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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Band’s Visit (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I missed David Yazbek’s new musical based on the acclaimed 2007 film about an Egyptian police band that accidentally goes to the wrong Israeli town (Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikva), on their way to a concert at an Arab Cultural Center, and their transformative interactions with the locals who offer them hospitality. But here it is on Broadway where it quickly establishes itself as one of the most distinguished musicals on the boards.

Constructed by Yazbek and book writer Itamar Moses with an admirable seriousness of purpose and directed by David Cromer with a pacing that often suggests a play with music rather than a full-out musical (and one not afraid of long silences either), the show brilliantly captures the quirky tone of the film. The result is an immensely moving experience and, in its way, as much a game changer in the musical landscape as “Hamilton.”

Yazbek’s score, which bears his familiar stamps of angular melodies and wacky but insightful lyrics, has the added dimension here of atmospherically Middle Eastern tonalities through the prism of Jamshied Sharifi’s gorgeous orchestrations (under Andrea Grody’s music direction and Dean Sharenow’s music coordination).

At times, the songs take on the dreamily jazzy flavor of Michel Legrand in his “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Young Girls of Rochefort” vein. The hypnotically rhythmic “Waiting,” Dina’s paean to “Omar Sharif,” “The Beat of Your Heart,” “Haled’s Song About Love,” and “Answer Me” are among the standouts of a mesmerizing score.

The extraordinary cast, including Tony Shaloub, utterly transformed from his usual persona as Tewfiq, the head of the band, and Katrina Lenk as Dina, the kind restaurateur who offer the band refuge when they miss the last bus out of town, and with whom he develops a romantic if platonic bond. Everyone plays with a Middle Eastern accent which adds immeasurably to the verisimilitude.

Each of the characters in beautifully etched both in writing and performance. Tewfiq’s companion in Dina’s home is Haled (Ari’el Stachel), a romantically inclined musician with a penchant for Chet Baker. Another of their party, Simon (Alok Tewari), an oboist who has composed only the very beginning of a concerto, and violinist Camal (Geoge Abud) ends up at the home of a troubled young couple (Kristen Sieh and John Cariani) with a baby, and her widowed father (Andrew Polk).

There’s a young man (Adam Kantor)  pathetically hogging the public phone waiting for his girl to call. And Papi (Etai Benson), a shy young man who can’t connect with the girl he’s sweet on at a disco roller rink.

The themes of loneliness, disconnection, isolation, unrequited love, loss, regret, and the restorative power of music are all brilliantly conveyed without resorting to cliche.  The growing empathy between Tewfiq and Dina is beautifully played by Shalhoub and Lenk. Thematically, there are parallels to “Come From Away,” but this is oh, so much more subtle and nuanced.

Cromer and his company have been extraordinarily faithful to the film, keeping to the film’s structure and pacing even down to the running time (90 minutes, no intermission). Nothing seems forced, and the show breathes as naturally as life itself.

The production team’s efforts are impeccable across the board including Scott Pask’s set, Sarah Laux’s costumes, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, Kai Harada‘s sound, and Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections.

This is an altogether immensely moving, deeply affecting, and exquisite experience, and unlike anything else currently on the boards.

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street;, 212.239.6200)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Red Mill (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

The third major Manhattan outing in recent years of Victor Herbert’s once hugely popular musical comedy -- and indeed, that descriptor is more accurate in this case than the usual term operetta where Herbert is concerned -- proved highly enjoyable in the hands of VHRP.

Like the last two excellent productions -- that of The Little Orchestra Society in 2007 (conducted by the late Dino Anagnost), and then LOONY (Light Opera of New York) in 2010 -- the edition employed was prepared by VHRP Artistic Director and tireless Herbert champion Alyce Mott.

She’s made tweaks along the way, but all versions -- which ideally accommodate companies with smaller forces --  include a reordering of songs, some characters (Tina, Willem) and a couple of songs dropped, and tighter narrative, though it must be said that Henry Blossom’s original book for the show was, in fact, considered one of Herbert’s strongest back in the day, and holds up reasonably well on its own, some of the humor notwithstanding.

Originally a vehicle for the popular team of David Montgomery and Fred Stone, who supplied some spectacularly acrobatic dancing and stunts (the latter falling backwards down an 18 foot ladder, and later, rescuing the heroine by riding a wing of the titular mill), the plot revolves around two penniless Yanks -- Con Kidder (Matthew Wages) and Kid Connor (Drew Bolander) stranded in Holland. The unyielding Burgomaster (Anthony Maida) has contrived for his daughter Gretchen (Sarah Caldwell Smith) to marry the Governor of Zeeland (David Seatter), though she loves a penniless sailor named Doris (here Dori) (Christopher Robin Sapp) with whom she plans to elope with Con and Kid’s help. The Burgomaster also wants his sister Berta (Vira Slywotzky), the innkeeper, to marry the sheriff Franz (Shane Brown). A car collision involving a daffy French countess (very amusing Alexa Devlin) and an English solicitor (Brian Kilday) further complicates matters.

The cast was attractive and vocally adept, right down to the blue chip ensemble (including Daniel Greenwood, Joanie Brittingham, Jonathan Fox Powers, Tanya Roberts, Jonathan Heller, and Hannah Kurth). Smith and Sapp made appealing, light-voiced lovers, blending nicely on “I Want You to Marry Me” and “The Isle of Our Dreams.” (Smith inherited the missing Tina character’s charming “Mignonette” ditty.) Slywotzky delivered an appropriately menacing “The Legend of the Mill,” setting up the important plot point that the place is haunted. Wages and Bolander, minus the heart-stopping acrobatics of their roles’ creators, handled the vaudeville numbers “Always Go While the Goin’ Is Good” and the famous “Streets of New York” with fine style.

Maida and Brown (the semi-villains of the piece) hadn’t much to do vocally, though got to do one lively number, “You Never Can Tell About a Woman.” (Maida, incidentally, was once a fine Con Kidder himself as you can hear on the Ohio Light Opera recording of the work on Albany Records.)

The Governor makes a late entrance in Act Two, but Seatter made the most of it with the rousing “Every Day Is Ladies’ Day With Me,” and then dueted touchingly with Slywotzky in “Because You’re You.” The staging of the former was slightly marred by the chorus girls exaggeratedly recoiling from the Governor as if he were a 1906 Harvey Weinstein, whereas surely his character meant to be nothing more than a charming rogue of the pre-politically correct old school.

Berta’s “A Widow Has Ways” and Con and Kid’s “Good-a-bye John” (an interpolation not by Herbert, but nonetheless one of the original production’s major showstoppers) were the primary casualties. But, as compensation, we got to hear the rare “I’m Always Doing Something I Don’t Want to Do,” performed by Berta and Gretchen.

On the whole, the romantic elements trumped the comic ones, as the comedy -- even in this edition -- seemed a tad labored, but the music happily dominated.

As with the last few VHRP productions, Mott’s savvy direction and Emily Cornelius’ very entertaining choreography continually delighted the eye, and helped one forget the lack of sets and period costumes. William Hicks’ fleet and nimble piano accompaniment (the small orchestra employed for last season’s “Eileen” will return for their spring show “The Enchantress”), and Michael Thomas’ assured conducting were, as usual, above reproach.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.;; Nov. 14 and 15 only)

Photos by Jill LeVine (top to bottom):

"Always Go While the Goin' Is Good"
L to R   Matthew Wages (Con Kidder), Sarah Caldwell Smith (Gretchen van Borkem), Drew Bolander (Kid Conner)

Governor woos Berte van Borkem
L to R   Vira Slywotzky (Berte van Borkem), David Seatter (Governor)

"The Accident"
L to R   Drew Bolander (Kid Conner), Hannah Kurtz, Tanya Roberts, Joanie Brittingham, Alexa Devlin (Countess De La Frere), Brian Kilday (Pennyfeather), Jonathan Heller, Jonathan Fox Powers, Daniel Greenwood, Matthew Wages (Con Kidder)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Torch Song (Second Stage Theater)

By Harry Forbes

No longer billed as “Torch Song Trilogy,” and discreetly abridged (not that you’d readily know it), while still retaining its basic triptych format (albeit in two acts), Harvey Fierstein’s award-winning and groundbreaking 1982 play receives a fine revival in Mois├ęs Kaufman’s spot-on staging.

Versatile Michael Urie, fresh from all his superb clowning in Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” at Red Bull Theater, here takes on the role of self-deprecating drag queen Arnold who longs for love and domesticity, the part so memorably created by Fierstein himself on stage and screen. And there’s a flawless ensemble comprising Ward Horton as Arnold’s first great love Ed (Ward Horton), immensely likable Roxanna Hope Radja as the not-so-deluded young woman Ed decides to marry, Michael Rosen as the young former hustler and model Alan who becomes Arnold’s second great love, Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold’s loving but overbearing mother, and Jack DiFalco as Arnold’s feisty adopted son.

The first portion, set in 1971, charts Arnold’s head-over-heels encounter with the sexually conflicted Ed and their breakup six months later. The second (now 1974) is played on a giant bed (scenic design by David Zinn) and presents various pairings (sexual and conversational) among Arnold, Ed, Laurel and Alan. And the third and best revolves around Ma coming up from Florida in 1980 to visit Arnold in his New York apartment where one than one surprise await her. The no-holds-barred confrontation between Arnold and Ma in that act has lost none of its power to sting. In fact, period piece though this is, “Torch Song” plays far less dated than one might have predicted. its themes and conflicts still resonate.

At times, Urie can’t help but channeling Fierstein -- the dialogue, after all, bears the husky-voiced actor/author’s own cadences -- but Urie’s portrayal is very much his own, and his comic timing enhances many scenes, as for instance, when he mimes the antics of a salacious backroom bar encounter. Ruehl, for her part, has the perfect sardonic delivery, successfully navigates the fine line between loving and hateful mother, and considerably enlivens the third act in which Arnold, in the aftermath of tragedy, must finally come to terms with his future.

Horton is appealing believable in his spectacularly conflicted role while DiFalco brings a bracing edge to his part that undercuts any sentimentality.

Clint Ramos’s costumes, like Zinn’s sets, evoke the 1970s perfectly, enhanced by David Lancer’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound designs.

(Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street; 212-246-4422 or; through December 9)

Friday, November 3, 2017

M. Butterfly (Cort Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Director Julie Taymor’s compelling revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony winner (its first on Broadway) features two bravura performances that compare very favorably with our memories of the acclaimed originators John Lithgow and B.D. Wong as, respectively, Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, a cross-dressing Chinese opera singer (and actually a spy) with whom Gallimard carries on a decades-long affair, all the while believing the latter is a woman.

Here it’s Clive Owen and newcomer Jin Ha who take on these roles superbly, making them their own. Owen makes his character’s conflicting emotions completely plausible and the latter gives Song a convincing Continental allure.

Puccini’s 1904 “Madama Butterfly” – from which the title, of course, derives – runs through the narrative thematically, as it’s an opera that particularly inspired Gallimard from an early age. And its music is Song’s party piece.

Playwright David Henry Hwang has made changes in the text to emphasize the political backdrop, play up the East/West conflict, and giving us more backstory and details which clarify Gallimard’s seeming gullibility. For one thing, now Gallimard first believes Song is a man before being convinced otherwise. (Hwang’s plot derives from a real life story, but remains jaw-droppingly incredible.)

One might rather have expected Julie Taymor to go way over the top with her staging, but not so. Her work is restrained and apt throughout, showing sensitivity to the text. Visually, the Chinese opera performances and the Mao glorification parts are the most eye-filling, as is Ma Cong’s choreography for these sequences, but Taymor creates compelling stage pictures here.

Paul Steinberg’s sliding panel set (expertly lighted by Donald Holder) is spare when it needs to be, as in the opening scenes where Gallimard – in a jail cell for espionage – reveals how the disclosure of how he fell for Song’s ruse has made him a laughing stock, and opening up when appropriate. Constance Hoffman’s costumes, including Song’s chic outfits, are right on the money, too.

All the performances are satisfying, including Enid Graham as Gallimard’s stiff upper lip wife; Celeste Den as the scarily fierce Comrade Chin who makes sure Song stays loyal to the cause and doesn’t succumb to decadent Western  ways; Michel Countryman as Gallimard’s diplomatic superior who envies Gallimard his Chinese mistress when gossip of the affair reaches him; and Clea Alsip as a provocative student who comes onto Gallimard.

I hadn’t thought I needed to see “M. Butterfly” again, but Hwang’s revisions, Taymor’s vision, and the riveting performances make this an absorbing, often enthralling, experience all over again.
(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Time and the Conways (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This is a worthy if not truly inspired revival of J.B. Priestley’s highly intriguing 1937 play about the bourgeoisie in England between the wars, class distinction, and the nature of time.

Elizabeth McGovern, fresh from her “Downton Abbey” fame, stars as the widowed matriarch of a family of four daughters and two sons. But she is far from the sweetly compassionate Countess of Grantham on the popular PBS series. And though she played a expatriate American in that series, here she’s playing it quite English.

The play opens in 1919 on the 21st birthday celebration of daughter Kay (Charlotte Parry). The family is in a festive frenzy over the off-stage pantomime they are putting on for their guests. There are Kay's sisters: lovely young Carol (a radiant Anna Baryshnikov), glamorous Hazel (Anna Camp), budding socialist Madge (Brooke Bloom), and two brothers, the unassuming Alan (Gabriel Ebert) and, just back from the war, the callous ladies man Robin (Matthew James Thomas), the apple of Mrs. Conway’s eye.

There’s also the young lawyer Gerald (Alfredo Narciso), soon to be the family solicitor, up-and-coming working class Ernest (Steven Boyer), and family friend Joan (Cara Ricketts). Everything is merry, and a bright future for all seems certain.

But then the set recedes (excellent stage effect by Neil Patel), and another descends from the flies. It’s now 1937, and we see the same characters in quite a different light. This time, acrimony and unhappiness are the pervasive moods.

After intermission, we’re back in 1919, and now with the knowledge of what is to come, we observe evens quite differently.

Priestley, heavily influenced by the work of philosopher John William Dunne on the subject of time, takes the point that the past, present, and future are one, and it is important to see all periods as part and parcel of the present. This theory is articulated by Alan to his prescient sister Kay, a budding novelist in the first scene, later a working journalist who has compromised her youthful ideals. Good times and misfortune can co-exist. “Man was made for joy and woe,” says Alan, quoting Blake. Even young Carol remarks in the first scene that she sometimes thinks of tragic moments when she is in the midst of a happy occasion.

Paloma Young’s costumes are stylishly period, though the limitations of the American Airlines Theatre seem to force a rather flat scenic perspective, despite Patel’s accomplished work. “Indecent” Tony winner Rebecca Taichman’s mostly knowledgeable and sensitive direction (she helmed a prior production at the Old Globe) sometimes, I feel, misses the mark here.

In a pivotal scene of thwarted romance involving Madge and Gerald, for instance, Bloom has been allowed to play her girlish enthusiasm far too stridently, so much so that we’re not allowed to feel the terrible regret of her lost opportunity. We’re rather relieved when Gerald gets away from her. Similarly, the poignancy of another romance (between Alan and Joan) tragically derailed by an intrusive Robin is missing as Thomas plays the scene far too benignly with little hint of his predatory nature.

As stated, Mrs. Conway is far from a model mother, but the audience brings such affection for McGovern, they sometimes seem too much in her corner, laughing and applauding her actions, even when her character is behaving most unfeelingly.

As often the case with these very British plays, an American cast doesn’t always capture the authentic cadence as well as an English cast might, but generally they do well. To see a more idiomatic performance, I recommend an outstanding 1985 British production currently available on YouTube, with Claire Bloom as the mother, and a young Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes on “Downton Abbey”) as Kay.

Though all the performances here are attractive and skillful, ultimately it’s the men who come off best. Boyer is truly superb at Ernest (ill-at-ease in the early scenes, and brutally hard in the second). Ebert tremendously appealing at Alan, and Thomas a convincing wastrel.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 Street; roundabout or 212-719-1300; through November 26)

Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Clockwork Orange (New World Stages)

By Harry Forbes

This highly stylized adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novel (later made into a famous film by Stanley Kubrick) comes to New York by way of London. As did several previous stage versions, including one written by Burgess himself, this one utilizes quite a bit of music, here almost wall-to-wall synthesized rock.

Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones’ production -- with an all-male cast of nine (from both sides of the Atlantic)  and choreographed within an inch of its life -- has a strong homoerotic feel above and beyond the buffed torsos on display (especially Jonno Davies as Alex, ringleader of a group of teenage thugs called, in Burgess’ Anglo-Russian Nadsat patois,  Droogs -- Dim (Sean Patrick Higgins), Georgie (Matt Doyle), and Pete (Misha Osherovich) among them). (Amusingly, the men’s room line snaked out for miles, while the women breezed into theirs with nary a wait.)

The intermission-less 90 minute production follows the basic outline of Burgess’ novel, as the gang terrorize and rape innocent people, both on the street and in their homes, a murder finally landing Alex in prison where another lethal act of violence leads to him submitting to aversion therapy designed to make violence repugnant to him, underscoring Burgess’ conundrum about the the morality of removing free will. After a suicide attempt, the reconditioning wears off, and unlike Kubrick’s film, the play ends with Alex’s final reformation, the portion originally dropped from American editions of the novel.

As with the recent stage adaptation of “1984,” you’d do well to read a synopsis beforehand, if you don’t know or have forgotten the story. The stylized staging and the cast playing multiple roles -- male and female, but hard to tell the difference -- often makes the plot turns difficult to follow. Timothy Sekk doubles as Alex’s parole offer and the prison chaplain. Brian Lee Huynh is the principal doctor of Alex’s behavior modification and also, earlier on, one of Alex’s unlucky victims. And so on.

The musical soundtrack accompanying all the onstage “ultraviolence” (as Burgess described it, coining a new word) is a highly amplified combination of original music by Glenn Gregory and Berenice Scott, Beethoven (that composer being the surprising favorite of the otherwise uncouth Alex), and others. So, too, there are some glaring lighting effects (James Baggaley) contributing to an overall assault on the senses. There were, in fact, a few walkouts at my performance, but a standing ovation at the end.

The relentless violence (sexual and otherwise) eventually grows wearying and loses its shock value. One doesn’t feel much, if any, emotional involvement in the action. But the tireless Davies gives an undeniably dynamic and highly committed performance, while also serving as fight captain. For all the non-stop dancing, sometimes suggestive of “West Side Story” to a rock beat, there’s no choreography credit per se, but cast member Aleksander Varadian is dance captain.

(New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 6)

Photo: Caitlin McNaney

Friday, September 1, 2017

Prince of Broadway (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

There’s no denying Hal Prince has had an absolutely amazing and prolific career.  In fact, near the top of the present career overview, the titles of all the shows he’s either directed or produced are projected in rapid succession, and those classic titles alone signals the indisputable fact that attention must be paid.

With the man himself -- and frequent collaborator, the great Susan Stroman -- at the helm (both directing, and she handling the choreography), and such a wealth of material upon which to draw, one can’t go far wrong. And indeed they don’t. For, on the whole,  this is a satisfying overview of a richly varied career.

Unlike “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” however, which recreated full numbers as that choreographer/director had originally staged them, the present show gives us more of an evocation of the original, some closer than others. Inevitably, when recreating great moments, we can’t help but recall the stars who made them so memorably in the first place. And with due respect to this talented lineup, some of whom played in the show during its initial run in Japan three years ago, that’s where the evening sometimes falls short.

The cast of nine serves as first-person narrators of Prince’s career, as “he” tells his story (book by David Thompson), interspersed with the musical numbers. The device is a bit hokey, but gets the job done.

As this is MTC, not a commercial Broadway mounting, Beowulf Borritt’s sets are perforce more resourceful than truly lavish, though some set pieces surprise with their scale: the comic book backdrop to “It’s A Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman,” for instance; the pink floral vista for the “Beautiful Girls” number from “Follies”; and the web-dominated “Kiss of the Spider Woman” motif, to name a few.

The cast members all acquit themselves well enough. Michael Xavier, Joe Gillis in the recent “Sunset Boulevard” revival, impresses in a number of sequences, ranging from “Company” (“Being Alive”) to “A Little Night Music” (“You Must Meet My Wife”) to  “The Phantom of the Opera” (“The Music of the Night”). Bryonha Marie Parham morphs effortlessly from Amalia in “She Loves Me” (“Will He Like Me?”) to Queenie in “Show Boat” (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” though singing the character of Julie’s lines) to Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” (though her rendering of the title song is rather overwrought, I thought). 

The always wonderful Tony Yazbeck scores with two “West Side Story” numbers (opposite Kaley Ann Voorhees’ lovely Maria in the “Tonight” scene), plays the Leo Frank character in “Parade” (“This Is Not Over Yet”), and stops the show with his virtuosic hoofing in  “The Right Girl” from “Follies.” Voorhees, incidentally, also plays Christine in the “Phantom” sequence (“Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”).

Kudos to Yazbeck and Stroman for at last restoring “The Right Girl” to the dance number it was originally when Hollywood hoofer Gene Nelson played the role. Since then, non-dancing Buddys have had to improvise jerky, angry movements during the dance breaks. Stroman has given him some really meaty steps which he pulls off in spectacular fashion.

Janet Ducal scored with “You’ve Got Possibilities” from “Superman” opposite Xavier’s buff Man of Steel, and later performs two “Evita” numbers in the second act. Brandon Uranowitz smoothly jumps from George in “She Loves Me” (“Tonight at Eight”) to the Emcee in “Cabaret” to Molina in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

A svelte and vocally assured Emily Skinner gets to do  Desiree (“Send in the Clowns”), Joanne in “Company” (“Ladies Who Lunch” perhaps channeling Elaine Stritch a bit too closely); and Mary in “Merrily We Roll Along” (“Now You Know”).

Chuck Cooper straddled Ben in “Follies,” Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Joe in “Show Boat” (“Ol’ Man River” with annoyingly bowdlerized lyrics) and “Sweeney Todd” (“My Friends”) with varying success.

Most impressive of all, though, was the versatile Karen Ziemba who really nailed both “So What?” from “Cabaret” and “The Worst Pies in London” from “Sweeney Todd.”

Jason Robert Brown has done the arrangements, orchestrations and overall musical supervision, as well as penning a new song, the career-defining  “Do the Work” at the end.

William Ivey Long’s costumes, Howell Binkley’s lighting, and Jon Weston’s sound design are predictably first-rate.

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