Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Alix Cohen

Against the Hillside – Stunning Theater


Every now and then I see a production where everything hums. Sylvia Khoury’s riveting, highly topical play is given an accomplished debut at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Dramatic urgency propels a story of morality, humanity, and family in heady environs of war that are less geographic and more insidious than you imagine.

Reem (Mahira Kakkar), her husband Sayid (Babak Tafti), and their little boy Abdul live in an area of Pakistan monitored by drones (controlled from Nevada) and periodically bombed by American Forces. Sayid runs a store belonging to and benefiting extended family that includes Uncle Farid (Rajesh Bose) and cousin Ahmed (Mohit Gautam). They exist in anxiety and fear.

Shane Rettig’s Original Music and Sound Design in collaboration with Barbara Samuel’s Lighting put us at the nucleus of wrenching feelings and incendiary events.

Jack Mikesell and Caroline Hewitt; Jack Mikesell

When Sayid questions why his wife won’t come to bed certain times a month, Reem responds, “I don’t want to have a child under their watch.” When she raises the issue of their son’s agitation, her husband suggests buying a toy. (Watch for a small, nervous, painful laugh Sayid inadvertently emits.) Sayid spends his days inside at business while Reem is exposed; hyper aware of being constantly observed and of implicit danger.

The American side of this immediately absorbing situation centers on Matt Walker (Jack Mikesell), the soldier whose assignment it is to watch the store and Reem’s home. His involvement with and sympathy for this Pakistani woman whom he refers to by first name, increases daily. “I know things about Reem her husband doesn’t know.” Matt’s pregnant wife Erin (Caroline Hewitt) feels him slipping away into obsession and insists that he speak with Commanding Officer (and friend) Jared (John Wernke.)

Babak Tafti and Mahira Kakkar

In Pakistan, a family member’s residence is bombed. Farid and Ahmed enter Sayid’s home carrying a burned, dismembered body. It’s imperative to Sayid that as religion dictates, the corpse be washed, perfumed, and given a funeral. “No! When there are more than five people gathered, they strike!” Reem exclaims viscerally panicked. She’s desperate to move to a city. Sayid refuses.

Matt’s emotional investment made it difficult to execute the strike.  He’s fraying. Newbie lieutenant Anthony (Avery Whitted) who esteems him, begins to acquire debilitating symptoms of unease- offering us a look at before and after.

Avery Whitted and John Wernke

Sylvia Khoury’s play chronicles its multilayered characters with compassion and what seems like complete veracity. People do what they must – until unbearable, but can’t control what they feel. Tradition confronts survival; responsibility and duty are sorely tried. Relationships rupture and are formed. Consequences mushroom. Time passes. Throughout the gripping story, Khoury has the wisdom to pepper moments of unforeseen normalcy – peanut butter and ballet class come to mind – that draw us in to otherwise untenable events. The work is all of a piece – no holes, no shortcuts.

Mohit Gautam and Rajesh Bose

There isn’t a weak link in this terrific cast. I rarely call out everyone, but:

Mahira Kakkar’s deftly layered Reem is a lioness; palpably terrified yet never out of control, always evidencing deep love for her intractable husband. Babak Tafti (Sayid) comes into his own when the character finds an unusual way to cope with staggering change. As embodied by Jack Mikesell, Matt is a good guy and able soldier overwhelmed by the surprise of tortured conscience. Jared (John Wernke) is equally straight-arrow; authoritative yet sympathetic, never taking the easy route to cliché. Both actors are naturalistic and appealing.

Caroline Hewitt plays Erin with understanding and finesse, especially when the new recruit appears at her door. Avery Whitted’s performance quickly morphs from eagerness to blindsided stress. Anthony represents all young men who have no idea what they’re getting into. As Ahmed, Mohit Gautam’s alarm is as physically spot-on as the character’s eventual stoicism. Rajesh Bose plays two roles so distinctively different you may not recognize him in the second. Farid is blanketed by exhaustion and defeat, while Bose’s later portrayal is a one of outstandingly subtlety. Sammy Pignalosa inhabits Moussa, a local student whose innocence and seriousness are unquestionable.

Director William Carden is a virtuoso. Nuance pervades. Judgment is avoided. Actors listen and are watchful. Internal dialogue is sensed. Every touch counts. Fast, abrasive set change and taut scenes keep us engrossed.

The Counterterrorism Handbook: Tactics, Procedures and Techniques by Frank Bolz. Jr., Kenneth J. Dudonis, and David P. Schultz states that when a captor has life and death control over a victim… “Survival Identification” can occur. Our “new” long distance wars manifest this kind of transference as frequently as The Stockholm Syndrome, associated with face to face incidents, was previously identified.

Photos by Gerry Goodstein
Opening: Mahira Kakkar and Babak Tafti

Against the Hillside by Sylvia Khoury
Directed by William Carden
Ensemble Studio Theatre
Through February 25, 2018

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.

Mabel’s Babies – An American Songbook Competition



Adela and Larry Elow, long banner-carrying supporters of American Songbook in the put-your-money-where-your-heart-is vein *, have generously endowed The Mabel Mercer Foundation with a $50,000 fund created specifically to encourage teenagers to learn and perform The Great American Songbook over the next decade. The Foundation calls these young people “Mabel’s Babies”- in reference to namesake, the iconic (childless) Mabel Mercer.

As defined by Larry, this means “material composed between the years 1900-1970 – songs that formed the essence of America’s three great interrelated musical gifts to the world: Jazz, Popular Song, and the Modern Musical Theater.” When the couple were respectively coming of age, Adela recalls, “…These songs expressed the ethos, character and values of what came to be known as The Greatest Generation: the romance, grace, sensitivity, idealism and all those other life attitudes that we took for granted.”

Larry tells me he had to be convinced of the enterprise by his more optimistic soul mate. Imagine what it must be like for those who have lived through (and loved ) eras when the milkman and debutantes were familiar with the same songs, when fans bought sheet music, families gathered around radios, couples went dancing, nightclubs and movie musicals proliferated.

Adela and Larry Elow

Put yourselves in the shoes of a man who became a songwriter and musician in order to immerse himself and contribute to the genre as he watched venues close, popularity/ awareness diminish… Imagine the frustration of talking to young people – especially performers – unfamiliar with Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Kern…who might never have heard the Songbook were it not for Paul McCartney or Rod Stewart. Fortunately, Larry Elow has the determined Adela to sway his counter intuitive reserve. One couldn’t imagine a more symbiotic team.

The first part of the Elow’s heat-seeking “Teenager Endowment Fund,” titled Songs Were Made to Sing While We’re Young, were tapped on February 3, 2018 at the supportive Laurie Beechman Theatre.  Adolescents chosen from Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Talent Unlimited High School, and the Professional Performing Arts School (with a program run by Rosie’s Kids), will compete before an audience for a first, second and third prize of $2500, $1500, and $1000 meant to further study. Origin schools are not identified in order to maintain lack of prejudice.

The winner will also be given the opportunity to perform October 2018 during the foundation’s annual New York Cabaret Convention.


David Finkle, La Tanya Hall, Jim Morgan, Jeff Harnar, Deborah Grace Winer

I asked each of the judges (beforehand) to describe the qualities of a good cabaret performer. Here’s what they’re respectively hoping to find.

Village Voice/Huffington Post commentator David Finkle: A good cabaret performer should have:  1. A personality 2. Respect for lyrics  3. A reason for singing the songs he/she has chosen  4. Impressing the audience with your voice is not as important as entertaining them

Cabaret Entertainer/ Director- Jeff Harnar: The last thing a good cabaret artist needs to have is a good singing voice.  Everything else is essential: a point of view, specificity, intimacy, humor, wisdom, creativity, vulnerability, the gift of storytelling in song and a compelling enough personality to hold an audience for an hour. If you have all that and a good singing voice, that’s cabaret heaven for me.

Cabaret/Jazz Vocalist La Tanya Hall: The most impactful singers are ones who sing to EXPRESS, not IMPRESS. In all music, we must be storytellers and not be so concerned with sound production. Take me on an honest journey, and you have a fan for life.

Producing Director of The York Theater Jim Morgan: My idea of a good cabaret performer is someone whose confident knowledge of the song being performed is evident from their presentation, who is able to connect with an audience through a unique point of view. Ideally, a cabaret artist takes the song in a new direction while honoring the original intent of its creator(s).

Author/Historian/Artistic Director Deborah Grace Winer: What I look for in any cabaret performer is someone who can communicate to an audience a personal point of view on a song, telling a story filtered through his or her own perspective and life experience–with musicality, talent, taste and craft. And always, allowing the song itself to be paramount.

KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation and Vocalist sums it up with: It’s all about telling stories.

On the 118th anniversary of Mabel Mercer’s passing, the competition featured 16 teenagers ranging from 15 to a venerable 19. Each was given a single opportunity with which to show the judges what he/she had to offer. A wide variety of songs from musical theater and traditional songbook were offered.

“It’s through the performances of young people that these songs will live for the next hundred years.” Adela Elow. Hope springs eternal.

*Adela and Larry Elow additionally founded and helm, to date, 26 years of concerts at the Caramoor estate in Katonah, New York and annually underwrite the Donald F. Smith Award presented at The New York Cabaret Convention.

The Winners

Christina Jiminez

First Prize Winner Christina Jimenez chooses to share Kander & Ebb’s “Sing Happy” (Flora the Red Menace). The vocalist starts low key which gives her time to slowly build emotion. Surety and skill keep lyrics surging without going over the top. Like immutable waves in a smooth surf, she holds balance=focus and brightness, even as keys shift. Chills run up my spine.

The very personable Jimenez tells me she discovered American Songbook at PPAS (Professional Performing Arts School) on a musical theater trajectory at 15.“I knew it was there, I just never sang it myself.” She particularly enjoys telling stories. Cabaret, the young woman wisely observes, allows one to personalize a song instead of bending to its context. Cristina is enthusiastic about this new fount of material. “There were songs I heard today that I want to take a look at.” I found her particularly well grounded, a quality that will serve. Her check will go towards college.

Hannah-Jane Peterson

Second Prize Winner Hannah-Jane Peterson delivers a fully (self) staged version of “The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ at Carnegie Hall” (Blaine/Martin/Edens) sung by Judy Garland in Thousands Cheer. Beginning atop the piano, ostensibly bored with accompanist Jon Weber, Peterson is clearly a multifaceted talent. Movement during the boogie woogie chorus is fluid and appealing. Vocal not only sounds swell, but is infused with period attributes; brief scat is a bullseye.

Peterson, also from PPS, tells me she and her now single mother relocated from West Virginia two years ago to facilitate pursuing Hannah’s aspirations. Against all odds, she secured an agent who sends her out for voice-over work, but knows that at 17, she might have to wait on “legitimate” theater. (She’s made other appearances.) The young woman grew up with musicals and standards. She’s always been a Golden Age fan “it’s so relatable…” A junior looking at Pace, Marymount, and Circle in The Square, her determination, impatience and zeal make me think of the character Molly Brown (as in unsinkable). Part of Hannah’s check will go to new dance shoes, the rest towards college.

Naomi Autumn Steele

Third Prize Winner Naomi Autumn Steele (Talented Unlimited High School) applies her fetching voice to “Gorgeous” (Bock & Harnick- The Apple Tree). Without knowledge of the song’s context – Ella’s pleasure and surprise at having been transformed by her fairy godmother, this unique interpretation portrays a woman’s expressing an “obnoxious” (Steele) opinion of herself. The vocalist is a little stiff onstage.

Steele is an opera student who took a flier with this competition. Both knowledge and ambitions lie in that sector. “I chose this song because it had kind of the same color and range that I have…I like to sing lyrics that make me feel good. It’s a confidence booster to sing I’m gorgeous.”  The young woman says she concentrates so much on her classical music, she forgets there are other genres she can explore. A window was opened here. (Eileen Farrell interpreted standards after a career in opera. Songbook stylists Sylvia McNair and Tammy McCann were also operatically trained.) A senior who aspires to Ithaca College, her check is going into a bank account.

Other Stand-Outs

James Steinman Gordon; Isiah Feil-Sharp

In my opinion the best male performers are 15 year-old James Steinman-Gordon and Isiah Feil-Sharp. Gordon offered Lerner & Lowe’s “On the Street Where You Live” (My Fair Lady) with besotted expression appropriate to young Freddy Eynsford-Hill. His ballad is melodious, emphasis well placed, swell admirably restrained. Unfortunately, the young man never looks at his audience. Feil-Sharp has us from the moment he insouciantly leans against the wall. “Luck Be A Lady” (Frank Loesser- Guys and Dolls) arrives with spit, polish, and theatricality. The vocalist is street cool/credible. He connects as if coolly challenging dispute. Gestures are spot-on.

Annie Ross and Angelina Hairston

Of the women, Annie Ross and Angelina Hairston are striking. Ross renders Rodgers & Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love” (The Boys From Syracuse), immediately assuming character, immediately connecting with the audience. Gestures are meaningful for being minimal. Phrasing makes theatrical sense. Ross stresses a bit on high notes, but that’s just practice…and octave choice. Hairston’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Waller/Razaf) emerges like slow hip rotation. “What do I care?” issues plaintive. With “I’m home about eight” she charmingly taps her watch. Octaves slip slide with skill and comprehension of the period. Open your eyes please.

Juliette Papadopoulos’ “If I Loved You” (Rodgers & Hammerstein – Carousel) showcases a lovely, legit voice and fine control. The song is perhaps beyond real life experience, however, which diminishes impact. Kerlin Pyun’s cute “I Can Cook” (Comden & Green/ Bernstein –  On the Town) evidences great feeling for and ability with swing. The performer needs to moooove however, to sell the otherwise infectious song. She doesn’t have enough fun. Neither of these contestants look at the audience.

In general, the biggest issues after musicality are relating to people out front and choosing material that’s viscerally understood/and or appropriate to experience.

Joie Bianco

Somewhat of an exception to the last caveat is Joie Bianco, the youngest winner of Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Julie Wilson Award (at 16) and still a student at Talent Unlimited High School. The artist is preternaturally mature on stage managing not just graciousness/warmth and all important connection, but a knack for believably finding herself in songs for which one might otherwise require more maturity.

Bianco is aware of what she’s singing, not just how. She has a captivating voice and fine control. From the apt “I’m Just Too Young to Sing the Blues” (Charles Nater Jones/ /Chuck Meyer) – the last “blues” is, I think, sung in ten syllables, to Styne/Merrill’s iconic “People,” Bianco sets an example to other young performers. (Jon Weber-piano)

KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, offers diverse thanks, in particular to the teachers behind the aspiring artistsHeidi Best, Carl Johnson, Jeff Statile, and Bret Kristofferson. Her pristine a cappella verse of “While We’re Young” (Wilder/Engvick) follows…Songs are meant to sing while we’re young… Adela and Larry quietly sing along.

The program’s benefactors are pleased and, I think, moved. Adela Elow comments she’s glad she’s not a judge and advises the young people to learn, study, perform, and follow their dreams. Larry Elow says he’s sorry he gave Adela such a hard time and now has hope.

The crowd is buoyant. Tune in next year. Meanwhile support American Songbook.

Pianist Jason Andrews accompanied students from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Pianist John Pristiani accompanied students from Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Jon Weber accompanied students from Professional Performing Arts School

Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Opening: Naomi Steele, Hannah Peterson, Cristina Jiminez, KT Sullivan, Adela Elow, Larry Elow

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.

Imperfect Love – Eleanora Duse and Gabriel D’Annuzio


This literate, seemingly classical play has been incubating a long time. Author Brandon Cole first conceived of writing about the tempestuous affair of actress/manager Eleonora Della Rosa called Eleanora Duse (1858–1924) and poet/ playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938) in 1984. One wonders whether the equally pithy manifestation of his unconditional love of theater occurred by plan or organically.

A splendid 1998 film Illuminata – directed by John Turturro; written by Brandon Cole and John Turturro (a must for theater aficionados) emerged from early drafts. Over the years, Cole immersed himself in copious research, including a study of Italian. His journey has produced a dramedy of depth, psychological insight, and style; a story of love and betrayal where life and theater merge.

David O’Hara, Aiden Redmind, Cristina Spina, Rodrigo Lopresti, Ed Malone

From the moment one enters the intimate, well appointed Connelly Theater, atmosphere envelops. Italian opera can be heard, a maquette of Gianni Quaranta’s imaginative and evocative Set (‘love the painted interior of curtained boxes) is on display, enlarged photos represent the era. Inside, the gilded proscenium is pleasure to behold.

“You blame me,” Rosa (Cristina Spina) says sharply. “Yes,” answers Gabriele “Because I know how to love you,” she continues, “I abandon myself.” As the couple draws us in, we don’t know whether we’re watching the actress and playwright or two characters rehearsing his drama. Shades of things to come.

Cristina Spina and Rodrigo Lopresti

There are so many seamless crossovers of life and script as the 1899 cast tries to repair a poorly reviewed play while salving the relationship of its principals, worlds meld. Rather than being confusing or irritating, the approach adds intriguing layers to most every speech. Like other aspects of Cole’s work, it lands like Shakespeare.

Gabriel’s drama opened in Rome last night to scathing reviews. Unless he can repair it in a day, it will be shuttered in favor of “A Doll’s House,” the work of young Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen that “will appeal to the thinking class.” In fact, Rosa secretly agrees to appear in the new piece only if her lover’s effort is given a second chance. They have a day a day to rewrite.

Ed Malone, Aiden Redmond, David O’Hara

A small group of players who regularly work with the pair are as personally devoted  to them-especially to Rosa- as they are dependent. Marco (Ed Malone) and Beppo (David O’Hara), two clowns in the broad Shakespearean sense, get involved up to their eyebrows. Marco contributes ideas and notes often based on purloined correspondence and overheard conversations. His ear for and way with words is astute. With the best of intentions, Beppo sets off an emotional Rube Goldberg mechanism of false assumptions and potentially disastrous outcomes centering on Rosa’s arch rival.

Romantic leading man, Domenica (Aiden Redmond), seems to temper group reactions until a scene where bile surfaces and double entendres rise and parry like a cartoon rapier. The actor serves as an everyman player, preoccupied with his own presentation (watch for the sword selection) and career, yet there when the company needs him. Domenica is aptly the only one on stage wearing bright color in the form of a red vest.

Brandon Cole’s eloquent, often poetic script eventually ties unruly loose ends in a satin bow. The process requires attention. Go see something you can sink your teeth into. And it’s fun.

Cristina Spina is marvelous. From her true Italian accent to proud, theatrical bearing she inhabits the role completely. We watch Rosa think, seethe, yearn and erupt. Even keeping her own counsel reflects in adjusted charisma. If this were a film, I’ve no doubt her eyes would be windows to a committed soul. She hums with presence.

Ed Malone and David O’Hara should be cast as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The two work beautifully together. Malone favors an elongated Dick Van Dyke or Bill Irwin. He moves with the clarity and intention of a mime while delivering lines with utter finesse. Marco is sweet, sympathetic, and brighter than his station. David O’Hara shifts with staccato grace emitting snappy, opinionated dialogue in contrast to his colleague. His Beppo is good-natured, easy going, amoral and in for the long haul. Both characters seem real.

Aiden Redmond is well cast as the rather regal Domenico. It’s effortless to imagine his character in any number of traditional heroic roles. The actor’s performance is deceptively low key; filled with small gestural and expressive pleasures.

The weak link, I’m afraid, is Rodrigo Lopresti’s Gabriel. On a stage with a credibly international company, the actor presents as extremely American in a deeply Italian role. Pronunciation is flat or furry. Instead of seeming egotistical, commanding, and passionate, Lopresti appears one-note angry, his interpretation depending on volume. Chemistry between him and the fiery Rosa is improbable. The underplayed performance belongs elsewhere.

Except for letting Rodrigo Lopresti get away with poor semblance, Director Michael Di Jiacomo does a wonderful job. Other players are distinctive and adept with captivating stage business. (There’s a smart moment when scrunched between the two white-clothed clowns, Domenico absentmindedly puts a hand on each man’s knee in brotherhood of misery.) I don’t really comprehend two underused gramophones, but applaud a spinning parasol (another metaphor.)  Everyone listens. Pacing is deft.

Costumes, also by Gianni Quaranta couldn’t be better if executed on Broadway scale, representing period and character with taste, authenticity, and originality. In Act II, his excellent Set includes a carved sculpture that looks very much like a larger version of  Rome’s iconic Mouth of Truth said to close on inserted arms of the dishonest. Expanding  on the metaphor, there’s even a mini theater inside.

Lighting (Jon DeGaetano) leaves much to be desired.

Production Photography by Richard Termine
Opening: Rodrigo Lopresti and Cristina Spina

The Left Wing in Association with John Turturro presents
The World Premiere of
Imperfect Love – A Serious Comedy in Two Acts by Brandon Cole
Directed by Michael Di Jiacomo
The Connelly Theater
220 East 4th Street

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.

Jericho From Lilliom Which Inspired Carousel


Ferenc Molnár ‘s 1909 Hungarian play Lilliom has appeared in many incarnations on stage (The English translation reached Broadway in 1921), film, radio, and as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. Its best known treatment Americanized and softened the wrenching story. For those of you curious about its roots, Fritz Lang’s gritty 1934 film is thought to be truest to initial vision. A very young Charles Boyer plays the carousel barker. Each version made adjustments.

Like a silent film made from the play, Michael Weller sets his story in 1932 Coney Island rather than Budapest. “People are starving across the land…but always, there are moments of grace,” we’re told by top-hatted Narrator Dr. Ruhl (Jerzy Gwiazdowski – lacks focus and charisma) Innocents Julie (Hannah Sloat), and her friend, Mary (Ginna M. Doyle – abrasive overacting until her last scene), are respectively kitchen help and maid at a Catholic Women’s Inn – which dictates curfew. The well known story:

Hannah Sloat and Vasile Flutur

One night at the carousel, barker Jericho (Vasile Flutur) flirts with Julie just a bit more than the other girls. His boss (and lover) Mrs. Mosca (Stephanie Pope) erupts with jealousy banning the girl from her ride. Jericho doesn’t like to be told what to do. Argument ensues. He either quits or gets fired. Julie’s calm, plucky, self possession makes the roustabout think she’s experienced, especially when she shoos Mary away and agrees to stay with him, aware she’ll also lose her job. He’s completely thrown to discover she’s a good girl. Despite huge, obvious differences, they’re soulmates.

The two move in with Jericho’s Aunt, Mrs. Hendricks (Erinn Holmes – one note here; better as a judge in Heaven’s court) and her son Fritz (Jamal James – solid, low key performance) who have a photography studio. His relatives are protective of Julie while Jericho is tolerated.

Hannah Sloat and Vasile Flutur

Jericho ostensibly looks for work finding little or none. Frustration and loss of self-respect keep him in perpetual temper. Though he loves her, Jericho often strikes Julie. She unconditionally excuses his behavior, going so far as to say she never felt it afterwards. (Abuse issues anyone?) Mrs. Mosca tries to lure her prize attraction back, almost succeeding before Julie reveals she’s pregnant.

Egged on by his reprobate friend, Tink (Jack Sochet who hasn’t fully fleshed out his role), Jericho ambivalently commits a crime in order to secure money for his incipient family…and dies. At Heaven’s Court, he’s offered a day to return to earth and make amends. The last scene depicts this bumbling attempt to convey love to Julie and his daughter Lisa (a very good Noelle Franco).

Stephanie Pope and Vasile Flutur

The play is uneven. Its biggest misstep is the device of Dr. Ruhl who’s irritating and distracting (ever present) throughout. Everything he communicates could be better taken care of by dialogue. While Fritz has a lovely, poetic yet credible speech about intuition gleaned through the lens and the piece’s last scene is poignant, Heaven’s Court takes on a broad, almost satirical tone that doesn’t fit the rest of the play.

As Jericho, Vasile Flutur seems neither arrogant nor tortured enough to fill historically sizable shoes. Only at the site of the robbery do we feel turmoil in what’s essentially physical manifestation.

Two outstanding actors shine:

Hannah Sloat inhabits just the right quiet resolve. It’s less important that we understand Julie’s choice than that we believe the character – and we do. ( In Weller’s program message to us, he states part of his attraction to the piece is the mystery of human behavior.) One could cast this artist in O’Neill or Odets and her unfussy truth would come through. She’s all of a piece, superbly grounded.

Also grounded, Stephanie Pope portrays Mrs. Mosca as if having given her much thought. Raw temper feels as visceral as practiced seduction. Pride and determination are ever present. Nor does Pope minimize the character’s deep attachment to Jericho. She’s thinking and feeling even when inactive.

Director Laura Braza seems to have taken a loose hand. Good actors are swell, the poor ones ungoverned. Pacing is fine, stage movement effective if not creative.

Bevin McNally’s Costumes dress Julie appropriately, Mary scandalously, and Jericho in apparel he couldn’t afford and wouldn’t wear on the job.

Act I Set is more practical than imaginative, though a pop-up paper Coney Island is charming. Act II is both well realized and dramatically employed. Also credited with properties, Julia Noulin-Merat unfortunately provides a star that looks like silly putty dregs.

Coney Island sounds by Matthew Fischer are spot-on though need to come on with more of a snap when the Dr. magically points.

Production Photos by Dustin Moore
Opening: Jack Sochet, Vasile Flutur, Jerzy Gwiazowski

The Attic Theater Company presents
Jericho by Michael Weller
From the play Lilliom by Ferenc Molnár
Directed by Laura Braza
The Wild Project 195 East 3rd Street
Through February 10, 2018
Click for Tickets 

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.

Jimmy Titanic – The Sinking and Afterlife


I saw a production of Jimmy Titanic with this actor and director in 2012 at a tiny walk-up theater on the Upper West Side. Apparently it’s toured since then. I’m delighted theater-goers finally have an opportunity to experience the piece during a formal run. Some descriptions are from the previous critique.

Portraying over 20 characters including John Jacob Astor, the prissy, Puckish Angel Gabriel, and a cynical, laissez-faire God (who chain smokes), actor Colin Hamell shape-shifts with the best of them. A wide variety of accents are employed. Most offer distinctive cadence, though the American one might best be described as “gruff.”

The small W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre is deftly utilized. Direction by Carmel O’Reilly seems somewhat louder and broader than that which I recall, but remains engaging. Performance is energetic, and impressively focused. The addition of Michael Gottlieb’s utterly symbiotic Lighting Design and evocative music/sound  which is curiously uncredited add immersive atmosphere. (Gottlieb’s riveted, ostensibly steel walled Set is perfect.)

We open in Heaven where Jimmy Boylan, former shipyard worker and sailor, is putting us on with the testing of ill fitting wings. “We don’t really have wings up here.” Nicknamed Jimmy Titanic by curious admirers—“It can go to your head”—he and his mate Tommy Mackey went down with the ship. He was 25 at the time and wonders  after all these years, what really happened. The tale is a combination of Jimmy’s experiences and enacted response to his questions.

As the hold floods, Tommy, who knows all six million rivets and every passage, leads Jimmy out on deck. There were fewer lifeboats than prescribed, enough for perhaps half the passengers (regulations were minimal and more boats would have blocked the view) and there had been no emergency drill. Further indications of incompetence make one wonder how easily the incident might’ve been avoided. A Spanish speaking passenger, desperately trying to get his family into a lifeboat, doesn’t understand English warnings and gets shot by a panicked seaman for his desperate efforts. The situation in a nutshell.

In another memory, Jimmy and Tommy, up to their ankles in freezing water, spot John Jacob Astor and Jacques Futrelle drinking and smoking in the library “as if on a beach.” The seamen are invited to have a drink. With Astor’s encouragement, Tommy proudly expounds on the building of the ship. “Me, I was more interested in how John managed to land a 19 year-old.” (Astor’s honeymooning bride survived.)

Segueing between unimaginable tragedy, the singular point of view of a surprised, young victim, vignettes in the offices of the New York Times and the Mayor of Belfast (where the ship was built and blood sport attributing blame plays out), and Heaven (comic relief) is adroit. We even listen to two boys watching the Titanic head to sea. One is in awe and dreams of traveling to America, while the other skeptical. “What do they have in America that we don’t have here in Cork?” he demands. “Food and work,” comes the answer. His companion is unconvinced.

The firmament is a hoot. Jimmy’s pick-up lines while on the make at a disco (watch this actor mooove!) and his self imposed rules on fraternization are as lighthearted as Gabriel’s remarks about the NDs (newly dead) or his comments about the disaster “’Ever hear of Driver’s Ed? Big object in front of yuz, steer around it!”

Playwright Bernard McMullen’s perspective manages to be at once original, moving, humorous, and informative. You can’t help but be thoroughly entertained.

As the unsophisticated, jaunty, likeable Jimmy, Colin Hamell is irresistible.

On its maiden voyage, the supposedly “unsinkable” RMS Titanic hit an iceberg, sinking in The North Atlantic Sea  April 15, 1912. Out of an estimated 2,224 passengers and crew, many below deck immigrants, over 1,500 died.

Colorised photo of Ned Parfett, best known as the “Titanic paperboy,” holding a large newspaper banner advert about the sinking, standing outside the White Star Line offices at Oceanic House on Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square in London SW1, April 16, 1912. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Production Photos by Carol Rosegg

Tir Na Theatre Company presents
Jimmy Titanic by Bernard McMullan
Performed by Colin Hamell
Directed by Carmel O’Reilly
Irish Repertory Theatre    
132 West 22nd Street
Through February 18, 2018

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.

Marissa Mulder: The Many Faces of Eve


Marissa Mulder likes a challenge. This brave, iconoclastic show shows off nurtured acting ability, onstage presence, the ability to connect, and willingness to expose what she thinks and feels beyond performance. Mulder has unusual musical taste tending toward the contemporary and eclectic. Choices are always intriguing. She’s a good storyteller. The artist attributes much of this to collaboration with Director Sondra Lee whose judgment and skill is artfully reflected.

We’re told this show refers to “Eve of the Bible, before and after the serpent and apple… Scene One: what went wrong…” Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock’s “Dear Friend” sets up a tryst. The song is deftly phrased, rife with excitement and anticipation. “I’ve Been Waiting for Your Phone Call for Eighteen Years” (Judie Cochill), ostensibly Scene Two, describes the aftermath of being stood up:  I’m wasting my youth in a telephone booth./…Could it be you’re fickle, or didn’t ya have the nickel? Mulder convinces us she still loves the guy. Few convey innocence as well. Dialogue is seamlessly integrated. Interpretation neither panders nor exploits.

“Artificial Flowers” (Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock) follows with empathetic eyebrows in a point and piano like silent film melodrama. Has our heroine been reduced to this? (I’m really asking.) Then Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear” during which Mulder mimes the galumphing embrace. Where is our girl? At this point, I’ve lost the trail. Perhaps this is meant to be a collection of women in different affecting situations. Having a thoroughly good time, I decide to let it flow without question.

“You took me for a joke. You took me for a child. You took a hard look at my ass and played golf awhile.” (Alanis Morissette.) Mulder stands, back against a wall, microphone in hand, singing a capella. “Your House” describes a woman scorned secretly spending the afternoon in her ex-lover’s house. “…Would you forgive me love/ If I danced in your shower?” It’s both desperate and dignified. I have an admitted tendency not to relate to songs without graspable melody, yet I’m held fast by the performer’s sincerity.

“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” a quote from Princess Diana, precedes John Kander/Fred Ebb’s “Maybe This Time.” The vocalist sings as if single mindedly willing things to be better will achieve results. She projects heart and guts through a voice that fans out, gritty and wide.

Different sexual innuendo is expressed by “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” (Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne) and “Do It Again” (Buddy DeSylva/George Gershwin) with accompanying quotes by Dolly Parton, Mae West, Elaine Stritch, and Marilyn Monroe. Mulder does seduction with utter charm. Vaudeville strippers move and gesture exhibiting well honed panache- though the song could’ve used lower class accents, while the Marilyn Monroe-like standard whispers and sizzles. The performer bends, rising slowly hands embracing her legs; eyes close; head rolls. Instrumental is lush (and lovely).

At this point, the show takes a turn. Mulder shares the fact that she has a dearly loved autistic brother (apparently in the audience.) “…he doesn’t like to touch or look you in the eye…he’s odd, funny, smart, and unpredictable…” Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around (Nothings Gonna Harm You)” and “I Remember Sky” are stunning- both heart-wrenching and joyful. Mulder is raw. Our audience erupts. A quote by Carrie Fisher acts as epilogue.

“One Room Mansion” (Nancy Shane from Marcy In The Galaxy) centers on a young woman trying to live her life as an artist in a tiny apartment, preferring  …no rug on the floor, frills, no fabrics, no lacquered shelf for my Lalique…to …a glorious, ridiculous house on a lake… Determined to make her way and create art, much like the vocalist, she’s grateful for what she has.

We close with “Roar” (Katy Perry/Bonnie McKee, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Cirkut): Now I’m floating like a butterfly/Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes/I went from zero, to my own hero…the feeling this artist and others must have when after the work, they’re out in front of us flexing and flying, irrepressibly doing what they must; spot-lit; home.

Brava Marissa. Keep pushing the envelope.

Caveats: An excerpt from “Single Ladies” (Beyonce/Terius Nash/Thaddis Harrell/Chris Stewart) is awkward and too short to achieve impact. While “Je Cherche Un Millionaire” (Nacio Herb Brown) projects just the right flirt, its French is inadequate to justify inclusion.

A call out is due to  Abby Bell whose Light Design was particularly symbiotic tonight.

Photos Steve Friedman

Musical Direction/Piano Dennis Buck

The Laurie Beechman Theatre January 27, 2018
Venue Calendar for West Bank Cafe 

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.

Musicals in Mufti: Hallelujah Baby!


York Theatre’s 108th Musicals in Mufti, Hallelujah Baby!, was an attempt by its four liberal authors to put salve on race torn America. It won the Best Musical Tony Award in 1968 and made a star of young Leslie Uggams. In 2004, feeling its take on the black experience had been too soft, book writer Arthur Laurents endeavored to rectify this for a revival with changes in script and additional lyrics by Adolph Green’s daughter, Amanda Green. The story remains sketchy, but has perhaps removed its rose colored glasses.

Georgina (Stephanie Umoh) shepherds us through one African American woman’s history from 1910 to 1960 (with epilogue). Neither she nor other characters age outwardly (she’s 25), but all must deal with societal change affecting thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

Stephanie Umoh and Tally Sessions

Mamma was a slave. (Vivian Reed with attitude, spot-on timing and splendid vocals.) She accepts her role as a cleaning lady, even putting on exaggerated accent and obeisance to please those for whom she works. Rules are clear, expectations minimal. Her daughter neither “cringes nor shuffles” sufficiently. Georgina is a proud rebel. She wants her “own morning,” bed, man…Sweetheart Clem  (a sincere Jarran Muse), puts weekly money towards a house whose price rises every time they almost have enough. Her life seems mapped.

Unexpectedly approached by a white man – Harvey (Tally Sessions) who’s putting on a play at the local Bijou Theater, Georgina finds herself ironically cast as exactly the kind of maid she’s refused to be in real life. Still, it’s a role, she’s earning her own money and, for the first time, perceives a way out. When the white theater owner (Michael Thomas Holmes, terrific as a wide variety of distinctively realized characters) objects to a black woman onstage, Harvey quits. Not only is he completely without prejudice, he’s sweet on her.

Tally Sessions, Vivian Reed, Jarran Muse

Through the years, Harvey and Clem move from profession to profession while competing for the feisty, ambitious Georgina – not the most likeable heroine you’ll ever meet. She puts vociferously them both off – Clem because he often doesn’t approve of her choices and never seems to offer enough, and the utterly selfless Harvey because she sees the impossibility of an interracial couple- and really, still loves Clem. Mamma, who tags along with her daughter’s upward mobility, never lets go of her own cynical views.

There’s bigotry/segregation, gambling, bootlegging, performing in feathers, squatting in an abandoned Chinese restaurant, entering theaters by the back door, the WPA – including musical Shakespeare, breadlines, Communism, USO work (still segregated), the first time someone address Georgina as “m’am”, an apartment with a river view, the Civil Rights Movement, performing at The White House…

In a larger sense, the musical is about realizing who your bretheren are and taking responsibility.

Also featuring Randy Donaldson, Bernard Dotson Jennifer Cody (who adds spark) and Latoya Edwards

The Company

Stephanie Umoh has a powerful, clear voice. The actress is convincingly frustrated, selfish and aggressive. She seems to add pith to the show that Uggams didn’t possess.

Tally Sessions’ Harvey is believable from the get-go. The actor brings authenticity to every speech, glance, and song. He has fine vocal style and is thoroughly appealing.

Director Gerry McIntyre is adept with both vivacity and gravitas. Choreography is appropriate and fun; emotional moments theatrically credible. Southern accents land.

Photos by Ben Strothmann
Opening: Jarran Muse, Vivian Reed, Stephanie Umoh

Musicals in Mufti NEXT:
February 10-18 Bar Mitzvah Boy  Don Black/Jule Styne
February 24-March 4 Subways Are For Sleeping  Betty Comden/Adolph Green/ Jule Styne

The York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti presents
Hallelujah Baby!
Music-Jule Style; Lyrics-Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Additional Lyrics-Amanda Green
Book- Arthur Laurents
Directed by Gerry McIntyre
Music Direction/Piano- David Hancock Turner; Bass- Richie Goods
Through Sunday February 4, 2018
York Theatre
619 Lexington Avenue at St. Peter’s Church

Party Face – A New (Black) Comedy


A party comprised of all women can swing radically either way, especially one given by someone just home from a psychiatric hospital having had a meltdown in the cereal aisle of her local market. Mollie Mae (Gina Costigan) is ostensibly celebrating the completion of her kitchen extension (tastefully designed by Jeff Ridenour) when actually looking for succor. Her wrist brace is a tip of the iceberg indicating recent events.

Hayley Mills and Gina Costigan

Guests include acidicly critical, uber-stylish mother, Carmel (Hayley Mills), cynical sister Maeve (Brenda Meany), new friend-from-the-ward, Bernie, who surreptitiously covers everything, EVERYTHING in cling wrap (Alison Cimmet), and obtusely self-centered neighbor Chloe (Allison Jean White), whom Molly can’t abide, while Carmel (who invited her) thinks  of the woman as “a fabulous little mixer” and “an example.” (Flamboyant, judgmental Chloe is allergic to just about everything including beige, which prevents her from sampling Molly’s humus.) The hostess’s children are at college, husband Allan, entertaining clients “no idea where.”

Molly would just as soon selected parts of her situation were up front. “Mummy” is in clip, determined denial. Maeve and Bernie are there to support. Alcohol is liberally consumed; history revealed, current secrets excavated. Catfights ensue; insults, pillows, and topiary genitals fly (you heard me.)

Chloe, odd woman out, despite bonding with Carmel, is oil on the burgeoning conflagration. Eurythmically gesturing, perpetually interfering “Can I just say…”, she gets away with controlling the evening way past a point one might think the others would allow. She is perhaps, the Leprechaun (mischief) in the room. (Yes, there’s comeuppance.)

Isobel Mahon’s play is fast, fierce, and entertaining even though less than “new” and sometimes unbelievable.

Hayley Mills, Brenda Meany, Allison Jean White

Of the able cast, Hayley Mills (Carmel) and Alison Cimmet, tonight’s substitute for absent Klea Blackhurst (whom one can easily imagine in the role) stand out. Mills, the former Disney Pollyanna is svelte, sharp, and immensely appealing. Character is recognizable from speech and expression through movement. ‘Well drawn and well played. Cimmet makes the quirky Bernie natural and likeable, which fits the playwright’s subversive suggestion she’s more grounded with all her neuroses than others in the room. Allison Jean White (Chloe) is over the top, but all of a piece and effectively infuriating.

Director Amanda Bearse knows how to punctuate emotion, integrate comedy (both verbal and physical) and stage her players. There are as many clever moments as eruptions. Tears feel less real. Pacing is excellent.

Costume Design by Lara De Bruijn is flat out terrific, every character in apparel – and shoes! indicative of who she is.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Allison Jean White, Brenda Meany, Hayley Mills, Gina Costigan, Klea Blackhurst

Party Face by Isobel Mahon
Directed by Amanda Bearse
New York City Center Stage II
131 West 55thStreet
Through April 8, 2018

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