Sunday, April 22, 2018

Naughty Marietta (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

This most famous of Victor Herbert’s operettas, and arguably his best, received a classy salon concert performance the other night in the acoustically warm Dining Room of The Players club.

Shifting format from the last two years, when LOONY’s annual spring operettas were offered in staged productions but with no orchestra (though, in each case, one was subsequently used on the ensuing CD recordings), “Marietta” had eight instrumentalists, in addition to Music Director Seth Weinstein on the piano leading a buoyant, stylish performance.

On this occasion, there were no costumes or set to suggest the 1750 New Orleans setting, unlike LOONY’s last production of the work in 2010 which used Alyce Mott’s performing edition. On this occasion, the “libretto reduction” was credited to John Ostendorf, and offered just enough of the plot to buttress the songs, approximately 14 in all.

With eight principals and an ensemble of three, the large concerted numbers were mostly skipped, though the strong-voiced cast managed a reasonably big sound for the great “Live for Today” number and the finales.

As this was basically a concert reading, casting didn’t need to be a perfect visual fit had this been a full production. The affable and boyish Adam von Almen, for instance, was hardly the villainous rake harboring a secret identity as the notorious pirate Bras Piqué. Nor was the youthfully handsome Adam Cannedy a match for Etienne’s doddering elderly father, Lieutenant Governor Grandet. But very much on the positive side, von Almen sang his big number, “You Marry a Marionette” splendidly and with style, as did Cannedy with his wonderful, virile account of “Sweet By and By.”

On the other hand, Rachel Policar (fondly remembered in the name part of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s “The Golden Bride” in 2015), was finely matched with her titular role, the Italian countess in disguise as a poor casquette girl. Strong voiced and fluent, she nailed her part from her opening number teasingly describing the “good” and “ naughty” sides of her personality, and delivered the famous “Italian Street Song” with all the requisite flair and vocal acrobatics.

Bearded tenor Stephen Steffans in his heroic role of Captain Richard Warrington coped well with the high-lying “I’m Falling in Love with Someone” and his half of Marietta’s dream melody “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” His familiar  “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” was staged by director Gary Slavin slightly tongue-in-cheek, and there was some tiresome repeated business in the script about him being “Captain Dick.” Similarly, the script had Warrington stumble repeatedly over “Bras Piqué.”

Bryan Elsesser as Dick’s comic servant Simon (originally a Yiddish stereotype), was more mannishly cocky than boyishly boastful, but like von Almen and Cannedy delivered his two numbers “It’s Pretty Soft for Simon” and “If I Were Anyone Else But Me” solidly.

Jessica Kimple eschewed any sort of exoticism as Etienne’s Quadroon slave/mistress Adah but she earned a well-deserved hand for her sensitive “‘Neath the Southern Moon.” LOONY regular Natalie Ballenger was luxury casting for the smallish role of casquette girl Lizette.

Though it’s always a pleasure to hear this evergreen score, especially when it’s performed as well as this, one hopes that next year LOONY gets back on the more adventurous course of the last four years, productions that spawned treasurable recordings: Offenbach’s “I’le de Tulipatan” (in English translation), Jerome Kern’s “Sally,” and Victor Herbert’s “The Only Girl” and “Orange Blossoms” on the Albany label.

Albany already has Ohio Light Opera’s excellent recording in its catalogue, and buffs may want to check out Comic Opera Guild’s super-complete performance, including some cut numbers, though accompanied by two pianos.

(The Players, 16 Gramercy Park South; April 18 only); or

Photos: Leslie Middlebrook Moore

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Carousel (Imperial Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Anyone walking into the latest revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1945 masterpiece might have good reason to fear that an authentic “Carousel” would be buried under an overlay of superfluous revisions and “improvements,” for so certain wags have been reporting during the preview period.

But happily, that’s mostly not so. Though some conceptual touches require a mental adjustment, and there are some cuts to the script and the score, veteran director Jack O’Brien’s production is still, at heart, the cherished work we know and love. The most radical element about the production is probably the bold casting of a black Billy Bigelow in the very talented person of Joshua Henry (“The Scottsboro Boys,” “Violet”). which, if not historically accurate for the turn of the last century Maine, works plausibly in underscoring Billy’s isolation.

And once Henry and Jessie Mueller’s sensitive, beautifully sung Julie Jordan work their magic with the rapturous “If I Loved You,” you feel “Carousel” is in good hands. Later, Henry delivers as powerful a “Soliloquy” as you’ve ever heard, and the audience goes rightly wild. He has another stirring moment in the second act with “The Highest Judge of All.”

Billy is really a brutish character, however, redeemed only by his love for Julie, and Henry plays that aspect uncompromisingly, so much so that the romance with Julie is somewhat diminished. But then, apart from the great duet, and the temporary softening of his character when he learns Julie is going to have a baby, their substantive moments together are few.

As the comic secondary couple Carrie and Enoch Snow, Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemignani match Mueller and Henry in the vocal department and Mendez nails the comic aspects of the part delightfully.

Opera star Renée Fleming, as Julie’s cousin, Nettie Fowler (often cast with a mezzo), takes to her first Broadway musical with ease, exuding warmth, and blending collegially into the ensemble. She leads a lustrous “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and later earns a huge ovation for “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

That fine dramatic actress Margaret Colin does well with the non-singing role of the battleaxe carousel proprietor Mrs. Mullin. There’s additional luxury casting in the great John Douglas Thompson as the Starkeeper, though his frequent appearances during the early scenes as he silently observes Billy’s activities are a bit distracting, and no doubt confusing to anyone seeing the show for the first time.

As for the ne’er-do-well Jigger, New York City Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar does surprisingly well in the acting and singing departments, but somehow a dancing Jigger seems at odds with the sinister character.

The original Agnes de Mille choreography remains definitive, but the new choreography was devised by the estimable Justin Peck, resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet, and his work here is fine on its own terms, particularly an extended dance sequence which follows the vigorous male chorus “Blow High, Blow Low,’ and Billy’s daughter Louise’s ballet in the second act (beautifully danced by Brittany Pollack), the latter echoing de Mille in its narrative essentials. Peck has replaced the pantomime which accompanies the opening “Carousel Waltz” (and which Hammerstein’s script insisted should be “in no sense a ballet treatment”) with a fully danced prelude which I do feel adds rather an artificial ambience from the get-go.

There’s nicely stylized effect in this sequence, however, when set designer Santo Loquasto has the canopy of a carousel descend from the flies, and the dancers below form a human merry-go-round.

Enoch Snow’s pretty paean to domesticity, “Geraniums in the Winder,” which Gemignani would have sung very nicely, and the lively “Stonecutters Cut It On Stone” for Jigger and the female chorus have both been cut, presumably to tighten the narrative, but given the high standing of this beloved R&H score, their omission amounts to sacrilege.

Jonathan Tunick is credited with new orchestrations. How closely they adhere to the Don Walker originals I cannot say, but they sound fine to my musically untrained ears. Those original charts were heard in all their glory in the 2002 Carnegie Hall concert with Hugh Jackman and Audra McDonald and also the 2013 New York Philharmonic staged concert with Nathan Gunn and Kelli O’Hara (with Mueller shining as Carrie on that occasion).

There was much #MeToo sensitivity about the wife beating aspects of Billy’s character, but those elements have been mostly retained, with some modification of Julie’s loving tolerance of same. When towards the end, Billy slaps his daughter’s wrist, the audience gasps, a confirmation of today’s sensibilities.

Of course, Billy -- like Liliom in the Ferenc Molnar play source material -- insists he only slapped Julie once, but there are repeated references to his being rough with women in “Liliom” and the original “Carousel” script. It’s important to remember that in the play, Liliom, unlike Billy, suffers hellfire for the suicide, and his ultimate redemption is not clear as the slap to Louise is considered a failure. But Julie asserts her love for him in the closing line of the play addressed to Louise, one that Hammerstein retained in slightly modified form, but the current production cuts: “It is possible, dear--that someone may beat you and beat you and beat you, and not hurt you at all.”

There were other regrettable cuts in Oscar Hammerstein’s script, notably the card game with Jigger where Billy loses the money he would have gotten from their impending robbery, but the show is still long.

Ann Roth’s costumes, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting, and Scott Lehrer’s sound are all top-flight. And the music sounds grand as ever under Andy Einhorn’s musical direction.

The revisions preclude this version being anything like a definitive “Carousel” -- the 1965 Lincoln Center revival with original star John Raitt will ever hold that place in my memory -- but the revival stands tall among this season’s musicals.

(Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photos by Julieta Cervantes

Top to bottom:

(l.-r.) Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry

(l.-r.) Lindsay Mendez, Alexander Gemignani

(l.-r.) Renée Fleming, Jessie Mueller

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Mean Girls (August Wilson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I approached “Mean Girl,” which has opened on Broadway after a tryout in Washington, D.C., warily expecting yet another standard issue movie-to-stage musical adaptation and, in many respects, it is. And yet, this retread of the popular 2004 film, adapted by Tina Fey from her film script, is chock full of talented performers, inventive staging, lively dancing, and a steady stream of funny bits, so I’m happy to report I had as good a time as the rest of the cheering crowd around me by show’s end.

The narrative closely follows the film. Cady (appealing Erika Henningsen in Lindsay Lohan’s film part) has grown up in Kenya with her biologist parents and has now moved back to the states where she relishes going to a “normal” school and having non-animal friends for once. (There’s a most amusing “Lion King” spoof in the opening scene.)

Instead, at Illinois’ North Shore High, she’s treated like a freak until she’s taken under wing by Damian (a wonderfully loopy Grey Henson) and artsy goth-girl Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed).  In short order, though, she meets the school bitch Regina (Taylor Louderman) and her devoted acolytes, the hyper-insecure Gretchen (Ashley Park) and pretty-but-dumb Karen (Ashley Park), and they recruit her to join their clique, The Plastics. A math wiz, Cady falls for decent classmate Aaron (Kyle Selig) who, she soon learns, had been Regina’s boyfriend. When Regina learns of this, she steals him back.

Cady decides to adopt Regina’s ruthless tactics, and In the process, she loses her values until (spoiler alert) she finds herself again.

Under Casey Nicholaw’s savvy direction and his terrific choreography, the momentum never stops, and the whole show is imbued with a bracing energy.

Fey has adhered closely to the film script, sensibly updating where necessary to include references to social media and smartphones.

The songs by Jeff Raymond (music) and Nell Benjamin (lyrics) run the gamut from traditional Broadway to contemporary pop and rap, and on first hearing, they seem definitely a cut above the generic tunes we hear so often, and the lyrics have a good deal of wit. Park’s plaintive “What’s Wrong With Me?” and Henson’s big tap number “Stop,” which opens the second act are standouts.

Exceptionally well cast, the show is brimming with talent in the triple-threat way we sometimes take for granted among today’s musical theater talent pool. Kerry Butler, who once upon a time might have played one of the girls, expertly plays three roles: Cady and Regina’s mother, and math teach Ms. Norbury (Fey’s role in the movie) whom the girls slander.

Scott Pask’s versatile sets -- enhanced by Finn Ross & Adam Young’s fabulous projections and Kenneth Posner’s lighting -- continually please the eye. Brian Ronan’s sound design has admirable clarity.

This is popular entertainment in the best sense.

(August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street; or 877-250-2929)

Pictured (L-R): Erika Henningsen (Cady Heron), Ashley Park (Gretchen Wieners), Taylor Louderman (Regina George), and Kate Rockwell (Karen Smith) Credit: © 2017 Joan Marcus

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Admissions (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Joshua Harmon puts diversity quotas and white privilege through the ringer in this thought-provoking play which takes place at a posh New Hampshire prep school.

Sherri (a commanding Jessica Hecht) is the admissions offer there, working tirelessly to raise the percentage of non-white students, a fact we learn as she berates her downtrodden development assistant Roberta (Ann McDonough in a gem of a characterization) about the draft of the latest edition of the school’s catalog, which does not, in Sherri's opinion, include a satisfactory representation of minority student photographs. (When the play opens the Hillcrest school’s minority rate has risen from six to 18%.)

Sherri later gets a visit from her girlfriend Ginnie (a fine Sally Murphy) -- married to a never-seen black English teacher at the school -- whose biracial son Perry (also not seen) is anxiously waiting to hear whether he’s made Yale. In short order, Perry rings to say that he’s been accepted.

Later, Sherri’s son Charlie (Ben Edelman) -- who happens to be Perry’s best friend -- comes home in a stinging temper. He, too, had applied to the prestigious school, but he has not been accepted, merely deferred. He spews out his rage about the unfairness of his position as a hard-working student who, time and again, seems to lose ground to the minority students, and suggests that Perry made the cut only because of his racial makeup.

Edelman delivers the 10 or 15 minute rant with brilliant conviction, as Sherri and her husband Bill (Andrew Garman), the school’s headmaster, listen in stunned silence. But when Charlie concludes his tirade including the definition of a person of color (why, he challenges at one point, is Penelope Cruz defined as such, and Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard are not?), Bill coldly chastises him as a privileged white kid and argues the contrary.

Therein lies the play’s argument which plays out over the play’s intermission-less running time. You may find yourself flip-flopping over both sides of the argument, especially when the narrative takes a surprising turn, and Sherri and Ben’s liberal beliefs are put to the test as their own interests are threatened.

Harmon is a superb writer, and he’s got a natural way with dialogue, as demonstrated in his last Broadway play, “Significant Other.” Though ostensibly a dramatic issue play, there’s plenty of humor here, too, and the debates are sure to generate plenty to think about and lots of post-show discussion.

Daniel Aukin, who directed Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” clearly has an affinity for Harmon’s style, and perfectly orchestrates the shifting perspectives of “Admissions” (a punning title, by the way, as you come to realize). Riccardo Hernandez’s set -- lighted by Mark Barton -- serves seamlessly as both the Mason home and Sherri’s office. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes fit the academic milieu neatly.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65 Street; or at; through May 6)

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Lobby Hero (Second Stage - The Hayes Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Second Stage opens its Broadway venue with an exceedingly fine revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 play about a building security man faced with a moral dilemma when his supervisor confides he may be tempted to commit perjury to save a brother who’s been arrested for a heinous crime.

Michael Cera is just brilliant as the guileless titular chatterbox Jeff, but the cast of four is altogether splendid including Brian Tyree Henry as the basically decent but ethically wavering boss William, Bel Powley (a Brit with a flawless New York accent) as a feisty rookie cop struggling during her probation period, and Chris Evans, Marvel movie action star making an outstanding Broadway debut as a sleazy cop, a tricky role masterfully performed.

Lonergan compassionately etches these characters showing them as not entirely good nor bad but invariably making wrong-headed decisions at crucial moments. The laughs are plentiful, but there’s a lot of thought-provoking material here.

Director Trip Cullman is perfectly attuned to the playwright’s intentions and delicately orchestrates the action with its ever-shifting moral focus.

David Rockwell’s revolving set -- basically the high-rise apartment building lobby where Jeff and William work, and the exterior street -- pulls you into these characters’ milieu from different perspectives. Japhy Weideman’s lighting further enhances the realism. And Paloma Young’s uniform costumes add to the verisimilitude.

In the mad flurry of end-of-season openings, “Lobby Hero” stands tall with the best of them.

One caveat, however: the renovated Hayes Theater is mostly lovely, but leg room is practically non-existent. A revamp of the seats needs to be a top priority.

(The Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Brian Tyree Henry, Bel Powley, Michael Cera, Chris Evans

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Three Tall Women (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Joe Mantello’s revival of Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winner is impeccable in every respect, but the big news here is the great Glenda Jackson’s return to Broadway after a hiatus from acting of 30 years for most of which she served as a member of Parliament. We had heard of her triumph as “King Lear” two years ago in London  -- yes, as King Lear -- but I was still not prepared for the great authority and pitch perfect assumption of her role here.

This is very much the same Jackson we remember from the Ken Russell films, “Elizabeth R,” and her last Broadway appearance in “Macbeth” in 1988, her powers undiminished.

Albee’s play concerns an ailing cantankerous matriarch (identified only a “A”). She’s attended by a weary and sardonic caretaker (Laurie Metcalf), and an emissary from her lawyer (Alison Pill). At the end of the first act (though it is played without intermission), A suffers a stroke, and for the remainder of the play, the caretaker takes on the role of A’s 52-year-old self known as B, and the legal aide A’s 26-year-old self called C.

Early on, we hear that from the age of 16 onwards, it’s all downhill for all of us (big laugh), and the play would seem to bear out that premise.

B and C each wonder what brought them from one age to the next. Along the way we learn of an ailing husband, an alcoholic sister, an adulterous affair with a groom, and a gay son who rarely visits.

Miriam Buether has designed a sumptuous pastel bedroom, and the three ladies are smartly outfitted in Ann Roth’s elegant wardrobe. (Jackson looks particularly lovely in her lilac robe and marcelled hairdo.) Paul Gallo has lighted the stage with a warm glow. Buether has concocted a magical effect for the second half of the play and there’s a marvelous mirror effect towards the end.

All three ladies are quite wonderful and form a well-knit ensemble. Metcalf’s wry line readings land laughs each time. And Pill, in the least overtly showy role, grows more commanding as the part allows in the second act. But Jackson -- cranky, humorous, or imperious --  is simply tremendous.

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Allison Pill, Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf; (c) Brigitte Lacombe

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Low Road (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

This very entertaining satirical allegory from Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park”) offers a succession of sharp barbs about the origins of  free market economy, self-interest, and greed set in 18th century Colonial America, as an unscrupulous young man, born out of wedlock, attempts to scheme his way to a fortune.

Adam (“The Wealth of Nations”) Smith, in the ingratiating person of Daniel Davis, narrates the action which underscores the financial parallels between then and now. In the course of the evening, there are sly references to such phenomenon as collective bargaining, airline travel pricing, charter schools and the like.

Told in the form of a picaresque tale (think “Tom Jones” or “Candide” with a bit of “The Beggar’s Opera” thrown in for good measure), we learn how young Jim (Chris Perfetti) was brought as a baby to the doorstep of innkeeper/brothel madam Mrs. Trewitt (Harriet Harris). Her feisty servant Old Tizzy (Crystal A. Dickinson) predicts the boy will grow up trouble, and takes his birthmark (a copy penny on his backside) as a bad omen; whereas Mrs. Trewitt imagines this means he’ll be a wealthy gentleman. The baby had come from a note signed “G. Washington,” and the ladies assume it’s none other than George, and the message, in fact, promises great recompense for them when the lad turns 17. By that time, Jim has, on his own, become scarily proficient at finance investing the whores’ money in shady bonds.

When he sets off for Virginia to make his way in the world, he purchases a slave John Blanke (Chukwudi Iwuji) who turns out not to be the compliant beast of burden the bullying Jim expects but a well educated heir to a fortune himself. Their subsequent adventures include meeting a kindly blind cult leader (Max Baker) and his daughter (Susannah Perkins) and later, in New York, he’s taken under wing by the wealthy paternal Isaac Low (Kevin Chamberlin), his dithering wife (Harris again), and giddy daughter (Tessa Albertson).

Norris’ points about finance are as pointed as those of Ayad Akhtar in "Junk,” and just as engrossing. Wittily directed by Michael Greif, the piece is consistently absorbing, despite its lengthy running time of about two and a half hours.

David Korins created the very versatile set designs which range from Mrs. Trevitt’s brothel to a British blockade to a fashionable New York apartment, with an amusing (and surprising) detour to the present day in the second act.

Emily Rebholz’s costumes are period perfect with impeccable lighting and sound design by  Ben Stanton and Matt Tierneyk’s respectively. J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova’s wig, hair and makeup designs are all key to keeping up the atmospheric period flavor.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555 or; through April 8)

Crystal A. Dickinson, Chris Perfetti, and Harriet Harris in the American premiere of The Low Road, written by Bruce Norris and directed by Michael Greif, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.