Teal Wicks and Zak Resnick in Piece of My Heart
Who was Bert Berns? Chances are that pop music aficionados will know the answer, but the general public will not. Both groups, though, will know his songs. They range from "Twist and Shout" to "I Want Candy" to "Cry Baby." Another of Berns' tunes, "Piece of My Heart," has given the new bio-tuner about the songwriter-record producer it title, and this show, which opened last night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, works valiantly and to mixed effect to make sure that a broader public becomes aware of Berns' work and story.
The fact that Berns' life and career are largely unknown helps give some of the show its drive, and it's also the jumping off place for book writer Daniel Goldfarb's script. In Piece of My Heart, Berns' life is revealed in flashbacks as the daughter who never knew him (Berns passed away when she was ten days old) sorts through his belongings at the Manhattan office he once occupied. The mystery conceit adds a modest level of suspense to what might otherwise have been a straightforward jukebox bio.
Goldfarb has less success in integrating another dramatic arc into the show as Berns' daughter races against time to thwart her mother's plan to sell her husband's catalog. The fact that the older woman is played by Linda Hart, who channels Loretta Lynn and Elaine Stritch as she delivers "I'll Be a Liar," making it show's eleven o'clock number, helps enormously. Unfortunately, the struggle between mother and daughter ultimately overcrowds the musical, forcing Goldfarb to rush through large portions of the Berns biography.
Beyond this, the show suffers from the problem that all jukebox musicals face: how to put preexisting songs into the mouths of characters as if they were book songs. Using "Are You Lonely for Me Baby" as a duet between Bert and a woman he has just met in a downtown club in New York makes little sense as they sing "I was on the last train to Jacksonville." In other instances, though, Goldfarb cleverly integrates both familiar numbers and a few forgotten gems into the fabric of the show as ensemble numbers, and he avoids the overused conceit of recreating famous renditions of the big songs.
Directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, the show does feature a winning lead performance from Zak Resnick as Berns. Resnick terrifically belts out song after song, and he brings a goofiness that's almost dreamy to his portrayal of the man. His work certainly helps to distract from questions that the show raises, such as why Berns, who knew he had a bad heart from childhood, had such a self-destructive streak. Throughout the play he's seen smoking and drinking, as the show pushes toward the man's untimely death in 1967 at the age of 38.
Leslie Kritzer brings the kind of quirkiness and vocal prowess that audiences have come to expect from her to her performance as Berns' adult daughter, and Teal Wicks delivers a shrewdly sassy turn as the younger incarnation of Berns' wife, Ilene. There's also fine work from De'Adre Aziza, who offers up some smoky, sultry vocals as Candace, one of Berns' first lovers.
Throughout Ben Stanton shapes space with an eye-poppingly colorful lighting design, and the orchestrations and arrangements from Garry Sherman, Adam Ben-David, and Lon Hoyt are simply terrific, alternating between a bubblegum bounce, pulsating rock, and even the occasional Latin riff. More so than anything else in Piece of My Heart, it's these men's work that make the case for investigating Berns' work. There's a musical fusion at play in his songs that genuinely fascinates.
---- Andy Propst
Piece of My Heart plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: pieceofmyheartmusical.com.
Jason Cruz and Everett Quinton in Drop Dead Perfect
Passions run high, secrets threaten to boil over, and camp theatrics are rife in Erasmus Fenn's melodramedy Drop Dead Perfect, which opened last night at Theatre at St. Clements. It's frothy theatrical fare for late summer theatergoing, with elements of Southern Gothic films like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte running up against Greek tragedy, Tennessee Williams, and even I Love Lucy.
The bounties of the production extend well beyond the copious genres and tropes that Fenn packs into this 90-minute show. It looks terrific through and through. James J. Fenton's scenic design offers a simultaneously elegant and creepy recreation of a living room in a posh Florida Keys home, Ed McCarthy plays witty tricks with his lighting design, and William Neal's sound design cleverly and amusingly references classic film themes, from Laura to Psycho.
And then there are Charlotte Palmer-Lane's costumes, gorgeous (and gently funny) fifties ensembles that range from fitted suits to perky housedresses to alluring(ish) negligees which are sported by Everett Quinton, who's playing (in his inimitable fashion) Idris Seabright, the lady of the house. Wildly rich and decidedly eccentric, Idris enjoys a life of luxury in her home where she spends her time painting (but only if her subjects are perfectly still) and has as her companion Vivien, a young woman whom she has raised since birth.
Idris' relative ease, often seen to by her solicitously officious attorney Phineas, has begun to fall apart at the seams though. Vivien has decided to leave the nest. She wants to head to New York where she can pursue her own dreams of becoming an artist. "I think I can match any of the moderns who are doing daring things with tin, copper ..even papier mache." The unexpected and surreptitious arrival of Ricardo further erodes Idris' much-desired calm and spurs past memories of a love she once had and kindles new amorous thoughts.
Ricardo (sometimes called "Little Ricky") also attracts the eye of Vivien, who falls for him, hard (once quite literally in one of the show's many deft pratfalls). The swarthy stranger also incurs the jealous eye of Phineas, who worries that his power over Idris might be threatened this young stranger from Cuba.
A gun, a small ax and poison all appear in the earliest moments of the show, and theatergoers need not worry: they do figure in to the play's climax.
Under the deadpan direction of Joe Brancato, the show moves at a leisurely clip, and though some of Fenn's comedy never fully pays off (notably the tie-in to "Lucy,"), the production never fails to entertain. Most welcome is Quinton's performance as Idris which is as restrained as it is outlandish. In one moment, his work can be subtle, gentle and worthy of a naturalist drama by Anton Chekhov, and in the next, he's ricocheting around the set as Idris has an over-the-top panic attack.
Jason Edward Cook turn as Idris' charge matches Quinton beat for beat and laugh for laugh. He imbues Vivien with pert poutiness, and once it's time for the two women to square off, his performance has a striking power. Jason Cruz brings off-beat sexiness to his turn as Ricardo, and he maneuvers through the character's disparate machinations with decided aplomb. Beyond this, he---as well as Quinton and Cook---deftly performs choreographer Lorna Ventura's humorous riffs on Latin dances.
Michael Keyloun has the thankless (generally) task of playing the straight(ish) man to these three characters, and yet, he manages to snag a share of laughs thanks to his gift for carefully timed double-takes and oversized reactions to the goings-on in this wonderfully wacky show.
---- Andy Propst
Drop Dead Perfect plays at Theatre at St. Clements (423 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: dropdeadperfect.com.
Seth Tucker, Marty Thomas, Alex Ringler, Curtis Wiley, Nic Cory, Nick Cearley in Pageant
As the musical Pagaent, which opened last night at the Davenport Theatre, starts up, the cast of the show sings "We're natural-born females," putting the central joke of the tuner right out into the open. You see, the six beauties in spangly pink cocktail dresses are anything but. Instead, they're a game group of guy actor-singers who will do just about anything to get a laugh and tug at your heartstrings as they play the hopefuls in the Miss Glamouresse Beauty Pageant.
The show---conceived by Robert Longbottom, and with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, and music by Albert Evans---isn't a new one. It had its premiere back in 1991 and since that time has rested fondly in theatergoers' minds (sort of in the way shows of the period, like Designing Women, have lived on). In the case of television shows, we can savor the comedy in reruns. With theater, though, we need revivals, and if you're someone who becomes fixated every time Julia, Suzanne, Charlene and Mary Jo flash across your screen (television, laptop or tablet), well, this breezy musical should certainly be on your shortlist of shows to catch. For others, Pageant will prove to be a pleasant summertime diversion with enough giggles (and a few genuine guffaws) to warrant a trip into musical theater camp.
Pageant follows the standard format of a beauty contest. There's an evening gown competition (Stephen Yearick has provided the glam costumes), swimsuit section, and a talent segment. For Miss Glamouresse, the competitors also have to go through a spokesperson challenge as they demonstrate some of the sponsoring company's products. Things like hairspray that's got a second nozzle to help repair the ozone layer, a spackle cream that helps fill in oversize pores, and even a lipstick that doubles as a nutrient. Depending on your taste (pun fully intended), these segments will have you rolling with laughter or merely rolling your eyes.
Where Pageant will tickle theatergoers, regardless of their comic penchants, is in its talent sections, even though each girl's routine varies widely in quality (as it would in any competition). Standouts are the tap specialty delivered by Miss Texas (Alex Ringler) and the knock 'em in the aisle gospel number that Miss Bible Belt (Curtis Wiley) belts out. Sure, there's a level of silly-stupid to the interpretive Martha Graham meets Mummenchanz dance that Miss West Coast (Seth Tucker) performs, but it's completely within the character of the vapid valley girl type being portrayed. The one talent that would astonish regardless of the drag is the one on display from Miss Deep South (Marty Thomas). It's a ventriloquist act that's remarkably executed; she amusingly performs old Dixie ditties with puppets that represent her great-great grandparents.
The other two contestants, Miss Industrial Northeast (Nic Corey) and Miss Great Plains (Nick Cearly), get to shine in other ways. Northeast's talent---pseudo-burlesque accordion playing---provokes only smiles, but when she turns on the stereotype Latina spitfire charm, it's infectious. As for Great Plains, well, this simple girl from flyover territory character charms throughout. Her dramatic 'reading' for the talent portion of the show proves hysterical, and even when silent, this gal can inspire gales of laughter, thanks to Corley's rubberfaced grimaces, smiles and pouts.
Equally funny are John Bolton's antics as the pageant's oily lounge lizard host, Frankie Cavalier. Bolton appears to be having a great time just cutting up as this oily, egotistical gent, and his zeal sparkles almost as much as the tightly-fitted, blue-sequined bolero jacket he sports as the musical starts.
As for the winner of Pageant that's up in the air at each performance as a handful of theatergoers are appointed judges and vote for their favorites in full view of the audience. It's a clever gimmick that sparks the show's final moments, and though I left grousing that Miss Texas hadn't won (she was genuinely robbed of the title), I also had had a thoroughly delightful, frivolously frothy 85 minutes of entertainment.
---- Andy Propst
Pageant plays at the Davenport Thatre (354 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: pageantmusical.com.
Scott Haze in The Long Shrift
There must be something in the air. Or maybe it's that Gen Xers are hitting the point that they're contending with hitting middle age, but high school reunions are coming to the New York stage this summer in unsettling ways. A few weeks ago Stephen Belber's testosterone-filled The Muscles in Our Toes invited New York audiences to reune with a group of people as they gathered after twenty-five years had passed from their matriculation. Last night, Rattlestick Theatre opened Robert Boswell's intriguing, but flawed new play The Long Shrift, a look at a pair of people before, during and ten years after their high school days.
From its opening scene, one would never know that Boswell's play would have anything to do with a latter stage Gen Xer getting together with his old school pals. It starts off with Henry and Sarah bickering about the "hovel" they had to move into into because of the fees associated with their son's rape trial. (He was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.)
When the play flash-forwards in the next scene, though, the young man, Richard, has been released after his accuser recanted her statement. He's back in his native Houston just in time for his class's ten year reunion. Given that it was during a party in his senior year that he allegedly committed his crime, against the then ultra-popular Lizzie, he's not all the sure that he will be going. When Lizzie, now going by "Beth," shows up, though, he decides to. Maybe if the two of them appear as speakers at the event, they will both be able to come to terms what happened when they were still teenagers.
The story's something of a pot-boiler, "He said. She said." one, and yet Boswell finds ways of enriching the fabric of his play. Underscoring both Henry and Sarah's marriage and the intrigue that Lizzie felt, and perhaps feels, for Richard is a notion that women can be drawn to darker men. Unfortunately, Boswell, whose primary work has been as a fiction writer, overstates this theme in one of the play's less graceful sequences, an awkward flashback dream sequence to a point when Richard was still incarcerated.
Similarly, Boswell's symbolism can be awkwardly blatant. Within the play's first moment, Henry carps at his wife for opening a box with "the most delicate thing" in it. Her reply is "I want to make sure it survived the trip." It doesn't take much to realize that Boswell is about to explore a world in which things (objects, relationships, etc.) are broken and that the vase itself will end up in shards before the show has ended.
The Long Shrift, which has been directed by James Franco, however, never becomes too tiresome or laborious, thanks primarily to Scott Haze's fierce, sexy and disturbing turn as Richard. There's no question that Haze's work when confronting Ahna O'Reilly's conflicted Beth and when seducing a chipper current senior at his alma mater (terrific work from Allie Gallerani) sparks, but where he genuinely shines is during an extended tirade at the reunion dance. Haze builds the extended monologue gracefully and to chilling and even slightly sympathetic effect.
Similarly, Ally Sheedy brings an surprising and welcome gentleness to Richard's malcontent mother. She has the least stage time of any of the performers, and yet, her presence is felt throughout. The week link in the production is Brian Lally's performance as Richard's Viet Nam vet dad. Lally certainly looks the part of the a good ole boy and brings a solidity to a man who has pent up his emotions for decades. Unfortunately, his work in this regard often comes across as mannered and overly wooden.
Like the misfires in Boswell's script, though, it's a turn that never derails The Long Shrift, and ultimately, there's a rewarding catharsis to be had at the end of the play's stormy trip through the character's present and their high school past.
---- Andy Propst
The Long Shrift plays at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre (224 Waverly Place). For more information and tickets, visit: rattlestick.org.
Hershey Felder in Maestro Bernstein
On July 17, Hershey Felder will perform Maestro Bernstein: A Play with Music at New York's Town Hall. It's a show that he premiered in 2010 in Los Angeles, and is part of what has been termed as his "Composer's Sonata"---a series of shows that have focused on composers ranging from George Gershwin to Frédéric Chopin to Ludwig von Beethoven.
Felder says that the initial impetus behind pieces like George Gershwin Alone (which played on Broadway in 2001) was his desire to see if it was possible to "combine acting with concert-level piano playing to create a musical piece of theater." Further, his idea had been to test the concept with an evening that focused on Chopin, but Felder recalled "The first person I worked with said 'Okay, you're completely unknown. Chopin is not a big, popular theater character in America, and you're calling it Monsieur Chopin on top of it all. Find an American composer.' So that's why Gershwin started it all and then, Chopin came after that."
Once the Gershwin and Chopin shows had been created, Felder realized "The characters sort of fit into what a sonata form is, where your first serious movement is one that has human variations or human investigations. Your second movement is largely romantic. Your third movement is scherzo, so to speak,and your fourth movement, a rondo, is sort of happy and joyful movement. " Hence the epithet of "Composers Sonata," but Felder stresses it's a very loose concept and even jokes, "It's now turned into a symphony. It just keeps on going because I keep adding characters."
With Bernstein, whose career encompassed not just composing, but also conducting and public appearances as an educator through his "Young People's Concerts" with the New York Philharmonic, Felder has a wider array of biographical material to deal with than he has had with some of his previous subjects. Felder says that the divergent aspects of Bernstein's career helped him to create the primary thrust of "Maestro" which is to explore how Bernstein "wanted to be the next Gershwin. He wanted to be remembered as the next great American composer, and in his lifetime, it didn't quite happen for him, and of course the thing he is most remembered for . . . is West Side Story."
Felder explains by saying that "The other influences are very present in the piece as to things that pull him this or that way. And speak to what he really is. Is he really a conductor who wanted to compose? Was he really a conductor who knew too much music?"
In Maestro, too, Felder explores Bernstein's complex personal life. He says that "The hard thing was to make him charming and fun and interesting the way he was, and yet, reveal those things [the more complex side to Bernstein] without turning off an audience so on and so forth," adding, "We do reveal his relationship with his wife. We do reveal his homosexual tendencies. We do reveal his anger toward not being treated seriously as a composer by a lot of people, and that's a lot of the storytelling. "
In creating his stage portrait of Bernstein, or any of the other men in the series, Felder says that the most important thing is to avoid "acting with a capital 'a,' capital 'c,' capital 't.' It doesn't work. First of course, you can't act by yourself. You need to talk to your audience. The more honest, the more simple, the more direct you are, the more they believe that the character is there, and it's getting rid of all the acting in blaring lights and capital letters and it's about being." When this happens, he hopes that what's he's done is: "create a complete illusion in two hours to give a sense of what the person may have been like, had you met him."
---- Andy Propst
For more information about Maestro Bernstein: A Play with Music, visit: thetownhall.org.