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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Burn This (Hudson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This a polished and highly entertaining revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1987 play about a phobic restaurateur named Pale (Adam Driver) who early one morning bursts into the lives of the roommates of his late dancer brother Robbie who was killed in a boating mishap: Anna (Keri Russell), a dancer turned choreographer and Larry (Brandon Uranowitz), a gay advertising executive. Improbably, especially as she’s dating Burton (David Furr), a well-heeled screenplay writer, Anna finds herself both repelled and attracted to the wildly unconventional interloper, creating major complications all around, including a New Year’s Eve confrontation between Pale and Burton, well staged by fight director J. Steven White.

But when the play opens, Anna is describing Robbie’s funeral from which she’s just returned. Robbie’s family apparently didn’t know or choose to know about his sexuality, and she describes how awkward the situation was for her. Sometime later, when the cocaine-fueled Pale bursts in to collect his brother’s things -- a veritable force of nature, crying, cursing, and carrying on, brilliantly played by the hulking Driver who seems to tower over everyone else on stage -- he and Anna bond in their mutual grief. Driver and Russell play beautifully together, and their burgeoning relationship is most convincing and touching despite the disparity of their characters (and sizes).

We’ve already heard Larry summarize the plot of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” laying the symbolic seeds for this story of a modern day Dutchman and Senta.

Uranowitz as the wise-cracking roommate delivers his humorous dialogue with masterful comic timing, and Furr, at first clueless about what has transpired between his girlfriend and Pale, plays his WASPy part to a tee. And his recounting of a one-time-only gay encounter on a snowy night years before is very funny.

I can’t claim total recall of original cast member John Malkovich’s performance apart from admiring it very much. But Driver certainly has made the part his own. Till now, he’s been seen almost exclusively in English roles in New York (“Man and Boy,” “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” and “Look Back in Anger”), so seeing him playing this uber blue collar character is quite the change of pace.

He balances Pale’s craziness and tenderness very skillfully indeed, making him something of a gentle giant. (I loved the scene of him showing Larry how to make a proper cup of tea, demonstrating a surprising domestic touch to Pale’s character.) And Russell hits all the right notes as the conflicted Anna, making her dilemma very plausible.

Derek McLane has designed an attractive loft setting, lighted expertly by Natasha Katz. Clint Ramos’s costumes and David Van Tieghem’s sound are also first-rate.

Director Michael Mayer must be credited with eliciting such fine performances from his cast, and he stages the action superbly for maximum humor and poignancy.

(Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street; or 855-801-5876; through July 14)

Monday, April 22, 2019

Hadestown (Walter Kerr Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a brilliantly creative retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with music, lyric and book by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell who puts her own stamp on a story memorably musicalized by everyone from Gluck to Offenbach. The work started at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, premiered in Canada in 2017, and enjoyed an acclaimed run at London’s National Theatre last fall.

The highly stylized format of the piece rather muddies the narrative at first, but by the end of the first act, there’s more clarity, and the second act is quite sharply focused.

So we have naively innocent Orpheus (Reeve Carney), toiling in a menial restaurant job but possessed of a beautiful voice, and forever obsessing about finishing a song which will help the world. He falls for Eurydice (Eva Noblezada), a runaway girl desperate for food and shelter. They marry, but she finds him so absorbed in his composition and neglectful of his responsibilities that she willingly gives in to Hades (Patrick Page), ruler of an underworld where everyone toils in a factory, signing her life away to join him down below.

Persephone (Amber Gray), Goddess of the Seasons (who alternates every six months between the worlds above and below), is Hades’ neglected wife who intercedes for Orpheus when, advised by Hermes to take the “back road to Hell,” he braves crossing the River Styx to bring her back. Providing witty and melodic commentary as they steer everyone's destiny are the gorgeously harmonizing Fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad). And there are as well a chorus of five, workers in Hades’ underworld factory.

All of this is knowingly narrated by Hermes, messenger to the Gods, in the person of the great Andre De Shields, who gets the evening off to a rousing start with the catchy “Road to Hell.”

The score is a deft combination of jazz, gospel, folk, and blues. As has been widely noted, there’s an amazingly prescient song called “Why We Build the Wall,” in which the lyric speaks of "keeping out the enemy," which was actually written long before the Trump era for Mitchell’s original concept album from which the show evolved. There are many other musical highlights ranging from the infectious “Livin’ It Up on Top,” to the sweet duet for Eurydice and Orpheus “All I’ve Ever Known."

The cast is outstanding. Carney’s high-flying falsetto suggests the ethereal beauty of his character. Noblezada, last seen here as the heroine of “Miss Saigon,” is full of spunk as a very streetwise Eurydice and sings beautifully. Gray is simply a knockout as a funky, sexy goddess, and brings down the house with her sassy second act opener, “Our Lady of the Underground.” Page has one of the best roles of his career, with his deeply resonant voice suggesting depths as bottomless as the underworld. There’s surprising depth to the relationship between Hades and Persephone which ultimately takes on a gravitas that matches, or even surpasses, that of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Rachel Chavkin’s direction is as imaginative as her work for “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” Stunningly fluid -- and David Neumann’s fine choreography contributes mightily in that respect -- the staging continually surprises and delights with bold strokes and deft small touches like the symbolic use of a red flower. The familiar circumstance of Orpheus being allowed to take his wife back provided he doesn’t look back is given an intelligent and fresh spin here, and Chavkin’s staging of that sequence is surprisingly suspenseful.

Rachel Hauck’s set design -- a New Orleans French Quarter flavored ambiance with the brilliant orchestra of seven arranged in three sections proves versatile for both the earth and underworld scenes. Russell Chorney and Todd Sickafoose’s orchestrations and arrangements consistently beguile the ear.

What begins as a breezy riff on a timeless tale has been fashioned into a very moving story about the nature of myth and humanity.

(Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W 48th Street; or 877-250-2929)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Amber Gray, Patrick Page, Reeve Carney

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Diva You Do Know (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

On this occasion, it must be said that LOONY strayed rather far from its light opera mandate. They gathered four of the best female singers in the operetta genre but set them loose on a wide-ranging program ranging from Wagner to Stephen Schwartz to Joni Mitchell. The fertile fields of operetta were not abandoned altogether, however, as there were some choice morsels from Gilbert & Sullivan, Ivor Novello, and Lehar in the mix. And the end result was emphatically a most enjoyable evening of good music very well sung indeed.

The program, introduced tongue-in-cheek by director Gary Slavin as if pulled together in impromptu fashion, began with its quartet of accomplished ladies -- mezzos Sarah Best and Cáitlín Burke, and sopranos Alexis Cregger and Anne Slovin -- all dressed to the nines as befitting their “diva” status -- joining forces for a very nice arrangement of “I Have a Song to Sing, O” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeomen of the Guard.” But this was followed, rather surprisingly, by Cregger delivering a strongly sung “Dich, teure Halle” from “Tannhäuser.” Elsewhere, she gave a melting “Vilja” from "The Merry Widow," also in German, then showed her much lighter side in the second act with a lovely rendition of the old standard  “I’ll Be Seeing You” (Sammy Fain & Irving Kahal) and then a bluesy “Always True to You Darling in My Fashion” from “Kiss Me, Kate.”

That last was followed by Best’s terrific “I Hate Men” from the same show, a souvenir from her performance as Lilli/Kate at Ohio Light Opera in 2016. And it must be said that both numbers were actually more satisfyingly sung than in the current Broadway revival.

Best also offered another souvenir of one of her 2016 OLO roles, the heroine Maria Ziegler from Novello’s “The Dancing Years,” reprising her warmly voiced “I Can Give You the Starlight.” Moving to more contemporary territory, she delivered  a feeling “Meadowlark,” Schwartz’s virtual standard from “The Baker’s Wife.” And her most rib-tickling moment was a tipsy account of George Gershwin and Herbert Stothart’s “Vodka.”

Burke’s opening solo was the hilarious “This Place is Mine” from Maury Yeston’s “Phantom,” the most outright diva-like number on the program, as it’s sung by Carlotta, the egotistical prima donna rival of the show’s heroine. Later, she gave a taste of one of her signature roles, Katisha from “The Mikado,” with a fierce and moving “Alone, and Yet Alive.” In the second act, she unleashed her rich tones on magisterial renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Every Mountain” and then “Something Wonderful,” making those familiar chestnuts sound fresh.

The other G&S selections were familiar but amusingly done. Best and Slovin tried their hands at patter with the Major-General’s song from “Pirates of Penzance,” while Best and Cáitlín made a capital pair of dueling Mad Margarets, alternating lines of “Cheerily Carols the Lark” from “Ruddigore.” Cregger encored Patience’s opening number from her Blue Hill Troupe performance, but this time in tandem with Slovin.

And then there was vivacious Anne Slovin who showed her vocal chops with Norina’s “So anch’io al virtu magica” from “Don Pasquale,” and later demonstrated she could handle Broadway tunes (“Children of the Wind” from “Rags”) and pop (Mitchell’s “Case of You”). She also charmed with the evening’s penultimate solo,  “J’en prendrai un, deux, trois” from Offenbach’s “Pomme d’Api” steering LOONY back to its titular mission.

Seth Weinstein’s antics on the 88’s were a show in themselves, and he provided fleet, stylistically perfect accompaniment.

(The Players, 16 Gramercy Park South;; April 16 only)

Photos by Harry Forbes
Top: (l.-r.) Burke, Cregger, Best, Slovin
Second: Best
Third: Burke
Last: Cregger, Slovin

Monday, April 15, 2019

Oklahoma! (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

This high-concept revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration -- a resounding success when it opened in 1943 running for years -- is very much a mixed bag. The current production premiered at Bard College, and later enjoyed a sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Here it is now ensconced at a barely recognizable Circle in the Square, lit to maximum wattage with multi-colored mylar strips hanging above. Firearms line the walls presumably to make a contemporary point about gun violence. The playing area, designed by Laura Jellineck, is framed by picnic tables -- outfitted with slow cookers to tease the chili and cornbread that will be served at intermission -- with audience members on the outer benches.The house lights stay on full strength for most of the first act, presumably to offer an immersive experience, though the lady sitting next to me took advantage of the brightness by reading her program from cover to cover with only sporadic regard for the show.

Robert Russell Bennett’s classic original orchestrations have been replaced by Daniel Kluger’s seven-person bluegrass ensemble, creating a not unattractive musical texture. There are 12 principals (no chorus) who sing with as much a country-western flavor as Richard Rodgers’ classic tunes will bear. Terese Wadden’s non-period-specific costumes further underscore the show’s revisionist intent.

Damon Daunno’s Curly’s is an unprepossessing guitar-toting cowpoke always eager to launch into song (much like the Curly of Lynn Rigg’s original play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” to which Oscar Hammerstein II’s book for the musical very closely adhered). He sings pleasantly, sometime in falsetto, and far from the traditional Broadway baritone sounds of Alfred Drake and Gordon MacRae. Laurey’s rather a sullen gal, and Rebecca Naomi Jones plays her with largely uninflected line readings. The voices in general are nothing to write home about. At times, the performers will grab a mike and start singing in a more presentational way.

The villainous hired hand Jud is embodied with utmost creepiness by Patrick Vaill, and his tense scene with Curly in the smokehouse and, later, his aggressive encounter with Laurey at the box social are played in total darkness with only the characters’ miked voices audible, save for a sporadic live video black and white projection on the back wall. Drew Levy’s sound design adds effectively to the scarily surreal ambiance of these scenes. Elsewhere in the show, Scott Zielinski’s lighting scheme includes some scenes bathed in green light.

Much of director Daniel Fish’s concept --  which it seems to me owes a lot to Ivo van Hove -- is clever. Some of it works, but other aspects fatally betray the source material. In fact, anyone who had a problem with how Bartlett Sher tweaked the ending of his “My Fair Lady” revival would be apoplectic over what’s been done here. Since there surely can’t be anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen the show is some form or other -- be it a high school production or Fred Zinnemann’s superb 1955 film -- it won’t be any kind of spoiler to discuss Jud’s death near the end.

As both Riggs’ and Hammerstein have it, Jud makes a surprise appearance at Laurey and Curly’s wedding, tries to plant an unwanted kiss on Laurey, and when Curly intervenes, Jud pulls a knife. The two men scuffle and Jud falls on the knife.

Here, Jud enters, kisses Laurey, and ritualistically presents Curly with a gift -- a gun -- walks a few paces away, and Curly shoots him without provocation. At that point, Aunt Eller and the townspeople suddenly turn sinister, and contrive to hush up the crime, and the implication is that the couple, now covered in blood, will be culpable for the rest of their lives for this heinous act.

This is a major betrayal of Hammerstein and Rigg’s intent. In both works, it is patently clear that Jud is a vicious killer. It’s implied he already burnt a family to death when the daughter of the house refused his advances. In “GGTL,” Laurey is actually well aware of Jud’s rumored backstory, and fears he’ll do the same to them. In “GGTL,” Jud tries to set fire to a haystack on which the couple have been hoisted as part of a wedding ritual. This scene was reinstated in Zinnemann’s film of the musical. Twice within the show, Jud tries to kill Curly. In both “GGTL” and “Oklahoma!,”  the text plainly states that Jud falls on his knife.

And afterwards, there is no indifference to his death. Everyone is acutely aware of the gravity of the situation. In “GGTL,” Curly is duly arrested to await trial. He breaks out three days later, so he can be with his new bride for at least one night. The authorities allow this, with the proviso that he’ll go back to jail in the morning. But the implication is that, of course, he’ll be acquitted as his part in a struggle was genuinely a case of self-defense. Hammerstein conflated the probable outcome, by having a quickie trial on the spot so the innocent couple could proceed with their honeymoon. Fish is no doubt aiming to make a contemporary sociological point with his staging here, but the text simply doesn’t support it.

Arguably the second major misstep here is Laurey’s “dream ballet” here an off-putting athletic modern dance solo for Gabrielle Hamilton, wearing a “Dream Baby Dream” t-shirt, who flings herself about the stage to a blaring electric guitar cacophony remotely built on Rodgers’ themes.

The scenes that are played most conventionally, such as the picnic hamper auction where Will, and then Curly and Judy vie for Ado Annie’s and Laurey’s baskets respectively come off best.

I had no reservations whatever about Ali Stoker’s delightful Ado Annie, as good as any I’ve seen. Her being in a wheelchair doesn’t interfere at all with a strong and funny performance. So, too, James Davis’ Will Parker makes a delightfully dim-witted suitor. As Will’s rival, Will Brill is consistently amusing as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, though he eschews an ethnic accent. The great Mary Testa brings a refreshingly distinctive touch to Aunt Eller’s dialogue, but thought her raucous vocals on this occasion a bit grating.

The ballet excepted, most of the staging holds your interest, even when it’s wrong-headed, but I wouldn’t care to sit through it again.

(Circle in the Square Theatre,1633 Broadway; or 212 -239-6200; through September 1)

Top: Rebecca Naomi Jones & Damon Daunno (c) Little Fang Photo

Below: Ali Stroker & Will Brill (c) Little Fang Photo

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Cradle Will Rock (Classic Stage Company)

By Harry Forbes

After immersing myself in the 2018 release of Opera Saratoga’s fully orchestrated “The Cradle Will Rock” CD, with John Mauceri conducting Marc Blitzstein’s original orchestrations, I feared this pared down piano-only version might sound undernourished, especially as, additionally, some of the cast -- dressed drably in overalls by designer Ann Hould-Ward as Steeltown, USA, factory workers -- takes on as many as two or three roles apiece. Even the last New York production -- part of Encores’ summer series -- used an orchestra, albeit a reduced one with new orchestrations.

But, in fact, the historically important -- albeit very much “of its time” -- pro-unionism agitprop piece manages to build in power as it goes along, with the well-chosen cast more than up to the task of doubling and tripling roles, with only occasional confusion about which part each is currently playing.

Of course, the 1937 Federal Theater Project premiere, was famously staged by Orson Welles with the actors in the audience, and the composer on stage at the piano, in order to skirt sudden Federal restrictions imposed on them. The stated reason was budget cuts but was more likely to do with the strong anti-capitalist theme. So a traditional stage performance in the planned theater was necessarily scuttled, and another venue quickly secured. All of these extraordinary events were dramatized in the 1999 Tim Robbins film “Cradle Will Rock.” (And, fascinatingly, you can Blitzstein relate the story in his own words on the aforementioned CD.)

Unabashedly pro-labor, the work is peopled with prototypes -- doctor, professors, prostitute, newspaper editor, artists, reverend -- who have come under the dishonorable sway of the powerful steel magnate Mr. Mister, who gets his devious way at every turn through bribery. He’s convincingly played here by musical theater veteran David Garrison, blithely scattering cash with every encounter.

Most of the town’s top citizens are mistakenly jailed in the opening scene, and while waiting for Mr. Mister to release them, recall how they came to sell out to him and join his so-called Liberty Committee. The prostitute (Moll) is among them, but the trade she plies is born of need, whereas all the others have shamelessly sold out their integrity for reasons of greed or lust for power.

The hardworking and accomplished cast also includes Ken Barnett as Editor Daily, Eddie Cooper as Junior Mister, Benjamin Eakeley as Reverend Salvation, Ian Lowe as Yasha, Kara Mikula as Sister Mister, Lara Pulver as Moll, Sally Ann Triplett as Mrs. Mister, Rema Webb as Ella, and Tony Yazbeck as Larry Foreman.

The production was directed by CSC Artistic Director John Doyle, and at first glance, you might think he has eschewed his familiar device of the performers playing their own instruments. After all, no one’s carrying around a tuba or bass fiddle. But wait; actually four of the principals in this ensemble cast -- Barnett, Eakeley, Lowe, and Mikula -- are taking turns at the keyboard (and playing quite well, too), under the musical supervision of Greg Jarrett.

The score is strongly influenced by Kurt Weill, though arguably, not nearly as distinctive. Upon exiting the theater, I found myself humming “Surabaya Johnny” rather than anything in “Cradle.” But the songs -- a stylistically mixed bag -- are accomplished in their own way.

Pulver gets the show’s most famous number, “Nickel Under the Foot,” which she does superbly. (PBS viewers may recall her turn as Gypsy Rose Lee in the Imelda Staunton “Gypsy” which aired in 2016.) Another English musical theater pro Triplett makes a commanding Mrs. Mister, tirelessly conniving to get support for her husband. Yazbeck is especially powerful as union organizer Foreman, his performance culminating in an impassioned plea to the cast (and the audience) for justice and equality, as he reprises the title song. He’s also touching as Harry Druggist consumed with guilt over a betrayal of his son. Another vocal highlight is Webb’s “Joe Worker” number. But each of the cast does well in his or her solo pieces.

High-powered corruption and lower-class oppression are still, of course, very much with us so, in general terms, the themes of “The Cradle Will Rock” will always resonate, but the work still registers more as a period piece.

Doyle himself created the spare design, with expert lighting by Jane Cox and Tess James.

(Classic Stage Company (136 E 13th St, New York) or 212-352-3101; through May 19)

Photos by Joan Marcus: 

Top: Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula, Benjamin Eakeley, Tony Yazbeck, Ian Lowe

Lower: Rema Webb, Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations (Imperial Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This latest entry in the jukebox bio musical sweepstakes is most assuredly one of the best. Helmed by director Des McAnuff with choreography by Sergio Trujillo -- two of the creative forces behind “Jersey Boys” -- “Ain’t Too Proud” emerges as very much more in the tradition of that Four Seasons hit, trumping such recent entries as “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” “The Cher Show” and “On Your Feet” by a mile, some individual excellences in those notwithstanding.

There is, of course, some overlap with 2015’s “Motown: The Musical,” but “Ain’t Too Proud” has a more focused narrative.
The show had its world premiere run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and went on to play sold-out runs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Eisenhower Theater, and the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.
With a strong book by Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau which holds your interest even as the five-man makeup of famed Motown singing group sometimes seems like a revolving door (there were 24 in all), and featuring a fine cast, including the actors playing the “classic” members: excellent James Harkness (as Paul Williams), wonderfully resonant bass Jawan M. Jackson (Melvin Franklin), high-flying tenor Jeremy Pope (straight from his starring role in “Choir Boy” as Eddie Kendricks), charismatic Ephraim Sykes (as lead singer David Ruffin), and tireless Derrick Baskin (as leader Otis Williams who narrates their story).

Morisseau astutely keeps these central figures in the narrative even after they move on. Ruffin, for instance, brought his distinctive sound to the group, but drug problems, unreliability and violent behavior including abuse of singer-girlfriend Tammi Terrell (Nasia Thomas) led to a split. Still, he remains in the story long after, including his aggressively taking the stage for an impromptu duet with his startled replacement Dennis Edwards (Saint Aubyn). When illness and death take their toll on the group, it’s movingly handled. Morisseau’s script was based on Williams’ book (written with Patricia Romanowki), though as such, I’m not sure how objective the narrative actually is, but she is careful not to paint an entirely rosy picture for Otis.

So it is that we learn of his absence at home from his wife (Rashida Scott) and son (Shawn Bowers), and his sometimes fractious leadership of the group, but generally his actions are described in a sympathetic light, as in “It hurt me to let Ruffin go,” and so on. So, too, the group’s issues with drugs and alcohol are portrayed unflinchingly.

Good as Baskin is, the nonstop narration does grow a bit tiresome, but at the end of the day, it’s the music that matters. And The Temptations’ golden hits are authentically and enjoyably performed. The cast really has the group’s trademark moves down pat. There are over 30 songs listed in the Playbill, including “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Cloud Nine,” “Just My Imagination,” “Get Ready,” and “I Wish It Would Rain.” Many of these numbers are frustratingly fragmented but they sound mighty fine under Kenny Seymour’s music direction. He also did the arrangements with Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations. Harkness has a particularly poignant vocal moment with “For Once in My Life” (actually a Stevie Wonder hit for Motown).

The story begins with Williams’ troubled childhood (including six months in juvenile detention), and the early Detroit days of the group when they were called The Elgins, their signing on with Motown, and moves through the Civil Rights era and beyond.

The expected Motown characters are here too: the Supremes (Candice Marie Woods as Diana Ross, with Nasia Thomas as Florence Ballard and Taylor Symone Jackson as Mary Wilson), Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) who wrote many of their hits and guided the group’s efforts, along with Norman Whitfield (Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.) who clashes with Edwards during the recording session of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” And there’s Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) who’s resolutely determined the group will always appeal to white audiences, a stance that causes friction when the group wants to take on more political material.

Other replacement Temps such Richard Street (E. Clayton Cornelius) and Damon Harris (Christian Thompson) and an early lead singer Al Bryant (Jarvis B.Manning, Jr.), who was necessarily ousted, are well played.

Robert Brill’s spare but classy sets, with turntables and conveyer belts, lighted by Howell Binckley, coupled with Peter Nigrini’s expert projections dominated by a Temptations marquee, allow for fluidity over the decades. Paul Tazewell’s costumes skillfully capture the era.

(Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street; or 800-447- 7400)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Ephraim Sykes, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin, and James Harkness