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Beyond that, Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, normally sacrosanct, has been replaced by more contemporary movement choreographed by van Hove’s fellow countryman Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.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