In Thank God for Jokes, Mike Birbiglia reminds us that, “Jokes are your side of the story. Your opinion.” He is interested in what a joke is, where it comes from, and what purpose it serves. He is interested in the psychology behind joke telling. He reminds us never to end a joke with “I’m joking,” which we so often do, perhaps as a way of apologizing for that possibly offensive joke we just told.
In his hilarious and smartly crafted eighty-five minute monologue, Birbiglia masterfully shares his side of the story. Captivating the audience with stories of meeting President Obama to that time he did yoga to that other time when he had to finish his sandwich in the bathroom of an airplane he was flying on. Birbiglia is a seasoned comedian, but this show exceeds just any old standup routine. Through comedy, Birbiglia shares a piece of himself. He is a philosopher as well as a storyteller as well as a comedian.
Before we meet Birbiglia we meet Jimmy Kimmel. Well, actually we are introduced to a large screen, 2012 version of Kimmel who is in fact introducing Mike Birbiglia, the host of the 2012 Gotham Awards. Shortly after we meet Birbiglia in person, on stage, we are left to ponder whether or not jokes can in fact not be offensive. This question, hovering over us throughout the show, comes full circle when Mike Birbiglia shares his Gotham Award story, which involves a speech involving David O. Russell. I shan’t say more. Go see the show. Birbiglia’s retelling of the event is priceless.
As a performer Birbiglia is active and alive, which is very enjoyable to watch. He isn’t one to just stand onstage and tell the joke. He physicalizes his jokes, becoming the people and things he speaks of.
Mike Birbiglia ingratiates himself with his audience right off the bat. He is charming, warm, friendly, playful and honest. A highlight is when he reaches out to the audience to inquire as to whether anyone has ever been arrested. Keep in mind he has just shared his own arrest story. He plays with the audience and includes us. He connects and stays engaged with us throughout. In turn we stay engaged.
Birbiglia proves that the more personal you get the more universal your story becomes. He doesn’t hold back and therefore the audience is able to connect and relate to him on a profound level. This is a
show that has something for everyone to relate to. Looking around at all the happy and engaged faces in the audience made this even clearer. Don’t miss this one.
Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes: Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, 45 Bleecker St. Extended thru May 29th
Here We Are Or The Search For The Meaning of Life
Let me just state that I love the Stephen Sondheim/David Ives musical/play Here We Are. It’s as if the genius, known as Sondheim was trying to resolve his life. The first act is cynical and the characters are hypocritical, while the second act is about coming to with grips with life’s choices and surrendering to the inevitable.
The music is like playing Sondheim jeopardy. His motif’s from other shows are blended into new songs that make you want to have a pen and paper to play the game. I can’t wait until the CD comes out. I’ve been told that it is being recorded in January.
The show is highly surreal, with life’s journeyIn question. Think “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone,” very Rod Serling.
Based on two Luis Buñuel films “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) and “The Exterminating Angel” (1962). Act one has Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) a entitled tycoon whose opinion is the only one that matters, his wife Marianne (Rachel Bay Jones) who lives for beauty and is a bit on the vaped side, their friends Paul Zimmer (Jeremy Shamos), a plastic surgeon celebrating his 1,000th nose job, his wife, Claudia (Amber Gray), an agent who lives for the celebrity of it all, Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale), an ambassador from Moranda who lives for the number of notches on his belt and Fritz (Micaela Diamond), Marianne’s younger sister, who wants a revolution, while also wanting to live the good life, searching for brunch. It turns out Leo, Paul and Raffael run a drug cartel. As the day goes down the hill Marianne keeps asking Leo to “buy this perfect day for her.”
Act two is a little more dark. While they finally find food, the consequences of their choices keeps them trapped in purgatory. Enter a colonel (Francois Battiste) whose parents were killed for $26.15, a soldier (Jin Ha) who has feelings for Fritz due to his dreams and a bishop (David Hyde Pierce) who wants another job, has a shoe fettish, and plays piano, until there is no more music. This act is very reminiscent of Steambath. I love the homage to “The World According to Garp” and the bear.
Playing butlers and maids and assorted restaurateur’sare the incredible Tracie Bennett and Denis O’Hare. Kudos has to go out to the wigs by Robert Pickens and Katie Gell and the neon various establishments. white box set and costumes by David Zinn.
Joe Mantello’s staging is exquisite, allowing for each of these brilliantly talented performers to take center stage. This is true ensemble acting and I hope when the Drama Desk is giving out awards this wins.
Where many have criticized the lack of music in the second act, it makes perfect sense. The music stops. The concept very much reminds me of Davids Cromer’s Our Town, when Emily dies and suddenly things are in color and have smells. It makes complete sense that once you are trapped the music would die.
Natasha Katz’s lighting really helps the shinny set take shape, Tom Gibbons’s sound makes the inner world come to life and Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is just enough to make this move seamlessly.
Alexander Gemignani, and Jonathan Tunick, make Sondheim’s music an art and I for one appreciate the subtlety and musicality. Many may not know that Sondheim was a game master and in this it is like he won the final game of “putting it together”.
Here We Are, is intelligent, witty with so much to say and if you ponder the meaning of life you to will walk away extremely fulfilled.
Here We Are, The Shed, 545 West 30th through January 21st
Jerusalem Syndrome at Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company
The Jerusalem Syndrome is a real psychological phenomenon that affects approximately 200 tourists per year who visit Israel. They come to believe that they are iconic figures from the Old and New Testaments.
Just in time for Chanukah is The York Theatre Company’s world-premiere musical The Jerusalem Syndrome. The book and lyrics are by Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman, with music by Kyle Rosen.
The show follows Phyllis/Sarah (Farah Alvin) who is hoping this trip will reunite her and her cell phone workaholic husband Alan. In the opening number “El-Al Flight,” we also meet an awkward rookie tour guide Eddie Schlosser (Chandler Sinks), whose alter ego becomes Moses, gay resort tycoon and furniture designer Charles Jackson, who takes on Jesus. Mickey Rose (James D. Gish) is the hunky and vain daytime actor who becomes Abraham. There is also a barbie-esq nurse Rena (Laura Woyasz,) who falls for Rose and sings an energetic number called “Room Seventeen.”
The standouts are Ms. Alvin who has always been a talent with her fabulous vocals and comedic touches, which show her vulnerability at the core. Mr Green who knocks it out of the park and Gish, who I expect will be able to propel this role into more.
The cast also consists of Dana Costello, Danielle Lee James, John Jellison, Karen Murphy, Jeffrey Schecter, Jennifer Smith, Curtis Wiley and Lenny Wolpe.
Directed by Don Stephenson and choreography by Alex Sanchez, this show moves at a nice pace.
The six-piece orchestra (Aveion Walker, Sean Decker, Kate Amrine, Jessica Gehring and Nicholas Urbanic under musical conductor and keyboardist Miles Plant, bring the music to life. Memorable songs include “The Power of Israel, ” “I’m Sorry,” “Doing It,” “Is It Crazy?” and “Daddy Loved Jesus.”
James Morgan’s set, Caite Hevner ‘s projections, Fan Zhang’s costumes, sound by Josh Liebert and and Rob Denton’s lighting all service the show.
The Jerusalem Syndrome, is a show that should uplift you for a pleasant night out.
The Jerusalem Syndrome: York Theatre Company, Theatre at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street, until December 31st
‘Til Death in Need of a Epitaph
It is so obvious Elizabeth Coplan’s ’Til Death, being presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company on Theatre Row is a vanity production by Ms. Coplan. Sadly the play stars Judy Kaye and Robert Cuccioli, who are saddled with this bitter melodrama.
The plays about death follows a well off Mary (Judy Kaye), who is dying from ovarian cancer, and wants to end it all. She is married to her second husband, Michael (Robert Cuccioli), who her daughter Lucy (Amy Hargreaves), resents. Well actually, this rather miserable girl is none too happy about anything, as she takes her mothers pills, drinks and turns down offers for a better job by a prestigious law firm. Her hotshot lawyer brother Jason (Dominick LaRuffa Jr.), has set this up for her, but she’d rather stay put. The most redeeming part of Lucy is her teenage soccer star son, Nick (Michael Lee Brown). Telling the story is the stand in for Ms. Coplan, Anne (Whitney Morse), a photographer who was the black sheep of the family and my guess still is.
Anne and Michael do not want Mary to kill herself, however Lucy seems gung ho. During the course of this Michael is constantly reminded by Lucy that he is nothing and has no claims to the house, even as Mary is dying. Why he doesn’t slap her is beyond me. I wanted out of my seat to do just that.
This play is kept on life support for 75-minutes but seems more like an eternity with these rather nasty characters.
Kaye is warm but has very little to do. Cuccioli’s role requires him to deliver completely lame jokes while emasculating him, to boot. Hargreaves does well in the bitch role. LaRuffa Jr. has nothing to do nor does Morse or Brown. The “secrets” that disclosed, in this day and age are blah, blah, blah..
Chad Austin’s direction keeps this monstrosity going like the energizer bunny.
The most confusing part is Lisa Renkel’s projections, which appear to be Ms. Coplan’s photography of her family. They do not resemble one person on stage.
What is even more confusing, is why some playwrights insist on dragging their audiences through their therapy.
‘Til Death: Abingdon Theatre Company at Theatre Row , 401 West 42nd Street until December 23rd.
Talking to The Creatives Of War Words
I was so moved by War Words the Pulitzer Prize nominated docu-play based on the words of the men and women who served in the U.S. Military during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, T2C set up an interview with the playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks, Sarah Norris the director and Donald Calliste on of the actors in the show, who is also a vet and served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
War Word is based on Michelle Kholos Brooks interviews with veterans of the 20-year Long War and their families, War Words is composed of heroic and heartbreaking stories of the veterans, families, and allies of people who served: those who came home, and those who were left behind. The playwright and NewYorkRep have felt that there was always a need for civilians to better understand the motivation and sacrifice one makes to serve.
War Words: by NewYorkRep in association with New Light Theater Project at A.R.T. Theatre, 502 West 53rd Street, through December 17th.
Video by Magda Katz
I Can Get It For You Wholesale Shines Bright /Dark at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company
That young boy, running and dancing around that Classic Stage Company theatre floor, flinging fabric in exchange for coins has everything one would want in a musical theatre hero, and we instantly feel for him, and his pain when some guy, “always bigger,” pushes him to the ground in a jarring antisemitic assault after taking his money while lobbing a slur right at him. We take in his pain and frustration, especially when, after, his mother, played to utter perfection by the always magnificent Judy Kuhn (CSC’s Assassins; Broadway’s Fun Home), sings the sweetest of care-taking songs, begging him to “chew a little something” for her. It’s the kindest of engagements. One that enters our collective hearts and stays with us, even as we watch the show, and him, turn so utterly dark.
Well, that was Harry Bogan, then, and he had us totally on his side cheering him on simply because of that first, well-executed, scene. Now, well, the theatrical now being 1937 New York City, as adult-played by Santino Fontana (LCT’s One Act; Broadway’s Tootsie), he’s a different kind of man. At first, we think of him as driven and ambitious, something that we can also get behind, but as the revival of 1962’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale rises forth most dynamically, we see another side of Harry, one that makes him and this musical a different kind of breed than I realized walking in. I had no idea that it was such a dark horse kinda of a show, and as unspooled meticulously well by director Trip Cullman (Broadway/2ST’s Lobby Hero), the anti-hero status of Bronx-born Harry stitches himself well into our psyche, giving us enough connection to make us struggle with our ongoing care, while also cringing when he deceives. And he does that often, and with such cleverness, we feel, since he buddies up to us so directly, a little guilty as well for all of his transgressions.
When this dark horse of a musical first opened on Broadway in 1962, it had a fairly solid run (300 performances) but failed to garner the same enthusiasm that another show that opened that same season did (beyond what it did for a certain star-making turn of one Funny Girl). Five months earlier, to be precise, and that show, another dark anti-hero horse by the name of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying had what was referred to as a more “cuddly betrayer” in the likes of J. Pierrepont Finch. Theatre historian Ken Mandelbaum noted that “audiences were less willing to confront Wholesale‘s unflinching portrayal of Harry’s little world of men and ulcers on parade.” Finch was more for them, and Harry, well, not so much.
I guess it’s a bit understandable – one anti-hero musical at a time – but it’s one of those sad theatre stories that casts a unfortunate shadow on the musical’s true cleverness. Yet, with this production and John Weidman, the book writer of Assassins, on the job, revising his father’s work for this Classic Stage Company production, the edges and the ending have solidified into something darker yet more direct and engaging. We hear more from Harry, through his inner dialogue monologues spoken directly to us, sometimes asking us to forgive him for the terrible thing he’s about to do, basically trying to get us to stay with him as his lies and scheming get more and more profitable for him, and more uncomfortable for us to watch. Until we can no longer, but that takes a bit of time, and, that’s basically because of the show’s now strong structuring and Fontana’s detailed delivery. Our turn happens much later than we expect, making us feel even more complicit to his so-called crimes as we watch it all seemingly unravel, bringing down one truly lovely trusting character, and hurting numerous others along the way.
In the part of Harry, originated back in the day by Elliot Gould, Fontana works his superb magic, casting illusions that we buy into with all the charm in the world (displaying that glorious voice of his every chance he can get). He’s devilish, pretty much from the beginning, throwing his Union brothers under the bus right off the bat in his first adult move up the ladder. We watch him climb, becoming more and more successful, and buying his loving mother a shower of expensive gifts, too soon and too fast for us not to question how he is doing all that. He conquers the 1930s garment trade, one step at a time, but Harry’s climb seems to be always on the backs of others. It initially feels enterprising, but quickly shifts to something more dirty and troubling. Especially when it comes to netting some much-needed capital from a childhood sweetheart by the name of Ruthie, played gorgeously by Rebecca Naomi Jones (Broadway’s Oklahoma!). Their “Gemini meets Capricorn” number is delightfully playful and endearing, even as we unconsciously underscore the sweet serenade with the bitter smooth-talking schemer vibe. You better watch your back (and pocketbook) Ruthie, or else you might have a fall ahead of you. Just listen to his Mama, OK?
Harry follows that sad desperate stain with another sweet-talking con of a dinner, courtesy of Mama’s fine cooking (and a spectacular subtle performance). We watch as he bluffs and convinces two other guys to go into business with him, while scheming his way around corners to get his share of the down payment. He keeps talking to us, entwining us, trying to explain and ask our forgiveness, and even when he starts losing us, Fontana still finds a way to keep us completely tuned in. When he leaves the sweet Ruthie standing there with a plate she put together for him to basically sing a strong duet about the love and sound of money with a showgirl, it sits heavy in our hearts. Portrayed regally by Joy Woods (Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors) as that other woman, actress Martha Mills, who values money almost as highly as Harry, we can’t help but think that our anti-hero and this glamour girl are an equal match “as dollars meet in sweet surrender.”
As played out on that simplistic, yet overly cluttered stage, courtesy of Mark Wendland (PH’s Unknown Soldier), with strong detailed costuming by Ann Hould-Ward (CSC’s The Cradle Will Rock), straightforward clear lighting by Adam Honoré (CSC’s Carmen Jones), and a solid sound design by Sun Hee Kil (CSC’s A Man of No Importance), I Can Get It for You Wholesale sings beautifully through the darkness, even if all those tables and chairs keep getting in the way of letting these truly fascinating characters fully spread out. It rarely feels necessary, all those items crowding the stage, even when the staging makes strong use of the haphazard placements of it all. The choreography by Ellenore Scott (Broadway’s Funny Girl), is charming, effervescent, and fun, but suffers because of all that clutter. She finds ways to utilize the obstacles well, but the movements forever feel like its crowding in the energy, all to the beautifully adapted score arranged by David Chase (Broadway’s 1776) with music direction and orchestrations by Jacinth Greywoode (Iron John: An American Ghost Story).
The cast is compelling, emotional, and exceptional, with Kuhn and Jones coming together beautiful and clear. Adam Grupper (Broadway’s (Pictures From Home) as Maurice Pulvermacher, Greg Hildreth (Broadway’s Company) as Teddy Asch, and Woods as the other woman giving Ruthie a run for her money, also give us their all, but the secondary heart sits firmly in that other family, the one that trusts Harry completely, with their love, security, family, and faith. In their union, played strong and true by Adam Chanler-Berat (Broadway’s Amélie) and Sarah Steele (RTC’s The Humans) as husband and wife; Meyer and Blanche Bushkin, the Jewish designer and his wife, they put their complete faith in Harry and usher forth a whole different element to the show. One that is completely devastating thanks to their and the cast’s delivery. It’s that uncomfortable conflict between faith, assimilation, and tradition, echoed in Kuhn’s carrying Mother and realized most fully in the celebration of Bushkin’s son, Teddy, portrayed by Victor de Paula Rocha (MUNY’s Rent) [who also earlier played the young Harry] and his Bar Mitzvah. That family’s betrayal is the final straw, yet it still stings true since, for some reason, we had not given up on Harry until that very moment.
But let’s not forget what most of us do know about this musical, historically speaking, and the main reason this show is remembered. It was the 1962 launching pad for a young, 19-year-old Barbra Streisand, making her Broadway debut as the loyal assistant to Harry, Miss Marmelstein, a part made bigger because of her just-seen talent. Funny Girl followed a few years later, and the rest is history, but inside this particular production, the making of another star is laid out right there before us. Maybe this part is the dress pattern for success, who knows, but with Julia Lester taking on the role, fresh from her Tony-nominated breakout performance as Little Red in Broadway’s smash revival of Into the Woods last summer, it certainly feels that Miss Marmelstein is the launching pad for success. Almost more-so than Harry, and Lester shines in the part, rolling about and rivaling all on top of those messy set pieces, commanding us to pay attention. How could we not? She shines super bright; hilarious and completely appealing, an equal to Fontana in his dark spotlight. I had no idea that I was walking into something like that, let alone the darkness of the anti-hero played out so deviously well, much like most I gather from the intermission reactions, but it’s certainly worth the trip to Union Square, to watch one star on the quick rise, and another cementing his already golden status in Classic Stage Company‘s solid revival of I Can Get It For You Wholesale. I’m glad I’m going to be able to say I was there when it all happened. Into the Woods and beyond.
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