Review: 'Trip of Love' at Stage 42

Nickolaus Hines

Sometimes throwing money at something will make it great. Take, for example, a theater set. Transfer a large enough wheelbarrow of cash to a talented set designer and whatever materials that set designer wants to buy and chances are that a magnificent set will come out.

That type of money is obvious in the split second of walking into Stage 42 for “Trip of Love.” The playbill cover that promises flower power and psychedelic colors is countered by a set with flowers, butterflies, blacklights, mopeds, a rising hot air balloon, Studio 54 style dancing tubes and countless other attractions that draw attention left, right and center all at once.

What all that money can’t do, however, is create a story out of a series of songs without a storyline. 

There are no lines in the entire show, which is not an immediate disqualifier for success. It’s not required to have grown up in the 1960s to know the songs chosen. The song choices tell the same story that each successive generation since the 60s has been told about the decade of love. The songs, however, are disjointed in their arrangement.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

It’s not immediately clear which storyline creator, director and choreographer James Walski wants to tell. On one side, a relatively conservative couple moves through song sets that show the transition from early love of the beginning of the decade to deployment in the Vietnam War. On another, more risqué side, a couple experiments with drugs, sex and conflict. And then there’s one more side, one in which a cool character in a Fonzie leather jacket is the guy every girl wants and every guy wants to be.

Don’t let a lack of storyline be confused with a lack of entertainment, however. The featured singers, which for some reason have been given character names, have more than capable voices. They also have extraordinary dancing chops. Unfortunately, the voices and the dancing are rarely paired, except with Dionne Figgins, who has some of the more impressive numbers.

Arguing that “Trip of Love” isn’t amusing or engaging would be like arguing that Las Vegas isn’t entertaining. The songs contrast and clash in extreme ways. At one point Tara Palsha and Joey Calveri are teaming up in a “Venus” rendition of splashing body paint and close dancing that would excite a de Blasio desnudas task force. The very next song Austin Miller serenades Kelly Felthous with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” with a supporting cast that look as if showing too much calf would be scandalized. It’s a back and forth between acid and sunshine.

Dancing by far steals the show. “Trip of Love” is jam packed with complex choreography and exciting stunts. The amazing set emphasizes the complex choreography from water and surfing in “Wipe Out” to a mirror that turns the attention back on the dancers and the audience in “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.” The musical numbers also aren’t restricted to one style of dance. This only comes naturally, as some songs are made for ballet, some for salsa and some for stripping.

There’s no shortage of rock-solid abs or short-dressed booty shaking. But rather than detracting from the overall set, it fits. Potential audience members need to take a step back and ask if the point of a piece like this is to entertain or tell an accurate story of a complex decade. If it’s the former, then “Trip of Love” is successful, but if it’s the latter, there are some gaping holes that over simplify complex emotions and history. 

TRIP OF LOVE will star Joey Calveri (Broadway’s Rock of Ages), David Elder (Broadway’s Curtains), Kelly Felthous (Flashdance, Nat’l Tour), Dione Figgins (Broadway’s Motown), Austin Miller (“Grease: You’re The One That I Want”), Tara Palsha (Vegas! The Show, Las Vegas), and Laurie Wells (Broadway’s Mamma Mia!), with Yesenia Ayala, Colin Bradbury, Bo Broadwell, Kyle Brown, Whitney Cooper, Alexa De Barr, Daniel Lynn Evans, Lisa Finegold, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Steve Geary, Daryl Getman, Jennifer Gruener, Brandon Leffler, Peter Nelson, Kristin Piro, and Nicky Venditti.
 
TRIP OF LOVE is directed and choreographed by James Walski (Saturday Night Fever, Starlight Express) and features scenic design by Tony Award winner Robin Wagner (The Producers, Dreamgirls), and costume design by Tony Award winner Gregg Barnes (Aladdin, Kinky Boots). TRIP OF LOVE is produced by Makoto Deguchi (Blue Man Group: Tubes), and had its world premiere in April of 2008 at the Theatre Brava! in Osaka, Japan.

Review: I Am My Own Wife"

Nickolaus Hines

The first thing an audience member of I Am My Own Wife is greeted with when they reach the RePOP Vintage Furnishings antiques store in Williamsburg is a program and instructions to wait at the bar next door. It isn’t long, however, before the sold–out crowd of no more than 20 people is ushered back in to RePOP and told to sit wherever they like.

The windows appear as intricate red and blue stained glass from the consistently flashing fire truck lights at the station across the street. Nearly every chair is different, and nearly every object has a tag proving it’s still for sale during RePOP business hours. The reason each audience member can sit wherever he or she likes, the ushers assure everyone, is that the play is everywhere. The results are some people sitting around a coffee table in the middle, with haphazard semi–circle rows rippling out towards the walls.

In the introduction to the show, the audience learns that Two Turns Theatre Company and playwright Doug Wright had always wanted to do the show in an actual antique store. It’s obvious why just minutes into the first act, because most of the writing revolves around antiques and metaphors that flow from antiques, and sitting in antique chairs surrounded by antique lights and wall hangings and the slightly musty smell of very old objects easily puts the audience back into the scene of the characters.

And characters, in the case of I Am My Own Wife, relates to just one actor. Vince Gatton’s cast description is “Charlotte, Doug, et al.,” because he plays upwards of 10 different characters throughout the show. He is Charlotte, a German transvestite and the main character, Doug, a gay American working on telling Charlotte’s history, or a general, TV host, journalist, prisoner, and any number of others. 

Writing as brilliant as Wright’s needs strong representation. No matter how ingenious a script is it can fall on its face without a capable cast. Gatton is that capable cast. He somehow has conversations with himself as different people without coming off as having multiple personality disorder. At one point in the show he is Charlotte as well as a Parisian journalist, a San Franciscan journalist, a New York journalist, and a German journalist all-interacting with each other at once. He has the timing of actors who have spent every second together, but the timing comes solely from him.

Gatton makes the story come alive. When first hearing the play is about a transvestite in Nazi and communist Germany, it may be hard to understand how I Am My Own Wife could be relatable to the average theater fan. The themes, however, are so much more. It’s about humanity, coping with hardship and accepting people even if they are misunderstood. 

Gatton seamlessly connects little vignettes with mastered voice impersonations and physical tics. Wright’s characters capture the zeitgeist of each period they belong in, which is no small feat since the timeline of the play spans from the early 1900s to the early 1990s.

I Am My Own Wife won, among others, the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004. Wright wrote the script based on his conversations with the actual Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and it is more than clear why in this antique store version.

I Am My Own Wife runs until Oct. 4 in RePOP Vintage Furnishings

Review: “Heads” at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row

Nickolaus Hines

The lights dimmed briefly before the lights on stage left shot back on. Two men, gagged and blindfolded, were thrown onto the minimalist set on stage at the Beckett Theatre.

It’s Sept. 11, 14 years to the day after the attack on the Twin Towers that quickly led to the start of America’s War on Terror in the Middle East. Hostage situations have splayed across TV screens on a regular basis since the start of the war, but something about seeing two American men dressed as hostages in an intimate theater makes the emotions of war real again. 

“Heads,” a 90–minute slice of hostage life written by E. M. Lewis and directed by Laura Savia, came back to New York for a second time on the anniversary of the event that changed America. 

The play has been running since 2007. Since then, the Boko Haram insurgency began, Osama bin Laden was killed, the Iraq War ended, the Islamic State replaced Al Qaeda, the beheading of multiple journalists was put online and the War in Afghanistan continues to rage on. Yet “Heads” still resonates as a play that appears to be ripped from the headlines.

“Heads” sticks with a cast of four hostages: a freelance photojournalist, a network journalist, a British Embassy worker and an American engineer.  There is limited action in the play. Time passes primarily through smooth transitions between two adjacent cells as intense, and at times darkly comical, dialogue gives insight into gradual acceptance of full vulnerability and a total loss of control.

On stage left, the first men introduced are a stark contrast of personalities and goals. Freelance photojournalist Jack Velazquez, played by José Leon, is a hardened soul without a family to fall back on. Connecticut network journalist Michael Aprés, played by Michael Turner, is new to war, and recites journalistic principles of objectivity as if he just passed a college journalism course. 

On stage right, Harold Wolfe, a long–term American engineer hostage played by David Dotterer, is the epitome of calm acceptance. His methodology of keeping an ounce of sanity is the opposite of the emotionally complex character of Caroline Conway, the British Embassy worker played by Kim Martin–Cotten. 

Each character has clearly defined motivations and remarkably fleshed–out back stories. The audience is exposed to the harsh realities of being a hostage, but also the role of the war–time press, PTSD and the limits of the human mind and body.

Martin–Cotten’s range of emotions steals the show. The small theater puts the audience essentially in the cell, and the tension is heart–racing as Martin–Cotten trembles in fear from her hand to her cheek. She also gets the audience laughing at (with?) the dark British humor of someone who has lost all hope, but finds solace in Elton John’s rendition of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” The audience is there, emotionally and physically, with the help of Martin–Cotten and the rest of the cast’s full commitment to the characters, even if it is the last place one would want to be.

The minimalist set plays a vital role as well. Careful lighting puts the dialogue front and center, while most of the physical action happens off stage. Audio and a brief projected video make the off–stage action come alive.

Political and shock–value statements of a hostage situation would have been the easy route for E. M. Lewis. Those dramas unfold on the 24–hour news cycle. Instead, Lewis tells a human story of anger, fear, friendship and mental collapse. 

“Heads” will be at the Beckett Theatre until Sept. 20

Sacred Heart University’s Theatre Arts Program has teamed with its in-residence professional company, Connecticut Children’s Theatre, Inc. (CCT, Inc.) to fund and produce a limited run of “Heads,” in New York at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row. 

The production will allow students at Sacred Heart University majoring in Theatre Arts, to take part in all creative and technical areas, and to work with a professional director on staging the show in an Off-Broadway venue. Students will be tasked with taking on all production positions including designers, stage management, assistant director, running crew, house crew, graphics, as well as marketing and social media.

Review: “Under: A New Musical”

Nickolaus Hines

Being accepted into an Ivy League school is a badge of honor. It is an asterisk next to a name on a graduation list that screams “I am successful.” It is validation for all of the hard work and dedication that made a student stand out at the high school level. But inside the hallowed halls of that Ivy League, each person has that asterisk, and for some students, the pressures of success are too much.

“Under,” a musical that questions the mental health and treatment of students at Yale, follows one asterisk through her first year of college and her stint at a psychiatric ward. All of the actors, as well as the playwright, are Yale students or former students. The 19th annual New York International Fringe Festival is giving a voice to the students exploring mental health via the stage.

“Under” follows a Yale freshman named Serena, played by rising junior Michaela Murphy, through two different periods in her life. On one side of the stage, Serena is a student looking for a way to stand out among a crowd of talented individuals, fit in with her friends, and maintain her sense of self. On the other side of the stage, Serena is locked in the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Both sides of the story progress at the same speed with each scene change, one ending with her admittance to the hospital, the other ending with her exit from the hospital. 

Monica Hannush, “Under” playwright and rising senior at Yale, wrote what she knew. Hannush struggled with depression and bipolar disorder, she told the website Call Me Adam, and took a leave of absence at Yale after being admitted to the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Her time in the psychiatric ward and a friend she made there helped her create a connected narrative for “Under,” Hannush told Yale Daily News. 

The first line of the musical rings out over the audience and sets the tone. 

“Will somebody get me my fucking meds!” Yells psychiatric patient Billy, played by rising Yale sophomore Aaron McAlevey.

The stage at Theatre 80 in East village off of St. Marks Place is thinly covered in props. A live band covers a portion of the stage, and they play everything from Jason Mraz-esque jazz tunes to mood music led by composer Julian Drucker.

Billy continues to talk to Serena, both in turnip green colored scrubs, about his history of Xanax and drug abuse. Billy is one of the few characters in the musical that doesn’t attend Yale, and the layers of problems in his life present a stark contrast to Serena, who is struggling in a psychiatric ward with the “Yale puzzle” of being like everyone else, but less successful.

Each song comes near the end of each scene and encapsulates the feelings of each character. Most importantly, each song draws attention to the larger issue that the musical is addressing. Every actor has a voice that can rapture an audience by itself, but when multiple actors sing together, the stage lights up. Many members of the cast are members of a cappella groups as well, and it shows.

At Fringe, not every audience member will be able to relate to the severity of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Most members of the audience won’t be able to relate to attending an Ivy League school. All members of the audience, however, will be able to relate to the message of growing up. Dramatic scenes of young adult angst seem ripped off of a funhouse mirror pointed at everyday, offstage, life.

A few technical problems with lighting and the microphones, which were covered with the ease of a seasoned professional, distracted a bit from the message of the musical. Yet a little grit and a little improvisation adds to the here and now urgency of certain acts.

“Under” points a heavy handed stage light at a serious issue. Four Yale students since 2010 have committed suicide, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people aged 15-24 in the U.S. 

Even so, Hannush found ways to incorporate humor and entertainment. There are playful jabs and pop culture references to Angelina Jolie, Mark Zuckerburg, Belle Knox, Catholics and EDM heads. “Under” is torn from the pages of Hannush’s own life, and there are multiple meta-moments of Serena discussing play writing and song writing.

Theater is a brilliant tool for addressing social issues. The lives and the world of the characters comes alive with references to the lives and the world of the audience. At its core, a musical or a play is just a message that can’t directly change legislation and injustice, but it can change the way an individual thinks.

Put an asterisk next to “Under,” because Hannush’s strong writing, assisted by strong singing, will make you think about your own struggles, the ones you love and the angst we all want to leave behind.

“Under” will be at Theatre 80 until Sunday, Aug. 23.