Sheen Center

Loveless Texas at the Sheen Center!

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

Loveless Texas
Music & Lyrics by Henry Aronson
Libretto & Direction by Cailin Heffernan
Scenic Design by Evan Hill
Costume Design by Cheryl McCarron
Lighting Design by Michael O'Connor
Sound Design by Ian Wehrle
Stage Managed by Marci Skolnick
The Sheen Center
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 9/7/17

Loveless Texas took an interesting twist on Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost and made for a generally entertaining musical. For most of the first half of the play, the tension built and the songs, written and composed by Henry Aronson, were fun and often catchy. A few missteps in the script and final performance, however, kept this uplifting tale from reaching the level of a virtuoso.

The biggest issues with this modern restructuring of Shakespeare's classic were that it didn't take a big enough step away from the original in the over-arching plot. It became too predictable while creating too many subplots which became mired in unnecessary detail. Almost every character in the cast of twelve actors had their own arch. This not only limited the pace of the first act, but it bogged down the second act as well with corny serendipity. Long story short, all the characters fell in love with a counterpart from a competing ranch in 1930s Texas. One of the largest issues with this was the fact that almost every actor had a song to sing. While the lyrics, were in my opinion, clever, they were mostly songs about death and devils and love. Potentially quality subjects for a comedy, but even the cast members who could execute their material better than others heard only a little bit of laughter and appreciation from the audience. There are two possible reasons for this. The first being that it didn't seem like Loveless Texas focused on the comedy. It seemed to be much more focused on a tense relationship between the mature, "King Navarre," and his immature, younger brother, Berowne Navarre, and how the relationship between the two characters developed. The second was that the audience had to strain to hear many of the songs over a live band that performed in the corner. The live band was a welcome presence but it was a little too loud at times for the actors to overcome.

Awesome set at the Sheen Center.

Awesome set at the Sheen Center.

Despite these limitations, I still enjoyed this musical. I felt like Darren Ritchie as King and Joe Joseph as Berowne did a fabulous job. Their solid performances helped to create palpable tension as the two butted heads on life philosophy. King Navarre owned a ranch in Texas at the onset of the Great Depression and had promised to sell an oil-strike to a rancher in Louisiana named Leroy Beausoleil. Leroy had apparently come upon the information that the strike was about to hit pay-dirt while King Navarre believed it was about to run dry. Before the land was officially sold, the oil reserve boons and King Navarre refuses to sell. After tracking down his younger brother, Berowne, who had been causing trouble all over the continent and parts of Europe, King has Berowne and his two companions sign an agreement to work on his property under three conditions: no drinking, gambling, or womanizing. Berowne reluctantly agrees, but then suddenly takes the high road on the property issue arguing basically that all the moral authority in the world doesn't matter if King is not a man of his word. King points out that Berowne doesn't understand taking responsibility, and frankly, as a viewer, I was hooked.

King Navarre's plans are complicated when Leroy's daughter, LaReine Beausoleil (Trisha Jeffrey) arrives in Texas to attempt to claim her land accompanied by three women, friends of hers, who have some history with Berowne and his companions. Admittedly, things move a little too fast here as love is in the air. The characters on King's ranch are all men, and they quite quickly find counterparts on the Louisiana side to fall in love with including the stodgy, woman-scorned King Navarre, who falls in love with LaReine after barely a word passing between them. King (Darren Ritchie) sings an intriguing solo number about choosing between business and his heart, and as the first act closes, he makes his choice - business - by interrupting the other lovebirds during the most comedic sequence of the play, a local dance that Berowne and his companions sneaked off to in bad disguises so that they could check in on their women. As this confrontation comes to a close, LaReine learns her father has died. King attempts an apology, but LaReine and her party leave for Louisiana immediately.

The build-up went for naught as the remainder of the play becomes song after song wrapping up the subplots. The main important part of this second act comes when Berowne and King argue in song about a compromise Berowne suggests. It is unclear what King will choose, but later, at a wedding between Duke Dumaine (one of Berowne's companions, Colin Barkell) and Kathy Bridge (one of LaReine's, Annette Navarro), King surprises everyone by offering the full deal to Berowne. At the wedding, everyone finds their love except for Berowne and Rosaline. For some reason, Rosaline is miffed after not receiving a formal response to a letter she wrote pleading for Berowne to stand up to his brother. He stood up to his brother, but apparently, she needed that in writing. A year later, she holds up his poker game disguised as a seldom mentioned minor character who goes by the name of the Cowgirl Bandit. When she reveals her identity, the two sing to each other about their love in a lovely duet. Amanda Lea Lavergne as Rosaline was one of the brightest spots of the cast along with Bligh Voth as Maria Broussard

Ultimately, the happy ending and the positive messages in the songs made for an enjoyable show. The expectations seemed to be very high based on the subject matter, and the high quality of the set design and costumes. Not to mention the inclusion of a live band. However, even from the third row, the difficulty in making out all the lines in each song became a serious concern. I'd suggest focusing the plot on the four main characters and cutting solo numbers by side characters that didn't greatly affect the dynamic of the play. Regardless, the show remained a pleasure to watch. For tickets ($30 for September 6-10 and $40 for September 12-24), go to or call 212-925-2812. 

Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center

This review of Lowell Byers' Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture (Black Box Theater) was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Luft Gangster
Written by Lowell Byers
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Sheen Center For Thought & Culture
Black Box Theater
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 4/15/17

Luft Gangster returns to the Sheen Center after a few years with many of the same cast members who appeared in the 2013 production. The play entertained audiences then and still does while providing context and clarity on life within a World War II German Prisoner Of War (POW) camp. The play latches onto your attention early and doesn't let go. The gradual building of intensity through the first few scenes, and the smooth introduction of various characters, actors, and settings, draws the viewer into the life of the lead character, Lou Fowler, played by Lowell Byers. Additionally, the script, characterization, and portrayal of the roles allow one to imagine the circumstances clearly without the play resorting to overdone dialogue.

Pre-performance at the Sheen Center

Pre-performance at the Sheen Center

The play begins with Lou Fowler at the bedside of his dying and widowed mother. This is a little unclear because the set design employed chairs as props for both chairs and beds. Following his mother's death, Lou signs up for the United States Army Air Corps and is eventually shot down over Yugoslavia in March 1944. Lou bails out of a falling plane and suffers shrapnel wounds to his leg and injures his shoulder. He is rescued by a peasant woman before being captured by the Germans. During his first interrogation, we learn the Germans are interested in specific technical and tactical information about Lou's bomber and bombing target. They utilize various techniques to get him to talk including the use of German-American spies posing as prisoners to encourage "cooperation." The Germans remind Lou of the many Germans who lost their loved ones during Allied bombing raids that deliberately targeted civilians. One of the surprising factors of this part of the play is the vast amount of information the Germans already knew about Lou Fowler, including the names of his family members and where he grew up. It is unclear how they were able to link Lou to his information considering Lou lost his dog tags in North Africa. Lou answers the questions with just his name, rank, and identification number, and is eventually shipped to a POW camp named Stalag Luft VI. 

Once Lou is at the POW camp, we are introduced to the remainder of the main characters in the form of other POWs. In total, there were two Brits - Randall, and Peter, as well as three Americans - Joe, Vinny, and Lou. While I can't say enough about the praiseworthy performance of Lowell Byers as Lou Fowler, the supporting cast was equally as impressive. Their ability to transition between different languages and effortlessly switch between roles built upon the intensity established by the circumstances of Lou's introduction. Ralph Byers, Lowell Byers' real life father, played a variety of German officers and did an especially brilliant job balancing intimidation with poise. Granted some of the characterizations were a little standard for World War II stories, however solid acting helped to create a sense of purpose to each character. Two of the best examples were Noel Joseph Allain as Randall and Paul Bomba as Vinny. They impressed with their consistent accents and ability to portray vivid personalities. Randall was a long term interned Brit who acted as domineering and self-righteous as one would expect. The gregarious New York Italian-American Vinny became the subject of suspicion for being a possible Jerry upon his introduction but later earned the trust of the rest of the group, especially when they started digging an escape tunnel.

Unfortunately, even after the group navigates the politics of the camp and fends off a potential German spy named Bill, the escape tunnel plan ends in the gruesome death of both Brits. Seth James' Peter provided the main comedic moments of the play with his various attempts to brew tea. In fact, the desperation of Peter to find a good tea highlighted the difficulty of life in the POW camp which was additionally emphasized through Lou's lagging leg injury and the discussion of eating charcoal. The group attempts a second escape using Vinny's Prune Jack, a home-brewed alcohol, which ends in the execution of Werner, a German officer, and solitary confinement for the remaining three Americans. During his time in solitary confinement, Lou hallucinates his family and friends, both living and dead. He snaps out of the hallucination to learn from Otto, a guard he has befriended, that the prisoners are about to go on a death march as the Russian forces are closing in. On this march, the three Americans devise a final escape plan, which involves a moral dilemma for Lou, and great risk for all three. Afterward and with his last breaths of life, Lou is rescued by an American soldier. 

Lou Fowler is portrayed as a decent fellow who steers clear of the more questionable moral decisions made by the other prisoners. For example, Lou doesn't interfere when Bill is killed by a Brit on the mere suspicion of being a German spy. In addition, when Otto needs to be sacrificed, Lou seemed torn up by the decision but how much resistance could Lou have offered when Otto stood between them and possible freedom? Interestingly, despite his bum leg, Lou was the only one to escape of the five POWs portrayed within the play. 

Luft Gangster kept things engaging on both a personal and dramatic level. The actors and the detail provided by the set and costume designers brought a gloomy subject to life. While a very small portion of the story seemed cliche, the truth is that we've probably just seen and heard a lot of stories about World War II at this point. This intense play moved fast. At points, time and scene switches were hard to catch while at other times it was very clear. Despite various time leaps, the play is fairly easy to follow due to its linear plot. Lou Fowler was a real person, and the play is written by Lowell Byers, his cousin, who also plays the lead role. Apparently, few, if any, artistic liberties were taken, so this is a true story of a World War II veteran's escape from certain death acted out over 70 years later by a much younger cousin. I'd recommend seeing this play especially if you're interested in World War II or gritty stories. It plays through April 30, 2017 at the Sheen Center. Tickets cost $29-$32 and can be purchased by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or by visiting

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