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;

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;; 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;; through June 10)

Photo Courtesy of A Doll’s House:

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

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Becomes a Woman (Mint Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

Broadway musical buffs may recollect Betty Smith’s name on the cover of the cast album as co-librettist of the 1951 musical, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (based on her international 1943 best-seller). But that, in fact, was to be her only Broadway credit. And yet, Smith was apparently a prolific playwright who prized the dramatic field above all others, turning out around 70 plays. Several won prestigious prizes, but none of them received professional productions. 

Just how dedicated she was to the genre is apparent in Mint Theater’s absorbing production of her 1931 play which won the University of Michigan’s renowned Avery Hopwood Award.

The play’s protagonist shares the name of the central character of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Francie Nolan, but there all similarities end. This Francie, impressively played by Emma Pfitzer Price in her Off-Broadway debut, works in a Kress five-and-dime-cent store in Brooklyn as a song plugger at the sheet music counter. A steadfastly virtuous 19-year-old who resists the myriad flirtations of the male customers much to the amused disdain of accompanying pianist Florry (entertaining Pearl Rhein with a Louise Brooks bob) who has far fewer scruples.

But when good looking, upper crust Leonard (Peterson Townsend), the son of the Kress chain’s chief (Duane Boutté), asks her out for a date, she finally lowers her guard and relents.

In the second act, we meet Francie’s lower middle-class family -- boorish policeman braggart of a father (forceful Jeb Brown), pious mother (Antoinette LaVecchia really nailing the character), tactless brothers (Tim Webb and Jack Mastrianni) -- when she brings Leonard home to meet the folks, with (slight spoiler) disastrous results. 

The color-blind casting of Leonard here rather requires some temporary suspension of disbelief, as Pa Nolan makes it patently clear before Leonard walks through the door that he expects any fella Francie brings home to be Irish Catholic. As it happens, the whole family treats Leonard with amusingly fawning deference as it seems they’ve never had a well-bred gentleman in the house before.

Without revealing any plot specifics, in the third act, let’s just say that Francie shakes off her shy passivity and comes to full maturity, living up to the play’s title. 

The humorous tone of the first act -- with Price skillfully warbling a handful of songs, most especially Jerome Kern’s “Left All Alone Again Blues'' from “The Night Boat” -- and engaging in light banter with the other shopgirls, gives way to some pretty heavy kitchen sink melodrama in the second (actually, quite literally, as it takes place in the Nolan kitchen), and then a serious and sobering third. Smith’s dialogue has the ring of veracity, and her feminist perspective is highly persuasive throughout, even if some of the plot turns challenge credulity. 

Vicki R. Davis’s sets -- the colorful Kress Dime Store of the first act (which a program note is careful to assure us is purely fictional in all respects as the real-life Kress chain never even had a Brooklyn store), and the Nolan’s tenement kitchen in the second -- are beautifully realized on the Mint’s modest budget. Likewise, Emilee McVey-Lee’s costumes are period perfect.

Under the assured direction of Britt Berke, Price’s highly committed central performance makes us really care about Francie’s plight, and overlook some of those script improbabilities. Her transition from the passive girl of the first act to assured woman in the third is truly outstanding. And there’s marvelous work from Gina Daniels -- likable and warm -- as Francie’s workmate and neighbor Tessie, Jason O’Connell as the good-hearted ambulance driver who’s sweet on Tessie, and Boutté as Leonard’s slickly unflappable father who shares some important moments with Price in the final act. 

(NY City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street;; through March 18)

Photos by Todd Cerveris:

(Top)(l.-r.) Townsend, Price

(Below)(l.-r.) Price, Daniels, Brown, LaVecchia