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Photo: Joan Marcus

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Bright Star

Bright Star

September 29, 2014: Darkness and light are blended in even proportions in Bright Star, a sepia-toned new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell making its premiere at the Old Globe theater. The characters in this musically vibrant if overstuffed show, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina during two separate decades of the 20th century, endure hardship, heartache and almost melodramatic loss. But, as the title suggests, their eyes remain fixed not on the black canopy of night but on the beacons of hope that pierce it. A telling song from the second act reminds us that no matter how gray the future seems, the “sun is gonna shine again.” The shining achievement of the musical is its winsome country and bluegrass score, with music by Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell, and lyrics by Ms. Brickell. The complicated plot, divided between two love stories that turn out to have an unusual connection, threatens to get a little too diffuse and unravel like a ball of yarn rolling off a knitter’s lap. But the songs — yearning ballads and square-dance romps rich with fiddle, piano and banjo, beautifully played by a nine-person band — provide a buoyancy that keeps the momentum from stalling.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Belfast Blues

Belfast Blues

September 29, 2014: Belfast Blues is full of impressive physical moments, when the flow of Geraldine Hughes’s words is either emphasized or countermanded by the casually coiled force of her body. On Saturday afternoon at the Barrow Street Theater, where the show has returned to New York for a limited engagement, one moment in particular stood out: Ms. Hughes standing very still and straight, embodying a British soldier. Would her trigger finger pull back, firing the gun aimed at the small boy whose provocations had worked just a little too well? Of course, there is no gun, nor a little boy — not onstage, at any rate. Save for a shifting backdrop of evocative images designed by Jonathan Christman and spare lighting (Mr. Christman) and sound (Jonathan Snipes), everything that exists in this 90-minute monologue is brought to life by Ms. Hughes, its author. Carol Kane, who directed, must have quickly seen that her writer-actress didn’t need that much theatrical support. Ms. Hughes has good source material: her childhood in a working-class Catholic household of eight in war-torn Northern Ireland. A boisterous humor hums throughout, but it cannot stave off the stress and fear of such an upbringing; not surprisingly, Ms. Hughes dedicates her performances “to all the children who live in places of conflict.”

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BROADWAY REVIEW: You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You

September 28, 2014: The only downside to the unconditional upper called You Can’t Take It With You, which wafted open last night at the Longacre Theater, is that it may strain previously underused muscles around your mouth. That can happen when you spend two-and-a-half hours grinning like an idiot. A lot of shows can make you laugh. What’s rare is a play that makes you beam from curtain to curtain. Such is the effect of Scott Ellis’s felicitous revival of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 comedy about one improbably happy family during the Great Depression, which stars a haloed James Earl Jones as the wise old leader of the clan. This is, frankly, surprising news to me. Though it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the very mention of You Can’t Take It With You is known to elicit shivers of revulsion among people who saw or appeared in high school productions.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Icebound

Icebound

September 27, 2014: Families were bigger then, and so were the casts of plays. In Alex Roe’s fine revival of Icebound, the Metropolitan Playhouse’s cozy upstairs theater is crowded with members of the Jordan family: grim grown sons and daughters, a sour daughter-in-law and two annoying grandchildren, all waiting in the parlor for the matriarch to die offstage, and all talking about how they’ll spend her money. Owen Davis wrote Icebound, which won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for drama, about small-town Maine, where he had grown up. The title refers to human emotions more than to bitter Northeastern winters, although one character does say, “Seems like laughter needs the sun the same way flowers do.” That’s Ben (Quinlan Corbett) speaking, the youngest child and so prodigal a son that he’ll be arrested as soon as law enforcement realizes he’s back in town. The only ray of warmth here is Jane (Olivia Killingsworth), a distant cousin who actually cares for — and about — the dying woman. When the local judge (Rob Skolits) reveals that everything (the house; the farm; the entire, considerable estate) has been bequeathed to Jane, the reactions of these good folk, who are better at Christian stoicism than at Christian love, are exactly what you’d expect.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya

September 24, 2014: Chekhov didn’t make it to the People’s Climate March that flowed through Midtown Manhattan on Sunday — being dead does get in the way — but he was with the environmental activists in spirit. In Uncle Vanya, which opens the season at the Pearl Theater Company, this playwright’s 19th-century worries over an ailing earth are startlingly contemporary. “The forests are disappearing one by one, the rivers are polluted, wildlife is becoming extinct, the climate is changing for the worse, every day the planet gets poorer and uglier,” Astrov, the doctor, tells his friends. “It’s a disaster!” Finding immediacy is never a problem in Paul Schmidt’s vibrant, loose-limbed translation, which Hal Brooks, the Pearl’s new artistic director, wisely uses in his production. There’s no groping through layers of musty language to find our connection to Chekhov’s little band of privileged malcontents, stricken with ennui as the Russian Empire sleepwalks toward its end.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Sucker Emcee

A Sucker Emcee

September 23, 2014: Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau set to a hip-hop beat, Craig Grant offers his confessions in A Sucker Emcee, produced by the Labyrinth Theater Company. While a D.J. (Rich Medina) bops between two turntables, scratching and spinning, Mr. Grant tells the story of his life in rhymed couplets. Mr. Grant, also known as muMs, has a blocky face with a mobile mouth and gleaming teeth. He speaks in a gentle growl with just a trace of a native Bronx drawl, though he can send his voice swooping up and down the social register. Dressed in Nikes and a T-shirt proclaiming “The Truth,” he spends most of the show near the front of the bare stage, lips pressed close to a microphone. Though he’ll occasionally speak as his mother, his father, a friend or a teacher, he spends most of the piece as simply himself, narrating youthful screw-ups with fondness and exasperation.

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