Follow by Email

Friday, December 13, 2013

Waiting for Godot - No Man’s Land (Cort)


By Harry Forbes

When Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen – and their estimable cast-mates -- take their curtain calls at the end of Samuel Beckett’s iconic play, they do a little vaudeville turn aptly epitomizing the playful interplay they’ve demonstrated so brilliantly all evening.

Even with the fine Roundabout revival with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin fresh in mind, Sean Mathias’ production is quite the best I’ve seen, with McKellen and Stewart alive to every nuance in Beckett’s existential text.

It’s a pleasure to watch the sparring – and essential codependency -- between the intellectual Vladimir (Stewart) and the more spontaneous Estragon (McKellen), as these two tramps eke out their daily existence. The audience feels their affection for each other, and when they make up after a squabble, coos and applauds in approval. (This pair is seriously cute!) Their antics almost cross the line of how far to take the comic aspects of Beckett’s text, but these two pros ultimately strike just the right balance.

The extended hat exchanging sequence and their impersonations of haughty Pozzo and his nearly mute (except for one lengthy outburst) slave Lucky in the second act certainly give them the legitimate opportunity for some horseplay.

It must be said that the lengthy Pozzo-Lucky sequence in the first act does try an audience’s patience, despite the credible work of Shuler Hensley (with Southern accent) and Billy Crudup respectively, and there were some walkouts at halftime at my performance. But the second act is utterly absorbing, and you have the satisfaction of seeing two knights of the realm at the top of their considerable game.

And the play, for all its obliqueness, does set us thinking of our life on earth in profound ways, and Mathias’ direction gives clarity to much that is obscure in the text.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ desolate and decaying set and shabby costume design, as lit by Peter Kaczorowksi create precisely the right environment.

It’s great fun to see the cast in a completely different guise when they take on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic “No Man’s Land,” a far more satisfying Pinter staging than the current “Betrayal.”

Though McKellen and Stewart can’t, in all honesty, be said to match John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in the original, they are pretty fabulous in their own terms. Stewart’s wealthy literary man Hirst who’s brought home a freeloading character named Spooner (McKellen) whom he’s met on Hampstead Heath. Hirst spends most of the first act in an inebriated haze while Spooner – who claims to be a poet of repute himself – rambles on and on while he consumes great quantities of his host’s liquor. But Spooner soon realizes they’re not alone; Hirst is attended by two shady characters, the sinister Foster (Billy Crudup in particularly good form here) and the hulking Briggs (Shuler Hensley). And, by the second act, Spooner has rather lost the emotional control he had in the first.

Pinter’s constructed a glorious game of cat and mouse, and it’s finely played by all, though perhaps missing just a touch of the requisite menace I recall from the original and a revival a few years ago with Michael Gambon and David Bradley in London.

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through March 2)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Walter Kerr)


By Harry Forbes

Astute musical buffs may be forgiven if they think they’ve time traveled into some West End musical of the late 1950s or 1960s on London’s Shaftsbury Avenue, for this stylish and delightful musical version of the Roy Horniman novel that inspired the Alec Guinness classic, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” is a real throwback in the best sense of the word.

You might also be reminded of those 1960s Off-Broadway English pastiche musicals such as “Ernest in Love” or “A Man with a Load of Mischief,” not to mention, of course, the recently revived “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” But the conceit of “Drood” was on the narrative done in a consciously music hall style, which is less the case here.

With a droll book and lyrics by Robert L. Feedman and witty music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak (deftly orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick), the story tells the tale of impoverished Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), whose late mother had, unbeknownst to him, been related to the wealthy D’Ysquith family, until she was disinherited when she dared marry a commoner for love. Monty figures out that there are only eight D’Ysquiths standing between him a fortune, and blithely decides to bump each off, and take his rightful place as the Earl of Highhurst.

All of the human obstacles in his way are impersonated by the extraordinary Jefferson Mays in a simply wondrous performance, playing everything from a doddering hypocritical parson to a twit of a beekeeper to an imposing philanthropic matron.

Pinkham makes a charming anti-hero, holding the stage most capably all evening. Lisa O’Hare channels the film’s Joan Greenwood as Monty’s lovably mercenary first love (and then mistress), lovely-voiced Lauren Worsham is his sweet cousin (and soon fiancé), veteran Jane Carr is the old friend of Monty’s mother who reveals Monty’s lineage. and other roles are sharply taken by Eddie Korbich, Joanna Glushak, and others.

Alexander Dodge’s striking scenic design pleases the eye from the get-go: a plush red velvet curtain and an Edwardian stage within the stage, all of which bolsters the show’s presentational concept and theatricality. Linda Cho’s costumes are equally apt and pleasing.

Lutvak’s score bubbles merrily along, with some very nice nuggets along the way, including a hilarious double entendre duet for Monty and the fey beekeeper, “Better with a Man” and the show’s most clever number, “I’ve Decided to Marry You” ” (both wittily choreographed by Peggy Hickey) that has Monty trying to keep the two women in his life from meeting when both turn up in his flat. There are several patter songs like “Poison in My Pocket” that hearken back to the Gilbert & Sullivan tradition.

What a pleasure to encounter a literate new musical that doesn’t sound like yet another Sondheim rip-off, or one crassly geared to the pop charts.

The evening has been directed by Darko Tresnjak with sly wit and high style.

(Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street; telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200)

Photo: Joan Marcus. (L-R) Jefferson Mays as Henry D'Ysquith, Jennifer Smith, and Bryce Pinkham as Monty Navarro.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cyrano de Bergerac (VHRP Live!)

By Harry Forbes

Artistic Director Alyce Mott’s premiere effort for her VHRP Live! company (that’s the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project, if you were wondering) – an abridged, concert version of Herbert’s 1899 operetta rarity “Cyrano de Bergerac” -- was a delight even with no chorus, no orchestra, and a cast of merely five.

The beauty of Herbert’s score shone through with great clarity, thanks to excellent soloists and sympathetic piano accompaniment. Dedicated operetta fans might have heard this score in 1999 when the late Dino Anagnost conducted a large scale concert of (more or less) Mott’s same version at Alice Tully Hall. And there was also a full orchestra version this past July from the Lyric Theatre of San Jose, but apart from those performances, the piece has been unheard for well over 100 years.

At Alice Tully, I recall, the large orchestra played superbly, which was usually the case when Anagnost took to the podium for his biannual Herbert concert, and the large chorus made a gorgeous (if sometimes unintelligible) sound. Sally Ann Howes was the narrator, filling in bits of the plot with her trademark grace.

In VHRP’s version, operetta veteran David Seatter handled the narrator role (and a few other parts) with engaging verve and charm.

The leads in this triangular story were all solid, acting with sincerity and commitment within the restrictions of a semi-staged presentation. Nathan Brian essayed the title character with the requisite panache, albeit without the pronounced proboscis, though he got to keep his “Song of the Nose.” (A minor carp, but he surely should have been allowed a little putty for that most key plot point.)

Mott’s libretto, incidentally, substitutes the more accurate term “white plume” for the sound-alike English word for the French “pennache.”

Tenor Stephen Faulk was ideally cast as Cyrano’s handsome, tongue-tied rival Christian, singing with mellifluous tone throughout. And pretty Olga Xanthopoulou made a vocally assured Roxane starting with her opening number, “I Am the Court Coquette,” scaling down her big voice admirably. There was able work, too, from John Greenleaf in the speaking role of Comte de Guiche.

All of Herbert’s numbers were attractive, and the balcony scene, wherein Cyrano feeds Christian his lines to woo Roxane (“Let the Sun of Thine Eyes”) was particularly beautiful with Brian, Faulk, and Xanthopoulou blending stunningly, as they did again later in the show.

Music Director Michael Thomas provided consistently vibrant accompaniment at the keyboard.

As the original libretto by lyricist Harry B. Smith is lost – though apparently no great shakes, as it is said to have vulgarized Rostand’s original, and made Cyrano more buffoon than hero – Mott is to be commended for stitching the extant songs to Rostand’s text, and giving the piece more gravitas than that original, which actually included a happy ending for all the characters!

Here, the plot faithfully mirrored the play right down to the touching convent scene with Roxane and the now dying Cyrano, sensitively played by Brian and Xanthopoulou.

While this version can’t take the place of the full score, but it certainly serves Mott’s purpose of whetting the appetite for a full production!

At the start of the evening, Mott announced more “pocket” presentations to come, and also a full scale mounting of Herbert’s grand opera, “Natoma,” in July at the Manhattan Center. I can’t wait.

(VHRP Live!, Christ & St. Stephens Church, 120 W. 69th St, www.vhsource.com)

Photo: James Cooper

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twelfth Night and Richard III (Shakespeare's Globe)


By Harry Forbes

What a treat to see these simultaneously authentic and audacious productions of two such disparate Shakespeare plays back to back in repertory! The initial draw for both productions is the presence of the Globe’s first artistic director, Mark Rylance, whose astonishing Broadway performances in “Boeing Boeing,” “La Bete,” and “Jerusalem” in recent seasons sent critics looking for superlatives.

And as these present plays are cast with men in all the roles, as in Elizabethan times, we have the pleasure of seeing Rylance as the scheming Richard III one night, and the sheltered countess, Olivia, on another. (And, if you choose, you can catch both productions on the same day.)

In truth, his Richard takes some getting used to. Rylance is not the first actor to mine the humor in the role; Olivier had sly fun with it in the famous film. But the goofy laughter with which Rylance peppers his performance at first seems a bid for cheap laughs. And the audience is all too willing to laugh along. But as Richard’s heinous crimes multiply, and we see his bipolar mood swings, the laughter can soon be seen as symptomatic of a dangerous and deadly psychosis.

Unorthodox as the interpretation is, ultimately it's as riveting a Richard as those of Olivier, Antony Sher, Ian McKellan, and all the other great Richards of memory. The wooing of the widowed Lay Anne (whose husband Richard has recently dispatched) plays as strongly as ever. And Joseph Timms makes as touching a figure as Claire Bloom or any of the other past female interpreters.



There are no reservations whatsoever about “Twelfth Night,” which delights from start to finish. Samuel Barnett, who essays the tragic Queen Elizabeth in “Richard III,” is the pale-faced Viola here, and Timms now plays her Doppelganger brother Sebastian.

The members of Olivia’s household are magnificently embodied by Angus Wright (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Colin Hurley (Sir Toby Belch), Jethro Skinner (Fabian), Paul Chahidi (Maria), and Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste, the fool, whose a capella rendering of the Shakespeare songs is quite beautiful. It’s particularly enjoyable to see Wright as Olivia’s effete suitor, after his dynamic Buckingham in Richard III, and Chahidi as such a splendidly real gentlewoman after his outing as the hapless Hastings in the other. And so it goes with all the other doubling cast members.

The great Stephen Fry has no part in Richard III, but makes an altogether splendid steward Malvolio, appropriately dour in the first half, and hilariously deluded and then pathetic in the second.

Rylance’s Olivia – hopelessly smitten by young Viola in the guise of Cesario who’s pressing Count Orsino’s suit – is a gem of a characterization. Buttoned up and austere in black mourning weeds and stiff collar, but increasingly unhinged as she loses her heart to the woman she takes for a handsome young man, traversing the stage in rapid baby steps, and falling into hilarious faints at key moments, he yet creates a most touching character for all the humor.

Both plays are accompanied by a fine ensemble of seven musicians playing a variety of period instruments, and designer Jenny Tiramani has fashioned costumes that are authentic to Shakespeare’s period down to the smallest detail.

Director Tim Carroll has the assured measure of both these works which, I have little doubt, will stand as benchmarks for Shakespeare in New York for some time to come.

(Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com; through Feb. 7 only)

Fun Home (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

This highly affecting musical drama, based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, concerns a young girl’s discovery of her own sexuality and revelation that her father, an eccentric collector who ran a funeral home, was, in fact, leading a double life.

The exceptional cast includes Michael Cerveris, in peak form as the conflicted father, Judy Kuhn as his long-suffering wife, and Sydney Lucas, Alexandra Socha, and Beth Malone as the child, teenaged, and adult Alison respectively. Roberta Colindrez plays Joan, Alison’s college buddy who helps Alison find herself. Joel Perez plays a few of the young men who catch the wandering eye of the father. All are superb.

Jeanine Tesori has done her usual exemplary work with a score that springs naturally from the text and enhances the drama, and Lisa Kron has fashioned a fine book and intelligent lyrics.

Director Sam Gold builds the drama as forcefully as if it was a straight play, juggling the overlapping time periods seamlessly, enhanced by David Zinn’s versatile setting and apt costumes, and Ben Stanton’s atmospheric lighting.

Chris Fenwick on keyboard keeps musicians and actors beautifully in sync with this most unusual and moving musical.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org; through Dec. 1)

Photo: Joan Marcus. (l.-r.) Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All That Fall (59E59 Theaters)

By Harry Forbes

There’s no denying it’s a treat to see those great British actors Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon in the intimate space of 59E59 with a fine supporting cast including veteran Frank Grimes, a Tony nominee for “Borstal Boy” in 1970, and all directed by Trevor Nunn no less.

What some might consider the rub is their chosen vehicle: a 1957 radio play by Samuel Beckett, which his estate dictated be always performed as such. Thus, Cherry Truluck’s set design is a radio studio with the actors formally lined up on either side of the stage, scripts in hand (also specified by the estate), until it’s there turn to speak. Radio sound effects abound; if Atkins walks across the stage, for instance, we hear off-stage footsteps signaling her movements to the "broadcast" audience.

The play, set in Ireland, is not without humor, but despite the jolly visages of the stars on the production’s poster, this is hardly a knee-slapper; in fact, writing the piece profoundly depressed the playwright himself. But among the lighter moments is some amusing physical business about getting elderly obese Mrs. Rooney into a truck.

Atkins’ recounting of her journey to pick up her blind husband from an arriving train – meeting, along the way, a young man with a dung cart (Ruairi Conaghan), an old man on a bicycle (Grimes), a racecourse clerk (Trevor Cooper) in a car, and pious Miss Fitt (Catherine Cusack) – becomes ultimately taxing, despite the actress’s superb delivery.

Still, she skillfully shows how her complaining character, though unhappy, is ever game nonetheless. And however much the weight of the world seems to burden her, she remains touchingly resilient. Gambon joins her about halfway through the play’s intermission-less 75 minutes, and demonstrates both sly wit and considerable ferocity at key moments.

A sinister tone underscores the work, as Mrs. Rooney’s unanswered queries about why the train was delayed become increasingly ominous. And end-of-life matters and death are never far away even in the Beckett’s lighter moments.

Technical credits here are all top notch. Paul Groothuis’ sound design in particular, so important given the radio performance conceit, is impeccable. Nunn’s direction is sensitively attuned to Beckett’s unique rhythms.

The production played London’s intimate Jermyn Street and Arts Theatres, both the equivalent of Off-Broadway venues here, and has come with cast intact. With the great Atkins and Gambon in top form, both runs were quick sell-outs. Off-putting though this play can be, you owe it to yourself to catch these two pros while you can.

(59E59 Theaters, 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org; through Dec. 8)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

After Midnight (Brooks Atkinson)

By Harry Forbes

“After Midnight” gets my vote as the most richly entertaining musical on Broadway at the moment. Ultra-stylish, endlessly inventive, and marvelously performed, this evocation of the glory days of Harlem’s Cotton Club is pure heaven from start to finish, the kind of show that has you checking your watch in the hope that the 90-minute running time won’t be soon coming to an end.

The show began life as “The Cotton Club Parade” at Encores. I didn’t have a chance to see the show, conceived by Jack Viertel, so I can’t report on how much it may have changed, but what’s onstage at the Brooks Atkinson is pretty near perfection.

Pop singer Fantasia Barrino, who received acclaim when she replaced LaChanze in “The Color Purple” a few years back, is the first of a planned succession of guest stars, and she’s a delight, radiating true star quality, and delivering mesmerizing versions of “Stormy Weather” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” bringing down the house with Cab Calloway’s “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” and even doing some hoofing in “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Her voice is a piquant mix of Billie Holiday and Nell Carter.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, under the direction of Daryl Waters, are simply a sensation, playing the wickedest, down and dirty, bluesy accompaniment you’ll hear in town. They’re given a couple of chances to shine on their own, including Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass,”

The biggest surprise is Tony winner Adriane Lenox from “Doubt” belting out a pair of raunchy numbers, “Women Be Wise” (“Don’t Advertise Your Man”), and later, “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” and milking them for every ounce of delicious innuendo.

Warren Carlyle’s wondrous direction and choreography keeps surprising time and again. “I’ve Got the World on a String,” for instance, performed by the evening’s other guest star Dulé Hill, holding a balloon aloft, and soon joined by the rest of the company, similarly outfitted, is a real charmer.

The wonderful cast is stylishly distributed. We have a mellow, close-harmony girl group; six wondrous dancers strutting in syncopated unison; a virtuoso tap dancer (Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards); a couple of well contrasted male hoofers (Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’O” Gadson); a sexy comic dancer (Tony nominee Karine Plantadit from “Come Fly Away”); and so on.

Carrlyle's endlessly imaginative staging include a funeral sequence (Ellington’s “The Gal From Joe’s” leading into his “Black and Tan Fantasy”) that sees the corpse coming out of the coffin and dancing up a storm (that’s Ms. Plantadit in angry, defiant form as her deceased character struts her stuff for one last time).

John Lee Beatty’s scenic backdrops, Howell Binkley’s lighting, and Isabel Toledo’s wondrous costumes are classy all the way. Peter Hylenski’s sound design is just right, and every word comes through cleanly and clearly.

This is joyous entertainment from start to finish.

(Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47 St., Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Betrayal (Barrymore)

By Harry Forbes

Harold Pinter’s 1978 play about an adulterous affair told in reverse chronology has always been one of his most entertaining and accessible works. I saw the original production with its peerless cast of Daniel Massey, Michael Gambon, and Penelope Wilton at the National Theatre in London, and the fine film version with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge. Both were gripping.

The play begins in 1977, a couple of years after the breakup of the lovers, and moves backwards to the actual split, then before that to the husband’s discovery of the affair, and finally, to 1968 when wife and lover first click during a party. It’s clear over the course of the play’s 90 minutes that there are more levels of betrayal going on than simply that of the wife and lover. Pinter is said to have been inspired to write the play after his own adulterous affair with journalist Joan Bakewell.

Despite the current production’s three superb actors (Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Rafe Spall), and the savvy direction by the great Mike Nichols, who’s provided some sexy stage business not in the text, I found this revival oddly less gripping than other productions, though Pinter’s dialogue still registers as clever as ever.

Still, Ian MacNeil’s set of sliding panels skillfully conjures up the various settings of the adulterous flat where art gallery owner Emma (Weisz) and author’s agent Jerry (Spall) have their trysts, as well as publisher Robert (Craig) and wife Emma’s house, a Venice hotel room, and other locales. Ann Roth has provided attractive costumes. James Murphy has provided some rather somber incidental music.

Performance-wise, Craig, Weisz, and Spall are sharply attuned to all the subtle shifts in Pinter’s text, and play it beautifully. Spall is superbly discomfited at various points, such as when he discovers that his best friend Robert knew all along. And his drunken declaration of love for Emma in the last scene (though the earliest time-wise) is a comic tour-de-force.

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through January 5)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Magic Knight (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

LOONY’s real season doesn’t get underway till 2014 when they’ll be doing full productions of Sigmund Romberg’s “The New Moon” and Victor Herbert’s “Orange Blossoms.”

But, in anticipation of those events, the enterprising company presented a one-night reprise of Herbert’s one-act “Lohengrin” spoof, which they had previously mounted in 2008.

Even with only piano accompaniment (and that was most excellently provided by David Mayfield), the wit and charm of the piece – originally part of a double bill that included Herbert’s “Dream City” when it premiered in 1906 to rapturous reviews -- shone through.

Since it’s such a short piece, LOONY preceded it with an audition skit which allowed the singers “auditioning” for “The Magic Knight” to perform various other items.

Thus, we had Rich Miller’s (intentionally over-the-top) “I’m Falling in Love with Someone” from “Naughty Marietta”; Peter Büchi’ “Ch’ella mi creda” from “La Fanciulla del West”; Jane Brendler Büchi’s rarely heard “So Ends My Dream” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Grand Duke”; Samantha Britt’s florid “Love is Where You Find It”; an “Andrea Chenier” aria by Jonathan Fox Powers; and Richard Holmes lusty “Come Gypsies” from Kalman’s “Countess Maritza.”

For “The Magic Knight,” these excellent soloists were joined by a chorus of seven which generated a satisfyingly rich sound. The piece included a virtuoso coloratura number for Britt as Elsa (which she sang to the hilt), and an infectiously tuneful vaudeville-style number for Lohengrin (Miller) called “Ta Ta.”

“The Magic Knight,” incidentally, will be done again next summer at Ohio Light Opera with its “Dream City” companion piece, and a full orchestra.

For more of a Herbert fix, I’m greatly looking forward to LOONY’s rarely staged “Orange Blossoms” next April.

(Light Opera of New York, National Opera Center, 330 Seventh Avenue at 29th Street; www.lightoperaofnewyork.org)

The Snow Geese (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Classy production values, some good performances, and a not uninteresting narrative are the plusses of this Chekhovian drama set in a suburb of Syracuse, NY, during World War I.

But anachronistic dialogue and a few performances that register as far too contemporary spoil the period mood (for example, succumbing to the modern-day habit of sometimes making a statement sound like a question), despite what may have been the playwright’s intention to position events in a modern vernacular, rather like a trendy adaptation of a Chekhov play.

Star Mary-Louise Parker is the chief offender; she’s simply too much of the present day as Elizabeth, a recently widowed matriarch ensconced in her grief, though she looks the part in her period mourning clothes by Jane Greenwood. Similarly, Evan Jonigkeit and Brian Cross as her sons Duncan and Arnie are too contemporary, though limning the emotions of their characters well; the former, the pampered elder brother, on the eve of going off to France with his regiment, arrogantly confident that American know-how and gumption will save the day; the latter, the bitter neglected younger one, who’s learned that the well-heeled family is, in fact, totally broke.

Still, Danny Burstein as their German uncle whose home was destroyed as a result of anti-German sentiment, and Victoria Clark as his religiously-inclined wife (and Elizabeth’s sister) acquit themselves with the proper period demeanor, while Jessica Love as a Ukrainian maid is quite superb in all her scenes.

John Lee Beatty‘s spacious hunting lodge set captures the ambiance beautifully, and goes a long way to making Sharr White’s play seem more authentic than it really it is. And, of course, Daniel Sullivan's direction is exemplary.

There’s enough intriguing material here to hold your interest, and “The Snow Geese” is never actually dull, but more’s the pity that it couldn’t have been better.

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

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Big Fish (Neil Simon Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The latest musical from composer Andrew Lippa (“The Addams Family”) is based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and John August’s screenplay for the 2003 Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney film that was directed by Tim Burton. (August wrote the musical’s book.)

It’s an imaginatively staged, quite moving story of Will Bloom (Bobby Steggert), a young man with issues about his father Ed (Norbert Leo Butz), a former traveling salesman and a spinner of fantastical tall tales filled with witches, mermaids, giants, and werewolves, all of which Will believes must be masking a dark secret. When Ed is diagnosed with cancer, Will returns to their Alabama home with his new bride (Krystal Joy Brown) to help his mother (Kate Baldwin) and try to resolve the inner conflicts with his dad.

Director/choreographer Susan Stroman pulls out all the stops when the story calls for it, as in a big USO-type wartime number, a circus number with syncopated elephants (!), and a TV western come to life in a dying man’s room, but for all of that, keeps things nicely scaled, and never goes over the top. For the most part, her stellar work here draws one into the intimate side of the story, and she has directed those scenes most affectingly.

Norbert Leo Butz is superb, morphing effortlessly from older man, gradually succumbing to his terrible illness, to young man, to everything in-between and back again. He carries the show with his fine acting, commanding singing and, on occasion, nimble dancing.

Kate Baldwin is especially lovely as his patient, loving wife, looking smashing in all her ages, and singing with crystalline purity. And Bobby Steggert is ideally cast, as the uncomprehending all-too-pragmatic son.

The supporting players are all well cast, including Brad Oscar as the circus owner with a dark secret, Ryan Andes as a sympathetic giant, and Kirsten Scott as a popular cheerleader in Ed’s childhood hometown, who has some poignant moments.

Andrew Lippa’s score (music and lyrics) is full of lovely things, including “Stranger,” “Two Men,” “I Don’t Need a Roof,” and “Daffodils," a beautiful first-act closer staged against designer Julian Crouch’s profusion of those flowers.

Production credits are top notch, including William Ivey Long’s over-the-years costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting, and Jon Weston’s sound design.

This is a bittersweet story, to be sure, and one that doesn’t fit the mold of your typical Broadway musical, but the audience responds warmly throughout.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, Ticketmaster.com or 866-870-2717)

Photo: Paul Kolnik

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Glass Menagerie (Booth)

By Harry Forbes

This is the second production of Tennessee Williams’ classic play in two years, and if you remember that Roundabout mounting with Judith Ivey (or even the Jessica Lange Broadway revival of 2005), and are wondering whether this present one is worth your time, the answer is a resounding yes.

The production played in Cambridge earlier this year at the American Repertory Theater where it deservedly received rapturous reviews.

Cherry Jones is indeed magnificent as Amanda Winfield, overbearingly domineering mother of budding writer Tom (Zachary Quinto) and lame, painfully shy daughter Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger). Brian J. Smith is the Gentleman Caller whom Tom brings home from the factory on his mother’s bidding in the hopes of finding a suitor for Laura.

Jones is in full command of her craft and dominates her scenes with the sheer force of her personality and emphatic body language. She’s so powerful from even her first moments on stage, in fact, that one almost fears she’ll have nothing to build up to, but she sustains the energy throughout, and demonstrates more than do many other Amandas how desperate she is for her children’s well being, rather than just a woman pathetically clinging to a more genteel past, now long gone.

For all her ferocity, Jones skillfully plays the humorous moments, such as her primping and flirtatious coyness when she puts on her old cotillion dress from her Southern belle days to impress the Gentleman Caller.

She’s far from the whole show, however, as narrator Quinto makes an outstanding, sensitive Tom refreshingly individual in the vocal cadences of his monologues, Keenan-Bolger an exquisitely fragile Laura, and Smith an exceptionally sympathetic Jim. The candlelit scene between him and Laura has truly never been more affecting. In that scene and every other, John Tiffany’s direction is highly perceptive.

One of Tiffany’s most interesting stylistic touches is Laura’s first appearance as Tom summons her to memory. It could have been gimmicky, but works memorably. (Steven Hoggett is credited with movement.)

Bob Crowley’s abstract set design is on the spare side. And if you sit near the back of the orchestra, as I did, you won’t see the symbolic separate platforms on which the Wingfield living and dining rooms play out, nor the moat beneath, nor the full reach of the abstract fire escape, just the few bits of furniture against a black void. Still, the performances are so good that they’d register even on a bare stage. Natasha Katz has provided the moody lighting

Clive Goodwin’s sound design makes everything crystal clear even in the far reaches of the theater, and Nico Muhly’s musical score sets the otherworldly mood for this memory play.

(Booth Theatre. 222 W 45th Street, Telecharge.com, or 212-239-6200; through Feb. 23)

Photo: Michael J. Lutch

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Winslow Boy (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This latest revival of Terence Rattigan’s sturdy, beautifully crafted 1946 play is first-rate in every way. The production hails from London’s Old Vic where it was mounted early this year with different actors, but there’s nary a weak link in Roundabout’s cast. Director Lindsay Posner directs again, with the action playing out on Peter McKintosh’s beautiful period set.

It is 1912, and 14-year-old cadet Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) has been sent home from the naval academy charged with stealing a five pound postal order. The family – mother Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), sister Catherine (Charlotte Parry), brother Dickie (Zachary Booth) – fear the father Arthur’s (Roger Rees) wrath.

But, in fact, once Arthur is convinced of his boy’s innocence, he is willing to endure any emotional or financial hardships to pay for Ronnie’s defense and publish his son’s innocence, a case that will pit private rights versus the public good. And Arthur is willing to sacrifice Dickie’s Oxford education, Catherine’s engagement, and the household staff in the process.

He enlists a celebrity barrister Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) who, in the brilliant first half curtain closer, ferociously interrogates the boy to determine his culpability in the theft.

Rattigan based the play on a real-life incident, involving a boy named George Archer-Shee who, ironically, would die in World War I.

One marvels anew at the skill of the play’s construction. Unlike Broadway’s concurrent “A Time to Kill” and so many other courtroom dramas, “The Winslow Boy” never gives us the courtroom scenes (though the superb 1948 film with Robert Donat did), but rather we hear of the proceedings through accounts of those who attend the hearings.

The fact that the alleged theft is such a minor offense, and even Ronnie himself has, in short order, moved past it as he now settled into a new school, makes Arthur’s fervor for justice all the more intriguing. But even sister Catherine feels compelled to see the case through to the bitter end. “All that I care about is that people should know that a Government Department has ignored a fundamental human right and that it should be forced to acknowledge it,” she states.

Rees’ physical transformation over the play’s four acts, as we see the toll exacted by the emotional strain, is masterful, and Parry as his chief ally, his suffragette daughter, is equally commanding.

Mastrantonio is the very model of a British matron, etching her character with compassion and spirit. In one of her most emotional scenes, she berates her husband for pursuing the case out of pride. Booth is spot on as the superficial older son most focused on playing his gramophone as he learns the latest dance craze.

Nivola is has the requisite authoritative manner of Sir Robert. Michael Cumpsty does his usual impeccable work, here as the Catherine’s rejected suitor Desmond, the family solicitor. And Henny Russell is delightful as a not-quite-proper parlor maid, whose faux pas propel the action at key points.

McKintosh's costumes, David Lander’s lighting and Drew Levy’s sound design are further assets to this classy production.

This is the second Rattigan winner for the Roundabout in as many years, coming as it does after their mounting of the relatively rare “Man and Boy.” Let's hope there are more to come.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org ; through Dec. 1)

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Time to Kill (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

John Grisham’s 1989 legal thriller -- filmed in 1996 with Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey – comes up as a reasonably stage worthy courtroom drama in Rupert Holmes’ expert adaptation.

The story of an ambitious and not completely altruistic lawyer Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus), who defends a black man Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) who has shot two white men who savagely raped his 10-year-old daughter, against an opportunistic district attorney Rufus Buckley (Patrick Page) with gubernatorial aspirations, holds your interest through its two acts, thanks to good performances and Ethan McSweeny’s resourceful direction.

Though most of the action takes place in the Mississippi courtroom, James Noone’s turntable set allows for a variety of perspectives and a couple of other locales (including Jake’s office and the outer office of the courtroom).

Was Carl Lee’s action justifiable homicide in a town where the culprits were sure to get an easy sentence? Is vigilantism ever permissible? Is there ever, as the Bible says, “a time to kill”? Are the lawyers more interested in career advancement and publicity than the cause they are defending? The answers are left to the audience. And indeed the judge and attorneys present their arguments across the footlights. That conceit first seems contrived, but ultimately works.

The show is well cast across the board. Arcelus (looking not unlike McConaughey) and Page make plausible adversaries, with Page particularly relishing the corrupt politician part. Though Arcelus has a dramatic role in TV’s “House of Cards” series, his past Broadway roles have all been musicals (e.g. “Elf,” “Jersey Boys”), but he demonstrates here he can move with ease between the genres. He's effective and sympathetic in the part.

The great classical actor Thompson plays Carl Lee with power and pathos. Tonya Pinkins shines in her brief scenes as Carl Lee’s uncomprehending but supportive wife. With his real-life political background, Fred Dalton Thompson comes across as a fully convincing judge. And Ashley Williams is appealing as a law school graduate jockeying to be Jake’s law clerk.

Lee Sellars and Dashiell Eaves are the scurvy villains, but reappear later in the play with some neat doubling.

Tom Skerritt proves a particular audience favorite as an alcoholic lawyer who has seen better days, and had not been, any more than Jake or Buckley, exactly a paragon of moral rectitude either.

Some familiar with the book and the movie may not find the story worth revisiting, however competently done, but the audience at my performance was completely absorbed, as was I, and I’d count Grisham’s Broadway debut (for this is the first of his works to be so adapted) a promising one.

(John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.)

Photo: Fred Dalton Thompson, John Douglas Thompson, and Sebastian Arcelus in Broadway's A TIME TO KILL. (c) Carol Rosegg

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Romeo and Juliet (Richard Rodgers Theatre)


Photo: Carol Rosegg

By Harry Forbes

Movie heartthrob Orlando Bloom makes an impressive Broadway debut as Shakespeare’s legendary lover, demonstrating an assured mastery of the text, real stage presence, and the ability to offer a detailed characterization.

He has been cast opposite the lovely Condola Rashad who has gone from strength to strength in her prior stage appearances, but alas, on this occasion, falls short both in her interpretation and her command of the text. Audibility is sometimes a problem, too, as words are lost as she rushes the dialogue in conveying Juliet’s youthful ardor.

And so it goes with the rest of the cast in David Leveaux’s often gimmicky production which is never revelatory, and the conceit of having black actors as the Capulets and white ones as their bitter rivals, the Montagues, adds little of substance.

On the plus side, we have Jayne Houdyshell’s accomplished Nurse, Brent Carver’s uncliched take on Friar Lawrence, and Christian Camargo’s verbally dexterous Mercutio. But Chuck Cooper and Roslyn Ruff’s Lord and Lady Capulet are fairly one note caricatures.

The production (designed by Jesse Poleschuck with costumes by Fabio Toblini) is more or less modern dress with Italianate touches but the period is, on the whole, non-specific. Romeo arrives on a motorcycle, and some of the gang fighting is not unlike the skirmishes in “West Side Story.”

I much preferred Michael Grief’s superb Central Park staging in 2007, with Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose in masterful form, with a uniformly excellent supporting cast, while this Cliff Notes version – as someone aptly categorized it after the show, referring to the cut text – feels rushed, perfunctory, and a bit dull, despite such flourishes as Poleschuck’s rows of flame which rise and fall at key moments.

(Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, Ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Love’s Labour’s Lost (The Public Theater)

Photo: Joan Marcus

By Harry Forbes

The Public has a winner in this full-out musical version of Shakespeare’s wordy early comedy, which jettisons much of the arcane text, but remains utterly true to the essence of the piece.

Alex Timbers, who adapted the book and directed, and Michael Friedman, who composed the songs, have reunited after their “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” success, but what they have fashioned here is more in the vein of a traditional Broadway musical, one very much in the style of the John Guare-Galt MacDermot “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which, we’re told, served as a template for this one.

And like “Two Gentlemen,” the score covers myriad genres – from rock to doo wop to Broadway -- which bubble most delightfully throughout the intermission-less 100 minutes.

Reset in a New England town (a beautiful eye-filling set by John Lee Beatty, and spot-on costumes by Jennifer Moeller), the King of Navarre and his three comrades – who have sworn off women for academic pursuits -- have returned for a five-year college reunion, and the Princess of France and her entourage are young women with whom they had perhaps dallied years before.

The transposition works exceedingly well. I particularly enjoyed the Russians of the final act now amusingly transformed into East German performance artists.

The cast is wonderful across the board, excelling in their Shakespearean line readings as much as their musical turns. Daniel Breaker’s Navarre and Colin O’Donnell’s Berowne are outstanding, with top-notch work from Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as Dumain and Bryce Pinkham as Longaville.

The women have less stage time, but Patti Murin as the Princess, Maria Thayer as Rosaline, Audrey Lynn Weston as Katherine, and Kimiko Glenn as Maria all have their opportunities to shine. The part of wench Jaquenetta has been built up and Rebecca Naomi Jones fills it beautifully, stopping the show with her “Love’s a Gun.” Rachel Dratch is very funny as a gender-bending Holofernes, and Jeff Hiller her equally pretentious sidekick Nathaniel.

There’s amusing work from Charlie Pollock as the slow-witted Costard, Andrew Durand as Boyet, Justin Levine as Moth, and Kevin Del Aguila as Dull.

The dialogue, though rendered with American cadences, excepting Caesar Samayoa’s hilariously loopy Spanish swain Don Armado, is delivered with consistent intelligence.

Timbers’ assured direction captures just the right tone, and there’s some nifty choreography by Danny Mefford. His “Chorus Line” homage (led by Pinkham) is especially clever.

The handsome production – for all its high spirits and intentional goofiness – ends on an appropriately melancholy tone, as it should.

It would be a shame if the show vanished after another week. Perhaps a Broadway transfer is in the offing, even if Shakespeare can be a dicey commercial proposition. But I suspect this might have wider appeal than the teams “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” In any case, here’s hoping the score at least gets recorded.

(The Delacorte Theater, Central Park, 81st St. & Central Park West or 79th St. & Fifth Ave, free ticket distribution; 212-967-7555 or www.shakespeareinthepark.org; through August 18 only)

First Date (Longacre Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

On the unpromising premise of a blind date unfolding in real time, with all of the action confined to the restaurant where a mismatched couple meet, emerges a most delightful show, and a definite crowd-pleaser.

With a sharp, funny book by Austin Winsberg, amusing songs by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, and thoroughly engaging performances by leads Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez, the pace never flags for its 95 intermission-less minutes. Though it sounds like one big cliché, Winsburg and the team have found fresh twists and the show plays like a good Neil Simon comedy with songs.

Rodriguez is Casey, no stranger to blind dates, and with an unfortunate penchant for bad boys. Levi is Aaron, new to the whole routine, and still smarting over his breakup with Allison. They’ve been brought together by Casey’s sister’s husband who had a hunch they might click.

Needless to say, things don’t go well, with Aaron putting his foot in his mouth at every opportunity, and Casey giving off an off-putting, abrasive vibe.

Allison, the bar’s waiter and various other characters, past and present, are played by a talented ensemble of five actors (Bryce Ryness, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Sara Chase, and Kate Loprest) who provide running commentary (and advice) in the minds of the protagonists.

Hammond’s hammy waiter, one with songwriting aspirations, is a standout, and Cusick generates laughs for his manic portrayal of Casey’s gay pal constantly calling her with “bailout” messages, in case she should need them, though the humor palls after a while.

Bill Berry directs smartly, bringing out the humor and sentiment of the material.

The show was originally done last year at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle (co-produced by A Contemporary Theatre) where it garnered good reviews and awards.

This is one of those intimate shows that could just have easily been mounted Off-Broadway, but with David Gallo’s snazzy set and projections, it looks just fine on the Longacre stage. I predict a popular afterlife in regional theater and schools.

(Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Comedy of Errors (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

“The Comedy of Errors” may not be in the exalted category of Shakespeare’s later comedies, like “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It,” but there’s no doubt that, in the right hands – even without the added delights of Rodgers and Hart (they adapted the comedy in their 1930s hit “Boys from Syracuse”) – it can be side-splittingly funny.

And, in the fast-moving, intermission-less production of Daniel Sullivan, it is most definitely in the right hands.

Set in 1940s upstate New York, a poster of Eddie Cantor’s “Roman Scandals” movie plastered on a wall as perhaps a sly nod to the play’s roots in Roman playwright Plautus (set by John Lee Beatty), the story of twin masters and servants separated as infants during a shipwreck updates very neatly indeed.

And though not a musical, there is, in fact, plenty of music of the Swing variety, along with some virtuoso jitterbugging (choreography by Mimi Lieber) during the scene changes.

Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson double as both sets of twins, the masters Antipholus and servants Dromio, a concept which works brilliantly in their expert performances. The ending – when all the confusion is finally sorted out, and all four characters are traditionally onstage together – is accomplished satisfactorily in a way I won’t spoil.

As Antipholus of Ephesus’ thoroughly confused wife Adriana, Emily Bergl is very funny indeed, and she’s evenly matched by Heidi Schreck as her sister Luciana who mistakenly believes she’s falling in love with her sister’s husband.

Others in the standout cast include De’Adre Aziza as the Courtesan who thinks she’s been deceived by Antipholus and sings a deliciously torchy “Sigh No More” (to music by Greg Pliska); Becky Ann Baker as the Abbess who figures prominently in the play’s denouement, Jonathan Hadary as the piteous father of Antiphlous; and Skipp Sudduth as a Godfather-like Duke.

(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park; through June 30. Tickets to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park are FREE and are distributed, two per person, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park on the day of the show.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Cornelius (Brits Off Broadway)


By Harry Forbes

Kudos to London’s Finborough Theatre for resurrecting this 1935 rarity by J.B. Priestley as part of their “rediscoveries” season, and to 59E59 Theaters for having the further good sense to import it.

The title character is the middle-aged partner of an import form at the height of the Depression. The economy is bad, and salesmen come into the office each day trying to sell wares -- everything from stationery to shaving cream -- that no one really wants. Indeed the firm of Briggs and Murrison is in dire shape itself with creditors demanding payment with increasing ferocity. But the ever cheerful Cornelius is counting on the return of his long-absent partner Murrison (Jamie Newall) after a long journey to straighten things out.

Loyally keeping the office afloat – and David Woodhead’s richly detailed set is a joy to behold, a veritable time capsule -- are the elderly bookkeeper Biddle (Col Farrell), the lonely secretary Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin) romantically pining for Cornelius, frustrated aging office boy Lawrence (David Ellis), and temp typist Judy (Emily Barber) with whom Cornelius becomes infatuated.

Though the first act is largely comprised of lightweight banter, a darker element is introduced towards the act’s conclusion, and the second act, gripping from start to finish, shows Priestley in top form, with a couple of exquisite twists.

Today’s economic situation gives the play added resonance and relevance, underscored by Sam Yates’ direction which is faithful to the period, and deftly brings out all the inherent nuance.

Spiritual matters are frequent Priestley’s themes and Cornelius has a brief speech in the second act where he ruminates about the afterlife and our purpose on earth that would seem to be the true heart of the play.

As the titular character, Alan Cox makes a fascinating protagonist: resolutely upbeat through adversity, sardonically humorous, and just that little bit off center to make him as intriguing a character as Ralph Richardson must have done in the original. His yearning for something greater in life, exemplified by his dream of finding the lost city of the Incas in the Andes, is most touchingly portrayed.

The play is beautifully cast throughout with some very deft double-casting as only the English can do, Particularly impressive in that regard is Beverley Klein as the charlady who opens the play, and then as one of the firm’s creditors, an upper crust busybody.

(59E59 Theaters, 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org; through 6/30)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Here Lies Love (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

The specter of “Evita” will surely be top of mind to anyone watching this musical based, as it is, on the rise of Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos. The work – already done in concert form and released as a concept album – was conceived by David Byrne, who also did the lyrics and collaborated on the music with Fatboy Slim.

The plot follows virtually the same trajectory as Tim Rice’s book for the earlier show about the notorious Argentine First Lady, following its heroine from beauty pageant queen to courtship, marriage with an up-and-coming politico (here Ferdinand Marcos), immense popularity, and abuse of her position under a glamorous veneer.

Even Byrne’s catchy music frequently carries echoes of Lloyd-Webber ballads and recitatives.

What makes “Here Lies Love” really special is the brilliance of the environmental staging of Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”), and Annie-B Parson’s witty choreography. The audience stands throughout the 90-minute show, watching the action on multiple moving stages, around which they are gently guided by a discreet tech crew. The LuEsther Hall space is flanked by two traditional stages at either end, and three moving platforms that are moved throughout the evening to form different configurations.

With a pulsating dance beat (homage to Imelda’s love of discos) alternating with some very pretty ballads, there are photographic and video projections (Peter Nigrini), both archival and in-the-moment, as Imelda and Ferdinand come off the stage and move throughout the crowd: their public.

Generous use of stage fog and Justin Townsend’s beautiful pink and blue lighting predominates creating a truly immersive, but never off-putting, atmosphere. Clint Ramos’ costumes, too, are a continual source of pleasure.

Ruthie Ann Miles is terrific as Imelda aging from eager young girl to hardened middle-age, and there’s strong work from Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos, Melody Butiu as her childhood friend Estrella, and Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino.

The sound is on the loud side (earplugs might not be out of line for some), but M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer’s work in that department is exemplary.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St, 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org; through June 30)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pippin (Music Box Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This is a superbly imaginative remounting of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 hit about the son of Charlemagne and his quest for fulfillment through war, sex, and then ordinary life.

The show, memorably stylized by Bob Fosse back in the day, has been given a marvelous facelift by Diane Paulus, who performed similar wizardry with “Hair” for the Public Theater in 2009.

With the help of Scott Pask (sets), Kenneth Posner (lighting) and Dominique Lemieux (costumes), she has given the show a circus backdrop. But those with an aversion to circus motifs needn’t worry. The effects never overpower the narrative. When things turn serious, as they do on a few occasions, the acrobatics give way to the story-telling.

The production started life at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. The cast has been imported intact, and they are all superb.

Ben Vereen’s original role of the Leading Player – both narrator and Pippin’s conscience – has had a gender change, and Patina Miller, late of “Sister Act,” is a virtuoso charmer throughout. With her million dollar smile and lithe figure, she’s both a dexterous dancer (and, when she needs to be, acrobat) and powerhouse singer. She’s a delight, even when her character takes on much darker tones near the end of the show.

Real-life husband and wife Terrence Mann (looking like Donald Sutherland with his flowing white hair and beard) and Charlotte d’Amboise (a knockout dancer, as ever) are perfectly cast as King Charles and his scheming second wife Fastrada.

Everyone who saw the original remembers Irene Ryan’s surprising showstopper “No Time at All,” but Andrea Martin, though not the stereotypical “old lady” that Ryan played, goes her several steps further in her version which gets the biggest hand of the evening, and even a standing ovation.

Erik Altemus is amusing as Fastrada’s preening, ambitious son. And Rachel Bay Jones is very special as Catherine, the sad widow who takes in Pippin when he has hit rock bottom.

As Pippin, Brit Matthew James Thomas is utterly appealing as a tousled hero, singing beautifully and conveying the requisite innocence and disillusionment.

Chet Walker’s choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse,” pays just the right sort of homage to his progenitor, and the strutting section of “Glory,” that formed the basis for the TV commercial that is credited with making the original such a hit, is most delightfully recreated here.

Beyond Paulus’s brilliant vision, the “circus creations” of Gypsy Snider and her Montreal-based Les 7 doigts de la main are most artistically done, and the true acrobats are blended pretty seamlessly with the Broadway gypsies.

Roger O. Hirson’s book and Schwartz’s score (in Larry Hochman’s orchestrations), hold up very well indeed. The cast album should be a treat.

(Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., www.telecharge.com/pippin, or 212-239-6200)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sweethearts (Light Opera of New York)



Photo: Williams Reynolds

By Harry Forbes

LOONY’s two-night revival of Victor Herbert’s extravagantly tuneful “Sweethearts” rates as one of the plucky company’s best outings. Sensitively conducted by Michael Thomas (who did such a sublime job with the company’s production of Herbert’s “Eileen”), and directed ever so resourcefully by Gary Slavin, fresh off his wonderful Blue Hill Troupe “Mikado,” the 1913 operetta was generally well cast.

Olga Xanthopoulou, a blonde beauty with a big opera voice, was Sylvia, adopted daughter of a Brussels laundress, If her voice was almost too powerful for the ingénue role, and her characterization lacked the ideal innocence, she did her best to scale back, and adopt the requisite style. Peter Kendall Clark as Prince Franz, heir presumptive to the throne of Zilania, also had powerful pipes though occasionally bellowed his high-lying part, Still he was a manly and stalwart presence. And their duets – “The Angelus” and especially “Cricket on the Hearth” – clicked.

Eapen Leubner played the cad Lieutenant Karl and got things off to a promising start with his multi-verse “The Game of Love,” which usually comes late in Act Two. Stefanie Izzo sang neatly as the scheming milliner Lianne, and did nicely with “Jeanette & Her Little Wooden Shoes,” charmingly staged by Slavin, and backed by the three comic opportunists Von Tromp (Jonathan Fox Powers), Mikel (Victor Khodadad), and Slingsby (David Seatter) in clunky wooden shoes.

Seatter, channeling Hollywood’s Nigel Bruce, made the most of his big number, “I Don’t Know How I Do It, But I Do.” Powers’ “Pretty as a Picture” was also satisfyingly vocalized.

Vera Slywotsky as Dame Paula, proprietress of the laundry and mother of the girls, made a personable narrator, in adapter Alyce Mott’s revised version which adhered to the original Harry B. Smith book in most of the essentials. The score was adapted by the late Dino Anagnost. Their adaptation was first heard in The Little Orchestra Society performance in 2005 with much larger forces, but LOONY held its own.

The ensemble – Dame Paula’s four daughters and various soldiers – were commendable, impressing in their solo bits, too. When they cut loose for the Act One finale and other ensemble moments, the result was spine-tingling, if a mite too rafter-raising for the intimate Thalia Theatre space. But, as with Ms. Xanthopoulou’s commanding vocals, it’s churlish to complain when the results were so exciting.

Dramatically, the performances were a mixed bag with some handling their lines more adeptly than others, but the six-piece chamber orchestra was consistently stylish under Thomas’ direction.

All in all, the Thalia proved a most congenial venue for the company, far superior to their last two spaces. I hope they return there for next season’s offerings, Victor Herbert’s “Orange Blossoms” and Sigmund Romberg’s “The New Moon.”

(Light Opera of New York, info@lightoperaofnewyork.org)

I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers (Booth Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Bette Midler scores another career high in John Logan’s enormously entertaining one-act play about Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers who, for two decades, handled many of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Candice Bergen, Bob Fosse, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, and Diana Ross. (She died in 2011.)

The time is 1981, and Mengers, accurately outfitted by Ann Roth, is holding court on her plush sofa (on designer Scott Pask’s sumptuous set) just before hosting one of her legendary all-star dinner parties. She’s anxiously awaiting a call from Barbra Streisand whose lawyers fired Mengers just that afternoon after a long relationship.

Over the course of the evening, we learn how Mengers and her parents fled Hitler’s Germany, settled in the United States, how she taught herself English by watching movies, reacted to her father’s suicide (he died of “thwarted dreams,” she says) and how she fell under the spell of Hollywood. Since she didn’t have the talent to be on the screen herself, representing talent became the natural fallback.

Logan’s script is riddled with big names and deliciously juicy stories which Midler relates with gusto, submerging her usual stage personality, so what we get is not the usual Divine Miss M, but a fully developed and fresh characterization. As this is her first dramatic role on Broadway, Midler’s triumph must rate as significant as that of Tom Hanks this season.

Streisand plays a major part in the story. One minute, Mengers is recalling the blazing talent she recognized when the singer was just starting out in Village clubs; the next, she’s using the c-word as she rails against Streisand for not calling and making peace. For all that she berates Streisand throughout the show, she’s in genuine awe of the star’s artistry and taste. Mengers takes the blame for casting Streisand (and Gene Hackman) in the oddball little comedy “All Night Long” (a major flop), directed by her husband Jean-Claude Tramont. Midler’s account of this debacle is another brilliant set piece.

Mengers admits her ruthlessness in going after clients. After traveling all the way to Sissy Spacek’s Virginia farm to try to land the star, she reasons with incontrovertible logic, “If I don’t steal her, someone else will.”
Her stories about scoring Hackman his breakthrough role in “The French Connection,” Faye Dunaway hers in “Chinatown,” and the rest are fascinating.

But Logan goes beyond the dish and bitchery to show Mengers’ serious side, as when he has her discourse on the necessity of talking in the language of one’s clients. She admired Julie Harris so much that she went out and read Ibsen and Shakespeare. (“You are the public face of the client,” she reminds us.)

She gives a recounting of “Sue’s Golden Rules,” which are, more or less, never blow a deal over money, don’t remind your client of when they were up and coming, never tell the client the truth, and above all, know how the spouse can interfere. That last imperative leads to a particularly touching story about losing “Love Story” star Ali McGraw (of whom Mengers was particularly fond) to Steve McQueen, whom she excoriates in no-holds-barred language. But there’s a rueful poignancy in that story, and several others.

Though Midler is sedentary for the evening, the sheer force of her personality – guided by the savvy Joe Mantello – never registers as static. Logan’s material is solid, and though subsequent interpreters of the role will be hard pressed to match Midler’s special qualities, I can think of several actresses – Linda Lavin, Tyne Daly, Judith Light – who could sink their teeth into this role.

But, for now, the role is gloriously Midler's, and not to be missed.

(Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com; through June 30)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Buyer & Cellar (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)


Photo: © Sandra Coudert

By Harry Forbes

Inspired by Barbra Streisand’s own account -- in her 2010 book “My Passion for Design“ -- of the underground mall which she designed on her property to store all her mementos, playwright Jonathan Tolins (“The Last Sunday in June,” “The Twilight of the Golds”) has written a clever and irresistibly funny play about a young man hired to be attendant of the various “boutiques and stores” that comprise the star’s basement. (This is all quite fictitious, of course, as we’re informed right from the get-go.)

The young man, Alex Moore, is played, most impressively, by Michael Urie (best known as Marc St. James on TV’s “Ugly Betty”). He’s an unemployed actor who, though not initially a rabid Streisand fan, gradually falls under the lady’s spell, even before he actually gets the chance to meet her. As the days pass, he yearns for a glimpse of his famous employer, and one day, she wanders down in the guise of an ordinary “customer.” Without introducing herself, she tests him by trying to bargain him down on the price of a doll.

Eventually, she lets down her guard, and a friendship of sorts develops, or Tolins asks, can one really be “friends” with a star of Streisand’s proportions?

Urie is most engaging playing all the parts – Alex, his boyfriend Barry (who becomes increasingly jealous of Alex’s infatuation with Streisand), property manager Sharon, Streisand’s husband, James Brolin, and of course, the lady herself. As Barbra, he affects a Jewish-Brooklyn attitude rather than a spot-on imitation of how she really speaks these days, but it works.

I found myself wondering whether Streisand would be amused or offended by the portrayal and the play’s overall conceit. Tolins has done his homework, to be sure, and has done his best to rely on many of her own public statements in interviews. And Streisand comes across, in part, as a likeable Jewish mother even, at one point, trying to hook Alex up with her son Jason, As Streisand comes to trust Alex more, she even allows him to coach her for her planned “Gypsy” movie, a droll conceit.

I suspect that, given her oft-stated insistence on the Truth, Streisand might not appreciate the ribbing – however gentle – of her eccentricity, self-absorption, and various obsessions. Still, the overall impression that emerges from Tolin’s portrayal is likeable if ultimately untouchable.

Andrew Boyce’s set consists of just a table and chair, and white backdrop. But Eric Southern’s colored lighting and Alex Koch’s projections provide visual variety. Throughout, we hear instrumental strains of some of Streisand’s recordings which serve as witty scene setting.

The play runs about an hour and forty-five minutes, without intermission, but thanks to Urie’s skill and Stephen Brackett‘s resourceful direction, goes by in a flash.

(Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place; OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or www.rattlestick.org; through May 12)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Song of Norway (The Collegiate Chorale)


Photo by Erin Baiano

By Harry Forbes

The operetta fashioned by Robert Wright and George Forrest from the melodies of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg – hugely popular in the 1940s, and for quite a while thereafter – has always seemed far more old-fashioned than the team’s jazzy reworking of Borodin in “Kismet” several years later.

The book by Milton Lazarus – a highly fictionalized biography – is no great shakes (as critics noted from the start), and some of the lyrics, though never less than proficient, are excessively florid. But once the music gets going full throttle, the effect is quite rapturous. Conductor Ted Sperling led the American Symphony Orchestra in a performance that vocally and musically made for a bountiful earful. The Collegiate Chorale, for their part, sounded heavenly.

In this telling, Grieg is pals with writer Rikard Nordraak (in real life, a composer himself) and local girl Nina Hagerup, but let’s his head be turned by visiting Italian diva Louisa Giovanni who hires him as her accompanist, with thinly veiled romantic designs despite her married status.

The plot is, in fact, vaguely reminiscent of that fashioned by Oscar Hammerstein II for Kern’s “Music in the Air” the previous decade: sophisticated diva sets her cap on a promising young composer from a “purer” rural environment, and brings him to the big city (here, Copenhagen and elsewhere) until he realizes the error of his ways and returns to the "true" values and simple girl back home.

The ever-versatile Santino Fontana, having a night off from his Tony-nominated Prince role in “Cinderella,” sang strongly in the baritone role of Grieg, opposite Alexandra Sibley purely vocalized Nina. I’d love to hear her in any number of other operettas. And Jason Danieley confirmed his standing as probably the best Broadway tenor around kicking the evening off impressively with a stirring “Legend.”

In light of her friendship and past professional association with Wright and Forrest, it was wonderfully fitting to have Judy Kaye take the role of Louisa. She nailed the diva role to a tee, and vocally, was in excellent, latter-day form.

David Garrison as her husband Count Peppi LeLoup handled his “Bon Vivant” (the most musical comedy sounding number in the score) with skill. And it was lovely, too, to have veterans Walter Charles and Anita Gillette (replacing Marni Nixon) as Grieg’s parent.

Jim Dale narrated Roger Rees’ script amusingly, playing a variety of parts with his customary aplomb. An abridged version of the book was used (thankfully), but what was there was exceptionally well played. Comparing these performances to the arch line readings of the Decca original cast recording, one can appreciate how skillfully this crew handled the same material.

As George Balanchine’s dances were such an integral part of the original show, it was fitting that there would be some dancing here, and six performers (Abi Stafford, Sarah Atkins, Abigail Simon, Kelsey Coventry, Ezra Hurwitz, and Amir Yogev) gave spirited performances, neatly choreographed by Tom Gold.

(Carnegie Hall, 881 7th Avenue, Collegiate Chorale, www.collegiatechorale.org, April 30 only)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Nance (Lincoln Center Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Nathan Lane gives a polished, multifaceted performance as a fictitious 1930s burlesque performer named Chauncey Miles. He plays what was known as the “nance” character (that is, the exaggeratedly effeminate man).

The twist in Douglas Carte Beane’s story is that Chauncey, unlike most actual vaudeville nances, really is gay, and in the repressive, anti-homosexual climate of Depression-era New York, those on-stage and off-stage personas are fated to come into collision, and thus provide the core of the play’s conflict.

In the play’s strongest scene, albeit a little exposition heavy, we see Chauncey furtively picking up Ned (Jonny Orsini) a naive young man from Buffalo at a Greenwich Village Automat. Secrecy is essential as the police vigilantly stake out the place for gay assignations.

It turns out that Ned has been married, but left his wife to pursue his true leanings. Ned moves in with Chauncey (a first for the performer who has only known a series of one-night stands) and, in short order, becomes immersed in Chauncey’s world of comics and strippers at the Irving Place Theatre, even joining the company.

That world is coming to an end, though, as Mayor LaGuardia is cracking down on the burlesque houses, and paying particular scrutiny to the nances.

Playwright Beane has interspersed actual period skits (e.g. “Slowly I turn…) and musical numbers (original music by Glen Kelly) for Lane, company straight man Lewis J. Stadlen, and Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber, and Andrea Burns who play the company strippers. These supplement the story, and provide amusement and/or commentary in an otherwise quite serious narrative.

Beane’s play has something of the feel of John Osborne’s tacky English Music Hall setting in “The Entertainer,” and Lane certainly has proven himself our homegrown Laurence Olivier. But though the play gives him plenty of scope for humor and heartbreak, his character is intentionally more unpleasant than lovable as Chauncey is filled with self-loathing, refuses to accept the changes clearly coming, and eschews the monogamous relationship that faithful Ned wishes to have.

The play could use some trimming, and some of the on-stage sketches are tedious, even as they vary the mood. Still, director Jack O’Brien maintains a seamless flow between the onstage and backstage action. John Lee Beatty’s revolving sets (expertly lit by Japhy Weideman) smoothly evolve from one to the other, and vividly create the Thirties tacky showbiz ambiance, be it the Irving Place stage, Chauncey’s cluttered apartment, or the murky Automat. Costume design Ann Roth’s costumes are a continual period delight.
.
(Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45 St., Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Trip to Bountiful (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

What a lovely production this Horton Foote revival is in every way: beautiful to look at (particularly the last scene, thanks to Jeff Cowie’s artful set design), immensely moving, and wonderfully acted by all. But the crowning glory is the superb performance of Cicely Tyson. The role of Carrie Watts was written for Lillian Gish who did it on television and soon after on stage, and has since been played to acclaim by Geraldine Page (on film) and Lois Smith Off-Broadway.

Whatever Tyson’s age (sources place her anywhere from 80 to 88), she is simply a marvel, as she dominates almost every scene. Carrie lives with her good-natured son Ludie (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and feisty daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) in a small Houston apartment, but yearns to return to her home town of Bountiful, TX just once before she dies.

Carrie has tried to run away once before, much to Ludie and Jessie Mae’s consternation, and by the end of the second scene of the first act, the wily old lady has succeeded, thus beginning an eventful journey.

Along the way, she befriends sweet young Thelma (lovely Condola Rashad) who’s on her way to visit her parents while her husband is off to war, and the conversations between the two are beautifully handled.

Gooding makes an auspicious stage debut, earnestly trying to keep the peace between his stubborn mother, and out-of-sorts wife, and is quite magnificent in his moving final scene. Williams skillfully shows that beyond Jessie Mae’s fretful discontent about her unexciting life, she genuinely loves Ludie, and cares for Carrie for more than just the monthly pension check on which the family relies.

Under Michael Wilson’s sensitive direction, everyone does exemplary work here, including Arthur French as a bus station attendant, and Tom Wopat as a sympathetic sheriff whom Carrie encounters along the way.

The racial change – akin to that of recent productions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” – works just fine here with no sense of strain. Foote’s themes of longing for home, and returning to the land are still potent.

As the crafty house-bound lady of the first scene to the determined traveler whose sincerity and determination overcomes all obstacles, Tyson is a continual delight. She is in complete command in a performance notable for its utter naturalness. I imagine that Laurette Taylor’s legendary Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie” was something akin to what Tyson accomplishes here.

Van Broughton Ramsey’s period (early 1950’s) costumes are most attractive. Rui Rita’s lighting perfectly conveys the varying time frame, and John Gromada’s natural sound design is a model of good taste.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W 43rd St, www.Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Orphans (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This is a superb revival of Lyle Kessler’s 1983 play about co-dependent brothers in North Philadelphia – Phillip, a seemingly simple-minded recluse who never ventures outdoors, and Treat, a thief who earns their keep through a series of daily muggings – and Harold, a well-heeled older man Treat brings home to rob, after which he decides to kidnap and hold him for ransom.

Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge are the brothers, and Baldwin the putative victim, and all three of them are phenomenal. Baldwin, a great stage actor, submerges his “30 Rock” persona so that one totally accepts him as the as a woozy drunk waxing sentimental over both his native Chicago and Hollywood's Dead End Kids.

Foster -- who replaced Shia LeBeouf during rehearsals – and was so outstanding in films like “The Messengers” and “3:10 to Yuma,” is compelling as the thuggish Treat, while Brit Tom Sturridge is quite sensational as Phillip. Apart from bearing not a trace of his actual English accent, he creates an endearingly vulnerable creature in a performance of remarkable physicality leaping, as he does, down stairs, over the banister, and from sofa to window ledge with animal-like agility.

Kessler’s play, with its characters yearning for family and paternal/filial bonding, has several neat twists, a solid classical structure, some wonderfully funny lines, and a suspenseful dramatic arc. As the relationships among the three shift, Kessler reveals the neediness of all three men. (And yes, Harold, too, is an orphan.)

John Lee Beatty’s large, decrepit house perfectly sets the scene, and evolves along with the characters.

Director Daniel Sullivan balances the drama, humor, and poignancy exceedingly well.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com)

Jekyll & Hyde (Marquis Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Despite a not insubstantial original run, and a genuine cult following, Frank Wildhorn’s bid for success in the “Phantom”-like musical sweepstakes was and continues to be a decidedly second rate work: the Robert Louis Stevenson story told in blunt uncreative terms, with the occasional plastic ballad thrown in along the way, not one of which is even remotely in the Lloyd Webber or Schönberg class.

Nonetheless, here it is on Broadway once again, albeit for a limited run. The current revival, which has set up shop at the Marquis Theatre for 13 weeks after a 25-week tour, is rather skimpy on the production side, despite some fancy lighting effects (Jeff Croiter) and projections (Daniel Brodie). (Tobin Ost designed the sets and costumes.)

But, to give credit where it’s due, stars Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox as the schizoid Jekyll and prostitute Lucy respectively are quite good, dodgy English accents aside. (Strong-voiced Maroulis succeeds well enough in contrasting the posh-sounding Dr. Jekyll and his crazed alter ego Mr. Hyde sounding rather like John Lennon as the latter.)

Both stars give their all and work up as much drama as book writer Leslie Bricusse’s sketchy script will allow, apart from the final third of the second act which contains some genuine tension, but it’s too little, too late.

Cox is particularly appealing, and gives originator Linda Eder a run for her money. But I’d much prefer to see her take on Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha” or Nancy in “Oliver,” to name a couple of superior lusty wench roles. Still, she does a fine job with “Someone Like You,” “Bring on the Men,” “A New Life,” and (in duet with Teal Wicks as good girl Emma) “In His Eyes.” And she projects a sympathetic characterization throughout.

The other cast members including Laird Mackintosh as Jekyll’s friend John and David Benoit as a corrupt bishop, as well as Blair Ross, Jason Wooten, Brian Gallagher, and Mel Johnson, Jr. are all adequate in their cardboard roles. It’s very nice to see Richard White, erstwhile dashing lead in numerous musicals and operetta, here as Emma’s father, a thankless role.

Ken Travis’ sound design goes way over the top at the big moments, rendering the stars’ key numbers cold and impersonal. They might as well be lip-synching to prerecorded tracks for all of the natural vocalism they are able to convey across the footlights.

The reliable Jeff Calhoun’s direction and choreography get the job done.

(The Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, Ticketmaster.com, by phone at 1-800-745-3000; through June 30)

The Assembled Parties (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

Richard Greenberg’s saga involving a well-to-do Jewish family in a sprawling Central Park West apartment is one of the most engaging plays of the season – consistently funny, but tinged with sadness – and features two mightily impressive performances by, respectively, Jessica Hecht and Judith Light.

Hecht is Julie Bascov, a former film actress, now loving mother to Scotty (Jake Silberman), a college grad with a seemingly bright future, and his much younger brother Timmy (Alex Dreier), who, for the entire first act, is confined to a sick bed. Julie’s husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) is a financial bigwig. It is Christmas 1980, and Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light), Faye’s husband Mort (Mark Blum), and their mentally challenged daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfild) have come to visit. Shrewdly observing and admiring the family dynamic, and totally smitten by the ever charming Julie is Scotty’s college friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos) who falls under the matriarch's spell as she prepares a grand feast for her guests.

The second act takes place 20 years later, when the landscape has greatly changed after illness and tragedy, but Greenberg still provides plenty of humor and, ultimately, a hopeful conclusion.

Hecht is exquisite throughout. She exudes patrician elegance, and a serene pragmatism, qualities that never desert her even when faced with circumstances that would crush most people. Light is funny, neurotic, and caustic. Sisters-in-law Julie and Faye would seem to be polar opposites, but the passage of time strengthens their bond.

Shamos is perfect as the wide-eyed Jeff who, over time, becomes an unofficial member of the family. His awkward early scene with Blumenfeld’s Shelley, when Faye leaves them alone together hoping for a romantic spark, is priceless.

Greenberg’s play is extremely observant about life and his witty dialogue is always grounded in truth. Given the time gap in the play’s structure, he’s able to show movingly how life changes, old enmities can seem unimportant, and long-standing offenses may be groundless when the facts finally come to light.

Overall, “The Assembled Parties” reveals the sweet poignancy of life’s impermanence, and director Lynne Meadow skillfully illuminates every facet of Greenberg’s themes.

Santo Loquasto’s set is one of the glories of the season. During the first act, the evocative set revolves to show several different rooms of the 14 room apartment. In the second, the revolve gives way to a full elongated view of the living room. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting enhances the authenticity of the setting.

Jane Greenwood’s costumes do their part to convey the 20-year time gap, and her dresses for Julie who loves to wear her late mother’s elegant clothes, are particularly stylish and beautiful.

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

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Motown the Musical (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This hagiographic biography of record mogul Berry Gordy, founder of the titular hit-making label, may not be the stuff of peerless drama (or even “Jersey Boys” for that matter), but as a showcase for the best of Motown music and the artists who made their name there, “Motown: the Musical” is a thoroughly entertaining show compiled with considerable skill.

Though the book -- credited to Gordy himself and based on his “To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown” -- tells his story is the most simplistic terms, it provides an ideal vehicle for stringing together all the popular hits and beloved artists in a remarkably seamless, enjoyable way.

The first part of the show which dramatizes Gordy’s early struggles (nothing too downbeat, however) – with The Temptations, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, and Smokey Robinson, appearing in dizzying succession is the most engaging. The first appearance of Diana Ross and her friends – stage-struck high school students begging for a break – is charming, though ironically, as the Supremes story begins to take center stage, and the relationship between Ross and Gordy moves into sharper focus, the show surprisingly loses some of its momentum.

Interest lifts again with the introduction of The Jackson Five. And it is amusing to observe the audience responding to Raymond Luke, Jr. as young Michael as if he were the real thing, but that phenomenon was par for the course all evening.

Diana Ross’ emergence as a solo artist with lengthy recreations of her live appearances and those mawkish set-pieces “Reach Out” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (with audience participation) rather bring the interest level down again, but admittedly receives a warm response.

Valisia LeKae does a credible Diana Ross at all stages, though (as with all impersonations of famous artists) doesn't quite capture the true magic. But, across the board, the entire cast is admirable in their impersonations, many of the ensemble playing multiple artists with skill.

Charl Brown and Bryan Terrell Clark do well as Robinson and Gaye respectively, and they emerge as the other major players in story.

Brandon Victor Dixon makes a sympathetic Gordy, and sings impressively in the sections of the book where characters break into off-stage song.

Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams’ choreography conjures the trademark Motown movements, making a continual visual delight. The same can be said for David Korins’ set design which moves the action seamlessly from varying locations and stages with Natasha Katz’s dazzling lighting effects. Esosa’s costumes beautifully recreate the flashy era.

Peter Hylenski’s classy sound design adds to the polish of this unabashed jukebox musical which delivers a consistently fine earful.

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

The Big Knife (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

First, to state the obvious: Clifford Odets’ mid-period play, “The Big Knife,” best known today as a TCM staple in its 1955 film version with Jack Palance and Ida Lupino is simply not in the same league as “Awake and Sing” or “Golden Boy,” both revived so superbly by Lincoln Center Theater.

Odets had, by the late 1940s, toiled for several long years in Hollywood, and like many great writers had allowed himself to “sell out” to Tinseltown. By 1949, he decided to make the studio system the target of his latest play, while reworking familiar themes about money corrupting and losing one’s ideals.

So here we have Charlie Castle, popular movie star, who once trod the rarefied Broadway stage, on the cusp of a 14-year studio contract renewal (those were the days!). But his wife Marion (Marin Ireland) has seen how fame and money have sullied him, and now will leave him if he renews. Charlie himself is full of self-loathing, and is very much on the fence. But the studio – represented here by studio boss Marcus Huff (Richard Kind) and aide Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers) – are covering up a scandal in Charlie’s past. They’ve kept it under wraps till now, but will expose their money-making star if he doesn’t sign.

The first two acts are performed without a break, and they are, on the whole, rather sluggish. The writing would seem to be the culprit, but I can’t say for certain. Still, there’s more than enough melodrama in the second act to make up for any deficiency in the first.

The always dynamic Bobby Cannavale seems a bit too one-note here and doesn’t fully convey the nuances of his inner conflict. In his review of the original production, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times thought that star John Garfield gave “an interestingly moody performance”; but that doesn’t quite describe Cannavale despite the actor’s innate charisma.

The supporting players are solid: besides those mentioned, there’s Chip Zien as his loyal agent; Joey Slotnik as the friend he exploits on many levels; Ana Reeder as the man’s hot-to-trot wife; C.J. Wilson as a writer friend; and Rachel Brosnahan as star-struck girl who causes big trouble.

Atkinson also praised the “spontaneity and tension” which original director Lee Strasberg created back then. Those qualities are rather what seem missing from the estimable Doug Hughes’ otherwise intelligent staging.

Still, in spite of flaws, it’s a treat to see a famous title like this, written by one of theater’s latterly unsung heroes, in such a deluxe production, that adjective underscored by John Lee Beatty’s swank living room set, and Catherine Zuber’s sharp costumes.

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