Archive for July, 2014

Josh & Shawn
by Paul Hibbard
Directed by Paul Hibbard
The Chapel
July 11, 2014

Set for Josh and Shawn

Set for Josh & Shawn

A new play, like the marriage depicted in writer-director-actor Paul Hibbard’s new production Josh & Shawn, is a labor of love that requires a lot of work to make it successful.  I was glad to be given the opportunity to see Hibbard’s ambitious new work, which is being presented at the Chapel this weekend. In this promising but sometimes uneven work, Hibbard and his cast present the story of a rocky marriage in a simple presentation that is extremely intriguing, but is clearly still a work in progress.

Named for its lead characters, Josh & Shawn is a talky, philosophical exploration of the relationship of one married couple as well as a reflection on the meaning of marriage and romantic relationships in general.  Starting with a wry, witty introduction by narrator Joe Hanrahan, the story unfolds as Josh (Hibbard) and Shawn (Sheri Facchin) spend an evening together, indulging in flights of fantasy as Josh challenges writer Shawn’s relationship with her agent, Mike (Jeffrey Miller) in a series of sequences that portray various versions of an earlier encounter that makes Josh question Shawn’s commitment to the relationship, as well as causing Shawn to question Josh’s trust, and even his love. In the play’s approximately one-hour running time, Josh, Shawn and the imaginary Mike explore various issues about the nature of relationships and the question of whether or not this relationship is worth fighting for.

This is a very good concept, and I especially liked the use of fantasy. Even though the play takes a while to get moving, once Mike shows up and the various imaginary scenarios start playing out, the show becomes much more interesting.  It displays a somewhat cynical view of marriage, and the script could use a little bit of revision especially in the earlier moments, but for the most part it’s a very interesting idea, with its more surreal moments late in the play showing the playwright and the actors at their best. There’s also a fun earlier sequence in which Josh and Shawn play a game involving movie quotes, although before this, a lot of the action is somewhat static.  Staging-wise, I think this production could benefit greatly in the hands of a new director who would be able to look at the production with a different perpective.  There are many moments in which the two main characters simply stand onstage and talk, occasionally wandering about the stage with no apparent purpose, and often times the well-appointed set doesn’t seem to have much purpose. A script can be brought to life with a great deal of power through dynamic staging, and there are several missed opportunities for heightened drama that could have been improved with more focused direction.

Acting-wise, the show could also benefit from a strong director. Hibbard’s performance is fine, if a little unfocused at times, as the insecure, self-centered and occasionally cruel Josh, and I think working with another director might help him gain more confidence in his characterization. Facchin as Shawn gives the play’s strongest performance, as she brings a great deal of complexity and sympathy to the character, and she displays good chemistry with both Hibbard and Miller, who also has some good moments as Mike. His entrance is perhaps the best-staged moment in the play, and his arrival adds a great deal of dramatic tension to the proceedings.  Hanrahan does a good job with a very limited role as the narrator, but he really doesn’t have much to do.

Overall, I would say that this is a show that is very much worth seeing, but it is still very much in process and, like the marriage of its two lead characters, is worth investing in and fighting for.  More productions of this play are planned for the Fall, apparently, and I hope that Hibbard will take some time to revise and re-think some of the staging of this play, and enlist a director who can help it realize its potential.  I’m glad I was able to see this play. It’s an intriguing script that could provide the basis for a lot of thoughtful discussion about the nature of marriage and relationships, but it still seems rough around the edges and could use some work, especially in the staging. It’s a promising show, and I hope that in subsequent stagings it will be able to better fulfill that promise.

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Over the River and Through the Woods
by Joe DiPietro
Directed by John Contini
Insight Theatre Company
July 10. 2014

Ariel Roukaerts, Matt Pentecost, Tom Murray, Jerry Vogel, Tommy Nolan, Maggie Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Ariel Roukaerts, Matt Pentecost, Tom Murray, Jerry Vogel, Tommy Nolan, Maggie Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

“Tengo famiglia!” That’s an oft-repeated phrase in Joe DiPietro’s very family-focused comedy, Over the River and Through the Woods, the second show in Insight Theatre’s 2014 season. This is a show all about the importance of family and how a person’s family helps shape one’s own personal identity, and how different generations of a family can learn from one another.  It’s a funny, heartwarming and charming story told very well by Insight’s excellent cast.

Nick Cristano (Matt Pentecost) is a marketing executive from Hoboken, New Jersey, who still has dinner with all four of his grandparents every Sunday.For his proud Italian-American grandparents, the most important things in life are the “three F’s”–family, faith and food.  Although they can be overbearing and occasionally embarrassing to Nick, they clearly care about him in their unique and frequently loud manner, with lots of food cooked by maternal grandmother Aida (Tommy Nolan), music and mild bickering from maternal grandfather Frank (Jerry Vogel), and lots of stories of the “old days” and personal questions from bubbly paternal grandmother Emma (Maggie Ryan) and boisterous paternal grandfather Nunzio (Tom Murray).  When Nick surprises his older relatives with his announcement of an exciting job promotion that will require him to move to Seattle, they become determined to do everything they can to make him stay, including setting him up with a friend’s young, single niece, Caitlin (Ariel Roukaerts).  Although this seems like something of a sitcom setup, it’s a little more complicated than that, as Nick and all four of his grandparents learn lessons about the importance of family, individuality and above all, real communication.

The overall atmosphere here is one of a large, loving a loud family whose most important need is to communicate their love for one another in ways that both generations will understand.  The setting is extremely well-defined, as Chris Regelsen’s detailed set evokes the homey atmosphere of the maternal grandparents’ house, and Laura Hanson’s costumes suit the characters well.  The use of classic Italian-flavored pop music like Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” to set the tone also adds to the experience.  Although most of the action takes place in the 1990’s, that early era of the 1940’s and 50’s is a clear influence on the lives and personalities of the grandparents, which the music helps make clear.  It also helps build a bridge between grandparents and grandson in the play’s most memorable scene.

The characters are well-written and vividly portrayed by the excellent ensemble cast.  Pentecost plays the exasperated young Everyman with ease, and he works very well with his four very colorful castmates. including Vogel as the stubborn Frank, Nolan as the sweetly overprotective and always cooking Aida, Ryan as the enthusiastic and maternal Emma, and Tom Murray as the energetic storyteller Nunzio, who shares a heartwarming, bittersweet scene with Pentecost in the second act that is one of the highlights of the show.   Roukaerts has a lot of warmth and energy in her two scenes as Caitlin, as well, but the real focus here is on Nick and the grandparents, so the Caitlin character sometimes seems extraneous.  It would be very easy with a show like this for these characters to come across as one-not caricatures, and it’s a great credit to this cast that nobody falls into that trap.  It’s a strong, easily relatable cast that brings real warmth and dimension to the characters.

Although the family portrayed here is Italian-American, and there are a lot of specific situations that those with Italian heritage will certainly relate to, the message here is also universal.  I think a lot of people have that experience, as Nick has here, of having to get to know relatives they always thought they knew well.  It’s listening, and sharing stories rather than simply viewing someone as a collection of idiosyncrasies that is important, as Nick learns in the positively delightful scene in which he and his grandparents sing and dance to the song “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”.  The grandparents, in turn. have to learn that Nick is an adult who needs to be able to make his own choices in life, and both generations are reminded that family is family no matter how close by you live.

There’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall, in which the characters talk directly to the audience and recall moments from their past. This works well for the most part, although it becomes a little too much in the play’s epilogue. Still, even with its few minor flaws (mostly in the writing, not the production itself), this is a thoroughly winning production with a great cast and excellent staging by director John Contini, who displays a personal understanding of the subject in the director’s notes in the program.  It’s not a big or flashy show, although its fully realized characters give it a larger-than-life tone much of the time.  This very strong cast has been brought together to present a very credible family dynamic and some very real warmth and emotion, in addition to a whole lot of laughs.  I’m left with the impression that I was really able to get to know this family, and it’s a pleasure to have met them.

Tom Murray, Matt Pentecost Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Tom Murray, Matt Pentecost
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

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The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Book Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, Musical Score Adapted by Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus
The Muny
July 7, 2014

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley (center) with the cast of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess Photo by Michael J. Lutch The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess National Tour

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley (center) with the cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess National Tour

The Muny hasn’t hosted a national touring production for a very long time. While Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, in his notes in this week’s program, promises that this won’t become a regular occurrence, he couldn’t pass up the chance to present this particular production, the national tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in the Muny setting. Although I do think the production suffers a little bit in that it’s obvious that it wasn’t designed to fit in this unique and gigantic performance space, for the most part I would say it’s a memorable performance with a very strong cast that does justice to the show’s memorable  score.

This version of the show is an update of the classic Gershwin opera. Director Diane Paulus worked with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to adapt the story into more of a modern musical theatre format, with more spoken dialogue and a streamlined plot. Although it was a source of much controversy before it opened on Broadway, it eventually garnered multiple awards and nominations It tells the story of the residents of Catfish Row, a poverty-stricken African-American fishing community in Charleston, SC. After an atmospheric opening featuring the classic song “Summertime”, the story focuses primarily on the conflicted Bess (Alicia Hall Moran), a drug-addicted young woman in a volatile relationship with the burly, violent dock worker Crown (Alvin Crawford). Bess is looked down on by the people of Catfish Row until she forms a bond with the gentle-hearted Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), a disabled beggar who has previously admired Bess from afar and who seems to be the first person in Bess’s life who treats her with dignity..  Meanwhile, the smooth-talking drug dealer Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) tempts Bess with “happy dust” and offers of a more extravagant life in New York. After violence breaks out at  a crap came, Crown flees from the law and Bess tries to start a new life with Porgy and seeks the acceptance of the others in the community, only to be continually haunted by her past and by situations that threaten the the well-being of Bess, Porgy and those around them.

This production serves as something of a window to another era in American history, trying to bring the more stylized elements of the opera into more of a realistic presentation and showing the struggles and the hopes of its characters.  The close-knit community has its leaders and its outcasts, and the overall picture of life in an African-American community in the segregated South in the midst of the Depression is portrayed with detail in the characterizations on more of a stylized set.  I haven’t seen the full-length opera so I can’t compare directly, although this production does retain some of the operatic scope, particularly in the sweeping musical arrangements played with vigor and emotional depth by the wonderful Muny orchestra conducted by Dale Rieling. The costumes by Esosa are richly detailed and add to the overall period atmosphere. The set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez is more abstract, with a simple framework of painted flats surrounding a wooden platform where most of the show’s action takes place. Designed for the national tour, this set is the closest thing this production has to a real problem, since it is simply dwarfed by the enormous Muny stage and often gives the show a confined, boxed-in and occasionally detached quality, like the audience is watching the show on an oversized TV. This quality improves a little bit in the picnic scenes that take place on a nearby island, in which the back wall of the “frame” is removed and the Muny’s scenery wall is shown displaying a backdrop of clouds, framed by the real trees the frame the stage and provide more of a sense of openness.

Still, even with that one minor drawback, the overall production is a remarkable success.  The singing is simply glorious, with a strong ensemble and outstanding performances from the leading performers.  As the determined Porgy, Stampley is the emotional anchor of this production, with a soaring voice and a strong stage presence. He projects a palpable sense of decency and quiet strength, with that ever-present love for Bess that defines his character. Stampley and Moran’s scenes together are among the highlights of the show, such as the intensely emotional “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy”. Stampley also displays warmth and energy in his well-known song “I Got Plenty of Nothing”. Moran is a memorable Bess, as well, with a strong voice and complex characterization.  The other real standout in this production is Leggs as the slick, cynical Sporting Life.  His rendition of the comic ode to skepticism “It Ain’t Necessarily So” early in the second act is a showstopper, and he’s also at his wheedling, smarmy best in “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon” later in the show.  There are also excellent performances by Denisha Bellew as the grieving widow and local faith healer Serena, Crawford as the suitably menacing Crown, and by Danielle Lee Greaves as the good-hearted and strong-willed community matriarch Mariah.  It’s a very strong cast with too many great voices and performances to mention, with some memorable production numbers and strong dancing, as well. It’s a memorable performance of a classic show that’s brought more into an accessible scale, with its many familiar songs resonating throughout the Muny performance space with vibrancy and honesty.

Overall, I’m very glad that the Muny chose to bring this production to its stage, even despite the obvious fact that it’s not properly scaled for the size of the colossal stage. I think that sense of confinement would be an issue with any production that is not specifically designed for the Muny, though.  Still, for the most part I would call this production a resounding success.  I still have the melodies of the wonderful score playing in my head as I write this review.  It’s a vibrant update of a well-known work, with a lot to think about and many strong performances to remember.

Danielle Lee Greaves, Kingsley Leggs Photo by Michael J. Lutch The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess National Tour

Danielle Lee Greaves, Kingsley Leggs
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess National Tour



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