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Off Broadway

The Band's Visit

Thomas Ellenson

Last night I saw the new, critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway musical "The Band's Visit" at the Atlantic Theater.

Book: This intimate, small-scale musical is based off of a little-known movie of the same name. It is about an Egyptian band that arrives in Israel, but due to a mix-up at the border they arrive in a small town where "absolutely nothing happens." The unhappy village is called Bet Hatikva, which sounds very similar to the bigger city Petah Tikvah where the band is supposed to perform. The band travelers are taken in by the local villagers where their lives become intertwined.

Score: The unique music and lyrics are written by Broadway composer David Yazbek (who also wrote the scores to shows like "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"). There are definite influences of Middle Eastern music, and many songs convey the backstory and inner monologue of each character. The score is beautiful, and I hope they record a cast album to preserve it (and so I can listen to the songs again!).

Acting: The 14-person ensemble cast is brilliant and multitalented. The actors playing the Egyptian musicians double as the orchestra, and one of the highlights of the evening is a post-curtain call performance of the band. Other cast standouts include Katrina Lenk, John Cariani, and Daniel David Stewart as some of the Bet Hatikva villagers, and Tony Shalhoub as "Tewfiq," the conductor of the Egyptian band.

My opinion: Not all musicals need to be big and splashy to be entertaining and tell a story. I loved every minute of the low-key "The Band's Visit," and hope that there is a future for it beyond the current limited engagement at the Atlantic (there are rumors of a Broadway transfer, but I could only see it playing in the smaller Broadway theaters). I give it 9/10 escapes! "The Band's Visit" is currently playing a sold-out run at the Atlantic Theatre, but has recently been extended through January 8th.

Bears In Space

Thomas Ellenson

Quirky off-Broadway shows are my favorite, and the new play "Bears in Space" at 59E59 did not disappoint! 

Book: The title of the play by Eoghan Quinn says it all, it's a wacky comedy about bears... in space. A narrator tells the bizarre story (with frequent guitar-strumming interludes) as the three other cast members act out the tale (using puppets!) of two astronauts (who just so happen to be bears) and their journey to the planet Metrotopia, where they meet a villainous boy-king (played by Game of Thrones star Jack Gleeson). 

Acting: The four-person cast (Quinn, Gleeson, Cameron Macaulay, and Aaron Heffernan) is immensely talented with rapidly-switching accents, puppeteering, and overall goofiness. They each play multiple roles and all have their own chances to shine.

My opinion: "Bears in Space" is pure joy and so much fun to watch. If you're a fan of campy, silly, sci-fi comedies, this is definitely the show for you. I give it 8/10 escapes. The play is currently running at the 59E59 Theatre through October 2nd.

Trip of Love

Thomas Ellenson

On Tuesday I saw the off-Broadway '60s dance musical revue, "Trip of Love," which is wrapping up it's 10-month run on Sunday. The jukebox musical mixes 25+ hits from the beloved decade with splashy dance numbers, colorful sets, and fabulous costumes from the era. 

Production: When entering Stage 42, the walls are painted in psychedelic pinks, greens, and oranges to set the mood for the experience. A blacklight makes the colors pop even more. When the show begins, the curtain rises on an Alice-in-Wonderland style plot where one girl goes on a surreal adventure throughout classic 1960s settings like a California beach, a go-go club, and a draft protest (among others). The pacing of the show is incredibly choppy, with different musical numbers introducing characters that are never seen again after the specific scene is over (the protagonist is not onstage at all throughout some of these songs). The thin plot does tie some moments together where the Alice character meets a boy, falls in love, marries him, and is later heartbroken when he gets drafted into the Vietnam War. 

Musical numbers: The '60s was an eclectic decade for music, and I like how "Trip Of Love" didn't just focus on one genre-- it had performances of popular rock, folk, and pop songs of the day. My favorite scenes included the "Wipeout" beach number, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," "Blowin' in the Wind," and "White Rabbit." 

Acting: The talented cast had amazing voices and were brilliant dancers. Standouts include the actor riding the Vespa who sang "It's Not Unusual," the actress in the red dress who guided the main character through her "trip," (I loved her voice!), and the actress who led the cast in the "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" segment. It was also fun to see Dance Moms star Nia Sioux in the ensemble, who had a few solo dance opportunities to show off her talented skills. 

My opinion: Overall, "Trip Of Love" was a bizarre theatrical experience that almost reminded me of a Vegas/theme park show, but regardless I enjoyed every minute and had so much fun! I give it 5/10 escapes. "Trip of Love" is running through Sunday, August 7th at the Stage 42 theatre.

Spamilton

Thomas Ellenson

Tired of all the hype surrounding the musical phenomenon "Hamilton" (And the fact that tickets are impossible to get)? Then head to the Triad theatre where the brand-new spoof "Spamilton" is playing by the creator of the long-running Off Broadway series "Forbidden Broadway." Note: I'll be posting a few spoilers below.

Lyrics: In classic "Forbidden Broadway" fashion, the show lampoons everything relating to "Hamilton," from the cast to the quick rap and hip-hop songs, and of course the star/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Gerard Alessandrini's lyrics are incredibly clever, and reference other musicals that opened this season (such as "Shuffle Along" and "American Psycho"). Alessandrini brilliantly took the rap melodies from "Hamilton" and his parody lyrics fit perfectly- some songs are so fast-paced that you have to listen carefully to get some of the jokes. Some highlights included the parody of "The Schuyler Sisters" sung by one actress holding two puppets, the "musical mashup" segment, the "You'll Be Back" spoof, and "I wanna be in the film where it happens." 

The Acting: The small cast of 5 (not including cameo appearances from other Forbidden Broadway regulars) were fantastic and spot-on when imitating the stars of Hamilton, especially the actors playing Daveed Diggs and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Just like in previous installments of "Forbidden Broadway," iconic Broadway divas such as Audra McDonald, Patti Lupone, and Bernadette Peters were parodied in a hilarious running gag about trying to get tickets to the sold-out phenomenon. This incredibly talented cast had to play many different roles and quickly switch from one character to another. 

My Opinion: If you are a theatre fanatic (or even just a fan of "Hamilton"), "Spamilton" is a must-see. The strictly limited run at the Triad is very close to selling out (there are only 18 performances), but to continue the theme of spoofing "Hamilton," they offer a ten cent lottery before each performance. I hope that "Spamilton" will continue to have a life after this run, and maybe grow into a full-blown installment of "Forbidden Broadway" soon. I give it 10/10 escapes!

Shear Madness

Thomas Ellenson

Last week I saw the Off-Broadway comedy "Shear Madness," a Guinness World Record holder for longest running play in the history of the United States. After smash hit productions in cities like Boston and Washington DC, Shear Madness finally made its New York City debut at New World Stages last year. 

Book:

"Shear Madness" is an interactive whodunnit set in a Hell's Kitchen hair salon. The landlady, a concert pianist who lives upstairs, is mysteriously murdered by one of the four suspects who were in the salon that afternoon: a flamboyant hairdresser, a flirty stylist, a rich Upper East Side socialite, and an "antique dealer" with a shady past. What makes the play unique is that the audience gets to question the suspects and pick the murderer, so the ending is different with each performance. The book by Paul Portner is filled with pop cultural references from "Hamilton" to Perez Hilton and the Kardashians. These topical jokes plus the fourth-wall breaking concept makes it an audience favorite.

The Acting:

Everyone in the 6-person cast was great in their respective roles. Scene-stealing Jordan Ahnquist played Tony, the flamboyant hairdresser, whose antics even made some of the actors onstage break character and laugh. Tony winner Cady Huffman was an excellent new addition to the cast as socialite Mrs. Shubert. Kate Middleton and Adam Gerber rounded out the suspects, and Patrick Noonan as an undercover cop (with help from Jonathan Randell Silver as his assistant) guided the audience through the participation portion of the show. 

My opinion:

"Shear Madness" is pure fun from the scripted moments to the changing improv with each performance. The unique concept makes it a hilarious show that is always worth a return visit to see a different ending. I give it 9/10 escapes! "Shear Madness" currently has an open-ended run, but will soon move from New World Stages to the Davenport Theatre.

Buyer and Cellar

Thomas Ellenson

Happy Fourth of July weekend! Hope everyone is having a wonderful summer. Last night I saw Buyer and Cellar at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT. The one-man play by Jonathan Tolins stars Michael Urie, who originated the role(s) Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2013. Having seen it at Barrow Street before, I was thrilled that the hilarious (but fictional!) look at what it would be like to work in Barbra Streisand's "basement mall" was back with its original star. 

The Acting: 

Michael Urie is fantastic as the main character, Alex More, and all of the people he interacts with, including his boyfriend ("Barry"), his boss ("Sharon"), and of course Barbra herself. The show's prologue explains that Urie will not do an impersonation of Streisand, but just "be" her- and it absolutely works. His comedic timing is pitch-perfect (as is his ability to rapidly switch from one character voice to another) and he brilliantly lands all of the jokes. 

Book: 

Not only is Jonathan Tolins' imaginative 100-minute play incredibly funny, but it also explores interesting themes of celebrity and the price of fame. 

My opinion: 

I'm so glad I was able to see this again a few years after the Barrow Street run. The Westport production ends today, but one performance was filmed for Thirteen and will air soon on the television program "Theatre close-up." I give it 10/10 escapes!

Hadestown

Thomas Ellenson

This week I saw Hadestown, a mesmerizing new musical based off of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), an Off-Broadway theatre in the East Village. 

The Acting

There are 8 people in the cast, and everyone is terrific in their respective roles. Cast highlights include Patrick Page as Hades (I'm still thinking about his insanely deep voice and low notes), Amber Gray as Persephone, and Chris Sullivan as Hermes (who also acts as a narrator of the piece). Also of note are the three actresses playing the Fates, who sing incredibly complex and intricate harmonies with perfection. 

Score

The musical is entirely sung-through, and the score by Anais Mitchell is an imaginative look at vintage New Orleans jazz and American folk music. Hadestown bills itself as a "folk opera," and that is the perfect way to describe the music. A concept album is available, but I'm really hoping that a new cast album with the current cast is released soon! 

Design

Hadestown is an immersive musical, with the audience sitting on cushioned wooden chairs surrounding the stage. The actors frequently wander around the space and interact with members of the audience (such as giving them glasses to raise). With the cast performing throughout all sides the theatre, it made for a unique theatrical experience and a brilliant use of NYTW. 

My opinion

I highly recommend Hadestown, especially if you love immersive musicals like Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The successful NYTW run just extended through 7/31, and I'm hoping for a cast recording or a future life for this fantastic new musical. I give it 9/10 escapes!

West Side Story

Thomas Ellenson

Happy Tony weekend! Yesterday I made a trip to the recipient of this year's Regional Tony Award- Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. The final show in their 2015-2016 season is the classic musical, West Side Story.

The Acting:
Matt Doyle played the leading man role of Tony and was fantastic! I loved his rendition of the show-stopping ballads "Something's Coming" and "Maria," and was a perfect match opposite Belinda Allyn as Maria for the famous duets "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart." Another cast standout was triple-threat Natalie Cortez as Anita, who also played the role on Broadway in the 2009 revival. The rest of the cast playing Jets and Sharks were phenomenal dancers and performed the classic Jerome Robbins choreography brilliantly. On a side note, this is one of the largest casts I've ever seen at Paper Mill!

Score/Book:
I'll keep this paragraph short since I feel like everything has already been said about the material of the show- it's a beloved classic for a reason and even 60 years later the songs are still as beautiful as when the show first opened in the 1950s. The story and message of the show is still relevant today. There is a reason why this is considered to be one of the greatest musicals of all time.

My opinion:
Paper Mill is one of my favorite regional theaters and they put on a wonderful production of West Side Story. I'll give it 7/10 escapes! If you can make it up to Millburn, New Jersey, go see it before the run ends on June 26th!

American Psycho

Thomas Ellenson

Hello! It's Emma (AKA Emmaloucbway), and I'm so happy to be collaborating on Theateriffic and writing reviews. First up is American Psycho, which is sadly in its final week of performances.

Acting:
Benjamin Walker is giving an incredible performance as the antihero Patrick Bateman- he brilliantly embodies the twisted character. Helene Yorke is hilarious and another standout in the cast as Patrick's girlfriend, Evelyn. Jennifer Damiano and Alice Ripley don't have very much to do, but it's nice to see them back on Broadway.

Score:
American Psycho is set in the 80s, so Duncan Sheik's unique score is in the EDM genre that was popular at the time (there are a few already-existing pop songs that also appear during the show). Highlights of the score include the opening number "Selling Out," "You Are What You Wear," "Killing Spree," and the haunting "This is Not an Exit." The Original London Cast album is on Spotify, and I highly recommend it!

Design:
The Tony-nominated lighting design for this show is honestly my favorite of this Broadway season. Projections cover the entire stage to reflect what is going on in Bateman's mind, and in some scenes add color to an otherwise monochromatic set.

My Opinion:
Overall, I am sad to see American Psycho close so abruptly, but it's a very dark and polarizing show so I can see why it never found an audience. If you're in the city this week, it's a must-see, especially for Benjamin Walker's performance and the fantastic production elements. I'll give it 7 escapes!