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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'The World of Extreme Happiness' - A Bracing Look at Life in China


Jo Mei, Jennifer Lim and Francis Jue in The World of Extreme Happiness.
(©Matthew Murphy)

Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig reveals a richly dangerous universe in The World of Extreme Happiness, which has just opened in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center Stage I. It’s a bracing and ambitious piece of writing from an exciting new voice for the stage.

Cowhig plunges audiences into the darkly comic play as a woman in rural China squats to give birth in the doorway of her meager home while her husband simultaneously frets about a lost pet pigeon and berates the midwife about his need for a son. When the newborn turns out to be a girl, she’s wrapped in paper and discarded in a bucket of pig slop and left to die.

She doesn’t, though, and gets the unlikely name of Sunny. When she grows up, Sunny (Jennifer Lim) leaves her family to work in a factory in Beijing after her mother produces the male heir that her father so desperately wanted. Working as a maintenance person in a huge factory, Sunny sends her money home to support her brother (played with charming impishness by Telly Leung) and his education. She wants him to have a better life than she does.

Sunny’s existence in the big city gives playwright Cowhig the opportunity to explore a wide gamut of issues relating to life in China today, and there’s little that her voraciously wide-ranging play leaves uncovered. Primary in all of this is the plight of peasants who migrate to big cities to better their lots in life. But beyond that there’s both the legacy of Maoist policies in China as well as the aftereffects of the Tiananmen Square uprisings of 1989.

Cowhig also touches on how the emergence of certain capitalist principals in the country has fueled a fascination with self-help theories and also the despair that some workers feel. There are several references to suicides which bring to mind the headlines about the deaths at the Foxconn factories in 2014.

It’s a lot to cover in a ninety-minute play, and as a result, the play’s varied plot strands which often feel as if they are underwritten. Cowhig’s narrative about Sunny and her efforts to better herself comes across best. Not only is it the most fully developed, Lim brings an aching anger and resentment that’s leavened with earthy sweetness to create a character who continually captures audiences minds and hearts.

When a coworker takes Sunny to a seminar run by Mr. Destiny (played with amusing slickness by Frances Jue) who teaches self-empowerment using the sort of style associated with Las Vegas floor shows, one can’t help but feel that torn. On one level, theatergoers want Sunny to learn something from this seeming charlatan. On another, though, audiences also want this sensitive young woman to run the other way and find someone less oily to help her in her goals.

Elsewhere though, particularly when it comes to Artemis Minerva (Sue Jin Song), the arch and hard-as-nails businesswoman at the company where Sunny works, Cowhig’s writing fails to convince. Song is terrific in the role and finds ways to modulate the woman’s imperiously chilly facade. And once the play starts to delve into her past, Song’s work has an understated sadness to it. The problem is that the revelations about this woman’s familial history seem tacked on to the work as a whole.

Thankfully neither Cowhig’s ear for zestful--sometimes profanity-rich--dialogue never falters nor do any of the multiply cast performers, who also include James Saito as both Sunny’s haunted and embittered father and the tentatively ambitious man who runs the company where Sunny works and Jo Mei, who delights as Sunny’s aggressive and desperate to get ahead coworker Ming-Ming.

The show, directed with economy by Eric Ting, unfolds in a dour gray industrial environment (from scenic designer Mimi Lien) which transforms surprisingly throughout the show, and Jenny Mannis’ contemporary costume design sparks the action, providing rich character details. Lighting designer Tyler Micoleau uses color to cunning atmospheric effect, and though the show doesn’t always incite extreme happiness, it’s never anything but intriguing.

---- Andy Propst


The World of Extreme Happiness plays at City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.manhattantheatreclub.com.

'Big Love' - A Gorgeous Excursion into the Highs and Lows of Romance


Stacey Sargeant, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Libby Winter in Big Love.
(©T. Charles Erickson)

The battle of the sexes probably has never looked as pretty as it does in the Signature Theatre Company’s new production of Charles Mee’s Big Love, which opened last night. Thanks to scenic designer Brett J. Banakis walking into the Irene Diamond Theatre is a bit like stepping onto the patio of a villa overlooking the Mediterranean. It’s all gleaming white with a huge vista of sea and blue sky. Yes, there are wildflowers growing down from the ceiling (Mee’s world can often be quite upside down), nevertheless, it’s beautifully relaxing.

There’s also an awful lot of athleticism involved. The performers are frequently body-slamming themselves onto the stage floor and into walls. Yet, for anyone even the least bit familiar with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, such feats, when it comes to the highs and lows of romance, can be expected.

Both the visuals and the physicality are part and parcel of Mee’s forcedly whimsical adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women, about fifty brides who flee forced marriages in Greece seeking asylum in Italy. In this contemporary vision of the ancient play, Mee only brings three of the women (and a trio of prospective grooms) to the stage, and it’s these three couples who spend their time decrying the injustices and the virtues of marriage, along the way raucously delivering tunes ranging from Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” “Summer Lovin’” from Grease, and Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”

It’s not only the nature of love that’s bandied about in Mee’s extravagant theatrical collage, the idea of asylum and the plight of refugees come into play thanks to the women’s arrival at the home of a seemingly wealthy family. The clan’s matriarch, Bella (played with stately grace by Lynn Cohen), and her gay grandson (an effervescent turn from Preston Sadler) side with the women. They should not be forced into marrying.

Bella’s son, Piero (rendered with a regal devil-may-care attitude by Christopher Innvar), however, isn’t so sure, and he tries to negotiate a deal between the two sides after the men have arrived. Piero thinks that maybe rather than 50 forced marriages, there might be a two or three couples among the horde who are actually in love with one another. He proposes that they only they marry. The most macho of the grooms, Constantine (imbued with a hotheaded doltishness by Ryan-James Hatanaka), refuses to accept. It’s all or nothing.

The most strong-willed of the brides Thyona (Stacy Sargeant) responds with an equally extreme proposal. She suggests that after the women are forced through the wedding, they kill their new mates. Her sisters, the überly romantic Olympia (Libby Winters) and the middle-of-the-road Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones), halfheartedly agree. What follows? For anyone who has not encountered Big Love before or who is unfamiliar with Aeschylus’ original, the biggest joy of the show is the play’s final sequence, which precedes Mee’s moral: we must all practice compassion.

Director Tina Landau’s stylish production boasts terrific projection design by Austin Switser and Anita Yavich’s costumes, particularly the widely varied bridal gowns, are superlative. And while all of the company, which also includes Ellen Harvey and Nathaniel Stampley as a couple of happy-go-lucky houseguests, deliver with panache, it’s Jones along with Bobby Steggert, who plays Lydia’s intended, Nikos, whose performances genuinely resonate with audiences. Both actors navigate the twists and turns of the script with precision while delivering some top-notch vocals. Audiences also respond to these characters because they represent the middle-ground of love. It’s something to be approached cautiously and delicately, much like the gorgeous-looking world of the show in general.

---- Andy Propst


Big Love plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.

'The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey' - Sheer Magic


James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.
(Photo courtesy of the company)

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 Lecense’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 Dixon Place (161 Chrystie Street). For more information and tickets, visit: dixonplace.org.

'Churchill' - Revisiting a Great Man's Life


Ronald Keaton in Churchill.
(Photo courtesy of the company)

For people who can’t get enough of British history or for anyone who has yet to catch The Audience on Broadway, the new solo show Churchill, which opened last night at New World Stages, could be worth a visit.

This sturdy, but unremarkable, portrait of the British Prime Minister’s life comes to New York from Chicago, and at its center is Ronald Keaton, who cuts an amiable figure as--and captures some of the quiet authority of--the man who shepherded England through World War II. As Keaton, who has also written the script, adapting it from Churchill’s writings and a teleplay by Dr. James C. Homes, performs, it’s little wonder why the British people found such comfort in his presence during war.

Keaton’s also adept at bringing some of the sparkle that made Churchill so popular. He can toss off some of the great man’s most famous quips with aplomb, and when he’s appointed Prime Minister by King George VI, Keaton captures both Churchill’s rightful sense of entitlement to having secured the title and pride at having attained it.

The problem with Churchill lies not with Keaton’s work as a performer but as a writer. Somehow in bringing 70 of Churchill’s 90 years to the stage, Keaton has managed to sap it of any real urgency or insight. It’s a by-the-numbers approach that takes theatergoers through his childhood with distant parents, into his career in the military, and then, into the realm of politics. There are highs and lows, but nothing seems to be particularly at stake, even when Churchill is facing defeat in elections or observing Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.

Director Kurt Johns has staged the piece with delicate hand. It unfolds easily within a cozy paneled study environment designed by Jason Epperson, which has as its central feature a large window and it's in this that black and white photographs of people from Churhcill’s life are seen, courtesy of projection designer Paul Deziel.

For anyone familiar with Churchill’s biography, the show serves as a kind of visit with an old friend and a trip down memory lane. For theatergoers less familiar with this dynamo, the production will most likely send them to any of the numerous biographies or documentaries about him to get a deeper and more nuanced portrait of both the man and his accomplishments..

---- Andy Propst


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

'Hamilton' - History Is Recounted and Made in Groundbreaking Musical


Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Mirandain Hamilton
(©Joan Marcus)


The use of hyperbole and superlatives in reviews can be a dangerous thing. A critic will never know when something will come along that tops whatever it is he or she is describing as the “the most,” “the best,” etc. In the case of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical Hamilton, which opened last night at the Public Theater, caution about such linguistic conceits can be thrown to the wind. It is simply dazzling and the most breathtaking show (musical or otherwise) that audiences will encounter for some time to come.

Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of the man whose face now graces the $10 bill, Miranda distills the entirety Hamilton’s life--from an impoverished existence in the West Indies to the heights of government in the newly established United States of America--into a galvanizing two hours and forty-five minutes of theater. All of the other historical figures that one might expect can be found in the show that charts the course of the American Revolution and the birth of the nation’s Constitution, from George Washington (Christopher Jackson) and Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) to Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the Marquis de Lafayette (also played by Diggs).

But the show is not just about Hamilton’s career in the military and in politics. It also chronicles his personal life, and thus, audiences will also encounter Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), who becomes Hamilton’s wife and her sister Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who, though Hamilton’s soulmate intellectually and temperamentally, must marry another man. Also on hand are James and Maria Reynolds who conspire to embroil Hamilton in one of the nation’s first political sexual scandals.

Miranda’s narrative, taking a cue from Chernow’s book, does not put Hamilton onto a pedestal. He’s shown (and as played by the show’s writer) as a cocky, self-absorbed, and given what happens with the Reynoldses, capable of making some poor judgment calls. But as played by Miranda, Hamilton is never anything less than a winning dynamo of intellect and spirit. As Hamilton describes himself early on, he’s a guy who’s “young, scrappy, and hungry.”

Those adjectives also beautifully describe Miranda’s writing. The musical vernacular here is hip-hop, R&B, and pop with excursions into jazz and even light reggae. The lyrics, which pour into theatergoers’ ears in torrents, are masterful, and Miranda’s dramaturgy, well, it’s simply stunningly audacious. With one swell song, “Helpless,” Miranda charts Hamilton’s relationship with Eliza from first meeting through epistolary courtship to marriage in the course of what feels like under five minutes. Despite the fleetness of the sequence, it also has the feeling of lasting months.

More impressive, though, is when Miranda turns the clock back immediately following this number in “Satisfied,” and much of the same action is explored from Angelica’s perspective as she regrets having not taken Hamilton for herself. Theoretically, repeating the action, even if through a different lens, should weary, but in Hamilton it doesn’t, and credit for this feat belongs not only to writer Miranda, but also to director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Their work, which merges seamlessly and keeps the action in a constant state of vibrant motion throughout the show, gives both scenes equal--albeit different--power. Hearts are warmed initially and then cooled as the show wends down a bittersweet path.

And it’s the fact that these sequences, as well as many in the second act, touch is what truly sets Hamilton apart. It’s not just a show that somehow makes hip-hop rhythms and contemporary musical genres sound as if they were the natural patois of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century America. It’s also one that has sincerity and emotional depth.

The production also boasts a terrific sense of theatricality. “The Room When It Happens,” a number for Burr as he wonders what might have transpired as Hamilton convinced Thomas Jefferson to agree to the establishment of a Federal banking system, has an comedic edge and dramatic urgency that brings to mind Bob Fosse’s work with extended narrative numbers like “Razzle Dazzle” (Chicago) and “War Is a Science” (Pippin).

As the show unfolds within the environment provided by scenic designer David Korins (a multileveled wooden set that makes great use of the brick architecture of the Public’s Newman Theater), audiences are simply swept away by the rush of events and the power of the people involved from Jackson’s rendering of a tentative first father to Diggs’ divergent turns as the intense and foppish Lafayette and the imperious and unbending Jefferson. Soo’s work as Eliza proves to be simply enthralling and heartbreaking as she weathers her life alongside Hamilton, Goldsberry turns in what might be her finest performance for the Public. It’s simply enchanting, a mix of intelligence, poise, and deeply felt emotion. Also on hand (at least through March 1 before he departs for the Broadway musical Something Rotten) is Brian d’Arcy James, who makes a series of cameos as King George III side-splittingly funny.

The uniformity of excellence in the performances extends to the show’s creative team. Nevin Steinberg’s sensitive sound design makes all of the action seem terrifically immediate. Alex Lacamoire’s astute orchestrations add lovely layers to Miranda’s varied melodies. Howell Binkley’s lighting design splashes color onto the action with superb control. Paul Tazewell’s period costumes (in generally muted earth tones) traverse style changes for both men and women with ease while also making it seem, at times, like an old yellowing illustration has sprung to life on stage.

It’s a dazzling array of artistry that’s come together and married in perfect harmony in Hamilton. This is a simply a “must-see,” at whatever the cost.

---- Andy Propst


Hamilton plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.