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

Monday, February 17, 2020

Seesaw (The J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ 1973 musical adaptation of playwright William Gibson's 1958 “Two for the Seesaw” is being accorded a rare revival on Theatre Row.

The production marks the launch of a plucky new company dedicated to small scale revivals from one of Broadway's latter-day Golden Ages.

The fledgling group’s premiere effort, under the direction of company Artistic Director Robert W. Schneider, is an impressively polished one. Originally, besides the strengths of the show’s stars Michele Lee, Ken Howard, and Tommy Tune, the show’s greatest accolades had to do with Michael Bennett’s staging and choreography and the imaginative and innovative projections of New York. Neither of those attributes are on view here, although Ryan J. Douglass has designed an attractive New York skyline backdrop and Caitlin Belcik’s choreography is impressive for the intimate stage space.

The musical closely follows the plot of Gibson's play (with much of his dialogue retained), which originally starred Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft and was later filmed with Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine in gritty black and white and with a melancholic jazz score by Andre Previn. The two-hander would have seemed an unlikely candidate for musicalization, as it’s a bittersweet comedy-drama about two lonely mismatched souls -- she divorced, he on the verge -- who briefly find and bolster each other.

They are dancer Gittel Mosca (Stephanie Israelson), by her own admission “not very smart,” and living a bohemian lifestyle, and straight-laced Nebraska lawyer Jerry Ryan (Andy Tighe). Gittel’s insecurities and sense that the relationship isn’t quite right almost scuttles the relationship near the start, but a serious ulcer attack (hers) reunites them.     

Gittel’s choreographer friend David -- the part originated by Tommy Tune who received a Tony award for his work -- is nicely played here by J Savage. Though the relationship is far from smooth sailing, you find yourself rooting for them anyway.

“Seesaw” was both praised and criticized for its schizophrenic nature, part intimate drama, part splashy musical. Though there are character songs for the two leads (Cy Coleman wrote the score, Dorothy Fields, in her last show, the lyrics), the big production numbers really have precious little to do with the central plot. Those are well done here, including David's dream finale, “It's Not Where You Start,” and the show’s most durable tune, which is put over with requisite pizzazz by Savage.

Tighe is solid as Jerry and delivers his songs very appealingly, including “You’re a Lovable Lunatic” and “We’ve Got It,” very nicely vocalized. Israelson balances abrasiveness and charm, though at first it seemed as though the former attribute was going to win the day. By the time she got to her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Way Ahead,” we were in her court.

She plays Gittel with a heavy Bronx accent and reminds me of Edie Falco with a bit of Barbra Streisand thrown in for good measure, and has the show’s other best known song, the self-deprecating “Nobody Does It Like Me,” doing well with it and her comic follow-up “Welcome to Holiday Inn.” 

Memories of "Musicals Tonight," producer Mel Miller's group which folded last year after an impressive run of 100 productions, are inevitable. Same venue. Similar presentation style. Miller was present at the reviewed performance, and was acknowledged warmly by Executive Producer Jim Jimirro before the show, prompting a warm, well-deserved ovation. (Jimirro also took the opportunity to tout a series of special talkbacks that will accompany many of the performances.)

Those familiar with the cast album or the show itself, will note two missing first act songs: “Spanglish” and “Ride Out the Storm.” The latter is replaced here by “The Party’s On Me,” the song written for the original national tour which starred Lucie Arnaz and John Gavin.

Under the direction of Grant Strom, the numbers are in good hands, and the onstage ensemble of piano, bass, and xylophone, make for an attractive musical palette,.

Matthew Solomon has designed the evocative 1970’s costumes. The show is very much a product of that era, and wisely, there’s been no updating. (Longtime theatergoers may remember that Mayor John Lindsay made a well-publicized cameo appearance in the show.)

The production will be followed by Richard Rodgers’ solo effort, “No Strings” (2/27-3/8) and then by the Edward Kleban bio musical, “A Class Act” (3/12-3/22) both of which should adapt well to the intimate J2 Spotlight approach. 

(Theatre Two at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd  Street; 212-239-6200 or; through February 23)

Pictured (left to right): Morgan Hecker, Kyle Caress, Halle Mastroberardino, Caleb Grochalski, Stephanie Israelson, Andy Tighe, Katie Griffith, Chaz Alexander Coffin, J Savage.

Photo credit: Russ Rowland.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (The New Group)

By Harry Forbes

Composer Duncan Sheik’s musical version of Paul Mazursky’s 1969 box office smash has a lot going for it -- a talented cast, an easy-on-the-ears score, and a book that totally respects the source material -- but, at the end of the day, one wonders about the wisdom of adapting the film for the stage at all, much less adding songs to it.

Those who just have a general idea of the film’s plot may assume the story was a free-wheeling 1960s sex farce. In fact, it’s a rather serious-minded satire of the mores of the sexual revolution of the time, albeit with plentiful laughs. Mazursky himself considered it a “comedy of manners” about love and affection.

The plot concerns the couple Bob and Carol who attend an Esalen-like enlightenment group as filmmaker Bob is planning a documentary about the group. (Mazursky had read an article about Esalen in Time magazine, and was inspired to attend with his wife, but there the real-life parallels to the plot ends.) 

Bob and Carol learn how to get in touch with their feelings during encounter therapy, most especially Carol who seems to feel especially liberated by the weekend of self-examination. And when they return home, the couple tries to share their New Age enthusiasm with close friends Ted and Alice. Shortly after, Bob confesses to Carol about a brief affair in San Francisco, and Carol applauds his fearless honesty rather than chastising him. But when she shares this “happy” news with their friends, Alice, in particular, is appalled at Bob’s infidelity and the couple’s infuriatingly casual attitude shakes her to the core. This sets up a conflict with the couples that comes to a head when they take a vacation to Las Vegas. 

Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book adheres very closely to the screenplay by Mazursky and Larry Tucker, and all the famous scenes from the film are here -- and done quite well, too. The four leads comprise the main company, while Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega (“Luka”) provides the voices for all the other characters (the Institute team leader, Alice’s therapist, and so on) as the nominal “Band Leader.” When more bodies are needed onstage, as for instance in the opening encounter session at the Institute, audience members are recruited to join the playing area as silent participants, a rather awkward device, I felt. 

Under The New Group Artistic Director Scott Elliott’s assured helming, the talented cast -- including Joél Peréz (“Fun Home”) as Bob; Duncan Sheik alumna Jennifer Damiano (“Spring Awakening,” “American Psycho”) as Carol, Michael Zegen (Joel Maisel on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as Ted; and Ana Nogueira (“Engagements”) as Alice -- excel in all departments, and look good in designer Jeff Mahshie’s underwear in which they spend a good part of the one hour and 45 minute intermission-less evening. Nogueira is especially funny replicating the scene in which Alice wants no part of sex after Carol’s stunning revelation about Bob. Still, for all the talent here, it can’t be said they can erase the memory or convey a comparable charisma to Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon in the film. (A TV spin-off in 1973 with Robert Urich and Anne Archer fizzled and was pulled from the air after only seven of its 12 episodes aired.)

As noted above, one of the show’s strongest assets is its fidelity to the source material and its attempt to capture the mood of the piece, right up the film’s surreal “What the World Needs Now” ending, here mirrored with a song called “What’s Up With Love?” All in all, Sheik has composed a pleasantly jazzy score, and the song presentation is highly stylized. When a character is inspired to break into song, a microphone is either handed over wherever they happen to be on the stage, or the actor actually joins the four musicians upstage and takes a place behind a standing mike. 

This serves the purpose of keeping the dramatic aspects someone separate from the musical, but more often than not, the songs feel unnecessary, despite some catchy tunes (like Ted’s “A Little Misbehavior”), and the clever rhymes penned by lyricists Sheik and Amanda Green, such as Alice’s “though you’re unscientific, a bit soporific, I feel almost - huh - beatific.”
Near the end, there’s a song, sensitively vocalized by Vega, that skillfully clears up the ambiguity of the film’s ending, one of the few cases of a song helpfully elucidating the action.

The cast navigates the intimate playing area resourcefully. Kelly Devine is credited with the musical staging, as there’s little traditional choreography. 

Derek McLane’s set, lighted by Jeff Croiter, includes some movable furniture in the downstage playing area (including, of course, a bed), a bandstand and beaded curtain behind.

Jason Hart, also credited with the vocal arrangements, is the adroit music supervisor.

(The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street; or 917-935-4242 through March 22)

Photo by Monique Carboni:  Michael Zegen, Jennifer Damiano, Joél Pérez, Ana Nogueira