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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Gigantic' - Snark, Silliness and Sentimentality Collide


Ryann Redmond in Gigantic
(©Carol Rosegg)

Attempting to combine snark and silliness with sentimentality in a new musical is a dangerous proposition. Balancing the former two qualities, which do not require any genuine emotional involvement on the audiences’ part, with the latter, which asks theatergoers to actually care for the people on stage, requires a sure hand on the part of book writer and lyricist.

It can be done. Witness Avenue Q, in which a goofy hookup between two puppets makes audiences laugh and then, when those two character have a breakup, audiences worry in the same way they might about two close pals.

Gigantic, a new musical that opened last night at the Acorn Theatre in a Vineyard Theatre production (incidentally an original producer of Avenue Q), attempts to do the same thing. Unfortunately, in this new musical with a book by Randy Blair and Tim Drucker, lyrics by Blair, and music by Matthew roi Berger, the balance is all off.

The show transports audiences to the bucolic Camp Overton where heavyset teenagers are shipped (or willingly go) to shed pounds each summer. Early on audiences realize that the campers, who range from a clichéd promiscuous girl to a dorky sci-fi obsessed boy, will come to realize that it’s not the weight that’s their problem; it’s their perception of themselves and the way in which they chose to respond to a world in which rail-thinness is considered a valuable commodity.

That’s the sentimental side of Gigantic, and there are moments when the show does actually tug at the heart. This happens most frequently when Ryann Redmond, who play’s Taylor a young woman who has scrimped and saved to get to the camp, is center stage. Redmond (a veteran of Broadway’s Bring It On and If/Then has a smile that can simultaneously break and warm a heart. She finds the delicate inner core of this character, and even when Taylor’s goofily working on a “bad girl” image to attract the guy she likes, Redmond’s performance shines.

Equally appealing is Max Wilcox’s turn as Robert, the “bad” boy that Taylor likes. Wilcox has the ability to reveal sensitivity that lies underneath his character’s bravado, and when Robert and Taylor do become close, Gigantic is actually very sweet. (This bit of romance in Gigantic calls to mind Grease...think biker Danny Zuko and the oh-so-good Sandy Dumbrowski.)

The trouble is that this bit of “summer loving” is surrounded by so much silliness that it feels like whiplash when the writers bring this (or the message about self-esteem) to the fore. Take for instance, the camp’s overly perky and self-involved owners, Sandy (Leslie Kritzer) and Mike (Burke Moses). The joke about their 15-year engagement gets played ad nauseum and their utter vapidity about what’s taking place at the camp strains credulity. One can’t help but wonder how these two might ever have run any business for a few months, let alone a year.

Then, there’s Mike’s utterly dimwitted, once heavy, but now emaciated nephew Brent (Andrew Durand), who finds his manliness undermined by Robert and sets in motion, with the help of his sister Britta (Katie Ladner), a plot to ruin this camper. Britta, unlike her brother, has not lost any weight, and the character feels like the cruelest joke in the show. This kid has an awful lisp, and her lack of any talents are called brought up repeatedly in an effort to elicit laughs. And, while Britta’s character can be wince-worthy, the frequent mentions of Brent’s possible gayness just confound, although they too are inserted for the quick and easy laugh.

Beyond the tried-and-true “the counselors are all idiots” tropes, the show also goes for inane parody. Late in the musical, when it’s the heavy kids against Brent and a trio of lanky cheerleaders who have taken refuge at the camp (it would take too long to explain), a talent contest includes a segment of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible rethought in the style of a hyper-energetic halftime show (dance throughout choreographed by Chase Brock).

It might be possible to excuse the seesawing tones of Blair and Drucker’s book if the music---rock and bubblegum pop filtered through a show tune vernacular and overamplified in John Shivers and David Patridge’s sound design---were less generic or if the lyrics were more clever, although in fairness there are a couple of chuckles to be hand in Blair’s wordplay.

Scott Schwartz has directed Gigantic so that it bounds along energetically and fluidly (Timothy R. Mackabee’s flexible rustic scenic design helps enormously in this regard), but his work never manages to make the musical’s dichotomous elements blend into a cohesive or satisfying whole.

---- Andy Propst


Gigantic plays at the Acorn Theatre in Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: vineyardtheatre.org.

'Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom' - Suburban Videogame Horror


Sydney Blaxill and Connor Johnston in Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom
(©Hunter Canning)


Something’s going very, very wrong in the suburban world where Jennifer Haley’s intriguing play Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom unfolds. One might think that it’s the usual problems that beset what once were called bedroom communities: family scandals that adults want to keep secret and that embarrass teenage children. And those do exist in Neighborhood, running at The Flea. But something else is amiss here: an online videogame is taking on a life of its own and fantasy is becoming bloody reality.

Haley conceived this brief episodic play (it runs just 70 minutes) for an ensemble of four, but for this production, directed with a sense of understated gory style by Joel Schumacher, the roles are played by 17 performers, all members of the theater’s resident company The Bats. And while there’s no great surprise to be held in what will happen once the teenage character’s “level up” in the game to which they’re addicted, there are some terrific treats to be found in the performances themselves, as some play age-appropriate roles while other actors play characters older than themselves.

Take for instance, Sydney Blaxill. She’s on hand to play Barbara, the mom of one of the teens hosting game parties. She combines a smug sense of entitlement with the character’s increasing fear about what’s going on around her, and matching her work perfectly is Hank Lin’s portrayal of another adult neighbor, a man who eagerly acquiesces to the demands that the neighborhood association places on its residents. What’s fun about Lin’s work is that he brings a weird creepy zombie quality to this man who happily uses a weed-wacker on his lawn every day to keep it at regulation height.

As for the younger characters, the show opens with two lovely performances from Adelind Horan and Alex Haynes, playing a couple of kids at cross purposes after school She’s brought him over because she’s hoping something vaguely romantic or sexual might happen. He’s joined her only because he wants a crack at her brother’s gaming console. To playwright Haley’s credit there’s a sweet Chekhovian feel to this scene, and the performers navigate the intricacies of it with finesse.

Equally deft is Connor Johnston who plays one of the gamers in both real life and online. Johnston scores huge laughs when his character Blake’s avatar, “zombiekllr14,” goes into a state of hibernation while he’s away from his computer. When Blake’s revealed at home, Johnson delivers a terrifically obsessed and nasty turn as he plays the game, all the while belittling his increasingly concerned mom (a cunning performance from Kerry Ipema).

Schumacher’s production unfolds in a gently disorienting skewed environment thanks to Simon Harding’s abstract and skewed scenic design. A drop depicting a lane of road and what seems to be underbrush and greenery, arcs from the floor up to the theater’s ceiling, and the curve of this makes the plays fluidity between the physical and online worlds palpable. Lighting designer Brian Aldous often bathes the space in sickly, electronic colors, which enhance this sense of a neighborhood teetering between two planes all the while giving the production itself a genuinely eerie feel.

---- Andy Propst


Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom plays at The Flea (41 White Street). For more information and tickets, visit: theflea.org.

'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.