Every year, Savion Glover comes to the Joyce and stages a three-week celebration of dance, an evening devoted to playing with classical music or exploring a genre like tango or embracing the work of a master and so on. Savvier dance aficionados than me will surely spot references to the greats in his new show STePz; smarter musicologists will note how he's surveying popular music from jazz to big band to pop. I don't doubt there's an underlying intelligence to this evening of 12 musical numbers on display via Glover and his terrific compatriots Marshall Davis Jr. and the 3 Controversial Women -- Robyn Watson, Ayodele Casel and Sarah Savelli.
All I know is that as a casual fan of dance and musical theater and entertainment in general, it's a dazzling evening of pure pleasure. It may be scheduled to run for three weeks but Glover can surely keep this playing as long as he wants.
It begins with the four other dancers on stage, a raised wooden platform echoing their every step, slide and tap as the music of John Coltrane's "Miles' Mode" bursts out of speakers. Soon, as a solo begins, Glover slides onto the platform, playfully scattering the others like leaves. They all smile and nod at each other as he takes center stage; the vibe throughout is definitely one of camaraderie and sharing the joy of dancing. As McCoy Turner launches into a solo on piano in the song, one or another dancer comes back on, trading off licks and moves, but always in the service of the music rather than a cutting contest in which one tries to outdo the other.
Throughout the evening, that's the pattern: a group performance, often followed by Glover and Davis side by side and then Glover on his own. They also trade off duetting with each woman, all of whom get the spotlight when the trio opens Act Two with the big band number "Bugle Call Rag" by Benny Goodman.
Early on, with a flourish, Glover and Davis unveil two sets of steps on each side of the stage behind the raised platform. Steps to a hoofer are like pretty women to Casanova: a challenge and a pleasure. They attack the steps and toy with the steps; they tap and stomp and tease the steps, sliding up and down, jumping here and there, playing with time and rhythm. Again and again, Glover and Davis face off on their set of steps. But even at the high point where they are trading off moves one to the other, it never feels competitive. They're not trying to outdo each other; they're urging each other on.
Glover's direction and choreography are superb throughout, with the pacing just right. Ferocious solos are followed by subtle group numbers in which all five members move with mellow, precise movements. He's aided by the subtle lighting design of The Drew DeCorleto -- their red background silhouetting Davis at the begininning of one number is a high point. They also revel in shadows, throwing many subtle effects along the side walls and even in an alcove in the back that cleverly allows Glover and Davis to pair off onstage while their shadows duet in the background. Best of all, the lighting never calls attention to itself, supporting the players and their work.
It would be quicker to name the low points (none) than single out the high points. The playful duet for the theme song to "Mission: Impossible" was certainly eye-catching. But for subtlety and character, it's hard to top Glover's showstopper towards the end of act one. All five dancers are on stage, seemingly still. Slowly you start to hear a low thwacking; I thought perhaps a cranky fan was turned on at the Joyce and starting to make a noise. But eventually you realize it's Glover, tapping his foot so minimally but insistently that the noise was growing and growing and growing. A simple effect but one imagines the control needed to create it and then develop it is amazing. Glover didn't just tap his feet; it was an emotion, an uncontrolled rising tempo bursting out of him and the effect was hypnotic. It's the difference between technical skill and art, one he illustrated again and again.
Happily, the others were with him every step of the way. It was Glover's show, undoubtedly, but the generosity of spirit allowed everyone to shine. Savelli had a casual swagger, Watson a cool excellence and Casel a wonderfully slick style that was magnetic to watch. Davis offered up a no-sweat, Fred Astaire-like smoothness as a contrast to the more muscular work of Glover. The sound of what they created was so enveloping, you're almost tempted to close your eyes, a rather strange but perfectly justified tribute to what they created onstage.
And Glover of course shined throughout. The finale was a burst of joy set to Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke." But right before that came a magnificent performance set to Sammy Davis Jr. singing "Mr Bojangles." That country tune is dripping with sentiment but it's become a standard. When sung with passionate intensity by Sammy Davis Jr., the honesty and heart simply makes any sentiment fully earned or beside the point. As Davis crooned, Glover brought an aching feel and innate joy embedded into that tune fully to life -- he was playful, dazzling and technically brilliant but never showy.
I hope the show has a much longer life and transfers just so I can see it again and savor this number and the rest all over again. As a little child, I imagine Glover was told by adults again and again to stop tapping his feet, stopping making that noise, keep still! Thank God he never listened.
Well, you really can't go wrong with Shakespeare in the Park. This season they're focused on tighter productions so we get a 90-minute Comedy of Errors with no intermission. The only thing better than satisfying theater is satisfying theater that doesn't drag it out with an intermission and wraps things up nicely in under 100 minutes tops. Shakespeare In The Park is a New York institution and for a very good reason.
This show features the delightful Hamish Linklater (Sons Of The Prophet) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family playing both sets of twins. Linklater plays the two brothers of noble birth and Ferguson their servants. All of them are separated (along with their parents) in one of those Shakespearean shipwrecks that neatly divides the cast and hurts no one. Ultimately, they all arrive together in one land and confusion reigns as one servant is taken for another and the beloved of one woman suddenly finds himself supplanted by a dopple ganger. With all these mistaken identities, if you keep wondering why none of them ever remember, "Oh yes, I have an identical twin!" why you haven't seen enough Shakespeare,. Just go with it.
That's certainly the vibe of this modest but ultimately winning production helmed by Daniel Sullivan that I enjoyed a tad more intellectually than I did in fact. it's a diverting evening but the much-promised twist that would allow the twins to all face off at the finale (they're usually not played by the same actors) proved rather deflating and a detriment to the climax. Nonetheless, getting there was good fun.
The setting is vaguely 1930s/1940s, with a gangster vibe and big band music holding sway. Before the show even began, hoofers were having a ball dancing to the music from a jukebox. Those same hoofers tapped their feet while wheeling props and players on and off the stage. It created just the right amiable atmosphere. Interestingly, delivering lines in a faux gangster accent also freed up the actors. Almost everyone was notably clearer in what they were saying; somehow, having a crazy accent to deliver Shakespeare in rescued everyone from thinking of it as poetry and realizing it's actually dialogue that should make sense.
Linklater and Ferguson attacked their parts with aplomb, helped quite a bit by tech elements that were very strong throughout. Jonathan Hadary was a notable standout with his playful opening story, delivered with droll wit and pathos. As the Duke, Skipp Sudduth was an excellent foil and made the comic most of every "dese" and "dose" his gangster persona allowed. Emily Bergl was the lone weak point as Adriana; she was especially shaky early on and her dialogue hard to follow though she loosened up as the night progressed. Heidi Schreck was notably superior as her sister; no wonder one of the twins much preferred her.
Though the lame "trick" at the finale can't be helped, I have the feeling the cast was just finding their rhythm. It's easy to believe towards the end of its run that this Comedy Of Errors will prove much stronger than it was at the start.
Site-specific productions are all the rage right now. And frankly, it does seem more appealing somehow just on the face of it -- you won't be sitting in a seat in a theater; you'll be surrounded by the atmosphere of whatever work you're seeing. In this case, it's a noble effort to illuminate the price paid by sex workers. It begins in a bus as we travel from St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn to a nondescript rowhouse in the neighborhood. A sweet young girl named Mary (Mercy Ojelade), a teenager in a yellow dress perfect for Sunday church, is practically bouncing in her seat, pointing out the sites and asking her auntie (Adura Onashile) and the other passengers a stream of questions.
We soon discover that this innocent girl has been sold by her family to come work in America so the child can send money back home. Whatever lies her parents told themselves, it's soon clear she'll be working as a prostitute and little better than a slave. Mary is brutally raped by a group of men to break her in and then put to work, with her "auntie" there to bully and cajole the child into doing what needs to be done. John Kazek plays numerous male characters, everything from the Polish man who runs the brothel to a hapless john who likes to bring presents and believe he's different from Mary's other customers. (Michael Bradley Cohen has a brief role at the end as a particularly handsome and thoughtful police officer.)
It's a vicious, helpless situation and the only question is whether Mary will find the courage to break away or be dehumanized until she's an auntie training the next batch of girls.
Unlike some site-specific shows, this piece conceived and directed by Cora Bissett didn't stop at finding an appropriate location. They employ lighting and video and text on the walls (such as a creepy display of reviews posted online about various prostitutes) to enliven the you-are-there proceedings. And the cast is excellent throughout, with Ojelade in particular creating a real journey for her character.
But none of this can mask the noble, edifying nature of the project. The text by Stef Smith is banal, the storyline all too familiar and rote and no surprises or character development ever gets in the way of the rather obvious truth that sex trafficking is wrong. Despite the best efforts of the actors involved (and they are committed), it remains more of an educational short than a living piece of theater.
The site specific nature helps hide that fact for a while. On stage, the banality of the story would be all the more obvious. But even here, it proved a little problematic for the audience and hardly worth the effort. We crammed into room after room, going upwards from floor to higher floor in a sort of reverse Dante-like journey, since each floor proved worse than the one before, culminating in a party where Mary seemed to be jaded and lost, a real "pro" resigned to her work. An awkward scene on the landing and stairs that followed was poorly staged. And that party scene felt forced and unnecessary, especially since the real action occurred out of sight. We might just as easily have stayed in Mary's bedroom, heard the action above us and imagined the worst.
Anyone foolish enough to not realize sex trafficking is wrong or that those 16-year-old girls they pretend are 18 really do enjoy having sex with paunchy businessmen are probably not the sort to go to the adventurous theater hosted by St. Ann's Warehouse. Still, one can applaud the sentiment of the project without pretending it's actually satisfying theater.
NOTE: For those who can't get to New York City and the Joyce to catch Savion Glover, here's the great Sammy Davis Jr. singing and dancing "Mr. Bojangles." As Glover has said, with video at our fingertips, you don't have to just remember the greats, you can now watch and study and appreciate them again and again.
THE THEATER OF 2013 (on a four star scale)
The Other Place ** 1/2
Picnic * 1/2
Opus No. 7 ** 1/2
Deceit * 1/2
Life And Times Episodes 1-4 **
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (w Scarlett Johansson) * 1/2
The Jammer ***
Blood Play ** 1/2
Manilow On Broadway ** 1/2
Women Of Will ** 1/2
All In The Timing ***
Isaac's Eye ***
Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale Of Musical Mystery ** 1/2
The Mnemonist Of Dutchess County * 1/2
Much Ado About Nothing ***
Really Really *
Parsifal at the Met *** 1/2
The Madrid * 1/2
The Wild Bride at St. Ann's ** 1/2
Passion at CSC *** 1/2
Carousel at Lincoln Center ***
The Revisionist **
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella ***
Rock Of Ages * 1/2
Ann ** 1/2
Old Hats ***
The Flick ***
Detroit '67 ** 1/2
Howling Hilda reading * (Mary Testa ***)
Hit The Wall *
Breakfast At Tiffany's * 1/2
The Mound Builders at Signature *
Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike *** 1/2
Cirque Du Soleil's Totem ***
The Lying Lesson * 1/2
Hands On A Hardbody *
Kinky Boots **
Matilda The Musical *** 1/2
The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream ***
Motown: The Musical **
La Ruta ** 1/2
The Big Knife *
The Nance ***
The Assembled Parties ** 1/2
Jekyll & Hyde * 1/2
Thoroughly Modern Millie ** 1/2
Macbeth w Alan Cumming *
Orphans ** 1/2
The Testament Of Mary ** 1/2
The Drawer Boy **
The Trip To Bountiful ***
I'll Eat You Last ** 1/2
This Side Of Neverland ***
A Public Reading Of An Unproduced Screenplay About The Death Of Walt Disney ***
Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812 ***
Colin Quinn Unconstitutional ** 1/2
A Family For All Occasions *
The Weir *** 1/2
Disney's The Little Mermaid **
Far From Heaven **
The Caucasian Chalk Circle **
Somewhere Fun **
Venice no stars
Reasons To Be Happy **
STePz *** 1/2
The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare In The Park) ***
Roadkill ** 1/2
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the founder and CEO of BookFilter, a book lover's best friend. It's a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It's like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide -- but every week in every category. He's also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review. All productions are in New York City unless otherwise indicated.