Friday, August 5, 2022

Into the Woods (St. James Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

It seemed a foregone conclusion that the ecstatically received final production of this past season’s Encores -- the first under the aegis of new Artistic Director Lear DeBessonet -- would make the leap to Broadway, and indeed -- like “Wonderful Town,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Gypsy,” and most profitably, “Chicago” -- so it has, first for an announced limited eight-week run, and now extended for a further eight weeks. 

When Encores chose Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” as the third show of its 2022 season, there was no harsher critic than I in grousing that such a familiar show -- and one that had no less than two admirable New York revivals during the past decade (The Public’s in 2012, Roundabout/Fiasco’s in 2014), not to mention Rob Marshall’s excellent film also in 2014 -- was off mission for a series dedicated to rarely heard American musicals. And I still believe that is so.

However, one can’t argue with success and quality, for after launching the season with the mediocre “Tap Dance Kid,” and a dispiriting reworking of “The Life,” Ms. DeBessonet herself did an absolutely splendid job directing “Into the Woods,” beautifully cast across the board, and revelatory in much of its detail.

Not all of the City Center cast were available to make the transition, but the newbies are a distinguished lot: Brian Darcy James (vocally and dramatically reliable as always) as the Baker, Patina Miller (alternately forceful and tender) as the Witch, Joshua Henry (demonstrating his rarely seen comic chops) as Rapunzel’s Prince, Aymee Garcia (appropriately fraught) as Jack’s Mother, and Nancy Opel (amusing) as Cinderella’s Stepmother. At the reviewed performance, Phillipa Soo as Cinderella was out, but her excellent understudy Diane Phelan delivered a finely sung portrayal. Alysia Velez handled Rapunzel’s ethereal vocalise well. Gavin Creel as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf was on temporary leave, but was replaced by the estimable Cheyenne Jackson no less.

Of the Encores veterans, Sara Bareilles returned for her truly outstanding turn as the Baker’s Wife, skillfully adjusting her performance for a different chemistry than she had with City Center’s Neil Patrick Harris. David Patrick Kelly struck absolutely the right tone as the Narrator/Mysterious Man. Julia Lester was even more riotous as a bloodthirsty Little Red Ridinghood. Cole Thompson was very appealing as Jack, delivering a fine “Giants in the Sky.” Other welcome returning cast members were Ta’Nika Gibson as Lucinda, Annie Golden as Cinderella’s Mother, Granny, and the voice of the Giant, Brooke Ishibashi as Florinda, Albert Guerzon as Cinderella’s Father, and David Turner as the Steward.


Every one of the musical numbers was afforded an outstanding interpretation: Bareilles’ “Moments in the Woods; her duet with James, “It Takes Two”; his “No More,” sung with Kelly; Miller’s “Stay With Me”; Jackson and Henry’s “Agony”; and Lester’s “I Know Things Now” were all strongly delivered. So it's good news that a CD of this cast will be forthcoming.


The comedy seemed a bit broader than at Encores, but that’s my only small carp as it’s only a subtle shift in that direction. Lorin Latarro created the witty choreography


The production team was again excellent. David Rockwell’s relatively spare but clever scenic design, lit by Tyler Micoleau, was just as it was on the City Center stage. Andrea Hood’s costumes were fairy tale perfect.  Scott Lehrer & Alex Neumann’s sound design was exemplary: cleanly focused and beautifully balanced, a rarity these days. James Ortiz’s puppet design, most especially the scene-stealing cow Milky White (wittily manipulated by puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa) was a delight, and Cookie Jordan’s Hair, Wigs & Makeup were other strong elements including Miller’s transformation from old crone Witch to glamorpuss was deftly handled.

This first New York production of a Sondheim musical produced after his death last November was received with rock concert appreciation from the moment the curtain rose, rousing affirmation of the show’s popularity and the general buzz about this production, and continued unabated throughout the evening. 

Outgoing Encores Musical Director Rob Berman led an orchestra attuned to every nuance in the score. 

Even as “Into the Woods” would seem to indicate there can be no fairy tale happy endings, its themes of forgiveness and tolerance are the more predominant takeaway, and as such, apart from its considerable entertainment value, the revival is most judiciously timed and welcome. 

(St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street;; through October 16)

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made: Sara Bareilles & Brian D’arcy James

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Kite Runner (The Hayes Theater)

By Harry Forbes

This stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's 2003 international bestseller, made into a film in 2007, premiered back in 2009 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, and has finally made it to Broadway via the U.K.’s Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, and Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End in 2016.

Amir Arison from TV’s “The Blacklist”  plays the tale’s protagonist, aptly named Amir, and quite a marathon part it is. On stage almost every minute of the show’s two-and-a-half hours, Arison narrates the tale and evolves from naive12-year-old boy to responsible manhood.

Though some have criticized the play for being so narrative heavy, I was engrossed throughout. And those at my performance were similarly transfixed. It was that "hear-a-pin-drop" concentration that signals an absolutely rapt audience. 

As Amir begins his saga with his privileged childhood in Kabul and the happy times -- kite flying among the pastimes -- spent with his best friend Hassan (Eric Sirakian, very touching), son of the devoted manservant Ali (Evan Zes) to Amir’s wealthy widowed father Baba (Faran Tahir). The boys are inseparable but the inherent class distinction -- Amir a privileged Pashtun, and illiterate Hassan the lower class Hazara -- is never forgotten in Amir’s mind. 

When the steadfastly loyal Hassan attempts to retrieve a downed kite for Amir after the local competition, he encounters the local bully Assef (Amir Malaklou), and he is set upon and sexually assaulted. Amir fearfully watches everything from a hidden position and, shamefully, does nothing to help the boy. This cowardly act, and several others that follow, haunt Amir ever after and propels the action. 

Years later, after the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan, Amir and his father flee to San Francisco. There, Amir falls in love with Soraya (warmly sympathetic Azita Ghanizada), daughter of one of Baba’s formerly powerful friends, General Taheri (Houshang Touzie), now a flea market stall proprietor. Eventually, a message from a longtime family friend, Rahim (Dariush Kashani), now in Pakistan, brings Amir back to Afghanistan to make amends for his youthful misdeeds.

The performances are all excellent, and Arison, in addition to demonstrating his remarkable stamina, helps us understand his character’s less-than-admirable qualities, making his ultimate redemption all the more moving. Tahir is very strong as the stern but loving father. And Kashani impresses with his multiple roles besides that of Rahim. 

Playwright Matthew Spangler has skillfully adapted Hosseini’s book, and thanks to the storytelling structure, manages to cram plenty of incident into it. 

Director Giles Croft keeps things moving at an absorbing pace. Barney George’s scenic and costume designs, lighted by Charles Balfour, are evocative, while Salar Nader’s tabla musical accompaniment (Jonathan Girling, composer) adds to the authentic Middle Eastern atmosphere, along with William Simpson’s projection design.. 

Despite the protracted road to Broadway, there’s nothing tired about this vibrant and absorbing production which I warmly recommend. 

(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; or 212-239-6200; through October 30)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Amir Arison and Eric Sirakian