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Friday, December 21, 2018

The Cher Show (Neil Simon Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

If you saw “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” (soon to close), you’ll be forgiven for a nagging sense of deja vu in that both that jukebox musical bio and this one coincidentally share the same basic structure of three women playing their titular star at different stages of her career.

However, as Rick Elice’s book for this one is several degrees stronger than the one for “Summer,” and the triptych of stars are overall better utilized, we can forgive the similarity.

Stephanie J. Block, who made her Broadway debut several years ago playing Liza Minnelli in “The Boy from Oz,” again very successfully assumes the persona of a famous entertainer in her iconic Star stage. She has the voice and mannerisms down pat. And, to their considerable credit, so do Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond as the middle period (Lady) and teenage (Babe) versions of Cher. Part of Elice’s conceit is to have the three talking amongst themselves rather in the manner of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” (Thereafter all similarities to that towering Pulitzer Prize-winning work end.)

Elice has captured the “voice” of the public Cher, her sardonic humor and nonchalance, and the three ladies have done so as well.

The narrative starts with Cher, the troubled teenager dealing with racial taunts at school for being a half Armenian “half-breed,” as her later hit song would immortalize, albeit with a Native American slant, though she is bolstered by her warmly supportive mother Georgia (Emily Skinner). Her innate shyness starts to erode when she meets the controlling Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector) who eases her way into show business, first as a backup singer for Phil Spector (Michael Fatica), then as half of the act that would soon be known as Sonny & Cher. We see their initial success in the U.K. on the Top of the Pops television series, then getting their own successful television series, marital squabbles and divorce, the TV reunion, Cher’s romance with Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik) and his substance abuse issues, her affair with a bagel guy Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno) and ultimately, her success as an Oscar-winning film star and a solo vocal artist.

I’d say Douglas McGrath’s script for the Carole King musical “Beautiful” set the gold standard for incorporating a star’s hit parade into a reasonably mature telling of a life story. Elice, who co-authored the “Jersey Boys” book, doesn’t measure up to that, but at least Cher’s bumpy relationship with Sonny, and other personal and career pitfalls are not glossed over.

Various luminaries make cameo appearances here. There’s her ace designer Bob Mackie (Michael Berresse), The Dave Clark Five (actually not much like that popular group), a rather crude travesty of a Lucille Ball impression by Skinner as she advises Cher to dump Sonny as she did Desi, and Robert Altman (Berresse again) who pep talks Cher in her Broadway acting debut. (It was “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” though the title is never mentioned.)

Christopher Gatelli’s choreography captures all the moves you’d expect. The “Dark Lady” number with an excellent Ashley Blair Fitzgerald and some hunky male dancers got one of the biggest hands of the evening.

The set design by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis goes for flash over class, Ditto Kevin Adams’ lighting, especially during the obligatory Vegasy finale with positively blinding lights.

Bob Mackie himself has designed the costumes which are replicas (or close approximations) of the censor-worrying ones Cher actually wore.

Daryl Waters’ music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements pay appropriate homage to the original charts, except when the hits are used as part of the narrative, as when, for instance, Gloria enjoins Cher “You’d Better Sit Down Kids,” or Lucy improbably does “Heart of Stone.” But “I Got You, Babe,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” and even her weekly “Vamp” song from the TV series are all here.

I do wish they had found a way to incorporate some of Cher’s lovely early covers of material such as “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” but, as it is, the evening quite a songfest.

Jason (“Avenue Q”) Moore directs with the requisite affinity for the material.

(Neil Simon Theatre, Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street; Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)

Photo by Joan Marcus: The Cast of THE CHER SHOW on Broadway

Monday, December 17, 2018

American Son (Booth Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

A separated mixed race couple -- African-American Kendra (Kerry Washington) and white Scott (Steven Pasquale) -- wait anxiously for news of their son Jamal who’s gone missing after leaving home in his car the night before. They fear that as a strapping six foot two black kid with cornrows and baggy pants, he may have run afoul of a bigoted cop, despite the young man’s impeccable education and good breeding. Rookie policeman Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) at the station house is none too forthcoming with details, and the parents’ hysteria grows with each passing moment, as they wait anxiously for the promised officer (Eugene Lee) who will know more.

Christopher Demos-Brown’s play is reasonably suspenseful, and offers four meaty roles to his actors, especially for Washington, but this feels rather like a TV police procedural with a didactic overlay of Black Lives Matter and present day race relations messaging. Still, those vitally important issues are intelligently presented from every angle.

At my performance, I felt the crowd was a bit restless, though the candy wrappers and fidgeting subsided as the play neared its tense climax, and gave the cast a deserved enthusiastic ovation at the end.

Demos-Brown does his best to to give us conflict, but one has to suspend some disbelief as each time Larkin or Lieutenant Stokes seems about to impart a tidbit of crucial information, the parents’ aggressive questioning hardly allows the officers to impart what they know.

Racial tensions come to the fore not only between Kendra and Scott and the officers, but between themselves as they seemingly never did during their years of marriage. Jamal was primed to go to West Point, but it seems he had conflicting issues. And though Scott believes he has a good relationship with Jamal, there were serious identify issues, and Jamal was deeply disturbed by Scott’s walking out on Kendra.

I’m reluctant to give more details as even the smallest points are revealed very slowly.

Washington has the lion’s share of dramatic outbursts and superbly displays the emotions of an understandably distraught mother. She arrives at the station house first, and indignantly rebuts the rookie’s suggestions that her Emily Dickinson-quoting son might have a street name or a gold tooth. Pasquale whose character is an FBI man and tellingly, is able to wrest more information from Larkin than his wife had done, has the requisite authority. Jordan, in a rather startling and impressive change of pace, does very well as the doltish cop putting his casually racist foot in his mouth at every turn. And Lee strikes just the right note of paternal empathy and no-nonsense authority when he makes his late entrance.

Kenny Leon directs with customary skill, keeping the tension as taut as the didacticism of the play will allow.

Derek McLane’s set -- the waiting room of a Miami police station --  feels as coldly desolate as such a place would in the wee hours of the morning, with complementary lighting by Peter Kaczorowski.  

Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design, including the realistic thunderstorm outside, adds to the bleak ambience.

The ending of this one act play is shockingly abrupt, but the audience responds emotionally, demonstrating they were, in fact, absorbed all along.

(Booth Theatre, 222 W 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through January 27)

Friday, December 14, 2018

Network (Belasco Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

I must confess I have not been the keenest fan of trendy director Ivo van Hove, but this exciting production of “Network,” based on the 1976 film by writer Paddy Chayefsky, may have just turned the tide for me. Following the screenplay virtually verbatim, this stage adaptation -- acclaimed at London’s National Theatre -- proves quite a thrilling piece of theater, and Bryan Cranston knocks it way out of the park with his sensational performance in the Oscar-winning Peter Finch role of Howard Beale, a network anchorman whose firing after 25 years leads to an on-air breakdown.

That breakdown -- including an audacious vow to kill himself on air in a week’s time -- leads to high ratings and a callous decision on the part of the fictional UBS network brass to keep him on the air. The decision is fueled by ratings-crazed programming chief Diana Christensen who takes control of the show.

The movie cast of Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall was pretty unbeatable, but in addition to Cranston’s outstanding work here, Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany perform impressively as news chief (and Beale friend) Max Schumacher and ruthless programming head Diana Christensen who wrestles the now high-rated “Howard Beale Show” (Beale now labeled the “mad prophet of the airwaves”) away from Max, while engaging in a torrid affair with the aging (and long-time married) news veteran. (There’s an exceptionally vivid simulated sex scene, which follows a live conversation between Max and Diana on the street outside the theater before seamlessly moving into the alley and then onto the stage.)

Not all the roles are as felicitously cast as the three principals, but certainly Alyssa Bresnahan is outstanding as Max’s wife, and delivers her impassioned speech to Max about his infidelity with much the same bravado as Beatrice Straight in the film. Nick Wyman also makes the most of his role of Communications Corporation of America head, who appears God-like on a high platform, as he puts Howard in his place about the economic realities of television.

Faithful as Hall has stayed to Chayefsky, much of the detail of the Ecumenical Liberation Party, the radical organization that Diana enlists to provide real-life terrorist footage, has been trimmed in favor of the main story arc.

Jan Versweyveld’s set, a mass of video screens both large and small (mirroring the TV monitor imagery of the film), and segmented playing areas for control room, set, office, bar, is highly effective. When an area is out of one’s sightline, one can always watch the screens. And hand-held cameras are able to follow Cranston’s every move, adding a rare intimacy to his performance. Tal Yarden’s video design, so important to the overall concept here, is quite outstanding; period commercials and actual news footage of the period abound.

An D’Huys’ costumes and Eric Sleichim’s sound design and music are also tops.

Adapter Lee (“Billy Elliot”) Hall kept the time frame as it was in the film, with references to Patty Hearst, Gerald Ford, and so on, but the overall vibe seems resolutely contemporary. Certainly, the themes are still uncannily relevant: the public’s mindless devotion to the tube (though, of course, now we would add the internet), the obsession for high ratings at (almost) any cost, the public’s disaffection for the status quo, and the mindless adulation of a demagogue figure.

Though the Belasco audience dutifully shouts out Beale’s “mad as hell” trademark slogan as requested by the UBS warm-up guy (Barzin Akhavan), there’s plenty of genuine response during the post-show video showing a succession of presidential inaugurals. The Obama sequence, for instance, is, predicatably, roundly cheered, while the one for You-Know-Who generates almost frighteningly vociferous booing.

But political matters aside, Cranston is delivering one of the major performances of the season and must not be missed.

(Belasco Theatre, 111 W 44th Street; www.Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through April 28)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Hard Problem (Lincoln Center Theater)



By Harry Forbes

Faith in a higher being is pitted against hard-nosed science in Tom Stoppard’s latest play which was first mounted in London in 2015. It was Nicholas Hytner’s last production as head of the National Theatre, and it was the great playwright’s first new play in nine years.

At about one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission, and with an appealing heroine to give humanizing ballast to the intellectual arguments, “The Hard Problem” – that is, getting to the roots of human consciousness -- proves rather less daunting than some of his other works, which is not say that you might not find yourself a bit muddled somewhere along the line.

Cannily directed on this shore by Jack O’Brien and sharply acted by an expert cast, it has much to commend it. The action plays out on David Rockwell’s attractively adaptable set, lighted by Japhy Weideman. Catherine Zuber has provided the apt costumes. There’s an affecting piano score by Bob James.

When we first meet Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), she’s a psychology student applying for a position as a research assistant at a neuroscience think tank, the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. Despite vastly different worldviews, she embarks on an affair with her tutor Spike (Chris O’Shea).

Hilary believes in God, and says her prayers every night, while sincerely endeavoring to be a good person, a concept of dubious merit to Spike who believes, much like her other colleagues at Krohl, that altruism is merely a form of Darwinian self-interest. Hilary’s fervent prayers concern the child she had as a teenager and had to give up. In one poignant scene, she asks the atheistic Spike to pray for the girl whose whereabouts she doesn’t know. But Spike refuses, even challenging the genuineness of maternal love.

The play wraps up with a resolution that is either proof of Divine Providence or simply an instance of mere chance.

The cast is excellent including Eshan Bajpay as Amal, a fellow applicant to the Institute, then colleague, Robert Petkoff as her supervisor Leo, Karoline Xu as her adoring math genius protégé Bo, and Jon Tenney as her alternately sensitive and hard-nosed hedge-funder who runs the Institute with the hope of finding a connection between the brain and financial patterns.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65 Street; lct.org or 212-239-6200; through January 6)

Photo by Paul Kolnik: Chris O'Shea and Adelaide Clemens




Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Mother of the Maid (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

This clever and absorbing play tells the familiar story of Joan of Arc from the perspective of the saint’s mother. In playwright Jane Anderson’s hands, it’s a conceit that really works.

And best of all, it provides a great vehicle for Glenn Close in her first New York performance since her much acclaimed resurrection of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” And what a contrast!

Without makeup and outfitted (by Jane Greenwood) as the very picture of a hardworking, pragmatic farmer’s wife leading a hardscrabble existence. By turns simple, wise, critical, loving, determined, sorrowful and bravely steadfast, she runs an impressive gamut.

As for Joan -- beautifully played by Grace Van Patton -- she’s first a moody teenager, concealing the miraculous vision she finally admits to her mother Isabelle, then increasingly confident in her mission, but this is Isabelle Arc’s story.

Neither Isabelle nor her husband Jacques (an excellent Dermot Crowley) trust the veracity of Joan’s heavenly injunction to lead an army, and adamantly oppose her stated plan to rout the English who are occupying France. In fact, Jacques beats her and orders her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) tie her to her bed.

But the local priest Father Gilbert (Daniel Pearce) intercedes and informs them the local bishop truly believes her story. The parents -- still skeptical -- eventually get on board and even follow Joan to the Dauphin’s court, though at first Isabelle comforts herself that Joan’s presence in the army is only “to keep the soldiers cheerful.”

There, Nicole (Kelley Curran in a lovely performance), a gracious court lady, takes Isabelle under wing and expresses great regard for Joan and admiration for her mother, but Isabelle will not be patronized. Pierre is made a knight and sent into battle with Joan, while Jacques, ever a caring father despite his gruffness, enjoins Pierre to look after her.

The narrative follows its inevitable course, but as it’s all from Isabelle’s perspective, if you think you’ve had your fill of Saint Joan this year -- after Manhattan Theatre Club’s solid revival -- you needn’t worry that this play covers the same ground.

John Lee Beatty’s scenic design -- which morphs from farmhouse to court banquet hall to prison -- is skillfully evocative, and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting provides a hugely important element in the intimate Anspacher space.

Anderson’s dialogue -- a mix of period and present-day jargon (and expletives) -- seems entirely apt throughout. (The playwright wrote the screenplay for Close’s acclaimed film “The Wife.”)

Director Matthew Penn draws fine performances from all and helms a well-paced production right from the start up through the moving last moments.

(The Public’s Anspacher Theater,  425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org; through December 23)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Glenn Close and Grace Van Patten

Monday, November 26, 2018

Thom Pain (based on nothing) (SignatureTheatre)

By Harry Forbes

Michael C. Hall, no stranger to playwright Will Eno, having appeared in the “The Realistic Joneses” on Broadway in 2014, takes on Eno’s intriguing 2004 monologue and delivers quite a bravura performance.

From his first few minutes on stage in almost total darkness, Hall authoritatively commands the stage with his voice alone. Eventually the lights come on, and there he is, attired in a dark suit with tie (courtesy of costume designer Anita Yavich), addressing the audience, as if extemporaneously, and ruminating in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness discourse about the meaning of existence, our part of the universe, life’s pain and randomness, love and fear, free will, and other weighty matters.

Alternately world-weary, teasing, forgetful, confidential, affable and severe, throughout the play, he toys with the audience. At one point, he descends into the auditorium, looking for a volunteer to join him on stage. (It’s one of those scary “Oh, please don’t let it be me” moments, especially as he indicates it’s for someone who might “like a little violence.”) I won’t reveal what transpires.

His character’s musings begin with the image of a small boy standing by a puddle whose beloved dog gets electrocuted in front of him by a downed power line. He would seem to be speaking of himself, but we never really know for sure.

Later there’s talk of a past failed relationship but details are sketchy. And there’s lots of animal imagery.”I don’t like magic,” he asserts a couple of times, but then seems on the verge of performing some.

The piece (only about 70 minutes)  is, by its nature, repetitive, and one man sitting close to the stage rudely or perhaps just unthinkingly, sighed audibly several times, probably echoing the feeling of others. But the play is thought-provoking, and Hall proves himself a master of his craft. What a marathon part! In addition to the sheer memorization required for such a lengthy monologue, the work is filled with shifting moods and endless non-sequiturs. Laughter, when it comes, is slightly uncomfortable, especially as early on, Hall’s character chides the audience for its uneasy chuckles.

There’s plenty of intentional humor here, though. “You’ve changed,” a woman once said to him, be adds it was he adds, “the night we met.” And the light banter throughout balances Eno’s more sobering insights into what makes us human, including our memories, our history, and our thoughts.

Amy Rubin’s set -- mostly a bare stage with some upstage props: a door frame, chair, ladder water cooler -- echoes the desolation and mystery of the piece. Jen Schriever’s lighting is key to supporting the text.

Oliver Butler, who directed the premiere of Eno’s “The Open House,” shows his affinity for the playwright’s work with a sensitive and cannily-paced production.

(The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street; signaturetheatre.org; through December 2).

Photo by Joan Marcus: Michael  C. Hall in Thom  Pain (based  on nothing)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Prom (Longacre Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

A group of narcissistic New York theater folk, stung by bad reviews and bemoaning their stalemated careers, decides to reinvigorate their respective reputations by championing a worthy cause. When they hear of an Indiana high school student whose plan to bring her girlfriend to the prom results in the event being cancelled, the four actors and their press agent (Josh Lamon) think they've hit on just the ticket to generate some self-aggrandizing headlines.

From this unlikely premise (concept by Jack Viertel), writers Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Chad Beguelin (“Disney’s Aladdin”) have fashioned a very amusing, crowd-pleasing trifle, half show business spoof, half high school musical. With catchy music by Matthew Sklar (“Elf,” “The Wedding Singer”) and smart lyrics by Beguelin, the show is blithely irreverent, filled with Broadway insider jokes, and ultimately, genuinely touching.

Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas are Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, stars of a roundly roasted and recently shuttered Eleanor Roosevelt musical bio. Christopher Sieber is Trent Oliver, Juilliard graduate (and don’t you forget it) and once in a 1990s sitcom, but now waiting tables, and Angie Schworer is a perennial “Chicago” ensemble dancer never getting her big chance to play Roxie.

At my performance, Leavel, who had taken ill earlier in the day, was replaced by Kate Marilley who was quite marvelous, playing the ego and self-centered star to the hilt with a great voice and assured comic timing. Ashmanskas is a campy whirling dervish who feels special empathy for the high schooler Emma (beautifully played and sung by Caitlin Kinnunen).

Michael Potts is the very empathetic school principal who, surprisingly, happens to be not only a Broadway show fan, and also one long enamored of Dee Dee, whom he invites for dinner at Applebee’s.

Isabelle McCalla is lovely as Emma’s secret girlfriend Alyssa, the daughter of the strident PTA leader (Courteney Collins) who opposes the prom, having no idea of her daughter’s potential involvement.

All the principals get their big musical moments. Schworer’s “Zaaz,” wherein she attempts to liven up the dour Emma with some typical Fosse moves, is a surefire second act showstopper. Ashmanskas brings down the house with his wildly energetic “Barry Is Going to Prom” number. Siebert has a rousing gospel number “Love Thy Neighbor” as he preaches to Emma’s intolerant classmates. And at the reviewed performance, Marilley got to strut her stuff and show what made Dee Dee a star with “The Lady’s Improving."

Kinnunen’s eleven o’clock number “Unruly Heart” is lovely, and ditto her yearning duet with McCalla, “Dance with You.”

Casey Nicholaw -- fresh from mining similar territory with “Mean Girls” -- directs and choreographs with plenty of his customary liveliness and comic sensibility.

I found Brian Ronan’s sound design rather unnecessarily loud and harsh. But no complaints about Scott Park’s scenic design, Natasha Katz’s lighting, or Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman’s costumes which are all first-rate.

(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Lifespan of a Fact (Studio 54)


By Harry Forbes

A meticulous fact-checker at a literary magazine clashes with a writer with scant regard for facts in this entertaining adaptation of the 2012 book of the same name.

A bearded Daniel Radcliffe (very funny and thoroughly convincing as a Yank) plays fact-checker Jim Fingal, and Bobby Cannavale is writer John D’Agata. Their dispute -- which actually played out over several years -- is condensed down to a tension-filled long weekend.

Cherry Jones is Emily, the magazine’s editor who assigns the complex editing task to ambitious intern Jim, a Harvard grad anxious to prove himself, and she is quickly mortified to learn that her distinguished writer has willfully misstated enough facts to fill Jim’s 130-page spreadsheet, all in the name of a greater artistic Truth.

Even at 85 intermission-less minutes, the arguments for factual veracity versus John’s skewed concept becomes just a tad repetitious in the otherwise sharp and witty script credited to the triumvirate of Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. But the three stars are so accomplished and such a pleasure to watch, that is of little import. And, humor aside, the basic arguments about truth and facts has particularly added resonance in our present era.

The article in question -- actually, essay as John insists his work be called -- concerns the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. But among John’s numerous reworking of facts -- along with such minutiae as the number of topless bars and the name of particular saloon -- is his much more questionable assertion that his subject’s leap off a hotel roof was the only such jumping suicide that day. In fact, a young woman took her life in the same manner, but that detail doesn’t suit John’s poetic vision.

Enjoyable though Cannavale is, as he asserts his view of the role of the artist, the impossibility of ever really knowing truth, and his dismissal of bothersome detail -- and citing such major figures from Cicero to Sontag as his distinguished forebears in truth-twisting -- the arguments against his way of thinking are pretty potent. And though the cocky Jim, for his part, seems on the correct side of the argument, he registers as quite the nitpicker.

Still, it’s great fun to watch the escalating tensions between the two -- which occasionally turns physical -- as Emily tries mightily to play the objective referee, as she grapples with her own shifting ideas of storytelling. Jim has taken it upon himself to fly out to Las Vegas to meet John face-to-face, prompting Emily to follow suit.

Leigh Silverman directs this literary battle of wills entertainingly, and draws sharp performances from his talented cast.

Mimi Lien’s sets, lighted by Jen Schriever -- principally Emily’s office, and then John’s Nevada abode -- are beautifully designed, making a most attractive backdrop for the lively literary debate.

(Studio 54 Theatre, 254 West 54th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

King Kong (The Broadway Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

First off, it must be said that all you’ve heard about the remarkable attributes of the titular giant gorilla -- designed by Sonny Tilders -- are absolutely true. He’s amazingly lifelike, despite the visible puppeteers (King’s Men) controlling him, and the overhead cables providing added support and mobility. The face, operated by offstage computer wizardry, is extraordinarily expressive. All the visible manipulation (or most of it anyway) is forgotten once the action starts going, much as one came to ignore the handlers in the wondrous “War Horse” a few seasons back.

But, in all fairness to the creative team, there is more. For starters, Christiani Pitts, in the quite enormous role of Ann Darrow (the Fay Wray character), gives an impressive performance, and manages to make us believe she has a real bond with the creature. Coupled with all the dancing and singing (and she does have several demanding solos), the result is quite a tour de force. Her character’s career ambition and her empathy with Kong register as real and touching as she plays with such conviction. And she’s immensely likable.

The scenic and projection design by Peter England is immediately striking from the start. In the show’s opening moments, gritty New York period scenes and construction girders pull you right into the 1930s period. The same can be said for Roger Kirk’s costumes. Peter Mumford’s lighting is also first rate, and is astutely used to showcase Kong to maximum advantage and, when necessary, mask the obvious trickery behind the illusion. Peter Hylenski’s sound, including the fearsome roar before the creature’s first appearance, skillfully adds to the effect.

Marius de Vries’ score and Eddie Perfect’s songs have been dismissed by many as generic, and it is true they are mostly serviceable in the way of so many current musicals, and certainly -- apart from a couple of pastiche chorus girl numbers -- utterly devoid of Thirties flavor. But having had the opportunity to see the show first in an early preview, and then post-opening, afforded that rare chance to experience a new score twice, and I must confess I admired the music far more the second time around, without necessarily wanting to rush out and purchase a CD.

Jack Thorne, who co-authored the intelligent script for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” is dealing with a more simplistic tale here, but has done a more than creditable job, playing up the theme that both Kong and Ann are being victimized. And hats off to him for including reference to three actual musical theater ladies of the period: Mary Ellis, Vivienne Segal, and Adele Astaire. Still, apart from some other nods to Depression-era bread lines and some Hollywood name dropping like Clara Bow, the language is strictly contemporary.

In Thorne’s telling, Ann is a small-town farm gal who’s come to New York to make it big on Broadway, but rejection follows rejection, and thus when she and ruthless film director Carl Denham (Eric Williams Morris) “meet cute” in an eatery (he buys the starving young woman a sandwich), she’s willing to accompany him on a mysterious shoot in far-off Skull Island, and promises to make her a star. He does, however, expect her to act the damsel in distress, a role she simply can’t enact, in real life or on film.

Proudly and defiantly self-sufficient, like seemingly all female heroines these days, she never seems to need a man to protect her or rescue her. That’s just as well as Carl, in this version, is particularly repugnant and self-centered. So her leading man here is definitely meant to be Kong, underscoring the story’s “Beauty and the Beast” parallels.

The shipboard journey to Skull Island -- striking projections again -- lead to tensions with Carl and Captain Englehorn (Rory Donovan) which are only resolved by Ann’s resourcefulness. No sooner have they gotten to the island, and Ann is hanging from the foliage in mock distress, than we hear the resonant roar of Kong (Jon Hoche offstage).

Kong’s first appearance is teased by only a fleeting toothsome appearance, but when we finally get a gander at the whole of him, the effect is appropriately awesome. Kong scoops up Ann and brings her to his mountaintop hideout where they bond, especially after she’s tenderly treated the wounds he sustained in a battle with a giant serpent (not, alas, as convincingly constructed as Kong, but the audience seemed to like the sequence anyway). She soothes him with a sweet melody called “Full Moon Lullaby.”

I didn’t care much for the stylistic rendering of the forest with zig-zagging wires that seemed out of place with the realism of other locales.

Carl has a sweet-natured if socially awkward sidekick nicknamed Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) with whom Ann compassionately bonds. Lumpy once had a daughter and takes a paternal approach to Ann, and ultimately puts Carl in his place. “Everyone’s so desperate for success, they forget goodness.”

But Thorne does take a misstep in having Lumpy advise Ann that Carl needs a “kick in the balls.” A 1930’s man would never use language like that in front of a lady, just one of several anachronisms in the script.

Director Drew McOnie’s choreography, mostly used for NY hustle and bustle, is crisply executed by the ensemble, and indeed, is staging throughout is savvy.

The audience members around me responded very enthusiastically, so as popular entertainment, if not high art, this show very much succeeds. I sat next to rabid fan of the original film, and he was one of the first to leap to his feet during the curtain calls. Nearly all of Kong’s stunts elicited spontaneous applause throughout the show. “King Kong” is definitely a crowd-pleaser.
         
(The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street;  Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
               
Photo by Joan Marcus: Christiani Pitts as “Ann Darrow” and “King Kong”

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Thanksgiving Play (Playwrights Horizons)


By Harry Forbes

Larissa FastHorse’s very amusing satire centers around the production of a Thanksgiving Day pageant for elementary school children. The four adult principals, who consider themselves extremely “woke” and sensitive, plot out the play -- which they are determined will not only celebrate the titular holiday but also pay homage to Native American Heritage Month -- and find themselves stumbling over multitudinous hurdles as they consider the actual genocide and violence behind the traditionally benign “coming together” harvest theme.

These include Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a drama teacher who has secured a succession of grants to finance the show, and her boyfriend Jaxton (Greg Keller), her rather dim street performer boyfriend, both proudly vegan; Caden (Jeffrey Bean), an elementary school history teacher who yearns to be a playwright, and though he has written 62 plays, has never had one performed by adults; and Alicia (very funny Margo Seibert), a self-absorbed LA actress hired for the occasion under the mistaken assumption, based on her head shot, that she has indigenous roots.

Logan stresses that the work will be “fully devised,” meaning that each actor will have input into the final product. As the four tortuously debate how they can cause least offence, they become increasingly stymied as to how they can progress at all. After all, they reason, how can any of these white actors have the temerity to speak for Native Americans?

Though the pretensions of these hyper sensitive folk are ripe for humor, FastHorse shows that the popular perception of the holiday does, in fact, cover a multitude of ills, and along the way, she has some perceptive things to say about how we learn history and the vagaries of the funding world, as for instance how some of the requirements for grants often shape what you actually see on stage.

Besides skewering political correctness and the like, she has plenty of insider jibes about theater, like an especially funny line about dramaturgs.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel (“Hand of God,” “Present Laughter”) paces the action for maximum comic effect, and draws sharp performances from his cast.

Wilson Chin’s schoolroom set is spot-on, and Tilly Grimes’ costumes, including those for the opening “Twelve Days of Thanksgiving” song with all four dressed in the conventional Pilgrims (and turkey) attire, add to to the fun.

The play -- originally produced by Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon -- runs about 90  minutes without intermission. It does at times seem like a protracted “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but the laughs, as indicated, are plentiful.

(Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.com; through Dec. 2)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Greg Keller (Jaxton), Jennifer Bareilles (Logan), Jeffrey Bean (Caden), and Margo Seibert (Alicia)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Girl from the North Country (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

The unlikely mashup of songs from the Bob Dylan songbook with a script by great Irish playwright Conor McPherson has resulted in a perhaps not-totally-seamless, but on the whole, haunting and bewitching brew.

Premiering to acclaim last year at London’s Old Vic, “Girl from the North Country” concerns a boarding house on the verge of foreclosure in Duluth, Minnesota during the Depression. Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus) and his mentally fragile wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) have under their roof such diverse and sad characters as a lonely widow (Jeannette Bayardelle); an African-American prize fighter (Sydney James Harcourt) just out of jail after being wrongly incarcerated; a once successful businessman (Marc Kudisch), his world-weary wife (Luba Mason who doubles on drums) and childlike grown son (Todd Almond); and a shady reverend (David Pittu).

The Laines have an alcoholic son (Colton Ryan) who’s an aspiring writer, and an adopted African-American 19-year-old daughter (Kimber Sprawl), pregnant but refusing to reveal the father.

Other townspeople who weave in and out of the narrative include the local doctor (Robert Joy), once addicted to morphine, who occasionally narrates from the side of the stage; an elderly shoe mender (Tom Nelis); a widower whom Nick tries to match up with his daughter; and a young woman (Caitlin Houlahan) who was the childhood sweetheart of Nick’s troubled son.

Everyone’s dreams and aspirations seem doomed to failure, like Nick’s furtive romance with the widow. And there are some very dark elements such as sexual assault, violent racism, and even murder.

The songs from the Dylan songbook are presentational in style, and don’t necessarily match the details of the plot but rather comment on or elucidate the spoken parts from which they arise. There are about 20 in all written between 1963 and 2012. Nearly all the principals shine in their respective solo numbers, such as Winningham’s powerful “Like a Rolling Stone,” Harcourt’s “Hurricane”; and Mason’s “Tight Connection to My Heart,” to name a few. The ensemble numbers are especially winning like “Make You Feel My Love” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Some are done as if in a 1930s radio studio with the old-fashioned microphones. They are beautifully sung and gorgeously orchestrated by Music Supervisor Simon Hale.

The cast is superb across the board.

McPherson himself directs, and is obviously attuned to every nuance. Movement Director Lucy Hinds keeps the dialogue scenes and musical numbers fluid. Rae Smith’s set and costume designs are period perfect. And Mark Henderson’s lighting is skillfully evocative. Simon Baker’s sound design is a model of restraint and clarity.

Technically, “Girl from the North Country” may fall under the category of that much derided term “jukebox musical,” but whatever it is, it’s a work of uncommonly high artistic quality.

(The Public Theater, -- Lafayette Street; (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org; through December 23)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Todd Almond and the company of "Girl from the North Country"

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Waverly Gallery (Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This fine revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 memory play (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), which won acclaim for star Eileen Heckart, now features a superb performance by veteran Elaine May as the spirited grandmother, once a lawyer and social activist, gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.

Though that precis on paper may sound like heavy going, the tone is, in fact, predominantly light-hearted. a bittersweet underpinning notwithstanding.

Gladys Green (May) is the owner of the titular Greenwich Village gallery which, we learn, has seen better days. The owner of the hotel in which the gallery is housed is poised to reclaim the space for conversion into a breakfast room. Now, as her condition worsens by degrees, she exasperates her family with her constant repetition, forgetfulness, and hearing difficulties, but their devotion is never in doubt. These include her loving but stretched-to-the-limit daughter Ellen (Joan Allen), son-in-law Howard (David Cromer) with a penchant for saying the wrong thing, and compassionate grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges), who also serves as narrator.

When Gladys is visited by Don, a sweet-natured if clueless Boston artist who’s been living in his car, she offers him a cot in the gallery, and allows him to mount his pictures there. (He’s played in nicely understated fashion by an almost unrecognizable Michael Cera in another memorable Lonergan portrayal after last season’s “Lobby Hero”)

The family, at first concerned that she has invited in a total stranger, comes to accept him, and they allow the arrangement. But as scene by scene, she declines (and May brilliantly delineates each stage of that decline), they worry how they’ll be able to take care of her. Daniel lives down the hall from her and her frequent ringing of his doorbell in her confusion is driving him the breaking point.

What makes the play so especially poignant is Gladys’ extraordinary likability, especially as embodied by the winning May. With her patently lovable nature, it’s easy to see why the family puts up with her. And it should be said that though May is only a year behind Gladys’ stated age of 87, she is totally on top of a role that must be especially tricky to learn with its constant repetition and overlapping dialogue.

Hedges is very appealing, and like Cera, has proven his chops with Lonergan dialogue (“Manchester By the Sea”). Allen skillfully conveys her devotion, even at the most trying times.

David Zinn’s beautiful scenic design including the Fine’s apartment, Gladys’, and, of course, the gallery itself, all finely detailed, and expertly lighted by Brian MacDevit. Ann Roth’s costumes capture the late 1980s/early 1990s perfectly. Projections by Tal Yarden between scenes atmospherically evoke an earlier New York.

Lonergan deftly mixes humor and sentiment in a most skillful way. The end is incredibly moving, and will affect anyone who’s experienced a similar situation with an aging parent. A young woman behind me could barely stifle her sobs.

Lila Neugebauer directs the delicate material with a sure hand and elicits well judged performances from her ensemble. But it’s May’s return to the stage that is the cause of greatest celebration, ironically at the very theater where she and her comedy partner Mike Nichols wowed everyone decades ago in “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through January 27)

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe