Sunday, January 16, 2022

Company (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Even knowing the central conceit of director Marianne Elliott’s clever rethinking of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 “Company” -- that is, recasting bachelor Bobby as bachelorette Bobbie -- didn’t prepare me for the marvelously fresh all round approach.


This production transforms “Company” into virtually a whole new show. For beyond the gender switching, Elliott’s staging is consistently inventive, and David Cullen’s new orchestrations give Sondheim’s music a bracing sheen.


The casting is strong. Katrina Lenk makes an appropriately detached but always appealing protagonist facing her 35th birthday at every turn (increasingly large mylar “35” balloons hammer home the point). The major shift of having a woman pressured by her friends to get married brings the show persuasively up to date, along with other cosmetic changes of cell phones and such.


The biological clock is always ticking, and that theme is hilariously illustrated by the “Tick Tock” dance, now a nightmarish vision of what Bobbie’s married future could be. (Liam Steel did the nifty choreography.)


Patti LuPone, the only holdover from the production’s London premiere, gives a wonderfully canny performance. Her Joanne in the PBS “Live from Lincoln Center” concert from 2011 impressed, so it’s no surprise to hear how well she nails “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “The Little Things You Do Together,” and at this point, I think it’s fair to say she owns the role of the hard-drinking socialite as much as originator Elaine Stritch. Her delivery of the “Ladies Who Lunch” to Bobbie now registers as a cautionary lesson.


George Furth’s comic scenes have never played so amusingly, but there’s underlying poignancy as well. When Jamie (formerly Amy) sings his fearful “Getting Married Today” (and Matt Doyle does it superbly at breakneck speed), followed by a nervous conversation with his intended Paul (Etai Benson), the talk suddenly takes a genuinely solemn turn when the depth of Jamie’s love is questioned. It’s a superbly dramatic moment that packs a heartstopping wallop. 


Bobbie observes all of this, along with the concurrent marital bliss and woes of her other married friends Harry (Christopher Sieber) and Sarah (Jennifer Simard), Peter (Greg Hildreth) and Susan (Rashidra Scott), David (Christopher Fitzgerlad) and Jenny (Nikki Renée Daniels), and Larry (fine Tally Sessions at the reviewed performance) and Joanne (LuPone). Apart from Jamie’s gender swap, the couples are played as written, though there’s some up-to-date diversity.


Particular comic standouts include the opening jiu-jitsu scene between on-the-wagon Harry and fitness fanatic Sarah, and the pot smoking between David and Jenny, with the former getting high not his wife as before. Simard and Fitzgerald are particularly delicious in these scenes.


Of course, Bobbie’s three suitors are now perforce male, and the delightful trio “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is another showstopper as performed by Andy (Claybourne Elder, excellent too in the “Barcelona” scene with Lenk), Theo (Manu Narayan), and PJ (Bobby Conte) who does a fine “Another Hundred People,” originally sung by Marta.\




Bunny Christie’s colorful setting -- including giant letters spelling "COMPANY," and at one point “NYC” for this is, after all, a quintessential New York musical, and a series of increasingly cramped “Alice in Wonderland” rooms --  entertainingly lit by Neil Austin with lots of hot neon.


The sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph is exemplary, a rarity these days.


All in all, this rates as one of the very best Sondheim revivals ever. It’s so nice to know that the great man was able to see it before his recent passing. 


(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street; Companymusical.com or 212-239-6200)


Photos by Matthew Murphy


Top: (l.-r.) Patti-LuPone and Katrina Lenk


Below: (l.-r.) Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Katrina Lenk, Patti-LuPone





Thursday, January 6, 2022

Kimberly Akimbo (Atlantic Theater Company)


By Harry Forbes

I didn’t catch the 2003 Manhattan Theater Club production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, but the musical he and composer Jeanine Tesori have fashioned from it is a winner, and is being accorded a beautiful production at the Atlantic Theater Company under the direction of Jessica Stone (choreography by Danny Mefford).


The unusual narrative tells of 16-year-old Kimberly who has a rare genetic disorder that makes her age four or five times faster than normal, with an attendant shortened life span. Though she looks far older, she’s still just a teenager, and that aspect is played most convincingly by the great Victoria Clark. 


Kim is the rational center of a dysfunctional family including an alcoholic father Buddy (Steven Boyer), a dreamy, hypochondriac mother Pattie (Alli Mauzey), pregnant and fearful of another genetically challenged child, and a felonious aunt Debra (show-stopping dynamo Bonnie Milligan). The setting is “somewhere in Bergen County, NJ,” and we learn the family had to leave their last residence after an incident not revealed till the second act. Both Boyer and Mauzey do fine work with their multifaceted characters. 


Kim’s nerdy, anagram-loving, tuba-playing pal Seth (standout Justin Cooley) loves her but is sensitive enough not to force himself on her. Their four classmates, characters not in the original play, provide added texture and comic relief, and they are appealingly played by Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan II, Nina White, and Michael Iskander.


An amusing subplot involves ex-con Debra recruiting the kids for an elaborate check-forging scheme, luring them with the idea they’ll be able to earn the needed money for flashy costumes for their glee club.


Meanwhile, the class is involved in a science project with each team of two asked to research and explain a disease of their choice. Kim plans to do glaucoma, but her project partner Seth persuades Kim to take on her progeria-like condition, a decision that leads to an emotional crisis for Kim. 


The material is sensitively handled all around. There are no villains here, and even Kim’s dodgy family eventually shows its better side. The unspoken love between Seth and Kim is presented with utmost delicacy so there’s nothing to make an audience squirm given the real-life age difference between Clark and Cooley.


David Zinn’s simple sets effectively encompass everything from the ice-skating rink, to the family’s living room, to the school library, all astutely lit by Lap Chi Chu. Sarah Laux’s costumes are spot on for both the characters and 1999 setting.


The score is another feather in the versatile Tesori’s cap, unfailingly tuneful and running an impressive gamut of styles. Lindsay-Abaire, with whom she collaborated on Broadway’s “Shrek” musical, has supplied the astute, above-average lyrics. “Getting older is my affliction, getting older is your cure,” sings Kim at one point.




Music Director Chris Fenwick leads a seven piece ensemble through John Clancy and Macy Schmidt’s excellent orchestrations.


Though Kim’s mortality issues are never glossed over, the show still concludes on a joyful, affirmative note.


(Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street; atlantictheater.org or 866-811-4111; through January 15)


Photos by  Ahron R. Foster: 


Top: (l-r) Victoria Clark (Kimberly) and Justin Cooley (Seth)


Bottom: (l-r) Bonnie Milligan (Debra), Olivia Elease Hardy (Delia), Fernell Hogan II (Martin), Michael Iskander (Aaron), Nina White (Teresa), Victoria Clark (Kimberly), Justin Cooley (Seth), Stephen Boyer (Buddy) and Alli Mauzey (Pattie)



Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Clyde’s (Second Stage Theater)


By Harry Forbes

The dominant and most worthy message which you take away from “Clyde’s” is that everyone deserves a second chance. The play is Lynn Nottage’s hilarious, warm hearted, and deeply moving tale about a Pennsylvania truck stop diner run by a no-nonsense, imperious lady named Clyde who’s done jail time for an unspecified but undoubtedly violent crime. She is ferociously embodied by the remarkable Uzo Aduba. 


The play had its premiere in 2019 at the Guthrie Theater. 


Clyde’s kitchen staff is made up of other ex-convicts, who take fervent pride in the diner’s specialty sandwiches and who, under the leadership of the sage-like Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), endeavor to create their own perfect sandwich. There’s feisty Letitia (Kara Young), a single mom who stole from a pharmacy for her baby’s needed medicine, but also lifted some opioids while at it; Rafael (Reza Salazar) who held up a bank with a BB gun to buy his girlfriend a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel; and newcomer Jason (Edmund Donovan), the only white worker, and a carryover from Nottage’s “Sweat,” who, in a drunken rage at losing his job, attacked someone with a bat.  


Tish and Raf are reluctant to accept the racist-tattooed Jason as part of the team, and he’s slow to take the same sort of pride in his work, but inevitably, he makes a turnaround. Montrellous’ backstory doesn’t come out till late in the play, but when it does, it’s a fitting revelation for such a saintly character. 


It’s been suggested that Clyde is some sort of Satanic character -- and indeed there are some surprising bursts of hellish flame at times when she’s onstage -- but it seems to me that gruff as she is (“I don’t do pity,” she declares at one point), her autocratic rule of the kitchen is an extreme form of tough love. Still, she resolutely refuses Montrellous’s tempting offers to taste his divinely inspired sandwiches, as if doing so would weaken her hardened shell.


Nottage has already proven her impressive expertise in plays like “Ruined” and “Sweat” but “Clyde’s” demonstrates that she’s a master of comedy as well. Her dialogue really crackles. And for all the genuine humor, she never loses sight of the serious underlying theme. Her characters would not be out of place in a Eugene O’Neill play, and they are no less skillfully drawn, and gorgeously acted by everyone here.


We’ve seen food as a metaphor for redemption before, but it’s an ever appealing theme and when Montrellous tells Tish to put the love for her daughter into a sandwich, it touches the heart.


Takeshi Kata’s working kitchen set is a marvel, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and sound designer Justin Ellington have a ball with those fantastical moments when the crew describes their ideal sandwiches in mouthwatering detail. Jennifer Moeller has designed a hilarious series of skintight outfits for the plus size Aduba whose every entrance brings a more outrageous getup. 


The whole has been masterfully directed by frequent Nottage collaborator Kate Whoriskey.


Second Stage has admirably collaborated with various partner groups for weekly thematically related talkbacks with their staff and community members, criminal justice reform advocates, and people with lived experience of incarceration and the criminal justice system.


The final two weeks of the run will be live simulcast starting January 4, and is definitely worth your while if you can’t make it live to the Hayes Theater.


(Second Stage Theater, The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W 44th Street; 2st.com or 212-541-4516; through January 16)


Photo by Joan Marcus: Uzo Aduba, Kara Young, Ron Cephas, Edmund Donovan, and Reza Salazar

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Mrs. Doubtfire (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

If anyone could approximate the late Robin Williams’ peerless work in the funny and heartfelt 1993 film on which the present musical is based, Rob McClure is surely the guy. You’ll recall the film concerned an irrepressible voiceover actor Daniel Hillard, prevented from seeing his three kids after his wife files for divorce, who impersonates an elderly English lady and becomes the children’s nanny to be close to them.


Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book follows the movie script (by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon, based on Anne Fine’s young adult novel “Alias Mrs. Doubtfire”) closely, changing the plot only where the exigencies of a stage versus movie presentation demand (like revising the elaborate birthday party with zoo animals that Daniel throws for his son, triggering wife Miranda’s divorce action). They’ve also smoothed out some small plot elements that might not go over well in today’s #MeToo environment. And there’s more diversity in the casting, too. They also make a point of Mrs. Doubtfire being a Scottish, rather than an English, nanny as in the film, though the accent is the same.


The score by Kirkpatrick and brother Wayne Kirkpatrick (“Something Rotten”) is a mixed bag. There are some very pretty numbers mixed in with other loud and generic ones, not anywhere near as cohesive as David Yazbek’s score for the last based-on-a-film drag themed musical, “Tootsie.”


And speaking of “Tootsie,” I can see McClure getting heaps of awards recognition at season’s end, as Santino Fontana did with the earlier show. 


As Miranda, Jenn Gambatese gives a lovely and sympathetic performance just as Sally Field did in the film, and scores with the regret-filled ballad, “Let Go.” As in the film, the writers are careful to show Daniel’s behavior at the start is so patently obnoxious that one can hardly blame Miranda for filing for divorce. 


There were several understudies at my reviewed performance, including Casey Garvin as Miranda’s old flame Stuart (Pierce Brosnan in the movie), and Alexandra Matteo as a flamenco singer in the show’s climactic restaurant scene where Daniel’s quick change disguise finally defeats him. Matteo’s rendering of the song “He Lied To Me,” mirroring Daniel’s duplicitous actions, was a stitch. It has much the same vibe as the nightclub singer in “On the Town,” bemoaning “I Wish I Was Dead,” to the intense discomfort of that show's Gabey character. Both Garvin and Matteo were excellent. And Mrs. Doubtfire’s cautionary advice to Stuart about staying away from Miranda was well performed by Garvin and McClure in the amusing duet “Big Fat No.” 


McClure creates a quite lovable Mrs. Doubtfire, after letting us hear all the other myriad voices of which he’s capable, and his onstage quick changes are remarkable for their dexterity. He’s satisfyingly similar to Robin Williams (with perhaps a little Dame Edna thrown in for good measure). My only carp was the high pitched, nervous giggle he’d emit under duress as Mrs. Doubtfire. I felt those moments undercut his generally dignified characterization. He’s also touchingly believable as a loving dad who genuinely doesn’t want to be separated from his kids.


The great Brad Oscar assumes Harvey Fierstein’s movie role of Daniel’s gay hairdresser brother Frank, although with some wearisome schtick involving talking louder and louder when he lies. 


Jodi Kimura is amusing as the humorless producer Janet Lundy where Daniel works as a janitor. (That was Robert Prosky in the film, with some now verboten sexist humor.) And there’s the always funny Peter Bartlett as the loopy children’s TV host Mr. Jolly, eventually replaced by Daniel.


Jerry Zaks is a master of comedy direction, but I did feel on this occasion some of his business was a bit too broad. A visit to Daniel’s apartment where Frank and his business partner/husband Andre (J. Harrison Ghee) converges with the child protection worker --- Wanda Sellner (Charity Angél Dawson) -- an occurrence not in the film, strains credulity even for a farce. So, too, the show, in general, occasionally dips into vulgarity in a way the movie seldom did.


There’s been some necessary updating in the script as the show is set in the present. For example, Mrs. Doubtfire now doesn’t just stop the kids from watching TV (Dick Van Dyke reruns), she cuts off the Wi-Fi on their device screens.


The kids are an outstandingly appealing bunch, as were their counterparts  in the film: Lydia (Analise Scarpaci), Christopher (Jake Ryan Flynn), and little Natalie (Avery Sell).


Dawson is solid as her stern role, but her big gospel flavored number “Playing with Fire” is an incomprehensible jumble -- perhaps due, as with so many current musicals, to an occasionally overloaded sound design (Brian Ronan). That number, cleverly choreographed by Lorin Latarro incidentally, has multiple Mrs. Doubtfires popping up like Mickey Mouse’s broomsticks in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section of “Fantasia.” Her opening verse of the show’s final number, “As Long As There is Love,” registers much better, and the song itself is another of the bright spots in the Kirkpatricks’ score. 


David Korins’s scenic design, expertly lit by Philip S. Rosenberg, efficiently covers the San Francisco locale bases from Hillard home to TV studio and points in between; Catherine Zuber has designed a satisfying look for Daniel’s disguise (abetted by hair & wig designer David Brian Brown and and make-up & prosthetics designer Tommy Kurzman), and has fun with the aforementioned faux celebrity parade. 
 

I emphatically disagree with those who have said the central drag premise is dated and out of touch with today’s sensibilities, and perhaps even transphobic. Apart from stemming from a long-standing and grand theatrical tradition, the character of Mrs. Doubtfire is created out of love not mockery. And for those who feel it’s “wrong” for Daniel to carry out the deception in the first place, I think that’s carrying wokeness a bit far.   For all its flaws, the show has a lot of heart, plenty of genuinely funny moments, and an excellent cast, topped by McClure’s bravura performance.


(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street; 212-239-6200 or DoubtfireBroadway.com)


Photo by Joan Marcus: (l-r) Jake Ryan Flynn (Christopher Hillard), Analise Scarpaci (Lydia Hillard), Rob McClure (Daniel Hillard as Euphegenia Doubtfire) and Avery Sell (Natalie Hillard)

Friday, December 10, 2021

Trevor (Stage 42)


By Harry Forbes. 

The very worthy 1994 Live Action Short Oscar winner, "Trevor” (directed by Peggy Rajski from a story by Celeste Lecesne) has now, nearly three decades later, been transformed into a full length two-act musical.


Book writer and lyricist Dan Collins and composer Julianne Wick Davis have taken the story of a 13-year-old boy with a Diana Ross obsession coming to terms with his sexuality, and capably fleshed it out while remaining true to its source material.


The time is 1981. Trevor knows he’s somehow different, though the term “gay” isn’t used as overtly as in the film. But his love of show tunes, dancing, and Diana Ross have definitely branded him as “weird.” 


The Ross hits heard on the soundtrack of the film now are performed as a fantasy version of the lady herself by Yasmeen Sulieman. She makes appearances throughout the show in young Trevor's imagination. All the big hits are heard, at least in part, from “Endless Love” to “I’m Coming Out.”


Trevor's love of musicals afforded Collins and Davis further musical opportunities. In the film, there was merely a brief scene of Trevor rehearsing the school’s play club with the song “Anything Goes.” 


Here Trevor is able to convince the junior high football team to let him choreograph a real showbiz number with hats and canes (“One/Two”) for the annual talent show, rather than the team’s traditional goofy appearance in tutus. The team’s popular player Pinky (Sammy Dell) has improbably taken Trevor under wing, unaware that Trevor is developing a crush on him, and persuaded his mates that they should cooperate.


Meanwhile, schoolmate Cathy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) is hopelessly enamored of the uninterested Trevor, while his friend Walter (Aryan Simhadri) is deeply smitten with Cathy. And then there’s Trevor’s friend Frannie (Isabel Medina) who, in turn, has a crush on Pinky. Wanting to be perceived as “normal,” Trevor decides to take Cathy to the Quality Courts, a local makeout place, on a date night with predictably unsatisfying results for the lovelorn girl.


All along, Trevor keeps a diary in which he reveals his feelings about Pinky. When it falls into the wrong hands, Trevor becomes the target of cruel bullying, especially by Jason (Diego Lucano) and Mary (Echo Deva Piconi). The circumstances of the diary coming to light are rather more dramatic here than in the film wherein the parents just happen to find it, and forthwith set him up for a talk with the local priest.


The score is only pleasantly serviceable but at least in a comfortably traditional mode as opposed to the generic pop sound of so many shows today.


Trevor is played by a remarkable 13-year-old named Holden William Hagelberger with a sweet disposition and boundless energy as he’s onstage almost every moment. The kids are, in fact, all excellent, and well directed by Marc Bruni (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and many others). Sally Wilfert and Jarrod Zimmerman are good as his mostly clueless but well meaning parents, with Zimmerman even doubling as the priest. And Aaron Alcaraz scores as an empathetic hospital worker who enters the story towards the end.


Choreographer Josh Prince, who collaborated with Bruni on “Beautiful” has designed some clever production numbers such as the aforementioned “One/Two” and Trevor’s funeral fantasy that opens the second act (“Your Life is Over”).


Donyale Werle’s scenic design encompassing various locals including the school and Trevor’s home (brightly lit by Peter Kaczorowski), and Mara Blumenfeld’s flashy costumes all look spiffy at the spacious, almost Broadway-size Stage 42 theater. (I hadn’t been there in a while, and it was good to see those wonderful posters and photos of historic Shubert productions still adorning the public spaces there as they did when the venue originally opened as The Little Shubert.)


We’ve lately seen a lot of these alienated teenager shows (e.g. “Mean Girls,” “Dear Evan Hanson,” “The Prom,” “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”) so there’s an undeniable sense of deja vu here.


But a commendable ancillary benefit to “Trevor” is that it may raise youngsters’ awareness of The Trevor Project which was created after the film with a mission of ending suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer 
& questioning young people.


(Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street; trevorthemusical.com or 212-239-6200)


Photo by Joan Marcus: Holden William Hagelberger, Sammy Dell in Trevor.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Trouble in Mind (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

The revival of African American writer/actress Alice Childress’ 1955 Obie-winning Off-Broadway play receives its long awaited and welcome Broadway debut courtesy of the Roundabout. The play had been slated for Broadway in 1957 with a new title “So Early Monday Morning,” but one of the producers wanted the ending changed (i.e. allegedly softened for white sensibilities) and Childress, after several attempts at rewriting, finally decided to withdraw the play.


As a result, Lorraine Hansbury’s “A Raisin in the Sun” would have the distinction of being the first play by a female African-American playwright on Broadway.


The work concerns a multi-racial cast mounting an anti-lynching play called “Chaos in Belleville.” We observe through the course of rehearsals the inherent racism of Al Manners (Michael Zegen), the well-intentioned but dictatorial and condescending Hollywood director making his Broadway debut. Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze), a veteran of many “Mammy” roles, is hired to play the mother of the lynching victim in the play-within-the-play. 


As rehearsals progress, Wiletta’s dissatisfaction with how the play is written and directed comes increasingly to the fore, leading to her powerful outburst in the second act which is the play’s highlight. 


The other black characters in the play are the sassy Millie (Jesica Frances Dukes), veteran Sheldon (Chuck Cooper), and relative novice John (Brandon Micheal Hall). In an early scene, Wiletta gives John a primer on how to act around white people in the theater (e.g. laugh at their unfunny jokes, reveal nothing about one’s education, etc.). In Childress’ nuanced writing, it’s interesting that Wiletta’s increasing concerns about the play they are rehearsing are not openly shared by the more passive others.


Of the white actors in “Chaos,” there’s Yale educated Judy (Danielle Campbell), sweet but utterly naive about racism,  and veteran Bill (Don Stephenson), who reveals he’s uncomfortable about openly lunching with the other cast members. Alex Mickiewicz plays Eddie, the beleaguered stage manager, and veteran Simon Jones beautifully plays Irish doorman Henry who shares some lovely empathetic moments with Wiletta in the play’s opening and closing moments.



Given the play’s history and themes, it certainly couldn’t be more relevant to today’s Black Lives Matter and #MeToo environment, though, in fact, the Negro Ensemble Company did it in 1998. And there have been regional productions in recent times, among them: Yale Repertory Theatre, Baltimore’s CenterStage, and Arena Stage, all about a decade ago. Just this year, the play was mounted at the Shaw Festival in Canada, and another production began a limited run at London’s National Theatre this month. 


Under the knowing direction of Charles Randolph Wright, performances are all fine here, though I might have preferred an older actor to play Manners, good as Zegen is.  LaChanze has scored strongly in many dramatic musicals from her Tony-winning role in “The Color Purple” onwards, but this is her biggest non-singing role, and she’s the bright, charismatic center. (In the interest of full disclosure, she does get a brief chance to vocalize.)


Cooper has a particularly strong moment as he recounts witnessing a real-life lynching as a child, though after doing a little research, I was surprised to learn the original lynching monologue was delivered by Millie. But Cooper does it superbly.


For all the production’s excellence, I couldn’t help  but feel the history of the play and its relevant thematic material are actually more intriguing than the play itself which has some static patches. And I didn’t quite buy the silent movie melodramatics of what we see of “Chaos in Belleville.” Would those scenes really have been played so broadly as late as 1955? Wiletta’s principal objection to the scene is having her mother character urge her son to give himself up when that action would mean almost certain death for him. That’s a valid point, but her argument would have been just as cogent without the histrionics.


Still, perhaps that’s the way it was meant to be played. And certainly the ensuing conflict between Manners and Wiletta is a powerful one as when the former rebuts her arguments with “The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen because, one, they don’t believe it; two, they don’t want to believe it; and three, they’re convinced they’re superior.”


Arnulfo Maldonado’s backstage set, Emilio Sosa’s period costumes, Kathy A. Perkins’s lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design are all excellent.


(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 Street; roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300; through January 9)


Photos by Joan Marcus:


(Top) Brandon Micheal Hall (John Nevins), Jessica Frances Dukes (Millie Davis), Michael Zegen (Al Manners), LaChanze (Wiletta Mayer), Chuck Cooper (Sheldon Forrester)


(Below) LaChanze (Wiletta Mayer) and Simon Jones (Henry)



Friday, December 3, 2021

Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

For its first mainstage show post-pandemic, the York has mounted a surefire crowd pleaser: a breezy, utterly delightful overview of the great composer/lyricist Irving Berlin’s made-for-Hollywood output. 


And though the show’s title references one of Berlin’s most familiar standards, show buffs needn’t worry that the songs will be selected from his oversaturated greatest hits. The creators have wisely provided a good deal of rare material to keep things interesting. And even the better known songs -- performed as well and cleverly as they are -- sound freshly minted (thanks to Fred Lassen’s vocal arrangements and orchestrations and Rob Berman’s dance arrangements). The result is just about the finest musical playlist of any show currently in town. 


Instead of “Easter Parade” from the film of the same name, for instance, we get “Drum Crazy” and “Better Luck Next Time.” Instead of “White Christmas” from the 1954 film, we hear three other numbers. From the lesser-known 1939 Sonja Henie vehicle “Second Fiddle,” the band does “When Winter Comes” and four of the cast do “I Poured My Heart into a Song.” There’s even a song intended for the 1960s-era film “Say It With Music” that was unfortunately shelved when MGM changed management. 


“Cheek to Cheek” skips over the film adaptations of his stage work, so don’t expect “Annie Get Your Gun” or “Call Me Madam,” and I take that as a further plus.


Under the ever creative guidance of director/choreographer Randy Skinner, who also conceived the show, nearly every number takes flight. Over a decade ago, Skinner worked magic in similar territory when he choreographed the Broadway production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.”


And with six immensely likable performers -- Phillip Attmore, Jeremy Benton, Victoria Byrd, Kaitlyn Davidson, Joseph Medeiros, and Melanie Moore -- equally adept at singing and dancing, the fast-paced 80 minute show flies by. There are so many showstoppers and the cast is so uniformly good that it’s almost impossible to single anyone out. 


But just a few highlights: Bird offers a lovely “Reaching for the Moon” cut from Berlin’s first film in 1930, and returns late with other nicely vocalized ballads. Attmore and Benton have an exciting go at Ethel Merman’s “My Walking Stick” from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Medeiros and Bird lead the company in the wittily choreographed “Back to Back” from “Second Fiddle.” Moore scores with a lovely “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” and pairs winningly with clarion-voiced Attmore for “The Piccolino.” Davidson and Benton beautifully handle the revue’s title song “Cheek to Cheek’ with Davidson delivers a touching solo, “ Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and Benton offering a heartfelt “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For.” Medeiros makes several bespectacled appearances as Berlin and has a nice solo moment with the Oscar-nominated “Change Partners.” 


Expert book writer Barry Kleinbort ties the numbers together with just enough interesting narrative to tell Berlin’s story in unhackneyed fashion. Never bogging down the musical proceedings, he peppers the script with interesting facts such as Berlin’s negotiating control of how his songs were used, a percentage of the gross, and eventually title billing as he went from United Artists to RKO to Fox to MGM, and so on, and lightly touching on personal matters such as Berlin’s devotion to family and his bouts of depression.

The show plays out beautifully on the St. Jean’s stage, roomier than the York’s regular venue at St. Peter’s which is currently being restored after a major flood. York Artistic Director James Morgan has designed an attractive paneled set, lighted by Jason Kantrowitz, allowing for historic projections while the six band members, including Music Director David Hancock Turner, sounding quite wonderful, have a spacious performing space upstage. 

Nicole Wee’s costume designs are attractive and danceable, and the unobtrusively satisfying sound design is by Julian Evans.

(Theater at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street; OvationTix.com or (212) 935-5820; through January 2)


Photos by Carol Rosegg:

(Top): (left to right) Joseph Medeiros, Victoria Byrd, Phillip Attmore,Melanie Moore, Jeremy Benton, Kaitlyn Davidson.

(Below): (left to right) Joseph Medeiros, Melanie Moore,Jeremy

Benton, Kaitlyn Davidson, Phillip Attmore.