Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Clyde’s (Second Stage Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The dominant and most worthy message which you take away from “Clyde’s” is that everyone deserves a second chance. The play is Lynn Nottage’s hilarious, warm hearted, and deeply moving tale about a Pennsylvania truck stop diner run by a no-nonsense, imperious lady named Clyde who’s done jail time for an unspecified but undoubtedly violent crime. She is ferociously embodied by the remarkable Uzo Aduba. 

The play had its premiere in 2019 at the Guthrie Theater. 

Clyde’s kitchen staff is made up of other ex-convicts, who take fervent pride in the diner’s specialty sandwiches and who, under the leadership of the sage-like Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), endeavor to create their own perfect sandwich. There’s feisty Letitia (Kara Young), a single mom who stole from a pharmacy for her baby’s needed medicine, but also lifted some opioids while at it; Rafael (Reza Salazar) who held up a bank with a BB gun to buy his girlfriend a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel; and newcomer Jason (Edmund Donovan), the only white worker, and a carryover from Nottage’s “Sweat,” who, in a drunken rage at losing his job, attacked someone with a bat.  

Tish and Raf are reluctant to accept the racist-tattooed Jason as part of the team, and he’s slow to take the same sort of pride in his work, but inevitably, he makes a turnaround. Montrellous’ backstory doesn’t come out till late in the play, but when it does, it’s a fitting revelation for such a saintly character. 

It’s been suggested that Clyde is some sort of Satanic character -- and indeed there are some surprising bursts of hellish flame at times when she’s onstage -- but it seems to me that gruff as she is (“I don’t do pity,” she declares at one point), her autocratic rule of the kitchen is an extreme form of tough love. Still, she resolutely refuses Montrellous’s tempting offers to taste his divinely inspired sandwiches, as if doing so would weaken her hardened shell.

Nottage has already proven her impressive expertise in plays like “Ruined” and “Sweat” but “Clyde’s” demonstrates that she’s a master of comedy as well. Her dialogue really crackles. And for all the genuine humor, she never loses sight of the serious underlying theme. Her characters would not be out of place in a Eugene O’Neill play, and they are no less skillfully drawn, and gorgeously acted by everyone here.

We’ve seen food as a metaphor for redemption before, but it’s an ever appealing theme and when Montrellous tells Tish to put the love for her daughter into a sandwich, it touches the heart.

Takeshi Kata’s working kitchen set is a marvel, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and sound designer Justin Ellington have a ball with those fantastical moments when the crew describes their ideal sandwiches in mouthwatering detail. Jennifer Moeller has designed a hilarious series of skintight outfits for the plus size Aduba whose every entrance brings a more outrageous getup. 

The whole has been masterfully directed by frequent Nottage collaborator Kate Whoriskey.

Second Stage has admirably collaborated with various partner groups for weekly thematically related talkbacks with their staff and community members, criminal justice reform advocates, and people with lived experience of incarceration and the criminal justice system.

The final two weeks of the run will be live simulcast starting January 4, and is definitely worth your while if you can’t make it live to the Hayes Theater.

(Second Stage Theater, The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W 44th Street; 2st.com or 212-541-4516; through January 16)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Uzo Aduba, Kara Young, Ron Cephas, Edmund Donovan, and Reza Salazar

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Mrs. Doubtfire (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

If anyone could approximate the late Robin Williams’ peerless work in the funny and heartfelt 1993 film on which the present musical is based, Rob McClure is surely the guy. You’ll recall the film concerned an irrepressible voiceover actor Daniel Hillard, prevented from seeing his three kids after his wife files for divorce, who impersonates an elderly English lady and becomes the children’s nanny to be close to them.

Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book follows the movie script (by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon, based on Anne Fine’s young adult novel “Alias Mrs. Doubtfire”) closely, changing the plot only where the exigencies of a stage versus movie presentation demand (like revising the elaborate birthday party with zoo animals that Daniel throws for his son, triggering wife Miranda’s divorce action). They’ve also smoothed out some small plot elements that might not go over well in today’s #MeToo environment. And there’s more diversity in the casting, too. They also make a point of Mrs. Doubtfire being a Scottish, rather than an English, nanny as in the film, though the accent is the same.

The score by Kirkpatrick and brother Wayne Kirkpatrick (“Something Rotten”) is a mixed bag. There are some very pretty numbers mixed in with other loud and generic ones, not anywhere near as cohesive as David Yazbek’s score for the last based-on-a-film drag themed musical, “Tootsie.”

And speaking of “Tootsie,” I can see McClure getting heaps of awards recognition at season’s end, as Santino Fontana did with the earlier show. 

As Miranda, Jenn Gambatese gives a lovely and sympathetic performance just as Sally Field did in the film, and scores with the regret-filled ballad, “Let Go.” As in the film, the writers are careful to show Daniel’s behavior at the start is so patently obnoxious that one can hardly blame Miranda for filing for divorce. 

There were several understudies at my reviewed performance, including Casey Garvin as Miranda’s old flame Stuart (Pierce Brosnan in the movie), and Alexandra Matteo as a flamenco singer in the show’s climactic restaurant scene where Daniel’s quick change disguise finally defeats him. Matteo’s rendering of the song “He Lied To Me,” mirroring Daniel’s duplicitous actions, was a stitch. It has much the same vibe as the nightclub singer in “On the Town,” bemoaning “I Wish I Was Dead,” to the intense discomfort of that show's Gabey character. Both Garvin and Matteo were excellent. And Mrs. Doubtfire’s cautionary advice to Stuart about staying away from Miranda was well performed by Garvin and McClure in the amusing duet “Big Fat No.” 

McClure creates a quite lovable Mrs. Doubtfire, after letting us hear all the other myriad voices of which he’s capable, and his onstage quick changes are remarkable for their dexterity. He’s satisfyingly similar to Robin Williams (with perhaps a little Dame Edna thrown in for good measure). My only carp was the high pitched, nervous giggle he’d emit under duress as Mrs. Doubtfire. I felt those moments undercut his generally dignified characterization. He’s also touchingly believable as a loving dad who genuinely doesn’t want to be separated from his kids.

The great Brad Oscar assumes Harvey Fierstein’s movie role of Daniel’s gay hairdresser brother Frank, although with some wearisome schtick involving talking louder and louder when he lies. 

Jodi Kimura is amusing as the humorless producer Janet Lundy where Daniel works as a janitor. (That was Robert Prosky in the film, with some now verboten sexist humor.) And there’s the always funny Peter Bartlett as the loopy children’s TV host Mr. Jolly, eventually replaced by Daniel.

Jerry Zaks is a master of comedy direction, but I did feel on this occasion some of his business was a bit too broad. A visit to Daniel’s apartment where Frank and his business partner/husband Andre (J. Harrison Ghee) converges with the child protection worker --- Wanda Sellner (Charity Angél Dawson) -- an occurrence not in the film, strains credulity even for a farce. So, too, the show, in general, occasionally dips into vulgarity in a way the movie seldom did.

There’s been some necessary updating in the script as the show is set in the present. For example, Mrs. Doubtfire now doesn’t just stop the kids from watching TV (Dick Van Dyke reruns), she cuts off the Wi-Fi on their device screens.

The kids are an outstandingly appealing bunch, as were their counterparts  in the film: Lydia (Analise Scarpaci), Christopher (Jake Ryan Flynn), and little Natalie (Avery Sell).

Dawson is solid as her stern role, but her big gospel flavored number “Playing with Fire” is an incomprehensible jumble -- perhaps due, as with so many current musicals, to an occasionally overloaded sound design (Brian Ronan). That number, cleverly choreographed by Lorin Latarro incidentally, has multiple Mrs. Doubtfires popping up like Mickey Mouse’s broomsticks in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section of “Fantasia.” Her opening verse of the show’s final number, “As Long As There is Love,” registers much better, and the song itself is another of the bright spots in the Kirkpatricks’ score. 

David Korins’s scenic design, expertly lit by Philip S. Rosenberg, efficiently covers the San Francisco locale bases from Hillard home to TV studio and points in between; Catherine Zuber has designed a satisfying look for Daniel’s disguise (abetted by hair & wig designer David Brian Brown and and make-up & prosthetics designer Tommy Kurzman), and has fun with the aforementioned faux celebrity parade. 

I emphatically disagree with those who have said the central drag premise is dated and out of touch with today’s sensibilities, and perhaps even transphobic. Apart from stemming from a long-standing and grand theatrical tradition, the character of Mrs. Doubtfire is created out of love not mockery. And for those who feel it’s “wrong” for Daniel to carry out the deception in the first place, I think that’s carrying wokeness a bit far.   For all its flaws, the show has a lot of heart, plenty of genuinely funny moments, and an excellent cast, topped by McClure’s bravura performance.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street; 212-239-6200 or DoubtfireBroadway.com)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l-r) Jake Ryan Flynn (Christopher Hillard), Analise Scarpaci (Lydia Hillard), Rob McClure (Daniel Hillard as Euphegenia Doubtfire) and Avery Sell (Natalie Hillard)

Friday, December 10, 2021

Trevor (Stage 42)

By Harry Forbes. 

The very worthy 1994 Live Action Short Oscar winner, "Trevor” (directed by Peggy Rajski from a story by Celeste Lecesne) has now, nearly three decades later, been transformed into a full length two-act musical.

Book writer and lyricist Dan Collins and composer Julianne Wick Davis have taken the story of a 13-year-old boy with a Diana Ross obsession coming to terms with his sexuality, and capably fleshed it out while remaining true to its source material.

The time is 1981. Trevor knows he’s somehow different, though the term “gay” isn’t used as overtly as in the film. But his love of show tunes, dancing, and Diana Ross have definitely branded him as “weird.” 

The Ross hits heard on the soundtrack of the film now are performed as a fantasy version of the lady herself by Yasmeen Sulieman. She makes appearances throughout the show in young Trevor's imagination. All the big hits are heard, at least in part, from “Endless Love” to “I’m Coming Out.”

Trevor's love of musicals afforded Collins and Davis further musical opportunities. In the film, there was merely a brief scene of Trevor rehearsing the school’s play club with the song “Anything Goes.” 

Here Trevor is able to convince the junior high football team to let him choreograph a real showbiz number with hats and canes (“One/Two”) for the annual talent show, rather than the team’s traditional goofy appearance in tutus. The team’s popular player Pinky (Sammy Dell) has improbably taken Trevor under wing, unaware that Trevor is developing a crush on him, and persuaded his mates that they should cooperate.

Meanwhile, schoolmate Cathy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) is hopelessly enamored of the uninterested Trevor, while his friend Walter (Aryan Simhadri) is deeply smitten with Cathy. And then there’s Trevor’s friend Frannie (Isabel Medina) who, in turn, has a crush on Pinky. Wanting to be perceived as “normal,” Trevor decides to take Cathy to the Quality Courts, a local makeout place, on a date night with predictably unsatisfying results for the lovelorn girl.

All along, Trevor keeps a diary in which he reveals his feelings about Pinky. When it falls into the wrong hands, Trevor becomes the target of cruel bullying, especially by Jason (Diego Lucano) and Mary (Echo Deva Piconi). The circumstances of the diary coming to light are rather more dramatic here than in the film wherein the parents just happen to find it, and forthwith set him up for a talk with the local priest.

The score is only pleasantly serviceable but at least in a comfortably traditional mode as opposed to the generic pop sound of so many shows today.

Trevor is played by a remarkable 13-year-old named Holden William Hagelberger with a sweet disposition and boundless energy as he’s onstage almost every moment. The kids are, in fact, all excellent, and well directed by Marc Bruni (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and many others). Sally Wilfert and Jarrod Zimmerman are good as his mostly clueless but well meaning parents, with Zimmerman even doubling as the priest. And Aaron Alcaraz scores as an empathetic hospital worker who enters the story towards the end.

Choreographer Josh Prince, who collaborated with Bruni on “Beautiful” has designed some clever production numbers such as the aforementioned “One/Two” and Trevor’s funeral fantasy that opens the second act (“Your Life is Over”).

Donyale Werle’s scenic design encompassing various locals including the school and Trevor’s home (brightly lit by Peter Kaczorowski), and Mara Blumenfeld’s flashy costumes all look spiffy at the spacious, almost Broadway-size Stage 42 theater. (I hadn’t been there in a while, and it was good to see those wonderful posters and photos of historic Shubert productions still adorning the public spaces there as they did when the venue originally opened as The Little Shubert.)

We’ve lately seen a lot of these alienated teenager shows (e.g. “Mean Girls,” “Dear Evan Hanson,” “The Prom,” “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”) so there’s an undeniable sense of deja vu here.

But a commendable ancillary benefit to “Trevor” is that it may raise youngsters’ awareness of The Trevor Project which was created after the film with a mission of ending suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer 
& questioning young people.

(Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street; trevorthemusical.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Holden William Hagelberger, Sammy Dell in Trevor.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Trouble in Mind (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

The revival of African American writer/actress Alice Childress’ 1955 Obie-winning Off-Broadway play receives its long awaited and welcome Broadway debut courtesy of the Roundabout. The play had been slated for Broadway in 1957 with a new title “So Early Monday Morning,” but one of the producers wanted the ending changed (i.e. allegedly softened for white sensibilities) and Childress, after several attempts at rewriting, finally decided to withdraw the play.

As a result, Lorraine Hansbury’s “A Raisin in the Sun” would have the distinction of being the first play by a female African-American playwright on Broadway.

The work concerns a multi-racial cast mounting an anti-lynching play called “Chaos in Belleville.” We observe through the course of rehearsals the inherent racism of Al Manners (Michael Zegen), the well-intentioned but dictatorial and condescending Hollywood director making his Broadway debut. Wiletta Mayer (LaChanze), a veteran of many “Mammy” roles, is hired to play the mother of the lynching victim in the play-within-the-play. 

As rehearsals progress, Wiletta’s dissatisfaction with how the play is written and directed comes increasingly to the fore, leading to her powerful outburst in the second act which is the play’s highlight. 

The other black characters in the play are the sassy Millie (Jesica Frances Dukes), veteran Sheldon (Chuck Cooper), and relative novice John (Brandon Micheal Hall). In an early scene, Wiletta gives John a primer on how to act around white people in the theater (e.g. laugh at their unfunny jokes, reveal nothing about one’s education, etc.). In Childress’ nuanced writing, it’s interesting that Wiletta’s increasing concerns about the play they are rehearsing are not openly shared by the more passive others.

Of the white actors in “Chaos,” there’s Yale educated Judy (Danielle Campbell), sweet but utterly naive about racism,  and veteran Bill (Don Stephenson), who reveals he’s uncomfortable about openly lunching with the other cast members. Alex Mickiewicz plays Eddie, the beleaguered stage manager, and veteran Simon Jones beautifully plays Irish doorman Henry who shares some lovely empathetic moments with Wiletta in the play’s opening and closing moments.

Given the play’s history and themes, it certainly couldn’t be more relevant to today’s Black Lives Matter and #MeToo environment, though, in fact, the Negro Ensemble Company did it in 1998. And there have been regional productions in recent times, among them: Yale Repertory Theatre, Baltimore’s CenterStage, and Arena Stage, all about a decade ago. Just this year, the play was mounted at the Shaw Festival in Canada, and another production began a limited run at London’s National Theatre this month. 

Under the knowing direction of Charles Randolph Wright, performances are all fine here, though I might have preferred an older actor to play Manners, good as Zegen is.  LaChanze has scored strongly in many dramatic musicals from her Tony-winning role in “The Color Purple” onwards, but this is her biggest non-singing role, and she’s the bright, charismatic center. (In the interest of full disclosure, she does get a brief chance to vocalize.)

Cooper has a particularly strong moment as he recounts witnessing a real-life lynching as a child, though after doing a little research, I was surprised to learn the original lynching monologue was delivered by Millie. But Cooper does it superbly.

For all the production’s excellence, I couldn’t help  but feel the history of the play and its relevant thematic material are actually more intriguing than the play itself which has some static patches. And I didn’t quite buy the silent movie melodramatics of what we see of “Chaos in Belleville.” Would those scenes really have been played so broadly as late as 1955? Wiletta’s principal objection to the scene is having her mother character urge her son to give himself up when that action would mean almost certain death for him. That’s a valid point, but her argument would have been just as cogent without the histrionics.

Still, perhaps that’s the way it was meant to be played. And certainly the ensuing conflict between Manners and Wiletta is a powerful one as when the former rebuts her arguments with “The American public is not ready to see you the way you want to be seen because, one, they don’t believe it; two, they don’t want to believe it; and three, they’re convinced they’re superior.”

Arnulfo Maldonado’s backstage set, Emilio Sosa’s period costumes, Kathy A. Perkins’s lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design are all excellent.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 Street; roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300; through January 9)

Photos by Joan Marcus:

(Top) Brandon Micheal Hall (John Nevins), Jessica Frances Dukes (Millie Davis), Michael Zegen (Al Manners), LaChanze (Wiletta Mayer), Chuck Cooper (Sheldon Forrester)

(Below) LaChanze (Wiletta Mayer) and Simon Jones (Henry)

Friday, December 3, 2021

Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood (The York Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

For its first mainstage show post-pandemic, the York has mounted a surefire crowd pleaser: a breezy, utterly delightful overview of the great composer/lyricist Irving Berlin’s made-for-Hollywood output. 

And though the show’s title references one of Berlin’s most familiar standards, show buffs needn’t worry that the songs will be selected from his oversaturated greatest hits. The creators have wisely provided a good deal of rare material to keep things interesting. And even the better known songs -- performed as well and cleverly as they are -- sound freshly minted (thanks to Fred Lassen’s vocal arrangements and orchestrations and Rob Berman’s dance arrangements). The result is just about the finest musical playlist of any show currently in town. 

Instead of “Easter Parade” from the film of the same name, for instance, we get “Drum Crazy” and “Better Luck Next Time.” Instead of “White Christmas” from the 1954 film, we hear three other numbers. From the lesser-known 1939 Sonja Henie vehicle “Second Fiddle,” the band does “When Winter Comes” and four of the cast do “I Poured My Heart into a Song.” There’s even a song intended for the 1960s-era film “Say It With Music” that was unfortunately shelved when MGM changed management. 

“Cheek to Cheek” skips over the film adaptations of his stage work, so don’t expect “Annie Get Your Gun” or “Call Me Madam,” and I take that as a further plus.

Under the ever creative guidance of director/choreographer Randy Skinner, who also conceived the show, nearly every number takes flight. Over a decade ago, Skinner worked magic in similar territory when he choreographed the Broadway production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.”

And with six immensely likable performers -- Phillip Attmore, Jeremy Benton, Victoria Byrd, Kaitlyn Davidson, Joseph Medeiros, and Melanie Moore -- equally adept at singing and dancing, the fast-paced 80 minute show flies by. There are so many showstoppers and the cast is so uniformly good that it’s almost impossible to single anyone out. 

But just a few highlights: Bird offers a lovely “Reaching for the Moon” cut from Berlin’s first film in 1930, and returns late with other nicely vocalized ballads. Attmore and Benton have an exciting go at Ethel Merman’s “My Walking Stick” from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Medeiros and Bird lead the company in the wittily choreographed “Back to Back” from “Second Fiddle.” Moore scores with a lovely “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” and pairs winningly with clarion-voiced Attmore for “The Piccolino.” Davidson and Benton beautifully handle the revue’s title song “Cheek to Cheek’ with Davidson delivers a touching solo, “ Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and Benton offering a heartfelt “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For.” Medeiros makes several bespectacled appearances as Berlin and has a nice solo moment with the Oscar-nominated “Change Partners.” 

Expert book writer Barry Kleinbort ties the numbers together with just enough interesting narrative to tell Berlin’s story in unhackneyed fashion. Never bogging down the musical proceedings, he peppers the script with interesting facts such as Berlin’s negotiating control of how his songs were used, a percentage of the gross, and eventually title billing as he went from United Artists to RKO to Fox to MGM, and so on, and lightly touching on personal matters such as Berlin’s devotion to family and his bouts of depression.

The show plays out beautifully on the St. Jean’s stage, roomier than the York’s regular venue at St. Peter’s which is currently being restored after a major flood. York Artistic Director James Morgan has designed an attractive paneled set, lighted by Jason Kantrowitz, allowing for historic projections while the six band members, including Music Director David Hancock Turner, sounding quite wonderful, have a spacious performing space upstage. 

Nicole Wee’s costume designs are attractive and danceable, and the unobtrusively satisfying sound design is by Julian Evans.

(Theater at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street; OvationTix.com or (212) 935-5820; through January 2)

Photos by Carol Rosegg:

(Top): (left to right) Joseph Medeiros, Victoria Byrd, Phillip Attmore,Melanie Moore, Jeremy Benton, Kaitlyn Davidson.

(Below): (left to right) Joseph Medeiros, Melanie Moore,Jeremy

Benton, Kaitlyn Davidson, Phillip Attmore.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Diana, The Musical (Longacre Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

No, “Diana, The Musical” is not as bad nor as risible as you may have heard. And if you saw the musical on Netflix and were unimpressed, I can attest that it’s several notches more enjoyable seeing it live. That all may be faint praise for a show that is so mediocre, predictable, and above all, unnecessary. It is also, by its very nature, exploitative but the titular lady is at least sympathetically portrayed.

Fans of “The Crown” will certainly have a strong sense of deja vu as the musical -- well, at least the first act -- follows the trajectory of the series (also Netflix) pretty closely. As with the Diana Spencer plotline on the series, the musical at hand is anchored by a strong and sympathetic portrayal of the Princess of Wales by its leading actress. 

Jeanna De Waal makes a more than plausible Diana and one is able to comfortably suspend disbelief throughout. She is, in fact, the production’s strongest asset, and probably an awards contender if negativity about the show itself doesn’t prevail. The second outstanding asset are William Ivey Long’s spot-on costumes which repeatedly win approval from the audience as the endless parade of outfits conjure up the lady’s iconic look so vividly. (There are also some quick-silver costume changes, too, which earn plaudits from the crowd for their ingenuity.) The first act finale, “Pretty, Pretty Girl” is more or less a fashion show. (Paul Huntley’s hair design deserves a nod, too.)

Third pride of place goes to the ever-terrific Judy Kaye, despite being saddled with a shallowly written portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Rather more entertainingly, she doubles as an unbilled Barbara Cartland, Diana’s step-grandmother, to whom's romantic novels the young Diana was apparently enamored. 

Also quite decent (with the material they’ve been handed) are Roe Hartrampf as a handsomer-than--life Prince Charles and Erin Davie as his paramour Camilla, whom Joe DiPietro’s book stops short of branding an out-and-out villain. Still, when Diana begins to fight back and get some of her own, the audience responds with gleeful delight. 

There’s capable work by Holly Ann Butler as Diana’s sister Sarah, and Gareth Keegan as Diana’s rebound love interest James Hewitt whom we first see bare chested straddling a mechanical horse. 

DiPietro’s book,  though never less than efficient, takes some peculiar tonal shifts: sometimes as serious as “The Crown,” other times, oddly spoofy. The titular lady is painted respectably in a way that would probably please William and Harry. (Her easy way with the common folk, and her courageous stance with AIDS patients are touchingly portrayed.)

But a late-in-the-show number about the provocative dress Diana will wear in a moment of one-upmanship with Camilla includes a vulgar lyric, later reprised by the Queen, that rings false, amusing though it may be. 

I was a fan of “Memphis” by the same team, but on this occasion, David Bryan’s music strikes me as unremarkably generic and could certainly use more variety. His lyrics, co-written with DiPietro, are simplistic in the extreme, but carry the story along. The structure of the piece is not unlike “Evita” with the ensemble serving to advance the narrative. But oh, how much more clever and astute Tim Rice’s lyrics seem in retrospect! 

The book ends on a fairly optimistic note as Diana splits from Charles with, more or less, the Queen’s blessing, to begin a new life for herself. A little narrative exposition alludes to her tragic end in Paris, but none of those terrible events are dramatized. The show ends, as it began, with a blinding barrage of paparazzi flashbulbs in Natasha Katz’s lighting design. David Zinn’s scenic design covers all the obvious locales with a streamlined economy.

The show debuted at La Jolla Playhouse where director Christopher Ashley is artistic director. He’s done a proficient job here.

In fairness, the audience seemed to have a good time, and that included a handful of other critics around me. “Wasn’t that fun?” I heard one remark while exiting the theater. And indeed it can be if approached in the right frame of mind. Others might decry the sad state of today’s musical theater, and they wouldn’t be wrong either. 

(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Jeanna De Waal

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Alchemist (Red Bull Theater)

By Harry Forbes

My last (and until now, only) encounter with Ben Jonson’s classic comedy came by way of Nicholas Hytner’s starry 2006 revival at London’s National Theatre. Its dazzling cast included Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale, Lesley Manville, and Ian Richardson, and it was smartly updated to modern times with some textual changes to reflect the new period.

Wonderful in nearly all respects as the production was (especially Jennings), I do remember chunks of Jonson’s text escaped comprehension by my 21st century ears..

That is decidedly not a problem with the current revival created by the same team that came up with the side-splitting adaptation of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” in 2017: writer/adapter Jeffrey Hatcher and director Jesse Berger. 

Samuel Coleridge declared “The Alchemist” to have one of the three most perfect plots ever constructed. Hatcher, in the program notes, tries to assure us that he has not fiddled drastically with that well oiled machine before admitting that he “did screw around with the plot...dumbing down the highbrow jokes...tossing in anachronisms,” and more. It is, in short, a slimmed down version with one scene instead of four, and fewer characters. But no matter, it is still, in Hatcher’s words, Jonson’s “style and spirit, if not his meter.” 

Putting such purist matters aside, the result is very funny indeed, and indeed far more comprehensible than the more textually authentic National Theatre version. Is it, as several friends have inquired, as hilarious as “The Government Inspector”? I’d say no, but very nearly so. In any case, comparisons are irrelevant as this 1610 comedy is a far different world than Gogol’s.

As with the earlier production, Red Bull Theater has assembled a solid cast of accomplished comic actors who, no doubt, could do an equally fine job with Jonson's unadulterated original. 

Despite the changes to the dialogue, and unlike the Hytner production, the period has not been altered, and plays out at a frenetic pace on Alexis Distler’s handsome set. The plot concerns the machinations of a wealthy man's servant, Face (Manoel Felciano), who joins forces with Subtle (Reg Rogers), the titular pretended alchemist, and Dol (Jennifer Sánchez), a prostitute in cahoots with the others two, who take over the master's house -- while he has gone to the country to escape the plague -- and bilk as many of the gullible characters as they can, promising they can turn base metal into gold, foretell the future, provide magic charms and so forth that their victims, only too motivated by greed, eagerly swallow, hook, line and sinker.

There's tobacconist Dugger (Nathan Christopher); lawyer’s clerk Dapper (Carson Elrod); wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon (Jacob Ming-Trent, fresh from his excellent Falstaff at the Delacorte); his skeptical servant Surly (Louis Mustillo)(played like a Damon Runyan character); Ananais (Stephen DeRosa), a fanatical Anabaptist; Dame Pliant (Teresa Avia Lim), a seemingly shy but shrewd widow; and her volatile brother Kastril (Allen Tedder). 

All skillfully create masterful comic portrayals, and Rogers and Felciano are particularly marvelous in their multiple impersonations.

Berger has staged the mayhem at a frenetic pace with doors opening and closing and farcical entrances and exits at every turn. Tilly Grimes’ costumes are richly designed and frequently witty. 

(New World Stage, 340 West 50th Street; 212-239-6200 or newworldstage.com; through December 19)

Photos by Carol Rosegg: 

(Top) (l.-r.) Reg Rogers, Manoel Felciano, Jennifer Sanchez

(Below) Reg Rogers, Manoel Felciano, Jennifer Sanchez, Carson Elrod

Thursday, November 25, 2021

The Visitor (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Thomas McCarthy’s 2007 film with an Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins would seem an unlikely candidate for musicalization, though drumming (an African djembe, to be exact) does play a large literal and metaphorical part of the story so perhaps not so unlikely after all. 

In any case, the story concerns a disaffected and widowed economics professor (here, David Hyde Pierce) who returns to his New York apartment to find a couple living there, Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) an exuberant Syrian drummer, and Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux), a Sengalese jewelry maker with a defensive edge. They had been rented the apartment by a con. They offer profuse apology and vacate promptly, but Walter chases after them with a forgotten item, and ultimately invites them to stay. 

Under the freewheeling influence of Tarek, Walter blossoms emotionally, even taking the first steps at drumming. But when Tarek is unjustly arrested for jumping a subway turnstile, Walter learns that he and Zainab are, in fact, illegal immigrants.

Energized by his young friend’s predicament, Walter does his best to help him. Meanwhile, Tarek’s mother Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian) arrives unexpectedly from Michigan after not hearing from her son, Walter offers her Tarek’s room. Before long, a bond grows between them. 

The cast is excellent, though Walter’s depressed character forces the always reliable Pierce into an overly low-keyed stance. And even though Walter takes on greater agency as the story progresses, the end result is still, a bit on the pallid side right through his eleven o’clock number, “Better Angels.”

Maksoud, who replaced Ari’el Stachel during previews when the latter allegedly departed over disagreement about how the material was being handled, gives a confident and extremely likable performance. Deslorieux is no less strong  as the more emotionally wounded girlfriend who carries an air of toughness. Antaramian is just lovely, both vocally and dramatically.

Brian Yorkey and Kwame Kwei-Armah have co-written the book which presumably has attempted to take into account the cultural changes of the last 14 years But that hasn’t stopped reviewers criticizing the show for being out of step with today’s woke sensibilities. Some are viewing the show as yet another “white savior” story which, in a sense,  it is, but I think the audience at my performance accepted the narrative in the positive way its authors intended, one which, in any case, is strongly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, and angrily defiant about our government’s treatment of them.

And anyway, from a purely dramatic viewpoint, it’s Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna about whom we ultimately care the most. Walter’s midlife crisis is simply less interesting. 

It’s always difficult to judge a score on first hearing. But I’d say even if some of it sounds generic in the usual Broadway pop opera way, there are also some very nice things in Tom Kitt’s score (lyrics by Yorkey): Mouna and Zainab’s ode to “Lady Liberty,” Tarek’s “Heart in Your Hands,” the duet “My Love is Free” by Tarek and Zainab, and “What Little I Can Do” for Walter and Mouna.

As usual these days, some of the more lively numbers sound overloaded in Jessica Paz and Sun Hee Kil’s co-sound design muddying the lyrics. Jamshied Sharifi’s orchestrations add flavorsome Middle Eastern or African ethnic flavoring where needed. I left the performance hoping the score might be preserved on CD.

It’s not a dance heavy show, but Lorin Latarro’s choreography is imaginative, from the coordinated movements of attendees at an NYU conference to the more extroverted numbers such as “Drum Circle” wherein Walter joins Tarek for a drumming session in Central Park, and later in “World Between Two Worlds” sung and danced by the angry detainees. 

Daniel Sullivan directs the dramatic material well, and the story is so absorbing that it would work without any songs at all, but I do, upon reflection, think the music enhances the story.

David Zinn’s grey walled moving platform set, strikingly lighted by Japhy Weideman, provides a suitably bleak backdrop for the detention sequences, but proves versatile for the other settings, opening up more warmly forWalter’s apartment and a Queens diner. Video projections (by David Bengali and Haha S. Kim) enhance the visual elements. lighting

It would be a shame if concerns about cultural appropriation and the like kept audiences away, because for all its alleged shortcomings, I felt “The Visitor”  was a genuine crowd pleaser, keeping the audience rapt and earning the strong applause and standing ovation it receives at the end.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafeyette Street; publictheater.org, 212.967.7555; through December 5)

Photos by Joan Marcus:

(Top) David Hyde Pierce and Ahmad Maksoud (foreground) 

(Below) Jacqueline Antaramian and David Hyde Pierce

Monday, November 22, 2021

Morning’s at Seven (Theatre at St. Clement’s)

By Harry Forbes

The revelatory 1980 revival of Paul Osborn’s 1939 charmer remains a cherished theatrical memory for those of us who saw it, and the play continued to demonstrate it had legs with yet another excellent Broadway mounting in 2002. Both of those revivals, in fact, ran far longer than the original which only lasted 44 performances.

And here it is again in a lovely Off-Broadway revival holding up as sturdily as ever. 

The plot hinges on painfully shy Homer (Jonathan Spivey) bringing home his longtime (seven years!) finance Myrtle (Keri Safran) to meet his well meaning but overly protective mother Ida (Alma Cervo) and melancholic father Carl (John Rubinstein), the latter afflicted with  perennial midlife crisis, and given to strange spells and wanderings.

Homer’s aunts, Cora (Lindsay Crouse) -- married to Thor (Dan Lauria) -- and the single Arry (Alley Mills), who clearly harbors deep feelings for Thor, live together in the house across the way.  A fourth sister Esther (Patty McCormack) is married to snobbish former professor David (Tony Roberts) who thinks the whole brood, with the singular exception of Carl, are “morons,” and discourages, or more accurately, forbids, his wife to visit her kin.   

Carl holds the deed on the house across town which is promised to Homer if and when he decides to tie the knot with Myrtle. Cora, for her part, covets the house as it could mean a break from Arry. Therein lies the play’s principal conflict.

Carl’s perpetual musings on where he is in life, and how things might have been different had he taken a different direction in the “fork in the road” sums up the existential heart of the play which is deeper than it seems at first glance for all its gentle charms and homespun characters. All of them find themselves yearning for change: Cora, dreaming of a life alone with Thor; Arry, frustrated after a lifetime of being the third cog on the wheel, and Esty, beginning to hanker for freedom from her husband’s dictatorial thumb; and so on. 

Like the two previous major New York revivals, this one has been beautifully cast across the board with everyone just perfect in their roles. Dan Wackerman brings out the best of all of them, and skillfully elucidates Osborn’s themes. Apart from the skill with which everyone handles their parts, there’s the added nostalgia value of fondly recalling so many of them in their earlier film and stage triumphs.

It’s unfair to single anyone out, as each so good, but Alley Mills deserves a special shout-out for so beautifully stepping in for the injured Judith Ivey during rehearsals, and creating a fine, touching character. 

Harry Feiner’s two house set on the spacious St. Clement’s stage makes an attractive backdrop to the action. Barbara A. Bell’s costumes are period perfect, the period being 1922. 

It’s a pleasure to experience such a beautifully constructed play, old-fashioned in the best sense. Osborn’s characters are sharply drawn, and though hardly action packed on the surface, the play’s action grips from start to finish. Another positive aspect of the work is the basic decency of all the characters, despite petty jealousies and strife. All of them are extremely identifiable too. 

Though the 1980 revival was adapted for television by Showtime and PBS, it’s rather remarkable that a feature film was never made from a property which besides its New York stagings has had a robust life in stock and regional theater. 

(Theater at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street; MorningsAt7.com or Telecharge.com, 212-239-6200; through December 5)

Photos by Maria Baranova: 

(Top) Alley Mills, Lindsay Crouse, Patty McCormack & Alma Cuervo

(Below) Tony Roberts & John Rubinstein

Friday, November 12, 2021

Fairycakes (Greenwich House Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The unfailingly amusing Douglas Carter Beane has written and directed a promising mashup of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and a handful of fairy tales all turned on their ear in the similar vein of  “Into the Woods”  But on this occasion, the result is an extremely thin diversion that, in greatly condensed form, might have made a nice curtain raiser for something more substantial, perhaps thematically related. 

In fact, I rather expected the second act to be a present day story mirroring the fairy tale characters we had just been watching during the fitfully amusing but not exactly riveting first act. But no, the second act picks up on the action of the first, though there is at least a different sort of twist in store midway through.

Still, on the whole, the second act plays very well and I felt the handful of folks who walked out during intermission would likely have enjoyed themselves if they had stayed.

It helps that Beane has assembled a first rate cast of farceurs including Julie Halson, Jackie Hoffman, and Ann Harada. 

The play is written mostly in verse, and there are some very clever turns of phrase, even if eventually all the rhyming couplets begin to wear.. 

The action is propelled by “Dream’s” Oberon (a dynamic Arnie Burton) and Titania (Halston) deciding to divorce because of the former’s serial philandering. But if they do, the Goddess of the Dawn (Kuhoo Verma) foretells that their daughters will all perish. These include Peaseblossom (an appealing Kristolyn Lloyd), Cobweb (Z Infante), Mustardseed (Ann Harada), and Moth (Jackie Hoffman) who bears some thematic similarities to Tinker Bell.

For her part, Titania is smitten with her handsome young Changeling (James Nanthakumar) in her charge. And before long, the now footloose Oberon encounters the frustrated Virgin Queen Elizabeth (also Halston).

Then there’s Gepetto (Mo Rocca, quite charming) constantly on the hunt for his delinquent creation Pinocchio (Sabatino Cruz). Cinderella (Verma) plays cat and mouse with her handsome Prince (witty Jason Tam who turns up as Cupid), while Sleeping Beauty (Infante) waits for love.

Peasebottom has a love/hate relationship with Puck (Chris Myers) who calls her “Fairycakes.”

And there’s Dirk Deadeye (Burton again), the name borrowed from Dick Deadeye in “H.M.S. Pinafore,” but actually one of the pirates from the “Peter Pan” story. He’s ever on the prowl for love which leads him from Moth to some surprising new territory.

Eventually, all the players are put to sleep, as in “Dream,” to fall in love with the first person they see upon waking, and with predictably unlikely results.

Except for Hoffman and Myers, everyone else gets a double role, and contrasts them skillfully. Halston, with her willowy figure and peerless delivery, is especially fine, as even at her funniest, she always taps into emotional truth.

Tiresome though the antics grow after two hours, Gregory Gale’s costumes are a continual delight, and Shoko Kambara and Adam Crinson have done a commendable job of creating a campily enchanted forest on the smallish Greenwich House Theater stage. Lewis Flinn’s attractive music is another plus.

(Greenwich House Theater, 27 Barrow Street; fairycakestheplay.com; through November 21)



(l.-r.) Kristolyn Lloyd, Z Infante, Julie Halston, Ann Harada, Jackie Hoffman


(l.-r.) Arnie Burton, Jackie Hoffman