Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Sugar (J2 Spotlight)

By Harry Forbes

It was a brilliant programming decision, to be sure: reviving “Sugar,” the 1972 adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1959 “Some Like It Hot” film, at the same time as the new musical version is currently packing them in on Broadway. 

The plot line of each follows the narrative of the movie, though “Sugar” adheres much more closely to the original concept and dialogue. You have sax player Joe (Chris Cherin) and bass player Jerry (Andrew Leggieri) taking on drag disguise with an all-girl band run by Sweet Sue (Lexi Rhoades). It’s 1929 Chicago, and gangsters, who know Joe and Jerry witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, are hot on their heels. Once in the band, Joe (now Josephine) falls hard for ukulele player/vocalist Sugar Kane (Alexandra Amadao Frost), and Jerry (now Daphne) is pursued by the wealthy and randy Osgood Fielding III (Richard Rowan).

The show fits thematically into J2 Spotlight’s season of musicals derived from movies, including “The Goodbye Girl,” coming up next. The season opened with a very impressive production of Kander & Ebb’s “Woman of the Year,” directed, like all the J2 shows, by the very talented Robert M. Schneider.

What’s clear from the start here is that the score by Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) is a good one. Not on the level of their prior collaboration (“Funny Girl”), but quite enjoyable on its own terms.

Production-wise, comparisons are a case of apples and oranges, as this small-scale mounting can’t compare with Broadway. Generally, these J2 productions are beautifully designed, but on this occasion, the scope of the show -- which encompasses a train, hotel rooms, nightclubs, and a yacht -- could only be barely realized. So, too, the action didn’t have much breathing space on the compact Theatre Row stage. As it was, everything felt rather scrunched even with Schneider’s always resourceful choices. 

Apart from a restored ballad for Sugar Kane -- “The People in My Life” -- cut from the original production, J2 performs the score as it was heard on Broadway, and eschews the radical changes made for the 1992 London premiere which starred Tommy Steele. (That revival closed early when Steele was injured on stage.)

As Joe and Jerry, Chris Cherin and Andrew Leggieri were solid, amusing in their female getups, though less flashily attired by costume director Gabe Bagdazian than were originators Tony Roberts and Robert Morse. They handle their opening duets --- “Penniless Bums” and “The Beauty That Drives Men Mad” -- with aplomb and shine in their climatic solos: Jerry’s “Magic Nights” and Joe’s “It’s Always Love.”

Joe actually takes on a second disguise -- a Shell Oil millionaire -- for which Cherin affects a posh upper crust accent rather than Tony Curtis’ Cary Grant voice in the movie. Curtis, by the way, starred as Osgood in a touring production years after the original.

Like role creator Elaine Joyce, Alexandra Amadao Frost has the thankless task of creating an original persona to match Marilyn Monroe’s iconic performance. And she does indeed telegraph her own brand of innocence, and renders Sugar’s yearning for a better life touchingly.

Oren Korenbum, tap-dancing mobster Spats, flanked by henchmen Dude (Caleb James Grochalski) and Lucky (Bobby MacDonnell) are all good but they really needed a more expansive playing area. And there was good character work too from Jordan Ari Gross as band manager Bienstock.

Accompaniment was under the confident leadership of Lindsay Noel-Miller (also piano), and three of the six musicians -- Jessica Stanley (trombone), Kate Amrine (trumpet), and Katy Faracy (alto saxophone) -- doubled as musicians in Sweet Sue’s onstage band, a clever (and pragmatic) touch.

(Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street; www.j2spotlightnyc.com; April 27 - May 7)

Photos: (above) Alexandra Amadeo Frost

(below) Andrew Leggieri, Chris Cherin, & Jordan Ari Gross

Friday, May 5, 2023

Iolanthe (or The Peer and the Peri) (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

It’s only May, but I’m betting dollars to donuts that this starry production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s seventh comic opera will be reckoned New York’s G&S event of the year. 

Director/conductor Ted Sperling continued his winning streak of superlative musicals and operettas for this latest annual MasterVoices spring event. He had previously mounted “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance” with felicitous results, but this was arguably the best of all. 

What a pleasure to hear Arthur Sullivan’s overture, melancholy and sprightly by turns, played so superbly and with such seriousness of purpose. And the action that followed was not in any way camped up. 

For non-Savoyard readers,  W.S. Gilbert’s plot concerns Strephon (Schyler Vargas), an Arcadian shepherd, who loves shepherdess Phyllis (Ashley Fabian), ward of The Lord Chancellor (David Garrison). She, in turn, is being wooed by the upper crust twits, Earls Mountararat (Santino Fontana) and Tolloller (Jason Danieley). What Phyllis doesn’t know is that her betrothed is the son of the fairy Iolanthe (Shereen Ahmed), sent into exile years before (under fairy law) for marrying a mortal. (Spoiler: her husband was the Lord Chancellor, who believes Iolanthe died years earlier). Strephon is thus a fairy (but only down to the waist).

The Queen of the Fairies (Christine Ebersole) is stern but softhearted and allows Iolanthe to come back from her banishment. This causes all sorts of complications with Phyllis when Strephon is spied speaking to his mother who, as fairies are immortal, appears to be a woman younger than he. All this was played absolutely straight, with no cheap gags, or audience snickering, about being “half a fairy.”

The large MasterVoices chorus was positioned upstage behind the MasterVoices Orchestra, except for the March of the Peers, that number spine-tinglingly positioned in the score after the quiet and bucolic tunes which precede it. With a burst of brass, Sperling had the huge tenor/bass contingent enter dramatically from the wings and parade around the stage. 

The sopranos and altos (as fairies) were upstage all evening, except for the principals including Nicole Eve Goldstein (Celia), Kaitlin LeBaron (Leila), and Emy Zener (Fleta), all excellent. And there was the delightful addition of Tiler Peck from the New York City Ballet as a Dancing Fairy who flitted in and out most attractively, and contributed to the magical atmosphere. And it was such a relief Sperling eschewed the frequent vulgarization of having the fairies stomp about to the beat of the music. 

The cast was a deft mixture of Broadway and opera performers and, as with past MasterVoices productions, the blend worked seamlessly. From the former, Ebersole wasn’t a traditional Fairy Queen, normally cast with a deep contralto, but she made her well trained, light soprano work beautifully for the part and she didn’t miss a comic beat. Her second act ballad “Oh, foolish fay” was her vocal highlight.

Garrison, on book mostly but ironically not the tongue-twisting bravura “Nightmare Song,” adapted his persona well to the crusty Lord Chancellor, though his English accent was a bit hit or miss, also true of some of the others.  

Danieley and Fontana made a highly amusing pair of stuck-up peers, and their dialogue about which of them should make the sacrifice not to marry Phyllis, a comic highlight. They sang beautifully: Danieley’s big moment was “Spurn Not the Nobly Born” in the first act; Fontana’s “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” in the second. 

The young lovers were vocally and dramatically strong. As Strephon is only a fairy down to the waist, Vargas was outfitted (by costume designer Tracy Christensen) in shorts, which visualized this dichotomy and made a droll picture. His comic timing and delivery were as impressive as his strong baritone. Fabian also sang strongly and conveyed Phyllis’ cool ambition and self-awareness. 

Ahmed, like Ebersole, was cast counter to the traditional voice type. Iolanthe is usually a mezzo but the part suited Ahmed’s sweet soprano, and her poignant plea for Strephon near the end was as moving as I’ve ever heard it.

And I mustn’t forget Phillip Boykin’s Private Willis which was really outstanding and his second act opener, “When all night long a chap remains,” got one of the biggest ovations of the evening, along with Garrison's "Nightmare Song." 

Christensen’s designs for the fairies and peers was just right for this semi-staged concert. And there were clear white supertitles for the lyrics, and even green footnotes for some of the arcane references.

Sperling’s directorial decisions every step of the way seemed absolutely apt, and his musical leadership impeccable. I look forward to his next foray into G&S whenever that may be. 

(Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, 881 Seventh Avenue; carnegiehall.org;  May 3 only)

Photos by Toby Tenenbaum: Top: Cast

Below: (l.-r.) Ebersole, Ahmed

(l.-r.) Fabian, Vargas, Ahmed

(l.-r.) Garrison, Fabian, Danieley, Fontana

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Cyrano de Bergerac (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

“You’re about to see a flop,” VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott impishly teased the packed house a few moments before the curtain parted for Victor Herbert’s 1899 adaptation of Rostand’s great play. Rostand’s original had been written a mere two years earlier, and was well known to American audiences from both Richard Mansfield’s authorized production, and various burlesque adaptations.

Adapting the play on this occasion was the brainchild of noted comic opera star Francis Wilson, who was also producing. He apparently hoped to combine his much praised buffoonery with something classier. But book writer Stuart Reed, by all accounts, failed to find a balance between the serious and the lowdown comic elements. Herbert, for his part, wrote a score in keeping of Rostand. The result was an uneasy mix, and the piece did indeed shutter after a mere 28 performances. (A subsequent tour was no more successful.) Mixed reviews acknowledged the quality of the music, but felt Wilson’s comic antics were discordantly out of place.

As the original book is now lost (or at least unavailable), Mott had no choice but to write her own libretto based on Rostand, restoring a tragic ending (unlike Reed’s version) and shoehorning Herbert’s tunes to fit. 

Mott’s version was first heard in a 1999 concert with the Little Orchestra Society at Lincoln Center. The late Dino Anagnost conducted his large orchestra and New Yorkers experienced the score for the first time in a century. A piano-only version production with a cast of five with her brand new VHRP group followed in 2013. The current performance expands those editions to something approaching full-length, though three acts have been condensed to two, there’s been some shuffling of song order to accommodate the new book, and some verses of individual songs have been cut. (Some of those were so tuneful, I regretted not hearing the second verse.) As far as I can judge, only two songs have been cut completely: the Chorus of Poets, and Cyrano’s “Diplomacy” number. 

The well-known plot follows its usual course: poet/soldier Cyrano (Matthew Wages) loves Roxane (Hannah Holmes), his distant cousin, but presumes she couldn’t love him because of his large nose. (We have to take that on faith, as there are no prosthetics used here). She, in turn, falls for the handsome but inarticulate cadet Christian (Ai Ra). Out of love for Roxane, Cyrano agrees to equip Christian with the eloquent words he needs for wooing.

What is evident -- as was the case with Mott’s prior productions -- is that the work is a piece of quality, and one can empathize with the reaction of those 19th century critics who recognized it as such, but bemoaned the lack of voices to do the score justice. Though praising the chorus and orchestra, the Times wrote, “So far as the solo numbers went, one had to guess what most of them would sound like if they were well sung.”

Such was decidedly not the case with VHRP’s current cast. Wages’ Cyrano was strongly sung and authoritatively acted with no silly clowning. He nailed his numbers like “Song of the Nose” and his duets with Roxane with rich tone and sincere feeling.  

And Holmes’ Roxane sang with firm voice and, like Wages, exemplary diction, no doubt trumping the role’s originator, one Lulu Glaser. “I Am a Court Coquette,” the waltz “I Wonder,” and “Over the Mountains” were beautifully vocalized. 

Jonathan Hare was outstanding as Le Bret leading a rousing “Cadets of Gascony” and, later, as the Minstrel, excelled in “‘Neath Thy Window.”

Wages, Holmes, and Ra had two exceptionally lovely trios: “Let the Sun of Thine Eyes” and “Since I Am Not For Thee.” (Ra led the men in “The King’s Musketeers” song but had no other solo moments.) And mention must be made of a truly luscious a cappella male chorus, “In Bivouac Reposing.” Jesse Pimpinella, who doubled as Montfluery, the actor whom Cyrano runs off the stage in the opening scene, had a lovely solo part in this. Jack Cotterell played Cyrano’s nemesis, Comte de Guiche, and capably served as the evening’s narrator. looking back on the play’s events of 1640. 

Company veteran David Seatter -- 2013’s narrator -- brought his seasoned expertise to poetry-loving cook Ragueneau, and the befuddled Capuchin monk who is tricked into performing the marriage ceremony for Roxane and Christian. The strong voiced ensemble -- including Sarah Beasdale, Alexa Rosenberg, Joanie Brittingham, Justin Daley, Andrew Buck, Karen Mason, Josaphat Contreras, and Keith Broughton -- impressed from the show’s first moments, and made all the choral numbers count. 

Michael Thomas led a superlative performance in the pit from the catchy overture onwards, with William Hicks at piano and the New Victor Herbert Orchestra, a very welcome expansion from the piano only version in 2013. Viva la Difference!

Mott’s stage direction, abetted by choreographer Christine Hall, visualized the story clearly and filled the fairly wide St. Jean’s stage most effectively.

One might say that Rostand’s play, so perfect in itself, needs no music, but that hasn’t stopped composers from trying including operatic versions by Walter Damrosch and Franco Alfano, and several successful musical theater adaptations. But in Mott’s edition, Herbert’s largely forgotten work emerges as a strong contender.

(The Theater at St. Jeans, 170 E. 76th Street; www.vhrplive.org; April 25-27)

Production photos by Jill LeVine

Top to Bottom:  

“Cyrano de Bergerac” company

(L-R) Matthew Wages, Ai Ra, Hannah Holmes

(L-R) Matthew Wages, Hannah Holmes

(L-R)  Justin Daley, Josaphat Contreras, Hannah Holmes, Keith Broughton, Andrew Buck

(L.-R) Jack Cotterell, Matthew Wages

(L-R)  Josaphat Contreras, Alexa Rosenberg, Andrew Buck, Karen Mason, Justin Daley, Joanie Brittingham, Sarah Bleasdale, Keith Broughton, Jesse Pimpinella

The VHRP LIVE! Company of Cyrano de Bergerac

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Camelot (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Director Bartlett Sher's winning streak of lavish musical revivals at the Vivian Beaumont has hit something of a bump with the current mounting of Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe's classic 1960 musical derived from T.H. White's “The Once and Future King.”

With a new book by Sher's sometime collaborator Aaron Sorkin -- one which largely robs the narrative of love, romance, and passion -- and a striking but overly austere setting by Michael Yeargan, this revival isn’t exactly dull but, by the same token, not greatly satisfying.

Andrew Burnap, Tony winner for “The Inheritance,” is an intelligent actor, and he has some particularly strong moments in the second act, but especially as no one uses English accents here, registers as less "kingly than the great Arthurs of the past like Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Laurence Harvey, (and more recently) Gabriel Byrne and Jeremy Irons. So, too, Arthur really should be older than Lancelot who, as we learn in the original Act One close, speaks of Lancelot as an ideal friend, brother, and son. (In “The Once and Future King,” Lancelot journeys from France to Camelot in the first place because he grew up hearing of Arthur’s roundtable.) 

Phillipa Soo is a lovely Guenevere with a proper regal bearing and enunciation, and sings impressively with a decent soprano top but, thanks to Sorkin’s book, comes across as rather chilly. Jordan Donica as Lancelot is an imposing presence with a powerful baritone. Donica’s entrance from the rear of the stage, as if coming over the horizon, is wonderfully effective, and his boastful entrance song, “C’est Moi,” strongly vocalized. By contrast, his once chart-topping second act ballad, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” seems consciously soft-pedaled to avoid being a “big” moment.

Sorkin has taken magic and miracles out of the story, which, given the source material, is akin to denuding “The Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” of their magical elements. Merlyn is a wise man not a wizard; Morgan Le Fey (Marilee Talkington) a scientist, not a sorceress. And so on. The relatable humanity of Lerner’s original “Camelot” script was surely not in the least diminished by co-existing with the magical elements. 

Sorkin makes sure that Guenevere is here a decisive “modern” woman with agency. Her marriage to Arthur is one of political necessity (“business partners” as the script has it) to keep the peace between England and France, similar to Shakespeare’s Henry V wooing his Katherine. The title song, wherein Arthur charms Guenevere with his description of the perfect weather of Camelot, is here tiresomely stressed by Sorkin as being merely figurative. (Did audiences ever think otherwise?)

The script's overall lingo, expletives included, is very present day contemporary and politically correct at every turn. The sense of deep love and kinship the three principals should have for each other is missing.

Dakin Matthews is outstanding as Merlyn and then as Pellinore. Taylor Trensch is brattily menacing as Arthur's illegitimate son, and delivers “The Seven Deadly Virtues” well enough. The three principal knights -- Sir Sagramore (Fergie Philippe), Sir Lionel (Danny Wolohan), and Sir Dinadan (Anthony Michael Lopez) -- are played rather villainously. 

As with the prior Sher productions, LCT has not scrimped on the musical side of things.  And though Frederick Loewe's score doesn't afford nearly as many opportunities for orchestral splendor at “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” or “My Fair Lady,”  the sounds from the pit, heard in their original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang (and Trude Rittmann’s dance and choral arrangements), under the baton of Kimberly Grigsby, rate as one of this production's strongest assets.

However, there are cuts. Apart from a little orchestral underscoring, “Follow Me,” originally sung by the cut character of Nimue, is excised. As is half of Arthur's “How To Handle A Woman” (nicely sung by Burnap). I can understand cutting the middle section - “Merlyn told me once: Never be too disturbed if you don’t understand what a woman is thinking. They don’t do it often” -- but this is one of the gems of the score and it's given surprisingly short shrift. By compensation, “Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” cut from the original production and subsequent ones, but known from the original cast album and the 1967 movie, is restored. Guenevere’s “The Lusty Month of May” number has some nice maypole choreography by Byron Easley, but the show affords little opportunity for dance otherwise.

The sequence known as “The Jousts” wherein the chorus describes how Lancelot defeats the three knights against which he is competing, is gone altogether. That sequence is replaced by a sword fight (well staged by seasoned fight director B.H. Barry), wherein Arthur inexplicably takes the place of the third knight. Originally, Lancelot vanquishes Sir Lionel, running him through with his lance, but then brings him back to life, a miracle that is possible because of his genuine moral purity at that point. Here, Lancelot knocks Arthur unconscious and when it is proclaimed a miracle, Arthur sloughs all that off as superstition. No miracles allowed in Sorkin’s telling.

And I must also mention that Lancelot has here appropriated Guenevere's lovely "I Loved You Once in Silence." Well sung, but why?

The moving final scene of the show wherein Arthur exhorts young Tom of Warwick (actually future “Morte D’Arthur” author Thomas Mallory) to run to safety and tell the world the story of Camelot, is largely spoiled by the stiff performance of the young actor in that small but pivotal role. 

Michael Yeargan’s set, dominated by concentric arches, encompasses the entire width and depth of the  Beaumont stage and would be an ideal setting for, say, Shakespeare's War of the Roses plays. But staged on such a vast canvas, this Camelot seems strangely under populated. It’s a far cry from Oliver Smith’s colorful fairytale bright sets of the original production, and also art director John Truscott’s rich green and gold naturalistic hues of the film. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are plush but dark like the set, apart from the “Lusty Month of May” sequence.

Still, for all its shortcomings, there's enough quality here to make the show worth your time though musical theater buffs will know they’re not getting the genuine article. The film, despite some excesses and star Richard Harris's sometimes mannered emoting, is there to remind us how the show should go, especially as Lerner’s own screenplay skillfully solved some of the problematic elements of his original stage script. 

(Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65 Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photos by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Phillipa Soo, Andrew Burnap, Dakin Matthews, Jordan Donica, and company

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

The Harder They Come (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The 1972 Perry Henzell Jamaican film starring Jimmy Cliff was an international hit and spawned an influential soundtrack album that put reggae on the map. But still, the story of singer Ivan, who comes to Kingston from the country with dreams of becoming a singer and, frustrated at every turn by the establishment, turns to crime, might seem an unlikely subject for a musical. 

The remarkable Suzan-Lori Parks has made it work, melding the Cliff songs with new ones of her own for a seamless whole. The plot and much of the dialogue mirrors the film but there are significant revisions. As a program note informs us, Parks “creates a new set of complex, vital relationships  between Ivan and everyone around him…What is the personal cost of fighting against systemic injustice? When is violence justified? And ultimately, how can we rediscover our collective sense of joy?”

That may sound a bit high-handed, but the revamp worked for me, and despite a tragic fate of its antihero, the overall tone is surprisingly joyous and upbeat. (Actually, in its juxtaposition of cheerful music and ultra-serious plot, I was reminded of Paul Simon’s short-lived “The Capeman.”)  Music supervisor Kenny Seymour’s orchestrations and arrangements beguile the ear throughout. The movie songs like “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” which were used as underscoring in the film, become character songs for Ivan and the others.

The production is superbly cast, headed as it is by Natey Jones as anti-hero Ivan who gives an outstanding performance both dramatically and vocally. (Jones has an impressive resume of West End credits, as well as the National Theatre and RSC.) You get a real visceral sense of his character’s frustration and growing impatience with the continuing roadblocks in his way to getting his song played. Ivan becomes more of a hothead and increasingly difficult to love as the show goes on, but Jones offers a vivid warts and all portrayal.

Meecah is lovely as the sweet girl he meets and falls in love with when he at first seeks refuge with a church group run by Preacher, the girl’s questionable guardian, and there’s good work by Jeannette Bayardelle as Ivan’s mother. Also outstanding are versatile Jacob Ming-Trent as Pedro who befriends Ivan and, when the chips are down, convinces Ivan to be part of drug lord Jose’s (Dominique Johnson) gang, and Ken Robinson as Hilton, who rules the Kingston music scene with an iron hand, exploiting Ivan and presumably everyone else. 

Beautifully staged by Tony Taccone (with co-direction by Sergio Trujillo) with choreography by Edgar Godineaux, the show holds your interest from start to finish. Clint Ramos & Diggle’s scenic design, atmospherically lit by Japhy Weideman, and dressed by costume designer Emilio Sosa, conjure up the Kingston milieu skillfully. And Walter Trarbach’s sound design is nicely balanced, and not the assault on the senses of so many musicals these days.

Perhaps in 2023, the movie’s title doesn’t have the cachet it might have once had, limiting its commercial appeal. But in every other respect,  I’d say the show is Broadway worthy. 

As it is, the Public’s run ends this week, but if you can find time during these busy days of Passover and Easter, “The Harder They Come” is very much worth your time..

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; publictheater.org ;through April 9)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Natey Jones (center) and the company

Monday, April 3, 2023

The Coast Starlight (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

How many films and plays have we seen wherein a motley set of characters interact aboard a ship, a plane, or a train? But Keith Bunin’s absorbing and ultimately moving play -- which was commissioned and premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2019 -- gives that old formula a novel twist.

Aboard the train from Los Angeles to Seattle known as The Coast Starlight, six solitary passengers have minimal physical or verbal interaction as they sit in their respective seats, but their innermost thoughts about the fellow travelers, and the imagined conversations that ensue, play out with mesmerizing dramatic potency.

The focal point is T.J., a young Navy medic stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, beautifully played by Will Harrison in an auspicious New York theater debut. T.J. is due back at base for redeployment to Afghanistan, but he’s gone AWOL. As the train wends its way, he wonders if he should, in fact, disembark, and head back while there’s still time.

HIs troubled demeanor catches the attention of animation artist Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá) who watches him across the aisle, surreptitiously sketching him while wondering about his stricken expression.

As the train heads on its northward course, they are joined by army vet Noah (Rhys Coiro), now making ends meet with bartending and various odd jobs, and traveling to see his aging mother. And then boisterous 40-something Liz (Mia Barron) who bursts into thei car loudly and profanely detailing the seamy details of breaking up with her boyfriend during a couples workshop over her cell phone. Her hilarious monologue is delivered with showstopping bravura. When T.J. shyly asks her if she’s alright after this emotional tirade (one of the few actual verbal interactions in the play), Liz apologizes to everyone in the car, and offers to buy drinks for all. 

Before long, they’re joined by alcoholic and embittered businessman Ed (Jon Norman Schneider) whose inner rage is palpable as he sets the others nervously on edge. And finally, Anna (Michelle Wilson), a lesbian mother of two, who is just returning from identifying the body of her estranged dead brother. She, too, notices T.J.’s troubled mien, and offers him her sleeping compartment for the night. 

The compassion shown by the characters, all grappling with their individual dilemmas, is profoundly touching.

The performances, under the sensitive direction of Tyne Rafaeli,  couldn't be better. And Arnulfo Maldonado’s turntable set moodily lighted by Lap Chi Chu, against a backdrop of 59 Productions’ projections, captures the essence of the train’s movement and the passage of its 36-hour time most beautifully..

Though in this day and age, opening up to your seatmates on your next trip may not be the safest or most sensible course of action, Bunin’s intensely humanistic worldview here makes that prospect seem wonderfully appealing. 

This exquisitely crafted and performed play is very much worth your time.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65 Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 ; through April 16)

Photo by T. Charles Erickson: (l.-r.) Mia Barron, Rhys Coiro, Michelle Wilson, Will Harrison and Jon Norman Schneider.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Bad Cinderella (Imperial Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Andrew Lloyd Webber has already had a crack at another iconic children's tale, “The Wizard of Oz,” though it was only a partial score, as he was supplementing the familiar Harold Arlen / Yip Harberg tunes from the MGM film.

His take on Cinderella is all his. But it might as well be the work of two composers: the Lloyd Webber of lush romantic melodies and the Lloyd Webber of pastiche pop and rock. The blend of both has often paid off several times, most lucratively with “The Phantom of the Opera.” But here it's a frustrating mix.

The lush ballroom music, a couple of the romantic ballads especially the Prince's "Only You, Lonely You" and Cinderella's "Far Too Late," as well as felicitous bits and pieces throughout are, taken on their own terms, really quite nice and make one wish this were a full-out romantic telling of the Perrault/Grimm story.

As it is, it's a goofy feminist riff on the tale, courtesy of Emerald Fennell, screenwriter of the clever “Promising Young Woman.” (Alexis Scheer is credited with additional script material.) Douglas Carter Beane’s script revision of the Rodgers & Hammerstein “Cinderella” last on Broadway brought the story more up-to-date but arguably in a much more tasteful, and still amusing, way. They’ve set this one in a town called Belleville, where beauty is the superficially guiding principle. The Godmother (Christina Acosta Robinson) is part beautician/part plastic surgeon.

Fennell’s Cinderella is a grumpy goth gal  who, in less enlightened times might have been termed a tomboy. And Prince Sebastian is actually the awkward and shy younger brother of the more famous Prince Charming who has been missing in action and presumed dead. Sebastian and Cinderella have been sparring buddies since childhood but it takes them two acts to realize that their easygoing friendship is, in fact, love.

Cinderella's stepmother is as ambitious as tradition makes her but has less control of Cinderella who, in this girl power telling, has plenty of agency. She's played with scene-stealing panache by Carolee Carmelo who gives her every line a delicious comic spin, finding nuances that, at least on the basis of the London cast LP, were missed by her U.K. counterpart.

Carmelo has a worthy adversary in Grace McLean as the Queen who harbors a surprisingly kinky admiration for her missing son. And their bitchy duet "I Know You" is the show’s witty highlight. It also happens to be veteran lyricist David Zippel’s best work here. Otherwise, the reliable Zippel, who previously teamed with Lloyd Webber for “The Woman in White,” is less than inspired, pandering, like the show in general, to a puerile audience.

Fennell’s script is filled with inconsistencies and head scratching moments. Again, on the basis of the London album, it would seem there have been some dialogue changes. There is, in addition, some new music and a reordering of some numbers.

Though admittedly a subjective opinion, the character of Cinderella, as written, is simply not appealing enough to keep us rooting for her, though Linedy Genao plays her well enough and socks over the power ballads to maximum effect. These include the rather monotonous title song, which includes a brief nod to “In My Own Little Corner” from Richard Rodgers’ “Cinderella” score, and “I Know I Have a Heart (Because You Broke It),” the thrust of which would seem to harken back to the Tin Man’s sentiments in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Jordan Dobson is very appealing as hapless Sebastian and his “Only You, Lonely You” ballad is arguably the best of the bunch. Curiously, virtually all of these pieces are soliloquies for either Cinderella or Sebastian.

Sami Gayle and Morgan Higgins are amusing as Cinderella's vain ambitious sisters in the usual manner. And when -- small spoiler -- Prince Charming eventually shows up, he's played with testosterone-fueled bravado by Cameron Loyal. (All the men in the town are ripped hunks.)

Laurence Connor directs the material at hand capably, with choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter. (The ball is nicely handled.) Gareth Owen’s sound design is pitched at standard Broadway decibels, which is to say, loud.

Gabriela Tylesova’s sets and costumes are certainly eye filling and fun on their own terms

If Lloyd Webber ever chooses to make a symphonic suite of this score, as he's done with so many of his previous shows, there would actually be a decent amount of listenable material with which to work. But I do wish that rather than turning out yet another show geared at the Gen Z crowd so soon after “The School of Rock,” he had opted for a more mature approach to the story, as his latter-day shows like “The Woman in White, “Stephen Ward” and “Love Never Dies” at least attempted to do.

(Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street; badcinderellabroadway.com)

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman: (I.-r.) Linedy Genao and Jordan Dobson

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Parade (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This is the superbly mounted revival of the 1998 Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics)/Alfred Uhry (book) musical about the famous Leo Frank case, so widely praised after its critically acclaimed two week run at City Center, though not officially part of that venue’s Encores series, last year. A Broadway run seemed a logical next step, and here it is.

Leo Frank, a superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory in 1913, was brought to trial for the murder of a 14-year-old girl in his employ. The case was widely publicized and caught the imagination of the country with many prominent figures of the day calling for Frank’s pardon. Though almost surely innocent, as research over the years has strongly suggested, an indictment of Frank was politically expedient, fueled in part by his Jewish heritage. Sentenced to hang, though the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, Frank was ultimately abducted from jail and lynched by a self-righteous mob. 

A depressing tale to be sure, and one watches with that sense of foreboding knowing the inevitable outcome, but Uhry and Brown put the emphasis on the strong bond between Frank and his devoted wife Lucille (beautifully played by Micaela Diamond) who, much to Leo’s surprise, shows her mettle as she fights for his vindication. So there’s a sense of uplift, and bravery in the actions of Leo and Lucille who proclaim their love and commitment to each other in rapturous duets like “This Is Not Over Yet” and “All the Wasted Time.” Brown’s score is cannily crafted so that there are lighter numbers among the heavier ones. “Come Up to My Office” in the first act, and “Pretty Music” in the second, to name just two. And all the music sounds wonderful under the direction of Tom Murray.

This production uses the revisions from a 2007 Rob Ashford revival at London’s Donmar Warehouse. I don’t recall the original Hal Prince production vividly enough to say what’s been changed, but this version works very well.

The cast is first-rate. Diamond, as stated, is marvelous as Lucille and Ben Platt's Leo is equally impressive, singing superbly, and not afraid to show Frank’s chauvinistic side. The role’s memorable originator,  Brent Carver, is no longer with us, but  as fate would have it, Carolee Carmello, the original Lucille, is right across the street stopping the show as Bad Cinderella’s conniving stepmother in the Lloyd Webber musical of the same name. 

In the large ensemble cast, there are almost too many outstanding performances to mention. But I can’t resist a shout-out to Paul Alexander Nolan as relentless prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, Alex Joseph Grayson as the factory’s janitor (and, as history has it, probable killer) Jim Conley (whose second act blues number is a showstopper), Sean Allan Krill as Governor Slaton, Eddie Cooper as night watchman Newt Lee, Jay Armstrong Johnson as reporter Britt Craig, Manoel Felciano as anti-Frank publisher Tom Watson. 

Dane Laffrey’s simple but effective scenic design, dominated by Sven Ortel’s period projections, and Susan Hilferty’s costumes, pull us convincingly into the period..

Michael Arden directs with an imaginative hand, and the choreography by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant contribute to the seamless whole. 

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street; ParadeBroadway.com; through August 6)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

A Doll’s House (Hudson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

A production of Henrik Ibsen’s classic devoid of scenery, period costumes, and props hardly seems a prospect to set the heart racing. And yet, for all of that, director Jamie Lloyd’s production rates as one of the most gripping I’ve seen. 

This is a highly colloquial version by Amy Herzog (perhaps too colloquial at times as when Nora drops an f-bomb). It's performed on a dimly lit stage with voices cannily amplified by sound designers Ben and Max Ringham to a foreboding score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, all to highly compelling effect. In Lloyd's mesmerizing staging rather like a radio play, you are thus guided to listen to Ibsen’s ever-suspenseful story even more intently. 

Jessica Chastain’s Nora Helmer, seated through most of the intermission-less evening, is a triumph. She surpasses her first Broadway outing in “The Heiress.” Not entirely likable in this interpretation, at least at the start, Nora registers as boastful, vain, self-centered, materialistic, and callous. All these traits are suggested in the original text, but are boldly heightened here. Still, as the play progresses, and Nora’s secret crime (forging a signature for a loan to restore her ailing husband to health) threatens to be exposed, she earns our sympathy and the final break from her husband Torvald (staged in a rather thrilling coup de theatre which is completely apt) is powerful as ever.

Arian Moayed is as patronizing and sexist a Torvald as we’ve seen, coolly superior to Nora until he explodes volcanically after learning of Nora’s actions. As Krogstad, the money lender who threatens to expose Nora if she doesn’t prevail upon her husband to save his position at Torvald’s bank, Okieriete Onaodowan is quietly powerful, and plays the role in a far more sympathetic manner than I’ve seen before. His scenes with Nora are strikingly staged with the two of them sitting back to back, as she tries to resist his entreaties. Again, their voices propel the scene. As Krogstad’s old flame, and Nora’s friend, the widowed, impoverished Kristine, Jesmille Darbouze projects quiet strength and resolve.  

Michael Patrick Thornton, last seen here in the misguided Sam Gold “Macbeth,” makes an outstanding Dr. Rank, and his crucial scene with Nora -- rife with sexual undercurrent -- is beautifully played. And Tasha Lawrence rounds out the superlative crew as nanny Anne-Marie. (In this stripped down version, we don’t see the three Helmer children, nor the maid Helene.)

My only quibble with the production was Jon Clark’s low-lighting level which, though effective for the aforementioned reason, needed just a couple of notches more illumination. 

No one would want this interpretation to be the template for all future productions of the play. And I have comparably fond memories of fully staged mountings including Janet McTeer’s 1997 Broadway turn, and a fabulous 1982 RSC Adrian Noble production in London with Cheryl Campbell and Stephen Moore, to name just two.

This is, needless to say, a great play, and, in the right hands, rarely fails to make an impact. On this occasion, Herzog and Lloyd have done the play especially proud, presenting it with renewed relevance and immediacy.

(Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street; ADollsHouseBroadway.com; through June 10)

Photo Courtesy of A Doll’s House:

(I.-r.) Arian Moayed and Jessica Chastain