Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Princess Pat (VHRP Live!)

By Harry Forbes

Victor Herbert’s 1915 charmer “The Princess Pat” was lovingly resurrected by Alyce Mott’s intrepid group as the opener of their Irish season, one which will also include a concert of the composer’s Gallic-themed songs entitled “Son of Dublin” (Mar. 8 and 9) and his most Irish operetta, “Eileen” (April 26 and 27).

The inclusion of “Pat” was, by Mott’s own admission, something of a stretch as the heroine’s Irish lineage and one song (“Two Laughing Irish Eyes”) are the work’s only claims to an Irish theme, but no matter. This was still a delightful evening, and to my knowledge, the first time New York has heard the work since the late Herbert expert Fred Roffman’s 1981 production for Bel Canto Opera, that one having the added advantages of sets, costumes, and an orchestra.

Still, with William Hicks at the keyboard on this occasion and the whole enterprise under the assured baton of Michael Thomas, the orchestra was barely missed, and the cast was exceptionally fine vocally across the board, if not always apt from a casting perspective, an important point, as VHRP’s mission is to show how vital and still stageworthy these works can be.

Mott revised the book – as Roffman, in fact, had done in 1981 – but she and Thomas left the score (ballet music aside) pretty much intact, only reordering the songs. Heroine Pat’s eleven o’clock number “Two Laughing Irish Eyes,” for instance, now became her entrance song, and the great “Love Is the Best of All” was moved to the later spot.

The scene is Long Island in the spring of 1915, and the narrative still involves titular heroine Pat (Angela Christine Smith) contriving to make her Italian husband Prince “Toto” (Jason Robinette) jealous, when he starts to lose interest in her. She will flirt with wealthy German widower Schmalz (David Seatter) which will also serve the double purpose of proving him a philanderer to Pat’s best friend Grace (Sarah Caldwell Smith) betrothed to him only to help her father (Richard Holmes) in his financial difficulties. This will ultimately allow Grace to unite with the young man to whom she’s genuinely attracted, Tony Schmalz (Drew Bolander), son of her intended. This ruse is contrived by New York “swell” Bob Darrow (Brian Kilday), a friend of Tony. All the while, a bumbling sheriff (Anthony Maida) is on the trail Tony and Darrow, who had sped into town initially to crash the Holbrook party.

The singing, as indicated, was of a high level, even if some of the line readings were less so. Still, Mott’s canny stage direction and Emily Cornelius’ neat choreography helped keep suspension of disbelief reasonably in check. Dance, incidentally, was a major part of the original production so it was good to have that component here.

The score – even without Herbert’s delectable orchestrations -- was a joy to hear with many highlights. Christine Smith and Robinette did a fine job with the once popular “All for You”; she delivered her two big numbers with assurance and style, and his much recorded “Neapolitan Love Song” was sung with requisite Italianate brio. (His voice was so powerful, though, I almost feared for the roof of Christ and St. Stephen’s Church!)

On the comic side, Seatter gave a spirited, strongly sung account of another of the showstoppers, “I Wish I Was an Island in an Ocean of Girls,” and Maida hit all the comic points of his “The Shoes of Husband Number One (as Worn by ‘Number Two’)” with panache. Holmes had an especially good solo part in the rousing male ensemble “Let’s Drink One Toast.”

Of the lesser-known numbers – though, of course, nowadays can any of these songs be said to be known at all? – the female duet for Pat and Grace (a Herbert rarity), “For Better or Worse,” not unlike the Flower Duet in “Lakme,” was especially outstanding, and I found the quartet, “A Little World for Two” Grace and her girlfriends’ teasing “Make Him Guess,” Tony’s jaunty “I’d Like to Be a Quitter! But I Find It Hard to Quit” (well done by Bolander), and the “When A Girl Marries” refrain of the first act Finale all wonderfully catchy.

All in all, we were miles away from the Old World charms of “Naughty Marietta” and “Sweethearts,” with this then quite modern show demonstrating another facet of the ever-surprising Herbert.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.;; Nov. 16 and 17 only)

Photos (Brian Lee Boyce):
Princess Pat holds court

L-R Tanya Roberts-Pedro Coppeti, Merrin Lazyan, Matthew  Billman, Angela Christine Smith, Richard Holmes, Sarah Caldwell  Smith, David Seatter

Let's Drink One Toast

-L-R  Richard Holmes, Jason Robinette, Drew Bolander, David  Seatter, Pedro Coppetti, Matthew Billman, Nathan Baer, Brian  Kilday


Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Life (Playwrights Horizons)

By Harry Forbes

David Hyde Pierce gives another masterful performance in Adam Block’s initially amusing but then seriously sobering play about a lonely gay man in a New York apartment ruminating about his life and his place in the universe and the subsequent event that would seem to bring clarity to those questions.

The play begins with a doozy of a monologue in which the Pierce character, Nate, an ad agency proofreader, discourses on all the ways he’s searched for meaning and direction, including therapy and, most especially, astrology; Pierce’s delivery as he addresses the audience is so natural that you almost fear someone might answer back.  (At my performance, at any rate, no one did.) Later, we see him meet up with his friend Curtis (an excellent Brad Heberlee) on a park bench and the self-examination, including his fear of intimacy, continues.

Marinda Anderson, Nedra McClyde and Lynne McCollough take on multiple roles as the play progresses, and all are most accomplished. Anderson and McClyde’s dialogue involving an encounter with a “meter maid guy” is highly entertaining, even though, by then, the play has veered onto a profoundly serious course.

The play, you see, has a twist which dramatically alters the mood of the piece, though it would be a spoiler to discuss just what that is here. Still, director Anne Kauffman handles the transition with assurance. Bock has written quite a daring-in-its-length silent scene which Kauffman sustains thanks, in large part, to Mikhail Fiksel’s superb sound design; the city sounds outside Nate’s apartment are strikingly realistic and further underscore the play’s theme masterfully.

Laura Jellinek’s ingenious set design provides a couple of visual surprises, too, with Matt Frey’s lighting enhancing each scene.

But be forewarned that for all its considerable merits, “A Life” is ultimately unsettling and downright disturbing, so not to every taste.

(Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42 St.; or 212-279-4200; through Dec. 4)

Photo: Joan Marcus
l.-r. Brad Heberlee, David Hyde Pierce

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Front Page (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The first act of Jack O’Brien’s classy, all-star revival is a bit of a slog, as I vaguely recall also being the case in Jerry Zaks’ 1986 revival with John Lithgow and Richard Thomas at the Vivian Beaumont, but happily, the second and third acts pick up considerable steam. (And yes, this 1928 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur prototype newspaper comedy was from that era when three act plays were common.)

Everyone knows the terrific 1940 Howard Hawks movie “His Girl Friday” where the lead character of reporter Hildy Johnson underwent a gender change emerging as one of Rosalind Russell’s best roles. But a couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to see the splendid restoration of the lesser-known 1931 film with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, extremely faithful to the play, and solidly authentic in style.

The present revival captures that style impressively. John Slattery (quite different from his “Mad Men” role)  is just right as conflicted reporter Hildy who is hoping to give up the grind of the newspaper business for an advertising job in New York  to please his finance Peggy (Halley Feiffer) and her battle-axe mother (Holland Taylor). But his long-time colleague, hard-bitten editor Walter Burns (Nathan Lane who comes in like a dynamo in the second act and keeps up the energy thereafter) is doing everything in his power to reverse that decision.

Walter is poised to leave town on the eve of the execution of an anarchist Earl Williams (John Magaro) for killing a black policeman. The corrupt mayor (Dann Florek) and sheriff (John Goodman) cover up a reprieve from the governor as the execution will win them more black votes (“colored” is the operative word in 1928).

Complications, both comic and near tragic, ensue when Williams breaks out of jail and lands in the press room. Hildy, a heart-of-gold prostitute (Sherie Rene Scott), and ultimately, the overbearing Walter who’s hoping for a major scoop, conceal his presence.

The play is somewhat dated, to be sure, but the snappy dialogue, and the overall air of cynicism on the press side, and corruption on the political, still resonate, and make for an enjoyable evening.

All the actors are smartly cast, including Robert Morse as the timid deliverer of the reprieve and Jefferson Mays as a germophobic reporter (both of whom earn generous applause after scene-stealing moments), as well as such pros as Dylan Baker, David Pittu, Lewis J. Stadlen and all the others. The curtain call at the end presents quite a jam-packed stage.

Douglas W. Schmidt’s set and Ann Roth’s costumes convey the requisite period aura. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting adds the appropriate muted tone.

(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44 St.;  or 212-239-6200; through January 29)

Photo: John Slattery and Nathan Lane in a scene from Broadway's "The Front Page" (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Falsettos (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

There’s no question this is a finely mounted revival of William Finn’s 1992 conflation of his two Off-Broadway musicals which started life at Playwrights Horizon: “March of the Falsettos” in 1981 and “Falsettoland” in 1990.

I must say that the definitive original cast including Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus, and Chip Zien will be hard to put out of mind for those who remember. But then was then, and now is now, and certainly James Lapine, who directed the original and co-authored the book with Finn, has assembled the very best of Broadway’s current crop of talent on this occasion.

The action begins in 1979. Christian Borle is neurotic Marvin, who leaves his wife Trina (Stephanie J. Block in superb form) and 12-year-old son Jason (Anthony Rosenthal) for male lover Whizzer (Andrew Rannells). Trina and Jason seek counsel from Marvin’s shrink Mendel (an excellent Brandon Uranowitz) who falls in love with Trina. In the second act, two years later, Marvin reconnects with Whizzer from whom he had separated in the first, and we meet his supportive neighbors, a lesbian couple Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and her caterer partner Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe). But the specter of AIDS brings sadness.

Scenic designer David Rockwell use of modular blocks which cleverly serve various versatile functions, effectively lighted by Jeff Croiter, albeit against a rather ho-hum New York skyline drop, suits the brilliant quirkiness of Finn’s still wonderful score. “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” “The Baseball Game,” and “I’m Breaking Down” -- the last, incidentally, quite a tour de force for Block -- still amuse in the surprisingly off-kilter way they always have, and the more serious numbers like “The Games I Play,” “”What More Can I Say?” and “What Would I Do?” still pack an emotional wallop.

The two halves hang together much more cohesively than they even did in 1992 when first joined. (I gather Finn has made further edits.)

The cast is outfitted in Jennifer Caprio’s colorful costumes. Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design is admirably clear, so important for catching all of Finn’s sometimes rapid lyrics.

The passage of time -- and the receding of the AIDS crisis -- has not, on the whole, dimmed the emotional effectiveness of the piece as much as one might imagine. But whether because of that, the particular personas of the principals, or simply my over-familiarity with the property, I did feel perhaps a few degrees less moved than remembered.

But AIDS notwithstanding, “Falsettos,” as Lapine asserts in a related program article, is “a story about family and about relationships,” as much as it is a gay story pe se. It’s also about men and maturity, as Trina bemoans the lack of such in the men in her life, played out against the parallel story of Jason’s impending bar mitzvah. And those themes indeed play every bit as well as before.

Borle, such a deft comic performer, takes on a more serious part here, and does it very well indeed. Rannells exudes charm, though he seems a more boyish  Whizzer than Bogardus. Young Rosenthal gives a remarkably uncloying performance. And Thoms and Wolfe are warm and appealing.

I was happy to read he show will be recorded -- for the first time complete as a unit -- by Ghostlight Records, and should sound wonderful. Besides the undeniable vocal excellence of the cast, Michael Starobin’s orchestrations sound particularly fine in the hands of music director Vadim Feichtner.

(Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.; 800-982-2787 or

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Booth Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a highly absorbing revival of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s juicy epistolary novel involving the seduction of an innocent convent bred girl (Elena Kampouris) at the urging of the amoral Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) who wants to ruin her for the intended husband, who once betrayed the Marquise.

Her partner in this enterprise is her sometime lover, the lascivious Vicomte de Valmont (Liev Schreiber), who currently has set his sights on a virtuous wife Madame de Tourvel (Birgit Hjort Sorensen).

The production -- an import from London’s Donmar Warehouse (where Dominic West played Valmont) -- is highly atmospheric, thanks to Mark Henderson’s muted lighting, and Tom Scutt’s museum worthy sets and costumes. There is a striking and effective use of chandeliers which rise and fall throughout the evening. Michael Bruce has provided some fine period sounding choral passages for the scene changes.

All in all, this revival far outclasses the Roundabout’s rather pedestrian production of eight years ago with Ben Daniels and Laura Linney.

McTeer -- so funny and apt as a very butch Petruchio in The Public’s “The Taming of the Shrew” last summer -- is all elegant and conniving imperiousness here, and Schreiber affects a fine English accent (at times, in fact, sounding uncannily like Richard Burton) and plays the vile seducer with delicious nonchalance.

Sorenson’s understated dignity and bearing make the challenge of her seduction all the more convincing, and Kampouris is amusing as the inhibited virgin who gets her first taste of sex, and likes it.

There’s especially intelligent work, too, from Mary Beth Peil as Valmont’s indulgent but wise aunt,

Apart from eliciting such spot-on performances for her actors, Josie Rourke’s direction offers a clever and interestingly feminist take on the story making it fresh even for those who fondly remember the original RSC production with Alan Rickman and LIndsey Duncan, or the Glenn Close and John Malkovich film.

The play holds up very well indeed, and proves one of the best stage adaptations of a literary classic.

(Booth Theatre, 122 W. 45th St.; 212-239-6200 or; through January 22)