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Off Broadway

The Secret Life of Bees is Buzzing

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I have been following The Secret Life of Bees since it played at Vassar at The Powerhouse. Based on Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel set in South Carolina during the Civil Rights struggle, the musical has an impressive team behind it. Adapted by two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage, composed by Duncan Sheik, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and directed by Sam Gold this show is emotional and thrilling.

Eisa DavisJai’Len Christine Li JoseyVita E. Cleveland, LaChanzeAnastacia McCleskeyNathaniel StampleyRomelda Teron Benjamin, and Saycon Sengbloh. Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster.

This musical blends impressive female talent, spirituality and a politically charged script that is intelligent and heartfelt. The first-rate ensemble, is dominated by women of color and included LaChanze, Eisa Davis and Saycon Sengbloh whose voices transcend and keep this music soaring.


Elizabeth Teeter 
and Manoel Felciano. Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster.

There was a 2008 screen adaptation, but I missed that so I saw this piece with a fresh take. Set in 1964 South Carolina, President Lyndon B. Johnson has signed the Civil Rights Bill into law, though white racists are reluctant to let go of thier old ways. In The Secret Life of Bees, we follow 14-year-old Lily Owens (Elizabeth Teeter), who blames herself for the death of her mother. Her abusive and bitterly angry father, T-Ray (Manoel Felciano), a peach farmer, shows no affection for the girl. He often punishes her by forcing her to kneel for hours in salt as her knees bleed and never heal. Lily’s only friend is their African-American housekeeper Rosaleen (Sengbloh), who longs to vote. When the town’s rednecks beat her up and charge her with criminal misjustice, Lily breaks her out of the hospital and they go on the run.

The two travel to a town called Tiburon, S.C. because of a honey jar label with a Black Madonna, as Lily searches for clues about her mother. In Tiburon, August Boatwright (LaChanze), an expert beekeeper, lives with her sisters June (Davis) and May (Anastacia McCleskey). May is damaged by the death of her twin sister, April. June is a history teacher, who keeps turning down the marriage proposals of a local school principal Neil (Nathaniel Stampley). When August takes in Lily, June is furious and believes she will bring harm to the family.

Saycon Sengbloh. Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster.

The Boatwright sisters, are known as the Daughters of Mary, who gather to pray to the life-size Black Madonna statue in the front parlor and the image on the honey label. August helps Lily overcome her fear of bees stating “Every living creature responds to love.” As Lily heals, friendship and love threaten her and Zachary (Brett Gray), the black teenager who works in August’s bee house to help pay his way through college. In the end love does heal, strength stands up for what is right and families are born out of the most unlikely circumstances. Times change, but we are still far from true healing.

Elizabeth Teeter and Brett Gray. Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster.

This cast is truly wonderful especially LaChanze, as the knowing and loving August. Brett Gray takes a star turn, as he sings and tears up the stage. His chemistry with Elizabeth Teeter, whose Lily seemed appropriately nervous and ripe for change.

The music stylings are based on gospel, bluegrass, pop, jazz, blues, soul and are infectious. Standing out are “Hold This House Together,” “Fifty-Five Fairlaine’ and “All You Need To Know”. With nine outstanding musicians arranged around the playing space, as well as June on cello, T-Ray on fiddle and the voices of this cast spectacular, this music is heaven sent.

Gold direction keeps the emotional pulse and I love the bees on wires that make us feel the heart and soul of this piece.

Mimi Lien’s set is simple yet effective. Jane Cox’s lighting is enhanced by the glow of candles placed around the stage and auditorium, and beehive smokers keep an air of mystery.

As the Black Madonna, a carved statue looking like a masthead offers hope, so too does The Secret Life of Bees. I expect to see it on Broadway and making a honey of a season.

The Secret Life of Bees: Linda Gross Theater, 336 W 20th St. until July 21st.

Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret, opera and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She has a screenplay and a TV show in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She is a proud member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle and was a nominator. Email: suzanna@t2conline.com

Off Broadway

NYTW’s “I Love You So Much I Could Die” Asks A Lot From You. Are You Willing?

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I’ve seen several one-person shows this past week, 3 to be exact (Grand’s Huff, Tarragon’s Guilt, & TPM’s As I Must Live It); sorta 4 if you don’t want to get toooo technical about it all (Soulpepper’s De Profundis). And each one engaged our emotional soul in differing and unique manners. I couldn’t help myself thinking about that theoretical construct as I watched Mona Pirnot, writer and performer of I Love You. So Much I Could Die, walk in from behind, down the stairs, and onto the bare minimalistic set at the downtown New York Theatre Workshop. She sits, facing away from us all, staring upright at the back walk of exposed brick, and turns on her laptop and types a few things in to get this exercise rolling. And I was struck by the abstractionism we were about to sit through for the next 65 minutes. It was clearly going to be a different experience than any of these other shows I experienced last week, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to respond to this setup.

It’s a structural theoretical experience, one destined to play mind tricks with almost every person in the audience. Pirnot (NYTW’s Usual Suspect) never turns to face us with the story she wants to tell. It’s unclear why at the beginning, but as she unleashes her story, not with her own voice, but with the voice of her computer, Microsoft text-to-speech tool, the complicated, and frustrating, unwrapping becomes more and more clear. It’s a completely devastating tale of pain and tragedy that she has set out to detail, most effectively in her “cut to” tense listing of events. And she doesn’t have the voice to actually say it out loud. It’s too much. Too difficult to vocalize. She has the words, obviously, and the wit and strength, but not the voice. Unless she is singing a sad song of sorry, or love, accompanying herself with her trusted guitar that sits, oddly enough, facing us on the wide expanse of the stage.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson.

The story is spoken out to us from that Microsoft voice, somewhat flat and awkward, distancing ourselves and her from the horribly sad and dark moments of an accident of some sort that incapacitated (to put it mildly) her sister during that complicated timeframe of the pandemic when visiting a loved one in the hospital was just not allowed. It seems she needs that disconnect to really tell us that tale; of that difficult and chaotic time in Florida where she spent months trying to survive her emotional self and the space she found herself with her husband; the playwright and ultimately the director of this show Lucas Hnath (Broadway’s A Doll’s House, Part 2). It’s an understandable predicament, one that I’ve always praised when an actor can tell us such a sad tale and maintain their voice, so I wrestled with that inside my head, somewhat distractively, during her unpacking, and somehow came out the other end understanding and sympathizing with the theory and experiment.

Using that flat computer tone and by staying turned away, she is able to unwind a story that may cripple her if she had to look us in the eye and tell us personally about her pain. I get that entirely, but I wasn’t convinced at the beginning (and maybe a little at the end as well) that this kind of confessional makes for good theatre. I soon discovered that there was little to look at on that stage after the initial few minutes, even with the fine work done by scenic designer Mimi Lien (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd), the fading lighting design mastery of Oona Curley (NYTW’s runboyrun & In Old Age), the simplistic but meaningful costume design by Enver Chakartash (PH’s Stereophonic), and the solid expanding sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself). I could engage during the few musical interludes that filled the space with her lovely voice singing touching songs of sadness and love, but during the other moments, especially the “cut to” scenarios and a sad tale revolving around sickness and death, I could look away, stare at the floor or the wall of ladders that were to my left, and just dive into those flat words with abandonment.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson

It’s not the simplest experience to endure, and endear, but there is another level, maybe one that director Hnath has played with before in his experimental Dana H., which played both off-Broadway and on (and on a Toronto stage next month that I hope to see) where we have to pull out internal connections to our own pain and sadness to really engulf ourselves in this somewhat slim play. It’s the flatness and metallic quality of the voice that forces us to find what we feel about the tale she is telling. Not an exercise of taking on what an actor is somehow transmitting to us, in a way, telling us how to feel about the pain being described. I’m crying, so you should be too. I’m laughing at this part, so you should laugh too. No one is giving us a sign or direction in the way we should be experiencing this, so we must look deep inside ourselves if we are to really embrace it.

Or we don’t have to. That is the other option. We can let the computer voice give us permission to nod off, and not engage with this terrible event she needs to tell us, nor the love and care she experienced from her husband. Pirnot tells us flat out (in a NYTimes interview), that she “couldn’t find the strength to verbalize her feelings to [Hnath] or her therapist … she typed her thoughts into her laptop, and prompted a text-to-speech program to voice them aloud.” Makes sense, even to this writer (who is also a psychotherapist in his real day job). Does it make great theatre? That is a question that only each audience member can decide for themselves, inside and within that very moment, as they sit in the ever-darkening theatre listening to I Love You So Much I Could Die. Do I dig deep and engage with my own emotional self, led there by no other person but myself? Or do I decide to not go there? Both are credible options, with very different outcomes. You decide. Dig deep or go home. And I won’t judge you for which you choose. I chose one-way last night. I can’t tell you what I might have chosen on a different night. That’s pretty impossible to know.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson. For tickets and information, click here.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Off Broadway

FIVE: The Parody Musical Meets The Press

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Look out SIX, here comes FIVE: The Parody Musical. Henry VIII and his six wives had nothing on Donald, the 45th, and these five ladies. This morning they met the press.

FIVE is an irreverent musical comedy revue starring Anyae Anasia as Ivana, Gabriella Joy Rodriguez (The Color Purple) as Marla, Jaime Lyn Beatty (Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical) as Melania, Gabi Garcia as Stormy, Hannah Bonnett (Legally Blonde national tour) as Ivanka, and Jasmine Rice LaBeija as Hillary Clinton.

Michael Cohen

Featuring a book and lyrics by Shimmy Braun and Moshiel Newman Daphna and music and lyrics by Billy Recce (A Musical About Star Wars), directed and choreographed by Jen Wineman, the production features orchestrations and arrangements by Terence “T” Odonkor, music supervision and arrangements by Lena Gabrielle, scenic design by David Goldstein, costume design by Florence D’Lee, lighting design by Marie Yokoyama, sound design by UptownWorks, hair and wig design by Ian Joseph, and props by Brendan McCann. Mark Osgood is production stage manager.

Moshiel Newman, Billy Recce, Jen Wineman, Shimmy Braun

FIVE begins its run Off-Broadway at Theater 555 February 15. Opening night is February 19, and the limited engagement will continue through March 10.

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Off Broadway

Russian Troll Farm; a Comedy About Dirty Politics, Dirty Russians and Dirty Trolls

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“As I researched the IRA’s (the Internet Research Agency) activities, I started getting this uncomfortable feeling that … I might be really great at this job. Trolls spend all day making up characters, writing dialogue, staging fights, triggering strong emotions … essentially, they’re playwrights!” Sarah Gancher in her program notes.

Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy takes us back to the time before the 2016 presidential election. Here truth, facts, manipulation, propaganda are in question — or are they?

Hadi Tabba, Renata Friedman
Photo by Carol Rosegg

We are transported to the real-life organization, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. The agency employed fake accounts registered on major social networking sites attempting to influence the 2016 United States presidential election. On February 16, 2018, a United States grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, on charges of violating criminal laws with the intent to interfere “with U.S. elections and political processes”, according to the Justice Department.

Haskell King, John Lavell,Christine Lahti, Renata Friedman, Hadi Tabba
Photo by Carol Rosegg

What Russian Troll Farm does is introduce us to the people inside. We have Egor (Haskell King), who is into his job or is it the people he meets on-line?  Steve (a fabulous John Lavelle) who is on high octane, intimidating others and getting off on 4chan. The supervisor of the floor Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal), whose marriage got him the job and whose chemistry with newcomer Masha (Renata Friedman) a former journalist will be his downfall. Heading them to their dark demise is Ljuba (Christine Lahti), a woman of steel who used to be a KGB senior manager, whose sexuality could get her axed.

Christine Lahti, Renata Friedman
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Like life, the most manipulative see and seek ways to destroy the fold, simply for fun and control.

Christine Lahti, Haskell King Photo by Carol Rosegg

Darko Tresnjak’s direction keeps us at a distance from being too pulled in. It feels as if we are watching a tragedy that has no hope.

Haskell King, John Lavell Photo by Carol Rosegg

Lavelle makes this play thoroughly entertaining, reminding us of Jack Black, as he mops up the stage. He is a frat boy who will never grow up and is still playing those repulsive childish games, just because he can. Christine Lahti’s story is the most human, but it comes out of left field.

The set by Alexander Dodge is sterile and Jared Mezzocchi’s projections with titles to let us know whose game it is are confusing.

There are many who will love Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, I just think it lost track of what it was trying to say.

Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy: Vineyard Theatre, 108 E 15th Street through February 25.

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Off Broadway

Off-Broadway Week Starts February 13

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NYC Off-Broadway WeekSM, presented by Mastercard®,has 2-for-1 ticket sales to 30 Off-Broadway shows. This biannual program, which features over a dozen new shows, runs February 12–March 3, 2024.

Participating shows in NYC Off-Broadway Week Winter 2024 include:

  1. A Perfect Peace *

  2. All The Devils Are Here

  3. Blue Man Group

  4. Brooklyn Laundry *

  5. Cinderella The Musical

  6. Dead Outlaw *

  7. Drunk Shakespeare

  8. Eva Luna

  9. Five The Parody Musical *

  10. Friel Project – Aristocrats *

  11. Friends! The Musical Parody

  12. Gazillion Bubble Show 

  13. Hotel Happy *

  14. Jack Tucker: Comedy Standup Hour *

  15. Jonah * 

  16. La Breve Y Maravillosa Vida De Oscar Wao

  17. The Life And Slimes Of Marc Summers *

  18. Make Me Gorgeous * 

  19. Munich Medea: HAPPY FAMILY *

  20. Nicole Travolta Is Doing Alright *

  21. Nina Conti: The Dating Show *

  22. The Office! A Musical Parody

  23. Perfect Crime

  24. Pericles *

  25. Play That Goes Wrong

  26. Radojka

  27. Singfeld! A Musical About Nothing

  28. Tennessee Williams’s The Night Of The Iguana *

  29. Titanique  

  30. White Rose: The Musical *

* New participants in NYC Off-Broadway Week.

“We are proud to have over 30 Off-Broadway productions take part in this year’s NYC Off-Broadway Week program,” said Casey York, President of The Off-Broadway League. “For over a decade, this biannual program has allowed our productions to continue to showcase the intimate setting and diversity that is inherent to the Off-Broadway community, captivating both New Yorkers and visitors alike.”

Participating Off-Broadway shows can be sorted by filters including Genre (Comedy, Drama, Kid-Friendly, Magic, Musical, Play), Audience (Adults Only, Family–All Ages, Not for Younger Children (5+), Teens and Adults), Borough and Neighborhood at nyctourism.com/offbroadwayweek

Since its launch in 2009, over 800 Off-Broadway productions have participated in NYC Off-Broadway Week. The program has also generated nearly $5 million in revenue through sales; over 120,000 tickets have been sold. New York City’s economic recovery continued in 2023 with 61.8 million travelers arriving in the City—marking a recovery of 93% of the City’s record 2019 visitation levels.

For more information and tickets, visit nyctourism.com/offbroadwayweek

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Off Broadway

Still Brings Jayne Atkinson and Tim Daly Off Broadway

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Following a successful run at the Dorset Theatre Festival in 2023, Jayne Atkinson and Tim Daly will be reprising their acclaimed roles as Helen and Mark in the New York premiere of Still by Lia Romeo. The play will be produced by Colt Coeur (Adrienne Campbell-Holt, Founding Artistic Director; Heather Cohn, Executive Producer), directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt (Lucille Lortel Visionary Director Award).

Jayne Atkinson

 

“Lia Romeo has written a play that I feel I’ve waited for my whole life. What an honor!,” said Tony Award nominee Jayne Atkinson.

“This play is funny, moving, thought provoking, and endlessly surprising and as an actor and for an audience that’s an exciting combination of elements,” said Emmy Award nominee Tim Daly.

Thirty years ago, Helen and Mark broke up, but they never completely forgot about each other. When they meet for dinner to catch up, the flame is rekindled… but Mark is running for Congress, and Helen has a secret that could derail his bid. Lost love is revisited and an avocado goes flying in Lia Romeo’s whirlwind New York premiere comedy about getting older, political divisions, and roads not taken.

“I wrote Still because I was struggling with some big questions… what to do when you love someone, but you hate some of the things they believe… and what to do when there’s someone you can’t be with but you also can’t manage to forget. I thought writing about these questions might lead me to answers. It didn’t. But it did show me that they’re questions that also resonate with a lot of other people,” said Playwright Lia Romeo. “I’m so excited that Colt Coeur is bringing this beautiful production to New York. Tim and Jayne bring so much sympathy to these characters… it’s impossible not to love them, even when they’re doing and saying terrible things to one another.”

Still begins previews on April 13, for a limited engagement through May 18, 2024, at DR2 Theatre (103 East 15th Street). The press opening is scheduled for Thursday, April 18.

Tickets begin at $26 and are on sale now at www.telecharge.com and 212-239-6200. Ten $10 tickets will be available for each performance in April while supplies last. Student and Artist Tickets available for a discount in-person at the box office only with valid ID.

 

 

 

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