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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Head Over Heels (Hudson Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The incongruous pairing of a story derived from Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th century novel “The Arcadia” and the pop hits of 1980s girl band The Go-Go’s was an audacious idea, and one that (surprise, surprise) really works. Credit Jeff Whitty who conceived the idea and penned the book, later adapted by James Magruder. The dialogue is often quite witty.

Originating at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, the show has been smartly cast for New York, and sharply directed by Michael Mayer,

The story -- very freely adapted from the Sidney plot -- has King of Arcadia Basilius (Jeremy Kushner) and his viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins) visit Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi (Peppermint, said to be the first trans performer originating a lead on Broadway) where they hear dire predictions of the future including, most disturbingly, his eventual ouster as king. So he packs up his family -- wife Gynecia (Rachel York), elder daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), and younger daughter Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) -- to abandon Arcadia and circumvent Pythia’s auguries.

Philoclea’s romance with childhood friend Musidorus, a dimwitted shepherd (Andrew Durand) is halted by the kind before the family hits the road. Meanwhile, it is established that Pamela has no interest in the many suitors who come to court her. In fact, as we soon, learn, she has Sapphic leanings, though she doesn’t quite know it herself, but with which Dametas’ daughter Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones) will soon help her get in touch. And when, at the injunction of Pythia, Musidorus is persuaded to disguise himself by donning female attire as a buxom blonde Amazon (quite a sight!), complications arise, as he ignites the passions of Basilius, Gynecia, and Pamela.

Shoehorned tinto this farcical situation are the Go-Go  hits (and also those from lead singer Belinda Carlisle) such as “We Got the Beat,” “Mad About You,” “Vacation,” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” Somehow it all gels.

The cast is terrific. Kushnier’s befuddled monarch; York’s imperious queen; Milligan the endearingly vain plus-size daughter (her “How Much More” temper tantrum as she tears a room apart is a hoot), Socha as the “plain” sister; Robbins as the obtuse viceroy, very appealing Jones as his spunky daughter, and Durand as the increasingly confused cross-dressing lad. His gender confusion as the king and queen alternately express their desire for him (“This Old Feeling”) is masterfully performed to Spencer Liff’s funny choreography.



The moves that Liff has engineered for the game cast captures the 1980s vibe without distracting from the Whitty’s funny narrative. “Head Over Heels” plays teasingly with gender identity, but for all the belly laughs, never strays from its sincere advocacy of diversity and tolerance.

The vintage tunes, orchestrated and arranged by Tom Kitt, make an infectious earful, if not perhaps for Broadway purists.

Further plusses include the colorful sets and costumes by Julian Crouch and Arianne Phillips respectively, the clear and not too overpowering sound design by Kai Harada and the projection design by Andrew Lazarow.

So yes, technically “Head Over Heels” may fall under the vilified heading jukebox musical, but it’s done with such imagination and flair, it might just give the genre a good name.

(Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street;

Photos by Joan Marcus

(Top to bottom)
Rachel  York as  Queen Gynecia  and Jeremy Kushnier  as King Basilius (center)  and the
company

Taylor Iman Jones as Mopsa (center) and the company

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Twelfth Night (The Public Theater/Public Works)


By Harry Forbes

The joyous, tuneful musical version of “Twelfth Night” was first done in 2016 for a mere five performances over the Labor Day weekend. It has now returned for a regular run following the Public’s first summer offering, “Othello.” But it closes Sunday, so if this review fires you up to see it, get thee to the Delacorte pronto.

I didn’t see the first outing, nor the other Public Works offerings that have run over Labor Day since 2013, and I could now kick myself for missing them, including last season’s “As You Like It,” if they were as good as this. “Twelfth Night,” conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah (soon to be artistic director of the Young Vic in London) and Shaina Taub, who wrote the songs, alternates between keyboard and accordion, and plays the clown Feste, is a wondrous thing indeed. With Kwei-Armah tied up with his new gig in London, Public Artistic Director Oskar Eustis stepped up to direct on this occasion.

The leads are a mixture of pros and members of various community partnerships (including such groups as Brownsville Recreation Center, The Fortune Society, and Dreamyard), with the eye-poppingly large, and infectiously enthusiastic, ensemble drawn from the latter. Far from the hodge-podge that blend might indicate, the show is as slick as anything on Broadway, and in fact, would not be a bad prospect for a transfer.

Running for an efficient 100 minutes, without a break or a dull moment, Shakespeare’s play has been severely pared down, and the songs are, much like the ones in Galt MacDermot and John Guare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” not exactly Shakespearian, though some use the Bard’s dialogue as a springboard for the lyrics. Thus, we have “If Music Be the Food of Love” and “Some Are Born Great.”

Nikki M. James is the very appealing Viola who dons male attire when she and her missing twin brother are shipwrecked at sea, and she’s washed ashore in Illyria to fend for herself. Charismatic Ato Blankson-Wood is Orsino who hires her to woo the grieving Countess Olivia (ample-figured Nanya-Akuki Goodrich) in mourning for her brother. As everyone knows, Olivia falls for Viola in her guise as “Cesario.” Meanwhile, Olivia’s servants -- Maria (Lori Brown-Niang), Sir Andrew (Daniel Hall) -- and uncle Sir Toby Belch (Shuler Hensley), all very funny, rather cruelly contrive to make the pompous steward Malvolio (Andrew Kober) believe Olivia is in love with him. When, ultimately, Viola’s twin Sebastian (Troy Anthony) appears, confusion ensues, especially for the kindly captain Antonio (Jonathan Jordan) who rescued Sebastian and loaned him his purse.

Throughout, Shakespeare’s structure and essence are totally respected, and ultimately you're left with the same satisfaction as having seen a traditional production. As such, this makes a fine introduction for Bard newbies, yet provides enough substance for buffs.

Taub’s jazzy, bluesy songs are all quite catchy. Orsino’s “Tell Her,” Viola’s “If You Were My Beloved,” (in pleasing counterpoint with Olivia and Orsino), “Is This Not Love?,” Toby’s “What Kinda Man R U Gonna Be?” and the rest all delight and they’re all aptly placed. This isn’t the first musical of “Twelfth Night” -- I recall the Off-Broadway “Your Own Thing” fondly, to name one -- but it’s surely one of the best.

Choreographer Lorin Latarro pulls out all the stops on the “Count Malvolio” number which builds in “A Chorus Line” fashion with seemingly a cast of thousands. (The ensemble, incidentally, alternates between “red” and “blue” casts; mine was the latter.) And her work is highly imaginative throughout.

The whole has been poetically staged by Eustis and Kwei-Armah, interweaving some signing for the deaf most gracefully.

Rachel Hauck’s scenic design and Andrea Hood’s costumes are colorful delights. John Torres’ lighting and Jessica Paz’s sound design are exemplary, too.

(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue; free ticket distribution or call 212-967-7555 for more information, or visit www.publictheater.org; through August 19)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Nikki M. James, Ato Blankson-Wood

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Ohio Light Opera (2018 Season)


By Harry Forbes

Enterprising Ohio Light Opera, ever devoted to authentic productions from the world of musical comedy and operetta, seems to go from strength to strength each year, and this season was no exception with seven worthy productions including a peerless “Candide” which has to rank as a highlight of composer Leonard Bernstein’s centenary year. More about “Candide” anon.

I was fortunate enough to be there during the fifth annual Festival Symposium week (July 31 - August 3) -- “Taking Light Opera Seriously” -- which meant that besides the seven mainstage musicals and operettas -- “The Pajama Game,” “Babes in Arms,” “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” “Iolanthe,” “La Périchole,” “Candide,” and “Cloclo,” a real rarity -- there were myriad lectures and special concerts further illuminating those productions and paying homage to OLO’s 40 years.

As in previous seasons, I was struck by the high level of musicianship both in the pit and on the stage, the incredible versatility of the cast who can morph from ensemble player to varied leads with astonishing ease, and the integrity of the overall enterprise under the savvy leadership of Artistic Director Steven Daigle and Executive Director Laura Neill.

As indicated, adding fascinating depth to the shows during the symposium were Lehår biographer Stefan Frey from Munich, Offenbach expert Laurence Senelick of Tufts University, Rodgers and Hart scholar Dominic Symonds from the University of Lincoln in the UK, and musical theater author Richard Norton who is based in New York, each offering witty and erudite background on the shows in their respective fields. The speakers are always well chosen, but this was an exceptionally interesting group.

Daigle kicked off the week by asking how each of the speakers came to his interest in musical theater, and the answers were varied. Senelick’s first love was Gilbert and Sullivan, until he discovered the rather more intriguing sex appeal of the Offenbach works. Norton grew up in Boston, once the big tryout town for Broadway musicals, and thus got to see many works in their nascent form. Symonds’ boredom with Sunday school choir led to his being offered a role in a local production of “Oliver.” And Frey got hooked on Lehår when he heard the “Merry Widow” waltz in, of all things, Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.”

In a special operetta film presentation, OLO board chairman Michael Miller, the master organizer of the symposium (with invaluable help from wife Nan, OLO secretary), presented a series of well chosen video clips culled from the company’s 141 show titles. Vintage excerpts demonstrated the consistent quality of the company going back as far as 1984 with such productions as “Merrie England,” “The Firebrand of Florence,” and “Robin Hood.” So, too, there were some bittersweet clips of the late, much loved tenor Brian Woods and others who have since passed on.

To begin with the musicals, Rodgers and Hart’s “Babes in Arms” with its treasure trove of standards and a rather flimsy but, in Rodgers’ own words, “serviceable book,” received first-class treatment. Sarah Best had just the right breezy insouciance as grifter Billie, and handled the standards “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady is a Tramp” (with its multiple encore verses) with requisite style. The phenomenal Alexa Devlin -- a vocal and dramatic chameleon -- knocked “Johnny One-Note” and her other numbers out of the park.



Benjamin Krumreig and Gretchen Windt socked over  “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and “You Are So Fair” with period perfect aplomb. And Spencer Reese not only scored in his role as the lead “babe” Val but provided resourceful choreography for the show including the lengthy “Peter’s Journey” ballet with nifty hoofing from Timothy McGowan and Hannah Kurth (choreographed originally by the great George Balanchine). In fact, it should be noted that Reese’s imaginative dances for all the productions has helped OLO considerably up its game across the board.



The number originated by the Nicholas Brothers, “All Dark People Are Light on Their Feet” was shorn of its prefix as in its New York Encores revival and simply presented as “Light on Our Feet,” with good hoofing by DeShaun Tost and Adam Kirk as the black brothers whose appearance in Val’s show is almost thwarted by a Southern bigot.

Symonds’ pre-show lecture, crisply delivered with apt visuals (like the other speakers), described the circumstances of how Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart met, and their early work on such shows as “Fly With Me” (1920) and “The Garrick Gaieties” (1925) which would already bear the hallmarks of their later work.

The rarest of the musicals was Cole Porter’s 1929 “Fifty Million Frenchmen.” Though New York has periodically seen resurrections of this delightful piece about Yanks on the loose in Paris -- a 1991 version conducted by Evans Haile, a Lost Musicals import from England in 2006, and a Musicals Tonight version in 2001, among the best of them -- this was the first fully staged production with full orchestra of my experience, and quite a delight.

Loaded with Porter pearls like “You Do Something To Me” (smoothly delivered by Stephen Faulk and Best) and “You’ve Got That Thing” (Nathan Brian and Joelle Lachance) the players were finely matched with their parts, and the action played out neatly on Daniel Hobbs’ pretty set. Versatile Hannah Kurth was showgirl May, and didn’t disappoint with her flashy numbers “Find Me a Primitive Man,” and “I’m Unlucky at Gambling.” And here was Devlin again outstanding in her songs, including “The Tale of the Oyster.” Yvonne Trobe -- a standout in all her appearances this season -- was amusing as the disapproving mother of Best’s character. Faulk, for whom this was something of a breakout season, had an especially sublime moment at the end of the first act singing the rueful “You Don’t Know Paree.” In his symposium talk, Norton explained how the titular phrase had popular currency in that era, and played the song “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong,” written in 1927 and popularized by Sophie Tucker, to demonstrate his point.



Of more recent vintage, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ “The Pajama Game” from 1954 was also solid, anchored, as it was, by OLO’s stellar leading man Nathan Brian and Devlin who displayed fine chemistry. Brian did full justice to his character defining “A New Town is a Blue Town” and the show’s big hit tune, “Hey There,” and two of them sparked with “There Once Was a Man.” Sarah Best gamely essayed the role of Gladys originated by Carol Haney and danced a respectable “Steam Heat.” Neer excelled in the Eddie Foy, Jr. part of her perennially jealous boyfriend Hines. Reese was well cast as union agitator and would-be ladies man Prez, and Hannah Kurth aged convincingly as Mabel, partnering neatly with Neer on “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again.” These productions pride themselves in their completeness, and thus included the often forgotten “I”ll Never Be Jealous Again” ballet in the second act wherein Hines imagines Gladys’ multiple infidelities.



On the operetta side, Offenbach’s fizzy “La Périchole” probably ranked as the least effective of this season’s offerings. Though the score was beautifully played with requisite brio under the direction of Wilson Southerland, and the vocalists were all accomplished, the staging was merely efficient and felt more like “La Périchole-lite” with precious little Gallic (or Peruvian) flavor, and there was way too much slapstick for a work that doesn’t need it. (The new translation was by Jacob Allen.) Despite his boyish looks and manner, Neer’s casting as the heroine’s impetuous young boyfriend was a stretch, but like such other OLO stalwarts in the cast as Boyd Mackus as the Viceroy, sang more than creditably. And delightful company regular Gretchen Windt made a very appealing Périchole. Cory Clines had a funny non-singing bit as a bearded prisoner in the jail scene.



In his witty talk on the influence of Offenbach on modern culture, Senelick played us excerpts from classic French recordings of the score (with Suzy Delair and Fanny Revoil), and one could plainly hear what was missing in purely stylistic terms. Kiah Kayser’s setting and Kim Griffin’s costumes were generically colorful, but didn’t much suggest Peru. “It could be anywhere,” remarked my elderly seat companion who fondly remembered the famous Met revival in the 1950s she had seen while still in college.

Senelick, incidentally, offered a second talk on the Moscow Art Theatre’s Musical Studio in the 1920s which gave the work in a revolutionary interpretation as one of its first productions. He also explained how Offenbach was once the most performed composer in the world. So much so that he related how in a Russian performance of “Hamlet,” there was an interpolated character of the Gravedigger’s Daughter who actually sang something from “La Périchole”!

Altogether more satisfactory was Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe.” In fact, it was one of the best productions of that work of my experience, nicely designed by Kim Powers (sets) and Jennifer Ammons (costumes). Imaginatively directed by OLO veteran Ted Christopher, who also played the Lord Chancellor with strong voice and incisive diction (his “Nightmare Song” tripped off the tongue effortlessly), and cleverly choreographed by Reese, the overture was accompanied by a balletic pantomime giving the backstory of the heroine Iolanthe’s thwarted alliance with the Lord Chancellor before she was banished “to live among the frogs.” There was only occasionally a sense of perhaps too much dancing. The first act finale with its confrontation of Peers and Fairies was especially thrilling.



Sarah Best made an ideal Iolanthe bringing great poignancy to the part, and dancing most gracefully too. Tenor Stephen Faulk successfully assumed the normally baritone part of Strephon.  Brian and Benjamin Krumreig’s solos were beautifully sung, and the two excelled comically as those twittish lords Mountararat and Tolloller respectively, as did Hilary Koolhoven as shepherdess Phyllis. Clines made a stalwart Private Willis, while Julie Wright Costa was quite the best Queen of the Fairies I’ve seen, extracting the maximum humor from every line without overdoing it.

Surely the catnip for buffs this season was the rare production of Lehår’s 1924 “Cloclo,” not played in the U.S. until a 2009 mounting. Béla Jenbach’s libretto on this occasion (originally written for Leo Fall) was performed in Daigle’s expert translation. Infused with 20th century dance rhythms, it was written as the composer was half-way through writing “Paganini.” and at something of a career crossroads. The subsequent success of “Paganini” (and the fruitful start of his association with tenor Richard Tauber) led the composer to create more of those grandly romantic pieces with unhappy endings. “Cloclo,” on the other hand, is more in the vein of a lighthearted farce, minus many of the elements of classic operetta, as Frey pointed out; there’s no nobility, no misalliance, no ball.  I felt it might almost have served as the plot of one of those Jerome Kern Princess Theater shows.



Cloclo is a Folies-Bergère performer with a platonic sugar daddy named Severin, who is the married mayor of Perpignan. When Cloclo sends him a letter asking for money, Severin’s wife opens the letter and assumes Cloclo is her husband’s illegitimate daughter (a revelation which tickles her maternal fancy), and invites the girl to come live with them, much to Severin’s surprise and consternation. She, for her part, loves the penniless Maxime (strong voiced Benjamin Dutton). Apple-cheeked Caitlin Ruddy made a spirited, well-sung heroine in a sort of American cheerleader way. Neer was amusing as her would-be older lover, going into paroxysms of discomfort any time she called him “daddy.” And Yvonne Trobe was touching and funny as the deluded wife.

So, too, there were some droll bits from Best as a daffy cook, Brian as a police officer assaulted by Cloclo, and Faulk as Cloclo’s amorous piano teacher.

The show is really quite intimate in its scale, and the score pretty enough, especially a duet titled here “Love Will Pass Us By,” though on the whole, I felt, not perhaps rating as one of Lehår’s best, at least not on first live hearing. (There was a German radio performance a few years ago which struck me the same way.) But all praise to OLO for staging it.

At the symposium, the compelling Frey offered two interesting lectures related to “Cloclo,” one on the genesis of the work, and the other on the difficult lives of librettist Jenbach and Lehår’s other Jewish collaborators in the Nazi era.

Straddling the worlds of musical comedy and operetta is Leonard Bernstein’s troubled but glorious “Candide.” lt was given here in the excellent edition used by the Royal National Theatre in 1999 (which impressed me mightily at the time I saw it in London), and under Daigle’s brilliant direction, and Byess’ assured conducting, was far and away the best of the productions, representing an enormous leap forward for the company. Beautifully designed by Kiah Kayser (set) and Charlene Gross (costumes) -- when the curtain rose, it might have been “Le Nozze di Figaro” -- and cast to perfection, the performance elicited almost unanimous post show raves such as “it blew me away,” “tremendous,” and a chorus of “wow’s.”



“Candide” was double cast. At my performance, Krumreig was Candide, giving a gorgeously sung, movingly acted account of the role. Chelsea Miller was a tremendous Cunégonde, as virtuosic as any I’ve ever seen. Devlin deftly mixed humor and poignancy as the Old Lady. Caitlin Ruddy made an adorable Paquette. OLO veteran Boyd Mackus registered more strongly here as Martin than as the Viceroy in “Perichole.”  So, too, Neer had his biggest and best parts as narrator Voltaire and Candide’s tutor Pangloss. What made “Candide” especially thrilling was the morphing of these two-dimensional characters to ones we really care about by the end. And as misfortune follows misfortune, we come to genuinely feel for them. By the final curtain, there was not a dry eye in the house.

And though it may be a gratuitous observation, let me add that Bernstein’s score is absolutely sensational. OLO can be proud of having done great honor to the composer in his centennial year. The performance was prefaced by Symonds’ fascinating overview of Bernstein’s legacy with an emphasis on his New York themed musicals (“On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” and “West Side Story”).

The mainstage productions were not the only music heard during the symposium week. There were, in addition, morning or (in one case) evening, concerts as well. Probably the most impressive of the lot was a musically complete concert version of Offenbach’s “The Three Kisses of the Devil” (Les Trois Baisers du Diable), with a libretto by Eugène Mestépès, which premiered in Paris in 1857. Performed in French with Southerland at the piano, it was a Faustian sort of tale involving a ne’er-do-well who has sold his soul to the Devil, and can retrieve it only if he gets the wife of his lumberback friend to kiss him three times. This was most definitely the composer not in an operetta mode, but rather demonstrating the operatic aspirations that would lead to his final work, “The Tales of Hoffmann.”



Ted Christopher sang very powerfully in his diabolic role. Ivana Martinic, who scored so impressively in last year’s symposium concert of “Ages Ago,” did so again as the wife, passionately resisting the man’s temptations as Marguerite does in “Faust.” Spencer Reese and Hannah Kurth also demonstrated their classical chops as the husband and neighbor respectively.

The other rarity -- one of the three Victor Herbert scores unearthed after his death in 1935 (the other two being “The House That Jack Built” and “The Lavender Lady”) -- “Seven Little Widows” was accorded an evening slot, but alas, featured merely excerpts introduced by Daigle who provided the interesting historical background. The work had book and lyrics by Rida Johnson Young (“Naughty Marietta”) and William Carey Duncan. Once again, Southerland was the able accompanist opening the selection with the Interlude from the Prelude to Act 1, and this was followed by four vocal selections by Chelsea Miller and others, as well as another instrumental selection. What we heard was all very good, but it would have been more satisfying to hear the work in its entirety. Instead, the concert was rounded out with a fairly standard selection of Herbert “gems,” albeit well sung by members of the company. Audience favorites included Brian and Faulk’s campily over-the-top rendition of “The Streets of New York,” and Chelsea Miller’s “Art is Calling for Me.”

Traditionally, each year’s symposium contains a session of “Songs from the Cutting Room Floor.” This year, to commemorate the company’s 40th anniversary, this was expanded to two concerts, and included not only deleted songs from the current shows, but songs cut from past OLO productions, including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The New Moon,” “The Violet of Montmartre” (who knew that Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics to a Kálmán work?), “The Arcadians,” and “White Horse Inn.”

Jonathan Heller’s jaunty “When I Go Out Walkin’ with My Baby” intended for “Oklahoma!”; Benjamin Dutton’s “I’m Just a Sentimental Fool” and “Neath a New Moon” (the latter with Best); and Devlin’s “Vive La You,” written by Rudolf Friml for the 1950s film of “The Vagabond King,” were among numerous highlights. The first act closer, “Let’s Make It a Night” excised from Porter’s “Silk Stockings” with its infectious repetition of “Let’s,” became an instant earworm.

Complementing this two-part concert, there was another double header labelled “The Next Forty Years,” divided into operettas and musicals, and offering selections from shows that OLO has never done. “Phi-Phi,” “Venus in Silk,” “Rio Rita,” “The Pink Lady,” “Watch Your Step,” “Anya,” and “Christine” were among the tantalising selections which may or may not ever see the light of day in Wooster.

All these concerts offered the chance for members of the ensemble to join principals in the spotlight, once again affirming the excellence of the company. Mailee Herzog’s “Love Will Find a Way” from “The Maid of the Mountains,” Sadie Spivey and Trevor Todd’s “Perfectly Marvelous” from “Cabaret,” Garrett Medlock’s “She Loves Me,” and Adam Kirk and Emily McCormick’s “They Like It As Much as the Men” from Jean Gilbert’s “The Joy-Ride Lady” were just a few of the standouts.

Conducting chores were taken (in polished fashion) by J. Lynn Thompson (“The Pajama Game,” “Iolanthe” “Fifty Million Frenchmen”), Steven Byess (“Babes in Arms,” “Candide,” “Cloclo”), and Wilson Southerland (“La Périchole,” “Iolanthe”).



Direction was handled by the mighty Steven Daigle (“Babes in Arms,” “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” “Candide,” “Cloclo”), Ted Christopher (“Iolanthe”) Julia Wright Costa (“La Périchole”), and Jacob Allen (“The Pajama Game”).

Though we had already sampled some of Daigle’s possibilities for the future in the aforementioned concert, he asked the guest speakers at the closing roundtable which shows they would like to see performed there or anywhere. Senelick, quite logically, wished for more Offenbach or one of the other major composers of French operette like Hervé or Hahn. Norton expressed a desire for Paul Abraham’s “Ball im Savoy” which Oscar Hammerstein II adapted for its London production. Symonds opted for one of the Ivor Novello shows, particularly “Gay’s the Word,” and one of Kurt Weill’s shows such as “Lady in the Dark” or “Down in the Valley.” And Frey, for his part, suggested Caryll and Monckton’s “The Girls of Gottenberg,” the Kálmán Broadway titles such as “Miss Springtime” (“Die Faschingsfee” with Jerome Kern interpolations) or his unproduced collaboration with Lorenz Hart (“Miss Underground”). He also voiced a strong preference for the 1907 Adrian Ross version of “The Merry Widow.” which he feels beats the original.

It doesn’t seem OLO will run out of rich material anytime soon. I look forward eagerly to whatever goodies next season may bring.



(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through August 11)

All photos: Matt Dilyard

(Top to Bottom)

The Pajama Game - Nathan Brian and Alexa Devlin and cast

Babes in Arms - Alexa Devlin and cast

Babes in Arms - Sarah Best and Spencer Reese

Fifty Million Frenchmen - Stephen Faulk

The Pajama Game - Sarah Best (center)

La Perichole - cast

Iolanthe - Ted Christopher, Julia Wright Costa, Sarah Best

Cloclo - Caitlin Ruddy and Nathan Brian and cast

Candide - Benjamin Krumreig and Chelsea Miller

Symposium - The Three Kisses of the Devil

Fifty Million Frenchmen - cast

Candide - cast

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Straight White Men (Second Stage Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Widower Ed (Stephen Payne), an engineer, gathers his three grown sons for Christmas, and amidst much sophomoric horseplay and f-bombs, a disturbing family dysfunction emerges. The turning point occurs when son Matt (Paul Schneider) unaccountably starts to cry, as the guys scarf down their Chinese takeout meal.

Matt is a Harvard graduate and a high minded idealist.for whom great things had once been predicted Now he lives at home, a virtual caregiver for his father, and content to work at a menial clerical job for a community group. His brother Drew (Armie Hammer), a successful novelist and teacher, sees in Matt’s inaction a lack of self esteem, and strongly pushes him to therapy. Divorced banker brother Jake (Josh Charles) is certain Matt has eschewed the American dream and has simply decided not to sell himself. Ed, for his part, believes Matt may just troubled by the debt of his student loan.

Such is the premise of Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee’s play, seen at the Public Theater in 2014.  With its testosterone fueled characters, this might almost be mistaken for a Sam Shepard play were it not for the themes which are uniquely Ms. Lee’s. For gradually, it emerges that all three are troubled by their lifestyles which have come to them through what they’ve been brought up to recognize as white privilege. Their late mother had even invented a Monopoly-like board game called “Privilege” to drive home that point.

Still, when Matt shows indifference to chasing success, his siblings and father, for all their liberal leanings, are deeply displeased. At one point, quite amusingly, Ed and Jake role enact an interview situation so Matt can learn how to market himself, one of Lee’s most cleverly written scenes.

“Straight White Men” does, at times, seem patently didactic, but thanks to the sharp writing, and persuasive performances, you’re absorbed, and though some suspension of disbelief is needed, one accepts these characters as a real family.

Getting the play off to an intentionally off-putting start, patrons enter the theater to the blaring sound of female rap music (sound design by M.L. Dogg) which is mercifully silenced by the entrance of trans performers Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe who acknowledge the disorienting sounds and set up the premise of the play to follow. Likable as they are, this framing device seems utterly gratuitous.

Anna D. Shapiro directs with a sure hand. Faye Driscoll’s choreography and Schall’s fight direction are tops as these characters are intensely physical.

Todd Rosenthal’s living room set, pink bathroom visible upstage is totally convincing. Suttirat Larlarb’s costumes -- right down to the special Christmas pj’s that Ed insists everyone wear for sentiment’s sake -- are savvily character-defining. Donald Holder’s lighting neatly delineates the three scenes.

(Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; 2ST.com or 212-239-6200; through Sept. 9)


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Irish Repertory Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

We can be thankful to Irish Rep Artistic Director Charlotte Moore for bringing us a reasonably faithful revival of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner’s imperfect but worthy 1965 musical -- later a Vincente Minnelli film starring Barbra Streisand -- and helping eradicate the bitter taste of the most recent exceedingly odd 2011 Broadway revival.

Here, the basic storyline, and much of Lerner’s dialogue, remains true to the original. Chain smoking Daisy Gamble (Melissa Errico) is led to psychiatrist Dr. Mark Bruckner (Stephen Bogardus) to cure her chain smoking. Once in his class, however, she proves highly susceptible to hypnosis, and is revealed to possess extraordinary ESP and telekinetic powers. But, more significantly, when she is regressed to childhood, she trips back even further in time to reveal a past life as an 18th century English lady named Melinda Wells. Bruckner falls in love with the earlier incarnation of the lady leading to complications especially when Daisy herself falls for Bruckner.

Despite the formidable presence of Harry Connick, Jr. and Jessie Mueller in the 2011 version, adapter Peter Parnell made some fairly radical alterations, including changing the gender of the heroine to “David,” a gay florist, while the flashback sequences hearkened not to 18th century England but to 1940’s Big Band era USA with Daisy’s earlier self Melinda now a jazz vocalist. Songs from Lane and Lerner’s “Royal Wedding” score were gratuitously interpolated. It just didn’t work.

On this occasion, Moore -- who both directed and adapted Lerner’s original script -- has done some fiddling herself, but nothing half so extreme. A couple of songs and characters have been dropped. Gone is the Greek magnate who wants to leave his fortune to himself and his amusing but expendable song “When I’m Being Born Again” and so is the character of Daisy’s fiance Warren (now merely an ensemble character), and her Olde English pastiche number, “Tosy and Cosh.” only played as background. In the original, Daisy had to give up smoking so as not to compromise her fiance’s job prospects; here, it’s her own.

In place of these numbers, there’s the number that Jack Nicholson was supposed to sing in the film, “Who Is There Among Us Who Knows” (filmed but cut prior to release) done here as an attractive ensemble piece. Joanna Gleason sang Streisand’s movie songs in a 1980 San Francisco revival opposite Robert Goulet who had popularized the show’s title tune on record, but they’re not included here. Those numbers were also utilized in 2011.

Many find the reincarnation aspects of the plot ludicrous, but I’ve always found it rather intriguing, and the whole delightful, dotted as it is with such classic songs as “Come Back to Me,” “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” and “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here.”

Errico, who brings magic to all her work for the Irish Rep, creates a distinctive Daisy/Melinda, quite unlike originator Barbara Harris or Streisand. Pure New Yawk as Daisy, she’s convincingly the genteel English lady as Melinda. And her singing is splendid as always, clean and pure, with a brassy belt at the climaxes of “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” and her second act showstopper “What Did I have That I Don’t Have?”

Stephen Bogardus is solid enough as Bruckner but I feel fails to spark sufficiently the rather colorless role. He handles his three big numbers with aplomb, however: “Melinda,” “Come Back to Me” (another chart topper in its day), and the title number.

John Cudia brings his strong tenor pipes to the role of Edward Moncrief, Melinda’s philandering husband, and “She Wasn’t You” is a showstopper. Errico sings it, too, as “He Wasn’t You.” (Yves Montand got to sing a variation of the song in the film, but that, too, was cut, and only Streisand’s remains.)

There’s nice work from Daisy Hobbs and Caitlin Gallogly as Daisy’s rooftop buddies, and Rachel Coloff as Bruckner’s crusty secretary.

Other textual changes: the lively “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn” has lost its intro referencing her fiance Warren, and Warren’s “Wait Till We’re 65” extolling the virtues of Social Security and so forth, is now sung by Daisy’s friends as they persuade her to take a stable job.

The ensemble of five musicians, under the direction of Gary Adler, provides a pretty if intimate orchestral palette in Josh Clayton’s new orchestrations. Barry McNabb has provided the nice choreography for the intimate space, most elaborately in the “Wait Till We’re 65” number.

Ryan Belock’s fluid projections (pretty projection art courtesy of set designer James Morgan) allow for seamless time shifting. Whitney Locher’s era-leaping costumes and May Jo Dondlinger’s apt lighting are further plusses.

The strong-voiced ensemble does outstanding work throughout, and gives good measure to the title song on the theater’s balcony steps.

(Irish Rep Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street; 866-811-4111 or irishrep.org; through September 6)

Pictured: Craig Waletzko, Melissa Errico, and William Bellamy. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Monday, July 2, 2018

Skintight (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

That always-rewarding playwright Joshua Harmon has come up with a generally amusing comedy (albeit with serious undertones) about an unhappy 40-something divorcee who pays a surprise (and unwanted) visit to her gay fashion-designer father on the occasion of his 70th birthday. “It’s not an achievement to not die,” her father observes sardonically.

Idina Menzel, in a rare departure from musicals, is terrific as the self-absorbed, one minute loving, the next spiteful, daughter who arrives a bundle of raw nerves as her ex-husband is poised to marry a vapid 24-year-old. Her comic timing is really fabulous throughout.

Her distant father Elliot (Jack Wetherall) has a 20-year-old lover Trey (Will Brittain), the latest in a string of boyfriends, but this one may be more real than the others, as Trey resolutely identifies himself as Elliot’s “partner.” Adding to the mix is the imminent arrival of Jodi’s lackadaisical 20-year-old son Ben (Eli Gelb), who happens to be gay, and is on leave from a summer in Budapest majoring in Queer Studies, while exploring the Jewish family tree. (Elliot’s parents had fled Hungary during the Holocaust.)

Completing the unorthodox household are Orsolya (Cynthia Mace), a Hungarian maid who seems to have an unlikely bond with Trey, and a servant Jeff (Stephen Carrasco) who says little and is treated with arrogant disdain by Trey.

Harmon’s play, generally quite entertaining, doesn’t quite seem to me on the level of “Significant Others” or last season’s “Admissions,” but it's still quite worthy.  Part of the problem is that the characters here, though all demonstrating some good traits, unpleasantly veer towards the sour. But the basic setup is intriguing, and it's especially amusing to watch Jodi’s reaction to Trey, whom she refuses to accept as a member of the family, though she’s otherwise nonplussed about her father and son’s gayness.

Besides family and the nature of love, Harmon’s main theme is the supremacy of youth and beauty, despite all we’ve been traditionally taught about the inner self being most important.  Elliot effuses dreamily about Trey’s beauty in a late monologue that may strike some as a bit icky, especially when he says he wants to sleep on sheets made from his young lover’s skin. Harmon gets further mileage from several Botox gags.

Elliot is the most buttoned-up character, but Wetherall captures the enigmatic contradictions. The well-buffed Brittain -- who casually parades through the living room in a thong in one scene -- is superficially the dumb boy toy, but his Okie character shows more substance as the play progresses. Gelb is also impressive as Elliot’s more privileged-than-he-admits grandson, and his midnight exchange with Trey on the living room couch is deftly played.

Though Mace and Carrasco have the least to say as the servants, their body language speaks volumes. And Mace’s ascent up the stairs with a heavy suitcase is the most memorable staircase maneuvering since Julie Halston made her hilariously drunken ascent in “You Can’t Take It With You” a few seasons back. In fact, every time a character climbs or descends on those steps, we witness little gems of acting and direction.

Set designer Lauren Helpern has designed a coolly elegant West Village duplex set for Elliot including that tall staircase which we see in side view.

Frequent Harmon collaborator Daniel Aukin (“Bad Jews,” “Admissions”) is finely attuned to the playwright’s rhythms and the quirkiness and contradictions of his characters.

Jess Goldstein’s apt costumes and Pat Collins’ classy lighting are further pluses on the production side.

(Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46
Th Street; 212.719.1300 or roundabouttheatre.org;  through August 26)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Carmen Jones (Classic Stage Company)


By Harry Forbes

The revival of Oscar Hammerstein II’s very clever 1943 updating of Bizet’s “Carmen” -- a big hit in its day and one which had the critics outdoing themselves for superlatives -- is receiving a quite wonderful small-scale revival at CSC.

When the show first opened on Broadway, “The New York Tribune” declared the show was “as wonderful and exciting as it is audacious,” and found the libretto “brilliantly translated.”

“The Daily News” concurred that it “...rates all the adjectives that hurried fingers can find on a midnight keyboard. It is superb; it is enchantingly beautiful: it is musically exciting and visually stirring...Hammerstein, the best lyric writer in the business, has done a poet’s and a musician’s job with the libretto. His incandescent imagination sets your own afire.”

Indeed he did. And all these years later, I believe the show registers as worthy as ever.

Directed by John Doyle, whose last Hammerstein venture for CSC was the not-so-hot “Allegro” (Rodgers & Hammerstein) which, as I recall, had followed not long after a far superior staging by the Astoria Performing Arts Center. This occasion, however, finds Doyle at his best, eliciting strong performances from all, and staging the in-the-round presentation ingeniously. His work is wonderfully complemented by Bill T. Jones’ choreography which allows a seamless flow from scene to scene.

Compared to the lavish original Broadway production with its huge cast and full orchestra, CSC’s production is a chamber version with merely a six-piece band led by Music Director Shelton Becton, and a talented cast of 10. But no matter; the power of the piece remains undiminished. And one appreciates anew Hammerstein’s apt lyrics -- in the Negro vernacular of the period -- and holding up very well indeed. Like the original Opera-Comique version of “Carmen,” Hammerstein employed spoken dialogue, not recitatives, between numbers. Those were, in fact, composed after Bizet’s death as Hammerstein had defensively pointed out in a program note back in the day.

Besides the terrific 1954 Otto Preminger film with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, I had previously seen Simon Callow’s exciting 1991 version at London’s Old Vic (which actually won the Best New Musical Olivier Award, as it was the show’s West End premiere) and was justly acclaimed, and York’s brief but excellent 2001 mounting in its Musicals in Mufti series which had featured Anika Noni Rose as good girl Cindy Lou, who loves soldier Joe.

On this occasion, Rose plays Carmen, displaying impressive operatic chops (as does the rest of the cast), and gives as good a dramatic performance as she did as Maggie in the 2008  “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” She doesn’t overdo the hip-swiveling vamp aspects of the role, but she’s plenty sultry, sinuous, disdainful and, when confronted by a murderous Joe at the end, bravely defiant. The men in her circle are strongly played and sung by Clifton Duncan as Joe who deserts the army for love of her (his Flower aria most sensitively sung, and his fury in the later scenes powerful), David Aron Damane as prizefighter Husky Miller (Bizet’s Toreador song transformed into the rousing “Stan’ Up and Fight”) and Tramell Tillman as Joe’s commanding Sergeant Brown who lusts after Carmen himself.

Soara Joye-Ross as Carmen’s friend Frankie makes “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” a real showstopper, teasingly flirting with the patrons in the front row and aisles, while Lindsay Roberts makes a lovely Cindy Lou, Joe’s hometown gal, and convincingly shows her backbone when she comes to take Joe home. Other multiple roles are taken expertly by Erica Dorfler, Justin Keyes, Andrea Jones-Sojola, and Lawrence E. Street.

Scott Pask’s scenic design -- effortlessly morphing from army base to Billy Pastor’s to a Chicago country club, and so on -- makes ingenious use of boxes and crates, and at one point, a voluminous parachute doubles as a tent (a striking coup de theatre). Ann Hould-Ward has provided vivid costumes (Carmen’s red dress, Husky’s purple robe really pop), and there’s superb lighting by Adam Honoré and fine sound design by Dan Moses Schreier

Joseph Joubert’s  reduced orchestrations -- led by Music Director Shelton Becton -- are just right for this space. And though the book is trimmed and the show clocks in at 95 intermission-less minutes (shades of Peter Brook’s famous 1981 reduction of “Carmen” as “La Tragédie de Carmen"), nothing of consequence, at least that I can recall, is missing.

Get thee to 13th Street!

(CSC, 136 East 13th Street; classicstage.org, 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111; through Sunday, July 29)

Pictured: David Aron Damane & Anika Noni Rose.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Othello (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

As I walked into the Delacorte Theater on a balmy Sunday night, I felt a strong sense of deja vu remembering seeing my first Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte. This was because, even before the play began, Rachel Hauck’s set -- a series of stone archways suggesting 16th century Venice -- looked so reassuringly traditional, it was very much the way I remember things being in the days of founder Joseph Papp.

And as the players came out, that nostalgic feeling was happily reinforced by Toni-Leslie James’ lovely period costuming. It was clear that Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production would not be subverted by any high concept notions but would unfold the story in reassuringly straight-forward fashion. And so it did.

Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that the two most recent “Othello” productions of my experience, both updated to a present-day military setting -- the 2016 New York Theatre Workshop production with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig, and the 2013 National Theatre staging with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, screened here in an NT Live presentation -- were inferior. Far from it; those productions were each in their ways revelatory, and featured superb performances..

But there’s something to be said for tradition. And in this sylvan venue, the time-honored approach seemed just right.

Ironically, though, the most unconventional aspect of the evening turned out to be the casting of Othello himself. The part is played by Chukwudi Iwuji, a fine actor and a bright spot in the Public’s recent production of ‘The Low Road” fall when he played a well-educated slave who gets the better of his arrogant young master.

But here, from his very first entrance, he somehow lacks the requisite majestic bearing of a military leader, and as soon as Iago begins poisoning his ear against his wife Desdemona, he takes the bait all too easily and become unhinged rather too quickly. While he plays the crazy jealousy very well on its own terms, at times emitting unmanly squeals and he tries to come to terms with her alleged infidelities, there’s not so much a sense of a great man brought down.

As the scheming Iago, Corey Stoll -- very impressive in last summer’s “Julius Caesar” as Brutus -- is capable enough, but can’t honestly be described the epitome of evil, as he’s simply too matter-of-fact in his machinations, and it’s somehow off-putting for Iago to be so much taller than his Othello.

Heather Lind is attractive, intelligent and fetchingly coquettish as Desdemona (and her “Willow Song” is lovely), but it is Alison Wright’s Emilia who walks away with the show as her steadfast lady-in-waiting and subservient wife to Iago. Her outraged indignation after Desdemona’s death were the finest moments of the evening, and throughout she was a model of clarity showing just how “American” Shakespeare can be done.

There was capable work too from Babak Tafti as Cassio, Flor De Liz Perez as his mistress Luce, Miguel Perez as Desdemona’s infuriated father Brabantio, and Motell Foster as Roderigo (though it was rather odd to cast a black actor as Desdemona’s disappointed suitor in a play where Othello’s race is such a key plot point),

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction is admirable in its unfussiness, though hasn’t quite been resourceful enough, as had been the case in those aforementioned productions, to make us overlook the implausibilities in the Bard’s narrative. Desdemona’s endless pleadings on behalf of Cassio which so plainly fuel Othello’s jealousy and Emilia not confessing earlier that she had passed on her mistress’ handkerchief to Iago, strain credulity more than usual.

Derek Wieland’s music is always apt, coming in like movie music at key moments, but sonically has a canned perfunctory quality.

The murder of Desdemona is particularly well staged, though the aftermath -- satisfying as ever to see Othello get his comeuppance and Iago’s villanies revealed -- feels overly protracted, allowing Iwuji’s whining regret to go on too long.

Despite these occasional failings, there is much to enjoy here, and no matter how often you’ve seen it, such is the power of the piece that one is completely gripped, particularly throughout its exciting second act.

(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue; free ticket distribution or call 212-967-7555 for more information, or visit www.publictheater.org; through June 24)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Alison Wright, Chukwudi Iwuji, and Heather Lind