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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Hands on a Hardbody (Brooks Atkinson)


By Harry Forbes

This most unusual musical – adapted from a 1997 documentary by S.R. Bindler – revolves around ten hard-luck average Americans trying to win a Nissan “hardbody” red pick-up truck by keeping at least one hand on it at all times while standing, brief scheduled breaks notwithstanding, before – over the course of fours days -- fatigue or frayed nerves or some other happenstance causes them to break contact.

They’re a motley crew of lovable losers based, some more closely than others, on the actual people in the documentary. The challenge that playwright Doug Wright, composer/lyricist Amanda Green and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio have had to overcome is the potentially static setup of holding on to a stationary car, with the inevitable one-by-one drop off. There’s always a certain tedium in this construction, be it “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” “A Chorus Line,” or even Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”

With the help of Sergio Trujillo’s inventive movement (much pushing around of the car), and Neil Pepe’s as-resourceful-as-possible direction, one’s interest is held although it’s not till the second act that one feels genuine dramatic tension, as the contest grinds down with only three standing.

It’s good to see Keith Carradine back in a Broadway musical, this time as a retired oil rig worker sounding exactly the same as his memorable turn in Robert Altman’s “Nashville” where he won all hearts with his beguiling “I’m Easy” and Broadway’s “The Will Rogers Follies.” And Hunter Foster is strong as the most belligerent of the contestants, a former winner back with a vengeance to do it again.

On the distaff side, Keala Settle impresses as an evangelical lady of ample voice and proportions (who “carries it well,” as one character remarks). She has a lengthy laughing on the verge of hysteria scene that is quite a tour de force, and it leads into the closest the show comes to a showstopper: the gospel-flavored “Joy of the Lord.”

But the cast is uniformly good, with everyone registering as “real.” Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson as the young people who fall in love; David Larsen as a troubled marine; Jacob Ming-Trent as a Snickers-loving heavyset guy; Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as a feisty blonde who catches the eye of Longview, Texas dealership sales manager Jim Newman; Mary Gordon Murray as Carradine’s wife watching, like the other spouses, from the sidelines; Connie Ray as the dealership’s pragmatic PR woman; Jon Rua as a Mexican-American student fighting racial stereotyping; Dale Soules as a gravelly voiced, no-nonsense wife to husband William Youmans; and Scott Wakefield as the local DJ doing the play-by-play.

The Anastasio/Green songs are better than alright in the catchy rock, country. gospel vein. “Burn That Bridge,” “Stronger,” “Born in Laredo,” and the finale, “Keep Your Hands on It,” which more or less sums up the moral of the show – holding on to something in life – where we learn the after-story of all the characters.

Visually, the most prominent feature of Christine Jones’ set is, of course, the car at center stage, but Susan Hilferty’s character-perfect costumes and Kevin Adams varying lighting design add variety.

The show premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. New York may be a touger proposition, but the audience at my performance seemed to like it, even at a somewhat overly long two-and-a-half hours.

(Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street,, 877-250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Cort Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The latest attempt to dramatize Truman Capote’s classic novella is, I fear, no more likely to succeed at the box office than the legendary 1966 Broadway musical version with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain (and that, at least, had an engaging score by Bob Merrill), nor, I gather, present director Sean Mathias’ 2009 London effort with Anna Friel.

Despite the considerable credentials and savvy of adapter Richard Greenberg, Mathias, and the rest of the production team, there is simply not enough dramatic impetus to the story to grip an audience.

To Greenberg’s credit, he uses a good deal of Capote’s text. And though it’s delivered by the writer protagonist Fred (Cory Michael Smith) rather in the manner of Tom in “The Glass Menagerie,” the backstory he relates is nowhere near as involving as the Tennessee Williams classic.

English actress Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) has something of the measure of the role, but lacks the magical quality that made Audrey Hepburn so delectable in the film version. Still, she’s frequently touching, and the Sally Bowles-like dynamic with aspiring writer Fred occasionally registers.

Smith’s performance is proficient, but the lengthy exposition with which he’s saddled and his mostly glum demeanor grow tiresome.

The supporting players, including Suzanne Bertish, Lee Wilkof, Eddie Korbich, Pedro Carmo, and the rest, all do credible work, and George Wendt and Murphy Guyer are standouts, but there’s little opportunity for any of them to really shine.

Master scenic designer Derek McLane’s sets and sliding panels seem perfunctory and drab. Ditto Wendall K. Harrington’s lackluster projections.

Colleen Atwood has designed some nice 1940s frocks for Clarke which offer some visual interest. But Mathias’ direction never catches fire.

David Merrick famously shut down the musical after four performances, noting that audiences were leaving the show in a depressed state. Sad to say, that pretty much describes the crowd filing out of the Cort Theatre.

(Cort Theatre, 138 W 48th Street, www.telecharge.com, or 212-239-6200)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Christopher Durang’s latest – a modern-day comic riff on Chekhov involving adult siblings named after iconic Chekhov characters by their theater-enamored parents – could so easily have proven tiresome or overly precious. Or an amusing premise that missed its mark. Or one of those plays with a promising first act that fizzles in the second.

But no. I’m happy to report the play is a laugh riot from start to finish, the funniest show on Broadway since “One Man, Two Guvnors” which, as those who saw that British import well know, is high praise indeed. Durang’s inspiration never flags.

Two lonely souls -- gay Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and dowdy adopted sisterSonia (Kristine Nielsen) – lead dull lives in their Bucks County farmhouse. They had taken care of their ailing parents and now have only each other for whom to care and squabble with. They’re being supported by their usually absent glamorous movie-star sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver).

When hilariously self-absorbed Masha visits the family homestead in tandem with studly young lover Spike (Billy Magnussen), an endearingly vain aspiring actor with a penchant for removing his clothes at every opportunity, resentments and long-standing grievances bubble up.

Adding to the Chekhovian ambience, visiting young actress Nina (Genevieve Angelson) who idolizes Masha, becomes part of the household, bringing with her overtones of “The Seagull.” For good measure, there’s Vanya and Sonia’s loopy cleaning lady Cassandra (Shalita Grant) who, as her name suggests, lords it over all of them with dire predictions about the future and occasional forays into voodoo.

Every one of these performances is pitch-perfect, under Nicholas Martin’s assured comic direction. Weaver has time and again shown considerable comic chops, but never more effectively than here, as the narcissistically girlish Masha contriving to bring everyone to a costume party where she’ll dress as Disney’s Snow White, while Vanya, Sonia, and Nina play strictly supporting roles as various dwarves.

As it happens, Nielsen’s Sonia comes into her own on the way to the costume party in a side-splitting way I shan’t spoil, and later delivers the show’s most poignant moments in the sort of phone scene that used to win actresses Oscars. (Think Luise Rainer.)

Pierce is very nearly the straight man (and a supremely accomplished one at that) for three quarters of the play, but bursts forth in a glorious tirade nostalgically extolling the pre-digital days when people actually communicated with each other.

Durang keeps the one-liners coming fast and furious, but often surprises with his dialogue in the most delightful ways.

I didn’t see it in its earlier incarnation at Lincoln Center, but David Korins’ set (illuminated by Justin Townsend) looks just fine on the Golden stage. Emily Rebholz’s droll costumes – including the Snow White designs and Sonia’s party dress – add to the fun.

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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ann (Vivian Beaumont Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Holland Taylor is currently giving a vibrant, hugely entertaining tour de force as the colorful late Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, in a play she’s written for herself, and very well, too.

The play has had runs in various Texas cities, naturally enough, and also played Chicago and Washington over the past three years, so it goes without saying that Taylor’s assumption of the part is, by now, superbly tuned.

In “Let Me Down Easy,” Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show about the health care debate and human resilience as exemplified by some high profile subjects, Smith had etched a brief but memorable portrait of Richards in her declining days and gave an inkling of the rich theatrical subject Richards could be.

By turns commanding, caustic, domineering, loving, shrewd, savvy, and possessed of a wicked sense of humor, Taylor captures every aspect of this mercurial woman. The play alludes to her fight with cancer, but doesn’t linger in that period of her life.

One-person shows are not my favorite genre, but “Ann” is the rarity that registers as a real play, and one that is far from under-populated. With lively direction by Benjamin Endsley Klein, Taylor gets a good assist from the voice of Julie White, as Richards’ ever-patient unseen assistant. But it is the galvanic presence of ever-moving Taylor who holds you riveted, and makes you feel the other characters she’s interacting with off-stage and over the phone.

And it helps that she has the backdrop of Michael Fagin ‘s richly detailed set: a school auditorium where Richards is giving a commencement address, which soon gives way to her executive office.

Thanks to the performance and the eye-pleasing setting, as lighted by Matthew Richards, the Vivian Beaumont stage suits this property just fine. Ken Huncovsky’s sound succeeds in engaging the audience of the large auditorium, but still sounds natural.

Julie Weiss’ costume design and Paul Huntley’s wig design give Taylor’s impersonation even more authenticity.

(Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street; lct.org or through Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Talley’s Folly (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

Lanford Wilson’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner couldn’t get a finer revival than Michael Wilson’s first-rate production, featuring as it does such nuanced staging and impeccable work by Sarah Paulson and the ever versatile Danny Burstein as, respectively, Sally Talley, a Protestant upper middle class nurses aide, and Matt Friedman, the Jewish immigrant accountant with whom she had had a week-long romance the year before, and has now returned to Lebanon, Mo., circa 1944, determined to woo her.

The reasons the initial “affair,” as Matt describes it to Sally’s stated discomfort, didn’t click the first time around come out over the course of the evening, with surprising and poignant revelations on both sides. Class and religious differences are obvious obstacles, but we see that these two lonely, damaged souls share a bond that transcends all.

The play is only 97 minutes, as Matt informs the audience in the breaking-the-fourth-wall opening moments, and the denouement is heartwarming, but I must confess that despite the play’s prize-winning track record, I found stretches of it were inordinately talky, and keenly felt the limitations of this being a two-hander. Still, if Wilson’s setup seems more than a little contrived, his banter for Sally and Matt was constructed with skill.

Jeff Cowie’s spacious boathouse setting which its gazebo like structure (the “folly” of the title) provides much visual pleasure, and David Woolard’s period costumes and Rui Rita’s moonlit lighting scheme are lovely.

(Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street); roundabouttheatre.org or (212) 719-1300; through May 5)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Carousel (New York Philharmonic)


By Harry Forbes

The New York Philharmonic’s “Carousel” was, quite simply, a triumph for all concerned, and the best live performance of the work I’ve ever seen, excepting the State Theater’s revival with John Raitt which I fondly recall seeing as a child.

The orchestra on this occasion – gloriously led by Rob Fisher – was a marvel. Never has that opening Waltz, with which Rodgers cleverly opened the show rather than composing a conventional overture, sounded so sumptuous. That was only the first of many goosebump moments. And the pleasures were not only musical, as John Rando’s direction was as finely detailed as for a fully staged production.

Kelli O’Hara, tamping down her trademark blondeness with a long brown wig, was an ideal Julie, perfectly conveying the selfless love of her character, and giving exquisite rein to her classical soprano, in “If I Loved You” and “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?”

Jessie Mueller, who proves her versatility with each new role (“On a Clear Day,” “Into the Woods” (in Central Park), and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) was a most delightful Carrie, showing off her soprano capabilities, too.

Opera baritone Nathan Gunn has proven his mettle in musical roles (“Show Boat” and “Camelot”), and so was a logical choice for Billy Bigelow, even if his dark timbre was more in the vein of Robert Merrill and Alfred Drake, both of whom recorded the role, than Raitt or the film’s Gordon MacRae. He earned a stupendous ovation for the “Soliloquy” and delivered another showstopper in the second act with “The Highest Judge of All,” acting persuasively all the while.

The famous bench scene for Julie and Billy was movingly sung and sensitively played, complete with falling blossoms.

Jason Danieley was a refreshingly different Mr. Snow, less “overbearing” and more “young, seafaring” to quote Carrie’s description of her intended. The “When the Children are Asleep” sequence with Mueller was as much a triumph as the Julie-Billy bench scene, and nearly as long.

Stephanie Blythe, such an outstanding Mother Abbess in the Carnegie Hall “Sound of Music” last season, made a formidable Nettie, using her gloriously firm mezzo to spectacular effect in “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and, of course, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

In speaking parts, Kate Burton made an ideal Mrs. Mullin, the lusty owner of the carousel, and John Cullum was ideally cast as the Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon (at Louise’s graduation scene), the embodiment of a New England small-town doctor.

Though the songs and underscoring were all intact, “June is Bustin Out All Over” lost its dance sequence, though the relatively short stage version is nothing like the elaborate sequence in the film, and “Blow High, Blow Low” ended without its hornpipe dance. But Louise’s second act ballet – choreographed by Warren Carlyle (with some homage to original stager Agnes DeMille) superbly danced by Tiler Peck in the second act – was nearly complete except for some cuts necessitated by the elimination of some of the Snow children in that sequence.

Still, with the New York Philharmonic in such ravishing form, that missing music would have sounded mighty fine.

Though Hammerstein’s book was modified by Chad Beguelin, this was still a very full, satisfying evening. And it all played out against Allen Moyer’s stylized but perfectly evocative setting, expertly lit by Ken Billington.

Miking, which used to be problematic at Avery Fisher Hall for non-classical events, was well handled in Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design with everything registering cleanly.

At the end, the audience, which had been appropriately effusive in its appreciation throughout, rose to its feet as one.

Thankfully, the magical performance will be telecast nationally on PBS’s “Live from Lincoln Center” April 26.

(Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center; five performances only, Feb. 27 – March 2)