Monday, December 3, 2007

Recent Backstage Reviews

Black Nativity

December 03, 2007

By Christopher Murray

The Classical Theatre of Harlem's new adaptation of Langston Hughes' 1961 gospel version of the birth of Jesus Christ imagines what it would be like if Mary gave birth in the middle of Times Square in the sordid days of the early 1970s. And that's a pretty good conceit. But a better one is, What if the adult Jesus Christ had the strut and flash and twinkle of Broadway's veteran showman André De Shields? Now there's a theological question worth pondering.

Decked out in a blood-red suit with black-and-white calfskin high-heeled pointy-toed shoes, DeShields as the Narrator/Pastor locks the audience in his mesmeric gaze and doesn't let go for the 90-minute breakneck revue of songs that follows. He's a crowing rooster delightfully full of both himself and the spirit of the Lord as he plays pater familias in this exciting and often moving holiday presentation.

That's not to say that the ensemble isn't rocking as well — they are. There is ample showcasing of some wonderful young vocal talent, including in particular the angel-faced and -voiced Melvin Bell III and a dulcet Nikki Stephenson. The tiny members of Nairobi's Shangilla Youth Choir make up in cute for what they forgivably lack in pitch.

The production is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears; costume designer Kimberly Glennon must be the hardest-working member of her profession this season, decking out the ensemble in a cornucopia of fantastically colorful '70s outfits made of what the three wise men probably would have brought in 1973: upholstery, spandex, and polyester. The wigs and platform shoes deserve to be credited as full members of the cast.

But ultimately it's De Shields' world; the Heavenly Host is just allowed to share it with him. After playing Caligula and Lear for CTH, De Shields cements his fruitful collaboration with the company, sharing with it a muscular, intelligent, and fearsomely entertaining sensibility.

Presented by the New 42nd Street at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St., NYC.Nov 30-Dec.30. Tue.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6 p.m.(646) 223-3010 or

A Christmas Carol

December 03, 2007

By Christopher Murray

Vortex Theater Company rounds out its ambitious 2007 season having explored the ghost of musicals past (H.M.S. Pinafore), musicals present (Kiss of the Spider Woman), and now a vision of the kind of musicals yet to come with director Kris Thor and composer Joel Bravo's intense and satisfying new version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Set in North Carolina during a holiday heat wave, this collaboratively created Carol re-imagines Scrooge as an ethically challenged environmental entrepreneur of the Bill Gates ilk. As played by downtown music-scene icon Jason Trachtenburg, Scrooge is an über-nerd cipher, his flat delivery and ironic sangfroid enough to bring a chill to the humid Southern air.

Richly layered scenic elements, including Super 8 home movies screened by the ghost of Christmas past (here called the Archivist and played by a cheery Kelly Eubanks), surround the audience, as does the cast before the show starts. The hipster vibe sometimes verges on preciousness when the company seems a wee bit full of in jokes and uncommunicated backstory.

The gist of the updating, however, is that Scrooge lost his love, Belle (Tracy Weller), to his mentor Jacob Marley (Joe Ornstein) and now returns home on the occasion of the mysterious sickness of the Carolina ash tree he planted in memory of his mother.

"People don't change; they tend to stay the same. That's just the way we work," states one of the lyrics to the haunting and catchy guitar-based songs. The music subtly captures the thematic concern of the piece: If we rush through life consumed with ambition and work, do we forget to have regrets?

Trachtenburg leads an intelligent and charming company of actors and musicians working in true ensemble fashion in a complex and thought-provoking show that harnesses some of the philosophical wistfulness many find in the holiday season.

Presented by Vortex Theater Company at the Sanford Meisner Theater, 164 11th Ave., NYC.Nov. 29-Dec. 22. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. (No performances Sat., Dec. 8, and Sun., Dec. 9; additional performance Mon., Dec. 17, 8 p.m.)(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or

The Sordid Perils of Actual Existence

December 03, 2007

By Christopher Murray

"I'm finally ready to take the next step," declares the young man. Marriage? Nope, bigger: real estate. David (co-playwright Andy Reynolds) is looking for a little emotional support from his real estate agent, Carla (Crystal Field, Theater for the New City's founder and doyenne). She's happy to oblige, dispensing grimaces and advice in equal measure in this slight new comedy.

David, who works in the accounting department of Unabible (a company looking to translate the Bible into every existing language), had thought he was dying of a brain disease, but, oops, he's not. So now he wants to get busy with living, buy a co-op, and settle down with his caustic girlfriend, Daphne (Laura Wickens, who also plays Carla's amanuensis, Polish immigrant Zoya). But Carla has other ideas.

You see, Carla does have a fatal disease: twinkle-eyed, zany, oddball wisdom. This sort of illness used to be epidemic in plays like Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns and many of the comedies of Neil Simon. Carla's a loveable meddling yenta who knows from whence she speaks with her injunctions to carpe the diem: She lost her beloved husband several years ago — never mind that his slightly bemused ghost (Dick Morrill) keeps popping out of closets for conversation and cuddles.

The Sordid Perils of Actual Existence does have some serious fish to fry in questioning stock beliefs such as religious faith or cynicism that people hold on to in order to anchor themselves even at the cost of their own happiness. But this is an uneven, overly speech-laden, sentimental play in an uneven if well-intentioned production directed by co-playwright Tom Gladwell.

Presented by and at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC. Nov. 23-Dec. 2. Thu.-Sun., 8 p.m. (212) 254-1109 or

Home James

November 19, 2007

By Christopher Murray

The Secret Theatre opened in September in the Long Island City Art Center as a new center of operations for the Queens Players. Until then, the formerly peripatetic company relied on a series of restaurant event rooms for performance space. The plucky little group's second production, a picaresque comedy called Home James, was directed and adapted by Artistic Director Richard Mazda from the original British production in which he acted, as he does here.

The play follows young Jamie (the deadpan and droll Robbie Rescigno) as he comes to New York from Poughkeepsie to stay with his kooky cousin Crystal (the likeable Christina Shipp) following the death of his beloved father from bowel cancer. He meets a number of eccentric types in a series of vignettes that switch locale from New York to Tijuana and back.

The play is rescued from cliché by a very charming and game group of comedic actors in multiple roles. Each character seems to have a brilliantly individual laugh, from a bark or a chortle to a giggle or a scream. It's kind of delightful.

BarbaraAnne Smilko is amusing as a subway poet-panhandler but really nails a caricature of a bored phone receptionist imitating a voice mail message. Robin Cannon, Ali Silva, and Yarida Mendez also bring idiosyncratic zest to their parts. Richard Mazda, wearing all his various hats (including a really shocking canary green and yellow sombrero at one point), wisely keeps the production values simple and the pace muy rapido.

Robbie Rescigno brings more than a dash of Buster Keaton to bear as he gloomily observes all the mayhem around him. But his fey portrait of a young man's grief drawing him towards adulthood is alternately moving and quite funny. He's somewhat miscast in this role, but an actor to watch.

Presented by the Queens Players at the Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City, NYC.Nov 14-Dec. 1. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or

No comments: