Show Girl Showstopper: Andrea Bell Wolff Dazzles as She Recalls her ‘Adventures in Vegas’

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you a little nostalgic. At least, that was definitely the case for performer Andrea Bell Wolff, who opens her show Adventures in Vegas with a scene at a pandemic-era birthday gathering. From there, Wolff dusts off from the pages of her diary memories of Las Vegas and suddenly we are transported. The year was 1970, when the Rat Pack still ruled the strip. A nineteen-year-old Wolff, fresh off a run playing Ermengarde and understudying Minnie Faye for the national tour of Hello, Dolly!, sets her sights on ambitious roles on Broadway and film. Passed over for the likes of E.J. Peaker and Georgia Engel instead, Wolff seizes the opportunity for a part in the cast of Bottoms Up!, a comedic burlesque revue playing in the famed Caesar’s Palace. The successful revue takes her from Vegas to Sydney and back, proving to be one–if not the most–formative experience in Wolff’s life.

When I previously wrote regarding solo shows, I mentioned that it takes “a certain kind of physical stamina” to fill a stage on your own. Luckily, Wolff (who cuts a tiny-but-mighty figure onstage) manages to deliver a punchy performance with the help of fellow actor Elliott Litherland, who fills the roles of various people in Wolff’s life. Together, they make a vivacious pair, bringing the Las Vegas of 1970 into clear, vibrant focus. As a whole, Adventures in Vegas is a smooth ride down a glittering memory lane, with each stop along the way punctuated by musical selections from such varied artists as Sara Barielles, Whitney Houston, and Tom Waits. (Thrown in for good measure are actual numbers from Wolff’s past, originally performed by Grant Smith and Rusty Warren.) Under the musical direction of Jude Obermüller, each piece felt timeless, perfectly underscoring each memory so that it felt as if the songs were written especially for the show.

All in all, Adventures in Vegas provides the perfect escape into a simpler time.

‘Adventures in Vegas’ is running at the AMT Theater (354 W 45th Street) until August 24th. For tickets, go here.


The Body Keeps the Score: Marta Mondelli’s ‘Toscana, or What I Remember’ Exercises Some Muscle Memory

For many, memories can be a wonderful thing.  They have the ability to transcend time and space — perhaps to when things were simpler or more innocent.  For others, they can often leave one paralyzed in more ways than one, stuck on a never-ending loop.  In the case of Marta Mondelli’s Toscana, or What I Remember, it is the latter which seems to hold its grasp around the character Emma (played by Ms. Mondelli herself).  

The picturesque backdrop of Tuscany belies the painful memories it may bring to the people in it — particularly, ex-pat Emma, who has just returned to her native Tuscany for her father’s funeral.  Upon her return, she is confronted by memories at every turn.  From the children’s bookstore she remembers frequenting as a young girl; to the bakery which once stood across the street from her hotel; to even the familiar song a young girl nearby persistently sings (much to her annoyance) — a bevy of seemingly fond childhood remembrances but which in reality are relics representative of a more troubled past.  At the receiving end of her frustration is Emma’s American husband Fred (Scott Barton), who himself is bound to a wheelchair — the result of a car accident, referred to later in the play through expository dialogue.  Between the two of them, these memories of past traumas leave their relationship stilted and in constant turmoil, both emotionally and physically.

Serving as counterpoint (as well as some much-needed comedic relief) to the veteran couple is another couple on holiday: the younger and ever-so-cheery Coles, comprised of botany professor and expert Larry (Lance Olds) and his pregnant wife Sue (Nicole Kontolefa).  The Coles, who hail from Wisconsin, find themselves abroad due to a conference Larry is attending, and in awe at everything the Tuscan countryside has to offer (much, again, to Emma’s chagrin).  The two seemingly mismatched couples clash by the pool, their differences at first much more apparent than their similarities, whatever these may be.  

After a few awkward run-ins and misunderstandings, Sue and Fred find themselves alone, pondering the mysteries of the human body, whilst Emma and Larry do the same, albeit with the latter dispensing some botanically-infused wisdom along with it.  He describes something called habituation, in which a plant learns to adapt itself to its environment:  “There is this plant that opens and closes its flowers,” he starts.  “If you drop this flower, let’s say, fifty times, the first few times the plant will take a long time to re-open its flowers.  Because that’s a new stimulus.  But on the fiftieth time, it will take only a few seconds.”

The flower within the play itself, of course, is Emma, whose own memory seems to wilt and diminish as the play goes on, the repeated stimulus of the young child’s singing constantly haunting her.  Later on, when Larry encounters her once again by the pool, he witnesses Emma engulfed in yet another memory, splayed on a lounge chair and speaking to him in Italian, clearly mistaking him for her father.  She comes to, and once again, earlier musings on the effect of memories physically and metaphysically come back into play.  As she explains to Larry, the respective translations of the Italian words for “remember” and “forget” literally describe how memories lodge themselves within us: first, acquired through your heart (ricordare), before flowing through every pore of your body, eventually evaporating from your mind (dimenticare) and into thin air.  Emma’s own tortured memories do not dissipate quite as easily and instead completely take over her.  Eventually, it is revealed that the incidents of mistaken identity between the characters aren’t just scrambled memories, but rather something far worse: a muscle memory of sorts that Emma’s body can’t soon forget…even if her mind already has.

Toscana, Ms. Mondelli’s second outing at the Cherry Lane Theatre (the first of which being the excellent The Window, which I had the pleasure of reviewing for Off Off Online here.), is yet another example of the playwright’s many strengths.  The ability to condense big ideas into an intimate piece of theatre is perhaps one of the hardest tasks any writer is given, and one which Ms. Mondelli not only tackles gamely, but also executes with ease.  Such ease depicted onstage must also be attributed to the trio of cast members at her side, whose collective commitment to their respective roles lends just the right amount of gravitas, humor and everything in between.  As a whole, Toscana is a lovely exploration into Memory and its grasp on places and people, and a piece worthy of self-exploration of one’s own.

Images courtesy of Seth Perlman.


A Bittersweet Symphony, Served With Zest: Heather Litteer Peels Away the Layers of the Past

The prospect of seeing a solo performance often, admittedly, triggers a silent panic in one whose job it is to dole out an objective opinion about it.  As that they are often based upon a performer’s life experiences, one-man (or, in this case, one-woman) shows often carry with them the possibility of turning out to either be really, really good — or really, really, really bad.  There is the addtitional worry of what one might say should it result in the latter: can one dismiss the truth of someone’s experience if it isn’t performed in a certain way, or simply not to one’s liking?  What then?  It hardly seems fair — or kind, at that.  This is a challenge not only performers must face in sharing their stories onstage, but one critics must also face, in witnessing them.

In the case of screen siren and performance artist Heather Litteer, she finds a way — much like the title of the particular show in question — to turn some possibly sour lemons into some sweet, delightfully-raunchy Lemonade.  This metaphor holds well in representing her current onstage life, as well as the onscreen life around which Lemonade is structured.  She opens the show as Heather Poetess, uttering  a line that eventually becomes an eerie refrain throughout the evening: “I’m not a hooker…but I play one on TV.” 

For roughly the past twenty years, Ms. Litteer has made a career out of playing hookers, junkies and strippers in both film and television.  “I’m arrested by pigs, I’m ripped from brothels,” she continues to say in that same opening scene.  “I’m whipped and I’m wrapped in chains…does anyone make love anymore?”  She describes her roles with gusto, each new one prefaced by a one-sided phone call with her agent.  Her comedic descriptions of each role is peppered with dark, twisted humor, suggestive of her own observations on the ways women are exploited on film.   Whether playing a blowsy Russian girl named Nadia, one-half of a pair of lesbian junkies, or simply billed as Bored Hooker #1, each role and its accompanying scenario is made increasingly more ridiculous than the last, serving as further evidence of the indeed perverse business of sex (and women) as commodity.

In stark contrast to the flamboyant roles for which she would become known, Litteer’s own beginnings as a young girl growing up in Georgia were, considerably, much humbler and innocent by comparison.  The actress’ early childhood largely involve her “Steel Magnolia” of a mother Nancy, whom she affectionately calls a “walking, talking Tennessee Williams character.”  Here, Litteer goes on to describe a younger Heather already showing signs of what is to come, painting for us a picture of a childhood filled with Halloweens dressed up in her mother’s suits as the “Advertising and Marketing director of Vogue Magazine.”  Many of these anecdotes of Litteer’s past self are juxtaposed beautifully against the struggles of her present self, and exemplifies the actress’ ability to successfully mix the bitter with the sweet.  This becomes especially true as Present Heather attempts to balance her professional pratfalls in New York with news of her mother’s own slow decline into disease back home. 

The precarious act of balancing such a  fine line involves just stirring in the right amount of gravitas to counteract the awkwardness of being the sole performer onstage.  This takes a certain kind of physical stamina to accomplish, one which has been achieved in different ways in other solo performances: 2014’s Forgetting the Details (previously reviewed here, for the New York International Fringe Festival) saw Nicole Maxali took on the varied mannerisms of her family members; while that same year, Daliya Karnofsky had the assistance of backup dancers for …And She Bakes, Live (also reviewed here). 

For her part, Litteer falls somewhere between these two, which is not to say that the end result isn’t as effective.  In fact, her slightly less-refined performance makes her Lemonade all the more raw and real in its portrayal.   Here, she instead adopts a thick, Southern-Belle accent (one that would, surely, make even Rhett Butler melt), along with some charming, old-world Nancy-isms in order to bring her mother to life.  Her performance never ceases to command the stage with striking, unabashed self-awareness, eventually culminating in a daring striptease at play’s end — proving that while baring it all for an audience isn’t always easy, doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun along the way.

Images courtesy of Heather Litteer.

Review, Uncategorized

Girl Anachronism: Aquila Theatre Company Reveals the Feminine Side to Literature’s Most Famous Private Eye

Just as a certain wildly popular celebrity departed from New York to commence production on a certain wildly popular television show based on a certain wildly popular, old-timey-but-updated sleuth, another iteration made its way back to the city.  Over at the Queens Theatre, Aquila Theatre Company presented an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  Aquila, the Professional company-in-residence at New York University’s Center for Ancient Studies, is another in a recent line of companies at the theatre whose mission is to provide the public with accessible interpretations of classic works.

(The other one being the theater’s own company-in-residence, TITAN Theatre Company, the most recent production of which I reviewed here.)

As stated above, everyone’s favorite snarky sociopath has seen many a proliferation find its way into the pop culture canon over the years, namely: Guy Ritchie’s films with Robert Downey, Jr.; CBS’ Elementary; and the BBC/Masterpiece hit co-production Sherlock.  Books such as The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes — along with Conan Doyle’s original collection of works, of course — have lined bookstore shelves, further heightening the Holmesian craze.  If one were to actually apply these books’ methods, one would probably, and very logically, conclude that it would be only a matter of time until a stage adaptation crept upon us.

In which case, that would be correct.

However, unlike that wildly popular celebrity (y’know, the one whose name sounds a bit like Beryllium Cucumber), the Sherlock of Desiree Sanchez’s imagining is much less the tall, cherub-faced specimen of a man we’ve come to know and love onscreen, and instead takes his form in that of a tall, lithe-limbed…woman onstage.

Yes, that’s right, Sherlock Holmes is a female — at least for our purposes here.

Admittedly, it was this exact promise of a “female Sherlock” which led this writer to this particular production in the first place; not only because the prospect of a woman grasping the chance at playing such a character was too interesting and “hmm”-worthy to pass up, but also because the idea of girls in cloaks kicking ass arse was always a personal point-of-interest.  This Sherlock’s female-ness is certainly mentioned within the dialogue of the play, but done so in an almost flippant manner, as if seeing a woman don trousers (along with signature cape and deerstalker hat) in Victorian England instead of a corset and skirts were a natural occurence.  It would seem that this unusual piece of casting was not a device to highlight any political undertones in the text, as with the case of TITAN’s Othello last year; nor was it a way to subvert expectations, just as The Queen’s Company’s production of Sir Patient Fancy did two years ago..

This is not to say that Jackie Schram, the actress embodying the role, did not succeed in exceeding those expectations.  On the contrary, Ms. Schram brings into her Sherlock one that is just as quick-witted, observant and resourceful as the original canon’s, managing all the while to inject some physical humor along the way.  In fact, physicality played a major role in providing much of the levity in the play — aided most wonderfully by Ms. Schram’s delightful Watson to her Holmes, Peter Groom, who does everything from clacking away frantically at a typewriter to scuttering frightfully away from a creaking door.  The rest of the cast is rounded out with Kirsten Foster, Michael Rivers and Hemi Yeroham, all of whom gamely join in on the fun, as well; most notably, in a scene from Sherlock’s first case (‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’), wherein they are chased by a bloodthirsty dog — albeit, an invisible one.

The play, much like its characters in ‘Copper Beeches,’ fumbles along at first, trying to find its footing, tonally.  Many of the jokes only manage to garner a few laughs in many of the early scenes, but eventually hits its stride by the second case, ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face,’ the conclusion of which is not revealed until the beginning of the play’s second act, providing some fun tension.  By the time we delve into one of the most famous of Holmesian cases, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ the entire theatre attention is held rapt, as our female Sherlock comes face-to-face with Irene Adler, later dubbed by the detective as “The Woman.”  Again, despite many possibilities for an interesting, modern interpretation of this case (i.e., homo-erotic overtones), ‘Scandal’ was played rather straightforwardly, and disappointingly so.  Still, the ensemble’s strong and energetic performance more than made up for these missed opportunities, making for an enjoyable evening in the theater.

Images courtesy of Richard Termine. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ran from April 1-23, 2016 at The Queens Theatre (14 United Nations Avenue) and the GK ArtsCenter (29 Jay Street).

Review, Uncategorized

How History Happens: TITAN Theatre Company Fearlessly Ushers ‘Julius Caesar’ Into a Brave New World

TITAN Theatre Company has seen the future — and the future is bleak.  The political climate gains momentum, with public opinion ruled by sweeping promises of  Rhetoric, rather than the practicality of Reason.  This could refer to the mud-slinging rat race currently going on in our country, referring instead to one which occurred hundreds of years ago.  The Queens-based theatre collective continues in their mission to breathe new life into classic works with a sleek, provocative take on William Shakespeare’s politically-centered historical historical drama.  The production marks the end of TITAN’s third full season as company-in-residence at the Queens Theatre, this time with Jack Young at the helm.  

In a lot of ways, Caesar stays true to many elements that have become part-and-parcel to a quintessentially TITAN production: a modern setting against which the company’s consistently strong ensemble of actors (along mostly intact Shakespearean dialogue) are juxtaposed.  However, while these elements are certainly carried over into Caesar, giving it that particular air of TITAN-esque familiarity, this production is also a departure from the company’s other works, leaning even more bravely toward the avant-garde.  This fearlessness is perhaps due not just to TITAN’s ensemble of actors (resident company members and visiting artists alike) and its artistic director, Lenny Banovez, but also to the production’s own design team.

Sarah Pearline’s scenic design truly sets the stage for Caesar‘s bleak dystopia.  Just like classic novels of the genre — particularly, George Orwell’s 1984 — the set, despite its stark minimalism, cloaks itself deep in complex symbolism.  Instead of the traditional Roman columns one might expect from the world of Caesar, Pearline punctuates TITAN’s futuristic Rome with the criss-crossing, ray-like beams across the back wall of the set, conjuring images of both the steel frames of corporate buildings and bars of a prison cell.  Either way, the people of Rome are certainly trapped in a less-than-idyllic system — a totalitarian regime, in fact, ruled by the titular tyrant Julius Caesar (Jonathan Smoots) himself.  

Early on in the first act, Cassius (Banovez) utters the famous lines: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our Selves, that we are underlings.”  Not everything is as fated as we think it is, and if it is Rome that is in a state of complete tyranny, then it is because the people were complicit in their own subjugation.  This is made clear just as the ensemble enters the stage and we can see, etched across its floor, criss-crossing geometrical lines dotted at various points — remarkably similar to constellations in the sky.  At first, the group of Romans, decked out in black slacks and crisp white shirts by costumer Lorraine Smyth, step out individually into a strange assembly of movements.  These movements at first seem random until Caesar himself enters, standing at the center of the stage where all points of the “constellation” on the ground meet, and at the motion of his staff, they fall into a synchronized dance of sorts.  The choreography, abstract and yet specific in its thoroughly modern, Graham- and Cunningham-esque movements, most enhances the production’s aforementioned departures into bolder artistic territory.

However, it doesn’t just stop with just the design elements and choreography.  As they did in last year’s Othello, TITAN rounds up some of the best stage actors found on both coasts and in-between; and as always, it seems almost blasphemous to single any one actor out.  From the aforementioned “grand entrance” in the beginning to the inevitable assassination scene and its dramatic, consequential end the ensemble move as one, egos thrown aside for the sake of better serving the story.  That said, TITAN also utilizes double-casting in Caesar (something seen before in their previous productions –particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream), which also allows for each actor in all of their varied, respective roles, to shine equally.

Unlike the dystopian doom they depict onstage, TITAN once again proves that unity as a group can positively serve the public at large, and that to progress in theater is not only to challenge its boundaries, but also compel one to think critically.

Images courtesy of Michael Dekker. Julius Caesar ran from March 25 – April 10, 2016 at the Queens Theatre (14 United Nations Avenue).


Lost in Translation: Ran Xia Defies Definition With ‘Word Play’

There are things in life that are hard to explain merely with words.  Sometimes, the best way to transcend obstacles is simply to revel in the ineffable intricacy of emotions we are dealt with.  What is left when one not only runs out of memories, but the words to describe them?  Such are the trials and tribulations of young, twenty-something etymologist Icarus (Adrian Burke) and beautiful French ex-pat Esme (Charlotte Arnoux), the young couple at the center of Word Play, Ran Xia’s latest effort.

Just as the title suggests, words are all over this play.  Its own inception is even inspired by a post on pop culture aggregate Buzzfeed, which featured a list of “untranslatable” foreign words, some of which eventually working their way into the fabric of the play, with each word prompting each of the eleven scenes.  Indeed, even as the audience enters the small black-box space of The Theatre Building’s Jewel Box Theater, they are inundated with words: on the floor, on the walls, and even literally hung on the line — a clothesline, that is.

And hang on the line, they do.

Under director Florence Le Bas, we follow the young couple along as their story traverses time and space, across varying states and planes — both literally and figuratively.  Icarus (or Iggy, as he prefers to be called) is diagnosed with a debilitating disease (a brain tumor, it is implied), which starts to affect his memory.  Upon news that it may not be much longer until the disease fully takes hold of his mental faculties, Iggy scrambles to commit his favorite words to memory, writing them down everywhere in a frenetic, Memento-like fashion.  Similarly, he urges Esmé (Essie, he calls her) to go away with him on a road trip across the country, declaring that he wants to live life while he still can.  

This newfound urgency is reflected as scenes from their relationship jump-cut between lived-in and dreamt-up moments.  We see them go through phases as a couple, from awkward, heart-thumping beginning to its inevitable, heartbreaking end.  Iggy’s own decaying memory begins parallels these phases, with elements of his personality changing from one to the other as his mind further riddles with disease.  “This is how memories fade,” Icarus says to Esmé, “Perfectly constructed sentences, reduced to scattered words and eventually, meaningless combinations of letters.  Promise me one thing, Essie.  Don’t ever let me forget you.” 

But forget her, he does.  As his illness worsens, the scenes visibly become shorter and shorter, and by the time they get to see that last sunset, his memory of Esmé all but fades away, descending rapidly into darkness.  The fourth full-length production in an ever-growing output of thought-provoking pieces over the last year and a half, Word Play sees Ms. Xia at perhaps her most heartfelt and earnest to date.  Just as her Icarus decorates his life with words, much of the author’s signatory imprint can be found within Word Play: scenes of roadside Americana; characters out-of-time, with poetic dialogue between them overlapping one another; and — of course — memory.  At its core, it is an exploration into the immediacy of language, the slow fade of memory and the mysteries of human connection.  It is a beautiful piece of theater, and one certainly deserving of a wider audience.


And to All a Good Night: TITAN Theatre Company & The Queens Theatre presents ‘A Christmas Carol’

As a proud 90s kid, yours truly can recall more than a few versions which had particular influence (or, is in the case of the VHI TV film, simply pure entertainment) in the retelling of the timeless tale: an 26-minute animated short by Disney (Mickey’s Christmas Carol), which featured Scrooge McDuck as the infamous main character; as well as another with the Muppets (The Muppet Christmas Carol), featuring Kermit in full-out Dickensian costume.  There was that totally campy, glittery and positively lol-worthy adaptation on VH1 (A Diva’s Christmas Carol) starring Vanessa Williams as a Scrooge-like pop star (minus the top hat, spectacles and grey beard, of course), and let’s not forget the fairly recent computer-animated version to which Jim Carrey lent his vocal stylings.

These days, not much about the story — or its young audience — has changed.  The times, however, have — and in this tech-obsessed world we’re living in now, it is refreshing to see the next generation engage in something other than what is on a screen in front of them.  There is nothing like sitting in a theater filled with kids hanging onto the edge of their seats — and onto every word being performed onstage.  The performance in question was not the latest pop star (sorry, Taylor Swift), but TITAN Theatre Company‘s production of A Christmas Carol at the Queens Theatre.

The story itself should be a familiar one by now: we are introduced — and given expository background — to Ebenezer Scrooge (
Kevin Loomis) by various nameless characters, who describe the old man’s descent into bitterness following the death of his business partner Jacob Marley (Andy Baldeschwiler) 7 years prior to the play’s start.  We see evidence of Scrooge’s cold heart through his mistreatment of those around him: namely, his nephew, Fred (Dylan Wittrock), who attempts to invite his uncle to partake in Christmas Eve festivities; as well as his office clerk, Bob Cratchit (John Taylor Phillips), to whom the old miser has refused an increase in what is already a meager salary.

Then, of course, as he makes his way home and into his bed, he is suddenly visited by an apparition of Marley’s Ghost, who ominously announces that Scrooge shall be visited by the ghosts of Christmases Past (TITAN company member  Laura Frye), Present (fellow company member Michael Selkirk) and Future (also played by Baldeschwiler).  Over the course of the night, these three ghosts literally lead Scrooge on a journey backwards, forwards — and even sideways — in time, getting to the root of how the old miser became who he was.

In re-enacting these classic scenes to the next generation, TITAN’s talented round of cast members surely do Dickens justice.  The return of company regulars Frye and Selkirk prove once again to be a winning combination, along with fellow standouts Wittrock and the production’s own Scrooge, Loomis himself.  The inclusion of child actors also help in not only help fully round out the cast, but also provide the younger members of the audience with another element to the story with which to relate to.  As both Tiny Tim and the “present-day” grandson in the opening scene,  Moore Theobald gamely holds his own with his elder counterparts, as does his brother Quinn in the roles of Peter and a much younger Scrooge.

As you can see, Dickens’ Carol has been a cultural mainstay, always seeming to find a way to remain relevant in our modern society.   From the beginning of TITAN’s production, which opens with Loomis as a present-day grandfather reading it to his grandson, we are reminded once again of the timelessness of Dicken’s tale.   While their interpretation of the material is less a “modernized” one, period clothing and language remaining largely intact, what seems to make this story modern is in the fact that its themes are still ones we grasp with today — mainly, how greed can corrupt even the most purest of heart, and how ultimately, forgiveness can be the best gift of all.

Combined with an elegant production design, with sets by Jasmine Nicole and costumes by Becky Willet, TITAN proves once more that everything old can be new again.

Images courtesy of Lloyd Mulvey.


One Final Act: A Peek Behind the ‘Side Show’ Curtain, as it Comes to a Close

It seems as if for years, people have been fascinated by certain anomalies in society — or, as Robert Ripley (yes, that Ripley) would have called them: “oddities.”  This fascination would soon evolve from Mr. Ripley’s eventual Believe It or Not! empire and travelling circuses to that most perverse of modern entertainments: reality television.  From Jon And Kate Plus 8 to Little People, Big World, to even the vast Duggar franchise (basically, any TLC reality show at this point), the public’s obsession with anything even remotely different from what is perceived as “normal” still prevails today.  There are a couple of shows currently running on the Great White Way which would perfectly exemplify this display of curiosity, one of which being the revival of Henry Kreiger and Bill Russell‘s Side Show over at the St. James Theatre.  

(The other — for those who are, well…curious, is the Bradley Cooper-led revival of Bernard Pomerance‘s The Elephant Man.)

For those unfamiliar with Side Show and its unique backstory, the musical chronicles  the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the first conjoined twins in Britain known to survive past a few weeks.  Throughout their lives, the twins suffered many abuses: first, at the hand of their own mother, who sold the girls the first chance she could get; then later, by their over-controlling managers who, by that time, had become the girls’ only family.  Still, despite the troubles they  would experience, the girls managed to make their way in the world.  From a young age, they were trained to sing, dance and play musical instruments and it was these talents which would lead them to the Sideshow and vaudeville circuits — and eventually, Hollywood.  

The original 1997 run of Side Show lasted only 91 performances (122, counting previews) and despite  managing to garner not only critical acclaim but also 4 Tony nominations, the show closed just a few short months later.  This time around, history will repeat itself once more as the current revival will find itself closing on January 4, 2015.   This production is the product of nearly two years’ worth of various reworkings made through out-of-town runs at both La Jolla Playhouse in 2013 and the Kennedy Center earlier this past summer (the show also ran as an “abridged” version at the Kennedy in October 2008, as part of their Broadway: Three Generations presentation).    

With this in mind, it is difficult to gauge these improvements made on the show, particularly because I had never seen the original, “un-tainted” version and had only come to be vaguely familiar with the musical after hearing its name bandied about in the theatrosphere as of late.  This, then, brings with it many concerns for a critic such as myself; therefore, I must give fair warning when I say that the following opinions are solely based on what I’ve seen from this particular production, and may or may not be subject to change should I eventually come across the original material.  (I’ll be sure to let you know my opinions about it here, of course.)

That said, let me start off by saying that there are many things about this show that confused me.  Side Show seems to be a show utterly ripe to be a showstopper; what Bob Fosse would have called a “razzle dazzle” kind of show, one with a deep, dark undertone bubbling under all the glitter and glamor.  At the show’s start, it seems to set up this idea, with the ensemble introduced to us with the number, “Come Look at the Freaks.”  Perhaps a bit too obvious, yes, but as a lover of the darker side of old-timey circus acts  (A Human Pin Cushion?  A Fortune Teller, you say?  SO there!), I brushed aside any immediate judgments for the time being.

As the show goes on, the score never quite delves into the dark underbelly it so intriguingly set up in the aforementioned opener.  There are some attempts, such as “Cut Them Apart,” sung by the girls’ British physicians in an expanded backstory portion, but even so, they barely miss the mark.  In fact, most of the backstory portion displays the inclusion of moments in which Harry Houdini, of all people, gets his own song (“All in the Mind”); while this in itself is interesting — and factually true — it proved to be one of many head-scratch-inducing moments to come.

Side Show‘s tunes perhaps shine most brightly when sung by the two lead actresses playing the Hiltons; from the girls’ introduction song “Like Everyone Else” (which is a great example of a musical theatre song, and a charming one at that), to their song-and-dance number (“Typical Girls Next Door”), to the signature ballad, “I Will Never Leave You.”  It is clear that the show’s creatives are just as interested as the viewing public in exploring the girl’s unique situation — perhaps more so than what really lies beneath the surface.

Still, there are many great things about the 2014 revival, not the least of which is the talented cast.  Led, of course, by Erin Davies and Emily Padgett (who play Daisy and Violet, respectively), and joined by Ryan Silverman, Matthew Hydzik and David St. Louis (as the girls’ bodyguard Jake).  As the Hilton sisters, Davies and Padgett exude charm, wit and vulnerability, both vocally and in their characterization of each girl.  Working — quite literally — in tandem (feel free to cue the sad trombones), the two are perfectly in sync with one another, producing beautiful harmonies.  

As for the aforementioned supporting cast, they each hold their own.  As the scheming press agent Terry Connor, Silverman looks the part of a dashing Cary Grant type looking to sweep the girls (in particular, Daisy) off their feet, and has the singing chops to go with his indelible charms.  Meanwhile, Hydzik, in the role of Terry’s romantically-confused sidekick Buddy Foster, is the perfect bumbling fool to Silverman’s debonair devil.  However, it is perhaps St. Louis who steals the show (which is hard to do when among the likes of an array of talents such as this), reminiscent of Joshua Henry‘s performance in Broadway’s Violet earlier this year —  his booming voice seems to reverberate and bounce off the walls of the St. James, during numbers such as “Devil You’ve Got to Hide” and “You Should Be Loved.”

Rounded out with brilliant scenic design by David Rockwell (even now, I still marvel at changing sets whenever I see productions on a scale such as this) and beautiful quick-changing costumes by Paul Tazewell, which could rival the likes of William Ivey Long‘s in Broadway’s Cinderella (and to be on par with Ivey Long is a compliment, indeed!), Side Show made for a captivating feast for the eyes.  Unfortunately, with a score and book lacking in focus and drive, the show fell short of the possibilities to truly entertain.

Side Show is running until this Sunday, January 4, 2015
at the St. James Theatre.
For tickets and other info, click here.
Readers of The Resident Artist are eligible for a special 2-for-1 offer! 
Just click here and redeem using the code: 


Rise Up with Fists: Organs of State Packs a Punch with ‘Fighter’

What do you get when you take one part Super Mario Bros., another part Scott Pilgrim, combined with Mortal Kombat, and a little bit of The Last Airbender? You get all kinds of awesome, which is pretty much the only way to sum up the Fighter experience. Written, directed, and choreographed by Jose Perez IV, who also plays Izzy, the show is an epic journey about two guys searching for the true meaning of heroism.  Whipping into shape a perfect blend of multimedia technology, martial arts, hip-hop, and some hot ripplin’ abs (um, not that I was looking or anything), Fighter will have you on the edge of your seat, ringside and feeling every trickle of blood, sweat, spit and tears on your face – literally (well, maybe not the blood part — at least, I hope not anyway)!

Stepping into the Shell Theater, located in the Times Square Arts Building, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I certainly didn’t expect there to be an interactive “training session” with the company – sure enough, as soon as the house started to fill up, the audience was treated with the sight of the cast doing various warm-up exercises, their shouts and grunts practically reverberating off the walls.  Once the lights dimmed and the show opened to a fight sequence choreographed to The White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army,” it was clear that this would only be a taste of what was to come.  As previously mentioned, the play surrounds two best friends, Izzy and Jake (Keenan Joliff), as they attempt to find out more about a warrior legend passed down Izzy’s family for generations, in the hopes they could use it in a presentation about Myths and Legends for their summer school class.  Of course, as oral history tends to have the same effect as a childhood game of Telephone, major details were eventually omitted, leaving the two to take a road trip, in the hopes that they would find someone to fill the missing pieces.  Along the way, they come across a string of Storytellers, each one providing a new piece to the puzzle. 

Each time the boys gain a little more knowledge to The Legend of the Warrior, each stage of the story gets re-enacted in a fight scene, with Izzy taking center stage as the Warrior himself.  The “flashback” sequences are presented in a similar fashion to the opening scene, often using rousing, head-pounding music to soundtrack Perez’s (literally) kick-ass choreography.  One noteable scene even went so far as to use a remix of “The Bed Intruder Song“, with the cast’s sword-wielding motions timed to perfection with the beat!  Any show that can not only pull that off, but pull it off successfully definitely gets my vote.  In fact, it was a moment that practically brought a tear to my eye (partially out of laughter and partially because, well, it just really touched me okay guys jeez) and made my meme-obsessed self squee with joy, heart all a-flutter.  So bravo to the company, Mr. Perez and Mr. Mitch McCoy (who did the fight direction).  Run tell dat.

The show itself as a whole, especially considering the aforementioned scene, was a lot funnier than expected, and surprisingly had a lot of heart, too.  What really stood out as a central element to the story was that, at its core, Fighter was not just about what it meant to be your own hero — but what it meant to be a friend, as well.  After all, every great superhero needs a sidekick, and Joliff’s Jake provided a great source of comic relief, which in turn added a great balance to Perez’s Izzy, who maintained a quiet intensity throughout.  Their chemistry made me believe in their onstage friendship, which was ultimately be put to the test when all their hard work finally culminated in their summer class presentation — where something happens that would not only change their lives forever, but change the audience’s perspective on the story itself, and how it was told.  In that vein, Fighter was also about storytelling — how it holds the power to inspire and change people’s lives.  Each one of us has a story to tell, and every person we meet along the way affects the way it’s told. 

Watching the show, I couldn’t help but think about how “homespun” it felt, as if you were watching 20 of some of your best friends put on a show.  This is not to say that the execution fell short at all; on the contrary, everything — from the projections (Euthymios Logothetis) to the lighting (Marika Kent) — was well done, the latter being particularly spot-on during the fight sequences.  It reminded me of being 10 years old and seeing my cousins perform at Binghampton University’s Barrio Fiesta nights (organized by student-run Philippine-American League), which consisted of modern and traditional Filipino folk dances, as well as various skits — all written, choreographed and performed by the students themselves.  There was definitely an organic, “let’s put on a show, guys!” feel about it that I also felt when watching Fighter.  It was certainly refreshing and invigorating to see people around my age up there performing and was a thrill to witness.  There was also a sense of instant camaraderie between not just the entire company, but also between themselves and the audience, which brought a unique energy to the show.

Aside from the obvious video game and anime references, Fighter also brought to mind another show I had seen, New York Theatre Workshop’s production of The Seven.  Based on Aeschylus’ tale, Seven Against Thebes, about two warring sons of King Oedipus, it also included a combination of epic storytelling, journeys, ancient warriors, hip-hop and anachronistic cultural references.  I thought the striking similarities in both shows were quite interesting, and were especially evident in the scenes with the various Storytellers.  I loved how each Storyteller had their own distinct personalities, particularly the blind runner, Storytime Steven (Frankie Alicea) and the Not-Quite-Hobo-Enough Storytime Hobo (John Charles Ceccherelli).  There were also other standouts in the cast, such as Gabe Green as Running Man, and Andy Zou as Mr. Bootymonster (yes, that’s his name).

All in all, Fighter had me laughing, crying, cheering and jeering — but really, mostly laughing.  It’s a show that will make you wish you’d taken that Tae Kwon Do class instead of…oh, I don’t know…7 years of jazz dance.  No jazz hands here, it’s all about throwing the punches and doin’ butterfly kicks like a boss when the going gets rough.


Images courtesy of Sasha Arutyunova.Fighter’ ran from October 13th-23rd, 2011 at The Shell Theater. For more information about this production, click here. For upcoming productions by Organs of State, click here.


Going Back to the Start: Knife Edge Productions Shows What Happens When You Replay the Past and Erase it

What do you do when your past comes back to haunt you?

Such is the running theme in this revival of Stephen Belber’s Tape, directed by Sam Helfrich.  The play tells the story of two former high school best friends, Jon (Neil Holland) and Vince (Don DiPaolo) discover just that when a ten-year reunion starts to unlock secrets from their past.  Jon, an aspiring filmmaker, is in town for the Lansing film festival, where one of his films is screened.  He meets with Vince in a Motel 6 where a friendly conversation soon becomes an interrogation.

Niceties are made, jokes are thrown around and memories are shared — particularly that of one night Jon spent with a girl named Amy (Therese Plaehn).  Through Belber’s sparse but witty dialogue, we soon learn that Jon had not only dated her, but Vince as well.  The conversation starts off innocently enough — Vince asks about the night of a high school friend’s party their senior year, and how far things went between Jon and Amy, both of whom had gotten together shortly after she and Vince had broken up.  It is here the conversation takes a dramatic turn, as Vince’s inquiries start to suggest that things had gone too far and reveal his own suspicions of rape.  He claims that Amy had confided this to him, an idea that leaves Jon speechless.

Jon’s memories of the night are muddled, and though he was sure at first that nothing happened, he begins to doubt himself.  The interrogation reaches new heights when, after much prodding and accusation from Vince, Jon caves in and confesses to the act.  At this, Vince takes a tape recorder out from his pocket and replays the conversation.  

The question of what to do with the tape hangs in the air, as Vince tells Jon that Amy is coming over, at his invitation.  Both are still recovering from the initial shock of Jon’s confession when Amy, now an Assistant District Attorney, makes a revelation of her own: that the supposed rape never happened.

The play toys with the concept of memory; how malleable it is and how it can change over time to suit our needs.  What we perceive a certain memory to be is not necessarily what we remember, and Tape not only walks that fine line, but dares to explore it further.  For Jon, he started doubting his initial memories fooling around with Amy (as any other pair of teenagers would do at a party) to conceding to Vince’s telling of it being a bit on the rough side.  Amy counters this, insisting that the roughest it got was when he covered her mouth during the act.  We never really know whether Amy did truly remember or not; whether she was lying just to test the two, or whether it really hadn’t been rape at all.

Both Holland and DiPaolo played off one another very well, and I very much believed them in their roles.  Holland seemed to find the right balance of anger, resentment and confusion throughout; DiPaolo’s performance gave so much life to Belber’s often comic dialogue (“I’m not high and mighty.  I’m too high to be high and mighty!” comes to mind), and had a great energy that played well against Holland’s Jon.  Plaehn also brought an interesting energy to the overall dynamic, and between the three of them, they seemed to really physically inhabit these roles instead of just playing characters — even the silences and beats between lines just felt right with all of them in the room, distant from one another and yet having so much history between them.

Images courtesy of Sal Cacciato.

Tape ran from September 9th – 24th in the June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex. For more information on the cast and creatives, go here. Click to vote for it in the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.