Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011

A Pleasant Evening with Niffer and Richard

Casual precision with the Skylight’s BEYOND THE INGENUE

By Russ Bickerstaff
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One of the things I absolutely love about the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre is its ability to house shows that are extremely polished and precise whil still managing to hang onto the illusion of being absolutely casual and relaxed. The space served this kind of atmosphere perfectly when Renaissance Theater welcomed James DeVita’s adaptation of In Acting Shakespeare. DeVita’s autobiographical show melded his own life with the various bits of work that Shakespeare had written. The Skylight’s latest Beyond The Ingénue uses a similar format to deliver a remarkably different autobiographical story.

Broadway singer Niffer Clarke casts the story of her life and lifelong aspirations towards being an ingénue and placing it alongside the lives and work of stage ingénues Julie Andrews, Shirley Jones and Barbara Cook. She is accompanied on piano by music director Richard Carsey. The two are great together. One gets the impression that they’d probably get together and do something like this on a casual evening even if there wasn’t a show patterned around it.

The biography plays out in music and stories. Clark has quite a dramatic range and this is her opportunity to show that versatility off. If it wasn’t so charming and cleverly laid-out, this would feel like a really fabulous audition. She’s comic and energetic in “Cain’t Sat No,” from Oklahoma! And she’s heartfelt and lovestruck in “Will He  Like Me?” from the lesser-known musical She Loves Me. That song, as sung by the show’s romantic lead Amalia. It’s a really beautiful piece and Clarke delivers it with great emotional resonance.

There is some deeply personal stuff here that Clarke is delivering through the format as she legitimately looks for life beyond the distinction of the ingénue. She will soon be divorced with a daughter entering college. And to a degree, she’s really trying to work out the concept of her own personal identity here—a genuine personal exploration through the art of song that peers out through thepolish and heavily rendered composition of the evening.

Beyond the autobiography, the show plays out like a brief survey course . . . sort of a Broadway ingénue 101 of sorts. And in that capacity, Carsey is fn here—he’s that music teacher you always wish you had in grade school or junior high school . . . witty, charming and really, really passionate bout what he’s talking about. Things settle-down somewhere into the second act and Clarke and Carsey are sitting down telling stoires while drinking from martini glasses. The cocktail party vibe is irresistible . . . and they start telling personal stories. Carsey’s story about Shirley Jones and Paul Schaeffer is absolutely priceless. From formal brilliance to casual conversation, Beyond The Ingénue graces the stage with charmingly casual precision.

The Skylight’s production of Beyond The Ingénue runs through January 8th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800. 

 

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