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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)