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 HonorĂ© 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 TragĂ©die de Carmen"), nothing of consequence, at least that I can recall, is missing.

Get thee to 13th Street!

(CSC, 136 East 13th Street;, 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; through June 24)

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Beast in the Jungle (Vineyard Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck

Friday, June 1, 2018

Saint Joan (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Joan Marcus. Condola Rashad and Daniel Sunjata.