Thursday, April 27, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Max Baker's The Conspiracists at The IRT Theater by Christopher M. Struck

This review of Max Baker's The Conspiracists at The IRT Theater was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Conspiracists
Written & Directed by Max Baker
The IRT Theater
154 Christopher Street, Suite 3-B
New York, New York 10014
Reviewed 4/22/17

What would happen if you put a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists in a church basement and they disagreed on the true conspiracy? Absurdity perhaps and The Conspiracists, a quirky, funny, and surprisingly dark play that showcases playwright Max Baker's ability to create tangibly deep characterizations. This helped to provide for a uniqueness to the experience that a viewer may be interested in for just the experience. However, despite the upside of a few laughs, the intriguing concept falls prey to awkward arguments and a lack of cohesive direction which can create a lot of confusion. If you try to follow the plot, then you may miss the jokes. The stilted narrative thread follows a strange sequence of events through three alternate realities (also different acts of the play). What's unclear is whether the actions in one reality always affect the other realities or if the sequences are happening simultaneously. The true boon, however, is that the play helps us to reflect upon different aspects of our own lives and circumstances to deconstruct what conspiracy theories truly are.


Each act starts out the same way. Win, played by Ian Poake and the leader of the Conspiracy Support Group, enters in a flurry and says, "Hi" to Jo (Ricki Lynee), who is sitting in a chair preparing an experiment. Win sets up the room and says a few things like, "I never remember how many chairs to set up" even though we quickly learn there are only five returning members of the support group. He is followed by Emmett (Arthur Kriklivy) and Dee Dee (Sofiya Cheyenne). After Emmett changes his chair out due to a mark on the one Win set up for him despite there being a plethora of available chairs, Dee Dee arrives spouting a spree of complaints. Why didn't Emmett hold the door? Where is her prayer stool, which she uses to place her feet? Once they've all sat down, Jo's alarm goes off and the chaos ensues. Jo is about to conduct an experiment at the same time the Hadron Collider in Switzerland will force a collision between sub-atomic particles. She places a favorite doll of hers in a suitcase, hooks it up to a phone, and dictates this to a silver tape recorder noting that the other three attendees are "witnesses." At this point, things deviate from scene to scene.

In the first act, actress Lisa Jill Anderson appears as a neurotic schizophrenic named Madonna, who believes she can talk to inanimate objects by tapping into their "feelings." Lisa absolutely stuns the audience with an exceptional demonstration of crazy. At first, she is mild-mannered and compliant to the rules of the group, but when Brooke (played by Alice Johnson) begins to complain about being locked in the bathroom, Madonna goes insane believing she is being talked to by a despondent ghost. She chants that she is the Goddess Madonna while performing a dance with a small statue that looked like a Golden Globe Award. The other characters are as stunned as we are and in attempting to calm Madonna down, we get some pretty funny lines about dealing with the mentally unstable. This is coming from Conspiracy Theorists who believe Lizard people control the world and that we are living in a simulation of our own advanced race. I remember thinking to myself, "O.K., what just happened and where do we go from here?"

In the second and third act, Lisa appears as two different versions of the newcomer to the support group - Steve, a standoffish conspiracy theorist expert, and Hilda, a bubbly girlfriend of Emmett he met through an online dating app. Each of these characters is so different from the meek Madonna that it's incredible to think Lisa was able to prepare to perform three roles in one. In fact, while Lisa's performance was above noteworthy, all the actors seemed to be really well cast for their parts. I found Lisa's performance of Steve in the second act particularly funny and dark. She comments on various aspects of conspiracy theories like a pseudo expert and eventually suggests that "hope" may be the true conspiracy. Each act definitely takes a unique spin on the quest for answers as the conspiracy theorists slowly unravel and retreat into their own ideas.

While Lisa demands a lot of attention, she also plays catalyst to how the discussion of the group develops. Once her character enters, the group's discussion takes off. Unfortunately, for Win, and fortunately for the audience, Hilda (3rd act Lisa), presses him to seek what he really wants. This happens to be Brooke, who he has been harboring a crush for. He gives an engaging but desperate confession of love, and she, of course, denies his pathetic overture. It's one of the funniest moments of the play and starkly real. This soliloquy-like confession of love tops off a strong performance by Ian Poake. Sofiya Cheyenne, Dee Dee, also had a strong performance delivering some ridiculous lines without even the hint of a smile like her description of our real-life Presidential election as being a race between "a Reptilian Shape-Shifter" and a "Snake-Oil Salesman." Without leaving the church basement, the group seems to cover almost all of the dominant conspiracies and even Santa isn't safe from the targeting. In addition, while there is no consistent narrative thread, the play returns to Jo's experiment after the discussions between each character. She ends the act by pulling out what has become of the doll in the box leaving us guessing whether actions in this reality or the next affected the contents.

At times this play was emotionally confronting such as when Steve (Lisa Anderson) addresses the pointlessness of existence. Often these revelations are slightly disturbing. Thankfully, the dark, irreverent humor did not dip into the obscene or grow to the point of overwhelming despair. Although, I do wonder if overwhelming despair would have given the play a more substantial feeling. Overall, I did like the play and would suggest it to a friend looking for weird or who is tired of watching reruns of a show that follows the Friends model. On the negative side, the play did seem like one of those stories wherein the end, the meaning is that there is no meaning. Whoa, so profound. Still, it was funny and the actors executed their lines well. 

I'm a huge fan of dark humor, and if you admire amusingly frank and sometimes uncomfortable comedy like that seen in South Park and the Fallout series games, then you'll probably enjoy The Conspiracists. Still, it wasn't so funny that my sides were splitting, and sometimes I was the only one chuckling at a particularly dark revelation of the absurdity of the search for meaning in things or life. If that is your thing, then this play if for you. If not, I'd suggest rethinking your decision to see The Conspiracists, which runs at The IRT Theater through May 7, 2017. Tickets can be purchased at www.stablecableabco.org for $18.00 or at the door for $20.00.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Ragtime at The Gallery Players by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Ragtime at The Gallery Players was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Ragtime
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the Novel "Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow
Produced by Jonathan-Bruce King
Director: Mark Harborth
Music Director: Leslie Wickham
Choreographer: Ryan Hendricks
Production Stage Manager: Liza Penney
Scenic Designer: Collin Eastwood
Costume Designers: Jerry Mittelhausere & Carol Strandburg
Lighting Design: Scott Andrew Cally
Fight Director: Joseph Travers
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11215
Reviewed 4/23/17

The basis of the Ragtime story involves three groups - Blacks from Harlem, Middle-Class Whites from New Rochelle, and Jewish Immigrants living and trying to survive on the Lower East Side. They live separately but the early 20th Century has brought in with it a new music, which appears destined to upset the old order. Political turmoil, labor unrest, and the boiling over of the melting pot seem to foreshadow conflicts that may be inevitable - at least according to E.L. Doctorow, whose novel the musical is based on. Edgar, the little boy, also seems to know the future and that World War I is coming. It doesn't matter how many times Edgar tells Houdini to "Warn The Duke" because events in history appear to be destined to occur in Doctorow's view, and as Mother says, "All the signs were there for anyone who wished to see them." 


Connecting the events and groups are celebrities and personalities of the era, including Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman. Racism, violence, and injustice are everywhere. Willie Conklin, a firefighter jealous of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black man who owns a brand new Ford Model T, demands a toll of $25.00 and then proceeds to trash the car when Coalhouse goes off to find a policeman. Willie says Coalhouse is "a man to be pitied" because he is "a nigger who doesn't know he's a nigger." However, later in the play, Coalhouse's Renegades in Harlem similarly refuse to let white Younger Brother pass on his way to offer his support to Coalhouse. They, too, demand money from him, say he's "a cracker who doesn't know he's a cracker," and suggest they should've "beat his ass." Finally, when immigrant Tateh rejects an offer to sell his daughter for cash, he exhibits a violent rage and might have killed the man who made the offer had not a policeman intervened. People are not all that different when it comes right down to it. I guess it is comforting to know "we didn't start the fire" and that "it was always burning since the world's been turning." Journey on!

The house on Broadview Avenue in New Rochelle was built as a sanctuary where the lives of those living in the community did not involve interactions with Negroes. But when Father leaves on a one-year expedition leaving Mother in charge ("Nothing much changes in a year. The world will not spin off its axis."), a lot changes when Mother takes responsibility for Sarah, an African-American woman who buried her newborn child in her garden. On a whim, she takes in Sarah and her child and lets Coalhouse Walker Jr., the baby's father, "court" Sarah for many months, which directly leads to the tragic events that are to follow. You have to understand that Mother was changing and was recognizing she had wishes and desires of her own. She started to make decisions, including that she would, under no circumstances, give up the baby for adoption. Sarah is killed. Coalhouse becomes a murderer and a fugitive and Father is rightfully upset with Mother for "opening the door to such chaos and pain." But Father is forced to change too and his struggle is equally painful. When on the expedition, Father refused to shake the hand of a black first mate, but in the end, when Coalhouse Walker Jr. thanks him for his "kindness to our family," Father says, "You're welcome" and shakes his hand. When Father first experiences the New Music and the winds of change, he wonders "when did they change the song?" and "why can't I sing this tune?" He is as disturbed by the decline in civilization and good societal manners (especially after bringing his son to a Giants game at the Polo Grounds) as Grandfather is (who only seeks "peace and quiet").

One of the funnier lines is when Evelyn Nesbit says, "I'm not an actress. I'm a personality." Her rejection of Younger Brother ("I could never love someone as Poor or as Thin or as Nice as you.") sets him off looking for a new purpose in life. Unfortunately, he becomes radicalized and helps Coalhouse "blow things up." Houdini's sage advice is "to break those chains with all you possess." In the case of Tateh that means finding a place to live free of "tenement stench" and "dirty immigrant streets." For Coalhouse, it's seeking revenge and justice against those who wronged him and although he will go off the deep end and be wronged again, he eventually listens to Booker T. Washington and tells his followers to "Go out and tell our story. Make them hear you!" As for Mother, once Father dies on the RMS Lusitania, and after a proper period of mourning, she is free to follow her own heart. She accepts Tateh's proposal to marry and the new American Family of Tateh and his daughter, Mother and her son Edgar, & Little Coalhouse, take off to California hoping "to arrive on the Wings of a Dream."

This Gallery Players production of Ragtime features an extraordinarily talented cast. Most impressive was Alex Bird, who is charismatic and believable as Younger Brother. James Zannelli brought power and stage presence to his role as Tateh (think Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof). Elyse Beyer was sexy and appealing as Evelyn Nesbit - The Girl On The Swing! She appeared to be having great fun portraying this sexy goddess. Heather Koren successfully exhibited the complexity of the conflicts Mother faced throughout the show. Finally, Marcus Jordan as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Renee Steadman as Sarah made a believable couple and had a good rapport with one another. I could feel Sarah's pain and Coalhouse's outrage as a result of their fine acting. On the negative side, Andrew Horton as Booker T. Washington misspoke a line or two, and Jay Braver was unremarkable as J.P. Morgan. Annie Sherman had the potential to be a dynamic Emma Goldman, but for whatever reason, we could hardly hear her lines. I was told by the producer she was "very sick" but not hearing what she was saying (and I sat in the third row) took away from my enjoyment of the show. The musical features 37 actors and some excellent choreography thanks to Ryan Hendricks. Mark Harborth, the Director, also deserves praise for his contribution to the final product.

It is not every day you get to experience such a fine production of Ragtime. I highly recommend you catch it at The Gallery Players sometime before May 14, 2017. Tickets cost $25.00 and can be purchased at www.GalleryPlayers.com. For more information, call 212-352-3101.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Ragtime at The Gallery Players by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of Ragtime at The Gallery Players was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Ragtime
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the Novel "Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow
Produced by Jonathan-Bruce King
Director: Mark Harborth
Music Director: Leslie Wickham
Choreographer: Ryan Hendricks
Production Stage Manager: Liza Penney
Scenic Designer: Collin Eastwood
Costume Designers: Jerry Mittelhausere & Carol Strandburg
Lighting Design: Scott Andrew Cally
Fight Director: Joseph Travers
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11215
Reviewed 4/23/17

Neither reading the book nor seeing the movie based on the book left an impression on my mind but seeing the musical affected me greatly. First of all, it was a pleasure to see an ensemble of actors who emoted so well. I thought all the roles in this Gallery Players' production of Ragtime were perfectly cast, even the minor ones. As for the major roles, I thought Booker T. Washington, played by Andrew Horton; the Little Boy Edgar, played by Jonah Mussolino; Tateh, played by James Zannelli; and Coalhouse Walker Jr., played by Marcus A. Jordan, stood out. Mark Harborth as the director deserves full credit for realizing the potential of the actors while Jonathan-Bruce King should receive acclaim for putting the production together. 
The scenic design by Collin Eastwood made the changes of scenes effortless. I especially liked the piano with the seat attached as Coalhouse was wheeled around. The period costumes by Jerry Mittelhausere and Carol Strandburg made the pre-World War I era come alive before our eyes. When there was a discussion of the play afterward by the actors, it was striking to see how they looked dressed in modern clothes in comparison with the clothes of a much earlier generation. The lighting design by Scott Andrew Cally highlighted the action and transition between the scenes. The choreography by Ryan Hendricks moved things along and the fight direction by Joseph Travers made the fight sequences look amazingly realistic. 

The opening sequence shows us the "good old days" as the blacks, whites, and immigrants celebrate their own unique lifestyles separate and apart from "the others" - but things are far from harmonious. The theme would be the fracturing of the American Dream as we see several events occur that interact and intertwine with one another. We have two dysfunctional families: one black and one white, a broken immigrant family, labor activism, and racial strife as well as celebrities of the era making an appearance - Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini, in particular. After much bloodshed and emotional suffering, there is a happy resolution for some of the characters. Individuals from three, very different cultural backgrounds, meld into the dream American family of the future where black and white, immigrant and native-born, all get along as one, big happy family and walk off into the sunset together. 

The most poignant scene is when Edgar attends a Yankees baseball game with his father. He achieves the thrill of a lifetime when he catches a ball. However, the effort by his father to Americanize his son into America's pastime is a big fail because all the attendees are busy cursing, spitting, and fighting each other not only verbally, but literally. The game is a metaphor for America coming apart.

Annie Sherman was just plain magnetic as Emma Goldman despite her having a bad cold/laryngitis. She had a most expressive face, especially her eyes which perfectly conveyed the radicalism of Emma Goldman's personality and message. She gave the best stage performance I have ever seen. While it was hard to hear her, even in the second row, she was most eloquent even when her lips moved but no sound came out. During "The Night That Emma Goldman Spoke At Union Square," I was moved by her idealism and hope that America could become a better country. Radicalized by the racism he experienced in New Rochelle, Coalhouse abandoned his belief justice could be attained in America by following the rules and instead sought revenge against those who had caused him harm. The most dramatic scene in the play was the assassination of an unarmed Coalhouse who had been promised his day in Court if he surrendered. The book by Terrence McNally minces no words. It captures the spirit of the time and moves the play along.

The scene I felt was not as good as it could have been was the one where Coalhouse confronted Irish immigrants in New Rochelle who were manning the volunteer Fire Department. Firefighters, dismayed at seeing a black man owning a Model-T, demand a $25.00 toll and deface the car when Coalhouse goes to seek the aid of the police. They spoke the words of racism but their hearts were not in it. Perhaps this is because the actors have no experience observing this degree of racism in real life. This is understandable and speaks volumes regarding the true state of race relations in our country. We have achieved much progress towards harmony even though we still have more to achieve. 

After the play, there was talk-back during which many of the actors and a few of the behind-the-scenes staff participated. I gained much insight into how the actors felt regarding their respective roles. The discussion was less academic than it was political. Leftists tried to politicize the play by arguing that the decision to perform Ragtime, made a year before, was somehow the perfect play to perform in response to Donald Trump becoming President. The progressives dominating the discussion still have no clue how oppressive the off-track, radical, progressive, politically correct agenda had become and how it pushed normal, decent, moderate Americans to vote for Trump. They would be shocked by how many secret Trump supporters were sitting in the audience, all of whom would deplore the racism and injustice depicted in this play.

I very much enjoyed this production of Ragtime, which runs through May 14, 2017. The Gallery Players did a magnificent job. You will do yourself a real favor by seeing it. Tickets cost $25.00 and can be purchased at www.GalleryPlayers.com. For more information, call 212-352-3101.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Lowell Byers' Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture (Black Box Theater) by Christopher M. Struck

This review of Lowell Byers' Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture (Black Box Theater) was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Luft Gangster
Written by Lowell Byers
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Sheen Center For Thought & Culture
Black Box Theater
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 4/15/17

Luft Gangster returns to the Sheen Center after a few years with many of the same cast members who appeared in the 2013 production. The play entertained audiences then and still does while providing context and clarity on life within a World War II German Prisoner Of War (POW) camp. The play latches onto your attention early and doesn't let go. The gradual building of intensity through the first few scenes, and the smooth introduction of various characters, actors, and settings, draws the viewer into the life of the lead character, Lou Fowler, played by Lowell Byers. Additionally, the script, characterization, and portrayal of the roles allow one to imagine the circumstances clearly without the play resorting to overdone dialogue.


The play begins with Lou Fowler at the bedside of his dying and widowed mother. This is a little unclear because the set design employed chairs as props for both chairs and beds. Following his mother's death, Lou signs up for the United States Army Air Corps and is eventually shot down over Yugoslavia in March 1944. Lou bails out of a falling plane and suffers shrapnel wounds to his leg and injures his shoulder. He is rescued by a peasant woman before being captured by the Germans. During his first interrogation, we learn the Germans are interested in specific technical and tactical information about Lou's bomber and bombing target. They utilize various techniques to get him to talk including the use of German-American spies posing as prisoners to encourage "cooperation." The Germans remind Lou of the many Germans who lost their loved ones during Allied bombing raids that deliberately targeted civilians. One of the surprising factors of this part of the play is the vast amount of information the Germans already knew about Lou Fowler, including the names of his family members and where he grew up. It is unclear how they were able to link Lou to his information considering Lou lost his dog tags in North Africa. Lou answers the questions with just his name, rank, and identification number, and is eventually shipped to a POW camp named Stalag Luft VI. 

Once Lou is at the POW camp, we are introduced to the remainder of the main characters in the form of other POWs. In total, there were two Brits - Randall, and Peter, as well as three Americans - Joe, Vinny, and Lou. While I can't say enough about the praiseworthy performance of Lowell Byers as Lou Fowler, the supporting cast was equally as impressive. Their ability to transition between different languages and effortlessly switch between roles built upon the intensity established by the circumstances of Lou's introduction. Ralph Byers, Lowell Byers' real life father, played a variety of German officers and did an especially brilliant job balancing intimidation with poise. Granted some of the characterizations were a little standard for World War II stories, however solid acting helped to create a sense of purpose to each character. Two of the best examples were Noel Joseph Allain as Randall and Paul Bomba as Vinny. They impressed with their consistent accents and ability to portray vivid personalities. Randall was a long term interned Brit who acted as domineering and self-righteous as one would expect. The gregarious New York Italian-American Vinny became the subject of suspicion for being a possible Jerry upon his introduction but later earned the trust of the rest of the group, especially when they started digging an escape tunnel.

Unfortunately, even after the group navigates the politics of the camp and fends off a potential German spy named Bill, the escape tunnel plan ends in the gruesome death of both Brits. Seth James' Peter provided the main comedic moments of the play with his various attempts to brew tea. In fact, the desperation of Peter to find a good tea highlighted the difficulty of life in the POW camp which was additionally emphasized through Lou's lagging leg injury and the discussion of eating charcoal. The group attempts a second escape using Vinny's Prune Jack, a home-brewed alcohol, which ends in the execution of Werner, a German officer, and solitary confinement for the remaining three Americans. During his time in solitary confinement, Lou hallucinates his family and friends, both living and dead. He snaps out of the hallucination to learn from Otto, a guard he has befriended, that the prisoners are about to go on a death march as the Russian forces are closing in. On this march, the three Americans devise a final escape plan, which involves a moral dilemma for Lou, and great risk for all three. Afterward and with his last breaths of life, Lou is rescued by an American soldier. 

Lou Fowler is portrayed as a decent fellow who steers clear of the more questionable moral decisions made by the other prisoners. For example, Lou doesn't interfere when Bill is killed by a Brit on the mere suspicion of being a German spy. In addition, when Otto needs to be sacrificed, Lou seemed torn up by the decision but how much resistance could Lou have offered when Otto stood between them and possible freedom? Interestingly, despite his bum leg, Lou was the only one to escape of the five POWs portrayed within the play. 

Luft Gangster kept things engaging on both a personal and dramatic level. The actors and the detail provided by the set and costume designers brought a gloomy subject to life. While a very small portion of the story seemed cliche, the truth is that we've probably just seen and heard a lot of stories about World War II at this point. This intense play moved fast. At points, time and scene switches were hard to catch while at other times it was very clear. Despite various time leaps, the play is fairly easy to follow due to its linear plot. Lou Fowler was a real person, and the play is written by Lowell Byers, his cousin, who also plays the lead role. Apparently, few, if any, artistic liberties were taken, so this is a true story of a World War II veteran's escape from certain death acted out over 70 years later by a much younger cousin. I'd recommend seeing this play especially if you're interested in World War II or gritty stories. It plays through April 30, 2017 at the Sheen Center. Tickets cost $29-$32 and can be purchased by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or by visiting https://sheencenter.org/shows/luftgangster/ 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Lowell Byers' Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture (Black Box Theater) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Lowell Byers' Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture (Black Box Theater) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Luft Gangster
Written by Lowell Byers
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Sheen Center For Thought & Culture
Black Box Theater
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 4/15/17

The atrocities of war take place on a macro and micro level. Sometimes the killer knows his victims personally and sometimes not as in when a soldier might fire across a battlefield or drop a bomb on an enemy target. Those targets might be military or industrial in nature but sometimes, especially during World War II, the goal might be to kill as many civilians as possible "to break the spirit" of the enemy. According to a recent estimate, 600,000 civilians died during the Allies' wartime raids on Germany, including 76,000 children. In July 1943, 45,000 civilians perished in Hamburg in a single night. I am not even mentioning Allied bombing raids in other occupied countries or the "take no prisoners" policy of our own "Uncle Joe." When you add the Holocaust and the Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the equation, I am sure you get my point - War Is Hell!


Louis "Lou" Fowler, a United States Army Air Corps waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator,  who was originally from Columbia, South Carolina, was shot down over Yugoslavia in March 1944 during a routine bombing mission. He injured his leg and was initially aided by one of Tito's Partisans before being captured by the Nazis. He was eventually moved to a POW camp in Heydekrug, East Prussia called Stalag Luft VI, which one prisoner called "the sixth circle of hell." He was held a prisoner for over a year before being relocated in February 1945 due to the advancement of Soviet troops on the Eastern Front. His experiences there are reflected in Luft Gangster, an intense wartime drama written by Lowell Byers, Lou Fowler's cousin, who does a fine job of bringing the experiences of his character to life. Ralph Byers, Lowell's father, plays Lou Fowler's father in the play as well as the Camp Commander. Both Byers are exceptionally talented actors who fully deserve to have been cast in these roles. Austin Pendleton's direction is a big part of why this production has been universally applauded by critics and audiences alike.

Andy Truschinski's standout performance as Werner, a Camp Guard, highlights a challenge most characters in this play ultimately face. Werner, who at first treats Lou Fowler as just another American prisoner of war, eventually gets to know him on a more personal level and starts to see him as a fellow human being. He even shares with the POWs the type of women he likes and his hopes for the future. Gabe Bettio, who is quite believable as Otto, another Camp Guard, starts out equally distant but, in time, shows Lou Fowler pictures of his family and brings him a harmonica so he can play Lili Marlene on it. Otto even brings Lou extra food and shares with him some reservations he has about the policies of Adolf Hitler. How do the Allied POWs return these kindnesses? In the case of Werner, they deliberately get him drunk with Prune Jack, which eventually leads to a dereliction of duty resulting in his execution. The POWs, including Lou Fowler, use Otto's friendliness against him guaranteeing that he, too, will not see the end of the war. Eric T. Miller convincingly portrays Bill, a smooth-talking wheeler-dealer who gets Lou vinegar to treat his injured leg. Lou argues against a prison break because they are in East Prussia (present-day Lithuania) with nowhere to go but when Bill raises the same concerns, he is suspected of being a German-American placed among the prisoners as a spy. A British POW in Lou's barracks strangles Bill to death on the mere suspicion he is working with the Germans. As for Bill being a German spy, he may or may not have been an informant but I did look it up and there are potato farms in the Houston metropolitan area.

As for the German Camp Commander's treatment of the POWs, he certainly used every psychological trick in the book to get newly captured prisoners to share information on potential Allied targets and plans. He tells Lou of the mass murders that occurred as a result of Allied bombing raids and tells him the war is over for him, so why shouldn't he try to make his life as a POW as tolerable as possible. He also tells him, "We don't have to win the war. We just have to 'not lose' it. Why sacrifice yourself for something that does not matter." The airman resists and only gives his name, rank, and serial number. Still, the Camp Commander does not execute Lou and he stops his guards from engaging in excessive violence against him and the other prisoners. In fact, the Camp Commander only ordered the death of two POWs who were found in a tunnel they were digging in an attempt to escape. You will have to see the play to learn of the unusual manner in which they were flushed out of the tunnel. Even when three prisoners who did escape were recaptured, they were not executed but were instead placed in solitary confinement. The script offers us glimpses into some of the memories and hallucinations the prisoners experience when suffering extreme deprivation and contemplating whether they even wished to live or die. Lou described himself as a "man of faith" who didn't think it was his time to die. Bill's witty retort was, "I just hope they agree!"

The name of play arises from the fact it had been generally rumored that some United States airmen were former prison convicts. Hence, Luft (translation: Air) Gangsters! Casandera M.J. Lollar is the only female cast member, who does a fine job playing both Lou's mother and girlfriend, although I must confess the part of Lou's mom is not a very challenging role. Paul Bomba brings some comic relief to the play as Vinny, an Italian-American POW who claimed he proved to the Germans he wasn't Jewish by dropping his trousers. It's Vinny who spends his time making Prune Jack, while the British POWs (Noel Joseph Allain as Randall, and Seth James as Peter) spend their time making a radio that will pick up BBC transmissions so they don't always have to listen to Axis Sally. The final cast member is Sean Hoagland, a charismatic actor who plays Joe, a clean-cut intense POW who actually knows how to speak German. How ironic it is that Joe is the first person to suspect others of being a spy when you might think he should be the first person who is suspected in light of his ability to speak German fluently. But confusion and contradictions of this sort are part of the landscape of what takes place during war and how that war affects those caught up in it.

I highly recommend you see Luft Gangster. It is a riveting and intense drama that reveals the tedium of being a prisoner of war and the different psychological and emotional coping mechanisms each individual POW uses to get through the experience. Some accept their fate and hope to survive until the end of the war while others make plans to escape, even though realistically such a breakout has almost no chance of success. It is equally interesting, as reflected in this play, that the German Guards and Officers also look forward to the end of the war when they hopefully can return to their normal lives and family. Luft Gangster builds in intensity and keeps the audience totally engrossed in the story and the ultimate fate of Lou Fowler, who must make an extremely difficult moral decision near the end that may still haunt him to this day. One minor quibble is that if Lou Fowler freed himself during one of the Long Marches, it would have been a Soviet soldier, and not an American, that would have come upon him.

Luft Gangster is a must see! It plays through April 30, 2017 at the Sheen Center. Tickets cost $29-$32 and can be purchased by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or by visiting https://sheencenter.org/shows/luftgangster/ 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Charlie Romo & Friends at The Metropolitan Room by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Charlie Romo & Friends at The Metropolitan Room was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Charlie Romo & Friends
Starring Charlie Romo
With Michelle DellaFave & Marissa Mulder
The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd Street
New York, New York 10010
Reviewed 3/31/17

Charlie Romo & Friends was an upbeat entertainment extravaganza offering up diverse song selections and some remarkably talented singers and musicians. Charlie Romo (born Charles Poveromo, Jr. on March 31, 1996 at 7:24 p.m. at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn while his father, Charles Sr., went out to eat at John's Hot Dog Stand) claims he was born "with a microphone in his hand." However, I suspect his memory is faulty and he was probably born holding something else in his hand, which might explain the multiple pleas he makes during the show for young women to meet him in his dressing room after the show. He claims he is only joking but when the Romettes came on stage to dance, he claimed he was willing to take either one of these scantily dressed dancers. You know - when the wind blows and all that - he's ready for action. At exactly 7:24 p.m., Bernie Furshpan, his Manager, brought him a stiff drink in celebration of his 21st birthday. Charlie reminded us of Frank Sinatra's quip, "I feel sorry for those who don't drink because when they wake up in the morning, that's the best they're going to feel all day!"


Charlie Romo expanded his repertoire by singing a number of varied show tunes (including "Hello, Dolly") but he really sees himself as a modern-day Bobby Darin. In fact, two representatives from the estate of Bobby Darin (born Walden Robert Cassotto) were in attendance as Charlie paid tribute to the singer-songwriter. They allowed him to hold one of Bobby Darin's gold lighters as a source of inspiration for the evening and in tribute to him for keeping Bobby Darin's memory (and light) alive. Charlie views himself as the next great singer in the tradition of such legends as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Buddy Holly, Frankie Valli and even Ray Charles, a greatest hits tape he was caught listening to by his teacher in third grade. The gold lighter still worked. Charlie's response was, "Bobby Darin's flame has not died. His name and legacy will live on as long as I'm alive." There were other connections to the past on stage with Charlie during the evening. Ronnie Zito, a drummer for Bobby Darin, backed up Charlie as part of The Barry Levitt Quartet, and Jack Cavari, another member of the Quartet, was a guitarist for Frank Sinatra. Michelle DellaFave, a Special Guest Singer, worked with Dean Martin and was one of the original Golddiggers on his television show. She, too, also worked with Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and many other legends over the years.

Announcing "Hey World - Here I Am!", Charlie Romo has certainly made his mark during this past year. He was recognized by Broadway World as having had the Best Debut Show (2016) and was designated a Distinguished Artist by the Beaux Arts Society, Inc., an internationally recognized society of artists founded in 1857. Charlie is described on his website (www.CharlieRomo,com) as being "Today's Hottest Crooner Singing the Music of Yesterday" and having "the showbiz swagger and scintillating sparkle of Sinatra, Darin, Torme and Crosby." Opening the show with "Don't Rain On My Parade," while referencing the rain and windy weather outside, Charlie said, "Nobody's going to rain on my parade. Not even Mother Nature!" The room was completely sold out and they couldn't even close the curtains because management needed to add extra tables to accommodate the overflow crowd. Peggy Eason, the blind Chocolate Diva, was seated front and center, and Maryann Lopinto, a cabaret regular, was caught playing a trick on Peggy by telling her Charlie was performing in the nude. I was asked to back up her unlikely story and told Peggy it was true and that is why Bernie didn't seat any guests in the first row (risk of eyes being poked out and so forth). Some of my favorite numbers were 'Two Of A Kind," a duet Charlie sang with Barry Levitt, "I Got A Woman," a Ray Charles song he performed with the extremely talented Denise Spank Morgan and Anthony Morgan as backup singers, and "Mack The Knife," which always gets the audience swinging. Micki Weiner and Kaitlyn Mayse provided visual eye candy as The Romettes Dancers while Charlie sang "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

The show featured two major guest stars. Michelle DellaFave is a classy, talented performer with an excellent stage presence. She spoke of her experiences working with Dean Martin, and then together with Charlie Romo, sang some of the songs that helped make Dean Martin a household name (even my nephew was named after him). The Dean Martin Medley included "Everybody Loves Somebody," "Sway," "Return To Me," and "That's Amore." Charlie and Michelle also sang "You're Just In Love," which was an audience favorite. Michelle even performed a few dance moves, which showed everyone she still has it. Marissa Mulder, on the other hand, is an overrated performer who never had it but who somehow keeps popping up all over the cabaret circuit leaving audience members wishing they could shove a screwdriver through their eardrums so as to stop listening to her singing off tune and in a "novelty song" style (think "They're Coming To Take Me Away" by Napoleon XIV). Ms. Mulder sang her favorite song, "It's Only A Paper Moon," in an awkward "duet" with Charlie Romo and showed the audience she recently had the lyric from that song, "It's a Barnum & Bailey world," tattooed on her wrist. With just a few more tattoos, she may find her way to her true home in a travelling circus instead of on the cabaret circuit, where a cabaret aficionado told me half of most audiences can only tolerate her singing while the other half hate her with a passion. If you think I am exaggerating, seek out an opportunity to hear her perform and let me know what you think. I will respect your opinion. 

Charlie Romo performed a rousing tribute to Buddy Holly and Richie Valens singing "Sleepwalk," "Chantilly Lace," "That'll Be The Day," and "La Bamba." "American Pie," which was written about the death of Buddy Holly, bookended the tribute. He also sang "Just In Time," and "If I Ruled The World" before Bernie Furshpan appeared on stage to toast his turning 21 years of age, which signalled the bringing in of the cake, a slice of which everyone in the audience received. It was actually quite delicious! 

I expect you will be hearing about Charlie Romo for many years to come. He is a decent, talented fellow with a good heart who comes from a good family. He is also a brilliant performer who is ready to take his career to the next level. In my opinion, he should already have one or two CDs out and he is definitely at a point in his career where he has the ability to fill larger venues with his family, friends, and fans. When you leave a Charlie Romo show, you are in a better mood than when you went in. He lifts your spirits and leaves you with the feeling there is something very good in the world. Unfortunately, some older people might get a little depressed realizing they may only be around to observe a small sliver of what no doubt promises to be a long and successful career. Nevertheless, we are all here now and can continue to enjoy his voice and crowd-pleasing skills for as long as we are alive.

Charlie Romo & Friends returns to The Metropolitan Room on Sunday, May 14, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. and on Sunday, October 8, 2017 at 4:00 p.m. General Admission is $24.00 per person with a $25.00 Food/Beverage Minimum. Don't miss it!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Charlie Romo & Friends at The Metropolitan Room by Christopher M. Struck

This review of Charlie Romo & Friends at The Metropolitan Room was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Charlie Romo & Friends
Starring Charlie Romo
With Michelle DellaFave & Marissa Mulder
The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd Street
New York, New York 10010
Reviewed 3/31/17

Charlie Romo held his 21st birthday party at The Metropolitan Room, and all his friends showed up for this talented, devoted, and gracious performer. On stage, we had some of the most exceptional and experienced performers that can be assembled on a Friday night in Manhattan. Above all, Charlie stood out. Starting from a jazzy "Just In Time," Charlie jolted his fantastic following into ecstatic fervor and then held them in suspense with smart stylistic switches across genres that played off the central theme of both his youth and his passion. This culminated with his tribute to Buddy Holly in an especially emotional delivery of "American Pie," which had the entire crowd singing along. Charlie bared all his ambition in connecting the dots between the stars of the past and himself early and often. He called continuously on the great Bobby Darin, and we were lucky enough to have two representatives of his estate in attendance who loaned him a lucky charm for the evening in the form of the singer's gold lighter.


Charlie's own nostalgia-laden anecdotes aside, the adoration and loyalty that he inspires hung in the air like whisky lingers on the tongue. While Charlie got his first taste of whisky on stage courtesy of his manager, Bernie, he definitely paid attention to his loyal friends. The name of the show, Charlie Romo & Friends, fit well because Charlie gave thanks and effusing praise to everyone who had helped him make it this far. This included the Barry Levitt Quartet led by the pianist Barry Levitt whose "Two Of A Kind" duet with Charlie was a fun song I'm glad he added to the program for the evening. While Barry's voice didn't match Charlie's, he did sound like a softer Burt Bacharach. When Charlie called on each by name to perform a quick solo, the three others in the quartet also showcased their ability including newcomer Jon Burr. The other two mainstays, Ronnie Zito and Jack Cavari, were two more examples of Charlie's connection to his inspirations. Jack Cavari had been Frank Sinatra's guitarist, and Ronnie Zito was Bobby Darin's first drummer. 

Charlie's flair and emotion were matched by only one extraordinary performer who also had a connection to the past. Michelle DellaFave had worked with Dean Martin, and the two sung a medley of songs Dean Martin made famous after starting with "You're Just In Love." The line, "You need someone who's older" drew laughter from the audience as Michelle deliberately appeared to be offering herself up to Charlie. Michelle also performed a sultry "Sway" and stunned us with an impressive rendition of "That's Amore." Michelle's dance moves also added a tad more pizazz to the performance.

Alongside Michelle and coming out earlier in the evening to perform with Charlie was Marissa Mulder. Compared to both Charlie and Michelle, Marissa did not have the same level of talent or stage presence. Her voice was cutesy and lyrical. She was incapable of singing "It's Only A Paper Moon" through in tune or at an even pitch. She did better with "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," which I think showcased the talent that resulted in her getting an invitation to sing in the first place. 

The only truly negative aspect of the show, besides Marissa Mulder, were the dancers known as the Romettes.  They were good dancers, but they didn't seem to match the theme of the rest of the evening which appeared geared to old-fashioned family fun. During the love song, "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You," Charlie seemed to glare at the pretty, young dancers a little too much before telling them, jokingly, to meet him in his dressing room after the show. Yes, they were pretty, but Charlie could have ignored them and let them do their thing. I feel this would have had a more positive effect on the audience. As it turned out, his staring only made the audience uncomfortable resulting in their becoming subdued for the first time during an otherwise upbeat evening.

That all said, Charlie has something special to offer with his voice and personality. I'm sure it took a lot of work to get to this point but the plain truth is Charlie deserves the praise he has earned. The unquestionable reality is that this young man really does have the level of talent necessary to become a big star and the entire room believed it after he sang his first song. I hope he continues to put in the effort to be great and to be one of the good guys because that is what his following sees in him. Not only does he have talent, but he really has a knack for gaining one's appreciation when on stage. It's as if he is talking to an old friend. Part of that was because he was in a crowd of mostly old friends, but he brings his personality off-stage too. He did a great job of making people feel welcomed. His genuine behavior and natural confidence make for a dynamic pair, especially when combined into one 21-year-old singer with a wonderful voice. Happy Birthday again, Charlie!  

Charlie Romo & Friends will return to The Metropolitan Room on Sunday, May 14, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. and on Sunday, October 8, 2017 at 4:00 p.m. General Admission is $24.00 per person with a $25.00 Food/Beverage Minimum. For more information about Charlie Romo, visit his website at https://CharlieRomo.com