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 fiancĂ©), 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; 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,

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; 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; 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; 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 DulĂ© 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., 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, or 212-239-6200; through January 5)