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