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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cyrano de Bergerac (VHRP Live!)

By Harry Forbes

Director Alyce Mott resurrected her streamlined version of Victor Herbert’s 1899 operetta based on Edmund Rostand’s classic with the same cast she employed in the first of two performances she mounted in 2013.

With a cast of only five, and only piano accompaniment, the work still registered beautifully, as the cast was that much improved with the experience of the earlier outing. The success of the short evening was due as much to the power of Rostand (and the savvy way Mott adapted his play), as to Herbert’s beautiful melodies, most especially tongue-tied Christian’s wooing of Roxanne, as Cyrano feeds him the words (“Let the Sun of Thine Eyes”), and the later bittersweet trio “Since I Am Not for Thee.”

The original libretto (which apparently wrapped things up with a happy ending) is lost, allowing Mott to fashion a creative mashup of the play and the operetta.
As before, the songs were beautifully and strongly vocalized by Stephen Faulk as the handsome, verbally challenged cadet, Olga Xanthopolou as the lovely Roxanne, and Nathan Brian as titular lovelorn soldier/poet. Even without a prosthetic nose, Brian gave a persuasive dramatic performance, right up to the moving death scene with Roxanne.

John Greenleaf made a stylish de Guiche, and the versatile David Seatter moved deftly from narrator to the roles of Mountfleury, La Bret, and a befuddled monk.

The late Dino Anagnost’s Little Orchestra Society concert version (in which Mott also had a creative hand) demonstrated the considerable additional beauties of the score when heard with a full chorus (and, of course, the substantial vigorous choral sections of the score were perforce lost in the VHRP reading) and large orchestra. But music director Michael Thomas’ sensitive piano accompaniment went remarkably far in closing that gap.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; February 26 only)

Photos: Steven Pisano

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hamilton (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Though all the period trappings you’d expect are here in this bio-musical about our first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton – thanks to David Korins’ evocative scenic design and Paul Tazewell’s period perfect duds – you’re not likely to mistake Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” follow-up for “1776.” The cast playing our Founding Fathers is mostly non-white, and the musical vocabulary he employs is strictly that of today. This is history viewed through a pointedly and, for the most part cleverly, contemporary prism.

And yet, the amount of historical detail packed into this fast-paced, propulsive production is quite extraordinary. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s epic Hamilton biography – Chernow also served as consultant – this is a sweeping narrative, albeit told in terms artfully simplistic and sometimes repetitive.

The musical’s book charts the ambitious Hamilton’s evolution from soldier to statesman as right hand man of George Washington, to economic wiz, founder of the Federalist Party, etc. as well as his complicated love life (platonic relationship with his wife’s sister and later, an adulterous affair that would embroil him in scandal), and of course, the duel with Aaron Burr, then the Vice President, that would end his life.

Quadruple threat Miranda (book, music, lyrics and star) saw the rise and fall of Hamilton -- born out of wedlock in the West Indies, poor, orphaned – and the shaping of our scrappy young nation as a hip-hop story at its core, so rap music predominates though the nearly three-hour through-composed work also incorporates pop, jazz, salsa, R&B, and traditional Broadway sounds.

Directed by Miranda’s “In the Heights” collaborator Thomas Kail, and choreographed almost non-stop by Andy Blankenbuehler, this is an undeniably vibrant and original piece of theater.

It has something of the vibe of The Public’s rock-scored “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” – in its telling of historical events in an up-to-date lingo – but this one follows a more traditional dramatic arc. Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations, like Miranda’s score, contain little 18th century pastiche but generally the technique works.

The cast is extraordinarily talented including Christopher Jackson as George Washington; Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s devoted wife Eliza; RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry as her sister Angelica; Leslie Odum, Jr. as Hamilton’s friend and rival Burr (interestingly, like Hamilton, an orphan); Daveed Diggs as Lafayette and later Jefferson; Anthony Ramos as Hamilton’s abolitionist friend John Laurens and later Hamilton’s tragic son Philip; Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison; and most amusingly, Bryan D’Arcy James as a disgruntled King George.

For all the extraordinary stagecraft and skill, I’d have preferred an overall less jokey approach (the lyrics are alternately sophomoric and exceedingly clever), and yet certainly as events play out in the second act with Hamilton building to a fall with sexual scandal and personal tragedy, the work takes on the requisite gravitas and becomes extraordinarily moving.

At nearly three hours, the work could use some trimming. Although rife with incident, the show still feels long, even with the help of Blankenbuehler’s ceaselessly inventive movement.

Though a Broadway transfer seems inevitable, and the show has been almost unanimously acclaimed as a game-changer, it’s difficult to predict how the average Broadway theatergoer will embrace the show for all its groundbreaking innovation.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the company of Hamilton, with book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, and directed by Thomas Kail, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Delicate Balance (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Edward Albee’s second most heralded play – after “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – has returned to Broadway after a nearly 20-year absence. The 1996 Gerald Gutierrez revival was a memorable one, to be sure, with a sterling cast including George Grizzard, Rosemary Harris, and Elaine Stritch in top form.

Pam MacKinnon’s production is rather more austere in tone and less, well, enjoyable than the other. But there’s no denying the quality of the performances by yet another all-star cast and the fact that MacKinnon skillfully clarifies the play’s themes of loneliness and fear.

John Lithgow and Glenn Close (each in superlative form) are long-married couple Tobias and Agnes, and are finely matched by Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins as their unaccountably frightened neighbors Harry and Edna who announce with cheeky presumption that they are moving in with their friends permanently because of some unspoken terror.

Martha Plimpton is their much-divorced daughter Julia (now leaving husband number four) who bitterly resents the couple appropriating her room. Lindsey Duncan is Agnes’ hopelessly alcoholic sister Claire who, nonetheless, has the most empathy for the other characters’ foibles, and the uncanny ability to sort out the peculiar dynamics of the situation.

Brits Duncan and Higgins assume their American accents convincingly, the former perhaps having the edge in authority. I found myself alternately admiring and disliking Duncan’s characterization, but, on the whole, she registers on the plus side.

Plimpton provides some lively moments as Albee has given Julia some particularly dramatic moments.

Santo Loquasto has designed an impressively upper crust living room set for the affluent suburban couple, appropriately outfitted by Ann Roth, and lighted cannily by Brian MacDevitt as when, in the final act, Tobias’ late night/early morning soul searching eases into redemptive morning.

(Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St.; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe/Philip Rinaldi Publicity