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Articles by Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (445 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.

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]

Notre Dame de Paris

July 17, 2022

It may be a bit unfair, but there’s no escaping comparing "Notre Dame De Paris," currently exploding on the stage of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, with its immensely popular French-literature-inspired brethren "Les Misérables" and "Phantom of the Opera." All three are audience-pleasing spectacles with lusty, manipulative scores that hit the audience right between the eyes.  The major difference involves how their stories are told.  The latter two are constructed as bigger-than-life plots driven by bigger-than-life songs. "Notre Dame," on the other hand, is a series of very French pop songs that are the plot, storytelling not particularly effective due to their being sung in French, albeit with good translations flashed on several screens. There is very little non-sung dialogue.  All the songs were brazenly amplified to rock concert level so that their ubiquitous crescendos and climaxes could be savored. [more]

Momix’s Alice

July 11, 2022

Pendleton, in a program note, assures us that "Alice" is not a retelling of Carroll’s book.  Rather, he used some of the events and characters from the book, dividing the evening-length work into twenty-two sections with titles like “A Summer Day,” “A Trip of Rabbits,” “The Cheshire Cat,” “The Queen of Diamonds” and “The Wolf-Spied-Her.”  Although characters reappear—Alice, the Rabbits and the various playing cards queens—the episodes don’t particularly flow one into the other.  The takeaway is a series of fanciful images rather than a cogent whole work of theater. [more]

Prince Charming, You’re Late

July 5, 2022

If you ever lived through the angst of an unrequited love, a romance impossible for one reason or another, then Billy Hipkins’ "Prince Charming, You’re Late" will hit the spot.  Directed by Perry Dell’Aquila, the monologue flows smoothly and movingly. Hipkins, a forty-something gay man with a gentle, softly sardonic nature, fell for a much younger actor in a Broadway show where he was employed as a dresser. Unfortunately, this was a job that put him up close and personal with the object of his frustrated affections.  Hipkins’ description of this unattainable young man is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, a vision of unattainable perfection in every way. [more]

The Rise and Fall, Then Brief and Modest Rise Followed by a Relative Fall of…Jean Claude Van Damme as Gleaned by a Single Reading of His Wikipedia Page Months Earlier

July 1, 2022

"The Rise and Fall, then Brief and Modest Rise Followed by a Relative Fall of…Jean Claude Van Damme as Gleaned by a Single Reading of His Wikipedia Page Months Earlier" is the brobdinagian title of a tongue-in-cheek, hour-long comic riff on the life of a faded movie star.  The title is almost as long as the play. Timothy Haskell has written what is actually an extended elaborate skit brought to life by Joe Cordaro (perfect as a clueless Van Damme and other characters) and John Harlacher (hilarious as the all-knowing narrator) using puppets designed by co-director Aaron Haskell. The other director is Paul Smithyman who also designed the efficient conglomeration of a set which includes two podiums for the actors and a screen for the snippets of films and slides used to illustrate the story.  In front of the screen is a slotted board into which the actors insert funny two-dimensional stick puppets. [more]

Pacific Northwest Ballet 2022

June 25, 2022

For the company’s director, Peter Boal, this short season was a homecoming of sorts.  He was a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet which calls the David H. Koch its artistic home.  He left seventeen years ago and, since 2005, has been the PNB’s artistic director. Boal should have put more thought into the ballets he brought, at least those on Program A.  Only one of three had heart and emotional depth and was gimmick-free.  All three works by established choreographers showed off different facets of the skilled dancers.  [more]

Garden of Alla: The Alla Nazimova Story

June 22, 2022

Romy Nordlinger has written and is performing the monodrama, "Garden of Alla: The Alla Nazimova Story," at the TheaterLab.  Directed by Lorca Peress, "Garden of Alla" gives us this eccentrically talented artist up close and personal. Nordlinger has a history of portraying Nazimova and has honed her interpretation to the point that it fits her like a second skin, helped by Peress’ sense of pacing and stagecraft. [more]

Paul Taylor Dance Company 2022

June 17, 2022

The new work on the program, a world premiere, was “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers” by Michelle Manzanales, choreographed to John Lennon & Paul McCartney, Bob Marley, Harry Woods and several others.  Using ten of the Taylor dancers, Manzanales produced a work that was charming if a tad repetitious.  Santo Loquasto’s pale costumes had an elegantly informal look. The dancers trooped on in a long line performing unison steps, lunges, leans and twists until movements moved sequentially down the line, mostly soft falls to the stage.  In between these unison sections there were jaunty solos and quick duets that segued into group dances.  The pop song soundtrack underlined the work’s informal feel.  Manzanales certainly put the dancers through their paces.  There’s nothing more appealing to an audience than a line of performers dancing their hearts out in unison! Her work shows promise but also is clearly the work of a novice.  What the ballet had to do with the Emily Dickinson poem it came from wasn’t clear. [more]

The Refugees

June 13, 2022

Kaliski attempts a clever conceit marrying "The Oresteia" characters to the modern tragic story of the homeless hordes. Does "The Oresteia" provide an effective jumping off point to explore this timely and heartbreaking issue? Sadly, the answer is no.  Kaliski has written a play whose subject matter is only tangentially connected to the characters Orestes, Electra and Clytemnestra who, in Greek mythology, lived in ancient Argos. Their stories of patricide and matricide and other ‘cides have no connection—emotional or situational—to the problem at hand and Kaliski doesn’t try very hard to splice the two subject matters together. [more]

A Healthy House

June 7, 2022

Diriwachter is particularly skilled in writing working class vernacular.  The Father and Tim speak the same language and he catches all the subtleties of decades of ups and downs.  He also is wonderful with the two salesmen, cleverly finding the rhythm of their spiels that build up to the final pitches.  His salespeople are written as clever but not unfeeling so that the audience never totally believes that the Father and son are being betrayed and cheated. [more]

A Kid Like Rishi

June 4, 2022

Origin Theatre Company’s stark production of Kees Roorda’s A Kid Like Rishi is a totally involving Rashomon-like take on a real-life tragedy:  In November of 2012, 17-year-old Rishi Chandrikasing, a young man of Indian descent, was shot and killed at a train station in the Hague by a policeman. Was it a case of racial profiling? A justified shooting? Accidental? In the English translation by Tom Johnston, Roorda thoroughly examines the event through the testimony of twenty or so witnesses all played by three disparate, but complementary actors:  Sung Yun Cho, Atandwa Kani and Kaili Vernoff, all three quietly intense. The cell theatre’s well-known flexibility was put to good use by the scenic designer Guy de Lancey who placed the audience on four sides of a long wooden table around and upon which the actors performed Koorda’s sad docudrama. [more]

Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily in That Order)

May 25, 2022

Takiff is a skilled performer who never loses the audience no matter how angry or sardonic he gets.  He is helped by the mood setting lighting of Elizabeth M. Stewart and the sound and video contributions of Matthew Chilton.  Mark Mindek provides some minor, but effective, dance bits. Brian Lane Green’s direction made all of pieces fit together into a cogent whole. As difficult as the subject matter is, "Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily in That Order)" should be seen as a fresh, in depth consideration of the subject matter. [more]

Oh God, A Show About Abortion

May 18, 2022

Alison Leiby’s "Oh God, A Show About Abortion" is probably the most level-headed work about that much debated subject, perhaps too level-headed.  While the United States is going through social and political paroxysms over a leaked Supreme Court argument that portends the overturn of Roe v. Wade, Leiby’s matter-of-fact attitude toward the subject is a balm. [more]

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]
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