Wednesday, July 3, 2024

N/A (Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Crackling good performances by Holland Taylor and Ana Villafañe as characters “inspired by” Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (the titular “N” and “A”) highlight this taut, witty play by Mario Correa who crafts this two-hander as a confrontation (mostly cordial) between N’s pragmatic decades-long experience in Congress against newbie A’s brash and impatient desire for change.

Tautly directed by Diane Paulus who draws convincing performances from her stars, the 80 minute play holds your interest throughout. The play set in the “recent past” basically charts the time between the Democrats gaining the House of Representatives and then losing it, which is to say, roughly 2018 to 2022 

Taylor already had a triumph portraying a real-life character, late Texas Governor Ann Richards at Lincoln Center’s upstairs space, and she is once again quite brilliant as the first woman Speaker of the House, though "N/A" is not a Lincoln Center Theater production. Similarly, Villafañe j-- who triumphed on Broadway as Gloria Estefan in “On Your Feet” -- scores again, this time as the youngest woman elected to Congress. 

Though A’s abrasiveness at first has the audience more on N’s side, Correa is careful to keep our sympathies nicely balanced between his two well intentioned but vastly different protagonists. So, too, a late-in-play revelation from A generates further sympathy and motivations for her passions.

Their sparring is lively, and sometimes heated (as in A’s insistence that ICE be abolished with indignation about children in cages) but never descends to nasty hostility. “A battle of ideas” was Correa’s intent, according to a brief program note. And much of their snappy repartee is quite entertaining and often amusing. For the record, Donald Trump is never mentioned by name just pronoun, but clearly held in disdain.

Myung Hee Cho’s ultra simple production design -- a pared down evocation of N’s office -- is artful and attractive, and her costumes are right on target for the real-life models. Mextly Couzin’s ingenious lighting, along with Possible Lisa Renkel’s projections,  brilliantly effects scene changes with a sort of sweeping black out effect that gives the impression of a curtain closing between the play’s several scenes.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St.; or by or 212-239-6200; through August 4 ) 

Photo by Daniel Rader: (l.-r.) Ana Villafañe, Holland Taylor

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Heart of Rock and Roll (James Earl Jones Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The latest jukebox musical -- this one delving into the Huey Lewis and the News songbook -- is just as lightweight and unprofound as you might expect of such an enterprise. And yet, I found it an unabashedly fun and diverting entertainment, and its featherlight plot, such as it is, does keep you hooked. 

This is due, in large part, to the committed and dynamic turn of Corey Cott as a young man who has left his dreams of fronting a rock band behind to pursue an executive position in a Milwaukee cardboard packaging factory, so as not to be a failure as he believes his late father to have been. Needless to say, just as his cheeky machinations begin to pay off at a Chicago trade convention, the dormant music career at last shows signs of taking off. What’s a guy to do?

The book by Jonathan A. Abrams (from a story by Abrams and Tyler Mitchell) manages to build a decent amount of suspense about this improbable dilemma especially in the more action-packed second act. 

The excellent Gordon Greenberg directs at a snappy, no-nonsense pace.

Cott really makes you care about his character Bobby, sings powerfully, and all in all, tops his earlier good work in “Bandstand” though we'll overlook the misguided revival of “Gigi.” He handles the reflective moments as much as the rhythmic numbers with sincerity and assurance. There are also appealing performances by McKenzie Kurtz as the boss’s confidence-lacking daughter Cassandra; John Dossett as her widowed dad; Zoe Jensen and Josh Breckenridge as Cassandra’s friends; Orville Mendoza as the sauna loving magnate of an IKEA-like furniture company; and F. Michael Haynie, Raymond J. Lee, and John-Michael Lyles as Bobby’s old bandmates.

Especially winning are Tamika Lawrence as Bobby’s sassy friend and factory’s HR head, and Billy Harrigan Tighe as Cassandra’s smarmy ex-flame from Princeton (a “human PEZ dispenser, as someone calls him). Lawrence earns some of the biggest laughs of the evening, and Tighe -- though patently villainous -- shines in some impressive musical numbers like “Give Me the Keys” and “Stuck with You” which segues into an amusing dream ballet.

Throughout, Lorin Latarro’s vigorous choreography -- including a standout number involving bubble wrap, and a Richard Simmons-like second act workout number -- is a big plus, and the hard-working dancers impress at every turn.

The Lewis tunes are reasonably well integrated into the script, and sound very catchy as arranged and orchestrated by Music Supervisor Brian Usifer, and under the musical direction of Will Van Dyke. Along with following one’s dreams, love in the overarching theme and the show is peppered with reprises of “Do You Believe in Love?” and “The Power of Love.” 

The topline production team includes Derek McLane (sets), Jen Caprio (costumes), Japhy Weideman (lighting), John Shivers (sound), Nikiya Mathis (hair, wig, and makeup)

The show premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe back in 2018, but it was worth the effort to get it to Broadway.

(James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Corey Cott and McKenzie Kurtz

Friday, April 26, 2024

Mother Play (Second Stage)

By Harry Forbes

After outstanding Broadway turns in classic plays by Williams and O’Neill, Jessica Lange creates a new role, and delivers another absolutely splendid performance, this time as an alcoholic single mother ruling over her two children with steely Southern charm. They, in turn, are beautifully played by Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger, who each age convincingly from young teens to adulthood. 

Paula Vogel’s skillfully observed semi-autobiographical play is set outside Washington, D.C.’ s beltway from 1964 and over the ensuing decades. We can quickly discern that mother Phyllis’ well-ordered plans for Martha and Carl are destined to go seriously wrong from the get-go. Both her grandiose dreams for her golden boy Carl and her casual dismissal of Martha will soon be turned on their ear as she gleans that the precocious Carl is gay, and so, it later transpires, is Martha. 

The play is a drama, but one not without many sharply comic moments. The whole is deeply affecting, however, and by the end of the play’s 105 minute running time, there were audible sobs at my performance. 

On the lighter side there is a marvelous bit of business involving Carl showing Martha how to walk like a man, so she won’t be hit on by the boys at school, followed a bit later by Phyllis demonstrating how a woman should walk. A later dance scene (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli) provides another highly amusing interlude.  

Later, when Phyllis’ appalling behavior leads to her eventual isolation from Carl and Martha, Lange brilliantly commands the stage in a heart wrenching solo turn, as she struggles to cope with her solitude. 

David Zinn’s scenic design, lighted by Jen Schriever, neatly encompasses the various residences of the peripatetic family, as they move from place to place with their boxes and well-worn furniture.  (Thus the play’s subtitle, “A Play in Five Evictions.”) And with most of the residences beset with roach infestations, Shawn Duan’s witty projection designs gives us the incongruous and somehow delightful image of dancing roaches. 

There’s a canny use of music throughout as Phyllis listens to her favorite songs on the local easy listening station from “The Theme to a Summer Place” to “Moon River,” all of which perfectly capture the mood of the era as well as Phyllis' character.

Tina Landau directs her cast with delicate precision through their respective character and aging transformations, and deftly orchestrates the shifting moods of Vogel’s heartfelt narrative.

(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street;; through June 16)

Photos by Joan Marcus:

(top) Jessica Lange

(below) Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (August Wilson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

For all of the much vaunted accouterments of the award-winning London import, this latest revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s enduring 1966 musical finds Joe Masteroff’s book more or less intact. But, as in most stage productions since the 1972 movie version, leading man Cliff, the stand-in for Christopher Isherwood, whose stories inspired the play "I Am a Camera" before the musical, is pointedly more interested in “boys” than “girls.” Even so, the affair with chanteuse Sally Bowles plays out along its familiar lines. 

Musically, this production follows the playbook of the 1988 Alan Cumming/Sam Mendes production. Original numbers such as “The Telephone Song,” “Meeskite,” “Why Should I Wake Up,” “Sitting Pretty” have not been restored. And, in their place, we still have “Mein Herr,” “Money,” and “Maybe This Time” from the film, plus “I Don’t Care Much,” written for but not used in the original production. 

Director Rebecca Frecknall’s production is staged in the round though the bulk of the audience is positioned as per the Wilson Theatre’s customary layout, albeit with tables up front. The rows which follow directly behind are equipped with drink ledges which makes seat access a tad tight.

Scenic Designer Tom Scutt has effected a quite spectacular transformation of the theater from top to bottom, so much so that it is quite a challenge to discern the normal configuration of the place. Only the central staircases leading to the auditorium and the position of the restrooms allow one to get one’s bearings. As if all this weren’t enough, Scutt also designed the costumes. (Isabella Byrd’s lighting design complements Scutt’s work seamlessly.) 

The show itself is prefaced by a mostly superfluous 75 minute “prologue” of supposedly Weimar era performers, nine in all, dancing provocatively on raised platforms or running amongst the crowd. One enters the theater not through the lobby, but rather a side alley and then steps down to the multi-level club. It’s all very dimly lit (restrooms included) and I found it more than a little claustrophobic. Before the actual show begins, there’s more mood-setting activity on the auditorium level. 

Clearly, there is much good in this production, but the over-the-top tawdry decadence level seems to rise with each new production. But I fear a major revival of the show as it was in 1966 is unlikely.

Eddie Redmayne has created a very individual and striking Emcee, quite different from the interpretations of both creator Joel Grey and revival star Alan Cumming. Whether as carrot-topped clown, marionette, or stormtrooper, he’s quite a marvel to watch, and sings very well indeed, as we hear especially in his two most lyrical moments,  “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “I Don’t Care Much.” When  he’s not performing one of Kit Kat numbers, he lurks about as a silent observer. 

Gayle Rankin’s Sally is also first rate, giving the character a hard edge but not so much that we can’t understand why the sexually ambivalent Cliff falls under her spell. I didn’t particularly care for the staging of her first number, “Don’t Tell Mama” (choreographed by Julia Cheng), but thereafter found her to be a dynamic and engaging presence, skillful in her dramatic scenes, and impressive vocally. Like Redmayne, she’s careful not to imitate her predecessors, and all her numbers are intelligently delivered. Her manic, defiant rendition of the title song near the end was quite sensational, and it gets my vote for showstopper of the season. 

Bebe Neuwirth is absolutely tremendous as boarding house landlady Fraulein Schneider. She doesn’t make a false move here dramatically or vocally. Her latter-day vibrato works well in this context, and she masterfully delivers the three big numbers originated by Lotte Lenya. She’s beautifully matched by Steven Skybell (Tevye in the Joel Grey directed “Fiddler on the Roof”) as fruit seller Herr Schultz who gives a warm sensitive performance. Also fine are Henry Gottfried as Ernst Ludwig who befriends Cliff but later reveals the dark side beneath the cheerful affability. And Natascia Diaz as Fraulein Kost also delineates well the duality of her personality: carefree call girl masking hard-edged intolerance. 

The one discordant casting is Ato Blankson-Wood as Cliff. Blankson-Wood is a very good actor, as his Hamlet in last year’s Public Theater production confirmed -- and that production will, incidentally, air on PBS’s “Great Performances” this month -- but his performance on this occasion is oddly lackluster. So, too, this is color blind casting that requires an unreasonable suspension of disbelief, particularly with race such an obvious issue in the incipient Nazi era.

Musically, under the direction of Jennifer Whyte, the classic John Kander and Fred Ebb score, sounds good as ever, and I must commend the sound design of Nick Lidster for Autograph for the crystalline clarity of both music and dialogue. 

Even if the immersive elements are not your cup of tea -- and they certainly weren’t mine -- you might consider bypassing much of it, and just heading for your seats in the theater proper to experience this flawed but still worthy production. 

(Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52 Street;

Photos by Marc Brenner

(top) Eddie Redmayne

(below) Steven Skybell and Bebe Neuwirth  

Monday, April 22, 2024

Sally & Tom (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The prolific Suzan-Lori Parks’ latest play (a “dramedy” about “art, politics, and the contradictions that make all of us” (according to the press notes) charts the fascinating and enigmatic relationship of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, a union that produced six children. But rather than giving us a straight-forward historical narrative, Parks has framed the story as a play called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” as it is being rehearsed by a low-budget acting troupe called Good Company, while preparing for the first performance.

The actors in the troupe grapple with the issues in the play and, in some instances, mirror them. Thus, the play simultaneously explores the mythology of Sally and Tom, and the ethos of making theater.

All of the scrappy Good Company actors wear multiple hats in mounting the production. Leading lady Luce (Sheria Irving), for instance, is also the playwright, and her boyfriend Mike (Gabriel Ebert) is not only the play’s director but also has the Jefferson role. Jefferson’s daughter Patsy (Kate Nowlin) is taken by the company’s dramaturg and choreographer; while daughter Polly (Sun Mee Chomet) happens to be the stage manager. And so on.

The back and forthing of the Sally/Tom and backstage stories could seem a tired device, but both plot lines hold our interest, and one can see the wisdom of that structure so that the present-day characters are allowed to express modern day views on the historical action of 1790 Monticello.

The Jefferson-Hemings relationship was not a love story, Lori-Parks wants us to know, as obviously, Sally was owned by TJ (as the Good Company calls him), though as there was no Known coercion on Jefferson’s part, the true dynamics of that relationship can never really be known. 

The cast, headed by Irving and Ebert, morphs easily between their modern characters and the historical roles. Alano Miller is particularly strong as Sally’s valet brother James whose impassioned stand-up speech to Jefferson becomes a point of contention when the (unseen) producer Teddy sends word that it should be cut. Daniel Petzold as actor Geoff plays several parts in “The Pursuit of Happiness” most skillfully, while offstage, he bonds romantically with Leland Fowler’s Devon. Kristolyn Lloyd is especially good as Luce’s friend Maggie, and Sally’s sister Mary in the play.

Like the aforementioned James Hemings speech, both Sally and Tom have their big monologues, and they are impressively delivered by Irving and Ebert. The latter closes the first act with a defense of his (Tom’s) contradictory character. How can the author of “all men are created equal” own hundreds of slaves? We learn that, unlike George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson chose not to free his slaves, and not even on his deathbed did he free Sally, as was often customarily done. 

And near the end of the second act, Sally herself explains her conflicted feelings about the relationship. Naturally, it’s all supposition on Parks’ part, but Sally’s logic in the speech sounds plausible. Besides which, it’s another theatrical highpoint of the play.

Rodrigo Muñoz’s period costumes -- along with J. Jared Janas & Cassie Williams’ wigs -- are authentically rich, though of course, one can’t help thinking this finery would all be far beyond the means of a troupe such as Good Company. 

Riccardo Hernández’s scenic design creates the expected 18th century ambience, and allows quick transitions to the backstage and other real-life settings. Edgar Godineaux has devised period choreography to some very pretty music composed by Parks herself and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier. 

Steve H. Broadmax III’s direction balances the past/present action smartly, and as indicated above, draws good performances from all. 

I suspect if “Sally & Tom” has an afterlife -- this is its second production after the Guthrie Theater in 2022 -- Parks will refine and perhaps prune it to good advantage. But as it stands now, it’s a most intriguing play by one of our finest playwrights.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street: or 212.967.7555, through June 2)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Lempicka (Longacre Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I must confess I don’t know enough about Polish Art Deco artist Tamara de Lemprica to parse the fiction from the facts of the “pop-infused” bio-musical which has just opened on Broadway after tryouts at Williamstown Theatre Festival and La Jolla Playhouse. But it’s pretty clear there are heaps and heaps of dramatic license at work. 

In any case, the superficial result is, at best, somewhat akin to the short-lived “Diana: The Musical.” Which is not to say that, like that unfortunate retread of the short life of the Princess of Wales, there isn’t some decent talent on stage and behind the scenes.

As with “Diana,” for instance, the new show’s star, Eden Espinosa delivers a creditable performance, at least within the framework of the script’s broad strokes, morphing from crusty old lady in the opening scene to young woman caught up in the upheaval of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and then moving forward. She delivers dramatically and musically, revealing only occasional strain at the top of her register. 

The show’s book -- by creator Carson Kreitzer and composer Matt Gould --  relates how Lempicka rescues her upper crust husband Tadeusz Lempicki (Andrew Samonsky) from prison during the Revolution by bribing his captors with jewelry and then, when that fails, her virtue. They flee to Paris where she refines her talent for painting, under the tutelage of Futurist Movement founder Emilio Marinettii (a manic George Abud), and the patronage of a Baron (Nathaniel Stampley) and his wife (Beth Leavel), gaining fames for her celebrity portraiture and daring nudes. 

She soon makes the acquaintance of singer Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson), and through her, falls under the spell of the prostitute Rafaela (a fictitious composite character played by the charismatic Amber Iman) with whom she commences an affair. Even before they eventually meet, both Tadeusz and Rafaela are aware of each other, but they settle into a comfortable, don't ask, don’t tell, triangular arrangement. 

Lempicka’s precocious daughter Kizette (Zoe Glick), a frequent model for her mother’s portraits, but otherwise neglected, is written and played like a cross between Baby June from “Gypsy” and Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed.” And curiously, she seems to remain a child over the years.

Against the backdrop of ominous changing times and the impending rise of Fascism, Lempicka becomes emblematic of “the New Woman.” This also includes her enthusiastic patronage of an elaborate lesbian bar run by Suzy. Yet, all of these freedoms are soon to be curtailed by a more intolerant regime, with the now sinister Marinetti its chief proponent here.

Gould’s music makes no attempt at a period sound. It’s mostly hard-driving pop/rock bombast with a few soft ballads in the mix. I did like Iman’s jazzy “Stay,” but otherwise the score is predictably generic. Musicians are openly positioned in the pretty Longacre boxes, but the overall sound palette is a heavily miked artificiality. (Under the helm of Music Supervisor Remy Kurs, Charity Wicks leads the orchestra.) 

Leavel’s eleven o’clock number, as the Baroness confesses she is dying, earns applause, but vocally, she has little else to do. Samonsky’s attractive vocals are a pleasure throughout.

Director Rachel Chavkin does the best she can with the property but “Lempicka” is several notches below her previous triumphs, “Hadestown” and “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.” Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography is more Studio 54 than pre-Occupation Paris, but at least it keeps things lively. 

Riccardo Hernández's constantly shifting Eiffel Tower/Art Deco scenic design, augmented by Peter Nigrini’s newsreel footage projection design and Bradley King’s lighting provide visual interest.  Paloma Young’s costumes and Leah Loukas’ hair & wig design conjure the appropriate period look. 

Just based on the subject matter alone, the relatively little-known Lempicka would seem to be a longshot for Broadway success, and yet I should report that the audience at my Saturday night performance was highly enthusiastic throughout. Whether they were cheering the performances or the various triumphs of the show’s heroine -- or both -- I was at a loss to discern.

(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street;

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman: Eden Espinosa

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Water for Elephants (Imperial Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This musical adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 best-selling novel (also the basis for a 2011 film) is a capital example of Broadway showmanship at its best. A catchy score by the Pigpen Theatre Co. collective, lively choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll, some spectacular acrobatics seamlessly integrated, artful puppetry, and fine performances enhance an absorbing, if familiar, love-triangle narrative. 

Everything holds together beautifully under the masterful direction of Jessica Stone who here has taken on a far more complex endeavor than her last, the relatively small-scale “Kimberly Akimbo.” This is a far bigger, more elaborate show. 

The musical had its premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre where it opened to positive reviews. (In fact, the couple seated next to me had seen it there, and loved it so much they wanted to experience it again. They were not disappointed.)

Rick Elice’s book starts with the elderly protagonist Mr. Jankowski (Gregg Edelman) -- about to go  AWOL from his nursing home -- relating his life story to workers at a circus. He tells how, as young Jacob during the Depression (here played by Grant Gustin), he had joined the (fictional) Bengali Brothers circus as a veterinarian following the devastating death of his parents in a car crash. 

August (Paul Alexander Nolan), the hard-boiled circus owner/ringmaster hires him after learning that he had some training, if not degree, in that field. Jacob soon becomes attracted to August’s wife, the horse trainer and rider Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), though he initially sublimates his feelings. 

After the death of Marlena’s horse from overwork, the circus takes on an elephant as its star attraction. Rosie, as she’s called, is introduced to us very artfully in sections -- a leg, a trunk -- before we finally see its full form (embodied by four puppeteers). The excellent puppet design here (which also includes an orangutan and lion) is the work of Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman, and Camille LaBarre.

But awed reference in the latter-day scenes to a legendary stampede in 1931 clues us in to more trouble ahead. Meanwhile, the growing comradeship among Jacob, Marlena, and August eventually leads to domestic tension when August senses the others’ growing attachment, inevitable given August’s short fuse temper and abusive tendencies. 

It’s good to see Edelman back on Broadway in a major role, in fine vocal and dramatic estate. His character doesn’t drop out when the flashback narrative begins. Gustin is just as good in his Broadway debut, and the two share acting honors. The always reliable Nolan is also splendid, and plays the good/bad duality of his part most skillfully, while McCalla is warmly sympathetic as the conflicted heroine. 

The other circus workers -- tough guy Wade (Wade McCollum), wise-cracking Barbara (Sara Gettelfinger), alcoholic Camel (Stan Brown), and caustic clown Walter (Joe De Paul) -- are each finely characterized, and major assets to the show’s appeal. 

The acrobats are uniformly spectacular. Antoine Boissereau has a particularly fine and poignant sequence on silks as the ailing horse. Elsewhere, the high-flying stunts are beautifully melded with the dramatic action and choreography. The second act opening production number, “Zostań,” being a prime example.

All the circus elements are authentically executed (Shana Carroll is credited with “circus design”). But Takeshi Kata’s set design, David Israel Reynoso’s costumes, Bradley King’s lighting, Walter Trarbach ‘s sound, and David Bengali’s projections all contribute to an eye and ear-filling sensory experience.

Pigpen Theatre Co.’s score, orchestrated by Daryl Waters, Benedict Braxton-Smith and August Eriksmoen, is tuneful and period perfect. Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith share music supervision and arrangements credit, and together they’ve created a satisfying earful.  

(Imperial Theatre, 249 W 45th Street; or 212.239.6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: (l.-r.) Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin -