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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)