” begins, after being seated one can stare at Isabelle Huppert sitting alone on the stage. There is the great French actress, quietly looking at a book in hand or seeming to contemplate, as if in a portrait, and audience members can have their fill of staring at her, sizing up her trim figure, overall attractiveness and wondering what the star may do in this play by French author Florian Zeller that is being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.

When the play finally does start, Huppert suddenly becomes vividly alive with fiery dialogue in English as translated by Christopher Hampton. She gestures dramatically, and her darting eyes sometimes speak as loudly as her sharp words. We are witnessing the beginning of what will lead to a breakdown with pill popping and wine, and a brain load of anger and jealousy. Huppert’s English is excellent and her acting is triumphant. This is a chance to see a great actress conquering a challenging role.

Zeller also wrote a play called “The Father,” with Frank Langella giving an award-winning performance as a man sinking into dementia. (See Search for review.) In “The Mother” Huppert portrays Anne, a woman in the process of a psychological breakdown and feeling the terror of being left alone at middle age, with a daughter away on her own and a son who rarely visits. Most acute is the fear of losing the son, Nicolas (Justice Smith), for whom she craves affection to an extreme. She also is convinced that the son’s father, her husband Peter, to whom she has been married for 25 years, is cheating on her, and she’s probably right. He is played with increasing intensity by Chris Noth, giving an excellent performance in combat with Anne, whom he vainly tries to convince that it is just a business trip he is about to take.

Zeller’s method is to divide the play (90 minutes without an intermission) into different parts. Each plays out differently, whether examining alternate ways in which a scene could work out and/or expressing what’s raging in Anne’s imagination. There is, for example, a horrific, violent scene, and at one point Anne thinks a hospital bed is in her living room.

The jealousy played out is startling. In a sensual scene Anne is all over her son, stroking his exposed hairy chest, cuddling, and oozing sexuality. Nicholas is clearly feeling stifled by his mother’s behavior. Anne at one point dons a flimsy red dress barely covering her posterior. In a scene in which Nicolas’s girlfriend, Emily, (Odessa Young) shows up, she is also wearing a matching red dress, epitomizing Anne’s jealousy and perhaps her fantasizing about a mirror image of herself. Rest assured that Huppert makes everything come dynamically vibrant, and the frenzy Anne injects into her character’s behavior reflects her prowess as an actress, with a wide array of gestures and body language that help define every aspect of her being.

The playwright invites us to guess what is real and what is imaginary. At one point the son asks his father, “Did you tell her?” We never learn specifically what he is supposed to have told, but we can assume it probably refers to an intention by Peter to leave home.

All that occurs before our eyes is riveting, primarily because of Huppert’s impressive acting display. But the three others—Noth, Smith and Young—are also first rate. The play is extremely complex, and the cast members rise to the demands on them. Director Trip Cullman succeeds in keeping the parts spinning smoothly, with each scene standing firmly on its own.

Mark Wendland’s scenic design is most unusual. The stage is traversed by a long, long white sofa. It serves to keep Noth and Huppert widely apart as they argue. At one juncture the sofa suddenly disappears, leaving an almost bare stage as the action shifts dramatically. Anita Yavich’s costume design is highlighted by that super-sexy red dress. People may react differently to “The Mother” as a play, but the work is getting a top-notch staging here, and this is a rare chance to see why Huppert is regarded as such a fine actress, not only on screen, but effective on stage as well in a vehicle that allows her to sparkle. At the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed March 17, 2019.

AFTER  Send This Review to a Friend

Michael McKeever’s harrowing play “After” unfolds in three parts, Before, During and After, and runs 90 minutes without an intermission. A superb five-member ensemble grippingly advances a story involving two families steeped in the challenges of parenting and in the difficulty of knowing what their children at school may be up to. The point is also made about parents needing to be aware of the examples they are setting.

This New York City premiere is presented by Penguin Rep Theatre and Inproximity Theatre Company. The action takes place today in a suburban home in America’s Northeast. The residence is that of the elegant Julia Campbell (Mia Matthews), and her husband, Tate (Michael Frederic). The Campbells are well-off financially, but we soon detect issues in the household.

They are visited by another couple, less financially secure Connie Beckman (Denise Cormier) and her husband Alan (Bill Phillips), casual friends with the Campbells for many years. Connie and Bill are there to express their anger at an e-mail the teenage son of the Campbells sent to their son saying, “Faggot, you’re next.” This is perceived as a serious threat and the Beckmans want the boy expelled. The Campbell parents don’t take this as seriously. Unexpectedly present is Val Wallace (Jolie Curtsinger), Julia’s outspoken sister, and Connie objects to her being there.

The dialogue is snippy, especially on the part of the very angry Connie. Before the play is over, there will be family secrets exposed, as well as the behavior of the youngsters that turns out to be much more complicated than expected. We will also learn of a tragedy, retribution and an odd method of explanation as to what really happened between the boys.

The concept of violence is inferred at the outset. Connie resents the trophy animal head mounted on the wall. There is also a rack of rifles reflecting Tate’s penchant for hunting. Only later do we learn that Alan has also had a gun at home.

Without specific spoilers, I can say that the play is smartly tuned into what can happen in schools today between kids, often involving bullying. Joe Brancato’s direction proceeds with mounting intensity in sync with the playwright’s build-up to all of the revelations and beyond. There is smart final focus on a crucial letter left on a coffee table. Will Julia decide to open it?

What makes everything work well is the collection of terrific performances by cast members who make their characters vivid and compelling. Audience members are left with their own judgments, but the playwright makes clear that parental actions or inactions can be crucial, and there can be serious consequences. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 646-892-7999. Reviewed March 18, 2019.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (IN YIDDISH--A FIDLER AFN DAKH)  Send This Review to a Friend

The Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof” by the National Yiddish Folksbiene was such a success in the company’s downtown staging that the production has now opened in midtown Manhattan. It is a wonder to behold.

There is irony in the translation into Yiddish of Sheldon Harnick’s moving and clever lyrics and Joseph Stein’s book set to the music of Jerry Bock. After all, the work, one of the greatest of American musicals, is based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, who wrote in Yiddish. Now it is as if “Fiddler” is being played in the language in which it was meant to be, and it seems thoroughly natural in this appealing staging directed with sensitivity, humor, pathos and dignity by distinguished actor Joel Grey.

The Yiddish translation is by Shraga Friedman, who died in 1970 at the age of 46. There had to be lyric adjustments in spots in order for the translations to match the score. The iconic song “If I Were a Rich Man” now begins, for example, with the Yiddish version line “If I were a Rothshild,” needed that way to blend with the music. But in a follow-up line, “If I Were a Rich Man” translates into Yiddish exactly with the musical match at that point. The show also contains new musical staging and choreography by Stas Kmiec, and the new set design, done with simplicity, is by Beowulf Boritt.

Steven Skybell is a great Tevye. He makes the character come realistically alive, and while he is able to use his voice, body and dialogue to reach for the humor in the character, he doesn’t resort to shtick. There is naturalness in his performance, as there is in the entire show, save, for example, in appropriately wild production numbers, such as the faked dream sequence in which Tevye resorts to his wiles to convince his wife, Golda, to sanction the marriage between their daughter Tsaytl and Motl the tailor.

There is also naturalness in Jennifer Babiak’s portrayal of Golda, and the same can be said for Jackie Hoffman in the role of Yente, the matchmaker. I have seen Hoffman in other circumstances enjoyably cutting up with broad comedy, which she could easily do here, but her Yente is funny in a very controlled manner.

The large cast does an excellent job all around, including Rachel Zatcoff, Stephanie Lynn Mason and Rosie Jo Neddy as the three lead daughters; Ben Liebert as Motl the tailor; Drew Seigla as Pertshik, and Bruce Sabath as Leyzer Volf as well as those in other parts and in the ensemble.

Lauren Jeanne Thomas as Der Fidler is used often throughout, as she follows the action while playing her violin. The dancing is creative and exuberant, and the singing is tops. The “Do you Love Me?” number between Tevye and Golda is absolutely lovely. In the show’s incisively performed opening song, “Tradition,” one gets the full cleverness of the manner in which that number lays out so much of what the culture in Anatevka is about.

One doesn’t have to know Yiddish to see this version. There are supertitles projected on each side of the stage in English and Russian. As for the use of Yiddish by performers who don’t speak it, they have mastered the art of learning the lines phonetically.

There is something current about watching this “Fiddler on the Roof” at present. The anti-Semitism of the Russians who force the Jews of Anatevka to vacate their homes and leave in three days in order to survive reminds one not only of current acts of anti-Semitism in the United States and such countries as England and France. But it speaks to the plight of immigrants everywhere who must flee their homes for a variety of reasons and of those who stir up hatred against them. At Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed March 2, 2019.

A JEWISH JOKE  Send This Review to a Friend

The setting for “A Jewish Joke,” a one-man play written by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson and presented by The Roustabouts Theatre Co., is a writer’s bungalow at MGM Studios in Los Angeles in the year 1950. It is the time of the anti-communist hysteria, the investigations, accusations and the blacklist. Johnson also plays Bernie Lutz, who talks to the audience about his writing projects that have been doing well at the studio. But the past involving his more political writing partner having led him to naively attend earlier meetings now deemed controversial is catching up with him.

With taut direction by David Ellenstein, Johnson recounts Bernie’s story between phone calls as step by step the situation becomes fraught with increasing tension and danger to his career. He is waiting for his partner to turn up, but can only eventually get him on the phone, and Bernie is furious at what he learns from him.

Bernie keeps pulling out index cards from his file to intersperse reading Jewish-oriented jokes that he has collected, and the ploy serves as comic relief. They are old jokes, almost all of which I have heard before. But judging by outbursts of audience laughter at some, there were jokes others hadn’t heard. (An old joke seems new to one who has never heard it.) The process of reading gags from Bernie’s collection periodically breaks the tension.

Johnson succeeds in making Bernie a full-blown, believable character, basically likable, but at times a bit overbearing. Overall, the actor-playwright succeeds in becoming increasingly frantic as the situation builds to the ultimate decision he must make, a decision very familiar to all who have lived through or followed those terrible blacklist days. Does Bernie save his career by agreeing to testify against his writing partner? Or will conscience not let him acquiesce?

Of course, one hopes Bernie will follow his conscience. The strength of the play, which lasts 90 minutes without an intermission, lies in uncertainty right up to the bitter end. Johnson does a superb job connecting with his audience, and anything to do with taking principled stands is certainly timely for today’s political situations.

For all of the solemnity of the situation, the many jokes told along the way give audience members a chance to laugh, as well as to remember for repeating to others when talking about the show. But at its heart “A Jewish Joke” is no joke. At the Lion Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed March 15, 2019.

SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY  Send This Review to a Friend

Chisa Hutchinson’s play, presented by Keen Company and set in Newark, N.J., proceeds as a series of loosely strung vignettes, but gradually the African-American character portraits fall into place and add up to an uplifting story reflected in the Biblical title. One comes away with fond feeling for the lad at the center of it all.

Jay Mazyck is very likable playing Tino, a 12-year-old very bright African-American student in a public school who lives with his Aunt Alneesa (Sarita Covington), who resents just about everything he does. She particularly resents the burden of having to care for Tino as a result of his mother’s death.

Alneesa supports the school principal’s decision to briefly suspend Tino for talking back in disagreement with a teacher. Actually, Tino was right in correcting a teacher’s grammatical error, causing the teacher to become infuriated. (We only hear the voice of the teacher (provided by Courtney Thomas) and that of the principal (Cezar Williams).

Tino builds a friendship with the plain-talking student Deja, played with sassy charm by Courtney Thomas. Tino enjoys reading his copy of the Bible. He and Deja go to church together, and she is impressed with his knowledge. They communicate warmly as they get to know each other better in conversations they have while eating together at school.

What ultimately raises the level of the play is the care Tino gives to Bernadette (Brenda Pressley), who serves meals to the youngsters. When she falls ill, Tino visits her in the hospital, and to gain permission he pretends that she is his grandmother. Convinced that she needs to see a neurologist and since she has no insurance, Tino, with the help of Deja, begins to raise money via the internet and personal solicitations on the street. A very sizable sum is collected, and when Tino’s aunt finds out, she wants him to fork over the money to her. Tino refuses. His aunt beats him and he leaves home, proceeding to bed down secretly in the school. Bernadette comes to his rescue.

There is a lovely, subtle end to the play when Bernadette is told that there is a letter awaiting her in the principal’s office. She does not yet know that it will contain money for her medical care, all thanks to the good-hearted Tino and Deja.

(An aside: Tino’s hassle with the teacher who refuses to admit an error reminded me of an incident at my New Jersey school when a classmate (my cousin) doubted the teacher’s assertion of the number trees that had to be cut down to produce one issue of the New York Times. Enterprisingly, he wrote to the Times, and when he received the correct figure, he presented it in class. Instead of the teacher thanking him for his scholarship, she angrily ordered him out of the room. Remembering the episode, I felt a special bravo for Tino--and for playwright Hutchinson.)

“Surely Goodness and Mercy” was directed with clarity and empathy by Jessi D. Hill, and Lee Savage contributed a multi- tier set design that works efficiently. At the Clurman, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed March 16, 2019.

BE MORE CHILL  Send This Review to a Friend

Maybe only high school students or recent graduates should review “Be More Chill," the raucous, noisy musical that has moved from off-Broadway success to hot ticket sales on Broadway. It is clearly aimed at young audiences, and judging by the loud cheering on the afternoon when I saw the show, “Be More Chill” is wowing its targeted crowd.

As for older folk, beware. The super-loud electronically oriented pop music and mostly witless lyrics are by Joe Iconis, and the book about high school angst by Joe Tracz is baed on Ned Vizzini’s novel. And there is plenty of angst to go around. The show is directed with the needed tumult by Stephen Brackett, and the rowdy choreography is by Chase Brook, with set designer Beowulf Boritt, costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, sound designer Ryan Rumery and projection designer Alex Basco Koch teaming to provide the overwhelming eye-popping glitter and eardrum banging that add up to proficiency in delivering this kind of hit.

The cast does its job big-time, eliciting loud applause for solo numbers from the adoring audience members who act as if they are experiencing euphoria.

The basic plot has a familiar ring. Jeremy Heere, played by an appealing Will Roland, is a loser at the suburban New Jersey high school where the saga is located. So is Stephanie Hsu as the cute but hapless Christine Canigula, who seeks acceptance by acting in a school show. Jeremy is sweet on her, and life for both will change. The way forward for Jeremy is a computerized pill called The Squip, personified by Jason Tam, that gets into Jeremy’s head and leads the way.

Some of the songs provide an idea of what’s afoot. Jeremy gets cheers for his dynamic first act closer, “Loser Geek Whatever.” Sidekick Michael, played by an audience favorite, George Salazar, belts “Michael in the Bathroom.” Jeremy’s lethargic single dad stays at home in his underwear, which becomes the excuse for “The Pants Song,” sung by dad (Jason SweetTooth Williams) and Michael.

Christine has a big solo, “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into,” reprised with Jeremy. The second act opens comically with a garishly costumed “Halloween.” Of course there is the title number “Be More Chill.” By the time Jeremy, backed by the ensemble, ended the show with a rousing “Voices in My Head,” the young audience members at the performance I attended were afire with enthusiasm. I do have one optimistic takeaway: anything that introduces a younger generation to the theater is a plus, I guess. At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed March 15, 2019.

  

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