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Articles by Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (430 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.

A Strange Loop

May 5, 2022

Deliriously and explicitly profane, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical, "A Strange Loop" has—unbelievably—made it to Broadway, produced by Playwrights Horizons, Page 73 and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Jackson’s explicit portrait of a lost soul’s salty journey is alternately stunning and amusing, appealing and appalling, told at a breakneck pace through his book, lyrics and music.  It’s a rare, if dispiriting, portrait of a gay man who isn’t a paragon, a man who isn’t conventionally handsome, successful or rich. [more]

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

April 30, 2022

This Broadway production, a godchild of a recent 2019 production at The Public Theater (directed by Leah C. Gardiner), is directed and choreographed by modern dance luminary Camille A. Brown (who choreographed The Public Theater version, hence the pedigree).  Her take on Shange’s work is more matter of fact and streetwise than previous productions, her choreographic vision adding depth to the playwright’s vernacular, profane expressions of the consciences of a community of hard-pressed women. [more]

The Limón Dance Company (Spring 2022)

April 25, 2022

The final work was the world premiere of “Only One Will Rise,” a work by a new choreographer Olivier Tarpaga to a colorful score he co-wrote with Tim Motzer who was one of the three on stage musicians.  Daniel Johnson and Saidou Sangare were the others. “Only One Will Rise” used a large cast that Tarpaga handled adroitly, shooting groups across the stage in interesting patterns, eventually focusing on several soloists who appeared angst-ridden.  His movement themes were decidedly Limón influenced with the addition of sensual twists and undulations taken from African ethnic folk dance, movements that the Limón troupe performed beautifully, wringing a myriad of emotions from these departures from their home base technique. [more]

The Life

April 12, 2022

The ubiquitous Billy Porter was given command of the most recent New York City Center Encores! presentation, the 1997 musical "The Life."  His direction and re-interpretation of this tawdry portrait of 42nd Street left a great deal to be desired, but strong performances by the leading players made vivid impressions. Originally written by the estimable Cy Coleman (music/book), Ira Gasman (lyrics/book) and David Newman (book), "The Life" is set in the 1980’s as seen from the point of view of a narrator, Old JoJo (Destan Owens, fine in a thankless, add-on role) who observed and commented on his past which included watching himself, Young JoJo (Mykal Kilgore, fine singer, but looking nothing like his counterpart) behave badly. The concert adaptation was by Porter himself. [more]

Confederates

April 12, 2022

Dominique Morisseau’s "Confederates," her second play of her Signature Theatre Residency 5, is a clever, but overly talky dissertation on race, power and family.  She offers the audience parallel stories alternating between the Civil War era and modern day academia. The contemporary plot involves Sandra (Michelle Wilson, solid), a Black political science professor who is the victim of a racist insult. A period photograph of a slave wet nurse, white infant attached to her breast, was altered to superimpose her head on the slave’s.  Finding the culprit spurs Sandra to think about the precariousness of being a Black woman in academia. [more]

The Medium

March 22, 2022

Who knew that Marshall McLuhan was such a nut?  "The Medium," a dance-theater work conceived and directed by Anne Bogart puts McLuhan through her particular way of combining dance and words and the outcome was silly and brilliant at the same time. First performed in 1993, "The Medium" was revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAM Fisher where five members of the experimental SITI Company were put through their manic paces attempting to explicate the McLuhan’s “medium is the message” philosophy in a series of pointed, surreal skits. Bogart updated the media references to include all the electronic/internet variations. [more]

Coal Country

March 18, 2022

Songwriter Steve Earle, a three-time Grammy Award winner, returns providing homey, twangy music and acting as an understanding host/narrator.  With charm that belies the depth of Coal Country’s horror, he pulls the audience into the sad story, sometimes musically underlining the confessions of those involved, most particularly the tale of the sole survivor of the disaster, Tommy, played with passion and an undertone of survivor’s guilt by Michael Laurence. [more]

Hart Island

March 13, 2022

Whether or not Tracy Weller’s "Hart Island" directly harkens back to Masters, it certainly has similarities, most particularly in its poetically rendered revelations of the underbelly of life and death. Weller turns Hart Island, impeccably rendered in Christopher & Justin Swader’s set occupying most of the Gym at Judson, into a dark metaphor revealing more than any statistics or headlines could ever do about existence during the Covid pandemic. Hart Island is where the bodies of indigent and anonymous people wind up, usually buried by prisoner work details from nearby Riker’s Island.  Of course, during the last two years Hart Island’s necropolis has burgeoned both in reality and in Weller’s imagination as fertile in this time as Masters’ was in his. [more]

Artists at the Center: Tiler Peck

March 8, 2022

By far, the audience favorite was the world premiere “Time Spell,” an entertaining attempt at a hybrid of tap dancing (choreographed by Michelle Dorrance and Jillian Meyers) and ballet (choreographed by Peck) with the assistance of Byron Tittle.  The musicians Aaron Marcellus and Penelope Wendtlandt provided witty a cappella close harmony vocal accompaniment, even occasionally joining in the dancing. The alternating of tap dancing and ballet began slowly with the two dance forms not combining easily, but as the speed picked up so did the similarities until the ballet dancers were tapping in their toe shoes and the tappers were bourrée-ing in their tap shoes.  The large cast included Dorrance, Meyers, Peck, Lovette and Mejia. [more]

First Down

February 27, 2022

A plea for understanding the pain of being Muslin-American, Sevan’s First Down at the 59E59 Theaters focuses on the plight of an adored football player who decides to kneel and pray during the national anthem rather than stand at polite attention, hand over heart. Quarterback George Berri (a handsome, well-built, sensitive Peter Romano) is a mid-westerner with pale skin and a name that doesn’t necessarily connote his Muslim upbringing. After the Star-Spangled Banner is played, Berri, a young Lebanese/American, is first seen.  He is on his knees praying in the locker room well after the game is over. Soon Coach Bill Fitzgerald (Larry Bull, finding every nuance in what could have been a clichéd macho role) enters and the structure of First Down begins to manifest itself: three conversations of increasing emotional power beginning with Coach Bill, then Berri’s agent and finally his impassioned mother. [more]

Four Quartets

February 14, 2022

In her selection of the movements and structure of "Four Quartets," Tamowitz chose to ignore the depth and imagery of the poems, producing a cool Merce Cunningham-like ballet that glided along beautifully on the surface of Eliot’s heavy, sometimes distasteful, imagery.  Movements were balletic, full of arabesques, skittery connecting steps, soft leaps and jumps. She built the work upon a series of steps and phrases that are repeated in various ways: jumped, turned, performed alone, performed in unison and performed in reverse.  One salient image was that of a dancer jumping into the arms of another.  Other than that there was very little touching.  The barefoot dancers often mimicked each other or performed side by side.  Only two duets occurred, one quite long near the end, watched by the other cast members gathered at the corners of the set. [more]

MJ

February 10, 2022

Wheeldon and Pulitzer Award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage make every effort to hide the fact that MJ is a jukebox musical, despite the fact that the first notes of every song elicited loud shouts and applause (part of the reason the show runs two and a half hours). Nottage has invented a plodding framework for the show.  It is 1992 in Los Angeles. TV reporter, Rachel (a down-to-earth Whitney Bashor who acts as the play’s Greek chorus) and her hyperactive assistant, Alejandro (a charming Gabriel Ruiz) corral a reluctant Jackson to have his rehearsals for his huge upcoming 'Dangerous" tour documented. [more]

Specially Processed American Me

February 9, 2022

Who knew that SPAM has figured so importantly in Korean and Korean-American cuisines?  Jaime Sunwoo’s "Specially Processed American Me" tells that story and much more. "Specially Processed American Me"—check out those first letters!—uses SPAM as a metaphor to explore the huge subject of the Korean War, SPAM and her own intimate, moving autobiography as a Korean-American. [more]

The Tap Dance Kid

February 4, 2022

Let’s start with the best:  The great Joshua Henry’s 11 o’clock number, “William’s Song,” a gut-wrenching revelatory song sung by the title character’s emotionally distant father.  Henry endows the number with the emotional punch of “And I Am Telling You” from "Dreamgirls."  Since Henry Krieger wrote the music to both songs the striking similarity is understandable.  Of course, Tom Eyen wrote the "Dreamgirls"’ vivid lyrics and librettro; Robert Lorick wrote the words for the pleasant, plot-moving score of "The Tap Dance Kid." "The Tap Dance Kid"—book by Charles Blackwell, based on the novel "Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change" by Louise Fitzhugh—is a simple domestic tale now reset in the 1950’s, gussied up with the brilliant tap choreography of Jared Grimes and the keen, vivifying direction of Kenny Leon.  But, even under Leon’s artful hand and Grimes’ beautifully performed numbers, "The Tap Dance Kid" remains a defiantly unimaginative story. [more]

Di Froyen (The Women)

January 24, 2022

The New Yiddish Rep’s (David Mandelbaum, artistic director) production of the Yiddish language "Di Froyen (The Women)" is a bittersweet, anger-inducing portrait of modern day Chasid women caught between orthodox Jewish ideology and the rush of modern society’s laws and attitudes into their lives. Adapted by Malky Goldman and Melissa Weisz from Naomi Regan’s "Women’s Minyan," "Di Froyen," in one compact, tense hour, opens up a previously secret world to the public.  Here are six women, all wearing sheitels (wigs that orthodox Jewish women must wear because showing their own hair is proscribed by religious law) and all under immense pressure from within and without their enclave. [more]

Addressless: A Walk in Our Shoes

January 21, 2022

Turning the plight of New York City’s homeless into a game is an iffy proposition to say the least.  At best, the audience for the theatrical effort, "Addressless: A Walk in Our Shoes," learns about the daily terrors facing this disenfranchised population; at worst, the interactive game overshadows the very same awful truths turning homelessness into a superficial search for more and more points. The Zoom audience, giving advice to the actors who portray the unfortunate avatars of three luckless souls, takes the focus off of their tragic, often inescapable circumstances. [more]

I Just Want to Tell Somebody

January 11, 2022

He used the gimmick of preparing to perform the very show he was performing for his audience in the Cabaret Theater of the Theater for the New City; but by the end of his fascinating and grueling life story he was on fire with his tale of his life in the theater and film.  He grew up in the Sixties when the U.S. was in turmoil and it seemed that everyone was getting high. Smokey’s career began with a first prize in his Washington, D.C., high school talent show and some performances at the Arena Stage.  He quit school to try his luck in California but failed and returned to D.C. where he joined an all-Black repertory theater and appeared in his first commercial which he showed on a large screen.  Much later he appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Cotton Club" as a featured musical performer.  His number in the film was shown proving he was an impressive dancer and singer partnered by Jackée Harry. [more]

Parsons Dance: Fall 2021 Season

December 10, 2021

Parsons’ first work on the program was the tour de force solo “Balance of Power” performed by the phenomenal Zoey Anderson.  Clad in Barbara Erin Delo’s brilliantly colored tight costume—the bright red left sleeve particularly inventive—Anderson first appeared upside down in a golden spotlight. (Lighting by Chambers.) As she turned right side up, she began undulating to Giancarlo De Trizio’s sparkling score, her body reacting to every nuance of the quite rhythmic music.  Parsons unloaded hundreds of difficult tiny movements on her which she performed with skill and allure, stopping the show with her quickness and sensuality. [more]

Diana, The Musical

November 22, 2021

If you are a Princess Diana completist, "Diana: The Musical" will satisfy your needs along with the deeper Spencer and The Queen and all the innumerable documentaries about this ill-fated fairy princess.  Those interested in delving deeper into the Princess Diana mystique will be disappointed with this superficial, but somehow entertaining, musical. [more]

The Bronx Babe

November 21, 2021

When Sonny Marie Lee stepped onto the stage of the Actors Temple Theatre as the eponymous "The Bronx Babe" I thought she was putting the audience on, acting the stereotypical, Noo Yawk accented girl telling her memories of a stressful period in her life that tested her mettle. But, no, the woman who stood before us, the woman who both wrote and directed "The Bronx Babe," was obviously unaware of her theatrical shortcomings as she blithely told tales of her early teen years in the racially charged Bronx of the 1970’s. [more]

A Turtle on a Fence Post

November 16, 2021

Unfolding from a stand-up comedy routine—“A prisoner walks into a bar…!”—and set in a comedy venue designed with ingenuity and style by Walt Spangler, Turtle veers from hokey to horrible helped by the spiffy routines staged by choreographer Kenny Ingram in over-the-top, sometimes kitschy, routines.  Where else can you see dancing prison guards waving their batons as they tap dance in a circle or the flexible actor Josh Marin portraying an ATM and a basketball hoop? [more]

Caroline, or Change

November 9, 2021

"Caroline, or Change" is an important musical, more now than in 2004.  It should be seen.  The Roundabout production, though somewhat flawed, still communicates the complicated relationship between Blacks and Jews, clearly an issue in today’s New York City.  It is an excellently constructed show, its message surviving mostly intact. [more]

Swan Lake Rock Opera

November 5, 2021

Now there’s "Swan Lake Rock Opera" created by Mirit Shem-Ur (book and lyrics), Tsedi Sarfati (director and dramaturge) and Sharona Pick (music production and additional music).  The show uses orchestral themes from the original Tchaikovsky score and clever pop variations to create witty songs and underscoring. The libretto of "Rock Opera" follows the original Swan Lake plot points which tell of Young Prince Siegfried, ordered by his mother the Queen to choose a fiancée from a list of foreign princesses she has assembled.  He goes off to hunt to avoid making a decision and meets the Swan/Woman Odette and falls in love only to be deceived by her doppelganger Odile, an agent of the evil Von Rothbart who has cast a spell that turned women into swans.  This deception leads to tragedy. [more]

Lucinda Childs’ “Dance” at The Joyce Theater

October 21, 2021

Before the dancers appeared live, "Dance" commenced with a burst of Glass’ iconic, pulsating music—here pre-recorded, originally performed live—and a still from LeWitt’s original video projected onto a scrim which covered the entire stage opening.  LeWitt’s videos, intimate contributions to the work, also served to honor the performances of the original cast:  Childs, Graham Conley, Cynthia Hedstrom, Erin Matthiessen, Daniel McCusker, Susan Osberg, Judy Padow, Ande Peck and Megan Walker. [more]

New York City Center’s 2021 Fall for Dance Festival: Programs 1 and 2

October 19, 2021

The final work on Program 1 was its finest.  A.I.M. By Kyle Abraham presented its director’s “Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song,” a deeply moving paean to the darker meanings of love.  It was choreographed to Nina Simone’s glorious renditions of six songs in which she wrapped her moving contralto around the lyrics of “Don’t Explain,” “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and “Little Girl Blue.” The opening moments found the seven-member cast gathered in a dramatically lit upstage corner—moody lighting designed by Dan Scully—bending and reaching, dispersing only to return to their sculptural starting image. [more]

1-2-3 Manhunt

October 11, 2021

DiMurro writes with an acute sense of the rhythm of New York speech and its old-school jargon, helped by director William Roudebush’s complementary sense of timing, not to mention four expert actors who know how to embody these characters. Herrick Goldman’s atmospheric lighting and Andy Evan Cohen’s brilliant urban soundscape immeasurably added to the overall impact of "1-2-3 Manhunt." [more]

Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn

October 3, 2021

The dances on this program are perfect examples of the Denishawn aesthetic which combined what was then exoticism with impeccable theatricality.  The Denishawn troupe was very much of its time, the early twentieth century. The modern dance giants that came out of this artistic sensibility—Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman in particular—revolted against the exoticism to find a modern way of expressing themselves through movement, the way that artists who were their contemporaries put distance between them and the Impressionists.  These modern dance pioneers learned the ins and outs of dramatic presentation as they forged new dance forms. [more]

Between the Bars

October 1, 2021

Benjamin Viertel directs "Between the Bars" brilliantly finding the balance between theatricality and reality.  Each character emerges as distinct and multidimensional, even the guards who sit passively until they show their savage sides.  This is a cast of fine actors who communicate both the indignities of confinement and its ultimate tragic toll just feet away from the audience. [more]

The Wayward Daughter of Judah the Prince

September 27, 2021

It is to the credit of the entire cast—dressed in Anthony Paul-Cavaretta’s period tunics and flowing robes—that Lackey’s sometimes over-the-top dialogue lands credibly. Two other elements elevate the play:  Michael Sirotta’s lovely, mood-enhancing score and Jon DeGaetano’s imaginative scenery which includes large, stage-spanning curtains that cleverly serve as entranceways, sails and even ancient columns.  Michael Redman’s moody projections enhance Sirotta’s contributions. [more]

Ragamala Dance Company: Fires of Varanasi: Dance of the Eternal Pilgrim

September 25, 2021

As the opaquely complicated plot played out on the stage, the three lead dancers (Ranee, Aparna and Ashwini Ramaswamy) took turns displaying impeccable Bharatanatyam technique:  feet adorned with ghungroos (ankle bells), softly pounding out clear rhythms in varied positions, arms, exquisitely expressive, moving in striking patterns topped by constantly changing hand positions (mudras) which communicated character, mood and, to some extent, the story as it unfolded. [more]

My Mother’s Severed Head

September 16, 2021

Sadly, these promises aren’t kept in this mishmash of plots and characters that never quite meshes into a viable whole; it remains an unsteady comedy/fantasy never morphing into a smooth-running play.  Cissel awkwardly interrupts the play, alternating reality—such as it is—with colorful dance/mime sequences.   The characters—including the Mother/aka Severed Head—yell at each other, most often about that poor, ubiquitous head, garishly made up for the Mexican celebration of El Día de los Muertos. Every time the head speaks her mind the play comes to impudent life. [more]

Roles and Rules of Comedy

September 6, 2021

"Roles and Rules of Comedy," six short comedic bits of fluff written and directed by Harold Dean James is a character-driven view of contemporary New York City.  Presented at the elegant Players Club on Gramercy Park by We Three Productions, James deals mostly with down-to-earth people like Donna (Donna Kennedy) and Jaymie (Sharon Fogarty) who meet at a bus stop awaiting a ride that never seems to arrive in “At the Bus Stop Part 5.” [more]

BAAND Together Dance Festival at Lincoln Center

August 20, 2021

It’s unlikely that New York City will ever see these five troupes sharing a stage again.  This was a festive occasion despite being uneven in tone and not particularly representative of at least two of the large dance companies. Pretentious program notes were fortunately only available online so that they couldn’t mar the visceral enjoyment of several of these works in Program One. ... Each evening of the BAAND Together Dance Festival will feature a different program with contributions from each of these five wonderful dance companies. [more]
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