By William Wolf

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY  Send This Review to a Friend

Ivan Turgenev’s play “A Month in the Country,” translated by John Christopher Jones, is getting a brisk staging by the Classic Stage Company. Highlighting the production, graced with clarity under the direction of Erica Schmidt, are Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage. The setting is an estate in Russia in the early 1840s, and the dramatic dissecting of relationships makes this version freshly entertaining if not especially deep.

Schilling, attractive and engaging and making her New York stage debut after earning renown on television, plays the ultra manipulative Natalya, who is married and bored. Dinklage, with extensive stage experience as well as TV fame, is cast as Rakitin, a family friend who harbors unrequited love for Natalya. When Aleksey (Mike Faist), a handsome young tutor comes to instruct Natalya’s son Koyla (Ian Etheridge), Natalya falls for him, and in his youthful innocence Aleksey doesn’t at first realize it.

Complications flare in connection with Vera (Megan West), the young woman who has been brought up by Natalya as her ward. She too falls in love with the tutor, and a sparks fly between the resentful Vera and Natalya. Arkady (Anthony Edwards), Natalya’s husband, initially seems oblivious to all that is going on in the heat of the situation.

How will it all work out? While important, potential resolutions give way to more interest in the character studies and the acting. Dinklage exudes power via his demeanor and strong voice. Schilling has commanding presence, and can be quite droll as she goes about her deviousness with utter seriousness. I’m not sure that she shows sufficient desperation along with the boredom, but we certainly get from her the portrait of a well-fixed but frustrated woman who is attempting to have her way at all times.

The supporting cast is fine, as is the development of the subplots that whirl within the estate. I especially enjoyed the performance by Thomas Jay Ryan as Doctor Shpiegelsky, who has an abundance of whimsical lines commenting on life and his approach to it. Mark Wendland’s set design consists of minimal furnishings against a stage-wide picture background illustrating outdoor fields. Tom Broecker’s costuming captures the era.

Once again Classic Stage Company has come through with an attention-grabbing interpretation of a work by a major playwright. At the Classic Stage Company (CSC), 136 East 13th Street. Reviewed January 30, 2015.

INTO THE WOODS (2015)  Send This Review to a Friend

I have increasingly admired “Into the Woods” over the years and the delightful new offering by the Roundabout Theatre Company, in association with the McCarter Theatre Center, of The fiasco Theater Production increases my feeling for the very clever book by James Lapine and the seductive music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Ten versatile cast members plus Matt Castle as the talented pianist and musical director bring the show to life in an intimate framework that makes the work emerge with fresh sharpness.

This is especially evident in light of the recently-released film “Into the Woods,” which although well acted and crafted, suffers from the basic material being dwarfed by lavish special effects. In contrast, this new staging strips away frills and focuses on the wit and concept inherent in the Sondheim-Lapine achievement.

Under the co-direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, this staging follows the John Doyle tradition of casting with actors who also play musical instruments, thereby constituting the show’s “orchestra” as they produce the score and sound effects from the sidelines.

Those who have seen other productions know the concept. The first act is a riff on the fairy tales that have graced childhood lives, presented here with humor and entertaining manipulation, and an intially happily-ever-after conclusion. But wait—in the second act all goes awry with dark twists and struggles for survival, with the lesson learned that people must stick together. Sondheim’s haunting, getting-under-one’s-skin score and lyrics express the feelings of the character assortment, and the performing expertise maximizes the overall impact.

Ben Steinfeld, doubling from his directorial duties, plays the Baker, with Jessie Austrian as his Wife, central to the plot as a couple who cannot have children as a result of a witch’s curse. Both are excellent in their roles. Jennifer Mudge as the Witch, terrific both in her nastiness and after she loses her powers, initially sets tasks for the Baker to complete for the spell to be withdrawn. There is much comedy as he and his Wife pursue the assignments. Later, when they do have a baby, the wish achieved turns not so fulfilling in the wicked plotting.

Although all of the performances merit praise, I especially like that of Emily Young as both the grasping Little Red Ridinghood, with her voracious appetite, and as the offbeat Rapunzel. Among Andy Grotelueschen’s character chores, I found his portrayal of the cow Milky White particularly amusing and endearing. As for the other cast members, plaudits are surely due to Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Liz Hayes, Claire Kapen and Patrick Mulryan for their deft contributions.

The staging, including the choreography by Lisa Shriver, the imaginatively playful set design by Derek McLane and the droll costume design by Whitney Locher, creates a woodsy world in which anything can happen and everything does. The action is mostly swiftly entailed, although in the second act plotting necessities sometimes weigh things down a bit.

Add to all of this the excellent delivery of important songs, including the cast’s spirited ensemble singing of title number. Also, “Agony,” sung by Noah Brody as Cinderella’s Prince and Andy Grotelueschen as Rapunzel’s Prince, is a highlight. Jennifer Mudge is outstanding singing “Witch’s Lament” and “Last Midnight,” and Ben Steinfeld performing the Baker’s stirring rendition of “No More” brilliantly expresses the central theme, as does the song “No One Is Alone,” performed by Liz Hayes, Ben Steinfeld, Patrick Mulryan and Emily Young.

By the time of the exhilarating finale sung by the entire company, the audience has been treated to a wonderful interpretation of the show that succeeds in illuminating the essence of what Sondheim and Lapine have wrought. At the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed January 28, 2015.

DA  Send This Review to a Friend

True to its standards, The Irish Repertory Theatre is presenting a revival of Hugh Leonard’s 1978 play “Da,” with an excellent cast that rekindles the memory sparks inherent in Leonard’s outlook. On entering the theater one is taken with the looking-lived-in set designed by James Morgan to represent a Dublin home dating to May of 1968 as well as earlier times recalled. The production has been directed by Charlotte Moore, the theater’s Artistic Director, who cannily illuminates the play’s conflict between affection and resentment, and self-examination dating to childhood memories in contrast with observances of the present.

The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Producing Director, Ciarán O’Reilly, is cast as Charlie, who returns to Dublin upon the death of his adoptive father, and O’Reilly embodies the role in grand style. As he visits the home of the man who raised him, Charlie eases into conversations with Da, who emerges ghost-like from death throughout and is given a robust portrayal by Paul O’Brien in the spirited conversations the playwright has devised.

We also see the interplay between Da and his wife, who is colorfully acted by Fiana Toibin and who raised Charlie as her son. We see in memory how the boy Charlie looked up to his Da. At the other extreme, he becomes exasperated in the late years when Da, becoming senile, is confined to a hospital for care but insists he is in a poor house. O’Reilly is particularly good when exploring his younger self in contrast to his adulthood in his own confrontational moments.

In one of the memory sequences we see the humiliation of Da when, having worked as a gardener and assistant, he is let go by his boss, unfeelingly oblivious Mrs. Prynn (Kristin Griffith), with a farewell pittance. In another especially effective moment, we observe a battle between Da and his wife, as she asserts herself in the face of his control and vows to go to an event on her own. (Sadly, she ultimately backs down.) We also meet Charlie’s acquaintance Oliver, nicely played by John Keating, whose strikingly unusual face has always intrigued me in Irish Rep productions.

The play is rich in humor and irony. Charlie gave money to support the financially needy Da, only to find that he saved the money for Charlie as a bit of inheritance. In a post-funeral dialogue the ever-present Da explains to the surprised Charlie that he wanted to be sure he had something to leave him.

Credit director Moore and her well-chosen cast with shedding light on Leonard’s astute play and making it an enjoyable re-discovery. At the Irish Repertory Theatre’s temporary quarters, the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street. Reviewed January 24, 2015.

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS  Send This Review to a Friend

While it doesn’t have the sophistication of “On the Town” or the nostalgia of “Beautiful,” the musical “Honeymoon in Vegas” is a rollicking, fun-filled example of old-fashioned Broadway razzmatazz with a top cast and colorful, imaginative staging from start to finish. If that’s your kind of show, you can have a highly enjoyable time seeing this very clever one.

The production, with a book by Andrew Bergman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, is based on the movie of the same name. (The witty Bergman also did the screenplay of the original.) The new musical had its premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., and fortunately has made its way to Broadway.

As in the case of many a musical, the story is corny, but the basic idea is fleshed out with inventiveness, amusing characterizations expertly interpreted and belly-laugh comedy. A large orchestra provides musical kick, Denis Jones’s choreography captures the aura of Vegas, Gary Griffin’s direction keeps everything moving swiftly for most of the time and Anna Louizos gets high marks for her scenic and projection design.

Rob McLure is immensely enjoyable as Jack Singer, an affable Brooklyn shmo who croons “I Love Betsy” to express his affection for his girlfriend, Betsy Nolan, played with spirit by knockout Brynn O’Malley. The trouble is that after a five-year relationship he still can’t bring himself to the altar, and her patience is wearing thin. The trouble is that the wish of his dying mother was that he never marry, as no woman could match the love of his mom, who puts a curse on any woman who would ensnare her son. There is a hilarious death bed seen with the overbearing mom played by very funny Nany Opel, who also turns up in memory at various points in the convoluted plot.

Finally, Jack agrees to go to Las Vegas and get married, but he’s still anxious. There, complications arise when Tony Danza as big-time gambler Tommy Korman spies Betsy, who reminds him of his late wife, who succumbed to skin cancer from baking in the sun too much. His song “Out of the Sun” derives laughs from grim regrets. Danza, whose fame dates back to his TV show “Taxi,” is superb here. Although the character he plays is a dishonest manipulator, Danza manages to be eminently likable as a performer with his endearing audience appeal.

Korman schemes to take Betsy away from Jack by luring him into a high stakes poker came, from which he emerges owing $58,000 that he can’t possibly pay. It turns out that it is either broken kneecaps or injured balls, or convincing Betsy to spend a weekend with Korman. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with Betsy, but anger propels her to accept the invitation to spend the weekend in Hawaii with the devious Korman, and also provides for an exotic location shift.

All this is the set-up for an avalanche of musical comedy elaboration, including Las Vegas showgirls, the very amusing Catherine Ricafort as the steamy Mahi assigned in Hawaii to detour Jack by getting him to do “Fricki-Fricki” with her. Also, I have seen many a striptease specialty in my day, but never one in which a dancer (Katie Weber as Saphire de la Tour) strums a harp with her breasts.

There are also such treats as flying Elvis imitators, skydiving, a visit to the shrine of disappointed mothers (Nancy Opel again), funny business at an airport counter, elaborate scenic movement, an elevator taking characters up from and under the stage, plus various surprises sprinkled throughout. The songs, while not great, entertainingly service the show. An assortment of supporting cast members, including Matthew Saldivar as Korman’s sidekick Johnny Sandwich, add to the pleasure and overall comic tone.

At the center of all the trimmings and conniving, there is romance. An audience can find satisfaction when Jack and Betsy inevitably surmount the obstacles to getting together. Taken on its romantic and wacky terms, “Honeymoon in Vegas” deserves to become a hit. At the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed January 22, 2015.

CONSTELLATIONS  Send This Review to a Friend

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson are putting on a jointly compelling display of acting in “Constellations,” the unusual play by Nick Payne presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club and Royal Court Theatre by special arrangement with the Ambassador Theatre Group and the Dodgers.

This is the Broadway debut for Gyllenhaal, best known for his film work, including his outstanding performance in last year’s “Nightcrawler.” Wilson is currently known for her television stardom in Showtime’s “The Affair,” but she has had extensive stage experience in her native England, where she has won awards. Both mesh skillfully on stage in this two-hander, making them bright stars in their own constellation.

The concept of the play is the “what if” factor, an examination of what might have happened to two people if different courses had been pursued. The author doesn’t pontificate, but instead sets up capsule situations between the cast members, Roland, a beekeeper, and Marianne, a university intellectual with expertise in cosmology. The staccato effect is intriguing at first but can become gimmicky, as one may want to plunge deeper into particular elements. The style is established early on, as the characters face off and repeat the same dialogue with different endings, all the while building toward their ultimate relationship.

Important assists to achieve the overall effect come from the scenic design by Tom Scutt, with a stage full of balloons visible to the audience upon entering the theater, the lighting design by Lee Curran that produces an assortment of luminary highlights, and the sound design by David McSeveney that marks confrontational changes with piercing sonic outbursts.

The production is deftly and crisply directed by Michael Longhurst, but what the playwright provides via dialogue and his total concept, presents a monumental challenge to Gyllenhaal and Wilson. For example, saying the same lines in different contexts demands that they switch convincingly to varied meanings for each set-up.

It is a tribute to both performers that they are able to command steady attention in the large Samuel J. Friedman Theatre as they pass through a wide range of emotions and intimate dialogue. Although the play, 70 minutes long without an intermission, sometimes comes across as overly contrived, the stars establish their own aura as they skillfully interpret the author’s ideas. The play may be the thing, but I would say that the main reason for going to “Constellations” would be to observe Gyllenhaal and Wilson in action together. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed January 16, 2015.

DYING FOR IT  Send This Review to a Friend

Audiences in Russia most likely would have had a great time in 1928 if only they could have seen Nikolai Erdman’s biting satirical play “The Suicide.” But alas, it was not permitted to be shown, and in Moira Buffini’s free adaptation, now called “Dying for It,” we get to see why the powers that be would have suppressed it. (It was not shown in Russia until the 1980s.) The way to watch the play is to contemplate how revolutionary it would have seemed in its time. That said, it also offers plenty of amusement today, given the smart production that has been directed by Neil Pepe and is being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.

The central gag is that life is so unbearable in the Soviet Union of the 1920s that the best way to surmount its indignities is to prove one’s worth by committing suicide. The setting is a miserable boarding house and the protagonist is one unemployed, hapless individual named Semyon Semyonovich Podeskalnikov, played effectively as the nebbish he is by Joey Slotnick. Semyon’s angry wife Masha, performed with ferocious comic anger by Jeanine Serralles, is the breadwinner, such as that can be amidst their poverty, and Semyon feels totally inadequate. He threatens suicide, if he can summon the courage.

What develops is a battery of cheering boarders and others who goad Semyon on, seeing his grand gesture as a way of gaining glory themselves within a system that offers them none. Semyon will become their hero. There is also the opportunity for some to gain financially, as with his grasping, nasty mother-in-law Serafima (Mary Beth Peil), who will reap donations from those feeling obliged to contribute survival money. The local priest, Father Yelpidy (Peter Maloney), can preach a pompous sermon. Alexander (CJ Wilson) can achieve importance as an organizer and take a rake-off on any funds coming in.

There is an entourage of other characters, including a pretentious poet wanting to write the ode to Semyon, a cloying woman doting over him and wanting to be remembered as his lover, a postman who has been meaninglessly honored as a heroic worker, a woman who has earned her livelihood with sex etc. By the time Semyon is to take action, his wife has left him, but we assume she’ll turn up again.

Semyon has some good scenes in which he exhibits bravado as he feels the courage to kill himself with the gun he possesses and expresses the self-confidence he has never had. But at the same time he shows an inner qualm about leaving this life without assurances that there is an afterlife. The groundwork is laid for all of the surprises and hilarious scenes and confrontations to come. They are better left without advance detail, so your enjoyment can be heightened when you see the play.

The writing is peppered with lines laying bare ideology and clichés, such as looking at a woman in a politically correct Soviet light, thereby honoring her by rendering her plain and unattractive. The dialogue is consistently clever in what may now on occasion seem heavy-handed but at the time could have made Soviet officials furious.

Walt Sapngler has designed an elaborately grungy two-tiered set, and the large cast (the number of parts trimmed from the even larger original total) rising to the occasion to be immensely entertaining, especially as the mayhem mounts. Giving us a look at this buried Russian satire is a nifty service. At the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Tickets phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed January 11, 2015.

CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING  Send This Review to a Friend

A loving tribute to the glory days of the ground-breaking nightclub Café Society comes across as hearty, jazzy entertainment. “Café Society Swing,” playing from December 16 to January 4, 2014, has been written by Alex Webb and feelingly directed by Simon Green. Four exceptionally talented principals do the performing, and an expert eight-piece back-up jazz ensemble classily helps conjure up song classics that reflect the era.

Café Society, founded and run by the late Barney Josephson and located at Sheridan Square, was New York’s first inter-racial club that defied conventions of the time. It flourished from 1938 to 1948, and unlike Harlem’s Cotton Club, which had African-American entertainers but only allowed white audiences, Café Society provided a place where racial mix was the order of the day. The promotional slogan was sarcastically, “The wrong place for the right people.”

The club provided a take-off platform for black and white talent alike. It headlined such stars as Billie Holiday, Josh White, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and other noted singers. Sid Caesar, Jack Gilford, and Danny Kaye were among comedic performers whose careers were given boosts.

Red scares resulted in Josephson’s brother Leon being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, and attacks mounted against Café Society by right-wing columnists. At one point the club’s liquor license was suspended.

Evan Pappas, at first playing a journalist writing an article, fills in details about accusations but gradually comes to admire the club. Later he dispenses information playing an enthusiastic Café Society bartender and joins in the singing.

The heart of the evening is the music. Allan Harris, with his rich, powerful voice and appealing manner, emerges from the orchestra to carry the male vocal interpretations. His “One Meat Ball,” for example, is a gem. Charenee Wade packs power in her song interpretations, as with her rousing “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.” In a dramatic highlight, Wade sings “Strange Fruit,” the famous anti-lynching song written by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol) and made famous by Billie Holiday. With lights dimmed and a spotlight illuminating Wade, the result is chilling.

Another extraordinary singer is Cyrille Aimée, who has a delightful voice and a wide range, demonstrated, for example, with her rendering of “Stormy Weather” and “Parlez Moi D’Amour.”

The performers suggest the work of such stars as Billie Holiday and Lena Horne without attempting slavish imitations, and the effect is to evoke memories of those rich bygone days.

Songs on the agenda include twitting of the Red scare, as with a number once performed by a Café Society favorite, Zero Mostel-- “The Investigator’s Song.” Another was “Red Scare.”

Among other numbers are “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” the funny “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’,” “I Left My Baby,“ “What is This Thing Called Love?” and “Hurry on Down,” The production has an easy-going atmosphere, although occasionally the book, while welcomingly informative, slows the show some. Although, the production looks back in time, the entertainment quality provides plenty of punch that definitely has contemporary appeal. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed December 23, 2014.

ME, MY MOUTH & I  Send This Review to a Friend

It is always a treat to see and hear Joy Behar, and in her current one-woman show, “Me, My Mouth & I,” she is doing some of what she does best, addressing an audience intimately with an overall hilarious survey of her life, personal and professional. Call it stand-up, which was her entry to the world of comedy in the first place. But Behar always had a social edge to her humor, and more than that, she has shown herself to be an excellent interviewer on TV shows of her own, and certainly was a lively and provocative presence on “The View.” Here we can see Behar basking in all her personable glory.

Yes, she gets to gossip about “The View” and its participants, including Barbara Walters. Bitchiness is delightfully wrapped in humor. But mostly this is a performance about the trajectory of Behar’s life, which she reviews in marvelously comedic terms.

Behar affectionately makes fun of her Italian family and growing up in Brooklyn. She notes that she is often mistaken for being Jewish. Someone informed Woody Allen, she says, that she was not Jewish, and Allen is said to have replied, “Has anyone told her?”

In spreading the laughs, she chats about what it was like in her youth and describes her instinctive rebellion against the expected life of a woman to only be a wife and mother. Showing a projected bleak scene of the Long Island Expressway with her exit, 60, she makes it clear that could have been a dead end for her life if she didn’t also seek more for herself after she was first married and busy raising a child.

Citing a number of thwarted professional starts in seeking an entertainment career, she traces her path to standup comedy and being discovered, which was anything but easy. Always the reports come not only with punch lines but with hilarious descriptions. And Behar is expert at congenially establishing close relationships with an audience, as if she is letting everyone into her confidence. Bio with laughs—that’s the steady combination.

Giving an example of many, she describes a crush on one of the celebrities she has interviewed, the glamorous French actress Catherine Deneuve. Behar is still flabbergasted at the response she received when having asked Deneuve if she had any regrets about her life and the actress rattled off a whole list. Regrets? Behar flashes projected pictures of Deneuve’s beauty and what others might envy, including a photo of handsome Marcello Mastroianni, who was Deneuve’s lover. Then comes the contrast, pictures of Behar’s aunt accompanied by funny comments about her aunt’s humdrum life and a picture of her husband (hardly Mastroianni), but reporting that when she asked her aunt whether she had regrets, she replied that she had none at all. It is an uproariously funny segment.

Behar also has the audience in stitches with her take on the famed incident of Lorena Bobbitt—the woman who lopped off her husband’s penis, got in a car, drove some distance and threw the penis out a window into a field. Behar comically points out how long it took to hunt down Osama bin Laden, but that it only took cops two hours to find the penis. She expertly builds the story and descriptions with uproarious detail.

Enough of trying to adequately describe her show. Get there in a hurry and see this remarkable, witty, likable and original entertainer for yourself. At The Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street. Phone: 212-989-2020. Reviewed December 13, 2014.

THE ELEPHANT MAN  Send This Review to a Friend

A striking coup occurs when we first meet Bradley Cooper as John Merrick in the revival of Bernard Pomerance’s “The Elephant Man.” He stands handsome and sturdily before us while Alessandro Nivola, playing surgeon Frederick Treves, describes Merrick and points to photographs depicting his assorted deformities. As the series of pictures are unveiled, Cooper begins to assume the postures depicted until gradually he has manipulated his body into startling distortions. The effect is stunning and touching.

The drama, based on a real person in Victorian England and impressively directed by Scott Ellis, builds from there into a major achievement. I have to admit that I was not especially eager to see the play again (I had also seen the movie), but I was hooked from the outset, and admiration for Cooper and this Williamstown Theatre Festival production grew. The result is emotionally affecting, and Cooper’s extraordinary performance, which hinges on his acting, not make-up design, conveys the pathos of Merrick’s plight, but also provides humor and spirit in the way in which he attempts to cope.

Although he has had stage experience, Cooper is known primarily for the excellent performances he has given in films (‘Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”). His fans will surely want to see him in “The Elephant Man.” His good looks come across dramatically when he first stands before us as in the above-described scene, which makes his transformation all the more striking.

But while it is the main attraction, Cooper’s performance is not the only strength. Nivola as the man who rescues Merrick from his life as a carnival freak is excellent in his role of giving Merrick shelter, trying to help him survive and simultaneously studying his condition.

There is also the wonderful Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Kendal, a flamboyant actress who assumes the task of helping to care for Merrick. Their sessions together are fascinating, and we see the bond of humanity and tenderness that develops, especially in a scene in which Clarkson tastefully responds to Merrick’s confession that he has never seen a naked woman. The up-tight Treves intrudes and is outraged at what he finds to be immoral.

As Merrick becomes more and more a high society celebrity, Cooper injects a measure of amusing cockiness into his portrayal, and that renders the play all the sadder as we appreciate the special person Merrick is despite the physical handicap he has been dealt. The drama also involves issues of finances and the extent to which a hospital will host Merrick. But the bottom line for an audience becomes the affection for Merrick instilled by Cooper and the playwright and what we feel at the end for the real person depicted, for Cooper as an actor, for other cast members and for the production as a whole.

Timothy R. Mackabee, scenic and production designer, has used wide curtains opening and closing as a motif, abetted by a collection of ceiling lights to help create a performance area that encases rather than dwarfs the drama that unfolds.

One unanswered question is how Merrick acquired the education that makes him so conversant with various subjects. But that would have made the play longer and not as dramatically succinct. At the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed December 11, 2014.

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY  Send This Review to a Friend

Charm is the order of the moment at “A Christmas Memory,” the Irish Repertory Theatre’s presentation based on Truman Capote’s short story, with book by Duane Poole, music by Larry Grossman and lyrics by Carol Hall. In memoir form, the musical shifts in time between 1955 and 1933 in Alabama, with an interweaving of both periods and sensitivity permeating the reflection by the leading character. All has an enjoyable glow under the delicate and intelligent direction by Charlotte Moore, who is the theater’s long-time Artistic Director.

While its headquarters undergoes renovation, the Irish Repertory Theatre is in a temporary home at the DR2 Theatre at Union Square. Its intimate stage is used effectively with scenic design by James Noone.

Ashley Robinson congenially plays the Adult Buddy, who returns home and acquaints the audience with the characters of his childhood, including himself as a boy. Silvano Spagnuolo, who plays Young Buddy, would seem to be a born entertainer, with all the right, amusing moves in the musical numbers. Director Moore and choreographer Barry McNabb have combined to direct young Spagnuolo smartly, so that he is winsome as an appealing performer. There’s a show-off element, to be sure, but he also captures the required dramatic energy and feelings associated with the role.

Young Buddy is being raised by relatives, and he has formed an especially close bond with Sook Faulk, sensitively acted and sung by Alice Ripley who looks after him and provides a fun aspect to his life as they bake together and provide an element of magic to his childhood and to her life as well. They have some lovely musical numbers together, including “Alabama Fruitcake,” “One Small Seed,” “No Tellin’,” and with the Ensemble, “Buddy’s Midnight Adventure.”

Robinson as Adult Buddy looks fondly on this childhood connection and is a likable observer and explainer of the action. Others in the cast of characters adding to the recollections include Virginia Ann Woodruff, Nancy Hess, Sanuel Cohen and Taylor Richardson.

There is a risk of being too saccharine in such a production, but Moore keeps matters mostly in check so that we are able to enjoy the transfer to the stage of Capote’s short story that undoubtedly was influenced by remembrances of his own childhood. The musical is a welcome opportunity for a family holiday theater outing. At theDR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street. Reviewed December 5, 2014.

  

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