Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Angst in an Elevator

"Stuck Elevator" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru June 29

“So there’s this Chinese guy, an illegal alien.”
            “Works for a Chinese restaurant in the Big Apple. Rides his bike delivering take-out.”
            “Yeah, so?”
            “And he’s making this delivery and he gets stuck in an elevator.”
            “Okay. So why are you telling me this? What’s the punch line?”
            “Well, it’s a musical.”
            “I don’t get it.”
            “Nothing to get – it’s a musical called ‘Stuck Elevator.’”
            “About a Chinese delivery guy who gets stuck in an elevator?”
            “That’s it?”
            “Well, not really.”
            “Chinese guy stuck in an elevator…and he sings?”
            “You’re kidding, right?”

And neither is this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas which, in association with Long Wharf Theatre, is staging “Stuck Elevator,” which runs through June 29 at Long Wharf’s Stage II. The musical, with music by Byron Au Yong and libretto by Aaron Jafferis, is staged with an engaging simplicity, with a set that consists of a metal frame standing in for the elevator and, as props, three bicycles and a rolling cart that sets up the restaurant scenes.

Yet, during the ninety or so minutes of the show, “Stuck Elevator” deals not only with immigration issues but familial ties, the loneliness of the immigrant adrift in an alien culture, the dreams we all have about bettering ourselves, and the fears that we might be condemned to live a life that is, at best, beside the point, an invisible-man existence in a world that refuses to acknowledge our humanity or hear our whimpers, wails and screams.

The elevator, as my play-going partner pointed out, is a metaphor for the life that Guang (Julius Ahn) finds himself in as he labors to pay off the substantial debt he owes to those who transported him and his nephew illegally to America in the hold of a cargo ship – said nephew dying in transit. From the moment Ahn appears on-stage you sense that his character is man weighed down by crushing burdens, a man trapped, unable to break free from the financial and emotional ties that bind him.

As Guang waits for someone (hopefully a repairman – not a policeman!) to come and release him, he fantasizes about his life in America and the family he left behind in China. As he does, the musical opens up to give us scenes at the Chinese restaurant that Guang works for, ruled by a harridan, the owner’s wife, played by Francis Jue (who punctuates dialogue with insistent knife-chopping of helpless vegetables), as well as heart-felt moments as his wife, Ming (the lovely Marie-Francis Arcilla) and his son Wanh Yue (Raymond Lee) yearn to be reunited with him, and his worries that his co-worker Marco (a tremendously engaging Joel Perez) is getting all of his tips while he is stuck in the elevator.

But there’s more, for this cast of four take on many roles. Arcilla is not only Guang’s wife, she is part of a chorus (along with the other actors) that worries Guang about his bladder (he is, after all, stuck in an elevator – for several days), as well as a waitress, a fortune-cookie monster (don’t ask—just go and see) and an Atlantic City chorus girl. There are muggers, a rapper, and an “Otis” (inventor of the elevator) mechanical monster, a cynical INS agent, security guards – once immigrants themselves, now heartless persecutors of those who seek to find what they have gained: a rung on the ladder of respectability and acceptance – and the family left behind, an extended family all yearning to come to America whose possible transit falls on Guang’s shoulders, a nagging burden brought to life in a scene where chopsticks are used as emotional daggers that draw emotional blood as Guang tries to meet his commitments and yet exist, somehow, as a man.

I’m not giving anything away to report that Guang eventually escapes the elevator, but it is a bittersweet release, for as he trudges off stage you sense he carries with him all of the burdens he brought onto the stage at the start of the show…and yet, there is a staged moment near the end of the musical where he is bicycling down imaginary streets and there is hope in his eyes, a hope that may be eventually crushed, yet it is there all the same, a hope engendered by the human spirit, a spirit that, consigned to a pit, always looks up and sees the moon.

A "South Pacific" Without an Edge

"South Pacific" -- Summer Theatre of New Canaan -- Thru July 13

                               The sailors proclaim, "There's Nothing Like a Dame."

Over the past few years, the Summer Theatre of New Canaan has successfully transported its audiences to venues as varied as Camelot, Victorian England and biblical Egypt, and this year, for its opening production, it takes its audience to the South Pacific during World War II, but somehow, for some reason, the trip seems to lack something. That’s not to say that STONC’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” a musical based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” is not engaging or entertaining. It is. However, there seems to be something missing, some ineffable quality, some spark that turns an evening of musical theater into something magical, more than the sum of its parts.

As directed by Allegra Libonati and choreographed by Doug Shankman, individual numbers in the show shine, as well they should, for the cast is, by and large, stellar, yet these moments stand out as “the best of South Pacific” efforts, not part of an on-going story into which the musical number have been woven. The reason for this disconnect is hard to put your finger on, but it’s there. Perhaps it’s inherent in the musical itself. Perhaps not. It seems a matter of chemistry. It often feels as if the individual cast members have rehearsed separately…they are very good on their own, but together their efforts simply don’t mesh.

                            Janelle Robinson as Bloody Mary tries to sell her wares.

So, let’s deal with the characters, on their own. The standout among many excellent performances is Janelle Robinson’s Bloody Mary. She is dead-on, giving us a native wheeler-dealer interested in marrying off her daughter Liat (a lithe and lovely Kim Wong) to the best man on the market. And her individual numbers? “Bali Ha’i” is exquisite, as is “Happy Talk.” Her body language, her accent, and her arch, sharp, often biting characterization of a woman making the best of whatever opportunities are available all go to create a complete, believable character.

                     Tiffan Borelli wants to "Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair."

The same can be said of the delightful Tiffan Borelli, who gives us a multi-level Ensign Nellie Forbush, a young lady who, early on in the show, becomes romantically involved with a French planter, Emile De Becque (Daniel Klein), thus creating one of two liaisons that deal with mixed-race relations and prejudice that are at the heart of the show.

Again, Borelli, like Robinson, gives us some wonderful moments, often backed by a talented ensemble of nurses and sailors. Staging of “Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair,” Wonderful Guy” and “Honey Bun” allows her to deliver the goods, as does Klein’s take on “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly was Mine.” The problem is, it feels as if they are in love with other people, not each other, which adds to the disconnect.

                         Daniel Klein and Tiffan Borelli in STONC's "South Pacific."

There are other stand-out moments, especially the male ensemble’s delivery of “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” featuring Luther Billis, a Sgt. Bilko type (before there was a Sgt. Bilko) nicely played by Nick Reynolds, and Jason Michael Evans’ “Younger Than Springtime” and “You’ve Got to the Carefully Taught,” the numbers dealing with the young Marine pilot’s love for and eventual rejection of Liat, a rejection based on racial prejudice.

So, if all of these numbers are so admirably staged, then why does one come away feeling less than fulfilled? Well, the musical is set in the wartime South Pacific, and the non-musical scenes dealing with tactics, strategy and the daily grind and desperation of war simply fall flat. When the cast stops singing and starts dealing with the war, well, it feels as if you’re watching re-runs of “McHale’s Navy.” There’s simply not much at stake, so the denouement, which should strike hard at the emotions, evokes nothing more than a shrug as a noted plot point is delivered.

Perhaps that goes to the heart of what really stopped at least one person from totally embracing this production. There is a sharpness, an edge, a special tang to relationships that might, at any moment, be cruelly, violently ended as lovers are torn apart by the surge of cataclysmic events beyond their control. As good as the music, singing and dancing is, without this undercurrent of pending tragedy, this “South Pacific” is, well, a delightful revue, pleasant but not riveting.

“South Pacific” runs through July 13. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org

Monday, June 17, 2013

Two Hours With a Bore

"The Show-Off" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru June 29

       Mia Barron and Jayne Houdyshell in “The Show-Off." Photo by Carol Rosegg

           Apparently, insufferable bores are the same no matter when or where you come across them, be it in the Roman Senate, the court of Louis XIV, in the ante-bellum US Senate, or in a house in Philadelphia circa 1924. They preen, they boast, the find themselves fascinating and, regrettably, they never shut up. Such is one Aubrey Piper, a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad who descends upon the Fisher family via an enamored daughter and, like a barnacle or a bad penny, just can’t be gotten rid of. This is the thrust of George Kelly’s dramedy, “The Show-Off,” which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse under the direction of Nicholas Martin.
            The basic problem with writing…and staging...a play whose main character is someone you would only invite once to your house is that, well, you are a captive audience, and if Aubrey’s type is a bit off-putting to you, well, there’s a little bit of squirming in the seat over the almost two-and-a-half hours it takes for the play to leisurely works its way to a foregone conclusion.
            That Aubrey is, in fact, so irritating actually does Will Rogers (yes, that’s his name) great credit, for it takes a great deal of talent to create such a quirky, jerky, off-putting character, and Rogers does it exquisitely, his body language and voice modulation such that from the moment he comes on stage (actually, even before you see him) you immediately dislike him. Here, you say to yourself, is a man you would definitely not go bowling with. However, the role is something of a one-trick pony, and were it not for Mrs. Fisher, the mater familias, played by the veteran actress Jayne Houdyshell, the evening might seem interminable, for Houdyshell’s interpretation of the much-put-upon mother is a gem. A wise actress, she knows how to get the most out of a look, a subtle gesture, a shrug, a grimace. Those interested in learning the trade would do well to get a ticket just to study her performance.
            There is also good work done by Mia Barron, who plays Mrs. Fisher’s married daughter, Clara, and Clea Alsip, who plays the aforementioned Piper-smittened daughter Amy. Alsip has the harder task of the two ladies, since she must get the audience to believe that she would actually fall in love with someone with such limited appeal as Piper.

                 Will Rogers and Jayne Houdyshell in George Kelly’s “The Show-Off.”                 Photo by Carol Rosegg
            The play’s length works against itself, and this falls on the shoulders of Kelly, who felt it necessary to deliver background and plot points once, twice, thrice, and give us characters such as a workingman named Mr. Gill (Nat DeWolf) whose function, other than as a delivery man of sorts, is never made clear, though he’s given quite a bit of dialogue (much of it repetitious). There are also certain pieces of stage business that are never truly explained, chief among them involving Clara’s husband, Frank (Robert Eli), who has a tendency to drift off, staring into space. It’s done often enough to draw attention to itself but its relevance remains to be seen.
            There’s also a bit of a disconnect late in the second act when Mrs. Fisher should be focused on the heart wrenching news that has just arrived but, with the appearance of Piper, focuses on something a wife of many years would, in a moment of crisis, pay little attention to, especially since it deals with Piper, whom she disdains.
            All in all, “The Show-Off” takes a long time to travel a very short distance. It’s pleasant enough, but it was written long before sitcoms came on the scene and trained audiences to expect rapid-fire one-liners and plot resolution in 30 minutes. Thus, many in the audience may experience a bit of attention-deficit as they try to adjust to comedy written for an era that moved just a bit slower than the one we are living in now.
            “The Show-Off” runs through June 29. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Dark and Discomfiting "Cabaret"

"Cabaret" -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru July 21

                     Brendan Norton and the cast of "Cabaret." Photo by Rich Wagner

For those familiar only with the slick, bowdlerized 1972 movie version of “Cabaret,” you should consider making the trip up to West Hartford to take in Playhouse on Park’s current production of the John Kander/Frank Ebb musical. It will open your eyes.
            Last year, MTC Mainstage proved that a venue with a limited stage could produce a gripping, engaging production of “Cabaret,” and Playhouse on Park has confirmed this with its gritty, sensual and very intimate take on the story of Sally Bowles (Erin Lindsey Krom), the toast of Mayfair working at the Kit Kat Klub in Weimar-era Berlin, where the Emcee (Brendan Norton) holds sway over a bevy of dancers and singers, both male and female, who can no longer spell the word “virginity.” Into this demimonde wanders Cliff (Jake Loewenthal), a somewhat naïve American writer manqué who soon becomes entranced by and entrenched in Sally’s world, a hedonistic environment that is beginning to darken as the shadows of Nazism swirl and take form.
            This is an up-front, in-your-face production that seeks to immerse you in Sally’s tainted world from the moment you walk into the foyer, which is dimly lit and, with the clutch of theatergoers mingling, somewhat (intentionally) claustrophobic. If your eyes wander a bit, you will see lightly clad actors and actresses engaging in various activities not normally seen in a theater foyer. The overt sensuality continues once you enter the main theater, for there you will find other cast members mingling with the audience, presenting wiggling posteriors and intriguing décolletages. If you are easily embarrassed you might devote your total attention to the ads in the program until the lights dim, but even then you cannot escape, for director Sean Harris and choreographer Darlene Zoller won’t allow it. Like it or not, you’re there at the Kit Kat Klub, so you best just sit back and enjoy the depravity. Obviously, this is not a show for the young folks.
            At times, Zoller has the actors and actresses lay on (pun intended) the sexual gestures just a bit too heavily – perhaps here less would have been more – but the message is, if nothing else, clear. And what is the message? Well, as with all things taken to excess, there comes a point when what was intriguing and stimulating becomes mechanical and soul-shriving; the eyes go dead.
            Set against the decadence of the Kit Kat Klub is the boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (Kathleen Huber), where Cliff finds residence among the other roomers, including Fraulein Kost (Ashley Ford), who patriotically services as many sailors as she can, and Herr Schultz (Damian Buzzerio), a greengrocer who also happens to be a Jew.
            What this production highlights is the moral morass normal people are confronted with when faced with institutionalized evil, and how fear can affect human relationships. Decisions are made by the central characters. Cliff, initially co-opted by Ernst (Conor Hamill) to work unknowingly for the Nazis for money, pays a physical and emotional price when he rejects the totalitarian philosophy. Herr Schultz opts for denial, and pays the ultimate price. Fraulein Schneider confronts the reality of those who are frail and powerless and eventually allows evil to triumph out of fear. Sally chooses illusion over reality, and the amoral Emcee is eventually caught up in and destroyed by that which he taunted and jeered at. In essence, the message is simple: if you do not act to defend humanity against its baser urges you will be consumed by them.
            In this depraved, dangerous environment there are moments of light. The tentative romance between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz gives us “Married,” an achingly beautiful duet that captures the hope that springs eternal, and when Sally tells Cliff that she is pregnant and, instead of rejecting her, he embraces her, “Maybe This Time” gives us a woman who senses that things just might be different…this time. Yet these flickering flames are eventually doused by the darker moments that capture venality (“Money”), prejudice (“If You Could See Her” – they adhere to the original lyrics, which deliver a stinger at the end of the song), decadence (“Two Ladies”), despair (“What Would You Do?”) and nationalism used as a tool to inflame (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”).
            Setting the tone for this dark tale, enhanced by Marcus Abbotts eerie, evocative lighting, is Norton’s Emcee, who looks like he could have wandered off the set of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Tall, lean almost to the point of emaciation, and sporting somewhat ghoulish make-up, he prances and cavorts, gloats and leers, and fondles anything that moves on two legs. He oversees both the doings at the Klub and many of the emotional moments among Frau Schneider’s borders, a dark, lurking presence that puts the lie to any hopes these people might have of salvation.

                     Jake Loewenthal and Erin Lindsey Krom. Photo by Rich Wagner.

Krom’s Sally is perky enough, although it is only with her final number, “Cabaret,” that we truly get to see the fear and uncertainty that lurks beneath the bright, brash surface. Playing off her, Lowenthal’s Cliff is solid and earnest, with just the right touch of American naïveté. As the doomed, elderly lovers Huber and Buzzerio create some of the most touching moments in the show – you believe they really are who they are portraying and hence feel all the more for them at the end.
If you decide to come to the cabaret – and you should – be prepared to be entertained, but also be prepared to be challenged and just a bit discomfited. “Mary Poppins” it ain’t.

The show runs through July 21. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900 X 10 or go to www.playhouseonpark.org.