Sadly, I waited unTILL an Emotional Connection Happened but it Never did

till

Danielle Marie Gray & Taylor A. Blackman

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

Have you ever wanted to be able to join in with others who were feeling something grand but you just couldn’t bring yourself to get wrapped up in the excitement? Then you know how I felt watching Till, as part of the New York Musical Festival. The production has all the elements required to be a great production: great singing and solid acting, but something did not add up here, and I was unable to emotionally connect with the piece.

Till, brought to us by Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro, tells us the infamous horrific story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy killed in Mississippi during the Jim Crow period. Emmett is depicted as a charismatic young man who was killed by a white man because he whistled at his wife. This tragedy spread like wildfire and made history. It even caused the Emmett Till Civil Rights Bill to be signed into law by President Obama.

There are a few things that hurt the play’s appeal. The representations of the white racists were played by black actors wearing masks and the first time we encounter them in the play, they are caricatures. Tyla Collier laughs like a hyena, which at first is comical but goes on way too long and becomes distracting. This initial buffoonish portrayal makes it hard to see her as a murderous wife later in the piece.

Also, every time the momentum of the play began to pick up speed, a song interrupted the flow of the piece. I wish the actors sang with the same emotional intensity as they did when they were engaged in dialogue. I would start to connect with the story but the music, although gorgeously sung, took me out of the moment and killed any dramatic affectations that were intended.

The 90-minute musical spends too long getting to the main event, so when the climax happens, the audience has already checked out because we’ve long known what was coming. There is a big production number, meant to be an evangelical event at Emmett’s funeral. I understand this is a cultural phenomenon with deep roots in the black community, but it is so joyously sung and danced that it detracts from the severity of what Jim Crow and bigotry justified as acceptable behavior in the south. Again, the musicality undercut the profundity of the piece, which hurt its overall impact. The energy of the last number seemed at odds with the sadness of the situation. This disparity confused me about how I was supposed to feel. 

Despite the music’s negative impact, it is sung by stellar vocalists. Judith Franklin brings down the house with her powerhouse ability. Taylor Blackman is wonderful as Emmett Till. He is infectious and steals your heart, making his untimely death more tragic. Dwelvan David is enigmatic as the preacher. His voice hits a sweet spot in your soul. These singers’ voices cut through you and are a delight to listen to.

The audience gave them a standing ovation and if I was complimenting their singing alone, I would have joined in. Sadly, as a cohesive piece of theater, this musical just did not work for me.

Till closed on July 29, 2019 at 480 W 42nd St. http://www.nymf.org

‘Overture the Musical’ Delights and Inspires

Krista Eyler is Lilly Brooks in Overture the Musical - photo by Steven Rosen

Krista Eyler in Overture the Musical. Photo by Steven Rosen

Reviewed by Audrey Weinbrecht

Overture the Musical is the official Grand Jury selection of the 2019 New York Musical Festival. It premiered in July 2018 at the Kansas City Fringe Festival where it was one of the highest attended productions. It had its first full production at Kansas City’s The Arts Asylum in September 2018.

Overture is based on the true story of a local community banding together to save the Kansas City Philharmonic in 1953. Against this backdrop is the love story between Christopher, an assistant conductor frustrated by his stagnant career, and Lily, an enthusiastic sales rep for the Philharmonic. As the staff members of the Philharmonic struggle to make ends meet, Lily and Christopher grow closer. Yet their relationship is hampered by Lily’s heartbreaking secret. Can the Philharmonic and Lily and Christopher’s love survive?

This show is a love letter to music and the people who devote their lives to creating and supporting art in their communities. It’s also about letting go of the past to pursue a brighter future. Heartwarming with dashes of humor which prevent it from becoming saccharine, this is the perfect show for music and musical lovers.

The score is a light blend of traditional musical theater with touches of pop and samples of the classical music pieces that inspire the characters. I imagine it would be even better with a full orchestra. The book is tightly scripted with lighthearted fun and poignancy.

The cast, most of whom were part of the original Kansas City production, is excellent. Krista Eyler, the lyricist, composer and co-book writer also stars as Lily. Eyler is charming and soulful in her role, providing the emotional anchor for the show. Kay Noonan as Lily’s supervisor Inda Mae Beasley provides most of the comic relief with a playful wit.

This is a fun night at the theater, sure to leave audiences with a smile on their faces (and maybe a few tears).

Overture runs through July 28th at the Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street. Tickets can be purchased at www.nymf.org

‘At Black Lake’ Fails to Deliver Emotional Payoff

At Black Lake featuring Heather Benton and Chris J. Cancel-Pomales, April Sweeney and Darrell Stokes, background Photo credit Walls Trimble

Heather Benton and Chris J. Cancel-Pomales with April Sweeney and Darrell Stokes in the background.

Reviewed by Audrey Weinbrecht

Four years after their children are lost in a terrible tragedy, married couple Else and Johnny return to Black Lake, the home of Cleo and Eddie and the scene of the disaster. Over the next several days, the couples grapple with their fraught connection with each other and the fact that they may not have truly known their children.

There is rich emotional material to be mined here but the story fails to come together in a cohesive arc that would allow for depth and clarity. Most of the play is spent elucidating what happened in the past but doesn’t give the characters any resolution in the present. The language has a poetic sensibility with lines often repeated for emotional emphasis. There are several haunting monologues but the highly stylized language seems to get in the actors’ way during the emotional confrontations. It’s unclear how much of this is down to the translation or to the original playwright’s style.

The staging is very sparse. The floor is covered with plastic paper and in the second half of the show, this is used to great effect. About midway through the play the actors return to the stage soaked to the skin and barefoot, referencing one of the biggest emotional revelations in the story. Thereafter, when one character crosses the stage to confront another (which happens frequently) they slip and slide on the wet plastic. It was a really creative way of conveying the messiness of the emotional dynamics.

There were other production choices that were odd such as the decision to have Else’s monologue about the children’s deaths sung. Heather Benton brings wonderful raw emotion to that speech but the choice to have it and nothing else in the show sung took me out of the moment. Every scene ends in a ten-second blackout which makes the pacing very choppy.

The cast is excellent, especially Chris J. Cancel-Pomales as Eddie, whose carefree and charismatic personality masks a desperate anxiety. Unfortunately, the script does not allow the actors to bring their characters’ arcs to their true potential. The fascinating premise and talent of the actors makes for several wonderful moments but without a tighter script they remain just a series of moments strung together to no resolution.

At Black Lake is the American premiere of a German play originally written by Dea Loher, presented by Necessary Digression. It runs through July 25th with performances at 3 PM on weekends and 7 PM on week days, at The Tank (312 West 36th Street).

www.thetanknyc.org

Let’s Talk About the Good Things

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Reviewed by Kenneth Laboy   

From the moment Not Even the Good Things starts one can appreciate the level of craft behind this production.

The lighting design of Alexander Le Vaillant Freer successfully sets the atmosphere from the start as the audience follows a single candle, and deftly carries the viewer through the many changes in mood that the play calls for. It is through Freer’s work that the production displays the elements of horror since the play itself downplays these in favor of creating a disconnect between the audience and the players. The irony effectively creates the sense of danger that wouldn’t exist if these elements were in conjunction. 

And then, the actors enter the stage. The ensemble has no weak points. As actors they are always present, always saying something even when silent. The most complicated characters, the ones with the most decisive arcs are the first we meet Grace and Bill, played by Victoria Janicki and Sea McHale respectively. The other characters serve as foils to them. Coming into the stage to challenge them in different ways. And these two actors take the material given with assured confidence. Their performances anchor the show. 

Those performances exist because writer Joseph Scott Ford has crafted an exciting blend of humor and pathos that lets these actors be electrifying on stage. He transitions through the emotional beats impeccably. And his dialogue is delightfully heavy with the unsaid, with the implied. Ford is at his best when focusing on these relationships and the specificity they carry. His instinct for what is most emotionally resonant never fails. That being said- 

As a narrative, it lacks forward momentum. While the interactions are interesting, dynamic and well-crafted, the stakes aren’t raised as the play progresses. This takes away from the moment of catharsis at the end, because it was reached without a climax. Adding to this is the fact that the last beat of Bill’s arc arrives through a conversation between Jackie and him- a relationship that had been given little weight prior to this. The play’s haunting is mostly left at the periphery of the action and so Bill’s grief, though it bookends the play, and is the foundation of the thematic through-line, is never explored enough to justify it’s being the center of the narrative.  

This problem is heightened by the challenges of the theater space. The set and the audience exist in very close proximity to each other making it difficult to follow anything that was staged too far downstage or on the floor. Because the set is small and there is no less than five actors on stage at times, director Kelsey Claire needed to use these areas to create a variety of stage pictures. For example, because the play heightens the mundane and the specter of “The girl” was placed on the floor for most of it, one forgot about her haunting for lengthy periods of time. Because that haunting seems to be a personification of Bill’s grief, and everything else happening on stage was so interesting, it was easy to dismiss his grief as well. 

The final product has its flaws, but it is also immensely enjoyable. The choices made by this team of artists are incredibly strong from start to finish. One must thank Ford, for what was clearly a labor of love, and Claire for leading an impressive team of artists to create a thoroughly entertaining, at times rambunctious, piece of art, one that keeps you thinking once the lights go down.  

Not Even the Good Things plays now through Saturday, July 27th in the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row 410 W 42st

Tickets can be bought for $35 at

https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Not-Even-the-Good-Things/Overview?AID=AFF000009900&cm_mmc=Playbill-_-affiliate-_-web-_-AFF00000990

Sleeping Beauty for Today’s Kids

Chelsea Melone Photo credit Eric Bondoc Photography

Chelsea Melone (Photo by Eric Bondoc)

Reviewed by Audrey Weinbrecht

Sleeping Beauty by Amina Henry is one of the two commissioned world premieres presented as part of the Women in Theatre Festival at A.R.T/New York Theatres. This retelling of the classic children’s story is a lighthearted romp that includes important, progressive messages for kids about gender roles, consent and the bond between siblings.

The plot is a familiar one. Princess Rosamond is the beloved daughter of a king and queen who is cursed as a baby by the wicked fairy Iris that on her seventeenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. Good fairy Lily softens the curse so that Rosamond will only fall asleep to be awakened by a kiss.

Believing they’ve outsmarted the curse by getting rid of all the spindles, Rosamond’s parents throw her a seventeenth birthday bash and introduce her to Prince Rocky, who they hope she’ll marry. Rocky is accompanied by his spunky sister Princess Jewel who finds the whole marrying a stranger because your parents told you to thing ridiculous. When Rosamond falls under wicked Iris’ spell, Jewel accompanies her brother on his quest because she’s better at swords and she has his back.

The show doesn’t turn the familiar story completely on its head but it does get kids to question the way these stories are usually told. Why is sword fighting only for boys and baking only for girls? Isn’t making friends just as important as getting married? And isn’t being kissed by a stranger when you’re asleep pretty creepy? The last point feels especially poignant in today’s society but it’s handled with such a light touch that it feels natural to the story and not like a Talking To Kids About Issues moment. Overall, the show injects progressive values to great success.

The setting in a black box space seemed a bit dark and gloomy (despite the presence of bright pink streamers) for such a lighthearted story and the transitions were a bit clunky with the stage manger having to pick up set pieces and move them offstage. However, the cast was energetic and charming and more importantly, the show seemed to be a hit with its target audience.

The children in the audience of the performance I attended responded very well to the show. Many of the children whispered “No” when Princess Rosamond touched the spindle and at the end when Rosamond tells Rocky “Your sister is really cool” the little boy and girl sitting in front of me embraced.

The show runs for a brief but satisfying 45 minutes and is full of quirky humor to entertain the adults as well as the kids. It’s the perfect treat for a family.

Sleeping Beauty runs through June 30th on Saturdays and Sundays with performances at 12 PM and 3PM (Only one show on June 30th at 12 PM) at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street)

https://witfestival.brownpapertickets.com

‘Rabbit Hole’ Expects More Than We Can Give

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Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Nuance Theatre Company’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole has its poignant moments—and they were delivered by committed actors who weren’t terrible—but holistically it’s a grief play that expects us to grieve about an event we never get to see, and therefore feel nothing for. So for that reason, it fails.

It’s an uphill battle when a playwright writes a play about a tragic event that happens before the curtain opens, and then expects us to feel as deeply as the actors do about it.

Rabbit Hole won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. No doubt an impressive honor. But doesn’t that just mean the small group of powers-that-be deciding who gets the award every year resonated with it? What about the average theater-goer?

The plot: Becca and Howie (Maggie Alexander and Michael Filisky) have everything a family could want, until an accident claims the life of their little boy. When the play opens, eight months have passed since the accident and the family is still mourning. They end up working through the pain to find their way back to the light.

If that sounds lifeless and depressing from beginning to end, it isn’t entirely—the play offers fits of humor, almost exclusively delivered by Izzy (Rachel Worthington), the sister of the mother of the boy who was killed. Worthington, the strongest of the cast, is a wonderful actor with a gift for unforced levity, but aside from her entrances and exits, the sheer weightiness of the melodrama proves laborious for us. A play about grief is one thing, but when it pounds in the nail and insists on hammering away until the foundation is ruined, what’s left? Well, Rabbit Hole.

It’s not really that we don’t care about this child dying, it’s that we don’t care about them caring about it. Herculean efforts are made to make us care. And sometimes we kind of do. But more often we’re watching actors emoting to themselves, not to us.

I kept thinking there needed to be something to shake it up. Maybe a scene with an altered tone, or a dazzling multimedia display. Something to rub us a completely different way. But nothing changed. So we were never moved. You’d think a dramaturg would have given this note during the writing of the script. Maybe they did, and the playwright ignored it. Then won a Pulitzer. But does that anointment give it automatic immunity?

At least the 30-seat NuBox Theater in Hell’s Kitchen was the perfect venue for it. They wanted us to feel like we were “in the living room” with them. We did. The problem was, it was for a play that expected more than we could give.

Nuance Theatre Co. in association with LungTree Productions presents Rabbit Hole. Performances run June 1 – 23, 2019.

Tickets: https://desotellestudio.ticketleap.com/

You Should Totally Give Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson’s Head a Try

JONATHAN SALE

Dean Nolen, George Hampe, and Jonathan Sale as Luke Wilson (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Don’t let the showy title dissuade you…

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson’s Head—a true story, apparently—is a deftly-acted, ingeniously directed, and deliciously meta frolic around the set of an iconic TV commercial.

According to the press release, the play is based on an actual shoot in which “a legendary film director put a movie star’s life in the hands of a very jittery prop guy.” Luke Wilson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Erol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) are the real life movie star and legendary director. Actor Jonathan Sale, who plays Luke Wilson, uncannily resembles him physically. He also embodies his quirky intensity and golly-gee-wilikers charm. And Morris, played by longtime character actor David Wohl, shines as the insipid egomaniac obsessed with, well, Dropping G’s on LW’s Head.

So… Luke Wilson is shooting an AT&T commercial. The plan is for the props guy (George Hampe), who’s perched atop a ladder behind a green screen above Luke Wilson waiting for his cue, to drop 500 shiny red gumballs on Wilson’s head. The gumballs, as you may suppose, represent the red dots rival company Verizon peppers all over their U.S. map indicating breadth of cell phone service.

During rehearsal the props guy dumps a bucket of gumballs on Wilson’s head, but something happens no one anticipated—Wilson gets injured, or rather claims to be injured. Wilson pleads with Morris to reduce the gumball drop count to 10, as if his life depends on it. They ultimately agree on 15. When Wilson bounces offstage to get ready for the first take, Morris pulls aside the assistant director (Ann Harada) and instructs her to drop the full 500. She has no choice but to comply.

The play doesn’t exactly put either celeb in the most favorable light. Luke Wilson is portrayed as a lovable wimp who is kind of unsociable, slightly ornery, not too bright, his boyish grin his only salvation. And if Wohl’s portrayal of Erol Morris is accurate or even partially accurate, we would all report him to the Better Business Bureau. So if you’re either Luke Wilson or Erol Morris you might have a problem with this play. Everyone else is in for a treat.

Deserving a mention alongside the front-of-the-house team is the design team that helped Director Theresa Rebeck pull off the imaginative multimedia display that consummated Playwright Rob Ackerman’s vision: Scenic Designers Christopher and Justin Swader; Lighting Designer Mary Ellen Stebbins; Sound Designer Bart Fasbender; and Video Designer Yana Biryukova.

If you’re like me and you have a few screws loose in a good way, you’ll appreciate the whimsically offbeat tone Ackerman and Rebeck have created here. In the end, while it’s literally a play about the inanity of dropping gumballs on Luke Wilson’s head, Ackerman’s droll script finds unexpected depths in its disturbing account of power in the workplace.

DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON runs from June 11-July 6, 2019, at the Mezzanine Theater at the A.R.T./New York.

Tickets $40 (Reserved Tickets);  $30 (General Admission) and $25 (Student/Senior/Union Members), available at TheWorkingTheater.org, or by calling Ovationtix at 866-811-4111