July 10, 2009By Marc Wilkofsky Posted: Jul 10, 2009
Fellow LIGHT-lovers, I recently caught a performance of Robert Newman's Sessions; here's my review.
NEWMAN'S "HUMAN" SESSIONS
The charming, heartwarming, often brilliant Sessions, starring GUIDING LIGHT's Robert Newman, holds more surprises than just several rarely seen sides of Josh's portrayer; it's a powerful, memorable theatre experience. The show, at Manhattan's Algonquin Theater, is not perfect — but its imperfections add to its charm, and its foundation of humanity makes it amazing.
Newman, a longtime stage actor who has starred in Nine, Shenandoah and several other productions, portrays Dr. Peter Peterson, a Manhattan therapist who leads a regular group session and offers a combination of understanding and wisdom that keeps his patients participating. Of course, Peter has his own problems, including an overbearing wife (who is unfortunately unshown, but the focus is on the people Peter can actually help) and a yearning for his lovely client Leila.
The conceit of each patient speaking or singing about their life works well; in fact, better than I expected. As lively numbers (starting with Peter and the ensemble's appealing "I'm Only Human") keep the show moving and the audience chuckling and captivated, a quiet yet pervasive sadness is practically part of the beautiful, multi-tiered set. As the players walk (and yes, sit) around the set — basically Peter's office, overlooking a Manhattan skyline — New York landmarks, from Bleecker Street to Roseland (and even a Starbucks on 57th!), are often mentioned, proof that writer Albert Tapper knows the Huge Apple. Staten Islanders will likely grin at the joke regarding their borough.
|Robert Newman's latest theater role is Sessions's Dr. Peter Peterson.|
There is much more than light chatting in this production. Even when the beaming Sunshine (as brought to life by the delightful Kelli Maguire) reveals that she's ready to leave the group, the question looms: Does she truly "have it all together," and is her imminent departure from therapy a blessing, a blind escape or something worse? How long can someone, as the song goes, stay "Above the Clouds"?
Peter finds it hard to go above his feelings for Leila, and while Newman displays his excellent singing skills (and considerable acting talents) throughout the show, the little gestures and noises she and her fellow group members inspire in Peter are a laugh-out-loud bonus. Breathing is Peter and Leila's throughline, as displayed in the wonderfully raunchy "Breathe," and later in the show. Rachelle Rak is a marvel as she drifts between Leila's wild and sensitive sides.
While arguably one of the strongest soloes is Scott Richard Foster's "Wendy," in which George's line to his ex, "I swallowed all my pride to make this call," grows more passionate and affecting, the finest song is Mary's "This is One River I Can't Cross." That performance has Natalie Buster (who filled in for Liz Larsen the night I watched the show) and Newman display a warm connection amid the touching lyrics. (Of course, Newman's GL character knows all about a woman trying to cross a body of water.) Mary's "Feels Like Home" is also quite effective; one of the several astonishing lyrics explaining why she stays with her abusive husband is "Your rage...it keeps me safe."
The sentiment of "You Should Dance," dance when you're depressed, is the crux of the show and story — and yes, there certainly is choreography (GL's Reva would comment, "Bud can dance!"). Choreographer Penny Ayn Mass uses the full space to its highest potential, and the multi-character dances offer several stories for the audience's eyes. Although Newman contended to me that the show is in fact "a play with music," this aspect is definitely on the "yes, this is a musical" side. Certain moments, such as the ensemble's last line in "Above the Clouds," are a tad corny, but they still serve to entertain.
Dialogue — both humorous and heavy — is often inventively mixed into the music, as in the stormy song "Living Out a Lie," when Peter tells a pained George, "We're all struggling human beings trying to get through life. That's what makes us human." One character who struggles with being in the group itself is Dylan, who adds sarcasm while finding solace in "becoming" Bob Dylan (Sky Seals is on target in both the impression and in slowly bringing out his character's depth). Businessman Baxter reveals his difficult relationship with his dad as portrayer Al Bundonis nails all of the character's emotional subtleties. Baxter proves to be a fun foil for Peter, especially in a chair-stealing scene. You want to learn much more about these characters and their groupmates, but what you do learn within the show's two acts is engaging and funny, while very moving and — thanks to the energy and dedication of the actors — stunning.
The best aspect of each actor's performance, especially in Newman's case, is that you forget it's a performance and get wrapped up in each character and the story. That is difficult to find in a theater show, but the ensemble, directed by Thomas Coté, makes it look easy. One of my only concerns was that the Murphys' storyline started out somewhat typically (the couple fought over trivial matters like a Scrabble game), but those worries were soon assuaged, in large part due to one word (hint: It starts with r) by Mr. Murphy in the second act. Ken Jennings is a far-from-quiet riot and Bertilla Baker plays the instigator to the hilarious hilt.
Peter also has to fight, or work with, The Voice (apparently his inner voice, amusingly portrayed in this performance by Dennis Holland), which is occasionally overkill but generally succeeds as yet another problematic layer in Peter's mental cake. One truly wants Newman's character to help these people to help themselves, which is what this story's about, but you wonder if his hidden misgivings and issues will prove to be fierce opponents to his goal of saving his "team."
I'm generally anti-spoilers, but I have to say this: No matter who you are or how jaded or worried you've become, the finale will stop you in your tracks for at least a few minutes. If you like musicals, see this show. If you like soap operas, see this show. If you like New York City, see this show. If you like love, see Sessions...and see which "character" you are.
In my next entry, look for part 2 (Or would that be act 2?) of this Sessions report, featuring my interview with Newman, in which he discusses how he found himself in Sessions ("I'm drawn to characters, like Joshua, who are broken and at a turning point in their lives"), how he juggles GL and the off-Broadway show, and the intense reactions audience members have had to the production. By the way, Newman appears in Sessions until late August; check out www.sessionsthemusical.com for more information.
If you attend a performance, please feel free to post a comment on it. (The comments below regard a previous blog entry about the Save the Light Rally; click onto page 2 below to read that and my other entries.)