Tuesday, May 24, 2022

International Vocal Competition Winners Shine at Zankel Hall

By Harry Forbes

Winners of the International Vocal Competition took the stage at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on Sunday afternoon, after a hiatus of four years.

The competition, under the auspices of the Gerda Lissner Foundation in association with the Liederkranz Foundation, comprises three divisions: the Lieder Song Vocal Competition, an Operetta and Zarzuela Division and a General Division. The Gerda Lissner Foundation was created in 1991 by Mrs. Lissner, a decades-long Metropolitan Opera subscriber, to provide financial support for young opera singers. In all, $98,500 was awarded in prize money.

The concert’s first half, accompanied by pianist Mary Pinto, began with the Lieder winners which included soprano Yvette Keong’s impassioned rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “To Her,” and an exquisite rendering of Stephen Foster’s chestnut “Beautiful Dreamer.” She was followed by baritone Gregory Feldmann whose warmly expressive baritone shone on William Grant Still’s “Citadel” and Franz Schubert’s “Auf der Bruck.” 

Unfortunately missing from this section because of “covid restrictions” was mezzo-soprano Alma Neuhaus

The first half finished up with what amounted to a mini zarzuela recital, as all three of the top winners in the Operetta and Zarzuela competition chose selections from the richly melodic but (in this country) relatively unknown Spanish operetta genre. Soprano Evelyn Saavedra, characteristically dressed in red with a matching flower in her hair, offered a stylish account of the familiar “De España vengo” from Pablo Luna’s classic “El Niño Judio.”

Charismatic baritone Kevin Godínez followed with a strong “Junto al puente de la peña'' from Jose Serrano's “La Canción del Olvido,” earning an especially rousing ovation. 

And first prize winner in that category, Ethel Trujillo, authoritatively performed two selections, “La Petenera” from Federico Morena Torroba’s “La Marchenera” and “Me llaman la Primorosa” from Gerónimo Giménez’s “El Barbero de Sevilla.”

The program’s second half, accompanied by pianist Arlene Shrut, spotlighted the General Division winners. The set began with, in fact, another operetta selection, “Ô petite étoile” from Emmanuel Chabrier’s “L’étoile.” Shannon Keegan’s warm mezzo sailed over some intrusive traffic noise and she was unfazed by premature applause.

Soprano Teresa Perrotta delivered a forceful “Come scoglio” from Mozart’s “Cosí fan tutte.” with almost mezzo like resonance. 

Baritone Eleomar Cuello, who had just flown in from Spain earlier in the day, was none the worse for wear as he delivered a beautifully vocalized “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt.” 

And finally, top prize winner Eric Ferring, who had just sung Arturo at Saturday’s matinee of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Met, showed his versatility by bringing his sweet high tenor to Des Grieux’s “En fermant les yeux” from “Manon” followed by Handel’s virtuosic “Il tuo sangue” from “Ariodante.”

Throughout the concert, both Pinto and Shrut offered sensitive and incisive accompaniment. 

The occasion was sadly missing two of its mainstays, Stephen De Maio and Brian Kellow, both of whom passed away since the last concert. Both men were eulogized most movingly by the afternoon’s host, Midge Woolsey. “Think of the difference they made in all our lives” she said of De Maio and Kellow. Throughout the concert, Woolsey provided unflagging charm and enthusiasm, introducing each singer and putting their selections in interesting context.

As a finale, all nine of the singers joined forces on the choral “Sunday” number from Sondheim's “Sunday in the Park with George.” A lovely way to wrap up a Sunday afternoon!

As you could hear remarked by the exiting crowd, if what we experienced was any indication, the forecast for opera’s future looks bright indeed.

(Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue; gerdalissner.org; May 22)

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Paradise Square (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Early critical reaction to this epic Civil War-era musical set in New York’s seedy but racially vibrant Five Points district in Lower Manhattan has been rather mixed, but flawed or not, I found it an impressive piece of musical theater with an interesting plot and chock full of talent.

The show premiered in 2019 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and was based on an earlier musical “Hard Times” by Larry Kirwin performed in 2012 and 2014 at The Cell in Manhattan. 

With a generous cast of 40, and an imposing tenement set by Allen Moyer, the book -- co authored by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Kirwan -- centers on a flictional saloon/brothel run by Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), a black woman married to Irish policeman Willie (Matt Bogart) who’s about to go off to fight in the war. (In the Five Points, apparently, interracial marriages were common with free-born blacks and escaped slaves living in harmony with Irish immigrants.)

Willie’s feisty sister Annie (Chilina Kennedy) is, for her part, married to a black Methodist preacher (Nathaniel Stampley), who aids escaping slaves who have come up north on the Underground Railway. One such fugitive is Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont) who resists the preacher’s admonition to continue to safety in Canada until he can be reunited with his love Angelina (Gabrielle McClinton). Nelly agrees to take him in. 

At the same time, Annie’s nephew Owen (A.J. Shively) arrives from Ireland also seeking shelter, and finds himself sharing a room with Washington. 

The villain of the piece is politico Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett) who is hellbent on breaking up the Five Points, and the political clout that an Irish-Black alliance might exert. An unwitting accessory to Tiggens’ scheming is the alcoholic piano player (Jacob Fishel) whom Nelly hires. A more proactive trouble maker is “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis) who has come back wounded from the war, and then resents the lack of job opportunities, especially when rebuffed by his former friend, the Reverend. 

There’s a lot of plot here, but under Moises Kaufman’s accomplished direction, most of it is absorbing, at the same time that much of it is conventional and predictable. 

Jason Howland’s score (lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare) is not especially memorable on first hearing, but certainly more than serviceable, and there are some pearly moments such as Owen’s plaintive “Why Should I Die in Springtime,” as he fears the draft lottery that may soon drag him into the war, followed by the black ensemble’s “I’d Be a Soldier,” in which the Reverend and Washington sing about how their people are not allowed to fight. 

Howland’s orchestrations are lush and, though the music is generally in a contemporary vein, includes some period instruments. 

Nelly’s eleven o’clock number “Let It Burn,” sung as the Five Points is on the brink of destruction, is the show’s electrifying musical highpoint, and Kalukango sings it magnificently bringing the audience to its feet, and is no doubt a major factor in her multiple nominations in the various awards competitions. 

Along the way, there’s lots of dancing -- superbly choreographed by Bill T. Jones -- variations on step dancing for the Irish characters and jazzier moves from the black characters. Ultimately, a dance competition at the saloon pits Washington against Owen, both desperate for the $300 prize money. Both DuPont and Shively prove mightily impressive here.

The cast is outfitted in Toni-Leslie James’ handsome period costumes. And there’s superior work by Donald Holder (lighting), Jon Weston (sound), and Wendall K. Harrington (Projection Design). 

The longish first act seemed to climax at least two or three times before intermission, but I’m not sure what I'd want to cut. In any case, the packed audience at my performance sat transfixed through it all. And the roaring ovation at the end confirmed their seal of approval.

Kirwin’s additional music is said to be inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster which played a more major part of his earlier “Hard Times.” No spoilers here, but let me just say that Foster himself doesn’t figure any too nobly in the story. But then, the real Foster’s time in New York where he died (a possible suicide) is shrouded in mystery.

The show sparked my interest in learning more about the Five Points, and even about Foster himself whose beguiling music has been on my sound system's playlist ever since. (I do rather wish more of it had been retained here.)

The show’s 10 Tony nominations speak to its undeniable quality, suggesting that the show may override the critical carps and emerge a popular hit. 

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Photos by Kevin Berne:

(Top) At center, Kevin Dennis, Matt Bogart, Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, Nathaniel Stampley and the company

I(Below) Sidney DuPont as Washington Henry, A.J. Shively as Owen Duignan and Ensemble

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Suffs (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

First, let it be said that Shaina Taub, who has already composed highly entertaining scores for “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It” for the Public Theater at the Delacorte, is an amazing talent. As if creating the book, music and lyrics of her latest musical weren’t enough, she also plays the leading role of suffragist Alice Paul.

“Suffs,” for so the pioneering suffragists called themselves, tells the story of these early 20th century activists who fought over a period of seven years before the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, banning voting discrimination based on gender.

The narrative traces how rabble-rouser Paul butts heads with Carrie Catt (Jenn Colella) of the National American Woman Suffrage Association over the latter’s (in Paul's view) overly cautious tactics. In retaliation, Paul founds the National Woman’s Party in Washington, D.C. She and her fellow suffragists -- including Paul’s friend Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino), Polish union organizer Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz), young Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi) and socialite lawyer Inez Milholland (Phillipa Soo) -- plan a demonstration just before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, Milholland dramatically leads the protest on horseback. Wealthy socialite and activist Alva Belmont (Aisha de Haas) helps finance their activities. 

For all of these ladies' progressive notions, they fail to see eye to eye with their fellow black suffragists, journalist Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James) and Mary Church Terrell (Cassondra Jones), over the issue of full integration in the march, as societal racism dictates that the latter group march at the back of the procession. This prompts a strong rebuke from Wells who sings of her refusal to “Wait My Turn,” which James sings powerfully.

Wilson (an amusingly unflattering portrayal by Grace McLean in this all-female cast) condescendingly blocks the women’s efforts at every turn. Even the efforts of Wilson advisor Dudley Malone (charming Tsilala Brock), fails to loosen the implacable Wilson. Malone eventually resigns and marries Doris Stevens. The two of them share one of the score's lighter duets, “If We Were Married.” 

It’s easy to think of Taub as the female Lin-Manuel Miranda, and indeed there are similarities to “Hamilton” in the telling of the story and the musical style. Admittedly, “Hamilton” covered a wider canvas of characters and time span, and had greater variety to its musical texture. So “Suffs” feels a bit inflated at its nearly three-hour length. But with its tuneful score and first-rate cast, it’s certainly a worthy musical in every way, not least in popularizing the story of these pioneering women.

Some may remember the 1974 “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation of “Shoulder to Shoulder,” which told the story of the British suffragists Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, and will notice a similar dramatic arc as Alice Paul and her colleagues meet fierce resistance, are imprisoned, force fed when they go on a hunger strike, and eventually, prevail against seemingly impossible odds to get the amendment passed. 

Mimi Lien’s staircase setting -- lighted by Natasha Katz -- makes for a versatile playing area on the wide Newman stage. Toni-Leslie James has designed the excellent period costumes.

At several points, the all cast engages in vaudeville turns which underscore the salient themes. “Watch out for the Suffragettes,” is one such. Wilson’s sardonic “Ladies” is another. The flavorsome choreography by Raja Feather Kelly

Music direction and music supervision of the 12-piece orchestra are in the accomplished hands of Andrea Grody who not only conducts, but plays keyboard. (Orchestrations are by Mike Brun.)

In  spite of Leigh Silverman’s seamless and accomplished direction, and the first-rate cast, some trimming would, as indicated earlier, be advantageous, but “Suffs” is sure to have a future beyond its limited run at the Public.

This is clearly Alice Paul’s theatrical season, as she figures -- in a quite humorous if tangential way -- in Selina Fillinger’s current Broadway comedy “POTUS.”

(Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; publictheater.org or 212-967-7555); through May 15)

Photo by Joan Marcus:

(I.-r.) Ally Bonino, Phillipa Soo, Shaina Taub, Hannah Cruz, and Nadia Dandashi  

Friday, May 6, 2022

Funny Girl (August Wilson Theatre)

 By Harry Forbes

It’s good to have the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical based on the life of Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice back on Broadway after nearly 60 years, albeit with Isobel Lennart’s original book revised by Harvey Fierstein, so not quite the reverential replica of the original in the way that revivals of Styne’s other iconic show business musical, “Gypsy,” tend to be. But Fierstein wisely doesn’t veer too far from Isobel Lennart’s original, and then again, “Funny Girl” is not exactly in the classic “Gypsy” league.

All the original stage songs, except "Find Yourself a Man," are retained, unlike the 1968 movie which unwisely dropped such gems as  “Cornet Man,” “I Want to Be Seen With You,” “Henry Street,” “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?," ”Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” “Who Are You Now?,” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance.” And it’s a pleasure to hear them again. In addition, a restored cut number from the original -- “Temporary Arrangement” (for Nick Arnstein) -- as well as the film version’s title song are thrown in for good measure, too.

The overture, almost as iconic among buffs as that of “Gypsy,” is played complete in Chris Walker’s new orchestration, though to make sure present-day audiences, not accustomed to sitting through overtures, stay awake, the proscenium lights brighten flashily with each trumpet blare. And the sound level here, and throughout the show, is likewise pumped up in the current fashion.

Director Michael Mayer’s production premiered in 2016 in London with Sheridan Smith as Fanny, and was live streamed and recorded on CD. Casting apart, that production was identical to this one, and serves as a blueprint for the way the show is performed and the songs sung. Listen to the CD with Smith, and you’ll hear how her phrasing pretty much mirrors what Feldstein does here.

There’s been much pontificating on social media about the casting of Beanie Feldstein as Fanny; no one but original star Barbra Streisand should play the role, many have opined. They seem not to realize that “Funny Girl” was played with success by countless ladies after Streisand’s original run, including Mimi Hines who took over the Broadway production after Streisand’s departure, and stayed in the show longer than her predecessor. Marilyn Michaels won acclaim in the national tour, and even Barbara Cook, still in her slim ingenue days, played opposite screen heartthrob George Hamilton. Carol Lawrence, Pia Zadora, Debbie Gibson, and others have had their day in the role, too.

However, the fact remains that Feldstein is a most peculiar choice for Fanny. Her plus-size appearance is certainly nothing like Fanny, and her vocalizing of such chestnuts as “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is merely adequate. In fact, at my performance, there were some distinctly sour notes in her otherwise nicely conversational approach to “People.” The later ballads, “Who Are You Now?” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” went much better.

But listen to Mimi Hines on some of the “Funny Girl” items on YouTube, and you can hear that, though she’s no more like Fanny Brice than Feldstein, she vocalizes the songs powerfully. And she was genuinely funny in the role. Some years later, I also caught a memorable production at the Paper Mill Playhouse with Leslie Kritzer highly satisfying as Fanny.

Streisand won the role originally not only because of her prodigious talent, but because of similarities -- both genuine and exaggerated by her managers at the time --  to Fanny Brice. As the years pass, there seems to be less and less effort to play the role authentically. The Fanny of “Funny Girl” may as well be a totally fictitious character, no more like the real Fanny than blond Alice Faye in “Rose of Washington Square” (for which Brice sued and won over similarities to her life story). 

There’s enough of Brice on film and record to allow for verisimilitude in casting and performance Not all of Jule Styne’s score would lend itself to the authentic Brice treatment but surely some of the numbers (e.g. “Sadie, Sadie” and “Rat-a-Tat-Tat”) could be done in the Brice manner. What, I wonder, would Frances Stark (Fanny’s daughter and wife of original producer Ray Stark, who had the final say-so in the original casting), have made of the current portrayal? 

Mind you, Feldstein’s a total pro, and a wonderfully likable performer. Her reading of the songs is intelligent and, like Smith in London, she veers completely away from Streisand’s phrasing and vocal mannerisms. Nonetheless, hers is not a voice that elicits wows. And she doesn’t convey the inherent warmth and sly comedic charm of the real Brice. It’s an OK performance, but it takes a huge suspension of disbelief to accept her as the legendary actual star of stage, screen, and radio that was Brice. 

West End and Broadway leading man Ramin Karimloo -- his part built up in Fierstein’s revision -- makes a dashing Nick, though his “Temporary Arrangement” production number seems like something dropped in from “Guys and Dolls.” The fictional Nick of “Funny Girl” is a complete whitewash as Arnstein, convicted for both wiretapping and bond theft, was still alive when the show was first done, and Lennart had to tread carefully in writing him. 

Jane Lynch makes the most of her role as Fanny’s mother, and is a delight throughout, sardonic and warm-hearted. Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s mentor, is dynamically played by Jared Grimes who taps up a veritable storm (tap choreography by Ayodele Casel), and (with Lynch) stops the show with “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?”

Also beyond reproach are Toni DiBuono and Debra Cardona as Mrs. Brice’s poker-playing cronies Mrs. Strakosh and Mrs. Meeker. Peter Francis James as Florenz Ziegfeld and Martin Moran as Tom Keeney are likewise solid.

Mayer’s an accomplished director and, in all respects, one feels the production is in good hands. There are some “Follies,” the musical-like touches in the staging, as ghosts of Ziegfeld girls dreamily hover in the background as Fanny is thinking back on her life.

David Zinn’s scenic design accommodates the Henry Street tenements, Keeney’s Music Hall, the Brice/Arnstein home, and the Follies cleverly and attractively. 

Ellenore Scott’s choreography enhances Fanny’s breakout “Cornet Man” number, and the second act “Rat-a-Tat-Tat.” 

For all my grousing about the central miscasting, I must confess I enjoyed the show on the whole, as the wildly cheering audience clearly did as well.

(August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52 Street; FunnyGirlonBroadway.com)

Photos by Matthew Murphy:


(l to r): Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice) and Ramin Karimloo (Nick Arnstein


Fanny Brice, 1910


(l to r) Jared Grimes (Eddie Ryan) and Jane Lynch (Mrs. Rosie Brice)

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Mlle. Modiste (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

The ever-enterprising company dedicated to the works of composer Victor Herbert concluded its shortened season with one of his most popular titles, the 1905 “Mlle. Modiste.” This had originally been intended for the company’s French-themed season in 2019/2020, necessarily truncated because of the pandemic.

The musical’s titular heroine, actually Fifi, works in Mme Cecile’s hat shop in Paris. She loves Captain Etienne whose aristocratic uncle, Count Henri De Bouvray, won’t hear of his nephew marrying a mere shop girl. Fifi, originally played by soprano Fritzi Scheff who made a career-making splash in the role, has dreams of being a professional singer. A wealthy visiting American, Hiram Bent, becomes her benefactor. When she returns from England, an established concert artist, to sing at a charity bazaar, she charms the Count and she and Etienne are able to unite at last. 

Neil Gould, in his excellent biography of Herbert, makes the persuasive point that the show was genuinely groundbreaking in its integration of songs and script, and the accurate reflection of societal issues of the day (e.g. class distinctions, the role of women) make the work as innovative, in its way, as “Show Boat” was credited with doing in 1927.

Over the years, the work has had a decent number of airings in New York. It was revived by Light Opera of Manhattan in 1979, and by Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight! In 2006. And this is the third go-round for VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott who first adapted the work for the Little Orchestra Society concert version in 2001 under the accomplished baton of the late Dino Anagnost. Then came another incarnation of the Mott version at Light Opera of New York in 2010. And now the present production which is the fullest account of the score and Henry Blossom’s original script, missing, I think, only some of the ballet music, and the act 2 opening chorus of footmen. 

Soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith, who had previously impressed with Fifi’s three-song medley, including the score’s evergreen  “Kiss Me, Again,” at a VHRP concert, played Fifi and brought vivacity and charm to the demanding role, including her second act showpiece, “The Nightingale and the Star.” The audience echoed the pleasure evinced by David Seatter as Hiram who watched her singing those numbers with genuine admiration. Seatter, who brought his usual dapper appeal to the role, got to sing the pleasing “Dear Little Girl Who is Good,” originally for the minor character of soldier Rene. (Some streamlining and juggling is forgivable as the original production had a cast of 85!)

Susan Case was amusing throughout as Hiram’s provincial wife, scoring vocally in the second act with her comic description of “The Keokuk Culture Club” back home in Iowa.

Mme. Cecile’s son, Gaston, whom she intends to marry off to Fifi, to keep her working in the shop, was well sung by Vince Gover who excelled with the amusing “Ze English Language” sharing some of the song with Mme. Cecile. It was curious to have both Gaston and Mme. Cecile suddenly affect French accents which they had not been using heretofore but it was surely the only way to make sense of the amusing lyrics, a French speaker’s puzzlement over English slang.

Hannah Holmes, subbing as Mme. Cecile for the indisposed Alexa Devlin, did a fine job as both the scheming proprietor and occasional narrator, that device a holdover from Mott’s Little Orchestra Society version.

Christopher Robin Sapp, who did so well in VHRP’s “The Only Girl” last month, had another fine outing as Etienne starting with “The Time and the Place and The Girl” and, in the second act, a superbly delivered comic number “Love Me Love My Dog,” originally Gaston’s. Gaston, in turn, was compensated with the cut character of Francois’ tuneful “I Should Think That You Could Guess.” Matthew Wages as the Count made the most of his one vocal moment, an outstanding and show-stopping “I Want What I Want When I Want It.”

Integrated dancing would not be part of a Herbert show till the 1913 “Sweethearts,” but Christine Hall designed some graceful movements for the musical numbers.  And Mott directed her cast with even greater facility than last month on the new venue’s larger playing area.

VHRP had its usual strong-voiced ensemble, including Stephanie Bacastow, Sarah Marvel Bleasdale, Charlotte Detrick, Mariah Muehler, Alkis Sarantinos, Andrew Buck, Keith Broughton, and Jonathan Fox Powers. And as always, there was expert musical accompaniment from Michael Thomas and the six-member The New Victor Herbert Orchestra (including resident pianist William Hicks), playing a satisfying reduction of the original arrangements.

Mott has already announced the 2023 spring season which will include “The Red Mill” (2/20, 2/21, 2/23), one of Herbert’s most popular, and a fuller version of her previously produced rarity,  “Cyrano de Bergerac” (5/22, 5/23, 5/24)

(The Theater at St. Jeans, 150 East 76 Street; April 26 and 27; www.vhrplive.org or https://vhrp-live.thundertix.com)

Top photo by Jill LaVine:

 “Mascot of the Troop” L-R: Back Ladies Ensemble, David Seatter (Hiram Bent), and Susan Case (Mrs. Bent)

L-R:  Jonathan Fox Powers, Keith Broughton, Sarah Caldwell Smith (Fifi), Christopher Robin Sapp (Etienne), Andrews Buck, Alkis Sarantinos.

Center photo by Sarah Caldwell Smith: 

Sarah Caldwell Smith (Fifi)

Bottom photo from John Guidinger Collection:

Fritzi Scheff, with drum and male chorus, “The Mascot of the Troop,” 1905

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Harmony (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene)

By Harry Forbes

The story of the six-member close harmony group known as Comedian Harmonists - the toast of Germany and elsewhere in the late 1920s/early 1930s, and their dissolution during the Third Reich --  is a fascinating one, and has already been the subject of a 1997 German film, a major documentary, and a Broadway revue. It’s also been a pet project of songwriter Barry Manilow and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman for almost 25 years. 

The musical “Harmony,” in fact, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse way back in 1997, and also had a run in Atlanta and at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre in 2014. The road to Broadway was apparently rocky, but legal wrangling resolved, here it is at last in New York, albeit Off-Off-Broadway at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.

The very fine cast of the present production features, as the Harmonists, Sean Bell (Robert Biberti, who came to the group from the Comic Opera), Danny Kornfeld (Roman Cycowski, nicknamed Rabbi), Matthew Mucha (subbing for Zal Owen at the reviewed performance) (Harry Frommerman who put the group together and served as arranger), Eric Peters (Erich Collin, a former med student), Blake Roman (Erwin Bootz, nicknamed Chopin, the group’s pianist), and Steven Telsey (Ari Leschnikov, nicknamed Lesh, a Bulgarian tenor). Sierra Boggess plays Rabbi’s Gentile wife Mary, Jessie Davidson is Chopin’s anti-Fascist rabble rousing Jewish wife Ruth, and Ana Hoffman is Josephine Baker with whom the Comedian Harmonists once recorded. Andrew O’Shanick does well as a German officer initially sympathetic to the group. 

New to this incarnation of the show is an older version of Rabbi, so called because he had studied to become one, played by Broadway veteran Chip Zien who serves as narrator of the story. Predictably wonderful as Zien is, I felt the framing device was unnecessary and sporadically intrusive. And apart from his strong performance as older Rabbi, he appears throughout the show as various historical personages with whom the group interacted (e.g. Richard Strauss, Albert Einstein, and most surprisingly, Marlene Dietrich).

All the celebrities are drawn very one-dimensionally, and the Dietrich character is a downright unkind and inaccurate caricature of the aging star, not the bright and charismatic Dietrich for whom the group would have served as backup in 1928. Much mockery is made of her lack of singing ability and her rhoticism speech impediment (“w” for “r”). Would this actually have been the case in her native German? In any case, the sight of Zien in drag, cheap gag or not, elicits chuckles.

Manilow’s performance numbers for the Harmonists are reasonable pastiche soundalikes for the type of material the group sang, starting with the opening title song. (And if you’re curious, you can hear plenty of examples of their vocalizing in German and English on YouTube.) The book numbers which constitute the rest of the score are in a traditional Broadway vein, and never less than proficient. On first hearing, the most memorable tunes are Young Rabbi’s “Every Single Day” (powerfully sung by Kornfeld); the wives’ “Where You Go,” sung first by Boggess and then in unison with Davidson; and the concluding “Stars in the Night.” 

Incidentally, Manilow himself has a very nice “Scores” CD of seven songs from the show coupled with some from his other theatrical venture, “Copacabana.” 

The production numbers -- all very slickly and entertainingly staged by director/choreographer Warren Carlyle -- include “We’re Goin’ Loco,” a might-have-been Ziegfeld Follies song for Baker and the Group, that is, if the boys had chosen not to return to Germany after their triumph at Carnegie Hall; and a satirical “Come to the Fatherland” number with the group as marionettes mocking the Nazis’ manipulation. “How Can I Serve You, Madame?” purports to show how the Harmonists first added comedy to its act. Their tuxedos are stolen, and they appear in waiters’ jackets sans pants, and sing their a suggestive number.

The second, more dramatic act, focuses on the conflicts with the Nazis, as a concert is interrupted by racist taunts. (Several of the group were Jewish.) By the looks of the 1997 trailer, there was a similar scene in the German film, too.) 

Production credits are top of the line including Beowulf Boritt’s setting; Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie’s costumes; Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting; Dan Moses Schreier’s sound; batwin + robin productions, inc. video design with panoramic projections throughout. Music Director John O’Neill, who also served as additional vocal and music arranger, leads the 12-piece orchestra. 

Some in my audience were speculating on an uptown transfer. But if that’s in the cards, it hasn’t yet been announced.

(Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust at Edmond J. Safra Hall, 36 Battery Place; nytf.org/ or 855-449-4650; through May 15)    

Photos credit: Julieta Cervantes 

Top to bottom:

Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, Sean Bell

Zak Edwards, Steven Telsey, Eddie Grey, Elise Frances Daniells, Kate Wesler, Ana Hoffman, Sean Bell, Eric Peters

Eric Peters, Blake Roman, Zal Owen, Steven Telsey, Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld

Sierra Boggess and Danny Kornfeld

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Minutes (Studio 54)

 By Harry Forbes

A newly elected city councilman Mr. Peel, a dentist by trade, comes back to the fictional town of Big Cherry after attending a family funeral, and becomes obsessed with the missing minutes of the council’s last meeting held while he was away. And furthermore, he can’t seem to get an answer about what has become of the colleague who seems to have run afoul of the council and is now mysteriously absent. 

Such is the crux of Tracy Letts’ new dark comedy, which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2017, and which started previews here in New York at the Cort Theatre before the pandemic. It has now reopened at Studio 54 with Noah Reid, Patrick on “Schitt’s Creek,” replacing the “cancelled” Armie Hammer, as the curious and increasingly determined newbie. 

The rest of the council is made up of distinguished alumni of Broadway and Steppenwolf all of whom give finely etched portraits of small-town bureaucrats obsessed with trivialities, all the while demonstrating greed, hypocrisy and self-interest. Playwright Letts plays aptly named Mayor Superba who leads the council meeting and blocks young Peel’s attempts to unearth those minutes. 

The official agenda items include veteran Mr. Oldfield’s desire for a choice parking space after his 39 years on the council (a funny Austin Pendleton); passionate Mr. Hanratty’s proposal to redesign the local fountain and make it handicap accessible (Danny McCarthy); and from Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman), the sole African-American on the council, the installation of a “Lincoln Smackdown” attraction at the upcoming Harvest Festival which would feature a martial arts artist dressed as Lincoln. Of considerably more substance is the topic of what’s become of a stash of stolen bikes which have been impounded by the local police. 

Recording secretary Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller) prides herself on her professionalism, and seems the nearest to an ally of Peel, but is no more revealing about the missing minutes than anyone else. Long-timer Ms. Innes (Blair Brown), the council’s grande dame, reads a lengthy prepared statement including several bombshell grievances. The comically disorganized Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy) is a hopeless klutz. 

Mr. Superba is flanked by the clearly crooked Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still) and the insensitive and bullying Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain). And yes, eventually, we do get to see the missing Mr. Carp (Ian Barford who was so good in Letts’ “Linda Vista” a couple of seasons back). 

For all the humor inherent in the council’s deliberations, an ominous thunderstorm periodically wreaks havoc with the town’s electrical grid and the stage is plunged into partial darkness as the lights scarily flicker and dim. There’s extremely realistic work by lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and sound designer André Pluess. And David Zinn’s marvelous set is perfect down to the smallest detail.

Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, who won the 2008 Tony Award for directing Lett’s “August: Osage County” is, of course, superbly attuned to Letts’ worldview and rhythms. 

There’s a hilarious re-enactment by the council members of Big Cherry’s legendary 1872 battle involving marauding Indians and a kidnapped white girl that bears similarity to “The Searchers.” That little set piece within the play earns applause.

Letts is, as we know, one of our finest playwrights, and he has some important things to say here about such hot button topics as racism, white supremacy, and the current vogue for rewriting history. But the comical ineptitude and small town minutiae eventually give way to something considerably more sinister and the play suddenly takes a radical and (intentionally) off-putting tonal shift. I felt this was a dramatic misstep, but on the other hand, try as I might, I can’t come up with any bright ideas about how I’d resolve the play differently.

Flawed or not, the play rates as a major event, well worth seeing.

(Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street; TheMinutesBroadway.com or 212-239-6200; through July 24th) 

Photo by Jeremy Daniel:  Noah Reid (pictured center) with (l to r) Jessie Mueller, Jeff Still, Tracy Letts, Cliff Chamberlain