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NYMF 2014: Clinton; Der Gelbe Stern; The Snow Queen

This is TheaterMania's third roundup of reviews for the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival.

The cast of Michael and Paul Hodge's Clinton, directed by Adam Arian, at the Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
(© Russ Rowland)


by Zachary Stewart

Audiences may be dismayed, after waiting outside the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre in what resembles a TSA screening line, to see even more ropes and poles on the stage. Fear not: This is just David Gallo's brilliantly minimalist set to the hilarious Clinton, which has viewers in hysterics for a two-hour condensation of the eight-year Clinton presidency.

Is that rope protecting the VIPs at the center of this story, or merely holding them back? Australian brothers Michael and Paul Hodge examine that and much more in this madcap political farce. Clinton tracks WJ (Karl Kenzler) and his alter ego Billy (Duke LaFoon) from his 1993 inauguration right across the bridge to the year 2000. That's right: There are two Bills for Hillary (Alet Taylor) to wrangle, each embodying a concentrated aspect of Clinton's personality.

WJ sings a dignified speech to the tune of "Hail to the Chief." Billy croons, "It depends what the meaning of 'is' is" while swinging jazz horns underscore. The former is the serious-minded policy wonk, while the latter just wants to have fun and play the sax. Their conversations together imagine the answer to the oft-asked question, What was he thinking?

A truly great musical needs a great bad guy. Clinton has two: Newt Gingrich (the deliciously evil Tom Souhrada) is a Bond villain who can't help but exalt in his dastardly plan aloud, leading to his ultimate undoing. Ken Starr (Kevin Zak and his amazing falsetto) is a fameball in leather fetish gear who lurks in the shadows at the edge of the stage.

The Hodges' delightfully irreverent take on American politics proves a perfect match for the Clinton white house. You'll have a hard time getting the infectious pop anthem, "I'm f*cking the f*ckin' president," as sung by Monica Lewinsky (Natalie Gallo), out of your head.

Mosty importantly, Clinton never takes itself too seriously while showcasing some truly remarkable performances. This is what all festival musicals should be like.

Alexis Fishman as Erika Stern in Der Gelbe Stern, directed by Sharone Halevy, at the Laurie Beechman Theatre.
(© Hunter Canning)

Der Gelbe Stern

by Hayley Levitt

Cabaret meets Hedwig and the Angry Inch with a dash of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill in Der Gelbe Stern, a (nearly) one-woman musical revue set in 1933 in the titular Berlin nightclub. Hitler has just risen to power — a fact we can expect to play a significant role in the piece considering the nightclub's translated name, "The Yellow Star." Yet we're told the club's namesake is its own shining star, Erika Stern, who for years has been entertaining its audiences with songs, stories, and a sardonic wit that could seemingly fend off any Nazi general.

This central character is played by the show's creator Alexis Fishman. As coauthor of the piece (along with James Millar), director Sharone Halevy seems to have given Fishman free reign of the 70-minute performance. From her entrance, brashly strutting through the crowd to take the stage of the intimate Laurie Beechman Theatre, Fishman's personality is as strong as her German accent. Stern opens her set profusely apologizing for her late arrival, the reasons for which become clearer as the show marches on. While performing a bill of timely standards (penned by notable composers such as Friedrich Holländer and Jacques Brel) with the help of her accompanist, Otto (played by Heath Saunders), she gradually unravels her own backstory with a series of personal anecdotes that break up the musical numbers.

Her simple tale is nothing groundbreaking, but poignant nonetheless, due primarily to Fishman's commanding performance. She wraps the crowd around her finger with her powerful, jazz-inflected voice and casual confidence, which she uses to inspire a rousing rendition of "Heil Hitler, Ja Ja Ja," complete with enthusiastic audience participation. As the show draws to a somber close, we come to find that this is Stern's last performance at Der Gelbe Stern, which, after she takes her leave, will take on the purified name "The White Elk." Though the circumstances of her early retirement may not be the most challenging to predict, it's worth seeing this "star" performance before it flickers out.

The cast of The Snow Queen, directed by Rick Lombardo, at the Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
(© Haddon Kime)

The Snow Queen

by Zachary Stewart

A ring of snow encircles the stage in The Snow Queen — Kirsten Brandt, Rick Lombardo, and Haddon Kime's kid-friendly adaptation of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Performers in pirate/steampunk couture emerge from the darkness beyond this Arctic circle clutching instruments and looking very much like the latest, greatest Eurovision act (costumes by Francis Nelson McSherry). This show is as much a feast for the eyes as the ears.

Gerda (Eryn Murman) and Kai (John Michael Presney) are best friends. When a mischievous troll (Reggie D. White) sprays Kai's eyes with shards of cynicism, he no longer wants to see Gerda. Instead, he runs away with The Snow Queen (Jane Pfitsch) to her palace in the North Pole. Gerda sets out on an epic journey to get her friend back, battling witches, robbers, and evil snowflakes along the way.

The always-hilarious Lee Ann Payne plays several roles, including a manic witch, a southern-friend robber lady, and a wise woman of the north. Pfitsch is simultaneously creepy and alluring as the title character. Jason Hite is hilarious as Gerda's crow friend, embodying the physicality of the clumsy bird with aplomb. He's a real showman and the kids just love him. Like several members of the cast, Hite also plays in the band.

Kime's score is an endlessly listenable pastiche with elements of bluegrass, punk rock, and symphonic metal. Director Rick Lombardo has staged an unapologetically theatrical show in which rivers come to life and characters fly. Still, at 2 hours and 30 minutes, it's a lot to ask young children to sit through. Make sure yours are the kind who can stick it out.

Cynics might speculate that this musical about an ice queen is merely a ploy to capitalize on the Frozen phenomenon. But this artfully designed and impressively sung tale has a charm of its own, far more sophisticated than you're likely to find in a cartoon.