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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Day Before Spring (The York Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 4, 2019

True West (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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