Sunday, 3 January 2016

American Dance Machine at the Joyce Theatre

     The American Dance Machine is devoted to recreating the choreography of Broadway shows -- to make the public understand, if they don't already, that some of our greatest choreography is in Broadway musicals. This year's survey ranged from the Agnes DeMille "Dream Ballet" that ends Act I of OKLAHOMA to one of Warren Carlyle's numbers for last seasons's revue, AFTER MIDNIGHT. There were a couple of Tommy Tune's cleverest numbers (from WILL ROGERS FOLLIES and GRAND HOTEL) and, of course, works by Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, but the numbers that stood out were those by Michael Bennett, the brilliant "Turkey Lurkey Time" from PROMISES PROMISES and three numbers from A CHORUS LINE. They reminded us of how brilliant Bennett was and how much he expected of his dancers.
     This was an exhilarating two hours of dance. I don't know how the twenty-two dancers survive multiple performances of what was an extremely demanding bill of twenty numbers in a variety of styles. Not everything was letter perfect. Lori Ann Ferreri hasn't quite mastered the arching of the back that is one of Bennett's trade marks and there were moments the dancers seemed tired (this was the last performance of a three-week run), but one couldn't help but admire their talent, boundless energy and versatility. All in all, a great show.

Jackie Hoffman and John Epperson in the Transport Group production of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS

     In many ways, ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, which opened at the Phoenix Theatre on Second Avenue in 1959 and quickly moved to Broadway, was one of the last old-fashioned musical comedies. It has lots of delightful songs (music Mary Rodgers; lyrics Marshall Barer), great opportunities for comic actors and actresses (it was Carol Burnett's first musical), a romantic couple to sing ballads, a show-stropping number for a good dancer, and a silly plot based on "The Princess and the Pea." Like many old-fashioned musicals, the songs and the comic turns were the main reason for going. The show wasn't a great success (244 performances), but was given a complete television production as a vehicle for Carol Burnett. Since then it has been a staple of high school and community theatre productions. It was revived on Broadway in the 1990s for Sarah Jessica Parker, who proved to be underpowered for the lead.
     The two principal reasons for the Transport Group Theatre Company revival at the Abrons Arts Center were Jackie Hoffman and drag artist John "Lypsinka" Epperson. Their performances are side-splittingly hilarious. Hoffman, who reminds us of the great Nancy Walker, is a tiny, rubber-faced comedienne who happens to have a giant, very good singing voice. Like Carol Burnett, Hoffman is a great clown. Like the great Broadway comics of the Golden Age, she is inimitable, with her own distinctive personality and bag of tricks. She made an hilarious Princess Winifred from the swamp kingdom. As the evil queen, Epperson gave a grand, camp performance full of hilarious leers and poses. My husband likened it to Kabuki. They were surrounded by a cast filled with talented Broadway veterans. The handsome, brainless romantic leads, Jessica Fontana and Zak Resnick, were properly zany and sang beautifully. Cory Lingner, the Jester, danced up a storm and got a big ovation for his second act number. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, the minstrel-narrator, sang beautifully and performed with great charm. The rest of the ensemble and chorus were excellent as was the full-size band. The staging (Jack Cummings III) reminded me of old-time Broadway with some scenes played "in one" -- front of a curtain while set pieces were changed behind. The choreography (Scott Rink) was serviceable. Sandra Goldmark's simple sets were all the smallish stage could hold and Ken Fallin's "illustrations", projected on the backdrop, were very clever. From the second row, the costumes looked like old stuff from a costume rental house--except for Epperson's grand drag--but the audience didn't go for spectacle. We went for a delightful, old-fashioned musical with excellent performances. Most of all, we went for Jackie Hoffman and John Epperson, who make this version of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS a must-see event for lovers of musicals.  
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. Abrons Arts Center. January 2, 2016.

Jordan Harrison's MARJORIE PRIME at Playwrights Horizons

     It has been  long time since I was at a performance at which the audience didn't want to leave. As the house lights came up, many were sitting talking about the play with their companions. They did last night at MARJORIE PRIME, which deserves the old description "thought-provoking."
     When the play begins, 85 year old Marjorie (Lois Smith), is reminiscing with a handsome, well-dressed young man (Noah Bean). The young man is a prime, a robotic version of Marjorie's husband, Walter, that has been filled with memories of Walter and his relationship with Marjorie. The memories can be revised to be more pleasing to the human. Aged and inform, Marjorie is happiest in a selective version of her past. She doesn't want to remember unhappy moments like the suicide of her son. Marjorie is cared for by her daughter Tess (Lisa Emery), who is going through a midlife crisis, and Tess's husband Jon (Stephen Root), who is the one person who can carry on a pleasant conversation with her. Tess dreads the second half of her life, the portion when she may need to be cared for and may live more in the past than in the present or future. When Marjorie dies and is replaced with a prime, Lisa is skeptical of the machine, which she sees less as a person than as a "backboard" against which we bounce words and memories.
     MARJORIE PRIME makes one think about the extent to which our lives are remembering and the reliability of those memories -- how much the people we love are our creations. The play's powerful final scene makes us ponder how human is a machine that is all memory, devoid of present or future. Director Anne Kauffman has created a perfectly paced production in Laura Jellinek's setting, which looks like a cold simulacrum of a domestic space. The cast couldn't be better. Lois Smith and Lisa Emery deftly play two versions of themselves, as humans and as their sweeter, blander prime replacements.
      MARJORIE PRIME is already in the works as a film. See it onstage if you can. Film versions of plays seldom match the power of the live drama.  
MARJORIE PRIME. Playwrights Horizons. January 2, 2016.