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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Dames at Sea' - Musical Merriment


John Bolton, Cary Tedder, Eloise Kropp, Mara Davi, Danny Gardner in Dames at Sea
(©Jeremy Daniel)

Goofy and loveable, the musical Dames at Sea has been delighting fans of stage and screen musicals for nearly 50 years now. A tiny show---it requires just a six-person cast---it started off at the Caffe Cino and then, moved to an acclaimed off-Broadway engagement. Since then, it has been a staple for schools and regional theaters.

Last night, Dames made it long-overdue Broadway bow at the Helen Hayes Theatre, and while some of its irreverence and spunky can-do attitude might be diminished in this snazzy production that’s been directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner, it remains a crowd-pleaser.

At its core, the musical, with a book by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, takes tropes of 42nd Street---the wannabe Broadway hoofer who’s just arrived in Manhattan, the crazed and overworked producer who hires her on the spot, the star with an illness that requires the new girl to go on in her stead---and magnifies them to ridiculous extremes. Along the way, other elements of the Busby Berkeley canon are ribbed as are the Hollywood stars who appeared in his movies. Most of the characters, for instance, are named for the actors who were featured in Berkeley’s hits.

It’s all good-natured fun, and Skinner’s production courses from moment to moment blithely and perhaps more important, rhythmically and percussively. The company frequently breaks out into tap routines that dazzle and frequently threaten to stop the show.

The company takes the fizzy material and serves it up with winking merriment. At the show’s center is Eloise Kropp, who plays the fresh-off-the-bus from Utah Ruby with appropriate naiveté and determination. She dances like a dream and demonstrates late in the show that she can genuinely belt a tune. As her chorus girl companion, Joan, Mara Davi channels all of the “tough broads” one can think of from old black and whites and puts an amusing spin on them.

There’s also fine work from Cary Tedder and Danny Gardner, who play the two sailors who respectively become the women’s love interests. Tedder gently mocks the earnestness that could often be the chief characteristic of bland juveniles in the 1930s and 1940s, and Gardner revels in playing the dim and randy side of the musical’s comic romantic couple.

John Bolton scores belly laughs in his dual roles of the producer-director of the show-within-the-show and the captain of the battleship where the gang ultimately open it, and there’s scene-stealing work from Lesli Margherita, who plays Mona Kent, the star who ultimately can’t go on paving the way for Ruby’s big break. Whether Margherita’s singing “That Mister Man of Mine,” in which composer Jim Wise echoes both “My Man” and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” to hysterically overblown melodramatic effect, or finding her inner Carmen Miranda in Wise’s mock Cole Porter number, “The Beguine,” she makes for a knockout diva with a major attitude.

Appropriately, Margherita’s egomaniacal Mona gets the bulk of costume designer David C. Woolard’s handsome period costumes which, along with Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz’s lighting design, provide flashes of color against Anna Louizos’ reproductions of a theater’s brick-walled backstage and the gray deck of a battleship. (Louizos gets to shine with a nifty drop for the show’s opening as well as with one for an Asian-themed fantasy sequence.)

Jonathan Tunick has provided the orchestrations for this new Dames, and they sound richly brassy and bold, deftly mirroring the overall tone of this musical theater confection.

---- Andy Propst


Dames at Sea plays at the Helen Hayes Theatre (240 West 44th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: damesatseabroadway.com.

'First Daughter Suite' - Musical Fantasy at Its Finest


Carly Tamer and Alison Fraser in First Daughter Suite
(©Joan Marcus)

Back in 1993, musical theater writer Michael John LaChiusa tickled audiences’ fancies and teased their ears with First Lady Suite. The fantasia of short musicals placed four presidential wives in tellingly surreal situations. LaChiusa’s returned to the idea and format with First Daughter Suite, which opened last night at the Public Theater, home to the original Suite.

In First Lady, LaChiusa’s imagination took flight as the first wives attempted to make sense of their lives and sometimes escape public scrutiny. With First Daughter, he looks not to the air, but to water, creating an lovely metaphor that the girls and young women who had little say in the political lives they are leading are all adrift.

LaChiusa introduces the water metaphor gently with the show’s first piece, which focuses on the day that Tricia Nixon’s Rose Garden wedding is to take place. She, her mother Pat, and sister Julie are all fretting about the imminent rain that’s threatening the outdoor event. While they do, the ghost of Richard Nixon’s Quaker mother, Hannah, arrives to berate her daughter-in-law about the way in which she has raised the girls and about the ways in which Pat has failed her husband.

In the second of the two pieces, first daughters have literally taken to the water as LaChiusa imagines a dream that Amy Carter might have had during the hostage crisis in Iran. She, along with her mom Rosalynn, are on the presidential yacht. Also on hand are Betty Ford and her daughter Susan. Amy’s invoked Susan because she thinks that she was the coolest of the first daughters, but Susan has ideas of her own about how the dream should progress, and eventually hijacks it, in order to do away with her mom, seen as a maniacally dancing alcoholic. Susan suggests to Amy that they pilot the boat to Iran and rescue the hostages themselves. It’s a plan that goes wildly awry.

LaChiusa sets the third piece, focusing on a tense reunion between Nancy Reagan and daughter Patti Davis by the swimming pool at Betsy Bloomingdale’s Beverly Hills home. In this one, set as the Iran-Contra scandal unfolds, Nancy hopes to get Patti to join ranks with her in order to show family unity to the outside world. At the same time, and just in case Patti should not, Nancy has Machiavellian plans of her own, involving her Paraguayan maid (played with subtle menace by Isabel Santiago), to protect herself and her husband.

The final musical unfolds by the sea at Kennebunkport during George W. Bush’s bid for re-election. In this one, former first lady Barbara Bush attempts to commune with her deceased daughter, Robin, a girl who never had to live in the spotlight, having died from leukemia while still a pre-schooler. It’s the most moving of the four pieces as Robin and Mrs. Bush’s daughter-in-law Laura tug the elder stateswoman between a life of tranquility and one of public/familial service.

For these pieces that chronicle events that unfold during the course of three decades, LaChiusa filters the sounds of the years through his unique musical prism. For instance, rock may pulse briefly for Patti Davis, but it’s jagged and slightly skewed in LaChiusa’s signature fashion. LaChiusa also brings the sounds of eras that preceded the action into play. Betty Ford, for instance, dances to a raucous, and again fragmented, tune that sounds like it might have first been heard in the 1940s.

The combination of LaChiusa’s inventive storytelling and wide-ranging music creates a playground for the production’s nine-member cast, working under the sure-handed direction of Kirsten Sanderson (who directed the original production of First Lady Suite). Vocally the company cannot be beat. Each of the performers traverses LaChiusa’s melodies with both ease and power.

The cast also cunningly brings the famous (and some not-so) personages to life with care and style. Mary Testa brings regality and warmth to her turn as Barbara Bush. Barbara Walsh plays Pat Nixon with a combination of poise and haunted---both psychological and literal---pain. Alison Fraser scores laughs as the tipsy terpsichorean Betty Ford, and then, delivers a gently frightening turn as determinedly steely Nancy Reagan. Also dually cast is Rachel May Jones whose work as Rosalynn Carter and Laura Bush is splendidly understated and nuanced.

As the daughters, Carly Tamer makes for an appealingly spunky Amy Carter. Caissie Levy imbues Patti Davis with a compelling edginess and anger, and brings a prim spikiness to her turn as Julie Nixon. Betsy Morgan pouts to terrific effect as Tricia Nixon and then, channels her inner Farrah Fawcett as Susan Ford goes merrily on her embittered daredevil way. And Theresa McCarthy, while making Hannah Nixon a spirit to be reckoned with, portrays the show’s other ghost, Robin Bush, with touching innocence.

Toni-Leslie James’ dead-on reproductions of period styles marvelously complements the performers’ work as the first ladies and daughters, as does Ken Travis’ gentle sound design. Michael Starobin and Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations make a six-member band sound much larger, and scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau work in tandem to ensure that this Suite deliciously straddles the realms of reality and fantasy.

---- Andy Propst




First Daughter Suite plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.

'Empanada Loca' - Grimly Funny One-Woman Drama


Daphne Rubin-Vega in Empanada Loca
(©Monqiue Carboni)

One of the masterstrokes of the original production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd was the way in which it placed the guignol horror of the Victorian tale into the context of the industrial revolution. Yes, the title hero was a serial killer, but he was a man who was driven to his murderous spree by societal events. A similar undercurrent flows through Aaron Mark’s grimly funny one-woman drama Empanada Loca, which opened last night in a Labyrinth Theater Company production at the Bank Street Theater.

Directed by the playwright and featuring a riveting performance by Daphne Rubin-Vega, the show focuses on Dolores, a woman who has taken to living in the tunnels beneath the surface of Manhattan. The show opens as Dolores welcomes an unseen visitor to her subterranean lair, and begins to unspool her life story to him or her.

It’s an awkward start, but once Dolores’ narrative hits its stride, theatergoers have forgotten it as they become engrossed in her tale about how she came to live where she does. The story involves an ill-fated romance with a drug-dealer in Washington Heights and a 13-year stint in prison. One might think that Dolores retreated from above-ground after her release, but that proves not to be the case. She did re-enter society in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood thanks to the kindness of an old friend, a man who runs a small take-out restaurant that specializes in the titular Latin meat-filled treats.

For a while it seems incongruous that, given Dolores’ good fortune in finding a friend and establishing a small business of her own as a masseuse (a skill she learned while incarcerated), she should end up below ground. Mark, however, uses the backdrop of the neighborhood’s upward spiral to terrific effect. Events conspire against her. (Saying anything more would spoil the surprises that lay in store for audiences.)

Mark’s beautifully conceived and densely-packed text proves to be a playground for Rubin-Vega, who turns in a bravura performance. She imbues Dolores with both hardness and bitterness and also a kind of unflappable cheeriness. It’s an astute combination, and often she can use the duality to very funny effect, particularly when Dolores makes a particularly dry, cutting observation about her friends or life.

As she relates conversations and encounters that Dolores has had, she makes a similarly smart choice. She never attempts to fully embody another person, but rather adopts minor vocal and physical characteristics of the other individual. Rubin-Vega’s choice makes the feeling that one is completely immersed in this woman’s sad-funny story complete.

So, too, do the design contributions. Scenic designer David Meyer has created an appropriately grim gray environment that looks like an old storage vault; lighting designer Bradley King’s work throughout remains dim, but never murky or too dark; and Ryan Rumery’s soundscape makes Dolores’ underground realm spark eerily.

---- Andy Propst


Empanada Loca plays at the Bank Street Theater (155 Bank Street). For more information and tickets, visit: labtheater.org.

The Elephant in Every Room I Enter - Brave Experiment With an Intimate Form


Gardiner Comfort in The Elephant in Every Room I Enter
(©Jenny Anderson)

Purposefully writing a one-man-show with a rambling, confused text sounds like a risky proposition. The Elephant in Every Room I Enter, a new play running at La MaMa through the end of the month, tries just that approach in a brave experiment with an intimate form. The result is an engaging and immersive experience through an alluring mind.

The play recounts the story of a week in the life of its Tourette’s Syndrome-bearing performer, Gardiner Comfort (yes, that’s actually his name) as he partakes in the Tourette Association of America’s National Conference, interacting with other people who have Tourette’s while confronting his life of experience coping with the syndrome. Though Comfort runs through the week in a roughly linear manner, with the play divided into a different sections for each day of the conference, by no means does he employ a straightforward narrative structure. His story jumps wildly from one incident or character to another, disregarding fundamental storytelling structure and instead creating a free-form trip through the actor’s memory.

This style allows the play to capture both the earnest, realistic experience of a person that one expects from an autobiographical one-man-show while simultaneously offering an expressionistic glimpse into the workings of an actor’s mind. Theatergoers get lost in his psyche just as he must become lost in the wheels of his chaotic mind on a regular basis.

Comfort carries such a commanding physical and vocal presence on stage that one never feels taken out of the story, even with its convoluted form. He employs slight adjustments of his body, like a limp or a controlled representation of one of his tics, as he jumps his voice from character to character with rapidity and focus, keeping grounded amidst the turmoil of his text.

Along with the featured actor, projection design by Catie Hevner Kemp and Lianne Arnold is so engaging that the walls feel like a second performer playing off Comfort. Hallucinatory, rainbow-colored images fill the walls of La Mama’s tiny First Floor Theatre. The projections move with the actor in such taut choreography that they feel almost human, Their beauty blends with the energy of the real performer and it all lures us into the excited chaos of his world.

It’s a high-octane, radical experience of a solo drama, a refreshing piece of experimentation in a form so often filled with monotonous self-aggrandizement

---- Rick Chason


The Elephant in Every Room I Enter plays at La Mama’s First Floor Theatre (74a East 4th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: lamama.org.

'Futurity' - Brave Musical Theater Experimentation


César Alvarez (center) and company in Futurity
(©Ben Arons)

One of the most audacious concepts for a new musical can be found in Futurity, which opened last night at the Connelly Theatre, a co-production of Soho Rep and Ars Nova.

Written by César Alvarez with his band The Lisps, the show charts an imaginary friendship between a fictional Civil War solider, Julian (Alvarez); and the historical figure Ada Lovelace (Lisps band member Sammy Tunis), an English mathematician whose writings in the 19th century presaged the advent of computers. As the two correspond, they imagine a “Steam Brain” that might have the capability of imagination; an invention so forward thinking, in fact, that it might be able to create a permanent peace. Pretty amazing and heady stuff for musical theater.

Equally impressive as the concept for the show is its score. The songs are filled with erudite lyrics that also brim with emotion and compel theatergoers to contemplate the contemporary relevance of the tale. The melodies strike a beautiful balance between sounding period and contemporary, combining folk, bluegrass, rock, and even the sounds of the Weimar era in Germany deftly.

Futurity, which has been directed with a swirling sense of style by Sarah Benson, also looks fantastic. Scenic designers Emily Orling and Matt Saunders back the action with a pair of two-tiered towers that are outfitted with what look like old computer punch-cards. During the second half of the production, the company shifts these to the sides to reveal the contraption that Julian and Ada have envisioned. It’s a monstrosity of a machine that also functions as an ingenious musical instrument thanks to Eric Farber (another member of The Lisps, who performs, serves as percussionist and is credited with “percussion and contraption design”).

The production benefits, too, from Yi Zhao’s colorful and beautifully executed lighting design that has the ability to both startle and create remarkable intimacy. And even as the lyrics and text (by Alvarez as well as Molly Rice, credited with “story development and additional text”) and music shift with anachronistic whimsicality, so too do Orling’s costume designs, particularly the hip semi-period dress that Tunis wears.

The nagging problem with the show ultimately becomes one of narrative, which though never unclear, also never gains any significant dramatic thrust. There are moments of tension, particularly as Julian’s service becomes increasingly dangerous as he and his battalion are deployed to fighting. The tale of the “Steam Brain,” however, never becomes anything more than a rather wan lesson in historical science fiction augmented by songs that comment on the topics at hand, creating a sense that Futurity is more of an over-extended concert with a loose narrative than fully-realized theater piece, which, by turns, wearies and invigorates.

Nevertheless Alvarez, with boyish good looks and a mellifluous voice, and Tunis, with a elegant edginess, are engaging headliners, and Karen Kandel scores as The General who leads Julian into battle, bringing both brutishness and sensitivity to the role.

In the end, Futurity proves to be very much like the invention at its center: forward-thinking and experimental. And though it’s not fully successful, it’s difficult to not admire the attempt.

---- Andy Propst


Futurity plays at the Connelly Theatre (220 East Fourth Street). For more information and tickets, visit: sohorep.org.