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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Misanthrope and
Dino! A Musical Evening with Dean Martin
at the Latin Casino

Also see Tim's reviews of North of the Boulevard and Arms and the Man


Mattie Hawkinson and John Williams
Photo by Shawn May
Some things never change. In 1666, Molière wrote The Misanthrope as a stinging critique of the hypocrisy and superficiality running rampant in French society. Martin Crimp's 1996 adaptation does the same thing, this time setting the story in modern-day London, and it still seems relevant. But Crimp's version has other targets too, including Hollywood, celebrity culture, and even drama critics (those most, ahem, blameless of creatures). Quintessence Theatre's playful new production brings out all the poetry and perceptiveness in Crimp's words.

Alceste, the titular character, is candid to a fault, saying whatever's on his mind and treating most people with contempt ("I have dreams of a clean white space / Entirely disinfected from the human race"). But he is enraptured by the alluring Jennifer, an American film star followed by a tribe of sycophants (including an agent and a reporter) who hang on her every word. Her attitude is similar to Alceste's, but she disguises it well; Alceste observes "I notice your attacks / Are all behind people's backs." When she is eventually exposed, we find out what she's really made of.

Crimp's aim may be narrower than Molière's, but it's effective. Crimp's use of rhyming verse (in the Molière tradition) throughout keeps things interesting and adds to the sense of amusement and urgency. (Most of the rhymes are clever, though there are too many that the Brits would call dodgy, including disaster/after, much/trust, readings/feelings, fearsome/post-modernism, and hack job/backdrop. Fortunately, these injuries to the ear go by quickly.) And there's some depth beneath Crimp's flash; the most remarkable scene is a debate between Jennifer and Marcia, her former drama teacher at Juilliard, about the effect of Jennifer's oversexed public image. Marcia claims that Jennifer is "undermining women's self-esteem," but Jennifer counters that "the media's fascination with me is not my fault." By airing both sides of a controversial issue, and having two women say the lines, Crimp breathes fresh air into issues of integrity, dignity and sexuality.

Director Alexander Burns' elegant, energetic production bounces along nicely, with some terrific, arch interplay between the actors. John Washington's Alceste is oddly subdued, less brutal than blasé. The most enjoyable performances are the most flamboyant ones, including Mattie Hawkinson as Jennifer, E. Ashley Izard as Marcia, and especially Sean Close in a hilarious turn as a mincing, obsequious critic.

The Misanthrope is being presented as part of "The Chocolate & Champagne Repertory" (along with Arms and the Man), which runs through May 26, 2013, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling 1-877-238-5596 or online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org.


A Separate Peace
Nat Chandler
Photo by Mark Garvin
Just five months after they saluted 1950s vocal groups in their holiday show Plaid Tidings, the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio returns to the classic pop well in Dino! A Musical Evening with Dean Martin at the Latin Casino. It's a little weird to see the Walnut keep paying tribute to dead singers; in the past two years, the Independence Studio has hosted tributes to Frank Sinatra, Ethel Waters and Gertrude Lawrence, while the Walnut's mainstage featured a tribute to Buddy Holly. Despite this, and despite a few missteps, Dino! is mostly a fine and fun tribute, with Nat Chandler evoking much of Martin's casually hip allure, and Fran Prisco's direction making the show seem like a jolly, exclusive party.

Playwright Armen Pandola sets Dino! at the famed Latin Casino nightclub ("in bustling Cherry Hill, New Jersey") in 1978, not long before it closed. Dean Martin and his pianist Ken Lane (the gifted David Jenkins) are here to perform, but a blizzard has kept away the rest of his band and most of the audience. Dean takes the occasion to sing some of his hits and tell the story of his life. It's hard to imagine the real Martin, an inveterate jokester with a carefully crafted public persona, being this unguarded onstage; at one point, discussing the breakup of his second marriage, he actually says "I guess I should have been more likable." But the conceit works fairly well, providing a good framework for a look at Martin's journey from childhood poverty in Steubenville, Ohio (where he was born Dino Paul Crocetti), to stardom in movies, TV, nightclubs and recordings.

Many of the songs are used to illustrate anecdotes: "King of the Road" for stories of his struggles as a touring musician, "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me" for a discussion of his calculated "boozer" persona (he claims that in real life, "drunks bore me"), "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" for tales of Vegas and the Rat Pack. (Amanda Kircher's lighting sets off these moments effectively.) The structure fails only once, during a too-brief discussion of his partnership with Jerry Lewis. This segment is choppy, with the flow of the story repeatedly interrupted by verses of "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye," a song which doesn't fit the situation.

Chandler isn't a ringer for Martin—his complexion is too light and his build is too stocky—but he manages to get by on charm. He also does a pretty good imitation of Martin's singing style, working in the slurs, scoops, vibrato and trills that were the singer's trademarks, along with the jazzy syncopation (often singing just ahead of the beat) that made Martin's singing seem cool. On opening night Chandler didn't seem completely at ease in the role yet; several times he slipped out of Martin's voice and sang in a booming Broadway tenor (which seemed more comfortable for this veteran of The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Phantom of the Opera). Prisco's direction emphasizes the laid-back, intimate side of Martin's style, with Chandler stepping down from the stage several times to interact with the audience.

Dino! is a little rough around the edges at times, but it'll put a smile on your face. Just like the real Dino.

Dino! A Musical Evening with Dean Martin at the Latin Casino runs through June 30, 2013, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $35 - $45 and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.Ticketmaster.com.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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