Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Falling In Love With - The Fantasticks - Musical Reviews

The Fantasticks - Jerry Orbach Theater at the Snapple Theater Center - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Harvey Schmidt, Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, With the original Direction by Word Baker

The Fantasticks - Soulpepper at Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Harvey Schmidt, Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Directed by Joseph Ziegler

So I finally got the chance to see The Fantasicks on Broadway (and it really is now on the actual Broadway street, after having re-opened 6 years ago after a 4 year break from where it originally ran for over 40 years) and now I'm not sure why I waited so long. And within a week, I checked out the new production of The Fantasticks at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, and while each production had its own minor flaws, the delight in watching the earnest spirit of the musical has made me fall in love with this little musical that could.

For those of you, who like me, have never seen the world's longest running musical (and there seemed to be a few fellow theatre blogger friends there who all somehow haven't either), the simple musical is essentially about a boy and a girl who fall in love. It takes place back in a time that seems more pure, more simplistic, more earnest, but there's a cleverness to the story that takes the whole-goodness for a detour. Much of the show borrows elements from more classic tales, including a mix of Romeo & Juliet, Midsummer's Night's Dream and the original New York production is famous for its simplistic presentation that is supposedly inspired by Our Town (with its minimal set).

The Fantasticks on Broadway, with its original direction still in tact, is still presented with a simplicity that reinforces what the music asks us to do right off the bat in the first song. "Try to Remember" directs us to look back on simpler times, as El Gallo (above, a charismatic Edward Watts, Finian's Rainbow), our Spaniard narrator, starts to explain the pieces of the show to us. With a Mute (an enchanting Matt Dengler, A Little Night Music) acting as sort of the magician's assistant/stagehand/the wall.

The beauty of the old fashioned songs is both in the mix of sweetness and their intrinsic humour of the boy and girl's naiveté. Throw along the boy and girl's pseudo-feuding fathers, and their secret attempt to arrange the marriage, and there's a loveliness that you either accept whole-heartedly, or groan as your eyes roll back.

With Matt Leisy as the boy Matt, and Juliette Trafton as the girl Luisa, it's easy to enter into their easy romance, with both imbuing an easy youthful innocence that makes it easy to believe their gullibility in the charade the fathers (the terrific odd-couple duo of Gene Jones and Bill Bateman) and El Gallo throws upon them.

Trafton's voice has a girlishness that is pure, if not sometimes too clear, but it's Leisy's smooth and solid voice that gives his Matt the texture that enrichens his "perfect boy-next-door" character into something deeper (particularly required in Act 2).

Without giving too much away, while Act 1 brings us something so lovely and romantic, Act 2 throws things for a loop as an alter-reality sets in with some of the darker shades of the world. But with the magical motif in the direction, and clever staging, the show remains as whimsical and romantically dreamlike throughout.

The sole moments that throw things off are the awkward scenes where El Gallo calls up two "actors" Henry and Mortimer (MacIntyre Dixon and Michael Nostrand) and their clownish routine wears thin fast, and seems incongruous to the rest of the show.

Over in Toronto, Soulpepper's production stars its Artistic Director Albert Schultz as El Gallo, and one of my favorite young and up and coming actors, Jeff Lillico as the boy Matt, along with his Salt Water Moon co-star Krystin Pellerin as the girl Luisa.

While Lillico and Pellerin have great voices, they don't quite measure up to Leisy and Trafton, and the Canadian counterparts exude charm and loveliness but don't quite have the fresh youthfulness.

Joseph Ziegler's wood motif that seems to colour the production in a nostagic hue is also wonderfully simple in a different way. The magic motif is gone, but the romantic whimsy remains (although with a few less missed punchlines). Where Ziegler gets it completely right though is with the two "actors" Henry and Mortimer. Oliver Dennis' Henry and Michael Simpson's Mortimer hits the right tone to match the show, while making their clownish antics into absolute hilarity, particularly Dennis who approaches Henry with the belief that Henry believes he is a serious thespian (which makes all of his lines all the funnier).

Michael Hanrahan and William Webster work well together as the fake-feuding fathers, and both have strong voices and great comic timing that doesn't defy the innocent tone.

Both the long-running New York production and the limited-run Toronto production are enchanting in similar ways, though each seem to excel in what the other seems to be missing. But the flaws are just minor and can be overlooked in the haze of romantic delight that The Fantasticks produces.

Vance at

More After the Jump...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Winter's Tales on Stage - Theatre Reviews

Driving Miss Daisy - Golden Theatre - Broadway - New York, NY - ***
Three Sisters - Classic Stage Company - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - ****
The Big League - Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People - Toronto, ON - ***
The New York Idea - Atlantic Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - ***
Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage! - Sofia's Restaurants Downstairs Cabaret Theater - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - **1/2
Sunset Blvd - The Max at Signature Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington D.C.) - ***
Saint Carmen of the Main - Bluma Apel Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - *1/2

Driving Miss Daisy - Golden Theatre - Broadway - New York, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Alfred Uhry, Directed by David Esbjornson
Runs until Apr. 9th 2011

Driving Miss Daisy is a cute little play and while it started off on stage, is probably more known for the film version that became an Oscar Best Picture. It returns to the stage as its first time on Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones taking the iconic roles of Daisy, the aging Southern Jewish lady and Hoke, her Black chauffeur hired by Daisy's concerned son Boolie (the always reliable stage presence of Boyd Gaines).

James Earl Jones is a complete delight here as the very honorable Hoke, and Jones brings a childlike freshness to the role, with his bright wide eyes and young innocence.

Vanessa Redgrave is a wonderful actress but while she manages to convey the put-togetherness of Daisy, she doesn't quite soften as the story goes on, with a chemistry with Jones that doesn't quite hit the notes required for this simple story.

The staging is simple and effective if unmemorable, and projections help give some movement to a static play that relies on a story about driving (which works far better on film). Driving Miss Daisy is a pleasurable, if unnecessary detour, but to see two legendary actors on stage is always a pleasure.

Three Sisters - Classic Stage Company - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Anton Chekhov, Directed by Austin Pendleton
Runs until Mar. 6th 2011

I’ve seen Chekhov’s Three Sisters before, though I don’t remember anything about it. I’ve seen Ivanov and I enjoyed the production, but didn’t care for the melodramatic Russian historic soap opera aspects about it. And The Seagull put me right to sleep. So at this point, I’ve got to say, I’m not exactly a fan of Chekhov, and I find his plays kind of boring. It’s odd since he touches into the day to day lives of Russian folks which is something I usually love. But I just have never been able to truly get into Chekhov’s rhythms

So it must be to this latest production’s credit that I was only mildly bored once, and for the rest of the 3 acts, found myself quite enjoying Three Sisters. With it’s starry cast that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal as one of said sisters, and her real life husband Peter Sarsgaard, it’s become quite the sellout in the limited seating at Classic Stage Company.

Walking in upon a giant wooden table sitting at at the centre of three sides of seating, the audience, sitting mere feets away from the action, truly gets to listen and peer into these Russian’s lives. One feels that the intimate atmosphere is exactly how Chekhov is meant to be experienced.

Fantastic performances from Jessica Hecht (A View From the Bridge, Friends), Josh Hamilton, Marin Ireland (reason to be pretty), Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard (much improved since his The Seagull outing), brings a breathability to Three Sisters.

The Big League - Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by James Durham, Directed by Mary Ellen MacLean
Runs until Feb. 24th 2011

The Big League is a charming little lesson show geared for kids and teens, but the lessons learned in this Canadian play about hockey is probably even better suited for their parents. While the final ending slides overtime to the over-preachy side that it had avoided through 3 periods, the tireless cast (on rollerblades) is so winning that the lessons about sports, integrity, and the degree of importance about winning becomes a fun little lesson plan.

An endearing Simon Rainville plays Tommy, a kid who loves playing hockey, at until it is time to try out for the bigger leagues in AAA hockey, when his father turns the fun sport into work. Along the way, Don Berry and Ron McLeen makes appearances, and it’s all in amusing fun until someone gets hurt.

The talented cast of four, including Matt Bois, Mark McGrinder, and Tamila Zavlassky do wonders around Jung-Hye Kim’s epic rink set, and the clever lighting design (by Rebecca Picherack), gives this little show the big look it needs to join the big leagues.

The New York Idea - Atlantic Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Langdon Mitchell, revised by David Auburn, Directed by Mark Brokaw
Runs until Feb. 26th 2011

David Auburn revises a play from 1896 and updates the story to 1904. It’s not much of a leap, and in 2011, the play still feels old, a style of play that once was, but a game cast, and the old comedy of errors routine manages to keep this play about the TABOO subject of divorcees and social standings, into a pleasant show.

The lovely Jaime Ray Newman is at the centre of the story, a divorcee who is about to marry the dependable Phillip Philmore (Michael Countryman), but a rich man and exes from both side show up on the eve of the wedding to stir things up and the old society woman are not impressed.

A great cast that includes Jeremy Shamos (Clybourne Park) , Joey Slotnick, Rick Holmes and Francesca Faridany buoy this simple and dated play into something that feels fresh, despite topics that are barely relevant anymore.

Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage! - Sofia's Restaurants Downstairs Cabaret Theater - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Ken Davenport and Sarah Saltzberg, Directed by Ken Davenport

The sometimes funny, sometimes awkward show seems to be doing fine with tourists and women on a girls-night out evening, and for a while, there’s enough charm and double entendres behind its Miss Manners veil. With its simple conceit, the writing is simple but mines what everyone (or every girl at least) loves to talk about: love. Finding it, getting it, keeping it. We have a self-professed love expert giving us tips on dating, mating & marriage.

The play is amusing enough when it explores what we’ve explored years over already. It’s nothing new, but love is always funny. The play is especially likable when Miss Abigail’s assistant Paco (Manuel Ferrera, Legally Blonde, who has since left the show) seems to be learning from all of Miss Abigail’s pointers on love to win her own heart.

Eve Plumb headlines as Miss Abigail, and she’s gotten the proper lady act down pat, but the show relies on several scenes with audience interaction and when Plumb is able to play along, it can be hilarious, but often, she seems at a loss to the surprise of what real audiences can bring. Luckily Manuel Ferrera’s Paco is there to pick up the improv pieces and smooth awkwardness over with some hilarious reactions.

Sunset Blvd - The Max at Signature Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington D.C.) - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, Based on the Billy Wilder film
Sunset Boulevard, Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Runs until Feb. 13th 2011

I’m not exactly a fan of Sir ALW, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is probably the only show of his I truly love, and that’s because I performed it in high school. Like Joseph though, I got to experience Sunset Blvd in high school via a newspaper project to review the cast recording, and so while I knew it wasn’t a particularly great musical, I’ve always had a soft spot for the musical (based on the classic film), one that I’ve never actually seen.

So considering Signature has done some exceptional new musicals (Giant, The Visit) and revivals (Kiss of the Spider-Woman), I was excited to see them present it in their intimate space. Production wise, Signature did not disappoint. Particularly when the mansion is revealed with such simplicity and ingenuity and we feel like we’re sitting in an immensely Grande (with a big “G”) space. The sets, by Daniel Conway (who also did the simple but stunningly beautiful set for Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play) and Signature’s Chess), beautifully switches into a variety of settings with little effort, but resulting in bold looks.

It was fun to see what is essentially a mega-musical in such an intimate space, and the chorus numbers are fun and exciting, but the real star here is Norma Desmond (aside from the mansion). Florence Lacey doesn’t look like the diva Norma needs to be at first, but her Norma starts melting over in delusional grandeur and we finally see glimmers of the faded Norma Desmond from yesteryears beneath her agedness.

Lacey’s counterpart Joe, played by D.B. Bonds (so charming in Legally Blonde tour) breezes through the show with an underdog charm, but Bonds’ Joe never seems to truly care about anything he does. It’s part of his character, but there needs to be an underlying conviction to make story believable, and instead, all these events just sort of seem to happen to Joe.

The lyrics don’t exactly help the believability of the story, and sometimes it all seems trite. The film noir aspect of Billy Wilder’s film is lost amongst the musicality Webber infuses into the adaptation, but then when it works, like in the title song, there’s some truly thundering moments.

Ed Dixon playing Norma’s butler Max has the most tremendous voice and gives the 2nd banana role the gravitas needed to give the musical the emotional depth it needs.

Sunset Blvd still isn’t an amazing musical (one that I still partially love despite its flaws), but Signature manages to highlight most of the bright moments and presents an entertaining production.

Saint Carmen of the Main - Bluma Apel Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - *1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Michel Tremblay, Translated by Linda Gaboriau, Directed by Peter Hinton
Runs until Mar. 5th 2011

A revival of Tremblay play that is part of a trilogy series about Quebec doesn't seem to quite work, despite revisions and directorial decisions to make it feel updated and current. Much of it comes from Tremblay's play modeled after a Greek tragedy, with Greek chorus and monologues telling the story (and not showing, not a favorite style of mine), but with a story at the heart of the play that doesn't seem all that tragic anymore.

The basic story, of Saint Carmen, returns to Quebec from Nashville as a Country Music star, begins singing about the prostitutes and those in the red light district of Montreal (on the Main) as she dares to create art after being a commercial star, becoming a hero to those living in the fringes, and angering others.

Hinton makes some interesting choices, with a beautifully red and bold greek round theatre stage setting, and a large cast of some good local theatre actors in the chorus, dressed straight out of the Rocky Horror Show, but having Carmen (Laara Sadiq) looking exactly like Lady Gaga and trying to keep the play relevant seems unsuccessful.

Jackie Richardson makes an appearance as a Gypsy rival and she wonderfully commands the stage in her monologue, but while the cast attempts their best, the monologues don't have the dramatic heft to hold attention, and despite Tremblay's allegory to Quebec's struggles, it all just seems cliched now (not helped by the Lady Gaga/artiste modif).

Vance at

More After the Jump...

Friday, February 04, 2011

Just Deserts - Arabian Nights - Play Review

Arabian Nights - Arena Stage's Finchlander Theatre - Washington, D.C. - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Mary Zimmerman, Adapted from
The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night
Runs until Feb. 20th 2011

I've only seen 2 other Mary Zimmerman projects, but watching her The Arabian Nights seems to solidify that she excels in pulling together various stories and plot threads and smoothing them over into one unifying and thrilling experience. She managed to turn Ovid's tales into an easily digestible, wondering experience in Metamorphoses, and she streamlined the sprawling story of Voltaire's Candide and finally made Leonard Bernstein's musical work in a simply astonishing fashion that flowed so easily through the maze of events.

Now, Mary Zimmerman has managed to squeeze the 1001 stories that make up The Arabian Nights and turn it into a glorious night under the stars and in the hot desert sands all in the midst of Arena Stage's newly and beautifully renovated theatre centre on a cold D.C. night. While Zimmerman doesn't actually fit all 1001 stories in, she covers a LOT of them, with stories within a story that helps tie it all together. It takes a few scenes to figure out the rhythms that have been set up (and to be honest, I was a little confused in some of the earlier scenes since it really is just a bunch of different stories being told), but once you wrap your head around Zimmerman's set up (because like Inception, sometimes it goes a few layers deep, with at one point, there are stories within a story within the overall story), The Arabian Nights becomes a fascinating trip the Middle East.

The talented ensemble cast of 14 keep things clear and moving as they continuously change roles as they tell the many tales of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. There's not a weakness in the cast, though with each actor constantly changing their looks into new characters, it's hard to keep track sometimes of who is who, which is how good they are at slipping into new roles. The only constant is the main story frame where David DeSantos plays King Shahryar, who spurned by a former lover, now takes a new virgin a night before he kills her. When he captures Scheherezade (a beautifully serene Stacey Yen) and her sister (a delightful Maureen Sebastian), she buys survival time by telling the King these 1001 stories that all come to life.

With a beautifully simple and evocative set by Daniel Ostling, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, and lighting by T.J. Gerckens, Zimmerman easily pulls us into this ancient world of the Middle East, and subtly and smartly echoes these lesson tales to our own modern world.

Sometimes the tales are silly (there's a story on farts that goes on about 20 seconds too long, but is funny nonetheless), sometimes they are horrifying, sometimes they leave me mystified by what exactly happened or the impending message, but nonetheless, I was almost always enthralled (when I wasn't confused at the beginning). The stories tickle, bemuse, scare, delight ones senses and the way Mary Zimmerman directs them all with such a fluidity between the funny and the serious, the old stories come to life in such a stunning way.

Presented in theatre-the-round, with the sounds of beating drums and tambourines, Zimmerman makes wonderful use of the space, and in one spectacular scene, it seems like the cast tries to present as many of the remaining 1001 stories that haven't been told yet, all at once. With what seems like dozens of stories being told simultaneously, the audience listens in on the ones closest to them. It's a spectacular scene that surprisingly works, both technically and in spirit.

Zimmerman has fashioned such an elegant production full of wit and humour that her ultimate spin on the entire show leaves one quite breathless (without giving too much away). Particularly with current situations happening in the Middle East and in the desert sands of what Arabia refers to, it is refreshing to look back upon the 1001 tales to see how different those people are, and to realize how we really aren't.

Vance at

More After the Jump...