Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Minstrel Players' production of The Game's Afoot at Trinity Episcopal Church by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Minstrel Players' production of "The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays" by Ken Ludwig at Trinity Episcopal Church was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays
The Minstrel Players
Houghton Hall
Trinity Episcopal Church (130 Main Street, Northport Village, NY)
Reviewed 10/26/14

The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays was written by Ken Ludwig, a prolific American playwright best known for his Broadway productions of Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You and Moon Over Buffalo. His work has been performed in 30 countries and in over 20 languages. The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays premiered at the Cleveland Play House in November 2011. It won the 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Play. The boasting rights for having produced the Long Island Premier of The Game's Afoot, to my knowledge, goes to The Heights Players, who opened the show on October 10, 2014. However, this production by The Minstrel Players does appear to be the Suffolk County premier of the play. The famous phrase "The Game Is Afoot" was first uttered in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure Of The Abbey Grange when Sherlock Holmes tells Watson: "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!" But the origin of "The Game's Afoot" in literature actually dates back to William Shakespeare's King Henry V where in Act 3, Scene 1, the King gives his soldiers the rousing speech that begins with the line, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" and ends "And you, good yeoman, Whose limbs were made in England, show us here The mettle of your pasture; let us swear That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not; For there is none of you so mean and base, That hath not noble lustre in your eyes, I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game's afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

The main character in The Game's Afoot is William Hooker Gillette, who is hosting a Christmas Eve party at his home, the Gillette Castle,  in 1936. William Gillette, in real life, was an American actor and playwright (who died on April 29, 1937) best remembered for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage more than 1300 times over a period of 30 years. His portrayal of Holmes helped create the modern image of the detective. His use of the deerstalker cap and curved pipe became durable symbols of the character Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Gillette Castle, completed by William Gillette in 1919 at a cost of 1.1 million dollars is located on the Connecticut River in East Haddam, Connecticut. In this play, written by Ken Ludwig, William Gillette invites some recent cast members to his house along with a critic, Daria Chase, who is writing a feature article on him for Vanity Fair. William Gillette fancies himself to be a real life Sherlock Holmes and maintains a laboratory and recording equipment in his home. His real motivation for hosting the party is to try to discover who recently made an attempt on his life, and later, he tries to find out who allegedly killed Daria Chase, the evil theatre critic.

Ken Ludwig has no idea how to write a play in this genre. The Game's Afoot is derivative drivel that cheats and misleads the audience at every turn. A legitimate who-did-it murder mystery sets out clues, gives many of the characters possible motives, and invites the audience to try to solve the murder perhaps providing a surprising ending that leaves people feeling astonished and satisfied. That does not happen in this play. In The Game's Afoot, our Sherlock Holmes character wipes the murder weapon clean of fingerprints and calls the police before starting his investigation. William Gillette and his friend Felix Geisel both have no idea how to take a pulse and haven't a clue as to whether Daria Chase is alive or dead although Gillette has no problem definitely declaring "She's..." at the end of the First Act and "Dead" as the first word of the Second Act. Even the attempt on William Gillette's life is revealed in the end to just have been bad aiming on the part of the assassin, which is something an amateur sleuth in the audience could not anticipate and provides facts outside of those someone would normally consider in trying to figure out who did what to whom. By the end of the First Act, it was obvious to everyone that Simon Bright was a money hungry bad guy who probably killed his current wife's ex-husband while they were on their honeymoon in Killington, Vermont and that he was still keeping an old girlfriend on the side. Sure, some facts like the involvement of Simon's current wife Aggie Wheeler, and the fact that Martha Gillette, William's mom, was as mad as a hatter, were unexpected revelations but none that provided the audience with any feeling of fulfillment. 

The best line in the play was uttered by Madge Geisel powerfully played by the very talented Tricia Ieronimo. After the alleged murder of Daria Chase, her character said, "I guess this means we're not exchanging presents tonight." Kevin Kelly played her husband Felix but the two of them didn't make a believable couple since the character, who cheated on his wife with Daria Chase and was "a friend to everyone" wasn't played straight enough to be a believable heterosexual or a polyamorous bisexual. Mr. Kelly also exhibited some weird smiles and facial expressions not appropriate for the scenes he was in. Alicia James hit a home run in the role of Daria Chase. When her character burst onto the scene, we knew we were in the presence of a star. Brian Hartwig surprised me the most in his role as Simon Bright. I can't comment on whether his bathing suit was too loose in a previous production, as Daria Chase seemed to think, but I can say that is this production, he was quite prominent and well-equipped to handle the role. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future. Linda Randolph deftly handled the role of Inspector Goring and Gabriella Stevens more than adequately portrayed Aggie Wheeler. Karen Mercorella succeeded in getting us to hate her character, Martha Gillette. Ray Palen was quite believable as William Gillette and may very well be on the way to fulfilling his goal "to one day be as famous as Gillette himself for playing Conan Doyle's infamous sleuth."

Taking everything into consideration, I still recommend you see The Minstrel Player's production of The Game's Afoot; or Holmes For The Holidays. You get to experience live theatre at a bargain price and get the opportunity to meet some friendly people. There is a 50-50 raffle, reasonably priced concession items and before or after the play, you can go out to dinner at one of the fine restaurants located in Northport Village. If you have extra time, you can buy some tea, get some home-made ice cream or visit some of the antique stores located on Main Street. Not a bad way to spend a few hours!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch at the Colonial Church of Bayside by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts by Lucille Fletcher at the Colonial Church of Bayside was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts
Theatre Time Productions
Colonial Church of Bayside (54-02 217th Street, Oakland Gardens, NY)
Reviewed 10/18/14

Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts was written by Lucille Fletcher, who also wrote Sorry, Wrong Number, one of the most celebrated plays in the history of American radio, which she adapted and expanded for the 1948 film noir classic of  the same name. Night Watch appeared on Broadway in 1972 and was made into a movie in 1973 with Elizabeth Taylor in the lead role. The play is not your traditional murder mystery where you are presented with some dead bodies and need to figure out who the killer or killers are. Night Watch is more of a "who's doing what to whom and why mystery" with many twists and turns along the way. Is Elaine Wheeler, the rich heiress with insomnia who lost her first husband in a car accident where he was found with his 20-year-old mistress, simply losing her marbles on the downhill road to "crazyville" and treatment in a Swiss sanitarium or is this apparently unstable woman "crazy like a fox"?

The play is set in a fancy apartment on East 30th Street in the Kips Bay section of Manhattan in 1972. Elaine Wheeler is an heiress. Her husband, John Wheeler, works on Wall Street. They have a German maid named Helga and an intrusive gay neighbor, Curtis Appleby, who writes for the Kips Bay Tattler, the neighborhood newspaper. Staying with the Wheelers before heading out to work at the Mayo Clinic is Elaine's best friend Blanche Cooke, a nurse, who appears to be doing all she can to help Elaine get through what seems to be a particularly difficult time in her life although it is unclear what has been triggering the recent backslide in her mental condition. We learn that eight years ago, after personally coming upon the accident that caused the death of her husband and his mistress, she lost the child she was carrying, attempted to commit suicide and went into a deep depression. But two years later, she married John Wheeler and seemed to be getting on with her life. Now, six years later, she claims to have seen a murdered man in the window of an abandoned tenement on East 29th Street and then claims she saw a murdered woman in the tenement as well. The police investigate and find no evidence that any crime has been committed and so the mystery begins. Is Elaine seeing things or is Blanche, and perhaps her husband, singly or jointly, trying to drive her over the edge, confirm her deteriorating mental condition with the help of psychiatrist Dr. Tracy Lake, and cart her off to a clinic in Switzerland? If so, what are their motivations? Flowers, broaches, and wigs Blanche brings home to the Wheelers' home seem to remind Elaine of the trauma she previously went through. Perhaps her husband has been working with Sam Hoke, the Deli owner on East 29th Street, found trespassing in the tenement, to make his wife think she was seeing things that weren't there? This becomes all the more likely when we learn that a real estate holding company John Wheeler and his wife own, recently bought the very tenement where Elaine has been seeing dead people.

To say more would ruin the ending for you. So I will stop here but even after you see the play, there will still be some unresolved mysteries. What role, if any, did Sam Hoke (the Deli owner and face of the man Elaine claims to have seen murdered in the tenement window), and Curtis Appleby, the gay neighbor, play in the machinations? Did Blanche, who was familiar with the work of Dr. Tracy Lake, recommend her to John Wheeler? Did Helga "ask" for $500.00 from John Wheeler to go back to visit her mother in Germany because she thought she knew something that Mr. Wheeler wanted to keep secret? To what extent was John Wheeler in on the plans Blanche Cooke seemed to be cooking up and finally, what did Blanche see across the alley in the boarded up tenement that caused her to scream before any gun shots were heard? If you consider yourself an amateur sleuth, you will love this story.

Night Watch is another home run for Theatre Time Productions. There isn't a weak link in the entire cast. Everyone performed beautifully. Mary Lynch and Frank Freeman played Elaine and John Wheeler. Stephanie Lenna was Blanche Cooke. Cecilia Vaicels appeared born to play Helga, the German maid. Jim Haines was particularly impressive as Curtis Appleby. Joanne Engfer was Dr. Tracy Lake. Rene Bendana made a brief appearance as Sam Hoke, as did Paul Robilotto as Det. Vanelli, and Michael Zurik as Lt. Walker. 

The play is being presented "in the round" and is expertly directed by Kevin C. Vincent. There were some glitches out of the sound booth that caused an underlying "ringing" sound during the first act but that problem was corrected during the second act. The cast joined the audience for a dessert buffet after the show but only decaf coffee and soda were offered so if you preferred tea or caffeinated coffee, you would have been out of luck.

I highly recommend you see Theatre Time Productions' Night Watch: A Play Of Suspense In Two Acts while you can. You will be thoroughly entertained. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Chip Deffaa's Theater Boys at 13th Street Repertory Theater by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Chip Deffaa's musical Theater Boys at 13th Street Repertory Theater was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

"Theater Boys" - Book, Music & Lyrics by Chip Deffaa
13th Street Repertory Theater (50 West 13th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 9/28/14 at 3:00 p.m.

The world premiere engagement of Theater Boys took place at the Kaufman Theater in the summer of 2008 as part of the Sixth Annual Fresh Fruit Festival. It has now returned for a run at 13th Street Repertory Theater and although a cast album is scheduled to come out in two weeks, Chip Deffaa still introduced the musical "as a work in progress." While that may be so, the cast in this production is extraordinarily talented, the writing is crisp and funny with many references to well-known local cabaret artists, and the music is upbeat and entertaining. 

The flyer for the show says, "In Theater Boys actors auditioning for a gay musical are asked to bare their souls...and a bit more. They share coming-of-age stories both comic and heartfelt." While this description is literally true, I was shocked that even in "an off, off, off, off, off Broadway" gay musical in Greenwich Village, there was no full-frontal nudity. As cast member Joris de Graaf (who played Casey) said in the talk-back, "nudity is common on stage in the Netherlands." Yet somehow, in 21st century puritanical America, full frontal nudity was intentionally avoided in a show promoted as a "gay musical" where the actors were "to bare their souls...and a bit more." As for the "coming of age stories both comic and heartfelt," the show is divided into two very distinct acts. The first act is primarily an audition for a gay musical where the sets and script are "still in the director's head" and so each of the actors tells their own story by singing about some aspect of their life in the theater or of the struggles and obsessions they have faced in their private lives. This act is a satire of the theater and the directors, auditions and actors that are a part of it. The second act is basically a flashback dealing with the first sexual experiences of the Director and Kipp, the boy who the Director "discovered" as he just got off a bus from Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada (Note: In Halq'emeylem, the language of the Sto:lo communities, chilliwack means "as far upriver as you can go before having to switch to a pole."). Then there is a desert musical finale where the cast first performs wearing bed sheets and then finishes off dancing in their underwear.

Nearly three-quarters of the musical deals with issues of sexual seduction, sexual experimentation, denial and the importance of self-labeling. It is in these areas where the show shines the most and I believe Chip Deffaa needs to make a full commitment to bringing the musical in that direction. The elements are there. The show starts off in a most promising manner. The Director, a self-described "visionary" who claims to know everything and everyone (including having known Joan of Arc), has just convinced Kipp, a young actor from Canada, to come to his 5th Floor walk-up apartment for an audition and in the first musical number suggests Kipp take off his clothes "For The Theatre." The fact that Kipp can't memorize lines or dance doesn't deter the Director. But Kipp is too resistant. Even if he were straight, he probably would have given in with all the convincing arguments the Director made. Similarly, when Nathan LaChance is suggesting hypnotism as a method of his own seduction in "Tell Me Why," Chris (the Director at age 16) takes an eternity to get the message. Timing is everything and in certain scenes the resistance goes on too long. In others, the story line moves too quickly. If Chris's friend gets horny while smoking pot and somehow convinces Chris to give him a "helping hand," we need to know the actual lines he used to successfully complete the seduction. Another example would be the need for a deeper exploration into Braden's psyche and how two "straight" friends might convince each other they were in a straight bromance instead of a gay romance (No Homo!). Perfect timing was exhibited in the scene where bad boy Reese Brock convinced Kipp to take off his white briefs on a raft in a lake because it might attract snakes. Still, even that scene seemed incomplete because we never saw any sexual interaction between the two boys, even though that was clearly Reese Brock's goal.

The very attractive and talented actors in this production captured the audience's attention resulting in a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Future stars of stage and scene are in this cast! Michael Czyz, who played Kipp, is a fresh new face making his New York City stage debut in this show. With his innocent, boy-next-door looks, he was perfectly cast for the part of a young man from Chilliwack but perhaps that is the case because Mr. Czyz "is a proud Western Canadian afflicted with OCD and UW (Ukelele Withdrawal)." Daniel Coelho, who played Nathan La Chance, is also acting in his first New York production, having previously performed with the Papermill Playhouse Show Choir in Millburn, New Jersey. I feel Mr. Coelho struck just the right balance between playing a character who was, on the one hand unseducible pledged not to have sex until marriage, and on the other hand, a boy eagerly looking for an opportunity to allow his hormones to fly free. Daniel Coelho is a very talented actor with a great future in the theater. Sam Donnenberg was excellent in the role of Reese Brock, the brooding bad-boy who was best friends with Kipp back in Chilliwack. Although his part was a small one, he made a big impression on me. Philip Louis Calabro was very charismatic in the role of Rocky Kreeger, the actor who formerly performed as a scantily-clad French maid in the fictitious show Naked Maids Dancing and was inspired by his brief interactions with columnist Liz Smith. Mr. Calabro exhibited exuberant energy and has a strong stage presence. Taylor Martin played Braden Walker, the "straight" former child star willing to appear in a gay musical as long as it involved an artistically challenging role. Mr. Martin hit a home run portraying a man willing to engage in a sexual bromance so long as no one perceived him, or the relationship, to be gay. This perspective and attitude has a long history and Mr. Martin nailed it with his performance. 

The part of the Director was played by two actors. Joseph Spitale was the Director as an adult, and Andrew Lanctot, played Chris, the Director at age 16. Both actors executed their respective roles flawlessly. From a psychological viewpoint, I found it fascinating how Chip Deffaa wrote the book so as to clearly exhibit how the behavior of the Director at 16 seducing his less experienced friends continued to be reflected in the adult Director's efforts to use his position to seduce young, inexperienced actors eager to make it in the theater. The Director's sexual modus operandi is unlikely to change, which makes the ending of Theater Boys and the new relationship between the Director and Kipp one that is very unlikely to last. Joseph Spitale is a very accomplished actor who was a pleasure to watch. Andrew Lanctot has great versatility and an abundance of raw talent. I look forward to seeing more of him in the future. 

Chip Deffaa, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for Theater Boys, was also the show's director. Mr. Deffaa is the author of 15 published plays and eight published books. He is an extremely talented individual. This show, Theater Boysoffers many laughs, extraordinarily actors and some toe-tapping musical numbers, many of them that deal with the moon. There was "The Moon Montage" (a medley of moon songs), "Under The Chilliwack Moon", and the finale "Under The Mellow Arabian Moon", which literally ended with the cast full-mooning the audience. Theatre Boys plays Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 26, 2014. Tickets cost $25.00 for adults and $18.00 for students/senior, which you can purchase at

If you are looking for a fun, upbeat show featuring some of the best actors New York theatre has to offer, then I highly recommend you see Theater Boys!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Ray Allen Durand in Let The Little Boy Dance at The Duplex by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Ray Allen Durand's Let The Little Boy Dance at The Duplex was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

"Let The Little Boy Dance" - Ray Allen Durand
The Duplex (61 Christopher Street, NYC)
Reviewed 9/21/14 at 4:30 p.m.

Ray Allen Durand stars in this autobiographical one-man show entitled Let The Little Boy Dance: From 'Bayou Baby' To 'Broadway Baby' - An Odyssey Told In Song, Dance & Drama, which traces his life from his birth in Hammond, Louisiana on March 6, 1943 to his current status as a retired High School Drama Teacher. Mr. Durand presents the key incidents of his life in chronological order as part of a fictitious speech he is giving at the 50th Annual Reunion of Hammond High School's Class of 1961, said event that was being held at the Columbia Theatre, a significant cultural venue in Hammond's Historic District. Ray Allen holds nothing back and is as honest about his family as he is about himself. If you know and love Ray Allen Durand from the UFT Players or as a former teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, this show will be a revelation for you.

Mr. Durand starts his story at the beginning - his birth, when anticipating his future career in show business, was silently saying, "Push mama! It's time for me to make my entrance!". While his alcoholic father, who just came back from the war, was not at all pleased with his son's delight in dancing and singing, his mom took comfort in the fact that their parish priest called him "his little ray of sunshine" for reasons not fully disclosed. However, he did admit that when he was twelve years old, his uncle "seduced him" and that he "liked being wanted". In retrospect, he didn't like the fact he didn't have much say in the matter. Ray Allen took on a paper route that delivered to homes in a black neighborhood where he sometimes hung out. The other boys in town called him "Nigger Lover", "Mama's Boy", "Sissy", "Homo", "Faggot" and "Queen". Despite all the obstacles, Ray Allen Durand continued performing being named Bayou Baby Of The Year and winning a Jitterbug Contest. He eventually attended Southeastern Louisiana University and spent a good deal of his time in New Orleans where he was introduced to "Gay Life in the Quarter". One of the bars he frequented was Dixie's Bar on Bourbon Street, where Miss Dixie (Yvonne Fasnacht) had him perform as a stripper in drag telling him to "be yourself" and to "take these feathers and fly!". In New Orleans, he met an older gay man named Bob who invited him up to New York City after he graduated from college in the summer of 1966. Ray Allen accepted the ticket to paradise and stayed with Bob for two years while modeling, acting and taking dance lessons. He performed in a naked male revue, which his parents came to New York to see. His father, who by this time had accepted the obvious, told him after the show, "you gotta do what you gotta do".

Once in New York City, the little Southern Boy from rural Louisiana went hog wild, flittering from bar to bar and from man to man. One night, a handsome man named Dale asked Ray Allen what song he would like played on the jukebox. He responded Respect by Aretha Franklin, which Dale played before offering to buy the young man a drink. After four or five drinks, Ray Allen went home with Dale but it turned out they had a long and lasting connection with one another. Ray Allen moved out of Bob's home and spent the next 45 years with Dale, formalizing their marriage as soon as it became possible under New York State law. By 1976, acting and modeling work had dried up so he accepted a position with United Cerebral Palsy entertaining adults and kids for 10 years. He was then hired as the Drama Teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn. At the time, he was described as being "very theatrical". He rapped an introduction to his mostly minority students and told them to call him Mr. D. He said if they didn't like Mr. D, they could call him a "Southern Redneck Son-Of-A-Bitch". From then on, he got along well with his students. They eventually referred to him as "Mr. Johnson", which he later came to understand was the highest possible compliment they could pay to him since it meant they thought he was "a black man in a white man's body".

Eventually, Ray Allen Durand realized he ended up exactly where he wanted to be and that it was the total fulfillment of all his dreams. He finally understood that he was able to keep sharing with the students what he had been learning over the years. Some of that advice included: "No matter what environment you come from, you can rise above it." "There is no right or wrong with an artistic project. And there are no unwanted people here." "Keep your dreams alive. There is gold at the end of the rainbow." Pick yourself up, Dust yourself off, and Start all over again." "Keep it simple. One day at a time." Ray Allen Durand then finished with the observation that: "It took a while, but it dawned on me. I was finally in the long running hit that had always eluded me, with a large and generous supporting cast. In the best part of my career - a teacher!"

Ray Allen Durand's Let The Little Boy Dance was directed by David Brunetti with Bob Goldstone at the piano. Mr Durand lays his life out for you on stage in just short of an hour. The show is an inspiration for all who seek to overcome adversity and make their mark in the world. The story he told reminded me of the message portrayed in the movie Mr. Holland's Opus with the exception that Mr. Durand's one-man show is brutally honest and tells you exactly what he had to go through to get to this point in his life. With respect to that life, all I can say is "Well Done!"