Wednesday, December 23, 2015
You might wonder at the point of reviving a musical a mere seven years after the original Broadway production shuttered, especially as that first production – for all its virtues -- was not exactly a unanimous critical favorite.
But there’s no question that this John Doyle production – a hit at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory -- is a winner all the way.
Beautifully staged, against an imposing wall of chairs (the set also designed by Doyle, by the way), which serve as props at various points, the cast is perfection, starting with Cynthia Erivo, the sole London import.
She received well deserved accolades there, and not forgetting LaChanze’s terrific, Tony Award-winning portrayal in the original, Erivo is indeed superb as Celie in all her ages, from docile, sexually abused teenager, to compliant wife of the brutal husband known as Mister (a powerful Isaiah Johnson) to gradually enlightened woman with a growing awareness of her self-worth. Her powerful eleven o’clock number, “I’m Here,” earns deserved cheers.
Danielle Brooks from “Orange is the New Black” is sensational as Sofia, the no-nonsense gal who falls for Mister’s easygoing son Harpo (a very engaging Kyle Scatliffe). Her musical declaration “Hell No!” – sung after Harpo is egged on by his father to try to beat her into submission – is a real crowd-pleaser, as much for her dynamic delivery as for the sentiments of the lyric.
Joaquina Kalukango – so galvanic in this past summer’s Encores production of “The Wild Party” – scores again here in a much more subdued role as Celie’s dedicated schoolteacher sister.
Second-billed Jennifer Hudson is Shug Avery, the glamorous femme fatale who sets all the men agog, and spurs Celie to find the courage to stand up to Mister. Hudson’s advocacy of Weight Watchers has certainly paid off, as she cuts a voluptuous figure and carries herself with convincing sexual swagger. Her singing is terrific from her tender “Too Beautiful for Words” to her “Push da Button” showpiece, and she creates a sympathetic character. My only qualm about her performance is that she occasionally rushes her dialogue, and therefore doesn’t enunciate certain lines as clearly as she ought.
But she and Erivo have the requisite chemistry, as their characters develop a warm affection for each other.
Speaking of aural matters, Gregory Clarke’s sound design is a bit uneven overall. At least from the mezzanine level, the overly amped voices in the concerted numbers made intelligibility effortful at times.
After his striking production of Kander & Ebb’s “The Visit” this past spring, Doyle earns another feather in his cap for this clear-headed, enthralling production.
Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Jane Cox’s lighting contribute to the show’s pleasing visual appeal. And Music Director Jason Michael Webb brings out every nuance of the rich and varied score (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray) which is even stronger than remembered. Likewise, Marsha Norman’s book is remarkably solid, a canny distillation of Alice Walker’s novel.
This is sure to be a contender for Best Revival at awards time. Highly recommended.
(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45 Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
Saturday, December 19, 2015
“Inspired” by the Walter Tevis novel “The Man Who Fell to Earth” -- which also served as the basis for the Nicolas Roeg film of that name starring David Bowie -- “Lazarus” is, in fact, a sequel.
Still, if you choose to see it, and provided you can score a ticket to the limited, sold-out run, it would not be a bad idea to bone up on the novel’s synopsis on Wikipedia which will, at least, give you some idea of the general setup. Otherwise, you might think that central character Newton is simply a burnt out executive choosing to live a reclusive lifestyle in a New York apartment as he subsists on gin and Twinkies, and not an actual alien who wishes to return to his home planet.
Adapted by Bowie and playwright Enda Walsh, and directed by the Belgian Ivo van Hove, already represented on Broadway with the overly stylized “A View from the Bridge” which is about to be joined by another Arthur Miller play, “The Crucible,” later this winter, “Lazarus” is an avant garde production with a frankly difficult to follow narrative. One moment there are geishas on stage, the next, people are popping black balloons. Go figure.
In any case, the whole has been fitted out with songs from Bowie’s catalog (“Changes,” “This Is Not America,” All the Young Dudes,” etc.), and they are, it must be said, very well performed by Michael C. Hall as the alien Newton, and the rest of the first-class cast. (The seven musicians comprising the band are lined up behind the windows of Newton’s apartment, and are occasionally concealed by curtains),
Those who know Hall only from his outstanding TV work (“Dexter,” “Six Feet Under”) may be surprised to hear what a fine singer he is, too, and he certainly delivers the goods with powerful vocals and a committed dramatic performance.
The rest of the ensemble cast is also exemplary including Michael Esper as a Mark David Chapman-like character named Valentine, Cristin Milioti as Newton’s besotted assistant Elly (who dyes her hair blue to emulate Newton’s lost love Mary Lou), Bobby Moreno as her increasingly jealous boyfriend Zach, Sophia Anne Caruso as a ghostly child; and the rest including Nicholas Christopher, Lynn Craig, and Charlie Pollock. Caruso does a powerfully understated rendition of Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”
Jan Versweyveld’s minimalist set and lighting design and Brian Ronan’s unsettling sound design are right in line with van Hove’s relentlessly bleak vision. Tal Yarden’s imaginative video projections (including a curious sequence with Alan Cumming) complements the live action, and sometimes replicates it.
The often perplexing show – often striking but with tedious stretches -- plays at two intermission-less hours.
(New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street; www.nytw.org)
Photo: Courtesy of Jan Versweyveld
Thursday, December 10, 2015
This meticulous reconstruction of composer Joseph Rumshinsky’s 1923 operetta “Di Goldene Kale” (“The Golden Bride”) may well be the most delightful musical in town. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production -- extravagantly tuneful, perfectly cast, and exceptionally well-paced (by co-directors Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner) -- sets one searching for superlatives.
Michael Ochs deserves kudos for sorting out the extant material, both libretto and music, from disparate sources, and doing it with such great care and good taste. After a concert performance at Rutgers a few months ago, it’s now been given a full production with a cast of 20 and a 14-piece orchestra.
The first act takes place in a schtetl in Russia. The show’s titular heroine Goldele (Rachel Policar) – raised since childhood by an innkeeper and his wife (Bruce Rebold and Lisa Fishman) – has now inherited a fortune from her late father in America. (Throughout the show, incidentally, the glorified references to America with its “endless miracles” and “elevators, subways, and prohibition” are most amusing.)
Her uncle Benjamin (Bob Ader) has come from America to arrange a marriage for her with his actor son Jerome (Glenn Seven Allen), but Goldene loves Misha (Cameron Johnson), the innkeeper’s student son. When word spreads of Goldene’s fortunes, however, three other suitors suddenly appear to vie for her favor.
As for Jerome, he’s utterly smitten with Misha’s sister Khanele (Jillian Gottlieb). And despite her love for Misha, Goldele harbors a sentimental notion that her long-lost mother, whom she only knew as a baby, is still alive, and she impulsively declares she’ll give her hand to the man who finds her. At one point, she sings an exquisite lullaby which she recalls her mother singing to her. She goes to America where the second act plays out in standard musical comedy style.
The show has elements of Johann Strauss, Emmerich Kalman, Irving Berlin, and early Jerome Kern mixed with Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” and other works of that folkish ilk. And all of this is run through a flavorful Jewish filter. But really it’s a fabulous amalgam of Tin Pan Alley and standard operetta.
Rumshinsky keeps the good tunes coming, constantly varying the mood from snappy Broadway number, as when Jerome extols the virtues of America in “Over There," to soulful ballads, as when Misha rhapsodizes over his native Russia in a stirring martial number. The main take-home tune, “My Goldele,” charmingly performed by Policar and Johnson, is so infectious, I promise you won’t get it out of your head for days after. And it's all superbly conducted by Music Director Zalmen Mlotek.
Merete Muenter has staged and choreographed the musical numbers with plenty of showbiz polish. Her inventiveness beautifully matches the varied musical palate whether it’s Khanele and her girlfriends frolicking after swimming, or the waltzing couples at the climactic masked ball.
The whole has been astutely directed by Wasserman and Didner to bring out all the fun and poignancy of the original without ever resorting to camp or disrespecting the source material. For all the happy good spirits, the show’s sentimental moments have real gravitas, like the reverential Sabbath Kiddush number which ends the first act, and the show’s final moments with its moving revelations. There’s genuine pathos here, all the more affecting as it catches you so unexpectedly.
The amusing lyrics and dialogue (libretto by Frieda Freiman and lyrics by Louis Gilrod) are projected on uncommonly clear supertitles above the stage, making the action very easy to follow.
The cast could scarcely be bettered vocally or dramatically. Policar and Johnson have really gorgeous voices, the former more than up to the virtuosity her role demands, and Johnson impressing mightily with his big solos, delivered with a gleaming tenor.
As the secondary comic couple, Allen is very funny as the brash American hopelessly attempting to speak Yiddish and madly in love with Khanele, and Gottlieb – recently so delightful in Cole Porter’s “Out of This World” at Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight – is the perfect soubrette. Their second act duet, “We Are Actors,” where they sing about how they plan to take to the stage doing only serious roles was funny indeed. And the play-within-the-play that follows – reminiscent of “The Parson’s Bride” episode in “Show Boat” – was a hoot, especially when Khanele’s mother presumes the melodramatic events unfolding before her are real.
Also outstanding is Adam B. Shapiro as Kalmen, a local cantor/matchmaker. But Rebold, Fishman, Ader, and Regina Gibson all contribute wonderful performances.
John Dinning’s attractive settings morph delightfully from the schtetl to Uncle Benjamin’s attractive New York apartment. Izzy Fields’ costumes are colorful and varied. Yael Lubetzky’s lighting and John Emmett O’Brien’s sound design are also first-rate.
This show is utterly beguiling with nary a dull moment, and deserves a real run somewhere. Perhaps it can transfer uptown after its run at the very attractive Edmond J. Safra Hall. And it’s the kind of show that leaves you hungry for more of the same.
For now, this gem is definitely worth the trip to lower Manhattan.
(The Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place at First Place; 866-811-4111 or nytf.org; through January 3)
Pictured: Adam Shapiro (Kalmen) and Company. Photo by: Ben Moody
Friday, December 4, 2015
Peter Parnell’s uniquely named play – its punning title taken from the disconnected first words spoken by a child -- is an astutely written, thoughtful and thought-provoking domestic drama about gay parenting.
It centers on two married New York couples – Alan (John Benjamin Hickey) and Rob (Patrick Breen), and Scott (Stephen Plunkett) and Jason (Alex Hurt), an artist who finds monogamy a challenge – each parents of preschoolers. They meet at a parents’ group and become friends, sharing their experiences and exploring how children have affected their relationships over the course of one year as their lives intermingle amidst daily drop-offs and pickups from the children's school.
In the case of the first couple, writer Alan is disturbed by three-year-old daughter Nicky’s showing his therapist husband Rob more affection. Alan’s sense of alienation ultimately tempts him to stray.
But all is not well in the straight world either, as Alan’s best friend, theater composer Michael (John Pankow), seemingly happily married to Serena (Kellie Overbey), reveals at one point he is having a “dalliance” with actress Julia (an amusing Tammy Blanchard), leading to complications.
The conflicts that arise among these couples are very plausible, and Parnell’s dialogue is intelligent and quite natural, as it casts observant light on many aspects of marriage equality, relationships, and loneliness. Each actor fits his or her role to a tee.
And Scott Ellis deftly orchestrates the cast to bring out all the poignancy of Parnell’s witty and perceptive dialogue.
John Lee Beatty’s interlocking set platforms are ingenious and surprisingly versatile as the action shifts from Alan and Rob’s living room to the park to a summer house in the Pines, and elsewhere, complemented by Peter Kaczorowski’s apt lighting. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes are spot-on for these urban characters.
(Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse.. 150 West 65th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400)
Photo by Joan Marcus: Alex Hurt, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Plunkett and Patrick Breen.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
The tragic internment of some 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II forms a most unusual but compelling backdrop to the musical “Allegiance,” which has come to Broadway after a run at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2012. The story was inspired – in general terms -- by actor George Takei’s personal story of his family being kept “behind barbed wire in two different camps” for four years when he was a child.
In this fictional story, 78-year-old Takei appears first as Sammy Kimura, an embittered old military man in the brief present day scenes which frame the main action, and then, quite endearingly, plays Sammy’s ever-wise grandfather in the 1940s flashback scenes.
The book, written by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione, relates how, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Kimura family: Sammy (Telly Leung), his older sister Kei (Lea Salonga) who raised him after the death of their mother, their father (Christopher Nomura), and grandfather were brought to an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, forced to sell (for a pittance) the artichoke farm in California where they had lived comfortably for two decades.
There, Sammy falls in love with a sympathetic nurse Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke) who works in the camp’s pharmacy, and Kei with fellow resident Frankie Suzuki (the likable Michael K. Lee) whose parents have been arrested and sent elsewhere. The central conflict arises from the different outlooks of Sammy and Frankie. The former wants to prove his fierce loyalty to the United States by enlisting in an army which doesn’t want any Japanese, while Frankie believes that as long as his family is incarcerated, he is not willing to put his life on the line. When Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe), head of the Japanese-American Citizens League in Washington, finally persuades the government to allow Japanese to enlist, albeit only to fight in the most dangerous situations, Sammy gets his chance and becomes a war hero. .
Donyale Werle’s versatile set design as lighted by Howell Binkley and Alejo Vietti’s handsome period costumes make for an attractive production.
The largely Asian cast is strong. It’s a treat to see Lea Salonga back on Broadway in a big role. She’s not the youthful waif of “Miss Saigon” but now an attractively mature woman. The years have scarcely affected her voice which is still a remarkably pure and powerful instrument. (She even gets to kick up her heels at one point.) Telly Leung sings and acts well as the increasingly militant Sammy, though his often strident character is very much in the anti-hero mode, and often his actions are downright unlikable (as when he declares that anyone who resists the draft must be harshly punished), though, of course, redemption comes in the end.
“Allegiance” gets high marks for shedding light on a dark chapter in America’s history, and one that has undeniable resonance in light of the current debate about immigration, and the show has been constructed with not a little intelligence, but as a musical per se, it can’t be said to hold a candle to the pop operas composer Jay Kuo seeks to emulate. The songs – though not unpleasant -- mostly have a blandly generic quality, except for the occasional pastiche 1940s number like the Andrews Sisters-inspired “442 Victory Swing” entertainingly delivered by Dan Horn, Kevin Munhall, and Scott Wise.
Salonga has a soaring ballad in “Higher” that allows her to demonstrate her undiminished power, even if the song itself is rather lackluster. The first act finale “Our Time Now” is appropriately stirring. And the song about “Gaman,” the “endurance-with-dignity” with which the characters resolve to face their hardship, has a sweet lilt. Occasionally, the Broadway pop elements are interspersed with some alluring Japanese flavoring, which varies the musical palate. But much of the rest seems pedestrian, at least on first hearing.
Still, shortcomings aside, the story holds your interest, makes you think, and ultimately, it must be said, proves quite touching.
(Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
Photo: Lea Salonga and George Takei in a scene from "Allegiance" (c) Matthew Murphy
Friday, November 20, 2015
What a pleasure to have a full concert of Victor Herbert music with not an “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” or a “Kiss Me Again” within earshot!
Not only was the evening – lovingly and ingeniously compiled by VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott and Music Director Michael Thomas – refreshingly devoid of overly-familiar chestnuts such as those, but there were, in fact, no sentimental ballads at all. This was Herbert in a strictly comic vein, with the songs drawn from lesser-known shows such as “Babette,” “The Lady of the Slipper,” “The Princess Pat,” and “The Viceroy,” the last, we learned, one of four shows the prolific Herbert opened within six months.
Only the most diehard fan would have been familiar with most of this material.
Herbert’s lyricists such as Harry B. Smith (and his brother Robert B. Smith), Glen MacDonough, and Henry Blossom were given respectful credit in Mott’s informative and entertaining intros to each song, delivered engagingly by the soloist of the preceding number. And, indeed, Herbert’s collaborators – often dismissed as hopelessly old-fashioned – demonstrated solid craftsmanship and real comic flair.
The 11 singers were well chosen with the requisite Herbert style down to their fingertips. Everyone was off book, and the evening was expertly staged by Mott with several of the numbers delightfully choreographed by Emily Cornelius.
The title derived not, as some aficionados might think, from Herbert’s obscure operetta “The Tattooed Man” (in fact, one of his lesser efforts), but from two droll songs taken from other shows: “My Angeline,” from his 1895 “The Wizard of the Nile,” and “The Tattooed Man,” a sort of rebuttal to the earlier song, written for the 1897 “The Idol’s Eye,” wherein the character in “My Angeline,” who discovers, to his horror, he has married a circus contortionist, gleefully now observes that she went on to wed a “human picture gallery” who has now taken her money and deserted her. (Yes, it’s that kind of wacky humor.)
Of the 22 songs, culled from an initial list of 65 as Mott announced, there were bountiful highlights.
Of the baritones, Matthew Wages wittily handled the two titular songs; Bray Wilkins declared “I Wish I Was an Island In an Ocean of Girls” (“The Princess Pat”) with fine style and graceful music hall strutting; strong-voiced Robert Balonek did the “Rockabye Baby” variations of the “Song of the Poet” (“Babes in Toyland”) with panache; and David Seatter gamboled down the aisle merrily as he explained “That’s Why They Say I’m Crazy” (“Wonderland”).
As for the tenor contingent, Stephen Faulk amusingly mimed his paean to self-admiration, “I, and Myself, and Me” (“Wonderland”) and Mitchell Roe crooned the very cute “Love By Telephone” (in tandem with Katherine Corle) (“Dream City”), and paired amusingly with Seatter on “The Ossified Man” (“Wonderland”).
Thomas’ accompaniment was apt at all times, his playing as witty as the delivery of the singers.
Mott’s passion for Herbert is infectious, and she has several free events are coming up, and the next full production is “The Fortune Teller” on March 9th and 10th, and a rarer 1897 work, “The Serenade,” after that. The concert, in fact, closed with two numbers from the latter show, and they most definitely whetted the appetite for more.
(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; Nov. 19 and 20 only)
61: (L-R) Michael Thomas, Mitchell Roe, Matthew Wages, Stephen Faulk
performing "Garden Party" from The Lady of the Slipper (1912) Lyrics by James O'Dea
Photo by Jill LeVine
100: (L-R) Sarah Caldwell Smith, Mitchell Roe, Robert Balonek, Matthew Wages,
Vira Slywotzky, David Seatter, Katherine Corle, Erika Person, Bray Wilkins
performing "Don Jose of Sevilla" from The Serenade (1897) Lyrics by Harry B. Smith
Photo by Jill LeVine
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Yes, the plot is familiar from Stephen King’s best-selling book and the 1990 movie starring Kathy Bates and James Caan, but screenplay writer William’s Goldman’s adaptation of Stephen King’s best-seller works surprisingly well onstage.
Of course, thriller plays have always held a valid place in the theater, be it “Angel Street,” “Night Must Fall,” or “Wait Until Dark,” so perhaps the story’s stage-worthiness should not be so unexpected.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, the story concerns a best-selling writer named Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis) who has written a series of Victorian novels featuring a heroine named Misery Chastain. He’s rescued from a car wreck near the hotel retreat where he’s gone to write by a plain-speaking local woman Annie Wilkes (Laurie Metcalf) who claims she’s his “number one fan.” She idolizes the Misery character and, by extension, Misery’s creator, but turns out to be psychotically obsessive, keeping him prisoner in the bedroom of her snowed-in house. And when she learns that Misery is to be killed off in the latest book, her fury knows no bounds.
Though most of the action is confined to the bedroom as Sheldon is recovering from his serious injuries, David Korins’ ingeniously revolving stage allows for smooth movement to the other areas of the house when the action needs to shift there, or to the front of the house when the local sheriff (Leon Addison Brown) comes to make inquiries about the missing author.
Metcalf is tremendous in her physically and vocally demanding role, making the Kathy Bates part her own. Her Annie is scarily realistic. Willis returns to the stage in an accomplished if perforce low-keyed performance, skillfully conveying Sheldon’s attempts to manipulate the woman he soon comes to realize is far from the angel of mercy she first appears to be. So, too, he’s extremely adept at all the tricky physical maneuvering that his character must do as the play progresses. But Metcalf, like Annie, has the lion’s share of dialogue and dominates.
Will Frears directs tautly. Michael Friedman‘s portentous piano score, interspersed incongruously with Liberace songs (an Annie favorite), adds to the suspense, as does David Weiner’s moody lighting and Darron L. West’s sound design.
For all the skill involved, there’s no denying this is a very unpleasant story – albeit with many humorous moments – and you may find yourself as queasy as I did for all of its intermissionless 90 minutes, even if you remember how it ends.
(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44thStreet; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)
Sunday, November 15, 2015
“Crowd-pleaser” is the operative word here. This latest jukebox musical bio – its subject self-evident by its subtitle – may not be the best of the genre, but I’m duty-bound to report that most of the audience had a simply wonderful time.
Alexander Dinelaris’ book probes less deeply than, to cite a couple of current examples that presented a more warts-and-all perspective, “Jersey Boys” and “Beautiful,” and the songs register as even less theatrical than in those others. So, too, much here feels blandly formulaic.
We get Emilio Estefan’s early meeting with Gloria, followed by the Cuban-American couple honing their distinct Miami Sound Machine style, breaking into the business, falling in love, fighting the skeptical establishment about becoming crossover artists, taking their records directly “to the people” to generate interest, and their ensuing successes and vicissitudes including, most dramatically, the 1990 car accident that nearly left Gloria paralyzed. But it’s all related in the sketchiest of terms.
It must be said that attractive Ana Villafane does a capital job as Gloria as she transforms from hesitant Miami teenager to confident performer (Alexandra Suarez plays her well a youngster, too), and husky-voiced hunk Josh Segarra makes a sympathetic Emilio, but it’s Andrea Burns as Gloria’s stern but caring mother, and Alma Cuervo as the “you’ve got to follow your dreams” grandmother who anchor the show with what little substance it has. Eliseo Roman as Gloria’s incapacitated Vietnam vet father (crippled with multiple sclerosis) gets to shine in a couple of particularly good vocal moments.
The Estefan songs are given good measure (the couple provided their own orchestrations) under Lon Hoyt’s sharp musical direction, though your enjoyment of the show will largely depend on your familiarity with, and affection for, their salsa-infused sound.
This is a flashy dancing show, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography and the direction of Jerry Mitchell, who knows a little something about dancing himself, keep the momentum going satisfyingly.
David Rockwell’s varied sets (including some Havana flashback scenes), ESosa’s colorful costumes, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting are all state of the art, though I found SCK Sound Design’s sonics at times uncomfortably loud.
“I’d see this again,” remarked a matronly lady upon exiting the theater. Her friends enthusiastically agreed, confirming the show’s genuine appeal to its intended audience.
(Marquis Theatre, 46th Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue; Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)
Saturday, November 14, 2015
What a devilishly clever play Mike Bartlett has concocted! It premiered to great acclaim in 2014 at London’s Almeida Theatre before transferring to the West End. As you’ve no doubt heard by now, it’s a what-if story concerning Prince Charles assuming the throne after long-reigning mum Queen Elizabeth II’s death in a not-too-distant future.
So we have not only Charles himself, brilliantly played by Tim Pigott-Smith, but all the other royals we read about so often in the tabloids, such as Camilla, Princes William and Harry, and Kate.
The play begins with silhouetted figures gathering as a chorus intones a requiem for their late monarch (appropriately magisterial music by Joceyln Pook). We soon learn that even before Charles’ impending coronation, the new king has already assumed his powers, such as they are, for a figurehead ruler.
And so it is that during his first weekly meeting with his Labor Prime Minister -- the fictional Mr. Evans -- when the latter presents him with a privacy bill for signature limiting the freedom of the press after a major hacking incident, Charles refuses his royal assent without alterations to the bill. For even though the press have been hurtful to the royal family -- even instrumental in his late wife Diana’s death -- he believes deeply that it is wrong to silence them.
Evans tries to explain diplomatically that it’s not the monarch’s role to do more than sign as a formality, but Charles holds firm to his convictions, leading to a government crisis.
The press issue was a clever invention of Bartlett, and the playwright underscores the point further as the press gets wind of Harry’s friendship with republican commoner Jess (likably portrayed by Tafline Steen) – a young woman the red-headed playboy meets and falls for in a club -- and run compromising photos of her.
And then there’s Bartlett’s extraordinary use of iambic pentameter throughout, giving the play a Shakespearean quality as the device imparts extra gravitas and also, at times, levity to what would otherwise be straightforward prose.
Though there is considerable humor in the play, on the whole, this is a serious examination of monarchy, democracy and the corrupting aspects of power. The second act even approaches something akin to tragedy – think Shakespeare’s “Richard II” for one -- and is mightily poignant. And there are numerous other allusions to the Bard throughout. Brief appearances of the ghost of a prophesying Diana recall the witches in “Macbeth.” And The Duchess of Cambridge (Kate) certainly beings to mind Lady Macbeth in Bartlett’s telling. Harry, very engagingly played by Richard Goulding, is Bartlett’s Prince Hal prototype.
The first act is just about perfection and ends with a brilliant dramatic cliffhanger. The second act is even more fast moving as it hurtles towards its inevitable conclusion.
This is the role of Pigott-Smith’s career as he etches a man of growing confidence and sincere conscience but not without ego and some pomposity, and heart-wrenchingly pathetic as his dreams are thwarted.
The rest of the cast is outstanding, too, including Lydia Wilson as an ambitious Kate, Oliver Chris as a too-pliable William, and Margot Leicester as a supportive but out-of-her-depth Camilla.
Adam James is strong as the adversarial prime minister, but equally good, at my performance was first-timer in his role Peter Bradbury, subbing for Anthony Calf, as the leader of the opposition.
One wonders what the royal family would really make of all this, including the validity of the characterizations. But no matter; they certainly seem as we imagine them to be, which adds to the fun.
Rupert Goold’s ingenious staging keeps the drama moving with cinematic fluidity. Pook’s music (played by a live ensemble in the stage left box) reinforces the grandeur of the events depicted, such as the Queen’s funeral and the ultimate coronation. Tom Scott’s spare but evocative designs (a raked staged and brick walls) and spot-on costuming, Jon Clark’s dramatic lighting and Paul Arditti’s astute use of sound all enhance the drama.
This witty and ultimately moving play is not to be missed.
(The Music Box, 239 W. 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)
Photo: Tim Pigott-Smith in King Charles III (c) Joan Marcus
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
This is an alternately humorous and poignant musical built around the daughters and wives of our recent presidents. With two scenes to each act, Michael LaChiusa’s musical begins with the frenetic preparations for Julie Nixon’s wedding to David Eisenhower, followed by a fanciful dream sequence as imagined by little Amy Carter and involving Betty Ford and daughter Susan Ford, and her mom Rosalynn Carter and filled with nightmarish mayhem.
The second, and overall more compelling, act opens with a cool Nancy Reagan lounging poolside as unhappy daughter Patti Davis stridently rails at her for being a bad mother, and the final scene, as with the Carter sequence, dealing with the fantastical as a lonely Barbara Bush waits on a bench for her annual encounter with the ghost of the daughter she lost 50 years earlier at the age of three, while daughter-in-law Laura Bush intrusively keeps urging her to start packing and hit the campaign trail for her son George.
The cast is uniformly superb. Tonji-Leslie James’ costumes and Robert-Charles Vallance’s wigs transform the ladies into more than plausible likenesses of the actual people.
They are a versatile bunch too. Rachel Bay Jones is warmly sympathetic as both Rosalynn Carter and Laura Bush. Theresa McCarthy plays both Pat Nixon’s mother Hannah and the ghost of Robin Bush in that poignant last scene. Alison Fraser is a picture-perfect Betty Ford in the dream sequence, and then a coldly unflappable Nancy Reagan. Caissie Levy appears first as a frenetic Julie Nixon and then the angry Patti Davis. Betsy Morgan takes on both Tricia Nixon and Susan Ford.
Also exemplary are Barbara Walsh as Pat Nixon, Carly Tamer as Amy Carter and Isabel Santiago as Nancy Reagan’s maid Anita Castelo. And perhaps best of all, there's Mary Testa who is simply stupendous as Barbara Bush, a splendid, imperious performance, gorgeously vocalized.
Under Kirsten Sanderson’s sensitive direction (choreography by Chase Brock), they make a finely tuned ensemble. (Sanderson actually directed LaChiusa’s prequel the “First Lady Suite” in 1993, and she clearly has an affinity for the material and the talented composer.)
For all its worthy elements, the show does feel too long. Much of the score is recitative, rather than a hummable succession of take-home tunes. And yet, every so often, LaChiusa surprises us with a ravishing melody, and the overall palette is very pleasant, except for the scenes of conflict.
Scott Pask’s setting, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, and Ken Travis’ impeccable sound design all contribute to an impeccable presentation.
(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street ; (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org)
Photo: Theresa McCarthy and Mary Testa in First Daughter Suite, a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa, directed by Kirsten Sanderson, running at The Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Here’s a gripping, finely acted adaptation of Emile Zola’s classic tale of adultery and murder. Keira Knightley acquits herself well in her Broadway debut, perhaps occasionally falling a tad short in terms of vocal projection, but otherwise, conveying expertly her character’s transformation from obedient passivity to sexual release to tortured angst.
Therese, the orphaned niece of Madame Raquin, has been raised by her aunt to marry the latter’s sickly and self-absorbed son Camille. Therese obediently goes through the paces of the wedding and the routine of early married life, but as soon as she meets Camille’s old friend Laurent, her true passion ignites. When it becomes obvious that Camille is their only obstacle to happiness, Laurent suggests murder, but the ensuing deed – which put some in mind of the Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters rowboat scene in “A Place in the Sun” -- brings nothing but guilt and misery.
Gabriel Ebert as the ineffectual Camille, Matt Ryan as the hunky Laurent, and Judith Light as Camille’s loving but domineering mother are all terrific. I must single out the chameleon-like Light for yet another of her indelible performances, one quite different from anything she’s done before.
The smaller parts are just as well cast – David Patrick Kelley as Michaud, Mary Wiseman as his lovelorn niece Suzanne, Jeff Still as Grivet as the Raquins’ weekly domino-playing guests – and form a perfectly judged ensemble.
Hats off to director Evan Cabnet for mounting such a superbly compelling production. This is one period piece that seems convincingly authentic to the era.
Beowulf Boritt’s imposing painterly set, Jane Greenwood’s impeccable period costumes (including Knightley’s dowdy garb), Keith Parkam’s richly atmospheric lighting, and Josh Schmidt’s hugely evocative music and sound design contribute mightily to an immersive sense of time and place, but it’s not just the production elements; the performances and staging never seem anachronistic.
Helen Edmundson’s adaptation – different from the one Zola himself wrote for the stage a few years after the novel – is quite stage-worthy, and the plot plays out in appropriately heated fashion. There was some tittering from a few audience members at my performance, but I took that to be more nervous than derisive laughter at the horrific events that unfold.
There is a wonderfully dank and oppressive mood sustained all evening, broken only by those occasional humorous interludes when the friends (Grivet, Michaud, and Suzanne) come to visit. When matters take an almost supernatural turn, the mood turns genuinely frightening.
Before attending myself, I had heard some people grouse that the production seemed slow moving, but I can’t imagine how anyone could be failed to be gripped by the dramatic story with its elements of Hitchcockian suspense. This is good old-fashioned melodrama in the best sense of the word.
To my mind, this outstanding production trumps both Marianne Elliot’s excellent staging at the National Theatre about 10 years ago, and also Harry Connick, Jr.’s 2001 musical Southern transplant of the story, “Thou Shalt Not.”
(Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street; 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org)
Saturday, October 31, 2015
Here’s a stylishly impeccable revival of A.R. Gurney’s whimsical tale of a man in mid-life crisis, whose job has become routine, after his children have left the nest. He develops an overly fond attachment to a dog he picks up in Central Park and which soon comes between him and his English teacher wife.
Matthew Broderick is perfectly cast as the clueless Greg, another of those endearing nebbish characters he does so well, and Julie White has just the right mixture of wariness and empathy as the increasingly frustrated wife Kate. Annaleigh Ashford surpasses her delightful work in “Kinky Boots” and “You Can’t Take It With You” as the titular anthropomorphized pooch. It’s a tremendously physical part which she executes with the dexterity of an accomplished dancer – whether angrily lashing out at a cat, lusting for a male dog when she’s in heat, whimpering in discomfort after being spayed, or bolding nuzzling a matron’s crotch – and her delivery of Sylvia’s dialogue (yes, this pooch talks) is spot-on perfect.
Robert Sella provides more deft comic relief in three roles: Tom, another obsessive dog enthusiast in the park, Phyllis, an upper crust friend of Kate’s from Vassar days, and Leslie, an ambiguously gendered therapist, though he’s perhaps a bit too over-the-top in the last two portrayals.
The setting remains 1995 -- when the play was first produced by Manhattan Theatre Club with Sarah Jessica Parker (Mrs. Matthew Broderick) as Sylvia -- and indeed there are nostalgic references to then-current personalities like Bella Abzug and Kitty Carlisle Hart and others no longer on the New York scene.
For all its considerable appeal (and Daniel Sullivan’s assured direction keeps the fable-like tone of the piece always on the right track), the play does at times feel a stretch for a full evening, with just a few longueurs in the second act. Still, Gurney’s piece is undeniably well constructed, with the playwright scoring valid points about loneliness and the need to connect with others, even with a dog as the conduit. The lovely interlude when Greg, Kate, and Sylvia sing “Every Time We Say Goodbye” at a pivotal emotional moment is most touchingly done.
Ann Roth’s costumes are just right for these prototypical WASPY Gurney characters. David Rockwell’s gorgeously verdant, skyline-backed Central Park setting – and the inset of Greg and Kate’s well-heeled apartment – expertly lighted by Japhy Weideman, are a pleasure throughout the evening.
At the end, you may find yourself slowing your exit to watch a projected doggie gallery (described in the Playbill) –- the “Friends of Sylvia” -- after the curtain calls. A nice touch.
(The Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th Street; www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
Photo: Joan Marcus
Friday, October 30, 2015
Playwright Stephen Karams’s follow-up to his roundly praised “Sons of the Prophet” is another sensitively written, finely acted domestic drama, this one approaching the surreal as the humorous elements give way to something darker, in the both figurative and literal senses.
Eric and Deirdre Blake (the oh-so-fine Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell) and their lesbian daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) have arrived from Pennsylvania along with Eric’s dementia-afflicted mother “Momo” (Lauren Klein) to share Thanksgiving at the new tenement apartment of their daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Rich (Arian Moayed).
Eric seems strangely preoccupied from the moment they walk in. The apartment, though a spacious ground floor duplex (the second floor below ground), has ominous sounds (enormous thuds from above, the compactor, the laundry room), and as if that weren’t enough, the light bulbs begin blowing out one by one.
Furthermore, though the general tone is convivial with plenty of humorous banter (and, at times, the play is laugh-out-loud funny), little by little we learn that all is not truly well with any of these characters, as one by one, Karam reveals the problems — financial and emotional — beneath the holiday cheer.
Karam’s dialogue is wonderfully naturalistic; he uncannily captures the rhythms of how families talk (and much of the dialogue realistically overlaps), while subtext abounds. This cast is marvelously adept at conveying the surface situation and all the underlying conflicts.
The tonal shift from naturalism to the surreal, unnerving though it is when it comes, doesn’t come as a total surprise given the hints Karam has given us throughout the evening, and the skill with which ace director Joe Mantello has orchestrated the playwright’s text.
David Zinn’s two-tiered set design brilliantly conveys the unease we are meant to feel from the start. Justin Townsend’s all-important lighting, and Fitz Patton’s sound effects all contribute to the increasingly spooky ambience.
The play, incidentally, derives its title from something Richard says about his favorite comic book in which it’s the monsters relate scary stories about us. “The horror stories for the monsters are all about humans,” he tells the bemused family. But, as events in “The Humans” play out, the symbolism of that image proves unnervingly true.
(Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street; 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org)
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Director/choreographer Randy Skinner’s production of the 1968 Off-Broadway charmer – a delicious take-off on those Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s – has been accorded an utterly delightful, ultra-stylish revival.
One might have thought that all these decades later, audiences who could actually remember the movies being spoofed would have largely died off, devotees of TCM notwithstanding, and that the whole enterprise might feel hopelessly dated, but not so. And I’d venture to say that even for audiences unfamiliar with the genre, “Dames at Sea” will provide bountiful entertainment.
This is the show that put Bernadette Peters on the map. She played Ruby (as in Keeler), the small-town girl who lands a part in the chorus in a Broadway show the day she arrives in New York, and by evening finds herself replacing the temperamental star. Peters had just appeared in a similar Hollywood spoof, Robert Dahdah and Mary Boylan’s charming “Curly McDimple,” playing the Alice Faye prototype. And Dahdah was, in fact, the first director of “Dames at Sea” in its earliest incarnation.
Eloise Kropp, a completely different physical type than Peters (in fact looking rather disconcertingly like Cherry Jones), takes the role here and makes the part her own. And the other roles have also been cast to perfection. There’s Cary Tedder as Dick (Powell), the small-town sailor who loves Ruby, and also happens to be a songwriter with Broadway aspirations. Mara Davi is Joan (Blondell), the good-hearted gal who befriends Ruby. Danny Gardner is Lucky, the sailor sweet on Joan. All of them are terrific dancers.
John Bolton, channeling Warner Baxter in “42nd Street,” is the Type A director ceaselessly yelling at Ruby to pick up her game, go onstage and, eventually, save the show. He also doubles as the captain of the battleship where, with their theater victim to the wrecking ball, the musical must ingeniously relocate. And, above all, there’s Lesli Margherita as vain star Mona, milking every bit of show-stopping schmaltz out of her torchy “That Mister Man of Mine,” and later, hilariously channeling her inner South American in her second act duet with the equally droll Bolton on “The Beguine.”
You have to keep reminding yourself that there are only six performers on stage, so deftly is the show blocked. Skinner’s staging is endlessly inventive, honoring the simplicity of the original but adding plenty of 2015 panache to such numbers as “Raining in My Heart,” “Singapore Sue,” and “The Echo Waltz.”
Jonathan Tunick’s spot-on parodistic orchestrations (heard first on the cast recording, as the original production had only two piano accompaniment) have been augmented with fine vocal and dance arrangements by music director Rob Berman.
Though, in theory, Broadway would seem a reach for such an intimate show, Anna Louizos’s ingenious designs, David C. Woolard’s dazzling costumes, Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz’s cheerful lighting and the clean sound design by Scott Lehrer give it the requisite first-class production values for the Great White Way. The choice of the intimate Helen Hayes Theatre is, of course, another asset. The opening black and white Warner Brothers credits are a special delight.
It must be acknowledged that the original property – music by Jim Wise, and book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller – shows itself to be still very viable, and one admires anew its economical construction. So, too, the songs are perfect parodies of those Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs, but stand well on their own, too. The rapturous audience response at the end made me think that perhaps it’s time to bring back those other period genre spoofs “Little Mary Sunshine” and “The Boyfriend,” provided, that is, that they’d be in the same sort of accomplished hands as "Dames at Sea" is here.
(The Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W 44th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel
Saturday, October 24, 2015
You might imagine, from the sound of it, that this latest jukebox musical which has just opened on Theater Row – one culled from songs of the 1960s – is some small-scale rinky-dink affair. But you’d be way off-base, for director/choreographer James Walski’s psychedelic creation is, in fact, a surprisingly lavish, high-tech production that would visually hold its own just fine on a big Broadway stage.
And the cast of seven principals and an ensemble of more than double that figure in undeniably talented. But for all of that, the show is chilly, mechanical, and utterly impersonal even with its seemingly sure-fire hit parade of tunes ranging from “Windmills of Your Mind” to “Born to Be Wild.”
There’s no dialogue, but the more than two dozen songs are strung together to tell a sort of story. as Walski describes in a program note how the show’s central figure Caroline (Kelly Felthous) “falls down the rabbit hole and [takes] a magic mushroom.” The “dream” that follows has her falling in love with sensitive Adam (Austin Miller), marrying, and parting. Peter (Joey Calveri) bodypaints Crystal (Tara Palsha), suffers heartbreak and enlists in the army. Meanwhile, the very cool Jennifer (Dionne Figgins) auditions on a soundstage. And so on.
Laurie Wells is Angela (though, mind you, the character names mean little), and she gets to sing the serious ballads such as “Both Sides Now,” “Lover’s Concerto,” and “The Way of Love.” Her voice is rich and mellow, but there’s a generic quality to her vocals and all the others in the show, so we’re kept at an emotional distance.
Felthous, for her part, has a high, adenoidal voice that carries her through “Where the Boys Are” and “Downtown.” Miller gets the folksy ballads “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” While David Elder as George has such extroverted numbers as “It’s Not Unusual, ““The Girl from Ipanema” to “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Figgins stands out as especially dynamic from her entrance number “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” onward.
The orchestrations by Martyn Axe are strictly contemporary, and indeed the program tells us the “time” is “now” so this is the 1960s through a present-day filter. The arrangements are slickly professional, and I did enjoy the driving beat of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Nowhere to Run,” and some of the others. But in most instances, the integrity of the original tunes is coarsened.
But there’s no denying Walski’s choreography is quite dynamic, and sharply executed by the cast.
Robin Wagner and Walski’s set designs are always eye-filling and sometimes clever, such as the surfing backdrop for “Wipe Out” early in the show. Other times, they’re far too literal. “Moon River” is sung against a big full moon, and yup, the requisite shimmering river. “Up, Up and Away” is sung as a hot-air balloon is about to rise (and, of course, it does). “Downtown” plays out against a Times Square backdrop.
Gregg Barnes’ snazzy costumes manage to keep the men bare-chested and the women in provocative go-go girl attire.
The show originated in Osaka, and indeed, there was a profusion of Asian tourists in the lobby. The rest of the audience, at least those around me, were, shall we say, not the classiest, eating, talking, and texting throughout the two-act evening.
(Stage 42, formerly The Little Shubert Theater, 422 West 42nd St; Telecharge.com or
Photo: Matt Murphy
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Though Broadway’s “The Rothschilds” in 1970 was far from a megahit on the scale of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” nonetheless, the musical crafted by the team and book writer Sherman Yellen concerning the famous 19th century Jewish banking dynasty, ran for over 500 performances and earned nine Tony nominations, winning two, even as it failed to turn a profit.
But a smaller revamped version by the American Jewish Theater in 1990 enjoyed a successful run. And now, the York Theatre Company has mounted a 1995 Coconut Grove Playhouse version with some new songs and lyrics and more of a focus on patriarch Mayer Rothschild and his five sons. The second act love interest for son Nathan in London – played originally by Jill Clayburgh incidentally – has been scuttled along with other characters, and the piece now plays for about an hour and 50 minutes without intermission.
At nearly two hours, the show could frankly benefit from a break, but in its present form, under the direction of Jeffrey B. Moss, it’s never less than absorbing.
The ever-reliable and always excellent Robert Cuccioli – who played son Nathan in the AJT revival – now assumes creator Hal Linden’s role of Mayer, and gives a fine, committed portrayal, as Mayer vows that the walls of the ghetto will come down his lifetime, as he sings in his showstopping number. The sons – played by David Bryant Johnson, Jamie LaVerdiere, Nicholas Moniardo-Cooper, Curtis Wiley, and Christopher M. Williams – are a strong, diversified group, and blend powerfully on “Everything” wherein they assert they are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. Williams as principal son Nathan who’s sent to London to invest the money collected from Prince William’s debts does an especially credible job.
A very successful 1911 Carl Roessler play, “Die funf Frankfurter” as well as a 1932 Hungarian operetta on the subject gave more prominence to the role of Mayer’s wife Gutele, and here, that part has been built up from the Broadway original, and is nicely played by Glory Crampton. Mark Pinter excels with three stylish portrayals (Prince William, Chancellor of the Exchkequer Herries, and Prince Metternich).
For all the care that has been lavished on this resurrection, it can’t be said the story is an intrinsically engaging as “Fiddler,” nor are the songs anywhere near as memorable. Still, Bock and Harnick were an outstanding team, and this is quality material.
The production is beautifully designed by York’s Producing Artistic Director James Morgan, with handsome costumes by Carrie Robbins. Music Supervisor Joseph Church’s chamber orchestrations, as played under the direction of Jeffrey Klitz, are quite lovely, though obviously no match for the lush Don Walker originals as heard on the original cast album.
(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, entrance on E. 54th Street, east of Lexington Avenue; 212-935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org; through Nov. 8)
Photo: Eric Baiano
(L to R) Jamie LaVerdiere as Salomon, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Amshel, David Bryant Johnson as Jacob, Robert Cuccioli as Mayer, Curtis Wiley as Kalmann, and Christopher M. Williams as Nathan in “Rothschild & Sons” with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Sherman Yellen at York Theatre Company. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
Gilbert & Sullivan’s ever popular comic opera was the second foray into the fabled duo’s work from the Collegiate Chorale (now known as MasterVoices). “The Mikado” in 2012 had been altogether superb, with maestro Ted Sperling’s impeccable musicianship leading the estimable Orchestra of St. Luke’s, a cast of solid Broadway pros with classical chops, and of course, the splendid Chorale itself. Together, they breathed fresh life into the venerable warhorse.
“The Pirates of Penzance” boasted many of the same virtues. Once again, Sperling’s musical finesse was unimpeachable, and he led the orchestra from the City Center pit, rather than onstage when at the Chorale’s regular Carnegie Hall venue. The overture, finely controlled, and building to its climax beautifully, got things off to a classy start.
The curtain rose to reveal the massive Chorale on their multi-tiered bleachers, while the costumed principals cavorted in front of them in a semi-staged presentation. Unlike Encores, which occupies the same stage, though, many in the cast were clingingly dependent on their books, and even so, went up on their lines far more than in past productions.
When casting was first announced, chief interest revolved around Deborah Voigt’s appearance as Ruth, and I’m happy to report she did a solid job, crisply articulating her lyrics and dialogue, showing her jolly comic skills, and of course, singing in fine style. She and the rest of the cast eschewed English accents which, in itself, was acceptable under these relatively informal circumstances.
Phillip Boykin who recently opened “On the Town” each night with his warmly sonorous “I Feel I’m Not out of Bed Yet,” was the Pirate King. Though he smartly lightened his bass voice, and sang pleasingly, this was not your traditional Pirate King, but one strictly in the zany Kevin Kline mode.
And indeed unfortunate remnants of Joseph Papp’s successful 1981 pop version, which starred Kline, kept cropping up here, a far cry from Mike Leigh’s recent immaculate staging at the English National Opera in London which utilized traditional costuming and absolutely pure classical singing bringing out the often underrated beauty of Sullivan’s music. And none of the comedy was shortchanged either.
Mabel and Frederic’s “Ah, Leave Me Not to Pine,” for instance, was particularly exquisite there, but considerably less so here in the hands of Julia Udine’s accomplished, if overly bright-toned soprano, and Hunter Parrish’s dramatically and vocally pallid Frederic played very much in the pop mode as performed by Rex Smith (and the other pop singers who followed) for Papp.
The excellent Betsy Wolfe and Montego Glover were directed to give Mabel’s sisters Edith and Kate that same contemporary edge, Wolfe had several intentionally strident moments which were more irritating than funny.
Still, Udine’s coloratura showpiece “Poor Wandering One” was quite accomplished vocally, even as the direction (by Sterling) poked fun at the operatic excesses. (Frederic covered his ears in mock discomfort at one point.)
The hugely talent Douglas Hodge, whose directorial talents are currently on view in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” at the Roundabout, was a predictably accomplished Major General, playing with an almost Frank Morgan-like sense of befuddlement at the absurdity of some of the words he was singing, as he spoke/sang his signature patter song.
Another definite plus was David Garrison’s Sergeant of Police, a role he actually played in the Papp production, and sounding remarkably unchanged after all these years. Zachary James was a fine Samuel in a mostly traditional mode.
The grand “Hail, Poetry” chorus rang forth gloriously with the MasterVoices really showing their mettle, as they also did in the first act finale and the other big choral moments.
Much of the stage blocking and movement (Gustavo Zajac was choreographer) was amusing and original, but some over-the-top, and again, too derivative of Papp. Though the production was visually spare, David Korins designed a nice playing area. Frances Aronson’s lighting was ever helpful in delineating the action, and costume “consultant” Tracy Christensen’s contributions were traditionally eye pleasing.
The audience rewarded the performance I attended (the second of two) with warm applause and a standing ovation, so for all my quibbles, it must be reported that a good time was had by all.
The performances were dedicated to the late actor Roger Rees, who frequently lent his directorial savvy to MasterVoices performances, a very nice and deserved touch.
(MasterVoices, New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street; NYCityCenter.org; October 15 and 16 only)
Photo: Eric Baiano
Friday, October 16, 2015
What a pleasure to see stars James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson operating at the top of their nuanced, comedic and altogether endearing game!
Casting them as the alienated-from-society nursing home loners in D.L. Coburn’s 1977’s Pulitzer winner – the first Broadway revival since Julie Harris and Charles Durning in 1997 – was, as it turns out, a masterstroke. This is, as they say, a star vehicle, and these two consummate pros more than fit the bill, as cannily directed by Leonard Foglia.
Fonsea (Tyson) enters the play in tears, though we don’t really understand her issues till later in the play. She meets grumpy long-time resident Weller (Jones) on the porch, and soon reveals she has diabetes, while he quips that he’s merely suffering from the malady known as extreme old age. Weller convinces the disingenuously reticent Fonsea to join him in a hand of gin rummy.
Though she claims ignorance of the game, she beats him at the game straightaway, and then proceeds to do so again and again during the course of the play. Her easy triumphs unleash Weller’s not inconsiderable temper, a pattern that runs through all their subsequent games. Fonsia will say she’s had enough, and then relent for another hand. Throughout all of this, they share their backgrounds, nurture a growing fondness (which peaks when Fonsia persuades him to join her in a brief dance), and fight like the dickens, while the sad reality of their respective situations comes to light.
Jones’s Weller is all grumpy bluster, but he shows us the compassionate side that coexists with the volcanic outbursts. Tyson’s Fonsea is smart as a whip, and cute as all get-out, but reveals the vulnerability and pain beneath the assured demeanor. Tyson’s easy-going victories at cards are a non-stop delight, as is Jones’ escalating incredulity and raging temper.
Much has been made of the stars’ ages – Tyson (90) and Jones (84) -- but their performances are, in fact, as vigorous as any, and they deliver their copious dialogue sharply, no mean feat, since each hand of gin is so very similar to the one that comes before it. David Van Tieghem’s sound design is clean and natural.
You can still see Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn’s indelible original performances on YouTube in a fuzzy black and white print. And it's clear that Jones and Tyson more than live up to those legendary creators.
Riccardo Hernandez has designed a characterful cluttered porch setting strewn with old furniture, wheelchairs, and the like (along with the stars’ very apt costumes), and it’s been warmly lighted by Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer.
(Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or Telecharge.com)
Sunday, October 11, 2015
The high-tech, abstract setting designed by Christine Jones (and lighted in kind by Japhy Weideman) to frame the latest revival of Harold Pinter’s 1971 puzzler is visually striking, to be sure, but rather off-putting, too. The action plays out against giant cyclorama of concentric circles and there’s also a slab of ice, some jolting strobes, and an unworldly score by Thom Yorke.
Still, none of these extraneous touches detract from three really superb performances from Clive Owen (in his Broadway debut), Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly, all of whom make this production so worth seeing.
Owen and Reilly are Deeley and Kate, a married couple living in a remote farmhouse. They await the arrival of Kate’s former roommate (Best) from years before. The macho, increasingly menacing Deeley questions the nature of the women's friendship, but the passive Kate’s answers are frustratingly enigmatic.
Soon the glamorous Anna appears (stylishly bedecked in Constance Hoffman’s duds). Incidents from the past – which emerge in contradictory versions – are explored, as Deeley and Anne soon seem to be vying for Kate in a kinky power play.
It's soon apparent that Pinter is playing his usual tricks, and the facts will remain elusive. Has Anna, in fact, died, and is this all an illusion? After all, we see her onstage even before she actually arrives with a torrent of words. Identities are so blurred, we are even led to wonder if Anna and Kate might perhaps be two sides of the same person?
I can’t say I remember the nuances of the original Broadway production (with its stellar cast of Robert Shaw, Rosemary Harris, and Mary Ure), but the setting was certainly more conventional, and the delicious Pinteresque pauses were all characteristically in place. There seem to be far fewer of those now, a curious trend with recent Pinter mountings, including the recent Broadway revivals of “The Homecoming” and “No Man’s Land.” Perhaps it’s that streamlining that causes this production to clock in at a mere 65 minutes.
Still, as directed by actor Douglas Hodge – no slouch at playing Pinter himself (I recall an excellent “Caretaker” in London in which he starred) – the drama, however mysterious, grips.
(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street; 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through November 29)
Saturday, October 10, 2015
Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell are perfectly matched as May and Eddie in Manhattan Theatre Club’s riveting revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play. (Director Daniel Aukin’s sharp production was first mounted by the Williamstown Theatre Festival last year.)
May is living in a bleak motel (astutely designed by Dane Laffrey) “on the edge of the Mojave Desert” when long-time cowboy lover Eddie returns with a trailer of horses out back. May wants no part of him, as she knows the tiresome pattern of Eddie’s abandonment will simply repeat itself. But Eddie persists and May waves between her new resolve and old passion. Adding to her resentment against Eddie is the (offstage) return of a vengeful lady known as The Countess with whom, May is certain, Eddie carried on an affair. May is waiting to be picked up for a date by good-natured if slow-on-the-uptake Martin (Tom Pelphrey) with whom she thinks she might just be able to start afresh. Observing the sordid action from the sidelines is a mysterious Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) who exists in Eddie and May’s imagination but whose actual connection to the embattled couple is eventually revealed.
Justin Townsend’s harsh lighting perfectly complements Laffrey’s soulless room.
The galvanic Arianda (very sexy in a skin-tight red dress) and simmering Rockwell are perfectly cast in these mercurial parts, and deliver the requisite passion and heated arguments as the script dictates. Rockwell wields a mean lasso, too. They are finely supported by Pelphrey and Weiss.
I hadn’t actually encountered the play since the original New York production where I saw an excellent young Bruce Willis as Eddie, but Shepard’s dialogue for this modern-day Greek tragedy still crackles. The play runs 75 minutes without intermission, and grips from first moment to last.
(MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; 212-239-6200, online by visiting www.Telecharge.com)
Saturday, October 3, 2015
I must confess that I admired more than loved “Spring Awakening” in its 2007 Broadway premiere, and really didn’t care for Deaf West Theatre’s 2003 revival of “Big River.” So the prospect of Deaf West’s limited revival of Duncan Shiek and Steven Sater’s musical of version of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 expressionist play was less than a welcome prospect.
But how wrong my disinterest turned out to be! For this is a truly wondrous production, gorgeously staged by Michael Arden (and choreographed by Spencer Liff), and most feelingly acted and sung.
The combination of hearing and deaf actors is not only seamlessly executed but a brilliant dramatic device, and gives the work more texture than before. And despite the presence of so many deaf actors, “Spring Awakening” proves as rich an aural as it is a visual experience, thanks to an ingenious use of double casting, and the fine musical direction of Jared Stein.
The story charts the lives of the disaffected youth of Wedekind’s time, misunderstood at home, and stifled by a repressive environment in school. The four central characters are Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank), the sexually innocent daughter of Frau Bergmann (Camryn Manheim); Melchior (the hearing Austin P. McKenzie), the charismatic boy she falls in love with; Moritz (Daniel N. Durant), a troubled young man having difficulties with his studies; and Ilse (Krysta Rodriguez), an abused girl who now lives in an artist colony. The pregnancy resulting from Wendla and Melchior making love in a hayloft propels the second act to tragedy.
Wenda (played luminously by the deaf Frank), is spoken and sung by Katie Boeck who follows her like a caring (or, at times, critical) alter ego. But so compelling is Frank’s miming and signing and Boeck's voice that the performance, like all the others in the show, registers as one.
So, too, Durant plays his confusion most convincingly, and when Moritz must tell his father (Russell Harvard) that he has failed in school, the entire scene is played in silence using only sign language with the dialogue projected on a digital blackboard behind the stage. Powerful stuff. Elsewhere Moritz’s voice is articulated skillfully by Alex Boniello.
In other instances, it’s often difficult to see who’s speaking for whom, but the effect isn’t at all jarring or disconcerting. The hearing actors who double the deaf ones are as unobtrusive as the puppeteers in “War Horse.” After a while, one forgets they are there. And at key points, the deaf actors emit a guttural cry or some other sound that is dramatically apt and extremely poignant.
Patrick Page and Marlee Matlin excel in variety of other roles, he most prominently as one of the stern schoolmasters, she as Melchior’s mother.
Ben Stanton’s lighting is stunning, and Dane Laffrey’s multi-level set gives scope to the action. Laffrey also designed the first-rate costumes.
The program notes explain the plight of the deaf at that time in Germany and the ban on using sign language. Though this is not made part of the show's plot per se, the knowledge of this fact combined with the plight of the teens in the story adds undeniable resonance.
At the end, the audience gave a standing ovation, as much to show the deaf members of the cast their admiration as to acknowledge a genuine artistic triumph.
(Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.; Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929; through January 24)
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Though one of the lesser known plays of the Bard, “Cymbeline” proves a winner in Daniel Sullivan’s entertaining production now in its final week at the Delacorte.
Even if performances are relatively rare, the play is, I think, one of Shakespeare’s most interesting. I first encountered it in the excellent production in the BBC-PBS Shakespeare series back in the 1980s. Helen Mirren, at her most youthfully beautiful, was Imogen, the play’s central character (and daughter of the titular king).
Imogen’s husband Posthumus (here Hamish Linklater), an orphaned ward of the king, has been banished so that she’ll be forced to marry her scheming stepmother’s doltish son Cloten (also Linklater with a dopey blond wig). Exiled to Italy, the gullible Posthumus is made to think Imogen (Lily Rabe) has been unfaithful by the crafty Iachimo (Raul Esparza) who sneaks into Imogen’s room while she is sleeping, and takes inventory of both the room and Imogen’s partly clad body.
Upon hearing these details, Posthumus vengefully orders her murder, forcing the innocent princess to don male attire and take shelter with an elderly man Belarius (unfairly banished from Cymbeline’s court many years before) and his two sons (David Furr and Jacob Ming-Trent) who are actually the king’s children whom Belarius had kidnapped as infants, and lovingly raised as his own.
That TV production, and subsequent stage productions I’ve encountered, including an absorbing 1988 National Theatre mounting with Geraldine James and Tim Pigott-Smith (as Iachimo), took the play and its fantastical fairy tale elements quite seriously, and were all the better for it.
Sullivan’s production takes a much more lightweight approach, perhaps as befitting the Central Park summer crowd audience, but with an above average cast, many imaginative touches, engaging songs and incidental music, enough of the gravitas of the original remains to tug at the heart.
I do have one major reservation, however. Likable as Rabe is in many respects, and comfortable at speaking the Shakespearean text (albeit in a plainly American manner), I feel she misses the nobility and true purity of the character. Her delivery is far too worldly and sardonic, and at moments of high emotion, she can sound downright shrewish. Hamish Linklater rather overdoes the buffoonery as the conniving queen’s doltish son Cloten, but his interpretation is undeniably amusing. And he’s solid as Posthumus, impressing with his verbal dexterity in the speech where he rails against women after learning of Imogen’s supposed infidelity.
It’s unfortunate that the late scene wherein the god Jupiter and the spirits of Posthumus's mother and father intervene for him, has been cut, robbing his character of much of the necessary remorse and anguish over his rash deed. “She forgave him awfully fast,” one playgoer was heard to remark after the show.
Patrick Page makes a fine, well-spoken Cymbeline (not overindulging his plummy voice), and he does equally well as Posthumus’ benefactor Philario in the Roman scenes. Several others in the cast are similarly double-cast, none more spectacularly then Kate Burton who, besides playing the Queen, does a remarkable job as kindly old Belarius, grey beard and all. Steven Skybell is a very good, sympathetic Pisanio, faithful servant of Posthumus.
Raul Esparza is particularly outstanding as the oily villain, speaking the text so deftly and musically that you barely miss the traditional English accent. His lecherous ogling in Imogen’s bedchamber is superbly played.
Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal,” “If/Then”) has supplied very lovely incidental music as well as a handful of songs, including a Vegas-y opening number for Esparza, and a lovely setting of “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun” well sung by the excellent Furr and Ming-Trent.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set compliments the bucolic Central Park setting perfectly, David Zinn’s costumes are fine in the traditional manner (except for the Roman crowd), and David Lander’s lighting enhances both. Acme Sound Partners’ sonic design is wonderfully natural.
The play ends with some very crowd-pleasing choreography, courtesy of Mimi Lieber, which sends the audience home in jovial spirits.
(Delacorte Theater, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West; Free tickets are distributed, two per person -- age 5+ -- at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park beginning at 12:00 p.m. on the day of each performance. The Virtual Ticketing Lottery is available on the day of the show at www.publictheater.org; through August 23)
Kate Burton, Lily Rabe, and Hamish Linklater in The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Cymbeline, directed by Daniel Sullivan, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg.
Friday, August 14, 2015
By Harry Forbes
Though an unfortunate scheduling conflict prevented my attending this delightful company’s second annual symposium as I did last year, I was, at least, able to catch the very last performances of all seven of this season’s productions, which proved to be a terrific wallow in the world of operetta and musical comedy.
The range of Ohio Light Opera (a veritable repertory company for the duration of the season) is really quite stunning, especially when one experiences all of the productions in close succession. OLO players effortlessly morph from ensemble to supporting character to lead and back again to ensemble, while several veterans take on multiple starring roles with extraordinary ease.
As is true in any rep situation, not every single role is a perfect fit in terms of physical makeup or personality, but more often than not, the match-up of player to part is uncannily good.
Add to this, admirably high musical values from a first-rate orchestra and a handful of fine conductors, excellent direction (often by OLO Artistic Director Steven Daigle), and handsome sets (Cassie King) and costumes (Stefanie Genda), and you have results far outclassing typical summer stock fare.
Respect for the original material is key, and OLO eschews adaptations and abridgements, making minimal nips and tucks where necessary for the resources of the company as, for instance, trimming some of the ballet music. Thus, this season’s production of “Can-Can” adhered to Abe Burrows' original book, unlike the recent Paper Mill production.
Audiences this year seemed to favor "Ruddigore," “Can-Can” and “Oh, Kay!” This last was George and Ira Gershwins’ 1926 musical which recently served very loosely as the basis for Broadway’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” With its Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse book, the farcical story of Long Island bootleggers who turn a newlywed playboy’s life topsy-turvy was a fast-moving riot with the classic songs (“Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Clap Yo’ Hands,” “Maybe”) satisfyingly performed in period style.
Other comic roles were smartly taken by Samus Haddad as Shorty McGee and Kyle Yampiro as Kay’s bootlegging brother, the Duke of Durham. The whole was finely directed by OLO mainstay Ted Christopher about whom more below.
The two Gilbert & Sullivan offerings this season were “The Yeomen of the Guard” and “Ruddigore.” Both were strongly cast, with the former, under the direction of Julie Wright Costa, packing a real dramatic wallop as Jack Point (poignantly played and strongly sung by Mr. Christopher) truly expired at the end (Gilbert’s stage direction indicates he merely “falls insensible”) as Elsie (Emily Nelson) weds her Colonel Fairfax (Clark Sturdevant). Nelson handled her vocal chores with ease including the escalating climax of “‘Tis Done! I Am a Bride!”, and tenor Sturdevant, an asset to many of the season’s productions, shone with crystalline perfection on “Is Life a Boon?” and “Free from His Fetters Grim.” Olivia Maughan was a particularly rich voiced and satisfying Phoebe, and her scenes with Brad Baron's likable Shadbolt amusing. J. Lynn Thompson conducted with fine style and appropriate gravitas.
If “Yeomen” shows off its immortal creators at their most serious-minded, “Ruddigore” – a spoof of Victorian melodrama – is one of their drollest creations, and OLO played the comedy to the hilt. I might even rate this production – cannily directed by Daigle and masterfully conducted by Steven Byess -- the best “Ruddigore” of my experience. Brian showed off yet another facet of his comic talents as farmer Robin Oakapple who tries vainly to disguise his true identity as a baronet of Ruddigore, duty bound to commit a crime a day. The chameleon-like Ted Christopher made a delicious Sir Despard, and Sarah Best mined every possible comic nuance from Mad Margaret. Tenor Stephen Faulk – another man of many faces and comic personas – was an amusingly conflicted Richard Dauntless, making the most of miming what his heart was ever “instructing him” to do. Julie Wright Costa’s formidable Dame Hannah and Brad Baron’s Sir Roderic were further comic and vocal pluses, and gave their “Little Flower” duet the requisite poignancy.
Katherine Polit – as self-centered Rose Maybud who makes nary a move without consulting her book of etiquette – captured the vanity and silliness of the character to perfection, and the next day, reappeared as Fiona, a tremendously appealing and warmly sympathetic Scottish lass, in “Brigadoon” opposite Brian’s full-throttle leading man role of Tommy. His “There But For You Go I” and “Almost Like Being in Love” – under Thompson’s assured baton -- were outstanding. Elsewhere, Faulk’s tenor rang out exuberantly on “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” and then tenderly on “Come to Me, Bend to Me.” Jacob Allen directed resourcefully, and if not all the casting was entirely apt, the whole was still greatly moving.
Cole Porter’s tune-filled 1953 “Can-Can” – derided by critics originally – continues to be revived thanks primarily to its hit parade of now-classic tunes (“C’est Magnifique,” “I Love Paris,” etc.). The book – centering on a new judge’s efforts to ban the then-notorious titular dance in 1893 Paris -- is admittedly rather ho-hum. But Christopher – who can do no wrong in whichever role in plays – was outstanding as Judge Forestier, and Faulk had his second most amusing role as the hopelessly mediocre Bulgarian artist Boris. His comic scenes were wonderful set pieces that earned warm applause and empathetic chuckles. As La Mome Pistache, proprietor of the Bal du Paradis cabaret, Sarah Best – the picture of a savvy Montmartre businesswoman -- sang those Cole Porter evergreens with creamy burgundy tone, if perforce lacking the high voltage star power of some of the great Broadway ladies who have played the part. Directed by Daigle and choreographed by Carol Hageman (including a Garden of Eden ballet), the show had the requisite Broadway pizzazz.
Incredibly, Best took on the title role in Kurt Weill’s “One Touch of Venus” that same evening, rather in the fashion of Callas’ legendary assumption of disparate Wagner and Bellini roles within a single week. As the goddess’ statue come to life, she cut a striking figure, sang “Speak Low” and “A Stranger Here Myself” stunningly, only perhaps falling short on some of the naïveté so essential to the role. Benjamin Krumreig, amusing in a non-singing comic role in “Oh, Kay!” demonstrated a gleaming tenor as barber Rodney Hatch on whom Venus develops a crush. Baron, though too youthful for art collector Whitelaw Savory, pulled it off. Weill’s characteristic score, including the somewhat jarringly grim “Dr. Crippen” number, sounded splendid under Byess’ baton. King’s Expressionist set fit the artistic setting, and Daigle’s direction only misfired near the end by eschewing the customary ending of the actress playing Venus (once again a statue) returning to Rodney in the guise of an ordinary young woman.
The rarest work this season was Franz Lehar’s soft-grained if ultimately touching “Friederike” (in the English-language translation of Adrian Ross and Harry S. Pepper used originally in London). Cassie King’s set was arguably the loveliest of the bunch as were, likewise, Charlene Gross’ 18th century costumes. This fictionalized story of an early romance between the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the daughter of a village parson was feelingly conducted by Wilson Sutherland, and directed in apt style by Daigle. Some passages for a boisterous male chorus and lighter numbers for the secondary couple aside, the overall impression was rather mild, even with such Lehar chestnuts as “Why Did You Kiss My Heart Awake?” and the oft-reprised “O Maiden, My Maiden.” Meagan Sill and Clark Sturdevant (the latter a more matinee idol Goethe certainly than creator Richard Tauber) handled the near-operatic score more than capably, and Gretchen Windt and Stephen Faulk did nicely as, respectively, the heroine’s sister and the lovelorn student with a crush on both young women. Still, it was wonderful to finally see the work, known here principally from recordings.
Despite no symposium, I was, at least, able to catch two entertaining and informative talks by OLO board chair Michael Miller who, together with his indefatigable wife Nan, had put the symposium together. One was a fascinating collection of operetta clips from film and TV; the other a talk on “Oh, Kay!” just before the performance. On Saturday, Daigle offered a pre-talk on “One Touch of Venus” and fielded questions from the packed lecture hall.
Lovers of musical theater won’t find a finer feast than here in Wooster, under the leadership of Executive Director Laura Neill. Solidly professional, loaded with bright young talent, comfortably in tune with the traditions of European operetta and Broadway, the experience continues to be eminently satisfying.
(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through August 8)
Photos: (Top to bottom)
(l.-r.) Nathan Brian, Jessamyn Anderson, & cast
(l.-r.) Benjamin Krumreig, Emily Hagens, & Nathan Brian
"The Yeomen of the Guard"
(l.-r.) Brad Baron and Olivia Maughan
“One Touch of Venus”
(l.-r.) Clark Sturdevant and Meagan Sill
All photos: Matt Dilyard