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May 19th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Forever

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

Dael Orlandersmith, photo Joan Marcus. Production Credits: Neel Keller (Director)

Dael Orlandersmith, photo Joan Marcus.

Dael Orlandersmith’s “Forever” is a powerful blend of fact and fiction about this talented writer/performer’s growing up as the daughter of an abusive, alcoholic mother in Harlem. And her discovery of the roots she chooses to adopt after a visit to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris where great artists, writers, musicians, are buried.

Orlandersmith has done fine autobiographical works in the past, among them “Yellowman,” about a dark, over-weight black woman falling in love with a light-skinned black man. So one knew that this production would be dark in the psychological sense. But the story takes one by surprise.

With long reddish-brown cornrow braids and a billowy black sack dress with a heavy silver pendant, at a set which has only a folding table and two spindle-back chairs, she relates the story of her life.

Dael Orlandersmith, photo Joan Marcus. Production Credits: Neel Keller (Director)

Dael Orlandersmith, photo Joan Marcus.

She is as good an actor as writer, pulling one into her story. She is compelling. And director Neel Keller keeps this story honest instead of melodramatic.

The main reality is that her mother was a drunk. Orlandersmith was born by Caesarian section and thinks that after that her mother hated her. Subtly, she suggests that she was disliked for being fat. The billowy dress shows that she still is. It’s a part of her life she only alludes to, but one thinks it underlies her sense of self. At least till that “self” became a successful playwright.

Orlandersmith had seen a documentary where a character views the Père Lachaise cemetery, the people buried there, the visitors. So she imagines her visit to the cemetery, paying homage to Balzac, Richard Wright, Modigliani, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison.

That is fiction, which replaces the truth, because the story of her growing up is pretty awful. The people in the cemetery will stand in for her mother, will be her ancestors. On a turntable, she plays “The Doors,” her cultural connection, especially to singer Jim Morrison.

Dael Orlandersmith, photo Joan Marcus. Production Credits: Neel Keller (Director)

Dael Orlandersmith, photo Joan Marcus.

The young woman lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Her best friend also had a mother who drank and was violent. In a horrific scene, Orlandersmith is a teenager raped by her mother’s friend. The only kind person she recalls of that incident is the Irish cop who took her testimony. No one was arrested. That is rather curious, since it appears that the attacker was in the apartment at a party given by her mother.

She gets over it, goes to Greenwich Village clubs, to alternative music places, and to theater at the University of the Streets in the East Village. She moves to that free neighborhood. She goes to college to graduate in 1976. She’d now be 55. It’s taken decades to open up to this past.

Orlandersmith speaks the story sorrowfully. When he mother dies, she curses her dead body, but then, surprisingly, learns her mother had been a dancer. She wonders about her mother’s own sorrows, her connection to art, music and poetry. Her mother once said if she’d only gone to Paris. Did her mother feel blocked by regrets? Does her daughter now forgive her? Now the billowing dress seems to cover a lot of the past.

“Forever”. Written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, directed by Neel Keller. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York City. (212) 279–4200. Opened May 4, 2015; closes May 31, 2015. 5/18/15.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and theatre critic.  Her web site is The Komisar Scoop.

May 18th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Street Singer

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

The very fine Broadway and cabaret singer Christine Andreas channels Edith Piaf in an elegant, sharp, charming dance production choreographed by Pascal Rioult, a former Martha Graham Dance Company principal dancer.

The space is a cabaret/dinner theater space at the 42West Nightclub. Tables are set around a center runway and look at a proscenium stage.

Christine Andreas, photo Paul B. Goode.

Christine Andreas, photo Paul B. Goode.

Andreas in gamine hairdo, black glittery silk dress, looks (a bit) and sounds like Piaf, her trills and tremors.

Drew Scott Harris wrote the story that takes Piaf from the dance halls of Pigalle, the seedy neighborhood in Montmartre, in the north of Paris, to her triumph as a French icon.

It opens with her signature Je ne regrette rien.

Non, Rien de rien
(No, nothing of nothing)
Non, Je ne regrette rien
(No, I regret nothing)

Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait
(Not the good things that have been done to me)
Ni le mal tout ça m’est bien égal
(Nor the bad things, it’s all the same to me)

Andreas pulls you into the dark story. Piaf’s character is a fille de joie, a prostitute. The famous Milord, which she sang on the Ed Sullivan show (did they really understand the text?), says:

Allez, venez, Milord
Vous asseoir à ma table
Il fait si froid, dehors
Ici c’est confortable
……Je vous connais, Milord
Vous n’m’avez jamais vue
Je ne suis qu’une fille du port
Qu’une ombre de la rue.

“Come on M’lord, sit down at my table,
It’s cold outside. It’s comfortable here….
I know you very well, but you never saw me……
I’m just a girl in the harbor, a shadow in the street.”

Dance hall dancers, photo Paul B. Goode.

Dance hall dancers, photo Paul B. Goode.

The dancers fill out the story. Cartoonish wiggles and turns represent the Can Can. We learn that performing at a Nazi camp, Piaf helped some prisoners escape; she dressed and smuggled them out as troop members.

The drama of couples separated by war is expressed by “La vie en rose.” And a stunning pas de deux of a man physically abusing his lover is realistic, not sexist. In one piece, dancers are dressed in white to represent the pills Piaf took.

Rioult has built his vivid fluid ballet theater on elegant Martha Graham inspired dance. Rioult makes an appearance with Andreas as an anonymous guy, maybe Piaf’s lover.

But our views are caught by the elegant movements on stage, the story dances that makes us feel Piaf’s life.

The central catwalk should be higher for the sake of people at the back tables who, blocked by those seated in front of them, miss the full aspect of the dancers. The mediocre sound system doesn’t do justice.

Still, I was very glad to have the chance to see the Rioult troop which has performed in New York City for about twenty years. This production should have run longer.

“Street Singer.” Concept and choreography by Pascal Rioult. Written and directed by Drew Scott Harris. Musical Director Don Rebic. Featuring Christine Andreas. Rioult Dance New York at 42West Nightclub, 514 W. 42nd Street, New York City. May 13-16, 2015. Drinks at the club bar and small plates and snacks provided via the Ktchn restaurant at the Out NYC Hotel next door. 5/17/15.

 Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and theatre critic.  Her web site is The Komisar Scoop.

Feb 24th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Churchill

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

The back story of “Churchill,” the solo play finely adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton, is class politics. Though I’m not sure the author meant it that way. Winston Churchill was to the manor born. His grandfather was the Duke of Marlboro and Viceroy of Dublin, his father Henry Spencer-Churchill (Lord Randolph) was a Conservative member of parliament who hadn’t done well at Eaton. Winston couldn’t get into college and took the exam three times to finally get into Sandhurst, the British military academy. Privilege screams.

Keaton is very good as the middle aged Churchill, offering a view of the man that shows personal sensitivity as well as political astuteness. And director Kurt Johns, moving Churchill through time and the backdrop slides seen through large windows, makes you forget there is only one performer in the space.

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill at table, photo Jason Epperson.

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill at table, photo Jason Epperson.

Churchill starts out typical Brit upper upper. He recalls that he was closest to his nanny, and declares that, “She’d lived such an innocent and loving life in service to others that she had no fears at all and did not seem to mind very much. She’d been my dearest and most intimate companion for all of the first twenty years that I’d lived.”

What the upper class thinks of servants who don’t seem to mind very much that they have no lives of their own!!!

His own father apparently cared much less about him. He says he had five conversations with his father over his lifetime. He was sent to boarding school at 7 and recalls a sadistic headmaster who flogged students with a cane. When he was at Harrow, his father never visited, and he died at 45.

The inherited sickness of that upper class, the inbred cruelty, perhaps explains why Churchill despised socialism – a system that attempts to share wealth and opportunity, dominated by the very privileged, such as the Churchills, with the ordinary citizen.

The set is a table with a red cloth and a couple of black leather chairs. The back windows are used for slides of place.

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill making a point, photo Jason Epperson.

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill making a point, photo Jason Epperson.

Keaton as Churchill is a slightly rotund fellow. He is dressed in a striped suit and vest with gold watch chains. He doesn’t sound like Churchill, but that’s not important. He gives you the feeling of the man.

The play starts in March 1946 and much is in flashbacks. After being wartime PM in Britain, he is defeated for reelection by a Laborite, Clement Attlee. We see him before an easel at Blenheim Palace, home of his grandfather, the Duke of Marlboro.

It’s not explained why he was defeated. Well, the war was over, maybe Brits who had suffered a lot didn’t feel the need to suffer more at the hands of a conservative aristocrat who despised socialism.

So, flashbacks. He holds a cigar he picked up in Cuba where he went as a military office. Then he is assigned to India. He writes a best seller, then goes to Sudan and with influence – influence is always important — gets onto that commander’s staff. He sends columns to a newspaper. He makes money from a book on Sudan, resigns his commission and runs for parliament in 1898. What else could an upper class boy trained only in war do?

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill rolling up sleeves, photo Jason Epperson.

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill rolling up sleeves, photo Jason Epperson.

Churchill wins in 1900 and in 1901 enters the House of Commons as a member of the Conservative party. Then curiously he switches to the Liberals of Lloyd George, the son of a Welsh coal miner. The party supports legislation that FDR incorporates into the New Deal. Churchill says, “I was regarded as a traitor to my class.” Lloyd George makes him secretary of state, then First Lord of the Admiralty. He is prescient about World War I and fights in France. There’s no clear explanation of why Churchill changed his stripes.

Afterwards, the Liberal government is defeated by the Socialist Party, led by Ramsey MacDonald. Churchill attacks him as “a Calvinist. A pacifist. A teetotaler.”

Still, Churchill doesn’t have to scrounge for a job. At his Chartwell estate, he paints and keeps race horses. And switches back to the Conservative party.

He opposes the Munich deal of his fellow Conservative Neville Chamberlain, arguing, “You will get war.” Keaton has him say that, “All but one of Britain’s newspapers had supported Chamberlain” and “some even in my own cabinet wanted me to negotiate with the Nazis at home and even abroad. Like your own ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who predicted our defeat and counseled surrender.” Churchill is put in charge again and rouses Britain to commit their “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill, Chartwell estate seen through window, photo Jason Epperson.

Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill, Chartwell estate seen through window, photo Jason Epperson.

After the war, when there are calls for his retirement, he says, “I leave when the pub closes.”

But, one can appreciate the Sandhurst military man’s achievement in wartime without wanting the hater of socialism and the patronizer of his nanny to run the peace.

Back in Chartwell, Churchill gets an invitation from U.S. President Truman to speak in Fulton Mo. There, he gives his famous Iron Curtain speech: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The speech announces the beginning of the Cold War.

Ronald Keaton’s very absorbing play is both a history lesson, of a statesman defending Britain, and a chronicle of class, of an aristocrat opposing the political influence of workers. Plaudits to Keaton if he meant it that way.

Churchill.” Adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton; directed by Kurt Johns. Based on the life and words of Winston Churchill and the teleplay “Winston Churchill” by James C. Humes. New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, New York City. (212) 239-6222 or (800) 872-8997. Opened Feb 18th, 2015; tickets through May 31, 2015. 2/23/15.

 Lucy Komisar is a New York Journalist and Theatre Critic.  Her web site is The Komisar Scoop.

Feb 17th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Kill Me Like You Mean It

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

A hokey funny spoof of film noir, the mood set by 1940s music, this play by the inventive Stolen Chair company mines every verbal and physical cliché in the book. And the ensemble, whose members have been together for a decade, do a superb job in bringing to life the characters, one of whom is soon to be dead. It was written by Kiran Rikhye and directed by Jon Stancato, who must have gotten bleary-eyed watching Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

Nathan Darrow as Ben Farrell and Natalie Hegg as Lydia Forsythe, photo Carrie Leonard.

Nathan Darrow as Ben Farrell and Natalie Hegg as Lydia Forsythe, photo Carrie Leonard.

Private eye Ben Farrell (Nathan Darrow) has the mystery of his career to solve. Crimes are happening after they are written about in a pulp mystery magazine, “Murder Monthly.”

When the publisher of the magazine, Lydia Forsythe (Natalie Hegg), hires him to find her most important writer, who has missed a meeting, she covers her desk with pie charts that show how important he is to circulation. Lydia Forsythe (Natalie Hegg) is good as the glamorous and 1940s assertive woman. Farrell takes the job. (Darrow is perfectly smooth and comically understated in the role.)

Sarah Skeist as Vivian Ballantine, photo Carrie Leonard.

Sarah Skeist as Vivian Ballantine, photo Carrie Leonard.

Meanwhile, a mysterious woman, Vivian Ballantine (Sarah Skeist), phones to ask him to come to see her. She hires him to find her brother. She does a good job as the femme fatale in a tight red dress. She is sultry, so is the music. She tells him, “I live for my jewelry and my gowns.” He says, “I like knowing what makes you tack.” She says, “You mean tick.”

Turns out her brother Tommy Dickie (David Skeist) is the mystery writer. Farrell finds him in a bathtub dressed in a red satin smoking jacket and black patent leather shoes. A tray across the tub holds Scotch. They walk around, stepping into and out of the bathtub. Dickie says have a seat. Farrell says I’ll stand, and he sits down.

Nathan Darrow as Ben Farrell and Jon Froehlich as Detective Jones, photo Carrie Leonard.

Nathan Darrow as Ben Farrell and Jon Froehlich as Detective Jones, photo Carrie Leonard.

But soon he discovers that the next story this crime raconteur is telling has him, the detective, dead.

A running gag is that whoever Farrell meets offers him a cigarette, which he sticks behind his ear, first throwing on the ground the one that’s already there. Soon the floor is littered with cigarettes.

In another shtick, he is confronted by Detective Jones (John Froehlich) who had turned him in for turning in some corrupt cops. The two do an antic à deux throwing their fedoras back and forth. And then trading noisy faked blows.

A knock on the door becomes a drum tattoo.

Can’t tell you how it ends, because even a shaggy dog mystery has secrets.

Bogart and Darrow as Farrell.

Humphrey Bogart circa 1942 and Nathan Darrow as Ben Farrell, photo Carrie Leonard.

“Kill Me Like You Mean It.” Written by Kiran Rikhye; directed by Jon Stancato. Stolen Chair at Fourth Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street, New York City. Opened Feb 16, 2015; closes March 8, 2015. 2/14/15.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and theatre critic.  Her web site is The Komisar Scoop.

Dec 16th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Winter Rhythms

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York 

Between the rock and roll of the sixties and the disco of late seventies stood the golden age of the great singer-song writer.

Laurie Krauz

Laurie Krauz, photo Maryann Lopinto.

Urban Stages, in its sixth season of December cabaret, this year presented twelve days of performances that ranged from the songs of Stephen Sondheim to a tribune to Big Crosby. The performers were major cabaret artists.

One event was a “Salute to Singer/Songwriters of the Seventies” curated by cabaret critic Stephen Hanks. The writers were Carole King, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Carly Simon and Elton John.

Carole J. Bufford

Carole J. Bufford, photo Maryann Lopinto.

Each artist brought her special flair to the songs, showing how different a writer’s work can sound depending on the interpreter. Laurie Krauz, with her middle range modulated voice, turned King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” into a drama. When her voice soars, it is thrilling. Lauren Fox, dressed as a barefoot flower child, gave her “Sweet Season” a country mood.

And Carole J. Bufford took over the stage with “You made me feel like a natural woman.” A bit of twang entered the rich bluesy inflection. Bufford’s performance in this and other songs made it clear that this young woman, who has made a name for herself in recent years, is bound for great things. You will hear about her.

Barbara Porteus, photo Maryann Lopinto.

Barbara Porteus, photo Maryann Lopinto.

Barbara Porteus proved a fine dramatic story-teller in Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Meg Flather was a charmer, exuding style and spirit in “Kodacrome.” Natalie Douglas added a swinging sound of soul to “American Tune.”

Meg Flather

Meg Flather, photo Maryann Lopinto.

Bare-midriffed Lauren Fox was just right for Joni Mitchell’s “Furry Sings The Blues” about a dying Beale Street. Barbara Porteus called forth a torch singer in “All I Want.” Meg Flather had a country sound that pulled us into the scenery “In France.”

Carole Bufford’s rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” was a strong, jazzy interpretation about how the “powers keep on lyin’ while soldiers keep on dyin’.” I liked Laurie Krauz’s dusky voice in the bluesy dramatic “All in Love is Fair.” And then Barbara Porteus’s jazzy rhythmic “Superstition.”

Lauren Fox

Lauren Fox, photo Maryann Lopinto.

There came a different mood with Carly Simon’s songs. Natalie Douglas did “That’s the way I always heard it should be,’ with the words you know: “You want to marry me.” Douglas’ voice climbs and circles us as she expresses the fears of a woman who is not sure that marriage won’t leave her in a strait jacket.

A more hopeful sensibility was found in Meg Flather’s bell voice rendition of loving you’s “The Right Thing to Do.”

I loved the terrific jazzy country duet that Laurie Krauz did with pianist Jon Weber of Simon’s “Mockingbird.”

Natalie Douglas

Natalie Douglas, photo Maryann Lopinto.

The last writer was Elton John who didn’t write his own lyrics but teamed with Bernie Taplin. His country temperament was made for Lauren Fox in a moody rendition of “Tiny Dancer,” telling a seamstress for the band that “you married a music man.” She gives us the feeling that didn’t quite turn out.

Bufford came back with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” an ironic piece about a road” where the dogs of society howl,” in which this terrific story-teller declares, “You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plow.”

Natalie Douglas took us to a jazzy brassy place in “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” about a sugarman.

The production was conceived and directed by Stephen Hanks. Musical director Jon Weber was at the piano, Skip Ward on bass guitar. Value for money, the cabaret at Urban Stages’s intimate theater is the best you can get in New York. Heads up for next year the first two weeks of December.

“Winter Rhythms: Salute to Singer/Songwriters of the Seventies.” Produced by Peter Napolitano. Conceived and directed by Stephen Hanks. Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, New York City. 212-868-4444.  Most tickets are $25, a bit more for drink receptions. December 13, 2014. 12/14/14.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and theatre critic. Her web site is The Komisar Scoop: http://www.thekomisarscoop.com/2014/12/cabaret-artists-salute-singer-songwriters-of-the-seventies/#.dpuf
Oct 22nd

NEW YORK REVIEW: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York 

The star of this mesmerizing production is director Marianne Elliott. Her co-star is video designer Finn Ross. Of course, Alex Sharp is superb as the intense, erratic, edgy, wound-up Christopher, the 15-year-old autistic youth whose mind works like a machine but who can’t get personal connections in gear. He is literal, as precise as math. “Where is heaven?” he asks the pastor. He speaks in great detail but doesn’t like metaphors, because they obscure reality. When a cop says, “Park yourself,” he goes “beep! beep!” and moves backwards.

Alex Sharp as Christopher, photo Joan Marcus.

Alex Sharp as Christopher, photo Joan Marcus.

The play by Simon Stephens is adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel, which is told in the first person. Here is a case where the play may be better than the book. The visualization of how Christopher thinks and perceives the world is stunning and one of the best uses of video in a theatrical production I have seen.

The set is a box made of sides of graph paper, white lines on black. Sometimes, objects are taken out of a square of wall that suddenly becomes a shelf or drawer. Christopher thinks like that mathematical graph. The people of the story all sit on ledges around the set, as they exist in his mind.

The story, which is rather thin, revolves around the mystery of who killed Wellington, the neighbor’s big white dog. The murder weapon, a large garden fork, is still stuck in the animal when we see it. Christopher is accused of the crime, denies it, and resolves to find the culprit. In the course of his detective work, he writes down everything he learns or that happens.

Ian Barford as Ed, Alexander Sharp as Christopher, photo Joan Marcus.

Ian Barford as Ed, Alex Sharp as Christopher, photo Joan Marcus.

The play title is from a line in the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze,” about a dog that doesn’t bark, because it knows the killer. And Christopher of course is as methodical as Holmes.

So much is in his mind, and Francesca Faridany as Siobhan, his special-education teacher, recites from his chronicle, which tells us what goes through it.

His father, Ed (Ian Barford) had informed him his mother had a heart attack and died in hospital. (Barford is good as the broad-shouldered working-class guy.)

His investigation turns up the fact that his mother was having an affair with a neighbor. He writes that down. In fact, Judy (Enid Graham, fine as the distraught mother) could not handle Christopher’s behavior — he even screamed when she held him — decamped from Swindon to London with her lover (Ben Horner), the ex-husband of the lady who owned the dog.

Alexander Sharp as Christopher finding the letters, photo Joan Marcus.

Alex Sharp as Christopher finding the letters, photo Joan Marcus.

The plot takes another turn when Ed comes across the journal. And hides it. But ever the detective, Christopher methodically searches and finds it. And a cache of letters. In the visualization, letters fall out of the sky and he collapses. (Here’s a metaphor made real!)

It turns out his mother had written repeatedly to Christopher from London.

He resolves to go to London to find her. Here’s where the set (by Bunny Christie) and lighting (by Paule Constable) become spellbinding. Planning the trip, he uses little houses to represent the village where he is and the place where his mother is. They are connected with a train track complete with model train.

Alexander Sharp as Christopher navigating the Tube, photo Joan Marcus.

Alex Sharp as Christopher navigating the Tube, photo Joan Marcus.

In London, the Tube is a projection of diagrams and staircases – one of which he slides down. He is never intuitive, only arithmetically exact – using a map book, he walks at right angles to find a destination. Red lights dance on the wall map as he walks through streets.

As in any Holmes mystery, the boy’s pulling together the strands of everyone’s motives will solve the killing. But by then, we don’t care about Wellington, we care about the amazing young man whose psychological handicap is overshadowed by a special kind of genius. It’s a riveting production.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Written by Simon Stephens, adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel, directed by Marianne Elliott. The National Theatre at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200.  Opened October 5, 2014. 10/21/14.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and theatre critic. Her web site is The Komisar Scoop (www.thekomisarscoop.com). 
Sep 22nd

NEW YORK REVIEW: Embers

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York 

Can a director and a set designer destroy a play? The production of Samuel Beckett’s “Embers” at BAM provides a strong argument.

Set of

Set of “Embers,” photo Ros Kavanagh.

A huge skull sits in the center stage. Inside are two actors (Andrew Bennett and Áine Ní Mhuiri) who read the lines of the various male and female characters of Beckett’s play. I thought the production was dreadful. And I thought that maybe the play was also dreadful.

But then I read the script. I realized the play is much better than this production would have you believe. Beckett’s play is about a man, an unsuccessful writer, who is thinking over his life and relation with his father, who may have committed suicide by walking into the sea. His father had told him that he was a “washout,” a failure.

The man does not have happy memories about his late wife, who is presented as a nonetheless affectionate lady. He also hates his daughter, whose only fault appears to be playing Chopin badly.

As lights flicker over the skull, illuminating one part and then another, taking your attention from the text, I realized that director Gavin Quinn of the Pan Pan Theatre decided that he was the star, not Beckett. So, he overwhelmed the script and the characters with a kitchy “avant garde” set (the skull by Andrew Clancy) and direction.

If the play had been done with the characters, and different actors for the various characters in the script, in a relatively normal setting where everyone was seen (normal meaning not naturalistic, but that you can see the characters interacting), it might have been interesting. The way director Trevor Nunn did superbly last year in “All That Fall,” another Beckett radio play. Pan Pan did the same play a year earlier and used no live actors: the audience sat in darkness listening to recorded voices. Not too sorry I missed it.

Quinn destroyed Beckett’s “Embers,” entombing the actors in a giant skull, so you never see them. Sitting on stage left, I sometimes saw the female character though the ghastly eye of the skull, but never the male. That was for the audience at stage right. And the loud miked voices provided no difference or subtlety in delivery.

The skull in fact was a perfect commentary on this production. Deadly.

Embers.” By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Gavin Quinn. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. 718-636-4100. Opened Sept 17; closes Sept. 20 2014. 9/19/14

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and theatre critic. Her web site is The Komisar Scoop (www.thekomisarscoop.com).  

- See more at: http://www.thekomisarscoop.com/2014/09/embers-is-deadly-vision-of-beckett-play/#sthash.kCuLrtT0.dpuf
Sep 10th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Cabaret

By Cameron Lowe

by Lucy Komisar in New York 

Take a trip back to Berlin circa 1930. Inside a cabaret, red lamps light round black tables, a waiter brings wine and food for you, and scantily clad musicians play jazzy music. It’s a charming evening for a sophisticated audience – or is it?

Alan Cumming as the emcee with the Kit Kat Klub dancers, photo Joan Marcus.

Alan Cumming as the emcee with the Kit Kat Klub dancers, photo Joan Marcus.

The decadence is represented by the master of ceremonies (Alan Cumming), who is in-your-face crude, sexual, raunchy, almost elegantly so with his white face, glinty eyes and red lips, white suspenders pulled over a nude chest and twisted around his crotch, nipples colored red. He has a German accent.

Cumming is excellent and chilling in the role, which he created in 1998 and which is smartly directed by Sam Mendes. The memorable songs were written by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics). Orchestra seats set up as cabaret tables pull you into the drama. If you see one musical these days, make it this one.

Dancers sing Wilkommen (welcome). And everyone is. Into the cabaret comes Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Hecht), an American arriving in Berlin to work on a novel. At the Berlin train station, he had met Ernst Ludwig, a German who offered him to way to make some money. He just has to deliver a briefcase. Ludwig is a Nazi. He referred Bradshaw to Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house.

Michelle Williams as Sally and Alan Cumming as the emcee, photo Joan Marcus.

Michelle Williams as Sally and Alan Cumming as the emcee, photo Joan Marcus.

At the club for diversion, Bradshaw meets Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams), 19, an American singer who is not very sure of herself or her future, and is sleeping with the club owner who can help her career.
As Bradshaw appears to be bi-sexual (as was Isherwood, who wrote the stories on which this is based), he turns out to be more than a good friend to Sally when she needs a place to stay. Hecht is fine as the cool American. Williams’ voice is rich and sexy, but she is rather bland and too wholesomely blonde as Sally. She makes you wish for Liza Minnelli, who did the movie role.

Bill Hecht, as Cliff, Michelle Williams as Sally, Danny Burstein as Herr Shultz, Linda Edmond as Fraulein Schneider, photo Joan Marcus.

Bill Hecht, as Cliff, Michelle Williams as Sally, Danny Burstein as Herr Shultz, Linda Edmond as Fraulein Schneider, photo Joan Marcus.

Fräulein Schneider (a very good Linda Edmond) is keeping company with Herr Shultz (the excellent Danny Burstein), a Jewish fruit vendor. Also at her boarding house is the prostitute Fräulein Kost (Gayle Rankin), who does business with visiting sailors. When Schneider catches her at it and warns her, Kost gets revenge by telling Ludwig that Schultz is a Jew.

A Kit Kat Klub waiter starts to sing a patriotic song that turns into the unnerving Nazi theme, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Can Fräulein Schneider marry a Jew. Shultz tells her, “It is not always good to settle for the lowest apple on the tree, climb a little. I will catch you.” Then a brick is thrown threw his shop window. And Fräulein Schneider is singing a Nazi song.

The most stunning number shows the emcee/Cumming and an actor in a gorilla suit.

I know what you’re thinking:
You wonder why I chose her
Out of all the ladies in the world.
That’s just a first impression,
What good’s a first impression?
If you knew her like I do
It would change your point of view.

If you could see her through my eyes,
You wouldn’t wonder at all.
If you could see her through my eyes
I guarantee you would fall (like I did)
When we’re in public together
I hear society moan.
But if they could see her through my eyes
Maybe they’d leave us alone.

How can I speak of her virtues?
I don’t know where to begin
She’s clever, she’s smart, she reads music
She doesn’t smoke or drink gin (like I do)
Yet, when we’re walking together
They sneer if I’m holding her hand,
But if they could see her through my eyes
Maybe they’d all understand.

I understand your objection,
I grant you the problem’s not small.
But if you could see her through my eyes…
She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.

Alan Cumming as the emcee, photo Joan Marcus.

Alan Cumming as the emcee, photo Joan Marcus.

Earlier productions excised the word “Jewish.” (I couldn’t find a production photo for this scene; maybe it’s still too controversial.)

The collapse of the personal connections in the play trails the collapse of German society. Cliff wants Sally to come with him to the U.S. She ignores what is happening around her. She’ll hang onto the glamor of the Kit Kat Klub.

At the end — also not in earlier versions — the emcee pulls open his black leather coat to show a striped shirt of the kind worn by camp inmates with the yellow star for Jews and pink for homosexuals. The darker version belongs.

Cabaret.” Book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by Sam Mendes. Based on the play “I Am a Camera” by John Van Druten, based on stories by Christopher Isherwood. Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York City. 212-719-1300. Opened April 24, 2014; closes end of March 2015. 9/8/14.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist aand theatre critic. Her web site is www.thekomisarscoop.com 

Sep 3rd

NEW YORK REVIEW: Lady Day

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York 

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday, photo Evgenia Eliseeva.

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday, photo Evgenia Eliseeva.

Wrapped in a white gown, an iconic white gardenia in her hair, Audra McDonald channels Billie Holiday — her voice, her accent, her manner — till you believe you are sitting in the slightly tacky Philadelphia dive where Holiday sang her last songs. “What a little moonlight can do” becomes a magical mood changer. It’s helped by the dreamlike direction of Lonny Price.

One great –McDonald — sings another great, Lady Day. Her imitation is brilliant. She has mastered Holiday’s accent, a slight trill, a broad vowel. Lady Day did blues with a jazz beat, following mentors Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

McDonald sings Holiday’s well-known songs as if they were dramas. Her phrasing in “Strange Fruit” is a distinctive intense call of pain.

The back story of her “God Bless the Child” is a parent refusing to help a child. The projection on the wall is of Arthur Herzog Jr., who wrote the song with Holiday. Herzog’s father preferred his sister, who ended up with most of the family money, so the song-writer wrote, “God Bless the Child, who’s got his own… [money]!” Holiday’s mother also refused the generosity her needy daughter required.

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday with bass player, photo Evgenia Eliseeva.

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday with bass player, photo Evgenia Eliseeva.

As an actress, McDonald movingly interprets the story of Lady Day – arrested on a drug charge after her lover put drugs in her suitcase. As a result, she couldn’t get a cabaret card to work in New York City, which destroyed her career. The play shows her harassed by a parole officer.

The story is not only the tragic drama of one of America’s greatest artists, but a commentary about America’s repressive drug laws, which destroy people — black users jailed, white upper class Wall Street/Hollywood users given a pass — while more harmful cigarettes and alcohol remained legal because of the powerful corporations that market them.

Holiday would have had an appropriately dark musical comment about this happening in a country with a black president.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Written by Lanie Robertson; directed by Lonny Price. Circle in the Square, 50th Street between Bway & 8th Avenue, New York City. 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250. Opened April 13, 2014; closes Oct 5, 2014. 8/1/14.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and theatre critic.  Her web site is "The Komisar Scoop"  (www.thekomisarscoop.com)  

Aug 1st

NEW YORK REVIEW: Violet

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

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Sutton Foster as Violet and the cast, waiting at a bus station, photo Joan Marcus.

“Violet” is like an expressionist painting with brush-stroked characters. We see the visual depth of the central figure (Sutton Foster), and the others that interact with her add bits of color.

It is a picture with sound. The production by Brian Crawley (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) is a chamber operetta, with Foster’s strong, rich voice underpinned by deep sweetness. The score moves through a terrific panoply of southern music, from country in Nashville, to blues in Memphis and gospel in Tulsa.

Sutton Foster is superb as Violet, a young woman from the mountains of North Carolina who is on a religious odyssey seeking healing – not just spiritual. When she was 13, her father was swinging an axe when the blade flew off and hit her on the cheek. You don’t see the scar. Foster wears no make-up, but you see the wound through her anguish. Director Leigh Silverman makes the injury a metaphor rather than a horrific event.

Now, it is September 1964 and the grown woman has started out from Spruce Pine by bus to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to see a TV evangelist who can perform the miracle of giving her a new face. She has a fantasy of being a movie star — she names them all: Bardot, Cyd Charisse, Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman. 

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Joshua Henry as Flick, Colin Donnell as Monty, Sutton Foster as Violet, photo Joan Marcus.

Along the way at a bus station rest-stop she meets two servicemen, one white and one black, who are traveling together. Violetis cynical, not trusting, but they win her over. Joshua Henry is excellent as Flick, the intense black soldier, whose unforgettable stentorian voice powers a bluesy, R&B sound.

The white soldier, Monty (Colin Donnell) makes a comment, “Last year, he coulda been thrown in jail for sittin’ here.” The civil rights act had just passed, though real desegregation didn’t happen so quickly after the law, so it was odd to see black man traveling with a white man on the bus and Violet socializing publicly with both.

When they stop in Memphis, the music is country. Monty sings about looking for a woman. Annie Golden is very good playing a hotel hooker in the number, “Anyone Would Do.” Anastacia McCleskey is excellent as an R&B music hall singer doing “Lonely Stranger.”

There are interactions that seem more modern than past. The white soldier starts out seeing Violet as a girl to put her legs up, but then curls up on her lap. He has joined the Green Berets and will go to Vietnam. The black soldier is more protective.

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Emerson Steele as young Violet, Ben Davis as the preacher, photo Joan Marcus.

The dénouement is the arrival at Tulsa and the religious healing. Fortunately, the backdrop to the faith healer is a troop of evangelicals in red robes riveting audience attention with gospel vocals and frantic dances. Rema Webb is smashing as the jazzy gospel performer Lula Buffington who joins the preacher (Ben Davis) and the choir in “Raise Me Up.”

Among others in the cast, Emerson Steele is excellent as the young Violet, a little girl with a powerful country singing voice. Father (Alexander Gemignani) is a sweet and sensitive guy who schools his young daughter in poker to teach her arithmetic.

Finally, Violet is “healed,” because the people she meets care for her in spite of the scar. Both soldiers, in fact, want her, and not just for a one-night-stand. So it’s a metaphor, but not a hokey one. And the southern music is a standout.

Violet.” Book and lyrics by Brian Crawley based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts; music by Jeanine Tesori; directed by Leigh Silverman. Roundabout Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York City. 212.719.1300. Opened April 22, 2014; closes Aug 10, 2014. 7/31/14.

Lucy Komisar is a New York Journalist and theatre critic. Her web site is The Komisar Scoop.