Thursday, January 30, 2014

Machinal (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Sophie Treadwell’s innovative 1928 Expressionist drama inspired (though she denied it at the time) by a real-life murder case was memorably mounted by Britain’s National Theatre in 1993 with Fiona Shaw in the central role of working woman stifled by the conventions of the day, who goes from living with her domineering mother to a loveless marriage with her boss. Ian MacNeil’s set was quite spectacular, as I recall, and under Stephen Daldry’s direction, Shaw gave a riveting performance.

The current revival – its first on Broadway – is smaller in scale, but British actresss Rebecca Hall (in her Broadway debut) is very fine indeed, and her costars are equally adept. These include Suzanne Bertish as the nagging mother, Michael Cumpsty as the excruciatingly earnest husband, and Morgan Spector (in the role originated by a young Clark Gable) as the lover with whom the frustrated young woman experiences her first and only taste of freedom in an overly mechanized world. Spector’s straight-arrow line readings nail the character perfectly.

Es Devlin’s revolving rectangle is quite remarkable. The original production is said to have had a stylized scenic design that suggested the numerous scenes. Here, nearly full sets seem to materialize in rapid and remarkable profusion.

But it is the tremulous Hall who utterly commands our interest, deftly delivering Treadwell’s terse dialogue and stream-of-consciousness poetic outbursts, and creating a convincingly piteous character right up to the poignant final moments.

Lyndsey Turner brilliantly leads her forces in a taut 90 something minutes.

Michael Krass’ period costumes are wonderfully evocative, and Jane Cox’s often murky lighting perfectly evokes the various (mostly bleak) settings.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street;

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Beautiful (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Yes, it’s a jukebox musical, and yes, the song placement is strictly of the “and then she wrote” kind, but “Beautiful” – ostensibly the life story of songwriter-turned-singer Carole King – proves more than that.

Douglas McGrath has fashioned an intelligent, often witty story of two songwriting couples – King and her husband Gerry Goffin, and their friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Yes, the story is told in broad, necessarily simplistic strokes, but the quality of the writing and the talent of the four principals makes for absorbing drama as much as a strongly melodic evening. Director Marc Bruni guides his cast through a well-paced narrative.

Weil (Anika Larsen), all tart show-biz savvy, and Mann (Jarrod Spector), womanizing nebbish who seriously falls for Weil, are the comedic sidekicks of traditional musical comedy, which is not to say that their characters, like King and Goffin, aren’t well developed with their own share of poignant moments.

As King, Jessie Mueller continues her impressive journey from strength to strength. She creates an immensely likable figure charting the life from ambitious Brooklyn teenager (born Carole Klein) with songwriting aspirations to hard-working pro in music producer Don Kirshner’s office.

As her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, then manic-depressive, husband Goffin, Jake Epstein offers a touching, most affecting characterization.

All four sing impressively, and kudos to Brian Ronan’s sound design for a clean, natural projection.

Derek McLane’s set is modest but stylish, alternating between King’s various homes to Kirschner’s offices to performing space.

McGrath’s story arc charts King’s reluctant emergence as a solo artist with a generous offering of the golden songs from that period.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., or 212-239-6200)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pagliacci – The Circus Princess (Amore Opera)

By Harry Forbes

It’s rare that the flavorful Viennese operettas of Emmerich Kalman get an airing around these parts, and when, once every few years, one is mounted, it’s usually “Countess Maritza” or “The Gypsy Princess,” his masterworks.

So Amore Opera is to be greatly commended for putting on “Die Zirkusprincessin” (“The Circus Princess”). Even if not quite in the league of the others mentioned, the work is filled with lively, stirring melodies, and has not been heard in New York since the 1920s.

On this occasion, Julius Brammer and Alfred Grunwald’s original three-act libretto has been neatly adapted and abridged by Amore head Nathan Hull, with English lyrics by Adam Carstairs.

Furthermore, it has been paired with the Leoncavallo’s extravagantly tuneful, clown-themed “Pagliacci,” an idea that probably sounded better on paper, despite Hull shoehorning a few cursory references to the latter into the opening dialogue. In any event, the double-bill made for a rather long evening.

However, matters of length aside, “Pagliacci” was highly satisfying in every respect. Isaac Grier as Tonio got the evening off to a compelling start with his richly vocalized prologue. Paolo Buffagni, despite some announced vocal issues that later prevented him taking the lead in “Circus Princess,” sang impressively as jealous husband Canio, earning cheers for his “Vesti la giubba,” and Megan Nielson acted and vocalized strongly as cheating wife Nedda. Gustavo Morales as lover Silvio and Ki-Taek Song as Beppe were also top-drawer. Hull’s direction brought out the requisite hot-blooded dramatic elements. And conductor Gregory Ortega led the orchestra in a lush, dramatic reading.

His forces were on less solid ground with “Circus Princess,” however. The tempo of the opening bars were rather plodding, and what followed both onstage and in the pit was more than a little chaotic. Kevin Courtemanche, an alternate Canio, gamely essayed the heroic role of Mister X, reading his lines and lyrics from index cards, but despite the understandable tentativeness, sang impressively. Mister X is a circus aerialist who falls for the Merry Widow-like titular heroine, played at my performance by Sofia Dimitrova who was, like others in the cast, frequently overpowered by the orchestra, though she generally sang with sensitivity. The secondary comic couple roles were taken by Dorothy Smith Jacobs (Mabel) and Daniel Kerr (Tony), neither quite right physically or dramatically, but handling their songs pleasantly enough.

Supporting roles were more satisfyingly played by David Seatter as a conniving prince with designs on the princess himself, Jeff Kurnit as the circus owner, Thomas Geib as Baron Rasumovsky, Carla Schlumberger as Kerr’s mother, and William Remmers as the prince’s sidekick.

Glamor and charm, elements so essential in this repertoire, were largely absent. (Courtemanche, for instance, registered as more Wallace Shawn than Rudolf Schock or Fritz Wunderlich), but even so, it was a treat to see how the piece – known to operetta buffs mostly from CD – plays out on stage, and Hull’s dialogue was more creditable and less hokey than that of the Met’s new “Die Fledermaus.”

Despite the roughness of some elements, Kalman’s melodies still managed to captivate. Courtemanche delivered Mister X’s famous opening number, “Two Eyes of Magic” (“Wei Marchenaugen”) more than capably, joined Seatter and the other men for a rousing Hussar number (the liveliest of the evening), while Jacobs and Kerr scored with their “I’m Off to Hollywood” number.

I don’t know how much liberty may have been taken with the dialogue, but the plot mirrored the original faithfully, apart from some unobjectionable embellishments in the denouement.

Let’s hope Amore revisits more of this repertoire in future seasons. In the meantime, I look forward to their “Madama Butterfly” and “The Mikado,” the latter with a children’s cast, both slated for May.

(Amore Opera, Connelly Theatre, 220 E. 4th St.; or 866-811-4111; through Jan. 5)

Photo: Shuping Lu