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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Betrayal (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Here’s a splendidly staged, beautifully nuanced version of one of Harold Pinter’s most accessible plays, which, frankly, is much superior to the last revival, even though that one was directed by the great Mike Nichols, and starred the excellent Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Rafe Spall.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s production -- first seen at the Pinter at the Pinter season in London -- is so spare, one might almost, at first glance, take this for a rehearsal or, at best, a staged reading, but all the better to enjoy Pinter’s wordplay. And the action is, in fact, meticulously orchestrated. Designer Soutra Gilmour has provided only the most essential props on a turntable with a white canvas background framing the action, and sometimes strikingly catching the shadows of the three very fine leads. Strips of light hover above. (Jon Clark designed the dramatically apt lighting.)

The play charts the adulterous affair between literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox) and gallery owner Emma (Zawe Ashton) who’s married to Jerry’s best friend, publisher Robert (Tom Hiddleston), and tells the tale in reverse from post-breakup to Jerry’s first bold flirtation with Emma. (Pinter is said to have based the play on his own adulterous affair with journalist Joan Bakewell.) Time projections on the set tell us where we are, chronology-wise: “two years earlier” or “later” (as there are some scenes that sequentially follow the one preceding).

Lloyd and cast bring out all the humor of the piece, particularly in the early scenes, and it’s surprising to be reminded how much amusing dialogue there is. Critic John Simon, reviewing the original Broadway production, recognized similarities to Noel Coward, though he found it “second-rate Coward.” In the hands of Hiddleston, Cox and Ashton, I’d say the deprecating hyphenate would be misapplied. There is genuine wit here.

And there’s also considerable poignancy which comes through movingly, particularly in the play’s final scene, thanks to Lloyd and crew’s sensitive handling.

The original cast -- Daniel Massey, Michael Gambon, and Penelope Wilton -- at London’s National Theatre was, I always thought, definitive, not forgetting the excellent 1983 film with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge, but the present cast very much lives up to my memories of the creators. The rarely screened film, incidentally, is available on YouTube, and makes for a fascinating comparison with the current production. 

Ben and Max Ringham’s sound and music add to the deft mood setting. 

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

Photo: Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton, and Tom Hiddleston in BETRAYAL at London's Harold Pinter Theatre (photo by Marc Brenner)

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Al Hirschfeld Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Here’s a visually sumptuous, skillfully realized stage version of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, as stunning in its theatrical way as the film, which tells the story of a doomed romance between a glamorous courtesan Satine headlining at the Moulin Rouge cabaret and Christian, a struggling writer who has come to Montmartre in 1899 to pursue the ideals of “truth, beauty, freedom, and love.”

The film anachronistically used then-present-day pop hits as its soundtrack, and the romantic scenes apart, took a Monty Python-ish slapstick tone for the rest.

The plot unfolds mostly as before. Montmartre newbie Christian (Aaron Tveit) has come to Paris hoping to be the “voice of the Revolution”, but under the influence of his new pals Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Santiago (Ricky Rojas) gets roped into writing a new show for the Moulin Rouge club run by impresario Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein). There, it’s love at first sight when Christian lays eyes on glamorous headliner Satine (Karen Olivo), a doomed courtesan expected to become the mistress of the club’s patron The Duke of Monmouth (Tam Mutu). 

In the film, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor were the handsome leads, Jim Broadbent was proprietor Zidler, and Richard Roxburgh the predatory Duke of Monroth.

Aaron Tveit seems to me a rather less tortured and vulnerable hero than McGregor, and Karen Olivo a more robust Satine than Kidman’s delicate heroine, and she has more feminist agency here than Kidman’s character. For one thing, she’s well aware of her own illness, whereas in the film, only her entourage knew the severity of her consumption, but not she. Certainly Tveit and Olivo trump their film counterparts in the vocal department, though Kidman and McGregor had more palpable chemistry. 

Though the cast is uniformly accomplished, Danny Burstein nearly steals the show in a turn that owes nothing to Jim Broadbent’s original, and he plays the part more sympathetically. His versatility is quite exceptional, when you think of his previous finely etched portrayals such as Luther Billis in "South Pacific" and Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." 

Tam Mutu, late of “Dr. Zhivago,” makes a capital Duke, his character here drawn more appealingly than Roxburgh, and there’s colorful work by Sahr Ngaujah as Toulouse-Lautrec and Ricky Rojas as the Argentinian Tango dancer Santiago. 

Book writer John Logan (Tony winner for “Red”) remains generally faithful to the original bittersweet screenplay, with its elements of “La Boheme” and “La Traviata,” but has tweaked several plot elements and streamlined the action. 

This result -- expertly directed by Alex Timbers -- is every bit as exuberant as the film, but he and Logan have toned down the knockabout farce. The film’s climax, for instance, with the Duke’s henchman trying to knock off Christian as he declares his love for Satine during a performance has been scuttled. Christian is here a composer, not a writer, and he’s American, not Engish. Satine’s rival at the club Nini who, in the film, maliciously spilled the beans about Satine’s affair with Christian, now warns Satine of the Duke’s violent nature because, after all, “we’re sisters.” She’s well played by Robyn Hurder, and also enjoys a sexy, showstopping tango with Rojas. 

Her blatantly sexual colleagues at the club are exuberantly taken by Jaqueline B. Arnold (La Chocolat), Holly James (Arabia), and Jeigh Madjus (Baby Doll). The Duke now has more of a role in shaping the show he’s bankrolling at the club. He also wants Satine to give up performing, whereas in the film, he’s offering to help her acting career. Toulouse-Lautrec is a rather more serious-minded character here.

Nearly all the familiar songs from the film -- “Your Song,’ “Lady Marmalade,” “Nature Boy,” “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and so on -- are reprised, along with many newer one like “Single Ladies,” “Rolling in the Deep” and “Firework”  The show’s concept -- like the movie -- still strikes me as more than a little sophomoric, but Logan’s changes have overall made the story that much more cohesive. 

Derek McLane’s eye-popping set -- not dissimilar to that of “Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” in both its plush crimson hues and fourth wall bursting ambience -- is dominated by a giant Moulin Rouge sign, heart cutouts, and Satine’s elephant, and the cabaret impressively gives way to other Parisian locales. Catherine Zuber’s costumes -- corsets and tailcoats abound  -- are appropriately dazzling as befits the Belle Epoque setting.

Sonya Tayeh’s choreography is wonderfully inventive and flavorful -- especially in the great second act “Bad Romance” opener -- and as with the other elements, builds on the film, from the can-can numbers to Satine’s “Diamonds” entrance made. As in the film, Satine sings it as she descends from the rafters. (I liked prefacing the “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” song with “Diamonds are Forever,” well performed by Olivo.)

Despite the rock/pop purview of the score, Peter Hylenski’s sound design manages to be admirably clear and well-balanced. 

Justine Levine is credited with music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements and additional lyrics, and has done a masterful job of making the disparate songs -- over 70 in all -- a cohesive whole. 

The audience at my performance was wildly enthusiastic right up until the obligatory post-curtain call dance reprise.

(Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street; 877-250-2929 or Ticketmaster.com)

Friday, August 16, 2019

Ohio Light Opera 2019 Season


By Harry Forbes

Fans of musical theater and operetta will not find a richer, more concentrated banquet of their favorite entertainment than that offered by a company based in the quiet college town of Wooster, Ohio, which every summer -- for eight weeks -- offers an impressive array of 58 performances of seven productions. As if that weren’t enough, for one of those weeks, the regular offerings are supplemented by lectures and some extra musical material. Even though OLO eschewed the official symposium of the past five years, there were still plenty of show-related talks handled by the in-house creative team, extra concerts, and other goodies.

The mainstage offerings this season were a heady mix of European operetta, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Broadway musicals, among them two choice rarities: Welsh composer Ivor Novello’s 1945 London megahit, “Perchance to Dream,” which originally ran for 1,022 performances, fueled by its matinee idol creator’s adoring public, and the breakout song, “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” which resonated deeply with wartime audiences; and the American premiere of Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s “Der Teufelsreiter” (The Devil’s Rider), an infrequently revived work (even in Europe) dating from 1932. 

Of the Broadway musicals, familiar works like “South Pacific” (the company’s second mounting), and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” (OLO’s first Sondheim and the most modern classic musical in the repertoire thus far) were joined by urtext productions of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” (1930) and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Music in the Air” (1932), each more musically complete than even their respective (and admirable) mountings in New York’s Encores series. We were assured not a measure of dance music was cut in either of those shows. 

Some familiar faces were missing this season, but the company was strong, and impressed with its versatility, most performers playing multiple roles, and moving effortlessly from principal player in one show to ensemble in another.


Steven A. Daigle, the company’s tireless artistic director, directed five of the seven productions, nailing the style of each perfectly. “Into the Woods,” for one, was profoundly moving, much like his superb “Candide” last season, though opinions were divided on the wisdom of opening the show with the cast in modern dress slowly entering from the audience, and gradually transforming into their fairytale counterparts. But I felt it worked well, underscoring the significance of myth and storytelling in everyone’s life. 


Several of the roles were doublecast, and at my performance, Kyle Yampiro and Tanya Roberts excelled as the Baker and his wife, with fine work by Chelsea Miller as Cinderella, Sadie Spivey as Little Red Ridinghood, Hannah Holmes as the Witch, Brad Baron as the Wolf, Benjamin Dutton and Aidan Smerud as the Princes, and Julie Wright Costa as Jack’s Mother. 

Costa was equally outstanding in “Perchance to Dream,” also directed by Daigle. As crusty Lady Charlotte, imperious aunt of the highwayman hero Graham Rodney, and the part originated by Margaret Rutherford, she delivered her sardonic lines with much the same withering sarcasm as Maggie Smith on “Downton Abbey.” And it must be said that Novello’s unabashedly romantic book is uncommonly literate, however unlikely the fanciful situations. 

This is one of those multi-generational works, like “Maytime” and “Les Trois Valses,” where true love isn’t resolved until the third act. The ancestral connections are a bit convoluted, as the characters are not necessarily descendants of the earlier romantic protagonists. So too at times, it’s a bit perplexing to know for whom to root, as the sweet characters embodied by Sarah Best (Lydia, Veronica, Iris) are the most sympathetic, while at least one of those played by Chelsea Miller (Melinda, Melanie, and Melody) is rather manipulative and scheming, if short of being an outright villainess. Still all is resolved most movingly by the end with a logic that would seem to owe much to one of J.B. Priestley’s metaphysical tales. (Priestley is, in fact, referenced in the dialogue.)


Jacob Allen was not exactly the darkly rakish heartthrob embodied by Novello, but he had the full measure of the script, and like the rest of the cast, did justice to Novello’s dialogue. (English accents were convincing, too.) Though I had seen a production of “Perchance to Dream” many years ago in London, with the late film star Simon (“Young Winston”) Ward as the not particularly charismatic lead, I had forgotten how much the property is really a dramatic play with songs. But when they come, they are choice. 

Best and Yvonne Trobe (in the role originated by Novello favorite Olive Gilbert) harmonized stunningly on the big “Lilacs” tune, while Best delivered “Love Is My Reason,” “A Woman’s Heart,” and her part of the rapturous “Victorian Wedding” sequence with warm tone and customary sensitivity. (Though I didn’t catch her performances, Best also essayed Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and The Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.”) 


Miller’s rendering of Roma Beaumont’s famous numbers, “When I Curtsied to the King” and “The Glo-Glo” (amusingly staged along can-can lines by choreographer Spencer Reese), were equally accomplished. My favorite number, the catchy “Highwayman Love,” was excitingly vocalized by Trobe, who impressively nailed each of her varied parts this season. Trobe’s other vocal moments included a pastiche Victorian ditty called “The Elopement,” performed in tandem with the incredibly versatile Kyle Yampiro as the Vicar.

Steven Byess conducted the score ravishingly. Along with “Into the Woods,” this Novello musical packed the biggest emotional wallop.

“The Devil’s Rider,” directed by Daigle from his own translation, and again conducted by Byess, proved a fascinating and tuneful paean to Hungarian independence, and featured a particularly dashing, solidly acted, and vocally strong performance by Benjamin Dutton as the eponymous Count Sándor, a real-life historical figure who had the temerity to woo Leontine, the daughter of the Austrian Prince Metternich, after having his horse make a daring leap over the carriage carrying the princess and Empress Carolina Pia. (Amusingly, the Empress believes she herself was the object of Sándor’s flirtatious stunt.)


It was quite a marathon role for Dutton and he knocked it out of the park, even managing some athletic dancing with Tanya Roberts’ fairytale pretty Leontine during their duets. Dutton, a standout in last season’s “Cloclo,” also impressed as Cinderella’s Prince in “Into the Woods” and Lt. Cable in “South Pacific.” 

The script was not by Kálmán’s usual librettists, Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, as the team had had a falling out, but rather Berlin-based Rudolph Schanzer and Ernst Welisch, and there seemed to be a greater-than-usual quotient of expository dialogue. But the music, when it came, was stirring and tuneful, loaded with foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, and marches, all played here with pizzazz.


Tanya Roberts resplendent in her period costume, sang with her customary luster, though the part itself lacks agency. Kyle Yampiro, Tim McGowan, and a particularly delightful Sadie Spivey livened matters as the comic secondary leads. OLO veteran Boyd Mackus had reams of dialogue as Metternich, but at least dispatched it with admirable briskness, and Yvonne Trobe, whose other roles this season were mostly in the comedic vein, was the model of regal elegance as the gracious, if deluded, Empress. A DVD release of this super-rare work is planned for next summer.

Under the baton of J. Lynn Thompson, “The Pirates of Penzance,” a revision of the company’s 2014 production, was directed by company veteran Ted Christopher (who also played the Sergeant of Police) in high style. Chelsea Miller made a spectacular Mabel, as her Cunegonde in last season’s peerless “Candide” seemed to portend. She made “Poor Wandering One” sound something akin to Hoffmann’s high-flying Olympia. Boyd Mackus was a model Major-General, playing with appropriate bluster. Hannah Holmes made a fine Ruth, and demonstrated here and elsewhere how she’s really come into her own in this, her sixth season. Abby Kurth (Holmes’ sister), Yvonne Trobe, and Sadie Spivey excelled as Mabel’s friends. And the reliable Brad Baron was funny indeed as a Pirate King in the Kevin Kline mold. 


Baron is so adept at comic roles -- this year, he also played the aforementioned Wolf and Slick Fothergill in “Girl Crazy” -- that it was all the more impressive to see him as such a commanding Emile de Becque in “South Pacific,” singing “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” with rich tone and Ezio Pinza-like gravitas. Jocelyn Hansen was the capable Nellie, but the other rafter-raising vocal performance was that of Michelle Pedersen, as fine a Bloody Mary as I’ve ever seen. Also outstanding were Kyle Yampiro, ideally cast as Luther Billis, and Ted Christopher in the non-singing role of Captain Brackett. Jacob Allen directed the complex show proficiently.


“Music in the Air,” wherein a young couple (Adam Wells and Sadie Spivey) from a small Bavarian town become romantic pawns to a squabbling big city (Munich) theatrical couple -- playwright (Brad Baron) and his leading lady (Tanya Roberts) -- received an exemplary production which included every bit of underscoring against the sprechstimme styling of Hammerstein’s script, a groundbreaker in its day with its seamless integration of words and music, and one that thematically echoed his later show with Richard Rodgers, “Allegro,” in illustrating the values of small town decency versus the pitfalls of the big city.


The show is filled with Kern chestnuts, stylishly conducted by Wilson Southerland: “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” “And Love Was Born,” “One More Dance,” “In Egern on the Tegern See,” and above all, “The Song Is You.” Roberts and Baron had a fine over-the-top time with the amusing extended sequence in which they act out their new operetta.


Daigle’s staging was, once again, right on target, and the story of hopeful dreams and ultimate disillusionment unfolded authentically. Ted Christopher and Spencer Reese were affecting as, respectively, Sieglinde’s music teacher and composer father Walther Lessing, and music publisher Ernst Weber, who poignantly reconnects with his boyhood friend Walther and small-town values. Garrett Medlock as the show-within-the-show’s music director, had a powerful scene where he was compelled to lay down the harsh realities of show business to stage-hopeful Sieglinde’s father. 

Company member Spencer Reese continues to up OLO’s game with his imaginative choreography, and his handiwork was evident in all seven productions, from the delicious bits in “The Pirates of Penzance” that made the overly familiar numbers seem so very fresh to the spirited hoofing in “The Devil’s Rider.” But it was in “Girl Crazy” that he really outdid himself, providing more dancing than in any previous OLO production, topping even his own dance-heavy “Anything Goes” from 2017, which broke the previous record in that regard. The post-curtain call Broadway-level tap fest was really thrilling. 

“Girl Crazy,”  the show that famously put Ethel Merman on the map, and also starred Ginger Rogers, received a bang-up production with Reese himself as the pampered East Coast playboy sent by his father out west where he promptly turns the family property into a glitzy dude ranch, and falls in love with the only gal in town, post office worker Molly. Hannah Holmes was likable in the Rogers role, handling her parts of “But Not For Me” and “Embraceable You” with assurance, and joining the rest of the cast in that electrifying tap dancing finale.


Yvonne Trobe, who impressed with her classical soprano in “Perchance to Dream,” took on the belting Merman role, and socked over first-rate renditions of the lady’s famous songs in that show: “Sam and Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!” and, of course, “I Got Rhythm.”

Guy Bolton and John McGowan’s script was fairly nonsensical, but nonetheless amusing, and with one Gershwin evergreen after another, who’s to complain?

Under Byess’ baton, the orchestra sizzled. The original production boasted Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, and Gene Krupa in the pit, but the OLO forces really showed they could cut loose too. 

Reese had the right period style as playboy Danny, and Alan Smith was effective as his treacherous rival Sam. Kyle Yampiro was very funny as displaced New York City cabdriver Gieber Goldfarb who, over the course of the evening, got to channel everyone from Maurice Chevalier to Mae West in drag, the latter to replace some un-pc Yiddish-Indian schtick in the original. Garrett Medlock, Tim McGowan, Diego Roberts Buceta, and Vincent Gover harmonized winningly in the oft-reprised “Bidin’ My Time.”

Moving on to the extra items during the special “lagniappe” week, for so it was informally dubbed, there was a splendid orchestra-only concert entitled “Without Words,” and featuring nine lengthy orchestral medleys from operettas and musicals. It was a fine idea to give the spotlight to the 28-piece ensemble which performed so superbly throughout the season. These medleys, featured in salons and cinemas, and contemporaneous with the original productions, are sometimes the only surviving orchestrations, though as emcee Michael Miller pointed out parts exist for virtually all of the shows sampled here and thus these works could someday be accorded full OLO productions. 

The concert began with a medley from Victor Herbert’s “The Only Girl,” and continued with such choice items as George Gershwin and Herbert Stothart’s “Song of the Flame,” Lionel Monckton’s “The Quaker Girl,” Ivan Caryll’s “The Pink Lady,” and Sigmund Romberg’s “Rose de France.” 

A couple of days later, the annual “Songs from the Cutting-Room Floor,” featuring excised numbers from the mainstage shows, as well as other related material from such shows as Porter’s “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” Novello’s “Valley of Song,” and the London “Die Fledermaus” adaptation “Nightbirds,” allowed more members of the OLO troupe to display their formidable talents.

Standout performances included Charles Austin Piper’s “Give Me the Land” from “Silk Stockings”; Logan Barat’s “Donkey Serenade,” added to the MGM film of “The Firefly”; Ivana Martinic and Adam Wells’ “If I Never Waltz Again” from “Marinka” (Kálmán’s Broadway musical which, in fact, recycled many of the tunes from “The Devil’s Rider”); Sadie Spivey and Tim McGowan’s “I’d Be Happy Anywhere with You” from Romberg’s “Her Soldier Boy”; Aidan Smerud’s “Tired” from Kalman’s “The Little Dutch Girl”; and Diego Roberts Buceta, Austin Rubinoski, and Piper’s rousing “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here,” freely adapted in 1917 from “With Cat-Like Tread” from “The Pirates of Penzance.” But everyone was so good, it’s almost unfair to single out anyone.

Wilson Southerland accompanied all on the eighty-eights.

As if all this weren’t enough, Miller presented two fascinating video presentations, one an overview of some choice company performances from the past. Among the highlights were a simply hilarious scene from Offenbach’s “The Island of Tulipatan” with Anthony Maida and Alta Boover; two tantalizing numbers from Kálmán’s “Sari,” featuring Lucas Meachem, Tim Oliver, and Sarah Jane McMahon; company founder James Stuart in “The Sorcerer”; Julie Wright Costa’s fiery turn as Aldonza in ‘Man of La Mancha”; Anna-Lisa Hackett and Evan McCormack in a delicious “Madame Pompadour” duet; and a stirring rendition of “Yours Is My Heart Alone” by the late, much-loved tenor Brian Woods. Many of the clips were low tech, but the sheer talent shone through vividly.


The other video presentation was a comprehensive overview of movie musical dubbing. Along with such famous examples such as Marni Nixon dubbing for Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, and Natalie Wood, there was a dizzying potpourri of dozens of lesser-known examples, some quite surprising such as Mary Martin supplying the singing voice for Margaret Sullivan, all capped off by the presentation of a handful of Hollywood operetta trailers. 

Of the seven pre-show talks, Daigle and Miller’s joint presentation on “The Devil’s Rider” (both the show and its fascinating historical background); Wilson Southerland on “Music in the Air”; assistant director Ian Silverman’s backgrounder on “Girl Crazy”; and Spencer Reese’s talk on “Into the Woods” were particularly illuminating. But all the lectures, including those offered by Steven Byess, Jacob Allen, and Ted Christopher, provided insights on the works, performances, and the company itself.

Under the leadership of Daigle, Executive Director Laura Neill, and Board Chair Michael Miller, OLO continues to function at an impressively high level, giving us carefully curated revivals of shows which -- some exceptions like “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Into the Woods” aside -- simply can’t be seen anywhere else. Attendees were already heard eagerly anticipating what next season’s show selections might be. And who could blame them?



(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through August 11)

All photos by Matt Dilyard

Top to bottom:

Girl Crazy: Hannah Holmes & Company

Into the Woods: Cast

Into the Woods: Kyle Yampiro, Alan Smith, Tanya Roberts

Perchance to Dream: Jacob Allen, Chelsea Miller

Perchance to Dream: Julie Wright Costa, Yvonne Trobe, Sarah Best

The Devil’s Rider: Yvonne Trobe, Benjamin Dutton

The Devil’s Rider: Tanya Roberts, Benjamin Dutton

The Pirates of Penzance: Brad Baron & Company

Music in the Air: Adam Wells, Tanya Roberts

Music in the Air: Adam Wells, Tanya Roberts, Spencer Reese, Brad Baron, Ted Christopher, Sadie Spivey

Girl Crazy: Spencer Reese, Hannah Holmes

Perchance to Dream: Sarah Best, Jacob Allen

The Pirates of Penzance: Boyd Mackus & Company


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Love, Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward (Irish Repertory Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with New York’s cabaret scene knows, Steve Ross and KT Sullivan are past masters at putting over the songs of Noël Coward. And they’ve done so --  memorably -- on numerous occasions at venues large and small over the decades.

Put them together, with a knowing script by Coward biographer Barry Day, and the resulting alchemy should be no surprise, particularly when guided by the sensitive touch of Irish Rep Artistic Director Charlotte Moore who, based on the company’s frequent flirtings with Coward, proves once again she knows a thing or two about The Master. 

In the ultra-intimate downstairs studio space of the Irish Rep, the duo begins in artfully low-keyed fashion, relating the story of Coward’s life in broad strokes, as taken from his copious extant correspondence, from early days touring the provinces through West End and Broadway triumphs, managing, along the way, to incorporate many of the hits (“Mad About the Boy,” “If Love Were All,” “I’ll See You Again”) and a few rarities (“I’ll Remember You,” “Never Again,” “I Wanted to Show You Paris,” “Together with Music”) as well.

At first, the tone is so laid back and their delivery so conversational that audience stays silent as applause might seem intrusive, but that doesn’t last long, as the show builds in pizzazz and emotional power over its roughly 90 minutes. 

There an overview of all the ladies in Coward’s life, starting with his doting mother Violet who saved every one of his letters from the get-go. Most of them are impersonated by Sullivan who skillfully runs the gamut from Marlene Dietrich, Mary Martin, Yvonne Printemps, to Gertrude Lawrence. Some time is spent on Noel and Gertie’s warm friendship dating back to childhood, and her surprising death at the time of “The King and I.”

The excerpted letters and alternately funny and touching. A prime example of the former is Coward’s recounting of an unlikely proposal from Greta Garbo. 

Sullivan really cuts loose with “Why Do the Wrong People Travel,” giving it plenty of originator Elaine Stritch gusto, and later belts “World Weary” to a fare-thee-well. Ross does his peerless rendition of “Mrs. Worthington,” and strikes a poignant note with “I Travel Alone.”  And the two have a ball with “Bronxville Darby and Joan, and a London sequence, utilizing the songs in Tessie O’Shea’s cheery Tony Award-winning sequence from “The Girl Who Came to Supper.”

Steve Ross reads the Coward letters quite feelingly, utilizing a British accent, but stopping short of outright impersonation. 

James Morgan provides the simple but classy setting nicely lighted by Michael Gottlieb.

The Master would have been pleased with this loving tribute.

(Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street on the W. Scott McLucas Studio Stage; through August 25)

Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Rolling Stone (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

British writer Chris Urch’s play -- which premiered at the Manchester Exchange in 2015 before transferring to London the following year -- is based on the horrific 2010 reports of a Ugandan newspaper, “The Rolling Stone,” which published the names, photos, and addresses of alleged homosexuals inevitably leading to violence before it was shut down. 

As we learn from a program note, homophobia (“Kuchu” being the disparaging word for gay) -- dating back to British colonial days there -- was on the rise largely due to American Christian missionaries influence in the churches, though that interesting aspect is not really explored here.

So here we have 18-year-old Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) engaged in a covert affair with a visiting Irish-Ugandan doctor Sam (Robert Gilbert), as Dembe’s brother Joe (James Udom) stands poised to assume the role of pastor. Joe’s appointment is largely due to the influence of the formidable church elder known as Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor) whose daughter Naome (Adenike Thomas) -- a potential bride for Dembe -- had mysteriously stopped speaking six months before. 

It is revealed that the family is in grave financial straits, and only one of Joe’s siblings will be able to go to medical school. Given the inherent societal exism that would appear to be Dembe, rather than their sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards) who, complicating matters, intuits the truth about Dembe’s sexual leanings leading to further tension. 

And when the titular paper predictably gets around to naming Dembe, there can only be emotionally explosive results. Throughout, there are thematic similarities to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” and a modern-day witch hunt.

All the performances are powerful and bear the ring of authenticity, Ugandan accents and all. Udom’s fire and brimstone sermon about homosexuality directed towards the audience as “congregation” is particularly electrifying. And Taylor skillfully navigates her character’s likable maternal concern with a chilling pious hypocrisy. 

The action plays out effectively on Arnulfo Maldonado’s abstract set -- a gold filigree backdrop and a central boxy structure that serves at times as rowboat -- skillfully lighted by Japhy Weideman. Dede Ayite’s costumes deftly fit the characters. 

Director Saheem Ali sustains the tension throughout, though occasionally there’s a slackening of interest due more to Urch’s occasionally contrived text. So, too, the open-ended conclusion is a bit of a letdown. But these are minor carps in a consistently absorbing narrative, well worth your time.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street; 212-239-6200 or lct.org)

Photo by Jeremy Daniel: James Udom and Ato Blankson-Wood as siblings Joe and Dembe in Lincoln Center Theater's THE ROLLING STONE.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Julie Madly Deeply (59E59 Theaters)


By Harry Forbes

“I am not Julie Andrews,” declares Sarah-Louise Young at the start of her two-act tribute to Julie Andrews, precluding any odious comparisons. In any event, the show -- written by Young “with contributions from” director Russell Lucas -- is not an impersonation, but rather a loving homage from a lifelong fan.

Young first saw Andrews in a concert at the O2 auditorium in 2010  when the beloved star of “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” was attempting a musical comeback after the botched throat operation that, for all intents and purposes, ended her singing career. The press reported that the fans were disappointed, and Young admits “She didn’t sound the same,” but her adoration remained undiminished.

Tracing Andrews 1935 birth in Surrey, the nurturing of her voice by stepfather Ted Andrews to her early Broadway triumphs (“The Boy Friend,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Camelot”) to her Hollywood blockbusters, albeit with a public that would not accept her out of the nanny/governess roles, to the tragic loss of her voice, Young covers a lot of territory.

Along the way, Young sings most of the expected hits including “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

She also impersonates many of the people or prototypes in Julie’s life (i.e. a voice teacher, a Pathe news reader, a music hall performer). An adept mimic (Young’s Audtrey Hepburn for one is spot-on), she oddly chooses to affect some very peculiar accents for “My Fair Lady” director Moss Hart, and Rodgers and Hammerstein when a simple search on YouTube could easily give her the real thing. And there’s a little too much extraneous Liza Minnelli whose main connection with Andrews was replacing her for a short period in “Victor/Victoria.”

Accompanied very gracefully by Michael Roulston on the piano, most of the renditions are straight with an occasional off-beat arrangement such as “Feed the Birds.” She’s got an excellent voice which can encompass show tunes like “Le Jazz Hot” and the more soprano-like demands of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Along the way, Young ventures away from the obvious hits to such numbers “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” (cut from “MFL”), “Could I Leave You?” from Andrews’ late return to the stage, “Putting It Together,” “I’ll Give You Three Guesses” from “Darling Lili,” and “The Physician” from “Star!”  As Young professes not to care much for “Camelot,” it is Roulston who is left to offer a very warmly vocalized “How to Handle a Woman.”

The script avoids the nitty gritty of Julie’s paternal parentage, as detailed in the lady's autobiography, but covers Andrews’ divorce from Tony Walton, her career challenges, the not-altogether-positive “change in direction” under the influence of second husband Blake Edwards, and the aforementioned loss of voice, the last symbolically mimed in an extended sequence to the strains of “The Rain in Spain.”

All in all, the script does cram a good deal of biographical incident in its breezy way, so Young clearly knows her idol.

Young is extremely personable, and her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. She expresses what registers as genuine awe and excitement when audience members tell her what they’ve seen the lady in person. (Several mention “Victor/Victoria,” which particularly excites Young, though this was arguably the nadir of Andrews’ stage work.)

Outfitted in a simply frock for act one, she emerges in a rather eccentric multi-colored concoction in the second (costumes by Anna Braithwaite), which she finally sheds in modest homage to Andrews’ torrid striptease in “Darling Lili.”

Returning near the end to the night of the O2 concert, Young offers a gentle “Edelweiss,” wrapping up the evening on a poignant note before returning for a good natured audience singalong.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 646-892-7999 or www.59e59.org; through June 30)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Michael Roulston, Sarah-Louise Young in JULIE MADLY DEEPLY at Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Much Ado About Nothing (Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

The Public Theater always seems to do well with Shakespeare’s ever-popular 1598 comedy, and this latest -- an all-black production directed by the estimable Kenny Leon (his first show for the Public, and his first Shakespearean production in New York) -- is no exception.

Updated and reset from the Sicilian port of Messina to 2020 Atlanta, the production is nonetheless reassuringly traditional in most respects, though Leon has, of course, given it the overlay of the African-American experience, and the music is perforce a more up-to-date playlist than the Bard’s original.Thus we have such tunes as Marvin Gaye’s “What Going On,” “Precious Lord,” and “America the Beautiful,” sharing the stage with new tunes by Jason Michael Webb, and replacing the usual “Sigh No More” and others.

The play opens with the men coming back from an unspecified war but, as a program note explains, “this Delacorte production never depicts those the community is fighting against, emphasizing instead the values that the community is trying to defend.” Thus, the soldiers -- outfitted in burgundy uniforms (by designer Emilio Sosa) -- carry signs declaring such sentiments as “I Am a Person” and “Restore Democracy Now.”

In a program background interview, Leon explains he sees the community of the play “fighting for the values that Americans hold dear: the idea of democracy for everybody and respect for everybody, and all those values that people right now seem to be pushing against.”

The sparring Beatrice and Benedict are most delightfully taken by Danielle Brooks from “Orange is the New Black” and the revival of “The Color Purple,” and Grantham Coleman. Brooks’ sassy delivery works quite well with her character’s witty banter. Her speech after her famous injunction to “Kill, Claudio” -- “Oh, that I were a man for his sake” -- is passionately delivered, and earns an appreciative response from the audience. They and the other cast members deliver the text intelligently, albeit in the time-honored strictly American Public Theater style.

Though a far cry to such famous exemplars of the roles as Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in the19th century, and Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud in the last, The Public’s approach is valid, and the sparring couple’s “merry war” of words still satisfies. When I got home from the show, I listened to a bit of a 1963 recording of the play with Rachel Roberts, Rex Harrison, and a first-class English cast in the traditional style, and it sounded downright quaint by comparison.

Margaret Odette excels as the wronged Hero, with Jeremie Harris her too easily duped lover Claudio. (There’s a nice touch at the end when she slaps him before forgiving him for her earlier public shaming at their wedding when he was tricked into thinking her unfaithful.) Billy Eugene Jones plays Benedict and Claudio’s unlucky-in-love commander Don Pedro, with Hubert Point-Du-Jour as his villainous brother Don John. Versatile Chuck Cooper is expert as Hero’s father, as is Erik Laray Harvey as her doddering uncle Antonio. Olivia Washington and Tiffany Denise Hobbs are also strong as Margaret and Ursula, Hero’s ladies-in-waiting. And Tyrone Mitchell Henderson scores as the beleaguered Friar who steadfastly believes in Hero’s innocence.

The inept constable Dogberry -- as hopeless in wordplay as Beatrice and Benedick are adept -- is taken by a woman, Lateefah Holder, but the part is scarcely less tedious than usual. Jaime Lincoln Smith and Khiry Walker are the “false knaves” Borachio and Conrade apprehended by the foolish Dogberry and his/her Watch.

The scene where Beatrice and Benedick are tricked by their respective friends into hearing how they are loved by the other is delightfully done, with Brooks even eavesdropping from the audience as she makes her way down a row.

Beowulf Boritt’s attractive mansion set with its large “Stacey Abrams 2020” banners -- telegraphs the updated setting, and the whole is attractively lit by Peter Kaczorowski. Sosa’s costumes are modern but are as pleasing to the eye as period costumes.

Camille A. Brown (also “Choir Boy”)  has contributed the bracing choreography including disco dancing in a party scene and electric slide moves for the wedding sequence.

The most memorable “Much Ado” of my theater-going experience remains the 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack, though The Public’s 1972 updating with Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes, which transferred to Broadway and was later televised on network TV, was pretty special, too.

Leon’s production is a physically lovely, dramatically perceptive one, and the proof of its success was the uninhibited audience response during certain scenes, probably not unlike the boisterous audience response at the 16th century Globe.

(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park is accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue; ticket distribution info at PublicTheater.org; through June 23)
               
Photo by Joan Marcus: Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman.