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Theater and cabaret reviews from
The TRU UPDATE

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Let us know what YOU'VE seen lately. You didn't have to love it, but try to be kind and constuctive in your comments. Or use this as a way to plug your own shows. That's okay with us!


- TRU WORD OF MOUTH -
Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
~John F. Kennedy

Public sentiment is everything.
With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.
~Abraham Lincoln

CLICK HERE for New York reviews, current and closed

CLICK HERE FOR REVIEWS FROM NASHVILLE:
The Further Adventures of Cootie Simone, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), The Complete History of America (Abridged)

CLICK HERE FOR REVIEWS FROM THE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, CANADA:
London Assurance, South Pacific, Oliver!, Arms and the Man, The Duchess of Malfi

CLICK HERE FOR REVIEWS FROM LONDON:
Mary Poppins, Woman in White, Don Carlos, Billy Elliot, Guys and Dolls

CLICK HERE FOR REVIEWS FROM NASHVILLE:
A Scattered, Smothered and Covered Christmas, A Christmas Carol, Zombies Can't Climb

CLICK HERE FOR REVIEWS FROM LONDON:
Mary Poppins, Woman in White, Don Carlos, Billy Elliot, Guys and Dolls

CLICK HERE FOR REVIEWS OF THE '06 MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL THEATER FESTIVAL:
LOL, The Wastes of Time, Motion and Location, Pie-Obsessed Drunken Fatties, Sex and Sealing Wax,
The Siblings, MentalPause, The Quiet Model, Wake of the Essex

CLICK HERE FOR REVIEWS FROM 2005 MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL:
21 Stories: A Broadway Tale, Cervix with a Smile, It's Only a Play, Spit It Out

NY REVIEWS:

CURRENT: Sistas, Memphis, Silence!, Porgy & Bess

CLOSED: Bonnie & Clyde, On a Clear Day..., Ragtime, Wishful Drinking, The Toxic Avenger, The Little Dog Laughed, Jay Johnson: the Two and Only, Changing Violet, SHOUT!, DruidSynge, Drowsy Chaperone, The Wedding Singer, Jayson with a Y, Pig Farm, I Love You Because..., Souvenir, Doubt, Bingo, Light in the Piazza, Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Shockheaded Peter, Democracy, Little Women, La Cage Aux Folles

CURRENTLY RUNNING:

SISTAS

What a pleasure (and a relief) to finally get to TRU member Dorothy Marcic's musical Sistas the Musical, a surprisingly engaging and thoroughly entertaining history of African-American women through decades of familiar and not-so-familiar song. Yes, it's a jukebox musical, but the five female characters (four African American and one white sister-inlaw) are performed with exceptional polish and professionalism by a superbly talented cast. The singing is terrific, from Bessie Smith blues to Supremes girl-group harmonies to Beyonce and beyond. Dorothy has managed to find a workable story framework that holds this range of music nicely, and only occasionally does it all feel like a history lesson as mother, daughters and daughter-in-law rummage through an attic and reminisce about the recently departed family matriarch while they try to find the just-right song to sing at grandma's funeral. The actresses all play with commitment and create believable characters from what could have been a lineup of sterotypes. Some might find it a bit sentimental, but I bought it, and loved hearing all those great songs. Catch it at the theater at St. Luke's, 46th and 8th Avenue. You'll have a great time. ~Bob Ost

COUGAR

I hesitated to see a  musical called Cougar The Musical.  REALLY?  Another stereotypical stylized sterilization of menopausal women (AGAIN, already???) seeking satisfaction through their conquest of young men; in fact, this is FAR from the truth.  Last night, I attended a performance of Cougar The Musical  and if you’re on the prowl for a fun, engaging 90-minute musical, then you’re in for a treat at St. Luke’s Theater.  Cougar The Musical  is exactly everything that you wouldn’t  think it would be – a play of substance delivering a message with clarity and characters whose paths intersect at critical crossroads.

As a jaded New York theater goer, tired of the spectacle star-centered mega-shows, I’m constantly searching for some simple, honest dramatic stories that take risks and offers intellectual challenges for both the players and the audience.  Granted, I’m delighted to have found the work being done at The Signature Theater as well as Second Stage Theater stimulating.  But who would have thought that a musical about Cougars, a pejorative term to describe older women having flings with young men would be among those stories to refresh my soul?

And soul this musical has—from its Charlie’s Angels trench coat trio opening number On The Prowl (for more than young men) the three women, Lily (Catherine Porter),Clarity (Brenda Braxton), and Mary-Marie (Babs Winn) create an ensemble worth going to see just for their authentic performances.  The characters are all at life transitions:  Mary Marie’s solo investment of a Cougar-themed bar, Lily’s recent divorce, and Clarity’s career changing crisis.  All 3 struggle with their roles as daughters, wives (or the denial of one in Clarity’s case), and mothers seeking that balancing act of  WOMAN-WOMEN –WOMYN.

What’s so refreshing is how the arc of the play takes you through each of the dilemmas without patronizing or compromising the integrity of the conflict – combining comedy with pathos ( I was moved by Mother’s Love) without the sappy sentiment.  Each song, each scene, raised the stakes and engaged your brain, pulled heart strings and elicited laugh-out-loud responses to life’s conundrums AKA the double-standard.  Danny Bernardy, the fourth and ambidextrous member of the cast played all the male characters; although, my favorite was Eve, the Oriental manicurist whose polish would make them all Shiny & New.

Don’t go to see this show if you’re looking for flash, and special effects both literal and metaphorical with its pap outcomes.  But if you want to be entertained and leave the house feeling your funny-bone was tickled and your soul uplifted, then Cougar The Musical  is a purrr-fect choice! ~Frances McGarry, FIRST ONLINE WITH FRAN

NOW CLOSED :

BEDLAM THEATER'S HAMLET

Call me uncultured, but truth be told, I was getting tired of Shakespeare. It seems like this season everyone is honoring the Bard, and that’s great—but really? Again? And then a miracle happened opening night (Nov. 19) at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on Bleecker Street in NoHo: The Bedlam Theater presentation of HAMLET. Oh . . my . . god. My fellow satiated and cynical New Yorkers, you think you have seen everything—and then you see these four astonishing actors create every moment of the world’s most famous play—and you feel like you’ve never seen it or anything like it before.

While honoring the text of Shakespeare’s masterwork, these genius inventors of theater (and that is what they are) have so happily understood the words, so thoroughly relished the complexities of plot and so freshly looked at how this 400 year old play fits today’s world, that something entirely new happens. It’s not that they have changed the play to make it “relevant,” or tried to do a lot of bells and whistles to make us “gee wow.” No, they have immersed themselves in the wonder of the master — and without a hint of fake reverential intonation have gleaned the excitement and humor (who knew?) that has always been there, usually hidden.

It seems impossible that four people could reenact HAMLET and have any audience—no matter how astute and familiar with the play—follow anything. But follow it we do. As Andrus Nichols instantly transforms herself from Gertrude to Ophelia and back again, as Edmund Lewis brings us Polonius, Horatio and a host of other characters, or as Tom O’Keefe morphs from Claudius to a nervous servant and back again—we, the audience are always firmly rooted in the story. And even though theatrical magic is happening before our eyes, we remain unaware of that artistry because we are living and breathing every heartbeat with Eric Tucker’s Hamlet.

Hamlet’s great soliloquies come to life—and where in some productions I’m tempted to repeat them word for word in my head, in this production I felt the authenticity and sincerity of them to such an extent that I forgot that I knew them, and experienced them with all their emotional impact and sense of discovery.

I loved the fact that Bedlam allows us to have a good time amidst greatness — while never mocking, never cheapening the play. The Lynn Redgrave theater is reconfigured for each act—with the audience sometimes facing the back of the theater, sitting on the stage, or surrounding it. But it is never just for being “different.” Bedlam accomplishes an immersion of the audience in the action of the play. The appearance of the ghost is actually frightening — and there are times that one would swear that there was a cast of twenty surrounding every side. (I will admit that sitting on the front row during a sword fight afforded me a kind of terror that the lead car of the Cyclone Racer has given me many times). Let me say it again. When you are in the audience, you live HAMLET. ~ Brent Buell

BECOMING DR. RUTH

I had some hesitation seeing Becoming Dr. Ruth, mainly because I have some resistance to solo shows. (There, I said it.) But I have to admit I was completely charmed and engaged by Debra Jo Rupp's deeply felt performance, which is not so much a facsimile of Ruth Westheimer but an authentic and moving embodiment of a complex human soul. Rupp is both funny and genuine as she explores this well-known personality, uncovering the truth beneath the often self-consciously cheery facade of a woman who has lived an extraordinary life, escaping the Nazis, fighting as an Israeli soldier, and finding her ultimate calling in the less violent yet still volatile role of sex therapist to a generation. The play is ultimately a celebration of survival and life itself. Sadly, it did not survive the holiday season and has closed. Such a  pity if you missed it. ~Bob Ost

Last night I had the immense pleasure of attending Michael Alden's Becoming Dr. Ruth. I encourage each of you to purchase a ticket and get yourself to see this moving production of a life well lived. Thanks for an incredible evening of theatre, Michael!
~Molly Morris

I saw BECOMING DR. RUTH last night. It was wonderful!! I very much recommend this production. It was memorable and soulful and lovely and funny and historically rich and fascinating! ~Janet Conrad

VANYA & SONIA & MASHA & SPIKE

I have always been a fan of Christopher Durang's work, at once fascinated by a mind that twists human experience into grotesquely amusing and totally unexpected shapes, and frustrated by the suspicion that he is making me laugh at his characters' expense. And that it pleases him to do so, doggone that sly devil! I wasn't prepared for the compassion and depth of feeling in Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike. Even the title is a vintage Durang gag, and yet it seems that one of theater's favorite bad boy pranksters has - dare I say it - matured into a bittersweet seriousness befitting Chekhov, the Russian master from whom he borrows inspiration (and character names and themes).

There is an anguished cry from the heart in this wistfully warped fantasia of middle-aged angst clinging to a status quo that is slipping away with every tick of the clock. I always laugh my head off at Durang plays; this one reached inside and made my heart ache as well. David Hyde-Pierce is manicured perfection as a man who has carefully modulated the moments of his life, but neglected to fill them. His second act aria, a riotously breathless rant against the ravages of progress and technology, almost had me on my feet cheering. But the play belongs to Kristine Nielsen as the unstrung Sonia, flinging coffee cups in self-loathing frustration from the opening moments of the play. There is something convincingly deranged in her eyes and her manner, something so unbalanced in her rhythms and thoughts, that she makes Durang's wildest leaps of logic seem utterly inevitable. The usually magnetic Sigourney Weaver does her best with Masha, but the character itself - a desperately selfish, aging movie star oblivious to the feelings of those around her - is perhaps too familiar to surprise us into laughing. The cast is completed by Masha's beefcake boy-toy Spike, a black housekeeper named Cassandra, given to unexpected flashes of prophecy, and the neighboring Nina, an aspiring actress (no surprise to those of you who follow Chekhov). This wonderful play not only made me see Durang in a new light, it actually heightened my appreciation of the genuine humanity of Chekhov. ~Bob Ost

SILENCE THE MUSICAL

It's up!  It's running!  It's hysterical!!!! I went to the official Opening Night of SILENCE.... THE MUSICAL!  last week and I can honestly say I am thrilled with the production.  The talented cast includes many actors from the original production as well as a few stellar additions.  Jenn Harris is once again totally immersed into the character of Clarice to the point where it is almost a little freaky.  From the very first second she jogs onto the stage you are convinced that THIS is Clarice, there is no room for doubt, and yet there is plenty of room for laughs.  Brent Barrett lends his beautiful Broadway voice to Hannibal Lecter, singing the soon to be legendary love song "If I Could Smell Her C....!"  His Hannibal is deliciously seductive and frightening.  Stephen Bienskie is so creepy as Buffalo Bill that I think even Ted Levine, the originator of the film role, would be glued to him when he appears on stage, and racing for a shower when he exits.  And days later, I am still singing his catchy tune "Are You About A Size Fourteen?"  The supporting cast is spot on, playing multiple roles, dedicated to each and every nuance, of each and every quirky character.

And I would be amiss if I didn't mention the incredible staging by Director/ Choreographer Christopher Gattelli that keeps Hunter Bell's Book and the Music & Lyrics of Jon & Al Kaplan moving along, hitting all the highlights with incredible precision.  The Tango at the end of Act One is worth the price of admission alone!

I knew the show was good, but I didn't know just how good, until the weekend, when I happen to be flipping through the TV channels and landed on the original film....  Oh my GOD!!!!  I was laughing hysterically through SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!!!!  I realize that may seem sacrilegious to some die hard cult film fans, but that is just how good the musical really is! There are still tickets available, but with performances only on the weekends, grab your tickets now at www.silencethemusicalnyc.com before they are sold out! ~Linda Nelson

 

FRIED CHICKEN AND LATKES

I'm long overdue in mentioning how much I loved Rain Pryor's Fried Chicken and Latkes, now in its 10th month at The Actors Temple on West 47th Street. A truly exceptional example of a performer dramatizing (and musicalizing) her life experiences with perspective and skill. In some ways, this is a worthy offspring of Elaine Stritch's brilliant one-woman show "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty." It is often insightful, always engaging and never tips over into the solo show propensity for self-indugence. Rain Pryor is a gifted and generous performer with tremendous heart. And we are proud that TRU member Daryl Sledge is the producer of this off-broadway hit! ~Bob Ost

VOLLEYGIRLS

Monica Raymund presented Volleygirlsas part of TRU’s staged readings. A future hit in the making. The musical, according to the producer, underwent a complete makeover, and it wasn’t just putting lipstick on a pig. Male roles became female roles and vice versa, the play was lengthened, shorted, nipped and tucked, and came out just wonderful. Imagine Chorus Line, but a about volley ball for Christ’s sake. With a cast of eleven on stage, it was an ensemble work where each character had his/her own vignette but with some themes more dominant than the other. It worked. A very fine book and once again enthusiastic performers who were enjoying the play. If the actors are not enjoying the play, why should anyone else? Here's to great musicals! ~Paul Streitz

MOOSE MURDERS

Steve McCasland’s production of Moose Murders, the most notorious flop in Broadway history was a notorious success. The critics, who panned the revival of the show, completely missed the point. Apparently, they expected a revival from the dead turned into a stunning masterpiece. It wasn’t meant to do that. It was a wonderful production with a cast full of energy and enthusiasm. I met someone there who saw it before opening night, on opening night and attended the cast party. The cast all thought they had a hit at the party. Doesn’t every cast think that? Blinded by the footlights.

The greatest attribute of the play was the enthusiasm of McCasland’s cast. As the director he breathed life into the long dead. It was infectious starting with Mr. McCasland himself as an actor in the production. Whata talent! (See below.) Imagine a Danny Devito that can sing, or Stubby Kaye reincarnated. He and Ms. Velotta opened the show with a wallop, that’s for sure.

Mr. McCasland’s revival of flop plays is becoming legendary. There is something to be learned and something to be appreciated in the best efforts gone amuck. After all, nobody deliberately writes a Broadway flop, nor designs a ship to sink on impact with an iceberg either. But they sink they do, in the middle of the Atlantic and the middle of Broadway. Oh yes, somebody is planning to build a new ship, Titanic II.

Mr. McCasland gave the New York theatre audience of real theatre aficionados the chance to see this legendary play. Frank Rich in his immortal words said there would be two audiences, those who have seen Moose Murders and those who have not. He increased the number of people who can be counted as having seen Moose Murders by a few hundred. ~Paul Streitz

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ANN
One of the greatest love affairs in New York is taking place at Lincoln Center these days. I never considered what touching intimacy there could be between an actress and her role, but Holland Taylor portrays Texas politico Ann Richards with such dignified affection in her one-woman (plus off-stage voice) play Ann, that you'd have to have the heart of a stone dead possum not to fall a little bit in love with this show. Or at least give up a few gosh-gollies for this amazing actress.

Truth be told, I am not a big fan of the solo genre, but Taylor lavishes her portrayal with such loving detail, commitment and an arsenal of technique - from Richards-enriched vocal tics and rhythm to posture, walk and OCD attention to specks of dust on the carpet - that I was completely under her spell from the moment she stepped on the stage. She grabs you by the britches and doesn't let go for a moment, breathing rare spontanaeity into every word and pause. The play itself pays ample hommage to Richard's political prowess, and touches on her private demons enough to let us know she is human. I am not convinced the play is everything it could be, but Taylor is more than enough to make you mighty glad you stopped by for a visit. ~Bob Ost

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CLYBOURNE PARK
There's a fresh burst of energy filling the current season, and it's called Clybourne Park. A little biting, a little brutal but thoroughly exhilarating. A worthy Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner, so it doesn't need my endorsement, but I was completely captivated by the crackling dialogue, intelligence and seering observations of this very funny play. Painfully funny. I've heard the characters in the first act - a riff on the 50's classic Raisin in the Sun that imagines what's going on in the white neighborhood Lorraine Hansberry's Youngers plan to move into - described as "cartoonish." Perhaps to the degree that they are foolishly human and drawn in broad strokes, and embodied by actors who enrich them with oversized quirks, the people in this play may seem of another world to some. But I recognized the truth in every one of them. I remember these people from growing up, and  author Bruce Norris has captured them all with great honesty, even while having fun with them. The cast is terrific, and Jeremy Shamos in particular lets loose with frightening force and credibility as the least self-aware bigot in the bunch. The second act, set 50 years later and with a new set of characters (some of whom are descended from those in Act One), effectively points up how little progress has truly been made in humanity's effort to genuinely embrace each other's differences. When push comes to shove, and our assumptions are challenged by someone else's truth, our inner bigot emerges.

I admit to finding the ending unsatisfying, perhaps because the author invests more in a tragic incident from the first act than I felt was warranted. By bringing back and explaining a melodramatic and specific moment to bring down the curtain, and finally showing us a character we may not need to see, he avoids the bigger themes of his play. Or at least that's how it struck me. But the play gave me so much pleasure, I forgave it for what I felt were its occasional flaws. Obviously the Pulitzer Prize committee may not agree with me. ~Bob Ost

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PORGY AND BESS
Even with an understudy playing Porgy, I enjoyed every minute of what is now called The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (still wondering who else wrote a version of it...) and was completely entranced by the music throughout. The producers have done the theater-going community a great service by offering us the opportunity to hear this masterpiece. "Bess You Is My Woman Now" is one of the most moving, passionate love songs ever written. Not sure the understudy Nathaniel Stampley did everything he could with it, but Audra McDowell brought tears to my eyes. And she got me again with her awakening (in consciousness and heart) in "I Loves You Porgy". Thrilling.

I thought the edited book had a great deal of clarity and strong story telling - I'm not that much of an expert to know what was changed or cut, but it held my interest throughout, unlike the 3+ hour version I saw at Radio City years ago which I found profoundly confusing at times and exhausting as well.

As much as I was excited by rediscovering the wonderful overture, which I had forgotten was one of the most energizing openings of any musical ever written (up there with Candide and Gypsy - or perhaps they are up there with Gershwin), I did hear a thinness in the downsized orchestrations. But somehow or other the musical director made the chorus ensemble sound full and rich, which made up for the losses in orchestral power. Beautiful chorus work throughout.

Stampley seemed tentative and was pretty much overpowered by Audra. I had heard similar things about Norm Lewis, so perhaps it is part of the production's (i.e. director's) interpretation. And he had trouble with his upper register, or so it seemed, particularly in the fact that "I Got Plenty of Nothin'" was apparently rearranged so the "A section" of the verse was down an octave and went up for the "B section", which is musically counter to the way the song is structured. "I got no car, I got no mule..." is written to swoop down and be lower then "I got plenty of nothin' and nothin's plenty for me" - it is intended as a parenthetical explanation of the exuberant declaration of the main theme. Drove me crazy that they reversed it.

David Alan Grier stole every scene he was in, of course; and Philip Boynkin as Crown was a huge frightening presence up there, and sang with a rich, deep, full bass-baritone. Clara was lovely, Josh Henry was terrific as Jake. Mariah was wonderful, funny and blessedly playful. Serena, in my opinion, oversang "My Man's Gone Now" - much of the melody got blurred by her vibrato - I'm not saying she shouldn't be operatic, even in this production, but she just pushed too much. Her wailing "ah" runs were lost, but thankfully found by the echo of a precisely driven ensemble.

My big complaint was the set. Now that they've extended the run, perhaps they can find a way to extend the sheet that doesn't quite cover the Catfish Row set at the top of Act Two. It looked silly. I know there were budget concerns, but a full cyclorama stretching from end to end of the Catfish Row set might have been less distracting or artificial looking. Also the hurricane projections don't quite read from the mezzanine.

Quibbles aside, it is a beautiful achievement, and my heart-felt thanks go out to every producer who made this show possible. ~Bob Ost

My husband and I loved the production of [Porgy and Bess]. We know this work thoroughly and know the production has had some controversy. Just want to say I think Ms Paulus made some very valid and engaging directorial choices. Didn't agree with every single one of them, but that didn't interfere with our enjoying it thoroughly. ~Elizabeth Falk

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MEMPHIS
Saw Memphis last night. It has come a long way from the initial production at North Shore Music Theatre. I found it enjoyable and fun. The critics will take it to task for certain inconsistencies musically, but if they market well, they should have a winner for awhile. ~ Marie Reynolds

The other night I was invited by my former collaborator, Joe DiPietro, to the dress rehearsal of Memphis. It was sensational. Never saw such talent! ~Phyllis Lynd

I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Memphis, feeling total exhilaration at intermission, though emotionally let down at the end, perhaps because such letdown is built into its very story of a self-destructive visionary. The main character of Huey – as portrayed by Chad Kimball – is a Ritalin-deprived restless overgrown child with ticks, twitches and a body that seems to be endlessly imploding on itself. He's borderline overbearing at times, but Kimball offers a fully committed and carefully controlled study of an uncontrollable madman who momentarily makes his mark on the world. The catalyst for transformation is Felicia, the beautiful and talented black singer who touches his soul and his heart, and his reckless crossing of color lines in the 1950's south brings equal parts pain and fame to each of them. As portrayed by Montego Glover (who originated the lead in the TRU-developed musical Saint Heaven), this is a star-making role, showcasing Ms. Glover's extraordinarily rich vocal and acting ranges; and though the character feels a bit simplified, Glover fills in the blanks with passion and charisma. The story shamelessly combines elements of two of my all-time favorite musicals – Dreamgirls' Dina in a Hairspray world of racial tension, but here played for real – which will be a plus or minus for you depending on how dearly you cling to your memories of musicals past. I forgave it its borrowings because I felt the story was different enough, and one well worth telling. And because right now, with Hairspray closed, Broadway needs a big, pulsing, heart-felt splash of a new musical. And music is the key here: an effective evocation of the heart of period R&B that occasionally sacrifices authenticity for Broadway-fication, but sweeps you through the story like a rollercoaster. ~Bob Ost

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BONNIE & CLYDE / ON A CLEAR DAY...

Boy, this business has gotten tough. I saw and enjoyed two new musicals that have met with undeservedly cruel fates, and a few cruel critics. Bonnie and Clyde got shot down before making it to the new year, and it boasted a professional looking production, an intelligent book and the best music Frank Wildhorn has given us to date. This time his music truly served the characters, the period and the story rather than imposing a personal sensibility and style on the material. The lyrics let him down though, failing repeatedly to develop interestingly or move the storyline forward in a fresh way. It also had to live in the shadow of the movie and compete with unforgettable portraits of the title characters; and although the show hewed more closely to the truth (I'm told), sometimes the truth simply isn't as dramatic as a larger-than-life rethinking. Still I thought there was much to recommend it.

Now I hear that Clear Day will be seen far from forever and ever more. I was dazzled by the great songs from the original On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, particularly the cleverness, wit and superb rhymes of the Lerner lyrics. From "Hurry It's Lovely Up Here" to the second act triumvirate of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have," "Come Back to Me" and the title tune, I was thrilled to my very soul. The interpolated songs from the movie Royal Wedding paled by comparison, unfortunately. Now about that new book. Well, yes it's an intriguing idea to give Daisy Gamble a sex change and make the lead a gay florist; but the production doesn't have the power of its own plot convictions. Now David Gamble's past life incarnation as a 30's jazz singer is performed by a separate entity, a loverly and talented actress, which is kind of a cop out. ~Bob Ost

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RATED P FOR PARENTHOOD

The new Off Broadway musical Rated P for Parenthood is incredibly heart-warming and hilarious. I had the pleasure of seeing the show on Valentine's Day with both of my parents and "Rated P…" struck all the right chords for the occasion. One moment I was laughing hysterically, the next I was exchanging a knowing glance with my dad, and the next I was getting choked up and instinctively reaching for my mom's hand. The production was unapologetically simple (in terms of the set and costumes), very clever and well executed. The performers were truly top notch and their energy was infectious. The fragmented structure of the production really worked because the songs and vignettes were strung together by the milestones of parenthood. Another apt choice was the fact that these parents represented all parents and touched on the universal woes and worries that accompany everything from the first day of kindergarten to the first day of college. Rated P... made for such a memorable evening and I am telling all of my college-aged friends to take their parents. I would say it's rated PG-13 for language and "adult activities," but I think it will please any theatre-goer over the age of 16. ~Eva Amessé

My husband and I saw Rated P for Parenthood last weekend, mostly because I enjoyed meeting [producer] Charlotte Cohn. We were both uplifted by the show we saw. Like Our Town, the show gives us a through line into the joys of being human by following two couples through the journey of parenting. I’ve read all the reviews and agree that “A Prayer for Ellie” left all of us sobbing. I still look at the kindergarten pictures of our girls and wonder how we ever sent our babies, with front teeth missing in crooked smiles and all dressed in their “first day of school” outfits, off to some foreign place. It was a real leap of faith. We all cried and we all laughed at these parents struggling with middle-of-the-night visits to the nursery to calm the baby....

I loved this show and think it’s going to be a real hit with parents and “anyone who has ever had parents”. The person sitting next to me was going to deliver her second in three weeks. We sobbed togther. This show brought the audience together in a very special way and I feel the ensemble feel of the company contributed to that result. We weren’t looking at a show built on the star system, but a clear ensemble give-and-take production. In the New York Times review of the original production, I read that all of the actors in the show were parents and that the rehearsals were scheduled around the kids’ schedules so their parents could get babysitters for a couple of hours before mom/dad came home. That’s flex time used well. So Kudos to Charlotte. . . and the others! ~LeCee Galmiche Johnson

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Often new independent theater companies take some time to create a product that is worth talking about. The company middles about for a year or two, producing shows that are pretty good, and then they produce something that really gets people's attention. In very rare cases a company has a premier show that is worth talking about and its mark is left on the industry.

Katrin Hilbe is a TRU member whose recent Equity Staged Reading of George Buchner's play, Danton's Death, was performed at the 45th Street Theatre. She provided her own lucid translation and directed twenty-one excellent actors about the small performance space with an ease and creativity that befitted their talent. They truly rendered the world of Paris during the Reign of Terror, a time when ideals were bloodily subverted by the demands of radical politics. She managed to accomplish all of this with a few chairs and a tall ladder for a guillotine. She intends to fully restage the play next Fall. One must wonder whether its issues will be too topical or painful then for any kind of mere theatrical experience ... Keep an eye on Hilbe. ~Charles Ashjian

The Active Theater Company's current production of Two Rooms by Lee Blessing might as well be a branding iron. The company's mission reads: "The Active Theatre Company consists of a group of artists dedicated to the work, both new and old, that moves us. Moves us to think and rethink, to laugh, to love, to cry, to question. Moves us to anger. Moves us to action. Moves us to feel more than we are comfortable feeling." The group has certainly taken on that sentiment with this production. Two Rooms, about a woman whose husband is held hostage by a terrorist group, had the audience laughing, gasping, and gritting their teeth. In addition to being emotionally gripping, this show was also very well-produced.

This is a company that clearly knows how to assemble a team and starts with a solid cast including Andy Kelso, Jason Emanuel, Raissa Dorf, and Angelica-Lee Aspiras who all handle Blessing's poetic language in a way that makes it instantly accessible. The inspired performances are also a result of Glory Bowen's deft direction and attention to detail as well as music expertly designed by Jacob Subotnick. The songs are so carefully chosen that one could argue that the pre-show music and moments are strong enough to be their own separate production. Add to this a set design by D. Craig M. Napoliello that is simpe yet accommodating to the superb projection designs of David Ojalla, and one can see how this show could easily work just as well at a place like The Public or Roundabout. In fact, the overall professionalism of the presentation of the work harkens back to the days when The Culture Project was on 45 Bleeker and shows there moved to Broadway. For a company that fills the role of the "new kid" on the indie theater scene, this group may move to the head of the class very quickly. So why go and see their inaugural production? More importantly, why are they ones to watch?

Any team that can take a subject this controversial and provide such humanity deserves applause. Far too often plays that deal with hostage situations become preachy and over the top and after the President's recent decisions on war and where our troops are heading next , it's nice to see a show that forces the audience to be the judge rather than be told what to think. This show is raw and human and this company has produced something that forces the audience to also be vulnerable. It's clear that they have an understanding of the craft and that they are making careful choices about producing work that gets an audience talking. It is very likely they will continue to spark conversations and cultural dialogue, which is something that needs to happen more often. If there's interest in being a part of the conversation, you can get your tickets here.

It's always good to see a group out there that promotes the fact that theater can ignite cultural discourse and it's high time for a fresh new "Active" group with a serious voice. All that's left is for us to listen. ~Michael Roderick

Saw Carrie Fisher in Wishful Drinking. A (literally) insane explosion of comic energy, wit and painful insight. She tosses off bon mot with the aplomb and skill of an unfettered straight female Oscar Wilde. Wanting more of a play, with a bit more structure and a dramatic arc, might be wishful thinking on my part (or perhaps I should drink more, loosen up and just go with it); but I was delighted nevertheless to laugh my ass off for two hours. Like Elaine Stritch before her, Carrie Fisher demonstrates how one person alone on a stage can transform a tortured soul into something honest, entertaining and oddly life-affirming. ~Bob Ost

Last night I saw a well-acted reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, by the Epic Theater Company at Playwrights Horizon Theater. I always wondered what “sign”? Now I know. Despite the fact that her play was overlong (almost three hours) and quite turgid, to the point of distraction, it was an amazing piece of dramatic literature. I’m sure, had she lived, and with a few good strokes by dramaturgs and directors, this piece would have been honed down to a quintessential doppelganger of the human condition, without being weighed down in verbology and endless rhetorical flourishes of intellectualisms, by a too-bright young dramatist with a theatrical bone to pick with life as we know it in these United States. I am fully aware of Harold Cruse’s screed, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and his misgivings about Ms. Hansberry’s class motives and racial orientations, underpinning her dramatic forays into the quagmire of modern man, society and the notion of freedom. However, one has to recognize, for good or ill, that she was an extraordinary writer.

Ms. Hansberry, as is evident from her wit, dramatic force and intellect, knew a lot about human nature. Her plays were, in the main, full of white characters who were not Ku-Klux-Klanners or eager cardboard aspirants, vying for membership in white racist ideology. Something unheard-of from black dramatists (and female to boot) in the period in which she wrote this play. One could almost suspect the play of being a roman a clef—that the impossibly futile and tragic situations of this motley crew of post-Beat Generation, confused, deflower-power children in their post-revolutionary angst, and the playwright’s uncanny observations, could likely come from the proverbial fly on the wall.

She knew about people and the evil they do to one another. She knew about love, marriage, and its loopholes, its conundrums and, finally, its disillusionment. She knew about politics and people. She also knew Plutarch, Shakespeare and a host of western signpost, all on the road of good intentions, leading straight to Hell.

But above all of this, what struck me most about her play was the energy it generated in an audience of old and young alike, while she lay dead in her grave after almost forty years. As the finale of the climactic scene unfolded, and then during the denouement, the audience was as quiet as a church mouse in hiding. It was a collective moment shared by all. Almost like a group meditation. I was emboldened, encouraged, and figured it all out in this moment of truth. Why I write for the theater--a group of people, in a dark room, caught in the grip of a writer's intellectual prowess and creative imagination, compelled to listen to what one has to say for generations onward. This is theater and I love it from the bottom of my heart. ~Owa

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THE TOXIC AVENGER

Toxie rhymes with moxie, an old-fashioned word to describe the very contemporary punch packed by the go-for-broke slightly sicko musical romp The Toxic Avenger, which is campily grossing out enthusiastic audiences at New World Stages these days. Toxie is also the affectionate nickname for the show's hero, and it's a show that doesn't know the phrase "don't you go there!" – like a reckless child, it cuts up (or more accurately, pulls off fake limbs) all over the place as it tells the cautionary tale of a fictional place called New Jersey that has been steeped in environmental waste by scruple-free politicians; and more specifically, the nerd hero tossed into nuclear goo by bullies and who emerges as a super-strong mutant fighting for a cleaner world. This is fast-paced fun, where nutty humor outweighs the grossness so even the horror film-challenged (like myself) can have a goo d, nausea-free time. The direction is dazzling, rushing events and locations and characters by you breathlessly. You may need to check your program, as I did, to confirm that all the characters flying around that stage are played by only five hard-working, protean, multi-costumed, hilariously schizophrenic actors. I haven't seen personality flips-on-a-dime like this since the days of Charles Ludlam's Theater of the Ridiculous. The entire cast is a blast, but one must single out veteran Nancy Opel, one of the funniest ladies of today's theater. She's brilliant. The timing, the takes, the twisted sub-texts. She's our Carol Burnett with an added hip edge of earthy madness, and she is handed the centerpiece of the evening as two of her characters (an evil mayor and the eponymous hero's daffy mother) confront each other, impossibly, in a beauty parlor. (It must be seen to be believed.) Though the songs have punk rock energy to keep things pulsing, the decibel level made it hard to tell if there was as much wit to the lyrics as one might hope for. Some of it seemed on-the-nose obvious, but not enough to detract from the fun. And be prepared for some groaners in the book, and some mind-blowingly politically incorrect passages (the love interest/heroine's blindness is presented without a whit of sensitivity and a barrage of unsight gags). But it's all part of the intentionally toxic tone. Like the hero, if you allow yourself to be immersed in this relentless mixture, you may find yourself emerging with a crazed smile on your face. ~Bob Ost

RAGTIME

I must take a moment to mention the extraordinary revival of Ragtime that is adding heart and heft to the current season. I liked the original well enough, but my memory of it has grown a bit fuzzy, and I'm not sure it ever made a strong impression to begin with. Suddenly the rich tapestry of stories is clearer, the themes and the characters are in sharper focus than they were for me eleven years ago. They call this a pared down production, compared to the sumptuous extravagance of the original; well, I suppose a Mercedes may have a few less frills than a Lamborghini, but the ride in a Mercedes is sufficiently thrilling for any mortal. Enjoy the ride: this production is eye-catching, elegant and as extravagantly big as any show needs to be to dazzle and delight, with a cast of 32 voices creating harmonies to shake the heavens. And I was shaken to my very soul by the depth of feeling, the aspiration and the art of this show. I'm not convinced that it all works even now, but the cumulative effect of moments, perfect and imperfect, thrilled me to tears. The nobility of it all, and the greatness of the art form we call musical theater, left me breathless. The cast is uniformly excellent, but special mention must go to Robert Steggert, who was a revelation as the Younger brother; remembered mostly as someone who "blows things up", the character itself exploded into view as never before. Donna Migliaccio makes a compelling Emma Goldman; and Christiane Noll is the complex, nuanced heart of the evening, finding depth and humor in the character of Mother that might even surprise Doctorow himself. The synchopations and swirling melodies of Stephen Flaherty's score are irresistible. Enough. See it. ~Bob Ost

THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED

You may feel a little like a dog for laughing at The Little Dog Laughed, but you probably won't be able to help yourself. This is a mean-spirited, viciously funny play by a breathlessly bitchy Douglas Carter Beane with a once-in-a-lifetime comic performance by Julie White who is amazing. I never thought she would live up to the hype and the reviews, but she jumps into her portrait of a bloodless vampire of an agent/manager with such perverse elan that she could make us see the humanity in Hitler. The rest of the cast is fine, but completely at her mercy. The play has a few bumps, and the steady flow of Beane mots are occasionally arch, but the play has surprising passion and more than a little rage as the playwright spins a tale of a closeted movie star who sells his soul to redecorate his closet. ~Bob

I loved [Jay Johnson: The Two and Only] - thought Jay was fantastic. I remember him from "Soap" and the 70's but I really had no idea how wide his scope of talent is. I laughed and I cried and I thought he had so much heart and so little ego that it made him flawless. I don't know if you saw it, but I could swear by the end that Darwin the monkey was moving by itself... ~ Mary

Ventriloquism may or may not be your thing, but whatever your position on talking dummies (political figures aside), you are in for a genuine surprise with Jay Johnson: The Two and Only. Despite all the carved wooden figures and inanimate objects that come to life on stage, this is one of the most human performances you will find in New York. It's not just that Johnson is skilled at his very special art - and he does some amazing, hilarious and totally nutty things up there - but that he is so passionate about what he does. The man is a true artist, and his enthusiasm about the history of ventriloquism and his willingness to share intimately about the moments and people that have influenced his career, transform what could be an evening of clever parlour tricks into something rich, entertaining and ultimately enlightening. Every one of us who makes art, in whatever form, can relate to Johnson and how his life has shaped his art; you may even be inspired. You may fondly remember him as the daft younger brother on TV's Soap, part of one the finest comedy ensembles in TV history; on his own, he breathes life not only into his wooden partners, but into the current Broadway season. Please do not miss this rare performance; his unique voice may throw you, in very surprising ways. ~Bob

I saw a fabulous play called Bad Evidence at the Big Little Theatre on Ridge St. I think its the same building that used to be Present Company. It's directed by Louis Lopardi, a wonderful director who usually directs classics but does a great job with this play. The stage is remarkably tiny, but the staging is so specific, economical and intimate that it flows beautifully. It's also very well acted. All directors can learn a lesson about working in intimate spaces from Louis's work in this production. The audience loved the show, and I encourage everyone to check this out. There are only a few more performances left. ~Julie Halpern

In Changing Violet, Deborah Louise Ortiz managed to turn a painful issue into a wonderful evening with her humor, her fabulous smile, and those dance moves! I heard toes tapping all around me. How wise of her production team to decorate the set with the simple clothesline and prop table. Deborah's choice of music could not have been more appropriate. Its upbeat nature helped make the entire story totally entertaining. This, in spite of the subject matter although that resolved itself well into an uplifting message, making us cheer for the triumph of this talented woman and wish for her continued success. ~ Susan Laubach

I had an unexpectedly joyous time at SHOUT! The Mod Musical this week. The Times review be damned, this is a complete audience pleaser of a show bubbling, bouncing and positively brimming over with some of my all-time favorite songs. God, I love that music, even more than I remembered! The premise may be flimsy – five archetypes of 60's womanhood defined by the songs, the color of their madly mod costumes and some wisecracking voiceover narrative – but it ultimately adds up to much more than you might expect. Though sketched in broad strokes, I actually cared about these characters. I was excited to see Marie-France Arcilla as girl in Blue, since she starred in Sunfish for the TRU reading series; and I recognized understudy Casey Clark, who stepped in as girl in Red, from the recent TRU play reading of Ain't Really My Birthday.... The cast was uniformly strong, although Casey in Red stood out for me for her believable comic characterization (she's the awkward Mod wannabe) and the strongest personal journey, which provided a genuine emotional punch towards the end. Kudos also for the precise period choreography and a convincingly groovy band. It is polished, well-paced and totally professional with particularly impressive vocal arrangements sung and blended perfectly by the five mod ladies. The set is a big visual giggle, although one might wish it were more functional than decorative. Quibbles aside, the show had me smiling and swaying from start to finish, serving up one delicious pop hit after another: a dusting of Dusty, a little Lulu, plenty of Petula and a bevy of brassy Bassey Bond themes. It's enough to make you wanna Shout! ~Bob

I Loved [the recent] Charles Aznavour concert. He was absolutely magnificent! His power is in his simplicity... no props... frills... the truth of his inner life was apparent in his every song. . . and the lighting was stupendous. . . he came on stage with what appeared to be a black suit... took off his jacket and did most of the show in black shirt and trousers. Simple.....effective! Biggest surprise....no intermission.....25 songs... INCREDIBLE! ~Vickie Phillips

Actually went [to see DruidSynge at Lincoln Center - the 8-hour presentation of the complete theatrical works of John Millington Synge]. There are lots of intermissions. What a dismal despairing life those people had.  But they're fighters.  Production is more than worthwhile.  Direction, brilliant. Performances, superb. As are sets and costumes and lighting. One thing about the theatre is that it has horrendous accoustics.  Those combined with a thick brogue made it difficult to understand  everything that was said, but oddly enough, it didn't matter.  ~Elena

Saw a preview of [The Drowsy Chaperone], this marvelous new original Broadway musical... which as we all know, was already a Huge Hit in Los Angeles. I think it is by far the MOST FUN I have ever had in the theater and damn I have seen a lot of Musicals in the last 35 years. I laughed more than I have ever laughed in a Theatre. Every Song is a showstopper. Every performance is SUPERB! And what an amazing, original, well-written Book! I cannot wait to see this show again. IT IS INFECTIOUS. You have all gotta go see it. If the critics do not say WONDERFUL THINGS then there is No Musical Comedy God!!!! By Far My FAVORITE MUSICAL, Now and FOREVER!!!! ~Jack Dyville [editor's note: the musical comedy gods were indeed kind: Drowsy Chaperone WON 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical]

I'll add my endorsement of The Drowsy Chaperone (in case 5 Tony Awards isn't enough to get you there). It is an hysterically funny, thoroughly winning excursion into pure foolishness. Yet for a souffle, it has surprising substance. See it for the silliness, of course; but come away with a deep respect for the nobility of the musical comedy, an essential form of cultural escapism that serves to keep so many of us sane in this often unmusical, uncomic world.

And don't hesitate to walk down the aisle and say "I do" to The Wedding Singer. Possibly modeled after the non-stop energy of Hairspray, this is a well-crafted piece with a few flaws (the central character's want isn't as clear or as compelling as Hairspray's Tracy Turnblad's) but it possesses enough charm and humor to more than make up for them. I'm not an Adam Sandler fan, but I enjoyed this. It's sweeter and less smart-alecky than you might expect. It truly wooed and won me. ~Bob

I saw The Drowsy Chaperone last Friday, and it was absolutely delightful. How refreshing to have a completely original show on Broadway - no tired revivals or bad pop songs here. The action centers around a man in his apartment, sharing a record of his favorite 1920's musical. He speaks directly to the audience, and the musical comes to life right there in his apartment. His commentary on the action made me laugh hysterically! The actors were so energetic, and their comedic timing could not have been better. I left with a huge smile on my face. This is how Broadway should be!  ~Amanda Garry

Tonite I saw the first performance of The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway. This is a show you will not want to miss. The performances are brilliant, costumes and sets perfect and inventive. I laughed my ass off and then was ultimately so moved by the tale it tells of one man's love for performance and the musical genre. The direction is tight as a drum and not one moment squeaks.Well,I've said enough. Now get your tickets  before it formally opens..I guarantee you'll grin and dance all the way home. Happy Theatregoing. ~ Joe Brancato

I got invited to see Hot Feet last night, not a show that was at the top of my list. But I'm glad I went. It has one of the hardest-working casts in town, dancing non-stop through a fast-paced evening. It's also one of the best-looking casts around, male and female. Lead Vivian Nixon is lovely as Kalimba, the teen for whom dancing is as essential as life itself. She dances like a dream; I was particularly impressed with a graceful and expressive pas de deux that ends Act One. It's also good to see Maurice Hines working so creatively to incorporate contemporary dance styles like break and hip-hop into the traditional mainstream musical. His patterns are impressive, his imagination formidable. His and the show's weakness is in the storytelling. I didn't get the slam-bang flashy opening number at all, and the show only began to work for me with the introduction of a charming little girl named Emma who dreams of being a dancer, and is tempted by a devil figure with those alluring red shoes. And proceeds to tell her the cautionary story of Kalimba, who also coveted those shoes. (Yes, Hot Feet is a contemporary reimagining of the classic Red Shoes, if you didn't know.) So is it Emma's story? Is it Kalimba's story? The plot veers in and out, and is at times confusing. I had to pull out the Red Shoes video and watch it tonight to clarify some of the plot points for myself. I also had a problem with the careless way the Earth Wind and Fire score was integrated into the show. Most of the songs are sung off-stage as commentary while dancers dance; only a handful of songs are sung by characters (two by the Tony-winner Ann Duquesny as the central character's mom), so the effect is ultimately less of an integrated musical than a Vegas revue. Still, the audience around me was wildly enthusiastic, screaming and cheering and yappin' at the stage like it was their best friend. And yes, the crowd gave it a standing ovation. Although I didn't join them, I was happy to see so many people take this struggling show to their hearts. ~Bob

Caught the last performance of Jayson with a Y, produced by the New Group (naked). It's a tough play dealing with a tough subject: a teen with a form of autism, and what to do with him when his mother unexpectedly dies. Jayson's two aunts want to honor their sister's wishes, but they have equally strong reasons not to take on the care of a boy with special needs and fits of anger: one is pregnant, the other set to move to Paris. The scenes with Jayson are engaging to the point of being absolutely riveting, due in no small part to the remarkable performance of 16-year-old Miles Purinton. His mastery of the quirks and tics of this disturbed boy are compelling, and one can never quite anticipate where each scene will lead, which makes for gripping theater. The relationships between the sisters and their often needy husbands feel a bit more like familiar territory, and a conveniently dramatic turnaround by the sister who ultimately decides to take Jayson, felt unearned and unconvincing. However, the play is intelligently crafted and never lost my interest. I imagine with some fine-tuning, it may come back in better shape. If it does, don't shy away from Jayson – take the challenge and learn to love him. Much like his aunt does. ~Bob

Greg Kotis sure loves his bodily fluids. There was fabulous Urinetown, of course. And now Pig Farm at Roundabout offers up heaps of what is quaintly referred to as "defecatory sludge" as well as a stage full of blood and mud. And yet, it's a comedy. Kotis has a quirky sensibility, no doubt, and it is surprising how much the tone of Pig Farm resembles Urinetown. One almost expects the characters to break into sardonic song now and then, and it might liven things up if they did. The play seems to be a send-up of the Martin McDonagh blood-fests (Lieutenant of Inishmore, etc.), as set in Sam Shepard country, and would be a lot more fun if it all happened a lot more quickly. John Rando has directed again, and shows his mastery of comic precision and slapdash slapstick. It didn't all work for me, to be honest, but it has its moments and a particularly hard-working cast that gets down and dirty in all senses of the phrase. ~Bob

Just be thankful you don't have a musical opening on Broadway in this jam-, spam- and flimflam-packed season. The latest in a dazzling parade of flawed entries is Light in the Piazza, which certainly has artistic aspirations never even considered by silly Spamalot or those slick Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Its failures are rather noble, for that reason, and make you wish all the more that it were all it tried to be. Let's start with what's right. Craig Lucas' book is a model of musical comedy writing, and actually the greatest strength; he takes a small gem of a story and tells it with perfect dramatic structure, building scene upon scene with skill and occasional wit. The central performances by Victoria Clarke and Kelli O'Hara as a southern mother and her "special" daughter on a fateful trip to Florence, are superb. Both etch unforgettable characters with depth, complexity and heartwrenching pathos. I cannot imagine that the Tony committee would be heartless enough to overlook them. All the performances are credible and affecting, in fact. Matthew Morrison is an especially likeable, earnest and passionate hero who sings sweetly, though perhaps not with the operatic heft the score implies. The production is gorgeous, shamelessly transporting us into the romance, marvel and marble of Italy; it is almost enough to make one go limp with longing. Adam Guettel's music is lush, evocative and emotional. And that's where "right" grinds to a halt. The music is also incomprehensible at times, and indulgently meandering. Clearly this heir to musical comedy royalty (anyone hear of grandpa, King Richard of Rodgers?) has a gift for rhythmic intricacy and harmonic complexity, but he seems entirely too enamored of his own musical bag of tricks to bother to communicate with much clarity. Yes, his music is consistently ravishing, but it is impossible to find a song in the jagged, seductive flood of notes. Don't get me wrong – I genuinely admire his musicianship. I just wish he would respect form a bit more, or am I being too old-fashioned? I know others think he is the Michelangelo of music; I would like to see him chip away a little more at those soothing slabs of marble, and uncover the shape inside. His greater problem, perhaps, is his lyrics. He takes the interesting risk of writing one key ballad in Italian, with no sub-titles; frankly, it was no harder to follow than his English lyrics. This is certainly a question of taste, as his swarms of fans will tell you, but I kept getting lost in his poetic constructs, and generally had only the vaguest idea what the characters were singing about. (No, it wasn't the sound system or the diction. I heard every word, but couldn't figure out what they meant.) Call me lowbrow or philistine – I like a song with a hook, or at least a central idea to keep me grounded throughout. My impression was that the majority of the songs were lingering over states of mind, rather than moving us forward, which had the effect of slowing down the evening whenever the performers started singing. Still, there is a light in this Piazza: a warm glow of humanity to sustain you throughout an ambitious show, even if it isn't completely satisfying. ~Bob

What can I say about Spamalot? It's a new musical where the audience walks out of the theater humming the gags. Actually, many walk into the theater humming them. This musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a HUGE cult hit already among Python fans who anticipate the punchlines and greet the entrance of familiar characters with wild gales of laughter. The rest of us do catch up, never fear, for this is one of the slickest, silliest, most shamelessly outrageous grab bags of whacked out humor and intentionally stupid song you are likely to see in this lifetime. Without taking drugs. Yes, it practically makes The Producers look like Mary Poppins and parades bad taste with ridiculous panache. And it certainly doesn't move the art of musical theater forward a millimeter, but it's a bloody good time. I've never seen Tim Curry quite so understated, and downright sweet-natured. The show is stolen by Sara Ramirez in a breakout role that should gain her the attention she has long deserved; she is charismatic and goofy and utterly beguiling. And Mike Nichols is still one of the reigning geniuses directing for stage or film, and he milks laughter from every moment. Not quite the Holy Grail of musicals perhaps, but wholly enjoyable. ~Bob

If Dirty Rotten Scoundrels isn't a big hit, it'll be a dirty rotten shame. A lot depends on how well it holds its own against blockbuster Spamalot, of course, in which Monty Python has apparently changed its quest from Holy Grail to Tony. (Of course, we in theater know that the two are synonymous.) Nevertheless, Scoundrels boasts a string of Tony-caliber performances that sparkle like royal jewels; my favorites are Norbert Leo Butz playing dangerously dumb, and the always charming Joanna Gleason just playing. She is perhaps the wittiest actress in musical theater today. John Lithgow plays a stiff character, but seemed a bit too stiff for much of the first act; still, he thoroughly won me over in the second act, and I trust he is a likely third Tony nominee. (Yes, this pro makes a great con.) Can't vouch for Sherie Renee Scott's chances since I saw her wonderful understudy. Heck, let's not cheat Greg Jbarra and Sara Gettelson; they show great comic skill in rather hefty supporting roles. The score by David Yazbek is bright and hummable, with his characteristic brassy jazzy edge, and swooping melodic lines, and his lyrics are often quite funny. The book has some of the funniest bits this side of The Producers. To be honest, the confusing and busy opening did not work for me; but when the show finally kicks in, it's a total kick. Honest! Now let's see what the critics have to say, so I'll know if I had as good a time as I think I did. ~Bob

Last night James and I saw a gem of show, I Love You Because, playing at the Village Gate, that I highly recommend to all you romantics out there.  It's the kind of show that makes you feel like you did when you saw The Fantasticks for the first time. And if you've never seen that show, you missed the longest running off-Bwdy show in history.  Don't miss its successor! Please help spread the word about I Love You Because.  If you join Theatermania.com (it's free!) you can get a 30% discount on the best seats." ~Dale

Two shows have been running recently that artfully demonstrate the dangers of certainty. One is a kind of musical that has closed; the other a distinguished drama that has changed casts since I saw it. If you missed either, I weep for you, although the play can and must be seen with its new cast. The musical is Souvenir by Stephen Temperley, with Judy Kaye, who we always knew was remarkable and has never been moreso than in this spectacular tour de force of a performance. She played the artistically deluded Florence Foster Jenkins, a society woman who was steeped in the certainty that she could sing, gave recitals and even a Carnegie Hall concert, sold thousands of tickets and was universally laughed at. Much has been said about her in reviews, but not enough has been said about her costar Donald Corren, witty, urbane, as gay as Noel Coward and ultimately complex and touching as Jenkins' co-dependent music director, Cosme McMoon. From the in-crowd ravings throughout the community, I almost thought this was a one-person show. Absolutely not. Corren is an essential factor in a delicate equation. The story unfolds through his eyes, and he guides, glides and virtually glissades us through it. And if we are paying attention, we even realize that he is the thematic soul of the story, though Kaye may be the heart. The buzz about the show led me to expect a brilliantly executed gimmick: hear Judy Kaye sing mercilessly off-pitch to the point where you long for the next wrong note, and then relax as the dissonance is resolved and she redeems herself in a perfectly sung fantasy sequence at the end. So painfully simple. And absolutely hilarious, I might add. And it turns out there is so much more to it. This is not the singular story of an idiosyncratic 1930's phenomenon; it is the story of every artist who hears or sees beauty within our head, and raises the disturbing question of whether the world perceives our art as we perceive it. The title of the piece sadly tosses away the importance of the theme, and makes me wonder if the creators could have used a bit more of Jenkins' unabashed certainty of the rightness of what they have created. In Jenkins eyes, Cosme is forced to see a reflection of himself as a failed artist, and I felt shivers of doubt run through me as I considered my own assumptions about my ability to bring beauty into this world.

An even more chilling tale of certainty is the Pulitzer Prize winning Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. There is not much to be added to the hallelujah chorus of praise that has rightfully greeted this finely crafted work, nor to the bravas that have cheered on Cherry Jones' bravura performance as the self-righteous, steel-hearted Sister Aloysius, a nun who values principles over people. The finely tuned detail and technique of this actress is apparent in her body language, her smallest gesture, her every frosty New England inflection. One almost wants to run out and find an exorcist to rid Miss Jones of the demon that inhabits her habit. On reflection, that demon is certainty, the theme of my pair of reviews. And Jones is finally free of it, having been replaced last week by the redoubtable Eileen Atkins. The great irony is that playwright Shanley is so utterly in control of a play that he has named Doubt, every moment carefully chosen to illustrate a facet of his theme, every line molded into delicious morsels of rich, reverberating communication. (Even Jones' stage business of wrapping protective fabric around her plants to prevent a frost that hasn't even approached is a thoughtful metaphor for this religious woman's obsession with keeping the devil at bay before he's even knocked at her door.) This is one of the most lucid plays I have ever seen, in spite of it dealing with the ambiguous and elusive nature of truth. I might quibble with the slight obviousness of some of the sermons preached by Sister Aloysius' primary target, the morally doubted Father Flynn, and I did have trouble with Irish actor Brian F. O'Byrne overly thick low-class American accent (Bronx by way of Killarney, I believe); but he was a dynamic acting match for Jones, and sparks flew constantly in the battle for survival between these two opponents. In case you haven't heard, the impetus for drama in this piece is that Sister Aloysius brings accusations of impropriety against Flynn, based not on clear evidence but rather on her inner certainty. I found myself thinking of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour in which a malicious child destoys lives by spreading "a lie with a seed of truth" in it; only in this case, the character spreads a truth that may not be as pure and simple as she thinks. And it is left uncertain as to whose life has truly been destroyed. With this thoughtful work, Shanley offers a humane and generous gift to all of us: the comfort of understanding that our doubts are the core of our humanity. I can't help wondering: if Sister Aloysius had applied her energies and convictions to art instead of religion, would she have been another Florence Foster Jenkins? ~ Bob

Speaking of wonderful performers, you could do a lot worse than to spend an evening with Liz Larsen, Klea Blackurst, Janet Getz and Liz McCartney: four musical comedy queens that should add up to a full house. So I sure hope a lot more of you nice folks will head down to St. Luke's Theater and take a gander at Bingo! The Musical, a small package of big talent. It's slim but fun, with no pretensions at being anything more than an evening of trashy silliness. Or silly trashiness. Plus two chances for you to play and win Bingo (yes, there's actually money paid out to the lucky winners). And free Sara Lee cake. The other cast members are equally game, and deserve mention: the charmingly unstrung and possibly unstable Beth Malone, the relentlessly good-natured Chevi Colton and Michael Pemberton, who was subbing for Patrick Ryan Sullivan the night we were there. Check your intellect at the door, and suspend your disbelief at the reckless audacity of writers Ilene Reid, Michael Heitzman and David Holcenberg. This is what off-Broadway used to be like. ~Bob

Doubt, brilliantly written and performed, gripped me from start to finish. I left the theater reeling from the wounds of a bitterly-fought war, uncertain of the priest's guilt or innocence, and faced with my own unsettling inclination to jump to conclusions. While patrons' reactions varied, with some finding guilt and others innocence, no one was indifferent. The experience reminded me of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case. You can listen to both sides all you want, but only Anita and Clarence will ever know for certain what happened between them behind closed doors. ~Anne Dixon

"I don't know your taste in theater but I saw something called Stan Won't Dance at P.S. 22 - John Rockwell's review was orgasmic in Friday's Times - and it was indeed pretty amazing stuff, what the Brits call Physical Theater. If you can get a ticket, it's well worth seeing. And if you do, get there early. Seats are not assigned. -Barbara S.

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Took a trek up to the Bronx by train from Brooklyn the Saturday night before the Thanksgiving holiday to see the last performance of Urinetown at Center Stage Community Playthouse. it was a blast and well worth the trip. Centerstage did a killer production. I, a virgin to this musical, got thoroughly entertained by the exceptional cast. There were Urinetown groupies on the reserved tickets line outside the theatre waiting with me, hoping that the 23 people who's name was on the list decided not to show. Our hopes were granted as we walked into this theatre built from an old church and used year round by Centerstage.

The audience loved this show, as did I. The cast in their oppressive looking Urinetown rags got a standing ovation after the amazing harmonic finale at the end of Act Two. What made the show special for me was that I felt that I actually was in Urinetown. The sets costumes and lighting made it seem that way. The fact that this old converted church has it's own graveyard outside of the premesis may have added to that factor also, combined with its English Gothic edifice. The sheer delight of theatre showed its spectacular glow at this performance. The singing, the choreography, the dark comedy factor and the smokin' pit orchestra assembled in the balcony of the theatre made the acoustics and balance of sound work really well. I didn't walk away humming a tune from the show because of the music's unusual twists and turns, but I did walk away humming a really good feeling and a desire to buy the cast album.

This abstract and quirky music was sung by an excellent cast. Particular standouts to me were Marissa Martinez who played Hope Cladwell, Megan Opalinski who wickedly played Penelope Pennywise and Mindy Kay Smith who played the adorably smart and clever Little Sally. Other standouts were Dennis Whetsel who played the evil Caldwell B.Cladwell brilliantly, Robert Sherrane who played Officer Lockstock with confidence and wit. These are my own personal standouts but it takes nothing away from the rest of the cast, woven together well by the directors Donna Maria Bellone and Sharon Spencer. The band led by Breena Sage, which sounded excellent, mischieviously grooved with the singers and the action. For $15 bucks I got a Broadway night in the Bronx and it was well worth the trip. Centerstage does justice to theatre and those with a lower budget and a love for musicals or plays should go and support theatres around the city and outer boroughs that have productions like these that go all out to keep the level of theatre high. ~Rob Darnell

[Centerstage's next productions will be: Dream Fragments an original play by Nick Leshi which will be a staged reading on the weekend of Feb 10 and in March they will put on James Goldman's play, The Lion In Winter, for three weekends starting April 21st. For further info: www.centerstageplayhouse.org ]

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Judy Kaye is a miracle in SOUVENIR! She absolutely radiates conviction and love of music as the most hideous sounds emerge from her mouth in the persona of Florence Foster Jenkins, the fabled society lady who believed herself to be an opera singer of great talent. I hope she nabs some kind of award for this performance. It's closing soon - see it! ~HL

I know many who scoff at the invasion of TV and film stars on Broadway, and I have heard much anguished teeth gritting about a certain Applegate upsetting the delicate apple cart of New York casting sensibilities. Well, pooh on those snobs who look down their noses while Christina Applegate kicks up her legs and pours out her heart in a thoroughly enjoyable and winning perfomance. Yes, she's that musical tart named Sweet Charity. And this isn't just charity on my part when I say that Applegate has genuine star quality that lights up the stage, and a comic flair that is on a par with my memories of Gwen Verdon, no less. To be honest, I've always been sweet on this Charity, a flawed musical with some of the best comic moments and greatest songs this side of "How to Succeed..." Cy Coleman's music sparkles with tuneful, slithery chromaticism, Dorothy Fields' lyrics are sly, clever and generally right on the pulse of the emotion of the moment. ("There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" and "Baby Dream Your Dream" are still character-specific, exciting songs of hope for the hopeless; although the usually terrific "Where Am I Going" doesn't quite fit the strong, resilient Charity reimagined by Applegate and director Walter Bobby.) And Neil Simon gets off some great lines, even while the plot-line stumbles here and there and the structure wobbles. But it's a classic star vehicle, and Applegate drives it with expert timing, a strong belter's voice and hard-working dancing feet that may be more verdant than Verdon, but is impressive nevertheless for the mere feat of it. Dennis O'Hare is hilarious as the neurotic Oscar, though incredibly odd, with a nasal singing voice that sounds like Kermit's long-lost Muppet brother. Hey, Big Spender - the show's closing this week, and those Fandango gals are longing to show you a good time. How 'bout it pal-sie? ~Bob

Charity may be sweet, but Revenge is sweeter as evidenced by Red Bull Theater's brilliant production of The Revenger's Tragedy, an obscure Jacobean tragedy of disputed authorship but unquestionable power and theatricality. Consider it the classic equivalent of the gross-out movie, yet written with poetry and passion and a definite point, thank you, and with complex psychological underpinnings that disturb rather than disgust. This is the ultimate revenge play, a 16th century attempt to out-Hamlet Hamlet, and the body count is high enough to make the Hallowe'en franchise envious. But don't be faint of heart – the pure theatricality of the staging, and the depth and skill of the performances are exhilarating, and the stylization of the staging is easier to watch than the explicitness of a slasher film. (Trust me – I'm a sissy when it comes to violence and bloodshed.) The cramped and crowded basement space of the Culture Project on Bleecker Street has been transformed beyond anything that seems reasonably possible by director Jesse Berger and his impressive team of designers. He has also trimmed the text to uncharacteristic Jacobean tautness and clarity, and elicited uniformly sharp performances, with an especially strong lead performance in the central role of Vindice, the character whose lust for vengeance cascades into a flood of gruesome murders. The production left me breathless, with a renewed sense of the possibilities of this art form we call theater. Due to unqualified rave reviews in the Times and elsewhere, the show returns for a limited engagement in January (see Theater Events). ~ Bob

Don't even think of calling yourself a New Yorker until you get over to Opia on East 57th Street, and spend a late night cabaret evening with that icon of elegant wit, Mr. John Wallowitch. Yes elegant, even in his current unabashed journey into the underworld of taste, called An Evening of Romance and Filth. Even as he scavenges the classic songbook catalog for non-PC ethnic slurs and shameless double entendres, he takes such an innocent delight in his own shamelessness that you can't help but giggle, titter and ultimately guffaw with gasps of disbelief. There is such a sweetness to his performance, and such debonair professionalism, that he is a consistent pleasure. But of course, I'm not telling the world anything it doesn't already know. The cover charge is a mere $10, and there is no drink minimum, so this is possibly the best cabaret buy in the city. You have nothing better to do Saturday nights at 10:45, I promise you. ~Bob

Whatever are we to make of the outrageously, hilariously bizarre Shockheaded Peter, now in previews at the Little Shubert Theater? It's a children's show that might frighten the wet pants off a kid. It's a puppet show at the corner of Avenue Q and Hell. It's a musical with the jolly hum of a graveyard about it, and a castrato balladeer with other-worldly phrasing and notes to make a dog swoon. The central performance of Julian Bleach as the unhinged Shakespearean cautionary storyteller is a virtuoso tour de force (I was ready to walk on stage and just hand him a Tony), and the whole show resembles a Gorey cartoon come to gory life. You have never seen anything like it, I assure you. Perhaps some things are best left unexplained, and just enjoyed. ~RO

Shockheaded Peter takes you on the kind of trip our society tends to avoid at great cost, the trip down under the floorboards to the darker recesses of the psyche. Along the way it dishes up a visually and musically sumptuous feast of all things nasty – disfiguration, dismemberment, and death – in a style that mixes the morbid humor of Monty Python with the funhouse surprises of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Shockheaded Peter, an infant who arrives by stork, is shoved under the floorboards as soon as his parents discover his grotesquely long fingernails and unruly mop of hair. But in a manner reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, the unseen horror haunts the couple throughout the show, forcing them to "see" it in unsettling ways. Their story is interwoven with anecdotes about the cruel fate of naughty children, brought to life by a variety of darkly-designed puppets and a deliciously deadpan singer. The spellbound audience was wrought with cathartic laughter throughout. ~Anne Dixon

If there truly were democracy in this world, then a hundred unknown playwrights would receive the respect and attention that is automatically commanded by Michael Frayn. His latest play – Democracy – is certainly a skillful effort, but it's dry as dust, though intellectually challenging. I felt the same way about his award-winning Copenhagen: intriguing, important ideas and philosophies parading as characters, but never quite taking on the credibility of flesh and blood people with whom I would care to spend an evening. Of course, I've always been quite a failure as an intellectual, and this might indeed be your cup of high-minded tea. If you have a passion for history, you'd better bring it, because you'll find little passion on stage, though no lack of rhetoric and political bluster. The play deals with the intricate dance of political parties in the two Germanies, leading ultimately to the collapse of the Wall. On a theatrical level, it's really a spy story; but we know who the spy is from the beginning, and we know he will be unmasked before the play ends, so why are we there? Perhaps to savor Frayn's occasionally stimulating musings about the complexity of betrayal, and the multiplicity of minds that live within each of us. Perhaps to watch Richard Thomas use every ounce of his enormous talent to transform himself from a sweet-natured boy-next-door into an unctuous, smarmy East German spy with a conscience (I wasn't convinced), or admire James Naughton as he loses himself in the skin of the non-commital and engimatic Wllie Brandt (I bought it). All the actors are technically wonderful, especially Robert Prosky as a poisonously practical politicial kingpin, and John Dosset who is inexplicably appealing in an underwritten role of an ambitious second banana waiting in the wings. Michael Cumpsty adds as much color as possible to a role that is little more than a plot device. But the hard-working actors are ultimately let down by the script, like good people sunk by a flawed political system. ~Bob

Little Women has some big, big talent in it! For a thoroughly charming evening of musical theater, you couldn't do better than spend time with spunky, wonderful Sutton Foster as Jo. With a heartfelt performance by Maureen McGovern as Marmee and thoroughly winning turns by all the sisters and their beaus. I found Danny Gurwin particularly delightful as Laurie, and John Hickok has sincerity and depth as the Germanic Prof. Bhaer. And the set and costumes are absolutely gorgeous! ~RO

Had a great time at La Cage aux Folles - liked it somewhat better than the original. Nice to have Alban and Georges actually played by comfortably gay men! Gary Beach and Daniel Davis are terrific and touching - Beach made me cheer at "I Am What I Am" (I didn't at the Hearn original), and Davis brought me to tears with "Song on the Sand" (a song I previously despised). A few directorial missteps, but it may be the first time in memory that the chorus gets a standing ovation, but after number after number of dazzling gymnastics in high heels, it's the least we can do. Those Birds absolutely fly across the stage!  ~Bob

Caught Brooke Shields in Wonderful Town in this, the final week of the show's run. She is an absolute delight, with a gawky comic timing that almost manages to deglamorize her for the part of Ruth Sherwood. No, she doesn't have Donna Murphy's voice, but the part never needed it really; and Brooke flows smoothly throughout, whether babbling through an awkward pot luck dinner, or splashing twitchingly through the Conga line from hell. Very funny lady, pleasant voice, charismatic personality. Let's find a role for her to originate next time. -Bob

Anyone who is going to Wonderful Town at the Martin Beck should go up to the mezzanine lobby & see the Hirschfeld retrospective. Great fun. ~Pat A

Wonderful time at Wonderful Town. Amazing how witty it still seems even today. Loved Donna Murphy. Great show!
~Elliot

Ah, long have I participated my first acquaintance with the verbally confuted Mrs. Malaprop, and seeing her embalmed by the delightful Dana Ivey in the current Lincoln Center production of Sheridan's The Rivals is indeed an unmigrated pleasure not to be easily forgotten! To untie my tongue: the entire production is as fine a presentation of a classic as one could hope for, with a uniformly excellent cast. I particularly thought Matt Letscher an Absolute delight (pun intended), and Richard Easton as his father is the most hilariously befuddled figure since Aunt Clara. That Sheridan fellow shows great promise; perhaps a juicy Scandal will solidify his reputation some day. ~Bob

You might want to pass on to your readers who appreciate GOOD REAL ACTING minus body mikes - August Wilson's play GEM OF THE OCEAN.  It's beautifully performed, especially by Phylicia Rashad, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and John Earl Jelks.  Thought you might want to know there are still a few actors around ON BROADWAY.  ~Sheila

Falling Off Broadway is an amazing story about an amazing man. If you are a producer, or have ever thought about being one, you must see this one-man show. ~Bob

Saw Trying the other night, at the Promenade Theater, featuring a formidable performance by Fritz Weaver as a formidably larger-than-life and (yes) extremely trying elder statesman in his cranky last year of life. And the idealistic young woman who comes into his diminishing life as his secretary and stands up to his bullying. Yes, they touch and change each other. And we buy it. A little old-fashioned and predictable, but always engrossing nevertheless. Weaver is one of our finest actors and should not be missed; and the young lady who co-stars holds her own, and then some. -Bob

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FROM NASHVILLE:

What we need around here is more plays like THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF COOTIE SIMONE - ATLANTA! An original work by a local playwight Myra Anderson in a genre that always amuses - Southern Gothic Screwball - "Cootie Simone' had the closing night audience in stiches from beginning to end. Set in 1939 Atlanta at the time of the premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND, this wacky comedy truly captures a moment in the city's history. Atlanta - espcially Atlanta society - was permanently traumatized by this epic film. My own mother went to the premiere, along with the rest of her family, and I was raised in the company of aunts and cousins who wore their hair a la Vivian Lee and ran their households like they were living on Tara.

Normally I don't indulge in plot summaries, so as not to spoil things, but since the show has completed it's run, this is what goes down: Suellen Robillard Fontaine and her husband Randall are saddled with Suellen's eccentric (and probably bipolar) sister, Simone - better known in family circles as Cootie. Suellen would love to marry her sister off, preferably to someone who lives FAR away. Opportunity knocks in the form of New York Times journalist Michael Parker, in town to cover the premiere. Suellen invites him to an intimate cocktail party with the intention of pawning Simone off on him. Also in attendance are Simone's lovelorn suitor Stuart, DAR junior Leaguer Julia Kennedy and Dr. Austin Majors and Mrs. Miriam Rogers.

Even in this quirky caldron of cocktails and chatter, Simone, who has had a small role in GONE WITH THE WIND, is clearly the child of another dimension. She responds to Mr. Parker's enforced courtship by becomming weirder and weirder until she finally has a conniption with a platter of canapes, gets conked on the head by a silver serving tray and is carried up the grand staircase by her brother in law to the sweeping theme music of GWTW.

Simone returns in Act 2 not as herself but as GWTW heroine Scarlett Kaite O'Hara, referring to her company as characters from the story - Rhett, Melanie, Aunt Pittypat - hitting a serious nerve when she abruptly designates the distraught Miss Kennedy as Prissy, but opening the romantic parlor doors to poor Stuart to whom falls the role of Scarlett's one true love, Ashley Wilkes, and who finally has the chance to actually embrace the woman he loves.

This outrageous plot allows the cast an opportunity to indulge in something that's usually a big no-no - unabashed overacting of the most delightful kind. Lauren Atkins leads the pack as the unnervingly intense Simone, whose Scarlett owes more to Carol Burnett than it does to Vivian Lee - though Ms. Atkins swears she has never seen Burnetts classic "saw it in the window" skit. She and suitor Stuart Raiford (Tony Wakefield) almost steal the show when they come face-to-face (literally) as Scarlett and Ashley, though Wakefield is delciously droll from the outset as the love-impaired Mr. Cellophane who hasn't got a chance with the girl of his dreams. Sara Youngblood-Ochoa is perfect as the poised Atlanta hostess and matron-in-progress facing a "three star social emergency" and as her husband, Randall, Obidiah Ewing-Roush is every inch the scotch sipping Atlanta businessman. Having just seen Obidiah as a homless blind man in Jim Reylands SHELTER at TSU, I barely recognized him in this new incarnation - a tribute to both his range and talent. Pat Reilly and Cynthia Correro reek of Buckhead and the Driving Club as Dr. Austin Mrs. Rogers and Scott Crain is a solid foil to all these Southern zanies as the carpetbagging Yankee journalist. The costumes and set, drawn from the collection of the Tennessee Rep., couldn't be more on the money: I felt like I was invading a family gathering back home on Peachtree St. It was all very ATLANTA - even though playwright Anderson hails from Detroit and has never even been to Atlanta.

Where all this madness ends up is something you have to see for yourself. A play like this really deserves a longer run and one can only hope that playwright/director Myra Anderson sees fit to revive THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF COOTIE SIMONE some time in the near future - and hopefully with the same cast - so that everyone can have the chance to spend an evening laughing themselves silly. ~Jaz Dorsey

 

Kaine Riggan's A SCATTERED, SMOTHERED AND COVERED CHRISTMAS is the third new work of musical theater to premiere in Nashville this hoiday season. The other two, SURRENDER ROAD and ZOMBIES CAN'T CLIMB were fine works, but Riggan's show really makes the point that needs to be made about Nashville as a birthplace for new American musicals.

Riggan has woven 15 original songs by as many or more Nashville songwriters into a down to earth musical about Christmas Eve in a Waffle House somewhere outside of Nashville. We are guided through the evening by an angel named Rita (Adele Akin) who once worked as a waitress in this same Waffle House. She stays there after life to fulfill her mission of giving important life assignments to the people who come there to eat and hang out. On this particular Christmas Eve that will cover some 46 different characters, including 23 catholic orphans who are stranded in a snow storm and seek refuge in the restaurant along with the two nuns who govern them. There is also a would be country music singer, a lovesick truckdriver who is courting one of the waiteresses, an older couple who are having an affair, a drunk, a biggoted politician, a pregnant black woman, the bereaved husband of our angel narrator and the girl he falls in love with. These are just some of the characters who bring their personalities to this enchanting Christmas story.This is an important show for Nashville and one that everyone who lives here should see. New York theater is the thing it is because everyone in New York knows what their theater community can do.

A SCATTERED, SMOTHERED AND COVERED CHRISTMAS is proof that we have the same tremedous talent base here in Nashville and the sooner residents of this city begin to warm up to that blessing, the faster Nashville will evolve towards becoming the hub of new theater that it needs and deserves to be. Riggan and Marcus Hummon and Jeremy and Josuha Childs, whose new musicals have graced us over the past few months, are just opening the doors for a future Nashville that will take its place in the history of world theater. ~Jaz Dorsey

When it comes to Charles Dicken's A CHRISTMAS CAROL I am a bit of a cynic. I mean, every year about this time you can look at the theater listings and see twenty two productions of this classic and I just wonder if anybody even looks for something new to present for Christmas. Consequently I have not actually seen A CHRISTMAS CAROL on stage in about ten years. The current Circle Players production at The Gateway Entertainment Complex on 2nd Avenue came as a more than pleasant surprise. Director Cathy Sandborn Street has assembled a really handsome and talented ensemble for her production. Their acting is solid, their singing is sweet and when they dance you actually see why folks enjoyed the kind of dancing they do.Circle has the advantage of a truly nifty performance venue with a turntable which plays nicely into the metamorphosis of the story. The costumes are beautiful and there is even a chair which almost steals the show.All of this comes together in a way that makes an important point: when you say community theater you have to consider the community. Nashville is one of the most talent rich communities in our country. There simply are not enough professional theater companies to contain all this talent. We are truly blessed to have community theaters and especially blessed to have Circle Players and its tenacious dedication to the talent that resides here. ~Jaz Dorsey

What can you say about a Christmas musical called ZOMBIES CAN'T CLIMB: That it's absurd. That it possibly is the strangest Christmas musical ever. That the opening night audience ate it up and that it has all the traits of a cult hit.Following Marcus Hummons' opera SURRENDER ROAD as the second new work of musical theater to be produced in Nashville this holiday season, ZOMBIES is further indication that Nashville theater is coming in to it's own. And what an '"own" it is. Like SURRENDER ROAD, ZOMBIES goes out on a limb with extravgant characters and unexpected music. I don't think any of the songs will show up on your next KMart christmas album but I was tickled to find myself singing the title song along with other audience members at the end of the of the show.I won't give a way the plot; that wouldn't be fair - but I would encourage everyone to line up for tickets to this bizarre Christmas treat. And about those Zombies in the auditorium, don't worry: they never turn on the audience. ~Jaz Dorsey

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From the Shakespeare Festival in Ontario:

Went to the Shakespeare Festival in Canada. The high point was a production of the Dion Boucicault farce London Assurance, directed with consistent comic flair by Brian Bedford, who managed to elicit laughs from every cast member, including scene-stealing turns by a secondary character, the hen-pecked husband of the naughtily named Lady Gay Spanker. He also starred as the preening over-the-hill roue with delusions of sexual prowess, and gave one of the most shameless comic performances I've ever laughed myself to tears at. Gorgeous, opulent sets and costumes, too.

Bali H'ai called us to a competent and thoroughly engaging production of South Pacific at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford Canada. It was all framed in bamboo in an often successful effort to achieve a more authentic Polynesian flavor than usual. And I was reminded of why this Pulitzer Prize winner holds a place of honor in musical history. While some may feel the story of miscegenation and bigotry is handled a bit too patly by today's standards, and therefore a little dated, sabotaged a bit by Hammerstein's innate sentimentality; it nevertheless holds up as a noble effort, and an exquisite marriage of music and drama that soars again and again to emotional heights. If Some Enchanted Evening be a chestnut, then such chestnuts I will gratefully devour forever to feed my soul. This Nearly Was Mine captures and communicates DeBecque's broken heart in phrases so lush and passionate, they connect us all to the Universal experience of loss. And anyone who hasn't had a love that made them feel Younger Than Springtime can savor the aching sweetness vicariously through Cable's sensual moments with Liat. Old-fashioned? Well, there is nothing old-fashioned about the skill with which scenes build to and burst into song. Maybe Nellie's washing that man out of her hair has lost a little zing, especially with an actress in the role who barely gets her hair wet. And Honey Bun is a foolish bit of filler in a comparatively sparse second act. But I'm in Love, I'm in Love, I'm in Love with this wonderful show! And the Canadians did a respectable job, with star Cynthia Dale offering a believable Arkansas twang as a rueful and conflicted Nellie and Theodore Baerg offering a rich, satisfying operatic baritone as Emile.

Then there was Oliver!, a lumpy gruel of a musical with a lovely score that familiarity has aged in treacle. Songs are poorly set up, and the slapdash action of the Dickens story was, at least in this production, ultimately defeated by the unforgiving exposure of a thrust stage. Once again I am reminded that a good musical requires a solid book, although this is a rare instance in which a wildly popular collection of songs has buoyed a slim show on a wave of success through the years. Canadian star Colm Feore was cast as Fagin (he was a terrific Cassius here in the Denzel Washington Julius Caesar), and although he did a skillful job, the production seemed to put undue star-turn emphasis on his character, throwing much of the story out of balance. And gosh golly he was a sympathetic villain.

Okay, it was the Shakespeare Festival, so we did deign to catch one of Willie's little scrawls, a handsome and lucid production of Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick were superbly, charismatically and delightfully enacted by Lucy Peacock and Peter Donaldson, and the entire cast delivered those juicy iambs with absolute clarity. Admittedly there were some weak spots, with a Canadian flatness creeping in here and there to undermine the Elizabethan grace, but overall a fine job. Did you know Shakespeare is actually very funny?

Last and least was an ambitious attempt at making sense of the Jacobean gore-fest known as The Duchess of Malfi. Astonishing to see the contrast in acting of Much Ado's Lucy Peacock playing a tortured, tormented and dignified Duchess. But too much was made of murky lighting effects, shadows and silhouettes that cast a soporific pall over the whole bloody affair. ~ Bob

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FROM LONDON:

Billy Elliott ultimately danced its way right into my heart – both the show itself and a young charmer named James Lomas who is one of the three astonishing youngsters playing the title role at varying performances. If you didn't soar with emotion at the movie, your heart leaping as Billy lets out his frustrations and momentarily escapes his impoverished life as he discovers his innate talent for dance, then I'm not sure you will find the musical any more inspiring; although the theatrical conventions of the stage are perhaps better suited to this magical story of musical self-discovery. More than any musical in recent memory, this show breaks through its own reality and imaginatively flies into fantasy again and again. It is magnificently staged, and uses dance in new and unexpected ways to tell its Cinderfella story. The world of young Billy unfolds in dance and movement, as if we are seeing through his soul rather than merely his eyes: coal-begrimed miners and British bobbies collide in stomping, enraged choreography that reminded me of absolutely nothing I had ever seen in a musical before. It's risky business, veering dangerously towards the foolish, yet it is executed with such brutish conviction that it takes the breath away. Billy discovers his "dance roots" in a fantasy sequence with his grandmother that is sweet, touching and fresh. And near the end of Act One, Billy literally takes flight in a duet with his older self, and even with the flying cables visible, the choreographed mid-air movement and the emotion of the moment are both heart-stopping. The political background of the story is given more weight than I felt was necessary: the plight of the coal miners striking against British beauracracy is far less engaging than the personal journey of young Billy. And as an American, perhaps, I hadn't a clue what to make of a British Music Hall whimsy that opens Act Two, featuring a grotesque chorus in Margaret Thatcher masks. Trimming some of the politics away would not weaken the political message, merely make it less blunt. And it would probably help the show to soar with greater joy than it already does.

If I said that this was Elton John's best musical to date, I fear you would think I was damning with faint praise. And in fact, the score never quite scores, though John should be credited for his pop tunefulness, and an occasional use of Celtic folk melody and rhythms to convey the simplicity and culture of the mining village where the play takes place. His pseudo-Show Biz glitz numbers were less convincing for me: a dance teacher's imploring her little girls to "Shine" was disappointingly derivative, though serviceable for the moment, and the pubescent drag number "Expressing Yourself" felt more like a wink-wink comment on Elton John than a genuine expression of the character Michael. Much credit for the weakness of the score must go to lyricist Lee Hall. Little in the lyrics exhibited true psychological depth; much of it was lazy and facile, often generic and cliche-ridden, and evanescing from memory like a candle in the wind. And yet it does not hurt this wonderful show in the least, proving once again the importance of a strong book in a successful musical. Because the story is so thoroughly engaging, and so well told, I was with this magical musical from the very beginning, and it held me rapt right to the final curtain.

Any production of Guys and Dolls starts with an invaluable asset: one of the strongest, best-constructed shows ever written for musical theater. Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows brilliantly set the tone and milieu with "Runyonland" and "Fugue for Tinhorns", the characters are introduced one by one, and we clearly understand what each of them wants from the start: Sister Sarah wants to save souls and make her Mission a success, Nathan wants to find a place for his floating crap game, Adelaide wants to get married. Then Sky Masterson enters as the catalyst for both stories, and we we watch the stories of two mis-matched couples collide, bounce, sing and dance effortlessly to conclusion. So of course the new British production was thoroughly engaging, and it even boasts one of the best-acted, best-sung, most appealing Sarah's I have ever seen: Jenna Russell, a sincerely doe-eyed scene stealer. Super star Ewan McGregor is slick, charming and occasionally charismatic as Sky, but his voice does not thrill in those gorgoeus Loesser love songs. Jane Krakowski is fun and game as Adelaide, a kewpie doll with claws; I was troubled, however, by her vulgarity in the Hot Box dance numbers, "Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back Your Mink." The night I was there, she was actually fondling her erogenous zones as if to remind us that she worked at a club called the Hot Box. Now that's just wrong, and certainly wrong for the period. We saw an understudy playing Nathan, Cory English, and although he worked hard, he landed few of his laughs. Martyn Ellis' Nicely Nicely brought down the house, as always, with "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." And I also want to commend a simplified Havana sequence that was very effective indeed. By limiting Havana to a single nightclub setting, instead of jumping from club to club as it usually does, we are able to focus on the nuances of the developing relationship between Sky and Sarah. Nice! On the down side, this production strains a bit too hard to bring out the darker tones in the show, a tedious trend in today's musical theater. The costumes and set struck me as too drab for the colorful characters in this world, the tacky gangster suits were drained to shades of gray, the lighting tended to be dim and moody more often than not. And Runyonland opens the show as a stark black brick wall with neon marquees flashing here and there. Where in the Broadway area has one ever found a stark black brick wall? Okay, it's about gangsters and low-lives. But I like my guys and dolls to have more fun. So sue me. ~Bob

Saw Mary Poppins for my birthday, as you may know. Much of the charm of this practically perfect movie musical is translated to the London stage, with some particularly perky new tunes (and a couple of less-than-perfect ones). The buzz has been how much darker Cameron Mackintosh chose to go by returning to the original Poppins books, but not much has been gained by the change: it's more unclear than dark at times, with the storyline seeming somehow less inevitable and graceful than I remember it. (And I saw it only a month ago, so memory does not play tricks here.) Poppins' unpacking of her magical bag of furniture is astonishing, and has the best new song of the score: "Practically Perfect," of course. The new tune moves that "Spoonful of Sugar" so it becomes an ingredient in a slapstick kitchen fiasco that doesn't sweeten the plot much, one of many entertaining but inconsequential tangents. An evil Nanny gives us all a good deal of fun for a few scenes by popping in abruptly and popping out just as abruptly, so what could have been a welcome villainess seems more like an intruder, structurally speaking. "Supercali... you know" is even less motivated than the barely motivated movie version, and goes on way too long, although it gives some joyous moments before it starts stretching beyond its lengthy title, and starts looking like a Tommy Tune number on amphetamines. The memory of Julie Andrews casts a shadow over Laura Michelle Kelly, who neverthless managed to walk off with the Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical. She really is quite good, but Andrews was superb. Gavin Lee is certainly more authentically British than Dick Van Dyke's Bert ever was, but caw! I missed the Van Dyke goofiness, I did! But David Haig is the heart and soul of the evening as the overly-starched, excessively glum Mr. Banks who must learn to reassess his priorities and fly a kite. It certainly is a lot of musical for your money, and if it straightens out some of its structural weaknesses, it will surely be as much of a smash when they bring here. Which they will. And it will fly, make no mistake, higher than a kite and as magically as the governess herself.

The other major new musical in London is the classic Wilkie Collins ghost story, Woman in White, with lyrics by my brilliant friend David Zippel who has done whatever is possible to keep Andrew Lloyd Weber within the bounds of taste and theatricality. But alas! Weber has indulged himself in a score that is so keyed up, frenzied and symphonic, from beginning to end, that it practically buries the poor show in a sea of violins. It pulsates from the first moment of the opening scene, reaches a fever pitch shortly thereafter, and rarely shows much emotional let-up. (Think Sweeney Todd without the irony. Or ghoulish fun.) Thank goodness Zippel forced some variation with a couple of good old show tunes for the secondary character, the foppish and funny Fosco, now played to the hilt by Michael Ball (originally Michael Crawford, you may recall). This is also a problem, though, because it puts undue emphasis on what should be a secondary character, even as he stops the show twice: "A Gift for Living Well" in Act One, and "You Can Get Away with Anything" in Act Two. (I am not a Weber basher, by the way; I think he is extremely gifted, but could do with someone to keep him in line now and then.) The set is a dizzying spectacle: everything on stage is a computer-generated projection, rendered in minute detail, twirling and swirling and whooshing us from scene to scene like a ... well, like a computer game. Some may find it way cool; I found it exhausting. Book writer Charlotte Jones must take a bit of the responsibility for the murkiness of the story; she never quite decides whose story it is, and the show unfolds in lumps. Pity, because she has the ideal central figure in the character of Marian, who unwittingly sells her half-sister into marital hell. It is clear that it is Marian's story, particularly when she vows to right the wrong she has done, but there are far too many plot distractions and complications for us to follow Marian with any certainty. More's the pity because she is played by the splendid Maria Freedman, who surely would have stolen the Olivier from Poppins if it weren't for the fact that she already has a shelf full of them, and deservedly so. Did I say splendid? Try spectacular, with an extraordinary voice and heartbreaking subtlety in her acting. Forget the ghost – Maria Freedman is the one to send shivers down your spine.

If someone had told me that the highlight of my London trip would be a staging of an 18th century German classic by Friedrich Schiller, I would have thought them quite mad. But instinct (and something I read) sent me to the Gielgud Theater to see if I could beg a pair for the sell-out of Don Carlos, starring Derek Jacobi. And I was lucky indeed. This is a stunning production of a rich, complex play that offers insight into both the intricacies of family relationships, and the exigencies of politics. Derek Jacobi is brilliant as the seemingly heartless King Philip, and Elliot Cowan is deeply moving as the noble and doomed Rodrigo. Richard Coyle is somewhat unregal, curly-headed and less satisfying in the title role. But the production is stark and bold, designed with Bauhaus simplicity and lit with chiaroscuro effect throughout, as if each scene were framed by the eye of Rembrandt. Icy cold, yet utterly passionate and ultimately heartbreaking, this is a masterful production of a masterful play whose politics seem sadly contemporary. As soon as you hear murmurs of their bringing it here for a limited run, run for your tickets. ~Bob

Saw a magnificent show at The National in London, Coram Boy, adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Jamila Gavin and directed and co-designed by Melly Still. Huge generational scope of story about foundlings in Georgian England, elegantly done with some surprisingly inventive yet simple effects. Character work is Dickensian reminicent of Nicholas Nickleby. Interweaves Handel throughout with a cast of 20 plus chorus and small orchestra. It's a hit at the Olivier and hard to get tickets. Difficult to work commercially and doubt it could make the leap across the Atlantic. If traveling to London, buy advance tickets.  ~RK Greene

Some news from New England:

I caught the charming production of Princesses at Goodspeed with the truly wonderful Donna English proving yet again that she is one our greatest comediennes. Intelligent, clever lyrics - as always - from David Zippel. Okay, maybe a little unconvincingly sentimental, but promising. Also caught the troublesome Mack and Mabel, Jerry Herman's problematic legend of a musical with great songs and an awkward book. But Christianne Noll almost made me forget every flaw with her wonderful, rich, funny portrayal of Mabel Normand. The real surprise of the trek northward came from a non-Equity production of off-Broadway now-you-see-it-now-you-don't charmer of a few seasons ago, The Spitfire Grill in West Springfield, Mass. What a warm, emotionally satisfying chamber piece it is, with a terrific book and a decent country western score; and how great to see TRU friend Vickie Phillips shine in a comic supporting role. If you live anywhere near Springfield, do not miss this polished, fine production.:

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REVIEWS OF THE '06 MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL THEATER FESTIVAL (LOL, The Wastes of Time, Motion and Location, Pie-Obsessed Drunken Fatties, Sex and Sealing Wax, the Sibling, MentalPause, The Quiet Model, Wake of the Essex):

Perhaps the strongest piece in this year’s Midtown Festival is the dark and sexy LOL by Tony Sportiello. The show has the perhaps unfair advantage of previous productions with the same director and one key cast member, and therefore it might stand out in any festival for its polished performances and precise direction. Yet director Jerry Less has kept things simple, with actors on chairs and stools and not much else. Not much else besides brilliant comic turns by Greg Skura as the protagonist/narrator Danny, a romance-starved writer of romance novels, and Nicole Taylor as Karen, a female alter-ego he creates in order to roam Bisexual-Fem chat rooms to learn more about how to please women. Skura is sweetly low-key and convincingly befuddled, awkward, unassuming, overwhelmed, innocent and desperate in a kaleidoscope of emotional hairpin turns that drive the juicy, sexy, surprising yet inevitable plot. Taylor, the one who’s done the role before, is simply astonishing as a figment of Danny’s mind come to life, a sexual kewpie doll with the soul of Chuckie and the libido of Catherine the Great; she manages to breathe complex and credible life into this fantasy creation, and finds both the churlish brat and the ravishingly compassionate woman in what could have otherwise been a plot device. Kari Swenson Riely is vulnerable and heartbreaking as Jenny, the fragile object of unreal Karen’s genuine affection. The entire cast is pitch perfect, and Less has choreographed their physical and emotional moves with sensitivity and humor. LOL? Well, it’s not consistently laugh-out-loud funny, especially considering how dark it ultimately becomes; but it is consistently engaging. The story has more psychological heft than the author allows – it could be a truly harrowing examination of a psychotic rift in the mind of a man trying to get in touch with his feminine side, but an easy-out ending keeps the play moored in the Twilight Zone rather than allowing it to soar among the stars. Catch the last performance tonight (Saturday) at 10:30pm at the WorkShop Mainstage, 312 W. 36th Street.

Almost as satisfying for far different reasons is the tender, compassionate The Wastes of Time by Duncan Pflaster who is truly too gentle a soul for this world of ours. Still, Pflaster has bravely etched three memorable characters and set them dancing emotionally against the backdrop of the gay disco scene and AIDS. Yes, this is an AIDS play, but one that handles the subject with disarming naturalness and perspective. Out and in his 20’s, Jess is weary of the shallowness of his peers and ripe for a relationship with the older and only sometimes wiser David, conservatively buttoned-down and harboring provocative though disturbing thoughts on the purpose of AIDS in our society. Jess Cassidy White is spirited and sweet as the young Jess, and commands attention in every moment he is on stage. But the richest, quirkiest and most complex acting is from Susan Barnes Walker as every gay boy’s dream mom, understanding and accepting to a fault; yet when her Flower Child breeding eventually crack and gives way to rage and outrage, she is frightening and compelling. The deep dark secret that gradually comes out, that binds these three characters in unexpected ways, is actually a bit too pat and predictable. But I have no better ideas to offer Pflaster, so if a convenient plot device is what he needs to raise the stakes and generate drama, so be it. I cared about these people, deeply. And even more important, I recognized them. Catch the last performance tonight (Saturday) at 10pm at the WorkShop Jewel Box, 312 W. 36th Street.

It’s been two years since TRU presented Motion and Location by Lorna Littleway in our own series, and here it is in a next-step production at MITF. So okay – I’m prejudiced. I feel this is an extremely well-written, warm and funny piece about matters multi-cultural; specifically, the tug of war between sports and academics on black teenage Clarissa, as embodied by her gay baseball all-star Aunt Bo on one side and her middle class-aspiring mom on the other.  I think I detected some rewrites here and there, including an overly long opening monolog by Aunt Bo about baseball delivered far too early for us to care, one of the few errors in a near-perfectly pitched game. And Geany Masai is a larger-than-life and charismatic actress, but she never seemed to settle comfortably into the role of Mother; her struggles with line readings slowed the pace and made the play seem somewhat more labored and solemn than it felt in the lightening quick, thoroughly engaging TRU reading. But Suzanne Froix is strong and convincing as Aunt Bo, and Angela Arnold is an absolute treasure as Clarissa, strong-willed and moody and touching as a teen coming to terms with her life choices, including ones about her sexuality. It continues to be guided by the able hand of TRU friend Sue Lawless, one of the finest directors of comedy on the planet. Catch the last performances today (Saturday) at 11am (good morning – get dressed and get down there), and tomorrow (Sunday) at 7:45 at the WorkShop Mainstage, 312 W. 36th Street.

Pie-Obsessed Drunken Fatties has a great title, two thoroughly engaging writer/performers and actual servings of pie. It just needs a little more play. This seemingly random combo of monologs dances on the edge of being a coherent evening, and with a bit more development could successfully travel the fringe circuit. The pairing of performers is an interesting one, though, with sub-textual significance that could be further explored. Marjorie Suvalle is a perky young thing with curly blonde hair and an edge of nuttiness that needs to be loosened just a bit more; it doesn’t quite come naturally to her yet, but she shows promise as a comic actress. Julie Perkins is an older counter-part, also blonde but with her nuttiness raging in two of the most savagely comic portrayals I have ever seen of women beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown. Floating in there somewhere is the sense that Suvalle is a young everywoman going through the disillusions of disastrous dating that will turn her into the darkly and delightfully crazed Perkins. Interestingly, Suvalle is more successful at creating the mannerisms of the men she is dating than in finding a convincing persona for herself. They interact midway in a wildly choreographed prom dance that may just suggest that they both need to leave men behind and reach out to each other. It is directed with a firm hand by Michael Ormond. This is a work-in-progress, and I genuinely hope these two talented ladies will continue to explore their themes, and perhaps even find other interesting ways to interact.

I caught the return engagement of Romy Nordlinger’s Sex and Sealing Wax, and was impressed with the work she has done on the piece since last year’s festival. This is a loose exploration of seven loose female characters, and how their self-images have been shaped by our mass media culture. Nordlinger’s characterizations and monologs are sharper now, including a much clearer and better thought out Latina waitress refusing to justify her life choices to her self-righteously conservative sister; and the videotaped “Existential Makeover” segments that provide a thru-line for the evening (with Romy as a demented cosmetic surgeon) are better produced and projected on a much nicer backdrop, albeit one that resembles a TV screen on steroids. References to Alice Through the Looking Glass pop up here and there, but the themes are still as elusive as that shadowy rabbit who keeps scurrying through. Still, Nordlinger is a gifted monologist with a flair for character detail and a nice command of her vocal and physical technique. Did I mention she strips at the end? Catch her last performance tomorrow (Sunday) at 1:45pm at Where Eagles Dare, 347 W. 36th Street.

The Siblings is an interesting exercise in stylized presentation, skillfully directed by Edward Elefterion, employing sparse set pieces, a Kabuki-like prop woman in black who punctuates moments with sound effects, and simple but effective lighting that gives it a look and feel that is different from anything else in the festival. It is a dark, dark take on the Hansel and Gretel story, with Biblical undertones and themes of faith and the existence of God. It all unfolds with deceptive simplicity that branches out into complex philosophical complications upon complications. It held my interest, but I longed for something richer and more poetic – or more sardonic – in the play’s language. It all looked great but sounded rather flat, which may have been the point. But it does tease the brain and leave a haunting memory. Catch the last performance tomorrow (Sunday) at 11am at The Workshop Mainstage, 312 W. 36th Street.

MentalPause is worth catching if you admire good dancing. Writer/performer Margaret Liston moves exquisitely and is consistently compelling in the dance portions of her show. There is much that is honest and real in the script, but its fresh perceptions about that happy time called menopause were few and far between for me, although I am perhaps not the target audience. The show needs a stronger structure; it hasn’t yet found a dramatic arc for its presentation of the raging mood swings of a woman confronting change of life. And it features a very sloppy parody of Porter’s “Let’s Do It” that used jarringly bad rhymes and slipshod scansion, and lowers the overall standards of a promising piece. One more show tomorrow (Sunday) at 3pm at the WorkShop Mainstage, 312 W. 36th Street.

The Quiet Model is one of the best looking plays in the festival. Director Chelsea Miller creates consistently strong stage pictures, and uses props, gauzy blue fabric, moody lighting and period-like costumes to give the show a veneer of professionalism. I fear she has neglected the actors, however, and failed to guide them to a clear understanding of the text. I caught many misreadings of lines throughout, dramatic inflections that seemed counter to the emotion of the moment, histrionics often drowning out the basic meaning of the text. I believe Miller is true to playwright L.A. Mitchell’s intentions, but I would prefer a bit more substance to support the style. Last show is tomorrow (Sunday) at 7pm at the MainStage Jewel Box, 312 W. 36th Street.

Lou Rodgers piece "Wake of the Essex" at Midtown International Theatre Festival is fabulous. Beautifully written and performed. ~Julie Halpern

From the 2005 Midtown International Theatre Festival:

There are many things to recommend 21 Stories: A Broadway Tale, and not the least of them is the charismatic and thoroughly ingratiating presence of writer G.W. Stevens in the leading role. This Yorkshire fellow with distinctive accent has star quality, make no mistake, and it is ironic to see him portraying a character (himself perhaps) who is frustrated by a failure to make it as a musical star in the Big Bad Apple. He has great timing and technique, moves beautifully and looks smashing up there. He is nicely balanced by co-star Marilyn Rising as a fragile Vicodin-hooked thing from Texas who aspires to be a classical pianist, and makes the mistake of falling for him. Suffice it to say that nothing much goes right for either of these good people in a bad city. The show uses recordings from famous Broadway musicals to comment on the action throughout, and an amazing chorus of furiously talented dancers bursts on the stage periodically and breaks into movement that successfully captures the style and excitement of many of our best-loved Broadway musicals. If you don't walk into the theater humming the tunes, you have been in a coma for the last twenty years, or have somehow never heard of something called the "original cast album". No, no .... that's too scary. Of course you know and love these classic songs! And like me, you will be vastly entertained by this refreshing blend of drama, dance and campy lip-synching, with a dash of disco and drugs. This is one of the best-staged productions I have seen in any festival, and the bursts of energy from the chorus provide a nice contrast to the serious goings-on in the story. Okay, the story's a bit maudlin, but the method of telling it kept me involved and interested throughout, and I truly cared about these characters. Hey, it's not a perfect world. Don't miss this perfectly wonderful imperfect show!

Spit It Out! is an enjoyable, engaging showcase for two powerhouse female personalities: radio's Valerie Smaldone and blues singer Amy Coleman whose amazing lung power and soulful presence won me over many years ago in an off-Broadway musical called The Last Session. The two women have obvious affection for each other, and it comes out in both the collaboration they created in their script and in their relationship onstage. They seem to be portraying versions of themselves, an extremely tricky stunt to pull off effectively. Valerie plays a successful radio personality and Amy plays a down-and-out blues singer, and they are thoroughly winning in their opposingly neurotic ways. The story is essentially about the development of a true and mutually supportive friendship from a shaky start. Although they could have filled in the details of the story with more surprise and freshness, one must remember that this is a play festival, a place where artists deserve the right to experiment and grow; I am reasonably sure this is the first time the piece is up on its feet, and hopefully they will learn about it and develop it into something less predictable. They also deserve the support of an audience, and with the right frame of mind, you will have a fine time. And you will be utterly knocked out by Coleman's singing, with a fine 3-piece combo to back her up. And lest you think this a mere two-hander, let me mention the delightful and adorable Stephen Bienske in a variety of somewhat male roles (plus a drag queen named April Showers), as well as clear, controlled and sweetly sung backup vocals.

The title sets the tone for the evening: Cervix with a Smile, Elisa DeCarlo's shameless series of riffs on all things wild, sexual and vaguely tasteless (intentionally so). DeCarlo is a formidable presence with an offbeat sense of humor and a downtown gift for broad characterization. And she portrays quite a lineup of broads. Standouts are a heavy-lidded, huskily lisping Dietrich-inspired diva who sings one of several original over-the-top sick ditties penned by DeCarlo, the soulful "Love Lobotomy"; Marge Sugarbaker, a happy TV homemaker who takes off her frowsy housedress to reveal herself as a dominatrix in a French maid's outfit, offering handy tips to the ladies on using kitchen utensils as instruments of sexual torture (I was the unsuspecting male in the audience dragged on stage for humiliation ... and I'm still willing to say nice things about her); and a Bible-thumping good old girl who sings rapturously about her "Dream Date" with Jesus ("And God let us take the car..." goes the refrain). But the heart of the evening is her touching, deeply felt and meticulously rendered portrait of an aging ex-stripper (excuse, me: exotic dancer) who convincingly assures us that she "was always a lady." I sighed in recognition when she ultimately identified herself as Dagmar, a petite busty platinum blonde who I actually remember seeing billed at the Troc Burlesque house in Philadelphia, back in the late 50's when I was growing up. Elisa knows and loves this woman, and we grow to do so as well. Kudos to music director Tracy Stark for terrific accompaniment, as well as some dandy characterizations, and a terrific rendition of the sly "Santa Comes Once a Year." The show may not be to everyone's taste, but frankly my dear, taste has nothin' to do with it.

Terence McNally is one helluva funny guy and It's Only a Play! is one helluva funny play, even though it's lesser known than many of his others. This is his love-hate paean to the business of theater (it ran briefly off-Broadway at MTC many moons ago), and his feelings come out in equal parts blisteringly scathing satire and genuine affection. John Capo has assembled an able cast and directed the evening at a crisp pace, perhaps too crisp at times because the jokes sometimes don't have a chance to breathe, much like the actors themselves. But this is still a polished evening, particularly for a festival of this sort. Hopefully you will be old enough and savvy enough to understand the barrage of theater cogniscenti references and in-jokes that fill the stage in an never-ending stream of sarcasm and wit; even if you're not, you'll enjoy the skillful unfolding of this scary tale of a disastrous opening night party in which life and death hinges on the NY Times review they are anxiously awaiting. Particularly fine work by Frederick Hamilton as the frenetically desperate playwright; Hamilton manages to be broadly physical and believably grounded at the same time (and man, as a playwright myself, did I ever relate to him). Director John Capo plays director Frank Finger, a moody and brooding wunderkind who is intently waiting to be exposed to the world as a fraud; multi-talented Capo captures a dark, quirky quality that works quite well. Sheila Mart is appropriately grand, with a touch of ditz, as a neurotically aging actress; newcomer Michael Baldwin is effortlessly adorable and funny as a houseboy with visions of stardom; and Betty Hudson is a charismatic pro who practically steals the scenes she's in as an earthy, pull-no-punches cab driver. For all it's zing, sting and silliness, the play ultimately moved me very much and reminded me of how very proud I am to be in this business.

The things most people want to know about are usually none of their business.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done,
they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.

 ~Brendan Behan

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