Thursday, September 27, 2007

Recent Backstage Reviews

September 20, 2007
By Christopher Murray

The talented team of composer Derek Gregor and book writer-lyricist Sam Carner has followed the musical unities in Unlock'd, a loose adaptation of Alexander Pope's early-18th-century mock-heroic poem "The Rape of the Lock." Much as Pope exploited the heroic ode to ridicule social convention, Gregor and Carner adroitly utilize the building blocks of the musical form to tell a satiric tale of petty squabbling among young British aristocrats. In doing so, Unlock'd makes for a gentle and often pleasing entertainment.

Beautiful Belinda (a pixyish Sarah Jane Everman) is envied by her step-sister Clarissa (an intense Jackie Burns), who plots to take her down a peg by inducing a playboy baron (the rich baritone Jim Weitzer) to collect a lock of her hair as a fetishized trophy of amorous conquest. The interventions of the baron's bookish brother (Christopher Gunn) and a sextet of virgin sylphs (Alison Cimmet, Maria Couch, Mary Catherine McDonald) and plodding gnomes (Darryl Winslow, Christopher Totten, William Thomas Evans) ensure plenty of intrigue and comic mayhem just perfect for singing about with whimsy: "Hair, hair, elegant hair/Without it my head would be bare."
The songs, expertly orchestrated and played, are enjoyable if not memorable, one of several exceptions being "Off to the East," a charming and wistful duet fantasy of escape to exotic, faraway places. Under Igor Goldin's direction, lovely costumes and an elegant, simple, and well-manipulated set add to the overall effect.

The uniformly fine cast makes every effort to imbue the material with passion and lighthearted joie de vivre, but their professionalism and zest can't overcome what is essentially a highly polished confection that has neither quite enough wit nor heart to rise to the level of an Into the Woods or Candide. But for what it is, an admirably executed example of an adaptation from classical material, Unlock'd is undeniably charming, unpretentious, and lovingly created.

Presented by La Vie Productions as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at TBG Theater, 312 W. 36th St., 3rd floor, NYC.September 17-30. Remaining performances: Fri., Sept. 21, 4:30 and 7 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 22, 1 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 23, 8 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 29, 1 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 30, 1 p.m.(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or by Stephen DeAngelis.

A Global Dionysus in Napoli
September 21, 2007
By Christopher Murray

La MaMa E.T.C., the stalwart Off-Off-Broadway performance venue, is known as a home away from home for international theatre artists looking to present their works in the United States. The OPS Project has arrived for two weeks to present its 2004 performance piece A Global Dionysus in Napoli.

The modern Dionysus in question is Marcello Colasurdo, a former factory worker from Pomigliano in Southern Italy near Naples whose folk songs helped organize worker protests in the 1970s. Colasurdo, a waltzing bear of a man with full cheeks and many necklaces, bangs and flutters his fingers on his traditional tambourine as he sings his lugubrious a cappella laments. One can imagine the power of traditional music to focus the outrage and stiffen the resolve of farmers-turned-activists whose employment in cities, initiated under grandiose economic development plans, had all but sputtered out.

The current piece, conceived by a trio of theatre artists who were just being born in the mid-'70s, is a performance-arty lionization of Colasurdo, proposing him as the ultimate folk artist of impeccable ethical and artistic credentials who has managed to have a global impact without selling out. With a hip-hop DJ (Marco Messina) spinning on stage to provide contemporary street cred, a Londoner (Vernon Douglas) acts as narrator while Colasurdo slumps in a padded chair waiting for his cue to lift his hefty frame and promenade Zorba-like around the stage.

In between Colasurdo's songs, a series of projections -- think updated civics-class educational slide shows -- provide background on the impact of globalization on the Naples region, from Mussolini's obsessive factory openings in 1938 through today's "medialized numbness."

While it's interesting to try to understand the impact of national economic forces on local citizenry across the globe, the presentation of Colasurdo as a sort of singing savior of the people wears thin even within the swift 50 minutes of this piece.

Presented by and at La MaMa E.T.C.,74A E. Fourth St., NYC.Sept. 21-30. Fri. and Sat., 10 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.(212) 475-7710 or

Gemini the Musical
September 24, 2007
By Christopher Murray

Playwright Albert Innaurato has transformed his successful 1977 Broadway roman à clef into a high-spirited musical about a young Harvard student returning for the summer to his South Philly neighborhood, with Charles Gilbert, Innaurato's colleague at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, providing music and lyrics. Filled with kooky, outsized characters and a generous if often salty live-and-let-live spirit, Gemini the Musical, like its lead character, has a lot of heart but is still struggling to find its voice.

Fran (a smooth and affable Joel Blum), the Italian-American pater familias, starts things off by crooning out "One Big Family," which makes clear that in this neighborhood "we kiss, we cuss, we kick up a fuss." However, both the story and the score, while bouncy, tend to lurch a little. Gilbert relies to a surfeit on monosyllabic rhymes, and the majority of the songs are solo numbers, odd in a piece that is all about family and interreliance. Still, Linda Hart (from Broadway's Hairspray) kicks up a delightful self-dramatizing fuss as Bunny, the aging harlot next door, and her second-act showpiece "I'm Gonna Jump!" is the high point of the show, sung from high atop a street pole.

Innaurato's love for his idiosyncratic characters remains strong even 30 years after their initial introduction to the stage, but revising his main character Francis' (recent Boston Conservatory graduate Dan Micciche) struggles to come out as gay to conform to contemporary sensibilities may not have been the right decision for this musicalization.

What's clear is that the game actors performing the piece are still struggling to make their characters more than cardboard cutouts under Mark Robinson's somewhat slapdash direction. As much as Dana Kenn's two-dimensional flats accurately convey the brick-faced row houses of South Philly, the creative team needs to continue working toward showing the three-dimensional lives of the characters who inhabit Innaurato's world.

Presented by the University of the Arts as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Acorn Theater, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC.Sept. 18-Oct. 1. Remaining performances: Tue., Sept. 25, 8 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 29, 4:30 p.m.; Mon., Oct. 1, 8 p.m.(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or or by Stuart Howard Associates.

September 24, 2007
By Christopher Murray

Avenue Q's Stephanie D'Abruzzo plays Sam, the stable, stage-managing center of the storm in Austentatious, a new backstage musical farce. "Guys," she implores with pencil stuck into her hair, "we have a play to rehearse; this is not the time for drama."

But, of course, it is the perfect time for the fragile egos involved in the Central Riverdale Amateur Players updated production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to let loose all their insecurities and mad grabs for power and applause. Emily (Stacey Sargeant) wrote the extremely loose adaptation and insists on adding interpretive dance sequences, including a movement duel with clogs bizarrely set among windmills in Amsterdam. She's also been cast as the star because she's romantically involved with Dom (Stephen Bel Davies), the abstracted and grandiose director with the obligatory scarf tossed around his neck.

Much of Austentatious treads ground familiar from shows like Noises Off and A Chorus Line, but this crowd pleaser makes the satire of community theatre winningly fresh again by dint of superb and drum-tight direction by Mary Catherine Burke and a wonderful cast, each member fully invested in the delightful peculiarities of his or her character.

The jazzy music and witty lyrics by Matt Board and Joe Slabe focus mostly on the private thoughts of the players as they struggle toward opening night while demonstrating that "somehow the Austen got lost in translation." My other favorite rhyme matched "hunky dory" to "purgatory."

The book is credited to the songwriters and three other collaborators (Jane Caplow, Kate Galvin, and Luisa Hinchliff), but too many cooks prove just right for the Feydeau farcical elements of Austentatious. Sometimes, however, the manic silliness overtakes the emotional core of the piece and the sung inner monologues of people struggling for acceptance and validation. Regardless, Austentatious is a charming and winningly presented highlight of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Presented by From the Top Productions as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Julia Miles Theater, 424 W. 55th St., NYC.Sept. 18-29. Remaining performances: Tue., Sept. 25, 4:30 p.m.; Fri., Sept. 28, at 11 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 29, 4:30 p.m.(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or or

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