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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Beast in the Jungle (Vineyard Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The top-flight team that last brought us “The Scottsboro Boys” at the Vineyard -- composer John Kander, book writer David Thompson, and director/choreographer Susan Stroman -- have come up with something completely different on this occasion, a “dance play,” loosely based on Henry James’ novella, and updated to the present day.

The narrative -- which admittedly veers considerably from James’ more subtle tale -- charts how womanizing art dealer John Marcher (Tony Yazbek) meets May Bertram (Irina Dvorovenko), but each time he has the chance to surrender to love, a beast of his imagination (and spookily embodied here by some clever puppetry manipulated by the ensemble), prevents fulfillment.

They first meet in Naples and spend an idyllic day at the beach (until John’s demon gets in the way, that is), then 20 years later in England’s Cotswalds, by which time May is a noted photographer and married to a wealthy, gun-toting Englishman (excellent Teagle F. Bougere), and then, finally, three decades after that at an art gallery. The real beast is revealed to be nothing more than his fear of commitment.

The play begins with an elder Marcher, well played by Peter Friedman, visited by his nephew (Yazbek), a short story writer, who has just broken up with his girlfriend. Rather like the elderly Marchioness in Noel Coward’s “Bitter Sweet” advising the young lovers not to miss their chance for love, Marcher counsels his impulsive nephew to return to the girl he loves. And thus his own story unfolds.

Structurally, though, I thought the switch from rather prosaic spoken dialogue scenes -- including some jarringly un-Jamesian f-bombs -- to the wonderfully lyrical dancing didn’t quite gel. I think I’d have preferred the spoken portions delivered as sung recitative to maintain a more cohesive musical flow.

Yazbek, fresh from his show-stopping rendition of “The Right Girl” from “Follies” in Stroman’s “Prince of Broadway” is again superb as the young Marcher, dancing romantically or rhythmically and dramatically conveying his ardent romantic feelings and tortured fear of the beast. And he handles those framing present-day scenes as the bespectacled nephew with good contrast.

Irina Dvorovenko, so impressive recently in the Encores’ “Grand Hotel” as the lovelorn aging ballerina, is equally bewitching here, both dancing and acting, as her character ages over the decades. So, too, there’s wonderful chemistry between her and Yazbek.

John Kander’s musical score -- purely instrumental, no songs here -- consists of nothing but waltzes, and ranks with his best. I hope a CD may be coming. The nine-piece ensemble under the direction of David Loud plays the mesmerizing melodies most feelingly.


Stroman’s choreography is, as usual, ceaselessly inventive, and cleverly utilizes her terrific dancers -- Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, and Erin N. Moore -- modelling their movements on Matisse’s “La Danse” (that painting having special significance to May). So they morph from the women with whom young John shamelessly flirts, to stately statuary on pedestals who magically come to life, to young ladies gamboling on the beach with scarves, to New York socialites. And there are further magical Stroman touches such as some witty sexual interplay on a picnic blanket, and May swimming into the sea to retrieve an unmoored skiff.

Though the story is rather somber, Stroman leavens the mood with many of these delightfully light moments.

Michael Curry’s costumes and elegantly spare but evocative settings, and Ben Stanton’s gorgeous lighting create pleasing visual imagery throughout. There’s a particularly striking criss-crossing of blue lights during an erotic pas de deux for the leads. Peter Hylenski’s sound design is also first-rate.

“Wasn’t it just beautiful?” an elderly lady asked me about a block from the theater when she saw the program in my hand, summarizing succinctly the general audience reaction.

(Vineyard Theatre, www.vineyardtheatre.org or by calling the box office at 212-353-0303; through June 17)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck

Friday, June 1, 2018

Saint Joan (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

Any production of George Bernard Shaw’s classic 1923 telling of the 15th century Joan of Arc, her battlefield triumphs, and her trial for heresy must be strongly anchored in the performance of the actress in the name part. So let it be said that Condola Rashad is a very persuasive Maid throughout, playing with resolute conviction and purity, and missing perhaps only a degree of spiritual fervor when pushed to the point of recanting her “voices” at the trial.

The color blind casting doesn’t matter a jot, any more than it did when, ages ago, I saw my first “St. Joan” on stage with the late Diana Sands on the Vivian Beaumont stage where, as happenstance would have it, Shaw’s musicalized “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady” now holds the stage so commandingly. (If your appetite is whetted for more Shaw, so too there’s always David Staller’s excellent monthly readings in his Project Shaw series.)

Daniel Sullivan, who mounted such a fine production of “The Little Foxes” last season, directs with an equally sure hand here, and has assembled an especially good ensemble, though economic exigencies, presumably, entail quite a bit of doubling of parts. The actors are more than up to the challenge.

Thus we have the commanding Patrick Page as Robert de Baudricourt, whom Joan must convince to equip her with men to rout the English occupiers, in the early scenes, and then a fine Inquisitor at the trial; John Glover plays both the Archbishop of Reims and and English soldier; and Robert Stanton as Chaplain de Stogumber, convinced the Maid of Orleans is a witch, and Baudricourt’s steward. Also excelling in multiple roles are Matthew Saldivar and Max Gordon Moore.

Among other highly accomplished portrayals, Walter Bobbie plays the Bishop of Beauvais, Jack Davenport his opponent, the arrogant Earl of Warwick, Daniel Sunjata the stalwart Dunois, Joan’s comrade-in-arms; and Adam Chandler-Berat the weak Dauphin, later Charles VII after Joan succeeds in having him crowned at Rheims cathedral.

Shaw described the play as a “tragedy without villains,” and indeed though one, of course, roots for Joan at her trial, and doesn’t want to have her burned at the stake, the playwright has laid out the arguments on all sides so we understand fully the political and religious motives behind their fatal verdict.

The 25-years-after epilogue which has Joan appearing to Charles in a dream with other characters -- including a 20th century emissary informing her of her canonization three years earlier -- is written in a lightly humorous tone, wrapping up things in dispassionate perspective.

Scott Pask’s set eschews spectacle for an all purpose backdrop of a dominating backdrop of organ pipes, lighted expertly by Justin Townsend, most dramatically when Joan is burned at the stake offstage. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are traditionally medieval

Productions of “St. Joan,” despite its classic stature, are relatively rare, so MTC’s production is well worth your time.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.manhattantheatreclub.com; through June 10)

Photo by Joan Marcus. Condola Rashad and Daniel Sunjata.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Lyric Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This lavish sequel to the popular books (seven in all) joins “Angels in America” as this season’s highly recommendable two-part, multi-hour, British import, albeit one, unlike the Tony Kushner play, you bring the kids to see.  Both are outstanding pieces of theater, not only for stagecraft but emotional content as well. Playwright Jack Thorne -- in tandem with author J.K. Rowling and director John Tiffany -- have fashioned a worthy continuation of Rowling’s engrossing narrative that honors and enriches all the elements of the original.

Harry Potter (Jamie Parker) is now father of young Albus (Sam Clemmett) of Hogwarts age who has grown up in the oppressive shadow of his famous dad. On the train to Hogwarts, with his friend Rose (Susan Heyward), daughter of Hermione (Noma Dumezweni) and Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley), Albus surprisingly bonds with Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle), son of Harry’s arch enemy at school Draco Malfoy (Alex Price), now a concerned father himself.

Harry is married to Ginny Weasley, nicely played by Poppy Miller. Hermione now heads the Ministry of Magic, and Harry has a desk job there. Ron is still endearingly silly.

Determined to prove himself worthy in his own right, Albus contrives to use a Time Turner device to prevent the death of Cedric Diggory (Benjamin Wheelwright) who perished in a game of Quidditch in the earlier story. They are aided in this endeavor by Delphi Diggory (Jessie Fisher). However, the stunt results in changing the present with disastrous results. And therein lies the crux of the plot. I’ll say no more as, much like Alfred Hitchcock in the trailers for “Psycho” years ago had begged audiences not to reveal the film’s surprises, the producers have done likewise here. In fact, everyone is given a button upon exiting reading “#KeepTheSecrets.”

The Showbill includes helpful synopses of the seven books and a glossary and even if you know the books (or seen the subsequent film versions), unless you’re a Potter obsessive, you’d be well advised to refresh your memory. Though I’d seen the films and read a couple of the books, I had frankly forgotten many of the details, so I found myself a bit lost at first. So, too, the actors tend occasionally to rush their lines, losing intelligibility. I had a veteran American actor on my left, and an English one on my right, and they were uniformly tsk-tsking at the sporadic lack of clear enunciation.

For my part, once I read the synopses and the helpful glossary, I felt completely up to speed, and there’s no denying that the first act ends on a real cliffhanger, with coup de theatre stage effects. Indeed, the effects throughout -- not overdone, but used judiciously -- are quite astonishing. Jamie Harrison is responsible for “Illusions and Magic,” both of which brilliantly abound.

Casting throughout is exceptionally well done, with most of the actors chosen for, or made up to look like, their movie counterparts, the big exception being Hermione. Ms. Dumezweni couldn’t be more different than Emma Watson, but she’s so dynamic and perfectly in character, one doesn’t sense any confusion on the part of the audience..

The excellent actor and singer Parker does well as the adult Harry, deeply troubled by his uneasy relationship with Albus particularly after he undercuts his son with a hurtful remark, but most of the stage time goes to Clemmett and  Boyle, the latter particularly winning.

The story is as gripping as the films, and given Rowling’s involvement, is invested with the requisite integrity. Fans of the series will not be disappointed. Tiffany directs with obvious affinity for the material, and the action is wonderfully fluid, thanks also to Movement Director Steve Hoggett. Sound Designer Gareth Fry’s stereophonic effects are also marvelously effective.

Christina Jones’ set is a marvel, switching back and forth effortlessly from the train station to the Potter home to Hogwarts to various other locales, with various cleverly employed motifs including suitcases and clocks.. Finn Ross and Ash Woodward’s video designs and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are splendid.

For sheer entertainment value not to mention all the dazzling stagecraft, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is tough to beat. And best of all, underpinning everything are such time-honored themes as parenting, friendship, love, courage; in other words, the stuff of drama and life itself.

(Lyric Theatre, 214 West 43rd Street; 877-250-2929 or lyricbroadway.com)

Photo by Manuel Harlan: Pictured  (l-r): Noma Dumezweni, Susan Heyward,  Paul Thornley, Olivia Bond, Ben Wheelwright,  Jamie Parker, Poppy Miller, Sam Clemmett. Credit:  Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Travesties (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

Delectable performances and superb staging make Tom Stoppard’s dizzying mashup of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of the Dada movement), Lenin, and James Joyce richly entertaining, even if the text itself may send you scurrying for Wikipedia.

The show premiered on Broadway in 1974 as a Royal Shakespeare Company import with John Wood giving a virtuoso performance as Sir Henry Carr, the British consulate officer who narrates the play as an old man, morphing into his younger self as he joins the action. I was totally enthralled, and ran out to buy the script, a pattern repeated with subsequent intellectually challenging Stoppard plays for some time to come.

Here it’s the great Tom Hollander, only his second time on Broadway, as Carr and he’s every bit as entertaining as Wood back in the day.

What inspired Stoppard to construct this madcap comedy -- for such it is underneath all the intellectual content -- was learning that Joyce, Tzara, Lenin, and Carr were all in Zurich in 1917, and that Joyce had indeed mounted a production of “Earnest” with Carr playing Algernon, an experience that ended with acrimony and a lawsuit between the two. Stoppard has his fanciful counterparts give vent to their particular passions, and the nature of art in general.

Besides Hollander’s virtuoso performance, there’s fine work by the entire ensemble including Seth Numrich as Tzara; Peter McDonald as Joyce; Dan Butler as Lenin; Opal Alladin as his wife Nadya; and Patrick Kerr as Carr’s butler. McDonald, like Hollander, hailed from the production mounted by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, as does the creative team.

Scarlett Strallen and Sara Topham could not be more delightful as, respectively, Gwendolen, aka Joyce’s assistant, and librarian Cecily (for whom Tzara falls), especially in their song modelled on the once famous “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Sheen” vaudeville number. Though not a full-out musical, the songs in the show are so well done, you might at times think it is. During the interval, Gilbert and Sullivan plays on the speaker system as Carr was a G&S fan.

Patrick Marber, fine playwright himself, directs for maximum enjoyment, and if you don’t understand what’s going on -- though there are helpful program notes and a handy education guide that can be accessed on the Roundabout’s website -- you’ll enjoy it anyway.

Tim Hatley’s handsome wood-paneled set and period costumes, Neil Austin’s lighting, and Adam Cork’s sound design and are tip-top.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street; roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300; through June 17)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Brooklyn Academy of Music)


By Harry Forbes

It’s a pity that this high-powered revival of Eugene O’Neill’s most autobiographical play (first seen in 2016 at the Bristol Old Vic), should come to us so soon after New York had the superlative Roundabout Jonathan Kent production with Jessica Lange giving such an indelible performance, and backed by a fine cast to boot.

Here we have Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville both, of course, very fine artists and giving predictably polished, intelligent performances, and Sir Richard Eyre at the helm, so it can hardly be said to be without merit. But frankly, the Kent production was far more successful all around.

Though attractively set and costumed by Rob Howell in a abstract rendering of the Tyrones’ summer home with a forced perspective skylight, and moodily lighted by Peter Mumford with atmospheric sound design (foghorns and the like) from John Leonard, I could rarely believe these people were a family, though dysfunctional barely begins to describe how the parts are written: loving and considerate one moment, seriously hateful and hurting the next.

The great Manville, so delectably self-contained in “Phantom Thread,” comes on like gangbusters here as the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, chattering away a mile a minute. Though she’s too fine an artist not to ultimately give the part shading, I thought her performance overall rather one note. As the skinflint family patriarch (too cheap to engage first-rate doctors for his wife and consumptive son), and embittered after a lifetime of eschewing Shakespeare to play a part in a popular melodrama (in actuality, “The Count of Monte Cristo”), Irons still registers as a debonair Englishman, no matter how shabbily outfitted. Which is not to say that, like Manville, he doesn’t have many striking individual moments.

The sons are played passably, but not as distinctively as in past productions with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Shannon, or of course, Jason Robards, Jr. in the Lumet film. As the O’Neill prototype, the consumptive Edmund, Matthew Beard perhaps overdoes the sensitivity but he’s reasonably affecting. As his elder brother Jamie, dissolute actor and alcoholic, who both loves and envies his kid brother, Rory Keenan’s bitterness has something of a superficial quality. Both brothers revelatory speeches near the end lack the requisite punch.

I very much liked Jessica Regan as the family maid who shares an intimate (and mercifully lighthearted) moment with Mary Tyrone when the family is out.

Though the play begins annoyingly with a rapid flurry of naturalistic overlapping dialogue, and Manville, in particular, reads her lines so quickly throughout, the evening still manages to feel rather long. I’d like to think I was just weary from having sat through O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (also three and a half hours long) a few nights earlier, but I do think it’s the pacing.

Flaws notwithstanding, the marquee names of Irons, Manville, and Eyre will be of interest to committed theatergoers.

At the end of its Brooklyn run, the production will play Los Angeles’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts during the month of June.

(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street; 718-636-4100 or  www.bam.org; through May 27)

Photo: Matthew Beard, Lesley Manville, Jeremy Irons, Rory Keenan. Credit:Richard Termine

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Iceman Cometh (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This latest revival of one of Eugene O’Neill’s several epically long plays -- first produced in 1946 -- ranks high among the half dozen or so I’ve seen, though they’ve all, in their way, been very fine, with distinguished casts headed by the likes of Kevin Spacey and the peerless Jason Robards, Jr. The color blind casting of Denzel Washington in the lead role of traveling salesman Hickey brings to mind James Earl Jones’ excellent assumption of the role in 1973 at Circle in the Square.

The plot concerns a group of depressed losers in a dilapidated Westside bar in 1912, momentarily energized by the annual appearance of a flashy salesman who can always be counted upon to give them a good time. But much to their surprise, the Hickey who shows up now is a reformed man, on the wagon and consumed with evangelistic fervor in determining to rid his old cronies of their unrealistic pipe dreams.

George C.  Wolfe’s production -- pegged to Washington’s desire to take on this iconic role --  comes just three years after Robert Falls’ Goodman Theater mounting with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy which played BAM but, surprisingly, never came to Broadway.

In most particulars, actually, I think the Chicago production had the edge, but this one is certainly high quality too. Besides Washington’s dynamic performance, there are solid turns by Colm Meany as bar owner Harry Hope (who hasn’t left the premises in 20 years); Frank Wood and Dakin Matthews as The Captain and The General respectively, Boer War adversaries reliving their past triumphs; Tammy Blanchard as Cora, a prostitute who hopes to marry day bartender Chuck (Danny Mastrogiorgio); Bill Irwin as ex-circus man Ed; and Michael Potts as former owner of a gambling house (played so memorably by John Douglas Thompson in the Falls production).. I mean no disservice to the rest by not singling out Carolyn Braver, Joe Forbrich, Nina Grollman, Thomas Michael Hammond, Neal Huff, Jack McGee, Clark Middleton, and Reg Rogers.

David Morse is especially powerful as disillusioned anarchist Larry Slade to whom young Don Parritt (Austin Butler), son of a jailed anarchist mother, comes for absolution. Slade was his mother’s ex-lover, and Don, we learn, was responsible for her arrest.

George C. Wolfe directs the long play with as much of an eye towards the humor (and there is much) as the high drama, and elicits great performances from all. Washington’s long revelatory monologue is staged with Hickey in a chair speaking straight out to the audience as the others listen from behind, perhaps the one bit of staging that felt artificial.

Despite the play’s length and repetition -- phrases like “pipe dream” are repeated ad infinitum, and characters tread the same ground incessantly -- there’s not a dull moment.

Santo Loquasto’s dreary bar setting, Ann Roth’s character-perfect costumes, and Jules Fisher, Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design, and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting all contribute worthily to a highly atmospheric production.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 252 West 45th Street;     Telecharge.com or by phone at 212 239 6200)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Seafarer (Irish Repertory Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

A decade after its Broadway run, here's a solid revival of the 2007 Conor McPherson play about a Dublin Christmas Eve gathering of ne’er-do-wells and a mysterious stranger (who, slight spoiler though his identity is revealed early) who turns out to be the Devil) in their midst, the latter played by Matthew Broderick in the role created by the considerably more hulking and sinister Ciaran Hinds.

The Irish Rep company is, on the whole, nearly a match for the originals. Colin McPhillamy is especially fabulous as the blind and perpetually inebriated braggart Richard living with his more straight-laced on-the-wagon brother “Sharky” (Andy Murray). Their hard-drinking friends Ivan (Michael Mellamphy), afraid to go home to his wife in his inebriated state and continuallyk searching for his missing glasses, and suave Nicky (Tim Ruddy), who’s dating Sharky’s ex-wife, join for a game of cards that has higher stakes than most of the characters imagine.

Mild-mannered though Broderick’s persona is by nature, he does manage to raise his voice threateningly at times, which is all the more powerful as it’s no unexpected. Ultimately, I'd say he's quite effective in the role.

Irish Rep Producing Director CiarĂ¡n O’Reilly, demonstrating again a real affinity for McPherson’s work, directs with a sure hand. And his cast totally inhabit their roles, showing that, a decade later, the play holds up very well indeed.

Charlie Corcoran’s scenic design (the shabby, two-level ramshackle house), atmospherically lighted by Brian Nason, and Martha Hally’s authentic seeming costumes are all you would wish.

(Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street; 866-811-4111 or irishrep.org; through May 24)

Matthew Broderick, Michael Mellamphy, Andy Murray, Tim Ruddy & Colin McPhillamy in THE SEAFARER at Irish Rep, Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

My Fair Lady (Lincoln Center Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Director Bartlett Sher set a high bar for himself with his sterling revivals of “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” totally respectful to the works but staging them with a wonderfully fresh and intelligent eye. Would his new revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” live up to the same high standards? The answer is a resounding yes.

“My Fair Lady” meets expectations and then some. I would even say, as an English friend opined during intermission, that it’s the best production since the original, and he should know as he was a dresser for the original production at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. As a very small child saw the original Broadway production, albeit at the end of its multi-year run, so I can only barely visualize it. But I’ve seen many fine (and not so fine) revivals since, and reflecting back, this one seems to me the most satisfying of all.

Beautifully designed by Michael Yeargan with magical lighting by Donald Holder and lavishly costumed by Catherine Zuber on the expansive Beaumont stage, with intelligent casting (37 in all) from top to bottom, this is about as good as it gets. The 29-piece orchestra provides a plush orchestral palette, and Marc Salzberg’s sound design is impeccable.

Lauren Ambrose with her red hair and pale skin is not quite how one visualizes Eliza Doolittle, but she’s as fine an Eliza as any I’ve ever seen either in “Pygmalion” or “My Fair Lady.” Wonderfully endearing as the naive Cockney flower girl in the early scenes, touchingly vulnerable, and appropriately authoritative in the later ones, she finds nuances in the dialogue that surprise and delight. And yes, she has a lovely soprano voice, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” soars.

As her irascible, misogynistic vocal coach, Harry Hadden-Paton is also superb, the very model of a Henry Higgins. Singing more actual notes than creator Rex Harrison, but at the same time, comfortably traditional in the best sense, he conveys the growing attraction to Eliza most convincingly, culminating in a moving rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” As his more civilized partner in Eliza’s linguistic betterment, Allan Corduner -- who played Sir Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh’s “Topsy Turvy” -- makes a perfect Colonel Pickering.

The amazing Norbert Leo Butz is almost unrecognizable as Eliza’s father, the bewhiskered and greying Doolittle, and delivers his two number with all the music hall brio the part requires. “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are real showstoppers, the latter replete with can-can dancers. Vocal powerhouse Jordan Donica as the lovelorn Freddy sings the show’s hit song “On the Street Where You Live” with requisite fervor and ringing high notes.

Of the big setpieces, the Ascot Gavotte -- nimbly choreographed, as are all the other numbers, by Christopher Gattelli -- is a particular knockout with the entire ensemble spread out across the stage in hilarious snobbish detachment.  Eliza’s coming out at the Embassy Ball is jaw-droppingly staged with an onstage orchestra accompanying the waltzing couples.

Ted Sperling’s musical direction of the Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang orchestrations is impeccable. The last big London revival at the National Theatre directed by Trevor Nunn starring Jonathan Pryce utilized inferior new orchestrations by William Brohn which is just the sort of misguided face lift this production smartly avoids. (That production, which later toured here, wasn’t hateful in the theater, but the resulting CD sounds pretty pallid today.)

At every stage, the line and lyric readings here are just that much fresher without betraying Shaw or book writer Lerner. When Eliza sings of being “absolutely still” in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” she really emphasizes the word “still” as if the thought of doing absolutely nothing was bliss beyond imagining. When she has her big breakthrough in “The Rain in Spain,” her first tries of the line are still effortful, a wonderfully naturalistic touch, but ultimately just as joyous as ever.


Diana Rigg, herself an acclaimed Eliza in “Pygmalion” opposite the late Alec McGowan’s Higgins in 1974, is a fine Mrs. Higgins, though she doesn’t get to sing. (McGowan did play the musical Higgins in a recording for Jay Records, and he was terrific, and like Hadden-Paton, sang more of the musical line than is customary.)

Much has been made in the pre-publicity interviews about Eliza being molded by Higgins in a way that’s unacceptable in today’s #MeToo environment. But, in fact, Eliza, as Shaw first wrote her, has always given as good as she’s gotten, and despite her momentary faltering after her transformation (“What’s to become of me?”) she finds her own way. Shaw had her leave Higgins at the end of “Pygmalion” with the latter exclaiming with bemusement “She’s going to marry Freddy.”

But director Gabriel Pascal, who worked with Shaw on the movie version of the play, slyly inserted an ending that had her return to Higgins. As far as we know, Shaw accepted the change with equanimity. In this production, Sher rather splits the difference, but I shan’t spoil how. Throughout the show, there’s none of the wholesale cutting of songs or dialogue that detracts from the integrity of the otherwise excellent revival of “Carousel.”

Many believe “My Fair Lady” is the most perfect of musicals and I’m sure Sher’s production will go a long way to reinforcing that view.

(Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.lct.org)

Top to bottom (photos by Joan Marcus):
Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton

Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Allan Corduner

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Brief History of Women (Brits Off Broadway)


A Brief History of Women (Brits Off Broadway)

By Harry Forbes

It’s always a pleasure to be able to see these imports from Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England. And the latest -- presented, as always, courtesy of 59E59’s  enterprising Brits Off Broadway lineup -- is no exception, though I’ll admit “A Brief History of Women” required some warming up on my part.

The play is constructed in four separate scenes from the 1920s to the 1980s, connected by location (Kirkbridge Manor) and its principal male character Spates beautifully played with Everyman decency by Antony Eden. But the tone varies a bit disconcertingly from scene to scene. There’s more than a slightly unpleasant edge to the first, the second is unrealistically farcical, the third returns to the more expected Acykbourn brand of humor, and the fourth combines more of that humor with a satisfyingly touching wrap-up.

As always, much of the pleasure derives from watching Ayckbourn’s versatile troupe morph from one character to another. Wigs and Kevin Jenkins’ costumes do their excellent part, but the cast is amazingly adept at transforming themselves from the inside out.

In Part 1, it’s 1925, and it’s the engagement party of the daughter (Laura Matthews) of Lady Caroline Kirkbridge (Frances Marshall) to Captain Fergus Ffluke (Laurence Pears). While Caroline and Fergus’ mother (Louise Shuttleworth) chat in the ballroom, the former’s misanthropic and brutish husband (Russell Dixon) is lecturing Fergus on how women must be kept in their place. Caroline finds herself attracted to Spates (Eden), at this point a 17-year-old footman. There’s a “Downton Abbey”-like thematic feel to this section, as the old ways are rapidly giving way to the new.

In 1942, the Manor has become a girls’ preparatory school, and Spates is a teacher there having an affair with a young, emotionally unbalanced widow (Matthews), while the headmaster (Dixon) warns Spates to be more discreet. Another embittered teacher (Shuttleworth) takes out her hatred of the Germans against a Swiss teacher (Marshall) she insists must be German, evidence to the contrary. Gym teacher Desmond (Pears) is meanwhile preparing for the Guy Fawkes fireworks that night which you just know will go spectacularly awry, and indeed, they do.

In 1965, the Manor is now an arts center, and the campy director (Dixon) is rehearsing a panto version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” with actress Pat (Marshall) as Jack, and his wife Gillian (Shuttleworth) as the front end of Jack’s cow. The exasperated director must contend with the politically correct pretensions of a sullen young man (Pears) who finds the script demeaning to the lower classes. Spates, for his part, is now the administrator of the place, and becomes more actively involved with the characters as he watches the rehearsals.

And finally in 1985, the Manor has become a hotel, and the semi-retired Spates now its general manager.  A young couple, descendants of the Kirkbridges from the first scene (Matthews and Pears), arrives with the woman’s great-grandmother in tow with poignant results.

Ayckbourn himself directs with obvious authenticity. Jenkin’s set which, like the cast, transforms effortlessly from era to era, and suggests at least five different playing areas at any one time is ingeniously constructed. Kirkbridge Manor thus becomes as much a character as any of the players.

Even if not quite top drawer Ayckbourn, this first-rate production is well worth your time.

(Brits Off Broadway, 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org; through May 27)

Pictured: L-R: Frances Marshall, Laurence Pears, Antony Eden, Laura Matthews, Louise Shuttleworth. Photo by Tony Bartholomew

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Enchantress (VHRP Live!)



 By Harry Forbes

Hot on the heels of LOONY’s “Naughty Marietta” only one week before, along came yet another Victor Herbert work, but this one a real rarity, a 1911 hit which, in its day, had most critics raving. (Frequent Herbert collaborator Harry B. Smith supplied the lyrics.) In fact, it followed “Naughty Marietta” by just one year, but in the interim, the prolific composer had been unfairly trounced by the press for his ambitious grand opera “Natoma” and had turned out two lesser works (“When Sweet Sixteen” and “The Duchess”) which failed to make much of a mark.

In his excellent 1955 biography of Herbert, Edward Waters deemed “The Enchantress” the equal of “Naughty Marietta” and, as such, shamefully neglected, though more recent biographer Neil Gould, while admiring the score’s craftsmanship, found the book (by Fred De Gresac) -- also generally praised in its day -- “unredeemable” even by Herbert’s music.

No such opinion deterred late Herbert scholar and conductor Frederic Roffman from mounting a production in 1983 for the Bel Canto Opera. It used an 18-piece orchestra, but Roffman fiddled with the script (including a different ending) the song order and interpolated cut songs and numbers from other shows, including one from Herbert’s unfinished adaptation of “Trilby.” Nor has it discouraged VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott who has done some tasteful abridging but has remained more faithful to the structure, while her stage direction was, as usual, creative and sensible. In the event, the production was a great success.

The action takes place in the fictional country of Zergovia, as scheming Prince Regent Miloch (Brian Kilday) and War Minister Ozir (Drew Bollander) plot to get rid of the royal heir Prince Ivan (Tom Carle), who’s about to ascend to the throne. Their plan is to have him fall in love with a non-royal, a charming opera singer Vivien Savary (Claire Leyden), the “enchantress” of the title, which will perforce lead to his abdication. There are, meanwhile, several princesses (Haley Vick, Jane Hoffman, Sonora Dolce, JoAnna Geffert, and Susan Case) vying for the prince’s attention, not to mention a hoydenish American gal (Joanie Brittingham) who hopes to buy herself a title to make herself eligible for consideration. Once Ivan lays eyes on Vivien, though, he genuinely falls for her, inveterate ladies man that he’s been till now. Troute (funny and versatile Jovani Demetrie), the head of the Secret Service, gets a whiff of the plot and enters into a number of outrageous disguises to discover more and thwart the plan.


The production was well cast across the board, but Leyden was perfection in the title role. She had the voice, the grace, the poise, the beauty and sensitivity to carry off the part, while being utterly convincing as a woman worthy of a king giving up his throne. In the sequence that first introduces the show’s big tune, “To the Land of My Own Romance,” her ravishing singing and that of the ensemble made for a heart-stoppingly gorgeous moment.

Elsewhere, her renditions of the rueful “The Goldfish Song” and “All Your Own Am I” were delivered with equally outstanding vocalism and feeling.

Hoffman carried off the show’s second best known song “Art Is Calling for Me” (resurrected by Beverly Sills in her out-of-print Herbert album, and later an encore favorite of Kiri Te Kanawa). VHRP’s version included the rarely heard musical quotations from “La Boheme” and “Faust” with admirable aplomb. Vick handled her part of the duet “When the Right Man Sings Tra La” with charm. And special mention must be made of Case who, rather incredibly, played the very same part of the Russian princess that she did in the aforementioned Roffman production 35 years ago, and scored once again both vocally and comedically.

As the smitten prince, Carle -- last seen at VHRP as rebel hero Barry O’Day in “Eileen” -- scored with “The Best Little Girl is You,” and partnered handsomely with Leyden. Kilday and Bolander excelled as the crafty schemers.. David Seatter was, as always in these productions, a joy in the comic baritone roles, this time as the Prince’s tutor Poff. Besides dueting with Vick on her aforementioned piece, he and Demetrie excelled in an amusing and jaunty duet “They All Look Good When They’re Far Away.”


Demetrie, for his part, had another showstopping musical moment with Vira Slywotzky as Vivien’s love-lorn aunt as they sang of their upcoming life together “Come To Sunny Spain,” with riotous choreography by Susanna Organek who provided nimble staging of the musical numbers throughout, including a lovely “Merry Widow”-like waltz sequence for Vivien and Ivan in the second act.

Two songs were cut -- the Princesses’ “Dreaming Princess” and Marian’s “That Pretty Little Song” -- along with some other little snips here and there, but this was still a satisfyingly full evening, one of the very best in VHRP’s enterprising four-year history. Marian’s other number “I’ve Been Looking for a Perfect Man” was, by the way, exceptionally well delivered by Brittingham.

As with last spring’s production of “The Red Mill,” “The Enchantress” was accompanied by the six-piece New Victor Herbert Orchestra, as well as Herbert expert William Hicks on the piano, all buoyantly conducted by Music Director Michael Thomas who, as usual, kept the musical side of things on the highest level.



During her interval remarks, Mott announced her promising lineup for next season: “Orange Blossoms” and “Sweethearts” as well as a themed evening of love songs.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; April 24 and 25 only)

Photos: Jill LeVine

Top to bottom:

“Finale Ultimo” Jovanie Demetri, Joanie Brittingham, David Seatter, Tom Carle, Claire Leyden, Vira Slywotzky, Haley Vick, Jan Hoffman, Jonathan Fox Powers, Colm Fitzmaurice, Andrew Troup.

“Rose, Lucky Rose” Tom Carle, Claire Leyden
                 
“Come to Sunny Spain” Vira Slywotzky, Jovani Demetri
                     
New Victor Herbert Orchestra

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This is a fitfully entertaining but woefully superficial jukebox musical built around the life of the late pop idol Donna Summer, played principally by Broadway veteran LaChanze, but with the role shared by Ariana DeBose and Storm Lever in her earlier stages as, respectively, the disco diva and teenager.

The conceit isn’t very satisfying, and nor particularly is the gimmick of having other women in the cast play several of the men in Summer’s life.

When LaChanze isn’t playing Summer, or narrating the events in Summer’s life, she’s her Boston-based mother Mary, playing opposite Ken Robinson as Summer’s dad Andrew Gaines, and Lever sometimes shows up as Summer’s first daughter Mimi, child of Summer’s first husband in Germany.

The narrative, such as it is, charts the star’s career from choir singer to cast member of a European production of “Hair” (there’s a bit of “White Boys”) to fledgling Casablanca Records artist and stardom, and her courtship by and marriage to empathetic musician Bruce Sudano (Jared Zirilli) after enduring an abusive relationship.  I would have liked to have heard something about her other early musical theater work and her stint with the Vienna Volksoper, but that part of her life seemed to be of little interest to the creators.

The focus is squarely on the music the fans expect to hear -- and her hits are performed as book songs and performance - with a skimming-the-surface overview of her triumphs and difficulties including childhood abuse, domestic violence involving a German boyfriend (prompting a version of her partnering with Streisand hit, “Enough is Enough”), her seemingly anti-gay statement (“God didn’t make Adam and Steve”) which caused an outcry by her fans at the time, but explained here as merely an idle joke in performance when the men in the audience were drowning out the women during an impromptu singalong, her lawsuit against Casablanca and its head Neil Bogart (Aaron Krohn) and her cancer diagnosis.

LaChanze and DeBose are very good indeed delivering the Summer hits in strong voice and suggesting her manner without, of course, being the real deal. I had the pleasure of working with Summer at a press junket a few years ago, and watching her rehearse and then wow the press corps later that evening, I was struck by the unique timbre of her voice. It was really quite thrilling. None of the ladies onstage quite captures that, but they’re close enough in this context.

And on its own terms,  it’s heartening to have the talented LaChanze -- original star of “Once on This Island” and “The Color Purple” -- again starring in a big Broadway musical.

“Summer” is at its best when, in the last minutes of the intermission-less show, the disco balls descend and we get full-out renditions of two of the star’s most iconic hits, “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance.”

Sergio Trujillo, who supplied the flashy moves for the Gloria Estefan musical “On Your Feet,” provides comparable period moves for his cast here. Distinguished director Des McAnuff, who guided the infinitely superior “Jersey Boys” to long-running success, does his best with the lightweight material here.

The book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and McAnuff himself, has none of the substance of the one Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice penned for “Jersey Boys” or Douglas McGrath for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”

Robert Brill’s scenic design with rising platforms for the three ladies is artfully spare but appropriately flashy, while Paul Tazewell’s costumes capture the fashion flavor of Summer’s heyday. Howell Binkley’s lighting does its best to emulate the Studio 54-era vibe.

(Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street; Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)

Photo by Joan Marcus. LaChanze, Ariana  DeBose, Storm Lever and company