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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Cats (Neil Simon Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Apart from the disorienting novelty of “Cats” taking up residence at the Neil Simon Theatre when, for a record-breaking 7485 performances over 18 years, it had dominated the block-long marquee of the Winter Garden, nearly everything about this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical feels just right. We’ll get to that exception later.

But classic it is. It’s hard to believe that the original 1981 London production was 35 years ago. It seems, if not quite like “yesterday,” but certainly not so very long ago when the show was brand new, and quite the hot ticket. But there's no denying that was a long time ago. Count back an equivalent number of years before 1981 and it would be 1946. Think “Annie Get Your Gun” or “St. Louis Woman,” and it will give you some idea of the time differential from the opening of "Cats" to today.

Though towards the end of its Broadway run, “Cats” had become rather the target of jokes, the show was, it must be remembered, genuinely innovative at the time. It was an audacious conceit for Lloyd-Webber to take T.S. Eliot’s poems in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” and set them to music for an almost plot-less evening.

But the brilliance of the piece, apart from Lloyd Webber’s uncommonly rich and varied score (beautifully orchestrated by him and David Cullen), is the construction of the show with its through lines of Grizabella the Glamour Cat seeking redemption, the omnipresent threat of the evil Macavity, and the reassuring presence of Old Deuteronomy who will, by evening’s end, choose which cat might ascend to the so-called Heaviside Layer.

One admires anew how well the disparate parts of the score are woven together with the moving strains of “Old Deuteronomy,” the portentous Grizabella music and the sparkling “Jellicle Cats” motif. The show is dominated by a series of vaudeville turns, and they are all done here beautifully, with just enough of a face-lift to made them freshly enjoyable, even as one fondly recalls the memorable portrayals of Elaine Paige, Brian Blessed, Sarah Brightman, and Paul Nicholas (in London), and Betty Buckley, Ken Page, and Terrence Mann (in New York).

Andy Blankenbeuhler’s choreography adheres closely to the outline of Gillian Lynne’s original, but adds a more contemporary pizzazz. Original director Trevor Nunn is back and restores the gravitas of the piece that was missing by the time the show neared the end of its original run.

The cast is very fine, with Christopher Gurr particularly outstanding an Gus the Theater Cat, maybe the best ever. Quentin Earl Darrington brings a lighter timbre to Old Deuteronomy than Page or Blessed in the New York and London originals.

There’s also Tyler Hanes as the Rum Tum Tugger, Jess LeProtto and Shonica Gooden as Mungojerrie and Rumpeltezer, Jeremy Davis as Shimbleshanks, Ricky Ubeda as Mistoffelees, and Kim Faure and Chrstine Cornish Smith as Demeter and Bombalurina, all first-rate. The latter pair sizzle through a terrific “McCavity,” and the Ubeda’s “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” was delightfully spirited, with Natasha Katz’s multi-colored lights strung throughout the house all aglow.

Though the cats run up and down the aisle a few times, this “Cats” is less an immersive experience than the UK original at the New London Theatre or Broadway’s Winter Garden. Still, John Napier’s scenic and costume designs give much the same effect as before.

Of the textual adjustments, the most substantial is the loss of “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” with its amusing and very sharp Puccini spoof, which followed the “Gus the Theater Cat” sequence in the Broadway production. It has been replaced by “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles,” less appealing but still enjoyable.

I initially admired the tragic vibe that Leona Lewis brought to Grizabella, but less so her phrasing and vocalizing when she arrived at the show’s megahit “Memory” which, in its climactic belting moments, was delivered with second-rate “American Idol” superficiality.

For all its obvious entertainment value, the show is an exceedingly well-crafted and sophisticated theater piece with real heart. The audience at my performance sat rapt throughout until breaking into a warm and richly-deserved ovation at the end.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.; 877-250-2929 or

Photo: Quentin Earl Darrington as Old Deuteronomy and Company in CATS on Broadway Photo by Matthew Murphy

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Ohio Light Opera - 38th Season

By Harry Forbes

Ohio Light Opera, the lovably enduring shrine to operetta and musical theater, under the dedicated leadership of Artistic Director Steven Daigle and Executive Director Laura Neill, just gets better and better. Now in its 38th season, the company continues to astound with its ability to pull off big Broadway musicals and esoteric European and American operetta with thoroughly first-rate aplomb.

For here was Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” and Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” alongside Offenbach’s fizzy “La Vie Parisienne” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s ever-popular warhorse “The Mikado.” The real catnip for buffs this season, though, were three choice rarities: Emmerich Kalman’s “The Little Dutch Girl” (“Das Hollandweibchen”), Ivor Novello’s triumphant hit of the Second World War era “The Dancing Years,” and Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton’s “Have a Heart” from 1917.

As before, much of the fun comes from seeing the extraordinarily talented cast members play multiple roles with astonishing skill. Take Alexa Devlin, for instance. One moment she was the hard-working middle-aged innkeeper of the Novello piece, then Hattie, the backstage dresser in “Kate,” then a most commanding Katisha in “The Mikado” singing with rich contralto tone, and then a brassy Annie Oakley the next night, belting out with oodles of Broadway pizzazz and not a whiff of the opera house about her.

Perhaps the most astonishing chameleon of the season was Nathan Brian who juggled multiple leading roles effortlessly from an outrageously campy Ko-Ko to the romantic Novello character  to the befuddled lead in the Wodehouse/Bolton story to sharpshooting heartthrob Frank Butler in “AGYG.”

But this same versatility – albeit not on this high profile a scale – could be applied to virtually every member of the company.

The productions, directed by Stephen Carr (“Kate”), Jacob Allen (“Annie”), Ted Christopher (“Mikado”), Julie Wright Costa (“La Vie”) respectively, all under the aegis of Artistic Director Steven Daigle, who directed “Dutch Girl,” “Heart” and “Dancing Years” himself, were of uniformly high quality. Company member Spencer Reese choreographed all seven shows, and conspicuously raised the bar in that regard; the overall dancing and movement was extremely impressive. “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” and “Too Darn Hot” in “Kate” were especially exciting, though even the graceful period groupings in a “Have a Heart” were striking, too.

The sounds from the pit were, as always with this company, consistently satisfying, too. Conductors J. Lynn Thompson (“Annie” and “Mikado” and “Heart”), Steven Byess (“Kate,” “Dutch Girl” and “Dancing Years”), and Wilson Southerland (“La Vie”) all have the music in their blood, as demonstrated by their polished, idiomatic performances.

Some notes about the individual productions:

“Kiss Me, Kate” – This was a thoroughly solid version of Porter’s greatest stage triumph. Ted Christopher made as fine a Fred/Petruchio as I’ve ever seen. Mezzo Sarah Best, one of OLO’s brightest lights, took on Lili /Katherine gamely, despite her mezzo timbre and natural comic persona. Still, she’s the closest OLO has to a leading lady, and she carried it off, singing beautifully. Hannah Kurth and Stephen Faulk appealingly scored as secondary couple Lois and Bill, with Kurth delivering originator Lisa Kirk’s big numbers in comparably rich tones, unlike the perky soubrettes sometimes cast in this role, and Faulk applying his smooth tenor to the caressing “Bianca.” Kyle Yampiro and Royce Strider as the comic gangsters advised us to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with requisite brio.

“Annie Get Your Gun” – Devlin, as previously stated, was a marvel. A powerhouse vocally, and utterly endearing in her dialogue which she delivered with a wonderfully fresh spin. This was the 1966 version emanating from the Lincoln Center revival with Ethel Merman, and thus missing the Tommy and Winnie secondary couple's songs, now apparently no longer licensed for performance. Devlin and Brian’s “Anything You Can Do” and “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” were predictable showstoppers. Unfortunately, “I’m an Indian, Too” was dropped for political correctness. Sarah Best scored hilariously as a loopy society dame in the second act, but all the character parts were well played, including Brad Baron as Buffalo Bill, Julie Wright Costa as Dolly Tate, Kyle Yampiro as Charlie Davenport, and Samus Haddad at Sitting Bull. 

“The Mikado” -- Happily, political correctness didn’t interfere with a lovely, traditional looking production, very well sung and smartly directed by Ted Christopher, some disconcerting screams at moments of surprise or fear notwithstanding. I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be some sort of homage to something done in samurai films perhaps, but it registered more like the annoying antics of Jerry Lewis.  Benjamin Krumreig was Nanki-Poo at my performance, and sang the role superbly.. (The role was double-cast.) So, too, Emily Nelson’s “The Sun Whose Rays” was delicately sung. Samus Haddad made a most imposing Mikado. Brad Baron’s Pooh-Bah was more zany than physically imposing, despite ineffectual padding. The deft use of fans throughout was impressive, again thanks to Reese’s staging of the movement. The overture was accompanied by some action involving Victorian patrons (including the Queen herself) engaging in hanky panky in a Japanese teahouse, framing the action with a nod to the Victorians’ actual fascination for things Japanese. Brian’s”Little List” song was duly updated with topical references, and amusingly delivered.

“Have a Heart” -- This Jerome Kern gem (book and lyrics by frequent collaborators Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse) was my personal favorite of the bunch. Very prettily designed by Daniel Hobbs -- Act One, a department store, Act Two, a honeymoon hotel -- the original orchestrations were obtained from The Packard Humanities Institute which had been planning a complete series of Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern musicals to be led on CD (complete with lavish booklets and reconstituted scores) until the project was scuttled after an acrimonious falling out with the conductor, the late John McGlinn. Charmingly staged and choreographed, all the players were perfectly cast. Sarah Best had her most satisfying role here, as Peggy, estranged wife of store manager Schoonmaker (Brian), and delivered the single most ravishing moment of any of the seven productions: a slowed-down version of the song “Peter Pan” exquisitely sung and staged, with a delicate harp accompaniment by Rebecca Simpson. But Tanya Roberts, Stephen Faulk, Kyle Yampiro, Emily Hagens and Isaac Assor were all tops and great fun, and gave a period-perfect account of Kern’s delectable score. Happily, the show was captured for upcoming DVD release.

“La Vie Parisienne” – An appropriately fizzy (if sometimes overly busy) rendering of Jacques Offenbach’s madcap modern dress vaudeville as a rouĂ© (Benjamin Krumreig)  pretends to be a tour guide to a Swedish baron (Ted Christopher) and his wife (Meagan Sill), so he can put the moves on the latter. Christopher stole the show of this one with his very amusing Swedish accent, but there was also standout work from Gretchen Windt (Metella), Tanya Roberts (Gabrielle), and Clark Sturdevant as The Brazilian. The late operetta expert Richard Traubner’s witty 1985 translation was used, but at times, the heavy accents, and Offenbach’s frantic rhythms made the lyrics hard to make out. Southerland conducted with zest and for this production, the entire orchestra was raised up on a moving platform during the effervescent overture, slightly different from the familiar one we know from records.

“The Dancing Years’ – This was a genuine treat: a rare (even in England these days) mounting of Novello’s most durable and successful work. At three and a half hours, the work emerged emphatically as a play with music, and indeed leading man Rudi Kleber barely sings a note (nor did non-singer Novello himself in the role). But what a joy to hear the luscious Novello tunes rising from the pit, and to hear the little-recorded “Lorelei” show-within-a-show sequence and other little-recorded numbers like “In Praise of Love” and “A Masque of Vienna.” Though the action takes place in Vienna, this is really a very English show, and it was just a tad  disconcerting to hear Novello’s dialogue spoken with plain Yankee accents. Still, Nathan Brian and Sarah Best pulled off their parts of, respectively, the composer whose promise to dewy-eyed teenager (fetching Emily Hagens) leads to a tragic misunderstanding, and the leading lady who takes the composer under wing and falls in love with him. Near the end, the Brian and Best morphed into Ted Christopher and Julie Wright Costa as the older versions of their characters, and the final poignant scenes were quite touching. The work was done with the epilogue of Rudi imprisoned by the Nazis (cut in both the 1950 film, and the lovely 1976 British TV version).

“The Little Dutch Girl” – Kalman’s “Das Hollandweibchen” proved quite different (which is to say, far more traditional) than the great composer’s Hungarian flavored scores, only giving way to czardas rhythms in the lively third act ensemble “Hear It…A Song of Love Is Calling.” The piece is filled with impressive pageantry and beguiling melody. This is the tale of a prince, betrothed in infancy to a princess of a neighboring kingdom, who fails to show up on her wedding day. Instead, he bolts to Holland. After her shameful rejection at the altar, the princess follows him there incognito as the titular character (wooden shoes and all), lets the prince fall in love with her, and then scornfully rejects him. Sturdevant, so good in Kalman’s “The Little King” a couple of seasons back, and another performer who shows incredible versatility at every turn, again makes a fine Kalman hero. Meagan Sill’s Princess Jutta demonstrated a strong, slightly steely soprano in the first act, but mellowed most charmingly in her second act disguise. There was fine work, too, from Jessamyn Anderson, Gretchen Windt, and Samus Haddad. After the performance, Yvonne Kalman, daughter of the composer, was brought to the stage where she expressed heartfelt thanks for this work of her father that even she had never before seen.

These seven shows made for quite a rich banquet, but for those hardcore operetta buffs attending the week of August 2, there was so much more in the jam-packed Festival Symposium “Taking Light Opera Seriously.”

Marjan Kiepura, son of the great Hungarian soprano Marta Eggerth and the Metropolitan Opera tenor Jan Kiepura, gave two fascinating, heartfelt talks about his parents, together with his wife Jane Knox who has become the virtual archivist for her late mother-in-law’s stellar and incredibly long-lived career (Eggerth died in 2013 at the age of 101, and sang with amazingly pure and steady tone till the end). Wonderful archival film clips of the couple’s films (“The Charm of La Boheme” and others), and latter-day footage of Eggerth still in impressive form, all of which generated warm applause, were interspersed with highly entertaining and poignant anecdotes from Kiepura, an especially witty speaker, and cogent commentary from Knox, altogether making for an enormously moving, personal tribute.

Britisher Rex Bunnett offered highly illuminating talks on Ivor Novello and P.G. Wodehouse, prior to performances of “The Dancing Years” and “Have a Heart” respectively. His well researched and fascinating lectures were illustrated with wonderful rare photo montages of the men and their works with audio excerpts. He spoke of the timidity of the former’s original producers who shied away from the blatant Nazi elements, cutting the prologue. He showed astonishing footage of Novello’s funeral with throngs of Londoners lining the streets. In his Wodehouse session, Bunnett described the origins of the Princess Theatre shows like “Have a Heart” and pointed out (as Guy Bolton asserted, that these were, in their way, every bit as “integrated” as “Oklahoma!” which is often glibly (and incorrectly) cited as the first such work.

During the week, Bunnett’s American counterpart, Richard Norton, gave well-researched accounts of the genesis and early production histories of “Kiss Me Kate” and “Annie Get Your Gun” with fascinating anecdotes, also showing archival visuals and sharing archival recordings. As with all the show-specific lectures, Norton’s analysis made for a much deeper understanding of the works which followed in performance as, for instance, when he urged us to listen to Irving Berlin’s use of the list device and the antithesis form in his songs for  “Annie Get Your Gun.” 

OLO Board Chairman Michael Miller offered a most amusing lecture with copious audio examples of plagiarism over the decades, whether intentional or not. Self- borrowing, spoofs, coincidence were also considered.  This was a follow-up to his first such droll lecture two years ago. Sigmund Romberg was but one of the high profile culprits.

Operetta lecturer, dramaturg, translator, and all-round factotum Daniel Hirschel gave two interesting talks, one on the origins of operetta, and how it has evolved up to the 21st Century, with evocative video clips, though it must be said many were a far cry from the more tuneful works of the earlier ages. His other lecture concentrated on the Cafes-Concerts of Paris, venues for one-act operettas of Offenbach, Barbier, and Herve that flourished from the 1860s. Give Hirschel extra points for chutzpah too. When his PowerPoint video failed at one point, he sang a few bars a cappella.

Andras Szentpeteri from Pentaton Concert and Artist Management, who has managed the extensive tours of the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theatre throughout Europe, spoke of the Hungaricum, defined as those things which are the official treasures of Hungarian culture, operetta being one of them. He gave an overview of Hungarian operetta, and described the Budapest company’s great success with revamped versions of Kalman’s “The Duchess from Chicago” and “La Bayadere” among others. He pragmatically stressed the need for new talent, new adaptations, new orchestrations, and so on, to attract contemporary audiences.

Roundtables with all the panelists opened and closed the symposium and touched on such topics as each one’s first exposure to musical theater and their respective wish lists for works they’d like to see produced: Sandy Wilson’s “Valmouth,” Paul Abraham’s “Ball im Savoy,” Oscar Straus’s “The Chocolate Soldier,” and Kalman’s “The Riviera Girl” were among the intriguing suggestions.

During the daily lunch break, members of the company and creative team -- Steven Daigle, Spencer Reese, costume designer Charlene Gross, and Jessamyn Anderson` spoke of their respective responsibilities, and entertained questions from the audience.

As if all this were not enough for four very full days, there were three concerts scheduled throughout: a lengthy two-act Emmerich Kalman concert with 27 cast members accompanied by Wilson Southerland on piano. The program -- creatively assembled by Michael Miller, and scripted by Steven Daigle -- managed to include at least one number from every one of his works, including lesser known titles such as “Die Faschingsfee,” “Der Teufelsreiter,” and “Arizona Lady.”

Then there was what has become an annual tradition – “Songs from the Cutting-Room Floor” – a concert of numbers cut from the seven shows currently being done. This gave us the opportunity to hear everything from “Let’s Go West Again” (cut from the film of “Annie Get Your Gun”) to a jazzy “A Wand’ring Minstrel, I” from “Hot Mikado.” (the latter, incidentally, most entertainingly delivered by Spencer Reese).

Finally, there was a wonderful two-part  morning recital (accompanied by Wilson Southerland again)  of highlights from two World War I era works: Daigle walked us through the 1916 “Follow Me,” a vehicle for Anna Held, the Ziegfeld star immortalized by Luise Rainer in “The Great Ziegfeld.” Songs were mostly by Harry Tierney, though actually Sigmund Romberg wrote some of the numbers, too.  Emily Hagens, Cameron Brownell, Hannah Kurth, and Hilary Koolhoven gave good measure of the ragtime infused numbers.

And then Miller introduced songs from the English language version of Victor Jacobi’s “Sybil,” a work he and Daigle hope will, one day, be given a full production at OLO, and based on the excerpts heard here, it would seem to be eminently worthy. Nathan Brian, Stephen Faulk, Katherine Corle, Katharine Nunn, Matt Kelly, and Alexandra Camastro made a strong case for the score. Lyrics were by Victor Herbert’s frequent collaborator Harry B. Smith and Harry Graham.

As with the Kalman recital, hearing the OLO cast members singing with piano accompaniment showcases all the more their quality as performers.

There was a lot to absorb in these four days, and operetta and musical aficionados were happily bleary-eyed by the end of the seventh performance, but Daigle, Neill, and Miller (assisted by indefatigable board member wife Nan Miller) kept the week humming with spectacular efficiency.

(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or; through August 13)

Photos: Matt Dilyard

Friday, June 10, 2016

Hero’s Welcome (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

Murray (Richard Stacey), a returning war hero (after rescuing dozens of children from a burning hospital), returns with a foreign bride Baba (Evelyn Hoskins) to his home town after 17 years. But it seems Murray had left under a cloud all those years before, and past resentments and romantic entanglements make his return considerably less than the cause for celebration he hopes it will be; in fact, his reappearance proves a major catalyst for trouble.

This is the premise of Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th play, running in rep with his 1974 “Confusions," as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival. Though ostensibly a comedy, it’s a dark one, and the themes here are fairly serious.

Still, the narrative, with its astutely drawn characters make for a highly absorbing evening, and Ayckbourn has come up with some ingenious twists along the way. There’s Alice (Elizabeth Boag), the town’s mayor, who’d been jilted by Murray years before, and her infantile toy train-obsessed husband Derek (Russell Dixon). There’s Murray’s alleged best friend Brad (Stephen Billington), a truly loathsome misogynist (and a liar and a cheat) who inwardly envies the honors bestowed on his former pal and covets his attractive bride, and Brad’s resolutely cheerful but unhappy wife Kara (warmly sympathetic Charlotte Harwood) who has become inured to her husband’s nasty barbs but admits at one point that she feels a virtual prisoner in her home.

Murray’s unpopular plans to restore The Bird of Prey, a dilapidated hotel which had been run by his family, sets in motion an unfortunate series of events. In fact, this is the kind of play where you get the queasy feeling bad things are going to happen…and they do.

But, as always, Ayckbourn’s writing is razor sharp, and his delineation of character masterful.

Performances are quite brilliant, and it’s great fun to see the cast of “Confusions” (who demonstrated their amazing versatility in that series of five playlets) again playing roles that are so very different. This full-length work gives each of them time to build a full characterization. New to “Hero’s Welcome” is Hoskins who gives a most appealing performance.

There are many excellent moments including a particularly moving scene in the second act between Baba and Alice, sensitively written and superbly played by Boag and Hoskins.

The play does feel a bit long, and though a 2 ½ running time was promised, it ran about a good quarter of an hour longer. But it is a pleasure to report that Ayckbourn is still writing at the top of his considerable game, making this a must-see event, of course.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St.; (212) 279-4200 or; through July 2)

Photo by Tony Bartholomew: L-R: Stephen Billington and Russell Dixon.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Confusions (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s another delicious import from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, home of the premieres of most of Alan Ayckbourn’s impressive output of plays. His most recent work, “Hero’s Welcome,” which originated there, will be opening at 59E59 tonight, but this is a revival of a much earlier work from 1974, written around the time of his earliest successes such as “The Norman Conquests” and “Absurd Person Singular.”

Five short plays – three in the first half, two in the second – give five wonderfully talented actors the chance to play a variety of roles in the expert way we have long come to expect from the English. The first four are connected by at least one character from the previous playlet, and the last – five loners relating their troubles to the utterly uninterested person on the next park bench – has thematic and geographic connection.

In the first, “Mother Figure,” harried mother Lucy (Elizabeth Boag) with three offstage children, is visited by her next door neighbors (Charlotte Harwood and Stephen Billington) after they receive a query from her travelling salesman husband who has been unable to reach her. Lucy is so programmed into her parenting role that she treats the couple like children and, surprisingly, they eventually respond in kind.

In “Drinking Companion,” Lucy’s philandering husband (priceless Richard Stacey) tries to lure two perfume saleswomen (Harwood, Boag) to his room, plying them with drinks from the seen-it-all-before waiter (Billington).

In “Between Mouthfuls,” the same waiter serves two couples – a well-to-do older pair (Boag and Russell Dixon) and a younger duo (Stacey and Harwood), the workaholic husband of which works for the older man. Ayckbourn’s clever conceit here is that we only hear what the waiter does as he approaches each table to take their orders, and the stretches of alternating dialogue from one couple to the other are in amusing sync.

In “Gosforth’s Fete,” the older woman from the last play -- the town Councilor -- comes to a tented church gala despite increasingly inclement weather and a hugely embarrassing revelation unintentionally transmitted on the loud speaker system by garrulous pub owner Gosforth (Dixon), and sweet young woman Milly (Harwood). A befuddled vicar (Stacey) and Milly’s disconcerted scoutmaster boyfriend (Billington) add to the fun.

This is the most farcical of the bunch, with everything going wildly awry, providing a stark contrast to the aforementioned “A Talk in the Park” which is rather short on belly laughs, but high on the poignant scale, and shows the more serious side of Ayckbourn’s delineation of human nature.

Michael Holt’s set design, complemented by Jason Taylor’s lighting, prove as versatile as the players in conveying the different settings.

All in all, this is rather minor Ayckbourn, but there is still enormous pleasure to be had in appreciating the brilliance of his character writing – he nails these universally recognizable character types and their foibles to a tee – and the impressive talent of the actors who morph effortlessly from role to role.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St.; (212) 279-4200 or; through July 3)

Photo by Tony Bartholomew: Richard Stacey in CONFUSIONS, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Daddy Long Legs (Davenport Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Based on Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, this musical two-hander stars Megan McGinnis as Jerusha Abbott, an orphan with a mysterious benefactor who is not the elderly man she imagines but a privileged younger man who has heretofore cut himself off from emotional connection. Director John Caird’s book honors the epistolary form of its source, and the two protagonists -- Jerusha and her mentor Jervis Pendleton (beautifully played by Adam Halpin) -- speak (or sing) through their letters throughout the evening.

Far from static, the result is highly dramatic thanks to the compelling depiction of Jerusha’s evolution (marvelously acted by McGinnis who is the focal point of all the action), and the ingenuity of Caird’s staging who knows a thing or two about telling a strong narrative as his directing credits include “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Les Miserables.”

Paul Gordon’s music and lyrics tell the story in the same astute way as his 2001 “Jane Eyre”; he has a real knack for this sort of material. Though not period sounding -- ideally, the melodies ought to have the lilt of, say, Ivan Caryll or early Jerome Kern -- and yet, they somehow don’t sound at odds with the material. Apart from the Fred Astaire-Leslie Caron musical film (which, for all its charms, bore scant resemblance to its source), there was “Love from Judy,” a 1952 British musical with music by Hugh Martin which, based on the cast recordings of the time, sounds bland and exceedingly dull. This version has far more integrity.

Caird’s meticulous care in honoring Webster’s themes -- as he puts it in a program note “the growth of a woman’s spirit and independence” and it being a story of “personal growth and emotional evolution” -- doesn’t get in the way of it being a wonderful love story with much the same texture and ultimate audience payoff as “She Loves Me.” Both share the device of correspondents who are clueless that the soulmates to whom they are writing are people they already know.

The Davenport Theatre stage is small but David Farley’s richly designed set -- warmly lit by Paul Toben -- serves as Jervis’ study, Jerusha’s school, and myriad other locales, and Farley’s costumes are beautifully evocative. You’re transported to another world for the two hours running time.

Music Director Brad Haak has done the pleasing small-scaled arrangements and orchestrations. And Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design gives just the right heft without overpowering the intimate space.

I can’t praise McGinnis and Halpin (Mr. & Mrs. in real life) too much -- they carry a tremendous load at every performance -- and though I caught up with the show well into the run, they seemed as fresh as if the show has only just opened.

This is a charming, romantic, and underneath it all, serious-minded, show well worth catching.

(Davenport Theatre, 354 W. 45 Street; or 212-239-6200)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Tuck Everlasting (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Generally appealing performances and solid production values highlight this pleasantly oddball musical based on Natalie Babbitt’s beloved young adult novel about 11-year-old girl Winnie (Sarah Charles Lewis), who encounters an immortal family in the woods, bonds with one of the sons, while a villainous character known as the Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrence Mann) tries to purloin the magic waters that gave the family its eternal youth.

I’ve not read the novel, which I gather had less sentimentality and more gravitas, nor seen either of its two film versions, so I cannot say how closely Claudia Shear and Tim Federle’s script sticks to the source, but the narrative at hand, set in the 19th century, is reasonably well told. At least in this musical form, there are thematic echoes of “Brigadoon” and “Peter Pan.”

Casey Nicholaw, who usually traffics in edgier material (“The Book of Mormon,” “Something Rotten,” even “Aladdin”), shifts gears for this rather homespun and certainly fanciful tale, and provides some nice balletic and period choreography particularly a number at the local fair where Walt Spangler’s scenic design and Gregg Barnes’ costumes are at their splashiest.

Chris Miller’s folkish music and Nathan Tysen’s lyrics are decent, if sometimes derivative of other shows. Winnie’s musical vocabulary, for instance, seems heavily influenced by Little Red Riding Hood in “Into the Woods,” but she is most engagingly played by Lewis who is, like her character, 11.

Carolee Carmello as the Tuck family matriarch makes the strongest impression, but the cast is quite appealing across the board, including Michael Park as husband Angus, Robert Lenzi as brooding son Miles, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as mischievous Jesse who falls in love with Winnie. Mann makes a convincing villain. And Valerie Wright and Pippa Pearthree are sweet as Winnie’s mother and maiden aunt.

The ever-reliable Fred Applegate plays Constable Joe, who is set on the case of finding missing Winnie when she goes missing in the woods. And he and Michael Wartella, who plays his sidekick Hugo, share a jaunty vaudeville-style number.

Nicholaw has devised a lengthy circle of life ballet near the end with echoes of Agnes DeMille’s classic story ballets, though you see pretty quickly where it’s going, so it seems to overstay its welcome.

The mortality theme and the conclusion that leading a good life being better than forever forever are not too tragic or heavy-handed for those seeking family-friendly entertainment.

The music supervision of Rob Berman and music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell is as well crafted as the show’s the other elements.

The production premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre last year.

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

Photo by Joan Marcus

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Shuffle Along (The Music Box)

By Harry Forbes

Deep among the indelible memories of my theatergoing life are singer Lynnie Godfrey sprawled on a piano suggestively growling “Daddy” and later, Gregory Hines shuffling onto the stage forlornly singing the plaintive “Low Down Blues” ultimately gorgeously merging with sweet-voiced Ethel Beatty who had just sung her own song about loneliness. The show was 1978’s “Eubie!” a fabulous tribute to composer Eubie Blake, then still very much alive and making the rounds of all the talk shows at the time, as he rode a new wave of fame.

Both those numbers surface again in “Shuffle Along,” which takes its title from the groundbreaking 1921 show written by Blake and his partner Noble Sissle, with book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. But the new “Shuffle Along” is, as the subtitle states, “The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” not an actual revival of the original show.

Thus, we have, as in so many musical films of yesteryear, a behind-the-scenes story about putting on a show – one with an all-black cast -- against all odds. In tone, it struck me very like the 1999 film “Cradle Will Rock” about the challenging original production of Marc Blitzstein’s opera.

A great cast has been assembled here: Brian Stokes Mitchell (as handsome a leading man as ever) is Miller; Billy Porter is Lyles; Joshua Henry is Sissle; and Brandon Victor Dixon is Blake. And then there’s Audra McDonald as star Lottie Gee who falls into a long-term romance with the married Blake who simply won’t leave his wife (whom we never actually see). Any concerns that playing Billie Holiday might have damaged McDonald’s lustrous sopranos are squarely laid to rest by her high flying tones here.

Savion Glover has created some quite sensational choreography, involving the entire cast including the creators just mentioned all of whom were, in fact, also in the show. Decked out in Ann Roth’s eye-filling costumes and performing on Santo Loquasto’s stunning art deco sets, the show is quite the visual feast.

Music supervisor Daryl Waters has done the snazzy arrangements and orchestrations, and they sound splendid. The aforementioned “Eubie!” songs come up sounding very different on this occasion; not better, but different. McDonald, using her legit voice, does a most delightfully provocative “Daddy” minus Godfrey’s pelvic thrusts and growling vocals and Porter offers a powerfully vocalized “Low Down Blues” unlike Hines’ relatively understated version. All these approaches seem valid, and in terms of authenticity, McDonald’s version does, in fact, sound closer to original “Shuffle” star Gertrude Saunders recording.

George C. Wolfe has directed with his usual craft and and imagination, but I’m sorry to report that it’s his own book that ultimately lets the show down, not fatally, I hasten to add, for this still a marvelous, must-see show. But I couldn’t help wishing that, like “Eubie!,” it had simply presented the songs in revue style.

Annoyingly, the songs are not listed in the program, and indeed some are only heard in fragments. Sometimes the fragment gives way to a full production number; other times not. If they record a CD – which I surely hope they do – it will require some fancy rearranging of the score.

The first act leads up to the New York opening – not truly on Broadway but at the 63rd Street Music Hall situated between Broadway and Central Park West. The second act – rumored to be a letdown after the first – actually sustains the entertainment value, albeit with a less certain dramatic arc, dramatizing, as it does, the unfortunate rift between Blake and Sissle and Lyles and Miller, and then offering verbal postscripts to what happened to the characters and when they died. The latter is done in a sardonic, cheerful manner, but it’s an obvious downer.

Some scenes are just head-scratchers as, for instance when Lottie, as the temperamental star, takes the young Florence Mills (Adrienne Warren who also plays Saunders) under wing as the latter begins to tentatively warble “I’ve Craving That Kind of Love,” but the expected knock-em-dead moment where Mills proves she doesn’t need Lottie’s coaching doesn’t quite happen. Instead, Mills continues singing, while Lottie just skulks around the periphery of the stage.

For all its faults, “Shuffle Along” is second to none for pure, entertainment pleasure.

(Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Julieta Cervantes