The Drowsy Chaperone (54 Below)

Quite clearly the Best Musical of 2006 (the Tony went to Jersey Boys) and one of my all-time favorites, The Drowsy Chaperone celebrated its tenth anniversary with a two show reunion at 54 Below.  The evening was narrated by the original Man In Chair and book author Bob Martin.  Many of the original cast members were present including Tony winner Beth Leavel who, as the title character, keeps her “eyeball on the highball” in her hand.  For fans of this show, this concert version was great fun.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a musical parody of 1920s Broadway which began life as a stag party skit created for the real life marriage of Bob Martin and Janet van de Graaf in 1997.   As Man in Chair, the character of Bob Martin plays his record album of the (imaginary) 1928 hit The Drowsy Chaperone, described as “mix-ups, mayhem and a gay wedding.”  As Man in Chair wryly observes, “of course gay wedding has a different meaning nowadays… back then it just meant FUN!”  From the Toronto Fringe Festival, the show evolved and hit the big time in 2006.  Nominated for thirteen Tonys, it won six of them.  As a bonus during this concert, Lisa Lambert, the show’s co-composer and original Drowsy Chaperone, performed that character’s long since abandoned song about being “drowsy” which was later replaced by the show’s anthem, “As We Stumble Along.”

From a 2015 review of a production in Massachusetts:  “The Drowsy Chaperone is one of those shows that is inherently comical in its nature: it is literally laugh-out-loud funny, portraying the lives and actions of each of its characters as almost too absurd to be believed.The Drowsy Chaperone is really a beautiful show that is saturated with singing, dancing, some very odd characters and an almost too-simple plot that makes this show awesome.”  To be honest, it’s even better than that.  Bucket list this one next time it comes to town.  In the meantime, check out the vast array of talent that performs at 54 Below, Broadway’s Supper Club in New York. 

Special note to our friends in St. Louis:  Beth Leavel is coming to the Muni this summer as Mama Rose in Gypsy.

Today is My Birthday (Page 73 Productions)

The stated mission for Page 73 is to develop and produce new work by early career playwrights who have yet to be produced and recognized in New York City.  I decided to go see Today is My Birthday since one of the actresses, Nadine Malouf, performed Oh My Sweet Land in our kitchen this past September.  I was rewarded with a high quality production and an interesting conceit.

Emily (Jennifer Ikeda) has returned home to Hawaii from her stint trying journalism in New York City.  (Hana Hou! Bruddah Chris!)  She is not necessarily happy to be home; her big dreams thwarted.  Why is she home?  Mom is crazy, Dad is a nerd.  NYC best friend Halima has issues with her kids and husband.  A hometown theater friend gets her to try a gig as a call in radio guest.  There’s an ex-lover.  While none of this may sound particularly special, the structure of the play with all of the characters talking (but not face to face) adds a dimension of detachment that is quite entertaining.

The entire play is told through a series of phone calls, voice mails and other conversations which are meant to reflect the impersonal nature of today’s millennials.  The entire theater space has been converted into a recording studio with a wall of glass rooms above the so-so tropical furniture setting.    The sound man is clearly visible in one  corner and his contributions are a critical piece of this play.  The direction by Kip Fagan is very impressive.  All of the many scenes and multiple character changes are clear and cleverly presented.

When Today is My Birthday is funny, the play shines most brightly.  The Z100ish radio show with DJ Loki (Jonathan Brooks) and DJ Solange (Malouf) is spot on hilarious,  both loud and ridiculous.  When Emily calls her mother (Emily Kuroda) and father (Ron Domingo), they are fighting but you cannot intentionally make out the words in the background.  Every actor surrounding our central character plays between three and six roles.  The cast displayed very strong acting chops.

If there are any quibbles here, well let’s get them out in the open.  The title, Today is My Birthday, makes little sense.  Our central gal, Emily, is nowhere near as interesting as any of the characters that surround her.  Perhaps that’s an intentional self-absorbed millennial trait?  She’s not really likable but to me that is ok.  But this off-off Broadway production surprises and delights so often that quibbles become insignificant.  Although Today is My Birthday is a little overlong, it’s very enjoyable if a tad dated.  These millennials would text not simply call and leave messages.  Quibbles from a non-millennial, sorry.


Wood Calls Out to Wood (The Tank)

The Tank is a non-profit arts presenter that serves emerging artists pursuing new ideas and expressions.  Across many disciplines, including theater, comedy, dance, film, music, public affairs, and storytelling, annually they serve over 1,000 artists in more than 400 performances.  Their stated goal is to foster an environment of inclusiveness and remove the burden of cost from the creation of new work for those launching their careers and experimenting within their art form.

Wood Calls Out to Wood is an adaptation of one of my favorite paintings, Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th century triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”  A art piece with religious symbolism, the left and right panels represent Eden and hell.  The larger center panel is the garden of the title, as humanity acts with apparent free will where naked men and women engage in various pleasure seeking activities.  The painting is awesome in its details and mind-blowing in its imagery.

This theatrical piece focuses on the garden.  Then, when taking a closer look, Boschian beings begin to emerge.  Two horses in a neigh-scent relationship.  A vacant treehouse in need of a tenant.  A human with a grape for a head.  Through dialogue and sound, the audience experiences these images and characters selected from the painting.  I particularly enjoyed Connor James Sheridan as Grapehead and Will Dagger as the Horse.  However, the show is very meta, a little too much so for my taste.  An interesting experiment, Wood Calls Out to Wood is a fine diversion.

Mementos Mori (Manual Cinema)

Perhaps the greatest puppet show I have ever seen was Ada/Ava by Manual Cinema.  So it was with great excitement that I got tickets for Mementos Mori, a new production making its New York premiere this week.  Manual Cinema is aptly named.  They make cinematic art right in front of the audience.  Using overhead projectors, the puppeteers keep the action moving which is then projected on a center film screen.  You are watching the cinema as well as the activity to make it all happen.  Add in live, originally composed music and you are (sort of) transported back to the silent film era.

Manual Cinema states that it aim is to take the visual and sonic vocabulary of film and TV and use it to explore themes and stories that are weird, powerful, human and theatrical.  Mementos Mori is a piece created to explore how modern technology, particularly smartphones and social media, has shifted our relationship with presence and absence, death and dying.  Death herself is a character.  All of this is done with six overhead projectors, screens, actors and close to 500 different shadow puppets and slides over the course of the show.  Running nearly 1:30, this is complex choreography.  The resulting “cinema” is incredibly unique and impressive.

I’ll admit that I loved Ada/Ava more than Mementos Mori largely due to the storytelling.  But this last effort was longer and infinitely more complicated (double the projectors for example).   Manual Cinema is based out of Chicago and travels the world.  Search them out.  Whatever is playing, go.  Oh, and tickets for this show were $25.  A momentous value.  And isn’t it fun that they use low tech overhead school projectors to create these awesome visual effects?

Alaska & Jeremy: On Golden Girls

Alaska was the winner of the second Ru Paul’s All Star Drag Race.  If you don’t know what that is, “regular” theater reviews will return later this week.  As stated in this show, Jeremy is not only her accompanist on the piano but also friend for fourteen years.  This performance was an homage to all things Golden Girls.  Alaska asked, “How many people here have seen every episode of the Golden Girls at least twice?”  A show of hands.  The answer was five.  Everyone else got an apology.

All the girls – Sofia, Blanche, Rose and Dorothy – were spotlighted in drag, naturally, lovingly skewered with musical numbers and an abundance of comedy.  There were trivia questions and sing-a-longs during the costume changes, aka cosmic channelings.  The one hour plus act was hilarious (even heartfelt during the Rose segment) and over the top entertaining.  This is the second Alaska show I’ve seen, the first being Cher and Cher Alike, which, unless you are truly under a rock, you can guess the plotline.  Two for two.  That’s a star.

Lucky (Dixon Place)

Dixon Place describes itself as an artistic incubator which supports artists by producing original works of theater, dance, music, puppetry, circus arts, literature and visual art at all stages of development.  I head downtown once or twice a year to see what’s on.  The last time I went, the infamous play Sex by Mae West was excerpted and performed by women who, for various reasons, had been actual sex workers.  After the performance, they took questions and had candid conversations about their lives, the historical significance of that play and women’s rights.  Not for everyone but definitely made for thoughtful conversation afterward.

Last night’s less serious offering was Lucky by the Atlas Circus Company, a troupe formed by former students at Muhlenberg College.  We follow Lucky as he travels to the big city and stumbles, trips and falls from one misadventure to the next, told through slapstick and circus skills.  Lucky is best described as a combination of mime, Three Stooges tomfoolery, athleticism and magic tricks.  As such, the four artists present an old style of eccentric clowning with no real words spoken (but sounds) and musical accompaniment (piano, recorded music).  Think stolen briefcase hijinks and you will get the picture.  Two performers had inspired bits throughout while the other two didn’t really have enough to do, despite some hilarious physicality.  In Lucky, Atlas Circus is combining circus with a theatrical narrative.  A nice diversion at downtown prices.

Really Rosie (Encores)

I have no recollection of this 1975 show despite the fact that Carole King wrote the music in a collaboration with Maurice Sendak, who supplied the music and lyrics.  Really Rosie is based on a number of his children’s books from the early 1960s.  Originally a television special, this musical was then expanded and given an off-Broadway run in 1980.  Avenue P in Brooklyn is the setting and young Rosie is a big dreamer who essentially spends the entire show corralling the neighborhood kids into pretending to make her fantasy movies, where she naturally is the star.  I know Sendak can be dark but maybe this is just not my cup of Ovaltine.  This giggly, sugary sweet musical references children’s deaths through kidnapping, choking on a chicken bone or getting chopped into pieces before being placed in a shoebox.

The best songs were “Avenue P” and “Chicken Soup with Rice” but unfortunately they came toward the end of the show.  After viewing, I googled the score and, interestingly, both of those songs were in the middle originally.  Hard to tell if the many kids in the audience were engaged completely in the cavernous City Center.  When I happily departed to the subway, I heard a mom gushing over the performance and reminiscing about listening to the soundtrack as a young girl.  Really Rosie might need that kind of connection to be admired.

New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 7)

Freedom Riders:  The Civil Rights Musical

I was born in 1961, the year civil rights activists called Freedom Riders rode interstate buses to the southern United States in order to challenge the non-enforcement of a Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.  The southern states ignored the ruling and the federal government did nothing to enforce them.  The Freedom Rides put a national spotlight on  this issue.  This was violent, risky stuff.  In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, police cooperated with the Ku Klux Klan and allowed mobs to attack the riders.  In Montgomery, ambulances refused to take the injured to hospitals.  Riders were jailed and, when some of them would not stop singing freedom songs while incarcerated, prison officials took away their mattresses, sheets and toothbrushes.  How big was this movement?  President Kennedy, his brother Robert, then Attorney General, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are all figures in this history.  Rich material for a struggle that is unfortunately not over.

So why did I not completely embrace this show?  Three reasons:  the book, the lyrics and the presentation style.  There are 26 scenes in a two hour musical.  In order to move this story along, there is a surface level component at work, with so many characters drawn in two dimensional sketches, at best.  Like another NYMF entry about oppression, A Wall Apart, lyrics are repeated over and over again, but even more so in Freedom Riders.  There are some fine songs throughout although not necessarily grounded in this particular history.  Relentless anthems continually sung directly at the audience gives the entire piece a civics lesson feel.  Furthermore, the cast (including the ensemble)performs far too often as if it were auditioning for The Voice.  One can admire the talent but I felt disconnected to the people and the deep, troubling story being brought to life.

Georama:  An American Panorama Told On Three Miles of Canvas

Opening with the song, “Nobody Knows,” Georama tells the now obscure story of John Banvard, a 19th century painter known for his giant panoramas of the Mississippi River.  He sketched the river while on a boat, eventually painting a canvas that grew to twelve feet high and one half mile long, although it was advertised as a “three mile canvas.”  In 1948, the magazine Scientific America published a piece under “New Inventions” describing and illustrating Banvard’s mechanism for displaying a moving panorama.  Georama uses its own screen projected panorama as the backdrop for this story, moving us from the river to larger towns and cities.

As luck would have it, Georama was my last musical from this festival and clearly one of my favorites.  What’s to love?  24 songs in 90 minutes which add layers to the strong book and help develop its characters, performed by two musicians who only play piano, cello, violin and guitar.  The music feels authentic to the period and yet contains a fine example where inserting a whimsical musical comedy number out of nowhere completely works.   The four person cast, led by P.J. Griffith and Jillian Louis, is simply excellent.  One of Georama’s big themes revolves around art and the truth, or whether the line between truth and lies has become increasingly blurred, reflected in “Art is a Lie.”  This musical is even timely.  What’s not to love?

Theater Reviews From My Seat  – BEST of FEST

At the closing celebration, awards will be presented to the best of the festival.  Now that I’ve started this blog, I am looking forward to how the reviews from my seat will stack up against the panel of judges.  Should be fun.  My full production favorites are listed below.  For the record, I did not see Errol and Fidel, My Dear Watson or The Time Machine.  Let’s hope they have a future life so I will have the opportunity to check them out.

My votes for Best of Fest, in alphabetical order:


Georama:  An American Panorama Told On Three Miles of Canvas

Matthew McConaughey vs the Devil

The Goree All Girl String Band

The breath of material in this year’s NYMF was outstanding.  1961 Berlin Wall.  1940s Las Vegas.  1961 the segregated southern U.S.  1800s Mississippi River.  1969 New Orleans.  897 Rome.  1940s Texas women’s prison.  16th century Puerto Rico.  1961 B-movie.  Contemporary offerings including mommies, kids and the answer to the question on everyone’s mind:  how did Matthew McConaughey win an Oscar?  And very hairy, very smelly pirates.  All at $27.50 per show.  Alright, alright, alright.

New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 6)


Based upon his children’s picture book series, Matthew McElligott co-authored the book and lyrics to this musical about pirates of the most silly kind.  While Backbeard himself is very, very hairy and very, very smelly, the pirate danger can be summed up in the song lyric, “he’ll give you a pirate wedgie.”  After a raucous birthday party finds Backbeard’s clothes ruined, he turns to two tailors who give him a colorful, non-piratey makeover, complete with a pig rather than a bird perched on his shoulder.  Winning acceptance for standing up for who you are, told through song, dance, comedy and swordplay, is the big theme.  This is definitely kid’s stuff but I laughed out loud and the children in the audience seemed to be having a great time.  The songs fit the story and riffed somewhat on the typical pirate songs forever stuck in your head.  Lyrics were clever and not dumbed down for the young folks.

I imagine Backbeard must be a fun book to read with your child and that is exactly what was put onstage.  Kudos to the director, Michael Musial, who also wrote the score and co-wrote the lyrics.  Everyone in the cast seemed 100% committed to the show in terms of tone and style, which made the material truly come to life.  Jimmy Kieffer (Backbeard) was hilarious and the whole largely non-equity cast nailed the comedic storybook effect like seasoned pros.  Disney could take this piece and run with it.  Well executed and a nice surprise.


From the author’s note:  Whether you are a tiger mom, helicopter mom or free-range mom, we’ve all said things like “Leave the cigarette butt on the ground” and “the Tooth Fairy must have been too busy to come last night.”  If that sentence made you nod in appreciation, this show may be for you.  Packed with 22 songs over 90 minutes, Motherfreakinghood! is the musical revue of three women from pregnancy test through high school graduation.  A kitchen sink of song titles such as:  “Ballad of the Post Partum,”  “Poo-Wop Playground,”  “Hormones on Parade” and, when I needed it, “Last Freaking Song.”  The musical style is sort of doo-wop, girl group but occasionally musical theater inspired, like  “Friends to the End,”  clearly indebted to “Friendship” from Anything Goes.

Does this show work?  As an off-Broadway revue, perhaps yes.  Target audience:  moms who need a girl’s night out, some Chardonnay, or two Cosmopolitans, or both.

Ben, Virginia and Me:  The Liberace Musical

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Liberace was one of the highest paid entertainers in the world, having conquered Las Vegas during its meteoric rise in the desert.  Liberace’s three brand symbols were the piano, a candelabra and flamboyant costumes.  Underneath the glitter was a closeted gay man who was so effeminate it is hard to imagine anyone was fooled.  Ben, Virginia and Me is a musical combining the stories of Liberace’s career and personal life trajectory with the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and his girlfriend, Virginia, who built the Flamingo Hotel for the mob.  As musicals can do, this story is very loosely based on facts: all three of them were in Las Vegas, there was an encounter where Bugsy offered Liberace a job at his hotel and Liberace’s public humiliation in London by the Daily Mail resulting in a libel suit.

Does it matter than the core of the show, the relationship between the three titular characters, is best classified as historical fiction?  Not really.  The show opens with “The Fabulous Flamingo,” complete with showgirls and glitz.  Not only do we get a healthy dose of classic Las Vegas spectacle but also a little slice of history of two of its early famous icons:  the Flamingo Hotel and “Mr. Showmanship.”  As Liberace, Samuel Floyd delivers a fully rounded performance of a complicated individual, never slipping into caricature.  The best moment in the show came near the end with “Beautiful Man,” a elegantly staged memory song where Liberace reminisces about his early relationship with Rock Hudson.

Although Ben, Virginia and Me is always watchable, it is overstuffed to the point that Virginia’s death is just a throwaway line to wrap up a main character’s story arc.  The real fun here was the vast parade of costumes designed by Kurt Alger:  showgirls with headresses, 1940s mob suits, and increasingly ruffled, feathered frocks for our flashy, garish pianist.   The cast even had curtain call costumes where everyone donned their finest sparkle.  Within a NYMF budget, very impressive indeed.  There’s a big show concept inside Ben, Virginia and Me, perhaps leaning more towards Me.

New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 5)

A Wall Apart

Graham Russell is the singer-songwriter of the Australian soft rock duo, Air Supply, a very successful band here in the 1980s with songs like All Out of Love and The One That You Love.  A Wall Apart transports us to Berlin in 1961 right before the wall is erected.  Families, careers and relationships are about to be turned upside down with the erection of the wall, eliminating all travel between East and West Berlin.

Esther, the American/German love interest, is a professed fan of West Side Story and unsurprisingly A Wall Apart mirrors the “opposite side of the tracks doomed love affair.”  The book nicely develops a family history of three brothers who are split on their east/west loyalties.  Unfortunately, we have to endure song after song of repetitive lyrics.  Lines are underlined so often that you cannot get them out of your head.  During intermission, the people in front of me starting singing “We’re Having A Baby,” the Act I closing number.  Actually, they only sang those four exact words, having just heard them repeated over and over.  Given the interesting premise here, I was underwhelmed by songs titled:  “Do You Mind If I Adore You,” and “I Want To Be In Love With You.”  To be fair, a sappy and romantic Air Supply fan I am not.

The principals in the cast were game and did everything in their power to put this material over, even the jarring transition midway through Act II to a dead narrator.  The set design and screen projections of Berlin were very effective, elucidating the harshness of the wall.  I’ll avoid discussing the odd choreography which was inserted far too often.  You can have a good story and talented performers, but a good musical must have good tunes.  Underneath the lyrics, however, there were some nice melodies.  The verdict:  a bit of a slog overall but a promising idea.

Peace, Love and Cupcakes:  The Musical

Is it possible to fairly review a show that sells cupcakes in the lobby for No Bullying charities?  Let’s try.  Based on a mother/daughter written book, Peace, Love and Cupcakes addresses eighth grade angst with songs like “Different,” “Kylie Carson Doesn’t Belong Here,” and “How Do You Deal With a Monster?”  Kylie is a new student trying to fit into a new school, dreading every “Monday Morning.”  To make matters worse, the popular (and very mean) young ladies, ingeniously named the BLAH girls, are in full torment mode.  Kylie forms a cupcake club and, as a result, there are lessons learned through songs sung on the way to peace and love.

In the performance I caught, Kylie was played by soon-to-be high school sophomore Carrie Beck, the co-author of the original book and also this musical.  Ms. Beck was simply excellent in the role and the rest of the large cast were fun to watch.  It was especially nice to see all the performers putting a spin on their different character’s personalities, enriching the viewing experience.  I would recommend tightening this to one act as the intermission drained the momentum somewhat and Act II is short with not enough new songs.  This is a kid’s show for sure but it is easy to imagine this musical performed in middle schools everywhere.  I think it was possible to fairly review a show that sells cupcakes in the lobby.  Whew.

Generation Me

Following the middle school scenario in Peace, Love and Cupcakes, Generation Me is a significantly darker offering.  Although this show also opens with a Monday number, “Monday Morning/Revelation,” by song’s end Milo Reynolds (Milo Manheim) hangs himself.  The rest of the show is told in a series of flashbacks, unraveling the mystery of why he decided to end his life.  In the program, the book and lyrics writer, Julie Soto, noted that she was trying to create age appropriate and challenging material for teen actors.  Clearly she accomplished that but at least my journey to that conclusion was decidedly mixed.

By structuring the show in flashbacks, we alternate sadness and despair with teen angst, clichés and a cornucopia of social issues.  An example: right after the suicide, Milo and his best friend have a number called “The Bra Song” about learning to unhook a bra before going on a date.  Not that the song wasn’t funny, it was such a dramatic swing in tone that seemed odd.  Then the first Act piled on the  gossiping and severe meanness but in a way that felt like a celebration of such behavior.  (The cutter in the class is known in social media as #SLICE.)  By intermission, frankly, I was completed put off.  The couple sitting to my left did not return after intermission and the young lady next to me probably said’ “Oh my God” a half  dozen times, often then burying her face in her hands.  Apparently I was not suffering alone.

Perseverance, however, can have its rewards.  Before the middle of Act II, the machinery that swung repeatedly from one extreme to the next calmed down and a slew of very nice, character driven ballads emerged which put emotion, grief and heft to the forefront.  To the credit of Ms. Soto, I was impressed toward the end of the show when I realized how many of these characters had meaningful parts, with performances and dialogue to match.  The flashback structure of the show may be what I struggled with here.  Letting out some of the teenage musical comedy hijinks (perhaps better termed as abuse) earlier before throwing the audience directly into the suicide might help.