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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Three Small Irish Masterpieces (Irish Repertory Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This rather prosaically titled evening sums up what you’re getting succinctly: three short expertly crafted plays by William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge.

But there’s nothing at all commonplace about the production which is very fine indeed. Beautifully directed by Charlotte Moore, atmospherically designed by James Morgan, and extremely well acted by a versatile ensemble of only six players, the 72-minute collection is well worth your time.

In “The Pot of Broth,” the Yeats piece (co-written with Lady Gregory), a wily tramp (amusing David O’Hara) cons a stingy wife (Clare O’Malley) and her amiable husband (Colin Lane) into believing he has a magic stone that, with merely the addition of little water, will make broth or wine or, in fact, any desired liquid. The fact that the tramp skillfully contrives to wheedle the other ingredients out of them for the pot seems to go over their heads.

In Lady Gregory’s “The Rising of Moon,” filmed in 1957 by John Ford as part of another triptych of Irish tales, a sergeant (Lane) stands guard hoping to catch a wanted rebel who’s broken out of jail, and collect the 100 pound reward. A “ragged man” balladeer (Adam Petherbridge), whom we suspect may be the escapee, comes along and engages him in small talk unearthing long dormant rebel sympathies on the part of the sergeant.

In Synge’s “Riders to Sea,” an anxious mother Maurya (Terry Donnelly) implores her last surviving son (Petherbridge) not to go to sea, and perish as his five siblings and father did before him. Her two daughters (O’Malley and McVey) attempt to comfort her, and also conceal the fact that Maurya’s last drowned son’s clothes have washed up on shore. The mood is rife with tragedy, and it’s beautifully conveyed.

This most somber of the three plays was famously turned into an opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1927, and there have been other musical adaptations as well.

Donnelly is superb as the grieving matriarch, but all the actors are very fine whether in comic or serious mode. There’s music, too. Petherbridge starts things off with a ballad, and music is nicely employed throughout. Linda Fisher’s costumes and Michael Gottlieb’s lighting are further classy plusses.

(Irish Rep Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street on the W. Scott McLucas Studio Stage; 212-727-2737 or; through April 15)

Photo: Carol Rosegg. Pictured: Colin Lane, David O'Hara, and Clare O'Malley in "The Pot of Broth."  

Friday, March 16, 2018

Escape to Margaritaville (Marquis Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Yes, this is yet another of those jukebox musicals, this time crafted around the songs of country-rock star Jimmy Buffett, but by golly, much as I disdain the genre, I found “Escape to Margaritaville” thoroughly engaging. Book writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley have done their job of shoehorning the Buffett playlist into a plausible story most skillfully.

There are some new songs too in their script about an island destination in the Caribbean. Cincinnati girlfriends Rachel (Alison Luff), an overly earnest environmental scientist, and Tammy (Lisa Howard), engaged to be married to a crude fellow named Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart) who has problems with Tammy’s weight issues and her punning sense of humor, have come there for a bachelorette vacation.

At the ramshackle resort hotel run by sassy lady Marley (very likable Rema Webb who has a way with a one-liner), they encounter the resident beach bum singer Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) and bartender Brick (Eric Petersen). Rounding out the central characters there’s aging hippie and former pilot J.D. (Don Sparks) and Marley’s assistant Jamal (Andre Ward).

Inevitably, of course, uptight Rachel falls for Tully, and Tammy does likewise for Chadd, though as she’s resolved to be faithful to Chadd, the latter relationship stays platonic.

The Buffett songs are introduced with some ingenious cues in the script. Some are intentionally obvious for comic effect, and the audience laughs good naturedly; others are more subtle. Nolan eases into the title number very nicely, as the audience hums along. Sparks has fun with a coy, audience participation rendition of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and S----)?” But it all adds up to very easygoing entertainment. Buffett’s music is well served by Michael Utley’s orchestrations and Gary Adler’s dance arrangements, all expertly led by Music Director Christopher Jahnke.

The ending feels a bit perfunctory, and Rachel’s eventual succumbing to Tully is rather protracted. But hey, it allows time for a few more pleasant numbers.

Walt Spangler has designed a cheerfully colorful island setting, rather like “Spongebob Squarepants” in its bright color palette, and Paul Tazewell’s costumes are likewise festive and bright with Howell Binkley’s lighting adding to the upbeat ambience. As in “Spongebob,” incidentally, a volcano serves a major plot point, and there’s a number where a character declares he always wanted to be in a big tap number. In this case, it’s Petersen who gets to strut his stuff. There are two instances of neat aerial stunts which add to the fun.

The cast sings beautifully and they’re all extremely likable. Nolan has a great voice coupled with lots of charm and charisma. Howard follows up her scene-stealing “It Shoulda Been You” role with another impressive outing. Petersen is lovable and you root for him and Tammy to click which, of course, they do. Luff is a lovely heroine in the Laura Osnes mode, even when her character is bit of a pill. Vocally, everyone is top-notch.

Christopher Ashley directs the proceedings with the requisite light touch, and Kelly Devine has provided some nice dance numbers, even bizarrely involving the spirits of the deceased insurance salesmen who died during a volcanic eruption years earlier.

During the finale, beach balls (lots of them) are hurled into the audience, reminiscent of the far less successful Beach Boys musical “Good Vibrations” over a decade ago.

The substance of the show began to evaporate within minutes of leaving the Marquis Theatre. But I had a good time while it lasted, and I think you will, too.

(Marquis Theatre, 210 West 46th Street; or  877-250-2929)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Amy and the Orphans (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Here's a sad-funny play about an adult brother and sister traveling to their late father’s memorial with the sister they barely know, the titular Amy. She has Down syndrome and both Maggie and Jacob (who now consider themselves “orphans”) are waiting for the right time to break the news of their parents’ death to Amy. (It happens the the mother has died as well several months earlier.)

Joining them on the Long Island Expressway road trip is Amy’s tough but compassionate Italian pregnant caregiver Kathy. A parallel story involving troubled couple Sarah and Bobby at a marriage counseling center, which opens the play, eventually dovetails with the first plot.

Lindsey Ferrentino’s 90-minute play was inspired by her own aunt who had Down syndrome, and who had been institutionalized. She has a fine knack for capturing natural speech rhythms, and the play, despite the heavy-seeming theme,  is thankfully quite humorous much of the time.

Jamie Brewer, a Down syndrome actress who has appeared on “American Horror Story,” is extraordinary as movie fanatic Amy (she holds a job at a local cinema), and delivers the play’s final monologue with impressive passion and poignancy. But all the performances are spot-on. Diane Davis and Josh McDermitt as the troubled couple attempting to reconcile win our sympathy from the start. Monk is terrific as real estate agent Maggie, the lonely and phobic divorced sibling, as is Mark Blum as her brother, the health conscious born again Christian Jacob, who tries rather hilariously to explain the concept of death to Amy with straws representing the continuum of life. Vanessa Aspillaga shines as Kathy, particularly in a long monologue about her “pothead” boyfriend’s dysfunctional sister.

Rachel Hauck’s set morphs fluidly from counseling room to airport to car to Burger King and other dreary locations.

The subject matter is worthy, to be sure, and, more broadly, says something about family and how we might undervalue certain relatives and be clueless of their true worth. Still it must be said, some surprising twists notwithstanding, the main story arc is rather predictable. To its credit, the play avoids mawkish sentimentality, as does Scott Ellis’s assured direction, which draws fine performances from the cast. The comic scenes, such as the memorial in a Chinese restaurant, are expertly staged.

Interestingly, Brewer has a male understudy, Edward Barbanell, necessitating a title change to “Andy and the Orphans” at his performances.

(Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street; 212.719.1300 or; through April 22)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera (The New Group)

By Harry Forbes

One might have thought that 15 years after its 2003 premiere at London’s National Theatre (after which it transferred to the West End for a healthy run) that the musical about the talk show host, whose ratings actually peaked in the late 1990s, might not stand the test of time. But in this splendid New Group revival, powerfully sung and sharply acted, “Jerry Springer: The Opera” proves bountifully entertaining.

Composer/lyricist Richard Thomas (and his collaborator Stewart Lee who co-wrote the book and provided additional lyrics) have truly constructed the piece as a modern opera, and the present cast brings superb voices to their parts making for a vocally resplendent evening, though the words -- satirically echoing the lowest common denominator types who appeared on the show -- are blatantly crude. Obscenities and f-bombs abound, but it’s all valid satire, and the contrast with the arresting music only heightens the humor.

The first act is modelled on a typical episode of the show with the excellent Will Swenson a warm up man vacillating between seeming adoration for his boss, and deep resentments. The two side rows of the Linney theater are taken by cast members as “Jerry Springer Show” audience members. Finally, Jerry Springer, in the person of multi-talented Terrence Mann, makes his entrance, after which a very colorful (to put it mildly) succession of guests -- outrageously outfitted by Sarah Laux -- bare their hilariously sordid lives. Springer himself keeps his cool, leaving crowd control to Swenson’s warm-up character and and security man Steve (Billy Hepfinger). In the midst of the onstage chaos, Springer reminds us that, paradoxically, he was once mayor of Cincinnati and campaign manager for Robert Kennedy no less.

The “guests” include blue collar Dwight (Luke Grooms) who reveals his "guilty secret" to fiancee Peaches (Florrie Bagel): namely, he’s been cheating on her with her best friend (Beth Kirkpatrick), but wait, also with transvestite Tremont (Sean Patrick Doyle). Then there’s Montel (Justin Keyes) who wants his wife to mother him like a baby in diapers (and all that, um, goes with it), thereupon stripping down for the rest of the evening, and introduces Baby Jane (Jill Paice) who wants a share of the same role playing too. Finally there’s redneck Chucky (Nathaniel Hackmann) and his wife Shawntel (Tiffany Mann) who passionately yearns to be a pole dancer, much to Chucky’s disgust as well as that of her mother Irene (Jennifer Allen).

When Jerry is accidentally shot by a deranged guest (who was actually aiming at member of the Klu Klux Klan who come on doing a tap dance number), Jerry ends up in Purgatory where Satan (Swenson again) insists Jerry stage a show to set things right between him and Jesus, overriding Jerry’s objections that he doesn’t do conflict resolution.

The characters from the first half now return as Jesus (Keyes), Adam (Hackmann), Eve (Tiffany Mann), Mary (Allen) and even God (Grooms). It was this particular part of the show that raised the ire of Christian groups back in 2003 leading to protests against the show, and later the BBC when a televised version was shown, and outside Carnegie Hall when the show was given in concert form in 2008.

With the passage of time, these sequences somehow seem less outrageous than originally, or perhaps it’s just that we’ve seen so much more. Stil, if you were likely to be offended 15 years ago, chances are you’d feel much the same way now.

Aesthetic and religious sensibilities aside, the second act is simply not as much fun as the first. I remember feeling a distinct let down when I first saw the show in London. But watching it again, I felt the act’s basic premise -- accepting the warts and all of humanity, and taking care of yourself and each other -- is well intended, and certainly the quality of the music and lyrics never flags. The overall score, in fact, seems more impressive than ever with its canny mix of opera, show tunes, and pop tunes.

Terrence Mann makes an excellent Jerry Springer, if not the lookalike Michael Brandon was in the London production. It’s a mostly non-singing role, though he’s got a bit of singing in the second act. Swenson is outstanding in both his diabolical roles. Doyle’s tenor impressed throughout. Paice’s ethereal soprano was another highlight. But it was Tiffany Mann’s soulful pole dancing number that won the biggest hand.

John Rando is quite the perfect director for this sort of thing. He brings much the same comic sensibility as he did with “Urinetown” and he doesn’t disappoint with ingenious touches throughout. Chris Bailey did the clever choreography, including a fun bubble number, and the aforementioned KKK tap dance.

This is a smaller production than the original, but Derek McLane’s set, Jeff Croiter’s lighting, and Joshua Reid’s sound design (some overloading in the louder passages notwithstanding) are first-rate.

Terrence Mann is exiting the show on March 13 because of prior commitments and Matt McGrath will take over the Springer role for the show’s well deserved three-week extension.

(The Pershing Square Signature Center, The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street; or Ticket Central at 212-279-4200; through April 1)

L-R: Terrence Mann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Florrie Bagel, Luke Grooms, Sean Patrick Doyle. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni /

Monday, March 5, 2018

Ladies First (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

The enterprising VHRP Live! Company has come up with something delightfully different on this occasion. Not a revival of a single work, like this past fall's “The Red Mill” or the upcoming April production of “The Enchantress,” but a potpourri concert centered on the composer's songs for and about women, and best of all, the exceptionally well chosen selections were a mostly unfamiliar bunch, with nary an “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” within earshot. So, too, the emphasis was Herbert in his musical comedy mode.

Even the two most substantial selections, from “Mlle. Modiste” and “Orange Blossoms” respectively, focused on the less commonly heard items from those shows. In her intermission remarks, VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott (who authored the evening's witty libretto) hinted that she would very much like to mount the former and certainly, the five selections heard here whet the appetite for more. Light Opera of New York (LOONY) staged a revamped adaptation of the latter in 2014, and the songs live on in an Albany Records recording.

A particularly blue chip cast was assembled for the evening comprised of 24 songs, all in splendid form. The lively vaudeville-style direction was in the hands of the expert Emily Cornelius, who created similar magic with last year’s “Son of Dublin” concert. Neat choreography on this occasion was devised by Susanna Organic whose nifty steps were well executed by the performers.

Soprano Tanya Roberts made an effervescent co-host and sang with rich tone -- getting the evening off to an amusing start with “The Lady and the Kick” (“the five-foot lady with the eight-foot kick” runs the refrain) from the 1897 “The Idol's Eye,” one of several comic songs that demonstrated far more wit than lyricists of that era are given credit. Frequent Herbert collaborator Harry B. Smith wrote that one, and there was more of his excellent work throughout the evening, as well as that of his brother Robert B. Smith, Henry Blossom, Glen MacDonough, Gene Buck, and Buddy De Sylva. In a cute bit of staging, Roberts later donned a doctor’s coat as she dispensed love advice with “You’ll Feel Better Then” from “The Rose of Algeria.”

Veteran baritone David Seatter had a particularly droll number with “The Balloon Song – I Just Dropped In,” involving the rather extraordinary places his character has traveled in his hot air balloon (including the moon!). In the second act Seatter sang the praises of “Miss Dolly Dollars” from the show of that name, accompanied by the male members of the company, and later paired with Roberts on the raggy (and surprisingly still up-to-date) “New York is the Same Old Place” from “Orange Blossoms.”

The versatile Alexa Devlin, who switches with ease from her rich contralto to a Broadway belt,  showed off the former in the unusual “Song of the Priestess” from “The Idol’s Eye,” and the latter in Mlle. Modiste’s very funny “The Keokuk Social Club.”

Soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith deftly handled the extended set piece from “Mlle. Modiste” -- “If I Were on the Stage” which culminates in the evening’s most familiar number, “Kiss Me Again” -- and socked over the same show’s “The Mascot of the Troop” with high flying brio. And soprano Joanie Brittingham, last year’s “Eileen,” dressed in cap and gown, charmed with “Professor Cupid” from “The Debutante,” as she bemoaned never having learned love in school, and later, ”The Lonely Nest” from “Orange Blossoms.”

Rich-voliced baritone Richard Holmes made up a third of an unusual trio from “The Debutante” -- “The Love of the Lorelei” (with Devlin and Greenwood), but his big moment came near the end with his suavely delivered “This Time It’s Love” from “Orange Blossoms.”

Herbert’s work for legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld was represented by two over-the-top paeans to women, in the Follies style, “The Century Girl” and “The Princess of My Dreams.” The former was well sung by tenor Daniel Greenwood, wittily accompanied by the ladies of the company who paraded out as showgirls, followed by tenor Anthony Maida rhapsodic “The Princess of My Dreams.”

Maida was the evening’s other ingratiating co-host and showed off his strong tenor also in “The Time and the Place and the Girl” from “Mlle. Modiste.”

Always reliable baritone Matthew Wages delivered “The Dear Little Girl Who Is Good” impeccably, and anchored his other numbers including the funny “Way Out West in Jersey” (with Devlin) from “Orange Blossoms.”

Two of the songs took a lightly cynical view of marriage -- “Married Life” from “The Debutante” (Roberts, Wages, and Greenwood), and “Let’s Not Get Married” from “Orange Blossoms.” The latter was one of two particularly well constructed sextets, the other being “The Face Behind the Mask” from “The Debutante.”

Natalie Ballenger had her first pearly moment with the pointedly delivered “She’s A Very Good Friend of Mine” from “It Happened in Nordland.” In the song, her character bitchily decimates her alleged girlfriends behind their backs.

The evening ended with a tantalizing preview of “The Enchantress” with Ballenger and Greenwood in passionate duet singing “To the Land of My Own Romance,” preceded by its introductory song “Rose, Lucky Rose.”

All of this was ably accompanied by Musical Director Michael Thomas at the piano, assuring that everything was done in fine, authentic style.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.;; February 27 and 28 only)

Photos: Jill LeVine

Top to bottom:
L-R: David Seatter, Matthew Wages, Richard Holmes, Joanie Brittingham, Daniel Greenwood, and Anthony Maida

L-R: Sarah Caldwell Smith, Joanie Brittingham, Matthew Wages, Alexa Devlin and Tanya Roberts

L-R: Matthew Wages, Tanya Roberts, Alexa Devlin and Anthony Maida

Monday, February 26, 2018

Hangmen (Atlantic Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

Martin McDonagh’s latest -- already glimpsed on these shores in a memorable NT Live transmission in cinemas last year -- now receives an accomplished mounting by Atlantic Theater Company, one which will only add to the accolades (and, no doubt, awards stash) that the Irish playwright has been garnering for his current film, “Three Billboards Outside of Epping, Missouri.”

Finely cast here, and anchored by three members of the London production, the play is a gripping, mordantly funny black comedy that, like McDonagh’s other plays, keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.

Set in Lancashire in the mid-1960s -- the last days during which hanging was employed for capital punishment -- the play begins with the execution of a hapless fellow named Hennessy (a properly agitated Gilles Geary) frantically proclaiming his innocence. Hangman Harry (Mark Addy) is the unyielding supervisor of the proceedings, assisted by his spineless henchman Syd (Reece Shearsmith).

There’s a fade-out after this harrowing scene, after which the lights come up two years later on a dreary pub setting (beautifully designed by Anna Fleischle who also did the apt costumes, and atmospherically lighted by Joshua Carr). Harry and his wife Alice (Sally Rogers) are the proprietors, and braggart Harry proudly recalls his days as a hangman, giving a boastful interview to pushy local reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell).

Enter a fast-talking and cocky sinister stranger Mooney (a fabulous Johnny Flynn) looking to book a room there. In short order, he’s chatting up Harry and Alice’s painfully shy, ungainly daughter 15-year-old  daughter Shirley (spot-on Gaby French) with ambiguous intent.

When Shirley goes missing after failing to return after a presumed visit to a girlfriend in a mental hospital, and Syd, estranged from Harry after being fired years earlier for displaying an undue fascination with the private parts of their deceased victims  -- appears on the scene with dark insinuations about a possible killer whose looks would seem to mirror that of Mooney, the scene is laid for a typical McDonagh cocktail of menace and outright violence.

To say more would spoil the delicious twists.

Original director Matthew Dunster orchestrates the suspense to maximum effect, and draws fine performances from the cast which has the full measure of McDonagh’s characteristic dialogue, absurdly commonplace and recognizably realistic even in the most outrageous circumstances.

Billy Carter, Richard Hollis, and John Horton excel as the pub’s regular denizens, Horton especially funny as a hard-of-hearing old geezer who always manages to say the wrong thing. And David Lansbury rounds out the sorry crew as a singularly laid back, not to mention indulgent, barfly.

Flynn, Rogers, and Shearsmith are recreating their original roles and are as superb here as they were in London. Brits Addy and French match their predecessors.

Maxwell Caulfield has a pivotal second act role as Harry’s nemesis, the real-life Albert Pierrepoint, England’s legendary hangman (and fellow pub owner) who bursts in at a crucial moment to berate Harry for his lack of discretion in the newspaper profile, though I must confess some difficulty in deciphering some of Caulfield’s perhaps too authentic Northern dialect.

For all the laughs, McDonagh is making trenchant points about justice, vengeance, and of course, capital punishment. But despite those heavy-duty themes, the play is, above all, juicily entertaining. A deserved Broadway transfer has already been announced, just as the original Royal Court production made its inevitable way to the West End.

(Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20 Street;; through March 25)

Photo: Ahron R. Foster. Mark Addy and Johnny Flynn

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Party Face (NY City Center Stage II)

By Harry Forbes

Hayley Mills provides the principal spark in Isobel Mahon's pleasant if unremarkable domestic Irish comedy/drama. She plays Carmel, a domineering, though not altogether horrid, mother visiting her daughter Mollie May (Gina Costigan) who’s been recently released from a psychiatric ward and now hosting a modest party to show off her new kitchen extension in her suburban Dublin home (sleekly attractive set by Jeff Ridenour).

The guests include cynical sister Maeve (Brenda Meaney) and gossipy neighbor Chloe (Allison Jean White), the latter invited by status-conscious Carmel without her daughters’ knowledge. In the second act, they are joined by germaphobe tomboy Bernie (Klea Blackhurst providing some lively moments). The lady, we learn, was one of Mollie May’s fellow patients in the home. (She’s both manic-depressive and compulsive-obsessive.)

Maeve is divorced, and we never see Mollie May’s husband Alan or their two children. Alan has apparently been absent during Mollie May’s recent travails, and Carmel is kept in the dark about why, but as is eventually revealed, he has, in fact, left home.

A first act flood and a second act catfight give offer the cast some opportunity for physical comedy, and the second act opens with the party in full swing and the ladies dancing in a conga line around the stage to a disco beat, a briefly fun moment that leavens the increasingly serious proceedings, not dissimilar to the impromptu dance occurring in Lucy Kirkwood’s post-apocalyptic “The Children” at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Isobel Mahon’s play is at best innocuously diverting rather than side-splittingly funny, and the whole situation feels more than a little contrived. When the play aims for poignancy, as for instance in Mollie May’s second act accounting of her breakdown, which Costigan delivers superbly with genuine gravity, the shift in tone is rather jarring.

Platitudinous busybody Chloe’s prying into the family’s affairs is particularly unconvincing. And there’s a late play revelation which you’ll probably have long since guessed anyway. Director Amanda Bearse -- who played Marcy D’Arcy on “Married with Children” --  puts her good cast through the paces capably enough, though there’s a sitcom feel to the whole enterprise.

The ladies make a cosy ensemble all in all, but the real treat is Mills, whom we’ve seen far too infrequently here in New York. She nails the domineering, constantly undermining parts of her role, while still retaining her charm. She looks great (nicely outfitted by Lara De Bruijn), demonstrates her stage savviness, and though she affects an Irish brogue here, every so often you catch the voice of the delightful youngster we all so fondly recall from the Disney films.

There were some halftime walkouts -- “Just a bunch of women talking shite,” one man was heard to comment -- but the second act passed enjoyably enough, and earned decent applause.

(City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street; or 212-581-1212; through April 8)

Photo: Hayley Mills and Gina Costigan in Party Face (© Jeremy Daniel)