Sunday, September 18, 2011

Follies (Marquis Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

To cut to the chase, Broadway’s second revival of the Stephen Sondheim cult favorite is, not only a vast improvement on the last (the Roundabout’s oddly mediocre 2001 mounting), but a superior production by any standards.

When the evocative ghosts silently traverse the stage in the opening moments and you hear the luscious strains of the 28-piece orchestra (under James Moore’s excellent direction), you just know you’re in for a treat.

And though the sleek, modern Marquis may seem an odd fit for a show taking place in a soon-to-be-demolished old theater, masking the proscenium and boxes in black drapery (courtesy of designer Derek McLane) goes a great distance in overcoming the disparity.

On the other hand, both the 1998 Paper Mill production, which by all rights should have transferred to Broadway, and the 2007 Encores revival were, I think, more consistently persuasive, but here, director Eric Schaeffer has brought out nuances in the text that are often revelatory.

Textually, this is basically the 1971 original with none of the material from the 1987 London revival – like the “Ah, But Underneath” strip that Phyllis performed at Paper Mill – and musically, it is missing only the “Bolero D’Amore” number.

The cast is fine across the board. Danny Burstein is the best of the post-Gene Nelson interpreters of Buddy, creating an enormously sympathetic character, and bringing back at least some balletic movement to his big moment, “The Right Girl,” which people forget was accompanied by Nelson’s virtuosic dancing in the original production. Ron Raines’ Ben, the disillusioned businessman, is on the stolid side, but the approach works for the uptight, self-absorbed character, and he sings beautifully.

As for their unhappy wives, Jan Maxwell nails Phyllis, delivering a really scorching “Could I Leave You?” that makes you momentarily forget even the best of the past ladies in the role, though I didn’t quite buy her generic vamping in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” rather prosaically choreographed by Warren Carlyle.

Bernadette Peters’ Sally – delusionally carrying a torch for Ben– is alternately touching and overwrought. This lady is really losing her mind, long before she gives voice to that condition in her eleven o’clock torch song. Vocally, Peters does some lovely things, especially with that upper range of her voice which we rarely hear, though at other times, her singing seems a bit tremulous.

Though she doesn’t bring the true-life persona of the original’s Yvonne DeCarlo or Paper Mill’s Ann Miller, London’s West End musical queen Elaine Paige – who’s already proven her Sondheim chops in the New York City Opera’s “Sweeney Todd” – gives a finely shaded reading of “I’m Still Here,” a bit over the top only at the climax. At my performance, the lights and the mikes blew just as the song was reaching that climax, but Paige finished the number like a trouper. She was also a hoot in her line readings.

As for the other ladies, Terri White is as much a standout delivering “Who’s That Woman?” as she was in “Finian’s Rainbow” where she stopped the show with her almost baritonal rendition of “Necessity.” The surprise here is her nimble footwork, as she leads the gals through their paces.

Jayne Houdyshell’s drolly dour “Broadway Baby” is amusing; Mary Beth Peil’s “Ah, Paree” a bit too understated; and Metropolitan Opera veteran mezzo Rosalind Elias – accompanied by Leah Horowitz as her younger self – delivers an especially powerful “One More Kiss,” though the Romberg-esque duet is arguably more satisfying performed in a soprano timbre.

It is a delight to see Susan Watson, the ingĂ©nue lead in the hit revival of “No, No, Nanette” which ran concurrently with the original “Follies,” turn up here with Don Correia singing and hoofing through a charming “Rain on the Roof.”

Schaeffer brings out all the marital strife of James Goldman’s script and then some. The highly-charged confrontations among the four principals are as acerbic as anything by Strindberg. Some of that bitterness could be ramped down, I think, but the text does support the interpretation, and the resulting fireworks are certainly not dull.

McLane’s dark empty theater set gives way to a splendiferous burst of pink for the big “Loveland” sequence, Natasha Katz’s atmospheric lighting in the early scenes morphing into complementary radiance. Gregg Barnes, whose costumes sharply defined each of the characters, also has a field day in this sequence. The production, on the whole, looks as good as it sounds.

This is not perhaps completely the “Follies” of one's dreams, but it will do just fine until that idealized one comes along.

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

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Olive and the Bitter Herbs (Primary Stages)

By Harry Forbes

Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz) is a crotchety old actress whose greatest fame came as the “sausage lady” in a popular TV commercial years before.

A perennial complainer about life in general and her neighbors in particular, and the sole surviving renter in her co-op, she grudgingly makes the acquaintance of the gay couple next door -- the even-tempered Robert (David Garrison) and the caustic Trey (Dan Butler) -- whose sounds and cooking smells she detests.

As with Robert and Trey, she also comes to know the co-op board chairman’s father (Richard Masur), thanks to the peace-making intervention of her cheerful, do-gooder friend Wendy (Julie Halston), a B-level theater company manager, and inveterate helper of aging actresses.

Eventually, Olive invites them all for a Passover Seder (that’s where the “bitter herbs” come in), and later, they all come over to watch Olive’s comeback part in a TV procedural.

Beyond the realistic story, playwright Charles Busch has decided to give Olive a ghost living in her ornate mirror. At first we think this may be a fancy of Olive’s faltering mind, but when, one by one, all the others see the spirit too (and know him to be a certain Howard), we realize the ghost is meant to be real.

Busch – writing in his accomplished Neil Simon manner as in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” rather than his accomplished movie spoof mode (e.g. “The Divine Sister,” “Die Mommie, Die” -- has said his play is “about connecting to the people in our lives – those with us and those who have passed on” and indeed the inter-connectedness theme gets full play in the fun, if predictable and wildly improbable, climax.

Still, Busch is equally adept at writing in both a comic and sentimental vein, and Mark Brokaw expertly draws both those qualities from his cast.

Busch veteran Halston exudes great warmth throughout, and her body language – a sort of Olive Oyl come to life – is a rib-tickling pleasure to watch from start to finish. The titular Olive is intentionally unpleasant, though we’re meant to grow fonder of her as the play progresses. Kurtz excels in the unlikable aspects of the part, but her performance could have used more colors in helping convey the other.

Garrison and Butler make a well-contrasted pair, and the bear-like Masur, who ultimately serves as Olive’s love interest, is affable and appealing.

Some of the cast stumbled on their line readings – perhaps the disorienting result of Hurricane Irene a couple of days earlier – but, on the whole, the ensemble could not be faulted.

Anna Louizos’ lived-in set suits Olive to a tee. Suzy Benzinger’s characterful costumes, and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting – including that mirror with its glowing specter -- are also first-rate.

While not perhaps Busch’s very best work, as there’s a contrivance to the basic setup that makes it hard to suspend disbelief completely, “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” is never less than amusing, often laugh out-loud funny, and generally succeeds in making its touching point about our common humanity in a most entertaining way.

(Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, (212) 279-4200 or; through Sept. 3)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Music Box Films/Universal)

By Harry Forbes

Eric Elmosnino gives a mesmerizing performance as the iconic singer, songwriter, poet, actor, provocateur Serge Gainsbourg (1921-1991) in this expressionistic bio.

Despite some fanciful conceits on the part of director Joann Sfar, a noted comic book artist making his feature film debut (both writing and directing), the narrative covers, in fairly chronological fashion, Gainsbourg’s life from precocious child Lucien Ginsburg – son of loving Russian-Jewish parents – to his early days as a painter, then cabaret pianist, and finally superstar pop icon.

Famously, he was the lover of Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), and Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), and they are vividly portrayed here. Casta makes a luscious Bardot, and Gordon is especially likable as Birkin. Sadly, Gordon committed suicide after filming her role her, a great loss.

Gainbourg became increasingly outrageous as the years went by, smoking and drinking to excess, finally dying in 1991 of a heart attack.

Many of Gainsbourg’s hit songs are heard, including “Bonnie & Clyde,” “La Javanaise,” and “Je t’Aime Moi Non Plus,” some duets with Bardot and Birkin, and everything is newly performed, rather than lip-synced to old recordings. The songs and background score (by Olivier Daviaud) are beautifully interwoven into the whole.

Handsomely shot by Guillaume Schiffman, the film utilizes a life-size puppet alter ego for Gainsbourg to spur him on to new challenges, get him into trouble, or remind him of his less than movie star looks, and of his outsider status.

The figure – which we first see in the childhood scenes, as if the anti-Semitic posters then posted around occupied France had sprung to life -- exaggerates Gainsbourg’s prominent ears and nose. The alter ego device becomes a bit wearying after a while, but fortunately never gets in the way of the story which Sfar has stated was meant to have the aura of a Russian fable.

I’m sure many Americans are unfamiliar with Gainsbourg; I knew him mainly for the series of catchy hit records he penned for Petula Clark in her pre-"Downtown" French period. But he was a towering figure in his native France – praised by Mitterand as a modern Baudelaire – and this interesting film, with its very persuasive performance by Elmosnino (winner of the 2011 Cesar Award), paints a vivid picture of his life and times, especially in the swinging Sixties.