REVIEWS (ARCHIVED)

LOOK INTO THE LIGHTS 


Not far beneath the wickedly funny and deliciously entertaining, Broadway backstage, one-man show, GEORGIE - THE LIFE AND DEATH OF GEORGE ROSE at the Sharon Playhouse is a bold, compelling story. That drama resides not so much in the subject of the play, George Rose, the English-born, larger-than-life, eccentric, Tony Award-winning actor, whose penchant for young boys led to his grisly end in the Dominican Republic. The real thing in this provocative “developmental workshop”, which marks a breakthrough in the artistic direction of the Playhouse under the vigorous initiative of John Simpkins, is embedded in the playwright and veteran actor himself, Ed Dixon, who has written and performs Rose’s story.

 

GEORGIE is chockablock-full of tantalizing behind-the-scenes anecdotes of famous Broadway productions, racy jokes (have you heard the one about the alligator who walks into a bar…), bitchy characterizations of showbiz celebs, and a rollicking stream of Mr. Dixon doing Rose doing a Who’s Who of acting greats - Gielgud, Olivier, Richardson, etc. Mr. Dixon’s acting precision plumbs with palpable verisimilitude his relationship to Rose ; indeed, Rose was Mr. Dixon’s trusted friend, theater mentor and creative confidante for nearly thirty years.

 

The emotional grist comes when Mr. Dixon confronts the reality of Rose’s pedophilia, which both triggers and coincides with Mr. Dixon’s own personal crisis. God knows, it’s hard for actors to dig deep in painful, traumatic terrain and unearth inner demons for public performance but Mr. Dixon so beautifully allows how, in his friend’s death, he found renewed life - plus being so damned appealing and just plain likeable on stage - I, for one, yearned for more of Mr. Dixon’s own story.

 

Director Simpkins' technical crew experiments more -or-less successfully in staging GEORGIE , but achieves purest theatrical effect with the rotating shadow of a ceiling fan to suggest Rose’s Caribbean beachhouse and with flooding the stage in a brilliant, transcendent glow for Mr. Dixon’s poignant close.

 

Even in workshop stage, GEORGIE is a little marvel - a bare-knuckle but bittersweet tribute to a legendary actor, a love letter to theater life, and a touching contemplation of self-reconciliation. It will be fascinating to see how Mr. Dixon further develops his own story with Rose’s for when it arrives at the Signature Theater in Arlington, VA next year. Blessed we are that Sharon Playhouse has begun GEORGIE’s and Mr. Dixon’s journey here.

 

FINAL PERFORMANCES ARE FRIDAY MAY 29 at 8, SAT MAY 30 at 3 and 8 and SUN MAY 31 at 3. Running time – about 90 minutes, no intermission.

 

 

 

SLAVERY A LA HOGAN’S HEROES


If redundant and wordy characterize playwright Richard Strand’s BUTLER at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, then confused and contradictory describes its direction by Joseph Discher. Strand has unearthed potentially engaging dramatic material in the little-known, Civil War true story of Major General Benjamin Butler, a Massachusetts lawyer who, as an inexperienced officer in charge of the Union outpost Fort Monroe in a newly seceded Confederate Virginia, faces uncharted territory in dealing with Black slaves who seek asylum in his fort. Director Discher in his program notes envisions the story as “ultimately about changing one’s perspective” presumably to be realized by a deliberately disarming humanized, humorous approach to the exchanges between Yankee-educated Butler and runaway slave Shepard Mallory.

 

All the actors in this four-character play, led by stage veteran David Schramm (best known on television in Wings) perform for laughs. Many in the opening night audience found this entertaining, but it left me puzzled. Sometimes the play seems to be reaching for satire, other times contemporary dramedy; with so much unfocused, and some absurd plot scenes, there’s almost an invitation for slapstick. All of which not only dilutes BUTLER’s historic importance but also undermines its dramatic themes of “compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption” Discher identifies in his notes.

 

One thing, though, is certain - if this is comedy, it isn’t funny. Hats off to David Schramm in the very demanding title role who, on stage in every scene, strenuously, miraculously, keeps this lead balloon from totally deflating in spite of itself.

 

 

TIMELESS SHAW

 

Treat yourself and seek out the nearest cinema that’s screening the NTLIVE presentation of MAN AND SUPERMAN. At the Millerton Moviehouse last night there was a large, grateful audience for the National Theater’s robust production of George Bernard Shaw’s’ masterpiece. First played in 1905, with the famous Don Jan in Hell act added a few years later, this classic, under the zestful direction of Simon Godwin emerges timeless, aided by unobtrusively clever costume and set design by Christopher Oram (whose skill is equally evident on Broadway in Wolf Hall).

 

The wry tone is pitch perfect, defined by the anchor, masterful performance by hilarious Ralph Fiennes as anarchist Jack Tanner, who’s spent a lifetime of ridiculous , personal revolution railing against society in general, all that’s wrong with the world, conventional morality, marriage, the kitchen sink of reality – in effect resisting life’s basic human challenge – to love. If I were in young drama student I would never say this, but, being of a certain age, I shouldn’t think I’ll see a better production in my lifetime. 

 

Camera blocking for this NTbroadcast fits, so one can not only observe in wide-angle the scene changes on the full stage but also witness in mid-shot witnesses the performances more closely than if one ad a house seat at the National itself. Never has three and half hours of a broadcast play flown by so quickly or so happily. What really emerges in this wonderful theater treasure is a chance to identify in Jack Tanner an Everyman rising above a cynical today who finally says “Ah, fuck it. I’ll try happiness for a change.” This MAN AND SUPERMAN is comedic, satirical theater at its cathartic finest. 

 

 

ENIGMA DOES NOT GREAT DRAMA MAKE

 

Having neither read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies nor seen the Masterpiece Theater series on PBS based on the two best-selling novels by Hilary Mantel , I can only comment on their theatrical version by the Royal Shakespeare Company now at the Winter Garden through July 5. Yesterday, I took it in as "chrono doubleheader” - Part 1 as matinee, Part 2 as the evening performance. It’s hugely entertaining historical pageantry, and it’s a serenely majestic theatrical production replete with dozens of characters both larger-than-life and mundane, but I’m not sure it’s great drama.

 

The three principal characters -Henry VIII , played with just the right notes of royal, befuddled intelligence by Nathanial Parker, Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn, delivered with ball-busting gusto by Lydia Leonard, and Thomas Crowell, characterized by Ben Miles with a curious hybrid of infinite enigma and limited charisma - lead a uniformly stellar cast of Shakespearian-trained actors. Jeremy Herrin’s taut, kinetic direction grafts snuggly with Michael Poulton’s tightly knit narrative based on Mantel’s unique take on this often-told chapter of English history, this time with Cromwell - not the King - as central figure. The visual integrity associated with RSC staging is on splendid display: Christopher Oram has designed costumes of rich period detail that contrast boldly with his abstract sets of moodily lit, rectilinear walls that suggest both royal courts and cathedral apses.

 

The production has stature all about it, but what’s puzzling about this production is Thomas Cromwell himself; we never really get much insight into what made this shrewd, political operative tick. Of all the figures in Cromwell’s path, it is Cardinal Wolsey, his first patron and casualty both, magnificently rendered by veteran West Ender Peter Eyre, who is most memorable. Eyre’s legendary, stentorian baritone fills the theater with a depth and resonance I’d like to have witnessed more of on stage amidst all the historical intrigue and theatrical flourish.

 

 

S’WONDERFUL

 

It’s hard to think of a Broadway musical that combines book, score and dance in a love story as originally or as splendidly as AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Building around a dozen orchestral and song classics from George and Ira Gershwin, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS presents a thoroughly new and remarkably effective book by Craig Lucas and new, breathtaking choreography by ballet master Chris Wheeldon. The musical at The Palace Theater is NOT based on the Best Picture of 1952, it’s inspired by it: indeed, Lucas adroitly has taken the same cast of characters and transposed them to the wounded but energetic, liberated Paris of late summer 1944, which had just thrown off the wreck of Nazi occupation. Wheeldon, accustomed to ballet halls, acknowledges gracefully the breakthrough dance that Gene Kelly choreographed at MGM for the silver screen, but here creates bold new compositions to fill a big Broadway stage with sparkling vitality.

 

Lucas’s narrative succeeds so well because it’s dramatically character-driven. The perfectly cast three male leads – primo dancer Robert Fairchild as WWII GI Jerry Mulligan, Brandon Uranowitz as his vet-buddy and struggling composer Adam Hochberg and Max von Essen, as a French aritso, would-be nightclub singer, Henri Baurel - each find themselves in love with the young, vivacious, French ballerina Lise, beautifully played - and danced - by Leanne Cope. The resolution of each of these relationships, is integral to plot, which, with Wheeldon’s kinetic vision, enfolds rapturously for two and a half hours.

 

There’s nothing wrong with the first act or the first half of the second act – it’s all a thoroughly effervescent delight - but it’s Uranowitz’s rendition of the ballad “But Not for Me” in the middle of the second act that propels An American in Paris into the theatrical stratosphere where it soars for its last twenty –five minutes . Uranowitz’s solo is a plum moment - the first time when the musical takes an emotional breath - and Uranowitz heartbreakingly stops the show with all the tender pathos of one of George’s most soulful melodies and some of Ira’s saddest lyric. What follows – a Radio City fantasy dance sequence – “I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise” featuring Adam and Henri and the ensemble, followed by “An American in Paris” with the famous pas-de deux of Jerry and Lise– captures the audience in tandem flight with what’s on stage for a duration that I can’t recall otherwise achieved.

 

Lighting design by Natasha Katz and sets and costumes Bob Crowley evoke the Technicolor mise en scene of the Vincente Minelli 1952 musical but never predominate. Unlike many Bradway musical spectacles, here the production design only enhances - never overwhelms - the emotional destinies of the characters and dramatic peaks of choreography. These elements, like every aspect of An American in Paris are sustained in perfect balance by director Wheeldon. C’est magnifique.

 

 

CUE THE SINGING EGGS (May 4, 2015)

 

Placing the over-the-top, kitchen-sink of musical comedy SOMETHING ROTTEN at the St. James Theater on the cultural grid on the last page of New York Magazine is a puzzle. There’s high brow at top, low brow at the bottom, despicable to the left, brilliant to the right. Ah, hell, just fill-in the whole brilliant side of the grid from top to bottom for this rollicking, gleeful, great, big Broadway show. Seldom does the great White Way see a sillier version of the high brow and a smarter version of the low brow in one show. The laugh-a-minute book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, known for screenplays and comic novels respectively (astonishingly neither had written for the stage before) observes all the conventional structure of the musical comedy genre, but transports it to a level of unadulterated fun not achieved often enough.

 

The setting is London 1595. Shakespeare (portrayed as an egomaniacal rock-star Lothario by a hilarious Christian Borle) is at his literary peak. The destitute, struggling Bottom brothers, the older, actor/director Nick (expertly played with neurotic flourish by Brian d’Arcy James) and younger, serious, sensitive playwright Nigel (fleshed-out with charming, naïve pluck by John Cariani) can’t get a leg up in the theater business with all the focus on the famous Bard so Nick seeks, in desperation, the wisdom of a nutty soothsayer,Nostradamus (played with lunatic absurdity by Brad Oscar), to predict the next big thing. Foreseeing a play where actors sing and dance - by golly, a musical - Nostradamus prophesizes it will be called Omelette. (Sounds like?) Nigel, believing Nick is crazy is secretly working on a drama about a Danish prince whose father appears as a ghost (now you’ve got it) which Shakespeare discovers with plagiarizing intent when, in disguise, he infiltrates Omelette’s rehearsal hall.

 

The play-within-in-a-play script (think Kiss Me Kate) is delightfully predictable, with the requisite boy-meets-girl, boy-gets girl subplot, replete with outlandish characters who satirize both contemporary hypocrisy (Brooks Ashmanksas spot-on as a phony, sanctimonious Puritan) and stereotype (Gerry Vichi brilliant as a Shecky Green-ish/ Milton Berle-y, Catskill schtick Shylock).

 

Book and lyrics are a lampoon fest of every Shakespearian and Broadway musical cliché in the book. The allusions to Shakespeare’s works and the parade of his literary and historical contemporaries pretty much stick to the first paragraph of a Wikipedia entry, but there’s a couple of nuggets for a Bard scholar, too. And the snippet parodies of dozens of Broadway’s biggest hits skip across marquee with the likes of The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof, but they dig deep into some inside-joke material of lesser-known musicals for the hard-core Broadway buff. (I nearly lost it with the reference to Dreamgirls as coda to the number, “It’s Eggs,” with singing and dancing eggs. Yes, eggs both sing AND dance.)

 

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, the past-master of (very) broad musical comedy (dance and/or direction of Book of Mormon, Drowsy Chaperone, Aladdin, Spamalot) has no governor here; he moves the whole production in a seamless, happy-go-lucky whirlwind, which barely allows for the ensemble to catch its breath or for the audience to stop laughing. (Yes, this is one of those comedies where your face hurts when you leave the theater because you're unaccustomed to smiling for too long.) The hummable score by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick carries infectious riffs of pop music and recalls sometimes too familiarly tried-and-true Broadway melodies, but so what? They’re supposed to. Of the dozen and half musical sequences, there’s at least four (or five or six, I lost count) big production numbers, starting with the opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance” and “To Thine Own Self” in the second act but it’s “A Musical” in the first act – a romp of an homage to the musical comedy genre – where Something Rotten takes the roof off.

 

Set designer Scott Pensk cleverly melds Shakespeare’s world with Broadway glitz by deftly framing the stage with an interpretive façade of the Globe Theater; the production numbers suggest 1950s musicals still smacking of vaudeville’s tackier visual elements. Costume designer Gregg Barnes gets parallel effect by festooning gorgeously detailed Elizabethan heavy dress with show-biz razzle-dazzle color and accessories. (Did I mention the shoes? )

 

It would be easy to construct quotable positive phrases for this non-stop, side-splitting, absurdly zany, unapologetically bawdy, shamelessly corny, devilishly witty and incomparably funny show (hmmm…I think I just did). Instead, I’ll quote Ben Brantley of The New York Times who variously described Something Rotten as “rambunctious,” “unchecked enthusiasm” full of “puerile puns, giggly double-entendres, lip-smacking bad taste (and) goofy pastiche numbers,” and “showstoppers again and again,” which “pulls out all the stops” and “doesn’t know when to stop.”

 

So, what’s not to like? With apologies to the Bard’s alliterative flair, I say – 

“Gutbust and guffaw, grin, giggle and groan,
goofy Something Rotten giveth great glee.
In a gallop, get thee to see.”

PIONEERS, EACH AND EVERY ONE (April 2015)


FUN HOME, transferred from last season at The Public and now on Broadway at Circle in the Square, is more than just a lesbian-comes-of age musical. Based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, about growing up in the 1970s in a household with a father who was a secret homosexual and a mother who shouldered her spousal anger and pain in private, FUN HOME compellingly conveys for an entire generation of gay men and women - now quite middle age - what being “different” and what coming out was like.

 

Incisively adapted by playwright - and lyricist - Lisa Kron, and ingeniously directed by Sam Gold, FUN HOME shifts seamlessly among the memory perspectives of three Alisons as a young girl, college student, and adult cartoonist. But what’s really remarkable is that FUN HOME also as sensitively dramatizes the story of both her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris) and mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) without diminishing dramatic focus on Alison with equal poignancy. What emerges uniquely is a portrait of three individuals – indeed, a family – trapped in a time when there were no gudielines or role models for the personal crisis each of them faced individually, let alone as a unit.

 

What pervades FUN HOME is the hollowness, the powerlessness, that sense of separation, loneliness and desperation of intractable inner pain (indeed Alison’s father committed suicide when she was in college). These emotions are expressed in a beautifully elegiac score by Jeanine Tesori (most recently composer of Violet, and before the breakthrough Caroline or Change), with Kron's eloquent lyrics that make universal both personal turmoil and the common struggles of the everyday.

 

Alison’s story is steeped in irony (what gay theme isn’t?) but there’s humor too, particularly in a memory scene of Alison as a child and her young siblings up to shenanigans in the funeral home. "Fun home" is the kid’s short-hand for their father’s work as an undertaker; he was also an antique dealer, house restorer and school teacher. (Having been raised in a funeral home myself, the episode where the kids are hiding in a casket seems theatrical, but I could vouch that it's based on real experience.)

 

The cast is uniformly effective and it’s engaging to contrast the raw, natural talent of the young players with the seasoned skill of Cerveris and Kuhn who with gesture and posture layer their characterizations even more deeply than dialogue and lyric. My eye kept moving, though, to the remarkable young actress, Emily Skeggs, as the college-age Alison. In her ode, “I’m Majoring in Joan”, that proclaims the sexual discovery of first love, Skeggs perfectly conveys the naiveté of lingering childhood giving way to the realities of adulthood. David Zinn is responsible for both costumes, which are period-accurate without being obvious, and set, which is astonishingly versatile in shifting time and place back and forth.

 

FUN HOME is a heartfelt, moving - albeit painful - memoir of self-discovery. What’s more, it’s a dramatic testament to how the boundaries of love and family have expanded since the young Alison was - like many of us - a "different" kind of kid.

 

 

 

THE KING AND I: MORE ROMANCE, PLEASE. (April 2015)


The genesis for Lincoln Center’s highly anticipated revival of THE KING AND I, originally staged in 1951, was the resounding critical and commercial success of its marvelous SOUTH PACIFIC revival in 2008. With the same creative team - Bartlett Sher as director, Michael Yeargan as set designer, Catherine Zuber as costume designer, Ted Sperling as music director and the magnificent Kelli O'Hara, again, as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s heroine - a template seemed to be in place for rejuvenating one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals. Unfortunately, magic has not struck twice at the Vivian Beaumont.

Indeed, the story of the 19th century widowed, strong-willed, “liberated”, educated, modern Anna Loenowens serving as tutor for the many children of the stubborn, macho, uneducated, “barbaric” King of Siam is well-known. And it’s cultural themes of East meets West, antiquity versus modernity, “undeveloped” cultures facing off with imperialist powers still carries contemporary ramifications, so a new production is ripe for refracting anew vestiges of history past. Director Sher isn’t didactic about this; he’s just obvious in illuminating these themes that are pretty plain to begin with in Hammerstein’s original book. Certainly, the characters of Anna and the King epitomize these conflicts in the core narrative, and that's dramatic, assuming there’s palpable chemistry between the leads. To great disappointment, in this production there isn’t much.

 

Japanese movie star Ken Wantanabe’s diction renders a lot of his dialogue incomprehensible, which isn’t THAT much of a problem because he compensates with a muscular performance that communicates his mood and personality by body language more than script. It’s a highly externalized performance. O’Hara, by dint of portraying a highly mannered British woman of educated class, in brandishing reserve, internalizes much of her role. The contrast could work, if there were sparks flying in the impassioned disagreements between Anna and the King that could kindle some flame of romance between the two. Not here. Nowhere is this more evident than it what should be the romantic highpoint of the evening, “Shall We Dance?” When Anna and the King finally acknowledge a nascent love, and, albeit formally, embrace and plant the first step into their waltzy gallop on the “dance” note, the scene should soar and take the audience’s heart with it. It doesn’t . No matter how sumptuous the lighting and scenic design, no matter how over-scaled Anna’s hooped skirt swirls for theatrical effect, no matter how many choruses conductor Sperling delivers Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations, that “goosebump” moment doesn’t materialize.

 

There’s nothing wrong that O’Hara does; technically hers is a virtuoso performance. Along with Audra MacDonald there is no other musical actress more versatile in both voice and acting, dramatic and comedic both. With apologies for defaulting to a comparison to SOUTH PACIFIC , where O’Hara perfectly embodied Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, here she’s not as credible as Anne Loenowens. At heretical risk, dare I ask: is she miscast?

The most satisfying musical number in this production is “Something Wonderful”, delivered by Lady Thiang, the King’s favored wife trying to explain to Anna the man beneath the brute in her husband. Note for note, it’s arguably Rodgers’s simplest and lushest melody, beautifully sung by Ruthie Ann Miles, who was a knockout as Imelda Marcos in last year’s disco fantasia HERE LIES LOVE. The single best staged musical interlude is “The March of the Siamese Children” wherein over a dozen of the King’s children are presented to Anna, one by one, each entrance uniquely choreographed to convey the personality of each child. It's both captivating and charming. The extended staging in the second act of the Kings’ children performing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in traditional Thai dance is interesting in a more academic than entertaining way; running too long it flirts with tedium, undermining the meticulous research and artistry evident in observing Jerome Robbins' original choreography.

 

As for pure spectacle, the opening number “Whistle a Happy Tune” takes place on the dock beneath the bow of the ship that has transported Anna and her young son to Bangkok. A huge replica of the ship steers into dock as the thrust stage of the Beaumont slides forward, leaving the orchestra pit partially exposed. It’s an impressive moment, but overproduced, and disproportionate to its minor space in the narrative. Curiously, the vast stage, the deepest of the Broadway theaters, never seems quite full after that. Set designer Yearend has opted for an interpretive set that renders the Royal Palace, typically festooned in elaborate, multi-colored tiling, in terms of a Buddhist temple of teak and gold. It’s distinctive and elegant but leaves a lot of negative space , which absent real energy between the two principles makes the stage loom static at best, and sometimes even vacant.

 

Confessing the sin of schmaltz, I hoped this revival would recall the wonder of my first memory of going to the theater. It was 1956 in Hyannis, Massachusetts at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, and the summer stock matinee was THE KING AND I. That show surely wasn’t intellectually conceived or technically accomplished or magnificently staged as is Lincoln Center’s, but it was magical. Sometimes, it’s best just to remember, I guess. 

 

 

ON THE 20th CENTURY: ALL ABOARD! (April 2015)

 


When I saw the Donmar Theater production of CITY OF ANGELS in glorious revival in London earlier this year, I expressed a desire for a good, old-fashioned musical right here on Broadway that – without reinterpretation or revisionism – could speak for itself. Praise be! My prayer is answered in Roundabout’s revival of ON THE 20th CENTURY at the American Airlines Theatre. ANGELS and 20thCENTURY (Best Musical Tony 1978) share the same creative team, producing the same quality, creative goods - a light-as-a- feather, tongue-in- cheek, fable-like, (dare I say) corny tale by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and operetta-like but still reliably comfortable musical score by Cy Coleman. The story, mostly based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1932 play and the Howard Hawks’ 1934 movie, pivots around the unresolved love-hate relationship between Lily, a temperamental Hollywood actress, and Oscar, a bankrupt New York theatre producer. On a luxury train traveling from Chicago to New York, Oscar tries to charm the glamorous starlet, with whom he’s really still head-over-heels in love (but who’s involved with a dumb hunk of a matinee idol) into playing the lead in his new, unwritten, unfinanced production. It doesn’t matter that we know how this ends up. Part farce, part screwball comedy, the success of the play depends critically on the chemistry between Oscar (Peter Gallagher) and Lily (Kristin Chenoweth) and that’s palpable but what really makes this production soar is Chenoweth whose “hundred and one pounds of fun” (thank you, Mr. Hammerstein) packs more punch than anybody doing musical comedy on Broadway this season. Mary Louise Wilson, who won a Tony years ago as the aging recluse in Grey Gardens, takes a comedic turn here as an eccentric, millionaire religious zealot and brings the house down with “Repent.” Everything about this show sparkles from costumes by William Ivey Long to David Rockwell’s stunning set design (imagine Rodgers and Astaire movies in Technicolor). Director Scott Ellis brings it all together with the impeccable timing and precision of a master conductor. All aboard for two and half hours of smile, smile, smile!

 

 

HAND TO GOD: THEATRICAL SLEIGHT OF HAND  (April 2015)
 

It's too facile to describe HAND TO GOD as a hybrid of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, for theater's effect is far more disarming in Robert Askin's very dark comedy at the Booth Theater than in those more well-known, Tony award- winning plays. This wickedly funny, occasionally hilarious, irreverent (I suppose to some blasphemous) satire explores what happens when toy hand puppet named Tyrone, only friend to a maladjusted, fatherless pre-teen, Jason, morphs into the devil, and as alter ego possesses the youth. Jason's recently widowed mother is the puppet instructor in an after-school recreation center in the basement of fundamentalist Christian church. It’s not too hard to fill-in all the nothing-is-sacred blanks in this scenario; there are plenty of occasions to lampoon all the hypocritical sanctimony of Born Agains and, even the kitchen sink of liberal society's secular notions of parenting, puberty, etc. One of the taboos plumbed is sex between the widowed mother and one of the teenage boys in her class, the school bully and rival to Jason. Even in satirical context, this only “works” as funny because theater plays one of its magic tricks, sort of a suspension of disbelief. Because the teenagers' (or pre-teenagers') roles are being played by twenty-somethings, we forget what’s really being humorized. Christ knows, I’m no prude, but stepping back it makes ya wanna go hmmmmm….what the hell am I laughing at? Playwright Robert Askins has masterfully constructed a most economic scenario; there’s not one wasted word in the dialogue in this fast-paced, two-act production. Indeed, this play has been finely tuned since it started way off-Broadway in the Ensemble Studio Theater in 2011, before finding its way to Broadway via a successful run at Manhattan Theater Club last year. Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs with similar active, economic precision as Askins writes. The (mostly) fixed set by Beowulf Boritt adapts remarkably to the havoc wrought in this doesn’t-miss-a-beat pace of the production. The players are uniformly well-cast, but the standout is lead actor Steven Boyer who both plays the possessed teen Jason and manipulates hand-puppet Tyrone. Boyer fully realizes not only the character of Jason but also Tyrone, and brings the change in both through their full dramatic arcs. But most memorable about this play is the sex scene between Tyrone, as puppetted by Jason, and the girl puppet of Jason’s classmate and would-be girlfriend, Jessica (both expertly played by Sarah Stiles) . Who knew hand-puppets would bring new definition to the Kama Sutra? Kinda makes ya go ….hmmmmm.

OKLAHOMA! AGAIN!


My second viewing of director Daniel Fish’s OKLAHOMA! last night at Bard SummerScape was even more satisfying than my first ten days ago. Hammerstein’s book – the text – was sharper than before and so were the song’s lyrics, made clearer by the steely country western/bluegrass arrangements under the direction of Nathan Koci, strummed, fiddled and plucked by him and Joseph Brent and four other enthusiastic musicians, who obviously relish what they play - and how they play it. This time I was even more struck by how naturalistically choreographer John Heginbotham has wrought dance and movement from text. His most challenging choreography is “Kansas City”, the solo elements for character Will Parker particularly. I didn’t give James Patrick David enough credit in my original notes, but he’s mastered the show's most ambitious and physically exhausting dance and filled out his part as Will with a willowy, Jimmy Stewart charm.

 

This time, too, I was more atunned to the musical arrangements for the dream sequence that opens Act II with their heavy, ominous modulations of traditionally light melodies and motifs from “Beautiful Morning” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” - haunting, really. All the performances are spot-on but my eye still gravitated to Mary Testa as Auntie Eller and Allison Strong as Ado Annie.

 

This time I noticed that Patrick Vaill really tears-up in self-pity as psycho Jud with a death wish in infrared-camera close-up for the riveting “Poor Jud is Dead” staged in the dark. The chemistry between Damon Daunno as Curly and Amber Gray as Laurey was more palpable than before. Gray’s transformation of the lovely “Into My Dreams” from starry-eyed romantic ballad into narcotic lullaby is spellbinding. This production deserves another life in New York. Fingers crossed that when it is re-staged, it is as bold and coherent as it has been at Bard.

 

 

 

OKLAHOMA!: BACK TO ITS ROOTS AT BARD


We’ve seen OKLAHOMA! before, but never like director Daniel Fish’s startling version at Bard SummerScape. Bold, adventurous, provocative and totally unconventional this OKLAHOMA!, might well be seen as innovative as the original 1943 production, regarded as the first “modern musical” to integrate fully book, action, music and dance. With white-hot textual focus, exciting new musical arrangements and daring production technique, Fish has incomparably stripped this beloved American musical tale to its essence. What’s more, he’s drawn more drama from a tiny acting ensemble of ten and band of six musicians than found in the biggest theatres on Broadway.

 

From a scenic concept of John Conklin, designer Laura Jellinek has transformed the Fisher Center's LUMA Theatre into a Grange Hall, with fringed banners from the ceiling, shotgun racks on the wall, the audience seated at church tables on all sides of an open floor with the band at one end. Publicity has focused on the chili, lemonade and cornbread (baked from a Jiffy mix Aunt Eller does up in Act I) served at intermission, but that’s the least novel aspect of the production. The lunch is a theatrical device to create a sense of community, a theme central to Oscar Hammerstein’s story.

 

The very first, familiar notes of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” signal how distinctive this Oklahoma! is. Instead of violins, winds or even piano accompaniment, we hear the pluck of banjo, joined by mandolin, bass, guitar, and fiddle. Richard Rodgers’ original score is full of folk music influences, but in these new, riveting orchestrations by Daniel Kluge, favorite Broadway ballads sound as if composed anew by country/ western songsters, strummed by bluegrass legends. Vocal interpretations by a solid, vocally skilled cast follow suit, especially in twangy renditions of “I Can’t Say No”, “Kansas City” and “All Er Nothin.”

 

But it’s in the romantic ballads where the no-strings, steely music reveals an earthiness and sexuality unexplored before. As the stanzas progress in “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”, Fish brings Curley and Laurey’s innocent flirtation - from jaunty clip/clop tempo to slow, hold-your-breath heartbeat - to a state of suspended seduction as Curly’s head moves in for a nuzzled caress of Laurey’s arched, naked neck. Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones never played it like this in the movie.

 

A repressed, prurient variant of sexuality surfaces menacingly in the character of hired-hand Jud, who challenges cowhand Curly for Laurey’s affection. This Oklahoma!’s Jud isn’t the beefy, muscled brut; he’s a pale, scrawny, greasy-haired, punk - a lone wolf - who lurks on the sidelines, creepily played by Bard graduate Patrick Vaill. Jud dwells in a squalid hovel on the smokehouse on Laurey’s farm. In the most unexpected staging, Fish plunges us into Jud’s evil den - into the dark, literally. Lights go out and projected live on video screens in tight close-up via infrared camera, are Curly and Jud alone - cross -legged on the floor, face-to-face, man-to-man - with Curly crooning “Poor Jud is Daid”. The effect is foreboding and eerie; it's the most psychologically arresting scene I've ever witnessed in a musical, marking the inevitability of Jud’s fate and, by way of its intimacy, Curly’s complicity in it. It’s almost as if Curly has seduced Jud into his own undoing.

 

Yes, reader, this is a musical. The new choreography by Mark Morris - trained John Heginbotham flows functionally from the text, even with the cowhands dancing on audience tables, leaping over crockpots of chilli. The square dance in Act II springs naturalistically from the ensemble but the solo dancing for character Will Parker in “Kansas City” in Act I seems less realized. Costumes by Terese Walden combine timeless elements of Western outdoor gear and all-American workaday clothes. At the box social, men don Sunday best; fancy women’s skirts combine the girliness of party dresses with the naughtiness of saloon dancer’s petticoats.

 

Particularly impressive as Laurey is Amber Gray, who, earlier this year, in the title role in An Octoroon at Theatre for New Audience delivered a monologue into the Shakesperian stratosphere. Stunningly, her singing voice is as accomplished. With transfixing acapella, she transforms the romantic standard “Out of My Dreams” into a narcotic lullaby to close Act I with goosebump effect. The lanky and beautifully tenored Damon Duanno’s plays Curly appropriately here as more the sexy guy-next-door than movie-star stud. Full-throated, Broadway veteran Mary Testa plays Aunt Eller with just the right mix of wise-ass and authority as the cool, practical observer of the tragedy festering in her community. A terrific Allison Strong as Ado Annie perfectly combines an artifice of sexual naivete with charming carnality.

 

The most controversial aspect of this Oklahoma is the staging of the death of Jud and Curly's part in it, which radically departs from traditional productions. Critics can debate the merits of Fish's dramatic license, and audiences will undoubtedly impute any layer of social or political meaning to it, but, in the essence of the play, Jud’s murder is inevitable.

 

Fish has retold an OKLAHOMA we all know, but in a way that’s incomparable to what came before. Still, in the end, the outsider is eliminated and wrong is righted. Justice is imperfectly rendered, but order is restored. Community endures, good prevails. There will be another beautiful morning.

 

 

 

WALDEN POND, REVISITED


David Adkins, as both playwright and actor of THOREAU OR, RETURN TO WALDEN has assumed a formidable task in dramatizing a day in the life of the 19thC American essayist, philosopher and abolitionist in this 80 minute, one-act, one-character play the Berkshire Theatre Group is premiering at the Unicorn Stage in Stockbridge, MA. The setting is Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond where Thoreau had spent years in contemplative refuge in the 1840s. The time is the later part of 1859, it’s the beginning of the end of Thoreau’s life (he succumbed to bronchitis in 1862) and civil war is brewing - John Brown awaits execution for his attack on Harper’s Ferry.

 

Thoreau, in reading a newspaper account, reports that Brown is going to be hanged tomorrow, the actual date of which was December 2 but the setting is decidedly summer. No matter, that’s small dramatic license. What’s consequential is that at the core of this not-fully realized premise is a crisis of faith, a theme which Adkins doesn’t dramatize until the last 20 minutes of the play. Pity, because the play should captivate its audience sooner.

 

Someplace in this dense script, which Adkins has impressively woven from Thoreau’s actual writings, there is a more dramatically structured narrative that remains history-based. Thoreau, having spent his life formulating his world view through his writings like On Civil Disobedience, was traumatized by Brown’s arrest. In fact, in the late summer of 1859 when the play takes place, Thoreau would have been preparing his impassioned speech defending Brown. That public speech was the turning point in the abolitionist movement perceiving Brown as a martyr.

 

The real dramatic grist, seems to me, is the crisis of conscience that torments transcendentalist Thoreau in those days: the tacit realization that Civil War was inevitable - to paraphrase Thoreau - that blood will be spilled and that even he could spill blood. Adkins characterizes this tension by playing Thoreau manically, which seems an appropriate mode, but he’s a bit actorly at it. In the play's last 20 minutes when there’s dramatic traction, Adkins’ acting turns inward, and his Thoreau finally seems real. In the final passages, Adkins achieves a rare, poignant moment when Thoreau reminds himself - and us - that real change, real peace, lies within, not in the world around us.

 

Seasoned director Eric Hill brings rhythm to Adkins' script, punctuating the passage of the day with sounds of birds in flight, gently lapping water at the pond shore, church bells in the distance, and, in Thoreau’s reverie, a charging locomotive. As for set design, the leaves of old books with Thoreau titles as backdrop loom too literal, whereas the semi-abstract recreation of the Walden cabin conjures authentic theatric effect.

 

If you’re a Berkshire summer theatergoer who sees one or two plays a season, THOREAU is not for you. But for anyone interested in 19thC American political thought, its unique take on one of America’s most influential thinkers is both intriguing and provocative. For theater lovers, the puzzlement as to how this potentially important work will evolve from its underdeveloped, but appealing, original state is, in itself, gratifying.

 

 

NO PICNIC


William Inge’s OFF THE MAIN ROAD at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) is one of about two dozen unproduced plays which Inge's literary estate released from his archives in 2008. Based presumably on a performance of it at the William Inge Festival in St Louis and a staged reading at the Flea Theater in New York in 2009, WTF has given it a star-studded, full-scale production. Why it has is unclear.

 

The premise: a middle-aged, society born and bred, abused wife (played by Kyra Sedgwick) seeks refuge from her violent husband by checking into a run-down cabin resort on the outskirts of St. Louis with her 17-year-old daughter. What ensues is a choppy, messy narrative - through a 1950's, pre-Women's Lib lens - plowing-up once-taboo topics like spousal abuse, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality. Had this play been staged when Inge wrote it, its explicitness would have been startling, but now it’s anachronistic, ho-hum, and downright corny.

 

To her credit, Kyra Sedgwick plays it straight, staying in character, even right through some laughable lines that shouldn’t be funny, with an elegant, under-stated performance. As grand-dame, Estelle Parsons, brandishing an old-fashioned, 1930s Hollywood studio-trained, upper-crust accent, barrels into the proceedings every 20 minutes or so to admonish Sedgwick’s character of her moral transgressions, but her role is more effective in keeping the audience awake.

 

The set by Takeshi Kata looks great. Kudos to Thomas Schall for fight scenes more realistically choreographed than usual. OFF THE MAIN ROAD isn’t much more than a curio in the Inge canon: it’s just not a good play. WTF, WTF were you thinking? 

 

 

 

 

DEJA-VU AT MTC


Unoriginal is the best to be said about Manhattan Theatre Club’s OF GOOD STOCK. Imagine a cross between a WASPy, thirty-something UN-dramatic take on Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig and a detoxified version of Hally Feiffer’s recent, dreadful I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard. In playwright Melissa Ross’s hybrid retread, three Stockton sisters convene at their parents’ Cape Cod vacation home inherited by the oldest from their deceased, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, alcoholic, philandering father. Onto this not-unfamiliar premise, Ross applies plot clichés from just about every chickflick of the last 30 years, from Steel Magnolias to Osage County. OF GOOD STOCK never gets beyond the kitchen sink of family dysfunction – alcohol abuse, hints of OCD, inheritance jealousies, infidelity, infertility, etc. - even in the face of the lead character’s struggle with cancer and, for some real gravitas, her fear of death.

 

Ross has a decent ear for dialogue: I have two sisters and the sarcastic one-liners ring true, but don’t add up to much more than a love/hate, passive/aggressive bitchfest. The sisters all observe predictable hierarchical, family profiles: (I’m paraphrasing) the authoritarian eldest - “You know what you should do…”, the ignored middle - “Dad always loved you more than me.”, and, the unwanted youngest - “I was a mistake.” With all the insight of an armchair psychologist, Ross outfits each of the Stocktons with male life-matches of types almost as predictable as the sisters themselves.

 

Without a fully developed core conflict, it’s hard to construct resolution but what masquerades as such arrives in the second to the last scene – and the play’s lowest point – where the trio of sisters, two of whom are ridiculously drunk, unload their litany of grievances against each other, their father and THE WORLD. I didn’t think it was possible to wring all the expressiveness out of the word fuck - arguably the simplest, most expressive, single word in the English language - but Ross achieves that here. Worse, the scene trivializes the eldest Stockton’s cancer, so that the following, final scene that focuses on her prognosis plays as incidental coda.

 

Cast members obligingly, even enthusiastically, perform as the script requires. Greg Keller, as fiancé to the middle sister, fares best, largely because his role, the smallest of the six, allows him to escape most of the plot, an advantage the audience doesn’t have. MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow, director and co-conspirator (Ross is a commissioned MTC playwright), keeps all the pieces moving, but what else could she do with this? Santo Loquasto’s needlessly elaborate revolving stage helps Meadow keep things in motion (literally, if not dramatically) although its only feature authentic to the Cape Cod setting is the cottage’s weathered, shingle siding. At least Tom Broecker costumes the cast with character and demographic relevance.

 

In the end, seeing OF GOOD STOCK is like observing an argument between my sisters. I’ve seen it before, and, ultimately, it’s inconsequential. 

 

 

 

 

IN PITTSFIELD: McPHERSON’S SHINING CITY

 

If ghosts still inhabit the Irish psyche since its ancient, pagan roots, then guilt remains the moral leftover of its modern, Catholic heritage. Irish playwright Conor McPherson eerily plumbs the phenomena of both in Barrington Stage Company’s gripping production of his Olivier Award-winning SHINING CITY .

 

A bereaved, recent widower, John (played by Wilbur Edwin Henry), suffering from painful memory of a lonely marriage and haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, seeks counseling from therapist Ian (Mark H. Dold) who has recently left the priesthood and has just started a private practice. McPherson has structured his narrative symmetrically in five scenes: the first, middle and last, being basically sessions between John and Ian. In the second scene, between Ian and his wife Neasa, for whom he left God's work, he announces he is leaving, abandoning her with their infant son. In the fourth scene Ian seeks comfort with Laurence, a gay-for-pay, young father hard-up for cash.

 

John’s sessions with Ian are confessional encounters. He’s seeking not only therapeutic relief (absolution, really, but he doesn’t know Ian is a former priest) for past infidelities, but also a rational explanation for the ghost he really sees. Ian's complementary scenes, with Neasa then Laurence, both mirror and parallel those with John. Underpinning Ian’s puzzling behavior are anxieties and insecurities, the basis for which are uncertain as the nature of the ghost of John’s wife.

 

As in most of McPherson’s plays - the best known in the US being The Weir (in revival this summer at the Irish Rep in New York), The Seafarer and The Night Alive - psychologically subversive uncertainty prevails. At treacherous risk does a theater company wade into such water, but director Christopher Innvar, orchestrating an exceptionally skilled cast, creates a taught, razor-sharp, dark drama, one of the best I’ve seen in many years of Berkshire theater-going.

 

The play’s core is John’s 20+ minute riveting monologue brilliantly delivered by Mr. Henry, who wondrously portrays in John an uncomplicated, yet flawed, man willing to admit some realities but capable of embracing only limited uncertainty. Mr. Dold, in letting silences tell as much about his character as dialogue, renders a nuanced, shaded portrait of a complex, anguished soul in Ian.

 

In the final scene, John and Ian talk a good game about their respective futures, but McPherson reminds us in a chilling coda that the past is hiding in the corner, standing in the shadow, just lurking over the shoulder.

 

 

 

A LOVERLY LADY IN SHARON, CONNECTICUT

 

Like Colonel Pickering who challenges Professor Higgins to transform a ragged, Cockney flower girl into an elegant, regal consort, I‘ll wager anyone to find a more inspired or robust staging of MY FAIR LADY than Sharon Playhouse’s. Director Richard Stafford applies his international choreography creds superbly here, creating a quick-tempo'ed version of the Lerner & Loewe masterpiece that doesn’t stop (except for one intermission) for a breezy 2 hours and 45 minutes.

 

In lesser-skilled hands, Stafford’s kinetic approach could overwhelm the ingenuous wit of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and sideline the sophistication of Lerner and Loewe's lyrics and music. Conversely, with less directorial vim and vigor, this Tony Award winner of 1957, could get bogged down in bookish satire and embalmed recreations of its famous Broadway standards. But, this MY FAIR LADY, fortified by uncomplicated, but assured, musical orchestrations by Fiona Santos , a solid, spirited cast of thirty (yes, 30) melding regional performers with Equity leads, and an exuberant marriage of big, old-fashioned-style production numbers with splendidly inventive, original dance, has - to paraphrase Eliza Doolittle - a heart that takes flight.

 

Sharon Playhouse audiences hit an acting trifecta with the three principal leads of Rufus Collins (as Henry Higgins), Lee Harrington (Eliza Doolittle) and Peter Cormican (Alfred Doolittle). Collins, whose background (like the original Higgins, Rex Harrison) is in dramas not musicals, masterfully achieves inflective nuance in his talksung solos, bringing to this reviewer a lump in the throat for “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”. Harrington’s vocals, in contrast, soar in full-throated soprano in classic Loewe melodies like “I Could Have Danced All Night”, but my own favorites were her renditions of the lesser known “Show Me” and “Without You”. As for Cormican, his Doolittle is flat-out, full-bodied, song and dance bravado in not just one, but two, show-stoppers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” in Act I and the rousing, rollicking “Get Me to the Church on Time” in Act II.

 

Michael Douglass as Colonel Pickering comes into his own in Act II, where Pickering’s part is more strongly written. Sharon’s own, not-so-amateur Emily Soell displays a professional’s impeccable instinct for timing, and with a disarmingly delicious upper-crust British accent redefines droll in a delightful take on Higgins’s mother as social doyenne. Hermione Gingold eat your heart out.

 

A simplified yet versatile set design by Lauren Mills facilitates complicated scene shifts cleverly and quickly. The production’s visual panache comes through in the costumes, particularly in the striking black-and-white Cecil Beaton-inspired “Ascot Gavotte.” That scene, elegantly choreographed to reflect the restraint of snooty high society, contrasts sharply with the boisterous, somersaulting, athletic, joyous dance of London street life in “Get Me to the Church”. Director Stafford seamlessly connects it all, making this MY FAIR LADY move like no other. Sharon theatergoers will be wishing his cast could have danced all night.

 

 

 

MAN OF LA MANCHA: SINGING'S THE THING

 

Barrington Stage puts to optimal use the company’s biggest musical asset in its revival of Man of La Mancha - actor Jeff McCarthy. In the title role, he breathes new vigor into this internationally beloved musical , which won the Tony Award in 1965. Whether McCarthy assumes the role of a sensitive macho-man trapped in a woman’s body, as he did in Southern Comfort two years ago, or the seething, vengeful Sweeney Todd in the Sondheim masterpiece, McCarthy never fails Berkshire audiences. In LaMancha, McCarthy masterfully applies his versatility to a beautifully calibrated vocal interpretation of the play’s signature ballad, “The Impossible Dream,” adroitly sidestepping the standard’s treacly quicksand and infusing it with a fresh pathos, rescuing it from the Andy Williams-Muzak- vinyl dustbin.

McCarthy’s performance powers this 50-year old show, and its emotional engine is fueled by the vocal prowess of its singing cast. Felicia Boswell, with a hefty musical portfolio (on Broadway as Diana Ross in Motown, on national tours as Deena in Dreamgirls and the title role of Aida) brings a gutsy sensuality to the role of Aldonza and Dulcinea, especially in her rousing, 11 o’clock, solo. The original score is peppered with bittersweet melody, but its hidden gem is “To Each His Dulcinea” perfectly vocalized in a haunting, tender rendition by tenor Todd Horman as the Padre.

 

Man of La Mancha is commonly known as the musical version of Cervantes’ pillar of novelistic literature, Don Quixote, but, technically, it’s not. The musical is more based on the 1959 play, I, Don Quixote, in which an imprisoned Cervantes performs , in a make-believe trial by his fellow inmates, a fictionalized defense of charges brought against him by the Spanish Inquisition. Thus evolves a play within a play, and an exploration of perennial theatrical themes of reality and illusion. Director Julianne Boyd wisely averts “re-interpreting” this now-classic musical along these dramatic themes ( the weakest aspect of the play’s original book) and instead fully embraces the narrative, smartly emphasizing song and movement.

 

The result? At an intermission-less hour and 45 minutes, an efficient and thoroughly engaging show. The mirror scene where Cervantes is forced to confront reality is a little clumsy (due, I suspect, to the weird, hi-platform boots costumed for the fantasy trio of knight-Inquisitors), and the ambitious fight choreography could be more fluid (Aldonza’s abduction scene moves better), but, no matter, because singing’s really the thing’s in this full-bodied production, made impressively full-scale by James Kronzer’s spectacular double-tiered dungeon set.

If you’re of a certain age (as I and most Berkshire theater-goers are) who remember the original, a summer stock version or a Broadway revival, Barrington Stage’s production of Man of La Mancha is as good as Man La Mancha gets. If you’ve been under a rock for the last half century or you’re of a new generation witnessing La Mancha for the first time, no one’s doing it better than Barrington Stage.

 

 

 

 

COLE AND HIS KATE AT THEIR BEST


There’s no higher praise for a musical revival than “it’s just as good as the original”, especially one that is arguably THE best American musical. That’s how my theater companion, who recalls lovingly the 1948 original, described the Hartford Stage rollicking production of KISS ME KATE. There are some differences; this one is sexed-up in ways that would not have been possible over 65 years ago. There’s an uber-Adonis, nude statue of Neptune standing in in the Italian town plaza fountain in the Taming of the Shrew, the play within the play of this classic backstage fable. And there’s a lot more emphasis on Dick in the “Tom, Dick or Harry” number, but none of it's raunchy. Preserved is Cole Porter's deliciously naughty brew of double-entrendre, ridiculously witty lyrics, “the best of his career”, to quote, again, my theatre companion. (Did I mention "Brush Up Your Shakespeare"?) Director Darko Tresnjak, last year’s Tony winner for A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, masterfully makes fresh every aspect of this impeccably entertaining show, aided immensely by Peggy Hickey’s new, joyous choreography. Mike McGowan and Anastasia Barzee execute brilliantly the vocally challenging lead roles and rich Porter melodies, and Megan Sakkara nails the classic “Always True to You Darling in My Fashion.” The show-stealer, though, is James T. Lane who matches his electrifying vocal interpretation of “Too Darn Hot” with dazzling footwork for the Act 2 opening number to end all Act 2 opening numbers. Near perfect doesn’t get any nearer perfect than this.

 

NT LIVE – A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (March 2015)

 

Run don't walk to your local cinema which is screening Ivo van Hove's production of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, transmitted from London's Wyndham Theatre as part of the National Theatre Live series. I saw the live broadcast yesterday afternoon at The Moviehouse but had seen this production - twice- at its original venue, London’s Young Vic Theatre, in spring 2014. Van Hove has conceived and directed a most minimalist (only one prop) and muscular revival of the Arthur Miller classic, revealing a Greek tragedy at its narrative core (Aristotle lives!) and unearthing Shakespearian rhythms in its language. The camera blocking is a little clumsy here and there, and the camera cannot fully convey how van Hove frames his stage like a sarcophagus, but the drama remains breathtaking. Van Hove winds the audience up as tensely as the doomed Eddie, played brilliantly by Mark Strong. The cathartic, jaw-dropping finale was so spectacular when I saw it in London, I followed my matinee viewing with an evening performance the same day. Definitive, a term often promiscuously applied in theater reviews, is accurate to describe this production. If you see only one View from the Bridge in your lifetime, make it this one. Don't miss it.

 

REVERBERATION by MATTHEW LOPEZ at HARTFORD STAGE (March 2015)

 

Unhappiness, known as dysfunction these days, is a common topic in contemporary theater and for many (dare I say, young?) playwrights, it’s drama enough. Not so for Matthew Lopez who, in his newest play REVERBERATION that I caught in one of its last performances at Hartford Stage, lets dysfunction take a back seat and digs deep to find the source of a soul’s pain. Grief is the devil in this beautifully-crafted and moving play, which dissects, with scalpel precision, the corrosion of spirit in the central character of Jonathan (played by Luke McFarlane), a depressed 35 year-old, gay, recluse, bingeing on sex and booze, and his relationship with Claire (Aya Cash), his upstairs apartment neighbor, a late-20s’ world-weary, party-girl in search of Mr. Right, and Wes (Carl Lundstedt) , a twinkish, 23 year-old Grindr hook-up from down the block.

 

Lopez, who wowed Off-Broadway audiences with The Whipping Boy last year, presents some pretty mature playwriting. Lopez skillfully reveals Jonathan’s damaged psyche, first through the sexual encounter with Wes, and later with something more emotional with Claire; at the same time, he constructs a totally compelling narrative to explain Jonathan’s pain, that enfolds like a psychological mystery.

 

It’s hard to imagine Lopez' play better realized than by director Maxwell Williams who paces this production like what’s going on inside the head of someone like Jonathan who is so much in pain he can’t get it together. Williams finds the acid-drip rhythms in Jonathan’s tormented days and nights, punctuating the passage of time in the lonely apartment in darkish, graceful scene shifts with superb lighting and sound design by Matthew Richards and Tei Blow, respectively. Andromache Chalfant's set – double tiered, apartment over apartment, connecting stairwell on the side – is textbook, providing perfectly articulated spaces, appropriate to character and specific to dramatic action.

Jack Bowdan of Binder Casting nails it in all three players. MacFarlane transcends his television hunk persona from Brothers and Sisters and delivers a finely-layered, intelligent performance; I felt Jonathan’s pain . (Screw the cliché. In this case I really did). Cash’s performance is as smart as MacFarlane’s: she successfully conveys an overgrown teen who knows she’s postponed growing up for too long. The breakout performance is Lundstedt's whose scenes bookend the story. He’s got a tough role in playing a character of limited intellect who behaves like an emotional infant but isn’t dumb enough to not know he’s one. (Lopez also gives Wes the best - of only a few - lines of comedic relief: “You think just because I don’t read books, that’s why I’m a bottom” Paraphrased, with apology).

REVERBERATION’s scenario is grim but its effect haunting. In the final scene, Jonathan declares the source of his pain in a wrenching plea for its release. Power to the playwright that days after I saw the play I’m still wondering if Jonathan will ever be delivered from his grief and approach something called happiness. 

 

ON THE TOWN – AGAIN! (March 2015)

 

New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck was the reason I returned to see ON THE TOWN last night, but I was reminded of plenty more reasons to go back to the Lyric. Ms. Peck temporarily replaced fellow NYCB dancer (and sister-in-law) Megan Fairchild in the role of Ivy Smith for three performances this week and will again for three more performances March 14-15. Comparison between Ms Peck and Ms Fairchild is irrelevant because both are superb. Sure, Ms. Peck, like Ms. Fairchild, is totally charming as Miss Turnstile for whom sailor Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) falls head-over-heals on a 24-hour Manhattan shoreleave, but the pas-de-deux with Yazbeck, the musical’s theatrical and emotional centerpiece, was, in a word, perfection. What was just as impressive is how this sparkling revival of an otherwise overlooked great American musical is as fresh and crisp as it was when it opened almost five months ago. Second time around (well, third if you count seeing this production's premier at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires a couple of summers ago), I’m still astonished at how seamless the whole production is, but this time I noticed particularly the versatility of secondary players Jackie Hoffman and Phillip Boykin - nailing mutiple, small, but pivotal, comedic or vocal parts each. Allison Guinn gets huge belly laughs for a broadly physical take on the nasally-challenged Lucy Schmeeler. Special shout out to Alysha Umphress who brings the house down with one of my favorite show-tunes “I Can Cook Too”, immortalized by Nancy Walker in the 1944 original, which Umphress claims as her own here. Kudos, again, to choreographer Joshua Bergasse. I mean…dancing sailors AND Tiler Pike… what’s not to like? 

 

THE HEIDI CHRONICLES (March 2015)

 

For someone of "my generation", inexplicably, I missed the original production (and how many regionals?) of Wendy Wasserstein’s THE HEIDI CHRONICLES first performed in 1988, but this Johnny-come-lately played catch-up and saw a very early preview (the second) of the Broadway revival Tuesday night at the Music Box Theatre. Like DISGRACED, it’s clear why this was awarded the Pulitzer for drama. In Heidi’s journey from high school teen to women’s art historian to single parent, there’s a distinctive timeliness, covering the mid 60s to the late 80s, that beyond the feminist theme, any Baby Boomer can identify with. But this production, directed by Pam MacKinnon (back in form after the disappointing Delicate Balance now dark across the street) conveys timelessness, more of prescience, really. It’s remarkable not only how Wasserstein keenly plumbed social change happening under our feet a quarter of a century ago, but also how we take that change for granted today. What makes HEIDI CHRONICLES most endearing – and enduring, too - for any generation is its central theme - the individual struggle to define self in a changing world. What McKinnon brings into relief in this revival, and Wasserstein by her legacy, is that social change comes from a collective expression of selves, one Heidi at a time. Elisabeth Moss, best known for cable’s Mad Men, as Heidi, characterizes the self as change-agent beautifully, letting her intelligence inform – but not define the role - so this graceful, understated performance emerges without a hint of pretense or self-consciousness. Moss' Heidi is at once brave and modest, tough and vulnerable. Even in this early preview, Moss seems totally comfortable with the role. Her second act soliloquy - worth the price of admission alone - where Heidi subjects her personal life choices to the same sharp criticism she subjects the art about which she's an authroity reminds us, plainly yet poignantly, that real choices lie, not in the head, but in the heart.

 

DISGRACED (February 2015)

 

Just under the closing wire, I finally saw DISGRACED at Wednesday’s matinee. It’s evident why it got the Pulitzer. Ayad Akhtar’s story is superbly structured: when the shit starts flying in Act 3 (of 4), all the narrative that came before is not only meaningful but also perfectly realized. Big shout-out to stand-in Francesca Choy-Kee as Jory who didn’t miss a beat. The urban sophisticate apartment set by John Lee Beatty is tour-de-force: beyond being visually stunning and life-style accurate, the spaces facilitate narrative movement perfectly. Kenneth Posner’s lighting accents it all stunningly, and without intrusion. I’m most eager to see more from director Kimberly Senior: the pace she achieves with the stellar cast is exemplary. If I wasn’t so late to the game, I’d return to see it again, but l anticipate productions in regional and rep. This one, like many (but not all) of the Pulitzer winners, should endure.

 

HAMILTON: THE MUSICAL REVOLUTION (January 2015)


There are rare occasions in the theater when one sees something so totally original, one knows one’s witnessing something historic. Such is the case with Lin-Manuel Miranda's HAMILTON at The Public Theatre. This powerful, audacious musical biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton, who is affixed in popular history for being felled by the duelist bullet of Aaron Burr, not only illuminates the historical origins of the American national identity with startling clarity heretofore unseen in musical theater but also rockets the musical genre into a bold, definitively 21st-century, multi-cultural expression of language and music. Members of the Pulitzer committee will no doubt be visiting The Public’s Newman Theater soon.


There are few musical theater antecedents for HAMILTON. It reduces 1776, covering some of the same historical period, to bygone, dry-as-dust, dinner theater. It owes some heritage to John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures and Assassins, which used historical incidents to examine, respectively, imperialistic and violent elements of the American psyche. Mr. Miranda tackles something more fundamental in HAMILTON.
Taking the most scholarly work available - Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, as source material - Mr. Miranda tells Hamilton’s life story in rap, accenting that with idioms, poetic flourishes, and pop-cultural similes, and at times even incorporating parts of the historical record, like Washington’s farewell address. With that, Hamilton, the man, warts and all, becomes alive, the voice of America today.


Indeed, Hamilton was as unlike his colonial peers as are young New Yorkers now. He was the only founding father who was an immigrant (born in the Caribbean), orphan, bastard and a self-made man who made his own way up the ladder. The cast -with one exception, all twenty- or thirty-something’s - reflects urban youth of today - Anglos as slim minority, more Black, Latino, and mixed - and projects what the whole country will look like in a few decades. The cast of HAMILTON bears as much resemblance to an Eisenhower-era Eurocentric melting pot, as that population did to the WASP, land-grant legatees of colonial America. Mr. Miranda’s mixed casting is fundamental to one of HAMILTON’s broad themes: real American values that define our national identity endure beyond the WASP origin of the country.
Mr. Miranda interprets Hamilton's life through a marvelous collaboration with many who worked with him on 2008's Tony–winning In the Heights. Still, the creative powerhouse is Mr. Miranda himself. Playing Hamilton (and on stage for most of the play’s three hours), Mr. Miranda has also written the book and lyrics, composed the music and co-arranged it with Alex Lacamoire. The score ranges from hip-hop to pop ballad, with strains of jazz and ragtime and mixes these together in a seamless flow of nearly three dozen musical sequences, sung-through to operatic effect. Having seen the play just once (I’m returning for sure), I'm recalling at least half a dozen stunning musical numbers especially “The Schuyler Sisters” in Act 1, where an exquisite Rennee Elsie Goldsberry as Hamilton’s adoring prospective sister-in-law nearly takes the roof off in a rousing anthem of unrequited love.


It’s unfair to single out any one member of the uniformly superlative cast but most satisfying is the youthful camaraderie established in Act 1 among Hamilton and his band of revolutionary brothers: Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan) and John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), each of whom does double duty as Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton’s son, respectively, in Act 2. There's plenty of comedic relief, most notably from Brian d’Arcy James as King George who chastises the independence aspirations of his colonial subjects with foppish, acidic wit in “You’ll be Back”. Leslie Odom Jr, as Burr, strikes the perfect tone of both friend and enemy to Hamilton, playing his fateful antagonist and also part narrator, with shades of the Leading Player from Pippin. Christopher Jackson cuts a thoroughly commanding figure as General Washington. The breakout performance explodes from rapper Diggs who camps it up as a wise-ass Lafayette and nearly steals the show with a sly satirical interpretation of the elitist intellectual Thomas Jefferson.


Director Thomas Kail propels Hamilton’s saga forward like a page-turning historical novel. Integral is Andy Blankenbuehler’s muscular choreography that incorporates everything from breakdance to modern ballet performed by a super-charged ensemble that serves as Greek chorus throughout.
The staging is amazingly kinetic but it's the play's characters who give HAMILTON its emotional force. Besides Hamilton’s public relationship with Burr around which the narrative pivots, HAMILTON astonishingly realizes fully two personal relationships, too - the unrequited love that Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler holds for Hamilton and the unconditional devotion of his wife Eliza played by an elegant Phillipa Soo who, in a stirring aria movingly delivered near the play's end, commits to his legacy, despite the public indignity of Hamilton having had an illicit affair with another woman, the first sex scandal of American history.


Mr. Miranda infuses the historical record with vibrant contemporary political resonance without ever slipping into didacticism. Hamilton’s design for the Treasury and the US banking system is laid-out, as is the economic divide between the commerce-based northern colonies and the agricultural-based southern ones - and a little thing called slavery - that foretells the Civil War. How Hamilton became chief author of the Federalist papers and the debate with Jefferson’s Republicanism is made plain, and –yes - all this is in rap. Indeed, there’s more intelligent explication in HAMILTON about the philosophical conflicts between individual liberties and governance at the basis for the Republic than one will hear in floor debate in the US Capitol. Members of Congress get your asses down to The Public.
Far beyond being just entertaining history, HAMILTON is a grand, patriotic celebration of American identity that plumbs both the nature of history and the nature of story-telling. HAMILTON constantly presents the question through rap refrain “Who tells your story?” With HAMILTON, Lin-Manuel Miranda claims the forefront in musical theater storytelling with extraordinary authority, dramatically reminding us with this milestone musical that our national identity lives and breathes as vitally today as it does in Hamilton's own story.

 

 

HEAVEN SENT (February 2015)


The Donmar proves again to be the go-to venue in London for the most versatile schedule of superior theater from Shakespeare to Broadway revival, this time with its dazzling production of 1990 Tony and 1993 Olivier winner City of Angels. It's a tongue-in-cheek, Hollywood film noir fable that tells the "real" story of an aspiring screenwriter and his alter-ego gumshoe PI in the "reel" script he's laboring over for a studio mogul. What's most appealing is that director Josie Rourke (impressively directing her first musical) fully embraces all the original material - a bubbly, bouncy book by Larry Gelbart, witty, double-entrendre'd lyrics by David Zippel, and a luscious, emotionally rich score by the inimitable Cy Coleman - with no pretense of re-interpretation or revisionism, so that it's the staging that makes this gem shine again, and brighter than I recall 25 years ago. The knockout Act I finale ("I'm Nothing Without You") is enhanced by lighting technology that didn't exist back then, and it packs even more punch than before. The cast is uniformly spot-on, but Samantha Barks has a show-stopping dumb-blonde sexy number that reminded me of redhead Anita Morris in Nine way back when. How can we get some of this action in New York? I mean - a good-old fashioned musical revival that's allowed to speak for itself.

 

NO BETTER ASSASSINS THAN THIS (February 2015)


There's no more of a spellbinding production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins to be experienced than the Menier Chocolate Factory's .
Stepping through the mouth of a funhouse clown into the theater, one takes seats circus- bleacher style, with the sound of a rickety grinding roller coaster in the background, sighting through dim, dusty lighting, the ghostlike, decrepit remains of a seedy carnival. The performance "midway" space is set up like a carnival shooting game - HIT at one end, MISS at the other. 
The carnival barker emcee, in grotesque, cadaverous clownface crawls out of broken, super-scaled clown's head from an amusement ride and encourages our band of presidential assassins - the successful and the failures both - to take up arms, singing the lyrically sinister, but melodically cheery, "Everybody Has a Right Their Dream" while dispensing guns from hidden pockets of his MadMax-style leather overcoat. And we're off. Director Jamie Lloyd and a superlative cast brilliantly maintain riveting theatrics like these for nearly two hours. 
I was pretty impressed with the Roundabout revival about 15 years ago (which introduced a young Neil Patrick Harris as Lee Harvey Oswald to the Broadway music stage) but this time, despite the spectacle of it all, I appreciated the innovation of John Weidman's book in weaving historical record and the back-story of each assassin's personality with the darkest of social satire. 
Wiedman's particularly effective in the scene where John Wilkes Booth persuades Lee Harvey Oswald to take his place in history and take aim at the motorcade coming through Dealy Plaza. Sondheim memorializes Dallas by freezing us in time - at the very moment when we heard the news - with his hauntingly elegiac "Something Just Broke". 
It was a geography class and I was in sixth grade in a class of 56 other Irish-American kids in Holy Family Grammar School in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Sister Mary Christina told us the John F. Kennedy had been shot and we all went home.
Sitting in a 175-seat theater in London's southbank 51 years later, I totally lost it. Funny, how theater has that effect sometimes.


WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN - FROM NOT SO GOOD TO WORSE (Feb 2015)


Despite the myriad of problems in the 2010 Broadway production of the musical version of Pedro Almodovar's 1988 film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I was eager to see director Bartlett Sher's mulligan now at the Playhouse Theater. The principal drawback of the original I thought was the miscasting of Sherie Rene Scott as lead character, Pepa, so I was optimistic having read glowing West End reviews for British dramatic actress Tamsin Greig, in her first musical role, as Almodovar's heroine.
Unluckily, Greig and two other leading actresses, Haydn Gwynne as Lucia and Willemjin Verkaik as Paulina, were replaced by understudies for the evening performance of February 3 (with no posted lobby notice on ticket purchase day-of). The understudies' singing was adequate, but unless the original trio is delivering performances of the likes of resurrected Gertrude Lawrence or, say, Beatrice Lillie (imagine her as Lucia!), no performers no matter how skilled could redeem the re-working of this joyless, lackluster production.
The original book was a madcap mess but often stupid fun. Now, the streamlined version (Jefrey Lane's mulligan, too), while making the plot more manageable, is - in a word - boring. And the original, often eye-popping production design, suggesting a fast-lane, late 80s Madrid, has been replaced with an anywhere and static, fixed set splashed in harsh neon-style lighting, that makes it all look - well - cheap.
That describes the musical orchestrations, too, banged-out of a six-piece band that sounds like a Holiday Inn lounge combo. As a result, the salsa-lite score by David Yazbek rings uninspired: only a few melodic rifts, notably in "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" and "Invisible", catch...sort-of.
What's really regrettable about this dud of a redo is that it wrings all the zany, crazy, ironic, joie-de-vie style out of Almodovar. Just download the film from Netflix.

 

INTO THE WOODS: SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE, AND SOMETIMES NOT (Feb 2015)


Comparison of Fiasco Theatre's super-minimalist production of James Lapine’s and Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS to the film is inevitable in the wake of the hugely successful movie version of the original 1987 Broadway musical. (I know, I know … one’s a play, the other’s a movie.) The good news is that this charming, bare-bones, imaginative re-staging in preview at the Roundabout reveals the full wonders of Lapine’s book and simple beauties of Sondheim lyric. The not-so-good news is that it strips the work of its sublime melodies, and the original, graceful orchestrations of veteran Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick.
The 10-member ensemble (which behaves like a wandering troupe mingling and talking with the audience before the show begins) is largely recruited from grad students and alumni of Brown University’s theater program with Providence’s Trinity Rep. Directed by Fiasco’s Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the enthusiastic players assume multiple roles making ingenious use of household objects as costumes and props (drapes on curtain rods for Cinderella’s sister’s ball gowns, a feather duster for a barnyard chicken, hand-puppeted leaves of a book for birds) which endlessly fascinate.
A single upright piano is the major source of music, occasionally accented by John Doyle-style contributions from the actors with assorted percussions, guitar, oboe and bassoon. The upside of this thin and - sometimes clunky - musical arrangement is that book and lyric carry full dramatic weight and clarity, especially in contrast to the film. For example, we learn why in Act II, the princes abandon their princesses (who have morphed into Sleeping Beauty and Snow White) and, most critically, appreciate the real identity of the mystery man in the “No More” cathartic musical number when the baker reconciles his relationship with his absent father. (For the most clinical critique of film-from-play read Vivian Kane’s essay http://www.pajiba.com/…/five-ways-into-the-woods-could-have…).
In the film, the disappearance or diminishment of these plot elements are offset by the ravishing orchestrations by Tunick - and the musical supervision of another Sondheim veteran Paul Gemignani - so that the melodies are the glue that hold the movie together. Roundabout doesn’t seek to express fully the richness of Sondheim’s score, but it offers an often marvelous, if not primitive, inventive record of book and lyrics in original form.

 

 

 

EDWARD HERRMANN: A HOMETOWN APPRECIATION (January 2015)

With the death of Ed Herrmann on New Year’s Eve, the country lost a great actor, and, in these parts, we lost a treasured friend and neighbor. Ed first came to the Northwest Corner, when he spent summertime early in his career atop Mt. Riga. Decades later he and his wife Star made Salisbury their home, and - even with never-ending television shoots in LA, audio book recordings in Manhattan, and concert readings everywhere - he melded into the rhythms of small town life.

Sure, Ed brought plenty of presence and panache to the local scene to boot. His stature overscaled the average guy, and his hobbies were remarkably sophisticated. Reflecting the patrician characters he was famous for playing, Ed could be spotted tooling around town on an especially fine spring afternoon in one of his antique sports cars, his collecting passion. He was also an extraordinary bibliophile and an authority on military history, particularly on World War I, the study of which started early in his young days when he played Captain Stanhope in Journey's End.

Still, Ed never let his intellectual interests or celebrity get in the way of the everyday. The ready testament is found in the comments of local folk on Facebook at the news of his death. What’s recalled is the shared joke at Dunkin’ Donuts or pumping gas at Patco, on the checkout line at LaBonne’s or picking up the mail at Salisbury Post Office. His acknowledging nod, his ready smile, and his jovial wit were accessible to all. Like the two most famous characters he played – Franklin Roosevelt and Grandpa Gilmore – he had manners, and they weren’t an old-fashioned veneer. Ed was kind, which is what manners are all about in the end.

Ed was a great raconteur, funnier than hell, and unselfish in giving his talent to benefit local causes. People are still talking about how he, along with his fellow actor and buddy Sam Waterston, brought the house down years ago doing the classic Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on first?,” on behalf of the former mental health center. But most memorable was his participation in a benefit for Salisbury Family Services in the fall of 2013 just months before his illness struck. He performed a passage from Our Town as the Stage Manager - the soliloquy in the final scene in the cemetery on the hill. When he got to the part about the boys from Grover’s Corners who died saving the Union in the Civil War, his voice cracked and he wasn't acting. I'll not forget that moment. All that talent, and the humanity to match.

 

POCATELLO: REAL IS GOOD ENOUGH (December 2014)


In POCATELLO (as in Idaho) in previews at Playwrights Horizons, Samuel D. Hunter skillfully constructs a heartfelt tribute to the middle class, themed-up with unnecessary ruminations about the suburbanization of small town America. The 100 minute play, without intermission, is economically directed by Davis McCallum, impeccably cast by Alaine Aldaffer, and especially well-acted by a uniformly talented ensemble. Standouts are lead T. R. Knight, as the late-twenty-something manager of a chain restaurant, carrying the burden of a failing business and family trauma, and Leah Karpel, as Becky, the troubled teenage daughter of one of his employees. Hunter deftly averts melodramatic cliche (suicide, meth and alcohol addiction, coming-out) mostly because his affection for his characters is so palpable. Hunter nails the daily economic struggles of the working class getting by in a service economy. And his affinity for family dynamics is keen, too. When Eddie elicits from his mother her long-suppressed feelings about his being gay, it plays more authentically than I’ve seen this now-familiar scene executed before. Where the production gets fuzzy is where Hunter tries to link Eddie's yearning for the "way things used to be" with notions about the changing landscape of America. When, for example, in the final scene, Eddie recites a litany of chain stores and restaurant franchises (nearly a dozen it seemed from Best Buy to McDonalds) to lament his loneliness it comes across as rather silly, and undermines the genuine elements of this highly appealing and solid production. Playwrights is promoting POCATELLO as “a cry for connection in an increasingly lonely American landscape” Why stretch for banal theme, when Hunter is so fine at real characters with real feelings?

 

 

ALLEGRO: NEW DEALERS RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN (November 2014)


Director John Doyle ingeniously applies his signature musical-directing style of actors playing instruments as part of their roles to his re-conception of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s otherwise forgotten ALLEGRO at Classic Stage Company. He's reduced major parts and the "Greek chorus" cast of nearly 41 players in the 1947 original production to a mere dozen, and with economy and elegance created both a musical fable of the ordinary man, and an operetta with social conscience. The tale is simple: son of a small town Mid-western family doctor intends to follow his father's footsteps but gets sidetracked to a big-city medical career in Chicago focused on money and social status. The story begins in the Roaring Twenties and concludes in the Great Depression; the play’s values are unapologetically New Deal. The mis-en-scene, largely defined by stolid costumes of the working class, draws from Thornton Wilder's Our Town. As the doctor-son, young Claybourne Elder an ideal Everyman: his open-faced, all-American looks play perfectly to Shakespeare’s maxim: to thine own self be true. Uncharacteristic of Rodgers and Hammerstein, there’s no Broadway hit number in this show. There are a few musical hooks - mostly just in One Foot, Other Foot - but story, music and song and stage movement are so seamlessly intertwined it doesn’t matter. Hopefully, the real service of this Allegro might be to introduce it in practical form to the repertoire of college and regional theater, so that it is not overlooked as it was for over six decades. But for the moment, Doyle's Allegro - besides being a tidy gem of musical theater - is a beautiful tribute to good-old fashioned values in today’s rich-getting-richer times.

 

THE BANDWAGON AT ENCORES (October 2014)

 

More song! More dance! Less book! That’s what’s needed in THE BANDWAGON, the spirited Encore stage version of 1953 classic MGM movie musical at New York City Center. I confess I’m on one of those movie buffs who, heretically to most, believes it is this, Vincent Minnelli’s backstage Broadway fable, that is the apex of the Hollywood musical, not the beloved Singin’ in The Rain so I was pre-disposed enthusiastically to this stage version. Writer Douglas Carter Beane has broadened the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with a new book that re-introduces some elements that were cut from the film. Now we know why they were cut. Kathleen Marshall, the past master of bringing fresh air to Broadway song and dance, tries to keeps everything apace, but this production decelerates in a melodramatic subplot of unrequited love that detracts from all the fun. Brian Stokes Mitchell as the not-quite-over-the-hills song-and-dance man and Laura Osnes as the prima ballerina bring splendid voice to the multi-hit Schwartz and Dietz score and lyrics. Tracey Ullman and Michael McKean, best known for comedy, are perfectly cast as the wise-cracking, husband-wife team inflicted with can’t-live- with- him- can’t- live-without- him –itis. At the performance I saw – the second of a dozen scheduled performances – Stokes and Ullman seemed under-rehearsed and unsure of some of the material. Not so with Tony Sheldon as the effete, avant-garde theater director , whose impish charm and energy electrifies every scene he’s in, and who pretty much steals the show. The set and costumes are low-budget but ambitious, which begs the question - is this production an Encores “reading” or a pre-Broadway mini-run? With so many engaging hit musical numbers – New Sun in the Sky, Dancing in the Dark, Louisiana Hayride, Triplets - who cares anyway? Marshall leaves us smiling with an exuberant tap-dance finale of the irrepressibly joyous A Shine on Your Shoes and That’s Entertainment. But, if we see The Bandwagon again, it will be with some clip-clip here, snip-snip there. Then there’ll be the chance that the finale’s magic can radiate completely through the book that leads up to it.

 

OF MICE AND MEN: WRONG VENUE? (October 2014)

 

Having missed OF MICE AND MEN at The Longacre, I saw it last night on National Theatre Live broadcast in my local cinema, which is not the optimal way to judge a play. With camera work and even limited editing, the performances loom larger than the whole, putting in stark relief differences in acting techniques in the cast, and there's a medley of acting styles on display here. For a good-old-fashioned, fully theatrical performance, there's veteran Joe Norton as Candy. Chris O’Dowd, as feeble-minded Lennie, uses a whole toolbox to to characterize one of the theater's most sympathetic tragic characters. James Franco with the toughest part as George, Lennie’s friend and caretaker, plays it naturalistically – and very low key. Everybody seems out of sync with everybody else. Director Anna Shapiro conducts an orderly, distanced interpretation of this Pulitzer Prize winning play, almost too respectful of Steinbeck’s material. Her best direction comes in the tense, fateful scene between Lennie and farmer Curley’s wife, but when all the farmhands together discover the wife’s body, it falls flat and clumsy. In the final scene, Franco summons tears to his eyes, but the scene's not heartbreaking and it should be. One hopes this great American tragedy was more dramatic in the theater than it was on broadcast. ‪

 

 

IT’S A HELLUVA TOWN (October 2014)


Long before dragons bobbed from the proscenium arch, helicopters descended from the catwalks and chandeliers crashed-in from the balcony, the American musical thrived on basic boy-meets-girl plot, song and dance, and actors who could deliver both. That tradition isn’t only fully restored but also joyously celebrated in On The Town now in previews at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway. Having seen the original staging of this glorious revival at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA in the summer of 2013, I was a little apprehensive about how the magic captured in the Berkshires could keep in the bottle and travel to the Big White Way. But, under the continuing direction of John Rando, the exuberance of this New York fable spills from the footlights and floods one of the largest houses on Broadway with pure delight. 


The premise, made popular in the 1949 movie starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, is well known: three sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City during World War II set out in the Big Apple, each looking for love and adventure. Rando’s working with rich material to begin with: a ravishing score by Leonard Bernstein, a fast-paced book and witty lyrics laced with double-entendre by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and muscular choreography by Jerome Robbins. On the Pittsfield stage, with low budget, spatial limitations, and small orchestra, Rando put the basic material to optimal use by means of (almost) impeccable casting, a focus on song and dance, and strikingly simple production design, and made this 1944 classic (with a dismal record of Broadway revival - in 1971 and 1998) shine again. At the Lyric, Rando’s collaborating again with choreographer Joshua Bergasse, but he’s assembled the largest orchestra since Lincoln’s Center’s South Pacific and he has a huge stage to fill. Smartly, Rando builds on the same cast of lead actors with one critical change. Of the three pairs of boy-meet-girl, the central one is Gabey, played by Tony Yazbeck, and Ivy, played by Megan Fairchild, a dancer in the New York City Ballet making her Broadway debut and the only lead new to the cast. This casting adjustment makes dancing the thing in this production. Seldom have we seen in contemporary musical theater, a romance articulated so beautifully in dance as between Gaby and Ivy here. 


Adapting the original Robbins choreography, Bergasse has mounted duets between Yazbeck and Fairchild that recall Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Yazbeck might not be as limber, but he’s just as athletic as Kelly, and Fairchild, while not as leggy as Charisse, is just as lithe. The dream-sequence “Pas de Deux”, in Act II, executed on an unadorned stage against a pastel backdrop that evokes Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, is the highlight among non-stop show-stoppers from "New York, New York” to the rousing finales of both acts.


The entire movement of the play is so seamlessly choreographed it extends to the musical numbers where words and music are up-front. The uber-cherubic figure of Alysha Umphress as Hildy with the Jack Sprat-leanness of Jay Armstrong as Chip are combined to physical comic perfection in both the wild cab ride in “Come Up to My Place” and “I Can Cook Too” in which Umphress claims as her own the character immortalized by Nancy Walker in 1944. Even the mismatching of the big-boned, full-bodied Elizabeth Stanley as Clair with a sinewy, monkey-ish Cyde Alves as Ozzie lends hilarious dimension to the mating of two over-sexed compulsives, making their big number “Carried Away,” using a dinosaur skeleton as comic prop, worth the ticket price alone. 


Besides all the fun, there’s genuine emotional ballast in this production, which Rando achieves by letting Yazbeck emphasize the inner feelings of Gabey, the nice farmboy from the Midwest looking for love in the big city. Yazbeck, cast by Bob Avian in his revival of Chorus Line a few years back, has grown both dramatically and vocally into the Gabey role since the Berkshires. No longer just one of a trio of sailors here, he anchors Comden and Green’s narrative. And, when backed by the vocal ensemble sprinkled among the audience, he takes the solo ballad “Lonely Town” - one of Bernstein’s most elegiac compositions - to goosebump effect.

 
Even in the supporting cast there’s not one misstep, from the first note of Phillip Boykin’s bellowing, Gospel baritone of “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet” to the zany vocal machinations of Jackie Hoffman in multiple roles. (Sure she hams it up, but if there ever were roles to do it with, these are they. And so what? It’s a hoot.) Nods to Michael Rupert as Claire’s cuckolded fiancé Pitkin, who takes an almost unsingable “I Understand” and makes it soar, and to Hildy’s nasally challenged roomie played by Allison Guinn. 

 

Kudos to music director and conductor James Moore for bringing as complete expression to Bernstein’s score that I’ve heard other than Bernstein’s’ own recording of it. (It’ll be interesting to compare the two cast recordings.) Hats off to Beowulf Borrit for production design and Jason Lyons for lighting design, who apply big screen MGM-musical elements to a vast stage canvas without overwhelming the production. They achieve some elegant effects, especially in seguewaying from a gritty subway ride to an imaginary Coney Island where “the elite meet” (which reminded me of the showgirl ghosts gliding across the stage in Follies decades ago). Jess Goldstein’s costumes, awash in Technicolor fabrics, sustain the movie musical mis en scene.


There is so much right about On the Town, it’s in same class as the other great musical revivals of our day - the National Theatre’s Carousel (1992) and Lincoln Center’s South Pacific (2008). The original productions of these classics expanded the stage musical form; they did so with modern attitudes that endure. That’s certainly true of the ending of On The Town. In most boy-meets-girl stories back in the day, the boy got the girl. In On the Town, Gabey, Ozzie and Chip get back on ship never to see Ivy, Hildy or Claire again. As they do, down the gangplank come three more sailors and on the wharf wait three different girls, all ready to replay the same 24-hour cycle. As the French say, “la plus c’est change, plus c’est la meme chose,” which might seem in step with today’s ennui. But for three hours at the Lyric, there is only sheer bliss.

 

BEAUTIFUL MINDS (September 2014)


The National Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, now in previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, and The Valley of Astonishment, for a limited engagement at the Theatre For A New Audience in Brooklyn - besides bearing topical similarities - have the distinction of being the most imaginative theatrical experiences now on the scene. Both plays explore the extraordinary minds of their central characters: in Incident, the autism of 15-year old Christopher Boone (Alex Sharp) and in Astonishment the synaesthesia (a condition where one sense supplants another) of 43 year-old Samy Costas (Kathryn Hunter). Both Sharp and Hunter construct vivid, empathetic characters, even through they’re playing against type. I’d never guess - except by reading my Playbill - that Sharp is really a 25 year-old graduate of Julliard. With all due respect, Hunter looks, more late- rather than early- middle age. It doesn’t matter because both so inhabit their respective character that there’s not a moment where belief in them becomes unsuspended. Incident, written by Simon Stephens based on the book by Mark Haddon, and directed by Marianne Elliot is a more fully developed story, which follows Christopher on a physical and mental journey against the backdrop of anguished family drama. Astonishment, written and directed by theatre virtuoso Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, has an anecdotal structure so it doesn’t reach for narrative sweep. Sometimes it plays like an underdeveloped premise. It wastes time, for example, with audience-participation card tricks (perhaps to remind us how memory works in ordinary people – I dunno). And Samy is so attractive and interesting a personality I wanted to learn more about her personal life and relationships, which are left unexplored. Where Incident and Astonishment substantially diverge is production. Incident is the most compelling display of state-of-the-art computer-generated graphics, sound and lighting I’ve seen yet. The digital enactment of Christopher’s painful travel, with his debilitating mental and behavioral liabilities, through London’s rail and tube system and the clutter of urban signage and noise are breathtakingly realized by Elliot and the technical team. (The scrambled stage kinetics seem to put us inside Christopher’s super-charged head.) The props in Astonishment really aren’t much more than wooden chairs. When, in Incident, a circle traced with chalk on the floor is multi-dimensionally relayed to the full backdrop of the stage on a computer grid, it’s not razzle-dazzle; when, in Astonishment, a broomstick is used to trace on a bare floor the suggestion of painting on canvas, it’s not mundane. Both achieve that moment of pure theatricality that theatre is all about. I’m hard-pressed to remember two plays more achieved in theatrical storytelling that have so engaged me as much as these, perhaps more so Incident. In its final scene, Christopher, reflecting on the personal hurdles he has overcome, proclaims to his therapist “I can do anything now” and there comes no response from her. In that silence, we are left - with our own un-extraordinary minds - to marvel at both the wondrous possibilities and humbling limitations of just being normal.

 

INDIAN INK. MORE TO LIFE THAN THE PRINTED PAGE? NOT HERE


Someplace in the first half of Indian Ink, Tom Stoppard’s 1995 play set partly in the British Raj in 1930, Stoppard has cleverly supplied one of its characters with the line (and I’m paraphrasing here), “.. You have read A Passage to India haven’t you?” referring to E. M. Forster’s classic 1924 novel. Later in the second act, the heroine laments India’s climate, in particular its “heat” and its “dust,” this time a less explicit but still deliberate reference to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1975 Booker Prize novel plowing turf similar as Forster’s. Well, theatergoer, if you plan on seeing Roundabout’s New York premier of one of Stoppard’s lesser known plays, you had better read either Forster’s or Jhabvala’s novel because none of the core tensions or emotions that underpin the personal relationships between colonist and natives are apparent in this bland and antiseptic production directed by Carey Perloff. That’s too bad, too, because of all Stoppard’s plays, I found this to be one of his more comprehensible stories, certainly compared to the intellectually labyrinthine The Coast of Utopia or for that matter Jumpers, which after multiple viewings since I first saw it in college (starring Jill Clayburgh, God bless her), I’m still scratching my head over. In Indian Ink, Stoppard tells the tale of a poet Flora Crewe, doomed to tuberculosis, (played by RSC-trained Romola Garai) who travels to India for health reasons, and her relationship with an Indian artist Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji), intertwining these scenes with England in 1985 , where her surviving younger sister Eleanor (Rosemary Harris) reviews Flora’s correspondence for an overly zealous American scholar, who sees the letters as the basis for a definitive biography, which sends him off on a wild goose chase to learn the truth about Flora and Nirad. Phhew! As this thinnish plot thickens, Nirad's son Anish visits Eleanor in England with a canvas portrait of Flora which is key to the puzzle. This premise is fertile ground for Stoppard. It permits him to ply his standard stock in trade: a blend of shifting parallaxes, conflicting histories, memories fractured by time and space, all peppered with literary allusions, plumbing the eternal theme of the iconography of art. Stoppard has made all this fascinating before, but in this production it all falls flat, due largely to miscasting. Flora, who mingled with Commies back in London, wrote some poetry deemed obscene and poised nude for Modigliani comes across like a Mayfair matron instead of a Bohemian-like thoroughly Modern Millie. Even in an unnecessary nude scene, Garia’s body language is so chaste and uncomfortable, it’s hard to find any joie-de-vivre in this central character in which the play can anchor some passion or romance. Director Perloff stacks the deck against Garai in her casting Bamji as Nirad. The two are so mismatched physically, there isn’t the hint of emotional tension let alone sex, so that Nirad’s talk of the rasa of erotic love is meaningless and the staging of suggested sexual union preposterous. Perloff could have helped herself by switching Bamji with Bhavesh Patel, who plays Nirad's son in the 1980’s scenes. Patel has a physicality that Nirad needs, and Bamji would have more genuinely conveyed some the softer elements of the son’s character. No matter. Just about everything about this production is inert, from the harsh, un-modulated lighting to the static set design except the luminous Rosemary Harris. With her signature charm and grace, this veteran actress - in her mid 80s - gets her job done despite what’s not being dramatized on the rest of the stage.

 

BOOTYCANDY: 22 CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF A PLAY (September 2014)


Some have called Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, now at Playwrights Horizons, a series of loosely woven vignettes, or playlets, but they’ really sketches, informed more by television than theater. The narrative structure of this production, about growing up Black and gay in 1980s America, is akin to a program of Saturday Night Live skits, and its comedy writing is in the style of the most traditional sitcoms. Topically, however, there’s nothing conventional in Bootycandy. Start with Black and gay, throw in a bunch of dysfunction (substance abuse, child molestation, male-on-male rape, etc.), add a dose of social satire (welfare, father-less households, faith-based ministries, etc.), dollop with pop culture (The Jackson Five, Jackie Collins, etc) and finish with a twist of the coming-of-age saga and, voila, there you have Bootycandy. O’Hara, who also directs his own material, can write funny, sometimes hilarious even. He’s helped enormously by a talented cast with a keen ear for dialect and broad sense of timing. Our pilgrim is Sutter, ably played by Phillip James Brannon, whom we follow from boyhood to young adulthood, with some satirical detours that don’t involve him at all. The other four actors play twenty-one parts with dexterity and versatility I’m hard-pressed to recall in any ensemble, but keep your eye on Benja Kay Thomas who’s so convincing in each of her five roles you wouldn’t think it’s the same actress. The troupe’s characterizations are aided immensely by costumes and make-up by Clint Ramos who nails wardrobe for everything from a bad-ass working mom to lesbian groom with both precision and wit. The production gets moved around OK by O’Hara, but gets bogged down in a self-conscious scene about a writer’s conference that closes the first act. Late in the second act, when he ramps-up the melodrama, O’Hara pretentiously tries to break the barriers of traditional staging to clumsy effect. The final scene has some genuine moments, though, when Sutter seeks reconciliation with the past in a visit to his wheelchair-bound, semi-senile beloved grandmother. Acceptance of self in the face of psycho-sexual trauma has been dramatized much more successfully (say, Torch Song Trilogy or, currently, Hedwig) than O’Hara can manage without real plot. Still, he’s entertaining, and groping for something theatrically I’d see more of his work to discover.

 

 

THE OLD-FASHIONED MODERN FAMILY (September 2014)


Taking-in a preview matinee of the beloved 1936 comedy You Can’t Take It With You last Wednesday on a brilliant late-summer day, I found it hard to believe that it and last year’s Disgraced, about American Islamaphobia, both opening this month just blocks apart on Broadway, were both awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Oh sure, Kaufman and Hart’s Depression chestnut has some political asides, with whimsical takes on class distinctions, but its satire is so good-natured and gentle that I expected this production to creak under the weight of our cynical times. Instead, by dint of a seasoned cast, headlined by James Earl Jones, and sprightly direction by Scott Ellis, this revival, almost 80 years after its premiere, plays it straight – as it was written – making no apologies for its old-fashioned nature and skipping right over what, in the hands of lesser-skilled, would be anachronism’s quicksand. The three-act plot, memorialized pretty faithfully in the 1938 Oscar-winning movie directed by Frank Capra, is situational, straightforward and predictable. Alice, elder daughter and the only “normal” member of an extended Sycamore family of kooky middle-class Manhattan eccentrics, falls in love with the rich heir of a prominent family which owns the company where she works. What will happen when the families meet? Can this young love rise above the differences between the two families? The Sycamores’ hobbies – home-made fireworks, pet snakes, modern ballet – are positively innocent by today’s obsessions, and whatever quotient of compulsiveness they present is far removed from any hint of dysfunction, or even worthy of Freudian consideration. And the narrative, untethered by message or theme, steps linearly from act to act to act. Watching the play, I recalled Hart’s memoir, Act One, because the story enfolds like a textbook lesson in playwriting. Rule #1 - make the characters identifiable (every family has its oddballs) but not stereotypical (because if they were we wouldn’t love them like we do). Rule #2 - leave the audience wondering at the end of each act what will happen in the next so they return to their seats. Ellis paces the madcap movements of the cast breezily; the ensemble keeps up the tempo, as if they really ARE having fun at this. The standout is Kristine Nielsen as Mrs. Sycamore, of last years’ Vanya, who is so damn charmingly droll I wanted to reach up from my seat and give her a big hug every time she delivers a line, makes a face, or, for that matter, takes a beat. James Earl Jones, as grandpa Vanderhof, with his booming, God-like baritone, delivers the part of the family patriarch dutifully, but his casting raises a delicate issue. Race-blind casting can work (recall Audra McDonald as Mrs. Snow in Carousel), but, here a multi-ethnic cast – a Latino, or an Asian or two or three - would have been welcome, as the only other black actors besides Jones in this otherwise all-white cast are the hired help. Makes ya wanna go…hmmmm. The other minor fault of the production is the set design. The revolving stage, which nowadays seems de rigueur on Broadway, revealing both exterior and interior of the Sycamore house, is not only unnecessary but also out-of-place. Instead of the Manhattan brownstone, the clapboard-framed facade with wooden front porch built here would be more likely inhabited by the Smith family in Meet Me in St. Louis. Putting these observations aside was easy because for two hours I just smiled and smiled, with really not much to think about except at the play’s close when Jones delivers Kaufman and Hart’s pontificals on the American Dream: happiness lies within…be loyal to family and friends… everything will turn out right in the end. Cliched and corny as they sound, these maxims were welcome comfort as I walked out of the theater into Times Square awash in a digital, hi-definition haze of news of Syria, Ferguson and Isis.