Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Little Miss Sunshine ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
William Finn and James Lapine, whose previous collaborations include "Falsettos" and "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," have turned this quirky 2006 indie film into a musical now in previews at Second Stage. To take on a film that owed so much of its success to its perfect casting and one that has become somewhat of a cult classic, was an act of bravery. To their credit, they have captured both the satire and the pathos in this story of a really dysfunctional family from Albuquerque for whom the American dream has turned sour.  Frazzled wife Sheryl (Stephanie J. Block), feckless husband Richard (Will Erat, for Will Swenson), silent son Dwayne (Logan Rowland), 7-year-old daughter and would-be beauty contestant Olive (Hannah Nordberg), Sheryl's suicidal brother Frank (Rory O'Malley) and Grandpa (a surprisingly delightful David Rasche) are all vividly portrayed. (Understudy Erat is so unlike Swenson in appearance that it put a different spin on the character.) To my surprise, the characters in the musical seemed less cartoonish and more sympathetic than in the film. Finn's music, while not memorable, is easy on the ear and Lapine's book has some nice touches. Beowulf Boritt's unit set extends a map of the southwestern U.S. over most of the theater ceiling. Michele Lynch's choreography is clever. Jennifer Caprio's costumes are a treat. Lapine also directed. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

A question: What was the last musical you saw that was not based on a film or book?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Commons of Pensacola **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Few first-time playwrights are lucky enough to have their debut effort presented by a major New York theater company, Manhattan Theater Club, directed by its artistic director, Lynne Meadow, starring two esteemed actresses, Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker. Amanda Peet, an actress known for "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"  and "The Good Wife," is that lucky person. Her play imagines the post-scandal life of Judith, a Ruth Madoff-like character (Danner), forced to live in straitened circumstances in a Florida condo, and the collateral damage to her family. Daughter Becca (Parker), an unsuccessful 43-year-old actress and her 29-year-old boyfriend Gabe (Michael Stahl-David), a self-styled "guerilla journalist," have arrived for a Thanksgiving visit. They are joined by teenaged granddaughter Lizzy (Zoe Levin), whose mother Ali (Ali Marsh) has broken off contact with Judith for reasons unknown. We also meet Judith's capable part-time homemaker-health aide Lorena (Nilaja Sun). What Judith knew about her husband's criminal activities is at issue. The troubled relationship between Judith and Becca is another focus. The play contains several interesting touches and the dialogue is actor-friendlly, but it doesn't add up to much. Although less than a rousing success, it at least provides the pleasure of seeing Danner and Parker on a New York stage again. I attended an early preview, so chances are it might improve before it opens. Santo Loquasto's set is appropriately nondescript. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Model Apartment *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Since I had been warned not once but twice that the Primary Stages revival of this early play by Donald Margulies was terrible, I was quite surprised to read the ecstatic reviews in the press. As a wise person once said, "Don't believe everything you read in the papers." The warnings were well-founded. While survival guilt and the corrosive effects of the Holocaust on survivors' offspring are certainly worthy of theatrical treatment, what Margulies has written seems to me a strange melange with characters that are more constructs than human beings. Lola (Kathryn Grody) and Max (Mark Blum), survivors who met and married in New York, are now a middle-age couple who have left Brooklyn for the expected refuge of retirement in Florida. Since their condo is not yet ready, they are forced to move temporarily into the development's model apartment where things are not as they appear. Metaphor, anyone? We learn that they have left behind their daughter Debby (Diane Davis), a morbidly obese, emotionally disturbed adult who tracks them down and bursts in on their intended idyll. Her mentally challenged, homeless boyfriend Neil (Hubert Point-du Jour) mysteriously arrives shortly thereafter. In several short scenes, they have at each other and their private ghosts. Even at 85 minutes, the play seemed repetitious. The emotional payoff that critics thought made the ordeal of sitting through the play worthwhile was insufficient for me. I think the play would have succeeded better as a shorter one-act without the character of Neil diluting the toxic family dynamic, or as a two-act play with greater character development. Lauren Helpern's set design perfectly captures the Florida condo aesthetic. The production's tone is wobbly, but the fault lies more in the writing than in Evan Cabnet's direction. Running time: one hour, 25 mintues; no intermission.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Luce **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
The publicity for JC Lee’s new play at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater says that it is about a high-school student, adopted from the Congo ten years before, who has a secret. Unfortunately, this sounds more intriguing than it turns out to be. What we get is a look at a teenager reacting to the heavy burden of high expectations, abetted by the unconditional love of an overeager mother. I reacted with ambivalence to all the characters -- Luce (Okieriete Onaodowan), his parents Amy (Marin Hinkle) and Peter (Neal Huff), Luce's teacher Harriet (Sharon Washington), who makes an unsettling discovery about him, and Stephanie (Olivia Oguma), a girl Luce dated. Along the way, the playwright pokes mild fun at educational, parental and social-network doublespeak. Luce expresses the opinion that cultural diversity is often misused as a way to avoid treating people as individuals. For me, the play’s focus got lost in the shuffle. Timothy R. Mackabee’s multipurpose set features a blackboard that doubles as a scrim through which we see part of the family home. Kaye Voyce’s costumes seemed appropriate. May Adrales’s direction, so effective for The Dance and the Railroad earlier this year, worked no magic here. It made for an interesting, but ultimately disappointing, evening. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Big Fish **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Had I seen Tim Burton’s 2003 film about Edward Bloom (Norbert Leo Butz), a tall-tale-telling traveling salesman from Alabama and his uneasy relationship with his son Will (Bobby Steggert), I probably would have passed on the musical. The film’s combination of fantasy, whimsy and sentimentality is not a blend I generally seek out. The creative team led by director-choreographer Susan Stroman has made a noble, but largely unsuccessful, effort to adapt the film for the musical stage. The elaborate scenic design by Julian Crouch, colorful costumes by William Ivey Long and complex projections by Benjamin Pearcy provide lots to look at, almost to the point of distraction. The book, by the film’s screenwriter John August, crams too much exposition with too little emotion into the long first act, but improves a bit after intermission. The talented Kate Baldwin as Edward’s wife Sandra gets a nice ballad, but little in the way of a character to develop. Krystal Joy Brown is lovely as Will’s wife, but the point of casting the role with an African-American actor puzzled me. Since the action takes place in Alabama, what, if anything, are we supposed to make of this choice (which is not in the movie)? To me, the music is the main point of a musical. That’s where “Big Fish” really falls short. Andrew Lippa’s music is bland and his lyrics, banal. Butz apparently has a very devoted fan base -- when he first appeared onstage, the applause was thunderous. If you loved the movie and have time and money to burn, there are worse ways to spend an evening. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including intermission.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Landing **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
"Be careful what you wish for" seems to be the moral of the three playlets that comprise this chamber musical now in previews at the Vineyard Theatre. Whether it's a young boy who needs a friend, a bored housewife who wants a link to her fantasy world of late-night gangster movies, or a gay couple hoping to adopt the perfect child, getting one's wish does not turn out well. If you were wishing for a show with music by John Kander (most recently Scottsboro Boys and Curtains), lyrics and book by promising playwright Greg Pierce (Slowgirl) and a talented cast led by David Hyde Pierce (Greg's uncle), the same might apply to you. The evening is curiously flat. "Andra," basically story theater with a little music added, goes on much too long. "The Brick," the most inventive and lively of the three, could use some trimming too. The final piece, "The Landing," is sketchy and its theme problematic. The shortcomings of the material are almost compensated for by an excellent cast -- Pierce, Julia Murney, Paul Anthony Stewart and appealing child actor Frankie Seratch. There is not as much music as I would have expected and what there is not top-drawer Kander. The evening is by no means terrible, just not very interesting. The simple, functional set design is by the busy John Lee Beatty. Talented director Walter Bobbie makes the most of what he has to work with. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Snow Geese *

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
Somewhere inside the shapeless drama now in previews at MTC's Friedman Theatre, there's a play struggling to get out. There are plenty of plot points that could be interesting -- a family's suddenly diminished fortunes, the effects of parental favoritism on character, sibling rivalry in two generations, the treatment of German-Americans in 1917, the horrors of war, the plight of a war refugee, the difficulty of overcoming grief and a few nods to Chekhov. Why then don't they come together to form a rewarding, involving whole? It's not the acting -- the cast (Mary-Louise Parker, Danny Burstein, Victoria Clark, Evan Jonigkeit, Brian Cross, Christopher Innvar and Jessica Love) is mostly strong. It's certainly not the set -- once again Jon Lee Beatty has outdone himself with an attractive, flexible design. I think those most blame-worthy are playwright Sharr White ("The Other Place") for not locating and emphasizing the play's emotional center, the director (Daniel Sullivan) for overlooking serious problems (including a second act scene and character that should be excised), and Manhattan Theatre Club, for presenting a play before it was ready. Let's hope for a miracle -- maybe they'll whip it into shape before opening night. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fun Home **

Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” made many top ten lists and became something of a cult classic. In it, Bechdel describes growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in a repressed family led by a difficult father with a passion for house restoration. The “fun home” of the title is the family’s affectionate shorthand for “funeral home,” the family business that supplements the parents’ schoolteacher salaries. Alison and her father had a complicated relationship -- their common interest in literature was the closest thing to a bond. Shortly after Alison came out as a lesbian, her father died, perhaps a suicide. Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change) and Lisa Kron (Well) have bravely adapted Bechdel’s memoir for the musical stage, in a production now in previews at the Public Theater. Tesori’s music and Kron’s lyrics have produced several fine songs, but some of the best have little to do with Bechdel’s material. Alison is played by three actors -- Alison as a child (Sydney Lucas), college-age Alison (Alexandra Socha) and 43-year-old Alison (Beth Malone). Lucas and Socha are very engaging, but Malone is a bit of a stick (not helped by the fact that she is frightfully thin). Michael Cerveris as the father and Judy Kuhn as the mother do not get enough to work with to develop complex characters. Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale play Alison’s younger brothers, Roberta Colindrez is Joan, her first lover, and Joel Perez plays Ron, the sexy handyman. Musicals must inevitably simplify, but oversimplification is sometimes a hazard. The book’s many literary allusions disappear. David Zinn’s set and costumes are good, but do not compare favorably with Bechtel’s wonderful line drawings. I think the play needs further work, particularly on the opening and the final scene. Sam Gold directed. The audience was clearly made up of fans. It was obvious even before the play began that, whatever transpired, the reaction would be an enthusiastic one. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.