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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'A Second Chance' - Two Lost Souls Romance Each Other, Musically


Brian Sutherland and Diane Sutherland in A Second Chance
(© Joan Marcus)

Through the Shen Family Foundation, Ted Shen has spent over a decade supporting some of the most exciting new musical theater around, from last fall's Fun Home at the Public Theater to Playwrights Horizon's Grey Gardens, which eventually hit Broadway. His deep commitment to and passion for cutting-edge tuners is pretty well-known in theatrical circles, and so it's not entirely surprising that he has struck out as a writer himself with A Second Chance, a delicate two-character piece which opened last night at the Public.

Shen has provided book, music and lyrics for the show that, over the course of 90 minutes, charts the relationship between the recently widowed Dan (Brian Sutherland) and divorcee Jenna (Diane Sutherland), who meet one night at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends. They hit it off, and, though both are intrigued by the other, neither of them makes any attempt to ensure that they might be able to stay in touch. He's concerned that his grief is still to fresh and that embarking on a relationship would constitute some sort of infidelity to his deceased wife. Jenna, a free-spirit through and through, worries that this somewhat introverted, stodgy banker just might not be right for her.

Fate (or Shen, whose script has a number of convenient contrivances) intervenes for these two, though, a month later when they run into one another on the subway. After this, well, it's not difficult to imagine the highs and lows of these two lost souls' romance.

Though hardly the stuff of groundbreaking storytelling, the script does charm, and the show is made all the more appealing by the work of the performers, particularly Ms. Sutherland, who finds ways to make whimsical neurosis both fresh and endearing. Two sequences when she works things out with her therapist are particularly well-crafted.

What makes both of the actors' work most remarkable, though, is their deftness in navigating the tricky melodic and linguistic twists and turns of Shen's nearly through-sung work, which has been beautifully orchestrated for a five piece ensemble by Bruce Coughlin. As a composer, Shen has been influenced by the artists like Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon (with whom Shen studied), and A Second Chance brims with swooping and circuitous melodies that tease--and sometimes taunt--the ear. Impressively, Shen's work never seems to be borrowing directly from any one composer and he has a musical voice that could evolve into something terrifically special, evidenced by a pair of jazz infused numbers that sparkle.

As a lyricist, Shen uses impounded and tricky rhyme schemes that call to mind the work of Stephen Sondheim (whose name is invoked one song), and though not always as adept as this latter songwriter, Shen does deliver some turns of phrase in song that surprise.

Directed by Jonathan Butterell, the show gleams with the kind of affluence that both Dan and Jenna enjoy in their respective Brooklyn and Greenwich Village existences. Scenic designer Robert Brill places only a trio of chairs on a highly polished light wood floor that's flanked and backed by three large screens, onto which artful black and white photographs are projected to indicate location (design by Rocco Disanti). Susan Hilferty's costumes both indicate character and add color to the otherwise physical space, as does Jen Schriever's lighting design. It's an elegant packaging for Shen's debut effort that, despite of some shortcomings, satisfies.

---- Andy Propst


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

'Amaluna' - Shakespeare Comes to the Cirque


A scene from Amaluna
(Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

With the new show Amaluna, Shakespeare has come to Cirque du Soleil's Grand Chapiteau in Amaluna, which has been erected at CitiField this spring. Given that the production's director is Tony Award winner Diane Paulus, who before staging things like Hair and Pippin on Broadway, was putting a visually and musically inventive spin on the Bard with things like The Donkey Show, it's not a big surprise that she's brought a classic theater element to her first outing with Cirque.

Nor is it any real surprise that she's tried to shake things up a bit. The music for the show dispenses with the European new age sound that one has come to expect at a Cirque production, and instead, Amaluna has a electric rock score, by Bob & Bill, that's performed by an all-female band. This group takes center stage as the second half of the show starts up, and giving these artists a moment to shine in their own right is indicative of another that this theater-based director has brought to the Cirque. Amaluna has the feeling of an ensemble-performed piece, rather than being a series of specialty acts that perform independent of one another.

Paulus' attempts to shake the tried and true up a bit meet with mixed results. For instance, while Vanessa Fournier and Maxim Panteleenko perform a beautiful aerial act representing a storm at the top of the show, there's another performer, Julie McInnes, floating high above the stage alongside them. McInnes plays Prospera for this riff on The Tempest, and she's playing the cello cradled in a crescent moon as Fournier and Panteleenko gracefully swoop through the air. There's nothing wrong with either element in this sequence, but there choosing which of the performances to focus on during it does become a little frustrating.

More successful is a bit of comic interplay that comes in the middle of the teeterboard act, where five gorgeous guys, who are men from the ship that Prospera has caused to be wrecked on her island, propel one another into flips through the air and into landings that seem to defy gravity. Their clownish captain (Nathalie Claude, who's paired with Shereen Hickman in the show's strained comic sequences) shows up and they have a grand time messing with him before delivering the finale to their routine.

It's a lot of juggling in terms of pulling the audience's attention to the right element on the stage, which scenic designer Scott Pask backs with graceful arcs of verdant reeds. And though Paulus' sense of ensemble and stage craft are to be applauded, the most successful moments in Amaluna come when you're allowed to simply concentrate on the acts themselves. Among the highlights are the lithe contortionist work that Ikhertsetseg Bayarsaikhan, who's playing Prospera's daughter Miranda, offers after dunking herself in a water bowl center stage; and the incredible pole work by Evgeny Kurkin, who's playing Romeo, the stranded sailor Miranda falls for.

In this latter instance, kudos go to the performer not only for his strength and agility, but also for imbuing the routine with an actor's intent. Romeo's trying to reach Miranda somewhere in the sky after she's been spirited away into the sky by the malicious, reptilian Cali (Viktor Kee, who himself does an astonishing--and amusing--juggling act).

For those keeping track of the Shakespearean references, there's also a pair of beneficent creatures on the island to match the Bard's Ariel. One is Amy McClendon, who performs a gentle "peacock dance." The other is Andréanne Nadeau, who plays the Moon Goddess and performs an elegant hoop routine mid-air.

In the end, it's not necessary to know The Tempest to enjoy Amaluna's highs, it does help, simply because it allows you to appreciate Paulus' attempts to re-imagine the familiar format of a Cirque du Soleil show.

---- Andy Propst


Amaluna plays in Cirque du Soleil's Grand Chapiteau at CitiField. For more information, visit: cirquedusoleil.com/amaluna.

'Jasper in Deadland' - Traveling to the Underworld to a Driving Beat


Matt Doyle in Jasper in Deadland
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver put a contemporary and youthful spin on the Orpheus myth in Jasper in Deadland, a new musical that opened last night at the West End Theater in a Prospect Theater Company production. It's an oftentimes clever revision to the tale of a man who travels to the underworld to rescue his beloved, that has been directed with flair by Brandon Ivie and features a terrific performance from Matt Doyle as the title character. Unfortunately, convoluted plotting and the incessant drive of Oliver's score combine to make the show a less than satisfying journey.

The staging certainly grabs theatergoers early on as they meet Jasper, a teenager whose one real passion in the world is swimming, which allows him to escape from his troubles. Reams of fluttering blue fabric that had previously covered junk and antique-filled shelves in Patrick Rizzotti's simple, effective scenic design flutter around Doyle to create a terrific illusion (abetted by Herrick Goldman's lighting design) of moving through and under water. Soon, we realize that he's got more on his mind than his parents' separation and the misery of high school life. His best friend, Agnes, upset over his inability to commit to a relationship with her, decided to prove her worth, diving off a cliff where he has a habit of taking the plunge into the sea himself. He follows, hoping to rescue her and soon finds himself on a ferry to Deadland.

Once there, this living teen among throngs of the dead (costume designer Bobby Pearce smartly dresses all of them in beiges and grays as compared to Jasper's blue t-shirt and jeans) has to get past a three-headed dog; cope with the machinations of the oily Mr. Lethe, the water-tycoon who controls the place; and an Egyptian demon who will eat Jasper's heart if he fails to confess all of his misdeeds. At his side for the journey is hipster Gretchen, who has accepted her demise with a kind of devil-may-care (yeah) irony.

Jasper eventually manages to find Agnes, discovering only more perils, but by this point, it becomes difficult to keep up and invest emotionally with the adventure. Twists and turns compound, adding unnecessary and distracting layers of snark and semi-satire to the show. Further, Foster and Olvier's book only sketches in the fundamentals of Agnes and Jasper's shaky relationship.

The show's problems are only exacerbated by the ceaseless drive of Oliver's music, which gives neither performers nor audiences a chance to catch their breath. It's all terrific-sounding, but as the show continues along its nearly two and half hour running time, you can't help but wish there are just a few quiet moments in the score.

The fact that Jasper in Deadland doesn't involve theatergoers' hearts is a pity really, because Doyle is delivering a thoroughly winning and vocally astonishing performance. It's the kind of turn that makes you want to cheer for both the character and the actor himself. Doyle has a smile that's incandescent and when his eyes sparkle with pleasure or shrewdness, it's sort of understandable why Jasper has such a relatively easy time getting through Deadland's hazards. These qualities are only enhanced when he belts out Oliver's songs.

As Jasper's netherworld helpmate, Allison Scagliotti, who has spent a bulk of her career working on television, turns in an appealing, but slightly too inwardly conceived, performance. There's plenty of promise in her though, and she can match Doyle note-for-note. More impressive is Ben Crawford's work as Lethe. He's a consummate jester and singer, and he creates a demonic villain that you hate yourself for liking.

---- Andy Propst


Jasper in Deadland plays at the West End Theater in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew (263 W. 86th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: prospecttheater.org.

'Rocky' - An Uncontested Winner


Margo Seibert and Andy Karl in Rocky
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Put aside all preconceived notions that you may have about the musical version of the classic 1976 movie Rocky, which opened last week at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre. Simply buy tickets, go, and then, settle in for a new American musical that's simultaneously old fashioned and forward thinking; intimate and expansive; and just about as moving as it is thrilling.

At this point, it's a pretty safe bet that everyone knows the story about Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa, who's never gotten to the point of he "coulda been a contender." Rocky has barely gotten to the point of "mighta." Out of the blue, he's handpicked by heavyweight champion Apollo Creed for a once in a lifetime shot at achieving his dreams of being like his idol, Rocky Marciano. Balboa trains hard and at the same time, he finds himself opening up to romance, with a grade school sweetheart Adrian, an introvert who has been just about as downtrodden in her South side experience as he has been.

The tale is basically about as sentimental and hopeful as those that were the fodder for musicals of Broadway's "Golden Age." And thanks to Thomas Meehan's gracefully crafted book, this new musical allows this Cinderella tale of the boxing ring to unfold with a deft combination of heartfelt emotion (which these days can almost seem retro) and contemporary bite.

On many levels it's the sort of story that could feel hopelessly dated, but thanks to director Alex Timbers and his design team, the show has a cunning modern appeal. Christopher Borreco's scenic design allows for cross fades worthy of Hollywood's finest cinematographers. The action never stops as we're swept from the grimy gym where Rocky works out and boxes to the gleaming offices where Creed and his manager hatch the idea of the bout with Rocky to his messy claustrophobic apartment to the equally cramped home Adrian shares with her emotionally abusive brother Paulie.

What makes Borreco's work even more impressive than its ability to move swiftly is the intelligence behind it. Throughout, Rocky and Adrian are either being dwarfed by epically open spaces or compartmentalized to almost painful extremes. When it comes time for the bout that's Rocky's do or die, Timbers and Borreco conspire to create an exceptional coup de théâtre, turning a Broadway house with proscenium into theater in the round.

The visuals of the show are enhanced throughout by Don Scully and Pablo N. Molina's video design that encompasses live feeds and carefully considered movie montages that help to bring some of the film's most famous sequences (notably montages of Rocky's early morning training) to life. Some may carp at their faithfulness to their source material and their seeming reliance on theatergoers' desire to re-experience movie footage that they've seen repeatedly, but on many levels, not embracing such familiarity would be as foolish as, for example, downplaying the slipper fitting in a production of Cinderella. (An idea that was considered and later rejected for the revival currently running at the Broadway Theatre.)

The careful and intentional use of references to music from the movie soundtrack falls into the same category. Audiences would feel cheated if they didn't hear some of it, and to the creators' credit, it never sounds cheese-y, not even the ensemble vocals for "Eye of the Tiger."

All of this craftsmanship would, of course, be for naught without---at the very least--- a competent score, and, throughout, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens rise decidedly above the level of proficiency. His music calls to mind soft ballads of the mid-1970s as well as the rock of the period. Perhaps even more important are the details in the score (and Stephen Trosk and Doug Besterman's orchestrations) that enhance moment or musical intent. Rocky's opening number in which he's paying tribute to Marciano begins with a gently strumming guitar, evoking this latter man's European heritage or at least Rocky's impression of what it might have been.

As for Ahrens' lyrics, they combine bluntness and poetry to exquisite effect. Using this latter number as an example, Ahrens puts words in Rocky's mouth that are as direct and uncomplicated as he is.

        My landlord's yellin'
        that my rent is late.
        Well, I got forty-one bucks.
        I owe him sixty-eight.
        I got a crooked employer
        and a job I hate
        but hey,
        my nose ain't broken.

Compare this to the words that Ahrens fits to a plaintive ballad Adrian sings:

        The sky is overflowing
        and I am filled to the brim.
        Yes, if it keeps on raining
        I might float away…
        To him.

Ahrens hasn't just written words that sound good. They are words that are perfectly tailored to the characters who are singing them. Another ideal example is "In the Ring," that Mickey, the former boxer who before Apollo's challenge, wouldn't give Rocky the time of day, delivers in Act Two. Not only does this delicate waltz sound like something that he might have heard on the radio when he was an up and comer in the 1920s, it is also filled with terrific details about the history of boxing.

The show's exceptional artistry extends to the performances. Andy Karl gives a ruggedly sensitive turn as the title character, bringing the man's contradictory nature to life with a stunning physical awkwardness that's beautifully matched by his ability to slug it out during the final twenty minutes of the show with Terence Archie's magnificently arrogant, and yet strangely winning, Apollo.

As Adrian, Margo Seibert shimmers with luminous fragility, and further, she and Karl have a quietly simmering chemistry that makes the romance of the show both moving and something to root for. All three of these performers sound terrific as well (kudos should also go to sound designer Peter Hylenski for his unobtrusive work).

Fine turns, too, come from Danny Mastrogiorgio as Adrian's embittered brother, Jennifer Mudge as his sweetly tough girlfriend and Adrian's best friend, and Dakin Matthews as the crusty gym owner Mickey.

I'll admit to having been skeptical about Rocky before getting to the Winter Garden, and quite frankly, I'm still not a big fan of the show's saccharine tag line, "Love Wins." I can certainly put this latter quibble aside, though. This musical delivers an emotional and visceral punch that I would gladly take again.

---- Andy Propst


Rocky plays at the Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway). For tickets and more information, visit RockyBroadway.com.

'Tales From Red Vienna' - A Trip to Theater Styles of the Past


Nina Ariadna and Michael Esper in Tales From Red Vienna
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Playwright David Grimm has takes on some weighty topics in Tales From Red Vienna, which opened last night at City Center Stage II in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. Set in the titular Austrian city just after World War I, the play explores how once well-heeled war widows have taken to wearing their mourning in the streets at night in order to disguise their true purpose in being out on their own; they have had to become prostitutes to make ends meet in the face of skyrocketing inflation. During the course of the play, too, Grimm touches on how anti-Semitism has begun to take hold among the populace of Vienna and the ever increasing presence of Communism in the society.

There's little question that these issues could make for fascinating theatergoing, but in "Red Vienna," Grimm places them within the confines of what often is a pretty standard comedy of manners, and his combination of subject and form proves decidedly unsatisfying, despite an A-list cast.

At the center of the show is Tony Award winner Nina Ariadna (Venus in Fur, Born Yesterday) as Helena Altman, a once prosperous woman whose husband died on the frontlines. She has had to sell everything and move to a tiny apartment (Grimm creates a running joke about her abhorrence of the noise that comes from a child practicing his or her music lessons upstairs), and like others in her situation, she has taken to streetwalking.

Ariadna, in a welcome return to the stage, delivers a markedly contemporary American performance for this European woman from nearly a century ago, and it's never less than immaculately crafted. Nevertheless, her performance style, chosen by her---or for her by director Kate Whoriskey---often seems to contradict the material, and you keep hoping during the course of the two and a half hour play that there will be some sort of twist that will illuminate the reason for it. Sadly it never comes.

At the other end of the performance spectrum is Tina Benko's delightfully arch turn as "Mutzi" von Fressendorf, an old chum of Helena's. She's lost her title of "Countess" in the post-war world, but she, thanks to her husband's diplomatic service, has not lost her money. In contrast to Ariadna's, Benko's performance comes from a time long past. It's grand, declamatory, and dripping with comedic venom. It's a delicious contrast to Adriana's work, but still one has to wonder to what end.

Perhaps it's to illustrate how Mutzi has decided to hold on to old ways while Helena is slowly attempting to adapt to the world that has fundamentally changed after the fighting. But the contrasts in performance style don't simply rest at these extremes. There's also a spiky turn from Michael Esper, who plays Béla Huper, a Hungarian whom the married Mutzi fancies and a man with whom Helena shares both a secret and a romance. And Kathleen Chalfant, playing Helena's no-nonsense, tough-as-nails maid, gives a thoroughly naturalistic rendering of her character.

It's a bewildering array that only makes the dichotomies of Grimm's writing more muddled. A mysterious silent opening---in which Helena is seen with one of her clients---gives way to drawing room comedy as she nervously welcomes her old friend for a visit. Once Mutzi's introduced Helena and Béla, the play morphs into a comedy of manners that's been laced with sex farce, and then, when Mutzi strikes back because of the affair that's begun between Helena and Béla, "Tales" evolves once again: into a melodrama with Ibsen-like overtones.

Given the breadth of the sorts of plays Grimm appears to be referencing and the variety of acting styles that the company (which also includes Michael Goldsmith and Lucas Hall) employs, it could be that "Tales," which even boasts the outmoded three-act structure, has been crafted as a kind of love letter to the theater enjoyed by our grandparents and great-grandparents. Unfortunately, as the production lurches from moment to moment, it doesn't inspire any sort of wistful, sepia-toned nostalgia, but rather jittery impatience.

As with most Manhattan Theatre Club shows, there are handsome design elements. John Lee Beatty's scenic design makes the claustrophobia inspired by Helena's dingy apartment palpable and his work for the cemetery where her husband is buried has grand old world elegance. Costume designer Anita Yavich also provides some witty period ensembles for Benko. Ultimately, it's these outfits, along with a few blistering epigrams from Grimm, that linger in the mind after this curiously crafted production has ended.

---- Andy Propst


Tales From Red Vienna plays at City Center Stage II (131 West 55th Street). For information and tickets, visit: ManhattanTheatreClub.org