Monday, January 28, 2019

Carmelina (The York Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Blue Ridge (Atlantic Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Choir Boy (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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