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Friday, November 15, 2019

Richard III (White Light Festival/DruidShakespeare)


By Harry Forbes

After enduring so many well-intentioned local productions that flatten Shakespeare’s language and alter the Bard’s meters to sound oh-so-contemporary, it’s a genuine pleasure to hear actors who have complete facility with the language. 

It’s not a matter of using posh English accents. Dublin’s DruidShakespeare company is, in fact, attractively Irish inflected, but they know how to speak the text giving it plenty of naturalism, and rendering it relevant to a modern-day audience, with at the same time, not losing the requisite period flavor.

This skill is evident from the moment the great Aaron Monaghan as the conniving Richard pops up from the downstage trap door which will later be used to dispatch all his many victims, and addresses us with “Now is the winter of our discontent.”  We can relax knowing from the start we’re in experienced hands.

As gleeful and enjoyably (for us) malevolent as he plays Richard for the first half of the play, he shows us the vicious side of his voracious ambition in the second as he becomes increasingly monstrous. Artfully manipulating walking sticks in each hand, his leg bent out, he gives a performance of impressive physicality and verbal dexterity, holding his own and then some with memories of such great Richards as Ian McKellen, Antony Sher and even Laurence Olivier. 

The production, in association with the Abbey Theatre, opened to raves last year in Dublin. With a cast of only 13, director (and Druid co-founder) Garry Hynes manages to give us all the characters with some clever doubling of roles. The young princes, for instance, are taken by women (Siobhán Cullen and Emma Dargan-Reid), and the Lord Mayer is portrayed by company co-founder Marie Mullen who also plays a distraught Queen Margaret. 

As the other women wronged by Richard, Jane Brennan makes a dignified Queen Elizabeth, wife of Richard’s brother King Edward IV (Bosco Hogan) whose young sons Richard will have murdered in the Tower, Ingrid Caigle as Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, who rues the day she bore him, and Cullen as the widowed Lady Anne whose husband and father-in-law he murdered.

Hynes provides plenty of high drama. Richard’s wooing of the widowed Anne, for one, is superbly staged and played, as are the scenes of Richard manipulating his victims before they meet their untimely ends: Clarence (Marty Rea), Hastings (Garrett Lombard), and Buckingham (Rory Nolan), the last Richard’s staunchest ally and then, when he hesitates to kill the young princes in the Tower, frozen out of Richard’s good graces. 

I enjoyed bowler hatted Catesby (Marty Rea), Richard’s henchman, dispatching this victims with a bolt pistol.

Peter Daly’s Rivers and John Olohan’s Stanley are also masterfully characterized.

Richard’s fatal fight with Richmond (Frank Blake) is superbly choreographed by David Bolger.

Francis O’Connor’s predominantly grey walled set, its austerity broken on occasion by a brightly lit backdrop as characters made their entrances, and a skull in a glass box which hangs ominously over the stage, representing the fallen (great moment when Richard snatches a crown from the skull), and the multi-purpose aforementioned trap door all make for a versatile playing area. Costumes are beautifully period.

James F. Ingalls’ atmospheric lighting and Gregory Clarke’s stark sound design are further plusses.

Gripping theater, its three hours fly by swiftly. This is one of the gems of this year’s White Light Festival, and as such, highly recommended.

(Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 524 W. 59th Street; WhiteLightFestival.org, or CenterCharge at 212.721.6500; through Nov. 23)

Photo by Richard Termine. Pictured l-r Jane Brennan, Aaron Monaghan, Peter Daly, Frank Blake, Marie Mullen

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Soft Power (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Conceived as a sort of reverse spin on “The King and I,” “Soft Power” is a modern-day East meets West story, but this time, told from the viewpoint of China in the person of a Shanghai theater producer who eventually bonds with, of all people, Hillary Clinton. 

When playwright David Henry Hwang started crafting the play that became this musical (late 2015), he was seriously stabbed in the back one night by an unknown assailant. He nearly died but when he recovered, decided to work that incident into the play.

So “Soft Power” now concerns a fictional David Henry Hwang (non-lookalike Francis Jue) who meets with the aforementioned Chinese producer Xuē Xíng (a dynamic Conrad Ricamora). Xuē implores Hwang to adapt a famous movie -- a husband and wife are attracted to other people, but end up unhappily staying together --  to the musical stage with the hopes of it becoming a worldwide hit. Hwang gives it a try, but feels he cannot agree with Xuē about the ending which he feels is unrealistic to a modern audience, and he and Xuē come to an impasse. When Hwang is stabbed, the action we have seen thus far is reprised in a heightened fantasy version, but this time, Xuē has no Chinese accent and we are in a full-out musical set in a crazy quilt version of New York.. 

When he meets Hillary, he is smitten, and they strike up a romance of sorts, and rather in the manner of Anna Leonowens, he patiently teaches her the rudiments of pronouncing his name properly. (There’s a later riff on “Shall We Dance,” too.) After her presidential defeat, which Xuē takes as emblematic of the failure of the U.S. political system (and there’s a funny number about the electoral college), he tries to convince her that things would be better for the two of them in China, but Hillary refuses to lose faith in democracy. That central argument as to whether democracy still “works” is the crux of the play, and Hwang’s arguments pro and con are always intriguing.

There’s an amusing panel sequence which opens the second act wherein, 50 years hence, the Chinese participants look back on this musical as a major game changer in musicals being able to take on more serious subject matter. The one American on the panel is helpless to contradict his Chinese colleagues’ proud sense of ownership.

Jeanine Tesori has written the score (with lyrics by Hwang and herself), and it’s been lushly orchestrated by Danny Troob. The show features traditional dance numbers (lively choreography by Sam Pinkleton)  and an orchestra of 23 players. A bit annoyingly, as is often the case with musicals that pride themselves on the songs being so integral to the script that they don’t merit singling out in the program, there’s no song list provided, though the script does. 

But suffice to say, the numbers are molded in time-honored Broadway style, are tuneful enough on first hearing,  and both Ricamora and Louis have strong ballads, “The New Silk Road” and “Democracy” respectively. Louis also has an amusing post-election lament, “Song of the Campaign Trail” near the top of the second act while she simultaneously sings and gobbles pizza and pistachio ice cream in her depression.

As stated, Ricamora is particularly strong, both vocally and dramatically, and Louis is another bright talent, strong-voiced and looking enough like Mrs. Clinton to be convincing. Other multiple roles are capably taken by Austin Ku, Raymond J. Lee, Jaygee Macapugay, John Hoche, and Kendyl Ito. 

Clint Ramos’ sets lighted by Mark Barton -- from the red Dragon Entertainment Group office to a glitzy fantasy McDonalds to the Golden Gate Bridge (incongruously but amusingly set in New York) -- are attractive, including the orchestra’s multi-level platform. 

Leigh Silverman directs both the musical and 20-minute opening non-musical sequence stylishly.

Not one for the ages, but “Soft Power” is certainly an interesting and enjoyable curiosity, given a first-class production. And good to see so much Asian talent on impressive display.

(The Public Theater, The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555, or www.publictheater.org; through November 17 only)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Conrad Ricamora and the company of Soft Power.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Cyrano (The New Group)


By Harry Forbes

This isn’t the first time someone has musicalized Edmund Rostand’s enduring tragicomedy, and it surely won’t be the last. From Victor Herbert’s rarely revived 1899 operetta version to Franco Alfano’s 1936 opera. And in terms of Broadway style musicals, let’s not forget the 1973 “Cyrano,” which won star Christopher Plummer a Tony Award, and the not bad but unsuccessful 1993 Dutch “Cyrano: The Musical.”  

The current offering, which enjoyed a developmental production at Goodspeed Musicals last year, has music by Aaron Dessner and Bruce Dessner of The National band, with lyrics by Matt Berninger of The National and Carin Besser. On first hearing, I picked out several attractive numbers (“Someone to Say,” “Southern Blood,” “Defenseless,” among them) and they’re well performed in Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s arrangements under Music Director Ted Arthur. 

The main draw here is, of course, star Peter Dinklage, fresh from his eight-year run on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Cyrano’s prominent proboscis takes very much second place to the star’s diminutive stature, though the nose is mentioned when Cyrano’s rival, De Guiche (a superb Ritchie Coster), challenges Cyrano: “Your nose...is it not...large?”

Otherwise, most of the nose references are excised and Dinklage does not wear a prosthetic appendage. But director Erica Schmidt’s adaptation is, on the whole, faithful to the structure of the original, even though everything is streamlined, characters have been dropped, and there are some alterations to the storyline. Roxanne doesn’t, for instance, visit the battlefield here. Cyrano is not fatally wounded by a falling log, and so on.  But, by the end, I was as moved as by any production I’ve seen before. 

The dialogue is colloquial; the opening line of her adaptation is Roxanne’s “Oh, wow!” and when Cyrano castigates Mountfluery (here Montgomery), he demands, “Who will defend this shit?” But that rather self-conscious updating settles down shortly.

I’d be lying if I said that Dinklage’s assumption of the poet-soldier, capable of fighting off 100 men, doesn’t take some initial suspension of disbelief, but one adjusts quickly enough, and the actor’s portrayal of the gruff military man afraid to express his true feelings for fear of rejection, is touchingly played. Some Cyranos are too poetic, forgetting that he’s first and foremost a soldier, but Dinklage doesn’t fall into that trap. HIs enthusiasm early on about what he thinks will be Roxanne’s profession of love is endearing, and his wooing (through his mouthpiece, the handsome Christian) is nicely done. As for his singing voice, well let’s say it’s somewhere between Bob Dylan and Lee Marvin’s graveley “Wandrin’ Star”  in “Paint Your Wagon,” but it’s effective.


Schmidt, who’s married to Dinklage, elicits good performances from the cast all around. Jasmine Cephas Jones, so familiar as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds  in “Hamilton,” is a lovely and believable Roxanne. Schmidt has given the character a little more agency than usual, but the feminist angle is not overdone. Blake Jenner nails the good looking but tongue-tied Christian who tries to do the noble thing at the end when Roxanne confesses that she loves not his looks but his soul. Grace McLean has some winning moments as Roxanne’s tart chaperone Marie. There’s good work too from Josh A. Dawson (Le Bret), Hillary Fisher (Sister Claire), Christopher Gurr (Jodelet), Nehal Joshi (Ragueneau), Scott Strangland (Montgomery), and Erika Olson (Ensemble). Voices are excellent. Choreography is provided by Jeff and Rick Kuperman.

Of non-musical versions, my benchmark productions would have to be the Derek Jacobi-Sinead Cusack Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1983, and more authentically, a fabulous and lavish Robert Hossein production in Paris with Jean-Paul Belmondo in 1990. 

Christine Jones and Amy Rubin’s set design, expertly lighted by Dan Moses Schreier, economically conveys all the requisite settings from the theater of the opening scenes to Roxanne’s balcony, the battlefield, and finally, the convent with its falling leaves. Tom Broeker’s costumes are attractively traditional. 

(The Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 East 15th Street; Ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000; through Dec. 22)

Photos by: Monique Carboni

Top: Josh A. Dawson, Ritchie Coster, Grace McLean, Peter Dinklage, Blake Jenner and Jasmine Cephas Jones 

Below: Peter Dinklage, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Blake Jenner

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Macbeth (Classic Stage Company)


By Harry Forbes

John Doyle’s pocket-sized production of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy has the virtue of welcome brevity, if not greater emotional depth. But the action passes quickly in its one hour and 40 minutes running time. 

There are only nine actors, most playing multiple roles, and the production is strikingly staged in an intriguingly ritualistic manner. The witches who open the play are embodied by eight of the cast, rather like the concerted witches in Verdi’s opera, recently on view at the Met. Interesting as this approach is, what pulls the production down are the performances which, for the most part, are earnest but unexceptional. 

With such a small company, this is perforce, as you might expect, a color- and gender-blind production starting with Mary Beth Piel’s assumption of King Duncan. (If Glenda Jackson can play Lear, well why not?) Actually, Piel is arguably the most accomplished and satisfying player, even when, after Duncan’s murder, she returns as part of the ensemble and the Old Woman speaking of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking antics.

But for the rest, the so-so level of performance puts one nostalgically in mind of so many other truly great stage productions and films that there is an inevitable feeling of letdown. I think of recent local mountings with Patrick Stewart and Kenneth Branagh respectively, to name but two.

Here, as the increasingly murderous Macbeth, Corey Stoll -- who has impressed with his performances at Shakespeare in the Park (Iago, Brutus, etc.) -- fails to mine the depths of the role, though he speaks the text intelligently enough, albeit in the prosaic American accent used by the whole cast. His real-life wife, Nadia Bower’s Lady Macbeth is glamorous but her line readings are strictly standard issue. Erik Lochtefeld’s Banquo and Barzin Akhavan’s Macduff are decent.

N’jameh Camara has some scene stealing histrionic moment as Lady Macduff, first as she bemoans her husband’s flight to England, leaving her and their children alone, and then experiencing her brutal murder at the hands of Macbeth himself, the latter an interesting Doyle innovation.

The report of Macduff’s family’s killing is reported by Barbara Walsh’s otherwise OK Ross with odd placidity, and it takes a while for Macduff to work up to the expected emotional pitch. Raffi Barsoumian’s Malcolm has the requisite authority, though the scene where Macduff and Malcolm bemoan the fate of Scotland is rather sluggish.

Doyle's minimalist approach has meant some trimming of the text, and excision of characters like the Porter altogether.

All the expected big moments play out less grippingly than expected, be it the aforementioned scene of Macduff learning his family has been slaughtered to Lady M’s sleepwalking scene to Macbeth’s fear of the approach of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. In that last, Stoll registers as mostly petulant. And his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is flatly delivered. Macbeth’s horror at spying Banquo’s ghost during the banquet scene elicited titters from the audience, one of several such unintended moments.

Designer Thomas Schall flights were particularly well staged, especially the final confrontation between Macbeth and MacDuff.

Doyle’s economic staging had the banquet scene follow directly upon Banquo’s murder. So Banquo is able to rise up almost immediately from the floor as a ghost.

The action plays out on Doyle’s design the rectangular wooden thrust space of the CSC, with a throne, banquet table, balcony upstage, and the theater’s aisles. There are three wooden benches that are carted around by the cast periodically. Solomon Weisbard designed the effective lighting. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are appropriately somber, though there’s a surfeit of tartan capes with which everyone rather distractingly fusses. Matt Stine is responsible for the atmospheric sound design.

Far more interesting, on the whole, than “Macbeth” at the Sunday matinee I attended was the post-show talkback with Doyle and great British director Phyllida Lloyd, ostensibly to talk about women in Shakespeare, but in fact, topics varied. Along the way, it was pointed out that Americans believe in “heritage Shakespeare” --  with traditional English accents -- with Doyle making the case that Elizabethan English was more akin to present-day American. That may be so, but true or not, I can't help believing the text does suffer when delivered in such a routine manner. 

Classic Stage Company (CSC), 136 E 13th St.; classicstage.org or 212.352.3101; through Dec. 15)

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theatre/Upstairs)


By Harry Forbes

Director Michael Mayer’s first-rate revival of composer Alan Menken and late lyricist and book writer Howard Ashman’s tuneful and enduring adaptation of the Roger Corman comic horror film -- unlikely source material when it premiered at the WPA Theatre in 1982 -- is anchored by its three sterling leads, and a strong supporting cast.

Jonathan Groff is the sweet-natured, put-upon Seymour who works in a skid row flower shop. Tammy Blanchard is his secret crush Audrey involved with a cruelly abusive dentist named Orin played to lip-smacking perfection by Christian Borle who also takes on a highly amusing succession of other roles in the second act.

The shop, run by beleaguered Mr. Mushnik (Tom Alan Robbins) is failing miserably, until an unusual plant being nurtured by Seymour is put on display, and suddenly business booms. The only problem is that Seymour soon learns the plant -- which actually speaks (basso Kingsley Leggs) -- thrives on human blood, and when fed a few drops begins to grow at an astonishing rate. But as the demands of Audrey II (for so the besotted Seymour has named it) get more forceful -- “Feed me,” the plant demands -- and more substantial meals are needed, you can guess who the first victim will be.

Commenting on the action most delightfully are three soulful neighborhood gals known as the Urchins (Ari Groover, Salome Smith, and Joy Woods, each one a vivid personality) who harmonize in doo-wop style  Their lyrics were not always comprehensible, but that may have been due to the sometimes overamped sound design (Jessica Paz). 

Audrey II is a simply amazing feat of puppetry, as designed by Nicholas Mahon from Martin P. Robinson’s original puppet design. As the plant grows, given the small theater, the effect is something akin to that of the King Kong puppet in the recent musical, and no less scary when it approaches the audience.

Without sacrificing any of the property’s inherent laughs, Groff and Blanchard play their parts absolutely straight. Seymour’s quandary of doing the moral thing or giving the bloodthirsty plant what it needs so he can continue to bask in his newfound celebrity, is convincingly acted. And Blanchard makes Audrey’s plight at times heartrendingly real. 


I didn’t see the original Off-Broadway production nor the more recent Encores staging with Jake Gyllenhaal, but I did catch the Jerry Zaks Broadway revival which had a healthy, nearly year-long run, and had its virtues, though it lost the original intimacy that the current production at the 270 seat Westside Theatre restores. 

The infectious rhythm and blues score sounds terrific in Will Van Dyke’s arrangements and orchestrations.

Julian Crouch’s pocket-sized set is very attractive, encompassing the front and interior of the shop, the tenement stoops adjoining it, and later, Orin’s dental office. Tom Broeker’s costumes perfectly define the characters.

Mayer has directed with his usual reliable savvy, wringing every bit of humor out of Ashman’s script, and the pathos underneath. Ellenore Scott has provided the neat choreography. 

(Westside Theatre/Upstairs, 407 West 43 Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through January 19)

Photos by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

Top: Jonathan Groff and Christian Borle in Little Shop of Horrors 

Below: Tammy Blanchard and Jonathan Groff in Little Shop of Horrors