Friday, February 24, 2017

Review: Outside the Box

By Michael Block

Let's not bury the lead. The Object Lesson is an extraordinary work of art. New York Theatre Workshop is known for taking risks. The Object Lesson is a giant risk. One that paid dividends. Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle, this immersive art piece takes you on a journey through objects that make us, us.
When you look at your ticket and see "general admission," you know something exciting is waiting inside. As you enter New York Theatre Workshop, the earlier the better I advise, be prepared to see the space covered in cardboard boxes and a items of the past in every nook and cranny. You're encouraged to interact with the space. Pass along boxes. Sit on others. Through your exploration, you're bound to interact with fellow theatergoers about the experience to come. As you begin to settle into your space within the space, take notice of who you're talking to as you might just be conversing with Sobelle himself. He might share an anecdote about a boxed labeled "Kafka" featuring a cockroach in a bed. Without warning, the center of the room begins to take shape. Through illusion, clowning, and storytelling, the installation piece becomes a jungle gym of wonderment. From there, Sobelle is behind the wheel of The Object Lesson. Broken up into various vignettes throughout the room, often featuring participation from the crowd, Sobelle shares memories propelled by the items he finds or searches for. The nature of the show allows you to have your own personal experience along with the piece. You are allowed to move around. You may interact and be an active participant. Or you can passively sit back and watch. Through story and design, there is a constant theme that recurs in the form of various lights and trinkets. Despite being many stories, it helps to tie the event together. Sobelle’s innate skills for storytelling are on display here. Whether aided by microphone or simply speaking unamplified, Sobelle’s narratives are captivating. He has a natural sentimentality in his voice. It’s soothing. So soothing that his meditative cadence could get you to nod off for a moment. But that could be because there are certain beats that drag on a bit too long. Especially when the pay off is eventually revealed. See that first phone call. But when the gimmick of said first call is uncovered, it’s bound to make you grin.
Director David Neumann guided Sobelle through the room of boxes and paraphernalia. The staging is intricate and precise. Every moment is well calculated. The scenic installation designed by Steven Dufala is planned clutter. At first glance, the space looks like an episode of “Hoarders,” but there is a method to Dufala’s madness. It’s overwhelming. There’s a natural intimacy to this world of boxes. But when the space reaches capacity, there’s a sense that perhaps there are too many people within the experience. The freedom to move is a bit restricted. But don’t worry if you fear that Sobelle can’t move around. Oh he can. He has no worries about moving you around. With attention to detail so important, hitting the mark was essential. The lighting design from Christopher Kuhl was mostly comprised of atmospheric practical lights. If you look up, there are very few theatrical lights in the sky. Just the essentials. Neumann and his team have provided an experience that you can only see to believe.
Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson is overwhelming, just like our own lives. Whether you take Sobelle’s stories at face value or find yourself in the tales, The Object Lesson is continuing to remind audiences the diversity when it comes to how theater can be made and told. If you are fearful of immersive experiences, let The Object Lesson be your way in.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: Voices of the Past for the Present

By Michael Block

American Bard Theater Company brings three one acts from the past and presents them in the present for an evening of relevance. Uniting the works of Susan Glaspell and Marita Bonner, Visionary Voices: 2 Women Writers, 3 Big Stories is a celebration of important works for today.
Kicking off the evening is Trifles by Susan Glaspell and directed by Aimee Todoroff. Possibly Glaspell's most revered work, Trifles recounts the strangulation murder of Mr. Wright, presumably by his wife Minnie. Trying to find clues, the county attorney, Mr. Hale, and Mr. Peters examine the upstairs of the house leaving Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale alone downstairs. As they wait, they come across a dead canary, leading the ladies to believe Mrs. Wright may have in fact done the crime. This one act is mystery at its core. There is immense intrigue but Todoroff needed to help heighten the stakes by amount up the pacing and fear. There was an ominous feeling, assisted by the atmospheric sounds from Matthew Fischer, but as a whole, the piece was lacking. There is inherent strength in Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, yet Mel Houe and Cheri Wicks didn't quite pull it out of them as much as they could have.
photo by Basil Rodericks
The next piece up was Exit: An Illusion by Marita Bonner. Directed by Tonya Pinkins, Exit: An Illusion is a dangerous tale about colorism and sexism. Dot is on her way out for a date with a guy called Exit Mann but Buddy is furious at the though. Through a rage-filled rant from a visibly jealous Buddy, Dot insists on going despite her frail state. Playing like a surrealistic nightmare, this drama pulls the fear out within us all. Pinkins capitalized upon this. Where Exit: An Illusion could have been a bit stronger was through its lighting. This play is almost a blank canvas of possibility. When the piece is directed in the manner as it was, Christopher Weston's design was not as strong as it could have been. It was too noticeable. Perhaps a practical lamp or too could have allowed more light to shine without risking the full stage flush. If your focus gets pulled by the lights, it draws attention away from the story. As Dot, Morgan McGuire was a sultry rag doll, thrown around by the powerful force of T. Morgan as Buddy.
Closing out the night was a play of hope in a time of disparity. Glaspell's The People follow the titular newspaper on the verge of closing. As the news blows in the wind, a cavalcade of characters in a cornucopia of costumes arrives to share their voice and save the paper. With an important message deep within the text, the cartoonish nature of the narrative allowed for fun to be had. Directed by Todoroff, each character was given a clear and consistent identity. Through a structural lens you almost wish Glaspell could get another pass at her text but Todoroff highlighted the themes with ease. With twelve in the cast, staging all those bodies with one true entrance into the office could have been a headache but Todoroff pulled it off. Cheri Wicks as The Woman left you with a sense of triumph with her momentous monologue.
Visionary Voices was ambitious in the sense that this was three different plays needing three different worlds. Wonder how you create three distinct looks for three very different plays? Ask Zhao Mingshuo. Visionary Voices was a scenic triumph. How Mingshuo made it work was extraordinary. From a Nebraska farm house to a tiny apartment in Chicago to the office of a newspaper, the design allowed each world have it’s own temperature and pallet. Sure, it may not have been the cleanest in execution but it was visionary!
American Bard Theater Company has provided an important night of art for two important voice in American literature. Celebrating these texts of the brilliant women is wonderful. Visionary Voices just needed a little more polish.

Review: Wonky Letters of Love

By Michael Block 

There seems to be new ways to reinvent Shakespeare everyday. Spearheading this movement is Bottoms Dream, an ambitious company that thrives on weaving new interpretations of the Bard's text to create new narratives. In The Bride, their latest weaving, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing get the mashup treatment for a story about, well you guessed it, love.
Playing the Gallery at The Access Theater, The Bride, adapted by Nat Angstrom, takes two of Shakespeare's romances and shakes them up to tell a tale of gender divide after The King of Navarre decides that there is a ban on gender communication while he spends three years at study. As the outlaw is in place, the comedic policing of Dogberry, master constable of The Watch, takes center stage as he has a duty to be done. The Bride is a play for Shakespeare aficionados. In the grand scope of the canon, these two are probably somewhere in the lower middle tier of popularity. That being said, the clarity is not here. It may be best to engage in a quick crash course refresher on the respective texts, character, themes and plots before spending the night at the theater. To bring this new story to life, characters' texts were combined to create new, and occasionally, similar personas. But as the story unfolds, The Bride is not quite a weaving, it's more like patchwork. These aren’t instantly recognizable narratives so throwing a new one into the fold may have been the cause of disconnect. Even if you try to take the piece at face value, the individual arcs of the characters needed more care. Maybe even some sort of dramaturgical program to peruse prior to the production explaining some of the combinations of characters and analysis of the source material as it pertains in this context could have been useful.
photo by Tessa Flannery
Even if you have difficulty following along, where The Bride succeeds is in the consistent physical vocabulary in direction and utilization of instruments and integration of music. Director Doug Durlacher had a strong vision when it came to bringing out what The Bride would look, feel, and sound like. There was an inherent fluidity in his staging. The scenic exploration was transformative for the space. The aesthetic was all there. What was missing was the connection of the material from page to stage. Durlacher’s storytelling needed some finessing. The piece began with the players, all of whom were seen warming up as the audience walked in, setting the stage by removing props and costumes from a trunk center stage. Accompanied by a musical underscore, this prologue was important. It had parts of the narrative within. Again, aesthetically it was gorgeous. It could have been amplified even further to hammer in just how much we needed it. Where The Bride flourished was the use of music throughout. Music is in fact the food of love. With original songs from Mike Lee, Allyson Capetta and the ensemble, its integration elevated the production.
Taking on a plethora of personas, the ten actors found love in the text. And when there is heart in a character, there is an attraction toward the performance. The multi-talented cast showcase their skills from characterization to musicality. The strongest of the bunch included Aleda Bliss as the Princess of France, Katie Fanning as Rosaline, Ella Smith as both Hero and Holofernes, and scribe Nat Angstrom as Dogberry.
The Bride is a new story. And that’s ok. Sometimes it’s exciting to reinvent the wheel. But the execution needs to be exceptionally flawless. Unfortunately the text got bogged down in idea.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review: The Missouri Show Me The 1980s Childhood Show

By Ed Malin

The Idaho Jackson Action Playset is a very personal 1980s one-man show by Brad Lawrence now playing in the Frigid Festival. Cyndi Freeman directs this focused ride through the intersection of school fights, lunchboxes, first crushes, nuclear holocaust and AIDS.
Brad Lawrence, wearing a Wilma Deering t-shirt (see: Buck Rogers) gives us a touching, rapid-fire story about his second grade life.  We jump around a bit getting a lot of evocative details until we firmly understand the challenges of being the eighth and youngest child in the family.  Hand-me-down clothing (usually way too big) is a given but this can make a kid feel like he is only a knock-off version of a real child.  “Like a GoBot in a word of Transformers”, if you will.  Like an “Idaho Jackson” Action Figure, a nice joke for those who were children at the time and had Action Jackson toys.
photo by Ryan Collerd
Brad rips through the story of his first kiss and chance to walk a girl home, which was made easier because he was banned from the school bus.  This happened because he hit a bully on the head with a creaky metal Raggedy Ann and Andy lunchbox inherited from a sister.  The replacement lunchbox was a plastic Spiderman item in a very manly shade of yellow.
Then came summertime in Missouri, and the customary but noxious trip to the zoo.  July temperatures are “measured in Kelvins”.  Children vomit regularly, especially when harassed by animals in enclosures with non-realistic environments.  “Not since Pompeii have so many people regretted wearing open-toed sandals.”
Brad ends up spending more time at home, where he is dismayed by TV talk shows about how the suburbs are rife with Satanism.  Even more alarming is the anti-nuclear film “The Day After”.  Being destroyed by nuclear weapons is nothing compared to the plight of Kansas residents who end up surviving.  The one stable factor in Brad’s life is his mother, a traveling insurance evaluator who collects fluid samples from clients.  However, the regular presence of these samples on the family’s dining room table leads to a huge panic about newly-identified HIV/AIDS.  What is the best way to live safely, or at least to feel safe?
Hats off to Lawrence and Freeman for painting such a detailed picture of suburban childhood circa 1983. A lot happens in an hour of memories. If your initial reaction is that this would be a safe and boring story, see the show and take heed.  Who knows, some of the historic concerns in the play, such as a nuclear standoff, may be part of our future.   I am glad that Frigid is back with this thoughtful one-man show.

Review: Love Hurts

By Michael Block 

Breaking up isn’t easy. There are far too many emotions attached. Especially when hearts are broken. Sure, there are a plethora of reasons for a romantic detachment and it can take time to heal, but you’re bound to go through grief. Presented by Ruddy Productions, Orion, written by Matthew McLachlan is a millennial rom-dram about a moving on from love and finding your worth when closure isn’t necessarily an option.
Gwen has dumped Sam. For space. Or time to find herself. Or because of work. Or it’s all the clichés rolled up into one. Sam isn’t quite taking the break up with ease. He’s hurting, and rightly so. But as Sam tries to move on, he realizes that Gwen still has a hold of his mind and his heart. Sam’s best friend Scott tries to alleviate the pain through his goofy demeanor all while his romance with Abby is thriving. Orion is a story about life after love. Matthew McLachlan has a colloquial way about his words. His dialogue is snappy and deliberate. The characters he has crafted are clear. With the commercial nature of the story and the static staging by Joshua Warr, Orion screams movie. And that’s not a bad thing at all. The play easily transcends its medium. Where the piece did struggle a bit was the structure. Even though we learned some new information in the monologues, they weren’t essential and the content could have been incorporated in a slightly more active way, especially since the clarity of who was on the receiving end of the monologue was not entirely there. They did, however, pay off with the final beat of the play where the words intercepted to tie the piece off nicely with a bow. But the moment that hurt the overall arc of the story as well as some individual narratives was the flashback placement. The scene itself is a glowing highlight of McLachlan’s writing. It’s a beautiful and endearing scene. But by capping off the show with the key information we learn in the scene combined with everything leading up to it, it manages to weaken Sam and turn Gwen into literally the worst person ever, a title she may have already had. We learn in this scene that it was in fact Gwen leading the flirting that got Sam and Gwen together. Combine that with her breaking his heart and immediately finding a new love, she comes off as a selfish character. If this scene is integral, leading the show off with it and then jumping ahead in time to the true scene one allows sympathy to be had for Sam as he battles grief and a broken heart. The scene certainly colors the characters, the writing is brilliant, but Orion still flows without it. The other thing earned by introducing it at the start is the origin of Orion and what it means to the pair.
photo by Justin Chauncey Photography
Matthew McLachlan’s characters jump off the page. We know these people or, perhaps, have been these people. Maybe we’re currently these people. Nevertheless, the characters are relatable. It’s a testament to his writing. Director Joshua Warr took the baton and brought the best, and worst, out of the characters, guiding the company to find the heart, humor, and anguish within each. They are archetypes but they each had their own personal charm. With meticulous clarity given to the relationships, there was never a question of who these individuals were or who they were to one another. Scenic designer Alaina Hernandez created a multifunctional set that allowed Warr to create the distinct locations, including the integral park. But with the transitions playing a big part in the pacing, less would have been more as Warr’s staging was clear without the all accouterments. It did slightly affect movement within the space, recalling just why this piece had that cinematic charm.
Despite being a four character play, Orion was essentially Sam’s journey. As the sad sap Sam, Blake Merriman broke your heart. Merriman reminded you that you’ve likely walked in Sam’s shoes at least once in your life. Merriman could have benefitted by giving Sam a bit more fight as he tries to find a way to walk through the world again without a significant other. Simply due to actions, Gwen is an utterly dislikable character. Gwen wants to have her cake and eat it too, often taking her feelings out on a person she claims to love. As Gwen, Amanda Jones played the text and played it well. By doing so, it was difficult to know the sincerity of the character. Taking on Sam’s best friend Scott, Scott Brieden was pure hilarity. Scott is a loveable goofball with a big heart and Brieden highlighted this trait well. As his girlfriend Abby, Simone Serra matched the charm of Brieden making them the bright light within the darkness of the story.
Orion shines bright and has the potential to glow even brighter. Matthew McLachlan has a strong voice and way with characters, capturing the beautiful complexities of human relationships. If you’ve ever had your heart broken and need a reminder that you’re not alone, Orion is the closure you may need.

Review: Beardo is Weird-o

By Michael Block 

Who says musical theater has to be perfectly commercial? If the intent is to make a work of art that's a little outside the box, there is certainly an audience seeking it. That's where Jason Craig and Dave Malloy's Beardo comes in. Presented by Pipeline Theatre Company at St. Johns Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, Beardo is a story of faith and sin, truth and deceit, and a whole lot of weird.
A man has his hand in a hole. He pulls out. He meets a Russian peasant and his family. The man, referred to as Beardo, begins to spew a narrative that destroys the family. He suddenly finds himself within the palace walls in St. Petersburg. He heals the royal son and instantly becomes revered, and slightly feared. He begins to change the way things are done as he has the ear of the Tsar and the intimacy of the Tsarista. And suddenly tsarism is under siege. Though he's never mentioned by name, this unspecified faith healer is Rasputin, a mysterious and troubled anti hero. Beardo is a dangerously evocative musical that is breaking the mold. There's no denying just how weird Beardo is. But there's just nothing out there like it. With words by Jason Craig and music by Dave Malloy, Beardo is an indie-folk-rock Russian fantasia. The text has a modern tongue dripping with vulgarity and filth. And that's what makes Beardo so beautifully weird. But it's not perfect. There are some flaws. A bunch. Some whiffs in the script. Is there room for trimming? Absolutely. The meat of the play happens with the royals but it just takes so long to get there. And that ending? Perhaps it’s best to chalk it up to taste. Beardo defies musical theater norms abundantly, one blistering one being bookending the show without the typical musical numbers. And that is fine, should they be earned. But that ending...There's certainly a commentary within but it strays so far from what had previously been seen that it forces you to scratch your head. It's so out there, the audience wasn't sure whether the blackout truly signified the end. That's not necessarily a good thing.
The Russian surrealistic musical could easily be equated to a southern gothic thriller. And director Ellie Heyman instilled that in her approach. It allowed the piece to somehow feel even more relevant than ever. Heyman's extraordinary direction had purposeful staging. Using an unconventional theater space can have its problems and limitations but Heyman tackled the challenge and overcame it with ease. To say it was daring is an understatement. With a scaffolding jungle and a bit of a raised platform area, the rundown church aesthetic worked wonders for the storytelling. Designed by Carolyn Mraz, the exploratory nature allowed a wonderment of possibility. Again, in the world of limitations, the lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins captured the evocative and seductive tone of the piece. Though it just looms over the stage for the entirety of the play, the glowing leg was haunting. Peasant chic and royal rags were at the forefront of Katja Andreiev's costume design. Think for a moment on just how difficult it could be to stage a play or musical in a church. The acoustics alone are a headache. Sound designers Dan Moses Schreier and Joshua Reid and the sound technicians solved the potential woes. And nothing beats that wall of sound during stellar Act I finale. With an orchestra almost solely of strings, an eerie dissonance was highlighted within Malloy's score.
photo by Suzi Sadler
It’s always exciting to see a cast truly embrace their character and have fun with their material. This company certainly had a blast. With a range of vocal stylings to fit the variance within the score, each character was fleshed out within a certain aesthetic. As the titular Beardo, Damon Daunno gave an otherworldly performance. Not only did he embrace Beardo but he made he come alive. Daunno gave the character a seductive hypnosis, casting a spell on anyone he interacted with. Whether fact or alternative fact, when he spewed his wealth of wisdom, you listened intently. Vocally, Daunno matched the folky gruffness of the character. Alex Highsmith takes on Tsarista, highlighting the character as the most grounded in the piece. There is certainly uncertainly and trepidation of this mysterious magic man on the part of Tsarista yet Highsmith finds the strength within the character. While she may not have been the strongest vocalist in the cast, she made up with her acting prowess, emoting through lyric. Willy Appelman’s Tsar was animated and uproarious. Bringing physical humor to the forefront of the role, Appelman often chewed the scenery without stopping the show. It was a smartly calculated comedic performance. While Yusapoof’s arc in Act I needed a little clarity, he becomes a key player as the story progresses. Brian Bock essentially steals the show in Act II with his Black Swan realness. Bock made a strong case for Jason Craig and Dave Malloy to create a spinoff solely for him and that outfit. The remainder of the ensemble did an impeccable job helping to add color to the world, the stand out being Liz Leimkuhler. Don’t be surprised if Leimkuhler gets a call to jump into that other Dave Malloy musical running in Manhattan.
Beardo is a beautiful mess of a musical that knows exactly what it is. And that’s what makes it, well, charming. If you take the show at face value, you’ll likely not get it. If you do a tad bit of research and allow yourself to embrace it for what it is, you’re bound to appreciate it. Embrace the weird. Your mind might be blown.

Review: Never Say Goodbye

By Michael Block 

Sunset Boulevard is back, marking the fourth Andrew Lloyd Weber musical currently running. But the headline here is not just the triumphant and stunning return of Glenn Close as the iconic Norma Desmond. The real story is the unique, and recently rare, opportunity to hear the score performed by a forty piece orchestra on a Broadway stage. Set against a backdrop of the Hollywood Golden Age, Sunset Boulevard is a production you'll wish would never say goodbye.
photo by Joan Marcus
With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, Sunset Boulevard is the musical dramatization of the Billy Wilder film of the same name. After a dizzying opening, the stage is set for a Hollywood romantic thriller as Joe Gillis' murdered body hangs, looming from the rafters. Joe Gillis is a screenwriter looking to catch a break. He's in a bit of trouble running from some moneymen and finds himself in the garage of famed screen star Norma Desmond. Upon learning his profession, Norma convinces Joe into assisting her on a script all while she begins to fall for him in an unusual way. As he attempts to distance himself from Norma and her love stronghold, he falls for another woman, Betty Schaeffer, causing Norma to fall deeper into despair. The staging by Lonny Price is sensational. Price uses the simple, yet grand set by James Noone to its full potential. Price and his team insured that the brilliant orchestra was a centerpiece of this production. To capture the mystery and intrigue of Hollywood, lighting designer Mark Henderson's evocative design brought the right marriage of light and shadow. But the subtle inclusion of bringing the house chandeliers into Norma's mansion was a glorious touch.
It's fitting that Sunset Boulevard gets a revival at the Palace as Glenn Close is theatrical royalty. Close gives a master class in performance as the maddened fading star. Mystifying is an understatement. To bring Norma to life, Close went full tilt, incorporating the exquisite costumes designed, originally designed by Anthony Powell, into the physicality of Norma. Most actors just wear a costume as clothing, Glenn Close makes it part of her character. It's easy to get lost with everything that this production brings but Michael Xavier was an incredible leading man. Xavier had the essence of old school charm, it's no wonder it captivated Norma. As the nice girl equally captivated by Joe, Siobhan Dillon's Betty Schaeffer was a bright light. Dillon brought a modern sensibility into Betty, breaking her out of the typical ingénue. It was a strong choice that paid off. With a deep voice and an unwavering loyalty, Fred Johanson found the complexity of Max. Johanson's rich characterization was beautifully understated yet perfectly powerful.
Sunset Boulevard is the show you've been eagerly anticipating. Between Glenn Close and the breathtaking orchestra, you'll never want to say goodbye to this perfect production. It should be noted that the performance I attended was the one where Hillary Clinton was in attendance. She received the first standing ovation of the night before the show. Believe me, I think the audience was willing to give a standing ovation in the middle of the show after "As If We Never Said Goodbye." But fear not, this show earned a round of ovations during the curtain call.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Block Talk- Episode 8- Emily Owens and Hollis James

In this episode of Block Talk, I got to sit down and chat with director Emily Owens and playwright Hollis James about their upcoming play Kyle!

They're so excited for Kyle, they're giving Block Talk listeners $5 off tickets with code BLOW at

To listen to Block Talk, visit and subscribe at iTunes or Soundcloud!

And check out to learn how you can become a PATRON today!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review: No Need to Wait for the Light to Shine

By Michael Block

Big River, the musical based on Mark Twain's “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, has a storied history. It had a muddied first reception in New York in 1985 but took away a wealth of accolades. The musical had a grand return in 2003 in a celebrated revival produced by Roundabout and Deaf West. And now New York City Center brings it back. And the light shines bright. Directed by Lear deBessonet, as part of the Encores series, Big River, in this run. is a simple yet enthralling production with no frills attached.
With a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller, Big River is the classic story of Huck Finn, a boy looking for an adventure and Jim, a runaway slave looking for freedom. In their journey down the river, they encounter obstacles and detours that open Huck's eyes to the world. This version of Big River, the production let the music soar and the story take center stage while your imagination ran wild. deBessonet's direction was clean and affective, calling out the emotional journeys as best as the text can allow. But if the barometer for success was the exuberance and excellence of the showstopper "Muddy Water," this production wouldn't have lived up to expectations. Yet the overall production was so strong, it's easy to forgive the lack of super power this number ended up having. Despite that, Miller’s score, performed by The Encores! Orchestra, resonated, bringing out a newfound evocative sentiment. Just listen to “Worlds Apart.” It’s bound to hit you profoundly. Through deBessonet’s staging and Josh Rhodes’ choreography, storytelling was the focal point. The piece moved lithely from beat to beat, bringing the audience along for the journey. With the limitation of space, Rhodes was still able to bring some exciting movement into the musical, namely in “The Boys.” The costumes from Jess Goldstein lived in the period but we’ll all be remembering what he put David Pittu in as The Royal Nonesuch.
photo by Joan Marucs
Despite a wealth of credits, Big River was the vehicle that is bound to help make Nicholas Barasch a household name. His journey as the adventurous kid was something special.  There’s a beautiful purity to Barasch's voice that makes his Huck almost too perfect. He certainly has some room to find the other flavors within the character, both in personality and voice. As Jim, Kyle Scatliffe’s emotional journey was one for the ages. Though Barasch and Scatliffe may not have had the perfect blend vocally, their bond was genuine on stage. Big River is a musical ripe with potential scene stealers. And they certainly found a place here. Charlie Franklin as Tom Sawyer brings charisma and charm as the little troublemaker. The vibrancy and playful mischief worked well against Barasch’s Huck. Similarly, David Pittu as The King and Christopher Sieber as The Duke won the crowd scene after scene, song after song. As the resident clowns in the company, Pittu and Sieber make comedy look second nature. While Mary Jane Wilkes is merely a blip in the story, Lauren Worsham was radiant. Like Worsham, Cass Morgan and Annie Golden took on some minor roles but worked their magic, reminding us why they are theater royalty.
Big River, to some, may be a misunderstood big musical. Between a beautiful score and a classic story, Big River will shine on within the canon of musical theater. New York City Center has done an extraordinary job celebrating this work. If you missed it, cross your fingers there’s a chance for another life.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: One Big Secret in One Long Play

By Michael Block

There are some stories and times that seem to disappear from the mainstream storytelling. One of those comes to life in Sarah Levine Simon and Mihai Grunfeld's The Dressmaker's Secret, presented by The Simon Studio. Set in 1963 Romania, Simon and Grunfeld's drama follows the story of a woman, her son, and the secret she's been harboring for twenty years.
Told in a time of failing trust where secrets and conspiracy are abundant, The Dressmaker's Secret follows the journey of Robi as he searches for the identity of his father, a secret his mother Maria, the dressmaker, has held onto. As Robi goes on the hunt, Maria uncovers the truth behind the past that still haunts her. The story, adapted from the novel by Mihai Grunfeld, is a dizzying soap of period drama. Maria wants to keep her secret. Robi wants to find out said hidden secret. And then we get an odd Romanian Mrs. Robinson subplot between Robi and Maria's confidant Irma. And then we get the more than coincidental return of Maria's old love Robert, which shakes things up even more. But as juicy as this all is, it's the inciting induce by that is more troubling. The inciting incident is the discovery of a photo that happened to be out on the sewing table happens so early and far too easily. Diving a bit deeper into characters and relationships prior to the discovery is greatly desired. Simon and Grunfeld's text is quite old school. The dialogue has a heightened aura that creates a presentational feeling within the characters. It’s not colloquial, just period. No matter how the story shakes up, an incredible amount of cutting is greatly desired. There is a plethora of repeated information that bogs down the pacing. It’s hard to say how to not make the piece predictable, but the way the drama unfolds, it’s easy to know just exactly what is going to happen and when it’s going to happen. It’s inherent to the story.
There was truth and sincerity in Roger Hendricks Simon’s direction. That being said, Simon’s passive direction forced the stakes to feel minimal. The low stakes dimensioned the power of the story. Whether it was in the text or not, The Dressmaker’s Secret was very much a play about coffee and drinking. In nearly every scene, it’s part of Simon’s action, thusly becoming uninteresting and dull. The scenic design from Stephen C. Jones was practical given the multiple locations. With dress form and sewing machine in full view, we were present in Maria’s intimate home. Where Simon found great success were the beats were he allowed the audience to watch, and listen, to Maria sew. The void of dialogue and sounds of the machine spoke volumes of Maria and the world around her. Jones tried to bring nuance to the black box space by hanging oddly shaped picture cutouts of Romania. The spacing of the images made it feel incomplete. They were unnecessary to the story, but if the visuals were greatly desired, there needed to be a complete collage that overwhelmed the walls. Taking on the lighting design as well, Jones’ lighting was too harsh and bright for the mood of the story. Additionally, it illuminated the space in an unfortunate manner as it reflected off of the white and light-colored furniture.
The quartet of actors tried their best to avoid becoming cookie-cutter characters despite the writing. Far and away, the strongest performance came from Caralyn Kozlowki as Irma. Kozlowski has the essence of effortless class and allure. Her character’s twist was easily the biggest surprise and Kozlowski allowed it be revealed beautifully. She kept her secret deep inside. As Maria, Tracy Sallows had to fight the past in a passive way. And yet you felt for her and her storied past. Sallows relationship with Bryan Burton’s Robi was tender but it was Burton, his wide eyes, and Kozlowski who had all the sparks in this play. Though his character was mentioned throughout, Robert S. Gregory as Robert fulfilled the notions of the character. Even through his acts of kindness, Gregory’s Robert was an antagonistic villain.
There is a demographic where this play is certainly appealing. But The Dressmaker’s Secret is just bogged down by its length and its lack of stakes.