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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Rose' - Chalfant Shines as Kennedy Clan Matriarch

Kathleen Chalfant in Rose
(©Carol Rosegg)

Kathleen Chalfant has found a terrific showcase for her estimable talents in Laurence Leamer’s Rose, which opened last night at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

This one-woman show about the matriarch of the Kennedy clan doesn’t hold many surprises dramatically. Leamer has imagined that Mrs. Kennedy must entertain a church group from Ireland while she waits for her son Edward--- Teddy---to return from sailing just off the coast of Massachusetts. The play unfolds on a July afternoon in 1969 just over a week after the infamous Chappaquiddick accident involving him and Mary Jo Kopechne.

Putting a brave face on for her unseen guests (i.e. the audience) in the wake of this tragedy, Mrs. Kennedy recounts the family history, from her childhood to meeting Joseph Kennedy to the births (and deaths) of many of her children. She also frets, sometimes quite visibly and sometimes subtly, about Ted’s well-being. Even though she continues to reassure her guests about his prowess on a boat, it’s quite apparent that she’s concerned that he might do something rash while he’s on the water.

Leamer’s contrived ratcheting up of tension using this device and his awkward conceit that allows Mrs. Kennedy to launch into her recitation of family lore (both well-known and obscure) may undermine Rose dramatically, but they do not deter Chalfant from delivering a marvelously crafted performance. Looking smashing in a chic white pantsuit accessorized with an oversized bead necklace and earrings (costume design by Jane Greenwood), Chalfant commands the stage (scenic designer Anya Klepikov’s recreation of a living room of the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port home) with regality and upper crust charm.

As the production, directed by Caroline Reddick Lawson, proceeds, Chalfant shades her performance with bitterness, pride, arrogance, and a small measure of humor. It’s a performance in which every gesture, turn of the head, or inflection provides a small insight into this woman who, from childhood, was raised to be in the public eye.

Even when she dashes to the phone as Joan, Jackie, Pat, Eunice, etc. call, Chalfant’s performance has remarkable detail. It’s astonishing to see how quickly the ringing prompts an almost Pavlovian response developed from years of being on call for both family members and dignitaries from around the world: her hand flies to her ear to remove one of those oversized clip-on earrings. What might be most fun about the calls is how Chalfant evinces other aspects of Mrs. Kennedy’s personality---sternness, playfulness, and even, genuine warmth---during them.

It’s also in the moments just following these conversations that Leamer’s play becomes most interesting. As Mrs. Kennedy segues from private personality to public, she also offers some choice comments about the callers, and the play for a flash becomes intimate, charming, and insightful.

---- Andy Propst

Rose plays at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.norasplayhouse.org.

'Nora' - Revisiting a Doll's House

Todd Gearhart and Jean Lichty in Nora
(©Carol Rosegg)

Ingmar Bergman’s Nora, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, can be an immensely moving experience as it distills the original three act work into a taut 90-minute one-act drama.

Austin Pendleton’s new production that has just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre enhances Bergman’s work. Pendleton’s staging turns the piece into a genuinely eerie domestic tragedy. The play unfolds on a handsome unit set from designer Harry Feiner that telescopes a 19th century drawing room and bedroom onto the stage. Feiner’s lighting cloaks the dark paneled space in shadows, and it’s in this marvelously atmospheric environment that members of the ensemble, when not central to the action, sit quietly observing the events of the play.

The story, of course, centers on Nora Helmer, a woman who, for much of her life, has been infantilized by men, first her father and then her husband, Torvald. At the same time, Nora has had to exert herself, her wits, and rudimentary sense of finance to keep her family together. In the latter instance, Nora, without Torvald’s knowledge, secured a loan in order to raise the money necessary for a recuperative trip to Italy when he was ill.

The sojourn abroad served its purpose, and as Nora begins a now-healthy Torvald is preparing to take an important bank position. Unfortunately, even as Nora celebrates the family’s good fortune, she discovers that her secret---and not simply that she borrowed money without her husband’s permission and knowledge---might be exposed because of the Torvald's success.

In his new position at the bank Torvald is making changes, and among them is firing Nils Krogstad, the man from whom Nora Borrowed. Krogstad resorts to blackmail to keep his job.

Bergman’s condensation of Ibsen’s original (and a fine, colloquial translation-adpatation by Frederick J. Marker and Lisa-Lone Marker) supercharge Nora’s plight, and with Pendleton’s conceit, the play becomes all the more uncomfortable; in this production, it does feel as if all eyes are on her every move.

It’s a recipe for a galvanizing revisitation to the piece, but the reality is that Nora only occasionally sparks to life because of a curiously idiosyncratic performance form Jean Lichty in the title role. One notices something amiss with the actress’ Nora from the moment th e play begins. Wisps of blonde hair flutter around the woman’s face. It’s almost as if Nora, who has scrimped, saved and connived, had forgotten to put it up properly. It’s a tonsorial gaffe that Todd Gearhart’s perniciously exacting Torvald would never have allowed.

Further, to indicate Nora’s distress and distraction, Lichty often resorts to cocking her head and staring at the floor, rarely looking her fellow performers in the eye. The result is that this Nora appears to have some sort of unusual social phobia. Again, it’s the sort of behavior that one feels would warrant a comment or reprimand from Torvald, who easily makes his will known on other fronts, from Nora’s extravagance to her wardrobe for a costume ball the couple attends.

Lichty does use her voice to terrific effect, and there are moments when she shifts into a lower register, which gives this Nora an interesting feral quality. This aspect of her performance serves her quite well as the woman squares off against Larry Bull’s no-nonsense and slightly oily turn as Krogstad. When Lichty’s voice goes into a higher register, it’s easy to see how this woman has swayed not only Gearhart’s dashing Torvald, but also the elderly Dr. Rank, an old family friend whom George Morforgen imbues with touching world-weariness and amusing late-life randiness.

Complimenting the men's work is Andrea Cirie, who delivers a regal and beautifully modulated turn as Christine, an old school chum of Nora’s, who visits to ask a favor and ultimately becomes a confidante of the beleaguered woman.

Nora, like Ibsen’s original, ends with its heroine making a shocking--at least for the period--decision, and though Bergman’s script and Pendleton’s production send theatergoers on a speedy and intriguing collision course to it, it’s an uneven and never completely satisfying journey.

---- Andy Propst

Nora plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.cherrylanetheatre.org.

'The Eternal Space' - Majesty, Friendship, Off-Broadway

Clyde Baldo and Matt Pilieci in The Eternal Space
(©Mike Scully)

Generally words such as “soaring” and “majestic” do not spring to mind when theatergoers contemplate off-Broadway. Both of these adjectives spring instantly to mind, however, as soon as one enters the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row for Justin Rivers’ The Eternal Space, which opened last week.

When audiences enter the theater, they find that scenic designer Jason Sherwood and projection designer Brad Peterson have conspired to bring a portion of the old Penn Station to the stage. Seven immense white arches surround the playing space. Onto these, and another arced surface just above the stage, Peterson projects black and white photographs of the now-demolished edifice. The designers’ work astonishes as it brings to the intimate space a splendid sense of the grandeur of the station.

As the show proceeds, Peterson’s visuals, both still and video, document the beauty and majesty of the station and its sad demolishment even as they provide a poignant backdrop for playwright Rivers’ two-hander about an unlikely friendship between Joseph, a man who has come to protest the razing of the structure, and Paul, one of the workers responsible for the job.

It’s little wonder that there is “dislike” at first sight for the men, but it extends beyond antagonism over the events unfolding around them. Blunt and no-nonsense Paul has little patience for the bookish and verbose English teacher Joseph. But, as this latter man tirelessly tails Paul, not because of his stance on what’s happening at the station, but because of his sense of the younger man's potential, a modicum of warmth develops. Paul comes to respect the older man and even discovers that the man’s persistence proves to be beneficial. Thanks to Joseph, Paul both pursues artistic and familial dreams.

It’s a charmer of a tale and under the assured direction of Mindy Cooper, it’s brought terrifically to life by two accomplished performers. Clyde Baldo takes on the role of Joseph and imbues the character with a sweet warmth that makes even the man’s persnickety pedantic digressions utterly endearing. Further, Baldo carefully shades the character’s darker side and the sadder aspects of his life, ensuring that the play never tips into bathos.

As Paul, Matthew Pilieci swaggers with arrogance and machismo, and he assuredly navigates the character’s slow thaw toward Joseph. It’s a pleasure to watch as the raw power and anger, which characterizes Pileci’s performance early on, gives way to compassion and kindness.

In addition to the superlative design work of Sherwood and Peterson, the actors’ performances are supported by Zach Blane’s meticulous lighting design and Jeremiah Rosenthal’s shrewd soundscape, which makes the hustle and bustle of Penn Station aurally palpable.

---- Andy Propst

The Eternal Space plays at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: theeternalspaceplay.com.

'The Illusionists' - Sleight of Hand and Derring-Do on Broadway

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists
(©Photo used with permission of The Illusionists)

Last holiday season, aficionados of magic, sleight of hand, and derring-do got a special treat when The Illusionists, arrived on Broadway. The high-octane show---with some new performers--- has returned and opened yesterday at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, ready to once again thrill audiences looking for a “How’d they do that?” experience.

The changes that have been made to the production over the course of the past year actually serve it rather well.. To begin, the theater, one of Broadway’s classic elegant structures as compared to the sterile environment of the Marquis Theatre where the production played last year, helps dissipate some of the sense that The Illusionists is merely a high-gloss entertainment that’s best suited for resorts, stadiums, and the like.

Yes, the huge video monitor still floats above the stage so that all audience members have a close-up view of the show’s tiniest details, and yes, there are still those latter-day goth dancers, but these elements don’t feel quite as overbearing as they did one year ago.

The more important difference between last year and this year, though, are some of the performers themselves, starting with Raymond Crowe, billed as “The Unusalist.” Crowe does perform a genuinely impressive bit of illusion involving an invisible deck of cards, but he also incorporates ventriloquism in the sequence, making it very funny.

This aspect of his performance---as well as a bit of hand shadow puppetry that comes later---gives The Illusionists a kind of neo-vaudeville feel that charms, particularly when it’s combined with returning cast member Jeff Hobson’s jovial work as the show’s host. Hobson, also known as “The Trickster,” emcees in a acerbic and effeminate manner that’s a cross between Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. He’s funny and gifted when it comes to magic too.

Another new performer also helps take The Illusionists to a new level of “They’re not reallly going to do that are they?” Jonathan Goodwin (or “The Daredevil”) performs an escape from a straightjacket feat while he’s suspended upside down. Doused in gasoline, he also happens to be on fire as he works to free himself from his restraints. It’s a moment that does make the pulse beat faster.

Returning to the show is the Marilyn Manson--esque “Anti-Conjurer” (Dan Sperry). He’s upped the game on his needle in the mouth illusion. No longer content with threading it through his tongue, he now ingests the sharp object to create a necklace of razor blades that he has also consumed. Ameliorating the gross-out nature of his work in this section of the show, and in a second piece that he performs is Sperry’s amusing and appealing impish nature. Underneath the makeup, it would seem, he’s just a kid who’s sort of acting up.

Also returning, and still one of the highlights of the are the two sequences in the show where Yu Ho-Jin, or “The Manipulator,” performs absolutely astonishing feats with cards. First his white scarf turns into the flat objects, and then, they change color, appear and disappear, and even seem to flutteringly rain from his hands. It’s simple, delicate work that dazzles.

Also among the returning performers is Adam Trent, “The Fururist,” who remains a charmer and combines his work as an illusionist with technology, and the other new cast member in the show is James More, “The Deceptionist,” who, like Goodwin, brings actual fire to the stage.

One word of warning about The Illusionists. It features a rather hard sell of a “The Ultimate Magic Kit.” At a recent press performance, two young volunteers were given the box set as thanks for their participation in the show. Audiences were also told that it was on sale in theater, and after intermission, scores of kids were returning to their seats with their own kit, making it seem as though for one final trick The Illusionists had made Santa Claus appear well before December 25.

---- Andy Propst

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

'On Your Feet' - A Bio-Tuner With a Latin Beat

Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra in On Your Feet
(©Matthew Murphy)

Will the rhythm get you at the new bio-tuner On Your Feet, which tracks Gloria Estefan’s journey from an ordinary life in Miami to that of a global singing sensation? The answer is neither an emphatic “yes” nor a heartfelt “no.” Instead, the best response is “sporadically.” For while this new show, playing at the Marquis Theatre, features a by-the-numbers rise-to-fame book by Alexander Dinelaris that can dull the senses, it also has some electrifying elements ranging from Anna Villafañe’s dynamically charismatic and powerfully sung performance as Estefan to Sergio Trujillo’s sizzling choreography.

On Your Feet begins just before one of the most well-known moments in the singer’s life: the bus crash that shattered her vertebrae, resulting in major surgery and months of physical therapy. The musical then flashes back to her life as a child in Miami and moves forward to chronicle her initial encounter with the man who would become her husband, Emilio Estefan (Josh Segarra), and their first successes together when she was singing with Miami Sound Machine.

After achieving superstar status in the Latin countries, Gloria and Emilio find that the music industry greets their desire to crossover into the English market with a mixture of disdain and incredulity, and it’s not until after concerted grassroots efforts to get “Dr. Beat” and later “Conga” played in clubs and requested on radio, that their work as artists for a “mainstream” audience is taken seriously.

During this first half of On Your Feet, Dinelaris’ book both traffics in the sorts of clichés that undermine dramatized biographies. In a tape recording that he sends to his daughter from his tour of duty in Vietnam, Gloria’s father, José (Eliseo Roman), says “You’re a born artist, my angel. And one day you’re going to be a big star!” As I later learned from my theater companion, Estefan still has recordings she and her father traded during his time “in country.” Perhaps, he actually said something to this effect, but on stage, the words thud.

Beyond the clichés, Dinelaris’ book minimizes the success that the Estefans and Miami Sound Machine enjoyed in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and to some degree Europe. Neither “Making a lot of noise in, let’s see: Venezuela, Peru, Honduras, Argentina...” nor “Your numbers are terrific in the Latin Markets” fully communicate the sort of superstardom that they were enjoying outside of the U.S.

Similarly, their work in this country before crossover success is made to look cloyingly cute as Gloria offers up “Conga” at a series of private parties. She has to peddle the tune at a Bar Mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and finally a Shriners’ convention. Equally cutesy are the sort of I Love Lucy jokes that arise from Emilio’s heavy accent. Dinelaris’ book never reaches the moment where he has to shout “Gloria, you have some ‘splaining to do,” but it gets awfully close.

Thankfully, though, theatergoers never have to wait too long before On Your Feet bursts into song and dance, and at these moments, the musical’s shortcomings all but disappear. Of course, the production numbers generally use the singer’s biggest hits (which also include “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “Get on Your Feet”) while her ballads and other material are used for more intimate numbers.

One stunning exception is “Mi Tierra,” the title tune from a 1993 album, which becomes a stunningly designed and performed number as the show flashes back to her mother’s life in pre-Castro Cuba. It’s rendered with poignancy and passion by Andrea Burns (looking stunning in one of costume designer ESosa’s most lavish creations for the production) and unfolds in a beautiful partial recreation of a Havana nightclub circa 1959 (David Rockwell’s handsome sets are a marvel of economy).

The inclusion of this number and others from Estefan’s Spanish-language albums actually reveals her shrewdness and gifts as a songwriter (particularly as one witnesses the genesis of “Conga”) and one hopes that one day she might turn her ear and pen toward writing an original musical to bring her unique fusion sound to the Great White Way.

Throughout Villafañe belts out song after song and leads the company in Trujillo’s dances filled with swiveling hips, swirling skirts, and staccato steps. Beyond her prowess in the musical numbers, she brings both sweetness and strength to the book scenes, matching the sort of charisma that made the actual Gloria Estefan a star.

Once On Your Feet has come full circle to the night of the bus crash, and then, begins to dutifully chart Estefan’s recovery and return to the stage, Villafañe’s performance takes a somewhat darker turn, and yet it remains unquestionably engaging.

Segarra’s performance as Emilio courses with a gentle machismo. He also brings an appealingly scruffy (to match his beard and moustache perhaps) sound to his songs.

Beyond the work of these two performers, and Burns’ as Gloria’s mother, On Your Feet boasts a genuinely touching turn from Alma Cuervo as her grandmother. A pint-sized performer, Eduardo Hernandez, plays the Estefan’s grade school-age son as well as a young incarnation Emilio and dances up a storm. And, as a young incarnation of Gloria, Alexandra Suarez, delivers beautifully early on with “Cuando Sali de Cuba (When I Left Cuba),” a song by Luis Maria Aguile that Estefan did in fact sing as a child. (You can find a video of her doing it on YouTube).

These performances and the music itself rouse audiences at On Your Feet, pulling them from the doldrums that come during the course of this latest Broadway bio-tuner.

---- Andy Propst

On Your Feet plays at the Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit: www.onyourfeetmusical.com.