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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Linda Vista (Second Stage Theater)


By Harry Forbes

A divorced man with a deep sense of self-loathing creates havoc for the women in his orbit in Tracy Letts' somewhat overlong, but sharply written, consistently absorbing and exceedingly well acted play which premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2017, and received its West Coast premiere earlier this year at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. 

Wheeler (Ian Barford), the play’s central character, was a once-promising photojournalist, but saddled with a profound lack of self-esteem, he's now content to toil in a dreary camera repair shop under a loathsome boss Michael (Troy West) who, when not contemplating suicide, is sexually harassing their co-worker Anita (Caroline Neff), a sturdily unflappable young woman recovering from addiction and determined not to backtrack. 

Wheeler’s sardonic friend Paul (Jim True-Frost) has just helped him move to a two-bedroom condo in the San Diego neighborhood that gives the play its title, and in short order, Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) set Wheeler up on blind date with Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach with, she reveals, a degree in “Happiness.”  Despite Wheeler’s serious misgivings, he and Jules, in fact, hit it off, and begin what would appear to be a promising relationship.

But matters become complicated when Wheeler’s neighbor Minnie (Chantel Thuy), a free-spirited 27-year-old Vietnamese drifter, knocks on his door and begs for shelter after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend. 

Barford is quite extraordinary throughout, running the gamut of emotions, and he’s barely offstage. His character’s sense of intellectual superiority and his innate narcissism make it hard for us to stay in his court for the duration. But his sense of humor -- and Letts has provided him with some very funny lines -- keeps him mostly likeable so that we can see how it is that he can appeal to the women who should know better. Unfortunately, his bad behavior eventually erodes our sympathy, and at my performance, he was even hissed at several points. 

Suffice to say, it’s an admirably vanity-free performance. He’s playing a greying, middle-aged, paunchy character, and along with the women involved, fearlessly bares it all in two extraordinarily graphic sex scenes. 

The other cast members are spot-on perfect. too. Broek conveys Jules’ cheerful optimism and heartbreaking grief when her relationship with Wheeler goes south; Thuy juggles her character’s streetwise toughness but also vulnerability; and Neff convincingly maintains a no-nonsense pragmatism in the face of an abusive work situation. West starts out as a pitiful loser, but morphs into something more sinister. True-Frost is solid as the loyal friend who, in a well-written locker room scene, pulls no punches in explaining the facts of married life to Wheeler, and Murphy as his no-nonsense wife really delivers the goods in her big second act scene. 

Besides drawing fine performances from his cast, director Dexter Bullard keeps the humor and pathos in Letts’ script in expert balance. At first, Letts’ dialogue -- funny though Wheeler’s wisecracks are -- gives the play the superficial air of sitcom writing, albeit of a superior brand, but as the narrative progresses, and the more serious themes come to the fore, the play takes on a gravitas. 

Todd Rosenthal’s revolving set, deftly lit by Marcus Doshi, allows for exceptionally fluid scene changes (e.g. Wheeler’s living room, bedroom, a bar, karaoke bar, locker room, etc. Laura Bauer’s costumes likewise are character-perfect. 

At two hours and 40 minutes, the play could benefit from a bit of trimming, though I can’t say I was bored for a moment. 

(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; 2st.com or 212-541-4516; through Nov. 10)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

I must confess I feared that Musical in Mufti’s revival of creator Ben Bagley’s 1965 revue of Cole Porter’s songs -- originally staged less than six months after the composer’s death -- might come across as terribly passe. And certainly the show’s heralding of at-the-time “neglected” Porter material would surely not still be the case. After all, thanks to enterprising groups like Encores, the New Amsterdam Theater Company, Musicals Tonight, Medicine Show, and Mufti itself, all of the shows from which these rarities derive have been revived in full, and in some cases, recorded. 

Additionally, dedicated Porter champions such as Steve Ross and the late Bobby Short (who appeared in one of the original editions of the show) have further resurrected an enormous spectrum of his songs. 

But much to my surprise, this revival -- which faithfully utilizes Bagley’s original linking narration -- registers as fresh as ever, thanks to resourceful director Pamela Hunt and a particularly well chosen and attractive cast comprising Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, Diane Phelan, and Lee Roy Reams. 

And remarkably, although die-hard show buffs will recognize the purview of most of the songs, the show’s adventurous playlist is still, I’m reasonably certain, unfamiliar to most audiences. 

Molina is a delightful comic presence throughout the show, though she also scores on the more thoughtful ballads too, like “I Loved Him (But He Didn’t Love Me)” and “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor).”  It was interesting to hear her contrasting, but equally valid, interpretations of the “Fifty Million Frenchmen” numbers which we had just heard a couple of weeks ago in York’s presentation of that show. 

Phelan received two of the biggest ovations at my performance with her feelingly vocalized “I Happen to Like New York” and then “After You, Who?” in the second act. She demonstrates her comedic chops with Beatrice Lillie’s “When I Was a Little Cuckoo” and her naughty duet with Gardner on “But in the Morning, No!”

Veteran Reams starts things off as an affable narrator, later offering solid renditions of “I’m in Love Again,” “I’m a Gigolo” and “Experiment,” and along the way, giving vent to his inner Marlene Dietrich and Sophie Tucker.  Mutli-talented hoofer Gardner reminds us what a polished singer he is with such chestnuts as “At Long Last Love” and “I Worship You,” the latter also from “Fifty Million Frenchmen” and, of course, dances as impressively as always to Trent Kidd’s bright choreography. 

Eric Svejcar’s keyboard accompaniment is deft and often exciting, like his spirited rendition of “Anything Goes” in the show’s overture, and adds vocal harmony to such numbers as “Let’s Fly Away.” 

Projected photos of Porter, courtesy of projection designer Jamie Goodwin,  pay homage to the original production concept of projected paintings. The creator of those images, Shirley Kaplan, appeared at the post-show talkback at my performance, and spoke warmly of creator Bagley.

Based on the extant CD of the 1965 show, which includes not only the greatly abridged original studio cast LP, but live performances, York’s production proves faithful to the song selection (if not always the gender of the vocalist on individual numbers) and Bagley’s original linking narration which made a point of the contrast between the serious world events from the First World War and beyond and Porter’s blithely urbane and witty songs. 

Though original cast members Kaye Ballard, Harold Lang, and the others were inimitable, all in all, the vocal stylings of York’s cast makes for a smoother overall listen. 

Far though we are from the ethos of the mid-1960s, Hunt and her talented cast made the show much more than just an interesting relic, and perhaps, I would suggest, one that could sustain a fully staged regular run. 

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue); www.yorktheatre.org or 212-935-5820; through October 20)

Photo by Ben Strothmann: Lee Roy Reams, Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, Diane Phelan.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Slave Play (John Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This provocative, often humorous, intentionally disturbing play by wunderkind Jeremy O’Harris has come to Broadway after premiering to acclaim last year at New York Theatre Workshop. I didn’t see it there, but visually, I can report it looks just fine on the larger stage of the Golden.

Without revealing more spoilers than necessary, let me say the play divides into three distinct sections. In the first part, we observe the sexual shenanigans between an antebellum female slave and her overseer; a plantation mistress and her Negro manservant; and an indentured white servant and, incongruously, the male slave under whom he labors. (In these sections, sexual content is high and fairly graphic.)

In the next (and longest) section, we find ourselves at a mixed-race couples counseling session ("antebellum sexual performance therapy"). It’s designed to help black partners reconnect with their white partners from whom they are no longer receiving sexual pleasure, a phenomenon labelled racial identify dysfunction (RID).

The session is run by partners (personal and professional) black Teá (Chalia La Tour) and hispanic Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio). The humor of their psychobabble here is deliciously spot-on. The participants comprise Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango, the one replacement in the otherwise intact Off-Broadway cast) and her white British husband Jim (versatile Paul Alexander Nolan); black Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and his actor boyfriend Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer); and Alana (Annie McNamara) and her light-skinned black husband Phillip (Sullivan Jones). The concluding part offers us a dramatic encounter between Kaneisha and Jim which distills all that has come before. 

The cast is superb with Cusasti-Moyer, McNamara, and Jones especially generating big laughs. Cusati-Moyer embodies the archetypal self-absorbed actor and one who refuses to identify as white but, on the other hand, never precisely defines his ethnicity, McNamara an overly earnest acolyte of the group desperately referring to her notes for clarity but, in fact, clueless to her own issues; and Jones playing endearingly befuddlement until clarity finally dawns.

For their parts, La Tour and Lucio are a hoot as the impassioned facilitators, relentlessly determined to “process” every moment, cheering each emotional outburst as a positive breakthrough, while inadvertently revealing that they too have some serious interpersonal issues. They are very funny, and Lucio is particularly so when she allows Patricia’s Latina heritage to surface when it suits her. 

Blankson-Wood, Kalukango and Nolan have the more serious roles, and the last two bring the play to its emotional conclusion. Kalukango, mostly silent for the long second part, has a huge monologue in the last, and impresses with her raw emotion, though elsewhere I had occasional audibility issues with her dialogue. 

Harris’ themes of racial identity and racial trauma, and the psychological warfare of white supremacy, all of which, he contends, have their roots in slavery, are intriguing, though I’m not sure I quite buy all of it. He’s clearly a terrific writer, as demonstrated last season by “Daddy” at The New Group, another lengthy and interesting work, albeit less brilliant than this. 

The intellectual arguments, interesting though they are, get a little bogged down with talkiness both in the counseling session scene and in Kaneisha’s lengthy concluding monologue. And the play could benefit by a bit of trimming. (As it is, “Slave Play” -- its title a punning reference, by the way -- runs two full hours without a break.)

Clint Ramos’ set design -- a mirrored surface in which the audience sees its own reflection, as well as a plantation panorama projected on the mezzanine balustrade -- is attractive,  though clearly meant to make us feel uncomfortable. Jiydun Chang provides some striking lighting effects which tellingly enhance the play, particularly during Kaneisha’s harrowing monologue. Lindsay Jones’ sound and original music add to the mood.  Dede Akyite antebellum and contemporary costumes are, respectively, fun and character defining. 

Director Robert O’Hara -- himself an award-winning playwright -- directs both halves most persuasively, and navigates the play’s serious and humorous mood shifts deftly.

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com; through January 19)

The full cast of SLAVE PLAY (L to R): Ato Blankson-Wood, Chalia La Tour, Joaquina Kalukango (kneeling), Irene Sofia Lucio, Sullivan Jones, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan, and James Cusati-Moyer. (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Fifty Million Frenchmen (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

York’s "Musicals in Mufti" Cole Porter celebration has kicked off with a rare staging of the composer-lyricist’s 1929 hit, one which -- according to Porter historian Robert Kimball who spoke at the talkback after my performance -- was a crucial show in Porter's development. From that point on, Kimball contends, Porter was a major creative force on the Great White Way.

I first encountered the piece -- one of Porter’s best, chockablock as it is with one good tune after another -- at a 1991 concert performance at the Alliance Francaise, led by conductor Evans Haille who, together with Tommy Krasker, lovingly restored the score for the Cole Porter Centennial, and came up with a performable acting edition. The original company had well over 100 players, unrealistic in a modern economy.

That concert led to a marvelous recording still available on New World Records. 

As chance would have it, Haile is now York’s Executive Director at the York, so he was on hand to provide half of the sprightly two-piano accompaniment, along with David Hancock Turner. With the period-perfect addition of Dan Erben’s banjo, the score tripped along merrily. 

Since that 1991 resurrection, New York has seen the show -- which, among its treasures features the standard “You Do Something To Me” -- on a few more occasions. There was London’s Lost Musical series, led by Ian Marshall Fisher (also at the Alliance Francaise), Barbara Vann’s shoestring Medicine Show (which had actually predated the aforementioned concert in 1983, though she revived it in 2012), and Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight. Most satisfying of all, Ohio Light Opera mounted a terrific full-scale staged production with orchestra just last year. 

Though the title is “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” the focus of Herbert Fields’ book is actually not on the French, but a collection of  Americans visiting Paris. Wealthy Peter Forbes (Andy Kelso) becomes enamored of Looloo Carroll (Evy Ortiz), travelling with her social-climbing Indiana parents (Karen Murphy and Ray DeMattis). Peter’s mischievous friend Billy (Cole Burden) bets him $50,000 he can’t win Looloo’s heart and hand in a month’s time without his usual financial resources in hand. A fixed horse race critically figures in the plot before (spoiler) Peter wins the girl minutes before the bet’s deadline. 

Colorfully fleshing out the character roster, there’s cabaret singer May (dynamic Ashley Blanchet), Looloo’s lovelorn friend Joyce (Madeline Trumble), and sardonic fur-buyer Violet (Kristy Cates), and Peter and Billy’s buddy Michael (David Michael Bevis) who happens to be an old school chum of Joyce.

Wade McCollum is solid, has has some bright bits as Hotel Claridge manager (and sometime maitre d’) Louis Pernasse, and Sam Balzac is amusing as a waiter.

The youthful cast was attractive, if frankly not in the same league as that of the 1991 production with its blue-chip lineup of Howard McGillin, Kim Criswell, Jason Graae, and Karen Ziemba. Still, considering the present players had only first seen their parts a few days earlier and mine was technically only the third preview performance, they can be cut some slack, several instances of not projecting adequately notwithstanding. Satisfyingly delivered, however, were Murphy’s “The Queen of Terre Haute,” Burden’s “I Worship You,” McCollum and Balzac’s “It Isn’t Done,” and Cates’ “Where Would You Get Your Coat?” and “The Tale of the Oyster.” 

Director Hans Friedrichs kept things moving with nicely resourceful staging. Trent Kidd’s choreography was another plus, allowing Bevis and Trumble a happy interlude with “You’ve Got That Thing”  and Trumble and Ortiz with “Let’s Step Out,” especially.

Chelsea McPhilimy’s projection design, including some scene-setting vintage footage of Paris, enhanced the proceedings. 

I look forward to York’s next two Porter offerings: “The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter” (10/12-10/20), and “Panama Hattie” (10/26-11/3). 

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue; 212-935-5820, or online at www.yorktheatre.org; through October 6)

Photo Credit: Ben Strothmann. Pictured (left to right): Karen Murphy, Ray DeMattis, Kristy Cates, Cole Burden, Andy Kelso, Evy Ortiz, Madeline Trumble, David Michael Bevis, Ashley Blanchet, Wade McCollum, Sam Balzac

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Height of the Storm (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

If it’s by French playwright Florian Zeller, there's a pretty good chance that the subject matter will have something to do with dementia. What continues to amaze, however, is how much substantive material he has been able to mine from that singular subject. 

So here we have something of a companion piece to the first of his plays to come to these shores, “The Father,” in which Frank Langella gave such a memorable performance as the titular character André also courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club. 

Once more, we have a central male character, again named André, and again a distinguished writer, but now in a state of pitiable befuddlement and terror, sadly out of touch with reality. Apart from his wife Madeleine (superbly wry  Eileen Atkins) -- forever cooking André’s beloved mushrooms from their garden -- and daughters, dedicated if bossy Anne (Amanda Drew) and less committed Elise (Lisa O’Hare), he's utterly confused about the other characters in the play, identified as only The Woman (Lucy Cohu) and The Man (James Hillier).

We’re not even sure, of course, if all the family members are alive, at least not at first, but there are clues along the way, including flowers that would appear to have mysteriously arrived without a card. Is their purpose celebratory or condolatory? What does seem clear is that André is not able to live alone in the beautiful country house “somewhere not far from Paris” where he and his wife of 50 years have lived comfortably for so long, and Anne has somehow been entrusted with sorting out his papers and diary.

Anthony Ward’s high-ceilinged and meticulously detailed kitchen/library set, stunningly lit by Hugh Vanstone, makes the place look as idyllic as you can imagine. Besides accurately suggesting the various times of day, Vanstone’s lighting tellingly helps delineate -- up to a point -- the scenes that are real from those that may not be. There seem to be plans afoot to move André to a place where he’ll be looked after. 

The agent of that move might be The Woman (whose persona seems to morph from former flame of André to real estate agent) or The Man (Elise’s rather callous fiance and seemingly an estate agent himself).

When the Pinteresque play begins, it is the morning after a fierce storm, which in a literal sense, gives the play its title. Translated like all the previous Zeller works here by English playwright Christopher Hampton, it was done last year at Wyndham’s Theatre in London and has come with its superb cast almost intact, O’Hare being the Broadway newbie, but she fits in seamlessly. 
                                   
Jonathan Kent’s direction of the play with its ever shifting narrative and time frame could not be more stunningly calibrated, and for all the ambiguity and overall tone of melancholy, the final moments of the play are tremendously moving.    

Pryce is tremendous, ranting and raving, his frustration at not understanding, heartbreakingly real, especially as we can see his former stance was highly authoritarian. HIs pathetic repetition of “What is my position here?” in one speech -- powerfully delivered by Pryce -- has something of ring of Lear’s repeated use of “never.” And indeed there are obvious parallels to “King Lear” in this play. Atkins plays Madeleine as a pillar of common sense fortitude. 
                                   
The play runs 80 minutes without an interval.            
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or manhattantheatreclub.com.           
Photo by Joan Marcus:  (l-r) Lucy Cohu, Eileen Atkins, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Pryce, Lisa O’Hare.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Derren Brown: Secret (Cort Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

What a splendid entertainment this is! Of all the mentalists you may have seen before, Olivier Award-winning author and UK TV personality Derren Brown’s particular brand of wizardry is in a class by itself. His tricks -- and it almost pains me to characterize them with such a prosaic word -- are mind boggling, and will have you wondering how he could possibly have accomplished them. 

With seeming transparency, Brown explains the science behind the psychological manipulation that anchors his act. He demonstrates this right at the start with a young lady from the audience whom he asks to hold a $20 bill in one of her hands, and over and over again, pretty unerringly declares with accuracy which hand holds the bill.

The second act, wherein he discerns sealed questions from the audience with the same astounding accuracy, performs the same stunt blindfolded, and then asks the audience members to telepathically transmit questions to him are, again, extraordinarily successful. He insists there are no plants in the audience, and when he articulates what certain audience members are thinking or concealing, the look of genuine astonishment or deep embarrassment on their faces says it all. (A roving camcorder comes in close so we can all see this for ourselves.)

In a couple of instances, Brown briefly puts his subjects to sleep through hypnosis, and they would seem to be genuinely under his spell. I overheard one remarking in befuddlement to his companion on leaving the theater, “I don’t know...when I got up on that stage, it was like I was in a trance.”

Brown emphasizes several times that he’s not a psychic or mind-reader and then, of course, proceeds to demonstrate skills that would seem to prove quite the contrary.

Brown doesn’t get around to explaining the title of the show till the end of the second act, but when he does, it’s a doozy. He does begin the show, however, with a confession that when he was younger, his own personal secret was that he was gay, and he didn’t come out till he was 31. But the biographical revelations pretty much stops there. As he explains, everyone constructs a “story” that informs his or her life, and that statement is more or less the theme of the evening.

If case you were wondering, you needn’t be fearful of enforced participation. Unless perhaps you allow your photo to be taken upon entry to the theater or if you catch one of the frisbees Brown throws into the audience when he’s trolling for volunteers, and even so, he sometimes explains that he’s only looking for men or women of a certain demographic.

He’s got quite a compelling personality, full of charisma. And his gentle ribbing of the audience at times sometimes put me amusingly in mind of Barry Humphries in his Dame Edna mode.

At the start of the show, Brown enjoins reviewers not to talk about the show in any detail, so perhaps even now, I’ve said too much. 

Takeshi Kata’s scenic design, Ben Stanton’s lighting, Jill BC Du Boff’s sound, and Caite Hevner’s projection design are contribute to the sparsely elegant overall presentation. 

This isn’t one of those 80 minutes without an interval shows you might expect from a one-person show; it’s a satisfyingly full two-and-a-half hours with intermission. 

Though I didn’t catch the show during its Drama Desk-winning engagement last spring at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s intimate venue, I can attest to how superbly it plays in the larger venue of the Cort Theatre. 

“Derren Brown: Secret” was co-written (and very cleverly so) by Brown, Andrew Nyman and Andrew O’Connor. The latter two also co-directed the show which, make no mistake, is as grandly theatrical and emotionally potent as anything currently on the boards on or off Broadway. 

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; 212-239-6200 or derrenbrownsecret.com; through January 4)

Friday, September 20, 2019

Fern Hill (59E59 Theaters)


By Harry Forbes

Three couples -- lifelong friends -- come together at a well-appointed upstate New York farmhouse for dinner and conviviality and ponder the notion that they might all live there, commune-style, to care for each other in their declining years. All are enthused about the idea except for one who believes they’ll grow tired of each other in such close proximity. 

This would seem to be the principal, if not especially riveting, conflict of the play until, that is, a revelation about the naysayer’s infidelity, one which then shifts the focus to whether or not his wife will or will not forgive him.

“Fern Hill” was developed at the 2017 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference and received its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company -- with some of the current cast -- last year, receiving generally respectable reviews.

Jill Eikenberry and Mark Blum are the farmhouse couple Sunny and Jer, she a budding artist, he a writer and teacher. They are among the A-listers who make up the present cast, which also includes Mark Linn-Baker and Jodi Long as aging rocker Billy and wife Michiko, and John Glover and Ellen Parker as artist Vincent and photographer-wife Darla. They’re all pros to be sure, and their stage savvy goes a long way towards making actor-author Michael Tucker’s comedy-drama pleasantly tolerable. 

The group -- all artists or academics -- has gathered ostensibly to celebrate the husbands’ respective birthdays: Billy is 60, Jer 70, and Vincent 80.This is the sort of setup with which Alan Ayckbourn in his heyday might have had a field day. But Tucker’s text elicits, at best, only mild chuckles (many courtesy of Linn-Baker’s wise-cracking Billy) when it’s not dealing with infidelities, aging sex lives, and the bounds of friendship. 

Mostly, though, there’s just a lot of meandering chatter, congenial enough certainly but hardly enough to hang a play on. We do like these characters, except perhaps for the self-absorbed Jer who, we are told, used to be “adorable” in Sunny’s eyes. But, as written, he certainly seems anything but, apart from his sympathetic ministrations to Vincent after the latter’s hip replacement. 

There are several observant scenes such as a nicely written and played exchange between Sunny and Vincent who finds it difficult to talk about intimacy. But for the most part, there’s a static quality and not much more depth than average TV fare.

The cast, as noted, is a definite plus. Eikenberry is nicely sympathetic, though her character’s tolerance of Jer, something of a head-scratcher. Glover is masterful as always. And Long is an especially bright presence. 

Nadia Tass’ naturalistic direction anchors the proceedings in something approximating a believable reality.

Jessica Park’s nicely detailed farmhouse set, lighted by Kate McGee, pleases the eye throughout. And Patricia Doherty’s costumes, Kate McGee’s lighting, and Kenneth Goodwin’s sound are all fine.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 646-892-7999 or www.59e59.org; through October 20)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: L-R: John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, Jodi Long, Jill Eikenberry, Mark Blum in Michael Tucker’s FERN HILL at 59E59 Theaters.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Betrayal (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Here’s a splendidly staged, beautifully nuanced version of one of Harold Pinter’s most accessible plays, which, frankly, is much superior to the last revival, even though that one was directed by the great Mike Nichols, and starred the excellent Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Rafe Spall.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s production -- first seen at the Pinter at the Pinter season in London -- is so spare, one might almost, at first glance, take this for a rehearsal or, at best, a staged reading, but all the better to enjoy Pinter’s wordplay. And the action is, in fact, meticulously orchestrated. Designer Soutra Gilmour has provided only the most essential props on a turntable with a white canvas background framing the action, and sometimes strikingly catching the shadows of the three very fine leads. Strips of light hover above. (Jon Clark designed the dramatically apt lighting.)

The play charts the adulterous affair between literary agent Jerry (Charlie Cox) and gallery owner Emma (Zawe Ashton) who’s married to Jerry’s best friend, publisher Robert (Tom Hiddleston), and tells the tale in reverse from post-breakup to Jerry’s first bold flirtation with Emma. (Pinter is said to have based the play on his own adulterous affair with journalist Joan Bakewell.) Time projections on the set tell us where we are, chronology-wise: “two years earlier” or “later” (as there are some scenes that sequentially follow the one preceding).

Lloyd and cast bring out all the humor of the piece, particularly in the early scenes, and it’s surprising to be reminded how much amusing dialogue there is. Critic John Simon, reviewing the original Broadway production, recognized similarities to Noel Coward, though he found it “second-rate Coward.” In the hands of Hiddleston, Cox and Ashton, I’d say the deprecating hyphenate would be misapplied. There is genuine wit here.

And there’s also considerable poignancy which comes through movingly, particularly in the play’s final scene, thanks to Lloyd and crew’s sensitive handling.

The original cast -- Daniel Massey, Michael Gambon, and Penelope Wilton -- at London’s National Theatre was, I always thought, definitive, not forgetting the excellent 1983 film with Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, and Patricia Hodge, but the present cast very much lives up to my memories of the creators. The rarely screened film, incidentally, is available on YouTube, and makes for a fascinating comparison with the current production. 

Ben and Max Ringham’s sound and music add to the deft mood setting. 

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45 Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton, and Tom Hiddleston in BETRAYAL at London's Harold Pinter Theatre (photo by Marc Brenner)

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Al Hirschfeld Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Here’s a visually sumptuous, skillfully realized stage version of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, as stunning in its theatrical way as the film, which tells the story of a doomed romance between a glamorous courtesan Satine headlining at the Moulin Rouge cabaret and Christian, a struggling writer who has come to Montmartre in 1899 to pursue the ideals of “truth, beauty, freedom, and love.”

The film anachronistically used then-present-day pop hits as its soundtrack, and the romantic scenes apart, took a Monty Python-ish slapstick tone for the rest.

The plot unfolds mostly as before. Montmartre newbie Christian (Aaron Tveit) has come to Paris hoping to be the “voice of the Revolution”, but under the influence of his new pals Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Santiago (Ricky Rojas) gets roped into writing a new show for the Moulin Rouge club run by impresario Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein). There, it’s love at first sight when Christian lays eyes on glamorous headliner Satine (Karen Olivo), a doomed courtesan expected to become the mistress of the club’s patron The Duke of Monmouth (Tam Mutu). 

In the film, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor were the handsome leads, Jim Broadbent was proprietor Zidler, and Richard Roxburgh the predatory Duke of Monroth.

Aaron Tveit seems to me a rather less tortured and vulnerable hero than McGregor, and Karen Olivo a more robust Satine than Kidman’s delicate heroine, and she has more feminist agency here than Kidman’s character. For one thing, she’s well aware of her own illness, whereas in the film, only her entourage knew the severity of her consumption, but not she. Certainly Tveit and Olivo trump their film counterparts in the vocal department, though Kidman and McGregor had more palpable chemistry. 

Though the cast is uniformly accomplished, Danny Burstein nearly steals the show in a turn that owes nothing to Jim Broadbent’s original, and he plays the part more sympathetically. His versatility is quite exceptional, when you think of his previous finely etched portrayals such as Luther Billis in "South Pacific" and Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." 

Tam Mutu, late of “Dr. Zhivago,” makes a capital Duke, his character here drawn more appealingly than Roxburgh, and there’s colorful work by Sahr Ngaujah as Toulouse-Lautrec and Ricky Rojas as the Argentinian Tango dancer Santiago. 

Book writer John Logan (Tony winner for “Red”) remains generally faithful to the original bittersweet screenplay, with its elements of “La Boheme” and “La Traviata,” but has tweaked several plot elements and streamlined the action. 

This result -- expertly directed by Alex Timbers -- is every bit as exuberant as the film, but he and Logan have toned down the knockabout farce. The film’s climax, for instance, with the Duke’s henchman trying to knock off Christian as he declares his love for Satine during a performance has been scuttled. Christian is here a composer, not a writer, and he’s American, not Engish. Satine’s rival at the club Nini who, in the film, maliciously spilled the beans about Satine’s affair with Christian, now warns Satine of the Duke’s violent nature because, after all, “we’re sisters.” She’s well played by Robyn Hurder, and also enjoys a sexy, showstopping tango with Rojas. 

Her blatantly sexual colleagues at the club are exuberantly taken by Jaqueline B. Arnold (La Chocolat), Holly James (Arabia), and Jeigh Madjus (Baby Doll). The Duke now has more of a role in shaping the show he’s bankrolling at the club. He also wants Satine to give up performing, whereas in the film, he’s offering to help her acting career. Toulouse-Lautrec is a rather more serious-minded character here.

Nearly all the familiar songs from the film -- “Your Song,’ “Lady Marmalade,” “Nature Boy,” “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and so on -- are reprised, along with many newer one like “Single Ladies,” “Rolling in the Deep” and “Firework”  The show’s concept -- like the movie -- still strikes me as more than a little sophomoric, but Logan’s changes have overall made the story that much more cohesive. 

Derek McLane’s eye-popping set -- not dissimilar to that of “Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” in both its plush crimson hues and fourth wall bursting ambience -- is dominated by a giant Moulin Rouge sign, heart cutouts, and Satine’s elephant, and the cabaret impressively gives way to other Parisian locales. Catherine Zuber’s costumes -- corsets and tailcoats abound  -- are appropriately dazzling as befits the Belle Epoque setting.

Sonya Tayeh’s choreography is wonderfully inventive and flavorful -- especially in the great second act “Bad Romance” opener -- and as with the other elements, builds on the film, from the can-can numbers to Satine’s “Diamonds” entrance made. As in the film, Satine sings it as she descends from the rafters. (I liked prefacing the “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” song with “Diamonds are Forever,” well performed by Olivo.)

Despite the rock/pop purview of the score, Peter Hylenski’s sound design manages to be admirably clear and well-balanced. 

Justine Levine is credited with music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements and additional lyrics, and has done a masterful job of making the disparate songs -- over 70 in all -- a cohesive whole. 

The audience at my performance was wildly enthusiastic right up until the obligatory post-curtain call dance reprise.

(Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street; 877-250-2929 or Ticketmaster.com)

Friday, August 16, 2019

Ohio Light Opera 2019 Season


By Harry Forbes

Fans of musical theater and operetta will not find a richer, more concentrated banquet of their favorite entertainment than that offered by a company based in the quiet college town of Wooster, Ohio, which every summer -- for eight weeks -- offers an impressive array of 58 performances of seven productions. As if that weren’t enough, for one of those weeks, the regular offerings are supplemented by lectures and some extra musical material. Even though OLO eschewed the official symposium of the past five years, there were still plenty of show-related talks handled by the in-house creative team, extra concerts, and other goodies.

The mainstage offerings this season were a heady mix of European operetta, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Broadway musicals, among them two choice rarities: Welsh composer Ivor Novello’s 1945 London megahit, “Perchance to Dream,” which originally ran for 1,022 performances, fueled by its matinee idol creator’s adoring public, and the breakout song, “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” which resonated deeply with wartime audiences; and the American premiere of Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s “Der Teufelsreiter” (The Devil’s Rider), an infrequently revived work (even in Europe) dating from 1932. 

Of the Broadway musicals, familiar works like “South Pacific” (the company’s second mounting), and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” (OLO’s first Sondheim and the most modern classic musical in the repertoire thus far) were joined by urtext productions of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” (1930) and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Music in the Air” (1932), each more musically complete than even their respective (and admirable) mountings in New York’s Encores series. We were assured not a measure of dance music was cut in either of those shows. 

Some familiar faces were missing this season, but the company was strong, and impressed with its versatility, most performers playing multiple roles, and moving effortlessly from principal player in one show to ensemble in another.


Steven A. Daigle, the company’s tireless artistic director, directed five of the seven productions, nailing the style of each perfectly. “Into the Woods,” for one, was profoundly moving, much like his superb “Candide” last season, though opinions were divided on the wisdom of opening the show with the cast in modern dress slowly entering from the audience, and gradually transforming into their fairytale counterparts. But I felt it worked well, underscoring the significance of myth and storytelling in everyone’s life. 


Several of the roles were doublecast, and at my performance, Kyle Yampiro and Tanya Roberts excelled as the Baker and his wife, with fine work by Chelsea Miller as Cinderella, Sadie Spivey as Little Red Ridinghood, Hannah Holmes as the Witch, Brad Baron as the Wolf, Benjamin Dutton and Aidan Smerud as the Princes, and Julie Wright Costa as Jack’s Mother. 

Costa was equally outstanding in “Perchance to Dream,” also directed by Daigle. As crusty Lady Charlotte, imperious aunt of the highwayman hero Graham Rodney, and the part originated by Margaret Rutherford, she delivered her sardonic lines with much the same withering sarcasm as Maggie Smith on “Downton Abbey.” And it must be said that Novello’s unabashedly romantic book is uncommonly literate, however unlikely the fanciful situations. 

This is one of those multi-generational works, like “Maytime” and “Les Trois Valses,” where true love isn’t resolved until the third act. The ancestral connections are a bit convoluted, as the characters are not necessarily descendants of the earlier romantic protagonists. So too at times, it’s a bit perplexing to know for whom to root, as the sweet characters embodied by Sarah Best (Lydia, Veronica, Iris) are the most sympathetic, while at least one of those played by Chelsea Miller (Melinda, Melanie, and Melody) is rather manipulative and scheming, if short of being an outright villainess. Still all is resolved most movingly by the end with a logic that would seem to owe much to one of J.B. Priestley’s metaphysical tales. (Priestley is, in fact, referenced in the dialogue.)


Jacob Allen was not exactly the darkly rakish heartthrob embodied by Novello, but he had the full measure of the script, and like the rest of the cast, did justice to Novello’s dialogue. (English accents were convincing, too.) Though I had seen a production of “Perchance to Dream” many years ago in London, with the late film star Simon (“Young Winston”) Ward as the not particularly charismatic lead, I had forgotten how much the property is really a dramatic play with songs. But when they come, they are choice. 

Best and Yvonne Trobe (in the role originated by Novello favorite Olive Gilbert) harmonized stunningly on the big “Lilacs” tune, while Best delivered “Love Is My Reason,” “A Woman’s Heart,” and her part of the rapturous “Victorian Wedding” sequence with warm tone and customary sensitivity. (Though I didn’t catch her performances, Best also essayed Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and The Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.”) 


Miller’s rendering of Roma Beaumont’s famous numbers, “When I Curtsied to the King” and “The Glo-Glo” (amusingly staged along can-can lines by choreographer Spencer Reese), were equally accomplished. My favorite number, the catchy “Highwayman Love,” was excitingly vocalized by Trobe, who impressively nailed each of her varied parts this season. Trobe’s other vocal moments included a pastiche Victorian ditty called “The Elopement,” performed in tandem with the incredibly versatile Kyle Yampiro as the Vicar.

Steven Byess conducted the score ravishingly. Along with “Into the Woods,” this Novello musical packed the biggest emotional wallop.

“The Devil’s Rider,” directed by Daigle from his own translation, and again conducted by Byess, proved a fascinating and tuneful paean to Hungarian independence, and featured a particularly dashing, solidly acted, and vocally strong performance by Benjamin Dutton as the eponymous Count Sándor, a real-life historical figure who had the temerity to woo Leontine, the daughter of the Austrian Prince Metternich, after having his horse make a daring leap over the carriage carrying the princess and Empress Carolina Pia. (Amusingly, the Empress believes she herself was the object of Sándor’s flirtatious stunt.)


It was quite a marathon role for Dutton and he knocked it out of the park, even managing some athletic dancing with Tanya Roberts’ fairytale pretty Leontine during their duets. Dutton, a standout in last season’s “Cloclo,” also impressed as Cinderella’s Prince in “Into the Woods” and Lt. Cable in “South Pacific.” 

The script was not by Kálmán’s usual librettists, Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, as the team had had a falling out, but rather Berlin-based Rudolph Schanzer and Ernst Welisch, and there seemed to be a greater-than-usual quotient of expository dialogue. But the music, when it came, was stirring and tuneful, loaded with foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, and marches, all played here with pizzazz.


Tanya Roberts resplendent in her period costume, sang with her customary luster, though the part itself lacks agency. Kyle Yampiro, Tim McGowan, and a particularly delightful Sadie Spivey livened matters as the comic secondary leads. OLO veteran Boyd Mackus had reams of dialogue as Metternich, but at least dispatched it with admirable briskness, and Yvonne Trobe, whose other roles this season were mostly in the comedic vein, was the model of regal elegance as the gracious, if deluded, Empress. A DVD release of this super-rare work is planned for next summer.

Under the baton of J. Lynn Thompson, “The Pirates of Penzance,” a revision of the company’s 2014 production, was directed by company veteran Ted Christopher (who also played the Sergeant of Police) in high style. Chelsea Miller made a spectacular Mabel, as her Cunegonde in last season’s peerless “Candide” seemed to portend. She made “Poor Wandering One” sound something akin to Hoffmann’s high-flying Olympia. Boyd Mackus was a model Major-General, playing with appropriate bluster. Hannah Holmes made a fine Ruth, and demonstrated here and elsewhere how she’s really come into her own in this, her sixth season. Abby Kurth (Holmes’ sister), Yvonne Trobe, and Sadie Spivey excelled as Mabel’s friends. And the reliable Brad Baron was funny indeed as a Pirate King in the Kevin Kline mold. 


Baron is so adept at comic roles -- this year, he also played the aforementioned Wolf and Slick Fothergill in “Girl Crazy” -- that it was all the more impressive to see him as such a commanding Emile de Becque in “South Pacific,” singing “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” with rich tone and Ezio Pinza-like gravitas. Jocelyn Hansen was the capable Nellie, but the other rafter-raising vocal performance was that of Michelle Pedersen, as fine a Bloody Mary as I’ve ever seen. Also outstanding were Kyle Yampiro, ideally cast as Luther Billis, and Ted Christopher in the non-singing role of Captain Brackett. Jacob Allen directed the complex show proficiently.


“Music in the Air,” wherein a young couple (Adam Wells and Sadie Spivey) from a small Bavarian town become romantic pawns to a squabbling big city (Munich) theatrical couple -- playwright (Brad Baron) and his leading lady (Tanya Roberts) -- received an exemplary production which included every bit of underscoring against the sprechstimme styling of Hammerstein’s script, a groundbreaker in its day with its seamless integration of words and music, and one that thematically echoed his later show with Richard Rodgers, “Allegro,” in illustrating the values of small town decency versus the pitfalls of the big city.


The show is filled with Kern chestnuts, stylishly conducted by Wilson Southerland: “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” “And Love Was Born,” “One More Dance,” “In Egern on the Tegern See,” and above all, “The Song Is You.” Roberts and Baron had a fine over-the-top time with the amusing extended sequence in which they act out their new operetta.


Daigle’s staging was, once again, right on target, and the story of hopeful dreams and ultimate disillusionment unfolded authentically. Ted Christopher and Spencer Reese were affecting as, respectively, Sieglinde’s music teacher and composer father Walther Lessing, and music publisher Ernst Weber, who poignantly reconnects with his boyhood friend Walther and small-town values. Garrett Medlock as the show-within-the-show’s music director, had a powerful scene where he was compelled to lay down the harsh realities of show business to stage-hopeful Sieglinde’s father. 

Company member Spencer Reese continues to up OLO’s game with his imaginative choreography, and his handiwork was evident in all seven productions, from the delicious bits in “The Pirates of Penzance” that made the overly familiar numbers seem so very fresh to the spirited hoofing in “The Devil’s Rider.” But it was in “Girl Crazy” that he really outdid himself, providing more dancing than in any previous OLO production, topping even his own dance-heavy “Anything Goes” from 2017, which broke the previous record in that regard. The post-curtain call Broadway-level tap fest was really thrilling. 

“Girl Crazy,”  the show that famously put Ethel Merman on the map, and also starred Ginger Rogers, received a bang-up production with Reese himself as the pampered East Coast playboy sent by his father out west where he promptly turns the family property into a glitzy dude ranch, and falls in love with the only gal in town, post office worker Molly. Hannah Holmes was likable in the Rogers role, handling her parts of “But Not For Me” and “Embraceable You” with assurance, and joining the rest of the cast in that electrifying tap dancing finale.


Yvonne Trobe, who impressed with her classical soprano in “Perchance to Dream,” took on the belting Merman role, and socked over first-rate renditions of the lady’s famous songs in that show: “Sam and Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!” and, of course, “I Got Rhythm.”

Guy Bolton and John McGowan’s script was fairly nonsensical, but nonetheless amusing, and with one Gershwin evergreen after another, who’s to complain?

Under Byess’ baton, the orchestra sizzled. The original production boasted Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, and Gene Krupa in the pit, but the OLO forces really showed they could cut loose too. 

Reese had the right period style as playboy Danny, and Alan Smith was effective as his treacherous rival Sam. Kyle Yampiro was very funny as displaced New York City cabdriver Gieber Goldfarb who, over the course of the evening, got to channel everyone from Maurice Chevalier to Mae West in drag, the latter to replace some un-pc Yiddish-Indian schtick in the original. Garrett Medlock, Tim McGowan, Diego Roberts Buceta, and Vincent Gover harmonized winningly in the oft-reprised “Bidin’ My Time.”

Moving on to the extra items during the special “lagniappe” week, for so it was informally dubbed, there was a splendid orchestra-only concert entitled “Without Words,” and featuring nine lengthy orchestral medleys from operettas and musicals. It was a fine idea to give the spotlight to the 28-piece ensemble which performed so superbly throughout the season. These medleys, featured in salons and cinemas, and contemporaneous with the original productions, are sometimes the only surviving orchestrations, though as emcee Michael Miller pointed out parts exist for virtually all of the shows sampled here and thus these works could someday be accorded full OLO productions. 

The concert began with a medley from Victor Herbert’s “The Only Girl,” and continued with such choice items as George Gershwin and Herbert Stothart’s “Song of the Flame,” Lionel Monckton’s “The Quaker Girl,” Ivan Caryll’s “The Pink Lady,” and Sigmund Romberg’s “Rose de France.” 

A couple of days later, the annual “Songs from the Cutting-Room Floor,” featuring excised numbers from the mainstage shows, as well as other related material from such shows as Porter’s “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” Novello’s “Valley of Song,” and the London “Die Fledermaus” adaptation “Nightbirds,” allowed more members of the OLO troupe to display their formidable talents.

Standout performances included Charles Austin Piper’s “Give Me the Land” from “Silk Stockings”; Logan Barat’s “Donkey Serenade,” added to the MGM film of “The Firefly”; Ivana Martinic and Adam Wells’ “If I Never Waltz Again” from “Marinka” (Kálmán’s Broadway musical which, in fact, recycled many of the tunes from “The Devil’s Rider”); Sadie Spivey and Tim McGowan’s “I’d Be Happy Anywhere with You” from Romberg’s “Her Soldier Boy”; Aidan Smerud’s “Tired” from Kalman’s “The Little Dutch Girl”; and Diego Roberts Buceta, Austin Rubinoski, and Piper’s rousing “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here,” freely adapted in 1917 from “With Cat-Like Tread” from “The Pirates of Penzance.” But everyone was so good, it’s almost unfair to single out anyone.

Wilson Southerland accompanied all on the eighty-eights.

As if all this weren’t enough, Miller presented two fascinating video presentations, one an overview of some choice company performances from the past. Among the highlights were a simply hilarious scene from Offenbach’s “The Island of Tulipatan” with Anthony Maida and Alta Boover; two tantalizing numbers from Kálmán’s “Sari,” featuring Lucas Meachem, Tim Oliver, and Sarah Jane McMahon; company founder James Stuart in “The Sorcerer”; Julie Wright Costa’s fiery turn as Aldonza in ‘Man of La Mancha”; Anna-Lisa Hackett and Evan McCormack in a delicious “Madame Pompadour” duet; and a stirring rendition of “Yours Is My Heart Alone” by the late, much-loved tenor Brian Woods. Many of the clips were low tech, but the sheer talent shone through vividly.


The other video presentation was a comprehensive overview of movie musical dubbing. Along with such famous examples such as Marni Nixon dubbing for Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, and Natalie Wood, there was a dizzying potpourri of dozens of lesser-known examples, some quite surprising such as Mary Martin supplying the singing voice for Margaret Sullivan, all capped off by the presentation of a handful of Hollywood operetta trailers. 

Of the seven pre-show talks, Daigle and Miller’s joint presentation on “The Devil’s Rider” (both the show and its fascinating historical background); Wilson Southerland on “Music in the Air”; assistant director Ian Silverman’s backgrounder on “Girl Crazy”; and Spencer Reese’s talk on “Into the Woods” were particularly illuminating. But all the lectures, including those offered by Steven Byess, Jacob Allen, and Ted Christopher, provided insights on the works, performances, and the company itself.

Under the leadership of Daigle, Executive Director Laura Neill, and Board Chair Michael Miller, OLO continues to function at an impressively high level, giving us carefully curated revivals of shows which -- some exceptions like “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Into the Woods” aside -- simply can’t be seen anywhere else. Attendees were already heard eagerly anticipating what next season’s show selections might be. And who could blame them?



(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through August 11)

All photos by Matt Dilyard

Top to bottom:

Girl Crazy: Hannah Holmes & Company

Into the Woods: Cast

Into the Woods: Kyle Yampiro, Alan Smith, Tanya Roberts

Perchance to Dream: Jacob Allen, Chelsea Miller

Perchance to Dream: Julie Wright Costa, Yvonne Trobe, Sarah Best

The Devil’s Rider: Yvonne Trobe, Benjamin Dutton

The Devil’s Rider: Tanya Roberts, Benjamin Dutton

The Pirates of Penzance: Brad Baron & Company

Music in the Air: Adam Wells, Tanya Roberts

Music in the Air: Adam Wells, Tanya Roberts, Spencer Reese, Brad Baron, Ted Christopher, Sadie Spivey

Girl Crazy: Spencer Reese, Hannah Holmes

Perchance to Dream: Sarah Best, Jacob Allen

The Pirates of Penzance: Boyd Mackus & Company