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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jesus Christ Superstar (Neil Simon Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s once controversial rock musical has held up well, as productions over the years have amply demonstrated, and this new one – first produced under the aegis of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival – emphatically affirms. And what had once been assailed as sacrilegious now seems, for the most part, a perfectly reasonable retelling of Christ’s final days.

Des McAnuff’s staging keeps the action – really a series of separate scenes covering the major events of that final week (the Palm Sunday procession, Judas’ betrayal, the Last Supper, Jesus’ agony in the garden, and so on) – moving fluidly with striking stage images and compelling character interaction. Lisa Shriver provides just enough choreographed movement starting with the opening numbers.

Robert Brill’s scenic design – scaffolding and moving staircases against a striking news ticker scroll -- works deftly, supplemented by Sean Nieuwenhuis’ video design. Paul Tazewell’s dusty cloaks and Roman finery conjure the appropriate Biblical epic look.

Though the divinity of Jesus is never specifically referenced or demonstrated, though not denied either (except by Judas who repeatedly accuses him of letting things “get out of hand “), the libretto covers the territory with admirable fidelity, and in some ways, as much grit (if not blood) as Mel Gibson's box-office busting "The Passion of the Christ." Certain scenes, such as Pilate’s interrogation of Christ, and the scourging, pack quite a dramatic punch.

The lion’s share of singing goes to Paul Nolan as Jesus and Josh Young as Judas, the latter serving as narrator, and laying the foundation for the Eva Peron-Che dynamic of Lloyd Webber and Rice's next work, “Evita,” a revival of which is coincidentally set to open shortly. Nolan looks the part and sings strongly, particularly in the “Gethsemene” scene, strikingly lit by Howell Binkley.

Chilina Kennedy makes a sympathetic Mary Magdalene, and does nicely with her lyrical numbers, “Everything’s Alright” and the show’s hit tune, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

Tom Hewitt is particularly good as Pontius Pilate, strongly limning his inner conflict about condemning Jesus to death, while the crowd chants “Crucify Him” beyond the palace gate, another deft piece of McAnuff staging.

Lloyd Webber’s music – probably the rockiest of his career – is excitingly led by Music Director Rick Fox. King Herod’s honky-tonk song mocking Christ is done to a campy fare-thee-well but turns appropriately sinister and ugly at the end, lest anyone think they’re supposed to enjoy the number.

This fourth incarnation of the now-classic rock opera is the charm.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, www.ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)

Death of a Salesman (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

This production of Arthur Miller’s masterwork is as fine as the credentials of the creative team – director Mike Nichols, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Linda Emond, and Andrew Garfield, costume designer Ann Roth, and scenic designer Jo Mielziner – would lead one to expect.

Jo Mielziner? Didn’t he pass on several decades ago? Well, yes. But one of the glories of this production is the recreation of his original set, one that came to mesh with Miller’s own vision of how he wanted the play staged, with the Loman house dominates every scene. And lighting designer Brian MacDevitt has recreated the original lighting scheme as well. On top of that, there’s Alex North’s great original score. Like those other elements, utterly essential to the authentic mood of the piece.

Hoffman defies all the skeptics who might have thought him too young. He is, in fact, several years older than the role’s originator, Lee J. Cobb, when the latter created the part in 1949, still in his 30s. But when Hoffman does hit 60 – Willy’s stated age -- he will undoubtedly be even better, as indeed was Lee J. Cobb himself when he brilliantly recreated the role for a CBS-TV presentation in the 1960’s.

And, speaking of age, how times have changed! The way people talk about 60 in “Salesman,” you would think it was tantamount to 90! But I digress.

Yes, one does approach this production carrying the knowledge of Hoffman’s relative youth but his complete assumption of the character, and the masterful way he’s pitched his voice, and adjusted his gait, helps one, to a large degree, suspend disbelief.

Garfield is rather more difficult to accept as Willy’s son Biff, former football star, and now, as age 34, a disillusioned shell of his former self. The tall and slender Garfield has the wrong build and reads younger than his actual 28 years. But, those caveats aside, his performance is terrific. His heartbreaking confrontation with Willy in the Boston hotel room, and his final reckoning with his father are shatteringly done.

Emond – always a standout – makes a very fine Linda. And Finn Wittrock’s Hap, Fran Kranz’s Bernard; Bill Camp’s Charley; John Glover’s Ben are all right on target. Molly Price is wonderfully cast as the woman with whom Willy has an affair has just the right fleshy, cover-of-a-pulp-novel look about her.

Nichols directs with a clarity and fluidity this is masterful, the shifts between the present and Willy’s memories seamlessly accomplished. And yet, for all of that, I wasn’t nearly as moved as I recall being by the end of the Brian Dennehy-Elizabeth Franz production of a decade earlier.

Likewise, when I pulled out the CBS version (available on DVD) with Cobb (whose Willy is beyond compare), his original co-star Mildred Dunnock, and a superb supporting cast including George Segal as Biff, James Farentino as Hap, and Gene Wilder as Bernard, intending to watch only a few minutes of it, I found it so mesmerizing, I couldn’t shut it off till the end. And sure enough, the tear ducts started to flow.

Odious comparisons aside, the Nichols production is plainly one of the towering events of the season, and a must-see by any standard.

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

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea (Music Box Films)




By Harry Forbes

Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a woman who’s left her well-to-do husband for a test pilot who doesn’t love her with the same passion she feels for him has been transformed by director Terence Davies into a slow-moving if atmospheric and ultimately absorbing cinematic experience. (But be warned; the film takes a while to get you under its spell.)

For the most part faithful to the play in terms of plot and dialogue -- though minor characters have been removed and a couple added, and certain events now transpire out of sequence -- the narrative unfolds with a certain austerity, as Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto surging on the soundtrack suggests a tumultuous undercurrent of emotions. There is, incidentally, one steamy, limbs intertwined sex scene such as Rattigan might never have been allowed back then for leads Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston.

There are also a couple of instances of strong language which the playwright could not have used in 1952.

In any case, Weisz is quite superb as the unhappy married Hester who, as in the play, attempts suicide in the first scene all because, apparently, her lover Freddie has forgotten her birthday. In the original play, when the curtain rises, Hester’s already unconscious and must be revived by her landlady and a couple of neighbors.

Up-and-coming British actor Tim Hiddleston (F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris”) is her ex-RAF test pilot lover, and Simon Russell Beale her less-than-passionate husband Bill, a prominent judge. (And it’s good to see one of the mainstays of the British stage in a substantial film role.)

Davies has rather extraneously added an overbearing mother in law (Barbara Jefford) to make sure we know how stifled Hester must feel in her married life, though that seems rather out of keeping with the text of the play wherein Hester indicates she was rather contented with her married life (apart from the aforementioned lack of passion) and, in fact, misses many of her friends. Some of the dialogue for the upstairs neighbor who helps revive Hester is now spoken by the new character of Freddie’s friend. The quasi-doctor who helps Hester is marginalized.

In the play, Rattigan describes Hester and Philip’s flat as dingy, and that aspect is accentuated by Davies here, who relishes the post-WWII early 1950s era, for which he sees the play as a metaphor.

The dialogue in the stage play offers interesting insights into the characters, so Davies’ grand cinematic flourishes only partly compensate for what’s been left out. In any case, with the long silences, pulsating Barber music, and Florian Hoffmeister’s soft-focus lensing, this “Deep Blue Sea” emerges as quite a different experience. There’s a virtue to such a thorough adaptation to another medium especially when some of the elements might otherwise seem dated, but at the same time, something’s been lost.

A BBC television version of the revelatory production from London’s Almeida Theatre was released late last year in a Terence Rattigan boxed set, and the comparisons are fascinating. The great Penelope Wilton is Hester (the part originated by Peggy Ashcroft), and she gives a multi-faceted performance if she’s rather ordinary looking (as was Ashcroft, for that matter) after the gorgeous Weisz not to mention (in the first film adaptation) Vivian Leigh. Ian Holm etches a far more positive character than Beale plays here. And a young Colin Firth makes a first-rate Freddie.

In both versions, the root of Hester’s discontent is rather difficult to swallow. Freddie seems to care for her – well enough – and even her husband is not such a bad chap either.

But, for all my quibbles, it’s good to see Rattigan – in his day, as much an in-demand screenwriter as a playwright – providing fodder once again for the big screen. And Weisz’s performance is outstanding, and worth catching for that reason alone.

(Rated R by the MPAA for a scene of sexuality and nudity.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Eileen (Light Opera of New York)




By Harry Forbes

LOONY really and truly hit its stride on the St. Patrick’s Day weekend with a beautifully staged and sung adaptation of Victor Herbert’s impassioned paean to Irish independence, his 1917 operetta “Eileen.”

Director Alyce Mott’s deft re-jiggering – songs reassigned to different characters, a couple dropped altogether, some recitatives converted to dialogue, secondary roles excised, and the plot supplemented by the original inspiration for Henry Blossom’s libretto, a novel by Herbert’s grandfather called “Rory O’Moore” – was essentially the same as used for the Little Orchestra Society’s musically lovely, but dramatically stodgy, concert version under the baton of the late Dino Anagnost in 2003.

But, on this occasion, with a far more suitable cast and a playing area that allowed more imaginative blocking, everything clicked.

The time is 1796. Convent raised Eileen returns home to Sligo Bay from her formative years in France to the home of her Aunt Maude, an attractive widow. Barry O’Day, chip off the old block of a legendary freedom fighter father, comes back to lead his cronies in a fight for independence from the British and to reclaim his land, with the anticipated help of soon-to-arrive French forces.

Though he’s been flirtatious with the charming Maude, it’s Eileen he loves. Maude is sympathetic to the rebels’ cause, and keeps the English Colonel Lester at bay, allowing Barry to go undercover as her groom. A visiting English fuddy-duddy lord Reggie – who accompanied Eileen from France -- adds the comic touch.

This was the most consistently perfect cast of the LOONY productions thus far. Lady Maude – who, as narrator, has rather more to do than the titular heroine – was winningly acted and beautifully sung by Elizabeth Hillebrand, particularly in her rapturous “When Love Awakes.” Sheena Ramirez brought a pure soprano sound to Eileen from her opening “Reveries” through the big take-home tune, the achingly beautiful “Thine Alone” sung most feelingly with O'Day (Stephen Faulk).

Faulk had just the right Irish tenor sound, and the requisite operetta heroic quality usually lacking in LOONY’s male leads. In fact, the men here were a consistently strong group.

Kevin Grace brought virile tone and a lively presence to Barry’s comrade Sean Regan delivering a lusty “Fair Trade and a Misty Moon,” and his part of the rousing “The Irish Have a Great Day.” Tommy Labanaris made the most of his sweet solo, “She’s Sweet as Any Flower.” And David Kelleher-Flight did well in the semi-villainous role of the occupying British leader Colonel Lester. Reggie was stylishly enacted by David Seatter who delivered his “If Eve Had Left the Apple on the Bough” with music hall panache.

Michael Thomas conducted the six-piece orchestra with sensitivity and nuance, attributes thrillingly apparent from the very first notes of the overture. This was, I believe, the first time LOONY included a full overture. Thomas and his forces played a reduction of Herbert’s orchestration, and were right in keeping with the music, which was so dear to the composer, imbued as it is with patriotic fervor and heart-stopping passion.

But everyone seemed inspired by the piece to give their very best.

The set was simpler than some of the others – black masking, a couple of planters was all – but it didn’t matter. And Landmark on the Park’s church setting was ideal for the convent scene concocted by Mott for the opening scene.

The performance was miked, but there were some occasional audibility problems; a slight boost might have given more presence, particularly to the dialogue.

Mott’s direction had a fluidity and a clarity that made the whole enterprise seem far less clunky than it might have otherwise been, and Lisa Petri’s vigorous choreography added zip to the uptempo numbers. (Two step-dancing little girls -- Meghan Sheridan and Alicia Caracciolo -- provided charming accompaniment to the Entr'acte.) Everything aided and abetted Herbert’s score which generated several lumps in the throat throughout the evening.

As the fondly remembered New Amsterdam Theater Company performance at Town Hall in the 1980s – with its peerless cast of Judy Kaye, Jeanne Lehman, Mark Jacoby, and Cris Groenendaal -- triumphantly proved, the Henry Blossom original script (albeit abridged) can still work on its own terms. But there's no denying Mott’s version played especially well, and when the results are as felicitous as this, well, only a curmudgeon would complain.

The bar has been raised high for LOONY’s next production – Noel Coward’s “Bitter Sweet” -- coming up in May.

(Landmark on the Park, 76th St. and Central Park West, 866-811-4111 or www.LightOperaOfNewYork.org; March 16 and 17 only)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Carrie (MCC Theater)


By Harry Forbes

I’m pleased to report that this “newly reworked and fully re-imagined production” of the legendary Broadway disaster by MCC Theater does indeed play far better than the original.

Of course, there’s no doubt that Stephen King’s novel is rather peculiar source material for a musical, even with the best intentions of its creators. But, in the intervening years since 1988, we’ve seen so many other unlikely musical properties that "Carrie' now registers as little worse than "Grease" with a violent denouement.

Betty Buckley and Lintzi Hateley were terrific back in the day as the Bible-thumping mother and overly sheltered daughter, but Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson are also quite outstanding. I like Mazzie’s warm, tones darker than Buckley’s and Barbara Cook's. (Many forget that Cook created the mother role in the musical’s first staging by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, no less.)

The narrative plays out more conventionally than the often unwieldy original. Young Carrie is the butt of cruel bullying at her Chamberlain, Maine high school, particularly after she experiences her first period in the shower after gym class, and is patently clueless about what has happened to her. Chief among the tormentors who mock her after this incident is the bratty Chris (Jeanna De Waal) and her thuggish boyfriend Billy (Ben Thompson).

Chris’ best friend Sue (Christy Altomare) finds she has a conscience and takes pity on the pathetic girl, causing a rift with the unrepentant Chris. Gym teacher Miss Gardner (Carmen Cusack) tries to chastise the bullies, but these are uncommonly tough, foul-mouthed kids.

In any case, Sue persuades her aspiring writer/jock boyfriend Tommy (Derek Klena) to invite Carrie to the prom to make amends in some measure, but a vicious prank by Chris and Billy turns the prom into a scene of horror, with Carrie pulling out all the stops with her nascent telekinetic powers.

Director Stafford Arima’s production is much less stylized than the original staging on a stark white set, and the strengths of Michael Gore’s score register more strongly as a result. (Ditto, the quality of most of Dean Pitchford's lyrics.) There are some very pretty things here, beyond the occasional bombast – Tommy’s “Dreamer in Disguise,” Sue’s “Once You See,” Carrie and Miss Gardner’s “Unsuspecting Hearts,” the “Do Me a Favor” quartet, and above all, the powerful mother/daughter duets, all sounding splendid in Doug Besterman’s orchestrations, under Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s musical direction.

Mazzie is quite extraordinary. Her hair a dirty blonde mop, minimal makeup, she is a formidable, even frightening, presence until, that is, Carrie shows her mettle. Ranson makes Carrie a pitiable creature transforming beautifully – though, alas, only briefly -- in her “Cinderella” moments at the prom. All the supporting roles are well cast, too.

Matt Williams has provided economic choreography for the smallish Lortel stage. The bloody climactic gym scene is cleverly accomplished with lights (Kevin Adams) and projections (Sven Ortel).

The audience watched in mostly rapt silence, and stood for a genuine ovation at the end. Only a few smart alecks – friends of a member of the creative team – snickered obnoxiously in the back rows, unmoved by even the most touching moments of the young heroine's sad saga.

(MCC Theater, Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, (212) 352-3101 or http://www.mcctheater.org/tickets.html)