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Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Joshua Henry and Anika Larsen
Photo by Ben Strothmann.

French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac is best immortalized in Edmond Rostand's play of the same title, pining for the beautiful Roxane, but obliged to woo her on behalf of another man, Christian de Neuvillette. While silhouette maker Thomas (Joshua Henry) does play a Cyrano of sorts to Hannah (Anika Larsen) in Nils Olaf Dolven and Rachel Sheinkin's (Tony and Drama Desk award winner for Spelling Bee) Serenade, it is poverty and station that comes between them, not a large nose. And, like in Cyrano, another man, Frederick (Adam Kaokept), is primed to profit from Thomas' work and efforts, but only because Thomas' romantic gestures shine a spotlight on his differences to Hannah. Cyrano and Thomas both labor in their courting, but neither get to have and keep the girl. But while the ending may work in a romantic French drama resulting in the hero's death, Thomas' denial of a happy ending with Hannah doesn't work in a musical where he lives.

Gleeful and hopeful Thomas arrives in a fictional city at a fictional time to pursue his love of silhouette making after the passing of his mother and former partner. The dramatization of his psychological and metaphorical dreams comes with the introduction of his character in the form of frenetic choreography by Luis Salgado that occasionally borders on the ridiculous. Henry communicates a sense of wonder and naivety that is optimum for this type of role, and his face, flush with emotion, is the substance that musicals are made of. Thomas distributes examples of his work to passersby on the street more out of benevolence than the need to generate word of mouth, but as his bread and butter and the reason for his move, there should be more examples of his artistry onstage. No attempt is made to camouflage the fact that he is handing out black pieces of cardboard, and not the work that he is hoping to make a living on.

Trials that challenge Thomas' optimism and character emerge as he awaits a permit to sell his silhouettes on the street. He's not really qualified to or desirous of doing anything else, so the job offers don't pour in. The rent for his meager apartment (inspired scenic design by Tobin Ost) isn't getting paid, and the pity of the Fruitseller (Ron Bagden) who gives him a freebie once in a while isn't enough to get him by. Times get desperate, but not desperate enough for him not to become enthralled by the beautiful Hannah (impressive and soaring songbird Anika Larsen), a young, reasonably affluent woman with a sick aunt (Eileen Rivera, terse and hilarious) that he first spots on the street. He then proceeds to woo her at all costs with romantic, but thrifty gestures that appeal to her sensitive side, but not her practical one. Frederick (Adam Kaokept), a friend that he acquires through his search for Hannah and the search to find himself, can't help but get enamored with Hannah as well. His one-time aid soon becomes a competitor minus the woes of finances and instability.

The multi-ethnic cast from Jaradoa Theater's first production try hard and work hard, but don't always succeed. As a collective, they lack unity in the choreography, and with the exception of the musical number "Serenade and Response", their vocal harmonies lack fluidity and are not always in sync. However, they do have a heck of a lot of verve. April Nickell's direction allows the cast to dart in and out of scenes effortlessly, with quick scene and set changes that I'm certain was a feat to organize. Some of the lighting choices by Herrick Goldman did not illuminate the action well, but the fault in his design can be attributed more to budget rather than lack of imagination. Although musical numbers by Nils Olaf Dolven such as "Poor Peter" (with a creative back story and staging to match), "Thin Walls", "Any Day Now" and "Quiet Your Eyes" are wonderful, the songs blend into each other too quickly with no time to really consume them. "Fantasy Classifieds" is conceived well in all aspects and performed without a hitch by Henry and Larsen, but it represents only one of the instances where Larsen overshadows Henry with her singing.

Serenade is an earnest effort by Dolven and Sheinkin to showcase a man living without fear despite the associated obstacles. Thomas' carefree ways are debunked by the end for the love of a girl. Despite some attempts at selling his craft, the importance of his silhouette-making remains modest, making his character questionable apart from his romantic pursuits. Still, there is enough raw talent here to predict a successful show once the problems have been addressed and solved.

Through December 15
Teatro La Tea, 107 Suffolk Street between Delancey & Rivington
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix

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