Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Sounds from Beyond Broadway - Holler If Ya Hear Me - Musical Review

Holler If Ya Hear Me - Palace Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Lyrics by Tupac Shakur, Book by Todd Kreidler, Directed by Kenny Leon, Choreographed by Wayne Cilento


Yes, there is a musical on Broadway that features the words, eloquence and anger of Tupac Shakur, the rising rap star who was just breaking into the mainstream before his young life was tragically shattered when he was murdered at the young age of 25. His music and words were full of anger from his view of the streets and the hoods he came from and while his song of hope, "California Love" probably became his most famous song played on Top 40 radio, Tupac Shakur spoke most of the frustrations of living amongst the violence and trap that Black America has been put in. And he spoke from his own view, with his own voice, and it created a devoted following.

Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new Broadway musical uses Tupac's deeply personal songs but tells an original tale of various characters living in the same violent and hopeless streets where nonsensical gang wars rule the day, and people live in fear, or retaliatory anger. Todd Kreidler's book spreads Tupac's word into various voices, mainly concerning a now-freed con John (an amazing Saul Williams, a noted poet) who returns to the streets and tries to stay out of trouble by getting a job at the local mechanics shop owned by the one White man in the cast Griffy (an endearing Ben Thompson, American Idiot). Unfortunately John's girl Corine (a divine Saycon Sengbloh, Fela, Hair) has moved on in during his 10-year imprisonment and is now with John's old friend Vertus (a terrific Christopher Jackson, In the Heights). The plot machinations gets moving pretty soon though when Vertus' brother Benny gets killed before we even register who Benny quite is, and then plots of revenge, pride and rising up are placed as steadily as a rap beat.

Unfortunately, while Tupac's songs have potential to be effective storytelling material in a musical, the cliched plot, and the multiple character plot lines give very little characterization and time to get deeper into each person, and thus the songs, which could have been more effective to deepen the emotions, fail to deliver any real resonance that may further the story.


When the songs fully come to life, like in "Holler If Ya Hear Me", or the respite-from-anger "California Love", they are a burst of energetic brilliance that shows the potential in the show, and the potential to create some real emotional connections. The stirring moments offer a glimpse of what might have been, but this would have benefited from a tryout Off-Broadway or out-of-town and another edit at the book.

The wonderfully game cast, which includes the commanding presence of Tonya Pinkins as Vertus' mother, Mrs. Weston, inject as much energy as they can into this dark and angry piece, and when there is choreography (by Wayne Cilento), it keeps the staging interesting from the plodding book, but alas, the overall structure and vague characters and motives are not enough to make this musical be heard properly.

Photos by Joan Marcus
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Friday, June 06, 2014

Uni(que)sex - Casa Valentina and Queer Bathroom Stories - Play Reviews

Casa Valentina - Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel Friedman Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Harvey Fierstein, Directed by Joe Mantello
Runs until June 29th, 2014

Queer Bathroom Stories - Buddies in Bad Times Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Sheila Cavanagh, Directed by Megan Watson
Runs until June 15th, 2014

Sexuality is far more fluid and if we seem to be a bit better at understanding that, the fluidity of gender identity is an even more misunderstood aspect of humans, and two new plays attempt to explore how we identify genders from within ourselves and from society.


Casa Valentina, the new play by Harvey Fierstein, who has had great success in several drag comedies (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots) brings things back to a calmer, more introspective play about a group of straight-identified men who love to dress up as women. In 1962. Even today we don't quite understand that notion as a society and would assume that the men are just gay men who have not realized, or wanted to come out. But back then, in the Catskills, a married couple opened up a resort hidden away from the prying eyes of the world where these men could, at least momentarily while on vacation, be who they truly wanted to be, in a dress.


It's a fascinating look into a world we tend to mesh with the trans, gay or drag community, and maybe there is some intermixing (as a dramatic plot point interludes) but Fierstein embraces these men, and the woman who loves them (in a heartbreaking performance by Tony-nominated Mare Winningham (Philomena)) that the play is fascinating and fresh when he lets the characters slowly reveal themselves in their natural and most comfortable surroundings, letting them interact at their true core.


The cast is first rate, with layered performances by Nick Westrate (Unnatural Acts), Tom McGowan (Frasier), John Collum (The Scottsboro Boys), Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), Patrick Page (Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark), Larry Pine (Moonrise Kingdom) and Reed Birney (also Tony nominated for this performance).

Unfortunately, Fierstein also tries to set up a dramatic plotline to ante up the stakes, with financial troubles forcing a possibility this refuge may end up closing forever. The machinations to get the plot going bog down the spirit of the play, and distract from an otherwise fascinating character study (and entertaining ensemble). With so much to already explore with the issues at hand, the plotting device only clouds up the most fascinating ideas in the play.

In Queer Bathroom Stories, a series of vignettes written by Sheila Cavanagh based on real-life incidences and interviews about stories that take place in and around the public lavatory, the opposite problem of the play keeps the show from its potential best.


While there are plenty of funny moments, most of the humour derive from the final punchlines from a response that ends up being lighter than its weighty set up. The play, while hints and mentions many fascinating aspects about queer and gender identity culture that is cleverly revealed through the simple act of choosing which gendered bathroom to go into while in a public space, the tone tends to stay serious and dark, and the stories tend to be short and abrupt, sometimes down to a couple of lines per story. Each one individually is interesting and revealing, but put them together as a whole, and it never quite amounts to as much as a play as a whole.


While plays like The Vagina Monologues and Love, Loss, and What I Wore have successfully tied together short stories (with a female empowerment slant), the varying tones and styles, from humorous to serious, and the variation of short quips to longer, more in depth stories. Queer Bathroom Stories has a nice baseline to work with and with some finessing and editing, can possibly become a great night at the theatre, as some of the vignettes are fascinating but seem to end before it truly gets into the dramatic part of its core.

Great direction by Megan Watson keeps each bathroom story flowing from one to the next, keeping what can be a static style of theatre, into something that feels theatrical. Hallie Burt and Chi Ryan Spain don't always hit on every story but when they truly connect with a particular story, it can be powerful and dramatic. Tyson James is quite haunting from the first moment and never lets up, revealing strengths and vulnerabilities between each character in each story, that often jump from one to another in lighting speed.

Photos of Casa Valentina by Matthew Murphy
Photos of Queer Bathroom Stories by Dahlia Katz
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Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Shoe Must Go On! - Cinderella - Ballet and Musical Reviews

Cinderella - National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Choreographed by James Kudelka, Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Runs until June 15th 2014

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella - Broadway Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics and Original Book by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, New Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Directed by Mark Brokaw, Choreographed by Josh Rhodes

We never seem to tire of the classic tale of the poor girl Cinderella, tormented by her wicked stepmother and two stepsisters, who, thanks to her fairy godmother, manages to meet and fall in love with the Prince. Of course, at midnight, the magic disappears and Cinderella must leave the ball, but not before leaving behind her glass slipper (or in the ballet's case, her sparkly pointe shoe). A ruse to get the Prince to search for his love, before a humble Cinderella slips into the shoe that fits perfectly. Plotholes and feminism be damned, but it's a well worn tale that we still seem to clamour for.


The National Ballet of Canada revisits the classic tale that I adored back in 2008, and this time around, I adored it even more. While the tale itself isn't revolutionary, James Kudelka's choreography still feels fresh and new, within this very classic story. It's a lovely and amusing ballet and Cinderella, especially with it's grande ball at the centre of its story as a grand excuse for some glorious dancing from the entire company, with beautiful costumes that billow as the dancers partner up and dance around in this fantasy dream.


Kudelka adds a world wide search by the Prince in his search for the woman who fits the shoe, which adds a fun element for the Prince and his Officers, with additional roles for the women representing his potential princesses from each locale he searches.


Add in some physical comedy in the wicked Stepmother and Stepsisters, played to joyous sneering delight by Alejandra Perez-Gomez as the Stepmother, and Tanya Howard and Rebekah Rimsay (repeating her deliciously hilarious role from 2008) as the Stepsisters (above), and this Cinderella keeps things light between the dreamy romance, anchored by the swoonworthy team of Sonia Rodriguez in the title role and Guillaume Côté as the handsome Prince.


Wonderful dancing and characterizations by the rest of the company, and this time, a new standout to note was Trygve Cumpston, one of the Officers, joining the corps that has many dancers to watch for in the future.

The new Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on Broadway (now running over a year), based on their TV movie special score , with a revised book by Douglas Carter Beane, manages to modernize the old-fashioned tale and adds a nice girl-power twist, and adds some dimension to the Prince's plight. While I saw the wonderful original cast (with Laura Osnes in the title role and Santino Fontana as the Prince), the current cast boasts pop star (and former Canadian Idol contestant) Carly Rae Jepsen as Cinderella, with TV star Fran Drescher as the Wicked-Stepmother. The rest of the cast includes original (and very funny) Ann Harada as one of the wicked stepsisters (and a sweet Stepahnie Gibson as the other stepsister who isn't as evil as we initially think), and Victoria Clark as the fairy godmother, but while I adored this production the first time around, with it's clever modernization of the story (adding a political element, a misunderstood "evil" stepsister, and a Prince with more depth than this story usually allows for), the beautiful originating music, and the gorgeous Tony winning costumes by William Ivey Long, the big question currently is: How are Carly Rae Jepsen and Fran Drescher.


Fran Drescher plays Fran Drescher as the evil-Stepmother, here called Madame, which is perfect for the role of the evil-stepmother. It's not really a stretch but you can delight at Ms. Drescher having a delight on stage, spitting out her lines with relish.


Carly Rae Jepsen, with her lower and raspier natural singing voice, sounds very different than the more classic and smooth voice of Laura Osnes, but Jepsen is surprisingly strong and her voice sounds beautiful singing R&H's songs. She's also wonderfully loving and winning in the role, which admittedly, isn't the most difficult role to act out, but Jepsen more than acquits herself and manages to turn in a very strong stage performance.

I also managed to see the understudy as the Prince but to my delight, it was Cody Williams, who was a revelatory delight in Arena Stage's Oklahoma!, and again here, was perfectly wonderful as the pondering Prince.

Photo of Cinderella Ballet - Rebekah Rimsay and Tanya Howard by Aleksandar Antonijevic
Photos of Cinderella Ballet - All others - by Cylla von Tiedemann
Photo of Cinderella on Broadway by Carol Rosegg 

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Survival of the Fittest - The Killer - Play Review

The Killer - Theatre for a New Audience - Brooklyn, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Eugène Ionesco, Newly Translated by Michael Feingold, Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Runs until June 29th 2014


Famed actor Michael Shannon (Grace, Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, Boardwalk Empire) is known for his intensity in his roles, usually playing the nemesis. Here in Ionesco's The Killer, he's oddly not playing the title character, and instead, Shannon plays Berenger, the hapless everyman hero who accidentally happens upon a utopian town called Radiant City after taking the wrong bus. He's in awe of the beautiful houses, the never-ending blue skies, the beautiful flowers that receive rain from underneath. Everything seems perfect except for the fact that a serial killer has been murdering everyone and the authorities have simply given up catching him and let the killer continue along his ways.


Being an Ionesco play, it is dark, and darkly funny. The absurdity is all veiled political commentary and the absurdity of human's nature, and our willingness to accept a followers position. The Killer is presented in three vastly different acts, with this production, directed by Darko Tresnjak (A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder), following Ionesco's many stage directions and sound effects to great effect, using a mostly bare stage to evoke the utopian world that gets dispelled by a mysterious menacing killer.


When we follow Berenger back to his apartment (in the only literal set) in the depressing real world, we meet Edward, a friend who the audience can easily see is the Grim Reaper, there to seduce Berenger to his world. Against the madness of a busy world (and some hilarious lines spat out by a cleaner played by the always reliable Kristin Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). When Berenger ultimately meets the Killer in the third act, the two opposing figures creep towards each other on two separate turntables that slowly spins them together until the ultimate match up. Berenger offers up a rant to save himself in what turns into the slowest chase scene ever, staged with incredibly creepy sound effects and in such slow and precise physical movements, that while the build up should work to build up an air of suspense, it instead deflates itself with too much atmosphere and not enough substance in this final act to sustain the act.


While the play loses steam in the final act, Michael Shannon, an unlikely everyman hero, is wonderfully intense but in an unusually hopeful way, and we easily root for his Berenger, who returns into 3 other of Ionesco's plays, and the first two acts breeze by in its mix of satirical absurdity and the intense allusions it manages to create. Robert Stanton as perfectly dry as The Architect of Radiant City, while Paul Sparks is derangedly creepy and yet amusing as Edward.

Ionesco's The Killer is not the easiest play to sit through, and it has an abundance of ideas, particularly pointed in today's world of cell phones and NSA that seem particularly forward thinking for a play written and produced in the late 1950s, but when it mostly works, with a commanding lead in Shannon, it can be quite absorbing and chillingly humorous.

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