Reivew: Ribbon Around a Bomb (Prologue Theatre)

     
    

New musical needs to choose an audience

     
     

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

 

Prologue Theatre Company presents

 

Ribbon Around a Bomb

 

Books and Music by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee
Directed by Kiana Harris
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through May 3   |  tickets: $15   |  more info 

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a little unbelievable and absurd to think that in 2011 any collegiate art department would exclude all female painters from a list of 45 great historical artists. Even in my own five minute research (ala Google) I could not find a single list that left out the likes of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. That said, it’s certainly a heavily one-sided battle of sexes in the art history world. This is at least part of what the new identity-stricken musical, Ribbon Around a Bomb by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee, which recently premiered with Prologue Theatre Company, focuses on. At one point a professor (Melody Latham) hands the audience a thesis list of historical painters, who are all men. It was not only a contrived theatrical convention, but also made me feel a little odd sitting in the cabaret bar setting of Mary’s Attic watching what, as far as I could tell, was a children’s musical. When Chamblee implements the “adult” sections though, it feels even more awkward.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The story follows a painter, Kalakara, through three phases of her life. The younger Kalakara (played with perfect wonderment and rebellion by Krysten Williams) is “haunted” by three female painters from history (Angela Alise Johnson, Melody Latham and Kathleen Wrinn). She is an aspiring painting prodigy (although we never get an actual glimpse of her artwork) whose father (Christopher Tucker) disapproves of her career choice. The ghosts are there, at first, to help guide and inspire her. The college student Kalakara (Charlitha Charleston) is traumatized by these experiences and is also dealing with her rebellion against men, particular the one man in love with her, James (a vocally challenged Lance Newton). Finally, there is the older Kalakara (Tinuade Oyelowo) who paints from her mental institution.

It is within the stories of the older Kalakaras, and their mutual haunting of each other, where the script gets muddled, pointlessly depressing and dramatically trite. Chamblee seems to suggest that the only true way to become a great artist, if you’re a female, is to embrace insanity and reject family, happiness and men. It projects a skewed feminist message.

Chamblee clearly has a knack for infectious musical numbers. However, the musical style in this play lacks unity and instead stretches to showcase a hodgepodge of numerous styles that don’t usually mesh. In addition, there is most certainly an overabundance of belting. Chamblee is clearly influenced by several contemporary composers of the musical world including Sondheim, Schwartz and Jason Robert Brown. The trick is to serve the story first and this story lends itself to more intimate and simple music than is currently written.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The cast is just about as split as Chamblee’s script. While there is some wonderful talent (most notably the impressive vocals of Charleston and Wrinn), there are also several uneven performances in director Kiana Harris’ cast. Harris’ direction serves the first half of this musical well with a decidedly presentational staging. It helps communicate the educational values and emotional relationships clearly, however it is far more suited for a middle-school audience rather than a bar full of adults. For the most part it seems that Chamblee’s script cofuses Harris’ concept – and understandably so: Chamblee’s book and music combat each other caught between a fun historical educational children’s musical revolving around themes of gender equality, and a tediously confounded psychological adult drama. For example, although Tamara de Lempicka was a mid-twentieth century Polish painter, she is instead portrayed and costumed as though she’s a 2011 “Real Housewife of the Netherworld.” This causes a confusing disconnect between her and the other ghosts who are costumed and portrayed in a more period style.

I’d say that Chamblee needs to choose one storyline, and one play to tell, however I’d strongly encourage fleshing out the tale of the young girl painter inspired by historical women who have defied sexism in the art world. She can simply drop the schizophrenia, f-bombs and stripper number that add nothing but a lack of clarity. Allow these women of the past to empower the girl rather than mentally damage her for life. In this sense she should also choose her audience, and if that happens to be a room full of 6th grade girls, then so be it. Finding strength in the past is a lovely message, and the music during these segments is the strongest. It could be cut to 45 minutes and shipped out on a children’s theatre tour. While it is clear Chamblee has greater personal musical ambitions and another deeper story to tell with bold orchestrations, Ribbon Around a Bomb may be better off simple. She can save the center stage belts and diva numbers for the next go-around of musical scribing.

   
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

Ribbon Around a Bomb, Prologue Theatre Company’s world-premiere musical continues thru May 3rd. The play runs 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $15. For more information visit www.prologuetheatreco.org

Photos by Cole Simon 

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REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

street-scene-collage

 
National Pastime Theater presents
 
Street Scene
 
Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null
At
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
thru April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Elmer Rice‘s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene has over fifty characters and a heavy handed script that critiques an urban social structure that doesn’t exist anymore. Why did storefront theater National Pastime revive this show? Dated scripts have a certain appeal in revealing how contemporary society has changed or remained stagnant, and evolved acting techniques can often bring new life to a dusty play. Unfortunately, those only apply if the production is good, and National Pastime’s is not. 

Directors Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null fail to transform their assortment of actors into a cohesive ensemble, and much of this can be attributed to a lack of definition concerning the world of the play. Rice’s realist dialogue and characters clash with out-of-tune musical interludes and out of sync movement sequences, drawing attention away from the script and onto the weak choices of the creative team. Why have actors play instruments with a track if they can’t stay on tempo? Or have three actors engaging in expressive hand choreography in a corner of the stage in the midst of legitimate dramatic conflict? Some of the decisions are truly baffling, especially an unintentionally hilarious sound cue of a woman giving birth that falls somewhere between an infant throwing a tantrum and Linda Blair being exorcised. These all could be excused if the acting were above par, yet somewhere in the directors’ conceptualization of the script they forgot about the 23 performers on stage.

The plot of Street Scene concerns the hardships endured by the residents of a tenement in New York City, a group of people ranging from fresh immigrants to those having lived in the city their entire lives. The biggest challenge for the actors is the dialects, and their accuracy varies greatly, with most falling on the low end. The New York accents aren’t consistent, creating confusion about where exactly this stoop is located, and there are times when mother-daughter duo Rose (Melinda Ryba) and Mrs. Maurrant (Rebekka James) drop the dialect completely, making it even more distracting when it mysteriously reappears. The immigrant characters don’t fair any better. Musician Lippo (Michael Solomon) sounds more like Cheech Marin than an Italian, and his wife Mrs. Fiorentino (Kiley Moore) struggles to sound anything but American. Mrs. Olsen’s (Alexandra Shepherd) accent sounds like she can be anywhere from Ireland to eastern Europe.

The dialects are such an obstacle that it is difficult to connect with what the characters are actually saying, and plot points get lost in the muddled language along with any emotional resonance. The actors with the best vocals are the most intriquing, particularly Kaplan (Fred A. Wellisch) and his daughter Shirly (Shannon Hollander), who not only have flawless dialects, but also a clearly defined relationship. Their two windows of the tenement’s nine feature the most dynamic storytelling of the entire show, and watching the weary Shirly keep her rambunctious father in check provides actual entertainment value. Even apart these two actors shine, with Wellisch filling the “elderly revolutionary” role (see Awake and Sing’s Jacob) without becoming too tedious, and Hollander creating the show’s most genuine emotional moment, a melancholy goodbye with the tragic Rose.

Certain members of the supporting cast also provide nice but fleeting moments, like the ultra-prejudiced black neighbor Mrs. Jones (Sandra Watson) who is completely unaware of her son Vincent’s (Geoffrey Davis-El) tendency to rape, although the actual assault is some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. Prostitute Mae’s (Kelsey Hopper) squeaky sensuality brightens her scenes and impoverished mother Hildebrand (Rachel Griesinger) brings some tension to the piece with her chilly demeanor. Otherwise, the acting is stiff and disconnected across the board. Many actors look uncomfortable on stage, particularly when the goofy choreography begins, and line delivery becomes so monotone and dull as the play stretches into hours that it is a chore to watch.

A second intermission is the final nail in the show’s coffin, killing any momentum the lagging production had gathered. Expecting an audience member to wait another ten minutes for the end of a mediocre production is disrespectful, especially when the third act is twenty minutes long.

 
Rating: ★½
 

Street Scene previews March 19 & 20 and opens on March 26 at 8pm. The performances run Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm to April 25. Tickets are $25. Date night stimulus Thursdays two for one.

        

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