Tag Archive | Play Review

Play Review: With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi at Theatre 80

John Belushi Play Card
Photos By Gail, Except Where Noted

To many, comedian and actor John Belushi still feels like a contemporary artist — owing to the tenacity with which his work has embedded itself in pop culture — but the fact is that Belushi has been dead for a long time. A friend who accompanied me to the opening-night performance of a new play entitled With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi wasn’t quite two years old in March of 1982, when the hard-partying performer died of an accidental drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel room. But while she wasn’t even born yet when John Belushi broke comedic ground during the first incarnation of Saturday Night Live, and probably didn’t see Animal House until it had been in the can for 20 years, my friend has a conversational knowledge of all his best bits. That’s what it means to be a legend.

John In Nativity Scene
Jack Zullo (Far Right) as John Belushi in a Scene from With A Little Help . . . (Photo By K. Bentley)

The story behind The Rise and Fall of John Belushi is seriously overdue for a stage or screen adaptation, and playwright/actor Jack Zullo — who fully embodies Belushi’s manic energy and uncompromising spirit in the title role — admits that it’s been over thirteen years since he was first inspired to work on John Belushi as a character study, and immersed himself in the comedian’s material. What started out as a spec feature film script evolved into this current stage production of With A Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi, which was previously honed through multiple West Coast performances. With a goal of finding a place in the NYC theater scene, Zullo aspires to reverse-engineer the play back into a feature-length script to tell the story of John’s life in narrative form; something that has been attempted by many, but not successfully executed.

With a Little Help opens quietly on a scene in the bungalow at the Chateau Marmont where John Belushi spent his final moments of life, having just fatally overdosed on a combination of heroin and cocaine. As he collapses on a mattress and takes his last breath, a chorus of disembodied voices ring out in the theater, admonishing the reckless thirty-three-year-old for being such a “dumb sonofabitch.” But the tragic tone quickly segues into a high-energy flashback of John, accompanied by his girlfriend Judy and best friend Steve, on a night in 1967 when he attended his first comedy show at Chicago’s The Second City club. John is visibly bursting with creative inspiration as he declares that he has found his life’s calling and intends to pursue a career in comedy.

From there, we follow John Belushi’s rise to prominence as an iconic American entertainer; working his way up from an indie college performer in 1968, to Manhattan in the mid-1970s, where he was part of the infamous National Lampoon Magazine and its Radio Hour, all the way through his four-year stint as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live.

The story of Belushi’s quick ascent to pop culture success shines the spotlight on his struggles to maintain control on the excesses afforded a budding star, counterbalanced with his desire to always be ahead of the curve by keeping the work fresh and exciting, and setting trends rather than following them. With a Little Help effectively revisits a time in American TV when the field of comedy was a Wild West for creative invention. John Belushi’s career was a wild ride while it lasted, but it’s not like we don’t already know how the journey ends.

Ticket Stub

With a Little Help takes its title from the now-legendary Saturday Night Live skit in which Belushi gives an over-the-top impersonation of British singer Joe Cocker’s eccentrically-mannered performance of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” This skit is recreated in the play, as are musical numbers made famous by The Blues BrothersBelushi’s band with Dan Aykroyd. The production features the terrific Crazy Tomes Band, who provide a live soundtrack, accompanying the many musical numbers in the show, and playing a set of covers before the play starts.

In addition to the great live music, With a Little Help truly becomes a multi-media production, as it incorporates both newly-produced and archival film and video clips, which further the action in ways that would otherwise be impossible, such as when John and friends experience an LSD trip, or when SNL cast members indulge in drug binges that history tells us were common on that set.

The play’s supporting cast of characters includes John Belushi’s devoted wife Judy Jacklin (Jennifer Lieberman, who also appears as Gilda Radner), as well as a who’s who of the comedian ‘friends’ who supported, collaborated with, and cajoled Belushi on his path to fame, such as the National Lampoon’s Tony Hendra (Len Rella), Christopher Guest (Benjamin Batchelder), Brian Murray (Artie Brennan, who also play’s Belushi’s close friend Steve Beshekas), Joe Flaherty (Nicolas Dipierro, who also  appears as Lorne Michaels) and Dan Aykroyd, portrayed brilliantly by Keith Saltojanes. All the actors are excellent in their handling of multiple roles, but Jack Zullo as Belushi is so spot-on in his timing and physical comedy, I forgot multiple times that I was watching an actor and not Belushi himself.

John Belushi did not get to live a long life. It’s tragic that his comedic legacy also includes the bleak Hollywood cliche of self-destructive behavior, but With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi is less a cautionary tale and more a celebration of and homage to a phenomenally talented individual whose body of work has been, and will continue to be, endlessly influential. Funny, smart, and deeply nostalgia-inducing, With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi is a story whose time is now.

Directed by Levy Lee Simon With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi runs through December 22nd only at Theatre 80, located at 80 St. Marks Place, in NYC’s East Village. Tickets are super affordable at just $30 — $40 and are available via With a Little Help Show Dot Com. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7 PM, Fridays & Saturdays at 7 PM and 10 PM, and Sunday Matinees at 3 PM. A portion of ticket sales from the Theatre 80 run will be donated to The Comedians Assistance Fund and Gilda’s Club charities.

Watch The Trailer Below:

Must See Show: Silence! The Musical!

Think back on all of the Academy Award-winning films of the past 20 years and imagine which ones might be the most likely choice for a musical adaptation/parody. I’m guessing that Horror/Drama, The Silence of The Lambs is probably close to the bottom of that list. The mind-boggling unlikelihood that such a thing could even exist is one of the reasons that Silence! The Musical – which is in fact a musical send-up of 1991’s Best Picture Oscar winner – must be seen to be believed. Originally produced at 2005’s New York International Fringe Festival, Silence! The Musical! is back for a commercial run in NYC. Really, you need to see it

As in the film, Silence! The Musical! follows the journey of rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling, who must match wits with the brilliant but insane imprisoned murderer, Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, hoping to gain insight that will enable her agency to catch the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Clarice faces her own demons (the death of her father – who appears here several times as a ghost – and her subsequent abandonment to the child welfare system) while racing to unlock Lecter’s clues before another innocent girl is killed. That girl is Catherine Martin, daughter of US Senator Ruth Martin. We see Catherine’s abduction (staged to the upbeat tune “Are You About a Size 14?”), subsequent imprisonment by the gender-confused Jamie “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, and eventual high-stakes rescue. The nail-biting intensity finale of the film retains its intensity here, but maybe with a slightly different bent. Let’s just say the cast keeps you on the edge of your seat, and laughing all the way!

Agent Starling (Jenn Harris) Meets Dr. Lecter (Brent Barrett) for the First time in a scene from Silence! The Musical! (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The plays’ two starring roles of Agent Clarice Starling and the diabolical Dr. Hannibal Lecter are played by Jenn Harris and Brent Barrett (formerly seen in Chicago) respectively, and both are fantastic in their parts. Harris does a spot-on interpretation of Jodi Foster’s restrained southern accent, while also effectively mimicking her physical performance in the film, which makes her comic timing even more impactful. Barrett in the role of Lector is not only way more handsome than you’d expect, but he also can really sing! The actor’s near-operatic range pipes are especially seductive when he sings longingly of his imagined freedom from imprisonment in the show’s most audacious and memorable musical number “If I Could Smell Her C*nt.” Yes, I just typed that.

Lots of other fun plot points are kept in the production including Ruth’s impassioned televised plea for Catherine’s safe release (“My Daughter Is Catherine”), Gumb’s demand to Catherine to “Put the F*cking Lotion in the Basket” (surely one of the most memorable lines of dialogue from the film ) and, oh yes, we get to see Jamie Gumb do “The Tuck” (if you don’t know to what I’m referring then you really do need to see this show).

The cast, which includes a singing, tap dancing Greek Chorus of Lambs, also features Stephen Bienskie as Jamie “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, Harry Bouvy as Dr. Chilton, Lucia Spina as Catherine Martin and Howard Kaye as Jack Crawford, among other very talented performers who help to make Silence! a one-of-a-kind experience. I’d also like to mention that ticket prices are super affordable; the most expensive seats are just $48 – a tiny fraction of the cost of a Broadway Show – and because of the deep rake in the theater, every seat in the house is a good one. These performances will surely sell out, so don’t miss your chance to see this production in its relatively brief run!

Silence! The Musical! Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, Music and Lyrics by Jon and Al Kaplan, Book By Hunter Bell, runs through August 13 at the legendary Theater 80, located at 80 St. Marks Place, just West of First Avenue. Show times are Fridays at 8 PM and Saturdays at 8 PM & 10:30 PM. To Purchase Tickets – Priced at $48, $38 and $25 – and for more Info please visit silencethemusicalnyc.com.

Song List After the Jump! Continue reading

Must See Show: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Yesterday, Geoffrey and I went to see the play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and it was just fantastic. Starring Robin Williams in the title role, Bengal Tiger seems to be one of the most polarizing plays to hit Broadway in years. Just check out a few online audience reviews and you will see that it’s a show that people either love passionately or totally hate. The disparity between the five and the one star reviews might have something to do with the fact that it’s billed as a “Ferocious Comedy,” when it’s really more of heavy, existential political drama with a few good belly laughs here and there, mostly thanks to Williams’ really terrific performance.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that someone expecting to laugh their ass off at a talking tiger’s hilarious hi-jinx might tend to walk out at intermission when they discover this is really a heavily philosophical play about the horrors of war, on and off the battlefield. I guess I benefited from having no expectations, so I was able to go along for the journey to wherever the play took me – and it was a pretty wild ride.

The dialogue is really engaging and the acting is excellent; not only by Robin Williams but by Brad Fleischer and Glenn Davis as two doomed Marines, Arian Moayed as their Arab translator (who is wrestling his own demons) and Hrach Titizian as the ghost of Uday Hussain, who honestly stole the show for me. What an excellent performance! I don’t want to get too detailed about the plot because I’m afraid of revealing events in a play that I think is best enjoyed if there is still an element discovery, but Popdose.com has a very accessible, non-spoiler review at This Link which manages to distill the plot in an intriguing fashion without giving too much away.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is showing through July 3, 2011, (so you have just over one week to see it) at the Richard Rogers Theater, Located at 226 West 46th Street. We were able to get tickets for just $75 and you can likely find a bargain as well if you are willing to do a little Internet footwork.

Must See Show: The Pee-Wee Herman Show Opens on Broadway!

 

Pee-Wee-Herman-Show-Playbill-10-26

It seems so funny to think that these days, Pee-wee Herman, a character made famous by the gifted actor Paul Ruebens, is a household name. Most people know Pee-wee from the wonderfully infamous Saturday morning ‘children’s’ program, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but Pee-wee’s roots are a bit more ‘indie-based.’ Pee-wee’s vehicle for his eventual launch to international superstardom was The Pee-wee Herman Show, a 1981 stage play that became a wildly successful HBO special and thus spawned the entire Pee-wee Herman franchise, including films such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and, not long after, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In January and February of this year, Ruebens revived The Pee-Wee Herman Show for a successful run at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, and the play has now moved to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd Street, where it will make its home until January 2, 2011. The Pee-wee Herman Show officially opens today (November 11th) but Geoffrey and I were fortunate to catch the last night of previews and we had a total blast.

The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway remains extremely faithful to the original script, so if you’ve seen the HBO special, no matter how long ago that was, most of the show will be familiar to you. Pee-wee still consorts with many of the same characters, with just a few new ones added and others retired. Lynne Marie Stewart reprises her role as Miss Yvonne, “the most beautiful woman in Puppetland,” and John Paragon also returns as Jambi, the Genie in a Box. The only significant change in casting, though many probably won’t notice, as the lines of dialogue are identical, is the substitution of Cowboy Curtis (who made his debut on the Saturday morning show) for Captain Karl, originally played by the late Phil Hartman, as Miss Yvonne’s love interest.

Some jokes have also been updated and fresh pop culture references added to bring everything a bit more up to date. For example, in this show Pee-wee struggles with having the Internet installed in the Playhouse for the first time, wears an “Abstinence ring” and makes friends with a talking, flying Sham Wow. Returning characters include Mailman Mike and puppet favorites like Pterri the pterodactyl – who is awesome – Chairy, Clockey the USA wall-map/clock, Randy, Globey and Conkey the Robot. We also get to see the claymation cartoon, “Penny” and the vintage “Mr. Bungle” 1950s educational film about good manners, which is just insane. Geoffrey and I loved every minute of the performance, but my favorite part was at the very end, when Jambi grants Pee-wee’s wish to fly. Seeing Pee-wee, “The luckiest boy in the world,” fly through the air over the stage was hilarious.

It’s also worth noting that the Playhouse set is so vibrant, so colorful, and there is so much to take in visually at all times that when the curtain first rose and the lights hit the stage, I literally could not hold back a squeal. Geoffrey’s review, with some photos he took of Pee-wee after the show, is up now at this link.

Tickets for The Pee-wee Herman Show are pricey but worth it. Definitely see it if you can!