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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