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Sunday
Jan222017

THEATER REVIEW - 'The Full Monty'

THEATER REVIEW - ‘The Full Monty’ - Produced by: John W. Engeman Theater – Northport  

Reviewed by: Jeb Ladouceur 

No one seems to know the exact origin of the British term ‘The Full Monty,’ but we’re certainly aware of what it defines in modern parlance. It means ‘whole hog’ … ‘all the way’ … ‘the whole enchilada’ … ‘the works!’

Accordingly, when Terrence McNally wrote the book for David Yazbeck’s musical about six destitute steel workers determined to raise money by putting on the mother of all male strip shows, he wisely stuck with the tantalizing title of the 1997 film from which the production is derived … and New York voyeurs showed up in droves to take a peek.

As it turns out, the show, which opened at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre in October of 2000, had more going for it than just a suggestive moniker. Indeed, the musical garnered ten Tony nominations … a dozen Drama Desk nods … and ran for 800-plus performances. Not since ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ had such a provocative ‘come-on’ lit up The Great White Way.

Okay … maybe theatergoers in the mid-Long Island area don’t constitute quite the same naughty audience that flocked to sold-out performances of ‘The Full Monty’ on Broadway for two years. Still, it was apparent from last weekend’s Engeman opening of the risqué musical, that we locals can hardly be labeled a bunch of prudes. The titters, belly laughs, and catcalls were all there, and they rocked the jammed playhouse from curtain to curtain.

The concept of this show is a good one: It is built around six men’s convictions that their wives’ mania following a Chipendales performance, would be nothing compared to what the out-of-work sextet could generate … if they staged a similar beefcake production, but topped it off with … get the digitalis … a Full Monty climactic number!

Boyoboy!

Of course, there are some things even legitimate theater can’t get away with (apologies for the ‘dangling preposition’), but Director Keith Andrews keeps his six leading men in check just barely (there I go again) enough to dissuade the Northport cops down the street from raiding the joint.

The half-dozen would-be ‘eye candy’ exhibitionists turn-in some surprisingly dazzling, and dramatically empathetic performances along the way, and the actors deserve to be mentioned here. They are: Brent Diroma (as Jerry Lukowski), Ryan Dunkin (Dave Bukatinsky), Peter Hilton (Harold Nichols), Spencer Glass (Malcolm MacGregor), Noah Bridgestock (Ethan Girard), and Milton Nealy (playing ‘Horse’ Simmons).

‘The Full Monty’ contains obvious overtones of Mel Brooks’ classic ‘The Producers’ so it’s hardly coincidental that Richard T. Dolce, The Engeman’s Producing Artistic Director, tapped veteran dance arranger Antoinette DiPietropolo … who choreographed ‘Producers’ … to fill that vital function in this show. Comedy in dance must be an extremely difficult effect to achieve (Donald O’Connor and Danny Kaye were the masters, for my money) but DiPietropolo’s work is right up there with the best we’re likely to see in any genre. She created perfect synchronization throughout between her amateur ‘artistes’ and Musical Director Andrew Haile Austin.

‘The Full Monty’ has scheduled a fairly long run (it closes on March 5th) but the suggestion here is that tickets ($71.- $76.) be purchased well in advance. This is one of those productions that will almost surely fall into the ‘sleeper’ category … a show you definitely won’t want to have heard about from your neighbor once it’s over. That would be a shame! You’d lose out on show-stopping numbers by Nealy (‘Horse’) and Diane Findlay (who excels as piano-playing ‘Jeanette Burmeister’). 

As for likely sources of the expression ‘Full Monty’ … most attribute the term in some way to British Field Marshal ‘Monty’ Montgomery … others favor English clothier Montague Burton … and so forth. It’s my theory, however, that the phrase stems from betting the entire pot in the old card game, ‘Monte.’ At any rate, don’t miss this bang-up show. It’s got some of the funniest sight gags you’ll ever see.

 

Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s recently completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, is due next month. It involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com

Tuesday
Jan032017

Book Review - "Karsh: Beyond the Camera"

 

BOOK REVIEW

“Karsh: Beyond the Camera” - By David Travis 

167 pages – David R. Godine

Reviewed by: Jeb Ladouceur

Like the magnificent San Francisco-born landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, Armenian-Canadian portraitist, Yousuf Karsh, worked exclusively in black and white images. Also, as was the case with Adams, his immigrant Middle Eastern contemporary, Karsh, became far and away the world’s dominant artist in his chosen field. 

Both photographers were born shortly after the turn of the 20th Century and lived long, productive lives. Also, it is indicative of the men’s compositional genius that they were widely recognized for unmatched creativity during their lifetimes. Adams was awarded honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale, while Karsh’s work has appeared on the postage stamps and currency of nations throughout the British Empire.

In this biographical Yousuf Karsh memoir (superbly printed in Lausanne, Switzerland), author David Travis employs a technique that is cleverly fashioned to work on three levels … visually … historically … and poignantly. The combination makes for a reading event that nearly defies description as a satisfying literary experience.

With each turned page of ‘Karsh: Beyond the Camera,’ we are treated to a splendid portrait of a legendary personality (in only a few rare cases did Karsh include more than one person in a photograph). On the page opposite each image, is a direct quote from Karsh himself involving the making of the facing portrait. Following that revealing verbatim recollection, author Travis, a renowned curator of modern photography, explains heretofore little known facts surrounding the history of Yousuf Karsh and his subjects.

Most recognizable of all the iconic images included in this fascinating collection is undoubtedly that of a glaring Winston Churchill. The wartime Prime Minister of Great Britain had (reluctantly) agreed to sit briefly for a single photograph during a 1941 trip to Canada’s capital, Ottawa where Karsh’s atelier was located. Of course, in Sir Winston’s mouth was the ever-present Churchill cigar. Feeling that the fat cigar hid too much of the Prime Minister’s photogenic face, Yousuf slyly approached the great man, plucked the stogie from between Churchill’s lips, and triggered the camera’s shutter release the instant he was able to step out of the picture’s frame.

“He looked so belligerent, he could have devoured me,” Karsh says in his accompanying note on the incident. But the insightful photographer had clearly detected what he wanted to see … and record … in that famous face. And he knew precisely how to produce it. 

When the portrait adorned the cover of Life Magazine shortly thereafter, Yousuf Karsh became nearly as celebrated as the luminaries who flocked to his studio. They included virtually every famous face of the mid-20th Century: Einstein … Picasso … Elizabeth II … Hemingway … Jackie Kennedy. Everyone wanted to be immortalized by the Armenian genius by way of Ottawa, Canada … including my mother, Peggy.

When she was seventeen, Mom was working as a salesgirl at Simpson’s department store in her native Ottawa. A young man a few years Mother’s senior had recently opened a photography studio in town and he was shopping for a shirt. Yousuf Karsh approached my mother, introduced himself, and asked if she would consider posing for him the following weekend. Mom agreed … and the resulting portrait hangs in our Smithtown home on Stony Hill Path almost a century later.

Karsh’s cameras and other photographic equipment have been donated to the ‘Canada Science & Technology Museum’ … where they are on permanent display. ‘Library & Archives of Canada’ holds his complete collection of documents, portraits, prints, and negatives … including my mother Peggy’s.

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s recently completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, is due next month. It involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com

Monday
Dec262016

Jeb Ladouceur's 2016 'Pinnacle Prize' Book Awards

2016 ‘PINNACLE PRIZE’ BOOK AWARDS ANNOUNCED

Selections made by: Long Island Arts Critic, Jeb Ladouceur

 

Syndicated Arts Critic, Jeb Ladouceur, has announced choices for 2015 books of the year. The ‘Pinnacle Prize’ selections are made in four categories – Most Historically Noteworthy (in any genre) – Best Memoir – Best Biography – and Best Novel. In the national competition, winning authors may be residents of any of the fifty States, though choices are weighted in favor of Long Island writers over the age of 18. Local author and former St. John’s University basketball star, Gus Alfieri was the lone Long Islander prevailing in this year’s contest. ‘Pinnacle’ recipients are chosen by Ladouceur who is a novelist, and retired journalist. He is a charter Long Island Authors’ Circle member who lives in Smithtown, L.I. 

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HISTORICALLY NOTEWORTHY

“Crisis of Character”

Gary J. Bern – 283 pages – Center Street

 

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this reviewer is not a fan of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Thus, we have attempted to soft-pedal the book’s many caustic criticisms of the former Democratic candidate for president … because it should not be assumed that the critique is intended as a device to support the election of Clinton’s opponent, Republican Donald J. Trump.

It is widely known that ‘Crisis of Character’s’ author, Gary J. Byrne, has written a no-holds-barred condemnation of the former First Lady and Secretary of State. What prospective readers of this runaway best seller might not know, however, is that the book is loaded with incidents in the career of the retired Secret Service Officer that touch on interesting aspects of life as a presidential protector, but refer only obliquely to Clinton. These vignettes may be referred to, it seems to me, without castigating Hillary Clinton in the process.

For instance, we might be surprised to learn that smoking cigarettes is very popular among Secret Service people. Indeed Gary Byrne reveals that during the Clinton administration, agents assigned to protect the president and his wife, knowing that Mrs. Clinton hated smoking and despised those who smoked, often intentionally lit up out of doors when they saw her coming … just to provoke her. The practice was not forbidden, and there was little that FLOTUS (the First Lady of the United States) could do about it.

Or this … a frequent White House guest of the Clintons, sex guru Dr. Ruth Westheimer, claimed she had been the one to persuade Bill Clinton finally to run for president. That fact is interesting in itself, but it’s perhaps compounded by the knowledge that the tiny woman had been a sniper in the Israeli Army during the early days of its founding. She once poked none other than Officer Byrne (the author) with her finger and boasted, “I can put a bullet in your chest from 200 yards, young man.”

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BEST MEMOIR

“The Heart of a Champion”

Gus Alfieri – 265 pages – All-American Sports Press

 

Few figures in the world of sports have accomplished what the legendary St. John’s basketball star Gus Alfieri has … whether as player, coach, or memoirist. I would state here, and proudly so, that I am a personal friend of the author, whose compelling new book, ‘The Heart of a Champion,’ is the subject of this review.

It bears pointing out that my relationship with Gus Alfieri brings with it several advantages when critiquing his work, because we were classmates at St. John’s University during the years when Gus was one of immortal Coach Joe Lapchick’s standout players. I can vouch for the fact that Alfieri’s recollections in this inspiring memoir are spot-on.

Sports celebrities are frequently known to embellish their accomplishments, and for the most part, these exaggerations constitute innocent embroideries that can be overlooked. In Gus’s case, no such accommodation of hyperbole is necessary. Indeed, the man usually understates his own role in the successes of the various basketball teams with which he has been associated … whether as player or coach.

I get the distinct impression that this rags-to-riches story of Gus Alfieri’s rise from modest Brooklyn roots to the pinnacle of schoolboy coaching would resonate well with Hollywood producers and directors. It’s a success story whose many magical facets can be told most effectively only by the person who lived them. In the case of the championship St. Anthony’s High School mentor, that person happens to be a highly gifted author … and more importantly, a world-class shaper of character.

There are any number of ‘blurbs’ concerning ‘The Heart of a Champion’ that have been penned by sports legends (like Dean Smith, Lou Carnesecca, and Mike Francesa) and most of them seem to be directed to would-be basketball coaches. But this fine book is infinitely more than a coaching manual. It’s a guide to the pursuit of excellence … no matter what the goal … and regardless of the obstacles one might be required to overcome in life.

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BEST BIOGRAPHY

“Hemingway in Love”

A.E. Hotchner – 172 pages – St. Martin’s Press

 

As most Hemingway aficionados will likely do when they read A.E. Hotchner’s masterfully written account of his friend Ernest’s marriages, ‘Hemingway in Love’ … and ‘Hem’s’ disastrous love of two women simultaneously … I absorbed this brief book in a single session. In fact, at one point I even became eager to finish … and start all over again. (I re-read the biographical text the following evening, by the way).

It’s no news that Ernest Hemingway was married four times … that his one true love appears to have been his first wife, Hadley … that Hadley’s successors were Pauline, Martha, and Mary (in that order)  … and that the most romantically stimulating relationship of the four clearly was his liaison with the wealthy seductress, Pauline Pfeiffer.

But even after a lifetime of reading everything one could lay one’s hands on by and about the ‘great’ Hemingway, I found much in Hotchner’s book that I hadn’t known. For instance, at one point, Ernest described himself to his friend ‘Hotch’ as a young husband who, upon meeting the determined Pauline, was “…as stupid as a bird dog who goes out with anyone with a gun.” Immediately, we see how Hotchner quotes this perfect metaphor to paint the swarthy author/sportsman. How intriguing that he should find himself the unsuspecting target of a different kind of hunter … this one wrapped in a high-fashion outfit right out of the pages of ‘Vogue.’

This critic is not one who considers Hemingway’s writing all that exquisite. I’m more interested in the part and parcel of the man’s existence than in his often repetitive prose as such. Accordingly, there’s much about the man I’d like to have seen explored here: e.g. why he felt compelled frequently to marry women who were his seniors … or how he really reacted when Hadley lost a number of ‘Papa’s’ manuscripts, including their carbon copies, on a train (never to be recovered).

That would have been interesting to know.

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BEST NOVEL

“The Swans of Avenue”

Melanie Benjamin – 341 pages – Delacorte Press

 

Anyone who thinks a writer cannot create a spellbinding novel about a weird little gay man and a stunningly beautiful trophy wife (someone else’s of course) is in for a hugely rewarding surprise when they read Melanie Benjamin’s ‘The Swans of Fifth Avenue.’

What’s more, every devotee of the ‘faction’ genre (fiction based on fact, a la, ‘In Cold Blood’) will find it impossible to put this fine book aside once they’ve delved into page one. There the reader is immediately seduced with the wonderful opening line: “When he was young, when they were all young—Truman Capote was a hell of a lot of fun to be around.” Three hundred pages later, the masterful Ms. Benjamin has none other than CBS Chairman, William S. Paley proclaiming, “I’m sorry I ever saw Truman Capote.”

Obviously, a lot has happened in the span of 90,000 words.

If, at the outset, we don’t know much about the players in Benjamin’s story (diminutive Truman Capote, incredibly wealthy Bill Paley, the gorgeous Babe Paley, self-indulgent Gloria Vanderbilt, et al) we certainly will when the brilliant wordsmith is through delineating them. She defines characters better than anyone this reviewer has read in a long time.

Anyone who has had occasion to meet Truman Capote (as I did in Bridgehampton in 1981) will find Melanie Benjamin’s word picture of the tiny literary giant uncannily accurate. Every lisp, finger flick, and salacious giggle is perfectly drawn. In the end, as we know, even Truman’s adoring ‘Swans’ deserted him … and the pathos is palpable.

It’s difficult to believe that Benjamin never knew any of the people she describes so convincingly in ‘The Swans of Fifth Avenue’ … or that she never lived in New York City … a venue she outlines as the most seasoned tour guide might. The woman has researched her subjects to a fare-thee-well!

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his book and theater reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s recently completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, is due next month. It involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com

Wednesday
Dec142016

LONG ISLAND ‘ENCORE’ THEATER AWARD WINNERS – 2016

LONG ISLAND ‘ENCORE’ THEATER AWARD WINNERS – 2016

Selected by Syndicated Reviewer, Jeb Ladouceur

 

Once again, Theatre Three, Gateway Playhouse, and The Engeman were equally strong in this year’s ‘Encore’ competition … each of the iconic organizations produced winners in three of the contest’s ten categories. The famed Gateway garnered its trio of winning nods for the first time since 2013… and all those awards were for the same show! Repeat successes in this, the 4th year that ‘Encore’ certificates have been awarded, were Jeffrey Sanzel (Best Actor and Best Director) and Brett Chizever (Best Featured Actor). They had been selected in the selfsame categories in previous years. Worthy of note are the standout performances of acknowledged international stars Andrea McArdle (Broadway’s original ‘Annie’) and Sally Struthers (of ‘All in the Family’ fame). They added greatly to this year’s Long Island theater scene.

 

Best Play or Musical

‘Anything Goes’

Gateway Performing Arts Center, Bellport

For the first time, Bellport’s Gateway Theater wins the top ‘Encore’ prize with a lively Cole Porter musical. Lighting, Costumes, Choreography, and Performing excellence combined to make ‘Anything Goes’ this season’s winner despite strong competition from a number of other memorable productions staged in Port Jefferson and Northport. 

 

Top Overall Show ‘’Anything Goes’

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Best Supporting Actress (play or musical)

Sally Struthers – (‘Anything Goes’)

Gateway Performing Arts Center, Bellport

The multiple award winning star of ‘All in the Family’ brought her considerable skills to Bellport earlier this year, and the audience at The Gateway just loved her. We got the distinct impression that Struthers is clearly familiar with ‘Anything Goes,’ so comfortable was she in her featured role. Sally and her little canine pal lit up the south shore stage.

  

Sally Struthers

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Best Actress (play or musical

Andrea McArdle – (‘Anything Goes’)

Gateway Performing Arts Center, Bellport

Andrea McArdle is one of those hoofers who is equally comfortable when singing, dancing, or acting. Since creating the title role in ‘Annie’ McArdle hasn’t missed a note, a beat, or an emotion. If anything the multi-talented star has only improved in her maturity, and she still looks like the kid who won our hearts with her sensational Broadway debut.

 

Andrea McArdle

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Best Supporting Actor (play or musical)

Brett Chizever – (‘Beau Jest’)

Theatre Three, Port Jefferson

Brett pulled off the comic gem of 2016 in ‘Beau Jest.’ Playing the hilarious part of ‘Bob,’ a ‘Boyfriend for Hire,’ Chizever teamed up with Jenna Kavaler and kept the Theatre Three audience in stitches for two hours. Brett’s job was all the more impressive because his role was so distinct from the sympathetic character he played in 2015’s gut-wrenching ‘The Boy from Oz.’

 

Brett Chizever (standing)

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Best Actor (play or musical)

Jeffrey Sanzel - (‘A Christmas Carol’)

Theatre Three, Port Jefferson

There should be a special acting category for Jeffrey Sanzel, if for no other reason than to be fair to his fellow thespians. It’s hard to imagine a role in any play or musical that can match Sanzel’s adaptation of Dickens’s immortal classic ‘A Christmas Carol,’ nor are we likely ever to find a role as compelling as that of ‘Ebenezer Scrooge.’ No one has interpreted the part as well as Sanzel.

  

Jeffrey Sanzel

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Best Scenic Design (play or musical)

Jonathan Collins – (‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’)

John W. Engeman Theater, Northport

Jon Collins is one of those theatrical masters who has become the very best at his craft. As soon as we enter Northport’s snazzy Engeman Theater, we’re breathtaken by Jon’s magnificent sets, and they prepare us for an even higher level of satisfaction. Collins has an inate sense of the optimum use of space within the proscenium. He is literally unmatched at the game.

 

‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’

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Best Child Actor (boy or girl – play or musical)

Sophia Eleni Kekllas - (‘Mary Poppins’)

John W. Engeman Theater, Northport

When we saw Sophia Eleni Kekllas’s winning portrayal of a ‘doll come to life’ in ‘Mary Poppins,’ it was as if the youngster was inventing the part as she went along. There was nothing contrived or artificial about her interpretation. Still, she made us believe for a few precious minutes. Bear in mind that little Sophia was playing- a character who could not exist. That’s acting!

 

Sophia Eleni Kekllas (center)

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Best Costume Design (play or musical)

Kurt Alger - (‘Mary Poppins’)

John W. Engeman Theater, Northport

Those who underestimate the importance of costumes in glitzy shows like ‘Mary Poppins’ would be overwhelmed by taking a trip backstage. There’s scarcely room to maneuver, so jammed with racks, hangers, and wig stands are the wings of the average playhouse. With this show set in Edwardian era London, the complexity of dressing its actors became routine for Kurt Alger.

 

‘Mary Poppins’

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Best Director (play or musical)

Jeffrey Sanzel - (‘Godspell’)

Theatre Three, Port Jefferson

Those of us who frequent Long Island theater haunts are familiar with the man who has become local drama’s Picasso … its Babe Ruth … its Mozart. Nothing that takes place on stage is likely to stymie this actor/writer/director. Jeffrey Sanzel took a giant step in reinforcing that reputation when he molded the cast of ‘Godspell’ into a unit where every performer seemed born to their role. 

 

Jeffrey Sanzel

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Best Newcomer (male or female – play or musical)

Jennifer Barry - (‘Spamalot’)

Star Playhouse, Commack

Barry, believe it or not, works at a diner in New York City, where she happily waits on tables, and satisfies her show business instincts by entertaining Ellen’s Stardust customers with her big voice and repertoire of show tunes. In her Star Playhouse debut, Jennifer more than met expectations, and her collegiate theater training paid off with this, her first ‘Encore’ award. Welcome!

 

Jennifer Barry

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s recently completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, is due next month. It involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com


Sunday
Nov272016

THEATER REVIEW - 'A CHRISTMAS CAROL'

THEATER REVIEW

‘A Christmas Carol’ - Produced by: Theatre Three – Port Jefferson  

Commentary by: Jeb Ladouceur  

Jeffrey Sanzel’s miserly ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ is haunted by Dylan Robert Poulos who maneuvers the ceiling-high ‘Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.’All actors know something that probably escapes the ken of the average theatergoer: Audiences have a lot to do with the molding of a performer’s delivery, and ultimately they affect the success of a show. The reaction of patrons to a stage artist’s interpretation, whether to vocal inflection or on-stage activity, will invariably tell actors and their director what works, and what doesn’t. Of course, the experienced director, standing in for the audience during rehearsals, sees to it that performer and attendee will usually be in sync come opening night, but not even the most accomplished director can be a perfect audience-surrogate for an entire play.

Accordingly, it has been my experience that because of this interconnection, stage shows generally tend to get better with each passing performance … and by the time a production is ready to close, it will likely be at its polished and satisfying best.

But there are some shows that are so timeless, so expertly conceived, and sufficiently audience-friendly that the curtain never really comes down on them permanently. And such a one is Theatre Three’s annual production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ a theatrical legend that’s in its 33rd year at the grand old playhouse in Port Jefferson. 

The big cast of Theatre Three’s 33rd annual production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ adapted for the stage by Jeffrey SanzelNaturally, it’s impossible for all cast members in such rare plays to remain in specific roles over the years. Indeed, the players change … and thus interpretations of a production’s various characters change along with the new faces. Different actors obviously bring varying métiers to the parts that were played by someone else the season before.

This is where the insight and adaptability of a perennial show’s director becomes supremely important. For while the artistic mentor enjoys the advantage of knowing what’s worked well with audiences in the past, he (or she) is still charged with evoking the best performances that this year’s actors are capable of delivering. One thing is certain—they’ll never be identical to the preceding ones.

With ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Director Jeffrey Sanzel enjoys a distinct advantage in that he wrote the stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, and he also plays the lead character, miserable Ebenezer Scrooge. With those dual linchpins in place, Sanzel manages, year after year, to offer up satisfying productions that Long Island audiences have come to expect from the master director. Amazingly, he succeeds simultaneously in showcasing new talent in abundance.

Significant, surely, is the iconic nature of the novella first published in 1843. In the nearly two centuries since then, the story has so captured the imaginations of millions worldwide that quotations from the book have become household terms (“Bah, humbug” – “God bless us, every one” - etc.). We have a tendency to favor the familiar and the quotable when it comes to our art … and in particular the performing arts. Dickens contributed mightily to establishing that, and Sanzel wisely capitalized on it in his adaptation.

The collaborators might have been separated chronologically by some two hundred years, but artistically they have a lot in common … and Long Island’s theater aficionados are the beneficiaries.

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s recently completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, is due next month. It involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com

Monday
Nov212016

THEATER REVIEW - 'MARY POPPINS'

THEATER REVIEW - ‘Mary Poppins - Produced by: John W. Engeman Theater – Northport 

Reviewed by: Jeb Ladouceur 

Analisa Leaming, a fetching Mary Poppins, Arrives at Northport’s Engeman TheaterSooner or later, it seems, every theatrical organization gets a crack at ‘Mary Poppins’—and now through New Year’s Eve, it’s The Engeman’s turn. Actually the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous for locals, because with the exception of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ (currently playing it’s standard holiday gig forty minutes east in Port Jefferson) the whimsical story of the magical nanny created on film by Julie Andrews might be the perfect show for kids of all ages during the holiday season!

If that sounds like overstatement, theatergoers simply have to see the enchanting Analisa Leaming for themselves. If ever a stage actress was perfectly cast as the ultimate au pair, it’s Leaming! 

We all know the story immortalized by the 1964 Disney movie … governess-type Mary Poppins shows up at the privileged London home of little Jane and Michael Banks, where she wows the obstreperous children by introducing them to amazing chimneysweeps, mind boggling shopkeepers, dancing statues, and other unforgettable characters who quickly win the youngsters’ hearts. 

The film about kids largely denied affection by their father (a la ‘Sound of Music’) was a natural for the stage, thus it opened on Broadway in 2006 … and ran there for seven years!

Granted, ‘Mary Poppins’ is not a jolly holiday show in the manner of ‘White Christmas’ or Dickens’ classic story fashioned around old ‘Ebenezer Scrooge,’ but it’s an appealing tale of childhood whimsy nonetheless, and as such, the narrative qualifies as an appropriately festive offering at this celebratory time of year. 

Mary is named ‘Poppins’ because she just shows up magically from time to time—that is to say, she just ‘pops in’—get it? And though she’s the undisputed star of the show, ‘Bert,’ the wonderful singing, dancing Chimneysweep, who essentially is the musical’s narrator, complements the dazzling Mary expertly with clever and revealing dialogue. In fact ‘Bert’ (Luke Hawkins) delivers one of the most spot-on lines in the play when he tells Mary, “You’re a sight for sore eyes.” Because Leaming sure is, folks! The slender, statuesque woman is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s difficult to imagine any young lady looking better in an Edwardian outfit. Those stunning turn-of-the-20th century walking suits and high-button shoes seem to have been designed with Analisa Leaming in mind.

Striking, too, are all of the ensemble’s colorful pastel costumes designed by Kurt Alger. Mary stands out, of course, in her red, blue, white, or black outfits (she seems to change every ten minutes or so), and even the drab clothing of the dowdy ‘Bird Woman,’ (so poignantly interpreted by Suzanne Mason,) is appropriate in its dreary contrast to the leading lady’s finery.

The starring children in this play are ‘Jane and Michael Banks,’ played by Katherine LaFountain and Christopher McKenna. They are on stage virtually non-stop, and do a fine job in their taxing roles. One notable youngster, who appears less frequently, is Sophia Eleni Kekllas. She plays a come-to-life doll named ‘Valentine.’ Sophia exhibits all the tools necessary for future stardom; indeed her superb stage presence is obvious despite her brief role and tender years. Someone has guided the gifted child’s early career with first-rate insight.

There are two magnificent production numbers in this endearing musical, and they are entirely different in style and execution. One is the tongue-twisting ‘Super-cali-fragilistic-expiali-docious,’ (hyphens added here) which is skillfully sung, and cleverly choreographed with colorful alphabet blocks. The other is ‘Step In Time.” It’s a show-stopping piece wherein ‘Bert,’ ‘Mary,’ and the ‘Banks Children’ join fifteen ‘Chimneysweeps’ in a rousing, perfectly timed tap dance extravaganza.

If there’s anything not to like in this Drew Humphrey-directed show, I don’t know what it would be. Maybe a few encores could be added. That would have delighted the sold-out crowd who stood and cheered last weekend … as Mary Poppins flew down from the midnight London sky with her umbrella … and took her well-deserved bows.

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s recently completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, is due in December. It involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com

Sunday
Nov132016

Theater Review - 'Young Frankenstein'

THEATER REVIEW - ‘Young Frankenstein’ - Produced by: Star Playhouse – Commack  

Reviewed by: Jeb Ladouceur 

There’s no questioning the comic genius of Star Playhouse favorite, Mel Brooks. And for those who might have thought America’s premier jokester exhausted all his rib-tickling talent when creating ‘The Producers,’ they simply must catch The Star’s current production of Brooks’ ‘Young Frankenstein.’ It’s an immensely funny slam-dunk musical. 

Unfortunately, this gem of a show closes after its Sunday, November 20 matinee, so theater aficionados will be well advised to call for tickets at: 631-462-9800-extension 136. 

One cannot overstate the enthusiasm that Commack’s zealous troupe has brought to its long list of hits over the years. These include ‘Spamalot,’ ‘A Funny Thing…,’ ‘Annie,’ ‘Chorus Line,’ ‘La Cage aux Folles,’ and dozens of other classics. The company’s many notable shows have invariably been performed at its beautifully appointed theater (74 Hauppauge Road) with gusto and near-perfect timing. But director Rick Grossman, choreographerLeia DePalo, and costumer Maxine Katz, might have outdone themselves with ‘Young Frankenstein.’

It’s common knowledge that many parodies inspired by motion pictures … 1974’s ‘Young Frankenstein’ is actually a spoof on horror films in general—in particular, ‘Frankenstein’, and ‘Son of Frankenstein’ … frequently such movie-inspired plays have been known to fall flat. Not so, this musical. Based on the film that Brooks himself has called, “my best motion picture,” the comic satire has become a staple for repertory companies, and is enthusiastically received worldwide.

The Broadway production of ‘Young Frankenstein’ spawned by Mel Brooks’ favorite movie actually debuted at New York’s Hilton Theatre (since re-named the Foxwoods Theatre) on November 8, 2007 … though the Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder film of the same title opened, as noted, 33 years earlier. The impresario was obviously spurred on by the immense success of his 2001 stage production, ‘The Producers.’

But reviews of the new parody were mixed … and ‘Young Frankenstein,’ though wildly successful in the repertory niche it carved for itself, has become known as a sort of bridesmaid to ‘The Producers.’ Of course, the label is hardly pejorative, since that phenomenal show won 12 of its 15 Tony nominations, setting the record for most Theatre Wing awards in history, and becoming one of the few musicals to win a Tony in every category for which it was nominated!

In a rat-a-tat production like ‘Young Frankenstein,’ it’s virtually impossible to single out individual performances for acclaim … so far be it for this reviewer to try. Let it be said, merely, that Director Grossman has welded his huge cast into a cohesive unit in which every actor, singer, and dancer, works smoothly and with interrelated precision. The overriding impression is that Grossman must have supervised casting of the named players, but there is no way for the theatergoer to know that for certain. Thus, if there is an anonymous casting director at the Star Playhouse, hats off to him or her for coming up with the right people.

Obviously, no such precise dovetailing of talent is possible in a musical comedy without an orchestra in which the musicians not only know their instruments, but are also intimately attuned to the action on stage. In that regard, Music Director Remy D’Esposito’s charges never miss a note or a beat. Their instrumental expertise fills the huge hall with lyricism that is both expressive and functional.

With ticket prices set at $18. and $25. the magnificent, audience-friendly Star Playhouse represents one of the most satisfying theater bargains available anywhere on Long Island. Even for those of us whose day-to-day job it is to report on artistic productions and their various sites, attending this stunning venue is, in itself, always an event of the first order.

 

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s recently completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, is due in December. It involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com

 

Sunday
Oct022016

Theater Review - '1776'

THEATER REVIEW

‘1776’ - Produced by: John W. Engeman Theater – Northport  

Reviewed by: Jeb Ladouceur 

 

Andrew Hendrick (Robert Livingston), James D. Schultz (Dr. Lyman Hall), Christopher Wynne Duffy (George Read), Peter Saide (Edward Rutledge), Benjamin Howes (John Dickinson), Jake Mills (Joseph Hewes), Kevin Robert Kelly (Judge James Wilson), and Stephen Valenti (Lewis Morris). Photo by Michael DeCristofaro. When ‘1776’ opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 1969, its producers were well aware that the show was about to establish a number of significant ‘firsts.’ Especially interesting is the odd fact that during its three-year run (when the play moved to the St. James, and ultimately the Majestic Theatre) ‘1776’ became the first Broadway musical ever, wherein theatergoers witnessed a full half-hour of continual performance in the middle of Act I, during which no songs were offered! Indeed, until ‘1776’ came along, it was established tradition that instrumentalists were prohibited from leaving their orchestra pit in the course of an act … but this show became the exception. Thirty minutes was simply too long to sit and do nothing, it seems.

One can only suppose that the musicians’ union had something to say about the undoubtedly welcome verdict.

Even today, some forty-five years and one fairly successful revival later, theater impresarios are divided in their opinions as to whether this story about the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be a musical at all!

Those who favor the purely dramatic approach may have a point. For this reviewer, the most riveting segments of the lavish production are those defined by dialogue, rather than lyricism.

This is not to say that ‘1776’ deserves no place in the annals of musical theater … it is every bit as good as most efforts in the melodic genre … in fact, it should be noted that in its current format the show was nominated for five Tony Awards, winning three, and one of those three was for ‘Best Musical.’ Go figure.

 

Scenic Designer Stephen Dobay’s Independence Hall set Photo by Michael DeCristofaro.

Jamie LaVerdiere is superb in the starring role of John Adams, and Jennifer Hope Wills acquits herself admirably as the legendary Abigail who ultimately became America’s stunning First Lady. Together, she and LaVerdiere form an exquisite team. Wills’ extensive Broadway resumé is evident in this characterization; the part seems tailor-made for the widely-traveled star. Not to be overshadowed, however, is David Studwell playing the irrepressible Benjamin Franklin. He has some of the best lines in ‘1776,’ and deservedly so, if the history books (and hundred-dollar bills) are to be recognized as appropriate salutes to his persona.

Regular attendees at the Engeman will recognize Michael Glavan and Tom Lucca who turn in a believable Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock respectively. And Broadway standout Benjamin Howes delivers a splendid interpretation of the lesser-known John Dickinson, while James D. Schultz also shines in the somewhat more obscure role of Dr. Lyman Hall

The actors playing the other dozen-or-so Declaration signatories also do a bang-up job, befitting their inclusion in the excellent company in which they find themselves. 

As always, The Engeman has supplied its sterling cast with all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from the Northport company. This naturally begins with veteran Director Igor Goldin. He never, ever, disappoints! 

Any critic would be remiss were they to overlook Kurt Alger’s wonderful costumes (including the powdered wigs, naturally) of the Revolutionary War era. Throw in Stephen Dobay’s wonderful set, and one can easily conclude that no cast anywhere was ever given such remarkable tools with which to execute their craft. 

Chalk up another hit for The Engeman!

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of eleven novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. It maintains that each actually wrote the other’s most acclaimed work. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com

Monday
Sep262016

THEATER REVIEW ‘Legally Blonde – The Musical’ 

 

THEATER REVIEW

‘Legally Blonde – The Musical’ - Produced by: Theatre Three – Port Jefferson  

Reviewed by: Jeb Ladouceur  

Rachel Greenblatt, Brittany Lacey, Jenna Kavaler, Amanda Geraci Photo by Peter Lanscombe‘Legally Blonde’ opened on Broadway in 2007, and promptly garnered seven Tony nominations … only to disappoint its fans, with zero wins. Had the American Theatre Wing been judging the production currently playing at Theatre Three in Port Jeff, the show would probably have been victorious across the board. It’s that well-constructed.

The endearing comedy about a UCLA coed, Elle Woods (Brittany Lacey) who’s been jilted by a career-obsessed Harvard law student, Warner Huntington III (Chris Brady) … though she won’t give up without a fight … is based on the novel of the same name by Amanda Brown. Movie aficionados will likely recall the 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon in the lead role of Elle.

‘Legally Blonde’ was a commercial success in every genre in which it was presented. Indeed it proved to be a moneymaker as a book, play, film, and television offering! Add to its prowess at the box office, the show’s three Olivier awards during its run in London’s West End (as well as a long list of movie and TV prizes) and one can readily see why this comedy has been labeled a producer’s dream.

The cast in the Port Jeff production is a large one … there are no fewer than 28 roles performed by 24 different actors … and regular Theatre Three attendees will recognize veterans like the versatile Brett Chizever (Emmett), Rachel Greenblatt (a winning Pilar), Amanda Geraci (Margot), and the aforementioned, Chris Brady (who plays a convincing Warner). Also notable are the duo of Alex Esquivel and Dylan Robert Poulos (hilarious as Nikos & Carlos respectively in their brief show-stopper), Sari Feldman (Paulette), Emily Gates (tough-as-nails gal Enid), and Steve McCoy (as the despicable Callahan).

Seasoned players and newcomers alike all acquit themselves well in ‘Legally Blonde,’ and we expect nothing less in a play directed by major domo Jeffrey Sanzel. His reputation as a demanding task-master … and a patient teacher of the young … has proven a veritable magnet that has drawn any number of fledgling players to Theatre Three’s celebrated stage. And the legend continues.

One of the second act scenes from ‘Legally Blonde’ that bears Sanzel’s unmistakable imprint takes place in a courtroom, and is a classic example of comedic timing. That segment alone is worth the modest price of admission. It is the funniest bit of theater since the classic piece of legalese farce in the film ‘My Cousin Vinnie.’ You’ll laugh yourself silly!

There are no memorable songs from ‘Legally Blonde.’ But then, not every show is ‘Oklahoma.’ What was on display when this reviewer took in the show last weekend was a musical that highlighted the talents of energetic actors who sang and danced their hearts out. In the process they earned their standing ovation when Jeffrey Hoffman led his seven-piece orchestra in the musical’s final reprise.

Two other points are in order in this critique. Though it may not seem necessarily germane to the proceedings, the slow-motion changes of scenery on the Randall Parsons set contributed greatly to the easy continuity of the otherwise rapid-fire Whitney Stone choreography. A fine touch.

Also, Robert W. Henderson, Jr.’s clever pastel lighting of the proscenium was absolutely inspired. In one number ‘Ireland,’the stage was framed in orange, green, and white … while frequently in those where the indefatigable Brittany Lacey was singing (it seemed she was always on stage!) ‘hot pink’ was the order of the day.

Last word: By all means get on over to see ‘Legally Blonde’ at Theatre Three sometime in the next month. Rarely has a Long Island musical offered so many virtuoso performances in a single show. The result was more than a delightful two hours in the theater … it was a downright thrilling phenomenon to behold.

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of eleven novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. It maintains that each actually wrote the other’s most acclaimed work. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com

Wednesday
Sep212016

Book Review - "Crisis of Character"

BOOK REVIEW

“Crisis of Character” - By Gary J. Byrne 

283 pages – Center Street

Reviewed by: Jeb Ladouceur 

 

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this reviewer is not a fan of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Thus, we will attempt to soft-pedal this book’s many caustic criticisms of the current Democratic candidate for president … because it should not be assumed that the critique is intended as a device to promote the candidacy of Clinton’s opponent, Republican Donald J. Trump.

It is widely known that ‘Crisis of Character’s’ author, Gary J. Byrne, has written a no-holds-barred condemnation of the former First Lady and Secretary of State. What prospective readers of this runaway best seller might not know, however, is that the book is loaded with incidents in the career of the retired Secret Service Officer that touch on interesting aspects of life as a presidential protector, but refer only obliquely to Clinton. These vignettes may be referred to, it seems to me, without castigating Hillary Clinton in the process.

For instance, we might be surprised to learn that smoking cigarettes is very popular among Secret Service people. Indeed Gary Byrne reveals that during the Clinton administration, agents assigned to protect the president and his wife, knowing that Mrs. Clinton hated smoking and despised those who smoked, often intentionally lit up out of doors when they saw her coming … just to provoke her. The practice was not forbidden, and there was little that FLOTUS (the First Lady of the United States) could do about it.

Or this … a frequent White House guest of the Clintons, sex guru Dr. Ruth Westheimer, claimed she had been the one to persuade Bill Clinton finally to run for president. That fact is interesting in itself, but it’s perhaps compounded by the knowledge that the tiny woman had been a sniper in the Israeli Army during the early days of its founding . She once poked none other than Officer Byrne with her finger and boasted, “I can put a bullet in your chest from 200 yards, young man.”

As mentioned, we will not find it necessary to cite the litany of Secret Service complaints about FLOTUS, but it should be pointed out that for all his faults, the president enjoyed a reputation that was just the opposite of his wife’s: he was loved by those assigned to protect him. As Byrne says, “Find yourself in the same room with Elvis (his code name) and you are hooked. POTUS was very generous. You can’t help but like him.”

Of course, ‘Crisis of Character’ would probably be disappointing to most if it failed what I call the ‘Lewinsky test.’ In that regard, it shouldn’t disappoint. White House voyeurs will be titillated to know that Bill Clinton provided the notorious young intern access to his private phone line. We learn that the number was so secret it required not only a four-digit pass code, but one that was rhythmical in nature as well. Which is to say, entering numbers and letters had to be done at just the right pace for the code to work. Now that’s secret!

Another sample of this memoir’s intrigue comes in a heretofore unreported incident when the author tells of his concern regarding Ms. Lewinsky. Having become aware of the fact that “…she and the president (had) a behind-closed-doors relationship…” Gary Byrne detected a potential danger to the presidency. Accordingly, he went to Bill Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Evelyn Lieberman, and told her what he knew. “The next day,” Byrne writes, …Monica was gone.

It won’t come as any surprise that many Secret Service personnel are reported literally to have gone mad, and that over the years several turned to drugs and alcohol … performance enhancers and prostitutes … as well as illicit sexual affairs on the job. After reading ‘Crisis of Character’ one may well wonder how any of these beleaguered people managed to avoid such a fate.

Unfortunately, his book is poorly written (blame the editors at Center Street for that). It is not for literary purists, but it certainly is interesting, timely, and a bit disconcerting. Indeed, anyone contemplating a life as a Secret Service agent … or for that matter, a politician … might give that a second thought by the time they get to Chapter Eighteen.

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Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of eleven novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. It maintains that each wrote the other’s most famous work. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com