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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Parisian Woman (Hudson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Beau Willimon’s adaptation and updating of Henry Becque’s 1885 comedy “La Parisienne” -- set in present-day Washington, D.C. -- is reasonably intriguing and entertaining, if not, it must be said, entirely successful.

Uma Thurman, in her first appearance on the New York stage since CSC’s “The Misanthrope” in 1999, has the titilar role of Chloe (originally Clotilde), wife of tax attorney Tom (Josh Lucas) who has keen political ambitions hoping for appointment as a court of appeals judge. But, lo and behold, she has a lover on the side, here named Peter (Marton Csokas, a bit off his game at my performance), a White House insider and in the midst of a divorce. 

Tom takes that fact in stride (that being one of the elements which so scandalized 19th century audiences). Peter, for his part, can accept Tom in Chloe’s life, but obsesses about her having flings with others.

Peter can help Tom get the judicial appointment he so craves, and so might Jeanette (Blair Brown), a DC power broker and soon to be head of the Federal Reserve. When Chloe and Tom are invited to one of Jeanette’s dinner parties, Chloe uses her charm to find out where her husband stands in the running for the position. While there, she meets Jeanette’s bright Harvard grad daughter Rebecca (Phillipa Soo), a liberal and Democrat, despite her family’s staunch Republicanism. To reveal more would be to give away some interesting plot twists.

The frequent allusions to Trump -- not actually mentioned by name till the end of the play -- but otherwise identified pointedly as “him” or “the current president” (and some ruder terms), feel terribly forced, and though I can’t say I know Becque’s original play, one feels that the European sensibilities of the plot and characters don’t quite jibe with the updating.

Thurman gives a confident, authoritative performance, and captures the enigmatic aspects of the character well. The women come off best, in fact, including Brown’s pitch perfect matron, and Soo’s youthful political aspirant.

Pam MacKinnon directs with a sure hand, helping the tale unfold smoothly with its various twists. Willimon, creator of “House of Cards,” his pretty much removed the farcical elements of Becque’s original, and drama predominates. (The allusion to Paris in the title now refers to a youthful affair Chloe once had there.)

Derek McLane’s sets -- Chloe and Tom’s town house, Jeanette’s home, an elegant hotel -- are all lovely, and there’s a high-tech LED display separating the set changes (projections by Darrel Maloney). Jane Greenwood’s impeccable costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting are further pluses.

I can’t say I was bored for a second, and minor though it is, “The Parisian Woman” provides a painlessly diverting evening.

(Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street; or 855-801-5876)

Friday, December 8, 2017

Once On This Island (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

Splendidly staged by Michael Arden, actor and Tony-nominated director of the 2015 Deaf West Theatre “Spring Awakening” revival, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical has made an extraordinarily impressive return to Broadway.

The show originally launched the career of LaChanze back in the day, enjoyed a respectable multiple Tony-nominated run on Broadway after starting out at Playwrights Horizon, and won the Best Musical Olivier Award when it premiered in London a couple of years later.

This “Romeo and Juliet” themed fable -- based on Rosa Guy’s novel, “My Love, My Love” --  concerning native girl Ti Moune and the high-born lad Daniel whom she nurses back to health when his car crashes near her village is beautifully told. Ti Moune, ravishingly played by Hailey Kilgore, had been rescued as a child after a tumultuous storm by a compassionate peasant couple, Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller). Her upbringing, like the island overall, is overseen by four gods: Agwe (water) (Quentin Earl Darrington), Asaka (mother Earth) (Alex Newell), Papa Ge (death) (Merle Dandridge), and Erzulie (love) (Lea Salonga).

When the injured Daniel is brought back to his home, Ti Moune defies her parents and the skeptical townspeople, and sets out to find him. At first, he doesn’t know her, but she convinces him of the truth of her tale. But the happy reunion is tarred by their class differences.

There’s been some gender rearranging in the casting of Papa Ge and Asaka, and both Dandridge and Newell are outstanding. All the performances here are quite splendid with Kilgore making as memorable an impression as did La Chanze originally. Boykin and Miller are the epitome of loving parental concern for their adopted charge. Those all-important gods are distinctly embodied by the actors, and Salonga is lovely as ever. Powell sings beautifully and strikes just the right balance of romantic ardor and insensitivity for his rich boy role.

The Circle in the Square playing area has been cleverly transformed into a picturesque, storm-swept island environment (scenic design courtesy of Dane Laffrey) with such unusual items as a live goat, chicken, and and water. The contrast between the native and the high-born city folks is well conveyed both in the performances and Clint Ramos' evocative costumes. And the estimable team of Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting beautifully defines every mood.

Peter Hylenski’s sound design is pitched rather loud during the rambunctious island numbers, but is appropriately refined for the more refined upper crust scenes of the latter half of the show.

Under Chris Fenwick’s music supervision, Flaherty’s Caribbean-styled score is plenty lively, and Camille A. Brown has supplied wonderful choreography, including Ti Moune’s uninhibited dance at a fancy ball.

Arden’s ingenious stagecraft is demonstrated in numerous instances, from the storm scenes to Daniel’s car crash to Ti Moune’s journey to the big city.

Under his direction, every number lands, and the evening is a joyful and profoundly moving experience.

(Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Junk (Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a taut drama from Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar (“Disgraced”) set in 1985 about an unscrupulous financier (Stephen Pasquale) plotting a hostile takeover of a family business, a Pennsylvania steel company, while its owner Thomas Everson (Rick Holmes) frantically attempts to hold onto it and protect its workers in whom he takes a paternal interest. Pasquale’s character, Robert Merkin, is a thinly-disguised stand-in for disgraced investment banker and junk bond trader Michael Milken.

The takeover will be the self-proclaimed “deal of the decade.” Merkin has made the cover of Time magazine which has dubbed him "America's Alchemist," and touted his dubious philosophy that "debt is an asset.”

The play has been accorded a large-scale, very spiffy production with a sleek compartmentalized John Lee Beatty set, attractive 1980s-style Catherine Zuber costumes, Mark Bennett’s original music and clever sound design; and eye-catching lighting by Ben Stanton. Ever changing background colors and projections (59 Productions) provide further visual interest.

If you know little about matters of high finance, that will not ruin your enjoyment of the play as Akhtar has skillfully constructed a clear narrative. And the conflict -- not unlike a sprawling Shakespeare history epic -- is completely absorbing.

Merkin’s outrageous “creative financing” -- shakily reliant on an intricate debt structure -- and the callousness with which he manipulates those around him make him a fascinating anti-hero, even if we’ve seen this Wall Street skullduggery before on stage and screen. Still, Akhtar’s voice is unique, and he entertainingly dramatizes this crucial period that laid the groundwork for the supremacy of money today.  Director Doug Hughes, fresh from “Oslo,” yet another play inspired by real events, shapes the action with a sure hand, and draws terrific performances from his cast.

Besides the superb work of Pasquale and Holmes, there are outstanding turns from Michael Siberry as an old-school financier who tries to bankroll Everson’s business with old-school means; Matthew Rauch as the callous corporate raider; Matthew Saldivar as Merkin’s lawyer; Joey Slotnick as a crooked trader, Miriam Silverman as Merkin’s calculating financial wizard of a wife; Teresa Avia Lim as an investigative journalist chronicling Merkin’s story; Ethan Phillips as one of Merkin’s hapless investors; Henry Stram and Ito Aghayere as Everson’s advisors; Charlie Semine as a U.S. attorney with mayoral ambitions; and so on.

(Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 7)

Photo by T. Charles Erickson: Matthew Rauch, Steven Pasquale. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Portuguese Kid (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

There’s certainly nothing wrong with taking a break from more serious fare and penning a lighthearted comedy, but playwright John Patrick Shanley’s latest offering in that particular vein is trite, witless, and, for the most part, unfunny. And though it’s always a pleasure to watch those reliable pros Jason Alexander and Sherie Rene Scott, their roles on this occasion are simply not worthy of them.

The premise is this. He’s second-rate Rhode Island lawyer Barry Dragonetti, she’s a twice widowed wealthy Greek lady Atalanta Lagana who has always rather unaccountably had a yen for him, even calling out his name during love making with her husbands. He resents that her late husband used another lawyer for his business, but now Atalanta wants his help to sell their mansion.  

They’ve known each other since childhood, and Atalanta had interceded when he was being mugged by an older boy he has assumed all these years was Portuguese, and thus sees that ethnicity in anyone who happens to be an adversary.

Both have opportunistic young partners. His is Patty (Aimee Carrero), his newly married Latina wife; hers is Freddie (Pico Alexander), a studly lawyer with a penchant for crude poetry. Patty and Freddie happen to be former lovers, and they’re attractively embodied by Carrero and Alexander.

Barry also has an overbearing mother (Mary Testa), the production’s brightest spot, not that her dialogue is any better than the rest. But her commanding delivery is priceless. Small matter that, in fact, Testa is younger than Alexander! As with Eileen Herlie playing mother Gertrude to Olivier’s “Hamlet” in the famous film, you’d never know. She despises Atalanta and the two get to trade plenty of insult humor.

I can’t say I chuckled more a few times, if that, and certainly most of the punchlines -- several tiresomely involving President Trump -- are pretty lame.

No expense has been spared in the production team with John Lee Beatty’s revolving set of four striking locales, William Ivey Long’s brightly hued costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski’s wide-awake lighting all first-rate.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Shanley himself directs, but fails to make a persuasive case for his own work. Coming as it does right after his excellent autobiographical “Prodigal Son,” also at MTC, the contrast is rather staggering.

(Manhattan Theatre Club, NY City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street;; through Dec. 10)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Band’s Visit (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I missed David Yazbek’s new musical based on the acclaimed 2007 film about an Egyptian police band that accidentally goes to the wrong Israeli town (Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikva), on their way to a concert at an Arab Cultural Center, and their transformative interactions with the locals who offer them hospitality. But here it is on Broadway where it quickly establishes itself as one of the most distinguished musicals on the boards.

Constructed by Yazbek and book writer Itamar Moses with an admirable seriousness of purpose and directed by David Cromer with a pacing that often suggests a play with music rather than a full-out musical (and one not afraid of long silences either), the show brilliantly captures the quirky tone of the film. The result is an immensely moving experience and, in its way, as much a game changer in the musical landscape as “Hamilton.”

Yazbek’s score, which bears his familiar stamps of angular melodies and wacky but insightful lyrics, has the added dimension here of atmospherically Middle Eastern tonalities through the prism of Jamshied Sharifi’s gorgeous orchestrations (under Andrea Grody’s music direction and Dean Sharenow’s music coordination).

At times, the songs take on the dreamily jazzy flavor of Michel Legrand in his “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Young Girls of Rochefort” vein. The hypnotically rhythmic “Waiting,” Dina’s paean to “Omar Sharif,” “The Beat of Your Heart,” “Haled’s Song About Love,” and “Answer Me” are among the standouts of a mesmerizing score.

The extraordinary cast, including Tony Shaloub, utterly transformed from his usual persona as Tewfiq, the head of the band, and Katrina Lenk as Dina, the kind restaurateur who offer the band refuge when they miss the last bus out of town, and with whom he develops a romantic if platonic bond. Everyone plays with a Middle Eastern accent which adds immeasurably to the verisimilitude.

Each of the characters in beautifully etched both in writing and performance. Tewfiq’s companion in Dina’s home is Haled (Ari’el Stachel), a romantically inclined musician with a penchant for Chet Baker. Another of their party, Simon (Alok Tewari), an oboist who has composed only the very beginning of a concerto, and violinist Camal (Geoge Abud) ends up at the home of a troubled young couple (Kristen Sieh and John Cariani) with a baby, and her widowed father (Andrew Polk).

There’s a young man (Adam Kantor)  pathetically hogging the public phone waiting for his girl to call. And Papi (Etai Benson), a shy young man who can’t connect with the girl he’s sweet on at a disco roller rink.

The themes of loneliness, disconnection, isolation, unrequited love, loss, regret, and the restorative power of music are all brilliantly conveyed without resorting to cliche.  The growing empathy between Tewfiq and Dina is beautifully played by Shalhoub and Lenk. Thematically, there are parallels to “Come From Away,” but this is oh, so much more subtle and nuanced.

Cromer and his company have been extraordinarily faithful to the film, keeping to the film’s structure and pacing even down to the running time (90 minutes, no intermission). Nothing seems forced, and the show breathes as naturally as life itself.

The production team’s efforts are impeccable across the board including Scott Pask’s set, Sarah Laux’s costumes, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, Kai Harada‘s sound, and Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections.

This is an altogether immensely moving, deeply affecting, and exquisite experience, and unlike anything else currently on the boards.

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street;, 212.239.6200)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Red Mill (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

The third major Manhattan outing in recent years of Victor Herbert’s once hugely popular musical comedy -- and indeed, that descriptor is more accurate in this case than the usual term operetta where Herbert is concerned -- proved highly enjoyable in the hands of VHRP.

Like the last two excellent productions -- that of The Little Orchestra Society in 2007 (conducted by the late Dino Anagnost), and then LOONY (Light Opera of New York) in 2010 -- the edition employed was prepared by VHRP Artistic Director and tireless Herbert champion Alyce Mott.

She’s made tweaks along the way, but all versions -- which ideally accommodate companies with smaller forces --  include a reordering of songs, some characters (Tina, Willem) and a couple of songs dropped, and tighter narrative, though it must be said that Henry Blossom’s original book for the show was, in fact, considered one of Herbert’s strongest back in the day, and holds up reasonably well on its own, some of the humor notwithstanding.

Originally a vehicle for the popular team of David Montgomery and Fred Stone, who supplied some spectacularly acrobatic dancing and stunts (the latter falling backwards down an 18 foot ladder, and later, rescuing the heroine by riding a wing of the titular mill), the plot revolves around two penniless Yanks -- Con Kidder (Matthew Wages) and Kid Connor (Drew Bolander) stranded in Holland. The unyielding Burgomaster (Anthony Maida) has contrived for his daughter Gretchen (Sarah Caldwell Smith) to marry the Governor of Zeeland (David Seatter), though she loves a penniless sailor named Doris (here Dori) (Christopher Robin Sapp) with whom she plans to elope with Con and Kid’s help. The Burgomaster also wants his sister Berta (Vira Slywotzky), the innkeeper, to marry the sheriff Franz (Shane Brown). A car collision involving a daffy French countess (very amusing Alexa Devlin) and an English solicitor (Brian Kilday) further complicates matters.

The cast was attractive and vocally adept, right down to the blue chip ensemble (including Daniel Greenwood, Joanie Brittingham, Jonathan Fox Powers, Tanya Roberts, Jonathan Heller, and Hannah Kurth). Smith and Sapp made appealing, light-voiced lovers, blending nicely on “I Want You to Marry Me” and “The Isle of Our Dreams.” (Smith inherited the missing Tina character’s charming “Mignonette” ditty.) Slywotzky delivered an appropriately menacing “The Legend of the Mill,” setting up the important plot point that the place is haunted. Wages and Bolander, minus the heart-stopping acrobatics of their roles’ creators, handled the vaudeville numbers “Always Go While the Goin’ Is Good” and the famous “Streets of New York” with fine style.

Maida and Brown (the semi-villains of the piece) hadn’t much to do vocally, though got to do one lively number, “You Never Can Tell About a Woman.” (Maida, incidentally, was once a fine Con Kidder himself as you can hear on the Ohio Light Opera recording of the work on Albany Records.)

The Governor makes a late entrance in Act Two, but Seatter made the most of it with the rousing “Every Day Is Ladies’ Day With Me,” and then dueted touchingly with Slywotzky in “Because You’re You.” The staging of the former was slightly marred by the chorus girls exaggeratedly recoiling from the Governor as if he were a 1906 Harvey Weinstein, whereas surely his character meant to be nothing more than a charming rogue of the pre-politically correct old school.

Berta’s “A Widow Has Ways” and Con and Kid’s “Good-a-bye John” (an interpolation not by Herbert, but nonetheless one of the original production’s major showstoppers) were the primary casualties. But, as compensation, we got to hear the rare “I’m Always Doing Something I Don’t Want to Do,” performed by Berta and Gretchen.

On the whole, the romantic elements trumped the comic ones, as the comedy -- even in this edition -- seemed a tad labored, but the music happily dominated.

As with the last few VHRP productions, Mott’s savvy direction and Emily Cornelius’ very entertaining choreography continually delighted the eye, and helped one forget the lack of sets and period costumes. William Hicks’ fleet and nimble piano accompaniment (the small orchestra employed for last season’s “Eileen” will return for their spring show “The Enchantress”), and Michael Thomas’ assured conducting were, as usual, above reproach.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.;; Nov. 14 and 15 only)

Photos by Jill LeVine (top to bottom):

"Always Go While the Goin' Is Good"
L to R   Matthew Wages (Con Kidder), Sarah Caldwell Smith (Gretchen van Borkem), Drew Bolander (Kid Conner)

Governor woos Berte van Borkem
L to R   Vira Slywotzky (Berte van Borkem), David Seatter (Governor)

"The Accident"
L to R   Drew Bolander (Kid Conner), Hannah Kurtz, Tanya Roberts, Joanie Brittingham, Alexa Devlin (Countess De La Frere), Brian Kilday (Pennyfeather), Jonathan Heller, Jonathan Fox Powers, Daniel Greenwood, Matthew Wages (Con Kidder)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Torch Song (Second Stage Theater)

By Harry Forbes

No longer billed as “Torch Song Trilogy,” and discreetly abridged (not that you’d readily know it), while still retaining its basic triptych format (albeit in two acts), Harvey Fierstein’s award-winning and groundbreaking 1982 play receives a fine revival in Mois├ęs Kaufman’s spot-on staging.

Versatile Michael Urie, fresh from all his superb clowning in Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” at Red Bull Theater, here takes on the role of self-deprecating drag queen Arnold who longs for love and domesticity, the part so memorably created by Fierstein himself on stage and screen. And there’s a flawless ensemble comprising Ward Horton as Arnold’s first great love Ed (Ward Horton), immensely likable Roxanna Hope Radja as the not-so-deluded young woman Ed decides to marry, Michael Rosen as the young former hustler and model Alan who becomes Arnold’s second great love, Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold’s loving but overbearing mother, and Jack DiFalco as Arnold’s feisty adopted son.

The first portion, set in 1971, charts Arnold’s head-over-heels encounter with the sexually conflicted Ed and their breakup six months later. The second (now 1974) is played on a giant bed (scenic design by David Zinn) and presents various pairings (sexual and conversational) among Arnold, Ed, Laurel and Alan. And the third and best revolves around Ma coming up from Florida in 1980 to visit Arnold in his New York apartment where one than one surprise await her. The no-holds-barred confrontation between Arnold and Ma in that act has lost none of its power to sting. In fact, period piece though this is, “Torch Song” plays far less dated than one might have predicted. its themes and conflicts still resonate.

At times, Urie can’t help but channeling Fierstein -- the dialogue, after all, bears the husky-voiced actor/author’s own cadences -- but Urie’s portrayal is very much his own, and his comic timing enhances many scenes, as for instance, when he mimes the antics of a salacious backroom bar encounter. Ruehl, for her part, has the perfect sardonic delivery, successfully navigates the fine line between loving and hateful mother, and considerably enlivens the third act in which Arnold, in the aftermath of tragedy, must finally come to terms with his future.

Horton is appealing believable in his spectacularly conflicted role while DiFalco brings a bracing edge to his part that undercuts any sentimentality.

Clint Ramos’s costumes, like Zinn’s sets, evoke the 1970s perfectly, enhanced by David Lancer’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound designs.

(Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street; 212-246-4422 or; through December 9)

Friday, November 3, 2017

M. Butterfly (Cort Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Director Julie Taymor’s compelling revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony winner (its first on Broadway) features two bravura performances that compare very favorably with our memories of the acclaimed originators John Lithgow and B.D. Wong as, respectively, Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, a cross-dressing Chinese opera singer (and actually a spy) with whom Gallimard carries on a decades-long affair, all the while believing the latter is a woman.

Here it’s Clive Owen and newcomer Jin Ha who take on these roles superbly, making them their own. Owen makes his character’s conflicting emotions completely plausible and the latter gives Song a convincing Continental allure.

Puccini’s 1904 “Madama Butterfly” – from which the title, of course, derives – runs through the narrative thematically, as it’s an opera that particularly inspired Gallimard from an early age. And its music is Song’s party piece.

Playwright David Henry Hwang has made changes in the text to emphasize the political backdrop, play up the East/West conflict, and giving us more backstory and details which clarify Gallimard’s seeming gullibility. For one thing, now Gallimard first believes Song is a man before being convinced otherwise. (Hwang’s plot derives from a real life story, but remains jaw-droppingly incredible.)

One might rather have expected Julie Taymor to go way over the top with her staging, but not so. Her work is restrained and apt throughout, showing sensitivity to the text. Visually, the Chinese opera performances and the Mao glorification parts are the most eye-filling, as is Ma Cong’s choreography for these sequences, but Taymor creates compelling stage pictures here.

Paul Steinberg’s sliding panel set (expertly lighted by Donald Holder) is spare when it needs to be, as in the opening scenes where Gallimard – in a jail cell for espionage – reveals how the disclosure of how he fell for Song’s ruse has made him a laughing stock, and opening up when appropriate. Constance Hoffman’s costumes, including Song’s chic outfits, are right on the money, too.

All the performances are satisfying, including Enid Graham as Gallimard’s stiff upper lip wife; Celeste Den as the scarily fierce Comrade Chin who makes sure Song stays loyal to the cause and doesn’t succumb to decadent Western  ways; Michel Countryman as Gallimard’s diplomatic superior who envies Gallimard his Chinese mistress when gossip of the affair reaches him; and Clea Alsip as a provocative student who comes onto Gallimard.

I hadn’t thought I needed to see “M. Butterfly” again, but Hwang’s revisions, Taymor’s vision, and the riveting performances make this an absorbing, often enthralling, experience all over again.
(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Time and the Conways (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This is a worthy if not truly inspired revival of J.B. Priestley’s highly intriguing 1937 play about the bourgeoisie in England between the wars, class distinction, and the nature of time.

Elizabeth McGovern, fresh from her “Downton Abbey” fame, stars as the widowed matriarch of a family of four daughters and two sons. But she is far from the sweetly compassionate Countess of Grantham on the popular PBS series. And though she played a expatriate American in that series, here she’s playing it quite English.

The play opens in 1919 on the 21st birthday celebration of daughter Kay (Charlotte Parry). The family is in a festive frenzy over the off-stage pantomime they are putting on for their guests. There are Kay's sisters: lovely young Carol (a radiant Anna Baryshnikov), glamorous Hazel (Anna Camp), budding socialist Madge (Brooke Bloom), and two brothers, the unassuming Alan (Gabriel Ebert) and, just back from the war, the callous ladies man Robin (Matthew James Thomas), the apple of Mrs. Conway’s eye.

There’s also the young lawyer Gerald (Alfredo Narciso), soon to be the family solicitor, up-and-coming working class Ernest (Steven Boyer), and family friend Joan (Cara Ricketts). Everything is merry, and a bright future for all seems certain.

But then the set recedes (excellent stage effect by Neil Patel), and another descends from the flies. It’s now 1937, and we see the same characters in quite a different light. This time, acrimony and unhappiness are the pervasive moods.

After intermission, we’re back in 1919, and now with the knowledge of what is to come, we observe evens quite differently.

Priestley, heavily influenced by the work of philosopher John William Dunne on the subject of time, takes the point that the past, present, and future are one, and it is important to see all periods as part and parcel of the present. This theory is articulated by Alan to his prescient sister Kay, a budding novelist in the first scene, later a working journalist who has compromised her youthful ideals. Good times and misfortune can co-exist. “Man was made for joy and woe,” says Alan, quoting Blake. Even young Carol remarks in the first scene that she sometimes thinks of tragic moments when she is in the midst of a happy occasion.

Paloma Young’s costumes are stylishly period, though the limitations of the American Airlines Theatre seem to force a rather flat scenic perspective, despite Patel’s accomplished work. “Indecent” Tony winner Rebecca Taichman’s mostly knowledgeable and sensitive direction (she helmed a prior production at the Old Globe) sometimes, I feel, misses the mark here.

In a pivotal scene of thwarted romance involving Madge and Gerald, for instance, Bloom has been allowed to play her girlish enthusiasm far too stridently, so much so that we’re not allowed to feel the terrible regret of her lost opportunity. We’re rather relieved when Gerald gets away from her. Similarly, the poignancy of another romance (between Alan and Joan) tragically derailed by an intrusive Robin is missing as Thomas plays the scene far too benignly with little hint of his predatory nature.

As stated, Mrs. Conway is far from a model mother, but the audience brings such affection for McGovern, they sometimes seem too much in her corner, laughing and applauding her actions, even when her character is behaving most unfeelingly.

As often the case with these very British plays, an American cast doesn’t always capture the authentic cadence as well as an English cast might, but generally they do well. To see a more idiomatic performance, I recommend an outstanding 1985 British production currently available on YouTube, with Claire Bloom as the mother, and a young Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes on “Downton Abbey”) as Kay.

Though all the performances here are attractive and skillful, ultimately it’s the men who come off best. Boyer is truly superb at Ernest (ill-at-ease in the early scenes, and brutally hard in the second). Ebert tremendously appealing at Alan, and Thomas a convincing wastrel.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 Street; roundabout or 212-719-1300; through November 26)

Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Clockwork Orange (New World Stages)

By Harry Forbes

This highly stylized adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novel (later made into a famous film by Stanley Kubrick) comes to New York by way of London. As did several previous stage versions, including one written by Burgess himself, this one utilizes quite a bit of music, here almost wall-to-wall synthesized rock.

Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones’ production -- with an all-male cast of nine (from both sides of the Atlantic)  and choreographed within an inch of its life -- has a strong homoerotic feel above and beyond the buffed torsos on display (especially Jonno Davies as Alex, ringleader of a group of teenage thugs called, in Burgess’ Anglo-Russian Nadsat patois,  Droogs -- Dim (Sean Patrick Higgins), Georgie (Matt Doyle), and Pete (Misha Osherovich) among them). (Amusingly, the men’s room line snaked out for miles, while the women breezed into theirs with nary a wait.)

The intermission-less 90 minute production follows the basic outline of Burgess’ novel, as the gang terrorize and rape innocent people, both on the street and in their homes, a murder finally landing Alex in prison where another lethal act of violence leads to him submitting to aversion therapy designed to make violence repugnant to him, underscoring Burgess’ conundrum about the the morality of removing free will. After a suicide attempt, the reconditioning wears off, and unlike Kubrick’s film, the play ends with Alex’s final reformation, the portion originally dropped from American editions of the novel.

As with the recent stage adaptation of “1984,” you’d do well to read a synopsis beforehand, if you don’t know or have forgotten the story. The stylized staging and the cast playing multiple roles -- male and female, but hard to tell the difference -- often makes the plot turns difficult to follow. Timothy Sekk doubles as Alex’s parole offer and the prison chaplain. Brian Lee Huynh is the principal doctor of Alex’s behavior modification and also, earlier on, one of Alex’s unlucky victims. And so on.

The musical soundtrack accompanying all the onstage “ultraviolence” (as Burgess described it, coining a new word) is a highly amplified combination of original music by Glenn Gregory and Berenice Scott, Beethoven (that composer being the surprising favorite of the otherwise uncouth Alex), and others. So, too, there are some glaring lighting effects (James Baggaley) contributing to an overall assault on the senses. There were, in fact, a few walkouts at my performance, but a standing ovation at the end.

The relentless violence (sexual and otherwise) eventually grows wearying and loses its shock value. One doesn’t feel much, if any, emotional involvement in the action. But the tireless Davies gives an undeniably dynamic and highly committed performance, while also serving as fight captain. For all the non-stop dancing, sometimes suggestive of “West Side Story” to a rock beat, there’s no choreography credit per se, but cast member Aleksander Varadian is dance captain.

(New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 6)

Photo: Caitlin McNaney

Friday, September 1, 2017

Prince of Broadway (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

There’s no denying Hal Prince has had an absolutely amazing and prolific career.  In fact, near the top of the present career overview, the titles of all the shows he’s either directed or produced are projected in rapid succession, and those classic titles alone signals the indisputable fact that attention must be paid.

With the man himself -- and frequent collaborator, the great Susan Stroman -- at the helm (both directing, and she handling the choreography), and such a wealth of material upon which to draw, one can’t go far wrong. And indeed they don’t. For, on the whole,  this is a satisfying overview of a richly varied career.

Unlike “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” however, which recreated full numbers as that choreographer/director had originally staged them, the present show gives us more of an evocation of the original, some closer than others. Inevitably, when recreating great moments, we can’t help but recall the stars who made them so memorably in the first place. And with due respect to this talented lineup, some of whom played in the show during its initial run in Japan three years ago, that’s where the evening sometimes falls short.

The cast of nine serves as first-person narrators of Prince’s career, as “he” tells his story (book by David Thompson), interspersed with the musical numbers. The device is a bit hokey, but gets the job done.

As this is MTC, not a commercial Broadway mounting, Beowulf Borritt’s sets are perforce more resourceful than truly lavish, though some set pieces surprise with their scale: the comic book backdrop to “It’s A Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman,” for instance; the pink floral vista for the “Beautiful Girls” number from “Follies”; and the web-dominated “Kiss of the Spider Woman” motif, to name a few.

The cast members all acquit themselves well enough. Michael Xavier, Joe Gillis in the recent “Sunset Boulevard” revival, impresses in a number of sequences, ranging from “Company” (“Being Alive”) to “A Little Night Music” (“You Must Meet My Wife”) to  “The Phantom of the Opera” (“The Music of the Night”). Bryonha Marie Parham morphs effortlessly from Amalia in “She Loves Me” (“Will He Like Me?”) to Queenie in “Show Boat” (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” though singing the character of Julie’s lines) to Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” (though her rendering of the title song is rather overwrought, I thought). 

The always wonderful Tony Yazbeck scores with two “West Side Story” numbers (opposite Kaley Ann Voorhees’ lovely Maria in the “Tonight” scene), plays the Leo Frank character in “Parade” (“This Is Not Over Yet”), and stops the show with his virtuosic hoofing in  “The Right Girl” from “Follies.” Voorhees, incidentally, also plays Christine in the “Phantom” sequence (“Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”).

Kudos to Yazbeck and Stroman for at last restoring “The Right Girl” to the dance number it was originally when Hollywood hoofer Gene Nelson played the role. Since then, non-dancing Buddys have had to improvise jerky, angry movements during the dance breaks. Stroman has given him some really meaty steps which he pulls off in spectacular fashion.

Janet Ducal scored with “You’ve Got Possibilities” from “Superman” opposite Xavier’s buff Man of Steel, and later performs two “Evita” numbers in the second act. Brandon Uranowitz smoothly jumps from George in “She Loves Me” (“Tonight at Eight”) to the Emcee in “Cabaret” to Molina in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

A svelte and vocally assured Emily Skinner gets to do  Desiree (“Send in the Clowns”), Joanne in “Company” (“Ladies Who Lunch” perhaps channeling Elaine Stritch a bit too closely); and Mary in “Merrily We Roll Along” (“Now You Know”).

Chuck Cooper straddled Ben in “Follies,” Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Joe in “Show Boat” (“Ol’ Man River” with annoyingly bowdlerized lyrics) and “Sweeney Todd” (“My Friends”) with varying success.

Most impressive of all, though, was the versatile Karen Ziemba who really nailed both “So What?” from “Cabaret” and “The Worst Pies in London” from “Sweeney Todd.”

Jason Robert Brown has done the arrangements, orchestrations and overall musical supervision, as well as penning a new song, the career-defining  “Do the Work” at the end.

William Ivey Long’s costumes, Howell Binkley’s lighting, and Jon Weston’s sound design are predictably first-rate.

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Ohio Light Opera 2017

By Harry Forbes

Writing these annual roundups of Ohio Light Opera’s summer festival -- run with consistent panache by Artistic Director Steven Daigle and Executive Director Laura Neill -- is becoming increasingly challenging in terms of avoiding the same old superlatives, particularly when the week attended includes a four-day symposium (that excellent feature now in its fourth year),.

This year’s was no exception as all of this company’s customary virtues were undiminished: the extraordinarily versatile players, the fine musicianship, the scholarship that goes into each revival, and above all, the overwhelming sense of dedication to the cause of musical theater and especially operetta.

The catnip for buffs this season was threefold: George Gershwin’s 1924 English musical “Primrose”; Victor Herbert’s 1912 super-rare Cinderella musical “The Lady of the Slipper”; and the original 1934 version of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” minus all the extraneous interpolations of later years. Matching these titles in delectability, if not necessarily rarity, were Emmerich Kalman’s glorious 1924 classic “Countess Maritza” and Sigmund Romberg’s still highly potent 1924 “The Student Prince,” which has the distinction of being the longest-running musical of the 1920’s, besting Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and everyone else.

Rounding out the season were decent mountings of “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Music Man.”

Heaps of credit for the overall excellence of the productions are due Steven Daigle whose unerring good taste and innate feel for the material are evident throughout. (He directed “Anything Goes,” “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Student Prince,” “Countess Maritza,” and “The Lady of the Slipper,” a remarkable achievement.’)

The regular conductors were back in force, all leading the excellent orchestra -- sounding, incidentally, better than ever -- with style: J. Lynn Thompson (“The Music Man,” “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Student Prince”); Steven Byess (“Anything Goes,” “Primrose,” “The Lady of the Slipper”), and Wilson Southerland (“Countess Maritza”).

“Primrose,” a delightful trifle about a young lady (Sarah Best) who falls for a romance writer (Nathan Brian) while her fiance (Benjamin Krumreig) pairs up with the blonde soubrette (Tanya Roberts), featured engaging songs by Gershwin (lyrics by Desmond Carter and Ira Gershwin), and an amusing book by Guy Bolton and George Grossmith, Jr. This was Best at her best, and she had one of the show’s showstoppers as she let her hair down for “Naughty Baby” (familiar to buffs for its inclusion in the Gershwin pastiche, “Crazy For You”). Stephen Faulk was a hoot as a foppish ladies man pursued by a social climbing beautician (Alexa Devlin in but one of her many spot-on performances this season). The score was lovingly resurrected with the second and third act finales restored. It is truly astonishing to think this bit of British whimsy was penned by the same man who would soon give us “Porgy and Bess.” The whole was stylishly directed by OLO mainstay Julie Wright Costa who onstage made a good showing as Tassilo’s kindly aunt in “Maritza” and ingenue Hope’s imperious mother in “Anything Goes.” But everyone here seemed perfectly cast.

The first thing that strikes you about “The Lady of the Slipper” are the marvelous orchestrations, more sophisticated than almost anything else on OLO’s roster. The music is delightful throughout, if the performing edition is not quite as complete as the never-officially-released John McGlinn recording that sometimes surfaces on YouTube. The work itself is an oddball comic version of the fairy tale which originally served as a vehicle for the great vaudeville team of Montgomery and Stone, as well as the vocally deficient but, by all accounts, delightful Elsie Janis in the title part. All three had been able to interpolate their own specialities into the evening, as for instance, Stone’s acrobatics, and Janis’ apparently peerless impersonations. The result was a smash hit, and critics were unanimous in praising it.

OLO’s production, though attractive, was perforce on a more modest scale, but Stephen Faulk and Nathan Brian made a marvelous present-day Montgomery and Stone, singing dancing and even (in Brian’s case) turning cartwheels as Punks and Spooks respectively, while Gretchen Windt -- no doubt singing with better voice than Janis -- were most appealing leads. Roberts and Best turned up for droll comic turns as step-sister’s Dollbabia and Freakette (love those names!). And here again was Devlin, this time as a wacky gypsy fortune teller. Ted Christopher scored all of the comic points of Cinderella’s befuddled father. And Katherine Corle was the formidable Fairy Godmother. Two of the best songs come towards the very end: the infectious title number and “Put Your Best Foot Forward, Little Girl.”

“Anything Goes” gave Devlin her biggest part, the Ethel Merman role of nightclub chanteuse/evangelist Reno Sweeney. Brassy as Merman but arguably with more warmth she gave fine renditions of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and the title song. The choreography by Spencer Reese, who also played romantic lead Billy Crocker, was quite spectacular right up to the ferociously tapping curtain call finale, which topped his impressive work last season for  “Kiss Me Kate” and others. Danielle Knox was lovely as Billy’s love Hope, and Kyle Yampiro scored as her not-so-stuffy English fiance who turns sweet on Reno.

It was quite fascinating to hear at last the original Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse book, the original orchestrations, and none of the Porter songs such as “Friendship” and “Heaven Hop” inserted into later revisions (notably the 1962 revival and the 1987 Patti LuPone Lincoln Center version). But I have a terrible confession. While I’m delighted to have seen this urtext version, it did strike me as rather book heavy with long stretches of non-musical material. I think the 1987 version that was, in all fairness, reasonably faithful to the original book, and added numbers cut from the show along the way, is actually an improvement.

“Countess Maritza” -- with composer Emmerich Kalman’s daughter Yvonne sitting ringside to cheer on the production and make a lovely curtain speech after -- was distinguished by its compelling leads -- Tanya Roberts, grandly imperious and vocally lustrous as the wealthy lady of the manor, and Daniel Neer as the high-born Count Tassilo, who has taken a job incognito as Maritza’s bailiff. Their acting generated real heat, and they sang Kalman’s glorious melodies with requisite passion. Grant Knox was amusing as her would-be suitor, pig farmer Zsupan, and Katherine Corle did well as Tassilo’s sister Lisa who falls for the former. Local restaurateur Spiro Matsos, whose cameo appearances have graced many OLO productions in the past, had an especially meaty part as Maritza’s servant Tschekko, and was quite touching as a good-hearted waiter in “The Student Prince.”

The score was complete including the number for Tassilo and the children (albeit performed by the young ladies of the ensemble) near the beginning and Tassilo’s last act aria (here “Life Could Be So Free of Strife”). The Sadler’s Wells translation by Nigel Douglas (once recorded by Jay Records with Marilyn Hill Smith) was employed here, and apparently an OLO DVD will eventually be forthcoming, which is a good thing as it’s very much a performance worth preserving.

Neer’s assumption of this romantic role was at considerable odds with his other roles -- both comic --  this season. He made a solid Captain Corcoran in “Pinafore” and a plausible Moonface Martin (Public Enemy Number 13) in “Anything Goes,” more gentle giant than the sweet nebbish originator Victor Moore must have been.

Speaking of “Pinafore,” there was good vocalizing from Krumreig and Hilary Koolhoven in the double cast roles of Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine, the latter coping with Josephine’s high-lying pieces with aplomb. OLO veteran Boyd Mackus was a first-rate Sir Joseph Porter, and was also solid in several other “older man” roles, including Doctor Engel in “The Student Prince,” and Maritza’s suitor, Prince Moritz, in the Kalman piece. Devlin’s Little Buttercup was, like her Katisha last season, richly sung in her classical mezzo, as opposed to Broadway belt, voice. Nathan Brian, a far cry from his dapper self in “Primrose,” transformed himself into a twisted Dick Deadeye.

“The Student Prince” had the audience satisfyingly reaching for Kleenex as Prince Karl Franz (Grant Knox, here the polar opposite of his comic turn in “Maritza”) and barmaid commoner Kathie's (Gillian Hollis with fearless high notes) youthful affair was doomed from the start. Stephen Faulk made a handsome, well-sung Captain Tarnitz who loves the prince’s fiancee Princess Margaret (Grace Caudle). They sang the sweeping waltz “Just We Two” very prettily. The men of the chorus acquitted themselves with distinction in this male-chorus dominated score. 

“The Music Man” was perfectly respectable, and had a very fine Harold Hill in the versatile person of Nathan Brian at my performance (Ted Christopher alternated the role at other performances), with Devlin again impressing with her warmly maternal Mrs. Paroo, mother of librarian Marian. (Sarah Best’s creamy mezzo had no trouble navigating the high-ranging notes, and acted with her usual sensitivity.) Spencer Reese again supplied impressive Broadway-style choreography, the highlight arguably being the big “Shipoopi” number led by Krumreig’s Marcellus. Young Bryson Christopher was an audience favorite with his cutely sung “Gary, Indiana.”

Nearly all the shows had corresponding lectures, excepting “The Music Man” and “Primrose.”. Broadway historian Richard Norton made a welcome return appearance recounting the tortured history of how “Anything Goes” came to be fashioned, especially after a boat disaster (the SS Morro Castle tragedy) made it necessary to scuttle P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton’s original story, He included detail about the economics behind the production, illustrated with aural and visual mementos of earlier productions.

Steven Ledbetter, currently working on an analysis of Herbert’s works from a musical perspective, gave us an erudite history of family entertainment that segued into a little background on the Herbert piece.

Romberg biographer William Everett presented a fascinating biographical talk on the Hungarian-born composer, and then another on “The Student Prince” hypnotically stressing the twin themes of memory and young love. His compelling narrative style made both talks especially engaging.

So, too, Wesleyan College literature professor Regina Oost offered a quite riveting lecture on the genesis of “Pinafore,” and topped that with an even more absorbing talk on the origin of “Ages Ago,” the light opera W.S. Gilbert (pre-partnership with Sullivan) wrote with Frederic Clay for the Gallery of Illustration run by German Reed. Like Everett, she has the unique ability to bring the past to vivid life.

And I must not forget OLO Board chairman Michael Miller who gave an intriguing (and, as usual,  highly amusing) lecture on lost operettas focusing on Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Thespis”; Victor Herbert’s “Vivandiere”; Kalman’s “The Blue House”; and Jerome Kern’s “Lamplight.”

Earlier, he had hosted an operetta film session and screened a fascinating oddball rarity, a 1950 B-level two-reeler, “The Return of Gilbert & Sullivan,” wherein the two gentlemen come down from the pearly gates to observe the havoc being wreaked on their songs, and make a deal with a Hollywood producer to compose songs for a musical film. It turns out to be a detective story (something akin to Fred Astaire’s gangster ballet in “The Bandwagon”) with the familiar tunes decked out with new lyrics. What was originally color was only available in black and white, and featured a no-name but not untalented cast, and the musical within the film was fun.

Oost’s “Ages Ago” lecture immediately preceded a slightly abridged concert version which proved highly rewarding on both musical and dramatic points. The piece rather echoes “Ruddigore” in its conceit of a portrait gallery coming to life.  Ivana Martinic as both Rosa and Lady Maud won all hearts when she emerged from her picture frame with her rapturous, exquisitely sung account of “I Live, I Breathe.”

The work itself was a revelation, genuinely funny and with a score of some distinction. (Composer Frederic Clay was, in fact, a friend of Sullivan.) There were some interesting Gilbertian conceits such as the propriety of falling in love with your ancestor and other head-scratching complications. Spencer Reese, Garrett Medlock, Gretchen Windt, and Kyle Yampiro were all in excellent form for the other roles. Everyone agreed this one really cried out for a full production, with its absorbing book and excellent score (perhaps it might be staged with the Sullivan/Burnand “Cox and Box,” some said), but even in this semi-staged, piano-only version, “Ages Ago” made a solid impression.

This was not the only treasurable concert of the week. The annual “Songs from the Cutting Room Floor” (that is, songs from the works currently on the mainstage that were cut prior to production or else, in some instances, added in later productions or films) was expanded to double-length, and allowed us to hear such gems as Marian’s doleful “I Want to Go to Chicago” (sung by the alternate Marian, Danielle Knox), the infectious “Jack o’Lantern Love” from “The Lady of the Slipper” (sung by Gretchen Windt and the ensemble) and Porter’s naughty “Kate the Great” from “Anything Goes” (sung by Arielle Nachtigal) all very well performed by the OLO singers, and marvelously accompanied by Eric Andries.

There was also a nighttime Lehar concert, comprised almost entirely of lesser-known numbers. A medley from “The Merry Widow” capped the first act, but apart from that, the numbers were all from works only die-hard collectors of those Lehar CPO CD releases would have heard, such as “Die Blaue Mazur,” “Der Rastelbinder,”  and ”Der Gottergatte.” Here was an opportunity for several members of the ensemble to shine, as they did. Most of the numbers were given in English which added interest. Wilson Southerland accompanied all with deft sensitivity. Daigle directed, and was credited with concept and script, while Michael Miller did the musical programming. Ted Christopher provided the droll narration as if it were an old-time radio broadcast.

Daigle was also the knowledgeable emcee for that concert and most of the others, though the cut songs narrating chores were shared with Laura Neill, J. Lynn Thompson, Julie Wright Costa, and Steven Byess. The musical programming and sharp script were courtesy of OLO board chair Michael Miller whose expert hand was evident throughout all the Symposium events.

On the last day of Symposium, there were two delightful concerts back to back. The first -- “Once Upon a Time - The Storybook World of Operetta” -- was composed of songs from works suggested by fairy tales, Cole Porter’s “Aladdin,” Johann Strauss’ “Indigo and the Forty Thieves,” and Mary Rodgers’ “Once Upon a Mattress” among them. Stephen Faulk and Ivana Martinic’s charming “Ev’ry Little Moment” from “Mr. Cinders”; Ted Christopher’s “Shall I Take My Heart and Go?” from Leroy Anderson’s “Goldilocks”; Tanya Roberts’ “How to Tell a Fairy Tale” from Herbert’s “Alice and the Eight Princesses”; and Nathan Brian’s “”When I Close My Eyes” from Charles Kalman’s “Dryad’s Kiss” were among the highlights. Again, Southerland accompanied, while Daigle narrated Miller’s script.

The second half entitled “Operetta’s Irreverent Take on Society at Large” featured winning numbers such as “Moonstruck”  from Lionel Monckton’s “Our Miss Gibbs” (with Gillian Hollis, Arielle Nachtigal, Katherine Corle, and Yvonne Trobe); the wickedly funny “In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Essensook Zee” from Rick Besoyan’s “Little Mary Sunshine” (expertly sung by Julie Wright Costa); and “I’d Rather Be Right” from the Rodgers & Hart show of the same name (with Jonathan Heller and Katherine Corle). For both concerts, Southerland accompanied, while Miller narrated his predictably informative script.

So as you can see, this was a full plate indeed, but all the overlapping events were accomplished with minimal stress, thanks to the carefully strategic and efficient planning by Laura Neill and Michael and (fellow board member) Nan Miller.

(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or; through August 12)

All photos: Matt Dilyard