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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Bandstand (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The generic title doesn’t really give you much of a clue what it’s about, but “Bandstand” turns out to be an absorbing musical drama about a World War II veteran (Corey Cott) who, after finding doors to employment shut after the war, decides to form a band of fellow battle-scarred vets, with the widow (Laura Osnes) of his best buddy as their lead singer, to enter a competition that will bring them from hometown Cleveland to New York for a national radio broadcast.

The plot may have a TCM deja vu ring, but the dialogue is solid and believable, the characters real, and the staging by “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler impressively fluid, the exciting dancing neatly mirroring every plot turn, making for an engrossing evening.

Laura Osnes is as ever a joy, sings beautifully, dances gracefully, and gives a thoroughly well thought-out performance. And Cott -- rather miscast in the Louis Jourdan part in last season’s misguided revival of “Gigi” -- is outstanding here. You really feel his pain. He deserved a lot more recognition from the Tonys and other theater awards competitions. But, in my book, he gives one of the best leading actor performances in a musical this season.

The sincerity of their performances, and those of their fellow band members -- Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, and Geoff Packard -- who play their own instruments make for appealing and refreshingly adult entertainment. And Beth Leavel is another big plus as Julia’s sympathetic mother.

There are some nice things in Richard Oberacker’s score which avoids the pastiche style of, say, the Sherman Brothers’ tuneful score for the Andrews Sisters musical  “Over Here” in 1974. Cott’s opening song “Donny Novitski,” Osnes’ “Love Will Come and Find Me Again,” the second act opener “Nobody,” and “Welcome Home” struck me as standouts. Much of the rest is less distinctive, but I always say it’s difficult to do justice to a score when hearing it for the first time. Bill Elliott and Music Supervisor and Arranger Greg Anthony Rassen share credit for the lively orchestrations. Oberacker shares book and lyric honors with Rob Taylor. As noted, the script is particularly strong and uncommonly intelligent.
David Korins’ set -- lighted by Jeff Croiter -- allows for the multiple scene changes, including, ultimately, New York, the splashiest set. Paloma Young’s costumes are period perfect. Nevin Steinberg’s sound design begins at way too high a decibel, but gradually settles down to something more suitable for the 1940s period.

The production premiered in October 2015 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. I didn’t see it there, so can’t tell how much refining may have taken place in the interim, but what’s onstage now at the Jacobs is impressive.

My audience watched it with rapt attention, as they would a compelling drama which indeed it is.

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Doll’s House - Part 2 (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The intriguing sequel to Ibsen’s iconic work has Nora -- as fiercely played by Laurie Metcalf -- returning to husband Torvald’s home 15 years after famously walking out the door. Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), the nanny to her children greets her, and in short order, Nora comes face-to-face with an embittered Torvald (Chris Cooper), and her grown daughter Emmy (a radiant Condola Rashad).

This is a tough, abrasive Nora as written by Lucas Hnath and as played by Metcalf, though she softens towards the end. Since leaving home, she’s written books, gone into business, had affairs. But she’s only just discovered that Torvald never actually divorced her. Under the law, all her property is technically his. And she could be brought to trial for signing contracts without her husband’s permission, and even go to jail.

Torvald, for his part, still mightily resents her walking out on him and their three children, and Nora’s unexpected return brings up mixed emotions. He’s not inclined to give her the divorce. But if she is the one who files, she will need to “ruin” him. Anne Marie, for her part, resents being put in the middle, as she is grateful to Torvald for supporting her and providing her livelihood for all these years, even if it meant having to ignore her own children.

When Nora finally meets Emmy to enlist the girl’s help in getting a divorce despite Torvald’s recalcitrance, the response is not what she expects as, surprisingly, she turns out not to be in sync with her mother’s feminist views.

Cooper, Houdyshell, and Rashad are all in top form.

Director Sam Gold’s modernistic spare production keeps the attention focused squarely on the characters and the words. Nora, at one point, breaks the fourth wall to address the audience on why she thinks marriage should be abolished.

Miriam Buether’s setting -- a large white room with a few chairs and some tellingly anachronistic props, like a box of tissues -- is positioned on a thrust stage, and starkly lit for Jennifer Tipton. An illuminated yellow sign proclaiming the play’s title in a distinctly modern wayhovers above before the play begins. And throughout the 90 intermission-less minutes, each scene is announced by one of the characters named projected large on the set walls. (Peter Nigrini is the projection designer.) But David Zinn’s costumes are, at least, traditional.

The play feels a bit didactic and sometimes superficial in its modern-day jokey tone, but the themes have resonance. Some of the lines are very funny. At one point, for instance, Torvald tells Nora, “Leave. There’s the door. I know you know how to use it.”

Hnath’s tone is comedic as much as serious, and the dialogue is decidedly contemporary and colloquial. “Just so ya know,” says Anne Marie at one point.  “F” and “S” bombs abound. It’s a bit off-putting, but the themes are a plausible outgrowth of Ibsen’s, and thought-provoking.

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Jayne Houdyshell and Laurie Metcalf in a scene From “A Doll's House, Part 2” ©Brigitte Lacombe

Friday, May 12, 2017

Anastasia (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The popular 1997 animated film has been transformed into a visually sumptuous stage version. Of course, like the film, any relation to the actual Romanov Grand Duchess Anastasia who was slaughtered at the age of 17 with her father Czar Nicholas II and the rest of her family in 1918, is strictly coincidental. This is pure fantasy. 

In this telling, however, two con men, Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton), a former nobleman, find a young woman Anya (Christy Altomare) to impersonate the murdered girl, as rumors are rife that she had, in fact, escaped.

Under their tutelage, young Anya comes to believe she may really be Anastasia, and must then, in Paris, convince her grandmother, the Dowager Empress  (Mary Beth Peil), of that fact, while Dmitry and Vlad hope to collect the reward for finding her. Meanwhile, Anya is being pursued by a Russian secret police officer Gleb (Ramin Karimloo) determined to drag her back to Russia or else kill her.

The score, by the estimable team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, has been generously expanded from the movie, and the script is by Terrence McNally, no less. But despite their generally worthy contributions, the most striking aspects of the production are the beautiful scenic design (by Alexander Dodge) the eye-popping projections (by Aaron Rhyne) which provide endless scenic backgrounds for the various scenes (St. Petersburg, Paris, elegant ballrooms, an opera house), and the costumes (by Linda Cho) which are truly gorgeous.

The projections are mostly stationary, like real scenery, but the trio’s escape from Russia on a moving train provides a genuinely cinematic experience as the backdrop shows us the scenery whizzing by.

One of the nicest set pieces is a scene at the Paris Opera where Anya and the others watch a performance of “Swan Lake.” (There’s expert ballet work here by Allison Walsh, Kyle Brown, and James A. Pierce III.)

The cast is fine, with the two standouts being Mary Beth Peil, both acting and singing with great distinction (as did Angela Lansbury in the film), and West End star Caroline O’Connor as Countess Lily, the Dowager Empress’ companion, who has the evening’s most lively showstopper, “Land of Yesterday.” Very engaging, too, is Bolton who duets with O’Connor in “The Countess and the Common Man.”

Altomare has a powerful set of pipes and an appealingly spunky disposition. Klena is boyishly appealing, and also sings well.

In writing the book, McNally has reunited with his “Ragtime” collaborators Ahrens and Flaherty, and wisely has dispensed with the cartoonish depiction of Rasputin who, in the film, is a magical demon pursuing the supposed royal to Paris. In its place, McNally has the Gleb character, ultimately not quite a villain but not a hero either, despite the casting of matinee idol Karimloo.

Rasputin, of course, had in actuality died well before Anastasia and her family did. And it has since been forensically proven that Anastasia did indeed perish with the rest of her family. Still, taken as a fairy tale, the story is effective, as was the live action film with Ingrid Bergman in 1956.

The six movie songs, including “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past”  work well on stage -- the film, like Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” always had a Broadway-sounding score -- so that's no surprise. There are some attractive new pieces, too.

Darko Tresnjak directs with appropriately epic sweep, and the dramatic scenes are well judged.

The tween girls who love the movie enthusiastically greet each of the familiar songs and seem totally smitten with the romantic elements. But I must admit the adults in the audience were just as attentive.

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Antipodes (Signature Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Annie Baker’s latest play, after the excellent “John” (also at Signature), registers as amusing and thought-provoking, if a tad long. It concerns storytelling and the power of myth as a group of writers (Phillip James Brannon, Josh Charles, Josh Hamilton, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Danny McCarthy, Emily Cass McDonnell) gather around a conference table under the direction of Sandy (Will Patton) to brainstorm ideas which will lead to a TV mini-series event.

Sandy’s injunction is that, as they sit in this "cone of silence," they will start relating personal stories -- everything from first sexual encounters to worst experience to deep regret -- out of which will spring something new and fresh. “We can change the world,” he explains, “and we can make a shitload of money.”

The individual stories are a mixed bag but generally interesting, leading up to a lengthy Creation story related by the aptly named Adam (Brannon).

Sandy’s secretary Sarah (a very amusing Nicole Rodenburg) comes in periodically to take food orders, though eventually she, too, comes up with a story and it’s a doozy. A young man named Brian (Brian Miskell) takes notes on his laptop, and registers as a fairly passive character until late in the play (which runs one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission), he performs a strange ritual while all the others are sleeping.

At one point, they get a call from an important, but unidentified, person named Max (voice of Hugh Dancy) -- a sort of Big Brother -- and the crackling connection keeps failing. The tone of the play's narrative grows increasingly ominous and the writers tire of their seemingly fruitless exercise, as a major storm brews outside.

Boxes of LaCroix water stand at the ready at the back of Laura Jellinek’s simple set: a conference table with chairs, lighted by Tyler Micoleau. The conference table set up means that for about half the show, the actors on each side of the table aren’t fully visible to the audience members (half on each side of the table) behind it, which makes keeping track of who’s who slightly challenging.

Lila Neugebauer directs with sensitivity to Baker’s rhythms, and performances are all very fine, though the static nature of the setup brings occasional tedium, and I’m not sure what it all signified by the end of the evening. Still, for all that, I found it to be a generally worthwhile experience.

(The Pershing Square Signature Center, 212) 244-7529 or; through June 11)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a superlative revival of John Guare’s 1990 play about an ambitious young man Paul (Corey Hawkins) who cons an art dealer Flan Kittredge (John Benjamin Hickey) and his wife Ouisa (Allison Janney glamorously bedecked in Clint Ramos’ upper crust duds) into believing he’s the son of actor Sidney Poitier and a friend of their own children.

He shows up at their Fifth Avenue apartment claiming to have been mugged, with a minor knife wound to prove it.

They soon learn that others have fallen prey to the same ruse: another affluent couple (Lisa Emery and Michael Countryman), a doctor (Ned Eisenberg), and most poignantly, an idealistic  pair of aspiring actors (Peter Mark Kendall and Sarah Mezzanotte).

He has given most of them the same line about his lineage, along with the improbable notion that his father is about to direct a movie version of “Cats” in which they’ll have roles. Much as Flan and Ouisa disdain “Cats,” it’s clear they’ll jump at the chance. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is but one of several New York cultural references of the era, including, for instance, another Lloyd Webber show “Starlight Express” and Earl Blackwell’s talent finder Celebrity Service.

For Flan and Ouisa, they get their rude awakening when a naked hustler (James Cusati-Moyer) ends up in Paul’s bed. Even though the upper crust characters are mortified at having fallen victim to the scam, in some ways, as Ouisa points out, the incident has validated their lives, particularly as their own children -- mostly all spoiled and self-centered -- stand in stark contrast to the earnest, well-spoken young man before them. There’s a beautifully written and orchestrated scene of the children of the duped adults berating their parents for their stupidity in a rising cacophony.

Guare based his play on the true story of one David Hampton. (I once knew one of the victims, and how I wish, all these years later, that I had probed for some details.)

The whole cast -- 18 in all -- is quite wonderful, with Janney, Hawkins and Hickey in top form.. It’s a luxury to enjoy such a well-populated play with some minor characters who have relatively little stage time.

Trip Cullman, recently on Broadway with his terrific “Significant Other,”  directs again with a sure hand. Stylishly designed by Mark Wendland, and lighted by Ben Stanton, the production (dominated by its deep red palette, with a two-sided Kandinsky painting hanging above) is a visual pleasure.

Guare’s barbs at the privileged class are right on target, the portrayal not without compassion, and the play holds up very well indeed. It matters very little that in today’s internet age, Paul’s scam would be quickly unmasked. The themes still resonate.

(Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200; through July 16)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Hello, Dolly! (Shubert Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The electricity is palpable from the first note of the overture, as the audience enthusiastically applauds every tune. The deep red curtain promises a rich dessert, and neither the production nor its much-publicized star disappoint.

Bette Midler is completely winning from the first moment she lowers her newspaper on the streetcar and her million dollar smile beams forth knowingly. Chaos erupts at that moment, and Dolly’s descent from the streetcar is momentarily halted as Midler acknowledges the cheers. But though the crowd is equally vociferous after each of her numbers, this is not just a star turn, but a real performance.

As widowed matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, Midler evokes considerable pathos and, likewise, all her comic business is carefully within character.

Though Midler is very much the focal point, this is an altogether splendid revival of the classic 1964 musical, across the board. David Hyde Pierce makes a marvelous Horace Vandergelder, the penny-pinching Yonkers merchant. Unrecognizable under his wig and whiskers, he plays the misanthropic miser perfectly, and makes “It Takes a Woman” his own. He’s also been allowed a reinstated song cut from the original production “Penny in My Pocket” which he performs superbly “in one” at the start of the second act.

Kate Baldwin is an absolutely lovely Irene Molloy, the widowed milliner whom matchmaker Dolly has initially set up for Vandergelder until, that is, Dolly decides she’ll go after him herself, and her lyrical “Ribbons Down My Back” is a highlight. Gavin Creel makes an exuberant, strong voiced head clerk Cornelius Hackel, and Taylor Trensch is appealing as his youthful sidekick Barnaby. Beanie Feldstein earns laughs a Irene’s giddy assistant Minnie Fay.

There’s a brief gem of a performance by Jennifer Simard as Ernestina Simple, the dreadful girl Dolly intentionally lines up for Vandergelder as a turn-off.

Midler’s grand second act entrance in a red gown at the Harmonia Gardens is, of course, the big moment everyone hopes it will be. Midler plays it to the hilt, with a glimmer of intentional self-consciousness that signals to the audience that she knows “this is it!” and she feigns exhaustion at one point after traversing the runway.

She scores all the right points in her eating scene with Vandergelder at the restaurant -- “You go your way, I’ll go mine” (pointing in the same direction), though the protracted, self-absorbed eating scene that follows (a variation on Carol Channing’s original staging) does go on.

There are some echoes of the familiar Streisand movie throughout: the painted drop that opens the show resembles the film’s freeze-frame opening, Creel’s awkwardness occasionally echoes Michael Crawford’s, and Midler gets to hum a bit of “It Takes a Woman” as Streisand did.

But Midler’s mannerisms are all her own, and she acts quite movingly in all her apostrophes to her late husband Ephraim, including the one that leads up to her big first act closer, “Before the Parade Passes By.” She’s genuinely touching in those moments.

Jerry Herman’s score holds up very well indeed: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” (immortalized in the Disney film “Wall-E”), “Dancing,” “It Only Takes a Moment, and “So Long Dearie.”)

Director Jerry Zaks is in his element with his sort of material, and choreographer Warren Carlyle pays respectful homage to original director/choreographer Gower Champion.

Santo Loquasto’s brightly colored sets -- lighted by Natasha Katz --  and costumes are dazzling, as they, too, pay homage to the look of the original. The now classic score sounds better than ever in Larry Hochman’s new orchestrations as led by Music Director Andy Einhorn.

(Shubert Theatre,225 West 44 Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Gently Down the Stream (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The latest play by Martin Sherman (author of “Bent”) concerns a New Orleans ex-pat named Beau (Harvey Fierstein), living in London and Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), the young man who comes into his life for a one night stand and stays. We learn Beau had been an accompanist for the great Mabel Mercer and was was a friend of James Baldwin, though he keeps most of his reminiscences guardedly under wraps.

Eventually, Rufus encourages him to record his stories, which allows Fierstein several touching monologues about gay life in an earlier era. The play derives its title from one of these, as Beau recalls a liberating bonding moment involving him and a couple of other gay men as they sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in comforting harmony.

But overall, Beau’s life experience, which more or less mirrors the vicissitudes of the gay liberation era, has taught him that things always “end badly.” Concerned about aging, and so convinced Rufus will one day leave him, he pushes the reluctant young man to have other relationships, which (slight spoiler) Rufus eventually does, taking up with Harry (Christopher Sears), a tattooed performance artist seven years his junior.

The play is a bit slow in building steam, and the impossibly obstinate Fierstein character rather difficult to warm up to, but eventually you're won over.

Performances are fine with Fierstein’s trademark rasp mixing a New Orleans accent and Brooklynese. Ebert, a Tony winner for “Matilda - The Musical,”  is wonderfully appealing and believable as the manic-depressive lawyer Rufus, and Sears evokes a likeable persona and, at one point, impressively performs a song from his act.

Derek McLane has designed a detailed cozy if crowded book-lined apartment for Beau, lighted by Peter Kaczorowski.

Michael Krass’s costumes, Peter Kaczorowski’ lighting, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design are first-rate. Scene changes are punctuated by recordings of Mercer sounding pretty wonderful.

Sean Mathias, who once directed a notable revival of Sherman’s “Bent” with Ian McKellan,  directs with a practiced hand for Sherman’s rhythms.

The play is somewhat predictable and didactic, and maybe a little too neatly wrapped up by the end, but at 100 intermission-less minutes holds your interest, and ultimately, proves affecting.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555 or; through May 14)

Photo: Harvey Fierstein, Christopher Sears, and Gabriel Ebert in Gently Down the Stream, written by Martin Sherman and directed by Sean Mathias, running at The Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus