All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Frankly, my dears, I needed a break.
My life is spent at a keyboard, and while I have enjoyed writing and adding my deux centimes since childhood, I had a need to get away from desks, communications equipment, and sitting in one chair in one position for hours each day every day.
Writer’s block had nothing to do it. I believe that a writer had to practice and exercise his or her technique and vocabulary with the assiduousness of a dancer at the barre (or a literary colleague at the bar). Some creative pieces and assignments kept the cylinders going, But my being craved for a larger swath of activity, and I indulged that craving. Because I thought it was a correct and timely one, My limbs, joints, muscles, and digits needed attention too.
Now I am back in balance and ready to persevere once more. NealsPaper is important to me. I would never abandon or scuttle it and have been busy preparing my post=season awards for which about 135 out of 216 shows have now been considered and ranked.
So, now to continue. The best way to catch up and start clean with summer fare is to breeze through the thoughts that have been percolating during his fallow period in as brief a message as possible. This present a significant challenge to loquacious me, but here goes the attempt.
BUDDY: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street, New Hope, Pa, through July 16 — All my love, all my kisses go to this energetic and musically-savvy production of Alan Janes’s bioplay about the seminal rock and roller whose death at 22 by plane crash caused Don McLean to call February 3, 1959 “the day the music died.” Janes’s book is not that strong. It is typical, without distinctiveness, of most stories of this type — guy has talent, only one person sees it initially, guy is stubborn and persistent in his standards, he alienates people, he finds success that could be compromised or that he can ruin, he also finds love, but everything is tough and with conflict; see “The Man Who Knew Infinity for a variation on the same theme — but it serves to give enough taste of Buddy’s background and leads to some glorious music played by a group of talented actor-rock ‘n’ rollers, and augmented by Lorin Latarro’s usual brand of stylish liveliness in movement and choreography. Even director Hunter Foster, often overripe with good ideas and bad at editing his inspirations — I know, look who’s talking! — stays out of the way and lets the impact of the music and his well-chosen performers carry the day, (One sequence that had me bristling at Foster for curtailing songs to put in some stop-motion bit in muted lighting, led to me cheering him when I realized why he made the choice he did and how creatively clever it was. Another in which bassist John David Larson goes through amazing acrobatics while playing his instrument in synch with the rest of the band is astounding, and in some ways a tribute to Larson, Foster, and Latarro, especially when he rides the bass or balances himself in its waist, the part that curves in from upper and lower wider sections of the instrument, but it is also showy and pulls focus from the main event, Buddy and the Crickets regaling us with their latest tune.) In general, this show is aces. Music was Buddy Holly’s interest, and Foster and company give Holly’s music its due. You can’t wait for the next band sequence, especially when Buddy is in concert, and a series of songs is coming.
John Dewey, who has a role last season on Fox’s “Gotham,” is a marvelous Buddy, unassuming while being demanding, innocent and fresh looking while having revolutionary ideas. Dewey manages to be subtle and bravura at the same time, and he arrests you when he starts crooning Holly’s infectious tunes and sweet lyrics. Dewey is not alone is being an adept actor-musician. Larson and Zach Cossman are whizzes at the bass and drums. Elizabeth Nestlerode puts wit and grit in her comments as a record producers wife, then shows the same moxie on the piano when she joins the band. Brandi Chavonne Massey commandeers the show with a rousing rendition of “Shout!” and has comic moments when she is confused about the race of Buddy and the Crickets. (I have always wondered how Holly and his troupe could be construed as black, but Janes says that’s the case, and the conflict he creates gives Massey some top-notch moments.) Kent M. Lewis is excellent as the manager-producer who gives Buddy sway and engineers his commercial breakthrough. Gilbert D. Sanchez is an engaging Richie Valens. Karack Osborn has fun as The Big Bopper. Grade: A
CHAPTER TWO, Montgomery Theater, 124 Main Street, Souderton, Pa., through July10 — Neil Simon’s play about a widower finding new love while not being able to relinquish affection for his late wife holds up well and contains several Simonesque one liners and bits of wisdom for which the prolific comedy writer rarely gets credit. You are able to see the structure of the play and hear more of the writing because the cast at the Montgomery Theater doesn’t quite capture the sophistication of their characters and don’t always find Simon’s rhythms or verbal intentions. Anna Marie Sell, playing the tricky part of Jennie Malone, gives texture and depth to Tom Quinn’s production with the honesty of her performance and the sincerity with which she conveys confusion. Matt Tallman also shows his character’s conflict as George Schneider, a Simon surrogate. Some scenes between these two prove the continuing viability of this piece, but supporting performances, one too broad, the other too self-conscious, scuttle the proceedings. Lines are recited and delivered, not read with thought about content, intention, or where the joke or more subtle emotion is. Sell can make a mundane line meaningful, the two supporting players lose Simon in running past his stop signs and not thinking much about what they’re saying. It gets to a point where you hope you no longer have to see them. And remember, Ann Wedgeworth earned a 1978 Tony is one of those roles. I’m leaving the names of the guilty unmentioned because I think both have better work in them. The overall production is pleasant, and more when Sell is on stage (although I wish she had better instincts about when to take off a coat), but it gets tedious at times, and the line readings let you see flaws in Simon’s consistency, such as Jennie, a divorcee, saying she doesn’t remember her maiden name when it’s the one she uses all of the time. Grade: C-
JULIUS CAESAR, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, Pa., through July 17 — One must praise this “Caesar” and do everything to keep it from being buried until the maximum number of people file to the DeSales campus in Center Valley to see Patrick Mulcahy’s intelligent, timely production. Theatrically, Greg Wood’s magnificent Cassius and Spencer Plachy’s robust and strategic Marc Antony drive his show. Woods shows the rightful resentment a Roman citizen would have to seeing a representative, even one as high as a Prime Minister, become a dictator while also revealing Cassius’s cynicism, ambition, and cunning. (You notice in Mulcahy’s production, more than in most, how often Cassius is right in instinct and intent while the more cautious, allegedly more noble Brutus is wrong to the point of sabotage.) Plachy’s Antony is smart, dashing, and human, able to stir people’s souls in one instant while conspiring to deny them all he promised in another. Which brings us to the main and most stunning virtue of Mulcahy’s staging — the exposure of politics and how much the best for Rome and Romans is at the center of Shakespeare’s play, often underrated or underplayed in spite of being so popular. Mulcahy, through the portrayals of Wood, Plachy, and others such as the contrasting Henry Woronicz as Brutus, the fascinating Casca of the increasingly fascinating Christopher Patrick Mullen, and the strong, piercingly intuitive Portia of Grace Gonglewski, accentuates Shakespeare’s trenchant look at the subtle operations of politics. At a time when Britain has been hobbled by a binding vote, and the United States embarks on a election featuring two unsavory, uninspiring candidates, we see the fragility of democracy and wonder at policies and how they will affect our liberty and the future of great nations. Such is the matter Shakespeare addresses in “Julius Caesar,” Rome at a crossroads when the democracy in its republic is threatened by the potential for the tyranny of a single voice that might shout down all of the freedom Romans have achieved and cherished in its golden day. Brutus and Cassius are not callous dissidents. They are the John Adams and Alexander Hamilton of their time. They see danger in terms of the erosion of Rome’s democratic fabric, and they take action against the symbol of what they and other sober, sound judging leaders regard as the root of the trouble, Julius Caesar (George III or Lord North) who is on the brink of having final say on everything, including the way one conducts one’s own business that is not the government’s. To Shakespeare’s credit, and Keith Hamilton Cobb’s, Caesar is not portrayed nor characterized as an anathema. He may have imperial leanings, and may decline the suit of a Roman noble, but he can also engage in conversation with Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators and doesn’t display much of the malice they fear and which will be later be expressed by Caligula and Nero. Shakespeare and Mulcahy show the justification of the conspirators’ choice while making us wonder if it is necessary to kill Caesar. (Political confrontation, by challenge in the Senate, would not be as possible in the last century B.C. as we would hope it might be today, and that the United Kingdom may have to test.) Mulcahy and troupe go into great detail. Wood shows Cassius’s jealousy, smallness, and retributive traits even as he gives him logic, persuasion, and cause worth considering. Woronicz conveys Brutus’s distaste for the violence and finality of assassination. He never allows Brutus the passion with which Wood endows Cassius or Mullen gives to Casca. This is a cerebral reading that also captures the emotions of the characters involved, Brutus’s being muted as Woronicz deliberates all and shows no zeal or enthusiasm beyond agreeing to participate in an act that he comes to see as fitting and proper. Mulcahy’s production lets you hear all arguments and makes sure they remain interesting and worthy of your hearing and consideration. You see the range of the conspirators, from the committed to the petty. You glean the intelligence and sincerity of all involved. When Plachy makes his mark (no pun meant) as Antony intones his gripping funeral speech, a sure lesson in why someone to wants to persuade should always wait to go last, you see an new and different kind of dynamism that jibes with the tenor of the production but adds some sophistication, and sophistry, to it. Plachy, so young and virile compared to the conspirators, and so affectionately passions, sets a new tone. In doing so, he also presages the new politician (even though it’s Marcel Logan’s Octavius that prevails and leads Rome to its next period of greatness, albeit as a virtual dictator). Mulcahy’s a rich, thoughtful, and thought-provoking production that not only gives vivid differentiating attention to character details and makes use of some witty design maneuvers, such as having white banners flying when Caesar is being lionized (and later killed) at the Capital and black banners to indicate Brutus and Cassius’s war encampments . The late-act war scenes that often bog down productions of “Julius Caesar” keep the pace going here, again because of Wood’s relentless Cassius, who I remind is always right, and Plachy’s dash, articulation, and humanity as Antony. Logan, Peter Danelski, and Ryan Hagan also acquit themselves well in this remarkable staging. Grade: A