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Sunday, March 27, 2016

She Loves Me (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

I can’t recall a production of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s classic musical that didn’t send me scrambling for synonyms of “charming” and “delightful,” and this one -- the second from the Roundabout and from director Scott Ellis -- is no exception..

With exceptionally fine leads, a scrumptious jewel box set (by David Rockwell), an irresistible book and that beloved score, this one, like the last, has everything going for it..

Based on Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlos’ 1937 play “Illatszertár” ( “Parfumerie”), famously filmed by Ernst Lubitsch as “The Shop Around the Corner”in Hollywood three years later, turning up again as the Judy Garland-Van Johnson musical “In the Good Old Summertime” in 1949 (not to mention the 1998 updated Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan “You’ve Got Mail”), the plot concerns the sparring relationship of clerks Georg (Zachary Levi) and Amalia (Laura Benanti) in a Budapest perfume shop, neither of them realizing that the other is the pen pal with whom they’ve been corresponding through a lonelyhearts club.

The proprietor of the shop, Mr. Maraczek (a rather miscast Byron Jennings, fine actor though he is) begins to mistreat his trusted employee Georg for mysterious reasons that don’t come to light till the second act. The other major characters are nebbishy clerk Ladislav (Michael McGrath), lovelorn Ilona (Jane Krakowski), the smarmy ladies man Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel) with whom Ilona is having an illicit affair, and the likably ambitious messenger boy Arpad (Nicholas Barasch).

For all the delicacy and European charm which Bock and Harnick and Masteroff have imbued their creation, the property has always had a distinctly Americanized feel. It’s significant that the 1994 London revival dispensed with the textual revisions of the first West End production, and played it American, accents and all. Inevitably, some of the gravitas and texture of the original has been lost, but “She Loves Me” still has a rare grace and elegance for a Broadway musical.

The cast is terrific.Levi, so excellent in the underrated “First Date,” makes a winning Georg, culminating in his rapturous account of the title song. And Benanti is a marvel, alternately funny and poignant, and singing those songs so indelibly linked to creator Barbara Cook like “Will He Like Me?” and “Ice Cream” with comparably beautiful tone and impressive high notes.Their scenes together have all the requisite spark, too..

Krakowski continues to amaze as a superb comedienne and all around performer. Her reading of “A Trip to the Library” is cannily delivered, and she finds altogether fresh nuances in those familiar, surefire lyrics. Her dancing, including a split that, in its way, is almost as impressive as her high flying, upside-down rendition of “A Phone Call from the Vatican” in Roundabout’s “Nine” revival, is a marvel.

Creel, too, is very fine indeed, smoothly vocalizing on “Ilona” and his final kiss-off number, “Grand Knowing You.”. McGrath continues to impress as one of Broadway’s most rock solid reliable musical performers and funnymen.

Warren Carlyle choreographs the proceedings with style, particularly the business around “A Romantic Atmosphere” performed in the cafe where Amalia waits forlornly for her “Dear Friend” correspondent. Peter Bartlett is the maitre d’ in this rather protracted sequence, a gem of a comic performance.

Musical director Paul Gemignani leads his forces in Larry Hochman’s orchestrations with customary authority, the orchestra positioned, as per usual at the Studio 54 venue, on boxes on either side.

Highly recommended.

(Roundabout’s Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street; 212-719-1300, or www.roundabouttheatre.org; through June 12)

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Robber Bridegroom (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

I don’t remember too much of the original 1975 production (and I did see the Patti LuPone/Kevin Kline incarnation at the now razed Harkness Theatre, rather than the later Barry Bostwick Broadway transfer). I do recall generally liking it, but the property was never one that I particularly longed to see again. And perhaps others felt the same way, as Roundabout’s enjoyable and quite imaginative revival is, in fact, the first major one in New York since the original finished its run.

Based on a Eudora Welty short story (which, in turn, had its roots in Grimm), with a bluegrass-flavored score by Robert Waldman and book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”), it tells the story of an 18th century Mississippi bandit Jamie Lockhart (with a decent side when he’s not in bandit mode) who falls for Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly), daughter of a wealthy planter (Lance Roberts) deep in the woods with Lockhart in disguise.

After he saves the planter’s life, the latter brings him home as a potential bridegroom for Rosamund, she disguises herself so she can keep herself for the man she’s met in the woods, not realizing he’s one and the same. Complications ensue, especially when Rosumund’s lusty step-mother Salome (Leslie Kritzer) begins to hanker for the handsome stranger herself.

As the show wends its way through its 90 intermission-less minutes, farcical events lead to further confusion, complicated by Salome’s machinations and the interference of an ornery pair of thieves named Little Harp (Andrew Durand) and his brother Big Harp (Evan Harrington), the latter a disembodied head kept in a box. (Yes, it’s that kind of story.)

The story has its share of dark moments -- as fairy tales often do -- but the overall tone is light and humorous.

Kritzer really outdoes herself with an over-the-top comic performance, channeling Carol Burnett at her most uninhibited, and O’Reilly is quite lovely as the love-struck Rosamund but not without plenty of gumption. And, as expected, Stephen Pasquale here adds another solid portrayal to his roster of musical leading men, singing with gleaming tone, and performing with requisite dash and swagger.

Alex Timbers directs with the resourceful style he brought to “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” abetted by lively musical direction by Justin Levine and foot stomping choreography by Connor Gallagher.

Much of Timber’s staging is very funny indeed, so much so that Pasquale broke up a couple of times at the antics around him, particularly a protracted bit of bawdy business involving Kritzer.

Other roles are well taken by Greg Hildreth as Goat, Nadia Quinn as a Raven and Goat’s Mother, and Devere Rogers as Airie.

Donyale Werle’s woodsy sets and Emily Rebholz’s period costumes have the same rough-hewn quality as their work for Timbers on “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Jeff Croiter & Jake DeGroot’s lighting, and Darron L West & Charles Coes’s sound appropriately enhance the rustic ambiance.

(Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.; 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Disaster! (Nederlander Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This artfully tacky musical spoof of that beloved genre known as the disaster movie has made the improbable move from Off-Broadway to the Great White Way with an all-star cast.

Utilizing songs from the 1970s, the era during which these films reached the zenith of their popularity, creators Seth Rudestsky and Jack Plotnick (who also directed) have crammed every imaginable cliche into this story of a corrupt casino owner (Roger Bart) who builds a floating casino and disco called The Barracuda off a New York pier and scrimps on the safety code requirements, leading to predictable chaos.

On board is a glamorous, second-rate lounge singer (the decidedly first-rate Rachel York) and her twins, Ben and Lisa, played most amusingly by Baylee Littrell, the “disaster expert” (co-creator Rudetsky) warning of impending doom, a cheesy suburban couple (Kevin Chamberlain and Faith Prince, the latter in her most amusing role since Miss Adelaide in the “Guys and Dolls” that made her a star), a waiter (Adam Pascal, back at the same venue as his "Rent" breakthrough, and still sounding great) with a crush on the girl he broke up with years before who’s now an investigative reporter (Kerry Butler who excels as she did in that other movie spoof “Xanadu”), another waiter (Max Crumm) who’s helpless with the ladies, a washed-up soul singer (lovable Lacretta Nicole), and most hilariously, a nun with a gambling addiction (peerless Jennifer Simard).

Before long, the casino is beset with earthquakes, floods, fire, before, inevitably, flipping upside down.

The 70’s hits (e.g. “Hot Stuff,” “I Will Survive,” “Without You,” “When Will I Be Loved” -- come fast and furious -- sometimes sung in full, other times, in snatches. And it must be said they are most skillfully integrated into the script, not true of most other musicals that shoehorn existing hits into a new script. The sound is abrasively loud but, as jukebox musicals, go, this one’s way more fun than most.

The cast is chock full of Broadway savvy pros all cavorting with just the right satiric spirit. Even in such classy company, Simard’s Sister Mary Downy is a rib-tickling standout. Deliciously dour in her dialogue delivery as she tries to warn patrons of the sins awaiting them within, she surprises with a powerful voice as she fails to suppress her passion for a gleaming new slot machine (“Never Can Say Goodbye”).

Rachel York is also outstanding as a sort of Marilyn-esque chanteuse, demonstrating powerful pipes when she cuts loose. Prince, channeling Shelley Winters in “The Poseiden Adventure,” is sweetly endearing and riotous as her terminal illness, with it’s Tourette-like symptoms, comes to full flower.

I didn’t see the Off-Off and Off-Broadway productions of "Disaster!" in 2012 or 2013, but it’s clear from clips on YouTube that Tobin Ost’s sets are far more elaborate, though still intentionally rinky-dink. Some of the visual gags, like a piranha-filled fish tank, are quite witty. William Ivey Long’s costumes -- perfect spoofs of their models -- add to the fun.

The show won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and is certainly slight; the friend who accompanied me, for one, was grumpily not amused. But, generally, I had the sense that everyone around me was having as enjoyably silly a time as I was.

(Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street; 877-250-2929 or Ticketmaster.com)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Eclipsed (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o may be the name above the title, but Danai Gurira’s gripping drama about the subjugated plight of women during the Liberian Civil War of a decade ago displays a brilliant ensemble of not just one but five powerhouse performances.

The play is set in a shack inhabited by two kept women, the “wives” of a rebel commanding officer. So-called wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh) is the elder of the two (and she’s all of 25), and runs the spartan house with no-nonsense authority. Girlish Wife #3 (Pascale Armand) is the comic relief character, pregnant with a child she’s sure she doesn’t want, and generally obsessed about the current state of her perpetually unruly hair.

The two are protecting a young woman identified only as The Girl (Nyong’o), whom they are attempting to shelter beneath a rubber tub. Before long, though, The Girl’s presence is discovered, and she is duly raped and made part of the rotation of wives pleasing the c.o.

They are eventually visited by Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) who used to share the hut but now sports military gear and a rifle slung around her shoulder. She’s rebelled against the subservient role and become a militant, but far from fighting on behalf of protecting these women, she supports the existing atrocities. In the second act, she recruits The Girl to take up arms.

The fifth character, Rita (Akosua Busia), a peace-keeping delegate of sorts who is able to mingle freely with the women but, as we learn, has her own poignant story.

Though the overall plot is grim, the narrative is ever absorbing, and there is a remarkable amount of levity despite all, such as The Girl entertaining the other wives by reading aloud to them in faltering English from a book about Bill Clinton to which the other ladies listen raptly as if following a soap opera.

Lupita is far from the glamorous lady she appears on the back of the Playbill program, and completely believable as the simple young girl.

Accents make some of the dialogue a little hard to comprehend, but the ear soon adjusts.

Clint Ramos’ squalid shanty setting and African costumes are authentically vivid. Jen Schriever’s lighting and Broken Chord’s music and sound design contribute to a thoroughly immersive experience.

Gurira’s play is about 2 ½ hours including intermission and admittedly, the first act feels a tad long, though probably essential to emphasize the set routine these women endure day in and day out, while the second act certainly provides plenty of action after the claustrophobic confines of the first. The production originated at The Public in October 2015.

Director Liesl Tommy builds the requisite tension, and handles the difficult subject matter with utmost sensitivity.

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

(L-R). Akosua Busia, Lupita Nyong'o, Saycon Sengbloh, and Pascale Armand in a scene from Danai Gurira's "Eclipsed" directed by Liesl Tommy. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Fortune Teller (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

Yes, some music was missing, but what remained of Victor Herbert’s classic score in VHRP Live’s semi-staged concert reading was certainly choice, without a dull number in the bunch. The performing edition was essentially an expansion of Artistic Director Alyce Mott’s version that was first used by the Little Orchestra Society in 1998 where it played the second half of a Herbert Centennial concert.

Performed without intermission, original librettist Harry B. Smith’s convoluted story of gypsies, a ballet student who learns she’s an heiress, an impoverished Count composer, and a band of hussars was neatly condensed by Mott, and Irma, the ballerina, and Musette, the gypsy -- lookalike characters always played by the same soprano -- were conflated into one character, though the basic plot, though perhaps slightly less confusing, certainly remains implausible in the extreme.

Mott’s economic direction was supplemented by Emily Cornelius’ lively choreography, well performed by the cast. The hussars, for example, came galloping on as if on horses.

Under the accomplished musical direction of Michael Thomas, with the excellent William Hicks on piano, the singing was uniformly superlative and the choral numbers – even with a cast of only 12 – registered as satisfyingly robust.

Vocal honors went to bass-baritone Matthew Wages as Sandor, Musette’s gypsy lover. His rousing “Ho! Ye Townsmen,” and the meltingly beautiful “Gypsy Love Song” which deservedly earned the most sustained applause of the evening on Wednesday night, were the standouts.

As Irma/Musette, Sarah Caldwell Smith acted with charm, and sang very prettily in the role originated by Alice Nielsen in 1898. The coloratura demands of the role were well executed in the show’s other take-home tune, “Romany Life” as well as the virtuosic “The Lily and the Nightingale.” Tenor Mitchell Roe sang solidly in the rather colorless role of Irma’s suitor Ladislas.

David Seatter made a congenial narrator and vocalized strongly as Fresco, the dance master, who contrives with the Count to play matchmaker with Irma who, it seems, will inherit a fortune if she marries the Count. Seatter shared an entertaining duet with Daniel Greenwood's Count who, in Mott’s revision, has a propensity for turning out various Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes.

Big voiced Vira Slywotzky made a late entrance as a romantically inclined prima donna and acted amusingly. She and Roe had fun with the amusing “Only in the Play” duet.

“The Serenade of All Nations” was one of several omissions in the concert. To hear the full score, try Comic Opera Guild’s full orchestra CD, available from the Operetta Foundation, or on DVD from COG. The Ohio Light Opera version is available from Albany Records at Amazon and elsewhere.
Though unfortunately it can’t be said in this day and age that anything by Herbert is exactly familiar to the general public, “The Fortune Teller” has always been one of the biggies in the canon. But VHRP Live’s next offering on April 27 and 28 will be an exciting rarity even for the diehards: his 1897 operetta, “The Serenade,” not heard on the East Coast in over 100 years.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; March 9 & 10 only)

Photos: Jill LeVine

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Prodigal Son (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

This quietly affecting autobiographical drama about John Patrick Shanley’s prep school experience in the late 1960s is, I think, one of the playwright's very best.

Transplanted from the rough streets of the Bronx to the elite New Hampshire Catholic school, young John – here called Jim Quinn (TimothĂ©e Chalamet) tries the patience of the school’s headmaster Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry) and the other students (though we only hear about them), including his roommate Austin (David Potters).

But an empathetic teacher (Robert Sean Leonard) and the headmaster’s soft-spoken wife (Annika Boras) become the boy’s champions even as John/Jim continues to be his own worst enemy, alienating nearly everyone around him.

Performances here are excellent. Chalamet makes a perfect anti-hero, belligerent and ever provocative but likably vulnerable despite everything. (Of course, Shanley has written it that way.)

McGarry skillfully conveys the frustration of a man who’s taken a chance on someone against his better judgment trying to hold steady despite Jim’s often confrontational behavior, while Boras is wonderfully sympathetic as his gentle wife, clearly wounded by a past occurrence, the poignant facts of which are not revealed till late in the play. And Leonard is solid as Jim’s unswerving champion, a particularly tricky role as it turns out.

The intermission-less play is leisurely paced but builds in tension as it goes along with Jim’s graduation perilously in doubt.

A long, quiet dinner scene between the headmaster and his wife – as they discuss the theft and mysterious reappearance of some LPs -- is especially nuanced, and delicately played and written. I would even single it out as the finest sequence of the evening. And a climactic face-off between young Jim at his most pugnacious and Schmitt, pushed to the limits of his tolerance, generates plenty of sparks.

Shanley has directed the play himself, so one presumes authenticity. As it happens, my cousin’s relations are among those portrayed in the play, and has marveled at the great accuracy of the characterizations.

The ace creative team includes Santo Loquasto (scenic design), Jennifer Von Mayrhauser (costume design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), and Fitz Patton (sound design), resulting in a thoroughly first-class production. Loquasto’s miniature rendering of the school building is an especially picturesque touch.

“Prodigal Son” is the sort of play that stays with you.

(Manhattan Theatre Club, NY City Center Stage 1, 131 W. 55 St.; 212-239-6200 or nycitycenter.org)

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Dot (Vineyard Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a lively family comedy/drama about a West Philadelphia black family. As the feisty titular matriarch, winningly played by Marjorie Johnson, starts to show ever increasing signs of Alzheimer’s, her three adult children – gathering on Christmas Eve -- struggle to cope.

There’s eldest daughter Shelly (Sharon Washington), a lawyer who’s a bundle of panic as she raises the alarm about Dotty’s worsening condition. Gay son Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), a music blogger, whose relationship with his white husband Adam (Colin Hanlon), is seriously strained and exacerbated after enduring the rigors of a juice cleanse, finds it hard to balance his own domestic travails with the revelations about his beloved mom. And younger sister Averie (Libya V. Pugh), an aspiring singer and brief YouTube sensation, comes in like a dynamo at the end of the first act to further stir the pot.

Dour longtime neighbor Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), once Donnie’s childhood sweetheart (who’s never recovered from learning he was gay), and now living in New York pregnant with the child of a married man, is back to witness the family’s rising hysteria, while the family’s caregiver Fidel (Michael Rosen) from Kazakhstan offers Dot unwavering and calm support.

Johnson convincing limns the stages of the disease, one moment cheerfully bright and lucid, the next, utterly forgetful. One moment sweet, one moment ferocious.

Despite its potentially downbeat theme, the play is mostly enjoyable and comic even bordering on sitcom territory, though it grows more bittersweet in the second act. And though it starts to feel overlong, it is nearly always absorbing.

Allen Moyer has designed a pair of lovely sets: the family’s bright yellow kitchen for the first act, and then a beautifully appointed living room with a giant Christmas tree in the second. Kara Harmon’s costumes are likewise bright and sunny. And Tom Morse’s sound design – its evergreen Christmas tunes (from Tony Bennett onwards) giving way to the cacophony of sounds we are made the realize Dotty is experiencing in her head.

That latter comes to light in a so-called “Virtual Dementia Tour” proposed by Dotty and Fidel as a game in the second act, with the ulterior motive of showing the family how the disease truly feels from the inside. That sequence is instructive, to be sure, if a bit obvious in its methods.

The performances are uniformly fine. Domingo writes well with natural sounding dialogue, only sometimes perhaps going too far with the family’s over-the-top reactions to their mother’s condition.

Susan Stroman directs with the same sure hand she applies to her more customary big musicals, as she deftly and sensitively balances the comic and sudden sharply dramatic moments. And though this is a non-musical, she has choreographed a most touching ballroom sequence for Dot and Adam, whom the confused matriarch momentarily takes to be her late husband.

(Vineyard Theater, 108 E. 15th St.; 212-353-0303 or www.vineyardtheatre.org; extended through March 24)

Photo by Carol Rosegg. (L to R) Sharon Washington, Marjorie Johnson, Finnerty Steevens.