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; 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; ;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; 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.