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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Merrily We Roll Along (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

If you are perhaps thinking that composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer George Furth’s backwards-in-time saga of three friends who go from mid-career disillusionment and rancor to youthful idealism and hope would somehow be diminished as performed by a puny cast of six, think again. In fact, Fiasco Theater’s staging is as rich and full an experience as any production I’ve yet encountered. (Fiasco made its name doing scaled-down performances of the Bard, and this is their second foray into Sondheim territory after 2015’s pocket sized “Into the Woods” also in tandem with Roundabout.)

Actually, decades ago, I saw a bare bones basement production as part of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, and it showed how effective a minimalist staging can be.

It helps, of course, that the story -- adapted from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play -- concerns a handful of characters who are squarely the focus throughout. There’s composer-turned-film producer Frank (Ben Steinfeld); his best friend and lyricist Charley (Manu Narayan); their best gal pal and novelist Mary (Jessie Austrian); Frank’s first wife Beth (Brittany Bradford); producer Joe (Paul L. Coffey); and Joe’s spouse Gussie who becomes Frank’s second wife (Emily Young).

Derek McLane’s towering set, lighted by Christopher Akerlind, with shelves filled with props and with a cutaway upstage center allowing for an occasional change of vista, be it a palm tree lined street or a greenhouse (and at times, a backdrop of the Alvin Theatre where “Merrily” premiered), and Music Director Alexander Gemignani’s eight-piece orchestra, nicely amplified in Peter Hyklenski’s crystalline sound design, and one has the sense of a very full production. (Gemignani’s dad Paul was the music director of the original production.)

Some may miss Jonathan Tunick’s original charts, but Gemignani’s new arrangements and orchestrations struck me as delightfully fresh. And the intimacy of the overall approach ensures that the musical numbers register as naturally organic to the piece as the dialogue.

Narayan is a particularly outstanding Charley delivering his rapidfire and blistering “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” put-down with uncommon vitriol. Austrian’s Mary is sharply caustic as she wallows in her alcoholism. And Steinfeld, more sympathetic than some Franks, convincingly conveys the conflict in his character. Young is appropriately manipulative as she sets her cap on the budding young composer  And Bradford scores both as Frank’s latest mistress Meg in the opening scene and then as first wife Beth delivering a fine “Not a Day Goes By.” (Interestingly, a scene involving Frank and Beth living with her parents has been added from the Kaufman and Hart play.) Coffey is perfect as the soon-to-be-cuckolded producer and other roles.

By the time the idealistic threesome get around to singing the hopeful “Our Time” on a rooftop in the final scene, I felt moved as never before.

Hal Prince’s original production was very much a misfire with its talented, but too youthful, cast wearing unbecoming sweatshirts identifying their characters. Since then, every production I’ve seen (York Theatre Company, the Menier Chocolate Factory, Encores), has sensibly gone for more conventional costuming and 30-something actors who can more convincingly age forward or back, and they have confirmed the quality of the show, with its now classic songs including “Good Thing Going,” “Now You Know,” and “Old Friends.”

Cleverly directed by Fiasco Co-Artistic Director Noah Brody, the narrative comes across with great clarity. Just so we all get it, the first flashback is done as if the players were in a film running backwards. When crowds are necessary, as in party scenes, Brody’s staging is wittily resourceful. Choreographer Lorin Latarro moves her players resourcefully, even at one point including an amusing homage to the bottle dance from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton’s costumes define the time and place clearly, and make the occasional doubling of roles comprehensible.

The whole has been whittled down to 105 minutes sans intermission, and includes material added after the Broadway run such as “Growing Up” and “The Blob,” and according to the program notes, apparently some pre-Broadway cut material as well.

To paraphrase one of the show’s song titles, Fiasco’s reversioning of “Merrily” is very much a hit in my book. Highly recommended.

(Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street).212.719.1300, online at roundabouttheatre.org; through April 7)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Lolita, My Love (The York Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

York’s three-show homage to Alan Jay Lerner in celebration of the lyricist’s centenary is concluding with arguably the most fascinating of the bunch: the 1971 musicalization of Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious 1955 novel “Lolita.”  Lerner’s musical collaborator on this occasion was John Barry, better known for his numerous film scores (the James Bond series, “Born Free,” etc.), but he had dabbled in theater at least once before with 1965’s “Passion Flower Hotel” and after “Lolita,” he went on to write commendable musical versions of “Billy Liar,” “The Little Prince” and Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock.”

The score Lerner and Barry turned out for “Lolita, My Love” was, as it happens, a very good one, as can be heard on a widely circulated bootleg from its Boston tryout (the songs of which were issued at one point on the private Blue Pear label). Songs like “In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen” and “Farewell, Little Dream” are quite beguiling.

And it’s clear that Lerner adapted Nabokov’s book will intelligence and flair. On the basis of the recording, John Neville as anti-hero Humbert Humbert, a teacher recovering from a nervous breakdown suffered at a girls school in Switzerland, Dorothy Loudon as Charlotte Haze, love-starved widow of Ramsdale, Vermont, Leonard Frey as oddball playwright Clare Quilty, and Denise Nickerson as nymphet Lolita all sounded terrific.

What seems to have been the major obstacle to public acceptance was, of course, the unsavory theme of a middle-aged man lusting after a pubescent girl, one (relatively) more palatable on the printed page than actually dramatized.

So the planned Broadway opening at the Mark Hellinger Theatre never happened, and kudos to York for giving the show its belated New York premiere. Playwright and Lerner aficionado Erik Haagensen has done a masterful job of sifting through and adapting the several extant Lerner scripts into one presumably incorporating the best of each, including the addition of a therapist to whom Humbert is narrating his story. Apparently, the therapist, Dr. Ray, was to be an off-stage male voice in Lerner’s post-Boston concept, but York’s excellent director Emily Maltby has made her an onstage presence, and a female one at that (Thursday Farrar) to render the narrative a bit more palatable to present-day audiences, especially as Dr. Ray is able to convey thinly veiled disdain at Humbert’s actions. The concept also helps underscore that  Humbert’s narrative is not necessarily truthful in all its particulars.

Robert Sella is quite superb in the marathon Humbert role. He seems to be channeling Neville with his crisp British accent, as well as singing his part of the score most attractively. As the object of his affection, Caitlin Cohn (actually 20-something, not 13, as was Ms. Nickerson in Boston), registers as remarkably convincing. And George Abud (“The Band’s Visit”) makes a dynamic Clare Quilty, the playwright character with designs on Lolita himself, delivering the opening “Going, Going, Gone” and the second-act “March Out of My Life” with welcome energy.

Jessica Tyler Wright, a solid musical performer, is rather too conventionally attractive, missing the requisite vulgarity of Charlotte with the character’s high-falutin’ airs and graces, as she sets her amorous cap on Humbert. But she puts over her songs, including her amusing paean to all things French, “Sur les Quais,” very well. The ensemble adds spark with such lively numbers as “At the Bed-D-By Motel” and “Buckin’ for Beardsley.”

Music director Deniz Cordell has done a fine job of reconstruction considering the lack of orchestra parts, and his piano accompaniment is first-rate throughout. Inevitably, without a full orchestra and all the elements of a full-scale production, the Mufti reading sometimes registers more as a play with songs, but it’s a fascinating one at that.

It’s worth catching this rarity while you can, unless you’d prefer to wait another half century until the next intrepid revival.

(Theater at St. Peter’s, 54th St. East of Lexington Ave; yorktheatre.org or 212-935-5820; through March 3)

Pictured (left to right) : Robert Sella as Humbert Humbert, Caitlin Cohn as Lolita. Photo Credit: Ben Strothmann

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Day Before Spring (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 4, 2019

True West (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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