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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)