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Friday, March 28, 2014

Aladdin (New Amsterdam)


By Harry Forbes

The last of the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman Disney movie collaborations has finally made it to the Great White Way, following the megahit “Beauty and the Beast” and the less successful, but in my opinion, quite delightful, adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.”

Ashman died in the midst of completing the score, and Menken teamed with Tim Rice to finish the job. Rice supplied lyrics to the show’s big ballad, “A Whole New World” and the jaunty “One Jump Ahead,” among other bits.

The present “Aladdin,” like the movie which inspired it, provides a lot of zany fun capturing (to the extent possible) the frenetic animation of the film. If it sometimes comes across as “Kismet” on steroids, well, I guess that’s the idea.

But the most interesting aspect of the enterprise was, for me, the use of the Ashman songs which were deleted or never used in the original film. Apart from, I’m assuming, additional lyrics to the film’s familiar songs – “Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali,” etc. – I count three full deleted Ashman songs: “Proud of Your Boy,” a touching ballad whose deletion from the film was, according to interviews with Menken, an especially poignant loss as the song meant much to the team, “Babkak, Omar, Aladin, Kassim,” and “High Adventure.”

Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) has three sidekicks in this telling (Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz, and Brandon O’Neill) and they figure heavily in the last two named. Jasmine is the attractive Courtney Reed.

The storyline follows the trajectory of the film. Aladdin doesn’t think he’s good enough to win the princess as himself, and has the Genie turn him into a prince, despite everyone’s advice that all he needs to do is be himself, while Jasmine, of course, is completely turned off my his preening egotism, miles from the simple lad she first met (and fell in love with) in the marketplace when she gone there in disguise some time earlier.

Those Ashman songs (and others not apparently able to be fit into the context of Chad Beguelin’s stage book) were included in a lavish boxed set issued by Walt Disney Records to commemorate the partnership, “The Magic Behind the Music,” one worth seeking out on eBay.

There are, as well, three brand new Menken numbers with lyrics by Beguelin, the best being the infectious ditty called “Somebody’s Got Your Back.”

Bob Crowley’s set design is a colorful Arabian fantasy world, and I particularly loved the setting for the cave with its myriad glistening jewels where Aladdin first retrieves the magical lamp. Greg Barnes’ costumes are a gaudy, witty delight in themselves.

Danny Troob’s orchestrations have the right Broadway panache, if not the symphonic lushness of the film score, but register a bit crudely in Ken Travis’ loud sound design.

Casey Nicholaw directs and choreographs with his customary aplomb and imagination.

Where the production falls short, I feel, is in the casting department which seems frankly less than deluxe for a Broadway premiere, though everyone here is talented. That said, James Monroe Iglehart’s Genie superbly captures the manic, schizophrenic quality of Robin Williams’ fabulous voice work in the film, and becomes the audience favorite from his first moments on stage. He really hooks them with the big production number, “Friend Like Me.” There’s also the definitive presence of Jonathan Freeman who recreates his screen vocal portrayal of the villain Jafar, and veteran Clifton Davis as Princess Jasmin’s father.

If not quite top drawer, the show is undeniably lots of fun, and worthy family entertainment, but with plenty to entertain adults. But, above all, it’s a bittersweet tribute to witty wordsmith Ashman whose loss is still felt.

(New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W 42nd Street, 866-870-2717 or Ticketmaster.com)

Courtney Reed as Jasmine and Adam Jacobs as the title character in ALADDIN. Photo by Deen Van Meer

Monday, March 24, 2014

Les Misérables (Imperial Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Audiences just can’t seem to get enough of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel.

Neither last year’s highly successful film nor repeated showings of the 25th Anniversary Concert of the full show on PBS – much like the 10th anniversary concert before it – has apparently dampened the public’s enthusiasm in the slightest, if the jam-packed audience at my preview performance was an indication. They responded to even the first notes of the overture with ecstatic whoops and cheers.

The work has been running continuously in London since 1985. It didn’t run quite as long on Broadway, though at nearly 7,000 performances, it ranks high in the annals of longest-running musicals. A revival in 2006 ran two years, and lo and behold, now we have a “re-imagined” production directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, with new orchestrations and striking if overly dark set design “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo.” The projections are quite effective, none more so than the famous chase through the sewers. It was this 2009 touring staging that, in fact, we are told, inspired the film.

Despite a few less-than-ideal casting choices, this is a strong, solid revival across the board. Ramin Karimloo, whom Americans saw as the Phantom of the Opera in the PBS airing of that show’s 25th Anniversary concert, is an impressive Jean Valjean, more in the Hugh Jackman mold than the peerless originator Colm Wilkinson. Even greyed-up with a beard, he seems younger than the “old man” described by the libretto, but his acting and singing are very fine, and he brings down the house with his second act “Bring Him Home.”

Will Swenson, latterly of “Little Miss Sunshine,” impresses again with his versatility after polar-opposite roles in that show, “Hair” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” As Valjean’s single-minded pursuer, Inspector Javert, Swenson makes a strong foil to Karimloo, and powerfully nails “Stars” and his final “Soliloquy.”

Caissie Levy, thankfully, makes no attempt to emulate Anne Hathaway’s overwrought Fantine, and offers a vocally strong “I Dreamed a Dream” and death scene.

Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle play the Thenardiers rather broadly for my taste, but the crowd loves them, as Ms. Settle uses her ample size to funny effect at every turn.

Samantha Hill is a sweet-voiced adult Cosette with a pretty soprano top, and Andy Mientus a decent enough Marius, who has his finest moment with his big solo, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

Less felicitous are Kyle Scatliffe, whose muddy diction rather undercuts his rousing revolutionary numbers, while Nikki M. James’ vibrato-heavy, pop-styled Eponine is less pleasing than others I’ve heard in the role, though she creates a touching, sympathetic character.

Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland’s costumes – from the rags of the poor to the dressy creations of the guests in the wedding sequence (with the Thenardiers decked out in gaudy splendor) are as classy as the rest of the production.

Mick Potter’s sound design, though clear, seems less rich and natural than I remember the original, but perhaps the memory is playing tricks or it was just my position in the house.

The show began promptly at 8, and ended close to 11 p.m., but audience fervor was undimmed by the conclusion. It seems a foregone conclusion that this “Les Mis” is going to be a bona fide hit all over again.

(Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rocky (Winter Garden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This most unlikely subject for a musical – the latest in an endless line of movie-to-musical adaptations -- turns out to be quite a good one, I’m happy to report. This one, of course, is based on the first film of Sylvester Stallone’s hugely successful franchise about the underdog fighter from Philadelphia, and it's the movie that put its star on the map back in 1976.

The staging of the climactic fight scene is all you’ve perhaps by now heard that it is, but there’s a lot more to this theatrical “Rocky” than those final 15 minutes. Beyond what happens in the ring, it’s a touching story of two damaged, lonely people who find each other, and the scenes between Rocky (outstandingly played by Andy Karl) and Adrian (Margo Seibert very fine in the Talia Shire role) are touchingly acted, and very well musicalized.

The songs that composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have written for these interludes are among the prettiest currently on Broadway. Not that there aren’t passages that have all the bombast you’d expect from a show with boxing at its macho center, but the veteran team has concocted a satisfying mix of big moments and intimate ones.

Stallone (here in collaboration with stage-savvy book writer Thomas Meehan) has stuck fairly close to his movie screenplay, if memory serves, and fans of the film will be reassured to find the beloved plotline intact.

Besides the outstanding leads, there’s stellar work from Terence Archie as the cocky heavyweight champion who goes up against Rocky in the big fight, Danny Mastrogiorgio as Adrian’s hot-tempered brother Paulie, Dakin Matthews as the irascible gym manager who becomes Rocky’s coach, and Jennifer Mudge as Adrian’s co-worker in the pet shop and Paulie’s off-again, on-again girlfriend. (Mickey’s “In the Ring” number has the most traditional Broadway showbiz feel.)

Dramatically, everyone registers as solidly as their film counterparts, and the narrative is as absorbing as any non-musical play currently on the boards.

Christopher Barreca’s set design neatly allows for the changing scenes of Rocky’s cluttered apartment, the gym, Linda and Paulie’s place, the pet shop, and so on, with Don Scully and Pablo N. Molina’s video design’s adding high tech projections to the striking visuals. But, as lighted by Christopher Akerlind, the settings capture the film’s gritty look.

The climactic fight sequence which involves the ring moving out over the first rows of the orchestra (with the audience from those seats filing onto the stage as arena extras) is wonderfully executed, allowing for a genuine you-are-there experience.

Steven Haggett and Kelly Devine’s choreography which, I presume, includes the surprisingly realistic fight, is first rate.

The whole enterprise is deftly held together by the ever-creative Alex Timbers’ innovative direction.

This is the sort of show that sends you out on a high, and satisfies both hard core theater buffs and novices who might not care much for musicals but love the film. It’s easy to predict a long, lucrative run for this one, and I’d put my money on this being a strong contender come awards time.

(Winter Garden, 1634 Broadway, Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy

All the Way (Neil Simon Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This epic-length history play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan (“The Kentucky Cycle”) traces the year leading up to Lyndon Johnson’s re-election after becoming an “accidental president” in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Bryan Cranston, though hardly a doppelganger for the real Johnson – like the other cast members, no one much looks like their real-life counterparts – gives a most impressive performance, demonstrating all the contradictory sides of LBJ’s character: shrewd, savvy, charming, crude, homespun, decent, ruthless, and alternately loving and abusive to wife Lady Bird Johnson (Betsy Aidem). Cranston excels at projecting all these characteristics, and creates the touching portrait of a powerful man who, at the end of the proverbial day, seems to want love most of all.

During that one year, marked by projections which count down the months, we see him struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (at one point, LBJ’s called “the best president for the negro since Abraham Lincoln), manage Martin Luther King’s (Brandon J. Dirden) expectations, cope with racial violence in the South (including three young civil rights workers killed by the KKK during the Freedom Summer in Mississippi) and deal with a scandal involving top aide Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore).

Throughout the evening, all the top political figures of the era parade across the stage: from his vice presidential running mate Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), mentor Sen. Richard Russell (John McMartin), and Gov. George Wallace (Rob Campbell) to J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean), NAACP Director Roy Wilkins (Peter Jay Fernandez), and Sen. Strom Thurmond (Christopher Gurr).

Many in the cast play two or more roles, and they all do so most capably.

Schenkkan’s play is an intelligent distillation of events, but at nearly three hours, sometimes lags, though Cranston’s charismatic performance remains the very watchable center, and he’s onstage almost every minute.

Christopher Acebo’s congressional setting provides a backdrop of appropriate gravitas, and Shawn Sagady’s projections add visual variety.

The whole complex enterprise, which started out at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (and also played the American Repertory Theater), is lucidly staged by Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Festival.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, Ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000)

Photo (Evgenia Eliseeva): (l.-r.) Bryan Cranston and Robert Petkoff

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Bridges of Madison Country (Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Robert James Waller’s novel -- which also served as the basis for the 1995 film with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood – may seem an odd choice for musicalization, but by the time the familiar story reaches its bittersweet conclusion, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. Credit playwright Marsha Norman for making more palatable what is, after all, the story of an adulterous affair. (The musical started life last August 2013 at The Williamstown Theatre Festival.)

Kelli O’Hara, once more in the sensitive hands of director Bartlett Sher (“South Pacific,” “Light in the Piazza”), quite surpasses all her previous fine work with her portrayal of Francesca, a displaced Neapolitan woman living with her husband Bud (Hunter Foster) and their teenage children (Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena) on an Iowa farm. The flatness of the landscape – physical and metaphorical – has her longing for the country she left behind.

When Bud takes the kids to the annual State Fair in Indiana, Francesca encounters Robert, a hunky National Geographic photographer who has come to photograph the famous covered bridges of the area. The attraction is palpable, and though they try to keep a lid on their emotions, it isn’t long before they have fallen passionately in love, and into Francesca’s bed.

What will Francesca do when her family returns? Will she forgo the love of a lifetime for the sake of her clearly decent husband and kids? Therein lays the conflict, and the life-choices theme of the story.

Jason Robert Brown has written a quality score full of lovely, lyrical, ballads, filled with passion and yearning, and all gorgeously orchestrated (by Brown himself). And O’Hara sings them exquisitely. They make full use of her range. Dramatically, she is thoroughly immersed in her character, well beyond merely the Italian accent and dark hair. If you wandered into the theater not knowing it was she, you might almost not know it. The charismatic Pasquale matches her every step of the way, and earns a huge hand for his solo “It All Fades Away.”

Given the intimacy of the drama, with the focus on these two characters, Brown’s musical opportunities are perforce limited. And yet, he has managed to seize every opportunity to vary the mix with, for instance, a number for Robert’s ex-wife, some tunes for Bud (and Foster is excellent, as always), a 1960’s pop ditty, sung with delightful incongruity by Cass Morgan as Francesca’s nosy, but ultimately warm-hearted, neighbor Marge, while the lovers are dancing (“Get Closer”).

There’s further musical variety in the second act at the State Fair scene and a Gospel flavored number, “When I’m Gone” led by Michael X. Martin, also very fine as Marge’s long-suffering husband.

Sher’s staging on Michael Yeargen’s sectional, abstract sets (gorgeously lit by Donald Holder) allows characters in different locations (and even times) to occupy the same stage space, a device which, though skillfully managed, sometimes smacks of economic necessity.

Still, the staging is never less than accomplished and nicely fluid.

As indicated, the musical gains in power throughout the evening, and the second act, packed with more dramatic and vocal variety as it is, is completely compelling, and justifies its fervent standing ovation.

(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45 St., 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Tribute Artist (Primary Stages)

By Harry Forbes

Fans of Charles Busch and Julie Halston scarcely need another reason to book their tickets for “The Tribute Artist” beyond knowing these two wonderful artists are sharing the stage once again. The vehicle for their reunion is the latest in an impressively long string of comedies by Mr. Busch, under the helm of longtime Busch collaborator Carl Andress.

And as well as the stars’ comfortingly familiar presences, we have here an accomplished supporting cast and a fine physical production.

The premise is this. Jimmy (Busch) is a Las Vegas female impersonator – sorry, tribute artist – who resides at the home of wealthy matron Adriana (Cynthia Harris) when he happens to be in New York. Rita (Halston), labeled the internet as “the worst real estate agent in New York,” is his friend and sometime guest at Adriana’s.

When the older woman announces her imminent demise, and indeed, expires on the sofa that very evening, Jimmy and Rita hatch a seemingly foolproof plan: Jimmy will impersonate Adriana, and Rita will be able to sell the apartment for a small fortune.

But they have not accounted for Adriana’s mad-at-the-world niece Christina (Mary Bacon) showing up to claim her rightful inheritance along with her transgender teenage daughter Oliver (Keira Keeley), nor Adriana’s former flame from years ago (Jonathan Walker), a hunky but shady character with, to say the least, a colorful past including the trafficking in body parts.

Of course, Jimmy and Rita’s plan goes wildly awry, but Jimmy’s gracious Adriana – much nicer than the real one, apparently -- wins (almost) all hearts.

“The Tribute Artist” may not be quite Busch’s best work – the plot strains credulity, even given the conventions of farce -- and there’s some raunchy humor that seems a bit out of place for one of the playwright’s “uptown” plays. Still, most of the gray heads in the audience seemed not to mind so perhaps I’m mistaken on that point.

The second act plays much smoother than the fitfully funny first, though the final wrap-up could perhaps still use some fine-tuning.

The cast members are all deft farceurs. Harris is out of the action early on, but she establishes Adriana’s persona vividly, allowing Busch to pick up the interpretation. Bacon comes on stridently, for so the part is written, but soon tamps down the off-putting aggressiveness. Keeley is appealing as her tomboy daughter. And Walker is perfect as the shifty past-his-prime hunk.

Busch is in drag nearly all evening, so he’s able to do what the fans adore, including some homage to Golden Age stars like Bette Davis. Greta Garbo, and even Marilyn Monroe singing “Runnin’ Wild” from “Some Like It Hot.” Halston’s spot-on comic timing is as sharp as ever.

They and the rest of the cast are well outfitted by Gregory Gale, and the action plays out nicely on Anna Louizos’ well-heeled townhouse set.

(Primary Stages, 59 E. 59 Street, 212-279-4200 or primarystages.org; through 3/30)