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.