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Off Broadway

PH’s Floats Out If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka

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Tori Sampson (Cadillac Crew) has floated out before us a modern African fable, with a strong intent on starting a conversation about what ‘pretty‘ is and what ‘pretty‘ does. Sampson writes most poetically in the press release this telling statement: “I wanted to use a folktale in a contemporary way to interrogate why, for instance, Viola Davis isn’t ‘classically beautiful’ and why the country had such a hard time aesthetically with Michelle Obama. The first time I saw her I was awestruck; this was a beautiful black woman whose hair is like mine; her skin is like mine; and to see the attributes of her that I really admired, to see the media tear them down, really troubles me. I wanted to examine the impact of colonization on Black beauty, and to ask what is Black beauty, in a way that speaks specifically to Black women.” She’s done so in the most inventive and dynamic way, thrusting the conceptualization up front and center, demanding us to pay attention to the dilemma and the dichotomy. In its structural simplicity, as any good fable does, the point and themes are clear from pretty much the beginning, and as staged by designer Louisa Thompson (PH’s This) on a bright light backdrop and shiny surfaced circle, beaming for all to see, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka gets a solidly professional treatment by director Leah C. Gardiner (Union Square’s Wit) polishing the one-note as hard as can be. With flashy fun costuming by Ded Ayite (PH’s Mankind),  dazzling lighting by Matt Frey (PH’s The Profane) and great original music with some shaky off-balanced sound designed by Ian Scot (Yale Rep’s Mary Jane), Pretty.. polishes its surface into a fun serviceable show about how beauty, Black beauty in particular, is seen in the world. It swims fashionable forward, well-acted and inventive in nature and design, with a passion for its own telling and worth, but somehow, like anything too beautiful and fabulous, it doesn’t really know how to let us in to its inner core, and falters just enough to get pulled under by the river’s strength and current.

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Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Maechi Aharanwa. Photo by Joan Marcus.

But just like the heroine of this tale, she survives the dragging dynamic and strong statement, to rise up and find her footing later on. In the beginning, we are guided through the introductions of the very game and talented cast by the chorus-like flamboyant cell phone narrator, Rotimi Agbabiaka (Magic Theatre’s Sojourners) prancing and posturing to his athletic’s heart content. He loses energy and power though along the way, but for the most part, he is an enjoyable distraction, as any smart phone is these days. The smart-aleck phone is the constant companion of the statuesque beauty personified, Akim, played with deft innocence and wonder by Nike Uche Kadri (MCC’s School Girls,…). She lives a life of seclusion tucked away in her home scrubbing floors, mainly because her overly protective parents don’t trust the world to treat their beauty with respect and honor. Ma, played energetically by Maechi Aharanwa (TFANA’s The Winter’s Tale) and her Pa, portrayed with passion by Jason Bowen (Broadway’s The Play That Goes Wrong), on the other hand, love to have a whole lot of fun, dancing and partying to the joyous moves of choreographer Raja Feather Kelly (ATC’s Fireflies). But they know the danger of beauty, and try with all their might to keep her out of harms way.

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Phumzile Sitole, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Mirirai Sithole. Photo by Joan Marcus.

We know the cloistering of Akim will fail (it always does, just ask Juliet’s mother), but there is good reason to be concerned with the likes of the haughty but terrified Massassi, played perfectly by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Yale’s The Three Sisters), her cohort the wiser Kaya, unabashedly portrayed by Phumzile Sitole (CSC’s Comedy of Errors), and the one with a tad more consciousness Adama, deftly played by Mirirai Sithole (ATC’s The Homecoming Queen) out there on the streets of Affreakah-Amirrorkah. The three claim to be their daughter’s best friends, all the while being bothered by the green wave of jealousy and envy. No one questions that Akim is the one true, perfect beauty—not even these three jealous young ladies, but with ‘friends‘ like these…., well, you know the rest. Naturally, it’s all about a boy, Kasim, played with appealing ease by Leland Fowler (Public’s Midsummer Night’s…) that pulls the plot forward into the river’s wild current. Beautifully orchestrated and delivered, the fable finds its solid footing in the middle segment, and with the Voice of the River so wildly and beautifully personified by the amazing Carla R. Stewart (PMP’s The Color Purple), I’d gladly ask for permission to wade into those waters. Stewart captivates us all when she steps out, mic in hand, inventively taking the spotlight out into the crowd to dazzle us with her powerful tide. It’s a gloriously fun moment, but in the whole proceeding, the floating formulations do little to focus the flavors.

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Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Leland Fowler. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A lot of plays can be summed up in a few sentences, in their theme and focus. And it’s clear that Sampson has an important topic to pull out of the wild waters of the river and present to us. She fills us up to the brim with live music and dance, engulfing the epic Nigerian Folktale with an explosive and inventive framework to float on. Its structure is tight and clear, but the bright focus too pinpointed to hold our attention for 100 minutes. Her point is made solidly during the one-act play’s middle and most dynamic bit of storytelling but it is in the final scene where the major dynamic rises out of the chaos, but only because of the magnetic persona of Crowe-Legacy who puts it all together poetically. She hypnotically engages us easily with very little, and without her that final overly long montage, establishing the play’s cultural reason to exist on ideals that exist forever out of reach, keeps us treading water for a time that seems endless. Like that cellphone who fades away, my battery almost did the same. If Pretty Hurts is far too solid in the middle to leave us high and dry like that.

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Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole, Níkẹ Uche Kadri, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka (World Premiere). Written by Tori Sampson. Directed by Leah C. Gardiner. Choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly. Photo by Joan Marcus. For more info: PlaywrightsHorizons.org 

For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway

The Welkin Is A Play About The Cruelty Of Women

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Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin asks several questions about right and wrong, the violence women deal/dealt with, power between wealth and not, the belief that men are the better species, even to women and why and how women do not defend or truly help each other.

Stepped in 1759, Suffolk, England, the story centers around Sally Poppy (Haley Wong), who’s sentenced to hang for helping her lover murder a little girl, except she herself is with child, so she claims. It is up to twelve women to decide her fate. Is Sally telling the truth or lying to save her skin. Under English law “pleading the belly” could commute the sentence saving Sally’s and her child’s life.

Midwife Lizzy Luke (Sandra Oh) believes in life, but these women have issues that effect the outcome. One has miscarried 12 times (Emily Cass McDonnell) in eight years and delivered a stillborn son, one is going through menopause and is overheating (Ann Harada), Sarah Hollis (Hannah Cabell) lost her voice in childbirth and has not spoken since, one is not who she says she is (Mary McCann). These women’s circumstances and beliefs often blur their choices and we are like peeping Tom’s looking in.

Wong, as the complex Sally, is a rebellious teen, who is over life as it was dictated for her. She wants to live by her own rules and when the puzzle has been exposed this plays leaves more questions than answers, which is impossible to ask or state here without giving the whole play away. Lets say, who her mother is, who her father is, who the child is and who the women who ultimately decides her fate was never really explored and that is the fascinating psychology that would have made this play soar.

Sandra Oh last seen on Broadway in 2006, is best known for TV’s Killing Eve and Grey’s Anatomy. She is the heart and soul until she is not. Once her secrets are out the play seems a little like Mother’s Play.

Emily Cass McDonnell makes us hate women whose own self centered needs and wants take no prisoners. Hannah Cabell makes us wish women who are like her would stay silent. Ann Harada and Dale Soules as Sarah Smith bring humor to challanging aspects of a women’s journey.

There are two men in the play Mr. Coombes (Glenn Fitzgerald), the bailiff who is a special friend to Oh’s character, until he is not and Danny Wolohan as the doctor that the women choose over a midwife, because he is a man. In The Welkin women eventually choose a man over their own. This man’s opinions of women, is beyond tragic.

Hanging over the play is the arrival of Halley’s Comet, why really is this play called The Welkin and an odd section where The Bangles “Manic Monday is sung ala an ode to Bridgerton. In a show that is over 2 hours, that could have been cut.

Director Sarah Benson’s direction at times seems odd and leaves more questions than answers. What is extremely well done \s the casting, as this cast all shine in their respected roles.

The Welkin is disturbing on so many levels. What it is saying seems unpalatable, but we do need to take it’s message to heart for at some point for the sake of humanity we need to connect and be on each other’s side.

The Welkin: The Atlantic Theatre Company at the Linda Gross Theatre, 336 West 20th Street until July 7th.

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Off Broadway

Yada, Yada 

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What’s better than a 90-minute sitdown with old friends? Nothing, of course, and that’s exactly what Singfeld, A Musical Parody About Nothing is all about. An energetic and highly talented cast take on the proposition that Jerry and George are going to write a musical about–what else?–nothing. Chiming in with comments and suggestions are Elaine and Cosmo, with occasional drop-ins from Mr. and Mrs. Costanza, Mr. Peterman and Susan. Other familiar names, situations, phrases and even subtle musical homages (I counted at least five) are jammed into this fun-filled and highly enjoyable show. 

So the rhymes aren’t always perfect, who cares? You’ll be trying to stifle your laughter so you don’t miss the next reference which will have you guffawing even harder. Another tribute to the cast: on this hot afternoon, they performed under hot lights and gave it their all. This show is a must for any Seinfeld fan—bring your friends and, well, yada yada. 

Singfeld, A Musical Parody About Nothing: The Jerry Orbach Theater the Theater Center 210 West 50th Street

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Events

Titanic is a Complete Musical Triumph at NYCC Encores!

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By Dennis W

Titanic sailed into New York City Center full speed ahead saved from a watery grave and stoked with a newfound energy that brought the house down. Encores! latest concert production dazzles, taking on the famed musical about the sinking of the largest, fastest ship afloat on its maiden voyage in 1912 with expert gusto. The Tony-winning 1997 musical, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston (Broadway’s Nine),resonates with emotion, class struggle and humanity.

The Encores! Orchestra, with Guest Music Director Rob Berman (Encores! Into the Woods), takes center stage and the spotlight delivering a phenomenal interpretation of the nuanced score. Filling the theater with a powerful rendition of Yeston’s vision, Berman’s musical direction breathes new life into the score that tells the saga of the iconic doomed “unsinkable” ship that went down with more than a 15-hundred people aboard. The audience is transported by the music to the disaster and seems locked in on every note. The 32 voices in the cast joined to present a sound that reverberated through the space creating a richness and fullness that would give you goosebumps.   After the curtain call the orchestra played as people left and when it was done the audience who was still left in the theater roared with appreciative applause. It’s no surprise that Titanic: A New Musical swept the music category at the 1997 Tony Awards winning for orchestration, score, and best musical.

The ensemble cast, in Encores! tradition, was chosen from the best and brightest Broadway has to offer. Each actor gave an amazing performance from the leads to the chorus but there were a few standouts. Ramin Karimloo ( Broadway’s Funny Girl) as Barrett gave a deft performance as the ship’s stoker. His duet with Harold Bride played by Alex Joseph Grayson (Encores!/Broadway’s Parade) is a highlight portraying a mix of emotions including love, hope, and desire while we watch the voyage come to a tragic end. Brandon Uranowitz (Broadway’s Leopoldstadt) is convincing as the tightly wound and controlling owner of the shipping line. The always astounding Bonnie Milligan (Broadway’s Kimberly Akimbo) as Alice Beane adds a little comic relief as the social climbing 2nd Class passenger who is determined to hobnob with the rich and famous. Drew Gehling (Broadway’s Almost Famous) as Edgar Beane gives a noteworthy performance as the husband who can not see his wife’s vision of a new society where people are not locked in their station forever. Encores!, as always, it seems, assembled an all-star cast who together brought this production of Titanic to life.

The direction by Anne Kauffman (Encores! Assassins) is limited but interesting given the small amount of stage the actors have to work in as the orchestra is elevated on stage directly behind the action. The scenic design by Paul Tate Depot III (Broadway’s The Great Gatsby) acts as a three-dimensional backdrop that gives the impression of the famed ship, billed as the next wonder of the world, but is rarely used by the actors. The costumes designed by Márion Talán de la Rosa (Off-Broadway’s The Connector) seemed to lose the formal spirit of the early 1900s on their way to the Encores! stage. The men were basically in suits and the women’s costumes did not evoke the structure of dresses of the era which were simpler in construction and with higher hemlines.

City Center Encores! production of Titanic is a complete triumph. It relies on a magnificent score and poignant lyrics to tell the story of one of the world’s major shipping disasters that sent shock waves around the globe. The orchestra, conductor, and actors embraced the rich score giving a performance that bowed the walls and wowed the crowds packed inside the New York City Center with their intensity and magnitude. Encores! Titanic is the show to see right now, playing at the New York City Center until June 23rd. Is there a Broadway transfer in the works? We hope so.

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Events

The Musical Titanic Successfully Sails onto the Stage at City Center

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Titanic The Musical proves that the music and story does not need the special effects of a sinking ship to send the audience on an emotional journey. Twenty-five years ago when Titanic opened on Broadway, after reading headlines about the  malfunctioning unsinkable set, I skeptically went to the show; but, those first 18 minutes turned out to be the greatest opening number I had ever seen. The show is currently being performed at City Center in the Encores! Series and this score can stand alone without the trappings usually required to produce a Broadway spectacle. The opening number not only introduced us to the three focal people who each in their own way contributed to the disaster of the iceberg: Captain E.J. Smith (Chuck Cooper), Thomas Andrews (Jose Llana), J. Bruce Ismay (Brandon Uranowitz); but, also the members of all three classes aboard the ship and the crewmembers. As the 32 member cast raises their voices in beautiful harmony to cheer “Sail on, great ship Titanic” the hopes of the third class passengers, the wonder of those in first class and the pride of the crew are all felt by the audience. So moving is this song that we can suspend reality and wish that the maiden voyage of this “floating city” actually successfully makes it to New York.

This is not the Rose and Jack story that fictionalized a love story between a third and first class passenger but an even more beautiful story based on real people who either survived or were left onboard as the ship broke apart.


The music and lyrics by Maury Yeston are thrilling, cheerful, romantic and haunting. The story and book by Peter Stone who had previously done justice to the telling of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 again brings history to the stage with wit and suspense despite knowing the eventual tragedy.

Over twenty songs fill this musical score with a variety of styles and themes. Each one perfectly delivered by this amazing team of actors and singers briskly directed by Anne Kauffman. There is not a bad song in the mix nor a disappointing performer; but, in addition to that opening number I must highlight a few.

Lady’s Maid sung by the 3rd class passengers brings me to tears as three Irish lasses all named Kate start by telling their fellow travelers their dreams for America. Samantha Williams, Lilli Cooper, and Ashley Blanchet play the ‘three Kates’ and are joined by the ensemble all singing their own individual ambitions – to be a constable, engineer, and governess, etc. It fills my heart with pride that America is such a land of opportunity and then it breaks when I realize that some of these dreamers will never make it to their destination.

A pairing of two male singers, Ramin Karimloo and Alex Joseph Grayson, playing coal stoker Barrett and radio operator Bride, respectively sing two love songs one to his fiancé and one about his career choice is a magical duet where each voice is given a chance to shine.

Another example of Yeston’s genius is a song where three voices combine but certainly not in love; the ship’s owner, designer, and captain Blame each other for the inevitable sinking. It is a dramatic song that is rarely seen in such a show but too often seen in human nature.

The real life owner of Macy’s department store was actually onboard the Titanic with his wife. Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn portray the elderly Isidor and Ida Straus whose love proved even stronger than the two youngsters in the James Cameron film. Ida chose not to get on a lifeboat without her life long partner and that love is beautifully sung in their duet Still.

Love, anger, hope and desire are all represented on the stage but it is second class passenger Alice Beane that gives the tension a bit of comic relief. Wonderfully sung and acted by Bonnie Milligan, Mrs Bean dances into the first class salon and in one of the few choreographed numbers brings joy to the festivities. She and her husband Edgar (Drew Gehling) sing I Have Danced – a song that depicts the struggle of a happily married couple when ambitions are not in line.

We know the ship is going to hit the iceberg but as Matthew Scott as the ship entertainment sings the rhythmic tune Autumn coupled with the Company repeating the haunting No Moon the suspense grows as the ship sails in the night.

Anne Kauffman directs the cast seamlessly from scene to scene not only allowing the songs to tell a fantastic story but to bring out the wit and passion of Peter Stone’s words.

Rob Berman, the Encores! Music Director, again conducts this 30 piece orchestra with incredible ease despite the complicated orchestrations created by Johnathn Tunick. With every violin string, trumpet note, drum roll and cymbal clash the music envelops the huge theater yet touches every individual in it.

Encores! Began 30 years ago to honor scores that are not often revived. With minimal rehearsal time for this limited run some actors are still on book but that does not diminish either the music, story or the talent on the stage. Much has been written about the cost of producing on Broadway so a production with this many cast members and musicians may never be transferred to a Broadway theater as Encores other 2024 title, Once Upon a Mattress will be doing so do not hesitate to buy a ticket. Do not be left on the dock waving goodbye to this magnificent creation.

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Off Broadway

The Opposite Of Love A Devastating Look At Where We Are At Sexually

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Ashley Griffin (Trial)  new play The Opposite of Love, is an uncomfortable, truthful, devastating and brave play about sexual intimacy, trauma, sexual abuse, assault, suicide and the sexualized world we live in today. This piece shows how the misuse of sex has permeated our culture, our minds and our feeling. We no longer truly date or have relationships, but look to satisfy our needs with not love, but sex. When you have grown up sexually abused, without a solid family background how do you navigate this world, that your heart tells you is instinctively wrong? That is at the crux of The Opposite of Love.

Ashley Griffin and Danny Gardner Photo credit: Jeremy Varner

The play follows trust fund baby Eloise (Ashley Griffin) who has been sexually compromised since she was a small child by a relative. Though not penetrated in the true sense of the word, her boundaries and trust issues have been violated. Wanting a loving, intimate romantic relationship she is ill equipped to function. Enter Will ( Danny Gardner), a male prostitute she has hired to take away her virginity. Unable to connected in any way Eloise sends Will away, but Will seeing a potential cash cow, suggests that they meet weekly to just…talk.

Ashley Griffin and Danny Gardner Photo credit: Jeremy Varner

During the course of several weeks the two share the trauma’s of their lives until they finally connect and Eloise feels safe enough. We learn about both of their insecurities, their deepest wants and lies they tell the world until they both feel seen.

Intimacy director Crista Marie Jackson has allowed us to see just enough without crossing the line, but the real kudos goes to director Rachel Klein, who does not play down to us. She crafts this play with heart, soul and intelligence allowing us to go on this journey without falling completely apart with it’s honest look at where we have come to.

Ashley Griffin, as a writer has a wonderful way with words as she expresses what we all are feeling. She shows us that we are both Will and Eloise. Who we are depends on our financial circumstances and upbringing.

Griffin as an actress needs to slow down on her delivery. Her words have so much to say but we miss some of the text due to her rushing and projection. Her charactazation fares better as she takes us on the rollercoaster of this journey. You are never going to expect the ending and that is where she really shines.

Gardner’s Will is organic as we follow his transformation with anticipation. He goes from shallow cad to a broken man who has finally allowed himself to care. We see his mind work as he lies, then tells the horrors of his actions and his the trauma’s of his life, than are even more devastating than Eloise’s as he is told by society that he can not feel. In the end when he finally let’s his guard down we feel his pain and heartbreak.

Gardner, who is primarily known for his tap dancing work on Broadway’s in Dames at Sea and Flying Over Sunset, wow’s as a dramatic actor. I look forward to seeing him do more straight acting.

Griffin and Gardner have chemistry, which allows the play to go even deeper.

The scenic design by Brendan McCann and lighting by Zach Pizza, do well in such a small space and on a small budget

The Opposite of Love, could easily upset and anger those who have not come to terms with the shadows within, but if you are willing to face those devils you just might find a fabulous piece of theatre. I hope this show gets a longer run, where audiences will have a chance to experience this intimate look at the reality of where we are now. I know it is Tony season and there are only a few more performances but if you get a chance, I highly recommend this show.

The Opposite of Love: New York Rep at the Royal Family Theater (145 West 46th Street, until June 15th.

We did a Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents with Ashley Griffin and Danny Gardner. Click here to see this interview and learn even more about The Opposite of Love.

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