Author Archive for David Hurst

Christmas at Birdland with Billy Stritch, Jim Caruso and Klea Blackhurst ★★★★★

Christmas at Birdland
with Billy Stritch, Jim Caruso and Klea Blackhurst
Club 44 Records

Executive Producers: Landon Beene & Ernie Haase
Producer by: Billy Stritch & Wayne Haun
Tracks arranged by: Billy Stritch except “The Christmas Waltz – arranged by Aaron Weinstein
Orchestrations arranged by: Wayne Haun

They’re baaaack!  Yes, following up on the debut of A Swinging Birdland Christmas! in 2014, that Triumvirate of Tinsel – Billy Stritch, Jim Caruso and Klea Blackhurst – have returned from the recording studio with another sensational holiday disc, Christmas at Birdland.  After wandering in the desert like the proverbial Wise Men of yore, Blackhurst, Caruso and Stritch (to go alphabetically) have returned with a tasty confection of a disc, loaded with joy, wit, and, of course, plenty of sass.

                                   Stritch, Blackhurst & Caruso – photo: Bill Westmoreland

Filled with zesty arrangements and exuding a party atmosphere that defies you not to have fun, Christmas at Birdland finds Blackhurst, Caruso and Stritch in terrific voice singing both standards and contemporary fare.  Unexpected delights include: Donny Osmond making a surprise appearance in their opener, “Christmas Is Starting Now/It’s the Holiday Season;” Caruso’s “You Meet the Nicest People;” Blackhurst’s “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again;” Caruso & Stritch’s “Little Jack Frost Get Lost;” and Blackhurst’s gorgeous rendition of “Silent Night” paired with “A Child is Born,” featuring Dave Koz on saxophone.  Koz also joins Stritch for a beautiful interpretation of “The Christmas Song” which precedes the trio’s delicious version of “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells,” because, let’s face it, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without Kay Thompson!

Upcoming performances for Blackhurst, Caruso & Stritch include:
A Swinging Birdland Christmas at BIRDLAND – Dec 21-22-23 (at 7:00 pm)-24-25 at 5:30 pm

Kevin Dozier – Christmas Eve ★★★★★

Christmas Eve

Produced and Engineered by Paul Rolnick
Musical Direction and Arrangements by Alex Rybeck

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers are a memory and the Christmas insanity has begun, the top item on everyone’s shopping list should be Kevin Dozier’s ravishing new holiday disc, Christmas Eve.  Expertly recorded by Grammy-nominee Paul Rolnick, with beautiful arrangements courtesy of musical wunderkind Alex Rybeck, Dozier is in top form on this winning collection of holiday songs.  Christmas Eve is the perfect stocking-stuffer, but why wait for the 25th when it’s a disc you could be playing all month long.

The release of Christmas Eve, Dozier’s fourth studio album (following Love-Wise (2009), Love’s Never Lost (2013) and A New York Romance (2016)), celebrates a 10-year recording career and a ubiquitous presence in the New York cabaret community.  Possessing one of the loveliest voices on the scene, Dozier’s vibrant tenor has a warm caramel center that never sounds forced.  His bright, ringing tone is ideal for this holiday repertoire and he’s careful never to overstate the melodic line or to stray into unnecessary vocal melismas.  On the contrary, his simple approach to the material enhances its message and keeps the attention squarely where it belongs – on the lyric!

Christmas Eve has a generous helping of both traditional and contemporary holiday songs and Dozier sings them all with great warmth and feeling.  But as beautifully as he sings “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Sleep Well, Little Children” and “The Christmas Song,” you may be drawn to some of the lesser known gems on his disc that aren’t as well known or performed.  Take the title track for instance, “Christmas Eve,” written by Dozier’s musical director Alex Rybeck (music) and the late, great Carol Hall (lyrics).  A heart-tugging reflection on Christmas from a child’s perspective, Hall’s poignant lyric “…if I’m ever lonely, I believe there’s an open door where I can still remember – could not ask for more,” resonates deeply in Dozier’s heartfelt delivery.  The song also contains what may be one of the most beautiful bridges ever written, and Rybeck’s understated, elegant instrumentation for it is perfection.  Another unexpected delight is “Home on Christmas Day” (music & lyrics by Walter Afanasieff & Jay Landers) which deserves to be a standard based on Dozier’s stirring and touching interpretation.  And it’s refreshing to hear a man sing “Grown Up Christmas List” (music & lyrics by David Foster & Linda Thompson) after so many famous divas (e.g, Amy Grant, Kelly Clarkson and Barbra Streisand, etc.) have put their stamp on it.

Perhaps the most interesting track on Christmas Eve is a medley of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (Walter Kent & Kim Gannon), a World War II ballad made famous by Bing Crosby, and the haunting “Goodbye for Now,” which, of course, was written by Stephen Sondheim for Warren Beatty’s 1981 film about communists, Reds.  Since their sentiments seem diametrically opposed (depending on your interpretation), the pairing shouldn’t work, but it does.  Rybeck’s arrangement cleverly melds the two melodies and Dozier’s performance finds the ache and longing in both lyrics.  It’s a union of two songs which is as obvious as it is subversive, and just the kind of bold choice we’ve come to expect from these two artists – both at the top of their game.

Upcoming holiday shows with Dozier include:

December 17th at Green Room 42 – Christmas Eve – Kevin Dozier w/ special guest, Karen Mason

December 18-19-20 @ The Beach Cafe – 4 For The Holidays w/ Ari Axelrod, Celia Berk & Karen Oberlin

John DePalma – Something Shiny ★★★★★

Something Shiny
LML Music

Executive Producer for LML Music: Lee Lessack
Producers: Kevin Jasper and John DePalma
Co-Producer: Lisa DePalma
Recorded and Mixed at Kjaz Studio, NYC
Engineered by Kevin Jasper

Seventeen years ago in 2002, John DePalma released The Song Is Mine and I fell in love.  Recorded live at Don’t Tell Mama with sensational arrangements and musical direction by James Followell, DePalma’s gorgeous, lyric baritone was a revelation.  His was an easy-going voice with a simple delivery that placed the emphasis squarely where it belongs – on the lyric and the emotional context of the song.  A Kenny Rankin or John Denver or James Taylor for our generation, if you will.  Suffice it to say The Song Is Mine quickly entered permanent rotation on my iTunes, where it remains, and I began dreaming about DePalma’s next studio disc because…well, there just had to be another one.  And good things come to those who wait…even for seventeen years.  Let me be the first to shout from the rooftops that DePalma has returned, finally.  And, yes, it was worth the wait.

His long-awaited follow up, Something Shiny, is a fantastic disc.  A musical homage to the ten years DePalma lived in New York City, from 1998-2008, Something Shiny is an eclectic and ambitious collection of songs that show off his still beautiful voice to full advantage.  DePalma’s selections survey “the alienation, aloneness, acceptance, hope, love and joy” he felt while living there.  So there’s a wealth of riches to work with, and almost every song is a highlight.

Opening with a haunting excerpt from Elton John & Bernie Taupin’s “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters,” Something Shiny segues into an original song by DePalma and Followell called “Strange Place,” a catalogue of the hopes and fears of a newly arrived soul trying to find his place on New York’s intimidating streets.  The disc takes its title from a lyric in “Strange Place” so pay attention.  Not unlike Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People,” “Strange Place is a cautionary tale of a city that can eat you up if your heart and mind aren’t resilient.  Hoagy Carmichael & Johnny Mercer’s timeless “Skylark,” a paean to optimism and hopefulness, with a lovely acoustic guitar accompaniment courtesy of Jeff Campbell, is a savvy juxtaposition.

Tim DiPasqua’s “Monster Under These Conditions” is next, with all its glorious contradictions and confessions.  DiPasqua, a celebrated performer and songwriter in his own right, plays the piano and contributes arrangements on much of DePalma’s disc.  But DePalma puts his own unique spin on “Monster” and it’s a winner.  The vocal arrangements by producer Kevin Jasper on this and the rest of the disc are ravishing.  Another terrific original song follows with “If I Had Words (If I Had Songs)” by Jonathan Hodge and DePalma, followed by Joni Mitchell’s “A Night in the City” and “You Belong to Me” by Chilton Price, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, which conclude the first half of the disc.

The sublime ballad “Sleepy Man” from The Robber Bridegroom, by Robert Waldman & Alfred Uhry, opens the second half of Something Shiny and, somewhat unexpectedly, has a driving, pop arrangement instead of a dreamy, acoustic guitar accompaniment.  For the record, as much as I like the pop treatment I hope to someday hear DePalma sing it with solo guitar as well.  Next up is Tom Waits classic “Rainbow Sleeves” which DePalma serves up in a silky, soaring rendition with lush, background vocals that will tug at your heartstrings.  My favorite selection on Something Shiny may be Michael Holland’s brilliant “Dollar Margarita Night,” an indictment of the bar scene which breeds desperation and loneliness in equal measure.  Holland, a supremely gifted writer and performer, first recorded the song as a bonus track on his now-out-of-print, second studio disc, Thank You for the Afghan (1996) and DePalma does a beautiful job with it.  (Note: both Holland’s Afghan and his first disc, Everybody’s A Jerk (1993), also out of print, are well-worth tracking down on E-bay and select yard sales of music types who have exceptionally good taste.  They’re both brilliant.)

Something Shiny concludes with four songs which bring DePalma’s journey in New York City full-circle: from Dar Williams’ haunting ballad about letting go of love “The One Who Knows”; Randy Newman’s reflective “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”; a wonderful new original by DePalma and Followell again, “Goodbye New York” (which doesn’t need explanation) and Oscar Levant & Edward Heyman’s poignant “Blame It On My Youth,” the perfect capstone for DePalma’s journey back in time and musical reminiscences.  Whether you’ve been waiting patiently for DePalma’s sophomore effort or have never heard him before, Something Shiny is an essential addition to every serious music fan’s collection.  Its production values are superb and DePalma’s voice is intoxicating.

Jeff Harnar & Alex Rybeck – The 35th Anniversary Show ★★★★★

The Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Cafe
June 13, 2018

Music Direction & Accompaniment by Alex Rybeck
Bass – Jered Egan
Drums – Dan Gross

You only have to glance at cabaret veteran Jeff Harnar to know somewhere in a dingy attic there’s a full-length portrait of him in oil aging rapidly!  Like Dorian Gray, it’s clear he’s made a Faustian bargain, for how else can one explain that, 35 years after making his cabaret debut, his boyish looks and angelic countenance remain firmly intact.  Whether it’s a pact with the devil or just clean living, there’s no denying Harnar looks amazing.  But perhaps even more astonishing is his voice remains as ageless as his profile.  Like Vic Damone and Steve Lawrence before him, Harnar only gets better with each passing year.  Indeed, it’s not overstatement to propose Harnar may only now be approaching his zenith as a performer.  Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Jeff Harnar without quickly including the name Alex Rybeck, his gifted musical director, accompanist, arranger and friend.  It’s that friendship and artistic partnership which is being celebrated in their smashing retrospective, The 35th Anniversary Show, which debuted last month, June 13, at The Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Cafe.  A veritable kaleidoscope of greatest hits interspersed with hilarious stories and informative exposition, Harnar & Rybeck are an unbeatable pairing for consummate entertainment.

Together these two men could fill entire libraries with their awards and accolades.  They’ve won everything there is to win in the world of cabaret, but they’re not resting on their laurels in this anniversary show.  Giving us a generous sampling of songs from almost a dozen, expertly-crafted ‘theme’ shows and four major recordings, Harnar & Rybeck run the musical gamut at the Beechman, carefully choosing songs that illuminate their partnership and highlighting what both performers do best.  Harnar’s lyric tenor soars on “There Is A Time (Le Temps)” (Aznavour/Davis/Lees), “Make Someone Happy” (Styne/Comden & Green) and “Time After Time” (Styne/Cahn).  With his impeccable phrasing and diction, he can float a line with finesse as he does singing “I Say Hello,” Dolores Gray’s knockout ballad from Harold Rome’s Destry Rides Again.  Or he’ll surprise you with a Broadway belt as he does in Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”  Musically, the highlight (among many) may be “What a Funny Boy He Is” (Rybeck/Stewart), a gorgeous song written by Rybeck himself with a lyric by Michael Stewart which I first encountered on the late, great Nancy La Mott’s “What’s Good About Goodbye?” disc.  Harnar’s wistful, haunting reading and Rybeck’s beautiful, understated arrangement set the bar high for future interpreters.

Additionally, Rybeck’s arrangements for his trio, including Jered Egan on bass and Dan Gross on drums, are as savvy as they are deceptive.  They do what good arrangements do best – they provide a showcase for Harnar’s voice while also musically reinterpreting songs in a way that allows them to feel and sound new.  A prime example of this is “How Little We Know” (Carmichael/Mercer) in which Rybeck’s subtle arrangement pays homage to the great Stephen Sondheim in its underpinnings.  For comic relief, Harnar & Rybeck have included two medleys in their set which allow them to sing together, much to the delight of the audience.  The Strange Duet Medley includes: “Strange Duet” (Styne/Comden & Green), “Close Harmony” (Styne/Comden & Green) and “The Wrong Note Rag” (Bernstein/Comden & Green); and The Politics Medley includes: “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box” (both Bock/Harnick), “The Men Who Run the Country” (Arlen/Mercer), “The Country’s In the Very Best of Hands” (dePaul/Mercer) and “No Way to Stop It” (Rodgers/Hammerstein II).  The political songs, especially, are frighteningly timely for the world in which we’re currently living.

In addition to his terrific singing, Harnar is more relaxed and humorous that I can remember.  Whether dispensing some ribald advice Sylvia Syms gave him, repeating a Kitty Carlisle Hart anecdote, or channeling Patti LuPone by literally taking a woman’s cell phone away from her during “Put ‘Em In a Box, Tie It With a Ribbon” (Styne/Cahn), Harnar is in his element.  Clearly, milestones breed confidence, as evidenced by Harnar’s eleven o’clock performance of “Come Back To Me” (Lane/Lerner), a fiendishly difficult “list song” on which Harnar included the little-sung verse and made the song his own with a totally unique reading of the lyric, placing emphasis in new and unexpected places.  That’s what an artist does, and what Harnar & Rybeck continue to do very well, indeed.  Miss them at your peril.

Jeff Harner & Alex Rybeck – The 35th Anniversary Show
Encore Show on Friday, September 21st at 7:00 pm
The Laurie Beechman theatre in the West Bank Cafe
407 West 42nd Street at 9th Avenue or 212-352-3101

Stearns Matthews – December Songs ★★★★☆

December Songs

Produced by Randy Crafton for Chlo-Rita Productions
Executive Produced by Stearns Matthews for Chlo-Rita Productions
CD Design and Packaging by Michael Hetrick
Markus Grae-Hauck – piano
Amy Crafton – clarinet, bass clarinet & soprano saxophone
Dave Richards – contrabass

If anyone can thaw your heart during the freezing winter of 2018, Stearns Matthews and his landmark recording of Maury Yeston’s haunting song cycle, December Songs, can.  Originally written in 1991 as a commission for Carnegie Hall’s centennial celebration, December Songs was premiered by the cabaret chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci.  It’s been recorded in English by Marcovicci, Isabelle George (who also recorded it in French), Harolyn Blackwell, Hetty Sponselee, Sheila Conolly and, most recently, by the Tony-nominated Broadway star Laura Osnes who included the cycle on her gorgeous 2013 recording, If I Tell You – The Songs of Maury Yeston on PS Classics.   There are also recordings in German (Pia Douwes) and Polish (Edyta Krzemien) but I digress.  Matthews new, self-produced release of Yeston’s cycle is a revelation not just because it’s a man singing, but because he sings it so beautifully and with such insightful sensitivity.

December Songs is essentially a retelling of Franz Schubert’s 1827 classical song cycle, Winterreise, in which a man travels through a linked sequence of reflections on his life and lost loves over the course of 22 poems by Wilhelm Müller.  Matthews, a Bistro and MAC Award winning vocalist, dives into Yeston’s cycle with confidence and artistry.  His soaring, lyric tenor is a perfect conduit for Yeston’s intricate melodies that comprise the ten songs in his cycle.  Yeston’s songs blend a classical underpinning with his Broadway flair (Nine, Grand Hotel, Titanic, etc.) that makes for a sophisticated collection of songs accessible to anyone who may fear classical music.  Wisely, Matthews brings an ‘everyman’ sensibility to his performance that roots his performance in solid ground while giving himself the license to paint Yeston’s lyrics with vocal colors and flourishes.  “Please Let’s Not Even Say Hello” has a new urgency with Matthews plaintive quality, and “Bookseller In The Rain” conveys a haunting darkness I hadn’t heard before.  “I Am Longing” has an aching loneliness that’s palpable and “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” has an entirely new sensibility in the hands of a man.  (Note: Though he didn’t record the entire cycle, Philip Chaffin contributed a ravishing recording of “I Am Longing” on PS Classics’ 2003 release, The Maury Yeston Songbook.)

Modestly packaged with excellent liner notes courtesy of Barry Kleinbort, the arrangements on Matthews’ December Songs are lovely and beautifully performed by Markus Grae-Hauck (piano), Amy Crafton (clarinet, bass clarinet & soprano saxophone) and Dave Richards (contrabass).  If there’s a quibble with Matthews new disc, it’s that – at only ten songs – it truly leaves you wanting more.  But in a good way.  Perhaps when he hears this superb December Songs recording, Maury Yeston will write Matthews a new song cycle all his own.  “I Had A Dream About You,” indeed!

Stearns Matthews’ 2014 debut recording, Spark

Jeff Macauley – Hollywood Party – Movie Songs: 1928-1936 ★★★★☆

October 30, November 30, December 15 & 27, 2017

Music Direction & Accompaniment by Tex Arnold

No one likes being late to a party, but that’s how I felt recently watching the supremely entertaining Jeff Macauley holding court at Pangea in the smartest show in town, Hollywood Party – Movie Songs: 1928-1936.  As he unfurled one delicious, forgotten gem after another I wondered how Macauley’s insouciant blend of wit, charm and sophistication could have eluded me for so long.  After all, he’d won a Bistro Award in 1998 for MWAH! The Dinah Shore Show (which he encored in 2016 to critical raves) and has been MAC nominated the last two years for Best Male Vocalist.  Where had I been?  Why had no one told me?  Ah well, better late than never!  And now that I’m at the party, wild horses couldn’t drag me away.

It only takes glancing at the titles of Macauley’s shows to see why he’s the toast of the town and a tastemaker in style:  It Was Me: The Lyrics of Norman GimbelMr. Lucky: The Songs of Henry Mancini and Le Grand Tour: The Music of Michel Legrand.  A performer with panache and savvy, Macauley’s Hollywood Party is actually a revival of a show he created more than 20 years ago.  But it’s a testament to Macauley’s presentation and his material’s timelessness that Hollywood Party remains a breath of fresh air and a thrill to experience.

Photo courtesy of James Gavin

Boasting intuitive arrangements and the sensitive playing of the superb Tex Arnold, in Hollywood Party Macauley steps back in time to the Golden Age of film music with a collection of rarities, obscure oddities and – most delightfully – completely unknown songs.  When was the last time you watched a cabaret show and had never heard the vast majority of songs being performed?  And how exciting is that?  As our emcee and bon vivant narrator, Macauley relishes in turning the pages of time, in this case from 1928 to 1936.  Boasting writers as disparate as Rodgers & Hart, Dorothy Parker and Yip Harburg, you’ll also experience Herman Hupfeld, Clifford Grey & Victor Schertzinger and George Marion & Richard Whiting.  The lyrics Macauley has chosen are unerringly smart, funny and frivolous – all qualities Macauley himself embodies as he takes us into his confidence.

Cutting a cool figure in his tuxedo, Macauley’s sex appeal is as magnetic as it is dangerous.  His light, lyric baritone often roams into tenor territory but he never pushes, caressing the notes with an even fineness that’s a welcome relief from the glut of belters who equate volume with emotion.  Younger singers would do well to emulate Macauley’s sumptuous phrasing and consummate breath-control.  It’s refreshing to watch a show where the performer understands the lyric is paramount, and to take breaths where dictated by the text.  No breaking up phrases or taking a gigantic breath before the last word in a sentence for Macauley.  It’s this attention to presentation, along with his eclectic taste in repertoire, that Macauley reminds me of the terrific Chicago-based performer Justin Hayford.  They both have a gentle approach to their material but there’s always a sly wink in the execution.  And that wink is everything.

Photo courtesy of James Gavin

Whether he’s advising us to “Never Swat A Fly” (from Just Imagine, 1930 – Fox: by B.G. De Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson) or to “Bend Down Sister” (from Palmy Days, 1931 – United Artists: by Ballard MacDonald/Dave Silverstein and Con Conrad), Macauley is genuinely having fun and his rapt audience is along for the ride.  Selfishly, I can’t wait to see what he does next!

Jeff Macauley next appears at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre on Sunday, January 14th at 9:30 pm in
Little Crumbs of Happiness with James Judd, Terri Mintz & Ann Talman

(Note: A word about the wonderful cabaret room at Pangea at 178 Second Avenue in New York City.  I’d been to Pangea many times, but it had been many years since my last visit and I’d never experienced the charming and intimate performing space now lovingly ensconced at the back of the restaurant.  It’s the perfect size space for cabaret shows with excellent sight-lines.  And the food was delicious!)

Latin History for Morons ★★★★☆

John Leguizamo in “Latin History for Morons” (photo: Joan Marcus)

The Public Theater
February 24, 2017 thru April 23, 2017
Opened March 27, 2017

Written and Performed by John Leguizamo
Directed by Tony Taccone

It’s hard to think of another performer in history who’s mounted a succession of solo stage productions with the dramatic scope and cultural impact of John Leguizamo.  Starting off-Broadway with Mambo Mouth in 1990, and Spic-O-Rama in 1992, before moving to Broadway with  Freak in 1998, Sexaholix in 2001 and Ghetto Klown in 2011, Leguizamo has proven time and time again there’s nothing he can’t do.  He returns to his off-Broadway roots at The Public this spring with the shrewdly titled Latin History for Morons which follows his patented blueprint of sociological autopsy by hilarious personal insight.

Ostensibly structured as a lecture by a professor, Latin History for Morons is merely a sly way for Leguizamo to tell us stories about life with his teenage children who are smarter and cooler than him.  What he tries to teach them and what they ultimately teach him is framed thru a prism of historical anecdotes about the various Latino peoples of the world.  Woven throughout these anecdotes, shrewdly directed by Tony Taccone on a clever set by Rachel Hauck, is Leguizamo’s quest for the perfect Latino hero for his son to incorporate into a school presentation.  Unsurprisingly, his son rejects each of his suggestions.  Throughout it all, Leguizamo gives us what has become his specialty – that of an observer of life who can spin even the worst humiliation into comic gold.

Sweat ★★★☆☆

Michelle Wilson & Johanna Day in “Sweat” (photo: Joan Marcus)

Roundabout – Studio 54
March 4, 2017 thru (open ended)
Opened March 26, 2017

Written by Lynn Notage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey

If ever a new play was at the right place at the right time it’s Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, now ensconced at Studio 54 following a successful run at The Public Theater last fall and, before that, productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 2015.  To be sure, it’s wonderful Nottage is finally represented on the Great White Way, but I was less convinced by Sweat than most critics so my opinion is definitely in the minority.  I think it’s a good play but I don’t think it’s a great one, and I was both surprised and disappointed it transferred to Broadway when Nottage’s far better Intimate Apparel and Ruined did not.

Capitalizing on the political strife roiling the country, the anti-immigrant sentiments espoused by the new administration, and the continuous depletion of blue-collar jobs throughout the country, Sweat is a portrait of unionized factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, watching their American dreams spiral down the drain.  Their way of life is over for these working-class Americans, they just don’t know it yet.  It’s a dissection of friendship, loyalty, and race as filtered thru a plant closing which shatters lives and extinguish dreams.

Sweat opens in 2008 on a parole officer, Evan (Lance Coadie Williams), meeting separately with Jason (Will Pullen) who is white, and Chris (Khris Davis) who is black.  The men are being released on parole for an unknown crime that happened eight years earlier and the action flashes back to 2000 where their story unfolds.  The real action of Sweat  takes place in a bar where a core group of factory workers meet after their shifts to knock a few back and live their lives.  Stan (James Colby) owns the place, Oscar (a quietly powerful Carlo Alban) suffers in silence as his bar-back, and Cynthia (a superb Michelle Wilson), Tracey (the hardworking Johanna Day) and Jessie (Alison Wright) are the regulars who hold court in a banquette.  Brucie (the wonderful John Earl Jelks) shows up from time to time to borrow money from his wife Cynthia and his son Chris, as well as Chris’ friend Jason whose mother is Tracey.  The three women are best friends whose primary past-time seems to be boozing it up and complaining about their life in the factory as union workers on the shop floor.

But change is coming, and not just whether Cynthia or Tracey is going to be chosen as the new supervisor.  The changes Nottage details in painful detail (after doing extensive interviews with laid-off workers in Reading, PA) involve cutbacks, layoffs, relocations to Mexico and the disintegration of lifelong friendships.  The growing anger and frustration in Nottage’s characters is palpable and, when it comes to a boil, an act of violence occurs that changes the fates of those involved irrevocably.  As the story comes full circle, it’s clear these are the same blue-collar workers who voted for Trump in the last election.  It hasn’t dawned on them yet how misplaced their confidence was and remains.  It’s an American tragedy and we are the witnesses.

Addendum: on April 10, 2017, it was announced Sweat had won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Come Back, Little Sheba – William Inge in Rep ★★★☆☆

Heather MacRae & Joseph Kolinsky in “Come Back, Little Sheba” (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Transport Group Theatre Company
Gym at Judson
February 23, 2017 thru April 23, 2017
Opened March 26, 2017

Written by William Inge
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Original Music by Michael John LaChiusa

Running in repertory with their excellent revival of Picnic is The Transport Group’s new production of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba starring Heather MacRae and Joseph Kolinski in the lead roles.  Though it’s not as solid as Picnic, Jack Cummings III’s staging of Sheba is worth seeing but there are certain choices that don’t make sense and performances that are inconsistent with the characters as Inge wrote them.

As Inge’s first play in 1950, Sheba revolves around the marriage of Doc and Lola Delaney.  A recovering alcohol who struggles mightily with his sobriety, Doc now works as a chiropractor after being forced to abandon a promising medical career when Lola became pregnant, ultimately losing the baby.  Now overweight and slovenly, Lola spends her days in mild flirtations with the mailman and the milkman.  She lives vicariously thru Marie (Hannah Elless), a young woman who rents a room in their house and has designs on both the muscular Turk (David T. Patterson) and the successful Bruce (Rowan Vickers).  Lola encourages Marie but Doc sees in Marie the life he didn’t have.  When he discovers she’s not as innocent as he thinks it sends him on a alcoholic bender and unleashes his pent-up rage.

 David T. Patterson and Hannah Elless as Turk and Marie

Cummings opens up his staging to a large, in-the-round performing space with clearly delineated “rooms” for the kitchen, the dining room and living room, all of which flow one into the next.  Much of the time MacRae, an expressive actress who wears her heart on her sleeve, seems ideal for Lola, and a late second act phone call to her mother is shattering.  But occasionally MacRae’s characterization lacks depth and she seems adrift emotionally.  In Lola’s many scenes with the mailman and the milkman (both portrayed by John Cariani) she’s supposed to be actively flirting with them but, for some reason, MacRae merely ‘chats’ with them.  Perhaps nothing is more difficult that playing drunk on-stage and when Joseph Kolinski’s Doc falls off the wagon his characterization is overwrought and out-of-control.  Several times Doc’s “anger” turned almost psychopathic in Kolinski’s performance.  It’s a choice, but I think it’s the wrong choice as Inge has written him.  Still, despite these problems, this Sheba has palpable moments of power and heartbreak, possessing luxury casting in its small supporting roles, including appearances by such veterans as Jennifer Piech, Jay Russell and David Greenspan.

The last New York production of Come Back, Little Sheba was MTC’s production directed by Michael Pressman and starring S. Epatha Merkerson as Lola, Kevin Anderson as Doc and Zoe Kazan as Marie at the Biltmore  in 2008.  Even if The Transport Group’s revival isn’t perfect, it’s an opportunity to see an important work from a major playwright of the mid-20th century whose subject matter still resonates powerfully today.

Picnic – William Inge in Rep ★★★★☆

Michele Pawk & Ginna LeVine in “Picnic” (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Transport Group Theatre Company
Gym at Judson
February 23, 2017 thru April 23, 2017
Opened March 26, 2017

Written by William Inge
Directed by Jack Cummings III
Original Music by Michael John LaChiusa

Director Jack Cummings III’s excellent revival of William Inge’s Pulitzer-winning drama about 1950’s angst in the waning days of summer in a small Kansas town, is a showcase for a talented cast – several of whom we know primarily for their work in musical theatre but are equally at home in comedy and drama.  Staged by The Transport Group at the Gym at Judson with a spartan set (Dane Laffrey) and period-evoking costumes (Asta Bennnie Hostetter), the great Michele Pawk plays Flo Owens, mother of two daughters: Madge, “the pretty one” who’s unsure what lies ahead for her, and Millie, a bookworm determined to be a writer.  A struggling, single-mother, Flo takes in boarders in her house so the tart-tongued teacher Rosemary Sydney, played to perfection by a terrific Emily Skinner, is on-hand to dispense advice and wonder aloud why her boyfriend Howard Bevans, a befuddled John Cariani, hasn’t married her yet.  The adjoining porch next door finds Helen Potts, a warm-hearted Heather MacRae, and her elderly, infirm mother who proves high-maintenance for her daughter.  It’s hot, tempers flair and the town is preparing for its Labor Day picnic.  Into this volatile mix arrives Hal Carter, a smoldering David T. Patterson, a handsome drifter who captures the attention of every woman in town – young and old.  Hal’s in town to look up his college roommate, Alan Seymour, a worshipful Rowan Vickers, who happens to be dating Madge Owens with plans to marry her.  Hal asks Alan to help him find a job but when he meets Madge the sparks fly and the fragile balance of everyone’s existence is upended by passion, despair and longing.

David T. Patterson as Hal Carter

One of the biggest problems in casting a production of Picnic is finding a young man to play Hal who audiences will believe could wreck havoc with the women of the town, but Cummings has no such problem with David T. Patterson.  His well-toned physique and rippling abdominal muscles (particularly his external obliques) elicit gasps from the audience (both women and men!), and he’s a good actor, too.  If anything Patterson’s body is a distraction and one could make the argument no men in the 1950’s had the kind of sculpted musculature Patterson has.  But that’s the equivalent of saying a cake has too much frosting or a piece of fruit is too sweet.  Ultimately, nobody cares.

John Carriani and Emily Skinner as Howard and Rosemary

Michele Pawk is wonderful as a conflicted mother who doesn’t want to see her daughter make the same mistakes she made but is helpless to stop her.  Stepping into the coveted role of Rosemary – and the shadow of both Eileen Heckart and Rosalind Russell – Emily Skinner is simply magnificent portraying a woman at the end of her romantic rope who’s desperate to marry.  She’s paired beautifully with John Cariani and their scenes together are among the production’s finest.  Ginna LeVine makes a strong impression as Madge which turns out to be perhaps the most complicated and difficult role in the show.  It’s tricky playing a beautiful girl who’s aware of her looks but deeply unsure of who she is and what she wants.  Supported by an original musical score by the award-winning Michael John LaChiusa (with whom Pawk worked on his original Hello, Again back in 1993-94), this evocative revival of Picnic -now playing in repertory with a strong revival of Come Back, Little Sheba – is a welcome addition to the off-Broadway season.