Friday, June 12, 2009

Tampa Tribune's Review of Tuesdays with Morrie

'Morrie' brings a poignant lesson

Published: June 12, 2009

American Stage Theatre Company's production of "Tuesdays with Morrie" is tender, warm and sentimental. The play reflects all the qualities the company has imparted to audiences for the past 30 years. As the first show in the Raymond James Theatre, American Stage's new home, it's the perfect segue for many years more of the same.

In 1997, Mitch Albom published his best-selling memoir "Tuesdays with Morrie," which Jeffrey Hatcher adapted for the stage in 2001.

The story begins with Albom attending Brandeis University in the 1970s. He majored in sociology, in part because of the close friendship he developed with his professor, Morrie Schwartz. Albom promised Morrie he would stay in touch after graduation. He didn't.

He worked as a jazz pianist in New York before entrenching himself in the world of journalism. Albom became a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, a nationally syndicated radio host for ABC and a panelist on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters." He was a busy guy, and then one day he saw his old professor on ABC's "Nightline" with Ted Koppel.

Morrie was dying. He had ALS (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease), and he wanted to teach the world what death was all about. Albom decided to visit Morrie for what he thought would be a final goodbye. It wasn't.

Every Tuesday thereafter, in continuance with Tuesdays' classes Albom took at Brandeis, he visited Morrie in his Massachusetts home. Albom asked questions and Morrie answered them, imparting a legacy of wisdom, love and affection into a tape recorder.

Morrie died in 1995. Two years later, Albom shared his story, which stayed on the New York Times Best Seller List four years in a row.

For the American Stage production, directed by T. Scott Wooten, actors Chaz Mena and Michael Edwards played Mitch and Morrie, respectively. Both were exceptional.

As the young Mitch, Mena was enthusiastic and boyish, full of the promise that Morrie first saw in his student. Mena brought a freneticism to the superstar reporter phase, and later tempered that to accommodate Morrie's slower pace. In the end, Mena emoted a change of heart - an expansion of his ability to embrace life fully, pain and joy included, just as Morrie had done.

Charming, facetious and droll, Edwards' performance was spellbinding. He was so good his character's death was nearly as heartbreaking as losing a loved one in real life. So be prepared to laugh and cry. As Morrie says, "I'm on the last great journey here; and people want me to tell them what to pack."

St. Petersburg Times' Review of Tuesdays with Morrie

June 10: 'Tuesdays With Morrie'

at American Stage

through June 28

By John Fleming, Times Performing Arts Critic

Published Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I don't get it, I really don't. Tuesdays with Morrie — first the book, then the TV movie, now the play — has been this national phenomenon, with a message that is said to have changed peoples' lives. But judging from the current production by American Stage of the play, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Albom's autobiographical book, the vaunted insights of Morrie Schwartz, the dying sociology professor whom Albom spent Tuesdays with, are little more than greeting-card homilies, conventional pieties on the meaning of life and death that you've heard a million times before.

The problem is not the handsome production, directed by T. Scott Wooten, with Chaz Mena as Mitch, the Detroit sports writer, and Michael Edwards as Morrie, who is suffering from incurable ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig's disease. (A popular disease in theater these days, it's also what Jane Fonda has as the dying Beethoven scholar she plays in 33 Variations on Broadway.) Mena and Edwards clearly enjoy each other's company, and that sense of camaraderie is crucial to the play and comes across loud and clear.

Mena is especially good as the driven, self-absorbed columnist on the make, filing stories from the Super Bowl, the Olympics, Wimbledon and the World Series, fending off calls from editors who want the copy now. His portrayal of Mitch's puppyish nostalgia for the carefree utopia of his college days at Brandeis, where he called his beloved mentor "Coach," is affectingly delusional.

Albom has turned death into something of a cottage industry (another of his bestsellers is The Five People You Meet in Heaven), and Morrie is his seminal expert on the subject. But the professor's pearls of wisdom tend to run along the lines of aphorisms like "As you age, you grow" or "It's hard to find your way in life." It's not exactly Samuel Beckett or even Neil Simon.

Edwards, a big, jovial presence, has the thankless task of playing a character who gets progressively weaker as the play goes on, and his death rattles are convincing. Still, Morrie remains remarkably lucid for someone who can't feed himself.

Tuesdays with Morrie is supposed to be about the elderly sage, but it is much more about Mitch and his sports writer's view of the world, in which every episode has a clear outcome, a neat little ending with a moral to the story. It's great stuff on the sports pages, not so great on stage.

There's one good thing about Tuesdays with Morrie, the first production in American Stage's new Raymond James Theatre. Albom's play just happened to be on the schedule when the company was able to move into its new home, and the play's popularity (the theater was full for Sunday's matinee) should introduce a lot of people to this splendid new space.

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at