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Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

review Avenue Q

Review Avenue Q at Adirondack Theatre Festival  by Bob Goepfert

GLENS FALLS – Last week I attended three plays about living life as a member of a minority group. 

“The Chosen” at Barrington Stage Company’s main stage is about the issues of being Jewish in Brooklyn during the 1940s.  At BSC’s smaller stage “Southern Comfort” tells about the outcast lives of a transgendered community.  “Johnny Baseball” at the Nikos Stage of Williamstown Theatre Festival is about segregation and race relations in baseball from 1918-1948.

On Friday night I attended the musical “Avenue Q” at Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls and experienced (to a much lesser degree) what it is to feel like a member of a minority.

I was in a full house of people laughing, hooting and clapping at material I felt was shallow and crude and lacking in humor and sophistication.   This is a Tony-Award winning musical that ran on Broadway for 2,534 performances from 2003-2009 and is still running Off-Broadway.

Matters were made worse because having seen the show on Broadway, as well as the national tour, I recognized that in terms of talent and execution the excellent ATF production is their equal. 

Yet, because I disliked and was annoyed with the material I felt an outsider - alone and alienated. That said, for a critic it is not an unusual feeling.

“Avenue Q” is a play that is generally described as a naughty version of “Sesame Street.”  It is about recent college graduates who discover their education has not prepared them for the work force or for life itself.  In the course of the play they come to terms with racism, homosexuality, envy and even the reality of pornography. Most of all they discover a purpose in life.

The themes sound genuine but the language is crude and the situations are boarder line risqué (puppets having sex).  The expletives and naked puppets are not offensive in themselves; it’s the low college-frat level of the shallow humor that is disappointing.  At least it is to me, though the audience roared with every f-bomb.

As you might have gathered, the central characters are puppets operated by performers who are in plain sight.  There is a tendency to pay attention to the puppeteers more than to the puppets, but don’t worry, as the actors are signaling the same emotions as their characters and are never distracting.

The lead puppeteers at ATF are great.   They are always engaging and in the moment to the point they often provide voices for two characters at the same time.

It’s special fun to see Noah Zachary who plays Princeton and Rod show such a fantastic comic delivery as he was the deeply troubled Henry in last year’s ATF production of “Next to Normal.” 

Stacia Newcomb is a delight as Kate Monster and a bitch as Lucy the Slut.  Newcomb is both vulnerable and witty and has a great singing voice.  Rob Morrison’s superior comic delivery brings a nice edge to both Nicky and Trekkie Monster.  He and Heather Brorsen work very well together as the evil bears who tempt the central characters. Shinnerrie Jackson does well playing Gary Coleman in a tiring continuing joke.

The only weaknesses in the cast are Stephen DiBlasi and Joanne Javien as they fail to make the dislikeable slacker couple likeable.

“Avenue Q” is directed by Jennifer Barnhart an original cast member of “Avenue Q.”  She knows the show and understands what works.  One day I hope she explains to me why it works.

“Avenue Q” at Adirondack Theatre Festival, 207 Glen Street, Glens Falls.  8 p.m. nightly through Saturday.   874-0800,

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

review of Pygmallion at Williamstown Theatre Festival

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass.   If you only know of the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmallion” as the source material for the musical “My Fair Lady,” you really don’t know the work.  “Pygmailion” is a biting, funny social satire about women’s rights and class distinctions.
The production of the Shaw play, which is at Williamstown Theatre Festival through Sunday, is a revelation.  Yes, there are a couple of times – like when Henry Higgins says of Eliza,“I’ve grown accustomed to her face” - you expect him to burst into song. However the play is not a romantic vehicle as is the musical and film. 
The plot is familiar.  Henry Higgins is a linguist expert who takes in Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower girl, and on a bet converts her into a lady. By removing her Cockney accent and teaching her to speak in an upper-class fashion, she is accepted in high society as a lady.
The problem is once Eliza becomes refined, she realizes she cannot return to her lower class roots and because her conversion to sophistication is only superficial, she is aware she will not fit into a world of wealth and privilege.
One solution is to marry into the upper class, which Shaw eagerly points out is merely another form of prostitution.
As Eliza, Heather Lind makes a wonderful journey from street smart young girl to a strong woman.  Lind has a wonderful scene in which she speaks like a lady while thinking like a flower girl.  It’s funny but also signals her self-confidence and sense of self that she later displays in the final scene as she finds her power over Higgins.
Lind is a joy as Eliza, however, this production belongs to Robert Sean Leonard who plays Higgins as an emotionally-stunted man-boy.  Leonard is wonderful as he shows his bewilderment with the demands others make on him in name of good behavior.  He is perfectly honest when he wonders why Eliza would be hurt by his bad behavior since he behaves badly with everyone else.  It’s a smartly drawn portrait of an individual who represents those who are granted power and privilege simply as a birthright.
As if to emphasize the women’s secret power in a society dominated by men, director Nicholas Martin casts strong women in every role.  Maureen Alderman is no-nonsense tough as Higgin’s mother and Caitlin O’Connell is the most caring person in the household as the disapproving Mrs. Pierce.
The men are also strong in support. Paxton Whitehead is a droll but sensitive Colonel Pickering and Don Lee Sparks dominates in his two comic scenes as Eliza’s father - a man who loves his poverty and is offended by his eventual respectability.
It’s all played on a beautiful set designed by Alexander Dodge and made lovely with costumes by Gabriel Berry.
You might not leave the main stage of Williamstown Theatre Festival singing any songs, but you will leave singing the praises of a superior production of a 100 year old play. 
“Pygmalion” at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass.  Through Sunday.  413-597-3400, 

review of The Chosen at Barrington Stage

The Chosen at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass.  by Bob Goepfert

PITTSFIELD, Mass. - “The Chosen,” playing at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. through Aug. 3, is a play about the Jewish culture but its primary themes are universal and timeless.

Those themes have to do with father and son relationships, friendships between opposites, modern ideas versus traditional dogma, and the idea of discovering one’s identity in order to live a fruitful life.

Most of all, “The Chosen” insists that even within opposites there are common truths which should permit men of good will to work together for a common cause.  As a character quotes from the Talmud, “Both those and those are the words of God.”  He goes on to explain that even those things that appear to contradict – can each be true.

In “The Chosen” those contradictions are illustrated by two religious Jewish father and son families who live in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the 1940s. 

The Malters are modern orthodox Jews; the Saunders Hasidic Jews.  Both men are leaders who want a better world for their followers, but disagree on the best way to obtain that goal.  The sons, who become close friends, are devoted to their fathers.  They struggle to be obedient while finding a life that satisfies their own ambitions.

The conflict in approach acerbates when World War II ends and the extent of the Holocaust is revealed.  It is heightened when each man takes a different stance on establishing the state of Israel. The Zionist Malter believes men must be active or their faith and culture will disappear.  Reb Saunders believes man interfering with God’s will is heresy.

Though the play is dense with provocative themes director Aaron Posner (who with Potok adapted the material for the stage) keeps the human element of the story the focus of the presentation. 

The struggles of Reuven Malter (Jeff Cuttler) and David Saunders (Adam Heller) are touching as each young man is in conflict as they are torn between adhering to a dogma that is in conflict with the secular world in which they exist. 

The fathers (Ben Rosenbach as Malter and Richard Schiff as Saunders) are each committed to their own truths wise and child raising. However, is loiving enough to realize that a successful child is not a clone, rather one who honors and lives the values they were taught.

Making the work theatrical is the character representing Reuven Malter as an mature man (Richard Topol).  This device not only gives us a narrator and a person to play several other characters, but the use of this invested but distanced observer brings the play out of its time to make it a memory play.

“The Chosen” is a marvelously acted play performed on a suggestive set designed by Meghan Raham that unites the character’s search for knowledge while expressing the isolation of their existence. It is memorable theater.

“The Chosen” plays at Barrington Stage, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, Mass.  through August 3.  For schedule and ticket information 413-236-8888,