Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tiny Beautiful Things ** C

Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns from The Rumpus, an online website, was a bestseller. Actor Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) thought it would be a good idea to adapt it for the stage and enlisted Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail to assist with the concept. Kail (Hamilton) also directs. The result is this sporadically involving 80-minute production now at the Public Theater. An epistolary play with no direct interaction between characters is not an easy thing to bring off, but it can be done (cf. Love Letters). Here, however, it is an unequal exchange with one person responding to questions from several others. Three actors — Phillip James Brannon (Nat Turner in Jerusalem),  Alfredo Narciso and Natalie Woolams-Torres — play a variety of people with a variety of problems, large and small, who write to Sugar for advice. Sugar differs from the typical advice columnist by her willingness to share her own painful experiences with her readers. Nardalos portrays her with no-nonsense directness, folding laundry or packing school lunches as she speaks. Each time one of the other actors appears, he or she is playing a different person so there is little opportunity to build a character. One notable exception is an extended scene in which Narciso plays a man whose son has been killed by a hit-and-run driver; he is absolutely wrenching. While the questions more or less resemble ordinary speech, Sugar’s answers come out in polished prose. I would have preferred reading them at my leisure over hearing them on a stage. Rachel Hauck’s set of Strayed’s kitchen and living room looks so lived in that I found myself studying its details when my interest lagged. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes suit the characters well. Thomas Kail’s direction tries hard to enliven a basically static situation. I admired all the good intentions, but I found the effort ultimately misguided.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

On Your Feet ** C+

If exuberance were all it took to make a Broadway musical a winner, this jukebox bio-musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine would make the grade. The infectious music of this Cuban-American couple is played by a terrific orchestra that is onstage for the big numbers. The two leads, Ana VillafaƱe and Ektor Rivera, are both excellent and are supported by a fine cast that includes Andrea Burns, Alma Cuervo and a young tap-dancing terror named Eduardo Hernandez. The dance numbers, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, are relentlessly energetic. David Rockwell’s hyperactive set features two tall panels made of shutters that move around a lot. The costumes by Esosa are a treat. Jerry Mitchell’s direction is slick. Unfortunately, all the show’s strengths are largely undone by a lame book by Alexander Dinelaris. Its weaknesses are less apparent during the lively first act, but become increasingly problematic during the weak second act. The abrupt and rather flat finale morphs into an unusually lively extended curtain call. Go for the music and the dancing and try to ignore the book. It has been running for over a year, so clearly it has found an audience. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Looking Back at 2016

Judging from the shows I saw in 2016, New York theater has had a better year than in 2015. This year I awarded **** (Very Good) ratings to 17 shows. Last year there were only 9.

Here are my 4-star shows listed alphabetically:

The Color Purple
Dear Evan Hansen
Fiddler on the Roof
The Golden Bride
“Master Harold” …and the Boys
Noises Off
Old Hats
Sense & Sensibility
She Loves Me
Shuffle Along
Thank God for Jokes
Turn Me Loose
The Wolves

Only 3 shows received my * (Poor) rating, as compared to 8 last year.

In alphabetical order they are:

Newsical: The Musical
Our Mother’s Brief Affair

Incidentally, a few people asked whether I had ever awarded a show 5 stars. The answer is yes: The Piano Man and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 2013 and a previous version of Old Hats in 2012. Let’s hope that with the new rating system it won’t be too long a wait until the first A+.

I hope you had many enjoyable theatrical experiences this year and will have even more in the coming year.

With best wishes for the Holiday Season,
Bob Sholiton

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Theater Reviews: A Change in Scoring

Loyal reader,

For some months, I have been concerned that my 0-to-5 star rating system lacks sufficient nuance. In particular, a 3-star rating covers so much territory that it is not all that informative. Therefore, I am testing a letter-grade system with pluses and minuses to see whether that is more helpful. I have added a letter score to all the reviews since July of this year to give you an idea how it would work. If you scroll to the bottom of this screen, you will see "Blog Archive." Click on the name of each month starting with July 2016 and you will see the names of the plays I reviewed that month with both a star and a letter rating. Please let me know what you think. If you have trouble using the comment function, just send me an email at If there is general approval, I will switch from stars to letters starting in January.

Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season.

Bob Sholiton

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Babylon Line ** C-

Making fun of the conformity of life in Levittown 50 years ago is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. The target is too easy. Nevertheless, Richard Greenberg’s look at a creative writing class in the local adult education program, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater, initially shows promise. The presence of such stalwarts of the New York stage as Randy Graff, Julie Halston and Frank Wood as three of the students is a big help. Josh Radnor (Disgraced) is no slouch either as their teacher, an unsuccessful writer who makes the weekly trip from Manhattan to earn a few dollars. Ms. Graff plays a stereotypical overbearing yenta, who would be objectionable if she weren’t so amusing. Ms. Halston, as one of her friends, is more open-minded. Maddie Corman portrays another friend, who has a rocky marriage. Frank Wood plays a veteran suffering from what we now call PTSD, who seeks release in his writing. Michael Oberholtzer plays a strange young man, possibly on the spectrum, who is working on a magnum opus. The final student is a mysterious woman who has lived in Levittown for many years, but is unknown to the others. This character, portrayed by Elizabeth Reaser, whom I have admired on other occasions, has for some reason been saddled with a Southern accent that comes and goes. (Perhaps there was a course on Tennessee Williams next door and she wandered into the wrong classroom.) The first act proceeds smoothly, but after intermission things go seriously off the rails. The second act is overlong and overwrought, burdened with lame gimmicks and false endings. Richard Hoover’s classroom set is excellent. I can't vouch for the accuracy of  Sarah J. Holden’s period costumes, but they seem appropriate. Director Terry Kinney gets tripped up in the second act problems. There are several entertaining moments along the way, but by the end most of the goodwill I felt after Act One had vanished. At least it’s an improvement over Greenberg's last play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” which he briefly references. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dead Poets Society ** C-

One of the mini-trends of the current season is the adaptation of award-winning films into plays. First there was Terms of Endearment (which I have not seen) and now this Classic Stage Company production based on the 1989 film which starred Robin Williams and included a trio of young actors (Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles) who went on to successful careers. I hope this trend of recycling movies is nipped in the bud. While there have been many films that were turned into successful musicals, adapting a movie for the stage without musicalizing it doesn’t seem to add any value. In this case, even though the adaptation was done by the screenwriter, Tom Schulman himself, who has trimmed over 20 minutes from the film, the result is a Cliff Notes version that came across to me as bland and pointless. Jason Sudeikis is fine as the charismatic English teacher who urges the preppies in his class at Welton Academy to seize the day. The six young men who play the students (Zane Pais, Thomas Mann, Cody Kostro, Bubba Weiler, William Hochman and Yaron Lotan) are also very good. David Garrison is effective as the headmaster, Paul Nolan. Stephen Barker Turner does his best with the one-note role of Mr. Perry, whose demands on his son provoke a crisis, and Francesca Carpanini looks pretty as the love interest of one of the students. Their valiant efforts were largely sunk by the play’s blandness. Even the ending misfires: after disappearing from the stage for several minutes, Sudeikis briefly returns, but his reappearance has little impact. John Doyle’s direction is mostly straightforward, the main quirk being that books pulled off the library shelves are used in place of classroom furniture. Scott Pask’s attractive set features a library wall of books, complete with rolling ladder. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes looked right for 1959. Japhy Weideman’s lighting and Matt Stine’s sound design are quite effective. All this effort seems misguided as the play itself has so little point to it. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.