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Friday, May 18, 2018

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Lyric Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This lavish sequel to the popular books (seven in all) joins “Angels in America” as this season’s highly recommendable two-part, multi-hour, British import, albeit one, unlike the Tony Kushner play, you bring the kids to see.  Both are outstanding pieces of theater, not only for stagecraft but emotional content as well. Playwright Jack Thorne -- in tandem with author J.K. Rowling and director John Tiffany -- have fashioned a worthy continuation of Rowling’s engrossing narrative that honors and enriches all the elements of the original.

Harry Potter (Jamie Parker) is now father of young Albus (Sam Clemmett) of Hogwarts age who has grown up in the oppressive shadow of his famous dad. On the train to Hogwarts, with his friend Rose (Susan Heyward), daughter of Hermione (Noma Dumezweni) and Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley), Albus surprisingly bonds with Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle), son of Harry’s arch enemy at school Draco Malfoy (Alex Price), now a concerned father himself.

Harry is married to Ginny Weasley, nicely played by Poppy Miller. Hermione now heads the Ministry of Magic, and Harry has a desk job there. Ron is still endearingly silly.

Determined to prove himself worthy in his own right, Albus contrives to use a Time Turner device to prevent the death of Cedric Diggory (Benjamin Wheelwright) who perished in a game of Quidditch in the earlier story. They are aided in this endeavor by Delphi Diggory (Jessie Fisher). However, the stunt results in changing the present with disastrous results. And therein lies the crux of the plot. I’ll say no more as, much like Alfred Hitchcock in the trailers for “Psycho” years ago had begged audiences not to reveal the film’s surprises, the producers have done likewise here. In fact, everyone is given a button upon exiting reading “#KeepTheSecrets.”

The Showbill includes helpful synopses of the seven books and a glossary and even if you know the books (or seen the subsequent film versions), unless you’re a Potter obsessive, you’d be well advised to refresh your memory. Though I’d seen the films and read a couple of the books, I had frankly forgotten many of the details, so I found myself a bit lost at first. So, too, the actors tend occasionally to rush their lines, losing intelligibility. I had a veteran American actor on my left, and an English one on my right, and they were uniformly tsk-tsking at the sporadic lack of clear enunciation.

For my part, once I read the synopses and the helpful glossary, I felt completely up to speed, and there’s no denying that the first act ends on a real cliffhanger, with coup de theatre stage effects. Indeed, the effects throughout -- not overdone, but used judiciously -- are quite astonishing. Jamie Harrison is responsible for “Illusions and Magic,” both of which brilliantly abound.

Casting throughout is exceptionally well done, with most of the actors chosen for, or made up to look like, their movie counterparts, the big exception being Hermione. Ms. Dumezweni couldn’t be more different than Emma Watson, but she’s so dynamic and perfectly in character, one doesn’t sense any confusion on the part of the audience..

The excellent actor and singer Parker does well as the adult Harry, deeply troubled by his uneasy relationship with Albus particularly after he undercuts his son with a hurtful remark, but most of the stage time goes to Clemmett and  Boyle, the latter particularly winning.

The story is as gripping as the films, and given Rowling’s involvement, is invested with the requisite integrity. Fans of the series will not be disappointed. Tiffany directs with obvious affinity for the material, and the action is wonderfully fluid, thanks also to Movement Director Steve Hoggett. Sound Designer Gareth Fry’s stereophonic effects are also marvelously effective.

Christina Jones’ set is a marvel, switching back and forth effortlessly from the train station to the Potter home to Hogwarts to various other locales, with various cleverly employed motifs including suitcases and clocks.. Finn Ross and Ash Woodward’s video designs and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are splendid.

For sheer entertainment value not to mention all the dazzling stagecraft, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is tough to beat. And best of all, underpinning everything are such time-honored themes as parenting, friendship, love, courage; in other words, the stuff of drama and life itself.

(Lyric Theatre, 214 West 43rd Street; 877-250-2929 or lyricbroadway.com)

Photo by Manuel Harlan: Pictured  (l-r): Noma Dumezweni, Susan Heyward,  Paul Thornley, Olivia Bond, Ben Wheelwright,  Jamie Parker, Poppy Miller, Sam Clemmett. Credit:  Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Travesties (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

Delectable performances and superb staging make Tom Stoppard’s dizzying mashup of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of the Dada movement), Lenin, and James Joyce richly entertaining, even if the text itself may send you scurrying for Wikipedia.

The show premiered on Broadway in 1974 as a Royal Shakespeare Company import with John Wood giving a virtuoso performance as Sir Henry Carr, the British consulate officer who narrates the play as an old man, morphing into his younger self as he joins the action. I was totally enthralled, and ran out to buy the script, a pattern repeated with subsequent intellectually challenging Stoppard plays for some time to come.

Here it’s the great Tom Hollander, only his second time on Broadway, as Carr and he’s every bit as entertaining as Wood back in the day.

What inspired Stoppard to construct this madcap comedy -- for such it is underneath all the intellectual content -- was learning that Joyce, Tzara, Lenin, and Carr were all in Zurich in 1917, and that Joyce had indeed mounted a production of “Earnest” with Carr playing Algernon, an experience that ended with acrimony and a lawsuit between the two. Stoppard has his fanciful counterparts give vent to their particular passions, and the nature of art in general.

Besides Hollander’s virtuoso performance, there’s fine work by the entire ensemble including Seth Numrich as Tzara; Peter McDonald as Joyce; Dan Butler as Lenin; Opal Alladin as his wife Nadya; and Patrick Kerr as Carr’s butler. McDonald, like Hollander, hailed from the production mounted by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, as does the creative team.

Scarlett Strallen and Sara Topham could not be more delightful as, respectively, Gwendolen, aka Joyce’s assistant, and librarian Cecily (for whom Tzara falls), especially in their song modelled on the once famous “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Sheen” vaudeville number. Though not a full-out musical, the songs in the show are so well done, you might at times think it is. During the interval, Gilbert and Sullivan plays on the speaker system as Carr was a G&S fan.

Patrick Marber, fine playwright himself, directs for maximum enjoyment, and if you don’t understand what’s going on -- though there are helpful program notes and a handy education guide that can be accessed on the Roundabout’s website -- you’ll enjoy it anyway.

Tim Hatley’s handsome wood-paneled set and period costumes, Neil Austin’s lighting, and Adam Cork’s sound design and are tip-top.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street; roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300; through June 17)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Brooklyn Academy of Music)


By Harry Forbes

It’s a pity that this high-powered revival of Eugene O’Neill’s most autobiographical play (first seen in 2016 at the Bristol Old Vic), should come to us so soon after New York had the superlative Roundabout Jonathan Kent production with Jessica Lange giving such an indelible performance, and backed by a fine cast to boot.

Here we have Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville both, of course, very fine artists and giving predictably polished, intelligent performances, and Sir Richard Eyre at the helm, so it can hardly be said to be without merit. But frankly, the Kent production was far more successful all around.

Though attractively set and costumed by Rob Howell in a abstract rendering of the Tyrones’ summer home with a forced perspective skylight, and moodily lighted by Peter Mumford with atmospheric sound design (foghorns and the like) from John Leonard, I could rarely believe these people were a family, though dysfunctional barely begins to describe how the parts are written: loving and considerate one moment, seriously hateful and hurting the next.

The great Manville, so delectably self-contained in “Phantom Thread,” comes on like gangbusters here as the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, chattering away a mile a minute. Though she’s too fine an artist not to ultimately give the part shading, I thought her performance overall rather one note. As the skinflint family patriarch (too cheap to engage first-rate doctors for his wife and consumptive son), and embittered after a lifetime of eschewing Shakespeare to play a part in a popular melodrama (in actuality, “The Count of Monte Cristo”), Irons still registers as a debonair Englishman, no matter how shabbily outfitted. Which is not to say that, like Manville, he doesn’t have many striking individual moments.

The sons are played passably, but not as distinctively as in past productions with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Shannon, or of course, Jason Robards, Jr. in the Lumet film. As the O’Neill prototype, the consumptive Edmund, Matthew Beard perhaps overdoes the sensitivity but he’s reasonably affecting. As his elder brother Jamie, dissolute actor and alcoholic, who both loves and envies his kid brother, Rory Keenan’s bitterness has something of a superficial quality. Both brothers revelatory speeches near the end lack the requisite punch.

I very much liked Jessica Regan as the family maid who shares an intimate (and mercifully lighthearted) moment with Mary Tyrone when the family is out.

Though the play begins annoyingly with a rapid flurry of naturalistic overlapping dialogue, and Manville, in particular, reads her lines so quickly throughout, the evening still manages to feel rather long. I’d like to think I was just weary from having sat through O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (also three and a half hours long) a few nights earlier, but I do think it’s the pacing.

Flaws notwithstanding, the marquee names of Irons, Manville, and Eyre will be of interest to committed theatergoers.

At the end of its Brooklyn run, the production will play Los Angeles’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts during the month of June.

(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street; 718-636-4100 or  www.bam.org; through May 27)

Photo: Matthew Beard, Lesley Manville, Jeremy Irons, Rory Keenan. Credit:Richard Termine

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Iceman Cometh (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This latest revival of one of Eugene O’Neill’s several epically long plays -- first produced in 1946 -- ranks high among the half dozen or so I’ve seen, though they’ve all, in their way, been very fine, with distinguished casts headed by the likes of Kevin Spacey and the peerless Jason Robards, Jr. The color blind casting of Denzel Washington in the lead role of traveling salesman Hickey brings to mind James Earl Jones’ excellent assumption of the role in 1973 at Circle in the Square.

The plot concerns a group of depressed losers in a dilapidated Westside bar in 1912, momentarily energized by the annual appearance of a flashy salesman who can always be counted upon to give them a good time. But much to their surprise, the Hickey who shows up now is a reformed man, on the wagon and consumed with evangelistic fervor in determining to rid his old cronies of their unrealistic pipe dreams.

George C.  Wolfe’s production -- pegged to Washington’s desire to take on this iconic role --  comes just three years after Robert Falls’ Goodman Theater mounting with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy which played BAM but, surprisingly, never came to Broadway.

In most particulars, actually, I think the Chicago production had the edge, but this one is certainly high quality too. Besides Washington’s dynamic performance, there are solid turns by Colm Meany as bar owner Harry Hope (who hasn’t left the premises in 20 years); Frank Wood and Dakin Matthews as The Captain and The General respectively, Boer War adversaries reliving their past triumphs; Tammy Blanchard as Cora, a prostitute who hopes to marry day bartender Chuck (Danny Mastrogiorgio); Bill Irwin as ex-circus man Ed; and Michael Potts as former owner of a gambling house (played so memorably by John Douglas Thompson in the Falls production).. I mean no disservice to the rest by not singling out Carolyn Braver, Joe Forbrich, Nina Grollman, Thomas Michael Hammond, Neal Huff, Jack McGee, Clark Middleton, and Reg Rogers.

David Morse is especially powerful as disillusioned anarchist Larry Slade to whom young Don Parritt (Austin Butler), son of a jailed anarchist mother, comes for absolution. Slade was his mother’s ex-lover, and Don, we learn, was responsible for her arrest.

George C. Wolfe directs the long play with as much of an eye towards the humor (and there is much) as the high drama, and elicits great performances from all. Washington’s long revelatory monologue is staged with Hickey in a chair speaking straight out to the audience as the others listen from behind, perhaps the one bit of staging that felt artificial.

Despite the play’s length and repetition -- phrases like “pipe dream” are repeated ad infinitum, and characters tread the same ground incessantly -- there’s not a dull moment.

Santo Loquasto’s dreary bar setting, Ann Roth’s character-perfect costumes, and Jules Fisher, Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design, and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting all contribute worthily to a highly atmospheric production.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 252 West 45th Street;     Telecharge.com or by phone at 212 239 6200)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Seafarer (Irish Repertory Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

A decade after its Broadway run, here's a solid revival of the 2007 Conor McPherson play about a Dublin Christmas Eve gathering of ne’er-do-wells and a mysterious stranger (who, slight spoiler though his identity is revealed early) who turns out to be the Devil) in their midst, the latter played by Matthew Broderick in the role created by the considerably more hulking and sinister Ciaran Hinds.

The Irish Rep company is, on the whole, nearly a match for the originals. Colin McPhillamy is especially fabulous as the blind and perpetually inebriated braggart Richard living with his more straight-laced on-the-wagon brother “Sharky” (Andy Murray). Their hard-drinking friends Ivan (Michael Mellamphy), afraid to go home to his wife in his inebriated state and continuallyk searching for his missing glasses, and suave Nicky (Tim Ruddy), who’s dating Sharky’s ex-wife, join for a game of cards that has higher stakes than most of the characters imagine.

Mild-mannered though Broderick’s persona is by nature, he does manage to raise his voice threateningly at times, which is all the more powerful as it’s no unexpected. Ultimately, I'd say he's quite effective in the role.

Irish Rep Producing Director CiarĂ¡n O’Reilly, demonstrating again a real affinity for McPherson’s work, directs with a sure hand. And his cast totally inhabit their roles, showing that, a decade later, the play holds up very well indeed.

Charlie Corcoran’s scenic design (the shabby, two-level ramshackle house), atmospherically lighted by Brian Nason, and Martha Hally’s authentic seeming costumes are all you would wish.

(Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street; 866-811-4111 or irishrep.org; through May 24)

Matthew Broderick, Michael Mellamphy, Andy Murray, Tim Ruddy & Colin McPhillamy in THE SEAFARER at Irish Rep, Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

My Fair Lady (Lincoln Center Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Director Bartlett Sher set a high bar for himself with his sterling revivals of “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” totally respectful to the works but staging them with a wonderfully fresh and intelligent eye. Would his new revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” live up to the same high standards? The answer is a resounding yes.

“My Fair Lady” meets expectations and then some. I would even say, as an English friend opined during intermission, that it’s the best production since the original, and he should know as he was a dresser for the original production at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. As a very small child saw the original Broadway production, albeit at the end of its multi-year run, so I can only barely visualize it. But I’ve seen many fine (and not so fine) revivals since, and reflecting back, this one seems to me the most satisfying of all.

Beautifully designed by Michael Yeargan with magical lighting by Donald Holder and lavishly costumed by Catherine Zuber on the expansive Beaumont stage, with intelligent casting (37 in all) from top to bottom, this is about as good as it gets. The 29-piece orchestra provides a plush orchestral palette, and Marc Salzberg’s sound design is impeccable.

Lauren Ambrose with her red hair and pale skin is not quite how one visualizes Eliza Doolittle, but she’s as fine an Eliza as any I’ve ever seen either in “Pygmalion” or “My Fair Lady.” Wonderfully endearing as the naive Cockney flower girl in the early scenes, touchingly vulnerable, and appropriately authoritative in the later ones, she finds nuances in the dialogue that surprise and delight. And yes, she has a lovely soprano voice, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” soars.

As her irascible, misogynistic vocal coach, Harry Hadden-Paton is also superb, the very model of a Henry Higgins. Singing more actual notes than creator Rex Harrison, but at the same time, comfortably traditional in the best sense, he conveys the growing attraction to Eliza most convincingly, culminating in a moving rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” As his more civilized partner in Eliza’s linguistic betterment, Allan Corduner -- who played Sir Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh’s “Topsy Turvy” -- makes a perfect Colonel Pickering.

The amazing Norbert Leo Butz is almost unrecognizable as Eliza’s father, the bewhiskered and greying Doolittle, and delivers his two number with all the music hall brio the part requires. “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are real showstoppers, the latter replete with can-can dancers. Vocal powerhouse Jordan Donica as the lovelorn Freddy sings the show’s hit song “On the Street Where You Live” with requisite fervor and ringing high notes.

Of the big setpieces, the Ascot Gavotte -- nimbly choreographed, as are all the other numbers, by Christopher Gattelli -- is a particular knockout with the entire ensemble spread out across the stage in hilarious snobbish detachment.  Eliza’s coming out at the Embassy Ball is jaw-droppingly staged with an onstage orchestra accompanying the waltzing couples.

Ted Sperling’s musical direction of the Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang orchestrations is impeccable. The last big London revival at the National Theatre directed by Trevor Nunn starring Jonathan Pryce utilized inferior new orchestrations by William Brohn which is just the sort of misguided face lift this production smartly avoids. (That production, which later toured here, wasn’t hateful in the theater, but the resulting CD sounds pretty pallid today.)

At every stage, the line and lyric readings here are just that much fresher without betraying Shaw or book writer Lerner. When Eliza sings of being “absolutely still” in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” she really emphasizes the word “still” as if the thought of doing absolutely nothing was bliss beyond imagining. When she has her big breakthrough in “The Rain in Spain,” her first tries of the line are still effortful, a wonderfully naturalistic touch, but ultimately just as joyous as ever.


Diana Rigg, herself an acclaimed Eliza in “Pygmalion” opposite the late Alec McGowan’s Higgins in 1974, is a fine Mrs. Higgins, though she doesn’t get to sing. (McGowan did play the musical Higgins in a recording for Jay Records, and he was terrific, and like Hadden-Paton, sang more of the musical line than is customary.)

Much has been made in the pre-publicity interviews about Eliza being molded by Higgins in a way that’s unacceptable in today’s #MeToo environment. But, in fact, Eliza, as Shaw first wrote her, has always given as good as she’s gotten, and despite her momentary faltering after her transformation (“What’s to become of me?”) she finds her own way. Shaw had her leave Higgins at the end of “Pygmalion” with the latter exclaiming with bemusement “She’s going to marry Freddy.”

But director Gabriel Pascal, who worked with Shaw on the movie version of the play, slyly inserted an ending that had her return to Higgins. As far as we know, Shaw accepted the change with equanimity. In this production, Sher rather splits the difference, but I shan’t spoil how. Throughout the show, there’s none of the wholesale cutting of songs or dialogue that detracts from the integrity of the otherwise excellent revival of “Carousel.”

Many believe “My Fair Lady” is the most perfect of musicals and I’m sure Sher’s production will go a long way to reinforcing that view.

(Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.lct.org)

Top to bottom (photos by Joan Marcus):
Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton

Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Allan Corduner

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Brief History of Women (Brits Off Broadway)


A Brief History of Women (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

It’s always a pleasure to be able to see these imports from Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England. And the latest -- presented, as always, courtesy of 59E59’s  enterprising Brits Off Broadway lineup -- is no exception, though I’ll admit “A Brief History of Women” required some warming up on my part.

The play is constructed in four separate scenes from the 1920s to the 1980s, connected by location (Kirkbridge Manor) and its principal male character Spates beautifully played with Everyman decency by Antony Eden. But the tone varies a bit disconcertingly from scene to scene. There’s more than a slightly unpleasant edge to the first, the second is unrealistically farcical, the third returns to the more expected Acykbourn brand of humor, and the fourth combines more of that humor with a satisfyingly touching wrap-up.

As always, much of the pleasure derives from watching Ayckbourn’s versatile troupe morph from one character to another. Wigs and Kevin Jenkins’ costumes do their excellent part, but the cast is amazingly adept at transforming themselves from the inside out.

In Part 1, it’s 1925, and it’s the engagement party of the daughter (Laura Matthews) of Lady Caroline Kirkbridge (Frances Marshall) to Captain Fergus Ffluke (Laurence Pears). While Caroline and Fergus’ mother (Louise Shuttleworth) chat in the ballroom, the former’s misanthropic and brutish husband (Russell Dixon) is lecturing Fergus on how women must be kept in their place. Caroline finds herself attracted to Spates (Eden), at this point a 17-year-old footman. There’s a “Downton Abbey”-like thematic feel to this section, as the old ways are rapidly giving way to the new.

In 1942, the Manor has become a girls’ preparatory school, and Spates is a teacher there having an affair with a young, emotionally unbalanced widow (Matthews), while the headmaster (Dixon) warns Spates to be more discreet. Another embittered teacher (Shuttleworth) takes out her hatred of the Germans against a Swiss teacher (Marshall) she insists must be German, evidence to the contrary. Gym teacher Desmond (Pears) is meanwhile preparing for the Guy Fawkes fireworks that night which you just know will go spectacularly awry, and indeed, they do.

In 1965, the Manor is now an arts center, and the campy director (Dixon) is rehearsing a panto version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” with actress Pat (Marshall) as Jack, and his wife Gillian (Shuttleworth) as the front end of Jack’s cow. The exasperated director must contend with the politically correct pretensions of a sullen young man (Pears) who finds the script demeaning to the lower classes. Spates, for his part, is now the administrator of the place, and becomes more actively involved with the characters as he watches the rehearsals.

And finally in 1985, the Manor has become a hotel, and the semi-retired Spates now its general manager.  A young couple, descendants of the Kirkbridges from the first scene (Matthews and Pears), arrives with the woman’s great-grandmother in tow with poignant results.

Ayckbourn himself directs with obvious authenticity. Jenkin’s set which, like the cast, transforms effortlessly from era to era, and suggests at least five different playing areas at any one time is ingeniously constructed. Kirkbridge Manor thus becomes as much a character as any of the players.

Even if not quite top drawer Ayckbourn, this first-rate production is well worth your time.

(Brits Off Broadway, 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org; through May 27)

Pictured: L-R: Frances Marshall, Laurence Pears, Antony Eden, Laura Matthews, Louise Shuttleworth. Photo by Tony Bartholomew