REVIEW: Stalk (La Costa Theatre)

     
     

Grim fairy tale never lightens up

 

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La Costa Theatre presents
   
Stalk
 
By Stephen Gawrit
Directed by James Wagoner
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston, et al. (map)
Through Nov. 28  | 
Tickets: $15–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Uncomfortable topics have been the subject of many musicals, but rarely one so agonizing as Stalk, a world premiere by Stephen Gawrit currently at La Costa Theatre. This very dark story uses the fairy tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" as a metaphor for child abuse.

That Stalk isn’t an ordinary musical becomes apparent right from the beginning … more than 10 minutes go past before we get to the first song. Instead, we hear young Jack’s parents engaged in a bitter off-stage argument, full of invective and foul language, and watch him sneak away with his grandmother to a strange circus where an odd, Bradburyesque barker tells the familiar story of the boy who traded the family cow for a handful of magic beans.

Stalk the Musical - La Coste Theatre 023Cleverly conceived in many ways, the show features larger-than life puppets and masks conveying the fairy-tale characters. Gawrit employs interesting characterizations and intriguing uses of fantasy to emphasize his point.

But it never, ever lightens up. Stalk is a downer from start to finish. We watch Jack grow up in fear and pain with his brutal father and drug-addled mother, two bitterly disappointed souls forced to give up their youthful goals to be a musician and actress to return to their hometown, where he works in an abattoir and she waits tables. We witness a vicious beating and worse. Poor Jack’s only solace is his fey and ineffectual grandmother, and she dies in a pretty ugly way in front of him.

Hamlet has more bright notes than this show. There’s almost no comic relief. Other musicals, The Who’s Tommy, for instance, manage to deal with such very serious themes in far more entertaining and less depressing ways.

The pop/soft-rock tunes of Gawlit’s often dirgelike score underscore the grim mood. The music’s pleasant and well-performed, but after a while it all sounds the same. There’s not an upbeat song in the bunch.

Even "I Shine for You," a love song that Lily and Gregory, Jack’s parents sing to each other, has dark edges. "Edge of My Horizon," a song the then-teenaged Jack and his friend, Greta, sing at the start of the second act is lighter and more charming than most, but it isn’t enough to provide a lift. The score needs a few sparklers.

 

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The cast sings and acts well. Helene Alter-Dyche puts in a beguiling, if not always comprehensible performance as the grandmother. Scott Danielson terrifies as Gregory, the gruesome father/giant, and Meghan Phillipp seems suitably vacant as Jack’s mother, who metamorphoses into an ugly witch. Jacob Carlson creates a barker full of sinister mystery, really a highlight of the show.

Melissa Imbrogno portrays Greta, a friend of Jack’s who isn’t very well explained, but may live in a similarly abusive household. Jordan Phelps imbues Jack with terror and confusion.

The brightest spots in the whole show, though, are Lauren Michele Lowell’s fanciful costumes, particularly those of Jack and Greta in the second act.

Only sadists enjoy watching this much relentless pain. As important as the musical’s message is, Gawlit and company need to remember that they’re creating entertainment, and take this back to the drawing board to add happiness and hope, not to mention some stand-out songs.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

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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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