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!

Love And Loss In “The Last 5 Years”

At the end of The Last 5 Years, which is currently being staged by the Maplewood Playhouse, the play’s central couple breaks up. This, though, is no  spoiler; because they also do it at the play’s beginning!

The feat is made possible by the show’s unique structure. We are first introduced to female partner Cathy (Neena Caperna) after the demise of her and Jamie’s marriage. In the next song, male lead Jamie (Pierre Tannous) is expressing his awe at Cathy’s Shiksa Goddess good looks on their first date. Then, for the rest of the show, Cathy’s story continues in reverse while Jamie’s continues linearly.

This innovative musical came about as an early project of prominent composer Jason Robert Brown. Supposedly, it was also a highly autobiographical one; the parallels were in fact so great that Brown’s real-life ex-wife sued her former husband  in order to compel him to change some of the most personal material.

The deep love that writer Jamie and actress Cathy share for one another is evident throughout this counterpoint journey. Yet the plot follows (or retraces) the way in which their initially passionate romance gradually sours as the couple faces career failures, external temptation, outsize egos, and plain old emotional incompatibility.

This storytelling approach infuses the whole play with an aura of tragedy, and it’s also a thematically resonant one. The growing disconnection between the partners is highlighted by the fact that they spend the whole play in different places, both literally and figuratively. On the con-side, the back-and-forth structure can be a little disorienting for audience members who are not familiar with the soundtrack or the show’s concept beforehand.

The fact that The Last 5 Years is entirely sung through also somewhat limits the protagonists’ character development, as does the fact that we never get to see this couple actually function as a couple. Besides a few cute moments where the other actor serves more as prop than scene partner, the only time the two characters actually interact in front of us is when they meet in the middle of the show’s timeline: at their ill-advised wedding. 

The Last Five Years enjoyed a short off-Broadway run in 2002 and has had a few significant revivals. It’s also become a bit of a cult hit among theatre geeks, a frequent source of audition songs, and a popular choice for regional theaters due to its minimal set and cast requirements.

However, The Last 5 Years is deceptively difficult to stage effectively, and probably even more difficult to perform! As lovely as the show’s songs are and as vocally talented were the performers who belted them out, there’s still only so long that characters can do little more than sing solos before one’s attention starts to wane. 

Though I still found myself zoning out occasionally, director Kim Enright did her best to correct for this potential pothole by evoking dynamic and highly physical performances from her actors, who may have had an even harder job. Besides the vocal challenges posed by Brown’s formidable score, the time gaps between each of the shows songs means that even forward-moving Jamie has to convey radically different emotions within the span of a few minutes while Caperna had the even greater challenge of going through an entire character arc backwards.

Luckily, the two were pretty much up to the task. Both actors vocals’ were more-or-less solid throughout the demanding material, and their acting chops were on full display.  Standout moments included the complex mixture of guilt and despair portrayed by Tannous in striking ballad Nobody Needs To Know and Caperna’s frenzied delivery of rapid-fire comedic number Climbing Uphill.

Finally, one memorable moment where the show’s unusual structure paid off big-time is its ending, which juxtaposes Cathy’s radiant and optimistic Goodbye Until Tommorow with Jamie’s sorrowful I Could Never Rescue You. The sting of love lost is made all the bitterer when combined with a depiction of how extraordinary that love once was.

If you do happen to find yourself on the way to catch this inspired production, which unfortunately plays for only three more performances, be prepared for a pretty painful ride. Though there is plenty of humor in the show and it is possible to see hope in the fleeting bond between these two characters, I found a whole lot more heartbreak.

Theatre Meets Stand-Up In “My Son The Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy”

My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy, a one-man show performed and written by talented actor and comedian Brad Zimmerman, is described in its program as, “part stand-up, part theatre.” However, while the evening certainly featured more highs than lows, this viewer found herself wishing it had included a little more of the latter – and a little more originality in the former.

Not that the show disappoints on the stand-up front: despite its tongue-in-cheek “tragedy” designation, far more of the 80-minute evening is devoted to jokes than to pathos. It was a rare punchline that didn’t produce chortles, and Zimmerman’s struggles to establish himself as a performer and to please his overbearing Jewish mother have universal appeal.

Especially as a fellow aspiring artist currently stuck with a somewhat unsatisfying day job (As suggested by the play’s title, Zimmerman previously spent a full 29 years as a waiter – and, as he points out, not even a fancy-restaurant waiter!) and who’s had to suffer not only a Jewish mother but two Jewish grandmothers, I found a lot of Zimmerman’s material refreshingly relatable. In particular, he does a fine job of poking fun at his family’s amusing flaws while still showing his respect and affection for them, which is particularly touching when he pays tribute to his late father.

However, some of his material was a little on the schticky side and veered towards the familiar and out-of-date. While jokes focusing on the banality of the restaurant business and the difficulty of living up to parental standards are timeless if not exactly iconoclastic, why bother, these days, with digs at Madonna?

Some of Zimmerman’s more original jokes involved his status as a successful but not big-name comedian, which means that to make ends meet he’s had to perform at some less than-ideal venues, like Indian casinos and retirement homes.

Yet being a successful but not big-name comedian has its comedy pitfalls. A big name can get away with a good deal of self-abasement partly because we know she or he is rich and famous; if we hear the same complaints from someone who we think may be genuinely struggling to make ends meet, it can be a little uncomfortable.

So, there’s a fine line between being amusingly self-deprecating and appearing so unfortunate that you risk invoking pity. Regrettably, I felt that Zimmerman occasionally strayed a tad too far towards the latter.

Perhaps Zimmerman would do well to emphasize the fact that his show enjoyed an acclaimed fifteen month off-Broadway run and is on its second tour of the country rather than relying on conspicuous name-dropping of some of the more celebrated comedians he opened for: Joan Rivers, George Carlin, Billy Crystal.

Additionally, the mostly-good stand-up notwithstanding, I’m not sure that Zimmerman took full advantage of the opportunity to make his show something other than stand-up. The comedian’s capacity as an actor and tendency towards theatricality is clearly visible when he briefly recreates his performance from a decades past college production, Scottish accent and all, as well as in sequences in which he imitates family members.

Whether his show offered the truly satisfying narrative one might hope for in an evening of theatre is another question. I wish Zimmerman had the guts to delve into the actual tragedy of having more or less wasted a good deal of his life rather than skimming the surface and moving on to the next punchline.

Maybe, though, My Son The Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy is just a show more enjoyable in the moment than it is upon lengthy reflection, and I don’t mean to downplay how much I enjoyed the show by focusing on the moments when it was a downer. If all you’re looking for is a ton of laughs, Zimmerman has probably got you covered.

“Ordinary Americans” In Extraordinarily Awful Times

My last review was of Watson, a show which explores the consequences of giving into nefarious pressure. Playwright Joseph McDonough’s new play, Ordinary Americans, instead illustrates the cost of speaking up against the powers that be. 

Ordinary Americans’ current production at Palm Beach Dramaworks is another co-world premiere. The show runs there until this January 5th, but will be remounted starring much of the same cast at Miami’s Gablestage starting on January 18th.

Though Ordinary Americans’ script occasionally seemed a bit disjointed and rote, this production showcased some excellent actors and explored an interestingly unfortunate period in American history. The play’s primary subject is Gertrude Berg of The Goldbergs, a sitcom (no relation to the current ABC sitcom, by the way) that aired as a radio drama from 1929 to 1946 and on the then-novel invention television from 1949 to 1956. 

I came into the play not at all familiar with either and initially found the story a little hard to get into, especially during the amusing but somewhat schticky and superfluous recreated scenes from The Goldbergs itself.

However, I became more engaged as the story delved deeper into the question of whether or not Berg would acquiesce to her superiors’ request that she fire Phillip Loeb, a Goldbergs actor who had been falsely accused of communism by Joseph McCarthy and co. 

Loeb was one of many performing arts professionals who became “blacklisted” throughout Hollywood as a result of such unfounded accusations, and was also one of a suspiciously high number of McCarthy victims whom, as Ordinary Americans points out, were Jewish. While I’m loathe to make a Holocaust comparison, it’s one implied by some  of Berg’s dialogue which expresses dismay at the rise of what she calls “American Naziism”. 

(Happy Chanukah to us, right? Note also that an unusual number of homosexuals were targeted as well, an occurrence which is sometimes referred to as the “lavender scare” as opposed to the entire debacle’s “red scare”.)

Though I can see the intention behind the play’s tight focus on Gertrude Berg and her close associates, I wonder if it may have benefited from a broader scope and focused more on how the pervasive climate of fear affected an entire industry or even an entire nation than how it affected one woman and her TV show, though Elizabeth Dimon’s excellent performance certainly makes that woman a compelling one. 

I also wonder what might have been had Loeb, the character with the most at stake, been the focal point of Ordinary Americans instead of Berg. In the part, David Kwiat certainly created a compelling portrait of a man of integrity whose inability to restore his reputation eventually has chilling personal consequences; Loeb’s courtroom testimonial towards the play’s end was among its most memorable moments.

Though Berg is initially adamant that Loeb should not be dismissed and even allows her show to be canned rather than giving into the network’s demands, her seemingly unshakable conviction is gradually worn down when she finds that nobody in the TV world will give The Goldbergs a second chance.

As desperation gradually chips away at both Berg’s and Loeb’s ideals, the two performers eventually come to an unsatisfying compromise that turns out to be too little too late to allow Berg to recapture mainstream success. If professional exclusion and personal devastation is the cost of doing the right thing, is it any wonder so many of us don’t?

Margery Lowe is a riot as Gertrude Berg’s bubbly and faithful friend Fannie, and Rob Wahl and Tom Lowe, each playing multiple roles, skillfully round out the cast. The show also had several strikingly quotable lines, like “money talks, but fear talks louder,” and, not to give too much away, the one that gives the play its title.

Because of the events of Ordinary Americans, The Goldbergs’ TV time slot was eventually filled by the white-bread I Love Lucy, a stark contrast to the conspicuously Jewish Goldbergs. If more diverse writers had been allowed to keep (or ever had a chance to grab) the mic, would today’s America be a place more accepting of immigrants and cultural diversity? 

At least Ordinary Americans succeeds in restoring Berg’s voice and bringing good old Molly Goldberg back to life, if, lamentably, around seventy years later than if the world had been a fairer one.

Watching Watson, And Wondering Where Culpability Begins And Ends

Watson, playing at Gablestage until this December 22nd, replaced the show originally scheduled for this slot in the company’s season. Director Joseph Adler, who also helped playwright James Grippando develop the show, felt that its story was especially urgent, and it doesn’t take any great leaps of the imagination to see why. 

Though the play makes no direct reference to modern times or our current political circumstances, the bleeding subtext implicit in a play that explores the risk of kowtowing to a corrupt political leader is beating just under the surface. The “Watson” of the title is Thomas J. Watson, founder of still-dominant technology company IBM, and the show focuses on his and IBM’s role in providing the Third Reich with machines that were used to more efficiently catalog Jews and corrall them for slaughter.

Some theatregoers who prefer brighter subject matter (again, e.g. my mother) may be put-off by the idea of yet another Holocaust play, espeically if they managed to make it to Gablestage’s last season closer. Yet there are so many angles from which one can approach the matter, so many people at least a little at fault, so many ways-in to just one gargantuan tragedy that it’s not a subject apt to get old. Perhaps, in fact, we should never be done talking about it, just in case such a silence would allow it to happen again.

Grippando is new to theatre but has made a name for himself as a crime and thriller writer, and though this is his first play, he shows an intriguing grasp of the theatrical form. Watson begins the play by addressing the audience directly and offers us further monologues and asides throughout, and the play moves smoothly across time and space to create an engaging tableau. All of the play’s supporting actors (Peter W. Galman, Peter Haig, Diana Garle, Margot Moreland, and Barry Tarallo) are tasked with playing multiple roles, and their versatility is essential to making the play work.

Stephen G. Anthony plays Watson, a likable, charismatic, and intelligent man, who also just happened to find himself in the middle of an impossible dilemma. I think, too, that he remains a relatively honorable a man despite this one life-shattering mistake. After all, it’s impossible to know: would Watson not sending over his machinery have actually prevented any of the turmoil? 

The character who persuades Watson to go against his initial impulse and do so, says no, Hitler was just going to build his own machines if he had to, would find some other way, but there’s no way of knowing whether that way would have been quite so horrendously efficient.

Oddly, I actually do not blame Watson for his indiscretion as harshly as his rebellious son, a feisty Iain Batchelor as Thomas J. Watson, Jr does, and the conflict between the two regarding the matter often felt a bit exaggerated and forced. 

Watson frames his decision as less about his personal gain than about the interests of his company and his stockholders, an excuse that does make a certain amount of sense. Yet, if everyone has such excuses, then who’s left to stop the next massacre? 

The flimsiness of this excuse is furthered illustrated in an interesting scene depicting a rabbi who provides a list of non-practicing Jews to the Nazis to ensure that he and his family would be safe from his ravages. Is someone who did something that led more directly to harm when he and his loved ones were in immediate danger more or less culpable than someone like Watson, who made a decision that led less immediately to evil from his cushy white-collar office?

The relationship between Watson and one of his long-time employees, crucial to a moment near the end of the play, could have been more developed to give said moment more of an impact on us in the audience, but this is a play still in development, and such kinks could easily be ironed out in future drafts. Far more memorable than it’s flaws were the questions Watson raises, which keep me wondering even now.

Everything May Not Be Super Great, But “Everything Is Super Great” Was

For… reasons that are definitely reasons, our eternal and often futile struggle to create and maintain human connection is a bit of a preoccupation of mine. Maybe that’s why I felt myself so affected by Everything Is Super Great, the new play by Stephen Brown that appeared in it’s co-world premiere at Theatre Lab last weekend and is playing until December 22. (In a co-world premiere, more than one company produces a play at about the same time so they can share world premiere credits.)

Thanks to a witty script that offers a consistent stream of laughs, the show’s two and a half hours seemed to go by in a flash; in hindsight, I wonder if such repartee masked gaps in character development, but at the time I was too busy enjoying it all. Stand-out scenes include a slapstick balloon-popping sequence, a workplace smoke break, and an incredibly awkward Christmas party. 

The show is subtitled (a comedy about what’s missing), but the show certainly had its dramatic side as well. Perhaps it could more accurately be described as about who’s missing; most notably, the main character Tommy’s brother, whose absence shapes the plot and his psyche, but also some loved ones of supporting characters Dave (Tommy’s therapist) and Alice (his manager at Starbucks,  also kind of his crush).

Timothy Mark Davis is believably bumbling and consistently hilarious as Dave, who, it turns out has no suitable qualifications for therapizing. Christian Mouisset, as Tommy delivered an overall excellent performance, but occasionally slipped into a somewhat whiny register, especially when delivering questions or dealing with his perennially annoying mother, Jeni Hacker’s Anne, though I could also certainly sympathize with his characters’ dismissive reaction to her overeager mothering. 

Anne works at Walmart, her idea of a homemade baked good/appropriate Christmas gift is a buttered and toasted pop tart, and an amateurish collage seems to her an appropriate way of commemorating her missing child. Hacker played the role unironically and sincerely, which was especially impressive given these somewhat lowbrow attributes and led to both some of the play’s funniest moments and the most touching ones, which showcased her ardent love for her son.

In the end, though Dave and Alice’s missing person subplots both find some resolution, there are no real answers to be had regarding Tommy’s brother; instead, he and his mother must begin to cope with the fact that answers probably will never be had. 

Meanwhile, though Alice and Tommy bond throughout the show, it never becomes overtly romantic, and by the play’s end, the winds of chance that brought them together seem to have brought them apart again; a bittersweet final monologue by Tommy suggests that this separation will most likely be permanent. It isn’t any less special because it was not a “relationship” that it was so short-lived, or in that it most likely will never be rekindled, sustained. Sometimes moments are all we get . It was there. It happened. It matters. 

Once Upon The Time I Saw “Once”

Based on the 2000s hit movie of the same name, Once, playing until this December 22nd at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, is pretty non-traditional as musicals go. For one, most of the musical numbers do not serve as inexplicable expressions of character’s internal states but instead spring organically from the characters’ status as musicians.

The play’s gorgeous music was definitely its most memorable aspect, starting even before the curtain was officially up with a rousing pre-show full of traditional Irish dancing and gorgeous folk songs. However, its plot-or-lack thereof was somewhat less remarkable.

The show also takes place in Dublin, and though this gave the show a charmingly foreign feel, the characters’ heavy European accents occasionally made it hard for me to make out lyrics and dialogue. This was especially notable during the Bank Manager’s (Todd Aulwurm) comedic number towards the end of Act One.Though Aulwurm’s energy and demeanor were mightily amusing on their own, I suspect the moment would have been even funnier if I could actually make out what he was saying.

Recent Rider University graduate Mariah Lotz played the female lead, an interestingly unnamed “Girl” whose quirky surface belies hidden burdens. Jack Gerhard, as her counterpart, the “Guy,” is often stuck playing the straight man to Girl’s peppier antics, but his soulfulness comes through in the music the two’s relationship revolves around. 

Guy and Girl, after all, first connect after the latter is so struck by a song of Guy’s that she forces her way into his life despite his initial reticence to connect. Their bond deepens after the two duet on the movie’s most famous song, the Oscar-winning Falling Slowly, which actually appears once towards the beginning of the musical and again towards its ending, its meaning having shifted mightily in the meanwhile. 

Their mission to make music together continues to define their untraditional “love” story throughout the play. Their narrative lacks any traditional resolution or consumation but results instead in the recording of an album once guitar-playing Guy and piano-playing Girl join forces and the Girl pulls some strings (the non-guitar kind, if I need specify) to secure them studio time.

Once’s music’s sometimes dubious connection to its plot is more or less atoned for by the show’s unique and intuitive choreography and the consistent beauty of both the casts’ strong vocals and their instrumental accompaniment, which was provided, interestingly enough, by themselves; near every multitalented cast member doubled as musician!
Once is the sort of low-key story the casual theatregoer (eg, my mother…) might walk out of wondering what, exactly, the point was. I, though, maintain that unique beauty of tragically missed connections, especially when they result in some unforgettable art-making, can be a kind of point in and of themselves.

Luscious and Lascivious “Lipstick”

While I doubt any comedy will ever get quite as close to my heart as darker material tends to, there’s also really no bad time to take a visit to one. Theatre, after all, is as much escapism as it is anything else, and the breakneck pace, too-perfect coincidences, and fast-paced dialogue of well-done humorous farces like Lipstick, which finishes its run this upcoming weekend, often constitute a perfect evasion from everyday.

Produced as it was by LGBTQ-focused theatre company Island City Stage, it’s no surprise that Lipstick was distinguished from its farcy predecessors by its raunchy plot and array of LGBT characters. Jodi Dellaventura provided a detailed and realistic apartment set, strong enough to stand up to the play’s wide variety of theatrical antics. 

Actress Vanessa Elise served as the good-hearted center of the show,  the (relatively) down-to-earth Anna, while Corey Rose appeared as her more flamboyant best friend Mal. Their grounded friendship and consistent characterization were key to our investment in the story, laying a good foundation for the play’s zanier moments.

Other major players included Rachel Gil de Gibaja as Cara, Anna’s somewhat unhinged ex, and Abby Nigro as Kelly, the sexually confused yoga class pal Anna invites over for what she optimistically hopes is a date. Gibaja brought a comic intensity to her role, though if anything she could have been more out there to suit such an extreme plot and her character’s unusual behavior: namely, running away from her own wedding in an attempt to win Anna back.

Meanwhile, Nigro brought the right mix of appealing innocence and sensuality to justify her status as the apple of Anna’s eye. Apart from Nigro’s winning coquettishness, I also have to give credit to the costume department for her stylish and ambiguously gay look.

In a not-entirely-psychologically realistic twist, Nigro’s character’s confusion and repression regarding her sexuality was revealed to stem mostly from conflict over her vanished father, who had his own outstanding sexual issues. 

Though I admit to initially rooting for Gibaja’s character to pull off a romantic win, (nothing gets to me like the rekindling of a lost love…) Anna and Kelly’s chemistry eventually won me over to their side, and the pair’s sweetness and genuine affection for each other came through even within the play’s bawdy setting. 
Dean Nigro, Peter Bisuito, and Christina Alexander also nailed their smaller roles, with special props to Nigro for pulling off an impressive array of costume and character changes. Plotwise, though, the ultimate revelation of the identity of Bishuito’s character, Hank the handyman struck me as a little too convenient and too out-there, even for a farce, or maybe it just could have stood to be a little more directly foreshadowed. Or maybe I could stand to get a little more used to the absurd, at least when attending a play like Lipstick!