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Midtown International Theatre Festival

There is only one good way to judge a theater festival and that's by the level of consistent quality one finds in its productions. Without that, neither the critics nor the public come to such a series of shows with any enthusiasm. We're pleased to report that, having jumped into the river of shows flowing through the fourth annual Midtown International Theatre Festival at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, we saw very few that were smashed on the rocks of incompetence or caught in the shallows of mediocrity. For the most part, the festival flowed on a swift current of audience-friendly shows that often featured good writing and even better acting.

We're going to briefly examine four shows that, together, suggest the length and breadth of an ambitious festival that produced upwards of two dozen plays. We won't be reviewing BKC (Ball Kicking Contest), which seemed better suited to the outer fringes of the Fringe than to this festival, nor about the underdeveloped science fiction musical The Overdevelopment of Scott. We will, however, zero in on shows at various levels of accomplishment that seem to share what passes for commercial appeal in the Off-Off-Broadway arena.


The hit of the festival is Thrill Me, a musical based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb story. Stephen Dolginoff wrote the book, music, and lyrics, and this tightly wound show (in every sense of that phrase) is the most polished of all the productions we saw. Directed with intensity and stylish pacing by Martin Charnin, it tells the story of two twisted teenagers and their murder of little Bobby Franks in 1924.

Leopold & Loeb have fascinated artists ever since the world-famous trial in which they were defended by no less a personage than Clarence Darrow. Alfred Hitchcock was inspired by their story to make the film Rope. Much more recently, the story was retold in the award-winning Off-Broadway play Never the Sinner. The idea of musicalizing such a tale may seem like a bleak joke, but Thrill Me uses music to get us over the hump of the criminal details of the case and to display the emotions underlying the relationship between Leopold and Loeb that allowed the murder to happen. That's the point of the show: Its very first song, "Why," delves into these two hearts of darkness to find the reason for the unfathomable murder of a boy whom neither of these killers knew.

Told from the point of view of Nathan Leopold (Christopher Totten), who worshipped Richard Loeb (Matthew S. Morris), the musical unfolds as a love story. The score drives the plot, and most of the songs -- as their titles suggest -- only make sense in the context of the action. For instance, "Nothing Like a Fire" burns with double meaning as the fledgling criminals set a warehouse ablaze and then cozy up to it like two lovers before a fireplace. The humor is intended, and the intelligence of the piece sparks the scenes and songs that follow. The music is atmospheric and lushly melodious, the lyrics often clever. On top of all this, Totten gives a stunning performance as Leopold; he manages to appear both needy and resourceful at once, drawing a human portrait of the character that makes us care and, finally, understand "Why."


If Thrill Me is a dark and dangerous musical, then The Winner: A Brooklyn Fable is its opposite. Sweetly old-fashioned, the show is set in 1957 Brooklyn as the Dodgers threaten to leave Ebbets Field for Los Angeles. Its hero, a passionate Dodger fan named Dominick (Michael Ricciardone), wins the Irish Sweepstakes and spends virtually all of his money on a campaign to keep The Bums in Brooklyn. At its heart -- and this show is more about heart than it is about plot -- this is a gentle, nostalgic musical about the nature of change in a family (and a city) that uses the Dodgers as a metaphor for that change.

The book, by Ines Basso Glick and Annmarie Fabricatore, is entirely transparent but so innocent that it doesn't chafe. At any rate, the strength of the show is in the catchy melodies and winsome lyrics of Stanley Glick. The family story concerns Dominick's daughter Anna Maria (Marnie Baumer), who wants to leave Brooklyn and the values of her family for a more modern life. Though she is pursued by an apprentice barber named Angelo, who works for her father, Anna Maria is in love with the more sophisticated Manhattanite and New York Yankee fan Anthony Prescott Hawthorne IV. Rob Bardunias as Angelo and Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone as Anthony are charming and winning; so is Baumer, who sings her songs with the kind of verve that you'd expect from this tough young woman. These three young actors are an important part of the musical's success.

Performed at the MITF as a staged reading rather than a full production, The Winner came off as a play-in-progress. Still, it's clear that this is not a New York City show; it's far too simple for the more demanding Off-Broadway audience. It would, however, probably do well on the road in places like Florida due to its nostalgic appeal.


The manly cast of Just Us Boys
(Photo © Carmen Einfinger)
One of the festival's most commercial straight plays -- and we use the term "straight" advisedly -- is Just Us Boys by Frank Stancati. Telling the backstage story of a Broadway musical from its first rehearsals through its opening and on through Tony Awards season, the play details the personal and professional lives of five chorus boys. Three of the characters are gay, one is straight, and the sexual orientation of the fifth is the mcguffin that drives the plot.

The emotional trials and tribulations of the characters are predictable but well written. The play moves swiftly thanks to Catherine Lamm's energetic direction, marred only by the decision to have the characters taking their clothes off so often that this starts to feel more like a beefcake show than the often witty piece of theater it is. The acting is strong throughout: Particularly effective is the restrained performance of James Blanshard as the dance captain, Anthony, who -- despite himself -- falls in love with one of the other dancers.

As the straight guy, Alexander Koltchek has a wonderful, easygoing quality. Jarrod Caffaro is hilariously bitchy as a boy-toy dancer who is in a constant state of warfare with an aging version of himself, played to perfection by Brad Thomason. As the sexually confused fellow, Emanuele Ancorini broods well and looks good but there should be more going on in his performance. However, Mac Hardcastle is a scream as the voice of the stage manager.

Knowledgeable audience members will have fun with the dicey remarks about the theater that float through the dialogue of Just Us Boys like champagne bubbles. In that respect, this play might only work in New York and wither anywhere else.


Finally, there's Nice Guys Finish ..., an amusing comedy that slices and dices dating rituals. Adroitly written by Eric Alter, the piece has two men on one side of the stage discussing their dismal romantic histories as they wait for the return of their pal, who is off on a blind date. On the other side of the stage are two women who talk about their own dates-from-hell while waiting for their girlfriend to return from -- you guessed it! -- the same blind date. The war of the sexes rages on in the two sets of dialogue that take place.

Generally well acted, particularly by Rick Holloway and Michael O'Hagen (or, perhaps, they simply have better material to work with than actresses Takemma Morton and Jenn Doerr do), Nice Guys Finish... is consistently amusing; just as it starts to lose steam, the two blind daters show up and we see the blind date re-enacted as the participants tell their respective friends how the evening went. At this point, the play goes into comic overdrive. Rob Sullivan plays Stevie, the shy "Nice Guy" of the title. Coached by his friend Tommy (Holloway) to be mean and nasty because women like men who treat them badly (!), he is so comically unattractive that the audience explodes in laughter. As his astonished date, Kimmy, Jennifer Crane is remarkably real in this increasingly goofy situation, and her steadfastness goes a long way toward making the scene work.

Directed by Rob Sullivan (doing double duty) with a sure hand and a natural touch, this is a show that might well appeal to the same audience as that of the musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.