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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Palace Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Though technically one of those jukebox music so despised by all true musical aficionados, this adaptation of the 1994 Australian film -- already a smash success not only Down Under, but in London and Canada -- is solid entertainment, and features a superb performance by Tony Sheldon, who’s been with the production from the beginning. He accomplishes the what-might-have-been-thought impossible feat of equaling Terence Stamp’s impressive performance in the movie.

His Bernadette is one of three drag queens – Tick (Will Swenson) and Adam/Felicia (Nick Adams) are the others -- who leave their gig in Sydney to travel across the desert on their own bus (the titular Priscilla) to perform in distant Alice Springs. Tick has talked them into headlining at the club run by his ex-wife (Jessica Phillips). Of course, Felicia and Bernadette had known nothing of his previous alliance, and Tick keeps from them the fact that he has a young son (Ashton Woerz at my performance).

In the course of their journey, they encounter an assortment of colorful locals, including some pretty rough characters, and an empathetic middle-aged mechanic (C. David Johnson) and his uninhibited wife (J. Elaine Marcos), who outdoes the trio with her X-rated impromptu act.

The score is comprised totally of pop hits, used both as onstage numbers, and character songs. The show opens with “It’s Raining Men,” sung by the three celestial Divas who descend on clouds from above to comment on the action, or simply provide harmonious backup. And another drag performer does “What’s Love Got to Do with It” onstage in the Sydney club.

But when Will, alone in his dressing room, sings a heartfelt "I Say a Little Prayer" in tribute to his distant son, the audience titters. The familiar song strikes a false note in this context, and bodes ill for the rest of the evening. But happily, the songs that follow are far better chosen.

Much has been made of how the show has been made more palatable for American audiences, with family values taking precedence over the more outrageous elements. But, in fact, I found the show to be a faithful adaptation of the movie which always had, at heart, Tick’s needing to return home to his son. A more noticeable alteration is the downplaying of Aussie accents, at least from the film.

Still, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much better this is – as an adaptation – than “Legally Blonde,” which occupied the Palace stage not so long ago, and has now, unaccountably, picked up a slew of Olivier Awards for its London production.

I hope Douglas Hodge’s having won last year’s Tony for a similar role in “La Cage aux Folles” doesn’t undercut Sheldon’s chances this year, for he gives a truly great performance. Though Tick is ostensibly the leading character, and Swenson does fine work, as does Adams who completes the triumvirate with a good, audacious turn, Sheldon’s more textured Bernadette can’t help but dominate.

Simon Phillips directs the book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott at a lively clip, and the musical numbers come in fast profusion, with flashy choreography by Ross Coleman. I would have preferred a more nuanced sound palate than the over-amplified work designed by Jonathan Deans and Peter Fitzgerald, but at least the dialogue scenes are pitched at a more sensible level, and allow you to be fully absorbed in the story.

(Palace Theatre, Broadway & 47th Street, 877-250-2929 or Ticketmaster.com)

Arcadia (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Tom Stoppard’s heady mix of chaos theory, determinism, thermodynamics, and the like has returned to Broadway in a production by David Leveaux which met with great success in London a couple of years ago, albeit with a different cast.

“Arcadia,” like most of Stoppard’s work, makes its audiences feel, by turns, smarter and dumber for the experience, though the play’s sometime denseness is balanced by a crowd-pleasing romantic setup, and the compelling mystery at the core of its parallel track narratives, both set at a Derbyshire country house, one in 1809, and the other in the present.

The former involves the romantic complications of Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley), tutor to the young lady of the house, 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley). The latter involves two academics, Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams), who’s written a best-seller about Lady Caroline Lamb, and Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), an academic determined to prove, despite scant proof, that Lord Byron was once involved in a fatal duel there.

There’s also Chloe Coverly (Grace Gummer), the comely young lady of the house smitten with Nightingale, and her brother Valentine Coverly (Raul Esparza), a math scholar, who is working on the same theories as the precocious Thomasina did a couple of centuries before. The work flips back and forth between time periods on the same set (designed on this occasion by Hildegard Bechtler), and gradually we learn the truth of the 19th century events.

The original 1993 production with Rufus Sewell, Samuel West, and Felicity Kendal at London’s National Theatre is the one by which all others must be measured. It was quite splendid and hard to beat in terms of production values and aptness of performances. The subsequent New York mounting at Lincoln Center was excellent, but less definitive.

The current production, though accomplished and enjoyable on its own terms, has an uneven quality. For one thing, audibility is sometimes a problem, starting with the high-pitched tones of the otherwise engaging Powley. Her fellow Brits Riley and Williams are solid (Riley, in particular, anchoring the production), as are, on the American side, Margaret Colin as Thomasina’s imperious mother, Lady Crooms, and Byron Jennings as gardener Noakes. And Noah Robbins, Eugene in the ill-fated Broadway revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” has a nice turn as both 19th century Augustus, and present-day mute Gus.

Just a tad unconvincing are Crudup (Septimus in the Lincoln Center premiere), fine actor that he is, who struck me as overly mannered on this occasion (but then so was Bill Nighy in the original), and the versatile Esparza who handles Valentine's convoluted math monologue with aplomb, but never quite convinced me he was the character.

Leveaux directs with as much clarity as the idea-heavy text and present cast allow.

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com)

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Comedy of Errors (BAM Harvey Theater)



By Harry Forbes

For most of the first act, I feared Shakespeare was fighting a losing battle with over-the-top slapstick shenanigans and rather too much extraneous business.

But by Act 2, the visiting Propeller company’s South American-set riff on the Bard’s earliest comedy caught me in its crazy spell, especially when the frenetic misunderstandings surrounding two sets of twins separated at birth and now operating at cross purposes in the same town, reached fever pitch. And does it ever!

Propeller uses an all-male cast, not so much for camp effect (though Robert Hands as Adriana and Kelsey Brookfield as a va-va-va boom Courtesan certainly fit that bill), but in order to give present-day audiences something of the texture of the original female-deprived productions.

Getting back to the extraneous business, a faux mariachi band is a constant stage presence, and provides musical entertainment before and after the performance, and even in the lobby during the interval where, zanily, the strains of “Material Girl” mingle with more traditional Mexican rhythms. Leading the audience back for the second act, they chant an intentionally dopey mantra of “Julio Iglesias” and “Ricky Martin.” Finally, Dominic Tighe as the cheesiest of the singers (and the Officer in the actual play) serenades a lady in the front row with “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Most seemed to find the conceit fun, and a woman remarked to her companion as she made her way back to her seat, “That was the best intermission ever!” I confess I found it just a tad wearying.

In any case, though all this may have precious little to do with Shakespeare, it nonetheless provides an inventive backdrop to a generally accomplished reading of the text, some overly rushed and shouted passages notwithstanding.

The Bard based the play on Plautus, but we’re a long way from Ancient Rome here. The setting is said to be inspired by holiday package tours of the 1980s. I might not have figured that out without reading a background piece about artistic director Edward Hall’s intentions, but never mind.

Richard Clothier and John Dougall as the Duke of Ephesus and old Aegeon, the Syracuse merchant get things off to a traditional start, as the latter, arrested for daring to venture into enemy territory, relates how he was separated from his wife and one of his twin sons, both named Antipholus, during a shipwreck years before. And he also tells how their twin servants, each called Dromio, suffered a similar fate. Dougall recites his monologue with appropriate gravity.

But once the farcical mayhem begins – with Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife (Hands) mistaking the twin (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) for her husband (Sam Swainsbury), and the former showing a romantic interest in her sister Luciana (David Newman) -- knockabout clowning prevails. That includes the confusion over some extended business about a gold chain delivered to the wrong Antipholus, driving the goldsmith and merchant to demand their payment.

Droll as the actors are, the characters of Luciana (comically plain) and the Lady Abbess (Chris Myles, done up as a dominatrix in a half nun’s outfit) are the chief casualties of the Propeller treatment as the romantic and sentimental aspects of their characters are seriously undercut.

But whatever your take on the company’s overall approach, there’s no denying the cast is extremely accomplished. Swainsbury’s rapid fire accounting of events is breathlessly funny. Hands gives the nagging Adriana considerable humanity beyond the belly laughs. Tony Bell as evangelical charlatan conjurer Pitch stops the show when he comes on to exorcise Antipholus, and improbably breaks into a gospel number. And the two Dromios (Richard Frame and Jon Trenchard) are amusing clowns who easily win the audience’s affection.

The final revelation scene – one of Shakespeare’s most protracted -- still touches the heart, confirming the essential integrity of Hall’s approach.

(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., 718-636-4100 or BAM.org; through March 27)

(Photo: Julieta Cervantes; l.-r. Newman, Hands)

Cactus Flower (Westside Theatre/Upstairs)



By Harry Forbes

After reading some fairly tepid reviews for the Off-Broadway resurrection of Abe Burrows’ adaptation of Barillet and Gredy’s French stage hit, I think I can be forgiven for approaching Michael Bush’s production with dire foreboding.

But (surprise), though it may lack the polish of a slick Broadway retread – and the prospect of one should not be ruled out, considering the original with Lauren Bacall ran a staggering 1,234 performances! -- the property still demonstrates considerable appeal.

Right now, in fact, Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler can be seen on movie screens in “Just Go with It,” which is (read the fine print) nothing less than a reworking of “Cactus Flower.” As further testament to the appeal of Barillet and Gredy, the upcoming “Potiche” with Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu also originates from the pen of the prolific French playwrighting team.

You’ll recall that “Cactus Flower” is the story of Dr. Julian Winston (Maxwell Caulfield), a womanizing dentist and his long-term relationship with his good-hearted mistress Toni (Jenni Barber). Now, he’s finally decided he wants to marry her. The only problem is, he had originally told her that he was married with three kids to avoid commitment, and now Toni won’t accept his proposal unless she meets the wife, and hears for herself that the decision to divorce was mutual.

So Julian begs his starchy nurse Stephanie (Lois Robbins) to pose as the missus, and give Toni the assurance she needs. But Stephanie does, in fact, love him herself, and that fondness can’t help but shine through the charade when she dutifully visits Toni in the record shop where the latter works as a clerk. Empathetic Toni feels sorry for her, and, well, complications arise.

Those expecting a farce along the lines of “Boeing Boeing,” that other 60’s hit adapted from a French original, and seen a couple of seasons ago in Matthew Warchus’ smashing revival, will be disappointed. That was indeed a true farce in the door-slamming Feydeau manner. But no, this is better characterized as a romantic comedy.

The situations are amusing, rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious, at least not until the character-driven plot goes into high gear in the second act.

The cast knows what they’re about. I found Barber warmly sympathetic, channeling Goldie Hawn (her Oscar winner) just a tad, but creating her own character. Jeremy Bobb as Igor, Toni’s next-door writer neighbor who rescues her from a suicide attempt at the opening, is another bright spot. Brit Caulfield plays the philanderer well, and gets the American accent right. Robbins’ tart delivery helps you imagine what Broadway’s Lauren Bacall might have sounded like, and when the script calls for her to do so, she lets her hair down most enjoyably.

For all its entertainment value, this production does have the aura of a summer stock production about it, but a good one.

Anna Louizos’ set is attractive in a scaled-down way, and the scene changes are pretty deftly done, while 60’s hits blare forth, much as they did in Warchus’ “Boeing-Boeing.”

Beneath the lightweight goings on, there is actually some emotional substance, and a more savvy production might bring that into sharper relief. But this revival will do quite nicely until such a one comes along.

(Westwide Theatre/Upstairs, 407 W. 43rd St., 212-239-6200 or CactusFlowerOnStage.com)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

That Championship Season (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

All-star cast or not, Jason Miller 1972 Pulitzer Prize-wining play – which also won the Tony and Drama Critics Circle Awards – somehow has been rendered pretty unremarkable in Gregory Mosher’s current revival.

The five leads are accomplished enough, and yet, everyone seems to be dutifully going through the paces without truly inhabiting the roles. As a result, the parts seem more like cardboard characters than before.

This is the story of four members of a high school basketball team meeting at the home of their beloved, now terminally ill, Coach (Brian Cox) on the 20th anniversary of their victory. There’s George (Jim Gaffigan), the town’s corrupt and inept mayor hoping for reelection against a Jewish opponent; Phil (Chris Noth), the millionaire strip-mining businessman whom George hopes will bankroll his campaign; James (Kiefer Sutherland), the downtrodden school principal and George’s campaign manager who’s tired of playing second banana to George; and Tom (Jason Patric), James’ alcoholic writer brother.

Racial epithets, anti-Semitism, sexist remarks and plenty of cussing abound, in a way that was probably once shocking, but less so now that David Mamet and others have utilized four-letter words to more dramatically pungent effect.

In strictly by-the-numbers fashion, secrets are revealed, festering resentments come to the fore, and shouting matches turn to physical violence, particularly when it is revealed that Phil had a fling with George’s wife. Yet, by the end of the evening, the Coach is still going on about how they once gave “this defeated town something to be proud of.”

“24” star Sutherland in an impressive change of pace as the sad-sack functionary, and Patric, playwright Miller’s son, delivers Tom’s caustic remarks with apt bitterness, and takes a quite spectacular drunken tumble down the staircase at one pivotal point.

Noth’s initial bravado skillfully turns into tearful vulnerability, and Gaffigan believably inhabits his amoral character. The Scottish Cox – though utilizing, as he’s done before, an impressive American accent – can’t stop his native cadence from occasionally slipping through, detracting from authenticity of this blustering man who idolized both Teddy Roosevelt and Joe McCarthy.

Michael Yeargan’s Scranton, Pa. set conveys the proper conventional, somewhat dreary, suburban tone.

Young as I was when I saw the original, I recall “That Championship Season” as a highpoint of my early theater-going. Though everyone is rightly saying how dated the play now seems, and goodness knows, long stretches of it certainly telegraph as excessively talky and clunky, I'm going to hang onto the belief that in different hands, the play’s original quality and power might still evident.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Skellig (Birmingham Stage Company)



By Harry Forbes

The Birmingham Stage Company’s production of David Almond’s award-winning novel about a 10-year-old boy who discovers an arthritic derelict in his parents’ dilapidated garage, is being seen in a very fine production at the New Victory Theatre. But it only runs through Sunday, so you’ll have to hurry.

Almond first dramatized his work for a 2003 Trevor Nunn production, and his novel has already been adapted as an opera and a 2009 TV film. The book received the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award, won a CILIP Carnegie Medal, and was judged one of the ten most important children's novels of the past 70 years.

Michael’s prematurely born baby sister is gravely ill, prompting fears of death and loneliness, and somehow Michael’s anxieties about the future dovetail with his secret discovery of the stranger in the garage. He makes friends with the free-spirited home-schooled Mina whose mother (Ellen Callender) has raised her on William Blake. Michael eventually turns to the resourceful Mina for advice when Michael’s father (Colin R. Campbell) announces his intention to raze the garage.

Both father and mother (Charlotte Palmer) are absorbed in the fate of their infant, but are not unmindful of what young Michael’s apprehension.

I won’t reveal how the narrative unfolds, but this is a very moving, mystical story, beautifully acted all around. Almond has a uniquely compassionate world view, and though the story may be targeted for children, make no mistake: the story and presentational style are completely absorbing for an adult audience.

The performances here are uniformly excellent. The enigmatic Skellig is played by Birmingham Stage Company Manager Neal Foster, who handles the multifaceted aspects of his character with aplomb. Michael and Mina are played by older actors Dean Logan and Charlotte Sanderson, rather like the young characters in “Blood Brothers,” and they are both extremely touching.

Jak Poore’s music is played by the cast members, much like a John Doyle production. Jacqueline Trousdale’s ingenious set, anchored by the imposing junk heap of a garage, effectively delineates Michael’s public and interior worlds.

Phil Clark directs with fluidity and imagination. There were rather more adults than youngsters at my performance, but there was nary a peep from the latter during either of the acts, the ultimate compliment. Adults could be heard sniffling towards the end, however.

The production is a gem, too good really for its short run.

(New Victory Theatre, 209 W. 42nd St., 646-223-3010 or http://www.newvictory.org; through March 13)

Good People (Manhattan Theatre Club)



By Harry Forbes

David Lindsay-Abaire, currently represented onscreen by a superb adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Rabbit Hole,” has come up with another winner in “Good People,” an enjoyable play with many of the same attributes as “Other Desert Cities”: a well-constructed, old-fashioned (in the best sense) play with juicy roles that make its cast shine.

And though comparisons are famously odious, I find Lindsay-Abaire’s plot much more absorbing than the Jon Robin Baitz work.

Topping a first-rate cast is Frances McDormand as Margaret, a South Boston cashier who’s been reluctantly fired for frequent lateness by her young boss Stevie (Patrick Carroll), though he’s known her all his life and is fond of her.

She pleads for another chance, as she’s usually detained only because of caring for her adult, mentally challenged daughter. But pressured by his superior, Stevie has no choice but to let her go.

When her friend Jean (Becky Ann Baker) runs into Margie’s old high school flame Mike (Tate Donovan), now a doctor, Margie is persuaded to visit his office and plead for a job, which she does with her characteristic aggressiveness.

When Mike honestly tells her there’s nothing available in his office, she needles him about having pulled himself out of the Southie environment into “lace curtain” society. He denies it, but it’s clearly a sore point.

Eventually, encouraged by her friend Jean and landlady Dottie (Estelle Parsons), both bingo-playing buds (and both of these actresses are terrific), she elbows her way into Mike’s posh Chestnut Hill house which he shares with his younger wife Kate (RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry). Lindsay-Abaire sets the stage for confrontation but nicely avoids the predictable.

McDormand is just superb, Southie accent and all, capturing both the likable and less-than-admirable aspects of Margie. Donovan and Goldsberry skillfully telegraph the troubled undercurrent beneath their seemingly congenial marriage. And Carroll brings a likable quality to Margie’s bingo-playing ex-boss.

Daniel Sullivan’s sharp direction, John Lee Beatty’s contrasting Southie and Chestnut Hill sets, and David Zinn’s costumes are spot-on.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com)