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)