Monday, 16 February 2015


     I must admit that I went to NEVERMORE at the behest of my husband and that, for the first few minutes, I thought I was watching the sort of parody of Off-Broadway experimental musicals one saw in movies a generation ago. A group of actors in bizarre make-up and costumes sang a weird, tuneless song while performing strange quasi-choreography. Part of me wanted to laugh while another part dreaded the next two hours. Very quickly I got sucked into the world of this almost through sung, constantly rhymed fictional biography of the brilliant, doomed 19th century poet and fiction writer.
     On one hand, NEVERMORE offers a straighforward, simplified, fictionalized biography of Poe from birth to death. However, it presents this story in a style befitting Poe's writings.The show is insistently metatheatrical. Poe's mother as an actress and his life began in the theatre. It is also constantly bizarre, almost haunted, a perfect analogue for Poe's haunted, obsessive imagination. His world is constantly colored by disease, particularly tuberculosis, and death. The writer is always impoverished and becomes an alcoholic. Six actors surround Poe and play the various men and women in his life while also serving as narrators and chorus. There are also some quite scary puppets. One feels the insistence of rhyme and metre in the speech and songs, analogous to the insistence of these qualities in Poe's verse. Some of the ballads are haunting and beautiful.  If you are willing to surrender to this show, as I was after a few minutes, it is a totally absorbing experience.
     NEVERMORE came out of a small theatre in the Canadian Rockies and many of the performers have been with the show since its birth. The show's author-composer-lyricist, Jonathan Christenson, also directs the fluid, dreamlike production (choreography by Laura Krewski). The bizarre costumes and simple sets were designed by Bretta Gerecke. Scott Shpeley gives a powerful performance as Edgar. He has an expressive face and a slightly creepy high singing voice and is magnetic in this demanding role. It's the kind of performance that used to launch a career.
      One would hope that there is a place for an excellent, truly original theatre piece like NEVERMORE. Alas, the show is doing very poor business. Perhaps the show should have been mounted by one of the non-profits rather than attempt a commercial run in the large, impersonal auditorium at New World Stages. NEVERMORE is one in a string of commercial musicals that have foundered recently. The original, inventive IF/THEN eeked through a year thanks to Idina Menzel's celebrity. The excellent THE LAST SHIP failed commercially even after Sting joined the cast. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, with a gorgeous score and two knockout star performances by Kelli O'Hara and Stephen Pasquale, failed at the box office. The enjoyable, well reviewed, if far too loud HONEYMOON IN VEGAS isn't doing well, nor is the brilliant revival of ON THE TOWN. If audiences aren't willing to be adventurous, what chance is there for the future of the musical beyond Disney-like kiddie shows? Sad.
NEVERMORE. New World Stages. February 13, 2015.

THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at Manhattan Theatre Club

     THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS is a dramatically vivid, touching, feminist rendition of he sad tale of peasants who move to the cities for the Chinese equivalent of the American dream of fortune. Sunny, powerfully portrayed by Jennifer Lim, was an unwanted child. In a country with a one-child policy, peasant females are placed in the trash as soon as they are born. Daughters are worthless. In a moment of sentiment, Sunny was rescued by her father, who has more love for his pigeons, a reminder of his brother who was killed by the state for political insurrection. As a teenager, Sunny moves to the city where she works cleaning bathrooms in a factory to support herself and her father and younger brother who remain in the countryside (her mother died giving birth to her son). To her father, she is never more than a commodity. Her brother, who adores her, has his own dreams of success. Through a friend, Sunny is introduced to a self-help guru (supposedly these are very popular in China), and tries to use his advice to move into a better job. She is illiterate, which makes advancement difficult.
     Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play traces Sunny's rise and fall. In the process, we watch the hopes of the other women in the play dashed by a brutal system that remains sexist. The play is a bit too schematic. One has the sense that characters' fates are determined by Cowhig's political agenda. The play is saved, however, by Cowhig's ability to write vivid characters and her ability to leaven her sad tale with a good deal of humor. She is also aided by Eric Ting's sensitive direction and an excellent ensemble. The five fine actors and actresses who support Ms. Lim play multiple roles so effectively that there seems to be a much larger cast. It's worth the price of admission to witness Jennifer Lim's performance. She's a radiant actress, perhaps too refined for an illiterate peasant, but constantly fascinating to watch. There are a few moments in which her face is also projected onto a screen and one thinks that Lim could be -- should be -- a movie star.
     There are moments in which it is difficult to sustain one's suspension of disbelief, but THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS is well worth seeing.
THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS, Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I. February 15, 2015.