Friday, December 20, 2019

A Christmas Carol (Lyceum Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This altogether delightful and poignant adaptation of Charles Dickens’ seasonal favorite is warming the Lyceum through the holiday season. Campbell Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge successfully takes up the mantle of his late dad, George C. Scott, who memorably played the role in a 1984 TV adaptation.

Freshly but respectfully revamped by playwright Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter & the Cursed Child,” “His Dark Materials” on HBO), who has demonstrated his skill with literary adaptations, the production has played three successful seasons at London’s Old Vic and was directed by its artistic director Matthew Warchus.

Though very much geared to the sensibilities of an adult audience, the production is ideal family entertainment for all but the youngest children.

Stylishly conceived by Rob Howell (who also designed the attractive Victorian costumes) with a profusion of hanging lanterns, and abstract sets (empty door frames are a significant motif), the script follows the familiar Dickens outline, but with both some trimming (the ghosts’ visitations happen quickly), and embellishments, which give the whole a fresh feeling without ever betraying the source material. Scrooge’s ultimate turnabout is managed far more realistically, but no less satisfyingly.

Thorne has, in fact, crafted a psychological backstory for Scrooge including an abusive, alcoholic father (Chris Hoch, who doubles as Marley’s ghost). The penurious father’s threatening and insistent demands for money are shown to have sown the seeds of Scrooge’s avarice.

Scrooge’s ghosts are played by Andrea Martin (Christmas Past) and LaChanze (a Caribbean-accented Christmas Present), and they bring a delightful but equally potent presence to those parts.

Scrooge rules his office with an iron hand insensitive to his long-suffering but ever-cheerful clerk Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves). As in other versions, we see him rebuffing the hearty greetings of his nephew Fred (Brandon Gill). In the flashback scenes, we meet the love Scrooge let get away, Belle (Sarah Hunt). Belle’s role is expanded and given considerably more agency, particularly in a scene which follows Scrooge’s reformation, after which we also meet Cratchit’s family, including his wife (Erica Dorfler) and, of course, Tiny Tim (Jai Ram Srinivasan at my performance, here a cheeky young actor with cerebral palsy). 

There’s good work, too, from Evan Harrington (Scrooge’s old employer Fezziwigg, now an undertaker), Rachel Prather (Scrooge’s late sister, Little Fan),  and Dan Piering (Young Ebenezer). The character of Little Fan is, like Belle, significantly expanded, and she becomes, in fact, the ghost of Christmas Future. 

The staging is highly engaging. Pre-show carolers throw cookies and clementines into the audience from the stage while other cast mates hand out treats from the floor. There’s a quite wondrous snow effect in the second act. And when Scrooge decides to show his beneficence, the audience participates in passing the various foodstuffs onto the stage. 

There’s a lovely use of traditional Christmas music throughout, culminating in a magical rendering of “Silent Night” on hand bells. 

It would be lovely if this production, with its striking use of stagecraft, could become an annual tradition as at the Old Vic. 

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 W 45th St, between 6th and 7th Avenues; or 212-239-6200; through January 5)

Photo by Joan Marcus

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Let ‘Em Eat Cake (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

Artistic Director Ted Sperling conducted a splendid concert reading of George and Ira Gershwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1933 musical  “Of Thee I Sing” in 2017. So it was only a matter of time before he’d get around to the 1933 sequel "Let 'Em Eat Cake," which originally featured the same principal cast members and creative team (including book writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind). 

This was, I believe, the first high-profile airing of the score in the U.S. since the 1987 concert version performed at BAM, back-to-back with “Of Thee I Sing,” a very full program to say the least. That performance, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, resulted in a two-disc recording from Sony. 

Terrific as the BAM performance was, I don’t recall getting quite the same electric charge as when Sperling raised his baton for the first notes at Carnegie Hall. The overture was absolutely thrilling, not only because of his conducting and the superb playing of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, but the refulgent acoustics of the hall that could have blown the roof off. In the moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking this the greatest thing Gershwin had ever written. Musically, in fact, the MasterVoices concert was quite exemplary from start to finish, and the cast certainly the equal of its distinguished BAM predecessors. The MasterVoices chorus, for their part, contributed a full-bodied and vigorous sound.

The excellent and impressively versatile Bryce Pinkham (currently playing Bobby Kennedy in “The Great Society”) and the always reliable and amusing Kevin Chamberlin returned as President John P. Winterbottom and his sweet but dim-witted vice president, Alexander Throttlebottom, along with Chuck Cooper as Fulton, and Fred Applegate as Gilhooley. David Pittu, the French ambassador of the other show, was now the scheming revolutionary Kruger. New to “Let ‘Em Eat Cake,” were several other Broadway pros, such as Bill Buell as General Snoofield, Lewis J. Stadlen as Louis Lippman, golden-voiced Mikaela Bennett (Penelope in Encores’ “The Golden Apple” as Mary Winterbottom; and Christopher Fitzgerald who doubled as Winterbottom’s political rival Tweedledee and narrator. Overall, the cast of Broadway pros couldn’t have been better.

As polished a presentation as this was, though, the fact remains that the show is not quite the crowd-pleaser of its predecessor. There’s a distinctly sour tone throughout, as the likable Winterbottom in “Sing” here becomes a fascistic dictator. Some may sense disturbing parallels to our present times, and that may have been a factor in choosing it. But even audiences in 1933 were lukewarm to the show with the looming threats of the fascistic regimes of Germany and Italy. The Broadway production only ran 90 performances. And though George Gershwin’s highly skilled musicianship was justly admired, there are far fewer take-home tunes here than in the other.

A few of the “Sing” songs are briefly reprised here, and they pop up like old friends. Of the new numbers, Wintergreen and Mary’s “Mine” originally had the most traction outside the show and there are several attractive numbers but they tend to be woven into the overall fabric. Like “Of Thee I Sing,” it’s very much an operetta, with touches of Gilbert and Sullivan now joining other classical models such as Bach, the latter providing the blueprint for Gershwin’s use of counterpoint and verges on the operatic, as Janet Pascal notes in her interesting program note. 
Gershwin, proud of his work, said, “I’ve written most of the music for this show contrapuntally, and it is that very insistence on the sharpness of a form that gives my music the acid touch it has—which paints the words of the lyrics, and is in keeping with the satire of the piece.”
On this occasion, there seems to have been some edits to the score, as Kruger and Trixie’s “First Lady and First Gent,” a very cute number heard at BAM, is missing here (as is the character of Trixie for that matter). On the other hand, “A Hell of a Hole,” the first part of “The Trial of Wintergreen” was missing at BAM and the subsequent recording, so I’m not sure which, if either, should be considered more definitive.

Kaufman and Ryskind’s book was performed in an abridged concert adaptation by Laurence Maslon, but the comic situations, however shortened, often seemed labored. 

When the show begins, Winterbottom has come to the end of his term. He loses the popular vote to Tweedledee, but taking a cue from revolutionary Kruger, spearheads a revolution himself, and seizes back power to become a dictator. Eventually matters go south when the war debts promised to the army fail to materialize, as Wintergreen had promised. A climactic baseball game involving the Supreme Court justices and the League of Nations ends with calls for the death (by guillotine) of Wintergreen and Throttlebottom when the latter, acting as umpire, makes some unpopular calls. Eventually Mary, who has formed a new DAR, saves the day by winning over the female population with a Paris fashion show. 

The work was thought mostly lost until the late John McGlinn set about reconstructing it with extant material, and Russell Warner created the superb, very authentic sounding orchestrations prior to the BAM performances.  

Supertitles -- crisp and clear -- were projected above the stage making the lyrics intelligible. The cast interacted with each other, but this was basically a concert performance, unlike MasterVoices’ more elaborately staged “Lady in the Dark” this past April.                                        

Other production credits were first-rate: Andrew Palermo’s choreography, Scott Lehrer’s sound design, Tracy Christensen’s costumes and Maarten Cornelis’ lighting.

As it happens, Wooster’s excellent Ohio Light Opera company will be mounting a fully-staged production of the piece this summer. It should be interesting to hear the score in its full original context. 

(Carnegie Hall; or 212-247-7800; November 21 only)

Photo credit: Erin Baiano

Top: Cast of Let 'Em Eat Cake. 

Below: Bryce Pinkham, David Pittu, Mikaela Bennett 

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Debutante (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

When Victor Herbert’s musical comedy premiered in New York in 1914, it had the misfortune to occur the night before the opening of young Irving Berlin’s new fangled, dance-heavy musical, “Watch Your Step!” featuring the hugely popular husband and wife team of Vernon and Irene Castle. As far as the public, if not the press, was concerned, Herbert’s show was rendered instantly old-fashioned. So suggests Neil Gould in his excellent biography of the composer. Interestingly, Herbert’s frequent book writer and lyricist Harry B. Smith worked on both shows. (And his brother, Robert B. Smith, wrote the lyrics for “The Debutante.”)

On the other hand, Edward Waters, who wrote the first comprehensive Herbert bio in 1955, felt the show was just plain inferior to Herbert’s contemporaneous “The Only Girl” which had opened only a month earlier to greater critical and popular success. With uncharacteristic bluntness, Waters described the book of “The Debutante” as “stupid,” and noted “a lack of spontaneity in the music,” a view echoed by some but certainly not all the critics.

Whatever the reason, the show only lasted 48 performances, and has rarely been seen since, though late Herbert champion Fred Roffman revived it for New York’s Bel Canto Opera in 1980 in a production fondly remembered by buffs.

Leave it to today’s Herbert flag-waver Alyce Mott to bring it to us again courtesy of her VHRP Live! Company with a streamlined, presumably less “stupid” script.

She assembled a particularly strong cast, including many from what has become a virtual repertory company, and with Music Director Michael Thomas at the podium, and the superb William Hicks at the piano, the results were thoroughly delightful.

The setting is 1914 Plymouth, England. The story concerns the titular young lady Elaine (Claire Leyden), betrothed since childhood to her playmate Phil (Drew Bolander). The young man has been in Paris, and fallen head over heels for a femme fatale from the comic opera there, Irma (Alexa Devlin). Though Elaine has politely rebuffed the amorous attentions of Larry (Christopher Robin Sapp), a naval lieutenant, and a bumbling French Marquis (Nathan Hull), she decides to make her wandering fiance jealous by enlisting the Marquis to pretend to make love to her when others are around.

There’s also Phil’s father, Godfrey (John Nelson), who unbeknownst to Phil, has fallen for the irresistible Irma himself, and intends to return to Paris to continue his pursuit of her. Meanwhile, his friend Ezra Bunker (David Seatter), an aspiring composer, longs to go to Paris so he can mount his avant-garde Cubist opera. He and Godfrey plot to send his domineering suffragette wife Zenobia (Vira Slywotsky) off to America on a ruse, but she learns of the scheme, and instead follows them to Paris in disguise. 

The second act is set in Paris where Elaine raises the philandering Phil’s ire by shamelessly flaunting her Marquis, Ezra mounts his opera, while Irma contrives to keep Phil under her sway. In the original, Elaine ultimately won back the straying Phil. Here, at the very last moment, she drops him for the devoted Larry, a switch that makes perfect dramatic sense, especially as Bolander played Phil as such an insensitive cad.

Claire Leyden, who’s already graced several VHRP productions, didn’t disappoint. Her fine voice, impeccable phrasing, natural poise, and intelligent acting were all in evidence, and I can’t imagine that the role’s creator, Hazel Dawn, could have been any more appealing, even if Leyden’s not called upon to play the violin as did Dawn, the original “Pink Lady” in composer Ivan Caryll’s hit show. But director Mott did engage superb cellist Scott Ballantyne to recreate the original staging of the Act Two entr’acte, with the ensemble surrounding him and humming as he reprised the first act’s top tunes, a truly gorgeous effect.

Elaine’s suitors Larry and Phil, both tenors, were impressively sung by Sapp and Bolander respectively. Sapp’s Irish air, “Peggy’s a Creature of Moods” was especially lovely, and Bolander partnered Leyden strongly on their first act rueful love duet, “The Golden Age,” as Elaine and Phil recalled how as children they enjoyed imagining their adult lives as a cozy married couple. 

Devlin had a second act showstopper, “When I Played Carmen,” delivered with great style and flair, and elsewhere totally nailed the temperamental French-Russian diva in her customary expert comic style. Also scoring big on both the vocal and comic fronts were Slywotsky as Ezra’s overbearing wife; Hull, a sort of male Mrs. Malaprop amusingly mangling his English expressions at every turn; Nelson as the aging Lothario; and Seatter who amusingly donned a sort of Tina Turner white wig as the henpecked husband went incognito. 

Other vocal highlights included Seatter and Slywotsky’s “Married Life,” as the Bunkers sing in counterpoint about their respective notions of the institution, Seatter onstage and Slywotsky working the audience; “The Love of the Lorelei,” sung by Larry and Phil about the lure of exotic women while Elaine, in hiding, voices her reaction upstage; two particularly infectious earworms, “Call Around Again,” and “The Face Behind the Mask,” the latter a sextette with a contrapuntal refrain beginning with “One Smile”; the Marquis’ “All for the Sake of a Girl” (strongly sung by Hull); the Cubist Opera, which starts off with a spoof of modern-day dissonance before ultimately morphing into ragtime; Elaine and Phil’s dramatic duet, “Fate,’ which originally gave Hazel Dawn her opportunity to play the violin.

In the aforementioned Bel Canto production, Roffman went for super-completeness,  not only including all the dance music (as he had the advantage of a full orchestra), but restoring a couple of numbers cut out of town, plus, as was his wont, interpolating three others from a 1917 Herbert show, “Her Regiment.” 

In VHRP’s production, there were internal cuts (mostly dance music) in some of the numbers, and a verse here and there, but cut altogether were several tuneful pieces which were, admittedly, extraneous to the narrative: the sailors’ “On a Sunny Afternoon,” Ezra and Godfrey’s “The Gay Life,” The Marquis’ “The Will o’ the Wisp,” and Irma’s “The Baker’s Boy and the Chimney Sweep.” Still these numbers were not really missed, and what was there made for a satisfyingly full evening.

The ensemble parts were as astutely cast as the leads, Jonathan Hare, Anthony Maida, Keith Boughton, and Shane Brown on the male side; Hannah Holmes, Stephanie Bacastow, Charlotte Detrick, and JoAnna Geffert on the distaff side, all of whom made entertaning contributions.

Emily Cornelius, as she has so often done in past VHRP productions, devised the lively and tasteful choreography which enhanced each number. 

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.;; November 19 & 20 only)

Photos: Jill LeVine

Top: Full Company

Below: “Call Around Again”:  L-R: Anthony Maida, Claire Leyden, Jonathan Hare, Hannah Holmes.

Bottom: “The Face Behind The Mask”:  L-R: Claire Leyden, Drew Bolander, Alexa Devlin, Christopher Robin Sapp, Vira Slywotzky, David Seatter

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

On the pop singer jukebox musical bio scorecard, the latest -- an import from London -- rates remarkably high. With its better-than-average book, eye-catching production, and impressive leading lady, “Tina” lands more in the superior “Beautiful” and “A’int Too Proud” league than, say, “Summer” or “The Cher Show.” 

Mind you, the show still fits the by-now formulaic mode of most these shows, and there are plot similarities with some of these others too: skeptical record label, abusive husband, and an artist managing to find her own voice, but I guess such is the nature of the pop business, and, in particular, of women in a pre-MeToo era. 

Bearing in mind that the book is mainly a vehicle upon which to hang the hit parade of songs, the one fashioned by Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) has some surprisingly strong dramatic scenes, and doesn’t flinch from some of the more unpleasant aspects of its subject’s life. (A quick perusal of Wikipedia’s Tina Turner entry would seem to confirm the general accuracy of the storytelling here, however simplified.) And with England’s Phyllida Law at the directorial helm, and an overall solid cast, the dramatic scenes are given their due. The domestic episodes, Turner’s in-studio conflicts about her style, and a late scene in the hospital where her mother lies gravely ill are especially potent.

Beginning with a seated Tina chanting her Buddhist mantra, we flash back to her childhood as a precocious child (dynamic Skye Dakota Turner) singing her head off at a Baptist meeting. Her mother (very strong Dawnn Lewis) berates her at home for being so loud, leading to a tense dramatic scene with the parents fighting and the mother moving out with Tina (then called Anna Mae)’s sister. Tina’s father (David Jennings) deserts her, and she goes to live with her grandmother (excellent Myra Lucretia Taylor) then as a teenager, back to her mother and sister where, out with her sister for a night on the town, she meets Ike Turner (Daniel J. Watts), and their professional partnership, and later, unhappy marriage, is born.

Tina eventually breaks loose of Ike’s physical abuse, and she strikes out on her own with two boys to raise, one Ike’s, the other fathered by a sympathetic musician (Gerald Caesar) in their band, falls on hard times, but eventually, in London, finds her own voice with the help of a new manager Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin), and Erwin Bach (Ross Lekites), a German marketing professional, 16 years her junior, who falls in love with her, and would later become her husband. 

The domestic scenes are reasonably meaty, anchored as they are by a solid acting cast, including Steven Booth as Phil Spector, Robert Lenzi as a Capitol Records executive, Jessica Rush as Rhonda, her first manager and friend.

Adrienne Warren, who we’ve seen in “Shuffle Along” and “Bring It On: The Musical” here, made a deserved splash when this show started in London, and she’s sensationally good, nailing the character from teenage years upwards, and singing and dancing tirelessly throughout. Though not a physical dead ringer for Turner, she captures the character, the gritty sound, and the kinetic moves, and incredibly, rarely leaves the stage. How much more satisfying to have a single actor play the role, than the triumvirate approach adopted by “Summer” and “The Cher Show”!

Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes are immensely satisfying, and the climactic moment of Turner making her entrance for a big concert in Brazil is a dazzlingly gorgeous coup de theatre, not to mention the thrilling mini concert that ensues. Jeff Sugg’s projection attractive projection design adds to the fluid nature of the show. Choreographer Anthony Van Laast recreates the trademark moves. 

Ethan Popp’s orchestrations are satisfying, and most of the songs are done complete, not in the medley form favored by many of the other jukebox shows. Nicholas Skilbeck is the talented conductor credited with arrangements and additional music.

My major carp is Nevin Steinberg’s overloaded sound design. Not only are the musical numbers pitched way too high, but the balance seems seriously off with lyrics barely intelligible, and the orchestra overpowering the voices consistently, a complaint mentioned by several at my performance. 

(Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street; or 877-250-2929)

Friday, November 15, 2019

Richard III (White Light Festival/DruidShakespeare)

By Harry Forbes

After enduring so many well-intentioned local productions that flatten Shakespeare’s language and alter the Bard’s meters to sound oh-so-contemporary, it’s a genuine pleasure to hear actors who have complete facility with the language. 

It’s not a matter of using posh English accents. Dublin’s DruidShakespeare company is, in fact, attractively Irish inflected, but they know how to speak the text giving it plenty of naturalism, and rendering it relevant to a modern-day audience, with at the same time, not losing the requisite period flavor.

This skill is evident from the moment the great Aaron Monaghan as the conniving Richard pops up from the downstage trap door which will later be used to dispatch all his many victims, and addresses us with “Now is the winter of our discontent.”  We can relax knowing from the start we’re in experienced hands.

As gleeful and enjoyably (for us) malevolent as he plays Richard for the first half of the play, he shows us the vicious side of his voracious ambition in the second as he becomes increasingly monstrous. Artfully manipulating walking sticks in each hand, his leg bent out, he gives a performance of impressive physicality and verbal dexterity, holding his own and then some with memories of such great Richards as Ian McKellen, Antony Sher and even Laurence Olivier. 

The production, in association with the Abbey Theatre, opened to raves last year in Dublin. With a cast of only 13, director (and Druid co-founder) Garry Hynes manages to give us all the characters with some clever doubling of roles. The young princes, for instance, are taken by women (Siobhán Cullen and Emma Dargan-Reid), and the Lord Mayer is portrayed by company co-founder Marie Mullen who also plays a distraught Queen Margaret. 

As the other women wronged by Richard, Jane Brennan makes a dignified Queen Elizabeth, wife of Richard’s brother King Edward IV (Bosco Hogan) whose young sons Richard will have murdered in the Tower, Ingrid Caigle as Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, who rues the day she bore him, and Cullen as the widowed Lady Anne whose husband and father-in-law he murdered.

Hynes provides plenty of high drama. Richard’s wooing of the widowed Anne, for one, is superbly staged and played, as are the scenes of Richard manipulating his victims before they meet their untimely ends: Clarence (Marty Rea), Hastings (Garrett Lombard), and Buckingham (Rory Nolan), the last Richard’s staunchest ally and then, when he hesitates to kill the young princes in the Tower, frozen out of Richard’s good graces. 

I enjoyed bowler hatted Catesby (Marty Rea), Richard’s henchman, dispatching this victims with a bolt pistol.

Peter Daly’s Rivers and John Olohan’s Stanley are also masterfully characterized.

Richard’s fatal fight with Richmond (Frank Blake) is superbly choreographed by David Bolger.

Francis O’Connor’s predominantly grey walled set, its austerity broken on occasion by a brightly lit backdrop as characters made their entrances, and a skull in a glass box which hangs ominously over the stage, representing the fallen (great moment when Richard snatches a crown from the skull), and the multi-purpose aforementioned trap door all make for a versatile playing area. Costumes are beautifully period.

James F. Ingalls’ atmospheric lighting and Gregory Clarke’s stark sound design are further plusses.

Gripping theater, its three hours fly by swiftly. This is one of the gems of this year’s White Light Festival, and as such, highly recommended.

(Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 524 W. 59th Street;, or CenterCharge at 212.721.6500; through Nov. 23)

Photo by Richard Termine. Pictured l-r Jane Brennan, Aaron Monaghan, Peter Daly, Frank Blake, Marie Mullen

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Soft Power (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Conceived as a sort of reverse spin on “The King and I,” “Soft Power” is a modern-day East meets West story, but this time, told from the viewpoint of China in the person of a Shanghai theater producer who eventually bonds with, of all people, Hillary Clinton. 

When playwright David Henry Hwang started crafting the play that became this musical (late 2015), he was seriously stabbed in the back one night by an unknown assailant. He nearly died but when he recovered, decided to work that incident into the play.

So “Soft Power” now concerns a fictional David Henry Hwang (non-lookalike Francis Jue) who meets with the aforementioned Chinese producer Xuē Xíng (a dynamic Conrad Ricamora). Xuē implores Hwang to adapt a famous movie -- a husband and wife are attracted to other people, but end up unhappily staying together --  to the musical stage with the hopes of it becoming a worldwide hit. Hwang gives it a try, but feels he cannot agree with Xuē about the ending which he feels is unrealistic to a modern audience, and he and Xuē come to an impasse. When Hwang is stabbed, the action we have seen thus far is reprised in a heightened fantasy version, but this time, Xuē has no Chinese accent and we are in a full-out musical set in a crazy quilt version of New York.. 

When he meets Hillary, he is smitten, and they strike up a romance of sorts, and rather in the manner of Anna Leonowens, he patiently teaches her the rudiments of pronouncing his name properly. (There’s a later riff on “Shall We Dance,” too.) After her presidential defeat, which Xuē takes as emblematic of the failure of the U.S. political system (and there’s a funny number about the electoral college), he tries to convince her that things would be better for the two of them in China, but Hillary refuses to lose faith in democracy. That central argument as to whether democracy still “works” is the crux of the play, and Hwang’s arguments pro and con are always intriguing.

There’s an amusing panel sequence which opens the second act wherein, 50 years hence, the Chinese participants look back on this musical as a major game changer in musicals being able to take on more serious subject matter. The one American on the panel is helpless to contradict his Chinese colleagues’ proud sense of ownership.

Jeanine Tesori has written the score (with lyrics by Hwang and herself), and it’s been lushly orchestrated by Danny Troob. The show features traditional dance numbers (lively choreography by Sam Pinkleton)  and an orchestra of 23 players. A bit annoyingly, as is often the case with musicals that pride themselves on the songs being so integral to the script that they don’t merit singling out in the program, there’s no song list provided, though the script does. 

But suffice to say, the numbers are molded in time-honored Broadway style, are tuneful enough on first hearing,  and both Ricamora and Louis have strong ballads, “The New Silk Road” and “Democracy” respectively. Louis also has an amusing post-election lament, “Song of the Campaign Trail” near the top of the second act while she simultaneously sings and gobbles pizza and pistachio ice cream in her depression.

As stated, Ricamora is particularly strong, both vocally and dramatically, and Louis is another bright talent, strong-voiced and looking enough like Mrs. Clinton to be convincing. Other multiple roles are capably taken by Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, John Hoche, and Kendyl Ito. 

Clint Ramos’ sets lighted by Mark Barton -- from the red Dragon Entertainment Group office to a glitzy fantasy McDonalds to the Golden Gate Bridge (incongruously but amusingly set in New York) -- are attractive, including the orchestra’s multi-level platform. 

Leigh Silverman directs both the musical and 20-minute opening non-musical sequence stylishly.

Not one for the ages, but “Soft Power” is certainly an interesting and enjoyable curiosity, given a first-class production. And good to see so much Asian talent on impressive display.

(The Public Theater, The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555, or; through November 17 only)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Conrad Ricamora and the company of Soft Power.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Cyrano (The New Group)

By Harry Forbes

This isn’t the first time someone has musicalized Edmund Rostand’s enduring tragicomedy, and it surely won’t be the last. From Victor Herbert’s rarely revived 1899 operetta version to Franco Alfano’s 1936 opera. And in terms of Broadway style musicals, let’s not forget the 1973 “Cyrano,” which won star Christopher Plummer a Tony Award, and the not bad but unsuccessful 1993 Dutch “Cyrano: The Musical.”  

The current offering, which enjoyed a developmental production at Goodspeed Musicals last year, has music by Aaron Dessner and Bruce Dessner of The National band, with lyrics by Matt Berninger of The National and Carin Besser. On first hearing, I picked out several attractive numbers (“Someone to Say,” “Southern Blood,” “Defenseless,” among them) and they’re well performed in Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s arrangements under Music Director Ted Arthur. 

The main draw here is, of course, star Peter Dinklage, fresh from his eight-year run on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Cyrano’s prominent proboscis takes very much second place to the star’s diminutive stature, though the nose is mentioned when Cyrano’s rival, De Guiche (a superb Ritchie Coster), challenges Cyrano: “Your it not...large?”

Otherwise, most of the nose references are excised and Dinklage does not wear a prosthetic appendage. But director Erica Schmidt’s adaptation is, on the whole, faithful to the structure of the original, even though everything is streamlined, characters have been dropped, and there are some alterations to the storyline. Roxanne doesn’t, for instance, visit the battlefield here. Cyrano is not fatally wounded by a falling log, and so on.  But, by the end, I was as moved as by any production I’ve seen before. 

The dialogue is colloquial; the opening line of her adaptation is Roxanne’s “Oh, wow!” and when Cyrano castigates Mountfluery (here Montgomery), he demands, “Who will defend this shit?” But that rather self-conscious updating settles down shortly.

I’d be lying if I said that Dinklage’s assumption of the poet-soldier, capable of fighting off 100 men, doesn’t take some initial suspension of disbelief, but one adjusts quickly enough, and the actor’s portrayal of the gruff military man afraid to express his true feelings for fear of rejection, is touchingly played. Some Cyranos are too poetic, forgetting that he’s first and foremost a soldier, but Dinklage doesn’t fall into that trap. HIs enthusiasm early on about what he thinks will be Roxanne’s profession of love is endearing, and his wooing (through his mouthpiece, the handsome Christian) is nicely done. As for his singing voice, well let’s say it’s somewhere between Bob Dylan and Lee Marvin’s graveley “Wandrin’ Star”  in “Paint Your Wagon,” but it’s effective.

Schmidt, who’s married to Dinklage, elicits good performances from the cast all around. Jasmine Cephas Jones, so familiar as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds  in “Hamilton,” is a lovely and believable Roxanne. Schmidt has given the character a little more agency than usual, but the feminist angle is not overdone. Blake Jenner nails the good looking but tongue-tied Christian who tries to do the noble thing at the end when Roxanne confesses that she loves not his looks but his soul. Grace McLean has some winning moments as Roxanne’s tart chaperone Marie. There’s good work too from Josh A. Dawson (Le Bret), Hillary Fisher (Sister Claire), Christopher Gurr (Jodelet), Nehal Joshi (Ragueneau), Scott Strangland (Montgomery), and Erika Olson (Ensemble). Voices are excellent. Choreography is provided by Jeff and Rick Kuperman.

Of non-musical versions, my benchmark productions would have to be the Derek Jacobi-Sinead Cusack Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1983, and more authentically, a fabulous and lavish Robert Hossein production in Paris with Jean-Paul Belmondo in 1990. 

Christine Jones and Amy Rubin’s set design, expertly lighted by Dan Moses Schreier, economically conveys all the requisite settings from the theater of the opening scenes to Roxanne’s balcony, the battlefield, and finally, the convent with its falling leaves. Tom Broeker’s costumes are attractively traditional. 

(The Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 East 15th Street; or 800-745-3000; through Dec. 22)

Photos by: Monique Carboni

Top: Josh A. Dawson, Ritchie Coster, Grace McLean, Peter Dinklage, Blake Jenner and Jasmine Cephas Jones 

Below: Peter Dinklage, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Blake Jenner

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Macbeth (Classic Stage Company)

By Harry Forbes

John Doyle’s pocket-sized production of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy has the virtue of welcome brevity, if not greater emotional depth. But the action passes quickly in its one hour and 40 minutes running time. 

There are only nine actors, most playing multiple roles, and the production is strikingly staged in an intriguingly ritualistic manner. The witches who open the play are embodied by eight of the cast, rather like the concerted witches in Verdi’s opera, recently on view at the Met. Interesting as this approach is, what pulls the production down are the performances which, for the most part, are earnest but unexceptional. 

With such a small company, this is perforce, as you might expect, a color- and gender-blind production starting with Mary Beth Piel’s assumption of King Duncan. (If Glenda Jackson can play Lear, well why not?) Actually, Piel is arguably the most accomplished and satisfying player, even when, after Duncan’s murder, she returns as part of the ensemble and the Old Woman speaking of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking antics.

But for the rest, the so-so level of performance puts one nostalgically in mind of so many other truly great stage productions and films that there is an inevitable feeling of letdown. I think of recent local mountings with Patrick Stewart and Kenneth Branagh respectively, to name but two.

Here, as the increasingly murderous Macbeth, Corey Stoll -- who has impressed with his performances at Shakespeare in the Park (Iago, Brutus, etc.) -- fails to mine the depths of the role, though he speaks the text intelligently enough, albeit in the prosaic American accent used by the whole cast. His real-life wife, Nadia Bower’s Lady Macbeth is glamorous but her line readings are strictly standard issue. Erik Lochtefeld’s Banquo and Barzin Akhavan’s Macduff are decent.

N’jameh Camara has some scene stealing histrionic moment as Lady Macduff, first as she bemoans her husband’s flight to England, leaving her and their children alone, and then experiencing her brutal murder at the hands of Macbeth himself, the latter an interesting Doyle innovation.

The report of Macduff’s family’s killing is reported by Barbara Walsh’s otherwise OK Ross with odd placidity, and it takes a while for Macduff to work up to the expected emotional pitch. Raffi Barsoumian’s Malcolm has the requisite authority, though the scene where Macduff and Malcolm bemoan the fate of Scotland is rather sluggish.

Doyle's minimalist approach has meant some trimming of the text, and excision of characters like the Porter altogether.

All the expected big moments play out less grippingly than expected, be it the aforementioned scene of Macduff learning his family has been slaughtered to Lady M’s sleepwalking scene to Macbeth’s fear of the approach of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. In that last, Stoll registers as mostly petulant. And his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is flatly delivered. Macbeth’s horror at spying Banquo’s ghost during the banquet scene elicited titters from the audience, one of several such unintended moments.

Designer Thomas Schall flights were particularly well staged, especially the final confrontation between Macbeth and MacDuff.

Doyle’s economic staging had the banquet scene follow directly upon Banquo’s murder. So Banquo is able to rise up almost immediately from the floor as a ghost.

The action plays out on Doyle’s design the rectangular wooden thrust space of the CSC, with a throne, banquet table, balcony upstage, and the theater’s aisles. There are three wooden benches that are carted around by the cast periodically. Solomon Weisbard designed the effective lighting. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are appropriately somber, though there’s a surfeit of tartan capes with which everyone rather distractingly fusses. Matt Stine is responsible for the atmospheric sound design.

Far more interesting, on the whole, than “Macbeth” at the Sunday matinee I attended was the post-show talkback with Doyle and great British director Phyllida Lloyd, ostensibly to talk about women in Shakespeare, but in fact, topics varied. Along the way, it was pointed out that Americans believe in “heritage Shakespeare” --  with traditional English accents -- with Doyle making the case that Elizabethan English was more akin to present-day American. That may be so, but true or not, I can't help believing the text does suffer when delivered in such a routine manner. 

Classic Stage Company (CSC), 136 E 13th St.; or 212.352.3101; through Dec. 15)

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theatre/Upstairs)

By Harry Forbes

Director Michael Mayer’s first-rate revival of composer Alan Menken and late lyricist and book writer Howard Ashman’s tuneful and enduring adaptation of the Roger Corman comic horror film -- unlikely source material when it premiered at the WPA Theatre in 1982 -- is anchored by its three sterling leads, and a strong supporting cast.

Jonathan Groff is the sweet-natured, put-upon Seymour who works in a skid row flower shop. Tammy Blanchard is his secret crush Audrey involved with a cruelly abusive dentist named Orin played to lip-smacking perfection by Christian Borle who also takes on a highly amusing succession of other roles in the second act.

The shop, run by beleaguered Mr. Mushnik (Tom Alan Robbins) is failing miserably, until an unusual plant being nurtured by Seymour is put on display, and suddenly business booms. The only problem is that Seymour soon learns the plant -- which actually speaks (basso Kingsley Leggs) -- thrives on human blood, and when fed a few drops begins to grow at an astonishing rate. But as the demands of Audrey II (for so the besotted Seymour has named it) get more forceful -- “Feed me,” the plant demands -- and more substantial meals are needed, you can guess who the first victim will be.

Commenting on the action most delightfully are three soulful neighborhood gals known as the Urchins (Ari Groover, Salome Smith, and Joy Woods, each one a vivid personality) who harmonize in doo-wop style  Their lyrics were not always comprehensible, but that may have been due to the sometimes overamped sound design (Jessica Paz). 

Audrey II is a simply amazing feat of puppetry, as designed by Nicholas Mahon from Martin P. Robinson’s original puppet design. As the plant grows, given the small theater, the effect is something akin to that of the King Kong puppet in the recent musical, and no less scary when it approaches the audience.

Without sacrificing any of the property’s inherent laughs, Groff and Blanchard play their parts absolutely straight. Seymour’s quandary of doing the moral thing or giving the bloodthirsty plant what it needs so he can continue to bask in his newfound celebrity, is convincingly acted. And Blanchard makes Audrey’s plight at times heartrendingly real. 

I didn’t see the original Off-Broadway production nor the more recent Encores staging with Jake Gyllenhaal, but I did catch the Jerry Zaks Broadway revival which had a healthy, nearly year-long run, and had its virtues, though it lost the original intimacy that the current production at the 270 seat Westside Theatre restores. 

The infectious rhythm and blues score sounds terrific in Will Van Dyke’s arrangements and orchestrations.

Julian Crouch’s pocket-sized set is very attractive, encompassing the front and interior of the shop, the tenement stoops adjoining it, and later, Orin’s dental office. Tom Broeker’s costumes perfectly define the characters.

Mayer has directed with his usual reliable savvy, wringing every bit of humor out of Ashman’s script, and the pathos underneath. Ellenore Scott has provided the neat choreography. 

(Westside Theatre/Upstairs, 407 West 43 Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 19)

Photos by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

Top: Jonathan Groff and Christian Borle in Little Shop of Horrors 

Below: Tammy Blanchard and Jonathan Groff in Little Shop of Horrors