THEATER REVIEW: In Fun Home, The Days and Days that Make Up Our Lives

The Cast of Fun Home at the Forrest Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

A day or two ago, a savvy theater friend and I were debriefing about the Tony Awards. While we both agreed there was plenty to criticize, he made the sage point that the last three winners of Best Musical are an impressive study in the evolution of that form. The first of the them, now on stage at the Forrest Theatre, is Fun Home, with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. (The others are, of course, Hamilton, and Dear Evan Hanson, and they can be expected in Philly in due course.)

At first glance, Fun Home might seem the most conventional of the three, dealing as it does with a favorite theme in American theater: the dysfunctional family from which a child arises—successful, if not unscathed—to tell about it. Within minutes, though, you’ll find there’s nothing routine about this altogether extraordinary musical that’s likely to turn you into an emotional puddle. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: In Simpatico’s Hir, the Triumph of Chaos

Marcia Saunders and Eppchez! in Hir at Simpatico Theatre. (Photo by Daniel Kontz)

“We’ve given up on order,” says Paige with a triumphant smile to her son, Isaac, as together they survey the chaotic mess of their living room. If we take this as a winking summary also of Taylor Mac’s spectacular, genre-busting play, Hir—well, I’d say it’s the understatement of the year.

You see, Isaac has just returned from fighting in Afghanistan—and finds he’s traded one war for another. Back at home, he discovers that his father, Arnold (actor John Morrison gives a funny and heartbreaking performance) has had a stroke, and is now infantilized and abused by Paige, who has taken his failing health as an opportunity to grab the reins. (Paige is quite a piece of work: imagine a cross between Paula Deen and Kim Jong-il, and you’ll be close.) From the look of things, house cleaning is the first thing she gave up, in what is now her on-going quest for self-realization. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: Uncle Vanya, Straddling Two Worlds

Kevin Bergen and Steven Wright in Uncle Vanya at Quintessence. (Photo by Shawn May)

We theater critics can be insufferable, especially when it comes to Chekhov. We’re forever pontificating about particular productions, usually pointing out flaws. They get the tone wrong; they’re too comic (nor not comic enough); and, of course, this perennial favorite—they’re not idiomatic. As if we actually know, since few of us speak Russian, and none of us has seen one of the original productions by the Moscow Art Theater (the last premiere was in 1904).

Hey, I’m guilty of it, too. But this time, I pledged, it would be different. Rather than comparing productions—or relying on some conceptual idea about how Chekhov ought to look—I’d consider Quintessence’s Uncle Vanya strictly on its own terms. Alas, that’s easier said than done. Minutes into this sometimes powerful, but often meandering Uncle Vanya, inevitably I was trying to understand my sense of disconnection. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: In How to Use a Knife, Life in the Kitchen from Simmer to Boil

J Hernandez and Angel Sigala in How to Use a Knife at InterAct Theatre. (Photo by Kate Raines)

God is in the details, as they say. Watching InterAct’s marvelous production of Will Snider’s How to Use a Knife, I was struck again and again by how much theatrical realism depends on getting all the little things just right. You see it here from the start—a rare kind of authenticity, evident immediately in Colin McIlvaine’s set and Robin Stamey’s lighting. We could be looking in on an actual working diner kitchen.

But it’s only the beginning. These actors disappear fully into their characters, especially J Hernandez and Angel Sigala, who (often speaking in Spanish) bring the kitchen cooks brilliantly to life. Prepping and cooking the food, squabbling to get the orders out on time, their interpersonal relationships captured in even in the tiniest looks—yes, we think: this is real life. Read more »

THEATRE REVIEW: In Making History, What Happened Vs. What’s Remembered

Kevin Rodden and Ethan Lipkin in Making History at Irish Heritage Theatre. (Photo by Carlos Forbes)

Brian Friel, who died in 2015, was for more than 40 years one of our most prolific playwrights; also one of our best. Yet, although many of his works have been staged in New York, they are not seen enough in American regional theater. Some of this is cultural—Friel, who was Irish and wrote very specifically about his country, may be considered far afield for American audiences.

But as this fine production of Making History reminds us, Friel’s plays have relevance beyond their own world and time. We’re fortunate to have such strong advocates in the Irish Heritage Theatre. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: Gypsy at the Arden—Here She Is, Boys!

Mary Martello in Gypsy at the Arden Theatre. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Now that’s what I call a hit! Arden Theatre’s Gypsy was extended even before it opened, acknowledging that the combination of one of the greatest musicals ever written—and one of Philly’s most gifted and beloved actresses—would be sure-fire. Still, there are no guarantees in life, and even fewer in the theater. Would this Gypsy equal the high level of expectation? I’m happy to say it does, and occasionally even exceeds it.

A lot of this comes, of course, from the show itself. I can’t think of a better way to end a season than with Gypsy. Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ eternally fresh, dazzling, and prescient musical celebrates the theater even as it mourns its temporality. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: Absolute Brightness Is Absolutely Terrific

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

There’s nothing small about James Lecesne’s, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (including the somewhat unwieldy title, hereafter shortened to Brightness), but its wonderfulness comes, frankly, with surprise and relief.

Sara Garonzik’s final season as Executive Producing Artistic Director of the Philadelphia Theatre Company—after an extraordinary run of 35 years—had been set to end with a new play about Thomas Eakins that she helped to develop. The late-hour reshuffling that brought this substitution worried me. It sounded like the knell of financial gloom… and a one-actor, 80-minute show where PTC functions as mostly as a presenter seemed a let-down.

But Brightness is bold, daring, and large format. The show has a big heart, and Lecesne—who is both writer and solo performer—is a big talent. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: In Buzzer, It’s Location, Location, Location

Matteo Scammell, Alex Keiper, and Akeem Davis in Buzzer at Theatre Exile. (Photo by Paola Nogueras)

Location, location, location—it’s America’s real estate mantra. And with it comes the usual advice that the smartest and safest bet for new buyers is to choose a modest house in a good neighborhood. But there are always the pioneers—people who instead go for the fabulous property in an iffy area, hoping they’re at the start of an upswing.

The high-stakes, social-status-transforming metaphors of home ownership are so powerful, so connected to the American Dream, that it’s no wonder it’s a favorite motif in theater. Tracey Scott Wilson’s punchy, gripping Buzzer riffs on it in clever and unexpected ways. The pioneer here, Jackson (Akeem Davis) is a black man with a blue-chip education—he’s moving back to his old neighborhood, which is every bit as fraught as it sounds. Maybe a little bit selfish, too—for Jackson’s white girlfriend, Suzy (Alex Keiper), walking through the neighborhood is daily blitz of cat calls. And moving in with them as a semi-permanent houseguest is Don (Matteo Scammell), who should have been the success story in the group (he’s white and privileged), but drug addiction has destroyed much of his potential. Read more »

Q&A with Broadway Legend Chita Rivera

Please note that due to a scheduling conflict, Chita Rivera’s appearance at the Merriam Theatre has been cancelled.

Chita Rivera will appear at the Merriam Theatre on June 3. (Photo by Laura Marie Duncan)

Chita Rivera will appear at the Merriam Theatre on June 3. (Photo by Laura Marie Duncan)

Two Tony Awards (and eight additional nominations). Created the roles of Anita (in West Side Story), Velma Kelly (Chicago), and the Spider Woman (Kiss of the…), among many others. A career that began on Broadway in 1953, hit stardom a year or two later, and continues. Especially celebrated for her high-octane dancing—she’s been muse to choreographers including Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Kidd, and Peter Gennaro—she’s also an actor and a singer.

Chita Rivera is, indeed, a theater legend, but any nerves I had about talking with by phone vanished quickly—she’s charming, funny, and forthright, all of which supports her reputation as a great colleague; she’s also known as an inspiring mentor to a new generation of performers. We talked about this, about what we’ll see when she appears with Seth Rudetsky, her experiences performing in Philadelphia… and (surprise!) how polite the locals are. Read more »

THEATER REVIEW: In The Arsonists, Family Life from Fire to Embers

Sarah Gliko and Steven Rishard in The Arsonists at Azuka Theatre. (Photo by Johanna Austin)

Sarah Gliko and Steven Rishard in The Arsonists at Azuka Theatre. (Photo by Johanna Austin)

Now that’s what I can an entrance! Actress Sarah Gliko (playing a character called “M”), bursts through the door, disposes of a body in a bag, nearly destroys a ramshackle cabin in the Florida swamps, and says about a dozen words (well, mostly she says, “Fuck!”). And that’s just the first minute or so.

This high-voltage start to Jacqueline Goldfinger’s spellbinding new play, The Arsonists, put me in mind of a kind of gender-reversed Sam Shepard—especially Shepard’s early collaborative work with Patti Smith. (The Arsonists also incorporates mournful songs and hymns, delivered with piercing authenticity by Gliko and Steven Rishard, playing “H.”)  As in Shepard, there is a sense that love, loss, and betrayal are inseparable. Read more »

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