Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Saved by the Sell - The Understudy and Tin Pan Alley Rag - Roundabout Reviews

The Understudy - Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Theresa Rebeck, Directed by Scott Ellis
Opened Nov. 5th 2009, Runs until Jan. 17th 2010

Tin Pan Alley Rag - Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Book by Mark Saltzman, Music & lyrics Irving Berlin & Scott Joplin, Directed by Stafford Arima, Choreographed by Liza Gennaro
Ended Sept. 6th 2009

I have now seen a play that stars Zack Morris. My life is now complete!

Saved By the Bell's Mark-Paul Gosselaar co-stars in a new backstage comedy about a down-and-out actor (Weeds' Justin Kirk) hoping the main star (Morris... er... Gosselaar (also in the enjoyable but now just cancelled Raising the Bar)) takes a night off for his own starring role in The Understudy. It's the latest Roundabout Theatre Company play at their Off-Broadway venture. It also stars Julie White (Twelfth Night, The Little Dog Laughed, Transformers). That's all you need to know. JULIE WHITE. She makes every line funny. Even if it wasn't written as so. BRILLIANT!

The Roundabout has been getting some flack of late for some bad productions, including this past summer's Tin Pan Alley Rag, but it was only a year ago when I was astounded by a riveting production of Streamers in the very same Off-Broadway theatre (it also landed in my Best of Stage 2008 list).

While both of the latest shows, The Understudy and Tin Pan Alley Rag are mildly entertaining plays, it's the actors that truly sell it and make it work as much as they can. And in the case of The Understudy, Julie White can make things work when they shouldn't, while Gosselaar brings a lot of his TV charms to the stage. His huge guns don't hurt either.

Gosselaar still seemed a bit nervous at times and didn't feel completely comfortable on stage yet but he has that natural swagger that makes it work, and given time, I can see him becoming a pretty terrific stage presence. It's probably not a huge stretch to play a Hollywood actor out of his element playing a Broadway stage for the first time, but Mark-Paul nails the comedic elements and keeps his character from being a total buffoon. A dumb actor who might just be smarter than we give him credit for.

This of course throws off Justin Kirk's understudy, an erudite actor slumming it as Gosselaar's standby and Kirk brings in the zany neuroticism required, though at times, almost too far from the play at hand. Granted, Theresa Rebeck's play isn't the most original play or even the mostly tightly written and in on itself, is only a serviceable script.

Again which is why having Julie White play the stage manager/ex-to Gosselaar probably saved the entire show. Her zingers and line readings actually have bite, and even a sigh or a moan elicits huge laughter.

So thanks to the cast, I ended up having a grand time and I must say, I am now a devoted Julie White fan. I've already been a longtime fan of Justin Kirk's, and I look forward to seeing Mark-Paul Gosselaar in more stage shows.

Meanwhile, back in the summer, Roundabout staged its first musical in their Off-Broadway space and Tin Pan Alley Rag was a nice, if forgettable little ditty that played like Ragtime on a major diet. It is the fictional account of a meeting between Scott Joplin (master of Ragtime music) and Irving Berlin (master of white people music) and their musical influences on each other. Throw in a side love story, and well... that's about it. Tin Pan Alley Rag plays like an elaborately presented history lesson like those animatronic rides at Disney World. Safe and light with a bit of information, but really, you're just waiting to get onto Space Mountain.

While the staging by Stafford Arima makes the best of the bland history lesson, Michael Boatman (Spin City) and especially Michael Therriault (Lord of the Rings: The Musical) manage to give some life into the show. Since nothing really happens in the show (and what does happen, is apparently entirely made up), Boatman and Therriault's performances become the show and luckily their singing is terrific (as well as Jenny Fellner who managed to survive Pal Joey, here in a all-too-small "leading lady" role) and create likable characters.

Michael Therriault in particular spins off a gentle charisma portraying Berlin (and a complete different performance from his Gollum) and I look forward to his return to Canada next summer at Stratford where he'll play Peter Pan!

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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