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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'The Belle of Amherst' - An Amiable Visit with Emily Dickinson


Joely Richardson in The Belle of Amherst
(©Carol Rosegg)

Theatergoers have the unique opportunity to spend some time with the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, courtesy of William Luce’s biographical play, The Belle of Amherst, which opened last night in director Steve Cosson’s agreeable revival at the Westside Theatre.

The show premiered in 1976 and starred Julie Harris, who picked up one of her six Tony Awards for her performance, went on to tour in the piece, and eventually preserved it on film for PBS. This new production stars Joely Richardson, and she’s delivering a shimmering, fluttery performance that indicates that perhaps one of the reasons Dickinson remained so shut off from the world around was the fact that she had some sort of social anxiety disorder.

It’s an intelligent, insightful choice, which has both its benefits and its pitfalls. On the one hand, it gives Luce’s play, which provides all of the necessary facts about Dickinson’s life along with a healthy smattering of her poetry, a certain urgency. Stories, pieces of her writing, and even a recipe come tumbling out of Richardson’s mouth as Dickinson entertains the audience, her visitors in her comfortable Massachusetts home (scenic designer Antje Ellermann provides the spartanly elegant interior that puts Dickinson’s parlor and study side by side).

At the same time, though, the speed of Richardson’s delivery means that there come points when it’s difficult to not wish that she were taking it just a bit more slowly so that one had a fraction of a moment to savor Dickinson’s verse or a shrewd, gently wry observation that she shares about herself, her family, or the world at large. Similarly, the clip Richardson’s keeping in the show caused her to stumble over her words at a press performance.

As she settles into a run, it’s pretty certain that such slips will disappear, and what will remain is her carefully layered performance that’s simultaneously demure and coquettish (to achieve this in the staid winter white dress that costume designer William Ivey Long has created is in itself an achievement); intensely focused and slightly scattered; and self-assured and marvelously vulnerable.

Richardson’s performance is ably supported by both David Weiner’s lighting design, which helps audiences keep track of shifts in time, and by Daniel Kluger’s sound design, which sensitively indicates the world just outside of this home, where theatergoers will find themselves thoroughly charmed by their hostess.

---- Andy Propst


The Belle of Amherst at the Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: belleofamherstplay.com.

'Found' - A Musical Olio


Orville Mendoza, Christina Anthony, Danny Pudi,Nick Blaemire, Molly Pope, Sandy Rustin, and Andrew Call in Found
(©Kevin Thomas Garcia)

A clever and potentially poignant idea gets stretched to the breaking point in the new musical Found, which Atlantic Theater Company opened last night at its Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea.

The show’s based on the Found magazines and books by Davy Rothbart, which he first imagined after a personally disastrous day. He’d been fired and mugged, and then, when he got to his car, it looked like he had gotten a ticket. Actually, it wasn’t a ticket stuck to his windshield, but rather a note, from a woman named Amber, who was calling out her boyfriend for sleeping with someone else. She’d just put it on the wrong car. It was an “Ah, ha!” moment for Rothbart who started collecting other bits of paper from the street or other sources, seeing each scrap as being a tiny window into another person’s life.

Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree’s book for the musical Found charts Davy’s path as one of the entrepreneurs behind the same-titled magazine. He’s joined by his two roommates, Mikey D (Daniel Everidge) and Denise (Barrett Wilbert Weed), who discovers an unexpected romantic pull toward Davy as they work together. Unfortunately, the arrival of an ambitious young television producer, Kate (Betsy Morgan), throws a wrench in Denise’s aspirations for a closer relationship with Davy and also derails their work on the magazine itself.

It’s actually classic musical theater stuff, but then, there’s the other side of the book, which brings the notes that Davy and others find to life. Sometimes this happens as snarky asides as members of the ensemble pop in to deliver the text as ironic subtext. At other moments, the notes take on weird and disruptive lives of their own. Late in the first act, there’s an extended sequence recreating a stage play about the fictional Revolutionary war hero Johnny Tremain and the second act opens with a production number about cats.

In musical theater terms, such interruptions, which are kind of charming at first, end up making the show, which has been directed with unstinting energy by co--book writer Overtree, feel more like a revue than a book musical. In non-theatrical terms, Found ultimately comes to feel a bit like being stuck in a musical Tumblr feed with no way out.

The effect of the scattershot writing is that it undermines any emotional involvement that theatergoers might have with the central characters, which is unfortunate because they brought to life with immediacy and zest. Blaemire delights as he makes Davy hiply suave and goofily nerdy. Morgan’s got sweet coolness down pat, and the archness and longing that Weed brings to her turn as Denise is simply lovely.

The performers also do a bang-up job with Eli Bolin’s pop-rich score, which has elements of R&B, country-western, Latin, and even a little musical theater, in it. What might be most impressive about Bolin’s work is the effectiveness of his settings for the ‘found’ text. He finds beautiful ways of setting phrases and sentences that would seem to defy musicalization into his melodies.

The collage-like nature of the show is mirrored in scenic designer David Korins’ handsome unit set, which has a cohesiveness that Found itself lacks. The design, often sumptuously lit by Justin Townsend, also provides a great backdrop for some excellent projections by Darrel Maloney.

At one point, Davy says of his collection, “I have hundreds of these notes, some funny, some heartbreaking, but they all make you feel less alone and more human.” And for a while in the musical, theatergoers understand what he means, but there comes a point in Found when the overlaying of the jottings on the central story ceases to illuminate and becomes mere gimmickry.

---- Andy Propst


Found at plays at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: atlantictheater.org.

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' - Stunning Stagecraft


Mercedes Herrero, Alex Sharp (above) Richard Hollis and Jocelyn Bioh in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
(©Joan Marcus)

Director Marianne Elliott’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, disconcerts at the outset. Flashes of light reveal what looks to be a young man and a large furry thing, seemingly dead. After the second or third flash of light, theatergoers can tell that a garden fork (a smallish pitchfork) is lodged in the beast. The first section of the show deals with how the teenager, Christopher (a remarkable Alex Sharp), unravels what happened to the animal, a dog named Wellington, and perhaps more important, how his amateur sleuthing unravels secrets that his family and neighbors have kept from him.

Elliott’s bracing start to the show serves a twofold purpose. First, it does grab theatergoers and it’s is one of the most energetic and visceral beginnings for a new play on Broadway in a long while. Second, it’s the director’s (and her excellent design team’s) first foray into helping audiences understand Christopher’s mind: he suffers from Asperger syndrome, which is considered a high-functioning form of autism. Throughout the play, as Christopher first investigates what might have happened to the dog, and later as he takes a solo journey to London, Elliott, working with lighting designer Paule Constable, video designer Finn Ross, and sound designer Ian Dickinson, finds intriguing and disorienting ways of allowing theatergoers to perceive the world through Christopher’s eyes. Often it’s a collision of sounds and images, which blazingly transform the black cube in which scenic designer Bunny Christie has set the action, that disorient and discomfit.

Equally key in helping theatergoers journey into Christopher’s worldview is playwright Simon Stephen’s lucid, but still jagged, adaptation of Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel, and the work of choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, who at times deploy the ensemble surrounding Sharp in stylized and almost ritualized ways, so that even the people around Christopher appear to be askew. The combined work of director, choreographers, and designers, too, can make Christopher’s fantasy life vivid and often dazzlingly tangible.

And while there’s little doubting that the stagecraft at work in Curious Incident is impeccable and that Sharp’s astonishingly intense, remarkably nuanced, and physically rigorous performance represents a genuinely thrilling Broadway bow, this artistry is found in a strangely bifurcated play.

During the first half of the show, while theatergoers learn about Christopher, his family and the events surrounding the killing of Wellington, Curious Incident resembles a sort of quaint suburban mystery drama. Fine performances abound, including Ian Barford’s angry, wounded, macho and sensitive turn as Christopher’s dad, and Francesca Faridany’s airy and, at times, beatific, rendering of Christopher’s teacher. Similarly, Helen Carey delivers a smile-inducing performance as one of the neighbors, a sweet, wise, and somewhat needy older woman to whom the young man turns for help.

In the second half, though, as Christopher plunges headlong, all on his own, to London, the play begins to resemble something more of an after school special, particularly as the family drama intensifies and his chances for moving forward academically seem to be squashed. And, then, when Curious Incident takes a turn for the meta (perhaps everything we’ve been watching is part of a stage adaptation of a story that Christopher wrote about his experiences), the impact of everything that has preceded feels somehow diminished.

Ultimately, Elliott’s stagecraft and Sharp’s extraordinary performance are enough to ensure that, overall, Curious Incident delivers a exhilarating jolt at the theater, and though there are some dramaturgical issues at hand, there’s also some exceptional artistry to be found at the Barrymore.

---- Andy Propst


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.curiousonbroadway.com.

'While I Yet Live' - Beautifully Performed Family Drama


Sharon Washington and S. Epatha Merkerson in While I Yet Live
(©James Leynse)


Billy Porter’s new semi-autobiographical play, While I Yet live, tackles a lot of familiar territory: from religious fervency and hypocrisy to a gay teen’s learning to accept himself in an era before Will & Grace and the broadening of the gay rights movement. And yet while theatergoers might feel as though they’re heard or seen much of what’s contained in the play before, there’s something marvelously compelling about it, thanks to a sterling performance from S. Epatha Merkerson and the unstintingly fine work of the ensemble surrounding her.

Porter’s comedy-laced drama, that awkwardly moves into the realm of magic realism for a bit, centers on a quintet of women, all of whom are based on the relatives with whom Porter grew up. At the center of the play is Maxine (Merkerson), who has coped with a undiagnosable degenerative physical disease since birth. As the play opens, she’s visiting her mother Gertrude (Lillias White) with her husband Vernon (a frighteningly intense Kevyn Morrow) and her two children, late teenager Calvin (Larry Powell) and almost teen Tonya (Sheria Irving).

Merkerson’s performance as this matriarch, who has to come to terms with not only her son’s gayness but also how her faith may or may not be letting her down, grounds the production from start to finish. Technically, it’s a beaut from the moment she enters and hobbles across the upstairs portion of scenic designer James Noone’s beautiful recreation of a middle class home. As the disease ravages Maxine’s body, Merkerson brings the woman’s physical deterioration to life with precision; the hobble becomes lurchy, and slight tremors turn convulsive, and there are times when it’s rough not to wince on the character’s behalf.

But it’s not only Merkerson’s ability to bring the woman’s disease to life that impresses. She also delivers a performance that’s sunny, steely, warm, and wounded, and above all, loving. Early on she inspires laughter as Maxine gossips with an old family friend, Eva (played with quiet dignity by Sharon Washington), about the most recent scandals at church, and late in the play, when Maxine describes the journey she’s had to take as she’s come to understand her son’s gayness, a gentle grittiness takes over Merkerson’s performance and it’s simply breathtaking.

An equally fine performance comes from Irving as Tonya. Not only does the actress effectively and convincingly morph as the character ages from pre-high schooler to aspiring graduate student, she also delivers the comic and commentary-laden monologues that precede each scene with a perfect blend of snark and sagacity. As Calvin, curiously the most-underwritten of the show’s three principal characters, Powell gives a turn that’s appropriately angry, hurt, and self-involved, and as Maxine’s mother and aunt, respectively, White along with Elain Graham, deliver a pair of finely crafted performances.

There’s a gentle ease to director Sheryl Kaller’s staging, which allows theatergoers to feel as if they are flies on the wall as roughly fifteen years of this family’s life unfolds, and both costume designer ESOSA and lighting designer Kevin Adam’s contributions add verity to the action, while also supporting the play’s flights outside of reality.

---- Andy Propst

While I Yet Live plays at the Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: primarystages.org.

Sting and Rob Mathes Build 'The Last Ship'...Musically


Michael Esper in The Last Ship
(©Joan Marcus)


A few years back, Cyndi Lauper crossed over from the world of pop music to Broadway with her Tony Award-winning score for Kinky Boots, joining a list of songwriters that also includes Burt Bacharach, Elton John, and Duncan Sheik as someone who can pen tunes for both realms. Now, with The Last Ship, it’s time for Sting, one-time lead singer for the band The Police and currently enjoying a successful solo career, to join these tunesmiths’ ranks. At his side is his long-time collaborator, Emmy Award-winning and multi-Grammy-nominated Rob Mathes, who serves as the production’s musical director and has provided its orchestrations and arrangements.

Mathes, who’s also worked with artists like Rod Stewart, Carly Simon and Vanessa Williams, began his professional relationship with Sting on the album Symphonicities, released in 2010. It was the same year that the idea of The Last Ship first came up. “Sting and Brian [Yorkey, who has co-written the book with John Logan] started talking about this musical in the spring of 2010,” Mathes recalled, adding “He sent me lyrics to look at, to bounce off me. It was Christmas. And you know everyone’s on Christmas vacation, but there’s Sting writing lyrics. I got this email of seven lyrics of which a number of them are still in this play.”

The show centers on Gideon, a man who returns to his hometown in the North of England after an absence of fifteen years. He’s come back because his father has passed away and once he’s back he discovers that the future of the town’s chief industry, the shipyard, is in grave danger. Further, his childhood sweetheart has become engaged to someone else.

Although some have said that the show is autobiographical, Mathes points out “It really isn’t. It’s based on a few stories, one of which [Sting] read in the New York Times five years ago about these Polish ship workers who were out of work and a priest who said ‘You guys are drinking too much, you’re homeless. Let me raise some money and you guys build a ship.’ And so those Polish ship workers built a ship. That’s one of those stories that just got Sting ruminating.”

Mathes adds “Sting did grow up down the street from a shipyard,” and continues by saying that what the musical represents is “Sting revisiting the folk music from the north of England . . . writing about the livelihood of so many people he grew up around.”

What emerged as Sting continued to develop the piece was a wealth of songs. The songwriter-performer says that the idea of writing for musical theater isn’t all that daunting: “I've always enjoyed writing 'narrative' songs, and one of the particular requirements of a theatrical song is that it advances the narrative, and so it didn't seem so peculiar to me. [And] I was immersed in the tradition from an early age - I would eat Carousel and Oklahoma! for breakfast.”

Sting’s affinity for musical theater and his understanding of its needs led to the studio album of songs from the show that was released last year because as Sting says, “The main thing I've learned about writing a musical is how mutable everything is, nothing can be carved in stone, plots develop and evolve, characters too. A song that seemed like a pillar of the structure and point in the development of the story may very well become superfluous at a later date.”

In one instance Mathes says, “His most entertaining song is this song about a singing welder. This rockabilly tune that he wrote for Jacques the singing welder. He told John [about the idea for the song], and John said ‘That’s great. That sounds like a lot of fun. Let’s try to work it in.’ Sting wrote it and it just was kind of an appendage. It really didn’t work in the evening so Sting finally said, ‘I’ve got to record this music. I care about this music too much. I want to do my spin on these songs.’”

For the resulting album, Sting and Mathes were able, as the latter man puts it, to “have our cake and to eat it,” saying, “We just basically went with what would be beautiful for the songs. And on ones like ‘Last Ship,’ which have a great grandeur to them, we used a strings section. And on some of the other things, we used an old colliery band sound of euphoniums.”

But Broadway is different. Sting, Mathes recalled, originally envisioned the score for fiddle, acoustic guitar, acoustic base, melodeon, and perhaps a piano. At one point, too, Mathes says “[Sting] said ‘What I’d love to do is have [the musicians] be on stage.’ And early in the process, we went, the two of us, to a matinee of Once to talk to friends there, and that was such a part of that concept that we thought ‘No, they’ve done that and it’s beautiful, so let’s keep following the muse and see what happens.’”

The result has been an orchestration for a core string trio, a wind instrument , percussion (“For orchestral bells, ship bells, and shakers,” says Mathes), a main drummer percussionist, two keyboardists, and two guitarists (acoustic and bass). The manner in which the two men arrived at this is indicative of the close collaboration and mutual respect that the two men share. As Mathes relates, “Sting’s always loved the idea of the two fiddles. And then, I said ‘For Broadway, can we expand that out a little bit? Maybe use a cello? To have some warmth in the lower end?’ We definitely didn’t want a string quartet . We wanted some space within the texture. So we have a cello and the two fiddles.”

Describing his relationship with Sting, Mathes says “He feels like my very, very gifted, brilliant older brother or something.” And yet, following through on the brother analogy, it’s sometimes the younger brother who comes to the rescue of the older one. Sting once described Mathes as a colleague who “knows how to tidy up some of my untidy ideas.”

When asked about what he might have meant by this, Sting says “[Rob’s] ‘tidying up’ is something of an understatement, but could also be described as something akin to the role of Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. The creative process can be extremely messy, unpredictable, sometimes violent and chaotic, blood and viscera all over the floor, and various dismembered body parts strewn around the room. Rob identifies the various problems immediately and then dispassionately and systematically sorts them into a coherent order, cleans up the crime scene and then buries the evidence without a trace. Now you think I'm the one who is going to dig up those bodies again? Well, you've got another thing coming! Bodies? What bodies?”

Mathes’ description of the process contains a little less gore. “The one thing I find myself doing a lot is that he will come up with what seems like a cockamamie idea, like ‘Really? You want a key change there?’ or something like that.” He then adds, “But then, because I love him, I’ll sit there and go ‘What is he looking for?’”

And even though Sting, Mathes and the company have had the opportunity to refine The Last Ship since its tryout in Chicago earlier this year, Mathes says “We will be working right to the last moment to make every detail as good as it can be for this great town, which has seen everything,” continuing, “And, I think on opening night the 26th, we’ll have done so much work on this piece that we’re all going to be very proud of what goes up there.”

---- Andy Propst


The Last Ship plays at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: thelastship.com.