LATEST REVIEWS

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE

MORE RANDO MAGIC IN THE BERKSHIRES

It’s hard to imagine a more deliciously gleeful PIRATES OF PENZANCE than the rollicking, robust revival of Joseph Papp’s 1980s version now at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield MA. The creative team that brought ON THE TOWN from the Berkshires to Broadway a few seasons back - director John Rando, choreographer Joshua Bergasse, and set designer Beowulf Boritt - have collaborated to once again deliver a Broadway-ready (and how!) production that is sheer delight at every swashbuckling turn from beginning to end.

PIRATES is, arguably, the most beloved if not most well known of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, first produced in 1879, becoming a fixture in modern pop culture by the New York Shakespeare (in the Park) Festival. That 1980 version, with a cast featuring Kevin Kline and pop singer Linda Ronstadt, went on to Broadway and won multiple Tonys. With this new PIRATES in the Berkshires, Barrington Stage re-introduces Gilbert & Sullivan to a whole new generation, re-fortifying this perennial with the cream-of-the-crop of creative and performing talent in contemporary musical theater.

The large cast (22!) is uniformly superb from headliners (multiple Tony and Olivier nominations among them) to every single member of the ensemble. There are five principal characters, each both vocally and comedically unique for the part. The boyishly-handsome, naïve orphan Frederic (Kyle Dean Massey) leaves his pirate family headed by the charmingly devilish Pirate King (Will Swenson), swearing fidelity to the crusty-but-endearing old maid Ruth (Jane Carr), the only woman he has ever known. He encounters a band of young, nubile sisters, the loveliest with whom, Mabel (Scarlett Strallen) he instantly falls in love. Her father, the Major General (David Garrison), rescues his daughters, captive to the pirates, by telling a big fib, which he later regrets. Frederic, too, wrestles with his conscience over a lifetime “duty” that obliges him to the pirates. Everyone frets, the police are called in, mayhem erupts … and - you guessed it - it all gets joyfully resolved.

It’s impossible to single out any one performance as each character emerges, not as stock Gilbert & Sullivan caricatures, but, as old-friends, the kind that you can pick up a conversation with just where it left off, even from decades before (which is when I saw Papp’s production).

Outstanding among the supporting cast, as pirate Samuel, is the deepest baritone on the Broadway stage Phillip Boykin (marvelous, again, as he was in ON THE TOWN) and Alex Gibson, a gangling noodle of one big funny bone, who almost steals the show as the Sergeant (not an easy trick when there are so many delightful hambones in this romp). The cleverest casting trick is pair of real twins (Alanna and Clair Saunders) playing twin daughters of the Major General, which allows for some unexpected visual double-entrendres (pun-intended) when they get paired up with the slyly sexual Pirate King in ensemble numbers.

What‘s most distinctive about this PIRATES is how kinetically, athletically, it moves, credit to director Rando who seamlessly integrates action, dance and set. The sword-fight sequence (by Ryan Winkles) – involving a dozen male members of the ensemble - is one of the best choreographed I’ve seen, made special by how the swashbuckling is incorporated into dance which flows from and back into narrative action.

Designer Borrit has transformed the theater into a pirate ship extending the stage mid-way into the orchestra concluding with full mast and rigging, which pirates climb all over and lean out from over the audience. The pirates also crawl, somersault and mingle with the audience up and down the aisles on entrances. Rando squeezes some nifty audience participation from theatergoers too.
Choreographer Borgesse out-does what he achieved in ON THE TOWN, with witty, inventive original dance sequences, especially for the Sergeant and the police force in ”When a Felon’s Not Engaged in His Employment”

Musical orchestrations (by Darren Cohen) are perfect, fluidly supportive - never domineering - of vocals or lyrics. Cohen’s treatment lets Gilbert’s witticism and word games shine through and keeps Sullivan’s melodies uncluttered. All musical numbers (31!) glow, but three are my favorites. The splendidly-voiced soprano Scarlett Strallen’s finest moments come in Mabel’s tender lament “Sorry Her Lot” in Act 2. David Garrison makes the famous and demanding “Modern Major General’s Song” look easy, which it’s not, and so much fun. The rousing “With Cat like Tread, the grandest of the ensemble numbers, guarantees goosebumps.

Seldom does musical theater get better than Barrington Stage’s THE PIRATES OF PENCANZE.

 

 

 

THE STONE WITCH

Berkshire Theatre Festival

Best known for his role as Alex Rieger on the hit TV series TAXI, Judd Hirsch returns to his stage roots in a powerful performance as an 80-something, cantankerous award-winning children’s book illustrator in the intriguing new play THE STONE WITCH in its world premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Simon calls himself a “picture maker” - not illustrator - because he “opens doors to the imagination” although he hasn’t produced a new title in a dozen years to the consternation of his big publishing house book editor Claire. To Simon’s reclusive rural hideaway studio, Claire dispatches the young, struggling children’s book author / illustrator Peter Chandler, desperate to get his own, first book, “The Stone Witch,” published to coax out of Simon a new book in time for the Christmas book catalog. The ensuing story, written by Shem Bitterman, is a clever, dark, sneakily suspenseful, original twist on the timeless tale of “what price success?”

Some scenic and textual allusions in THE STONE WITCH make the comparison of Simon Grind berg to America’s most famous award winning picture book author/illustrator, Maurice Sendak, who died at the age of 86 in 2012, unavoidable. Yael Pardless’ magnificent set - perfectly articulating a cluttered, decades-worn, woodland artist studio - is festooned with large cut outs on the rafters of mythical animals, which recall the friendly beasts of “Where the Wild Things Are.” What’s more, Simon boasts to Peter that he was the first to put naked children in a juvenile book, proudly noting it was banned by some schools. Indeed, Sendak’s Caldecott Award-winning “In the Night Kitchen” was the first to portray a boy’s full nudity and remains banned in some school districts today.

 

But Hirsch has the veteran skills to move Simon well beyond facile characterization. He totally inhabits the role of Simon - brashly egoistic, alcohol dependent, quarrelsome (and that’s a good mood), violence-prone, temperamentally unstable, and subject to flights of dementia, in which he encounters a little girl - a deceased daughter perhaps - called Bella. Hirsch conveys a Simon who is beset by inner demons: what’s so effective about his performance is that he does so enigmatically, thus maintaining the mystery of his character - and the story itself.

Rupak Ginn, best known as Raj on TV’s ROYAL PAINS, deftly plays Peter with the perfect mix of Daniel-in-the-lion’s-den naive resolve and a stubborn independence almost par with his mater’s, which makes the clash of artist egos palpable. Kristin Griffith plays the barracuda, big publishing house editor Claire with pitch-perfect, steely-edge sophistication.

Director Steve Zuckerman very effectively uses eerie, original music composed by Roger Bellon to both set a foreboding mood for the play and interstitially connect scene changes. Lighting and sound design by Shawn Boyle and Christopher Cronin create an escalating sense of menace to the plot. The most compelling aspect of the production design is background digital projection, designed by Pardless and Rasean Davonte Johnson, which variously depict the Manhattan skyline for Clair’s editors office, the woods surrounding Simon’s studio, and, most critical to the narrative, drawings executed by both Simon and Peter.

It is only until the final, harrowing projection of what emerges from Peter’s head onto his drawing board do we learn why he should have been more careful about what he had wished for.

 

 

 

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

If anyone could surmount the problem of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA being one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays - part love story, part comedy, part tragedy, part war history - it would be director Daniel Sullivan, the American stage master of the Bard. In the current Shakespeare in the Park production, Sullivan focuses pretty much on the war plot line, as there’s not much to suggest by the actors in the title roles any love at first sight, let alone committed passion. There’s more implied sex in the fuckbuddy relationship between a sort of Dumb and Dumber Achilles and Patroclus, which is the most interesting aspect of this production. The climax in Act II features an over-extended Grecian assault on the Trojan walls enacted as everyday Middle East street warfare replete with rapid-fire assault weapons, which theater management makes a sheepish excuse for pre-curtain. The battle and subsequent massacre of Hector is over-ambitiously choreographed. Shakespeare’s always good, but it’s still evident, even with Sullivan’s skills, why TROILUS AND CRESSIDA is one of the Bard’s least frequently staged. #publictheatre

 

 

 

THE CHINESE ROOM

 

Williamstown Theatre Festival is promoting the world premiere of Irish playwright Michael West’s THE CHINESE ROOM as a “sci-fi comedy thriller” but that’s really misleading. Topically this fascinating play is about artificial intelligence, AI, but thematically it owes more to the shared dramatic traditions of Stoppard, Pinter and Becket than it does the stories of Philip K. Dick and his fellow futurists. The play takes its title from the hypothesis of philosopher John Searle that a software program cannot give a computer a mind, real understanding or genuine consciousness regardless of how intelligently it may make it behave. THE CHINESE ROOM is an absorbing, fully dramatized exposition of Seale’s argument.

 

The premise: visionary AI programmer Frank (played with an exact blend of super-intelligence and percolating neurosis by Brian F. O’Byrne) has built a humandroid Susannah (Sue Jean Kim) to preserve his wife Lily’s (Laila Robins) memory, which is impaired by premature dementia. His efforts to apply the software to Lily are stymied by competing corporate interests to the AI company he founded with Hal, whose agent, humanoid Daniel (both played by Carson Elrod) seeks to deny proprietary access to the company’s mainframe that Frank’s unique software for Lily requires. What enfolds, though underpinned by dark, sardonic humor and West’s trenchant Irish sensibility of mortality, is a masterful – and cathartic – exploration of intellect and memory, emotion and identity.

 

For THE CHINESE ROOM’s future runs (and we should be hearing a lot more about this play), it could benefit from more narrative economy in Act 1 (and the plot gets a tad elliptical in Act 2). The ensemble of four adults, plus a very capable juvenile performer (Elliot Tarianor) as Frank and Lily’s young son, is superb, but Mr. Elrod almost steals the show with an astonishing performance in which he technically masters both movement and voice of a humandroid and a human whose memory inhabits the same form. Astonishing, too, is how director James Macdonald keeps the characters in balanced, comprehensible motion throughout West’s complex, and sometimes puzzling, narrative.

 

THE CHINESE ROOM is a totally original work - so I don’t mean to imply there’s anything derivative about it - but what’s most compelling is how it hauntingly echoes notions of memory from Stoppard and Becket (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Happy Days” come to mind) and from Pinter the notions of fungible identity (as in “Good Friends”). Throughout the story, Lily, in episodes of demented flight, playfully sings an obscure, whimsical ballad (by Phil Harris from the late 1940s), “Minnie The Mermaid,” about man’s infatuation with the sexy, mythical, creature of lore. A startling plot twist leaves Lily singing - “Oh what a time I had with Minnie the Mermaid, Down at the bottom of the sea; I forgot my troubles, There among the bubbles” - to whom she believes to be her husband Frank. Well’s wondrous THE CHINESE ROOM reminds us that we, like Lily, are, primordially and forever, in the end just looking for love.

 

 

 

PEERLESS

 

PEERLESS (and how!)

Produced previously at Yale Rep in New Haven, PEERLESS, by Jiehae Park, has found its way north to Barrington Stage in downtown Pittsfield. Regarded by its author as a “comedy until it’s not” and by Barrington Stage as “where comedy meets Macbeth”, PEERLESS posits two over-achieving Chinese-American high school twin sisters (labeled M and L) plotting to get the older off the waiting list into an Ivy university. To create the empty slot, they conspire to eliminate a nerdy, (in their eyes) undeserving classmate called D who’s been accepted. The story tells how they do that and then what happens.

 

Aside from a stray misfit in Rastafarian locks who counsels the sisters - thus alluding to the witches from Macbeth - the plot, based on a real-life crime spree of the Welsh Gibbons twins, seems more inspired by the 1988 movie “Heathers” with Winona Ryder or Brian de Palma’s “Sisters” (1973) than Shakespeare. At one point, when the sisters have an all-out brawl, PEERLESS flirts unintentionally with camp, and my mind drifted to “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.”

 

Picking my mind out of the pop-culture gutter, me thinks the dramatic problem with PEERLESS is that its satire is too obvious and that its comedic treatment doesn’t make the case that dark can be funny too. Director Louisa Parka keeps the story moving efficiently enough and creates some crisp theatrical vignettes with the limited resources of the St. Germaine. The young, equity cast are skilled enough, but it didn’t get much beyond the rhythmic mechanics of dialogue. The costumes by Elivia Bovenzi are, like, way cool, especially when D comes back from the dead as a crow.

 

Even though PEERLESS’ characters are a self-indulgent, unlikable lot, in the end, the play still instructed me on three things. One, crime does not pay, Two, payback is a bitch. Three, it sure as hell is a lot more competitive to get into college these days than when I went to school. 

THE ROSE TATTOO

There hasn’t been, or perhaps couldn’t be, a more entertaining celebration of love from Tennessee William’s works than Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of THE ROSE TATTOO. The tale about the Italian immigrant widow, Serafina, in a small Gulf Coast town seeking to replicate the true love she lost, has two stars on the Williamstown stage: a fiery, passionate Marisa Tomie in the lead role and an ingenious, witty set -incorporating plastic pink flamingos, palm trees, telephone poles, a beach, boardwalk and statute of the Blessed Virgin - designed by Mark Wendland. Director Trip Cullum populates William’s comedic tale with a Greek chorus of neighborhood housewives, a balladeer, adorable kids, two bad-ass Black party girls, a homeless beach bum, and a goat on a leash. Christopher Abbot brings a distinctive, vulnerable machismo to Alvaro, the trucker who revives Serafina’s lust for life. Tomie gives Serafina a voluptuous but kitten-like carnality. How she blends Serafina’s pain, naiveté and joie de vivre is irresistible.

LONDON THEATRE DIARY

LONDON THEATRE DIARY.  June 26 – July 1.  

GUYS & DOLLS – A THREE PENNY OPERA – DEEP BLUE SEA – RICHARD III – FAITH HEALER – HARRY POTTER: THE CURSED CHILD PARTS 1 AND 2.

From the social media postings I made during my Lonodn visit, I’ve compiled this review, so there are some syntaxtual and tense inconsistencies here.  Also, please note that even though I give HARRY POTTER the most copy, the highlight of the week was RICHARD III.  My diary leaves out Monday and Friday evening. Jim and I had dinner with friends, and that was nice, too.

 

On arrival Sunday afternoon a few days after the Brexit shocker, the London mood is subdued, with the native folk (easy standouts from all the tourists) looking a little dazed, with that sheepish, dejected look of a spouse having been yelled at on the way home from a party for drinking too much or saying something indelicate to the host. Jim’s and my antidote was a rousing matinee of one of the great American musicals, GUYS & DOLLS, at the Phoenix Theatre having made it with all its musical fable magic from The Chichester Festival, the source of so many West End musical revivals in recent years. It’s hard to get Nathan Lane and Faith Prince out of my head, but this cast dispatches all that quickly. And the score is just one of the best ever. That plaintive melody in Sky’s My Time of Day gets me every time. Sit Down You’re Rockin The Boat takes the roof off this old gem of a theatre which opened in 1930 with the premier of Noel Coward’s classic Private Lives starring Noel himself and Gertrude Lawrence with a young Laurence Olivier. Framed bills cover the walls of lobby and hallways. Quadrille starred Lunt and Fonatnne, and at the bottom of its poster, I noticed that that Cecil Beaton designed costumes and scenery. And what about Olivier directing himself and Vivien in Rattigan’s The Browning Version? Wow.

 Tuesday was dedicated to The National Theater.  At the matinee in the Olivier, the few reservations I had about Act I of THREE PENNY OPERA were erased by Rory Kinnear’s (Mack) ad-libbed / newly scripted opening of Act 2. (To set this up, the setting is East London and during Act 1 various characters have turned to announce the plays progress a la Shakespeare or make asides a la comedie del arte). Kinnear takes the stage to resume after interval and says (and I wrote this down it was so good) “welcome back to (our little tale) and to a brand-new England…you could have left but you chose to remain… but if ya got money who gives a fuck” and seamlessly takes us into the number “only those with cash are really free.”

 

This 3PO is a bawdy, rollicking, sexual, dirty, carnival of human nature. Polly is a nerdy accountant, Jenny a slutty stoner, and Lucy Brown, a sort of Cleopatra Jones. As for Mack he’s everyone’s Lothario, including Tiger Brown’s ( they were fuck buddies in the Army). If I’m making it sound messy, it’s not as it’s adapted (not reconceived as that too I might be making it sound) in a witty, sardonic book by Simon Stephens. The eight member band, which allows for perfect comprehension of lyrics, is on stage, often integrated with the actors, in a constantly shifting set of ladders, scaffolding, and partitions that director Rufus Norris somehow keeps paced with the rhythms laid down by Brecht and Weill almost 100 years ago. There’s plenty of the play’s original political subversion preserved by Stephens, with a timely kick (even without Kinnear’s adlib). 3PO prides itself on not being a morality tale - or being anti-morality - but when the cast sings in the finale “to live another day” it made the worst of human nature seem, not good, but downright natural. We are what we are.

 In the evening, Jim joined me for DEEP BLUE SEA in the Lyttleton. Helen McCrory delivers a knockout performance as Hester Collyer in a beautiful revival of Terrence Rattigan’s masterpiece from1952. Combining a physical sexuality of Natalie Wood and a neurotic elegance of Vivien Leigh, McCrory plays a woman separated from a noble Englishman desperately in love with a younger, handsome, alcoholic ne'er-do-well. The play opens with her failed suicide attempt. How Hester navigates the fine line between reason and emotion is a tightrope walk of a performance. We now know the play is based on Rattigan’s real life experience: the love of Rattigan’s life had left him for another man, then took his life months later. The most consequential relationship Hester has in the end is not with her ex or her lover but with the de-licensed physician who saved her life. He was imprisoned for homosexual acts (gently implied by Rattigan), and he doesn’t report Hester’s suicide attempt to authorities. (Like gay sex, suicide was a criminal act, too, until the l60s). Decades later DEEP BLUE SEA still instructs how the bonds of survival endure.

 Wednesday my “double-header” first took me out to Islington to the Almeida Theatre for RICHARD III. Ralph Fiennes as the evilest of kings is magnificent, but it’s the women whose supporting roles are as memorable. DIrector Goold creates a moving graveside tableau in the famous scene where Queen Elizabeth (brilliantly played by Irish actress Aislin McGucklin), Margeret of Anjou (a nobly aged Vanessa Redgrave), and The Duchess of York (a warhorse sturdy Susan Engel) lament the murderous treacheries of Richard . But it’s McGluckin who almost steals the show. The verbal battle Elizabeth wages with Richard over his marrying her daughter after he’s killed her boy sons ( the Princes in the Tower) which culminates in rape, is breathtaking. I talked with McGluckin after the show who said she had to figure out how Elizabeth would wage this fight of intellects. The rape she told me results because Richard knows Elizabeth is of the higher order: he’s reduced to physical violence. McGluckin’s is an unforgettable performance, full of fierce elegance and razor sharp intellect. This RICHARD III moved me like it handn’t before. Perhaps it was the intimacy of the Almeida space, which made the performances all the more immediate, but I was trembling at its conclusion: it was one of those theatre-going experiences that happens once every two or three years if one’s lucky. Unforgettable.

 

In the evening, I was at the Donmar, perhaps my favorite theatre venue in London, for a revival of one of my favorites FAITH HEALER. The Donmar’s production is as masterful a play as I remember it, from the Broadway revival with Ralph Fiennes 10 years ago and a splendid summer production a few seasons back at Berkshire Theater Festival. Brian Freil plumbs everything about Irish storytelling here, from its cultural tradition to its purpose as fiction for emotional truth. Faith healer Frank’s final line “at long last I resigned myself to chance” is a real gut-puncher. The only fault of this production is that the Donmar has made an expensive and needless investment in a raining boxed scrim around the stage, that really doesn’t tell the story any better than without it and that looms derivative of Ivo Van Hove’s production design elements for A View from the Bridge. A cell phone went off and stayed on so long in scene 1 breaking Stephen Dillane’s (Frank) rhythm and forcing him to silently shake his head in the direction of the offending section of the stalls from which it came, before returning to book. Oh yeah….Hal Prince was in the house.

As for Thursday….HARRY POTTER: THE CURSED CHILD PARTS 1 AND 2 was not on my “must see” list for the week but I had coffee with a theater careerist, who has seen it all, who expressed his own initial ambivalence about seeing the eighth installment of the Potter saga. He went anyway and is now enthusiastically proclaiming it will go beyond Les Mis and Hamilton to “world domination” of the theater scene. Thus, I just had to go.

One needs a full day to see CURSED CHILD. Like WOLF HALL, the British import on Broadway last year, one either does two evenings in a row or a matinee and evening performance the same day. The show opened in previews on June 7, with “special” (reduced) preview prices until July 30 when it formally opens but most pre-opening performances are sold out. Going on line, I learned that through secondary market ticket vendors I could get a ticket for the one day I was free for about $1600. Yes, $1600.

So it was to the returns queue of the box office I went, at The Palace Theater, a grand pile of red-brick built around 1890 that looks like a castle, with turrets, dominating Cambridge Circus. I went around 9am for a box office opening at 10. To Americans unfamiliar with West End returns, London theaters put tickets out for sale as they become available - day of - unlike Broadway theaters that somehow seem to hold them back. I was 12th in line. Around 11am a pair came up and as management doesn’t break up pairs I was matched with the next single in line, a twenty something Yale grad student on European study. Our pairing proved most fortuitous for me.

While waiting in line I took a couple of pictures on my Iphone of the theater façade and had the young son of a nice woman from Boston who was also in line take a picture of me in front of the billboard. Perhaps typical of the marketing prowess behind CURSED CHILD when I next opened my Iphone “especially prepared” for me, popping up on my Facebook page, was a photofile of what I had done that morning – all the pix in front of the theater - ready for me to post. I’ve never encountered this before. If I hadn’t become inured to the promiscuous protocols of social media I’d regard this as presumptuous, but my reaction was “How the hell did they do that”? This would not be the last time I asked that question in my theatergoing this day.

 

In any event, my new found theater companion and I scored stall (orchestra) seats, row N, far left side for 100BP, or $135, total for two parts, the preview rate.

Returning for the matinee Part 1, besides the Facebook Harry Potter photo folio mysteriously generated for me, I discovered the other unique aspect of attending this show was that each individual was screened by security before entering the theater. The Palace has an expansive overhang to its marquee. A phalanx of handsomely tie-and-suited security officers inspected all handbags on tables set up in cordoned admission areas under the large marquee, and each ticket holder - all 1400 of us - got, arms up, the security wand.

As for the play itself I’m not offering a formal review because it’s still in preview, but I can report without revealing any secrets of the plot, my observations based on text and photos in the play’s program. The story is by JK Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne who wrote the book and director John Tiffany who directs. (Thorne and Tiffany worked previously on LET THE RIGHT ONE IN that was as St Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn a few seasons back.) Nineteen years after the 7th book in the Potter series, Harry, now aged 37, and his wife Ginny, along with Ron and Hermione, watch as their children board the Hogwart’s Express. And the adventure - a total of 5 hours and 20 minutes of performance time (not including intervals) - commences. The script will be available in print and eBook the day after the formal premiere.

It sounds like I have been living under a rock, but I must admit I have never read any of the Potter books, and have seen perhaps two or three of the film adaptations, with one blurred to the others in my foggy memory. I had to laugh at myself trying to keep pace with this Harry Potter play because I had seen RICHARD III, which I know, at the Almeida the day before. Seeing the CURSED CHILD was like attending a performance of RIII as if I’d never seen it before and hadn’t read a synopsis of it (or hadn’t a clue about the War of the Roses). For a production as entertaining as CURSED CHILD, I had to concentrate more than I do for Shakespeare. (To complicate matters, CURSED CHILD has lots of time-travel.) I’m the weirdo on this one.

Blessedly, Thorne’s absorbing script provides explicative references to the Potter saga so even a Potter ignoramus like myself could follow along, even though the nuances escaped me. Most handily, my twenty-something American theater companion, who grew up with Harry like millions of his generation, patiently and generously debriefed me at intervals.

No spoiler here, I can allow, however, that there are new revelations in HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD. To hear a sold-out house gasp in audible unison several times was a theatrical experience in and of itself. Naturally, too, for Potter aficionados, there are lots of in-jokes and character references that caused twittering, giggles, loud laughter and, often, spontaneous applause in the audience.

Given my Potter illiteracy, I was particularly attentive to the creative aspects of the play. The scenic design is stunning. The Palace is one of the tallest houses in London with a stage that rises 2-3 stories high. Architecturally, it is a grand pastiche of Baroque, classical, Romanesque elements and the set, suggesting the great hall at Hogwarts, blends seamlessly into the theater and the theater into it.

 

Special effects designed by Jeremy Chernick and illusions and magic by Jamie Harrison, augmented by advanced lighting and sound design, are jaw-dropping. CURSED CHILD is one “how the hell did they do that” after another. It raises the bar for technical effects integral to the storytelling, exceeding that set by THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME.

The cast of over 40 is headlined, fittingly, by one of the original HISTORY BOYS of a dozen years ago, Jamie Parker as Harry. Most distinguished about the production is how director John Tiffany (ONCE) orchestrates it all. He and CURSED CHILD are a perfect fit. Working with movement director Steven Hoggett, Tiffany incorporates, in his signature style, choreographed ensemble patterns, similar to what he achieved in BLACK WATCH, and a fascination with magic he expressed in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

Do I have to mention the audience loved it? Not too many dry eyes in the house. Standing ovations, uncommon in British theaters.

The production is Broadway-bound, most likely to a Schubert house, most likely in 2018. If you’re planning a visit to London certainly book ahead or be willing to queue for hours. The preferred seating in the Palace is in the open section of the stalls - before row K or L, out from underneath the “balcony” - or the first 4 rows of the dress circle (first balcony). The upper circle (second balcony) and the balcony (the last balcony) rise at a grade extraordinarily steep compared to New York houses.

 

FIORELLO!

THOSE WERE THE DAYS


As an entertaining antidote to today’s toxic politics, a spirited, youthful production of the 1959 Pulitzer and Tony winning FIORELLO! hits the Unicorn Stage in Stockbridge, MA. The musicalized story of legendary New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and how he toppled the corrupt Tammany Hall when he was elected in 1933 looks quaint by what we’ve been politically enured to since. The idealism underpinning George Abbot and Jerome Weidman’s original book is heightened by this very young cast of mostly theater students in Berkshire Theatre Group’s actor apprentice program. It’s fun to watch these youthful performers take on New York stereotypes of old (Irish cop, Jewish lawyer, Italian pols) usually fleshed out by seasoned character actors, but each of these “kids” is of fully developed voice, so the wonderful songs with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick get the full expression they deserve. Austin Lombardi brings a wiry feistiness to the title role, but the supporting roles get the best numbers. A very perky Chelsea Green as Dora, the striking factory worker who falls in love with the Irish cop, explodes like a little firecracker with “ I Love a Cop.” Rebecca Brudner as Thea, Firoello’s first wife who died prematurely, brings exceptional vocal maturity to the bittersweet “When Did I Fall in Love” as does Katie Birenboim as Maria, Fiorello’s office assistant and second wife, with “The Very Next Man". BTG’s young, resident actor, Rylan Morsbach, once again proves his stage versatility. Equally at ease with roles as diverse as chimney sweep Bert in last year’s Mary Poppins or as Joey, a dim boxer in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, here he plays Ben, hard-boiled political boss, leading a sprightly ensemble in the play’s best known comical ditties, “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box.“ Ah, youth.

 

 

AMERICAN SON

Like a runaway train AMERICAN SON hits Barrington Stage in an impressive world premiere - a totally captivating contemporary drama, partly police thriller, partly the story of a failed marriage, but mostly a disarming and disturbing tale of race in America. From lights up , when a middle-age African American woman sits nervously alone at 4 o’clock in the morning in a Miami police station trying to get information about her biracial (read Black) son apprehended by police, to its dramatic conclusion, AMERICAN SON captivates, not just because of the keen, economic playwriting of Christopher Demos- Brown but also due to a riveting performance by Tamara Tunie of Law & Order: SVU fame as Kendra, mother of a recent high school graduate, the apprehended Jamal. 

Kendra, who grew up in a Miami ghetto, is a PhD, professor at the University of Miami. Her first tussle with an undereducated, white rookie cop is just openers in a series of escalating verbal skirmishes. Conflict really ramps up when Kendra’s estranged Irish Catholic husband Scott, an FBI agent, shows up. Race, obviously, is Demos-Brown’s central theme but it’s a marvel at how ingeniously he parses it through the lens of parenting, teenage behavior, law enforcement, class, gender, and power, both social and personal, all the while subverting our traditional assumptions about all the above. And when the senior Black police lieutenant arrives, Demos-Brown plays the final trick in turning upside down pre-conceived notions we have about race from both Black and white perspectives.

 

What makes AMERICAN SON so effective is Demos-Brown’s ear for dialog. He happens to be a white guy (and lawyer at that) although you might think AMERICAN SON might have been written by a Black woman. We never doubt or a second that what Kendra says is that of Black woman, and that what Scott says is that of an Irish American guy (being one, I know). Astonishingly, Demos-Brown achieves this without character stereotype, nor for that matter, for a story “ripped from the headlines”, any didactic or political grandstanding.

 

Barrington Stage Artistic Director Julianne Boyd directs with seamless fluidity, reflecting Demos-Brown’s clever narrative construction. The play runs a very tight 85 minutes and the story enfolds in real time, from 4:05 to 5:25, which we measure by the standard, office-issue clock on the station wall. There’s a clinical reality about Brian Prather’s set - industrial gray furniture, pressed-board drop ceiling, drably painted cinder block walls all washed in a cold, fluorescence schemed by lighting designed Scott Pinkney. - that opens to the audience like a cross-section. Panther’s set functions like a diorama of “the system”, of the bureaucracy, into which we observe the grueling, personal crisis of Kendra and Scott play out.

Casting is superb. Both Luke Smith, as the not-real-smart, white rookie cop, and Andre Ware, as the senior, seen-it-all police veteran, ring true. Michael Hayden, as Scott, perfectly renders a man who confronts the limits of his power and privilege. The quartet is a fine ensemble, but the play is really Tamara Tunie’s. Kendra is an exhausting role: Tunie’s on stage for every scene, the entire length of the play. All the narrative transacts through Kendra. Tunie’s is a powerful, powerful performance, and AMERICAN SON a powerful, powerful play.

GYPSY

SUMMER STOCK GYPSY

If you’re looking for a good-old-fashioned summer stock production of a masterpiece Broadway musical full of hummable popular songs and with a knockout lead performance look no further than GYPSY at Sharon Playhouse. One of the greatest American musicals (in the same echelon as Kiss Me Kate and Guys and Dolls), GYPSY has a timeless tale by Arthur Laurents about the backstage mother of all time, Mama Rose, all those wonderful songs (“Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”, “Small World”) by Jules Styne and all those brilliantly clever lyrics (“if you’re gonna bump it, bump it with a trumpet") by Stephen Sondheim. (Broadway musical historian John Miller reminds me that Sondheim was originally hired to compose music, too, but Ethel Merman, the original Rose, insisted the producers hire somebody more seasoned than the twenty-something Sondheim.)

So what if the performance I saw was technically a little rough around the edges or that the orchestra hits some clunky notes, Sharon Playhouse’s old barn is the fitting venue for this backstage fable, recreating the dusty, dying days of vaudeville. What matters most about GYPSY is song and dance and the cast - the leads (seasoned veterans or new Equity members) and supporting cast (many students in the Musical Theatre program at Penn State run by Sharon Playhouse’s Artistic Director John Simpkins) and community actors - delivers. Student Julia Hemp renders a robust, athletic performance as June, Mama Rose’s favored daughter, who’s groomed to be a star, until she can’t take Mama anymore. The male chorus is led by the very talented Alex Dorf as Tulsa, who impeccably executes the demanding song and dance solo “All I Need is the Girl” which concludes in an unexpectedly poignant moment between a starry-eyed, modest Louise smitten with Tulsa and a Tulsa smitten by his own ambition and another girl.

Among the local players, kudos to Emily Soell, who plays Miss Cratchitt, the hard-as-nails secretary to the Broadway showman Grantziger, pitch perfectly. She plays a side-splitting Miss Electra, too, in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” even though her electrified stripper costume didn’t operate properly in the performance I saw. Local children who play the kids in Mama Rose’s traveling show act, well, just like kids, and really, naturally charming kids at that.

Equity performer Kyra Kennedy is particularly effective as the Tom-boyish, second fiddle daughter Louise who, when Rose is abandoned by June and the troupe, blossoms into Gypsy Rose Lee on the burlesque circuit. As the famous stripper, Kennedy might have benefited from more precise choreography for her signature routine “Let Me Entertain You.” Rufus Collins, seen last year as Henry Higgins in the Sharon Playhouse’s sprightly version of My Fair Lady has ideal, good-neighbor-Sam appeal as Rose’s doormat Herbie.

And then there’s Rose . GYPSY’s all about Rose. It’s a grand, grand role, arguably the biggest female role in Broadway musical theatre, since Rose was given eternal life by Merman herself and tackled by every Broadway diva thereafter. Reviewers love to pontificate on actresses’ interpretation of the part: Monster Rose, Bitch Rose, Neurotic Rose, Mother Rose, Kitchen Sink Rose. Tony winning actress Karen Ziemba sidesteps all that nonsense and straightforwardly plays Rose, acting the book as Laurents wrote it and singing the songs as they were meant to be sung. Niemba’s voice is clear and powerful, and versatile, too. She tenderizes the score’s wistful melodies, but also finds - dare I say it - Mermanesque timbre in Rose’s driven, angry numbers. Her cold, steely determination in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, which closes Act 1 (the strongest moments of this production) has a fierceness and vocal clarity that I’d never heard expressed as dramatically before. Ziemba makes “Rose’s Turn” , the finale by which any Rose performance is measured, a glorious pity party, full of self-indulgent anguish, a cathartic tribute to dreams unfulfilled. When Ziemba belts “This Mama’s got it, and this Mama’s spreadin’ it around” she has claimed the role as her own.

ANASTASIA

BROADWAY READY
 

With the world premiere of the ANASTASIA at the Hartford Stage, it’s hard to imagine a more resplendent new musical waiting in the wings to take center stage in a future Broadway season. Directed by the ingeniously versatile Darko Tresnjak, with a fresh, new book by the playwright’s playwright Terrence McNally and with a glorious score and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, this ANASTASIA wondrously re-invigorates the legend of the Grand Duchess Anastasia well known from the 1956 movie and the popular 1997 animated version.

 

The production, which enfolds in cinematic splendor, is both a heartbreaking story of a young’s women’s reunion with the past, recalling the late romances of Shakespeare, and a heartwarming story of young love. Under Tresnjak’s inspired direction, the well-known myth of Anastasia emerges like a sparkling Faberge egg in the finest tradition of grand Broadway musical entertainment

It’s not all cotton candy. In Act 1 McNally needs to dispatch heavy Russian Revolution history. He gets it done pretty economically, and Tresjnak stages the bloody assassination of the czarist family with artful sensitivity. It’s a rich narrative, including a subplot of a Red Army officer, who will track down any real claimant to the throne. Anya (a thoroughly charming Christy Altomore) is the 18 year old orphan looking for traces of her family. Moscow is abuzz that a Romanov daughter survived the family execution. Anya falls in with a pair of conmen, the White Russian scoundrel Popov (perfectly played by John Bolton) and his young, street smart apprentice Dmitry (a dreamy Derek Klena). They con Anya so that they can take her to Paris and present her to the Dowager Empress, her possible grandmother, for the Romanov title.

 

 Act 1 covers a lot of territory, and perhaps could be trimmed a bit, but where? It’s all so good. Finally, Anya and her cohorts Popov and Dmitry are off the Paris on a rollicking train ride, with Red Guards on their heels, in the rousing, and highly hummable, number “We’ll Go from Here”. The first act concludes with Anya’s solo, the popular and emotional “Journey to the Past” one of the 6 of the show’s 22 songs that was original to the animated feature and Oscar- nominated for Best Song.

Most distinctive about ANASTASIA is that it, happily, is the exception to the Broadway rule that the second acts of musicals are weaker than the first. Once our trio arrives in Paris, there’s a steady of stream of show-stopping numbers, beginning with “Paris Holds the Key” (When’s the last time you saw a musical where Josephine Baker dances the Charleston with Isadora Duncan?)

 

 Comedic relief comes in the character of Countess Lily Malevaky-Malevitch (a hilariously droll Caroline O’Connor) lady-in-waiting to the Dowager, who was once lovers with Popov. O’Connor almost steals the show (Tresnjak’s too good a director to let that happen) not once but twice, first in a ensemble night club number “Land of Yesterday”, then again with Bolton in the “Countess and the Common Man”, where Lily and Popov share a double-entendre duet down an amorous memory lane. The jubilant choreography by Peggy Hickey gets fully expressed in the big numbers in Act 2, including a splendid ballet sequence from Swan Lake.

 

As Anya and Dmitry, leads Altomare and Klena couldn’t be better matched in vocal clarity; her voice, with a steely undercurrent, couldn’t be prettier, and, his, with an underlying gentleness, couldn’t be more handsome. Bolton, O’Connor and Mary Beth Piel as the Dowager Empress are perfectly cast and bring unique textures to each of their characters. Credit to the power of all the performances that they are not overwhelmed by such a powerfully arresting visual production.

 

The design of ANASTASIA is, in a word, dazzling, drenched in one gorgeous image after another: a backdrop of snow falling over Moscow morphing into a starry sky; a blood red blaze of Revolutionary fire and smoke; blossoming tress pulling back to reveal a Parisian skyline bathed in springtime sun; a lush trompe l’oeil of gold embroidery on the house curtain at the Palais Garnier.

 

The set, brilliantly designed by Alexander Dodge (responsible for the drop-dead set of Rear Window), combines rotating stages left and right with projections designed by Aaron Rhyne. In tandem, these magically shift scenes from czarist palaces to Moscow street life, from Left Back nightclubs to the opera house, lending the entire production both a novelistic and cinematic rhythm. All of it looks Technicolor sumptuous under Donald Holder’s lighting design. Eye-popping describes the costume design by Linda Cho, who, by rough estimation, has created more than 150 costumes, each deep in texture, rich in unique detail. The Empress’s embroidered silver court gown in Act 1, just for openers, is jaw-dropping. What craft, all around.

 

ANASTASIA - sweeping drama, romantic confection, visual jewel, 
elegant fairy tale - a splendid achievement for Hartford Stage in the grandest of the Broadway musical tradition.

 

 

DEAR EVAN HANSEN

A NEW TREASURE OF A MUSICAL

 

If you didn’t get to see the musicals Tuck Everlasting or American Psycho, both of which are early casualties of the late Broadway season closing soon, that’s no great loss. The bad news is that DEAR EVAN HANSEN is also ending a run at 2nd Stage this Memorial Day weekend. The good news is that it will transfer to Broadway in November and deservedly so. This marvelous musical play, which premiered at Arena Stage in Washington last year, has much in common, both in sensibility of text and musical composition, with successful antecedents like Next to Normal and Fun Home.

 

Quirky and shy high school student Evan Hansen has a social panic anxiety condition, lives a lonely life in a single parent home with mother struggling to make ends meet, and has no real friends at school. When, by peculiar circumstances, a therapeutic letter addressed to himself - “Dear Evan Hansen” - is found in the possession of classmate Connor, a violence-prone misfit, upon Connor’s suicide, Connor’s parents assume Evan and their son were best friends. Evan goes along, gaining notoriety at school, and when a memorial speech he gives Connor goes viral, Evan becomes the national poster child for sympathy and understanding of troubled youth.

 

At once a contemplation of identity and individual value, and a gentle satire on how social media objectifies even the most personal of experiences, Evan’s story is beautifully rendered through a smart, keen book by Steven Levenson, and music and lyrics with Sondheim-like sophistication laced with pop- music cool by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Director Michael Grief, who directed Next to Normal, knows the psychological terrain and family dynamics of Evan well; his minimalist staging keeps the focus on the internal dynamics of the characters.

 

For context of the external world, scenic designer David Korins and sound designer Nevin Steinberg construct a background of shifting, overlapping panels of computer and Smartphone texts and messages. The first act finale, “You Will Be Found’, when the social media Tower of Babel lands Evan at the crossroads of confronting the celebrity he has unwittingly created, ingeniously interconnects Evan’s relationship with self, schoolmates, mother and the Connor family.

 

As the title character, Ben Platt, first known for The Book of Mormon, sings beautifully, texturing his role with funny idiosyncrasies and an irresistible - but non-cloying - awkward appeal. The small cast of eight is consistently solid, but shout out to the wonderful Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan’s mother, who conveys all the pain and frustration of a working, single mom with an “unusual” kid. The finale, a reprise of a lovely ballad “For Forever”, might have been more expansive. Here’s hoping the move to Broadway preserves the perfect intimacy of this new, musical treasure.

 

 

HAPPY DAYS

NOT JUST “ANOTHER HAPPY DAY”

“No worse - no better, no worse, no change - no pain” says Samuel Becket’s Winnie. As HAPPY DAYS opens she’s stuck in a mound of sand up to her waist under the blazing sun, only to be awakened when sleep does visit by a loud, clanging bell. Beckett thought that the only person that could endure conditions like this would be a woman. And thus Beckett created Winnie, and blessed we are to have Winnie played by a superb Dianne Wiest at the Yale Rep.

 

It’s the first production of HAPPY DAYS that I’ve seen (though I’d read it a long, long time ago in college) and went down to New Haven out of academic curiosity, but it’s grabbed me and won’t let go.To say HAPPY DAYS is an existential contemplation of life and death is Drama101, and to see Winnie as Everyman is sophomoric, but, in fact, there are too few visits to the theater that reduce the everyday so truthfully in the head, and so emotionally in the gut, too.

 

When Winnie’s material world is no more than a few pitiful possessions in her handbag – a worn-down lipstick, a cracked make-up mirror, toothbrush - are they much different from morning oj, car keys, the favorite sweater of our own daily routines? When Winnie loses her protection from the outside world - her parasol goes up in flames - how is that different from, say, to really dumb it down, being without a car for a day? Life goes on.

 

Becket plays tricks with time and memory. Winnie recalls with coquettish delight her sexual life with husband Willie, now out of reach, just over a mound of sand. She tries to recall her first love, sitting on the lap of her father’s friend, how swell everything was “in the old style”. How often do we ask was it better then? Did that really happen that way?So, can Winnie choose to change her lot in the sand? No. Can Winnie change at all? She says, “To have been always what I am - and so changed from what I was.“ Indeed. Do we have any choice? Inevitability obviates the why.

 

In Act 2 Winnie is up to her neck in sand, deprived of using her tawdry treasures, with no motility – accept her face, head and eyes (and, oh, what Wiest does here). With hope - that Willie might just recognize her, just try to communicate - Winnie survives. Winnie, wakes and sleeps, sleeps and wakes, and tells stories with the only real facility of the senses of the moment of now. Winnie endures “another happy day” until that one, final happy day.

 

Wiest reportedly began preparing for the role over a year ago. Becket’s stage directions in his script are minutely precise. Winnie’s simple acts of putting on her lipstick, displaying her possessions, etc. are synchronized exactly with text. Wiest masters these technical aspects, along with astonishing vocal virtuosity. The face and voice Wiest gives Winnie reveal a lifetime full of contradictions - fear and humor, love and loss, disappointment and hope. Wiest draws you in closer and closer, to her face, to her eyes, in a totally captivating, mesmerizing performance.

Kudos all around – to Jarlath Conroy as Willie, director James Bundy, lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, scenic designer Izmir Ickbal, and sound designer Kate Marvin. Until May 21. Don’t miss it.

PARAMOUR

THE CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN

 

Cirque du Soleil’s PARAMOUR is a juggling act (pun intended) between its signature brand of acrobatic circus and a big Broadway musical. Creative Director Jean-Francois Bouchard and director Philippe Decloufe try to graft every imaginable form of circus gymnastics onto a musical version of a tired (sic)-and-true, behind-the scenes Hollywood romance. The stage dynamics, choreographed with jaw-dropping synchronicity, are so dizzying, non-stop and complicated, the hackneyed simplicity of plot is blessed relief.

 

Big time director and producer in Hollywood’s Golden Age, Al Golden, (yes, golden) is looking for an ingénue for his new blockbuster - surprise - called “Paramour”. In a downtown LA club, he finds the lovely, young singer Indigo James (not Jones, thank God) and her sidekick and piano man, the boyishly handsome Joey Green (yes, green as in naive). Golden casts Indigo as his new leading lady, but has to hire Joey, too. The plot thickens when Golden falls in love with Indigo and Joey confesses his own love for her too. For Indigo, it’s either fame and fortune or true love. What’s a girl to do?

 

PARAMOUR, whose production design smacks more of Las Vegas than either Hollywood or Broadway, packs a kitchen sink of plot elements from classic movies like A Star is Born, Singing in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, stage musicals like 42nd Street and City of Angels, and even opera - spoiler alert - and a very famous Italian one at that.The opening number “The Hollywood Wiz”, a smorgasbord of dance, acrobatics, juggling, trapeze, and gymnastics, is so startling in its busyness it’s discombobulating, but in the rare number when PARAMOUR legitimately melds acrobatics with plot, song and dance, it flies high. The ensemble showstopper, “Help a Girl Choose” in a Calamity Jane movie-making sequence, an extended version of the barn raising number from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, would make Michael Kidd jealous. Agnes De Mille, on the other hand, who choreographed the American musical watershed dream sequence in Oklahoma, should be rolling over in her grave with how acrobatic zombies recreate the competing emotions of Golden and Joey for Indigo in a bizarre nightmare sequence called “Revenge Fantasies”. Integration of character and movement is more effective in a spell-binding trapeze routine by the hand to trap trio Sam Charlton, Martin Charrat and Myriam Deraiche which beautifully choreographs the love triangle among Golden, Indigo and Joey.

 

Featured performers in the show are twin aerial strap artists Andrew and Kevin Atherton, flying beyond the proscenium over the audience, and displaying probably the most perfectly identical, perfectly chiseled bodies on the planet, and juggler Kyle Driggs whose umbrella magically seems to float at his direction. In the final scene, an extravagant chase sequence, trampoline artists fly from rooftop to rooftop, with choreographed precision that would make the producers of the doomed Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark downright envious.

 

The occasionally appealing musical score rises above much Broadway banality especially in the romantic ballads “Something More” and “Everything” delivered in splendid voice by Ruby Lewis, who is an actor not a circus performer. Jeremy Kushnier as Golden and Ryan Viona as Joey are like, Lewis, just actors, too. They are all perfectly cast. PARAMOUR is an astonishing spectacle of acrobatic and gymnastic virtuosity, most often exhausting, sometimes exhilarating.

 

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

 

The current revival of Eugene O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is not so much about the original, American dysfunctional family, the Tyrones, as it is all about its morphine-addled matriarch, Mary Dodge Tyrone, memorably played by Jessica Lange. She dominates the production - even for the stretches when her character is absent from the stage - in this full text production of almost four hours.

 

The last production I saw, which unsuccessfully paired David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf in the West End, shrunk O’Neill’s posthumous work to less than three hours. The chunk that was taken out - the long scene between father James and his consumptive son Edmond - is extant here. It’s a grueling, elliptical scene, and hard to hold together. Actors Gabriel Byrne and John Gallagher Jr’s grip on it seemed almost tenuous at times, but that’s the weakest patch in this formidable, searing production.

 

Director Jonathan Kent’s impeccable pacing is most evident in Act 1, in James and Mary’s escalating, passive-aggressive, tit-for-tat that has the rhythms of two veteran boxers who in anticipating each other’s moves are almost too tired to punch. Michael Shannon as the older brother James Jr. perfectly conveys anger’s acid-drip, without polluting it with too much alcoholic self-pity. I found Gallagher’s take on brother Edmund less textured, and Byrne’s take on James mellow and at times somehow disengaged.

 

Lange’s vocal dexterity is astonishing. She layers old-fashioned, proper, American speech with intonations ranging from the chirpy innocence of a choir-voiced schoolgirl to the deep-throated, bellowing remorse of a women beyond her years in pain. And, oh, in the final soliloquy, when Mary concludes, “… and then I met James Tyrone” well, that’s what theater’s all about.

 

POST SCRIPT. Tom Pye’s set evokes realistically a turn-of-the- last century seaside Victorian cottage, the kind you can still see in Fenwick, or elsewhere along the Connecticut coast, not only in overall design but period detail. Perhaps only other antiquarian bibliophiles would notice or could discern from the bindings on the Tyrone’s shelves, but the books on Pye’s set were authentic, actually from late 19thC/ very early 20thC period, and of the variety that would have populated households like the Tyrones in 1912 when the story takes place. 

 

 

 

WAITRESS

THE HYDROGENATED MUSICAL

 

With voices of America’s struggling underclass coming through loud and clear in this year’s Presidential election, the new musical WAITRESS arrives on Broadway from American Repertory Theater (ART) at Harvard in Cambridge, championing the tale of Jenna - a small-town waitress and pie maker with an unwanted pregnancy in an abusive marriage - in a parable of economic and personal empowerment.

 

The ingredients are all there. A populist theme, both timely and appealing. A crowd-pleaser of a story. Spot-on casting. But, however talented the players, from the star-power of the wonderful Tony-winning (as Carol King in BEAUTIFUL) Jessie Mueller as Jenna to the terrific supporting cast, they are ill-served by 2½ hours of weak material, corny dialogue, an unremarkable score, and, often, bizarre stage movement.

 

Only a skilled, talented actress like Keala Settle, featured as Becky, one of Jenna’s co-workers at the local diner, can rise above lines like (and I’m paraphrasing) - “my left tit is getting so big and drooping so much I’m afraid I’m gonna trip over it” - and charm an audience. Kudos for pulling that off, plus for taking the solo ”I Didn’t Plan It” that opens Act 2 and making it soar. From then on to the finale, the story is all downhill, where a book by Jessie Nelson that was, at best, serviceable in Act 1, becomes endless and incoherent, and smacks of having been re-written and re-worked, over and over.

 

The score by pop songster Sara Bareilles, who also penned the lyrics, is an all-too-familiar hybrid of banal Broadway and confectionary pop ballad, in this case flavored with folk/country western. A couple of numbers (both in Act 1) - notably “It Only Takes a Taste”, which kindles the flame between Jenna and her obgyn doc with whom she has an affair, and “A Soft Place to Land” , a bittersweet ode of sisterhood among Jenna and her co-waitresses Becky and Dawn, strike a few, evaporating melodies. Mueller, in strong, splendid voice, that transcends the material closes out Act 2 with two songs, one a solo, “She Used to Be Me” and the other backed by the company, but each is indistinguishable from the other.

 

As for comedy, the show’s lowest point of hilarity is the staging of the play’s three amorous couples “at it” - Becky and her “surprise” suitor (I’m not spoiling it here but it’s not hard to anticipate) doggy style on the lunch counter, Jenna and her doc in the missionary position on the obstetrics examining table, and Dawn, Jenna’s other co-waitress dressed as Betsy Ross, with her sex-obsessed boyfriend Oggie dressed as Paul Revere performing service from underneath Dawn’s (Betsy’s) full length smock. (Colonial costume? It’s a minor detail in a romantic subplot.)

 

Legitimate humor - indeed, the show’s highpoint - is Oggie’s “Never Getting Rid of Me,” brilliantly performed by Christopher Fitzgerald (Boq in WICKED, Igor in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Og in FINIAN’S RANBOW). He steals the show as a lunatic, clownish, crazy, head-over-heels, nerd in heat. For a fleeting seven minutes, he’s untethered, taking flight above everything else in the play, and for these magical moments making the show airborne with him.

 

There’s only incidental dancing by choreographer Loren Latarri, who worked on choreographing THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, which breathtakingly integrated movement and text. Working with far less here, Latarri’s weirdly stylized movements (a peculiar variant of director John Tiffany’s unique signature style) - pies swooping into scenes on the arms of the ensemble, sugar poured in a stream from feet above a coffee cup in rhythm to the score, eggs cracked on the side of a mixing bowl on the downbeat - wear real thin, real fast. They become intrusive, obvious and just plain silly.

 

With WAITRESS, ART has drifted far off-course from its origins in classic repertory as founded in 1980 by American theater doyen Robert Brustein. Under the current artistic direction of Diane Paulus, who directed WAITRESS, ART has morphed into a leading regional, commercial venue for Broadway-bound productions, best evidenced by its Tony-winning musical PIPPIN a few seasons back. Granted, PHAEDRA’s not going to put as many bums in the seats as WAITRESS, but in showcasing goods as common as WAITRESS, ART has lowered its own bar. WAITRESS makes ART’s brassy PIPPIN seem as sublime as Leonard Bernstein’s version of Voltaire’s CANDIDE.

 

Instead of serving homemade pie, WAITRESS is really selling Entenmann’s.

 

 

 

 

TUCK EVERLASTING

2.5 HOURS OF FOREVER

 

Perhaps I would have found TUCK EVERLASTING more satisfying if I had read the novel, had children of my own, or was dedicated to family-fare musicals based on fantasy fiction written with a juvenile audience in mind, but I doubt it. TUCK EVERLASTING’s premise: Winnie Foster, a young girl in the late 19thC happens on the spring of eternal life, the waters of which have sustained her abducting and adoptive family, the Tucks from the early 1800′s, with never-ending life: if she chose to drink the water or not, what would her life be like. The notion is captivating, but the musical is not.

 

The score by Chris Miller is the kind of quickly-evaporating, formulaic balladry that populates a lot of Broadway these days, although the solo “My Most Beautiful Day” stayed with me a bit. (Maybe because I had heard it before trolling around on YouTube.)

 

The performances are unremarkable, except for Terrence Mann as the Man in The Yellow Suit, a sort of Wizard-of-Ozish conman. Mann takes a hambone of a part, and with a wink and nod to the audience on every line, note and step, plays it like, well, a hambone. An even more obvious diversion is the choreography by Casey Nicholaw, who also directs. He throws the ensemble into overdrive in what seems like non-stop pirouetting, somersaulting and high-kicking into, out of, and right through scenes, many of which don’t call for all the hullabaloo.

 

The dance finally calms down for the play’s ten minute, concluding ballet that dramatizes how Winnie’s life enfolds in mere-mortal, real life, which is so literal, it’s, well, real boring. A second act number, “"You Can’t Trust A Man” with some genuinely witty lyrics, performed by Fred Applegate as the town constable and Michael Wartella as his boyish deputy, provides some genuine entertainment. The relief is too little, too late.

 

 

 

 

BRIGHT STAR

REAL SHINE, NO GLITTER

 

BRIGHT STAR isn’t the trendiest of new musicals, but it’s one of the most affecting that has opened in the pre-Tony nomination flood, not so much for its unapologetically traditional story or its wholesome, old-fashioned theme, but for its overall emotional coherence. The story shifts between 1922 when our heroin Alice Murphy, as a fiery, free-spirited teenage girl, was nothin’ but trouble in the small town backwoods in North Carolina, and 1945 when, as a tough-as-nails editor, she rules a cutting edge literary publishing house in Charlotte. Enter the young, aspiring author Billy Cane, just home from the War.

 

BRIGHT STAR’s unified, creative energy - evidenced in every aspect from book to song to choreography - reflects the undiluted vision of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, who share original story and music, with Martin writing the book and Brickell lyrics. The team’s score - 18 original numbers - is bluegrass-based through and through, covering a range of emotions from teenage naïve love to adult painful regret. The spirited choreography by Josh Rhodes executed by an ensemble, which functions like a Greek Chorus, not only gracefully shifts scenes from time and place, but also plants its feet in the best tradition of American folk dance, including some nifty steps native to Appalachian culture.

 

Rare is a contemporary musical that combines modesty with confidence, so when we are telegraphed, through some sophisticated book-talk in Alice’s publisher’s office, that the play is about love and redemption it doesn’t come across as preachy or pretentious. And, even though it’s not too too hard to figure how the play will conclude, I felt as if I had discovered something fresh and new when Bill the struggling author proclaims (and I’m paraphrasing) “in all good Southern stories, you can’t become whole until your past merges with your present.“

 

The entire cast is super, but Carmen Cusack, in her Broadway debut, as Alice is extraordinary. Sounds corny, but I really, really cared about her story right from the start, when she puts her heartache right out there in the opening solo “If You Knew My Story” right through to the very end. Her concluding solo, “At Long Last”, a beautiful and rousing, cathartic and inspirational reconciliation of the past, made this cynic’s eyes water. Can you believe it?

 

 

 

 

 

AMERICAN PSYCHO

THE PSYCHOTIC MUSICAL 

 

If one hasn’t read Bret Easton Ellis’ provocative 1991 novel AMERICAN PSYCHO or seen its vivid 2000 screen adaptation, or heard anything about either, I’m not sure one can make much sense of its musical Broadway version about 26 year old Patrick Bateman, Wall Street banker by day, serial killer by night, set in the fast-lane of Manhattan’s late Eighties society.

 

The book by comic book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, strives for satire, but it’s comic book. The lyrics, aspiring to trenchant social commentary, by Duncan Sheik (who distinguished himself with the beautiful, poetic SPRING AWAKENING) aren’t much more than run-on, name-dropped references to 80s fashion and culture clichés from Manolo Blahnik to the Walkman. Sheiks’s music peaks early; it doesn’t get any better than the show’s opening number “Morning Routine.” The original songs are interspersed with watered-down, homogenized versions of 80s Top 40s hits.

 

The uber-stylized choreography, athletically executed by a zombied ensemble moving with the vengeful precision of synchronized swimmers, plays like a montage of bad videos from MTV’s early years. Director Rupert Goold uses some clever tricks to connect the dots but the mess is really held together by lead Benjamin Walker, who defines serial killer Bateman with charm, even when wielding an ax, chain saw, Bowie knife or assault rifle. (Did it occur to any of the producers that the latter might remind audiences of children massacres like Sandy Hook?)

 

The show’s highpoint is costume design by Katrina Lindsay, who perfectly theatricalizes - way beyond DYNASTY kitsch - every tasteless feature of BIG 80s fashion. In between cocktail parties and bloodletting, there are …er….stabs at comedy. But, instead of black humor, we get pandered to with forced jokes about Donald Trump or cheap gags, like the one about Tom Cruise, which have no relevance to the story anyway.

 

Incredulously, AMERICAN PSYCHO takes itself seriously. Too bad. With more confidence it could have been camp. Not good camp, bad camp, but better than the satire it pretends to be. Bateman’s killings make no sense because the story provides him with no motivation. He’s white, rich and privileged but he’s unhappy, so he kills people. It’s as simple as that, I guess.

 

Last week in reviewing WAITRESS, whose title character is a pie maker, I quipped that when it comes to pies on Broadway I’d stick with Mrs. Lovett’s. When Patrick Bateman faces the audience in the finale “This Is Not An Exit” to tell us, literally, that his story has shown us “what we have become”, it’s preposterous and too, too precious. If AMERICAN PSYCHO is asking me to view serial killing as an allegory for man’s savagery to man, I’ll attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, thank you very much.

 

 

 

 

ALL ABOUT ANDRE (Manhattan Theatre Club's THE FATHER)
 

Somewhere in THE FATHER there is a moving inter-generational story about a loyal daughter conflicted about how to deal with a difficult parent sliding deeper into dementia. But Manhattan Theatre Club’s production, apparently a recast, restaging of the London production of author Florian Zeller’s original French production, is all about Andre, the father, more specifically all about Frank Langella, who plays the title role, who, more specifically, overacts the title role. About 15 minutes into this 90 minute play, Langella was playing a line for laughs to the audience, where comedy wasn't in it. Sure, Langella brings expositional dimension to his character; Andre, in his own mind, is still full of youthful piss-and- vinegar, in one scene presenting himself as a Lothario to a female sitter/ helper, but, Frank, do you have to grab your crotch? The play could use some simple adaptation to an American stage. The setting is Paris with references to London but these locales have nothing to do with the story. Neither do the accents. All the characters are presumably French; Langella sports an all-purpose Anglo-Continental accent, the other five cast members speak standard American. The plot plays tricks on the audience. Most of the play sets up a series of elliptical, contradictory narratives so we wonder - is this real? - from whose point of view are events? There are repeated, foreboding references to one of Andre’s daughters who died tragically, but they have no dramatic meaning to the story; they’re just loose ends. By the end, the play settles down to a linear, melodramatic presentation of late-stage dementia. As the son of nonagenarian mother, I’m familiar with aging and mental decline. I wanted to be moved by THE FATHER, but wasn’t. Even Andre’s pathetic, lonely lament “I want my mommy” sounded trite, and played like cheap sentiment. That’s not credible drama.

 

 

 

SHE LOVES ME 


My initial reaction seeing SHE LOVES ME from the orchestra at Studio 54 where decades before I reveled in a disco high (and the balconies above beckoned with opportunities for even more physical abandon) was irony, for never before have I witnessed a more innocent celebration of pure, virtuous young love. The last revival in 1993, with Judy Kuhn and Boyd Gaines, was splendid, but, now, 20 years later with on-line hooks-ups, the musical, originally staged in 1963, about two young lovers criss-crossed as pen pals in a lonely hearts club is more fairytale than ever. ThisRoundabout Theatre Company production of SHE LOVES ME makes magic of it. David Rockwell’s story-book set , designed like a giant Faberge egg, opens up to reveal a Technicolor perfumery that recalls a Vincent Minnelli musical. Jerry Bok’s musical score serves up two dozen musical numbers with at least half a dozen recognizable even to ears not on the Broadway show-tune circuit. Laura Benanti, as shop girl Amalia, delivers the best known of these favorites beautifully, covering a range – from the heart-breaking plaintive “Dear Friend” that closes Act I to the giddy delirium of “Vanilla Ice Cream” – with a distinctive blend of feminine charm and vocal muscularity. Zachary Levi, as Amalia's co-worker and unsuspected suitor Georg, blends guy -next-door charisma with innocent masculinity; it’s hard not to be reminded, gleefully, of the aw-shucks ebullient song-and-dance of Donald O’Connor in old MGM musicals. Jane Krankowski perfectly presents as the perky blonde who can’t say no: her “Trip to the Library” in Act II is a featured musical actress’ tour de force. Gavin Creel plays the shop’s Lothario with appropriate cartoon machismo. Peter Bartlett as the Headwaiter in the ensemble number “A Romantic Atmosphere” gives Edward Everett Horton from the old Astaire/Rogers movies a run for his money at drollness and almost steals the show. Scott Ellis directs with an invisible hand so that it all looks effortless, as he did two seasons back in YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. Like it, SHE LOVES ME creates a world where good old-fashioned sentiment and virtue, for two and half hours, prevail over our cynical times and modern mores. SHE LOVES ME is a gem of musical, and this revival a joyful delight. 

 

 

 

​RED SPEEDO

Front row seats are always interesting but never before - nor soon again - will I to be sitting eye level with a swimmer doing laps in a pool the entire length of the stage. Only a script as confident and coherent as Lucas Hnath's RED SPEEDO at New York Theatre Workshop could keep Ricccardo Hernandez's set from dominating the action. Hnath's work is a powerful parable of the moral cost of success, using competitive swimming as its metaphor. Rare is the play where conflict is palpable from the very opening line right to the exhausting, very end. Hnath's writing is a textbook in expostional economy, integrating conflict seamlessly with character and plot, which takes a couple of surprising twists. The cast is superb, but Lucas Caleb Rooney who plays Peter - competitive swimmer Ray's, ambitious lawyer, older brother - gives the powerhouse performance. Hats off, too, to Thomas Schall who choreographs a spellbinding fight sequence. Director Lileana Blain - Cruzorchestrates it all, with impeccable timing. Ends April 3, still time to catch it. Don't miss it.

 

 

 

 

HUGHIE
 

As I might never again have a chance to see a Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s, one-act, hour-long, HUGHIE, I got a discount TDF ticket – fifth row aisle, thank you very much – and saw the matinee this week. Uncharacteristically non-epical for O’Neill, this two-character play, set in 1928, is, basicallly, a monologue to the night clerk in the wee hours of the morning of small time, down-on-his-heels hustler Erie Smith in the lobby of a rundown New York hotel. Erie summons better days when departed Hughie was on the desk. As Erie, Forrest Whitaker got a lot of bad press pre-opening for not remembering his lines. Now at the end of the run (the play closes March 27), he’s delivering them just fine, but just fine. It’s a tough, tough role for any actor (even the most seasoned on the boards and this was Whitaker’s Broadway debut) but, aside from the last three minutes when Erie revives with energy, Whittaker pretty much recites script, without dimension, texture, and, in some patches, any intonation. As the night clerk, stage veteran Frank Wood, with sparse dialogue, succeeds in almost suggesting his character is Erie’s apparition, which is more internal than anything Whitaker can find in his own role. The only rhythm in the proceedings is to be found in the strategic insertion by director Michael Grandage of Adam Cork’s darkly elegiac original score, which lends some punctuation to the monologues. The real star of the show is Christopher Oram’s stunning set of a decaying, turn-of the-century hotel lobby. It’s overscaled to the intimacy of Erie’s tale, but it has a dark, haunting, ghostly beauty. Neil Austin’s lighting, of the same quality, deftly conjures neon signs and streetlights outside spilling into the dusty, sagging lobby, giving way to a dirty dawn at play’s end. But, mood alone doesn’t make drama. 

 

 

 

ANGEL REAPERS
 

Quiet giggling turns into stomping, robust joy in the opening of Signature Theatre’s ANGEL REAPERS, a glorious collaboration between choreographer Martha Clarke and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry. With a book that loosely tells the tale of Shaker leader Mother Anne Lee through the daily travails of members of the religious community she founded, ANGEL REAPERS dramatizes, mostly through dance, the battle of worldly flesh with the celibate spirit. Marvelously staged with an economy of spoken text and singing of actual Shaker hymns, it is the brute, angular, often whirling, physicality of the dance that powerfully moves Uhry's story. Whether it’s the rousing ensemble to celebrate the wonder of everyday chore (collecting the eggs, haying the fields, sewing the buttons) or a painful pas de deux between male Shakers tortured by affection for each other, ANGEL REAPERS is riveting. Clarke and her troupe of 11 - 6 women and 5 men - for 70 minutes fully inhabit a Shaker world in the Romulus Linney Theatre at Pershing Square that designer Marcia Ginsberg has brilliantly transformed into a Shaker meeting house. The dance shifts constantly between bliss and torment, anguish and euphoria, worship and the devil. But, in the end, unless the body and soul are reconciled, there is no joy. Still, it’s breathtaking theater.

 

 

 

SMOKEFALL
 

Seldom does one witness a production of a contemporary play that so compellingly combines balanced storytelling, rhythmic, elliptical themes, and bold, inventive directing as does Noah Haidle’s SMOKEFALL directed by Anne Kauffman at the Lucille Lortel Theater. The setting is a plain, all-American house in Grand Rapids MI (which stands in for any American locale). The household is populated by husband Daniel and wife Violet, pregnant with twins, daughter Beauty who doesn’t speak and eats natural material like dirt and tree bark, and Colonel, Violet’s benignly demented father. Husband Daniel abandons the family. Beauty runs away. One of the twins dies at birth. Two generations later, in the same house; the surviving twin is visited by his own son and reunited with his aunt Beauty missing for decades. Although the bare bones of this tale seem rudimentary, and some elements of it intriguingly bizarre, Haidle has plumbed elegantly, with quiet precision, the eternal and tentative proposition of life. “Every life is just a bit of noise between two silences”’ says Footnote, the narrator, recalling Wilder’s town manager in OUR TOWN. In fact, Haidle’s play evolves much like a circular, modern version of that American classic, with directorial inventions that run from fanciful to surreal. In the play’s most ingenious episode, Kauffman stages Violet’s twin fetuses in utero - played by Zachary Quinto (who also plays Footnote the narrator and Samuel the grandson later) and Brian Hutchinson (who also plays husband Daniel) - as two clownish comics doing a routine on a burlesque stage, a sort of vaudeville version of Vladimir and Estragon. Like Beckett’s famous duo, all of Haidle’s characters confront their inevitable mortality, but Haidle doesn’t suspend them dystopically like too many contemporary playwrights. SMOKEFALL is, at heart, a very old-fashioned play - spiritually grounded, really. Indeed, the backyard of this household shelters an apple tree (think Tree of Life, and yes, Adam and Eve) and Haidle threads notions of original sin conflicting with individual determinism throughout the play. Says grandson Samuel: “Everybody’s born into something, but everybody has the power within themselves to create their own trajectory.” Haidle takes the play’s title from TS Eliot’s THE FOUR QUARTETS - “The moment in the draughty church at smokefall be remembered…” - which reminds me of Tom Stoppard’s ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDERSTERN ARE DEAD - “We cross are bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.” Haidle echoes these notions with pure and honest simplicity over and over again throughout his beautiful work. Broken husband Daniel asks “What’s the challenge.” Haidle’s answer, spoken by the failing Colonel - “To love, anyway”

 

 

 

SHEPHARD’S AMERICAN GOTHIC

​ (New Group's BURIED CHILD)​


Having spent a month last autumn assisting on the Berkshire Theater Group’s production of The Homecoming, I couldn’t help but be struck at how much Sam Shephard is indebted to Harold Pinter upon seeing the New Group’s strong revival of Shephard’s BURIED CHILD, directed by Scott Elliot. Albee’s influence is apparent, too. Mix in Shephard’s signature, dark interpretation of American Gothic (macabre in conclusion), and Buried Child still presents as one of the most psychologically subversive journeys through the American family. A nicotine-stained, desiccated Victorian farmhouse living room - the dirty hues of which suggest the sickening pink and beige of casket upholstery interiors - designed by Derek McLane sets the tone. The landscape looks bleaker than anything Edward Hopper could have imagined. Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, who anchored last year’s riveting production of Beth Henley’s THE JACKSONIAN at The New Group, take the leads here, with Harris as Dodge, emasculated long ago, on his last legs of a long death, breathing his last between shots of whiskey. Madigan as Halie, Dodge's alcoholic schizophrenic wife, set Dodge on a fateful act – and the family into a spiral of chronic dysfunction – years ago, and that is her, Dodge’s and the family’s rotting secret. Harris is about as good here as anything I’ve seen him do on stage: his timing, which sets the pace for the whole ensemble, impeccable. Seasoned featured players keep up, but the roles of Vince, Dodge’s grandson, and Shellie, Vince’s girlfriend, seemed miscast. Taissa Farmiga, who plays Shellie, the outsider who had no co-dependence historically or genetically with the family secret, doesn’t fully convey the assault to privilege that I wanted to see in her character. Nat Wolff as Vince has the hardest task, in a soliloquy in the final act, which doesn’t tragically enough convey the doom at the end of this family tree. Still, credit to Scott Elliott’s The New Group that, with productions like this and its amazing production of David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES a season back, provides the most reliable venue for revival of breakthrough American drama of the 1960s and 70s.

 

 

 

​(NOT SO) STRAIGHT

STRAIGHT at The Acorn Theatre is an often thorough, if not subdued, ventilation of conflicted elements of gay psychology, relationships and culture. The set up: 25 year-old, Ivy educated investment banker, Ben, “in love” with his college sweetheart, Emily, who is genetic research PhD candidate and eager to marry, begins a sexual relationship with Chris, a 19 year-old college student who is “gayer” than him. How Ben navigates his sexuality is the focus of the play. In him, authors Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola lead us through some pretty familiar “am I gay/ I don’t want to be gay/ but I really am gay” turmoil, which remains achingly real to most of us of a certain age who remember what is was like. The problem I had with STRAIGHT is not that the scenario reminded me precisely of what my husband and I went through when we met, but that was in 1979 and the play takes place now, almost 40 years later. True -the emotional experience of self-acceptance is universal and timeless, but STRAIGHT seems to be suggesting that despite the rapid advancement in civil and marriage rights for gay people, at the point of individual decision about what to do with identity (natural orientation in my book), not much has changed. The writing gets a bit choppy here and there. A pivotal point of the narrative - the circumstances under which Emily meets Chris - strains credulity (unless the playwrights wanted to suggest Emily only sees what she wants to see). The script could have gone off the rails into an unintentional, millennial Design for Living, but Elmegreen and Fornarola have their hands firmly gripped on the wheel of traditional melodrama. The reliable cast keeps the story driving along at safe speed in the middle lane. Director Andy Sandberg finesses scene changes – all set in Ben’s apartment - with enormous assistance from lighting designer Grant Yeager and sound and original music by Alex Hawthorn and Will van Dyke. I won’t tell here in detail how Ben deals with his dilemma of Emily and Chris, except to say I left the theater grumbling plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose – at least for some

 

 

 

​DARKO DOES HIS MAGIC AGAIN (Hartford Stage's ​

ROMEO AND JULIET​)

 

 is a timeless tale of prejudice and revenge, but primarily a tale of tragic young love and needs young lovers who are totally, hopelessly infatuated with each other. Sadly, that’s missing fromHartford Stage's new production. Still, under the masterful direction and with the inspired scenic design of its Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, it’s captivating nevertheless. Yale Drama grad student Chris Ghaffari plays perhaps the most athletic Romeo ever – at one point doing a reverse semi-handstand flip off of Juliet’s balcony – and convincingly conveys the naiveté of young love. Kaliswa Brewster’s Juliet disappoints: she presents older than Romeo and seemed rather disengaged from, rather than smitten with him. Standouts of the ensemble - costumed in contemporary, timeless dress - are Wyatt Fenner who plays Mercutio as the clown a little clever by half and Kandis Chappell as Juliet’s nurse who displays a keen sophistication we don’t often see in the character. The real star of the show is Tresnjak's set design. The entire back wall is a mausoleum grid of stacked crypts, from which folds down a platform, which serves as balcony; the thrust floor space is centered by a shallow rectangular pit, which functions, among other things, as town square, ballroom, and community pool (with Mercutio in swimming flippers). The surface of the pit is loose, white stones, which create a spectacular effect in the famous fight scene, where the stage is lightly enveloped in a cloud of dust. Unfortunately, the stones’ crunchy sound underfoot

​ 

sometimes gets in the way of dialogue. Most riveting is the finale in the crypt where a grill the entire length of the stage descends to backdrop the final tragedy, which is as relevant today as in the Bard’s time: hate and prejudice lead to no good.