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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'What I Did Last Summer' - Amusing and Affecting Memory Play


Noah Galvin and Kristine Nielsen in What I Did Last Summer
(©Joan Marcus)

Amusing and affecting, A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer turns the clock back some 70 years to tell the story of a teenager’s coming of age as he spends the summer with his mother and sister at a vacation spot new Lake Erie while his father serves in the Pacific during World War II. It’s a charming---and familiar---story that’s made invigoratingly fresh by both Gurney’s style and two exceptional performances.

Theatergoers know they’re in for an unusual ride as soon as Last Summer begins and a series of stage directions are “typed out" (courtesy of projection designer John Narun) on the beige polygon that serves as the backdrop for Michael Yeargan’s spare scenic design. Once the show’s youthful hero Charlie (Noah Galvin) has bounded onstage to boldly announce “This is a play about me,” the show’s presentational nature has been firmly and irrevocably established.

As the piece, directed with a sensitive and sure hand by Jim Simpson, progresses, the performers continue to address the audience, and a drummer (Dan Weiner) sitting at one side of the stage punctuates jokes, momentous events, etc. It’s all just enough to give Gurney’s story a deliciously impish feel that beautifully matches the story being told.

Charlie, you see, is at that first moment in puberty where nothing seems to working as it should and fighting with the world seems to be the only option. He resents having to spend the summer studying Latin. Another vacationer, Ted (Pico Alexander), who’s just a bit older seems to have it all together. He’s working mowing lawns. He’s also got a car, which is just enough to impress the girl Charlie likes, Bonny (Juliet Brett).

In an effort to compete with Ted, and to get away from his mom (Carolyn McCormick) and sister (Kate McGonigle), Charlie decides he’ll apply for a job with a local eccentric, Anna (Kristine Nielsen), a woman whom the locals have nicknamed “The Pig Woman.” During their first meeting, Anna’s drawn to Charlie’s pluck and lack of direction and decides that she will take him on, but not as a worker, but as a student. She decides that she will “unlock his potential.”

Thus, Charlie spends his summer days---much to his mother’s chagrin---with Anna, experimenting in sculpture, weaving and painting. Along the way, she also works to instill in him a healthy sense of questioning the status quo, which means his own privileged existence. Wathcing Gurney’s play, it’s rough not to think of Anna as an upstate, pioneer version of Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame.

It should come as no surprise that Anna’s lessons only fuel more conflict for Charlie, both internally and at home, and before the summer has come to an end, there have been fireworks for his family and in the community in general.

Throughout, Galvin gives a performance that sparks with pubescent petulance and anger, and while those qualities might make it sound as if it’s a turn that would be unpleasant to watch, it never is. Galvin infuses the character with such an eager ease that one can’t help but like and root for this young man as he strives to find his place in the world.

Alongside Galvin’s marvelously energetic Charlie is Nielsen’s warmly sage Anna. Nielsen brings her hallmark wonkiness (seen so often in Christopher Durang’s plays) to the stage and moderates them with a world weary and wizened gravitas. The combination makes Anna’s allure for Charlie (as well as all of the young people who preceded him) entirely understandable.

At the other end of the spectrum is Carolyn McCormick’s nervously edgy turn as Charlie’s mom, who’s had to hold a family together on her own for several years while her husband has been overseas. It’s a performance that captures both the woman’s deep maternal instincts as well as her desire to be something more than just a wife and parent.

Alexander, McGonigle and Brett, as the other three young people, deliver equally spirited performances, and by the time What I Did Last Summer reaches its bittersweet conclusion, audiences will, most likely, find themselves grinning while also thinking about some of their own foibles and perhaps a few of their own missed opportunities from their teenage years.

---- Andy Propst


What I Did Last Summer plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.

'The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek' -


Leon Addison Brown and Caleb McLaughlin in The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek
(©Joan Marcus)

The question of what constitutes the sum total of a man’s life lies at the center of Athol Fugard’s new play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, which opened last night at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Directed with grace by Fugard and performed to perfection by a four-person ensemble, it’s a delicately thoughtful piece that proves gently moving.

During the first half of Painted Rocks audiences meet an elderly man Nukain (Leon Addison Brown) and a pre-teen boy Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin), both of whom live and work on a stretch of Afrikaaner farmland. It’s 1981 and as has been Nukain’s habit for ten years, he has come to a koppie (a small hill) that overlooks the land he works. It’s here---and on others surrounding the farm---where he has been painting colorful flowers on the rocks that dot the landscape.

Bokkie has come along with Nukain to act as helper, and the young man can barely contain his enthusiasm about their shared work for the day; he believes that Nukain will finally paint the “big one:” a huge boulder (which lies center stage of Christopher R. Barreca’s realistically arid scenic design). Unfortunately, Nukain, as has been the case for several weeks, suffers from block or phobia about tackling this stone, and it's only after some urging from the boy, and a fit of inspiration, that he (along with Bokkie) begin to daub colors onto the rock.

They do not create a pretty flower, however. Instead, it’s an ominous, abstract face-like image, each portion of which represents one facet of Nukain’s strife-filled life. When Ellmarie (Bianca Amato) discovers what the two have created, she demands that Nukain return the following week, erase it, and paint his “biggest flower ... to thank the Lord for all his blessings.” Nukain reluctantly agrees, sending Bokkie into a rage. The child cannot understand why the older man would agree to the white woman’s orders.

Her insistence upon Nokain destroying his art is both a blow for the child and theatergoers, who have been caught in the spell cast by Fugard’s play and the actors. Brown blends the weariness of old age with the kind of passion one associates with youth in his portrayal of Nokain. As Bokkie, McLaughlin gives a spunky---but never cloying---performance. There is an ease to his work that signals a promising and long career.

When Painted Rocks moves forward to 2003 in the second act, violence has erupted in the area and throughout the country, and Ellmarie reels from one particularly horrific crime that has just been committed on her land. When she discovers a 30something black man, Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah), on the koppie, she’s prepared to think the worst of him, even after he’s revealed that he is the boy who once lived there. He’s now a schoolteacher and the effect of what happened on the koppie has inspired him in ways that she could never imagine. In fact, while Nukain was attempting to forge a legacy by painting the rock, he was actually creating a far-more important (and lasting) one in his young companion.

Though the second act of Painted Rocks suffers from a certain formulaic predictability as Jonathan and Elmarie work to understand both their similarities and differences, it’s enlivened immeasurably by Ngaujah’s gently commanding turn as Jonathan and Amato’s carefully crafted performance as the embittered Elmarie.

Fugard ends the play on a note of cautious hope, both for these characters and for South Africa in general, leaving in theaters both a warm glow and a bit of melancholy about the injustices that have preceded the optimism.

---- Andy Propst


The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.

'Finding Neverland' - Peter Pan Minus Enchantment


The company of Finding Neverland.
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)

For over 100 years now, J.M. Barrie’s tale of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” (i.e. Peter Pan) has sparked touched the imaginations and hearts of people around the globe. Similarly, Barrie’s tale has inspired artists, who have reimagined and refashioned it for different media and to different purposes. With the arrival of Finding Neverland at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre last night, New York theatergoers will discover that Barrie’s work (as well as his biography) have gone through yet another transformation. Sadly, this pandering new tuner lacks any of the magic that has made its source material so enduring.

With a book by James Graham, which is based on the movie of the same name, Finding Neverland relates how Barrie (played by Matthew Morrison) came to write Peter Pan. It presents Barrie as he’s facing a slump in his playwriting career and at a crossroads in a marriage to a woman with whom he is temperamentally at odds. One day, while Barrie is in the park, he encounters a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly), and her four sons.

The boys’ playfulness and vivacious game-playing captures Barrie’s mind and heart, and before long, he has become a boon companion to both the mother and her children. He’s also decided that his newest work for the stage will be for young people, filled with adventures akin to the ones that the Davies boys and Barrie themselves imagine.

Barrie’s behavior and plans shock not only London society at large, but also his chilly wife (Teal Wicks) and his producer, American Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer). At the same time, Barrie breathes a new sort of life into the Davies clan. Sylvia and he fall in love, and Barrie draws on of Sylvia’s children, Peter, out of the grief he feels over the death of his father.

Of course, there are reversals on the course of getting Barrie’s idea to the stage. Frohman’s company nearly revolts over having to do a kiddie play, and Sylvia begins to succumb to tuberculosis, but by the show’s end, there’s a generally happy--although bittersweet--resolution at hand. (Note to parents of very small children the little girl, perhaps five or six years old, sitting behind me at the press performance was initially confused by Sylvia’s illness and then, audibly distressed at its outcome.)

This straightforward story of a man rediscovering his inner child and simultaneously inspiring those around him to do the same has been told time and again, and in Finding Neverland theatergoers will find that book writer Madge has not embellished it in any way that makes it particularly fresh. For anyone familiar with Barrie’s biography, the liberties that are taken with his life to make the story neat amount to their own sort of fiction. For instance, Barrie did not set out to make Peter Pan a stage play. He wrote the story first in book form.

It might help if the show’s songs, from Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, contributed an semblence of magic to the proceedings, but the tunes, with titles like “We’re All Made of Stars” and “All That Matters” and “What You Mean to Me,” are mostly just generic pop anthems. There’s little sense of the Edwardian era period in them, and with the song “Believe,” audiences may feel like they’ve dropped in somewhere in the mid-1970s to revisit one of that decade’s feel-good bubblegum hits. With another, “Circus of Your Mind,” the writers seem to be channeling Jacques Brel.

Throughout the lyrics, riddled with near-rhymes that jar (“arrived” and “strive”) the ear, force the performers to simply belt out notes and emotion. In “Stronger,” Barrie announces “In the darkest place/There’s the faintest light/Gives me hope to face/The hardest fight/Pain delivers me.”

Director Diane Paulus, working in an environment from scenic designer Scott Pask that brings to mind a child’s theater, keeps the action awhirl, but her ability to create theatrical whimsy (demonstrated with her circus-inspired staging of Pippin) never emerges. Like the musical itself, her work has an aura of perfunctory professionalism to it.

Morrison, Kelly, Grammer, and Wicks in the central roles, along with Carolee Carmello, who plays Sylvia’s oh-so-proper mother, deliver sturdy performances, and with the exception of Grammer, who takes a Rex Harrison-like approach to the music half speaking, half singing, they deliver the music with gusto. Their work is never anything less than energetic, but it, like the show, lacks the delicacy that’s so necessary for creating enchantment.

---- Andy Propst


Finding Neverland plays at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 West 46th Street). For more information, visit: findingneverlandthemusical.com.

'Clinton The Musical' - A Cartoonish Look Back on a Presidency and Its Scandals


Tom Galantich, Kerry Butler, and Duke LafoonClinton The Musical.
(Photo © Russ Rowland)

A chance to revisit the glories and infamies of President William Jefferson Clinton’s eight years in the Oval Office awaits theatergoers at New World Stages, where Clinton The Musical has just opened. Writers Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge leave no scandal or personage untouched in this cartoonish tuner that’s been directed and choreographed with hyperkinetic perkiness by Daniel Knechtiges. And though there’s a certain topicality to the proceedings thanks to Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her own bid for the presidency, the show ultimately feels like a comedy sketch that has been stretched well beyond its breaking point.

The writers do start with a clever-enough premise. They split President Clinton into two distinct characters. There’s the “good” one, WJ (played with Southern-fried gravitas by Tom Galantich), and then, there’s the “bad-boy” one, Billy (Duke Lafoon, who, amusingly, often seems to be channeling middle-aged Elvis). It’s up to Hillary (the always engaging powerhouse vocalist Kerry Butler) to keep the latter at bay while the former makes policy and navigates Washington’s political waters.

The split personality concept stays fresh for a while, and then, once Kenneth Starr (played with malevolent and homoerotic glee by Kevin Zak) and Newt Gingrich (whom John Treacy Egan hysterically plays as an adult version of a petulant toddler) arrive on the scene, the show simply founders, leaping from one crass recounting of a scandal or proposed Presidential policy to another. Naturally, Monica Lewinsky (a sweetly pert Veronica J. Kuehn) is on hand, and, as might be expected, Al Gore shows up sporadically - as a cardboard cutout.

The songs---by Paul Hodge---reflect the kind of over-eager pop that predominated during the Clinton presidency. And his lyrics, like the show itself, are blatant, and in-your-face. After Lewinksy and Billy have hooked up, she sings “I'm fucking the fucking president/Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah!”

Oddly, the show, which has a nifty set design that sweeps from the Oval Office to the bowels of the Capitol building from Beowulf Borritt, attempts late in the game to have a heart. After WJ confesses the Lewinsky affair to Hillary, there’s a searing ballad for the first lady, in which she announces, “’Cause now I have had enough/I’ve made up my mind/Enough is enough.” Unfortunately, it’s a lyric that could also be delivered by audience members enduring this tuner.

---- Andy Propst


Clinton plays at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street). For more information, visit: clintonthemusical.com.

'Wolf Hall' - English History in an Epic Stage Production


Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard in Wolf Hall.
(©Johan Persson)

Played in two parts that collectively run just under six hours, the stage version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which opened last night at the Winter Garden Theatre, grabs theatergoers’ eyes and ears from the moment they walk into the theater. An ominous rumbling courses through the theater, courtesy of sound designer Nick Powell, and the show’s scenic design a mammoth gray cavern of sorts which has as its central feature a huge wooden cross impresses. The sense that something intense and important could happen at any minute hangs in the air.

Once the show gets underway, and as director Jeremy Herrin’s handsome production of Michael Poulton's adaptation unfolds, there’s never any question that the events of the drama, a revisitation to Henry VIII’s court as he cycles through his first three wives (Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour), are important. But a sense of intensity only sporadically shines through in what ultimately begins to feel like an exceedingly pretty and impeccably performed pageant of English history.

Most theatergoers will have encountered portions of the story before. Right now, in fact, there’s a BBC Two miniseries of the same title on PBS, and from 2007-2010 the series The Tudors explored the intrigues of the court. Other incarnations of this slice of sixteenth century history include such films as A Man for All Seasons and Anne of the Thousand Days from the 1960s, as well as Charles Laughton’s 1933 movie The Private of Life of Henry VIII, which condenses five of the king’s marriages into a fleet 97 minutes.

One of the things that sets Wolf Hall,in any incarnation, apart is its frame of reference. The narrative centers on Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) and the ways in which he manipulates events and people so that Henry (Nathaniel Parker) can remarry as his whims and desires dictate. It’s an intriguing prism to refract the history through, and the moments when Wolf Hall genuinely zings are the ones when Cromwell uses his formidable linguistic gifts to push his peers, higher-ups, and the king himself in the directions he needs them to go. During the first half, Cromwell’s insinuations that push Henry toward establishing the Church of England are simply delicious, and during the second half, it’s difficult to not begin buying into the ways in which Cromwell elicits confessions from the men who have allegedly had affairs with Queen Anne.

It’s not just the arguments that make these sections of the play work so beautifully, but also Miles’ indefatigable (he’s onstage almost the entirety of the show) performance that brims with an erudite geniality. Yes, Cromwell’s motives become increasingly suspect as his status at Henry’s court rises (and Miles plays the ambiguity beautifully), but there’s also an aura of a huckster around Miles’ Cromwell that proves irresistible.

This sort of humanity, on display time and again from the 22-person company, ultimately becomes the other layer in the production that pulls theatergoers through the show’s languors. Examples range from Paul Jesson’s portrayal of Cardinal Wolsey as pragmatist and almost Renaissance good ole boy to Leah Brotherhead’s superlatively sweet rendering of Jane Seymour. The slight trill that fills her voice when Seymour’s nervous endears.

Similarly, Daniel Fraser, playing Cromwell’s son Gregory, traces one of the show’s most interesting arcs with grace. The character matures over the course of the show from late adolescence through young adulthood, and as in the process, Fraser’s performance, filled initially with innocence, deepens as disillusion creeps in. At the other end of the spectrum is Pierro Niel-Mee’s turn as Christophe, one of Cromwell’s servants and a man with a fascinating sadistic streak. Making viciousness simultaneously funny and creepy isn’t easy, and yet, Niel-Mee accomplishes the feat with aplomb.

And, even when performances such as Lucy Briers’ spitfire turn as Spanish-born Katherine, Lydia Leonard’s rapaciously ambitious Anne, and Parker’s work as the jocular and sexually avaricious Henry veer toward the larger-than-life, they never become caricatures. In fact, Parker’s work has an suprising gentleness about it during the first part.

Yet despite these, and so many other skillfully crafted performances, and the fact that the show continually looks fantastic, just like a Renaissance painting that’s sprung to life thanks to Oram’s opulent costumes and Paul Constable and David Plater’s sumptuously moody lighting design, it becomes difficult to shake a feeling of weariness that creeps in as the show progresses.

Part of the problem is that much of the most interesting action is only reported by the characters. There’s also just a static quality to the staging that emphasizes the importance of composition rather than action. Both conceits are understandable, particularly the former as it keeps the sense of the court as an unceasing rumor-mill at the fore. Unfortunately, though, they ultimately combine to sap Wolf Hall of its dramatic thrust and its potential intensity, which seemed so promising at the production’s outset.

---- Andy Propst


Wolf Hall plays at the Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit wolfhallbroadway.com.