Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Harmony (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene)

By Harry Forbes

The story of the six-member close harmony group known as Comedian Harmonists - the toast of Germany and elsewhere in the late 1920s/early 1930s, and their dissolution during the Third Reich --  is a fascinating one, and has already been the subject of a 1997 German film, a major documentary, and a Broadway revue. It’s also been a pet project of songwriter Barry Manilow and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman for almost 25 years. 

The musical “Harmony,” in fact, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse way back in 1997, and also had a run in Atlanta and at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre in 2014. The road to Broadway was apparently rocky, but legal wrangling resolved, here it is at last in New York, albeit Off-Off-Broadway at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.

The very fine cast of the present production features, as the Harmonists, Sean Bell (Robert Biberti, who came to the group from the Comic Opera), Danny Kornfeld (Roman Cycowski, nicknamed Rabbi), Matthew Mucha (subbing for Zal Owen at the reviewed performance) (Harry Frommerman who put the group together and served as arranger), Eric Peters (Erich Collin, a former med student), Blake Roman (Erwin Bootz, nicknamed Chopin, the group’s pianist), and Steven Telsey (Ari Leschnikov, nicknamed Lesh, a Bulgarian tenor). Sierra Boggess plays Rabbi’s Gentile wife Mary, Jessie Davidson is Chopin’s anti-Fascist rabble rousing Jewish wife Ruth, and Ana Hoffman is Josephine Baker with whom the Comedian Harmonists once recorded. Andrew O’Shanick does well as a German officer initially sympathetic to the group. 

New to this incarnation of the show is an older version of Rabbi, so called because he had studied to become one, played by Broadway veteran Chip Zien who serves as narrator of the story. Predictably wonderful as Zien is, I felt the framing device was unnecessary and sporadically intrusive. And apart from his strong performance as older Rabbi, he appears throughout the show as various historical personages with whom the group interacted (e.g. Richard Strauss, Albert Einstein, and most surprisingly, Marlene Dietrich).

All the celebrities are drawn very one-dimensionally, and the Dietrich character is a downright unkind and inaccurate caricature of the aging star, not the bright and charismatic Dietrich for whom the group would have served as backup in 1928. Much mockery is made of her lack of singing ability and her rhoticism speech impediment (“w” for “r”). Would this actually have been the case in her native German? In any case, the sight of Zien in drag, cheap gag or not, elicits chuckles.

Manilow’s performance numbers for the Harmonists are reasonable pastiche soundalikes for the type of material the group sang, starting with the opening title song. (And if you’re curious, you can hear plenty of examples of their vocalizing in German and English on YouTube.) The book numbers which constitute the rest of the score are in a traditional Broadway vein, and never less than proficient. On first hearing, the most memorable tunes are Young Rabbi’s “Every Single Day” (powerfully sung by Kornfeld); the wives’ “Where You Go,” sung first by Boggess and then in unison with Davidson; and the concluding “Stars in the Night.” 

Incidentally, Manilow himself has a very nice “Scores” CD of seven songs from the show coupled with some from his other theatrical venture, “Copacabana.” 

The production numbers -- all very slickly and entertainingly staged by director/choreographer Warren Carlyle -- include “We’re Goin’ Loco,” a might-have-been Ziegfeld Follies song for Baker and the Group, that is, if the boys had chosen not to return to Germany after their triumph at Carnegie Hall; and a satirical “Come to the Fatherland” number with the group as marionettes mocking the Nazis’ manipulation. “How Can I Serve You, Madame?” purports to show how the Harmonists first added comedy to its act. Their tuxedos are stolen, and they appear in waiters’ jackets sans pants, and sing their a suggestive number.

The second, more dramatic act, focuses on the conflicts with the Nazis, as a concert is interrupted by racist taunts. (Several of the group were Jewish.) By the looks of the 1997 trailer, there was a similar scene in the German film, too.) 

Production credits are top of the line including Beowulf Boritt’s setting; Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie’s costumes; Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting; Dan Moses Schreier’s sound; batwin + robin productions, inc. video design with panoramic projections throughout. Music Director John O’Neill, who also served as additional vocal and music arranger, leads the 12-piece orchestra. 

Some in my audience were speculating on an uptown transfer. But if that’s in the cards, it hasn’t yet been announced.

(Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust at Edmond J. Safra Hall, 36 Battery Place; or 855-449-4650; through May 15)    

Photos credit: Julieta Cervantes 

Top to bottom:

Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, Sean Bell

Zak Edwards, Steven Telsey, Eddie Grey, Elise Frances Daniells, Kate Wesler, Ana Hoffman, Sean Bell, Eric Peters

Eric Peters, Blake Roman, Zal Owen, Steven Telsey, Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld

Sierra Boggess and Danny Kornfeld

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Minutes (Studio 54)

 By Harry Forbes

A newly elected city councilman Mr. Peel, a dentist by trade, comes back to the fictional town of Big Cherry after attending a family funeral, and becomes obsessed with the missing minutes of the council’s last meeting held while he was away. And furthermore, he can’t seem to get an answer about what has become of the colleague who seems to have run afoul of the council and is now mysteriously absent. 

Such is the crux of Tracy Letts’ new dark comedy, which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2017, and which started previews here in New York at the Cort Theatre before the pandemic. It has now reopened at Studio 54 with Noah Reid, Patrick on “Schitt’s Creek,” replacing the “cancelled” Armie Hammer, as the curious and increasingly determined newbie. 

The rest of the council is made up of distinguished alumni of Broadway and Steppenwolf all of whom give finely etched portraits of small-town bureaucrats obsessed with trivialities, all the while demonstrating greed, hypocrisy and self-interest. Playwright Letts plays aptly named Mayor Superba who leads the council meeting and blocks young Peel’s attempts to unearth those minutes. 

The official agenda items include veteran Mr. Oldfield’s desire for a choice parking space after his 39 years on the council (a funny Austin Pendleton); passionate Mr. Hanratty’s proposal to redesign the local fountain and make it handicap accessible (Danny McCarthy); and from Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman), the sole African-American on the council, the installation of a “Lincoln Smackdown” attraction at the upcoming Harvest Festival which would feature a martial arts artist dressed as Lincoln. Of considerably more substance is the topic of what’s become of a stash of stolen bikes which have been impounded by the local police. 

Recording secretary Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller) prides herself on her professionalism, and seems the nearest to an ally of Peel, but is no more revealing about the missing minutes than anyone else. Long-timer Ms. Innes (Blair Brown), the council’s grande dame, reads a lengthy prepared statement including several bombshell grievances. The comically disorganized Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy) is a hopeless klutz. 

Mr. Superba is flanked by the clearly crooked Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still) and the insensitive and bullying Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain). And yes, eventually, we do get to see the missing Mr. Carp (Ian Barford who was so good in Letts’ “Linda Vista” a couple of seasons back). 

For all the humor inherent in the council’s deliberations, an ominous thunderstorm periodically wreaks havoc with the town’s electrical grid and the stage is plunged into partial darkness as the lights scarily flicker and dim. There’s extremely realistic work by lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and sound designer André Pluess. And David Zinn’s marvelous set is perfect down to the smallest detail.

Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, who won the 2008 Tony Award for directing Lett’s “August: Osage County” is, of course, superbly attuned to Letts’ worldview and rhythms. 

There’s a hilarious re-enactment by the council members of Big Cherry’s legendary 1872 battle involving marauding Indians and a kidnapped white girl that bears similarity to “The Searchers.” That little set piece within the play earns applause.

Letts is, as we know, one of our finest playwrights, and he has some important things to say here about such hot button topics as racism, white supremacy, and the current vogue for rewriting history. But the comical ineptitude and small town minutiae eventually give way to something considerably more sinister and the play suddenly takes a radical and (intentionally) off-putting tonal shift. I felt this was a dramatic misstep, but on the other hand, try as I might, I can’t come up with any bright ideas about how I’d resolve the play differently.

Flawed or not, the play rates as a major event, well worth seeing.

(Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street; or 212-239-6200; through July 24th) 

Photo by Jeremy Daniel:  Noah Reid (pictured center) with (l to r) Jessie Mueller, Jeff Still, Tracy Letts, Cliff Chamberlain

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Little Prince (Broadway Theatre)

 By Harry Forbes

Make no mistake. Considerable artistry has gone into the large-scale adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s  ever-popular 1943 story. But there’s no denying this French import, which has already played Paris, Sydney, and Dubai,  is a singularly odd candidate for Broadway.

Neither a play nor a musical, the production most closely resembles a ballet, albeit one with some Cirque du Soleil-type aerial stunts. There are a couple of songs, but mostly dialogue recitation rather tiresomely delivered by librettist and co-director Chris Mouron in heavily French-accented English (titles helpfully supplied on the side of the stage).

At first I thought the androgynously outfitted Ms. Mouron would be voicing the titular character which would make sense for a child’s voice, especially as The Little Prince is, in fact, portrayed by the strapping adult Lionel Zalachas in a yellow jumpsuit. But no, Mouron also speaks for The Aviator (Aurélien Bednarek), and all the others encountered by The Little Prince in his interplanetary travels. Besides the monotony of the conceit, the narration and dialogue excerpts hardly serve to make the plot comprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the story.

The program breaks down the “scenes” by character but unless you’re consulting the running order in the dark, you might still, from time to time, find yourself at a loss. 

Upon reflection, the production might have been a more logical fit for Lincoln Center or even BAM. In an earlier age, a producer like David Merrick would occasionally import an international success, but if he were here today, I’m sure he would think twice about the commercial possibilities of this particular property. As it is, there were walkouts at my performance. Nor did I see many children in attendance (it was an evening performance), but I would guess that even kids familiar with the book would fidget. 

Though there have been countless adaptations of Saint-Exupéry’s novella, I believe the last Broadway attempt must have been the notorious 1982 flop, “The Little Prince and the Aviator,” with a score by John Barry and Don Black, which closed without opening after 20 previews.  

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe had, of course, written a very appealing score for Stanley Donen’s 1974 movie version which was not a success either. (Disappointingly, a recent York Theatre semi-staged presentation of the Lerner & Loewe songs was scrapped over a pesky rights issue.) On the other hand, Rachel Portman’s commendable operatic version won deserved plaudits. And the BBC filmed version aired on PBS, proved it is possible to make a viable stage property from the delicate source material.

The strongest elements of the production at hand are those impressive aerial stunts (Flying by Foy), the corps de ballet (choreography by Anne Tourné who also directed), and the non-stop projections by Video Designer Marie Jemilin. Terry Truck’s percussive score, albeit prerecorded, has a certain hypnotic appeal. In all fairness, there are moments of great beauty, both visually and balletically, amidst the stretches of tedium.

The cast of actors and acrobats are all first-rate, including Zalachas (a master of the aerial straps, when he’s not standing on a big black ball, symbolic of The Prince’s tiny asteroid) and Bednarek. Also outstanding is Laurisse Sulty as The Rose. But all the principals have their strong moments including Joän Bertrand as The King; Antony Cesar as The Vain Man; Marie Menuge as The Drunkard; Adrien Picaut as The Businessman; Marcin Janiak asThe Lamplighter; Srilata Ray as The Snake; Dylan Barone as The Fox; and William John Banks as The Switchman. There’s an impressive post-curtain call turn by Antony Cesar.

Mid-show audience applause at my performance was very tentative, as it was never quite clear whether one is actually supposed to clap or simply silently observe the action as between movements at a symphony. But the audience did break forth with well-deserved appreciation for the hard-working ensemble at the end. 

(Broadway Theatre, Broadway and 53rd Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Laurisse Sulty (The Rose) and Lionel Zalachas (The Little Prince) 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Birthday Candles (Roundabout Theatre Company)

 By Harry Forbes

Playwright Noah Haidle’s play charts the life of its heroine Ernestine, played most engagingly by Debra Messing, from age 17 to 107, with all the myriad life passages, joys, tragedies, and vicissitudes along the way. 

The action takes place in the kitchen of Ernestine’s family house and progresses quickly from birthday to birthday over decades, as Ernestine continues to bake the traditional cake passed on by her mother, as we’ve observed in the opening scene, as her mother enjoined her to “risk your heart” and “find your place in the universe.” 

Indeed, Ernestine declares she intends to “surprise God” and be a “rebel against the universe.” But as fate has it, those grandiose plans will come to naught, when she promptly falls for the local school chum who takes her to the prom. 

We can see where the play is going from the start, especially when Ernestine acquires a goldfish named Atman, which we learn is Sanskrit for the divinity within yourself. Christine Jones’ set lit by Jen Schriever -- with its stars, moons, and various flotsam and jetsam life objects hanging from the flies in astrological patterns -- visualizes the metaphysical themes, underscored by Kate Hapgood’s music and John Gromada’s sound design.

Predictable as the play’s structure is, Haidle’s writing is so true to the stuff of life, alternately humorous and touching, and Messing so sympathetic. that the audience contentedly goes along for the very relatable ride with laughter and tears. 

There’s good work too from John Earl Jelks as Ernestine’s husband Matt (and later, their grandson William); Enrico Colantoni especially endearing as Ernestine’s neighbor and childhood pal who harbors a decades-long crush on her; Crystal Finn as amusingly neurotic daughter-in-law Joan, and later Joan’s daughter, and lastly, an unsympathetic woman; Susannah Flood as Ernestine’s mother, troubled daughter, and bubbly granddaughter Alex.

Understudy Brandon J. Pierce, filling in for Christopher Livingston as her son Billy and a kindly stranger, did a commendable job at the reviewed performance.

Vivienne Benesch directs with sympathy for the material and draws a beautifully shaded performance from Messing who, like the other cast members, ages convincingly without the aid of makeup.

There are some thematic similarities to “Our Town,” and like Thornton Wilder’s play, “Birthday Candles,” if not perhaps in that play’s classic league, manages, like all fine plays, to dramatize authentic truths about the human condition.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 Street; 212-719-1300 or; through May 29)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l to r):Susannah Flood (Alice/Madeline/Ernie), Enrico Colantoni (Kenneth), Debra Messing (Ernestine Ashworth), Christopher Livingston (Billy/John), John Earl Jelks (Matt/William),Crystal Finn (Joan/Alex/Beth)

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Plaza Suite (Hudson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

My apprehension that Neil Simon’s 1968 hit -- three one-acts set in a suite at the Plaza Hotel -- might be hopelessly dated was allayed within moments of stars Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker taking command of the stage. Their understanding of the material and their well-honed comedic skills were brilliantly in evidence. Faint memories of the movie and past productions quickly faded as the stars, under the accomplished direction of John Benjamin Hickey, put their own fresh stamp on the Simon favorite.

This is not to say that the material isn’t very much of its time, but to this production’s credit, all the then-current references to New York are left delightfully intact, and one can approach the production as the well-crafted period piece it is.

I didn’t catch George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton in Mike Nichols’ original production, but I did see two of their more-than-capable replacements, Peggy Cass and Don Porter, and of course, Stapleton would reprise one of her three roles in the Walter Matthau movie. Rewatching the trailer of the latter on YouTube, the overall approach strikes me as a bit heavy handed compared to Parker and Broderick’s delightfully light touch. 

Each act concerns a different couple, each well differentiated by the pair: suburbanites from Mamaroneck, the wife hoping to rekindle their romance from over two decades earlier when they honeymooned there; an awestruck Tenafly housewife reconnecting with her high school boyfriend, now a famous and more-than-a-bit-sleazy Hollywood producer; and well-to-do Forest Hills parents on their daughter’s wedding day contending with the perplexing situation of the girl locking herself in the bathroom. In each, Jane Greenwood’s costumes and Tom Watson’s hair and wigs add helpfully in the transformations.

The setting is 1968/69 and there are, as indicated, many then-contemporary references: we hear such then-familiar touchstones as Metrocal, the Pepsi Generation, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Radio City’s Easter Show, not to mention all the stars that so impress Muriel in the second playlet. it’s a real time capsule including such circumstances as the recent demolition of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel to make way for the General Motors building.

The revival has the distinction of being the first Simon revival on Broadway since his passing in August of 2018, so it’s all the nicer that it's a good one. The production played a sold-out run in Boston in early 2020, and was set to open on Broadway in March of that year until the theaters were shut down. But there’s nothing stale about the production, and I’m confident Simon would be highly pleased. 

One can admire anew the sharpness of his dialogue and humor, and his uncanny take on human nature. The slapstick elements are the stuff of classic farce, such as the third playlet’s father braving the building ledge to reach the locked bathroom, only to be caught in the pouring rain. 

I really don’t understand the negativity of some of my colleagues. Yes, societal mores have changed, but there is much to enjoy. Above all, it provides a delicious vehicle for its two stars to demonstrate their considerable expertise. 

The design team has done an ace classy job. John Lee Beatty’s handsomely detailed set design earns applause from the get-go, Jane Greenwood’s costumes conjure the era perfectly, and there’s predictably first-class work from Brian MacDevitt (lighting), Scott Lehrer’s (sound), and Marc Shaiman (incidental music)

There’s solid support from Eric Wiegand as a bellman and the recalcitrant daughter’s intended fiancé; Danny Bolero as a waiter; and Molly Ranson as the skittish bride-to-be.

(Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street; 855-801-5876 or; through June 26)

Photos by Joan Marcus: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick