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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Little Miss Sunshine' - Familial Dysfunction on a Musical Road Trip


Stephanie J. Block, Rory O'Malley, Hannah Nordberg, Logan Rowland, David Rasche, and Will Swenson in Little Miss Sunshine
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

In the latest of transfers from film to the musical stage comes songwriter William Finn and writer/director James Lapine's Little Miss Sunshine, which opened last night at Second Stage Theatre.

Hopes certainly have run high for the marriage of this creative team, which has been bringing quirky family dysfunction into the realm of musical theater (notably with Falsettos and more recently, when working with writer Rachel Sheinkin, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) for over 30 years now, and the property, a charmingly off-beat movie about a family working through myriad problems on a road trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach for a kiddie beauty pageant. Unfortunately something has gone awry in the union, and the result is an often dour 100 minutes of theater.

Part of the problem with the show is that Lapine and Finn have focused on how broken and beaten down the characters all are. They lay this out in the opening number, in which everyone sings about how disappointment is an inevitability: it's "the way of the world."

The song sets an almost unbearably bleak tone for the production and foreshadows all of the ills that lay in store for the clan: parents Richard and Sheryl and their kids Dwayne and Olive, along with Sheryl's gay brother Frank and Richard's randy, drug-addicted father. And even though Finn has written this opening number (along with many others in the show) in his usual jaunty, staccato mode, the piece never quite finds the other side of the grimness of the family's existence.

There does come one moment when the production captures the film's unusual duality of desperation and the unbending will to move forward that it inspires. After the family has learned that their little girl has the chance to compete in the contest, they set off in a Volkswagen bus that promptly breaks down. They need to push it to get it started.

Such an event is difficult to bring to the stage, but In this instance, Lapine and choreographer Michele Lynch conspire to create something exhilarating as the company pushes the tacky vinyl-covered kitchen chairs on rollers that indicate the seats of the vehicle. Some performers move forward, some run in place on Beowulf Borrit's sculptural scenic design that looks like a huge winding road that's covered with interstate map lines. As the "van" picks up speed, some characters almost get left behind, and theatergoers shouldn't be surprised if they find themselves cheering the crew on.

Sadly Little Miss Sunshine never again inspires the sort of excitement that's found in this number.

To be sure there are moments that amuse. When the family stops off at an interstate rest area, Frank runs into Josh(Wesley Taylor in one of three deliciously realized roles), the young man who ditched him for another guy, inspiring Frank's failed suicide attempt. There's bitchy comedy aplenty to be found in this confrontation, which also includes Frank's academic rival and Josh's current beau (the multiply cast Josh Lamon). The addition of three little girl tormentors who appear to Olive a couple of times in dream sequences are equally delightful.

There are also a few moments in which Lapine's book has a gentle poignancy. After son Dwayne (played with exceptional expressiveness by Logan Rowland) has realized that he will never achieve his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, his sister Olive simply walks over to him and hugs him, placating his teenage anger. In fact, Lapine has heightened this moment from the film by having the little girl go to him on her own initiative rather than at her folks' request.

Elsewhere though, Little Miss Sunshine settles into a sort of emotional middle-of-the-roadness (pardon the expression) that only makes one long for the richness of the collaborators' other shows. This happens most acutely during Sheryl's song "Something Better Better Happen," a musical soliloquy about the disappointments the character has faced that just evokes memories of the searingly intense "Holding to the Ground" from Falsettoland.

At the center of the show are a trio of Tony Award nominees whose work does sparks occasionally. Will Swenson brings bitter disillusion to his turn as patriarch Frank, there's a sweet sadness that courses through Stephanie J. Block's performance as Sheryl, and Rory O'Malley imbues Frank with both warmth and a certain chilly disdain.

As the young girl vying for the title of "LIttle Miss Sunshine," Hannah Nordberg never lapses into cutesiness or preciousness, but brings a kind of ordinariness that's well-suited for the character, and the always-reliable David Rasche makes for a feisty grandpa who dotes on the girl, whose dreams inspire the family road trip.

---- Andy Propst


Little Miss Sunshine continues through December 15 at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: 2st.com.

'The Jacksonian' - Beth Henley Delivers Creepy Southern Gothic Memory Play


Bill Pullman and Glenne Headly in The Jacksonian
(Photo: Monique Carboni)

Beth Henley takes audiences on a creepy rollercoaster ride in The Jacksonian, a grisly Southern Gothic memory play that opened last night in the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row in a New Group production.

Audiences certainly get no inclination of the comically twisted events that will unfold in this fascinating, but flawed, play when they walk into the theater. Scenic designer Walt Spangler has telescoped the bar of the show's titular motel, along with one of the place's rooms and the alley way where the ice machine is located, onto the stage in an invitingly warm manner. It's a sense that's enhanced byDaniel Ionazzi's atmospherically dim lighting design.

When the play begins, though, and a teenage girl wrapped in a blanket arrives center stage, wrapped in a blanket talking about an accident and a murder, any sense of comfort that the set has provided pretty much disappears. Henley's fractured journey through a purgatorial South in 1964 has begun.

The young woman is Rosy, the daughter of Bill and Susan Perch. Bill, a prominent dentist has become a resident of this motel in Jackson, Mississippi while he and his mentally unstable wife sort through their marital difficulties. During the course of the play, the troubles in the couple's relationship are slowly revealed, and as the piece jettisons back and forth through time between his arrival at the motel in the spring and the tragic events that take place there at Christmas, we also see how Bill emotionally and psychologically crumbles as his marriage, difficult though it may be, falls apart.

Alongside the family drama of The Jacksonian, there's also a murder mystery (or sorts) involving a robbery that went bad at a local Texaco gas station. Audiences learn, early on, that the authorities have an aging black man in custody for the crime, but it's not long before theatergoers (along with Rosy) begin to suspect that the Jacksonian's bartender Fred and his sometimes girlfriend and fiancée Eva had some involvement in the murder of the station's cashier.

Sadly, there's a certain predictability to both arcs of the play, and some details, such as the presence of the Klan in the characters' lives and Susan's physical health issues, often feel as though they have been shoehorned into the story. Perhaps this is due to Henley's familiarity with the milieu. She was raised in Jackson, and portions of the play have been inspired by events she herself learned of as a child.

Offsetting such problems though is Henley's richly-conceived dialogue for these for disturbed and disturbing characters. It darts between styles almost as fluidly as the play leaps through time. At moments the characters speak with a Tennessee Williams-like lyricism and at others, the play's language is firmly naturalistic. Most amusing, and eerie are the moments that the play crosses over to a sort of deadened B-movie patois.

A lot of this latter sort of dialogue falls to Eva (played to perfection by Glenne Headly), who is on the prowl for a man, and decides over eight months that the play spans, that if she can't have barkeep Fred, she'll go after the more affluent Bill. Headley makes Eva a smart, cruel dumb blonde, who's simultaneously sweetly alluring and a little bit revolting.

it's only one of the superb performances in director Robert Falls' taut staging. At Headly's side is Ed Harris, who proves utterly spellbinding as the good dentist on the slippery slope to mental instability. Harris' performance has a palpable gentleness when Bill is around his daughter, and when Bill is crossed by Susan, Harris can summon volcanic rage that frightens. Harris also gets to display his sometimes underappreciated comic talents once Bill has started sucking down laughing gas in his motel room.

As for Bill Pullman, who is almost entirely unrecognizable with jet-black pompadour and long Elvis-inspired sideburns, he makes Fred a model of discomfiting detachment and arrested mental/emotional development. It's a turn that makes the character a casual, yet menacing, presence throughout the production.

At the other end of the spectrum is Amy Madigan's combustible, and somewhat pitiable, portrayal of Bill's wife. Madigan's Susan bursts in and out of The Jacksonian with often strident histrionics. What's impressive about Madigan's work is that it also reveals some of the fragility underneath the character's hyperbole and hard, bitter veneer.

And caught in the septic stew created by these four adults is Rosy, and in Juliet Brett's carefully crafted performance, she becomes one of of those teenagers who's preternaturally mature, while also remaining a child who's still trying to find her way in the world.

It's a universe that filled with gallows humor and violence, and though it's no place any one would really want to live, it's a terrific place to visit for an evening in the theater.

--- Andy Propst


The Jacksonian continues through December 22 in the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). Performances are Monday and Tuesday at 7:00pm and Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturday at 2:00pm and Sunday at 3:00pm, with an added matinee on Wednesday, November 27 (no performance Thursday, November 28). For more information and tickets, visit thenewgroup.org.

'La Soiree' - Raucous, Steamy Circus Fun


Hamish McCann in La Soiree
(Photo: Max Gordon)

Chances are you've seen acts like those found in the new age circus burlesque La Soiree, which opened last night at the Union Square Theatre, before. For instance, the show has a woman who can twirl an incredible number of hoops with her arms, legs...and entire body. There's also a magician who performs some tricks with a handkerchief. One man proves to be particularly athletic in an aerial act and another seems to disprove the laws of physics on a vertical pole.

What you probably haven't seen, or at least experienced of late, is such acts performed in a sexually charged atmosphere where the titillation quotient is as important as the artists' talent. Such events were stock and trade when shows like Absinthe and Empire would play the Spiegeltent during the summer down at South Street Seaport. It's welcome to have La Soiree bring this sort of circus back to town.

Union Square Theatre has been practically gutted for the occasion. Gone is the standard seating arrangement facing the stage. Instead, there's a tiny, tiny circular platform in the middle of the house, and chairs are arranged around it - on one side there's a tiered seating section where there's tableside service.

And oh the things that can happen on that stage. You get the hoop act - deftly performed by Jess Love - with a winking, kewpie doll sort of sexiness to it. And then, there are the English Gents (Denis Lock and Hamish McCann). Dressed in dark three-piece suits and sporting bowlers, they take a balancing act (which includes one of them executing a one-handed handstand on the other one's head) to new highs with a formality that's coolly erotic. They raise the temperature exponentially in the long run, but the "how" behind this feat would be to offer too much of a spoiler.

McCann returns for a solo spin, turning a Gene Kelly-like dance around a light pole into a sensual, gravity-defying routine. Stephen "Bath Boy" Williams provides an even greater (and wetter) thrill with his aerial routine, performed in just a pair of jeans, and involving a bathtub that's placed at the center of the stage.

Burlesque couldn't exist without its strippers or comedians, and in La Soiree, you'll find both are combined in Ursula Martinez's two appearances. The first is a magic act/striptease which involves a handkerchief disappearing into all sort of unexpected places; and in the second, she offers up a comic Spanish lesson that suitable only for adults.

Other comic offerings come from Mario, Queen of the Circus, who is a kind of Castro-clone incarnation of the Nintendo mascot with a fascination with Freddie Mercury; Mooky Cornish, whose desire to bring a bit of "high art" to the proceedings, with the help of an audience member, proves hysterical; and Miss Behave, a vinyl -clad vixen who proves amusingly (and kind of grossly) adept at a series of variations on sword-swallowing.

It's raucous, steamy escapist fun, particularly for the uninitiated, but equally pleasing for those who have been exposed to such work before.

---- Andy Propst


La Soiree plays at the Union Square Theatre (100 East 17th Street). Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8pm; Friday and Saturday at 7 and 10pm; and Sunday at 5pm. For more information and tickets, visit: ticketmaster.com.

'After Midnight' - Joyous, High-Octane Revue Sets the Joint Jumpin'


Adriane Lenox in After Midnight
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Take a host of standards from the American songbook mix them with some jazz classics and a few forgotten gems from nearly a century ago. Add in some high-steppin', high octane choreography and some soul-stirring performances, and you have a recipe for a terrific night at the theater: After Midnight, a joyous new revue which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

Conceived by Jack Viertel and directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, the show, under the name Cotton Club Parade, premiered a couple of years back as part of a collaboration between New York City Center's Encores! program and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Quite simply it's a celebration of the days when a trip on the "A" train to the nightclubs in Harlem was de rigueur for New Yorkers and tourists alike. It was in spots there, like the one that gave the show its original title, that you could find the likes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Ethel Waters blazing through the night.

The spirits of these artists - and more - are resurrected time and again in After Midnight. And, whether it's the orchestra, a swinging, brash brass-rich ensemble that's placed center stage in John Lee Beatty's simply evocative art deco set design, or the ensemble cutting loose in one of Carlyle's imaginatively athletic, yet all the while elegant, dances, the show repeatedly proves itself to be a welcome and worthy conduit for the great entertainers it's conjuring.

At the center of the show are a trio of headliners, including Dulé Hill (best known for work on television's Pysch, but also a Broadway vet of shows like Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk). He serves as the guide through the piece, offering scene-setting snippets of Langston Hughes' poetry and also delivers a charming rendition of "I've Got the World on a String."

The show also boasts Tony Award-winner Adriane Lenox, who proves herself to be a red hot momma of the first caliber as she serves up two terrific specialty numbers with saucy passion. It's difficult deciding which is the bigger delight: her take on "Women Be Wise," which counsels ladies to keep their men's virtues to themselves; or her rendition of "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night," which finds her throwing a cheating man to the street.

Also at the forefront of the show is American Idol alum Fantasia Barrino, who graced Broadway awhile back in The Color Purple. She performs some of the best-known songs in the show, including "Stormy Weather," which sizzles with anger and hurt in her deeply felt performance; and "On the Sunny Side of the Street," where she demonstrates a light-as-a-feather buoyancy in both her vocals and dancing. Barrino also shines as she does a Cab Calloway specialty, "Zaz Zuh Zaz," working the crowd and a quartet of her fellow performers placed in the theater's boxes with a sure sense of showmanship.

Beyond these exhilarating turns come ones from the likes of Virgil "Lil'O" Gadson, who proves that he can be as graceful on two hands as he is on two feet as he dances his way through bevy of beauties who might be his mate with Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo;" and Carmen Ruby Floyd, who delivers divinely with another Ellington tune, "Creole Love Call."

A shrewdly conceived medley of "Raisin' the Rent" and "Get Yourself a New Broom" (and sweep your troubles away) finds Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Phillip Attmore and Daniel J. Watts tapping up a storm; and when the rubber-jointed Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Gadson square off for a terpsichorean competition in "Hottentot," their work is smile-inducingly sublime.

The sophisticated wit that's found in this latter sequence extends through other aspects of the production, particularly Isabel Toledo's gorgeous period costumes, and Howell Binkley's lighting design that beautifully underscores the ever-shifting moods of the show. Additionally, Peter Hylenski's sound design is a model of understated amplification, and it gives this marvelously boisterous celebration a surprising intimacy: the sort that might have been felt in the fabled nightspots where so many of After Midnight's fantastic tunes originated.

---- Andy Propst


After Midnight plays at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 West 47th Street). Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, with matinee performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. For more information and tickets, visit aftermidnightbroadway.com.

'Fun Home' - A Daring Musical in a Splendid Premiere


Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas in Fun Home.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

To give you an idea of the daring new musical Fun Home, which opened last night at the Public Theater, let me describe one particularly deft number featuring a trio of grade school and middle school age kids. In it, book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron finds rhymes for "aneurysm hook" and "formaldehyde" while composer Jeanine Tesori channels Barry Gordy, Jr. and other members of the Motown family. Director Sam Gold has the kids cavorting around a pair of coffins and a funeral wreath and busting moves inspired by The Jackson 5.

The sequence is creepy, hilarious, and sweetly endearing all at the same time.

Such contradictory - and complementary - emotions are evoked time and again in Fun Home: a tribute to the delicacy and bravery of the artists involved and a combination that makes the production thrilling.

Based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel of the same name, a tale that is subtitled "A Family Tragicomic," this new show fearlessly, entertainingly, and disturbingly tackles a woman's look back on her childhood in the 1970s, her growing awareness of her sexuality as a young adult, and her father's struggle with his own gayness in a small Pennsylvania town.

The backdrop for the show is not just the family home, an historic building that dad has spent countless hours restoring to showplace perfection, but also the family business, a funeral parlor that he inherited from his father. The clan's nickname for this place is what gives the novel and musical its title.

At the show's center is Alison, played as a detached, conflicted, and sadly wounded fortysomething adult by Beth Malone. As she revisits her troubled past, memories literally swirl kaleidoscopically to life thanks to David Zinn's scenic design, which has at its center a turntable and, as it revolves, the antiques that indicate the interiors of the home and other items spin into place to create the various locations that Alison recalls..

Some of the memories are touching, such as the opening when the tween incarnation of Alison (played with fierce precociousness, but never cloying or saccharine preciousness, by Sydney Lucas) demands her father's attention for a game she likes to play. Similarly, the moment when college-age Alison (imbued with innate intelligence and loveable awkwardness by Alexandra Socha) gives into her desires for another woman for the first time charms completely.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is a moment when self-loathing patriarch Bruce (Michael Cerveris in a masterful turn that evokes feelings of pity and disdain) bursts into a rage when the youngest incarnation of Alison will not heed his advice about a school project. Perhaps most painful is the sequencewhen Helen (Judy Kuhn), who's been fully aware of her husband's gayness and affairs with men throughout their marriage, advises her daughter who's home for a visit from college:

               "Don’t you come back here
               I didn't raise you
               to give away your days
               Like me."

Kuhn, who makes Helen seem both vibrantly alive and dully benumbed, delivers the sentiment with such simplicity that it chills. The song further startles because the creators have given Helen, along with Bruce, very little to deliver musically. It's a striking choice for a tuner and one that makes total sense. Both of Helen and Bruce are so emotionally stifled that they should have very little to sing about.

At times, you might find yourself resisting this conceit, wishing that these superlative performers would break into song, but allow Kron and Tesori to work their magic and simply savor Cerveris' and Kuhn's performances of subtle searing intensity.

Besides Tesori's work throughout is so thoroughly engaging and smartly conceived that it almost seems to be embarrassment of musical riches. Not only does she pastiche the sounds of the 1970s (in addition to the Motown number, there's a wonderful fantasy sequence that includes homage to The Partridge Family), but also references other musical theater writers. At one point, the youngest Alison sings a gorgeous 3/4 tune that evokes memories of Richard Rodgers' most sumptuous waltzes all the while sounding thoroughly contemporary. Elsewhere, the score takes on a classical sound that mirrors the music that Helen plays on the family's grand piano to calm herself during times of crisis.

It's little surprise that Kron, who has proven her versatility in crafting deeply felt memory plays with the Tony-nominated Well and the Obie Award-winning 2.5 Minute Ride, has crafted a book that's both sepia-toned and surreal. As a lyricist, her work is first-rate, often blending directness and cleverness to surprising effect.

Sam Gold has directed the show with a terrific blend of delicacy and showmanship: when the production finally makes a nod toward its roots as a graphic novel, the effect is terrifically and pungently timed. He's also elicited immaculate performances from the balance of the company, including two other winning youngsters, Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale, as Alison's kid brothers; Roberta Colindrez, who plays Alison's first girlfriend with a cool detachment that's both comic and alluring; and Joel Perez, who displays marked versatility as he plays a number of men who enter the family's world.

Impressively, Zinn, who's designed the costumes as well as the set, evokes the 1970s without ever lapsing into tastelessness or tackiness, and lighting designer Ben Stanton uses color to eye-popping effect while also demonstrating a restraint that can make certain sections of this splendid new musical eerily heartbreaking.

---- Andy Propst


Fun Home plays through November 17 at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). Performances are Tuesday through Sunday at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3:00pm (no evening performance Sunday, October 27). For more information and tickets, visit publictheater.org.