Theater Review: ‘On the Waterfront’ knocks out San Jose

For instance, during the "It's you Charley" scene, perhaps the most famous of all, sitting in the back of the car Moreno delivers the classic lines quite matter-of-factly, "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody."

John Flanagan as Charlie the Gent, Randall King as Johnny Friendly and Johnny Moreno as Terry Malloy in SAN JOSE STAGE COMPANY'S ON THE WATERFRONT.
John Flanagan as Charlie the Gent, Randall King as Johnny Friendly and Johnny Moreno as Terry Malloy in SAN JOSE STAGE COMPANY'S ON THE WATERFRONT.
In Review

On the Waterfront

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars - 'Right on the Money'
The Stage, San Jose
Directed by Kenneth Kelleher
by Budd Schulberg with Stan Silverman
Feb 16 - Mar 13, 2011
www.thestage.org
Review by
John Flanagan as Charlie the Gent, Randall King as Johnny Friendly and Johnny Moreno as Terry Malloy in SAN JOSE STAGE COMPANY'S ON THE WATERFRONT.
John Flanagan as Charlie the Gent, Randall King as Johnny Friendly and Johnny Moreno as Terry Malloy in San Jose Stage Company's On the Waterfront.

With Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront, The Stage in San Jose has done the near impossible: delivered a fresh, wildly entertaining take on a classic. And the team on South First Street has done it with such rip-roaring, hold-no-bars style that if you’re not in on it, I might just need to dig up some brass knuckles.

This production has everything going for it, most notably the performances.

It’s tough to step into legendary shoes. Imagine trying to play the lead in Terry Malloy, the iconic role immortalized by Marlon Brando! Or Edie Doyle, the sweetheart played by Eva Marie Saint in her 1954 big screen debut. It’s heady stuff. Yet the actors here don’t fall into the trap of awakening ghosts of the past, and instead make each of these characters their own.

The show opens with the house lights up, which reminded me of U2’s thrilling Elevation Tour entrance. As the fellas go about their business on the New York docks — an expansive swath of corrugated metal lining the back of the set — it felt immediately right, just like the start of a good concert. Likewise the lighting (Michael Palumbo) and sound (Cliff Caruthers) deserve top marks too for transforming a fairly basic open space into a convincing set.

Johnny Moreno as the has-been, could-a been contender Terry Malloy and artistic director Randall King as crooked union boss Johnny Friendly anchor the production with remarkable confidence and conviction. Each deliver charismatic performances, and at times even dial back the throttle to good effect. For instance, during the “It’s you Charley” scene, perhaps the most famous of all, sitting in the back of the car Moreno delivers the classic lines quite matter-of-factly, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” I’m guessing many a young actor overplays this dialog, over-reaching for drama and getting shallow melodrama in return. Not here. King is also superb, and chews up his scenes. Let’s just say his Keith Richards demeanor and flinty eyed stare are not the kind you’d like to run into after midnight on San Carlos — oh, yes, that baseball bat has a tendency to keep the boys in line too.

Summer Serafin as Edie Doyle and Johnny Moreno as Terry Malloy
Summer Serafin as Edie Doyle and Johnny Moreno as Terry Malloy

There are several standout performances, and I could choose any number of the actors and be equal in my praise. But one scene in particular is memorable, and received raucous applause on opening night this past Saturday. Kalli Johnsson as Father Barry is pitch perfect in channeling ethical spirituality in hopes of convincing that longshoreman that “Jesus is there” and that Malloy should, as is the right of man, testify against the mob.

Fedoras, trench coats, and swagger takes us into the macho, and adrenaline-stoked world of the docks, where innocence doesn’t fare well. There’s dice games, Irish whiskey, talk of dames… and the pigeons. Ah, yes, the pigeons. What a neat little trick or two The Stage has here when it comes to the birds. Let’s just say the actors are fully committed in this regard. It is one of many highlights. And if you think you’ve seen creativity when it comes to the use of chairs, you’re in for yet another clever treat in this new adaptation.

I’m not sure if it was scripted as such, but either way, director Kenneth Kelleher pulls off some inspired blocking (or maybe there’s a proper term for the technique?) by having the actors occasionally not speak to each other directly. It’s almost as if we’re watching multiple camera angles at work. The action is swift, and at just under two hours (with fifteen minute intermission) I never felt for a moment a lag in the pace. To top it all off there’s a thrilling and well choreographed fight scene that puts an exclamation point on the evening.

How fortunate are we to have The Stage downtown San Jose. I recall seeing the Pillowman last season. It’s a dark, horrific piece by up-start Irishman Martin McDonagh. It was fabulous. And now, here we have something completely different in this equally stirring, successful adaptation of a classic. What a night!

On the Waterfront
The Stage
4.5 out of 5 stars
by Budd Schulberg with Stan Silverman
Directed by Kenneth Kelleher
Starring Johnny Moreno*, Randall King*, John Flanagan*, Kalli Jonsson*, Summer Serafin*, David Arrow*, Michael Bellino, William J. Brown III, Tim Hart, Carl Holvick-Thomas, Matt Lai, Michael Moerman
Feb 16 – Mar 13, 2011
www.thestage.org

Photo credit: Dave Lepori.

Noteworthy

  • The 1995 Broadway production was marred with one disaster after another (sound familiar?) and closed after only 8 performances.
  • This new adaptation was written by Schulberg with the help of Stan Silverman. They sought to “dramatically” change the script including fixing what he saw was a “flaw with the rousing final scene.”
  • On the Waterfront (1954) is the only movie in which we can see the Andrea Doria, the Italian liner that sank in 1956 after a collision in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • The film version received eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director
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  • Greg

    It takes a singular type of bravery to produce a theatrical adaptation of a cinema milestone. Since its release in 1954, the iconic “contender” scene, as portrayed by the inimitable Marlon Brandon, has permeated our culture and given the movie near epic status. Is anyone not familiar with that scene?

    Unfortunately, its cultural ubiquity has become something of a mixed blessing. Deprived of its proper context, the original meaning has been diluted nearly to the point of caricature. That’s too bad, because Kazan and Schulberg’s profound tale of moral courage and redemption is a genuine masterpiece. Oh, and by the way, so is this production.

    The brilliant staging elevates the minimalist set design and authentic costuming to a heightened reality reminiscent of a stylized film noir. The characters are in essence prisoners of their own fear, and each element of the production design is fashioned to emphasize that central theme. Credit must go to the visionary direction of Kenneth Kelleher, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to utilize the creative talent at his disposal.

    From the imaginative, artistic lighting to the ingeniously versatile use of cage back chairs as props, the prison bar motif is omnipresent. And the sound design sets the perfect ambiance by featuring the disquieting blare of industrial air horns and the elegiac rhythms of the jazz saxophone.

    I must say, unlike the characters, there’s no evidence the actors were intimidated whatsoever. As Terry Malloy, the beleaguered protagonist originally portrayed by Brando, Johnny Moreno wisely resists any temptation to resort to imitation. Instead, he makes the honest choice of bringing his own signature style to the role and thus succeeds admirably. In fact, his earnest interpretation captures Malloy’s intrinsic ambivalence in a manner that is more true to the naïveté of the character.

    Summer Serrafin, the sole female cast member, initially strikes an appropriately dissonant chord of East Coast toughness. But when she lets her hair down in a touching acting duet with Moreno, she reveals in both gestures and nuanced vocal changes an appealing feminine vulnerability and youthful innocence. She’s quite good.

    In contrast to her subtle performance, there’s Randall King, as mob kingpin Johnny Friendly, who roars onto stage projecting a masculine persona of powerful malignant intensity. His baritone delivery commands respect, and his craggy, reptilian face and lethal gaze elicit dread. One finds him utterly believable as a man who’s lived a life of violence and mayhem. It’s a stunning performance that eviscerates any memory of Lee J. Cobb!

    Going toe-to-toe with Mr. King is John Flanagan, who as Charlie Malloy must traverse an emotional tightrope between his loyalty to both his brother and his generous, albeit malevolent, boss. He’s exceptional in that he’s confident and smart enough to eschew ostentation and skilled enough to bring an innate integrity and strength to the role. Bravo!

    The remainder of the supporting players are all excellent, most of whom play dual roles made noteworthy by their uniformly purposeful commitment and seamless transitions. Honorable mention must go to the hardworking Carl Holvick-Thomas, however, who tirelessly plays four discrete parts, each unrecognizable from the other. One has to pay really close attention to discern it’s the same actor!

    The only regrettable aspect of the evening was the half-full house. Such apathy is entirely unjustified considering the caliber of talent on display at this venue. I encourage everyone not to miss a chance to experience the vibrant immediacy of local theatre at its best!

    • Greg – great write up (again). Let’s hope word gets out and SJ Stage gets more folks in the house. This one is a real gem. Cheers!

      • Greg

        Thanks! Yeah, it’s a real knock-out! ;-) Oops, I meant Marlon BrandO!

  • Ron

    Like a fine wine…only better with age and new insight…great performance by Mike Bellino!