'No Way to Treat a Lady' hampered by one-dimensional performance at Broward Stage Door Theatre

MARGATE, Fla. -- There are times when we like bad, even horrible people.

Look no further than musicals such as “Peter Pan” (who doesn’t like, or at least have fun with Captain Hook?) “Chicago,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and “Sweeney Todd.”

Characters in these types of shows are usually either colorful, hilariously inept, basically buffoons, or we can relate to their life’s circumstances or recognize ourselves in them. Perhaps we wish to dig deep into their souls to find their humanity and we discover it.

 Of course, we hardly condone what they’ve done, especially if they’re murderers. But maybe, throughout the course of watching, we unearth the demon or evil inclination within us – an inclination we never knew we had.

 What Kit Gill does in the comic thriller musical “No Way to Treat a Lady,” is, well, no way to treat a lady -- or anyone. He brutally takes the lives of women. But to Gill, a failed actor living in 1970 New York City, the act of committing murder is an art form, complete with donning a variety of disguises and leaving lip stick on his victims.

“For Kit, murder is the ultimate performance and not a gruesome exercise,” reads a description of his character on licensor Samuel French’s website. “His youthful, almost angelic face masks his demonic tendencies. An actor oozing with charm is essential if the audience is to be seduced along with his victims. His performance should demonstrate he is a musical comedy performer gone awry.”

As portrayed by James Hansen in Broward Stage Door Theatre’s otherwise mostly solid production of “Lady,” directed with entertaining over-the-top theatricality by Sean McCleland and running through May 28, Gill’s mind has gone awry all right, but in a dark, dangerous direction. There’s no hint of a musical comedy performer or anything charming in Gill, who lost his stage star mother and failed to experience success as a performer.

With his dark, almost diabolical eyes blazing with ambition, dangerous desperation, cunning and playfulness that makes his layer of menace all the more sinister, Hansen’s calculating Gill suggests a young bad-boy persona. Through this portrayal, Gill is someone you instantly recognize as perhaps a gang member. There’s little to like or be “seduced” by him. The couple times we might sympathize with Hansen's Gill is when his face all-too-briefly turns sweet and innocent while addressing his late mother, who appear as a ghost in the show.

 This production’s comedy would be greatly enhanced by an innocent, seemingly well-meaning Gill whose mind simply went bonkers after failed attempts at acting. The contrast between a charming exterior and Gill’s dastardly deeds would add up to pitch black comedy.

That’s the type of humor we get in the Tony-Award-winning musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” about a young man who’s an heir to a family fortune. Monty Navarro is a charming, youthful man whose ambition gets the best of him as he tries to climb his way to earldom. In the process, he acts innocent, and remains fresh-faced as he kills eight family members ahead of him to inherit the earldom of Highurst.

In the process, Navarro becomes somewhat of a celebrity, a status that “No Way to Treat a Lady” satirizes, a la “Chicago.”

Like in that mega-popular musical, now in its 20th year on Broadway, the award-winning, comic, riveting Off-Broadway hit “Lady,” shines a light on our obsession with celebrity, even when it takes the form of notoriety. While “Chicago” has its infamous merry murderesses, “No Way to Treat a Lady’s” primary celebrity seeker is mass murderer Gill. He leads a detective, Morris Brummell, on a mad cat-and-mouse chase.

Brummell is also guilty of having an excessive taste for celebrity. He and Gill want the story of the murderous rampage on the front page of the New York Times (no failing status for the grey lady here, at least as far as these men are concerned).

“Yes! He killed another! Oh, I am onto you, you son of a gun,” exclaims a triumphant Brummell at one point.

We might be able to identify more with Brummell than Gill. He hardly has a life beyond his work and he craves some excitement in his life. Here’s this heavyset, fully-grown man still living with his meddling, somewhat overbearing Jewish mama (Kimberly Abrams, who could be more believable in the part but slips seamlessly into other roles, displaying impressive diversity and theatricality in the process).

Brummell’s played with convincing nervous energy and modesty by Dustin Cunningham, who also endows his character with intensity and an eye-rolling exasperation at his mother’s eccentric ways.

Cunningham also conveys a tender feeling for Sara Stone, a socialite he meets while investigating the Gill case. The romantic aura of these scenes is enhanced by Ardean Lanhuis' soft lighting.

In a multi-faceted performance, Andrea Arvanigian plays Stone with a sophisticated, confident (but not arrogant), socially-proper, calm air, contrasting nicely with the knot of nerves into which Cunningham twists Brummel.

There’s further contrast in this production, notably in McClelland’s period set design, based off an original design (McClelland doubles as set designer).

The peaceful, immaculate Brummel apartment, complete with a white tablecloth, candlesticks and neatly bowed curtains all contrast with the brick walls, street garbage can and ladder outside the home. The exterior scenic elements neatly convey the rough and tumble streets of 1970s New York, a decadent period in the Big Apple when crime was rampant there (who, living during that decade, can forget the “Son of Sam” serial murders in 1977.) The wide, curving, connected set also includes Stone’s home, suggested by an extravagant couch, and Gill’s theater-like home, complete with a curtain, suggesting his theater background.

The sense of such a background, unfortunately, is missing from Hansen’s dark, sinister performance that turns Gill into mostly a monster.

 IF YOU GO

WHAT: “No Way to Treat a Lady”

WHEN: Through May 28, with performances at 2 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday as well as 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Stage Door Theater, 8036 W. Sample Road, Margate.

For tickets, visit www.stagedoorfl.org or call (954) 344-7765.

 

 

 

Promising new play receives riveting world premiere by Ft. Lauderdale-area theater company

WILTON MANORS, Fla. -- Like a speeding bulldozer crushing everything in its path, a nightmarish past comes barreling back into the lives of two lesbians about to get married in “Son,” a new work by playwright James L. Beller Jr.

The promising new play, which needs work, is receiving its world premiere in a gripping production at South Florida’s Island City Stage through May 7. The production features some of the finest acting you’ll witness on a stage this season.

Jean and Day live with their 15-year-old son, Perry, and are about to tie the knot. On the surface, it seems as though a happy future awaits them and their son. However, a knock on their door just before the women's wedding changes everything. It’s as though that knock opens a wide black pit in the ground, into which the family free-falls, with seemingly no light or bottom in sight, their wedding plans cancelled and their relationship changed – forever.

Beller’s riveting, dark play serves as a stark reminder that sometimes it takes just one wrong move, one deed with no forethought to forever alter lives. After said move is made, nothing feels normal, routine or comfortable again. Life becomes a dizzying, depressing haze of second-guessing, tension, panic, low self-esteem and loneliness.

The aforementioned deed is allegedly the work of Perry, a sulking teenager prone to wearing gothic, some may say devil-worship clothing, making rash decisions and having temper tantrums. From news reports, we've heard about someone like Perry, who paints his nails black. He’s the type of youngster who may have been bullied mercilessly, acted strangely and seemed aloof, all the while adults thought nothing about his demeanor– until it was too late and tragedy struck.

“Son” is no doubt a timely play, but at first glance, it can come across as unoriginal – yet another play about a troubled teenager whose parents are strict with him, to little or no avail, and are at a loss as to how to help him navigate a world at a delicate age, during a time period when information spreads faster than you can snap your finger. It’s, say, 4 o’clock on a weekday afternoon and you don’t know where your kids are, who they’re seeing and what they’re doing with those people.

Yes, we’ve seen this type of play before.

Plays with these types of plots can provoke debate, discussion, raise awareness and lead to action –possibly saving a life or keeping one from being ruined forever.  

But “Son” is different than other plays with similar themes and plots. The alleged deed serves as the catalyst for the revelation of a shocking truth about Perry and his biological mother. It’s one that she’s never told anyone. It will blindside you.

Beller uses short and pithy scenes (the action moves at a cinematic-like pace under Michael Leeds' direction) as well as snappy dialogue to keep the edges of our seats warm as we wonder who’s telling the truth in connection with the alleged crime. At the same time, the play’s rising action builds with suspense to that draw-dropping revelation.

Beller has created likable characters; Jean and Day are high-strung, but loving parents who want to do the right thing for their son. While he’s hardly the perfect, All-American boy, the playwright has depicted Perry as a troubled but good-at-heart youth, one who has not just a conscience but a soul.

Under Leeds’ sensitive, detailed direction, the actors honor Beller’s writing. They find the compassion and heart in these characters. They’re portrayed so realistically, with such spontaneity and nuance during Beller’s short windows into their lives, that we almost feel guilty for prying into their existence during this difficult time for them.

“Son” is filled with pathos, leavened with moments of humor, but finding credibility in some of Beller’s writing is hard, to say the least.

In the beginning, Jean and Day have just returned from a party with fellow lesbians Lisa and Margaret. The entertainment for the evening?

A male stripper.

It’s a stretch, at best, to believe that lesbians would find much interest, amusement or arousal in the antics of a male who strips nude for entertainment. Furthermore, one of the gals has chosen, of all people, a policeman to serve as the stripper for the evening. On an ad posted to Craig’s List, the choices included policeman and fireman.

Huh? These public servants must really not care much about their image – or their job, come Monday morning, to offer their “side services” under the umbrella of “The Village People Stripper Service.”

Later in the play, Perry tells his mothers that he’s going outside, even while wearing an ankle bracelet.

Day: Perry!

Jean: Where are you going?

Perry: Out.

Jean: Where?

Perry: What difference does it make. Not like I can do anything or go anywhere with this thing.

Day: Perry, would you please tell us where you’re going?

Perry: Sam’s (a friend).

Jean: You will be back in time for dinner, do you hear me? Seven o’clock. Seven O’clock.

It seems hard to believe that the women, especially Jean, who’s been strict with her son and cares deeply about him, would let him leave home, fully knowing he’s wearing an ankle bracelet, which prohibits him from leaving the house.

Of all the characters, Perry undergoes the biggest change, from angry, frustrated, impulsive teenager to a sensitive, caring lad you’ll want to hug if you’re childless and wish you had a son.

The cast excels, including Gabe DeWitt in a mostly impressive portrayal as Perry. This teen performer launches into Perry’s sullen moods and temper tantrums without any of it seeming forced. But DeWitt also proves adept at playing Perry more subtly and sensitively, conveying a kinder teen during the latter parts of the play.

The knock on DeWitt’s performance is that he was inaudible at the play’s beginning during the performance the day after opening night. 

Arlette Del Torro disappears into the character of Jean, endowing her with a convincing emotional intensity suggesting a high-strung woman. Del Torro is equally adept at portraying frustration and compassion.

Elizabeth Price also shines as a loving, sensitive mother who is quick to worry. Both women display telling facial expressions. They speak volumes and even when silence invades scenic designer Michael McClain’s spacious, orderly set of the family’s Maryland apartment, there’s palpable tension as one of the women shoots an accusatory glance at the other.

McClain’s set, which includes artwork featuring flowers, contrasts nicely with the play’s darker themes.

The appearance of the orderly set, which suggests contentedness, nicely symbolizes what’s going on in Day and Jean’s life.  Tension is simmering under their seemingly comfortable existence.

Marital problems and other issues start coming to the surface before free-falling, with Jean, Day and their son, down that wide, black, bottomless pit.  

 IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Son,” a new play by James L. Beller Jr. receiving its world premiere production

WHEN: Through May 7

WHERE: Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors.

For ticket information, call (954) 519-2533 or visit www.islandcitystage.com.

'Jersey Boys' music still resonates with audiences if Miami audience is any measuring stick

Their music has become so well-known and popular that a song barely begins before thunderous clapping fills the auditorium. 

During a recent performance, the audience' clapping was so loud and sustained at various points that hands, no doubt, turned as red as roses offered with love on Valentine’s Day.

Roughly 13 years after “Jersey Boys” premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, fans still love those less-than exemplary boys from the mean streets of New Jersey who rose to music Hall-of-Fame status with their irresistible rock and pop songs. People still adore this foursome from the 60’s, judging from a recent performance of the musical, which is in the midst of yet another national equity tour (international, technically, because Canada is included).

The tour, featuring by an electric cast and fine work from the technical crew, is decked at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County through Sunday. Then it invades Portland, Ore., different cities in California, Kansas City, Mo. and Charlotte, N.C. before heading north of the border.

During the performance reviewed at the Arsht in downtown Miami, Frankie Valli (a vivacious Aaron De Jesus, who alternates with Miguel Jarquin-Moreland in the role), had just started singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” when the audience burst into applause.

It’s no secret that fans flock in droves to “Jersey Boys” due to the jukebox musical’s vibrant, catchy songs that have become as familiar to many of us as the sight of our face in the mirror.

“The Boys,” at least as portrayed in “Jersey Boys,” may not exude choirboy purity, but perhaps we love them because we see parts of ourselves in Tommy DeVito (Lead guitar and baritone), Nick Massi (Bass guitar and vocals), Frankie Valli (lead vocalist) and Bob Gaudio (keyboards and tenor vocals).

They’re not perfect (“None of us were saints,” as one of the foursome reminds us), but they’re gritty, determined, mentally tough and, in the musical, are searching for what our immigrant grandparents sought so badly – the success and happiness that comes with the American Dream.

The sun isn’t always shining on folks during their quest for that elusive happiness and prosperity. Dark moments accompany the bright and cheery ones. Some moments may seem so bleak that recovery seems impossible. There’s bleakness in scenic designer Klara Zieglerova’s two-story grey set, complete with stairs and fences through which you can barely peak out. The set and backdrops nicely reinforce the tough streets of New Jersey and the stairs can symbolize the group’s rise and fall. The set also features some authentic-looking visual surprises.

The lighting neatly corresponds to various moods, but many of the projections seem unnecessary. For example, during a courtroom scene, what good does it do to have a cartoonish judge projected onto a screen, when the real judge appears as a character? Projections are meant to enhance a scene, like when a famous “Jersey Handshake” is executed to seal a deal between two group members. The projection illustrates just how tight the grip is.

“Jersey Boys” has the air of a concert with adoring fans singing along, swaying, clapping and perhaps toe-tapping. It’s not a concert; it’s a smartly-structured musical that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ rise to fame, eventual decline, a major triumph and hope of future success.

The show’s full title is “Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.”

The musical group came up with “Four Seasons” after the name of a bowling alley. But in the musical, “Four Seasons” symbolically represents the high points and low points of the group’s career.

 The show’s structured so that different sections correspond to one of the seasons of the year. During the beginning of the musical, “Spring” stands for the group’s beginning, just as that season symbolizes new beginnings. The show’s second part, “Summer,” symbolically suggests brightness and success these “Jersey Boys” are enjoying. It’s fitting that just after the “Summer” sequence begins, the song “(Who Wears) Short Shorts” is sung. Then things turn bleak, just as the days in New Jersey and other parts of the north are shorter, darker and drearier than the warmer months.

Each “season” or section of the show is narrated by a different group member, telling the foursome’s story from his perspective. Everybody, pardon the cliché, sees the same thing differently. Besides, as we all know so well by now, is there such a thing as objective, indisputable facts or truths?

Just as each of their instruments makes a different sound, the four actors playing the “Boys” have given their characters distinct personalities, under Des McAnuff’s astute direction.

De Jesus nails the falsetto, that seemingly impossibly high voice for a male singer to execute, let alone with clarity. De Jesus’ mastery of the falsetto becomes clear, particularly in the hit song “Sherry.” De Jesus, as Valli, contrasts sweetness with grit. During the saddest moment in the show, however, it a shocker that De Jesus doesn’t give even a hint of crying. His expression is way too mild, given what’s just happened to Valli.

In contrast to De Jesus’ sometimes mild, sometimes scrappy Valli is Matthew Dailey’s in-your-face, intimidating, confident DeVito, a hustler and gambler complete with a Jersey accent and a cocky, tough demeanor. Dailey, a big man, owns the stage without overshadowing his castmates. He makes DeVito charismatic, but not someone you want pitted against you.

Keith Hines endows Massi with an understated, wry demeanor, but convincingly conveys vicious moments of rage when describing his rough time sharing a room with DeVito on the road. Massi’s an alcoholic, and Hines’ mostly quiet voice, tinged with dry humor suggests a character just a bit hungover from a night at the bar.

Cory Jeacoma imbues Bob Gaudio with pride and confidence, qualities understandable in a man who writes most of the group’s music.

Musically, the foursome harmonize well and move around while singing and playing their instruments, keeping the proceedings lively and interesting. These four actors prove triple threats, adept at acting, singing, and playing their instruments with the skill of someone who’s performed all their life.

The audience at the reviewed production was obviously most interested in hearing those memorable songs with creative, upbeat lyrics and this touring cast mostly delivers.

For times, ticket prices and venues, visit www.jerseyboysinfo.com/tour.

 

 

LBJ depicted with vivid detail in Actors' Playhouse powerful production of 'All the Way'

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Imagine that a bunch of folks have hoisted you into the air with your stomach facing down.

They’re engaged in a tug-of-war of sorts with you and the groups oppose each other: One group pulls you hard by the right arm, another by the left arm, while the others are doing the same with both of your legs. They’re exerting such force that you fear your limbs will be ripped from your body.

You counter by pulling as hard as you can in the opposite direction. You’re trying to keep your limbs intact, but also to bring these opposing factions together.

The above scene might illustrate President Lyndon B. Johnson’s mighty struggle in “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s Broadway political play that’s as riveting as a suspense novel you just can’t put down.

You’ll find yourself riveted to the stage during Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre’s current engrossing, arresting, fast-paced production. 

“All the Way,” the 2014 Tony Award winner for Best Play, is running through April 8 at the award-winning Coral Gables theater company.

The play chronicles the first year of LBJ’s presidency. The first act focuses on his struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 while the second focuses on his efforts to win re-election. Throughout the play, LBJ must deal with his adversaries and compromise with his allies in an effort to convince them that signing the civil rights bill is the right thing to do. Obstacles abound: LBJ faces not just opposition from Republicans, but from those within his party.

The Democrats are divided, with southern Democrats demonstrating fierce opposition to the bill.

There’s even infighting between Martin Luther King Jr.’s supporters over what actions to take in order to secure their rights. Indeed, in the Actors Playhouse production, the disagreements between King’s supporters reach such a boiling point, complete with shouting and finger pointing, you wonder whether these people actually share a common goal or are members of rival gangs.

Compromise is called for among the many groups in “All the Way.” The scenes featuring King and the black activists bring to mind the autobiographical AIDS play “The Normal Heart.” In Larry Kramer’s play,

AIDS patients who become activists for awareness and preventative measures share a common goal, but fight bitterly among themselves regarding what approach to take to spread awareness of the disease.

The temperature in the room rises considerably as the death toll escalates. The AIDS patients/ activists must compromise if they’re to get anything done.    

The maladies in “All The Way” aren’t literally physical diseases, but the “cancers” of hate, discrimination and segregation.

One may wonder why LBJ, a southern Democrat, wanted to integrate society, while the other southern Democrats (termed “Dixiecrats”), wished to keep the races segregated.

In “All the Way,” a play featuring complex, flesh-and-blood characters who come across as very human under David Arisco’s sensitive and detailed direction, we learn why LBJ had a heart for those less fortunate.

Even though we know the outcome of the play, we’re riveted to the stage throughout. That’s a testament to the commendable acting and the palpable tension Arisco has implemented into the production. As the weeks, days and hours tick down to election day, notices such as “four months to the election,” which quickly flash onto a projection screen, add to the suspense, reinforcing the urgency of the matters.

In a successful production of “All the Way,” the complexity of LBJ’s character is on full display. That is the case here, with stage, film and TV star J. Kenneth Campbell, best known as Ed Wingate on “Matlock,” in the title role.

With slicked-back hair and narrow eyes peeking out from behind black-rimmed glasses, Campbell’s LBJ suggests a man who has, for a long time, experienced the hardships and setbacks of life. Those eyes are narrowed with an intensity and determination to right wrongs this man has seen go on too long.

Bryan Cranston won a Tony Award for his portrayal of LBJ in the Broadway production of “All the Way.”

However, Campbell gives a brilliant performance himself as our nation’s 36th president. It’s a portrayal filled with incredible nuance, subtlety and towering force, when necessary.

Each scowl or frown from Campbell’s LBJ conveys dogged determination just as powerfully, or more so, than words.

Campbell has obviously carefully analyzed each word uttered by LBJ in “All The Way." Each spoken word, each gesture, each expression carries a spontaneity that makes you forget you’re watching a performance.

Campbell manages these feats without impersonating LBJ. The actor shifts seamlessly from frustration and explosive rage to easy-going charm, from patience to antsiness, from weariness to vigor, from crudeness to polish.

There are 17 actors, with the majority of them playing multiple parts, excluding Campbell, who only portrays LBJ.

Another actor with one role is Marckenson Charles as King. Charles’ King is a peacemaker, a humble, respectable person, especially in LBJ’s presence. Marckenson also endows King with an intensity befitting the urgency the man feels to secure equal rights. Marckenson, without impersonating the late, great civil rights leader, nails his speech patterns while delivering a eulogy for a fellow African-American killed by a white man (hardly the only parallel in the play to today’s turbulent times of racial tension and division).

The rest of this fine cast slips seamlessly in and out of their multiple roles.

Of particular note are 12-time award-winning actor Gary Marachek as a smirking, sly and arrogant Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and a no-nonsense, blunt Walter Reuther, president of the UAW; Candice Marie Singleton as a devoted Coretta Scott King and Deborah L. Sherman as a loyal but assertive Lady Bird Johnson.

Eric Nelson’s realistic lighting includes appropriate colors, such as orange to symbolize fire when a scene gets particularly heated. Jodi Dellaventura’s handsome sets easily slide on and off stage and allow characters to be highlighted when necessary.  

Shaun Mitchell’s vivid sound design is a plus for the production. For instance, each time someone announces that LBJ is down in the polls, a harsh sound of a thunderclap symbolizes a blow to LBJ, as though he were getting punched.

Mitchell also designed the projections, some useful, some unnecessary. When the play opens, King is flying on an airplane. Do we really need to see the projection of an airplane descending through clouds? Also, do we need to see workers digging for a corpse when it’s announced that the body of one of three men gone missing is presumed dead? Such projections add nothing to the scenes.

Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award and Writer’s Guild Award-winning playwright Schenkkan adds plenty to his focused story with his well-chosen, vivid language: 

Senator Russell: How many civil rights bills you buried in the last ten years?

Senator Jim Eastland: One hundred and twenty-one.

Senator Russell: Has that “graveyard” of yours got room for one more?

Senator Jim Eastland: I’m diggin’ a hole as we speak.

Schenkkan’s epic work is hardly a dry history lesson but a focused, compelling play about one man’s attempts to unite, forge compromises and do the right thing.    

Those in the anti-Trump camp certainly yearn for such a leader.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “All The Way” by Robert Schenkkan

WHEN: Through April 9

WHERE: 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.

For ticket information, call (305) 444-9293.