new york musical theatre festival

“What Do The Critics Know?” Is a Funny Take on Our Hated Critics

I felt more than a bit self-conscious at last week’s NYMF performance of What Do The Critics Know?, The show’s title and its basic premise shine a glaring spotlight folks like me who presume to know what artistically works and what doesn’t, but fail to produce any creative work of our own. There were a handful of moments where I double-checked to make sure my large manila press packet, a give-away of my special status, was extra hidden under my seat.

Overall, however, this new musical written by Matthew Gurren and James Campodonico gets at least one thing right about critics: deep down, beneath the sassy one-liners and the cheap alliterative headings (critics have critics too), there’s a pure love for art. Maybe with a bit of money, luck, and inspiration, we might be able to create our own show, but the fact of the matter is our strengths lie elsewhere: in our passion, our capacity for critical and abstract thinking, our expression, etc. And if we were to try to do what artists do, we would probably fail miserably and fail often.

Chris Gleim (center) and the ensemble of What Do The Critics Know? Photo by Nick Tighe

When yet another one of his plays gets panned by the critics, writer Nathan Wood (a glumly loveable Chris Gleim) has to resort to waiting tables in order to pay the bills. His empathetic, but criminal boss Tony (scene-stealing Danny Bolero) sneakily drives Nathan to say what kind of revenge he’d like to exact on the critics, and when Nathan says that the critics should get their own show insulted, Tony uses his shady financial resources to blackmail the critics into creating their own production to premiere in the current Broadway season.

The set-up is a wonderfully entertaining and includes familiar cast of characters. Any reader of theater reviews could immediately recognize these critics occupying steady positions in the world of cultural criticism. There’s the snobby Chester (Ryan Knowles), the New York Times writer with a penchant for overwrought vocabulary and irritability. Representing the Post is the flamboyant and maniacal Brad (Prescott Seymour). And lastly there’s Irma (Mary Mossberg) who, in writing, is just as cruel as the others, but whose failed career in dance (and failed relationship with Nathan) cloud her judgment. The trio are hilariously sinister but also warmly sympathetic, thanks in large part to the actors’ talents and likeability. In “Writing the Show,” each critic presents his/her own unique idea for their production, resulting in a number than effortlessly blends multiple musical genres, comic excitement, and excellent character development. We can see ourselves in their giddy, but inevitably doomed efforts.

The plot loses focus in the second act, largely with the inclusion of too many subplots and secondary characters. Things start to stray when the critics hire two delusional character actors who believe themselves to be Shakespeare and Bach. Irma splits from Brad and Chester to work with Nathan, and there’s an unnecessary love triangle between them and Nathan’s current actress girlfriend. Brad and Chester’s Shakespeare/Bach production falls flat not only within the play itself, but also for us. Being able to see Brad and Chester shape a production from scratch should have been a hilarious prospect, but the madcap inclusion of one-note characters like Shakespeare, Bach, and a reigning diva result in a drawn-out, unfunny, and uninteresting resolution. And for a show that is so reflective on our understanding of art, I would have liked to take away a more evolved message on how our relationship to art differs according to where we find ourselves in its process. However, the musical’s brilliant first act, its loveable characters, and its solid talent were more than enough reason to feel great about this show and its future prospects.

‘Manuel Versus The Statue of Liberty’ Gets Tough on Immigration

You know you’re in for something special when you see Lady Liberty, dressed in mint leggings, jersey shorts, and high-tops, duke it out over immigration rights and citizenship status. Here, her opponent is a bright-eyed high school senior with a propensity for ancient languages and philosophy. He just happens to be an illegal immigrant from Santo Domingo, born just two years before his mother moved to the United States.

Manuel Versus The Statue of Liberty, written by Noemi de la Puente and David Davila, is an entertaining musical with pedagogical purpose. Most Americans know very little about the incredibly lengthy and complicated citizenship process, and many immigrants never hear about their personal rights, even as non-citizens. We are blissfully unaware of the plight of millions of people living on blocks or in our apartment buildings, and the writers of this new musical make sure that we start paying attention. There’s even a song called “Immigration 101,” in which Immigration service agents rap battle about visas, green cards, and regulations.   Unfortunately, some of the plot’s most important information gets buried under fast-moving rap lyrics (some of the ensemble couldn’t keep up with the pace) or substituted by more sentimental songs.How would Manuel’s college education attract the attention of immigration police? How can he afford Princeton without financial aid? Likewise, I found myself feeling disappointed by the vagueness and cliches (“The American dream is the American nightmare”) built into a large portion of the lyrics.

Gil Perez-Abraham (left), Shakina Nayfack (center), and the cast of Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty. Photo by Shira Friedman
Gil Perez-Abraham (left), Shakina Nayfack (center), and the cast of Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty. Photo by Shira Friedman

De la Puente and Davila’s songs blend genres and styles in thrilling and unique ways. With each song’s introduction, I never knew what to expect, but always felt pleasantly surprised. There’s Manuel’s dream ballad, “Sueno,” sung with deep authenticity by Gil Perez-Abraham, a youthful sparkle in his eye.  Manuel’s mother, which Tami Dahbura plays with a loving conviction that reminds me of my own Hispanic grandmother, undoubtedly performs the best numbers, including the flavorful “No Se Puede” and the stirring “Ave Maria.” Shakina Nayfack nails Lady Liberty’s comedic timing, but struggles slightly with the musical numbers.

An appealing musical with a great heart and an important message, Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty has great things in store for it. With a little more precision in writing and production, it is sure to win over audiences.

NYMF 2015: “Acapella” Removes the Instruments but Keeps the Heart

The New York Musical Theatre Festival has taken over the city once more with its program of full productions, workshops, and concerts of new and up-and-coming musicals. Acapella, which is now playing at PTC Performance Space, is one of the shows that kicked off the festival on Wednesday. Acappella NYMF logo

Like its namesake, Acapella is a musical with no instruments, as the singers use their voices to provide the instrumentation. Using the music of Christian vocal group The Acappella Company, Acapella follows Jeremiah (Tyler Hardwick) from his start as a gospel singer to superstardom in a boy band. When he returns home to his southern small town, Jeremiah remembers his love for gospel music and a more normal life. But the people Jeremiah left behind, best friend Simon (Anthony Chatmon II) and former sweetheart Sarah (Darilyn Castillo) aren’t ready to welcome Jeremiah with open arms.

Top: Sarah (Darilyn Castillo) and Jeremiah (). Bottom: Simon () and Jeremiah (). Photo by John Keon.
Top: Sarah (Darilyn Castillo) and Jeremiah (Tyler Hardwick). Bottom: Simon (Anthony Chatmon II) and Jeremiah (Tyler Hardwick). Photo by John Keon.

Acapella bills itself as a musical about “finding your own voice,” and in some ways, it already has. The musical’s winning features are its rich catalog of music and insanely talented cast. The Acapella Company’s songs have both complexity and spirit as they course through the production. And the ensemble creates an acapella team so dynamic that it will impress Pitch Perfect fans. Some highlights include Katrina Rose Dideriksen’s insanely powerful belt, Rachel Gavaletz’s smoky alto, Garett Turner’s smooth bass, and Janelle McDermoth’s sickeningly good beat-boxing. The result is so good I had to stop myself from dancing in my seat.

Photo by John Keon.
Photo by John Keon.

Like many jukebox musicals though, Acapella‘s book could use more development. While the love triangle between Jeremiah, Sarah, and Simon is clear to see, I wish there was more to the characters’ relationships. I am also curious to know how acapella gospel music has become such a staple to their small town that multiple groups (including a hilarious subplot with Jeremiah’s aunt and her old singing quartet) are participating in the local concert. If Acapella dug a little more deeper into its setting and characters, then it could have a story that matches its music.

Acapella runs through July 14th. For more information, click here.

NYMF Round-Up Part 3!

NYMF is winding down, but the festival still has some great new musicals performing until it ends Sunday, July 28th. Here are two that brought me back to my school years in all the best ways:


Crossing Swords is a musical retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac set in the fall of 1969, as the boys of St. Mark’s join the girls of St. Anne’s to put on a production of—you guessed it—Cyrano de Bergerac. Sir (Steven Hauck), the stuffy math teacher at St. Mark’s, grudgingly chaperons his students Jeremy (Lyle Colby Mackston) and David (Marrick Smith) over to rehearsals led by Miss Daignault (Linda Balgord). Jeremy wants to play the lead, while David wants to be closer to his “Roxanne,” a girl named Nicky (Ali Gordon). Jeremy offers to be David’s “Cyrano” and help set the pair up, all while hiding his own crush on David. In the process, the teens (and teachers) learn about life, identity, and the different forms that love can take.

At first, I turned a skeptic eye to the Cyrano story being retold through a high school production of the play. But Crossing Swords charmed me much in the same way as the 2008 film Were the World Mine did. (Were the World Mine has a similar premise: just replace Cyrano with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) The musical beautifully captures the awkwardness and innocence of adolescence, especially when David and Nicky practice their stage kiss for the first time. And Jeremy, David, and Nicky, despite their passions, are not the sardonic, alcohol-drinking, heavily sexualized teens that are featured in most teen-centric stories today. Their heartfelt coming-of-age story, while nostalgic, was a refreshing one to see. The teachers, too, have something special to offer, as Sir and Madame Daignault are dedicated to their students’ development, even though they clash on the exact methodology.

Marrick Smith (David), Lyle Colby Mackston (Jeremy), and Ali Gordon (Nicky) in Crossing Swords - Photo by Seth Walters.jpg
Marrick Smith (David), Lyle Colby Mackston (Jeremy), and Ali Gordon (Nicky) in “Crossing Swords.” Photo by Seth Walters.

Crossing Swords director Igor Goldin gives the production a seamless staging. He also brings wonderful performances out of the cast, who all approach their roles with naturalism and sincerity. The songs, written by Joe Slabe, have a gentle, almost pensive quality to them. The book, also written by Slabe, ties it all together with poignancy and a fair bit of humor. (One choice line, uttered by Sir: “Childhood theatrics are tantamount to child abuse.”)  The piece is so well-crafted that it doesn’t need historical references to the Stonewall riots and the moon landing. Crossing Swords already takes you to a time of its own, where love can be lost—and remade—again.

Favorite songs: “Let Me Be Your Cyrano,” “Heart on My Sleeve” (that has a melody I’m still humming), and “Very Good with Words.”

Steven Hauck (Sir), Lyle Colby Mackston (Jeremy), Ali Gordon (Nicky), Marrick Smith (David), and Linda Balgord (Miss Daignault) in Crossing Swords - Photo by Seth Walters
Steven Hauck (Sir), Lyle Colby Mackston (Jeremy), Ali Gordon (Nicky), Marrick Smith (David), and Linda Balgord (Miss Daignault) in “Crossing Swords.” Photo by Seth Walters.


There’s another little orphan with red hair and a similar name singing and dancing in a show a few blocks northeast of the PTC Performance Space. But Bend in the Road‘s source material isn’t a comic strip. Instead, writers Benita Scheckel (book & lyrics) and Michael Upward (music & lyrics) take on the classic children’s book series Anne of Green Gables.

Bend in the Road follows Anne Shirley, an orphan who is adopted by middle-aged siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. The Cuthberts had expected a boy to help them on the farm, but Anne captivates the pair. While living with the Cuthberts, Anne gets in (and out) of scrapes, makes friends in the town, and finds her place in the world.

L to R: CJ PAWLIKOWSKI as Gilbert Blythe and ALISON WOODS as Anne Shirley in BEND IN THE ROAD at NYMF (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
L to R: CJ Pawlikowski as Gilbert Blythe and Alison Woods as Anne Shirley. (Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

I loved reading about Anne Shirley and her adventures in Prince Edward Island as a child, and equally I loved seeing Lucy Maud Montgomery’s characters being brought to life. Anne Kanengeiser and Martin Vidnovic bring a wonderful sensibility to Marilla and Matthew, and the fourteen-person cast all handle their parts with great aplomb. But a musical about Anne of Green Gables needs a strong Anne, and Bend in the Road has found it in Alison Woods, who carries the show on her small (but very capable shoulders). Woods, who resembles a younger Amy Adams in her speech (and overall adorableness), plays Anne as a real child and not as a caricature, while still imbuing her with a great deal of energy and precociousness.

Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Michael Upward’s music captures the timeless essence of Anne of Green Gables in the tradition of “literary” musicals like The Secret Garden and Little Women. The lilting harmonies transport you to the countryside of Prince Edward Island and are a delight to listen to. I hope that Bend in the Road will continue to have audiences of all ages in future productions.

Favorite songs: “The Lord’s Prayer,” a song between Anne and Marilla that instantly put a smile to my face, and “Walk Like Sisters,” a duet between Anne and her friend Diana.

For our other posts about NYMF this year, check out our NYMF 2013 tag.

NYMF Round-Up Part 2!

There was so much NYMF love to go around that we have a guest reviewer! Reesa Graham is a theatrical director, literary manager and resident director of Manhattan Shakespeare Project, and one of the most prolific Twitter users on Earth. (Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself.) Reesa bought a share from The Pirates of Finance, while I took a trip to Legacy Falls and waited on Standby.


The Pirates of Finance is a successful homage to Gilbert and Sullivan’s turn of the century operettas.  Set in present-day Wall Street, the story follows Fredrick Freemarket as his Wall Street firm is bought out by Geoffrey Behemoth and the pirates of finance.  Hilarity, singing (including a brilliant parody of “Modern Major General”), and a set of Gilbert and Sullivan-esque improbable reveals ensue.

Preston Ellis’s Fredrick Freemarket was the perfect combination of charming and goofy.  Geoffrey Behemoth (Christopher DeAngelis) was easy to hate in all the best ways.  The six-person chorus of Huey (Carter Lynch), Dewey (David Macaluso), Louie (Alex Krasser), April (Sydney Ransom), May (Janice Landry), and June (Lynn Craig) were maybe my favorite part of the show.  Their choreography was clean and crisp, their songs well sung, and their acting outstanding.

Lynn Craig (June), Sydney Ransom (April), Janice Landry (May) - Photo by Seth Walters.
Lynn Craig (June), Sydney Ransom (April), Janice Landry (May) – Photo by Seth Walters.

Overall, the cast was strong, with voices blending well – except for one of the cast members.  She sang in a classical style, with lots of vibrato, which would not have necessarily been bad except the rest of the cast didn’t use vibrato save for very specific moments.  She stuck out like a sore thumb because her voice never blended with the rest of the cast.   The choice, either hers or director Gary Slavin, to have her so stylistically different from the rest of the cast was so jarring, it was almost like nails on a chalkboard anytime she was in a group number.

David Goldstein’s set was minimalistic: just five tall wooden frames and a desk that moved to create different spaces within the firm, and it was perfect – just enough to create the world of the musical without overshadowing the musical itself.  I cannot say the same about the costumes, however.  It felt almost like Amy Price had not read the script before dressing the women (the men, in power suits sans jackets, were good).  The lead female, Elsie Gardner (Heather Lundstedt) was in a peasant blouse, shorts and sandals…  even though in our introduction to her, we learn that she has been sitting in the lobby of a Wall Street finical firm to meet the new boss and try to get a job. While I understand the idea of putting Elsie in clothes that are not “Wall Street” clothes, putting her in such casual clothes against the rest of a professionally dressed cast was extraordinarily distracting.   Furthermore, the trio of chorus girls (April, May, and June) who tell us in their introductory song that they only wear haute couture, were dressed in black skirts, button up shirts, and matching shoes – as far from haute couture as you can get.

I mention these few items because the good things were so good that the weaker elements really stood out.  Overall, it was an entertaining show, full of energy and life – a show that I think the actual Gilbert and Sullivan would have been proud to inspire.


As someone who squealed a little too loudly when I learned that former ABC shows All My Children and One Life to Live would be born again on Hulu, I had a fun afternoon watching a matinee performance of Legacy Falls at the PTC Performance Space. Legacy Falls follows the cast and crew of a long-running soap opera of the same name. Edward Trafford (Kevin Spirtas) is the Susan Lucci of the group: he’s been with the show since its start thirty years ago, and he is tired of playing Jack Monroe. He might just get his wish, as network producer Frankie (Erin Leigh Peck) plans to boost ratings by filming an earthquake-themed live episode—and kill many of the characters off in the process.

The “Legacy Falls” cast hams it up.

Kevin Spirtas’ performance as Edward Trafford/Jack Monroe is straight out of a soap opera—in a good way. He completely embodies the charisma of Jack Monroe while giving Edward, a somewhat jaded actor, a realistic vulnerability. His casting in the role was perfect, especially since Spirtas is a soap opera star in his own right as Dr. Craig Wesley on Days of Our Lives. Other performing highlights include Erin Leigh Peck, who has great comedic timing (and a voice to match) as Frankie; Wilson Bridges, whose sincerity as Edward’s love interest Daniel gives him the Best Boyfriend in Musical Theatre Award; and Jonathan Hawkins and Liz Fye, who can play dumb oh-so well as the younger cast members in the soap.

Legacy Falls has the trappings of a traditional musical, and it doesn’t have many surprises. It excels when it parodies the high drama of the soaps, with overacting (on purpose), stating the obvious, and mentioning convoluted storylines. I think it can go even further, with bigger hair, bigger drama, and bigger dreams for Edward and the others on and off the set.

Favorite songs: “Whatever,” a funny solo about Amber’s (Liz Fye) troubles as a young actress, and  “Usually,” a beautiful ballad sung by Edward and Daniel.


Last, but definitely not least, is Standby, a rock musical about five strangers stuck in an airport terminal who are going to have a less-than-ordinary journey to their destination. (Think Lost, if the unlucky travelers of Oceanic Flight 815 were still waiting to board the plane.)

At first, Standby seems to be a simple affair.  The six-person cast is economical, as is the set: some chairs, a podium, and two grey doors that suggest the gate of an airport. But the characters aren’t simple, as I quickly grew invested in all of their stories. The cast gives nuanced and full-bodied performances, with full voices to match. No one ever falls into the musical theatre trap of presentational, shallow acting. Instead, they portray real people in an airport—who just happen to break into songs that go to the same rock musical school as Spring Awakening and Next to Normal. Speaking of which, the songs, written by Amy Baer (music), Keith Robinson (music), Alfred Solis (lyrics), and Mark-Eugene Garcia (lyrics), are begging for a cast recording. Pleaseandthankyou.

The cast of “Standby” having all the feels. Photo by Lynne Robinson.

Direction by Carlos Armesto and choreography by Elisabetta Spuria keeps everyone’s movements from looking stale or over-stylized, and the book (by Alfred Solis and Mark-Eugene Garcia) ties all the loose ends together. With its brilliant concept and flawless execution, Standby is one of the best new shows out this season. There are two performances still remaining, so see it while you can.

Favorite Songs: ALL OF THEM! But If I had to pick — “Home By Now,” “Last Goodbye,” “Travel On,” “All That Bad,” and “To Feel Alive.”

For more info on NYMF and their list of this year’s shows, check out their website:

For our other posts about NYMF this year, check out our NYMF 2013 tag.

NYMF Round-Up Part 1!

We are so excited to be covering the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) this year! NYMF brings together musical theater productions from all around the country and gives them a lovely stage home for a three-week festival. Many shows have moved on to perform their pieces Off-Broadway or further productions after NYMF. Broadway musicals Chaplin, Next to Normal, and [title of show] all were performed on a NYMF stage.

NYMF still has TWO MORE WEEKS of fantastic productions so catch them while they’re there! Tickets are only $25 (max) and there really is something for everyone!


I had a weekend of musicals based on famous women. The first was Mata Hari in 8 Bullets, a biopic/one-woman-show/cabaret/drama based on the life of Mata Hari, played an amazing oh-my-god-how-come-i’ve-never-known-about-her-before Onalea Gilbertson. As the nifty little monologue at the beginning informs us, Mata Hari was a Dutch wife and mother who left her abusive husband after the death of her son, moved to Paris in the early 1900’s, and became an exotic dancer, courtesan, and artistic muse. She became extremely popular in the years preceding World War I and traveled extensively around Western Europe. She was suspected of being a German double agent, was arrested in Paris, and executed by a firing squad in 1917.

All of this biographical information is presented in the first ten minutes of the play, allowing the rest of it to flow seamlessly with Mata Hari’s soliloquy-like songs. There a wide diversity of songs in this show– they range from emotional ballads to seductive cabaret acts. Written by Blake Brooker and David Rhymer (who also plays in the band), each song is full of honest and complex reflections made by Mata Hari on her status as a woman and sex symbol, her role in society, and the long-term effects of war. They’re just… really good.

I can definitely see this show becoming a full-length production. Even though the initial monologue presents much of the needed biographical information, I still would like to see Mata Hari’s songs in a bit more context. It would give the music the last bits of dramatic punch. Overall, I definitely recommend catching Mata Hari in 8 Bullets.

Onalea Gilbertson as Mata Hari


My excitement for this production might have had something to do with the fact that my high school mantra was, “What Would Jane Eyre Do?” But then I learned that Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue is a D.C. theatrical troupe with literary inspirations. They’ve acquired quite a following– and I got to see some of them at Sunday evening’s performance (with the most enthusiastic theatre-goers I’ve ever seen.)

This one is again a bit of a genre-bender. Overtly, it’s a biographical account of the Bronte sisters (yup, Branwell’s there, too) and their literary works in rock-parody format. Except for the fact that there’s not much biography (WHERE’S MARIA!). Instead, these Brontes are more in favor of flipping each other off  and general angsty-ness. For those of you at all familiar with the Brontes or their works, punk rock is extremely appropriate for a re-telling of their lives.

There’s some weird subplot going around involving a gypsy and writer’s block. But it makes no sense and doesn’t follow through and it’s better if you kind of forget it’s there. One by one, each Bronte sibling is killed off (tuberculosis is a rotten bastard) but not without a short account of their accomplishments, personalities, and sibling rivalries. Of course, Anne and Branwell get the shortest sets, but they’re also the most heartbreaking. Amid all this misery and anxiety, there’s the reassurance that the Brontes’ deaths only signals the beginning of a long-life in literary culture, and this discovery is touching. It would have been more sincere, however, if the play dealt more directly with the Brontes’ lives and works instead of bothering with other subplots that felt like parody for parody’s sake. The songs are all exciting and catchy, though, and the ensemble’s energy and humor really propel the show’s crazy antics forward.

Get tickets for the revue here.

“The Brontes” cast hurriedly reads through the (Heath)Cliffnotes to “Wuthering Heights”

For our other posts about NYMF this year, check out our NYMF 2013 tag.

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