Friday, May 26, 2017

War Paint (Nederlander Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole have plum roles as cosmetics queens Helena Rubinstein (LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole), iconic women who were powerhouse entrepreneurs at a time when that was traditionally a man’s role, and indeed, that's the dominant theme of the show's book.

Though fierce competitors, they actually never met in real life, an omission that playwright Doug Wright has rectified, much like numerous fictitious dramatizations of a meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.

Of course, no one’s head is on the chopping block here, and the feud itself is less the focus than showing how two women managed to overcome sexism, racism, and impoverished backgrounds to build their huge empires. But like the recent TV series “Feud,” which chronicled the rivalry of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Wright seems to imply here that the two ladies were sisters under the skin, and perhaps might have been friends if their competitive natures had allowed.

As it was, they rather extraordinarily shared two men in common, Rubinstein’s right hand man, the gay Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) left her employ to become Arden’s director of sales; while Arden’s husband Tommy Lewis (John Dossett) left her to join Rubinstein’s concern.

The show is said to be “suggested by the book of the same name by Lindy Woodhead
and the documentary film “The Powder and the Glory.”

LuPone and Ebersole are really in top form, both singing superbly and complementing each other beautifully, though LuPone should prepare herself, in light of her sometimes impenetrable lyrics thanks largely to her thick Polish accent, that she may be the target of some more good-natured spoofing if there’s another edition of “Forbidden Broadway.”

All of this has been set to music by Scott Frankel, with lyrics by Michael Korie, the team which, along with Wright, wrote “Grey Gardens.” The score, orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin under Lawrence Yurman’s music direction, is a decent one in the current-day manner, the big numbers evenly divided between LuPone and Ebersole, culminating in the latter’s career defining “Pink” soliloquy and the former’s “Forever Beautiful,” both particularly strong eleven o’clock ballads. They also share a potent duet at the very end, “Beauty in the World.”

Director Michael Greif draws fine performances from his top-billed stars, and there’s solid work from the male rivals, Dossett and Sills who share a rueful bar stool duet, “Dinosaurs” towards the end. Erik Liberman has some good bits as aggressively up-and-coming cosmetics rival Charles Revson, and Steffanie Leigh is effective as Revson’s hand model and, later, one of the early supermodels, Dorian Leigh.

The production is richly designed by David Korins, with eye-popping costumes by Catherine Zuber. Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Brian Ronan’s sound design are state of the art.

Christopher Gatelli’s choreography is effective in the “Fire and Ice” production number, and elsewhere, such as the stylized openings of the two acts.

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Island of Tulipatan (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

LOONY shifted gears this spring from its annual early American operetta (usually by Herbert or Kern) and mounted instead an altogether delightful production of that master of the French operette’s Jacques Offenbach’s 1868 one-act “L’ile de Tulipatan” in a highly amusing and witty translation by Gregg Opelka (lyrics) and Jack Helbig (dialogue).

The zany plot (original libretto by Henri Chhivot and Alfred Duru) concerns the Duke of Tulipatan (Victor Khodadad) who disdains the gentle and feminine ways of his would-be successor son Alexis (Claire Kuttler). But little does the Duke know, that years before, his right-hand man, the Grand Marshall Romboidal (Chad Kranak), had contrived to let the Duke, at his wit’s end after having sired nothing but daughters, believe his latest daughter was a boy. Similarly, Romboïdal’s wife Théodorine (Heather Jones), in order to protect her son from one day being conscripted by the war-mad Duke, contrived, unbeknownst to Romboïdal, to bring him up as a girl named Hermosa (an exuberant Tom Mulder gamely cavorting in a short dress). Now, the distinctly unladylike girl is clearly showing a preference for manly things, like martial drums. The situation naturally leads to all sorts of gender-bending misunderstandings.

Daringly, even when Alexis and Hermosa discover their own true identities, it seems to matter not a jot if the object of their affections is the same sex. Of course, all gets sorted out by the end.

The amusing plot brought out some of Offenbach’s most delicious music, and with Music Director Tyson Deaton at the keyboard, and excellent voices all around, the score, from the overture onward, sparkled. The concerted duck couplets with its periodic “quack” sounds during the Duke’s entrance song (he disdains his bad press much like a certain resident of our Oval Office), a wacky Barcarolle (a far cry from the one in “Hoffmann”), and the father/”daughter” duet wherein Hermosa is totally nonplussed by the revelation of Alexis being a girl were particularly winning.

The cast members act as well as they sing, and have great fun with the farcical goings on. Mulder and Kuttler mined all the requisite laughs from their roles, and were especially appealing in the wooing scene where Hermosa teaches Alexis how to propose to him/her. Khodadad and Kranak made a fine pair of bewildered fathers. Jones’ asides to the audience about her “secret” and her florid aria when she announces she’s leaving the room,were excellently done.

Director Gary Slavin, a master of this sort of material, brought out all the humor of the piece. And though there was plenty of slapstick, it didn’t interfere with the music.

The evening began with a short selection of seven rather predictable  “Offenbach Favorites.” I must confess I’d have preferred rarities, and three of the numbers weren’t even from Offenbach’s vast catalogue of operettas, but his grand opera “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Still, the cast performed them more than competently in French in a sort of salon setting, “hosted” by Kranak.

Khodadad gave us a well-sung “Au Mont Ida” from “La Belle Helene,” which incidentally made an interesting juxtaposition to last weekend’s production of the similarly themed “The Golden Apple” at Encores. Chelsea Bonagura joined nicely with Jones for Hoffmann’s “Barcarolle,” Katherine Cecelia Peck sang the familiar letter song from “La Perichole,” and John Collison crisply delivered the Viceroy’s “incognito” number.

The good news is that Albany Records has since recorded the “Tulipatan” part of the bill with an orchestra. It will be very nice to have this particular translation on record. This was the pattern last year, when Kern’s “Sally” was played in performance with piano accompaniment only, but with more instruments added for the CD.

That recording, incidentally, is quite delightful, and represents the only modern recording of the work that gave us “Look for the Silver Lining” and other Kern gems.

Next up from LOONY is a potpourri evening entitled “My Song Goes 'Round the World,” described as “a musical exploration of the composers and performers who defined operetta on both sides of the Atlantic in first half of the twentieth century.” The performance will take place on June 8th at the National Opera Center at 330 Seventh Avenue.

(Theater 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place;

Photos by: Keith Butler

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Bandstand (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The generic title doesn’t really give you much of a clue what it’s about, but “Bandstand” turns out to be an absorbing musical drama about a World War II veteran (Corey Cott) who, after finding doors to employment shut after the war, decides to form a band of fellow battle-scarred vets, with the widow (Laura Osnes) of his best buddy as their lead singer, to enter a competition that will bring them from hometown Cleveland to New York for a national radio broadcast.

The plot may have a TCM deja vu ring, but the dialogue is solid and believable, the characters real, and the staging by “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler impressively fluid, the exciting dancing neatly mirroring every plot turn, making for an engrossing evening.

Laura Osnes is as ever a joy, sings beautifully, dances gracefully, and gives a thoroughly well thought-out performance. And Cott -- rather miscast in the Louis Jourdan part in last season’s misguided revival of “Gigi” -- is outstanding here. You really feel his pain. He deserved a lot more recognition from the Tonys and other theater awards competitions. But, in my book, he gives one of the best leading actor performances in a musical this season.

The sincerity of their performances, and those of their fellow band members -- Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, and Geoff Packard -- who play their own instruments make for appealing and refreshingly adult entertainment. And Beth Leavel is another big plus as Julia’s sympathetic mother.

There are some nice things in Richard Oberacker’s score which avoids the pastiche style of, say, the Sherman Brothers’ tuneful score for the Andrews Sisters musical  “Over Here” in 1974. Cott’s opening song “Donny Novitski,” Osnes’ “Love Will Come and Find Me Again,” the second act opener “Nobody,” and “Welcome Home” struck me as standouts. Much of the rest is less distinctive, but I always say it’s difficult to do justice to a score when hearing it for the first time. Bill Elliott and Music Supervisor and Arranger Greg Anthony Rassen share credit for the lively orchestrations. Oberacker shares book and lyric honors with Rob Taylor. As noted, the script is particularly strong and uncommonly intelligent.

David Korins’ set -- lighted by Jeff Croiter -- allows for the multiple scene changes, including, ultimately, New York, the splashiest set. Paloma Young’s costumes are period perfect. Nevin Steinberg’s sound design begins at way too high a decibel, but gradually settles down to something more suitable for the 1940s period.

The production premiered in October 2015 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. I didn’t see it there, so can’t tell how much refining may have taken place in the interim, but what’s onstage now at the Jacobs is impressive.

My audience watched it with rapt attention, as they would a compelling drama which indeed it is.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45 Street; or 212-239-6200)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Doll’s House - Part 2 (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The intriguing sequel to Ibsen’s iconic work has Nora -- as fiercely played by Laurie Metcalf -- returning to husband Torvald’s home 15 years after famously walking out the door. Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell), the nanny to her children greets her, and in short order, Nora comes face-to-face with an embittered Torvald (Chris Cooper), and her grown daughter Emmy (a radiant Condola Rashad).

This is a tough, abrasive Nora as written by Lucas Hnath and as played by Metcalf, though she softens towards the end. Since leaving home, she’s written books, gone into business, had affairs. But she’s only just discovered that Torvald never actually divorced her. Under the law, all her property is technically his. And she could be brought to trial for signing contracts without her husband’s permission, and even go to jail.

Torvald, for his part, still mightily resents her walking out on him and their three children, and Nora’s unexpected return brings up mixed emotions. He’s not inclined to give her the divorce. But if she is the one who files, she will need to “ruin” him. Anne Marie, for her part, resents being put in the middle, as she is grateful to Torvald for supporting her and providing her livelihood for all these years, even if it meant having to ignore her own children.

When Nora finally meets Emmy to enlist the girl’s help in getting a divorce despite Torvald’s recalcitrance, the response is not what she expects as, surprisingly, she turns out not to be in sync with her mother’s feminist views.

Cooper, Houdyshell, and Rashad are all in top form.

Director Sam Gold’s modernistic spare production keeps the attention focused squarely on the characters and the words. Nora, at one point, breaks the fourth wall to address the audience on why she thinks marriage should be abolished.

Miriam Buether’s setting -- a large white room with a few chairs and some tellingly anachronistic props, like a box of tissues -- is positioned on a thrust stage, and starkly lit for Jennifer Tipton. An illuminated yellow sign proclaiming the play’s title in a distinctly modern wayhovers above before the play begins. And throughout the 90 intermission-less minutes, each scene is announced by one of the characters named projected large on the set walls. (Peter Nigrini is the projection designer.) But David Zinn’s costumes are, at least, traditional.

The play feels a bit didactic and sometimes superficial in its modern-day jokey tone, but the themes have resonance. Some of the lines are very funny. At one point, for instance, Torvald tells Nora, “Leave. There’s the door. I know you know how to use it.”

Hnath’s tone is comedic as much as serious, and the dialogue is decidedly contemporary and colloquial. “Just so ya know,” says Anne Marie at one point.  “F” and “S” bombs abound. It’s a bit off-putting, but the themes are a plausible outgrowth of Ibsen’s, and thought-provoking.

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Jayne Houdyshell and Laurie Metcalf in a scene From “A Doll's House, Part 2” ©Brigitte Lacombe

Friday, May 12, 2017

Anastasia (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The popular 1997 animated film has been transformed into a visually sumptuous stage version. Of course, like the film, any relation to the actual Romanov Grand Duchess Anastasia who was slaughtered at the age of 17 with her father Czar Nicholas II and the rest of her family in 1918, is strictly coincidental. This is pure fantasy. 

In this telling, however, two con men, Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton), a former nobleman, find a young woman Anya (Christy Altomare) to impersonate the murdered girl, as rumors are rife that she had, in fact, escaped.

Under their tutelage, young Anya comes to believe she may really be Anastasia, and must then, in Paris, convince her grandmother, the Dowager Empress  (Mary Beth Peil), of that fact, while Dmitry and Vlad hope to collect the reward for finding her. Meanwhile, Anya is being pursued by a Russian secret police officer Gleb (Ramin Karimloo) determined to drag her back to Russia or else kill her.

The score, by the estimable team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, has been generously expanded from the movie, and the script is by Terrence McNally, no less. But despite their generally worthy contributions, the most striking aspects of the production are the beautiful scenic design (by Alexander Dodge) the eye-popping projections (by Aaron Rhyne) which provide endless scenic backgrounds for the various scenes (St. Petersburg, Paris, elegant ballrooms, an opera house), and the costumes (by Linda Cho) which are truly gorgeous.

The projections are mostly stationary, like real scenery, but the trio’s escape from Russia on a moving train provides a genuinely cinematic experience as the backdrop shows us the scenery whizzing by.

One of the nicest set pieces is a scene at the Paris Opera where Anya and the others watch a performance of “Swan Lake.” (There’s expert ballet work here by Allison Walsh, Kyle Brown, and James A. Pierce III.)

The cast is fine, with the two standouts being Mary Beth Peil, both acting and singing with great distinction (as did Angela Lansbury in the film), and West End star Caroline O’Connor as Countess Lily, the Dowager Empress’ companion, who has the evening’s most lively showstopper, “Land of Yesterday.” Very engaging, too, is Bolton who duets with O’Connor in “The Countess and the Common Man.”

Altomare has a powerful set of pipes and an appealingly spunky disposition. Klena is boyishly appealing, and also sings well.

In writing the book, McNally has reunited with his “Ragtime” collaborators Ahrens and Flaherty, and wisely has dispensed with the cartoonish depiction of Rasputin who, in the film, is a magical demon pursuing the supposed royal to Paris. In its place, McNally has the Gleb character, ultimately not quite a villain but not a hero either, despite the casting of matinee idol Karimloo.

Rasputin, of course, had in actuality died well before Anastasia and her family did. And it has since been forensically proven that Anastasia did indeed perish with the rest of her family. Still, taken as a fairy tale, the story is effective, as was the live action film with Ingrid Bergman in 1956.

The six movie songs, including “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past”  work well on stage -- the film, like Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” always had a Broadway-sounding score -- so that's no surprise. There are some attractive new pieces, too.

Darko Tresnjak directs with appropriately epic sweep, and the dramatic scenes are well judged.

The tween girls who love the movie enthusiastically greet each of the familiar songs and seem totally smitten with the romantic elements. But I must admit the adults in the audience were just as attentive.

(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th St; or 212-239-6200)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Antipodes (Signature Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Annie Baker’s latest play, after the excellent “John” (also at Signature), registers as amusing and thought-provoking, if a tad long. It concerns storytelling and the power of myth as a group of writers (Phillip James Brannon, Josh Charles, Josh Hamilton, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Danny McCarthy, Emily Cass McDonnell) gather around a conference table under the direction of Sandy (Will Patton) to brainstorm ideas which will lead to a TV mini-series event.

Sandy’s injunction is that, as they sit in this "cone of silence," they will start relating personal stories -- everything from first sexual encounters to worst experience to deep regret -- out of which will spring something new and fresh. “We can change the world,” he explains, “and we can make a shitload of money.”

The individual stories are a mixed bag but generally interesting, leading up to a lengthy Creation story related by the aptly named Adam (Brannon).

Sandy’s secretary Sarah (a very amusing Nicole Rodenburg) comes in periodically to take food orders, though eventually she, too, comes up with a story and it’s a doozy. A young man named Brian (Brian Miskell) takes notes on his laptop, and registers as a fairly passive character until late in the play (which runs one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission), he performs a strange ritual while all the others are sleeping.

At one point, they get a call from an important, but unidentified, person named Max (voice of Hugh Dancy) -- a sort of Big Brother -- and the crackling connection keeps failing. The tone of the play's narrative grows increasingly ominous and the writers tire of their seemingly fruitless exercise, as a major storm brews outside.

Boxes of LaCroix water stand at the ready at the back of Laura Jellinek’s simple set: a conference table with chairs, lighted by Tyler Micoleau. The conference table set up means that for about half the show, the actors on each side of the table aren’t fully visible to the audience members (half on each side of the table) behind it, which makes keeping track of who’s who slightly challenging.

Lila Neugebauer directs with sensitivity to Baker’s rhythms, and performances are all very fine, though the static nature of the setup brings occasional tedium, and I’m not sure what it all signified by the end of the evening. Still, for all that, I found it to be a generally worthwhile experience.

(The Pershing Square Signature Center, 212) 244-7529 or; through June 11)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a superlative revival of John Guare’s 1990 play about an ambitious young man Paul (Corey Hawkins) who cons an art dealer Flan Kittredge (John Benjamin Hickey) and his wife Ouisa (Allison Janney glamorously bedecked in Clint Ramos’ upper crust duds) into believing he’s the son of actor Sidney Poitier and a friend of their own children.

He shows up at their Fifth Avenue apartment claiming to have been mugged, with a minor knife wound to prove it.

They soon learn that others have fallen prey to the same ruse: another affluent couple (Lisa Emery and Michael Countryman), a doctor (Ned Eisenberg), and most poignantly, an idealistic  pair of aspiring actors (Peter Mark Kendall and Sarah Mezzanotte).

He has given most of them the same line about his lineage, along with the improbable notion that his father is about to direct a movie version of “Cats” in which they’ll have roles. Much as Flan and Ouisa disdain “Cats,” it’s clear they’ll jump at the chance. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is but one of several New York cultural references of the era, including, for instance, another Lloyd Webber show “Starlight Express” and Earl Blackwell’s talent finder Celebrity Service.

For Flan and Ouisa, they get their rude awakening when a naked hustler (James Cusati-Moyer) ends up in Paul’s bed. Even though the upper crust characters are mortified at having fallen victim to the scam, in some ways, as Ouisa points out, the incident has validated their lives, particularly as their own children -- mostly all spoiled and self-centered -- stand in stark contrast to the earnest, well-spoken young man before them. There’s a beautifully written and orchestrated scene of the children of the duped adults berating their parents for their stupidity in a rising cacophony.

Guare based his play on the true story of one David Hampton. (I once knew one of the victims, and how I wish, all these years later, that I had probed for some details.)

The whole cast -- 18 in all -- is quite wonderful, with Janney, Hawkins and Hickey in top form.. It’s a luxury to enjoy such a well-populated play with some minor characters who have relatively little stage time.

Trip Cullman, recently on Broadway with his terrific “Significant Other,”  directs again with a sure hand. Stylishly designed by Mark Wendland, and lighted by Ben Stanton, the production (dominated by its deep red palette, with a two-sided Kandinsky painting hanging above) is a visual pleasure.

Guare’s barbs at the privileged class are right on target, the portrayal not without compassion, and the play holds up very well indeed. It matters very little that in today’s internet age, Paul’s scam would be quickly unmasked. The themes still resonate.

(Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200; through July 16)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Hello, Dolly! (Shubert Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The electricity is palpable from the first note of the overture, as the audience enthusiastically applauds every tune. The deep red curtain promises a rich dessert, and neither the production nor its much-publicized star disappoint.

Bette Midler is completely winning from the first moment she lowers her newspaper on the streetcar and her million dollar smile beams forth knowingly. Chaos erupts at that moment, and Dolly’s descent from the streetcar is momentarily halted as Midler acknowledges the cheers. But though the crowd is equally vociferous after each of her numbers, this is not just a star turn, but a real performance.

As widowed matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi, Midler evokes considerable pathos and, likewise, all her comic business is carefully within character.

Though Midler is very much the focal point, this is an altogether splendid revival of the classic 1964 musical, across the board. David Hyde Pierce makes a marvelous Horace Vandergelder, the penny-pinching Yonkers merchant. Unrecognizable under his wig and whiskers, he plays the misanthropic miser perfectly, and makes “It Takes a Woman” his own. He’s also been allowed a reinstated song cut from the original production “Penny in My Pocket” which he performs superbly “in one” at the start of the second act.

Kate Baldwin is an absolutely lovely Irene Molloy, the widowed milliner whom matchmaker Dolly has initially set up for Vandergelder until, that is, Dolly decides she’ll go after him herself, and her lyrical “Ribbons Down My Back” is a highlight. Gavin Creel makes an exuberant, strong voiced head clerk Cornelius Hackel, and Taylor Trensch is appealing as his youthful sidekick Barnaby. Beanie Feldstein earns laughs a Irene’s giddy assistant Minnie Fay.

There’s a brief gem of a performance by Jennifer Simard as Ernestina Simple, the dreadful girl Dolly intentionally lines up for Vandergelder as a turn-off.

Midler’s grand second act entrance in a red gown at the Harmonia Gardens is, of course, the big moment everyone hopes it will be. Midler plays it to the hilt, with a glimmer of intentional self-consciousness that signals to the audience that she knows “this is it!” and she feigns exhaustion at one point after traversing the runway.

She scores all the right points in her eating scene with Vandergelder at the restaurant -- “You go your way, I’ll go mine” (pointing in the same direction), though the protracted, self-absorbed eating scene that follows (a variation on Carol Channing’s original staging) does go on.

There are some echoes of the familiar Streisand movie throughout: the painted drop that opens the show resembles the film’s freeze-frame opening, Creel’s awkwardness occasionally echoes Michael Crawford’s, and Midler gets to hum a bit of “It Takes a Woman” as Streisand did.

But Midler’s mannerisms are all her own, and she acts quite movingly in all her apostrophes to her late husband Ephraim, including the one that leads up to her big first act closer, “Before the Parade Passes By.” She’s genuinely touching in those moments.

Jerry Herman’s score holds up very well indeed: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” (immortalized in the Disney film “Wall-E”), “Dancing,” “It Only Takes a Moment, and “So Long Dearie.”)

Director Jerry Zaks is in his element with his sort of material, and choreographer Warren Carlyle pays respectful homage to original director/choreographer Gower Champion.

Santo Loquasto’s brightly colored sets -- lighted by Natasha Katz --  and costumes are dazzling, as they, too, pay homage to the look of the original. The now classic score sounds better than ever in Larry Hochman’s new orchestrations as led by Music Director Andy Einhorn.

(Shubert Theatre,225 West 44 Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Gently Down the Stream (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The latest play by Martin Sherman (author of “Bent”) concerns a New Orleans ex-pat named Beau (Harvey Fierstein), living in London and Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), the young man who comes into his life for a one night stand and stays. We learn Beau had been an accompanist for the great Mabel Mercer and was was a friend of James Baldwin, though he keeps most of his reminiscences guardedly under wraps.

Eventually, Rufus encourages him to record his stories, which allows Fierstein several touching monologues about gay life in an earlier era. The play derives its title from one of these, as Beau recalls a liberating bonding moment involving him and a couple of other gay men as they sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in comforting harmony.

But overall, Beau’s life experience, which more or less mirrors the vicissitudes of the gay liberation era, has taught him that things always “end badly.” Concerned about aging, and so convinced Rufus will one day leave him, he pushes the reluctant young man to have other relationships, which (slight spoiler) Rufus eventually does, taking up with Harry (Christopher Sears), a tattooed performance artist seven years his junior.

The play is a bit slow in building steam, and the impossibly obstinate Fierstein character rather difficult to warm up to, but eventually you're won over.

Performances are fine with Fierstein’s trademark rasp mixing a New Orleans accent and Brooklynese. Ebert, a Tony winner for “Matilda - The Musical,”  is wonderfully appealing and believable as the manic-depressive lawyer Rufus, and Sears evokes a likeable persona and, at one point, impressively performs a song from his act.

Derek McLane has designed a detailed cozy if crowded book-lined apartment for Beau, lighted by Peter Kaczorowski.

Michael Krass’s costumes, Peter Kaczorowski’ lighting, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design are first-rate. Scene changes are punctuated by recordings of Mercer sounding pretty wonderful.

Sean Mathias, who once directed a notable revival of Sherman’s “Bent” with Ian McKellan,  directs with a practiced hand for Sherman’s rhythms.

The play is somewhat predictable and didactic, and maybe a little too neatly wrapped up by the end, but at 100 intermission-less minutes holds your interest, and ultimately, proves affecting.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555 or; through May 14)

Photo: Harvey Fierstein, Christopher Sears, and Gabriel Ebert in Gently Down the Stream, written by Martin Sherman and directed by Sean Mathias, running at The Public Theater. Credit: Joan Marcus

Monday, May 1, 2017

Babes In Toyland (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

MasterVoices’ semi-staged concert version of Victor Herbert’s 1903 extravaganza -- written originally as a follow-up to the hugely successful stage version of “The Wizard of Oz” which had played the same New York theater, the Majestic in Columbus Circle -- was, in most respects, a cause for great celebration: it was, after all, the most high-profile venue and performance accorded Herbert in many decades.

Of course, we’ve had excellent productions from groups such as the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Light Opera of New York, the Comic Opera Guild, and others, but Carnegie Hall is, well, Carnegie Hall. 

And with Ted Sperling conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the large forces of MasterVoices, Herbert’s lush, ambitious score -- one which crosses many genres (long orchestral passages, operetta, Broadway) -- the music could not have been in better hands. So, too, as with past MasterVoices spring concerts of musical theater works, the cast was chosen from among Broadway’s top ranks, all of whom entered happily into the spirit of the occasion.

But enjoyment was tempered by the sometimes rather condescending narration supplied by Joe Keenan for actress Blair Brown. At times, her script seemed to be making apologies for the quaintness of the piece, the deficiencies of the original text, and even for the prodigious length of Herbert’s music. At other times, it was giving us mood-breaking historical detail which added another layer of distancing from the music and narrative. Her script sometimes overlapped the orchestral passages which seemed to relegate the music to secondary place.

The narration might rather have been read in a warm bedtime story tone explaining, where necessary, the fairy tale action, perhaps, at most, describing, with an appropriate sense of wonderment, the eye-popping, colorful, and groundbreaking scenic effects of the original production. Actually, projections, which MasterVoices used in its "Sound of Music" performance a couple of years ago, might have been put to good use here.

The singing, on the other hand, was first-rate, the orchestral playing lustrous, and the performances (as directed by Sperling) only slightly tongue-in-cheek.

The story (original book by lyricist Glen MacDonough) -- rather darker than you’d expect from the familiar Laurel & Hardy or the 1960s Disney films -- involves evil Uncle Barnaby (Jonathan Freeman) engaging a couple of bungling henchmen, Roderigo (Jeffrey Schecter) and Gonzorgo (Chris Sullivan), to kill his niece and nephew, Jane (Lauren Worsham) and Alan (Christopher Fitzgerald) to gain their inheritance. He also has lascivious eyes on Contrary Mary (Kelli O’Hara), as a bride. Mary’s ally in evading Barnaby is Tom Tom (Jay Armstrong Johnson).

By the second act, after the children have gone through shipwrecks, the Spider’s Forest, and the Moth Queen’s Palace, they find themselves in Toyland where the Toymaker (Bill Irwin) is not the eccentric character of most versions but a villain (albeit, in Irwin’s hands, a reasonably comic one) who plans to make toys which will kill the children who possess them. He joins forces with Barnaby who also enlists the aid of a comic inspector Marmaduke (Michael Kostroff).

The show’s most famous tunes are the haunting “Toyland” and the “March of the Toys,” the latter accompanied by some funny business for Irwin and Fitzgerald in the absence of a battalion of soldiers.

Andrew Palermo was credited with musical staging which was, on the whole, clever and resourceful, only occasionally distracting from the music. Overall, though, a comic presentational style won out over charm and sentiment.

O’Hara was in radiant voice, and acted with just the right bemused innocence. Is there anything she can’t do? Her “Barney O’Flynn,” “Beatrice Barefacts,” and “Toyland” (sung very nicely sweet-voiced Johnson in what was originally a trouser role) were all highlights, and her comic timing in the spoken scenes was excellent. Warsham had some delightful moments with “I Can’t Do The Sum,” “Jane,” and blending with Johnson on “Castle in Spain.”

The amazingly versatile Irwin’s Toymaker was well characterized, and he had many superb moments of mime and dancing. Fitzgerald also employed his wonderful comic skills to great effect, whether in drag as a gypsy (“Fioretta”), or emoting a hammy operatic  “Rock-a-bye Baby” in the “Song of the Poet” sequence. Freeman expertly played his evil Barnaby role with relish. Schecter and Sullivan were quite amusing, too, in their comic villain bits.

MasterVoices provided plush accompaniment throughout, shining in the choral parts of "Never Mind, Bo-Peep, We Will Find Your Sheep," “Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep” and many others.

Critics in 1903 duly noted the show’s length, though few complained about it. And as Henry Finck wrote in the “Evening Post” back then, it would be difficult to know where to make cuts. “Certainly not in the music, for there is really nothing that can be spared...Every bar is melodious, while some of the incidental and melodramatic music betrays Mr. Herbert’s position among the leading American composers.” At Carnegie Hall, alas, there were cuts within numbers, such as what should have been the 14-minute orchestral prologue, and some important pieces were left out altogether (e.g. “Legend of the Castle,” “The Military Ball,” “And He Won’t Be Happy Until He Gets It”).

Still, a full performance would surely have lasted at least four hours, so arguably, cuts were pardonable. To his credit, Sperling did include such arcane items as “The Health Food Man” and “If I Were a Man Like That” the latter marred a bit by a questionable Keenan-penned Trump verse.

So even with caveats, this was a bountifully entertaining evening. Let's hear it for further excavations of these delightful treasures of an earlier era.

(Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and 7th Avenue; or 212-247-7800; April 27 only)

Photos by Erin Baiano