The Public's Mobile Unit "Winter's Tale," Music Works by Allan Harris and The Bengsons, Jimmie Fowlie Upends "La La Land"

12/07/2017 10:55 am ET

After touring schools, community centers, prisons and other other-than-theater venues, the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit is again at the Public. Because there’s limited space in the Mobile Unit’s van, only nine ready-willing-able actors appear in the William Shakespeare plays tackled—and usually trimmed to pocket-sized forms.

This time around it’s The Winter’s Tale, that birth-death-rebirth celebration wherein Leontes (Justin Cunningham) abruptly becomes so suspicious of the relationship between wife Hermione (Stacy Yen) and best friend Polixenes (Nicholas Hoge) that he causes her death and the death of their son (James Ortiz’s puppet) and the near death of their daughter, who survives abandonment and, at 16 among rustics, comes to be known as Perdita (Ayana Workman).

What’s always remarkable about the Mobil Unit’s result is how lively, how energetic it always is—and how often, how creative and how musical Shakespeare can be made. That’s to say excited commitment overrules any deficiencies in acting refinement or text shrinkage. Again, no exception to the results here, as directed by Lee Sunday Evans—with Christopher Ryan Grant, Nina Grollman and Sathya Sridharan enhancing the gaiety—and as played in the intimate round (meaning in all these cases, as played in the square).

Perhaps the best praise that can be accorded the Mobile Unit is: Each production—often presented before first-time Shakespeare audiences—wins over new Shakespeare fans. There’s no way to underestimate that accomplishment. And as the Mobile Unit travels, Shakespeare, remains, of course, free.

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Blue (Allan Harris) is a cowboy looking back at how he came to be where in the West he is in Cross That River: A Tale of the Black West, at 59E59 Theatres. Harris wrote the predominantly country-western songs and co-authored the book with Pat Harris. His flashback younger self is played by Jeffery Lewis. Other figures—played by Maya Azucena and Carolyn Leonhart—from Blue’s past join as he crosses the country to take up, and devote himself to, his carefully chosen occupation.

Going over this extensive ground, Blue weathers losses (one wife, among the deprivations), and experiences some gains. Along the way, he finds reasons every two or three minutes to include one of his exhilarating songs, which are backed up by musicians Alan Grubner, Miki Hayama, Shirazette Tinnin, Seth Johnson and Jay White (Paul Beaudry occasionally subbing).

Aside from Harris’s score, the Cross That River highlights are the singers—Harris, of course, included. Whether soloing or supporting, the four sound glorious, their acting also enhancing.

The drawback is the overall presentation, which is outrightly presentational. Through both acts, Harris and crew sit facing the audience and in front of the musicians. The implication is that Harris’s work is really a song cycle. Indeed, it threatens to remain that, since Blue’s recollections are sketchier than might be desired.

As of this week, there is a suddenly timely Cross That River aspect: Blue does encounter Indians in his travels. Based on his own experiences, he understands the treatments they’re being handed. He never mentions the Trail of Years, but patrons rankling over the manner in which the current Oval Office occupant has just diminished the Utah territories without any extensive discussions with Native-American communities will find it difficult not to think that some things never change—or change so slowly as makes little true improvement.

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Curiously, Hundred Days, at New York Theatre Workshop, has much in common with Cross That River. Again a story is told, while musicians occupy the upstage area. The married songwriters Abigail and Shaun Bengson reminisce for about an hour about their meeting, marrying and sticking together in the face of illness (the 100 days of the title) and thanks to the loving bond they’ve built.

The truth of Hundred Days is that it, too, is a song cycle. It’s a rock cycle for which much has been done to make it theater-stage-worthy by director Anne Kauffman, movement director Sonya Tayeh and lighting designer Andrew Hungerford (who also designed the spare set with Kris Stone).

Much has been done, but to little avail. Abigail explains that, having had an unrewarding childhood and young adulthood, she was drawn to Shaun at first sight and wasn’t shy about getting him to marry her after a three-week courtship. The two explain that, though health problems have accrued, they’re living happily ever after since.

While it may be true that the family that plays together stays together, it doesn’t automatically follow that those witnessing the tight bonds will automatically benefit from them. In the Bengsons’ case, the music is blandly insistent, the lyrics aren’t consistently intelligible and Abigail Bengson’s pipes reside somewhere between belt and strident.

Like the Cross That River band, however, the musicians-back-up singers, are first-rate. They’re Colette Alexander, Dani Markham, Reggie D. White and the livewire Jo Lampert. Fiery as a flame as Joan of Arc in Joan of Arc: Into the Fire at the Public last season and one of songwriter Shaina Taub’s sidekicks, Lampert’s got a voice to shame the Devil—and here squeezes an accordion, too. It’s always a pleasure to be where she is.

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If you’ve seen last year’s Oscar-winning flick La La Land and remember it extremely well, So Long Boulder City, at the Subculture, may be just the thing for you. I’ve seen La La Land only once, don’t remember it that well and thought it was overrated anyway—not hugely overrated, but overrated all the same.

Therefore, So Long Boulder City isn’t so much for me—or anyone who’s never seen La La Land—as much as it is for devoted fans and certainly for Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black, who wrote it after seeing the award-winner 10 times by their estimate. It’s especially suited to Fowlie, who appears in wig, white blouse, black skirt and ballerinas, as Mia Dolan, who’s modeled after Emma Stone’s character.

In the film. Mia leaves her hometown to make it big in Hollywood and thinks she can hit the celluloid (digital?) heights by way of a one-woman show she’s written. So in So Long Boulder City, Mia does the same, while mimicking some of the movie scenes (Diggle’s living room set is a reference). The screenplay has Mia thinking she’s failed, is about to leave and then is serendipitously stopped. Here she just fails. (By the way, she also gets entangled with a jazz musician who’s the one convincing her not to give up on her dream, but he doesn’t figure into any of this.)

Fowlie takes stage with a walk that brings to mind a particularly perky sorority sister, but Mia’s behavior didn’t get me to laugh, not once. Others were chuckling throughout, which leads me to suggest that La La Land fanatics make up their own mind and that the rest of us stay home.

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