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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)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire (Broadhurst Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

In case you were wondering about the credibility of this latest revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic – in light of the ostensible gimmick of its multi-racial casting – have no fear. This is a sound “Streetcar” in every way, with Nicole Ari Parker a first-rate Blanche DuBois.

In fact, the cast is uniformly excellent. Daphne Rubin-Vega is a feisty but loving Stella; Wood Harris a shyly appealing Mitch; and Blair Underwood a strong, brutish Stanley, if not always finding the humor mined so memorably by Brando and others.

That didn’t stop the mostly black audience at my performance from finding most of Stanley’s harsh put-downs of Blanche’s pretensions -- and even his terrible assault on her in the second act -- hilariously funny. Blanche’s sly flirtatiousness and predilection for drinking also brought howls of knowing laughter. The sadness and pathos of her condition seemed to fly over the heads of many in an audience which might as well have been watching a sitcom taping.

I must stress that none of this was the fault of the performers who did their professional best to keep squarely on course despite these inappropriate intrusions.

The smaller parts are well played, too, including upstairs neighbors Eunice (Amelia Campbell) and Steve (Matthew Saldivar), and Aaron Clifton Moten as the delivery boy who shares a delicate moment with Blanche.

Eugene Lee’s set is suitably atmospheric if less elaborate than say, the Roundabout revival with Natasha Richardson, but more so than the terrific if visually stark Cate Blanchett Aussie import that played BAM a couple of years ago.

Director Emily Mann and her cast – good as they are – don’t quite scale the heights of that brilliant production, or illuminate the play in as revelatory a way, but this still rates fairly high on the roster of New York “Streetcar” revivals.

And, at the end of the day, if a briefly shirtless Blair Underwood succeeds in bringing a new audience to Williams and the theater in general, well, bravo.

(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44 Street, 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com; a limited run for 16 weeks)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Evita (Marquis Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

It seems to take London productions longer and longer to cross the pond. I thought the revival of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” on Broadway after a four year lag from the West End broke some kind of record. But it’s taken the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice classic a full six years to make the transition with its star Elena Roger and creative team intact.

In London, I admired Michael Grandage’s production very much indeed – ditto, its star – without being quite over the moon about it as I was after seeing the original production there way back when. In fact, much as Patti LuPone’s name has been admiringly dropped in reviews of the present revival, it is Elaine Paige who will ever remain the champ in my memory. She was simply stunning vocally and dramatically, and contributed greatly to making that original production a very hot ticket indeed. It was only Actors Equity restrictions that prevented her from recreating the role here.

Roger is, like the ambitious Eva Peron she portrays, Argentinean, and thus brings to the table a unique authenticity. She is also a very fine actress, accomplished dancer, and artful – if not powerful – singer. One must approach her performance much as, I would imagine, audiences in the 1930s might have responded to some heralded European star like, say, France’s Yvonne Printemps, not quite in the Broadway mold.

Her voice thins out on top, and some of the showstopping moments of “A New Argentina” and “Rainbow High” are, as a result, less than thrilling. But in every other respect, she completely inhabits the role, and gives a finely detailed performance, particularly in the second act, where she limns Eva’s health decline most movingly.

She is superbly partnered here by Michael Cerveris who, as Juan Peron gives a surprisingly textured portrayal for such a sketchily written sung-through role. There’s as much nuance here as in his Sweeney Todd, to cite one of his outstanding characterizations.

Some have found Ricky Martin lacking in the bitingly sardonic quality that Mandy Patinkin brought to the role of Che. But Martin’s charming cynical take on the part is equally valid, the part itself having morphed from being a Che Guevara prototype to simply a narrator named Che. His is a disciplined, well sung performance and his gracefully athletic movement matches his accomplished vocals, his dancing especially impressive in the “Waltz for Eva and Che.”

Max Von Essen also delivers the vocal goods in Magaldi’s “On This Night of a Thousand Stars,” and Rachel Potter sings Peron’s mistress’s cast-off lament very nicely indeed.

Rob Ashford’s choreography is stunning, starting with the “Buenos Aires” number which builds and builds with Roger the impressive centerpiece. But this production is packed with dancing, all of it top-notch.

Hal Prince’s original staging was, one might have thought, definitive, but Grandage’s completely different take against Christopher Oram’s gorgeous realistic sets, is just as satisfying. The big “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” number is beautifully staged, as Eva comes out on her balcony against the golden glow of a chandelier bedecked chamber behind her, and sings pointedly to the adoring crowd -- frozen in tableau -- below. At this moment and the other "public" moments of the show, Roger seems uncannily like her subject.

And for all the sophistication of Lloyd Webber's latter-day shows, Grandage's production proves that the energy and vitality of "Evita" are as potent as ever.

(Marquis Theatre, The Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway, Ticketmaster.com, by phone at 1-800-745-3000)

The Best Man (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

An all-star cast brightens Gore Vidal’s entertaining and still highly relevant political drama about a nominating convention, circa 1960, wherein a highly principled liberal and former secretary of state William Russell (John Larroquette) stands against a ruthless conservative senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack, appropriately hateful). The former U.S. president Hockstader (James Earl Jones, relishing every scene-stealing moment) keeps both candidates guessing as to which one he’ll support.

Cantwell is not above mud slinging, especially when he uncovers a mental breakdown in Russell’s past, not to mention a history of serial womanizing. But Russell’s campaign manager (Michael McKean) discovers something potentially more damaging in Cantwell’s past. Will Russell overcome his scruples to use the information to defuse Cantwell’s impending attack?

Therein lays the conflict of Vidal’s play which clearly has amazingly resonant present-day parallels as Cantwell’s loudly proclaimed self-righteousness echoes precisely the rhetoric of so many of today’s right-wing candidates.

Performances are all fine, including Angela Lansbury (sharp as ever) as the Chairman of the Women’s Division, a matronly Candice Bergen as Russell’s unhappy, sardonic wife, Jefferson Mayes as a quivering milquetoast from Cantwell’s past, Corey Brill as Cantwell’s slick campaign manager, and Dakin Matthews as a gregarious senator. Kerry Butler is entertaining as Cantwell’s Southern belle wife, though her accent is marred by an anachronistic Valley Girl intonation.

Derek McLane’s double turntable set allows for speedy transitions between the Russell and Cantwell hotel suites and convention floor, and the colorful campaign banners extending beyond the proscenium and to the boxes. Ann Roth’s period costumes are right on the money. Michael Wilson directs the three-act piece at an engrossing pace.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

The Mikado (The Collegiate Chorale)



By Harry Forbes

This concert version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most famous work – under the auspices of the Collegiate Chorale – and with a cast of seasoned Broadway performers was, from start to finish, pure delight at Carnegie Hall last Tuesday.

Ted Sperling’s conducting of the American Symphony Orchestra for the Chorale’s Spring Benefit was vibrant and alert, doing full justice to Arthur Sullivan’s evergreen score. The Chorale – larger, of course, than any stage chorus would be for the work – sounded marvelous, Gilbert’s lyrics crisply articulated. (The group is in the midst of its 70th season.)

The cast had the style down to their fingertips, beginning with Jason Danieley whose strong tenor in Nanki-Poo’s “A Wandering Minstrel” signaled right from the start that the piece would be in accomplished hands (despite momentarily losing his place in that number). Jonathan Freeman was a just about perfect Pooh-Bah in a very traditional vein, and the only cast member to use an English accent, a decision which made sense, given the character’s pomposity. Christopher Fitzgerald was a stitch as Ko-Ko, his list song almost entirely comprised of topical lyrics. The casting of Chuck Cooper as The Mikado seemed a homage to 1939 Broadway's "The Swing Mikado" and "The Hot Mikado" but was as traditional a Mikado as you could wish, until he briefly lapsed into black dialect for the line “Bless my heart, my son!” and promptly brought down the house.

As for the women, Kelli O’Hara sang gorgeously in her soprano register, her “The sun whose rays are all ablaze” particularly ravishing. And though Victoria Clark doesn’t really have the contralto tones required for that gorgon of a man-hunter, Katisha, she offered a formidable and hilarious portrayal. She and Fitzgerald had great chemistry particularly in their duet “There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast," a real showstopper. Lauren Worsham made an outstanding, simply adorable Pitti-Sing, and Amy Justman a funny, archly acerbic Peep Bo.

The occasional pitch problem or muffed lyric counted not a whit.

Sperling‘s staging was delightful. There was nothing overtly Japanese about the costuming, but as Jonathan Miller’s 1920s production at New York City Opera and others have already demonstrated, the satire of “The Mikado” is highly adaptable. But the whole enterprise had a Broadway sensibility that – while remaining totally faithful to the source material (Ko-Ko’s song excepted) – gave everything a freshly minted feel.

Much as when the English National Opera performed “Patience” at the Met years ago, it was thrilling to hear Sullivan’s score played so superbly in the hallowed Hall.

The Collegiate Chorale’s season concludes on May 21st with a program comprised of Copland, Poulenc, and Avner Dorman at St. Batholomew’s Church. But here’s hoping there’s more G&S in the group’s future!

(Collegiate Chorale, 646-435-9465 or collegiatechorale.org)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Newsies (Nederlander Theatre)

(Photo by Deen van Meer)

By Harry Forbes

After the rash of mostly positive reviews at the Paper Mill Playhouse for this nothing-if-not-energetic stage adaptation of the 1992 film about an 1899 strike by newsboys against the unjust working conditions imposed by the papers’ publishers, personified here by Joseph Pulitzer, a Broadway transfer seemed inevitable, and so it was.

Thanks to the premature closing of “Bonnie and Clyde,” heralded star Jeremy Jordan has been able to resume his much praised performance as fictional Jack Kelly, leader of the strike (inspired, in part, by the real-life one-eyed Kid Blink), and he’s as impressive here as he was playing another tough outcast, Clyde Barrow.

His cocky and appealing presence is a definite plus, and he’s surrounded by a gang of Bowery Boy-type cronies who are currently delivering some of the most athletic dancing on Broadway, leaping through the air, and executing a dizzying number of somersaults, handstands, and cartwheels..

The other principals are fine, too. There’s Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Jack’s endearing crippled sidekick, Ben Fankhauser is Davey, not orphaned like most of the others but having to sell papers because his non-union protected father has been injured on the job. He becomes Jack’s loyal ally, There’s Lewis Grosso (at my performance) as Davey’s savvy, feisty kid brother, and pretty Kara Lindsay is the girl reporter who, as you might expect, falls for Jack. John Dossett is Pulitzer, the standard issue villain of the piece.

Harvey Fierstein has written the book (which differs in several key respects from the plot of the movie). That storyline – predictable as it is – holds your interest, though the dialogue and its delivery are often blithely anachronistic. The show tries to capture some of the revolutionary spirit of “Les Miserables” and, in the newsboys, the ragamuffin orphans of “Oliver!” but “Newsies” falls short of both of those.

For me, the big disappointment is Alan Menken’s hard-driving, ultimately wearying score which, on first hearing anyway, lacks distinction and variety, unlike his concurrent “Sister Act” which is so much better. There’s certainly little sense of period in these strictly generic anthems. Some bouncy ragtime-flavored tunes would have been far superior to the bland pop sounds blaring forth here.

The songs are belted out relentlessly, Ken Travis’ sound design pitched much too high presumably to ramp up the excitement.

Tobin Ost’s three-level erector set playing area allows for some striking stage pictures every now and then, and Jess Goldstein’s costumes supply the period flavor lacking elsewhere. Jeff Calhoun has directed at a no-nonsense pace, but he and star Jordan fared better with the much more interesting – and artistically admirable – “Bonnie and Clyde.” And, as indicated, Christopher Gatelli’s high-flying choreography is a big plus.

All in all, I found the hard-sell rather dispiriting. Not so the screaming young fans in the audience who relished every moment, and jammed the stage door afterwards. Still, they could do worse, and they’re getting a passably good history lesson with this one, too.

(Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st St., 866-870-2717 or NewsiesTheMusical.com; through August 19)