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Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Anarchist (Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Patti LuPone and Debra Winger (in her Broadway debut) are very much at the top of their game in David Mamet’s mercifully short (70 minutes) play charting the meeting of Cathy (LuPone), a prisoner convicted of murder during a politically-motivated bank robbery, and Ann (Winger), her jailor of the past 35 years.

The conversation -- I might say confrontation but that would suggest a sense of drama sadly missing here -- revolves around Cathy trying to convince Ann that she deserves her freedom for good behavior, and that she poses no threat to society, particularly as her crime was not ultimately judged politically motivated.

Ann reminds her that the families of the two policemen who were killed that day want to keep her in there, and she continues to be skeptical of Cathy’s avowed conversion to Christianity and breaking with her old cronies, including a woman who apparently had been Cathy’s girlfriend.

There is the implication that Ann is about to be transferred, and this may be Cathy’s last chance to win her over.

Both actresses deliver Mamet’s dense and tricky script with dexterity. LuPone has the longest passages, which she handles beautifully, reminding us again what a fine dramatic actress she is. Winger’s demeanor is something akin to Lorraine Bracco’s psychiatrist’s cool, dispassionate probing of Tony Soprano, and she, too, is solidly assured.

The basic argument is reasonably interesting, of course, but it can’t be said that Mamet succeeds in creating the requisite dramatic tension, or making the central argument sufficiently provocative and intriguing. The question of Cathy winning her freedom takes second place to the intellectual argument.

Thus, the chief pleasure is to be found in watching these two pros hit Mamet’s exchanges back and forth as adeptly as they do, under the directorial guidance of Mamet himself.

Much as one may admire that talent on stage, and the skill of Mamet’s writing (and indeed, the writing is never less than intelligent and the meat of the discourse is intermittently interesting), “The Anarchist” demands too much of its audience, and much as one may decry the paucity of serious theater on Broadway these days, the work would – in hindsight -- have been far more sensibly mounted Off-Broadway.

Set designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein (who also created LuPone’s drab prison attire and Winger’s tailored suit) has created a good playing field for the discourse, as lighted by Jeff Croiter.

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

Dead Accounts (The Music Box)


By Harry Forbes

In Theresa Rebeck’s latest play, Norbert Leo Butz again proves himself a comic marvel playing New York banker Jack who returns home to his mother and sister in Ohio. Despite his fast-talking evasiveness, he is clearly concealing some mysterious shenanigans back east. Exactly what he's been up to comes out late in the show, so I shan’t spoil it here.

His co-star Katie Holmes is fine as the pragmatic 30-something sister Lorna, the sole sibling still living at home with their devout Catholic mother (Jayne Houdyshell) and ailing (offstage) father. Josh Hamilton is the sweet neighbor who’s loved Lorna since school days but never asked her out as an adult. The cast is rounded out by Judy Greer whose pivotal character appears in the second act.

Rebeck has concocted a promising setup, and for its first half, “Dead Accounts” plays as an amusing comedy of Midwest foibles. But eventually, the funny business gives way to thuddingly serious observations on the purity of Midwestern life versus the immoral, soullessness of the big city and corporate greed, a rather unremarkable – not to mention tired – theme.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of amusing and observant lines, and a couple of priceless instances of overlapping dialogue, as Lorna tries to talk on the phone, while her mother rattles on obliviously. (Houdyshell, always the pro, is a hoot, and she has some good poignant moments, too.)

Butz is a dynamo whose outrageous antics make his every moment enjoyable, from his first appearance where he blithely recounts the lengths to which he has gone to acquire his favorite ice cream after discovering the store was closed. Holmes is completely convincing in a generally self-effacing part, and Rebeck has given her two emotional outbursts that she handles with aplomb.

Jack O’Brien directs with his customary assurance, and David Rockwell’s set, Catherine Zuber’s costumes, and David Weiner’s lighting design are all top drawer.

But for all its occasional pleasures, “Dead Accounts” is awfully thin stuff.

(The Music Box, 239 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Scandalous (Neil Simon Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Yes, Carolee Carmello is giving an excellent, Tony-worthy performance as Hollywood evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, although the vehicle in which she shines so brightly is hardly one of the Broadway musicals for the ages.

But credit where credit is due: composers David Pomeranz and David Friedman and lyricist, book writer, and composer of additional music Kathie Lee Gifford have given their star reasonably solid material to work with (or Carmello wouldn’t be able to “transcend” it, as she seems she is doing). Still, McPherson’s story is told way too simplistically, and the songs – on first hearing – don’t grab you as they should, either. They’re perfectly serviceable, but only generic.

The cast is certainly capable. Besides copper-headed dynamo Carmello, who manages to be as delightfully convincing as rebellious teenager as she is as confident preacher, there’s Candy Buckley as her disapproving then supportive mother, Edward Watts and Andrew Samonsky as husbands Semple and McPherson respectively, and later, as men with whom she becomes romantically involved, and at the performance reviewed, Joseph Dellger (subbing for George Hearn) as both kind father and rival preacher. Roz Ryan gets the snappiest lines as a madam turned devoted assistant Emma Jo Schaeffer.

I liked Samonsky’s smooth vocalizing in the second act “It’s Just You,” and would like to hear him in a classic show. And Watts is impressively versatile as a charming Irish preacher Robert Semple in the first act and opportunist David Hutton in the second.

But the narrative is never involving, in the way that “Chaplin,” to name a concurrent 1920s biographical musical, manages to be. And though McPherson emerges as mostly likable and sincere in her motivations, she’s not particularly empathetic in the long run. Charlie Chaplin, incidentally, makes an appearance here. It would be something if Carmello and “Chaplin” star Rob McClure turn out the big winners at awards time in the spring, which could very well might.

Walt Spangler’s unit set, an art deco homage to Aimee’s temple, is imposing and briefly impressive (rather like something out of Oz’s Emerald City), but it becomes ultimately tiresome as it dominates all the scenes. Spangler has fun with the otherwise ho-hum “Adam and Eve” and “Samson and Delilah” tableaux. (But I couldn’t help but think longingly of Ethel Merman belting out the Gershwin’s “Sam and Delilah” in “Girl Crazy” on that very same stage.) Natasha Katz’s lighting provides some variety.

The show has posted a closing for this weekend – always a sad turn when so much has gone into it – but the show’s flaws aside, you just might want to make the effort to catch it before then for Carmello’s star turn.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52 St., 877-250-2929 or Ticketmaster.com)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Forbidden Broadway: Alive & Kicking! (47th Street Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Like the mythical Scottish town of “Brigadoon” (cleverly evoked in the opening number here, “Big Lampoon”), “Forbidden Broadway” has reappeared for the first time since 2009, and the three year rest has reinvigorated the franchise, as this is surely one of sharpest editions ever.

Natalie Charlé Ellis, Scott Richard Foster, Jenny Lee Stern and Marcus Stevens comprise the ensemble, with David Caldwell on piano, and they are as versatile a bunch as ever played earlier editions.

Not quite all of creator Gerard Alessandrini's parodies are winners, but when he nails it – which is often – the results are quite brilliant. In that category, I’d include a past-it Bernadette Peters’ singing of her mentor’s adulation, “In Sondheim’s Ears,” the fawning interplay of Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone in their Broadway concert, the pretensions of “Once,” Audra McDonald’s scenery chewing in “The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess” and director Diane Paulus’ brazen tampering with the original. There are dead-on send-ups of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ lah-di-dah foray into Sondheim, the crudeness of “Jersey Boys,” the Julie Taymor/Bono legal imbroglio of “Spider-Man” set to (what else?) “Sue Me” from “Guys and Dolls.” and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s general lowering the tone of Broadway with their “Book of Mormon.”

Some of the Great White Way’s unfortunate current trend towards the vapid and cheesy are skewered in such numbers as Mary Poppins’ “Feed the ‘Burbs” and the “Rock of Ages”parody which likens such shows to NASCAR racing.

Less successful, as the barb isn’t remotely justified, is the Sutton Foster segment (“Everything Blows”). The implication seems to be that she coasted in her dance numbers in “Anything Goes” and didn’t sing pleasantly either. The Matthew Broderick parody is a partial success. The fat suit is funny, but the rest misses the mark, and the impersonation is not one of the better ones. The Ricky Martin/Elena Roger “Evita” send-up is a mixed bag, too. It’s not that Roger lacks star quality; that she has. What she lacks is the big voice audiences have come to expect in that part. And thus, that’s the part of the spoof that really lands.

But these are minor carps in a evening that moves briskly – thanks to Alessandrini and co-director Phillip George -- and scores delightfully high on the laugh meter.

(The 47th Street Theatre, 304 West 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com; through April 28)

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Christmas Story: The Musical (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

It may only be running for eight weeks, but there’s nothing slapdash about this excellent musical adaptation of humorist Jean Shepherd’s tale of his Indiana childhood, circa 1940. The 1983 film remains a cult favorite and, though I must confess I never saw it, the rest of the audience seems to have, and they embraced this stage version warmly.

Like the concurrent “Elf,” only the pervasive Yuletide theme stands in the way of the show enjoying a regular run.

With a first-class cast and production team, helmed by the inventive team of director John Rando and choreographer Warren Carlyle, the narrative unfolds most entertainingly.

An engaging Dan Lauria – back to Broadway after his triumph in “Lombardi” -- plays Shepherd, narrating the story from WOR radio studio, and weaving in amongst the actors during the flashback scenes.

Nine-year-old Ralphie (Johnny Rabe) wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, despite everyone’s admonition that he’ll “shoot his eye out,” and during the seeming eternal days of December leading up to Christmas, all manner of events seem to conspire to keep him from his goal, including a fateful utterance of the f-word, and a prank involving a tongue stuck on a freezing flagpole. Those who know the movie will know these scenes well.

His father, the Old Man (hilariously played by John Bolton), is a mass of alarming mood swings and obsession, as we learn when he wins a rather ghastly leg lamp in a crossword competition. (One of Carlyle’s winning conceits is a dance number with a veritable Rockettes’ line of them!)

West End musical star Caroline O’Connor does well with the schoolteacher Miss Shields, and gets to let her hair down in a sexy fantasy number (entitled – wouldn’t you know? – “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”), though she’s almost upstaged by pint-sized tapper named Luke Spring.

Erin Dilly makes a lovely, real-seeming mom, and Eddie Korbich is a hoot as a blasé department store Santa. And his big number, “Up on Santa’s Lap” brings out more clever staging from Carlyle.

Not all Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs are golden, but most of them are tuneful and great fun (“Ralphie to the Rescue,” “Sticky Situation”), providing musical moments at all the logical moments.

Walt Spangler’s set, Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes, Howell Binkley’s lighting, and Ken Travis’ sound design are all top notch.

(Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., 877-250-2929 or Telecharge.com)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Annie (Palace Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

If the latest revival of “Annie” had nothing going for it but the belated Broadway debut of one of Australia’s leading musical leading men – Anthony Warlow – that would be reason enough to add the show to your must-see list.

But there’s more. Director James Lapine has given the familiar property a thorough rethink. Though, mind you, nothing has been radically changed from the standard staging, he’s offered a nicely fresh perspective. The comically evil Miss Hannigan has been cast against type with the younger Katie Finneran who -- though almost falling into the trap, as Carol Burnett did in John Huston’s disappointing film, of playing Hannigan's penchant for the bottle a tad too realistically –- ultimately allows humor to prevail in her interpretation. Her line readings are very funny, though I did find her high-lying vocals a little shrill.

Annie herself is a refreshingly un-cutsey Lilla Crawford with an engaging straight-forward manner, and a strong, suitably penetrating voice. Her pint-sized Bernadette Peters locks give way to the iconic Annie-style by the end.

Amidst all the youthful female belting (exacerbated by Brian Ronan's over-amplified sound design), Warlow’s warm tones are a welcome respite. and his Act Two “Something Was Missing” emerges as the show’s highlight. But besides his singing, he delivers a three-dimensional characterization with touching warmth as his brusque tycoonish ways quickly soften under Annie’s influence.

I also particularly liked Brynn O’Malley as Warbuck’s starchy but kind secretary Grace, Clarke Thorell as Miss Hannigan’s scheming brother Rooster, and stalwart Broadway understudy Merwin Foard offering a splendid impersonation of FDR.(He's also Warlow's cover.)

New Yawk accents abound, underscoring Lapine’s slightly more gritty approach. Warlow, who has played Warbucks twice Down Under, has completely obliterated his native Aussie inflections, and speaks like a bona fide New Yorker.

David Korins’ sets, lighted by Donald Holder, are spare but attractive, and neatly conjure the orphanage, the various New York locales, and Warbuck’s mansion. Susan Hilferty’s costumes register as more accurately period than I recalled the original,

Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography seems intentionally muted to go with Lapine’s more naturalistic telling, but there are many clever touches. Michael Starobin’s new orchestrations add to the fresh -- but respectful of the original -- ambience.

Though not quite in the top drawer of classic shows, “Annie” affirms its lasting popularity, and one admires anew Thomas Meehan’s funny book, and Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s jaunty score with its deft mixture of sentiment and Broadway brass.

(Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, 877-250-2929 or Ticketmaster.com)

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Heiress (Walter Kerr Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This is a solid revival of Ruth & Augusta Goetz’s durable crowd-pleaser based on Henry James’ “Washington Square.”

Handsomely designed by Derek McLane, the production has a fine sense of period, that spell only occasionally broken by the odd, anachronistic line reading of Jessica Chastain as Catherine Sloper, the plain, awkward daughter of an upstanding doctor (David Strathairn) in 1850 New York. But for the most part, she’s quite affecting, offering a well drawn performance, rising impressively to her character’s big moments.

Strathairn plays his part far less stern and forbidding than I recall past interpreters, making his emotional detachment and sometime cruelty all the more fascinating. Dan Stevens, the “Downton Abbey” heartthrob, is strong as the suitor Morris Townsend who may or may not be a fortune hunter, though as directed by Moisés Kaufman, there seems little doubt on that point fairly early on. Stevens' American accent is pretty flawless, and there’s not a trace of the “Downton” Matthew Crawley about him.

The supporting cast is strong down the line, most especially Dee Nelson as Morris’ sister, Molly Camp as his sister-in-law, and Virginia Kull as the devoted Sloper housekeeper. Judith Ivey is a special delight as Dr. Sloper’s giddy, romantic sister. (Think Laura Hope Crews’ Aunt Pittypat in “Gone with the Wind.”)

Kaufman paces the action persuasively. And technical credits, including Albert Wolsky’s attractive costumes, David Lander’s evocative lighting scheme, and the rest, are all first-rate.

Some dismiss the play as melodramatic hokum, even with its Jamesian literary origin, but I was impressed again at how well constructed the Goetz dramatization is, and genuinely thought-provoking. One leaves the theater contemplating the actions of the various characters. Let others deride the play as old-fashioned theater; I say give us more like it.

(Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

Though it may seem that we all just saw Edward Albee’s classic play of sadomasochistic marital sparring – and indeed, that fine Kathleen Turner-Bill Irwin production was a mere seven years ago – there was every reason to import Steppenwolf’s 2011 mounting.

For this is very special indeed, with four sensational performances, and revelatory direction by Pam MacKinnon. Amy Morton is, at first, less an obvious harridan than Turner, Colleen Dewhurst (who played Martha in another excellent revival opposite Ben Gazzara in 1976), Elizabeth Taylor in the film, Diana Rigg in a London revival, or originator Uta Hagen (based on the vivid three-disc set that Columbia Records issued when the play was new). But when Morton needs to show her mettle, she does. And how!

And Tracey Letts makes an almost scarily forceful George once he cuts loose, and throughout the play, he radiates a vibe of percolating danger. He’s a far less passive, browbeaten George than his predecessors in the role.

As Nick and Honey, the young couple invited over to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games and heavy drinking, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon are equally fine. Dirks brilliantly conveys the opportunistic aspect of the ambitious Nick, and Coon nearly steals the play with her fine-line funny/tragic portrayal of his alcoholic, emotionally fragile wife Honey.

Though it's a long play – well over three hours, with two intervals – MacKinnon maintains a riveting pace, and the play’s final moments, with Morton particularly wrenching, have never been better staged.

Todd Rosenthal’s set – book-strewn and worn with time -- is richly detailed. Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s costumes and Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design are all ace.

This is, all around, an outstanding production of a great play.

(Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.)

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cyrano de Bergerac (Roundabout Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

For me, the Derek Jacobi-Sinead Cusack Royal Shakespeare Company production from 1984 (London and New York) remains the gold standard of English-language productions of Rostand’s classic, far more so than Jose Ferrer’s much-lauded one, at least as the latter appears on film. I also fondly recall Christopher Plummer’s 1973 Tony and Drama Desk-winning performance in the musical version as also being at the top of the class, songs notwithstanding.

The 1990 French film version with Gerard Depardieu was magnificent, and carried an unbeatable authenticity. On holiday in Paris that same year, I caught a lavish stage production with film star Jean-Paul Belmondo. That, too, was also ideal in its way.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the Kevin Kline production, and the absolute nadir was a modest production in England with the mild Edward Petherbridge utterly miscast.

In spite of some flaws, the present revival compares favorably with the best of those past productions.

The excellent English actor Douglas Hodge gives a mostly accomplished performance starting with his audacious entrance through theater’s 43rd Street entrance as he loudly derides the hopelessly old-fashioned actor Montfleury, though some of his words were sometimes lost as he endeavored to give vocal variety (and some of the seniors in the audience were clearly having problems).

I felt he didn’t quite nail the poignancy of his death scene. But perhaps he and director Jamie Lloyd were going for a less sentimental approach.

The French actress Clémence Poésy brings Gallic authenticity to her lovely Roxanne, and Kyle Soller made a superior Christian. So, too, Patrick Page’s Comte de Guiche, Bill Buell’s Ragueneau, and Max Baker’s Le Bret head a fine supporting cast.

Lloyd directs Ranjit Bolt’s rhyming but colloquial translation with admirable vigor, if perhaps occasionally too much so at times. This is a singularly boisterous production with a lot of shouting banging around especially in Ragueneau’s pastry shop scene.

Though the stage size is relatively modest, I take my hat off to Lloyd and the production team – including set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour and lighting designer Japhy Weideman -- for offering a convincing illusion of spectacle, and all in all, an authentic spirit that, in my memory, nicely matched the verisimilitude of the Belmondo mounting.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd St., www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Grace (Cort Theater)



By Harry Forbes

This is a well acted, black comedy by Craig Wright about an Evangelical Christian couple (Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington) who relocate from Minnesota to Florida in hope of opening a chain of Gospel themed motels. (“Where would Jesus stay?” is the slogan.)

As he anxiously waits for the promised financing, his neglected wife finds solace with a disfigured neighbor whose fiancee had been killed in the auto accident that maimed him. Both he and their apartment complex’s German exterminator (Ed Asner) are skeptical of the God that Rudd’s character venerates, but over the course of the intermission-less 100 minutes, attitudes change.

Dexter Bullard directs the play (first done in 2004) with admirable clarity even with the conceit of the couple and their scarred neighbor occupying the same physical space (setting by Beowulf Boritt), when, in fact, they’re in their own apartments.

Shannon has received the lion’s share of raves – and he is, indeed, superb telegraphing his character’s intense anguish – but Rudd, despite the increasingly unsympathetic character, is just as impressive. Arrington is quietly authoritative. And Asner – not a trace of his Lou Grant persona in evidence -- is outstanding as the unflappable exterminator, handling his two long monologues expertly.

In the opening scene, Wright reveals how it will all end, but there’s enough suspense along the way to hold your interest despite the initial spoiler and some overly talky stretches.

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, Telecharge.com, or (212) 239-6200; through January 6)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

An Enemy of the People (Manhattan Theatre Club)



By Harry Forbes

“Shitty, shitty, shitty.”

No, that’s not my blunt assessment of the revival of Henrik Ibsen’s classic tale of a spa physician who tries to warn the townspeople that the waters that give the town its livelihood are toxic, only to have them revile him for it. But, truth to tell, this is, in fact, the least effective production of the work I’ve seen on either side of the Atlantic or on screen.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s pared-down, overly colloquial adaptation – which includes the un-Ibsen like exclamation quoted above – is largely to blame. Though the production is touted in promotional materials as being “often surprisingly humorous,” that approach seems to me the very problem, with much of the action played in broad sitcom style.

That tact is underscored by Doug Hughes’ direction, and some of the performances, most egregiously, Gerry Bamman as the local newspaper’s printer who is first on the doctor’s side, and then, like the paper’s editor (John Procaccino) and chief reporter (James Waterston) not, and Michael Siberry as the doctor’s crusty foster father-in-law.

As Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the always reliable Boyd Gaines morphs from endearingly enthusiastic idealist and collegial member of the community to radical defender of a more elitist and informed minority view.

The doctor at first believes he’ll be hailed as a hero for revealing the truth about the poisoned waters, but when that proves emphatically not the case, he finds himself at loggerheads with his opportunistic brother (Richard Thomas in strictly stock villain mode as black-outfitted mayor Peter Stockmann). Ultimately, he lambasts the townspeople whose majority opinion, based on outdated notions and self-interest, he comes to disparage with almost joyful vehemence.

Apart from Gaines, Kathleen McNenny as Thomas’s wife, Maïté Alina as his independent-minded daughter, and Randall Newsome as the sea captain who sticks by the family when things get rough, the performances lack texture.

John Lee Beatty’s Nordic-styled set, Catherine Zuber’s period costumes, and Ben Stanton’s apt lighting are all proficient, but the production overall trivializes a great play.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com; through November 11)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

Jake Gyllenhaal, in a complete departure from anything he’s played on screen, makes an auspicious American stage debut as a scruffy Brit. He’s Terry, the wastrel uncle to an overweight 15-year-old girl, Anna (Annie Funke) whose well-intentioned parents are too self-absorbed to fully comprehend their taciturn daughter’s pain.

Terry’s older brother George (Brian F. O’Byrne) is a stammering environmentalist obsessed with global warming and Fiona (Michelle Gomez), a teacher at Annie’s school, who’s impatiently uncomprehending when it comes to Anna’s justifiable retaliation to her cruel classmates.

Gyllenhaal’s English accent never falters, and despite his character’s crude talk laced with f-bombs and wasted, rumpled appearance, he shows us Terry’s inherent decency, particularly where his lonely niece is concerned. Their scenes together are most touching. He’s not the whole show, though, as the others are equally accomplished.

The play – a hit at London’s Bush Theatre in 2009 by up-and-coming writer Nick Payne – is one of those dysfunctional family dramas that we’ve seen often enough. Critics praised it for its quirky humor, but here, under Michael Longhurst‘s direction, a tone more somber than even mordantly comedic predominates.

That quality is underscored by Beowulf Boritt’s water drenched setting – pouring rain at times, overflowing water from a bathtub during a climactic scene, and from the trough that catches the water from the flies – and ramshackle furniture roughly tossed aside piece by piece by the cast after each scene. The water and furniture rather obviously mirror the symbolism of the play: George’s fretful planetary concerns and the family’s emotional flotsam and jetsam.

Payne writes good naturalistic dialogue…but even at 95 minutes or so, I found the proceedings a bit tedious, while admiring the committed performances, and Gyllenhaal’s auspicious stateside debut.

(Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street; (212) 719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through Nov. 25)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chaplin (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

In this absorbing musical drama – with its superior book by Thomas Meehan and composer Christopher Curtis – star Rob McClure gives an incredible, multi-faceted performance as silent film pioneer Charlie Chaplin, one that, even this early in the season, may be the one to beat come awards time.

Christiane Noll is his mother Hannah who had a mental breakdown when Chaplin was still a child, resulting in abandonment issues that – as Meehan and Curtis’ book would have it -- haunted him all his life, permeating his films. Noll’s recent “Closer Than Ever” co-star at York, Jenn Colella, shares the stage with her again, this time as treacherous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper who sets out to destroy Chaplin, first by tarring him with the Red brush, and then with a trumped up paternity suit charge.

Jim Borstelmann as his production manager Alf Reeves, Erin Mackey as his young fourth wife Oona O’Neill, Michael McCormick as director Mack Sennett and a couple of other roles, Zachary Unger as both the Young Charlie and child star Jackie Coogan, and Wayne Alan Wilcox as his brother Sydney Chaplin are all solid.

Curtis’ songs are not particularly memorable on first hearing, but are never less than pleasant, and register as a nice throwback to the sort of score one might have heard in London's West End in the late 1950s or early 1960s. They rarely impede – and sometimes actually enhance -- the generally serious dramatic elements.

Warren Carlyle’s direction and choreography are quite stylish – including a ballet of Chaplin look-a-likes which concludes the first act -- and support, like all the production elements, the interestingly stylized structure.

Beowulf Boritt’s black and white scenic design and the complementary costumes by Amy Clark and the late Martin Pakledinaz, Jon Driscoll’s projections, and Ken Billington’s dramatic lighting including, at one point, criss-crossing spotlights, work in harmony to present a series of striking visuals.

I appreciated Scott Lehrer and Drew Levy’s muted sound design, in this age of over-amplification. Music Director Bryan Perri leads his forces with sensitivity.

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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Into the Woods (The Public Theater)



By Harry Forbes

Donna Murphy adds another memorable feather to her Sondheim cap with her dynamic portrayal of the Witch in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” ideally set in the sylvan setting of Central Park, as was the Public’s last woodsy offering, “As You Like It.”

This production, directed by Timothy Sheader (with co-direction by Liam Steel) and designed by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour, hails from Regent’s Park in London, the first such import, but with an American cast. And it’s a talented one, to be sure.

There’s film star Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife, Denis O’Hare as the Baker, Chip Zien (the original Baker) as the Mysterious Man, Jessie Mueller, late of “On a Clear Day,” as Cinderella, and Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince.

All of them have their moments, though it’s Murphy’s assumption of the role that sets this production apart. She’s in strong voice throughout, and uses it to powerful effect throughout from her opening rap song to “Children Will Listen.” Adams is another plus, handling her songs well, though her tall wig is distracting.

The setting and costumes (by Emily Rebholz) are not always in the conventional fairy tale mode. Cinderella and the Princes are traditionally outfitted, but much of the rest is contemporary with Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, wearing a red biker helmet, John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour‘s set, decked out with stairs and platforms, suggests a Disney or Universal theme park exhibit, as the observant young lady next to me noted to her friend as soon as they took their seats.

There’s no denying Jack’s beanstalk and the giant (voiced by Glenn Close) are cleverly done, but the overall physical look undermines the magic. And the staging underscores perhaps a bit too heavily Sondheim and Lapine’s themes of life, death, loneliness, loss, and so on. Lapine’s original staging, and its variants in London and on tour, as well as the last Broadway revival (also directed by Lapine) with Vanessa Williams in all had more consistently strong casts, and were more persuasive overall.

In Sheader‘s concept, the story is told, not by the usual adult narrator (like John McMartin who did the last Broadway revival), but by a child who’s run away from home, and conjures up these characters as he’s working out his own issues. It’s not a bad idea, and Noah Radcliffe (alternating with Jack Broderick) played him competently, but the conceit feels more than a little forced.

For all that’s quirky about this production, it’s still an enjoyable, crowd-pleasing show, and, of course, the price is more than right.

(The Delacorte, Central Park, free tickets distributed on the day of the show, and through a Virtual Ticketing lottery, www.shakespeareinthepark.org; through September 1)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bring It On the Musical (St. James Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This latest film-to-musical adaptation, one “inspired by” the 2000 film of the same name, concerns a vivacious high school cheerleading captain who, just on the brink of her team winning the championship, finds herself transferred to an inner-city high school after a sudden redistricting by the school board.

This may sound like a singularly uninteresting start for a show.

But, in fact, in the hands of Jeff Whitty (book), Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda (music), and Amanda Green and Miranda (lyrics), “Bring It On” is bright, funny, and refreshingly different than almost anything else on the boards.

Part of that difference is the display of Olympic-worthy acrobatics, but even without the somersaults and high flying and flipping stunts, the story engages, and I never sensed audience interest wavering. Furthermore, the underlying themes of friendship and good sportsmanship never turn sappy. Director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler maintains a good pace, with all the athletic movement and dancing well integrated.

Taylor Louderman is Campbell the cheerleader who finds herself out of her league in the mostly black Jackson High and she’s an appealing protagonist even as her character’s motivation unpleasantly turns into something akin to revenge. Her sidekick and fellow transferee, the hefty Bridget (Ryann Redmond), an outcast at their former Truman H.S. but warmly embraced by the cool kids at Jackson where her motley outfits register as the ultimate in hip, is played most winningly by Ryann Redmond.

Adrienne Warren is terrific as Danielle, leader of the crew at Jackson, who warily becomes friendly with Campbell, and Ariana DeBose and Gregory Haney are very funny as her fellow crew members Nautica and cross-dressing LaCienega. As you might expect, Campbell eventually convinces the crew to transform into a cheerleading squad.

Kate Rockwell has some good zingers as the bitchy Skylar and Elle McLemore channels Kristen Chenoweth as the ambitious Eva, though in fairness, maybe it’s just that sort of role.

Neil Haskell as Campbell’s wimpy boyfriend at Turner, and Jason Gotay as her new beau at Jackson are fine, but the latter’s character is rather weakly drawn.

The songs do what they need to do to advance the plot, and admirably, it’s not all loud and hard-driving as you might expect. Along with the upbeat numbers, there are some very pretty ballads starting with Campbell’s “One Perfect Moment” and there’s a particularly catchy and funny number in the second act, “It Ain’t No Thing.”

(St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street) Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200, through October 7)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nymph Errant (Prospect Theater Company)



By

Harry Forbes

Even in a less than ideal production, it is rather marvelous that the Prospect is giving nearly a month-long’s airing to Cole Porter’s fascinating 1933 London show, one that, after petering out disappointingly in its original run, never made it to Broadway nor to the big screen, though Fox had purchased the film rights.

Based on a popular novel of the time by James Laver, the show was conceived as a vehicle for the great Gertrude Lawrence whose recordings of five of the numbers, supplemented by Elizabeth Welch’s show-stopping “Solomon,” have kept interest alive for all these decades. In the early 90s, an all-star London semi-staged concert resulted in a complete recording, albeit with inauthentic arrangements.

The production at hand – directed and choreographed by Will Pomerantz, and with orchestrations (for a five-piece band) by Frederick Alden Terry – is an adaptation by Rob Urbinati of Romney Brent’s libretto, which despite the delectable score and strong cast, came in for criticism for being episodic and lacking in a strong narrative. (This version was originally produced by Theatreworks in Colorado Springs.)

And indeed, the story of an innocent young lady fresh from finishing school who traverses the Continent in search of romance, encountering, in dizzying succession, a French impresario, a German nudist, a suicidal Russian composer, an Italian count, a wealthy Greek, a Turkish designer, and an American plumber, still meanders. But the score is basically intact (albeit with four interpolations from the Porter’s lesser-known songbook). And if the arrangements are perforce a bit rinky-dink, you get a reasonably good idea of how the show played out.

An Equity Library Theater revival in 1982 stuck closer to the original, if I recall correctly.

Here, Jennifer Blood does nicely with Evangeline (Eve), albeit minus Lawrence’s undoubted star wattage, and offers a sweet soprano and a properly demure manner, until desperation turns her into a would-be hussy.

The supporting cast shows versatility in multiple roles. Abe Goldfarb plays four, three of them Eve’s multi-cultural lovers. The equally versatile Sorab Wadia plays three other lovers, and a eunuch in a Turkish harem.

Broadway’s Cady Huffman gamely essays several parts, including the school’s chemistry teacher who enjoins her girls to “Experiment” in life, as indeed they do. Sara Jayne Blackmore, Laura Cook, Amy Jo Jackson, and Aubrey Sinn are Eve’s randy school chums whom she encounters at every turn in her world travels.

They’re a rather aggressive, overly hearty bunch, attributes that, in fact, define the production as a whole. Still, each of the ladies gets her own specialty number. Most impressive of these vocally is Blackmore who belts out “My Boyfriend Back Home” from “Fifty Million Frenchmen.”

Andrew Brewer plays Eve’s wholesome boyfriend back home, and as she goes platonically from lover to lover, he pops up to sing the cautionary “Dizzy Baby” (another interpolation).

Natalie E. Carter’s hot mama rendition of “Solomon” is entertaining enough – though her delivery is more blatantly raucous than Welch’s slyly exuberant original – but it was a mistake to give her Eve’s “The Physician,” and more puzzling still to have her in a nurse’s uniform when she’s the patient being examined by an amorous doctor who “loves every part of (her), and yet not (her) as a whole.”

Overall, I’d have preferred more finesse and charm, and less vulgarity and frenetic slapstick, but the Porter songs, including “It’s Bad for Me,” “How Could We Be Wrong?,” “Georgia Sand,” and “The Cocotte” are golden.

Pictured above: Jennifer Blood and Soria Wadia; Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.

(Prospect Theater Company, the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row or by calling (212) 239-6200 or www.ProspectTheater.org; through July 29)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Savages (Universal)



Director Oliver Stone is back in form with this violent, often gruesome screen version of Don Winslow’s novel. Winslow adapted the script with Shane Salerno and Stone. Former Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and peace-loving, ecologically minded Ben (Aaron Johnson) are best buds and, run a thriving drug business from their comfy Orange County house, sharing their bed with the beauteous O (short for Ophelia) (Blake Lively) who narrates in voice-over. When Mexican cartel drug lord Elena (Salma Hayek in one of her best roles) sends her minions to strike a deal with the boys and the latter try to ditch the business, Elena arranges for O to be kidnapped, prompting them to desperate measures to try and free her. Though you may wince at much of what transpires on screen, the film is undeniably gripping, and performances are excellent. Benicio Del Toro as Elena’s nasty-as-they-come deputy is genuinely frightening, and a beefy John Travolta is appropriately slimy as a corrupt Drug Enforcement agent. It’s a rough, exhausting ride, and not for the fainthearted, but expert filmmaking all the same.(Rated R by the MPAA for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout.) (Harry Forbes)

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (Sony)



This latest retread of Stan Lee’s familiar Spider-Man tale has a lot going for it, especially if you don’t mind sitting through the back story yet again of how nerdy, bullied high school student Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) comes to acquire his sticky, high-flying powers, and falls in love with fellow student Gwen (Emma Stone). The marvelous Welsh actor Rhys Ifans plays the doctor – former colleague of Parker’s late father (Campbell Scott) – whose experiments lead to Parker’s transformation. Garfield – so wonderfully sensitive in the recent Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman” -- gives a detailed, thoughtful performance in the James Dean mode. And his interaction with Stone has good chemistry. James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves’ script gives good measure to the human drama, along with the action sequences. Marc Webb directs both aspects with flair, and the special effects are very well done indeed. The 3D process, however, seems to me to add little to the experience. There’s nice work from Sally Field as Parker’s down-to-earth Aunt May, and Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben. Denis Leary also has some good moments the police captain out to capture the vigilante Spider-Man. (Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.) (Harry Forbes)

To Rome With Love (Sony Pictures Classics)



By Harry Forbes

Woody Allen raised his own bar with “Midnight in Paris,” and some have judged his latest as less good, but in my opinion, not so. This multi-strand story – a sort of homage to the Italian anthology films of the 1950s and 1960s where directors like Fellini or De Sica would contribute part or all of the vignettes in a particular film – is mostly a delight.

Unlike those native precursors, Allen’s four stories are interwoven. There’s American tourist Holly (Alison Pill) who falls for a lawyer. When Holly’s parents (Allen himself and Judy Davis) come over to meet their daughter’s fiancé (Flavio Parenti), her opera-directing father discovers that the fiance’s father (Fabio Armilato) has a beautiful tenor, but (here’s the rub) only when he sings in the shower.

Architect John (Alec Baldwin) tries to locate the neighborhood he lived in as a youth, and discovers a version of his younger-self (Jesse Eisenberg) in love with fellow student Sally (Gerta Gerwig), and tempted to stray by Sally’s treacherous best friend (Ellen Page) visiting from the States.

In the most farcical piece, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), wife of Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) falls for a lecherous matinee idol (Antonio Albanese), while the former finds himself involved with a sexy call-girl (Penelope Cruz) who mistakenly shows up at his door.

And, in the most surreal, satiric episode, an office worker (winningly played by Roberto Benigni) suddenly becomes famous for no reason at all.

Thanks to Darius Khondji’s lensing, Rome looks as delectable as Paris did in the last film. Performances are all very good, even if Page is an odd choice as a seductress. And Allen is much better here than in his last on-screen role in “Scoop.”

(“To Rome With Love” is rated R by the MPAA for some sexual references.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Closer Than Ever (York Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

Lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire’s fondly remembered, critically praised 1990 Off-Broadway revue – a follow-up (by more than a decade) to their also excellent “Starting Here, Starting Now” – is enjoying a polished and well-deserved revival with an accomplished cast comprised of Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, and Sal Viviano.

Attractively designed by York’s Producing Artistic Director James Morgan – white doors and floor against sky blue walls – and with musical direction in the sensitive hands of Andrew Gerle, the score – one amusingly or poignantly perceptive song about love, relationships, family, and life choices following another – holds up exceedingly well, helped along by some subtle updating by Maltby who also directs.

Among the minor deletions is the song about Musak, which was apparently beyond amending, though the physical fitness number (“There’s Nothing Like It”) remains, with its rather tired references to Jane Fonda videos.

The original cast – Brent Barrett, Sally Mayes, Richard Muenz, and Lynne Wintersteller – was pretty special, but this cast measures up. Voices are unamplified in the intimate venue, which is mostly a plus, though some of Maltby’s lyrics would have landed with more of a punch with some discreet miking. All four make a beautiful blend in the various combinations throughout the evening, evident right from the start.

The women’s voices are perhaps less well contrasted than Mayes and Wintersteller, but that’s a minor carp as Noll and Colella are such fine artists.

All have their standout numbers. Colella makes the Sally Mayes songs her own, with a nicely choreographed (by Kurt Stamm) rendition of “Miss Byrd,” concerning the secret love life of a prim secretary, and does likewise in the her second act "Back on Base" duet with Danny Weller, who comes center-stage accompanying her on bass.

There are some additions to the score if memory – and the original cast CD – reflects the show as performed at the Cherry Lane: “I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning,” “Dating Again,” and “There is Something in a Wedding,” being the seamless additions here.

The humorous numbers still elicit a chuckle (“She Loves Me Not,” “Three Friends,” and “There” to name a few). And the affecting ones still tug at the heart – “One of the Good Guys” (a faithful husband and father’s semi-regretful rumination on his fidelity), “If I Sing” (a son’s tribute to his father), the even more expansive paean to fatherhood, “Fathers of Fathers,” and the rueful “Life Story,” wherein a woman reflects on her choices with the hauntingly repeated phrase “…and I’m not complaining,” all movingly done by, respectively, Viviano, Dvorsky, both men in tandem with Gerle, and Noll.

(The York Theatre at Saint Peter’s, Citicorp Building, entrance on East 54th Street, 212-935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Harvey (Roundabout Theatre Company)




By Harry Forbes

Strangely, some critics have expressed surprise that an “old-fashioned” play like “Harvey” (1944) should hold up as well as it indubitably does. Well, with a four-year Broadway run, a Pulitzer Prize, a much loved film version, and several TV adaptations over the years, the play’s lasting appeal should surely not be in doubt, as this winning revival triumphantly affirms. Human nature has not changed all that much in 68 years.

Jim Parsons’ “Big Bang Theory” popularity is drawing the crowds, and he delivers a beautifully modulated performance as Elwood P. Dowd, the gentle, kind-hearted tippler who sees good in everybody, and much to the consternation of his social-climbing sister Veta (Jessica Hecht) and man-hungry niece (Tracee Chimo), claims friendship with a six-foot-three invisible rabbit!

Parsons makes the role endearingly his own, even with the specter of James Stewart whose presence hovers over the proceedings nearly as much as Elwood’s invisible friend. It was actually vaudevillian Frank Fay who originated the part to huge acclaim, but Stewart is most in the public consciousness thanks to his film, TV, and stage appearances in the part.

Denver playwright Mary Chase’s play is full of wisdom about human nature, and the importance of imagination and fantasy in our everyday lives, but beyond these old-fashioned but still truthful sentiments is a riotously funny farce that snowballs as Veta attempts to commit Elwood to a mental institution only to have the staff lock her up instead, and let her brother free, resulting in delicious complications.

Hecht, affecting a pronounced upper crust accent, is very funny as she attempts to keep firm hold on propriety even as we see she’s not altogether so different than her sweetly oddball brother.

Charles Kimbrough gives a deft comic turn as the doctor who runs the sanitarium, and Carol Kane is his dotty wife who, in a beautifully played and delicately directed scene, bonds with Elwood, garnering a well-deserved hand.

There’s also good work by Rich Sommer (Harry on “Mad Men”) as the determined hospital attendant, Holley Fain as the pretty nurse who brings out all of Elwood’s gallantry, and Morgan Spector as the young doctor who mistakenly targets the wrong patient. Peter Benson has a good bit near the end as a plain speaking taxi driver who puts everything in perspective.

David Rockwell’s sets – the Dowd home and the reception area of the sanatorium – are most attractive, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes are period perfect.

Scott Ellis directs with great affection, keeping everything true to the era, without patronizing the material.

(Studio 54 on Broadway, 254 West 54th Street, 212-719-1300 or online at www.roundabouttheatre.org; through August 5)

As You Like It (Public Theater)




By Harry Forbes

Director Dan Sullivan’s production of Shakespeare’s arguably most beloved comedy gets the Delacorte season – which also includes Sondheim and Lapine’s “Into the Woods” – off to a very nice, if not altogether sublime, start.

Attractively designed by John Lee Beatty certainly, with the Forest of Arden improbably even lusher than the actual surrounding Central Park foliage, well lit by Natasha Katz, attractively scored in Bluegrass style by Steve Martin no less, cast with solid New York actors, and sensibly directed by Sullivan, the production has a lot going for it. But the rub, alas, is the Public’s house style of rendering Shakespeare in resolutely American accents – which comes across all too clear in Acme Sound Partners’s pristine sound design – undercutting time and again the poetry of the lines, and paradoxically, sometimes rendering them less, rather than more, comprehensible .

Though the conceit of this production is that it is set in “the rural American South, circa 1840,” the accents are little different than most other Public Theater Shakespeare productions.

Lily Rabe – last seen at the Delacorte as Portia in Sullivan’s “The Merchant of Venice” playing another of the Bard’s heroines compelled by circumstance to assume male disguise – is the raison d’etre here, and as Rosalind, she holds the stage and is generally accomplished as she affects an appropriately tomboyish demeanor. But her resolutely flat, commonplace tones grow tiresome. Her finest moment comes when she throws off the disguise and reveals her true self to Orlando in the final scene, conveying a joyful release that is quite moving, but otherwise, she’s one of the least enchanting Rosalinds of my experience.

David Furr is fine as Orlando, and his speech, more than any of the others, has the right mid-Atlantic balance for American Shakespeare.

Matters of intonation aside, there’s good work from Omar Metwally as Orlando’s bullying elder brother; Oliver Platt as the fool Touchstone, Andre Braugher, double cast as Duke Senior and the usurping Duke Frederick, though he excels far more in the former, Susannah Flood as Phoebe, smitten with Rosalind in the latter’s male disguise, and Donna Lynne Champlin’s as a lusty, high-stepping Audrey. But I found Stephen Spinella’s line readings of the melancholy Jaques – intentionally monochromatic – simply dull. His “Seven Ages of Man” speech needed more poetry.

Apart from the music (and Shakespeare’s several songs sound fine in Martin’s settings), and some of Jane Greenwood’s costumes, this is a traditional mounting in every way, which is all to the good.

But this is well below the excellence of the Sam Mendes Bridge Project production of two years ago, with its mix of English and American actors. On that occasion, even the Yanks in the cast rendered the lines with far more meaning and beauty.

Still, as a pleasant summer night’s entertainment under the stars, the experience is hard to beat.

(Delacorte Theater in Central Park, 81st St. and CPW, Tickets are free and are distributed, two per person, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park the day of the show. The Public Theater again offers free tickets through the Virtual Ticketing lottery at www.shakespeareinthepark.org on the day of the show; through June 30.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Common Pursuit (Roundabout Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

Moisés Kaufman’s revival of Simon Gray’s now somewhat dated 1984 play about six Cambridge friends who found a literary magazine (the titular “Common Pursuit”) and the course of their lives over 20 years with its successes, disillusionments and betrayals, is a fine one. If memory serves, it’s superior to the 1986 New York Off-Broadway premiere despite a stellar cast that included Kristoffer Tabori, Nathan Lane, Peter Friedman, Judy Geeson, and Dylan Baker.

Against Derek McLane’s evocative sets – editor Stuart’s rooms at Cambridge, and then his office over the decades – the excellent ensemble cast inhabit their characters well and, though all American, register as convincingly British, only rarely descending to caricature.

There’s Josh Cooke as the ambitious Stuart, Kristen Bush as his ever-supportive girlfriend, then wife, Marigold, Kieran Campion as the womanizing, ethically challenged Peter, Jacob Fishel as rich kid Martin who becomes the publisher, Tim McGeever as the gay, self-deprecating Humphry, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as the affected, perennially coughing acid-tongued Nick.

In a way, the plot resembles that of “Merrily We Roll Along” in its look at the tarnishing of youthful idealism, though unlike the Sondheim-Furth musical, and the original Kaufman and Hart play, the action moves forward, except for the final scene which takes us back to Cambridge.

Kaufman directs most persuasively and makes a better case for the piece – often judged a poor relation to Gray’s “Butley” and “Otherwise Engaged” -- than the 1992 BBC adaptation which aired on PBS here, with Stephen Fry, Tim Roth, and Andrew McCarthy.

Clint Ramos’ costumes, David Lander’s lighting, and Daniel Kluger’s sound design are all fine.

(The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre / Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org; through 7/29)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bitter Sweet (Light Opera of New York)



By Harry Forbes

You have to hand it to LOONY for attempting so ambitious a show as Noel Coward’s operetta masterpiece with its demanding score, urbane dialogue, and lavish scenic demands.

For this over-the-decades narrative begins in the 1920s, flashes back to 1875, and then moves forward from there. At the start, aging heroine, Sarah (aka Lady Shayne) attends a party where she wryly observes the flippant “bright young things” who know nothing of real romance, and offers advice to Dolly, a young woman about to enter into a loveless marriage.

Sarah relates how, when she herself was young, she was in a parallel situation: engaged to the stuffy Hugh when she really loved her Austrian piano teacher and composer Carl. She defied convention, and eloped with him to Vienna where he was resident musician at Herr Schlick’s café, but their happy if impecunious idyll was cut short by a lustfully aggressive military officer whom Sarah (now called Sari) had rebuffed, and Carl was killed in a duel. Later, she married kindly Lord Shayne who gallantly understood he could never be the love of her life.

To a large extent, even without a full orchestra and hardly any production elements to speak of, LOONY pulled it off. Musically almost complete and, on the whole, well sung, the production gave as good an idea of the piece as Bard’s better bankrolled production last summer. Unaccountably, that production reset the contemporary scenes from the 1920s to the 1960s, and the flashbacks from the Victorian era to the 1930s.

Since LOONY substituted generalized formal attire for (more expensive) Victorian garb, this might as well have been the 1930s, too. But all in all, LOONY’s seemed truer to the spirit of the piece.

LOONY’s ever-reliable soprano Elizabeth Hillebrand played Sarah in all three eras, whereas Bard used veteran English actress Sian Phillips for the opening and closing scenes. I would have liked a grey wig for Hillebrand, though she acted the old woman well enough. On the other hand, she played her younger self too self-consciously girlish, even gawky, in the early scenes. She came off best as the widowed and remarried woman-of-means, circa 1895, resplendent and poised in a beautiful white gown, and singing her late husband’s “Zigeuner,” and her solo reprise of the show’s big tune, “I’ll “See You Again” gloriously.

Stephen Faulk’s sweet tenor was right for Carl’s music, but his acting seemed oddly tentative, and on top of that, he eschewed an Austrian accent, a curious choice since accents of all sorts abounded in the café scenes.

Caitlin Burke did particularly well with her French inflections as Manon, Schlick’s star entertainer and Carl’s former mistress. Her touching acting and accomplished rendition of Coward’s signature tune, “If Love Were All” were superb. She, like Hillebrand, elicited well-deserved bravas after each of her numbers.

Nathan Brian delivered the rousing “Tokay,” the score’s most bracing number, with gusto and firm tone.

Given the large number of roles, cast members got to play two, three, or four roles each. Most surprisingly, the villain Captain Lutte who kills Carl, returns moments later as kindly Lord Shayne, in the person of Brad Baron

At the first of two performances, James Biddlecome’s conducting was alternately graceful and droopy. And the six-piece orchestra was occasionally ragged. As noted, all the songs were used, except the “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo” part of the first act finale which includes an unfortunate, politically incorrect use of the “n” word. Still, another expression might have been substituted rather than losing the whole sequence. The concerted numbers for the ensemble were satisfyingly done.

Gary Slavin’s directing was on the presentational side, the actors often facing forward rather than each other, and a couple of the numbers like “What is Love?” were rather dully blocked, but space limitations clearly made a more expansive staging difficult. Still, the cabaret numbers, and the set pieces like “Green Carnations” and “Ladies of the Town” were staged with flair.

Alyce Mott was credited with “lightly” editing the piece, and indeed the text, on the whole, seemed satisfyingly complete, except for the brief final scene which should have brought us back to 1929 when Dolly resolves to marry for love, and the youthful party-goers continue their raucous revels as Sarah laughs ironically at the callousness of the current generation and offers a short reprise of “I’ll See You Again.”

(Light Opera of New York, Landmark on the Park, 76th St. and Central Park West, 866-811-4111 or www.LightOperaOfNewYork.org; May 11 and 12 only)

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Lyons (Cort Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Linda Lavin, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, is giving one of her peerless performances in Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons” which has transferred to Broadway’s Cort from the Vineyard Theatre. I feel I’m one of the few who missed it there, but approaching it fresh in its uptown venue, the play seems right at home.

As Rita, a sardonically biting, irreverent, wife to dying Ben (Dick Latessa) whom she has stopped loving decades ago, and mother to two extremely dysfunctional grown children: gay Curtis (Mike Esper), an unsuccessful writer of short stories, and bitter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), a recovering alcoholic, Lavin gets plenty of laughs but also conveys the scarring that led to her shockingly glib flippancy at her husband’s deathbed.

The first and last scenes are set in that hospital room, overseen by a no-nonsense nurse (Brenda Pressley).

The second act opens on a scene of Curtis checking out an apartment with a real estate agent (Gregory Wooddell). But there’s more here than meets the eye, for it’s an increasingly tense cat-and-mouse scene that starts you wondering what is has to do with what has transpired in the first act. But there is a payoff, and leads to the final scene back in the hospital room.

Underneath playwright Nicky Silver’s scathingly funny barbs – these family members really know how to hurt each other – is a bittersweet portrait of a lifetime of loneliness, miscommunication, and disconnection.

And though you may not think it’s possible, by the end of the evening, you do feel empathy for them, even the seemingly heartless Rita.

Mark Brokaw’s direction expertly brings out the poignancy amidst the laughs. And Latessa, Esper, Grant, and Pressley give finely gauged performances.

Allen Moyer’s hospital room set is just like the real thing, and the apartment setting a benignly white shell for the surprisingly aggressive events that ultimately transpire there.

(Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Don’t Dress For Dinner (Roundabout Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

Traditionally, farce has tended to fizzle on Broadway, very unlike the rest of the world. In London’s West End especially, it has always thrived. Marc Camoletti’s “Boeing Boeing,” a smash hit in London in Matthew Warchus’ side-splitting revival managed a big splash here, if not a hugely long run, thanks to its razor sharp direction and the terrific performances, especially that of Mark Rylance.

So now we have Camoletti’s other major hit, "Pajamas Pour Six," which ran for a whopping six years in London in its adaptation by Robin Hawdon as “Don’t Dress for Dinner.”

At the Roundabout, under the accomplished direction of John Tillinger, it generates plenty of laughs. The play is deftly constructed and the cast has the style down pat, even if falling short of the brilliance of that “Boeing Boeing” production.

The story takes place in 1960 outside Paris where a British philandering husband Bernard (Adam James) plans to take advantage of his wife Jacqueline’s (Patricia Kalember) visit to her mother by having a liaison with his mistress, Suzanne (a hilariously lowdown Jennifer Tilly). His old friend Robert (Ben Daniels) will come to stay as well, to throw Jacqueline off the scent. She’ll think Bernard’s having a guys-only weekend. But just before leaving for her mother’s, Jacqueline learns of Robert’s imminent arrival. It seems she and Robert are having an affair of their own, and as she can’t pass up a chance to have him under the same roof, she cancels her trip, much to Bernard’s intense disappointment.

Bernard quickly concocts a scheme. Suzanne will pretend to be Robert’s mistress for the duration. Robert is reluctant to go along with it, but Bernard prevails. And when an unflappable cook Suzette (Spencer Kayden) shows up, Robert assumes it’s Bernard’s mistress, and proceeds according to plan. When the actual Suzanne arrives, she must pretend to be the cook, thereby perpetrating a dizzying succession of falsehoods and assumed identities.

Kayden (“Little Sally” in “Urinetown”) is especially droll, while Ben Daniels returns to the Roundabout after his very serious role in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” – the title of which comes up a couple of times here – and it’s fun to see him show his comic side. David Aron Damane does good work as a late arriving character near the end.

John Lee Beatty's set makes the perfect backdrop for all the mayhem. And William Ivey Long’s costumes expertly define the characters, and the cook’s outfit he’s concocted for Suzette allows for one of the most hilarious and speedy costume changes ever.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street, 212-719-1300, or www.roundabouttheatre.org; through June 17)

Nice Work If You Can Get It (Imperial Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

With “Porgy and Bess” still going strong, theatergoers now get a chance to remember the lighter side of The Gershwins with the delightful “Nice Work If You Can Get It” which, like the last Gershwin pastiche, “Crazy for You,” mines brothers George and Ira’ songbook to create a “new” musical.

“Crazy for You” had a funny book by Ken Ludwig, and this new one by Joe DiPietro also scores high on the laugh meter. Frequent Gershwin collaborators Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse are credited with inspiring the material, and indeed, the plot line and several of the character names are lifted directly from their “Oh, Kay!” But there are major plot divergences, and thus “Nice Work” bears about as much resemblance to “Oh, Kay!” as “Crazy for You” did to “Girl Crazy, which is to say, not very much.

Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara have charm in abundance as womanizing rich guy Jimmy and tough-talking bootlegger Billie Bendix, whom Jimmy calls Gertie, apparently in homage to original “Oh, Kay” star Gertrude Lawrence. They meet after Jimmy gets loaded during a final bachelor blow-out the night before his wedding to the daughter Eileen (Jennifer Laura Thompson) of an upright senator (Terry Beaver).

Before long, a la “Oh, Kay,” the bootleggers are using Jimmy’s Long Island beach house to store their goods, and Billie must impersonate first Jimmy’s new bride, then a Cockney maid.

Only two “Oh, Kay” songs are used, and despite claims of some rarities, the rest is mostly familiar material. But in new and clever contexts, and sparkling orchestrations (by Bill Elliott), everything registers as freshly minted.

Broderick is a bit long in the tooth (and full in the tummy) at this point, but he still plays boyish innocence better than anybody and he’s funny and appealing. He sings beautifully and authentically, including a first-rate “Do Do Do” accompanying himself on the ukulele with a harmonizing trio.

Kelli O’Hara demonstrates that the comic chops she revealed in Encores’ “Bells Are Ringing” were not a fluke. She’s a delight as the low-born bootlegger, and later as the maid. She lets down her hair hilariously in her over-the-top sexy vamp, “Treat Me Rough” and does what used to be called an “eccentric dance” to “Hangin’ Around With You” while ladling out soup in a dinner scene. And throughout, she sings like a dream. Together, she and Broderick make a surprisingly appealing team.

The supporting cast is marvelous. Judy Kaye as Eileen‘s stern prohibitionist aunt, and Michael McGrath as bootlegger Cookie McGee posing as a butler are pros, and Kaye’s antics during the dinner scene are a stitch. Their challenge duet of “By Strauss” (her), and “Sweet and Lowdown” (him) is another highlight. Third couple Robyn Hurder and Chris Sullivan, a typical dumb blonde and sweet lug, provide additional diversion. An authoritative Estelle Parsons dominates the final scenes, looking terrific and providing a neat tie-up to the action.

Technical credits are fine across the board. including Derek McLane’s pretty settings, Martin Pakledinaz’s fetching costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting.

Kathleen Marshall’s direction and choreography is wonderfully inventive as always, including a funny bathtub number for Eileen (“Delishious”), and the first act finale with the whole company including the six “Chorus Girls” and men comprising the aunt’s “Vice Squad.” She pushes Broderick to the limit in a lengthy dance number with O’Hara set to “’S Wonderful.”

Most of DiPietro’s dialogue is sharp and snappy like the Bolton/Wodehouse style he’s emulating.

Mind you, it would be wonderful to have an authentic “Oh, Kay!” with its strong original score intact – paging “Encores” – but on its own terms, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is enormous fun, and if my audience was any indication, a real crowd-pleaser.

(Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Leap of Faith (St. James Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Advance word on this show was decidedly mixed, but I found it to be most enjoyable.

The musical is based (with some significant plot alterations) on the 1992 Steve Martin movie about a bogus faith healer who, in this version, sets up his tent in drought-laden Sweetwater, Kansas and locks horns (and falls in love) with a skeptical widowed sheriff with a 13-year-old wheelchair-bound son who believes the preacher can make him walk again.

The show is solidly constructed with a score that ranks with Alan Menken’s best. He did well with the gospel-flavored “Sister Act” last season, and thematically this show gives him further opportunities for some roof-raising anthems.

But it is those quieter numbers which arise conversationally from the dialogue (book by screenplay writer Janus Cercone together with Warren Leight) that gives the score its quality. All the songs actually drive the story and are not just shoehorned in for their own sake. And in this day of excruciatingly loud shows (e.g. “Ghost,” and Menken’s own “Newsies”), it is a pleasure to encounter a sensible sound design (John Shivers) that doesn’t hit you over the head with volume.

Predictably, Raul Esparza is dynamic as con artist Jonas Nightingale, singing strongly, and playing the character’s eventual conflict with conscience very well indeed. Jessica Phillips is also outstanding as Marla McGowan, the sheriff. She’s tough and real, and her scenes and songs (“I Can Read You”) with Esparza have a genuine tension. Talon Ackerman makes her son Jake appropriately sympathetic without being sappy.

Fans of “Smash” will enjoy seeing the excellent Leslie Odom, Jr. – who plays Christian Borle’s new boyfriend – as genuine preacher Isaiah who feels compelled to expose Jonas. There’s superlative work, too, from Kecia Lewis Evans as his mother Ida Mae and Krystal Joy Brown as sister Ornella, both loyal members of Jonas’ troupe who believe that whether Jonas is a con or not, he’ll always “come through.”

Rounding out the talented leads is Kendra Kassebaum is Jonas’ hard-nosed but loving sister Sam.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography – mostly movement for the choir – fills the St. James stage satisfyingly against Robin Wagner’s lofty tent setting. Christopher Ashley directs with a fine feel for the drama of the piece.

This amalgam of “Elmer Gantry,” “The Music Man,” and “The Rainmaker” – despite clichés and predictability – touches the heart.

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Columnist (Manhattan Theater Club)



By Harry Forbes

This is a highly absorbing drama from “Proof” playwright David Auburn about Joseph Alsop (1910-1989), the powerful Washington columnist who held sway for decades, and took a particularly hawkish view of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

John Lithgow as the WASPy Alsop gives one of his greatest performances: arrogant, affected in speech, dictatorial, irascible, and passionate in his views on everything from the war to the new crop of political journalists (exemplified here by the young David Halberstam), to the seating plan for his dinner parties. For all of Alsop’s superciliousness, Auburn and Lithgow also paint him as charming and even (however briefly) lovable.

Nowadays, with the blogosphere so pervasive, it’s hard to believe that one man could wield such power, with such clout among the Washington elite during the 50s and 60s until his unrelenting support of our intervention in Vietnam and his increasingly strident anti-Communist stance began to tarnish his image. He was a relation of FDR, later an intimate of John and Jackie Kennedy, a pushy advisor to LBJ after JFK’s assassination. In short, he was someone who could pick up the phone and call just about anybody.

Despite a beautiful wife Susan Mary and a classy, upright lifestyle, Alsop was harboring a secret from most of the world; one that Auburn’s play convincingly contends, fueled his behavior; he was homosexual. A liaison with a young man in a Moscow hotel room in the 1950s – the scene which opens the play -- would make him vulnerable to his enemies, at home and abroad, from then on.

Besides Lithgow’s towering performance, there is superlative work by the impeccable Boyd Gaines as Joe’s brother and writing partner Stewart, his patrician cadence beautifully modulated, and Margaret Colin as his dutiful, but ultimately frustrated wife, never quite bringing herself to mention the elephant on the table that keeps them in separate bedrooms. Rounding out the first-rate cast are Stephen Kunkel as the probing Halberstam, Grace Gummer as the Susan‘s daughter Abigail (actually a composite character), and Brian J. Smith as the Russian man. Daniel Sullivan directs tautly and impeccably.

There’s been some grousing that this play is less fine than “Proof,” and criticizing Auburn for his overall approach. But I found the play riveting from beginning to end, cleverly constructed, and sharply written.

And although the penultimate scene contains a revelation that might have been dramatized – as some have wished -- I disagree. That revelation gains all the more for being conveyed verbally.

John Lee Beatty’s turntable set – topped by an electronic ticker with Alsop’s typed words -- allows for seamless transitions.

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

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ghost The Musical (Lunt-Fontanne)



By Harry Forbes

“Ghost the Musical” is a super slick but resoundingly empty musical based on the popular 1990 film about a young banker killed in an apparent robbery who tries to save his grieving fiancée from imminent danger with the help of a heretofore bogus psychic.

Matthew Warchus’ production – a London import – is notable for its striking design (by Rob Howell) and truly impressive use of digital projections (by Jon Driscoll). New York crowd scenes, Times Square, Wall Street, and Greenwich Village vistas and more are seamlessly integrated into the action, often in impressive sync with Ashley Wallen‘s rhythmic choreography.

But against all the gorgeous high tech wizardry, cast members Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy who recreate the roles of Sam and Molly they originated across the pond, and Bryce Pinkham as their friend Carl, barely have a chance to register, and come across as mere ciphers.

The exception is Da’Vine Joy Randolph playing Whoppi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning movie role of the reluctant medium, Oda Mae Brown. She goes a bit too far in the extrovert direction, but she’s the only person onstage supplying the show with any juice, and her second act “I’m Ouuta Here” is the most satisfying number overall. That song comes relatively late in the show when the story inevitably starts to grab you, despite the numbing vacuity of all that’s come before.

Bobby Aitken’s sound design is annoyingly loud for both music and dialogue, suggesting a desperate attempt to ramp up the excitement level.

Though people are fond of the movie, the story is basically a downer – dealing, as it does with death and betrayal, and the score – music and lyrics credited to Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, book and lyrics to Bruce Joel Rubin (who won an Oscar for the screenplay) -- is purely generic. Hy Zaret and Alex North’s ‘Unchained Melody,” Sam and Molly’s theme song, easily trumps the bland new material.

The property gains nothing by its musicalization, joining an ever-growing list of pointless screen-to-musical stage adaptations.

The Asian tourist sitting next to me with his daughter marveled at the effects, but at the beginning of the second act, observing that fully half of the row in front of us chose not to return to their seats, pronounced with all the ancient wisdom of the East – “I think movie better.”

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

End of the Rainbow (Belasco)



By Harry Forbes

I must confess I found Tracie Bennett’s much ballyhooed impersonation of Judy Garland, as the lady was in those final days in London shortly before her death from a drug overdose, a decidedly mixed bag. For starters, as a Brit, Bennett has the trait, once pervasive among English actors, of failing to pull off a completely accurate American accent. On top of that, Ms. Bennett has not consistently mastered Garland’s distinctive speech patterns.

On the other hand, her body language, particularly in the off-stage scenes, is often right on the money. While her performance - running the gamut from diva-like bossiness to genuine humility to quivering insecurity -- is accomplished, I wanted a more spot-on impersonation.

Vocally, Bennett is sometimes uncanny, but often, not. Her voice has a different natural timbre, and as she lacks Garland’s vocal range – even in her latter days – some of the keys are transposed down. If you’re familiar with the records (including the late bootlegs), you’re going to be disappointed. The play concludes with a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” that almost makes it, but her encore after the curtain calls of “By Myself” misses the tension, not to mention the final soaring notes, that made Garland’s rendition so thrilling.

When famous people are portrayed on stage -- particularly those we know so well from movies and television – they’d better be accurate enough for us to easily suspend disbelief. Tyne Daly captured Maria Callas’ speaking voice brilliantly in "Master Class." Levi Kreis really did conjure Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet.” Several years ago, the late Frank Gorshin was George Burns to the life.

Curiously, where Bennett’s impersonation is most oddly off-kilter is in her onstage gestures, There’s ample video of Garland’s stage mannerisms, and some of what Bennett does, just doesn’t jell with the images.

The situation is this: Garland is ensconced in her London hotel room with her fiancée Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey) (who would become her fifth and last husband) and her gentle Scottish accompanist Anthony. The latter is played by the wonderful Michael Cumpsty who gives a lovely, understated performance. He disapproves of Deans and, though gay, offers to take her to his home in Brighton for a restful if platonic retirement.

Playwright Peter Quilter portrays Deans as a genuinely loving, if out of his depth young man in the first act, but out of sheer frustration with Garland’s inability to cope without pharmaceutical help, a pill pusher in the second (literally pouring them down her mouth).

It’s not a flattering portrait of Garland (she does a lot of cussing, and is more sexual than you might imagine), but it seems more or less truthful based on the various bios, and both Quilter and Bennett take pains to show the lady's vulnerability.

The play isn't dull, and it's cannily directed by Terry Johnson. The transitions from hotel room to "Talk of the Town" nightclub where she had her final London engagement (William Dudley did the scenic design) are smoothly executed.

(Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

The Sound of Music (Carnegie Hall)



By Harry Forbes

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s extraordinarily popular musical – and their last together – was given a splendiferous semi-staged concert performance at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night.

Backed by the large forces of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with the good sisters of postulant Maria’s convent comprised of the Women of the Mansfield University Concert Choir, the cast was led by R&H’s girl of the moment, Laura Osnes, essaying her third major R&H show in New York (the Lincoln Center “South Pacific” and Encores “Pipe Dream” being the first two, and the title role in a Broadway revival of “Cinderella” soon to come), was the irrepressible singing novice, Tony Goldwyn the stern former sea captain Georg von Trapp, the Met’s Stephanie Blythe the Mother Abbess, with Brook Shields and Patrick Page as the Baron’s sophisticated cronies Elsa and Max.

The Stern Auditorium was utilized to the max, with the nuns making their solemn entrance down the aisles holding votive candles with further groupings positioned in the balcony boxes, all producing a heavenly sound. Throughout the evening, panoramic projections on the back wall lent the proceedings a particularly cinematic look, no doubt in homage to the record-breaking Julie Andrews film which clinched the musical’s enduring fame.

Director Gary Griffin moved things along nicely. Encores’ adapter David Ives’ did similar honors here, deftly trimming the book.

Paul Tazewell was credited as costume consultant but the cast’s attire was mostly only suggestive of the period and the characters. Still, Osnes’ lovely blue gown in the first half was hardly the simple frock you’d expect from Maria, but she looked lovely and sang flawlessly in the ingenue – as opposed to seasoned leading lady (e.g. Mary Martin, Julie Andrews)-- mode.

Shields was well cast (and got a big closing hand) as the gold-digging “other woman,” if rather overparted vocally in her two numbers. Page was right on target as the ambitious manager who hopes to get the von Trapp children under contract, despite the Captain’s reservations.

Blythe was an imposing presence, physically and vocally, down to earth in her dialogue, and her “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was predictably showstopping, even if not quite sustaining the final bars of that soul-stirring anthem.

Nick Spangler gave a satisfyingly firm account of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and his dance with Mary Michael Patterson’s Liesl was quite charming. It was good to hear the original dance music, different from that used in the film. Joshua Bergasse supplied the nice choreography including a particularly sweet Laendler for Maria and the Captain.

There were a few significant cameos. Daniel Truhitte, Rolf from the movie, played Baron Elberfeld. And three of the movie children – Nicholas Hammond, Kym Karath, and Heather Menzies – were on hand for the Salzburg scene

“The Sound of Music,” hit though it was, is always considered something of a poor relation to the classics “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” and yet as stage revivals (Rebecca Luker on Broadway, Petula Clark and Connie Fisher in London) have demonstrated, the piece is solidly constructed (thanks to Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book), and contains one of the team’s most appealing scores.

Rodgers’ liturgical music – the lengthy and somber opening, the wedding Processional – is quite magnificent, and the story tugs at the heart. The score as heard Tuesday was essentially the stage version, which seemed to puzzle some in the audience, weaned on the movie. Thus “My Favorite Things” was a duet for Maria and Mother Abbess (affording Blythe a nice light moment), “The Lonely Goatherd” came during the thunderstorm, and “Do-Re-Mi,” mere moments after Maria is introduced to the children. The duet for Maria and the Captain used was the movie’s “Something Good,” as “An Ordinary Couple” would have been redundant.

Rob Fisher conducted grandly starting with the overture (lifted from the film, as the original had none) right through the last lump-in-throat notes of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

Photo credit: Chris Lee

(Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue, 212-247-7800 or carnegiehall.org)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors (The Music Box)



By Harry Forbes

Whatever you do, don’t be put off by the odd sounding, English title. For make no mistake: Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s classic farce, “The Servant of Two Masters” is a laugh riot and, quite simply, the funniest show on Broadway.

Updated to early 1960’s Brighton, we now have Francis Henshall (James Corden in a Tony-worthy performance), a none-too-bright, easily confused, perennially hungry but slyly clever chap who finds himself working for two bosses: Rachel, the twin sister (Jemima Rooper) of murdered thug Roscoe, and her lanky, dim-witted affectedly posh lover Stanley (Oliver Chris) who is still beloved of Rachel, even though it was he who, in fact, killed Roscoe. There’s small-time crook Charlie (Fred Ridgeway) who owed Roscoe money, which Rachel (in disguise as Roscoe) wants to get back, Charlie’s sweet but thick-as-they-come daughter Pauline (Claire Lams) who was engaged to Roscoe (now in the person of Rachel), is hopelessly smitten with Alan, an over-the-top would-be thespian.

The cast is mostly intact from London’s National Theatre of Great Britain. I had seen the NTLive satellite transmission of the show several months ago, and presumed that, by now, a sense of routine might have settled in, but happy to report, this is not so. The show is playing as freshly as ever.

Corden, probably best known for his role as one of “The History Boys” (in Alan Bennett’s play and film) is simply a marvel. This is a comic turn of the first degree. Whether carrying on a heated conversation with himself that escalates into a fist-fight, attempting to serve a wildly frenetic meal to his two bosses while eating most of it himself, imploring the audience for food, impersonating his Irish alter-ego, he is a hoot.

But every single performance here is a gem, including Tom Edden as a Marty Feldman-like deaf waiter with a pacemaker and a bad case of the shakes, and Suzie Toase as a busty 60s-era "bird" who catches Henshall’s fancy.

I had remembered the first act being riotously funny; and the other less so, a sentiment expressed by some critics here. But, upon second viewing, I found the second act chock full of laughs and just as rewarding.

Grant Olding has supplied quite a few snappy songs which serve as, first, curtain raisers, and then scene-changing divertissements. The musicians who open the show call themselves The Craze, a take-off of boy groups of the era, but vocal chores are eventually shared by the other cast members. There are enough songs to fill a cast album (and, indeed, a CD is available), though as the songs are not really integrated, one couldn’t call this a musical.

National Theatre head Nicolas Hytner has directed with an expert sense of fast-paced farce, some of which must be credited to Cal McCrystal billed as the “physical comedy director.”

Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes – bright, cheerful, and eminently suitable for all the farcical business -- make the perfect backdrop for the uproarious slapstick and gags which, happily for your funny bone, never let up.

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