Seth Tucker, Marty Thomas, Alex Ringler, Curtis Wiley, Nic Cory, Nick Cearley in Pageant
As the musical Pagaent, which opened last night at the Davenport Theatre, starts up, the cast of the show sings "We're natural-born females," putting the central joke of the tuner right out into the open. You see, the six beauties in spangly pink cocktail dresses are anything but. Instead, they're a game group of guy actor-singers who will do just about anything to get a laugh and tug at your heartstrings as they play the hopefuls in the Miss Glamouresse Beauty Pageant.
The show---conceived by Robert Longbottom, and with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, and music by Albert Evans---isn't a new one. It had its premiere back in 1991 and since that time has rested fondly in theatergoers' minds (sort of in the way shows of the period, like Designing Women, have lived on). In the case of television shows, we can savor the comedy in reruns. With theater, though, we need revivals, and if you're someone who becomes fixated every time Julia, Suzanne, Charlene and Mary Jo flash across your screen (television, laptop or tablet), well, this breezy musical should certainly be on your shortlist of shows to catch. For others, Pageant will prove to be a pleasant summertime diversion with enough giggles (and a few genuine guffaws) to warrant a trip into musical theater camp.
Pageant follows the standard format of a beauty contest. There's an evening gown competition (Stephen Yearick has provided the glam costumes), swimsuit section, and a talent segment. For Miss Glamouresse, the competitors also have to go through a spokesperson challenge as they demonstrate some of the sponsoring company's products. Things like hairspray that's got a second nozzle to help repair the ozone layer, a spackle cream that helps fill in oversize pores, and even a lipstick that doubles as a nutrient. Depending on your taste (pun fully intended), these segments will have you rolling with laughter or merely rolling your eyes.
Where Pageant will tickle theatergoers, regardless of their comic penchants, is in its talent sections, even though each girl's routine varies widely in quality (as it would in any competition). Standouts are the tap specialty delivered by Miss Texas (Alex Ringler) and the knock 'em in the aisle gospel number that Miss Bible Belt (Curtis Wiley) belts out. Sure, there's a level of silly-stupid to the interpretive Martha Graham meets Mummenchanz dance that Miss West Coast (Seth Tucker) performs, but it's completely within the character of the vapid valley girl type being portrayed. The one talent that would astonish regardless of the drag is the one on display from Miss Deep South (Marty Thomas). It's a ventriloquist act that's remarkably executed; she amusingly performs old Dixie ditties with puppets that represent her great-great grandparents.
The other two contestants, Miss Industrial Northeast (Nic Corey) and Miss Great Plains (Nick Cearly), get to shine in other ways. Northeast's talent---pseudo-burlesque accordion playing---provokes only smiles, but when she turns on the stereotype Latina spitfire charm, it's infectious. As for Great Plains, well, this simple girl from flyover territory character charms throughout. Her dramatic 'reading' for the talent portion of the show proves hysterical, and even when silent, this gal can inspire gales of laughter, thanks to Corley's rubberfaced grimaces, smiles and pouts.
Equally funny are John Bolton's antics as the pageant's oily lounge lizard host, Frankie Cavalier. Bolton appears to be having a great time just cutting up as this oily, egotistical gent, and his zeal sparkles almost as much as the tightly-fitted, blue-sequined bolero jacket he sports as the musical starts.
As for the winner of Pageant that's up in the air at each performance as a handful of theatergoers are appointed judges and vote for their favorites in full view of the audience. It's a clever gimmick that sparks the show's final moments, and though I left grousing that Miss Texas hadn't won (she was genuinely robbed of the title), I also had had a thoroughly delightful, frivolously frothy 85 minutes of entertainment.
---- Andy Propst
Pageant plays at the Davenport Thatre (354 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: pageantmusical.com.
Scott Haze in The Long Shrift
There must be something in the air. Or maybe it's that Gen Xers are hitting the point that they're contending with hitting middle age, but high school reunions are coming to the New York stage this summer in unsettling ways. A few weeks ago Stephen Belber's testosterone-filled The Muscles in Our Toes invited New York audiences to reune with a group of people as they gathered after twenty-five years had passed from their matriculation. Last night, Rattlestick Theatre opened Robert Boswell's intriguing, but flawed new play The Long Shrift, a look at a pair of people before, during and ten years after their high school days.
From its opening scene, one would never know that Boswell's play would have anything to do with a latter stage Gen Xer getting together with his old school pals. It starts off with Henry and Sarah bickering about the "hovel" they had to move into into because of the fees associated with their son's rape trial. (He was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.)
When the play flash-forwards in the next scene, though, the young man, Richard, has been released after his accuser recanted her statement. He's back in his native Houston just in time for his class's ten year reunion. Given that it was during a party in his senior year that he allegedly committed his crime, against the then ultra-popular Lizzie, he's not all the sure that he will be going. When Lizzie, now going by "Beth," shows up, though, he decides to. Maybe if the two of them appear as speakers at the event, they will both be able to come to terms what happened when they were still teenagers.
The story's something of a pot-boiler, "He said. She said." one, and yet Boswell finds ways of enriching the fabric of his play. Underscoring both Henry and Sarah's marriage and the intrigue that Lizzie felt, and perhaps feels, for Richard is a notion that women can be drawn to darker men. Unfortunately, Boswell, whose primary work has been as a fiction writer, overstates this theme in one of the play's less graceful sequences, an awkward flashback dream sequence to a point when Richard was still incarcerated.
Similarly, Boswell's symbolism can be awkwardly blatant. Within the play's first moment, Henry carps at his wife for opening a box with "the most delicate thing" in it. Her reply is "I want to make sure it survived the trip." It doesn't take much to realize that Boswell is about to explore a world in which things (objects, relationships, etc.) are broken and that the vase itself will end up in shards before the show has ended.
The Long Shrift, which has been directed by James Franco, however, never becomes too tiresome or laborious, thanks primarily to Scott Haze's fierce, sexy and disturbing turn as Richard. There's no question that Haze's work when confronting Ahna O'Reilly's conflicted Beth and when seducing a chipper current senior at his alma mater (terrific work from Allie Gallerani) sparks, but where he genuinely shines is during an extended tirade at the reunion dance. Haze builds the extended monologue gracefully and to chilling and even slightly sympathetic effect.
Similarly, Ally Sheedy brings an surprising and welcome gentleness to Richard's malcontent mother. She has the least stage time of any of the performers, and yet, her presence is felt throughout. The week link in the production is Brian Lally's performance as Richard's Viet Nam vet dad. Lally certainly looks the part of the a good ole boy and brings a solidity to a man who has pent up his emotions for decades. Unfortunately, his work in this regard often comes across as mannered and overly wooden.
Like the misfires in Boswell's script, though, it's a turn that never derails The Long Shrift, and ultimately, there's a rewarding catharsis to be had at the end of the play's stormy trip through the character's present and their high school past.
---- Andy Propst
The Long Shrift plays at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre (224 Waverly Place). For more information and tickets, visit: rattlestick.org.
Hershey Felder in Maestro Bernstein
On July 17, Hershey Felder will perform Maestro Bernstein: A Play with Music at New York's Town Hall. It's a show that he premiered in 2010 in Los Angeles, and is part of what has been termed as his "Composer's Sonata"---a series of shows that have focused on composers ranging from George Gershwin to Frédéric Chopin to Ludwig von Beethoven.
Felder says that the initial impetus behind pieces like George Gershwin Alone (which played on Broadway in 2001) was his desire to see if it was possible to "combine acting with concert-level piano playing to create a musical piece of theater." Further, his idea had been to test the concept with an evening that focused on Chopin, but Felder recalled "The first person I worked with said 'Okay, you're completely unknown. Chopin is not a big, popular theater character in America, and you're calling it Monsieur Chopin on top of it all. Find an American composer.' So that's why Gershwin started it all and then, Chopin came after that."
Once the Gershwin and Chopin shows had been created, Felder realized "The characters sort of fit into what a sonata form is, where your first serious movement is one that has human variations or human investigations. Your second movement is largely romantic. Your third movement is scherzo, so to speak,and your fourth movement, a rondo, is sort of happy and joyful movement. " Hence the epithet of "Composers Sonata," but Felder stresses it's a very loose concept and even jokes, "It's now turned into a symphony. It just keeps on going because I keep adding characters."
With Bernstein, whose career encompassed not just composing, but also conducting and public appearances as an educator through his "Young People's Concerts" with the New York Philharmonic, Felder has a wider array of biographical material to deal with than he has had with some of his previous subjects. Felder says that the divergent aspects of Bernstein's career helped him to create the primary thrust of "Maestro" which is to explore how Bernstein "wanted to be the next Gershwin. He wanted to be remembered as the next great American composer, and in his lifetime, it didn't quite happen for him, and of course the thing he is most remembered for . . . is West Side Story."
Felder explains by saying that "The other influences are very present in the piece as to things that pull him this or that way. And speak to what he really is. Is he really a conductor who wanted to compose? Was he really a conductor who knew too much music?"
In Maestro, too, Felder explores Bernstein's complex personal life. He says that "The hard thing was to make him charming and fun and interesting the way he was, and yet, reveal those things [the more complex side to Bernstein] without turning off an audience so on and so forth," adding, "We do reveal his relationship with his wife. We do reveal his homosexual tendencies. We do reveal his anger toward not being treated seriously as a composer by a lot of people, and that's a lot of the storytelling. "
In creating his stage portrait of Bernstein, or any of the other men in the series, Felder says that the most important thing is to avoid "acting with a capital 'a,' capital 'c,' capital 't.' It doesn't work. First of course, you can't act by yourself. You need to talk to your audience. The more honest, the more simple, the more direct you are, the more they believe that the character is there, and it's getting rid of all the acting in blaring lights and capital letters and it's about being." When this happens, he hopes that what's he's done is: "create a complete illusion in two hours to give a sense of what the person may have been like, had you met him."
---- Andy Propst
For more information about Maestro Bernstein: A Play with Music, visit: thetownhall.org.
A scene from Wayra
It was good to be back in the Daryl Roth Theatre on Union Square East for Wayra, the new incarnation of the highly popular, long-running Fuerza Bruta that started performances in 2007. The latter show was a thrilling mix of acrobatics, antic performance, and dance party all with an existential twist, and all of those elements remain in the new version. Trouble is that for anyone who caught Fuerza Bruta , there might be too much that's familiar about Wayra to warrant a return trip.
Indeed, the first three segments of the show are almost entirely identical to what debuted in the same space seven years ago. After some expert drumming from a newly installed ensemble (music by Gaby Kerpel), a 6' high treadmill gets wheeled into the center of the theater and on it there's a man who's walking and then, running. Soon, he's contending with all kinds of obstacles. Chairs and tables---placed onto the treadmill's belt by technicians ---zip past him and he tries to establish some orderrush by him. Soon other performers are zipping along the treadmill, only to zip straight off. Ultimately, the man is crushing through walls made of white cardboard boxes even as a strong wind tries to hold him back.
The next segments are just as terrific and fondly remembered. One features two women jumping and running (parallel to the ground) on a giant silver mylar curtain that surrounds theatergoers; and another involves what could be described as a huge mylar flyswatter that gyrates wildly as a man and woman attempt to reach one another from opposite sides. They were stunning before and they continue to astonish now.
So, too, does the giant pool that descends from the ceiling in which the performers slip and slide, just inches above the spectators' heads.
It's with this sequence that Wayra most significantly begins to shift from the ghost of Fuerza Bruta. It has been extended and there are some simply gorgeous effects in the water as the performers seem to create the aquatic equivalent of sand painting, which becomes curiously and decidedly hypnotic.
After this, the show departs most decidedly with its forebear with a brand new finale. Gone is the huge audience participation fight with Styrofoam boards, and in its place is terrific sequence that unfolds above audiences' heads and on top of a giant plastic dome that envelops them and the space. On it, two performers gently cavort. For a while, one descends into the audience through a tube (think gigantic hamster cage) as wind tries to propel him upward. Eventually both performers descend on wires through two holes in the structure to hoist two lucky spectators up onto its surface.
It's an impressive visual, and there's something cool about seeing how all of that plastic can support the weight of the four, but it's not the finale that allowed you to totally lose yourself in the proceedings and that sent you into the street exhilarated by the experience.
For anyone who didn't catch Fuerza Bruta during its first run, a visit to Wayra should prove to be a captivating experience. For anyone returning hoping to recapture the high that they felt when they first experienced the marvelous physical feats and technical wizardry of the show, a certain disappointment lies in store.
---- Andy Propst
Wayra plays at the Daryl Roth Theatre (29 Union Square East). For more information and tickets, visit: www.fuerzabrutanyc.com.
Last Friday's presentation of The Ambassador Revue at Town Hall should have been thrilling. After all, when, if ever, will a New York audience get another chance to experience over a dozen songs from virtuoso songwriter Cole Porter that have essentially been unheard for eighty-six years? Much less in a concert that features a seventeen-piece orchestra as accomplished as Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.
As it stands, though, The Ambassador Revue was a pleasant summertime divertissement. The music sounded great, and watching Giordano's top-notch crew create the spot-on period sounds necessary for the material was never anything short of fascinating, particularly when the reeds were plunged into cones of varying sizes to create a variety of muffled echo effects.
The problem with the show wasn't the performers either. A game quintet of singers proved winning throughout. And when dancing took center stage, the performance often became electric. Randy Skinner with Sara Brians and Mary Giattino tapped up a storm. Additionally, Ted Louis Levy offered a couple of exceptional tap solos, and Skinner with Brians danced one of the gentlest waltzes imaginable.
The real trouble with the show lay in the sound, designed by Mike Murphy, which was serviceable at best, and, at its worst, rendered the performers (and Porter's witty lyrics) completely unintelligible. It started with the show's opening number, "Keep Moving" and then, continued as Amy Burton delivered the still-topical "Lost Liberty Blues" and the entire company offered up a mini-excursion through Paris with "Omnibus."
Matters improved with Jason's Graae's delivery of the double-endtreed "Pilot Me" (and in fact, Graae seemed able to overcome sound issues throughout). From this point on, theatergoers could count on about a fifty percent chance of understanding the words for the songs, and when this happened, the effect could be sublime such as Catherine Russell terrific delivery of "The Man I Love." (Yes, it's a song from George and Ira Gershwin, but when the revue debuted in Paris in 1928, Frances Gershwin was in the cast and on opening night she performed some of her brother's tunes.)
Other highlights were "Blue Hours," delivered with delicacy by Tom Wopat, and the comedy number "Alpine Rose," which Anita Gillette rendered with zest. Also of note was the moment when Bria Skonberg, a trumpet player from the orchestra, took center stage to deliver a moving rendition of "Night and Day" in French.
Perhaps most important on the entire bill was "Rippling Stream," which was simply performed by the orchestra. This latter song was, until Friday night, a genuinely "lost" Porter piece, having never even been registered at the U.S. copyright office.
The rumor on the street is that the show, which was directed by Ken Bloom, was recorded for a possible release on CD. One can only hope that whatever was captured through the sound system will have a balance that was unheard last Friday, allowing listeners to savor both the stellar music and clever lyrics thereby remedying the problems that undermined what should have been a seminal event in music theater archeology.