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Monday, March 20, 2017

Come From Away (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This most unlikely premise for a musical -- how the residents of Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, took in nearly 7000 diverted airline passengers (that number roughly equal to their population) on September 11, 2001 -- comes up a likable audience pleaser thanks to an engaging, versatile cast, clever staging, and eight superb musicians.

Heartwarming, albeit somewhat predictable, “Come From Away” -- which comes to Broadway via the  La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Ford’s Theatre  -- moves briskly over its one hour and forty minutes (played without intermission), and the cast alternates effortlessly between playing townspeople and plane people. Thanks to their skill and  Christopher Ashley’s ingenious direction (in tandem with Kelly Devine’s musical staging), you rarely lose track of who’s who.

The book, music and lyrics are credited to the husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Though the songs (mostly ensemble numbers) work effectively in the context of the show, there’s nothing particularly memorable, at least on first hearing.

The story is interesting, and might have been just as effective in a straight dramatic version. Certainly, given the current political climate, the story of people warmly embracing a host of foreigners, no questions asked, generates comforting reassurance about human nature, even as the one Middle Eastern character is initially greeted with suspicion and hostility.

August Eriksmoen’s orchestrations and Ian Eisendrath’s music arrangements emphasize the Celtic quality of much of the score, especially a rousing dance number in a pub.

The cast of 12 work as a true ensemble, and all are excellent. There’s Astrid Van Wieren as Beulah, head of the Gander Legion, who coordinates the crowds at the local school; Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa as a gay couple from Los Angeles, the first, head of an environmental energy company, the other his secretary/boyfriend; Sharon Wheatley as a Texas divorcee and Lee MacDougall as a British engineer who falls for her; Jenn Colella as American Airlines' first female pilot (given the show’s only solo showstopper “Me and the Sky”); Q. Smith as a mother desperately trying to get news about her firefighter son back in New York; Joel Hatch as the town mayor; Petrina Bromley as an SPCA head distraught about the welfare of the animals on board the flights; Kendra Kassebaum as a novice TV reporter who earns her stripes during those tumultuous days; Rodney Hicks as a skeptical black New Yorker who learns to trust; and Geno Carr as a Gander police constable (one of only two). All of them deftly play multiple roles.
Beowulf Boritt’s set design, lighted by Howell Binkley, has the requisite versatility for the quick scene changes from Gander cafeteria to plane to whatever. Twelve chairs are actually the principal props. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes greatly help define the characters.

Gareth Owen’s sound design seems to me rather overloaded, and not all the dialogue or lyrics are intelligible. The opening ensemble number “Welcome to the Rock” got things off to an off-putting start with a particularly high decibel level and muddy quality.

Ian Eisendrath’s music supervision keeps things  lively, and when he and his fellow musicians have the stage to themselves after the cast's curtain calls, allowing the audience -- some genuinely moved to tears -- to exit the theater in a jubilant mood.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Significant Other (Booth Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I recall very much enjoying Joshua Harmon’s play when it was done at the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre two years ago, but wondered how it would fare in a Broadway house. Well, if anything, the play seems richer and even more enjoyable in its bigger venue, and the original cast, reassembled (with one exception) here, even sharper in their characterizations.

“Significant Other” is the funny-sad tale of a self-pitying 29-year-old gay man, Jordan Berman (riotously played by Gideon Glick), forever searching for love, but taking comfort from his three gal pals: outrageous Kiki (Sas Goldberg), sympathetic Knopf editor Vanessa (Rebecca Naomi Jones, the newcomer to the play), and closest friend and former roommate, Laura (Lindsay Mendez). His unspoken crush on office mate Will (John Behlmann) propels the action of the first act, including a priceless scene where Jordan tortures himself over whether to press “send” on a forthright email to Will.

Jordan and Will do manage a date of sorts -- an outing to see a documentary about the Franco-Prussian War, of all things -- but Will’s interest in him proves inconclusive, though the film unexpectedly gives Jordan something more to ponder about his own mortality.

As, one by one, the girls meet guys of their own, inevitably leading to marriage, Jordan feels an ever sharper sense of loneliness and abandonment. He finds some comfort in his visits to his sweet grandmother (an endearing Barbara Barrie), but her occasional ruminations on suicide underscore his own forebodings of death and a sense that he may be doomed never to find someone to love.

Harmon writes with an uncanny ear for today’s lingo. Kiki’s outrageously self-absorbed opening speech is a small gem but there are many such throughout the evening. Sometimes it seems that the play is about to become as glib and superficial as Kiki herself, but Harmon balances the brittle humor with a deep poignancy most effectively. The scene where Jordan berates Laura for opting for a conventional wedding and marriage is especially powerful and painful to witness.

Trip Cullman elicits marvelous performances from all, including Behlmann and Luke Smith (who play all the other male roles), and his staging perfectly captures the rhythms of Harmon’s text. It must be said that Goldberg, Jones, and Mendez are especially fine, and completely inhabit their roles. The great Barrie’s scenes are short but potent.

Mark Wendland’s split level set -- lighted by Japhy Weideman -- neatly serves as disco, office, various apartments. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are spot-on.

(Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Sas Goldeberg, Lindsay Mendez, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Gideon Glick.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Glass Menagerie (Belasco Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

There’s no denying that the abstract revival of Tennessee Williams breakout hit of 1945 is an oddball one. Director Sam Gold (“Fun Home,” “The Real Thing”) seems hell bent on upending most everything that smacks of the traditional.

Apart from the minimalist design (by Andrew Lieberman), his most radical concept is transforming Laura’s “barely suggested disability” into a seriously handicapped character in a wheelchair which she effortfully climbs into and out of several times throughout the evening. The production’s Laura, Madison Ferris, does, in fact, have muscular dystrophy.

The inclusive casting is admirable, but I don’t much care for her performance with its far too contemporary line readings, though it certainly fits Gold’s concept of stripping away any and all period trappings.

Paradoxically, for all its questionable innovations, this production moved me more than the last Broadway revival (with a solid Cherry Jones and a superb Zachary Quinto), and Judith Ivey’s Roundabout revival before that. Previous, fondly remembered productions of my experience -- with such Amandas as Jessica Lange, Julie Harris, and Maureen Stapleton -- played out along more traditional lines, and were none the worse for it..

John Tiffany’s version (for Cherry Jones) was not without its avant-garde touches pools of water on stage, and Laura emerging at one point from the sofa.

But any production of “The Glass Menagerie” revolves around its Amanda, and Sally Field -- last on Broadway in Edward Albee’s “The Goat” in 2002 -- proves again a potent stage actress and a creditable Amanda. (She had, in fact, previously earned praise for doing the part at the Kennedy Center in 2004.)

Fields employs only the trace of a Southern accent, but she primps and flutters with the best of them, and flies into tremendous rages when her plans are frustrated.

Actor/director Joe Mantello -- an intentionally more mature Tom than usual (a stunt that works) -- delivers his lines with intelligence and wry humor. As the Gentleman Caller, Finn Wittrock is not the usual courtly gallant, but a free spirited, boyishly energetic young man. His big scene with this very 2017 Laura thus has a radically different tone, though is played rather annoyingly in the dark, except for the natural light of a candelabra.

I mentioned pools of water in a previous production. But the rain that accompanies the dinner scene here is a veritable deluge. I suppose we must be grateful this is not an Ivo van Hove production or it might be raining blood.

For all its oddities, and its perverse variances from Williams’ stage directions, this yet manages to be a potent “Menagerie,” and I found myself willingly joining the enthusiastic ovation at the end.

(Belasco Theatre,111 West 44th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Joe Mantello and Sally Field in The Glass Menagerie (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Son of Dublin (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

St. Patrick’s Day came a little early this year, courtesy of the always rewarding Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!

Anyone who’s ever heard Victor Herbert’s 1917 operetta “Eileen” knows that when this most Irish of composers set his mind to honoring his ethnic heritage, he was at his unabashedly sincere and passionately romantic. So an evening culled from his vast catalog of Irish material (including, yes, several from “Eileen”), was bound to be special, and indeed the concert was gorgeously melodic, sentimental, and heartfelt.

This special gala was part of an all-Irish season in celebration of the centenary of “Eileen’s” premiere. It began in November with “The Princess Pat” and ends next month with, fittingly, “Eileen” itself. And for the first time with this group, we are promised a modest orchestra.

For the present concert (given twice), Artistic Director Alyce Mott assembled a terrific cast (some regulars with her company) who delivered the goods with admirable commitment and fine style, and the selections, compiled in tandem with Music Director Michael Thomas, were uncommonly well chosen.

Baritone Jovani McCleary set the evening’s classy, flavorful tone with a lovely number “I Love the Isle of the Sea,” and the ones that followed over the two-act evening maintained the quality.

Not quite all the songs were by Herbert. Some were by Herbert’s maternal grandfather, the composer, novelist, and painter Samuel Lover, with whom Herbert and his mother lived for several years in England when Herbert was a child. “Angel’s Whisper,” tenderly sung by soprano Vira Slywotzky, was a Lover lullaby Herbert may have heard as a child. And, interestingly, it was Lover who wrote “Rory O’Moore,” the novel from which Herbert and his librettist Henry Blossom would later adapt “Eileen.” A song by Lover of that title was in the program, winningly delivered by baritone David Seatter, a consistent bright spot throughout the evening.

Several of the songs were written by Lover, but arranged by Herbert. Tenor Anthony Maida’s emotionally vocalized “Sweet Harp of the Days That Are Gone” had a Lover lyric set to a Herbert tune.

Tenor Jason Robinette, who made such a strong showing in “The Princess Pat,” was again in fine fettle, starting with his heartfelt “Mary Came Over to Me.” And tenor Ross Brown offered the very cute “Barney Maguire” from the 1906  “Miss Dolly Dollars” (a title which, one hopes, Mott will get around to mounting in the future).

There were five songs from “Eileen” in all, starting with soprano Katherine Corle’s charming “My Little Irish Rose,” and including the male ensemble’s “The Irish Have a Great Day Tonight,” the meltingly beautiful title number, well sung by Brown, and as a finale, “When Ireland Stands Among the Nations of the World,” stirringly sung by Maida and the entire company.

That last was, in fact, one of three stirringly patriotic numbers that brought the show to a rousing conclusion.

Of especial interest was an excellent song cycle, “The Bards of Ireland,” written for a St. Patrick’s Day Dinner of The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, and attended by President William H. Taft no less; six Irish chestnuts, deftly arranged by Herbert for a cumulatively powerful effect.

Baritone Richard Holmes’ smooth baritone graced several numbers starting with the 1919  “Molly,” leading off a Herbert arrangement of “Old Ireland Shall Be Set Free,” and contributing strongly to the song cycle. Lovely Joanie Brittingham offered a sweet “Heart o’Mine” (accompanied by Slywotzky and Corle) and proved most appealing in other numbers. (She’ll play Eileen next month.)

Throughout the evening, Thomas provided first-rate accompaniment on the eighty-eights, and sensitively handled the “Lament for Owen Roe O’Neill” solo in the “Bards” cycle.

We were told that recent research has cheekily suggested that quite possibly Herbert never even set foot in Ireland, since he spent much time in Germany before ultimately settling permanently in America, but as the “Son of Dublin” program resoundingly proved, his soul was Irish through and through. His love of Ireland blazingly apparent in every note.

And that’s no blarney.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.;; March 8 and 9 only)

L-R: Jovani McCleary, Jason Robinette, Ross Brown, Joanie Brittingham, Anthony Maida, Katherine Corle, Richard Holmes, David Seatter, Vira Slywotzky. Photo: Jill LeVine.

"Belle O'Brien" (L-R)​ Anthony Maida, Jovani McCleary, David Seatter, Jason Robinette, Richard Holmes, Ross Brown. Photo: Jill LeVine.

L-R: Ross Brown, Joanie Brittingham, Anthony Maida (standing), Jason Robinette, Vira Slywotzky, Richard Holmes, Katherine Corle, Jovani McCleary, David Seatter. Photo: Jill LeVine.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Linda (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

The enormously versatile English actress Janie Dee is back in New York playing an award-winning, 55-year-old brand manager at a London cosmetics firm, the Swan Beauty Corporation. At the start, we see her character Linda deftly promoting anti-aging cream for the older woman at a marketing presentation.

When the company president (John C. Vennema) decides to hire treacherous twenty-something Amy (Molly Griggs) to start promoting these same projects to a much younger demographic, though, Linda’s well structured life begins to unravel, including her seemingly near-perfect home life with her school teacher husband (excellent Donald Sage Mackay) and two daughters, Alice and kid half-sister Bridget. But is it really domestic bliss? It seems husband Neil is going through a mid-life crisis and the girls, particularly Alice, are deeply troubled.

Penelope Skinner’s play -- which premiered at London’s Royal Court is 2015 by the English Stage Company -- deals with familiar feminist themes: ageism, beauty, sexuality, motherhood, and career. Skinner doesn’t always avoid a sense of  contrivance, but the play holds one’s interest for its roughly two and a quarter hours.

In London, the character of Linda was to be played by Kim Cattrall who withdrew, it was said, on doctor’s orders. Her last-minute  replacement, Noma Dsmezweni, a Swaziland-born actress, garnered universal raves. I can’t say how Dee compares, but she is absolutely superb, and very much at the top of her game.

Lynne Meadow directs a well-paced production on Walt Spangler’s nifty revolving set which encompasses Linda’s deluxe office, that of her boss, and her well-appointed kitchen.

Dee projects convincing executive assurance, and when things in her life begin to go south, her panic and desperation seem painfully real. She really nails all aspects of the role.

She’s not working in a vacuum, though, and all the performances are solid, particularly Jennifer Ikeda as Linda’s unhappy elder girl (who, for certain poignant reasons which emerge, perversely insists are wearing a skunk onesy to make herself “invisible” to men), and Molly Ransom as the sweet-natured Bridget who hopes to earn a part in the school play by auditioning with a male role (“King Lear,” as it finally happens), her dilemma mirroring the woman-in-a-man’s world themes of the play. Meghann Fahy is also good as another young woman who poses a threat to Linda. And Maurice Jones is Luke, a New Agey temp whose penchant for selfies brings disastrous consequences for Linda.

Skinner’s dialogue is authentic and often amusing, the narrative absorbing, and the themes are sharply laid out, if generally familiar.

Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes, Jason Lyons’ lighting, and Fitz Patton’s sound design are all state of the art.

(MTC at New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55thStreet; 212-581-1212 or; through April 2)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sunset Boulevard (Palace Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

If there’s a more heart-stirring moment in modern musical theater than the one where the lighting man calls out to faded silent film star Norma Desmond upon her return to Paramount Studios after decades, “Let’s get a good look at you, Miss Desmond,” and the spotlight finds its way to the startled and deluded lady sitting in the director’s chair, as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music swells majestically, I can’t offhand think of it.

But it’s here, as it was in Trevor Nunn’s original staging, this time in director Lonny Price’s economical revamp of “Sunset Boulevard,” first performed last year at London’s English National Opera.

Glenn Close, who originated her Tony-winning role of Norma Desmond nearly 20 years ago on Broadway, is back, and as you may have heard, she’s as electrifying as she was two decades ago. The singing voice may be at times less assured, but it scarcely matters, as everything else is spot-on. She’s joined by three of her London co-stars, all Brits, though you’d never know it by their authentic Yankee accents: Michael Xavier is Joe, the writer whom Norma entices into her spider’s web to edit her unwieldy script for a new version of the Salome tale; Fred Johanson as the ever-protective butler Max, and Siobhan Dillon as Betty, the young studio assistant who tries to set Joe on course again as a serious screenplay writer and falls in love with him in the process.

“Sunset Boulevard” is as much Joe’s story as Norma’s, and he has the lion’s share of stage time, so the casting of that role is key. And having seen many Joe’s in my time, I can authoritatively say Xavier is one of the very best.

Gone in this production is the massive mansion set that rose and fell so impressively, to make way for the 40-piece orchestra now sharing space with the cast and scenery on stage. But James Noone’s set design is still reasonably eye-filling, and though Norma’s sweeping staircase is gone, there are still plenty of steps to bother Close’s kneecaps as she ascends to the upper platform levels.

The large orchestra (claimed to be the largest on Broadway in 80 years!) makes Lloyd Webber’s often lush music – particularly the noirish Old Hollywood motif that opens the show and returns throughout -- all the more engulfing.

Tracey Christensen’s costumes are colorful and apt, but Close’s eye-popping duds are still the ones designed for her originally by Anthony Powell. Close’s wig designs (by Andrew Simonin) are different here than before, but suit her current visage. Stephen Mear’s choreography enlivens some of Lloyd Webber’s more prosaic stretches of music such as the “Let’s Have Lunch” sequence and New Year’s Eve party at Joe’s friend Artie’s place.

In most respects, though, Lloyd Webber’s score is top-drawer. “With One Look,” “Salome,” “The Greatest Star of All,” “New Ways to Dream,” “The Perfect Year,” “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” “Too Much in Love to Care,” and the title song are all strong, and have an evergreen quality.

Price has come up with some ingenious business for this elaborate concert reading as, for instance, actors holding headlights to simulate a car chase.

All these years later, Close still stands tall among all the great women who have played the part. Patti LuPone famously originated Norma first at Lloyd Webber’s preview performance at the Sydmonton festival, and later in London’s West End. A bootleg video of the former shows LuPone in impressive form. One can see why she landed the part after that high-profile tryout. But by the time she got to London, her interpretation had, I think, coarsened, and I didn’t find her too convincing as a grand star of yesteryear.

In all fairness, though, LuPone didn’t have the advantage of Nunn’s subsequent revisions for Close (and the other Broadway and West End stars who followed) which cast them all in rather a more impressive light.

Betty Buckley was acclaimed for her well-sung and sensitively acted Norma, though I found her interpretation a tad too much on the dour side. Diminutive Elaine Paige was excellent, with plenty of voice and much of Close’s dramatic flair. Petula Clark – who, as far as I know, still holds the record for most performances after her long runs in London and U.S. tour -- was also outstanding vocally and dramatically, playing up the American accent more than others, and emoting impressively in the overwrought final scenes. Rita Moreno, a brief London replacement, hadn’t quite settled into the role or mastered her lines when I caught her performance, but showed promise. And Close’s original Broadway understudy, Karen Mason, was very good indeed. (Close’s understudy on this occasion is the estimable Nancy Anderson who also has some choice bits as part of the ensemble. It would be fascinating to see what she does with the part, if she ever gets the chance.)

Though older than Norma’s stated 50 years – the film’s Gloria Swanson was also 50 – Close more than pulls it off, as did several of the ladies mentioned earlier for that matter. And this isn’t just campy scenery chewing; she creates a genuinely pathetic creature with many telling, sensitive moments.

The audience wildly cheered her every big moment, after both the songs and many of the iconic lines. The tumultuous ovations for Close's three solo curtain calls at the end might have rivalled those accorded Maria Callas in her heyday. Or so it seemed.

The originally announced 16-week run has already been extended through June 25.

(The Palace Theatre. 1564 7th Avenue; 877-250-2929 or online; through June 25)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Glenn Close and Michael Xavier in SUNSET BOULEVARD

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

August Wilson's Jitney (Manhattan Theater Club)

By Harry Forbes

Splendidly acted by a superlative ensemble and finely directed by August Wilson veteran Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this revival of Wilson’s 1982 play, which takes place in the office of an unlicensed car service about to be demolished in 1977 Philadelphia’s Hill District, gets the new year off to a distinguished start.

“Jitney” is, in fact, the only one of Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays not to have been seen on Broadway, and here it is at last, courtesy of MTC which has a solid history co-producing such Wilson plays as “King Hedley II,” Seven Guitars” and “The Piano Lesson.”
I recall the original Off-Broadway production fondly, with its roster of fine performances, but the present cast doesn’t disappoint.

There’s Harvy Blanks as numbers-playing Shealy who takes bets over the office phone; gravelly-voiced Anthony Chisholm (from the Off-Broadway production) as hard-drinking ex-tailor Fielding; John Douglas Thompson as veteran manager Becker; Brandon Dirden as his estranged son Booster just released from the penitentiary after 20 years; AndrĂ© Holland as troubled Vietnam vet Youngblood; Carra Patterson as his girlfriend (and mother of his child) Rena; Michael Potts highly amusing as the ever-gossiping Turnbo; Keith Randolph Smith as sensible Korean War vet Doub; and Ray Anthony Thomas as doorman Philmore; a frequent jitney customer.

Together they form a powerful ensemble, the equal of any on or off Broadway at the moment. The versatile classical actor Thompson is especially compelling as Becker, one of his best roles, but everyone here is at the top of their game.

Wilson’s writing is extraordinary as always, poetic yet so very natural. Conversations always take an unpredictable turn. And although there’s a bittersweet quality throughout, there are some wonderfully humorous bits, such as an amusing exchange about the merits of Lena Horne versus Sarah Vaughan. These flow seamlessly amidst scenes of high drama such as the powerful and poignant reunion of Booster and Becker who, we learn, never came to see his son once in jail, and Doub dispensing pearly wisdom to fellow vet Youngblood: “It ain’t all the time what you want. Sometimes it’s what you need. Black folks always get the two confused.”

David Gallo’s extraordinarily detailed set, Toni-Leslie James’ impeccable period costumes; Jane Cox’s atmospheric lighting, Darron L West’s natural sound design are all tops. Bill Sims, Jr.’s original music score sets just the right jazzy, bluesy tone.

Santiago-Hudson knows this material well, and like a masterful orchestral conductor, leads his cast to something close to perfection.

With the beautifully realized film version of “Fences” currently on movie screens, this powerful production offers an ideal complementary experience.

(MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200; through March 12)