Sunday, April 24, 2011

War Horse (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

If “War Horse” isn’t, in fact, the greatest theatrical experience of my life (and I’m not at all sure it isn’t), it certainly ranks in the Top Five.

The National Theater of Great Britain’s glorious production – which I saw in late 2008 in London, tears running down my cheek in the front row (very embarrassing!) – has been transferred intact to the Vivian Beaumont, which is probably the only venue in the city that could accomodate the panoramic setting as it was on the similar –- if somewhat larger -- thrust stage of the Olivier.

Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Mompurgo’s novel, as wondrously directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is an utterly gripping World War I tale about Albert (Seith Numrach), a 16-year-old farm boy who runs away from home and, though underage, joins the army to find his beloved horse Joey after his father Ted (Boris McGiver) sells it to the cavalry.

Rae Smith’s enveloping production design (including a cloud-like screen for projections), a deftly used revolving stage, a jaw-droppingly realistic creation of the horses by the Handspring Puppet Company, Paule Constable’s superb lighting, Adrian Sutton’s evocative film score-like music, and Christopher Shutt’s atmospheric sound all contribute to an extraordinary experience.

Though the horses’ operators are plainly visible, the animals seem so real that you barely focus on the so-called puppeteers, so adept are they at recreating the horses’ natural moves. The transformation of Joey from a spindly foal to an imposing steed is nothing short of miraculous.

The title notwithstanding, “War Horse” has much more than battle scenes at the western front. The early parts where the easily goaded Ted, using the family’s precious mortgage money, outbids his more prosperous brother Arthur (T. Ryder Smith) for ownership of the horse at auction, and the farm scenes where Albert bonds with Joey, and then is forced by circumstances to train this part-thoroughbred hunter to do farm work, are just as compelling.

So, too, is the family dynamic between Albert’s mother Rose (Alyssa Bresnahan) and her weak, alcoholic husband, and the sibling rivalry between Ted and Arthur. How that relationship shifts once both of their boys are off at war is handled most movingly.

There are several quite thrilling moments, including the spectacular first act conclusion – a real coup de theatre – and later, a battle scene involving a tank, and another heart wrenching one involving a nasty run-in with barbed wire.

Amidst such magnificent staging, it’s easy to lose sight of the quality performances but Numrach, Bresnahan, McGiver, Smith, and Matt Doyle as Albert’s cousin Billy all offer finely drawn portrayals.

Among the military characters, Stephen Plunkett as the Lieutenant Nicholls who takes ownership of Joey when he is first posted to France, and Peter Hermann as Hauptman Friedrich Muller, a German officer whose love of his own horse Tophorn, parallels Albert’s for Joey, are outstanding. While Albert boasts of getting “bloody Fritz” (the Germans), little does he know that Muller is taking care of his beloved horse.

The play is as strong an anti-war play as been done, the pre-war jingoism sounding quite empty once in the midst of battle, its horrors vividly portrayed, and its senselessness underscored repeatedly. And the sympathetic portrayal of the German side, with Muller and others, echoes “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

“War Horse” is theater at its purest, a breathtaking theatrical experience you must not miss.

(Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., or

Friday, April 22, 2011

Wonderland (Marquis Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Much like the movie version of “The Wiz,” this latest riff on “Alice in Wonderland” puts an adult heroine in search of self at the center of a well-known children’s tale.(Remember Diana Ross as Dorothy anyone?) As with that cinematic “Wiz,” the results here are less than wonderful, and yet, also like that film, not totally egregious.

The problem with “Wonderland” is that the whole feels so very synthetic, derivative of better things (like, again, “The Wizard of Oz”), and dully predictable in its dime-store psychology (“Wonderland is you!” seems to be the message).

So, this adult Queens-based Alice (Janet Dacal from "In the Heights") -- separated from her out-of-work husband, and raising her sad daughter Chloe -- is looking for her inner self, the talent she abandoned as a child, a better appreciation of the things she already has, and female empowerment.

Jack Murphy wrote the book with director Gregory Boyd, and also supplied lyrics to Frank Wildhorn’s mixed-bag score, which runs a gamut of genres and proves highly variable in quality. In terms of the former, there’s Jose Llana as the Cheshire Cat (here El Gato) sings a Latin number; E. Clayton Cornelious as the Caterpiller has an R&B ditty, Darren Ritchie as the White Knight harmonizes with his back-up singers in the best boy-band style. All three of these numbers are actually pretty good.

Ritchie is, in fact, one of the show’s best performers, appearing also as Lewis Carroll in the second act, and a third role, which I shan’t spoil, though you’ll probably guess it. As Carroll, Ritchie delivers one of the better (and quieter) second act songs, “I Am My Own Invention.”

There are some good one-liners in the show, including some obvious punning on the phrase Tea Party.

One of the show’s dubious conceits is to have a female Mad Hatter. She’s played without much charisma by Kate Shindle like an Elphaba knock-off, but neither her songs nor her dialogue make for a very memorable villain, as she plots Alice’s demise, the Queen’s overthrow, and eventual rule of Wonderland herself. Her second act opener, “I Will Prevail,” is particularly strident and unpleasant. At one point, she pretends to be a marriage counselor and lures little Chloe down to Wonderland on the pretext of helping the girl’s parents.

Dacal makes a pleasant enough heroine, simple enough in manner not to disappoint youngsters in the audience who might not empathize with a grown-up protagonist. She does well with “Home,” the pretty (if again, derivative) duet with her young daughter Chloe (Carly Rose Sonenclar). But her big eleven o’clock number, “Finding Wonderland” doesn’t measure up to its climactic position in the show, or the decibel level accorded it.

Karen Mason channels some of her Norma Desmond experience into the Queen of Hearts, and gets two campy numbers “Hail the Queen” (with a homage of “Gypsy” and other musicals thrown in for laughs) and “Off with Their Heads” which she puts over with aplomb. Too bad the songs themselves aren’t just a bit more tuneful and witty. She also doubles as Chloe’s grandmother in the real scenes.

Edward Staudenmayer has some amusing moments as the (forgetful) White Rabbit, as does Danny Stiles as The March Hare.

Peter Hylenski’s sound design is often uncomfortably loud, and even so, the lyrics are often unintelligible.

Neil Patel’s set design and Susan Hilferty’s costumes are colorful, but lacking in true enchantment, though I liked the picturesque silver proscenium framing. Sven Ortel’s curtain projections before the show – traditional renderings of the Carroll characters – perhaps raise unfair expectations. Still, the high-tech Wonderland projections within the show are another plus.

(Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, 877-250-2929 or

Thursday, April 21, 2011

High (Booth Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

As a vehicle for Kathleen Turner, “High” keeps its valiant star on stage almost all evening, allowing her to run the gamut of emotions, with plenty of humorous lines amid a narrative as melodramatic as they come.

She’s Sister Jamison Connelly, a tough-talking drug counselor with a distinctly un-sisterlike vocabulary (the f- and s-words are thrown off unflinchingly throughout) who reluctantly takes on gay hustler Cody (Evan Jonigkeit), when her superior, Father Michael (Stephen Kunken) insists she do so, his true motivation (no, not what you might think) only revealed much later.

A recovered alcoholic and former user herself and, like Cody, one who spent a fair amount of time as a homeless street person, she resists at first because she knows how hopeless these cases can be. Adding to her skepticism is hearing of the death of a 14-year-old boy found in the hotel room where Cody himself nearly died.

But Father Michael won’t take no for an answer, and Sister Jamison agrees to work with the sullen, belligerent youth.

The confrontational scenes with the boy – including an especially lurid one when Cody falls off the wagon, and at the peak of his high, darts naked to and fro like the Alan Strang character in “Equus” and attempts to sexually attack the good sister -- are interspersed with monologues in which she reflects on her past and the tragic events which eventually led to her becoming a nun and her yearning for redemption.

Sister Jamison’s back-story is fairly hair-raising (and not terribly plausible). But even when that history and her personal demons are fully revealed, her initial resistance to taking Cody on as a patient is hard to swallow. After all, wouldn’t anyone in her position want to help a lost soul?

The conviction of the performances and the stylized staging balance the more over-the-top elements. Turner’s foggy voice and commanding presence, and Jonigkeit’s extremely realistic turn are both compelling. Kunken’s role is a fairly colorless one, but he plays it well enough.

Matthew Lombardo’s script is less risible when one learns of the playwright’s own former addiction. And for all its contrivance, it must be said that “High” does hold your interest.

Rob Ruggiero, who also directed Lombardo’s lightweight but entertaining “Looped,” about Tallulah Bankhead, adapts to the very different structure here, staging Turner’s monologues effectively against set designer David Gallo’s constellation backdrop.

The show has already posted a closing notice, so you need to see it by Sunday, if so inclined.

(Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Catch Me If You Can (Neil Simon Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

A great deal of talent – much of it comprising the same team that generated the long-running “Hairspray” -- has gone into this latest cinematic adaptation, this one taken, of course, from the 2003 Steven Spielberg film with Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. Terrence McNally provided the effective book.

But the stylized, somewhat cynical, way in which he and the other creators have chosen to tell the true-life story of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz) in dogged pursuit of con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Aaron Tveit) who changes names and professions (pilot, doctor, and lawyer) with dizzying alacrity, works against the feel-good qualities that made "Hairspray" so endearing.

This, despite a sentimental undercurrent of growing affection between pursuer and pursued, with Hanratty becoming a father figure to young Frank, after the latter’s French mother (glamorous Rachel de Benedet) walks out, and his alcoholic con artist father (Tom Wopat, solid as ever) can't raise him. (Both are lonely and lacking in familial affection.)

Still, there’s no denying the slickness and polish that has gone into the mounting, and who says “feel good” has to be part of the package anyway? Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have fashioned their score after the swinging songs of the period that might have been rendered by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or Carlos Jobim. Several songs have been dropped since the show’s tryout period, but the score still remains a strong one, albeit with an emphasis on the flashier, more hard-driving numbers.

Amidst those, the Christmas anthem, “My Favorite Time of Year,” which closes the first act; Hanratty and Frank, Sr.’s bar duet, “Little Boy, Be a Man,” and Paula’s “Don’t Be a Stranger” provide less frenetic contrast.

Tveit brings boyish good looks and much appeal to the DiCaprio role, but the amazing Butz dominates, completely immersing himself in the role of schlumpy agent, and stopping the show more than once, starting with his “Don’t Break the Rules” anthem.

Kerry Butler as nurse Brenda whom Frank genuinely falls for late in the show has little to do till then, but effectively and movingly belts out her feelings in the eleven o’clock number “Fly, Fly Away.” Wopat’s smooth vocalizing throughout is another plus, as he makes his less than admirable character both pitiable and empathetic.

Jack O’Brien directs the show tightly, and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography – often employing a chorus line of the airline stewardesses and nurses in Abignale, Jr.’s life – keeps the momentum going, and accurately mirrors the period TV variety show which serves as the framing device in McNally’s book (as per the song “In Living Color” used as a motif throughout).

That conceit does, however, create a distancing effect, inasmuch as there are moments when just as you get caught up in the story, you are pulled back to the artificiality of the concept.

David Rockwell’s set (lit by Kenneth Posner) and William Ivey Long’s colorful costumes capture the flashy Jet Setting milieu by way of “The Dean Martin Show.”

(The Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., 877-250-2929 or; through August 14)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Richard Rodgers Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

In 2003 Baghdad, a Tiger (Robin Williams) is fatally shot by marine guard Kev (Brad Fleischer) after Tommy (Glenn Davis), his partner in guarding the zoo after the Americans have bombed it, has his hand bitten off by the beast. The tiger’s ghost returns to roam the city, searching for spiritual answers, and haunting his killer.

The handless marine, shipped back to Iraq with a prosthetic appendage, returns to retrieve the gold toilet seat and gold gun he had purloined from Saddam Hussein’s effects during the invasion, and subsequently hidden. Musa (Arian Moayed), the U.S. military’s Turkish translator, is now in possession of the gun. But Musa has demons of his own.

Characters haunted by ghosts and guilt, while vainly seeking meaning, God and redemption permeate the unusually structured dream piece by Rajiv Joseph whose play was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “Speak, God, speak,” demands the Tiger, echoing the feelings of nearly all the characters before the evening is over.

The play has an admirably implicit anti-war tone. The marines are often not likeable, though plainly out of their element in the foreign environment, and ultimately as conflicted about their actions as the tiger’s ghost who regrets mauling a couple of children years before.

The entire cast, apart from Williams, took part in the play’s two engagements at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in 2009 and earlier this year, and they are all very fine. Brad Fleischer is the naïve, emotionally unstable marine; Davis is the tough one motivated by self-interest. Arian Moayed is the translator whose background – when it is finally revealed – is emblematic of the complex moral confusion of all the parties concerned.

Hrach Titizian plays two roles, including a malevolent ghost who haunts Musa, and suggests that the delineation of right and wrong is far from clear. Sheila Vand also does double-duty as disparate victims of the soldiers and the forces of Saddam respectively. Likewise, Necar Zadegan shows versatility in her two contrasting parts.

Williams, scruffy and bearded, admirably underplays his comic persona, though the tiger’s sardonic lines (at one point, he wryly describes himself as a “dead cat consigned to a burning city”) do elicit stronger laughter than perhaps intended. But the audience clearly wants to laugh at Williams, and it’s to his credit and that of director Moises Kaufman that once the gravity of the situations at hand is firmly established, they don’t.

Most of the other roles are larger than his, but Williams is an adept stage actor, with a commanding presence, and his work here still rates as an auspicious Broadway debut. And if his participation in such an important play – for so, I believe, the topical subject matter and the quality of Joseph’s script establish it to be -- help attract an audience, so much the better.

Technical credits are all impressive, starting with Derek McLane’s imaginative use of stage space, including a giant topiary that figures significantly in the second act. David Zinn’s apt costuming and David Lander’s atmospheric lighting coupled with the moody sound design by Acme Sound Partnes and Cricket S. Myers create a powerful ambiance.

The play occasionally loses focus, but on the whole, rates as first-rate theater. Certainly, under Kaufman’s taut direction, the pace never flags, even if several moments seem a tad overwrought. But there’s depth and poignancy here, and much to ponder when the curtain falls.

(Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46 St., 800 745 3000 or

Friday, April 15, 2011

Anything Goes (The Roundabout Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Years ago – on “The Dick Cavett Show” – legendary producer-director Jed Harris explained that in younger days, whenever he happened upon a particularly wonderful musical, nothing pleased him more than attending once a week, sitting in his favorite box. This was his nirvana. And the example he cited was, in fact, “Anything Goes.”

Watching the spanking revival mounted by Kathleen Marshall for the Roundabout, I know exactly how Harris felt. This show – in the expert version fashioned for the 1987 Patti LuPone revival at Lincoln Center by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman(adapted from the P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton and Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse original) -- is pure pleasure.

The score is one of Porter’s best, and when it’s performed as well as it is here, why indeed look elsewhere?

The 1987 version – which wisely retains virtually every song from the original and the two Porter additions that have become de rigueur, “It’s De-Lovely” and “Friendship” – has been given a rejuvenating face-lift, with snazzy orchestrations by Bill Elliott, supplementing Michael Gibson’s already excellent ones, under Rob Fisher's musical supervision.

At the center of it all is the smashing Sutton Foster who, though unlike LuPone and the role’s originator Ethel Merman, wouldn’t seem a “natural” Reno Sweeney, her interpretation – a slinky blonde with confident swagger, a dollop of self-deprecating humor, and a dash of Mae West – are just what’s called for. And her singing, starting with her opening ballad, “I Get a Kick Out of You” and virtuoso dancing is really, to quote Mr. Porter, “the top.”

She is surrounded by a spot-on cast. There’s Joel Grey at the top of his present-day game as Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13. John McMartin is a comic delight as the perennially tipsy stockbroker Elisha Whitney. Colin Donnell as Billy Crocker sports Don Draper good looks, a stylish voice and again, quoting Cole, an impressively “nimble tread.”

Laura Osnes follows her well-received Nellie Forbush with a lovely turn as ingénue Hope Harcourt, bringing real feeling and gorgeous tone to her character’s restored solo, “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.” Jessica Walter scores as Hope’s upper-crust mother anxious to get Hope married to fuddy-duddy (but wealthy) Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. And he’s played by the terrific English actor Adam Godley who’s given so many fine, serious and funny performances at the National Theatre and elsewhere. He's a stitch fighting his losing battle with American slang.

Marshall works wizardry on all the musical numbers. The first act ends with the title song, an irresistible showstopper, which Marshall builds and builds, sending the audience to intermission in a semi-delirious state. We’re not far into the second act before she and Foster top themselves with “Blow Gabriel Blow.” That’s when evangelist Reno and her “four angels” sock over the song, drop their capes, and Foster is transformed into a sexy Cyd Charisse-like vamp, while the trumpets blare in the best down-and-dirty fashion. Marshall works in all the revivalist gestures you want in this sort of number, and again, the audience is bowled over. In both of those strenuous numbers, by the way, Foster’s breath control is amazing.

Marshall’s choreography is wonderfully inventive, not just in those big numbers but the more intimate ones like Grey’s sweet “Be Like the Bluebird” which he performs with a blue spotlight; “Friendship” for Foster and Grey, with its vaudeville-like series of false endings; “Buddy Beware,” sung (rather roughly) by Jessica Stone as gangster moll Erma who’s otherwise a hoot and six muscular sailors; and“The Gypsy in Me,” wherein Lord Evelyn finally lets his hair down and dances a torrid tango with Foster.

Derek McLane’s various shipboard settings are versatile and cheery. Martin Pakledinaz’s stylish duds are knockouts. And Peter Kaczorowski’s daytime, nighttime and interior lighting effects are all they should be.

I’m ready to book my Jed Harris box for the remainder of the (just extended) run!

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Motherf**ker with the Hat (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

In case you were wondering, yes, there is indeed plenty of the sort of language implied by the provocative title. But if you’re not the sort to be offended by a heavy dose of expletives, you’ll find Stephen Adly Guirgis’ new play to be a superbly constructed, finely acted, genuinely funny, and ultimately, deeply touching experience. It certainly ranks with the best plays of the season.

Jackie (spectacularly embodied by Bobby Cannavale) is a parolee who’s recently served a two-year prison term upstate and has now returned to his combustible girlfriend Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) with whom he’s been in love since eighth grade. Their passion is real, and they obviously care for each other, her addiction to crack notwithstanding. He’s full of boisterous high spirits, especially as he’s just landed a job, as well as randy and ready for sex. But Veronica says she wants to shower first.

While he’s waiting expectantly for her to emerge, his cheerful lustiness comes to a screeching halt when he spies a man’s hat on the table across the room. He sniffs the sheets like a hound dog with a scent. Someone else has been in the bed. In a trice, a dark and dangerous mood descends. He rails at Veronica for her perfidy with the downstairs neighbor always seen with a hat. She heatedly denies the charge, and gives back as good as she gets.

Unconvinced, he seeks solace and counsel from his friend and AA sponsor Ralph D. (Chris Rock in his Broadway debut). The calm and unflappable Ralph – his own addictions behind him, by contrast with Jackie and Veronica’s abode, lives in an orderly apartment (versatile scene-shifting sets by Todd Rosenthal) with wife Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), who’s almost as feisty as Veronica. Ralph has replaced his former addictions with yoga, health food, French lessons and surfing in Far Rockaway. Ralph talks Jackie down from his murderous thoughts about the neighbor, and insists they pray together.

But after not taking Ralph’s sage advice, Jackie turns to his New Agey cousin Julio (hilariously campy Yul Vazquez). That’s the setup, but I won’t reveal anything further as the delicious and frequent surprises are among the special pleasures of Guirgis’ masterful style. Suffice to say, what follows is beautifully constructed, with unexpected events that unfold with great ingenuity.

Cannavale’s blazing performance is among the most impressive this season. His part is sharply written, but he plays every nuance to the hilt, encompassing a wide range of emotions. I can’t imagine Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" making a stronger impact than Cannavale does here.

Rock also does fine work, though not on Cannavale’s exalted level, even allowing for his character being mild-mannered and more subtly shaded than Cannavale’s powder keg.

The women are also superb, and similarly contrasted. Rodriguez is a raging force of nature, but Sciorra shows her temperament in different ways, as we learn more about her less-than-ideal marriage.

Friendship, loyalty, fidelity, moral choices are among the themes in a play which, like Veronica, has a bountiful heart beneath its sordid and sometimes profane exterior. Guirgis’ rhythms and quirky dialogue are somewhat akin to those of Martin McDonagh’s best work. But his own voice is distinctive and the dialogue really crackles.

Rosenthal’s impressionistic set, Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes, and Donald Holder’s lighting are all first-rate

Director Anna Shapiro, who balanced the funny and bittersweet moments so well in “August: Osage County,” creates similar magic here.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, or 212-239-6200)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Peter and the Starcatcher (New York Theatre Workshop)

By Harry Forbes

This adaptation of the first of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s prequels to J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” is an imaginatively staged and predominantly humorous take on the book. With lines like “he's more elusive than a melody in a Philip Glass opera” and such, the creators are aiming to appeal to adults as much as, if not more than, youngsters. I noticed only a handful of kids at the evening performance I attended.

Adam Chanler-Berat plays the orphan boy who, in the course of the show, acquires the name Peter (and later Pan). It’s 1885, and together with his friends Prentiss (Carson Elrod) and Ted (David Rossmer), he’s being shipped off into slavery. But along the way, he encounters the resourceful Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger) whose ambassador father Lord Aster (Karl Kenzler) on another ship has been entrusted with a trunk filled with priceless treasure.

Pirates and assorted villains (Matt D’Amico among them) intervene, including Captain Hook but then known as Black Stache (Steve Rosen at my performance, now alternating with the highly praised Christian Borle) and his assistant Smee (Kevin Del Aguila).

After much swashbuckling derring-do at sea, the youngsters find themselves on a tropical isle, run by an Italianate villain (Teddy Bergman) who plans to feed them to a giant crocodile, but by the time of the bittersweet conclusion, Peter is on his way to becoming the eternal youthful sprite we know, and Molly the future Mrs. Darling.

Rick Elice (of “Jersey Boys” and “The Addams Family” fame) has written the book adding puns and alliteration to ultimately wearying effect. Director Roger Rees, who made his name in the title part of RSC’s legendary “Nicholas Nickleby,” and clearly knows a thing or two about narrative storytelling, has collaborated with Alex Timbers of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”

The result is something of an amalgam of those two earlier credits: a sometimes compelling yarn with actors assuming multiple roles (occasionally confusing) merged with “Andrew Jackson’s” jokey, sometimes groan-inducing puns (“You’ve made your bed, Pan” is one example), and a somewhat sophomoric tone.

As with Barrie’s original, there are some songs (by Wayne Barker), though not enough to categorize this as a musical any more than the original had been. Donyale Werle’s lovely Victorian proscenium frames the seafaring accoutrements of the first act, and blossoms into a lush island jungle setting in the second act. The latter opens with a chorus of (the all-but-one male cast) mermaids in drag casting their siren spell. Paloma Young’s period costumes have the requisite flair.

Speaking of cross-dressing, Arnie Burton is Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly's panto-style governess who’s smitten with boatman Alf (Greg Hildreth)

Keenan-Bolger is quite delightful as the serious-minded Molly trying to mask her adolescent stirrings for Peter, paralleling the Wendy-Peter dynamic of the Barrie version.

Throughout, there are hints of the future elements of “Peter Pan”: the conceit of clapping if you believe, the ticking clock inside the crocodile, and so on.

The play is nearly two and a half hours, and at the end of it all, the audience responded with a good-natured ovation. For my part, though appreciating the talent on stage and the resourcefulness of the staging, I’d have preferred a shorter evening, a less precious tone, and a generally straighter approach with less jokey and anachronistic humor.

(NYTW, 79 East 4th Street, or (212) 279-4200)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Al Hirschfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

With the last of the “Harry Potter” films in the can, Daniel Radcliffe continues to make really smart career moves, as he has, in fact, done all along between films. The Rudyard Kipling bio on “Masterpiece Theatre” (he played the writer’s son), the very moving “December Boys” film, the impressive stage debut in “Equus” on both sides of the Atlantic, and now, an honest-to-goodness classic Broadway musical.

It’s no surprise that he succeeds beautifully, demonstrating as window-washer-turned-young-executive J. Pierrepont Finch, that he's a confident singer, a nimble dancer (despite self-deprecating comments in the press to the contrary), a thoroughly engaging presence adept at a flawless American accent, including some long, tongue-twisting stretches of dialogue.

I found some of director Rob Ashford’s choreography overly busy. On the other hand, the “Grand Old Ivy” and “Brotherhood of Man” numbers are bona fide showstoppers, with Radcliffe really keeping up with the intricate moves and acrobatics.

John Larroquette – who amusingly towers over Radcliffe -- is also terrific as J.B. Biggley, World-wide Wicket Company president, at one point using a megaphone in homage to the part’s legendary originator, crooner Rudy Vallee.

Tammy Blanchard can play sweet (the film “Bella”) and sexy (Louise in Bernadette Peters’ “Gypsy”). As Hedy LaRue, Biggley’s va-va-voom but none-too-swift mistress, she gets to do both. Ellen Harvey is appropriately starchy but warm as Biggley’s secretary.

Rose Hemingway makes a sweet devoted Rosemary, and a good physical match for Radcliffe. Mary Faber is a funny bespectacled Smitty. And Michael Park, Nick Mayo, Cleve Asbury, and Rob Bartlett are excellent as various stepping stones on Ponty’s rise to the top. Bartlett has a nifty double turn as Twimble, the head of the mailroom, and at the end, as Wally Womper, the chairman of the board, and does well by the “Company Way” anthem.

As Biggley’s ambitious nephew (and Ponty’s nemesis) Bud Frump, Chistopher J. Hanke makes the part his nerdy and smarmy own. Anderson Cooper proves a fine choice for the voice of the narrator, giving a different spin than Walter Cronkite’s avuncular approach in the 1995 revival.

I wasn’t wild about Derek McLane’s modular honeycomb set at first, however period appropriate, but it grew on me as the evening progressed, and it proved its versatility during some of the split-level numbers.

Catherine Zuber’s 60s’s costumes pay obvious homage to “Mad Men” with Rosemary decked out like Elizabeth Moss’ Peggy, and Hedy La Rue sporting the Christina Hendricks’ Joan look.

Ashford’s puts his own distinctive stamp on the aforementioned numbers and the “I Believe in You” set-piece. In that men's room number, the executives enter in conspiratorial pairs with trench coats and fedoras as they sing about having to “stop that man” while Radcliffe shaves solo front and center. The number reminded me of Ashford’s excellent work in the Donmar Warehouse “Guys & Dolls.”

Another plus of the production is the restoration of material cut from the 1995 production, including “Cinderella Darling” where Smitty and Rosemary’s other secretary friends urge her to capture the “prince” (Smitty).

Though Broadway’s predecessors in the role, originator Robert Morse and revival lead Matthew Broderick were more seasoned performers when they played Finch, Radcliffe is pretty damn good, and his youth and natural appeal are further plusses.

The book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert is still one of Broadway’s most tightly constructed and funniest. Frank Loesser’s score is enjoyable as ever, even in Doug Besterman’s reduced orchestrations, and hearing it again makes a nice bookend to the recent Encores staging of his first hit, “Where’s Charley?”

(Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street, or 212-239-6200.

The Book of Mormon (Eugene O’Neill Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Well, now. On the one hand, “The Book of Mormon” is clever, delightful, tuneful, and exceedingly sweet natured, as it charts the amusing story of two Mormon missionaries – the clean-cut made-for-success Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and the portly, friendless Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) – sent to northern Uganda to do missionary work for their church. It’s your typical buddy-movie setup set to song.

On the other, as you might expect from book, music, and lyric writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone – the creators of “South Park” – working in tandem with “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez – much of the humor is puerile with plenty of envelope-pushing language, and there’s an overall tone for which the word irreverent is a whopping understatement.

The book is never mean-spirited, however, with barbs aimed mostly at the Mormon sacred text (e.g. Prophet Joseph Smith, his receiving of the gold plates, etc.), rather than the more likely-to-outrage-the-masses Old or New Testaments. The Mormon characters themselves are presented as likable (if repressed, as in the very funny “Turn it Off” led by Rory O’Malley with ingenious choreography by co-director with Parker/choreographer Casey Nicholaw).

At the start of the show, the Mormon boys are paired up in teams and assigned a two-year missionary location. The shallow Price wants nothing more than to be assigned to Orlando, Florida, where he once had a blissful childhood holiday, while Cunningham – once he learns that Uganda in is Africa – presumes the place will be just like “The Lion King.” (The Disney extravaganza is spoofed hilariously at least twice here.)

But no, they find themselves in a poverty stricken village (and kudos to Scott Pask for his wonderful sets throughout; ditto Ann Roth’s costumes) where the residents live in the grip of AIDS and in fear of a notorious genocidal war lord with an outrageously vulgar name. Rape and genital mutilation are the order of the day, not generally the stuff of comedy or musicals.

After being spattered with the blood of a man shot in cold blood, the cockily confident Price decides he wants out of the whole business. Once he bails, the inept Cunningham has greatness thrust on him when local girl Nabulungi (the marvelous Nikki M. James) insists he is their only hope to salvation and what she imagines is the wondrous “Salt Lake City.”

The show’s creators have managed some delicious parodies of iconic Broadway and Hollywood musical moments including a deft reworking of Maria’s “I Have Confidence” from “The Sound of Music” and most wickedly “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in “The King and I.” The songs – not listed in the program -- are fun, if occasionally blasphemous, and spiritedly performed.

The cast is excellent. Besides the aforementioned leads, there’s fine work from Lewis Cleale, Michael Potts, Brian Tyree Henry, and the others

Hard as it is to dislike the show, given the engaging performers, the cleverness of the material, and the light-hearted tone, the nagging question remains whether making mockery of anyone’s religion is fair game. Just asking. The New York Times recently reported that the outward Mormon position on the show is one of nonchalance, and that some Mormons who have seen the show have found it insightful despite the ridicule.

Ultimately, the script does makes a point about the religion serving a primal need for a belief system, even if the fantastical stories are, well, merely metaphors. And yet even if it’s all fraudulent, somehow we humans can go on, strengthened by that belief. It’s something akin to “Make Your Garden Grow” spirit of Candide and Cunegonde at the end of Bernstein’s operetta.

(Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th Street, 212-239-6200 or