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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'The Illusionists' - Sleight of Hand and Derring-Do on Broadway

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists
(©Photo used with permission of The Illusionists)

Last holiday season, aficionados of magic, sleight of hand, and derring-do got a special treat when The Illusionists, arrived on Broadway. The high-octane show---with some new performers--- has returned and opened yesterday at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, ready to once again thrill audiences looking for a “How’d they do that?” experience.

The changes that have been made to the production over the course of the past year actually serve it rather well.. To begin, the theater, one of Broadway’s classic elegant structures as compared to the sterile environment of the Marquis Theatre where the production played last year, helps dissipate some of the sense that The Illusionists is merely a high-gloss entertainment that’s best suited for resorts, stadiums, and the like.

Yes, the huge video monitor still floats above the stage so that all audience members have a close-up view of the show’s tiniest details, and yes, there are still those latter-day goth dancers, but these elements don’t feel quite as overbearing as they did one year ago.

The more important difference between last year and this year, though, are some of the performers themselves, starting with Raymond Crowe, billed as “The Unusalist.” Crowe does perform a genuinely impressive bit of illusion involving an invisible deck of cards, but he also incorporates ventriloquism in the sequence, making it very funny.

This aspect of his performance---as well as a bit of hand shadow puppetry that comes later---gives The Illusionists a kind of neo-vaudeville feel that charms, particularly when it’s combined with returning cast member Jeff Hobson’s jovial work as the show’s host. Hobson, also known as “The Trickster,” emcees in a acerbic and effeminate manner that’s a cross between Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. He’s funny and gifted when it comes to magic too.

Another new performer also helps take The Illusionists to a new level of “They’re not reallly going to do that are they?” Jonathan Goodwin (or “The Daredevil”) performs an escape from a straightjacket feat while he’s suspended upside down. Doused in gasoline, he also happens to be on fire as he works to free himself from his restraints. It’s a moment that does make the pulse beat faster.

Returning to the show is the Marilyn Manson--esque “Anti-Conjurer” (Dan Sperry). He’s upped the game on his needle in the mouth illusion. No longer content with threading it through his tongue, he now ingests the sharp object to create a necklace of razor blades that he has also consumed. Ameliorating the gross-out nature of his work in this section of the show, and in a second piece that he performs is Sperry’s amusing and appealing impish nature. Underneath the makeup, it would seem, he’s just a kid who’s sort of acting up.

Also returning, and still one of the highlights of the are the two sequences in the show where Yu Ho-Jin, or “The Manipulator,” performs absolutely astonishing feats with cards. First his white scarf turns into the flat objects, and then, they change color, appear and disappear, and even seem to flutteringly rain from his hands. It’s simple, delicate work that dazzles.

Also among the returning performers is Adam Trent, “The Fururist,” who remains a charmer and combines his work as an illusionist with technology, and the other new cast member in the show is James More, “The Deceptionist,” who, like Goodwin, brings actual fire to the stage.

One word of warning about The Illusionists. It features a rather hard sell of a “The Ultimate Magic Kit.” At a recent press performance, two young volunteers were given the box set as thanks for their participation in the show. Audiences were also told that it was on sale in theater, and after intermission, scores of kids were returning to their seats with their own kit, making it seem as though for one final trick The Illusionists had made Santa Claus appear well before December 25.

---- Andy Propst

The Illusionists plays at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.theillusionistslive.com.

'On Your Feet' - A Bio-Tuner With a Latin Beat

Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra in On Your Feet
(©Matthew Murphy)

Will the rhythm get you at the new bio-tuner On Your Feet, which tracks Gloria Estefan’s journey from an ordinary life in Miami to that of a global singing sensation? The answer is neither an emphatic “yes” nor a heartfelt “no.” Instead, the best response is “sporadically.” For while this new show, playing at the Marquis Theatre, features a by-the-numbers rise-to-fame book by Alexander Dinelaris that can dull the senses, it also has some electrifying elements ranging from Anna Villafañe’s dynamically charismatic and powerfully sung performance as Estefan to Sergio Trujillo’s sizzling choreography.

On Your Feet begins just before one of the most well-known moments in the singer’s life: the bus crash that shattered her vertebrae, resulting in major surgery and months of physical therapy. The musical then flashes back to her life as a child in Miami and moves forward to chronicle her initial encounter with the man who would become her husband, Emilio Estefan (Josh Segarra), and their first successes together when she was singing with Miami Sound Machine.

After achieving superstar status in the Latin countries, Gloria and Emilio find that the music industry greets their desire to crossover into the English market with a mixture of disdain and incredulity, and it’s not until after concerted grassroots efforts to get “Dr. Beat” and later “Conga” played in clubs and requested on radio, that their work as artists for a “mainstream” audience is taken seriously.

During this first half of On Your Feet, Dinelaris’ book both traffics in the sorts of clichés that undermine dramatized biographies. In a tape recording that he sends to his daughter from his tour of duty in Vietnam, Gloria’s father, José (Eliseo Roman), says “You’re a born artist, my angel. And one day you’re going to be a big star!” As I later learned from my theater companion, Estefan still has recordings she and her father traded during his time “in country.” Perhaps, he actually said something to this effect, but on stage, the words thud.

Beyond the clichés, Dinelaris’ book minimizes the success that the Estefans and Miami Sound Machine enjoyed in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and to some degree Europe. Neither “Making a lot of noise in, let’s see: Venezuela, Peru, Honduras, Argentina...” nor “Your numbers are terrific in the Latin Markets” fully communicate the sort of superstardom that they were enjoying outside of the U.S.

Similarly, their work in this country before crossover success is made to look cloyingly cute as Gloria offers up “Conga” at a series of private parties. She has to peddle the tune at a Bar Mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and finally a Shriners’ convention. Equally cutesy are the sort of I Love Lucy jokes that arise from Emilio’s heavy accent. Dinelaris’ book never reaches the moment where he has to shout “Gloria, you have some ‘splaining to do,” but it gets awfully close.

Thankfully, though, theatergoers never have to wait too long before On Your Feet bursts into song and dance, and at these moments, the musical’s shortcomings all but disappear. Of course, the production numbers generally use the singer’s biggest hits (which also include “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “Get on Your Feet”) while her ballads and other material are used for more intimate numbers.

One stunning exception is “Mi Tierra,” the title tune from a 1993 album, which becomes a stunningly designed and performed number as the show flashes back to her mother’s life in pre-Castro Cuba. It’s rendered with poignancy and passion by Andrea Burns (looking stunning in one of costume designer ESosa’s most lavish creations for the production) and unfolds in a beautiful partial recreation of a Havana nightclub circa 1959 (David Rockwell’s handsome sets are a marvel of economy).

The inclusion of this number and others from Estefan’s Spanish-language albums actually reveals her shrewdness and gifts as a songwriter (particularly as one witnesses the genesis of “Conga”) and one hopes that one day she might turn her ear and pen toward writing an original musical to bring her unique fusion sound to the Great White Way.

Throughout Villafañe belts out song after song and leads the company in Trujillo’s dances filled with swiveling hips, swirling skirts, and staccato steps. Beyond her prowess in the musical numbers, she brings both sweetness and strength to the book scenes, matching the sort of charisma that made the actual Gloria Estefan a star.

Once On Your Feet has come full circle to the night of the bus crash, and then, begins to dutifully chart Estefan’s recovery and return to the stage, Villafañe’s performance takes a somewhat darker turn, and yet it remains unquestionably engaging.

Segarra’s performance as Emilio courses with a gentle machismo. He also brings an appealingly scruffy (to match his beard and moustache perhaps) sound to his songs.

Beyond the work of these two performers, and Burns’ as Gloria’s mother, On Your Feet boasts a genuinely touching turn from Alma Cuervo as her grandmother. A pint-sized performer, Eduardo Hernandez, plays the Estefan’s grade school-age son as well as a young incarnation Emilio and dances up a storm. And, as a young incarnation of Gloria, Alexandra Suarez, delivers beautifully early on with “Cuando Sali de Cuba (When I Left Cuba),” a song by Luis Maria Aguile that Estefan did in fact sing as a child. (You can find a video of her doing it on YouTube).

These performances and the music itself rouse audiences at On Your Feet, pulling them from the doldrums that come during the course of this latest Broadway bio-tuner.

---- Andy Propst

On Your Feet plays at the Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit: www.onyourfeetmusical.com.

'Misery' - Stephen King on Stage

Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in Misery
(©Joan Marcus)

At this juncture, a critical response to Misery, which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre last night, feels more than a little unnecessary. Audiences are already flocking to this stage version of the 1987 Stephen King novel that inspired the 1990 movie that starred James Caan and Kathy Bates, who picked up an Oscar for her performance in it..

Most likely, they’re drawn by both the presence of screen icon Bruce Willis and by their fondness for this American Gothic horror tale about Paul Sheldon, a phenomenally successful romance fiction writer, who, after a nearly fatal car accident in Colorado during a snowstorm, finds himself held captive by former nurse Annie Wilkes, his “number one fan.”

Neither William Goldman’s script nor Will Frears’ production will disappoint people who are looking to revisit their favorite moments in the story. They’re all present: from Annie’s classic line, which probably ranks up alongside Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” in another Stephen King screen adaptation, The Shining, to the moment when Annie “hobbles” Paul to ensure that he doesn’t escape from her rural home.

For some theatergoers, the recreation of on stage of the familiar narrative will be enough. For those audiences members who are looking for a little more, there are two wonderful surprises. To begin, there’s David Korins’ ingenious scenic design, which not only puts several rooms in Annie’s home on stage, but, as it revolves, it also mimics a tracking shot to superb effect.

The other marvelous perk in the production is Laurie Metcalf’s remarkably creepy, and yet strangely sympathetic, portrayal of the woman who both loves and torments Paul. From her work on television (Roseanne, The Big Bang Theory), Metcalf has, time and again, demonstrated her ability to play comedy with sidesplitting dryness. On stage, she’s repeatedly shown her deftness with drama and darkness, most recently on Broadway in The Other Place.

She combines drama and comedy to terrific effect in Misery. It’s actually rather difficult to not be touched when Annie, who’s already made Paul wash down painkillers with water from a dirty bucket because she’s displeased, announces with girlish glee that “Oh, this house is going to be filled with romance -- I'm going to play all my Liberace records for us!”

Similarly, Metcalf channels a modicum of Tennessee Williams--like sadness when Annie appears for a dinner that Paul has suggested, wearing a hand-me-down dress from her mother (a dowdy costume from designer Ann Roth that speaks volumes). When this happens, Metcalf’s performance takes a gently fluttery, coy turn, and she pulls Misery for a brief moment into the realm of The Glass Menagerie.

At the same time, her performance can be utterly chilling. Metcalf makes Annie’s belief that she has a God-given destiny to guide Paul and his writing completely convincing, and she navigates the character’s quicksilver shifts in moods that ensue with laser-like precision. She also can gently wink at Annie’s behavior, particularly when she’s dragging off the body of the local sheriff (a solid supporting performance from Leon Addison Brown) whom she’s just shot. The man’s hat gets in Annie’s way, and Metcalf, with a sort of “Oh, screw it” shrug, just pops it on her head.

It’s actually one of the most meticulously crafted performances to be found on Broadway right now, and it’s what transforms the production into something that feels utterly theatrical and something that’s a little more than a live version of a well-known film.

Elsewhere, though, the production settles for the middle-of-the-road, giving audiences exactly what they might expect. Willis brings stoic toughness to his turn as Paul, making the character not dissimilar to John McClane from the Die Hard franchise. Michael Friedman, the songwriter for inventive musicals Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Fortress of Solitude, has written a few eerie-enough melodies for the show’s soundtrack. And lighting designer David Weiner’s work indicates changes in time with precision and when necessary becomes atmospherically dim to create a vague sense of danger for Paul.

---- Andy Propst

Misery plays at the Broadhurst Theatre (235 West 44th Street). For more informationand tickets, visit: www.miserybroadway.com.

'Lost Girls' - Terrifically Compelling Family Drama

Tasha Lawrence, Meghann Fahy, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Piper Perabo in Lost Girls
(©Joan Marcus)

In John Pollono’s Lost Girls, Linda, a fiftysomething grandmother, proudly tells her daughter “Every generation we get better.” The statement, made with deadpan sincerity and no trace of irony, comes after she has rattled off the progression of pregnancies in the family. Linda’s mom had her at 15, Linda had her daughter Maggie at 16, and Maggie had her daughter Erica when she was 17. The trouble is, Erica, seems to be letting the family down. The teenager has run off in the middle of a snowstorm, and no one, including her dad and stepmom, know where she is. They do, however, assume that Erica has run off with a guy.

Is Erica in the process of disproving her grandmother’s theory? That’s one of the questions at the heart of this play that recently at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an terrifically compelling MCC Theatre production tautly staged by Jo Bonney.

Pollono’s play follows not only Erica’s family frantic efforts to track her down, but also the events unfolding in a hotel room where two teenagers who have run away from their families are having the sort of assignation that the clan’s imagining. Well, not quite. It turns out that the girl has conned the guy into driving her to Florida so that she can meet an older man with whom she’s been having an affair.

As Lost Girls shuttles back and forth between the events unfolding in the family home in Manchester, NH and the hotel room somewhere in Connecticut (Richard Hoover’s scenic design allows for easy transitions between the two), the family continues to fret about Erica’s wellbeing while also verbally brawling while the teenagers tap into a previous unrecognized love for one another.

Pollono’s written a play that’s veers between caustic tartness and sweetness to terrific effect. The scenes in the family home brim with profanities that stem from both the characters’ frustration with the situation at hand and also from years of just barely getting by in their lives. Maggie, a clerk at an outlet store, stretches her paycheck to the breaking point. Her ex, Lou, has chosen a profession that’s antithetical to his sensitive nature: he’s a cop. It’s little surprise that there’s antagonism about the split and Lou’s subsequent remarriage, to born-again Midwesterner Penny. What is surprising is the incredible tenderness that can course between Maggie and Lou, often in silence.

As for the teenagers, their scenes spark with the same sort of duality. Even though she’s not out of high school yet, she’s angry and at war with both the world and her friend, who through his kindness ultimately softens her.

The cumulative effect of the two stories proves not only moving but also thought-provoking. Ultimately Pollono reveals that proof of Linda’s belief that women are evolving. There are subtle hints, most notably when God-fearing Penny swears and disobeys her husband, but a bit of theatrical sleight of hand toward the end of the play confirms it beyond a doubt, even as it tugs at theatergoers’ heartstrings.

Under Bonney’s direction, the ensemble deliver immaculately crafted performances. Piper Perabo’s work as Maggie has a zinging aggression that both amuses and frightens. Tasha Lawrence makes Linda a world-weary soul even as she lands each of the woman’s lacerating quips with biting precision.

Meghann Fahy avoids turning Penny into a sunny cliché of born-again chipperness, revealing subtle hints of darkness under the woman’s placid facade, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s turn as Lou pulses with warmth and a sense of quiet desperation.

As the younger characters, Lizzy Declement delivers an edgy and wiry performance that makes the teenager’s rage and curious helplessness all too palpable while Josh Green delivers an enormously appealing turn as the boy who has silently doted on her since grade school.

The ensemble’s fine work means that all of characters are people for whom theatergoers begin to root early on, particularly the three generations of women, who might not be so much lost as stumbling through their lives.

---- Andy Propst

Lost Girls plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.mcctheater.org.

'Shear Madness' - The Interactive Whodunit Hits New York

Jordan Ahnquist, Lynne Wintersteller, Jeremy Kushnier, and Kate Middleton in Shear Madness
(©Carol Rosegg)

Interactive theater comedies don’t get much daffier or more featherweight than the whodunit Shear Madness, which has opened at New World Stages. The fact that this production marks this show’s New York premiere is something of a surprise. The play, scripted by Paul Pörtner, has been running in Boston for 35 years now and another production has been running in Washington DC for nearly 30 years. Perhaps producers thought that the sort of antic participatory improvisation that the Madness traffics in wouldn’t be right for “sophisticated” New York audiences.

Given the glee that the show inspired at a recent press preview, it would seem that theatergoers are eager to take part in the murder mystery experience, which unfolds in the titular beauty salon where the two stylists are the--pardon the expression---hard-as-nails Barbara and the swishy gay hairdresser Tony. As they work, they have to contend with a disturbance from an upstairs neighbor, a once famous pianist, who’s about to make a comeback. Her constant playing drives them nuts, but eventually, her keyboard work is silenced. She’s the victim of a horrible murder.

The question, of course, becomes who the culprit might have been. Beyond Barbara and Tony, the suspects include an Upper East Side socialite, Mrs. Shubert, and an antique dealer, Eddie. On hand to sort things out are two of New York’s finest, Nick and Mike, and with the help of the audience each night, these guys do ultimately make an arrest.

New York theatergoers are not unfamiliar with having a say in theatrical murder cases. The Mystery of Edwin Drood being perhaps the most visible example. What sets Madness apart from a show like this is that the audience not only points the finger at the murderer, but before that happens, they also interact with the show. Theatergoers are asked to spot discrepancies in the action when the events leading up to the murder are recreated, and there’s time for the audience to interrogate the suspects themselves.

What this means is that the show requires a company skilled in both scripted and improvisational comedy, and director Bruce Jordan has at his disposal a sextet of performers who deliver both with panache. As hairdresser Tony Jordan Ahnquist flits, mugs, and shrieks with wild abandon. It’s both a pitch-perfect 1970s caricature of gayness and one of the weird anachronisms in the show, which has been updated with references to Twitter and Donald Trump’s stand on immigration.

As his coworker, Kate Middleton delivers a performance that’s the epitome of a tough broad from Brooklyn, and for the moments that are improvised, she’s able to come up with the kinds of sharp retorts that such women can deliver without batting an eyelash (false or otherwise). There are equally deft performances from Lynne Wintersteller as Mrs. Shubert, Jeremy Kushnier as Eddie, and Adam Gerber, as the nerdy cop Mike.

Patrick Noonan plays the other policeman, Nick. He’s also the performer who’s in charge of coordinating the audience’s role in the evening. A burly man, Noonan, dressed in a Jets football jersey, physically perfect for the role of the both figurative and literal straight man: the perfect fish out of water for the beauty shop antics. Beyond this, Noonan works with geniality with theatergoers as they shout out their questions and concerns about the goings-on during the investigation, and along the way he even manages to score a few laughs all of his own.

---- Andy Propst

Shear Madness plays at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: nyc.shearmadness.com.