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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)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Othello (New York Theatre Workshop)

By Harry Forbes

David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig deliver predictably riveting performances in Sam Gold’s “Hurt Locker”-flavored production.

The NYTW space has been transformed with plywood floors, walls, and bleachers all around with the soldiers’ barrack mattresses forming Andrew Lieberman’s principal set. Nicholas Hytner also utilized, at least partially, an updated military background for his brilliant 2013 National Theatre revival with its equally tremendous performances by Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, but on a large stage, there was room for more visual variety.

Much of the present production, though, is played in semi-darkness, and portions, such as the play’s opening minutes, are in total darkness as the play’s argument (i.e. Iago’s resentment of Othello) is laid out, a gimmick that wears a little thin. Elsewhere, in Jane Cox’s lighting design, the house lights are up.

Gold seems to linger over the early scenes of Desdemona’s elopement with the Moor, while her father, Brabantio (Glenn Fitzgerald) warns Othello that she might someday betray him too, which, of course, sets the stage for what is to come.

Oyelowo is simply sensational as his jealously, implanted so skillfully by Craig’s steely-eyed Iago, grips him totally. And his subsequent killing of Desdemona is as horrifying as any I’ve seen.

Much as Shakespeare delights in the protracted revelations in his comedies, here the Bard relishes the revelation of Iago’s villainy and Emilia’s accusations of the Moor and defense of his slaughtered bride. Marsha Stephanie Blake as Emilia really shines in these scenes, as she spews forth her righteous indignation.

As Desdemona, Rachel Brosnahan is no passive innocent but a feisty lady fully at home in the soldiers’ camp, though more than ever, one gets the sense she ought to be able to defend her accuser more persuasively.

Accents vary from Oyelowo’s African cadence to Craig’s British articulation to the mostly Yankee accents elsewhere, including Fitzgerald, Matthew Maher’s lisping lovelorn Rodrigo, Finn Wittrock’s undone Cassio, Nikki Massoud’s Bianca, and David Wilson Barnes’ Duke and Lodovico. Still, all the performances are intelligent, and well serve Gold’s vision. The play’s poetry, however, is best served by Oyelowo.

The production is over three hours, and I can’t say it entirely flies by, especially while sitting on the tightly packed bleachers, but it’s never less than absorbing, particularly when the action escalates in the second half.

(New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street;; through January 18, 2017)
Photo: Joan Marcus

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sweet Charity (The New Group)

By Harry Forbes

As you may have heard, this is not your grandmother’s “Sweet Charity.” Which is to say it’s not Bob Fosse’s “Sweet Charity,” but rather a refreshingly revisionist production about the dance hall hostess with the heart of gold vainly searching for love.

The Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical gave the legendary Gwen Verdon her last significant stage role, and she received accolades for her touching and charismatic turn. Fosse directed the subsequent screen adaptation with Shirley MacLaine competently assuming the title role of Charity Hope Valentine (the name says it all), though she was judged not quite in the same league as Verdon.

On this occasion, we have the super talented Sutton Foster directed by Leigh Silverman who guided Foster through her paces in the fine 2014 Roundabout revival of Jeanine Tesori’s ‘Violet.”

If you’re willing to accept a new somewhat darker vision, you’ll be richly rewarded by this revival.

Arguably the most off-putting aspect is Charity’s appearance on this occasion: a blond Raggedy Ann mop of hair, a mini-dress, and short white boots. In some respects, though, her wig recalls the great Giulietta Masina’s appearance in Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” the source of the musical as adapted by Neil Simon, though the Charity character was a full-out street walker in that one.

Yet again, the great Foster has reinvented herself. There’s hardly a trace of her Liza role on her hit series “Younger,” nor any of her recent stage parts for that matter, including her sexy turn in Encores’ “The Wild Party.”

Simon’s text has been slightly adapted, and there’s been some re-ordering of the songs (“Where Am I Going?” now poignantly coming at the end) – intelligent changes all, which fit Silverman's contemporary vision – and Charity seems rather more aggressive than previously. And yet, she still manages to be an endearing innocent, and Foster, fine actress that she is, never makes a false move right up to the heartbreaking final moments. Her dancing to Joshua Bergasse’s newly minted choreography is also terrific.

Stocky Shuler Hensley cuts quite a different figure than the usual nebbishy Oscars, but his playing of the phobic accountant is superb, and his claustrophobic elevator scene is masterfully done. His vocal moments (“I’m the Bravest Individual” and “Sweet Charity”) are highpoints, thanks to his rich baritone. Also superb is Joel Perez who plays multiple major roles, including Italian heartthrob Vittorio Vidal, club manager Herman, and downtown evangelist Daddy Brubeck. His “Too Many Tomorrows,” “The Rhythm of Life,” and “I Love to Cry at Weddings” are wondrously differentiated.

As Charity’s girlfriends and cohorts in the Fandango Ballroom, Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett are excellent, if perhaps a tad less maternal towards Charity than usually played. They join Foster for “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and harmonize most winningly in “Baby, Dream Your Dream.”

Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s reduced orchestrations, as played by the all-girl band led by Georgia Stittt, almost make you forget the brassy originals.

Derek McLane’s economic but clever settings, Clint Ramos’ sharp costumes, and Jeff Croiter’s astute lighting contribute mightily to the production’s successful facelift.

The audience gave my performance a wildly enthusiastic ovation at the end. I hope the production can find a longer life after its limited run here.

(The New Group, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.; (212) 279-4200 or; through January 8)

Photo Credit: Monique Carboni