Talkin’ Broadway: You Never Know

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Haviland Stillwell and Ben Steinfeld

Can musicals still enchant a cynical audience, sweep us into a fantasy land, and maybe even make our lives a little better? Charles Strouse sure thinks so, and he’s written a delightful new show to prove his theory. You Never Know, now playing its world premiere engagement at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI, is Strouse’s love song to the power of musical theatre. While the show is not without problems, it is undoubtedly the best thing to emerge from his pen sinceAnnie.

Ben Shapiro (played by Ben Steinfeld) is a young composer at a crossroads: his lawyer father wants him to go to law school, but his passion is in the theatre where his late grandfather toiled unsuccessfully. His granddad – also named Ben – has recently passed away, so young Ben has rented out a rehearsal studio for a public read-through of the unfinished musical left behind. As friends and strangers join the reading, their lives get tangled up in the story they’re enacting. Before long, both the characters and the audience are immersed in the show within the show, awash in tap dancing and those elusive (but rewarding) hummable tunes.

The conceit of the show works, but sometimes it works against itself. The book, which is credited as “by Charles Strouse with Rinnie Groff,” is solid, with plenty of laugh lines and a compelling story. Because the show is set in a rehearsal studio, there’s a piano on stage at all times. The two-level set features another studio above where a band and some dancers are rehearsing. By the second number, when the band conveniently begins playing a dance tune as the characters reach a dance moment, I found myself hoping that this wouldn’t be a musical that pretends it’s not a musical. Will there be some sort of textual excuse for every note that’s sung, every step that’s danced? Thankfully, this idea is gradually abandoned as the power of the music takes over. And, with songs that echo the best of Gershwin and Kern, and dances (by Christopher d’Amboise) reminiscent of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s work at MGM, it’s easy to get taken in quickly. Still, some of the songs and scenes from the play-within-the-play are laughably bad, particularly those that suffer from too much exposition. Are the creators trying to show us why the elder Ben’s career never took off, or are they making fun of musicals of the 1940s? Either way, both the play and the audience would be better served by better material, matching the quality of the “old show” to the “present day” material. Continue reading

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Talkin’ Broadway: The Trojan Whore

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Lonnie McAdoo and Jason Myatt

Did you hear about the unwinnable war being fought for personal reasons that went on for far too long? Yeah, me too. And so, apparently, have the folks at the Mill 6 Collaborative, who are currently presenting The Trojan Whore, a new comedy by Sean Michael Welch all about that war. That’s right, I was talking about the Trojan War, you silly readers.

If you thought the above paragraph was arch and clever, you’re in for a treat with Sean Michael Welch’s play. If, however, you’re tired of loose metaphors for the Bush administration’s policies disguised as political theatre, you might want to stay away.

Even for those of us tired of preachy, anti-Bush shows, there is a lot to recommend in The Trojan Whore. John Edward O’Brien has staged the work effectively in the tiny, 30-seat Devanaughn Theatre at the Piano Factory, emphasizing the personal conflicts that underlie national battles. The cast is uniformly talented, eliciting their fair share of laughs and even a bit of pathos.  Continue reading