Monday, November 24, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Parkside Players' production of The Foreigner at Grace Lutheran Church by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Parkside Players' production of "The Foreigner" by Larry Shue at Grace Lutheran Church (Forest Hills) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Foreigner
The Parkside Players
Grace Lutheran Church (103-15 Union Turnpike, Forest Hills, NY)
Reviewed 11/22/14

The Foreigner was written by American Playwright Larry Shue. Following its premiere in Milwaukee, the play opened on November 1, 1984 at New York City's Astor Place Theatre where it ran for 686 performances. The play eventually won two Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards, including the John Gassner Playwriting Award and the Award for Best Off-Broadway Production. Larry Shue died at age 39 on September 23, 1985 in the crash of a Beech 39 commuter plane, not living to see the continued popularity of The Foreigner. On November 7, 2004, the Roundabout Theatre Company revived The Foreigner at the Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre where it ran for ten weeks. Larry Shue's most popular plays include The Nerd and The Foreigner, both comic farces he wrote while a playwright-in-residence at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

This play revolves around Charlie Baker, a meek proofreader for a science fiction magazine whose adulterous wife thinks is boring. Mary, who has six months to live, has cheated on Charlie twenty-three times proudly announcing each indiscretion to humiliate him. Staff Sergeant "Froggy" LeSueur, a British Army explosives expert and Guest Instructor at a United States Army Base, has brought his buddy Charlie to a lodge in rural Georgia for a three-day holiday to escape from the stress of dealing with the illness of his wife, whom he still loves. Since Charlie doesn't feel up to speaking to anyone due to social anxiety, Froggy tells Betty Meeks, the resort lodge owner, that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't understand or speak a word of English. At first, Charlie doesn't want to go along with the ruse but after he inadvertently overhears Catherine Simms, a wealthy heiress, tell her boyfriend, Rev. David Marshall Lee (a distant relative to General Robert E. Lee), that she is pregnant, he feels it best to go along with the plan. What is hilarious about this farce is how each of the characters in the play interact with this non-English speaking foreigner. Betty Meeks, the lodge owner, treats Charlie as if he's an exotic animal all the time speaking in a loud voice as if he were deaf. Catherine Simms takes long walks with Charlie and treats him as her confidante. Ellard Simms, Catherine's mentally challenged younger brother, takes pride in teaching Charlie new English words. The Rev. David Marshall Lee is highly suspicious of who Charlie really is and Owen Musser, a superstitious, dangerous racist hates foreigners and ultimately calls in the KKK to address the issue. There is a sub-plot about Rev. Lee and Owen conspiring to condemn the lodge and to use Catherine's money to buy it at a greatly reduced price in order to make it the new headquarters and capital of The Invisible Empire but you can rest assured that with the help of the foreigner, everyone will get their just rewards. Even poor Charlie may develop a new personality in the end. 

The Foreigner is a very well-written play with plenty of laughs. You could argue over whether the more serious sub-plot is gratuitous or an essential element of the broad range of reactions this "foreigner" encounters and you can debate whether some of the farcical elements of the play are too outrageous to have been included, but overall, I felt the play hit just the right balance between comedy and satire. So what if sometimes Charlie breaks out into a Chicken Dance or repeats the phrase Klaatu barada nikto, which was from the 1951 science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still. It's all in good fun!

Bill Meaney, the one-time minor league shortstop, who enjoyed a half-season call-up to the Washington Senators during the season they last won the AL pennant, is perfectly cast as Charlie Baker. He brings just the right balance to the role. Kieran (JK) Larkin, who won a Josephine Foundation Award for Best Performance by a Teenage Actor for playing the Young Son Edgar in Ragtime, is extremely believable as the mentally challenged Ellard Simms. Their scenes together on stage are some of the highlights of the show. Stephen J. Ryan, who is a playwright himself and a teacher of history and advanced placement economics at Leon M. Goldstein High School in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, is a very charismatic actor with a strong stage presence. With him as Rev. David Marshall Lee, you could actually believe the South had a chance to rise again. Unfortunately, and this is not the actor's fault, it is less believable that Rev. Lee is a secret leader of the KKK hellbent on creating a new Christian, all White Nation free of Jews, Catholics, Negroes and Foreigners. His dialogue just doesn't reflect that he holds such views. Robert Aloi is well-suited to play Owen Musser, the true dim-witted, narrow-minded, Georgia Cracker in the play. Lori Ann Santopetro shines as Betty Meeks. Jimmy O'Neill successfully portrays "Froggy", who sometimes puts Charlie on the spot making me wonder how close a friend he really is to him. Krissy Garber is a very talented actress who portrays Catherine Simms, a character you will find far more likable in the second half of the play. 

To highlight the lack of worldliness of Betty Meeks, the playwright included a line where Froggy says to her, "It reminds me a lot of Malaysia" and she responds, "Who's she?". By getting pregnant before marriage, Catherine Simms is learning you can't unstuff a turkey or unring a bell. While reading an article about this year's debutantes, she says, "They're coming out. The catch is you don't get to go back in." Charlie described himself as being Betty's "pet skunk," Ellard's "prized pupil," and Catherine's "confessor." When all is revealed, Ellard asks, "David, sheet head?", to which Catherine responds, "Yes, shit head!." Larry Shue's best line, which pretty much sums up the meaning of the play, is when one character says, "Nobody is like him" and the retort is, Nobody is like anybody!"

I highly recommend you go to see The Parkside Players' production of Larry Shue's The Foreigner. It is a highly engaging entertaining comedy and an audience pleaser. It is a fun show with an excellent cast. Reasonably priced concession items are available before the show begins and during intermission. Tickets cost $17.00 ($15.00 for seniors). The price is right for a quality evening of entertainment!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Chip Deffaa's The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue at 13th Street Repertory Theater by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of the world premiere of The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue at 13th Street Repertory Theater was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

"The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue" - Written, Arranged & Directed by Chip Deffaa
13th Street Repertory Theater (50 West 13th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 11/16/14 at 3:00 p.m.

The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue features a number of songs written by American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin during the Ragtime Era, which ended just after World War I in 1918 when jazz replaced it as the popular musical genre of the day. Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin on May 11, 1888) published his first song, Marie From Sunny Italy,  in 1907, but his first major international hit, published in 1911, was Alexander's Ragtime Band, which like all ragtime songs had a syncopated or "ragged" rhythm. The song sparked an international dance craze and quickly came to signify modernism, leaving behind, as music historian Philip Furia says, "the gentility of the Victorian Era" and replacing it with "purveyors of liberation, indulgence, and leisure." In 1914, Irving Berlin wrote a ragtime revue entitled Watch Your Step, which Variety called "The First Syncopated Musical." He went on to write an estimated 1,500 songs including the scores for 19 Broadway musicals and 18 Hollywood films. Many of his songs became popular themes and anthems such as Easter Parade, White Christmas, There's No Business Like Show Business, A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody, and God Bless America. Irving Berlin lived for many years at 17 Beekman Place in Manhattan. He died on September 22, 1989 at 101 years of age.

Chip Deffaa, who wrote, arranged and directed this revue, has put together a masterpiece of musical theater. It includes tap and syncopated dancing recreated on stage by Tyler DuBoys and Alex Acevedo, Co-Choreographers, who meticulously researched the dance moves of the Ragtime Era. The revue also includes plenty of historical facts about Irving Berlin's life as well as a number of amusing anecdotes. Forty-four songs are presented in two acts in just under two hours but the time flies because there is always an interesting story line to keep the revue moving. Some songs are grouped together (e.g. Love Songs, Patriotic Songs, Rag Songs and Travel Songs) while others are featured as part of the very interesting story being told for the edification and enjoyment of the audience. A cast of ten (five men and five women) take turns singing, sometimes as themselves, sometimes as other famous singers of the era, such as Sophie Tucker and Fannie Brice. Every performer in this revue sang the lyrics of the songs clearly, which is extremely important when presenting the work of Irving Berlin, who is widely recognized to be one of the greatest songwriters in American history. K.W. Andersson, a seasoned professional, appeared on stage as Chip Deffaa to explain how he came up with the idea for this musical revue as well as to sing a few songs. I was also lucky to have caught one of the select performances at which cabaret singer, Carolyn Montgomery-Forant, appeared as a special guest. She is absolutely amazing!

The show features an extremely talented cast of young performers who all have very promising futures in musical theater. Jonah Barricklo, who played Alex, and Michael Kasper, who was Michael, were both presented with awards by Chip Deffaa for their hard work and dedication to this production. Brandon Pollinger, another young performer who is currently attending the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts for Musical Theater, is a very charismatic and talented fellow I look forward to seeing more of. Andrew Lanctot, who played Irving Berlin and Jessee, and Michael Czyz, who played Ben, are both extremely proficient singers and actors on the fast track to superstardom. Emily Bordonaro and Missy Dreier, who played Emmie and Missy, respectively, were the standout female performers in this musical revue bringing their class, acting ability and talent to all they did on stage. But just as essential to the success of the show were the three remaining female leads: Rayna Hirt, who played Sophie, Maite Uzal, who was Brooke, and Ann Marie Calabro, the twin sister of Theatre Boys singer/actor Philip Louis Calabro, who was Samantha. Richard Danley, who is on the faculty of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA), deftly played the piano and served as the revue's Musical Director.   

The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue is a huge hit! It deserves to run for years!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Douglaston Community Theatre's production of The Gingerbread Lady at Zion Episcopal Church by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Douglaston Community Theatre's production of "The Gingerbread Lady" by Neil Simon at Zion Episcopal Church was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Gingerbread Lady
Douglaston Community Theatre
Zion Episcopal Church (243-01 Northern Blvd., Douglaston, NY)
Reviewed 11/15/14

The Gingerbread Lady is a play by Neil Simon written specifically for actress Maureen Stapleton, who won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for her performance in the lead role of Evy Meara,  a cabaret singer whose career, marriage and life have been destroyed by her addiction to alcohol and sex. The play opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre on December 13, 1970 and closed on May 29, 1971 after 193 performances. In 1981, Neil Simon adapted the play for a film released with the title Only When I Laugh. The Gingerbread Lady was also produced by the Equity Library Theater (New York City) in 1987. The title references a Gingerbread Cottage and Gingerbread Mom Evy gave her daughter Polly when she was 9 years old. Of course, the Gingerbread Mom is now crumbing just as Evy crumbles whenever her addictions get the best of her, which is most of the time.

The play opens with Evy Meara returning to her Brownstone Apartment in the West 80s in Manhattan from a ten-week stint in a rehabilitation center on Long Island where she sobered up and lost 40 pounds. Her latest binge was triggered by the infidelity of her 6-month live-in lover, Lou Tanner, a deadbeat guitar player who claimed to be inspired by Evy but who was probably just looking for a place to stay. Lou isn't the only incredibly needy person in Evy's life. Her friend Toby Landau is an overly vain woman who fears the loss of her looks and paints on her makeup in an increasingly losing battle to appear young. Then there is Jimmy Perry, a gay actor, who is currently unemployed and fears he may never work again. The funniest line in the play is when Evy asks Jimmy why they don't just get married. Jimmy responds, "You're a drunk nymphomaniac and I'm a homosexual...we'd have trouble getting our children into a good school."

The off-beat, quirky characters in this play bury their failures and fears in booze and are there for each other when they fall apart. After only three weeks of being sober and having already rationalized having a Sherry over lunch at Schrafft's, the shit hits the fan, so to speak. Lou Tanner reappears begging to return. Toby Landau's husband leaves her and at a birthday party Evy is hosting for her, she basically falls apart in front of her eyes. Jimmy Perry, who finally got a part in a play, is fired just before opening night. They all come to Evy's apartment for solace and before the night is out, Evy falls off the wagon big time and becomes the mean, unfunny, vindictive drunk she has always been. To top off the evening, she returns to Lou Tanner's apartment for some late night sex, smashes his guitar and gets punched in the face. The only positive person in Evy's life is her 19 year old daughter Polly, who has come to stay with her seeking a mom but who ends up trying to be her own mom's mother. The final character in the play is Manuel, a Spanish delivery boy, who insists on getting cash ($14.28) for the groceries since he knows Evy has been delinquent in paying past bills on credit.

This production features a very talented cast, which included Clare Lowell as Evy, Barbara Mavro as Toby and Harriet Spitzer-Picker as Polly. Rich Weyhausen was perfectly suited to play Jimmy Perry but Michael H. Carlin, an extraordinary, professional actor, should not have been cast as both Lou Tanner and Manuel. Those two roles need to be played by different actors. While Mr. Carlin did the best he could, I feel he was miscast. Lou Tanner, in my opinion, should be a man in his 30s, and Manuel, the Spanish Delivery Boy, should be as young as possible. Before the play reached Broadway, Neil Simon changed the ending to make it a bit more hopeful. Polly momentarily inspires her mom and the final line in the play is when Evy tells her daughter, "When I grow up, I want to be just like you." Still, the audience has no illusion that the road ahead will be easy for either Evy or Polly. However, a more realistic ending to the play is the one Neil Simon originally wrote for it. In that version, Evy alienates all her friends and the final scene is when Manuel returns to Evy's apartment to get paid for the groceries "in trade." Given that version of an ending, the younger Manuel is (I suggest 14 or 15), the greater it would drive home the point of just how far Evy has fallen.

If you haven't seen The Gingerbread Lady, I highly recommend you go see this show. Douglaston Community Theatre hosts their productions in the Parish Hall of Zion Episcopal Church. Reasonably priced concessions are now served before the show and during intermission. There are cushions on all seats to make your theater-going experience more enjoyable and you can't beat the price of a ticket. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Billboard Players' production of The Big Knife at the Community Church of East Williston by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Billboard Players' production of "The Big Knife" by Clifford Odets at the Community Church of East Williston was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Big Knife
The Billboard Players
Community Church of East Willison (45 East Williston Avenue, East Williston, NY)
Reviewed 11/9/14

The Big Knife was written by Clifford Odets. It premiered on Broadway at the National Theatre on February 24, 1949 and closed on May 28, 1949 after 109 performances. It was made into a film in 1955. Its first Broadway revival was produced by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre opening there on April 16, 2013 and closing on June 2, 2013. Clifford Odets, an American playwright, screenwriter and director, was a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party. The message of his first play, the one-act Waiting For Lefty, which opened on January 5, 1935 at the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York City, can be summed up as "workers of the world unite!". Despite his "noble ideals" to write about the plight of the common man, one could say he compromised his integrity when, in 1936, he went to Hollywood to write for the very studio system he criticizes in this play. In addition, just like Charlie Castle, the main character in The Big Knife, he also cheated on his wife and probably participated in creating "art" he was not proud of. In essence, he compromised his integrity in many aspects of his life and then blamed "Hollywood" and the profit motive for his personal choices and moral failings. Finally, in May 1952, Odets was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He avoided being blacklisted by cooperating with the Committee and giving them the names of Communist Party members he knew. After that, Odets was accosted in the street and snubbed in Hollywood restaurants. His productivity declined and he was allegedly "tormented by public reaction to his testimony" until his death in 1963.

In The Big Knife, Charlie Castle is a very successful Hollywood actor under contract to Hoff-Federated Studios. He owns a large home and beach house, spends money with little self-control and drinks alcohol to drown out his unhappiness about making films he doesn't believe are substantive and artistic enough for his taste. He casually cheats on his wife Marion, a self-righteous, pill-popping moralist, who has threatened to leave him if he signs a new fourteen-year, 3.744 million dollar contract with Hoff-Federated, but even though he claims to love his wife, he is also addicted to his current lifestyle and the fame that comes with it. So much so that when he kills a child driving drunk on Christmas eve with Dixie Evans, one of his many lovers, in the car he lets Marcus Hoff of Hoff-Federated Studios manage the crisis by making a deal to let his friend Buddy Bliss take the rap and go to prison for him. Dixie Evans got a contract with Hoff-Federated in return for keeping quiet and Buddy Bliss was hired back as a Publicist after serving his prison term. Charlie Castle pays his buddy back by sleeping with his wife Connie, and only grows the slightest backbone when Smiley Coy, Hoff's henchman, suggests that Dixie Evans may have to be "disposed of" if she doesn't stop hinting she knows something more about what happened the night of the accident. One must be committed after all! As Smiley Coy's character says, "Once you scheme, you marry the scheme and the scheme's children."

One of the best lines in the play is uttered by Patty Benedict, played by Sharon Levine, who when interviewing Charlie Castle for her gossip column, got a response from Buddy Bliss, his publicist. Ms. Benedict's retort was, "I want my gossip from the horse's mouth, not his ass." Marion Castle would rather her husband work in New York City acting in the theatre because she views Hollywood as being an "atmosphere of flattery and deceit" but her husband views theatre as "a stunted, bleeding stump where you wait for years for a good part." As for knowing what deceit is, Marion is an expert. She admits she just recently had an abortion without even telling her husband she was pregnant and she blatantly hints she is having an affair with Hank Teagle, one of her husband's best friends. One of the only stable relationships in the play is that between Charlie Castle and his agent, Nat Denziger, both who appear to have a genuine love for one another. They call each other "darling" and "lovey" but not in a manner you might describe as being sexual in nature. One of the weirdest lines in the play is "Life is a queer little man," by which I suspect Odets means that life is difficult to understand and full of twists and turns off the straight and narrow road. One such twist occurs at the end of the play when Charlie Castle promises his wife he will "make her happy starting tonight," which turns out to be one promise he actually keeps.

The best performance in this production is by Timothy F. Smith, who played Marcus Hoff. Mr. Smith has a very commanding stage presence and his character was given the most substantive lines by Odets. Michael Wolf is extremely believable as Nat Denziger, Charlie's Jewish agent. I have known many agents and managers cast in the same mold and Mr. Wolf perfected the mannerisms and speech cadence required for this part. I was very displeased with the performance of Diane Mansell as Marion Castle. It appeared as if she was more committed to methodically delivering her lines than to actually acting in the scenes. The rest of the cast did more than a fine job in their respective roles; John Carrozza was Charlie Castle, Joe Montano played Buddy Bliss, Joe Pepe was Smiley Coy, Al Carbuto played Hank Teagle, Kim Kaiman was Connie Bliss, Liz Bisciello played Dixie Evans, Sharon Levine was Patty Benedict, and Andy Minet played the servant, Russell. Special compliments are due Louis V. Fucilo, who directed the production and was responsible for the beautiful and detailed Set Decoration.

The Big Knife is a long, wordy play with many characters you will not respect or identify with. It also reflects opinions about the studio system in Hollywood and the artistic superiority of theatre over film that are more reflective of viewpoints held in the past than in contemporary society. Selling out and losing your integrity in return for financial stability are universal themes as is the need for every person to take personal responsibility for the decisions they make in their lives as well as for their moral failings. Clifford Odets uses the play as another soapbox for his leftist leaning ideological condemnation of merchants and those who seek to make a profit, but he also condemns the general public for consuming the crap produced by popular culture. That having been said, I do recommend you go out to see The Billboard Players' production of The Big Knife. The price is right and you will get a relaxing afternoon or evening of high-quality community theater. The staff is very friendly and all refreshments, served before the show and during intermission, cost only $1.00 (advance warning - for some reason they serve only decaf coffee, not that you'll need it to stay awake). After you see The Big Knife, you will leave the theatre committed to becoming a better person.