Performing Arts: Theater
USE YOUR HEAD FOR MORE
March 9, 2021
When Nina Simone wove “Good King Wenceslas” into her rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue,” a lyrical portrait of loneliness became all the heavier when wrapped in holiday subtext. In Use Your Head for More, Justin Hicks integrates the same tune to a much different effect, as the aural centerpiece of his series of audiovisual portraits, commissioned and streamed by Baryshnikov Arts Center.

A tender groove of percussion and autoharp, unusual harmonization and coy melodic fragmentation all but conceal the carol until the singers share in a deep and joyous unison “doo doo doo doo doo doo doo… doo doo doodoo… doo…doo.” Along the way, Hicks initiates and veers from the melody with soulful riffs and runs, filling it textually with quotes from and reflections on his mother, who often told him to “Use your head for more than a hat rack.”

Hicks’ mom is, of course, not the originator of this phrase, but her implementation of the idiom is certainly unique. In a Zoom-ed conversation with Hicks and his collaborators, moderated by singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello, Hicks explains that his mother employed “Good King Wenceslas” as a code song – if she needed someone to pick her children up from school, they would be equipped with the tune to confirm that they were sanctioned by mom and were not a kidnapper.

We never get this sort of clear context in the piece itself, 40-minutes of collaged material prompted by Hicks discovering a tape of a conversation he had with his mother in 2005. The text is largely mom’s words, spoken and sung through Hicks’ voice, supported additionally by sisters Jade Hicks and Jasmine Enlow, who chant and harmonize throughout the video. Three siblings, each about two years apart in age, have come together to create an “emotional heirloom,” a thought surprising to their mother, quoted in the work as unable “to imagine remembering something [they] woudn’t…couldn’t…”

Visually, Hicks’ wife Kenita Miller captures and mutates the couple’s Bronx home on camera, fixating on textures, shapes, and spaces in such a way as to seemingly chance upon Justin like a big foot sighting. Never do we see him up front and in focus. We get the skin cells of his hands sliding along a green, grainy wall, his face, blurred, emerging from a cloudy dark, and the topography of his back as he solemnly and delicately traces his way through the house in a blue suit. Lines and lyrics dubbed, the visual Hicks is a stranger in his own home, yet in a complete, multimedia familial embrace.

Tuce Yasak’s lighting just as well expands the sense of space. Dark, cool shades contrast a vibrant gold wash, punctuated by throbbing horizontal waves. These treatments cycle through every filmed area, layered in multiple exposures by editor Breck Omar Brunson. Through Brunson’s editing and Sean Davis’ mixing, we experience heightened aural potentials of regular household items – lamps switch on and off into a gamelan- esque rhythmic spectrum, and doors creak with a cello’s resonance.

This sort of repurposing doesn’t stop at being just another quarantine project – it is so much more an implementation of practices inspired by a mother who raised her children to practice radical and indiscriminate creativity in the name of survival. The same ethos that made clothes out of scraps finds music in all things, and demands that this imaginative power be used for good and never wane.
EYE ON THE ARTS,NY -- Jonathan Matthews

DISCLAIMER
January 12, 2021
Promoted as a Persian food culinary lesson, Tara Ahmadinejad (Chef Vargis) faces the zoom camera and basically bungles the dish. Before the cooking even begins, she demonstrates one of the most important steps: rinsing rice. However, even that process is questioned by her menagerie of relatives and friends.

Affable in her dark shoulder-length hair and dark rimmed glasses, Ahmadinejad's real mission is to protest America's generated image of and antagonism towards Iranians. 

Despite the political rhetoric in this infoganda work, Anna effortlessly devises a homey way of personalizing Iranians. Her sous-chef, the marvelously droll Hassan Nazari-Robati, stands (virtually) next to her expertly preparing food.

In a hilarious segment, he demonstrates the proper way to remove dill leaves from the stalk. This painstaking process takes him a day--but hey, who doesn't have a day to meticulously clean an herb.

The zoom audience--at least those who agree to keep their cameras turned-on are targets for inscription into the story about an extended family -- one American's might not recognize. Doctors and scholars, educators and artists...these are the people of Iran; not terrorists. Oh yes, despite the interrupted cooking lesson, the good folks at the Public Theater forward the full recipe for Sabzi Polo as described by Ahmadinejad's mother on the phone.

DISCLAIMER, part of the 2021 Under the Radar Festival, is written by Tara Ahmadinejad, created by Piehole, and directed by Jeff Wood and Ms. Ahmadinejad
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

APAP|NYC+ OPENING PLENARY: STATE OF THE FIELD, STATE OF THE ARTS
January 9, 2021
Convened against a backdrop of a major pandemic, political divisiveness plus calls for racial diversity, equity and inclusion, APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) plunged into its annual conference. Instead of flooding Manhattan with eager artists and presenters, the partnering professionals convened on zoom from Jan. 8 - 11.

The composed and gracious Lisa Richards Toney, President and CEO welcomed everyone to a virtual conference that actually collected many newcomers because costs were cut simply by not having to leave one's home and pay for expensive hotel and living accommodations. Of course, there's the loss of human to human contact, but the chat lit up with kudos to APAP, while participants"high fived" each other and commiserated over the state of affairs.

Structured much like the annual high-energy live event, keynote speakers, plenaries, workshops, special interest groups, showcases, pitches and more were accessed by professionals sitting on couches, in kitchens, offices and outdoors. Missing were the hugs and screams of delight at seeing colleagues; artists bumping into favored presenters on the escalator or in the cofe bar--those moments were lost but zoom united participants relieved to see one another.

One of the conference's most anticipated events was the presence of Anthony Fauci in conversation with Maurine Knighton, Doris Duke Foundation Program Director for the Arts. Surrounding the professional development and special interest groups were showcases that benefited by the ability to replay the performance after the original showing.

Invaluable resources were consolidated and disseminated to the membership and that in itself might be enough to prompt people to join.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

APAP: THE ART OF GOING VIRTUAL
January 9, 2021
When APAP members gathered for the opening session, there was a collective sigh of delight to see colleagues and friends back together again. Not surprisingly, discussions swirled around the use of internet platforms to disseminate performances. Ideas about virtual reality -- the 3-D immersion format -- surfaced as an optional platform. Everyone agreed it was a time for imagination and flexibility to prevail.

Financial concerns prevailed peppering discussions about federal assistance and decisions to charge or not charge for digital performances. Divided in their approaches, everyone was unified in the desire to pay artists for work, whether new or old. A country's roaring appetite for content buoyed the conversation about creating virtual programming while noting the arts community was now inhabiting the same digital space as Netflix.

Jed Wheeler pointed out that Montclair University's Peak Performances reputation and avid audience was solely built on the artists who graced Montclair stages. For that reason, delivering new commissions overrode the pay-for-view format. OF course, Wheeler's in a coveted position because university leaders support his vision.

Another effective model saw presenters streaming free programs and relying on donations. Ultimately, everyone hopes for live performances returning in some capacity by the end of 2021 and start of 2022. Of course, all indicators point to the continuation of digital programming, in some form or another.

Although the field is shaken, they still stir with passion and consideration.
EYE ON THE ARTS/NY -- Celia Ipiotis

WEST SIDE STORY
March 12, 2020
Part film part Broadway musical, Ivan van Hove’s gritty vision of West Side Story draws inspiration from America’s immigrant story: A burning desire to belong, to love and be loved.

The iconic overture floods the audience. Almost imperceptibly, a strip-of men claim their turf on the lip of the stage, commanding a hard-ass stance and glaring at the audience. Anticipated finger-snaps are eliminated and soon cameras zoom-in on the tattoos decorating bare body parts signifying the two warring tribes. No one smiles; this is serious business.

Hard urban, pounding steps shoot into flying kicks as jabs ripple from one dancer to another in an anarchic, physical roar. This is not Jerome Robbins’ beloved choreography it is an appropriation of today’s angst brought to you by the stripped-down, post modernist Flanders dancer/choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.

In the leads, Maria’s (Shereen Pimentel) operatic voice effortlessly soars into the dark sky. Vocally, she’s exquisitely matched with her true love Tony (Isaac Powell). In contrast to the wistful Maria and Tony, Anita (Yesenia Ayala) and gang leader Bernardo (Amar Ramasar) vibrate with sexual heat.

Speaking of darkness, rather than the sun drenched playgrounds of the original, this version pushes into a state of nearly perpetual darkness -- in large part because of the projections. The animated set/visual design by Luke Halls works best in intimate spaces like the miniature sewing room in the back corner of the stage and Doc’s (Daniel Oreskes) Pharmacy.

Audience members peer into the dress shop’s open door, but don’t discern any detail until the camera zooms-in on the clothes popping with color draped everywhere, and populated by giddy women primping for the party. Because of the choreography’s expansiveness, the projections are more problematic when engaging with dancers.

Throughout the production, a videographer wanders around grabbing close-up bits and movements simultaneously projected on the screen -- rock ‘n roll concert style.

For many, “The Dance at the Gym” is pivotal to West Side Story; frequently performed as a “stand alone” dance, audiences anticipate this apocryphal meeting between the star-crossed lovers Tony and Anita. How did this version fare? Well, the choreography leans towards street dance mixed with Capoieria (martial arts) style kicks, but the wit evaporates in place of hard-lined couple stamps and harsh partnering.

This time, a woman referee (who does not mine the inherent wit of the situation) presides over the fraught community dance that pits hot Latin social dancing against cooler American jive. On the hot side, dancers dig into the ground, hips unlock and eyes grip the opposite sex. On the cool side, Riff’s peeps throw some strong acrobatic lifts that ultimately don’t read as sharply as the Sharks' propulsive beats.

A couple of the stand-out performers include the sharply lean Ramasar (formerly of NYC Ballet), his partner Pimentel --who definitely knows how to shake a ruffle -- plus Luis (Roman Cruz), an utterly steamy dancer who magnetizes the audience with his penetrating eyes and deeply grounded hip rumbles.

Another juncture where wit oils the lunacy of youthful rivalries occurs in the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number. This satiric ode to the beat officer loses its snarky “psychoanalytic” stance. Missing are the arm gestures, the vocal imitations and all-out goofiness.

Actually, humor is in very short supply in “America” and throughout the musical. No doubt this is serious business, but even in the bleakest of times, humor pokes out. Importantly, Van Hove along with post modern dance choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker sewed the movement into the text, so when the dances erupt the action appears organic to their turf.

In the end, who really belongs in America? When is it OK to romance your enemies’ women? Skin color certainly doesn’t divide these two camps. What does? Perhaps this West Side Story presents a microcosm of what’s happening daily on a larger scale throughout America.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

EMOJILAND
March 8, 2020
It may not be your next transcendent art experience, but it sure was all of the gaudy glamour that Broadway warrants. With rainbow color, laser bright lights, dance-breaks, and a love story thrown in, Emojiland surprised me with a hilariously entertaining show.

Taking place on the inside of the iPhone, the musical follows characters that are Emojis: Construction Worker, Police Officer, Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes (Smize), Smiling Face with Sunglasses (Sunny), Kissy Face, Skull, Princess, and Watch Guard. The set is designed of white boxes which transform based on various projections. Sometimes they take on the form of tropical apartment buildings, sometimes they light up into bright red or moody blue. Though the laser projections and mood setting tones can feel superfluous, it does its diligence by driving home the point of technology’s ability to influence environment.

The opening number introduces the audience to characters who smile, skip, and prance about their love of life, and how happy they are to live it. From the first number of this off Broadway production, directed by Thomas Caruso, I was left thinking “oh no, what have I just gotten myself into?”.

However, at the turn of the second song, the storyline begins to develop, and the longer the musical went on, the more it grew on me. Smize, the emoji programmed to love everything and never be sad, begs to cry and feels depressed. Sunny, the emoji who should be the shining one of the group, is the bully. What the emojis are programed to be on the outside, is the opposite of what they feel on the inside. Though it isn’t solely about self-examination, the musical makes subtly effective attempts at unmasking the overly positive portrayal of the self on media screens vs the underwhelming reality of “real life”.

The plot revolves around an update which brings new emojis into Emojiland. When the update introduces Nerdy Face, an overly smart all-knowing character, to Skull (an emoji who is obsessed with becoming death itself), he is manipulated into created a virus which un-programs emojis forever. With this imminent threat, Emoji’s must figure out how to save their home town. There are Trump wall-building parallels and perils, Lesbian love stories, and heterosexual affairs. There is also plenty of subpar dancing, and mediocre acting (though the vocals remained quite impressive). This musical really does have it all. I’ll spare you the ending, though ever so predictable, Emojiland was surprisingly hilariously and nothing if not an entertaining number.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY — Mia Silvestri

BORDER PEOPLE
February 20, 2020
There are many good reasons to be made uncomfortable by a white man performing characters of color, and yet when it came to Dan Hoyle, it didn’t take long for me to let down my critical guard. The actor-playwright performs with such selflessness, his one-man show Border People feels like a string of spontaneous possessions.

A maker of “journalistic theatre,” Hoyle travels – a lot. Before deciding where to go, he sets an intention and researches it, going to where his intentions have the greatest contextual salience. Such integrity, as well as what can be assumed to be a fair amount of charm and listening prowess, have granted Hoyle the ability to visit spaces of passage and asylum. Even as an interloper, he has managed to find people with whom he is able to delve fully into their lives’ complexities, as well as to earn their consent to channel these experiences into characters.

Hoyle avoids verbal brownface by neither impersonating his subjects nor speaking a transcript of their conversations, but also not generalizing his subjects’ experiences into oblivion. What is ultimately written is a synthesis of a complete exchange, performed as one side of a conversation in which what is unheard is immaterial and yet key to unlocking a wealth of information from those conditioned to keep quiet – white privilege at its finest.

Bookending the piece is Officer Lopez, who, finding Hoyle in process, asks him what he’s doing on a known drug trafficking route. Other scenes take us to Canada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Buffalo, Mexico, and the South Bronx’s Andrew Jackson Housing Project. In not only fixating on the Mexican-American border, we immediately understand Hoyle’s sense of border as transcending the physical, held instead by the marginalized, wherever they may go.

Common to many of these subjects is an often bleak sense of limbo. A young girl of Ghanian and Dominican descent is never Black or Spanish enough. A juice vendor must work diligently to seem worthy of approach to customers and yet not so fancy that his neighbors rob him. Islamic characters, whose nationalities are determined by whichever regime is in power overseas, are pressured just as well to leave the US for embodying that which they fled.

Hoyle’s thesis, therefore, broadens: we are human insofar as we defy our molds. The juice vendor elucidates the intricacies of code switching. A Mexican actor with HIV explains how his partner’s death led to the drug use that got him deported. A southwestern farmer tells of a migrant he once sheltered. Officer Lopez just so happens to be an aspiring standup comedian, and tries out some of his material on Hoyle who, until he bows, is on our side of the proscenium’s border.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

ROMEO AND BERNADETTE
February 12, 2020
Well into Act 2 of Mark Saltzman’s Romeo and Bernadette, Tito Titone, fiancée to the latter titular character, is taking one of those pre-wedding dance lessons. The teacher is played, in drag, by Troy Rucker, dressed like an old Russian ballet mistress – all the more humorous given the additional disparity of skin color to gender expression.

Rucker’s character is teaching Titone the Cha Cha, and yet references her having been a principle dancer with Martha Graham. Titone, about to marry into a mob family, threatens her with a pistol to end the lesson, to which she pulls out a rifle, which “BELONGED TO MARTHA GRAHAMMM.”

Now, this is all happening in a vague 1960. It is certainly conceivable for someone who had danced with Graham at the beginning to be the general upper middle age Rucker has been directed into playing. I’m sure there were Graham dancers who could Cha Cha. She could just be a crazy New Yorker! At any rate, by the time we enter this level of thought, the play has long since ended.

This is the general modus operandi of Romeo and Bernadette – well-executed levity stemming from a thought experiment about which you must coach your brain to not think critically whatsoever: 1960 community theatre production of Romeo and Juliet happens.

In the audience is a couple; the girl, being emotional, is made emotional by the production, spoiling her desire to go home and make nookie with the boy. Wanting nookie, boy convinces girl that the story continues, spinning a tale of Romeo’s poison having been a sleeping potion from which he wakes up in 1960’s Verona, where Italian- American mob family the Penzas is on vacation.

Romeo is convinced, upon seeing their daughter, Bernadette, that she is Juliet. He follows them back to Brooklyn, but is taken in by warring mob family, the Del Cantos (sensing an analog yet?). Given that the show is written to be an improvised fib told by a desperate young man, the plot’s occasional lapses in logic are aesthetically excusable.

What I can’t stop thinking about is the casting of Rucker, who plays the role of “convenient brown person” in almost every scene – A theatre usher, a bellhop, an opera star, a southern minister who somehow ended up in Brooklyn, a gay flower shop owner, a female wedding dress designer, and the above mentioned Cha Cha teaching Graham alum.

Were these shallow bit parts written to be played by the same person? Did they think casting one black actor as many characters was a sensible alternative to actual diversity in casting an otherwise white story? I don’t suppose they intended for us to think too hard about that one, either.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

A SOLDIER'S PLAY
February 8, 2020
Two shots ring out. That act tosses the characters into a cauldron of suspicion poisoning the plot.

Creating a sensation when it debuted in 1981, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play returns to the Roundabout Theatre. Sharply directed by Kenny Leon, it’s set in an army barracks based in the South in 1944, where the African-American battalion has seen little action overseas. However, the company baseball team is unstoppable.

When the detested black captain Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier) is murdered, suspicion falls on the local Ku Klux Klan. The white captain (a wonderfully mercurial Jerry O’Connell) who presides over the whole barracks wants to bury the investigation but an African American lawyer, Captain Richard Davenport, newly (a fine Blair Underwood) assigned to the case upends the intended process.

Acapella blues songs and dance moves reminiscent of field hollers add a chilling, transporting dimension. All the physically fit men in the cast are such strong singers, movers and actors; it’s not difficult to believe they are all championship level baseball players.

After an expected standoff between the white and black captains, Davenport assumes full reign of the crime. One service man after another emerges to relay an alibi ending with a common refrain: everyone has a beef with Sgt. Vernon.

In intermittent flashbacks, Sgt. Vernon stomps the grounds, verbally and at times physically abusing his men – particularly anyone who suggests a “shuckin’ and jivin’ black stereotype.

Under the circumstances, Davenport struggles to retain objectivity and piece together the puzzle. Finally, the men confess to a tragic event that caused one of their brothers, the best hitter on the team and imminently likable Private C. J. Memphis, to hang himself.

Unable to stomach the remnant image of an uneducated, guitar-playing, blues-singing blackman, Grier confiscates Memphis’ beloved guitar and tosses him in solitary confinement. That proves fatal.

Kenny Leon’s steady hand guides the drama and skilled cast members -- expertly building up the drama until the final reveal.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Celia Ipiotis

SALT
January 19, 2020
The Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, now in its sixteenth year, presents new and cutting-edge work by a diverse, global group of artists that are redefining what theater can be. Selina Thompson’s salt. begins with her story of travelling from the U.K. to Ghana, then on to Jamaica and back, to experience the path of her enslaved ancestors -- but it evolves into much more than that: an intensely personal, sometimes disturbing journey of her own. Accounts of the African diaspora abound, yet this seventy-five-minute soliloquy uniquely penetrated our consciousness, slowly and masterfully weaving humor and grace with sobering anecdotes: from the smallest indignities to the outright violence that black people continue to face every day.

The spectacular Rochelle Rose presided over an altar-like table equipped with a mortar and pestle (and water bottle) staring proudly ahead like a priestess in a long, flowing white dress. A large neon-lit triangle hung above her, Cross-like as she observed us filing into the theater. Then right off the bat, she told us to wear the plastic safety glasses on our seats, whenever she wore hers.

A British accent inflected Rose’s reminiscences and gave us a sense of place. Each memory is alive, lively, and sometimes daunting, punctuated with an increasingly fiercely expressed mantra “Europe keeps pushing against me, and I push back.” From the shockingly racist mythology perpetuated by her grandmother’s British schoolteacher, to recently being accosted by a stranger with racist questions about black fatherhood, Rose kept us spellbound with her animated and magnetic presence as she peppered her stories with frank feelings, anxieties, joys and sorrows; her everyday lived experience writ large.

We watch her struggle to understand contemporary injustice, and we share in her pain. Through an intensely emotional series of repetitive verse that outlined a hierarchy of abusive Western power – from “the State,” to capitalism, to a ship’s master, to the crew, to herself and her companion, she attempted to divine the origins of evil. And with every line, she smashed a large chunk of salt with a hammer, again and again, struggling to make sense of the senseless chain.

Thompson’s writing traverses time past, present, and future, a complex symphonic layering of experiences where “time accumulates.” salt. is an exhilarating and exhausting piece of theater that more than compels empathy from the audience; it is art that touches hearts and minds.
For Eye on the Arts, NY – Nicole Duffy Robertson

THE TRUTH HAS CHANGED
January 14, 2020
Josh Fox released in 2010 a documentary GASLAND that won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and seemingly as many fans as enemies. Ten years later, this New York theatre director turned documentarian returned to New York to appear at The Public Theatre in his multi-media one man show The Truth Has Changed in the 2020 Under The Radar Series.

As a verbal showman, he has mastered the art of suspense, surprise, and nuance. He is mesmerizing as his voice rises and dips, he flips the lights, picks up a banjo, jumps on a table and pauses while a projection singes our nerves. But Fox isn’t here to entertain us. He reports the evils of fracking and its global repercussions to our health and climate change, along with the ocean of misinformation spread by white supremacists.

He outlines, with as much restrain as he can muster, the revenge of the gas and oil industry he experienced since 2010 and how methodical that backlash is. He holds the microphone out to the audience towards the close of the show, asking them what is stronger than fear? A few tentative voices say “Love” and “Hope,” almost wistfully.

He is haunted by the stories of his grandfathers. One bolted from Poland the night before the rest of his family were seized and taken to the gas chambers and the other took his life here in the United States. Did he dig his own grave by producing GASLAND? Are we all walking blindly in a world that is becoming a gas chamber? He convinces us of all the havoc fracking has caused and how apocalyptic the level of chemical pollution in our water, food and air, but also our hold on the truth.

But still he pushes on with an insatiable curiosity to know what is going on. He went down to investigate the damage done by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. A scientist confessed that BP had released a chemical to make the oil sink quickly out of sight, “killing everything on the seafloor for generations to come.”

Fox says that an order had been made to keep planes flying over the gulf above 3,000 feet. But he finagled the opportunity to see the difference in the view below and above 3,000 feet. Above 3,000 feet, the gulf seems to be in fine fettle; below 3,000 feet, he could see the oil hanging in the water like a tumor that spread for miles. Produced by International WOW Company and Nathan Lemoine, THE TRUTH HAS CHANGED changes its viewers.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Deirdre Towers

UNMAKING TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
January 11, 2020
In their production, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec, Bated Breath Theatre Company shares the dark story of the life of famed painter and poster maker Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Set in Paris in the late 1800’s, the interactive play follows along with Henri’s tragedies from aristocracy and great talent to alcoholism and homelessness.

“Bonjour chérie”! An actor giggles and waves patrons into the smoky, red lounge. Dressed in fishnet tights, bustiers, and colorful tutus the actors stretch, mingle, and saunter around the intimate setting mimicking a French salon. After getting a drink at the bar, patrons fill the red velvet couches and barstools as period music plays overhead. Without any prior warning, Toulouse-Lautrec stumbles into the space, trips onto a couch, and falls asleep. The girls laugh “Henri you’re drunk”, they giggle. He shouts back, “You should be drunk!” as he slumps back down onto the sofa.

This cues the beginning of the work as the rest of the cast enter into the small space, and begin to chronicle Toulouse-Lautrec's life in the form of a eulogy at his funeral. They describe how they met Toulouse-Lautrec, their relationship to him, and some highlights of his life. However, in many instances this form of story telling feels jumpy, inconclusive, and oddly biographical.

The audience learns that Toulouse-Lautrec's father and mother were first cousins, which is why he was born with a congenial birth defect. Weakness in his bones caused both legs to break and never heal properly inhibiting his movement for life. His disability forced him to be a social outcast.

Toulouse-Lautrec felt ashamed and depressed which led to alcoholism. His lack of mobility also led to his obsession with the human body- which is why the play places him most often at the infamous French brothels studying and sketching the women.

When Toulouse-Lautrec's fascination with the dirty and grotesque began to become well known, he was commissioned by the Moulin Rouge for illustrations and posters. The audience is told that today much of his work sells for multimillion dollars.

All this to say, this is the extent of the plot-line of the play. With brief interjections on his relationship with his mother and some women at the brothel, the plot feels under developed and unfinished. The bulk of the story is revealed to the audience by the actors as fact, instead of watching it play out in real time.

In many instances, the transitions between sections of information are filled with awkward dance breaks and choppy sing song story telling. Though the interaction with the audience was enjoyable, and the atmosphere made for the perfect collaboration, it felt as though the reliance on this environment compromised the need for the play to fully develop, leaving the audience members feeling somewhat confused.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Mia Silvestri

BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES
December 9, 2019
The house of BAM’s Harvey Theatre is indistinguishable from the stage as patrons flood in and walked around the set. Audience members sit in barber chairs for haircuts while actors introduce themselves and chat them up. From the moment you walk in to The Barbershop Chronicles it is clear that this is not a normal play- this is a community. Set across six different cities (five in Africa and London) on the same day, writer Inua Ellams and director Bijan Sheibani take their audience on a journey through barber shops around the world.

The set, created by Rae Smith, is minimally designed. At the center of the stage hangs an iron, neon globe which is used throughout the play to indicate the traveling shop locations. Transitions from shop to shop are achieved through riveting song and dance breaks which allude to the next setting. Arcing around the Chelsea v Barcelona world cup final, characters from different shops around the world connect through the day by watching the sporting event on TV.

Ellams and Sheibani know the expectations set by society on their black male cast. Instead of ignoring these stereotypes, they make the choice to open a conversation on being a black man in the modern world. On the surface, every shop conversation begins in light hearted, humorous banter. Sometimes there is talk over the game on TV, sometimes jokes break about someone’s appearance. No matter the starting banter, cutting hair becomes the facility for transition into deeper conversation.

Fatherhood is researched in an expression of tenderness that can only come from a place of longing. The barber/customer relationship in turn becomes a therapeutic way for men to speak openly about the complications of this familial relationship. Barbers and customers discuss politics, expectations, race, language, change, immigration, and culture. Other customers act as judge and jury in disputes, so that even when conflict arises, there is also resolution. The actors brilliantly locate fits of rage but also show soft moments of compassion. Old wise men find commonalities with young boisterous boys bridging a generational gap that can only be achieved between those four walls.

They say the barbershop is the place where “men come to be men”, but by the end of The Barbershop Chronicles it is the place where men can simply be.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Mia Silvestri

APAP/NYC2020
December 6, 2019
The nation’s major convening of performing artists, arts administrators, presenters, and producers, APAP (The Association of Performing Arts Professionals) storms NYC from January 10 -14. Thousands gather to network with colleagues, engage in professionally focused seminars and talks, view countless performances – many of which are free—and exchange ideas of acute relevance.

In 2020, the 63rd annual global conference opens on a plenary titled “The Power of Risk-Taking” featuring Kamilah Forbes (Executive Producer, Apollo Theater), Estelle Parsons (Academy award-winning actress) and Alice Sheppard (Dancer and Choreographer). Risk generates innovate arts, but risk also reduces opportunities in more conservative communities. That's why "risk" is a building block of any cooperative venture between artists and presenters.

Because the five-day intensive conference demands great reserves of energy, mornings and evenings will start with meditation sessions, mindfulness training and yoga sessions. This is all part of the new programming track: “R&R: Resiliency through Self-Care.”

One of the most coveted sessions is the APAP Annual Awards Ceremony and Luncheon on January 13. This coveted event pauses to celebrate distinguished artists and organizations for their contributions to field. This year’s AWARD OF MERIT FOR ACHIEVEMENT IN THE PERFORMING ARTS honors Ping Chong, internationally acclaimed artist and pioneer in the use of media in theater.

Later in the day, APAP/NYC proudly announces its Young Performers Career Advancement Program spotlighting Jiii Kim, Hanzhi Wang, Invoke, Omar Quartet and the ivala Quartet at the Weil Recital Hall.

Besides on the performance workshops and events, there are a number of mini arts festivals scattered across the city like “Under the Radar” “globalFEST” among many other dance, jazz and performance events. For more information contact APAP https://www.apap365.org/Conference
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Celia Ipiotis

RICHARD III
November 16, 2019
A gaping slot near the front of the dirt-strewn stage swallows one lifeless body after another in the Druid Company’s unsettling Richard III which appeared as part of this year’s White Light Festival.

Grippingly directed by Garry Hynes, she engages a great collaborator in the actor Aaron Monaghan. Bent to the side, perhaps so he can see others without notice, and stooped over two black canes that double as a cockroach manacles, he salivates over power and drools around ladies.

Richard III’s goal: to be king of England. After Henry VI dies, an ailing Edward IV is crowned. But Richard has plans that will not be denied. Swathed in black, this Svengali of the British monarchy is obsessed with power and unhesitant in his pursuit of the crown.

James F. Ingalls’ slats of light filters the smoky air of rot and disintegration trapped on Francis O’Connor’s dirt floor, grey pillars and most importantly, the skull of a king suspended in a lit cage. O’Connor’s costumes favor an Elizabethan-noir style that features lots of leather, spiky edges, and bulbous back ends for the females.

Strategically plotting each person’s fate, Richard (Monaghan) flatters his prey, and then blows them away. Instead of a handicap, Richard leans on his deformity as a shield of sympathy. Of course, what’s most unsettling is the way Monaghan breaches his prey’s ego with uncompromising flattery prior to their elimination.

Richard presides over an incessant whirlpool of intrigue and crime. Uncannily charming -- and almost a little too handsome-- Richard III is a master of the double entendre. First he quips pious platitudes, then tilts his head, allowing a smile to upend his lips before snarling the truth-of-the-matter. Skillfully adept at addressing the audience and immediately super-imposing himself back into the middle of the plot, Montague is an awe-inspiring Shakespearean interpreter.

Although the women do not figure prominently in Richard III, Hynes’ casts the bone-chilling Queen Margaret (Marie Mullen) as the soothsayer. The equivalent of Macbeth’s witches, Mullen crouches heavily over the earth, drawing Richard’s circle of life smaller, and smaller and smaller.

The whole cast is eloquent, totally at ease in their Shakespearean tempi, committed to deft articulation of the text and Hynes’ vision.

Uncannily echoing today’s political mayhem, Richard could not have succeeded in ruling over a morally poisonous reign without the willingness of high-ranking officials to whom he pledges loyalty only to dump them in the abyss.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

THE HAPPY GARDEN OF LIFE
October 30, 2019
If someone approached you pleading for you to give up your life so that their children could be born, what would you do? Being a millennial, my newsfeed is often teeming with self-destructive jokes, so much so as to have prompted articles dissecting my age group’s dismal sense of humor to the point of it feeling as though my entire generation is on suicide watch.

It then follows that if there were ever a time to stage such a bleak bit of audience participation, it would be now, and Jenna Hoffman certainly delivers in her direction of Anna Jastrzembski’s stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “2BR02B,” The Happy Garden of Life. However, as largely millennial as my fellow spectators were, we are still New Yorkers after all. Being well versed in panhandlers, Brian Sanchez’s heart-rending performance of Ed Wexler’s desperation goes without response, and his story is able to continue towards its end as written.

The production productively dashes immersive expectations as though they were never set up in the first place. Convening in the lobby of the New Ohio Theatre, we are divided into groups. Customary for a piece meant to be performed on loop and/or in promenade, it merely brings us inside in order.

This is brilliant in a time when more and more performance claims to be immersive, isn’t, and never admits to it. Happy Garden poetically riffs on this petty aesthetic hypocrisy as politically analogous to the illusion of choice and makes it integral to its world-building.

In the New World Order, medicine has made death optional, but population control requires a death to make space for every birth. The World Preservation Party broadcasts propaganda encouraging citizens to sacrifice themselves, and yet has to force its convicts and debtors to be standby “volunteers.”

It is all the more poetic that, to a piece that so calculatingly breaks the fourth wall, we remain outsiders. Hoffman flips New Ohio’s layout, filling what is usually audience seating with Matthew Imhoff’s claustrophobic scenography – a raised, cinderblock cubicle just beyond an astroturf runway. Scenes, alternating between storyline, flashback, and live-action commercials are temporally sequenced, spatially broken up, and jarringly lit by Christina Tang in a way that structurally implodes the piece as the truth is more universally revealed.

With composer Emily Erickson, Assistant Director Yannik Encarnação, and her ensemble’s bold energies, Hoffman fashions a modular performance arena wherein actors can be both grotesque caricatures and deeply human, clearly shifting between the stylized mannerisms of who they have to be for the Party and who they really are.

This is precisely why we are here – to have this bird’s eye view overwhelmingly up close. The WPP is not the Trump Administration, as it is more a kind of socialism gone awry. What we can identify with, though, is the bewilderment of wondering how a population could ever achieve such a protestable reality.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

ANTIGONE
October 3, 2019
Little is known about the actual specifics of how Ancient Greek dramas unfolded on the amphitheaters of Ancient Greece. But the recent production of Shizuoka Performing Arts Center’s Antigone at the Park Avenue Armory is exhilarating due to its lucidity and quiet authority.

From the river of water flooding the stage, rock formations emerge reminiscent of Stonehenge or Isamu Noguchi’s set designs for Martha Graham’s Greek myth based works.

As the audience settles down in bleachers facing the long strip of stage, a ceremonial procession of performers in white robes and pants enter rubbing glass votives producing high-pitched thin rings.

Positioned at the lip of the stage in the middle of lie of actors, Maki Honda welcomes the audience and offers to brush up the audience’s memories of Sophocles’ famous tragedy Antigone. In a comedic riff, they provide a thumbnail overview of Antigone, exaggerating the central cast members’ characteristics. This funny introduction is reminiscent of the satyr plays that generally followed tragedies as a means of lifting the depressing mood.

Then the actors take their posts and the story begins. Despite women’s lack of rights in ancient times, on many occasions, it’s women who do the “right” thing in the face of moral dilemmas. They are fierce and determined as is Antigone. When her father Oedipus dies (remember, he accidentally married his mother, Jocasta) dies, both his sons engaged in battle for the crown of Thebes and die at each other’s hands. Uncle Creon assumes the reigns and decrees Antigone’s brother Eteocles will be buried with honors, but Polyneices (considered the traitor) will be splayed on the ground as food for the dogs.

This triggers Antigone’s moral crusade to bury her brother despite the king’s orders. In a nutshell she goes against King Creon’s orders, buries her brother and is stuffed in a cave to die. Her younger, more frightened sister Ismene, wails for her sister. When Hameon, Antigone’s fiancée, is unable to change King Creon, his father’s mind, Hameon follows Antigone into the cave.

What makes this particularly thrilling is the way the actors chant out the words and how the light casts shadows (Koji Osaka) suggesting day and night, life and death.

Ancient tragedies were sung because the definition of theater was the unification of text, music and movement. In this rendition, two actors take on each role: one speaks, the other moves.

Caught on top of a boulder, Antigone climbs higher and higher until she can go no further. The competing male voices on either side of the stage declare their lines while the fearless movers run across stones that barely rise above the water. Five men and five women flank their characters serving as the Greek chorus, the community that comments on the tragic action.

Sometimes, rituals rise above theatrical conventions because they conjure a sense of timelessness-- worlds where people battle the forces of good and evil, honor and corruption, morality and fear in a lifelong struggle to reclaim their souls.

Contributing to the “other worldly” yet very real production’s power, a group of musicians stretch across the back of the stage exquisitely performing Hiroko Tanakawa’s percussive composition.

Translated from Sophocles by Shigetake Yaninuma and masterfully directed by Satoshi Miyagi, Antigone interprets social, political and moral dilemmas into a contemporary world weighted by its struggle for survival.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Celia Ipiotis

AMERICAN MOOR
September 16, 2019
As the audience enters, American Moor’s playwright and primary performer Keith Hamilton Cobb spends a good deal of time pensively pacing his Wilson Chin-designed set – a sparse collection of chairs and two Corinthian columns, the one of which not tasked with holding a griffin conveniently toppled to the ground. Against the bricks bordering Cherry Lane Theater’s playing space, the mise en scene emits a fluid sense of backstage, onstage, and elsewhere, able to contain the manipulations of presence necessary for Cobb to illustrate his relationship to the notion of playing Shakespeare's Othello.

You don’t expect it from the intensity of his pre-show or the size of his biceps, but Cobb is an effortlessly convincing shape-shifter. He must be as he tasks himself to morph between his younger self, his acting teachers, some fleeting blips of Shakespeare, and his own reflection of the black vernacular he grew up in. It is as his present self, however, that Cobb demonstrates the most dimension. His actorly presentation is supremely articulate, deeply resonant, and satisfyingly thwarted by occasionally cracked smiles and boyish giggles.

It is often the case that these expressions of levity are in reaction to the more frustrating aspects of his story, namely Cobb’s visual presentation having been met by teachers and directors with, perhaps unintended but nonetheless tangible, attempts to limit his performative potential – the expectation to perform Othello through an unfortunately white lens.

This plays out in a suddenly Chorus Line-esque staging of Josh Tyson, seated among us, as a director, white-mansplaining his vision of the Othello for which Cobb is auditioning. Tyson wants Act I, Scene 3’s speech to the Senate played with a kind of amusing subservience, which elicits in Cobb a psychosomatic gag reflex of blanking on text he knows by heart.

As the exchange unfolds, Cobb spends increasingly little time in the actual audition room, as every utterance from Tyson hurls him into a mental flurry of indignance Shakespearianly staged by Kim Weild as though to make up for all the verse we would love to though never hear. These shifts are aided by Alan C. Edwards’ lighting, establishing spaces with reliable clarity, which, alongside Cobb’s equally autonomous channel-changing, allows us to feel just as transported.

The question becomes, which space is primary, and which the aside? The piece’s initial home base is unquestionably the present day Cobb telling his story in classic solo show form. The audition, however, literally colonizes the dramaturgical structure into a narrative play wherein Cobb must resist alienation within his own piece. It is then we understand Cobb’s charming shape-shifting to truly be the theatre of societal survival, ultimately forsaken for the sake of a character who demands better.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

MIDSUMMER: A BANQUET
August 25, 2019
Once a pop-up designer clothes emporium, the reclaimed ornate space on Broadway and 12th street is transformed into Third Rail’s immersive theater piece based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Designed with a gastronomic twist, Midsummer: A Banquet tells a magical tale of love and mayhem between appetizers, entrees and desserts. Culinary delights mix with a fresh approach to the Shakespearean comedy in this immersive theater realization.

Actors roam willy-nilly through the space, joining guests at tables, pouting alone at the long bar or stomping out of the dinner club only to return reborn. The ballroom/dinner club forms a delightful theatrical playground for Third Rail Projects and Food of Love Productions Midsummer: A Banquet.

Compressed into a 90-minute show (adapted by Zach Morris and Victoria Rae Sook) the action focuses on the four attractive lovers who escape the deleterious laws of a patriarchal Athens and hide in the forest in order to be forever together. But, as always with Shakespeare, there are a few complications—to start, Hermia (Caroline Amos) loves Lysander (Alex J. Gould), not her father’s choice, Demetrius (Joshua Gonzales) who is being chased by Hermia’s best friend, Helena (Adrienne Paquin).

Invisible to humans but guiding unsuspecting humans’ whimsical fates, Oberon (Ryan Wuestewald) and Titania (Victoria Rae Sook), the faerie king and queen squabble over a Changeling. Their turmoil flips the hapless lovers in a state of chaos causing numerous, humorous miscalculations.

However, the real scene stealing sections feature the mechanicals a peripatetic theater group preparing a drama headed for the Athenian court. In particular, the audience howled over the very large (in terms of charisma) Bottom (Charles Osborne) – the actor who is wickedly transformed into a donkey and simultaneously, Queen Titania’s lover.

Athletically directed and charmingly choreographed by Zach Morris, the play never feels forced, nor does the interaction between the actors who double in roles and triple as wait staff. Additionally, Sean Hagerty’s music and sound design buoys the production.

Somehow, the ambiance established is reminiscent of people enjoying a picnic in a park on a warm, sunny day in view of a traveling theater troupe.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER
August 12, 2019
What a nutty idea! Build a musical around aging Broadway actors and let them rip! Broadway Bounty Hunter at the Barrow Street Theater jumps along on Joe Iconis' funky music and lyrics and campy book by Iconis, Lance Rubin, and Jason Sweetooth Williams.

The zippy musical directed and choreographed by Jennifer Werner releases actors throughout the theater because the energetic production can hardly be contained on the Greenwich House Theater's intimate stage. Led by the inimitable Annie Golden (Annie) and Alan H. Green (Lazarus), Iconis' soulfully heart-pumping songs get quite the work out by an amply talented cast.

Unable to win an audition and still recuperating from her beloved Broadway producer’s drowning, the aging Annie is recruited by the sleekly attractive Shiro Jin (Emily Borromano) to become a bounty hunter and catch bad guys!

Once at the “School of Bounty Hunters,” Annie learns her mission is to track down a notorious drug dealer whose pills killed Ms. Jin’s brother. Driven by this personal vendetta, she’s coupled with the star bounty hunter and equally talented Lazarus. Tall and buffed he towers over Annie’s diminutive form.

Despite her slight stature, Annie’s amply equipped to spar with the best of them because she knows how to act, and most importantly, improvise—the elixir of life.

Surrounded by a knock-out singing and dancing ensemble, including the engaging villain Mac Roundtree (Brad Oscar), Annie reveals a talent for sniffing out bad customers and confusing them into submission. Adding to on stage commotion, Werner’s Martial arts based movement tipped in R & B swag fuels the dramatic action.

Light and kooky, “Broadway Bounty Hunter” is fine summer fare.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

MOULIN ROUGE! THE MUSICAL
August 10, 2019
Fireworks explode, windmills spin, confetti sprays, swings pop out of the ceiling and an oversized elephant sculpture takes a gander at the audience in Baz Luhrman’s eye-popping Broadway musical Moulin Rouge.

Based on Luhrman’s gaudy, 2001 Oscar-winning film, this tale of love and fame is set against the backdrop of the spectacular Moulin Rouge club located in Montmartre -- a gritty, working class district of Paris. Bohemian life rages through the Parisian left-bank streets where dreamers and outcasts, the wealthy and bourgeoisie collide.

This colorful palette of individuals at the turn of the 20th century is evocatively captured in the paintings of musical halls by Toulouse Lautrec, which resonate loudly in the scenic designs by Derek McLane. Spilling beyond the stage, plush red velvet valentines and sparkling chandeliers surround costume designer Karen Huber’s scantily attired chorines and voluptuously adorned Parisian patrons.

John Logan’s book draws from the film, tossing a naïve young songwriter (from Lima, Ohio) into the flames of love. Desperate to get close to his passion—Moulin Rouge’s famed chanteuse, Satine (Karen Olivio) – Christian (Aaron Tveit) buys into his pals’ Santiago (Ricky Rojas) and Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) urgings to take his song directly to Satine.

This unleashes the story of mixed identities, and star-crossed lovers suspended in a fabulously decadent club that welcomes all.

Decked in top hat and tails, the lurid M.C. (a sensational and unrecognizable Danny Burstein) urges the patrons to release their inhibitions and instead, revel in their fantasies. This is accomplished through a string of over 70 R & B and pop hits. Rolling ballads and dance songs form the musical backbone. Those intimate with the soundtracks of the 1970’s and 80’s will be jiggling in their seats and humming along.

Besides the fine performances and dynamic direction by Alex Timbers, Sonyah Tayeh’s inspired choreography gussies up all the edges. Like one of the great choreographers of classical ballet, Marius Petipa (Sleeping Beauty), she moves bodies through three different vertical tiers while making jumps and turns explode. In other words, Tayeh crafts dances, which fill the stage from the floor to the ceiling. Additionally every performer’s walk suggests a different, wildly evocative personality.

Aided by Justin Townsend’s circular lighting, the choreography unleashes the music’s subtext in grinding moves and spiraling torsos dipped in extravagant leg extensions and the world famous can-can kick line. Timbers and Tayeh forge a volatile synergy that consistently animates the stage.

Another outstanding dance moment happens when the tango dancer—Santiago whips his partner Robyn Hurder into a steamy display of “vertical sex.”

Although Moulin Rouge echoes other productions including “La Boehme” and “Cabaret” it maintains its own, very distinct brand of lurid glory led in large part by the hard worn, but vulnerable Satine. Grit guides her every move and her sinuous voice ekes out the pathos in every song. Of course, another nod goes to Justin Levine’s bountiful orchestrations, arrangements and additional lyrics.

By the end, the audience wins a night gilded in fantasy and fun.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis eyeonthearts@gmail.com

MOJADA
July 30, 2019
Awk! Awk! The harrowing high-pitched screech of an enormous bird, the gauco, fills the theater. Does it signal freedom or imprisonment?

This question resounds throughout Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, an intimate and disturbing play about the journey of Mexican immigrants fleeing death and poverty. Spun from the threads of the ancient Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides, Mojada updates the themes of displacement and revenge.

Arms outstretched, Medea (an intense Sabina Zuniga Varela) flaps large tropical banana leaves and repeats an incantation that releases the sounds of home. Medea knows her potions.

Living in a worn down apartment, Medea sits behind a sewing machine in the ramshackled backyard (by Arnulfo Maldonado) brightened by green plants in large pots.

Undocumented and fearing arrest, Medea relays in a harrowing flashback, the family’s escape from Mexico. Stuffed in an airless truck, she describes their trek across the dessert and her horrifying ordeal at the hands of brutal soldiers.

Emotionally paralyzed since the migration to Corona, Queens, Medea relies on the motherly servant, Tita (the very wry Socorro Santiago) to translate all things American. A gifted seamstress, Medea fashions “piece work” into impressive outfits. Because Medea is unable to step into NYC’s overwhelming streets, Tita invites the easy-going, expansively personable Churro vendor Luisa (Vanessa Aspillaga) over to enliven thier solitary lives.

Luisa, Tita, Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken)-- Medea's 10 year old son and Jason (Acan's father) bring Medea stories of life outside the backyard. While Medea retains the rituals of her native Mexico, Jason, who is not officially married to Medea, aims for the American dream.

Gainfully employed in the housing business, the incredibly hunky Jason (Alex Hernandez) attracts the attention of his boss/owner, Pilar (Ada Maris). Intent on mainstreaming his son, Jason gets sucked into the opportunities dangled by the competitive and unsentimental Pilar.

For those who know how Medea ends, the dénouement is inevitable. Yet when Medea learns her son will be ripped from her side, she wields a harrowing soliloquy of sorrow. Like the Ancient Greeks, director Chay Yew takes the murderously gory action off-stage thus allowing the imagination to take over.

It's possible many attending Mojada at the Public Theater found the play emotionally overwrought, but those who have lived this story surely embodied the perilous tragedy. EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

WE'RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME
July 17, 2019
Many years ago, David Cale unassumingly took the stage at downtown haunts like P.S. 122 and unspooled simple stories made riveting by his precise, self-effacing, and effortless presentation. This charming wordsmith immediately gained a loyal following. His text was simple but vivid and since then, Cale has appeared in many theater plus films and TV productions.

Now he has returned to the Public Theater with a song play hitched to his family’s story. He hasn’t changed much -- diligently retaining his lanky frame and sense of childish wonderment. His long face and hawkish nose still suggest avian looks which suits him because the new on-man and a band show We’re Only Alive For A Short Amount of Time opens on a song about Canada Geese gliding in the sky.

Born in Luton, England to a working class family that struggled with alcoholism, depression and rage, Cale winds facts and memory around an autobiography animated through text and song.

Among many other gifts, Cale manages to convert his multi-generational family members into universal characters. That’s what touches the audience. Easily shifting from a brutal man to a sensitive, artistic woman, Cale draws sympathetic characters despite their foibles or savage acts.

The story opens on a young boy’s love of animals. He builds an animal hospital and dedicates himself to saving all the injured creatures encountered around town. Happily restoring his four-legged and feathered patients to health, when it comes to the human species, Cale’s restorative gifts fail. But Cale fully and completely succeeds in ardently humanizing the people who frightened and ultimately inspired him.

Stretched across a dark strip at the back of the stage, six talented musicians -- Matthew Dean Marsh (Piano), Josh Henderson (Viola), Tomina Parvanova (Harp), Jessica Wang (Cello), John Blevins (Trumpet), and Tyler Hseih(Clarinet) -- accompany the songs and perform interstitial music composed by Cale and Matthew Dean Marsh.

Director Robert Falls gives Cale space to paint a poignant portrait of life in a small, working-class town – a place that nurtured him and stung him with the determination to leave. We’re so happy he migrated across the pond and into our theaters.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE
June 12, 2019
From under twisted sheets, moans and pants cut through the dark, atmospheric lighting where two bodies heave in unison. Caught in the throes of wild sex, the couple emerges, spent. Soon all that euphoria translates into questions--countless questions about the authenticity of their night of lovemaking and future liaisons.

Despite their thrilling compatibility in bed, Frankie (Audra McDonald) and Johnny (Michael Shannon) clash in the light of day. Johnny, a short-order cook and Frankie, a waitress in the same restaurant share bits about their relatively unfulfilled lives.

Throughout “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” a two-act play by Terrence McNally, Frankie and Johnny bungee towards and away from each other, never fully knowing how close they’ll get before snapping back.

Their back-stories begin as auras of who they might have been until little by little, the puzzle pieces of each story fall into position.

Audra is deprecatingly matter-of-fact, while Johnny remains aspirational. Not interested in any sort of daily routine, Frankie’s protective of her independence. Already burnt once, she’s in no rush to be ensnared in another all consuming, one-sided relationship.

Spouting commentary from Shakespeare and Ancient Greek philosophers, Johnny’s rough and tumble demeanor (enhanced by a naturally gravely voice) suggests a guy with either a romantic soul or ulterior motives. An imposing figure, Johnny’s longing for genuine contact nearly eclipses Frankie’s apprehensions. Is this the start of a new relationship or just smoke dreams circling two middle-age people in search of something greater?

Under the direction of the talented Arin Arbus, the audience hopes their stars align.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

HILLARY AND BILL
May 6, 2019
Travel back to the first time Hillary Clinton vied for the presidency. After months of exhaustively campaigning, hopes fly high in New Hampshire but the coffers are drained. What to do? Oh -- sure, call Bill.

The new Broadway play Hillary and Clinton by Lucas Hnath clamps onto a very specific night when questions about “unlikeability” hover over Hillary’s unrelenting quest for the presidency. Her harried campaign manager, Mark (Zak Orth), serves as cheerleader, truth teller and man with a Dunkin' Donuts box perpetually attached to his hands.

Unable to stomach Zak’s pronouncement that the coffers are bare, Hillary (Laurie Metcalf) goes against all reason and invites Bill (who has been banned from the trail) to visit. She wants his advice, she wants his support, but mostly, she wants his foundation’s money.

Set in a sterile white room, dotted by a small frig, chair and door leading to a bedroom, set designer Chloe Lamford perfectly replicates all the anonymous motels and hotels tolerated by president-hungry candidates. Skillfully directed by Joe Mantello, Metcalf nails the plain spoken, intellectually vexed woman who’s generally smarter than everyone else but somehow, never fully appreciated. A haggard looking John Lithgow arrives still pouting about his ostracization, yet eager to get back in the game.

The dialogue between Bill and Hillary convincingly slips in and out of tricky issues that tread over the pros and cons of staying married or the dangers of accepting money from a politically tainted foundation.

When the two dissect the reasons for staying together, I was reminded of an interview on radio with Hillary Clinton about two years after President Clinton's impeachment. The interviewer posed this question: “Why don’t you divorce Bill. It would be so much easier on you?” Hillary quipped, “Because there’s no one I’d rather talk to.”

Both are political animals driven by ambition and powerful intellects yet, Bill knows how to speak to the voters’ emotions, while Hillary speaks to their reason.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

SOCRATES
April 28, 2019
Suspicious of the written word, Socrates engaged in a constant verbal interaction based on questioning assumptions—actually, questioning anything and everything. Now the Public Theater with support from the Onassis Foundation, presents Tim Blake Nelson’s Socrates directed by Doug Hughes.

Set in ancient Greece circa 399BC, this is the last day Socrates walks the Agora. In this fictional version based on the information relayed by primary-source accounts in the “Apology of Socrates” by Plato, a young man (David Aaron Baker) asks an elder to retell the legend surrounding Socrates’ death.

Soon, the slightly grimy, taciturn Socrates (a convincing Michael Stuhlbarg) paces back and forth under a bright, Athenian sun designed by Tyler Micoleau. Belligerent in his demeanor, Socrates refuses suggestions that he alone has the power to save his life. After incessantly antagonizing the Athenian polis with his ideas, 500 male citizens (chosen by lot), accuse him of “corrupting youth” and “impiety“.

Dressed in Grecian robes, and sandals fashioned by Catherine Zuber, Socrates—surrounded by his Greek chorus of disciples -- ambles through stone walkways, boulders and benches by set designer Scott Pask. Unruly and unkempt, Socrates bats away offers of help from friends who hold wealth or high government positions.

Frequently popping off the stage, Socrates confronts the 500 citizens (in the form of the audience) insisting on the rigorous questioning of anything -- even the nature of color. Constantly sparring with his colleagues on any number of life and death issues, Socrates, an old man of about 80, insists that the polis has spoken, and he will not apologize for his actions. Instead, Socrates will swallow the poison and die.

The famous thinker cared not for worldly goods or apparently his wife, children or friends. Socrates only believed in the search for the truth, for the golden mean of human knowledge. When his wife, Xanthippe (Miriam H. Hyman) brings the two boys to see him, Socrates sends them away refusing sentimental women’s tears. If she’s to be believed, Socrates, who doesn’t bathe or care for his garments, neglects his family while plunging them into debt. Xanthippe alone manages the house and understandably despairs when Socrates refuses money from his many students.

Interestingly, politicians and wealthy landowners surround this man of pure ideals, as well as other scholars and students. Yet, he accepts no favors coveting only the mind. In the end, surrounded by grieving friends who pledge to care for his family, Socrates insists they stop their women’s’ tears. Before the poison circulates through his body, Socrates and Plato ((Teagle F. Bougere) engage in a profound exchange about the nature of the soul.

Despite an uneven cast, Hughes animates the philosophical language dramatically capturing an elusive man who helped set the foundation of Western philosophy.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

WHITE NOISE
April 21, 2019
Suzan-Lori Parks’ newest production White Noise at the Public Theater rips open the quiet side of racism and it’s insidious drone inside everyone. Comfortably seated in a chair, Leo (the captivating Daveed Diggs best known for his star turn in Hamilton) addresses the audience in a warm baritone voice coated in a light southern accent. Diggs relays his upbringing in a well-educated family and good neighborhood noting his only real problem growing up was insomnia.

Diggs’ solo, which by the way was so well delivered he could have narrated the whole play, segues into the discovery of a “fix” for the insomnia: a “white noise” recording. But there’s a downside—the remedy saps his creativity so he can no longer produce his art.

This scene folds into a dialogue with an enlightened, racially mixed quartet composed of an Asian woman, an African- American woman raised by lesbians, plus a Caucasian and African-American male. These school chums, share similar educations and backgrounds except for John who uneasily sits on a family fortune made by owning bowling alleys. Gabbing daily, they offer advice on career moves, gossip and bowl. Yes, Ralph and Leo are bowling champions who love popping beers over an actual bowling alley planted on stage.

At first, all appear to be leading relatively satisfying lives. Ralph’s partner, Misha (Sheria Irving), a vlogger, finds a new avenue of expression on a call-in forum she calls “Ask A Black” (adroitly visualized by Lucy Mackinnon’s projections) and Dawn, a lawyer, represents good causes.

Suddenly, the play dives below the line of social acceptability when Leo is roughed-up by the police while walking around the neighborhood. Outraged, everyone’s equilibrium is disturbed. Dawn wants Leo to press charges but Leo deflects the offer and contrives another, more cringe-worthy idea. He proposes his best bud, Ralph, buy him for 40 days and 40 nights for just a little under $100,000. The human sale would clear Leo of his debts and free him to ponder questions about his life and the sinister reality of racism.

Uneasy at first, Ralph agrees to the financial end but denies interest in holding Leo accountable. Without revealing the play’s frightful dénouement, know that everyone begins a descent into the chatter of his or her own personal underworld.

Muscularly directed by Oskar Eustis, the simple, effective set by Clint Ramos is enhanced by Xavier Pierce’s lighting design and effortlessly evolves from one domestic site to another. Be ready for a bumpy ride into gender, race and politics.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

OKLAHOMA!
April 15, 2019
Produced in 1943 (during World War II) to a score by Richard Rogers and libretto by Oscar Hammerstein, the legendary Oklahoma! team was joined by the equally formidable choreographer Agnes deMille. Together they fashioned a wildly successful show that became an equally successful film in 1955. For many, Oklahoma! is a musical staple about the great American pioneering spirit. Before its move to Broadway, Daniel Fish’s vision of Oklahoma! appeared at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a theater known for producing spine-tingling, avant-garde productions.

In Fish’s refashioning of Oklahoma! at Circle in the Square, the audience sits amphitheater style on three sides of the stage. Actors and musicians travel up and down the long rectangular performance space, entering and exiting from the aisles.

A down-home casualness draws the audience into the lives of folks at the turn of the 20th century eagerly establishing their lives in a territory on the edge of joining the Union. An outstanding, racially and mixed-ability cast exudes a naturalness and genuineness that immediately draws everyone into the sweeping story of young lovers and sinister antagonists.

The switch from an orchestral performance of the much-loved score, to the simpler folk tune arrangements, produce a very intimate musical experience -- more aligned with the actual musical sounds of the era. Scattered throughout are casually organized wooden chairs, tables, crockery, window frames and a rocker for the boisterous Aunt Eller (Mary Testa). Dressed in western garb including overalls, gallon hats, chaps and full skirts with petticoats, the cast looks mighty comfortable in Terese Wadden’s costumes.

One by one, the main characters are introduced: the handsome and goodhearted Curly (Damon Daunno), his love interest Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones), Laurey’s girlfriend and powerhouse actor Ado Annie (Ali Stroker), Annie’s witless lover Will Parker (James Davis), the slippery traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Will Brill) and menacing Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill).

There’s the usual tug-of-wits between Curly and his hard-headed heart-throb Laurey, but the real eye-opener hits when the captivating Ado Annie comes wheeling through the audience, radiating a fierce independence and unabashed sexuality. Ripping around the stage in a hand-manipulated wheel chair, more than anyone, Annie personifies the pioneering American spirit.

The close knit, quarrelsome Oklahoma families join in a number of festivities and hoedowns jauntily choreographed by John Heginbotham. Guys and gals kick up their boots, do-si- do, fling their gals to and fro so petticoats go high and low, then round-and-round in a promenade. All the dance sequences lighten the air with well deserved frivolity and intimacy, except for the famous “dream sequence.”

Considered one of Agnes deMille’s masterpieces, Fish and Heginbotham descend into a dance nightmare trading out deMille’s "dream sequence" ballet for one lone performer, Gabrielle Hamilton. Alternately running around and galloping on an imaginary horse, she flings herself from one end of the space to the other, slamming against a wall, falling, rolling, vertically splitting her legs and heaving from the exertion. The choreographically set and improvisatory sections are harsh and at times disorienting. Most disturbing is the ending of Oklahoma! Although DeMille’s ballet scenario is pretty much eliminated, many of the narrative elements are dropped into the show’s ending.

Despite the adjustments, Oklahoma! is not radically altered. Jud still terrifies Laurey, Curly touchingly donates all his possessions for Laurey’s picnic basket, Aunt Eller referees the cowboys and the farmers, and Ado Annie just can’t stop having the time of her life. Everyone delivers a heartfelt performance soaked in lighting designer Scott Zielinksi’s bright morning sunlight, and dusk’s fading rays.

And in a homey touch, everyone in the audience is invited to eat some home-cooked vittles during intermission. Now you can’t beat that! EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

AIN'T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS
April 8, 2019
There are nearly as many steps interwoven throughout the songs as words in the hip-stirring Broadway Musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.

The new production, exhilaratingly directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, underscores the centrality of the dance routines to the Motown signature. And although his name is absent in the script, it would be hard to top the original dance sequences devised by master Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins whose precision and style was coupled to cool and sex.

Trujillo nods to Atkins’ riffs by incorporating crystalline steps, contrasted against dramatic pauses, expressive hands and head snaps that punctuate huge smiles in some of Broadway’s best choreography.

For example, when the Temps sing "twiddle dee, twiddle dum, look out baby ‘cause here I come" the men pair off and rhythmically patty cake their fingers back-and forth; spit-out double turns and chug along without missing a note. None of this Mickey-Mouse “foot forward, foot back, sing and repeat” stuff in this show. Nope—the mighty-talented cast of men move with the fire of James Brown and finesse of Michael Jackson.

“Ain’t Too Proud” hugs the storyline of the Temptations’ original membership and ever- shifting singer combinations. Narrated by the designated leader (and last original member standing) Otis Williams (Derreck Baskin), the Temps’ taut backbone was built on five smooth singing and dancing men in sharp suits and neat moves. This “class act” produced the perennially popular Temptations. Although the original five were magic, the “sound” remained supreme despite the personnel swap- outs.

Besides the clean, well-enunciated book by Dominique Morisseau (based on Otis Williams’ 1988 memoir) the cast is a wonder of talent. In the role of the charismatic Ruffin, Ephraim Sykes pulls off some of Ruffin's spectacular signature moves—including the one where he tosses the microphone up in the air, starts to drop to the floor, catches the microphone, falls into the splits and bounces back up. Yes—the audience goes wild!

Equally talented and exuding a "lover-boy" sensuality, the dapper Eddie Kendricks (portrayed by the impressively gifted Jeremy Pope) struts around, keen on his threads and ladies. The booming bass of Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson) tickles the souls of your feet and James Harkness (Paul Williams) adds to the all important group glue.

The whole cast of eight men are vocal and movement chameleons, skillfully enacting the Temps’ rise to stardom. Like so many other musical groups of the 1970's, drugs, alcohol and physical abuse deteriorate the bonds linking the original members. The "leader/organizer" of the group, Otis understands the team’s sound reigns over any one individual. Despite interpersonal loyalties and tensions, Otis manages to replace destructive behavior -- even when it means losing the star, Eddie Ruffin. In the end, Otis gets it right: despite the brilliance of individual singers, the Temptations’ group ethos forges the sound that lives forever.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Celia Ipiotis

I MARRIED AN ANGEL
March 24, 2019
Five years after arriving in NYC at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein, and 4 years after founding the School of American Ballet, George Balanchine was tapped to choreograph Roger and Hart’s 1938 musical featuring his fiancé Vera Zorina. A product of the Imperial Ballet in Russia, one thing Balanchine understood was spectacle; and by all accounts, that’s what was delivered.

Now eight decades later, City Center’s lauded Encores! Series dipped back into the coffers of dance-centric musicals to revive the slimmed-down version of I Married an Angel. Joshua Bergasse, the production’s director and choreographer, drew Sara Mearns, his fiancé and a wildly popular NYCB principal dancer, into the production.

Already a seasoned Broadway choreographer, Bergasse is testing his directorial wings. Although he’s still finding his directorial voice, Bergasse’s musical theater roots were particularly evident in the Act I show-stopping tap dance routine. Led by the mighty talented Hayley Padschun and Phillip Attmore the routine caused an eruption of clever tap figures that scattered rhythms into rich, percussive riffs lifted by acrobatic leaps and slides.

Tied to an old-fashioned story about a Budapest banker (Mark Evans) who claims he can only marry a pure, honest angel, he finally get’s his wish. She drops out of the sky (more to the point, Mearns flits across the stage in a flurry of runs en pointe) and he immediately marries her. Of course, she’s unfamiliar with human ways, and insists that “truth is beauty, and beauty is truth” -- unless it ruins her husband’s career. The underlying message resembles romantic black and white 1930’s films where women are not to be trusted because they are only out for themselves and a man’s money. This theory holds unless of course, you are an angel – but then, being perfect presents its own set of problems.

Most comfortable when bantering cheerily with her angel girlfriends, Mearns exuded a delightful “girl next door” quality. Earthy- voiced and appealing, Mearns’ native language is dance, not the spoken word, and that was most evident when Means struggled to hit her comic timing. People who saw Red Shoesat City Center last year, or New York City Ballet seasons, know Mearns’ dancing is sublime—and so it was again.

In this instance, Carlyle’s ballet choreography remained relatively basic and kept her trilling en pointe throughout the show. Despite the issue of limited space, Bergasse's “How to Win Friends and Influence People” as well as the “Roxy Music Hall” proved he can animate the entire stage—top to bottom, side-to-side. The many buoyant songs that tickled the throat were brought to life through the original, newly resorted Hans Spialek orchestrations and Rob Fisher’s musical direction. Tucked into the back of the stage, the Encores! Orchestra was outlined in silvery sashes by designer Allen Mayer complimenting Alejo Vietti’s sparkling, elegant costumes.

Innocently simple, I Married An Angel underscored the radiant talents of performers like Mearns, Attmore, Podschun and a standout corps dancer--Barton Cowperthwaite. Perhaps not the most cohesive Encores! production, it did offer a welcomed, cheerful respite from the day’s noise.
EYEON THE ARTS,, NY – Celia Ipiotis

KISS ME KATE
March 22, 2019
A single ghost light announces the beginning of a rough-and-tumble comedy that pits immovable wills against implacable egos in the marvelous Broadway revival of Kiss Me Kate.

Cole Porter’s play within a play, based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew debuted in 1948 and featured choreography by one of America’s modern dance pioneers, Hanya Holm. Because the musical thrives on a physicality that borders on a West Side Story rumble, the choreographer, Warren Carlyle is of central importance.

Embittered by a short-lived marriage, two musical theater actors – Fred Graham (a delightful Will Chase) and Lilli Vanessi (the sublime Kelli O’Hara) – star in Graham’s Broadway-bound musical. But trouble brews when Graham’s wandering eye and hands rout Vanessi’s amorous memories. Intent on seducing Graham, the hip-swinging, chest-thrusting ingénue Lois Lane (I saw the understudy Christine Cornish Smith) kicks the sand that ultimately produces the pearl between Graham and Vanessi.

High points primarily surround Ms. O’Hara’s crystal clear, soprano voice. There’s a halo of perfection that settles over every single note and syllable projected by Ms. O’Hara from the romantically lush ”Wunderbar” to the gutsy “I Hate Men” and heart-wrenching “So In Love.”

Besides the consistently hummable score, director Scott Ellis and Carlyle animate every scene with uninterrupted movement sequences that enlarge the characters. Dance fills much of the action, fusing ballet beats and leg extensions to Fosse-style hunches over tight prances, tap extravaganzas and acrobatics seamlessly integrated into the choreographic language. Most Importantly, the choreography does not rely on “tricks” for applause; it trades in Inventive recreations of traditional chorus line kicks, tap routines and intimate duets.

In the production’s now-famous number “It’s Too Darn Hot” (made famous in the 1953 film version by Bob Fosse) the racially mixed cast members mingle outside in the alley designed by David Rockwell. Action heats up when the multi-talented Corbin Bleu starts to click his heels against a wood crate. That blows up into a dynamic tap dance with James T. Lane -- reminiscent of the Nicholas Brothers’ renowned splits and sophisticated footwork. Impressively, percussive taps build on each other until they split apart into multiple syncopated rhythms.

Meanwhile, back in Padua, the viciously temperamental Kate is eligible and rich but unmarried because no man dares to tame her—that is until the mercenary Petruchio arrives to claim a bride. Their hilariously bitter battle for supremacy is evoked through overhead lifts that dodged Jeff Mahshie’s overflowing Shakespearean gowns, body flips and rough lindy hop maneuvers. There may be no rear-end paddling in this version, but by golly, the singing and acting never waivers under the pressure of the show’s acrobatics.

Not surprisingly, John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams (the two thugs intent on reclaiming cash for a bad bet) grab the spotlight in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Replete with canes, striped suits and straw hats, they happily milk the audience’s applause with every soft shoe strut and false exit.

What’s particularly pleasing, in a show replete with pleasing moments, is the chemistry between Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase. Not the most bombastic Petruchio, Chase establishes his male privilege in a quieter, more believable manner. Under Ellis’ keen eye, the dramatic arc builds into a tower of animosity that melts into a touching moment of loving, mutual recognition.

There is not downside to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s rousing revival of Kiss Me Kate at Studio 54.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

TRUE WEST
February 5, 2019
When the diminutive, elderly mother (a splendidly deadpan Marylouise Burke) walks into the disaster area once known as her kitchen, she puts down her two red suitcases and greets her sons before even asking about the destruction.

That’s pretty much the logic that follows--or not – in much True West, Sam Shepard’s play on a brotherly tug-of war. At once depressing and manic, Ethan Hawke (Lee) and Paul Dano (Austin) dance their Argentinean tango of childhood jealousies and adult animosities hooking legs and chest slams.

Quietly typing at the kitchen table, next to a burning candle, Austin’s serenity is sorely challenged by his vagabond brother. Draped over the kitchen counter, with a pack of beers strung around his finger, Lee leers at his brother and demands the car keys. Clearly a person who lives on the fringes of acceptable society, Lee developed his wits and trades in minor thefts while Austin snared an Ivy League education. The good boy, bad boy syndrome takes a radical turn when a producer arrives to discuss a screen project with Austin only to reverse course and agree to produce Ethan’s clichéd cowboy film concept.

By the second act, both are in a state of agitation. Intent on proving he can buddy up with Lee and roam the desert, Austin accepts Lee’s challenge to steal toasters from all the neighborhood homes. This leads to some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in a True West production. From the moment everyone witnesses a half dozen toasters parked throughout the kitchen—the ludicrousness escalates.

While Lee attempts to type his script with one finger, Austin ricochets from one toaster to another as bread pops up in time for him to catch, butter and pile it on a stack of toast resembling the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Volcanic explosions knock the two brothers throughout the house, crashing over every piece of furniture until their childish rivalry rolls right in front of ---their clueless mother.

Roundabout Theater’s production of True West excels on the strength of its casting and radiant direction by James Macdonald.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

IONESCO SUITE
January 26, 2019
These days, life’s absurdities are the norm. Therefore, Ionesco Suite was both familiar and farcically disturbing. Exaggerated characters are draped around a long white table. At times it was reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman play where a family gathers at the dining room table, at first in civilized fashion until family members start to regurgitate absurd realities in the darkness of winter.

A major voice in the world of the “theater of the absurd” Eugene Ionesco could skewer the best and worst societies. Scraps of his plays are sampled in the play including “The Bald Soprano,” Jack,” “Conversation and French Speech Exercises” and “The Lesson.” This particular production is the creation of Theatre de la Ville’s artistic and directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Extremely physical, the animated actors used their faces as vividly as their bodies and voices. All parts of their physical being were activated by the stage directions and rhythmically composed, staccato language buoyed by Jefferson Lembeye & Walter N’guyen’s incidental music, and stark sets and lighting design by Yves Collet.

Hysteria of one level or another ties a selection of scenes together. Families rowdily ball at a son, a wedding couple bicker about whether or not a turtle and snail are one and the same, or a fireman races in desperate for a fire. There are plenty more examples two wacky people looking at the same thing but seeing two different realties. Both disturbing and funny, there’s the “Ground Hog Day” aspect to the people who just insisting or repeating their observations over and over again. One of the wildest physical comedy scenes erupts in the end—over and in a cake.

Sadly, “Ionesco Suite” reflects too many Americans who wake up on a daily basis to curiouser and curioser headlines.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

CHOIR BOY
January 19, 2019
Spirituals bind the young African-American men of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, and despite its prestigious reputation, Drew Prep’s refined atmosphere is curdling at the edges of propriety.

Insightfully written by Tarrell Alvin MacCraney, Choir Boy delves into the growing pains of young black men solidifying identities within a privileged school’s hierarchy and American society. Much of the dramatic action is driven by the soulful spirituals, Camille A. Brown’s urgent choreography and Trip Cullen’s energized direction.

A source of Drew Prep pride, the much-lauded choir engenders joyful camaraderie and cut-throat competition that pits a legacy student against a scholarship student. Arrogant and assertive, Bobby Marrow (a fine J. Quinton Johnson) lobs sexual slurs at Pharus (a stand-out Jeremy Pope) during his vocal solo at senior commencement. This core friction generates a fistful of the sparks inside this coming-of-age tale.

Respectability is paramount at this school, so any suggestions of impropriety results in expulsion. There's very little wriggle room. Although there is no hard evidence, the angel-voiced Pharus inspires whispers of homosexual proclivities. Refusing to confirm or deny his sexual leanings, Pharus spars with Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper) about his behavior and determination to lead the choir.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown employs step dancing, that percussive form of dance that piles rhythmic structures one on top of the other to drive the emotional undercurrents. The complex layers mirror the psychological mine-field experienced by teenage boys.

This team of men forge a powerful unit of youthful questioning. When the group begins to unravel, an old civil rights activist and friend of Headmaster Marrow comes in as mediator. Ostensibly, the respected Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton) is popped into the script to teach “creative thinking” – but it feels like he's there to represent America's liberal white, racial conscience.

Midway through the human chess match a discussion ensues about the role of spirituals in the black community. Are coded messages woven throughout the spirituals; do they warn about cruel slave owners, daily inequities, escape routes or other guideposts? Regardless, the spirituals fulfill in a way that other songs do not. Through the spirituals and dance, blood memories surface.

One of Ms. Brown’s inherent talents is allowing actors to find a way to make the movement ooze out of their skin and become an organic extension of their personalities. Step dancing snakes throughout the piece -- feet pound out catchy beats syncopated against the voice. Even when sections of the choreography align the actors in synchronized steps, each person moves in his own distinct way. These vulnerable young mens' narratives are writ large through personalized movements that tap into the collective unconscious of the African diaspora.

Intersecting storylines punch through the fragility of young men desperate to conform yet yearning to find an individual path. There’s much to ponder in this scrum for acknowledgement and echoes Pete Townshend’s lament “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me.”
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

AMERICAN SON
January 18, 2019
Nothing panics parents more than the absence of a teenage son or daughter after a night on the town. Too many bad things happen between the hours of midnight and 4 am, and considering today’s instantaneous communications options, a child’s silence is devastating.

That’s exactly what happens in the Broadway drama An American Son realistically penned by Christopher Demos-Brown and shaken alive by director Kenny Leon. When Kendra Ellis-Connor’s (Kerry Washington) son, Jamal, fails to return home, she personally reports it to the authorities in the steely lit Florida police station, then whips uncontrollably around an erupting core of anger and helplessness.

Unremittingly pinging away at her phone, Kendra gets no response from her son, his friends or mothers-of-friends. All lines of communication are stilled. Expertly compounding her frustration, the officious young police officer refuses to give-up information. Unable to restrain herself, Kendra rages around him, begging, pleading for information; while he stalls, her gut tells her that it’s “definitely not alright.”

Around this nightmare swirls a heady domestic, social and political drama. Born of a black mother who is a professor of psychology and white FBI father, the biracial Jamal (a name the father found “too black”) attends a private school. Smart as a whip, he’s got growing pains and argues with Kendra before leaving home—in part because of an incendiary bumper sticker on his car.

When the assertive, imposing father, Scott (Steven Pasquale) arrives, answers materialize. Coincidence? Perhaps the officer is impressed by Scott’s FBI badge—or his white maleness. After all, they both nod in agreement when officer Jordan whispers this despicable comment: “she goes from ghetto to nothing in zero flat.”

Soon the anger flips from the officer to the couple. She’s rightly horrified by the camaraderie between the two men. Then they begin to download their own unresolved affairs. Clearly, a sexual energy lingers between the two, but their marriage did not survive. A blame game unravels, spotlighting the domestic land mines. There’s the son who misses his father while simultaneously wanting to claim his black identity. The dynamic between Scott and Kendra is dead on. In fact, the ensemble cast delivers a potently jarring portrait of life in America.

Demos-Brown invests this nonstop, contemporary drama with an unrelenting barrage of accusations and questions. Stirred to a neat chill by Leon, the show does not resolve the conflicts, merely airs them for public contemplation.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

APAP 2019
January 15, 2019
APAP 2019
APAP is coming to town right after the holidays, so don't put away your festive outfits and get ready to meet the artists, presenters, and professionals that populate the world of the performing arts. The conference provides a platform for those working in performing arts to engage in discussions around pressing current cultural, artistic and professional issues. The gathering draws members of the arts community from around the globe, but also offers events open to the public including free live-streaming of plenaries and many free pre-conference sessions. There are countless performances, demonstrations, talks and networking opportunities. If you haven't caught up on the details, click here: https://www.apap365.org/Conference/Programs-and-Events Hilton Hotel

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APAP Pre-Conference Before the massive APAP/NYC Conference invades the city--in a good way--APAP is offering scores of workshops and professional development seminars free--that's right--FREE to the public. All you need to do is sign up. Here are a few of the categories: Artists Building a Code of Ethics in the Era of #MeToo; Broadway, Dance or Transgender Forums; Agents and Manager Affinity Group and Wavelenghts: APAPA World Music Pre-Conference. Check this out: https://www.apap365.org/Conference/Programs-and-Events/Pre-Conference Hilton

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APAP Plenaries
Friday, January 4 -- Jane Chu celebrates the leadership role the arts play in our world. Bringing her unique perspective as an artist, former arts presenter, recent head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and now adviser to PBS, Chu has seen first-hand how the arts are a positive force that brings people together across the U.S. and across differences.

Saturday, January 5 -- Plenary Session: 5 Provocations for Rethinking the Industry: Leading into the Future In the face of a chaotic present and a wildly uncertain future, artists and arts leaders don’t have the luxury of “business as usual”. The leaders of today and tomorrow must take charge of making and remaking the future of our art.

Sunday January 6--Plenary Session: APAP|NYC Town Hall: The Power of WE:Make your voice heard as we forge the future of the field together! This year we will host a true Town Hall to tackle tough questions facing our field about the roles, rules and realities of the evolving performing arts industry. Are the tried and true approaches still working?

Monday, January 7--Annual Awards Ceremony and Luncheon: This special event honors achievement, service, excellence and advocacy in the performing arts field. Tickets are required and must be purchased in advance when you register or at the APAP|NYC registration desk at the conference.

Tuesday, January 8 -- Closing Keynote: Year after year, the closing keynote is one of the most popular events of the APAP|NYC conference. Guaranteed to entertain and inspire, our soon-to-be-announced celebrity speaker will deliver the perfect send-off to APAP|NYC attendees!

UNDER THE RADAR: FRANKENSTEIN, MINOR CHARACTER, THE EVOLUTION OF A SONERO
January 11, 2019
It was a dreary night when Mary Shelly accompanied her husband and fellow poet Percey Shelley to the home of writer Lord Byron. Storms kept a congenial group of friends in the house, and that’s where Ms. Shelley penned Frankenstein. Already depressed because of the loss of her baby girl, Shelley imagined a story of a monumental misfit who had a tender heart but uncontrollable, laboratory constructed strength. The sketched out story of Shelley’s life and the writing of this monstrously popular story is told through the use of shadow puppets, puppets, projections and videos by the talented Manual Cieman Company. Presented during the annual APAP festival, Under-the Radar Festival draws arts professionals from around the world. This sets-up an opportunity for the artists to attract multiple presenters and organize a fruitful touring schedule. Frankenstein, an incredibly intricate production is a marvel of visual elements. Created by Manual Cinema and adapted from the novel by Mary Shelly, members of the company collaborated on its realization with the primary concept by Drew Dir. Live actors zoomed from one end of the darkened stage to the other, feverishly moving stick figures and light fixtures. Characters danced across the white walls like Kara Walker’s panoramic cut-paper silhouettes to the atmospheric music by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman.

Despite the two-dimensional aspect of the images, the audience felt Shelley’s sadness--her despair and manic desire to write a story that captured her colleagues’ praise. Running over close to two hours, no intermission, the production is enviable but the story unspools on a single, theatrical note. Much of the energy went into the actual depiction of the storytelling rather than development of dramatic arc. That said, they deserve an award for the production’s visual elements.

For some reason, Chekhov’s 19th century Russian play Uncle Vanya never ceases to fascinate contemporary theater professionals. And so, New Saloon pays witty tribute to Chekhov in their “mash-up” of English translations featuring characters portrayed by multiple actors, sometimes speaking simultaneously. Settled on an aging estate in the Russian countryside, the quiet, hard working family members are disrupted when their sophisticated, urban relatives descended on the premises. Suddenly, mundane lives are pitched into emotional extremes not experienced in years. The potency of the concept was most evident in the beginning when the tall blonde actor, Madeline Wise, began a deadpan delivery as the tree-hugging doctor who is a regular visitor to the estate. What was particularly exhilarating was the way she spoke just a few words punctuated by repeated minimal gestures—a hand opening and closing, eyes focusing on one person, turning away and back again. That unleashed a thrill because the words and gestures formed a provocatively syncopated rhythm that supplied the emotion. Soon the rest of the play’s outsized characters entered.

Gender roles switched constantly adding a sense of whimsy to this rendition of dysfunctional family dynamics. If a viewer is not familiar with “Uncle Vanya” there might be some confusion over the characters in Minor Character. However, everyone understood there was an old crotchety professor (played by the singular David Greenspan—the only single actor/role) married to a young beauty salivated over by all the adult men in the house. At times, Morgan Green’s direction pitted the actors into a genial contra dance: characters met up, and split apart bisected by the huge dining room table. But nothing else in the play reached the heights of Ms. Wise’s opening monologue.

One of the most upbeat productions of the Under the Radar Festival was The Evolution of a Sonero. Primarily a bio-musical, the theater piece is written and performed by Flaco Navaja who grabs the audience in the very first minutes and doesn’t let go until the calls for encore! Directed by Jorge B. Merced, the pace cooks with the help of the on-stage band The Razor Blades. Slim and dressed in a three-piece suit, Navajo wove together stories about life growing up in the Bronx. Shaped by his extended Puerto Rican family and an unforgiving urban decay, he struggled to shed skinny, geeky looks and in the process was tripped up by a fierce tango with drugs and alcohol.

What differentiated this from most solo performances was the introduction to Puerto Rican music: how it rose from the African diaspora, and how the clave formed the heartbeat of the Afro-Caribbean social music genres. Produced by the venerable Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, much of the program’s success is centered on Navajo’s charismatic presence, soaring voice and nimble dance body. In the end, it’s the music that solidified cultural identity, the spirit of perserverance and hope.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

AMERICAN DANCE PLATFORM: GRAHAM AND PETRONIO
January 6, 2019
When APAP comes to town, NYC, already the center of cultural activity turn into a tsunami of artistic events. That’s because the conference draws performers, presenters, producers and professionals from all corners of the performing arts community to NYC for about one week of non-stop cultural activity. Disciplines across the performing arts spectrum organize platforms to introduce the all-powerful presenters to the available productions. In this vein, the Joyce Theater presents the American Dance Platform series curated a by a different presenter every year. Generally, the companies present a tasting of their repertoire to tantalize the presenters and producers into wanting to learn more and help press the touring button on.

Opening night of the Platform was stellar. Stephen Petronio and the Martha Graham Dance Company shared a bill. And like Janet Eilber suggested in an introductory talk, the Graham Company was eager to share the spotlight with such a cool, and nervy dance company. In truth, both proved their offerings were perfectly capable of standing the test of dance time.

Petronio presented the full length “Hardness 10” with music by Nico Muhly choreographed in 2018. Clear and precise, the movement architecture was pristine. Dancers moved in strong formations, generally 4 bodies in counterpoint to 3. Straight arms shoot out from the shoulder, legs snap into long lines, and torsos frequently face in relief. There’s geometric satisfaction in this work in the Baroque sense, which means it’s mathematically satisfying and emotionally gratifying: a wonderful mix of soul and structure.

To start the performance, the audience was treated to what might be one of this decade’s finest reconstructions of a male solo,” Goldberg “Variations.” Originally created performed by Steve Paxton in 1981, the godfather of contact improvisation, the solo is a wonder of muscle control and an internal rhythmic high.

When Petronio Company member Nick Sciscione performed an “iteration” of the piece in 2017, I asked Yvonne Rainer --Paxton’s colleague and founding member of the Judson Dance Theater--what she thought about the solo: “Celia, I wept when I saw it.” And that was because Sciscione channels Paxton’s idiosyncratic, intuitive movement sensibility encased in liquid matter and cosmic imagination.

On the heels of this postmodern setting, the Martha Graham Dance Company arrives. First there was “Woodland” by Pontus Lidberg to music by Irving Fine for the Graham Company in 2016. Very Flemish or possibly Tudoresque (Antony) in the vein of Graham -- a community of dancers outfitted in simple dresses or pants and shirts -- circle one woman in black and white. Soon, the outer dance circle dons wolf masks underscoring the single female’s “outsider” status until she becomes one of them.

The company executed the steps with finesse, easily moving between the softer lines of contemporary modern dance and Grahams sharper edged dips and contractions. But again, the real heart of the Graham program arrived with the performance of two excerpts from Martha Graham’s “Chronicle" created in 1936 in response to the disturbing actions of Hitler in Germany and actually chronicles the 1914 -1936 era.

Two sections from this larger production were performed including “Steps in The Street” and “Prelude to Action.” A perfect antidote to today’s political folly, the women dressed in black marched out in determination. With fists clenched, knees rose up and slammed into the floor as ramrod straight torsos thrust fiercely into the future. Simple steps arranged in dynamic patterns unfurled defiant images of females in deep diagonals and in the end circles of determination.

In truth, Stephen Petronio and Janet Eilber (Direct of the Graham Company) should not be surprised if presenters ask to tour this exact program.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY - Celia Ipiotis

UNDER THE RADAR: FRANKENSTEIN, MINOR CHARACTER, THE EVOLUTION OF A SONERO
January 11, 2019
It was a dreary night when Mary Shelly accompanied her husband and fellow poet Percey Shelley to the home of writer Lord Byron. Storms kept a congenial group of friends in the house, and that’s where Ms. Shelley penned Frankenstein. Already depressed because of the loss of her baby girl, Shelley imagined a story of a monumental misfit who had a tender heart but uncontrollable, laboratory constructed strength.

The sketched out story of Shelley’s life and the writing of this monstrously popular story is told through the use of shadow puppets, puppets, projections and videos by the talented Manual Cieman Company. Presented during the annual APAP festival, Under-the Radar Festival draws arts professionals from around the world. This sets-up an opportunity for the artists to attract multiple presenters and organize a fruitful touring schedule.

Frankenstein, an incredibly intricate production is a marvel of visual elements. Created by Manual Cinema and adapted from the novel by Mary Shelly, members of the company collaborated on its realization with the primary concept by Drew Dir. Live actors zoomed from one end of the darkened stage to the other, feverishly moving stick figures and light fixtures. Characters danced across the white walls like Kara Walker’s panoramic cut-paper silhouettes to the atmospheric music by Kyle Vegter and Ben Kauffman.

Despite the two-dimensional aspect of the images, the audience felt Shelley’s sadness--her despair and manic desire to write a story that captured her colleagues’ praise. Running over close to two hours, no intermission, the production is enviable but the story unspools on a single, theatrical note. Much of the energy went into the actual depiction of the storytelling rather than development of dramatic arc. That said, they deserve an award for the production’s visual elements.

For some reason, Chekhov’s 19th century Russian play Uncle Vanya never ceases to fascinate contemporary theater professionals. And so, New Saloon pays witty tribute to Chekhov in their “mash-up” of English translations featuring characters portrayed by multiple actors, sometimes speaking simultaneously. Settled on an aging estate in the Russian countryside, the quiet, hard working family members are disrupted when their sophisticated, urban relatives descended on the premises. Suddenly, mundane lives are pitched into emotional extremes not experienced in years.

The potency of the concept was most evident in the beginning when the tall blonde actor, Madeline Wise, began a deadpan delivery as the tree-hugging doctor who is a regular visitor to the estate. What was particularly exhilarating was the way she spoke just a few words punctuated by repeated minimal gestures—a hand opening and closing, eyes focusing on one person, turning away and back again. That unleashed a thrill because the words and gestures formed a provocatively syncopated rhythm that supplied the emotion. Soon the rest of the play’s outsized characters entered.

Gender roles switched constantly adding a sense of whimsy to this rendition of dysfunctional family dynamics. If a viewer is not familiar with “Uncle Vanya” there might be some confusion over the characters in Minor Character. However, everyone understood there was an old crotchety professor (played by the singular David Greenspan—the only single actor/role) married to a young beauty salivated over by all the adult men in the house. At times, Morgan Green’s direction pitted the actors into a genial contra dance: characters met up, and split apart bisected by the huge dining room table. But nothing else in the play reached the heights of Ms. Wise’s opening monologue.

One of the most upbeat productions of the Under the Radar Festival was The Evolution of a Sonero. Primarily a bio-musical, the theater piece is written and performed by Flaco Navaja who grabs the audience in the very first minutes and doesn’t let go until the calls for encore! Directed by Jorge B. Merced, the pace cooks with the help of the on-stage band The Razor Blades. Slim and dressed in a three-piece suit, Navajo wove together stories about life growing up in the Bronx. Shaped by his extended Puerto Rican family and an unforgiving urban decay, he struggled to shed skinny, geeky looks and in the process was tripped up by a fierce tango with drugs and alcohol.

What differentiated this from most solo performances was the introduction to Puerto Rican music: how it rose from the African diaspora, and how the clave formed the heartbeat of the Afro-Caribbean social music genres. Produced by the venerable Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, much of the program’s success is centered on Navajo’s charismatic presence, soaring voice and nimble dance body. In the end, it’s the music that solidified cultural identity, the spirit of perserverance and hope.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

THE CHER SHOW
January 10, 2019
The new Broadway musical The Cher Show grabs profile fragments floating in the universe and composes a collage picture of Cher. Contemporary myths promoted Sonny as Cher’s Svengali. He was the star maker; she was the musical talent. There are times when the musical pulls back the curtain on that simplistic origin tale, but never enough to bring the story into focus. The hopscotch book by Rick Elice glosses over historical milestones, which is probably OK because the songs and Bob Mackie outfits take center stage.

That Cher was blessed with a remarkable voice is indisputable. Happily, choreographer Chris Gattelli animates the musical in tandem with director Jason Moore. The hard working corps flips through dance crazes of the 1960’s-80’s or so. Hips wiggle, bodies shimmy and arms pump over quicksilver feet. Out come steps from the sultry Madison, disco’s finger pointing snare and for added flair a flip, split and cartwheel or two. Gattelli’s potent chorus frames the stars, ultimately enlarging the performance. In fact, the dances gins up the pacing.

Cher’s lifespan is divided between three actors and when Stephanie J. Block plays the “bad ass” mature Cher; the show is in good hands. Additionally, Jarrod Spector rather successfully captures Sonny’s comedic timing and Italian swagger. However, results are more mixed when Michaela Diamond plays Cher as a young woman and Teal Wicks portrays “smart mouth.”

We are reminded that the stars of the 1970’s “Sonny and Cher” weekly, variety TV show were really Sonny, Cher, and Bob Mackie. In retrospect this would be a great fashion runway show because a large part of the musical and theatrical talent is sewn into Cher’s fashion moxie.

Despite Cher’s fashion independence, that confidence did not originally extend to her business affairs. Sonny was in charge until Cher uncovered misappropriation of funds and then, she took over. This part of the narrative deserved more time.

Besides singing along, the audience ogled the sparkling, form fitting outfits that plunged down the front, slit up the sides, slashed down the back and topped by headpieces rivaling Nefertiti’s crowns.

A lightly seasoned musical, Cher dispenses lots of musical hits into an audience willing to embrace a star who remains relevant.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

MARTIN PAKLEDINAZ
November 25, 2011
Before a word is spoken or a move is taken, the costume identifies a characters’ station in life, frame of mind and personality. The best of the costume designers make costumes that feel perfectly in balance with a production while simultaneously forming an ever-lasting image.

According to one of the theater, dance and opera community’s most active and beloved costume designers, Martin Pakledinaz believes his job is to support the director’s or choreographer’s vision. And that he does.

This year alone--the two time-Tony Award winning, in-demand costume designer--Pakledinaz suited up Frank Langella for Manhattan Theater Club’s “Man and Boy,” glamorized “Anything Goes” and added dazzle to costumes for the famed Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.

As a young person, Pakledinaz who liked drawing, felt an immediate affinity for the theater. “I just wanted to be in the theater and I had a talent for drawing clothes. When I looked at people, I noticed what they wore and how it was designed. Cuts and colors, and draping fascinated me. When I came to NYC after getting a graduate degree in costume design from the University of Michigan, I worked with Theoni Aldredge for seven years. She always said to learn from everyone you ever meet. Look and then think about it. For instance, I might borrow an overall style, and then tailor it to my sensibility. In the end, the costume becomes an extension of the production. My costume designs are character driven and known for a certain elegance--not funky—I’m not known for funky.”

“For instance, a strong, deep thinking actor like Frank Langella poses a different design situation from the vibrant Sutton Foster in “Anything Goes.” You know, I designed the costumes for Sutton in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” – the production that brought her into adulthood. She’s wearing those lavish evening gowns in “Anything Goes” like they are blue jeans—she’s terrific! (And anyone who has seen her perform knows she can belt songs like the old style Broadway stars).”

“One thing I do that surprises people at a fittings is to ask them to show me how they move. The actors (and dancers) need to feel comfortable executing the largest as well as the smallest gesture or movement. You have to find a good fit and one that breathes with the character. “

“Inevitably, each form (theater, dance, opera, film) has its own needs, but sometimes it’s surprising what does not change. Comfort factors in for everyone. There’s always a woman who wants a smaller waistline or man who wants his body lengthened. What I find, is that everyone breathes in a different place. Some breathe from the back, others from the abdomen. I ask questions—pretend you are hugging someone very tight. Then I can see how much their back expands. Or I might ask them to squat or lunge in order to better calculate how the costume fills out the bottom half of the body.”

“For Frank Langella, I brought a chair and told him to sit and cross his legs. See if the fit is comfortable no matter what position the body assumes. Along with the director Maria Aiken, we decided on a double-breasted, dark suit to telegraph seriousness and power. I try to be logistical about breaking down the script. I don’t feed artistic vision in it until I hear the idea.”

“When I walked into Radio City Music Hall and met with the Rockettes, they were delighted by my urging to move around and explain what was comfortable and what was problematic so I could change the costumes accordingly. They couldn’t believe someone was asking their opinion. And you know those dancers work as hard as any professional ballet or modern dancer. The Rockettes have countless costume changes and have to do everything from tap to ballet while looking perfectly collected.”

“Everything I do has its own joy.”

And Martin Pakledinaz gives many people untold joy.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Celia Ipiotis

CITY CENTER RE-OPENS
October 21, 2011
City Center is all dressed up for her inaugural ball, and it only took two years of diligent restoration and renovation to put her back together again.

On Thursday, Oct. 27, City Center will throw open the doors to the opening show of the Fall For Dance Series, flaunting a newly refurbished façade, marquee, lobby, auditorium, promenade, patrons room, and – yes, more bathrooms! A couple of days before the Fall For Dance Season (Oct. 27 – Nov. 6), City Center will celebrate with a spectacular Opening Gala Event on October 25.

Arlene Shuler who started her professional career on the City Center stage as a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, now runs that same theater. Giddy with excitement, Shuler joined with Duncan Hazard, Partner in Charge of Ennead Architects, LLP, to highlight just a few of the numerous visual and physical adjustments.

To start, the City Center marquee is visible from both (6th and 7th) avenues. For those who stand in front of the theater waiting for guests or star-gazing, overhead heaters minimize winter’s chill. Inside, the box office area sports a new bar “Joe’s Bar” (a gift of Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Charitable Trust) that will operate at intermission, creating additional lobby space. Just beyond the ticket-takers, the lobby wall is dotted with six high-definition plasma monitors projecting artists’ videos (currently showcasing work by Rashaad Newsome) curated by the New Museum. Gone is the little balcony that jutted out, and instead, the stairways on either side are gracefully enlarged, adding a touch of grandeur that welcome the theater going throngs.

Audiences will be pleased to hear that there are 500 fewer seats, staggered and re-upholstered for optimum viewing and comfort not to mention an extra, really speedy elevator. Windows on the promenade level are now clear glass replacing the plastic faux stained glass versions allowing people to see the glorious ceiling from outside the building. A photographic display on the Promenade curated by Lynn Garafola for the Jerome Robbins Foundations focuses on choreographer Jerome Robbins in class and rehearsal.

But the most thrilling part of the $56 .6 million renovation is the painstaking refurbishment of the ceilings, glorious metal filigree and walls detailed in exotic Moorish colors (painting restoration by Creative Finishes) resembling precious stones of gold, blue and turquoise, clay, cream, emerald and more. It was noted as well that the terra cotta tiles were manufactured by Boston Valley, one of only two exiting companies in that “old crafts” line of work.

From the outdoor lobby to the sweep of the promenade ceiling, heads will be crooked up, staring and admiring the glory of what once decorated the hall when it was built in 1923 as a meeting hall for the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine and transformed 1943 into the city’s first major performing arts center.

There’s much to applaud and much to see at City Center.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

THE BOOK OF MORMON
April 6, 2011
Here we go again! White missionaries to the rescue! Time to convert heathen natives to the all-contradictory—I mean –soul saving Christianity.

When a graduating class of Mormons accept missionary assignments, tall, blond golden boy Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) is paired off with short, chubby, fibber Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad).

Carted off to Africa, Elder Price dreams of Orlando, Florida while Elder Cunningham just wants someone-anyone—even his parents-- to like him. Two by two the Mormon Elders infiltrate Uganda, braving blistering heat, maggots, murderous tribal lords, rampant AIDS, infant rape and uninhibited female circumcision. And you call that fun? Well, the campy songs, and perky numbers by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone make death and destruction pop to a Dr. Seuss-like musical beat.

But these aren’t your every day bible thumpin’ sorts. They wield the book of Gideon, and trade on the crystal-gazing visions of New York state’s Joseph Smith, buried gold tablets plus an angel called—no really, this is the name—Angel Moroni. OK, go ahead, crack a few jokes. That’s exactly what the Parker, Lopez and Stone triumvirate intended for their wily musical “The Book of Mormon.”

Lack of conquests in Africa and a frown lashing from the Mormon Church brass jazzes Cunningham into converting the natives by switching-it-up and telling “tall” Mormon tales. The sacred Mormon mythology passes from northern NY and Salt Lake City to the hobbits and “Star Wars” iconography. Much more colorful and useful in everyday conversions than any Angel Moroni, randy mouthed Ugandan natives succor spiritual enlightenment from the band of Mormon Boy Scouts decked in white short sleeved shirts and black pants palming The Book of Mormon.

Duly impressed by Elder Cunningham’s remarkable success, Mormon brass pay a visit. To honor the Elders, the Ugandan natives put on a play to demonstrate their true devotion to Mormonism. In a giddy flip on the “The King and I” retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” the natives re-enact the Mormon scripture according to the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

In Scott Pask’s appropriately cartoonish set, fragments of the Mormon Tabernacle frame the proscenium and a disco ball splinters celestial light over the Mormon dust. Choreographer/director Casey Nicholaw kicks up some basically unremarkable soft shoe toe-heel clicks, jazz dance potions and traditional African body contractions. Still, the cast members give it their all.

Jokes about suppressing naughty (gay) feelings by metaphorically turning off the switch, blacks’ acceptance into the Mormon Church only after 1978 and Cunningham’s inability to articulate African names calling the lovely and dynamic Nabalungi (Nikki M. James) Neosporin or Noxzema keep the laughs coming.

But as my nephew said at the end “ya think this might offend some people?” Ya think? Politically correct it’s not, but it is a clever musical diversion that points to the grace we all feel when helping others and embracing and believing in something larger than ourselves. Unselfish acts yield spiritual laughter.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY--By Celia Ipiotis

JERSEY BOYS/Review
November 28, 2005

Eager for a feel-good holiday tonic? Walk past the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree and head straight for the Broadway musical "Jersey Boys."

Whether or not you know the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, your spirits will dance to the tune of their story. Rising from Newark’s gritty, working class, four guys merge into a wildly successful pop vocal group identified by Frankie Valli’s stratospheric, three-octave falsetto. And like the original group, this amiable cast positively quakes with the high-voltage performance of John Lloyd Young as lead singer Frankie Valli.

This economic production struts with a well balanced diet of story line, music and nostalgia. Director Des McAnuff nimbly captures the exhilarating spirits of young men catapulted into the music industry. In the process they shed names and members before finding their "sound" but never lose their pronounced loyalty to each other. Contracts between band members were honored by a simple handshake. Mob ties oiled their ascent to stardom and their near demise. So strong was their brotherhood that when Frankie’s mentor and fellow band member faces financial and possibly bodily ruin, Frankie pays off his debts.

But all of this would not pop if the cast wasn’t so totally inside the 60’s style. That comes from the Jersey swagger and spot-on choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Granted, the cast excels in the choreographed sequences, lashing out tight moves, finger snapping bounces and unison spins -- but Trujillo is a master at replicating standard pop routines and tweaking them with fresh, bold gestures.

McAnuff revels in his tight cast, as he animates the clear and amply detailed book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. The ambiance is accessorize with large comic strip styled pop art by Michael Clark while the set suggests urban sprawl and claustrophobic clubs as visualized by designer Klara Zieglerova.

The dynamite cast revolves around the charismatic Christian Hoff as Tommy DeVito and Young along with strong performances by Daniel Reichard as Bob Gaudio, and J. Robert Spencer as Nick Massi. (My only concern: the wear and tear on Young’s vocal chords).

A kicky pit band lead by Music Director, Ron Melrose juices up this show about an all-American band rooted in New Jersey’s urban sprawl and mob camaraderie. "Jersey Boys" will keep you smiling long after you leave the theater singing "Sherry"-----"Sherry Baby!"

"Jersey Boys" at the August Wilson Theater features music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe. Tickets move fast, so get in line.

Celia Ipiotis




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