Monday, June 22, 2009

Review of It Was a Very Good Year at Bristol Riverside

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

At the start of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current cabaret “It Was a Very Good Year,” Artistic Director Keith Baker welcomed us to the 1950’s by drawing some stark comparisons between that era and today.

“Those were very good years,” he began, playing to the audience who experienced them. Coke cost a nickel, a gallon of gas set you back 23 cents. People enjoyed romance rather than relationships, marriage lasted forever, and before a couple tied the knot, they went on dates, rather than ‘just hooking up’.”

Strangely, the set list included “Run Around Sue,” (about a girl who never hooked-up) and “Love and Marriage” a sonnet that sincerely sings the praises of marital bliss.

Sarcasm aside, in most cases, the song selection at BRT proved just how much good music the era produced. The evening opened on a medley of popular hits—from “Rock Around the Clock” and “La Bamba” to “Fever” and “Fly Me to the Moon”—before turning into an evening of mostly solo performances chosen to display the virtuosity of the four singers.

Lisa Mindelle imbued her pep-squad leader’s cute and earnest voice with a girlish charm on innocent numbers like “Where the Boys Are” and later displayed a country quality in “Tennessee Waltz.” And with his perfectly coiffed hair and Cleaver-esque good looks, John D. Smitherman reminded of the class President, one who didn’t draw any resentment in being voted “most likely to succeed.” With his voice—full of butter and honey—and masterful vocal technique, he could easily afford to ham up numbers like “It’s Now or Never,” shaking his legs wildly and curling his lip up like Elvis. Later, a commanding rendition of the Mario Lanza landmark hit “Be My Love” showed a sonorous elegance rarely seen outside of opera halls.

In stark contrast, Demetria Joyce Bailey’s chocolate-covered-cherry of a mezzo put enough seductive smoke into her numbers (“Fever”, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) that I got lung cancer just listening. But hey, if you’re going to be lulled into the long sleep, what better voice to sing a lullaby, and if anything could rock you back out of it, it’s her brazen rendition of “Mambo Italiano” that kicks off Act II. Anthony D’Amato soulfulness showed incredible versatility, soaring effortlessly through Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and making “The Great Pretender” reminiscent of an 80’s power ballad.

The band matched the singers’ talents, and like an era when this happened often, even surpassed them at times. Violinist Claudia Pellegrini plucked the through line on her violin to provide the best part of a vocally uneven “Unchained Melody,” and guitarist Neil Nemetz’s strident “Pipeline” reminded why it wasn’t once uncommon to flip through radio stations and hear four minutes of instrumentals.

But while the performers all shone vocally (for the most part; some stretched their instruments a bit), the evening strung the songs together with no semblance of why one followed the next, and with one exception, imparted no sense of narrative or atmospheric mood to the evening. On “It Was a Very Good Year,” lighting designer Kate Ashton painted the stage in visual hues that shifted like the seasons through the eras of one man’s life, and Baker’s tender singing conveyed an almost Proustian recollecting, full of sorrow and longing for days gone by.

Otherwise, the program’s deceptive title played like a night of “Here’s some songs from the 50’s and 60’s. Enjoy!” And it did so while totally lacking a bandstand like atmosphere. I wondered “why am I in a theatre, rather than a hall with a dance floor?”

Similarly, except for a few individual inventions, Baker’s direction failed to structure any skits, play-acting, or interactions between the performers or audience that would make the evening seem like a cabaret. Smitherman attempted to rectify this deficit on most of this numbers, handing a handkerchief to a woman in the audience, or combing his hair as he sang. But while he went a bit overboard with the deep lunges up the steps on “Kansas City,” the other three singers not doing anything—or D’Amato often singing his songs to himself—made Smitherman’s theatrical touches into an oddity.

Except for the too thin ties, Robyn N. Watson’s costumes don’t really reflect the era; the men’s chinos and button-down shirts and simple women’s dresses look more business casual than 50’s bobby-soxer. For the most part, the audience delighted in the evening, letting out gasps and nudges of recognition that recalled hearing these songs for the first time when they came out. Thankfully, the era gave us a lot of good music to enjoy just hearing.

Bristol Riverside Theatre presents “It Was a Very Good Year.” Written and directed by Keith Baker, runs until June 28. Tickets and information at www.brtstage.org

Review of Doubt at People's Light

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

I’ll admit that when I first saw John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt a few years ago, I didn’t care for it very much.

Sure his play had won the Tony and Pulitzer Prize for Best New Play, and the touring production I watched starred none other than Cherry Jones (who also won the Tony for Best Actress in the Broadway staging). At the time, I found plenty to dislike in his powerful melodrama about a foreign and corruptin institution, presented through the scrim of modern sensibilities.

But Peoples’ Light and Theatre Company’s current production gave me a whole new level of respect for the play. And for that, I have only Ceal Phelan to thank.

Set at St. Nicholas’ Catholic school in 1964, “Doubt” begins as a conflict over teaching styles, with the school’s principal Sister Aloysius (Phelan) condescendingly warning the fresh-faced (and quite na├»ve) Sister James (Elizabeth Webster Duke) that “every easy choice hides within its consequences tomorrow.” However, after haranguing James for ten minutes, Aloysius quickly shifts to her real concern—the well being of Donald Muller, their first Negro student—who has fallen into the protective care of Father Flynn (Pete Pryor), a pastor transferred through three parishes in five years. Aloysius’ worry still persists today (witness the recent scandals of the schools in Ireland), that Father Flynn’s interests in becoming Donald’s protector hide something far more sinister.

While Sister James struggles to regain her peace of mind, doubt, suspicion, and gossip dominate the play from here. Flynn shows signs of guilt—with Pryor’s voice cracking on certain phrases—but he credibly defends himself, winning over James, and threatening Aloysius’ future. When the boy’s mother (Melanye Finister as Mrs. Muller) appears, she partially acquiesces to the alleged abuse. Already thinking her twelve year old son is gay, she only wants him to make it to June, so he can use this private-school education as a springboard to better opportunities in the highly competitive New York school system. As for the truth of the accusations, it escapes like so many feathers fluttering on the wind.

David Mamet once wrote (I’m paraphrasing) that in a good script, the language by itself should produce so much tension that the actors could just sit in chairs on the stage and entrance the audience with a reading. David Bradley’s direction of Shanley’s play seems to have taken this phrase to heart. Except in the interludes between scenes, the actors take little advantage of the staging’s wide courtyard, and everyone delivers their lines while either standing or sitting immobile, the two nuns speaking nearly all of their dialogue with their arms held tight at their sides.

As a result, Pryor appears suitably sympathetic and engaging just in delivery, but his lack of emoting can’t capture the charisma of a man whose congregation praises his sermons, and whose schoolboys look to him as a role model. More importantly, after seeing what Pryor has conveyed in much simpler roles, I wish he had brought more depth to his Father Flynn. Finister and Duke suffer similar problems; Duke’s facial expressions transmit her wracked conscious, but I would expect that a teacher warned about “being a performer for her class” would shape the language a bit more with her hands and body.

Ultimately, only Phelan’s performance truly benefits from Bradley’s directorial choices. Her measured manner of speaking turns the simple statements that “satisfaction is a vice” and “innocence is a form of laziness” into dictums worthy of Aristotle. Shanley’s script sets her up as the hated prison warden who stands between order and ruin, but while Phelan’s a block of ice, her fascinating absence of emotion moved me to profound admiration for a character that would “go outside the church even if I am damned to hell.”

Finally, I felt the moral force of this play, something helped along immensely by the Yoshi Tanokura’s set that not only frames the entire space, but also puts these four characters in an imprisoning cell where their conflicting emotions and stories confront them at every turn.

In trying to do good, Aloysius walked away from God. Still in His service, she may have even committed evil. And like the best tragedies, the battle is not fought between obvious good and clear evil, but between forces each bent on their own version of what’s right. And for 80 minutes at People’s Light, Doubt pulverizes any complacency of thought or easy emotion.

People’s Light and Theatre presents John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Directed by David Bradley, runs until June 28. www.peopleslight.org

Review of Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Dear Benjamin Lloyd, cast, and crew of White Pines Productions

Re: Your recent production of Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier

I’m writing this review as a letter for two reasons. Due to your short production run, none of my readers can see the play. Also, as letters factor heavily in William di Canzio’s script, I wanted to pay a similar tribute to your very moving production. I hope you understand.

Di Canzio’s story probably presented some difficulties. I’m sure that even today’s worldly teenagers would find it difficult to accept not only a tale of love at first letter, but a narrative in which a reluctant and self-protecting 19 year old girl (Amanda Schoonover as Sarah) would yield her heart to the forthright, aggressive affections of Noah Drew’s 22 year old army-reservist Dan. And certainly, few outside the military would understand the impulsive need to cast an anchor in one’s own country on the eve of deployment, even if that means popping the question on a first date.

However, despite these difficulties, your direction turned the first half of Johnny into one of the most sincere, touching, and real hours of theatre I have experienced in a very long time. And as two young people struggling to better their lives with the community college education they must work forty hours a week to afford, Schoonover and Drew manage to make young love as charming as when it’s first experienced.

Schoonover turned her character’s lack of humor into an adorable attribute, making it very easy to understand not only Dan’s instinct for what’s real, but also his willingness to reach out to protect her. And though both were touched early by the tragedy of a parent’s death (and a concomitant reluctance to trust), each tinged their blossoming desires with the humor that break down those walls. Drew’s face and soothing voice painted a portrait of pure earnestness that put a smile on my face throughout act one, with his inspiring attitude in the face of deployment to Iraq keeping it there.

And while I expected a play about war to convey a measure of bombast and outrage, too often I’ve seen the political become preachy, tainting a sincere examination of war’s consequences with the shrill of oft-insincere indignation. So I appreciated the uncertain swagger of Mark Lazar’s Major Smythe when he asks Dan “what kind of life could you have with her if the homeland is not secure?” And di Canzio’s script (if not Marcia Saunder’s performance as Dan’s mother) subtly, though aptly compared the “national mistakes” of Vietnam and Iraq, while also illustrating the humble patriotism of sacrifice in a mother who ships candy and comic books to everyone in her son’s unit, and the fortitude of a wife who forestalls her dreams by dropping out of college to purchase the body armor that Halliburton price-overruns render unaffordable.

Though I can only attest to what I’ve watched on the news or read in the papers, Christopher Colucci’s sound design of choppers, gunshots, and bombings evoked the proximity of danger in a war played like a video game where cheering adolescents man the joysticks, and J. Paul Nicholas’ likable sarcasm (as the prisoner Amahl) showed the collateral damage that affects spirits as well as flesh. His comparison of the Iliad (a Western nation invading a mid-East city) conveyed an understanding of myth’s role in warfare; the wisdom in his performance impressed with the Odyssey’s notion that only on the voyage home does a soldier journey back into life as a hero.

And di Canzio’s script and your cast forced me to contemplate my least favorite example of fate, the notion that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Perhaps that’s the most horrible facet of war, that in the midst of barbarity, even an act of thoughtful compassion must engender suffering. And despite the valiant protestations of heroism, that suffering, as you showed so clearly, ripples outward in waves to wreak havoc on circles of loved ones, families, and communities—not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the towns that more than four thousand now deceased soldiers used to call home. Matt Saunders’ simple set—of paper panels hung together like a battalion of tombstones—only underscored the continuing, national-soul eroding tragedy of this war.

As a too rational atheist, I’d like to believe, what Sarah comes to understand: that loved ones can continue to take care of you after they die. Di Canzio’s referencing of the Orpheus myth coupled with Teri Rambo’s haunting vocals and Colucci’s guitar, and the straightforward sincerity of your production convinced me, if only for a moment, of the possibility.

I won’t end with “sincerely” or “truly,” because those words are rarely either sincere or true, but close by saying “Thank You” to everyone who made this beautiful production possible.

White Pines Productions presented William di Canzio’s Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier at the Adrienne Theatre. Benjamin Lloyd directed, ran from June 3 to 7, 2009.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Review of PA Ballet's La Sylphide and Barber Violin Concerto

Full article published in the Broad Street Review:

The Pennsylvania Ballet presents Auguste Bournonville’s La Sylphide and the company premiere of Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto. At the Academy of Music until June 13. www.paballet.org

The Pennsylvania Ballet looked to close their 45th Anniversary Season through a much-hyped restaging of Bournonville’s La Sylphide, last performed by the company 21 years ago. But Sylphide’s lackluster staging floundered in comparison to the brilliantly executed company premiere of Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto.

To read the full article, click here.

Watch a clip of the Pennsylvania Ballet performing La Sylphide:

Below, a clip of the Ballet performing Martins' Barber Violin Concerto:

Olive Prince's "Serenade" at the nEW Festival

Forthcoming article in the Broad Street Review (photo by Bill Hebert):

“Serenade” and “once i lived in a cardboard portal” by Olive Prince; nEW Festival 2009 Performance Program, June 3-7, 2009, at the University of the Arts Dance Theater at the Drake. http://www.newfestival.net/

When my sister and I were kids, my dad used to hold us on his knee and sing “you are my sunshine…my only sunshine” to us. Thinking about this recently, I wondered about the despair a person would feel losing someone—a child or a lover—held as their central point and reason for living.

Olive Prince’s overpowering Serenade made me feel just how devastating that loss would be.

By contrast, "once i lived in a cardboard portal" displayed one more disappointing parody of the subtle, dreary melancholy of corporate America's productive contributions derided while nonetheless being tapped to fund an artwork that mocks them.

To read the full review, click here.

Jaamil Kosoko's Virus at the nEW Festival

Forthcoming article in the Broad Street Review:

Jaamil Kosoko’s Virus, as part of the nEW Festival 2009 Performance Program, June 3-7, 2009, at the University of the Arts Dance Theater at the Drake. www.newfestival.net

For just over $20,000, Canadian-born engineer Le Trung recently built what some are calling the first viable robotic companion: Aiko, a robot who can recognize speech, voices, face, motion, objects, and solve math problems. Sensors underneath her silicone skin enable her to mimic pain while programming gives her the ability to avoid it in the future. In the videos, she looks more human than she acts (or sounds), appearing like a hybrid of human flesh built upon a factory-floor machine interior.

Judging by the dystopic feel of Jaamil Kosoko’s Virus, contemporary Homo sapiens have been such a mixture for quite some time.

To read the full review, click here.