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Chautauqua!: Teach Me Tonight


Ya gotta admire the tongue-in-cheek bravado of a seven member troupe that calls itself "The National Theater of the United States of America," especially when they come up with a fun, original idea for a show and execute it with an abundance of cleverness. And, despite a stumble here and there, that's pretty much how I'd describe the first three quarters or so of Chautauqua!, their Public Theater entry in this year's Under The Radar Festival. It's that pesky final quarter of the 75 minute piece that had me leaving the theatre with my enthusiasm deflated. But let's focus on the good stuff for now, shall we? There's a quite a bit of it.

Playwrights James Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood and director Yehuda Duneyas take their inspiration from the traveling educational entertainments that began in Chautauqua, New York and flourished throughout rural America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inquisitive audiences would gather under tents to enjoy lectures, dramatic reenactments and other informative and cultural presentations along with some song and dance, humor, magic, juggling and assorted whatnot added to the mix. In his passionately stilted introductory speech, Dr. Dick Pricey (Stanley) explains that the company's purpose is, "not so much to reenact or memorialize this historic movement as it is to reinvent it." So despite the period costumes (by Sherwood and Jesse Hawley) and the charmingly makeshift settings (credited to the company), Chautauqua! sets out to find a place for such diversion, "in an age that would seem to dictate against education as an enjoyable pastime and would prefer instead the thrills of fancy dancing, fisticuffs, ironic jokes and people strutting about in short pants swearing at each other."

In its finer moments, Chautauqua! admirably draws laughs from its subject without undercutting the creators' admiration for the movement. The fast talking Stanley's lecture on the history of the building we're sitting in and the land on which it is built is delivered with dry efficiency as the speaker plays straight for the comical payoffs from accompanying projected slides. A reenactment of the infamous Alexander Hamilton/Aaron Burr showdown is not only narrated with gusto by Ilan Bachrach but reveals some of the more fascinating details of the tradition of pistol dueling. (Did you know that most duels were intentionally fought with inaccurate guns in order to decrease the probability of someone getting killed? I didn't.) Ean Sheehy makes with the rock star magnetism with his lesson on the history of cartography but musical interludes by an ensemble known as The Drunkard's Wife anchor the production in old-fashioned Americana.

Each performance features a special guest speaker. The night I attended we were treated to author Zoe Rosenfeld's amusing talk on how famous writers and historical figures have described New York and its inhabitants. ("They talk very loud, very fast and all together." -- John Adams)

While a puppet theatre lesson on the relationship between man and animals lack the edge that makes the better segments work, the dimly lit monologue by a Civil War vet in a wheelchair is lifeless.

Loosely connecting the various acts are observations on the deterioration of art and entertainment's relationship with community in favor of generic commercialism. Perhaps the "special guest finale," a medley of songs from musicals that have either premiered at The Public or have been presented elsewhere by The New York Shakespeare Festival (A Chorus Line, Hair, The Pirates of Penzance, The Threepenny Opera among others), is meant to serve as an example. Created by John Carrafa, the far too long sequence features students from Pace University's BFA Musical Theater Program and NYU's CAP21 Conservatory who offer earnest youthful enthusiasm but whose unpolished skills as singers and performers make their purpose in the evening unclear. A dejected Stanley then mourns the loss of culture to common vulgarity, stripping fully naked in the process and explaining how even the title of Chautauqua! is a concession to commercialism.

If the point is to show how the 20th Century saw American popular entertainment go bland, there must be a more desirable way to get the point across rather than sharply changing the tone of what was up to then a very enjoyable piece. After wetting our appetites with a taste of the past, it seemed a bit cruel to bring us back to the present.


Photo of James Stanley by Justin Bernhaut.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

 

Posted on: Friday, January 15, 2010 @ 11:16 AM Posted by: Michael Dale


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 1/10 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Humor is reason gone mad."
-- Groucho Marx

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 1/10/2010 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (12.5%), WISHFUL DRINKING (2.4%), NEXT TO NORMAL (0.3%),

Down for the week was: MARY POPPINS (-25.3%), HAIR (-22.6%), MEMPHIS (-22.3%), CHICAGO (-21.5%), WEST SIDE STORY (-17.7%), SOUTH PACIFIC (-17.1%), THE 39 STEPS (-16.2%), RAGTIME (-13.5%), GOD OF CARNAGE (-13.0%), RACE (-12.6%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-12.4%), MAMMA MIA! (-10.3%), A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (-8.8%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-8.5%), FINIAN'S RAINBOW (-6.8%), IN THE HEIGHTS (-6.6%), ROCK OF AGES (-5.8%), PRESENT LAUGHTER (-4.9%), BYE BYE BIRDIE (-3.4%), THE LION KING (-1.8%), FELA! (-1.6%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (-1.5%), JERSEY BOYS (-1.2%), BURN THE FLOOR (-0.7%),

Posted on: Monday, January 11, 2010 @ 03:24 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 1/3 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"No man is worth letting one tear fall;
No man is worth all the Seconal."
-- Alan Jay Lerner, Dance a Little Closer

The grosses are out for the week ending 1/3/2010 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: RAGTIME (31.1%), A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (26.4%), HAIR (24.2%), FINIAN'S RAINBOW (21.7%), WISHFUL DRINKING (18.4%), SUPERIOR DONUTS (18.2%), MEMPHIS (17.2%), IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (16.3%), THE 39 STEPS (15.5%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (14.6%), BURN THE FLOOR (13.3%), IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS (12.6%), MARY POPPINS (9.7%), CHICAGO (9.5%), NEXT TO NORMAL (9.2%), SOUTH PACIFIC (8.7%), RACE (8.0%), GOD OF CARNAGE (7.4%), ROCK OF AGES (4.3%), BYE BYE BIRDIE (2.9%), FELA! (2.4%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1.6%), JERSEY BOYS (1.2%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1.0%), WEST SIDE STORY (0.4%),

Down for the week was: IN THE HEIGHTS (-4.8%), PRESENT LAUGHTER (-3.7%), MAMMA MIA! (-1.6%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-0.1%),

Posted on: Monday, January 04, 2010 @ 05:36 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Bye Bye Altar Boyz & Evergreen

Sadly, but inevitably, the optimism brought on by the welcoming of a new year is usually accompanied by the disappointment that comes with the closing of theatre productions that just don't seem capable of making it through the traditional post-holiday slump. Aside from the expected finales of limited runs, Broadway says goodbye to Ragtime, Finian's Rainbow, Shrek, Superior Donuts and The 39 Steps this month. (Although no official announcement has been made yet, word is out that the latter may very well be following Avenue Q's lead and make the move to Off-Broadway.)

Several Off-Broadway productions also take their final bow in January, most significantly Altar Boyz, which takes its heavenly rest on the 10th. The first big hit to come out of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the lightly satirical rock concert with a plot by bookwriter Kevin Del Aguila and composer/lyricists Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker has been the anchor production of New World Stages for nearly five years. Its popularity and close proximity to the Theatre District was undoubtedly a huge help in establishing the five-theatre Off-Broadway multiplex on 50th Street as a viable home for smaller commercial productions looking to draw in the Broadway crowd.

I got a chance to catch Altar Boyz one last time just before the holidays and am happy to say the 90-minute romp where sexy, but chaste, young Christian boy band hip-hoppers shake their hot cross buns in tight pants while preaching the dangers of loose morals is in excellent shape. Like their predecessors in the original Off-Broadway cast, director Stafford Arima's current crew, made up of Michael Kadin Craig, Lee Markham, Travis Nesbitt, Mauricio Perez and Ravi Roth, display amazing energy and exuberance in performing Christopher Gattelli's frenetically rapid-fired unison choreography and earnestly emote their devotion while singing the somewhat homoerotic, "(God Put The) Rhythm in Me," the catchy miracle song, "Christ, How'd ja Do That?" and the abstinence love theme, "Girl, You Make Me Wanna Wait."

Though many theatre fans will be making final visits to Ragtime and Finian's Rainbow in the two weeks ahead, Altar Boyz is also worth a fond farewell visit.

***************************************

The adventurous Prospect Theatre Company has always got something intriguing to offer, especially when their wife and husband team of Producing Artistic Director Cara Reichel and Resident Artist Peter Mills have a new musical in store.

With her directing, him writing the score and the two of them teaming up for the book, Reichel and Mills have come up with literate, tuneful and wondrously diverse pieces such as the F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired The Pursuit of Persephone, the rock concert Greek drama adaptation, The Rockae and the Depression-era hillbilly tinged Golden Boy
of the Blue Ridge
.

Their newest outing is a family musical, Evergreen, which just ended it's holiday run at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. This ecology-minded charmer takes place some time in the future in a world that has turned to desert.  Young Maya (Anita Vasan) feels she's grown too old to keep believing her grandmother's (Francesca Choy-Kee) stories of seeing things like "trees" and "snow" in her youth, but, followed by her mischievous brother, Joshi (Whitney Kam Lee), she sets out on a journey to a place where they say evergreens still exist.

While adults played the main roles, an ensemble of children represented the elements of nature the pair encounter, with choreographer Dax Valdes, costume designer David Withrow and scenic designer Erica Beck Hemminger helping to transform the adorable chorus into a sand storm, a raging fire, treacherous waters and other obstacles.

Though the title suggests Christmastime, Evergreen's themes aren't limited by the season, so it would be nice to see this one return any time.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Monday, January 04, 2010 @ 02:29 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 12/27 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"The world is full of more interesting things than my voice."
-- Harvey Fierstein

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 12/27/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (25.2%), WEST SIDE STORY (21.0%), MAMMA MIA! (20.2%), BURN THE FLOOR (20.0%), MARY POPPINS (17.1%), SOUTH PACIFIC (14.5%), IN THE HEIGHTS (14.1%), THE 39 STEPS (11.6%), CHICAGO (11.6%), NEXT TO NORMAL (9.3%), HAIR (9.0%), BYE BYE BIRDIE (8.3%), ROCK OF AGES (7.9%), MEMPHIS (7.5%), GOD OF CARNAGE (7.2%), FELA! (6.1%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (5.4%), THE LION KING (3.9%), IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (2.4%), WICKED (1.3%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (0.1%),

Down for the week was: RAGTIME (-12.5%), SUPERIOR DONUTS (-8.7%), RACE (-8.5%), FINIAN'S RAINBOW (-5.7%), WISHFUL DRINKING (-4.4%), IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS (-2.1%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (-1.1%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.3%),

Posted on: Monday, December 28, 2009 @ 05:49 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


A Little Night Music: It Would Have Been Wonderful

After some of the disappointingly revised and questionably directed musical revivals to hit Gotham in recent seasons it's almost refreshing to say that a new mounting of a classic title, at the very least, didn't do irreparable damage to the brilliant original material. After enduring Trevor Nunn's intimate Oklahoma! and overblown My Fair Lady I naturally had some concerns entering the Walter Kerr for the transfer of his London Menier Chocolate Factory production of A Little Night Music. But by golly, the fellow didn't ruin it.

Oh sure, there are disagreeable elements; the thin orchestra, the uninspired set and costume designs and interpretations of some of the supporting roles, but overall the irresistible beauty of Stephen Sondheim's music matched with the superlative wit of both his lyrics and Hugh Wheeler's highly comedic book are, for the most part, decently served. It's not a glimmering revival of this great reworking of Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, but unlike some hideous recent Broadway revivals of other shows, there's no reason to discourage newcomers to the piece from indulging in the sterling musical theatre writing and composition on display.

The main contributor to the minuses is that this is a chamber production created for a 180-seat space that has been plopped into a Broadway theatre holding over five times that number without any evident attempt to expand the proceedings in order to fill out the new surroundings. No, bigger isn't necessarily better but the opulently splendid Kerr overwhelms David Farley's simple set (framed mirrored panels that adapt to different settings; trees added for act two) which, like his standard Edwardian costumes (black for act one, white for act two... why???), lacks the same style and elegance as provided by Sondheim and Wheeler. The visuals are simply too unremarkable for such a seductive musical. Likewise, the entrancing Jonathan Tunick orchestrations are dropped in favor of Jason Carr's arrangements for a less than adequate eight pieces.

Fortunately, actor Alexander Hanson accompanied the design elements in their trip across the Atlantic. He is just superb as turn of the 20th Century Swedish lawyer Fredrik Egerman, who starts pining for his former lover, actress Desiree Armfeldt , after eleven months of chaste marriage to his very young and very hesitant bride, Anne. Mature, elegant and self-effacingly humorous, Hanson delivers verbal comedy with ease and intelligence and sings with spontaneous-sounding phrasing. It's the kind of performance that grounds the evening into its proper tone and makes one anxious for his return whenever he's off stage.

Hanson's scenes with Catherine Zeta-Jones sear with chemistry, as her dryly feminine Desiree plays cat and mouse with her long-lost beau. She too, has a firm grasp of what makes her character funny but offers few hints of the emotions felt by a woman who spends her life on the road, separated from her daughter and whose old feelings are stirred up again while her current affair is with a married man. She sings and acts her second act solo, "Send in the Clowns," very nicely but the emotions of the song don't seem to come from anywhere we've seen from her performance.

The role of Desiree's mother, Madame Armfeldt, is a wonderful gift to older musical theatre actresses in want of another chance to dazzle and Angela Lansbury is just as luminous in the role as you might expect. As the wheelchair bound woman with an exotic past with rich and powerful men and a philosophically poetic view of the world, she mixes a youthful wonder with sage wisdom. Her singing of "Liaisons," a musical reminiscence of glamorous days past, leaves one hanging on every word and a scene where she recalls a man who might have been her grand romance is warm, tender and touching.

There are some talented people with fine singing voices in the supporting cast, but their performances, in varying degrees, appear misguided. The richly-voiced Aaron Lazar, with a menacingly dashing swagger, is a fine fit for Desiree's lover, Carl-Magnus, except that the humor of the role barely surfaces in his straightforward performance. Erin Davie, as his long-suffering wife, Charlotte, pummels her many sardonic observations when a much lighter touch is needed. Ramona Mallory's Anne, is also a bit overdone, defusing the believability of her marriage to Fredrik by playing her with the animation of a young adolescent instead of the graceful appeal of a blossoming woman. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka does well as Fredrik's brooding, sexually repressed son Henrik, though offers no more than the familiar suffering youth routine.

Leigh Ann Larkin seems to have been instructed to play Fredrik's lusty maid Petra quite a bit on the slutty side, best exemplified by the staging of her solo, "The Miller's Son," which starts looking more like "A Call From the Vatican" as she arches her back while aggressively mounting a bench. The actress dives in admirably but the interpretation just doesn't fit the material.

Several of Nunn's staging decisions baffle, such as a silly-looking moment where a dreaming Fredrik kisses the air, imagining Desiree by his side. Or in having the second act's formal dinner served with the company sitting on the ground for a picnic, undercutting the drama when misbehaving disrupts the expected etiquette of the occasion.

But still, there are no absurd revisions, no gross miscasting and no stifling concept to keep this from being an acceptable Broadway revival of A Little Night Music. Unfortunately, acceptable seems to be getting more and more acceptable with each new season.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Angela Lansbury; Bottom: Alexander Hanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Lazar.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale

Posted on: Monday, December 28, 2009 @ 03:04 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Children Will Listen, B****

What a wimp that Amy Winehouse is. I'd like to see her try and pull this when Patti LuPone's on stage.

Posted on: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 @ 09:05 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 12/20

In celebration of Winter Solstice...

"The shortest day of the year
Has the longest night of the year,
And the longest night
Is the shortest night with you..."
-- Lorenz Hart, The Boys From Syracuse

 

The grosses are out for the week ending 12/20/2009 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.

Up for the week was: RAGTIME (11.0%), SHREK THE MUSICAL (5.9%), IN THE HEIGHTS (5.7%), THE 39 STEPS (2.4%), FELA! (2.1%), BYE BYE BIRDIE (1.8%), CHICAGO (1.4%), NEXT TO NORMAL (0.8%), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (0.8%), SUPERIOR DONUTS (0.2%),

Down for the week was: GOD OF CARNAGE (-17.7%), MEMPHIS (-12.9%), SOUTH PACIFIC (-12.7%), WISHFUL DRINKING (-11.2%), IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (-11.1%), MAMMA MIA! (-8.9%), FINIAN'S RAINBOW (-8.7%), RACE (-6.8%), IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS (-6.7%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-6.1%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (-4.2%), HAIR (-3.5%), BURN THE FLOOR (-2.3%), MARY POPPINS (-2.1%), WEST SIDE STORY (-2.0%), THE LION KING (-1.8%), JERSEY BOYS (-0.9%), WICKED (-0.7%),

Posted on: Monday, December 21, 2009 @ 03:36 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Race: The Negro Problem

"I didn't do anything."

"You're white."

That's what justice, at least in this particular case, boils down to in playwright/director David Mamet's latest emotional button-pusher, Race. The truth is irrelevant and the winning side is the one that can make its fiction the most believable.

Newcomers to Mamet will probably find Race more interesting than those familiar with his career. All the characteristics that satirists use to spoof the style of the author's more familiar works are there; the clipped, testosterone-driven dialogue, the uncensored language, the self-centered characters with a cold, unsentimental view of the world. Race is a bit like what would happen if the professor from Oleanna was getting legal advice from the Hollywood execs of Speed-the-Plow.

Richard Thomas plays a wealthy white man accused of raping a young black woman. He's left his previous attorney and is now asking a white lawyer with a reputation for being ruthless (played by James Spader) and his black partner (David Alan Grier) to take on his case. He insists he's innocent, but the crafty attorneys are more concerned with the guilt and anger Americans feel when confronted with black vs. white situations than they are with the facts. Observing and assisting is a young black associate played by Kerry Washington, a protégé of Spader's character. The situation regarding how she came to be hired by the firm also comes into play.

As with Oleanna, this is more of a theatrical discussion than a play. The characters are representatives of points of view and make provocative pronouncements that can stimulate lively post-theatre conversations. ("There is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing.") Thomas, in his small role, projects the proper privileged naiveté and Spader is very convincing as the plain-speaking lawyer who you'd be disgusted to have dinner with but would definitely want on your side in the courtroom. Grier provides the evening's most intriguing performance, subtly showing his character's emotional struggle to play the game as a professional, even if it means dismissing empathy for those of his race. Washington is the unfortunate weak link, simply not displaying the basic vocal or physical skills needed to be interesting on stage.

The play's strength lies in its cynical humor ("It's a complicated world full of misunderstandings. That's why we have lawyers.") and explorations of the complexities of plotting a defense. But the conclusion, at least in Mamet's world, is predictable, even if the motivation for it is unclear. Race surely entertains, but for an issue-related theatre piece it tells us nothing we haven't already heard.

Photos by Robert J. Saferstein: Top: James Spader, Richard Thomas and David Alan Grier; Bottom: Kerry Washington and James Spader.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Sunday, December 20, 2009 @ 02:43 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


Fela!: The Afrobeat Goes On

Last September, when I caught the Off-Broadway production of Fela!, the docu-musical inspired by the life of Nigerian political activist and musical revolutionary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, my enthusiasm for the show was tempered by the book's lack of information that would help those unschooled in the culture and politics of the protagonist's homeland (like myself) understand the piece's setting and context. While I don't have the advantage of seeing the two scripts in front of me, my sense in watching the Broadway transfer of Fela! is that the authors have added just enough expository material (plus explanatory program notes) to spruce up the dramatics without taking anything away from the entertaining exuberance that makes the show so exciting and attention-grabbing.

Born in 1938 with a Christian minister for a father and a mother who was a leader in Nigeria's anti-colonial women's movement, Fela was sent to London for an education in medicine, but was sidetracked by an interest in music; his first influences being Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. Fusing the jazz and pop styles he heard in London with the rhythms and chants of his homeland's Yoruba and high life, he created the Afrobeat sound and began touring and recording with his band, Koola Lobitos. Influenced by the 1960's Black Power movement through the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, his lyrics began taking swipes at Nigeria's military government in songs like "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" ("Who is the government's teacher? / Corruption and perdition.") and "Zombie" ("Zombie no go think unless you tell him to think."), the song that infuriated the state so much with its depiction of the military that it led to his brutal beating (one of many he endured along with his over 200 arrests) and a fatal attack on his mother, Funmilayo.

Director/choreographer/co-bookwriter Bill T. Jones and co-bookwriter Jim Lewis establish a performance-within-a-performance structure that sets the piece at the artist's regular haunt, a nightclub he named The Afrika Shrine, at a 1977 farewell concert given shortly after his mother's death as he prepares to exile himself to Ghana. The contemporary Afrobeat band, Antibalas, led by music director Aaron Johnson, portrays his onstage musicians (Johnson also supplies the arrangements and orchestrations) and Jones' fiercely energetic ensemble of dancers passionately undulate the erotically charged movements of nyansh. At the smaller 37 Arts Theatre, Fela!, despite the abundance of talent on stage, seemed, in spirit, a one-man show. At the Eugene O'Neill, with a lot more room to comfortably dress the playing space, Fela! becomes a celebratory festival.

Still, the focus of that festival is grandly personified by the role's Off-Broadway originator, Sahr Ngaujah (now alternating performances with Kevin Mambo), who is given a theatrically Herculean task of acting as host ("Everyone say yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Feeling good tonight?"), narrating the story of Anikulapo-Kuti's political struggle, singing, dancing, delivering rimshot-worthy one-liners ("Take my Grandfather, they did!") and even giving the audience a lesson in the proper way to move ones hips to his music while rarely having a moment off-stage and continually being the center of attention. Ngaujah is abundantly charismatic and admirably up to the challenges of the role, showing us a bruised and battered artist determined to laugh in the face of oppression and combat injustice through the power of his music and lyrics.

In contrast, the luminous Lillias White spends precious little time on stage as the spirit of Funmilayo. Though Fela refers to his female dancers as his queens, it's White who is regal in the show's final moments, beautifully singing with warm and expressive elegance.

Fela! certainly isn't meant to be a complete portrait of its title character. The action of the show takes place before the man dismissed AIDS as a myth (he eventually died from it) and his practice of polygamy (he married 27 women at once) is treated more like nightclub shtick than fact. But the music radiates and Jones and his crew never allow Fela! to be less than visually entrancing. Set and costume designer Marina Draghici turns the entire theatre into The Afrika Shrine with colorful murals and portraits painted on the walls and dresses the cast in an appealing mixture of traditional and 1970's contemporary. Robert Wierzel's lights are appropriately clubby and Peter Nigrini's videos nicely accent key moments. Most importantly, the kinetic force of the hard-working dancers and the talented star make Fela! a worthy celebration.

Photos by Monique Carboni : Top: Sahr Ngaujah and Company; Bottom: Lillias White.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Thursday, December 17, 2009 @ 12:31 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback


In The Next Room or the vibrator play: What's Love Got To Do With It?

Wait a minute... is that what I think it is? It's been so long I can barely tell what one looks like anymore. But I think... yes, I believe it is. In fact I'm sure of it! There's a new romantic comedy on Broadway!!! And it's actually funny! And it's actually romantic! Well, whaddaya know, maybe that Sarah Ruhl really is a genius after all.

While the title of the MacArthur Fellowship-awarded playwright's new piece, In The Next Room or the vibrator play, is apt to inspire a raised eyebrow or two, it really is a smart and sweet little concoction that has something to say about love and body awareness; of both your own and of your partner's. And director Les Waters' delectable bob-bon of a production features two enchanting lead performances matched by a fine supporting ensemble.

The play is set in the 1880s, just outside New York in the home and office of the aptly named Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris). The genius of Thomas Edison is all the rage, and while the doctor's wife, Catherine (Laura Benanti), shares her fascination with electric lights with their newborn, the new toy fascinating the man of the house is an electric vibrator, perfect for treating women suffering from the common malady of hysteria.

Relatively few even considered the existence of a female orgasm in those days. The good doctor merely thought his wondrous device was releasing "congestion in the womb." His new patient, Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), is so satisfied with the results of her treatment that she's happy to make visits a part of her daily routine. (The role requires Dizzia to act out having an orgasm several times during the play. Unless my past partners haven't been honest with me, I'd say her performance is very realistic.)

Naturally, Catherine is curious about what miracles her husband must be performing to make his patients so immediately cheerful and productive. She's been having emotional stress of her own because she is unable to lactate properly and must hire a wet nurse to feed her child. Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the woman they hire, is black and by not being a part of her employer's sexually cloistered society she inadvertently makes the two white ladies start thinking seriously about the pleasure they desire when with their husbands. All I'll say about the ending is that it grants a beautiful vision of two lovers on the verge of discovering new ways to appreciate themselves and each other. (Waters, set designer Annie Smart and lighting designer Russell H. Champa are dazzlingly perfect with this moment.)

Benanti, who was a scream last season in Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong and The People Who Love Them, once again shows a knockout flair for non-musical comedy. Playing giddily with Ruhl's wthened Victorian language, Benanti makes Catherine an adorably hyper extrovert longing for an outlet to release her vibrancy. Cerveris makes the doctor a serious but gentle man with the potential for great romance, but who is merely showing as much affection for his wife as is considered proper for their time and place. The graceful evolution of their relationship is one of the important factors that keeps the play from becoming a cheap joke.

Another important factor is how Ruhl and Bernstine create an Elizabeth who grounds the play with her discomfort with earning much-needed money by feeding someone else's child after a personal tragedy. Along with Dizzia's blossoming Mrs. Daldry there are fine supporting turns by Thomas Jay Ryan as her repressed husband, Chandler Williams as a flamboyant artist who becomes the doctor's rare male hysteria patient and Wendy Rich Stetson as the nurse who quietly endures her own dissatisfactions with life.

While In The Next Room or the vibrator play may not exactly bring to mind the kind of romance that inspires Irving Berlin ballads, its theme of valuing pleasure for oneself and sharing it with a special someone is warming and lovely.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti; Bottom: Maria Dizzia, Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti.

Follow Michael Dale on Twitter at michaeldale.

Posted on: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 @ 10:26 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback




About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.