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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Amazing Grace' - A Decidedly Retro Musical


Erin Mackey and Josh Young in Amazing Grace
(©Joan Marcus)

Theatergoers should expect a rocky theatrical voyage if they’re planning on seeing Amazing Grace, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre.

The show, which relates the events that led John Newton (Josh Young) to compose the classic hymn that gives the musical its title, has been written by two newcomers to theater. Christopher Smith, a self-taught musician has written the score, and he and Arthur Giron have co-written the show’s book. The fact that these writers have gotten their first effort into a Broadway berth in and of itself is pretty impressive. Further, Smith’s ability to pen songs in the vein of Boublil and Schönberg (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon) or Frank Wildhorn signals a potential talent to be reckoned with.

Tastes have obviously changed since the former team’s heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and so, Amazing Grace has a decidedly retro, if not horribly dated, feel to it. At the same time, some numbers, particularly a pastiche of a operatic Christmas carol that’s sung by Newton’s love interest Mary (Erin Mackey, sounding ravishing), are quite pleasing to the ear.

As lyricist, Smith has less success. His lyrics come in the blunt declamatory style of the popera, which proves wearisome, and this, along with the show’s shallowly conceived book, is what proves to be the undoing of Amazing Grace.

For this show about British slave traders in the eighteenth century, Smith and Giron have conceived characters that hearken back to works much older than the poperas. On many levels, the show can feel as if it comes from the mold of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Caucasian characters are troubled souls, just waiting to be redeemed, noble beyond compare or simply villainous, while the African-American ones suffer their servitude stalwartly and with dignity.

Thus, we have the hero of Newton, who as the show opens has returned to England after 11 months at sea. He had fled the school his father had put him in and still wants to rebel. He’s also desperately seeking his father’s approval, so much so that he steps in to oversee an auction of newly-arrived slaves. “I'll make more money than father ever dreamed,” he says. Before the show has ended, though, Newton has had an epiphany (thanks to surviving a storm at sea), and has become a staunch abolitionist.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mary, Newton’s childhood sweetheart. She witnesses the auction and eventually becomes part of the illegal abolitionist movement, spying on the Major (Chris Hoch), who hopes to win her hand in marriage.

Both Newton and Mary have slave servants. For him, it’s Thomas (Chuck Cooper), who serves as both a confidante and eventual voice of conscience for his younger master, and for her, it’s Nanna (Laiona Michelle), who finds herself paying the price for her mistress’ subversive activities. Amazing Grace features another principal African character: Princess Peyal (Harriet D. Foy), a member of the royal family in Sierra Leone, where Newton’s held captive for a period after a ship he is on is attacked and sunk by pirates. The princess also practices in the slave trade, selling off her subjects and keeping them as her servants.

The characterizations and the twists and turns in the plotting combine to make Amazing Grace feel as if it might have been adapted from a nineteenth century potboiler, and one that becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously. After the storm at sea, Newton’s ship is “full of holes” and yet, his first command is to head to not sail for home, but rather Barbados.

Thankfully, director Gabriel Barre has an estimable company at his command. Young has a powerhouse voice that commands attention. Mackey not only sounds terrific, but she also imbues Mary with a winning spunk, making the character one audiences can’t help but cheer for. The same can be said of Cooper, whose deep voice has never sounded smoother and who navigates the dicey role of Thomas with grace. Additionally, Tom Hewett makes curmudgeonly gruffness almost endearing in his portrayal of Newton’s father, and Hoch, playing the vain, foppish Major, proves to be a villain that audiences love to hate.

Beyond the performances, Barre’s production benefits from some top-flight designers, particularly Toni-Leslie James’ handsome period costumes and Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s understated lighting design. Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s scenic design keeps the action moving fluidly, and Jon Weston’s sound design subtly amplifies the company and orchestra alike.

And, while this work, as well as the performers', provides Amazing Grace with a polished sheen, it’s not enough to cover the musical’s underlying flaws.

---- Andy Propst


Amazing Grace plays at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st Street). For more information and tickets, visit: amazinggracemusical.com.

'King Liz' - A Sports Agent and Client Attempt to Reach the Top


Russell G Jones, Jeremie Harris and Karen Pittman in King Liz
(©Carol Rosegg)

Karen Pittman wowed last season in Disgraced on Broadway, playing a high-powered attorney, who found herself working as a sort of referee between her husband and one of her colleagues at a dinner party. She’s returned to the stage in Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz to play another character who’s attained an impressive level of success in her field, but in this new play that opened last night at Second Stage Theatre’s uptown home, the McGinn-Cazale Theatre, Pittman’s character, Liz Rico, often can be the one starting the battles in a professional war she has been waging for over two decades.

Liz, you see, has reached nearly the pinnacle in her field: sports-agentry. She has risen from the ranks to a number two slot at her company, and as Coppel’s play opens, Liz’s boss Mr. Candy (Michael Cullen) informs her that the rumors of his pending retirement are true. Candy also has plans to recommend to the company’s board that she--rather than a popular, male, and Caucasian colleague--succeed him as its leader. Yes, there are overtones of King Lear in King Liz.

Before Candy makes his recommendation, however, he wants her to do one thing: sign a contract with a hot-shot 19-year-old basketball player who’s just out of high school in Red Hook. This young man, Freddie Luna (Jeremie Harris), has the potential to be a superstar along the lines of Kobe Bryant. But, he’s also young, and there are lingering questions about his past and run-ins with the law.

Liz, determined to secure the top spot at the agency, takes the assignment, and through a combination of bullying and bluntness, she gets Freddie to sign at their first meeting at a Brooklyn burger joint (Dane Laffrey’s corporate office--like scenic design proves exceptionally flexible). In short order, Liz makes good on her promise to Freddie, getting him a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract with the Knicks, and up until a game-saving play he makes for the team, everything seems to be on track for them both.

Unfortunately, at a press conference following the game, Freddie loses his temper, and Liz has to go on the offensive. In the process, she also has to confront a number of personal issues that she has avoided during her career.

It’s at this point that Coppel’s play--to use a sport term--chokes. She contrives crises for both characters, including a romantic entanglement for Liz, that fail to convince, and while the first half of the play had been a taut, driving machine, its second act sputters from moment to moment despite the performers’ work and director Lisa Peterson’s crisp staging.

Nevertheless Pittman continues a forward press that never loses steam. During the first act, she dazzles as Liz works the phones playing managers from rival teams off one another. And when Liz watches Freddie during the crucial game, there’s something that’s almost leonine about this woman as she stalks the stage, afraid to watch the television and yet, seemingly inexplicably drawn back to it.

Equally impressive is Harris’ work as the young player. He blends swagger with innocence superlatively, creating a character who is painfully and questioningly straddling late adolescence and early adulthood. He and Pittman both are to be commended for only gently playing the parent-child roles that Coppel weaves into the script to create one more layer of Lear in Liz.

Cullen’s work as Candy sparks with both weariness and subtle misogyny, and Irene Sofia Lucio gets laughs as Liz’s beleaguered and overly-eager assistant while Russell G. Jones brings hardnosed sensitivity to his portrayal of Freddie’s coach.

As with Coppel’s Chimichangas and Zoloft which played off-Broadway a few seasons back, King Liz brims with zestful dialogue and there’s little question that both plays display the playwright’s keen interest in exploring unique contemporary multicultural stories. And while not everything in King Liz scores, Pittman’s bravura performance in the title role proves thoroughly and compellingly winning.

---- Andy Propst


King Liz plays at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre (2162 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit: 2st.com.

'The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey' - A Magical, Moving Solo Show


James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.
(©Matthew Murphy)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, which opened last night in a new production at the Westside Theatre, premiered earlier this year at Dixon Place. Below is the review of the original production, which has been newly designed for its transfer to the Westside Theatre.

There’s wondrous magic going on at Dixon Place in James Lecesne’s astonishing one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, which opened last night.

The first sort of wizardry that theatergoers will find in the show is Lecesne’s performance. In the space of just seventy minutes creates marvelously etched characters, from a tough-talking, seen-it-all detective in a small town on the Jersey shore to a one-time mafia wife who has begun to have regrets about her culpability in her late husband’s activities to a German man who specializes in repairing antique clocks and watches (a man with regrets of his own).

Now you might think that actors who play multiple roles in their own shows are a dime a dozen in New York. And indeed, they are. But it’s rare that one comes across a performer as gifted as Lecesne. He seamlessly transitions between the characters as a sad mystery concerning the brutal murder of a gay teenager--the Leonard Pelkey of the play’s title--unfolds, and with each lightning-like transition, his transformation is utterly and almost mind-blowingly convincing.

For instance, Lecesne only wears a dark shirt, trousers and a pair of dress shoes during the course of the show, but when he becomes the dead boy’s aunt Gloria, he seems to have somehow slipped into an uncomfortable pair of heels. Similarly, when this woman’s awkward teenage daughter Phoebe takes to the stage, something has gone wrong in the elastic in her knee-highs.

Beyond Lecesne’s attention to detail in his performance, there’s a sense of genuine affection for all of the characters (including a young man who might be the murderer). It’s not that Lecesne’s writing is saccharine. In fact, there a moments when the script allows the audience to laugh at the people he’s portraying. Take for instance a woman who is a customer at Gloria’s beauty parlor. She remembers how she first met Leonard. “Last summer I’m at the CVS browsing decongestants when I notice this kid...,” she says. It’s the kind of detail that inspires a guffaw and, in lesser hands, could signal a caricature that’s about to be revealed. By the end of her sole appearance, though, she’s a woman whom audiences have come to adore and may even feel a little sad for.

This multi-tiered response to this character and the show in general is the other sort of magic that the piece traffics in. It’s both marvelously amusing and deeply moving, often within the space of just a couple of lines. Lecesne’s gift for quick transitions between characters extends to his writing and the emotional rollercoaster of Absolute Brightness proves enormously satisfying.

The show’s success does not rest with Lecesne alone. Director Tony Speciale must be credited with the show’s graceful staging and for integrating Matthew Sandager’s still and animated projections and Duncan Sheik’s delicately evocative incidental music for piano and guitar. These elements beautifully enhance Lecesne’s work, which casts a spell that inspires a winning and warm glow from start to finish.


---- Andy Propst


The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey plays at the Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit absolutebrightnessplay.com.

'Three Days to See' - Helen Keller Beyond 'The Miracle Worker' (and the Jokes)


Zoe Wilson (center) and Barbara Walsh (rear), along with, clockwise, Ito Aghayere, Chinaza Uche, Theresa McCarthy, Patrick Boll, Marc de la Cruz in Three Days to See
(©Carol Rosegg)

For most people the name Helen Keller evokes one of two things. Either they think of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the movie The Miracle Worker or they immediately remember the worst jokes about the young woman, who, though born with the ability to see and hear, lost both senses in infancy due to illness.

In Three Days to See, a new theater piece based on Keller’s extensive writings from adulthood that opened last night in a Transport Group production off-Broadway, director-adapter Jack Cummings III gets past both of these generalized impressions about Keller early on. Working on a stage that’s bare except for half a dozen folding tables and chairs (scenic and costume design by Dane Laffrey), the show’s seven person ensemble bounds onto the stage to tell litany of the jokes about the woman that many folks learned in grade school.

After this, and working from Keller’s recollections of her earliest experiences with her teacher Anne Sullivan, Three Days pushes past the two most memorable moments in Miracle Worker: Keller’s first verbalizations at a water pump and the battle royale in the Keller family dining room when Sullivan refuses to let her charge use her hands to eat.

It’s a shrewd move on Cummings’ part, and one that theoretically, should open theatergoers to what follows, a theatrical collage that illuminates Keller’s experiences, social and political stances, and thoughts on her place in the world.

Unfortunately, rather than allowing his talented company to simply recite from Keller’s work or re-enact moments that she chronicled, Cummings has conceived the work as a movement-dance piece (musical staging by Scott Rink), and thus, the dinner table brawl unfolds like a cartoon battle as Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” thunders underneath.

When Keller decides to leave the lecture circuit for a more lucrative career in vaudeville, the show’s soundtrack turns to the iconic overture to Gypsy, and when Keller, during a sojourn in Hollywood, gets to take her first ride in an airplane, the “Out of My Dreams” ballet from Oklahoma! plays while the company breeze around the stage holding Zoe Wilson aloft as if she herself had taken wing.

This clichéd (remember “Out of My Dreams” contains the lyric “I long to fly”) gimmickry undermines the sensitivity and insight in Keller’s writings, which encompass everything from her thoughts on racial inequality to the suffragette movement. When she discovers that her German publisher has been altering her writing to appease the Nazi government, her ability to blend anger with compassion in her letters chills.

The music choices have secondary, and equally adverse, effect on the production. Throughout the show, the company has to strain to be heard over or keep pace with the pre-recorded pieces. This becomes most notable late in the production when Leonard Bernstein’s bombastic overture to Candide plays, while the ensemble intones Keller’s thoughts on what she might do if she were granted a wish to experience the world visually for 72 hours. The sequence comes at the show’s approaching two-hour mark, and during it, each of the company members sound exhausted rather than excitedly inspired.

When the actors have the chance to simply speak Keller’s words, Three Days does have the ability to move audiences. Barbara Walsh delivers Keller’s memories about Sullivan’s death with poignancy, and Theresa McCarthy blends school-girlish glee with sad regret as Keller recounts a romance that ended badly. Similarly Marc de la Cruz and Chinaza Uche bring an encounter between Keller and Alexander Graham Bell to life with touching delicacy.

Throughout R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting design uses a plethora of colors to gently shape space, indicate locales, and accentuate mood, and it’s difficult to not wish that Three Days to See was as graceful and subtle as his work.

---- Andy Propst


Three Days to See plays at Theater 79 (79 East Fourth Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.transportgroup.org.

'The New York Story' - Colin Quinn's Looking at (and Longing for) the Past


Colin Quinn in The New York Story
(©Mike Lavoie)

Colin Quinn misses the “old” New York. You know, the one that so many of us loathed and loved before 42nd Street began to look like a mall in middle America and places like Whole Foods took up residence on the Bowery.

Toward the end of his new show, The New York Story, which, directed by Jerry Seinfeld, opened last night at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, Quinn delivers a heartfelt and very funny eulogy to this New York.

Before Quinn gets there, however, he first wants to explore the roots of how New Yorkers came to have their distinctive personality, and to do this, he turns the clock back to its original inhabitants, the Lenapes. “And they’ve already got a bit of that New York attitude. They’re cocky, walking around with their shirts off, pecs hanging out, smoking tobacco.” Then, of course, the Dutch arrive and “set their tone, which is sort of irritable, as New York people are.”

Quinn continues in this manner with each wave of immigrants: the British, Germans, Jews, Puerto Ricans, et al., and with each successive group, Quinn offers a mix of cunning insight about the character of New Yorkers and some old-fashioned ethnic humor. It’s not mean-spirited and actually sort of refreshing in an age that Quinn describes as one where “people are walking on eggshells carefully, trying to make sure they don't offend anyone."

Quinn’s seemingly off-the-cuff and often hilarious reveries about the melting pot of cultures that has been part of the city’s history also set the stage (which, designed by Sara C. Walsh, evokes an era of the city’s past: a grimy stoop, clothes hanging out to dry, etc.) for the last portion of the piece and its slightly bitter edge. As Quinn rightly observes "You can't celebrate diversity and have no differences at the same time."

The comedian’s not advocating a return to a time when people wouldn’t get on the last car of a train, would carry “mugger money,” and even, “would literally write signs to criminals. ‘No radio in car.’” But in a time when areas of the city are becoming virtually indistinguishable from one another, it’s rough not to wonder if he’s onto something with The New York Story, which, by the end, is impressively both a great piece of comedy and social commentary.

---- Andy Propst


Colin Quinn: The New York Story plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street). For more information and tickets, visit: cherrylanetheatre.org.