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Maybe Baby, It's You

Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Presented by Madeline Austin, Roger Alan Gindi, Bruce Lazarus, Dana Matthow, Scott Benedict, Libby Anne Russler, and Allan Sandler, at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., NYC. Opened Nov. 9 for an open run.

In "Maybe Baby, It's You," performers Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson prove themselves to be the new Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Just like that legendary team, Shanian and Simpson write their own material, which is surprising, offbeat, hilarious, and wise. Leave it to Jeremy Dobrish, artistic director of the adobe theatre company, to catch on to yet another good thing. His staging is as delightful as the material.

"Maybe Baby, It's You" is a relationship comedy that is not about the battle of the sexes but the difficulty of understanding one another. Shanian and Simpson, who met while working at the Gotham City Improv, play eleven couples running in chronological order from junior high school nerds to divorc s doddering in their dotage. A running gag is a wedding at which no one will dance with the eccentric best man. Interspersed between the vignettes are real-life recordings gathered from random pedestrians on the subject of relationships and soulmates.

Performed without an intermission, the evening begins with a bachelor and bachelorette's wish list. As they repeat their wishes but change their standards, Michael Gottlieb's spotlights shrink or widen to fit their expectations. Among the memorable skits are the blind date with Medea in which Simpson appears in Bernard Grenier's truly frightening Greek garb. A later skit has a wife serenading her balking husband at an anniversary dinner in a restaurant. The final sketch, which returns to the wedding, suggests that there is someone for everyone.

The material not only showcases the huge acting talents of Shanian and Simpson but also indicates their pitch-perfect ear for the way people speak. The satire in which we can all see ourselves is lovingly and kindly meant. "Maybe Baby, It's You" sends you out refreshed but wiser in the ways of the heart.

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Miami Beach Monsters

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by RE Productions, at the Triad Theatre, 158 W. 72nd St., NYC. Opened Oct. 31; now running Tuesdays and Sundays for an open run.

The principal conceit in this cabaret musical is that some of America's favorite monsters are back from the dead and living on Social Security in Miami Beach. These "fellow monstrosities" are Frankenstein or "Frankie" (Steve Elmore), Bride of Frankenstein or "Bridie" (Laurie Gamache), Count Dracula or "Dracky" (Craig Mason), Killer Tomato or "Tomato" (Diane J. Findlay), Wolfman or "Wolfie" (Richard Rowan), and a new creation, Catskilla (Jimmy Spadola). When they learn there's an agent in town, auditions ensue as Hollywood again calls-"Kevin Costner still works, doesn't he!"

This cartoon musical begins brightly, with the monsters' individual audition pieces the best material in the show, yet when the gang reaches Hollywood, the focus (and creativity) flounders with a hackneyed dreaming-of-our-Miami-home as the only antidote. However, before the steam runs out, there's lots of fun to be had. The revue, broadly directed by Helen Butleroff, has a whole team of creators-for conception, music and lyrics. As a consequence, the results are variable with some of the performers (all of them talented singing actors) seemingly given greater opportunities than others. Oddly enough, it is the better known characters-Frankie, Dracky and Wolfie-who have provided the least inspiration for the creators. In contrast, Bridie, Tomato, and especially Catskilla (Godzilla with a Borscht Belt comedian's persona) seem fresh and novel.

Best bits and bites: Gamache's appealing Bridie sings in "Not Just Mrs. Frankenstein" (Music: David Strickland, Lyrics: Ellen M. Schwartz) that she can "Outdance any dancer, Outneck any necromancer." Findlay as Tomato, in an inspired costume by Debra Stein, asks à la Mae West, "In the mood for a little pulp fiction?" and really delivers in her big solo, "A Woman of a Certain Age" (Strickland-Schwartz). The two solos (Music: Steven Silverstein, Lyrics: Stephen Cole) for Spadola's warm and winning Catskilla, include a tap number for three feet.

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Uncle Jack

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by The Worth Street Theatre Company, at The Tribeca Playhouse, 111 Reade St., NYC. Opened Nov. 2 for an open run.

Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" gets a worthy updating from The Worth Street Theatre Company in its latest offering, "Uncle Jack." Transplanted to a modern-day West Virginian estate, the playwright's classic tale of a family and its frustrations takes on a new sense of immediacy in Jeff Cohen's stirring adaptation.

Cohen wrote and directed this look at a contemporary clan and their constant conflicts, both business and personal. Jack Vaughn (Gerald Anthony) has been toiling away on his family estate for years with his niece Sophie (Keira Naughton), along with a faithful staff. But when his worldly brother-in-law Alexander (Ronald Guttman) returns home after a successful academic career, he sparks off a series of confrontations that uncover decades of repressed contempt and regret. The fact that Alexander brings his attractive wife Helena (Francesca Faridany) only adds fuel to the fire for lonely Jack.

Crafting a smart and sensual production, Cohen has brought modern resonance to Chekhov's timeless themes. He has cast the ensemble piece with a compelling group of talented actors. Anthony balances weariness and wit in the central role, and Guttman is appropriately blustery as his unaware adversary. Naughton brings a quiet dignity to her yearning Sophie, while Faridany imbues her character with sultry style, both visually and verbally. Bernard K. Addison is a dynamic presence as the local physician, who is practically as frustrated as the rest of the family. Equally impressive in supporting roles are Leila Danette, Paul Whitthorne, and Betty Low.

The technical efforts on the show are also first-rate, including set consultation by Sonia Alio, costumes by Susan L. Soetaert, and lighting by Chris Dallos. Original music by Steve Bargonetti and Diane Gioia lends a down-home charm to this intelligent, enticing adaptation.

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Eclipsed

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by and at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC, Nov. 7-Dec. 19.

The scandal of the Magdalene Laundries in the west of Ireland was first placed onstage by Patricia Burke Brogan in Galway in 1992. Her expos , set in a convent laundry in the 1960s, follows the lives of four unwed mothers working as "penitents" in this church institution. Their babies given up for adoption in the United States and elsewhere, the girls are virtual prisoners doomed to wash the country's laundry as a perpetual sort of spiritual penance. That the girls have mostly been placed there by their own families, and that the whole enterprise was operated by the Catholic Church, only makes the injustice even more incredible. Brogan knows of which she speaks-she herself was once a novitiate in such a laundry and is represented in the drama as Sister Virginia (Heather O'Neill).

Unfortunately, Brogan has given this charged story of desperate lives a conventional theatrical treatment. It is as if she believes that the enormity of the injustice should be enough to propel the play forward. Within a standard prologue and epilogue, the two acts show the four girls in the laundry fighting an implacable Church in the form of Mother Victoria (Terry Donnelly). Brogan does succeed in sufficiently differentiating the betrayed girls: Brigit (Amy Redmond) rebellious and vocal, Mandy (Rosemary Fine) forever fantasizing about Elvis Presley, Cathy (Aedin Moloney) asthmatic and desperate, and Nellie-Nora (Fiona Walsh), peacemaker and constant smoker. The orphan Juliet (Jacqueline Kealy) is the wide-eyed observer of this forgotten foursome.

If the dramatization is predictable, Director Charlotte Moore and her team of actors make the most of those theatrical opportunities offered. Mother Victoria is allowed no concessions by the playwright and Donnelly plays her with a flinty ferocity. Each of the girls is pleasingly authentic, but Walsh's earthiness and Kealy's shining innocence are especially appealing.

The final comment of this need-to-be-told story is that the last Magdalene laundry did not close until 1996.

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D jà Donn : Aria Spinta

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by and at Dance Theater Workshop, 219 W. 19th St., NYC, Oct. 27-30.

"Aria Spinta," collaboratively created by the Prague-based troupe D jà Donn and presented at Dance Theater Workshop, is hysterically funny at beginning and end. The midsection, however, offers serious commentary on our inability to communicate with one another and is not compelling, as we find ourselves reluctant to leave the realm of ludicrous comedy initially established.

Directed and choreographed by Lenka Flory and Simone Sandroni, the work depicts a group's mishap-ridden attempt to put on a show and is formed as short, energetic dances interspersed among humorous skits. As "the director" Sandroni is delightfully insufferable as he bullies and manipulates everyone. His self-importance is so ridiculous, he becomes endearing. During a dance sequence, he is suddenly swung onto the stage on a rope swing; though the visual image is undeniably hilarious, Sandroni glares at us as if to say, "How dare you laugh." He is next discovered with his wrists and ankles tied together, bound to the swing. By evening's end "the great director" is sporting a vendor's tray, reduced to roaming through the crowd hawking peanuts, orange drinks, and tee-shirts.

The show's choreography is fun and personalized. Each dancer gets a solo turn and moves gleefully with individual style. One tickles the space with her body parts, enjoying the kinesthetic sensations of swooshes and hops. Another brings a naughty sexiness that proves contagious, and Ondrej Vajsar delivers hip-hop moves within a vaudevillian eccentric dance solo.

"Aria Spinta" ends with accelerating chaos. Curtains collapse, lighting instruments fall from the ceiling, and heavy poles crash down onto the stage. As performers scramble to repair the technical disasters-while colleagues dance furiously to keep some semblance of the show going on-rehearsed routines are abandoned in favor of spontaneous bursts of self-expressive choreography. It's exuberant, zany, and terrifically entertaining.

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Sail Away

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by Carnegie Hall, at the Weill Recital Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, NYC, Nov. 3-13.

It is 38 years since Elaine Stritch first sang, "Give a cheer, Mimi Paragon is here," as the shining star in No"l Coward's "Sail Away." As a tribute to Coward's centennial, Stritch here leads a concert version of the musical, with the help of Director Gerald Gutierrez and Musical Director Ben Whitely. In the Weill Recital Hall where all sounds seem to sound better, it is in the nature of a celebration-both for Coward and for Stritch. That both can still evoke humor and heart-warming theatrical magic for whole new generations, is an occasion for general joy. (It also doesn't hurt that Stritch is backed by a superior cast of musical-comedy veterans, both young and old.) This concert format especially spotlights Coward's lyrics-those oh-so-funny and felicitous phrases.

The revival does reveal the insubstantial pageant of the musical's book-which proves to be only a thin thread linking together revue-like specialty numbers. But what specialty numbers these are. Stritch, who begins in a deceptively throwaway manner (but without ever missing a laugh), builds to bat home her two delightful solo turns-"Useful Phrases" and "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" They're Coward and Stritch at their comic bests. And "Bronxville Darby and Joan," maliciously done by Jane and Gordon Connell, is not far behind. The difficult role of Stritch's romantic interest is handled with charming aplomb-and wonderful singing-by Jerry Lanning. The standardized young lovers are given freshness and musical life by Andrea Burns and James Patterson, while Marian Seldes' over-the-top author and Jonathan Freeman's purser help greatly with the fun.

This presentation is the latest in Carnegie Hall's very commendable Musical Theatre Program, in which a past musical's complete book and original orchestrations are given in concert. "Sail Away" 's lost orchestrations were found in Australia! No doubt, The Master, cigarette in hand, has been smiling down on this happy venture.

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Fuddy Meers

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St., NYC, Nov. 2-Dec. 12.

A hand puppet having a near-death experience-"Everything is going dark"-is only one of the truly inventive aspects of "Fuddy Mears," a wild-ride comedy that introduces playwright David Lindsay-Abaire to New York. His is a comic world that is dark, distorted and dangerous but also (happily for us), entertainingly original. His skewed vision is wonderfully realized in this crackerjack production by David Petrarca, with an inspired cast romping all over Santo Loquasto's playful sets. Lindsay-Abaire's telling of a woman's struggle to regain her memory flirts with a violent streak (and is nowhere politically correct with regard to the vocally impaired). As one of the characters observes, "Stability is a fragile figurine" and this fragility is the knife-edge of the playwright's comedic invention. That all the craziness is suitably explained away by curtain-fall certainly blunts the play's sharpness-but even so the strangeness continues to reverberate.

Claire (J. Smith-Cameron) suffering from psychogenic amnesia awakes each day to a world that she has to be re-introduced to by her husband Richard (Robert Stanton). While Richard is showering, from under the bed appears Claire's supposed brother Zak (Patrick Breen) to transport her to the country house of their mother, Gertie (Mary Louise Burke). That Zak wears half a handcuff and is accompanied by the strange Millet (Mark McKinney) whose hand puppet Hinky Binky also wears half a handcuff, presages the pandemonium ahead. (That Hinky Binky becomes a favorite character can be easily assessed here).

The cast couldn't be better. Smith-Cameron's wide-eyed Claire is the still point around which the craziness whirls-she even succeeds in adding a touch of pathos before curtain time. Stanton's all-American face conveys American virtues while also hinting at their darker underside. But greasy-haired Millet and his alter-ego, Hinky Binky, is the playwright's most original invention and McKinney doesn't miss a trick to make both these characters eerily real.

And welcome to a new and original theatrical voice: David Lindsay-Abaire.

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Vanity Fair

Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Presented by Ariel Repertory Theatre Company, at the McAlpin Room of the West Park Presbyterian Church, 165 W. 86th St., NYC, Oct. 29-Nov. 21.

Director Thomas Edward West has made some strange choices in staging the Declan Donnellan-Nick Ormerod adaptation of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair." As there are no ceiling lights, Thurston Reyes' lighting must be provided on the floor and from the side. Performed in three-quarters-round, without scenery but with Pat Sanftner's attractive period costuming, the production has no atmosphere because the audience is in as much view as the actors.

The adaptation, originally created for Donnellan and Ormerod's Cheek By Jowl Company in the early 1980s, is a skillful and clever telescoping of a large Victorian novel. It covers the 20 years of the novel following the fortunes of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, from Miss Pinkerton's Academy, to the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, and beyond.

Just as in David Edgar's stage adaptation of "Nicholas Nickleby," all of the actors are used as narrators. Actors pantomime scenery such as bureaus and mirrors. Michael Starobin has composed period music for the songs played at the pianoforte by Sarah Bonsignore.

West's casting is also problematic. Alana West's Becky Sharp is immediately so obviously scheming that there are no layers of deceit to peel away for her comeuppance. Lizabeth Allen's Amelia and Connie Roderick as her mother seem even more conventional when not thrown into relief against Becky's irony.

The men demonstrate their versatility in six or seven roles each, created by slight costume changes. James Sobel almost steals the show as the randy Glorvina O'Dowd, who attempts to woo with an atrocious singing voice. Bruce Roberts' portrayals range from the tongue-tied Joseph Sedley to the warm-hearted Miss Jemima Pinkerton. With his flashing eyes, David Arrow is captivating as a series of disdainful gentlemen. Fritz Michel keeps the loyal Captain Dobbin from being too dull in his devotion to Amelia.

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Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu: Paradis

Reviewed by Phyllis Goldman

Self-presented at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., NYC, Oct. 26-31.

Though it was a Saturday family matinee (and the little boy in front of me slept through the whole thing) Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu cavorted full tilt through the hour-long "Paradis," a seamless rendering of projections designed to accompany, embellish, and challenge the human form. Jos Montalvo and his assistant, the gamin-faced Dominque Hervieu, debuted their unusual concept at The Joyce Theater, and it was a delight for the wide-awake little ones, and certainly for the accompanying adults.

Set to a surging Vivaldi score with side additions of homemade percussion sounds (slapping the thighs, gurgling, pounding the feet, and high-pitched rhythmical shrieking), the production seemed like a huge kaleidoscope of scenes-each moment revealing a more colorful configuration than the previous one. Projections of animals; elephants, alligators, dogs, zebras, etc. on a white sheet backdrop were juxtaposed with the excellent dancers spread across the stage, who plunged into every dance style imaginable. Try putting hip-hop, break-dancing, pointe work, and the jiggling gyrations of one very sexy African lady into one panorama, connect them to designs on the screen, and make it all work. Montalvo and Hervieu did just that.

Often the dancers lined up against their own images on the backdrop, outlined only by a slight shadow-so perfect was the synchronization between visual and the human form.

Three dancers, stage front, made a whole variation out of gargling and kissing. One break-dancer was a whirlwind of spins on his head with only a black cap (and good abs) to hold him up. Each new segment provoked the "how did he do that?" question. "Paradis" is an intense and complete concept by Montalvo-Hervieu-an idea in their heads that proves workable and extremely likeable.

Perhaps the curtain call could have been more fun. The program came to such an abrupt end that whether to applaud seemed a decision to be made rather than a spontaneous outpouring. Certainly a choreographed call would have brought the audience to its feet, and for a company that brings so much joy to a theatre, a standing ovation is justly deserved.

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