THEATER REVIEWS

THEATER REVIEW – ROCKY on BROADWAY

ROCKY on Broadway

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 A few years ago, I was doing my traditional after-Christmas shopping and walked into our local Carlton Card store. Each year, Carlton has a select number of ornaments dedicated to the movies – some contemporary and some classic.  This particular year, the movie ornament was from Rocky – the Oscar winning movie from 1976.   Rocky was not one of my all time favorite movies…I enjoyed it and I appreciate it but – truth be told – I would not buy the ornament.  However. at 75% off, this was a steal, especially since I wasn’t purchasing it for myself.  Someone special to me had dropped a hint at some point.  You see, my secretary, Sylvia, mentioned to me – I thought several times – that Rocky was her favorite movie.   She went on and on and on about it.  So, I thought this would be a perfect gift for her the following Christmas.  

I held the ornament for eleven months on my bookshelf at the office.  I delicately wrapped it and placed it in a bag, along with a few other items.  I was so excited.  Melting with anticipation, I watched Sylvia unwrap my find.  Her reaction was priceless – “Oh how nice.” I immediately knew something was wrong as it certainly was not the reaction I was expecting.  “Isn’t Rocky your favorite movie of all time?” I asked.  She howled with laughter and yelled, “NO, I NEVER SAID THAT!!!”  Totally dismayed, I took the ornament back.  Six months later, while preparing for my garage sale, I found out that it was my Cousin Lisa who had that now infamous conversation with me.  Lisa did not want the ornament either and it sold that weekend.

Although my past experiences with this material have been a little “rocky” to say the least, I purchased tickets to “Rocky” on Broadway with some excitement but also some trepidation.  When it premiered in Germany in 2012, it wowed audiences and critics.  However, European audiences and critics differ greatly from their U.S. counterparts.  We are more cynical and we expect so much more from our theater experiences – and we should.   Naturally, I expected a lot from this venture and for the most part, my expectations were fulfilled.

Everyone knows the basic story line of Rocky and there are clearly two stories evolving at the same time.  Rocky is falling in love and Rocky needs to fight to prove to himself that he is worthy of both loving and being loved.  The first act plants those ideas in our heads and introduces us to the characters and their flaws – and then their dreams. “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” was one of the first songs of the show and it allows the Rocky character to really embrace his shortcomings but also his confidence.  Andy Karl is just terrific in this role.  Having seen him in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Jersey Boys, the role of Rocky allows him to shine — and while he is physically fit and in great shape, one might think he is too small to play the role.    However, any shortcoming he might have in stature he makes up for in his sincerity as Rocky.  He is simple and honest, but also so downtrodden that you have to be on his side.  He allows us to feel for him and with him. So when he and Adrian, played by the fantastic Margo Siebert, meet and begin their relationship, you want them to win more than you want him to win in the ring.  Flaherty and Ahrens songs are tender and allow the two to fall in love against a backdrop of some lovely ballads.

While Act One does what it is supposed to do in setting the stage for a great second act, it lacks luster and needs some work.  This is not to say that the lighting, the staging and the sound are not amazing – they are — but the book is a little weak.  You get through it and feel that you just needed more excitement. Then –  like a boxing match, just you think they are down –they come right back and dazzle you with one of the most exciting pieces of theater I have seen.

Every amazing asset of this show’s Act Two certainly makes up for a less exciting Act One.  The characters have found themselves and now it is off to the match and this is where the technology knocks you out.  The stage moves and bridges and walkways are elevated, the video projections of scenes of the city are played as Rocky does his early morning training sessions.  It is a dazzling spectacle that is only enhanced when there are other men dressed like Rocky running along side him as he ascends the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  This sets the pace and the tone for the rest of the show.

In a show that depends so much on special effects, the actors can easily be overshadowed.  That does not happen.  They shine through thanks to the material and the brilliance of the acting. When she has had enough of her brother’s abuses, Adrian throws him out singing “I’m Done,” a number that stopped the show the night I was there.  The song will surely be a cabaret staple and Siebert is destined for a Tony nomination.  Her performance takes Adrian from the shy, subservient woman taking care of her inept brother, to a woman with a heart and mind of her own, now looking out for herself and her relationship with Rocky first.  Terrence Archie’s Apollo Creed is so over the top entertaining that it cannot be anything but excellent.  The supporting cast performs admirably.

When it is time for the fight, we are once again not only invited into a world of amazing technology but we are transformed – attending a boxing match.  The people in the first twelve rows of the center orchestra are asked to leave their seats to take their ringside seats on stage.  The boxing ring is lifted above the audience and there are huge video screens allowing the audience to see every part of the big event.  The entire transformation is spectacular turning into an unprecedented piece of theatrical excellence.  By the time its over, it does not matter who won the fight.. you are dazzled by the knock out. 

I suppose for the purist segment of the theater crowd, Rocky might seem like they are giving into technology for a thrill, but it is a new world out there – a new and exciting world that we need to embrace and of which we need to advance.  Feel good and go see Rocky.

 

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THEATER REVIEWS

THEATER REVIEW – A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

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When I purchased the tickets for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” I expected something that combined the excitement of last season’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which incidentally, closed way too soon) and the murdering, bloody mayhem of “Sweeney Todd.”  Based on the 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” by Roy Horniman, and later a movie starring Alec Guinness (Kind Heart and Coronets, 1949), the show is a tale of comic revenge – and murder – but without the blood and guts of Sondheim’s classic Sweeney and a lot more comic relief and slapstick.  That is what makes this a fun show.

The story focuses on the antics of Monty Navarro, (played fetchingly by a handsome Bryce Pinkham) a young and somewhat destitute man, whose mother had just died.  Thanks to a lovely woman (Jane Carr) who pays her respects to Monty, he finds out that he is from the line of the D’Ysquiths, a family of well to do upper class Brits who have no use for anyone  who is not of their level.  Then – as if that weren’t enough of a surprise for him – he finds out that he is ninth in line for the title of Earl of Highhurst. (Monty’s mother was disowned for marrying his father, a Castilian.)  Thinking he can gain entry into the family, he pens a letter requesting employment, which is quickly denied by the son of the head of the family, setting in motion his plot to kill off the right in line ahead of him.

The story is told from Monty’s point of view and begins in a jail cell as he awaits a jury decision on his guilt – or innocence.  And so the flashback as to what happened and how Monty landed in jail, begins – showing how each of the D’ysquiths ahead of him in the succession accidentally met their demise.  Of course, there is a secondary love story between Monty and Sibella, a gorgeous blonde beauty (Lisa O’Hare) who loves Monty but loves money more.  Their unrequited love is fodder for a wonderful sub plot.  Lauren Worsham is endearing as Phoebe D’Ysquith, Monty’s other love interest, who – although a D’Ysquith is not in line for the Earldom. So Phoebe is safe from the perils which her other family members face.  This love triangle is crafted with extreme expertise, skillful comedic play and artful singing.

Jefferson Mayes is just brilliant playing – all eight – yes all eight – D’ysquith family members who meet their maker in a series of unfortunate accidents.  He is so full of energy and every character is hilariously portrayed. There is a vast difference in each of the characters and Mayes pulls them off with ease. I got this feeling that I was in the middle of a Benny Hill or a Monty Python set.  His character changes are fresh and sparkling, crisp and quick, and outright adorable.  Mayes is one of the few people who could accomplish these costume and character changes with great skill and ease.  He will get a Tony nomination for his work.

I am a big fan of Steven Lutvak and was thrilled that he is represented here. Lutvak’s music is complimented with intelligent and quick witted lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, who also penned the book.  Their work is so smart that you actually can’t wait for the next murder and for Monty to actually gain his title.  Their work should at least garner them a Tony nomination for best score.

The rest of the cast did a marvelous job and there are lots of laughs.  If you are not a fan of British musicals, it might take you a little while to get comfortable but that disappears quickly.  While the first half of the first act moved a little slowly, they made up for it in Act II.  It is not a splashy musical and there is no blood to be spilled, but “A Gentleman’s Guide …” makes for a lovely theater experience.

 

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THEATER REVIEWS

THEATER REVIEW – THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

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THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

Having been on the periphery of the musical theater community for many years, there is a sense of purpose and love that fills the air with each new production and the various players involved.  I want every one to succeed and I want every one to be Tony Award worthy- and if it is not Tony Award worthy (some of the best shows never won a Tony), I want it to have a successful run.  Despite my love of everything Meryl Streep does, and the fact that I used to run an Academy Awards pool every year, I never saw the movie.  I vaguely knew the story, never having read Robert James Waller’s book either. So – I went into The Bridges of Madison County with no preconceived notions or expectations.

I was, however, actually afraid – afraid that this creative piece of musical theater would be scuttled away as quickly as some others this season (Big Fish, First Date). I was afraid I would walk out thinking that this was an enjoyable show but nothing more.  I wanted very much to like this.  I wanted very much to love this.  I LOVED THIS SHOW!!  I saw it in previews, so I am sure that there are some changes, although I cannot imagine what.

For those of you who know the story, allow me a minute to indulge. Francesca, an Italian native (played by Kelli O’Hara) who met her American husband (Hunter Foster) about eighteen years earlier at the end of World War II,  now lives with him and their two children on an Iowa farm.  When the family leaves the home to compete at a county fair for four days, Francesca remains behind.  At the same time, a photo journalist, Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale) ends up lost on Francesca’s land.  Instead of giving him directions to his destination, Francesca, sensing an instant attraction,  actually wants to show him exactly where the last “bridge” of Madison County he needs to photograph is located.  This begins a four day affair where two incomplete people find their inner souls as they give themselves completely to each other.

The idea of an affair, or a cheating spouse is a delicate one – and one that does not really resonate with the general public.  After all, adultery goes against every moral rule and regulation that society is built upon.  However, this story is different.  From the first time they meet, they awake inner passions in each other that Francesca thought long dead, and Robert thought unattainable.  The affair – the romance – is treated with such dignity and class that you cannot help but root for both of them to find a way to make this work.  That is the cleverness and wisdom of Marsha Norman’s book.  Complimenting the book is the brilliancy of Jason Robert Brown, whose music and lyrics are haunting and romantic, subtle and meaningful, capturing the honest essence of the characters.  Each song continues to advance this forbidden love story.

O’Hara plays Francesca with such depth, understanding that her family is her whole life, but for a brief moment, entering into a world of “what if’s.” The conflicts and the passions of Francesca come easily for her and she moves through them flawlessly.  Her singing, as usual, is just beautiful. Steven Pasquale’s Robert is strong but fragile, performed with intelligence and trepidation that you cannot help but want him to be happy, again, if only for a brief moment.  Hunter Foster, Carolyn Kinnunen and Derek Klena are wonderful supporting players as Francesca’s husband and two children.  However, the stand out for me from the supporting cast was Cass Morgan, who plays Marge, the nosy but devoted neighbor.

This is not a show that boasts loud, flashy musical numbers.  It is a love story, plain and simple, told in the most elegant of ways.  It may not be a traditional love story, but one that needs to be told as well.  At some point in our lives, we have all asked the question, “What if….”   This show asks us to imagine a little more.

 

NEXT – A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

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THEATER REVIEWS

THEATER REVIEW – BEAUTIFUL – THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL

Image In the mid 1970’s, my oldest friend, Ellen Sullivan, and her family, would make their way from Pelham Bay, in the Bronx, every weekend to their home in the Hamptons.  Once school was done in June, they were gone for the summer.  Our communications over the summer were limited.  There was no way we could call – a phone call from the Bronx to Long Island was considered long distance and we just could not afford that.  So, I mastered the art – and I mean the art – of letter writing…courtesy of Carole King.

    What shall I write?    What can I say?   How can I tell you how much I miss you?

The weather here has been as nice as it can be
Although it doesn’t really matter much to me
For all the fun I’ll have while you’re so far away
It might as well rain until September

 Well maybe it really did not happen like that..but I think I always imagined it would.  You see for me, everything was a song, a commercial, a television show.  We did write letters, but I just imagined that song in my head, singing it to Ellen –it seemed that singing was so much more effective than simply writing a letter.  The song – It Might As Well Rain Until September.” written by King and Gerry Goffin – was and remains  – one of my favorites.

So when the musical, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical – opens with that song as one of the first numbers, I was instantly transported back to my childhood.  And – although I was barely two years old when this song came out,  I always lived as if I were born a decade earlier – much in part due to this kind of music.

The story of Carole King’s rise to fame from a highly driven Brooklyn  girl to an accomplished song writer to her own career as a solo artist, is told through a series of familiar songs and outstanding performances by the accomplished cast.  The partnership, marriage and eventual break-up of King and Goffin are handled with admiration, respect and dignity.  There is no bitterness or anger in the story – which could have easily been added for dramatic effect.  The King/Goffin relationship is offset by also telling the story of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, accomplished songwriters in their own respect, who become the best friends of the couple.

The choice of songs was fantastic – highlighting both couples’ works.  Audiences will be amazed how many great songs were written by these amazing talents. Some of my favorites in the first act included,Take Good Care of My Baby, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, The Locomotion   and One Fine Day.  The second act boasts classics like It’s Too Late, Beautiful, A Natural Woman and I Feel the Earth Move.

Leading the cast is the amazingly talented Jesse Mueller.  This is the fourth role I have had the pleasure of seeing her perform and her range is just amazing.  She plays King with a sensitivity and passion that makes you root for her success.  She becomes Carole King.  There is an element of her portrayal that has you feeling that as talented as she is, King felt she did not deserve to be that successful, especially after she was thrust into her solo career.  The transformation is superb.  The Tony competition will be fierce this year as Mueller is sure to be a hot contender. The other leads are excellent as well.  Anika Larsen and Jared Spector really stand out.  Jake Epstein’s Goffin is soulful and sad at the same time.  The ensemble is wonderful.

I am not a fan of the jukebox musical, but sometimes they get it right – this is one of those times.  Everything gels and you do “feel the earth move.”  Go see Beautiful, The Carole King Musical.  

 NEXT – THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

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THEATER REVIEWS

Bronx Bombers – Theater Review

BBLong before George Steinbrenner took over the New York Yankees and started paying hefty salaries for the stars of the game, the Yankee Dynasty had been established.  The players like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra formed that dynasty. Bronx Bombers, the new play on Broadway by Eric Simonson., at the Circle in the Square Theater, pays homage to what made and still makes the Yankees the most successful team in baseball.

First of all, you do not have to be a Yankee fan to enjoy Bronx Bombers, but it does help.  It is a quality story which combines the true events of 1977 with a fantasy dream.  The first act relives the aftermath of the highly publicized and nationally televised all-out brawl between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson.  Yogi Berra, played with amazing skill, by Peter Scolari, organizes a meeting with Martin, Jackson and Thurman Munson.  The meeting does not go as Berra planned.  The arguments ensue, the egos fly and it leaves Berra with the uneasy feeling that he might be replacing his friend (Martin) as manager, leaving him confused and emotional.  Scolari’s vulnerability as Berra was perfect.  Bill Dawes portrayed the late Thurman Munson with the heart he is remembered for.  Francois Battiste was so good as Reggie Jackson, that I remembered why I despised him but revered him at the same time.

The second act opens up as Yogi and his wife Carmen host a dinner party attended by the Yankee legends. This, of course, is Yogi’s dream.  Tracy Shayne plays Carmen Berra, Shayne, the real life wife of Scolari, is beautifully elegant and the perfect hostess for this fantasy.  As the legends arrive, Berra is struggling with the fact that he might be replacing Martin as the manager.  He is guilty and excited at the same time.  One by one, the legends appear.  Yogi’s dilemma is now secondary to the conversations among the men.  Each one recalls a beef he had with the guy who came before or after him and in the end, the lesson about the team and its dynasty overrules Yogi’s personal issues. After all, it is what the Yankees are made of.

Bill Dawes and Francois Baptiste do double duty as (respectively) Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard, the first African American player on the team.  Chris Henry Coffey’s portrayal of DiMaggio was classic – playing him with the comfort of Mr. Coffee, but the swagger and attitude DeMaggio was known for.  C.J. Wilson (Babe Ruth) and John Wernke (Lou Gehrig) were cast perfectly.  What would a Yankee legend dinner party be without Derek Jeter, played by Christopher Jackson, as the proud but humble guy he is.

Some people say that you need to know some of Yankee history  or you must be a real Yankee fan to understand and love Bronx Bombers. Others say they hated the whole concept – mostly cranky critics – and then there was me..and my party of four..who loved it from start to finish, recommending it to everyone.  It is not an Arthur Miller drama, or a play which delves into the inner demons of its characters.  The show allows us to appreciate Yogi Berra and the Dynasty that is the Yankees.

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