Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Short Takes: December II - Family Fare

Reviews: The Alchemist, a comedy; Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood; Encanto 

The Alchemist, a comedy (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: The Alchemist, a comedy 
Red Bull Theater 

You might think a play about a plague would not be funny at this juncture of our own pandemic, but Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Ben Johnson’s 17th century play is surprisingly diverting and enjoyable. The plague is only a plot excuse for the master of the house to flee London so his servant Face (Manoel Felciano) and his cohorts can con money out of unsuspecting and naïve marks who believe the alchemist of the title (Reg Rogers) can solve all their woes. This is pure and simple farce and the production directed by Jesse Berger hits all the right marks, although some judicious trimming could have made it zippier. The cast includes some of the best farcical actors in New York, including Carson Elrod and Stephen DeRosa. But the standout has to be Jacob Ming-Trent, who was so memorable as Falstaff in last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” He is equally over-the-top foppish and vain here as a man who craves a stone that can turn everything into gold. And there is one throwaway pandemic joke that’s a hoot. A fun evening at the theater for all. 

Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood 
York Theatre Company 

With all due respect to Irving Berlin, his songs are upstaged in the new revue at the York Theater called “Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood” by the choreography of Randy Skinner. Berlin, whose song output is in the thousands, wrote many great Broadway musicals, but in Hollywood, he had to fight for respect and, ultimately, negotiate to have his name in the title of the movie musicals he wrote. As a history lesson, the revue does a good job at mentioning his greatest hits and Oscar nominations, but the song choices, taken out of context of the movies they were in, oscillate from love songs to dance numbers and they don’t really give us any indication of what differentiates Berlin from his contemporaries like Cole Porter or Rogers and Hart. That’s where director and choreographer Randy Skinner fills in the blanks with exciting and inventive dances, performed expertly by the cast of six (Phillip Attmore, Jeremy Benton, Victoria Byrd, Kaitlyn Davidson, Joseph Medeiros, Melanie Moore). Berlin was always trying to create dance crazes, and the examples here, including the unbelievable “The Yams” dance, are as joyous as they are goofy. If there is one thing you can’t replicate over Zoom during a pandemic, it’s being in a theatre with live dancing. After a year and a half of a choreography drought, Skinner and crew have sated us with a deluge of toe-tapping fun. 

Encanto (c) Walt Disney Studios 

Film: Encanto 
In Cinemas and on Disney + (on Christmas Eve)

Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) and her family live in an enchanted house in Colombia in which everyone of age will have magical powers, except Mirabel. But she does have her sunny disposition and a can-do attitude, until she has a feeling that something may be wrong with the house, which will in turn endanger the village surrounding the house. Even though the movie was directed by Jared Bush (“Zootopia”) and Byron Howard (“Tangled”), it is more the spiritual cousin of Pixar’s “Coco” with its vibrant colors, spiritual beliefs and a secret that jeopardizes the family’s historical foundation. But unlike “Coco,” the whole mythology of the family’s magic is sketchy at best. Each beat of the story and each character’s backstory is fun and creative (I especially like powerful Luisa, as voiced by Jessica Darrow, and mysterious Uncle Bruno, played by John Leguizamo), but I like my Disney stories based on conflicts and resolution rather than the uncovering of a complicated, mysterious backstory. Still, the songs by the hardest working man in show-business right now, Lin-Manuel Miranda, are fun and snappy and I will always support any movie with a spunky girl with glasses at its center.

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