Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Gardens of Anuncia (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Composer Michael John LaChiusa honors his frequent collaborator, director/choreographer Graciela Daniele, with a loving portrait of the present day Daniele -- here named Anuncia, and winningly played by Priscilla Lopez -- looking back on her formative years in Peron-era Buenos Aires, where she was raised by her mother, aunt, and salty grandmother. 

These three -- Mami, Tía, and Granmama -- are, as you would expect, beautifully embodied by Eden Espinosa, Andréa Burns, and Mary Testa. We learn that Mami’s husband left her when Anuncia was six, and Grannmama, after early disillusionment, has been separated from her husband for many years, though he does make occasional visits and young Anuncia adores him. But otherwise, Anuncia was raised in an all-female household. 

Mami sees to it that Anuncia is enrolled in ballet class principally because of her daughter’s flat feet, but this sets Anuncia/Graciela on her path to becoming a professional dancer. To earn money for the family, Mami works in a government job in spite of her anti-Peronist political views and the potential danger of her position, a situation that does, in fact, lead to the most dramatic point in the narrative.

Besides the stellar work of the women here, various male roles are taken by Enrique Acevedo and Tally Sessions. The former plays on the grandfather and, briefly, the abusive husband/father, while the latter shines in two whimsical present day sequences wherein Anuncia is visited in her garden by a friendly deer with whom she even dances, and later, the deer’s cynical brother. 

The basic narrative is frankly not dissimilar from other stories we’ve seen of an adolescent blossoming as he/she comes to maturity, but Daniele's particular story is not without interest. Kayln West plays the young Anuncia well even though, as written, certain aspects of the character’s immaturity are exasperating and vexing. 

LaChiusa’s tango-flavored score falls pleasantly on the ear, but it’s difficult to assess the songs, beyond the fact that they are always apt and, of course, bear LaChiusa’s accomplished stamp. And though this is a small scale, almost chamber work, focusing, as it does, on a limited section of Daniele’s truly fascinating life, I found myself wanting a fuller story.

The show was originally developed and produced at the Old Globe. For the record, this is the fifth collaboration between LaChiusa and Daniele at Lincoln Center Theater, following "Hello Again" (1994), "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" (1995), "Marie Christine" (1999), and "Bernarda Alba" (2006).

This is not primarily a dancing show, though West has some balletic moments, and Espinoza has a bracing tango number. But, in the authoritative hands of director/choreographer Daniele (and co-choreographer Alex Sanchez) the overall staging is very fluid

Michael Starobin’s orchestrations under the musical direction of  Deborah Abramson put LaChiusa’s score in the best light. And Mark Wendland’s simple but evocative settings, Toni-Leslie James’ period costumes, the  lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and Drew Levy’s tasteful sound design are all state-of-the-art.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street;; through December 31)

Photo by Julieta Cervantes: (l.-r.) Eden Espinosa, Kalyn West, Mary Testa and Andréa Burns.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Monty Python’s Spamalot (St. James Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

On the face of it, one might think it rather too soon for a return of Eric Idle and John Du Pre’s musical version of the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” But then you remember that the original Tony Award-winning Best Musical production was indeed nearly 20 years ago. That fondly-recalled 2005 premiere production with Tim Curry, Hank Araiza, David Hyde Pierce, and Christian Borle, directed by Mike Nichols no less, might have seemed hard to match.

But I’m happy to report that the current mounting, sharply directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, lives up to all the felicities of the original. The script seems to be only mildly tweaked with a few contemporary references, and I count that as a good thing. Even though times have changed, and not all the gags seem as fresh as before, they generally hold up just fine. 

The basic narrative, as you may recall, involves King Arthur (versatile James Monroe Iglehart) and his trusty companion Patsy (Christopher Fitzgerald), and knights Sir Robin (Michael Urie), Sir Lancelot (Taran Killam), Sir Dennis Galahad (Nik Walker) on a comical quest to find the Holy Grail. But the show develops into a multi-faceted spoof of Broadway musicals and all manner of popular entertainment. 

This fine 2023 cast gets into the Monty Python spirit with nearly the same authenticity as the original crew who were perhaps more organically steeped in the Python ethos.  And those showstopping songs still delight and tickle the funny bone. The outrageous “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”-- as the lyric goes “if you haven’t any Jews” -- is a stitch in Urie’s expertly comedic hands, and Rhodes’ choreography with its homage to “Fiddler on the Roof” -- is highly inventive. The infectious music hall earworm “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” charmingly delivered by the delightful Fitzgerald, which opens the second act, is embraced by the audience like an old friend. Fitzgerald has some other pearly moments as he dejectedly hears King Arthur bemoans “I’m All Alone,” with nary a nod to steadfast Patsy.

Adding significantly to the fun is Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer as the Lady of the Lake who helps King Arthur on his quest. Her character is comically fashioned as an over-the-top Vegas lounge singer with every vocal cliche in the book. Sara Ramirez was great in 2005, but Kritzer makes the part her own.

Her first act duet with Walker, “The Song That Goes Like This” wherein they wring every ounce of humor out of the overwrought Broadway ballad prototype, and her second act “Diva’s Lament,” wherein she bemoans her suddenly diminished role, stops the show again. Ethan Slater, so delightful in “Spongebob Squarepants” several seasons back, again proves his comic chops in an impressive variety of roles including the narrating Historian, Not Dead Fred, and the lovelorn Prince Herbert. HIs scenes with Killam’s excellent Lancelot, who suddenly discovers his queerness, are another highlight.

Production values are all first rate, including Paul Tate DePoo III’s sets and projections, Jen Caprio’s costumes, Cory Pattak’s lighting, Kai Harada and Haley Parcher’s sound, and Tom Watson’s hair and wigs. Music Director John Bell conducts 

The audience at my performance had a rollicking good time, and if you see it, I think you’ll happily follow the show’s exhortation to “Find Your Grail.”

(St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street;; phone)

Photo by  Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman: (L to R) Michael Urie, Nik Walker, James Monroe Iglehart, Christopher Fitzgerald, Jimmy Smagula, Taran Killam

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

I Can Get It For You Wholesale (Classic Stage Company)

By Harry Forbes

Like many today, I know this musical adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s 1937 novel primarily from the 1962 cast album which features Barbra Streisand’s breakout role as harried secretary Miss Marmelstein. 

I did see a 1991 revival at the American Jewish Theatre, a production rather strangely ignored in CSC’s otherwise comprehensive timeline of the property from novel onwards, including a 1951 film with Susan Hayward, in a bit of gender swapping, as the protagonist. The Off-Broadway revival was good, as I recall, but I can’t say I remember much about it. And, in any case, the current mounting -- adapted by the playwright’s son, John Weidman, and cannily directed by Trip Cullman -- bears all the classy hallmarks of a major revival, one that I believe is every bit as worthy of a Broadway transfer as such recent shows as, say, “Harmony” and “Kimberly Akimbo.”  

Harold Rome’s score -- which always struck me as nothing special on the album -- comes through much more definitively here. Numbers that register as merely serviceable on the cast album come to vibrant life.

Against the backdrop of the Jewish milieu of the 1930s garment district, the story charts the ruthless rise of shipping clerk Harry Bogen (spectacularly embodied by Santino Fontana) who connives his way to dubious success, first by, as a strikebreaker, creating a delivery company during a major work stoppage, to creating his own dress company, Apex Modes, Inc., with the help of gullible partners, dress designer Meyer Bushkin (Adam Chanler-Berat) and seasoned salesman Teddy Asch (Greg Hildreth), all the while supported by his loving mother (Judy Kuhn) and selfless girlfriend (Rebecca Naomi Jones). 

The role of Harry, originated by Elliot Gould, plays to all of Fontana’s strengths as both solid dramatic actor and one of our top musical theater performers. His vocals are powerful, and he plays Harry’s ruthless charm to the hilt. He never sidesteps the reprehensible aspects of the character, a real bastard who makes other Broadway antiheroes like “Pal Joey” look like saints by comparison. The others are uniformly superb, including the great Kuhn in Lillian Roth’s original role. She’s the very picture of motherly devotion, and her voice is as lustrous as ever. 

Jones is lovely and believable as the devoted Ruthie, and all her numbers are standouts including her angry delivery of “On My Way to Love” with Fontana. Joy Woods plays Harry’s sultry showgirl mistress with requisite glamor and sex appeal. 

Julia Lester -- so memorable as Little Red Ridinghood in last season’s “Into the Woods” revival -- socks over her “Miss Marmelstein” number with showstopping charisma and avoids all the familiar Streisand inflections of the song to make it her very own. 

As Harry’s duped partners, Hildreth and Chanler-Berat are outstanding, and beyond the more serious aspects of their roles, each have some delightfully light musical moments: Hildreth, in duet with Woods, on “What’s In It For Me?” and Chanler-Berat on “Have I Told You Lately?” with the marvelously empathetic Sarah Steele as Meyer’s supportive wife. Also outstanding are Adam Grupper as factory manager Pulvermacher and Eddie Cooper as Harry’s original business partner Tootsie.

Cullman uses the CSC space with great dexterity and his staging has real dramatic momentum, seamlessly integrated with Ellenore Scott’s balletic choreography featuring some hora-inspired moves to match Rome’s Jewish inflected score, weaving among the versatile table motif of Mark Wendland’s scenic design. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are period perfect. 

Music Director Jacinth Greywoode’s chamber orchestrations and David Chase’s arrangements of the score are highly satisfying, and I didn’t miss the lusher Broadway charts one bit. 

(CSC, 136 East 13 Street; 212-677-4210 or; through December 17)

Photos by Julieta Cervantes:

Top: (l.-r.) Rebecca Naomi Jones and Santino Fontana 

Below: Julia Lester

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Frogs (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

Once again, conductor/director Ted Sperling and his MasterVoices forces, have triumphed with a Sondheim work, after their winning “Anyone Can Whistle” last year. “The Frogs” is an anomaly in Sondheim’s catalog, hardly a traditional musical, but more a choral piece, or so it was when first performed at Yale in 1974, and later recorded by Nonesuch, though the work was given more traditional structure in its 2004 production by Lincoln Center Theater. 

Nathan Lane, who starred in that Lincoln Center mounting, and hosted the MasterVoices semi-stage concert, in fact, had adapted Burt Shevelove’s original script (based on Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy) for that production, and Sondheim reworked and expanded the music. The result, as the MasterVoices presentation demonstrated, was alternately hilarious and profound.

For this past weekend’s three-performance run, the blue-chip cast members excelled in their respective roles. 

Douglas Sills took on Lane’s original part of Dionysos, the god of Theater and Wine, with distinction. In brief, Dionysus travels to Hades with his slave Xanthias (a funny Kevin Chamberlin) in order to bring George Bernard Shaw back to earth to help mankind. But after a competition between Shaw and Shakespeare (Eurpides and Aeschylus in the source material), the Bard’s poetic skill wins the day. Shaw was persuasively embodied by Dylan Baker who delivered a masterful recitation of one of St. Joan’s fervent speeches, while Jordan Donica offered a beautifully spoken Will Shakespeare and sang Sondheim’s moving setting of “Fear No More” gorgeously.

Marc Kudisch was in fine form as Dionysos’s preening half-brother Heracles (aka Hercules), flexing his muscles and, at one point, easing down into an impressive split. Chuck Cooper was most amusing as boatman Charon who rows the pair across the River Styx. And Peter Bartlett was a hoot recreating his 2004 role as the campiest of Plutos, delivering each line for maximum drollery. Candice Corbin had a brief but deeply moving turn as Dionysos’ late wife Ariadne. 

Lainie Sakakura devised some very apt choreography for the excellent dancers who played the eponymous frogs and Dionysian revelers. 

Though apart from the very funny “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” (here updated with the inclusion of, among other annoyances, a cell phone admonition), none of the other numbers have gotten much stand-alone play. Still, every song in the show bears that treasurable Sondheim stamp, with unmistakable echoes of tunes from the better-known Sondheim classics.

Sperling’s conducting was expertly attuned to Sondheim’s musical language,  while the MasterVoices chorus sounded glorious, positioned, as they were, on three tiers. The whole enterprise made an even better case for the show than what I remembered seeing at the Vivian Beaumont 20 years ago.

The score, nicely varied, and at times as stirring as the great "Sunday" ensemble in “Sunday in the Park with George,” was a pleasure to hear, especially when performed so definitively. 

Lane’s narration, which began with a brief history of the show and his involvement in it, was expertly done, and never detracted but only enhanced the centerstage action. 

(Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center; 10 Columbus Circle;;; Nov. 3 & 4 only)

Photo by Erin Baiano: (l.-r.) Marc Kudisch, Kevin Chamberlin, and Douglas Sills

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Ohio Light Opera Still Going Strong

By Harry Forbes

For the first time in four years, Ohio Light Opera has returned for a full indoor season of shows (though one shy of the usual seven), and with a full-sized company of players. After skipping 2020 because of COVID, there were abbreviated outdoor or partially outdoor presentations during 2021 and 2022 with reduced forces.

During this time, the talent base of the repertory company has perforce largely changed, with exceptions such as mainstay performers Spencer Reese and Jacob Allen, but I'm happy to report that with the influx of newcomers, the overall quality -- due, no doubt in large part to the leadership of Artistic Director Steven Daigle -- remains undiminished. So, too, the discreet addition of body mikes has made a welcome difference in audibility for the audience, adding just that extra bit of oomph in the expansive Freedlander auditorium.

In addition to their accomplished onstage performances, Reese continues to come up with terrific choreography for all the productions (as well as directing one this season), and Allen, the company’s assistant artistic director, directed two.

The 2023 rarities included Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s atypical final work, “Arizona Lady,” and the original 1925 version of Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach’s “No, No, Nanette” which today is better remembered for its long-running 1971 Broadway revival.

Also on the roster was “H.M.S. Pinafore,” the obligatory Gilbert and Sullivan production (reminding us that OLO was, in fact, founded 44 years ago as a company dedicated to the British duo), Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” and Broadway classics “Camelot” and “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.”

 There was particular interest among some in seeing the unadulterated, original “Camelot” to compare with director Bartlett Sher’s recently shuttered New York revival with its radically revised book by Aaron Sorkin. To cut to the chase, OLO’s production, faithful to the original text, proved infinitely superior, demonstrating that Sorkin’s wholesale revisions were in no way an improvement. Alan Jay Lerner's original script holds up just fine, and under Daigle's sensitive direction, the show was infinitely more moving than its big budget New York counterpart. And rather surprisingly, even the orchestra, under OLO Music Director Michael Borowitz, sounded lusher than the not inconsiderable 35-piece Lincoln Center orchestra. (OLO’s has about 21.)

James Mitchell, who also impressed with his well drawn tipsy boatman John Styx in “Orpheus,” offered a beautifully acted and sung King Arthur. Though he and the rest of the cast admirably played with English accents (unlike the recent New York crew), Mitchell chose to eschew broad a’s. Still, this was a fine, moving performance.

So too, Sadie Spivey’s Guenevere was sensitively acted and her singing generated comparisons with originator Julie Andrews, while Nathan Seldin’s Lancelot delivered “C’est Moi '' and “If Ever I Would Leave You” with appropriate virile panache and Vincent Gover excelled as both Merlyn and Pellinore. Matthew Reynolds made an appropriately rascally Mordred, and all the other roles were well handled.

“Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” cut from the original production after the cast album was recorded but thereafter not included in the official vocal score, was not included, nor was the randy knights’ choral “Fie on Goodness,” both of which were, in fact, reinstated at Lincoln Center. On the other hand, Nimue’s haunting “Follow Me,” sweetly sung by Sophia Masterson, and “The Jousts” sequence -- excluded in New York and replaced by a non-musical sword fight -- were back in their rightful places here, and Guenevere got back her lovely “I Loved You Once in Silence,” appropriated by Lancelot in New York.

The “Orpheus” staging utilized the late Richard Traubner’s clever 2001 translation, newly adapted by Daigle, who also directed. This was the original 1858 version, with none of the added music from Offenbach's 1874 greatly expanded version, not even the overture.

Tenor Jack Murphy's Orpheus was a well-sung comic delight. Bespectacled, lanky and limber, he drove Eurydice (superbly sung by Christine Price) to the edge of madness with his incessant fiddle playing (incidentally, quite accurately mimed, while Reese’s choreography kept him in ceaseless motion), driving her into the hands of a handsome cowboy who turns out to be Pluto, king of the Underworld, played with devilish charm by Nicholas Orth who sang his opening number from the auditorium making his way through one of the long rows before finishing onstage with an impressive falsetto flourish.

Eventually Jupiter -- played by Vincent Gover who should get a versatility award for all of his brilliantly enacted character roles this season -- and the other gods from Mount Olympus visit Hades, and Jupiter attempts to seduce Eurydice by metamorphosing into a fly. The ensuing duet between Gover, sporting witty gold hot pants along with other wacky fly accouterments, and Price, was a laugh riot, the best I’ve ever seen, as the pair worked themselves into an orgasmic lather.

Bergen Price was outstanding in the sometimes tiresome role of Public Opinion, and handled Daigle’s newly added prologue with aplomb. The Gods were all well played and sung by, among others, Lily Graham (Diana), Michelle Pedersen (Juno), Nathan Seldin (Mars), Tzytle Steinman (Venus), Sara Lucille Law (Cupid), and Margaret Langhorne (Mercury).The whole was stylishly conducted by Borowitz.

“H.M.S. Pinafore” -- performed at OLO more than any other work (135 times) -- was, by comparison with the season’s other offerings, fairly standard stuff but nonetheless a crowd pleaser.

OLO Associate Music Director Wilson Southerland conducted with customary spirit. And here was Gover again, this time as Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (which, incidentally, we learned from OLO Board Chairman Michael Miller’s pre-show talk, stands for Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath!)

I’m not sure I cared for the comic miming that director Reese devised for Corcoran and Buttercup’s “Things Are Seldom What They Seem.” which, arguably, spoiled the twist at the end more than it should, not that diehard G&S fans, who know the show by heart, would care.

Gover’s Porter, Allen’s Captain Corcoran, and Sophia Masterson’s Josephine were all capably performed. Tzytle Steinman’s Little Buttercup hardly fit her character’s “plump” descriptor, but her rich mezzo was a plus. Tenor Owen Malone stepped into the role of Ralph Rackstraw for the first time at my performance and sang with distinction.

OLO has already mounted an impressive 14 Emmerich Kálmán’s works (more than any other company in the world). His operettas are, you might be surprised to learn, the most performed of any operetta composer globally thanks to frequent productions in Eastern Europe and Russia. OLO has a few more titles to go, but they’ve finally gotten around to his last work.

 “Arizona Lady '' received its premiere in early 1954 on Bavarian radio just weeks after Kálmán’s death but was not performed on stage till six weeks later in Bern, Switzerland. It’s a fascinating piece. In many respects, it’s a European’s naive view of America but, in truth, Kálmán was an enthusiastic fan of western novels and films, and the original German libretto fashioned by his longtime collaborator Alfred Grünwald and Gustav Beer is not dissimilar from any number of B-level western movies of the time.

As such, the general narrative is fairly absorbing, but it’s a bit disconcerting when characters react to catastrophic events with remarkable equanimity, and then moments later, break into cheerful song.

Kálmán endeavored to write in a fresh Broadway style, and hearing the work in Daigle’s English translation shows the composer not far off the mark. (Jacob Allen directed.) Kálmán couldn't resist some of his trademark Hungarian strains, and heroine Lona’s entrance number is a close cousin of the numbers in “Die Csárdásfürstin'' and “Gräfin Mariza.” This is explained in the libretto by ascribing her character a partial Hungarian heritage. Thereafter, the score sounds reasonably American, far more so than, say, Puccini’s Western-themed “Fanciulla del West.” The “Yip-i-ay-o’s” don’t sound too forced. There are musically thematic similarities to “Oklahoma!” particularly in the first act “Arizona! Land Where the Cactus Bloom” number. But curiously, Kálmán’s most immediate inspiration was apparently the less-renowned 1949 “Texas, L’il Darlin’.”

Audience members of my performance had the added pleasure of watching the show along with Kálmán’s daughter Yvonne Kálmán, the lady positioned in her customary front row seat, as with past revivals there of her father’s work.

As hero Roy Dexter, Jack Murphy, the aforementioned comic Orpheus, was here transformed into a picture-perfect singing cowboy. He’s hired as foreman of “no-time-for-love” ranch owner Lona Farrell (Louisa Waycott) after she fires the last one. Ideally, I think there should have been more sense of repressed passion between the couple, something more akin to the Mariza-Tassilo dynamic of “Mariza” but, truthfully, the libretto doesn’t afford as much opportunity.

Elsewhere Tzytle Steinman as Nelly and Reese as Chester handled the lively second couple numbers amusingly. Matthew Reynolds was another bright spot as carnival fortune teller Cavarelli (alternating between his bogus Italian and authentic Irish accents), and Lily Graham had a lively bit as a shady nightclub singer who attempts to frame the hero.

The orchestra under Southerland’s baton sounded full-bodied and sumptuous, though sometimes overpowered the singers despite the aforementioned miking.

 “No, No, Nanette” was a real charmer, and for those who remembered the 70s Broadway revival, made a fascinating comparison. Some may recall theater historian John McGlinn’s memorable New York concert version of the 1925 original score in 1986, but OLO’s had the advantage of being fully staged. The Broadway revival with Ruby Keeler, Helen Gallagher, Bobby Van, Susan Watson and Patsy Kelly had spiffy new orchestrations by Ralph Burns, but the authentic original makes for a refreshingly different experience.

OLO’s reconstruction was based on materials at the University of Texas in Austin, and the production was a sensible amalgam of the Broadway and London versions, dropping the inconsequential “My Doctor” and “Payday Pauline” from the former, and using “I’ve Confessed to the Breeze” and “Take a Little One-Step” from the latter, as did the 1971 revival.

Daigle directed with requisite charm, Michael Borowitz at the baton likewise had the right period flavor, while wunderkind Spencer Reese provided miles of choreography besides playing the major role of Billy. (Borowitz also deserves credit for creating an orchestra-readable performance edition.)

The cast was up to the challenge of OLO’s dancingist show since the company’s 2017 “Anything Goes.” When virtually the full cast was onstage tapping away, it made a most impressive sight. My only quibble was that most of the dances commenced with scarcely a moment of dramatic setup. But it was all so enjoyable, that seems a churlish complaint. The show’s evergreen hits, “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy” were exceedingly well served.

Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel’s original book was a bit naughtier than the cozy nostalgic slant of Burt Shevelove’s 1971 revision, and the Vincent Youmans music (lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach) sparkled as ever.

Jacob Allen played Jimmy, the bible publisher with three ladies on the (platonic) side. Bergen Price was his frugal wife Sue who, much to Jimmy’s chagrin, resolutely refuses to spend his money. Sadie Spivey traded Guenevere’s queenly attire for 20s flapper garb, and was equally delightful. Julia Fedor was sharp and savvy as Billy’s wife Lucille, delivering fine versions of “Too Many Rings Around Rosie” and “Where Has My Hubby Gone Blues.” Alexander Spence was Nanette’s straight-laced suitor.


Frank Loesser’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” proved once more how well the OLO forces can handle Golden Age Broadway material. Reese played J. Pierrepont Finch, the ambitious window washer who schemes himself to promotion after promotion at the World Wide Wicket Company, and the part especially showcased his excellent vocal delivery, so often overlooked given his dancing talents. Gover made an ideal company president, J.B. Biggley.

Louisa Waycott topped her “Arizona Lady” role with an outstandingly sung and played Rosemary. Matthew Reynolds excelled as the conniving Bud Frump, and Bergen Price demonstrated her versatility as the va-va-voom secretary Hedy LaRue.

Jacob Allen directed with requisite Broadway know-how, and Southerland was the knowing conductor.

There were a couple of special events during the week I attended: a 1985 Hungarian biopic of Kálmán (fortunately subtitled) -- “Az életmuzsikájat - Kálmán Imre” -- which featured generous excerpts from many of his major works. The film was based, in part, on “The Unadulterated Truth,” Kálmán’s 1932 memoir about the early part of his life. (The book has, in fact, just been translated by Alexander Butziger, and will soon be available for order from the Operetta Foundation.)

And Michael Miller gave his annual Operetta Mania potpourri of eclectic operetta videoclips from the world’s stages. On this occasion, the items ranged from a Dutch production of Offenbach’s “Bluebeard” and the all-female Takarazuka Kagekidan Japanese troupe in Cole Porter’s “Can-Can” to a Morbisch “Giuditta” and Maurice Yvain’s “Là-Haut” from a 1984 Paris production. The last named prompted the observation that OLO has actually yet to mount a 20th Century French operetta. We also got to see young Jacob Allen cavorting through “It” from a 2008 OLO production of “The Desert Song.” All the clips were well chosen and placed in interesting context by Miller.

There were, as well, several informative pre-performance talks. Miller handled “Arizona Lady” and “H.M.S. Pinafore,” Reese “Camelot,” and Allen “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

Under Daigle’s and Executive Director Laura Neill’s leadership, Ohio Light Opera has clearly lost not a whit of its mojo, and remains a unique bastion of musical theater and operetta.

(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or; through July 30)

Photos: Matt Dilyard

(Top) Tzytle Steinman & company, “Arizona Lady”


“Camelot” company

(l.-r.) Gover, Christine Price, “Orpheus in the Underworld”

“H.M.S. Pinafore” company

(l.-r.) Murphy, Waycott, “Arizona Lady”

(l.r.) Spivey, Reese, “No, No, Nanette”

(l.-r.) Bergen Price, Colin Ring, Madison Barrett, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

Friday, June 30, 2023

Days of Wine and Roses (Atlantic Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

I recently watched the 1958 “Playhouse 90” television version of JP Miller's “Days of Wine and Roses” to have a frame of reference for this new musical version, especially as I hadn’t seen the 1962 Blake Edwards film with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in many years.

The narrative of those and the Atlantic’s current production -- developed, in part, at the 2015 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab at MASS MoCA -- traces the rocky booze-soaked codependency of Joe, a 1950s PR man and Kirsten, a teetotaling secretary: “two people stranded at sea,” as they are described.  Early in their relationship, Joe persuades Kirsten to join him in his hard-drinking ways. They marry, and thereafter, they experience a pathetic downward spiral. He’ll soon lose his job, and even when after his first failed attempts, manages to straighten himself out, Kirsten will prove more gripped by her addiction than he.

Craig Lucas's book for what might be more accurately defined as a chamber opera adheres to the original teleplay with remarkable fidelity only dropping the rather obvious Alcoholics Anonymous flashback framing device.

In leads Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James, the production is blessed with performers who capture remarkably well the intensity, if not perhaps all the raw ugliness, of the roles’ originators, Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. But of course, Robertson and Laurie didn't have to sing Adam Guettel’s complex and demanding score, which they do most beautifully. With director Michael Greif at the helm, the dramatic elements are as strong as the musical ones.

This has been quite the month for Guettel whose 2005 adaptation of “The Light in the Piazza” just received an outstanding revival at City Center’s Encores series, though it must be said straight away that the storyline of “Piazza” is considerably more audience satisfying than the relentlessly downbeat dramatics of the new work.

Guettel’s score is as technically accomplished if not (at least on first hearing) as melodic that of “Piazza,” and both stars have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their musical and dramatic chops. Guettel varies the musical palette with aching ballads, reflective monologues, and some jazzy riffs to lighten the mood every now and then. But, as noted, the numbers are far from a traditional Broadway musical vein. This is the kind of modern opera Beverly Sills might have championed when she was running New York City Opera back in the day.

Besides the lustrous work of O’Hara and James, the supporting cast is excellent, particularly Byron Jennings, outstanding as Kirsten's taciturn Norwegian father, the part memorably played by Charles Bickford in both the TV version and the film. And there’s good work from Ella Dane Morgan as the couple’s young daughter.

Lizzie Clachan’s  versatile lighted panel set in the first few scenes gives way to a beautifully detailed rendering of Arneson’s greenhouse and a sad and dingy motel room as the story progresses. Dede Ayite’s costumes capture the mid-20th century fashions accurately. 

Props also to Kai Harada’s crystal clear sound design, and Ben Stanton’s astute lighting.

Musical director Kimberly Grigsby leads the intricate score, orchestrated by Guettel himself along with Jamie Lawrence, with deft sensitivity.

And I can't resist adding that it was a special pleasure to watch the performance with an intelligent audience that responded appropriately to the drama and the music, without all the showy screaming and yelling heard at the Encores’ “Light in the Piazza” where the rabid show fans greeted each character entrance and musical number, no matter how delicate the mood, as if they were watching “MJ” or “Six.”

(Linda Gross Theater, Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street;; through July 16)

Photo by Ahron R. Foster: (l-r) Brian d’Arcy James (Joe) and Kelli O’Hara (Kirsten)

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;; 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;;  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