Review: 'Crashlight' at Cherry Lane Theatre

Spencer Lau

  • OnStage New Jersey Critic

I had the pleasure of attending a new Off Broadway musical, “Crashlight” in their premiere weekend at the historic Cherry Lane Theatre’s Studio Theater in New York City’s Greenwich Village. For those of you who are not familiar with the Cherry Lane Theatre, the building dates back to 1836, its theatrical roots began in 1924, when it was converted from a box factory to theater. Within the walls of this historic building, some of Broadway’s greatest playwrights and legendary actors have begun their careers here. Why did I tell you about the theatre’s rich history? It is because I believe that Celeste Makoff has the potential to be recognized as part of that history in the near future and “Crashlight” has a lot of potential to be a recognized piece that was born in the Cherry Lane Theatre.

“Crashlight” tells the story of an Orwellian world where sunlight is controlled by its narassitic dictator, Marcus Pressi, through propaganda, censorship and violence. The musical’s heroine is Rian, a woman struggling to protect her family, while trying to find the author of the music that inspires her to believe that a better life is possible. Along this journey she is challenged to make personal sacrifices but will she sacrifice her beliefs to help her family and change the world?  The show is written and directed by Celeste Makoff, musical arrangements/orchestration by Trevor Bumgarner, choreography by Kaitlyn Moise and costume design by Shirlee Idzakovich. The show is produced by PeachPie Productions, whose mission “is to give new artists a professional framework to exercise their talents in order to gain the experience they need to take on a career in the arts.” This production certainly has young upcoming talent within its cast led by Lindsay Danielle Gitter (Rian), Andy Dispensa (Marcus), Caleb Schaaf (Anthony), and Rylee Doiron (Jade). 

Lindsay Gitter as "Rian" and Caleb Schaaf as "Anthony"  - Photo by Taylor Wobbler

Lindsay Gitter as "Rian" and Caleb Schaaf as "Anthony"  - Photo by Taylor Wobbler

There are many highlights about “Crashlight” that I really enjoyed. There is a lot of potential in the quality story written by Celeste Makoff. It provides a lot of conflict and character development along with layers to each character and subplot points that make it a compelling story to watch. The story also takes chances and separates itself from productions that deal with an Orwellian world that has been recently popularized by “The Hunger Games” Trilogy. There is budding genius in the music written by Makoff and arranged by Bumgarner. His songs had variety and different genres that showed the range of abilities Trevor wrote for the characters. I particularly enjoyed hearing vocal strengths of the two female leads Lindsay Gitter and Rylee Diorion. Their work individually and in mixed ensemble pieces with Caleb Schaaf and Andy Dispensa compliment each other quite well.

The music has beautiful harmonies but don’t give off the jukebox music sound that modern shows have. Kaitlyn Moise also has moments of fine choreography woven into the story. The ensemble demonstrated that they are talented. Each one of them gave quality performances with tremendous heart that affirmed their commitment and love of production and each other. It appears that there is a wonderful aura of family in this production and there is joy amongst this cast, when they perform with each other. The minimalist set, lighting and sound effects provide a great amount of support for the show. There is a brilliant use of technology as well to modernize the show so that it can be related to as one of the handful of communist dictatorships that still exist. Costume designer Shirlee Idzakovich helps bring Celeste Makoff’s vision of two separate classes of people together with her conceptualization of a nobility style (black and white uniformity) vs. the peasantry (earth tones) that also enhance the world that the characters are living in. The costuming choices again help provide a realistic and modern feel to the show.

Cherry Lane Theatre has provided many artists an opportunity for writers and directors to develop their show. Their founders understood that theatre is a living and breathing organism that is constantly evolving and maturing. I believe that “Crashlight” is a perfect example of that. It will grow and mature as Celeste Makoff makes adjustments in the story, staging and choreography. The show has many highlights that the entire cast and crew should be very proud of but I would like to see them explore more of the pivotal moments in the story. There were times I felt those moments were rushed, where silence and having the eye contact would have given the dialogue and actions more meaning. The production left me wanting to know more about these characters and their connections with each other because they are compelling, well written and acted.

I found “Crashlight” to be an exciting evening of theater. It is the voice of a group of young and talented artists lead by Celeste Makoff. She and Trevor Bumgarner are  both emerging stars in musical theater. I would not be surprised to see “Crashlight” developed more and brought back for another set of performances, hopefully in a venerable theater like Cherry Lane Theatre.

Crashlight
PeachPie Productions’
The Cherry Lane Theatre
www.crashlightnyc.com
Three out of Four Stars
August 25th- September 11th, 2016

Review: 'Disney’s The Little Mermaid' at Off Broad Street Players

Spencer Lau

  • OnStage New Jersey Critic

If you are in your mid twenties to thirties, and grew up on Disney movies, then one of the tent pole movies of your childhood was Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson story that was produced by Howard Ashman and John Musker and brilliantly scored by Alan Menken. In 2008, Disney brought The Little Mermaid to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with Menken’s music, lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater and the book written by Doug Wright. While by today’s standards it wasn’t a huge success, it was bound to be a community theatre standard when Music Theatre International released it for licensing. What I saw with the Off Broad Street Players was how I believe Disney and MTI envisioned the show when they released it.

Victoria Mozitis Photo by Bill Horin/ArtC

Victoria Mozitis Photo by Bill Horin/ArtC

As the show opens after the overture, we get to meet Ariel, portrayed by Victoria Mozitis. She portrays Ariel with wonderful childhood innocence and earnst that Sierra Boggess brought to the Broadway production which is because she’s only a sophomore in high school! Many times community productions done with Ariel portrayed by an adult female and sometimes that role comes off as less believable. For a teenager, the role is much more true to life and therefore the acting becomes more authentic. I believe this young woman has a bright future for herself. Playing Prince Eric is Benjamin Frost and he is a wonderful compliment to Victoria’s Ariel. Both of them express that longing for more in life than King Triton (Rocco Barbera) and Grimsby (Richard Curcio) want for them. Both Rocco and Richard play wonderful caretakers of Ariel and Eric. Rocco has a wonderful physical and acting presence as Triton but shows his range as a doting and caring father balancing parenting and ruling the seas. Richard’s Grismby balances comedy and life lessons like a TV father veteran. Domonic Barnes portrayal of Sebastian is wonderfully fun and will remind those who saw the show on Broadway as what Tituss Burgess did as the lovable crab.

Rounding out the lead cast and portraying Ursula is Toni Mayo. She brings to that role such a devious, sarcastic, and comedic nature to it that you are mesmerized by her performance. She is equal parts Eartha Kitt and Rita Moreno in this role and it is perfect. The rest of the ensemble shows so much talent and promise. There will be no shortage of future lead talent for Off Broad Street Players in the future.

The Little Mermaid production is wonderful and for you South Jersey readers (especially with children), this is a must see. If you’ve only seen the movie, then be prepared for some great additional songs that were added to the theatrical production. Adults and children will be singing (Part of Your World, Poor Unfortunate Souls, Kiss the Girl) and dancing (Under the Sea, She’s in Love, Les Poissons) in their seats, but marvel at songs not from the movie (Daddy’s Little Girl, Positoovity, If Only) and enjoy the story as it is told in a bit more depth than it takes in a movie (what did happen to Ariel’s mom?).

Mike Grubb, Chris Martinez, Victoria Mozitis and Jada Mayo. Photo by Bill Horin/ArtC

Mike Grubb, Chris Martinez, Victoria Mozitis and Jada Mayo. Photo by Bill Horin/ArtC

Director/Choreographer John Stephan smartly staged the show without it being an imitation of the movie. The show calls for a bit of Disney magic, imagination and difficult transitions which OBSP does very well. John Stephan is a wonderful director and choreographer.  His choreography is quite impressive as it touches multitudes of styles, using ballet, some modern, with elements of pop/hip-hop and his signature tap. His directing/choreography reminds me of Casey Nicholaw. He work as the Cumberland Regional High School Dramatic Arts coordinator, direction of various shows in different community theatres in South Jersey have earned him a well respected reputation of getting the most out of his actors to establish his clear story telling vision. The Little Mermaid has a few really tricky parts in it: Prince Eric being thrown overboard, Ariel’s transformation come to mind right away and he pulls them off very well. His casting of the leads show his ability to recognize chemistry and gives all of them their moments that allow them to shine on the stage. The show relies a lot on the lighting and major kudos to designer Caitlin Du Bois. Her lighting designs along with John Stephan’s staging, give moments of the show “WOW” factors. Both Du Bois and Stephan are 2016 NJACT Perry Award nominees. Credit also has to be given to Erin Barbeck’s wig design as well as they are wonderful.

Overall, I can’t say enough how impressed I was with the work of the Off Broad Street Players. This might be one of the best production I have ever seen them produce and is a must see in South Jersey. What John Stephan, cast and crew have done is tell the story of Disney’s The Little Mermaid but did it without overdoing the jokes and attempting to make the show a Las Vegas spectacle. It also made my night to see OBSP’s respect of the work as it is given to them. There have been a few times I have attended other theatre productions in South Jersey where they or the directors have stepped out of bounds with their “creativity” and it was uncomfortable. The production and respect Off Broad Street showed is a model of how other companies should do it. I declare OBSP production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the Levoy Theatre a summer must see!!!

3 ½ Shells out of 4

Off Broad Street Players Presents:
 Disney’s The Little Mermaid
Levoy Theatre
http://levoy.net
August 4-14, 2016
Friday and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sunday at 3pm
Thursday, August 11, at 7:00pm

Broadway Review: 'An Act of God (A New Comedy)'

Spencer Lau

  • OnStage New Jersey Critic

So with Republican National Convention this week in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention preparing in Philadelphia, there is a lot of politics in the air and so much rhetoric of hate and anger. What does a theatre person do to get away from all this?  They go to seek God of course.  Well, they go to see An Act of God at the Booth Theatre. An Act of God, is originally based on the comedic memoir called The Last Testament, A Memoir by God with David Javerbaum. This isn’t the first time God has visited New York City.  In fact he once visited Studio 54 from May-August 2015 and his vessel was the brilliant Jim Parsons, of The Big Bang Theory fame.  God then went and visited…The City of Angels (where else?) and then San Francisco (insert joke there). And who would be his vessel?  Sean Hayes, who else? Who else but the man who brought Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland to life? So when An Act of God came back to Broadway, it was natural to have Mr. Hayes come with it.

Upon entering the Booth Theatre, you will see a massive black curtain covering the stage but not in a conventional manner.  It is more like when you cover your hand to do a magic trick type of way. The particular Sunday afternoon performance I attended had such an eclectic audience. Before I go any farther, just a warning, there will be some spoilers. When the show opens, the black curtain is sucked up through a hole in the set and instantly you are being transported to an audience with God, complete with lightning, thunder, cloud travel and of course stairs to clouds. In the middle of all this, a classic Sean Hayes’s perfectly timed comedic entrance. 

Assisting God and his time are the archangels Michael (David Josefsberg) and Gabriel (James Gleason) who assistant him throughout the show. Michael goes around the theatre offering up questions by the audience (or are they his questions) and Gabriel serves as God’s sidekick. Some of Michael’s audience questions cause God to provide answers to audience members like “you don’t have as much time as you think” or “happily married now”. In God’s opening monologue about creation, there are some latecomers in the audience prompting God to ask “was it the bridge or the tunnel?”  That is a joke every commuter to NYC can relate to. But when another flood of orchestra seat patrons come in, God allows Mr. Hayes hysterical comedic improvisation to flow and the audience is fair game but if you have a phone out to take a picture, he will call you out on it (“Just be lucky he wasn’t Patti LuPone”). As the show gets going, there are a handful of references to Mr. Hayes’s character of Jack McFarland and gags from Will & Grace but from there on it’s God talking.

So in this church of the Booth Theatre, God had to make revisions to the Ten Commandments and corrections to the Bible and in fact give us some NEW commandments. He corrects Adam and Eve (originally Adam and Steve), through to his divine influence on the United States and on the world in general.  While doing that Michael asks pestering questions that we as humans ponder of God and looking for answers.  These questions bring about some interesting discussion and reactions from God that you must see. But God goes through religion, pop culture, celebrities, the brand of God, and reliance on God by society until it all comes to a climax. In the end, the message is quite clear and more thoughtful than you would expect going into the show.

So why is An Act of God something you should go see? Sean Hayes is hysterical and just what you hope to see. As God’s vessel he blends the perfect levels of humor, thought and humility needed to play this role. What if God was one of us rattled around in my mind during the show. This phrase makes a lot of sense in this case as Hayes brings His interplay with Josefsberg and Gleason are so well balanced.  Josefsberg playing Michael and asking the questions we all have in the back of our minds when we watch the news. Gleason as Gabriel, on the other hand, plays God’s lovable sidekick, has wonderful dry delivery. Together they bring a very relatable God to the masses. Don’t expect some crazy existential question to be answered, don’t think that your faith will be strengthened either. But do expect to laugh from the creation of the world to modern culture.

An Act of God is the creation of the brilliant David Javerbaum.  You may know him from his work as the head writer and executive producer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”, retired Twitter account of @TheTweetOfGod, author, Tony nominated lyricist, Grammy-winning song writer and 13-time Emmy winner. Pair his comedic style with the direction of the amazing Joe Mantello (Blackbird, The Humans, The Last Ship, Wicked), winner of multiple Director Tonys as well as many other theatrical awards and you have a winning combination. 

An Act of God is a 3 out of 4 church services attended!!!

An Act of God
Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street
A Schubert Organization Theatre
http://anactofgod.com