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Friday, November 26, 2010

Driving Miss Daisy (Golden Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Twenty-three years after its Off-Broadway premiere, “Driving Miss Daisy” remains a thoroughly absorbing, deeply moving theatrical experience.

And how especially could it be otherwise with Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, and Boyd Gaines, all in peak form? I don’t believe any of them has ever been better.

In a series of short scenes spanning 1948 through 1972, Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play charts the relationship between Daisy Werthan (Redgrave), an independent-minded Jewish ex-schoolteacher, now a well-to-do widow, and the humble chauffeur Hoke (Jones) whom her son Boolie (Gaines) hires for her when she can no longer drive.

Initial wariness bordering on downright hostility gives way to growing dependency and ultimately profound friendship.

It’s a pleasure to see Redgrave in such a vital, feisty role after the heaviness of “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” for there is a good deal of humor in the part.

Chief among the lighter moments is the scene where she confronts Hoke about the salmon he consumed without permission holding the can accusingly aloft with her long arm – all the while pointing to the wastebasket where he had discarded it – only to be completely deflated when she learns why her suspicion was ill-founded.

And we’re so accustomed to seeing Jones in authoritative roles it’s rather fascinating to see him take on such a docile, obsequious one, though one possessed of great inner strength and dignity.

Far from being outshone by those two pros, Gaines offers a richly textured portrayal of the go-between son far transcending what could be a merely functional role. This actor continues to amaze season after season with his great versatility.

It’s incredibly poignant to watch Redgrave and Jones at this stage of their careers, particularly in a play that has as much to do with aging as it does social issues and civil rights. Redgrave’s “Blow-Up” and “Camelot” and Jones’ “Great White Hope” and "Othello" may not seem to us who remember exactly like yesterday, but certainly not so very long ago.

Don’t miss the chance to see them together in this tear-jerking but also, grandly entertaining, vehicle.

(Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Utopia Limited (New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players)




By Harry Forbes

Until the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company mounted a concert version in 1975, and London/Decca Records subsequently recorded it, “Utopia Limited,” Gilbert & Sullivan’s next-to-last collaboration, was a true rarity.

Since that recording, “Utopia” has gradually gained a footing among G&S societies and operetta groups like Ohio Light Opera and NYGASP itself. But its appeal is still specialized enough to warrant only a one-night mounting, albeit in semi-staged form. Attractively costumed (by Gail J. Wofford), it was, in fact, not far removed from a full production. There was even a 27-piece orchestra on stage if largely hidden from view.

Company director Albert Bergeret’s staging did little to improve the essential static quality of the first act wherein the premise of a tropical isle deciding to model itself along the lines of a British company limited is laid out, and a series of English dignitaries – the so-called “Flowers of Progress” (Michael Galante, Cameron Smith, Quinto Ott, Richard Alan Holmes, Michael Connolly, David Macaluso)-- explain (in song) how things work back home.

The second half – with its hugely infectious and atypical (for G&S) minstrel number and more emphasis on the romantic couplings of King Paramount’s newly Anglicized daughters -- was far more animated.

Among a highly proficient cast, there were some standouts. Holmes has sung Goldbury’s songs at NYGASP and sundry other New York venues, and owns the role, his renditions virtually definitive. The jaunty quartet Goldbury does with Lord Dramaleigh (Galante) and Nekaya (Sarah Caldwell Smith) and Kalyba (Amy Helfer) was a special delight.

David Wannen’s Paramount was imposing and clearly sung. Erika Person brought a dignified presence and creamy tone to her numbers. Laurelyn Watson Chase had the vocal chops for Princess Zara’s demanding vocal line, and Smith, contrary to the lyric of his comic second act opener very much “did himself justice.”

NYGASP veterans Stephen O’Brien and Stephen Quint did their best with scheming Scaphio and Phantis’s tiresome comic business, while Ott made a resonant Captain Corcoran.

The aforementioned minstrel number was superbly staged with intricate choreography by David Auxier, who provided modestly graceful dances elsewhere.

Bergeret conducted stylishly, as always, the music slightly muted in the dry Symphony Space acoustic. But, on the whole, the singers had presence.

Some of Bergeret’s alterations to the text (co-credited to Holmes) were hokey or groan-inducing (a bit of double entendre concerning “Cox and Box,” for one), though the second act drawing room set piece staged, not simply with fashionably-gowned young ladies, but as a procession of G&S characters, was a cute, unobjectionable touch.

“The Yeomen of the Guard” and “Trial by Jury” (the latter sharing the bill with assorted G&S goodies) will be heard on December 5 and March 20 respectively, while the ever-popular “The Mikado” runs December 29 through January 2.

(The Peter J. Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space, 2535 Broadway, (212) 864-5400 or www.nygasp.org or www.symphonyspace.org.)

Photo credit: William Reynolds

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Pee-Wee Herman Show (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

I must confess that, until recently on YouTube, I hadn’t watched a minute of Pee-Wee (aka Paul Reubens) Herman ‘s 1980’s CBS show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” so I can only take his new show at face value. Surrounded by screaming fans who relished every silly moment, I found the show to be, if not quite theater in the traditional sense, certainly a canny resurrection of the series and its well-preserved star.

There was not a child to be seen in the audience, but the now-adult fans that made up the very full house were totally in the moment, laughing with Pee-Wee, never at him.

Reubens – looking very much the same as his 80’s self – still projects that sweet, impishly naughty persona. All the beloved characters from the show are here – Chairy, Sergio, Cowboy Curtis, Globey, etc. -- and three of them are recreated by the original players, including Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne, John Moody as Mailman Mike, and John Paragon as Jambi.

Reubens’ biggest single set-piece involves blowing up and slowly deflating a balloon which emits a variety of rude and funny sounds, but his well-honed persona -- not perhaps on the rarefied level of, say, Chaplin’s Little Tramp, but classic in its way -- imbues every moment

Some of the material (book by Reubens and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by Pargaon) is mildly racy, with some very subtle allusions to Ruben’s unfortunate run-in with the law, but nothing to offend should an actual youngster be in the house.

David Korins’ child-friendly set and Ann Closs-Farley’s amusing costumes – based on the original designs -- are right on the money. Basil Twist’s clever puppetry is another plus.

The proceedings are slickly directed by the eclectic Alex Timbers, writer and director of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”

Outsider to all this that I am, I can’t say I was heartbroken when the 90 intermission-less minutes came to an end. But after seeing it, I was, at least, able to understand something of the appeal of both the show and Reubens himself, and it was rather lovely to see the crowd embrace him so warmly throughout the evening.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Warner Bros. Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

On the plus side, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” bears all the quality hallmarks of the six films that preceded it. This has been a classy series from the get-go.

And as the series nears its conclusion with this penultimate chapter, one must admire again the prescience of the casting directors who picked Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson to play Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger respectively in the first place.

These three have developed most impressively, along with their characters, their acting prowess ever more skillful with each new installment.

On the other hand, perhaps because J.K. Rowling’s sprawling concluding novel has been accorded the luxury (and money-making potential) of two longish films, director David Yates’ pacing here is rather leisurely, to put it kindly.

So, too, the whole feel of the film is different than the others, requiring a definite mental adjustment. It takes place, not at Hogwarts, but largely in the woods and myriad dreary London locations. Harry must, at all costs, stay hidden from the evil Lord Voldemort and his cohorts, the Death Eaters, who are now in control of not only Hogwarts but the Ministry of Magic.

Voldemort now only needs to annihilate Harry – the Chosen One -- for complete domination. Harry and his friends, for their part, must destroy the Horcruxes which contains parts of Voldemort’s soul and thus his immortality.

As they eke out a fairly dreary existence in the forest, Ron begins to resent his role in protecting Harry, who is also jealous of the puppy-love vibes he intuits between Harry and Hermione, leading to a serious rift among the close friends.

Voldemort – in the person of Ralph Fiennes – puts in an early appearance in the film’s opening and most fearsome sequence, which leaves no doubt of his dastardly intent. Though they have scant screen time, the other big British thespians are back, too, this time joined by Bill Nighy as the Minister of Magic and Rhys Ifans as Luna’s father.

Despite dullish patches, the film is obviously essential viewing for what will undoubtedly be a bang-up finale when Part II is released next summer.

(This film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.)

Elf (Al Hirschfeld Theatre)


By Harry Forbes





Though it might be tempting to dismiss this musicalization of the 2003 Will Ferrell comedy as a mere holiday trifle for the tourist trade, “Elf” proves a quite delightful, “real” musical, old-fashioned in the best sense, with much to offer.

Sebastian Arcelus is outstanding as the Farrell character Buddy, an orphan raised by Santa Claus (George Wendt. When Buddy learns he's not an elf, but human, he journeys from the North Pole to New York to find his birth father, a humorless publisher Walter (Mark Jacoby) now, after the death of Buddy’s mother, married to Emily (Beth Leavel). Their young son Michael (Matthew Gumley) doesn't believe in Santa Claus.

Buddy, green elf duds and all, ingratiates himself into the family – and Walter’s business – ultimately teaching everyone the true meaning of Christmas.

Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, composer and lyricist respectively of the underrated musical version of “The Wedding Singer,” has written some very catchy tunes and often witty lyrics, and there are several showstoppers in an overall extremely attractive score.

These include “Nobody Cares About Santa,” a lament sung by the Christmas Santas in a Chinese restaurant after a long, unrewarding day; “The Story of Buddy the Elf,” a “Brotherhood of Man”-like production number wherein Buddy helps his dad out of a tight fix; Jovie’s determined “Never Fall in Love”; and a pair of very nice duets for Leavel and Gumley, both appealing: “I’ll Believe in You” and “There is a Santa Claus.”

Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin collaborated on the book, adapted from David Berenbaum’s film script, and it’s a savvy piece of work, only sometimes betraying a synthetic quality.

Casey Nicholaw’s direction is efficient and clever, and his choreography, particularly for the “Nobody Cares About Santa” number and “The Story of Buddy the Elf,” is great fun.

Arcelus is a totally winning Buddy, and the linchpin of the production. A brunette Amy Spanger makes the most of her cynical character who blossoms under Buddy’s adoration. Jacoby makes the Walter’s transformation from preoccupied businessman to demonstrative family man nicely convincing. There’s good work, too, from Michael McCormick as Walter’s hard-nosed boss, Valerie Wright as secretary Deb who shares a winning song-and-dance number with Arcelus, “Just Like Him.” And George Wendt delivers some of the funniest lines as Santa himself.

David Rockwell's New York sets and backdrops (e.g. Macy's, Rockefeller Center) are satisfyingly eye-filling, as are Gregg Barnes' cheerful costumes and Natasha Katz's holiday-appropriate lighting.

There's nothing terribly profound here, but the show seems good enough to entertain audiences well beyond its announced January 2 closing date.

(Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com; though Jan. 2)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Belasco Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Don’t be put off by reports of a troubled preview period. After all, the point of previews is to iron out the kinks.

Composer-lyricist David Yazbek’s musical version of Pedro Almódovar’s 1988 film with its multi-strand plot has been wittily and cleverly put on stage with the kind of ensemble work that one is more accustomed to seeing overseas. Some have complained that the likes of Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Danny Burstein don’t have enough to do, but I most strenuously disagree. Not only to do they all have some great moments to shine, but they are each part of a satisfying organic whole.

Sherie Rene Scott is Pepa, a movie-dubber whose live-in lover Ivan (Mitchell) has walked out on her. Ivan’s crazy ex-wife Lucia (LuPone) hasn’t stopped carrying a torch for her ex, and is now vengefully stalking Pepa. Ivan meanwhile is carrying on with Paulina (de’Adre Aziza), the lawyer Lucia has hired in her suit against Ivan.

Lucia’s inhibited son Carlos (Justin Guarini) is hoping to break away from his domineering mother with girlfriend Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone). And Pepa’s manic model friend Candela (hilarious, scene-stealing Laura Benanti) is crazed to the point of being suicidal after learning her lover is a terrorist. Her frenetic telephone patter number, as she leaves message after message on Pepa's answering machine, is a brilliant tour de force.

Under Bartlett Sher’s astute direction, performances are pitch perfect, and the show moves along like a well-oiled clock.

That precision is mirrored in Michael Yeargan’s ever moving set pieces complemented by Sven Ortel’s colorful projections and Brian MacDevitt’s terrific lighting all of which evoke the distinctive color palate of Almódovar’s world. One of the most delightful effects involves upbeat taxi driver Burstein’s speeding around Madrid with Pepa in her moments of crisis as digital projections of the city speed behind. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography contributes to the smooth flow.

LuPone, a very funny comic presence throughout even when she’s just purposefully traversing the stage, has a wonderfully touching courtroom breakdown, and the song that grows out of it, “Invisible” is superbly done, as is Mitchell’s big solo, “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today.”

Mary Beth Peil is another plus as Pepa’s dotty concierge who offers her distraught tenant some pearly wisdom.

As the sanest of the characters, relatively speaking, Scott is the solid anchor of the proceedings, and it is her character that has the most palpable growth. Though her role is, on the surface, the least flashy, she's a winningly sympathetic character throughout.

Librettist Jeffrey Lane has done a solid job in translating Almódovar’s dark comedy to the stage. Yazbek’s songs – all with an appropriate Spanish tinge – bubble along cheerfully or ruefully, as the situation demands, and capture the the Spanish filmmaker’s spirit accurately.

In an age of jukebox musicals, we should be grateful for having a brand new score – and a quality one at that -- whose songs are so integral to the plot. Let’s hope it gets recorded.

And when you go, be sure to leave time to explore and admire every nook and cranny of the Belasco Theatre, now splendidly restored to its former glory.

(Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., telecharge.com or www.lct.org)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Desert Song (Light Opera of New York)



By Harry Forbes

Light Opera of New York launched its second ambitious season of classic American operettas with an impressive small-scale production of Sigmund Romberg’s 1926 “The Desert Song.”

At a colonial French outpost in Morocco, young Margot – a guest of General Birabeau, governor of the province – longs for romance but never guesses that the general’s mild-mannered son Pierre is the notorious and to her, glamorous, Red Shadow, leader of the Riffs, the Moroccan fighters who are at odds with the French occupiers. Bennie, a society reporter and Susan, the general’s ward, are the comic lovers. And sultry harem girl Azuri, the secret mistress of Margot’s fiancée, Captain Fontaine, is determined to avenge her lover’s betrayal.

Casting was strong all around. Lauren Rose-King as the conflicted Margot delivered consistently striking work. Her “Romance” and “Sabre Song” were especially satisfying. Also outstanding was Brian Nathan as Bennie whose strong and incisive singing of the show’s pop numbers “It” and “One Good Boy Gone Wrong” were stylishly delivered as he made every word count. Iris Karlin played a particularly vivid Azuri, clearly relishing the sexy vamp aspects of the role, and demonstrating real temperament when her character was thwarted. Amy Maude Helfer was right on the button as soubrette Susan who’s so smitten with Bennie.

There was some post-show grumbling that Bennie was directed to play in too effeminate a manner, especially as that interpretation makes his interactions with Susan and harem girl Clementina all the more improbable. Yet, given the conventions of the era, it seemed to me stylistically sound, if somewhat off-putting for a contemporary audience.

In his Santa Claus-red garb (resourceful and generally attractive costumes courtesy of Lydia Gladstone), Erick Castille cut a reasonably dashing figure as the Red Shadow. And he sang the big numbers, including “One Alone” and the title song firmly and with apt style. Though in his Clark Kentish guise of Pierre, his Yul Brynner-like pate was distractingly out of period.

There was good work from David Seatter as General Birabeau, Daniel Greenwood as Margot’s suitor Paul, Kevin Ginter as The Red Shadow’s sidekick Sid, LaToya Lewis as Clementina, and Matt Ellison as Ali, even if ideally one would wish a sonorous bass for his part of the great “Eastern Love/Western Love” sequence.

I appreciated the way director Gary Slavin respected the original material, and some expeditious exceptions notwithstanding (like the dance music), performed a more authentic version than even the New York City Opera and Paper Mill Playhouse. Unlike the Herberts, LOONY allowed the script to play out without narration.

Steven Francis Vasta’s chamber ensemble of five, String CollectiveNYC, provided an accomplished and surprisingly muscular accompaniment to Romberg’s rousing melodies.

Last season’s three Victor Herbert gems at the Players were so successful the company needed to secure a location with greater seating capacity, and landed on the neo-Gothic locale below. The cushioned seats are definitely an improvement over the Players’ cramped wooden folding chairs, but with the building’s imposing arches and columns, and churchy ambience, there’s a corresponding loss of intimacy. But audibility was generally not a problem.

Small caveats about the venue aside, the quality of “The Desert Song” bodes well for LOONY’s next offering, Rudolf Friml’s “The Vagabond King” on February 17.

(Light Opera of New York, Landmark on the Park, 76th St. & CPW, 886-811-4111 or www.LightOperaOfNewYork.org, November 4)

The Scottsboro Boys (Lyceum Theatre)



“The Scottsboro Boys” has made the move to Broadway from its sold-out engagement at the Vineyard earlier this year, via a stopover at the Guthrie in Minnesota. On the narrow stage of the Lyceum, it has lost very little of the intimacy of the smaller Off-Broadway venue.

Joshua Henry has replaced the excellent Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, the most prominent of a group of nine young men unjustly imprisoned on rape charges in 1931 in Alabama. I'm happy to report Henry is as fine as his predecessor, and brings strength and dignity to the pivotal role.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s staging is, as many have already noted, among her best work, and beyond the clever and snazzy dancing we expect from her, has drawn excellent performances from her cast, including John Cullum as the interlocutor of the minstrel show that frames the narrative in the work, the final creation of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb before the latter’s death.

The rest of the Off-Broadway cast is mostly intact including Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, the end men in the minstrel lineup (and, like Cullum, taking other parts along the way). The titular characters are played by Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, Jeremy Gumbs, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, Julius Thomas III, and Christian Dante White.

All are impressive, with White and Lane doubling in drag as the boys’ accusers. Sharon Washington as a dignified, silent woman (her identity not revealed till the end) who watches the action from the sidelines is a lovely presence. Her character, though seemingly extraneous, also helps end the evening on a hopeful note.

From the exhilarating “Commencing in Chattanooga” which the boys sing on their fateful train journey as they set off in search of jobs to an ironic paean to “Southern Days,” the Kander & Ebb songs are tuneful and immediately accessible, though in the context of the bleak facts of the case, one can’t quite enjoy them as one can the numbers in “Chicago,” the Kander & Ebb show this most closely resembles in using a showbiz structure to tell grim events in an entertaining fashion. And it’s difficult to imagine them having a life outside the context of the show. (Barbara Cook won’t be singing “Electric Chair” at the Cafe Carlyle anytime soon!)

The production packed a wallop at the Vineyard in March. And now, with just enough little nips and tucks to make the narrative tighter, it's better than ever.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)