Category Archives: NYC Theater Reviews

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‘Company’ A Sensational, Triumphant Revival

The Broadway cast of Company (Matthew Murphy)

Five days before his passing on November 26th, and almost two weeks after the long awaited Broadway opening of director Marianne Elliott’s West End transfer of Company to Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Stephen Sondheim discussed the revitalization and revision of Company’s updated music and lyrics (with book by George Furman and additional dialogue taken from his work). During this time when many question the direction of theater going forward, we need to remember Sondheim’s parting words.

“What keeps theater alive is the chance always to do it differently, with not only fresh casts, but fresh viewpoints. It’s not just a matter of changing pronouns (related to the protagonist gender switch from Bobby to Bobbie) but attitudes.”

Beyond refreshing, the revival of Company is thought-provoking, expansive and groundbreaking. The female character update of Bobbie (the entrancing, adorable Katrina Lenk in a full on bravura performance) is the linchpin around which five couples revolve and have their being, conceptualized in Bobbi’s mind. As the ironic magnifier and savvy observer of her friends’ relationships, during Bobbi’s quest for herself, the shibboleths of marriage, divorce, partnerships, love and their attendant fears and isolations become exposed with LOL insights and revelations. Then, Bobbie kicks herself clear of them.

Katrina Lenk in Company (Brinkoff Moegenburg)

Bobbie’s “surprise” thirty-fifth birthday, which her friends hold for her at her apartment initiates the conflict and sets Bobbie musing about herself at “35,” after she listens to their phone messages “spilling the beans” about the party. These are her crazy friends, her company which has been imprinted in our minds with the neon signage “Company” vibrant against the dark before the musical begins.

As her “company” emerges from the recesses of her mind arriving with gifts “she won’t like,” as they humorously excuse their selections telling her to “return them,” they importune her. They underscore how they love her and need her in their lives, singing over and over the searing refrain “Bobbie baby, Bobbie Bubi, etc.” (the phenomenal titular song “Company”). Only when she tells them to, do they wish her “Happy Birthday,” but she can’t blow out the candles of her cake with them watching, ever.

The neon lights in the lettering and bars that swiftly form into frames around the rooms in hers or her friends’ apartments (flashback events) are symbolic and thematically clever, carrying throughout the musical. They suggest the compartments in her mind which consider the strictures binding the couples’ relationships as she reflects about who they are, what they mean to her and whether she wants to be married like them, as they insist she be.

Katrina Lenk as Bobbie in Company (Matthew Murphy)

A square neon box frames Bobbie’s grey one-room kitchen in her NYC apartment where the couples crowd in like in the Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera as she doesn’t make a wish for a husband and the candles don’t go out on the cake when she tries to blow them out. For some of the couples, Bobbie visits later in the musical, the neon boxes symbolically underscore that the couple has placed their lives in their own defined “box,” confined, without freedom. For Peter (Greg Hildreth) and Susan (Rashidra Scott) the definitions and ties that bind are inextricable, even after they divorce.

Thanks to Elliott’s conceptualizations effected by her technical team (Bunny Christie {scenic design} Neil Austin {lighting design} Chris Fisher {illusions}) the clever, sliding neon staging (frames, lettering) becomes the driving force/development of the musical as we realize that the frames contain Bobbie’s reflections about herself in the company of her friends who are married and who push the institution on her to be as “happy,” as they are in their quasi misery and resentment of her freedom as a single person in New York City.

Additionally, Elliott uses door frames as a set backdrop for the men she has relationships with, all of them well built and gorgeous, but of a superficial type. These include the dim flight attendant Andy (the riotous Claybourne Elder) the nice Theo (Manu Narayan) the young, hip PJ (Bobby Conte). Each get to harangue Bobbie superlatively in the “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” ironic song and dance number choreographed by Liam Steel. Interestingly, they do not see Bobbie for who she is, perhaps, because she doesn’t want to be seen for they wouldn’t accept it.

(L to R): Claybourne Elder, Manu Narayan, Bobby Conte in Company (Matthew Murphy)

The question of safety and security in a relationship, dependence upon a man, the need to be nurturing and maternal by becoming a mother are thrown into chaotic array during Sondheim’s incredible exploration of Bobbie’s inner self, as she expresses her need to define herself beyond the traditional folkways which her friends have unequivocally embraced and expect her to as well. Importantly, we note her journey on this increasingly dire thirty-fifth birthday (check out the sinister balloon in Act 2) in flashback vignettes prompted by songs which reveal her perspective of the couples’ relationships as she questions their experiences pegged against her own choice to be single.

Katrina Lenk as Bobbie in Company (Matthew Murphy)

The songs and cast are spectacular without any dead spots to slumber the audience. Highlights occur as Bobbie visits with each couple and we find out Bobbie’s perceptions about these crazies. Indeed, they are fortunate they have her love as Lenk’s Bobbie is charismatic and sweet, though probing, traits which belie her courage, independence and questing heart for a worthy partner who will really “get her.”

With Harry and Sarah in a comfortable living room, boxed in the defined neon frame, Christopher Sieber is Harry, a “recovering” alcoholic who slides a drink down his throat when no one is looking. Jennifer Simard is Sarah who exercises on chairs and sofas to continue her weight loss regimen while scarfing a brownie or two quickly in secret openness because she’s (emotionally) “starved.” This couple’s scene reaches the height of hysteria as both compete in a wrestling match with each other, while Joanne (the unparalleled Patti Lupone) serenades their gyrations, blocks and flips, ironically singing “The Little Things You do Together” which adds “fun” to the marriage.

Lupone’s assurance about “the neighbors you annoy together, children you destroy together that keep marriage intact,” with Sieber’s and Simard’s enthusiasm for felling each other with each toppling twist more extreme than the next is well choreographed, paced and utterly priceless. As the other couples in Bobbie’s company sing their “wisdom” (“people that you hate together, bait together, date together make marriage a joy”) we note the evolution of Bobbie’s singularity and marriage avoidance. The couples’ sardonic refrain “shouting ’til you’re hoarse together, getting a divorce together that make perfect relationships,” closes out the song with a directed punchline of “kiss kiss.”

(L to R): Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Katrina Lenk, Patti Lupone in Company (Matthew Murphy)

As Bobbie thanks Sarah and Harry for an “entertaining” evening, her quest bubbles up and she asks Harry about regretting his marriage. His, David’s (Christopher Fitzgerald) and Larry’s (Terence Archie’s) reply in the lovely and humorous “Sorry-Grateful” confuses Bobbie with its opaque conflicting uncertainty: “Why look for answers where none occur? You’ll always be what you always were. Which has nothing to do with, all to do with her.”

From the husbands’ perspective in their marriages, there’s terrible regret intermingled with gratefulness which puts Bobbie no closer to defining her life differently than she already has. Being single is the best selection for her at this point in her 35th year review, but she acknowledges that despite her “company” wanting to introduce her to someone in “Have I Got a Guy for You,” she must choose for herself, a combination of the men she has gone out with and the someone out there just for her, “Someone Is Waiting.”

Matt Doyle in Company (Matthew Murphy)

Bobbie’s fear and confusion about marriage referenced by her zany friends is paralleled with Jamie’s in the vignette of Jamie and Paul’s marriage preparations. In Jamie and Paul’s kitchen, dressed in white for their wedding, Jamie has a panic attack and refuses to go through with it. As Jamie, Matt Doyle is riotous in his lightening speed delivery, spewing out his terror to Bobbie’s listening ear.

(L to R): Etai Benson, Matt Doyle in Company (Matthew Murphy)

Doyle is letter perfect, articulate, not dropping one word, making “Getting Married Today” a show stopping number that raises the stakes for Bobbie whose reply is “Marry Me a Little,” which Lenk sings with sylph-like tenderness and beauty. Her adjurations along with the couples popping out of various doors in Jamie and Paul’s kitchen appliances, another brilliantly funny feature, help stir Jamie back into Paul’s arms. Elliott has outdone herself in the direction, pacing and staging of this scene which Lenk, Doyle and the “company” perform to perfection.

By the time Act II rolls around, the balloon “35” is hugely sinister, almost crowding out Bobbie from her kitchen, and the lighting shifts to a Satanic reddish glow. As she attempts to get rid of the balloon, questions in her conflict continue: where is her life heading and who can she mentor when her friends are wacko? Jamie comments they are different,, that she is afraid of not getting married, when indeed, he has misread her; as she tells him, we feel the same about marriage. But when he marries, this, too, proves he is following in the footsteps of their friends, the coupled company. She is solo and alone. This may be a good thing, for as her company has sung, it is not that being a couple prevents alonenness, it just magnifies that in a couple one is more alone. The questions continue, who is Bobbie like and why are these individuals her “friends?”

Katrina Lenk, Claybourne Elder in Company (Matthew Murphy)

Andy is a possible marriage partner, until after sex, she realizes what their marriage would be like. The extraordinary sequence begins with “Poor Baby” sung by the couples projecting her “deficiency” as a single person, but actually envious of her freedom to be with many partners, in this instance Andy. It ends in “Barcelona,” where Bobbie convinces Andy to stay longer delaying his trip to Barcelona. How Elliott paces the scene with humor, coordinating the triptych of action that morphs to the scene when in bed she envisions her life (“Tick Tock”) haplessly drain its vibrancy into vapidity with Andy if she marries him. “Tick Tock,” unfolds as wives standing in for Bobbie, dressed in similar red outfits, go through various robotic motions of her marriage with Andy: routines of work, children, the drudgery, housewifery, etc. And thus, with him she watches as married, her life ebbs away into nothingness. But as a love partner, he’s just fine (“Barcelona”).

To top off her understanding of what she would become, Joanne spells it out for her toasting to the squandering of her own life in the iconic song Lupone steps into with grace, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” This is another show stopper; the night I saw it, the audience cheered for about 2 minutes while Lupone waited as Joanne with wry “dissatisfaction,” because Joanne has a lot more to say and do and the clapping interfered. Lupone configures the dour, lush as part kid, part sadist, part ironist and altogether vulnerable in her sardonic snappishness. She is just grand.

(L to R): Patti Lupone, Katrina Lenk in Company (Matthew Murphy)

As she portrays what Bobbie will become married (her fourth time) she duns the idea of Bobbie getting hitched, with some of the funniest lines that Lupone expertly delivers with wit and pace. Interestingly, Larry (Terence Archie) reveals who controls and who gets the blessing from their union by the end of the song. When Joanne suggests that Bobbie and Larry “make it” Bobbie says “make what?” Indeed, at Joanne’s control, Bobbie would “take care of Larry.” Once again, Bobbie charmingly side-steps her friend’s manipulation, as she has side-stepped all her friends’ manipulations and influence with distractions and silence. In this instance, Bobbie cleverly replies, “but who will take care of me?” Joanne replies bluntly attempting the drunk’s insult, but Bobbie proves herself a sophisticate with humor, a high emotional IQ, disarmingly, subtly. It is a fantastic scene revealing the inner character of Joanne, Larry and Bobbie which Lupone, Archie and Lenk smack down with precision.

Joanne and Larry have presented an unwittingly convincing portrait of what their marriage is like and what marriage could be like for Bobbie, however uncertain and tripped up with problems, issues and unhappiness. And after acutely watching them, she arrives at the understanding that “alone is alone, not alive.” And unbounded with just herself and the darkness behind her, outside of any neon frame of bondage, Lenk’s Bobbie opens herself: “somebody let me come through, I’ll always be there, as frightened as you, to help us survive, being alive, being alive, being alive.”

(L to R): Rashidra Scott, Katrina Lenk, Greg Hildreth in Company (Brinkoff Moegenburg)

Lenk delivers an incredible moment, beautifully sung with heartfelt emotion and joy. And then it rains on her, proving it doesn’t matter what she does: it rains on the just and unjust. Though her “company” has attempted to control and influence her, her life’s decisions are wholly hers. She will be happy apart from their influence; she has that strength to know the difference and she has an incredible sense of humor which we have been watching through her flashback “frames” of neon reference.

In the end scene Bobbie leans against the proscenium outside the neon frame of her kitchen as in the first scene all her company crams in waiting and wondering “where” she is. The musical has been a reverie and an evolution toward affirming what the picture frames of her friends have shown her. She is her own person. After they wait for her, realizing the surprise party is over, they have the good sense to leave. Only then, alone, Bobbie is able to blow out the candles of her cake after making a wish, a wish that only Bobbie will ever know.

Katrina Lenk in Company (Ahmed Klink)

Elliott’s and Sondheim’s updated conceptualizations can be taken as far as the inner eye can see, into immutable human truths and modern trends of how women shape their being today. Unfortunately, some will not get this revival of Company which is smashing and with a female protagonist, audacious and courageous. What effrontery to show Bobbie with a smile on her face at the end when she alone blows out her candles without her “company” watching, carping and “wishing” for her. Such a simple yet profound look/gesture indicates Bobbie is satisfied with herself for being who she is. Indeed, this sly, smart, engaging protagonist might actually love herself, as she has shown throughout with her wry, ironic, humorous selection of crazy-funny portraits of her “company” “determining” her life for her. What an end stop to this wonderful, humorous treasure of a Sondheim revival.

The score with music supervision and music direction by Joel Fram soars into the heavens. Kudos to all creatives aforementioned which made this revival praiseworthy in its ethereal conceptualization of Bobbie’s interior being. For all of the cast, nothing more can be added except they seamlessly flowed as a “company,” thanks to the shepherding of their director Marianne Elliott. Company should be witnessed a number of times because all in the cast mirror “being alive” onstage. God, they are so on point!

Company should be seen at least twice. There is so much to see or to miss the first time around. Some audience members mentioned the night I was there that this was their second or third outing. That’s about right for this production which is written in the stars thanks to Sondheim’s forward thinking encouragement to revise, expand and deepen. This production should be digitally recorded. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ a Family Musical Comedy That Is Present and Sorely Needed

Jenn Gambatese and Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire directed by Jerry Zaks (Joan Marcus)

It is to the credit of the producers and creative team that they have taken another approach to the iconic 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire (starring beloved Robin Williams) by enhancing its vibrant situational humor with emotional musical resonance in an adaptation currently on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Thankfully, Doubtfire (music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick; book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell) reminds us of the vitality of timeless verities, unity despite division, love despite differences, compromise toward the best solutions possible. Mrs. Doubtfire reveals that with love and faith all things can work together. And a sense of humor helps.

How the actors, director, technical team configured the book and music to emphasize these themes is the focus of this reviewer. If you are looking to be entertained by Doubtfire opprobrium, stop reading now. I thought the production of Mrs. Doubtfire, shepherded by the always fine director Jerry Zaks, hits its mark. Audiences are loving it, if critics are twisting its worth unjustly and inanely to make it their footstool to appear “clever” and in vogue.

(L to R): J. Harrison Ghee, Rob McClure, Brad Oscar in Mrs. Doubtfire, directed by Jerry Zaks (Joan Marcus)

Based on the titular Twentieth Century Studios Motion Picture, the Broadway adaptation deepens the comedy and characterizations of Daniel, Miranda and the children with its musical numbers (“I Want to be There,” “What the Hell,” “Let Go”). In these we understand the emotional price and the grind that a family endures in the grip of a painful divorce when it is too arduous to work through the seemingly limitless difficulties.

Lydia, the eldest daughter, leads the ensemble, Miranda and Daniel to expose the conflict between her parents and indicate how it is derailing all of their lives. This happens during a photograph sitting Miranda has arranged in the hope of cataloguing the kids’ ages. Daniel upends Miranda’s wish for a family photo when his shenanigans, which are funny and endearing, work the opposite effect on Miranda and ultimately destroy the photographer’s camera, disappearing any chance for a photo. Lydia (the excellent, on-point Analise Scarpaci) and the others note the handwriting on the wall and imminent divorce in the opening song “What’s Wrong With This Picture.”

(L to R): Kaleigh Cronin, Casey Garvin, Brad Oscar, Erica Mansfield, Rob McClure, Jaquez Andre Sims, J. Harrison Ghee, Alena Watters, Cameron Adams, Aaron Kaburick, Calvin L. Cooper in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

The irony is that Miranda wants a reassuring picture of a happy family, and Daniel, despite himself, is not able to give that photo, representative of the family she wants. Both parents are disunited, not in sync, skewed. One is reminded of the Facebook photos people post of themselves, i.e. the “wildly loving couple” who behind closed doors, is completely miserable. Fronting on Facebook and inciting jealousy in their “friends” is the only modicum of happiness they can suck out of the relationship which is doomed.

Likewise, the symbolism of the scene and the song are clear; the differences between this couple run deep into life approaches and right brain, left brain schematics. Miranda is organized and ambitious, intending to be her own entrepreneur. Daniel, a voice actor is highly imaginative, creative, his own person and all heart. The kids are the bridge, but instead of being the way to cross over and make the most of each parent’s attributes to benefit the family dynamic, the “adults” exploit the kids who become the linchpin to make each other miserable, incapable of navigating productive “family” roles and interactions. Each sees the other as “obstructive” and wants the other to be more like their own perspective of a “Dad” and a “Mom.” Their inflexibility is ultimately self-destructive and as in many families makes divorce inevitable.

(L to R): Avery Sell, Jake Ryan Flynn, Analise Scarpaci, Jenn Gambatese, Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Lydia gets it; her parents and siblings are in denial; the ensemble concurs in the refrain. Daniel is belittled and made to appear unfit by Miranda who casts herself in the role of mother superior, a termagant. She ironically justifies herself, placing the blame on Daniel’s behavior, annoyed that “he” has made her into the woman she “swore she’d never be.” Clearly, both are revving each other’s engines and are at fault, but circumstance, Daniel’s fears and Miranda’s overwrought nature lay the brunt of the fault at Daniel’s door, and he accepts this, a clue to his heart and future flexibility to change.

When he breaks her rules by taking the kids out of school to have a birthday party for son Christopher (the appropriately gangly, awkward Jake Ryan Flynn) and a stripper shows up by mistake, Miranda is provoked beyond forgiveness. It will take a miracle for Miranda to ever compromise with Daniel again. Thus, the set up for the miracle of Mrs. Doubtfire is born after the divorce is finalized by the end of the song “What’s Wrong With This Picture.” However, the irony of Daniel’s wacky “picture” continues when unsuspecting Miranda hires him for the Nanny position and his appearance and gender is skewed but not his heart. The photograph metaphor which threads throughout (Daniel is even removed from Miranda’s photo wall) is finally corrected by the musical’s end (“As Long As There is Love”).

(L to R): J. Harrison Ghee, Brad Oscar, Charity Angel Dawson, Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Miranda (the lyrically voiced Jenn Gambatese who gives a nuanced performance showing Miranda’s growth in forgiving Daniel) remains unmoved when Daniel pleads his case in family court to receive joint custody in “I Want to Be There.” As Daniel, Rob McClure’s petition to the judge is beautifully heartfelt and stirring. Indeed, throughout, McClure’s skills (singing, voices, break dancing, dancing, rapping, looping, hand puppeteering) and exhaustive energy and enthusiasm in a role that requires he be present in season and out are incredible. He makes Mrs. Doubtfire his own, and as a result she is authentic and real.

This authenticity McClure conveys to the hilt so that you forget he IS Doubtfire and are surprised when he isn’t. This switcheroo becomes all the more hysterical when he uses the voice of Daniel, dressed up as the plump but extremely agile elderly Scotswoman and then reverts to Doubtfire’s voice when he is in the role of himself as Daniel. This occurs a number of times i.e. auditioning for Miranda on the phone, with son Christopher when he blows his cover and as he prepares for a surprise visit by court liaison officer Wanda Sellner (the extraordinarily voiced Charity Angel Dawson) who is checking his apartment to make sure it is fit for visitation with his kids.

When we see the transformations and costume (Catherine Zuber) wig (David Brian Brown) make-up and prosthetic changes (Tommy Kurzman) which occur in the twinkling of stage time’s eye, we are amazed at the “seamless” effort it takes. Kudos to the team for making it so. The switches are humorous and crucially revealing: each time McClure’s Daniel redeems himself being Mrs. Doubtfire, we know it is for the love of his children and to gain his self-respect. Though the deception is morally questionable, it is forgivable because his portrayal is award winningly brilliant and endearingly wise. Ultimately, it is the step which fosters understanding, allows Miranda breathing room to be her own person, and brings the family closer together.

Peter Bartlett as Mr. Jolly in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Humorously wonderful scenes occur throughout. One is when Daniel calls on his brother Frank (the hysterical Brad Oscar) and his partner Andre (the magnetic J. Harrison Ghee) for help to make him into the iconic Nanny that Miranda cannot refuse. After costumers and hair and wig designers Frank and partner Andre run through a roster of amazing women (female ensemble members show up as Cher, Jackie O., Donna Summers, Diana Spencer, etc.) that emerge from their talented fingertips in “Make Me a Woman,” Daniel avers that his role is a Scottish born widow past 60. Changing course, they produce versions of their perception of iconic women of a certain age who are the antithesis of the glamorous fashion icons that paraded across the stage minutes before.

Out come tall, diesel men dressed in the same outfit (a forerunner of Doubtfire’s) pronounced to be Janet Reno, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child and a masked Oscar Wilde in a farcical getup. The irony is hysterical: it twits Andre’s and Frank’s viewpoint and disdain of the unfashionable but formidably strong women as not being the “feminine” ideal. The idea of what constitutes a “woman” and genderism is turned on its head by Andre and Frank, which reveals lightening wit that certainly will offend some critics because it is daringly in your face.

Tragically, what is “politically incorrect” in one part of the country is searingly popular in another; so the criticism of the production being outdated in terms of genderism is slim-sighted, considering that culturally/geographically not even sections of New York City maintain the current “correct” views (i.e. Staten Island, Beach Channel, Breezy Point) related to gender. Many in these areas, including upstate New York (one of the supposedly most liberal states) take offense at “political correctness.” What to do?

Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

In another LOL scene when Frank and Andre visit Daniel to deliver an additional wig for his new Nanny role, Wanda Sellner (the coldly autocratic court appointed officer) visits Daniel’s apartment, interrupting Frank and Andre’s mission. What ensues is a fast-paced quartet of dramatic irony as Frank, Andre and Daniel try to front an increasingly suspicious Wanda Sellner about whose sister the elderly woman is and why Daniel as Doubtfire (who has lost his prosthetic device out the window) won’t look directly at Wanda Sellner, which he finally does with banana creme pie on his face that makes him unrecognizable.

That the audience has been let in on the truth about Doubtfire’s gender, his “losing face-out the window” and Frank’s shouting nervously to cover his lies, makes the scene all the more riotous. Dawson is superb in her fierceness which escalates the humorous tension that the men and the audience feel as they fear Sellner’s hound-like nose will sniff out Daniel’s deception.

Brad Oscar’s priceless screaming delivery is tuned to rhythmic sonority with assists by straight woman Charity Angel Dawson and J. Harrison Ghee to bring on the belly laughs. Their crack-fire delivery accompanies Rob McClure’s costume and voice switches portraying two individuals at once in split second lag time. The tension only subsides with the audience’s audible sigh of relief, when Andre (Ghee) posing as the FBI on a phone call to Sellner rescues Daniel from Sellner’s adversarial, witchy clutches which gain steam and develop in Act II.

Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Zaks’ direction to shepherd the quartet’s superb pacing achieves a rhythm that is glorious and pitched for gales of laughter. By this point the audience is rooting for Rob McClure’s Daniel, taken over by his incredible sincerity and loving father/mother, man/woman Mrs. Doubtfire. Indeed, men do well as women, a gender trope that one must not miss if one is “getting it all in,” “going with the flow” and not luxuriating and indulging one’s sensibilities in offense at the genderisms the writers play off of. Importantly, another theme underscored by Mrs. Doubtfire is that that rigidity (from the political right or the left) whether it be in forcing others to adhere to one’s expectations or deeming “the way one should be” provides no easy answers or road to compromise. It indeed takes time and openness and flexibility and kindness for compromises to be reached.

Daniel masters Miranda in an area of vulnerability by making himself invaluable as the Nanny and housekeeper assuming motherly roles, while Miranda stokes her entrepreneurial skill. Additionally, he attempts to satisfy his court requirements to maintain a job, securing one as a janitor for a TV station. It is in this scene that we are introduced to an outdated children’s program which steers us into hilarity provided by the exceptional Peter Bartlett as Mr. Jolly. As Jolly, Bartlett bumbles and fumfers telling time with puppets Ratty and Mousey. His producer boss Janet Lundy (the stone-faced, funny Jodi Kimura) groans about being fired unless the Mr. Jolly Show is updated to snap and pop. Bartlett’s pauses, musing and timing as the near doddering Mr. Jolly is smack down LOL organic. This scene is cracker-jack great!

(L to R): Jake Ryan Flynn, Analise Scarpaci, Rob McClure, Avery Sell in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

In attempting to bring order out of chaos at the Hillard home, as Doubtfire, Daniel sets the kids doing their homework (turning off their phones, etc.) and receives cooking lessons from Chefs Amy, Ann and Louis who appear from his tablet magically to show Doubtfire how to cook a “nutritious, delicious meal,” in record time, including how to spatchcock a chicken. In “Easy Peasy” Rob McClure and the ensemble in well coordinated, rapidly timed moves gyrate around the stage. He grandly catches a chicken and sticks of butter that fall from the ceiling as the ensemble sings and dances. During this wild cook-off, look for the hysterical pharmaceutical commercial break by a Rectisol Doctor (David Hibbard) complete with list of side effects including death.

The meal which smokes Daniel out (a take-off on the film when Williams sets Doubtfire’s breasts on fire) gives him an appreciation for Miranda’s home cooked meals. Failing once more, he orders take out which he then arranges in a finely set table for Miranda, the kids and her work partner Stuart who intends to be her beau. The hilarity ends in revelation; he lost his place at the table, and Mrs. Doubtfire won’t replace him there. He has the growing realization that he will never be back at that table as their Dad, and in fact Doubtfire is an encumbrance to what he really wants, back in Miranda’s good graces. The impetus becomes if he is to see his children at all as their Dad and not the character he has created, he must get a job that can pay an affordable living wage.

Analise Scarpaci in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

The opportunity arises when beat box artist Loopy Lenny, a guest on the Mr. Jolly Show, leaves his “loop machine” which Daniel cannot resist playing with as he mops the area. In “About Time,” Daniel loses himself in remastering a cooler version of telling time with Ratty and Mousey that crackles with his exceptional voice skills. Upon hearing his genius at work Janet Lundy is impressed to offer him the possibility of a job on the show. With hope of this new job, Daniel digs in as Mrs. Doubtfire having reversed all he had contributed to making a disaster as their Dad. In “Rockin’ Now” Mrs. Doubtfire leads the ensemble in Daniel’s self-affirmation, lifted out from Miranda, his kids and Frank and Andre’s perception of him as a loser. He sees himself as a brilliant fixer and vital, purposeful individual.

A number of points are made during this hysterical number where McClure’s mobility with 30 pounds of rubber dancing and twirling Doubtfire’s plaid skirt is beyond funny and delightful. One is that Daniel could only change and express his loving heart with a wall of rubber separating him from those who saw him negatively and didn’t know how to encourage his goodness (a shortcoming of theirs). Secondly, as a character he is able to do that which he resisted as Daniel, who continually provoked Miranda. Conning her and the kids is a weird kind of payback proving he is as superior as she presented herself to be. However, when Lydia and Christopher discover who is under the rubber, the question remains, how long will Daniel be able to front Miranda and Sellner who hold the power of his rights as a father?

In Act II the risks of discovery become greater as Lydia and Christopher watch their father pull off Mrs. Doubtfire as a plus size model, showing Miranda’s sportswear line as he and the Ensemble models sing and dance in “The Shape of Things To Come” for an audience of buyers and store representatives. Dressed in a colorful skimpy outfit revealing a sports line for “all shapes and ages,” once again Daniel’s phenomenal talents save the day and get deep pocket customers for Miranda kicking off her entrepreneurship. In the song’s lyrics, the shift from actors with BMI 20 figures proud to look in the mirror to Mrs. Doutfire’s 30 BMI figure that can do extraordinary moves is a telling slap in the face to the guilt inducing diet and weight loss industry: a great irony.

The cast of Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Mrs. Doubtfire has made a world of difference for Miranda who is beginning a relationship with Stuart (“Big Fat No”) and resolving the end of her relationship with Daniel (“Let Go”) who is miserable (“Clean Up The Mess”). In a conundrum obstructed by having to be Mrs. Doubtfire as he grows invisible with his children, he faces a reckoning with Sellner who puts together the viral Doubtfire sports model video and other information she receives from Miranda about Daniel. The reckoning begins in Sellner’s office when Daniel is supposed to appear with “his sister” Mrs. Doubtfire and turns into a surreal scene with Sellner as a magical, witchy type spirit proclaiming his doom in “Playing With Fire.”

Charity Angel Dawson pulls out all the stops wailing retribution for him in a shimmery red/orange dress against a fiery backdrop as a chorus line of Doubtfires send off Lydia, Chris and Natalie (Avery Sell) away from him presumably forever. Then the ensemble Doubtfires close in on him, singing the refrain, “The Truth Will Make You Free,” while sweeping their brooms in a haunting dance as Sellner sings her glory. And eventually the power of Sellner’s presence and voice along with the Doubtfires circling, engulf him dressing him in the hated Doubtfire costume and persona. The backdrop and set returns him to Miranda’s house where the final arrangements are set in motion for his big reveal that ends the charade once and for all (“He Lied to Me,” “Just Pretend”).

However, the truth with his reveal results in his redemption and Miranda’s acknowledgement that his true heart had to masquerade as Doubtfire for a time to show her and him what he was capable of. Additionally, with his new job on a TV Show starring Mrs. Doubtfire, the family is reminded of Daniel’s goodness. With the help of Sellner who shows her true colors and acknowledgement of Daniel’s love for his children, Miranda is convinced that Daniel must see and take care of Natalie, Christopher and Lydia with a joint custody arrangement (“As Long As There is Love”).

I have nothing but praise for Mrs. Doubtfire which is a whirlwind of emotion, comedy, farce, genius pacing, singing, dancing and crisp dialogue acutely directed and performed by the prodigiously talented Rob McClure who is breathtaking, as the other actors shine equivalently in their roles to assist him. The music, a combination of pop, hip hop, ballad and more functions to raise the emotional stakes at each turning point and grows from Daniel’s and Miranda’s struggle with each other. Mrs. Doubtfire’s book is well adapted by Kirkpatrick and O’Farrell and runs deep in this production because of the songs (Kirkpatrick and Kirkpatrick) their symbolism, the hybrid comical farce and continual pushing of the envelope to embrace Daniel’s guilt and imagination (“Playing With Fire”) (“Easy Peasy”).

Kudos to Ethan Popp for musical supervision, arrangements and orchestrations. Special kudos to Lorin Latarro for her choreography. Both bring a myriad of new elements to Mrs. Doubtfire and make it shine greater than the film.

The technical aspects (movable sets) are well devised for speed, and are well thought out and wrought for the quick scene changes and farcical, magical moments mentioned. Kudos to David Korins (scenic design) and Philip S. Rosenberg (lighting design) and Brian Ronan (sound design) as well as aforementioned Catherine Zuber, David Brian Brown and Tommy Kurzman. I loved the lighting and outlines of the cityscape, the Hillard household and touches needed for the success of various scenes (“Easy Peasy”).

The production is a superb adaptation combining the known and the new. It should be seen a few times because inevitably, there is so much to glean you will miss the symbolism and the profound characterizations which appear stereotypical initially, but are resonant and vital as are the themes mentioned. For tickets and times go to their website: CLICK HERE.

‘Cullud Wattah’ The Flint Water Crisis, Advocacy Theater at Its Best

(L to R): Andrea Patterson, (behind) Lizan Mitchell, (foreground) Alicia Pilgrim, Lauren F. Walker, Crystal Dickinson in Cullud Wattah The Public Martinson Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Flint, Michigan’s water crisis is ongoing as Erika Dickerson-Despenza clearly establishes in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah currently at The Public Theater. Directed by Candis C. Jones the play is evocative, heartfelt and praiseworthy in its power to shock and anger the audience, as it clues them in to the Cooper family’s stoic struggles to get to the next day. Their trials become more laborsome and earth-shattering as they confront the irreparable contamination of their water supply that is slowly killing them because they were notified too late by city and state officials of its toxicity.

Alicia Pilgrim in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah, by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones, at The Public Theater. (Joan Marcus)

Dickerson-Despenza gradually evolves the situation acquainting us with three generations of the Cooper family of women who live in the house that Marion (the edgy Crystal Dickinson) and her deceased husband purchased through their hard work at the GM plant which outsourced, downsized and ended his job. Thus, to make money, her husband joined the military where he was later killed in the U.S. war with Afghanistan.

Living in the Flint house with Marion are her mother, Big Ma (the humorous and no nonsense Lizan Mitchell) her pregnant sister Ainee (the superb and empathy evoking Andrea Patterson) and Marion’s two daughters Plum, the totem-like representative for all Flint’s younger children, portrayed by Alicia Pilgrim, and Reesee. As Reesee, Lauren F. Walker delivers an apt portrayal of the strong, self-determined older daughter, who loses faith in her relationship to the Yoruba water goddess Yemoje, who doesn’t protect the family from hardship and injury.

(L to R): Alicia Pilgrim and Lauren F. Walker in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah, by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones, at The Public Theater. (Joan Marcus)

Dickerson-Despenza’s work is culturally powerful. Her characters establish their ancestry through dialect and dialogue using an easy Black accented speech, save Marion who has been influenced and perhaps soulfully compromised by working at the General Motors plant for most of her life.

Though General Motors has provided opportunity, it has been responsible for abusing its employees when they protested for better working conditions and wages. During the play Ainee reminds Marion that GM polluted the Flint River for years and abusive workers (members of the Klan) killed their father and took vengeance out on their mother, Big Ma, for her work actions against the company which left her disabled.

(L to R): Lizan Mitchell and Lauren F. Walker in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah, by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones, at The Public Theater. (Joan Marcus)

As the family discusses the situation and with the news Big Ma listens to running in the background, the facts of the crisis are manifest. City and state officials are accountable for switching the water supply to the toxic Flint River from Lake Huron running on a platform to “save money.” Their MO for reelection (fiscal responsibility) did the opposite negligently and incompetently. They discounted that the Flint River had been polluted with toxic sludge from GM for years and was completely undrinkable and unusable. However, since the water was mostly going into the black community and since that community contributed less in property taxes, officials wantonly ignored the danger lurking in their unresearched, inherently racist and negligent actions.

Andrea Patterson in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah, by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones, at The Public Theater. (Joan Marcus)

Interestingly, the city and state grew a conscience when GM noted that the water needed for their industrial process building engines was corroding and destroying their product and bottom line. GM screamed to change the water back to the clean Lake Huron. Rather than for GM to close or sue Flint, immediately city officials and the state responded. However, only GM received the clean water. And when word of the situation leaked, city officials and then Republican Michigan Governor Snyder wickedly lied. They declared the water was safe to drink. Their lies killed, destroyed families and cost billions of dollars in medical bills and future liabilities for sick adults. The financial burden to educate and medically care for young children brain damaged by lead poisoning and confronting other ills (cancer) from the water is ongoing and especially egregious.

(L to R): Crystal Dickinson, Lizan Mitchell in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah, by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones, at The Public Theater. (Joan Marcus)

We learn during the play that Marion, knowledgeable about this situation at GM, withholds the secret from her family. Though she attempts to bring the water from GM to their home, it is too late. Eventually, her silence backfires on her through Plum’s sickness and the ill effects of rashes, hair loss and other conditions the family endures from being poisoned by the toxic soup.

Dickerson-Despenza uses Ainee as the foil in the arguments supporting the “good” that GM did for Flint versus their criminal behavior in not protecting their workers and their abusive acts against the union. Ainee’s stance is an indictment against GM and those workers who allowed themselves to be compromised and exploited as she argues with Marion that she owes GM nothing, and must become involved in a Class Action lawsuit against the city and officials for their negligence and responsibility in decimating the Flint community via the toxic water.

As the situation unfolds, we learn how each of the women respond in dealing with the crisis on a personal level and as a member of the Cooper family. Ainee attempts to become an activist, though this runs counter to Marion who is moving up at GM, despite their initial attempt to lay her off. How Marion manages to finesse herself an opportunity is revealed later in the play.

Alicia Pilgrim in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah, by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones, at The Public Theater. (Joan Marcus)

Marion’s daughter Reesee attempts to keep sane during the crises by praying and giving offerings to the Yoruba goddess of water which she reveals to Plum as a secret because Big Ma is religious and doesn’t approve of black folk gods. Plum attempts to take control of the situation with her mathematical skills, figuring out how much daily water they need for each of their activities.

Big Ma prays to the Christian God and helps with the chores and generally chides each of them if they step over the line of decency, especially with regard to vulgar language. However, the rock of the family is Marion. She is the only one able to work. She takes care of their financial burdens with no help from the others and is pressured by their debts: Plum’s medical bills, the upkeep of the house, their great quantity of water purchases, utilities and more.

The playwright’s details about the bottles of water required to wash vegetables, the turkey and trimmings for Thanksgiving dinner, to clean up and take care of their daily needs is a staggering reminder of how much we depend upon water in our lives. Wherever you turn in the theater, you see the reminder of the importance of clean water via Adam Rigg’s wonderful set design. Through Plum, who is dying because of the corrupted water, we note the numbers. At the play’s beginning, she chalks off the days Flint’s water supply has been corrupted since 2014: it is in the thousands surrounding the walls of the theater. On sides of the stage, Riggs has suspended bottles of water hanging down against the walls. It looks clean, but is it? The stage is filled with bottles of yellow, toxic water that the women label as a record that their water supply is still contaminated.

Crystal Dickinson in Cullud Wattah, by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones. (Joan Marcus)

Dickerson-Despenza’s themes are paramount: timeless as well as politically current. What happens when an elite power structure controls the resources all of us need to thrive? What happens if they are discriminatory, partisan, bigoted killers at heart? What happens if the people they put in power in the government are those who they pay off to continue destroying the communities they despise, the voices that must be heard, but are killed off to keep them silent and the power structure intact?

Cullud Wattah is essentially a play about water as a life source spiritually, psychically and materially using the horrific backdrop of Flint, Michigan to show how Republicans and corporates (represented by GM) amorally decimated the black community with impunity safeguarded by bought corporate-backed politicos for decades. Breaking down the will, soul and spirit of a community, oppressing it, makes it easier for politicians and their donors to overcome their righteous voices and resistance. Soon, unable to maintain and uphold their rights in a country whose laws guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but judicially allows oppressors to staunch their rights, democracy, one voice one vote, becomes compromised.

Dickerson-Despenza leaves no stone unturned in claridly, unapologetically dramatizing the painful, terrible crimes against humanity represented by the Cooper family as a microcosm of the macrocosm. The abomination not only concerns Flint, Michigan, it threatens every community in the US and globally. The higher ups briefly mentioned on Big Ma’s newscasts are as invisible in the play as a clear glass of water looks clean. You have to get up close and examine the molecular structure to note the contamination, corruption, poisonous, corrosive toxicity.

Lauren F. Walker in Cullud Wattah, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones. (Joan Marcus)

Indeed, though Dickerson-Despenza and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design and Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design and composition includes a digital blow up of the litigation against the city and state officials, that the blow up is not visibly large enough for the back row to see the fine print is symbolic. Such litigation is not enough to recompense what the Cooper family has endured in psychic and emotional suffering. And indeed, lengthy jail terms for the Republican officials, including the former disgraced Governor Snyder, must be leveled, if not as a deterrent to Republicans seeking positions of power to line their pockets, but as a warning for citizens to not elect such wanton, miscreant criminally minded individuals, regardless of political party.

To elect moral, efficacious officials, one has to bring out a microscope and “test the waters.” With the lies politicos glibly use to get elected, and the collusion between them and corporations to abuse the public and communities where they settle, this appears to be impossible. However, thanks to Republicans, you can see whether the water is clean or dirty and can assess if the politicians have the public’s interest at heart. Republican extremists which govern their party are making it very obvious that their water is filthy and toxic.

Cullud Wattah covers much ground and speaks volumes about victims, activists and the unseen criminal politicos who abuse their citizens. In its unabashed indictment of racism that emerges from the discussions and conflict between Ainee and Marion, are the warnings. If this happens in one community, it can happen in every community, because certain parties don’t care who is hurt, who dies as long as they 1)make money 2)get away with murder. The title is symbolic inferring the beautiful spirit and resilience of these women who are black. Of course, it refers to Flint’s water which is yellow, and the fact that officials criminally saw “fit” to let the blacks (the cullud) drink it, a hate crime which the federal government must address.

(L to R): Andrea Patterson, Lizan Mitchell, Crystal Dickinson in Cullud Wattah, by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones. (Joan Marcus) 

The play is heartbreaking with terrifically current themes. The particular irony and idiocy of white supremacists is that they believe their bought “Republican” politicians will always have their best interests at heart. Those white folks who lived in Flint also drank contaminated water and suffered, but predominately, the black community was hit: this is a crime of federal proportions.

Polluted water, like COVID, is not subject to race. Regardless of your heritage, you get sick. Polluted politicians are subject to race to get elected. Once in office, in their amoral perspectives, the election gives them the legitimacy and impunity to harm citizens regardless of race, creed, religion. But the truly wicked ones unleash their hatred on specific communities, deemed to be too “weak,” to protest and be heard. Flint is emblematic of this. It is to her great credit that Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah, its director Candis C. Jones, the wonderful actors and the astute creative team brought this play to The Public. It needs to be seen across the U.S.

Kudos to the creative team not heretofore mentioned: Kara Harmon (costume design) Earon Chew Healey (hair, wigs and makeup design). Cullud Wattah is a must see that runs until December 12th at the Public Theater. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

‘Diana the Musical,’ Starring Jeanna de Waal, a Foray Into the Tabloids

Jeanna de Waal in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

Billions of words and their attendant photos have attempted to characterize The Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer, including the statements she contributed in her well publicized television interviews. Regardless, the many iterations of her life (Diana the Musical, Spencer, The Crown, documentaries, etc.) are fictionalized. We will never know the true details of her story nor move beyond the tip of the iceberg, though much has been made of The Crown’s accuracy.

As a result any commentary, criticism and discussion about the fictions that are presented with or without music related to her life are disingenuous. It is a sly continuation of what raised her to glory and contributed to her death. Recognizing that I am one of the hundreds of journalistic hypocrites, I prefer not to pile on adding to the glossy, hyperbolic, acerbic criticism that has been written about Diana the Musical, directed by Christopher Ashley, currently at the Longacre Theatre.

(L to R): Judy Kaye, Anthony Murphy, Roe Hartrampf in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

In this review, I look “through a lens darkly” at the musical with the intention of praising what may be the salient artistry of the production and avoiding the “critics’ mess.” At the least, Diana the Musical will add to the overall evolution of musical theater, for good or ill. As such it should be peered at with more than blindly gleeful excoriations and wrong-headed thinking, albeit critics may assert they have more cache and heft than this humble writer.

The musical, backed by the Schubert Organization and a boatload of other renowned producers, including La Jolla Playhouse, is the work of the creative team of Joe DiPietro (book & lyrics) and David Bryan (music & lyrics). The team won Tonys for Memphis (2010) and other awards, including DiPietro’s Drama Desk for Best Book of Nice Work If You Can Get It. Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi (keyboardist) is a Grammy winner. And both have teamed up on their next musical Chasing the Song, also workshopped at La Jolla Playhouse.

Jeanna de Waal and Company in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

The key to understanding their perspective about Diana The Musical is at the top of the production. Right before it begins with its bang-up opening number, “Underestimated”, six PAPARRAZI dressed in tan, flared overcoats with matching hats, looking like “spies” appear amidst flashes of light. Rapidly, like Thespis, the first actor to go solo from the chorus in ancient Greek theater, one PAPARRAZI steps out and says, “Was there ever a greater tabloid tale?” Then all race off.

From the bright light backdrop emerges Diana, the golden-throated Jeanna de Waal who pulls off the waggish theatricality and endearing Diana persona with great flare and emotional nuance. As she sings “Underestimated,” we are reminded that she, the Diana avatar, upended everyone’s expectations and made waves, changing the nature of the monarchy as perceived by the British tabloids and vulture media, astutely turning their word swords into their own “proper entrails.”

Jeanna de Waal, Roe Hartrampf and Company in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

Thus, with this PAPARRAZI’S “greatest tabloid tale” establishing the “smart-alecky,” flippant tone, approach and poignant conclusion, we understand the creators’ vision and the development of Diana The Musical as a “tabloid story” in what follows to be a flashback of the press’ “facts” of her life with the royals. Importantly, we are thrust into examining ourselves as the consumers, predators, voyeurs that kept and still keep that story “alive,” the facts confused, and lines, between fictionalized gradations of truth, blurred. As the production infers, the tabloids of the time, principally those of the Murdock empire, became the staging ground for the launching of the princess. They keenly, exploited this image for its money-making potential with suppositions and crass lust for gossipy sensationalism that the public and above all “journalists” “ate up” and still consume in musical plays.

To confuse the medium that the creators expose in all its lurid tawdriness with the conveyance of the subject matter (the production) which twits and exposes the tabloid’s boorish insensitivities is an arrogant presumption. It’s as bad as Facebook’s misinterpretation of sardonic irony. Facebook’s algorithms don’t “get” irony; their robotics are literalists incapable of understanding nuance, irony, sarcasm, ridicule.

(L to R): Erin Davie, Roe Hartrampf, Judy Kaye, Jeanna de Waal and Company in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

Likewise, to view Diana The Musical as a literalist caught up in the arc of the story, clicking off the remembered events one may have consumed from the tabloids, papers, TV series or documentaries, one misses the humor, irony and the sometimes intentionally sophomoric rhymes and cleverly repetitive music. The repetition implies Diana copy was all of the same piece. Additionally, one will miss the unfolding of the final revelations and themes: that tabloids spread misinformation because they can with a believing populace; tabloids act as an equalizer of the great to bring them low to sate the sub rosa jealousy of the “little people;” tabloids mine humiliation, create torment and demean by erecting idols then smashing the “adored” with their humanity. Murdock’s tabloids propelled the Diana “story” and gossipy dirt like no other.

Revolting? Indeed, and that’s one of the points of the musical. Enjoy it and burn yourself with understanding. Don’t enjoy it, see its “messy crassness,” you miss the production’s reason d’etre, and specifically miss this point: the tabloids encouraged the spin of the public’s belief in “the people’s princess,” then damned her for being what they created. They adored her above the Queen and royal family but were jealous of her and backed slapped her continually each time they covered her. Ironically, they yearned for her death, indirectly causing it so they might mourn a tragedy of their creation in perpetuity. To view the monstrousness of the tabloid’s process in Diana The Musical as anything but ironic is daft, dumb and blind.

Roe Hartrampf, Judy Kaye and Company in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

The tabloid portrait of Diana is what the musical delivers, the glorious creation to please the masses and journalists. She was beautiful copy in all her forms as was the monarchy whom they pitted as her foe. But the production reveals that tabloids refused to take responsibility for their cause in her death. DiPietro and Bryan, in keeping with the phenomenon they criticize and expose (the public’s obsession with her, the press’ sensationalism which exacerbates it) never connects the PAPARRAZI directly to her death. None of the actors dressed as PAPARRAZI appear on stage at the conclusion for she doesn’t die. Diana steps from flashing lights into the upstage darkness as the ensemble sings about her “lighting the world.” It is the image, her persona that “lights the world,” as she lives forever immortalized in fictionalizations: movies, plays, TV series, etc.

In Diana The Musical it is the tabloid’s creatures we see as the well-publicized events of her life are hyperbolized for public consumption. In the musical we witness her dating Prince Charles (Roe Hartrampf is wonderful as Charles in his development as the unmarried beleaguered, sometimes loving, then increasingly unhappy, angry, Diana nemesis) encouraged by Camilla (” Whatever Love Means Anyway”). Erin Davie is the perfect avatar for what we believe Camilla would be, do and act to keep Charles allured rather villainously. There are enough jokes concerning her looks and strange sustainability with Charles as she bests Diana in his affections.

(L to R): Holly Ann Butler, Jeanna de Waal, Roe Hartrampf in Diana The Musical (Michael Murphy)

The tabloid’s cultural obsession with Diana’s looks, mien and beauty outshining the unfortunate looking Camilla is twitted throughout. The question floats over the relationship as the tabloids played up Diana’s beauty and Camilla’s ferocious mediocrity: how could Charles choose to be with Camilla and not Diana? Clearly, those are the manifestly superficial, shallow cultural mores of tabloid journalism which value appearance over soul. They are not Prince Charles’ values.

Di Pietro and Bryan take us through the Diana chronology, from the marriage (the quick change up of wedding dresses is excellent) the two children, Prince Charles being unable to give up Camilla as Diana must give up the dashing James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan). The crises mount until Diana voids her royal position by becoming a fashion icon who scandalously controls the media (the hysterical “The Dress”) as DiPietro and Bryan make their scathing critical ironies with facetious lyrics and buoyant music. It’s not all rock/pop upbeat cadence. Only the humorous waggish songs. Indeed, some of the harmonies are luscious (“If”).

Jeanna de Waal and Company Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

Throughout, Charles’ relationship with Camilla holds, while Diana establishes a solid relationship with her maturing self apart from him, a lost cause. Interestingly, the Queen editorializes about the overwhelming oppression of the monarchy in her own life (“An Officer’s Wife”) which Kaye sings affectingly in the song that identifies how the monarchy’s institutions changed Elizabeth’s relationship with Phillip. In her quasi empathy with Charles and Diana and Charles and Camilla, Judy Kaye’s rendition recalls a similar pathos expressed in The Crown. Only for duty did Elizabeth give up being the demure wife.

The tabloid wind-up dolls act exactly as we expect them to. And there’s even an over-the-top interjection of Barbara Cartland (Judy Kaye dressed in fluffy pink from top to toe). Cartland introduces us to James Hewitt as the instrument of vengeance in Diana’s life,”Here Comes James Hewitt”. Kaye as Cartland plies her influence on Diana and comments on Charles and Camilla’s affair, and Diana’s affair with Hewitt (“Him & Her (& Him & Her).”

Jeanna de Waal in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

Having Kaye do double duty as Queen Elizabeth and Barbara Cartland, both the head of empires in their own right, is brilliant and humorous; Kaye plays it off, enjoying the ironic joke. In the beginning of Act II Kaye gives the Queen’s tiara to the music conductor to hold as she switches roles. Cartland’s advice to Diana (a former romance fan) is that her novels are fantasy, romance is dead and in real life, men lie and cheat. The irony that an avatar of romance fiction warns the reigning fairy tale princess of the time that her prince is a cad is priceless.

Finally, the interjection of Andrew Morton (Nathan Lucrezio) who Diana “spills her guts” to (“The Words Came Pouring Out”) is an important addition in the evolution of Diana’s maturing persona as she moves from under the oppression of the monarchy and gains her own revenge. From replicas of the royal’s iconic clothing (William Ivey Long) to the tell-tale hair (Paul Huntley) to the pat twists and turns in the Diana story, all unwind with irony and humor. Interestingly, the ravenous audience and the press are the butt of Di Pietro’a and Bryan’s joke in addition to the royals. Indeed, no one escapes their bullseyes being hit, not even Cartland and Andrew Morton (Zach Adkins).

(L to R): Jeanna de Waal, Erin Davie in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

In keeping with the antic, amused and ironic perspective, many of the songs knock it out of the park. Kelly Devine’s choreography for the “Snap, Click” sinister twirling of the PAPARRAZI around Diana with spinning movement as they thread out their “tabloid tale” is excellent. It conveys the momentum of how storytelling gains a life of its own, as the PAPARRAZI and press become impassioned in their hunt for the prize statement, photo, revelation which they encourage then weave into Diana iconography.

“She Moves in the Most Modern Ways, sung by Kaye’s Queen, Davie’s Camilla, Holly Ann Butler as Sarah Spencer (Diana’s sister confident) Hartrampf’s Charles, Andre Jordan as Colin and Paul Burrell (Anthony Murphy who is also hysterical singing “The Dress” with De Waal, Kaye and the ensemble) works well. It codifies the press’s indictment of the monarchy as stuffily dead with Diana shaking things up as both a benefit and possible liability.

Of course, the theatricality Diana creates is marvelous copy. Throughout the production, Jeanna De Waal does not drop a stitch of the persona in the arc of the press’ vision of her. Her irony, sweetness, fury and flippant attitude beautifully captures the creatives’ vision. The song “This Is How Your People Dance” when Diana listens to Bach with Charles and the others, while imagining a rock concert with her favorites, where all but Camilla “shake it up” is riotous. From that point on it was clear to me what Di Pietro and Bryan were about.

Jeanna de Waal, Anthony Murphy in Diana The Musical (Matthew Murphy)

Finally, the creators emphasize the bare bone facts referenced by the media that, understanding what she was up against in her marriage, suffering without proper allies to rescue her, Diana Spencer carved out her own approach to her position in the royal corporation which had “winked at” Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Growing into her own burgeoning identity, she empowered herself, using the media for great causes (the scene in the AIDS ward is poignantly done) that had not been taken up by anyone until she became involved.

Allegedly, for the royals, this was an embarrassingly mischievous and rebellious turn. To the media this was laudatory, though perhaps, self-serving. For Diana personally, we will never understand the mixture of altruism, concern and self-interest. Throughout, the press not unlike with Marilyn Monroe, helped create her charismatic persona which to this day is hot copy. And it is that which Diana The Musical makes very clear with ironic twists that at bottom are an indictment of us all.

This is one to see if you remember that the tastelessness is all on the press and the public who clamored for the avatar Diana and the royals they received. Despite that underlying terrible truth, Diana The Musical expresses that message with humor, silliness, waggish irony and brilliance. Kudos to the creatives: David Zinn (scenic design) Natasha Katz (lighting design) Gareth Owen (sound design) the musical team and Ian Eisendrath (music arrangement and supervision). For tickets and times visit the website by CLICKING HERE.

LaChanze Stars in ‘Trouble in Mind’ Alice Childress’ Brilliant Play at American Airlines Theatre

LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen in Trouble in Mind American Airlines Theatre Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Alice Childress finally receives a proper Broadway premiere in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s very humorous and profound production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Childress’ work, which stars an exceptional lead cast (LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen, Brandon Michael Hall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Danielle Campbell) is a complex, sardonic and LOL play. It explores the cultural backdrops, impossible Civil Rights issues in the nation and their impact on the world of New York City theater in the 1950s.

The theatrical lens that Childress uses employs her own life experiences as an actress who never received roles which would allow her to express the full range of her talents onstage because of her skin color. Indeed, very few of the black theater actors were treated with the respect they deserved, tethered to the stereotypical roles that continued to foment institutional racism in the South and the North because such roles “comforted” the audiences and solidified the power structure.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

It is to her credit and our great appreciation that Childress was a maverick who wrote Trouble in Mind (1955) that was well received off Broadway, but whose backers wanted major cuts and extrapolations before they brought it to Broadway to stem their fear of offending the largely white audience and hurting receipts. Rather than agree with having her artistic truthfulness destroyed to line the pockets of the producers, though it would further her career, Childress took a stand and pulled the play. Her actions present a beacon of courage for artists everywhere. Nevertheless, in refusing to compromise the themes, characters and indictments of the play against racism, she became a martyr for great theater art, and the work was excluded for 66 years from a Broadway presentation until this year.

Though others took up the cause and presented her play in various venues (it is being done in London) historically this incident indicates the dark clouds that hover over Broadway and theater to this day in issues of censorship, whether right or left, and the sub rosa, sometimes unspoken but understood restrictions placed upon artists and writers, whose works have great moment for our time, but who will never be given a hearing because of the gatekeepers and inherent power structure which shoots them down for whatever reason.

Trouble in Mind cleverly exposes this type of racist, sexist banishment and oppression with ridicule and ironic humor to powerful effect. The playwright reveals the hierarchy and dualism (controlled vs. controllers) of the theater world using a play within a play structure. The power structure is nullifying; there is no collaboration to make a better production. There is only the insistence in maintaining what is, killing artistry with repetition and dead, wooden characters, relationships and themes to pamper audiences.

(L to R): Brand Michael Hall, LaChanze, Chuck Cooper in Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

Thus, in the name of entertainment, truth is sacrificed and the vital purpose of theater to touch peoples’ lives and bring people together in a sense of community, is never fully realized. Indeed, Childress shows that such mediocre and superficial plays result in the wiping out of the true nature, identity, relationships and reactions of Black people historically in the US., depriving society of the spectacular contributions of a people and culture they refuse to acknowledge.

As the play opens Childress hints at this when experienced actress Wiletta Mayer (the incisive LaChance) shows the ropes to inexperienced John Nevins ( the collected, often innocently funny Brandon Michael Hall) in how to deal with their director Al Manners (an ironic name if ever there was one). Michael Zegen portrays the increasingly stressed and unlikeable director, a difficult role, with nuance and fervency. Wiletta with the help of veteran actors Sheldon Forrester (the inimitable and drop dead hysterical Chuck Cooper) and Millie Davis (the fine Jessica Frances Dukes) show John how to subtly “Yasss” the director, and second guess what he wants without being abrasive and obstructionist. For example, one inside joke is milked throughout the play: Wiletta tells John not to say he’s “inexperienced.” “Just tell him you were in Porgy and Bess as a child!” Since Childress prepped the audience for this joke, when it is reiterated to Manners, it’s double meaning is hysterical.

Trouble in Mind, The Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Schooling John in how to negotiate being black in white theater is superbly rendered by the LaChanze, Cooper, Dukes and Hall to reveal the key themes of the play. Humor has helped blacks be incredibly resilient survivors as they continually dupe their “handlers” about what they really feel. On the other hand it has been soul killing to not be real and authentic. We understand this torment when Wiletta finally confronts the director with her truth because she is tired of the charade of “getting over” while subjugating herself and her identity. An elucidating irony reveals this is double indemnity. Such oppression is suicidal to whites as they push the racist line of the patriarchy to the point where such higher ups limit their artistic endeavors, achievements and bottom line for themselves.

How much more might theater be enriched if truthful revelations were embraced regarding all cultures and races? It would be life affirming and life changing. But the walking dead don’t know the difference. Instead, they refuse to be offended.

After Wiletta, Sheldon and Millie “educate” John in the black etiquette theater manual of how to be a success in the company of whites, he proves such a superior pupil in navigating the racist white attitudes that he uses their knowledge against them, confused about his core self. As the audience is made knowledgeable about blacks’ dual identities, it realizes that it is being ridiculed with Childress’ brilliant set ups of humor. This is an indictment of the culture which “can’t handle” the reality that they are bigots and their racism must be coddled. The epitome of this sardonic thread is the truth that blacks are actually the polite, smart adults in “putting up with” whites’ necessary inhumanity of racism when via projection they are treated as children who don’t know much of anything. Who is duping whom in self-betrayal?

LaChanze and Simon Jones in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

The playwright’s ironies are sage. Indeed, the audience, like the white controllers, is being “had,” if they think blacks enjoy oppression, insult and having their civil rights and humanity negated. A pure pleasure is how Childress presents all of these aforementioned themes and relates them to our culture today.

I find it interesting that the original producers were so worried that they actually had the “sensitivity” to realize that the play indicts the audience’s bigotry and racism. Or maybe they were upset at something else? Their own bigotry? The joke is wide-ranging; but the producers weren’t laughing, though the joke was on them when Childress refused to change her work.

Act I is rife with the humor that the veteran actors, Sheldon, Millie and Wiletta set up to be mined throughout until in Act II, Wiletta has “had it.” The requisite subtle irony to soft peddle racism no longer appeals because she wants to be a great actress and the lies of bigotry are getting in the way. When Al Manners attempts to tell her how to be “natural” and not “think,” and that by thinking, she doesn’t “get” the character, Wiletta boils with rage as he demeans her talent. And that anger spills over when she questions Manners about her character’s reactions in a scene when she is trying to protect her son from a lynch mob. The mother’s response and the son’s response is inauthentic, fake, and indeed, kowtows to white supremacists. The implication of her questions is clear.

(L to R): Jessica Frances Dukes, LaChanze, Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

When LaChanze’s Wiletta aptly confronts Zegen’s Manners about this, the explosion is inevitable. Manners walks away throwing the production in jeopardy and the other actors who need the money for the entire run are thrown into a tailspin. Trouble in Mind concludes in uncertainty. Though Wiletta took a stand confronting the director in the hope of evolving the play into an authentic rendering, only she is satisfied. For her it is worth it even if she destroys her career, which we understand by the end is meaningless if she, herself, can’t be who she really is. Childress ends with hope: Wiletta recites Psalm 133 to Henry (the excellent Simon Jones) as a spiritual petition and prayer for things to be better in the future.

Thus, we understand what happens if a black actor even dares to question the power structure represented by Manners; it’s potentially over. The play within a play ends but Wilette/Childress goes on. It is a prescient twist upon an ironic twist considering that it took 66 years for the indictment of Broadway’s white power structure to finally be presented by the Roundabout with Trouble in Mind. What’s even more ironic is that the message still pertains.

To conclude. Last night, I sat next to an experienced actor and his wife, a Rutgers professor and casting director. Both affirmed that “getting a play produced” is the most difficult and heart-wrenching process in theater today. Childress indicates some of the reasons in her amazing work which targets racism, chauvinism, and sexism. Importantly, her timeless play’s themes relate to every “ism” that one might lay bare about human nature and oppression in the arts, especially by those who exploit creatives to gain the highest profits, while starving the artistic team, playwrights, actors. This has been especially egregious for those of color.

Danielle Campbell, Michael Zegen in Trouble in Mind (Joan Marcus)

Sadly, this bigotry and discrimination is allegedly done for the sake of “entertainment.” The result is mediocrity and a fear of novel, original work. Instead, there is a steady repetition of old standby revivals or shows created from blockbuster films; there are few quality dramas or even musical productions. What has been sacrificed, as Trouble in Mind reveals, is the paramount live medium to touch lives. stir our humanity, bring community, and create a better society has dimmed and there is no Tinker Bell to come along and revive it, thus far. This is doubly so during the pandemic in the fall season of 2021.

Trouble in Mind is a step in the right direction, however. Bravo to Roundabout to stage it.

Kudos to the additional actors who made this production sing with truth and humor. Alex Mickiewicz as Eddie Fenton and Don Stephenson as Bill O’Wray. Final shout outs go to Arnulfo Maldonado (set design) Emilio Sosa (costume design) Kathy A. Perkins (lighting design) Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) and the other creatives. You don’t want to miss the fine cast, Childress’ priceless, sharp wit and this long awaited Broadway premiere. For tickets and times go to their website CLICK HERE.

‘Nollywood Dreams’ a Comedic Farce With Intriguing Undertones

Nana Mensah, Sandra Okuboyejo in Nollywood Dreams at MCC (Daniel J. Vasquez)

Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play) and director Saheem Ali her frequent collaborator (Merry Wives of Windsor-free Shakespeare in the Park) once again work comedic magic in Nollywood Dreams, a farce that twits burgeoning Nigerian Cinema in the 1990s, yet makes a statement about dreaming, and dreamers influenced by countries with jaded, hypocritical values.

The production makes the most of the Newman Mills Theater’s intimacy with heightened, particular and detailed scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado that cleverly enhances Bioh’s characters, set changes, story arc and thematic focus. Dede Ayite’s appealing and over-the top costume design and Nikiya Mathis’ hair and wig design encourage the actors to pull out all the stops. These production elements especially enhance the actors’ characterizations and encourage their freedom to humorously tear up Bioh’s witty celebrity inferences with grace and humor that moves the production along at a well-paced clip.

If Bioh’s characterizations are superb, even greater is the cast that inhabits the recognizable celebrity types and their acolytes with definition, depth and unique authenticity. The humor is organic and situational, and part of the laugh riot comes at witnessing how other countries, i.e. Nigeria, emulate some of the worst of American, to wit “Hollywood” culture through a lens brightly. Thus, Bioh’s farce not only humorously underscores and gently ridicules Nollywood cinema, but it also satirically rocks the most shallow and nauseating American entertainment transferences, save the send up of Oprah in the TV hostess Adenikeh by the fabulous Abena. Interestingly, Nollywood cinema has grown by leaps and bounds to be one of the most productive engines globally.

Ade Otukoya in Nollywood Dreams at MCC (Daniel J. Vasquez)

The plot is as simplistic as the Hollywood pie that actors refuse to eat for fear of going over their 18 BMI. Ayamma Okafor (the lovely Sandra Okuboyejo) dreams of being an actress as she and her older sister Dede (the jealous, know-it-all humorously portrayed by Nana Mensah) run their parents’ travel agency and intend to move up in the world beyond their middle class status, of course, influenced by the US and other capitalist countries. The siblings are well drawn with the older Dede continually chiding Ayamma, dumping the work on her and generally being a scutch. Then events break for the sweet but down-to-earth Ayamma and she becomes Dede’s rival for the man in both of their dreams (for different reasons) the gorgeous star Wale (the sweet and adorable Ade Otukoya).

In all the gossip magazines that Dede reads, confirmed by the guests on Adenikeh’s TV show, we learn the backstory and the stakes for the characters. The gobsmacking Wale is slated to be in the next film from director and all-around big producer who learned the ropes in America, Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson, III has the energetic, compromised Hollywood director/schmoozer down perfectly). However, to spur interest, cleverly, the big man announces a nationwide open audition for the part of the female lead in his next film, “The Comfort Zone” (how Bioh introduces the title and the name of the lead character is hysterical). For Ayamma, this is the opportunity she has dreamed about, to be able to raise herself up into stardom as an actress. Meanwhile, Dede will just settle as second best to marry Wale.

Emana Rachelle in Nollywood Dreams at MCC (Daniel J. Vasquez)

Bioh ratchets up the sibling rivalry when Ayamma asserts herself and visits Gbenga’s offices to get the part and play against Wale to prove she is a great actress and can make something of herself. In Gbenga’s office, we see the allure of possible future starlet vs. potentially predatory director. Enjoying the visit of the beauty Ayamma, an ingenue of innocence, we note that Gbenga never misses an opportunity with the ladies. Gbenga allows her to read with the actress (and his former partner) Fayola (the Nollywood “Hallie Berry with the Tina Turner legs”) who he will most likely cast in the part to prevent her spilling the dirt on him that would put him in jail.

Emana Rachelle portrays the wild and dramatic Fayola with vibrance, humor and sheer joy. Ayite and Mathis’ costumes, shoes, wigs give even more umph and fabulousness to Emana’s Fayola whose gestures and movements, like Abena’s, celebrate those they imitate if not also gently ridicule. The women are in conflict against each other for the part of Comfort; the sisters are in conflict for Wale, and Adenikeh wants in and will use her leverage in whatever way possible to be with Wale and Gbenga. Interestingly, Hudson III’s king manipulator Gbenga keeps them all allured, while Ade’s Wale, with quiet confidence oozing the sensitivity which every woman loves, sits back and is himself.

The actors are having a blast as is the audience. And we even get to see a clip of The Comfort Zone which is an overacting extravaganza at its best. Special kudos to David Weiner’s and Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design; Palmer Hefferan’s sound design; Alex Basco Koch’s projection design. It’s a shame that the run of Nollywood Dreams isn’t longer. It’s a wonderful romp with depth in exposing the the broken promises and lures the entertainment industry presents and not to its credit. Thanks to the creative team, Saheem Ali-director, Bioh and especially the ensemble who are seminal performers who listen to each other. All make this production memorable.

To see Nollywood Dreams, you must act fast. It is over November 28th. For tickets and times go to the MCC website and CLICK HERE.

‘The Visitor,’ Not to be Underestimated, Extended at The Public

The company of the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The Visitor, a haunting musical based on Thomas McCarthy’s resonant titular film (2007) has been extended at The Public Theater and is ending December 5th, 2021. That we are able to see it at all, given the former president’s COVID botch job, which, for a time, made New York City the global epicenter of death, shuttering theater for months, is nothing short of miraculous.

David Hyde Pierce (center) and the company in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The egregious hell of the previous administration, including its threatened overthrow of the nation led by the former president and white supremacists who oppose immigration and the constitutional rule of law, may influence one toward a jaded view of The Visitor as woefully “uncurrent.” Some critics suggested this, sadly. Indeed, that is dismissive of the musical’s inherent hope, goodness and prescience. Not to view it through the proper lens of historical time would be as limiting as the unjust institutions and failed immigration policies that the production thematically indicts.

David Hyde Pierce and Ahmad Maksoud in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The Visitor, acutely directed by Daniel Sullivan, takes place after 2001 during the Bush Jr. administration when certain groups viewed Muslim immigrants as possible terrorists. The period 2001-2007 was a less divisive time in the nation, but our failed immigration policies did stagnate and worsen, setting us up for future debacles and the growth of white domestic terrorism. Nevertheless, if one’s sensibilities are too upended by the traumas of the Trump administration to enjoy the musical without keeping the 2001-2007 time period in mind, the themes and the human core of this work by Tom Kitt (music) Brian Yorkey (lyrics) Kwame Kwei-Armah & Brian Yorkey (book) will be overlooked and given short shrift.

Alysha Deslorieux in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The themes are relayed principally through the relationships established between white college professor Walter (David Hyde Pierce in an emotional and effecting portrayal), Syrian Tarek (the likeable Ahmad Maksoud) and his girlfriend from Senegal, Zainab (the golden voiced Alysha Deslorieux). Believing Walter’s Manhattan apartment has been vacated, Tarek and Zainab, tricked by an “Ivan,” have been staying there without Walter’s knowledge. What occurs after Walter discovers their presence, takes us back to a time before Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies, Republican party nihilism and Democratic governors’ establishment of sanctuary cities to protect the undocumented and waiting asylum seekers.

David Hyde Pierce and Ahmad Maksoud (foreground) in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The opening numbers (“Prologue,” “Wake Up,” “Voices Through a Window”) establish why Walter is amenable to not behaving like a guard dog (who would note Zainab’s accent and Tarek’s swarthy looks) and immediately call the police to arrest the couple. Walter is a professor, not law enforcement and Zainab sees the precariousness of their situation and with passion mitigates their mistake (Zainab’s Apology”). After they leave, Walter finds Zainab’s sketch pad and runs after them. What results is an act of hospitality and generosity, as he allows the couple to stay until they find somewhere else to go.

Jacqueline Antaramian in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Walter’s state of mind, character, background and the loss of his wife and emotional destitution prompt this irregular action. On the couple’s part, Zainab who has been through an undocumented female’s hell which we later discover (“Bound for America”) doesn’t trust Walter and presses Tarek to leave, despite their desperate circumstances. David Hyde Pierce, a consummate actor whose Walter floats like a ghost without any sense of purpose, mission or happiness, sparks to interest identifying with the couple’s romantic love (“Tarek and Zainab,”). He wants to trust in their goodness and decency because he has already lost everything worth anything to him and he has nothing left to lose.

David Hyde Pierce in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Walter, Tarek and Zainab take this incredible risk because of their overwhelming needs. All are visitors to this land of human decency which they extend to each other by hope and a faith that grows and changes their lives. When Tarek teaches Walter how to play one of his djembes (a goblet drum played with bare hands that originated in West Africa) and takes him to the park to play with others (the incredible “Drum Circle”) a bond is formed that will never be broken.

Above all the music (thanks to Rick Edinger, Emily Whitaker, musicians and the entire music team) solidifies the themes of friendship, unity, empathy, humanity. Significantly, it suggests that it is through our cultural differences, if we are open to them, via artistic soul expression, that the commonality among all of us may best be found. These themes, at what appears to be the height of racism and white supremacy in our nation today must be affirmed more than ever. The Visitor does this with subtlety like a grand slam played with two cool finesses.

Alysha Deslorieux and Jacqueline Antaramian in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

At the first turning point in the production, the center starts to give way. Though Walter tries to advocate for the inaccuracy of the transit cops’ charges, Tarek is arrested for “jumping” a subway turn style after he pays but can’t fit himself and his drum through it. The cops’ action underscores the inequity of the justice system (if he were white, they probably wouldn’t arrest him). The cops find it “inconvenient” to believe Tarek’s explanation, nor do they follow Walter’s advice to check his card to verify Tarek’s truthfulness.

Discovering Tarek is undocumented, they put him in a detention center in Queens. Feeling responsible for Tarek’s situation, Walter hires an attorney, visits Tarek and keeps Zainab encouraged. It is in the detention center that we note the cruelty toward the undocumented who are treated as criminals though they are asylum seekers and willing to work for a better life for themselves. The music, lyrics and Lorin Latarro’s choreography, especially in “World Between Two Worlds” by Tarek, Walter and the Ensemble are superbly expressive, heart-wrenching and powerful.

Jacqueline Antaramian and David Hyde Pierce in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

As the stakes become higher in the second turning point, Tarek’s mother Mouna (the effecting, soulful Jacqueline Antaramian) visits Walter’s apartment looking for Tarek. Events complicate. Walter finds Mouna appealing and authentic. Mouna and Zainab ride the Staten Island Ferry, finally becoming friends (“Lady Liberty”) sharing how they believed the seductive promises of the “American Dream.” Because Mouna and Zainab may never see Tarek again in the U.S., Walter becomes the one they must turn to (“Heart in Your Hands,” “Blessings,” “Such Beautiful Music.”). Beyond hope (“What Little I Can Do”) Walter does his best, but the institutions fail him, fail everyone.

It is through the relationships with Tarek, Mouna, Zainab that Walter’s humanity and empathy are stirred to change his soul and his direction in life. It is the love for Tarek and the hope of his release that changes Mouna’s and Zainab’s relationship with each other. And their relationship with Walter establishes a new level of understanding that there are some “good” people who will help. Finally, it is the stirring of Tarek’s concern for Zainab that helps him realize his spiritual love and connection with her is not bounded by the material plane (“My Love is Free”) or held in by the walls of his jail cell or deportation back to Syria. And it is that spiritual love for her and his connection to Walter that will help him face whatever he encounters.

David Hyde Pierce and Ahmad Maksoud in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

As an archetype for all sane individuals, Walter realizes the issues underlying Tarek’s, Zainab’s, Mouna’s situation. We are to agree with him, the creative team hopes. These individuals are not “the other” that their nationless position or the white supremacists’ fascistic stereotyping suggests they are: dangerous, encroaching, grifting. In the showstopping “Better Angels” David Hyde Pierce prodigiously, emotionally expresses his song-prayer for Tarek. He petitions against the injustice of Tarek’s situation by a nation which should act better, but itself has become unmoored from its founding ideals of liberty and the inalienable rights of human beings. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”)

As Pierce sings, the irony of an older white gentleman whose life has been bled out of him, standing in the gap for a young undocumented Syrian, who is full of vitality and hope, wanting to live his life to the fullest in a country that doesn’t deserve him, is beyond fabulous. It is heartbreaking. Pierce, impassioned, speak/sings it out into the nether regions of spiritual consciousness. Is anyone listening? Have we forsaken our citizen right to help others?

Ahmad Maksoud (center) and the company in the world premiere production of The Visitor, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Daniel Sullivan, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

I apologize for being moved as I thought of what was to come because of these failed immigration policies which continued and inspired Trump’s white supremacist fascism: kids in camps at the Southern Border, kids lost to parents for years, the undocumented dying in stifling heat and horrific conditions, proud Trumpers appreciating Steven Miller’s cruelty while donating to grifter Steve Bannon’s fake “Build the Wall” fund.

The Visitor presciently, horrifically intimates what happens if injustice and cruelty are institutionalized and the populace is inured to it or worse, uses it as a grinding post to domestically terrorize others for pleasure’s sake. White supremacists have evolved to do so precisely because of failed immigration policies which a craven, unhinged politician exploited for his own grifting agenda.

Equally terrifying is the war of attrition against decency and the lack of wisdom to appreciate this historically as revealed by The Visitor. If we consider that critics are inured/jaded not to see in The Visitor the failed state of our culture in 2001-2007, that the next eight years augmented via the Obama administration. And while many were thrilled with Obama, in the shadows, white supremacy groups grew by demonizing “the other” until they blossomed to a “first wave” of fascism which supported the president of white supremacy who followed up with inhuman, indecent acts from immigration crimes to COVID deaths. And still no one is suing for “crimes against humanity?”

The character of Walter reminds white males it’s OK to be human and humane and decent and empathetic. To think this production is not “current” enough via its historical perspective is misguided.

In Kitt’s. Yorkey’s, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s work fueling Thomas McCarthy’s film, Tarek, Mouna symbolize the courageous willing to take horrific risks. We need to be reminded of this again and again. Sullivan’s The Visitor seeks to move us from being stones kicked around by politicians, to understand the impossible hardship of leaving all that was once familiar and comforting in the hope of escaping catastrophe only to never gain the security sought (“Where Is Home?/No Home”). As climate change continues to roil the planet and immigration issues exacerbate, we can’t drop a stitch in our understanding.

The actor/singers, phenomenal swings, musicians and creative team stir us to care and act in this call to arms to change our failed historical US immigration policies that have caused horrific pain for asylum seekers and dreamers as they wait for citizenship to no avail. Not only must changes be made, they must be made permanent so that no Executive Order, lawsuit or state can reverse it to pleasure a fascist.

Specific shout outs to David Zinn’s evocative scenic design: the steel backdrop of the detention center and its ironic contrast, Walter’s comfortable apartment. Kudos to Toni-Leslie James (costumes) Japhy Weideman (lighting) and others who helped to make The Visitor a compelling, must-see show. For tickets and times visit the website: CLICK HERE.

‘The Dark Outside’ by Bernard Kops, Starring Austin Pendleton and Katharine Cullison

The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops currently at Theater for the New City is the renowned 94-year-old English playwright’s most recent work. The play uplifts the importance of family with themes of unity, love, encouragement, light and hope against the all-encroaching darkness that would turn family members against each other and destroy them. Kops’ lyrical play had a staged reading at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2020. It is a great irony that The Dark Outside presciently foreshadowed the tenor of the times as the pandemic broke out and upended global society and culture right after the reading.

Katharine Cullison, Austin Pendleton in The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

Through the COVID-19 chaos and upheaval, which bred uncertainty, want and fear, oftentimes, family provided the bulwark of steadfastness against psychic and physical infirmities and death. Disastrously, in the United States the divisiveness over how to handle COVID-19 became a political football which, to this day, divides families and ends friendships. Most importantly, Kops’ The Dark Outside reminds us of the moral, sociological and personal imperative of the family unit to sustain its members. Though the inevitable tribulations of life will come, they can be withstood through love’s immutable power.

(standing) Kathleen Simmonds, (sitting) Brenna Donohue inThe Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

In this premiere at Theater for the New City, director Jack Serio and the creative team deliver the beauty and sanctity of the play’s themes with a fascinating production that is incredibly timely. Serio highlights the British dramatist’s poetic sensibilities and notes Kops’ homage to archetypal character types through the production’s staging and overall design elements.

To achieve Kops’ ethereality, Serio selects minimalism. The production strips away material clutter and simplifies, using the bareness of space. In the atmosphere created, the superb acting ensemble conjures up the symbolic mulberry tree, the garden behind the house, the dinner, and more. All are in the service of Kops’ revelations about this family’s unity, inspired by the beautiful and loving mother and wife, Helen, portrayed with precision by Katharine Cullison and supported by the wounded, sensitive, poetic father and husband Paul, played by the impeccable Austin Pendleton.

Austin Pendleton in The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

At the outset, Kops introduces us to Paul (Pendleton) the father/husband, a former East London tailor who faces a life crisis after he loses the use of his arm in an accident. To inspire and encourage Paul, wife/mother Helen (Cullison) gathers their children, Penny (Kathleen Simmonds) Ben (Jesse McCormick) and Sophie (Brenna Donahue) to unify the family at the important occasion of celebrating Paul’s birthday.

As the play progresses, we discover that each of the children confronts conflicts and traumas in their own lives. Thus, the chaos that is outside on the streets and in the neighborhoods that Paul often refers to threatens to disturb and destroy each of the family members unless they are able to work through their problems, seeking the comfort of each other to tide them over to face another day.

L-R: Austin Pendleton, Katharine Cullison, Kathleen Simmonds, Brenna Donahue, Jesse McCormick, The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

Kops uses the majestic mulberry tree in the family’s garden to reveal the issues of the characters. For strength and peace, family members confess their angst and deep secrets to the tree whose life force listens and, in its silence, allows the characters to gain an inner solace and calm. Additionally, sisters Sophie and Penny share confidences. Sophie relates a horrific experience that caused her to leave college and spiral downward into emotional devastation and near destruction.

Sophie’s salvation is in coming home where she finds love, acceptance and redemption. Revitalized, Ben and Sophie receive great comfort in the arms and soul strength of Helen, who soothes and reassures both as she helps them overcome their inner hell. Paul’s great appreciation of his amazing wife is his continual blessing. Cullison and Pendleton are authentic and believable in the relationship they build of the loving couple. Thus, it follows that the children, despite their heart-rending troubles, have rightly come home to heal, as they receive encouragement and love from their parents.

(center L to R): Jesse McCormick, Brenna Donahue in The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

Of the joys in this production are the poems and songs that are wide-ranging and eclectic. These, the family sings together or recites individually as expressions of emotion that are difficult to articulate. The songs resonate and recapture the play’s themes. They indicate how the family copes when a member needs help and uplifting. This is especially so in the poignant conclusion when Helen sweetly sings Paul to sleep with soothing grace. The moment is mythic in its power, and it is obvious that love’s sanctity is a balm which never falls short or fails. Thus, by the conclusion, joy returns to the household. The “darkness” has been thwarted with regard to Ben and Sophie who return to the family to complete the circle of love.

Katharine Cullison, Austin Pendleton in The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

The only one who does not join them and leaves for New York City with her husband is Penny. In her move it is intimated that the wholeness of the family may remain incomplete for a season. But we have seen the strength of the archetypal mother who unites her children and husband. Regardless of whether the external darkness is in London or in New York City, Helen will continue to be the binding force that holds the family together with grace.

Jack Serio, the cast and the creative team have delivered the essence of Kops’ work and made it memorable. With the music and sound (Nick T. Moore) scenic design (Walt Spangler’s leaves are a lovely addition) the modulations of the darkness and light symbolism through Keith Parham’s lighting design, the production’s heightened moments are felt acutely. This is one that should be seen because of its cast and the symbolic iteration of one of Kops most heart-felt works.

The production runs at Theater for the New City until November 28th when Bernard Kops turns 95-years old. It is a feat for one of Europe’s best-known and most admired playwrights who the Queen awarded a Civil List pension for his services to literature. It is an award garnered by a very select few, namely Lord Byron, Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. For tickets and times go to the website https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-dark-outside/

Theater Review: ‘Trevor’ a New Musical at Stage 42, Based on the Titular Film

Holden William Hagelberger (red jacket-center) and the company of Trevor (Joan Marcus)

The musical Trevor with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis manages to run an emotional continuum from delightful, funny and whimsical to poignant, profound and heart-breakingly current. Based on the 1994 titular short film which inspired a suicide prevention organization, The Trevor Project, the musical comedy delivers without being a hokey, silly-serious “message” play. This is principally due to the vibrant direction by Marc Bruni, the fine cast lead by the impish Holden William Hagelberger, the energetic musical direction by Matt Deitchman and the ebullient choreography by Josh Prince.

Sammy Dell (left, center) Holden William Hagelberger (right) and the company of Trevor (Joan Marcus)

As a result, the musical comedy soars just high enough in the first act without burning itself up in the second, which takes a dark turn but remains ironic and soulfully empathetic. Its subject matter remains human and will touch even the most hard-hearted bigots who were never “cool” or “awesomely popular” in school. Above all Trevor touches upon the human need to be inspired by secret goals and dreams, which keep us enthusiasts of life and young at heart.

The original story by Celeste Lecesne generated the Academy Award-winning short film “Trevor” directed by Peggy Raiski and produced by Randy Stone. The film serves as an excellent foundation for the stage adaptation because it resonates with the familiar and never stands on sanctimony. Unfortunately, the all too probable “real life” situation provides the key conflict in the musical. What Trevor faces happens every day in a school in every school system in the nation to kids who are brave enough not to fit in despite the pain and bullying miscreants who will punish them for it out of cowardice and fear.

(Above) Yasmeen Sulieman (Below) Holden William Hagelberger in Trevor (Joan Marcus)

The musical in its New York premiere highlights the enthusiastic teen, Diana Ross fan and wanna be singer and performer Trevor, who is coming into his gay identity which he accepts and reconciles by the end of the production. Trevor lives in a suburb in 1981 before LGBTQ was “a thing” and at the outset of the AIDS crisis before it was “identified” as such. Neither of those factor into the arc of Trevor’s discovery and affirmation of himself which is a huge plus. Indeed, we are only caught up in the dramadey of this coming of age story without the angst or preachy assertions about gender identity. Trevor is and because he is, he is unequivocally acceptable and adorable in the human family.

Trevor’s uptight Catholic parents (Sally Wilfert, Jarrod Zimmerman) are clueless. Their fearful refusal to acknowledge that Trevor might be “gay” is humorous (thanks to Wilfert and Zimmerman). Their lack of understanding provides one of the conflicts in the production when they deliver Trevor to Father Joe, a Catholic priest for counseling. He is as helpful as a rock and Trevor’s reaction and the situation provides irony and humor. Importantly, Trevor must work out his own “redemption” for himself with the help of his friends, however difficult that is. Nevertheless, it is his talent and his dreams and interests that see him through the dark times.

Holden William Hagelberger is a likable and cheerful Trevor who is involved in his own world with his school friends, the funny geek Walter (Aryan Simhadri) and the awkward, humorous Cathy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) with glasses and rubber bands on her braces. Trevor is considered weird by the other kids in school, but fate throws him in with Pinky (the fine Sammy Dell) one of the most popular kids. Pinky is kind to Trevor who gives him help to hook up with Frannie (Isabel Medina).

(L to R): Holden William Hagelberger, Sammy Dell in Trevor (Joan Marcus)

As Pinky and Trevor become friendly, Trevor finds himself “falling for” Pinky, having his first crush on a guy. Unfortunately, the friendship turns sour when someone steals Trevor’s notebook which has entries that indicate how much Pinky means to him. When Trevor’s classmates treat him as an “invisible” to punish him for his “crush” on Pinky, Trevor is devastated and takes it out on himself.

The turning point in the play with the number “Your Life is Over,” is campy and staged well (as are most of the musical numbers). The serious subject of suicide (Trevor tries to OD on Aspirin) is dealt with as a Diva’s comedic irony, skirting the edge of darkness successfully. Yet, the seriousness of what occurs is noted with concern and reverence.

How Trevor comes out of his morass of emotions with the help of his friends, and specifically his trust in the magically realistic Diana Ross (Yasmeen Sulieman) who appears and disappears when he needs her, encourages and enlightens. Indeed, Diana Ross is an extension of Trevor’s talent and wisdom. In his reliance on this inner ethos, we are released into an uplifting resolution in Act II.

Trevor does not wear political correctness on its sleeve. Nor does it beat its breast with finger-pointing. In remaining real and human, the creators hit this production out of the ballpark with its humor, music and the ensemble’s energy. Its appeal is wide-ranging. Who would not uplift being decent and kind? Who would disavow the Golden Rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us? These values are cross-cultural, cross-national, cross-global. In its message, the production is not self-aggrandizing nor pushing any political stance. How refreshing! As such, that is Trevor’s strength and why it should be performed in schools across the nation.

Kudos to the creative team, to the director’s apt shepherding of the ensemble who does a bang up job led by Diana Ross (Yasmeen Sulieman) Trevor (Holden William Hagelberger) and Pinky (Sammy Dell). For tickets and times to see this must-see musical go to their website. https://www.trevorthemusical.com/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA-K2MBhC-ARIsAMtLKRsWL0YelVs_Hh9DC-KAOX76sPUOKMSwC-3EmKmF0YoUMHsHeY_bhQEaAtPGEALw_wcB

‘Morning Sun’ Starring Edie Falco, Blair Brown, Marin Ireland at MTC

(L to R): Blair Brown, Edie Falco in Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of Simon Stephen’s Morning Sun (Matthew Murphy)

Morning Sun by Simon Stephens directed by Lila Neugebauer, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club (New York City Center Stage 1) takes its name from the titular Edward Hopper painting. Hopper’s austere work is of a woman on her bed in bright sunlight staring out the window that faces a factory type building in the distance and rooftops below-unpictured from the high-floor perspective of the painted cityscape.

Edward Hopper came from the same hometown, Nyack, as the McBride family women who make reference to him with pride. The painting “Morning Sun” is symbolically appropriate, because Stephens’ protagonist (#1 or Charlotte/Charley) played with terrific focus and authenticity by Eddie Falco, is peering out the window of her life in a flashback life review. She recalls to remembrance her past, assisted by Blair Brown (#2, her mother) and Marin Ireland (#3 her daughter). The woman in the painting steeped in reflection and introspection mirrors Charley McBride.

(L to R): Blair Brown, Marin Ireland in Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of Simon Stephen’s Morning Sun (Matthew Murphy)

Brown, Falco and Ireland represent three generations of the lower middle-class McBride women. We see their perspectives and lives as they discuss their relationship with Charley who is the centerpiece of the play. Brown and Ireland also portray the important friends, family and male partners who populated Charley’s life and who are central to the events that took her on her singular journey through the stages of youth, middle age and beyond.

The exposition begins after Charley cries out about safety and security for herself, like a child crying out in the dark. The others assure her she is safe, and calm her down. We understand this beginning to mean that Charley initially is in a place where she fears for her safety. Ironically, it comes to refer to her entire life as a question of unsafe uncertainty. Like every human being who confronts death every moment without accepting or understanding the conundrum of life in death, they move without fully grasping their instinctive purpose is to stay alive until they leave this earthly plane.

(Edie Falco, foreground Marin Ireland in Simon Stephen’s Morning Sun (Matthew Murphy)

Stephens intimates that there is another consciousness, and the characters inhabit some netherworld in it. But he never clarifies the specifics and certainly not with any religious overlay. Thus, Charley’s cries have great moment, only we don’t realize why this is so and to what she refers until the conclusion when Stephens reveals it.

With rapid-fire unveiling, the women stream through the beginning, middle and ending of Charley’s life assessment. Their exposition has break through dynamic moments where the women or men that #2 and #3 portray argue or disagree and resist Charley. The drama of a “life well or ill lived” is bled out of Charley’s existence which might be characterized as one of the invisible millions of “average” and “ordinary” women who lived and died as New Yorkers making do, because they decided not to commit suicide and affirm their identity with an important emotional statement embracing death as a balm for their life’s miseries. They lived, without much reflection or philosophical pondering, a day-to-day existence.

(L to R): Blair Brown, Edie Falco in Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of Simon Stephen’s Morning Sun (Matthew Murphy)

Charley’s chronicle is sandwiched between Claudette’s move to New York City and purchase of an apartment on 11th St. in Greenwich Village where she raises Charley, and years later when Charley comes back to visit and stay with Tessa after she moves to Colorado. The apartment bought on the cheap, in a questionable area grows in value and becomes the envy of all who hear of it, including the audience.

We learn that Claudette arrived in NYC to escape upstate New York and an untenable home-life. By degrees almost as an expanded laundry list, we learn of Claudette’s work, her husband, Charley’s father, Charley’s formative years, her friendship with Casey, her work as a receptionist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, her one-night stand with a pilot and her pregnancy and decision to keep Tessa as a single mother without extensive means. We also learn of Charley’s substantive partners, one abusive, the other kind.

(L to R): Edie Falco, Marin Ireland, Blair Brown in Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of Simon Stephen’s Morning Sun (Matthew Murphy)

The chronicle is also of New York City’s rise, fall and rise again revealed as Stephens intertwines Charley’s personal events sometimes impacted by the culture through the decades. Ironically, Claudette wants to linger on the 60s, her generation, while Charley affirms the 70s is more important and it’s about “her life” after all. Thus, politics and the upheavals of the 1960s roll off Charley’s back without notice. We consider that Claudette’s viewpoints perhaps were shaped by that time, while Charley, the recipient of the benefits of the 60s social upheavals, remains unconcerned about them.

Throughout, as New York’s financial situation improves, there is discussion about the apartment and what to do with it. We discover that one of Charley’s partners, Brian, who Claudette can’t tolerate because he abused her daughter persists in trying to get Charley to sell the place, even after they split up. Such discussions become points of humor, as every New Yorker at one time or another finds looking for a place to live, finding a place to live and staying once they’ve found it, one of the main preoccupations of being a New Yorker and living in the city.

Edie Falco in Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of Simon Stephen’s Morning Sun (Matthew Murphy)

Stephens’ vehicle of using #2 and #3 to supplement Charley’s perspective with the men and friends in her life offers an unsettling, unemotional scoping of a list of remembrances that speed us to the why and wherefore of Charley’s existence, however tedious it may be for the audience. The exposition in its great swaths of the non-confrontational is wearisome and uneventful. My neighbor in the audience slept through most of the play and at one point, I found myself almost joining him as I struggled to stay “woke.”

Clearly, Stephens is making a thematic point similar to one heralded by Thorton Wilder’s Emily in Act 3 of Our Town. That life, all of it, especially in its sameness and undramatic monotone is wonderful. Even if one’s life is dreary, monochromatic, dull and uneventful, it is up to us, the players, to bring purpose and meaning to it. This, Charley realizes by the end of the play. She understands the great importance of being a receptionist at St. Vincent’s after the hospital is shut down. She tells Tessa the amazing things about her that she loves. Such realizations, Stephens suggests, arrive just on time for their full appreciation. Indeed, Charley understands by the end, that she misses what she took for granted as a privilege. Most importantly, those people, places and wants only resonate with her unique ethos and being.

Marin Ireland in Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of Simon Stephen’s Morning Sun (Matthew Murphy)

The strength of Stephen’s work which requires a yeowoman’s job of getting all of the details down is in the overall message and the last few minutes of the play which is an apotheosis for Charley and the audience. Throughout, Falco is a tour de force, in a role beautifully rendered, especially at the conclusion. Blair Brown and Marin Ireland are wonderful assistants, though Ireland needed to project and at times in her inward emotion gathering became a faint wisp, indeed, in character, but not always articulated.

Director Lila Neugebauer properly stages Morning Sun in the ethers, not focusing on the material aspects of the production so that we listen carefully and take in the lives being shared with us. Though Charley’s journey is told in flashback narrative, we do come to trust the reliability of those who speak. This is a testament to the actors and director savoring the playwright’s work.

Blair Brown in Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of Simon Stephen’s Morning Sun (Matthew Murphy)

Kudos to the creative team: dots (scenic design) Kaye Voyce (costume design) Lap Chi Chu (lighting design) Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger (sound design) Daniel (original music) Tom Watson (hair and wig design). For tickets and times go to https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/morning-sun/

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