AISLE SAY New York

 

IN BRIEF FOR JAN-FEB

 

THE MIRACLE WORKER
by William Gibson
at the Paper Mill Playhouse
WANDA'S WORLD
Book by Eric H. Weinberger
Music and Lyrics by Beth Falcone
at the 45th Street Theatre
THREE TRAVELERS
by Richard Abrons
Directed by Jay Broad
Theatre at St. Clements

 

Reviewed by David Spencer

 

 

Sometimes it just depends on how you do's it. I've seen William Gibson's The Miracle Worker—his play set in the 1880s about Helen Keller's first teacher, Anne Sullivan, and events leading up to the breakthrough in which the blind, deaf Helen finally connected the words of tactile sign language patterns with their practical meanings—creak along like a stock-and-amateur warhorse. But at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, director Susan Fenichell and her cast find just the right balance to make it seem fresh again, perhaps even as much as when it debuted in 1957 as an installment of CBS's Playhouse 90, powerfully enough to inspire expansion for the Broadway stage several years later.

 

               Following boldly in the footsteps of Theresa Wright (Playhouse 90), Anne Bancroft (Broadway and feature film), Suzanne Pleshette (Broadway replacement), Patty Duke (1979 TV movie) and Allison Elliott (2000 TV movie), Annika Boras makes a fine, feisty Anne, older in spirit by far than her reported 20 years. Press material describes Ms. Boras as a "regional theatre favorite," and if that's not just hype, it's easy to see why: she's in command and charismatic. Two young actresses alternate in the role of Helen (originally a younger Patty Duke on Broadway and in the feature film), and the night I attended, Meredith Lipson was on tap (her opposite is Lily Maketansky). Considering that the actress needs to find emotional coherence in a role that consists of pantomime and non-verbal vocalizations, any child capable of doing so in a craft-disciplined manner must be considered an uncommon wonder; and Ms. Lipson proves not only that, but very much an equal partner with Ms. Boras in the drama. Also highlighted in a nobly acquitted cast are John Hickok as Helen's military-minded father, oft-called merely The Captain; and Emily Dorsch as the patient mother who can reach beyond her husband's walls, just as Anne reaches beyond Helen's very different ones.

 

               If you're in the market for provocative family fare—that shoots a little higher than merchandising the newest reincarnation of a movie studio's popular franchise (and I emphatically don’t frown on that, but it is what it is)—The Miracle Worker may live up to its title for you in more ways than one...

 

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Family fare too is to be found in the new musical Wanda's World presented by the AMAS Repertory at the 45th Street Theatre. It's eponymous heroine is a young girl who is the host of her own advice talk show for her fellow “tweens”—however, the show exists only in her head. In real life, she's a tweenage kid with the kind of problem her fantasy callers seek her advice about: she has a prominent birthmark on the side of her face, which has thwarted her bids for acceptance and friends at every previous school she's attended—and as the play begins, it's the night before she's to embark upon yet a new one.

 

               With an 11-person cast and a kickass production helmed by Lynn Taylor-Corbett (both far too opulent to be sustained in an off-off-Broadway setting; one wonders what the practical life of this show can be, even while hoping it may find one), Wanda's World lives up to its buzz phrase, "A musical for the tween in all of us," as Wanda, this time (though not without the help of people who understand, or learn to, which is of course the lesson), conquers the odds.

 

               I've watched (and in the role of teacher, hope perhaps to have helped) this piece develop in the BMI Workshop, where I'm on faculty; and when its composer-lyricist Beth Falcone asked me if I'd be attending as a critic, I wasn't sure. Saying no would get me off the hook and let me be just an audience member, but it also denied her my being able to lend a little more support in a more public way—if I could: "Tell you what," I said. "I will come as a critic, and if I love what I see, the review gets uploaded. If I don't, or have a mixed reaction, we’ll just talk in private, and I won't post a notice at all." Happily, Beth thought that was more than fair, and happily too, the fact that you're reading this pretty much tells you my general reaction.

 

               Is Wanda without its flaws? Not entirely: coming in at 90 minutes, it can still use some trimming: there's a narrative stretch in the latter third that could be seriously tightened, and a number about being confident, sung as a tango by an Irish-accented Spanish teacher, seems like the kind of discursive specialty filler that can be dropped and swapped out for a four line exchange—or just cut—without anybody (except possibly the actress) ever missing it. But those aside, the show is filled with one attractive, literate, witty and/or emotional number after another (in a pop-theatre hybrid style that is not easy to achieve, much less maintain), powered by a sweet-funny libretto (Eric H. Weinberger based on a story by him and Ms. Falcone) and performed by a high-Octane cast who are not only splendidly talented, but seem to be genuinely very into it. As you and your children will likely be as well...

 

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What's a round-up of reviews without at least one dud, and Three Travelers is a beaut. A, what, a comedy? comedy-drama? light comedy? light drama? by Richard Abrons, it's about three people in India who go to the, what, lair? den? retreat? of a guru whose what, ad? hype? rep? promises enlightenment within an hour session. The guru (Kenneth Maharaj, yes that's the actor's name) is irreverent and wise-cracky, albeit with an accent that makes him sound like Apu on The Simpsons. The trio consist of a renowned business mogul (Steven Schnetzer), his faithful but repressed wife (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) and their best friend, a single divorcee of British extraction (Kathleen McNenny) awaiting a hefty settlement from her ex. At first, the guru seems little more than a smartass, and his clients' complaint that he doesn't live up to his promise valid; but eventually, like any effective therapist (because really, that's all he is, despite the get-up), he gets past their defenses for some shocking revelations. Unfortunately they're not as shocking to us as to the characters. Read the descriptions and do the math; if you're not ahead of the plot, shame on you. (Currently, HBO’s In Treatment, based on the Israeli series Bi’Tipal, is much hipper.)

 

               Which is not to say shame on the author; a guy who writes such facile strokes with such slender content is probably doing the best he can. His director, Jay Broad, kind of lives up to his name in mildly misdirecting the cast, and the cast is mildly mis-cast for not having quite a light enough touch, though they are all able professionals working professionally, any of whom, under different circumstances, might be far more effective.

 

               May they find themselves thus employed very soon…

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