There have been signs for some time that the traditional dysfunctional family drama, often considered the strong suit of American dramatic literature, is running out of figurative gas. Yet it also appears that the genre is something of a renewable resource, as is nicely illustrated by Jeff Mandel's And Somewhere Men Are Laughing, a slice-of-life look at one man's family and their tribulations during the Brooklyn summer of 1955.
Baseball fanatics will instantly know that's the late summer when the Brooklyn Dodgers stole the World Series from under the Yankees' upwardly-tilted noses. Popular poetry fans will also recognize the title as lifted from the dolorous final lines of Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat." So anyone assuming that in some way Mandel's play involves baseball assumes correctly. Lee (John Fugelsang) and sons Paul (Paul Iacono) and Danny (Hunter Gallagher) think the world of the Dodgers, but superficially it's the only thing they agree on. Their conflicting emotions about each other -- particularly in regard to Gill's being wheelchair-ridden and deteriorating from an undisclosed illness -- are what give Russell's work its most persuasive effects, and its rapidly beating heart. The struggles, which eventually turn physical, lift And Somewhere Men Are Laughing above the strictly commonplace.
Also hand-wringing in the household is mother Dot (Carol Lempert), who's worried about feeding her brood now that dad's out of work. She's also preoccupied with Paul's behavior in a neighborhood where, as a Jew, he's being bullied and is regularly fighting back. A lengthy stay by her well-heeled Aunt Pearl (Jana Robbins) assuages Carol's concerns only temporarily, although Pearl's good-natured generosity coupled with her amusing non-stop chatter gives the audience its biggest kick. While all the acting, under Bill Russell's understanding direction, is more than commendable, it's Robbins who gets the heaviest curtain-call applause.
Rare is the musical that would benefit from dropping its music, but Kiss and Make Up fits into that unusual category. The problem is not so much that Kevin Hammonds and Mark Weiser's score is relatively undistinguished; but rather that the songs keep getting in the way of the surprisingly clever farce constructed by Hammonds (who also directed the piece).
Make that a farce within a farce. Written with a nod to Noises Off -- not to mention Christopher Guest's brilliant mockumentary Waiting for Guffman -- Kiss and Make Up concerns a community theater in Massachusetts that is trying something different from its standard fare: a 19th-century French farce called Fingers Crossed. But as opening night looms, things go less and less smoothly for these troubled thespians. The ingénue has just been replaced with a complete novice incapable of learning her lines, then the leading lady ends up passed out on too many tranquilizers, and canceling the performance isn't an option, since the President of the United States is in the house. So what's Charles, the company's artistic director to do?
Here, it means playing both the male and female leads, a concept that could only be pulled off by an actor like David Sabella-Mills, who previously showed off his feminine side (and amazing countertenor voice) as the original Mary Sunshine in the revival of Chicago. The formidable singer-actor is surrounded by a crackerjack cast, most notably the show-stopping Capathia Jenkins as God-loving, pill-popping leading lady Vanessa, the priceless Patti Perkins, who is downright hilarious as the slightly dotty veteran actress Margaret, and the absolutely adorable Robert Rokicki as Dillon, a Secret Service agent with a not-so-secret passion for the stage.
The songs' mostly mediocre quality notwithstanding, hearing them sung unamplified in the largish Lortel Theatre and accompanied by a two-man band does them (and the cast) no favors. Fortunately, the many funny lines in Hammonds' script come through loud and clear.
Subtitled "a musical memorial spoof," Bye, Bye Big Guy attempts to present a new take on some familiar fairy tale characters. However, those expecting something along the lines of Into the Woods will most likely be disappointed by this mediocre tuner.
Rumplestiltskin has died, and his memorial is presided over by Snow White (Danielle Lee Greaves) and Harold, the Frog Prince (Christopher Youngsman). They insist the event should be considered a celebration, and have brought in numerous musical acts whom the late dwarf (who was apparently also a theatrical agent) represented. There's also a plot development involving Rumplestiltskin's will, but it only barely interrupts the revue-like format of the musical.
The music covers a range of styles, from a Gilbert and Sullivan parody ("He Was More Than Met the Eye") to a faux gospel number ("Oh, How That Little Man Could Hop"). Unfortunately, David Evans' score is never more than adequate, and Faye Greenberg's lyrics are fairly forgettable.
The major problem, however, is Michael Slade's book. The dialogue isn't particularly witty, and his take on the various fairy tale legends relies on show-biz clichés and bad sex jokes. There are some humorous bits, but for every joke that lands, there are three or four that don't.
The majority of the cast members fail to rise above the material they've been given, with one notable exception: Carly Jibson, of Hairspray and One Life to Live fame. This dynamic performer manages to infuse her many characters with presence and personality, whether it's a few short lines as Gretel to a hilarious dance routine by Karen, the girl with the Red Shoes. She's not enough to save the show, but her performance at least makes it more entertaining to watch.
A couple of Austin, Texas guys named Steve Adams and Chan Chandler have blended Broadway's Chicago, HBO's Oz and the1950 flick Caged into Slammer!, a prison musical that's also -- if you can wrap your head around this -- a metaphor for corrupt corporate privatization in contemporary America. If you think it would be hard to turn this into something approaching a sure-fire hit, you'd be right.
The behind-bars activity -- the many prison-bars-on-wheels are supplied by set designer Kim Chandler -- does have one show-stopping sequence. Rising like Venus on the half shell from the mediocre Adams-Chandler score is a gospel anthem called "Along the Road" that isn't especially distinguished in its own right, but gets belted to the street and beyond by Sandra Reaves-Phillips. Although the rousing ditty's unleashed in the show's first act, it's one of those 11 o'clock numbers where an African-American woman of girth swivels her capacious stuff. This calculated ploy, unlike the premise and realization of Slammer!, is definitely sure-fire.
As for the main story -- in which the prison's privatization is never explained or brought to some intelligible conclusion -- Tabitha (Merrill Grant, whose voice is as constrained as her character) is convicted on a drug-possession charge. (The audience knows she's innocent.) Once under lock and key, the wide-eyed blonde is introduced to the rigors and threats of inmate life. Though eyed hungrily by some of her companions, she's successfully shielded by Reaves-Phillips' Reverend Mama. Her worse scourges are stiletto-heeled warden Eva (Lannyl Stephens) and rape-prone guard Smiley (Saviero Guerra), who turns out to be a frustrated song-and-dance man.
Yes, it's that kind of wacky show. So when Tabitha predictably hardens like concrete and decides she wants release, she determines to put on a revue-within-the-musical that will offer her and tough-as-hammers co-prisoners an escape opportunity. The end won't be revealed here, in part because the authors still haven't worked it out satisfactorily.