Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: We're All Mad Here

by Kelly Kohlman

Italian chanteuse Monica Salvi brings an evening of delightful musical madness to Theatre Row as part of the 2017 United Solo Theatre Festival. Her one-woman show, Mad Women in my Attic!, featuring pianist Michael Ferreri and directed by Clare McKenna, gained critical acclaim at the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals in 2015, and does not disappoint in NYC.
Driven to lunacy by her life in the theatre, Ms. Salvi’s finely-tuned cabaret tour-de-force, set in a mental institution, celebrates the musical legacy of mad women, with selections from Sweeney Todd, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Sunset Boulevard and many a campy cabaret tune. Her lovely soprano captivates across a range of styles and moods, and her semi-autobiographical storytelling provokes many a sincere laugh.
Salvi is endearing, funny, and sexy, inviting her fellow “patients” into the darkness with her, always with a wink and a clever costume change. “The mad woman often gets the best songs!” Salvi proclaims mid-set. And she’s right. If you go in for macabre, campy, lascivious cabaret, Monica does it right. I only regret that Salvi’s NYC performance was given a mid-afternoon curtain. A piece like Mad Women in my Attic!, a piece far from politically correct, deserves a much later viewing, preferably in a seedy locale, with drink in hand. Mad Women will next play at The Other Place in London on October 28th.

Review: It's War, and It's Also Love

By Ed Malin

Basement, by Planet Connections Theatre Festivity award-winning playwright Michael Hagins, is the maiden voyage of Roly Poly Productions. Janet Bentley directs, and co-producer Andy Cohen provides music and sound design. The cast features Alexandra Cohler, Anthony T. Goss and Ian Campbell Dunn. All these veteran theater people have put their prodigious energy into bringing us a play about anti-fascism and getting to know the other, whom it turns out we might like a whole lot if we give them a chance. Such themes strike me as quite timely, and will give you an hour and forty minutes of engrossing theater that just flies by (forgive the pun).
As our story opens, Lt. Michael Crawler (Anthony T. Goss), a Tuskeegee Airman from the U S of A, is lying in bed, only just about to realize that he has been shot out of the sky.  Jazz plays on the radio in the little basement bedroom.   Soon, Michael meets his host, Katrine (Alexandra Cohler), a self-sufficient French maiden who has rescued him from disaster.  They are in occupied France, in 1944.  They do not speak each other’s language. The odds seem to be against them.  Michael’s wounds are severe, and they must hide from passing German patrols, which leave Katrine bruised but not beaten.  As time passes (to a jazz soundtrack which includes Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington), Ian Campbell Dunn on Allied radio also keeps us appraised of the landings at Normandy.  Anthony faces his pain, dares himself to do push-ups, and eventually feels ready to fight again.
photo by Al Foote III
Katrine, who already had her radio to listen to, can understand Michael.  Michael can now speak some French.  Their struggle to understand each other has a nice pay-off: a strategic as well as a romantic partnership.  Meanwhile, Michael dreams of going home to Harlem, but not the Harlem he left.  He believes that his status as a war hero will give him access to the American Dream unfettered by racism.  His ambition is inspiring to me at this historical moment. But will Michael ever get back?  What will he find?  And what would that mean for Katrine, who has never met anyone like him?
If French is the language of love, it is all the more a pleasure to watch our protagonists take baby steps and then spread their wings. The charming process of getting to know each other is convincingly directed by Janet Bentley.  Ironically, the solid and homey basement (set design by You-Shin Chen) is all that is left of Katrine’s house and her former life.  This play shows that, even in war time, you can rebuild from the bottom up.  You can even do the lindy hop while the Nazis are getting ready to knock on your door.  Janet Mervin’s costumes include lovely uniforms, country dresses and the quaint outfit of Katrine’s father.  Lucky Gilbert Pearto’s lighting tastefully brings great loneliness and hope into the basement.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: Paige Turner's Gay Adventures

By Michael Block

If the fabulous drag queens and colorful rainbow outfits didn’t sell it, the title certainly will. Paige Turner’s This Show is Gay does not falsely advertise what you’re about to see. Returning to the Laurie Beechman after a recent Pride engagement, This Show Is Gay celebrates the community in the funniest of fashions.
photo by Michael Block
Paige Turner takes the audience on a fabulous journey as she, and her special guests Jackie Cox and Remy Germinario, spread the gay all over the land. Using magical transporting taboo buzzers, Paige, Jackie, and Remy travel from LA to Orlando as they bring impeccable impersonations, musical parodies, and an abundance of crude humor to everyone they gross. With gay culture infiltrating the script, Paige pokes fun at everything from coming out (as vegan) to Grindr at the happiest place on earth. If you’re familiar with Paige and her whimsical world, This Show Is Gay highlights her character’s traits and antics by giving her some scene partners to rib and play off of, all while showcasing her friends. She offers some easy jabs that are instant crowd pleasers, all while inserting inside jokes that are less than 24 hours old. The trio’s ability to adapt and play off of one another continues to confirm how Paige’s vision can easily transcend the stage. If nonsensical plotlines leave you uneasy, it’s likely you will be grunting and groaning from start to finish. But if you’re willing to dive deep into the camp, Paige has crafted something that captures the ridiculous and the sentimental.
This Show Is Gay had everything. Song and dance. Looks upon looks. A rainbow megamix finale. This show is full of pride and love. If you haven’t heard by now, Paige Turner, alongside seven of NYC’s finest queens, are a part of a stellar new television show “Shade: Queens of NYC.” Perhaps this will give the added boost to bring Paige and her world to a new media frontier.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: Leslie Carrara-Rudolph's World of Whimsey

By Michael Block

Leslie Carrara-Rudolph’s “day job” is bringing life to kooky characters and crazy creatures through the art of puppetry. But what happens when the puppets go to bed and Leslie gets a shot at her own solo show? Something exciting of course. Best known for being Sesame Street’s Abby Cadabby, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph brings her adult cabaret, and some fabulous friends, to the Laurie Beechman for an evening of entertainment and pure imagination.
photo by Michael Block
With a motto of anything can happen, What Just Happened is a night of stories, song, and a some unexpected guests, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph offers a sensible cabaret. Carrara-Rudolph has a playful brand of whimsy and weird, both with and without a puppet in hand. And it’s entirely endearing. Using a cute device of creating a cabaret based off of a Buzzfeed article, Carrara-Rudolph tries to fulfill the requirements while still remaining true to herself. If you thought she wouldn’t bring puppets with her, you’d be incredibly wrong. While Abby herself may not make an appearance, a plethora of friends make cameos including Lolly Lardpop, a slightly crude kid. The flow of the show is pretty seamless. There aren’t any holes, and if there are they’re present for comic effect. She strikes a nice balance of straight showtune with hilarious parodies. Just take her shadow puppet re-examination of a Mary Poppins’ hit. Vocally, Carrara-Rudolph has nurtured her voice for characters, yet when she sings as herself, it’s equally as special.
While it may be her adult cabaret, it’s probably rated PG-13. Having a room filled with love and support can boost the energy on stage. It was evident that the warmth from the crowd gave Carrara-Rudolph an extra boost. What Just Happened is a special show from a special woman.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Spotlight On...Monica Salvi

Name: Monica Salvi

Education: I trained for three years at the Bernstein School of Musical Theatre in Italy, then moved to London to take a Postgraduate Diploma at the Royal Academy of Music. That course lasted a year, which so far is still the best of my life, and very hard to beat!

Favorite Credits: One of my favorite shows is Sweeney Todd. I was lucky enough to play both Johanna, and years later Beggar Woman, both in Italy, respectively the daughter, and wife of Sweeney. The first ends up spending time at Bedlam, London’s famous asylum during the Victorian times. The second ends up begging in the streets, completely deranged and with little memory of her former life and identity. They are both great characters and very challenging to play, not to mention sing… Sondheim’s score is wonderful and magnificently difficult even for the most experienced singers! Another favorite show of mine was Nursery Crimes, a British murder mystery musical comedy, based on nursery rhymes. The story revolves around the death of poor Humpty Dumpty, and the characters from Rhymeland need to find out “whodunit.” I was involved with this show since its very first workshops and auditions, while it was still being written. They first called me to audition for the character of Polly Flinders, explaining she was a very shy secretary who never utters a word for the whole show, to then reveal herself as a hardcore S&M mistress during her one and only song. I showed up at the first audition already dressed in full S&M gear, with handcuffs, horsewhip and chains. I can say it was one of the most successful auditions I ever did in my life, and I got the role.

Why theater?: I have always adored dressing up and impersonating characters ever since I was a child. I had an unlimited imagination and a good 90% of my waking life was made of make believe. So, growing up, when our brain finds the necessity to be a bit more grounded and connected to reality, it was only natural that I would discover the perfect way of keep playing “make believe.” Theatre, and definitely every creative art, keep the imagination flowing, and imagination is the food of the soul.

Tell us about Mad Women in My Attic!: The show itself is a cross between a cabaret and a one-woman-show with an actual storyline - part fiction, part autobiographical - where I explore the figure of the mad woman and the theme of madness in life, theatre and music, through an array of characters and songs, I’ve performed in my musical theatre career. It’s full of open scene costume changes, and funny and unpredictable audience interaction.

What inspired you to create Mad Women in my Attic!?: You must have noticed, when I was answering the question about my favorite credits, that I mentioned three characters who have a certain peculiar quality about them: they are all women who have developed a crazy trait. But it didn’t stop with those three. I also played Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. I played Violet Gibson in Violet & Mussolini, based on the true story of the woman who attempted to kill the Italian dictator, missed, and ended up confined to a mental asylum. I created the role of Mademoiselle Syphilis in the song cycle Femme Fatale, by Nadav Wiesel, a wonderful character who was a prostitute rendered mad by syphilis, in fact she was the incarnation of syphilis itself.  I realised that somehow, all the directors and composers I was auditioning for, were seeing in me an eccentric quality which made me perfect for the role of the crazy woman. That’s how the myth started… And when I decided to create my own one woman cabaret, I chose this theme, and, since I’m also very interested in psychotherapy and the patterns of human behavior, I decided to create a storyline and song set with these three themes: madness, crazy women and psychotherapy.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?: I know it sounds obvious but I love any kind of theatre that is well written and well performed. As for personal taste, I love dark humor, dark atmospheres with a hint of laughter. Anything with an out of the ordinary aspect that helps my imagination travel to different realities. I love period dramas, and supernatural themes. Give me some period supernatural play and I’m in heaven! But having said that, if something is really well written it can be anything, as long as it’s not too depressive. I want a story to leave me with a positive message, no matter how much drama it’s filled with. I love theatre cause it helps me escape reality, and after I’ve seen a play, I want to come back to my reality inspired, not depressed! We have the newspapers for that.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: I have too many people to mention one individual specifically... but when it comes to companies, I'd love to work with Punchdrunk, Kneehigh, and Les Enfants Terribles. Those companies who breach the classic boundaries creating wonderfully devised immersive theatre experiences, which completely transport the audience to another world.

What show have you recommended to your friends?: Erm, my own? And anything by Punchdrunk and Kneehigh. I love devised theatre. And anything with Meow Meow in it, my very favorite cabaret diva. I’ve seen her multiple times, in London, Edinburgh and New York. I always recommend her shows to those people who don’t know her, and afterwards everyone thanks me and become her loyal fan.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?: Nicole Kidman is very welcome to play me! I would happily give my blessing to that casting choice. The movie would be called “Chasing Other Dimensions.” But this is a story for another cabaret, if not a movie.

If you could go back in time and see any play or musical you missed, what would it be?: I would see Dracula with Bela Lugosi. And the very first production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, one of my favorite musicals.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?: My lifetime guilty pleasure is a very Italian one… Nutella! I could happily drown in a lake of it. But I love any kind of food… I’m a super foodie and a night at a good restaurant is usually something that brings me sheer joy. I know, I should have probably said “a night at the theatre,” but no.. food, food, food! And fine wine. I wonder what Freud would say about it…

If you weren’t working in theater, you would be _____?: I can honestly say I don’t know. There are other things I do on the side, and which I love, for example I’m a certified gong practitioner (meaning I play the gongs and other shamanic instruments to create a vibrational soundscape that brings my clients to a state of deep relaxation and profound wellbeing), and I am training in a few other things that I’m passionate about, but when I seriously think about a life vocation, theatre and acting are the only things that I can see myself giving all my energies to. Even when it doesn’t work out as I’d like. Even singing is something I could never do without associating it to some form of acting. Maybe it won’t be like this forever, people change their dreams as they grow older, but at the moment, I think if I weren’t an actress, I'd be a bit lost, or probably in a job I hate.

What’s up next?: After my performance at United Solo Festival in NY, I will bring Mad Women in my Attic! to London for a performance at The Other Palace Theatre (recently bought and refurbished by Andrew Lloyd Webber). Next year I plan to bring the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival again, as well as a few other dates around Europe possibly.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Review: The Great Lengths a Mother Takes

By Michael Block

From the jump, Amy Herzog sets you up for heartbreak, no matter the result when the final blackout is called. It’s a testament to just how exceptionally real her latest play is. Presented by New York Theatre Workshop, Mary Jane tackles the reality of a single mom going to great lengths to take care of her sick son.
Following the titular character, Mary Jane is a play that brings light through the darkness as a single mother confronts that struggles and realities of nurturing a chronically ill child in today’s world. A slice of life play that peeks into Mary Jane’s days of balancing work and parenting, Amy Herzog captures the essence and spirit of the human condition. Herzog’s writing is some of her finest. The characters she has written are authentic and emotionally grounded. Even if they stray into something a bit bigger, they are tapped into reality. With the guidance of director Anne Kauffman, Mary Jane is a beautifully naturalistic drama that pulls at your heartstrings. Mary Jane provides a rare opportunity to tell a story on stage that moves along naturally that is usually saved for the screen. That said, it does relinquish cinematic pacing. The middle encounters a slightly sluggish few beats, but that is how Herzog gifts us the exposition. What Herzog does so effortlessly is providing bursts of reprieve. The material can be daunting and heavy, yet she finds moments to allow a hint of humor and moments to brush the sorrow away. The scene between Mary Jane and Chaya, another mother of a sick child, is exceptional as it succeeds in giving both Mary Jane and the audience a moment to exhale. Mary Jane’s experience, while not entirely singular, is personal. Yet Herzog has found a strong way to make the story relate to each person watching. There’s just enough ambiguity in the circumstance to allow the story to resonate individually. It is a story of resilience after all.
photo by Joan Marcus
Let’s face the sad reality, Carrie Coon is quite possibly the most underrated performers of our generation. Amy Herzog’s brilliant writing is elevated by Coon’s exceptional work. She gives an emotionally sturdy performance as the heroic Mary Jane. As the single mom, Coon finds the optimism through the devastatingly difficult circumstances. While Mary Jane is alone on the surface, she steadfastly relies on the assistance of the nurses, specifically Sherry, who is eager to help any way she can. Liza Colon-Zayas does a wonderful job playing Sherry, but there’s not much of a shift in her second character, Dr. Toros. It falters into something stereotypical about the medical field. Susan Pourfar has a bit part in the first half of the show but when she comes out as Chaya, she soars. She captures the speech pattern and inflections flawlessly without dipping into a caricature.
Anne Kauffman provides grippingly raw direction. While it did hit that one slight snag, Kauffman’s ability to keep the piece moving yet lived in allowed Herzog’s story to be told through an expressive lens. Mary Jane is very much a naturalistic play. The height of the drama brings the story from Mary Jane’s apartment into the hospital. To make this shift, the theatrical bones are exposed. With such a natural play, the scenic shift desired the run crew to be in scrubs. The harsh stage blacks against the stark white hospital walls pulled focus a touch. Laura Jellinek’s scenic design was quite effective, capturing Mary Jane’s personality within the apartment. The spacious apartment had a hint of old and new. It’s worn down and imperfect as it captures the essence of a typical city dwelling. Not all of the furniture is cohesive, but showcases Mary Jane’s priorities. Likewise, costume designer Emily Rebholz captured Mary Jane through her attire. It was laidback but deliberate.
Amy Herzog has written something exceptional in Mary Jane. It’s an important story that doesn’t rely on frills. It’s simple and profound. New York Theatre Workshop has produced another hit.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Review: Sutton's Fabulous Drag Camp

By Michael Block

Oh the memories of summer camp. I actually never went so I'm going off of other people's memories. Anyway. As the season comes to a close, Sutton Lee Seymour celebrates the heat with her hot new show Camp Kween. Taking the audience through Kinky Boot camp, camp counselor Sutton Lee Seymour does what she does best: make ‘em laugh. Gracing the Laurie Beechman stage, Camp Kween has all the makings of a camp classic.
photo by Michael Block
Known for her flair and love for the Great White Way, Sutton Lee Seymour takes on summer camp in her latest show. Filled with lampoons of classic showtunes and pop hits, Camp Kween is drag comedy at its finest. Sutton Lee Seymour is a fast-talking diva that effortless takes control of the stage and her admirers. There are queens who stick to the lip sync or the flips and tricks in order to win a crowd. Sutton Lee Seymour doesn’t need that. She uses her gift of gab and her versatile voice to captivate. Her sidesplitting humor makes her a parody princess and a premiere queen of camp.  Her parody game is top-notch. Capturing the hilarity of gay culture, Sutton holds a mirror up while allowing the audience to laugh at just how ridiculous we can get. Just take her riff on “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” where she mocks those super-horny-really-boring-flakey-power bottoms in our life. Or even the newest take on the Tina Turner classic, “Scrolling on Grindr.” It’s easy to laugh at these numbers because they are painfully real. And that is how you do campy comedy. The conceit of the show is an introduction to this fabulous drag camp. It’s like a living information pamphlet. Late in the show, Sutton finds a willing victim to get a brief drag makeover, but the set up is established early on that you almost wish each number and beat was part of the transformation. Bringing in the audience member from the jump to be the guinea pig as the show journeys onward is the thread that can unite the night. Even if the person were a plant, it’s an exciting way to tie everything together. Sure, it may feel waver closer makeover than camp, it just takes a few tweaks to make it work. And she certainly has the ability to do that. She’s a seasoned at storytelling.
Sutton Lee Seymour is unapologetically hilarious and that’s what makes Camp Kween so fabulous. Having a thematic through line allows the show to be a singular event, something others have trouble capturing. This may feel like a seasonal show so hope that this camp is always in session.