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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Casa Valentina (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Inspired by real life events, Harvey Fierstein’s first non-musical play in almost 30 years, inspired by the book “Casa Susanna” by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope, concerns a resort in the Catskills, circa 1962, where straight men, usually married, could indulge their proclivities for dressing in women’s clothes.

The premise is intriguing, and Fierstein’s play demonstrates his great skill as a playwright, but despite his efforts to build a dramatic arc to the story – showing us the trepidation of a novice to the group helps the audience enter this unique world, and an impending legal threat over some intercepted pornography adds tension, as does a later revelation of a vulnerability in the tight-knit group – there are too many talky and static patches. These include some interesting arguments about cross-dressing and homosexuality, but they rather undercut the drama.

Still, there is much to admire here, as the acting is marvelous across the board. Patrick Page is the manager of the resort, assisted by Mare Winningham his understanding wife. Gabriel Ebert (Tony winner for “Matilda”) is the trembling newbie who blossoms under the makeover ministrations of the ladies (an entertaining scene).

Reed Birney, looking something like mid-period Bette Davis, is especially terrific as hard-as-nails activist Charlotte who is determined to legalize a sorority she envisions for men of the cross-dressing bent and, in so doing, to distance them from the homosexual community. And there’s stout Tom McGowan as clowning Bessie; Nick Westrate as chic Gloria; and John Cullum and Larry Pine poignant as the old-timers Terry and Amy. Lisa Emery adds a cold dose of some real-world reality in her late entering role.

The men dress up amusingly in Rita Ryack’s attractive, totally character-appropriate costumes. And Jason P. Hayes deserves a shout-out for his all-important his hair, wig and makeup design. Scott Pask’s set design reveals that the a bungalow colony has seen better days; ditto, Justin Townsend’s shadowed lighting

Flaws in the text notwithstanding, Joe Mantello directs expertly. With so many humorous, touching and dramatic moments, and all those fine performances, it’s a pity that the play doesn’t feel quite there, with a rather inconclusive and unsatisfying ending, too.

(MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com)

Orange Blossoms (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

LOONY raised its own bar by several notches with their latest production. For starters, although they’ve done Victor Herbert before, this time they chose a real rarity: the composer’s last operetta which was produced in 1922. Even closer to musical comedy, this is the show that produced the evergreen “A Kiss in the Dark.”

As with the recent exhumation of Herbert’s rare “Cyrano de Bergerac” by the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project, it was refreshing to be reminded that there’s so much more to Herbert than those warhorses “Naughty Marietta” and “The Red Mill.”

Second, the show had markedly higher production values than ever before: actual sets to go with Bettina Bierly’s stylish costumes.

Third, the orchestral accompaniment was raised to nine players from their usual six. And though past productions have had excellent musical direction, this one had the additional cachet of being led by a name conductor, Evans Haille, at the piano. His expertise with this sort of material ensured the score was in good hands.

Add to that an excellent cast that acted as well as they sang.

And, most excitingly, it was announced that the work will be recorded by Albany Records in the studio.

That was particularly good news as – and here’s the one discouraging word about the evening -- it was nearly impossible to make out many of the B.G. DeSylva’s lyrics. This seems to have been partly due to the reconstructed orchestrations (from Herbert’s autograph score) often doubling the vocal line.

The story concerns one Baron Roger Belmont (Glenn Seven Allen) who needs to marry if he is to collect his inheritance, but his late aunt’s will stipulates it can’t be Helen De Vasquez (Sarah Callinan), the divorcee whom he loves. So solicitor Tillie Jones (Lisa Flanagan) comes up with a scheme. Roger can marry her goddaughter Kitty (Natalie Ballenger) for a year – during which time Kitty will live alone in comfort in Cannes – after which they will divorce, and Roger will be free to marry Helen. Once Roger finally gets to know Kitty in the second act, however, he genuinely falls for her. And you can guess the rest.

Other characters include Tillie’s assistant Brassac (David Kelleher-Flight), Kitty’s maid Nanette (an amusing Sarah Best) in Cannes, and incognito American detective Jimmy JJ Flynn (Ben Liebert). Jeanmarie Lally completed the cast in other roles.

Director/choreographer Michael Phillips adapted the script and co-wrote additional lyrics (with Cynthia Edwards), but generally followed the original storyline and song order. The biggest change in the text was a cheeky bit of gender swapping. The character of Bressac should be the solicitor and Kitty’s godfather, and Tillie his American secretary who, more logically, would be teamed with Jimmy as the secondary comic couple.

I’m not sure what was gained by having them switch roles, but in the event, Flanagan and Kelleher-Flight (doing a sort of Edward Everett Horton turn) were excellent in their reconstituted roles, so “all” that was lost was authenticity.

The leads were ideal. Allen made a dashing Baron and Ballenger a lovely Kitty. Callinan was vocally strong as the jealous Helen and, as indicated, Sarah Best made the most of her comic maid’s part. Liebert scored with his comic numbers, singing and dancing.

The musical program was pretty much complete, some orchestral bits aside, and Kitty lost her pretty song, “In Hennequeville.” LOONY departed from its usual format of a chorus of four men and four women, so ensemble numbers such as the opening chorus and “On the Riviera” were modified to fit the forces at hand.

The dialogue was snappily delivered, and though the original book by (Miss) Fred De Gresac, based on her play “La Passerelle,” was generally derided, this adaptation registered as a cut above.

Those acoustical issues aside, the evening was a genuine delight.

(Light Opera of New York, The Thalia at Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway, symphonyspace.org or 212-864-5400; April 25 and 26 only)

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Cripple of Inishmaan (Cort)

By Harry Forbes

Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play, first seen here at the Public in 1998, affirms its classic status in this absolutely splendid production from the Michael Grandage Company which has been imported intact after its West End run.

Daniel Radcliffe who, with each new film and stage project, impresses with both his career choices and acting chops, is the above-the-title star, but this is a true ensemble piece, and to Radcliffe’s credit, he’s just an integral part of a very accomplished whole.

Set in 1934 on the island of Inishmaan where, nearby, filmmaker Robert Flaherty is filming his classic “The Man of Aran” documentary, the play focuses on a fictitious group of residents whose lives are affected by the filming.

Radcliffe is the handicapped titular orphaned character, mocked by most of the townsfolk as “Crippled Billy,” and raised by his two adoptive aunts, Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie), the old biddies who run the local supply store. They are frequently visited by the boastful Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), the town gossip who prides himself on imparting the latest news, whether a neighboring feud, the death of an animal, or a dreadful disease, in return for a few eggs. He’s a caregiver of sorts to his old mother (June Watson) whom he plies with liquor in hopes of bumping her off. She, for her part, lives for the day she’ll see him in his coffin. Gary Lilburn plays the doctor who stubbornly refuses to breach patient confidentiality even under extreme pressure from the voracious Johnnypateen.

Then there are the McCormick siblings: mean-spirited Helen (Sarah Greene) who’s given to breaking eggs on people’s heads and worse, and the sweet-natured but dim-witted Bartley (Conor MacNeill) who has a perennial craving for sweets.

It is Johnnypateen, of course, who informs everyone of the Hollywood crew on the neighboring island of Inishmore, a revelation that prompts Billy to fake a grim doctor’s note indicating that he has only a few months to live, so that boatman Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney) will be persuaded to row him to the filming site, an action which will lead to surprising results.

I won’t say any more about the plot as McDonagh’s twists and turns are part of the ingenious fun, but the dialogue is so flavorsome and his take on the cruelties of human nature are so spot-on that one willingly suspends disbelief for the rest, as one does in the hands of a master dramatist which McDonagh most assuredly is. For all the cruelty of McDonagh’s characters, it’s easy to overlook the very real kindnesses which he shows can co-exist in human nature. Seeing this revival reminds us that McDonagh’s been too long absent from the theater.

The performances are enormously entertaining and authentic, as masterfully directed by Grandage. It feels akin to seeing O’Casey or Synge done by the Abbey or the Gate. The Michael Grandage Company (formed only in 2012), is clearly off to an auspicious start with productions such as this.

Christopher Oram’s sets and costumes, Paule Constable’s lighting, and Alex Baranowski’s music and sound design create a vivid sense of atmosphere.

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com.; through July 20.)

Of Mice and Men (Longacre)

By Harry Forbes

To cut to the chase, this is a powerful, well-nigh perfect production of a classic American play with impeccable performances from all concerned. John Steinbeck’s tragic tale of an unlikely duo of Depression-era farm hands – intelligent George and childlike giant Lennie – has been often told on stage and screen, but Anna D. Shapiro’s production is as fine as any I’ve seen.

James Franco has gotten the most advance buzz on account of his celebrity and this being his Broadway debut, and in fact, he takes to the stage as if to the manner born. He plays most beautifully opposite Irish actor Chris O’Dowd’s touching, appealing Lennie (the latter’s Broadway debut, too). The co-dependency of the relationship – remarked upon by the other characters – is skillfully drawn, and completely believable. It’s a pleasure to watch how expertly they convey the bond between them. O’Dowd has the showier role, but Franco is every bit as good.

With an evocative set by Todd Rosenthal, artful lighting design by Japhy Weideman, period costumes by Suttirat Larlarb, unobtrusive sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and flavorful music by David Singer, all the elements are in place for superior drama.

The casting is among the best on Broadway this season. Everyone seems tailor-made for their parts, including Jim Norton as the aging farmhand being pressured to euthanize his old dog, and Jim Parrack, Joel Marsh Garland, and James McMenamin as the other hands.

There’s also first-rate work from Jim Ortlieb as the boss. Alex Morf as Curly, his insecure bullying son, and Leighton Meester as the latter’s lonely wife whom the hands take to be a tart but who is actually just a lonely soul longing for companionship.

Ron Cephas Jones is the lone black man on the property, consigned to his own little shack, apart from the other workers, and he shares a fine scene with O’Dowd, Norton, and Franco in the second act.

It’s gratifying to see actors sink their teeth into such characterful parts. The experience can’t help but remind you of how theater must have been in 1937 when the play was first done. If only we had a national theater that could regularly give such plays an airing, provided they could all be done as well as this one, that is!

One appreciates anew Steinbeck’s adaptation of his own novel, as the story of this profound if unorthodox friendship registers as strongly as ever.

There are as many masterfully written scenes here as in the best work of, say, Miller and Williams. The climactic encounter between Lennie and Curly’s wife, where they are speaking at utter cross purposes, is one such brilliant example.

Shapiro’s direction of this male-dominated play is a marvel throughout, and propels the play to the forefront of the season’s current revivals, along with “A Raisin in the Sun.”

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

Photo: Richard Phibbs

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Violet (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Any memories you might still have of Sutton Foster and Colin Donnell belting out “You’re the Top” and other sophisticated Cole Porter ditties in the recent revival of “Anything Goes” will be pretty much vanquished after you’ve seen them in their present roles as a scrappy, facially disfigured young North Carolina woman and a Vietnam-era soldier who meet on a Greyhound bus as she makes her way to Oklahoma.

And their costars, Joshua Henry and Alexander Gemignani, formerly one of “The Scottsboro Boys” and Broadway’s last Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” respectively, are similarly transformed by their parts here.

Who says only the Brits have the ability to transform themselves so completely in different roles?

Composer Jeanine Tesori and book writer/lyricist Brian Crawley’s 1997 Off-Broadway “Violet” was revived as part of Encores’ summer season last year, and that re-airing was apparently deemed worthy of a Broadway transfer. And indeed it is, so it was good of the Roundabout to oblige. (The original production was a presentation of Playwrights Horizons.)

The musical – based on Doris Betts’ short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” which became an Oscar-winning short film in 1981 – charts its heroine’s journey from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, to find the TV evangelist whom she thinks will miraculously erase the gash she received in a terrible childhood accident, and make her beautiful.

Along the way, she encounters two soldier buddies, Flick (Henry) and Monty (Donnell) who, after a game of poker at a roadside rest stop, take her under wing. Despite her disfigurement (only suggested, not actually seen, by the way), both men seem attracted to her, and a non-violent triangular situation ensues.

Though the men are skeptical of her stated mission, her determination to find the preacher remains undimmed. I shan’t spoil whether she eventually gets her wish, but by the play’s end, she does go through an emotional transformation.

Tesori’s score – with its roots in country/western and gospel – is beautifully constructed, with several bona fide showstoppers along the way. Henry’s uplifting “Let It Sing” is chief among them, and deservedly earns a huge hand. And in the gospel department, Ben Davis and Rema Webb as, respectively, the preacher and his lead singer. really shake things up with “Raise It Up.”

Gemignani as young Violet’s (Emerson Steele) hard-working, guilt-ridden father is outstanding, and Annie Golden has two entertaining roles: an old lady on the bus, and later, a down-and-out hooker in the Memphis sequence.

But Foster is the extraordinary center of the show, which showcases her extraordinary acting and singing talents, and she electrifies in her climactic confrontation with the preacher.

Leigh Silverman’s direction and Jeffrey Page’s choreography serve the absorbing narrative.

David Zien’s economical set design with the band on stage is versatile enough to suggest the bus, Violet’s childhood home, the Memphis bar and hotel, and the preacher’s tabernacle, illuminated by Leon Rothenberg’s mood-enhancing lighting.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street; 212-719-1300, or www.roundabouttheatre.org)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Belasco)

By Harry Forbes

Neil Patrick Harris is at the very top of his considerable game in an electrifying turn as playwright John Cameron Mitchell’s transgender entertainer Hedwig.

I don’t think Hedwig’s evening long monologue – which frames the eclectic rock score – can ever have been funnier than in Mitchell’s updated script and in Harris’ exquisitely timed delivery, with riffs on everything from the ghost of impresario David Belasco and Disney’s “The Lion King,” to the Church and Barbra Streisand.

But this is more than just a campy lark. As Hedwig lays out her narrative, explaining her origins as Hansel in East Germany, her first marriage, the botched sex-change operation which left her with the “angry inch” scar, and her infatuation with Tommy Speck whom she believed to be her ideal mate until the boy abandoned her and became rock star Tommy Gnosis by singing her songs, Harris shades all the flamboyance with moments of great poignancy.

Lena Hall plays her Jewish husband Yitzhak, a former female impersonator, and excels in both aspects of her character’s gender, singing beautifully, too.

Michael Mayer directs with the same electricity and imagination he brought to the rock-flavored “American Idiot” and “Spring Awakening” enveloping his protagonist, on this occasion, with almost Christ-like symbolism.

With stunning lighting effects by Kevin Adams, and Julian Crouch's state design which looks as though a bomb hit it (and, indeed, it was left over from a musical version of “The Hurt Locker”) as Hedwig drolly explains in one of his entertaining digressions.

Tim O’Heir’s sound design is mighty loud, as the genre demands, but artfully so, and most of composer Stephen Trask’s lyrics get through the din.

Outlandishly but fetchingly outfitted by Arianne Phillips. Harris seems to relish the drag strutting – as, I guess, do all the interpreters of the role -- teasing the front rows with “Sugar Daddy” and camping it mightily with “Wig in a Box.”

The musicians comprising his rock band, the so-named Angry Inch, are a first-rate group: Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, and Peter Yanowitz.

(Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street; 212-239-6200 or visiting Telecharge.com)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

I remember how the ads for the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings the Blues” boldly declared “Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday.” Well, Ross gave a wonderful performance, and her singing of Holiday’s songs was some sort of career peak, to be sure, but Billie Holiday she wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

The claim can most definitely be made for Audra McDonald, however, for she thoroughly inhabits the real Holiday. Yes, Audra McDonald of the silky smooth soprano and the mistress of the show tune is giving one of the most astonishing vocal impersonations I’ve ever heard, and the miracle is that it doesn’t come across as a stunt, but truly organic to the character of the tottering woman trying to hold it together for a fictional one-night stand in Philadelphia near the end of her life.

Lanie Robertson’s play was first done in 1986 with Lonette McKee as Holiday. It’s directed here by Lonny Price who has frequently directed McDonald. Once again, the team has struck gold.

Between songs from the Holiday catalog – “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Easy Livin’, and “Don’t Explain” – Robertson has Holiday discoursing on her life working in a brothel, her mother (affectionately nicknamed “The Duchess”), her early rape, drug arrests and imprisonment, her tour with Artie Shaw, and the first husband Jimmy “Sonny” Monroe who got her hooked on heroin, and the influence of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong on her singing style. McDonald’s woozy recitation of these career points is masterfully done. And vocal excellence aside, this is as fine a dramatic performance as the five-time Tony winner has ever given.

She tells us how tired she is of having to sing “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit,” but eventually is cajoled into doing them, and they are predictably searing. The latter is sensibly placed after she tells a pathetically funny story of not being allowed to use the ladies’ room in an Alabama club with Shaw's band.

James Noone has cannily transformed Circle in the Square into the Philadelphia bar where, in fact, Holiday actually performed. Some members of the audience sit at tables, and at times, McDonald weaves through the audience interacting with them, but never breaking character. There’s a bar behind the tables where Holiday makes her way at one point to pour herself a stiff drink.

Throughout, she’s outfitted in a stunning white gown by Esosa.

McDonald is accompanied by a stellar trio, including Shelton Becton as her pianist Jimmy Powers (with Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass) who perform a scene-setting set before the show begins.

Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound design is first-rate, with McDonald perfectly amplified and never distorted wherever she wanders on the stage or off.

(Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bullets Over Broadway (St. James)


By Harry Forbes

Woody Allen’s 1994 comedy about gangsters bankrolling a Broadway show seemed a natural for musicalization, and so it happily proves to be. Allen has smoothly adapted the screenplay he co-wrote with Douglas McGrath (author, by the way, of the above average book for “Beautiful,” the Carole King musical).

Add to that solid foundation, top-drawer work from director-choreographer Susan Stroman and a perfectly chosen cast, and the result is one of the most pleasurable musicals in town.

With a mostly unhackneyed selection of period songs – though the more familiar ones do sound rather shoe-horned into the plot – which come up fresh in Doug Besterman’s orchestrations, and Glen Kelly’s additional lyrics (when needed), the show is also an aural delight. (It would be more so if Peter Hylenski’s sound design weren’t pitched quite so loud which slightly cheapens even an intentionally brassy show like this, but that’s my only carp, and a minor one.)

Though the cast is strong across the board, I must say straightaway that Marin Mazzie surpasses all her previous work with her hilarious, over-the-top portrayal of self-centered (and alcoholic) star Helen Sinclair. She makes every line count, and nails her three big numbers: “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me,” “There’s a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway,” and best of all, a sexy version of the Bessie Smith ditty, “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.”

Though intentionally grating, as Rachel York was in the similar role of “Victor/Victoria,” Helene York’s gangster moll Olive is quite a dynamo and bumps and grinds to a fare thee well in the raunchy, double entendre “The Hot Dog Song.” And Betsy Wolfe as the hero’s sweet girlfriend Ellen delivers two winners “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” and later, the show-stopping “I’ve Found a New Baby.” The great Karen Ziemba is rather underused here, but she’s a bright presence as always, and gets to do the breezy second act opener, “There’s a New Day Comin’!”

Stroman creates many memorable stage pictures throughout the evening, and has the most fun with the seven luscious Vargas-like chorus girls who appear in various guises throughout the evening. The men have their big moment in the gangster number, “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do,” led by the terrific Nick Cordero as Olive’s mobster bodyguard. But her dazzling production numbers aside, I admired how deftly Stroman stages even the smaller moments so her actors are always showcased to optimum advantage.

Cordero is but one of a strong male ensemble, led by Zach Braff in the John Cusack role of playwright David Shayne who, in the course, of the evening learns the meaning of compromise and then some. He’s the very watchable center of the story and shines dramatically and musically. Vincent Pastore is just right as gang leader Nick Valenti, and reveals a pleasant singing voice is “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.” And Brooks Ashmanskas is hilarious as voracious leading man Warner Purcell with a burgeoning belly throughout the evening.

All this plays out on Santo Loquasto’s sleek and classy Art Deco sets, which feature a miraculous revolve and continually amaze.

William Ivey Long’s costumes are equally yummy, and wittily conceived, especially Mazzie’s outfits.

(St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street; 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Realistic Joneses (Lyceum)

By Harry Forbes

Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, and Marisa Tomei comprise the flawless ensemble of Will Eno’s poignant comedy about communication (or, rather, the lack thereof), as a new couple – Bob (Hall) and wife Pony (Tomei) – move down the street from longtime residents John (Letts) and Jennifer (Collette) in “a smallish town not far from some mountains.”

As it happens, the surnames of both couples are Jones. But, as events play out, they have more in common than their names, or as their contrasting personalities would suggest. (And I’m not sure which, if either, the “realistic” one is.) At the start, Jennifer and John are having a stilted conversation in their yard. Jennifer suggests that they never “talk”; John counters that that’s just what they’re doing. Into this stalemate, comes the brash younger couple bearing a neighborly bottle of wine.

The latter seem eccentric almost to the point of menace, as their fractured speech patterns continually catch their hosts off-guard. Pony would seem to have a serious case of ADD; John seems the master of the non-sequitur. Both ask to use the bathroom almost as soon as they arrive. One wonders if this will be a home invasion sort of story. But no, they soon emerge, and conversation continues along its quirky path.

The taciturn Bob’s utterances seem logical if usually terse, but he clearly has his own issues including a degenerative disease that seems akin to ALS.

The laughs come frequently, and each scene generates warm applause, but as the narrative darkens, and an ominous tone pervades and though Eno – with his brilliantly elliptical dialogue -- sustains the humor, the essential loneliness, isolation, and fear of mortality facing these characters moves to the fore.

Sam Gold directs with great sensitivity to the shifting moods.

David Zinn has designed an ingenious set that serves as both Jennifer and Bob’s yard, and John and Pony’s kitchen. Massive trees flank the central playing area, mostly in shadow until near the end when the light of day reveals their lushness. (Mark Barton did the mood setting lighting.)

Kate Voyce’s costumes and Leon Rothenberg’s sound design (including some increasingly portentous music between scene changes) are on the same high level.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 W 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mothers and Sons (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Tyne Daly follows up her outstanding 2011 portrayal of Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” revival with another stunningly crafted McNally performance. This time, she’s Katherine Gerard, the recently widowed mother of Andre who died of AIDS 20 years before. She has been living in Dallas, and has decided to make a surprise visit to her son’s surviving partner Cal (Frederick Weller).

It’s a sequel to McNally’s teleplay “Andre’s Mother” which starred Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas, and which covered the events just following the death of Andre. It aired to acclaim on PBS’s “American Playhouse” back in 1990.

After all this time, Katharine’s never come to terms with her son’s lifestyle or death, and she establishes that outlook immediately in the opening tableau, as she, still stubbornly wearing her heavy fur coat, stands stiffly beside Cal as they look out the window of his Central Park West apartment which he shares with his 15-years-younger husband Will (Bobby Steggert), an aspiring novelist, and their son Bud (Grayson Taylor). Her body language in that scene and indeed throughout the play speaks volumes, as they survey the section in Central Park where Andre’s memorial took place years before.

McNally’s play – which premiered at the Bucks County Playhouse last June -- is compelling throughout even though his ruminations on gay marriage, homophobia, the consequences of AIDS, and so on, sometimes seem a tad heavy-handed.

A revelation that Andre was not faithful to Cal, and in fact, placed Cal “at risk,” is an interesting one. Later, in fact, Cal blames the rise of AIDS on gay men not feeling they deserved the “dignity of marriage” and consequently not encouraged to be monogamous, an interesting theory, but a debatable one.

More than halfway through the play, Katharine’s continued rigidity strikes a false note, but then, if she were to be won over right from the start by the men and cute little Bud – who takes an immediate shine to her and wants her to be his grandmother – there would be no conflict.

All in all, this is one of the prolific playwright’s best, and represents a return to form after the fair to middling “Golden Age.”

Weller is wonderfully sardonic and mercurial as he works hard to loosen up the recalcitrant Katharine, and he spars beautifully with Daly throughout, while Steggert does his reliably accomplished best as the young man thrilled with his fatherhood, but leery of the memory of the beloved Andre coming between him and Cal, even though they’ve been together for 11 years, far longer than Cal had been with Andre.

Sheryl Kaller directs with the same sensitivity she brought to the gay-themed “Next Fall.”

John Lee Beatty’s sets, Jess Goldstein’s costumes, Jeff Croiter’s lighting, and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design are all exemplary.

(John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor, and Tyne Daly (Photo by Joan_Marcus)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Raisin in the Sun (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Yes, Denzel Washington may be 20 years too old for the part of Walter Younger – the troubled chauffeur who hopes to escape the roach-infested tenement apartment he shares with his newly pregnant wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo), young son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), younger sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), and mother Lena (Latanya Richardson Jackson) – but, in the role originated by Sidney Poitier and last played on Broadway by Sean Combs a mere 10 years ago, he is magnificent and the years matter not a jot.

The Combs revival, in fact, had many excellent performances (Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Saana Lathan), and was finely directed, like this one, by Kenny Leon, but Combs’ earnest but workmanlike performance was a weak, if not disastrous, link. Leon’s current mounting is well-nigh flawless across the board with tremendous work from all concerned and therefore an even sharper realization of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic, one which with each viewing seems to affirm that status.

Okonedo projects quiet strength and dignity as Walter’s neglected wife, Rose is utterly endearing as the would-be medical student who rails against cultural assimilation under the guidance of a fervent Nigerian student (a charismatic Sean Patrick Thomas), and Jackson – who replaced previously announced Diahann Carroll in rehearsals -- superbly embodies the mighty bedrock of the Younger family.

Other key roles are perfectly taken by Jason Dirden as Beneatha’s suitor George; Stephen McKinley Henderson as Walter’s partner in a scheme gone awry; and actor/director David Cromer in the role of the smarmy emissary from Clybourne Park, the white neighborhood where Lena hopes to move the family.

Mark Thompson’s set design, Ann Roth’s costumes, Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, and Scott Lehrer’s sound all contribute to a richly satisfying whole.

Before the play, there’s a fascinating interview which Hansberry did with Studs Terkel in 1959, a lovely tribute to the playwright who died far too young.

A final word about Denzel Washington: years ago, I used to regularly encounter a Fordham professor named Robert Stone when we’d walk our dogs in Central Park. Stone was a former actor himself; he’s the mute soldier playing the harmonica in the film “Stalag 17.” I remember how he would rave about his former student, young Denzel, and his telling me how he called on all his theater contacts to come see this extraordinary young man in the school’s production of “Othello,” a move that launched Washington’s career. I couldn’t help but think how mighty proud the late Stone would be of his protégé in this production, featuring, as it does, some of the very best work of the actor’s career.

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 57th Street, 212-239-6200 or RaisinBroadway.com)

Monday, April 7, 2014

If/Then (Richard Rodgers Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This engaging musical by the “Next to Normal” team of Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) in built on the novel premise of how the life of a 39-year-old divorcee who has returned to to New York plays out (or might have played out) based on her actions at a certain moment in Madison Square Park.

The ensuing narrative takes a parallel track following protagonist Elizabeth – played most winningly by Idina Menzel – as she pursues her dream of becoming an urban planner and, alternatively, a workaday teacher who marries a good looking military doctor (James Snyder), opting for domesticity. As the former, she’s called Beth; as the latter, she’s Liz (and wears glasses much of the time). Neither road is free of unhappiness, as she discovers. And yet, without giving anything away, they will perhaps bring her to the same place.

In both scenarios, she has the same circle of friends: college pal Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a sexually conflicted activist who’s always loved her; sassy lesbian schoolteacher neighbor Kate (delightful LaChanze) and Kate’s girlfriend Anne (Jenn Colella).

As Beth, she finds herself attracted to her married boss (and former schoolmate) Stephen (Jerry Dixon), and acquires a devoted assistant Elena (Tamika Lawrence). In Liz’s circle, Lucas is able to commit to boyfriend David (Jason Tam).

It’s sometimes a bit confusing to figure whose story we’re watching but things get clearer as the evening progresses.

The cast is very fine, with Menzel the warm center. Her singing is smooth and powerful throughout, and she has a big eleven o’clock number where she pulls out all the stops, but what’s equally impressive here is her acting.

And indeed, the musical succeeds as much as absorbing drama thanks to Yorkey’s book and Michael Greif’s sensitive direction. Kitt’s tunes are quite attractive on first hearing, and the songs pretty much all convey the central themes of fate and chance which can be, at times, genuinely thought provoking, if at others, repetitive and a bit obvious.

The piece is ever so stylishly designed by Mark Wendland, with sleek urban patterns topped by a mirrored screen reflecting the action below, with very pleasing lighting by Kenneth Posner. Brian Ronan’s sound design is exemplary, wonderfully clean and natural.

Greif draws well-judged portrayals by the cast, and choreographer Larry Keigwin manipulates his cast in eye-catching ways.

(Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th street, Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)

Photo: Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp in If/Then photo by Joan Marcus