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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Color Purple (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

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

Lazarus (New York Theatre Workshop)

By Harry Forbes

“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

The Golden Bride (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene)

By Harry Forbes

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

Dada Woof Papa Hot (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

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

Allegiance (Longacre Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

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