Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review of Oliver! at the Media Theatre

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 12-15-2008:

In addition to the pageant of George Balanchine’s "The Nutcracker," one holiday tradition dominates Philly stages each December: the theatrical cash-cow of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But according to Media Theatre Artistic Director Jesse Cline, Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! proves that there’s another Dickens’ story worth seeing during the holidays.

In our current economic climate, Cline’s insight hits home; even the toy sales dropped on Black Friday and shoppers left the malls without that "must-buy" item for their kids. But it’s a safe bet that no child in America would trade places with Dickens’ Oliver (Tovi Wayne) and face the dreary childhood he experienced in Victorian England. Orphaned since birth, he grows up eating nothing but gruel in a miserable orphanage run by the corrupt Mr. Bumble (Nicholas F. Saverine), a penny-pincher who sells Oliver for five pounds when the boy has the cheek to ask for another helping of food.

But his life gets no better working for a funeral director (Jim Ludovici as Mr. Sowerberry), and Oliver escapes into the clutches of The Artful Dodger (Will Porter) and Fagin (Bev Appleton), a pair that turns lonely runaways into an organized gang of pickpockets. His once chance at rescue and redemption lies in the warmth of a street-worker who befriends him (Elisa Matthews as Nancy), and the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Stephen Bonnell), who believes that Oliver might be his grandson.

Kelly Michelle Leight’s dreary, gun-metal colored set serves as a miserable reminder of the workhouse conditions and pollution that coated London in grime during the height of the Industrial Revolution, and her harsh lighting doubly reminds of that bleak period. Costume designer Mary Ann Swords-Greene dresses the cast to reflect a divided society with which we’re too familiar, as the prim, well-kept appearance of those with position contrasts sharply against the Victorian-era underclass, who, like the chimney sweeps of that age, look perpetually covered in soot.

Policemen don’t hesitate to shoot a man on sight or even punch children in the face, and this "Oliver!" makes it clear that 100 years ago in England, society’s throwaway class suffered horribly. But rather than let the production’s atmosphere serve as the backdrop for a gripping Dickensian story of good versus evil and compassionate hope pitted against cynical greed, Cline’s lackluster staging deprives this production of energy. The chorus of ten-year-old orphans and pickpockets mostly stand around even during the uplifting numbers, and Tim Haney’s shoddy choreography doesn’t even give the adults anything interesting to do.

Cline’s staging would even had me doubt that some excitable and rambunctious 10-year-old ever existed to inspire Dickens title character, as Wayne sits or stands in almost passive acceptance of what happens to him, wondering "where is love?" in a world that offers him little kindness. This makes the production a double shame, as Oliver’s compelling story of hope becomes something dreary, rather than uplifting, and the spectacular singing seems out of place.

Saverine’s gorgeous, opera-quality singing fits right in with a cast that offers so much talent. In anyone else’s production, even these flower girls could play the female lead, and only the extraordinary Matthews, in her beautifully sung and inspired portrayal as Nancy, can outshine them. And by itself Wayne’s bright and richly colored paid for the plane ticket that brought him from California to play the title role.

So anyone looking for incredible voices can skip even the Academy of Music’s "Messiah" this year and head to Media to hear Oliver!, where the comparison to a choral work is unfortunately even more apt in the staging. But as for finding the Holiday spirit? The level of energy in the production leaves me doubting that anyone could walk out of the theatre and think of Tiny Tim saying "God bless us, every one."

Oliver!, at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media PA, until January 4, 2009. Tickets and more information available at the theater’s website.

Review of A Tuna Christmas at Walnut Street's Studio 3

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 12-10-2008:

To borrow a line from comedian Jeff Foxworthy: You know you’re a redneck if you’re hanging Christmas ornaments made from coffee filters and empty toilet paper rolls. Either that, or you’re appearing in Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jaston Williams’ A Tuna Christmas, now in production at the Walnut Street’s Studio Three.

After the Walnut Street’s successful production last year of the same authors’ Greater Tuna, director Madi Distefano recast John Zak and Benjamin Lloyd to play another 30 (or so) characters in Tuna, Texas, "the third smallest town in the state." A Tuna Christmas follows the struggles and foibles of the town’s backward residents during the Holiday season as they compete for the annual Christmas Yard Display Contest. For the last 15 years, the wealthy Vera Carp has won, and this year she’s hired Mexican immigrants to tend to the live animals in her holiday diorama.

If only they could fend off the "Christmas Phantom," a mysterious prankster who wrecks the lawn displays while causing the neighbors to accuse each other of perpetrating the mischief. Meanwhile, the town’s eccentric, "non-marrying type" (wink, wink) director Joe Bob Lipsey struggles to put on a production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol because an overzealous public utilities worker threatens to shut off the power unless he pays the theatre’s electric bill.

Distefano contemporizes the script’s humor with updates about the Walnut Street’s current production of Hairspray, Sarah Palin (of course), and a Christmas tree decorated to look like Dick Cheney "shot it in the face." The remaining jokes-and there’s plenty-mostly target the backwardness of life in the Deep South.

The play starts and ends at Radio OKKK, where advertisements for the local used-weapons store announce "if we can’t kill it, it’s immortal," and residents call to announce meetings of the anti-pornography group "Smut Snatchers." Local high-school girls wear the hot-selling perfume "Compromise," and townspeople threaten Tuna’s lone liberal citizen," by telling him that they "shoot vegetarians on sight." So much for being done with rednecks from Texas.

A Tuna Christmas affectionately satirizes Southern life, and any theatergoer will delight hearing Lipsey complain about his "all-white" production of "A Raisin in the Sun," or celebrate his innovative recasting of the Greek tragedy "Medea" into a Confederate triumph. And those who love well-crafted performances will find much to enjoy in Zak and Lloyd’s superb performances.

The pair run on and off the stage, and with little more than a wig and costume change, manage to seamlessly and hilariously inhabit an entire town’s worth of characters. Zak’s radio announcer sports a Roy Orbison bouffant, and Lloyd, tucked inside a "fat suit," is possibly the nastiest looking housewife in Texas-or anywhere. And the choice for Zak to play the town’s lone liberal as mentally challenged shows a subtle and interesting commentary on the South’s perverted understanding of Blue-State values.

Costume designer Alisa Sikora-Kleckner finds endless variations on the theme of "Wal-Mart chic," contrasting John Deere pajamas with a one-piece satin jumper that makes even the town’s wealthy resident look like white trash. Meghan Jones’ adorns her functional set with ratty props (including a mounted Jackalope!), Shon Causer’s lighting helps sharpen the rough transitions in locales, and Christopher Colucci’s vivid sound design paints in the backdrop of southern life.

However, even the design team’s potent atmosphere can’t ward off the dead moments in the production. Distefano tries to enliven these with rock music and dancing or pesky grandmothers firing slingshots at birds, but the overkill of jokes means that some of the script will just not sound funny. Too many ancillary characters complicate the plot without adding a compensating humor for the distraction, and while I enjoyed Zak and Lloyd’s versatility, the final moments spent reminiscing left me bored.

Howard, Sears, and Williams have written a third installment to their Tuna series. Despite the changes in Washington, chances are Philadelphia audiences will get to laugh at rednecks from Texas for at least one more year.

The Independence Studio on Three at the Walnut Street Theatre presents A Tuna Christmas until Jan. 4. Tickets and more information available at:

Review of 1812's production of Cherry Bomb

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 12-20-2008:

Possibly the least appreciated fact about human nature is how little it changes. Today, crazed and talentless contestants appear on American Idol to publicly humiliate themselves and ratings soar. 100 years ago, people loved the Cherry Sisters, a quintet appropriately, if not affectionately, known as "the Worst Act in Vaudeville."

Of course, the real question is why any of them, from William Hung to the Cherry Sisters, subject themselves to nightly humiliation. In 1812’s vaudeville entertainment Cherry Bomb: The Worst Act in Vaudeville for the Holidays, composer James Sugg and lyricist/book-writer Jen Childs’ seek an answer.

Childs cleverly uses a play-within-a-play construction to get at the heart of their story, making each of the five women-Ella (Mary Martello), Lizzie (Maureen Torsney-Weir), Addie (Megan Bellwoar), Effie (Mary McCool), and Jessie (Charlotte Ford)-characters in the musical, as well as a staged presentation of their life by Oscar Hammerstein I (Scott Greer). Each act employs a different vaudevillian style (from a burlesque and a romantic serenade to a juggling extravaganza), while the girls struggle to maintain the truth of their story against Hammerstein’s more insulting retelling.

Initially, the five sisters only needed to raise money to find a runaway brother, and decided to rent a local opera house to stage a show. A scandalous review, in which a critic compared them unfavorably to the three witches from Macbeth, caused them to sue the Des Moines Leader and brought the Cherry Sisters to the attention of Hammerstein, who needed an act to save his floundering Olympia Theatre.

After failing to win audiences with better acts, Hammerstein declares that he’s "now going to try the worst," and brings the women to New York. The city first indulges in its baser instincts - throwing enough tomatoes to raise the revenues of vegetable sellers outside the theatre - before embracing the women and featuring them in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But while this show has a heart (and Childs shows a real sympathy and affection for the sisters), 100 years ago, human nature was clearly on display. Even after seven seasons of American Idol, it’s hard to imagine that any act could inspire enough hatred that would make one spectator viciously unload the contents of a fire extinguisher onto one of the sister’s faces (actually happened, though not portrayed in this show). So, Childs’ ends the show by convincing us, that yes, they were this terrible, by staging the girls’ actual act as a finale of horrible singing, terrible acting, and a ludicrous tableau vivant of Jessie hanging from a cross to reenact Christ’s crucifixion.

But while the Cherry’s may have possessed no talent at all, 1812 rounded up some of the best that Philadelphia could offer for this world premiere. Sugg’s music, set mostly to piano, violin, and clarinet, provides dexterity to match the varying vaudeville styles, from engaging melodies and a tender ballad ("Let Love In") to a magnificent seven-part act one curtain number ("Good, What is Good"). Though with a few duller moments (the marriage proposal song), Childs’ book zings through the Cherry’s story with zest and verve, and her "trial scene" includes lawyerly riddles and jokes that remind of Alice in Wonderland.

The immensely talented Dave Jadico (as the stagehand Edgar Sayres) deepens the humor with his pantomimes, sings charmingly, and even balances a washtub on his face, while Greer’s boisterous personality and booming voice finds a perfect outlet in his impresario role as Hammerstein. All five of the women show a marvelous mastery of their gifts, managing to mangle their talents when directly portraying the Cherry Sisters, later singing wonderfully (Martello), or engaging with their lovelorn expressions (Bellwoar).

"Cherry Bomb" entertains, but rather than an explosion of over-the-top humor, it’s on a par with the style of self-indulgent, low-key humor that this company has put out over the years. Undoubtedly, 1812 has provided some of the most successful original comedy in Philadelphia, achieving tremendous success with their blisteringly funny "This is the Week that Is" specials, but it’s a winking humor, getting laughs while implying "look what you’re letting us get away with in Philadelphia."

Moreover, I didn’t leave the theatre feeling that the show gave me any greater understanding of why anyone would subject themselves to such public humiliation, and this might be the only goal that Childs’ didn’t attain. However, to their great credit, Childs’ story and Sugg’s music showed what the entertainment world lost when vaudeville gave way to musical comedy.

And their show managed this without schmaltz, without derision, and with warmth, including the most tender moment I’ve seen on stage in a very long time. Here, Ford’s endearing rendition of "I am a Cherry" proves that whatever else defines human nature, the definition must include the kind of heartfelt devotion that her artistry shows is possible.

1812 Productions presents the world premiere of Cherry Bomb, an original vaudeville by composer James Sugg, lyrics by Jen Childs. At Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street Philadelphia. Tickets and more information available at

Review of Lantern Theatre's The Government Inspector

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 11-30-2008:

My 2008 Christmas wish: that Philadelphians will forego their presents this season and instead ask friends and relatives to donate money to the Lantern Theatre. That way, the Lantern can hire enough actors to properly stage a work like Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector.

The fault doesn’t lie in the actors that director David O’Connor cast -- in fact, the Lantern’s show includes one of Philadelphia’s best comedic talents (Tony Lawton), the city’s most capable character actor (Seth Reichgott), and Sarah Sanford, who I consider the single most versatile actress in the region. But those three, along with Luigi Sottile and David Ingram must together cover twelve parts, and the costume changes, slow-to-develop in-characterizations, and forced exits and entrances to accommodate actors playing multiple roles strangle the quick pace that a satire like "The Government Inspector" requires, sucking the life right out of this production.

Gogol’s simple, straightforward plot should make for an incredibly funny play. Tsar Nicholas I has sent a government inspector from St. Petersburg to a small town in Russia to report on the state of his realm. The Mayor (Reichgott), School Supervisor (Sanford), Judge (Ingram), and Hospital Director (Lawton) all worry that he’ll arrive and expose their corruption: classes filled with idiots, geese in the courtroom, and hospitals lined with dying villagers. Like all politicians, the last thing they want is to be exposed as idiots and lose their cushy well-paying patronage jobs.

In Armina LaManna’s translation, this simple premise consumes well over two hours and in O’Connor’s production of the overly dense script, the pacing suffers, the satire evaporates, and the only laughter left comes at the climax of well-executed, often painstakingly set up sight gags.

The cast performs admirably, but not even Lawton and Sanford’s versatility can revive the squandered humor of the play. Able to flesh out their roles, Reichgott and Sottile deliver outstanding performances as an infuriated Mayor and a petulant spoiled rich-kid respectively, and Ingram’s savvy servant adds depth. But despite the best efforts of its cast, this production needed at bare minimum one more actor to increase the pace and successfully capture the comedy.

Lawton’s Bobchinsky/Dobchinsky schizophrenia notion gets old quick (and it’s not that funny to begin with), and Sanford’s brilliant quartet of performances nearly gets swallowed up in the confusion of speaking through a puppet. Admittedly, the doll she carries leads to a spectacular joke late in the play, but I’d rather an evening of consistent, quick-witted humor than the slow, drawn out pacing under which this production labors. And until almost the end of the show (when the script reveals otherwise), I thought Sanford played her School Supervisor as a woman, further showing the limits of her quadruple-casting.

Millie Hiibel’s outrageous costumes of poofy-sleeved dresses and gold-braided drum major uniforms help with the characterizations and mesh well with the teetering house-of-cards aspect of Meghan Jones’ set. But the transitions, punctuated by the quickly tiresome conceit of "scene change" as the actors move props and hang signs, only lengthen the production-time and dilute any momentum in the action.

Perhaps I’m too jaded by current affairs to buy into Gogol’s particular satire of small-town politics, or the material’s too dated, too Russian and too obvious. (Only last year Putin created a brand new constitutional office just so he could stay in power.) But what is clear is that the Lantern’s budget is too meager to take on "The Government Inspector." Donations, anyone?

The Lantern Theater Company presents Armina LaManna’s translation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Playing until Dec. 28th at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow, Philadelphia.

Review of Delaware Theatre Company's Picasso at the Lapin Agile

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 12-15-2008:

Whether done at a community theatre, college, or professional stage, Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile stands as the one play that I will almost always advise people to see. Particularly if they’ve never before caught a production.

Set in a Parisian cafĂ© in 1904, the play imagines a chance meeting between Pablo Picasso (Caesar Samayoa) and Albert Einstein (Matt Pfeiffer) before both of them became internationally famous in their respective fields. In conversation that ranges over art and science and what separates or unifies the two, their giant egos collide; the bar’s patrons chime in with discussions on the value of art, the nature of sex and the battle of the sexes, with the entire evening filtered through and enlivened by Martin’s unmatchable wit. (Yes, it’s that Steve Martin.)

As I said, I’d almost always recommend this play. I’ve even enjoyed staged readings, where nine actors in chairs read from the script and found all the laughter that bubbles forth from the wellspring of Martin’s wide-ranging comedic gifts. However, at Delaware Theatre Company (DTC), director David Stradley’s addition to and re-framing of the script proves that there’s not a script that’s safe from a director who thinks he can improve it.

Rather than feel charming and light and offer a sense of poignant grandeur-seriously, imagine a meeting between Einstein and Picasso-this production simply felt weird, as if Stradley wanted DTC’s audience to view an evening at a Parisian bar through the same kaleidoscopic refractions that Picasso made visible in his paintings. From the bizarre-and wholly unnecessary-opening that introduces all the characters like they’re arriving to perform in a pageant, to the strange interludes of dance and song that punctuated (or rather "punctured") the script, I started to wonder what’s next, having the Visitor (Danny Bernardy) arrive in the manner of an alien abduction?

I can’t blame choreographer Samantha Bellomo for her contributions, and I liked Eric Schaeffer’s scenic design of three inter-set painting frames. Both did what Stradley asked. But why he asked for a longish dance interlude to dilute the charm of Martin’s play baffles, especially since Martin’s self-referential lines already frame the play in a light, witty fashion.

When Einstein arrives, the bartender interrupts him to say "wait, you can’t be Einstein, you arrived third." To prove his point, he runs into the audience, snatches one a patron’s program and then says "see, you’re supposed to come on fourth." Later, one of Picasso’s lovers asks when he’ll return to his apartment. His reply: "When the play’s over." But Stradley ignores this straightforward device in favor of leaving his own mark on the play. Next up, his director’s edit of "The Jerk."

Due largely to individual efforts, much of the humor of Martin’s play shined through. John Morrison (as bar regular Gaston) lurched across the stage in his incredibly humorous portrayal of an aging Frenchman, and Aaron Cromie’s physical dexterity (as the art dealer Sagot) enlivened his every appearance. As the bar owner Freddy and his bickering wife Germaine, both Jeb Kreager and Lee Ann Etzold delivered deadpan humor that set an undercurrent for the more vibrant explosions of comedy (though I’ve seen Etzold deliver far more laughs with her deadpan in "The Happiness Lecture," where she positively shone, but the staging-having her walk toward the back of the bar while speaking-doesn’t help her here).

Pfeiffer and Samayoa both create fascinating versions of their characters that never degrade into caricature, and Pfeiffer especially (and almost by himself) manages to capture the moments of poignancy woven into Martin’s script. Bernardy’s "Visitor" smartly gave everyone in the audience a reason to smirk, and Nathan Holt garners ten-minutes of laughs as Schmendiman, the born-to-fail inventor of an asbestos product (even without the requisite intensity that should have sent him zooming in and out of the bar).

However, when Karen Peakes provides the most charming bit of the play in a one-minute, single-gag appearance, her brief moment reflects the inability of Stradley to capture the essence of Martin’s comedy. DTC’s production gets laughs; but never inspires a a sense of wonder. Stradley fails to gild the entire evening with a sense of joyous magic and, in the process, strains the credulity of Martin’s inventive meeting of the two minds that shaped the 20th Century. Martin basically gift-wraps this comedy for any production. Sometimes the best approach for a director is to take it with hat in hand.

Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water St. Wilmington, DE, presents Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile until Dec. 21. Tickets and information available at

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some further commentary on Talk Radio

The Broad Street Review recently published my article on New City Stage Company's production of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio. Here's a teaser:
Eric Bogosian’s 1980s play about a radio talk-show host is as relevant as ever, even in the age of the blogosphere. But Paul Felder is simply too young for the central role.

Not to spoil the ending, but the second-to-last paragraph reads "Director William Roudebush’s choice of Felder as Champlain might really reflect the paucity of Philadelphia actors who could handle the demands of this role. The 27-to-45-year age bracket offers plenty of local talent, but Champlain requires the kind of electrifying, gigantic personality who can prowl the stage like a lion, only to crumble later beneath the weight of his own cynical despair. I can’t think of many Philadelphia actors who fill that bill. "

I'd like to clarify that point here with the following short list of actors that other knowledgeable theatre professionals and theatregoers have suggested.

Ian Merrill Peakes: Probably received the most recommendations, but I strongly disagree for the same reason that I enjoyed Peakes in Theatre Exile's Red Light Winter, but didn't like him as Iago in Pennsyvania Shakespeare's production of Othello. To me, he taints all of his performances with this semi-likeable (or at least, socially enviable) frat-boy persona. Even his 1920's artist character in The Walnut Street Theatre's production of Enchanted April displayed this characteristic. When he can show me a performance that lacks any connotations of Stiffler, I'll change my mind about Peakes' overrated abilities.

However, Peakes definitely possesses machismo in abundance--for any director who decides to go that way (by contrast, see the level of demorarlizing, poignant introspection that Oliver Stone drew out of Bogosian's own performance in the movie version of Talk Radio.)

Seth Reichgott: In my opinion, one of the best character actors in the city. (In my review, I called him "the best." However, hyperbole might suffice in a review, but in reality, if I had to pick one it woudl be either Reichgott or Tim Moyer.) It's why he gets cast so often, and so well, but also defines his limits. This is apparent even in the Lantern's current Government Inspector, where he ostensibly plays the second male lead, but can't match the versatility of Luigi Sottile or (especially) Anthony Lawton.

Jared Reed: Definitely versatile enough for the role, and most likely capable of displaying the psychological complexity Bogosian's part demands. But I've never seen him tower over a performance with the kind of looming, dangerous pathos that Talk Radio requires (For those who haven't seen Bogosian's play, in a pivotal scene, the character of Barry Champlain displays the bravado/lunacy--and fright--to open a possible mail bomb. For the record, Felder did this well at New City.)

John Zak: With the exception of The Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival's The Tempest, (where he won a Barrymore Award for his performance as the grotesque Caliban), I've seen Zak play mostly humorous parts that capitalize on a seemingly shape-shifting persona (one that eerily mirrors Caliban, minus the monstrosity), but since then, all humor. Maybe a good second choice.

Jered McLenigan: After seeing him read the part of Stanley Kowalski in EgoPo's reading of A Streetcar Named Desire, I wasn't sold on his "Stella!" but was sold on his ability to be both masculine and weak, confident and insecure. I don't know if he was working during New City's production or if they auditioned him. But he stands as my first choice. Plus, unlike Felder, he's over 30.

Scott Greer: Go see him in 1812's current Cherry Bomb. Then see New City's Talk Radio. Greer's right for the role (if he can tone down his booming personality enough), but he would have outstripped and too far outshone the rest of the cast at 1812--something that Felder (to his and director Bill Roudebush's credit) didn't do. (Though Felder did this, but unintentionally, at Act 2's recent Magnetic North, where even a good actress like Christie Parker received so much poor direction that Felder was the only person on stage worth watching.)

Chris Patrick Mullen: For anyone who saw his John Proctor in People's Light and Theatre's recent The Crucible, it's clear that the role of Barry Champlain would almost waste Mullen's talents.

Of course, I'd welcome any other suggestions.