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Articles by Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (475 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

On Set with Theda Bara

February 6, 2023

David Greenspan, the shape-shifting thespian, has taken on yet another multi-character play, as if his one-man "Strange Interlude" and his more recent "Four Saints in Three Acts" whet his appetite for Joey Merlo’s "On Set with Theda Bara," a mysterious take on the life of the silent picture era vamp and her intrusion into a family whose lives become a film noir.  Directed smartly by Jack Serio, the surreal play, just one hour long, took the audience on a colorful journey that included a truly spooky séance. [more]

Cullberg: “Horse, the Solos”

February 2, 2023

Though only an hour long, Deborah Hay’s Horse, the Solos (2021), set on the dancers of Cullberg (founded in 1967 as the Cullberg Ballet by the late, eminent Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg), was difficult to sit through, a meandering, shapeless work that provided few visual pleasures and even fewer moments of human interaction. Hay provided a Choreographer’s Note to explain how Horse was painstakingly produced during the recent Covid Pandemic, created on the dancers via instructions communicated by computer screens and a trusted rehearsal director.  Hay stated, “Horse, the Solos" relies on two common attributes of survival, risk and efficiency.” Her opaque, overly intellectual analysis is a product of her years in the world of avant-garde dance, the Judson Dance Theater and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  The dry, boring dance on Te Joyce Theater stage was a reflection of her experimental past, the influential lessons of which have long been absorbed into the greater dance world. [more]

tanzmainz: “Soul Chain”

January 28, 2023

Three solos were stunning in their display of physical endurance.  One woman moved forward, repeatedly kicking one leg behind her nearly touching her head with her foot.  Another, tall and lithe, stood at the foot of the stage and began writhing, wiggling and shaking in a very disturbing way, for a very long time.  And, a young bearded man stood dead center nearly surrounded by the group and began gyrating his head—forward, right, back, left—for more than fifteen minutes at an ever-increasing pace! All three solos were attempts at exhibitionism amidst the tedium.  All three solos were both horrifying and exhausting to watch, yet eerily fascinating. [more]

Natalia Osipova: Force of Nature

January 24, 2023

The ballerina Natalia Osipova easily transformed herself from spectral to sensuous to eerie in just the first half of her 'Force of Nature" program at the New York City Center. The show—presented sadly only once—was one of the best in the popular genre of ballet star-led gatherings.  Osipova’s company members were all superb; it was a company of equals with little frivolous ego on display. Some came from her home troupe, the Royal Ballet; others from American Ballet Theatre and the rest from young ballet troupes. To display her classical bona fides, she opened the program with the Act Two Pas de Deux from "Giselle," brilliantly partnered by the handsome, technically smooth Marcelino Sambé, a principal dancer from the Royal Ballet.  In this duet, the spirit of the title character meets for the last time her royal suitor whose attentions in the first act resulted in her early death.  She is now a Wili, a girl who has died before being wed, but she is forgiving. His character is Albrecht.  He meets her and partners her in lovely poses and windblown lifts.  Osipova’s light as air jumps and floating arms were marvelous. These two produced a masterful performance helped by a particularly fine recording of Adolph Adam’s famous score. [more]

A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical

January 21, 2023

When the older Diamond reaches an existential breaking point, he finally stands up, stage center and takes command of his memories, experiences and his life with an intensely concentrated rendition of “I Am...I Said.”  As sung by Mark Jacoby, it is the most poignant moment of the show, particularly when he confronts his younger self face-to-face. Will Swenson, the charismatic star of 'A Beautiful Noise," is hampered by the full-steam-ahead pacing of the show, leaving little time for introspection.  He is a powerhouse, molding his voice to sound like the actual Neil Diamond as best he can, often missing the mark.  But that’s okay because the majority of the audience came to feast on the songbook of a favorite performer and they are rewarded handily. [more]

Hong Kong Ballet: “Romeo + Juliet”

January 17, 2023

Webre went for acrobatics and precision rather than passion.  Perhaps, the Chinese Communist regime frowns upon openly sexual expression in dance.  Perhaps Webre can’t summon anything but pretty pictures, but his Romeo + Juliet was theatrically brilliant, but emotionally shallow. [more]

Darkness After Night: Ukraine

December 27, 2022

"Darkness: unfolds in many very short scenes with some confusing transitions.  Dubashin, the traitor to Russia, finally gets to confront Number One in a knock-down personal battle.  The only thing that can be said for this denouement is that it is wishful thinking of the highest order. There is more than a whiff of a vanity production here, leavened by Morrow’s “good intentions.”  Morrow is, perhaps, a tad self-indulgent to have put himself in the action hero part of a military do-gooder and he could use a dramaturg who could shape the disparate scenes into a well-oiled whole. [more]

Some Like It Hot

December 19, 2022

Matthew López & Amber Ruffin (book) and Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman (music and lyrics) have transformed the written-for-laughs film into a joyous musical, keeping much of the sharp wit of the original.  Most importantly, they added heart and even a surprisingly contemporary spin or two, buoyed by the brilliance of Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography (although all those knee slides made me worry for the talented dancers’ health!) [more]

A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx

December 7, 2022

Under the permissive direction of Garfield-Szita—who also designed the costumes—the cast comes across more as members of a sitcom than a serious drama, not helped by Morgenstein’s dependence on shtick and clichés. The actors work hard to find some emotional resonance in their dialogue, particularly Kusher, O’Brien and Roche who occasionally rise above their lines.  Bell Wolff as Gladys is in a world of her own.  Her voice is a colorful instrument that takes Tomato into an almost surreal place. Morgenstein does have a good feel for what drives each of his characters.  A sweet scene on a fire escape between Eleanor and Sammy shows that the playwright can be subtle and incisive. [more]

Eleanor and Alice: Conversations Between Two Remarkable Roosevelts

November 28, 2022

Ellen Abrams’ new play "Eleanor and Alice – Conversations Between Two Remarkable Roosevelts" explores their superficial courtesies in a series of conversations spanning 1904 until 1962, agreeable conversations that reveal an often disagreeable, if not downright adversarial relationship. Scenic designer Frank J. Oliva has divided the stage at Urban Stages into two discrete areas, one representing the Roosevelt estate, Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and the other Eleanor Roosevelt’s charmingly simple home, Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, New York.  Kyle Artone’s costumes are simple representations of the two women as they travel their different paths through history. [more]

Kimberly Akimbo

November 23, 2022

"Kimberly Akimbo," David Lindsay-Abaire’s oddball take on the title character’s dishearteningly sad disease, began life as a play back in 2001, reaching New York via the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2003. In 2021 Lindsay-Abaire (libretto and lyrics) combined resources with the eloquent composer, Jeanine Tesori, to restyle the play as an award-winning musical produced at the Atlantic Theater Company in November 2021. This is the production that has moved to the Booth Theatre where it now resides featuring the glowing performance of Victoria Clark as the troubled title character. Jessica Stone repeats her directorial duties, managing the move to a larger venue with skill and subtlety. [more]

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

November 19, 2022

A touching portrait of a father and his alienated son unfolds in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s "Where the Mountain Meets the Sea" by Jeff Augustin, directed by Joshua Kahan Brody. ... "When the Mountain Meets the Sea" is not only about two different people, but two different time periods.  Jean exists in memory while Jonah’s journey is to cross the country, retrieve Jean’s ashes and spread them over Haiti. [more]

The Piano Lesson

November 14, 2022

LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Samuel L. Jackson’s wife) has directed in a desultory fashion.  Long, revealing monologues, the backbone of this particular play, are delivered directly to the audience rather than to the other characters, making them more speeches than important character revelations.  She also chose to overdo the ending, which includes an ill-advised exorcism and won’t be ruined here. [more]

Catch as Catch Can

November 10, 2022

Chung has the six characters played by three actors, each playing a parent/child duo switching from one to the other in confusing frequency. In addition, each actor plays a parent of the opposite gender. To muddy things even further, all the characters are played by Asian-Americans who make honest, but failing, attempts to adopt working class Italian and Irish Catholic accents and attitudes.  Lon/Daniela are played by Cindy Cheung; Roberta/Robbie by Jon Norman Schneider; and Theresa/Tim by Rob Yang. [more]

Parade

November 7, 2022

World events have inadvertently raised the significance of the New York City Center’s Annual Gala presentation of the brilliant new staging of the Jason Robert Brown/Alfred Uhry musical Parade which debuted over two decades ago.  Anti-Semitism and xenophobia have risen to epidemic levels.  This moving dramatization of actual events drives home the inevitable results of such unreasonable hatred. "Parade" is the gripping story of Leo Frank (Ben Platt), a Brooklyn Jew, who moved to Atlanta, Georgia for a better job.  He married a Southern Jew, Lucille (Micaela Diamond), whose southern version of Judaism confuses him. Frank was the manager of a pencil factory and was accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old white employee, Mary Phegan (Erin Rose Doyle), on Confederate Day, 1915. This almost operatic musical drama impeccably depicts how Phegan’s death led to a flowering of the anti-Semitism (twisted to the prosecution's benefit, horribly during Frank’s trial) and the KKK. [more]

Vatican Falls

November 6, 2022

You won’t find Vatican Falls on any map about picturesque raging waters.  No, Frank J. Avella’s new play, "Vatican Falls," is, instead, a passionate, sometimes humorous, indictment of the Catholic Church and its long history of concealing the sexual abuse suffered by hundreds of young men at the hands of priests. Tony DiBernardo’s vivid, yet simple set—red platforms that were eventually arranged into the form of a cross—help Avella—who co-directed with Carlotta Brentan—make his sometimes confusing storytelling clearer by dividing the stage into two playing areas. [more]

Our Voices, Our Time: One-Act Play Festival

November 1, 2022

The venerable, historic Negro Ensemble Company is presenting an intriguing program at the equally venerable, historic Cherry Lane Theatre: "Our Voices, Our Time: One-Act Play Festival." The three short plays, all insightful in very individual ways, reveal the ins and outs of relationships while also dealing with contemporary issues. [more]

Chushingura – 47 Ronin

October 24, 2022

It’s not clear what Amaterasu Za’s mission is.  If, as Dachs’ program comments indicate, it is to bring Japanese culture to modern audiences, the company needs to be less stodgy and more contemporary in its approach to such vivid dramas as "Chushingura - 47 Ronin." If this production is representative of their efforts, Amaterasu Za is dedicated to first rate representations of high Japanese art.  Their standards are high.  Perhaps, Dachs and her company can figure out how to combine a reverence for traditional Japanese theater with appealing to a wider audience without sacrificing authenticity. [more]

1776

October 18, 2022

Directed by Jeffrey L. Page (who also did the simplistic choreography) and Diane Paulus, this production’s well-meaning gimmick is to have all the historic characters played by a “cast that includes multiple representations of race, ethnicity and gender [who] identify as female, transgender and nonbinary,” to quote the exacting language of the production’s press release. This casting coup works most notably as a political statement, hopefully forcing the audience take a fresh look at the original all-male contingent, however brilliant they may have been, and their flaws.  The word “woman” never appears in the Declaration of Independence (nor the Constitution) and the millions of Black slaves were quite purposely and expediently left out of the Declaration. This multi-racial cast is a not-so-subtle slap in their faces. [more]

Our Town…but Wilder

October 10, 2022

Krevolin is a clever writer, turning Wilder’s American folk tale into a modern comedy/drama with relevance to today’s audiences.  Although he often makes his points a bit too obviously with the rantings of the bigots veering too close to cliché, he nimbly juggles the complex inter-relationships. His staging is simple, helped by Aurora Winger’s lighting.  Characters often enter down the aisle as they approach the stage tossing off their lines, cheerfully lit by Winger. While waiting for the next inevitable production of Wilder’s Our Town, whet your appetite with its modern cousin, "Our Town…but Wilder." [more]

New York City Center Fall for Dance 2022: Program 4

October 3, 2022

"Men of Kyiv," choreographed to high-spirited traditional folk music by Pavlo Virsky, pitted two groups of men—one wearing blue T-shirts, the other yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian national flag—against each other in a friendly, boisterous competition which began with a high-kicking entrance mazurka.  This was followed by one exhibition of prowess after another:  barrel turns, high cheerleader jumps, kazatskis, split leaps and unison chain dances.  It was almost as exhausting to watch as it was to dance and it left the audience totally in love with this good-natured dance troupe. [more]

Fall for Dance Festival 2022: Program 1

September 26, 2022

Perhaps the supreme dance festival in New York City, maybe even in the world, New York City Center’s Fall for Dance 2022 is celebrating its 19th year of presenting a panoply of domestic and international troupes. Initiated by outgoing City Center President Arlene Shuler, this celebration of the many facets of dance has brought some of the best and some of the mediocre representatives of world dance to many thousands of people who have been notoriously uncritical of what has been set before them.  And, rightly so.  This is an audience that has come to enjoy whatever entertainment is presented—and, at an affordable price. Program 1 of this year’s five-program edition was typical, presenting one local troupe, a Portuguese classical ballet couple and an all-male French/Algerian company which opened the program with in-your-face energy tempered by woefully mawkish “daddy was mean to me” back stories. [more]

Four Saints in Three Acts

September 21, 2022

Greenspan isn’t always totally clear when switching points of view, but made up for this by turning the entire, long script into a wonderland of gestures, vocalizations, postures and movements.  His eyes and his hands are masterful communicators.  His lean body’s dancelike movements add dimension to the onslaught of words.  This is a performance that must be seen to appreciate how mindboggling his accomplishment is. [more]

Love, Sex and Real Estate

September 18, 2022

"Love, Sex & Real Estate" moves swiftly, thanks to John D. McNally’s direction.  He skillfully manages the quick shifts between romantic liaisons, real estate discussions, Ugo’s youthful angst, and Valter’s artistic stumblings. The writing, including an over-the-top version of a Feydeau farce, complete with slamming doors, tends toward cliché, but is saved by the performances of the eager cast of fine actors. [more]

Strings Attached

September 12, 2022

From the clever double entendre title to its fantastical involvement of three famous long dead physicists, Carole Buggé’s "Strings Attached" tries very hard to rise out of the morass what is basically a sad love triangle but is ultimately overwhelmed by frippery and cliché. [more]

Two Jews, Talking

August 29, 2022

If Samuel Beckett had been a Jew, his "Waiting for Godot"’s Estragon and Vladimir could have emerged as the equally quirky "Two Jews, Talking," in the appealing new two-hander by Ed. Weinberger starring Hal Linden and Bernie Kopell, all three TV legends. The two characters in each one-act play, talk and talk and get nowhere—very pleasantly with just the right touch of surreal mystery. Weinberger ("The Tonight Show," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi," etc.) has fashioned a quiet tour de force for these two veterans.  Linden, a spry 92, is not only a TV veteran ("Barney Miller") but a star of the Broadway stage, including his Tony Award winning performance in "The Rothschilds."  Kopell (89) is remembered for his long-running turn as the ship’s doctor in "The Love Boat" among many other appearances. [more]

Randy’s Dandy Coaster Castle

August 26, 2022

Part of Ramón’s game plan to increase attendance is to create a Randy’s Dandy Coaster Castle mascot.  In a move that changes his life, Arlo is drafted to don a hilarious, smelly rat costume transforming himself into the character Kuddly Kyle.  Suddenly Arlo, the sweet, directionless shlub has found meaning in his life via this subterfuge.  While in the costume, Arlo is the delightfully entertaining Kyle.  Without the costume, he’s just Arlo. This is the most moving part of Coaster, a play that revolves around the emotions and inner lives of these everyday, working class characters, beautifully evoked by Perez and carefully chaperoned by director, Rebecca Martínez to keep it all down to earth and accessible.  The fade-out is particularly moving as the workers have no idea that there is a disaster looming.  Their lives will be changed—for the worse. [more]

The Sarasota Ballet 2022

August 19, 2022

The second Ashton ballet was "Varii Capricci," his clever take on Bronislava Nijinska’s "Les Biches" from 1924.  Her ballet was a tongue-in-cheek comment on the sexually liberated, chic young people of France.  Ashton set Varii to a witty score by Sir William Walton. La Capricciosa (a delightfully languid Danielle Brown, arrayed in Ossie Clark’s diaphanous white dress) is wooed by a gigolo, Lo Straniero (a hilarious, oily Ricardo Rhodes) whose intentions were clearly not honorable. These two were surrounded by a giddy ensemble that gamboled about watching them romantically self-destruct. "Varii Capricci" is light-hearted and lightweight, but impeccably presented. [more]

BAAND Together Dance Festival 2022 at Lincoln Center

August 12, 2022

The dancers were attired in puffy white tutus and black tights, the men bare-chested—chic costumes by the choreographer.  They pranced, undulated their torsos, tossed each other around and vogued in lineups that spread across the stage.  If there is one word to describe "One for All," it’s sassy.  Despite steam room like temperatures, the cast was exuberant and daring, considering Lopez Ochoa had just finished staging it that afternoon! It was led by a sexy, spritely Chalvar Monteiro of the Ailey Company. [more]

Adventures in Vegas

August 3, 2022

A tiny dynamo, Bell Wolff, early in her career, found the perfect role as Ermengarde in several productions of "Hello, Dolly!". She yearned to perform the bigger part of Minnie Faye and nearly got the chance when she auditioned for the film version of "Hello, Dolly!". She tells of the disappointment of being passed over and sings “Moving the Line” (Mark Shaiman/Scott Wittman) about her frustration, one of 13 songs that punctuate "Adventures in Vegas," illuminating her life experiences. She is reprieved with an invitation to join a new act in Las Vegas, the "Bottoms Up Revue" at Caesars Palace, and jumps at the chance, starting a whole new chapter in her life which will include romance and, eventually, heartache. [more]

Happy Life

July 29, 2022

Ng has a far-reaching imagination and spins the many stories and characters of her "Happy Life" with admiral skill and abandon.  But it is just too heavy-handedly, head-scratchingly abstruse, not to mention unnecessarily full of foul language that somehow doesn’t jibe with the characters.  This is Theater of the Absurd put through the David Mamet grinder. [more]

A Black and White Cookie

July 19, 2022

The chips fall into place by the end of A Black and White Cookie, perhaps a bit too smoothly, but the path to the ending is well constructed and fascinating. Morgenstein has caught the nuances of each character and his dialogue rings true particularly as inhabited by these five actors who are ably directed by Marcello Rollando who quite wittingly provides the play-by-play radio commentary of the Mets games which Harold listens to throughout the story. [more]
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