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)