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Thursday, April 29, 2010

American Idiot (St. James Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

You won’t find a more breathtaking piece of theater this season than Michael Mayer’s gorgeously realized staging of Green Day’s 2004 rock opera, “American Idiot.”

Mayer, who did such a brilliant job with “Spring Awakening,” has collaborated on the book with lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong, and the result is something of an amalgam of “Tommy,” “Passing Strange,” “Hair,” “Rent” and yes, “Spring Awakening” in its themes of coming of age, alienated youth, and social change. The original CD has apparently been augmented by songs from Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown” album.

Set in the recent past, during the Bush administration, the narrative charts the fortunes of small-town friends John (John Gallagher Jr.), who calls himself the “Jesus of Suburbia,” Will (Michael Esper), and Tunny (Stark Sands).

John falls in love with a gal called Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones), but their relationship is jeopardized by drug dealer St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent). Will learns he’s fathered a child with his girlfriend Heather (Mary Faber), but ends up alienating her. And Tunny, recruited by a military hero (Joshua Henry), goes to war, loses his leg and is tended by a sympathetic nurse (Christine Sajous). John returns home at the end, having learned the error of his ways.

First staged at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in September, the production looks absolutely spectacular with Christine Jones’ floor to ceiling mosaic, studded with video monitors (Darrel Maloney is credited with the video/projection design).

Brian Ronan’s sound is state-of-the-art, but it is quite loud (some may wish to bring earplugs), and many of the lyrics of the heavy rock numbers are unintelligible. But there are some lovely lyrical moments such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “We’re Coming Home Again” sung by the three men towards the end, and music director Carmel Dean provides top-notch accompaniment (the musicians positioned around the stage) playing Tom (“Next to Normal” Kitt’s savvy expanded arrangements.

Mayer elicits strong performances from his leads, matched by the superb choreography and movement by Steven Haggett. A mid-air pas de deux for Sands and Sajous emanating from a hospital scene is simply breathtaking.

I honestly can’t say the theme of youthful angst particularly resonated with me, nor is the dramatic arc per se as absorbing as some of the aforementioned rock operas, but the committed performances, frequently striking score, and riveting stagecraft make this show essential viewing.

(St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fences (Cort Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Denzel Washington delivers a tremendously satisfying performance in the role created by James Earl Jones in August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer winner “Fences,” considerably redeeming himself after his last Broadway outing playing Brutus in a distinctly mediocre “Julius Caesar.” And on this occasion, he has a spectacularly worthy partner in Viola Davis.

The production, expertly directed by Kenny Leon, with his distinguished track record with the playwright’s work, is outstanding across the board.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation man living in 1957 Pittsburgh with his wife Rose (Davis) and teenage son Cory (Chris Chalk).

Cory hopes to play football, following in his father’s footsteps as Troy once played in the Negro baseball leagues, though as a black man, he could not cross over to the white major leagues, a source of considerable bitterness. We also learn that Troy served a prison sentence years before for a murder in self-defense.

From a previous marriage, Troy has an older son (Russell Hornsby) with musical aspirations. a mentally challenged (after a war injury) brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) who harbors biblical delusions (and is ergo Wilson’s mouthpiece for the play’s more fanciful imagery), and an easy-going friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) who has known him since they served time in the penitentiary, and who frequently drops by to shoot the breeze with his friend.

Though he has no driver’s license, Troy desperately wants to become a driver at his company, up until then – like major league baseball -- a white man’s prerogative. Troy blocks Cory’s football aspirations, based largely on his own failed baseball career.

Though the basic domestic situation seems amiable enough and Troy and Rose seem to have an ideal relationship, Bone has learned that Troy is spending time with a certain woman from Tallahassee, and – in a beautifully nuanced scene, since Bone doesn't dare voice his suspicions outright -- urges Troy not to hurt Rose. The adulterous situation allows for plenty of conflict, especially in the riveting second act when the full extent of Troy’s infidelity revealed.

Washington radiates all that big screen charisma that was so strangely lacking in his Brutus. His character’s immensely likable traits play right into his fans’ expectations at the start. But as Troy’s very real defects begin to emerge -- and Washington doesn’t try to soften the less pleasant aspects – the audience becomes unabashedly vocal and, Denzel fans or not, they shift their loyalty to Rose.

That’s easy to do, given Davis’s immensely sympathetic portrayal of a loving wife who’s lived just as tough a life as her husband, but who had the strength of character to make the marriage last.

The action plays out on Santo Loquasto’s beautifully detailed set, evocatively lit by Brian MacDevitt. Branford Marsalis has composed an appropriately jazzy background score.

Though some of Wilson’s symbolism – like all the baseball imagery, and the fence which Troy is building around his house to keep out both the changing outside world, and death itself – is a bit obvious, the play still holds up as one of the great American dramas, not far removed from Arthur Miller or William Inge.

Flawed though Troy may be, it is to Wilson’s credit, that as with Willy Loman, you can feel pity and empathy for a man who tried to do his best against powerful odds.

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sondheim on Sondheim (Roundabout Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

Sondheim anthologies – be it those one-night benefits (like all the recent 80th birthday celebrations), or those conceived for regular theatrical runs (“Marry Me a Little,” “Putting it Together”) – have been plentiful ever since the 1973 AMDA benefit and the 1976 “Side by Side by Sondheim.” But writer/director James Lapine has come up with a clever variant.

"Sondheim on Sondheim" is peppered with clips of Sondheim himself – archival and newly filmed – ruminating on his life and work, a device which gives a uniquely autobiographical feel to the bountiful parade of songs, which include a good many rarities among the familiar hits. “Smile, Girls” from “Gypsy” and “The Wedding is Off” from “Company” are among the lesser known numbers.

The eclectic but well chosen cast is headlined by the great Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, with A-level support from Euan Morton, Leslie Kritzer and Norm Lewis.

On designer Beowulf Boritt’s handsome set – a revolving staircase and (in deference to Sondheim’s love of puzzles) interlocking crossword squares, under Ken Billington’s expert lighting, the ensemble cast performs numbers that spring organically from Sondheim’s commentary.

So, for instance, he’ll reveal how he was persuaded to turn “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” from a quartet to an octet, and in short order, the number is done. A confession about falling in love at last at age 60, leads to a humorous take on that paean to love, “Happiness,” from “Passion.” The composer’s assertion that “Opening Doors” is his only truly autobiographical song segues to the number itself. And so on.

Along the way, there are some surprising observations such as his assessment of “Assassins” as his most perfect show. But all clips are exceptionally well chosen. He is candid and forthright in discussing his difficult childhood, his fractious relationship with his mother, and the creative process. He kids himself in a newly written self-deprecating number where the cast pay him the ultimate homage: “Is Stephen Sondheim God?”

Terrific as all the cast members are, including, in smaller parts, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott, Cook is the class act. Looking trim, her voice is still a marvel – pure and agile -- and no apologies whatsoever need be made for the lady’s age. Her classic “In Buddy’s Eyes” sounds as fresh as when she first sang it in the “Follies” concert at Lincoln Center, and her “Send in the Clowns” is an lovely as any version you’ve ever heard.

But this no grande dame trotted out to deliver the occasional big moment. Cook is an active part of the ensemble, moving about the stage, and interacting with the others in complex medleys, including a delicious sparring version of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” with Wopat. And she’s allowed to go into character for scenes from “Passion” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” Throughout, Lapine has given her some priceless bits of comic business to undercut any notion of a diva turn. Her entrance, which I shan’t spoil, is very funny.

Williams and Wopat get the lion’s share of the other numbers, as befitting their star billing, and they’re both musical veterans with a sure grasp of Sondheim style. Williams duets most beautifully with Cook in a medley that blends “Losing My Mind” with “Not a Day Goes By,” and reprises Diana Rigg’s London “Follies” striptease, “Ah, But Underneath.” And Wopat is particularly good in “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins” numbers.

Elsewhere, the versatile Morton is outstanding in “Beautiful” from “Sunday in the Park with George” sung with Cook. And he also excels in two extended sequences from “Merrily We Roll Along.”

Leslie Kritzer’s high point is “Now You Know” from the same show, sung with exceptional point and clarity. Indeed, all the numbers sound fresh in this setting, backed by David Loud’s spare but classy arrangements.

The smooth-voiced Lewis earns an enormous hand for “Being Alive.”

Mackey has a bright moment with “Do I Hear a Waltz?” – after Sondheim relates that he had promised a dying Oscar Hammerstein he’d collaborate with Richard Rodgers if the latter ever asked him -- and Scott does his “Multitude of Amys” solo very well indeed.

The ensemble moved beautifully (Dan Knechtges is credited with musical staging).

Some have disparaged the concept – with its copious use of clips -- as more suited to a television special, but I found the structure utterly compelling, and in its juxtaposition of the artist and his work, an extremely moving tribute to one of the, yes, gods of the musical theater.

(Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org; through June 13)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Million Dollar Quartet (Nederlander Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

An actual 1956 impromptu jam session with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis in the storefront studio of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records serves as the not unreasonable foundation for “Million Dollar Quartet,” a show which strives to mix those artists’ iconic hits with something of the serious underpinning of a “Jersey Boys.”

But despite some dramatic conflict, the show – an import from Chicago -- is, at heart, just itching to be a jukebox musical as the fanciful finale confirms. Suddenly Derek McLane’s ramshackle Memphis studio flies away to allow the soon-to-be megastars to perform some of their hits in a full-out concert, and the audience can presumably exit the theater fully satisfied.

The actual session was not, in fact, a greatest-hits compendium, and consisted of a good many hymns which Presley and Lewis knew in common. But here you have “Folsom Prison Blues,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Hound Dog.”

The plot, has Phillips, played by a non-singing but solid Hunter Foster, overseeing a Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons) recording session. Lewis (Levi Kreis) has just charmed his way into the Sun Records family, and he’s to play keyboard for Perkins. The former’s extroverted playing seriously irks Perkins, but Phillips keeps the peace.

Before long, Presley (Eddie Clendening) and Cash (Lance Guest) drop by, Elvis with a girlfriend Dyanne in tow. She’s played by Elizabeth Stanley from “Cry-Baby” is a fetching pink outift, one of Jane Greenwood’s nice period creations. With a little dramatic license, Dyanne gets to sing a couple of numbers herself.

Presley has already left Phillips for RCA in New York, but Phillips is being wooed by that label himself, where he’d be able to reunite professionally with Presley. Much of the drama (book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrix ) involves record deals as, we learn, both Cash and Perkins are entertaining major label offers. Adding a little further tension, Perkins resents Presley for appropriating his hit, “Blue Suede Shoes.”

The flashy wrap-up notwithstanding, “Million Dollar Quartet” still feels small-scale.

Of the four leads, Kreis is, by far, the standout, successfully channeling Lewis and quickly becoming the audience favorite. He’s also credited with additional arrangements. Given Perkins' issues, Lyons has the meatiest role (apart from Foster), and does it well. Guest sounds reasonably like the deadpan Cash, though there’s little physical resemblance. (Cash, incidentally, was inaudible on the actual recording.)

Surely with all the Elvis impersonators in the world, a better match might have been found than Clendening, which is not to say that he, like the others, isn’t a fine musician, but a dead ringer for Elvis he’s not.

Eric Schaeffer directs capably, and the audience indeed cheers at curtain time. But this is thin material indeed.

(Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, www.TicketMaster.com or 212-307-4100)

La Cage aux Folles (Longacre Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

With “A Little Night Music” still going strong, London’s enterprising fringe theater, the Menier Chocolate Factory, presents its second Broadway import of the season: Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical adaptation of Jean Poiret’s durable French stage farce which spawned a memorable film and two sequels, not to mention Mike Nichols’ “The Birdcage.” And, even more so than the Sondheim mounting, this is revival worth importing.

Apart from the many felicitous and clever touches from director Terry Johnson, and an appealing intimacy, the raison d’etre for the transfer is Douglas Hodge’s acclaimed and endearing portrayal of Albin, the flamboyant drag star of a St. Tropez revue.

PBS viewers may remember Hodge as the star of “Middlemarch” on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre some years ago. A decade or so ago, I caught him in a memorable production of “The Caretaker” with Michael Gambon. And he made an excellent Nathan Detroit in the fine 2005 “Guys & Dolls” revival with Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski which, by all rights, should have transferred to Broadway.

On this occasion, Hodge is wonderfully campy and neurotic, though his interpretation seems a bit more studied than in London. His transformation from dowdy backstage frump to glamorous diva while singing “A Little More Mascara” is wondrous to behold. And when he gets to play it “straight” as a real woman in the second act, he’s better still. Elsewhere, he manages to work in brief but sharp impressions of Dietrich, Piaf, and Monroe.

In London, when the production transferred to the Playhouse West End, he played opposite Denis Lawson (star of the West End “Pal Joey” and “Mr. Cinders”) as Georges, his partner of 20 years and owner of the titular club. Lawson gave a very fine performance.

Here it’s Kelsey Grammer who is wonderfully urbane and sympathetic, and sings the lovely “Song of the Sand” most movingly. (Hodge’s fluttery reactions are priceless here.) They make a superb team, and you can well believe they are a long time couple.

You recall the set-up. Georges’ 24-year-old son Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively) returns home to inform his father he will marry Anne (Elena Shaddow, “Fanny” in the recent Encores mounting), daughter of the Tradition, Family & Morality politico Daudin (Fred Applegate) who is determined to shut down La Cage.

Jean-Michel has invited Anne and her parents for dinner, and wants the flamboyant Albin out of the way, imploring his father to invite his birth mother for the occasion. All gay decorations in the apartment are to be excised. The callow youth is oblivious to the fact that Albin has raised him while the mother has been conspicuously absent.

Farcical complications arise when it is decided to pass off Albin as “Uncle Al,” and he must learn how to act masculine. When the real mother fails to show, Albin impersonates her instead.

Despite the streamlining, the results are far happier than the last Broadway revival five years ago. And paradoxically, I found the reduced orchestrations, stripped-down sets, and smaller cast much less bothersome than the “Night Music” revival, though one would think those elements would matter here.

I was not totally enamored of the club’s strapping Cagelles (only half a dozen or so here), being so plainly masculine, albeit virtuosic. Surely, that concept is out of period. But Lynne Page’s choreography for them is most enjoyable.

Also on the negative side, Robin De Jesus from “In the Heights” as Albin’s “maid,” scores some laughs, but seems utterly wrong with his anachronistic New York Latino patois.

Fred Applegate, another veteran of “Fanny,” plays both the benign café owner and the humorless politico Dindon; Veanne Cox doubles as the wife of both. They’re both excellent, as is Christine Andreas who brings great vivacity to restaurant owner Jacqueline.

The musicians are conducted by Todd Ellison perched in two boxes on either side of the proscenium stage, and in Jason Carr’s orchestral reduction sound flavorfully Gallic.

(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Addams Family (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

In light of positively gleeful naysaying about this show’s future prospects during its Chicago tryout – and a puzzling preponderance of lukewarm reviews here in New York – it was more than a little surprising to find “The Addams Family” a funny, tuneful, and consistently pleasurable experience.

So, though it may seem the height of obstinacy to voice an opinion at such odds with the critical consensus, allow me to side firmly with those cheering, happy audience members around me, and heartily endorse the show.

Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth head a marvelous cast, and Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s handsome and stylish production design and direction (doctored by Jerry Zaks) is of the Broadway-at-its-best variety.

Though the storyline – as written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice – is, on the face of it, unremarkable, the dialogue is so amusing and the attitude so on target – the plot on which everything hangs scarcely matters.

The much-loved Charles Addams characters – Gomez and Morticia and their children Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez) and Pugsley (Adam Riegler) – live in a decrepit mansion in the middle of Central Park with their zombie-like butler Lurch (Zachary James), Uncle Feester (Kevin Chamerlain) and 60’s flower child Grandma (Jackie Hoffman), not to mention a host of ghostly resurrected ancestors (shades of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore”).

Wednesday has fallen in love with average boy Lucas (Wesley Taylor) from Ohio, and she’s invited him and his straight-laced parents Alice (Carolee Carmello) and Mal (Terrence Mann) to meet the folks whom she’s enjoined to be on their best behavior.

Some have noted a similarity to “La Cage aux Folles” wherein the transvestite performer and his long-time partner feign “normalcy” when their son’s fiancée’s parents come to dinner, but if anything, it’s more akin to Brad and Janet coming to meet Frank ‘N’ Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show.”

This is one of Lane’s very best stage turns, on a par with his most memorable work. He and the perfectly cast Neuwirth play with just the right deadpan sincerity as they espouse the family’s preference for morbidity, tragedy and disaster. At one point, they fret that Wednesday has actually been acting bubbly and (horrors!) optimistic!

Hoffman is a hoot as the Woodstock-loving Grandma and some of the edgiest lines are hers. Chamberlain is an endearing Feester, with an improbable crush on the moon. His second act charmer, “The Moon and Me,” where he rises off the ground floats among the stars, and comes to rest on a giant moon ball is a standout.

The hulking James makes an ideal Lurch. Riegler’s Pugsley – sad that Big Sis won’t be around to torture him if she goes off with Lucas – is right on the mark and socks over his cute number “What If.”

Carmello and Mann are appropriately buttoned-up, though you know a change is in store for both of them. Carmello’s turnabout comes first when she inadvertently drinks one of Grandma’s magical potions during a truth game (“Full Disclosure”) over dinner, and promptly loses all inhibitions, really going to town with her cutting loose number, “Waiting.”

Andrew Lippa's songs are satisfyingly tuneful, starting with the opening number, “When You’re an Addams.” Rodriguez gets the most contemporary sounding ballads amidst a score that otherwise pays homage to old-fashioned Broadway and vaudeville, the bouncy quartet “Let’s Not Talk About Anything Else But Love” and Gomez’s sentimental “Happy/Sad,” being two cases in point.

McDermott and Crouch’s set, wonderfully framed by a versatile red velvet curtain and beautifully lit by Natasha Katz, seamlessly transitions from entrance hall to basement to library to park. And kudos to Acme Sound Partners’ sound design for being so exceptionally clear and natural. There’s a clever use of puppetry, courtesy of Basil Twist – an animated curtain tassel, a giant lizard, a squid’s tail – and so forth which adds to the fun.

Sergio Trujillo’s unobtrusively classy choreography climaxes in an elaborate tango for Neuwirth and Lane, “Tango de Amor,” which gives Neuwirth her best musical moment.

The audience – including a good many appreciative youngsters in the mezzanine – was gratifyingly enthusiastic.

“Troubled” as the show may have been out-of-town, I’d say the kinks would appear to have been neatly ironed out. Isn’t that what “out of town” is for?

Leave any preconceptions behind, and you’re sure to have very enjoyable time indeed.

(Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Red (Golden Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

The psychological and physical process by which a painter creates his art becomes a highly theatrical, and for the most part, absorbing 90-something minutes in this acclaimed London import.

Though at times dense, the play by John Logan (an American) is full of intriguing ideas about art and commerce, and is grounded by two terrific performances – Alfred Molina as the pompous and self-absorbed abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his (fictional) assistant Ken – while an imaginative staging makes the mechanics of art – the mixing of the paint, the stretching of the canvas, etc. – especially vivid.

Directed by Michael Grandage, last represented on Broadway with the Jude Law “Hamlet,” the play opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse last December.

The action covers more or less a two-year period beginning in 1958 when Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the posh Four Seasons in restaurant in Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building for the then unprecedented fee of $35,000. Is Rothko – the great exponent of pure art -- selling out? Is he kidding himself that he’ll be able to create a truly rarefied environment around all the high-rollers dining beneath his work?

Rothko, obsessed by tragedy, fears the encroachment of the black on his painting; he’s disturbed by the absence of light and sees it “swallowing” the life-affirming red, which serves as the play’s leitmotif.

The artist is so egocentric he hasn’t bothered to learn anything about the highly proficient and articulate young man assisting him. Ken is, in fact, an artist himself (and in a sense, represents the encroaching new generation that Rothko so deplores). Rothko takes no interest in seeing his Ken’s work. “I’m not your father,” he tells Ken scornfully throughout, but in fact, mentor and pupil is precisely the dynamic at play here.

Rothko badgers him about not knowing Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Freud, Jung, and any number of other literary giants he believes to be an essential foundation, and mocks pop artists like Andy Warhol who paint for the moment.

Inevitably, Ken explodes, and challenges Rothko on his status in the art world, and his vaunted superiority. Rothko only wants intelligent people to view his art. Is there anyone, in fact, smart enough to understand that art, Ken challenges?

It is this confrontation that finally kicks the play into high gear, and thereafter remains spellbinding to the end.

Molina’s American accent is superb, and his portrayal powerfully austere and commanding, a real force of nature, and yet a deeply troubled man. And it’s rather fascinating to observe Rothko coming to the studio dressed like a businessman each day, before changing to his paint clothes.

Redmayne – who won the Supporting Actor Olivier Award for this role – makes a worthy acolyte and sometime adversary, with a convincing Yank accent, too.

Christopher Oram’s set – apparently a replica of Rothko’s actual dimly lit studio which had been converted from a gymnasium – is wonderfully evocative, and it’s well utilized by Grandage who stages the changing of canvasses, and the pulley system used to hoist them, to create visual variety. Neil Austin’s lighting is impeccable in that regard, also.

Adding immeasurably to the overall effect is the astute use of music. Adam Cork has composed a dramatic, haunting score, and has designed the sound for the play’s “natural music,” a phonograph player which gets a good workout from Rothko and Ken are as they change the records to suit their mood, while creating art: Rothko, favoring classical, Ken, Chet Baker.

The climactic musical and dramatic moment is the thrillingly theatrical sequence of the pair furiously priming a canvas with (what else?) red paint, from top to bottom and side to side, while a classical record blares, until the white area is completely obliterated, leaving teacher and apprentice utterly exhausted, and the audience exhilarated.

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Date Night (20th Century Fox)



By Harry Forbes

Steve Carell and Tina Fey make an effortlessly likable team in an otherwise labored action-comedy wherein their characters -- Phil and Claire Foster, a New Jersey couple (tax accountant and realtor respectively) -- bored with their suburban routine, get more than they bargained for when they impulsively decide to come into New York for a fancy dinner to reinvigorate their marriage.

When the snooty greeter at the overpriced restaurant informs them the place is fully booked, they take another couple’s reservation, only to learn that said couple – the Tripplehorns -- are being pursued by a mob kingpin’s henchmen, two crooked cops (Common, Jimmi Simpson) who are after the mobster’s stolen flash drive.

Along the way, as they flee the bad guys throughout the streets of Manhattan and try to find the purloined item themselves, they have encounters with the actual thieves (James Franco and Mila Kunis), a crooked district attorney (William Fichtner), and the mobster himself (Ray Liotta).

There are a number of other cameos throughout including Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig as friends of the Fosters who are planning to split after their marriage has fallen into a similar rut.

At one point, the Fosters turn to one of Claire’s former clients, a security expert, played by Mark Wahlberg, who humorously plays all his scenes shirtless (recalling his Marky Mark modeling days). Claire ogles him, while Phil is cowed by Wahlberg’s buff pecs.

Unfortunately, a moderately promising premise is undercut by Josh Klausner's bland script that doesn’t really deliver on laughs, despite Carell and Fey’s seasoned turns, or on suspense, including an elaborate car chase.

The early parts of the film where we observe the couple’s blandly routine life are duller than they need to be, and once the film kicks into action gear, matters are simply too contrived to generate real suspense.

Shawn Levy directs the action, comic, and sentimental elements capably.

Throughout their adventures, Phil and Claire continue to try to affirm and strengthen their marriage, a sweet concept with some genuinely touching moments, but it's strictly formulaic.

Still, even if the level of wit several notches below their respective series, “The Office” and “30 Rock,” Carell and Fey’s rapport makes for engaging watching. (And it’s worth sitting through the credits to watch how adeptly they improvise during the shooting of several of their scenes.)

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence and a drug reference.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Lend Me a Tenor (Music Box Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Farce, so popular in Europe and the U.K., has always been a dicey proposition on these shores. But when it’s done right – like “Boeing Boeing” a couple of seasons ago – and the current revival of “Lend Me a Tenor,” the results can be side-splittingly sublime.

Much as Matthew Warchus breathed fresh life into Marc Camoletti’s 1960’s sexy stewardess door slammer, actor Stanley Tucci has performed similar wonders with Ken Ludwig’s Broadway and West End hit, directing with savvy precision. The quality of Ken Ludwig’s work has never been more evident, not just a homage to the genre, but the real deal.

Anthony LaPaglia is a hoot as Tito Merelli, a noted Italian tenor who comes to Cleveland to sing Verdi’s “Otello” for the opera company’s anniversary celebration. Tony Shaloub is his exasperated general manager Saunders who fears Tito won’t arrive in time to rehearse for a performance only six hours later. Justin Bartha from “The Hangover,” in a memorable Broadway debut, is Max, Saunders’ mild-mannered gofer with operatic aspirations himself who goes from quivering insecurity to cocky assurance with appealing vulnerability.

Max’s romantically-minded girlfriend Maggie (Mary Catherine Garrison), a classic ingénue, has a crush on Tito who is married to the hot-blooded Marie (Jan Maxwell, in a gloriously over-the-top performance). Diana (Jennifer Laura Thompson) is the glamorous soprano who hopes that Tito will be able to further her singing career, and Julia (Brooke Adams) is the opera company’s patroness.

The cast is uniformly superb, including a highly amusing turn by Jay Klaitz as an overly eager bellhop, besotted with Tito himself.

When Tito out of commission from too much Phenobarbital, Saunders contrives to have Max take his place. Improbable? You bet, but great fun nonetheless, especially when the two “Titos” – dressed identically as the Moor in black-face – cause mass confusion.

There are many hilarious sequences: Saunders having a fit on the floor, madly spinning a hassock with his feet; Tito giving Max a lesson in limbering up before vocalizing; much mayhem in the bedroom closet and bathroom, including a felicitous use of bubbles in the latter.

But amid all the shenanigans, there are some extremely touching moments, a balance Ludwig and Tucci sustain all evening.

Tucci’s production, if memory serves, trumps the 1989 original, even with Tony-winning Philip Bosco’s Shaloub, and a blue chip cast including Victor Garber, Tovah Feldshuh, Ron Holgate, and Jane Connell.

On this occasion, John Lee Beatty’s sumptuous 1934 hotel suite is a period knockout, and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes eye-poppingly sumptuous, including a stunning green gown for Thompson, and a silver number for Adams. Throughout they delight the eye.

This sparkling revival deserves to surpass the original’s run of 476 performances.

(Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Come Fly Away (Marquis Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Twyla Tharp’s expansion of her 1982 ballet "Nine Sinatra Songs" makes for an engaging two-hour dance show, and in terms of popular appeal and overall concept is far superior to her less-than-satisfying 2006 Bob Dylan songfest, “The Times They Are A-Changin'.”

Four principal couples dance to over 30 Sinatra standards, most heard in recordings from the Chairman of the Board, but enhanced with a live band. The end result is still synthetic but not unenjoyable once your ears accustom to the artificial acoustic.

To vary the sound palette, a few of the vocals are smoothly handled by the setting’s band singer Hilary Gardner solo or in posthumous duet with Old Blue Eyes. A couple of numbers are purely instrumental.

In the evening cast (matinees have some different principals), a black-outfitted Keith Roberts and an exotic Tina Turner lookalike Karine Plantadit get some of the flashiest numbers including the sensational apache dance Tharp has concocted for “That’s Life.” Plantadit is quite a force of nature and radiates star quality with her uninhibited animalistic stylings.

Tharp’s “Movin’ Out” star John Selya shines in his ruminative solo, “September of My Years,” dancing alone in designer Donald Holder’s spotlight. He’s paired with the likable red-headed gamine Holley Farmer who brings an impish quality to her numbers.

Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Rika Okamoto add variety with the amusing“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” and later,“Wave.”

The purely comic relief couple – the bald and impressively gymnastic Charlie Neshyba-Hodges and Laura Mead – function much as their characters would in a 1920’s or 30’s musical. (In fact, their miming of Eddie Cantor’s hit "Makin' Whoopee" is a hoot.)

Alexander Brady has some bright moments, too, starting with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” But all are top notch, expert in the unique Tharp style.

Though they all have character names, there is really nothing of consequence in the way of plot, except for some sexy off-again, on-again teasing flirtations with others in the ensemble and some suggestion of temporary conflict.

Inevitably, there is a certain sameness to Tharp’s quirky moves, but the show is generally well paced and varied. Unlike, say, “Burn the Floor” – Broadway’s last exciting dance show -- the second act here doesn’t feel anti-climactic. It kicks off with four of the guys doing a modified strip, and builds, much like one of Sinatra’s own live appearances, to his encore pieces, “My Way” and “New York, New York.”

As this point, James Youmans’ sleek nightclub set has morphed to a starry sky with a gorgeous Sinatra constellation. Katherine Roth’s chic and distinctive costumes help immeasurably in helping us sort out the various dancers throughout the evening..

(Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, (212) 307-4100 or www.ticketmaster.com)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Clash of the Titans (Warner Bros. Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

This is an overly frenetic, dark-toned remake of the 1981 cult film about Perseus, the bastard son of Greek God Zeus, who must defeat Zeus’ evil brother Hades who is intent on vanquishing Zeus and controlling earth.

Liam Neeson is Zeus and Ralph Fiennes is Hades, neither exactly chopped liver, but still not in the same class as the original’s starry cast, including Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Ursula Andress, Burgess Meredith and the rest.

The special effects of Ray Harryhausen have been replaced by a plethora of CGI and motion capture effects which, in their way, look as artificial, in their way, as Harryhausen’s primitive (by today’s standards) but beloved creations, and not half as much fun.

The presence of Sam Worthington as Perseus (Harry Hamlin’s original role) – looking disconcertingly as he did in “Avatar,” though this time, allowing his native Aussie accent to break through – raises unflattering comparisons to James Cameron's record-breaking film, which was far more artfully designed and executed.

In playing a young man determined to reject his demigod status, and side with the humans, the likable Worthington gives a sincere performance consisting mainly of a determined frown occasionally punctuated by short little laughs.

After his fishermen parents (Pete Postlethwaite and Elizabeth McGovern), who found him as a baby, perish at the hands of the Gods, Perseus joins forces with Draco (Mads Mikkelsen) and his spiritual guide, the beautiful Io (Gemma Atherton), to battle scorpiochs (giant scorpions); half-man, half-monster Calibos (Jason Flemyng); and StygianWitches. Their mission is to destroy Hades’ terrifying creation, the colossal Kraken, before the beautiful princess of Argos (Alexa Davalos) is sacrificed to the sea monster first.

Louis Leterrier directs with a surfeit of fast cutting, and dizzying camera moves that make the action often difficult to follow. The film was shot conventionally, but quickly converted to 3D after the fact to cash in on the current craze for the process, which in this case, adds very little. In fact, I found myself watching without the tinted glasses, and the experience was, by comparison, far more visually pleasing.

The lengthy sequence wherein Perseus must confront Medusa in her lair, and cut off her snake filled head, averting his gaze lest he turn to stone, is reasonably well done, as is the climactic sequence of the Kraken rising from the sea. Perseus’ winged horse, Pegasus, is also well executed. But the overall palette is murky and dreary. In contrast to the more brightly hued original version, Martin Laing’s production design is largely awash in browns and dark colors.

Neeson makes a plausible Zeus, by turns godlike, bellicose, and paternal. And Fiennes has some fun with the duplicitous Hades. Otherwise, performances are only serviceable.

The unremarkable, humorless screenplay is credited to Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief sensuality.)

The Glass Menagerie (Roundabout Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

Four accomplished actors are undercut by a concept that is sporadically revelatory but, in most other respects, out of step with Tennessee Williams’ oft-performed truth versus illusion masterpiece, ‘The Glass Menagerie,” the 1944 work which put him on the map.

Director Gordon Edelstein has taken the play’s semi-autobiographical aspects rather too literally. Narrator Tom Wingfield is now not a merchant seaman recollecting the events of ten years earlier, but a paunchy, alcoholic Williams-like writer in a bleak hotel room, tapping out the play.

Eventually, though with no additional furniture or trappings, the spare room takes on the guise of the shabby St. Louis tenement he shared with Amanda, his delusional, former Southern belle mother, and Laura, his painfully shy, crippled sister.

As they make their first appearances, in fact, Tom simultaneously speaks their dialogue as he writes. Sometimes, distractingly, given the lack of the fire escape specified in Williams’ stage directions, Tom stands to the side of the room observing the action while continuing to write.

The bleakness of the hotel room (minimalist set by Michael Yeargan) thus permeates the Wingfield home, too, and together with the absence of musical underscoring, makes for an especially austere telling. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is naturalistically dim, and the power outage just before “gentleman caller” Jim O’Connor and Laura’s extended scene plunges the stage into total darkness, daringly lit only by candles.

Tom is presented as a repressed homosexual, a conceit which would seem to render Tom’s speeches about his nightly forays to the “movies” as merely euphemistic.

It’s an interesting interpretation, to be sure, and Patch Darragh plays it adeptly, but not, I believe, one intended by Williams even if, hypothetically, he had written the play a couple of permissive decades later.

Keira Keeley is generally sympathetic as the disabled Laura’s, but rather overdoes the limp and shyness aspects.

The climactic gentleman caller sequence plays beautifully, thanks to Keeley’s touching vulnerability, Michael Mosley’s dynamic, no-nonsense Jim, and the relatively traditional approach.

Ivey’s frowzy, nag of a mother is a finely detailed portrayal upon which she has lavished all of her actorly prowess. Much of what she accomplishes is impressive, if sometimes – as in the dinner scene – she fails to suggest an innate gentility. Overall, she brings a healthy dose of pragmatism to her portrayal, but loses something of the touching radiance that originator Laurette Taylor to said to have conveyed.

Given the doubling of furniture, Laura’s titular collection of glass animals is positioned precariously on Tom’s hotel writing desk which, small point or not, seems wrong.

Edelstein’s pacing of this production, first mounted at Long Wharf Theatre in May of last year, results in some awfully slow stretches, but he must be credited with drawing good work from his cast.

Despite all the false notes sounded in this high-concept “Glass Menagerie,” the performances are never less than compelling.

(The Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org)