Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Heart O’Mine (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

 By Harry Forbes

Over the last several months, the beloved New York institution dedicated to all things Victor Herbert, has been streaming video chestnuts from its past seasons. Now, Artistic Director Alyce Mott has put together a newly produced revamp of one of the company’s most astute presentations, “Son of Dublin,” the 2017 concert derived from the copious Irish-themed songs from Herbert’s catalog, as well as that of his notable grandfather, composer, novelist and painter Samuel Lover.

The new version -- with 26 songs in all -- has been completely rethought for the virtual world, and some of the playlist (four new songs here) and most of the cast have changed. The result is both a visual and aural delight, and quite a different experience from its precursor. 

Away from a stage setting and audience, and given the intimate singing-to-the-camera approach, the show in its new incarnation registers as a cozy evening of parlour songs. Certainly the early grouping of Samuel Lover songs take on that antiquated albeit charming feel.

Once the focus shifts to Herbert, the level of sophistication (and, arguably, our interest) rises, though the songs here are mostly in Herbert’s sentimental, romantic, and nostalgic vein. 

The cast comprises VHRP reliable repertory company including Drew Bolander, Joanie Brittingham, Alexa Devlin, Jovani Demetrie, Jonathan Hare, Andrew Klima, Caitlin Ruddy, Christopher Robin Sapp, and David Seatter who serves as an affable narrator, giving us the historical context, and providing a seamless flow in his customary seasoned and endearing manner.

Video Editor Alison Dobbins, working in tandem with VHRP’s frequent stage director/choreographer Emily Cornelius, has provided pleasing and clever visuals. Atmospheric Gaelic backdrops, and ingenious video effects such as a moment when a singer seemingly crosses over the virtual line to interact with the person in the next frame, add visual variety and fun.

The staging is positional, so in spite of everyone’s disparate location -- the cast was, in fact, spread out across the country -- they seem to face each other, looking up or down as the position of colleagues shifts, creating a cunningly artificial but enjoyable sense of interaction.

There is, for instance, a particularly delightful staging of “Barney Maguire” from “Miss Dolly Dollars,” sung by Bolander accompanied by the three ladies of the cast who appear in moving picture frames, with animated birds thrown in for good measure. 

One of the highlights of the “Son of Dublin” concert was a rare performance of the “The Bards of Ireland” song cycle compiled by Herbert for a St. Patrick’s Day Dinner of The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, with President William H. Taft in attendance. And that atmospheric grouping has been retained here.

There are many other highlights: among them, Devlin’s moving “The Angel’s Whisper” (one of the Lover numbers); Klima’s “Mary Came Over to Me”; Jovani’s “I Love the Isle of the Sea”; Bolander's "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms"; Seatter’s nostalgic “Belle O’Brien”; Brittingham’s sensitively vocalized “Heart O’Mine”; and Hare’s rueful “Molly.” VHRP Musical Director Michael Thomas -- his hands on the keyboard frequently on view in split screen effect -- gets to reprise his solo moment with the ‘Lament” from the song cycle, while of course, providing sterling accompaniment throughout.

Most of the songs are stand-alones not from Herbert’s musical and operetta songbook. However, besides the aforementioned “Barney Maguire,” we have the sparkling Ruddy delivering a saucy “Barney O’Flynn” from “Babes in Toyland,” and the three ladies warbling the infectious “Tip Your Hat to Hatty” from “Angel Face.” (the only number with some sync issues in an otherwise remarkably polished production). Inevitably, the presentation concludes with stirring highlights from Herbert’s most Irish operetta, the gorgeous “Eileen”: tenor Sapp takes the demandingly lyrical title number and the fervent “Ireland, My Sireland”; Ruddy and Bolander the jaunty “I’d Love to be a Lady”; and Klima and Brittingham the soaring “Thine Alone.” 

Given the technical excellence of the presentation, credit must also be given to stage manager Brooke Dengler; Audio Editor Shaun Farley; and Video Editor Gayle Añonuevo.

After the credit roll, Mott promises more video goodies (one a month) starting in January with an encore presentation of “The Serenade.”)

“Heart of Mine” is running through Saturday at 7 p.m. ET, with a matinee on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET. Tickets can be purchased at

More information on the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project can be found here.

Photos: Alison Dobbins

Top to bottom:

Left to Right: Drew Bolander, Christopher Robin Sapp, Jonathan Hare, Jovani Demetrie and Andrew Klima singing “Cruiskeen Lawn”

David Seatter, Heart O’ Mine Narrator and VHRP LIVE! founding company member.

Caitlin Ruddy and Drew Bolander, “I’d Love to Be a Lady” 

Left to Right (top): Jonathan Hare, David Seatter, Andrew Klima; left to right (bottom): Jovani Demetrie, Alexa Devlin, and Joanie Brittingham

Left to right: Caitlin Ruddy, Alexa Devlin, Joanie Brittingham, and Drew Bolander sing “Barney Maguire”

Caitlin Ruddy sings “Barney O’Flynn”

Joanie Brittingham, soprano and Andrew Klima, tenor, singing “Thine Alone.”

Alyce Mott, artistic director, VHRP LIVE!

Thursday, October 22, 2020

My Song for You - Marta Eggerth & Jan Kiepura University of Music and Performance Vienna

By Harry Forbes

Devotees of classic Hollywood musicals -- the sort that are the staple of Turner Classic Movies -- will know Hungarian soprano Marta Eggerth for her glamorous appearances in the Judy Garland films, “For Me and My Gal” and “Presenting Lily Mars.” But that’s only a small part of a career that started in the 1920s when she was still a teenager with phenomenal success on the opera and operetta stage, followed by a long string of European movies. Operetta masters like Franz Lehár, Paul Abraham, and Hans May vied to write songs for the vivacious blonde beauty with the silvery voice.

In 1934 she met, fell in love with, and subsequently married the dashing Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, Calaf in the Vienna premiere production of “Turandot” The idol of thousands, they came to be known affectionately by the public as the “Love Pair.” But after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany, they were forced to flee their Austrian home as each had partial Jewish heritage. They relocated to the United States where, among numerous engagements, both gave recitals together or apart, Kiepura sang at the Met,  and the couple triumphed on Broadway in “The Merry Widow” (a work they were to perform altogether 2000 times) and on tour. They were, in short, a “superstar” couple before the term was coined.

Now, Vienna’s (center for banned music) at the University of Music and Performance (mdw) -- admirably dedicated to the recovery of the legacy of musicians and music lost during the Nazi regime -- have mounted what looks to be a fabulous exhibit honoring the pair and their friends and colleagues such as Ralph Benatzky, Maria Jeritza, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Lotte Lehmann, Artur Rubinstein, and Billy Wilder. Contemporaries whose artistry was stifled in their homeland. Many of their not-so-fortunate contemporaries were, of course, arrested, jailed, or murdered. The exhibit was launched on Tuesday, October 20, and transmitted via a Trans-Atlantic hookup between Vienna and The Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY).

On the Austrian side, there was Dr. Gerold Gruber, founder of the society; Dr. Suzanne Korbel of the University of Graz who curated the exhibit; Wolfgang Sobotka, president of the Austrian Parliament; and Ulrike Sych, president of the University of Music and Performance in Vienna (mdw). The event was kicked off by tenor Ramón Vargas who offered a stirring “Recondita armonia” from “Tosca” and the Neapolitan song, “Passione,” in fitting tribute to Kiepura. 

Dr. Gruber announced that the center’s acquisition of the Kiepura-Eggerth estate -- posters, photos, costumes, portraits, reviews,concert and opera programs -- brings the total number of estates under’s auspices to 17. These estates -- from composers, conductors, and singers of the 1920s, 1930, and 1940s -- are analyzed by the center from both an artistic and stylistic perspective. 

In New York, ACFNY Director Michael Haider gave the opening remarks, after which opera expert Ken Benson offered a succinct overview of Kiepura and Eggerth’s distinguished and multi-faceted careers, and warmly remembered Eggerth whom he once had occasion to interview, and who, incredibly, continued to sing well into her 90s. (She died in 2013 at the age of 101.)

But it was the remarks of the lustrous couple’s son Marjan Kiepura, a distinguished pianist specializing in Chopin, and his wife Jane Knox-Kiepura, a dedicated archivist of her mother-in-law’s career, who were able to offer the most personal reminiscences. Kiepura shared heartfelt memories of his father who died of a heart attack when Marjan was just 15. At his peak, the exuberant Kiepura might spontaneously serenade hundreds of fans standing on a taxi after a performance. But Marjan remembered both his father and mother as very centered, down-to-earth people who cared just as much about, say, their son’s toothache as about their careers. Jan died of a heart attack in 1966, prompting the grieving Marta to give up singing for several years after, until her ever-devoted mother persuaded her to take it up again.

Knox-Kiepura -- who has meticulously catalogued Eggerth’s filmography -- spoke of the difficulties of tracking the 45 films made by the couple, over more than a dozen of which are currently presumed lost. The cinematic adaptation of Lehar’s “Zarewitsch” is one such.  Still, as the films were distributed so widely globally, often retitled in different countries, Knox-Kiepura holds out hope that more may be yet recovered. Interestingly, such was the couple’s international fame that these films were often shot in multiple languages. Meanwhile, though print quality varies, some of the films can be viewed on YouTube. 

A clip from the 1949 film, “Valse Brilliante,” with the couple performing an amusing riff on Mozart’s Turkish March, demonstrated their abundant charm and humor. And an exciting clip of Kiepura as Calaf in “Turandot” confirmed the excellence of his ringing tenor.

As for the future, Dr. Gruber indicated the exhibit would remain at the center for at least a year, after which there’s a possibility of touring to Paris, Berlin, and perhaps New York. The three-minute overview of the exhibit was extremely tantalizing and a more extensive online guided tour would certainly be welcome. Gruber hinted that this, as well as screenings of the couple’s films, might also be in the offing, and advised checking the website for updates.

So, too, Haider revealed the good news that a major restoration of their 1937 film, “Zauber der Boheme,” is in the works with newly minted subtitles. 

The launch event can be viewed here.

Photos (top to bottom):

Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura

(l.-r.) Franz Lehár, Marta Eggerth, Emmerich Kálmán

“The Merry Widow” with Marta Eggerth & Jan Kiepura

Portrait of Jan Kiepura as Cavaradossi by renowned painter Boris Chaliapin, son of Feodor Chaliapin

The lost “Zarewitsch” film

Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura sign autographs after a Detroit concert in 1954

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

West Side Story (The Broadway Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This is not your grandmother’s “West Side Story” by any means, but then, would you expect anything less from avant-garde Belgian director Ivo van Hove? The virtual police lineup of the Jets gang that opens the show signals right from the start that this will be a different approach. The usual design hallmarks of a Hove production are here, most especially Luke Hall’s truly massive video projections which often dwarf the players. But, as most of the projections are close-ups of the live action, the conceit is less objectionable.

Beyond that, Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, normally sacrosanct, has been replaced by more contemporary movement choreographed by van Hove’s fellow countryman Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. 

The settings -- Doc’s drugstore, Maria’s bedroom, the dress shop, etc. -- are recessed and either partly or entirely out of audience view, courtesy of van Hove regular Jan Versweyveld’s set design. 

Lovers Tony (Isaac Powell) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) are here tattooed kids in a modern vein. The Jets are not the Irish, Polish, Italian kids of the 1950s, but a distinctly diverse gang, headed by an African-American Riff (Dharon E. Jones). With the extensive diverse casting, it must be said that it is sometimes difficult to tell one side from the other.

There’s no intermission after the Rumble, as usual, and the show plays straight through for a total length of about one hour and 45 minutes. 

But for all of that fiddling with tradition or more likely because of it, I found the production more often thrilling than not. Leonard Bernstein’s music still sounds absolutely splendid under the baton of Musical Director Alexander Gemignani. Bernstein, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal shared credit for the original orchestrations, and now the reliable Jonathan Tunick has reorchestrated. 

The last Broadway revival was 2009, under the direction of the late book writer Arthur Laurents. An attempt was made to give it a bit of a facelift with new Spanish lyrics (by Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the Puerto Rian characters, but was otherwise in a traditional vein. And yet for all its virtues, it wasn’t half as compelling as this one.

I can’t praise Powell and Pimentel enough. All their vocal moments are highlights. Powell’s “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” are superb, as is Pimentel’s “I Have a Love,” and the rapturous “Tonight” duet. Dramatically, they make Tony and Maria’s love extremely real and their plight heartbreaking. Ramasar is more assured as Maria’s brother, Bernardo, than he was as Jigger in the recent “Carousel” revival and, of course, his dancing is predictably exciting. And Yesenia Ayala is a highly satisfying Anita in all respects. The “America” number really lands, and she nails “A Boy Like That.” Her climactic taunting in Doc’s store is here staged as an outright rape.

“I Feel Pretty,” its lyric so often disparaged by lyricist Stephen Sondheim himself as inappropriate for the character of Maria, has been dropped, and so has the “Somewhere” ballet. I missed the former but less so the latter. In any case, “Somewhere” is beautifully sung by Powell and Pimentel, as Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood (or their voice dubbers) did in the film, rather than an offstage soprano, with symbolic balletic couplings (including some same sex ones) behind them. That poetic sequence is, in fact, a high point in the production.

In this much grittier context, the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” now seems a bit out of place, though it’s sung with edge, while sobering projections of police/gang member interaction fill the wall behind, adding a rather unnecessary irony to the already targeted lyrics.

Though Robbins’ choreography was classic, the new moves here are quite compelling on their own terms. The Dance at the Gym, The Rumble (in the rain), and the other setpieces have a wonderfully fresh feel, and there’s a marvelous bit when Tony and Maria are parting after their famous “Tonight” duet -- not performed on a balcony/fire escape -- but on level ground, are being pulled apart (symbolically) by their respective family and friends. 

An D’Huys’ costumes are strictly contemporary, dispelling any sense that the action is taking place in the Fifties. Tom Gibbons’ state-of-the-art sound design is beautifully balanced, highly essential given all the off-stage action. 

In the speaking roles, there are standout turns by Daniel Orekes as Doc, Pippa Pearthree as Glad Hand, who vainly entreats the kids to make nice at the gym dance, and Thomas Jay Ryan and Danny Wolohan as the racist cops, Lt. Schrank and Krupke. 

Though the revisions may sound radical, all in all, this “West Side Story” emerges as far more respectful of the true spirit of the show than other revisals such as last season’s misguided and distasteful “Oklahoma!” to name one.

(Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway; 212-239-6200 or

Photos by Jan Versweyveld

Top: Shereen Pimentel, Isaac Powell and cast

Below: Amar Ramasar, Yesenia Ayala and cast

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Madeleine (VHRP Live!)

By Harry Forbes

Alyce Mott’s enterprising company dedicated to all things Victor Herbert risked alienating the operetta regulars by presenting not one of his extravagantly melodic musicals or operettas, but rather his virtually tune-free 1914 one-act “modern” opera.  The piece had debuted at the Met in 1914, sharing the bill with, of all things, “Pagliacci” starring Enrico Caruso, by all accounts, an ill-advised pairing. 

Mott had already broken similar adventurous ground with her spectacular presentation of his 1911 grand opera, “Natoma,” in 2014. But in truth, “Madeleine” was an even more daring venture, as unlike the lush “Natoma,” the work was conceived as an opera in the manner of Richard Strauss or Wolf-Ferrari. There are virtually no stand-alone arias, a fact decried by music critics in 1914. Rather, the whole piece is laid out in conversational structure, heavy on recitative. It’s very much a play set to music.

Herbert’s source was, in fact, a French play by Decourcelles & Thibaut, “Je dine chez ma mere” (I Dine with My Mother), which he had read in the original language, declaring it was just the property for which he was looking for his next project. He translated it himself, but then set actor/playwright Grant Stewart to the task of crafting the actual libretto. Critics complained about the thinness of the source material, yet even Richard Wagner was said to be an admirer of the original play.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a famous opera diva Madeleine Fleury (Claire Leyden) who, at the start, is happily anticipating celebrating a New Year’s Day dinner with one of her many admirers. These include Chevalier de Mauprat (Thomas Woodman), François, Duc d’Esterre (Andrew Klima), and struggling artist Didier (Jonathan Hare), the last a dear childhood friend. She is attended by her maid Nichette (JoAnna Geffert), and other servants including Germain (Keith Broughton), a footman (Shane Brown), and a coachman (David Seatter). Everyone -- including an offstage baron -- ends up declining Madeleine’s invitation and all for the same reason: a tradition of dining with their mothers. When lastly, Didier reminds her of their happy times together as children, Madeleine, who till then had been behaving very peevishly about her friends’ perceived disloyalty, softens, and decides she’ll dine alone after all...with the restored portrait of her mother with which Didier has just presented her. A lovely melodic theme, associated with the portrait, ends the roughly 55-minute work.

What made the slight plot so compelling on this occasion were the lively and intelligent staging by Mott, a fine cast, a particularly absorbing performance by Leyden who pulled out all the stops vocally and dramatically, and an excellent group of musicians playing, not an arrangement, but a savvy reduction of Herbert’s original. Of course, the Met’s orchestra numbered 57 players. But with conductor Jestin Pieper and music director and pianist William Hicks at the fore, leading a violin, cello, bassoon, and harp, the sound was still richly textured. 

One was able to appreciate Herbert’s superb orchestration, with its myriad leitmotifs, about 20 in all, for different characters as well as some inanimate objects such as a necklace. So even when stage action was at its most minimal, the orchestra was alive with colorful detail and, yes, drama, with the result anything but static. 

Leyden brought splendid conviction to the part of the lonely and increasingly angry heroine, in addition to lustrous vocal sheen from her opening offstage cadenza to her final poignant moments in front of her mother’s portrait. Her singing of “A Perfect Day,” the sole traditional aria in the piece (and one demanded by Met star Frances Alda), was exquisite. It is a demanding part, as Madeleine is almost never offstage, but Leyden never flagged. 

The cast was altogether on top of Herbert’s difficult score, and the dramatic demands of the text. Klima was especially good conveying the Duke’s eager demeanor as he presents Madeleine with some new horses for her stable, but then extreme discomfort when he finds himself the butt of her wrath. Hare was likewise outstanding as he awakened tender memories in the unhappy heroine. And Geffert was also very persuasive as Madeleine’s devoted maid.

Of the original, critic Richard Aldrich had written: “...the character of the English diction heard in the performance, was not such as to bring the literary quality of the text home to the listeners, or make it matter much what that quality was.” 

Such was happily not the case here. Some high-lying sections notwithstanding, diction was remarkably clear throughout. 

The piece proved conclusively another strong affirmation of Herbert’s amazing versatility. That he could write so impressively in the operatic idiom, so stylistically different from those 45 light musical theater pieces he created between 1894 and 1924, continues to astonish. 

The 18th century setting of the original was not reflected in the costumes, and the piece might as well have been taking place in modern day. But Leyden looked smashing in her burgundy gown, Geffert was decked out in maid attire, and evening dress sufficed for the rest.

The presentation was bookended by an enlightening discussion with Mott, Pieper, and Hicks about the musical aspects of the opera, and a Q&A with the whole cast.

At its premiere, “Madeleine” was admired more for its craftsmanship than truly taken to heart either by audiences or the music press, but based on this admirable mounting, I believe critical consensus today would be far different.

The production certainly vindicated Mott’s faith in it, and post-show audience buzz was positive. Melody in Herbert’s traditional vein, however, will return on May 5th and 6th with VHRP’s “Mlle. Modiste,” which will conclude VHRP’s impressive French-themed season.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.;; March 3 and 4 only)

Photos by Jill LeVine:

Top to bottom:

Remember our childhood together
Didier, Madeleine
Jonathan Hare, Claire Leyden

A Lover’s Greeting
Andrew Klima as the Duc d’Esterre, Claire Leyden as Madeleine

The New Victor Herbert Orchestra takes a bow
Jestin Pieper, conductor; Christopher Lee, violin; Lisa Alexander, bassoon; Clay Ruede, cello; William Hicks, music director and pianist; hidden with Harp, Susan Jolles.

Madeleine dines with her mother
Claire Leyden

The Company of Madeleine

L-R  Jestin Pieper, David Seatter, JoAnna Geffert, Jonathan Hare, Andrew Klima, Claire Leyden, Thomas Woodman, Keith Broughton, William Hicks, Shane Brown, Jordan Liau, Alyce Mott

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

No Strings (J2 Spotlight)

By Harry Forbes

This 1962 musical was innovative in a number of ways: a biracial romance between the characters played by Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley; a highly stylized presentation with the musicians not in the pit, but offstage in the wings; only woodwinds, brass, harp and percussion as the punning title suggests; and the first and only Broadway score for which composer Richard Rodgers supplied both music and lyrics. This last was necessitated by the death of his longtime collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II after ‘The Sound of Music.”

Rodgers had already tried out his lyric writing skill in some new numbers for the remake of “State Fair” the year before, and would go on to do likewise for the TV musical “Androcles and the Lion” and the added songs in the film version of “The Sound of Music.” But thereafter, he sought the less stressful arrangement of working with a lyricist.

The show ran for 580 performances, and a successful London production starred Beverly Todd and Art Lund. 

J2 Spotlight followed up its successful maiden venture -- Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields’ “Seesaw” -- with this very credible production which, all things considered, trumped the 2003 Encores revival starring Maya Days and, if I recall correctlly, a below-par James Naughton.

Playwright Samuel Taylor’s book concerns David, an expatriate novelist (Cameron Bond), frittering away his talents among the fast set in Paris: photographer Luc (convincingly Gallic Luke Hamilton) and his sexy assistant (and girlfriend) Jeannette (vivacious Annabelle Fox) who work for Vogue editor Mollie (Sandy York), best bud Mike (Patrick Connaghan) who sets his predatory sights on Oklahoma heiress Comfort (Anne Wechsler). David falls hard for Barbara, a glamorous African-American model (Keyonna Knight) who’s being kept (platonically) by the wealthy Louis (Tim Ewing).

Inevitably, the romance is not without conflict. David needs to be back in Maine to concentrate on his writing far away from frivolous Gallic distractions, and Barbara thrives on her life as a high fashion model. The subject of race is never articulated, and with biracial romances currently such a non-issue, contemporary audiences may assume that it is incompatibility alone that scuttles the happy ending. (For the record, both Kiley and Carroll lobbied strenuously for an alternative wrap-up.)

Director/Choreographer Diedre Goodwin makes a good stab at capturing the stylish staging of director Joe Layton’s original as well as can be expected on the modest Theatre Row stage, though the conceit of the couple walking through a couple of curtained arches on Ryan J. Douglas’ minimalist set -- lighted by Ethan Steimel -- as if through the streets of Paris wears a little thin. (An image of the Eiffel Tower serves as the obvious but appropriate backdrop.)

Right from the start, when she enters singing the show’s breakout hit, “The Sweetest Sounds,” Knight is remarkably successful in capturing the Diahann Carroll look and even the timbre of her voice except perhaps in the less comfortable upper registers. In Luc’s studio, she strikes convincing model poses, too. And Bond proves a solid leading man with acting chops and a virile voice. The two play well together, even though the dialogue scenes tend to drag.

True to the original conceit, there are no strings in Music Director Grant Strom’s reduced orchestrations. He is accompanied on piano by Dan Monte on percussion and Schuyler Thornton on flute.

Rodgers wrote one of his most melodic latter-day scores, and showed himself a lyricist closer to the sophisticated sensibilities of his first partner Lorenz Hart (though without the latter’s special genius), and one can also discern similarities to the more hard-nosed Hammerstein sentiments of “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It” from the stage score of “The Sound of Music.”

A contemporaneous instrumental album, “No Strings (With Strings)” by the show’s original orchestrator, Ralph Burns, demonstrates how very tuneful the melodies are, taken on their own. 

Taylor’s script is soft-grained and talky, but always intelligent. It’s a genuinely adult love story, if not a particularly gripping one. It may be heresy to say that even in these small venues, modern shows ought to be miked to give the overall sound some of the requisite Broadway oomph. It’s not a matter of audibility but rather recreating the proper ambience. This would serve not only to  enhance the songs, but would also serve to make the dialogue more involving.

Beyond the excellence of Bond and Knight, the show has been very well cast. Ewing gives a particularly stylish account of “The Man Who Has Everything.” York has just the right manner as the worldly-wise Vogue editor. Wechsler brings a lively presence to her good-hearted party girl, and Connaghan is appropriately hateful as her caddish boyfriend.

Matthew Solomon’s very nice costume design captures the era well, though some of the wigs are risible. 

(Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street; or 212-239-6200; through March 8)

PHOTO CREDIT: Clay Anderson

Top: (left to right): Cameron Bond, Keyonna Knight

Below: (left to right): Annabelle Fox, Anne Otto, Keyonna Knight, Emilee Theno, Ashley Lee, Heather Klobukowski, Cameron Bond

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Transport Group)

By Harry Forbes

As an avowed purist when it comes to musicals, I approached this revamp of Meredith Willson’s 1960 follow-up to “The Music Man” with some trepidation. The program’s song list of so many unfamiliar titles not from the original show, as well as a lobby note proclaiming that only three lines of spoken dialogue from Richard Morris’ original book remained, did not bode well. 

But if I had a hat, I’d eat it, for this is one revisal that really works. The 1960 stage show, and the MGM film which followed, have their virtues, but the score is admittedly several notches below that of Willson’s masterwork. Even MGM retained only a handful of the show’s songs and used others as background scoring. 

So, too, Morris’ plotline was inspired by the legend rather than the actual facts of Margaret Tobin Brown, a remarkable lady who, beyond her heroic actions on a Titanic lifeboat, was a political and labor activist, an advocate for juvenile justice, and a suffragette. She even ran for Congress.

Now Dick Scanlan, who did such a fine job in adapting the “Thoroughly Modern Millie” movie into a solid stage piece, has crafted a savvy adaptation shoehorning Willson’s score into a tale closer to the real story. His script begins with Molly (Beth Malone) testifying at the U.S. Capitol about her heroic experiences on board the Titanic, and then flashes back to the teenage Molly hellbent on getting to Denver, her dream city, though only getting as far as the mining town of Leadville where she’s sensibly dissuaded by the miners there from continuing the dangerous journey over snowy mountains. 

In short order, she meets J.J. (called “Leadville” Johnny in the original) Brown (David Aron Damane) with whom she develops a sparring relationship. J.J.’s buddies in the mine are an international bunch: the German Erich (Alex Gibson), the Italian Vincenzo (Omar Lopez-Cepero), and the Chinese Arthur (Paolo Montalban). 

When a miner is killed in an accident, Molly befriends his widow Julia (lovely voiced Whitney Bashor) who teaches her to read and gives her a little polish. (Shades of Doris Day’s “Calamity Jane” getting cleaned up by Allyn Ann McLerie in the film of that name!)

Eventually, to her surprise, J.J. proclaims his love for her, offering her the items she’s previously declared she desires so desperately -- a red silk dress and a big brass bed -- she lowers her defenses and accepts. When J.J. discovers a way to mine gold -- after the bottom drops out of the silver market -- he becomes a partner with mine owner Horace Tabor (Michael Halling) whose wife Baby Doe Tabor (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) is the real power behind the man, underscoring, as with the reversioning of Molly herself, the feminist slant of this version.

When they finally move to Denver, Molly is initially snubbed for the society folks headed by Louise Sneed-Hill (amusing Paula Leggett Chase who also doubles as a sexy dance hall girl). Later Molly clashes with J.J. over the miners’ desire to unionize, and marital woes disrupt their loving relationship.

The cast is uniformly excellent, including Coco Smith as the Browns’ sassy Denver maid.

Scanlan’s script includes plenty of themes with contemporary political relevance, but some talkiness excepted, none of this is too heavy-handed, and for all the revision, the general narrative arc parallels the original property.

The show’s playlist comprises several of the show’s songs such as “I Ain’t Down Yet,” “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” and “I’ll Never Say No,” one from the film (“He’s My Friend”), and other Willson material that Scanlan has adapted, deftly fitting the tunes to new lyrics. The resulting mix is, arguably, stronger than the original. 

The dynamic and tireless Malone makes a strong-voiced, dramatically apt Molly and baritone David Aron Damane a warm and very human J.J. The pair have real chemistry, a winning example of diverse casting. 

This revisal has been kicking around for a decade, so it’s no wonder that the show feels as slick as it does. It was developed at the Colorado New Play Summit and produced at the Denver Center Theatre Company (with Kerry O’Malley and Marc Kudisch) with a further developmental production at The Muny in St. Louis. (Sutton Foster, Craig Bierko, and Burke Moses have also been involved with the project in readings and earlier productions.)

Everything about the production is first rate. Kathleen Marshall has directed and choreographed with her customary skill, and the dancing is wonderful from the rambunctious miner dancing to the saloon girls to the upper crust waltzing couples of the second act. 

Brett Banakis’ scenic design, warmly lighted by Peter Kaczorowski, includes a striking back wall of vintage newspaper clippings in the first act. Sky Switser’s costumes are attractively period affairs, with gowns for Beth Malone by Paul Tazewell. Walter Trarbach’s sound design seemed a bit overloaded at the start of the performance but eventually settled down to a good level. And the expert musical direction is by Joey Chancey with Larry Hochman’s excellent orchestrations.

The whole has a ready-for-Broadway feel, but as there’s no telling that will happen, I enthusiastically recommended making the trip downtown. This “Molly” is not to be missed.

(Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street; or 866-811-4111; through April 5)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Pictured (L to R): David Aron Damane and Beth Malone

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Confession of Lily Dare (Primary Stages)

By Harry Forbes

That consummate man of the theater, Charles Busch, has come up with a superb parody that both lovingly spoofs and pays respectful homage to those self-sacrificing women’s films of the 1930s (“The Sin of Madelon Claudet,” “Stella Dallas,” etc.), along the way brilliantly incorporating every beloved trope of the genre. And, as the titular heroine, he manages to channel everyone from Hayley Mills to Marlene Dietrich to Mae West and Bette Davis.

As Lily climbs from orphan girl to glamorous cabaret headliner to jailbird to madam and down-and-out honky tonk singer, she, all the while, remains a loving mother to a daughter who doesn’t know her. Busch proves, as he’s done so often before, a masterful mimic and farceur. He is surrounded by a sterling cast of performers who match his facility for period spoofing. I saw the play in its showcase production at Theater for the New City two years ago, and good as everyone was then, the cast has now fine tuned their roles to perfection.

The whole is directed by Busch’s regular collaborator, Carl Andress who is, of course, so seamlessly attuned to Busch’s sensibilities.

The action opens at Lily’s grave site (evocative and humorous sets by Busch’s frequent designer B.T. Whitehill), as the lady’s most loyal friends, ex-prostitute Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and brothel piano player Mickey (Kendal Sparks) pay their respects which leads to the backstory unfolding in flashback. 

We see how Lily first came to the San Francisco whorehouse run by her Aunt Rosalie (the deliciously chameleon Jennifer Van Dyck, in one of four hilarious roles). We soon meet the ne’er-do-well swindler Blackie Lambert (an oily Howard McGillin), and the brothel’s bookkeeper (soon to be Lily’s first lover) Louis (Christopher Borg, who throughout the evening, matches Van Dyck in rib-tickling versatility). The 1906 earthquake, in short order, leaves the now pregnant and man-less Lily in dire straits once again. 

But with Blackie’s help, she reinvents herself as a glittering chanteuse named Mandelay, allowing Busch to offer a peerless impression of Marlene Dietrich, growling a clever Frederick Hollander/Kurt Weill mashup, “Pirate Joe,” penned by arranger Tom Judson.

Later framed for a crime she didn’t commit, she loses her daughter Louise to a wealthy Nob Hill couple (Borg and Van Dyck), but finds success as a notorious madam now calling herself Treasure Jones. 

Louise grows up to become a world famous opera star, but Lily nobly keeps her distance.

What makes these Busch spoofs so much more than extended “Carol Burnett Show” take-offs, is the real heart and genuine emotions with which they are written and played. When Lily’s at rock bottom, for instance, she sings a brave version of “A Shanty in Old Shanty Town,” it’s a genuinely touching moment transcending spoof. But there are many such moments.

So, too, the play is very well plotted in a manner that might give that master Victorian melodrama writer Dion Boucicault a run for his money. 

Jessica Jahn and Rachel Townsend’s costumes are great fun, and the former really goes to town with Busch’s flashy getups. Townsend’s creations help Van Dyck and Borg transform from one wildly divergent character to another. 

Van Dyck’s impersonation of the diva -- miming hilariously to “Sempre Libera” from “La Traviata”  -- and feeling a mystical connection to the mother she never knew, is a show in itself as she affects posh Greer Garsonish tones. She also plays a haughty baroness. Borg, for his part, plays a lecherous baron, an Irish priest, and an Italian impresario. Anderson, a stylist vocalist excelling in repertoire of an earlier era, proves just as adept at adopting the acting style of bygone stars here channeling Joan Blondell and others of that ilk as the good-hearted tart. And McGillin, as noted, impressively nails the suave rake. 

Kirk Bookman’s movie-style lighting and Bart Fasbender’s evocative sound design add to the period fun.

(Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street; or 212-352-3101; through March 5)

Photos by Carol Rosegg.

Top: Howard McGillin and Charles Busch
Below: Kendal Sparks, Charles Busch, Christopher Borg, Nancy Anderson, Jennifer Van Dyck and Howard McGillin