Dance the Night Away
Barbara and Scott attend Forever Tango, Junie B. Jones, Children's Letters to God, and the launch party for a new Johnny Mercer CD.
The orchestra is uniquely suited to the tango, with four bandoneon players among its featured members. There are, in fact, several instrumental numbers, sans vocals and sans dance, that are no less thrilling because the music is so arresting and the orchestra is so dynamic. But folks aren't coming to Forever Tango to hear a concert, and the show does not disappoint when it comes to the dance. A large, diverse, and attractive cast provides tango lovers with a veritable avalanche of routines. They include a mano a mano confrontation in a brothel, two hilarious Jim Carrey style numbers, a modern-dance-meets-tango duet, and several darkly romantic sequences during which the dancers' legs whip at what seems like the speed of light. There are times when you simply can't help gasping at what these people can do.
Forever Tango is a sleek and polished show that has the added advantage of gorgeous costumes by Argemira Affonso and highly theatrical lighting design by the production's creator and director, Luis Bravo. This is, of course, the perfect Broadway show for tourists who don't speak English. But, no matter what language you speak, Forever Tango is a kick.
Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich are a songwriting team of considerable talent. We were the first critics to write about them when they made their initial mark with the much-admired comedy number "Alto's Lament." Since then, they've built an impressive body of work, and many well known theater and cabaret artists now perform their songs; for example, Kristin Chenoweth recorded their romantic comedy number "Taylor (the Latte Boy)." They are particularly adept at capturing the female point of view in matters of love, usually with a comic twist. The pair have also been writing musicals, and one of them -- a show for children called Junie B. Jones -- has finally premiered here in New York as part of Theatreworks USA's Free Summer Theatre series at the Lucille Lortel.
One only wishes that the songwriting gifts of Heisler and Goldrich were more fully evident than they are in this mediocre show. The team seems to have been encumbered by the requirements of adapting the Junie B. Jones books of Barbara Park, and the result is a nearly plotless scenario that has little in the way of a dramatic arc; the songs can't drive the plot because the show doesn't have one. Nonetheless, Heisler and Goldrich do hit paydirt when Junie (Mary Faber) and Herb (Adam Overett) meet on the school bus and sing "You Can Be My Friend." There's also a sweet moment when Junie and the company sing "Now I See" as Junie comes to terms with wearing glasses.
With the exception of Mary Faber's perky-to-the-point-of-perverse performance in the title role, the cast is endearing. Adam Overett is charming, Darius Nichols is comically gawky, Michael McCoy is a standout in drag as Mrs. Gutzman, Keara Hailey displays a strong voice, and Jill Abromovitz just about steals the show as a comically overzealous brown-noser.
Colorfully directed by Peter Flynn, with an imaginative set design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella that literally allows the characters to emerge from the notebook in which Junie will be writing during the course of the show, this is a relatively lavish production. But we know that Heisler and Goldrich have far more lavish gifts to bestow, and we look forward to better musicals from them in the future.
Another family musical based on a best-selling book is Children's Letters to God at the Lamb's Theatre. Unlike Junie B. Jones, this show has kids in all five of its roles -- and they're surprisingly good. The religious aspects of the show might put off some parents but the only God that really counts here is the God of musical theater.
With music by David Evans and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen, Children's Letters to God is a genuine charmer. Sure, lots of the songs are intended to pass along lessons, but they do so with a sense of humor -- and the lessons are more fundamental in nature than those of Junie B. Jones. Here, there are universal songs about trying to fit in ("Like Everybody Else"), power and powerlessness ("When I Am in Charge"), and the very nature of life ("Questions for the Rain").
The adorable Andrew Zutty as Kicker gets a lot of the laugh lines but the kid to keep your eye on is Sara Kapner, who plays his older sister, Joanna. She understudied the little girl in the Broadway production of Carol Burnett's Hollywood Arms, and she can really act and sing. Stafford Arima's staging is simple and effective. Stuart Hample, who also co-authored the original bestseller with Eric Marshall, wrote the show's book with a slightly heavy hand but the score consistently lifts the entire production.
Cool, Cool, Cool Mercer
Everything you ever wanted to know about Johnny Mercer is being imparted in delicious, bite-sized snacks via an ever-changing weekly show in which Ricky Ritzel and Leslie Anderson sing -- and explain -- the Mercer songbook. This epic undertaking, to sing every Mercer song from A to Z, began at Dillon's and recently moved to Helen's. If there's a trophy that goes with this show, it's the recently released Ritzel/Anderson CD Cool, Cool, Cool: Songs of Johnny Mercer. To quote Mercer himself, "Goody, Goody" -- you'll enjoy this lovingly produced recording "Day In, Day Out."
Ritzel and Anderson launched the CD at Helen's in a special show that featured many of the songs on the disc. With the addition of their entertaining patter, which ranged from insightful comments to hilarious observations about the creation of Mercer's songs, this was a wonderfully entertaining evening. The recording doesn't include that patter but it does display the performers' unwavering commitment to the style and intent of each number. Between Ritzel's amusing foghorn (he's a scream in "That Old Black Magic," imitating Louis Prima) and Anderson's versatility (she has a beautiful, expressive voice for such songs as "Whistling Away the Dark" and great comedy chops for numbers like "Legalize My Name"), the album is a treasure.