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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Groundhog Day (August Wilson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Andy Karl returned to the musical that recently won him London’s Olivier Award, and apart from the visible leg brace during those moments his leg was exposed, his exuberant performance and physicality seem undiminished as far as I could see.

Karl was extremely impressive in the “Rocky” musical, and showed his considerable comic chops in “On the Twentieth Century,” and his Phil Collins character here is different than both. Besides his strong musical skills he’s a fine, nuanced actor.

The production started at London’s Old Vic where it ran for 10 weeks with a different supporting cast.

Based on the 1993 Bill Murray film, with a book by the movie’s co-scriptwriter Danny Rubin, it tells the tale of a cynical Pittsburgh weatherman assigned to cover the titular day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where he gets stuck in a time warp with the dreaded day repeating over and over again, which slowly (rather too slowly) brings out his humanity, and teaches him to value the good things in life and find love in the process. As with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol,” he ultimately learns how to smell the roses.

Karl’s rapid fire repetition of scene after relived scene is impressive, and though he goes through the first act with his Phil Connors character fairly arrogant and unlikable, he wins us over in the second act as he works his way towards redemption.

Barrett Doss as the associate producer assigned to work on the story with him is warmly sympathetic with a lovely voice to match.

Karl and Doss dominate, but the rest of the cast are all fine, including Rebecca Faulkenberry as the town sexpot with whom Phil has a brief fling, and she’s been given  a touching second act opener (“Playing Nancy”). And John Sanders as Phil’s nerdy former schoolmate with a good second act solo (“Night Will Come”). The rest are good, but the script reduces most everyone to caricature.

Partly due to the repetitive nature of the story, the first act feels rather protracted, and I do think the show would benefit from just a bit of trimming.

Tim Minchin’s score is in a more traditional Broadway vein than the one he wrote for “Matilda - The Musical” and it mixes genres (the country-flavored “Nobody Cares,” the rhythmic “Punxsutawney Rock”) deftly, and there are several nice ballads (“Seeing You,” “Philosopher,” “If I Had My Time Again”), but it’s hard to assess a score on first hearing. But his lyrics are quirkily clever.

Choreographer Peter Darling and set and costume designer Rob Howell are also talented “Matilda” alums, and the latter’s abstract set design (though on the chintzy side) and Andrzej Goulding’s video design provides the necessary fluidity for this time looping narrative.

Matthew Warchus, who helmed “Matilda,” directs with ingenuity as when, for instance, we see Phil waking up repeatedly in his little bedroom during the song “Hope,” when seemingly just observed elsewhere on the stage.

(August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street; or 877-250-2929)

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Little Foxes (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

This latest revival of Lillian Hellman’s most revered play is solid through and through, and looking back, the best stage version of my experience. In 1981, it was rather thrilling to see Elizabeth Taylor in the flesh as the conniving Regina Giddens, and she had her good moments, but I recall she kept losing energy throughout the evening.

The 1997 Lincoln Center revival with Taylor-lookalike Stockard Channing was much better. But I didn’t much care for Ivo van Hove’s idiosyncratic staging at New York Theatre Workshop or a 2001 Donmar Warehouse revival with a game but miscast Penelope Wilton.

This one seems to me perfectly cast across the board with the drama absorbingly unfolding over three acts under Daniel Sullivan’s assured direction on Scott Pask’s handsome set, with sensitive lighting by Justin Townsend.

One has the choice of seeing Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie -- each nicely bedecked, like the rest of the cast, in Jane Greenwood’s turn of the last century costumes -- or vice versa. I had the former teaming at my performance, and both ladies were splendid in their roles.

I hadn’t found Laura Linney too convincing as the villainess La Marquise de Merteuil in the Roundabout's “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” a few seasons back, but she’s spot-on perfect here. So, too, Nixon is wonderfully sympathetic and heart-breaking as the alcoholic Birdie. And her big third act monologue, delivered while getting more and more inebriated, is masterfully done.

But colleagues who have seen the parts reversed were just as impressed.

The other players are equally accomplished: Francesca Carpanini as their daughter Alexandra; Darren Goldstein and Michael McKean as Regina’s avaricious brothers; and Michael Benz as Oscar and Birdie’s weak crooked son Leo. Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner are very fine as the servants of the Southern household.

Richard Thomas plays Regina’s dying husband Horace with plenty of spirit and, at one point, rages magnificently at his grasping wife.

One admires anew the well-crafted structure of Hellman’s play, melodramatic though it can be, and, even knowing full well how it will end, one hangs on every word.

(MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Present Laughter (St. James Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Noel Coward’s 1939 comedy (not produced till 1942)  about a vain, self-absorbed  larger-than-life actor has served as a meaty Broadway vehicle for the likes of George C. Scott, Frank Langella, and Victor Garber over the past three decades.

I first encountered the play in 1980s London with the peerless Donald Sinden in absolutely superb comedic form. I remember sitting next to the great star Elizabeth Welch - a contemporary of Coward -- who was helplessly convulsed with tears of laughter were running down her face. That production was filmed, and is available in the BBC’s “Noel Coward Collection” box. There’s also an excellent abridged black and white version with Peter Wyngarde on the U.K. only “Choice of Coward” collection.

The role was created Coward himself, and later on Broadway by Clifton Webb, though Coward played it again in the 1950s in the States.

The part of Garry Essendine calls for a hammy, extravagant performance, and Kevin Kline delivers those attributes, along with his still impressive physical comedy prowess, with considerable aplomb. With an authentic English accent and plenty of bravado, the role suits him like a glove, and he ranks high in the pantheon of great actors who have played the part.

But he’s not acting in a vacuum. The rest of the ensemble cast is top quality: Kate Burton as ex-wife Liz; Kristine Nielsen as his devoted secretary of many years; Peter Francis James as his friend and producer Henry; Reg Rogers as manager Morris who’s having a clandestine affair with Henry’s wife..

An inveterate ladies man, Garry is the target of both the idolatrous --  impressionable aspiring actress Daphne Stillington (spot-on Tedra Millan), and alarmingly intense devotee/playwright Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel) --  and the blatantly predatory: Henry’s seductive philandering wife Joanna (a standout Cobie Smulders). Interestingly, Burton played Daphne in the Scott production.

Matt Bittner makes an amiable manservant, and Ellen Harvey an appropriately languorous, world-weary Swedish housekeeper. And Sandra Shipley scores with her late entrance as Daphne’s aunt.

All this plays out on David Zinn’s characterful lived-in set, lighted by Justin Townsend. Susan Hilferty’s 1930s costumes are generally yummy. (Smulders’ sexy get-up, in particular, earned admiring comments around me.)

Moritz Von Stuelpnagel draws excellent performances from all, and maintains a good pace --- balancing the farcical and naturalistic components -- so that one is only sporadically aware of the play’s talkiness. If, on the whole, the show doesn't quite rise to the giddy heights of that Sinden production, Kline's bravura turn is definitely one to catch.

St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street; or 877-250-2929; through July 2)

Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline in a scene from Broadway's PRESENT LAUGHTER (photo by Joan Marcus)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong (Lyceum Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The conceit of this London import from the Mischief Theatre is that the (fictitious) Cornley University Drama Society -- which, as we learn in a pre-curtain speech, has had a fairly disastrous track record with their theatrical presentations -- is now attempting  its most ambitious project yet: a full-out mystery entitled “The Murder at Haversham Manor.”

We just know -- and, of course, the title tells us -- that everything is doomed to go disastrously awry, and indeed it does. Even before the play starts, we see the stagehands vainly attempting to mount the quirky scenery, such as a mantelpiece which resolutely will not stay affixed to the wall. The “lighting and sound operator” (played by Rob Falconer) -- who sits in the stage right box for most of the evening -- is plainly distracted from his task during the performance which leads to some unfortunate gaffes involving the stage effects..

The mystery itself concerns the death of one Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill) which is being investigated by Inspector Carter (Henry Shields). Among the likely suspects are Charles’ fiancee Florence (Charlie Russell), his brother Cecil (Dave Hearn) with whom we learn she’s been having an affair, Charles’ faithful butler Perkins (Jonathan Sayer) and Thomas Colleymoore (Henry Lewis), Florence’s overly protective brother.

When the actress playing Florence is knocked out by a violently opened door, stage manager Annie (Bryony Corrigan at my performance) must go on in her stead. But when the true Florence actress regains consciousness, Annie is loathe to relinquish her time in the spotlight, and further mayhem ensues.

Apart from failing or missing props, dodgy scenic design, out-of-sync line readings and other incidents that spell disaster, the Cornley cast is a mass of idiosyncrasies. The Perkins actor can’t pronounce complicated words (e.g. cyanide, morose) and reads stage directions out loud; Florence is a blatant exhibitionist; Colleymoore repeatedly forgets his lines; Charles’ corpse simply won’t lie still; and Cecil is a hambone who thinks all the audience laughter is meant just for him, and exaggerates everything; he also has an aversion to kissing his leading lady. The very funny Hearn in that role also doubles as Arthur the Gardener and has some more silly business when he enters with his (imaginary) vicious dog.

The play itself -- by Lewis, Sayer, and Shields -- is a sort of “Noises Off” riff but seen entirely from the front of house rather than various vantage points as in Michael Frayn’s play.

Nigel Hooks’ scenic design is predictably ingenious as hardly anything functions properly or stays in its proper place very long. Roberto Surace’s costumes have the right provincial flavor, and director Mark Bell keeps things moving a furious, mathematically well coordinated pace.

For all the amusing things that transpire, and the truly impressive physical and comic skills of the marvellously adept cast, I felt the play tries rather too aggressively almost from the first moments. I love farce, especially British farce, but I found the relentless slapstick a bit tiresome on this occasion and would have much preferred building gradually towards it. Most of the audience at my performance seemed to love it, however, so perhaps I’m in the minority. In truth, by the second act, I found myself laughing with the rest.

The Mischief Theatre team has already spawned two follow-up shows, “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and “The Comedy About a Bank Robbery,” with the current offering now in its third year in London. So, clearly the show is striking a responsive chord with many.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Amélie (Walter Kerr Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This whimsical little musical based on the equally whimsical but, I’m sorry to say, rather more artful 2001 French film from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is at best a pleasant diversion, but at the end of the day, very mild entertainment indeed.

“Amélie” tells the peculiar tale of a young woman brought up by her distant doctor father (Manoel Felciano) who lacks the capacity to give her physical affection, and shelters her because of a presumed heart condition. By the time she grows up and becomes a waitress at the Cafe des Deux Moulins, she has become an anonymous do-gooder (inspired, in part, by the good works of Princess Diana!), helping people connect with one another in a way that she herself is psychologically blocked from doing. When she finds a scrapbook filled with pictures discarded from photo booth strips, she recognizes a kindred soul in its creator Nino,who works as a clerk in a porn shop (of all places). She can’t bring herself to return the book openly, so she engages in a cat and mouse communication with him.

On the plus side, Craig Lucas has adapted the movie’s screenplay with intelligence, ace director Pam MacKinnon directs with requisite sensitivity, and star Phillipa Soo makes her tiresomely shy heroine as appealing as possible.. In fact, all the cast members are solid, including Adam Chanler-Berat as the equally phobic object of her affections, Tony Sheldon as her wise artist neighbor, and David Andino, Randy Blair, Heath Calvert, Alison Cimmet, Harriett D. Fox, Alyse Alan Louis, and Paul Whitty, in various multiple roles, with Maria Christina Oliveras as Gina, one of the cafe denizens, and Savvy Crawford as the young Amélie.  

Daniel Messé’s score (lyrics co-written by him and Nathan Tysen) is mostly just serviceable, though towards the end, Chanler-Berat has a stirring ballad, and Amélie’s three cronies from the shop perform a catchy number. Still, it all registers as very generic, and not really very French at all.

David Zinn’s scenic and costume design attempts something akin to the memorably color saturated film. Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s costumes are apt, and Kai Harada’s sound design is clean.

Further plusses are Sam Pinkleton’s musical staging and choreography, and Peter Nigrini’s clever projections.

As far as this sort of Gallic whimsy goes, I found myself reminded of the far superior 2002 Michel Legrand musical “Amour” -- which this one sometimes resembles in tone -- but which, for all its virtues (a great cast headed by Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets, a classy creative team including James Lapine and Jeremy Sams), came to grief at the box office.

I sincerely wish “Amélie,” which premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2015,  a better fate, but I can’t imagine this one having any greater appeal than its Gallic predecessor.

(Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street; or 877-250-2929)

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Miss Saigon (Broadway Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This is a most impressive revival of the Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil musical hit of (can it really be so?) 28 years ago which, while not quite erasing memories of the exquisite Lea Salonga and superb Jonathan Pryce, confirms the show’s quality and durability. Fresh from its London run (and there’s already a DVD in the U.K., including an elaborate special finale of a gala performance where Salonga and Pryce intermingled with the present cast members).

The original London production took place 1989, and the show came to Broadway two years later to the very same theater where it has now taken up residence. Back in 1991, as many recall, there was much controversy over the casting of Pryce as a Eurasian, not a problem with the present casting.

The show -- “Madame Butterfly” updated and transposed to Vietnam War-era Saigon and Bangkok -- is, as one can freshly appreciate, cannily constructed and, in its way, packing as much of an emotional wallop as Puccini’s opera. There are many superb theatrical moments such as “The Morning of the Dragon” sequence dramatizing the third anniversary of reunification in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and the heart-stopping first act finale with Kim, her child, and the Engineer fleeing Vietnam as the curtain falls.  The exciting evacuation of Saigon with its iconic helicopter liftoff is shrewdly held till the second act as a flashback as is the show’s most flamboyant production number, “The American Dream” (now with a brief cynical Trump allusion that is entirely apt).

One is aware in these well-populated numbers that there has been no stinting on cast members.
And Cameron Mackintosh’s care in the classy mounting of this property (as with the recent “Les Miz”) is exemplary.

Faithful to Nicholas Hytner’s  original staging in many respects (rather more so than the turntable-less recent comeback of “Les Miserables”), Laurence Connor’s new production -- with evocative sets by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, lighting by Bruno Poet, and costumes by Andreane Neofitou -- provides just enough of a facelift to give the show a fresh feel. Bob Avian recreates his musical staging and choreography.

As for the iconic helicopter sequence, alas, technology failed at my performance, and we were only given a projection which, I gather, normally works in tandem with the three-dimensional prop, but it was still an exciting sequence.

Eva Noblezada makes a fine Kim, convincingly innocent but passionate in the love scenes with her American soldier Chris (Alistair Brammer) and appropriately fervent in her devotion to him and the son she bears. (And I would swear there seems to be more smooching between Kim and Chris during their duets, but they manage to do so adeptly while maintaining the vocal line!)

Jon Jon Briones’s Engineer, the pimp character with whom she develops an unlikely but synergistic bond, is quite different than Pryce’s creation but just as dynamic, and as sly and sleazy as you would wish for the role.

Brammer looks good and acts well, though his high-lying singing seemed a bit tremulous at my performance. Other cast standouts included Devin Ilaw as Kim’s villainous fiancee Thuy, Katie Rose Clarke as Chris’ concerned but empathetic American wife, and Nicholas Christopher as Chris’ buddy John who sings the still rather mawkish  “Bui Doi” at the opening of Act Two.

But, that number aside, the score -- under the musical direction of James Moore -- holds up mighty well and songs like “The Movie in My Mind,” “I Still Believe,” “The Last Night of the World,” “If You Want to Die in Bed,” “Why God Why” are effective as ever. I did miss Ellen’s original “Now That I’ve Seen Her” ballad, replaced by “Maybe.”

Even if Schönberg and Boublil’s subsequent mega-musicals, “Martin Guerre” (never on Broadway) and “The Pirate Queen” (only Broadway) failed to have the same success despite respective virtues, these two men will always stand tall in the musical theater pantheon with their two mega-hits.

Production credits, including Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s production design (replacing John Napier’s original), Andreane Neofitou’s costumes, are all fine, though I did find Mick Potter’s sound balance a tad muddy, whereas I can remember with almost photographic aural recall how brilliantly clear the first production was in 1991.

(The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway; or 212-239-6200)
Eva Noblezada and Samuel Li Weintraub in "Miss Saigon." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy   

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sweat (Studio 54)

By Harry Forbes

The Broadway transfer of Lynn Nottage’s powerful play about workers being edged out of the factory which has been their livelihood for generations makes for grippingly intense theater.

The play started life as a commission from Arena Stage and the Oregon Shakespeare Company where it premiered before its New York premiere at The Public here in November.

The setting is Reading, PA. It starts with the individual interrogations of two parolees in 2008, white Jason (an intense Will Pullen) and black Chris (Khris Davis), whose relationship to each other and whose specific crimes are not yet revealed. Officer Evan (Lance Codie Williams) goes from one to the other, and we learn they’ve apparently served time, and that there's some connection between them.

Then the clock rolls back to 2000 where we meet three women friends who hang out at a local bar. We learn Tracey (Johanna Day) is Jason’s mother, and Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) the mother of Chris. The third is their usually soused best friend Jessie (Alison Wright). They are all long-term workers at the factory, though Chris has aspirations of breaking the family mold, and going off to college to become a teacher. We learn that Jason and Chris were once, in fact, close friends.

The empathetic and pragmatic bartender is former factory worker Stan (James Colby) (whose foot was badly injured in a machine accident at the plant years ago), and he’s assisted by the Latino Oscar (Carlo Alban). Cynthia’s ne’er-do-well ex-husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks), whose life has somehow derailed, is a sometime habitue as well, hoping for a reconciliation with Cynthia ,and a handout from son Chris.

When Cynthia is promoted to a supervisory role, the delicate balance of the women’s friendship is upended, and when the factory starts to move out some of the machines, and there are rumors of downsizing, pay cuts, and additional hours, deep seated resentments and the ugliest of racial hatred bubble to the surface.

Performances are perfection across the board, and these characters are sharply drawn, taken as they were from interviews Nottage conducted in Reading. Tracey is particularly interesting; seemingly a good egg, but harboring a dangerous sense of entitlement when, in a superbly written and played scene, she learns that Oscar -- whom she deems an outside, though he’s native born -- is planning to apply for a job at her factory.

These people are locked into their routine, and though they may dream breaking away, as with Chris’ dream of a different career, and later, Jessie’s poignantly revealed regret that she never saw the world, they rarely take the necessary steps.

Character delineation aside, Nottage’s construction is extremely skillful and her the masterful way she lays out the chronology of events makes for a highly suspenseful evening.

John Lee Beatty’s versatile revolving set (lighted by Peter Kaczorowski), including Stan’s bar, and several other locations, captures the milieu perfectly. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes have the same authenticity.

Kate Whoriskey’s direction keeps the action taut, and at certain points, unbearably tense. Special kudos to U. Jonathan Toppo’s fight direction as there is some very convincing physical contact during the play’s brutal climax.

The play is unnervingly relevant to today’s political climate giving it even more potency. But contemporary parallels aside, this is just plain riveting theater, sure to be richly honored during the coming awards season.

(Studio 54, 254 West 54th St;, or 212-239-6200)