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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Mother Courage' - A Brave Actress

Bravery abounds in Brian Kulick’s new staging of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, thanks to Kecia Lewis, who took on the herculean title role after the much-publicized departure of Tonya Pinkins.

It’s a part that many liken to King Lear for a woman, and Lewis has opened the show having had just two weeks to rehearse while also performing. It's not an admirable situation for any performer, but the actor acquits herself well in this production that shifts the action from Europe during the Thirty Years War to the war-torn Congo of the 1990s. Lewis, despite an occasional reliance on a script or prompting, delivers a performance that goes beyond being simply credible. Her Courage is both brutally and coolly pragmatic and also warm in her maternal instincts for the three grown children who travel alongside her as she sells wares to the military and civilians she encounters along the battle lines.

Of course, there's something remarkably "meta" about Lewis' own challenges in mastering the role and those that the character faces, and this fact, combined with the presence of a script in the actress' hands disguised as a kind of ledger for Mother Courage, gives the show an added Brechtian touch of reminding theatergoers that they are watching a piece of theater. It creates the sort of distancing that the playwright advocated throughout his career.

Supporting Lewis' work admirably are the three performers who play Courage's children. Curtiss Cook Jr. makes her eldest son, Eilif, an arrogant sort who gives in to the brutality of a soldier's life with remarkable ease. Deandre Sevon imbues Courage's middle child, Swiss Cheese, with innocence and sweetness, and as her mute daughter, Katrin, Mirirai Sithole delivers a deeply moving performance. The actress has the ability to communicate volumes using just her highly expressive and mutable face.

Lewis also finds a terrific and supportive leading man of sorts in Kevin Mambo, who plays a military cook who takes a shine to the hard-nosed businesswoman. With an easygoing swagger and wickedly alluring smile, Mambo makes this quick-witted man someone who's impossible to resist.

Unfortunately, as alluring as these performances are and despite the multilayered event that is Lewis' impressively nuanced performance, Kulick's approach to the play underwhelms. The director has heavily cut John Willett's translation, and though nothing in the central plot is missing, Brecht's ideological flights are severely undermined. And though Kulick's decision to reset the proceedings in modern times might add a certain immediacy to the action, there's a sense that Toni-Leslie James' costumes, the performers' accents, and Duncan Sheik's intriguing music, which fuses African rhythms with an electronic vibe, are only laid on top of the action.

Perhaps most curious is one aspect of Tony Straiges' scenic design: the front section of a jeep that seems to be part of Mother Courage's wagon, laden with wares. It certainly serves as one additional indication of the production's locale, but it also makes Courage's references to pulling the cart confusing, and it's hard not to wish that the overall conceit for this Mother Courage was as brave as Lewis herself.

---- Andy Propst


Mother Courage and Her Children plays at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: classicstage.org.

'Noises Off' - Dizzingly Funny Backstage Farce


Jeremy Shamos, Kate Jennings Grant, David Furr, Andrea Martin, and Campbell Scott in Noises Off
(©Joan Marcus)

Having the inspired zaniness of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off back on Broadway for the start of 2016 couldn’t be more welcome. The play premiered in the U.K. in 1982 and one year later arrived on Broadway. The piece is considered, at this juncture, the quintessential backstage farce, and in Jeremy Herrin’s splendid new production, which opened last night at Roundabout Theatre’s American Airlines Theatre, Noises Off once again inspires gales of laughter from theatergoers.

Frayn’s conceit for the show couldn’t be more inspired. In the play’s first act, audiences watch as a second-rate troupe of British actors bumble their way through a late night dress rehearsal for a bottom drawer sex farce, Nothing On. Things are so bad with the idiosyncratic company that they can barely make it through their first act.

After its intermission, Noises Off flashes forward one month and reveals the goings on backstage as the company of Nothing On performs in Ashton-under-Lyme. Romantic entanglements among the cast and crew and the actors' personal foibles mean that what had not gone smoothly in rehearsal has deteriorated even further. Noises Off flashes forward six weeks more in its third act, and by the time the company is winding down their tour in Stockton-on-Tees, Nothing On is a shambles.

The joy and hilarity of Noises Off comes from the lunacy that Frayn reveals in the show’s second and third acts. For instance, actress Dotty Otley, played by the marvelous Andrea Burns, is having an affair with one of the show’s leads, the dimwitted Garry Lejeune. After their affair sours, they do their utmost to undermine the other onstage and off. She goes so far as to tie his shoes together, forcing him to hop through the intricate staging of the play-within-a-play, and during this and other sequences, David Furr proves to be a deft physical comedian.

Frayn further ups the ante on the mayhem on stage and off as the characters’ frailties and idiosyncrasies come into play. The company’s most senior member Selsdon Mowbray, played by Daniel Davis with befuddled sweetness, is hard of hearing, terribly self-involved, and an alcoholic. The combination proves to have its own set of antic ramifications on Nothing On performances.

The same can be said of blonde bombshell Brooke Ashton’s lack of talent and vapidity. This is an actress who knows how to do two things. She can look stunning and perform by rote. When things start to go awry with the show she’s in, she simply barrels forward as if nothing has happened, and in what might be the show-stealing performance among a group of terrific comic performances, Megan Hilty plays Brooke to the hilt. One of the funniest moments in the production is catching a glimpse of Hilty's Brooke as she stands in the frame of a door that’s supposed to be shut mouthing the other actor’s lines to anticipate her cue.

Co-starring with this quartet are Frederick Fellowes and Belinda Blair, played with zeal by Jeremy Shamos and Belinda Blair, and attempting to control some of the mayhem is director Lloyd Dallas (a fine turn from Campbell Scott). He’s assisted by the show’s stage manager, the endearingly vulnerable Poppy (Tracee Chimo) and company manager Tim (Rob McClure). Tim eventually has to go on for one of the actors and when he does, McClure proves pricelessly funny as he quakes and quivers from head to toe while reading lines of a page from the script that’s fluttering uncontrollably in his hand.

As if the antics of Noises Off themselves were not enough, the show’s made giddier by the contributions of scenic designer Derek McLane, who envisions Nothing On as being performed in a two-story Tudor house outfitted with gaudy 1970s chic; and costume designer Michael Krass, who channels the worst of the period’s garish fashions with comic flair. Even songwriter Todd Almond gets in on the delectable merriment of this production, providing some marvelously cheesey theme music for the play that falls apart in the marvelously dizzying romp of Noises Off.

---- Andy Propst

Noises Off plays at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.

'Tappin' Thru Life' - Autobiography, Song and Dance


Maurice Hines in Tappin’ Thru Life
(©Carol Rosegg)

Maurice Hines knows how to charm from the stage. It’s little wonder. He’s been performing for nearly six decades now thanks to a career that began when he was still a kid.

In his new show, Tappin’ Thru Life, which has just opened at New World Stages, Hines recounts some of the highs of his life as well as some of the lows, and along the way he offers up tunes that he associates with his long career or important moments in his life. For instance, when he remembers how his father atoned to his mother after a fight, Hines says his dad sang “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and then, Hines delivers it.

To segue into “Honeysuckle Rose,” Hines tells theatergoers that he had once told Lena Horne that he would pay tribute to her in a show by singing it, and with that, he dives into a jazzy rendition of the Fats Waller classic. This tune is preceded by Hines’ rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s pungently ironic “Smile,” which follows a troubling tale that he shares about an ugly encounter with racism that he and his brother, the late Gregory Hines, had when they were performing in Las Vegas when they were teenagers.

The coupling of the two diverging anecdotes and numbers gives an indication of how Hines ambles through his life story during the course of the show, which has been directed with smoothness by Jeff Calhoun. Oftentimes resembles the sort of loosely constructed one-man performance one might find in a cabaret venue.

Tappin’, however, plays on a larger scale. To begin there’s a handsome two-tiered set from Tobin Ost, who also provides two sliding panels outfitted with different sized panes that become the perfect canvases for Darrel Maloney’s projection design.

Further setting the show apart from cabaret is Hines’ backing, not just some small three to five piece combo, but a thrillingly brassy nine-piece ensemble: Sherrie Maricle and The Diva Jazz Orchestra. Further, Hines also gets some help in the tap department. He performs a few marvelous routines, with style, skill and grace belying his age (72), but as if to pay tribute to his early days working, he’s joined by the remarkable team of The Manzari Brothers, John and Leo, two seeming twentysomethings who are virtuosos of the form.

Hines also turns the spotlight over to even younger performers: Luke Spring, Dario Natarelli, and Devin and Julia Ruth who get their turn in the spotlight at alternating performances. Ultimately, the headliner needs only his innate charm to capture audiences’ hearts, but for any holdouts, these other dancers cinch the deal.

---- Andy Propst

Tappin Thru Life plays at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: mauricehines.com.

'The First Noel' - Joyously Poignant Holiday Memories

Christmas memories don’t get much more tuneful or joyously poignant than those found in the new musical The First Noel, currently playing in a Classical Theatre of Harlem production in the small blackbox space at the Apollo Theater.

Written by Lelund Durond Thompson and Jason Michael Webb, the show—which runs through New Years Eve—centers on memories that crop up for Noel (Ashley Ware Jenkins) as she returns to Harlem during the holidays to start the process of selling her late mother’s brownstone. Specifically, Noel recalls a year in the mid-1980s when all she wanted was a Walk-Man, but even as little Noel (Nia Bonita Caesar) dreams of finding this electronic present from Santa, her mother Dolores (Soara-Joy Ross) and father Henry (Nathaniel Stampley) deal with their own memories of their first daughter who died nearly a decade before, just before Christmas.

In her grief Dolores has become bitter and gone so far as to forbid seasonal celebrations in the home. Henry, after years of trying to help his wife move on from the loss on his own, looks for some assistance by inviting Ethel (Tina Fabrique), Dolores’ mother and an acclaimed singer to visit. Ethel and Dolores have been estranged since the little girl’s death, and rather than helping, Ethel’s buoyant nature and her desire to help her granddaughter find the spirit of Christmas only serve to widen the gap between the two women.

Moderating the underlying sadness of the tale are the exuberant songs that fill the show. Gospel, R&B and jazz songs both give voice to the characters’ pained emotions and help to take audiences back in time to the period. A pair of department store jingles are particularly effective in this regard as are Rachel Dozier-Ezell’s costumes, which showcase the best and worst of the era fashion-wise.

Beyond just being tuneful joys, the numbers sound terrific in the intimate space thanks to powerhouse vocals from both the principals and the ensemble (many of whom solo during the course of the show). Unsurprisingly, Fabrique, who has won awards for her portrayal of Ella Fitzgerald, belts out Ethel’s numbers a sure sense of style. Equally impressive are Ross and Stampley, who render the battling couple with sensitivity.

As their daughter, Caesar charms consistently, and Lizan Mitchell—playing a sage family friend, Miss Lou—brings wonderfully warm gravitas to the production, cunningly staged by Steve H. Broadnax III. The show unfolds seemingly all around theatergoers, which makes it nearly impossible to not get pulled into the tale and its redemptive and happy ending.

---- Andy Propst


The First Noel plays at the Apollo (253 West 125th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: cthnyc.org.

'Fiddler on the Roof' - Masterful Revival of a Classic


Danny Burstein and company in Fiddler on the Roof
(© Joan Marcus)

As Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, and Joseph Stein’s landmark musical Fiddler on the Roof enters its middle age---the 50th anniversary of the show was last year---Bartlett Sher’s splendidly funny and moving revival, which opened last night at the Broadway Theatre, clearly demonstrates why this is a piece for the ages.

The previous two Broadway outings for the tuner (a languorous 1990 revival that starred the 1971 film’s star, Topol; and David Leveaux’ 2004 intellectually heady and slightly chilly production) both allowed audiences to savor the familiar piece and its many classic songs ("If I Were a Rich Man," "Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset," etc.). At the same time, however, neither staging came close to showcasing the achievement of Stein’s book or the Bock-Harnick score.

That's not the case with this new Fiddler. It charms, amuses, and stirs. Often in the same moment.

Sher’s production, which begins with a much-discussed and powerfully effective framing device that has the show’s Tevye, Danny Burstein, standing onstage in a contemporary winter coat. He reads the opening lines of the show from an old book, and slowly the show segues back to early twentieth century Russia. As it does Burstein removes his coat, and Tevye, joins the company as the shtetl Anetevka comes into focus.

Sher’s conceit for the opening (as well as the closing (when Burstein reappears in the jacket) deftly communicates that the story of Fiddler somehow belongs to us all regardless of our heritage. Simultaneously, this understated device makes the parallels between events of a century ago and ones today clear. Once the residents of Antevka are forced to relocate, they wonder, much like refugees today, where they will head.

As the musical moves forward, these notions rest gently underneath the action, and the joys of the production become abundantly apparent, starting with Burstein’s masterful performance as milkman Tevye. Burstein makes this man, who, even in most difficult situations, can somehow recognize both sides of a dilemma, an imminently likable, funny guy: a mensch extraordinaire. At the same time, Burstein’s performance—also beautifully sung—brims with fury, bewilderment, and eventually resigned (and understanding) acceptance as Tevye watches the traditions he has known and found comfort in challenged and crumble.

It’s a turn that’s beautifully matched and complemented by Jessica Hecht’s more acid, but nonetheless appealing, performance as Tevye’s pragmatic wife Golde. Hecht, in her first outing in a Broadway musical after years in non-musicals, uses her formidable talents to deliver a terrifically nuanced performance as this woman hardened by a rough existence raising five daughters. Ultimately a certain gentleness creeps into Hecht’s performance, particularly when she and Burstein tentatively hold hands after Tevye and Golde have answered the musical question, “Do You Love Me?,” and then It’s rough not to smile and maybe get a little misty.

Tevye and Golde are, of course, having to watch as their three eldest daughters leave the nest (none with husbands of their parents chose), and in these roles, Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, and Melanie Moore all deliver spirited and individualized turns as young women falling in love and coming into their own. As their respective beaus, Adam Kantor, Ben Rappaport, and Nick Rehberger are just as terrific in bringing to life these brash young men at the dawn of a new age.

Fine supporting performances come from Alix Korey as the tireless and seeming unwindable matchmaker Yenta; Adam Dann heisser as Lazer Wolf, the gruff butcher to whom Tevye initially promises his eldest daughter; and Karl Kenzler, who makes the imposing figure of the Christian constable simultaneously menacing and self-effacing.

As audiences have come to expect from Sher’s productions, this Fiddler looks extraordinary. Michael Yeargan’s sparse scenic design strikingly evokes the time and place while also making it look as if a wonderful set of period illustrations have sprung to life on stage. Helping to achieve this effect are both Donald Holder’s sensitive lighting design and Catherine Zuber’s meticulously designed costumes.

Of course, original director-choreographer Jerome Robbins looms large over any production of Fiddler on the Roof, and certain dances he devised, replicated throughout the years in both Broadway and other productions, are probably ingrained in theatergoers’ retinas and psyches. For this staging, Hoffesh Shechter refers and uses certain moments from Robbins’ work while also creating new sequences.

It all combines to make this Fiddler on the Roof one that, for today, seems as if it is somehow definitive. Of course, as with all classics, such a claim will change and evolve over time as other artists put their own stamps on it.

---- Andy Propst


Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit: