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Thursday, January 23, 2020

My Name is Lucy Barton (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Laura Linney won unanimous acclaim for her performance in this stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's best-selling book when she performed it at London's Bridge Theatre in 2018, and she’s now justly earning the same kudos for reprising the role on Broadway.

The titular Lucy -- who left her Amgash, Illinois home for New York years before to pursue a career as a writer -- lies in a hospital room fighting a serious infection after an appendix operation. Much to Lucy’s surprise, she awakens one day to discover her estranged mother has traveled all the way there to look over her. Lucy marvels at the bravery of the insular woman making her way there on her own. Her mother ends up staying for five days before departing as abruptly as she came, a pattern that will be poignantly echoed later in the play.

The mother, a plain speaking farm woman, warms Lucy with her presence, but it's clear that she had been an emotionally distant parent. And the father, suffering from PTSD, was even worse. We learn that Lucy and her siblings endured lonely childhoods, with beatings and other punishments part of their life. Lucy, for instance, had to endure being locked in her father’s truck for hours on end, once, traumatically, with a snake. 

As this is a one-person show, Linney plays both Lucy and her mother. Her portrayal of the mother is finally characterized. One starts to feel two people are on stage, as the mother regales her with homespun stories of what the neighbors, like one Kathy Nicely, are up to. 

We do hear of the other people in Lucy’s life, including a particularly empathetic elderly neighbor named Jerry. Lucy's husband is significantly absent at the hospital, but Lucy gets great comfort from a kindly Jewish doctor who faithfully checks on her even on his days off. She keeps in touch with her two young daughters by phone. But the loneliness underneath her upbeat optimism is beautifully conveyed.

Luke Halls’ projection design is outstanding as it shows us everything from the gleaming Chrysler building outside Lucy's hospital room to the aforementioned truck to the green fields of Illinois. Bob Crowley’s spare hospital room set, lighted by Peter Mumford -- Lucy’s bed, a visitor chair, and the window -- are pretty much all but nothing more is really needed. Audience members sit on either side of the stage, as presumably was the case in London. 

Richard Eyre directs with an assured sense of drama, understated though it may be. There’s little in the way of conventional plot, but the narrative is emotionally rich. 

It seems to me that the novel - which I've not read - has been astutely adapted for the stage by Rona Munro. Even with its first-person narrative structure, the play registers as vital drama, and never feels like an audiobook. 

Its 90 intermission-less minutes fly by, and Linney -- in perhaps her most iconic role since she make such a splash as Mary Ann Singleton in “Tales of the City” back in the early 1980’s -- is rewarded with a well-earned standing ovation. 

(Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Monday, January 13, 2020

Jagged Little Pill (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Though I must confess I had zero familiarity with Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette’s lauded 1995 album from which many of the songs in the new musical derive, it still seems to me that “Jagged Little Pill”  is head and shoulders above most jukebox musicals. 

That’s because the songs (music co-written with Glen Ballard with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth) are woven into an uncommonly absorbing narrative fashioned by Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Juno." The story she’s fashioned to fit the songs concerns a well-to-do Connecticut family with a heavy dose of dysfunction. As many of my colleagues have pointed out, there are more issues here than you can shake a stick at -- opiod addiction, rape, online bullying, racism, and much much more -- but even so, I never found any of that excessive, so skillfully does the story unfold.

The show has come to Broadway after a successful run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Not being familiar with the album, the songs had no prior associations, and frankly, I found most of the lyrics nearly incomprehensible -- a complaint echoed by several at my performance -- but even so, the general mood of each number was clear enough. If a character was, say, expressing anger or loneliness, those emotions were powerfully conveyed. Perhaps the audibility issues are a result of Jonathan Deans’ sound design (well balanced in the dialogue though) or perhaps it's just the nature of the louder ensemble numbers. 

The talent on view is exemplary. Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley surpassing all her previous excellent work) is the overreaching mother who has high expectations for her son Nick (Derek Klena) who has just gotten into Harvard (as she just knew he would), leading the boy to feel valued more for his achievements than himself. A car accident has left her hopelessly addicted to painkillers, a fact she conceals from her family, along with another secret potentially even more explosive.

Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding, talented daughter of LaChanze) is the adopted black daughter, a tireless activist for all causes who is secretly involved in a lesbian relationship with her friend Jo (Lauren Patten) until, that is, she meets the cute Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano) at a party. Businessman husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is a workaholic, and neglects the disinterested Mary Jane (aka MJ) for internet porn. When outsider girl Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) is raped at a party by Nick’s callous friend Andrew (Logan Hart), we learn that all is even less ideal than MJ’s Christmas letter, which opens the show, would suggest. 

With all of the high drama, there are lighter moments and humor in the mix.

The songs (some from the “Jagged Little Pill” album along with other Morissette material, old and new) -- and effectively orchestrated by Tom Kitt -- are superlatively performed. But it is Jo’s angry outburst “You Oughta Know” that emerges as the big showstopper and actually stopped the show with a partial standing ovation at the reviewed performance. But other numbers, sonically muddy or not, make an impression such as “Ironic,” which spins from Frankie’s creative writing class; Bella’s “Predator”; Nick’s “Perfect”; Steve’s “So Unsexy”; and Mary Jane’s “Uninvited.” 

Even if the show were devoid of songs altogether, Cody’s book would, I think, make a solid theatrical evening. Director Diane Paulus has worked her usual wizardry to make a cohesive and satisfying evening. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui provides the lively choreography.

Riccardo Hern├índez’s flashy scenic design, Emily Rebholz’s funky costumes, and Justin Townsend’s astute lighting are top-flight.

(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44 Street; or 212-239-6200) 

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Celia Rose Gooding and Lauren Patten

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Inheritance (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The London phenomenon which wowed them at the Young Vic before transferring to the West End has come to Broadway with five of the principals from the London cast. 

Matthew Lopez’s two-part, nearly seven hour drama -- a present day riff on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel “Howard’s End” -- centering around  a group of gay men in upper West Side Manhattan is riveting from start to finish. Though comparisons to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” are inevitable, and “The Inheritance” shares with its predecessor thematic similarities such as the devastation of AIDS, and the same marathon length, the Lopez play is unique.

The story focuses on Eric (Kyle Soller), a lawyer in a spacious, rent controlled apartment and his lover Toby (Andrew Burnap), a novelist and budding playwright whose play is about to receive a Broadway production. A privileged young man named Adam (Samuel H. Levine) comes into their circle, and audaciously suggests that he might be right for the lead role in the play. Skeptical Toby arranges an audition, and Adam lands the part. Before long, Toby is smitten with him, and when he learns that Eric is about to be evicted from their apartment, he callously calls off their impending marriage.

The shattered Eric subsequently befriends Walter (Paul Hilton), an elderly neighbor who tells of how he took in AIDS patients to the upstate house he shared with his life partner Henry (John Benjamin Hickey), a wealthy Republican real estate executive, much to the latter’s disdain, as Henry had wanted the house to be a refuge from all the death resulting from the AIDS scourge of the 1980s. Before his death, the ailing Walter leaves a scribbled note saying he wants Eric, in whom he discerns a kindred spirit, to have the house, but after his passing, Henry and his two grown sons choose to ignore Walter’s wishes. (That, it seems to me, is the most overt parallel to the Forster plot.)

Nonetheless, Henry develops a warm if platonic friendship with Eric. Complications arise.

The title refers not only to the property willed by Walter, but also to AIDS, and, more generally, what one generation passes to the next, be it illness or guilt. 

The cast is extraordinary. I had read the script a few months earlier, and while I found the plot compulsively absorbing, I couldn’t quite see the characters in my mind's eye as they are not overtly described in the text. But the cast brings them vividly to life. Hilton doubles as the very humane spirit of Forster exorting the men to be true to themselves, even as the men chide him for not publishing his gay novel, “Maurice,” in his lifetime, though not mentioning that homosexual acts were then still criminal.  Levine also doubles as the pitiable hustler Leo who bears an uncanny resemblance to Adam. 

Lois Smith plays Margaret, the sole woman’s part (Vanessa Redgrave in London), and she’s accomplished as ever as the mother who had been estranged from the son who died of age decades before. Her marathon second act monologue is expertly delivered. 

Bob Crowley’s set -- a simple raised platform around which the ensemble  observe and sometimes comment on the central action -- works beautifully, and the disputed property when Eric (and we) finally see it is beautifully realized. Jon Clark’s lighting, Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid’s sound design, and Paul Englishby’s music contribute mightily to the overall classy presentation. 

Stephen Daldry has done his usual masterful job directing the proceedings, and the first play ends with a particularly outstanding bit of staging that doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house. 

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

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Christmas Carol (Lyceum Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This altogether delightful and poignant adaptation of Charles Dickens’ seasonal favorite is warming the Lyceum through the holiday season. Campbell Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge successfully takes up the mantle of his late dad, George C. Scott, who memorably played the role in a 1984 TV adaptation.

Freshly but respectfully revamped by playwright Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter & the Cursed Child,” “His Dark Materials” on HBO), who has demonstrated his skill with literary adaptations, the production has played three successful seasons at London’s Old Vic and was directed by its artistic director Matthew Warchus.

Though very much geared to the sensibilities of an adult audience, the production is ideal family entertainment for all but the youngest children.

Stylishly conceived by Rob Howell (who also designed the attractive Victorian costumes) with a profusion of hanging lanterns, and abstract sets (empty door frames are a significant motif), the script follows the familiar Dickens outline, but with both some trimming (the ghosts’ visitations happen quickly), and embellishments, which give the whole a fresh feeling without ever betraying the source material. Scrooge’s ultimate turnabout is managed far more realistically, but no less satisfyingly.

Thorne has, in fact, crafted a psychological backstory for Scrooge including an abusive, alcoholic father (Chris Hoch, who doubles as Marley’s ghost). The penurious father’s threatening and insistent demands for money are shown to have sown the seeds of Scrooge’s avarice.

Scrooge’s ghosts are played by Andrea Martin (Christmas Past) and LaChanze (a Caribbean-accented Christmas Present), and they bring a delightful but equally potent presence to those parts.

Scrooge rules his office with an iron hand insensitive to his long-suffering but ever-cheerful clerk Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves). As in other versions, we see him rebuffing the hearty greetings of his nephew Fred (Brandon Gill). In the flashback scenes, we meet the love Scrooge let get away, Belle (Sarah Hunt). Belle’s role is expanded and given considerably more agency, particularly in a scene which follows Scrooge’s reformation, after which we also meet Cratchit’s family, including his wife (Erica Dorfler) and, of course, Tiny Tim (Jai Ram Srinivasan at my performance, here a cheeky young actor with cerebral palsy). 

There’s good work, too, from Evan Harrington (Scrooge’s old employer Fezziwigg, now an undertaker), Rachel Prather (Scrooge’s late sister, Little Fan),  and Dan Piering (Young Ebenezer). The character of Little Fan is, like Belle, significantly expanded, and she becomes, in fact, the ghost of Christmas Future. 

The staging is highly engaging. Pre-show carolers throw cookies and clementines into the audience from the stage while other cast mates hand out treats from the floor. There’s a quite wondrous snow effect in the second act. And when Scrooge decides to show his beneficence, the audience participates in passing the various foodstuffs onto the stage. 

There’s a lovely use of traditional Christmas music throughout, culminating in a magical rendering of “Silent Night” on hand bells. 

It would be lovely if this production, with its striking use of stagecraft, could become an annual tradition as at the Old Vic. 

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 W 45th St, between 6th and 7th Avenues; or 212-239-6200; through January 5)

Photo by Joan Marcus

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Let ‘Em Eat Cake (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

Artistic Director Ted Sperling conducted a splendid concert reading of George and Ira Gershwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1933 musical  “Of Thee I Sing” in 2017. So it was only a matter of time before he’d get around to the 1933 sequel "Let 'Em Eat Cake," which originally featured the same principal cast members and creative team (including book writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind). 

This was, I believe, the first high-profile airing of the score in the U.S. since the 1987 concert version performed at BAM, back-to-back with “Of Thee I Sing,” a very full program to say the least. That performance, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, resulted in a two-disc recording from Sony. 

Terrific as the BAM performance was, I don’t recall getting quite the same electric charge as when Sperling raised his baton for the first notes at Carnegie Hall. The overture was absolutely thrilling, not only because of his conducting and the superb playing of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, but the refulgent acoustics of the hall that could have blown the roof off. In the moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking this the greatest thing Gershwin had ever written. Musically, in fact, the MasterVoices concert was quite exemplary from start to finish, and the cast certainly the equal of its distinguished BAM predecessors. The MasterVoices chorus, for their part, contributed a full-bodied and vigorous sound.

The excellent and impressively versatile Bryce Pinkham (currently playing Bobby Kennedy in “The Great Society”) and the always reliable and amusing Kevin Chamberlin returned as President John P. Winterbottom and his sweet but dim-witted vice president, Alexander Throttlebottom, along with Chuck Cooper as Fulton, and Fred Applegate as Gilhooley. David Pittu, the French ambassador of the other show, was now the scheming revolutionary Kruger. New to “Let ‘Em Eat Cake,” were several other Broadway pros, such as Bill Buell as General Snoofield, Lewis J. Stadlen as Louis Lippman, golden-voiced Mikaela Bennett (Penelope in Encores’ “The Golden Apple” as Mary Winterbottom; and Christopher Fitzgerald who doubled as Winterbottom’s political rival Tweedledee and narrator. Overall, the cast of Broadway pros couldn’t have been better.

As polished a presentation as this was, though, the fact remains that the show is not quite the crowd-pleaser of its predecessor. There’s a distinctly sour tone throughout, as the likable Winterbottom in “Sing” here becomes a fascistic dictator. Some may sense disturbing parallels to our present times, and that may have been a factor in choosing it. But even audiences in 1933 were lukewarm to the show with the looming threats of the fascistic regimes of Germany and Italy. The Broadway production only ran 90 performances. And though George Gershwin’s highly skilled musicianship was justly admired, there are far fewer take-home tunes here than in the other.

A few of the “Sing” songs are briefly reprised here, and they pop up like old friends. Of the new numbers, Wintergreen and Mary’s “Mine” originally had the most traction outside the show and there are several attractive numbers but they tend to be woven into the overall fabric. Like “Of Thee I Sing,” it’s very much an operetta, with touches of Gilbert and Sullivan now joining other classical models such as Bach, the latter providing the blueprint for Gershwin’s use of counterpoint and verges on the operatic, as Janet Pascal notes in her interesting program note. 
Gershwin, proud of his work, said, “I’ve written most of the music for this show contrapuntally, and it is that very insistence on the sharpness of a form that gives my music the acid touch it has—which paints the words of the lyrics, and is in keeping with the satire of the piece.”
On this occasion, there seems to have been some edits to the score, as Kruger and Trixie’s “First Lady and First Gent,” a very cute number heard at BAM, is missing here (as is the character of Trixie for that matter). On the other hand, “A Hell of a Hole,” the first part of “The Trial of Wintergreen” was missing at BAM and the subsequent recording, so I’m not sure which, if either, should be considered more definitive.

Kaufman and Ryskind’s book was performed in an abridged concert adaptation by Laurence Maslon, but the comic situations, however shortened, often seemed labored. 

When the show begins, Winterbottom has come to the end of his term. He loses the popular vote to Tweedledee, but taking a cue from revolutionary Kruger, spearheads a revolution himself, and seizes back power to become a dictator. Eventually matters go south when the war debts promised to the army fail to materialize, as Wintergreen had promised. A climactic baseball game involving the Supreme Court justices and the League of Nations ends with calls for the death (by guillotine) of Wintergreen and Throttlebottom when the latter, acting as umpire, makes some unpopular calls. Eventually Mary, who has formed a new DAR, saves the day by winning over the female population with a Paris fashion show. 

The work was thought mostly lost until the late John McGlinn set about reconstructing it with extant material, and Russell Warner created the superb, very authentic sounding orchestrations prior to the BAM performances.  

Supertitles -- crisp and clear -- were projected above the stage making the lyrics intelligible. The cast interacted with each other, but this was basically a concert performance, unlike MasterVoices’ more elaborately staged “Lady in the Dark” this past April.                                        

Other production credits were first-rate: Andrew Palermo’s choreography, Scott Lehrer’s sound design, Tracy Christensen’s costumes and Maarten Cornelis’ lighting.

As it happens, Wooster’s excellent Ohio Light Opera company will be mounting a fully-staged production of the piece this summer. It should be interesting to hear the score in its full original context. 

(Carnegie Hall; or 212-247-7800; November 21 only)

Photo credit: Erin Baiano

Top: Cast of Let 'Em Eat Cake. 

Below: Bryce Pinkham, David Pittu, Mikaela Bennett 

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Debutante (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

When Victor Herbert’s musical comedy premiered in New York in 1914, it had the misfortune to occur the night before the opening of young Irving Berlin’s new fangled, dance-heavy musical, “Watch Your Step!” featuring the hugely popular husband and wife team of Vernon and Irene Castle. As far as the public, if not the press, was concerned, Herbert’s show was rendered instantly old-fashioned. So suggests Neil Gould in his excellent biography of the composer. Interestingly, Herbert’s frequent book writer and lyricist Harry B. Smith worked on both shows. (And his brother, Robert B. Smith, wrote the lyrics for “The Debutante.”)

On the other hand, Edward Waters, who wrote the first comprehensive Herbert bio in 1955, felt the show was just plain inferior to Herbert’s contemporaneous “The Only Girl” which had opened only a month earlier to greater critical and popular success. With uncharacteristic bluntness, Waters described the book of “The Debutante” as “stupid,” and noted “a lack of spontaneity in the music,” a view echoed by some but certainly not all the critics.

Whatever the reason, the show only lasted 48 performances, and has rarely been seen since, though late Herbert champion Fred Roffman revived it for New York’s Bel Canto Opera in 1980 in a production fondly remembered by buffs.

Leave it to today’s Herbert flag-waver Alyce Mott to bring it to us again courtesy of her VHRP Live! Company with a streamlined, presumably less “stupid” script.

She assembled a particularly strong cast, including many from what has become a virtual repertory company, and with Music Director Michael Thomas at the podium, and the superb William Hicks at the piano, the results were thoroughly delightful.

The setting is 1914 Plymouth, England. The story concerns the titular young lady Elaine (Claire Leyden), betrothed since childhood to her playmate Phil (Drew Bolander). The young man has been in Paris, and fallen head over heels for a femme fatale from the comic opera there, Irma (Alexa Devlin). Though Elaine has politely rebuffed the amorous attentions of Larry (Christopher Robin Sapp), a naval lieutenant, and a bumbling French Marquis (Nathan Hull), she decides to make her wandering fiance jealous by enlisting the Marquis to pretend to make love to her when others are around.

There’s also Phil’s father, Godfrey (John Nelson), who unbeknownst to Phil, has fallen for the irresistible Irma himself, and intends to return to Paris to continue his pursuit of her. Meanwhile, his friend Ezra Bunker (David Seatter), an aspiring composer, longs to go to Paris so he can mount his avant-garde Cubist opera. He and Godfrey plot to send his domineering suffragette wife Zenobia (Vira Slywotsky) off to America on a ruse, but she learns of the scheme, and instead follows them to Paris in disguise. 

The second act is set in Paris where Elaine raises the philandering Phil’s ire by shamelessly flaunting her Marquis, Ezra mounts his opera, while Irma contrives to keep Phil under her sway. In the original, Elaine ultimately won back the straying Phil. Here, at the very last moment, she drops him for the devoted Larry, a switch that makes perfect dramatic sense, especially as Bolander played Phil as such an insensitive cad.

Claire Leyden, who’s already graced several VHRP productions, didn’t disappoint. Her fine voice, impeccable phrasing, natural poise, and intelligent acting were all in evidence, and I can’t imagine that the role’s creator, Hazel Dawn, could have been any more appealing, even if Leyden’s not called upon to play the violin as did Dawn, the original “Pink Lady” in composer Ivan Caryll’s hit show. But director Mott did engage superb cellist Scott Ballantyne to recreate the original staging of the Act Two entr’acte, with the ensemble surrounding him and humming as he reprised the first act’s top tunes, a truly gorgeous effect.

Elaine’s suitors Larry and Phil, both tenors, were impressively sung by Sapp and Bolander respectively. Sapp’s Irish air, “Peggy’s a Creature of Moods” was especially lovely, and Bolander partnered Leyden strongly on their first act rueful love duet, “The Golden Age,” as Elaine and Phil recalled how as children they enjoyed imagining their adult lives as a cozy married couple. 

Devlin had a second act showstopper, “When I Played Carmen,” delivered with great style and flair, and elsewhere totally nailed the temperamental French-Russian diva in her customary expert comic style. Also scoring big on both the vocal and comic fronts were Slywotsky as Ezra’s overbearing wife; Hull, a sort of male Mrs. Malaprop amusingly mangling his English expressions at every turn; Nelson as the aging Lothario; and Seatter who amusingly donned a sort of Tina Turner white wig as the henpecked husband went incognito. 

Other vocal highlights included Seatter and Slywotsky’s “Married Life,” as the Bunkers sing in counterpoint about their respective notions of the institution, Seatter onstage and Slywotsky working the audience; “The Love of the Lorelei,” sung by Larry and Phil about the lure of exotic women while Elaine, in hiding, voices her reaction upstage; two particularly infectious earworms, “Call Around Again,” and “The Face Behind the Mask,” the latter a sextette with a contrapuntal refrain beginning with “One Smile”; the Marquis’ “All for the Sake of a Girl” (strongly sung by Hull); the Cubist Opera, which starts off with a spoof of modern-day dissonance before ultimately morphing into ragtime; Elaine and Phil’s dramatic duet, “Fate,’ which originally gave Hazel Dawn her opportunity to play the violin.

In the aforementioned Bel Canto production, Roffman went for super-completeness,  not only including all the dance music (as he had the advantage of a full orchestra), but restoring a couple of numbers cut out of town, plus, as was his wont, interpolating three others from a 1917 Herbert show, “Her Regiment.” 

In VHRP’s production, there were internal cuts (mostly dance music) in some of the numbers, and a verse here and there, but cut altogether were several tuneful pieces which were, admittedly, extraneous to the narrative: the sailors’ “On a Sunny Afternoon,” Ezra and Godfrey’s “The Gay Life,” The Marquis’ “The Will o’ the Wisp,” and Irma’s “The Baker’s Boy and the Chimney Sweep.” Still these numbers were not really missed, and what was there made for a satisfyingly full evening.

The ensemble parts were as astutely cast as the leads, Jonathan Hare, Anthony Maida, Keith Boughton, and Shane Brown on the male side; Hannah Holmes, Stephanie Bacastow, Charlotte Detrick, and JoAnna Geffert on the distaff side, all of whom made entertaning contributions.

Emily Cornelius, as she has so often done in past VHRP productions, devised the lively and tasteful choreography which enhanced each number. 

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.;; November 19 & 20 only)

Photos: Jill LeVine

Top: Full Company

Below: “Call Around Again”:  L-R: Anthony Maida, Claire Leyden, Jonathan Hare, Hannah Holmes.

Bottom: “The Face Behind The Mask”:  L-R: Claire Leyden, Drew Bolander, Alexa Devlin, Christopher Robin Sapp, Vira Slywotzky, David Seatter

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

On the pop singer jukebox musical bio scorecard, the latest -- an import from London -- rates remarkably high. With its better-than-average book, eye-catching production, and impressive leading lady, “Tina” lands more in the superior “Beautiful” and “A’int Too Proud” league than, say, “Summer” or “The Cher Show.” 

Mind you, the show still fits the by-now formulaic mode of most these shows, and there are plot similarities with some of these others too: skeptical record label, abusive husband, and an artist managing to find her own voice, but I guess such is the nature of the pop business, and, in particular, of women in a pre-MeToo era. 

Bearing in mind that the book is mainly a vehicle upon which to hang the hit parade of songs, the one fashioned by Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) has some surprisingly strong dramatic scenes, and doesn’t flinch from some of the more unpleasant aspects of its subject’s life. (A quick perusal of Wikipedia’s Tina Turner entry would seem to confirm the general accuracy of the storytelling here, however simplified.) And with England’s Phyllida Law at the directorial helm, and an overall solid cast, the dramatic scenes are given their due. The domestic episodes, Turner’s in-studio conflicts about her style, and a late scene in the hospital where her mother lies gravely ill are especially potent.

Beginning with a seated Tina chanting her Buddhist mantra, we flash back to her childhood as a precocious child (dynamic Skye Dakota Turner) singing her head off at a Baptist meeting. Her mother (very strong Dawnn Lewis) berates her at home for being so loud, leading to a tense dramatic scene with the parents fighting and the mother moving out with Tina (then called Anna Mae)’s sister. Tina’s father (David Jennings) deserts her, and she goes to live with her grandmother (excellent Myra Lucretia Taylor) then as a teenager, back to her mother and sister where, out with her sister for a night on the town, she meets Ike Turner (Daniel J. Watts), and their professional partnership, and later, unhappy marriage, is born.

Tina eventually breaks loose of Ike’s physical abuse, and she strikes out on her own with two boys to raise, one Ike’s, the other fathered by a sympathetic musician (Gerald Caesar) in their band, falls on hard times, but eventually, in London, finds her own voice with the help of a new manager Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin), and Erwin Bach (Ross Lekites), a German marketing professional, 16 years her junior, who falls in love with her, and would later become her husband. 

The domestic scenes are reasonably meaty, anchored as they are by a solid acting cast, including Steven Booth as Phil Spector, Robert Lenzi as a Capitol Records executive, Jessica Rush as Rhonda, her first manager and friend.

Adrienne Warren, who we’ve seen in “Shuffle Along” and “Bring It On: The Musical” here, made a deserved splash when this show started in London, and she’s sensationally good, nailing the character from teenage years upwards, and singing and dancing tirelessly throughout. Though not a physical dead ringer for Turner, she captures the character, the gritty sound, and the kinetic moves, and incredibly, rarely leaves the stage. How much more satisfying to have a single actor play the role, than the triumvirate approach adopted by “Summer” and “The Cher Show”!

Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes are immensely satisfying, and the climactic moment of Turner making her entrance for a big concert in Brazil is a dazzlingly gorgeous coup de theatre, not to mention the thrilling mini concert that ensues. Jeff Sugg’s projection attractive projection design adds to the fluid nature of the show. Choreographer Anthony Van Laast recreates the trademark moves. 

Ethan Popp’s orchestrations are satisfying, and most of the songs are done complete, not in the medley form favored by many of the other jukebox shows. Nicholas Skilbeck is the talented conductor credited with arrangements and additional music.

My major carp is Nevin Steinberg’s overloaded sound design. Not only are the musical numbers pitched way too high, but the balance seems seriously off with lyrics barely intelligible, and the orchestra overpowering the voices consistently, a complaint mentioned by several at my performance. 

(Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street; or 877-250-2929)