Showing posts with label Maltz Theatre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Maltz Theatre. Show all posts

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Show Goes On! – Maltz’s Streaming Production of ‘How to Succeed in Business’

Dance number from Maltz's production of How To Succeed in Business

Here I thought my days as a reviewer would be on a long hiatus but as a Maltz subscriber we were invited to see a streaming version of their about-to-open musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by Frank Loesser.  As the show was already scheduled to go into previews but had to be postponed, instead the musical was staged with a four-camera setup, and a skeletal audience (presumably mostly Maltz staff) “giving patrons a thrilling and unique perspective of the musical just as it was performed.” While this limited streaming event ends March 29, the show itself will be rescheduled and all ticket holders will be given the opportunity of seeing it live.

Although we have seen “live” performances of musicals on TV, quite recently PBS’ repeat broadcast of the enjoyable 2015 English version of Sound of Music, this is my first attempt to review a streamed show.  Streaming may be part of the permanent future of the theatre, not that it will shut the doors of live performances – it never will – but I’m all in favor of streaming the productions of regional theatres on a pay per view basis, giving us the opportunity to see regional performances we cannot otherwise attend. But there are complicated permissions and union arrangements to make that happen.  Credit goes to Maltz for solving those obstacles on short notice, albeit for limited distribution.

The COVID-19 crisis is going to change everything, permanently, perhaps some of it for the better, such as streaming of regional production as suggested above.  But societal change, especially in its attitudes towards work and sexism, was already well underway.  

One of the most changed environments already is indeed the office.  The Maltz production is a classic Frank Loesser musical which satirizes office life in the 1960s.  Office life doesn’t quite exist that way anymore but it is still an intense social environment.  COVID-19, and the resulting quick adaption of companies having many of their office employees work from home, is going to make further inroads into what once occupied most of our working hours.

'Coffee Break' from How to Succeed in Business
So, it is ironic that rather than seeing and poking fun at the office of the past, on a live stage, we can now watch live stage in the comfort of our homes. Which brings up another interesting topic, how different is it from a filmed version?  The answer to that question could probably fill a book, but a filmed version endeavors to capture verisimilitude, whereas the taping of a stage version has all the earmarks of live theatre other than that important missing link of the interaction between actors and the audience, one feeding off the other.  In other words, bring me live theatre any day BUT when that is impossible, bring me streaming.

Frank Loesser was cast off by his family – his older brother a concert pianist – as they deemed Tin Pan Alley an unsuitable profession for their son.  After failing to write hit songs, he migrated to Hollywood and eventually became one of the most prolific studio songwriters, writing so many memorable songs now classics in The Great American Songbook, such as “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “Heart and Soul,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Two Sleepy People,”“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”“No Two People,” and “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year”

He only wrote four Broadway musicals, with, of course, his best known work being Guys and Dolls, arguably one of the best musicals ever.  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961) was written towards the end of his career.  By then he was considered one of the giants of Broadway’s “Golden Age.”

I remember seeing the movie version in the late 1960s with Robert Morse, enjoyable but not really memorable.  So I was looking forward to seeing Maltz’s stage version, knowing how well this theatre group does with precisely this kind of musical.

Indeed, the streaming version breathes much needed life into the work with such great enthusiasm (film is incomparable). The choreography by Rommy Sandhu (known for work regionally across the country and on and off Broadway) brought out much of the humor in all the numbers especially “Coffee Break,” "A Secretary is Not a Toy, and "Paris Original.” He was assisted by Dennis O’Bannion who was in the ensemble and served as Dance Captain. The dancing and twenty one very talented actors /singers under the astute direction of Andy Sandberg (an award-winning director, writer, and Tony®-winning producer), make Maltz’s production a hit.

Sam Bolen as J. Pierrepont Finch
The play traces the rise of J. Pierrepont Finch, who follows a handbook that shows him how to climb the corporate ladder from window washer to the Chairman of the Board of the World Wide Wicket Company.  Sam Bolen is infectiously loveable as Finch with great comic timing and pleasant voice.  The “handbook’s” voice over is by a local TV meteorologist, Glenn Glazer, who added that perfect authoritative instruction to Finch and for the audience’s enjoyment.

Finch’s love interest, secretary Rosemary Pilkington, is dazzlingly played by Clara Cox, with a voice and personality to match the best on Broadway.  One is just mesmerized by her presence in any of her scenes.  I loved her number, ironically entitled (because of COVID-19), “New Rochelle,” in which she fantasizes about married life to Finch.

Clara Cox as Rosemary Pilkington
Chuck Ragsdale, Sam Bolen,
Blake Zolfo
Supporting roles without exception were robust but special mention goes to Blake Zolfo who portrays Finch’s nemesis, Bud Frump, who also happens to be the nephew of the boss, aptly named J.B. Biggley who is hilariously played by Johnnie Hawkins.  JB’s mistress, Hedy La Rue is performed in classic dumb dizzy dame style by Leslie Donna Flesner.

Interestingly, this is one of the few musicals in which there is no real love song, the closest being Rosemary’s reprise of “I Believe In You,” heavenly sung by Clara Cox.  But it is first sung by J. Pierrepont to himself in the mirror of the men’s room while his male coworkers are standing at the urinal their backs to the audience in shadow.  It underscores the satiric nature of most of the songs in the show, but the great Frank Loesser, with the perfect marriage of music and lyrics, makes the other songs memorable, such as "Company Way," "Brotherhood of Man," "A Secretary is Not a Toy, " and of course “I Believe In You.”

Scenic designer Adam Koch’s work and sound designer’s Marty Mets are adequate for this streaming version and probably more impressive when the live production is staged. Lighting designer Kirk Bookman was at a disadvantage as this was really a preview production and probably spots and actor’s placement were not yet in sync and were not designed for cameras zooming in. But all in all the tech team did great work on short notice and for a different medium. 

Outstanding period costumes by Leon Dobkowski give the show an authentic sixty’s look while musical director Eric Alsford’s eight person orchestra is Broadway quality.

This was a very successful and unexpected streaming experience and kudos to Andrew Kato and his team for making this happen and bringing some respite from the horror of COVID-19 through LIVE theatre.

Photos by Zak Bennett

Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Maltz Production of ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ is a Classic

Neil Simon might be the most underappreciated “serious” playwright for today’s audiences.  Sure, my generation knows and loved his plays, many of which have migrated to TV or film. 

Perhaps because they were so entertaining that he is not often thought of in the same pantheon of our “serious” playwrights such as Arthur Miller, but by sticking with his characters and extensively drawing on his own life, he created meaningful drama, capturing the way people think and talk and experienced angst and love during the 1960s to 1990s.  I think of the Brooklyn of Brighton Beach Memoirs in the 1930s and consider it as dramatically meaningful a place as Grover’s Corners in Our Town at the turn of the century.  Both examine a slice of life so real that by the end of the play, we know these people and the times in which they lived.  The themes are universal, but in the case of Simon’s work, he was able to magically weave laugh out loud humor into his serious dramas.

Time has come, now a couple years after his death at 91, to reevaluate Neil Simon’s works and polish them off with today’s theatrical sensibility, and this is exactly what the Maltz Theatre has done with Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first of his “Eugene Trilogy” his most autobiographical work, which was later followed by Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.

What makes a great playwright?  Simon, in an interview with NPR in 1996, said ‘when I was a young boy - 5 and 6 and 7 years old - my parents would take me to visit their relatives. And for some reason, I think they thought that I was invisible because they never talked to me….I could hear, but they were talking family matters - or gossip or whatever. And I just sat there. And once in a while, they'd give me a cookie or something. And I just listened. It stuck in my head. And what I managed to learn was the way they talked, the choice of words they made, what it was that they were interested in. And years later, without knowing it, when I started to write about these people, I was able to draw on my own memory from what happened in those days.”

That in essence is the foundation of this great play, set in the pre WW II Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.  Because family dynamics are so universal, we see our own family life and foibles.  It is a coming of age play for Eugene, with all of the other characters experiencing some harsh lessons too.  Most poignantly portrayed, is America itself, painfully digging out of a depression, only to be facing the bleak beginning of WW II.

The Maltz production is directed with loving attention by award-winning South Florida director J. Barry Lewis.  He has mined every drop of significance out of Simon’s intentions and infused this play with laughs all along the way.  He is helped enormously by casting one of the most talented assembly of actors we’ve seen in a long time.

Anthony Zambito stars as Eugene
Anthony Zambito gives an award winning portrait of 15 year old Eugene Jerome, vacillating between his fantasies of pitching for the New York Yankees, somehow knowing his destiny as a writer, but meanwhile frequently being sent to the store by his mother for the smallest of items.  “Eugene!” is a constant refrain.  Zambito’s enthusiasm on stage is infectious, frequently breaking the fourth wall, but with a naturalness that makes you know this person and feel he is talking to you as a friend but from another era.  Naturally many in the audience actually remember those times or at least our parents talking about them.  Eugene’s struggle with the joys, vicissitudes and the wonders of puberty are amusingly portrayed by Zambito.

Margery Lowe and Laura Turnbull
Laura Turnbull is Eugene’s mother, Kate, the quintessential harried Jewish housewife.  She freely expresses her views, and prejudices, but it is all in the service of protecting the family she fiercely loves.  Turnbull’s performance is tender and heartfelt, but beneath the veneer, there is a steely anger that eventually erupts.  Her stellar performance is true to life every moment she is on stage. We sympathize with her trying to keep the household together on a shoe string budget, especially after taking in her widowed sister and her two children.  She is the enforcer, especially attempting to keep her two sons on the straight and narrow.  Her major worry is her husband, Jack, who works two jobs to keep his household afloat which also includes Eugene’s older brother, Stanley.

Anthony Zambito and Alex Walton
Kate’s sister, Blanche, is majestically performed by Margery Lowe.  She exhibits a touching uncertainty about her future, how she should raise her two teenage daughters, Laurie and Nora.  She is grateful to her sister, but hates having to be a dependent on an already burdened household.  She is inexperienced in dealing with her teenager’s theatre ambitions as well as with her own lonely life.  This role requires a consummate actress and Lowe delivers.

Daughters Nora and Laurie are played with conviction by Krystal Millie Valdes and Alexa Lasanta.  Valdes gives a performance that increases some of the tension in the play, by wanting to break away from the family to pursue a “Broadway career” and at the same time unconsciously feeding the fantasies of puberty crazed Eugene. 

Avi Hoffman and Alex Walton
Alex Walton as Stanley, Eugene’s older brother, delivers a strong performance as the son who, right after high school has gone into a soulless job to bring in that extra paycheck.  He wants his father’s approval, but is still growing up and making youthful mistakes.  He also acts as a surrogate father aiding in Eugene’s sexual education, with many laughs populating the truths which shock Eugene.

Avi Hoffman plays Jack Jerome, the heavily troubled father, clearly the patriarch of the family, but one with a sense of justice.  When big family decisions are necessary, the family turns to him.  Excepting his fate, he says "when you inherit a family, you inherit their problems." Hoffman is another extraordinary actor, with a long history of experience in the theatre.  It shows.  His portrayal is so natural and yet commanding. 
Krystal Millie Valdes and Margery Lowe

Scenic design is an integral part of making this production such a success.  Scenic designer Anne Mundell creates a three tiered stage, the lowest level representing the outside where some of the scenes take place, the next level the dining and living area, where most of the action transpires, particularly the comic dining room scenes (the liver and mashed potatoes scene is a riot, and rings with truth), and the upper level, where we see two bedrooms, one for the boys, Eugene and Stanley, and another for their cousins, Nora and Laurie.

Costume designer Tracy Dorman has created splendid period costumes, perfectly conjuring up the house dresses worn before the war and a few very colorful ones that brightened up the set.  Blanche’s dress, prior to a date, is a stand out.  Lighting design is by Kirk Bookman and the award-winning resident sound designer is Marty Met.

The Maltz production of Brighton Beach Memoires does justice to Neil Simon as one of the most important playwrights of 20th century America. 

All photos, except for the program, by Zak Bennett