Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Collaboration (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Anthony McCarten, who’s written solid screenplays based on real-life personages (e.g. “The Two Popes” (Benedict XVI and Francis), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Freddie Mercury), “The Theory of Everything” (Stephen Hawking), and theater pieces like the current Neil Diamond bio, “A Beautiful Noise,”  turns his pen to the art world and the unlikely seeming pairing of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat who, in 1985, joined forces for a well-publicized art show suggested by the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger who represented both of them. 

The play, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Old Vic,  comes to MTC after a successful run at the London venue.

The conflict between the two artists is not, frankly, hugely compelling, despite McCarten and Kwei-Armah's efforts. On the one hand, there’s Basquiat trying to persuade Warhol, who had not been brush painting for years (using the silk screen process instead), to pick up his brushes again, And, on the other, there's Warhol who's infinitely more interested in filming the reluctant Basquiat at work. There’s more drama in the second act than the first, when Basquiat’s former girlfriend (the excellent Krysta Rodriguez in a small but lively role) bursts in needing money for rent and an abortion, and a friend of Basquiat’s, Michael Stewart, a fellow graffiti artist, lies near death in the hospital after being pummeled by police. Basquiat is deeply haunted by the thought that it could just as easily have been him.

There’s some understandable dramatic license in his script. For one thing, each of the men knew and admired the other, whereas the script has it that Bischofberger (a very amusing Erik Jensen) needed to use all his skills of manipulation to get the two to work together. Basquiat craved fame and recognition as much as Warhol, though there’s a sense in the script that he disdains Warhol’s commercialism. Still, the fundamental dynamics between Warhol and Basquiat ring true: respect mixed with envy on Warhol’s part, and a vastly different world view. 

Of rather greater import than the narrative of the play itself are the dynamic performances of Bettany and Pope. Bettany grows more interesting with each new project; he’s developed into such a fine character actor, and gives a highly convincing impersonation of Warhol. Pope is currently generating well-deserved buzz for his film, “The Inspection,” and here returns to the scene of his Tony-nominated MTC triumph in “Choir Boy,” with a highly charged turn. These versatile actors are reason enough to see the play. 

Anna Fleischle’s sensible set design, flashily lighted by Ben Stanton -- including the artists’ studios -- allows for Duncan McLean’s Basquiat/Warhol-inspired projections to fill the walls.  Given Warhol and Basquiat’s unique hair styles, I should acknowledge the good work of Karicean “Karen” Dick and Carol Robinson, the production’s wig designers. 

Lastly, a sidebar carp: this is the latest in an unfortunate trend of the audience entering the theater to an assault of loud music -- or, in the case of “Ohio State Murders” -- other amplified sounds. Whether the purpose is scene-setting -- in this case, a Studio 54 vibe -- or creating an immersive experience, it’s a needlessly abrasive and alienating gimmick. “Topdog/Underdog,” “Ain’t No Mo’,” and even the Public’s revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” for heaven’s sake, have all recently employed this irritating device. 

(Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200; through February 11)

Photo by Jeremy Daniel: (l.-r.) Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Merrily We Roll Along (New York Theatre Workshop)

By Harry Forbes

The latest revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 Broadway failure proves, yet again, that the work, adapted by George Furth from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is -- divorced from Hal Prince’s original misguided staging with its hugely talented but as-yet-unseasoned cast of young people wearing sweatshirts -- an eminently viable one, with a pearly and highly accessible score. 

New York Theatre Workshop’s production is essentially a reworking of the one director Maria Friedman mounted in London’s Menier Chocolate Factory (later moved to the West End and streamed) in 2012. Here, it’s ideally cast with Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez as the three bosom buddies -- composer Franklin Shepard, playwright/lyricist Charley Kringas, and novelist/theater critic Mary Flynn respectively --  whose deep friendship ends in tatters because of composer Frank’s selling out for success, and his weakness for the femme fatale wife Gussie (Kyrstal Joy Brown) of his producer Joe Josephson (superb Reg Rogers).  

Of course, as the script moves backward in time -- with its score cleverly constructed in like manner so that reprises of songs come before we hear the full number -- the acrimonious and downright ugly outbursts of the opening scene give way to the joyous optimism of youth. And the show does perforce end happily, even as we’re poignantly aware of what’s fated for the future.

Groff sings beautifully, but every bit as impressive as his vocalizing is his mature dramatic performance, displaying impressive gravitas throughout and youthening convincingly from the shallow Hollywood power player to the idealistic dreamer of the earlier scenes. 

The same is true for Mendez whose vitriolic drunken outburst in the early party scene gives way to the empathetic, hugely likable friend who inwardly pines for Frank. But Frank, in turn, will fall in love with Beth (Katie Rose Clarke), and then abandon her for Gussie. 

Radcliffe goes from strength to strength with each new stage appearance. After his starring role in “How To Succeed in Business” revival in 2011, it’s no surprise he can sing but here, he convincingly captures the likability and snowballing frustration as he helplessly watches Frank repeatedly make the wrong choices. He forcefully nails the anger of his raging “Franklin D. Shepard” number. 

Now truthfully, every one of the revivals I’ve encountered since the premiere -- York in 1994, Encores in 2012, and Fiasco in 2019, and even an early barebones basement production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival -- has demonstrated the show’s dramatic and musical strengths. But good as they all were, this one may be the best of all, anchored as it is by such a well played depiction of Frank, Charley, and Mary’s friendship. It makes their eventual dissolution all the more of a gut punch.

Friedman, who played Mary in the 1992 Hampstead Theatre production in Leicester, clearly knows the material inside and out, and directs with a sure hand. 

Soutra Gilmour’s set design is mostly functional for the myriad scene changes) but, augmented by Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting, it works effectively. Gilmour’s costumes are period perfect as the action backtracks from 1980 to 1958.

Music Director Alvin Hough, Jr. leads a nine-piece band in a satisfying reduction of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration, boosted by Kai Harada’s sound design.  (Catherine Jayes is music supervisor.) The big numbers like “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Our Time,” and “Old Friends” all receive splendid treatment, and the lesser known ones such as “Growing Up,” “It’s a Hit!” and “The Blob” play more effectively than ever. 

The coming Broadway transfer of this sterling revival will perhaps put to rest once and for all any notion of the show being in any way Sondheim’s problem child. 

(New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street;; through January 22)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Some Like It Hot (Sam S. Shubert Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The 1972 Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical “Sugar” -- based, like the current offering, on Billy Wilder’s riotous 1959 film -- had its pleasures, but truthfully the score was not top drawer for either gentleman. Still, thanks to the amusing performances by Robert Morse, Tony Roberts, and Cyril Ritchard and Gower Champion’s slick direction, it eked out respectable runs here in the U.S. and elsewhere. (Tommy Steele headed a 1991 UK revival with a revamped script and playlist.) A domestic revival with the film’s Tony Curtis playing millionaire Osgood Fielding, Jr. got some traction in 2002.

But the new version -- with its tuneful 1930’s pastiche score by the “Hairspray” team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman -- is a crowd-pleasing winner all the way. With a wonderfully astute book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, which cleverly skirts any current wokeness pitfalls, but does so in a refreshing, understated way, this version comes out way ahead. 

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps things moving and dancing non-stop, faltering only in a protracted chase sequence near the end which simply goes on too long. And the diverse cast creates their own magic. 

Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee are Joe and Jerry, the Prohibition era musicians who don drag attire to avoid the mob boss (Mark Lotito) who knows they witnessed a rubout (though not, as in the original, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre). They join the all-girl band led by Sweet Sue (a show-stopping Natasha Yvette Williams). 

Joe (now Josephine) falls hard for Sugar (the Marilyn Monroe character now embodied by the appealing Adrianna Hicks who makes the role her own). Jerry (now Daphne), for his part, finds the impersonation suits him to a tee. So when he catches the eye of millionaire Osgood (hilarious Kevin Del Aguila), the match is delightfully plausible. When Joe woos Sugar out of drag, he affects an amusing German accent rather than the Cary Grant impersonation of Curtis in the film.

The score contains one tuneful number after another, and each character given multiple chances to shine. From Sugar’s bluesy  “A Darker Shade of Blue” to Osgood’s “Fly, Mariposa, Fly” to Joe’s “He Lied When He Said Hello,” and just about everything Sue belts out. But the biggest hand of the evening goes to Daphne’s self-revelatory soliloquy, “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather,” which brings down the proverbial house.

I may be alone in this but, throughout the show, I kept hearing the strains of the Burton Lane-Frank Loesser song “The Lady’s in Love With You.” I don’t know if that was mere coincidence or some kind of subtle homage, but that song was introduced in the  Bob Hope 1939 film called “Some Like It Hot.” not related to the Wilder movie at all. There are, as well, echoes of previous Shaiman tunes like "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" from "Hairspray."

Scott Pask’s sets, Gregg Barnes’ costumes, and Natasha Katz’s lighting are solidly flashy and top-drawer Broadway quality as you’d expect. But Brian Ronan’s sound design was pitched way too loud for the musical numbers. With material as strong as this, there’s no reason to artificially pump up anyone’s adrenalin. At my performance, several friends sitting in different parts of the house complained they couldn’t make out the lyrics as the sound was so overloaded. 

This is an increasing problem with musicals these days, but it’s especially puzzling for a throwback score such as this. 

Anyone curious about Jule Styne’s “Sugar,” incidentally, will get the chance to make a comparison when the plucky J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company revives it in April at its Theatre Row venue. 

(Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street;; or 212-239-6200)

Photos by Marc J. Franklin:

Top: (l to r): Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee

Below: Adrianna Hicks

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Downstate (Playwrights Horizons)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a gripping adult drama from Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park”) about four sex offenders -- all of whom have served their time in prison -- now living in a halfway house somewhere in Downstate Illinois. When the play opens, Andy (Tim Hopper), in tandem with his wife Em (Sally Murphy), has come to confront Fred (Francis Guinan) who, as a piano teacher, had abused Andy when the boy was 12, kickstarting the drama into high gear. 

As Andy nervously summons the courage to read the prepared statement articulating the hurt and guilt he feels every day, we meet the other residents: Gio (Glenn Davis), a fast-talking entrepreneurial type barreling over other conversations; Felix (Eddie Torres), a reclusive depressive who emerges from his screened off room only when necessary to use the bathroom or kitchen; and Dee (K. Todd Freeman), a former musical performer who warily watches over the activities in their apartment, and is particularly protective of Fred, now severely disabled.

Eventually, we meet Ivy (Susanna Guzmán), the tough but empathetic probation officer for the residents, who visits to make sure that all the men are abiding by the highly restrictive rules, which include no alcohol, cellphones, internet, or women. And in the second act, Gio comes home with Effie (Gabi Samels), a drug-taking co-worker from the Home Depot where they both work. 

The brilliance of Norris’s work here, beyond the sparky dialogue and compelling arguments weighing matters of justice and retribution, lies in creating characters that defy stereotypes. The perpetrators are not the monsters you might imagine (though their crimes are not for one second minimized), and even the victim, as personified by Andy who eventually shows himself to be hellbent on vengeance, is not as fully sympathetic as he might be drawn in another telling. 

The cast is uniformly superb. In fact, the men all originated these roles at Steppenwolf in 2018, and then London’s National Theatre.

Longtime Norris director Pam MacKinnon directs with an unobtrusively sure hand. Todd Rosenthal’s evocative set -- a dreary, strictly utilitarian residence, realistically lighted by Adam Silverman -- and Clint Ramos’ spot-on costumes are all pitch perfect. 

This is a tough one to watch -- the language is occasionally raw as befits the subject matter, and some may feel that empathy and nuance should be solely focused on the victim -- but the themes are profoundly thought-provoking and the drama never ceases to grip.

(Playwrights Horizons. 416 West 42nd Street;; through Dec. 30)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Francis Guinan, Sally Murphy, Tim Hopper

Thursday, December 1, 2022

& Juliet (Stephen Sondheim Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s an often witty and generally clever feminist riff on “Romeo and Juliet.” In this telling, William Shakespeare's strong-willed wife, Anne Hathaway, strenuously objects to the original ending of the play and insists that after Romeo dies, Juliet ought to survive and have a happy life free from the strictures of the male dominated Verona. What ensues is a marital battle of quills, as the action plays out before us.

This happens to be a jukebox musical loaded with familiar top 40 hits by the producer/songwriter Max Martin and various collaborators (sharply orchestrated and arranged by Bill Sherman). So we hear familiar chart-busters from the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Bon Jovi, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson, among others.

That utterly incongruous and anachronistic juxtaposition of contemporary song and Elizabethan era script make for a lot of the fun.

Juliet (Lorna Courtney), in David West Read’s amusing book, is a feisty gal who knows her own mind and decides to buck her parents Lord and Lady Capulet (Nicholas Edwards and Veronica Otim) and hit the road with her sassy nurse Angélique (a delightfully sharp-tongued Melanie La Barrie), and non-binary BFF May (touching Justin David Sullivan).

As Will (Stark Sands) and Anne (Betsy Wolfe) argue about the script, they themselves assume characters in the play: Will as a coachman and Anne as Juliet's worldly-wise older girlfriend April. 

Off they flee to Paris, crash a party hosted by rich kid François (Philippe Arroyo) whose stern father Lance (Paolo Szot in a delightfully wacky change of pace) wants the boy to wed or face life in the military. But (wouldn’t you know?) it’s attraction at first sight for the conflicted François and May and…well, you can guess the rest.

I suppose it’s only a tiny spoiler to reveal that Romeo does, in fact, make a second act appearance but, in this telling, it’s not necessarily a sure bet that he’ll reconnect with his former bride. (He was played by strong-voiced Daniel Maldonado at my performance, subbing for Ben Jackson Walker.)

Read’s book is a politically correct mélange of female empowerment, gay pride and identity, presented in a light-hearted, audience-pleasing manner. The show mixes elements of “Six,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Something Rotten.”

Southa Gilmour’s set is a colorful delight of flashing lighting effects, moving platforms, and air-borne set pieces. Paloma Young’s costumes are cheekily 16th century with a modern-day twist.

Lauren Courtney, in a stunning Broadway debut, raises the roof more than once with her powerful vocals and great stage presence. She has great comedic timing, and this is a real star-making performance.

Sands and Wolfe are strong as the battling Shakespeares, with Read’s script giving them some humorously sharp ripostes. All get their opportunity to shine vocally.

Szot, in a delightfully silly departure from his roles at the Met and as Emile DeBeque in “South Pacific,” really lets down his hair particularly in a second act boy band number, and he and La Barrie make a wonderfully daffy pair. (It turns out Lance and Angélique had a thing years before.)

The show opened in Manchester and then London’s West End in 2019 winning three Olivier Awards and it continues to run at the Shaftesbury Theatre there. If the reaction of the audience at my performance was any indication, I predict it will enjoy a comparably healthy run here.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 123 West 43 Street;

Photos by Matthew Murphy: (top) (l.-r.) Melanie La Barrie and Lorna Courtney

Below: (l.-r.) Stark Sands and Betsy Wolfe

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Rat Trap (Mint Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

Noel Coward’s first substantive play -- written when he was 18 but not produced for several years later (and then at Hampstead’s Everyman Theatre for a limited fringe run, rather than London’s West End) after he was a firmly established playwright -- is finally enjoying its American premiere courtesy of the adventurous Mint. (There had been a 2006 revival at London’s Finborough Theatre.) 

Though not in the same league as most of Coward’s later work, and not a comedy, in spite of some choice epigrams here and there, there’s much to admire in the young Coward’s precocious skill and talent. And the production will, of course, be of great interest to Coward and serious theater buffs. 

Coward himself delivered a clear-eyed assessment in the forward to one of his Play Parade compilations: "It is not without merit. There is some excruciatingly sophisticated dialogue in the first act of which, at the time, I was inordinately proud. From the point of view of construction, it is not very good, except for the two principal quarrel scenes. The last act is an inconclusive shambles…”  Yet, he fervently wished he could see a production of it, especially as he had been out of the country even for the Hampstead premiere. 

Those remarks are a bit harsh but, on the whole, accurate based on the creditable and enjoyable Mint production, smartly directed by Alexander Lass.  

The story concerns promising young novelist Sheila (Sarin Monae West), who’s already penned one bestseller, newly married to Keld (James Evans), a budding playwright, harboring the notion that they will nurture each other’s efforts in blissful harmony. Sheila’s observant friend and roommate Olive (Elizabeth Gray) is highly skeptical, and indeed her misgivings prove prescient when, six months later, the self-absorbed Keld becomes unpleasantly irritable at every domestic interruption from the stolid maid Burrage (a scene-stealing Cynthia Mace), and now not at all tolerant of Sheila’s writing efforts. He expects her to handle all the domestic details like a good wifey. 

The situation would seem to suggest a boldly feminist point of view, and for a while, Coward continues on that track. But all that comes to naught in that weak final act and denouement. 

Adding some levity and a different perspective to Sheila and Keld’s domestic strife are the secondary characters of Naomi (Heloise Lowenthal) and Edmund (Ramzi Khalaf), she a novelist and he a poet, who live in unmarried “sin” and harmony. Edmund was played in the original production by Raymond Massey.

There’s also a troublesome ex-Gaiety girl Ruby (amusing Claire Saunders) who has a part in Keld’s play and continues to badger him for more roles. She was originally played by Adrianne Allen who, a few years later, would marry Massey, and out of that union would come actors Daniel and Anna Massey. Their messy divorce 10 years later made headlines. But I digress.

The Mint’s cast, admirably and unobtrusively diverse, is quite capable, British accents are good, and everyone seems to have the measure of their role. West creates a very sympathetic portrayal of Sheila. Gray is especially solid as the wiser older friend. Though overall Evans is well cast in his role, his peevish outbursts in the second and third acts go beyond the realm of irritability and register as borderline psychotic, but it’s difficult to know whether the script would allow for a more nuanced interpretation. 

Khalaf and Lowenthal perform an interpolated Coward number, “Forbidden Fruit,” the playwright’s first important song, and just to close the historical loop, sung by Daniel Massey (as Coward) in the Gertrude Lawrence biopic “Star!” But the interlude is superfluous.

Vicki R. Davis’s set, Christian DeAngelis’ lighting, and Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes are all pleasing.

Props to the Mint for doing this Coward rarity, and here’s hoping they exhume more of them.

(Mint Theater Company, 131 West 55th Street or 212-581-1212; through December 10)

Photos by Todd Cerveris: 

Top: (l. - r.) Sarin Monae West and James Evans 

Below: (l. - r.) Heloise Lowenthal, Claire Saunders and Ramzi Khalaf 

Monday, November 14, 2022

A Man of No Importance (CSC Repertory)

By Harry Forbes

The first mainstream New York revival of the 2002 musical created by Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Terrence McNally (book) is a lovely one, perfectly suited to the cozy CSC stage. The original production at the (also intimate) Mitzi Newhouse Theatre starred the late Roger Rees in the role of an Irish bus conductor played, in turn, by Albert Finney in the 1994 non-musical film. 

This time around it’s Jim Parsons as Alfie Byrne, the closeted gay man in 1964 Dublin, harboring a secret crush on Robbie, the handsome bus driver on his daily route (played by A.J. Shively, so good in last season’s “Paradise Square”). Alfie is a theater buff who reveres Oscar Wilde as Ireland’s greatest playwright. And he runs the local theater group -- the St. Imelda’s Players in the local church hall -- with all his bus regulars taking enthusiastic part. 

They’ve played all the Wilde comedies, but now Alfie has his sights set on the atypical Wilde drama, “Salome.” When newcomer Adele (pure-voiced Shereen Ahmed), a shy young woman, takes the bus one day, Alfie is sure he’s found his ideal Salome. 

Alfie lives with his unmarried sister Lily (Mare Winningham) who, completely in the dark about her brother’s sexuality, continues to hope that he will find the right girl. She, in turn, is being courted by the local butcher Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), The Players’ leading man.

CSC has assembled an excellent company that compares well with the original cast. Besides those mentioned, there’s Alma Cuevo (as Oona Crowe), Kara Mikula (Mrs. Curtin), Da’Von T. Moody (Bretin Beret), Mary Beth Peil (Mrs. Grace), Nathaniel Stampley (Father Kenny), Jessica Tyler Wright (Mrs. Patrick), Joel Waggoner (Ernie Lally), and Williams Youmans (Baldy O’Shea).

The thrust stage is, as always, an involving setting, and director John Doyle has his cast make full use of the aisles and stairs. As you might expect with Doyle at the helm, yes, several members of the cast play their own instruments which, on this occasion, seems fitting in establishing a sense of community, and, as in the musical “Once,” seems apt for the Gallic setting. 

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s modest but pleasing Irish-flavored score lends itself well to this treatment. There are no outright showstoppers though Robbie’s “Streets of Dublin” (memorably performed by Steven Pasquale in the original cast) gets a fine, rousing treatment by Shively. But hearing the score again, played and sung so well, confirmed its overall quality: the company’s jaunty “Going Up”; Adele’s plaintive “Princess”; Baldy’s wistful “The Cuddles Mary Gave” sung at his wife's grave; 

Parsons, younger than his predecessors in the role, makes the role his own, and reveals a fine singing voice and credible Irish accent. Winningham is also outstanding both dramatically and vocally, after demonstrating her musical chops in the recent “Girl from the North Country.”

Doyle himself created the minimal but effective scenic design lighted by Adam Honoré. Ann Hould-Ward’s period costumes add to the authentic atmosphere, while Sun Hee Kil’s sound design is a model of clarity, Music Director Caleb Hoyer conducts Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations with spirit and sensitivity.


(Classic Stage Company (CSC), 136 East 13th Street;; through December 18)

Photo by Julieta Cervantes: (l.-r.) A.J. Shively, Jim Parsons