Reviews

Writing for Cabaret Scenes!

Starting in August 2017, I've been writing for Cabaret Scenes magazine in New York, and as of May 2019, have written over 200 reviews for the team. These have ranged in style and number of singer from 1 to 20 featuring stars of Broadway and iconic figures in music as well as performers making it work in New York City. I review cabaret shows at The Duplex, 54 Below, Don't Tell Mama, Joe's Pub, Pangea, The Triad, Birdland Jazz Club, The Green Room 42, Laurie Beechman Theatre, Kitano Hotel and Cafe Carlyle.

I've also reviewed musical theater for Cabaret Scenes on and off Broadway. I've reviewed theater in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, and in Manhattan's East Village, Midtown, West Village, Chelsea, Tribeca, Lower East Side, and even FiDi.

Reviews for Cabaret Scenes post on their website and are published in the print edition available at the Manhattan Drama Bookstore or via the Cabaret Scenes website.

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Charlie Romo at The Green Room 42

Charlie Romo

Roman Candle: The Ultimate Bobby Darin Experience starring Charlie Romo

The Green Room 42, NYC, June 28th, 2019

Reviewed by Chris Struck

 

Romo was back and better than ever. This time he debuted his Bobby Darin show, a project in the making for quite a while. Anyone who’s seen him before has heard him preach about the inspiration Darin has been for him, and heard him often quoting the line, “I want to be the biggest there’s ever been by 25.” And yet, those brief shout outs to the Italian star that burned so bright for too short a time (i.e. a “Roman Candle”) were merely foreshadowing to the great tribute to Darin put on by one of today’s most promising crooners, Romo. The young star took to the stage to share the story of Darin’s life with the man’s own songs in a classic example of a well-researched, run, and rehearsed cabaret.

 Songs like “Splish Splash” and “Beyond the Sea” were ample starters, blending into the myriad of stellar performances by Romo. The performer worked the stage, jived to the music, and practically conducted everything from saxophone entrances to cymbal smashes along with the movements of his seven-piece band. The result? Bathed in adoration from an enormous crowd, Romo’s energy was unstoppable. One of his classic choices, “Mack the Knife” became merely a strong moment among strong moments when any other time it might have been a sure highlight.

 Instead, the greatest highlights were of “Dream Lover,” which Romo introduced as if he was Darin trying out a hook for his band, “18 Yellow Roses,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “The Curtain Falls.” His performances were so thrilling and gripping that it would be remiss to pick out a single line, but “Once upon a time a girl with moonlight in her eyes Put her hand in mine and said she loved me so” did well to highlight the love Darin had for Sandra Dee.

 Another incredible moment as we walked through Bobby’s rock, swing, and country careers (singing “Simple Song of Freedom”), was when he pulled out an unreleased Bobby Darin single written by a member of the audience, Jack Urbant, called “Manhattan in my Heart.” Romo’s powerful voice and love for the same hometown New York, wowed the audience in the lines, “I’ve seen it get dark form the top of the mark…I’ve got Manhattan in my heart.”

 Charlie Romo’s band included pianist, Jeff Harris; bassist, Jon Burr; drummer, Howie Gordon; guitarist, Jack Cavari; saxophonist, Steven Frieder; trumpeter, Tony Gorruso; and Malec Heermans played trombone. Look out old Romo will be back with his Darin show soon.

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Seth Bisen-Hersh at Don't Tell Mama

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Seth Bisen-Hersh

Seth’s Talent Showcase: Jerry Herman Cabaret

Don’t Tell Mama, June 4th, 2019

I’ve seen a sampling of Seth Bisen-Hersh’s shows now, both when he’s been the producer and when he’s been musical director. He’s efficient, throws in a dash of the comical, and generally lays the gist out very well. When it came to his Jerry Herman show, there was a special pep and for good reason. Bisen-Hersh brought in a solid line-up of performers and had strong underlying material. As musical-director and MC, he guided the movement of the show by sharing anecdotes about the exceptional Herman between songs. The songs were taken from Herman’s musicals, arranged one-by-one from Mame to La Cage Aux Folles in no particular order. Bisen-Hersh sang a pair of songs, but most notably, his commentary drew laughs as he pointed out the tricks of cabaret that generally go unspoken such as “complementing your audience, so that they like you.”

 

My favorite performances were in the core of the show on all three of the Mack and Mabel songs, which included “Look What Happened to Mabel” sung by Elizabeth Budinoff, “I Won’t Send Roses” sung by Brian Childers, and “Wherever He Ain’t” sung by Katie McConaughy. The trio stood out among clean performances by the rest of the cast, through a dash of panache, which added a little extra to their songs. By acting their songs well, they were able to communicate meaning beyond the lyrics.

 

They weren’t the only ones to throw in a solid performance, however. Sallie Bieterman captured a taste of the Broadway glitz of Hello, Dolly! with a strong performance of “So Long Dearie.” One of my favorites from the show, Bieterman’s “Goodbye. Don’t try to stop me Horace, please” was especially believable. Also solid, Mary Lauren and Paul Hanegan, joined Childers and McConaughy on the farcical song, “Elegance,” belting sweetly the lines, “We’ve got Elegance, we got built in elegance/and with elegance, we’ll carry it off.”

 

With Bisen-Hersh at the piano, it’s safe to say this talented cast “carried it off.”

Susan Batson Studio presents Mary Setrakian Student Showcase

Mary Setrakian

Susan Batson Studio presents Mary Setrakian Student Showcase

The Triad, NYC, August 28th, 2018

Reviewed by Chris Struck

  

By chance I found myself at The Triad for a Showcase of talent taught by the wonderful, Mary Setrakian, who lit up the stage with both her charm and her exceptional vocal talent especially on her finale performance of “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). However, it was not a surprise to see the Master Vocal Teacher excel, it was up to her students to be the surprises of the evening. There were a few notables that deserve the utmost praise for their ability to exemplify the dedication necessary to perform at or near Setrakian’s standard. But first, it is noteworthy to mention the host for the evening Susan Campanaro, who as alter ego, Lavinia Draper, changed costumes between singers and then introduced them with flair. If she hadn’t been in ensembles resembling lingerie and bikinis for most of the night, she would have been the classiest of the affair. However, that was reserved for the talent who performed generally two songs each that were of varying styles.

 

The striking vocal performances early were turned in by Lexie Lowell, Verlon Brown (performing as Nat King Cole), and Abigail Witt. These three combined to show that Setrakian’s vocal workshop provided dimension as well as volume. Lowell’s “Like Love” (Cy Coleman and David Zippel) from City of Angels struck a nostalgic chord while Verlon Brown’s “Tenderly” (Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence) doubled the amorous tide that filtered from the stage. Extending their performances to a darker frame, Abigail Witt struck a dominant note and held out a weary heart crooning, “I know it’s time/and I play/maybe I like it this way” from the Wild Party song, “Maybe I Like it This Way” by Andrew Lippa.

 

Over and above the rest of the cast, however, were James Borrelli, Eloïse Mueller, and Chantelle Cognevich who rounded out the evening before Setrakian strutted her vocal stuff on stage once again. Borrelli’s vocal talent could not be denied as he charmed with an inspiring “Feeling Good” (Anthony Newley and Leslie Briousse). Birds flying high indeed. Flying higher, however, was Mueller who defied gravity by performing the operatic, “Steal me Sweet Thief” from The Old Maid and the Thief (Gian Carl Menotti) and the contemporary musical classic “Defying Gravity” from Wicked (Stephen Schwartz). One of the simultaneously strongest and softest of voices of the night, she soared when she went from “Unlimited, together we’re unlimited,” to, “I’m flying high, defying gravity!” Following her was an equally impressive, Chantelle Cognevich who sang an inspiring rendition of “No other Love” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein gem, Me and Juliet. “Watching the night go by/Wishing that you could be/Watching the night with me” brought the mood back to the ardent affection that had opened the evening so well.

 

The work being done at the Susan Batson Studio and by Mary Setrakian impressed me greatly. Take your own look soon!

Lauren Krass at The Duplex

Lauren Krass

A Krass Act

The Duplex, NYC, January 12th, 2018

How do you move beyond your dad walking out on your family at the age of seven? You write jokes about it and become a comedian. At least that is what Lauren Krass did for her show “A Krass Act” where she exemplified the modern conception of bravery by showcasing the extent of what dirty laundry might be lurking behind the veil of her black dress.

Of course in some cases it was actually dirty laundry. Spinning a lot of jokes through the lens of romantic rejection, she had arguably her most memorable story about thinking a former flame had left a spillover from steamy drunk sex the night before on her birthday dress. Only to later discover through sly detective work that it was actually tears and the powdered sugar of donuts. Ah, and the trivialities of dating in New York City, aren’t bad enough?

Yes, the show and her jokes take after its title and Lauren’s apt last name. She was crass, bold, and easily entertaining turning often actually pretty serious stories about alcohol and reconnecting with lost fathers into not so subtle jabs at the mysteries of now old world words like Myspace.  If you’re looking for a performer with a firm grasp of irony and enough of a sense of humor to make light of basically everything, Krass is most certainly your gal. I think that the best part of her performance is that she seems to be genuinely comfortable with who she is and excited about where her work will take her.

Photo taken from LaurenKrass.com

Photo taken from LaurenKrass.com

For more info on Lauren Krass check out LaurenKrass.com.

Ten Foot Rat Cabaret at Under St. Marks x2

Ten Foot Rat Cabaret

Various Performers -- Produced by Rob Dub and Gregory Levine

Under St. Marks -- 94 St. Marks Place; New York, NY 10009

Reviewed 12/9/17

Pic via Ten Foot Rat at http://www.tenfootrat.com/blog/wordpress/

Pic via Ten Foot Rat at http://www.tenfootrat.com/blog/wordpress/

The Ten Foot Rat Cabaret impressed me again with a solid line-up of talented performers at Under St. Marks Theater. This theater, Under St. Marks, and the Ten Foot Rat seem to represent some of the edge that nostalgically lingers over New York’s streets. I’d say it’s a must-see variety show of strong acts for anyone who lives in the East Village especially considering you get them all under one roof for one of moonlit Manhattan’s best deals. This line-up featured the stalwart Guilty Pleasures Cabaret girls in some of their classy dance routines as well as the return of the darkly mesmerizing Shayfer James.

Shayfer James opened and closed the night and certainly put us into a trance starting off with an intense, “Oh your time is coming fast and the ferryman only deals in cash.” If you expected only comedy and a taste of burlesque, then you might have been in for a dark surprise. With a little bit of a parlor room, upbeat piano over which James croons sweetly in a husky voice about murder, it’s a little like sitting in on the in-house entertainment for the Adam’s Family’s annual ball.

Tough to follow that up with comedy? I’m not so sure especially for Melissa Aquiles who made it easy to laugh at a drunken santa left over from last year’s santa con. The audience joked around with her too as she went through the trials of being that typical “frat boy” who went too far. Having been that far gone myself a few times (as has the rest of the audience maybe), there were a lot of moments to chuckle at one’s own blunders.

Appearing again for the Ten Foot Rat was also the excellent Gregor of Berlin. No one handles the anti-joke with such stunning alacrity as the character’s creator, Gregory Levine. As he talked about the tribulations of poor Rudolph and bemoaned the sadistic traditions of Christmas fables, we were lured into the quiet cunning of Levine’s mastery of the art form. Once again the lesson? Live! Live your life to the fullest! Just seeing one of Levine’s sketches of Gregor of Berlin is worth coming to the Ten Foot Rat.

Another awesome sight to see was the Guilty Pleasure Cabaret girls. These dancers put on a revolving sequence of skits that are often holiday and seasonally themed. Their talent for acrobatics, timing, and ability to do all of their complicated skits in the middle of the night time after time make them one of my favorite acts in New York. Truly a pleasure to get a chance to see them work and to see what intricate costumes they’ll dance in next!

If Shayfer James’ hadn’t started us off with dark, then Noam Osband’s skit would have certainly added it. It was an easy one to laugh/cringe at. He sang about love from the perspective of Hitler’s wife, Eva Braun. It doesn’t get much more convoluted than that as one might simultaneously hope the heroine gets her love whilst knowing that she loved…yeah…

Before the Guilty Pleasures girls and Shayfer James, sent us off into the night with another dance and song respectively, Pamela Wess performed one of the most clever burlesque asks I’ve seen. As a clown, burlesque dancer, she attempted to perform a strip tease and constantly failed to do so. She easily found a space that combined funny and sexy although without the clown nose it may have been hard to figure out.

Hope you get a chance to see the Ten Foot Rat Cabaret! They’re a good group of people including host, Jillian Thomas, whose wise cracks about Canada versus the US have only gotten more nuclear ammunition as of late. Get ready for the next show in this monthly series tonight, January 13th!

Arden/Everywhere at Baruch Performing Arts Center

This review of Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project at Baruch Performing Arts Center was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project
Written by William Shakespeare (As You Like It)
Conceived, Adapted & Directed by Jessica Bauman
Produced by Lico Whitfield
Stage Manager: Kristine Schlachter
Set Design: Gabriel Hainer Evansohn
Lighting Design: Christina Watanabe
Sound Design: Matt Otto
Costume Design: Nicole Slaven
Props Design: Zach Serafin
Movement Director: Brandon Powers
Fighting Scenes Director: Carmen Lacavita
Casting Director: Judy Bowman
Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC)
55 Lexington Avenue
New York, New York 10010
Reviewed 10/20/17

Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project appeared at first glance to be an original production about immigration, but it is, in fact, Shakespeare's As You Like It with some additional scenes involving refugees also living in the Forest of Arden. The classic comedy about people who find themselves exiled and living in the forest is expanded to take a broader look at the world of dislocation to discover resilience, reconciliation, and love. The immigrant experience is portrayed in sidebars taking place during scene changes. The eventual climax is a Tower of Babel "happening" at which time multiple immigrants tell their individual story in different languages at the same time. The ensemble cast of immigrant actors who play the refugees who live in the Forest of Arden, include Ali Arkane (Lebanese-American), Murodilla Fatkhullaev (Uzbekistan), Ale Mesa (Cuban-American), Denisse Jimenez (Columbia), Anton Kurdakov (Russia), Jorge Pluas (Ecuador), and George Tarr (Liberia). They bring to Arden a unique world that includes their own individual cultures (dress/music) as well as the international language of soccer. Their days are spent filling jugs at a water pump and checking a Bulletin Board in the hope that some country has decided to allow them entry. 

For the most part, this was a straightforward production of Shakespeare with little deviation, except at the end, when only the nobility gets visas to return to Court. This being my first viewing of this particular Shakespeare Comedy, I was interested given the fact that this is the play that features the soliloquy which includes the famous "All the world's a stage" line. This was delivered effectively and enthusiastically by Tommy Schrider, whose character otherwise didn't seem to play a significant role in the play. Unfortunately, his lamentations as one of the "parade" of interesting characters living in the forest are undercut to some extent by the influx of refugees that interrupted the natural fluidity to that particular aspect of the play. Fortunately, this cast included a number of talented actors, even though some of the performances were lackluster.
 

1803 Painting of Shakespeare's As you Like It

1803 Painting of Shakespeare's As you Like It

The acting duo of Helen Cespedes as Rosalind and Liba Vaynberg as Celia was fun to observe. The two of them made this play worth watching as they laughed with each other and interacted wonderfully. Basically, the play is about Helen's Rosalind (the daughter of a banished Duke) running off to the Forest of Arden dressed as a man with her childhood friend Celia after being banished by Celia's father, the "New Duke." Similar to Candide, the play makes fun of the way leadership changes often took place without the death of the rival leader leaving opportunity for rebellion. 

Complicating things is the character and parallel story of Orlando (Anthony Cason Jr.) who defeats the New Duke's champion fighter and coincidentally follows them into the forest when he must escape his brother's wrath. I wasn't as enthused by Cason's performance as Orlando, but he enunciated clearly and performed adequately. Part of it was that beside the fantastic Cespedes, he just didn't shine. Having fallen in love with Orlando, Rosalind, dressed as a man, convinces the infatuated Orlando to act like he is winning her hand while believing she is a "he." The whole "love affair" captured the audience, because Cespedes did a fantastic job lamenting on the travails and trials of love. Even more so during her cross-gender portion, Cespedes raised the level of this production. However, Cespedes and Vaynberg weren't the only actors giving impressive performances. Dennis Kozee played the role of Touchstone, the fool, very well, and Kenneth De Abrew made a convincing impression as Corin, a merchant in the forest. The combination of these two balanced out the cast which otherwise seemed overshadowed by the strengths of Cespedes and Vaynberg. Additionally, Dikran Tulaine made a fun combination of New and Old Duke. 

From my perspective, Arden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project was worth the time to see. The set and lighting were of the highest quality and the revised play made important points regarding refugees and their collective experiences. Jessica Bauman has been developingArden/Everywhere: The "As You Like It" Project for almost three years. For more information about The "As You Like It" Project, visit www.ardeneverywhere.com  

The Pink Hulk by Valerie David at the Bridge Theatre

This review of Valerie David's The Pink Hulk at The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios) was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Pink Hulk
Written & Performed by Valerie David
The Bridge Theatre (Shelter Studios)
244 West 54th Street
New York, New York 10019
Reviewed 10/24/17

Valerie David performed her frank, direct, and vibrant one-woman show excellently. As she discussed her path to beating a second bout of cancer, we are reminded of the major milestones of life and the importance of forging strong personal relationships. Unfortunately, in Valerie David's case, some of those relationships dissolved while others were strengthened as she transformed from a frightened, though defiant woman struck by cancer, into a strong, determined fighter who feeds off her anger like a "Pink Hulk."

Through a loose connection to Mark Ruffalo, the current Marvel green man, David gained strength to fight with her anger at having been struck with this deadly affliction a second time. She talks about the disruption that cancer caused, the damage it did to her physically and how it altered her life. When she once had a promising career as an actress and friends she thought were there for her, things changed drastically after the onset of cancer. Her career and friendships took an entirely different route. The physical parts were stark and real. The pain and loneliness were understandably striking and uncomfortable. Her story will move and inspire you.

What resonated the most was her intense drive and desire to participate in a bike marathon even though her body was still suffering from the effect of her "cure." She made the decision to race as an "FU" to the pain and weight gain that came with the disease for her. She was determined to handle things better the second time around, and she definitely did. That moment when she crossed the finish line was a victory for her and for cancer patients everywhere. The courage it took was a testament to the strength of an individual.

Her vulnerability and ability to share and communicate clearly the worries of love and life associated with her struggles made this one-woman show a worthwhile venture. I would recommend it to anyone but especially to women. A large part of the show does seem to be more relevant to the opposite gender, but the struggle to become a cancer survivor is something all people can relate to. If you want to see how someone successfully transforms tragedy into metamorphosis, this is the perfect opportunity.

From image search for Pink Hulk

From image search for Pink Hulk

The Elephant Man at Gallery Players

This review of The Elephant Man at The Gallery Players was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Elephant Man
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Mark Gallagher
Executive Producer: Mark Harborth
Director of Production: Scott Cally
Production Stage Manager: Katelyn Kocher
Lighting & Video Designer: Heather Crocker
Costume Designer: Joey Haws
Scenic Designer: Matthew S. Crane
Props Designer: Roxanne Goodby
Original Music Composition: Jacob Subotnick
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11215
Reviewed 11/5/17

The Gallery Players strikes the right note with this production of the recently successful Broadway revival. The Elephant Man originally premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in London on November 7, 1977. It opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre in 1979 where it ran for 916 performances and won the Tony Award for Best Play. A Broadway revival at the Royale Theatre in April 2002 ran for 57 performances. A 13-week run of The Elephant Man starring Bradley Cooper opened at the Booth Theatre on December 7, 2014, earning Cooper, who appeared as John Merrick, a Tony nomination for Best Actor. The story is based on the life of Joseph Merrick, referred to in the script as John Merrick, who lived in the Victorian Era and was known for the extreme deformity of his body. The role of John Merrick in the play is a challenging and emotional one as the actor is tasked with contorting his body, throwing his voice, and delving into a character whose deformities have left him devoid of meaningful human contact. M. Rowan Meyer excels in the role, shining amongst an impressive cast.

The Elephant Man, John Merrick, a horribly disfigured man, was found by Frederick Treves, a promising young doctor, at a freak show. Adam Unze was simply awesome as this internally torn individual who finds himself both Merrick's only champion and protector but also put into a morally compromising position by the fame Merrick later gains (for both Treves and himself). After enduring being cast out and savagely beaten, Merrick is eventually reunited with Treves and after a successful fundraising campaign is allowed to live a life of comparable peace in the London Hospital with Treves as caretaker.
 

The Talk Back after the production

The Talk Back after the production

Dr. Treves has difficulty finding someone who will assist in helping him take care of Merrick who despite being cleaned up, even scares off a nurse who has worked with plague victims across the world. It is up to the wonderful, loving actress, Mrs. Kendal, brought to life by the equally talented real-life actress, Elisabeth Preston, to bond with Merrick. This is really where the emotional toll of the earlier sequences of the play develop further as Preston, Merrick, and Kendal pontificate on the construction of identity, the search for meaning in life, and the stark reality of Merrick's impossible search for normalcy. Perhaps most moving is Merrick's discussion of selflessness and love as he contemplates his own loneliness compared to the vanity of youth in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Eventually, the story comes full circle with the unavoidable death of Merrick in 1890, only four years after his return to the hospital. The afflictions he has borne since birth eventually kill him through suffocation as his head collapses his neck.

The three actors already mentioned were supported by the talented group of Daniel Damiano, Alfred Gingold, Christopher Romero Wilson, Brooke DeAnna Robinson, and Jesi Mullens. Most memorable of these characters is, in my opinion, Gingold's representation of Francis Carr-Gomm, Treves' employer, the chairman of the London Hospital. Carr-Gomm is such a key character at every moment that he joins the stage because he appears at key turning points and simultaneously creates a perspective of respect for life and contriteness about death. Despite these positive attributes (including his having led the fundraising campaign that allowed John Merrick to live out his days in the safe environment of the London Hospital), the cast, during the after show talk-back, gave him (the character) a hard time for his efficient (though not emotional) letter written on behalf of Merrick after his death. I am not certain I understood their perspective, but Gingold plays the role well. 

If you get a chance to see this or any play put on by The Gallery Players, I am sure you will enjoy it. Tickets, $30.00 for adults, and $20.00 for seniors/students can be purchased online athttp://galleryplayers.com/box-office/ or by calling 212-352-3101. 

The Mecca Tales at the Sheen Center

This review of The Mecca Tales at The Sheen Center For Thought & Culture was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Mecca Tales
Written by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kareem Fahmy
Set Design by David Esler
Costume Design by Teresa Snider-Stein
Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana
Sound Design by Fan Zhang
Technical Direction by Anthony Ross
Stage Managed by Keri Landeiro
Choreography by Theara J. Ward
The Sheen Center For Thought & Culture
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 10/29/17

The Mecca Tales shares the five very divergent, diverse, and humanizing perspectives of unique, but representative Muslim women participating in a Hajj Pilgrimage. While the tensions among them rise and each woman came to this holy journey for a significant and particular purpose, nothing was beyond normality. These were five very normal stories of five very normal women from around the world who just happened to be Muslim. I think that was largely the point of the entire project: to show people that Muslims are just people too. What was nicer about the play was that it was relatable and entertaining to watch. Yes, there were some moments when the actors were limited by the boundaries of unrealistic or uncreative dialogue. Regardless, they were thoroughly convincing to the point that I believed all the actors must be doing this play out of a religious desire to absolve the religion of the misconceptions of secular evil. It turns out only one of the cast members was actually Muslim or of Islamic origin. Kudos to everyone for being a serious actor and acting the part.

The five women included Grace (Kimberly S. Fairbanks), the group's New York-based organizer and guide; Maya (Mariam Habib), a refugee from an undisclosed Middle Eastern country; Malika (Jade Radford), a medical student from a single-parent household; Alma (Cynthia Bastidas), a woman from Argentina whose husband is British; and Bina (Gulshan Mia), a well-off Pakistani housewife married to a successful neurosurgeon. Each of these women has their own reasons for having decided to join this travel group, which the audience learns about through flashbacks. They all hope to return "purified" from this "pilgrimage" and while they are no doubt devout Muslims making the journey for religious reasons, it doesn't prevent them from sporting "2017 Pilgrimage Tote Bags." From being turned away from their pre-paid tents by Saudi Arabian authorities to the final gesture of having a believer cut a lock of their hair and burying it in the sand, The Mecca Talesprojects an air of authenticity as the group struggles with emotional issues of grave concern to them.
 

Great talk back after the show!

Great talk back after the show!

The Hajj Pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and is meant to be performed once in the life of every Muslim. Every year, millions make the annual trek to see Mecca, which can be physically and financially demanding. Obscurity about the event and the required religious elements exists only because the specifics of the significant aspects of the trip are rarely highlighted in a brief summary of Islam. The Mecca Tales does a good job of describing or at least highlighting the various religious traditions that are meant to be completed while undertaking the Hajj. The actresses also emphasized that there should be both a purpose for undertaking the Hajj as well as a focus on the purity of one's intentions and faith for it to be "accepted."

The main dramatic arch of the play focuses on the acceptance of the ladies' Hajj. Their guide on the trip, Grace (Kimberly S. Fairbanks) is tasked with helping the women find their way while undertaking her own Hajj for the 10th time. While the women work through their various challenges, it becomes clear that Grace has some unfinished business on the Hajj. Her own business is probably the most "painful" given that it is the main one that dwells on death. Still, while most of the women's experiences are not excruciatingly painful, they are still important life challenges. Things such as never kissing a truly significant loved one or whether life will go on if one accepts her husband's divorce proposal are for some characters as serious as losing one's lover after the end of a three-hour armistice.

Grace, on the other hand, never finished her first Hajj, because she lost her son on the trip. He died giving her a message to carry on, and it took the other women on this particular trip to make her realize that she could set aside those demons of the past by completing the pilgrimage. If nothing else, it was a touching moment. The cast had me convinced that they were serious and devout Muslims, but the definitive best performance was put in by Gulshan Mia as Bina. She played a tough character very well and brought a lot of needed energy to the early scenes.

In the end, I would hope that this play continues to be performed. I think even as a piece of contemporary women's fiction, it provides a platform for engaging conversations as exemplified by the discussion panel afterward.  Otherwise, it is a very easy way to learn just that little bit more about Islam. The Sheen Center is great at consistently bringing together solid performance pieces. The set and costume designs for this play were phenomenal. Keep on the lookout for more information about The Mecca Tales.

Guilty Pleasures Cabaret at the Duplex

This review of Guilty Pleasures Cabaret at The Duplex was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Guilty Pleasures Cabaret
Directed & Produced by Bridget Bose & Andrea Palesh
M.C. - Katie Sasse
The Duplex
61 Christopher Street
New York, New York 10014
Reviewed 10/13/17

Fortunately for my friends and I on a spooky Friday, the 13th, in October, we got the good end of the luck spectrum in attending a phenomenal show performed by the Guilty Pleasures Cabaretcrew in tribute to the 1990s and Y2K. Not only were they a well-choreographed dance group, but they included clever raps, songs, and jabs that stoked the audience's excitement. Frankly, it would be too easy to discount the talent level of these dancers given that Burlesque has lost some of its traditionally sophisticated airs lending more to stylish stripteases, but if you did that, you'd be missing out on the biggest in-secret dying to break beyond the borders of Manhattan's West Village. These girls are the newest innovative dance troupe to hit New York continuing the traditions of the first Rockettes and even the Ziegfeld dancers by combining multiple musical and dance styles to create a stunning effect.

One of the clear advantages of their performance is that it is sexy, but it's way too classy to not give it more than a couple of hashtags on social media. Each dance and each dancer brought a unique twist to the evening. I'll share with you some of the best-executed performances in order to give you some insight into what you can expect if you decide to experience Guilty Pleasures Cabaret in the flesh.

In the first of their 1990s mashups, which led off the night, Megan Stricker shined as the lead in a trio: schoolgirl uniform dance to Britney Spears' classic pop hit, "Oops!...I Did It Again." Throughout the mashup, the performers executed without hesitation, and the costume changes were so efficient that what must have been less than 60-second song clips were enough to go from sports bras to glittering leotards. The majority of the songs in the Guilty Girls' set were some variation of this style with well-done, themed costumes and acrobatic dance moves set to 90s music such as a raunchy "Come As You Are" that Kurt Cobain couldn't have imagined.

Photo provided by Guilty Pleasures Cabaret

Photo provided by Guilty Pleasures Cabaret

There were a couple of other dance numbers that broke the mold. One of them being "Ray Of Light" led by the exceptional Andrea Palesh. This song demonstrated the girls' ability to work together with incredible timing and coordination. Basically a flashlight dance with colored lights, the girls were able to mime a story in a movement that evoked deeper emotion when performed in almost complete darkness. When set between songs featuring glitz and glamour, it had a strong effect.

The third song I felt was best executed and conceived was the rap to "Shoop" by Bridget Bose. If you ever imagined a white girl rapping, you probably didn't imagine the show Bose put on as her fellow performers danced synchronously to her left. There were plenty of the girls' trademark hair flips and high kicks too, but Bose's ability to drop heavy lead with more than just her legs was fantastic.

Ultimately, dancers owned the spotlight, but it was stolen temporarily by an incredibly talented supporting cast including M.C. Katie Sasse and vocalists Melissa Becker, Julia Goretsky, and Shayna Blass. If you haven't seen these simmering singers perform, they are worth a look. It was exciting to see the budding star, Shayna Blass, perform again. She crushed it on the song "Criminal" and brought the whole 90s spoof night home with a killer graduation speech which played off many of the misconceptions of the 1990s such as using old cell phones and the early opinion of the internet.

Fantastic stuff all around. I can't say enough about these performers. Their shows are more than fun. Check them out for the upcoming Halloween events from the 27th through the 29th at The Duplex. Get tickets or find out more information at http://www.guiltypleasurescabaret.com/ 

Syncing Ink at the Flea

This review of Syncing Ink at The Flea was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Syncing Ink
Written & Directed by NSangou Njikam
Artistic Director: Niegel Smith
Producing Director: Carol Ostrow
Wardrobe Supervisor: Sarah Lawrence
Director of Dance Programming: Lisa Reilly
Director of Music Programming: Lauren Alfano-Ishida
Hip Hop Choreography: Gabriel Dionisio (a/k/a Kwikstep)
Music by DJ Reborn
The Flea
20 Thomas Street
New York, New York 10007
Reviewed 10/9/17

Syncing Ink is legit. This play or musical-esque crossover of hip-hop expands on the stylistic innovations of Hamilton to demonstrate the power of this uniquely American subculture (Hip Hop) to create personal, emotional impact. Njikam's play features love, rivalry, failure, and redemption on a modern Hero's journey taught through the motions and emotions of those tales that have dominated both our times and all times. He expertly weaves in modern references to Dragonball Z and Jedi Knights while his character, Gordon, follows in his father's footsteps using their family's ancient power of the sacred Ase (pronounced Ashay) from Yoruba spirituality.

The absolutely fantastic meter soars in this play due to the accomplishments of the actors. Their combined ability to dance in complex break dancing moves as well as to change character brought the whole thing together seamlessly. For example, one moment, Adesola Osakalumi is alliterating adroitly as Mr. Wright ("You must make pupils of your pupils so you can teach your eyes to see. You must activate and integrate your hidden linguistic capacity, for you are all born with allocations from your ancestors to advance the atoms in the minds of men...and women...and the first way we will resuscitate and rejuvenate your precious gift is through the powerful paradigm we call poetry.") and the next, he is serving up laughs as Gordon's father. Example - "School has the 3Bs. Study the Books...use your Brains...and when the ladies see that, they might just shake their Butts."

Pay respects to The Mother

Pay respects to The Mother

It is in Mr. Wright's Advanced Placement English Class at Langston Hughes High School where the story begins. Gordon (NSangou Njikam) enters on Day One and meets his opposition, Sweet Tea (Kara Young), Ice Cold (Elisha Lawson), and the reigning M.C. champion of the school, Jamal (Nuri Hazzard). Each of them can throw down rhymes while Gordon sits tight unable to speak his mind. Finally, in walks Mona Lisa, a new student at the school, played by the wonderful McKenzie Frye. In an effort to win Mona Lisa's affection, Gordon engages Ice Cold to help get her attention. To do this he must learn how to become the most powerful M.C. and out-rap Jamal.

This opens up one of the best sequences I think I've seen in modern playwriting. Knowing that the audience surrounded the stage on four sides, the actors create a "demonstrative walk through" that swirls around other actors frozen in the middle. Ice Cold mocks video game tutorials by guiding Gordon on the first stages of his journey as if he is a cross between C-3PO and a Disney automation while Mr. Wright busts out some more chops imitating a Japanese karate master as he teaches Gordon how to "dance." 

Just when you think you have a handle on each character and each actor, everything changes. Gordon stands up to Jamal, a tough looking kid in beat up clothes with face paint and a thick beard, only to be defeated. End Act 1. Gordon then grows up to study poetry and writing at Mecca University where he meets two of the most dynamic characters: Professor Brown (Hazzard), who is impressed with the Harlem Renaissance and the Standard English Canon disdaining his student's interest in "Little Wayne or Little Yachty or anyone else who is little." and Professor Black (Osakalumi), whose classes are "100% freestyle" and who sees white paper as a plot against young black minds." Jamal attends Georgetown University where he creates "a blend of conscious and trap music called 'crap'." All this sets up an epic confrontation where Gordon and Jamal compete against one another at The Cypher, an invitation-only, underground, Hip Hop competition "where the illest M.C.s go to battle." On the line are love and family honor.

Go see this. Tickets are available for $35.00 online at www.theflea.org or via the Box Office extension at 212-352-3101. 

It's Getting Tired...Mildred at Under St. Marks

This review of It's Getting Tired Mildred at Under St. Mark's Theater was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

It's Getting Tired Mildred
Written, Directed & Produced by Roger Nasser
Lighting Design & Board Operation by Berit Johnson
Costume Design by Karle J. Meyers, Kaitlyn Day & Holly Pocket McCaffrey
Theme & Score by Stephen Sabaugh
Under St. Mark's Theater
94 St. Mark's Place
New York, New York 10009
Reviewed 10/7/17

Welcome to the town of Mildred Springs or should I say "Welcome Back." This show's premiere episode this season at Under St. Mark's Theater is also the 24th episode of It's Getting Tired Mildred. Most of the cast returns as well marking this particularly interesting and unique drama (at least as far as theater in New York is concerned) as a bit of a celebration for the myriad of regulars (in attendance) who have enjoyed the series over the past three years. Roger Nasser, the writer, director, and producer of It's Getting Tired Mildred (under the name Six of Six Productions) is to be credited for bringing variety to the New York theater scene with this "soap opera for the stage."
 

image of the cast from their facebook page - much fun!

image of the cast from their facebook page - much fun!

Set in the town of Mildred Springs in 1985, this farcical dramedy relies on cliches and hijinks to satisfy and enamor the audience. It does a good job too by consistently varying the delivery and timing of punchlines during short bits that showcase characters with obvious history, chemistry, and rivalry. Like any good soap opera, there are affairs, personality clashes, emotional traumas, and hidden secrets. Each of which the writer ramped up on overdrive as the cast features 22 performers and everything seems to need to be achieved in five minutes or less. Often lovers are traded in from nearby scene to scene or covert affairs are revealed just as one unwitting lover leaves the stage. After the bare minimum of witty banter, social niceties and norms are cast aside for a raucous turn on the community couch with the lights fading to black just as the actors lock in an overly passionate embrace. You'd feel bad for one dame only to find she's screwing someone else behind her lover's back too.

While the production does rely on at times egregiously simple dialogue to drive narratives and heighten the drama, it compounds so quickly that you can't help but laugh. For example, one cast member was replaced by a new actor and the character had just gotten married, so when describing his marriage in the first scene, he triumphantly stated, "I'm a different man!" It's almost like an anti-joke where the lack of a punchline forces you to chuckle where you expected to anyway and then you laugh more in an attempt to justify your laughing. Part of this is because the actors are so serious about their roles strutting in or sulking or sauntering to take their simultaneously stereotypical and important roles from oversexualized hypnotherapist to the family patriarch. It's posh, camp, flamboyant and also extremely well-orchestrated. 

A number of the actors here are fun to watch like the lead woman in the "Milton" family who has dominated Mildred Springs, Charmaine Milton, played by the exquisitely dressed Morgan Zipf-Meister. She is about to confront her father, the lovably evil patriarch, Cornelius Milton, played by an equally talented Linus Gelber. A grave secret found within a file aptly labeled "secret" has been slowly spreading from character to character. It threatens to change everything we know about at least one character and perhaps two. Roger Nasser, the show's writer, understands that newcomers may not know all of the background and thankfully he has built some history into each little bit. Although for some reason it seems easier to figure out who's sleeping with whom than what each character's name is. There is a lot to look forward to in Episode 25 on Saturday, November 4, 2017, at 10:30 p.m. at Under St. Mark's Theater. Get advance tickets by visiting www.horsetrade.info 

Check out their facebook page too - https://www.facebook.com/Its-Getting-Tired-Mildred-1544140389173208/

Trump Lear at Under St. Marks

This review of Trump Lear at Under St. Mark's Theater was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Trump Lear
Written & Performed by David Carl
Co-Created & Directed by Michole Biancosino
Sound Design & Voiceovers by David Carl
Videos by Mark Stetson & David Carl
Tech by Michael Montalbano
Under St. Mark's Theater
94 St. Mark's Place
New York, New York 10009
Reviewed 9/30/17

I walked into Trump Lear with two lingering questions/doubts revolving around the idea of how Lear relates to Trump because Lear is a much different character. These questions were: "How respectful is the story to King Lear as a play?" and "How exactly does this play relate to Donald Trump?" David Carl, playing the role of Carl David, answers those questions pretty quickly. The first bit of the play discusses the literary and theatrically important significance of King Lear, even listing off a bevy of iconic actors who have mantled the role over the years including Ian McClellan, to which Trump responds, "Gandalf?"

In fact, David seemed to get two things mainly right with this play which made for an entertaining spectacle filled with laughter - Lear and Trump. Pitted against himself with a slim chance of saving his own life. David must perform his one-man King Lear for a tyrant Trump under bright interrogation lights. Trump, a disembodied voice "attached to a camera," says things like "Do you think I'm losing my mind, Carl?" and uses it as an opportunity to garner internet fame by live streaming the performance on YouTube revealing this to David only after he has broken down crying. Trump also breaks for commercials which simply portray him as the richest, smartest man alive. So far, so good.

The funny thing really was that David didn't have to stretch the truth to make a great play. He won his right to live from Trump by telling the truth. At the same time, the fictional Trump presses a lot of David's buttons and even makes reference to the fact that David should be thanking him; the stark reality being that David has made a decent living off of impersonating Trump. David responds, "Art was doing just fine before you came along."

David did a fantastic job putting it all on the line for art. While Trump Lear may not deserve the same level of virtuoso praise the original garnered, David has captured lightning in a bottle with this brilliant comedy. Ultimately, you don't need to hate Donald Trump to enjoy the show. Loving King Lear will not negatively impact your opinion. Loving Donald Trump might, but I'm not sure. I don't think much about and don't hate Donald Trump - and I love King Lear. I enjoyed this show. It's worth more than a few laughs for less than a few bucks. Better than expected. To see it, check out:www.trumplear.com 

Photo from David Carl's website - see here: http://davidcarlonline.com

Photo from David Carl's website - see here: http://davidcarlonline.com

Annie at Gallery Players

This review of Annie at The Gallery Players was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Annie
Written by Thomas Meehan
Music by Martin Charnin
Director: Mark Harborth
Director of Production: Scott Andrew Cally
Set Design: Joshua Barilla
Lighting Design: Christopher Chambers
Choreographer: Emily Clark
Tap Sequence Choreographer: Robin Rivers Friday
Costume Design: Barbara Erin Delo
Music Director: Paul Helm
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11215
Reviewed 9/22/17

The Gallery Players' production of Annie was simply marvelous. Anchored by a strong cast, this classic story of the hard-knock orphan who miraculously becomes the adopted daughter of Oliver Warbucks, melted the hardest hearts while remaining accessible to the plethora of children in the audience. Of all the actors, the most important were the orphans and these kids were great. This started the show off on a strong note and as each stage change showcased the staff's attention to detail, the audience could only be more impressed by this touching tale of fortune favoring the luckless.

Entrenched in the American canon, Annie became a musical in 1976 and ran for nearly six years on Broadway starting in 1977. The trio of Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, and Martin Charnin based the original musical on a comic strip that debuted on August 5, 1924, in the New York Daily News. This, in turn, was based off a 1885 poem written by the American writer James Whitcomb Riley. Having entertained audiences around the world in various forms for almost a century and a half, the musical adaptation of Annie's story was no different and has seen a myriad of revivals, productions, and tours worldwide over the past 40 years. You can bet your bottom dollar that The Gallery Players gave Annie its due. A number of the actors and actresses truly impressed.

From Gallery Players facebook page.

From Gallery Players facebook page.

Among the highlights were the popular songs sung by Annie in the musical. The young Emma Grace Berardelli did a great job in the lead role, especially when she sang "It's A Hard Knock Life" and "Tomorrow." I still have the tunes in my head, and her positive attitude and outlook on life should be adopted by all (not just FDR and his senior cabinet.) Berardelli's ability and stage presence were remarkable alongside talented acting veterans many years her senior. This hard work and dedication will pay off for years to come.

One of the best performances amidst the spotlight on Annie was by Luisa Boyaggi as Miss Hannigan. Convincing as a drunk and frustrated orphan matron, she brought out the best in her character in solo songs and with Alex Domini as Rooster Hannigan, her brother, in a solid "Easy Street." Her ability to scold, wince, yell, and throw her arms up in surrender was a testament to the complexity of the role. She made the character stand out as a complex, multi-dimensional woman with desires and fears as she waited wistfully beside the radio for a wanting bachelor while tormenting and being tormented by the girls in her care.

Heather Gault as Grace Farrell also impressed me. She looked the part perfectly as Oliver Warbuck's personal assistant becoming ally and confidant to the young Annie while maintaining posture and presence in both the orphanage and beside Mr. Warbucks. She had a knack for delivering her lines in such a way that perfectly communicated underlying meanings which mark classic plays like Annie as some of the best.  

I would recommend Annie to anyone getting to know American culture as well as families. This absorbing story is both fluid and dynamic, and The Gallery Players did more than a solid job. The ensemble of actors even pulled off a notable dance number (thanks to Choreographer Robin Rivers Friday) that brought me back to videos of Fred Astaire at the 1970s Oscars show. Annie runs through October 8, 2017. Tickets - $30.00 for adults and $20.00 for seniors and children 12 & under - can be purchased by calling OvationTix at 212-352-3101, or by visitinghttp://galleryplayers.com/box-office/  

The Baroness at the Clurman Theatre

This review of The Baroness: Isak Dinesen's Final Affair at The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row was written by written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Baroness: Isak Dinesen's Final Affair
Written by Thor Bjorn Krebs
Translated by Kim Damboek
Directed by Henning Hegland
Music by Aleksi Ranta
Set Design by Akiko Nishijima Rotch
Lighting Design by Miriam Crowe
Sound Design by Amy Altadonna
Costume Design by Stine Martinsen
The Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York, New York 10036
Reviewed 9/13/17

The Baroness captures an eerie intensity through the strange relationship between the young, Thorkild Bjørnvig, and the famous, Baroness Karen Blixen (known in the United States by the pseudonym Isak Dinesen), who takes a special interest in his "career." The tale takes place in Denmark where the young doctor, Thorkild, has just garnered national fame as the country's latest acclaimed writer. Upon hearing of the young man, The Baroness swoops in "to claim him." The two had a prolonged relationship between 1948 and 1955 that the playwright, Thor Bjorn Krebs, reconstructed for dramatic appeal using notes from the time period.

The infamous and famous Karen Blixen.

The infamous and famous Karen Blixen.

Just off the publication of Stjoernen bag Gavlen, a collection of poems, in 1947, Thorkild (played by Conrad Ardelius) was living a life that seemed perfect. He has financial support from a benefactor, has just married, and has a young child. There is just one major problem. He can't write. This is incredibly common. As a writer, I've read or come across accounts of other writers who have to learn to overcome the new struggle to create. When once they might have relied on the "wind in their sails," many writers find it difficult to hunker down and repeat their performance especially under the pressure of expectations. In comes Karen Blixen using this opportunity to insert herself in the young doctor's life. Sometimes I felt that this wasn't very relatable and that the structure of the dialogue did not work to draw you in, but there were a number of positives to the performance including Dee Pelletier who made an astounding Karen Blixen.

Blixen (at 62) approaches the much younger Thorkild (29) with an enticing offer. She will help him to write. The offer does not seem at all innocent. Blixen requires Thorkild to join her at her home,Rumgstedlund, alone, leaving behind his young family. Thorkild accepts, hoping the isolation will prove helpful. As the "affair" commences, Thorkild treads through it with so much naivete (or perhaps hesitancy) that the relationship is never consummated. Blixen requires him to swear a pact to her in friendship by giving him a ceremonial African dagger. With every scene change, she questions his loyalty, and he listens and listens. He goes through all the motions, but he fails to write little more than one sexually-laced poem about lust.

It's not really a surprise that sex is the subject matter. Blixen describes things like putting a record on as if it is a sensual caress. She also often claims she will find the gorgeous young doctor a harem to unleash the desire that led him to write Gavlen. She'll present them in a bouquet, she says. The closest she comes, however, is giving him an actual bouquet of flowers in the colors of the women she describes. Complicating things is the young wife of Thorkild's benefactor, Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson). Benedicte fits the mold of the women Thorkild is interested in, and when Blixen eventually pushes Thorkild away to Bonn, Germany for a literary escapade, Benedicte goes to see him. Passion envelopes them, and Thorkild begins to sever the ties of his old relationships, including his wife. He takes refuge in a summer home his benefactor had bought before the affair.

This time it is Blixen who follows the young Thorkild who has finally succeeded in writing again. Blixen confronts him about the pact, and at first, Thorkild seems like he has been won over by Blixen's statements of passion, loyalty, and friendship. When she claims they must seal their pact in blood, Thorkild finally rejects her. Blixen, entranced by voodoo, sees a black adder on the threshold of the door. She takes it as a token of esteem, but Thorkild writes that it is an ill omen. The two break their bond, and Thorkild would go on to write multiple collections of poems throughout the rest of his life. Blixen would publish Last Tales in 1957, which include four stories that seem to relate to their friendship.

The performance of the play was good and left little to be desired. The set design and lighting helped to showcase an intimate, reflective look at the creative process through this striking production about one of literature's key figures. Many aspects of this play were revealing and powerful, especially regarding the creative process which Blixen states, in the play, "takes courage." There did seem to be a minor disconnect between the audience and the play. I feel this was mainly due to an over-reliance on the audience having a prior understanding of who the two characters were, especially Baroness Blixen. As an internationally famous Dutch author who died in 1962, Blixen lived flamboyantly, often wearing lavish outfits. She was best known for Out Of Africa, written about her life in Kenya, which was made into an Academy-Award winning motion picture. I'd recommend this play to anyone interested in the creative process. Tickets can be purchased for $47.50 at https://www.satcnyc.org/thebaroness