Friday, December 29, 2017

Meteor Shower (Booth Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Steve Martin’s first Broadway offering since “Bright Star,” the underrated musical he wrote with Edie Brickell, turns out to be an amusing trifle about an Ojai, California couple, Corky and Norm (Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos), who invite an aggressively seductive pair, Laura and Gerald (Laura Benanti and Keegan-Michael Key), for dinner and, in short order, find their placid lives upended. 

The action takes place in 1993, the year of a spectacular meteor shower, and the guests are ostensibly visting to watch the light show from the former couple’s prime location garden. However, we soon learn the devilish guests are really there to destroy their hosts’ marriage. 
Each scene change is punctuated by meteor projections against the night sky, adding the requisite beautiful but dangerous frisson to the action.

The play had its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, and a later production at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT.

Schumer is highly amusing, likable and confident in her Broadway debut and there’s a first-rate ensemble around her including Shamos’ increasingly discomfited husband; Benanti’s hilarious sexpot temptress; and Key’s macho male.

Martin’s dialogue is quirkily amusing, and he has a couple of neat absurdist twists up his sleeve during this 90-minute intermission-less evening.

Director Jerry Zaks knows his way around farce and keep things moving entertainingly. Though the work is wafer-thin, the laughs are consistent. 

Beowulf Boritt’s stylish 1990s abode -- chic living room and back of house vista -- Ann Roth’s costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting, and Fitz Patton’s sound add up to a satisfyingly slick overall production.

(Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 21)

Photo by Michael Murphy: Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumer, and Laura Benanti. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Farinelli and the King (Belasco Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Claire van Kampen’s entertaining play about the bipolar 18th century Spanish king, Philippe V, and the castrato Farinelli whose heavenly tones helped restore the former’s sanity, serves as a worthy vehicle for the estimable Mark Rylance (husband of van Kampen), and the great countertenor Iestyn Davies (James Hall at some performances). 

Van Kampen demonstrates how the beleaguered king, seriously out of touch with reality (he’s trying to fish in a goldfish bowl in the opening scene) is hugely distressing his minister Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (Edward Peel), his physician Dr. Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya), and his loving second wife Isabella (Melody Grove). It is she who hatches the plan of having the renowned singer take up residence in the palace to soothe her husband’s troubled mind, much to the consternation of Farinelli’s manager John Rich (Colin Hurley) who frets about Farinelli sabotaging his lucrative opera career. 

But the scheme indeed works and the king comes out of his depression, regains his senses and comes to rely completely on Farinelli whose castration at the tender age of 10 touches Philippe profoundly.

Van Kampen’s language is, at times, quite colloquial, and “f” bombs abound, but somehow it doesn’t detract from the period ambience.

The play premiered in 2015 at London’s Globe, and had a run in the West End, too. The production is beautifully staged by John Dove, and like Rylance’s 2013 productions of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” -- is here presented Globe-style, with some of the audience sitting on two tiers at the sides of the playing area.

It is most atmospherically designed by Jonathan Fensom, lit only by candlelight. 

Rylance, of course, has a field day with his eccentric role, but the cast is uniformly good. Farinelli is played by the excellent Sam Crane in the dramatic scenes, and when required to sing, Davies, identically dressed, steps forward and joins him on the stage, though not necessarily mirroring Crane’s movements. Crane, for his part, doesn’t lip-sync, but simply stands nearby in sympathetic attitude. Grove is lovely as his ever-supportive wife. Peel is appropriately crotchety.

The musical sequences are sublime -- with van Kampen serving as musical arranger -- and the seven onstage musicians earn a well-deserved hand at the end. One of the most magical sequences occurs in the second act when Farinelli insists they move to the forest to better appreciate the relationship of music to the planets, and the Belasco audience is addressed as if the townspeople who have appeared for the concert. 

Though perhaps not the very best of the British imports, the play rates nonetheless as a more than worthy addition to the Broadway season. 

(Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street; or 212-239-6200; through March 25)

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Children (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

This superbly written and powerfully acted drama from London’s Royal Court Theatre concerns a post-apocalyptic England wherein Rose, a nuclear engineer (Francesca Annis) pays an unexpected visit to two old colleagues and friends, Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) as the country is recovering from a nuclear power plant accident triggered by an earthquake. 

The play is nearly two hours (and might benefit from a little trimming), but is performed without an intermission. Lucy Kirkwood’s drama is as much about the relationship among these three old friends -- fraught with tension as, among other issues, Robin and Rose once had an affair -- and about aging and our responsibility to the next generation. (Rose, as we learn, never married and has no children, while Robin and Hazel have four, including an elder daughter whose difficulties gravely concern Hazel.)
For such heavy-duty subject matter, there is a surprising amount of humor in the piece, not to mention a most surprising and amusing dance the three perform to James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky Now,” and the enormity of the disaster and its repercussions only gradually unfold as the evening builds in intensity.

Annis, whose stateside stage appearances have been all too rare, is commanding as her unflappable, outwardly calm Rose, while Findlay finely delineates her nervous, fretful character, the polar opposite of Rose. And Cook skillfully shows how Robin must navigate between the two women.

The production has been expertly directed by James Macdonald, and vividly designed (set and costumes) by Miriam Buether showing the cottage (just outside the exclusion zone) in which Robin and Hazel are living after their own home has become uninhabitable. Peter Mumford’s creepy lighting and Max Pappenheim’s atmospheric sound design add to the appropriately ominous mood.

(The Samuel J.Friedman Theatre Box Office at 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200/ through February 1) 

Pictured (L-R): Ron Cook, Francesca Annis, and Deborah Findlay Photo © Joan Marcus 2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Spongebob SquarePants (Palace Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This musical version of the hugely popular Nickelodeon franchise turns out to be a most delightful entertainment, even for a newbie like me with little prior exposure to the TV series, or film versions, or any other incarnation of the the story of the sweet-natured kitchen sponge and his cronies in the underwater world of Bikini Bottom.

One quickly learns who these characters are, even though they are played as humans not as anthropomorphized creatures, and the cast members beautifully convey all the requisite characteristics of their roles.

Spongebob (endearingly embodied by Ethan Slater) toils in the Krusty Krab diner run by skinflint proprietor Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris). His circle includes Krusty’s powerful voiced daughter Pearl (Jai’ Len Christine Li Josey). his dimwitted but loyal friend sea star Patrick (Danny Skinner) (“BFF” as their first duet goes), and squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper).

When a volcano threatens the destruction of the town, the three of them contrive to defuse it before disaster strikes. There’s also a showbiz wannabe Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee) a groupie pirate named Patchy (Jon Rua) who opens each act before “security guards” evict him, Larry the Lobster (Allan K. Washington), and more. The villains of the piece are Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) and his wife Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu).

David Zinn’s multi-hued set and costume design must surely rank as the most zanily and gorgeously colorful on Broadway. (The green and pink bedecked sardines, and the pink jellyfish are eye-popping cases in point.)

Christopher Gatelli’s choreography is highly inventive and entertaining, especially “I’m Not a Loser,” a glitzy old-fashioned song and dance production number for Squidward and a chorus line of Sea Anemones.

In the action packed second act, as Spongebob, Patrick, and Sandy attempt to ward off disaster, Landau’s staging is really quite brilliant. With chairs, ladders, and platforms, there’s a real sense of the intrepid trio scaling the volcano. Her work here and throughout is comparable to the magic wrought by Julie Taymor in “The Lion King,” the gold standard of unlikely animated tales successfully adapted for Broadway.

The score is an amalgam of numbers from disparate sources (David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, and so on, but somehow it all hangs together most engagingly from the exuberant opening number (“Bikini Bottom Day”) to the penultimate and touching “Best Day Ever.” Krusty and Pearl’s contrapuntal duet “Daddy Knows Best,” with Krusty extolling money, and Pearl wanting her father’s love is a standout. Patrick’s incongruous gospel number “Super Sea Star Savior” wherein sardines (dressed nattily in pink and green) extol his great wisdom.

Needless to say, kids will love it, but there were few at my performance, and enthusiasm was still off the charts.

(Palace Theatre, 47th & Broadway; or 877-250-2929)

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