Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

"The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" has the distinction of being the first Off-Broadway play ever written that can appeal equally to seasoned theatergoers and World Wrestling Entertainment fans.

Kristoffer Diaz' play examines professional wrestling not so much as a sport, but as a form of theater built upon ethnic and racial stereotyping. Wrestling serves as a vehicle to explore the corruption of personal identity, patriotism, commerce, storytelling and popular culture.

Macedonio "The Mace" Guerra, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who is now a middle-rank pro-wrestler, discovers Vigneshwar, a young Indian from Brooklyn with the sharp personality and athletic potential to become a star wrestler. Guerra's boss, based loosely on Vince McMahon, repackages Vigneshwar before the public as an Islamic terrorist who denounces "all things American."

Chad Deity, the league's all-American champ, understands how the professional wrestling circuit works better than anyone else. He gives Guerra and Vigneshwar advice on how to build their characters and plots how he can use their onstage personas to his advantage.

Diaz' comedic drama is clever and consistently entertaining. Guerra, played by the energetic Desmin Borges, serves as a hip-hop style narrator and fills us in on the grim realities of the wrestling world.

The end of the play, which suddenly takes on a serious tone, is a bit of a letdown. Diaz also depends too heavily on Guerra to provide expository information.

Edward Torres' flashy production is marked by a regulation size ring where the actors literally engage in physical action. Not only are there actual wrestling matches filled with physical mayhem and body slams, the actors energetically run throughout the theater as their wrestler characters. They wave flags, flex their muscles and throw around fake money.

"The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" plays at Second Stage Theatre through June 20.
305 W. 43rd St., 212-246-4422, 2st.com.

The Metal Children

What a shame that Tobin Falmouth's supposedly controversial adolescent novel "The Metal Children" doesn't really exist. By the end of Adam Rapp's Off-Broadway play of the same name, which observes censorship and chaos at a suburban high school where Tobin's novel was banned, you can't hardly wait to read it for yourself and make up your own mind about the book.

Playwright-director Adam Rapp, who is also the author of several young adult novels, was alarmed in 2005 when a Pennsylvania high school voted to remove his book "The Buffalo Tree" from its curriculum of required reading. That eye-raising experience led him to write "The Metal Children."

Tobin, played by Billy Crudup, is a New York writer whose novel creates violent reactions in a small town after it is officially banned. While many of those opposed to the book start a campaign of violent intimidation, a cult of young women follows in the footsteps of the book's pregnant heroine. And just like in novel, a pregnant teen from the town inexplicably disappears and is replaced by a statute.

"The Metal Children" is the strongest play that Rapp has written since "Red Light Winter," a 2006 Pulitzer finalist. While most of Rapp's work feels too experimental, "The Metal Children" is marked by a gripping plot and a complex central character. It debates whether the responsibility of an author when his work incites violence and whether a community should prohibit free expression in order to protect its youth.

Many of the play's supporting characters are come off as broad and superficial, including Tobin's high-powered agent (played by the high-pitched David Greenspan) and the town's religiously conservative school board.

The production, also directed by Rapp, is uniformly well-acted. Billy Crudup delivers a strong performance as Tobin Falmouth, stressing the character's deepening depression and self-masochistic attitude.

Bottom line: "The Metal Children" is an involving piece of theater that delves into the passionate extremes that have led to our country's Tea Party protest movement.

"The Metal Children" plays at the Vineyard Theatre through June 13.
1083 E. 15th St., 212-353-0303, vineyardtheatre.org.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

That Face

English playwright Polly Stenham was 19 years old when her raw and controversial drama "That Face" made its London premiere, shocking audiences with its dramatic portrayals of school hazing, incest, pill addiction and bad parenting. Though disturbing and depressing, it's a damn good play that accuses parents of scarring their own children by acting like children themselves.

Torture victim: In the opening scene of "That Face," 15-year-old students Mia and Izzy are viciously beating a 13-year-old freshman as part of a boarding school initiation ceremony. The young girl has been strapped down to a chair, blindfolded and knocked unconscious with an overdose of valium.

Problems with parents: Threatened with explusion, Mia calls upon her father Hugh, who now lives in Hong Kong, to help her out. Mia's 18-year-old brother Henry, who quit school to take care of their pill-addicted mother Martha, tries to get the dysfunctional family into shape in time for Hugh's return. Henry later accuses his father of causing his mother's downfall by abandoning her.

Suggestions of incest: It is clearly suggested that the Oedipal relationship between Henry and Martha is in fact incestuous. When Martha learns that Henry had a sexual encounter with Mia's schoolmate, Martha jealously retaliates by tearing up his clothes. As Martha is being taken away to a sanitarium by the end, Henry completely breaks down.

Forceful production: Sarah Benson's staging forcefully inhabits the graphic violence, psychological terrain and black humor of the playwright's universe. Laila Robins' intense performance as Martha recalls the desperation and insanity of Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Bottom line: "That Face" is sure to shake and rattle many disgrunted audience members with its melodramatic and grim extremes. Nevertheless, this 90-minute domestic tragedy makes for an absolutely exhilarating theatrical experience.

"That Face" plays at City Center through June 27.
131 West 55th St., 212-581-1212, mtc-nyc.org.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hair: Replacement Cast

There's a lot less sunshine over at the hippy happy musical "Hair" these days.

Earlier this year, the original Broadway cast was flown out to London to premiere Diane Paulus' praised revival overseas. An entirely new and depressingly inferior cast now populates the Broadway production, including "American Idol" finalists Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo and Canadian singer Kyle Riabko.

The original cast, led by Gavin Creel and Will Swenson, was absolutely extraordinary. Every actor was outstanding, but the cast, or rather "Tribe," still felt like a unified family. They poured their hearts and souls into the material and made the 1967 musical come to life with stunning detail and unbelievable energy.

As Claude, the young teen deciding whether or not he should go to Vietnam, Kyle Riabko is the equivalent of an empty vessel. He shows no passion or individuality and is disconnected from Claude's spiritual journey. Watching him sing "Where Do I Go?" is less exciting than watching paint dry.

Ace Young is unfit to handle both the vocal and emotional demands of playing Berger. Whereas Will Swenson was like a force of nature in the role, Young comes off as an amateur who tries too hard for laughs. But unlike their precedessors, Young and Riabko could credibly pass as teenagers.

Diana DeGarmo is distastefully over the top as Sheila. When she sings "Easy to Be Hard" and "Good Morning Sunshine," it's as if she is still competing on "American Idol," belting her brains out and striving to win attention over her peers.


Those who have yet to see this brilliant production are still urged to do so. But as populated by the replacement cast, "Hair" has become just a fake and shallow imitation of its former self.

I can't tell you how much this revival meant to me when it first opened. After I saw the first of the three 2007 concert performances on press tix, I waited on line like everyone else for tix to the final concert two days later. That's how good it was. When it returned Off-Broadway the following year, I saw it a dozen times. I saw the original Broadway cast three times at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, and now really regret not having seen them more. "Hair" is still playing there, but it's really not. By getting rid of the entire original cast at once, the producers stabbed the Broadway production in the heart.

For God's sake, let the sunshine in again!

"Hair" plays an open run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
302 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200, $37-132, haironbroadway.com.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Broadway Musicals of 1966

Pretty much every "Broadway By the Year" concert needs at least one very popular musical to highlight, along with some semi-popular titles and rarities. "The Broadway Musicals of 1966" offered three extremely familiar, easily revivable musicals - "Cabaret," "Mame" and "Sweet Charity" - along with vaguely familiar material like "The Apple Tree," "Superman," and "I Do! I Do,!" and the forgotten flops "Pousse Cafe" and "Walking Happy." One flop, "A Joyful Noise," was not represented at all during the concert.

Just as "The Broadway Musicals of 1948" opened with "Another Opening" from "Kiss Me Kate," of course "The Broadway of Musicals of 1966" was going to open with "Wilkommen" from "Cabaret." Jeffry Denman, who also directed and choreographed, entered as a lively and playful Emcee, far more friendly than Alan Cumming's desperately trashy revision of the role in the 1998 Roundabout revival. In that revival, dialogue was added where the emcee introduced each Kit Kat Girl. Here, Denman added dialogue to humorously describe each the show's other performers.

As always, Denman's staging was top-notch and thoroughly detailed. The show's finale, "Rhythm of Life" from "Sweet Charity," was spectacular. But I did feel that "Money, Money" from "Cabaret," where Denman performed with two female backup dancers, landed like a dud. The aggressive song did not work well out of the show's context.

And furthermore, what was "Money, Money" doing in a concert called "The Broadway Musicals of 1966"? It was written for the 1970s film version, which host Scott Siegel even admitted to. No offense, but the concert is supposed to be about 1966, not films based on musicals from 1966. You gotta play by your own rules. And wouldn't it have been more interesting to perform "Sitting Pretty," the original version of the "Money Song." But I'm just being overdramatic and silly complaining about such a petty thing. Anyway...

"There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," as performed by Sara Gettelfinger, Jennifer Rias and Elizabeth Clinard with all the lead-in dialogue, was well done, but the song-and-dance routine was simply too large, fast and aggressive as a dance number to successfully choreograph around Ross Patterson's band and Scott Siegel's podium. On the other hand, "Big Spender" looked sexily convincing, with the gals situated on different positions throughout the stage, including one sitting on the piano.

"I Do! I Do!" received quite a lot of attention, while "The Apple Tree" was surprisingly ignored, receivingly only a single song - "Gorgeous," performed by the excellent Michele Ragusa. Why no "What Makes Me Love Him" or "Forbidden Fruit"? It's not like Marc Kudisch owns the performance rights to the latter song.

The individual solo and duet spots were uniformly well-acted and sung, particularly Kerry O'Malley's desperately emotional rendition of "Cabaret" and confident version of "You've Got Possibilities," Liz Callaway's characteristically expert performances of "If He Walked Into My Life Today" and "where Am I Going?," and Michele Ragusa's very funny version of "Gooch's Song."

But perhaps the most memorable solo came from an eight year old, Mercer Patterson, son of music director and pianist Ross Patterson. Alas, my father was unable to get me really awesome gigs like that when I was in grade school.

Enclosed is a full list of the songs performed:

ACT ONE
Wilkommen (CABARET) Company
You've Got Possibilities (IT'S A BIRD. . . IT'S A PLANE. . . IT'S SUPERMAN) Kerry O'Malley
If My Friends Could See Me Now (SWEET CHARITY) Meredith Patterson
Gooch's Song (MAME) Michele Ragusa
Bosom Buddies (MAME) Kerry O'Malley & Sara Gettelfinger
Money, Money (CABARET - film) Jeffry Denman, Elizabeth Clinard, Jennifer Rias
Where Am I Going? (SWEET CHARITY) Liz Callaway
I Love My Wife (I DO! I DO!) Shoran Wiley & Meredith Patterson
The Honeymoon is Over (I DO! I DO!) Robert Cuccioli & Michele Ragusa My Best Girl (MAME) Mercer Patterson
What Makes It Happen? (WALKING HAPPY) Carole J. Bufford
There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This (SWEET CHARITY) Sara Gettelfinger, Jennifer Rias, Elizabeth Clinard

ACT TWO
We Need A Little Christmas (MAME) Bob Stillman, Elizabeth Clinard, Meredith Patterson, Shoran Wiley
Big Spender (SWEET CHARITY) Meredith Patterson, Kerry O'Malley, Sara Gettelfinger, Jennifer Rias, Elizabeth Clinard
Gorgeous (THE APPLE TREE) Michele Ragusa
The Spider & the Fly (POUSSE-CAFE) Jennifer Rias with Shoran Wiley & Jeffry Denman
Married (CABARET) Kerry O'Malley & Bob Stillman
Too Many Tomorrows (SWEET CHARITY) Robert Cuccioli
Walking Happy (WALKING HAPPY) Jeffry Denman
If He Walked Into My Life (MAME) Liz Callaway My Cup Runneth Over (I DO! I DO!) Bob Stillman
Cabaret (CABARET) Kerry O'Malley
Rhythm of Life (SWEET CHARITY) Company

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Passion Play

Elizabethan England, Nazi Germany and late 20th century South Dakota have very little in common, except for the fact that all three were known for staging religious pageants depicting the death and resurrection of Christ.

It's surprising that no major Off-Broadway company has mounted Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play," her epic three-and-a-half hour cycle exploring the intersection of religious faith, theatrical performance and community in three vastly different settings.

This hole has finally been filled by the Epic Theatre Ensemble, which is staging a low-budget production at a church in Forte Greene.

All three acts of "Passion Play" involve a local acting troupe staging the medieval religious play about the final days of Christ. In all three acts, the same actors portray Pontius Pilate, Jesus and Mary, but their characters' identifications with the roles change, as does society's response to the Christian pageant.

The first act takes place in an English village in 1575, where anti-Catholic Elizabeth I has outlawed the play. The second act leaps forward to Germany in 1934, where the Nazi party is gaining momentum and Hitler, admiring the pageant's anti-Semitic tone, makes a surprise visit. The play concludes in 1980s South Dakota, where Ronald Reagan is making a campaign stop.

Mark Wing-Davey's shoestring budget production makes great use of the church space, though it is curiously fixated on fish symbolism. T. Ryder Smith endures elaborate costume changes as Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Reagan, and young Hale Appleman is especially charismatic as the lucky actor picked to play Christ.

While Epic Theatre Ensemble's initiative is to be applauded, "Passion Play" ultimately comes off as a slow, disjointed and overwritten thesis project. While Ruhl's postmodern concept is intriguing, Ruhl is badly in need of an editor who can help shape "Passion Play" into a leaner, more focused piece of theater.

"Passion Play" is at the Irondale Center.
85 S. Oxford St., Fort Greene, Brooklyn, 718-488-9233, irondale.org, $22.50-42.50. Through May 30.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Kid

Off-Broadway's New Group is giving birth, quite literally, to a fine new musical about a gay adoption. It's not quite ready yet, but the ultrasound shows that something special has been conceived.

"The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant," sex columnist Dan Savage's popular 1999 memoir, recounts the complicated journey that Dan (played by the truly excellent Christopher Sieber) and his younger boyfriend Terry (Lucas Steele) endured trying to adopt a baby.

After facing long waits from the adoption agencies, they are referred to Melissa (Jeannine Frumess), a dirty and homeless teen who took drugs and drank alcohol during the first months of her pregnancy. No one else is willing to adopt her future child.

Dan, who also serves as narrator, constantly questions his motives for wanting to adopt and also confesses his fears that Terry will leave him, or that the child will be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

"The Kid" is not overtly political, but it does depict how Dan and Terry feel marginalized and out of place in the adoption process because of their open sexuality.

The production, directed by Scott Elliott, is in need of some serious editing. The narrative is too often interrupted, and its length ought to be cut by at least 20 minutes. Its visual projections are cute but too often distracting.

Even so, "The Kid" is an extremely heartfelt and personal story. The songs are mostly enjoyable, and one sung by the pregnant teen about her way of life is almost worthy of Sondheim.

Christopher Sieber, who most recently played Lord Farquaad in "Shrek," gives the strongest performance of his career as Dan, marked by genuine sincerity and self-effacing humor. The cast also includes Jill Eikenberry, Susan Blackwell and Tyler Maynard.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Q&A with Jeffry Denman on Broadway By the Year 1966

The success of a "Broadway by the Year" concert often depends directly upon the year that is being showcased. 1966, which will be explored at Monday night's Town Hall concert, is pretty damn strong: "Mame," "Sweet Charity," "Cabaret" and "I Do, I Do," among other shows. We spoke with director-choreographer Jeffry Denman about the concert. Denman was recently christened a Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Award nominee for his outstanding work in the Broadway-bound musical "Yank!" as both choreographer and supporting actor.

Q: You directed and choreographed almost the entire "BBTY" season last year. What's it like to be doing it again?

A: I love the "Broadway By the Year" series. Before I was ever even involved I thought it was such a great idea. So to be able to be involved as often as I have been is a real treat and an honor. I believe in what Scott is trying to accomplish, mainly, celebrate the wonderful history of American musical theatre.

Q: What do you think makes 1966 stand out in terms of musical theater? How do those musicals relate to the time period in which they were performed?

A: 1966 stands out brilliantly. "Cabaret," "Mame" and "Sweet Charity" alone would make any year a success. But then you add "I Do I Do," "The Apple Tree," "Walking Happy" - great scores with funny and touching lyrics. How many new scores do we have on Broadway this year? I shouldn't ask. As far as how they relate to the time, Kander and Ebb were innovative in the way they used diagetic songs that commented ironically on the plot in "Cabaret." "Sweet Charity" has "The Rhythm of Life" sequence which foreshadows the whole hippie be-in culture that would arrive full fledged in "Hair," three years later. Even "Mame" has its own counter culture message. So I think many of the best shows were not only of their time but also were sowing the seeds of the growth of modern musical theatre.

Q: What songs or shows were you most excited to work on? Did you uncover any unexpected material or change your view on any song or show?

A: We've been amazed in rehearsals because there's not one clunker. And we had to cut songs that we really wanted to do because we can't have the concert be three hours long. I really wanted to take on "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" from "Charity" because it's such a bear (and we're doing it with the monologues and everything.) I was worried because we only have a week to put these shows together but the performers were game and really worked hard and quickly. I originally had declined to use "The Rhythm of Life" because I thought it was too complicated with all the overlapping vocal patterns. But I kept listening to it and I just couldn't turn it down. So now it's our finale. Go big or go home, right?

Q: Have you previously performed in any of these shows?

A: I choreographed "Mame" when I was in college, does that count? I've always wanted to play the Emcee in "Cabaret" and I've always wanted to direct/choreograph "Sweet Charity." That's as close to any of these shows as I've gotten. Just desire.

Q: What will the dance sequences be like?

A: The band is onstage with us so it's a challenge choreographically, but the good part is we have Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band right there with us. The cast has been wonderful about pushing the limits of the stage. I've tried to stay, style-wise, within the realm of each of the shows. I love classic musical theatre staging and choreography. My heroes are Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. So I try to honor them while doing my own thing as well. As I say to the cast all the time, "let's do what the song is telling us to do." Bob Cuccioli likes to hold the sheet music up to his ear and listen when I say that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Forest

"The Forest, "Alexander Ostrovsky's 1870 rarely performed comedic drama, has been successfully revived by quite a few ambitious classical theater companies in recent years, so it seemed like a natural fit for Off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company.

The Russian performer-playwright, who wrote more than 50 plays over his lifetime, is now considered an important predecessor of Chekhov. Unfortunately, Classic Stage's muddled and misdirected production is unlikely to bring Ostrovsky's body of work back into fashion anytime soon.

"The Forest" observes Gennady (the excellent John Douglas Thompson), a vagabond actor who tries to portray himself as a noble gentleman when he stumbles upon the manor estate of his stingily rich aunt Raisa (an oddly ineffective Dianne Wiest). A star-crossed love triangle subplot plays out in the background along with some bits of cultural commentary here and there.

Director Brian Kulick fails to arrive at a consistent tone for his traditionally-staged production. Half the time, "The Forest" feels like a serious morality play in which the aunt's miserly nature is being criticized. The rest of the production is marked and marred by bits of comedy that continuously fail to pay off.

Wiest, who overplays her Raisa's whiny petulance, looks uneasy and lost onstage. You occasionally can't help but wonder whether she's trying to remember her lines.

Thompson, who recently gave the performance of the theater season in "The Emperor Jones," briefly shimmers during his monologues about the supposedly noble art of stage acting, but even he is unable to make this half-baked production seem worthwhile.

"The Forest" plays at Classic Stage Company.
136 E. 13th St., 212-352-3101, classicstage.org.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Family Week

Beth Henley's "Family Week" is a play designed to help insomniacs. It is so uninteresting and moves so slowly that it's bound to put essentially any audience member to sleep. Should you stay awake, its 75-minute length feels like at least four hours.

"Family Week" premiered in 2000 to bad reviews and has been rarely revived since. Film director Jonathan Demme, looking for a challenging Off-Broadway directing debut, has worked closely with Henley to revise the drama.

The drama is set at a traumatic recovery center in the Arizona desert, where Claire (RoseMarie DeWitt of "Rachel Getting Married") is still recovering from an emotional breakdown following her son's suicide and husband's abandonment.

Her critical mother (Kathleen Chalfant), whiny teenage daughter (Sami Gayle) and cryptic sister (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) have arrived for visiting weekend to check up on her. They find her to be increasingly fragile, unsure of herself and depressed. Claire must even hug a stuffed bear for emotional support.

"Family Week" is divided into short vignettes, alternating private conversations between Claire and her family with confessional exercises conducted by psychotherapists.

Though Henley convincingly explores Claire's past and present emotions, "Family Week" never maintains enough momentum to make the spectator care about the characters. Worst of all, Demme's stage direction is so lifeless and static that it manages to muddle the bits of humor in the text.

It often feels as if you are watching an uninteresting, non-musical version of "Next to Normal," which also deals with a mother recovering from the loss of her son and dealing with psychotherapists.

DeWitt delivers a fine performance, but the characteristically strong Chalfant is hindered by her character's two-dimensionality.

"Family Week" plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
121 Christopher St., 212-279-4200, mcctheater.org. Through May 23.