Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Collaboration (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Anthony McCarten, who’s written solid screenplays based on real-life personages (e.g. “The Two Popes” (Benedict XVI and Francis), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Freddie Mercury), “The Theory of Everything” (Stephen Hawking), and theater pieces like the current Neil Diamond bio, “A Beautiful Noise,”  turns his pen to the art world and the unlikely seeming pairing of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat who, in 1985, joined forces for a well-publicized art show suggested by the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger who represented both of them. 

The play, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Old Vic,  comes to MTC after a successful run at the London venue.

The conflict between the two artists is not, frankly, hugely compelling, despite McCarten and Kwei-Armah's efforts. On the one hand, there’s Basquiat trying to persuade Warhol, who had not been brush painting for years (using the silk screen process instead), to pick up his brushes again, And, on the other, there's Warhol who's infinitely more interested in filming the reluctant Basquiat at work. There’s more drama in the second act than the first, when Basquiat’s former girlfriend (the excellent Krysta Rodriguez in a small but lively role) bursts in needing money for rent and an abortion, and a friend of Basquiat’s, Michael Stewart, a fellow graffiti artist, lies near death in the hospital after being pummeled by police. Basquiat is deeply haunted by the thought that it could just as easily have been him.

There’s some understandable dramatic license in his script. For one thing, each of the men knew and admired the other, whereas the script has it that Bischofberger (a very amusing Erik Jensen) needed to use all his skills of manipulation to get the two to work together. Basquiat craved fame and recognition as much as Warhol, though there’s a sense in the script that he disdains Warhol’s commercialism. Still, the fundamental dynamics between Warhol and Basquiat ring true: respect mixed with envy on Warhol’s part, and a vastly different world view. 

Of rather greater import than the narrative of the play itself are the dynamic performances of Bettany and Pope. Bettany grows more interesting with each new project; he’s developed into such a fine character actor, and gives a highly convincing impersonation of Warhol. Pope is currently generating well-deserved buzz for his film, “The Inspection,” and here returns to the scene of his Tony-nominated MTC triumph in “Choir Boy,” with a highly charged turn. These versatile actors are reason enough to see the play. 

Anna Fleischle’s sensible set design, flashily lighted by Ben Stanton -- including the artists’ studios -- allows for Duncan McLean’s Basquiat/Warhol-inspired projections to fill the walls.  Given Warhol and Basquiat’s unique hair styles, I should acknowledge the good work of Karicean “Karen” Dick and Carol Robinson, the production’s wig designers. 

Lastly, a sidebar carp: this is the latest in an unfortunate trend of the audience entering the theater to an assault of loud music -- or, in the case of “Ohio State Murders” -- other amplified sounds. Whether the purpose is scene-setting -- in this case, a Studio 54 vibe -- or creating an immersive experience, it’s a needlessly abrasive and alienating gimmick. “Topdog/Underdog,” “Ain’t No Mo’,” and even the Public’s revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” for heaven’s sake, have all recently employed this irritating device. 

(Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200; through February 11)

Photo by Jeremy Daniel: (l.-r.) Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Merrily We Roll Along (New York Theatre Workshop)

By Harry Forbes

The latest revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 Broadway failure proves, yet again, that the work, adapted by George Furth from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is -- divorced from Hal Prince’s original misguided staging with its hugely talented but as-yet-unseasoned cast of young people wearing sweatshirts -- an eminently viable one, with a pearly and highly accessible score. 

New York Theatre Workshop’s production is essentially a reworking of the one director Maria Friedman mounted in London’s Menier Chocolate Factory (later moved to the West End and streamed) in 2012. Here, it’s ideally cast with Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez as the three bosom buddies -- composer Franklin Shepard, playwright/lyricist Charley Kringas, and novelist/theater critic Mary Flynn respectively --  whose deep friendship ends in tatters because of composer Frank’s selling out for success, and his weakness for the femme fatale wife Gussie (Kyrstal Joy Brown) of his producer Joe Josephson (superb Reg Rogers).  

Of course, as the script moves backward in time -- with its score cleverly constructed in like manner so that reprises of songs come before we hear the full number -- the acrimonious and downright ugly outbursts of the opening scene give way to the joyous optimism of youth. And the show does perforce end happily, even as we’re poignantly aware of what’s fated for the future.

Groff sings beautifully, but every bit as impressive as his vocalizing is his mature dramatic performance, displaying impressive gravitas throughout and youthening convincingly from the shallow Hollywood power player to the idealistic dreamer of the earlier scenes. 

The same is true for Mendez whose vitriolic drunken outburst in the early party scene gives way to the empathetic, hugely likable friend who inwardly pines for Frank. But Frank, in turn, will fall in love with Beth (Katie Rose Clarke), and then abandon her for Gussie. 

Radcliffe goes from strength to strength with each new stage appearance. After his starring role in “How To Succeed in Business” revival in 2011, it’s no surprise he can sing but here, he convincingly captures the likability and snowballing frustration as he helplessly watches Frank repeatedly make the wrong choices. He forcefully nails the anger of his raging “Franklin D. Shepard” number. 

Now truthfully, every one of the revivals I’ve encountered since the premiere -- York in 1994, Encores in 2012, and Fiasco in 2019, and even an early barebones basement production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival -- has demonstrated the show’s dramatic and musical strengths. But good as they all were, this one may be the best of all, anchored as it is by such a well played depiction of Frank, Charley, and Mary’s friendship. It makes their eventual dissolution all the more of a gut punch.

Friedman, who played Mary in the 1992 Hampstead Theatre production in Leicester, clearly knows the material inside and out, and directs with a sure hand. 

Soutra Gilmour’s set design is mostly functional for the myriad scene changes) but, augmented by Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting, it works effectively. Gilmour’s costumes are period perfect as the action backtracks from 1980 to 1958.

Music Director Alvin Hough, Jr. leads a nine-piece band in a satisfying reduction of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration, boosted by Kai Harada’s sound design.  (Catherine Jayes is music supervisor.) The big numbers like “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Our Time,” and “Old Friends” all receive splendid treatment, and the lesser known ones such as “Growing Up,” “It’s a Hit!” and “The Blob” play more effectively than ever. 

The coming Broadway transfer of this sterling revival will perhaps put to rest once and for all any notion of the show being in any way Sondheim’s problem child. 

(New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street;; through January 22)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Some Like It Hot (Sam S. Shubert Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The 1972 Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical “Sugar” -- based, like the current offering, on Billy Wilder’s riotous 1959 film -- had its pleasures, but truthfully the score was not top drawer for either gentleman. Still, thanks to the amusing performances by Robert Morse, Tony Roberts, and Cyril Ritchard and Gower Champion’s slick direction, it eked out respectable runs here in the U.S. and elsewhere. (Tommy Steele headed a 1991 UK revival with a revamped script and playlist.) A domestic revival with the film’s Tony Curtis playing millionaire Osgood Fielding, Jr. got some traction in 2002.

But the new version -- with its tuneful 1930’s pastiche score by the “Hairspray” team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman -- is a crowd-pleasing winner all the way. With a wonderfully astute book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, which cleverly skirts any current wokeness pitfalls, but does so in a refreshing, understated way, this version comes out way ahead. 

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps things moving and dancing non-stop, faltering only in a protracted chase sequence near the end which simply goes on too long. And the diverse cast creates their own magic. 

Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee are Joe and Jerry, the Prohibition era musicians who don drag attire to avoid the mob boss (Mark Lotito) who knows they witnessed a rubout (though not, as in the original, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre). They join the all-girl band led by Sweet Sue (a show-stopping Natasha Yvette Williams). 

Joe (now Josephine) falls hard for Sugar (the Marilyn Monroe character now embodied by the appealing Adrianna Hicks who makes the role her own). Jerry (now Daphne), for his part, finds the impersonation suits him to a tee. So when he catches the eye of millionaire Osgood (hilarious Kevin Del Aguila), the match is delightfully plausible. When Joe woos Sugar out of drag, he affects an amusing German accent rather than the Cary Grant impersonation of Curtis in the film.

The score contains one tuneful number after another, and each character given multiple chances to shine. From Sugar’s bluesy  “A Darker Shade of Blue” to Osgood’s “Fly, Mariposa, Fly” to Joe’s “He Lied When He Said Hello,” and just about everything Sue belts out. But the biggest hand of the evening goes to Daphne’s self-revelatory soliloquy, “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather,” which brings down the proverbial house.

I may be alone in this but, throughout the show, I kept hearing the strains of the Burton Lane-Frank Loesser song “The Lady’s in Love With You.” I don’t know if that was mere coincidence or some kind of subtle homage, but that song was introduced in the  Bob Hope 1939 film called “Some Like It Hot.” not related to the Wilder movie at all. There are, as well, echoes of previous Shaiman tunes like "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" from "Hairspray."

Scott Pask’s sets, Gregg Barnes’ costumes, and Natasha Katz’s lighting are solidly flashy and top-drawer Broadway quality as you’d expect. But Brian Ronan’s sound design was pitched way too loud for the musical numbers. With material as strong as this, there’s no reason to artificially pump up anyone’s adrenalin. At my performance, several friends sitting in different parts of the house complained they couldn’t make out the lyrics as the sound was so overloaded. 

This is an increasing problem with musicals these days, but it’s especially puzzling for a throwback score such as this. 

Anyone curious about Jule Styne’s “Sugar,” incidentally, will get the chance to make a comparison when the plucky J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company revives it in April at its Theatre Row venue. 

(Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street;; or 212-239-6200)

Photos by Marc J. Franklin:

Top: (l to r): Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee

Below: Adrianna Hicks