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This Page Was Most Recently Updated: July 2012
Previously Reviewed Shows
Hy on Theatre Discounts
FringeNYC 2011 Coverage
Previously Reviewed Shows (Page 2 of 2)
I've assigned all reviewed shows one to four stars, using the following rating system:
**** = Transcendently Great
*** = Solid & Worth Seeing
** = Unless Your Relatives Are in the Cast, Think Twice
* = "I Wanted to Kill Myself"
If you spot any factual errors, please don't hesitate to let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm always happy to make corrections and updates.
Please click below to read reviews of:
Adira Amram Is An American Idol
Del Close Improv Marathon
Deconstructing with Seth Rudetsky: The Good, the Bad, and the Headachy
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
Fearsome Presents Gun Grease
Fitz and Walloughs Get It In the End!
Friends Don't Let Friends
The Heist Project
The Jazz Age
Julie and Jackie are Obsessed
Less Than Rent: Little Town Blues
Less Than Rent: Friends Don't Let Friends
New York Musical Theatre Festival 2006:
Journey to the West
Oedipus for Kids
Flight of the Lawnchair Man
The Night of the Hunter
New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011
Offensive Fest 2007: UCBT's Shockingly Delightful Mini-Festival
Plays and Playwrights 2007 (book review)
The Second Tosca
Showgirls Showgirls (overview)
Sock Puppet Showgirls
Showgirls: The Best Movie Ever Made. Ever!
SketchFest NYC 07
We Used to Go Out
New York Musical Theatre Festival 2006
I'd skipped the first two years of the New York Musical Theatre Festival because, frankly, the prospect of sitting through hours and hours of musicals created by songwriters who neither care about nor understand what a story is comes pretty close to my idea of hell.
But going into its third year, NYMF really deserved a look—and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the shows seen. Favorites include Desperate Measures, Journey to the West, The Children, and Oedipus for Kids; but there wasn't a flat-out clunker in the lot.
Some memorable moments of the festival:
Reviews of these seven NYMF 2006 musicals appear below:
Journey to the West
Oedipus for Kids
Flight of the Lawnchair Man
The Night of the Hunter
A musical Western that's very loosely based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure—involving a nun who's told she can save her brother from execution only by sleeping with the Governor—scores points upfront just for the concept's sheer silliness.
This show has a great deal more going for it, however. Tony-nominated Peter Kellogg's book is smart and disciplined—the best-structured I saw at this year's NYMF. Further, Kellogg's lyrics and David Friedman's music make for a number of very entertaining songs. (These guys are even wise enough to place an especially memorable tune right before the end of the Act 1, leading the audience to hum it during intermission...)
Special kudos also go to set designer Sarah Lambert for turning a small budget into an asset, running what's effectively a clothesline across the stage and hanging on it a variety of simple props (e.g., a jail cell door, a church's painted window). The result is a running gag that's consistently elegant and witty.
Add to the mix a terrific cast of Broadway veterans—with Merwin Foard as the Sheriff and Jenny Powers as hooker Bella especially outstanding—and the result is a series of pleasures.
That's not to say there isn't work to be done. The evil Governor is too one-note, and his suffering no notable consequences at the end is unsatisfying (real world allusions notwithstanding). Also, the story's pacing is too...well, measured. The show would benefit from a more varied tempo—e.g., adding a few frenetic comedy scenes, and a bit more Western-style action.
But these are nit-picks. Desperate Measures is lots of fun; and a commercial run for this musical is a no-brainer.
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Based on a 16th Century Chinese novel that's become one of the most beloved folk tales of all time, this musical is about a monk's trek to retrieve sacred scrolls and save mankind. Helping him are several amazing characters, including the trickster Monkey King, a powerful prankster who first bedevils Heaven and then becomes its heroic agent; and an eight-foot tall dragon, played by Philip Solomon via an impressive pair of mechanical stilts.
The music by Richard Oberacker is powerful and lovely, making for an excellent fit with the spiritual quest. Also memorable are the colorful costumes by Elizabeth Cox and delightful puppets by Kevin Frisch.
The cast's performances are more variable; but stars Steven Booth as the monk, and Angela Ai as his Heavenly girlfriend, sing superbly and are nothing less than luminous in their roles.
The biggest challenge here is packing a very long and complex saga into two hours; and being true to the original Chinese classic while appealing to US audiences. The current version is only sporadically successful. I'm hoping more thought will be given to structure and character development post-NYMF.
Even as is, though, the show is at times breathtaking, and a journey well worth taking.
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In 1980, there was an obscure—and reportedly quite bad—horror film about children in the humdrum New England town of "Ravensback" whose school bus drives through a gaseous cloud from a nearby nuclear power plant. The radiation transforms the cute kids into cute murderous zombies.
In the spirit of turning a sow's ear to gold, writer Stan Richardson and composer Hal Goldberg have created this musical parody—which actually does provide a number of treasures.
The show starts by plunging everyone into darkness...and an uncomfortable silence. Just at the point when the audience assumes something in the production's gone wrong, though, a woman lets out a blood-curdling B-movie scream. The timing is so spot-on that the audience responds with both laughter and extended applause. It's a great way for the show's creators to communicate, "Hey, we know comedy. Relax and enjoy."
What follows are a series of very funny visuals portraying the small town and its eccentric inhabitants—particularly the "children," all played by adult actors who are simply adorable in grade school outfits and pigtails. (And a gold star goes to Stephanie Thompson, who's unforgettable as a very spooky little girl named Jenny.)
We also meet the one red-hot teen in town, played perfectly by Megan Reinking. A scene in which Reinking and Heath Calvert flirt while mutually clutching a watermelon (see photo above) is simultaneously steamy and hilarious...and one of the highlights of the festival.
Also outstanding is Jeff Hiller, a tremendous comedic talent who seems destined for stardom.
In fact, the entire 10-person cast is wonderful—the other members being Mick Bonde, Marie de Cesare, Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone, Trisha Rapier, Jonathan Rayson, and Tally Sessions. Kudos to director Tony Speciale for gathering these sharp actors together and creating fine comedic chemistry between them.
For all its virtues, though, the show has some serious flaws. After the children become zombies (which happens early on), all they do is kill—and given the size of the cast, they have a limited number of victims to attack. As a result, the middle of the show feels padded and meandering, with little action and less-than-stellar laughs.
Further, all the characters are relatively flat. Even though this is a parody, the audience wants to be able to care about the leads, and to watch them undergo a journey that has genuine meaning.
In its current form, The Children is worth seeing for its wit, fun visuals, and uniformly terrific performers. But if Richardson and Goldberg can proceed to entirely transcend the source material and craft a compelling, character-driven story, this show could become something quite special.
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You know you're in for a good time when you see a disclaimer like this posted in front of the theatre entrance: "This show may contain and/or employ the use of strobe lighting, stage smoke, theatrical haze, gun shots, cigarette smoke—and, if you are lucky, nudity, nudity, nudity."
The latter is actually nothing more than a scene in which one of the male actors briefly, and very gratuitously, takes off his Oedipus for Kids T-shirt and tosses it to an audience member...and then points out show-related merchandise can be purchased at the concession stand. (Needless to say, a few minutes later the actor returns to the audience and demands the T-shirt back...)
Poking fun at low-budget theatre companies, and at theatrical conventions in general, is much of what this production is about. It presents not only the classic Greek drama Oedipus Rex reworked as a children's musical—a deliciously silly concept by itself—but also an insider's look at a small theatrical troupe struggling to survive. And by the end, the play and the actors portraying it collide in memorable ways.
In between, there's lots of amusing word play. Some sample lyrics: "Whatever Oedipus touches, Oedipus wrecks/Since his life got a little complex."
In addition, there are numerous running gags, such as adopted Oedipus' rivalry with his brother Tedipus for the affection of their mother. Mom privately reassures Tedipus, though, warmly explaining, "Parents never love their adopted children as much as their real ones."
Also delightful are product placements for the show's fictional sponsor, Beanz—The Coffee for Kids! For example, while the characters enjoy a Greek treat, one of them remarks, "You know what goes well with Baklava? Coffee. Once you get the shakes, you'll never go back to the ice cream man." It's also noted that "coffee has Vitamin F, for Fun!" The crowning moment, though, occurs during intermission—for details, please see festival highlights.
It's incredibly difficult to sustain great laughs throughout a two-hour production; and in that regard, this show still needs work. The first 20 minutes or so are brilliantly funny; but after that the downpour of fresh ideas often becomes a mere drizzle, and occasionally a drought, filling the middle of show with lags. In addition, wiser and deeper writing is needed for the characters—both the ones in the pseudo-troupe and the ones in the children's musical—so that the audience feels moved and emotionally satisfied at the end.
Even in its current version, though, the production offers many delights. Writers Gil Varod and Kimberly Patterson, composer Robert J. Saferstein, director Dan Fields, scenic designer Scott Orlesky, costume designer Hannah Rose Peck, and the three-member cast—Gavin Lewis, Laura Jordan, and Reed Prescott—have all done laudable work in a short amount of time. Here's hoping this show continues to be developed; it has the raw potential to become a classic in its own right.
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A sad-sack dreams of flying, but hits numerous roadblocks due to poor eyesight (ruling out a pilot's license), discouragement from his no-nonsense mom, and derision from his suburban neighbors. Still, he perseveres...and ends up taking off in his lawn chair via helium balloons.
Incredibly, this is based on a true story (although, for some odd reason, the fact is never mentioned in the show or program book...). The real lawnchair man was named Larry Walters, and his flight occurred on July 2, 1982 via a Sears patio chair and 45 helium-filled weather balloons. Walters' flight lasted for 12 hours, during which he rose 16,000 feet, putting him within sight of passing airplanes. Afterwards, he was fined $4,000 by the FAA for operating a "civil aircraft" without a certificate! When asked by a reporter why he did it, Walters replied, "a man can't just sit around." (For additional fun facts, please click here.)
The true story makes for a very entertaining anecdote; and this musical reportedly was effective in an earlier, much shorter version. However, the padding added for this 90-minute edition weighs the show down, with scenes about living one's dream becoming repetitive and strained, and the number of uninspired gags tiresome.
Further, the show's ending—in which the lawnchair man abandons both his girlfriend and reality to spend eternity in the clouds—is presented as uplifting, but is actually both vacuous and terribly depressing. (In real life, Larry Walters landed without injury. Eleven years later, though, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart.)
All that said, there are two elements that make this show worth seeing.
The first is Broadway veteran Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays the lawnchair man's girlfriend. Champlin is enchanting from the moment she steps onto the stage; and as both actress and singer, Champlin's a delight throughout the production.
The second is a recreation of the French film The Red Balloon (described above in festival highlights). If only the entire production could've been as witty and charming as this show-stopper...
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The 1955 movie The Night of the Hunter, brilliantly directed by Charles Laughton from a script by James Agee, and featuring an unforgettable performance by Robert Mitchum as the evil preacher, is one of my favorite films of all time.
In fairness, were that not the case, I might have enjoyed this production a lot more. The story (from a novel by Davis Grubb) continues to be compelling overall in this musical version.
However, I found the pacing of events too slow, creating lags, when this tale should ideally always have a certain amount of ominous tension hovering over it.
In addition, the actor playing the preacher seemed to want to be liked by the audience. As a result, he never scared me; and the role demands that it inspire chills.
There were also some technical problems on the evening I attended. For example, at a climactic moment involving a gunshot, someone on the effects team failed to produce any corresponding sound, ruining a key dramatic scene.
On the up side, many of the songs are strong and vibrant; and most of the performers are fine. With smart cuts and adjustments to quicken the pace and increase dramatic tension—and with an actor of great charisma who can charm the audience one instant and terrify it the next—this show might achieve its true potential.
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By far the best part of this show is its lead, Ben Rauch (on the right of the photo above), who is a rising star worth catching.
Also notable are set designer Donyale Werte, who creates a very clever piece that periodically transforms (e.g., from a booth selling train tickets to a newsstand selling comic books); and costume designer Lisa Zinni, who fashions some colorful outfits.
And most of the cast is solid; as is the music.
However, there are numerous problems with the story.
For example, early on we learn that Rauch's character, Duncan, is living with his mom and her boyfriend Big Joe. Duncan doesn't trust the boyfriend...and that feeling is confirmed when Duncan just happens to walk by while Big Joe is stabbing someone to death. (Quite a coincidence; plus if he commits homicide in broad daylight, maybe the big guy should change his name to Sloppy Joe...) The thug warns that if Duncan tells his mom about this, she'll be next.
If you were in this situation, and spent
most of your time reading about heroes in comic books, would you a) go
straight to the police, offering testimony to put Big Joe behind bars;
b) secretly inform your mom so the two of you could flee ASAP; or c)
stay silent but close to your mother, protecting her while looking for
a chance to fix things?
In this show, the answer is d) without leaving behind so much as a note, run off to Hollywood in search of a biological father—without knowing the guy's name or location, or even what he looks like—while your mother is left alone and unsuspecting indefinitely with a cold-blooded murderer.
And it's pretty much downhill from there...including a stunningly bad ending in which the lessons Duncan learns during his journey—there's more to life than brute strength, and it's good to have friends to lean on—are inexplicably tossed away.
The fundamental lack of understanding of heroism in general, and comic books in particular, made my head hurt. Again, though, most of the other elements of the production are solid; and Ben Rauch is a performer to keep an eye on.
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New York Musical Festival 2011 (running Sept. 26-Oct. 16)
NYMF Mini-Reviews (**** = Transcendently Great;
* = "I
Wanted to Kill Myself"),
Listed in Rough Order of Preference:
Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice: **** Thoroughly magnificent. This goes beyond a top NYMF show; it's one of the finest musicals to grace NYC. The entire run quickly sold out. If you don't have tickets, see this when it moves to Broadway—and elevates Broadway with its astonishing intelligence, sensitivity, ambitious vision, and nuanced care to every detail.
Date of a Lifetime: **** Extraordinarily smart, funny book & lyrics by Carl Kissin, and vibrant, organic comedic performances by Farah Alvin & Jamie LaVerdiere, make this a home run. It's rare to see artists who totally "get" comedy blend laughs so effectively with songs (the music is by Rob Baumgartner Jr.). Ready for a commercial run as is.
The Kid Who Would Be Pope: ***½ Adorable! Someone asked me if you have to be Catholic to enjoy this. Absolutely not; you merely have to be able to appreciate one of the finest cast of young kids currently assembled on a stage, and a fun, sweet fantasy about following dreams.
Fucking Hipsters: ***½ Good energy, dynamite cast—with stand-outs including Heather Robb, Jennifer Bowles (who demonstrates there's no such thing as a small role), Brandon Wardell, and Kyle Lamar Mitchell. Book by Keythe Farley (Bat Boy: The Musical).
Ennio—The Living Paper Cartoon: *** Ennio Marchetto evokes over 50 pop culture celebs via paper costumes and lip-synching to a recorded music medley. This series of live cartoons is visually unique and quite entertaining. However, characters currently come and go in mostly scattershot fashion. Notable exceptions include when Bono morphs into Spider-Man, or when a nun transforms into a rocker. The show would benefit immensely from consistently thoughtful transitions between characters; and by developing a premise that deepens the experience by creating a meaningful thematic journey to accompany the joy of the spectacle. That said, this is well worth seeing as is.
Outlaws: *** Way thin story. Rockin' band, several
catchy songs, and smokin' actress
Isabel Santiago as Billy the Kid's gal provide interest. But slim commercial potential without a much meatier and more thoughtful book.
Kiki Baby: **½ This oddity about a 4-year-old singing star—played by a 37-year-old actress—is an unsettling mix of contrasts. It starts off saccharine sweet (at times coming close to sickening) and then turns into a horror tale reminiscent of The Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life" minus the depth (which ultimately does become sickening). There's tremendous talent involved—the actors, the musicians, even the music are all excellent. But the book is akin to something Ed Wood might've written—which, on the up side, means you might get perverse enjoyment from certain scenes so bad that you can barely believe they're happening.
Ghostlight: ** Some good songs, but almost nothing happens...and it runs 160 minutes!!
Crazy, Just Like Me: *½ Starts dumb, gets increasingly dumber.
In this age of extreme political correctness, the stellar talents of NYC's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre chose to launch an onslaught on the bounds of good taste. And god bless them for it.
Running from October 24th through October 28th, 2007, the festival was a uniform delight. Deadlines prevented me from catching all the shows, but of the ones I had the pleasure of experiencing, some highlights:
John Flynn and Andy Secunda
John Flynn (Showgirls: The Best Movie Ever Made. Ever!, The Nights of Our Lives) premiered his newest comedy piece, John Flynn Has Terrible Sex. Starting from his initial gay sexual experience up through the near-present, John related a multitude of amusing, shocking, but most of all very human encounters. These ranged from the first time anyone threw a line at him ("Want to pretend we're f*cking?"), which worked like a charm; to a friend helping John out of a financial jam by pimping him; to a college dorm neighbor who, John learned the hard way, got aroused by a lover throwing up on him; to an Internet hookup with someone who turned out to be three feet tall. The tales were fascinating and laugh-filled throughout; and to make things even livelier, comedic genius Andy Secunda (The Swarm) periodically interrupted to ask questions in the role of "ignorant straight guy." John is a great storyteller, and he's created a rich, hilarious show that anyone, gay or straight, is likely to enjoy. Not only does John Flynn Has Terrible Sex deserve a life beyond Offensive Fest; with some further development (it works beautifully as comedy, but would be even stronger with a classic story structure), the show will be a solid candidate for a commercial theatrical run.
Death by Roo Roo (left to right): Brett Gelman, John Gemberling, Curtis Gwinn,
Jackie Clarke (who had to skip the troupe's Offensive Fest show), Anthony Atamanuik, and Neil Casey
The guys of improv group Death by Roo Roo—Anthony Atamanuik, Neil Casey, Brett Gelman, John Gemberling, and Curtis Gwinn—took the biggest risk of the festival by doing a comedy show with the hair-raising title Heroes of 9/11. They began by selecting a volunteer from the audience to interview about his experiences on that day. Fortunately, they struck gold with a fellow named Joe, who amidst a roomful of New Yorkers tense with memories said things like, "I saw the plane hit, and I knew my girlfriend was working in the Tower. But the crash was on the 95th floor, and her office was on the 14th Floor, so I figured, 'Whatever.'" This evoked roars of laughter; as did Brett Gelman asking, "How long had you been dating your girlfriend before then?" and Joe responding, "Let's see, that was back in, what, 2001?"
After completing the interview, the troupe improvised a series of scenes spinning off of Joe's stories—and its inventiveness, energy, and sheer bravery garnered more uproarious laughs than almost any show to grace UCBT in recent memory. At the end, a happy Brett Gelman remarked, "Well, that was cleansing." Indeed it was. (And you can experience these gutsy improvisors every Friday at 11:00 pm, tackling the slightly less delicate subject of an audience member's relatives, in Death by Roo Roo: Your F*cked Up Family.)
On left, Anthony Atamanuik and Dave Martin; on right, Dave Martin and Chris Gethard
Month after month, host David Martin and some of the sharpest writer/performers in NYC create 90 minutes of searingly honest and consistently hilarious storytelling in The Nights of Our Lives. Considering the show prides itself on breaking taboos, its participation in Offensive Fest seemed almost redundant. But the theme adopted for the festival, The Most F*cked Up Nights of Our Lives, proved a winner. Chris Gethard told of his days in a college dorm so run-down and degrading that at the end Dave Martin suggested Chris get in touch with Elie Wiesel (author of Night, about life in a concentration camp...). Adam Pally continued the college theme, describing a series of tortures inflicted on him by his fraternity brothers...including one that will never allow anybody in the audience to think about the name of Adam's comedy group, Hot Sauce, the same way again. Anthony Atamanuik experienced so many f*cked up events during his days as a drug addict that instead of trying to pick one, he provided a medley of highlights (including running out on a one-night stand, but not before stealing the money from her purse...). John Flynn related a recent sexual encounter gone wrong ("I was about to sail off with several other UCBT performers for a week's paid shoot on a remote island, and I needed to release some tension before we left to ensure I wouldn't end up raping Bobby Moynihan"). And Devlyn Corrigan told of rifling through his father's magazines in hopes of finding material he could jerk off to, and happily discovering photos from a porn movie; but then, on closer inspection, realizing the lead male actor in the film was his dad...
Every The Nights of our Lives show is special; but even so, this F*cked Up edition was among the very best.
Some of The Stepfathers (left to right): Bobby Moynihan, Zach Woods, Christina Gausas
(who had to skip the troupe's Offensive Fest show), Michael Delaney, and Chris Gethard
The star improvisors of The Stepfathers—for Offensive Fest, Michael Delaney, Chris Gethard, Will Hines, Bobby Moynihan, Shannon O'Neill, Silvija Ozols, and Zach Woods—took a more subtle approach. They chose to do a show about relationships, titled A Salute To Our Bimbo Wives; and while starting out with simple premises, crafted increasingly bizarre situations as the scenes went along. The story culminated in a Thanksgiving dinner in which Chris Gethard, who the family had previously castigated for being bisexual, declared himself trisexual due to his newfound interspecies love, a flirtatious six-foot-tall cat (played by Bobby Moynihan). Meanwhile, Gethard's mom (Shannon O'Neill), who made her living as a very low-cost hooker, berated the family for focusing so much on Chris and neglecting the hard-won dinner she'd prepared: "See that cranberry sauce? You think it came free? Two blowjobs and a finger up the ass..."
Cracked Out: Jon Daly & Brett Gelman
Cracked Out—comedic duo Jon Daly & Brett Gelman parodying a hip-hop group (for samples of their mind-blowing videos, please click here and here, and check out their album Fleetwood Cracked)—created a show surreal even by their deliciously unconventional standards. Johnny Conroy set the perfect tone as a riveting prophet of doom; John Gemberling followed as a very funny god of trash; Kurt Braunohler appeared with a celebrity welded by lightning to his genitals; Dave Hill brought a dildo that seemed six feet long; two hot female dancers spiced up the show throughout, wearing masks and identifying themselves as Jason Star-Tits and Meerkat; and the show concluded with Jesse Falcon as Hitler in a Speedo doing something that I can't bring myself to even write about...
On the lighter side was a very silly and fun Cage Match improv contest of Stereotypes vs. Retards (sadly, the Retards lost; but happily, they still don't realize it...); Justin Purnell turning his weekly talent show School Night into a separate but equal Segregated School Night; John Flynn & Jesse Falcon showing videos that made you question everything you hold dear; and an ASSSSCAT 3000 featuring such stars as Amy Poehler, Paul Scheer, and Jack McBrayer improvising scenes based on monologist Anthony Atamanuik's tales of farting, pooping, and turtle peeing.
Unfortunately, I had to miss a chunk of the festival; but chances are Songs In The Key of F*#k You, Jackie and Julie Rape Your Face, and The Dirtiest Sketch in NYC Contest: OJ Simpson's Breakfast of Champions Edition were all memorable.
And ditto for Soundtrack to the Last Hour of Your Life, for which improv troupe Mother tackled torture, war, and other subjects likely to make your life flash before your eyes; and Money Shot, for which improv troupe Reuben Williams simulated the shooting of a porn film.
Pushing at boundaries and challenging taboos so that we see the world in new ways is a large part of what comedy is all about.
And so is falling on the floor laughing.
Offensive Fest was a smashing success on both counts. Here's hoping it becomes a UCBT tradition.
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a book anthology edited by Martin Denton
Book publisher's site: The New York Theatre Experience
Book's Amazon.com listing
Martin Denton's indie theatre reviews site: nytheatre.com
Martin Denton's indie theatre interviews site: nytheatrecast.com
Those who care about plays continuing to serve as a vital artistic force and cultural voice must be grateful for Martin Denton and his decade-long efforts to support theatre in New York in all its shapes, sizes, and quirky life.
Denton's most important contribution is his wonderful Web site nytheatre.com, which offers comprehensive coverage of off- and off-off Broadway productions.
But another notable Denton project is the annual book series Plays and Playwrights, an anthology of what he considers each season's top independent plays.
The just-released eighth edition, Plays and Playwrights 2007, kicks off with a foreword by Obie-winning director John Clancy. Here's an excerpt:
When I first met Martin Denton years ago in an auto-repair-shop-turned-performance-art-space on the Lower East Side, I didn't realize I was meeting a patron saint.
Martin looks like an accountant. Which makes sense, since that's exactly what he was until about 10 years ago...some kind of big-shot accountant for the Marriott Corporation, ran their whole payroll or something. And then one day he saw that they were offering classes on this "Internet" thing that the kids were getting into and he signs up and one of the assignments is to put together a site and presto-chango, "Martin's Guide to New York Theatre" appears on the Web. A few years later, "Martin's Guide" becomes www.nytheatre.com, Martin quits Marriott...and I've had the privilege and the pleasure of talking to Martin about innumerable crazy-ass plays since.
You have to understand that Martin sees everything. It's like there are nine of him. And then he writes about them, beautifully, and talks about them with passion and honesty and insight, and every year he publishes a collection of them. And this is what makes him the patron saint of the unpublished playwright, of the unknown theatre company, of the next generation of American theatre artists.
That's about right.
The main difficulty here is that while you probably find it laudable to support developing playwrights, you wouldn't necessarily want to read their stuff. Routine errors of young writers abound in Plays and Playwrights 2007: lacking a compelling premise to glue scenes together; overlong and rambling storylines; starting out strong but failing to offer a satisfying ending.
That said, even the least successful of these works provide a scattering of lovely moments. Therefore, rather than focus on problems, let me simply provide some memorable excerpts from each of the book's 11 plays:
I should have taken you out in the rain...I would take your hands and put them around my waist and you would dance with me. My hair would be down and wet and I would have dark makeup running down my face and you would think how you have never seen anything so imperfect and beautiful. I would laugh at you staring at me and you would hold my face and kiss my lips and taste the rain. You would think, "Who is this passionate and impulsive creature?" Then I would take off my dress and jump into the pond...I should have taken you out in the rain and that way, every time there was a storm, or even a light shower, you would be reminded of the day a girl took you out to a pier and made you dance with her. Every drop would be my fingers, touching you. I would be raining all over you.
—They're Just Like Us by Boo Killebrew
FIONA: He can't skate for shit compared to you.
STACY: Adam's great.
FIONA: Oh please, he's skidding around like a toy top, trying to look like he knows which end is up. When you spin it's like you've got this...this very centered stillness inside you. No matter how fast you're moving, it's like a thread connecting your heart to the center of the earth.
—Kiss and Cry by Tom Rowan
I think a lot about the past these days...about how a second or two can mean nothing, or how it can change everything. How holding a stare can be the most terrifying decision you ever make. I felt both so nervous and brave the first time I looked at you. There's nothing much poetic about me, about my life. But that one moment...
—Convergence by Bryn Manion
MARTIN: Hey. Why did Helen Keller's dog jump off a cliff? (beat) Wouldn't you if your name was "Auughguhguhguhugguuuuuuh"?
MEGHAN: You sit there gawking at me for weeks without saying a word and this is how you break the ice? Helen Keller jokes?!
—Office Sonata by Andy Chmelko
I'll do anything you want. Happily, I will give myself to you. I want to be slow and I want to be soft and I want to be with you.
—They're Just Like Us by Boo Killebrew
There's this guy—this, whatever—and he lives downtown and he ties me up and he puts his hands around my neck and he whips me and he f*cks my ass—and that's not the half of it—but the point is, I like it and I can't stop thinking about it.
—Diving Normal by Ashlin Halfnight
I usta wanna know my father—doan remember nuthin bout him cept his voice reminded me of smoke. Couldn't begin ta tell you what he look like, juss remember me lyin in bed and hearin him talk ta mama, voice like smoke. Fill up a room, then just as quick, be gone. (beat) I hope thass how my girls remember me. Cause I think if I evah woulda found my father, I woulda hated him for what he was. Instead, rememberin that voice...smoke...leaves me with one nice thing. Always good ta have one nice thing.
—'Nami by Chad Beckim
CASEY: I killed a young boy.
CASEY: A young Iraqi boy. In Fallujah. Couldn't have been more than 15 years old. Shot him right through the heart. He was firing at me from an elevated position. Bullet nicked my helmet. I got down, took aim. He stood up for some stupid reason, and I fired. He fell three stories.
WADE: You did what you had to do.
CASEY: I heard a woman scream as soon as he hit the ground. I couldn't tell where the scream came from, but I knew it was his mother.
—Corps Values by Brendon Bates
I don't feel stress. Well, stress is the wrong word. No, it's more of a constant feeling of steady dread. That vague feeling that I'm missing something, forgetting something, doing something wrong. This feeling never intensifies or diminishes, it stays at the same level every waking moment. That's why I can never really enjoy myself—if I'm feeling good or calm or happy, I have this worry that I'm doing something wrong and the other shoe will drop at any second.
—The Adventures of Nervous-Boy by James Comtois
May God inflict so much pain on me that Job'll look down and say, "Whoa, dude, sucks to be you."
—Office Sonata by Andy Chmelko
This is not a true story. But like all stories, it has truth in it. You take snippets of truth and piece them together. That's how you make a story. For example: While at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, no one ever called me a freak. Someone did call a friend of mine "Aqua Faggot," but that was more funny than anything else.
—Red Tide Blooming by Taylor Mac
I could write notes to you on the inside of book covers. I would choose the classics, the ones that you would never throw out, the ones that you would pass on to your children, and then your children would pass on to their children, and then their children would pass on to their children and say, "Look, this book was your great-great-grandfather's. My father gave it to me, and when you have a child you will pass it on to them." Your great-great-grandchild will take the book very carefully, and he will smell it and try to know you. He will open the cover. His heart will start racing when he begins to read the note I have left for you. He will try to know this story. He will read the note two times over and then he will ask his father, "Who is this note from?" And his father will answer, "No one really knows. We think it is a lady whom your great-great-grandfather loved deeply. Would you like to see a picture of her? There is one hidden beneath the floorboards."
—They're Just Like Us by Boo Killebrew
The longer I'm gone, the happier he is to see me. For his last birthday, I staged a kidnapping of myself and went missing for two weeks. He loved that. It's a great gift...absence.
—Another Brief Encounter by Stan Richardson
Words, words, words, books I chew. Right through. Dad said eating too fast wasn't good for you. It didn't allow you time to realize that you were full. Full of words.
—Lenz by bluemouth theatre collective
Acting isn't putting on a disguise. It's stripping away the layers that cover your soul.
—Kiss and Cry by Tom Rowan
That last bit applies equally to playwriting.
If you're looking for a book that's uniformly entertaining and satisfying, this ain't it.
But if you're willing to put up with bumps and failures for the occasional glorious triumph, and get a taste of what's happening on the modern stage beyond Broadway (including a 76-page appendix that lists, in chronological order, every new play produced in NYC over the past year!), Plays and Playwrights 2007 will get you up to speed for less than the cost of a single theatre ticket.
For more information, including links to interviews with the playwrights, please click here. To buy the book directly from the publisher (and get free shipping), please click here.
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A comedy about opera, and what it means to become a diva, produced by the wonderful Sorrel Tomlinson. As with any play from Sorrel, the cast is superb, with special kudos due to Rachel de Benedet as the aspiring diva, Carrington Vilmont as her brother/manager, Jeremy Beck as her student admirer, and Mickey as the cutest dog on stage in NYC. (For Mickey's special bio, please click the photo below.)
The disappointment is the story, which fails to deliver continual conflict, high drama, great laughs, or breathtaking characters—especially notable sins for a play about the opera...
But if you're interested in seeing a great cast in a fine production that effectively workshops a very rocky script, you might find this a fun way to spend an evening or Sunday afternoon.
The Second Tosca is running June 8th through July 1st, 2007 at the 45th Street Theater, 354 West 45th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues). Tickets are $18.
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Serendib—the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka—is a play about scientists and documentary filmmakers living in the wild of that country to study a tribe of monkeys.
Serendib touches upon many interesting themes, including how the struggles for power among monkeys is paralleled by jockeying for status among humans; how studying animals might answer nature vs. nurture questions—or just result in conclusions corrupted by anthropomorphism; whether one can observe without affecting what's being observed; how whites both aid and intrude upon third-world countries; and how a native woman should deal with the fact that the only ones around her who appreciate the monkeys of her land as she does are foreigners.
Those are all fascinating topics. Unfortunately, none of them are really explored so much as name-dropped. Intriguing ideas are periodically brought up and then abandoned mid-stream, reminiscent of a bright child with ADD. There's a foundation of worthwhile material here; but that the show is subtitled "A Comedy" (see poster above) when it actually plays out as a drama is an indication of how incompletely the story has been thought through...and how desperately it needs a series of rewrites.
On the up side, the jungle sounds (by Graham Johnson) and lush set (by Elliott Kravetz) are fine; the use of monkey puppets, crafted and directed with delicate artistry by Emily DeCola, is surprisingly effective and touching; and the cast is uniformly talented.
Most notable are Nitya Vidyasagar, who is luminous and a young actress worth catching; and PJ Sosko, who's virtually a force of nature on stage, substantially raising the energy level of the play every time he appears.
Nitya Vidyasagar (skillfully puppeteering) and PJ Sosko
The world premiere of Serendib ran April 4th through April 22nd, 2007 at NYC's Ensemble Studio Theater, 549 West 52nd Street. Here's hoping playwright David Zellnik eventually gives his script the focused revamp it deserves, because there are many appealing elements to this show and it has genuine potential.
For a New York TImes review of the production, please click here. For more information about Serendib (from the playwright's Web site), please click here. To learn more about PJ Sosko, please click here.
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It takes a great city to play host to a weekly theatrical parody of the infamous 1995 film Showgirls.
But it takes the greatest city on Earth to serve as the home of two distinctly different weekly parodies of Showgirls—whose runs actually overlapped from May 13, 2006 through July 27th, 2006.
If anyone ever asks why you live in New York, you now have your answer.
Sock Puppet Showgirls was performed every Saturday at the Ace of Clubs. Tickets were a mere $15.
Showgirls: The Best Movie Ever Made. Ever! was performed virtually every Thursday at 9:30 pm at UCBT until the run ended on July 27th, 2006.
If you appreciated the true power of Showgirls, the question wasn't "which one of these parodies should I see?" It's "how quickly can I catch both?" And then "how many of my friends should I drag along when I go see both shows again?"
To learn more, please see the next two reviews.
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Some movies are so bad, they're perversely fascinating. In the good old days—back when he was actually funny—Dennis Miller admitted to going over his videotape of Showgirls like it was the Zapruder film.
To make a play from this movie is bold.
To make a puppet show from it is sheer genius.
The brain behind the socks is Harvey Finklestein, a witty and highly accomplished puppeteer based in Chicago. Finklestein launched the first version of the show in 2002, and he received rave reviews for it during a nine-month run in the windy city.
He then premiered the show in New York for the 2004 FringeNYC—and crowds thronged. In fact, to fit as many people as possible into the show's festival venue (the cozy Cherry Lane Studio Theatre), audience members were allowed to sit on the stage in a semi-circle. This was practical, because the puppets performed above the stage so didn't need the space—but it also created a scene reminiscent of first grade, which added to the delightful kiddie atmosphere coupled with Showgirls-style soft-core porn.
In 2005, Finklestein and his troupe returned to New York for a brief run at the Ace of Clubs. But since all the performers lived in Chicago, an ongoing NYC show wasn't practical.
This problem was solved in 2006 when Finklestein put together a second troupe consisting of Chicago friends who'd moved to New York, along with talented New Yorkers who auditioned to be a part of this new production.
This NYC "franchise" show opens the day I'm writing this, Saturday May 13th, so I haven't yet seen it. Since it's designed to replicate the original production, though, the following description—based on the times I attended Sock Puppet Showgirls both in 2004 and 2005—is likely to be on the money:
To ensure no one is confused about what to expect, a producer sock puppet begins the proceedings by rattling off the sort of terminology you'll soon hear: "fisting for dollars," "tea-bagging," "felching," and "the most disturbing word in the English language: moist." After you're encouraged to "grab hold of your own genitalia," the show commences.
You're then treated to an admirably faithful compressed version of Showgirls—complete with a highly frizzy blonde Nomi Malone sock puppet who continually pops off her bra to expose her very perky foam breasts; her conniving boss ("First I get 'em used to the money, then I make 'em swallow"); and cameos from such famous actors as Lambchop and the Muppets.
There are dozens of fun moments, ranging from Nomi being called "Pollyanna Glittersnatch," to someone about to present shocking news warning her "This is going to knock your sock off," to the sock puppets periodically throwing items—including french fries, and streams of water—at the audience.
The puppetry, "costuming" and staging are fine throughout. And the overall show starts out with a bang, but is essentially based around one joke—puppets reenacting a film that crosses all boundaries of good taste—so there are periodic lags, and some semi-lame lines that make you wish the script was as consistently tight as the rest of the production. That said, there's an infectious joy to this show, as it celebrates not only Showgirls' incredible stupidity, but also the genuine energy of a movie so extraordinarily warped that it's become a cult classic.
Bottom line: Whenever I feel like smiling, all I have to do is recall the Nomi sock, with her golden locks bouncing, opening her mouth as widely as possible and fiercely declaring "I am a DANCER!!! I am not a WHOOOOOOOOOORE!!!!!"
Words to live by...
Sock Puppet Showgirls relaunched in NYC on May 13th, 2006 and ran through August 5th, 2006. It was performed every Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Ace of Clubs, 9 Great Jones Street (between Lafayette and Broadway, downstairs from the Acme restaurant). For more information, please click here.
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Sites of show's creators:
A great movie typically has one immortal line that encapsulates its spirit. For Star Wars, it's "Use the Force, Luke." For Jerry Maguire, it's "You had me at hello."
And thanks to the diligent scholarship of writer/performers Jackie Clarke (the redhead on the right) and John Flynn (the redhead on the left), we now know the line that's at the heart of Showgirls: "It must be weird not having anybody cum on you."
Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, that's really in the 1995 screenplay for which Joe Eszterhas was paid $2 million.
And it's an eye for that sort of detail that make Showgirls: The Best Movie Ever Made. Ever! a delight.
The production starts with an array of movie theater-like teasers flashing on a screen. For example, one slide challenges you to solve this anagram: S AS & TITS.
There are additionally items referred to as Fun Facts that always turn out to be hair-raising. For example, you're shown the movie still and juxtaposed image to the right while a Fun Fact informs you "Elizabeth Berkley took her father, Fred, to the premiere of Showgirls."
After these cinematic appetizers, the show proper begins. We first meet our host, played hilariously by Clarke as "an adjunct professor of film at Queens Community College," an interviewer so sycophantic she makes James Lipton seem like Mike Wallace. Her guest for the evening is none other than Eszterhas—portrayed by John Reynolds as an unrelenting hedonist with an exposed stomach and non-stop craving for beer & cocaine. Throughout the show, the duo have exchanges like this:
Eszterhas: Just look at her name, Nomi Malone. Play with the letters a little bit and you'll end up with Know me. I'm alone.
Professor: Wow. That kind of subtext is so obvious, it's almost not subtext.
Eszterhas: Subtext is for pussies and liars.
Professor: You're a genius.
Professor: I'd like to quote from Hollywood Animal, your memoir, and our Bible: "Robert Evans, the producer of Showgirls, liked my script so much that he sent a voluptuous bimbo over to my hotel. She pulled a note out of an intimate body part—Best first draft I've ever read. The note smelled fantastic." And that body part was?
Eszterhas: Her pussy.
Professor: Of course. Her pussy.
Eszterhas: And that bimbo was Jessica Tandy. And that note smelled like 1936.
Professor: That is a fun fact.
The other major element of the show involves readings of Eszterhas' stage directions (which the writers swear are excerpted verbatim). For example, here's Eszterhas' setup for the debut of Nomi as lead showgirl:
Stardust stage. It is her moment of triumph. She sizzles. She burns. She soars. She's an angel. She's a whore. She's a whirling dervish. She's better than anyone we've ever seen. Even Margot Fontaine.
When spoken over actual footage from the movie—most notably, the "impossible-sex-in-a-pool" scene—Eszterhas' descriptions can be screamingly funny.
More often, though, the movie's scenes are recreated by the live cast, and in a subdued, heavily ironic manner—the performers wear black outfits, pretend to read from bound scripts a la a workshop production, and portray characters in direct contrast to their real genders, race, and body types. Unfortunately, this turns into the weakest part of the show.
At first, there's a magical quality to seeing Showgirls' flashy, over-the-top melodrama performed as bare-bones, near-comatose melodrama. But as the sardonic performances go on, the tactic eventually comes across as repetitive overkill—particularly since the target isn't some controversial subject or powerful group, but merely a 10-year-old movie that bombed at the box office and virtually everyone considers among the dumbest in history. One of the reasons Showgirls has attained cult status is that, despite myriad faults, it has a manic energy to it; and these reenactments might benefit from at least occasionally adopting the strategy of Sock Puppet Showgirls in celebrating and leveraging that energy.
Which isn't to say none of the scene performers transcend their ironic constraints. The standout is Bobby Moynihan, who doesn't talk much during the production, but has a cherubic face (as in the photo on the right) that leads you to instantly like him; and who can make you laugh employing subtle expressions and casual gestures with a sublime grace.
Over the course of the show, Moynihan's roles range from an obese black seamstress, to an anorexic showgirl wannabe, to a woman being raped in a sequence so overlong she impatiently checks the time (on the right). But no matter what character he's portraying, Moynihan is always funny, and a pleasure to watch.
Also worth mentioning is Lennon Parham (at the top of the first photo), whose prime direction for playing Nomi Malone seems to be Anthony Lane's New Yorker review of Elizabeth Berkley: "Her breasts may be more expressive than her face." Despite Parham's perpetual deadpan, she's endearing thanks to her bird-like parody of Berkley's choppy dance movements; and an apparently natural sweetness that even Parham's static mug can't quite hide.
The rest of the seven-member cast are talented as well; they're all veterans of the world-famous Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. But most don't manage to rise above a parody style that's initially fun, but should probably be switched up at some point to a more nuanced approach.
Along similar lines, about halfway through you might find yourself wishing that Clark and Flynn, who are exceptionally sharp writers, started aiming at broader issues than the relatively minor targets of Showgirls and Eszterhas—for example, the entire Hollywood system that led to the creation of Showgirls; or the nature of our culture's confused feelings about sex and sexual identity that makes Showgirls so oddly but undeniably compelling.
Still, this production is well worth catching for its numerous inventive ideas and uproarious lines. For example, film critic Charles Taylor defended Showgirls in a 2004 essay for Salon, writing in part, "Berkley's performance shows some of the fearlessness that acting is supposed to be about...She works so well in the movie because she hasn't learned the more experienced actor's trick of self-protection." Without any explicit reference to the article, Clarke-as-Professor drops this tidbit into her interview: "I found her performance fearless. Berkley works so well because she hasn't learned the more experienced actor's trick of acting." That's smart, muscular satire.
And one other reason to see this show is to experience two of the funniest performers in New York: Jackie Clarke and Bobby Moynihan. Both are comedic masters—and, in all likelihood, headed for stardom.
Showgirls: The Best Movie Ever Made. Ever! played virtually every Thursday at 9:30 pm from September 2005 through July 27th, 2006.at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, 307 West 26th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues). For more information, please click here.
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Home Page: www.SketchFestNYC.com
Articles About the Festival:
This third annual gathering of many the country's best sketch groups, running June 7-9 and hosting 20 hours of live comedy, was a delight from beginning to end.
The festival kicked off with a bang on Thursday 6/7/07, delivering smart, rip-roaring comedy in a variety of styles. Some highlights:
Friday evening was also quite special. Highlights included:
Not surprisingly, Saturday was wonderful too. Some treasured moments:
In addition to the superb writer/performers, special kudos go to Technical Director Carter Edwards, and to the producers—Elizabeth Ellis, Keith Michel, Becky Poole, and Alex Zalbin—for showcasing a uniformly high level of sketch troupes, providing them with a perfect venue for the festival (the spacious & elegant East 13th Street Theatre at 136 East 13th Street), running the tumultuous show with great efficiency, and attracting one of the sharpest and most enthusiastic comedy crowds I've ever encountered.
If you missed SketchFest NYC, though, there's always next year. And in the meantime, keep an eye out for the other side of the comedy coin—UCBT's 9th Annual Del Close Improv Marathon, running July 27-29.
In case you'd like to learn more about
the marvelous performers of SketchFest NYC 07, the following lists the
name of each troupe, the writer/actors in the troupe, the city in which
they're based, and their Web site. The list includes every participating
group, including ones not mentioned in the review above (they're all sharp, funny, and well worth catching):
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Don't be fooled by the absurdly low $5 ticket price; this is one of the smartest and funniest shows about relationships playing in New York. Offering painfully shrewd observations and magical chemistry between the two stellar comedic performers, Jason Mantzoukas and Jessica St. Clair, the production is a small gem.
Catch it before this long run finally ends—and preferably with someone you should've dumped months ago...
We Used to Go Out has played virtually every Thursday at 8:00 pm since late 2005 at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, 307 West 26th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues). The final performance of this run was on June 29th, 2006.
For more information, please click here.
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Previously Reviewed Shows
Hy on Theatre Discounts
FringeNYC 2011 Coverage
Copyright © 2012 Hy Bender