Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Heart of Rock and Roll (James Earl Jones Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The latest jukebox musical -- this one delving into the Huey Lewis and the News songbook -- is just as lightweight and unprofound as you might expect of such an enterprise. And yet, I found it an unabashedly fun and diverting entertainment, and its featherlight plot, such as it is, does keep you hooked. 

This is due, in large part, to the committed and dynamic turn of Corey Cott as a young man who has left his dreams of fronting a rock band behind to pursue an executive position in a Milwaukee cardboard packaging factory, so as not to be a failure as he believes his late father to have been. Needless to say, just as his cheeky machinations begin to pay off at a Chicago trade convention, the dormant music career at last shows signs of taking off. What’s a guy to do?

The book by Jonathan A. Abrams (from a story by Abrams and Tyler Mitchell) manages to build a decent amount of suspense about this improbable dilemma especially in the more action-packed second act. 

The excellent Gordon Greenberg directs at a snappy, no-nonsense pace.

Cott really makes you care about his character Bobby, sings powerfully, and all in all, tops his earlier good work in “Bandstand” though we'll overlook the misguided revival of “Gigi.” He handles the reflective moments as much as the rhythmic numbers with sincerity and assurance. There are also appealing performances by McKenzie Kurtz as the boss’s confidence-lacking daughter Cassandra; John Dossett as her widowed dad; Zoe Jensen and Josh Breckenridge as Cassandra’s friends; Orville Mendoza as the sauna loving magnate of an IKEA-like furniture company; and F. Michael Haynie, Raymond J. Lee, and John-Michael Lyles as Bobby’s old bandmates.

Especially winning are Tamika Lawrence as Bobby’s sassy friend and factory’s HR head, and Billy Harrigan Tighe as Cassandra’s smarmy ex-flame from Princeton (a “human PEZ dispenser, as someone calls him). Lawrence earns some of the biggest laughs of the evening, and Tighe -- though patently villainous -- shines in some impressive musical numbers like “Give Me the Keys” and “Stuck with You” which segues into an amusing dream ballet.

Throughout, Lorin Latarro’s vigorous choreography -- including a standout number involving bubble wrap, and a Richard Simmons-like second act workout number -- is a big plus, and the hard-working dancers impress at every turn.

The Lewis tunes are reasonably well integrated into the script, and sound very catchy as arranged and orchestrated by Music Supervisor Brian Usifer, and under the musical direction of Will Van Dyke. Along with following one’s dreams, love in the overarching theme and the show is peppered with reprises of “Do You Believe in Love?” and “The Power of Love.” 

The topline production team includes Derek McLane (sets), Jen Caprio (costumes), Japhy Weideman (lighting), John Shivers (sound), Nikiya Mathis (hair, wig, and makeup)

The show premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe back in 2018, but it was worth the effort to get it to Broadway.

(James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Corey Cott and McKenzie Kurtz

Friday, April 26, 2024

Mother Play (Second Stage)


By Harry Forbes

After outstanding Broadway turns in classic plays by Williams and O’Neill, Jessica Lange creates a new role, and delivers another absolutely splendid performance, this time as an alcoholic single mother ruling over her two children with steely Southern charm. They, in turn, are beautifully played by Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger, who each age convincingly from young teens to adulthood. 


Paula Vogel’s skillfully observed semi-autobiographical play is set outside Washington, D.C.’ s beltway from 1964 and over the ensuing decades. We can quickly discern that mother Phyllis’ well-ordered plans for Martha and Carl are destined to go seriously wrong from the get-go. Both her grandiose dreams for her golden boy Carl and her casual dismissal of Martha will soon be turned on their ear as she gleans that the precocious Carl is gay, and so, it later transpires, is Martha. 




The play is a drama, but one not without many sharply comic moments. The whole is deeply affecting, however, and by the end of the play’s 105 minute running time, there were audible sobs at my performance. 


On the lighter side there is a marvelous bit of business involving Carl showing Martha how to walk like a man, so she won’t be hit on by the boys at school, followed a bit later by Phyllis demonstrating how a woman should walk. A later dance scene (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli) provides another highly amusing interlude.  


Later, when Phyllis’ appalling behavior leads to her eventual isolation from Carl and Martha, Lange brilliantly commands the stage in a heart wrenching solo turn, as she struggles to cope with her solitude. 


David Zinn’s scenic design, lighted by Jen Schriever, neatly encompasses the various residences of the peripatetic family, as they move from place to place with their boxes and well-worn furniture.  (Thus the play’s subtitle, “A Play in Five Evictions.”) And with most of the residences beset with roach infestations, Shawn Duan’s witty projection designs gives us the incongruous and somehow delightful image of dancing roaches. 


There’s a canny use of music throughout as Phyllis listens to her favorite songs on the local easy listening station from “The Theme to a Summer Place” to “Moon River,” all of which perfectly capture the mood of the era as well as Phyllis' character.


Tina Landau directs her cast with delicate precision through their respective character and aging transformations, and deftly orchestrates the shifting moods of Vogel’s heartfelt narrative.


(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; 2st.com; through June 16)


Photos by Joan Marcus:


(top) Jessica Lange


(below) Jim Parsons and Celia Keenan-Bolger



Thursday, April 25, 2024

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (August Wilson Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

For all of the much vaunted accouterments of the award-winning London import, this latest revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s enduring 1966 musical finds Joe Masteroff’s book more or less intact. But, as in most stage productions since the 1972 movie version, leading man Cliff, the stand-in for Christopher Isherwood, whose stories inspired the play "I Am a Camera" before the musical, is pointedly more interested in “boys” than “girls.” Even so, the affair with chanteuse Sally Bowles plays out along its familiar lines. 


Musically, this production follows the playbook of the 1988 Alan Cumming/Sam Mendes production. Original numbers such as “The Telephone Song,” “Meeskite,” “Why Should I Wake Up,” “Sitting Pretty” have not been restored. And, in their place, we still have “Mein Herr,” “Money,” and “Maybe This Time” from the film, plus “I Don’t Care Much,” written for but not used in the original production. 


Director Rebecca Frecknall’s production is staged in the round though the bulk of the audience is positioned as per the Wilson Theatre’s customary layout, albeit with tables up front. The rows which follow directly behind are equipped with drink ledges which makes seat access a tad tight.


Scenic Designer Tom Scutt has effected a quite spectacular transformation of the theater from top to bottom, so much so that it is quite a challenge to discern the normal configuration of the place. Only the central staircases leading to the auditorium and the position of the restrooms allow one to get one’s bearings. As if all this weren’t enough, Scutt also designed the costumes. (Isabella Byrd’s lighting design complements Scutt’s work seamlessly.) 


The show itself is prefaced by a mostly superfluous 75 minute “prologue” of supposedly Weimar era performers, nine in all, dancing provocatively on raised platforms or running amongst the crowd. One enters the theater not through the lobby, but rather a side alley and then steps down to the multi-level club. It’s all very dimly lit (restrooms included) and I found it more than a little claustrophobic. Before the actual show begins, there’s more mood-setting activity on the auditorium level. 


Clearly, there is much good in this production, but the over-the-top tawdry decadence level seems to rise with each new production. But I fear a major revival of the show as it was in 1966 is unlikely.


Eddie Redmayne has created a very individual and striking Emcee, quite different from the interpretations of both creator Joel Grey and revival star Alan Cumming. Whether as carrot-topped clown, marionette, or stormtrooper, he’s quite a marvel to watch, and sings very well indeed, as we hear especially in his two most lyrical moments,  “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “I Don’t Care Much.” When  he’s not performing one of Kit Kat numbers, he lurks about as a silent observer. 


Gayle Rankin’s Sally is also first rate, giving the character a hard edge but not so much that we can’t understand why the sexually ambivalent Cliff falls under her spell. I didn’t particularly care for the staging of her first number, “Don’t Tell Mama” (choreographed by Julia Cheng), but thereafter found her to be a dynamic and engaging presence, skillful in her dramatic scenes, and impressive vocally. Like Redmayne, she’s careful not to imitate her predecessors, and all her numbers are intelligently delivered. Her manic, defiant rendition of the title song near the end was quite sensational, and it gets my vote for showstopper of the season. 




Bebe Neuwirth is absolutely tremendous as boarding house landlady Fraulein Schneider. She doesn’t make a false move here dramatically or vocally. Her latter-day vibrato works well in this context, and she masterfully delivers the three big numbers originated by Lotte Lenya. She’s beautifully matched by Steven Skybell (Tevye in the Joel Grey directed “Fiddler on the Roof”) as fruit seller Herr Schultz who gives a warm sensitive performance. Also fine are Henry Gottfried as Ernst Ludwig who befriends Cliff but later reveals the dark side beneath the cheerful affability. And Natascia Diaz as Fraulein Kost also delineates well the duality of her personality: carefree call girl masking hard-edged intolerance. 


The one discordant casting is Ato Blankson-Wood as Cliff. Blankson-Wood is a very good actor, as his Hamlet in last year’s Public Theater production confirmed -- and that production will, incidentally, air on PBS’s “Great Performances” this month -- but his performance on this occasion is oddly lackluster. So, too, this is color blind casting that requires an unreasonable suspension of disbelief, particularly with race such an obvious issue in the incipient Nazi era.


Musically, under the direction of Jennifer Whyte, the classic John Kander and Fred Ebb score, sounds good as ever, and I must commend the sound design of Nick Lidster for Autograph for the crystalline clarity of both music and dialogue. 


Even if the immersive elements are not your cup of tea -- and they certainly weren’t mine -- you might consider bypassing much of it, and just heading for your seats in the theater proper to experience this flawed but still worthy production. 


(Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52 Street; kitkat.club)


Photos by Marc Brenner


(top) Eddie Redmayne


(below) Steven Skybell and Bebe Neuwirth  





Monday, April 22, 2024

Sally & Tom (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

The prolific Suzan-Lori Parks’ latest play (a “dramedy” about “art, politics, and the contradictions that make all of us” (according to the press notes) charts the fascinating and enigmatic relationship of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, a union that produced six children. But rather than giving us a straight-forward historical narrative, Parks has framed the story as a play called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” as it is being rehearsed by a low-budget acting troupe called Good Company, while preparing for the first performance.


The actors in the troupe grapple with the issues in the play and, in some instances, mirror them. Thus, the play simultaneously explores the mythology of Sally and Tom, and the ethos of making theater.


All of the scrappy Good Company actors wear multiple hats in mounting the production. Leading lady Luce (Sheria Irving), for instance, is also the playwright, and her boyfriend Mike (Gabriel Ebert) is not only the play’s director but also has the Jefferson role. Jefferson’s daughter Patsy (Kate Nowlin) is taken by the company’s dramaturg and choreographer; while daughter Polly (Sun Mee Chomet) happens to be the stage manager. And so on.


The back and forthing of the Sally/Tom and backstage stories could seem a tired device, but both plot lines hold our interest, and one can see the wisdom of that structure so that the present-day characters are allowed to express modern day views on the historical action of 1790 Monticello.


The Jefferson-Hemings relationship was not a love story, Lori-Parks wants us to know, as obviously, Sally was owned by TJ (as the Good Company calls him), though as there was no Known coercion on Jefferson’s part, the true dynamics of that relationship can never really be known. 


The cast, headed by Irving and Ebert, morphs easily between their modern characters and the historical roles. Alano Miller is particularly strong as Sally’s valet brother James whose impassioned stand-up speech to Jefferson becomes a point of contention when the (unseen) producer Teddy sends word that it should be cut. Daniel Petzold as actor Geoff plays several parts in “The Pursuit of Happiness” most skillfully, while offstage, he bonds romantically with Leland Fowler’s Devon. Kristolyn Lloyd is especially good as Luce’s friend Maggie, and Sally’s sister Mary in the play.


Like the aforementioned James Hemings speech, both Sally and Tom have their big monologues, and they are impressively delivered by Irving and Ebert. The latter closes the first act with a defense of his (Tom’s) contradictory character. How can the author of “all men are created equal” own hundreds of slaves? We learn that, unlike George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson chose not to free his slaves, and not even on his deathbed did he free Sally, as was often customarily done. 


And near the end of the second act, Sally herself explains her conflicted feelings about the relationship. Naturally, it’s all supposition on Parks’ part, but Sally’s logic in the speech sounds plausible. Besides which, it’s another theatrical highpoint of the play.


Rodrigo Muñoz’s period costumes -- along with J. Jared Janas & Cassie Williams’ wigs -- are authentically rich, though of course, one can’t help thinking this finery would all be far beyond the means of a troupe such as Good Company. 


Riccardo Hernández’s scenic design creates the expected 18th century ambience, and allows quick transitions to the backstage and other real-life settings. Edgar Godineaux has devised period choreography to some very pretty music composed by Parks herself and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier. 


Steve H. Broadmax III’s direction balances the past/present action smartly, and as indicated above, draws good performances from all. 


I suspect if “Sally & Tom” has an afterlife -- this is its second production after the Guthrie Theater in 2022 -- Parks will refine and perhaps prune it to good advantage. But as it stands now, it’s a most intriguing play by one of our finest playwrights.


(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street: publictheater.org or 212.967.7555, through June 2)


Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Sheria Irving and Gabriel Ebert

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Lempicka (Longacre Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I must confess I don’t know enough about Polish Art Deco artist Tamara de Lemprica to parse the fiction from the facts of the “pop-infused” bio-musical which has just opened on Broadway after tryouts at Williamstown Theatre Festival and La Jolla Playhouse. But it’s pretty clear there are heaps and heaps of dramatic license at work. 


In any case, the superficial result is, at best, somewhat akin to the short-lived “Diana: The Musical.” Which is not to say that, like that unfortunate retread of the short life of the Princess of Wales, there isn’t some decent talent on stage and behind the scenes.


As with “Diana,” for instance, the new show’s star, Eden Espinosa delivers a creditable performance, at least within the framework of the script’s broad strokes, morphing from crusty old lady in the opening scene to young woman caught up in the upheaval of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and then moving forward. She delivers dramatically and musically, revealing only occasional strain at the top of her register. 


The show’s book -- by creator Carson Kreitzer and composer Matt Gould --  relates how Lempicka rescues her upper crust husband Tadeusz Lempicki (Andrew Samonsky) from prison during the Revolution by bribing his captors with jewelry and then, when that fails, her virtue. They flee to Paris where she refines her talent for painting, under the tutelage of Futurist Movement founder Emilio Marinettii (a manic George Abud), and the patronage of a Baron (Nathaniel Stampley) and his wife (Beth Leavel), gaining fames for her celebrity portraiture and daring nudes. 


She soon makes the acquaintance of singer Suzy Solidor (Natalie Joy Johnson), and through her, falls under the spell of the prostitute Rafaela (a fictitious composite character played by the charismatic Amber Iman) with whom she commences an affair. Even before they eventually meet, both Tadeusz and Rafaela are aware of each other, but they settle into a comfortable, don't ask, don’t tell, triangular arrangement. 


Lempicka’s precocious daughter Kizette (Zoe Glick), a frequent model for her mother’s portraits, but otherwise neglected, is written and played like a cross between Baby June from “Gypsy” and Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed.” And curiously, she seems to remain a child over the years.


Against the backdrop of ominous changing times and the impending rise of Fascism, Lempicka becomes emblematic of “the New Woman.” This also includes her enthusiastic patronage of an elaborate lesbian bar run by Suzy. Yet, all of these freedoms are soon to be curtailed by a more intolerant regime, with the now sinister Marinetti its chief proponent here.


Gould’s music makes no attempt at a period sound. It’s mostly hard-driving pop/rock bombast with a few soft ballads in the mix. I did like Iman’s jazzy “Stay,” but otherwise the score is predictably generic. Musicians are openly positioned in the pretty Longacre boxes, but the overall sound palette is a heavily miked artificiality. (Under the helm of Music Supervisor Remy Kurs, Charity Wicks leads the orchestra.) 


Leavel’s eleven o’clock number, as the Baroness confesses she is dying, earns applause, but vocally, she has little else to do. Samonsky’s attractive vocals are a pleasure throughout.


Director Rachel Chavkin does the best she can with the property but “Lempicka” is several notches below her previous triumphs, “Hadestown” and “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.” Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography is more Studio 54 than pre-Occupation Paris, but at least it keeps things lively. 


Riccardo Hernández's constantly shifting Eiffel Tower/Art Deco scenic design, augmented by Peter Nigrini’s newsreel footage projection design and Bradley King’s lighting provide visual interest.  Paloma Young’s costumes and Leah Loukas’ hair & wig design conjure the appropriate period look. 


Just based on the subject matter alone, the relatively little-known Lempicka would seem to be a longshot for Broadway success, and yet I should report that the audience at my Saturday night performance was highly enthusiastic throughout. Whether they were cheering the performances or the various triumphs of the show’s heroine -- or both -- I was at a loss to discern.


(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street; LempickaMusical.com)


Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman: Eden Espinosa

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Water for Elephants (Imperial Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This musical adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 best-selling novel (also the basis for a 2011 film) is a capital example of Broadway showmanship at its best. A catchy score by the Pigpen Theatre Co. collective, lively choreography by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll, some spectacular acrobatics seamlessly integrated, artful puppetry, and fine performances enhance an absorbing, if familiar, love-triangle narrative. 


Everything holds together beautifully under the masterful direction of Jessica Stone who here has taken on a far more complex endeavor than her last, the relatively small-scale “Kimberly Akimbo.” This is a far bigger, more elaborate show. 


The musical had its premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre where it opened to positive reviews. (In fact, the couple seated next to me had seen it there, and loved it so much they wanted to experience it again. They were not disappointed.)


Rick Elice’s book starts with the elderly protagonist Mr. Jankowski (Gregg Edelman) -- about to go  AWOL from his nursing home -- relating his life story to workers at a circus. He tells how, as young Jacob during the Depression (here played by Grant Gustin), he had joined the (fictional) Bengali Brothers circus as a veterinarian following the devastating death of his parents in a car crash. 


August (Paul Alexander Nolan), the hard-boiled circus owner/ringmaster hires him after learning that he had some training, if not degree, in that field. Jacob soon becomes attracted to August’s wife, the horse trainer and rider Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), though he initially sublimates his feelings. 


After the death of Marlena’s horse from overwork, the circus takes on an elephant as its star attraction. Rosie, as she’s called, is introduced to us very artfully in sections -- a leg, a trunk -- before we finally see its full form (embodied by four puppeteers). The excellent puppet design here (which also includes an orangutan and lion) is the work of Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman, and Camille LaBarre.


But awed reference in the latter-day scenes to a legendary stampede in 1931 clues us in to more trouble ahead. Meanwhile, the growing comradeship among Jacob, Marlena, and August eventually leads to domestic tension when August senses the others’ growing attachment, inevitable given August’s short fuse temper and abusive tendencies. 


It’s good to see Edelman back on Broadway in a major role, in fine vocal and dramatic estate. His character doesn’t drop out when the flashback narrative begins. Gustin is just as good in his Broadway debut, and the two share acting honors. The always reliable Nolan is also splendid, and plays the good/bad duality of his part most skillfully, while McCalla is warmly sympathetic as the conflicted heroine. 


The other circus workers -- tough guy Wade (Wade McCollum), wise-cracking Barbara (Sara Gettelfinger), alcoholic Camel (Stan Brown), and caustic clown Walter (Joe De Paul) -- are each finely characterized, and major assets to the show’s appeal. 


The acrobats are uniformly spectacular. Antoine Boissereau has a particularly fine and poignant sequence on silks as the ailing horse. Elsewhere, the high-flying stunts are beautifully melded with the dramatic action and choreography. The second act opening production number, “Zostań,” being a prime example.


All the circus elements are authentically executed (Shana Carroll is credited with “circus design”). But Takeshi Kata’s set design, David Israel Reynoso’s costumes, Bradley King’s lighting, Walter Trarbach ‘s sound, and David Bengali’s projections all contribute to an eye and ear-filling sensory experience.


Pigpen Theatre Co.’s score, orchestrated by Daryl Waters, Benedict Braxton-Smith and August Eriksmoen, is tuneful and period perfect. Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith share music supervision and arrangements credit, and together they’ve created a satisfying earful.  


(Imperial Theatre, 249 W 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212.239.6200)


Photo by Matthew Murphy: (l.-r.) Paul Alexander Nolan, Isabelle McCalla, and Grant Gustin -

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The Notebook (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novel has been beautifully realized in its latest incarnation as a Broadway musical. The decades long love affair between Noah and Allie -- played by two pairs of actors (Ryan Gosling and Rachel MacAdams, and James Garner and Gene Rowlands, respectively) in the 2004 film version -- are played here by three pairs here, and they have been cast completely across color lines. 


Though, on paper, this might seem a case of diverse casting run amok, the approach absolutely works, thanks to the effectively stylized approach and the sensitive direction of Michael Greif and Schele Williams, not to mention the appeal of the players: John Cardoza and Jordan Tyson as the young lovers, Ryan Vasquez and Joy Woods as their slightly older incarnations; and Dorian Harewood and Maryann Plunkett as the eldest. Vocally and dramatically, all are very fine. (Veteran Harewood replaced John Beasley who created the role in the Fall 2022 Chicago production, but died prior to the Broadway transfer, and he is excellent. )


At least on the basis of the film, the storyline of Bekah Brunstetter’s book is faithful to the original, some streamlining and minor changes notwithstanding. As before, upper crust Allie falls for lumberyard worker Noah under the wary eye of her parents, especially her mother. Though their romance is almost derailed, Allie almost marries the more patrician Lon, obstacles are eventually overcome. By the end however, Allie is in a nursing home with severe dementia, and Noah, not recognized by Allie, reads to her from the diary she had written before she lost her memory, so their story would not be forgotten. Plunkett’s heart wrenching portrayal is extraordinarily good. 


The film kept the revelation that the older couple were, in fact, Allie and Noah, until midway through. But here, given the structure of the adaptation, the connection is revealed right from the start. 


Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson’s very agreeable score seems thoroughly apt at all times, except perhaps for Joy Woods’ big number, “My Days,” which earns a rousing hand, but seems a little out-of-place for character. Overall,  I can’t say, after a first hearing, I walked out humming any of the tunes. But Music Supervisor Carmel Dean, who collaborated on the arrangements with Michaelson, maintains a pleasing sound palette throughout..


Besides the excellent players already mentioned, there’s fine work from Andréa Burns as Alley’s disapproving mother, Charles E. Wallace as her father, Chase Del Rey as her temporary fiance, and Carson Stewart as an empathetic young physical therapist in the nursing home. And except for the actors playing Noah and Allie, everyone inhabits multiple roles. 


David Zinn and Brett J. Banakis’s versatile set design -- lighted by Ben Stanton -- begins austerely in the nursing home but seamlessly morphs into the various flashback settings, complemented by Lucy Mackinnon’s projections. Paloma Young’s costumes capture the changing fashions. Nevin Steinberg’s sound design is nicely balanced and not overpowering as in so many shows.


Branded tissues are for sale at the theater, and indeed sniffles abound towards the end, but somehow “The Notebook” avoids the maudlin. There’s genuine sentiment here, and the end-of-life issues that come to so many are accurately and honestly dramatized, particularly in the seasoned hands of Plunkett and Harewood. 


(Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street; NotebookMusical.com)


Photo by Julieta Cervantes: John Cardoza, Dorian Harewood, and Ryan Vasquez, with Maryann Plunkett

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Dead Outlaw (Audible)


By Harry Forbes

For its first half, the new musical co-written by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna takes the form of a stylized concert telling of the life of a two-bit, would be bank/train robber: one Elmer McCurdy, born 1880 (and played with bravura skill by Andrew Durand, late of “Shucked”). but wait. Before long, Elmer is killed by a posse in a 1911 shoot-out. The unnerving and puzzling effect feels somewhat akin to star Janet Leigh being killed so early in “Psycho.” So where can the show go from here? 


Well, as the title should have tipped us off, the remainder of the show’s 100-minute running time tells the utterly fascinating story of what then happens to poor Elmer’s corpse. This is, you see, a true story, one which came to light when the hanging red-painted body in an amusement park’s horror house was discovered by a TV film crew to be the remains of an actual person, not a mere prop. The corpse had already had a decades-long usage as a sideshow/carnival attraction. The saga has already been recounted In books (one by Mark Svenvold), a stage play, and a BBC documentary.


The book of the musical is written by Itamar Moses whose “The Band’s Visit” (also with Yazbek) won him a Tony Award, but this couldn’t be more different from that show, or, for that matter, his concurrent drama, “The Ally,” playing at the Public Theater. 


The score, filled with hard-driving country tunes, rock, and sweet ballads, is an interesting one. And in addition to Durand’s dynamic performance, the cast is very fine. Jeb Brown is the narrator, though he steps off the bandstand to play a bandit gang leader who, to his later regret, takes the inept Elmer under wing. 


Julia Knitel is lovely as a local girl who falls for Elmer, and could be his salvation were it not for Elmer’s psychological problems and heavy drinking which give him a real Jekyll Hyde dynamic. And she plays all the other female characters too. Trent Saunders has a strong moment as Cherokee Andy Payne, a long-distance champion runner on the newly opened Route 66 in 1928. (McCurdy’s arsenic-preserved mummy was a sideshow attraction during the race.)


Thom Sesma has an outrageous but crowd pleasing number as famed LA County Coroner Thomas Noguchi who pieced together the circumstances of McCurdy’s demise. There is superlative work, too, from Eddie Cooper, Dashiell Eaves, and Ken Marks (as Douglas MacArthur who was actually McCurdy’s superior during his brief army stint).


The whole is fluidly directed by David Cromer with movement direction by Ani Taj. Arnulfo Maldonado’s revolving set (both the bandstand and the set itself turn), atmospherically lit by Heather Gilbert, provides visual variety. And Sarah Laux’s costumes run the gamut from late 19th century to the late 1970s.   


Under Dean Sharenow’s music supervision, Rebekah Bruce conducts (and plays the piano for) the exemplary band which includes Della Penna himself on guitars, lap steel, and banjo, HANK, and Chris Smylie. (Bruce, Della Penna, and HANK double as vocalists, too.


The musical, like all Audible productions, will also be recorded for release at a later date,


(Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane; DeadOutlawMusical.com; through April 7)


Photo by Matthew Murphy (2024): (l-r) Trent Saunders, Andrew Durand, and Eddie Cooper

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Corruption (Lincoln Center Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Playwright J.T. Rogers -- whose “Oslo,” about the Arab-Israeli Peace Accord, was memorably mounted at Lincoln Center Theater under the direction of Bartlett Sher -- returns with another ripped-from-the-headlines tale, also directed by Sher, this time concerning the 2010-11 phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World in the U.K. 


Writing much in the vein of David Hare (think “The Absence of War” or the Murdoch inspired “Pravda”), Rogers skillfully creates maximum suspense and tension and paints a picture of an environment where, as one character puts it, “government, privacy, and trust are malleable.” Even the police, it is revealed, are involved in the dirty doings.


Toby Stephens plays Tom Watson, the member of Parliament who, as government whip under Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Anthony Cochrane), had himself been smeared by the press, takes on unmasking the rampant phone hacking tactics (against non-celebrities and bold-faced names alike) undertaken under the leadership of formidable chief executive of News International Group, Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows).


Watson does so, even though the ensuing notoriety may jeopardize his wife (Robyn Kerr) and young son. He enlists the help of journalists Martin Hickman (Sanji de Silva) of The Independent and Nick Davies (T. Ryder Smith) from The Guardian as well as solicitor Charlotte Harris (Sepideh Moafi). Rupert Murdoch’s son James (Seth Numrich) is ostensibly Brooks’ boss, but as she’s firmly entrenched in the elder Murdoch’s good graces, he stands little chance of diminishing her power, much as he’s inclined to denigrate print in favor of his pet projects, TV and new media. Brooks, for her part, is aided every step of her ruthless way by the paper’s chief counsel Tom Crone (Dylan Baker). 


Rogers based the play on Watson and Hickman’s book, “Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain.”


The Yank-Brit cast is uniformly excellent. Besides all those mentioned, Michael Siberry has some choice moments as wealthy Max Mosely, a victim of the News of the World’s spying tactics, as do Eleanor Handley as New York Times reporter Jo Becker whom Watson and his colleagues try to interest in the story, and K. Todd Freeman as gay MP Chris Bryant, once attacked by Watson, but now enlisted to help in the cause. 


All the actors, except for Stephen and Burrows, play multiple roles which can sometimes cause momentary confusion. So, too, despite Rogers’ expository skill, following the narrative might be a bit challenging, at least for an American audience. Nonetheless, the main thrust of the narrative is clear enough. 


Sher directs at a fast pace and generates requisite momentum even with the dense talk. 


Stephens is terrific, expertly conveying his conflict as he tries, for the sake of his family, to stay neutral on the issue but inexorably drawn into it. And Burrows is convincingly commanding and intimidating as his hard-as-nails nemesis.


There are personal stories here too to balance all the industry talk. There’s the domestic friction between Watson and his wife Siobhan. And Brooks and her new husband Charles (John Behlmann) are attempting to have a child through a somewhat reluctant surrogate mother (also Kerr) whom they fear may change her mind.


Michael Yeagan’s set includes circular sectional tables which continually change position as the narrative unfolds, while newsroom monitors on an overhead ring keeps the eye dazzled, along with back projections of text and video by 59 Productions/ Benjamin Pearcy and Brad Peterson


(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater,150 West 65 Street; lct.org)


Photo by Charles Erickson: (l.-r.) John Behlmann, Eleanor Handley and Toby Stephens.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Ally (the Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Playwright Itamar (“The Band’s Visit”) Moses’ latest work is a provocative drama concerning university writing teacher Asaf (Josh Radnor) who signs a social justice manifesto on the urging of his student Baron (Elijah Jones) after the death of the latter’s cousin at the hands of the police. But his action ignites a a firestorm as the document equates the #BlackLivesMatter situation with that of Palestinians by Israelis. 


As Asaf is of Jewish descent, his involvement raises the particular ire of Judaica student Reuven (Ben Rosenfield) who bursts into Asaf’s office and passionately defends the Jewish side, and excoriates Asaf. And later, when Asaf decides his name should be removed from the manifesto after all, he comes under fire from both Palestinian student Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh), who argues the other side just as intensely and persuasively, and Asaf’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Cherise Boothe) who, in fact, wrote the manifesto. 


Moses is, like Asaf, of Israeli descent, and his play is a smart summation of all the arguments of the Middle East conflict. Both sides receive balanced, highly charged airings, and Rosenfield and Karadsheh are superb in their lengthy monologues as they argue their respective positions. No one applauded after either of these superbly acted speeches, as if cheering histrionic virtuosity might be mistaken for allegiance to one political side or the other. Or so it seemed.  


The play is a lengthy two hours and 40 minutes, but by the end, there is no actual resolution, as indeed the never-ending conflict in the Mideast seems to bear out. So, too, it was written before the Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7, and all the horrific carnage that followed, so there’s no reference to any of that, but the arguments remain pertinent, and no less potent.


Director Lila Neugebauer who did such a fine job with the current “Appropriate,” keeps the action fluid, and one scene morphs into another without pause. She draws fine performances from all, including Joy Osmanski as Asaf’s wife Gwen, a community relations administrator at the college which is planning to expand its campus; Madeline Weinstein as student Rachel who, though Jewish herself, joins with Farid to sponsor a campus lecture by a best-selling author espousing anti-Zionist sentiments. 


Radnor is ideal as the ever well-meaning Asaf who gets embroiled in such a maelstrom of controversy. Never less than likable, he earns the audience empathy from the start and retains it throughout.


The profusion of ideas is intriguing certainly, though “The Ally” frequently seems less a play than a stimulating debate. But, in fairness, there is a surprising amount of humor amidst the heavy arguments, and just enough domestic conflict in the scenes between Asaf and Gwen, and later, Asaf and old flame Nakia to keep us involved. 


(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; publictheater.org or 212-967-7555; through March 24)


Photo by Joan Marcus: Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor