Brighton Beach Memoirs at 30 by Ninety Theatre through March 14
I remember seeing Brighton Beach Memoirs at the then-recently rechristened Neil Simon Theatre and being a bit underwhelmed by it. I’m not sure if it was because my expectations were too high after its rave reviews and Tony Awards or because the charms of this intimate family dramedy got lost in the upper reaches of that large house.
Add to this my usual frustrations at hearing locals attempt New Yawk accents and I hope you can understand my trepidation as I recently headed to 30 by Ninety Theatre in Mandeville for its production of Simon’s autobiographical play.
I’m thus delighted to report that within minutes of the show’s start, my fears had evaporated as the entire cast, under Tom Bubrig’s meticulous direction, all found the perfect period (pre-WWII) tone, all sounded like they had just jetted down from Brooklyn, and all evinced a complete understanding of their characters despite them being from another generation (or two or three).
Aided by Bubrig’s keen guidance, the entire cast, led by John Gavin Hodges as Eugene Jerome, the teenage Simon’s stand-in, revealed a compassionate humanism in their decent if imperfect characters. Simon may not be as probing a dramatist as, say, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, but there are sections of Brighton Beach Memoirs that approach a bittersweet Chekhovian portrait of life’s ever-yearning attempt at happiness.
True, Simon, especially towards the end, spells things out in a way Williams or Chekhov would’ve been loathe to do but, overall, Memoirs provides a moving portrait of a family in transition as it confronts challenges both internal and external.
As the Jeromes, on Joe Lagman, Frank Gonzalez, and Bubrig’s two-level realistic set, deal with love (familial and romantic), careers, and little personal tragedies, Bubrig & Co. marvelously brought out the warmth of the script and got laughs by trusting the humor in the lines without ever overplaying them.
Sure, some of it is easy humor as when Stanley, Eugene’s older brother, tells him about seeing a naked gal (the innocence of those pre-internet times!), but talk of the changes that puberty brings and “whacking off”, as well as meals of liver and cabbage, radiate a gentle charm from a bygone era when a weekly $25 salary meant a lot to a struggling household.
As the 15-year-old, girl- and baseball-obsessed Eugene, the excellent Hodges, an actual high schooler himself, nailed all the rhythms of Simon’s dialog and found the humor in Eugene’s innocence without ever falling into caricature. If he bobbled some of his lines, I suspect that’s been overcome as the run has progressed.
Kristina Kingston makes a wonderful Kate, Eugene’s mother. Her stoic, casual demeanor is utterly natural and yet, when a lifetime of bitterness erupts, she’s simply astonishing.
Stephen Campo as the well-meaning Stanley and Jason J. Leader as the worn down paterfamilias Jack each bring out the touching humanity of these two men and, in addition, truly look like father and son. In fact, this is that rare family play in which everyone in the production believably does seem to be related.
Unlike her bitchy, revenge-seeking Bunny in last summer’s The Hallelujah Girls, here Evette Randolph plays Aunt Blanche, a woman ground down by the too-early loss of her husband, with unaffected pathos as she tries to raise two daughters in her sister’s home. Though her Blanche was properly unassuming, Randolph could have spoken her lines with just a bit more volume (as could some of the other actors, especially when they’re in the upstairs bedrooms). Still, as she tried to navigate a courtship with a Catholic neighbor, Randolph reminded me of Laura in The Glass Menagerie (seen just a week earlier at the nearby Playmakers Theater in Covington where it’s been extended thru March 14), another woman to whom fate is unkind.
As her daughters, Reese Maguire nicely conveys with a fine subtlety how the know-it-all Laurie just might be taking advantage of her health issues, while Avery DeFrank beautifully captures Nora’s youthful longing in her hope of becoming a showgirl on Broadway.
Though some of the references (Irene Dunne, Clarence Darrow, Abe Lincoln in Illinois) in this nearly 40-year-old play could use footnotes, when it comes to the dynamics and aspirations of the Jerome family, Brighton Beach Memoirs proves to be surprisingly and refreshingly timeless. You have one more weekend to see it. Go and kvell.
For more information and to order tickets, go to https://30byninety.com/shows/brighton-beach-memoirs/
Little Shop Of Horrors at Slidell Little Theatre through March 14
Little Shop Of Horrors was another show I was cool to when I initially encountered it from the balcony of the Orpheum Theatre in the East Village way back when. Only after seeing Brandt Blocker’s 2004 production, starring the endearing Emily Antrainer and Keith Claverie, did my feelings for it blossom.
Slidell Little Theatre is currently presenting the “Broadway Version” of this fringy musical, a forefather to such other off-Broadway hits as Bat Boy: The Musical, Evil Dead: The Musical, and Reefer Madness. I’m not enough of a Little Shop authority to know all the differences between the two versions (“B’way” vs. Off-B’way) but this one seems a tad slicker (hey, whaddya expect from B’way?) with the back-up singers Crystal (Jennifer Bullock), Chiffon (Theresa Sharp) and Ronette (Rachael Knaps) having more interaction with the main characters.
No matter. It’s still the same wild Faustian tale of a nebbishy flower shop worker, Seymour, who finds fame and fortune for his store when he discovers the secret of how to make an unusual plant grow to humongous proportions. Needless to say, that secret turns out to be a killer.
Director Larry Johnson, Jr. emphasized the fairy tale aspects of Howard Ashman’s book, an adaptation of the Roger Corman movie. With a nod to The Wizard of Oz, the sets and costumes in the first act, when the florist is on the brink of closing, are black and white; after success arrives in Act Two, they’ve metamorphosed into brilliant shades of color.
It’s a pleasure seeing Johnson’s work again and hearing his wonderful voice; I’ve missed him both onstage (after starring in such musicals as Evita and Promises, Promises) and off (his memorably revisionist Into the Woods at SLT). Here, you root for him as his nerdy Seymour grows bolder as Audrey II, his maleficent floral creature, becomes more famous…and fierce.
Johnson is well-matched by Skylar Broussard as Audrey, Seymour’s co-worker at Mushnik’s floral shop and the object of his affections, who’s blind to how horribly her boyfriend, the evil dentist Orin, treats her. Broussard makes Audrey (Seymour names the plant after her) sweet, gentle and adorably touching; she’s a dreamer with a Betty Boop voice.
Johnson and Broussard combine winningly on the well-known song Suddenly, Seymour as their feelings for each other bloom.
My only reservation is that Director Johnson has guided Broussard and himself to give performances slightly more comic book than silver screen; we always sense that they are playing these roles rather than fully inhabiting them as was the case with Antrainer and Claverie.
Mikey Willman effectively fulfills both Orin’s sadism and zany humor, and sings with panache. Derrick Schlumbrecht, as Mushnik, is good but seems a tad too young, more a post-gentrification proprietor than pre-.
Nicholas Smith provides the maniacally soulful voice of Audrey II and adds a delirious sense of abandon every time that he does.
Speaking of Audrey II, Johnson achieves great special effects with the plant in both its small and large incarnations. Kudos to Puppet Designer Jane Hill who created the gigantic version of this fantastic contraption as well as its puppeteers Casey Jones, Ayden Brandt and Hannah Joseph; I just wish Brandt and Joseph had been better camouflaged as they menacingly manipulated Audrey II’s tendrils.
Choreographer Amanda Wright Lou contributes bouncy, period-appropriate musical staging that well-accents composer Alan Menken’s pastiche score of pop, soul and doo-wop music.
Regarding the music, I didn’t mind that it was prerecorded, just that it had a tendency, as is often the case with pop/rock musicals, in general, and Little Shop, in particular, to cover the voices and make Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics difficult to understand. When the words are as fabulous as his, you want to savor every sprout. (Okay, I’ve probably used up my quotient of flower references.)
So if musicals are catnip for you and you’re hankering for a rosy time, get your aster out to Slidell this weekend before Little Shop shutters. Or should I say croak-uses?
For more information and to order tickets, go to https://www.slidelllittletheatre.org/html?PageId=167631
Brian Stokes Mitchell/The Seth Concert Series through March 28
Watching Brian Stokes Mitchell on The Seth Concert Series, I discovered that this Tony Award-winning actor has a bit of a “chatty Cathy” tendency, bordering on logorrhea. But when you’re as talented, insightful, dedicated to good causes, handsome, and an all around-mensch as Mitchell is, who’s gonna complain?
Some of the interesting things Mitchell spoke about included–
–How he had to contend with jets flying overhead when he did Camelot in an outdoor amphitheater with the Starlight Opera in San Diego’s Balboa Park
–That when he took over the lead in Jelly’s Last Jam from Gregory Hines, the most terrifying thing was tap dancing opposite Savion Glover
–That his most memorable role was Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime
–How he’s been Chairman of the Board of The Actors Fund for 16 years after initially thinking he might take on the job for only one
–That he had only 9 days to rehearse for the premiere of August Wilson’s King Hedley II and could barely remember his lines at an early performance. Also, how he dropped the baby in it during the show’s run in Los Angeles. Fortunately, it wasn’t a real baby.
–And, most touchingly, revealing for the first time in public how he had had vocal surgery a few years ago but didn’t want it commonly known for fear of possibly losing jobs.
Among the songs Mitchell performed with his magnificent baritone were Stars from Les Misérables; Man of La Mancha’s I, Don Quixote with Host/Musical Director Seth Rudetsky delightful as his Sancho Panza; How To Handle a Woman (Camelot); This Nearly Was Mine (South Pacific); all the parts of Company’s Getting Married Today; and Let Them Hear You from Ragtime.
Unfortunately, just as Mitchell was getting to the climax of Ragtime’s Wheels of a Dream, the sound cut out. It took a few minutes but, eventually, the Concert Series’ ace tech crew got things working again and Mitchell delivered a stirring rendition of the song’s finale.
Add to all that the lagniappe of a clip of a 20something Mitchell on The Love Boat from 1985 and you had another thoroughly engaging episode of The Seth Concert Series.
Up next, on March 14, is Emily Skinner, a Tony nominee for Side Show. She’ll be followed by the inimitable Jackie Hoffman, recently seen in the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof as Yente, on March 21, and Ashley Spencer, who came in second place among the Sandys on the TV show Grease: You’re the One that I Want!; seen last month with hubby Jeremy Jordan, she and her awesome set of pipes will headline on March 28 with special guest Kara Lindsay. Enjoy!
To purchase tickets to these upcoming shows, go to thesethconcertseries.com