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Friday, November 20, 2015

Angeline and Her Tattooed Man (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

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”).
Earlier, Corle handled the very beguiling “Call Around Again” (“The Debutante”); big-voiced Vira Slywotsky joined Faulk for the humorous “Only in the Play” duet (in which she mistakes onstage ardor for the real thing)(“The Fortune Teller”), and later sang the “Come Little Fishes” solo (“The Enchantress”); Sarah Caldwell Smith performed her slightly naughty “Always Do As People Say You Should” (“The Fortune Teller”) with just the right innocence; Angela Christine Smith saucily related the saga of a taffy-seller known as “Popular Pauline” (“Wonderland”) and joined Corle and Erika Person on “Make Him Guess” (“The Princess Pat”); and Person stepped off the stage to warn the audience of the disapproving “Mrs. Grundy”(“Old Dutch”).

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

Misery (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

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

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan (Marquis Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

“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

King Charles III (The Music Box)

By Harry Forbes

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

First Daughter Suite (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

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

Therese Raquin (Roundabout)

By Harry Forbes

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)