Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Completeness at Playwrights Horizons

You don't have to know anything about science to relate to Itamar Moses's romantic comedy between nerdy scientist types. And don't let the term romantic comedy scare you either. Completeness, directed by Pam MacKinnon, is an accurate portrayal of 20-somethings dealing with relationships.

Molly (Aubrey Dollar) is a molecular biology graduate student and Elliot (Karl Miller) is at the same school in the computer science department. They eye each other in a computer lab (David Zinn's set is deceptively simple at first, then revealing multiple surprises) and he offers to create a computer program that will help her in her research. It doesn't take long for them to end up in bed together and as much as they as they like each other, they both have trouble with commitment.

Moses has a gift for writing realistic dialogue and the leads speak it so naturally that at times it's hard to remember it's scripted. There are so many little details that ring true, like Elliot asking for Molly's number, then changing his mind and asking for her e-mail address because then it's more likely he'll actually get in touch. Even the scientific lingo, or at least the basic gist of it, is pretty easy to follow.

Miller played Elliot in the world premiere of Completeness at South Coast Repertory, but he joined this production already in rehearsals (he replaced Lucas Kavner, who replaced Michael Stahl-David). Considering Miller and Dollar must not have had much time to work together, their chemistry is even more impressive. The other two actors, Meredith Forlenza and Brian Avers play multiple roles, but they don't feel distinct enough.

There is one jarring scene in the second act that will probably prove divisive (without revealing too much, I thought it broke up the realism of the rest of the play and could have done without it, while others thought it was one of the best scenes). At least it will provide plenty to talk about it on the way out of the theater, as will the rest of the play.

Use code COMPBLOG for a ticket discount. Order by September 13 and tickets are $40 (reg. $70) for performances August 19-Sept. 4; and $50 (reg. $70) for perfs. Sept. 6-25. For tickets or more information, visit or call (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily).

Note: The production officially opens on September 13, but I was invited to a preview and asked to post my thoughts.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Totally Awesome Show You Can't See Right Now

I saw this great theater piece the other night. I want to be able to tell you to go see it, but it was the last night of its three-night run at the Robert Moss Theater in New York and the theater company is based in Santa Barbara. But I'm going to tell you about it anyway, because you should know about Proximity Theatre Company.

Proximity is a non-profit youth theater company (the actors range in age from 16 to 29) that produces physical theater productions.

Shandy Wilkes by Proximity's co-artistic director Karina Richardson is a reworked version of The Marvellous Shandy Wilkes, presented by Proximity in 2009. It's a really sweet fairy tale about the power of love. Shandy Wilkes (Chiara Perez del Campo) was born with mirrors in her eyes that show people the thing about themselves they fear the most. Her own mother (Richardson) can't bear to look at her, so Shandy is mostly raised by her blind grandmother Maria Carmen (Siena Perez del Campo). Shandy's only friends are a fun-loving unicorn (Jake Himovitz) and a know-it-all dragon (Gabriela London), but eventually, Shandy has to go to school. Only Hymn (Himovitz) can look into her eyes because he is too young to have learned how to hate any part of himself. The rest of the students and teachers fear her, but she gets to keep coming to school on the condition that she will wear sunglasses. The play follows her through her teenage years when she reconnects with Hymn and into young adulthood.

The show has a great message and is appropriate for children, but is just as entertaining for adults. The youthful energy from the cast (most of whom juggle multiple roles) is infectious. Kyra Lehman's (doing double-duty as director) frantic choreography paired with Ken Urbina's original music gives the show a hip, modern edge, but never feels false or trying too hard.

New Yorkers, check out the two promo videos to get a taste of what you missed. If you live in or near Santa Barbara, I encourage you to keep your eye on Proximity's website for future show information. But here's hoping they will be back on the east coast soon.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

FRINGE: Keepers

What's The Benefit, Inc. produces theater that highlights a specific charitable cause. Keepers, a musical about adoption based on real testimonials, was originally presented at Studio 54 last year as a benefit for Spence Chapin Adoption Services and now it's having its first run at Fringe. It's hard to really a judge a show when everybody's hearts are in the right place.

The program doesn't specify how much of the script is directly taken from testimonials, but there are four book writers--Spencer Lavallee, Nicco Franklin, Paul Daniel Cloeter, and Molly C. Blau (Franklin and Cloeter also appear in the show). Short monologues are interspersed with musical numbers, so as is the case with other musicals of this kind, it's hard for the characters to make a lasting impression. But there are many sweet (two brothers--one adopted--in trouble with the principal are as close as any brothers), sad (a man in prison never learned to love his adoptive parents), and funny (a lesbian couple joke that they have to go to the "ballerina store" so their daughter won't end up gay) moments. What the musical does well is present both the positive and negative sides of adoption from the points of view of both children and adults. The music by Daniel Wolpow and Cloeter is pretty, though I think the show would work just as well as a play. As a whole, the actors are better in the individual scenes than when singing all together as in the title number. Erin Breen is particularly memorable in the opening scene on her adopted daughter's first day of school as is Franklin as a young man who finds a box belonging to his birth parents.

If you know anyone who has been adopted or gone through the adoption process, you will probably be moved by the show in some way. Up next for What's the Benefit is Weaker People, a musical dealing with the issue of bullying.

The final performance of Keepers is Sun 28 @ noon.

Monday, August 22, 2011

FRINGE: The Legend of Julie Taymor, or The Musical That Killed Everybody

I was sick of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark before even the first preview. I was relieved when the musical officially opened, if only so I wouldn't have to hear about it anymore. But The Legend of Julie Taymor was so entertaining that I didn't mind hearing the the well-known saga again. I had a much better time at this Fringe show than at either version of Spider-Man.

The title is the only place where Julie Taymor's name is mentioned. In the musical by Travis Ferguson, producer Frank Kashowitz (Johnnie Moore) has the idea to turn the popular comic franchise Spider-Dude into a musical and he wants Bruno (Clint Carter), lead singer of the band U[squared] to write the music, but Bruno will only agree if they get Julie Paymore (a show-stealing Jennifer Barnhart) to direct.

Sure, Turn Off the Dark is an easy target, but Ferguson's attention to detail is impressive. The musical follows the trajectory of the spectacular failure pretty closely, from lead producer's death to delayed openings to actor injuries, so the more you know about its history, the more you'll laugh. For example, most avid theatergoers will recognize Lionel Weasel (Christopher Davis Carlisle, another standout in the cast), the gossip columnist intent on destroying Spider-Dude, as Michael Riedel of the New York Post. Of course, there is comic exaggeration. I doubt Riedel and Taymor have any sort of romantic history or that Christopher Tierney's accident was purposefully orchestrated by Taymor.

The score by Dave Ogrin (he and Ferguson co-wrote lyrics) is at its best when mocking Turn Off The Dark's score. A highlight is "Boy Falls From the Rafters"--sung by Barry Shafrin as the adorably naive Billy--a perfect send-up of "Boy Falls From The Sky." As someone who saw a preview of version 1.0, "Tweet , Tweet, Tweet!"--sung by audience members tweeting at the first preview--was an accurate depiction of what it was like to watch the mess of a show. ("Where are they going on the tangent? Still can't understand the words. 3 hours in. What's worse, the music or the dancing?")

The creators left no stone unturned with touches like Katie White's comic-book style props (even Starbucks cups are made of cardboard). I would like to see more from Ogrin and Ferguson, but now can we please stop talking about Spider-Man?

The final performance is Wed 24 @ 7.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

FRINGE: Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story

Between Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending, The Bardy Bunch, and the musical Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story by Mariah MacCarthy, there is a lot of Romeo and Juliet going on at Fringe. Add in the somewhat disappointing Royal Shakespeare Company production I saw in July and you'd think I'd be all Romeo and Juliet'ed out. But I never mind revisiting the story when a production is done well or offers a fresh take.

MacCarthy's new spin is that Romeo and Juliet are two young women living in Verona, Iowa. Juliet (Brigitte Choura) is a rich beauty queen engaged to marry Paris (Nic Grelli) and Romeo (Lauren Hennessy) is a wannabe rock star. Their mothers (both played by men--Jeremy Michael Lagunas as Claire Capulet and Matt Welsh as Evelyn Montague) are running against each other for mayor. But the Capulet/Montague rivalry is deeper than that. When Romeo came out in high school (this Romeo and Juliet, at 21, are a little older than Shakespeare's characters), she received threats from Juliet's cousin Tybalt (Craig Hanson). The election is in full swing and Claire Capulet decides to throw a masquerade party. Romeo dresses like a man, hoping to woo college student Rosaline, but ends up dancing with the masked Juliet. By the time each realizes who the other is, it's too late--they've already fallen for each other.

The show works largely because of Hennessy and Choura and their fantastic chemistry. Both women draw you in completely in scenes together and apart. They are supported by a strong ensemble cast, especially Jordan Tierny as comic relief Mercutio and Hanson as frat boy Tybalt.

The other reason this show is so memorable is Brian Kirchner's rock-folk-pop-Lady Gaga hybrid score. The songs start off humorous ("Hey Bitch") and become haunting ("Star-Crossed Lover" performed by the choir Diana Oh, Julie Ek, and Lauren Weinberg). Kudos to Emily Rupp, who juggles guitar, ukele, flute, and vocals.

Ampersand does need some tightening. The two-and-a-half hour show could be shortened as some of the scenes feel extraneous or repetitive. For example, the scenes between Juliet and her grandfather (Anna Savant) are sweet, but don't add much and there is an argument with Juliet and Romeo that goes on for too long. Even with these quibbles, this musical has the strongest potential for life after Fringe that I've seen this year.

Final performance is Sat 27 @ 7:45.

Photo credit: Kacey Stamats

Monday, August 15, 2011

FRINGE: Welcome to Eternity

I really enjoyed Matt Saldarelli's Getting Even With Shakespeare at last year's Fringe. He abandons Shakespeare characters for a trip down the aisle with his new play, Welcome to Eternity, a series of seven short scenes between soon-to-be-married couple Amanda (Mary Schneider) and Patrick (Patrick Pizzolorusso). (I should probably disclose that I am "Twitter friends" with Pizzolorusso.)

According to program notes, Saldarelli, whose own wedding is in a few weeks, got the inspiration for the play when he told his fiancée that he wanted to write a graphic novel about her family. That idea became "Justice Family of America." As you can see, this isn't your typical marriage play. Though a lot of the issues raised--religion, dieting--are familiar, Saldarelli puts an original spin on them. For example, in "Catholic-22," Patrick and Amanda play a game to test her Catholic knowledge and in "Missionary Sundays," Patrick decides to add some spontaneity into their sex lives by trying out a new sexual position a day.

Saldarelli writes convincing dialogue in which his characters go off on believable tangents. (As in Getting Even With Shakespeare, conversations include many pop culture references.) Though each scene stands solidly on its own and together they start to form a picture of the couple, the play could do with some more establishing of why these two are together. They don't seem to agree on anything and we rarely see them being affectionate with one another. Yes, the play is about how the wedding takes a toll on their relationship, but I wondered why they fell in love in the first place. Luckily, Schneider and Pizzolorusso have an easy rapport that makes it easier to fill in the blanks.

Remaining performances: Sat 20 @ noon and Thu 25 @ 2

Photo credit: Dixie Sheridan

FRINGE: The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady

If you thought Romeo and Juliet was a story of woe, wait until you hear the tragedy of Keith Partridge and Marcia Brady. The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady is The Brady Bunch meets The Partridge Family meets Romeo and Juliet meets Macbeth meets Hamlet meets Much Ado About Nothing, with bits of other Shakespeare plays thrown in for good measure. So if you're a fan of either singing family or Shakespeare, you will probably find something to enjoy in this violent musical comedy.

The story takes place in the summer of '74, after both shows went off the air. The Partridges and the Bradys are in a Montague/Capulet-type feud when Keith (Erik Keiser) and Marcia (Cali Elizabeth Moore) fall in love. They devise a plan to trick Greg Brady (A.J. Shively) and Laurie Partridge (Carina Zabrodsky) into falling in love. Meanwhile, Carol Brady (Susan J. Jacks) convinces her husband (Jacks's real-life husband Nick Ruggeri) to kill his boss and Danny Partridge (Adam Wald) is haunted by the memory of his father and wants revenge on his mother Shirley's (Michelle Mazza) new husband Reuben (Craig Wichman).

Playwright Stephen Garvey clearly knows his Bradys, Partridges, and Shakespeare. Some of the Shakespeare jokes are appropriately sitcom corny. I particularly enjoyed references to my favorite Brady Bunch episodes, and I didn't feel like I was missing out when The Partridge Family references went over my head.

Eighteen is a large cast by Fringe standards and director Jay Stern deftly maneuvers the chaos. Everybody in the cast fits into their roles perfectly. Standouts include the four young lovers and Jonathan Grunert as Peter, whose "It's Time To Change" is one of the high points of the evening. Logan Medland has done a fantastic job of arranging the songs like "I Woke Up In Love This Morning" for musical theater storytelling. Lorna Ventura's choreography also lovingly references the sitcoms.

There are only three performances left and Friday's is already sold out, so if this sounds like your type of show, I'd suggest buying a ticket soon.

Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 9, Sun 21 @ 8:45, and Wed 24 @ 2

Photo caption: Erik Keiser as Keith Partridge and A.J. Shively as Greg Brady
Photo credit: Tom Henning

Sunday, August 14, 2011

FRINGE: Yeast Nation

Urinetown is considered the most successful show to come out of the Fringe Festival. The musical opened on Broadway in 2001 and won Tony Awards for best book, score, and direction of a musical. Greg Kotis (book, lyrics) and Mark Hollmann (music, lyrics) return to Fringe with Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life) and sold out the run before the first performance. But I doubt that Yeast Nation will have the same trajectory as Urinetown.

If expectations weren't so high for Yeast Nation, it would be another amusing, quirky Fringe show, but it's hard not to make comparisons to Urinetown as it is so similar in style and themes. The musical takes place in 3,000,458,000 BC at the bottom of the primordial sea. Although the characters are yeast, the story, which involves power struggles and love against the odds, is familiar. Jan the Elder (George McDaniel)--if you know Urinetown, think of him as Caldwell B. Cladwell--enforces strict rules about reproduction, what the yeast can eat, and where they can go. But his son Jan the Second (Erik Altemus) falls in love with Jan the Sweet (Emily Tarpey) and starts to question his father. The show even has an Officer Lockstock and Little Sally in the form of Jan the Unnamed (Harriet Harris) and a precocious young boy, well yeast (Charlie Plummer), who narrate and break the fourth wall.

Yeast Nation feels long at two-and-a-half hours, but overall the strong ensemble keep energy and entertainment levels up when the show begins to drag. Standouts in the cast include Joy Suprano as Jan the Wise and Jan the Famished (Jennifer Blood), whose duet is a highlight of the show.

The score was catchy, but because Urinetown is one of the funniest musicals I've ever seen, I was expecting to laugh a lot more at the lyrics. Clearly, Kotis and Hollmann have a lot of talent, and I would love to see something completely different from them. Not that I mind musicals with bad titles or being told that my way of living is unsustainable.

Photo from left to right: Manu Narayan, Emily Tarpey, and Erik Altemus
Photo credit: Jay Sullivan

FRINGE: Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending

Romeo and Juliet is a timeless play, but many of the characters are insufferable and their actions frustrating. So, when I was reading over the 194 selections at this year's New York International Fringe Festival and came across the title Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending, I knew I had to see it. Finally, the chance to control the outcome. It turns out that even when you choose your own ending, the results may not be ideal, but you probably won't find a Romeo and Juliet as fun or short (only 90 minutes) as this one.

There are three points in the play at which audiences vote by a show of hand. The first is when Romeo (James Waters) goes to the masquerade at the home of the Capulets and has to choose between wooing Juliet (Kyra Corradin) or Rosaline (Katie Jeffries). My audience chose Rosaline. In this version, Rosaline is Tybalt's (Matthew Sparacino) sister and a Capulet, so it still turns out to be a tale of star-crossed lovers, except that Rosaline is older and more cynical than Juliet, so she rejects Romeo's advances at first. Waters, whose boyish looks work so well for the lovesick Romeo, and Jeffries make for a believable couple. I suppose it's possible that Rosaline could have been a Capulet, but this almost feels too easy. [Correction: Turns out, Rosaline is indeed a Capulet. Thanks to Katie Jeffries for pointing that out.] So that Juliet is not completely left out, Benvolio (Rob Mueller), who I always thought of as the character in Shakespeare's version the most free from blame, falls in love with her. Kudos to the actors, most of whom have to play multiple parts and memorize each combination of results on top of that.

The play was written by brother and sister team Ann and Shawn Fraistat (with some help from William Shakespeare, of course), who have a knack for writing Shakespearan rhyme so it blends easily with the lines from the actual play, even with some anachronistic language thrown in. There are 8 different endings to choose from, so you might find yourself wanting to go back and see what could have been.

Remaining performances for Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending: Thu 18 @ 7:30, Sat 20 @ 2:15, Sun 21 @ 2:30, and Fri 26 @ 4:15

Photo from left to right: Kyra Corradin as Juliet, James Waters as Romeo, Katie Jeffries as Rosaline

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Traces, or A Circus for People Who Hate Circuses

I'm not a circus person. The thought of having to sit through one makes me a little queasy. If you're anything like me, don't let the word "circus" in the plot description of 7 Fingers's Traces freak you out. 7 Fingers was founded in Montreal in 2002 to bring circus to a human scale, according to program notes. Cirque du Soleil had similar beginnings, but those shows still feel larger than life. Traces feels less about spectacle and more about street art. And let's be honest, it doesn't hurt that the young cast is easy on the eyes.

In Traces, the performers wear regular clothes--no need for elaborate costumes. They take turns introducing themselves with birth dates (warning: if you were born before the late '80s, you will probably feel old), hometowns, heights, weights, and adjectives. Bradley Henderson is reliable and the oldest. Mason Ames is clumsy. Mathieu Cloutier is from Quebec. Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau, the only female in the group, is flirtatious. Philippe Normand-Jenny's parents are psychologists. Xia Zhengqi goes by Daqi and is insecure. Florian Zumkehr (pictured) is romantic.

Sometimes it doesn't even feel like you're watching a performance, just friends goofing off, as the seven make fun of each other or play around with skateboards and basketballs. But then they perform mind-blowing acrobatics like balancing on chairs, jumping through hoops, and climbing on poles (direction and choreography are shared by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider). The show is very dance-heavy as well and incorporates elements of both hip hop and ballet. The tricks don't always land, but they will get up and try again, and that also adds to the humanness of the show.

This is a limited engagement at the Union Square Theatre through October 9 [Update: Traces has been extended through January 1], but I wouldn't wait to see it. If you need any more convincing to see this show, just watch a few of the videos on the Traces site. For bargain-hunters, $25 rush tickets are available the day of the performance.

Photo credit: Michael Meseke

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Nick Jonas: Marius vs. Link

I used to make fun of my sister for liking the Jonas Brothers, but some time ago, I started to actually like them, mostly Nick. From interviews I've read, he seems like a smart guy and a dedicated musician. I knew he couldn't really act because I've seen episodes of Jonas and Jonas LA. The 25th anniversary concert of Les Miserables, in which he played Marius, confirmed this, but it also proved that he can actually sing better than his work with the Jonas Brothers would indicate. This weekend, he played Link Larkin in Hairspray at the Hollywood Bowl. I'm in New York, so I didn't see it, but my sister did and she thought he was much more successful as Link than as Marius.

"Nick Jonas does fairly well with characters who aren't too complicated. Link is actually a kind of dumb character to begin with, so it worked out," she told me. "He was a little stiff at the beginning, but later on he got really into it." When he was Marius, he had the same look of concern on his face the whole time he was onstage, but she said he actually did vary his facial expressions somewhat as Link: "While he was dancing he was smiling, but I don't think he can act and smile at the same time."

The highlight of that conversation, courtesy of my sister: "The moral of the story: We need to always give Nick Jonas characters that aren't complex or dramatic, or any character in which he would have to do his 'I'm concerned about the situation right now' constipation face."

Photo credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Friday, August 05, 2011

My TV Debut... StageRush TV

This week, my friend Jesse invited me to co-host his weekly web series, Stage Rush TV with him. I overcame my fear of speaking on camera and you can watch us discuss this week's Broadway news here. And if you don't already read Stage Rush, you should, for great video interviews, giveaways, and more. Thanks for having me, Jesse!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Quick Q&A With Joyce DeWitt

Joyce DeWitt, best known as Janet Wood on Three's Company, is currently starring as the adorable Miss Abigail in Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, & Marriage at Sofia's Downstairs Theater on 46th Street. In the show, Miss Abigail and her sidekick Paco (Mauricio Perez) share Miss Abigail's dating advice. To be honest, I went in thinking the play would be cheesy, but was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be genuinely funny. And now, five questions with Joyce DeWitt:
Q: What did you think when you were first approached about this show? Was it something you wanted to do immediately?
A: Comedic material that occasionally touches the heart is my favorite kind of material. So, yes, I was immediately attracted to the play.

Q: What appeals to you about the role?
A: That she has dedicated herself to helping people and that as a character she is a joy to play.

Q: There is quite a bit of audience interaction, so I would think you have to be ready for anything. Did you have any improv experience?
A: None whatsoever. It was the one thing that caused me to take some time in agreeing to do the role.

Q: Do you agree with all of Miss Abigail’s advice?
A: Well, if I were 100 years old I might! But, some of it is very sweet and that dearness is a lovely thing to share with the audience.

Q: What is your favorite piece of wisdom from Miss Abigail?
A: That life is short and love is so very precious.

Click here and use the code BLOG for discounted tickets to the show.

Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel