Posts Tagged ‘new jewish theatre’

Broadway Bound
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
New Jewish Theatre
January 19, 2023

Bob Harvey, Spencer Kruse, Jenni Ryan, Jacob Flekier
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The latest production from the New Jewish Theatre is something of a family reunion. Broadway Bound is Neil’s Simon’s well-known conclusion to his acclaimed semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy”. NJT produced the first of the series, Brighton Beach Memoirs, in 2019, and has brought back the director, Alan Knoll, three key cast members, and some of the design team for the continuation of the story of Simon’s fictional avatar, Eugene Jerome, and his family. As with the first production, this one showcases its impressive cast in a remarkable way as Simon’s memorable blend of humor and poignancy takes the stage.

Where Brighton Beach focused on Eugene as a young teenager and emerging writer, Broadway Bound features the character as a young adult trying to break into the new and exciting world of television comedy in the late 1940s. Jacob Flekier returns to the role as a likable narrator and focus character, as Eugene and his older brother Stanley (Spencer Kruse, also returning) strive to make their dreams come true as they work on sketches and try to get a job as writers at CBS, and Eugene is caught up in the excitement of a new relationship with a young woman he hopes to marry. The play also updates the story of Eugene’s parents, and especially his mother, Kate (Jenni Ryan), who finds herself in a difficult situation as her marriage to her husband Jack (Chuck Brinkley once again) appears to be in trouble, and her aging father, Ben (Bob Harvey) resists pleas from Kate and her now-wealthy sister Blanche (Christina Rios) to join their mother in moving to Florida for the sake of his health. The story deals with changing relationships, family expectations, hopes and dreams for the future, memories and regrets from the past, and more, with a tone that ranges from character-focused comedy to poignant drama. It’s a rich, fascinating portrayal of a family at a pivotal moment in their lives, and one of Simon’s more celebrated later works. 

This being a sequel, the production at NJT is especially effective if you saw the earlier production Brighton Beach Memoirs as well, since several elements of that production are revisited here, starting with an excellent re-creation of the meticulously realistic set by Margery and Peter Spack, which is identical to the earlier set, except for a few differences in decoration reflecting the 12-year time difference between the stories. Michele Friedman Siler also returns as costume designer, outfitting the characters in detailed, suitably evocative period attire. Lighting designer Kimberly Klearman Petersen has based the design for this production on that of previous designer Micahel Sullivan, with credible atmospheric effect. There’s also impressive work from sound designer Kareem Deanes (new for this production) and choreographer Ellen Isom, adding to the mood of the show’s most memorable scene, which is also superbly acted by Ryan and Flekier. 

The casting is first-rate, from the returning players as well as the newcomers. Flekier, as before, makes an engaging, relatable Eugene, and his relationships with all of the other cast members are excellent and believable. Kruse is also strong as the ambitious, nervously energetic Stanley. There are also strong turns from Rios as the caring, well-off but insecure Blanche, Harvey as the crusty, politically-minded Ben, and Brinkley in a difficult role as the disillusioned, secretive Jack, whose scenes with Ryan’s Kate are an emotionally-charged highlight. As for Ryan, she’s giving perhaps the best performance I’ve seen from her as the conflicted, devoted Kate, whose scenes with Flekier’s Eugene are especially convincing and moving. 

Broadway Bound is a thoughtful, memorably staged production that revisits both characters and performers from the earlier production with a few new twists and additions. It’s a welcome reunion and revisitation, with an especially strong cast, and a technical production that’s both impressive and realistic. It’s one of Simon’s more “serious” stories, but with a good dose of humor and hope. Even if you didn’t catch Brighton Beach Memoirs, this is a show that’s well worth seeing. 

Jenni Ryan, Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Jon Gitchofff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Broadway Bound at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until February 5, 2023

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Jerry’s Girls
Featuring the Music and Lyrics of Jerry Herman
Directed and Choreographed by Ellen Isom
New Jewish Theatre
December 1, 2022

Kelsey Bearman, Lisa Rosenstock, Greta Rosenstock, Molly Burris, Christina Rios
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

If you love classic musical theatre, you’ve probably heard of Jerry Herman, or at least you’ll have heard of at least one of his shows. The New Jewish Theatre is closing out their 2022 season with a lively revue celebrating the music and lyrics of this musical theatre legend. Jerry’s Girls features a small cast, but it’s full of style and energy, and a worthy tribute. 

Jerry Herman’s best known shows are probably Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles, all of which are represented here along with some of his other works like Mack and Mabel, Dear World, and more. There’s no story to this show, which was produced on tour and on Broadway in the mid-1980s and featured Herman himself along with stars of the day including Carol Channing, Leslie Uggams, Chita Rivera, and Andrea McArdle. Here, it’s just five performers and one musician, presenting some of Herman’s most timeless hits along with some lesser-known gems. There are group numbers and solos, showcasing the excellent cast well, and featuring some fun settings to a few of the songs, including a hilarious version of “Hello, Dolly!” that closes the first act.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Kelsey Bearman, Molly Burris, Christina Rios, Greta Rosenstock, and Lisa Rosenstock shine in the group numbers, and all have memorable solos, as well–including Rios with “Before the Parade Passes By”, Lisa Rosenstock with “Time Heals Everything”, Greta Rosenstock with “Wherever He Ain’t”, Bearman with “It Only Takes a Moment”, and Burris with “I Won’t Send Roses”. These are only some of the solo highlights, as there are several. The performers are accompanied by music director Cullen Curth on piano and accordion, and the rapport between performers and accompanist is another highlight of the show, as is the simple but elegant staging by director Ellen Isom. Isom’s choreography also provides some memorable moments, like a fun tap number for Bearman, Burris, and Greta Rosenstock on “Tap Your Troubles Away”.

The show looks great, as well, with a stylish set by Cameron Tesson, and well-suited costumes by Michele Friedman Siler, featuring the cast members all clad in red. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer David La Rose and sound designer Amanda Werre, helping maintain an understated glamor to the proceedings. 

This is a show that should appeal especially to fans of classic musicals, and the work of Jerry Herman in particular. Jerry’s Girls has humor, emotion, and style, along with a great cast and a strong sense of musicality and ensemble chemistry. It’s an entertaining tribute to a prolific and celebrated artist and his work. 

Kelsey Bearman, Lisa Rosenstock, Greta Rosenstock, Molly Burris, Christina Rios
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Jerry’s Girls at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until December 18, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

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The Bee Play
by Elizabeth Savage
Directed by Sarah Whitney
New Jewish Theatre
September 8, 2022

Ellie Schwetye, Miles Brenton
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

According to new artistic director Rebekah Scallet in her pre-show speech, The Bee Play is the New Jewish Theatre’s first-ever world premiere. This play has had a relatively long development process, and now is brought to the stage with an engaging story, a strong cast, and NJT’s usual excellent production values. It’s a compelling, fascinating story, with a great deal of insight and potential, even though there are still a few rough edges.

The story takes place in a Bronx apartment building in the recent past (2016, according to the program). Carver Washington (Miles Brenton) is a determined and studious young man who is fascinated with bees, keeping hives on the roof of his building and speaking to the audience about the importance of bees for the health and survival of the planet. Carver lives with his ailing grandmother, Ma’Dear (Margery A. Handy), who raised him and his younger sister after the death of their mother, and who depends upon Carver for her care. His energetic sister, Paris France Washington (Riley Carter Adams) is an enthusiastic dance student who is preparing for her first big recital. Carver, who has a strong sense of responsibility to his family, also has a strong desire to attend college out of state where he can get a degree in Apiary Science (the study of bees). His grandmother is suspicious of his educational and life goals, but he has the support of his idealistic friend Devora (Ellie Schwetye), who lives nearby in an “urban kibbutz” and has hopes of changing the world for the better.  Change is a big issue in this story, in fact, as some characters fear change, others pursue it, and sometimes it happens when the characters least expect it.

There are many issues covered here, from family relationships and responsibilities, to religious differences and influence, to humans’ responsibility toward the planet and other living beings. It’s a compelling story with especially memorable characters, and some excellent dialogue and thought-provoking conversations, although some of the backstory needs a little more attention, and the second act feels a bit rushed, leading up to an ending that leaves more questions than answers and seems to happen too quickly.  There are also some somewhat confusing moments that could use further explanation.

For the most part, though, this is a fascinating show, and the terrific cast makes it all the more engaging. Brenton is a strong protagonist as the earnest, determined Carver, conveying his passion for bees and conflicted feelings about his family responsibilities especially well. His scenes with the equally strong Schwetye as the outgoing, idealistic Devora are convincing, as are his moments with the excellent Handy as the complex, somewhat enigmatic Ma’Dear. There’s also a truly fantastic performance from young Adams as the highly energetic, strong-willed Paris, showing off impressive dance skills along with marvelous stage presence. The actors work together well, making all the relationships, conflicts, and tensions believable, and conveying the moments of comedy and drama with equal strength.

As is usual with this theatre company, the technical aspects of this production are impressive. Dunsi Dai’s remarkably detailed set is both realistic and transporting. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler suit the characters’ personalities well, and Jayson Lawshee’s lighting adds to the storytelling in atmospheric ways. There’s also impressive sound design by Schwetye, and energetic choreography by Sam Gaitsch. 

The Bee Play is a thoughtful, thought-provoking play with a lot of potential. Although there are few plotting a pacing issues that still should be worked on, it’s still a fascinating, emotional family drama that also raises some important environmental issues. It’s a memorable season opener for the New Jewish Theatre. 

Margery A. Handy, Riley Carter Adams
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting The Bee Play at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until September 25, 2022

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Dear Jack, Dear Louise
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Sharon Hunter
New Jewish Theatre
June 9, 2022

Molly Burris, Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is currently serving as a time machine, or the closest we can probably get outside of science fiction. Its staging of Ken Ludwig’s love letter to his parents, Dear Jack, Dear Louise, portrays its time period and setting in a way that makes everything seem so astonishingly immediate. It’s billed as a “romantic comedy”, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and in the hands of the two wonderful leading performers, this is a tale that takes the audiences on a convincing emotional journey.

As made clear in the play’s promotional materials, and via pictures displayed in the lobby, this show is about two real people, playwright Ken Ludwig’s parents Jacob “Jack” Ludwig (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Louise Rabiner (Molly Burris), who “meet” via letters after being “set-up” by their parents in the early 1940s. I would say this is a two character play, but as staged here, there are basically four characters–Jack, Louise, the 1940s, and World War II. After an initially halting and brief first letter, their relationship grows and these two get to know each other more closely, even though they don’t actually meet in person for most of the play, despite several frustrated attempts, as the war (for Jack) and Louise’s burgeoning career as an actress and dancer intervene. Of course, because of the poster in the lobby and the promotions for the play, we know these two will eventually meet and marry, but Ludwig’s construction of the play, along with the performances and Sharon Hunter’s well-pitched direction make this a thoroughly engaging and even suspenseful story, as we the audience get to know these characters as they grow closer to one another through their letters, developing a friendship that leads to romantic feelings and expectations. The presentation is dynamic–rather than simply having the characters read the letters, they are structured more like dialogue, as the characters respond to one another more conversationally as the story develops. The growth of the relationship, along with various challenges–from personal issues and jealousy to the growing and increasingly threatening presence of the war–is portrayed in a fully credible and compelling way, as these well-drawn characters form a believable personal connection, engaging the audience in their hopes, dreams, and struggles.

Everything is developed in such a vivid way, with Dunsi Dai’s impressively detailed set and contributions by scenic artist Cameron Tesson and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler bring these characters and their world to life in a stunningly effective way. The 1940s vibe is enhanced by the pictures and posters that decorate the stage, featuring celebrities, plays, and movies from the era that are mentioned in the letters. There’s also an atmospheric soundtrack of 1940s pop hits to further set the mood, and excellent work from sound designer Amanda Werre, lighting designer David LaRose, and props supervisor Katie Orr in bringing this world to vivid, dramatic life. 

As well developed as Jack and Louise’s world is here, the characters themselves are also ideally portrayed in the stunningly well-matched performances of Burris as the outgoing Louise and Lawson-Maeske as the more reserved but compassionate Jack. Both are intensely likable, portraying a range of emotions as the tone shifts between light romantic comedy and more intense drama.  Their chemistry is fully believable, as well. They’re a vibrant, complex and thoroughly winning combination, making this play all the more involving as these two embody their characters so completely and credibly. 

This show is excellent in portraying a world history event (the Second World War) in a relatably human way, as well as serving as the playwright’s tribute to his own parents, on whose early relationship this show is based. Dear Jack, Dear Louise at NJT is an effective time trip as well as a riveting romantic story. It’s another excellent theatrical experience from this celebrated theatre company.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Molly Burris
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Dear Jack, Dear Louise at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until June 26th, 2022

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Laughter on the 23rd Floor
by Neil Simon
Directed by Edward Coffield
 New Jewish Theatre
March 24, 2022

Jacob Flekier, John Wolbers, Joel Moses
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is back to live performances with a lively new production of a well-paced, semi-autobiographical comedy by celebrated playwright Neil Simon. Laughter on the 23rd Floor is the playwrights look back at his early years as a television writer, but for NJT it’s a promising look ahead at a new season that’s finally able to get underway. It’s a welcome return for this company, and the strong cast makes the most of Simon’s vivid, personal look at an important era in his own life, as well as the entertainment industry’s–and the country’s–history. 

The “Golden Age of Television” may be a distant but living memory for some, or the subject of stories, rumors, and reruns for others. For Neil Simon, it was a formative era of his career as a comedy writer. This play is based on Simon’s early years as a writer for legendary television comic Sid Caesar, sharing a writers’ room with other up and coming writers including Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart. Here, Simon has fictionalized the story somewhat, but the influence of his own personal life in the depiction of the early, formative years of television comedy is clear. Simon’s alter-ego in this play is Lucas Brickman (Jacob Flekier), an eager young writer who is excited to be working with a team he considers the best in the business, working on the staff for Sid Caesar-like TV star Max Prince (Ben Ritchie). Set entirely in the show’s writers’ room, it’s a story populated with larger-than-life characters, from the talented and caring but frequently insecure Max, to a collection of writers whose talents are obvious, but whose personalities constantly clash, including the theatrical Milt Fields (Joel Moses), world-weary Russian immigrant Val Skolsky (Aaron Mermelstein), ambitious Kenny Franks (Michael Pierce), attention-seeking, health-anxious Ira Stone (Dave Cooperstein), along with Irish-American Brian Doyle (John Wolbers), who aspires to write for the movies, and Carol Wyman (Kirsten De Broux), the only woman on the writing staff and, along with ditzy secretary Helen (Annie Zigman), one of only two women in the play, as a reflection of the times. Also in reflection of the times, we get to see not only the process of writing a hit comedy show in the early 1950s–we also get to see how the characters, and the show, are affected by world events, and especially the rise of McCarthyism and the haunting specter of the blacklist, as well as corporate influence on the arts, changing public tastes, and more. It’s a vivid look at a specific era in history, lent extra credibility by the fact that it’s informed by the playwright’s personal experiences.

The characters are sharply defined but, for the most part, manage to avoid stereotypes, and the actors here portray them with as much depth as can be imagined. Flekier makes for a likable, relatable focus character, narrating the proceedings and being an effective “tour guide” to this world and these characters. Ritchie conveys Max’s caring leadership especially well, even though not always as “big” a personality as he could be. The big personalities are definitely here, though, portrayed with excellent timing by Moses, Mermelstein, Pierce, and Cooperstein, who bring a strong sense of ensemble chemistry as their characters work, laugh, and bicker together at different times. De Broux is also strong in the somewhat underwritten role of Carol, and Zigman brings comic energy to her role as well, despite Helen’s being the closest thing to a real stereotype in the play. In an important way, the way this show plays out, the characters are the story, and this cast brings enthusiasm, strong timing, and lots of energy to the proceedings.

Technically, the show is something of a time machine, in that it effectively channels a bygone era in a way that’s immediate and relatable. From Rob Lippert’s detailed set, to Michele Friedman Siler’s period and character-specific costumes, the show brings 1953 to life with vivid style. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, and sound and projection designer Ellie Schwetye, adding to the mood and atmosphere of the production.

I’m glad that NJT is finally back staging plays again, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor is an excellent choice to start the new season. It’s focus is on a much-written and talked about time in history that many today haven’t experienced first-hand, and this production manages to bring that world to life with an excellent cast and production values. It’s a light comedy much of the time, but with important moments of resonance, both as a look at history and a somewhat surprising reflection of today as well. It’s a memorable return to the stage for this excellent theatre company.

Michael Pierce, Ben Ritchie
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Laughter on the 23rd Floor at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until April 10, 2022

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My Name is Asher Lev
by Aaron Posner
Adapted From the Novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Aaron Sparks
New Jewish Theatre
January 23, 2020

Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a compelling showcase for excellent local actors. It’s also a fascinating look at one person’s struggle to find his place in two different worlds that seem at odds with one another. My Name is Asher Lev is a well-structured, almost poetic look at an artist’s journey of self-discovery, and his relationship with his art, his faith, his family, and the world around him.

Based on Chaim Potok’s celebrated novel, this play’s subject matter is fairly straightforward. It’s titled after its main character, Asher Lev (Spencer Sickmann), a controversial painter who has been making waves in the art world. Asher narrates the story, in fact, which focuses on his growing up in a Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn. As he discovers his talent and his constant need to draw the world as he sees it, Asher often finds himself at odds with his parents and with the rest of his community. The structure of the play has all the supporting male characters played by one actor (Chuck Winning), and the women played by another (Amy Loui). The most important figures in Asher’s life are his parents–his strict, zealous father and his devoted, academically inclined mother. As Asher’s skills as an artist become apparent, as well as his determination to persist in expressing his talent, the Rebbe (the community and religious leader) arranges for Asher to study with Jacob, a non-Hasidic Jewish artist who introduces Asher to new styles and forms of art, including nudes, which further disturbs Asher’s parents. He also develops a fascination with images of crucifixions, challenging his parents’ strict belief system while maintaining his own faith, despite his gradual exposure to secular influences in the art world. Asher is torn between two worlds, becoming something of an outsider in both, as he embarks on an artistic career that challenges convention in both of these spheres. It’s a fascinating play, exploring several compelling concepts as personified by Asher, a man who is compelled to exercise his talent but also to remain true to his faith, or least the best he can.

The story here is one of relationships and complex characters, embodied with great charm and expertise by the excellent Sickmann as Asher, as well as by the equally strong–and commendably versatile–Winning and Loui. Sickmann takes the audience along on his artistic journey in a remarkably compelling way, and the strong ensemble chemistry between Sickmann, Winning, and Loui also adds to the appeal of the production. It’s a tour-de-force for Sickmann, especially. This piece is named for Asher Lev and Sickmann makes the character intriguing and unforgettable.

The set and lighting by Rob Lippert work especially well here, with a unit set backed by Kareem Deanes’s projections and a distinctive atmosphere that adds to the storytelling. There are also excellent costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and sound by Deanes. The staging is well-paced and flows especially well, as Asher takes the audience with him on his personal journey.

My Name is Asher Lev is at once compelling, dramatic, touching, and thought-provoking. It’s about one man and his relationships with the people and world around him, but there are some universal themes here with which many in the audience can relate. The process of a person’s growing up and finding their own identity separate from their parents’ expectations, as well as the struggle to find meaning in life and to best use one’s gifts and talents, are all relatable issues. Here on stage at the New Jewish Theatre, this story is a profound, fascinating, and especially well-portrayed tale. Asher Lev is a remarkable character, well worth meeting.

Spencer Sickmann, Chuck Winning
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting My Name is Asher Lev at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 9, 2020

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Fully Committed
by Becky Mode
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
New Jewish Theatre
December 5, 2019

Will Bonfliglio
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

One person shows are difficult enough, I would think. Still, when that one person is playing a multitude of characters all in the course of approximately 80 minutes, that seems especially challenging. Will Bonfiglio, as a performer, is no stranger to one person shows, winning critical acclaim, but now he’s taking the challenge to the next level in New Jewish Theatre’s latest production, the quick-paced, multi-character comedy Fully Committed. In fact, that title is an apt description for Bonfliglio’s performance, as he shows off his comic and dramatic abilities with impressive versatility and timing.

Bonfiglio showed his versatility playing multiple characters a few years ago in Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Buyer and Cellar. This time, he’s in a differently structured show and playing a lot more characters, and he’s just as stellar. In fact, his feat might even be more impressive considering how quick-moving playwright Becky Mode’s script is, and just how fast the transitions are between the 40-ish different characters Bonfiglio plays. He’s not narrating here, as he was in the show at SDT. Here, the play throws us right into the action as out-of-work actor Sam (Bonfiglio) is working the reservations desk at a highly trendy New York restaurant. The play is structured as such that at first, we are “meeting” so many different characters–difficult customers, restaurant staff, the personal assistants of celebrities, Sam’s friends and family–that we don’t really get to know Sam very much, until his personality and goals are gradually revealed through his various phone conversations. We are allowed to become invested in Sam’s situation as we experience his difficult job along with him, and as he is “encouraged”/taunted by his acting friend/rival Jerry and too-politely avoided by his agent, we see what his real passion is–acting, as he waits to hear the outcome of a recent audition. We also learn of his desire to take a few days off to spend Christmas with his father and siblings, and how that hope is variously ignored and treated as an inconvenience by some of his co-workers. We also get to the see the contrast between how he is treated by co-workers, relatives, friends, and strangers alike, as his day gets busier and busier and occasional respites come in the form of conversation partners who actually listen, realizing the person they are talking to is an actual human being and not merely an obstacle to their own goals. It’s a cleverly structured play that starts out as a simple series of conversations and eventually becomes a story told through those conversations. It’s also hilarious, with fast-paced comedy and broadly drawn characters that give the excellent, versatile Bonfiglio a lot to work with, and he never ceases to impress as he conveys the story, reveals Sam’s distinct character, and manages to become a host of contrasting characters consistently throughout the production.

Although in a real sense, Bonfiglio is the show, he is also ably supported by the top-notch technical aspects of the production. David Blake’s detailed set brings the audience into a vividly realized restaurant basement, which becomes something of a symbol of Sam’s reluctant confinement. There’s also excellent lighting by Elizabeth Lund and sound by Kareem Deanes that contribute to the overall tone of the production. Director Ellie Schwetye’s staging makes excellent use of the whole performance space, as well.

This is one of those shows that provide a prime showcase for a talented performer, and Will Bonfiglio certainly makes the most of that showcase with his excellent timing and winning stage presence. It’s a hilarious show that introduces the audience to a variety of characters, from accepted “types”–the gruff, pompous celebrity chef, the overworked staff, the demanding celebrities, and more–but also reveals a fair amount of depth in the course of a relatively short intermissionless show. There are a lot of laughs here, certainly, but there’s also a clear glimpse of humanity. It’s a gift of a show for the holiday season.

Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Fully Committed at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 22, 2019

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Brighton Beach Memoirs
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
New Jewish Theatre
October 10, 2019

Jane Paradise, Jacob Flekier, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is starting a new season with a celebrated work by one of America’s most prolific playwrights, Neil Simon. The first in Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy”, Brighton Beach Memoirs is a semi-autobiographical tale that veers swiftly between comedy and drama at times, but ultimately it’s a poignant and nostalgic coming-of-age story, even if it is dated in places. Especially, this production features a strong cast that makes the most of the comedic and dramatic elements of the story.

The story is set in 1937 in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, New York, and narrated by Simon’s teenage avatar Eugene Morris Jerome (Jacob Flekier). Eugene is an aspiring writer, and this story is part of his “secret” memoir. In addition to his writing ambitions, Eugene is also interested in baseball (particularly the New York Yankees), looks up to his older brother Stanley (Spencer Kruse), and harbors an increasingly intense crush on his older cousin Nora (Summer Baer), who along with her younger sister Laurie (Lydia Mae Foss) and their widowed mother, Blanche (Laurie McConnell) has been living with Eugene’s family. Eugene’s mother Kate (Jane Paradise) is concerned about the well–being of all of her family, including hardworking husband Jack (Chuck Brinkley), her sons, and her younger sister Blanche and her daughters. It’s the Great Depression in America, and the threat of war is looming in Europe, and the family members have their own hopes, goals, and fears, as Eugene deals with puberty and his future goals, Stanley deals with a moral dilemma at his job, Jack deals with financial struggles and the concerns of taking care of a family, as does Kate. There are family conflicts between the lonely Blanche and her aspiring dancer daughter, Nora; between Kate and Blanche who have old issues to settle; between Stanley and his parents, and the expectations set on him by his family; and more. Eugene is the central figure and the narrator, but the primary conflicts are mostly within the rest of the family, as the hardships of the world and expectations and conventions of society are reflected in the conflicts and hardships of the family. It’s an insightful, witty script for the most part, with some fairly intense drama that is built up well, but there are some moments that can come across as jarring for a 2019 audience, especially in the expressed attitudes of Stanley and Eugene toward girls and, particularly, Nora. Still, for the most part this is a poignant and thoughtful comedy/drama, with a hopeful bent toward the end even despite the continuing tensions in the wider world. It’s been described by Simon (as noted in the director’s message in the program) as somewhat of an idealization of his childhood and his family, but nonetheless these characters seem believably real, especially as portrayed by the excellent cast in this production.

As for that cast, each cast member seems especially well-chosen for this production. As Eugene, Flekier is full of energy and enthusiasm, portraying the teenager’s adolescent angst and occasional cluelessness with admirable clarity. There are also fine performances from Kruse as the conflicted Stanley, Baer as the determined Nora, and Foss as the occasionally snarky young Laurie. The adult characters are especially well-played here, as well, with truly remarkable performances from Paradise and McConnell as the contrasting sisters Kate and Blanche, with McConnell especially bringing out a lot of the heartwrenching poignancy of her story. These two are especially believable as siblings, and their scenes together are a highlight of the production. Paradise also has credible chemistry with the also excellent Brinkley as the world-weary, well-meaning Jack. Brinkley’s presence as the strong-but-fair father figure is readily apparent in all his interactions here, especially with his sons. It’s a strong ensemble, representing a believably imperfect but generally loving family unit, reacting to each other and to their times in sometimes humorous, occasionally heartrending ways.

As is usual for NJT, the physical production is top-notch, with a terrific, painstakingly detailed two-level set by Margery and Peter Spack that evokes the era ideally. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes also fit the period and characters well. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Michael Sullivan, and impressive sound design by Zoe Sullivan, effectively bringing the audience along for the story and into 1930s Brooklyn.

Brighton Beach Memoirs is a well-known show that I hadn’t managed to see before this production, and I’m glad that New Jewish Theatre has given me my “introduction” to this piece on stage. It’s an impressively cast, well-realized production that reflects Simon’s witty and occasionally intense script especially well. I’m finding myself hoping NJT will stage the other two plays in the “Eugene Trilogy” in future seasons, with as much of the same cast as they are able to retain. This is a strong start to a new season for New Jewish Theatre.

Jacob Flekier
Photo by Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 27, 2019

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I Now Pronounce
by Tasha Gordon-Solmon
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 18, 2019

Graham Emmons, Jessica Kaddish
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

For the last show of its 2018-2019 season, New Jewish Theatre has invited its audiences to a wedding. Tasha Gordon-Solmon’s I Now Pronounce is probably best described as a comedy with dramatic moments, telling a series of inter-connected stories within the context of one eventful wedding. As directed by NJT’s Artistic Director Edward Coffield, the production is a sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, highly memorable event.

The structure of the play is, for the most part, episodic, with stories playing out over the course of one night involving the wedding of Nicole (Jessica Kaddish) and Adam (Graham Emmons), detailing the aftermath of an unexpected and shocking event that happens during the ceremony. An aging, forgetful Rabbi (Craig Neuman) introduces the story with some background information that gets increasingly mixed up as the speech–along with the mimed ceremony–progresses. Then, it’s over, and as familiar “wedding reception”-type songs play over the scene transitions, the story in all its comedy and drama unfolds. We meet the bride and groom, who individually try to deal with the events of the ceremony and its implications for their relationship, as well as the bridesmaids and groomsmen, including the bubbly, adventurous Michelle (Delaney Piggins), the initially more level-headed Eva (Frankie Ferrari), the brash, crass Dave (Will Bonfiglio) and the recently married but lovelorn Seth (Ryan Lawson-Maeske). Through the course of the evening, the characters interact and play out dramas of their own, involving some commonly accepted “wedding story” cliches, but also with some real moments of insight. There’s also a fun concurrent side story involving a trio of flower girls (Millie Edelman, Abby Goldstein, and Lydia Mae Foss) who find their own adventures and offer their own unique perspective of events. Although sometimes it seems like too much is going on at once, ultimately it’s a fun story and a celebration of hope in the midst of chaos and unpredictable life events.

This is an ensemble show, with a fairly broadly characterized cast of characters, and the actors play their parts well. Emmons and Kaddish, as the loving but sometimes combative newlyweds, lead a fine cast of local performers. Also strong are Piggins as the well-meaning but flighty Michelle, Lawson-Maeske as the sullen Seth, well-matched with Ferrari as the seemingly dependable but surprising Eva, and Bonfiglio in a somewhat unusual role for him as the boorish Dave. Neuman has some excellent moments as well, starting off the play memorably as the Rabbi, and young Edelman, Goldstein, and Foss are simply delightful as the flower girls. It’s an excellent, cohesive ensemble with strong chemistry, contributing to the overall comic energy of this production.

The whole wedding atmosphere is represented with authenticity here by means of David Blake’s detailed set, Michele Siler’s meticulously well-suited costumes, and excellent lighting by Tony Anselmo and sound by Amanda Werre. The choice of music throughout the production is especially notable, as well–with hits from ABBA, Cyndi Lauper, and others featured in the transition scenes and seeming especially appropriate for the setting. Director Edward Coffield’s staging is well-paced, as well, building up to a fun, upbeat conclusion.

I Now Pronounce is a memorable conclusion to the season for New Jewish Theatre. It’s not the deepest of stories, but there are some poignant moments and a lot of well-timed comedy. What stands out the most, though, is the top-notch cast. The curtain call is a real treat, as well.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Will Bonfiglio, Graham Emmons
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting I Now Pronouce at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until June 2, 2019

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Time Stands Still
by Donald Margulies
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
March 28, 2019

Ben Nordstrom, Wendy Greenwood
Photo by Phillip Hamer
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a look at relationships in several different aspects. Time Stands Still examines romantic relationships, as well as a people’s relationships with their work and their callings in life. It’s also an especially timely play in terms of its subject matter in various ways. On stage in St. Louis, NJT’s production is particularly compelling and impeccably cast.

The play and this production are notable for their realism. The first thing that stands out, even before the action begins, is John Stark’s detailed set that accurately represents a small but well-appointed Brooklyn loft. Playwright Donald Margulies is also meticulous in his script, with richly defined characters and vivid, emotional, and highly credible dialogue, tracking what seems to be about a year in the lives of the characters, who are both journalists. Sarah (Wendy Greenwood), a photographer, and her boyfriend, reporter James (Ben Nordstrom), live together in the loft, but they have apparently spent little time there recently as both had been on assignment in the Middle East, although James had come home earlier than Sarah. The play begins as Sarah, who was wounded in a bombing shortly after James left, returns home, and the two try to settle into a more “normal” life away from the dangers of war zones as Sarah recovers from her injury and James tries to finish several writing projects. They’re also struggling in various ways with how to resume–and define–their relationship following various traumatic events. Meanwhile, their friend and magazine editor Richard (Jerry Vogel) encourages them in documenting their experiences and also introduces his new, younger girlfriend Mandy (Eileen Engel), an event planner whose outlook on life is decidedly different from theirs.  The play deftly examines various themes–the dynamics of relationships and how career goals, life attitudes, and traumatic events can affect them, as well as artists’ and writers’ relationship with their art and also questions concerning covering troubling world events and whether or not that coverage makes a difference in public perception and encouraging activism and change. These seem like a lot of topics to cover in one play, but Margulies manages to do so in a seamless way while making the characters credible and relatable at the same time.

In terms of credibility, the performances are also essential even with the excellent script. Here, all four cast members are strong, with excellent emotional range from both Greenwood and Nordstrom, who display strong and throughly believable chemistry throughout all stages of their relationship. Vogel and Engel are also impressive, providing a striking contrast and an example for James and Sarah of what they could be if they so chose. The ensemble chemistry is strong and the energy is taut and palpable. It’s a truly impressive cast.

The technical aspects of the production, in addition to the set, are also strong. The excellent, evocative lighting by Michael Sullivan effectively portrays the change in seasons and passage of time, as well as setting the mood in various scenes. The costumes by Michele Siler are suitable and, as in keeping with the general tone of the play, realistic as well. The play is set in 2009, and there are some nice little touches like the small flat-screen TV that help to convey the sense of time and place.. There’s also crisp sound design by Zoe Sullivan.

Time Stands Still is an intense, thought-provoking play. It’s a highly emotional, vivid portrayal of characters who have been in intense situations and have differing reactions and life goals. On stage at New Jewish Theatre, it’s a memorable and compelling theatrical experience.

Wendy Greenwood, Jerry Vogel, Ben Nordstrom, Eileen Engel
Photo by Phillip Hamer
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Time Stands Still at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 14, 2019

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