Musical Theater

Restaurant Guide

Review of The Most Beautiful Room in New York, Long Wharf Theatre

The promise of the new musical The Most Beautiful Room in New York, in its premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, is a tuneful look at the rigors of sustaining a beloved Union Square restaurant in these days of rampant greed and bad taste. Adam Gopnik, a well-known New Yorker author, provides the book and lyrics, and should have a take on New York restaurant culture to entertain and enlighten, particularly as he’s also the author of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. With music by composer David Shire, who once upon a time composed the soundtrack for the very gritty New York caper-fable The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, we should be transported to a piquant urban ambiance. Not quite. This battle for the soul of a mom-and-pop eatery offers a main entrée with too much filler, and really only tastes satisfyingly urban in its side-dishes.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart, stepping into the role late in the run-up to opening and providing a likeable heart of the story) is the chef and co-owner of “Table,” a small, successful restaurant. Presented as a dreamer, by his more practical wife and business partner Claire (Anastasia Barzee), David’s a “poet” of the food industry who tilts at windmills. He believes he’s solved the problem of the huge mark-up in rent that will otherwise put him out of business: a deal with the devil, sort of. The “devil,” in this case, is the long-haired, rock star of a chef named Sergio (Constantine Maroulis, also likeable though supposed to be dastardly) who has his own agenda. Once “brothers” in their early years of trying to make a name in the food business, Sergio has long since surpassed David in the earning ability of his brand. But he’s always looking for new territory to exploit. Thus comes the Faustian bargain, served up by an entertaining duet “Take My Life.”

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

If that were all, that might be enough, particularly as “Market Forces,” sung by Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy), one half of a lesbian couple that manages the co-op farmer’s market in the Square, is one of the best songs delivered by one of the show’s best singers. Maybe we will be treated to a musical unmasking of how capitalism foils all but the most bread-winning choices. Unfortunately, Phoebe’s musings are merely a side-dish. As is the other delicious touch: Mark Nelson’s very welcome comic turn as the proprietor of Carlo’s Anarchist Pizza, a Bensonhurst establishment where each slice is viewed as an individual pie, making the solidarity of each pizza stronger. Carlo is introduced fairly early on, when David and Claire’s son Bix (Tyler Jones, playing a more wholesome version of a Spielberg teen) delivers some fresh mozz. We might for a moment contemplate a musical world filled with off-beat eateries catering to varied political and gustatory manifestos, but this isn’t that show, though Michael Yeargan’s masterful, flavorful sets might keep you hoping.

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Instead, it’s a romance. Middle-aging-ish romance served up with jealousy—that eternal spice of the tried-and-true. David realizes that Claire had a weekend that shall evermore remain legendary . . . in Wildwood, New Jersey, with Sergio. Sergio, though jaded by his conquest of the world, or at least the media, can’t seem to get past their night in the fabled “Doo Wop Motel.” If this sounds preposterous, well, it is a musical. The will-she, won’t-she plot line does nothing to help the restaurant story, but it does make that “most beautiful room” seem built on airy nothings. We have to accept that Claire is bored enough with it all, including a teen son courting Anna (Krystina Alabado), the daughter of Carlo, to take up with a sleazy wheeler-dealer who talks like Trump and looks like Bono (indeed, Maroulis hints at being a belter à la Sir Vox, but never really gets to show off the pipes here). Phoebe, always on hand to offer colorful asides, opines that “straight women” almost always prefer the pirate to the poet, and that should be good enough for motivation.

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act Two is shorter than Act One and if the romantic interests grip you, you’ll be satisfied as the plot plays out. For me, songs four—the title song, a lovely duet between David and his daughter Kate (Sawyer Niehaus)—through eight, a charming little riff on the current teen generation, “So, Like, Maybe”—are the best stuff in the show, which includes “Take My Life,” “Market Forces,” and Carlo’s “Espresso!”  All of which arrive before the love triangle rears its hoary head. Carlo comes back in Act Two—thankfully!—with the nicely turned “Slice of Life,” but Phoebe and her partner Gloria (Danielle Ferland) try rather doggedly, in “Lucky,” to poke fun at the ideals of marriage.

Through it all, our central family—and they have plenty of songs to prove it—remains so bland we can’t help but wonder if maybe the surly diner Gabe (Allan Washington, another spot-on side) is onto something: pass the hot sauce!

À chacun son goût.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)



The Most Beautiful Room in New York
Music by David Shire
Book & Lyrics by Adam Gopnik
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Musical Staging: John Carrafa; Music Director & Supervisor: John McDaniel; Orchestration: Jonathan Tunick; Additional Musical Arrangements: John McDaniel; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Associate Music Director: Jesse Kissel; Associate Choreographer: Jenn Rapp; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Krystina Alabado, Anastasia Barzee, Matt Bogart, Darlesia Cearcy, Ryan Duncan, Danielle Ferland, Anne Horak, Tyler Jones, Constantine Maroulis, Mark Nelson, Sawyer Niehaus, Allan Washington

Musicians: Conductor/Keyboard 1: John McDaniel; Keyboard 2: Jesse Kissel; Trumpet: Dan Duncan; Reed 1: Tim Moran; Reed 2: Andrew Studenski; String Bass/Electric: Dave Daddario; Drums/Percussion: Ed Fast

The Long Wharf Theatre
May 3-28, 2017

Broadway on York with George

Rarely does Broadway come to York Street, but Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, the thesis show from YSD directing student Ethan Heard, brings to the University Theater a sense of the “big production.”  Heard’s approach, with Scenic Designer Reid Thompson, makes the most of the huge stage space at the UT, letting props rise and fall, letting the wings remain visible throughout, setting the orchestra at the back of the stage, using a raised, tilted platform as “la grande jatte”—the setting for French painter Georges Seurat’s neo-impressionist masterpiece—and staging the scenes in George’s studio at the footlights. Not only does Heard’s production use stage space in all its variety, it uses painterly space in interesting ways: there are empty canvas frames to let us see George (Mitchell Winter) at work, and hanging sketches to show us what he’s  so busily working on.  When one of the sketches explodes into color thanks to some wonderful work with projections (Nicholas Hussong), the visual panache of the show ratchets up a notch.  All in all, the show is a spectacular, from the care with which the costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski) match the figures in Seurat’s painting, to the use of compositional space in arranging the figures, to the effects of color and light (Oliver Watson, Lighting Design) able to suggest the Neo-Impressionist’s approach, to—in Act Two, set in the Eighties—hanging TVs and subtly illuminated canvases, to say nothing of one helluva blue suit.

In the cast, the star of the show is Monique Bernadette Barbee as George’s girlfriend and reluctant model, Dot, and, in Act Two, as Marie, Dot’s daughter who claims George as her father.  Barbee seems simply born to be on a stage, able to find Dot’s roguish nature, her plaintive bid to be George’s main love—she loses out to painting—and her strength in “moving on.”  As Marie, Barbee's delivery of “Children and Art,” hunched in a wheel-chair, is the most affecting segment of Act Two, and her bravura opening song of Act One, “Sunday in the Park with George” is, frankly, a hard act to follow.  The play starts off with its best bit, in other words, and we have to wait awhile before anything as enthralling takes place again.

Along the way, there’s fun with two culture vultures, Jules (Max Roll) and Yvonne (Ashton Heyl), in “No Life,” movement and mood from the entire company in “Gossip” and “Day Off”—Robert Grant handles the physicality of Boatman well, and Marissa Neitling and Mariko Nakasone are chipper and silly as Celeste 1 and Celeste 2—and “Beautiful,” a thoughtful song delivered in a sparkling vocal by a reminiscing Old Lady (Carmen Zilles).  The professional and personal setbacks of George are paralleled to his increasing obsession with his method, and that’s enough to keep the wheels turning within a set that never stays still.

And Act One does deliver a great ending to match the great beginning: the entire Company—and all the tech assistance—is to be commended for making “Sunday” come together.  It’s the sequence in which the pieces of George’s great canvas finally fall into place, and it’s one of those theatrical moments often referred to as a “triumph of the human spirit,” except here it’s actually the triumph of artistic method.  Sunday on the Isle of La Grand Jatte is the painting that showed the full artistic possibilities of Seurat’s method, generally called “pointillism” (after the French word “point” or “dot”), and seeing the composition come together, as George, singing his mantra, moves the quarrelsome and busy-body characters into their defining places, in a burst of color and with the best melody in the play, gives one of those curtains that theater is all about.

The problem is that Sunday in the Park with George has little to offer by way of an Act Two.  Perhaps, in the Eighties, when the play debuted, seeing the Eighties artworld put on stage had a freshly satirical edge, but from our standpoint now, it’s just an excuse to dress up the characters in clothes of yet another “period” (I particularly liked the costumes for George (Winter, as Seurat’s alleged great-grandson), Naomi Elsen (Ashton Heyl, as a stagey video artist), Blair Daniels (Carmen Zilles, as a brittle art critic) Billy Webster (Matt McCollum, in quintessential art connoisseur duds), and Alex (Dan O’Brien, reeking of SoHo).  Indeed, looking the part is pretty much being the part in Act Two, as there is even less in the way of characterization available for these actors.  Again, it’s Barbee, as Marie and Dot, who gets the plum bits, and she delivers; Barbee's rascally Marie upstaging her grandson at his art expo makes her very much Dot's daughter.

As Act One George, Winter does intensity well, making us feel how driven and difficult George can be.  His best song segment is the playful mocking of his models and patrons in the voice of two dogs in “Day Off,” and in duet with Barbee for the quite affecting number “We Do Not Belong Together,” a song that spells out the romantic chasm between the lovers.  In Act Two, Winter and the Company put a lot of energy into “Putting It Together” but there’s something in his manner that makes this George not matter to us.  Ostensibly, the point is to bring present-day George into line with previous century George, but there’s not much pay-off in that happening because there doesn’t seem to be much at stake.

As entertainment, the play’s comedy is a bit wan, having to do mostly with hypocritical French bourgeois and stupid American tourists (Matt McCollum and Carly Zien—we could’ve used more of them) of the 19th century, and preening, pretentious art-world aficionados of the 20th.  Even with its clever opening song, “It’s Hot Up Here,” which matches the discomfort of actors forced to remain motionless with figures frozen on a canvas for all time, Act Two is mostly anti-climax.

The YSD production works as an ambitious staging of a bit of Broadway and its pleasures are not to be missed.  Sondheim and Lapine are best at characterizing that sequence of Sundays in the park, and Heard and company are best at putting all the pieces together.  As the song says, “There are worse things.”


Sunday in the Park with George Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by James Lapine Directed by Ethan Heard

Musical Director, Conductor, Orchestrator: Daniel Schlosberg; Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan

Yale School of Drama December 14-20, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson

Do Not Go Gentle

The blues make you feel better, but what if you’re dying?  That, we might say, is the test underlying the Yale Cabaret’s latest offering: Ain’t Gonna Make It, conceived by Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, Masha Tsimring, and Lauren Dubowski, directed by Lewis, and created by the Ensemble, which consisted of Eric, the dying man (Timothy Hassler), the dour Balloon Man (Ryan Campbell), and a band: Hansol Jung, Martha Jane Kaufman, Sarah Krasnow, Jenny Schmidt, and Lico Whitfield. The play is presented in true Cabaret style—a man at a microphone, with a guitar, regaling us with songs and anecdotes about how he learned of his condition—colon cancer—and found out that, at the age of 29, his life was over.  It’s Hassler’s show all the way, and he delivers the part with a dynamism that keeps the audience enthralled.  The style is loose enough to make us feel at times he’s actually talking to us, rather than simply acting out a scripted play—and that’s helped by certain moments of audience interaction that not only erase the space between audience and actor, but make us aware of how we’re responding to Eric’s plight.

Addressing an audience member as if on a date in hopes of a “sympathy fuck” (the theme of a rather vehement song moments before), then taking her hand and moving it in a very suggestive way, or kneeling before a male audience member to play on a recorder—sheepishly allowing “I’ve never done this before”—or placing one of his balloons in the arms of “Mom” while trying to tell her of his condition, Hassler creates moments of tension that entertain us but that also keep us uneasy with the dimensions of his story.  It’s a tightrope walk of considerable skill—not only to play a dying character who is spilling his guts, but who is also trying to be an “act” and to get us into the act.  Hassler, lean, fair-haired, ingratiating, has a boy-next-door look that makes his experience seem generalizable. When he reflects on all the things he won’t do, it’s a sobering moment about the kinds of denials for the future that we tend to ask of twenty-somethings.  And if there’s no future?

One of the best bits is a foot-stomping song, mostly a capella, in which Eric exhorts himself to “take the pill”—big medical vials are situated within easy reach as he pill-pops his way through different moods—and Hassler finds the groove to take it on home.  In general the songs show how versatile the blues are as a form, with sadness, anger, horniness, and consolatory clarity giving us various sides of the situation.  One particularly effective number used Sarah Krasnow on keening backing vocals to great effect—a kind of mournful gypsy tune with a lot of soul.

As the baleful Balloon Man, Ryan Campbell’s erratic, silent appearances are unnerving.  Handing over a balloon to Eric, or dropping a load of them on the floor, his acts and the balloons remind us of the cancer cells proliferating in Eric’s system—in one upbeat moment, two nurses (Sarah Krasnow and Jenny Schmidt) tap-dance to lively music and fling balloons out the window.  Yet nothing can deplete all the balloons.

One might think the show—which ends with the loudest balloon burst I’ve ever heard—would be a downer in its one-way path to our hero’s extinction.  It’s not, because the show not only affirms life, it embraces death with gutsy emotion rather than sentimental gestures.  As a form of soliloquy—the one we will all face at some time, alone with our various ends—it makes us contemplate the dignity of the life of an individual, so present for us at one moment, so completely gone the next.

The Yale Cabaret will be dark next week, then return Oct. 18-20 with White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, by Nassim Soleimanpour, in which five actors—one for each performance—open a sealed envelope and enact the script inside.  Audiences and actor discover together what the play is.

More about the rest of the first half of the Cabaret's season 45 to come.


Ain’t Gonna Make It Conceived by Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, Masha Tsimring, and Lauren Dubowski Directed by Cole Lewis Created by The Ensemble

October 4-6, 2012 Yale Cabaret 45th Anniversary Season

With All My Hart: The National Theatre of Scotland at Wicked Wolf

ARTS & IDEAS: Writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson have created a touring production that brings a bit of Scotland to this year’s Arts & Ideas. The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart mixes scholarship about border ballads with folklore about unwary travelers snagged by the devil, incorporates romantic comedy situations and also tweaks the twee staples of Scots culture as well as the tweeting tendencies of our global moment. And what’s more, most of the show is in rhyme, and heavily inflected by Scots’ accents—ta buute!

Staged at the Wicked Wolf Tavern (all productions of the play on tour will take place in taverns or in tavern-like settings), Prudencia Hart is a good night out, managing to be funny, brainy, bawdy, spooky, sexy, silly, and a wee bit longer than it needs to be. It tells the tale of a scholar, Prudencia (Madeleine Worrall), who goes to a conference in the sticks, only to be ruffled by a rival colleague, the hip-as-can-be Colin (David McKay), and then subsequently—to avoid close quarters with him at a B&B—gets lost in the snow, only to encounter mysterious characters such as the Woman in White (Annie Grace) and an affable fellow (Andy Clark) who may have dark designs.

The cast is joined by Alasdair Macrae, the award-winning composer and musical director of the play, who aids in sundry ways by bringing in music, playing an emcee, and helping to keep things rolling with his manic presence. If fatigue sets in, it’s probably going to be during the lengthy masked bit, which has the feel of one of those interminable drinking games that are better experienced far from sober—the topic here is the debauchery of some locals in the town of Kelso, and is perhaps the sort of thing that might play better not so far from home. As it is, for comic purposes, I was much more entertained by the mock-ups of the kind of local jokes posing as talents one would be likely to find in a Scots pub on a cold winter’s night, flailing the hide off over-familiar folk tunes.

Another longueur surfaces in Act 2—and part of the trouble is right there: it’s a two-act play that has to pad itself a bit to sport a proper length—when our heroine Prudencia is imprisoned in a hellish B&B (though the extensive library makes it heavenly to our ever curious lassie) and the exchanges between Prudencia and her host resort to prose.

There’s no way this part isn’t going to seem flat after all the sprightly rhymes and bouncy rhythms of Act 1. The slowing of the pace serves a purpose, but it has the feel of a glass of bubbly after the bubbles have gone.

The game cast makes the most of the space, moving about among the audience, jumping up on the tables, and coming at us from all sides. One improv moment I particularly enjoyed occurred when Colin greeted a fellow seated at my table (Broken Umbrella Theatre’s Ian Alderman) as “Hamish”; Hamish-Ian greeted him back and was told “ah, you’ve lost your accent.” Without missing a beat, Alderman replied, “I’ve had amnesia.” Again, most of this sort of hijinks occurs in the first half when we’re all still delighted with each other’s company. In the second half, there’s an attempt to bring the energy back up to the raucous by having McKay, in his underwear, cavort karaoke-style for the worshipful locals, but I found him more entertaining bickering over the deconstructive tendencies of modern scholarship rather than loutishly strutting.

Andy Clark’s sinister host was well done and Annie Grace’s spooky lady—lit only by the light (“once a Girl Guide always a Girl Guide”) on Prudencia’s head—memorable with her keening vocals. As Prudencia, Madeleine Worrall embodies perfectly the stodgy intellectual who ends up finding a bit of peril, a bit of fun, and a whole lot of new material for her research; she boasts a wonderfully settled composure no matter how wacky or other-worldly the goings-on might be.

As a staging space, the Wicked Wolf leaves a bit to be desired. The lighting is, for the most part, restaurant houselights, not great at setting a mood. The part in total blackness, but for Prudencia’s beacon, was a welcome change, as were the candlelit bits. There’s also the large brick pillar in the center of the playing space to be considered, and where you sit in relation to it will affect your access. The National Theatre of Scotland has no home base and so presents its moveable feasts all over the country and all over the world in site-specific locations. The benefit of avoiding the tired old distance between audience and actors is the feeling of lively impromptu in a shared space.

More than anything, Prudencia Hart is to be relished for its language, for the lilt of the accents, for its music and voices and many clever asides. It also managed at times—miraculously—to transport us to cold and snowy Kelso on a very hot June night in a not overly air conditioned New Haven establishment.

And that strange doing was most welcome.


IF YOU GO: What: National Theatre of Scotland's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart When: June 22-23 & 26-30 at 7 p.m.; June 23, 24, 27 at 1 p.m. Where: Wicked Wolf Tavern, 144 Temple St. Tickets: $34-$45 ($15 food and beverage minimum) Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

How It Begins

At what point did you embrace adulthood? Have you embraced it? And, if you have, is that concession to time a kind of death? Isn’t the Freudian “reality principle” (wherein we recognize that time applies to each of us, on parallel but separate courses) really just a death trip? Creation 2011, directed by Sarah Krasnow, and developed by the ensemble, is now playing at The Yale Cabaret, and, as the date in the title shows, it’s a show that marks a certain point in time. The cast successively climb up on a little stage, with a mic and the kind of chair kids are typically set upon to recite their lessons, to regale us and Daniel Putnam, a sympathetic and earnest inquisitor dressed as one of Robin’s Merry Green Men—actually the costume reminded me of Pixanne (and if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you)—about the passions of their childhood. Passions which involve the urge to sing.

For Sarah Krasnow, it began with The Little Mermaid. Her show-starting rendition of the song, complete with wavering, off-key but heartfelt high notes, is funny, endearing, and telling. As she sings about desperately wanting to be “part of that world,” we hear a childish longing that aims beyond Ariel’s desire to live on land to something no child can quite fathom—the world of adulthood. In the context of YSD we might say “that world” is show-biz, theater, the desire to have one’s talents appreciated. All these factors play across the rippling surface of the song.

The inquisitor is a bit more probing toward Ilya Khodosh who gives us a young boy’s animated version of “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” and Khodosh becomes defensive, as if not willing to relinquish the talismanic nature of the song. Indeed, all the speakers/singers try to assert some sense in which they are still the child who loved a song they wouldn’t be caught dead (except in a play like this) singing now.

The play is best at leaving its intentions unstated. Entertained by these performers’ efforts to show us their formative selves, we do want to defend their desires, but at the same time, lurking in the background, is the kind of American Idol sensibility in which desire doesn’t necessarily add up to accomplishment and success. What if we had to vote on them?

The most contentious of the speakers, Anne Seiwerath, denies at first that the misshapen pot on the table was her own youthful effort—one that “the person who made it” thought a great accomplishment at the time. Her effort is to see that art, real art, isn’t easy, and that that’s the whole point. Her slideshow presentation on “vanitas” has all the suppressed emotion of a school report—the adult effort to use objective language to mask a deep fear of the subject matter.

The finale of the show is Inka Gudjonsdottir’s delightful performance of an Edith Piaf song, a song she loved to sing as a child, although she did not understand French, because of an intense emotional response she had to the song. She reveals that she was adopted and later learned a surprising fact about her birth father, a fact that would seem to indicate that, sometimes at least, performance does allow one to discover an otherwise unsuspected truth.

Creation 2011 invites us to consider not only where we first encountered the passions that fuel our lives, but also whether or not we still want to be “part of that world.”

Creation 2011 Inspired by Massimo Furlan’s 1973, at the 2010 Avignon Festival Directed by Sarah Krasnow; written by the ensemble October 27-29, 2011 The Yale Cabaret

Not With a Whimper, But a Bang

The Yale Cabaret’s 2010-11 Season ended this weekend with the bang of drums and other percussion. Michael McQuilken’s The Perks gave a new meaning to the term “musical theater.”  Usually that means characters in a play bursting into song-and-dance in an abundance of feeling.  At the Cab show, we were treated to musical pieces given a variety of theatrical treatments: as accompaniment to dramatic action, such as the death and burial of winter (Lupita Nyong’o) to Adrian Knight’s lyrical Mary’s Waltz; or as performance pieces, such as percussionists in rabbit masks playing Thierry de Mey’s Table Music on a table; or as theatrical musical pieces, as in the delightfully inventive Dressur by Mauricio Kagel, which calls for interaction amongst the musicians.  Then there was the big finale: a maelstrom of activity from choreographer Jennifer Harrison Newman and the cast to a storm of percussion from McQuilken and his cohorts (percussionists Yun-Chu Chiu, John Corkill, Ian Rosenbaum, Adam Rosenblatt).

Conceived to celebrate the return of spring, The Perks included video footage of the great outdoors: McQuilken climbing a tree to enhance a rhapsodic piece played by Chiu, and of Nyong’o rushing, like a crazed fan, across streets and across various locations on Yale’s campus, toward her object of adoration (the camera).

Each separate musical number was a mini-drama in its own right if only because playing percussion seems so performative to begin with—add an array of odd noisemakers constructed for the occasion, and you’ve got props as well as instruments.  This was nowhere more evident than in Dressur, which was scripted by its composer to be enacted, and which turns upon the successive failure of the percussionists to communicate the musical idea until finally the last one—Chiu—threw away her sticks and ran off.

Whether or not all the music expressed the theme of spring, the high spirits of the performers and the energetic nature of the pieces combined as a jolt to the system, just in time for the Passover / Easter season.

The Perks, A Rite of Spring; directed by Michael McQuilken

Created by Artists from the Yale Schools of Music, Art, and Drama

The Yale Cabaret, April 14-16

Home Sweet Gloom

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) celebrates social dysfunction.  Whatever one’s opinion of the oddball Blackwoods – Constance, in her twenties, Mary Katherine (Merrikat), eighteen, and old, wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian – one can’t help feeling that their seclusion from the townsfolk of Bennington, VT, is merited, that something sets the Blackwoods apart from the hoi polloi, and that “something” makes the Blackwoods worth knowing about. The “something,” as so often happens in Gothic fiction, is a dark past, but in this case, it’s not a secret, but rather something everyone knows: Mrs. Blackwood and Mr. Blackwood, the latter the brother of Julian, and Julian’s wife, and Tom, the girls’ younger brother, all died of arsenic consumption six years ago.  The poison, which Constance bought to kill rats, made its way into the sugar, you see, sugar which was used as topping for early raspberries served by Constance at a particularly fateful dinner.  Constance, who never eats sugar, was spared, as was Merrikat, sent to her room without any dinner.  Julian, who sweetened his dessert sparingly, was left an invalid.  Constance, of course, was acquitted of murder, but condemned for the deaths by the townspeople.

Adam Bock and Todd Almond’s musical of the novel, directed by Anne Kauffman, now playing at The Yale Repertory Theatre, opens with Merrikat, played with a sly and wiry girlishness by Alexandra Socha, stepping to the footlights to regale us in song about “We Blackwoods.”  The upshot of Merrikat’s every pronouncement is that insular families, whatever their oddities, are preferable to intrusive neighbors, who should simply butt out.  Certainly that’s the point of Jackson’s novel, where some personally important aspect of the inner life must resist attack by the forces of uninspired and uninspiring conformity, tiresome normality, and aggressive mediocrity.

In the musical, those qualities take the form of a stock cast of locals who like to amuse themselves with catty remarks and provoking jokes at the Blackwoods’ expense.  But the real bearer of a threat comes from within the Blackwood clan itself.  Young cousin Charles (Sean Palmer, with a good voice and engaging dance moves), son of the other Blackwood brother, Arthur, shows up after the death of his destitute father to see what’s doing with the branch of the family that still has at least a large, crumbling property to their name, a name now primarily upheld by retiring, yet charming Constance (Jenn Gambatese), tireless cook and gardener and caretaker of Julian.  Constance, played with a light, maidenly obtuseness by Gambatese, seems content with her twilit spinsterhood, until Charles arrives and makes her think about herself and duets with him (the sprightly “She Didn’t Get Very Far”) and dancing (to a wry little ditty called “The Stomp”) and longing (the evocative “come to me” interlude).

If this were your typical musical, we’d be rooting for Charles to sweep Constance off her feet and rescue her from this premature mausoleum.  But this isn’t that musical, and we aren't.

In part it’s because Merrikat got there first: she sweeps us away with her confidential songs, her winning manner, her knowing certainty that Charles, ultimately, only wants to take away the sisters’ peace without giving anything of value in return.  By the time the townfolk stage an outright siege on the castle – echoing all those horror films where the villagers attack the stronghold of Frankenstein to destroy the monster they can’t understand – Merrikat, who had more or less challenged Charles to a duel, has proven her point.

The stage business in this play is captivating enough to make us want to stay in the castle with the Blackwoods – the American Gothic gloom of David Zinn’s set, Ilona Somogyi’s gorgeous costumes for the ghostly ancestors who mainly keep to the upper story, intoning their musical support of the surviving Blackwoods’ isolation, the at-times sharp, at-times senile comments by Uncle Julian (a usefully comical portrayal in Bill Buell’s show-stealing hands), the musical numbers, directed by Dan Lipton, that are revealing dialogues, and the arch musings of Socha’s irrepressible Merrikat.

The World Premiere of We Have Always Lived in the Castle; Book and Lyrics by Adam Bock; Music and Lyrics by Todd Almond; Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson; Directed by Anne Kauffman

September 17 to October 9, 2010, Yale Repertory Theatre, at the University Theatre, 222 York St.

Strange Love in NYC

When it debuted in Yale Cabaret's 2009/10 Season, Janyia Antrum's campy sci-fi musical Strange Love in Outer Space was the success story of The Dwight/Edgewood Project (see my review here).  Now its success continues with the play's debut in New York in the eclectic and exciting New York Fringe Festival, Aug. 14, 17, 19, 21, and 23, including a mention in the New York Times. The Dwight/Edgewood Project is held every July under the auspices of Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theater.  It's a four week program that introduces New Haven area kids to the elements of theater, from playwrighting and design to acting and directing, with classes staffed by Yale School of Drama students.  For the last two years, August Lewis Troup Middle School and Wexler-Grant Community School have been partners in the project.

Janyia wrote the first part of Strange Love in summer 2009, at the age of twelve.  When she got home after the project ended, she felt the urge to continue the story and wrote a second part.  The Yale Cabaret commissioned a third act and then produced the play.  Jorge Rodriguez, who has worked with Janyia as a producer from the beginning, comments: Janyia "wrote a play that was incredibly well structured, with outstanding character development and incredibly funny."  The play impressed her fellow students at D/EP and the staff "was stunned by her sense of comedic timing.  The zany, campy humor that distinguishes this play were of her own creation and a result, as she often joked about, of years of watching TV sitcoms like The Nanny."

Christopher Mirto, who directed the D/EP production and the Yale Cab production, is at the helm again for the Fringe production.  He also plays the memorable role of Mr. Grumis, a fish-like alien who courts the statuesque Splontusia.  For Mirto, the play works for a lot of reasons:

"Janyia's story is actually really moving and has a strong leading female character. It's campy fun but very serious and imaginative and comes from such a genuine place. It's surprisingly smart, has great comic timing, [and] the songs move the plot forward; the characters are crazy, but have very clear desires. The Fringe is a good fit because it's an unusual show in style, form, characters, design. It doesn't have a big or complicated design, so it's easy to transfer. Kind of like Pixar films, it appeals to adults and children."

The Fringe version features some of the same cast as the Cabaret version -- Mirto, and his longtime associate Brian Valencia, who also mentored Janyia in D/EP, as the dastardly Dr. Tuscanunin -- but also presents some changes, with Caitlin Clouthier, from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, in the central role of multi-eyed Splontusia, and recent YSD graduate Aja Naomi King as B'Quisha Star Jones, the dog/pirate queen.  The new production also boasts a new song.

The Fringe is a huge, sprawling drama festival that Mirto calls "a total crapshoot."  The sublime and the ridiculous rub shoulders and you go in not quite knowing what you're going to get.  Strange Love has already proven itself capable of mixing it up with the challenging and off-the-wall offerings of the Cab, and now it will run side-by-side with the off-off-Broadway shows of the West Village.

Mirto's excited by the challenge and comments, "There is this really nice non-jaded aspect of Janyia that is refreshing for me: she reminds me that it should be fun, it should entertain, and it should be simple; and that imagination goes a long way!"

It's an imagination that has created a play that's out of this world, a play that has already gone a long way from an afterschool project to a New York city debut.

Strange Love in Outer Space, A Musical Traumedy

Book and Lyrics by Janyia Antrum; Music by Nick Morgan; Directed by Christopher Mirto

The Cherry Pit (venue #14), 155 Bank Street, New York, NY (West & Washington Street)

Sat. Aug. 14, 2:15 p.m.; Tues. Aug. 17, 10:30 p.m.; Thurs. Aug. 19, 8 p.m.; Sat. Aug. 21, 5:30 p.m.; Mon. Aug. 23, 4 p.m; Tickets $15-$18; for tickets:

Presented by The New York International Fringe Festival; A Production of The Present Company