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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cagney (The York Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

An unlikely subject for a musical perhaps – though, of course, he starred in several – Hollywood tough guy James Cagney’s life makes for a surprisingly engaging evening as star Robert Creighton pays tribute to the man to whom he feels a particular kinship given their physical similarity, as he explains in a program note.

Besides starring as the lovably pugnacious Cagney, Creighton provided music and lyrics for some of the songs, while Christopher McGovern supplied the same for more than a dozen others.

Peter Colley’s book, like the musical “Chaplin,” builds to its titular subject accepting a late career award, in Charlie Chaplin’s case, an Honorary Oscar, in Cagney’s, a SAG Award in 1978.

The play begins with Cagney’s days as a hot-headed construction worker who nobly takes on the foreman who short-changes a coworker on payday. (And kudos to fight director Rick Sordelet for an uncommonly convincing scuffle as Cagney and the man trade punches.)

The story progresses through Cagney’s early days in vaudeville where he meets his wife Willie (Ellen Zolezzi), declaring their love in a cute number without actually saying the "l" word. Then it’s on to Hollywood where he finds himself under the autocratic thumb of Jack Warner (a first-rate Bruce Sabath), struggles against the studio system, faces the Dies Committee for alleged Communist sympathies, and finally makes a memorable comeback in “White Heat.”

And, of course, Cagney’s memorable turn as George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” gets its due, with “Grand Old Flag” and the title number capping the first and second acts respectively.

The new songs are not bad, never less than serviceable, and there’s a clever rejiggering of the opening number “Black and White,” a paean to movies, as a second act opener when Cagney faces the Dies Commission.

The supporting cast of five is truly excellent, each giving a committed performance though the occasional impersonations of famous folk are patchy, like Jeremy Benton’s Bob Hope. And what is MGM’s star of stars Greta Garbo doing showing up as a Warner Brothers player? Danette Holden is warmly sympathetic as Cagney’s archetypal Irish mother. Other roles such as Cagney's brother are well taken by Josh Walden.

Joshua Bergasse has fashioned some excellent choreography, quite different from his stellar work on “On the Town.” This is, in fact, the most dance-filled show I’ve ever seen at York. The tap numbers in an extended USO sequence and elsewhere are really exceptional, and the cast shows their mettle here.

Bill Castellino directs at a fast-moving pace, and the narrative, though yes, clich├ęd and perforce sketchy, is never less than absorbing.

Creighton shines in his eleven o’clock number, “Tough Guy,” and does an admirable job of suggesting Cagney aging over the years.

York Artistic Director James Morgan’s sets provide a classy backdrop, and Amy Clark’s costumes, as the actors shuttle between their various roles, are admirable, too.

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, Citicorp Building, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue; 212-935-5820 or www.yorktheatre.org/membership; through June 21)

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg. (l.-r.) Danette Holden, Jeremy Benton, Robert Creighton, Ellen Zolezzi and Josh Walden.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Finding Neverland (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Emotionally manipulative, overly simplistic and unabashedly commercial as this show is, “Finding Neverland” is far from being devoid of merit. The three leads are excellent, the story of how J.M. Barrie came to write “Peter Pan” and his relationship with the Llewellyn Davies family is an ever-touching one, and much of Diane Paulus’ staging is eye-fillingly clever.

On the negative side of the ledger, Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s score – completely different, incidentally, from that composed for the show’s first incarnation in the U.K. -- is strictly in a generic pop contemporary vein for a story that cries out for at least a little Edwardian pastiche.

It’s rather remarkable that what is essentially a backstage story and a bittersweet (even tragic) romance involving divorce, should be marketed as family entertainment, though book writer James Graham has done everything possible to cram as many “Peter Pan” elements as possible into the show, including Nana (the Darling family dog), the Tinker Bell spotlight, Captain Hook and the crocodile, and all the rest.

The narrative follows the basic outline of the popular Johnny Depp film. Playwright Barrie (Matthew Morrison) is under pressure from his producer Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer who, by the way, doubles amusingly as Captain Hook in the fantasy sequences) to come up with a new play.

He is experiencing writer’s block, until he falls under the spell of widow Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her four boys (Aiden Gemme, Hayden Signoretti, Sawyer Nunes, and Noah Hinsdale) after which, he is inspired to write his most famous work. His devotion to the Mrs. Davies and the boys causes unkind gossip, and meets with stern disapproval from Sylvia’s mother (Carolee Carmello) and his superficial former actress wife Mary (Teal Wicks), with whom he soon separates when he discovers her liaison with another man.

The story is both streamlined and romanticized; in actuality, Sylvia was still married when she first encountered Barrie, and there were five children, not four. And the creation of “Peter Pan” was obviously far more complex in real life than Barrie merely finding his inner child.

There are many felicitous bits of staging, including an elaborate racing against the clock production number (“Circus of Your Mind”), and a boisterous pirate number (“Live by the Hook”) that concludes the first act (choreography by Mia Michaels.) There is, too, a particularly wondrous stage effect towards the end which truly rates as one of the most beautiful and moving ones I’ve ever seen. That moment, which I won’t spoil, is pure magic, and it’s a pity there weren’t more like it.

Matthew Morrison who has come to Broadway in place of his exceedingly talented predecessors in the role -- Britain’s Julian Ovenden and Boston’s Jeremy Jordan, both of whom were praised for their work -- gives a gentle, self-effacing performance, with a pleasing Scottish burr.

Laura Michelle Kelly, who played such a memorably starchy title character in the original London “Mary Poppins” before the Disney machine decided to soften the character and make her more palatable for Broadway, is lovely of figure and voice as Sylvia. And Kelsey Grammer, who triumphed several years ago in the revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” is outstanding as Barrie’s producer, the American impresario Charles Frohman.

The Darling children, especially young Gemm at my performance, give winning performances.

The songs, as indicated, are in an anachronistically contemporary vein, with obvious calculation. I found the raucous numbers, such as the cast celebrating in a local pub and the first act pirate finale more grating than exhilarating (and Jonathan Dean’s sound design pushes the limit uncomfortably), but there are some quiet ballads that fall pleasantly – if (at first hearing) unremarkably – on the ear: Sylvia’s “All That Matters,” Barrie and Sylvia’s “What You Mean to Me,” and Barrie and Peter’s “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground.”

Scott Pask’s setting, Suttirat Anne Larlarb's costumes, and Jon Driscoll’s projections – are most attractive.

And reservations aside, the audience was, I must acknowledge, thoroughly engaged, and gave the show a rousing standing ovation at the end.

(Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street; www.FindingNeverlandTheMusical.com or 877-250-2929)

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Only Girl (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

LOONY seems to go from strength to strength with each new season, and their latest production – Victor Herbert’s rarely performed work – was arguably their best yet.

When the “The Only Girl” was first done in 1914, critics unanimously acclaimed it for its tastefulness, humor, integration of song and story, and, of course, Herbert’s delightfully varied score (e.g. ragtime, marches, waltzes, etc.), the first of his works to move squarely into the realm of musical comedy, rather than his more customary operetta genre. It was based on “Our Wives,” a so-so comedy from two years earlier by Frank Mandel and Helen Kraft, which had, in turn, been based on a popular German work. Herbert’s version (book and lyrics by Henry Blossom) was a big hit, spawned a profitable tour, and enjoyed a modest London run, too.

The slight but charming plot involves Kim (Kyle Erdos-Knapp), a curmudgeonly lyricist who reluctantly joins forces with composer Ruth (Antoni Mendezona) after he hears the alluring strains of her latest composition (the show’s big take-home tune, “When You’re Away”) in the next apartment. He and his college buddies – Martin (Ian McEuen), Andrew (Cameron Smith), and Blake (Adam Cannedy) – have vowed to abjure women, so Kim insists their relationship must be strictly platonic. But, in short order, it is revealed that the other men have fallen in love with, and in fact, married, their lady loves after all. (That revelation is rather muted here, but more on the adaptation below.)

The enchanting music was in conductor Gerald Steichen’s accomplished hands. Steichen is no stranger to Herbert, and last summer, led a gorgeous concert reading of the composer’s grand opera, “Natoma,” produced by the city’s other great Herbert champion, Alyce Mott’s Victor Herbert Renaissance Project.

On this occasion, he led his nine musicians in a stylish, feeling performance. The alternately sprightly and romantic overture and two entr’actes were showpieces in themselves. Only occasionally did the musicians overwhelm the singers, as is sometimes the case in the Thalia space, more the result of the theater’s intimate size than faulty dynamics in the pit.

Henry Blossom’s original book, generally praised in 1914, was already deemed dated when a short-lived Broadway revival was mounted in 1934. But LOONY’s revised adaptation by director Michael Phillips, was a mixed blessing even if, on this occasion, he did nothing so radical as with last season’s “Orange Blossoms” wherein he actually switched the genders of two major characters.

But here, the action was rather puzzlingly updated to the 1950s with the occasional awkward period reference, e.g. “The Three Stooges” and Kitty Carlisle being on TV’s “I’ve Got a Secret.” (It should actually have been “To Tell the Truth,” but I digress.) Bettina Bierly’s Eisenhower-era costumes were attractive, and not too distracting.

But the feminist theme of the original (a confirmed bachelor deigning to collaborate with a woman) was rather overemphasized in sometimes jarringly contemporary terms. And there were some anachronistic (even for the 1950s) usages of words like “intervention” and “awesome.”

In the interests of making do with a smaller cast than the 16 original players, all the characters were here showbiz folk, a sensible economic move. So Andrew became a scenic designer rather than just a painter, Martin an agent, and Blake a producer. The collegiate nicknames of Kim’s buddies – Corksey, Fresh, and Bunkie – were eschewed here. Aspiring actress Patsy was now a low class showgirl with a good heart, as in some vintage Warner Brothers musical. I’m not sure that transformation was exactly appropriate, but the versatile Natalie Ballenger pulled off the concept with aplomb.

The soubrette role of Patsy, in fact, had the majority of songs in the original; here she shared some that were rightly hers alone with other characters, but that worked well enough from a dramatic point of view.

One of Phillips’ most effective changes was moving Jane’s poignant number, “Tell It All Over Again,” to the penultimate spot in the show, and it was a bittersweet highpoint, especially as sung by the excellent Sarah Best. As that number immediately preceded Kim and Ruth’s heartfelt “You’re the Only One for Me,” wherein they finally declare their mutual attraction, the two numbers back to back really packed a wallop and made for a profoundly touching conclusion.

As Kim and Ruth, Erdos-Knapp and Mendezona were satisfactory. His was a sort of moody Philip Seymour Hoffman kind of performance, but his excellent tenor pipes gave good measure to Kim’s music. Mendezona delivered the haunting “When You’re Away” and her other numbers more than capably. And when the script called for some dramatics, they were up to the task.

It was a bit odd, however, when Erdos-Knapp sat down to play the piano a couple of times, rather confusing his role as lyricist. In one instance, he accompanied himself in an extraneous “A Woman Is Only a Woman” from Herbert’s “Miss Dolly Dollars,” though he performed it with panache.

His and Sarah Mossman’s rousing patriotic number “Here’s to the Land We Love” was a particular pleasure, as was the men’s grousing “When You’re Wearing the Ball and Chain” about the downside of matrimony, followed by the women’s counter-song “Why Should We Stay at Home and Sew?” all attractively choreographed by Phillips, too.

Textual quibbles aside, this was a delightful evening, and bodes well for next year’s announced offering, Jerome Kern’s “Sally.”

Lastly, we learned “The Only Girl” is to be recorded by Albany Records. It should sound wonderful, much like last year’s delightful “Orange Blossoms,” that one under Evans Haille’s seasoned baton.

(Light Opera of New York, Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway; 212-864-5400 or lightoperaofnewyork.org; May 8 and 9 only)

Photo: Jennifer Bradford

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Something Rotten! (St. James Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This very clever new musical is a rib-tickling winner across the board, a hilarious riff on Shakespeare and his times.

Brian d’Arcy James as Nick Bottom (yes, all the characters have Bard-like names) is an ever-struggling playwright, turning out flop after flop, as his former crony William Shakespeare (Christian Borle) has nothing but hits, with rock star status among his devotees, particularly as he’s just done “Romeo and Juliet.”

Nick works in tandem with his genuinely talented younger brother Nigel (an appealing John Cariani) who lets himself be swayed by Nick’s half-baked ideas.

Desperate for a new idea, Nick decides to visit local soothsayer Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) who informs him that, in the future, there’ll be such things as plays with songs (which we learn in an elaborate showstopper, “A Musical”), so Nick resolves to write the first such work in that genre.

Will, meanwhile, is experiencing serious writer’s block (“Hard to Be the Bard”), and plagiarist that he is, contrives to discover Nick and Nigel’s latest opus. Nostradamus, in turn, has confided to Nick that Will’s biggest hit will be something called something like “Omelette.) Very funny complications ensue.

Nigel has fallen hard for pretty blonde Portia (Kate Reinders) who shares his love of poetry, despite the stern forbidding of her light-in-the-loafers Puritan father, Brother Jeremiah, hilariously played by Brooks Ashmanskas with masterful double entendre delivery. That other master of comic timing, Peter Bartlett, scores as Nick’s wealthy patron, and returns as a judge in the second act. And I mustn’t forget Gerri Vichi as a stage-struck “nice Jew” Shylock.

But the blazing star of the show is James who, fresh from his triumph in “Hamilton” at the Public, is simply splendid in a role that affords him impressive range, while his former co-star on the NBC flop “Smash,” Borle is a hoot at a foppish, Jagger-esque Shakespeare. Heidi Blickenstaff is winning as Nick’s ever supportive wife, and knocks her big number “Right Hand Man” out of the park.

Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book is consistently funny, perhaps losing just a smidgen of steam in the second act. And the music and lyrics of Kirkpatrick and brother Wayne Kirkpatrick are very clever indeed. Wayne’s experience is mainly in the pop world, but unlike others, his songs hold the stage in a theatrical way.

Scott Pask’s set and Gregg Barnes’ costumes are Tudor perfect.And the show is directed and choreographed with razor-sharp precision by that master of the funny musical, Casey Nicholaw.

(St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street; www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Airline Highway (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Lisa D’Amour’s chaotic ensemble piece about the denizens of the Hummingbird Motel New Orleans motel features an accomplished cast under the direction of the redoubtable Joe Mantello. But, even so, I can’t say this Steppenwolf Theatre Company import really grabbed me.

Scott Pask’s multi-level set – the exterior of the motel – overlooking the parking lot downstage, allows for simultaneous action on these levels which suits the construction of D’Amour’s play. But I found the overlapping dialogue that ensues from this setup, and which dominates the evening, more than a little off-putting.

As the Hummingbird’s residents prepare for the funeral of the still living Miss Ruby, a former burlesque queen, dying in a room on the upper level (she has specified that she wants her funeral before she passes), we learn about the sordid lives of her motley extended family.

There’s prostitute Tanya (Julie White, impressive as always); stripper Krista (Caroline Neff), drag queen Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), Krista’s ex-beau Bait Boy (Joe Tippet) now involved with an older woman, and his 16-year-old stepdaughter Zoe (Carolyn Braver) who’s writing her term paper on “subcultures” and makes a nuisance of herself prying into everyone’s lives there.

Other roles are well played by Scott Jaeck as the hotel manager, Ken Marks as a failed poet, and Tim Edward Rhoze as the local handyman.

Though I admired the performances, I can’t say I really found much of what transpires very interesting, at least not until, in the second act, they cart Miss Ruby (very fine Judith Roberts) gingerly down the stairs, and she delivers an interior monologue of substance, a grand old fashioned theatrical moment of which “Airline Highway” should have had more.

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

Friday, May 1, 2015

Dr. Zhivago (Broadway Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Not only does this overblown musical of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel not measure up to the sweep and majesty of David Lean’s popular 1965 film, but the score is a very weak sister to Maurice Jarre’s equally popular score, out of which was fashioned the pop hit, “Somewhere My Love.”

Funnily enough, that particular song has been shoehorned into Lucy Simon’s very different sounding music, as an anthem for the battlefield nurses to sing, as if it were perhaps a Russian folk song. Though Simon’s score is, on first hearing, not so well matched to the material as her work for “The Secret Garden,” it is good enough not to need an interpolation of a song most people nowadays probably don’t even remember.

The show is, for the most part, performed on such an overamplified level (SCK Sound Design) that most of it registers as an unpleasant assault to the senses. But listening at home to some of the tunes (“Now” and “On the Edge of Time”) on YouTube (performed by the Anthony Warlow from the Australian cast) but sung intimately in a recording session, I was able to hear that there are, in fact, some very pretty melodies here. Perhaps if the current production generates an album, allowing one to listen to it at a more comfortable level, the beauties of the score will be more apparent.

For now, the spectacle on stage is laughably derivative of “Les Miserables” and any number of other of the British/French mega-musicals. A duet for Yurii Zhivago’s wife Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer) and his lover Lara (Kelli Barrett) has thematic echoes of “I Know Him So Well” from “Chess.” Yurii’s affirmation of his name brings to mind the main character’s similar declaration in “Martin Guerre.” But these occasional similarities aside, Michael Korie and Amy Powers’ lyrics are simply banal.

And “Doctor Zhivago” is nowhere near as good as its Victor Hugo-inspired model, a hugely more compelling stage piece. The first act is full of too much incident, wartime chaos, gunshots, and explosions. The second is more comprehensible as the story focuses more on the triangular love story.

Tam Mutu in the title part of the idealistic doctor/poet is excellent, both dramatically and vocally, and at least provides a sympathetic focal point for all the frenetic action around him. Barrett sings nicely, but hardly evokes the sympathetic qualities that made Julie Christie so special in the film. Gayer fares much better, but her part as the wronged wife is perhaps more sympathetic.

Paul Alexander Nolan, though occasionally too strident for his manic character, has some strong moments as Lara’s activist husband-turned-dictator Strelnikov. And Tom Hewitt is strong as Lara’s lustful suitor Komarovsky.

Visually, Michael Scott Mitchell’s designs are pretty dreary, though in fairness, the narrative doesn’t lend itself to bright, cheerful colors. Paul Tazewell’s costumes seem to fit the bill.

Director Des McAnuff handles his cast well, but fails to provide much fluidity to Michael Weller’s episodic book, each scene -- whether the last days of Czarist Russian, the Russian Revolution, or World War I and beyond -- introduced by a clunky (though, I suppose, necessary) supertitle above the stage. And the use of projections (like a giant image of Lara) is often just plain tacky.

At the end of my performance, as the audience was filing out and the orchestra was playing the exit music, a lengthy and deafening electronic mishap had everyone covering their ears in dismay and scurrying up the aisles, a somehow fitting conclusion to the previous three hours.

(Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53 Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Matthew Murphy