Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Lehman Trilogy (Nederlander Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

To cut to the chase, this thrillingly theatrical production of Stefano Massini’s international hit, skillfully adapted by Ben Power, and magnificently directed by Sam Mendes, should not be missed. Starting life in its English version at Britain’s National Theatre, the epic play transferred to the West End, had a limited run at the Park Avenue Armory in 2019, and was all set to open on Broadway with its original cast members Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles before the pandemic hit. 

But here it is, back at last, now with the superb Adrian Lester taking Ben Miles’ role of Emmanuel Lehman, flanking Beale’s Henry Lehman and Godley’s Mayer Lehman. (An NT Live streaming from the West End preserves the original cast.) The multi-generational drama traces the arrival of the three Jewish brothers from Bavaria in the mid-19th century starting up their fabric and later cotton enterprise (first fabrics, then raw cotton) in pre-Civil War Montgomery, Alabama through establishing a foothold in New York at 119 Liberty Street, in coffee, railways, and banking, through the Great Depression, and finally the 21st century demise of the major investment firm when they filed for bankruptcy in 2008.

Over the course of nearly three and a half hours, the bravura actors not only provide narration in the third person, but play all the roles. These include the children and grandchildren of the brothers, starting with Emmanuel’s fast-talking but sharp as a tack son Philip (Beale) who values “strategy” above all virtues (as we observe when, as a young man, he boldly clinches a railway deal), and Philips’s horserace-and-art collecting-loving son, the increasingly ruthless Bobbie (Godley), as well as all the other non-family characters they encounter, and the trading division people who succeeded them. They seamlessly morph from one to the other, young and old, male and female, using a variety of voices, but always outfitted in Katrina Lindsay’s period black frock coats from the opening scenes. The performances are simply sensational. This is one of those theatrical feats that make you wonder how they can do it night after night, and twice on Saturdays! It’s easy to forget you’re watching only three actors. (The original European productions had 13.)

These are three of the greatest English actors, and “The Lehman Trilogy” might just be the pinnacle of their already distinguished careers.

The first of three acts focuses on eldest brother Henry’s arrival in 1844, followed shortly after by middle brother Emmanuel and then youngest Mayer, who originally served as an arbitrator between Henry who considered himself the “head,” and Emmanuel who was seen as the “arm.”

The action plays out on Es Devlin’s spectacular revolving cube set, glassed in on three sides and allowing beautifully fluid changes of scene and period, and even allowing some writing on the walls. The iconic packing boxes familiar from news footage of Lehman’s dissolution become props throughout the performance. Jon Clark’s masterful lighting, and Luke Halls’ dazzling background cyclorama video design, and Nick Powell’s crystalline sound and musical underscoring (played live) contribute mightily to the compelling story. Emmanuel’s recurring nightmare of impending doom becomes a visually dazzling coup de theatre with all the theatrical stops being pulled. So, too, the 1929 stock market crash is another visual triumph. 

Massini/Powers’ narrative rivets from start to finish -- it’s fair to say than, in spite of the play’s length, there’s not a dull moment, with plenty of humor amid all the business wheeling and dealing as in the scenes where Emmanual and Mayer, and later Philip, woo their wives-to-be. And there are countless moments that are pure poetry.

As the family’s narrative unfolds, we get a sharp overview of the unraveling of the American dream, and the gradual degradation of capitalism. The strict Shiva observance, which we observe after a character’s death early in the play, morphs pointedly into shorter and shorter periods of mourning as the years go by, and business interests trump hallowed tradition.

Powers has done a masterful job of condensing the original five hour Italian version into its present length. The third act, jam-packed with incident as it is, does feel a bit rushed and diffuse, but that’s a minor carp in an overall magnificent achievement.

This is theatrical storytelling at its most sublime.

(Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41 Street; Ticketmaster.com; through January 2)

Photo by Julieta Cervantes: (l.-r.) Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Chicken & Biscuits (Circle in the Square Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

A fractured family gathers for the funeral of their patriarch, and comic mayhem ensues in playwright Douglas Lyons’ very funny and genuinely touching  “Chicken & Biscuits,” which premiered at the Queens Theatre in 2020 just before the pandemic. The title, if you were wondering, refers to the deceased’s favorite dish. 

When the play begins, elder daughter Baneatta (Cleo King), a self-righteous church lady, is nervously pacing the stage as she frets about the imminent service for her father, who had been the church pastor, a role now taken by her husband Reginald (Norm Lewis). Baneatta’s estranged younger sister Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver) meanwhile prepares for the service decked out in  a flashy and overly revealing outfit, while her gawky almost-16-year-old daughter La’Trice (Aigner Mizzelle) stresses about not wanting to see her grandfather laid in the ground, and once at the church, constantly complains about being hungry. Beanetta’s gay actor son Kenny (Devere Rogers) inisists that his Jewish boyfriend Logan (Michael Urie) come to the service for moral support, though the nervous Logan fears the barely concealed disdain of Beanetta, an attitude shared by Kenny’s sister Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers) who arrives with her own emotional baggage, the man in her life having just left her. 

The stage is set for fireworks, and those underlying tensions are pushed to the breaking point with the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Natasha Yvette Williams).

The setup is formulaic to be sure, and some of the scenes seem repetitive and protracted, but Lyons’ writing and the production as a whole are so sharp and the overall tone so warm-hearted that the audience happily goes along for the ride, responding on cue like a sitcom audience. There are audible “Aws” for the tender and sentimental moments, applause for some of the snappy putdowns and other crowd pleasing moments, and congregation-like responses to the pastor’s fervent eulogizing. 

The cast is a delight across the board. Lewis is solid in a rare onstage non-singing role, making a dynamic preacher and a loving if exasperated husband. King’s Beanetta is a model of stiff-backed rectitude. Marshall-Oliver and Mizzelle make a hilarious mother and daughter combo. Marshall-Oliver’s antics at her father’s coffin are a rib-tickling show in themselves, but she simultaneously conveys a caring persona. Urie is a laugh riot as usual, milking every bit of Logan’s discomfort. 

Lawrence E. Moten III’s settings make good use of the elongated Circle in the Square stage, the interior and exterior of the church, and the characters’ homes. During the church scenes, illuminated stained glass windows appear on the theater’s back walls. Dede Ayite’s costumes are pitch perfect. 

Zhailon Levingston, who has the distinction of being the youngest black director on Broadway, brings out all the humor of Lyons’ script and elicits perfectly judged performances from all concerned. 

The audience at my performance had a rollicking good time, and I suspect you will, too. Sitcom-like or not, there’s substance here and, in fact, it’s not so different in tone from the works of Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn. The play’s family dynamics ring true, with the emotions and themes of family strife and ultimate forgiveness are widely relatable.

(Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50 Street; ChickenAndBiscuitsBway.com; though January 2, 2022)

Photos by Emilio  Madrid:

(Top) (l.-r.) Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers, Cleo King

(Below) (l.r.) Norm Lewis, Cleo King

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Six: The Musical (Brooks Atkinson Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

 The West End hit which puts the six wives of Henry VIII center stage in the context of a Spice Girls-like concert started previews just before the pandemic shut down Broadway. Now it has opened to generally glowing reviews and a vociferous fan base of teenage girls who, masks or not, scream their heads off throughout the 85 minute show.

Fashioned like a rock event more than a traditional Broadway musical, the diverse and talented American cast, eschewing English accents, wins the audience over from the get-go, as they emulate the moves of the pop icon inspiration for each character: Catherine of Aragon (Beyoncé and Shakira); Anne Boleyn (Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne); Jane Seymour (Adele and Sia); Anna of Cleves (Nicki Minaj and Rihanna); Catherine Howard (Ariana Grande and Britney Spears); and Catherine Parr (Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé).

Even if you’re not fully conversant with today’s pop divas to appreciate the show on that particular level, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s songs are undeniably catchy, the lyrics not without wit, and with just enough historical ballast to support the unusual concept. Paul Gatehouse’s sound design is understandably pitched at rock concert decibels, which I found more than a bit uncomfortable. I would have liked to hear more of the lyrics. “I guess he just really liked my head,” declares Anne (an amusing Andrea Macasaet) cheekily at one point. A post-show listening to the score on Spotify with its ideal sonic balance affirmed the score’s quality, making me wish it had come across with the same clarity in the theater.

After the opening number, “Ex-Wives,” which has something of the vibe of “He Had It Coming” from “Chicago,” each queen presents her big number in the style of the inspiration listed above, with only a soupcon of period “Greensleeves” in the underscoring. And it was a welcome relief after the non-stop music when Jane Seymour (a touching Mallory Maedke) prefaced her powerful number “Heart of Stone” with a spoken introduction. So, too, there’s further spoken dialogue from Anna of Cleves (a sassy, strutting Brittney Mack) soon after.

The conceit of the show has the wives competing against each other as to who got the worst hand from the marital monarch. An amusingly petulant Anne thinks it must be she as she lost her head (though she faces competition from Katherine Howard (Courtney Mack) who would later meet the same fate). Jane, said to be the “only one he truly loved,” would die in childbirth. The marriages to longest wife Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks who kick starts the show in commanding fashion) (24 years), and Anna (whose portrait by Holbein first sparked Henry’s fancy until he met her in person and he lost interest) ended in divorce. And lastly, there’s Catherine Parr (a touching Anna Uzele) who, as she repeatedly affirms, survived.

“Six the Musical” is, as you might have gathered, a far cry from the classic BBC/PBS series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” and the script puts the wives in a defiantly contemporary feminist perspective positioning the show as a rousing affirmation of girl power.

The script seems ready made to travel with some pandering location place holders. “How you doing tonight, New York (or presumably any other city where the show eventually happens to tour)!”

Moss and Jamie Armitage direct with considerable flair and propulsive energy. And Emma Bailey’s rock concert set, framed by Tim Deiling’s imaginative and colorful lighting, dazzles.

Courtney Mack’s “All You Wanna Do” is one of several earworms. And Uzele’s Catherine wraps up the wives’ recitations with a strong “I Don’t Need Your Love.” The string of solo turns is broken by a concerted disco number “Haus of Holbein” -- neat choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille -- just before Anna’s solo.

The all female “Ladies in Waiting” band, led by Julia Schade, supplies roof-raising support.

(Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street; 877-250-2929 or Ticketmaster.com)

Photo by Joan Marcus – Anna Uzele (Catherine Parr, center) with (l-r) Adrianna Hicks (Catherine of Aragon), Andrea Macasaet (Anne Boleyn), Abby Mueller (Jane Seymour), Brittney Mack (Anna of Cleves) & Samantha Pauly (Katherine Howard)