Some Wheely Good Fun At “Helen On Wheels”

Pigs Do Fly Productions continues its sixth season with Helen On Wheels, a play by Cricket Daniels that was first produced in 2014. The company’s unique mission is to show that characters over 50 can still live their lives in interesting, involved, and exciting ways, and to showcase performers over 50 in the process.

Helen On Wheels certainly fits the bill, starting with central character Helen, who we first meet as she is attempting to break out of jail by way of blowtorch after a bingo debacle. Played by Beverly Blanchette, this 70-something year old woman has lived in in rural Crockett her whole life and hasn’t let her age dim her zest for adventure, her irreverent sense of humor, or her passion for Wild Turkey and the NRA.

Other old-timers onstage include Dave Corey, well-cast as Helen’s dashing and refined gentleman caller Elmer; and Carol Sussman as Zona, Helen’s spunky best friend and the figurative Thelma to her Louise. Rounding out the cast are David A. Hyland as Zona’s son, the inept police officer Seth; and Todd Bruno as Helen’s son, the high-strung lawyer Nelson.

I saw little to criticize in the rustic and realistic set by Ardean Landhuis but found most of the cast adequate rather than outstanding. Blanchette occasionally seemed to be overdoing it with gestures and facial expressions while also failing to capture the larger than life charisma that made Helen the toast of her town—though it’s also quite possible that her broad portrayal would have played better in a larger theatre.

Meanwhile, the supporting actors occasionally seemed a little flat and stilted, not fully comfortable with their lines or in their roles. A notable exception was Bruno, who brought plenty of personality to his part.

Yet these imperfections did little to dampen this delightful play’s plentiful laughs. Daniel’s snappy dialogue and zingy one-liners make the most of the characters’ farce-style antics. Particularly memorable scenes include the jam-packed Act One closer and the relatable familial arguments between Nelson and Helen.

On the other hand, the show’s comedy sometimes veered into shticky or sitcom-ish territory, and its humor occasionally seemed to be at the expense of less sophisticated “country folk.” I wasn’t always sure whether we were meant to be laughing with Helen and Zona or at them.

However, in Act II, the story pulls back on some of its shenanigans and goes a little deeper, shifting its focus to Helen’s reluctance to move past the death of Wyatt, her husband of several decades. Yet even this element still has its idiosyncratic twists — in a unique depiction of grief, Helen believes that Wyatt is still communicating with her by causing her microwave to beep. This storyline adds weight to Helen’s family and relationship struggles, thus making the play’s optimistic ending feel far more poignant and earned.

“Beauty and The Beast” At LPAC Is As Enchanting As Ever

NOTE: Spoilers from here on out on this, because I’m assuming most of ya’ll know the story!

It’s always interesting to look back on a favorite childhood fairy tale with an adult’s eyes. I got the chance this weekend at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, where Beauty in the Beast is running only until this March 8th.

Before we continue, I’d like to establish that Beauty and The Beast may be another one of those plays I cannot be entirely objective about. Exhibit A:

Me, 5ish

As a child, I was downright obsessed with the movie version of Beauty and The Beast. Belle, bookish and principled, was my favorite among Disney’s princesses, and I never got tired of the story’s affecting plot, visual splendor, and dazzling tunes.

The musical version of Beauty and The Beast is based on this movie, which is itself based on a fable that has persevered in one iteration or another since it was first published in the 1740s, though some close predecessors of the story may be as much as 4,000 years old—talk about a tale as old as time! 

Despite a few modern feminists pointing out the problematic Stockholm Syndrome-like aspects of Belle and the Beast’s relationship, I’m still more inclined to read Beauty And The Beast as representing instead a truth about what the best love can offer us: a chance for both parties to become greater than they are.

Not to say that it’s an easy journey for either. Beauty and The Beast actually contains some surprisingly dark themes for a children’s story, which is perhaps why it remains appealing and relatable even to many adults. After all, most everyone has, on occasion, felt themselves freakish and unlovable, or isolated and frightened in a strange new “home.”

It may also be worth nothing that Howard Ashman penned the lyrics to the film version’s songs as he was dying of AIDS, which was still highly stigmatized at the time. He passed away only four days after its first screening.

Though this subtext is never made obvious in either movie or musical, it’s hard to miss the heartbreaking emotional undertones to the Beast’s predicament once you’re aware of their real-life roots.

Still from Beauty and The Beast’s film version

All eight songs from the original movie, plus “Human Again” from its deleted scenes, are present in the stage version of Beauty and The Beast. There are also six new songs, written by film composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. These additions, however, were largely forgettable—or at least I managed to pretty much forget them, and this after having seen a different production of Beauty and the Beast that included them less than two years ago! 

The one major exception to my amnesia was the Beast’s devastating “If I Can’t Love Her,” an intense and gorgeous song of self-loathing and doomed longing which I assume is placed before intermission so we will leave our seats awash in memories of our own romantic failures and in exactly the mood for a drink. (Or is that just me? That may just be me….)

Something, though, is lost as well as gained in the transition from film to stage. What can feasibly be done in the real world can occasionally pale in comparison to the physics-defying feats made possible by the magic of animation. 

However, theatrical magic is a pretty great substitute. While Be Our Guest on stage is not quite the psychedelic extravaganza it is on film, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with lively dancing dishes, utensils, and even salt and pepper shakers.

Inventive costumes by John P. White certainly provide some interesting physical challenges for the show’s actors: Shannon Connolly must spend nearly the whole show with her arm permanently held in the shape of a handle as Mrs. Potts, while Frank Hughes’s Cogsworth must amble around the stage in, essentially, a giant cardboard box. 

Later, the fact that the Beast’s transformation takes place as he is obscured by dancers and smoke rather than raised on a propeller as in the original Broadway production or mysteriously lifted as in the film does nothing to detract from the poignant and cathartic moment of his return to his former self.

 Rebecca René Kelley as Belle, and Robert Alaya as Gaston

Though I found no noticeable bad apples among the cast, standouts include Colleen Pagano, who reaches operatic heights in the relatively small role of Madame Le Grand Bouche; a vocally talented James Arthur Douglas as the brooding Beast; and Rebecca René Kelley, who practically disappeared into the skin of spunky princess Belle.

The ensemble was also at the top of its game, dancing up a storm even in the guise of cutlery and offering us easy-to-miss gems from their places in the background— for instance, when a Silly Girls stuffs her bra with chicken feathers during the song “Belle.”

This winning production of Beauty and The Beast is unlikely to disappoint fans of the original, and likely to win over a few new converts. Meanwhile, I’ll be out looking for my Beast!

Comedy Can’t Get Much Blacker Than “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit…”

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is now playing until this March 1 at the Sol Children’s Theatre, courtesy of theatre company Primal Forces. The 2016 play by Halley Feiffer is not to be confused with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the famous Sondheim musical the former work’s title is an exceedingly wordy riff on.

Instead, this fast-paced romp tells the much darker but still surprisingly funny tale of struggling comedian Karla (Shelley Keelor) and millionaire entrepreneur Don (Seth Trucks), who form an unexpected connection while their hospital-roommate mothers fight cancer at the location mentioned in the title.

Along with Karla and Don’s budding connection, which follows a more or less typical rom-com trajectory, the show explores the more poignant story of Karla’s attempts to repair her relationship with her mother Marcie (Jerri Iaia), which had become strained due to a family tragedy.

Don, meanwhile, is dealing with a recent divorce and his teenage son’s rebellious behavior while struggling to accept that his own mother, Geena (Linda Bernhard), is unlikely to recover from her illness. 

The play’s dialogue is peppered with plenty of razor-sharp and daring black comedy, as well as some memorable physical gags. A good old glass of water to the face never goes out of style, and turns out a handicapped bathroom can be a pretty convenient place for some hanky-panky!

However, though Don’s sensitivity and complexity made him a far more engaging character than the obnoxious Karla, who casually makes rape jokes in front of her sleeping mother, spent a good portion of her young adulthood in a drug-fueled haze, and can scarcely think of anything but herself.

Perhaps Karla’s immaturity would have been more forgivable if the character had come off as a little younger; though Karla’s self-absorption does not go unremarked upon by the play’s other characters, it still made her somewhat hard to root for despite her trying family circumstances.

Thanks in large part to Keelor and Truck’s chemistry, their courtship was still easy to root for, as was Laia’s feisty Marcie. Bernhard has far less to do as Geena, but delivers her few lines excellently, managing to remain engaged and engaging through subtle movements even when her character is unconscious and clinging to life.

Finally, Dustin Hamilton’s realistic set should be unfortunately familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a hospital, complete with nurses doing their rounds during scene changes.

Running an intermission-less 75 minutes, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome, and manages to impart a few moving insights about grief, healing, and forgiveness along with its irreverent jabs. If only we could all spend less time denying our own mortality and more time laughing in its face!

A Royal Time At “The Glass Piano”

Theatre Lab’s fifth season continues with The US premiere of The Glass Piano by Alix Sobler, which premiered last year at London’s Coronet Theatre. It was loosely inspired by the utterly fascinating case of the real Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, who suffered from a delusion that she had swallowed a glass grand piano as a child and must now move ever so delicately to avoid shattering it.

Even stranger, Alexandra’s “glass delusion” was actually not unique but fairly common among nobles and the upper classes, though the piano aspect does seem to be her invention. Men often had the delusion that they had glass buttocks, forcing them to go around with a pillow strapped to their behinds, or that they were glass urinals.

In The Glass Piano, however, Alexandra’s piano is visually represented underneath her shimmering skirt, and the result is that it’s not entirely clear whether we are supposed to read the play’s Alexandra (Diana Garle) as mentally disturbed or her plight as an instance of theatrical magical realism. 

While a scene in which a distraught Alexandra appears to vomit up glass and the play’s “shattering” conclusion suggests the latter, the fact that the piano shrinks when Alexandra is happier and disappears when she begins to undress suggest the former. 

Her father King Ludwig (Desmond Gallant) and head maid Galastina (Irene Adjan) seem to have accepted the piano as, if not real, at least an immutable part of their lives, remaining unfazed as she contorts herself sideways through doorways and sit only on specialized ottomans.

If Alexandra’s problems are to be understood as mental ones, it sure seems like they run in the family. Since Ludwig has legally forbidden divorce, her mother Vera opted to escape her husband by leaving the castle to roam its ground like a madwoman—and the self-absorbed and inflexible Ludwig clearly has a few screws loose himself.

Alexandra’s piano is, as Sobler points out in the play’s author’s note obviously a wonderful metaphor. Yet she goes on to wonder “a metaphor for what?”—and the play’s answer isn’t quite clear. Grief, over Vera’s departure? Anxiety? Being a woman, being a noble woman? Hemophilia? Or perhaps you’re meant to see naught but your own reflection in Alexandra’s somewhat transparent condition. 

I’m tempted to compare The Glass Piano to The Glass Menagerie not (solely) because I am tempted to compare everything to The Glass Menagerie or because of the similarities in title and core metaphors. There’s also the fact that it involves three characters who are semi-contently living at some remove from “reality” until the arrival of a stranger shakes things up. In this case, mysterious language scholar Lucien Bonaparte (Jovon Jacobs), also based on an actual historical figure. 

For one, Lucien helps Ludwig improve his poetry, which results in Ludwig and Galastina finally admitting their attraction to one another and consummating their relationship. Lucien also falls in love with Alexandra, which is when she begins to “shrink.” 

However, the King’s refusal to reconsider his convictions makes neither union feasible, and from there the previously whimsical tale turns surprisingly dark. The play’s somewhat scattered focus, though, made me unsure whether the gravity of this ending was fully earned; not being able to pinpoint for sure what The Glass Piano was about in a broader sense stopped its thematic loose ends from fully cohering into a satisfying mosaic.

There’s not a moment of The Glass Piano that wasn’t enjoyable nonetheless. The show was visually stunning, performed on an extravagant set in ornate costumes and enhanced by ethereal sound cues. Then there was the cast, who wholeheartedly embraced their absurd circumstances, and made even the more morally ambiguous characters seem sympathetic. I’ve also neglected to mention that both actors and dialogue were often hilarious, though top honors may have to go to Irene Adjan for Galastina’s maniacal final scene. Catch it yourself until this March 1st!

PS: The real Alexandra of Bavaria never married, but she did, oddly enough, go on to become an accomplished writer. Now that’s an ending I would’ve liked to see!

Art And Identity In “My Name is Asher Lev”

In my book, at least, the West Boca Theatre Company’s current production of My Name Is Asher Lev earns a unique and high compliment: of all the plays I’ve written about in the past 5ish months (my, how time flies), it’s the only one that I left feeling actively inspired to create. 

My Name Is Asher Lev also reminded me a bit of all-time favorite The Glass Menagerie in that it’s a memory play chronicling the emotional flight of a young artist from his family, and one that was largely based on the tormented personal experiences of an author, if this time an author once removed. 

The script was written in 2009 by Aaron Posner, but is an adaptation of a 1972 novel by Chaim Potok, who, like Asher, spent much of his youth torn between his conservative Hasidic Jewish upbringing and his irresistible artistic drive.

The painting of a “Brooklyn Crucifixion” that figures in My Name Is Asher Lev’s climax was based upon a “Brooklyn Crucifixion” that Potok himself painted; Potok even had some notable success as a visual artist before becoming a New York Times best-selling author, a scholar of Jewish theology, and an ordained conservative Rabbi. Go figure.

The painting in question…

The play is narrated by an adult version of protagonist Asher Lev (Spencer Landis), who takes us through the troubled childhood and adolescence that led him to towards such a dark vision. His talent revealed itself early, much to the puzzlement of his family—especially his evangelical father Aryeh (Peter Librach), whose constant travel on missions to create new “yeshivas” (Orthodox Jewish seminaries) around the world is another source of family tension.

His mother Rifkeh (Francine Birns), meanwhile, struggles with depression after the loss of her parents and brother, and then with being constantly caught between Asher’s drive to express himself and her husband’s strong religious convictions. Thus, in “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” it’s her that’s caught between them on the cross, which naturally horrifies Rifkeh and Aryeh alike.

Courtesy of set designer Alan Nash, the stage is memorably covered with provocative empty frames. While the performances from Birns and Librach were strong throughout and Landis’s most emotional moments were truly striking, there were other moments in which he seemed more uncertain. 

Thematically, My Name Is Asher Lev touches on quite a few of my personal obsessions: what it means to be an artist, the cost of being an artist, and when (and whether) aesthetics should ever take precedence over morality. According to Joan Didion, after all, writers are “always selling somebody out.” 

While I’ve stopped a little short of literally hanging anyone else up on the cross emotionally, I’ve gotten pretty damn close, especially when it comes to self-condemnation, but the inevitable follow up has to come second to telling whatever story needed to be told.

On a more human level, My Name Is Asher Lev is about identity, and the inevitable clashes that arise between parents and children as the latter learn to embrace their true selves. Luckily, Asher isn’t totally alone in his journey towards artistic freedom and self-knowledge; he has the guidance of mentor Jacob Kahn (Craig Dearr), who offers quite a bit of genuinely insightful advice to his protégé. 

For instance, that every great artist has left something behind (a family, a nation, a religion…), and had “a scream inside him trying to get out;” that not being true to one’s vision was akin to being a “whore,” and that because it was a true masterpiece, Asher’s “Brooklyn Crucifixion” was worth all the pain it would cause. If you want to experience this moving and thought-provoking production yourself, you have until this February 16.

On a (mostly) unrelated note: Actor’s Rep is putting on its first New Works Nite at the end of this month, a scene from an original play of mine is going to be featured—now, while it’s no “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” things may get a little provocative…

A Fulfilling “Fulfillment Center” At The Lake Worth Playhouse

The Lake Worth Playhouse’s acclaimed Black Box series is back until this February 9th with a quietly stirring production of Fulfillment Center by Abe Koogler, which premiered off-Broadway in 2017. The play’s title does double duty, serving as both a literal description of the corporate warehouse it revolves around and an ironic nod to a set of characters who seem incapable of fulfilling their own — or each other’s — emotional needs. This aptly encapsulates the two major themes of the play: nigh-inescapable human dissatisfaction and the potential for capitalism to deepen that dissatisfaction.

Economic considerations play a major part in the plight of at least three of the play’s four characters: couple Alex and Madeline, who have left their cosmopolitan New York lifestyle so that failed musician Alex can serve as a low-level manager of the titular New Mexico center; and Suzan, an aging hippie who charms Alex into hiring her as an “associate” despite the fact that she is clearly physically unfit for the job. She endures the indignities of employment at this “fulfillment center” in an attempt to earn enough money to fix up the car in which she is currently living, despite the fact that the strenuous tasks the job requires worsens her excruciating back and knee pain.

Meanwhile, Madeline, who feels uniquely out of place in her rural surroundings — largely due to her race —  grows increasingly dissatisfied and emotionally isolated in her stagnant work-from-home position. Yet she’s far from the only one who feels trapped; even nominally powerful center manager Alex seems little more than a slave to corporate circumstance. He is frequently berated by Madeline for his failure to take his position seriously enough to stand a chance at advancement and so harshly judged by his own superiors that it precludes almost any expression of humanity.

For instance, Alex cannot let Suzan give him a neck massage or even have lunch with him without being wary of inciting the ire of his own higher ups. Then, when she seems to be bringing down his “numbers” he is all-but-forced to fire her —a happening so inevitable it scarcely deserves a spoiler warning. Both are only cogs in the same soulless machine.

Suzan and Madeline are linked not only by their shared connection to Alex but their shared connection to the play’s fourth character, a middle-aged carpenter named John who first comes off as affably awkward but eventually reveals a darker side. Much to the credit of Koogler’s writing, however, not even the occasionally misogynistic and vaguely menacing John comes across as a truly unsympathetic character.

Though he briefly becomes hostile towards Madeline in the face of her romantic rejection, his aggression seems to come from a place of pain and disempowerment rather than actual malice. Like Suzan’s own advances towards the significantly younger and uninterested John, his desperation for Madeline to like or even acknowledge him serves to make him look far more pathetic than dangerous.

During his clumsy, drunken appeals to her and many other uncomfortable moments, the Stonzek theatre’s small playing space creates an almost unsettling sense of intimacy; even when Fulfillment Center’s characters are at their most vulnerable, it’s almost impossible to distance yourself from their humiliation. And fitting to the play’s desolate, minimalistic emotional atmosphere, the only non-chair props I can remember are a steering wheel, a few bottles of alcohol, and some cookies.

Director Charlotte Otremba adeptly manages a superb cast, who skillfully navigate their characters’ trying circumstances. Nani Edry imbues Alex with an innate likability and good-natured sincerity, while Monica Harvey’s spunky and confident Madeline is both humorous and heartfelt.

Brenda Aulback’s Suzan shines during her character colorful reflections on youthful days long past and delivers an impressive amount of raw emotion when Suzan’s circumstances call for it. However, though Russell Kerr’s John is chilling when simmering anger comes to a boiling point, his portrayal perhaps could’ve used more of the ungainliness that those around him find so off-putting in the first place.

Though deviations from conventional dramatic structure aren’t always a downside and the relative lack of action didn’t have much impact until after that play’s conclusion, Fulfillment Center may have left a more powerful impression if its workplace indignities had had more obvious and lasting consequences for its characters, as in more notable works that explore capitalism’s sinister side like Death Of A Salesman.

Instead, Fulfillment Center comes to a somewhat abrupt end after a little over an hour with only vague hints that its characters are much different at the end than at the beginning.  However, an excellent ensemble, thought-provoking moral quandaries, and plenty of heart still make the production a plenty fulfilling one.

You Don’t Have To Be Kinky To Enjoy “Kinky Boots!”

Kinky Boots, playing until this February 8th at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center courtesy of Prather Production’s Broadway in Broward series, isin many respects a fairly typicalmusical comedy: one in which a plucky underdog fights for a noble cause amidst an array of colorful characters.

Our protagonist, Charlie, is a young man whose father’s sudden death leaves him in charge of the family’s struggling shoe factory. He’s on the brink of closing Price and Son’s doors for good when things take a turn for the fabulous as a chance meeting with the glamorous drag queen Lola inspires Charlie to break into “an underserved niche market” by developing a women’s shoe strong enough to support a man’s weight. Thus, the titular “kinky boots” are born!

Kinky Boots is based on a little-known British film that is, weirdly enough, loosely based on a true story. The show’s music and lyrics were written by 80’s sensation Cyndi Lauper, who obviously still knows how to have fun. Her catchy pop-inspired showtunes are nothing if not enjoyable, and you’ll probably leave the theatre humming quite a few of them!

Meanwhile, the serviceable book (if anyone reading this doesn’t speak musical, the term “book” refers to the non-sung portion of a musical’s script) was written by Harvey Firestein, who is also known for writing the book of the similarly flamboyant La Cage Aux Folles and originating the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.

There’s not too much iconoclastic about the show’s themes and storyline, in which the necessity of collaborating on shoe-making forces more conservative characters to learn to accept Lola’s unconventionality while Charlie and Lola learn to be truer to themselves.

However, if Kinky Boots is a show that leans towards formulaic silliness, it’s all mighty good-hearted, good-sounding, and good-looking formulaic silliness. The show was visually stunning throughout, thanks in no small part to fantastic set and the ever-changing outfits of Lola and her posse of fellow drag queen “Angels.”

As we learned in my recent review of Evita, a well-designed spectacle can be quite spectacular, and I’d much rather see my extravagant outfits donned by drag queens than by dictators! John P. White provided some stellar costumes, though the highlight, of course, was the show’s namesake boots, which provide quite the memorable sight gag when donned by some unexpected characters in the show’s finale.

Though Charlie spends most of the story playing the straight man to Lola’s extravagance, actor Luke Yellin still projects a winning charisma and gets the chance to rise to occasional rock star heights in numbers like Soul Of A Man. Yet the show’s true standouts were Payton Reilly as Lauren, who delivered her singular solo “History of Wrong Guys” with an expert comedic sensibility and a voice to rival any mainstream pop star’s, and David Lamarr as Lola, who nails both the character’s larger than life persona and their more vulnerable out of drag moments.

However, it may be worth noting that the only romances that are represented in Kinky Boots are heterosexual ones, and that even the seemingly flaming drag queen Lola eventually expresses their attraction to women. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a straight cross-dresser; it’s more that I question the lack of any demonstrably gay characters in a show obviously written to appeal to a gay audience.

Kinky Boots played on Broadway from 2012 to 2019 and took home several Tony Awards in the meantime, including one for Best Musical. This, and the continual success of other musicals featuring prominent characters whose self-presentation stretches gender norms,suggest that cross-dressing is now mainstream enough to not put off the touristy masses, which is absolutely grand. Maybe a song from Monty Python’s Spamalot, which suggests that “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway” if you don’t have any Jews should instead assert that you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any drag queens!

A Spectacular Production Of The Peculiar “Evita”

So, last night, I saw the Wick Theatre’s production of Evita, knowing more or less nothing about either the show or Argentinian history. After seeing Evita, I still don’t know much about what seems to be quite a complicated era, or even about the famously divisive figure the show centers on: infamous Argentinian first lady and “spiritual leader” Eva Peron. I have gathered from a little informal research that she’s an interesting enough “character,” that, if left to my own devices, I could probably entertain myself reading about her for days.

Now may be a good time to mention that, among musical theatre fans at least, the show’s composer Andrew Lloyd Weber is a pretty divisive figure himself; while his shows have been enormously commercially successful, elitists disdain much of his work as mere spectacle. At his best, he’s capable of masterpieces like Phantom of The Opera, a genuinely moving modern classic, and at his worst, he’s, well… Cats.

Somewhere in between these two extremes lies Evita, which features a beautiful score and a plot that is at the very least existent (ok, no more Cats digs…) but puts forth a moral message that is at the very least muddled. I’m not sure how sympathetic I find Webber’s Eva, or “Evita” as she is nicknamed. More problematic from a storytelling point of view, I’m also not sure how sympathetic the audience is supposed to find her.

While history is allowed to be ambiguous, a cohesive work of art generally has to take a perspective. Is Eva Peron a hero or a tyrant? Is hers a story of a disadvantaged woman’s inspiring ascent or absolute power corrupting absolutely? Evita seems to want to have it both ways, and only undermines itself in its failure to commit.

Whatever flaws the play Evita may have, you’ll scarcely find a better rendition than the Wick’s. A talented ensemble clad in top-of-the-line costumes sing their hearts out and master complex and evocative choreography, from the elite’s smarmy ballroom dancing to the soldier’s amusingly boybandish marches.

As Eva, powerful singer Danielle Mass does a remarkable job holding her own throughout the notoriously difficult score, though her somewhat vulnerable and innocent portrayal sometimes seemed at odds with the character’s intense ambition. We first meet Eva in rural Argentina, as a poor teenager who seduces a visiting singer in order to seek fame in big city Buenos Aires.

She makes her way through a few more men in her quest to establish herself as an actress before hitching herself to the wagon of rising politician Juan Peron, played with a sleazy, Trumpish vibe by Sean McDermott.

Speaking of which, Donald Trump himself has actually claimed Evita as his favorite musical, the irony of which has not gone unremarked upon. Oh yes, a show about a manipulative and narcissistic political tyrant obsessed with their own image, I don’t see the resemblance at all!

The real-life echoes became especially apparent when Eva’s financially modest background becomes part of Peron’s political strategy of going after the vote of the “common man” by fueling fantasies with exaggerated promises of economic change. Along with goading him into running for office in the first place, Eva pipes in with emotional appeals like, “He supports you for he loves you, understands you, is one of you.  If not–how could he love me?”

It’s Evita’s narrator, Michael Focas as the simmering Che Guevara, who points out the hypocrisy of these claims with continual sardonic commentary (and don’t even ask what the hell Che Guevara is doing in a story about the advent of Peronism, timeline-wise). Later, while Eva basks in the spotlight and the public’s adoration, Che points out that under her husband’s rule things in Argentina have only gotten worse.

The show, through him, often condemns Eva for her vanity, placidity, and opportunism, but it does so while constantly parading her in lavish costumes and presenting her as the apparent protagonist of her story rather than the villain. Her self-serving retorts to Che’s snipes are given as much weight as the snipes themselves — she can’t change the system, she does what she can!  

Eva’s death at only 33 (this one isn’t a spoiler, as the play actually begins by announcing her demise) is also presented as a great tragedy, and songs focusing on her emotional state like High-Flying Adored and the famous Don’t Cry For Me Argentina practically invite us to identify with her.

Also, what dramatic sense does it make to have the unnamed mistress of Peron, who Eva unceremoniously usurps, sing one immensely touching song only to then disappear for the rest of the musical? A truly anti-authoritarian play might focus more on characters like her— who suffer thanks to the ruthlessness of figures like Juan and Eva — as opposed to delivering us ballad after ballad of Evita singing her heart out in expensive jewelry and shiny dress.

Well, perhaps Evita is another one of those shows better enjoyed than too deeply analyzed, and the consistently outstanding music and vocals and engaging visual flourishes make it a hard one not to enjoy. Whatever you make of Lloyd Webber and his spectacles, this production was definitely a spectacular one. You’ve got until February 23 to decide where Evita stands for yourself!

A Harsh Yet Hopeful Look At Addiction in “Water By The Spoonful”

Stories of addiction are, unfortunately, nothing new. However, this well-worn subject is examined in a refreshingly original way in Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water By The Spoonful, a play that surprised the establishment by landing the 2012 Pulitzer Prize without having first had a major New York production.  

The current incarnation onstage at West Palm Beach’s Actor’s Rep is the show’s South Florida premiere, and plays only until this January 26th. That gives you only three more chances to catch this thought-provoking examination of the many forms addiction can take, and the many forms healing can as well. 

The play, very much an ensemble piece, seems at first divided into two disparate plotlines that play out across an innovative three-level stage. One is the story of Iraqi war veteran Elliot Ortiz (Joan M. De La Rosa), who must deal with the death of his aunt/adoptive mother Ginny as he struggles to cope with the mental and physical scars of war. 

Along with suffering from the lingering pain of a combat wound, Elliot experiences frequent flashbacks to his worst wartime memories, represented via haunting visits from a ghostly apparition played with menace by Federico Cadaje.  This unique and visceral way to represent the usually-invisible struggles of post-traumatic stress disorder put us directly into Elliot’s head, and makes his questionable coping mechanisms more understandable.

In plotline two, we first meet Odessa (Keri Lurtz) as the warm, spiritual Haikumom who presides over an internet chatroom for recovering crack addicts. There, she and two characters known for most of the show only by their screen names, ChutesAndLadders (Lyndel Thomas) and Orangutan (Tashna Richards), weather the everyday challenges of sobriety and try and figure out how to deal with pretentious new arrival Fountainhead (Brother Simpson) .

These stories (spoiler alert!!) converge before intermission, when we learn that Odessa is Elliot’s estranged mother. Though Haikumom had alludedto horrors in her drug-addict past, it is only during Act 2 that we learn the magnitude of these horrors and how they played a part in turning Elliot into the troubled man he has become. This structural innovation helps us to have sympathy for Odessa, a character who could easily have appeared unforgivable if we had first encountered her at her rock bottom. 

It’s certainly not a story that whitewashes addiction or recovery. Even the characters who have managed to stay sober for years can never forget that they are one weak moment away from falling back into thrall, a fact devastatingly illustrated when one character ends up in mortal peril.

A few of director Robert Carter’s casting choices struck me as a little baffling ⁠— for instance, why does De La Rosa speak with a strong Spanish accent while the actresses playing his cousin and mother do not, and why cast ostensibly white actresses as characters whose Hispanic heritage is essential to their backstory? However, despite these incongruities, the casts’ performances remained relatively solid throughout the demanding material.I’ll avoid any (further) spoilers, but Water By The Spoonful ultimately comes to a satisfying resolution that manages to be sincerely hopeful without feeling overly sentimental or unearned.  The moments of growth or connection have been clearly hard-won, and are all the more impactful for it.

Laugh It Up In Girl-World At “The Secret Comedy Of Women”

Forget Victoria’s Secret; it’s Linda Klein and Barbara Gehring who know the real secrets, at least to making ladies laugh! The unrealistic beauty standard peddled by such media is just one of the many everyday tribulations of womanhood the two mine for humor in their Girls Only: The Secret Comedy Of Women.

The Secret Comedy Of Women has been touring the country on and off since its Denver premiere in 2008. Gehring and Klein, who co-wrote and co-star, begin the evening clad in bras and panties as they poke fun at the notorious catalog, and their every-woman sincerity and witty snipes quickly have the audience on their side.

Adding to the girly atmosphere is a pepto-pink girl’s bedroom set and an early song called “My Bra,” one of the many musical numbers that join sketches, short clips, and improvised bits to make up this female-centric variety show.

Both Klein and Gehring have extensive improv training, and their off-stage friendship was evident in their relaxed chemistry; they often seemed to be having about as much fun as the audience! Not that the audience is entirely off the hook in this engaging mix; show attendees were called upon to serve as the guest of honor at an impromptu shower, pull items out of a memory box, or even asked to briefly surrender their purses!

The few men in attendance were also amicably poked fun at throughout: one fellow who braved the front row even had a sanitary pad clipped to his tie as part of a “Craft Corner” segment, in which Gehring and Klein, dressed as presumably menopausal granny types, showcased a variety of alternative uses for “feminine products.”

The comedians’ willingness to talk frankly about the usually-taboo matter of menstruation allowed them to access an often untapped source of humor. Other alternative uses the two cooked up for pads and tampons included budget Swiffer alternatives, impromptu Halloween costumes, and replacement wine corks!

When so much of theatre is still male-dominated, it’s definitely refreshing to see a show geared towards women almost exclusively; the theatrical equivalent of a chick flick, if you will. A theme of female empowerment was also often evident amidst the humor, such as in a shadow puppet-show that highlighted female innovators and womens’ social progress over the years. 

Other segments include one in which the performers gave us a brief course in sex education (What’s the correct response when a boy tells you he likes your hair? According to Gehring: “don’t get me pregnant!”) and a finale that had the comedians once again in their skivvies for an inventive dance number that highlighted the difficulty of putting on pantyhose. 

This was one among a few moments where the show seemed a little more geared toward Gehring and Kleins’ generation than my own (You will never catch me in pantyhose if I can help it!), though it was hilarious nonetheless. Though the show also sometimes veered a little too silly for my tastes, its simplicity should make it accessible and enjoyable to experienced audience members and non-theatre goers alike. In any case, I certainly admire Klein and Gehring for their sheer chutzpah as much as for their talent; it takes a lot of bravery to be as bold, vulgar, and flagrantly feminine as they can!

The Secret Comedy Of Women definitely isn’t one to miss if you’re a gal of just about any age who just wants to have some good old-fashioned fun—or a man with an exceptionally good sense of humor! The show will be playing Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees and Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at Boca Raton’s Mizner Park Cultural Center until this February 23!