Jay Armstrong Johnson and Maulik Pancholy in Second Stage’s To My Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus.
First off, I know, I know, I am soooo late posting this review, and I feel terrible about it. I do really try to be that reviewer who always posts some sort of review of a play in a timely manner, in return for these wonderfully appreciated press tickets I am given. As I do feel so blessed. So here it is, a review of a show that, unfortunately has already closed. Please forgive me for this tardiness, but after a solidly overscheduled few weeks in New York City in that month leading up to the Tony deadline, my priorities were placed in the writing of reviews for all those shows that were nominated for an award this season, especially the Outer Critics Circle Awards (which I am so lucky to be a voting member of) and, most naturally, the Tony Awards. To My Girls, which ran at Second Stage’s Off-Broadway theatre, was not one of those shows, and sorta rightly so I might add, so it kept getting put to the bottom of the stack of Playbills under all those other shows that I needed and wanted to get to before this one.
I must also admit that it belonged at the bottom because even though the play, written by JC Lee (HBO’s Girls; Looking) uses an old standardized formula; the one that brings together a pack of old friends and supplies them with an abundance of alcohol and accussations – much like the much stronger (although dated) Boys in the Band back in 1968 (and in the stellar revival in 2018), the end result that landed on the Tony Kiser Theater stage just never finds its way to bring much new breathe or pride to the genre, nor to that well-designed living room where the play takes place. It’s a sad truth, and one that I am quite disappointed by, no matter how many margaritas are served up to those young cute men in Palm Springs.
Strutting forth with ‘millennial angst’ written in bold letters across its chest, To My Girls sashays in with promise, delivering forth a well manufactured diverse group of 30-something gay friends reuniting in Palm Springs after the COVID lockdown of 2020. And it turns out that it is exactly how I pictured it would be, even with knowing so very little about what would actually happen in the play. The set-up is current, stereotypical, yet somehow solid and safe, with Curtis, portrayed by the talented and pretty Jay Armstrong Johnson (Encores’ A Chorus Line), standing proudly at the center of this sordidly snarky tale. He has been cast as the annoyingly insecure Instagram influencer who brainstormed this holiday get-together out of an almost unconscious abject need for connection. Or so he says. It might be adoration more than anything, but he knowingly is desperate for his ‘girls’ to gather around him, almost narcissitically, as a way to feel the love, and for them all to feel connected to one another once again. We feel that authentically, but it is also clear that his, and all of their self-esteem issues, just keep getting in the way of actual engagement. It flaunts itself, this lacking of self-awareness or knowledge, making them all spiral and lash out a little bit more with each drink served. No surprises so far.
Handsome Curtis is forever used to being the central light of the group. He is the pretty one who always gets what he wants when he wants it, especially with this group of friends, including the spot light. But lately, it hasn’t been working out the way he thinks it should. He’s questioning his validity and vitality, causing him to sometimes selfishly act out (or has he always?) as he tries unsuccessfully to deal with the fact that he is getting older. He is living and breathing in a gay world that (he believes) only values youth and beauty. He may be right about these assumptions, because arriving with him, present and struggling with his own brand of self-esteem issues, is Castor, solidly portrayed by the always engaging (and equally handsome) Maulik Pancholy (George Street Playhouse’s Fully Committed). Castor definitely has packed his under-valued belief system in his bag, alongside his protective coat of arms, overcompensating at every chance he has by stating off-putting opinions or by standing up and against something or anything that will distinguish himself from the rest. It’s quite desperate and needy, and he is not alone in that syndrome.
Leo, the friend who has flown in from NYC to be rejoin this girl band of gay boys, strongly portrayed by Britton Smith (Broadway’s Be More Chill; Shuffle Along) also has a lot to say about everyone and everything. The ironic part of it all is that the playwright, while trying so hard to be progressive and inclusive, hasn’t really found his way into making Leo, the Black character, a fully developed and important character in the mix. He is more of a side-lined commentator than an actual participant, and almost directly after the scene when Curtis does and says something unforgivable to Leo, the moment is forgotten, pushed out of the way, and Curtis, as he is in this play’s entirety, is forgiven, hugged, and danced off into the sunset together in a quick blurred ending that left me utterly amazed, and angry that he got away with it all. What the…?
But before that mess even gets started, the playwright, one by one, checks all the “important issue” boxes with a vengeance, with Leo striking a chord in all the arenas that Castor hasn’t either gotten around to or is not for him to say. It’s almost like a quick coles note lecture of all of the problems with gay culture, delivered in short snappy moments of dialogue that almost resemble real life, but not quite. Between the three of them, they systematically cover almost every current ‘problem’ issue that could be said by these young and somewhat damaged souls, whether we really want to hear from them or not.
The Engaging Double Dare of “The Life and Slimes of Marc Summers” Off-Broadway
By Dennis W.
When you hear the name Marc Summers you probably already know who the man is. He was on your or your children’s must-see television show for over a decade and was the man who brought slime into your home whether you wanted it or not. Marc Summers rose to television fame by hosting one of the mega-hits of the late 80’s and early 90’s, “Double Dare” on Nickelodeon who then moved on to many other projects including Food Network’s “Unwrapped“. Now that same television host is bringing his life and slimes to Off-Broadway with a one-man show called, quite naturally, The Life and Slimes of Marc Summers at the New World Stages.
Written by Alex Brightman (Actor, Broadway’s Beetlejuice) with music by Drew Gasparini (Broadway-bound The Karate Kid) and directed by Chad Rabinovitz (National Tour Penn and Teller Presents), Marc jumps right in with what he knows best and what made him a household name; audience participation. He starts with the chance for some unsuspecting lucky audience members to join the fun, some compete in rain gear holding the promise of getting messy like they used to watch on Nickelodeon. The night I was there the theater was filled with people totally familiar with the show and ready to jump into the middle of flying slime or whipped cream. I’m not sure if you would place me in that group of groupies.
Summers is very comfortable as he backtracks his life to young Marc and his hopes and dreams of becoming a TV personality. He very thoughtfully feels that, like one of his idols, he’ll become a magician. Marc the Magician seemed like an appropriate title. Summers breezes along through the first half of the performance as he explains how one job leads to another with some bumps along that road. But Summers always seemed to bounce back and forward landing, in 1995, a hosting gig on Lifetime that changed his life forever.
This is where his tone changes and becomes more serious. He starts talking about when he was diagnosed, live on television, with what was then a mysterious disorder. That moment put the breaks on his career. That was until he was hired to host “Unwrapped” on Food Network, which fortunately changed the course of his life and his career.
Summers seems very at home sharing the intimate details of his life even as he tosses in some slime moments with the audience. He also has the help of a sidekick to help with laughs as he plays all kinds of characters from Summers’ mom to his bosses.
Whether you were part of the “Double Dare” television audience as a child or an “Unwrapped” fan, The Life & Slimes of Marc Summers will hold your attention as the story of a man who never gave up when faced with some pretty powerful difficulties. And to top it all off, he really seems as nice in person as he is on television.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
Friedlich’s Downtown “JOB” Standoff Soars Sharply with Great Aim
On a very sharply defined theatrical space, downtown at the Connelly Theater on E4th St., a psychological standoff is what immediately snaps us deep into the emotionally volatile and fascinating world of JOB, the thrilling, critically acclaimed play by Max Wolf Friedlich (SleepOver) that is getting an encore engagement after playing a sold-out, twice extended off-Broadway run last fall at the Soho Playhouse. Working this through in real-time, the play is a tense, tight, and tumultuous zooming in on mental health and the workplace, when one young tech worker, played to frayed perfection by Sydney Lemmon (“TÁR“, “Succession”) is mandated to seek the services of a crisis therapist, fascinatingly well-played by Peter Friedman (PH’s The Treasurer; “Succession”).
Directed with clarity and cleverness by Michael Herwitz (MV Playhouse’s The Campaign That Failed), the setup and startup of this armed and well-aimed play grab hold quickly and miraculously, digging us sharply into the space, designed to claustrophobic perfection by Scott Penner (Coal Mine’s Dion: A Rock Opera), with exacting costuming by Michelle Li (Comedy Central’s “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens”). The play puts us off balance, making us lean in to try to understand what is bringing these two together; Lemmon’s Jane and Friedman’s Loyd, in this room with such overwhelming anxiety. It’s wisdom and shame connecting and colliding, setting up a chaotic and life-threatening game of chess, using paradigms and conflictual standings between generations, genders, and political viewpoints.
Something has sent this young female big tech employee over the edge, causing a viral unhinged meltdown that we only secondhand hear about, but it is clearly a scream into the internal void about something overwhelming and disturbing. We assume, like the therapist, that Jane’s job, the one she has been put on leave from and the one she is desperate to get back to, is the cause, and the more we hear and learn, the more we understand, or at least, we think we do.
It’s a sizzlingly tight psychological dive into trauma and destruction, beautifully enhanced by the strong and jarring lighting design by Mextly Couzin (MCC’s Which Way to the Stage) and the clever intrusive sound design created miraculously by Jessie Char and Maxwell Neely-Cohen (Fake Friends’ Invasive Species). The sharpness to examine our vantage points is alarmingly pulling, forcing us to try to make sense of all the voices and sounds rattling around in the red light pulsations that become red siren flags and weapons used against our senses, aiding our discomfort but forcing us to lean in more to the frantic essence of a person overwhelmed.
As a psychotherapist myself (in my real world), the play connected deeply to so many difficult dilemmas and challenges that step into the shared space of the therapy room. The passionate counterarguments and denials of need are well-known engagements, and I couldn’t help but find fascination and connectivity to their standoff, even as they both lean in and away from one another from one minute to the next. The two actors are spectacularly detailed in their stance, both physically and mentally, moving around the “all-time therapy classic” square with precision and expertise.
Returning and wrapping themselves around one another to points made, the twist and dig into the darkness of the web and the idea around an obligation to help, on both sides, become increasingly life-or-death, as the armed walls of JOB keep crumbling and rising with a vengeance. The doctor/patient paradigm is a forever shifting perspective in this captivatingly killer of a play, registering completely under the climax, which doesn’t feel fully formed in its finale. With screams into the dark making more sense with each reveal and wrap-around, Max Wolf Friedlich’s JOB leaves us electrically off balance, wondering and wanting maybe a bit more reversal of fortune in those last few moments, but most assuredly satisfied in the leaving of that room at the end of this complex and captivating ‘session’.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
Brooklyn Laundry a Touching and Comedic New York Love Story
John Patrick Shanley’s Brooklyn Laundry is heartbreaking, soul searching and will hit home, especially if your life has not always been a bed of roses. This imperfect love story, is touching as we meet a hardened disillusioned Fran (Cecily Strong), as she enters her local laundromat and meets upbeat owner Owen (David Zayas). The two seem an unlikely match, but opposites attract and these two both desperately need and want love. Owen asks Fran out and she says yes, but first she has to deal with some horrifying problems that are weighing her down.
First up her older sister Trish (Florencia Lozano) is dying. The father of her two children is a dead beat dad, so Fran gives of her own life to routinely goes upstate to help out.
When Fran and Owen do go on their date, it takes chocolate magic mushrooms to break the ice. They both have unrealistic versions of their wants and expectations. Fear over sexual performance, commitment and finances in raising children plague Owen. The two hit it off and are looking forward to their next encounter, except Fran’s other sister, Susie (Andrea Syglowski), whose loveless marriage and disable child, are about to make Fran’s burden even heavier. Fran can not catch a break. Even when she stands up for herself she is saddled with responsibility and familial tasks.
Can this connection win over insurmountable odds?
Shanley, also directs. I found this play so real, where you laugh, because if not, tears will come streaming down your face. Right now it seems as if most of our lives are out of control and how you cope, becomes the question of the day.
Each of these actors infuses warmth, humanity and longing for what should, could or will be, that we are right there with them. Zayas and Strong’ have such a palatable chemistry, that you root for the happy ending that may seem more of a miracle.
Santo Loquasto’s revolving set is rather spectacular involving a realistic laundromat, two homes and a beautifully lit restaurant by Brian MacDevitt.
It seems this is the year of Shanley, with the Off-Broadway revival of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and the Broadway revival of Doubt, but if they are all like this, count me in for this absorbing 80 minutes fable of love.
Brooklyn Laundry: Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, 131 West 55th Street through April 14.
A Sign of the Times Off-Broadway Dreams of the Dawn of a New Day
It’s the dawn of a new day, says A Sign of the Times, the latest jukebox musical that opens itself up to a sweet nostalgia of American postwar at the New World Stages off-Broadway. It’s overflowing with well-known songs from the 1960s, beautifully performed and glowing, with melodies made popular and iconic by Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, and Lesley Gore. With such a strong playlist at its core, the new musical, created by producer Richard J. Robin (Memphis) with a somewhat contrived book by Lindsey Hope Pearlman (MacGyver the Musical), tries valiantly to stitch together the tale of a young woman, Cindy, played with wide-eyed determination by Chilina Kennedy (Broadway’s Paradise Square) who is trying with all her might to find a different way of living outside the heteronormative Ohio small town community she rings in the new year with. It’s a well-formulated beginning, possibly because of the fine crew surrounding her, especially her two gal pals, portrayed wonderfully by the very talented and funny Alyssa Carol (Broadway’s Bad Cinderella) and Maggie McDowell (Broadway’s Kinky Boots) giving it their all. The two are conflicted, wanting her both to stay and marry her handsome, epic raspy-voiced boyfriend, Matt, played deliciously croon-worthy by Justin Matthew Sargent (Broadway’s Spider-Man…) giving off a dreamy Luke Perry/Dylan vibe in abundance, but they also would love for her to get out of Ohio and follow her photographic dreams in the big city of New York. Like any good friend would.
But the well-strummed “I Only Want to Be with You” proposal, delivered smoothly by Sargent’s Matt, is not enough to hold down the “Who Am I?” questioning for Cindy, and off she goes on an awkwardly tight bus ride to the Big Apple in hope that “Round Every Corner” there might be some morsel of career success. It’s an empowering first chapter to Cindy’s adventure, even with the all too true and too funny apartment hunting shenanigans. Packed in with it all also comes about every culturally significant political movement that existed in those formative years, passively aggressively shoved into this tale of a time and a place in our cultural history. None of which have gone away. It’s a grand attempt, overflowing with issues and meaning, as this musical tries its best to give us another shiny and splashy Hairspray. That comparison, I know is an ‘apples to oranges jukebox’ one, but that show, back in its day, magically and deftly found its way to encapsulate segregation and racism in 1962 Baltimore with originality and musical gold, but unfortunately, with this show’s heavy-handed book, A Sign of the Times doesn’t hold its shape as strongly as that aerosol can of Ultra Clutch was made to do for those dos. Even with all of these stellar songs and performances brought to life at New World Stages.
But the cast of pros can not be held back by this book, as each and everyone delivers those iconic songs with charm, vitality, and style on a slick stage design by Evan Adamson (Le Petit Theatre’s A Christmas Carol) with expert lighting design by Ken Billington (Broadway’s New York, New York), determined and fun costuming by Johanna Pan (Barrington’s James and the Giant Peach), and a solid sound design by Shannon Slaton (Broadway’s Melissa Etheridge: My Window). Their voices ring out infectiously strong, leading us through the chance encounters and “Count Me In” moments that basically “Rescue Me” and everyone around them, particularly Crystal Lucas-Perry (Broadway’s Ain’t No Mo’) as the aspiring singer/quick-change artist Tanya, who even though she was under-mic’d in the first act, still managed to captivate, even when given dialogue that was as corny as Corny Collins. “Something [does] Got a Hold on Me” when she starts to sing, so “why am I dreaming about something else?“.
There is also the political activist/protestor and Tanya’s handsome man, Cody, played solidly by the well-voiced Akron Lanier Watson (Broadway’s The Color Purple revival) who tries to engage us and her with the cause. On the other end of that police baton, there is a slimy advertising executive Brian, played true to form by Ryan Silverman (Broadway’s Side Show), who uses his power and privilege to woo the determined Cindy. Yet, even with all those red flags flying, she continues to hold on to her dream of being a photographer, even as we watch her fall for this creepy businessman who charms her into not seeing the ugly blending of professional and personal that is rampant in their workplace and in his demeanor. It’s a stretch of the “Gimme Some Lovin’” imagination to believe Cindy, let alone the more worldly Tanya, can not see clearly through his harassment schtick from that first walk home, but I guess we can relax through this two-and-a-half-hour show knowing that it has to come eventually in this “Five O’clock World” gone wild.
Not even when the old Ohio boyfriend, Matt, whom we are all starting to warm up to a bit more with each Brian/Cindy “Call Me” moment, calls himself asking her to take the “Last Train to Clarksville” before he heads off to Vietnam after getting drafted, does Cindy falter in her dream of photography career success. But it’s hard to quibble about too many hot topics for one show when the cast is having so much fun kicking up their heels to the strong choreography of JoAnn M. Hunter (Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and her “The Shoop Shoop Song” energy. The playfulness shines when used in the right moments, exemplified in the “The ‘In’ Crowd” party, hosted by the wildly fun, pop artist, cheekily named Randy Forthwall, played joyfully by Edward Staudenmayer (Broadway’s Girl from the North Country) who also adds that same flair to a dozen other minor roles. It is exactly the formula this show needs a whole lot more of and is the bus ride that could bring it success.
Director Gabriel Barre (Broadway’s Amazing Grace) does his best to keep the engine running, but sometimes he stalls it with a few heavy-handed approaches to some bigger issue moments, like Tanya’s “Society’s Child“. It’s touching but somehow too light and in need of a stronger punch, but I also have a feeling that Lucas-Perry could have handled that one all on her own without the dramatization playing out awkwardly over to the side. Yet, once again, the music is what delivers the energy and charm of this piece “Downtown” for our pleasure under the direction of music director Britt Bonney (Broadway’s Camelot) with music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by Joseph Church (Broadway’s The Lion King). But as with many jukebox musicals, the songs are the gold here, even when the lyrics only fit marginally into the storyline. The belting and the wildly colorful embodiment of the period are exactly what the piece needs to take it to the finishing line. Not the clumsy overwrought storyline and dialogue, checking as many boxes as one could hope for, that stops it in its soundtracks.
Trying hard to be a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people, Off-Broadway’s A Sign of the Times does find its way to be filled up with a ton of 1960s musical delights, performed wonderfully, all lined up in a row. Unfortunately, it is also a show with a storyline spit out by a computer program to cover all the issues of the time and place (and beyond, maybe “ten years ahead of wherever“) shoved in between and inside the cracks awkwardly. It never really finds its way into the well-balanced heights of its counterpart Hairspray, but it does entertain you well when it embraces the music it wants to share with us. Brad Peterson’s projection design (Off-Broadway’s Broadway Bounty Hunter) tries his best to add dimension and the weight of the decade with his projected photographs of activists and social movement moments, but the energy of the music presented here is really what drives this musical to its destination.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
A Sign Of The Times Revists The Sounds of The 60’s
I grew up with the songs of Petula Clark, The Monkeys, Nancy Sinatra, Dusty Springfield and Lesley Gore, so I could not wait to see this production. These songs from my childhood are all featured in the new off-Broadway show A Sign of the Times, playing at New World Stages. The problem here is Joseph Church’s orchestration, musical direction by Britt Bonney and dance arrangements by David Dabbon don’t do justice to “I Know a Place,”“The Boy From New York City,” “It’s A Sign of The Times,” “Call Me,”“Downtown,” “The Shoop Shoop Song,” “Rescue Me” and more. They also for the most part, do not have singers who understand the genre, which has a pop sound not a musical theatre cadence.
The book by Lindsey Hope Pearlman (based on a story by Richard J. Robin), is over the top camp in the first act, but settles down in the second. Gabriel Barre’s direction is also inconsistent, which you wish for both of these element to be better as they take on issues such as sexism, racism, women’s rights and the Vietnam War.
We begin in Centerville, Ohio New Year’s Eve 1965 as Cindy (Chilina Kennedy) decides she wants a career and not marriage to her boyfriend Matt (Justin Matthew Sargent). Cindy longs to go New York City, and make it in the world as a photographer.
On the bus to NYC Cindy meets Cody (Akron Lanier Watson) “President Emeritus of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, University of Buffalo Chapter.” He is on a mission to improve race relations.
Cindy finds an apartment with Tanya (Crystal Lucas-Perry) who wants to make it in the music business.
Cindy gets a job and a romance with sexist Brian (Ryan Silverman), as Tanya hooks up with Cody, as Matt is sent to Vietnam.
In the end a happy ending transpires and you are left with some moments that leave you singing the soundtrack that is oh so singable.
As the lead Ms. Kennedy does not have a powerful singing voice until Act 2, where she excels in “You Don’t Own Me”. She also makes you understand Cindy’s dreams and longing for independence.
Who steals the show is Lucas-Perry singing “Rescue Me” and “Somethings Got A Hold On Me”.
Matthew Sargent in the beginning vocally lapses into the musical theatre genre, but when he allows his voice to get gravelly “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Eve of Destruction,” he excels.
Lanier Watson also has moments, but isn’t as strong as he should be vocally.
Silverman is strong vocally and makes chauvinism as creepy as a snake shedding it’s skin.
The choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter, is a hit and miss with some of the ensemble making it look effortless and the other half making it look like they are trying too much.
Johanna Pan’s costumes are also hit and miss.
In the second act “Gimme Some Lovin” “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)””Don’t Sleep In the Subway” and others really make you miss this infectious music that guided our lives.
What does shine is Evan Adamson’s scenic design; Ken Billington’s lighting; Shannon Slaton’s sound design; Brad Peterson’s projection design; and J. Jared Janas’ hair, wig and makeup. Also before the show old TV commercials put you in the mood.
What does make A Sign of the Times shine is that you really get to hear the lyrics of these songs and really see how songwriting was done. Ahh to have the music and innocents back again.
A Sign of the Times: New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street.
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