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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Not The Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) (Carnegie Hall)

By Harry Forbes

I first encountered this wacky – and musically eclectic – satirical oratorio, based on the Monty Python film, “The Life of Brian,” on a BBC radio broadcast in 2009. This performance, relayed from London’s Royal Albert Hall, was later released on DVD.

Much as I enjoyed it over the internet, Monday night’s performance at Carnegie Hall, with The Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (which accompanied its 2007 American premiere) made an even more persuasive case for the piece. It is not just a spoof of “The Messiah” but also a Broadway-style musical in the vein of that other Python-inspired tuner, “Spamalot.”

The story concerns an ordinary young man named Brian Cohen who, at the time of the familiar events in the New Testament, is mistaken for the Messiah by a populace eager to hail him as its savior. Reluctant though he is to accept that role, he finds himself inexorably pulled into it.

Not only did the OSL and the Chorale perform superbly, under the baton of Ted Sperling (who also directed), but a first rate collection of mostly Broadway soloists was assembled for the occasion.

These included Victoria Clark, in resplendent voice as Brian’s mother; Lauren Worsham – recently Magnolia in Sperling’s musically gorgeous “Show Boat” with the New York Philharmonic – as his girlfriend Judith; strong-voiced Marc Kudisch in myriad roles; and sweet-voiced clarion tenor William Ferguson reprising his Albert Hall performance as a wonderfully apt Brian. Idle, who self-deprecatingly describes himself as “baritone-ish” in the program, was funny in his spoken bits, and put across his songs with the engaging panache of a British music hall singer of the first rank, as when he led to cast in “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life.”

The principals all sang with beautiful tone, and just the right sense of parody when required. And, oh yes, there were four bagpipers from the New York Metro Pipe Band who, together with some singing sheep, added a further zany touch to the proceedings.

Idle’s amusing book and lyrics were set to John Du Prez’s music which, at times, was quite beautiful. “When They Grow Up” and “The Final Song” were but two examples of affecting songs that worked outside the satirical framework.

With pastiche songs of every sort – from gospel, Broadway, doo-wop, mariachi, Gilbert & Sullivan, and of course, Handel (“We Love Sheep”) – the 90 minute show moves along at a fast pace with little dialogue, and mostly linking recitative. The Collegiate Chorale and the OSL sang and played with as much fine musicianship as if the piece really were Handel.

There were a few curious walkouts during the first act, but it was difficult to say whether those might have been offended from a sacrilegious perspective (though, unlike its film source, the satire here is more musically and politically targeted), or simply found the Python-esque humor sophomoric. But everyone else seemed to have a rollicking good time, and left the hall in bracingly high spirits.

(Carnegie Hall, 57th St. & 7th Avenue, Dec. 15-16 only; www.collegiatechorale.org)

Photo by Erin Baiano

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Elephant Man (Booth Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Hollywood heartthrob Bradley Cooper proves his stage mettle with a superb performance as the famously deformed Victorian Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man,” whose sad story was also the basis for David Lynch’s acclaimed 1980 movie.

In the revival of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play, Cooper is backed by a strong supporting cast, including Alessandro Nivola as Frederick Treves, the compassionate surgeon who gives Merrick shelter after a lifetime of abuse in a sideshow, and ultimately protection in the London Hospital, and Patricia Clarkson in Carole Shelley’s original role of the actress Mrs. Kendal to whom Treves turns in order to give Merrick the experience of normal companionship.

I did feel that Clarkson, always so marvelous, is somewhat disappointing here. She projects a rather generalized empathy, but for the grand actress she’s supposed to be, rather lacks both the requisite theatricality, and even more surprisingly, the English accent. What’s there is rather half-hearted.

Still, Scott Ellis’ production, which started out in Williamstown in 2012, is stylishly staged, and nearly always engrossing, except perhaps in some of Treves’ long-winded ruminations.

Anthony Heald is impressive in the dual role of Merrick’s manipulative freakshow manager Ross, and later as Bishop How, one of the many pillars of society who come to pay homage to Merrick when he’s all cleaned up in the hospital, each imbuing Merrick with the characteristics he chooses to see, and each believing he’s particularly attuned to his innermost thoughts, all the while showering him with lavish – if not always appropriate -- gifts.

Timothy R. Mackabee’s spare scenic design (including projections of the real Merrick during a lecture by Treves) and Clint Ramos’ costumes neatly evoke the era, cannily lit by Philip S. Rosenberg.

The rest of the supporting cast, including Henry Stram as the head of the hospital and Kathryn Meisle in various roles, is solid.

But it is Cooper’s performance that makes this revival a must-see. Like his predecessors in the role, he eschews makeup or prosthetics but contorts his face and body to the extent that good looking as Cooper plainly is, we can believe he’s the grotesque figure we’ve just seen in the historic photographs. And beyond his physical prowess at transforming himself so impressively, he gives a moving and heartbreaking performance.

(Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through Sunday, February 15.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

It’s Only a Play (Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Yes, “It’s Only a Play” is really is as funny as you’ve heard. It’s pure farce in the best sense of the genre, and one sprinkled with wickedly cutting remarks about almost everyone and everything in the current Broadway drinking water.

Terrence McNally has substantially revised his late early 1980s play (which, in an earlier incarnation, was actually first done in the 1970s) with smack up-to-date references to “Wicked,” “Lady Gaga,” “Matilda,” and more, and the result is catnip for lovers of theater, gossip, and an all-around good time.

The characters are an amusingly stereotyped lot. There’s Matthew Broderick’s a second-rate playwright Peter Austin who just keeps cranking them out anyway. Nathan Lane is his sardonic best friend James Wicker, once a New York stage actor, and now stagnating in semi-obscurity in a long-running TV series. Stockard Channing is Virginia Noyes, a boozy, drug-addled movie star saddled with an ankle bracelet, returning to the stage in desperation. Megan Mullally is the wealthy but ditzy novice producer Julia Budder. It’s opening night of Austin’s play, and the action all takes place in Julia’s upstairs bedroom as party guests arrive below.)

Rupert Grint is the self-loathing and phobic British director who’s never gotten a bad review, but paradoxically longs for one. (Oh yes, and he’s also an inveterate kleptomaniac.) And F. Murray Abraham’s the sour critic who secretly longs to be part of the theater himself. Newcomer Micah Stock is the unflappable would-be actor Gus P. Head handling the coat checking.

What unites all of them, despite their individual foibles and idiosyncrasies, is their devotion to theater.

The first act builds to the eagerly anticipated New York Times review. The protracted and agonizing reading of Ben Brantley’s review which opens the second act is the dramatic highpoint, but there’s also a prayer scene that vies for the evening’s drollest set piece.

I had heard the second act was less good than the first, and that McNally was relying too heavily on all the name dropping. But I found the second act every bit as riotously comic, and that the references to famous people and shows creates a delirious snowball effect, as name follows name: Liza, Barbra, “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “Matilda,” and so on.

The lines are so funny it’s tempting to quote them all, but that would spoil the fun.

I don’t think Lane has ever been funnier, and that’s saying a good deal. It’s nice to see him reunited with his sidekick from “The Producers,” Broderick, still boyishly appealing despite disconcertingly graying hair. Relative novice to the stage Grint (Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films) gives a sharp portrayal of the jaded director. Channing earns one of the biggest hands of the evening for her broken down but resilient diva. Abraham proves as adept at comedy as the more heavy roles with which he’s associated. And Mullally is most endearingly flustered. Lastly, it must be said that Stock holds his own exceedingly well with all the veterans.

Scott Pask’s spacious bedroom set provides a luxurious backdrop for all the over-the-top angst. Ann Roth’s costumes, including the endless procession of guest coats – ranging wittily from Tommy Tune’s to Lady Gaga’s – are a show in themselves. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound are top of the line.

The impeccable production is under the direction of Jack O’Brien whose razor sharp comic sense elicits spot-on readings from his cast.

For all the cattiness of the dialogue – particularly the lines spoken by Wicker (Lane) who gets to deliver most of the zingers – the show is really one big valentine to the theater.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Micah Stock, Megan Mullally, Rupert Grint, and Nathan Lane

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Art is Calling for Me (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott has already had a major triumph this year with her massive resurrection of Victor Herbert’s grand opera “Natoma.” And now, the first regular season of her company dedicated to America’s operetta king has gotten off to a splendid start with a richly satisfying cavalcade of favorites, and a handful of lesser known numbers, too. A few more of the latter would have been welcome, a minor carp.

With highly sympathetic accompaniment by Music Director Michael Thomas, and a cast of 10, the selections ran the gamut from Herbert’s first hit “The Fortune Teller” -- soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith opened the program with the gypsy-flavored “Romany Life” -- to lyricist Al Dubin’s setting of the 1919 piano piece that posthumously became “Indian Summer,” a hit for Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller in 1939.

The evening was linked with some informative narration penned by Mott and delivered by the singers before or after some of their numbers. It was just enough to set the pieces in their proper context in the Herbert canon and periods. Mott also directed the well-paced evening, staging the numbers with visual variety.

There were plentiful highlights. Bass Matthew Wages delivered a stirring “Gypsy Love Song,” by turns dramatic and caressing, and made pleasing contributions elsewhere. Amy Maude Helfer’s dusky mezzo sang the charms of “Barney O’Flynn,” Irish brogue and all, and several other chestnuts.

Xanthopoulou scaled down her powerful soprano admirably for the “Angelus” from “Sweethearts” then blended well with baritone Justin Ryan’s “Every Lover Must Meet His Fate.” On purely vocal terms, these two were outstanding.

David Seatter, a master at the comic roles, delivered three of Herbert’s most amusing numbers with savvy charm: “A Woman is Only a Woman,” “If Eve Had Left the Apple,” and “Every Day is Ladies Day.”

Lara Ryan, the smooth-voiced lead of the aforementioned “Natoma” reprised a portion of her Indian-themed lullaby “Beware of the Hawk” sounding as good as remembered in that full performance, and she also proved adept at the lighter numbers such as “When You’re Away” (once interpolated into a Deanna Durbin film, we learned), and the evergreen “A Kiss in the Dark.”

Tenor Glenn Seven Allen had fun with “Neapolitan Love Song” strolling up the aisle and serenading the ladies. Soprano Vira Slywotzky lent her plummy soprano to “Toyland” and Adah’s moody “’Neath the Southern Moon” from “Naughty Marietta” (coming up later in the VHRP season, incidentally). And Smith opened the second act brightly with “Art is Calling for Me” number that has seemingly become de rigueur with sopranos ever since Beverly Sills resurrected it in the mid-1970s.

Sweet-voiced tenor Stephen Faulk got to reprise his peerless numbers from Light Opera of New York’s “Eileen” – both “Thine Alone” (sung with Xanthopoulou) and the title song – with ravishingly pure tone. He also sang the part of Christian in the beautiful (and rare) “Since I Am Not For You” trio from “Cyrano de Bergerac” which Mott will be presenting later this season in her own version. (The original book is lost) Faulk was joined by Wages and Xanthopoulou as Cyrano and Roxanne respectively.

The other rarity of the evening was the title number from the 1919 “Angel Face,” a jaunty ditty sung by Helfer. (The number usually done from that show is “I Might Be Your Once-in-a-While.”)

The program concluded with the “Live for Today” quartet from “Naughty Marietta” with Caldwell, Allen, Wages, and Slywotsky skillfully handling the overlapping vocal parts before being joined by the whole ensemble.

All the singers got high marks for presenting the material with just the right style and reverence, with only an occasional issue with diction or pitch from some.

Emily Cornelius provided some pleasing choreography for “Jeannette and Her Wooden Shoes” from “Sweethearts,” as Helfer sang the sprightly saga with Faulk, Seatter, and Wages cavorting around her in delightful fashion. And Cornelius also devised some appropriate vaudeville shtick for Faulk and Ryan's "Streets of New York" which concluded the first act.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th Street; www.vhrplive.org; November 20 only)

Photo: Mario Morgado

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The River (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

Jez Butterworth’s head-scratcher of a play concerns a dedicated fisherman identified only as The Man – that’s Hugh Jackman, as you’ve no doubt heard -- and the woman (or women) of the moment he brings to his cabin to share the sublimely poetic experience of catching trout. (Yes, that’s a gross oversimplification, but one that pretty much sums up the action.)

A winning actress named Cush Jumbo plays The Woman who shares The Man’s cabin in the opening scene. But after he finally persuades her to make the much talked-about expedition to the river, we next realize The Man has lost her in the darkness, and he’s frantically calling the police.

Suddenly we hear an offstage female voice. So The Woman’s not missing after all, we presume. Yet the actress who now enters is someone quite different. She’s The Other Woman, and is played by Laura Donnelly (who originated that role in London). She relates how she went wandering off on her own, and caught a three-pound fish with the help of a poacher. She’s clearly high as a kite, and she teases The Man sexually about what else she and the poacher may have been up to.

Throughout the remainder of the 85-minute play, the two actresses alternate scenes. It would be a spoiler to reveal further details, but suffice to say, we’re kept guessing if this is the same woman, another girlfriend from The Man’s past or future, or perhaps just a delusion on The Man’s part.

There’s an awful lot of talk about fish and fishing, and, at one point, The Man actually prepares and cooks a fish onstage. (Jackman executes this slimy task most expertly, if you were wondering.)

The play originated at London’s intimate Royal Court (where Jackman’s part was created by Dominic West), and it was directed by that theater’s artistic director, Ian Rickson. He's Butterworth’s longtime collaborator, having directed six of his plays including the superior “Jerusalem” which starred Mark Rylance and which played to acclaim in 2011.The play very much bears the hallmarks of a Royal Court play; theatergoing visitors to London will understand exactly what I mean.

On this occasion, Rickson keeps the action taut and reasonably suspenseful, as much as the somewhat talky script will allow.

The performances are all very fine, and this is Jackman’s first non-musical work on Broadway since the 2009 “A Steady Rain” opposite Daniel Craig, in which both men did compelling work. This is far less gripping than that Chicago-based police drama. And the thrill of seeing Jackman live – and the enjoyment of his accomplished acting (and that of his confident co-stars) -- is diminished by the enigmatic storyline which lacks the resonance of a Pinter or an Albee in similar mode. On first hearing, I couldn’t begin to explain what the play is really about.

The scenic design by Ultz, lighting by Charles Balfour, and sound by Ian Dickinson for Autograph create the requisite moody ambience.

After the show, Jackman auctioned off one of his T-shirts for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which made for a cheery postscript to the murky action which preceded it.

(Circle in the Square Theater, 235 West 50th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 through January 25)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Side Show (St. James Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I was never one of those rabid cult followers of the 1997 “Side Show,” composer Henry Krieger and book writer/lyricist Bill Russell’s musical about the Hilton sisters, Siamese twins who went from the sideshow to vaudeville to Hollywood (Tod Browning’s film “Freaks” for one), which closed after a modest run and lived on through its cast recording and regional revivals. I did catch the original production, and I recall being lukewarm about it. A comparison of the current Playbill with the original CD song listing shows that several numbers have been dropped or rejiggered, including the lengthy “Tunnel of Love” sequence.

I have no reservations about the latest revival, however. From start to finish, the show really crackles now. So whatever cuts and emendations have been made have been clearly all to the good.

Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley won all hearts, of course, with their original portrayals of Daisy and Violet, English born orphans sold to a manipulative woman they were forced to call “auntie,” and her abusive husband Sir (an excellent Robert Joy) who, after his wife's death, became their guardian, and later would run the sideshow, but Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are equally appealing, giving superb performances. Vulnerable at the start, they grow in confidence as the story progresses, and their distinct personalities emerge. Daisy loves the spotlight; Violet simply yearns for normalcy.

The leading men match them: Ryan Silverman as Terry, the vaudeville talent scout who helps the sisters break free of Sir, and turns them into headliners, Matthew Hydzik as his colleague, vocal coach and choreographer Buddy, who polishes the girls’ act, and David St. Louis as Jake, the black worker who befriends the girls, and leaves the sideshow with them when they sue for their freedom. (“Say Farewell to the Sideshow” is a particularly touching number at that point.)

As time goes by, Terry loves Daisy but can’t move past the fact of her conjoined condition; Buddy loves Violet but has issues of his own.

The ensemble is quite remarkable, doubling in multiple roles throughout the show.

Director Bill Condon directs the dramatic scenes and the musical numbers with equal aplomb, and the vaudeville numbers within the show – “Typical Girls Next Door,” “Stuck with You,” etc. – are especially enjoyable, particularly “Ready to Play,” a number reminiscent of “Le Jazz Hot,” from “Victor/Victoria” against scenic design David Rockwell’s Art Deco backdrop, with the girls dazzlingly attired in red gowns and dancing with the chorus boys to Anthony Van Laast’s lively choreography.

Buddy’s vaudeville turn, as he anticipates marriage to Violet, “One Plus One Equals Three” – a sort of amalgam of “Buddy’s Blues” from “Follies” and “Two Ladies” from “Cabaret” – is another standout.

Davie and Padgett blend poignantly on their big ballads “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “I Will Never Leave You.” And St. Louis’ delivers his moving ballad, “You Should Be Loved,” movingly though with a grittier quality than Norm Lewis did in the original.

Paul Tazewell’s period costumes – like Rockwell’s set – perfectly evoke the era’s respective sideshow and vaudeville ambience. Everything is atmospherically lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, with impeccable sound design by Peter Hylenski.

This revival’s a winner.

(St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Ryan Silverman, Emily Padgett and Erin Davie in a scene from "Side Show." (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Allegro (Classic Stage Company)

By Harry Forbes

As this Off-Broadway revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1947 failure “Allegro” is directed by John Doyle – he of actors-playing-their-own-instruments notoriety -- you may be wondering whether this is indeed one of those productions. In fact, it is, though in a highly stylized show like “Allegro” which traces a small town doctor’s rise from birth to young adulthood to big city disillusion and back again to his roots – the action narrated by a sort of Greek chorus -- the conceit simply serves to add one more unobjectionable level of stylization.

The show came between “Carousel” and “South Pacific” in the R&H canon. Though “Allegro” can’t be said to be in the same league as either of those, it’s still a lovely score, as the truncated original cast album, and the two-disc all-star studio recording from 2009 amply demonstrate.

But in this minimalist production -- finely performed by a versatile cast as it is – one misses the lush Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations, and the lively stretches of Trude Rittman dance music (not to mention the Agnes DeMille choreography that went with it).

That said, there are compensations. The dramatic aspects of the story are very much heightened, particularly the frenzied Chicago sequences where our small-town hero, Joseph Taylor, Jr. is ultimately disheartened by the shallow and frenetic lifestyle.

Considerably cut, the show plays out in 90 intermission-less minutes, and even the sentimental ballads like “A Fellow Needs a Girl” and “So Far” seem a tad rushed, though the speedy tempi have a dramatic point with later numbers like “Yatata” and the title song.

Claybourne Elder, with his boyish demeanor and crooked grin, makes a perfect Taylor, playing the role convincingly from babyhood onwards, and he builds in dramatic power as the show progresses. Musical veteran Malcolm Gets is predictably fine as his small town physician father. Jessica Tyler Wright as Joe’s mother Marjorie projects the requisite warmth. Elizabeth A. Davis is appropriately cold and calculating as Joe Jr’s small-town girlfriend Jenny, and Ed Romanoff is excellent as her no-nonsense father who’d rather have Joe ditch his ideals and join him in the coal and lumber business, though perhaps both have been directed to play a little too villainously.

In any case, Marjorie’s confrontation scene with Jenny is one of the strongest written in the show, and Wright and Davis play it extremely well.

Jane Pfitsch inherits Lisa Kirk’s original star-making role of Emily, the dedicated nurse who helps Joe find his moral compass, and sings “The Gentleman is a Dope,” with anger and intensity, rather than the rueful frustration the lyric suggests.

In fact, the latter part of the whole production is played with escalating intensity, rising to a nightmarish cacophony with, at times, dark shadows thrown on the wall, and at others, house lights raised as if perhaps to indict the audience for their materialism and superficiality.

The sound of a throbbing heartbeat underlies all, an interesting touch.

Considering the show is such a rarity, it’s ironic that this is, in fact, the year’s second “Allegro,” following, as it does, the Astoria Performing Arts Center‘s very fine production in May, astutely directed by Tom Wojtunik. No instrument playing there, but instead, a talented cast that did its own dancing. The playing area with audience on three sides was similar to the setup at CSC. The APAC production was, on the whole, more true to the show’s original structure, but quality of the casting was more variable.

At CSC, those ubiquitous instruments, though impressively handled by cast members – some playing more than one throughout the course of the evening – are sometimes distracting, though Doyle never employs them for less than intelligent dramatic effect. When Joe’s college girlfriend Beulah sings the romantic “So Far” to him, for instance, she’s blocked at one point by Jenny blocking Joe as she plays the violin.

The death of Joe Jr.’s mother followed abruptly by the lively “What a Lovely Day for a Wedding” sequence registers powerfully, too, in Doyle’s staging.

Ann Hould-Ward’s period costumes, Jane Cox’s varied lighting and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design are first rate.

While not a definitive “Allegro” – any more than the recent Broadway “Porgy and Bess” could replace the Gershwins' full-scaled original – taken on its own terms, Doyle gives us a highly creative take on a problematic work, but I can’t help thinking his methods would have pleased Oscar far more than Dick.

(Classic Stage Company, located at 136 East 13th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues; (212) 352-3101, or www.classicstage.org; through Dec. 14)

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Real Thing (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

It must be admitted that director Sam Gold’s production of one of Tom Stoppard’s most accessible and entertaining plays dealing, atypically for Stoppard, with matters of the heart as much as the intellect, somehow doesn’t quite hit the mark, despite many good elements, chief of which is the engaging presence of Ewan McGregor in his Broadway debut.

McGregor is Henry, a Stoppard-like playwright grappling with what is “real” both in terms of his love life, and the situations and dialogue in his plays.

Maggie Gyllenhaal – no stranger to the New York theater scene – is also in fine fettle, and her appearance marks her first official outing on the Great White Way as well.

But Gold’s production – dominated by David Zinn’s oppressively dreary white sectional set which runs the considerable length of the American Airlines Theatre stage – seems not quite to be the real “Real Thing.”

I was lucky enough to catch the 1982 London premiere with Rogers Rees and Felicity Kendal in splendid form, though the play would actually undergo revisions after that. Still, subsequent productions have never seemed quite as definitive as that first one, directed by Peter Wood, including Mike Nichols’ excellent 1984 Broadway production with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close in Tony-winning form, and David Leveaux’s 2000 revival with Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle, similarly honored.

The Nichols production also featured young Cynthia Nixon who now, in a neat bit of casting, plays Henry’s wife Charlotte.

The play opens with a confrontation between a husband (an excellent Josh Hamilton with all too little to do) and an adulterous wife (Nixon) but, in short order, we learn this is only a scene from Henry’s latest play, and that the actress playing the wife in the play is the aforementioned Charlotte and the character of the cuckolded husband is their friend Max who is married to another actress, Annie (Gyllenhaal). But here’s the twist: Henry is actually cheating on Charlotte with Annie.

When the affair comes to light, Henry and Annie leave their respective spouses and marry, but there’s trouble ahead in the persons of a jailed Scots protester (Alex Breaux) whom Annie has taken under wing, and whose pathetically mediocre play Annie pressures Henry to edit, and Billy (Ronan Raftery), a young actor with romantic notions appearing opposite Annie in “Tis Pity She’s a Whore” in Glasgow.

Not all the English accents have the authentic ring, but they’re reasonably decent. And some of Gold’s touches are off-putting, including extraneous musical interludes with cast members singing the sort of 1950s and 1960s pop songs of which Henry is hopeless enamored. Speaking of singing, we do get to hear McGregor sing a bit, which reminded me of his charismatic Sky Masterson in Michael Grandage‘s 2005 London “Guys and Dolls,” one which, sadly, did not come to Broadway.

But he’s likewise impressive here, handling Stoppard’s long speeches with considerable aplomb, including a particularly memorable one in which he likens good writing to a well-made cricket bat. Without the craftsmanship, it would just be a plank of wood.

And he also skillfully limns the vulnerability beneath Henry’s erudition.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street; 212.719.1300 or
www.roundabouttheatre.org)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Disgraced (Lyceum Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a powerful and complex play that feels as relevant and timely as ever a play did.

Ayad Akhtar’s Pultizer Prize winner concerns an affluent Manhattan couple. Amir is a high-powered Muslim-American corporate lawyer (Hari Dhillon), who has renounced his religious heritage and concealed his father’s Pakistani birthplace from his employer. Emily’s an American artist (Gretchen Mol) thoroughly enamored of the exoticism of Islam which she incorporates into her works.

When the play opens, she’s painting Amir in a modern-day version of Velázquez’s famous portrait of his Moorish slave Juan de Pareja dressed like a nobleman, symbolically foreshadowing Amir’s own identity issues and the ways in which others perceive his ethnic background. Amir’s Muslim nephew (Danny Ashok) has gone further than Amir in changing his real name to Abe in order to assimilate more fully into American culture.

Emily and Abe implore Amir to give legal assistance to an incarcerated imam being held on suspicion of funding terrorist activity. Amir is reluctant to be identified, even unofficially, with such a cause, but eventually gives in to their compassionate pleading, an action that will have dire consequences.

Meanwhile, Emily is hoping to learn that their friend, Jewish art curator Isaac (Josh Radnor), will include her paintings in his upcoming exhibit. When Isaac and his African-American wife Jory (Karen Pittman), who works with Amir at his (mostly Jewish) law firm come to dinner, the pleasant banter about fennel and anchovy salad between Amir and Isaac, degenerates into an ugly and heated exchange about 9/11, Israel, and other hot-button topics.

The fireworks that ensue bring to mind something of the emotional dynamic in Yazmena Reza’s “God of Carnage.”

Playwright Akhtar’s aim seems to be to elucidate the difficult and conflicted role of Muslims integrating into a different culture, and the importance of being true to oneself. Amir’s denial leads to his undoing and “disgrace.” Yet, when he takes an action that affirms his heritage – defending the aforementioned imam – it leads to his undoing.

And though Amir disparages the Koran, his heinous subsequent actions are precisely what he professes to loathe in Islam. So are we to believe that one must be true to one’s identity, even if so doing, results in something patently wrong? Or is Akhtar saying that we cannot ever break free of our heritage, whatever they may be?

The performances are excellent, most especially Dhillon as the conflicted protagonist. He played the role at the Bush Theatre in London to acclaim.

Director Kimberly Senior keeps the action taut and strikes just the right balance between the lightweight urban chitchat, and the underlying tensions.

John Lee Beatty’s affluent east side apartment, Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting, and Jill DuBoff’s sound contribute to a highly theatrical and genuinely thought-provoking evening.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200, online at www.telecharge.com)

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Last Ship (Neil Simon Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This tale of lifelong shipbuilders in the northeast of England taking control of their shipyard after a lockout and then setting about building the titular vessel as a final testament to their time-honored heritage may seem, on the face of it, to have limited appeal, but in the event, the musical turns out to be quite a solidly absorbing and impressive achievement.

This, thanks to a beautiful, richly varied score by Sting, an intelligent book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey that would sustain interest even without the songs, a fine cast equally adept at delivering both the musical and dramatic values, and highly compelling direction by Joe Mantello.

Gideon (Collin Kelly Sordelet), a young man who’s the latest in a line of shipbuilders in Wallsend, defies his ailing father by abandoning the trade and shipping off to sea. He promises his girlfriend Meg (Dawn Cantwell) that he’ll return to her. But 15 years go by until he returns (now in the person of a superb Michael Esper) after his father’s death, and Meg (now a fiery Rachel Tucker) is involved with Arthur (Aaron Lazar in one of his best roles), a decent man but one who's allied with those closing the shipyard, and she’s the mother of a teenage son Tom (Sordelet) (yes, the son of Gideon, as we find out early on).

When the shipyard faces closure, a newly invigorated Gideon rallies the men, including their leader Jackie (the excellent Jimmy Nail), forms an uneasy bond with his son, and Meg is forced to choose between the Gideon and Arthur.

The local priest Father O’Brien is a powerful force within the story, supporting Gideon and encouraging the workers to persevere, and he’s beautifully played by Fred Applegate in a most endearing albeit familiar characterization. And the church is shown to be a major influence on the community throughout.

Other leading characters with standout musical and dramatic moments include Jackie’s wife Peggy (Sally Ann Triplet), and the barmaid Mrs. Dees (Shawna M. Hamic).

But, as noted, the cast is excellent across the board.

The northern England working class setting invites comparisons with “Billy Elliot, “Kinky Boots,” and “The Full Monty” but this one more than holds its own, and in fact, has more gravitas and a less pat ending.

Sting recorded and performed songs from the show on CD and at the Public Theater (the latter taped for a ‘Great Performances” special on PBS), but impressive as the songs were in that setting, they’re even more so heard in their full orchestration. There are choral numbers, love duets, bar songs, all imbued with a Celtic hue, and some that sound very much in a traditional Broadway mold, such as “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance,” a catchy father-son duet. A handful of numbers were pre-existing Sting numbers brought in to augment the score.

Steven Hoggett has provided some not-too-choreographed dancing for the cast, a nicely characterful lot that convincingly embody the rough and ready townspeople.

David Zinn’s atmospheric scenic and costume design, Christpher Akerlind’s moody lighting, and Brian Ronan’s pristine sound design contribute impeccable production values.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.; www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-745-3000)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: (l.-r.) Rachel Tucker, Michael Esper and Aaron Lazar

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On the Town (Lyric Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Somehow the prospect of a big Broadway revival of “On the Town” – classic though that 1944 Leonard Bernstein/Comden & Green musical most certainly is – seemed a misbegotten project.

Great for musical buffs, sure. But would it really draw the crowds, especially in a barn of a theater like the Lyric (formerly the Foxwoods and Hilton Theatres, and Ford Center for the Performing Arts)?

Well, I wasn’t reckoning on the lavishness of the production, the freshness of director John Rando’s staging, the creative team’s exceedingly clever approach, the excellence of this cast, or the overall integrity of the project. They have been true to the original – with a super complete score – but it's all been given a wonderfully new coat of paint.

The Encores 2008 revival – also directed by Rando, with the current production’s excellent lead Tony Yazbeck – had plenty going for it, but could not be, of course, the full-out production this is. With vivid colored drops and lighting, this is a cartoon 40s, but unlike the misbegotten 2009 “Guys and Dolls” revival which utilized the same sort of bold color scheme and an overall more contemporary look, but unlike that one, “On the Town” really clicks in all departments.

Yazbeck’s dancing is simply terrific, and his renditions of “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me” fervent and heartfelt. Jay Armstrong Johnson is the ideal Chip, the wide-eyed innocent who wants to see all the New York sites he's heard about from his father, but are now gone. And Clyde Alves is a delight as the manic Ozzie who meets his match in Elizabeth Stanley’s man-hungry anthropologist Claire. (All three of the men starred in Rando’s acclaimed Barrington Stage Company production from which this production sprang.)

Their “Carried Away” number in the Natural History Museum rivals creators Betty Comden and Adolph Green for zany goofiness. As lusty taxi driver Hildy, Alysha Umphress scored all the expected laughs and then some, and “I Can Cook Too” – done to death by so many – was, like every aspect of this production, freshly minted.

Speaking of laughs, Jackie Hoffman probably garners the lion’s share, as Ivy’s alcoholic voice teacher, and two lugubrious nightclub singers. Michael Rupert is fine as Claire’s patient beau Judge Pitkin, and Allison Guinn as annoying a Lucy Schmeeler as any.

And as Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith, object of the naïve Gabey’s affections, New York City Ballet star Megan Fairchild is a sweetly endearing presence and, predictably, dances gorgeously.(Her Coney Island pas de deux with Yazbeck is outstanding.)

Phillip Boykin sang the opening “I Feel I’m Not Out of Bed Yet” for all it was worth, milking every drop of meaning from the words.

Beowulf Boritt’s snazzy scenic and projection design give the show significant visual pizzazz. It seems more an homage to the 1940s than the real thing, but what a visual feast! And the same goes for Jess Goldstein’s costumes and Jason Lyons’ gorgeous lighting design.

James Moore’s music direction is exemplary. The 28-piece orchestra generates the same sort of thrill as the large scale forces accompanying Bartlett Sher’s “South Pacific” revival. And thanks to Kai Harada’s pristine sound design, lyrics came through crystal clear.

Joshua Bergasse’s choreography – which suggests but doesn’t replicate Jerome Robbins’ original – earned deserved applause all night.

I’m not sure if by 1944 standards, or the tenor of the script, that two of the three couples should so obviously end up in the sack. And some of the production’s flashiness perhaps undercut the sentiment. “Some Other Time,” for instance, was beautifully sung, but the ache of the parting didn’t seem as moving as other productions, or even the 1949 film which beautifully captured the spirit of the original even if it left out most of Bernstein except for three songs and the ballet music.

But those are quibbles. With any luck, theatergoers who recognize Bernstein’s name from “West Side Story” or know “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town” will keep the gigantic Lyric as full – and happy -- as it was on my press performance.

(Lyric Theatre, 213 W 42nd St; OnTheTownBroadway.com or 877-250-2929)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Gypsies and Barons and Heirs (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

The title of this flavorsome concert mounted by LOONY on a seriously rainy Wednesday at the fabled Players Club was impishly meant to echo the rhythm of “The Wizard of Oz” refrain “lions and tigers and bears…oh my!”

But as accomplished musical director Elizabeth Hastings sheepishly admitted, it might well have been called “Lotsa Lehar” for, indeed, there was. Apart from the occasional Strauss and Kalman piece, the selections were pretty much all by that king of operetta’s Silver Age, Franz Lehar, even though the subtitle “The Merry Widow’s Cousins” seemed to suggest we might get to hear some bits of Oscar Straus (whose “Waltz Dream” was the closest challenger to the Widow’s early 20th century supremacy) or Leo Fall (“The Dollar Princess”).

Still, Hastings chose a reasonably varied mix of the big sing Tauber numbers and the secondary comic ones. “Paginini,” “Gypsy Love,” “Giuditta,” “Count of Luxembourg,” and “Der Zarewitsch” dominated.

Soprano Narine Ojakhyan won the vocal palm of the evening, by far, with superbly vocalized accounts of the heroine’s famous numbers from “Paganini” and “Zarewitsch” and the inevitable “Meine Lippen sie kussen so heiss” from “Giuditta” (with castanets, no less). She is a real find, and it was a treat to hear her.

Tenor Byron Singleton had most of the heavy-duty Tauber numbers, and performed them capably and with fervor, and best when he held back a tad. His second act “Wolgolied” from “Zarewitsch” was the highlight, and he lightened up most agreeably in the delightful kissing duet (with Ojakhyan) from the same work performed half in German and half in English.

Soprano Charlotte Detrick bravely essayed Countess Maritza’s strenuous opening aria from Emmerich Kalman’s masterwork, but in the lighter numbers which followed, she demonstrated her charm and comic timing, as did her partner in several of those numbers, tenor Carter Lynch, who also earned especially warm applause for his mellow but feeling delivery of “Vienna Mine” from “Countess Maritza.”

Bass baritone C. David Morrow opened with the dramatic “Riff Song” from Romberg’s “The Desert Song” but like Detrick, came into his own with the lighter numbers. In fact, the two of them (joined by Lynch) closed the first half with a lively slap-dance to “Nut-Brown Maiden from the Prairie” from “Maritza.” (Corin Hollifield directed and choreographed.)

There was a welcome rarity from composer Paul Abraham near the end: the jazzy “Oh, Mister Brown” from “Ball im Savoy” stylishly delivered by Detrick and Morrow. And the concert concluded with “Slow Fox-Trot with Mary” from Kalman’s “Duchess from Chicago,” another nicely unhackneyed choice.

(LOONY, Light Opera of New York, The Players Club, 16 Gramercy Park South; http://www.lightoperaofnewyork.org; October 22 only)

Photo: Jennifer Bradford (l.-r.): Ojakhyan, Singleton, Hastings, Morrow, Detrick, Lynch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Deliverance (Godlight Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

James Dickey’s action-packed 1970 novel – the basis of John Boorman’s memorable 1972 film – would, on the face of it, seem virtually impossible to bring to stage, much less at 59E59’s compact black box theater space, but by golly, the Godlight Theatre Company has mounted a most ingenious adaptation by Sean Tyler.

With a cast of only seven, dramatic lighting (Maruti Evans), sound effects music cues (Ien Denio), and lots of stage fog – which envelopes the audience as much as the actors – suspension of disbelief is far more possible than might be imagined. And this 90-minute, intermissionless dramatization packs a good deal of atmosphere, suspense, and excitement, as tautly paced by director Joe Tantalo.

This is the story of four urban businessmen in Georgia who, persuaded by the outdoorsy Lewis (Gregory Konow), agree to put their dull, routine jobs aside to take on the raging river in the northern wilderness and find themselves on a nightmarish canoeing trip in treacherous waters, encountering some fairly creepy hillbillies along the way.

It helps that the actors are as good as they are. Nick Paglino in Jon Voigt’s movie role has the lion’s share of dialogue (as Ed is the narrator of the book) – articulating his inner thoughts and anxieties, which only occasionally -- as in a climactic scene where he scales a cliff in pursuit of a bad guy -- veer towards too much weighty exposition.

As for the neophytes on the trip, there are the excellent Jarrod Zayas in the Ned Beatty role Bobby (and yes, the infamous rape scene is here), and Sean Tant as the bespectacled conscience of the group, Drew.

Jason Bragg Stanley, Bryce Hodgson, and Eddie Dunn expertly play an assortment of mountain men whom the quartet encounter on their dubious adventure.

The action sequences are neatly done, be it paddling down the river, being thrown into the raging river by an overturned canoe, climbing treacherous rocks, or whatever. Such is the power of theater and good storytelling.

(59E59, 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org; through Nov. 9)

Pictured: L-R: Nick Paglino, Gregory Konow and Jarrod Zayas in James Dickey’s Deliverance at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Jason Woodruff

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 book, as directed by the great Marianne Elliott and performed by a simply splendid cast, is quite simply a towering theatrical achievement.

The tale of a 15-year-old autistic math genius, living with his father after his mother’s death, who compulsively sets out to find the culprit who killed his neighbor’s dog and, later, runs away from home making his way to London on the railroad and then the Underground is wondrously staged, and most movingly acted.

An air of sadness pervades the evening, though, as we watch young Christopher try to comprehend an utterly confusing world, and we are made to feel acutely the poignant ache of the adult characters who love and care for him, and long to break through his mental barriers, even as the boy can’t abide being touched.

Bunny Christie’s scenic design (a sort of electronic graph paper backdrop), working in brilliant tandem with Finn Ross’ video projections, Paule Constable’s lighting, and Ian Dickinson’s sound design combine to create a fabulously immersive experience.

Christopher’s second act train journey is framed with bravura effects that represent the very best of modern-day stagecraft. But even the domestic scenes – at Christopher’s home, school and elsewhere – are equally clever, but never showy just for their own sakes, as when Christopher’s discovery of a stash of letters which confuses his uncomprehending mind culminates in a nightmarish cascade of letters raining down on him.

The play started out at Britain’s National Theatre, which even in last year’s NT Live transmission, registered powerfully. In person, though, the impact is far greater.

The American cast (though you’d never know it from the splendid British accents) is headed by the extraordinary Alex Sharp (a recent Juilliard graduate), Ian Barford as his father and Enid Graham as the mother (both moving beyond measure), and Francesca Faridany as his empathetic counselor Siobhan (who sometimes supplies the voice of Chris as she reads from his diary on the sidelines).

There are also the excellent Helen Carey as a sympathetic neighbor who tries to connect with him, Mercedes Herrero as both Mrs. Shears, the owner of the titular dog, and a bureaucratic teacher, and Richard Hollis as both Mr. Shears and, like the rest of the cast, myriad other roles in a stunning ensemble. All of them, at times, move as one thanks to Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s inventive choreography.

My only quibble is a questionable play-within-a-play device in the second act, which threatens to undermine emotional involvement, but I found that to be only a momentary distraction and was soon caught up in the main storyline once again.

If ever pressed to come up with a title for “best theatrical experience,” my knee-jerk answer, for several years, has been Elliot’s staging of “War Horse.” Her latest is destined to rank high in my mental theatrical ledger book, too. Don’t miss it.

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St.; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

You Can’t Take It With You (Longacre Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

If last season’s Moss Hart bio “Act One” whetted your appetite for one of those classic and uproarious Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman comedies, here’s your chance for almost instant gratification: an altogether delightful revival of their 1936 Pulitzer Prize -winning play about the endearingly eccentric Sycamore family.

Expertly directly by Scott Ellis on a convincingly lived-in and cluttered living room set by David Rockwell, it’s been beautifully cast with Rose Byrne as the least eccentric (but still slightly off-center) daughter Alice, Annaleigh Ashford (that delicious scene stealer from “Kinky Boots”) as a talentless would-be Pavlova, Will Brill as her Trotsky-loving printer-xylophone-playing husband Ed, Mark Linn-Baker as the fireworks-making father, Patrick Kerr as his wacky sidekick, Kristine Nielsen as dotty mother Penelope, Reg Rogers as a gloomy Russian ballet instructor, and Julie Halston as a hopelessly alcoholic actress. Crystal Dickinson is a cheery presence as the right-in-step cook Rheba, and so is Marc Damon Johnson as her permanently on-the-dole beau Donald.

As the Sycamore family’s patriarch, Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, James Earl Jones provides a warmly benign if rather generic presence. Together, the actors form a highly satisfying ensemble.

Far more colorful and flavorsome than the 1983 revival with Jason Robards (at least going by the televised version), every character here is given their proper comic due, and there’s far more of a sense of period. Besides Rockwell’s detailed set, there are Jane Greenwood’s spiffy period costumes, Donald Holder’s warm lighting, and Jason Robert Brown’s 1930s evoking score.

The centerpiece of the play – and this production’s highpoint – is the second act appearance of Alice’s fiancé Tony (Fran Kranz) and his well-to-do parents (Byron Jennings and Johanna Day), one day earlier than the dinner date expected. The scene really scores with Penny’s desperate suggestion that they all play a word association game while awaiting the arrival of foodstuffs for dinner (hot dogs or canned salmon).

Among many marvelous scenes there’s Halston’s long unsteady climb up a staircase while reciting an off-color limerick, and the arrival of the Russian émigré Countess Olga (now a waitress at Child’s), and her game offer to take over the kitchen and make blintzes. (That’s the great Elizabeth Ashley, no less, in a grand third act cameo.)

For all the laughs, which are pretty much non-stop, the show has great heart, which explains its durable appeal. And bravo to Ellis, in an age when, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, there are no more third acts in contemporary theater, for retaining the original three-act structure.

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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Indian Ink (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

This 1995 Tom Stoppard work – based on his 1991 radio drama, “In the Native State” – is one of his most accessible, and its belated New York premiere here is a good one, featuring, as it does, two standout performances in its female leads: the great Rosemary Harris and, in her New York debut, Romola Garai.

The latter is Flora Crewe, a fictional 1930s poet, who has come to India for her failing health, and Harris is her younger sister Eleanor whom we see years later in the 1980s assisting one Eldon Pike (Neal Huff), who’s compiling her sister’s letters (having already edited a collection of her poems), piece together details of Flora’s life – Modigliani, H.G. Wells, and G.B. Shaw were in her circle – all those years earlier. Eleanor also helps Anish Das (Bhavesh Patel) learn more of the romantic relationship his painter father Nirad (Firdous Bamji) had with Flora long ago.

Harris is sublime as always, and Garai makes a lovely heroine, though Stoppard’s writing never quite convinced me she was a great literary figure. Still, more important to Stoppard’s purpose, beyond dramatizing the cultural clash inherent in India, is exploring what exactly we can know of the past from relatively scant clues such letters, paintings, and other keepsakes, and as the action shuttles back and forth between time periods, we learn that these mementos don’t always truly reflect the facts.

Neil Patel’s set design and Candice Donnelly’s costumes and Robert Wierzel’s lighting conjure a period India beautifully, and Carey Perloff has directed with great sensitivity, deftly balancing the shifting time periods.

I saw the original production at London’s Aldwych Theatre back in 1995, which was, I think, more definitive directed by frequent Stoppard collaborator Peter Wood, as it was. The great Margaret Tyzack played Eleanor, but the original Flora, Felicity Kendal, had already left the cast and the part was played by the excellent Niamh Cusack.

Those of the ladies excepted, some of the British accents here are a little dodgy. But performances are generally fine across the board including Bamji, Patel, Huff, Nick Choksi, Omar Maskati, and Lee Aaron Rosen.

Fans of theater and Stoppard, particularly those who haven't yet experienced the play, would do well to catch this classy mounting during its limited run.

(Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 46th Street; 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org; through November 30, 2014.

The Country House (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Now it must be said that any play that brings back the wonderful Blythe Danner to the boards gets brownie points right from the get-go. And, of course, a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies can’t help but raise pleasant expectations. But, sorry to say, this modern-day Chekhovian story of a theatrical family reunion at their summer place in the Berkshires where Danner’s character Anna, a renowned stage actress, in about to star in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” is a mediocre letdown.

Her housemates include her precocious granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele), her late daughter’s husband Walter (David Rasche), his new girlfriend Nell (Kate Jennings Grant), her sadsack son Elliot (Eric Lange), and a hunky outsider, matinee idol Michael who, as a youth, played Marchbanks to Anna’s Candida. All but disdainful Susie are actors, as was Susie’s late mother, a movie star who has recently died of cancer.

John Lee Beatty’s airy, comfy living room set and the bright, if not especially inspired, banter that makes up most of the first act seem to suggest a breezy comedy with all the women attracted to one degree or another to Michael whose womanizing is the stuff of tabloids.

The first act, in fact, ends quite farcically, but the second bogs down with more weighty matters, starting with a family reading of Elliot’s dismal virgin effort as a playwright. Thereafter, escalating tensions between Susie’s Uncle Elliot (read “Vanya”) and brother-in-law Walter whom the former accuses of selling out as a Hollywood director of schlocky films after a promising stage career (some lively art vs. commerce debate here), and between Susie and Nell whose motives for pairing with Walter Susie finds suspect, dominate. The play’s climactic scene involves a mawkish and self-indulgent revelation from Elliot that, as a child, he didn’t get enough love from his busy mother.

There’s more than an air of contrivance throughout, the dialogue seems derivative of other, better works, and none of these characters really ring true.

Danner looks lovely as ever – squint and she might still be the beguiling Tracy in the Vivian Beaumont revival of “The Philadelphia Story” decades ago – but her character, as written, doesn’t afford many genuine opportunities for either charm or over-the-top grandiosity.

Sunjata is fine, but his character is fairly one-dimensional. Young Steele gets a hand at the end for her wisecracking turn, but the predictably sarcastic comments with which Margulies has peppered Susie’s dialogue grow as tiresome as Uncle Elliot’s poor-me kvetching. Rasche and the lovely Grant come off best, by dint of their measured performances and relatively sympathetic characters.

Not a bad evening out, by any means – the solid cast, many of Margulies’ piquant observations on the current state of the theater, the classy production values (including Rita Ryack’s costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting), and veteran Daniel Sullivan’s direction are decent enough compensations for the flaws --- but it could have been so much better.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

This Is Our Youth (Cort Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Don’t miss this splendid Steppenwolf revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 comedy/drama about disaffected if affluent youth –drug-dealing Dennis (Kieran Culkin) and aimless Warren (Michael Cera), the latter who has just been thrown out of his home by his shady lingerie-tycoon father, but not before stealing $15,000 in cash -- and pretty Jessica (Tavi Gevinson), the conflicted fashion student painfully shy Warren fancies – on the Upper West Side of 1980’s Manhattan.

Anna D. Shapiro, that most masterful director last represented on Broadway by the superb revival of “Of Mice and Men,” keeps the laughs and the aching poignancy in perfect balance, with the help of three wonderfully assured performances. Remarkably, all three of them are making memorable Broadway debuts.

But all the elements of this production are outstanding from Todd Rosenthal’s eye-popping Upper West Side apartment (interior and exterior) setting, Ann Roth’s spot-on period wardrobe, Brian MacDevitt’s nocturnal and daytime lighting, to Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound design.

Lonergan’s witty dialogue consistently sparkles, with his characters spouting outrageous pronouncements and sometimes wacky non-sequiturs. But he also gives us a profound subtext that brings out all the hurt and vulnerability beneath these characters’ sometimes outrageous antics.

Dennis' bullying of Warren patently masks profound insecurity. Warren's doltishness is just the facade of a sensitive and intelligent person. The inability of Warren and Jessica to embrace fully their obvious mutual attraction seems just a youthful fear of commitment. All this and more is beautifully conveyed in the delicate writing, nuanced performances, and impeccable pacing on view here.

(Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through January 4)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Love Letters (Brooks Atkinson Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

A.R. Gurney’s durable epistolary two-hander is back on Broadway with a succession of intriguing stars, including Carol Burnett, Alan Alda, Diana Rigg, and Candice Bergen among them, all taking part in limited runs, following a tradition of very big names having a go at a play that involves no memorization (as they read from scripts) and nominal movement (as they remain seated at table all evening on minimalist table and chairs set, courtesy of John Lee Beatty).

Static though the basic setup is, the story of a mostly platonic love affair in the pre-internet age, told through the letters and notes between a couple of well-to-do WASPs – flighty, unstable Melissa and the ambitious, more grounded Andrew – soon grips you in the telling, particularly when the performances are as fine as they are on this occasion.

Under Gregory Mosher’s sensitive guidance, Mia Farrow (in a welcome, if brief, return to the stage), and Brian Dennehy are quite superb, capturing every nuance of the over-the-decades correspondence, with even the silences (as when one writes to the other, and waits anxiously for a reply which doesn’t always come) speak volumes.

Farrow’s Melissa is especially extraordinary, as she shifts, over the course of the evening, from girlish self-assurance to bitterness at her parents’ divorce and new stepfather, and later, her own failed marriage, to joyful anticipation of a tryst with Andy, now a married Senator, to desperate madness when she comes to realize the relationship cannot continue. There were moments in her performance that were so breathtaking the play was elevated to the sublime.

And though Dennehy’s character is the less overtly emotional, he was no less impressive, making nary a false move throughout the evening, and matching Farrow step for step.

Though the intimate play would obviously benefit from a smaller venue, the Brooks Atkinson is reasonably intimate for a Broadway house, and the miking helps hold attention (sound design by Scott Lehrer), though I don’t believe either of the players – with their extensive stage experience – need amplification.

It will be interesting to see how the coming casts – so different in personality (though Dennehy is pairing again with Burnett) – will play these parts, but this first coupling is clearly well worth catching.

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

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Operetta Delights in Wooster (Ohio Light Opera)

By Harry Forbes

Lovers of operetta and musicals had the rare opportunity for a week-long wallow in their favorite sport during the Ohio Light Opera’s first-ever symposium -- “Taking Light Opera Seriously” -- which, in the event, proved a serious (yes), but also most entertaining and absorbing, examination of the genre from a number of interesting perspectives.

Ayn Rand Institute founder Michael Berliner, for instance, spoke about how operetta saved the "sense of life" of “The Fountainhead” author; Operetta Research Center Director Dr. Kevin Clarke discoursed on cross-dressing in operetta and, later, on the four distinct stages of composer Emmerich Kalman’s career; Stefan Frey, author of a newly translated biography of Kalman, gave a talk on the business side of global operetta; prolific author and historian Kurt Ganzl delineated the various forms of the genre (e.g. opera comique, opera bouffe, and so on) and traced its evolution; and Operetta Foundation President Michael Miller put together a presentation on musical “borrowings,” accidental or intentional, with prime examples from the likes of Sigmund Romberg and Andrew Lloyd Webber. These talks were accompanied by PowerPoint visuals and, where applicable, audio and visual examples.


Though the title of the symposium was accurate enough – for these were solidly grounded scholarly talks by distinguished speakers – there was no lack of humor throughout the four days.

Miller (chair of OLO’s board) and his wife Nan were, in fact, the driving forces behind the savvily paced symposium, and laid out the four days with the precision of military strategists – including three outstanding recitals -- before, during, and after the actual OLO performances.

And what a splendidly diverse array of shows the company itself presented: “Call Me Madam” and “My Fair Lady” from the “modern” Broadway period; Jerome Kern’s delightful 1918 Princess Theater show, “Oh, Lady! Lady!”; the Gilbert & Sullivan staple “The Pirates of Penzance”; the Johann Strauss warhorse “Die Fledermaus”; and the two works that alone would have made the pilgrimage to Wooster worthwhile: Victor Herbert’s 1906 musical burlesque, “Dream City” (coupled with “The Magic Knight”); and Emmerich Kalman’s 1912 romantic operetta “The Little King” (“Die kleine Konig”).

Several of the symposium talks tied directly into the performances at hand which greatly enhanced the shows which immediately followed. Ganzl, for one, explained the out-of-the box casting which made the original Gilbert & Sullivan productions, including “Pirates,” so successful; Frey held forth on “The Little King” accompanied by witty visuals; writer and conductor Steven Ledbetter lectured on Herbert’s musical pedigree and the genesis of “Dream City”; and ace musical theater historian Richard Norton gave illuminating talks on the fascinating backgrounds of “Call Me Madam” and “My Fair Lady.”


The first and last sessions allowed the presenters to opine on the works they’d most like to see performed, and all-time most impressive musical performers. “La Fille de Madame Angot” (Lecocq), “The Girls of Gottenberg” (Monckton), “The Serenade” (Herbert), and “Love Life” (Weill) were among the former. Elaine Paige in “Evita,” Julia MacKenzie in “On the Twentieth Century,” Christopher Plummer in “Cyrano” were among the memorable latter.

There was an abundance of interesting facts and thought-provoking opinion. Ledbetter declared Herbert the operetta composer with the greatest range. Ganzl impishly debunked the perception of “Show Boat” as the great groundbreaker of Broadway musicals, pointing out that many works before it were just as innovative. Clarke convincingly argued that Offenbach’s “L’Ile de Tulipatan” might be seen as the first operetta about same-sex marriage. Frey colorfully described a heated melee over Merry Widow hats at a promotional giveaway during the run of the first New York production. Miller expounded on the protracted copyright infringement suit against Cole Porter brought by one Ira Arnstein. Berliner recounted how, as a young girl in Russia, Ayn Rand would walk miles, and wait on line for hours to secure one of a cheap balcony seat to the operetta. Norton demonstrated how much the pre-Broadway runs of “Call Me Madam” and “My Fair Lady” differed from their ultimate versions. And so it went.


The three recitals were top notch. “Songs from the Cutting Room Floor” gave an airing to the excised numbers from “Call Me Madam,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Little King,” and “Oh, Lady! Lady!” among others, with several bright members of the company: Aidan Smerud, Sarah Diller, Olivia Maughan, Christopher Oglesby, Gretchen Windt, Jamie Rapaport, C.J. David, and Grace Caudle. Former OLO Associate Music Director and entertainer Courtney Kenny offered a delicious recital of “The Best of British Musical Theatre,” accompanying himself on the piano, with some wonderful West End chestnuts, including pieces by Flanders & Swann, Vivien Ellis and Ivor Novello. And, most movingly, the late operetta historian – and longtime OLO translator and set designer – Richard Traubner, who died last year after a brave battle with ALS, was honored with a musical tribute of some of his best translations, and other favorite works. Andrea Traubner warmly introduced the recital which was narrated by Executive Director Laura Neil and longtime OLO Artistic Director Steven Daigle, and beautifully sung by Windt, Stephen Faulk, Nathan Brian, and Natalie Ballenger. Eric Andries accompanied the first and last recitals.


Musical values were high throughout the week, whether under the leadership of Lynn Thompson (“Pirates,” “Oh, Lady! Lady!” and “My Fair Lady”); Steven Byess (“Dream City,” “The Little King,” and “Call Me Madam”); or Jonathan Girard (“Die Fledermaus”).

A great part of the fun was watching the hugely talented OLO performers playing different roles, or simply joining the chorus of another production, an experience much like watching those marvelous British actors transform themselves completely from one role to the next in a repertory company like the National Theatre.

Tenor Clark Sturdevant, for instance, was Frederic in “Pirates,” Lohengrin in “The Magic Knight,” the unhappy titular monarch in “The Little King,” and a 1950s-era congressman in “Call Me Madam.” Mezzo Alexa Devlin played a raucous hillbilly in “Dream City,” a comic jewel thief in “Oh, Lady! Lady!” and the Merman role in “Call Me Madam.” And so it was with the others.

The versatile Daigle directed all the shows except for “My Fair Lady” and “Die Fledermaus” and had the style down pat for each one. The former was in the hands of Jacob Allen who, wearing his performing hat in “Fledermaus,” managed to make the often tedious character of Frosch the jailer bearable. “Fledermaus,” in turn, was helmed by Ted Christopher who played a superb Henry Higgins (as good as any I’ve seen), an entertaining Pirate King with apt melodramatic flourishes, and then took the romantic lead in “Call Me Madam” with suave assurance.

“Die Fledermaus” was nice enough (and the music was certainly beautifully played from first to last), but was perhaps the most expendable of the group, by dint of its over-familiarity. The same might be said of “Pirates,” though that production had a particularly strong cast, and was directed with a freshness that made it more than tolerable.

“My Fair Lady” was solidly traditional, satisfying both musically and dramatically. There was real dramatic tension between Eliza (Tanya Roberts at my performance), and Higgins. And Daniel Neer’s characterful Alfred Doolittle was but one of five impressive roles this season.

Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam” was given as brassy a Broadway-style production as one would wish, and though constructed as a star vehicle, worked well enough thanks to Devlin’s powerful pipes and likeable if youthful demeanor. She and tenor Stephen Faulk as her young attache made their “You’re Just in Love” duet an honest-to-goodness showstopper, leading the audience to demand an unplanned second encore. (Faulk was another of this season’s bright lights, with standout roles in “Dream City” and “The Little King.”)

But the gems of this season’s repertoire were, by general consensus, the Herbert and the Kalman resurrections. “Dream City” concerns the efforts of a shady real estate broker to persuade a local Long Island farmer to sell his property for a proposed Dream City on the site bringing about “improvements” to the townspeople. The farmer dreams of that fantastical future, during which all the townsfolk go to an opera, the farmer not at all willingly, and this is where “The Magic Knight,” a delicious parody of “Lohengrin” is played. The “Dream City” sequences filled with one snappy tune after another, and the parodistic touches of “The Magic Knight” vividly affirmed Herbert’s superb musical know-how.

There’s an excellent twin-pianos recording from Michigan’s worthy Comic Opera Guild, but the orchestrations here made a world of difference. As Ledbetter remarked in the final seminar, after knowing the work from merely the piano score, hearing the full orchestra was akin to Dorothy walking from black and white Kansas into a Technicolor Oz!



The surprise of “The Little King” (the English performance edition courtesy of Daigle) was how unlike the more familiar Hungarian flavored Kalman works this as “Countess Mariza” or “Die Czardasfurstin.” But the music of this early work was lushly beautiful, and the comic numbers – in the confident hands of Gretchen Windt and Anthony Maida (very funny in all his comic roles) – made a sprightly contrast. The story was loosely based on a contemporaneous true story of a young king of Portugal, Manual II, forced into exile by revolutionaries, and his love affair with singer/dancer Gaby Deslys.

Adding the ultimate authenticity to the occasion, there was the composer’s daughter, Yvonne Kalman, in vivacious front-row attendance. When she took the stage, cradling a bouquet, she enthused about how thrilled she was to see a work of her father’s she had never seen before, but not only that, “to see it alive…to see it so well done.”



Natalie Ballenger gracefully enacted the fictionalized singer in that work, and later that same day, became the farmer’s daughter in “Dream City” sharing a bravura vaudeville turn (including an impersonation of Lillian Russell) with co-star Nathan Brian as the real estate con man, the archetypal city slicker if ever there was one.

Brian made another dynamic appearance in “Oh, Lady! Lady!” as a hapless bridegroom-to-be entangled in farcical predicaments. Wendy Marck as his fiancée sounded lovely warbling the original version of “Bill.” (The song was cut from the original production and, much later, in revised form, inserted into “Show Boat.”)

Julie Wright Costa, who sang a magnificent “My Dearest Dear” at the Traubner concert, played her imperious mother, as well as vivid character roles in the other productions, too, inhabiting each expertly. She was also outstanding in the Kenny recital, singing still more Novello numbers quite superbly.

I could go on, but suffice to say, I found my visit an altogether enriching experience from first to last. Dream City indeed!

(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through August 9)

Photos (top to bottom):

Natalie Ballenger, Clark Sturdevant, Yvonne Kalman after performance of "The Little King"

Kurt Ganzl

Richard Norton

Eric Andies, Stephen Faulk, Natalie Ballenger, Gretchen Windt, Nathan Brian, Julia Wright Costa at "Honoring Richard Traubner" concert

Cast of "Dream City/The Magic Knight" Photo: Matt Dilyard, Ohio Light Opera

Clark Sturdevant, Natalie Ballenger, "The Little King" Photo: Matt Dilyard, Ohio Light Opera

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Natoma (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIVE!)

By Harry Forbes

Victor Herbert’s 1911 grand opera – not performed in its original form for over a century – was accorded a splendid resurrection this past weekend. The work – available till now only in orchestral medleys and some characterful but necessarily dim 78s -- proved enthralling.

Under the baton of Gerald Steichen, who conducted an orchestra of nearly 60 musicians, a chorus of 36, and a cast of first-rate soloists, the enterprise – under the auspices of producer/director Alyce Mott’s Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIVE! – made a highly persuasive case for the work, its music, by turns, lyrical, majestic, sinuous, rapturous and altogether bewitching.

The opera was the result of a conscious effort by Herbert and his collaborator, librettist Joseph D. Redding – both savvy men of the theater -- to create a truly American opera, sung in English, and utilizing genuine American themes, both dramatically and musically. The original cast included the great Mary Garden in the title role of the tragic Indian maiden and John McCormack, at the start of his career, as the naval officer, Paul Merrill, roles taken on this occasion by the rich-voiced Lara Ryan and impressive Tyson Miller, the latter delivering a ringing account of the aria “No Country Can My Own Outvie,” once memorably recorded by McCormack.

As that title suggests, much of the libretto’s language reads as archaic on paper, but as cannily penned by Redding (who was himself an accomplished musician), and as set to music by Herbert, the libretto actually plays quite well. The plot may be melodramatic, but surely that is not so unusual in many operas. More problematic is the character development which is basically nil.

The scene is the island of Santa Cruz off the coast of California, then under Spanish rule, in the year 1820. The noble Don Francisco (sonorous bass Gregory Sheppard) awaits the return of his beloved daughter Barbara (Monica Yunus) from the convent. The womanizing Spaniard Alvarado (Matthew Singer) plans to wed the girl for her fortune. Meanwhile, Barbara’s devoted companion Natoma has fallen for the American officer Lieutenant Paul, but stoically accepts the fact that once he lays eyes on the beautiful Barbara, he’ll inevitably fall in love with her, as indeed he does. Indian half-breed Castro (Robert Balonek), the villain of the piece, plots with Alvarado to kidnap Barbara on the day of her coming of age celebration. Natoma stabs Alvarado just as he and Castro are about to abduct Barbara and spirit her off to the mountains. The crowd turns on Natoma, but she finds salvation when the kindly Padre of the Mission Church (Ron Loyd) persuades her to take shelter and accept God in the convent of his mission church.

Herbert and Redding were determined to be faithful to the historical period and emotional truth of the situation (the Indian cause, for instance, is most sympathetically presented), and the result demonstrates the integrity of their approach to a great degree. But in truth, the story needed to be far better developed, and the characters given more plausible motivation.

Still, Herbert’s music more than carries the day. And the notable orchestral sections – the Habanera and the tense Dagger Dance (which leads up to the stabbing) – were lusciously played, as indeed, throughout the afternoon – under Steichen’s assured command – Herbert’s sophisticated and complex orchestrations shone through with wonderful clarity, surprising and delighting us time and again. Herbert’s melodic gifts were seemingly limitless, and his use of both Indian and Spanish flavoring deftly employed.

For the audience, sitting in a hall where the musicians nearly outnumbered them, the experience was akin to being on a Hollywood soundstage, and wallowing in a most dazzling and luxuriant sound.

The singers, as noted, were a top-drawer lot. Ryan’s mellow mezzo-like tones helped conjure the image of a brooding Indian maiden bemoaning the lot of her dying race despite her blonde, blue-eyed looks. Her opening number, “From the clouds came my first father,” and her final scena were commandingly voiced. By contrast, Yunus’ high-lying soprano and wonderfully pure, bell-like tones, intoned Barbara’s song to the moon exquisitely, and later, she tossed off a superb “I List the Trill in Golden Throat,” the bravura piece once recorded by Alma Gluck, with considerable aplomb.

Baritone Balanek was a particular standout, singing with gloriously firm tone, incisive diction, and tremendous authority. Villain or not, he made Castro’s every moment a pleasure.

Matthew Singer delivered his “Serenade,” with its piquant pizzicato accompaniment, most seductively. Herbert left no room to applaud in his through-composed score, much though the assembled wanted to do so after that number and the other set pieces, including the once popular “Song of the Vaqueros” rousingly sung by Colin Anderson as Castro’s comrade Pico.

The chorus provided superb accompaniment, whether as nuns, soldiers, or off-stage revelers.

This rare and unique experience was the fruition of years of outstanding scholarship on the parts of Glen Clugston who had mounted an abridged, piano-only version of the work in the year 2000 at Westport’s White Barn Theater, and musician/composer Peter Hilliard who painstakingly restored and digitized the score from less-than-perfect sources.

Under Mott’s enterprising and determined leadership, the concert reading (and the two days of open rehearsals that preceded it, starting with the orchestra alone, then adding the principals, and then the chorus) had to rate as one of the major musical events of the season. For those who revere Herbert, and have always longed to hear this legendary piece in all its glory, several were heard to remark that the performance stood thrillingly high in a lifetime of musical experience.

It’s a pity that, on this occasion, merely 200 people had the chance to experience it. But with orchestral parts now restored (some lingering errors notwithstanding), and the spectacular proof of “Natoma’s” worth so strongly confirmed, a full staging and a complete recording will surely not be long in coming.

(DiMenna Center for Classical Music, 450 W. 37th St.; July 13 only)

Photo: Gerald Steichen leads his forces at Sunday's concert reading of Victor Herbert's "Natoma." Credit: Clifton Pierce

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

CD Review: David Campbell Sings John Bucchino (Social Family Records/Luckiest Records)

By Harry Forbes

The many fans of David Campbell -- the Aussie singer and actor who, in the late 1990s, lit up New York’s cabaret and theater scenes, including roles in Sondheim’s “Saturday Night” and Encores’ “Babes in Arms” -- will be excited to learn he’s just issued a new album (his first in three years), and it’s a beauty.

Back in the day, Campbell had always showed an affinity for the work of composer John Bucchino, and indeed two of the songs on the present album – “Grateful” and “Taking the Wheel” – can also be found in fully orchestrated versions on his 1997 Philips album named after the latter.

And here, sensitively and definitively accompanied by Bucchino on piano, Campbell’s voice sounds as pristine as before, his high notes still lustrous while taking an occasional dip into an attractive lower register. There’s also, of course, the pleasure of the heightened interpretive skills that come with maturity.

In any case, those two songs and nine others register strongly, each one a little gem. Bucchino’s lyrics have a way of saying much with wonderful economy: “Yes we have come from a long way, Some say wrong way,” to cite but one instance.

The opening track, the haunting and heartbreaking “Sweet Dreams,” with its captivating melody, sets the tone for the classy program that follows, including the poignant “Unexpressed,” about channeling unrequited feelings of love into human kindness; “Better Than I,” a rueful song of dawning self-realization from the animated “Joseph: King of Dreams” for which Campbell sang for Ben Affleck’s character; the warmly sentimental “It Feels Like Home”; and the bittersweet “If I Ever Say I’m Over You.”

In these, Bucchino’s lyrics are never mawkish, and Campbell’s empathetic performances similarly avoid overt sentimentality.

The song list is nicely varied with lighter numbers such as the playful and jazzy “Puddle of Love” which particularly showcases Bucchino’s virtuoso playing; the rhythmic “Learn How to Say Goodbye” with its wise and perceptive lyric (so characteristic of Bucchino’s output overall); the bluesy “What You Need”; and so on. Campbell handles the fast patter of “Taking the Wheel” as deftly as ever in a beautifully phrased reading.

This is one of those perfect unions of singer and material. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another three years for Campbell’s next release.

(Available on iTunes and Amazon worldwide.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

This play has always been a happy one for The Public, as the overview of past Beatrice and Benedicks in writer Matt Wolf’s background article reminds us. From Kathleen Widdoes and Sam Waterston to Blythe Danner and Kevin Kline to Jimmy Smits and Kristen Johnston, and now to the current pairing of Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, it has delivered some of the most delightful evenings at the Delacorte.

Of course, the work itself – one of the Bard’s most surefire audience pleasers – has a little something to do with it, but on this occasion, under the assured helm of Jack O’Brien (making his Public debut), the elements are undeniably beguiling.

With a most pleasing set by John Lee Beatty, eye-catching costumes by Jane Greenwood, and deft lighting by Jeff Croiter, the backdrop for Beatrice and Benedict’s entertaining sparring – 1900 Sicily this time around -- is most attractive. On top of that, Broadway’s David Yazbek has composed an especially lovely score.

So, too, this is a particularly skillful cast, with a generally higher quotient than usual here adept at the language.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, for one, makes an engaging, upbeat Don Pedro, so natural and accomplished in his line readings, in fact, that one wonders why he hasn’t done more Shakespeare, unless you count his fragments of Petruchio in “Kiss Me, Kate.” Fans of his musical work will be pleased to learn that, at one point, he joins the musician Balthazar (a sweet-voiced Steel Burkhardt) for a couple of choruses of Yazbek’s tuneful setting of “Sigh No More.”

Also solid are John Glover and David Manis as Governor Leontes and his elder brother Antonio, Ismenia Mendes as his innocent daughter Hero, Jack Cutmore Scott as callow Claudio, Zoe Winters and Kathryn Meisle as Hero’s ladies Margaret and Ursula, Pedro Pascal as Don Pedro’s villainous half-brother Don John, and Matthew Russell and Eric Sheffer Stevens as Conrade and Borachio, Don John’s henchmen in the plot to slander Hero on the eve of her wedding to Claudio.

John Pankow is a very funny Constable Dogberry, whose malapropisms fall in quick succession. The other members of the watch (Matt Bittner, Alex Breaux, and Manis again) comprise an amusing team of sidekicks. As briskly staged by O’Brien, these characters don’t outstay their welcome, as comic characters so often do in Shakespeare.

I must also single out Austin Durant who makes a particularly strong impression as the Friar who’s called upon to marry Hero and Claudio. The unaffected clarity of his readings is exemplary.

Rabe is a deft comedienne, though perhaps more shrewish in her delivery than the merry, enchanting creature she ought to be. Still, in this interpretation, at leasst, the part suits her vinegary tone and dry, sardonic delivery. And Linklater – who plays Benedick in a comically buffoonish manner -- matches her as the ever-so-serious military man grappling with romantic emotions he’s only now allowing himself to express.

It is, of course, highly entertaining to watch Linklater and Rabe’s astonished reactions in those generally foolproof scenes wherein their comrades contrive to have each overhear how smitten each is with the other. The business that O’Brien has devised for Linklater, hiding in the orchard on stage left, falling through the foliage, and gradually working his way towards Beatty’s two-story house, inching closer and closer so he can better hear the speakers, is especially fun, as is the setup for Beatrice as her friends trick her with a similar ruse, and Beatrice hides behind and then underneath a table.

When they finally succumb to a passionate kiss at the end of the play, once all the unpleasantness of Hero’s slander is past, the audience cheers.

It can’t truly be said, however, that this cast matches the great interpreters of the past on purely vocal terms. Recordings of John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft, and Rex Harrison and Rachel Roberts, to name but two, prove much more the real deal. And the 1984 RSC production with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack is still the most memorable "Much Ado" of my theater-going life. But, on a beautiful summer night, O’Brien’s production is just fine.

His direction is masterful, and he balances the comedy and darker aspects of the play with ease. The redemptive, love-as-the-great-healer conclusion lands as movingly as it ever has.

(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, free tix distributed at 12 p.m. on day of performance; through July 6)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Pat Kirkwood is Angry (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

Pat Kirkwood’s name is little known this side of the Atlantic, despite an MGM film opposite Van Johnson to her credit, and a stint in Las Vegas in the early 1950s.

When, on holiday in London in 1989, I happened to attend a Noel Coward tribute entitled “A Talent to Amuse,” I recall being most excited about legendary veteran star Evelyn Laye, but English friends seemed even more enthused about the presence of Pat Kirkwood whom, at that point, I knew little about. She had starred in one of Noel Coward’s lesser-known efforts, “Ace of Clubs” in 1950, and at the tribute, she sang from the show. She was indeed very good, and I remember getting her autograph after the performance.

“Ace of Clubs” and songs from it figure in “Pat Kirkwood is Angry,” a one-woman bio written by and starring a talented singer with classical roots named Jessica Walker who plays Kirkwood, and relates her life story from childhood days in the 1930s singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” to full maturity and her death in 2007.

Along the way, there was a problematic mother, four marriages (all, but one, failures), various tragedies, a nervous breakdown, and a career that she felt never quite lived up to the potential. She did play the Rosalind Russell part in the original London production of “Wonderful Town” and later received kudos in “Pal Joey,” but she seems to have scored best, and been happiest. in variety and panto (where, as a young woman, she excelled at playing the principal boy roles, once opposite the very young Julie Andrews).

But her Hollywood film -- “No Leave No Love” – was a turkey, and she derides “Ace of Clubs” as second-rate Coward (which it was), though I don’t recall Kirkwood being particularly negative about it at the Coward tribute. Kirkwood blames rumors about an affair with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, for tarnishing her reputation and adversely affecting her career. But, in fact, she worked steadily in all manner of musicals, plays, movies, TV, etc.

All in all, Kirkwood’s story, as neatly written by Walker, emerges as a sad – but touching -- one. Lee Blakeley, a director of opera and musicals, moves things along at a good clip. The show was originally co-produced by Opera North and Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Several of the songs in the early part of the 80-minute show are rather pedestrian, but Walker’s sardonic and resolutely unsentimental telling of Kirkwood’s life holds your interest. Once she gets into the 1950s period, Walker enjoys some really splendid vocal moments, including an exquisite rendition of “Sail Away” and a scorching “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” to name but two.

Oddly, there’s nothing from “Chrysanthemum,” the 1950s musical which Kirkwood did with husband number three, Hubert Gregg. It was one of her pet projects, though it failed to run despite good notices.

Walker has a voice of quality, and her trained soprano gets a brief but impressive airing in a Gounod selection after which she states that Kirkwood “never sang about the stave again.” Still, in other numbers, Walker employs her attractive soprano top, yet proves she can also belt when the material calls for it. She doesn’t really sound like Kirkwood, and with her close-cropped hair and trim figure, Walker cuts a gamine figure, not much like the voluptuous photos of Kirkwood’s in her prime. But this isn’t an impersonation, and as show is framed as a reminiscence of the older Kirkwood, the physical disparity doesn’t matter.

Accompanist Joseph Atkins provides sensitive accompaniment, and vocalizes with her briefly on Bernstein’s “Ohio.”

I don’t know if Kirkwood was as frustrated in life as she comes across here – the account of her being roped into “This is Your Life” is particularly bitter – and yet I was amused to discover that Kirkwood’s “Who’s Who in the Theatre” bio ends with this summation of her hobbies – “Cooking, walking, swimming, and arguing.” So perhaps that’s really the way she was, after all.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St.; 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org; through 6/29)

(Jessica Walker as Pat Kirkwood, with Joseph Atkins at the piano, in PAT KIRKWOOD IS ANGRY, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg)