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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Day Before Spring (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

As the second offering in the Alan J. Lerner Musicals in Mufti series, the York is presenting the team of Lerner and (Frederick) Loewe’s first critical success from 1945. The show had a respectable Broadway run, and Metro bought the film rights, but a film was never made (though “The New York Times” reported one in the works the following year with at least one of the show’s principals, Tom Helmore, set to star) The show was only revived once in the early 1950s in Florida. A later projected film in 1960 from MGM’s Arthur Freed unit would have apparently interpolated songs by Frank Loesser and Johnny Green.

For the most part, the show was forgotten, apart from the seven or so published songs (which you can hear nicely performed in laid-back style on the old Ben Bagley “Alan J. Lerner Revisited” album), and the orchestrations by Harold Byrns, said to be excellent, are lost.

The enterprising Bandwagon group revived what they could find of the show in 1990. Then York brought back a fuller version in 2007 thanks to the resourceful detective work of then musical director Aaron Gandy. Lerner scholar Dominic McHugh unearthed considerably more material which served as the basis for a 2010 reading in the Lost Musicals series in London. And in 2017, Sheffield University in the UK presented a student production with newly written orchestrations by Matthew Malone.

Given all this prior scholarship, one might have expected the current version to be the most authentic urtext script yet, but instead York has opted to do it as a streamlined 90-minutes without intermission, adapted and directed by Marc Acito who had previously adapted Lerner’s “Paint Your Wagon” book for Encores.

For not very persuasive reasons, such as the original show somehow not being in touch with the postwar sentiments of 1945, he has reset the show in 1958 (with passing references to the era’s political and cultural benchmarks such as McCarthyism and Davy Crockett caps), and included two nice but extraneous numbers from Lerner and Loewe’s earlier flop “What’s Up?” But even with the addition of those two songs, the overall impression is that there is actually less music heard here than in 2007.

So, too, the 2007 version retained the two-act structure and gave something of the feel of the real show, whereas this one seems a rushed abridgment, which is not to say that, based on the original’s mostly positive albeit mixed reviews, Lerner’s script wouldn’t benefit from some judicious pruning. In its opening night review, The New York Times noted wryly, “the spaces between notes are too great.”

The narrative finds neglected wife Katherine (Madison Claire Parks), her head filled with romantic notions after reading her former college flame Alex Maitland’s romantic novel “The Day Before Spring,” persuaded by her husband Peter (Will Reynolds) and their friends May and Bill Packard (Michelle Liu Coughlin and Nicolas Dromard) to attend their 10th year college reunion at Harvardale University (Harrison in the original script). Reluctant at first, but intrigued by the opportunity to meet Alex (Jesse Manocherian) with whom she once tried to elope, she relents.

On campus, the husbands meet up with their old buddies Gerald (Jonathan Christopher), Harry (Kent M. Lewis), and Eddie (Ian Lowe), while Peter finds himself romantically tailed by the androgynously named Christopher (Alyse Alan Louis), the kid sister of a former girlfriend.

Eventually, Katherine must decide whether to run off with Alex or stay with Peter. (Her dilemma very much parallels heroine Liza Elliot’s indecision in “Lady in the Dark” which opened on Broadway four years before.)

Originally there were extended ballet sequences (courtesy of Antony Tudor, no less), and there’s sensibly been no attempt to replicate those, but the extended first act finale wherein Katherine receives advice from Voltaire, Plato and Freud gives a sense of the some of innovative and fanciful elements of the show.

The cast was a bit tentative at the third preview reviewed, but overall equipped themselves admirably given the extremely short rehearsal period. Parks, who revealed during the post-show talkback that she is the granddaughter of Hollywood’s Larry Parks and Betty Garrett, makes a physically and vocally lovely Katherine. Her duets with the well-cast Manocherian, including “You Haven’t Changed at All,” “I Love You This Morning,” and the title song are passionately vocalized. Strong-voiced Jonathan Christopher also make a solid impression as Alex’s assistant Gerald, though I believe Gerald was originally the lovelorn Christopher character’s love interest.

Ms. Lewis has been seemingly directed to channel Alex Borstein’s tomboyish Susie character in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” a choice I found a bit off-putting, but she delivers her two big numbers, “My Love is a Married Man” and “A Jug of Wine” with requisite pizzazz.

Manocherian delivers a satisfyingly virile “God’s Green World,” one of the show’s best songs, and Christopher, Lewis, Lowe, and Dromard effectively belt out the other rousing tune, “Friends to the End.” The score intriguingly contains a couple of sequences that would later be heard again in the film and stage versions of “Gigi” as well as “My Fair Lady.”

The show was backed by Music Director David Hancock Turner on piano, George Farmer on double bass, and Buddy Williams on drums. Turner has interpolated some nice jazzy riffs for the ensemble, including Judith Ingber and Brittany Santos.

Despite reservations, it’s wonderful that York is giving us the chance to experience this rare work again, and encounter the graceful melodies and erudite lyrics that would soon blossom so spectacularly in “Brigadoon” and all that followed.

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (619 Lexington Avenue; 212-935-5820 or yorktheatre.org; through February 17)

Pictured left to right: Madison Claire Parks, Jesse Manocherian. Photo Credit: Ben Strothmann.

Monday, February 4, 2019

True West (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

The late Sam Shepard’s 1980 masterwork, which always seems to bring out the best of its creative team in its revivals, gets another superior mounting in James Macdonald’s gripping production.

As Lee and Austin, brothers who seem poles apart until, as the play progresses, we see they are cut from much the same cloth, are superbly embodied by Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano. (It has been suggested that the dichotomy of the siblings mirrored the two sides of the playwright.)

In the first act, Hawke’s Lee is an ominous, deeply disturbing presence, as he disrupts budding screenwriter Austin’s calm equilibrium in their vacationing mother’s suburban house. Lee is poised to clinch a deal with Hollywood producer Saul (Gary Wilmes) for the screenplay over which he’s long been toiling. But the resentful Lee -- a thuggish small-time house thief -- taunts Austin for his presumed superiority, and thinks he, too, has a story or two that could make a good movie. You just know when Saul arrives for his one-on-one conference with Austin, that Lee will co-opt the producer who, as it develops, finds in Austin a more “authentic” writer. Among Shepard’s clever conceits, the Western story Lee outlines to Austin subtly mirrors the dynamic between the brothers.

Matters go downhill from there. But the victimized Austin -- who, it seems, has always envied his freewheeling sibling -- eventually reaches the breaking point, and the more humorous second act, sees a dramatic role reversal and the simmering tensions between the two erupt into physical violence (all expertly choreographed by Thomas Schall).

Marylouise Burke makes a late play appearance as the boys’ dotty mother, pointedly characterized by Shepard so you can see the genetic connection between the lady and her unruly sons.

Mimi Lien’s set, encased in an illuminated frame, is the picture of neat suburban domesticity, and an ideal setup for the chaos that ensues, all authentically lighted by Jane Cox. Kaye Voyce’s costumes perfectly nail the characters.

Both Hawke and Dano delineate their parts masterfully, but Hawke’s hothead Lee is a marvel of brutish physicality and disingenuous craftiness. I don’t think he’s ever given a finer, more detailed performance. You can see the wheels turning as each brother tries to manipulate the other. The recurring business about Lee wheedling the car keys from Austin is one such instance. Dano creates a more milquetoast character, but his character reversal in the second act is all the more effective.

Macdonald brilliantly captures Shepard’s rhythms and creates a taut and appropriately disturbing evening, though emphasizing the menace over the humor. The slow-building first act almost plays out like Stephen King tale (and it's plenty nerve-wracking), but when the narrative demands it, he doesn’t fail to capture the black comedy in the horrifying events.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street; 212.719.1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through March 17)

Monday, January 28, 2019

Carmelina (The York Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

In the York Theatre’s long-running Musicals in Mufti series, the third time’s the charm for Alan J. Lerner and Burton Lane’s 1979 Broadway flop (done at York in 1996 and 2006). York’s current mounting of the show, based on the same true-life story that inspired the 1968 film “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” -- feels the most fully realized of the revised version (with additional lyrics by Barry Harman) that had its genesis while lyricist Lerner was still alive to approve the modifications to the original lyrics and the text (by Lerner and Joseph Stein).

The plot -- which, as often noted, bears uncanny similarities to the 1999  “Mamma Mia!” -- concerns the pillar of the Italian village of San Forino, one Carmelina Campbell, whose American war hero husband Eddie Campbell was purportedly killed in the second World War, and who had been left with a child Gia to raise. A local cafe owner Vittorio pines for her, but clinging to her grieving widow status and claiming she must remain true to her husband's memory, she keeps him at bay, despite inwardly harboring reciprocal feelings.

Carmelina’s backstory is only a ruse, however, as in fact, she had liaisons with three American soldiers, one of whom is the now grown Gia’s father. But Carmelina doesn’t know which. Meanwhile, she has been receiving child support from all three. When the soldiers return to the town for a reunion, it is not long before the deception is revealed.

The book holds up very well indeed, with really no dull patches. Lane’s Italian-drenched melodies sit well on the ear, and Lerner’s witty lyrics are, of course, exemplary, and the Harmon revisions are melded in seamlessly.

York’s cast is outstanding. Andréa Burns (“In the Heights,” “On Your Feet”) is a warm and persuasive Carmelina singing with an evocatively warm timbre, and like the other Italian characters, maintains a convincing accent throughout. Joey Sorge makes a handsome and amusing Vittorio (this revised version playing up the comic aspects of the role more than the romantic original where the part was played by the Met’s great Cesare Siepi).

Carmelina’s three soldiers are perfectly embodied by Evan Harrington, Timothy John Smith, and Jim Stanek. Their glowing trio “One More Walk Around the Garden,” the show’s most durable song, is gorgeously vocalized, and they have fun with the jaunty “The Image of Me,” wherein they each claim kinship with the engaging Gia, sweetly sung and played by MaryJoanna Grisso.

Anne L. Nathan’s strong turn as Carmelina’s servant and confidante Rosa, who reminds the guilt-wracked Carmelina she is still an upstanding woman, is yet another plus. “I’m a Woman,” originally a solo for Carmelina,” i/s now a duet for her and Rosa, and the two ladies sang it strongly.

Among the song casualties in this edition are “Love Before Breakfast,” “Yankee Doodles are Coming to Town,” and  “Why Him?” but good as those numbers are in themselves, their omission is understandable in this streamlined (and improved) revision. Among the compensations, there’s an added Lane (and Harman) song called “Sorry as I Am.”

The Tony-nominated score is in fine hands under the direction of David Hancock Turner on piano, with Joseph Wallace on bass. And the whole is wonderfully directed by Michael Leeds (who, together with original book writer Stein and Harman, worked on the various York revisions).

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue; yorktheater.org or 212-935-5820; through February 3)

Pictured above (left to right): Jim Stanek, Evan Harrington, Anne L. Nathan, Joey Sorge, Andréa Burns, Timothy John Smith, Antonio Cipriano, MaryJoanna Grisso. Photo credit: Ben Strothmann.

And York's Producing Artistic Director James Morgan (far right) leads a post-show talk back discussion. Photo credit: Maryann Lopinto:



Sunday, January 27, 2019

Blue Ridge (Atlantic Theater Company)


By Harry Forbes

In Abby Rosebrock’s new play, feisty English teacher Alison (Marin Ireland), a gal with serious anger management issues (she took an axe to her principal’s Honda), moves in with the longstanding residents of St. John’s Service House, a church-sponsored halfway house in Western North Carolina.

By turns friendly and collegial, confrontational and prickly, Alison ultimately disrupts the delicate harmony of the group which includes their pastor Hern (Chris Stack), his assistant Grace (Nicole Lewis), her new roommate Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd) who’s a French teacher, guitar-strumming Lothario Wade (outstanding Kyle Beltran), and sweet-natured veteran Cole (Peter Mark Kendall), all recovering from various addictions (pills, alcohol) or psychological issues.

“Blue Ridge” bristles with energy, humor and sharp characterizations, and touches on themes of race, class, and #MeToo issues, the last having to do with the mid-play revelation of an inappropriate romantic liaison. You care about all of her characters, and despite flaws, most especially Alison’s abrasiveness, grow to care for all of them. This is as much due to the appealing performances of the ace cast, and a galvanic turn by the great Ireland.

Taibi Magar directs her ensemble with fine sensitivity, though the naturalistic overlapping of fast-talking dialogue, and Appalachian accents, occasionally hinders audibility.

Adam Rigg’s settings, lighted by Amith Chandrashaker, including the group’s Bible study meeting room, have the right institutional ambiance. And the other production elements, such as Sarah Laux’s costumes, Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound and music, are fine, too.

(Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street; atlantictheater.org or 866-811-4111; through January 27)

Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Choir Boy (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

I didn’t catch “Choir Boy” when it played at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II back in 2013, but in the wake of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Oscar win for “Moonlight,” the play now comes to Broadway with original lead Jeremy Pope, along with some others of the original production, again headlining.

It’s an absorbing tale of Pharus, an effeminate boy in an elite black prep school whose students adhere to a steadfast code of honor and belief in God. At the play’s start, he has been chosen to head the gospel choir. In the very first scene -- the previous semester commencement ceremony -- we see him discreetly heckled by the school bully Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson) who happens to be the nephew of the headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper in one of his best roles). Pharus falters momentarily in his rendition of “Trust and Obey” but then forges on.

Once Pharus lands the plum position of choir head, however, he dismisses Bobby for the latter’s consistently disruptive behavior.

Eventually, Marrow hires a colleague -- coyly named Mr. Pendleton as he's played by a rather underpowered Austin Pendleton -- to teach the boys creative thinking.

As the play progresses, we learn that though Pharus is outrageously flamboyant in his manner, he is, in fact, still a virgin, and feels all the more unfairly hassled for simply being as he is. (He says he’s “sick of people calling me something I ain’t doing.”) But it’s not just his presumed sexuality that riles his colleagues and teachers, he’s arrogantly boastful about his talent to boot.

Other students -- all persuasively played if rather stereotypically written -- include troubled David (Caleb Eberghardt), trying hard not to take sides in the conflict between Pharus and Bobby, as he’s clearly being pressured by his family to graduate with honors and become a pastor; Pharus’ muscular roommate Tony (John Clay III), straight but empathetically non-judgmental; and Bobby’s devoted acolyte Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe) who tries to temper his friend’s bad behavior.

The boys (including four ensemble players) sing beautifully when the plot calls for it (in Jason Michael Webb’s stirring arrangements), and McCraney and Pope mostly succeeds in making the more than a little abrasive protagonist ultimately win our sympathy. Basically, Pharus knows he rubs people the wrong way, but after enduring years of repression at home, he feels entitled to act out at school.

Pope conveys all this most convincingly, and Cooper is realistically sympathetic to all that transpires, at least to the extent his position will allow. The Pendleton component feels shoehorned in, and doesn’t quite convince. HIs presence does allow for a lighter moment when his characters asks the boys to pick a song that meant a lot to them as a child.

McCraney has an expert ear, and his dialogue is often compelling, including a discourse on the nature of spirituals.

Trip Cullman directs with his customary sensitivity, and provides the cohesion that the play occasionally lacks.

David Zinn’s simple scenic design -- school rooms, dorm, and shower room -- and prep school costumes are spot on. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting delineates the school and dorm scenes and the onstage presentational moments.

The text could benefit from some trimming, but shortcomings aside, this coming of age tale is worth catching.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 W. 47th Street; Telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200)
               
Photo by Matthew Murphy: (l.-r.) Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper