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Monday, October 8, 2018

I Was Most Alive With You (Playwrights Horizons)


By Harry Forbes

Craig Lucas has found inspiration for his latest play from, of all things, The Book of Job, fashioning a modern story about a TV writer and his family beset with a deluge of bad fortune leading them to question God, free will, and other such weighty matters.

Though the underlying philosophical message may be dense, the narrative -- starting in 2010, with extended flashbacks to critical events that befell the characters in 2009 -- is clear enough, completely absorbing, and profoundly moving. You might say this is a spectacular demonstration of “when bad things happen to good people,” though that would be a huge oversimplification.

Ash (Michael Gaston) is the writer of a long-running series, and when the play opens, barely recovered from the tragic events we will soon observe in the flashback scenes (and I shan’t reveal them as Lucas unfolds them in masterly storyteller fashion as the play progresses), and he and his longtime writing partner and friend Astrid (Marianna Bassham) -- attracted to each other, but honorably platonic -- having been trying to come up with a new idea after their fallow period necessitated by the aforementioned events.

Ash’s deaf son Knox (Russell Harvard), once a substance abuser, is madly infatuated with an opiod-addicted lover Farhad (Tad Cooley). Ash, for his part, had drug problems in his youth, and even did some jail time. He is in a fractious marriage with his not very accurately named wife Pleasant (Lisa Emery). His mother Carla (Lois Smith) -- who lives with her caretaker Mariama (Gameela Wright), whose estranged son happens to be on Death Row, presides over the annual Thanksgiving dinner, a gathering that will explode with revelations and recriminations among all the characters, and culminate with the horrific incident that propels the rest of the play.

After everything that has happened, Ash and Astrid decide to use the Book of Job material for their new project, as the relevant scenes from the family troubles are interwoven. It’s difficult to tell whether Ash and Astrid are guiding the play’s narrative in a fictionalized way or whether the events described are completely as they were. The ending, however, is intentionally ambiguous.

The play’s press material speaks of the “interpersonal miscommunication...across lines of deaf (physically), Deaf (physically and culturally), hearing, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, atheist, gay, straight, addict, sober, class, gender, racial, ethnic, and generational identities.”

That may sound like heavy going, and some have found the preponderance of misery excessive, I was absolutely riveted throughout.

Uniquely, the play -- originally produced by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company -- is performed on two levels on Arnulfo Maldonado’s split level set, the main action below, and above, a “shadow” cast of silent performers (Seth Gore, Beth Applebaum, Amelia Hensley, Harold Fox, Anthony Natale, Kalen Feeley, Alexandria Wailes) signing the dialogue. ASL is a significant plot point too. Knox, for instance, can actually speak but chooses not to do so. His partner Farhad, also partly deaf, has had an implant, and refuses to sign. Pleasant has never believed in signing, a sore point with all, although it was through her obstinacy that Knox learned to speak. Throughout, the cast morphs between speaking and signing, and when it’s only the latter, super-titles projected on the stage, provide the translation.

All of the performances are superb, though the extraordinary Harvard (“There Will Be Blood,” “Tribes”) -- and for whom Lucas was apparently inspired to create a vehicle -- must be singled out for his heartbreakingly powerful work. The most dramatic adversities involve his character, and it’s hard to know whether Job is meant to be the not-very-Job-like Ash, who relates the action of the play, or Knox. Or perhaps it’s all the characters.

The complexities of the work are deftly choreographed by Tyne Rafaeli, with Sabrina Dennison as Director of Artistic Sign Language, as ASL is such a major component.

The production credits are all top-notch from Annie Wiegand’s lighting to David C. Woolard’s costumes to Jane Shaw’s sound design to Daniel Kluger’s striking original music.

(Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.org; through October 14)

Photo by Joan Marcus. Below: Tad Cooley, Michael Gaston, Lisa Emery, Russell Harvard; Above: Anthony Natale, Seth Gore, Amelia Hensley, Harold Foxx.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Nap (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

About that title, no, this is not about someone’s cozy afternoon siesta, but rather, “The Nap” is a novel comedy thriller about a snooker championship, and “the nap,” as we learn early on, refers to the texture of the playing table.

Richard Bean’s play -- his first on Broadway since the hilarious “One Man, Two Guv’nors” in 2012 -- was first produced at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2016, and in fact, the action is set there.

Dylan (Ben Schnetzer), a local lad about to compete in the World Snooker Championship, is the offspring of a divorced ex-con, former drug dealing father (John Ellison Conlee) and a gambling-addicted mother (Johanna Day), who’s now involved with a ne’er-do-well Irish boyfriend Danny (Thomas Jay Ryan).

Despite his less than upstanding heritage, Dylan, for his part, is scrupulously honest about the game, and resolutely refuses a suggestion that he throw one frame of the upcoming match in order to pay back his colorfully named benefactress, one-armed Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings), a crooked trans woman with a penchant for malaprops.

In any case, Dylan needs to be especially above board as an “integrity officer” of the International Center for Sport Security (Bhavesh Patel) and a comely National Crime Agency cop (Heather Lind) who’s clearly attracted to Dylan from the get-go, are close at hand. But, as events will demonstrate, Dylan’s integrity is sorely tested.

Besides the amusing dialogue fashioned by Bean, the production -- smartly directed by Daniel Sullivan (a far cry from his last MTC outing, “St. Joan”!)  -- has the clever added feature of a video projection of the snooker table so the action can be seen up-close. The play culminates in an actual snooker game with Dylan, the 117th ranked snooker player in the world, pitted against champion Abdul Farrah (played by real life champion Ahmed Aly Elsayed). Interestingly, the denouement can change depending on the actual winner.

The game is sufficiently explained for novices, and thus the plot is easy enough to follow for all. (, “It’s not like pool," one of the commentators informs us. "Any ball is available to either player. It’s a game of points accumulation. A red ball is one point, and if you pot a red it stays in the pocket and you stay on the table to try and pot a colour.”)
               
The Yank cast handles their English accents with aplomb, and their comic talents are uniformly  exemplary. Not all Bean’s jokes are equally felicitous -- Waxy’s malaprops wear a but thin, for instance -- but on the whole, they are quite rib-tickling, such as the running gag of Bobby trying to recall the names of iconic movies, which invariably involves the whole cast in a sort of impromptu round of Twenty Questions. The funniest bits are perhaps the droll, tightly understated remarks by the offstage color commentators. And there are some neat plot twists along the way, too.

David Rockwell’s set, aptly lighted by Justin Townsend  -- from the the grubby British Legion snooker practice room to the high tech Championship Final stage -- are all authentically designed. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are spot-on for this milieu.

Putting aside the boisterous farce of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” I think it’s fair to say “The Nap” takes pride of place as the funniest show currently on the Broadway boards.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.manhattantheatreclub.com; through November 11)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l - r)   Bhavesh Patel , Thomas Jay Ryan , Ahmed Aly Elsayed , Max  Gordon Moore, Ben Schnetzer, John Ellison Conlee, Johanna Day, Heather Lind, Alexandra  Billings, Ethan Hova

Monday, October 1, 2018

Bernhardt/Hamlet (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

At the age of 55, the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had already triumphed playing several Shakespearean heroines including Ophelia, decided to take on the title role of Hamlet. And it is the mounting of that legendary 1899 production that serves as the focus of Theresa Rebeck’s uneven but mostly rollicking backstage comedy/drama.

Using largely present-day colloquial dialogue, Rebeck attempts to show us the artistic process behind the endeavor, and her characters comprise “The Divine Sarah’s” inner circle, including actor Constant Coquelin (excellent Dylan Baker) (playing both Polonius and The Ghost in the production, and later, as we see, originating the part of Cyrano de Bergerac), Art Nouveau poster illustrator Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), disapproving theater critic Louis Lemercier (Tony Carlin), and her latest lover, married playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) whom Bernhardt recruits to take the iambic pentameter out of Shakespeare, leaving only the meat of the story. (That point actually puzzled me a bit, as I don’t believe iambic pentameter translates to French in the first place, but never mind.)

In the second act, Rebbeck shows us the genesis of Rostand’s most celebrated work, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and we even get a fully-staged scene from that play. It’s a colorful digression to be sure, but one that makes a long play, already juggling a lot of themes, even longer and less focused.

Rostand’s wife Rosamund (Ito Aghayere) shows up unexpectedly in the second act and there’s a pretty good confrontation scene, as does Bernhardt’s disapproving but ultimately loving son Maurice (Nick Westrate). But for all its good bits, the play lacks a strong dramatic arc.

Still, there’s real chemistry between McTeer and Harner, the latter a strong asset to the production. Other parts are capably essayed by Brittany Bradford, who plays Ophelia in the production, and Triney Sandoval and Aaron Costa Ganis, who at one point, are seen rehearsing the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scene with McTeer. One of the most compelling scenes shows the rehearsing of the ghost scene between McTeer and Baker.

McTeer gives a confident, flamboyant, imperious, larger-than-life performance, as you’d expect. She’s no slouch at taking on classic roles (e.g. Mary Stuart in Shiller’s play, Nora in “A Doll’s House”), but there’s nothing particularly Gallic about her assumption of this role, nor was there in Glenda Jackson’s portrayal in the only fair 1979 film, “The Incredible Sarah.” It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a great English actress to suggest Frenchness, unless perhaps by affecting an accent, but then everyone in the cast would have needed to do so. Still, that might have been the way to go in order to make the whole more authentically persuasive.

Rebeck presents her protagonist as a trendsetting naturalistic actress, which is somewhat contrary to the more declamatory style for which Bernhardt was known. Still, we learn Bernhardt felt Hamlet must be played as a ripe 19-year-old youth.

Despite my intense admiration for McTeer, and the promising subject matter, I found the overall tone too jocular, and overly laden with present-day feminist, gender, and sexism jargon, as in tiresome questions about what it means for a woman to play Hamlet. I may be wrong but I don't think historically it was such a big deal for her to be playing Hamlet at the time (any more than it is for Glenda Jackson to take on King Lear as she’ll be doing later this season, or for McTeer to have played Petruchio as she did in the park); Bernhardt played several men's roles in her day. The gambit may raise eyebrows, but not generate outrage.

The dynamic between Bernardt and Rostand is intriguing. Beyond their romantic entanglement, he is shown to be frustrated by her demands to adapt Shakespeare’s text. (As we learn, the task was eventually done by other hands.) But, in any case, we never actually get a sense of how this prose “Hamlet” might have sounded, as it would have had to be an English translation of that French text.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel handles all the backstage activity with panache (to use a “Cyrano”-inspired word), and is adept at staging the considerable comic elements and snappy one-liners of Rebeck’s script. “A woman who does nothing is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet,” Bernhardt quips at one point.

Beowulf Boritt has designed a cleverly revolving set with morphs from backstage to cafe to Rostand office to Bernhardt dressing room, all atmospherically lighted by Bradley King, Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are richly designed, and Fitz Patton’s original music and sound design add to the rich period ambience.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street; 212-719-1300, or roundabouttheatre.org; through November 11)

Monday, September 24, 2018

The True (The New Group)


By Harry Forbes

To cut to the chase, Edie Falco is just plain wonderful as Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, the blithely foul-mouthed right-hand confidante to Albany’s mayor Erastus Corning II (played by Michael McKean) in 1977. Sharr White’s absorbing play, which crackles with lively and thought-provoking dialogue, concerns Corning disassociating himself from Noonan after decades of the latter’s passionate support.

Erastus has been a close friend of Polly and her husband Peter (a beautifully understated Peter Scolari), but suddenly the mayor’s social visits to their household cease. Polly is beside herself with grief and puzzlement. She suspects that the rumors of an affair between her and Erastus are the cause, and the rift -- once it becomes public -- will seem to confirm them.

Peter urges her to let the matter rest, but indefatigable Polly -- fiercely loyal to the Democratic party as much as to the man for whom she’s worked and, in White’s view, platonically loved for so long -- keeps unofficially working on the Erastus’ campaign for reelection during the primary, especially as she fears his laid-back complacency will lose him the election in favor of upstart state senator Howard C. Norton (Glenn Fitzgerald) whom Erastus had once mentored, now that Democratic party head Dan O’Connell has died.

As it happens, Noonan was the grandmother of New York senator Kirsten Gilibrand of whom there is fleeting reference in the play. (Polly, ever relieving her tensions at the sewing machine, is shown making an outfit for her young granddaughter.) Aggressive as her tactics are, White makes the point that Polly is only doing what men in her position have always done, and for which they are usually admired.

Falco’s galvanic performance remains intensely likeable despite Polly’s short fuse and bossy ways. And it’s the sort of marathon role that makes one admire how actors can memorize such lengthy dialogue. The rest of the cast is uniformly terrific, too, including John Pankow as a slimy would-be party boss whom Polly visits to broker a deal, and Austin Cauldwell as a clueless young man whom Polly puts forth as a committeeman assuming he will make a lifelong commitment to working on their side.

If an up close look at the Albany political machine would not seem to be your thing, don’t worry, “The True” (that title referring to party loyalty) is the stuff of high drama and White’s focus is as much on the personal as the political. Indeed, he seems to be showing us how the two intersect.

The New Group Artistic Director Scott Elliott beautifully balances the drama and the humor with nary a dull moment.

Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design includes background music with percussion and cello enhances the drama. Derek McLane’s booklined set with changing insets evokes just the right backdrop, while Clint Ramos’ period costumes and Jeff Croiter’s lighting are equally apt.

The Pershing Square Signature Center (The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street); www.thenewgroup.org for tickets & more info; through October 28)

Photo by Monique Carboni: L-R: Michael McKean, Edie Falco, Peter Scolari

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Days to Come (Mint Theater Company)


By Harry Forbes

It would be pleasant to report that Lillian Hellman’s seven-performance 1936 flop, written shortly after her sensational lesbian-themed drama “The  Children’s Hour,” and derided by the critics, is an underappreciated gem.

But sad to say, it seems to me those critics were on the mark, though the WPA Theatre’s 1978 revival was admittedly greeted more warmly. Still, whatever your viewpoint, the play is not without merit, and Mint Theater Company has done a commendable job in giving it a classy staging.

The plot revolves around a labor dispute at an Ohio brush factory modelled, it seems, on the historic Wooster Brush Company, though the town here is called Callom. The owner Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) has hired thuggish strikebreakers to deal with the recalcitrant workers and protect the Rodman family: Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily) and a couple of goonish henchmen, Mossie Dowel (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) and Joe Easter (Evan Zen). Rodman’s wife Julie (Janie Brookshire) is moodily discontented with her marriage and the current situation, and is prone to solitary walks.

On one such outing, she breaks protocol and visits the stalwart leader of the strike Leo Whalen (an excellent Roderick Hill) for reasons she at first finds difficult to articulate, but there’s a romantic frisson to the encounter. That night, however, she and Whalen witness a crime that propels the action of the far more absorbing second act.

Rounding out the Rodman household are Rodman’s bossy and brittle sister Cora (Mary Bacon), co-owner of the factory, Rodman’s friend and lawyer Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy) and maid Lucy (Betsy Hogg) and cook Hannah (Kim Martin-Cotten), who knows all the family’s dirty secrets, and harbors a soft spot for the workers.

The first act, as indicated, takes a while to get going, but beginning with the clandestine meeting between Julie and Whalen onwards, the plot grips. When hot-headed worker Tom (Chris Henry Coffey) ignores Whalen’s advice not to fight, tragedy ensues, all culminating in recriminations and revelations.

Family dysfunction is Hellman’s main focus, more than the labor backdrop. She herself wrote, ”It’s the story of innocent people on both sides who are drawn into conflict and events far beyond their comprehension” and also their lack of values which bring about dire consequences for the community.

Some of J.R. Sullivan’s direction is, I feel, too low-keyed and conversational whereas a more heightened delivery would be more compelling. Performances are all competent, several more than that, especially Daily as the ruthless strikebreaker.

Harry Feiner’s set convincingly suggests the affluence of the well-to-do household with a neat revolve to Whalen’s headquarters. Andrea Varga’s costumes are attractively period. Christian Deangelis’ lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound design are first-rate. And hat’s off to Fight Director Rod Kinter for staging a neat piece of violent action which I won’t spoil.

(Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through October 6)

Photo by Todd Cerveris: (l.-r.) Janie Brookshire, Roderick Hill, and Dan Daily.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Heartbreak House (Gingold Theatrical Group)


By Harry Forbes

The most interesting aspect of Gingold Theatrical Group’s fully staged production of George Bernard Shaw’s WWI era masterpiece, one inspired by Tolstoy and Chekhov and dramatizing a complacent upper crust society on the edge of destruction, is textual. Artistic Director David Staller went back to Shaw’s original manuscript and notes to present a more trenchant anti-war piece than the toned down standard version, necessitated by a public eager to forget the carnage of the Great War.

Company namesake Hermione Gingold had apparently written to Shaw in 1940 asking if she might play the piece in a London air raid shelter. This fascinating bit of backstory has inspired Staller to use a World War II Blitz setting as a rather distracting framing device, making a worthily lengthy play even longer. So the conceit of the production would have us in the basement of London’s Ambassador Theatre during an air raid, and we are handed singalong sheets (rather than standard programs) for some tiresome audience sing along (“Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” etc.) The players decide they'll perform Shaw’s play on a spontaneous request from the audience.

The cast assembled here is comprised of seasoned pros, but ultimately not a patch on the two New York revivals within memory. There was the one at Circle in the Square  in the 1983/4 season with Rex Harrison, Amy Irving, Rosemary Harris and Dana Ivey, later filmed for PBS’s “Great Performances.” And there was another good one in 2006 from Roundabout headed by Philip Bosco.

On this occasion, I found Derek Smith’s cold hearted industrialist Boss Mangan, Lenny Wolpe’s sweetly paternal Mazzini Dunn, and Kimberly Immanuel’s his soon-to-be-disillusioned by life daughter Ellie especially satisfying. And there’s intelligent work from the rest, albeit sometimes stylistically discordant.

Alison Fraser and Karen Ziemba are the sharply contrasted daughters of former sea captain Shotover, Ariadne Utterwood and Hesione Hushabye, the former all pretentious airs, the latter warmly maternal to Ellie whom she hopes to save from a marriage of convenience to Mangan.  

Raphael Nash Thompson is their seemingly befuddled but ultimately clear headed Shavian prototype father. And Tom Hewitt has some good moments as Hesione’s straying husband who breaks Ellie’s heart. The most wrong-headed piece of casting was Jeff Hiller in drag as housekeeper Nurse Guinness (giving the whole a feel of farcical panto), Ariadne’s brother-in-law and lover Randall Utterwood, and the burglar (that role, incidentally, surprisingly cut in the Circle-in-the-Square production altogether). The part of Guinness is not just a throwaway; in fact, Helen Westley in that role was among those singled out for praise in the play’s 1920 premiere at the Theatre Guild in New York.

Staller is doing commendable work with his monthly Shaw readings, often sharply cast with performers who rarely get the chance to play classic theater. But for a full-out production, one needs more.

Brian Prather’s set does double duty as the theater basement and the Shotover house, usually designed along more nautical lines, as it’s meant to be symbolic of a society at sea. Barbara A. Bell’s period costumes are attractive.

For all its shortcomings, there is still much pleasure at hearing Shaw’s peerless wit and social conscience in full flower.

(Lion Theatre at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and Dyer Avenues; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through September 29)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Karen Ziemba, Derek Smith, Raphael Nash Thompson, Tom Hewitt, Kimberly Immanuel, and Lenny Wolpe.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Pretty Woman: The Musical (Nederlander Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

It seems to me that anyone among the legions of moviegoers who loved the 1990 Julia Roberts-Richard Gere film, will be pleased with this enjoyable musicalization with a somewhat sanitized script by the late Garry Marshall (who, of course, wrote and directed the film) and J.F. Lawton.

The 1980’s pop-style music and lyrics are by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, and though the lyrics may not exactly be plot-advancing, nor the last word in erudition, I rather liked them on first hearing.

Samantha Barks, who made such a moving Eponine in the film of “Les Miserable” after playing that role on stage and also winning acclaim as Nancy in “Oliver!” has the Roberts part and she’s very watchable indeed. This is a distinguished Broadway debut and, in hindsight, a far better choice for her than the quick-closing “Amelie” would have been (she created that role at Berkeley Rep, but Philippa Soo brought it to New York).  Andy Karl, late of “Groundhog Day,” makes a fine leading man, and there’s good chemistry between them.

Jerry Mitchell directed and choreographed the show which is slickly staged on David Rockwell’s stylish palm tree dominated set.

There’s exceptionally strong support from Orfeh (Mrs. Karl in real life), Eric Anderson, wonderfully versatile as both the suave hotel manager of the Beverly Wilshire and a street hustler called Happy Man, and Jason Danieley in a mostly non-singing role as Edward’s slimey lawyer, not afraid to play the repellant aspects of the role.

The plot follows the movie closely. Vivian (Barks) and Kit (Orfeh) are Hollywood Boulevard hookers looking to better themselves. Vivian is picked up by a wealthy corporate raider Edward (Karl) -- after meeting him “cute” on a bench -- and he pays for her services for a week, setting her up in his suite at the plush Beverly Wilshire, and bringing her to business meetings and social functions. Edward takes Vivian for a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive, and she emerges, Eliza Doolittle-like, as a lady.

It is one of the flaws of the property, though, that Vivian remains rather common longer than someone with the innate intelligence and good heartedness to captivate Edward really should. But I suppose if her full transformation occurred sooner, there’d be no plot.

At the hotel, Vivian is taken under wing by the kind manager Mr. Thompson (Anderson), and the scrappy belboy Giulio (acrobatic dancer Tommy Brocco). Her guileless nature ultimately helps finesse Edward's business dealings with shipping executive David Morse (Robby Clater).

And in the course of their relationship, she humanizes Edward and softens his ruthless business tactics.

The songs are mostly of the generic variety we’ve come to expect these days, and the sentiments unsurprising. Vivian sings of wanting to be “Anywhere But Here” and later, after experiencing a better life, she vows “I Can’t Go Back.” Edward longs for the “Freedom” to change. But they’re all valid character expressions, and generally quite catchy. There’s an enjoyable tango, “On a Night Like Tonight” wherein Mr. Thompson teaches Vivian how to dance with an assist from the staff, nicely staged by Mitchell. The big production number, “Never Give Up on a Dream” showed Anderson, Orfeh and the cast in top form with both Mitchell and Rockwell pulling out their respective stops.


The scene where Edwards takes Vivian to the opera is cleverly and fluidly recreated here. While Allison Blackwell and Brian Calì emote from “La Traviata,” Edward sings a counter melody of  “You and I” to Vivian in their box seat above. Vivian’s 11 o’clock number, “I Can’t Go Back (I’ve Seen a Different World,” is appropriately stirring.

Other production credits are top of the line including Gregg Barnes’ costumes, which satisfyingly mirror those in the film, Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting, and John Shivers’ sound design.

All in all, this is a well-crafted, rom-com audience pleaser.

(Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st St; 877-250-2929 or PrettyWomantheMusical.com)

Photos: Matthew Murphy
Top: Andy Karl, Samantha Barks
Bottom: Eric Anderson, Orfeh

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Gettin’ the Band Back Together (Belasco Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This utterly derivative and downright mediocre musical concerns a 40-year-old stockbroker who loses his job, moves back in with his mother in Sayreville, New Jersey, reupping his high school rock band to compete with a (comically) thuggish real estate mogul who has foreclosed on his home.

Before the performance begins, a pitchman takes the stage to let us know that we’re about to see that rarity among Broadway musicals -- one with an original score -- but frankly that’s about the only thing original about it. This show makes the unfairly maligned “Escape to Margaritaville” look like “Sunday in the Park with George” by comparison.

The characters are a stereotypical bunch. They’ve given the stockbroker Mitch (affable Mitchell Jarvis) an arbitrary Greek heritage, so that the villain can get laughs mispronouncing the name Papadopoulos. His old school buddies and fellow Juggernaut bandmates include best friend Bart (Jay Klaitz), the obligatory comic, overweight sidekick who happens to be a math teacher with a dubious grasp of his subject; Sully (Paul Whitty), the cop who’s a total softie; and Robbie Patel (Manu Narayan), a dermatologist about to submit to an arranged marriage. None of them are happy in their chosen professions. When they learn their former lead guitarist has died, they recruit one of Bart’s failing math students Ricky (Sawyer Nunes) as a reluctant fill-in.

Mitch’s mom Sharon is pleasantly embodied by a still amazingly fit Marilu Henner on whom Bart has a rather icky crush.

Mitch’s adversary Tygen (Brandon Williams), a thuggish tattooed lout with pulsating pecs, a washboard stomach, and vast real estate interests, now dates Mitch’s ex Dani (Becca Kõtte at my performance) who, it transpires, has a daughter from a previous liaison (Noa Solorio)

Those original songs are tolerable but strictly generic, starting with Mitch’s paean to New Jersey.

The production team, from producer Ken Davenport on down, is composed of A-listers who have all seen better days. Derek McLane’s sets are, on this occasion, cartoon pop up rudimentary except for an elaborate diner setup in the second act, and the stage for the big showdown at the end is reasonably flashy. The team also includes Emily Rebholz (costumes), Ken Billington (lighting) and John Shivers (sound).

Davenport is credited with the book along with a conglomerate of actors (Klaitz among them) and writers who call themselves The Grundleshotz (“who helped develop... [the show] through a series of improvisational rehearsals”) and there’s “additional material” by Sarah Saltzberg.

At one point, the Juggernaut is engaged to play a Jewish wedding -- for no particular reason -- typical of the hodgepodge construction.

By the second act, I’ll admit I perked up during a number called “Life Without Parole,” at that point the best number of the show. This was followed by another relatively strong number called “Battle of Your Life,” and from then on, I went with the flow. But it was a case of too little too late. This is not a score I’d relish revisiting.

The theme of following your dreams rather than opting for the safe choice has been done to death, and as the premise here is so cartoonishly implausible, there’s nothing to give this particular variation an extra spark. It’s an amalgam of “The Full Monty,” “School of Rock,” and about a dozen other shows.



The hard-working cast goes through its paces more than competently, and I particularly liked Tamika Lawrence as the sassy cop on whom Sully has a crush. Director John Rando was a natural choice for this sort of zany material, and he’s come up with some amusing bits of business throughout. Likewise, Chris Bailey’s choreography provides sporadic pleasure.

To give the devil his due, I will report that many in the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, right through the routine standing ovation during the post-bows playout session. The band played well under Sonny Paladino’s music direction.

But for all its sporadic plusses, the show remains a peculiar choice for Broadway indeed.

(The Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street; www.Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)


.Photos by Joan Marcus:


Top to bottom:


(L-R) Jay Klaitz & Mitchell Jarvis
     
Brandon Williams (center) and the cast of Gettin' The Band Back Together

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 king 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 Fanély 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