By William Wolf

PIECE OF MY HEART  Send This Review to a Friend

The music is paramount in “Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story,” a Merged Work Productions presentation aiming to boost the reputation of pop-rock composer Bert Berns, whose songs are remembered better than the man who composed them. Berns died at the age of 38 in 1967 after growing up with heart problems. The new jukebox musical is a lively collection from his voluminous numbers held together by a story involving the daughter who never got to know her father, and wants to gain control of his music to preserve it, fighting her mother, who wants to sell the rights that would kill his legacy, mixed with a portrait of Berns. As often happens in all kinds of musicals, the book by Daniel Goldfarb has its awkward moments, but the music, for those with a taste for songs of the Berns variety, the good acting and the lively staging by director and choreographer Denis Jones overshadow such problems.

Many will recognize such numbers as “Twist and Shout,” “Cry to Me,” “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” “I’ll be a Liar” and others brought freshly to life. The story on which the m6usical trajectory is built, involves Berns’s 30-year-old daughter, Jessie (Leslie Kritzer), coming to New York against the wishes of her bitter mother, Ilene (Linda Hart), in response to an urgent appeal by her father’s old colleague Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), who knows about Ilene’s plans. The plot flips between that point and back in time to when Berns came into his prime, sometimes with the principals on stage watching what unfolds in the past.

The key to the musical’s impact is the all-around terrific singing. Zak Resnick as Berns is magnetic interpreting the composer’s songs and the passionate love for his work and desire to be remembered. Kritzer as Jessie is very appealing when she sings, and Teal Wicks as the beautiful young Ilene with whom Berns falls in love and marries after she gets pregnant also sings strongly. Hart as the older Ilene makes a torrid impression when she has her biggest moment in the spotlight. Other impressive singing is done by Derrick Baskin as Berns’s buddy and intended recording star who is shunted aside in the dog-eat-dog music business, and by de’Adre Aziza as a sexy woman with whom Berns has an early fling.

One element that bothered me some was the huge difference between depictions of the charm and love expressed by the attractive young Ilene toward Berns and the mean-spirited, bitchy dishonesty that the older widowed Ilene expressed toward her daughter. They hardly seemed like the same women.

An excellent job was done weaving the songs appropriately into the right plot turns. Also, compliments go to the versatile ensemble, to costume designer David C. Woolard and to the excellent orchestra doing justice to the score, with compelling arrangements by Garry Sherman.

Some of the others of the 26 songs performed include the title number “Piece of My Heart,” “Are You Lonely for Me Baby,” “Here Comes the Night,” “I’m Gonna Run Away from You,” and “Tell Him.” At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed July 14, 2014.

MAESTRO BERNSTEIN  Send This Review to a Friend

There was a risky introduction that occurred before Hershey Felder plunged into “Maestro Bernstein,” the play he has written and has been performing about the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Film clips of the real Bernstein were projected as audience members took their seats and awaited the actual show at The Town Hall on July 17, 2014, the New York premiere of a work already presented in many cities and was now being done as part of The Town Hall’s summer season. But once Felder took the stage as Bernstein, his charm and expertise soon earned acceptance in the role even though the visual memory of the real man lingered.

In the show, directed by Joel Zwick, Felder as Bernstein recounted his life and career, interspersed with his playing music Bernstein composed or performed, spanning Broadway to the classics. Felder is an accomplished pianist in his own right, as well as an actor able to assume the role and involve an audience in the aspirations of Bernstein, fulfilled and unfulfilled.

There was great beauty in the performing of “Maria” from “West Side Story,” yet at the same time it represented a frustration, symbolizing Bernstein’s disappointment at perhaps being remembered more for that than for more complex composing and the overall composing career he would have preferred more than for his fame at conducting. Bernstein’s variety of talent spread him thin, as also reflected. His achievement in bringing more music to television, for example, can be seen in clips of his educating youngsters, another area that earned him respect.

Felder mined humor out of recounting Bernstein’s early lfie and his father’s initial skepticism about his desire for a career in music. Also there was amusement in Felder’s demonstration of Jewish sounding roots derived from classics.

Poignancy was achieved in recounting in personal terms Bernstein’s marriage, and then the upheaval resulting when he found love for a man and pursued that phase of his life.

The performance was extended beyond a few possible endings, but by the time the show was over, Felder had succeeded in reprising an important life in the world of music, punctuated with performance samplings of the very music that dominated that life. Felder has accomplished quite a feat in creating this show, and it is regrettable that this was a one-night only New York performance, which merits being done for a longer run here. At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Reviewed July 20, 2014.

THE LONG SHRIFT  Send This Review to a Friend

Playwright Robert Boswell, who is also a novelist, is concerned with a subject that resonates today as rape stories keep gathering headlines. The core of the plot in Boswell’s “The Long Shrift,” is a high school sexual encounter that resulted in Richard, whom we meet ten years later, serving five years in prison on a rape conviction. In the drama, a presentation by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, his accuser, Beth, turns up to make amends, which Richard angrily rejects. In the course of the drama, the truth is not so clear, which makes the situation interesting.

The play commands added attention because it is directed by the very busy James Franco. His best achievement is the sparks elicited from an excellent cast. However, there are moments that sag and need more crispness, although he works up to sharp dramatic results in the major confrontation scenes.

Boswell keeps one’s interest, mainly due to the topic, but he packs in far too much and confronts us with some situations that seem very contrived. However, his characters hold attention for the rage that inhabits them as the efforts to deal with the past and move forward in the present are explored.

Before we meet Richard, we meet his parents, Henry and Sarah, effectively played by Brian Lally and Ally Sheedy. Sarah is very bitter and refuses to see her son in prison because she assumes his guilt. But Henry has faith in him. There are other reasons for bitterness. Sarah is furious that all the money spent on litigation has compelled them to sell their house and move into a dumpy place. (We later learn something that would have added to the bitterness.) Sheedy is excellent in spewing her discontent at Henry, and the playwright is on target here. He is less successful creating an awkward sequence in which Henry has an unsettling dream.

When we do meet Richard, Scott Haze in the role is a bundle of fierce anger. Richard’s life has been ruined, he suffered in prison and has been unable to get things together since his release. Haze does the character justice in his interpretation, and I thought during the play’s unfolding that it was the kind of role Franco also might have played.

Beth is also well acted by Ahna O’Reilly. Beth’s mission is partly to show how much she suffered and partly to make Richard recognize the truth of what occurred on the fateful night and afterward. Given what happened to him, he has no patience for her suffering.

There is a very contrived scene when a friend of Beth, a rather ditsy Macy, played accordingly by Allie Gallerani, convinces both Beth and Richard, to speak at a high school reunion. Before they go, Richard comes on to Macy by playing upon her sexual vulnerability and extracts a passionate kiss, which he duly reports on the stage at the reunion to nastily embarrass her. He also uses the platform to vent his anger at everybody in a long, mean-spirited rant that in real life, if the incident would have happened at all, would have most likely resulted in a speedy ejection.

All of this leads to the inevitable private confrontation between Richard and Beth, and here the play becomes most interesting. What really happened? The line between escalating passion to the point of sex is examined. Ultimately Beth apparently said “no.” But given her actions, Richard felt she really wanted him to continue. Beth wants him to recognize that the sex was really against her will. But she claims she would never had taken him to court had it not been for the pressure of a student boyfriend and her parents that drove her into it. Class played a role here too, with Beth belonging to an upper echelon. The issue of young people flirting, coming on to one another and sex occurring under cloudy circumstances constantly crops up, with difficulty of proving guilt or innocence. Such situations are not to be confused with instances in which a student who may drink too much supposedly gets gang-banged and the alleged rape is allegedly covered up by a university. Still, no is no.

While Boswell’s play is over-packed and sometimes strains credibility, the author is sincerely attempting to pose important issues, both intensely personal and of general concern, and explore the problems of coming to terms with actions and the results that tear lives apart. The situation between Richard and Beth is left in limbo, with an unlikely proposal that Beth makes. Even with such flaws “The Long Shrift” held my interest throughout, along with the respect generated for the fine performances. At the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place. Phone: 886-811-4111. Reviewed July 16, 2014.

BROADWAY'S RISING STARS 2014  Send This Review to a Friend

The 19-member company of the 2014 edition of “Broadway’s Rising Stars” took the stage and looked great as an ensemble singing “Show Stoppers” and “All I Need,” flashily demonstrating the longing for the big break that can lead the way to stardom. Individual performances that followed pointed to an avalanche of talent demonstrating how well-deserved such big breaks would be. The show last night (July 14, 2014) unfurled under the auspices of The Town Hall’s “Broadway by the Year” series, created, written and hosted by the ever-affable Scott Siegel, who gave performers introductions highlighting their backgrounds and routes to honing their talent at the various schools from which they were chosen. Songs selected were from the shows of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb.

All of the “Rising Stars” revealed know-how, bumped up under the savvy direction by Scott Coutler, with musical direction by John Fischer, choreography by Holly Cruz and assistant direction by Rick Hinkson. By now it is evident how much talent abounds in the competition for the limelight, and this performance underscored the perception.

The performers were given a colorful opportunity to interplay with guest star Bill Irwin in a number near the end. Irwin, with his well-known elasticity romped clown-like before the group and the appreciative audience, with individual performers getting into the act. Irwin’s very appearance had the effect of an endorsement of the talent filling the stage.

Getting down to the individual delights, I was especially moved, for example, by Keziah Niambi John-Paul, powerfully singing “But the World Goes ‘Round” from “New York, New York.” No need to talk about her potential. It is already there.

Samantha Owen did a delicate, moving rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “My Coloring Book.” Meredith Lesley was effective singing “Maybe This Time,” which Kander and Ebb wrote for Kaye Ballard. I enjoyed hearing Amy Wheeler singing “Isn’t This Better?” from “Funny Lady.” Tiffany Gray was another standout with “My Own Best Friend” from “Chicago.”

Among the men, Stephen Orr, with his very strong voice, was extremely impressive singing “Kiss of the Spider Woman” from the show of that name, and so was Michael Romeo Ruocco, singing the challenging “The Day After That,” also from “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” A few of the men demonstrated extra pizzazz. Alexander Parrish stormed the stage with his interpretation of “Ring Them Bells” from “Liza With a Z,” an amusing saga of finding true love in the apartment next door after prowling the world in search of it. John Edgar Moser had loads of fun with “Sara Lee,” and Noah J. Ricketts was especially entertaining with “City Lights” from “The Act.” I liked Jacob Carll's heartfelt “I Miss the Music” from “Curtains” and Matt Hill’s “She’s A Woman,” another from “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Singling out the above is only showing a portion of the every impressive collection of turns in this gratifying showcase, and not meant to shortchange the others. I would like to add my enthusiastic applause for all of the following: Emma Gannon-Salomon, performing “Sing Happy” from “Flora, the Red Menace;” Jon Hacker for “Mamie in the Afternoon” from “A Family Affair” (that one a collaboration of Kander and James Goldman); Daisy Carnelia with “Seeing Things” from “The Happy Time;” Matt Weinstein for “Sometimes a Day Goes By” from “Woman of the Year;” Trevor James, singing “Over the Wall (Marta)” from “Kiss of the Spider Woman;” Madeline Hamlet impressing with “A Quiet Thing” from “Flora, the Red Menace” and Erica Vlahinos signing “How Lucky Can You Get?” from “Funny Lady.” All deserve an ovation.

Plaudits to musical director Fischer’s skill at the piano, and musicians Tom Hubbard on bass, Dan Gross on drums and Jeremy Clayton on reeds, and of course, to Scott Siegel for his genius in developing the series and his appealing manner as host, and to the unlisted Barbara Siegel, Scott’s wife, whom he generously and lovingly credits at every show. At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Reviewed July 15, 2014.

THE AMBASSADOR REVUE  Send This Review to a Friend

An historic event occurred last night (June 27, 2014) at The Town Hall in New York as part of its Summer Season: Broadway Preludes. “The Ambassador Revue” by Cole Porter, which played the chic Café des Ambassadeurs in Paris in 1928 but had never been performed on an American stage, was revived using the discovered original arrangements and featuring a seasoned cast doing the singing and dancing interpretations.

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra, a 17-piece entourage that made a powerful impression on The Town Hall stage, provided the music. There was choreography by Randy Skinner, with Ken Bloom directing. It was definitely an evening to remember, and if there is any justice, the show should be revived for more than this one-night-only run.

With such a big orchestra, in the beginning it seemed that its power would overwhelm the singers, but soon a proper balance was achieved, at least for the most part. At one point the musicians played the gentle number titled “Rippling Stream,” for which no lyrics were found.

Some Porter songs went on to become familiar, but others were rare. Also, when “The Ambassador Revue” was performed in Paris, Frances Gershwin, sister of George Gershwin was in the cast, and her brother accompanied her at the piano on opening night. Accordingly, the audience last night heard a Gershwin medley, including “The Man I Love,” sung by one of the evening’s stars, Catherine Russell.

There were many highlights. Jason Graae, who has established himself as an excellent character singer with leading man chops as well, entertainingly performed “Pilot Me,” an amusing number about love in a plane for two, as well as a playful song called “Fish” and another, the romantic “Looking at You.”

Tony-nominated Broadway star Anita Gillette, exhibiting her customary flair and vibrant stage personality, was a big hit of the night, especially with her solo number “Alpine Rose,” in which she contributed a bit of entertaining yodeling to enhance her Swiss maiden aura. She also took part in the “Military Maids” number with Amy Burton and Russell, as well as in the amusing “Hans” with Graae.

Tom Wopat, another star of the evening, impressively sang “In a Moorish Garden,” in addition to other chores. Ted Louis Levy started things rolling with “Keep Moving,” and Burton followed as an amusingly limp Statue of Liberty singing “The Lost Liberty Blues,” a number with a socially-conscious thrust. Among other songs in the rich Porter trove were “Almiro” (sung by Russell); “You and Me” (Burton); “Looking at You” (Graae); “An Old-Fashioned Boy/An Old-Fashioned Girl” (Russell and Wopat) and “Fountain of Youth” (Graae and Company).

A major touch of elegance was created by striking looking, dancers Sara Brians and Mary Giattino-Styles, along with choreographer Randy Skinner, appearing at interludes to add visual, rhythmic spice to the show. Overall, the various performers injected enjoyable posturing with one another under Bloom’s direction, thus providing a free-wheeling tone that made much seem spontaneous whether or not it was. Since this was a one-night event there was not the opportunity to become ultra-smooth, as when elements can be worked out in a longer run.

One moment I especially enjoyed was when Bria Skonberg, who had a prime solo trumpet number as a member of the orchestra, descended to the stage and sang “Nuit et Jours,” a French translation of “Night and Day,” adding a bit of the continental to the Paris revue.

The original orchestrations by Freddy Buck were discovered at the Fred Waring archive at Penn State. Thus there was no need for Vince Giordano to do new orchestrations in the spirit of the revue. Giordano and the Nighthawks excelled in providing the sparkle of the originals, with the mix of violins, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, saxes, flute, piccolo, piano, guitar, banjo and drums, with Giordano himself on string bass, tuba and bass sax. At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Phone: 800-982-2787. Reviewed June 28, 2014.

(Coming Up: "Broadway’s Rising Stars," July 14, and “Maestro Bernstein, a Play With Music," starring Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein, July 17.)

HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME  Send This Review to a Friend

We keep reading of shooting deaths among young people in the city, a terrible waste of lives. It might be worthwhile if gang members could be invited to see “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” basically a rap morality musical against the violence occurring in inner city ghettos, with a passionate theme of ending killings and building new lives with the stamina and purpose that takes. “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” with its book by Todd Kreidler, is built upon the lyrics of renowned rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur, himself gunned down in 1996 at the age of 25.

This is not Tupac’s story—a matter of rights are reportedly involved—but a tale set in a Midwestern industrial city that addresses the issues reflected so dramatically in Tupac’s songs and poems. It may be difficult to follow all of the words for those not steeped in rap, but the passions are clear. The book is on the heavy-handed side, but when the large cast moves into the dances (choreography by Wayne Cilento) and the singing, the musical takes life with a firm beat and enthusiasm that strongly registers. The direction is by Kenny Leon, who works at integrating the story with Tupac’s rap legacy. Daryl Waters is in charge of music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements.

The foremost character is John, effectively played by Saul Williams, who carries most of the burden of instilling hope amid the chaos. One might regard him as closest in character to Tupac. Other key members of the cast include Christopher Jackson, Ben Thompson, John Earl Jelks, Joshua Boone and Dyllon Burnside. Tonya Pinkins is effective in the suffering but affirmative mother role, and Saycon Sengbloh is fetching as the hopeful Corinne, especially in a powerful duet with Williams as John called “Unconditional Love.”

“Holler If Ya Hear Me” packs power in performance and message. At the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at 47th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed June 25, 2014.

DONOGOO  Send This Review to a Friend

Perhaps something has been lost in translation, but the staging of the 1930 French farce of Jules Romains by the Mint Theater is only intermittently entertaining. It doesn’t have the impact of the previously mounted Romains work “Dr. Knock, Or the Triumph of Medicine” (See Search for review). But as it deals with a scheme to make money by promoting a non-existent place called Donogoo- Tonka, the play has relevance today in light of modern financial swindles and reckless Wall Street debacles.

Romains took aim at financial shenanigans with a broadly comic approach. Through a series of bizarre events James Riordan as a chap called Lamendin, who was on the verge of suicide, becomes involved in promoting the supposedly wonderful Donagoo-Tonka in Latin America. Money begins to roll in as more and more people head there. The humor comes from nobody being able to find the place.

In the course of the hunt barbs are aimed at the searchers, the native guides to nowhere and the whole idea of how people are swept along to invest in the hope of finding riches. Perhaps there is gold in Donogoo, if only the place can be located.

A little of this goes a long way, once the basic point has been made. Riordan, the lead in a large cast, is shrill in the role, and the performance at that pitch grows tiresome. Some of the comedy hits the mark, some falls flat.

One aspect that offers considerable pleasure under the direction of Gus Kaikkonen, who did the translation from the French, is the very inventive projection of scenery credited to Roger Hanna and Price Johnston. For example, we watch a train move in the background, and it all seems so very real and integrated with the stage action. There are other such examples of projection tied into what the characters are doing. The effect is highly unusual and the skill is to be lauded. At the Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed June 25, 2014.

THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1990-2014  Send This Review to a Friend

In the talent-laden finale (1990-2014) of the hundred years of Broadway series as part of Broadway by the Year franchise, I was struck by one very special performer. In the extravaganza presented last night (June 23, 2014) by The Town Hall, Oakley Boycott stood out as a rare, unusual talent with a specialty number that shone and pointed to potential future stardom.

I had noticed how unusual she looks as she stood far to stage left among members of the Broadway by the Year Chorus singing “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” (1996). Then lo and behold, in the second act, Boycott stepped forward into her own spotlight to dazzle the crowd with her hilarious rendition of “He Vas My Boyfriend” from “Young Frankenstein” (2007). Boycott is tall and string-bean slim with a curly mop of blond hair and distinctive facial features that she can maneuver into numerous offbeat expressions. With her accented Dietrich-style smoky voice, here styled for comedy, and astute musical timing, she made the immensely entertaining number distinctively her own, and as they say in show business, brought down the house. We should be hearing a lot more from the talented, very different Ms. Boycott. I haven’t experienced that feeling at a show since I watched the early Barbra Streisand emerge as Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.”

In a production with soaring voices, two of the best numbers used no voices at all—exciting dance routines. Mark Stuart, Executive Artistic Director of the Mark Stuart Dance Theatre, and a member of his company, Mindy Wallace, danced a breathtaking “Libertango” to represent that 1997 show “Forever Tango.” In the number, choreographed by Stuart, the twosome executed one impressive tango movement after another, topped by a quick Wallace drop to the floor that looked scarily dangerous.

The other dance coup was Jimmy Sutherland’s amazing tapping, which he also choreographed, to “Sing Sing Sing,”a number included in the 1999 musical “Swing!” Sutherland’s feet achieved almost unfathomable, high-speed tap beats, but seeing was believing.

As for the various musicals that hit Broadway during the period from which choices had to be made, in general they were not my preferred style of songfests. No Gershwin, Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein here. Often in these years of Broadway there was the belting stuff, with shrill, sometimes barely, if at all, understandable lyrics. But this musical survey had the right belting singers to do justice to such shows.

Yes, there were Broadway exceptions—Sondheim, for example, although this Sondheim chosen was the very offbeat 2004 show “Assassins,” from which the soaring number ”Unworthy of Your Love,” was stirringly sung by Barrett Foa and Jillian Louis. And there was what was billed as a bonus number, “The Light in the Piazza,” from the sophisticated 2005 show of that title, exquisitely sung in her operatic voice by the lovely Sarah Jane McMahon. Also leaning toward songs depending on taste and clarity were Bobby Steggert’s intimate, “What More Can I Say” from “Falsettos” (1992), Jenn Gambatese’s heartfelt “You Walk With Me” from “The Full Monty” (2000), Terri White’s “Stormy Weather,” the perennial that was part of “After Midnight” (2013) and the Scott Coulter and full company finale “You’ve Got a Friend” from this year’s “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”

The hot mama syndrome was excitingly represented by NaTasha Yvette Williams in a number from the 2006 “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me” called “Stop the Show.” And she certainly did. Gentle amusement surfaced in William Blake’s super-smooth interpretation of “Fever,” one of the songs included in “Million Dollar Quartet” (2010). Rory O’Malley proved a winner with his funny, endearing ”I’m Not That Smart” from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (2005).

As for the hefty voice category, the pace was creatively and vigorously set by Cheryl Freeman, who was in the original Broadway company of the 1993 “The Who’s Tommy.” With an afro that reached toward The Town Hall ceiling, Freeman cut an impressive figure, which she matched with vocal power and energetic movement as she wowed the crowd with her dynamic rendition of “The Acid Queen.”

Other women in the no-holds barred realm included Morgan James singing “Love Changes Everything” from “Aspects of Love” (1990); Natalie Toro performing “With One Look” from “Sunset Boulevard” (1994); Jeannette Bayardelle with “Fools Fall in Love” from “Smokey Joe’s Café” (1995); Marva Hicks delivering “Circle of Life” from the still-running “The Lion King” (1998), and Christina Aranda singing “Paciencia y Fe” from “In the Heights” (2008).

The men gave as good as the women in the power department, as per Adam Jacobs belting “Why, God, Why?” from “Miss Saigon” (1991); Lucas Steele singing “The Winner Takes It All” from the enduring “Mamma Mia!” (2001); Chad Kimball performing ”Memphis Lives in Me” from “Memphis” (2009); Bob Stillman singing “When She Smiles” from “Lysistrata Jones” (2011); Jack Noseworthy interpreting “One Track Mind” from “The Sweet Smell of Success” (2002), and Jeremy Morse’s “Santa Fe” from “Newsies” (2012).

On hand, of course, was the personable Scott Siegel, creator, writer and host of the “Broadway By the Year” series and producer of other shows, who gave his customary pithy introductions to the performers. He also announced that next season there would be a repeat of the 100 Years of Broadway concept.

The Musical Director and pianist with his Little Big Band, also including Tom Hubbard on bass and Jared Schonig on drums, was Ross Patterson. It never ceases to amaze me how Patterson, with the Siegel shows for 14 years, and his musicians can so deftly handle such a wide range of numbers despite the limited time available to prepare for a production. At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Reviewed June 24, 2014

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID  Send This Review to a Friend

Five fine actors, four women and one man, give their characters more weight than the meandering, over-stuffed play in which they emote. “When We Were Young and Unafraid,” written by Sarah Treem, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Pam McKinnon, takes place in 1972 at a bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle, with Cherry Jones playing Agnes, the innkeeper.

The author has a lot on her mind in harking back to some of the women’s liberation ideas and jargon of that era, but even allowing for exaggeration, some of the relationships depicted seem highly unlikely. There is much palaver, punctuated with with periodic emotional outbursts, and a finale stretches credibility altogether.

The most interesting character is Mary Anne, given an excellent portrayal by Zoe Kazan, who has the woman’s personality traits down solidly. She is a battered wife, who turns up at the inn with a facial wound and in a state of fear of her husband. Jones as the overtly tough Agnes, a former nurse, stitches the wound and tries to talk sense into her about facing the fact that her husband is dangerous and that to save herself she should move on with her life far away from him. But Mary Anne is typical of battered wives who still profess love for their husbands and subject themselves to further punishment. While with Agnes, she temporarily begins to get some of her equilibrium back.

In fact, she takes to giving advice to 16-year-old Penny (Morgan Saylor), whom we meet as as Agnes’s daughter. Penny is upset because she doesn’t attract boys and therefore shuns the school prom even though she has a crush on a football hero. Mary Anne teaches her how to use womanly wiles to get him to take her to the prom. It is a ridiculous situation—a battered wife giving life advice about the male species to a vulnerable teenager. Of course, the advice works, much to the potential detriment of Penny, well-acted by Saylor.

Into the mix arrives Cherise Boothe as Hannah, an African-American cliché-spouting militant who believes all women should be lesbians in the revolution she sees unfolding and she is there to join a like-minded commune. Even allowing for hyperbole and Boothe’s skillful acting, Cherise is an overdrawn type. Later, when she comes on to Agnes, the result is thoroughly unlikely, given Agnes’s steely nature and intelligence and Cherise’s immature ramblings. The author also includes a background surprise cooked up for us.

The male in the assortment is the decent but ineffectual Paul (nicely played by Patch Darragh), who considers himself a songwriter and is still hurt by his wife’s having run off. Given the mess that Mary Anne is in, even worse than we know at first, Paul’s falling for this basket case and asking her to go away with him is another doubtful ingredient, even though she takes pity on him and on her knees bestows a late night favor in the kitchen. On Mary Anne’s s part, the sexual episode doesn’t make sense, given her later description of how repulsive he has seemed to her.

Jones adds the power of her presence to the play, but all she can bestow on the character Agnes fails to add credibility that the play desperately needs to be taken seriously and as more than just ideological and emotional ramblings. At City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed June 19, 2014.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (2014)  Send This Review to a Friend

Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater make as perfect a Beatrice and Benedick combination as one could want in this exhilarating new version of “Much Ado About Nothing,” a Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park production that officially opened last night (June 16) and continues through July 6. But that’s only the highlight. The entire production of Shakespeare’s work is dazzling, with a superb supporting cast and smart, illuminating direction by Jack O’Brien.

This is not one of those revamped Bard dispensations that strain to look modern. Rather, although there is fun provided from bits of business, the aim here would seem to be colorful digging into the pleasures of the play and mixing the witty comedy with poignancy as well. In the lovely park setting there is some amusing shtick at the outset as supporting players go about preparations on stage, including trying to move a wall that only moves when musicians play the right notes. A jaunty Italian atmosphere is established.

When we first meet Rabe as Beatrice she begins to hurl her barbs at Benedick with more anger than the more spirited wit we often get in the characterization. But that route doesn’t last long. Rabe settles into an intelligently dynamic performance that establishes her as a feisty beauty with a powerful intellect, a sharp tongue, and a mind of her own, with her reluctance to be wed under conditions others may accept. Benedick is a target of this independence rather than just a man she asserts she cannot stand.

As for Linklater’s Benedick, he is full of swagger, finding great joy in bragging about not wanting to be tied down by a woman, any woman, let alone the acid-tongued, self-asserting Beatrice. Of course, both become vulnerable to the ploy of others to invent false statements by each to profess love of the other. Resistance eventually melts away, whether logical or not, and there is much comic fun in seeing love blossom between these earlier antagonists for whom the Bard has written some of his very best lines.

The sub-plot of the romance between soldier Claudio (played ardently by Jack Cutmore-Scott), and Hero (portrayed with innocence and charm by Ismenia Mendes), daughter of Governor of Messina Leonato, is especially well dramatized. When Hero is victimized by a cruel plot to make her appear unfaithful to Claudio on the eve of their planned wedding, we are made to feel anguish for her as Claudio denounces her viciously before all. There is real power extracted from the situation.

Of course, all is worked out in the end, but as I was watching, it occurred to me momentarily that because of the way Claudio scorned her, Shakespeare’s plotting aside, it might be more natural for her to tell Claudio to go f—k himself, and that she wouldn’t marry him now if he were the last guy in Messina. But alas, this is a romantic comedy. All’s well that ends well.

The supporting cast is also terrific. John Glover gives an energetic, convincing and appealing performance as Leonato. John Pankow is extremely funny as the pompous, language-mangling Dogberry, the Constable of the watch. Standouts include Brian Stokes Mitchell as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon; Pedro Pascal as Don John, his bastard brother; David Manis as Antonio, Leonato’s older brother and Austin Durant as Friar Francis.

The stage action flows with utter smoothness, and both Rabe and Linklater capitalize on looks, stances and gestures, all with perfect timing that mines every potential of humor and style. It is notable that the cast speaks with great clarity, and that coupled with the excellent sound system, makes the dialogue come through admirably.

For delightful summer night entertainment, this offering of “Much Ado About Nothing” is a prime choice. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, entrances at 81st Street and Central Park West and at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. Free tickets are distributed at the theater at noon of the day of performance. Reviewed June 17, 2014.

  

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