Saturday, February 28, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Parkside Players' production of Vanities at Grace Lutheran Church by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Parkside Players' production of "Vanities" by Jack Heifner at Grace Lutheran Church (Forest Hills) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Parkside Players
Grace Lutheran Church (103-15 Union Turnpike, Forest Hills, NY)
Reviewed 2/27/15 

Vanities was written by Jack Heifner. It premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York City on January 15, 1976, for 13 performances, and then was transferred to the Chelsea Theatre Center (now Westside Theatre) where it opened on March 22, 1976 and closed August 3, 1980, running for 1,785 performances. Jack Heifner received a 1976 Drama Desk Award Nomination for Outstanding New Play. Vanities was made into a musical entitled Vanities: A New Musical, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2009.

The play follows the lives and friendship of Joanne, Kathy and Mary, three close friends who are seniors in High School in a small Texas town in November, 1963. They are cheerleaders for the Tigers, the school's football team and being pretty and popular teenage girls, they have boyfriends and worry about things important to their lives such as prom and whether they can hold out from going "too far" with their boyfriends. Joanne is the naive, country girl who is clear about what she wants; to marry her boyfriend Ted, have children and be a wife and mother. When Joanne comes up with proposed chants, such as Do It Again! Do It Again! Harder! Harder! and Go All The Way! Go All The Way!, she has no idea that others may see a sexual connotation in the wording. Kathy is the organizer who is less attractive than her girlfriends. Mary is the rebellious one who would like to travel and be free of her parents' rules and authority. Although still a virgin, Mary seems destined to become sexually promiscuous as evidenced by the fact that with each new gift her boyfriend gives her, she lets him go a little further in their sexual interactions until she finally realizes her boyfriend "has more gifts than she has parts to give." The three girls express anxiety about remaining popular in college and whether they can stay together there but are committed to doing so. The first act ends with the announcement that President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. As you might expect given that this school is in a small Texas town, classes and the pep rally were cancelled but it was announced the football game would take place as planned, to which all three girls expressed their relief by exclaiming, "Thank God!".

In the second act, taking place in the Spring of 1968, we find the girls thriving as seniors in a Texas college. All three pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma, a prestigious sorority and now, as seniors, they are in charge of rushing new pledges to maintain the great quality and reputation of the sorority. Joanne likes tradition and rules. She doesn't mind inviting serenading fraternity brothers into the sorority house for punch and cake and objects to her sorority sisters wearing jeans and smoking at dinner (she prefers they smoke in their rooms). While all three girls are still very close, Mary has dumped her boyfriend because she got bored with him and she would prefer to just "let the sorority sisters loose" with no rules and no requirement for them to sign in and out. Joanne is still a virgin and is preparing to marry Ted. Kathy went on the pill, gave away the milk for free, and saw her boyfriend marry another woman whom he got pregnant and then married after just a month. Since Kathy's dream bubble was burst, she has no idea what she will do after college. Kathy majored in Physical Education and supposes she will teach. Mary majored in Interior Design, which she could not care less about and Joanne majored in Music because the lines to sign up for those classes were the shortest.

In the Summer of 1974, the three old friends meet again in a garden apartment in New York City. Joanne, the ever-devoted friend who is now living in Connecticut with Ted and her children, is the wife and mother she always wanted to be. Life may not be perfect and she may drink a bit too much, but Joanne is definitely a lady and a devoted friend, who named two of her children Mary and Kathy, after her childhood buddies. She attends this reunion Tea Party optimistic that there are many good times to reminisce about. Ted, her husband, recommended against her accepting Kathy's invitation, but Joanne went anyway walking into a bitter cat and claw fight of unexpected proportions. Only Joanne acts as a true friend while Kathy and Mary are two bitter, single, angry people envious of the fact that Joanne obtained part of the white-picket fence dream life she envisioned. It appears this inexplicable and illogical anger and hatred runs so deep that both Kathy and Mary are sleeping with Ted, Joanne's husband. Mary admits to Kathy she has been sleeping with Ted for a year and a half while it is implied the apartment in which Kathy lives, belongs to Ted as evidenced by the art hanging in it that was purchased at Mary's exotic art gallery. 

On one level, Mary achieved the freedom she wanted with the success of her gallery and financial independence. She is a self-described exhibitionist, attends rallies for Bella Abzug, has had an abortion, and sleeps with hundreds of men (and some women). Kathy has quit teaching, stays home all days and reads books having "negotiated" a life she just let happen without advance planning. Both should be happy but instead they are bitter toward and envious of Joanne and all she represents. However, it is not Joanne's fault or their upbringing in a simpler time that has made Kathy "so cynical" and Mary "so wild." It is the choices they made along the way. As Mary, quoting Bob Dylan lyrics said, "the times they are a-changing" and it is everyone's personal responsibility to adjust to those changes without blaming others for the choices they make. This play may have resonated more in the early 1970s as the predictable lives many middle-class people lived in the 1950s and 1960s were shattered by sexual liberation, the pill, legalized abortion, feminism, and the gay rights movement; and this play accurately reflects the challenges young women faced during those times and face now. However, that is no reason to blame the lack of a "perfect life" on others. Joanne is not the devil and she doesn't reflect the oppressiveness of a conservative culture. She is, in fact, pretty accepting of the different opinions held by her friends and sincerely hopes things work out for them. Kathy and Mary hold their own futures in their hands, as everyone does, and they need to decide what makes them happy and then work towards those goals.   

The star of this show is Nili Resnick, who plays Joanne. Ms. Resnick has a powerful stage presence and wins over the audience with her charm and charisma. Alison Kondel is suitably strong and brassy as Mary. Ms. Kondel successfully exhibits the bitterness and anger her character carries with her for reasons unknown. Lauren Snyder did well in the role of Kathy but I believe the part may have called for a more traditional beauty. Finally, just because I have to say it or I'll burst, Mary should have recommended the musical Hair for the Sing Song, not Kathy. That would have been consistent with the trajectory of Mary's story line. The funniest comment in the play was uttered by Joanne in Act 3 after she fought with Mary, who just revealed she had slept with Ted, Joanne's husband. In response, Joanne bolted out of the apartment saying, "I'm going to go home right now and change Little Mary's name!".

I highly recommend you see Vanities at The Parkside Players. The company offers a friendly staff, reasonably priced concessions and quality productions.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Can Opener: A Brief Horror Musical at The Kraine Theater by John Michael Koroly

This review of M. Zachary Johnson's The Can Opener: A Brief Horror Musical at The Kraine Theater was written by John Michael Koroly and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Can Opener: A Brief Horror Musical

M. Zachary Johnson - Writer & Composer
Kenneth Oefelein - Director
The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 2/24/15 at 7:10 p.m.

"The Can Opener: A Brief Horror Musical" was recently featured as part of the 2015 Frigid New York Theater Festival. I regret to report that it proved to be a rather amateurish attempt at...what? Satire? Sweet homage? Sly commentary? It's really never clear what composer/lyricist M. Zachary Johnson intends here.

Ostensibly, the show is about a girl, Bobbi, in her late teens whose overactive dream life is taking over her waking life. (But IS it just a dream life? This is never made clear.) She enjoys the company of an imaginary friend: a hunky, attractive young man named Apollo. However, as soon as Apollo leaves, she is besieged by "zombies" who terrify her with songs about brain-eating and the like. Her parents are eager to get her off to college and there is some baffling dialogue over breakfasts about a string of murders in the neighborhood that might really be serial suicides. Again, none of this makes very much sense; least of all the scenes with Bobbi finally entering college and being consumed by a conformist environment, to the final tableau of her taking a hammer and chisel to her own head. It's all a confusing clutter of ideas.

Johnson's music never rises above the routine. His melodies in numbers such as "My Life Is Small But Cheerful," "Boy, Is This Weird," and "It's Time To Send You Away, Former Friend" are neither catchy in a conventional sense, nor daring in any thematic way. The score is supposed to drive the action along. Here, it just sits there, inert. Kenneth Oefelein's direction isn't any more inspired. At times, the blocking suggested a reasonably competent high school production. The Kraine's stage space is, I grant you, tiny, but it could have been exploited more imaginatively.

The cast was of widely varying degrees of quality, with Sharon Lam's Bobbi likable enough, eventually winning our empathy. Jesse Corbin's Apollo was suitably magnetic. Kevin Tucker as the father and Rose Marie Rupley as the mother, however, were of very uneven voice; Tucker going off note several times. Meghan Pulles and Andrew Blair made for some enjoyably quirky zombies, though.

The title reference to a can opener, by the way, is never explained nor implied that I could tell.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Stearns Matthews in Spark at The Laurie Beechman Theatre by Andrew Martin

This review of Stearns Matthews in Spark at The Laurie Beechman Theatre was written by Andrew Martin and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

"Spark" - Stearns Matthews

Stearns' Album Release Show
The Laurie Beechman Theatre
West Bank Cafe (407 West 42nd Street, NYC)
Reviewed 2/11/15 at 7:00 p.m.

When cabaret first began to enjoy its initial renaissance in New York over three decades ago, most largely with the late Erv Raible and Rob Hoskins at the helm, it more often than not emerged as being propelled by female talent. However, male vocalists have always endured as their own force with which to be reckoned, including Phillip Officer, Tom Andersen, Mark Coffin, Tony Award-winning Billy Porter, and singer-instrumentalists Billy Stritch and Ricky Ritzel, among myriad others. Today, and in the here and now, Stearns Matthews may well be their heir apparent. His most recent appearance, at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, to celebrate the release of his new CD Spark, definitely displays not only the young gentleman's golden vocal timbre, but his inherent gift for communication on a variety of numbers that range from intensely serious to humorously delightful. Aided and abetted by the divine Christopher Denny at the piano, the evening never proves anything but an utter thrill and a prime example of the art form at its best.

After launching into a splendid delivery of Stephen Schwartz's "The Spark Of Creation," Matthews masterfully manages to take a chestnut like Bacharach and David's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" and transform it into a moment that can only be described as utter velvet. "My Alligator And Me" by John Bucchino is merely heightened further with the "guest appearance" of musician "Toots" Matthews on melodica, and by the time he plows into Rodgers & Hart's "My Romance," Matthews borders on legitimately incomparable. "Stop In The Name Of Love" proves a particular standout as delivered in German, French, Italian and even Pig Latin, and he bursts forth equally triumphant with the uproarious "Every Time A Friend Succeeds (A Little Piece Of Me Dies Inside)" by Amanda Green; it's clear that he's a definitive find for the current cabaret climate if one hadn't already discovered his brilliance. Perhaps even more mesmerizing is Matthews' ability to take such run-of-the-mill pop standards as Roger Miller's "King Of The Road" and infuse them with a stripped-bare plaintive quality, which almost makes them sound as though they've never been sung before and belong solely to him.

Although there are no official announcements at the time of this writing for an upcoming club appearance by Stearns Matthews, he has rightfully received a 2015 Bistro Award for his CD Spark and is certain to continue his conquest of all things cabaret. One can't be urged more strongly to attend his next show whence upon that should happen.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Barbara A. Malley in Eat, Drink, Be Merry at Don't Tell Mama by Andrew Martin

This review of Barbara A. Malley in Eat, Drink, Be Merry at Don't Tell Mama was written by Andrew Martin and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

"Eat, Drink, Be Merry" - Barbara A. Malley

Don't Tell Mama (343 West 46th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 1/25/15 at 3:00 p.m.

It's always a snappy surprise to walk into a club with little expectation, to see a show by an older performer of who you know or have heard basically nothing, and then see perform a thoroughly delightful and charming hour of entertainment. So it goes with Barbara A. Malley who, with her most recent show
 Eat, Drink, Be Merry at Don't Tell Mama, came off as not merely an absolute pro but someone whose show should be seen solely for an hour of thorough escape, and the chance to just feel marvelous. This tribute to the glory of aging (yes, the glory, not the downsides), is brilliantly directly by Jay Rogers with musical direction by Ricky Ritzel, and when it returns there it absolutely deserves a look and a listen. It's not the greatest vocal prowess to be found in cabaret, and perhaps occasionally pitchy, but that's wholeheartedly beside the point; Malley is clearly having such a good time on that stage that the audience to a man can't help but begrudge her the pleasure.

After getting things off to a rollicking start with the title song by Keith Thompson, Malley at times proves captivating on such comical numbers as "In A Disney Way" by Michael Bruce, Kander & Ebb's "The Elephant Song," and "He Had Refinement" by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields. But she's equally adept with such ballads as "Blame It On My Youth" by Oscar Levant and Edward Heyman, and even gives pop music a try with James Taylor's "The Secret Of Life." In addition, she showcases original material as in the case of "White Girls Don't Sing The Blues" by Sue Matsuki and Gregory Toroian, and by the time she winds up with "Go Visit Your Grandmother" (also by Kander & Ebb), she's got the audience eating out of the palm of her lovely little hand.

Barbara A. Malley will return to Don't Tell Mama on February 24th at 7:00 p.m. and she's wholeheartedly worth the fifteen-dollar cover charge (with a five-dollar discount for MAC members) and two-drink minimum. By all means, visit the show and prepare, if not to eat or drink, to be very merry.