Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Julie Madly Deeply (59E59 Theaters)

By Harry Forbes

“I am not Julie Andrews,” declares Sarah-Louise Young at the start of her two-act tribute to Julie Andrews, precluding any odious comparisons. In any event, the show -- written by Young “with contributions from” director Russell Lucas -- is not an impersonation, but rather a loving homage from a lifelong fan.

Young first saw Andrews in a concert at the O2 auditorium in 2010  when the beloved star of “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” was attempting a musical comeback after the botched throat operation that, for all intents and purposes, ended her singing career. The press reported that the fans were disappointed, and Young admits “She didn’t sound the same,” but her adoration remained undiminished.

Tracing Andrews 1935 birth in Surrey, the nurturing of her voice by stepfather Ted Andrews to her early Broadway triumphs (“The Boy Friend,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Camelot”) to her Hollywood blockbusters, albeit with a public that would not accept her out of the nanny/governess roles, to the tragic loss of her voice, Young covers a lot of territory.

Along the way, Young sings most of the expected hits including “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

She also impersonates many of the people or prototypes in Julie’s life (i.e. a voice teacher, a Pathe news reader, a music hall performer). An adept mimic (Young’s Audtrey Hepburn for one is spot-on), she oddly chooses to affect some very peculiar accents for “My Fair Lady” director Moss Hart, and Rodgers and Hammerstein when a simple search on YouTube could easily give her the real thing. And there’s a little too much extraneous Liza Minnelli whose main connection with Andrews was replacing her for a short period in “Victor/Victoria.”

Accompanied very gracefully by Michael Roulston on the piano, most of the renditions are straight with an occasional off-beat arrangement such as “Feed the Birds.” She’s got an excellent voice which can encompass show tunes like “Le Jazz Hot” and the more soprano-like demands of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Along the way, Young ventures away from the obvious hits to such numbers “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” (cut from “MFL”), “Could I Leave You?” from Andrews’ late return to the stage, “Putting It Together,” “I’ll Give You Three Guesses” from “Darling Lili,” and “The Physician” from “Star!”  As Young professes not to care much for “Camelot,” it is Roulston who is left to offer a very warmly vocalized “How to Handle a Woman.”

The script avoids the nitty gritty of Julie’s paternal parentage, as detailed in the lady's autobiography, but covers Andrews’ divorce from Tony Walton, her career challenges, the not-altogether-positive “change in direction” under the influence of second husband Blake Edwards, and the aforementioned loss of voice, the last symbolically mimed in an extended sequence to the strains of “The Rain in Spain.”

All in all, the script does cram a good deal of biographical incident in its breezy way, so Young clearly knows her idol.

Young is extremely personable, and her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. She expresses what registers as genuine awe and excitement when audience members tell her what they’ve seen the lady in person. (Several mention “Victor/Victoria,” which particularly excites Young, though this was arguably the nadir of Andrews’ stage work.)

Outfitted in a simply frock for act one, she emerges in a rather eccentric multi-colored concoction in the second (costumes by Anna Braithwaite), which she finally sheds in modest homage to Andrews’ torrid striptease in “Darling Lili.”

Returning near the end to the night of the O2 concert, Young offers a gentle “Edelweiss,” wrapping up the evening on a poignant note before returning for a good natured audience singalong.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 646-892-7999 or; through June 30)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Michael Roulston, Sarah-Louise Young in JULIE MADLY DEEPLY at Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Much Ado About Nothing (Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The Public Theater always seems to do well with Shakespeare’s ever-popular 1598 comedy, and this latest -- an all-black production directed by the estimable Kenny Leon (his first show for the Public, and his first Shakespearean production in New York) -- is no exception.

Updated and reset from the Sicilian port of Messina to 2020 Atlanta, the production is nonetheless reassuringly traditional in most respects, though Leon has, of course, given it the overlay of the African-American experience, and the music is perforce a more up-to-date playlist than the Bard’s original.Thus we have such tunes as Marvin Gaye’s “What Going On,” “Precious Lord,” and “America the Beautiful,” sharing the stage with new tunes by Jason Michael Webb, and replacing the usual “Sigh No More” and others.

The play opens with the men coming back from an unspecified war but, as a program note explains, “this Delacorte production never depicts those the community is fighting against, emphasizing instead the values that the community is trying to defend.” Thus, the soldiers -- outfitted in burgundy uniforms (by designer Emilio Sosa) -- carry signs declaring such sentiments as “I Am a Person” and “Restore Democracy Now.”

In a program background interview, Leon explains he sees the community of the play “fighting for the values that Americans hold dear: the idea of democracy for everybody and respect for everybody, and all those values that people right now seem to be pushing against.”

The sparring Beatrice and Benedict are most delightfully taken by Danielle Brooks from “Orange is the New Black” and the revival of “The Color Purple,” and Grantham Coleman. Brooks’ sassy delivery works quite well with her character’s witty banter. Her speech after her famous injunction to “Kill, Claudio” -- “Oh, that I were a man for his sake” -- is passionately delivered, and earns an appreciative response from the audience. They and the other cast members deliver the text intelligently, albeit in the time-honored strictly American Public Theater style.

Though a far cry to such famous exemplars of the roles as Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in the19th century, and Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud in the last, The Public’s approach is valid, and the sparring couple’s “merry war” of words still satisfies. When I got home from the show, I listened to a bit of a 1963 recording of the play with Rachel Roberts, Rex Harrison, and a first-class English cast in the traditional style, and it sounded downright quaint by comparison.

Margaret Odette excels as the wronged Hero, with Jeremie Harris her too easily duped lover Claudio. (There’s a nice touch at the end when she slaps him before forgiving him for her earlier public shaming at their wedding when he was tricked into thinking her unfaithful.) Billy Eugene Jones plays Benedict and Claudio’s unlucky-in-love commander Don Pedro, with Hubert Point-Du-Jour as his villainous brother Don John. Versatile Chuck Cooper is expert as Hero’s father, as is Erik Laray Harvey as her doddering uncle Antonio. Olivia Washington and Tiffany Denise Hobbs are also strong as Margaret and Ursula, Hero’s ladies-in-waiting. And Tyrone Mitchell Henderson scores as the beleaguered Friar who steadfastly believes in Hero’s innocence.

The inept constable Dogberry -- as hopeless in wordplay as Beatrice and Benedick are adept -- is taken by a woman, Lateefah Holder, but the part is scarcely less tedious than usual. Jaime Lincoln Smith and Khiry Walker are the “false knaves” Borachio and Conrade apprehended by the foolish Dogberry and his/her Watch.

The scene where Beatrice and Benedick are tricked by their respective friends into hearing how they are loved by the other is delightfully done, with Brooks even eavesdropping from the audience as she makes her way down a row.

Beowulf Boritt’s attractive mansion set with its large “Stacey Abrams 2020” banners -- telegraphs the updated setting, and the whole is attractively lit by Peter Kaczorowski. Sosa’s costumes are modern but are as pleasing to the eye as period costumes.

Camille A. Brown (also “Choir Boy”)  has contributed the bracing choreography including disco dancing in a party scene and electric slide moves for the wedding sequence.

The most memorable “Much Ado” of my theater-going experience remains the 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack, though The Public’s 1972 updating with Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes, which transferred to Broadway and was later televised on network TV, was pretty special, too.

Leon’s production is a physically lovely, dramatically perceptive one, and the proof of its success was the uninhibited audience response during certain scenes, probably not unlike the boisterous audience response at the 16th century Globe.

(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park is accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue; ticket distribution info at; through June 23)
Photo by Joan Marcus: Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Seventeen years after Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci memorably starred on Broadway as the unlikely middle-aged lovers of Terrence McNally’s 1987 play, Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon assume the roles in this latest well-judged production by director Arin Arbus. Though by virtue of the passing years, it’s become a period piece, the central story of two lonely souls making a connection has not dated.

Johnny’s a 47-year-old short order cook, and Frankie a 40-year-old waitress at a local eatery. The play begins with them in the throes of passionate lovemaking; there's full nudity, but it's dimly lit and discreetly staged by (“Intimacy Director”) Claire Warden. Their passionate one-night stand promises to turn into more when Johnny declares they’re each other’s perfect soulmates, and it’s not long before he’s talking marriage.

Frankie is afraid of intimacy and implores -- in fact, orders -- him to leave, declaring she wants to “stop worrying that (she’s) trapped in (her) apartment with a fucking maniac,” but Johnny holds firm. Frankie soon succumbs again to his aggressively persuasive charms, but there’s still plenty of conflict ahead before dawn breaks.

Though clearly mismatched in so many ways, Johnny touchingly searches for commonality. And they do, in fact, share several past experiences. They were both raised in Allentown. Both have scars (literal and figurative) from past relationships. And so on.

At one point, Johnny calls the classical music radio station to learn the title of a piece that pleased Frankie, and later, the DJ -- skeptical that he’s really been called by a real-life “Frankie” and “Johnny” -- plays what Johnny requests: the most romantic music ever written. The chosen piece turns out to be Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.".

The locale is Hell’s Kitchen in 1983 New York (realistically lived-in apartment set by Riccardo Hern├índez), and it’s wise that the period has been retained as cultural and societal mores have so greatly changed. Johnny’s stubborn assertiveness would not fly in today’s #MeToo environment, but to Shannon’s credit, especially given the actor’s hulking frame, he avoids creepiness, and we never fear Johnny will force himself on Frankie.

McDonald’s been convincingly deglamorized as the guarded, sardonic, and increasingly exasperated waitress, and one must admire again her desire (and ability) to transcend the musical roles on which she has built her career. She delivers her nostalgic recollection of her loving grandmother beautifully.

Shannon, ex-con that he admits to being, comes across as lovable, sincere, and gentlemanly as he spouts Shakespeare at the drop of a hat. The dynamic between Frankie and Johnny is, at times, remarkably similar to that between the central characters in Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This”: a brash, not-taking-no-for-an-answer suitor, and a strong-willed woman attracted to him against her better judgement.

Emily Rebholz’s costumes are right on the money for these blue collar characters. Natasha Katz’s nocturnal lighting, and Nevin Steinberg’s ambient sound design are also first-rate.

Despite some repetitiveness in the second act, McNally’s play holds our attention particularly when the leads are embodied by two such dynamic actors.

(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W 44 St.; or 212-239-6200; through August 25)