Saturday, January 25, 2020

Dramaworks to Stage Highly Charged ‘Skylight’ by David Hare

Peter Simon Hilton, Sarah Street, Harrison Bryan Photo by Tim Stepien

As Skylight’s Director, Vanessa Morosco said “then it was Margaret Thatcher’s day, now it would be Brexit, but it could be anytime.”  Although class divisiveness is near the heart of Skylight, nearer still is how life, love and loss happens, and Hare's highly acclaimed work will soon to unfold on the Palm Beach Dramaworks stage.

One could describe it as a sharp-witted tragicomedy, as Tom Sergeant, a wealthy, middle-aged restaurateur, unexpectedly arrives at the apartment of the much younger Kyra Hollis, his former employee and ex-lover, a year after Tom’s wife’s death. Tom and Kyra had a long relationship until Tom’s wife discovered it.  After the discovery, Kyra walked out, and now teaches underprivileged children and chooses to live in poverty, incomprehensible to Tom.  Can incompatible values and opposing worldviews be bridged if the passion remains?  The entire action happens one night in Kyra’s apartment, bookended by a visit from Tom’s 18 year old son, Edward.

English playwright Sir David Hare’s barbed language leaves no prisoners, and no winners or losers.  Morosco neatly sums it up: “although there are political implications the play isn’t preachy and that aspect can be as subtle as its humor.  It’s there for the audience to interpret.  In fact it is the sort of play where the audience may leave with questions, and that is good.  All characters have some semblance of guilt, are grieving in some way, yet life goes on, for them and for us.”

If the name Vanessa Morosco sounds familiar, she’s acted in two PBD past productions, Arcadia, and House of Blue Leaves.  But this is not her first directorial effort, having directed Shakespeare’s Henry V .  Her husband Peter Simon Hilton was in that production and in fact this is their 15th collaboration, acting with each other.  Hilton plays the complex role of Tom Sergeant, and when asked about his wife directing him, he said “Vanessa has a generosity of spirit and alacrity of thinking, the speed by which she can make me as an actor and other actors feel safe is remarkable – she knows how to look after you.”

Morosco was electric with energy and insight during the interview, clearly a smart director for a smart play.  She added “in directing this play, it helps to have such a talented cast.  And my job is for them to succeed by balancing the complexity of the play, the class struggle, the language, the humor, which makes these characters seem so real, and the political divisiveness still so current.”

Knowing the actor Bill Nighy is closely identified with Hare’s work and in fact played Tom in the most recent Broadway revival, I asked Hilton about the comparison: “There are so many layers in the play I don’t feel it should be necessarily associated with anyone and I feel free to delve into it with my own interpretation.  Furthermore, my character has a very direct way of talking about complicated ideas, and I like playing a role such as this, one that doesn’t necessarily adhere to accepted norms of communication – Tom finds his own way of communicating.”

Sarah Street, a NYC based actor, is making her PBD debut as Kyra.  “I love playing this role, because of the script, and the cast and director.  I think Kyra has created her own isolated world, having lived a dream her entire life not realizing how real people live.   After her relationship with Tom she develops a deep respect for ordinary people and a distrust of rich people who feel they should be praised for their good fortune.  I really enjoy delivering Hare’s language, so striking and acerbic -- this is how real people speak.”

The role of Tom’s son, Edward, is played by another NYC based actor, also making his PBD debut, Harrison Bryan.  “Even though my role,” says Bryan, “is in service of a larger story, it is so important to set up the story and is part of the resolution, coming back in the last scene with a measure of remorse and maturity.”  Bryan amusingly recounted one of his favorite lines in the play, but one that is said by Tom about Edward expressing generational issues to Kyra: “I mean, he gives the external signs [of life].  He eats.  He tries to spend all my money.  What can you say except he’s eighteen?”  And he sees Hare’s use of British curse words very Shakespearean in nature, such as his line about his father: “Dad is a fuckpig.”

As one can see, comedy is deeply embedded in this serious tale of remorse, love and loss, and class struggle.

Skylight received its world premiere at England’s National Theatre in 1995, and then moved on to the West End and Broadway.  It was the winner of the 1996 Olivier Award for Best New Play.  In 2014, Stephen Daldry directed a new West End production that starred Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy which came to Broadway in 2015 and received a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Dramaworks’ production of this classic runs from February 7 to March 1 at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre in West Palm Beach.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Maltz’s Rousing ‘Chicago’ Resonates Relevancy

Here’s a musical that is in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s wheelhouse, produced from the ground up, not a traveling show but showcasing an original cast, costuming, scenic design, choreography and directing.  We saw it on Broadway less than two years ago, and expected it to be tired. To our surprise it was still a great musical, feeling as fresh as ever.  And now the Maltz just further elevated the show and its composer and lyricist, Kander and Ebb.  Perhaps it is a musical team that does not immediately spring to mind as does Rodgers and Hammerstein or Learner and Lowe, yet Chicago and Cabaret (along with another of my favorites, not as frequently performed, Zorba) alone would qualify them for a Broadway hall of fame. 
Belva Annan 1924

While Bob Fosse’s unrivaled choreography (as well as his being co-author of “the book”) is closely identified with the musical and its reputation rests mostly on that, the score, and lyrics make this musical a classic.

The story is actually based on the trial records of Belva Annan a 1924 murderess.  So here, art imitates reality and in so doing makes a broader statement about today.  Indeed, it is especially striking seeing the show yet again now: how contemporary it is, a society that twists “news” into a circus and worships at the altar of celebrity and the deep dark cynicism of the story  -- murderesses vie for attention, promoted by a corrupt judicial system and the public’s appetite for sensationalism, then becoming a song and dance team capitalizing on the fame of their crimes.  What a country!

It is so rewarding to see it reimagined by the Maltz in the more intimate confines of its theatre, every bit as professional as a New York production, and, again, so timely.

Samantha Sturm as Roxie
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Broadway just completed its search for a “new Roxie” for their long running revival.  The Maltz found their Roxie in Samantha Sturm, who we saw in the ensemble of the My Fair Lady revival a couple of years ago at Lincoln Center.  It’s nice to see someone who has played supporting roles enjoy a breakout opportunity.  The other pivotal role of Velma belongs to Sarah Bowden who plays it with sultry gusto.

The entire cast is terrific and although Bob Fosse is in the bones of the musical it is now reinterpreted by the director and choreographer, a two time Tony® nominee, Denis Jones, who was an original company member of the show’s 1996 Broadway revival, the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history and still going.  The Maltz production illustrates why it makes perfect sense for the director and choreographer to be one person; the two are so closely intertwined in Chicago.  It is easy to see the Fosse influence in certain numbers but some departures are made to make the terrific, energetic dance numbers more suitable for the Maltz stage
Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Chicago Photo by Jason Nuttle

Sarah Bowden Photo by Jason Nuttle
Velma and Company present a big opening production number to establish the roaring 20s background of the show, capturing the decadence of the times in "All That Jazz "  Sarah Bowden shows her energetic, sexy dancing abilities supported by the cast.

Roxie Hart’s opening number, "Funny Honey" is a particularly sardonic piece about taking advantage of her husband who has a good heart but is gullible: What if the world /slandered my name?/ Why he’d be right there / taking the blame.  Samantha Sturm’s voice is appropriately sweetly innocent.

“Cell Block Tango” is a driving, funny chorus number performed by the murderesses held in the jail, with their own murder stories, but declaring themselves innocent, as the refrain after each story tells.…He had it comin' / He had it comin' / He only had himself to blame.  This is an ingeniously choreographed number, six inmates, including Velma, dancing around and posturing on chairs as only Fosse could choreograph.

Matron "Mama" Morton, is gustily played by Altamiece Carolyn Cooper, singing her introductory number "When You're Good to Mama" which is a tongue in cheek vaudevillian song in red hot mama style.  As cynical “Mama” says to Roxie when she first arrives, “relax, in this town, murder is a form of entertainment.”
Samantha Sturm, Nicolas Dromard, Anna McNeely Photo by Jason Nuttle

Nicolas Dromard is the smooth as silk shyster lawyer, Billy Flynn, pulling the puppet strings of the court, clients and the press/public (Anna McNeely hilariously playing the lead reporter, Mary Sunshine), singing "All I Care About," which is an over the top song and dance number, cynical and crass.  Everyone knows he’s lying and Dromard pulls this song off deliciously.  As Billy says, “Chicago can’t resist a reformed sinner.”

One of my personal favorites in the show is a sweet ballad duet sung by Roxie and Velma.  In "My Own Best Friend" they come to the realization that it’s up to each of them to be their own best friend, watch out for their interests, the melody changing keys several times.

A clear contrast to all the self serving, attention-getting characters in the show is Blakely Slaybaugh’s portrayal as the sad sack Amos Hart, singing "Mr. Cellophane" a heavy rag vaudevillian song in perfect keeping with the show, full of irony and self-pity, the lyrics of which – especially the introduction – is worthy of Larry Hart of Rodgers and Hart fame.  Is it mere coincidence that Amos’ last name is “Hart?”

A particularly contemporary song from the show is Billy and Company’s "Razzle Dazzle" about how easily the public is fooled by just conducting a 3 ring circus of events, distracting the public from the truth.*

And finally "Nowadays” is a wonderful song and dance routine in which Velma and Roxie extol how easily it is to beat the rap of murder.  It is a beautiful melody, the irony of the lyrics at the end resonating In fifty years or so / it’s gonna change you know / But oh, it’s heaven nowadays.  Change, it does not.  Self promotion, fame, and obsessive egotism prevail making the show’s themes even more meaningful today.

The production’s creative team features scenic designer Adam Koch known for many of the Theatre’s big production shows, and his longtime collaborator, associate scenic designer and projection designer Steven Royal.  Their stage has two tiers, a brick background with jail bars.  The orchestra neatly fits into a two level platform but mostly hidden stage right. 

Dramatic lighting is provided by Cory Pattak.  Imaginative costumes, many of which are “punk rock” underscoring the corrupt nature of the story, is by designer Andrea Hood, although some of the costumes seemed a little constricting, particularly on “Mama” and Billy.  But her huge ostrich feather fans for Billy’s “showgirls” offset that with wonderful colors.  Great wig designs were by Jon Jordan. Music director Eric Alsford conducts a live orchestra of nine, with himself at the keyboard, and the help of award-winning resident sound designer Marty Mets.

The entire Maltz production of Chicago brings home some painful realities of then and “nowadays” in splendid song and dance.

*Does art imitate life or vice versa?  As I was concluding this review, I heard that the President’s legal team has been finalized for the impeachment trial in the Senate, all closely connected to him or recognized as “celebrity attorneys.”  As Billy Flynn sings, Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle / Razzle dazzle 'em / Show 'em the first rate sorcerer you are / Long as you keep 'em way off balance / How can they spot you've got no talents / Razzle Dazzle 'em / And they'll make you a star!
Nicolas Dromard and Chorus Photo by Jason Nuttle