All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Several of these reviews will be expanded in coming days, but here are some fast takes on shows running, or recently closed, in the Philadelphia region.
BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical , National Tour, Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, through Sunday, April 3 — Like “Jersey Boys” if not as effectively, “Beautiful” goes beyond the formulaic jukebox musical to tell a story written well enough by Douglas McGrath to stand on its own if there was no actual Carole King and if the music in it was original to it. Abby Mueller, on tour, in the part for which her sister, Jessie (now in previews with “Waitress” on Broadway, earned a 2014 Tony, carries on a family tradition of excellence and puts her own stamp on Carole King, whose spunk, talent, and hamischkeit all come through. Mueller’s performance gives “Beautiful” a sympathetic central character to root for, commiserate with, and laud. She keeps King to a human level while showing her variation. Good as Mueller is, Liam Tobin, as Gerry Goffin, her early writing partner and husband, goes deeper into his character’s complexity and gives a performance beyond what you usually see in a populist musical. Becky Gulsvig is fun as Cynthia Weil (the character with whom I’d want to be friends), and Ben Fankhauser has a funny, neurotic turn as the hypochondriac Barry Mann, so the characters become as important to you as their music and give McGrath’s script texture beyond the and-then-I-wrote parade of tunes. I like that parade and have a preference for the rock and roll song by King and Goffin and by Weil and Mann that appear in the first act than the King solos that dominate the second, almost like a concert. Mueller aces all vocal performances as King, but I enjoyed the variety of hearing Ashley Blanchet doing several covers as several performers and having Blanchet joined by Brittney Coleman, Rebecca E. Covington, and Salisha Thomas as The Shirelles and Josh A. Dawson, Paris Nix, Jay McKenzie and Noah J. Ricketts congregating as The Drifters. Reliving one’s youth is a baby boomer’s benefit to “Beautiful.” Watching Mueller channel King while performing her music is another. “Beautiful” satisfies on many levels, and this national tour is every bit as good as the Broadway original, its players being top-notch in general, Mueller being superb as King, and Tobin finding and conveying every stratum of Gerry Goffin’s complicated being. Grade: B+
DOGFIGHT, Media Theatre, closed March 27 — Victoria Mayo’s performance as a young woman of intelligence and character chosen by a Marine, an admitted jerk and jarhead, to compete in a contest to see which Vietnam-bound grunt could invite the ugliest girl to a last-night-home party on November 21, 1963, radiates so far past the Media stage, you want to jump on that stage, embrace Mayo’s Rose Fenny, and tell her she is a peach among flowerless trees and worthy of so much that she receives. Jesse Cline’s production is solid and holds dramatic intensity throughout, but Mayo elevates a fine staging into one worth remembering. From the minute she is seen on stage, in her waitress uniform strumming a guitar and quietly singing a ballad she’s written, Mayo conveys warmth and the type of native goodness that cannot be faked and should not be mocked. Whatever emotion Rose has to express, Mayo finds the most natural and moving way to communicate it. She is not overt but subtle, and the simple ways in which Mayo’s Rose reacts, whether happy or disappointed, remains so ineluctably human, you forget you’re watching a performance and feel strongly for a girl who goes through a roller coaster of feelings in a few short hours. It’s a beautiful bit of acting and singing that can serve as a model for how to build and play a character on stage. Mayo gives “Dogfight” heart that Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan’s work sorely needs if it isn’t going to seem crass for crass sake. “Dogfight” is about tough men in a tough era. These are the guys before the Gulf of Tonkin escalation that are being shipped to Vietnam and advisers. Some are bound to among the early casualties of this sad war. “Dogfight’s” lead, Eddie Birdlace, played effectively by Zack Krajnyak, experiences something even sadder and more shameful when her returns from duty and is mistreated by people on the streets of San Francisco, his uniform disrespected, his service denigrated, and the ticker tape parade he hoped for in November 1963 the mere vestige of a veteran’s legitimate dream. Vietnam, and the idea that “Dogfight” takes place on JFK’s last full day of life, the last day of the 1950’s and post-World Wat II America as known, permeate some of what we see. Cline brings the war home with footage and a looming picture of LBJ. But it’s the party to compare ugliest dates and Eddie’s transformation that matters. Krajnyak and all of the guys in “Dogfight” find the right style, look, and sound for guys who always knew they were heading to the service after high school. There’s something gritty and tough about them. Krajnyak is good at showing Eddie’s inarticulateness when he’s not joshing with his buddies or conning Rose into a date. He maintains that silent attitude throughout the production, and that’s a legitimate choice, but Media’s “Dogfight” would have been stronger and more savory if Krajnyak’s Eddie bent a little. You never see his transition. You see him attempting to be softer. You see him wanting to be. But the arc is never completed. It is realistic that something can hold Eddie back from giving in to his emotions and tenderer, more romantic side. Drama calls for some sign of the change. At the party, when Eddie realizes he genuinely likes Rose, that she’s so thrilled to be on a real date, and that she is much too good for the situation in which he placed her, Krajnyak shows anger and irritation, but he doesn’t make it clear his rage is aimed at himself and his rude behavior. In a dinner scene, it’s interesting to see Eddie unable to just relax and be more than an image or more than the tough kid from Buffalo who only knows hard knocks, but it’s imperative some melting take place, and it’s disappointing when it doesn’t. Don’t mistake. Krajnyak is excellent. His choices are not wrong. I’d have preferred different, more texturing options. Unsavory though “Dogfight” is in concept, Pasek and Paul write derivative yet moving music and offer better lyrics than most contemporary composing teams. Duchan’s book represents more of the hardscrabble nature of Birdlace’s buddies and others in his platoon. In addition to Mayo and Krajnyak, fine performances are given by J.P. Dunphy is a series of roles, Deborah Lynn Meier as a girl who knows the score and doesn’t mind winning an “ugly” contest, and Sarah J. Gafgen as the deadpan Ruth Two Bears. Katie Yamaguchi’s costumes are aces. Christopher Ertelt’s band sounded great. Greg Solomon’s lighting was effective, especially during the scene in Vietnam. Grade: B+
THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pa., through Sunday, May 8 — Mystery prevails in Jared Reed’s staging on his own adaptation of the Agatha Christie short novel that introduced the fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Exposition might be muddy, and even confusing, as presented via a car-ride conversation between a denizen and possible inheritor of the country estate, Styles, and a retired World War I officer who is cogitating about becoming a detective, but once the inevitable murder is committed, and solving it takes over, Reed’s text and production become more taut and direct, letting suspense build palpably and keeping curiosity at fever pitch. The sloppy introduction to characters, which relies too much on your concentration and memory, comes to mean nothing, as the possible killers reveal themselves too clearly and Poirot has a good time finding and analyzing clues while, the former officer, bungles most of the information that comes his way and learns as he observes the master. Zoran Kovcic, the region’s master in roles that require personality tempered by droll deadpan, keeps you glued to Poirot’s actions and utterances. It is from him most clues emerge, and Kovcic is adroit at making you actively wonder what Poirot is observing and thinking before he makes his pronouncements and revelations. You find yourself looking for information along with the detective and hoping he will confirm your surmises. Reed involves the audience in the investigation by asking it to vote for whom they think the culprit is, sparking discussion and putting higher stakes on the outcome. Christie sets up her crime scene in the fashion you’d come to expect. A group of people from the fashionable, and relatively idle, set live in or are visiting a country estate. Each has the potential of being a murderer or a murder victim as opening scenes play out. In “Styles,” a widow who has no children of her own but whose husband had two sons that call her “Mother” and a niece she keeps as a ward, has recently married a man half of her age who stands to gain the “Styles” estate in the event of her death. Neither son is financially independent, and both seems to be in great need on an infusion of income. The young husband dresses and is groomed unusually for the George V era (1920) and has a decidedly sinister cast to him. Besides, he has been known to visit and is regularly seen walking in early evenings with a more age-appropriate woman in town. All would benefit from the widow’s demise, but no one knows the exact contents of her will, which she may have been in the process of amending before she is, indeed, killed by someone at or with access to Styles. In adapting Christie, Reed may have been wise to follow that author’s dramatic paradigm and introduce the characters in a drawing room scene in which each chatters innocuously but says something that could be revealing, even as a red herring. Instead, he has one of the sons, John Cavendish, explain all about Styles to the soldier, Captain Hastings as they ride to the country setting from London. By the time there is a drawing room scene, there’s barely a drawings. Characters, standing in an awkward upstage composition in which no one seems to relate to another, and all seem alienated in his or her own uncomfortable space, engage in Christiesque byplay, but the conversation and its import is hard to follow. The way everyone stands, emotionless and in cigar-store formation, precludes any flow or naturalness to the situation. The characters become ciphers, and you don’t feel as if you’re invited to eavesdrop on them. “Styles” seems distant, inert, and unengaging at this juncture. After some scene shifting that seems cumbersome and a lame excuse for not setting up a proper parlor and having the characters speaking more congenially from chairs, we come into a well-furnished bedroom with properties we don’t know yet are laden with clues. We see the widow in the throes of agony, and strychnine and the way it works will become a prime topic for the duration of Christie’s story and Reed’s play. Staging so far has made the widow’s death vivid and immediate by kept the suspects and their possible motives at too long an arm’s length. All improves markedly with Kovcic’s entrance as Poirot. Not only does Kovcic, in spite of Poirot’s dour fussiness, spark some life and interest in the proceedings. Matters take a steadier course. Every scene and sequence targets a single purpose and accomplishes its tasks. You suddenly get all of the characters straight and being to form opinions about motives and ability to kill. The obvious and the obscure mix in an enticing fashion that make in fun to deduce along with Poirot and make judgments. You may be as crestfallen as Hastings if Poirot negates your ideas, and ecstatic when he confirms, but heavy suspense and mystery have ensued, and “Styles” has you riveted from that time forward. Curiosity rises to an almost unbearable pitch. If Reed resisted tradition and substituted the awkward standing for a drawing setting, he knows his onions when he sets up the clinching scene in a mystery lover’s favorite way, gathering all of the suspects in one room as Poirot goes through a litany that incriminates and exonerates each one until he points to the murdered. This sequence might give a clue about why Reed forewent creating a parlor scene. The sofa we see is hideously wretched and would never be let anywhere near the drawing room of a proper British estate that was probably furnished in Victoria’s time. No matter. The play’s the thing, not the scenery, and Reed and Kovcic make the most of the play. The last two thirds of “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” plays beautifully and fulfills all of your desire to have a mystery solved with cunning and brilliance. In addition to explaining clues well, Kovcic plays the dapper, meticulousness of M. Poirot, and lets you see the detective’s finicky, sophisticated side. Ned Pryce is the picture of the young English gentleman of his time, always looking spiffily but conservatively groomed and expressing his need for money while never getting angst-ridden or hysterical about it. John Cavendish is a man schooled in manners and control, and Pryce plays these traits while showing how John seethes underneath the surface and resents his stepmother’s husband and has less than warmth towards others living at Styles. Brock D. Vickers, as the younger brother, Lawrence, who will have to depend on someone for income or a gift of inheritance no matter who acquires Styles, provides whatever life Reed’s play has before Kovcic makes his entrance. Vickers is loose-limbed, attentive, and observant in casual but tasteful clothes. He is the more light-hearted brother with a tinge of sarcasm, and Vickers shows you the lively and resigned side of Lawrence’s personality. Mark Swift is oily to the point of being reptilian as Inglethorp, the hated young husband, as eventual widower, of the widow. Swift gives Inglethorp hauteur that defines the looks of disdain and suspicion he must live down. It’s a good performance that makes you gravitate towards Inglethorp as a ne’er-do-well and dismiss him as too obvious a choice as a murderer. Bonnie Baldini is interestingly stand-offish and superior as John Cavendish’s unhappy, ready-to-philander wife. Alison Bloechl makes her Evelyn, who is no relation but a valued employee of Mrs. Inglethorp, a figure of great curiosity. She is the raisonneuse of the play, but you’re not always sure you can trust Evelyn. Emily Parker is sunny and guarded in turns as Cynthia, the widow’s ward who works at a hospital pharmacy and has access to poisons. Susan Wefel is both dutiful and dying to tell what she knows as the long-term Cavendish-Inglethorp maid, Dorcas. Josh Portera is ominous is some small parts. Shaun Yates is both enthusiastic and hurt by being put down for all of his wrong guesses about the widow’s murder. Stacy Skinner, as usual, is elegant and to the dramatic point as the widow. Her death scenes is a melodrama in itself. Grade: B-