Newsday Review: “Grease: An energetic dose of high school spirit”

Newsday

July 11, 2017

Steve Parks

 

If Rydell High’s class of 1959 were to hold a reunion this summer, it would celebrate the 58th year since graduation. But judging from the IQ exhibited in “Grease,” the ever-popular rock-and-doo-wop musical, we’re not sure how many classmates could count that high, never mind collect a diploma.

The John W. Engeman Theater, named for the East Northport Army officer killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006, opens its [11th] season with the 1971 musical that inspired the hit film version starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. In “Grease,” there’s no hint of a worldview beyond high school, which no doubt accounts for its escapist appeal.

On the first day of school, Sandy, a new girl at Rydell, gushes about a boy she met at the beach. In front of his black-leather-jacketed T-Bird pals, Danny (said boy) won’t admit he’s sweet on any girl. Meanwhile, the Pink Ladies clique, led by Rizzo, makes an outcast of Sandy because she doesn’t smoke or drink or wear skintight outfits. She’s derided as the squeaky-clean movie star (“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”). Played with a daring chip on her shoulder by Madeleine Barker, Rizzo fiercely changes her tune on “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” when she finds that her “friend” is late.

Directed by Paul Stancato, Liana Hunt makes an appealing Sandy on “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and with Danny (Sam Wolf) on their bouncy duet, “You’re the One That I Want” — songs from the movie. Of the other Pink Ladies, Frenchy (Sari Alexander) makes a sympathetic impression as the “Beauty School Dropout” in a dreamy duet with Tim Falter. Chris Collins-Pisano and Hannah Slabaugh embody the “Grease” level of humor in “Mooning.”

The T-Birds — including Wolf (a young Marlon Brando look-alike) and Chris Stevens as Rizzo’s boyfriend — sing and dance energetically. But they’d only pass for high schoolers if they’d flunked 10 grades. Heavily made-up, the women fare better as teens, among them Laura Helm as the vamp in the hand-jive contest (athletic choreography by Antoinette DiPietropolo).

Alec Bart’s band rocks steady to the final note of “We Go Together.” Stephen Dobay’s set design catches us in the headlights of “Greased Lightnin’,” the drive-in-movie centerpiece.

Dumb jokes aside, sometimes it’s fun — even therapeutic — to park your mind for a couple of hours. “Grease” greases the way.

 

Read online: http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/theater/grease-review-an-energetic-dose-of-high-school-spirit

Newsday Oklahoma! Review: Oh, what a beautiful show in Northport

Newsday

Steve Parks

May 16, 2017

 

“Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends . . .”

—Oscar Hammerstein II

My first thought as the “Oklahoma!” cast gathered for an opening-night photo at the Engeman Theater was that there’s no way there are any farmers in this picture. But Curly (aka Bryant Martin) corrected me. He was raised on a Pennsylvania dairy farm. Full disclosure: This critic was raised on a Maryland dairy farm. (Martin’s dad sells milk to Land O’Lakes; mine sold to Breyer’s.)

Cowman Curly longs to spark with farm girl Laurey. But on the eve of the box-social square dance and auction, Laurey says her date is Aunt Eller’s surly farmhand, Jud. Nothing changes her mind, not even Curly’s “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” It’s hard to imagine another song that could follow “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” which opens this groundbreaking Broadway classic. Martin leads both numbers with a voice you’d swear could be heard all the way from the title territory to Northport. Or at least to Kansas City, where “everything’s gone about as fer as it can go.” That’s where none-too-bright Will won $50 at the state fair to woo Ado Annie, the girl who “Cain’t Say No.” For a dowry in that amount, Annie’s dad will marry her off. But Will spends it instead on gifts for her. So now, she’s promised to Ali, the “Persian” peddler.

Tragicomic conflicts ensue in this grand new presentation of the show that practically invented the book musical in which songs are written to develop character and plot rather than accessorize them. Martin’s vigor as Curly is matched by Kaitlyn Davidson’s stubborn but vulnerable Laurey. Kelly Sheehan, her dream ballet double, another “Oklahoma!” innovation, originated by Agnes de Mille and choreographed here by Drew Humphrey, is as riveting as she is dramatic.

Annie (Brianne Kennedy), Ali (Danny Gardner) and Will (Chris Brand) sharply angulate a comic-relief triangle, while Jane Blass as Aunt Eller gamely referees a farmer-vs.-cowman peace. Struggling for peace within himself is Jud, played by Nathaniel Hackmann with the glowering intensity he brought to the evil half of Engeman’s recent “Jekyll & Hyde.”

Director Igor Goldin’s vision is framed by the barnlike DT Willis set and amplified by Jeff Theiss’ orchestra delivering Richard Rodgers’ flawless, tear-inducing score.

“People Will Say We’re in Love” with this show. Let ’em.

 

Read online: http://www.newsday.com/oklahoma-review-oh-what-a-beautiful-show-in-northport/

Newsday Review: Evil has never been so good in ‘Jekyll & Hyde’

Newsday

Steve Parks

March 20, 2017

 

Since the first publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in 1886, the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” has become part of the language, denoting a person whose moral character is diametrically opposed from one situation to the next. Since its Broadway debut 20 years ago, “Jekyll & Hyde” the musical has become a cult phenomenon combining classic literature with a melodramatic pop score spawning fan clubs the world over.

The challenge for director-choreographer Paul Stancato at the Engeman Theater in this latest of a half-dozen Long Island “J&H” productions over the years is to present it with a fresh look without detracting from its core appeal.

He and an earnest cast succeed spectacularly, led by Nathaniel Hackmann in the chemically split-personality role of Jekyll/Hyde. Dr. Henry Jekyll, frustrated by a hospital board’s refusal to endorse his laboratory experiment in separating good from evil in a human guinea pig, decides to make himself the guinea pig. The result is Edward Hyde, who proceeds to murder the entire hospital board. Jekyll becomes a stranger to his bride-to-be, played and sung by Liana Hunt with a delicate balance between devotion and determination, and to himself within his own body. Lucy, a London harlot, meets both Jekyll and Hyde, not realizing that they’re “related.” With a voice ranging from sultry to siren, Caitlyn Caughell captures Lucy’s angst in finally meeting a decent man (“Someone Like You”) while being pursued by a monster.

Hackmann electrifies on such signature numbers as “This Is the Moment” and on the climactic “Confrontation” in which his duality is brilliantly conveyed through a translucent scrim behind which Jekyll struggles to escape Hyde’s enveloping hold on his life. (Victorian set design by Stephen Dobay, dramatic lighting by Keith Truax, throbbingly amplified by Kristen Lee Rosenfeld’s band.) One quibble: The shadow effects of the sliding scrims deployed throughout the show are overused to diminishing effect, until the riveting penultimate scene.

A deep cast contributes splendidly to smaller supporting roles — among them Tom Lucca as Jekyll’s loyal friend, Jeff Williams as his prospective father-in-law, Jake Mills as the whoring bishop and Lauren Gobes as the judgmental ladyship (dazzling costumes by Kurt Alger), plus an ensemble too numerous, unfortunately, to credit here. Together they make the chorus numbers sparkle in this fine new production of a modern classic.

 

Read online: www.newsday.com/jekyll-hyde-review-nathaniel-hackmann-leads-a-terrific-cast/

Newsday Review: Hats (and everything else) off to these guys

Newsday

January 25, 2017

Steve Parks

 

In “The Full Monty,” six unemployed, middle-age men are so desperate for the dignity of earning a wage — even for just one night — that they strip naked in front of friends, family and everyone else they know in their hometown. The Tony-nominated musical, based on a British film, is played for laughs. And waves of opening-night laughter were generated at Northport’s Engeman Theater.

Laid off from a failed Buffalo plant, steelworkers hatch their short-term enterprise after seeing their wives thrilled by Chippendale strippers. For their striptease, they’re dressed as faux cops, hats and all.

Brent Michael DiRoma as Jerry and Ryan Dunkin as Dave, along with Peter Simon Hilton as Harold, their former boss — also laid off — embody the emotional investment these men have in their harmlessly public humiliation. Jerry, separated from his wife (Kate Marshall) and in child-support arrears, has the most at stake. He could lose shared custody of their son, played wise beyond his preteen years by Kyle Wolf. DiRoma invites us to own his pain, fortifying comedy with poignancy. Dunkin as overweight Dave lets us feel his self-consciousness about his body. But it’s his neglected wife, an empathetic Nicole Hale, who suffers his self-loathing about layabout unworthiness. Meanwhile, Hilton’s tortured Harold hasn’t told his wife (Gaelen Gilliland) that they can’t afford the high life anymore.

The guys recruit unabashed Malcolm (Spencer Glass) and Ethan (Noah Bridgestock) as unlikely partners, plus Milton Craig Nealy as “Horse,” a comically stereotypical “Big Black Man.” Together, they pledge to outstrip the Chippendales. All but stealing the show aboard DT Willis’ industrial set is their piano accompanist (Diane Findlay), who’s seen and done it all. Andrew Haile Austin and his six-piece band do the actual playing.

As directed by Keith Andrews and choreographed with naked split-second timing by Antoinette DiPietropolo and crucial backlighting by Doug Harry, it’s a blessed relief to laugh out loud as the men “Let It Go,” doffing even their hats.

Their humanity far outstrips their tease.

 

Read online at: http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/theater/the-full-monty-review-laughter-s-the-bare-essential-in-northport/

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