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The Ball Drops

Barbara & Scott report on After the Ball, Aga-Boom, and Nancy Witter's comedy act at Don't Tell Mama.

By New York City
Kathleen Widdoes and Collette Simmons in After the Ball(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Kathleen Widdoes and Collette Simmons in After the Ball
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
As a follow-up to the Irish Rep's hit revival of Finian's Rainbow, this daring company has come up with quite a rarity for musical theater buffs. It has resurrected After the Ball, a 1954 London musical written by Noël Coward and based on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan.

The aroma of talent that may bring you into the theater doesn't end with Wilde and Coward: Tony Walton has directed and designed this production with elegance and intelligence. But while the play's attitude is refreshingly modern in some respects, it isn't as funny as one would hope. Sad to say, the score also falls short of expectations, although some of the songs (e.g., "Why Is It the Woman Who Pays?" and "Faraway Land") display flashes of Coward's greatness. The show is a soufflé that never fully rises.

Some of the piece's problems might have been averted through stronger casting. Kristin Huxhold plays the key role of Lady Windermere without charm, and her soprano lacks warmth. Lord Windermere is none too charming, either; the character is so politically incorrect that Paul Carlin really doesn't have a chance in hell of being anything but irritating in the role. As the dandy Lord Darlington, David Staller poses more than he acts. The love triangle involving these three characters is downright boring.

On the plus side, Mary Illes brings genuine poignancy -- plus some steel -- to her portrait of Mrs. Erlynne, a beautiful and mysterious woman with a past. In a sweet subplot, Collette Simmons and Greg Mills give genuine music hall turns. Drew Eshelman delivers a nifty character performance as Lord Augustus, an aging gentlemen in pursuit of the elusive Mrs. Erlynne. Finally, it's fun to see Kathleen Widdoes strut her stuff in the combined roles of the Duchess of Berwick and the show's narrator.

If you think of the Irish Rep's After the Ball the way you might view an Encores! production -- as a chance to see a rarely performed musical put up on its feet -- then you can enjoy the show for its historical significance, but it doesn't represent Coward or Wilde at anywhere near their best.

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A scene from Aga-Boom
A scene from Aga-Boom
Clowning Around

Aga-Boom at the New Victory Theater doesn't have a snowstorm like Slava does down at the Union Square Theatre, yet the two shows are remarkably similar in almost every other respect. Both are peopled by clowns that have little to do with Ringling Brothers but a lot to do with an engaging form of comic performance art, and both owe a debt to Cirque du Soleil.

Slava's Snowshow is more sophisticated than Aga-Boom, and that's only right, seeing how the latter is on the boards at a children's theater. Its lack of sophistication isn't a negative factor; these clowns are making both kids and their parents very happy for their decision to see the show.

The New Victory is a mecca for families. How could you not love a place where the first words you hear while walking through the lobby (as we did) might be, "Paul, where did you hide the red noses?" There's a face painting room in the lobby downstairs and -- get this -- the concession stand has better, healthier food than any other theater in town. Aga-Boom runs through January 16, but the real news is that the New Victory is a hit no matter what's playing there.

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Nancy Witter
Nancy Witter
The Wit of Witter

We've been enjoying comedienne Nancy Witter at Don't Tell Mama for years, usually as a host of a variety show or as one its participants. In other words, we rarely saw her do more than 10 or 15 minutes' worth of material at a time. She was always funny, but we wondered if she could sustain that level of laugh making in a one-hour show. Well, we recently discovered that she's even better as a solo act.

In her new show at Mama's, Witter is a wonder, maneuvering seamlessly from one comic riff to the next. There is never an awkward moment as she lurches, seemingly without rhyme or reason, between topics. What distinguishes Witter from so many other comedians is that she doesn't tell jokes, she tells funny stories -- and she tells them very well, using her impressive acting skills to make her characters real and present.

Also noteworthy is her self-effacing style. There's nothing mean or nasty in Witter's humor; the laughs are mostly at her own expense, and she doesn't have to resort to vulgarity to get a reaction from the crowd. Under the direction of Ron Poole, her comedy is well crafted, her delivery is delicious, and her laughs are well earned. Make a note that she'll bring her show back to Don't Tell Mama on Friday, January 21 at 7pm.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]


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