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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.
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(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)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella (Broadway Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

There have been numberless stage versions of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1957 television version of “Cinderella,” originally written for Julie Andrews, but remade twice on the small tube with Lesley Ann Warren and Brandy respectively in the ensuing decades.

Shortly after the original telecast, the show was done in London as a pantomime with Tommy Steele starring above the title. Closer to home, the New York City Opera mounted perfectly respectable straight-forward versions in both 1993 and 2004.

But this current version with its witty new book by Douglas Carter Beane with additional, lesser-known songs from the R&H songbook, trumps those. One might have thought that after his hilariously campy adaptation of the flop film “Xanadu,” Beane might have been tempted to go too far in the camp direction. But no, he’s left the original elements lovingly intact, just as William Ivey Long’s costumes are solidly traditional, and what Beane has added, in terms of subplots and humorous dialogue, provides a wonderful freshness.

Laura Osnes, in her fourth major R&H role in New York, makes the perfect Cinderella, exuding genuine goodness and integrity, looking great as both waif and glamorous mystery woman, and singing like a dream. Santino Fontana, who has proven such a fine dramatic actor in “Sons of the Prophet” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” makes a delightful Prince, boyish and ardent, and like Osnes, possessed of the requisite style for the score. In Beane’s rewrite, the Prince becoming his own man is a major theme, and Fontana’s plays that maturation beautifully.

Harriet Harris surpasses the amusing wickedness of her Mrs. Meers in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” as the Stepmother (and has some of Beane’s best lines), while Marla Mindelle and the very funny Ann Harada are well contrasted step-sisters, not as terrible as in other versions of the story. The King or Queen have been excised but Peter Bartlett is a hoot as a scheming advisor to the orphaned Prince.

Victoria Clark almost steals the show as the fairy Godmother, though she first appears as a slightly mad neighboring crone before transforming into a resplendent beauty. She sings gorgeously, including an R&H rarity, “There’s Music in You.”

Both her transformation and Cinderella’s are splendidly executed, each effect earning well deserved applause. Impressive as they are, those and the other magical moments are accomplished without any ostentatious high-tech trickery. There’s an appropriately old-fashioned approach throughout right down to set designer Anna Louizos’ leafy foliage atop the proscenium to the fox and raccoon puppets that befriend Cinderella, and could have stepped out of a 1950s TV kiddie show. The appearance of Cinderella’s coach and other accoutrements and the subsequent ride to the ball accompanied by “Impossible” are immensely satisfying.

The same can be said for Josh Rhodes’ choreography, most especially the ball sequence and the hunt for Cinderella at the start of the second act.

Rodgers’ music has been lovingly orchestrated by Danny Troob, with full respect for the original.

This is ideal family entertainment, and as with the best of such shows, proves fully satisfying for adults who love musical theater, whether or not they attend with a little princess in tow.

(Broadway Theatre, 1631 Broadway, Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)


Photo: Carol Rosegg

Monday, April 15, 2013

Matilda (Shubert Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 book not only swept the theatrical awards in London, but opened to ecstatically positive notices here, so I must confess I was feeling very much out of step as I found myself not totally enraptured when I saw “Matilda” for myself last week.

Matthew Warchus’ staging is brilliantly imaginative, to be sure, and Rob Howell’s costume and set design, dominated by giant blocks, books, and Scrabble pieces creates a bewitching environment, but for all that, I didn’t immediately warm to Tim Minchin’s spiky score with its many patter songs, as not all of them are clearly articulated by the cast, particularly the children with their faux English accents. (Comprehension is not helped by Simon Baker’s sound design, pitched too loud.)

Dahl’s story concerns a precocious five-year-old girl with perfectly awful parents – her mother (Lesli Margherita) a vulgar lady with ballroom dancing aspirations, her father (Gabriel Ebert) a crooked used-car salesman – who must cope at school with a sadistic head mistress, Miss Trunchbull, played with gleeful panache by the cross-dressing Bertie Carvel in a manner that makes Miss Hannigan from “Annie” seem the picture of maternal care by comparison. Only kindly Miss Honey provides Matilda with emotional comfort, and in that role, Lauren Ward gives a truly lovely performance and gets to sing a couple of the score’s most lyrical numbers.

Oona Laurence, who shares the titular part with three other girls, was Matilda at my performance, and sporadic matters of diction aside, gave an endearing performance, by turns, grave, pensive, and winningly resourceful.

Karen Aldridge is a warm, funny presence as Mrs. Phelps, the local librarian from whom Matilda gets the books (from Dickens to Dostoevsky) which give her the inspiration to take control of her life despite all the hard knocks.

Peter Darling’s choreography is sharp and clever, including a couple of ingenious numbers set in the gymnasium and on swings respectively.

Yet, for all this, I found myself rather indifferent, the feeling compounded, I’m sure, by that dodgy diction that made comprehension of key plot elements sometimes hard to follow, as I had no familiarity with either the novel or Danny DeVito’s film version.

It was only when I returned home and listened to the London cast album (more than once) that I finally appreciated the cleverness and beauty of Minchin’s score, and in hindsight, the skillful construction of Dennis Kelly’s book.

Now fully indoctrinated, I look forward to another visit.

(Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Kinky Boots (Al Hirschfeld Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The 2005 British film upon which this very winning musical is based concerns a venerable English shoe factory fallen on hard times and reinvigorated by Charlie Price, the reluctant son who takes over after his father death. A chance meeting with a drag performer named Lola inspires Charlie to eschew the factory’s conservative shoe line in favor of the titular stiletto-heeled footwear. The film was charming, and it had a superb performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola.

In its new incarnation, the property scores high in every department. With a bracing score by Cyndi Lauper, a savvy book by Harvey Fierstein, and a first-rate cast and production team, the show, which had its premiere in Chicago last fall, honors the film, and improves on it. I think this may be the one to beat in the musical categories come award time.

Broadway veteran Billy Porter as Lola is simply phenomenal, filling the considerable shoes of Ejiofor in the film and then some. This is the proverbial role of a lifetime. For the first part of the show, he’s in full-out extroverted glory as performer Lola, but as the story gets going, he dispenses with the drag (at least for a time), and displays extraordinary vulnerability. But whether singing, strutting his stuff, or breaking your heart with a wrenching ballad, he’s superb.

And he’s matched every step of the way by Stark Sands as the factory owner who, appearances to the contrary, has many of the same issues. A fine dramatic actor, as we recall from his role in the World War I drama, “Journey’s End,” and a potent musical performer (“American Idiot”), this role allows him to demonstrate both aspects.

The cast is uniformly good, but there’s another standout turn from Annaleigh Ashford as one of Charlie’s supportive mates at the factory. She stops the show with her hilarious “The History of Wrong Guys.”

Fierstein’s book (based on Geoff Deane and Tim Firth’s screenplay) poignantly limns the underlying theme of sons coming into their own in light of early disapproval from their fathers.

Lauper’s score is totally engaging, and ranges from high octane numbers in Lola’s club and rousing ensemble numbers (“Sex Is in the Heel”) at the factory to touching ballads, like Lola “I’m Not My Father’s Son” and Charlie’s eleven o’clock number “The Soul of a Man.” (Lola gets an eleven o’clock showstopper, too, with “Hold Me in Your Heart,” performed in full-out diva mode.)

Jerry Mitchell’s direction brings out all the thematic father-son conflict, and his choreography is outstanding, including an eye-filling number on the conveyer belt in “Everybody Say Yeah.”

David Rockwell’s scenic design ranging from from the factory to the drag club to a Milan runway is enjoyably inventive; Gregg Barnes’ working class and high camp costumes delight the eye; John Shivers’ superior sound design allows you to hear all the lyrics without blasting you out of your seat. Stephen Oremus’ musical supervision, arrangements and orchestrations do Lauper’s score proud.

Picture an amalgam of “La Cage aux Folles” (in its drag elements), “The Full Monty” and “Billy Elliott” (with its industrial England working class folk succeeding against all odds theme), and “Hairspray” (in its joyous insouciance), and you’ll have the general idea.

I have no doubt “Kinky Boots” will be as big a hit as all of those others, both here and abroad.

(Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street), www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Revisionist (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Jesse Eisenberg’s oddball play is, sorry to say, far from great. There’s more than the germ of a good idea here, and the thematic subtext about the nature of family is a worthy one. But in the play’s current form, character development – particularly the part he’s written for himself – and large chunks of the text need refining.

And yet, for all of that, here is the great Vanessa Redgrave giving a truly magnificent performance. Though she’s definitely one of those actresses who “could read the phone book” and make it magical, it must be conceded that Eisenberg has, in fact, written her a decently meaty role. I don’t believe she’s ever been better, even in greater plays, and that is saying something.

She plays Maria, an elderly Polish woman living in virtual solitude in her Szczecin apartment delighted that her distant cousin from America – that’s David (Eisenberg) – has come for an extended visit. But when the insensitive lad arrives, he is barely cordial. No sooner is he in the door than he wants to shut himself in the bedroom she’s vacated for him, and finish the sci-fi novel he’s been working on, and smoke hash when the whim strikes.

Maria had planned to cook for him, and give him a tour of the city, but David will have none of this. His character is so hyper-kinetic and unpleasant that it sorely grates on us, even as Maria seems to put up with it with remarkably good grace.

Dan Oreskes is excellent as a non-English speaking taxi driver friend of Maria whom at one point David encourages to parrot some curse words, typical of the rather sophomoric humor Eisenberg sometimes employs; the “Who’s on First” routine performed by him for Maria being another example. Still, in that scene, and elsewhere, Redgrave and Eisenberg play well together, and transcend the oil and water aspects of their acting styles and characters.

There are some late revelations – which demonstrate the multiple meaning of the title – but Maria’s subsequent actions are a puzzlement, to say the least. Eisenberg might consider some fine-tuning if the play is to have an after-life following its limited run at the Cherry Lane. Kip Fagan’s direction keeps things moving throughout its nearly two-hour intermission-less length.

John McDermott’s three-room set on the compact stage is finely detailed, and Jessica Pabst’s costumes perfectly define the characters.

(Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, www.TheRevisionistPlay.com or 866.811.4111; through April 27)

Lucky Guy (Broadhurst Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

No, this is not the case of yet another Hollywood actor making a futile stab at Broadway stardom; Tom Hanks is the real deal. He confidently proves his stage mettle in his late pal Nora Ephron’s valentine to New York tabloid journalism in the person of columnist Mike McAlary. (Ephron, of course, penned the scripts for two of Hanks’ biggest hits, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”)

“Lucky Guy” may not be one for the ages, nor of great general interest outside of this town, but the play holds your interest and is never less than enjoyable, affording Hanks and a host of veteran New York stage actors a solid showcase, while it’s not exactly “The Front Page” of this millennium.

Ephron charts McAlary’s progress in a succession of positions – Newsday, the New York Post, and the Daily News (with some back and forthing at the last two) – all the while supported by his loving wife Alice (Maura Tierney). Hubris eventually leads to a libel suit after he challenges the veracity of a woman’s charge of rape, based on erroneous information from his police informant.

And a serious car accident nearly ends career, not to mention his life. But he recovers, and sweet professional fulfillment comes in the form of a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the Abner Louima abuse story (the latter movingly portrayed by Stephen Tyrone Williams). The accolade, however, is bittersweet in light of the colon cancer which would soon kill him.

Peter Scolari, Richard Masur, Danny Mastrogiorgio all offer colorful characterizations, with Courtney B. Vance and Peter Gerety standouts as editors Hap Hairston and John Cotter respectively.

Though this is an ensemble piece, Hanks gives a bravura performance, delivering his final speeches with great dexterity.

George C. Wolfe directs the episodic narrative persuasively and Batwin + Robin Productions, Inc.’s projections and David Rockwell’s fluid scenic design creating a series of atmospheric stage pictures, illuminated by the team of Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are true to the milieu and the period.

With the ice broken, we can only hope that Hanks come back again and again to tread the boards between films.

(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)