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For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
Playwrights Horizons

Small World
Penguin Rep Theatre at 59E59 Theaters

Reviewed by David Sheward


Kathleen Chalfant, Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin, and Lisa Emery
Photo by Joan Marcus

The interplay of childhood fantasy and harsh adult reality is the subject of two current Off-Broadway plays. Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday at Playwrights Horizons is a melancholy meditation on death, age, and the constant cycle of life, while Frederick Stroppel’s Small World at 59E59 Theaters is a shallow sketch attempting to address big themes but producing only occasional chuckles and mild nods of recognition.
   Both works have flaws, but Ruhl’s is a vivid tapestry of a family undergoing universal changes. This weird play centers on Ann and her four late-middle-aged siblings as they deal with their father’s death. Like Ruhl’s own mother, Ann played the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in a community theater production in 1950s Davenport, Iowa, and she fondly recalls her theatrical flights to Never Land as she contemplates mortality. The structure is unconventional to say the least. We open with Ann addressing the audience, reminiscing. Kathleen Chalfant is delightfully endearing here, reliving Ann’s teenage triumph as Peter and getting to meet Mary Martin, the actress forever identified with the role. Ann hints about trouble in her life, and then the curtain parts to reveal David Zinn’s charming set combining a hospital room and the family home. The unnamed father is tied to a jungle of tubes and wires, and the five almost-elderly children are seated in a row. In a long, protracted sequence full of naturalistic pauses and small talk, Ann, her sister Wendy, and brothers John, Jim, and Michael discuss family history, politics, and their joys and regrets.
   Then Ruhl takes a wild left turn from this painfully naturalistic milieu, and we head off for Never Land with Ann donning her green tights, the arch-conservative Jim camping it up as Captain Hook, and the remaining sibs cavorting in pajamas as the Darling kiddies. The symbolism is pretty heavy (“Captain Hook is Death! Kill Death,” cries Ann-as-Peter during a pretend battle), and the Never Land segment runs out of steam before it finishes, but Ruhl still paints a heartbreaking and insightful portrait of adult passages. Les Waters, who also staged the play at the Actors Theater of Louisville’s Humana Festival, skillfully balances the disparate styles. A compassionate cast led by the exquisite Chalfant as Ann and Lisa Emery as Wendy establishes Ruhl’s duality of detailed naturalism and metaphor-laden dreamscape. The pain of enduring change and facing maturity’s burdens are feelingly rendered. Chalfant’s brief monologue describing the death of the family dog is so real, I was almost in tears when the canine (played by the marvelous Macy) actually appears as a ghost-memory.

Peter Pan was one of many iconic childhood characters brought to animated life by Walt Disney, and Frederick Stroppel takes us behind the scenes at the great cartoonist’s dream factory in the slight two-hander Small World. The premise is intriguing: Disney is meeting with legendary Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to discuss adapting the latter’s masterwork The Rite of Spring for the groundbreaking feature Fantasia (1940). The expected high-art-versus-pop-culture arguments erupt as Stravinsky rails at Disney for rearranging his score and employing battling dinosaurs rather than his original plot of Slavic tribes sacrificing a maiden. In the second scene, the roles are reversed and the Russian composer has gone completely Hollywood and attempts to persuade the financially strapped studio head to film his opera based on the Faust legend (it later becomes his stage work The Rake’s Progress). The final meeting in this 80-minute work takes place in heaven where the two meet for a final collaboration. Stephen D’Ambrose as Stravinsky and Mark Shannan as Disney give competent impersonations of the great figures, and Joe Brancato delivers a neat staging, but there’s nothing new here. Deep art doesn’t sell as well as pleasant cartoons. Geniuses can be temperamental bastards. Quel surprise!
   Ruhl’s Peter Pan isn’t bursting with startling new insights either (“growing old sucks” is not a news flash). But it’s presented with commitment and compassion, and it soars above the pedestrian Small World.

September 26, 2017
 
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday: Sept. 13–Oct. 1. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue–Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $59–$79. (212) 564-1235.

Theater

Small World: Sept. 17–Oct. 7. Penguin Rep Theater at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., NYC. Tue–Thu 7:15pm, Fri-Sat 8:15pm, Sun 3:15pm & 7:15pm. Running time 80 minutes, no intermission. $25-$35. (212) 279-4200.

Theater
 

 
On the Shore of the Wide World
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Ben Rosenfeld, C.J. Wilson, and Tedra Millan
Photo by Ahron R. Foster

British playwright Simon Stephens is best known on these shores for his Tony-winning adaptation of the novel The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But he has had many original works as well, including Heisenberg and Bluebird—both short and minimalist pieces, but loaded with intense emotions and truthful insight about human relationships. In On the Shore of the Wide World, his latest play to be imported to America, now at the Atlantic Theater Company, Stephens has gone in the opposite direction. The title is from a Keats poem but the play is less than poetic. While this dysfunctional family drama has some arresting moments, it drags on too long and becomes predictable and cliché-ridden.
   The play starts in an intriguing and unconventional tone, though the theme of repressed feelings leading to damaged psyches is a familiar one. Stephens begins with an almost Pinter-esque atmosphere of unspoken menace as we meet Alex and Sarah, an amorous young couple looking for fun on a Saturday night in a suburb of Manchester. There’s an undercurrent of anxiety in their libidinous byplay, echoed in scenes with Alex’s parents, Peter and Alice, and his grandparents, Charlie and Ellen. Fissures of tension crop up as Christopher, Alex’s jittery 15-year-old brother, falls hopelessly in love with Sarah, who in turn creepily flirts with the macho Peter. To add to the mix of suppressed passions, the seemingly charming but outrageously alcoholic Charlie assaults Ellen when she begins to show signs of independence. Simon has laid the groundwork for a scary look at an uncommunicative clan.

But then an unexpected tragedy rips the family apart and sends the play into a melodramatic tailspin. I won’t reveal the surprise trauma, which arrives near the end of Act One, but, after it’s uncorked, Stephens’s quirky observations and plotlines turn into soap opera fodder. Peter and Alice drift apart and find varying degrees of solace with attractive new acquaintances. Charlie has a cancer scare, which forces him to re-evaluate his inadequate performance as husband and father. Alex and Sarah move to London to escape the suffocation of their small town. (How many times have we seen these tropes in TV movies, novels, etc.?) In the final scenes, after several sequences tying up all the loose ends a bit too neatly, all are reconciled around a family dinner table.
   Fortunately, Neil Pepe provides a strong staging and the cast delivers heartfelt performances, depicting the pain of buried longings. C.J. Wilson makes Peter’s stone-faced silence speak volumes, as does Ben Rosenfeld as the tortured Alex and Peter Maloney as the gruff Charlie. This veteran actor actually manages to make us sympathize with this hard-drinking narcissist, which is no mean trick. Mary McCann has the somewhat less challenging assignment of pouring Alice’s heart out since the character is more in touch with her sorrow. Similarly, Wesley Zurich exuberantly conveys Christopher’s unbridled adolescent urges. Unfortunately, Tedra Millan and Blair Brown are unable to completely humanize the bizarre Sarah and the thinly drawn Ellen. The actors and director deliver a professional product, but it’s nothing new or exciting.
  

September 12, 2017
 
Sept. 12–Oct. 8. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $66.50–$86.50. (866) 811-4111.

Theater
 

 
A Doll’s House, Part 2
John Golden Theatre

Six Degrees of Separation
Barrymore Theatre [run of show has ended]

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Laurie Metcalf, Jayne Houdyshell, Condola Rashad, and Chris Cooper in A Doll’s House, Part 2
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

The 2016-17 Broadway season ends with two bangs and a sort of whimper mixed with a chuckle. A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Six Degrees of Separation examine difficult questions of identity in powerhouse productions, while Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stumbles and trips but is kinda funny in a goofy way. Though written almost 30 years apart and set in different centuries not our own, the first two plays offer vital snapshots of how we live now. Their themes are timeless and so can be applied in 1890, 1990, or 2017. The silly kid’s musical is good for a couple of guffaws.
   The idea of a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic of feminist rebellion has been tried before without success. The musical A Doll’s Life ran for less than a week in 1982 and played a slightly longer limited run in an Off-Broadway revival at the York Theater Company. So playwright Lucas Hnath took on a potentially dangerous assignment. He wisely builds on Ibsen’s premise but is not enslaved by it. As he did in his previous taut Off-Broadway works The Christians and Red Speedo, in A Doll’s House, Part 2 Hnath transforms the stage into an arena where each character is fighting for his or her spiritual or emotional life and needs something vital from everyone else in the play.

It’s 15 years after Nora Helmer slammed the door on her repressive union with the unimaginative Torvald. In the interim she has transformed from a fluttery squirrel to a successful author advocating the abolition of matrimony, but it turns out her husband has never officially divorced her. She needs this official decree to avoid a scandal, but he refuses, and that’s the crux of the drama. The servant Anne Marie and the Helmers’ daughter Emmy also have stakes in the outcome of the conflict. Hnath has these four speak in contemporary dialogue, which somehow is not a distraction, and brilliantly depicts the messy aftermath of a dramatic gesture like Nora’s escape. This is so much more than a sequel; it’s a gripping examination of the ways people try to live together under a restrictive society and what happens when they fail. Each character in the battling quartet is treated like a full human being with noble and petty motives rather than as spokespeople for a stance.
   Sam Gold’s measured direction injects just the right amount of humor to leaven this living-room war (Miriam Buether’s set resembles a lecture hall, and David Zinn created the handsome period costumes). Laurie Metcalf is a strikingly complex Nora, at once the brave heroine forging her own future and a narcissist bent on achieving her own ends. The actor boldly gives equal weight to both sides of Nora’s personality and is unafraid to expose her less-than-pure objectives. Her timing is amazing, earning laughs and gasps with the merest look and gesture. Chris Cooper has a bigger challenge as the buttoned-up Torvald, who is as tightly bound as his massive overcoat. He skillfully reveals the broiling interior beneath this seemingly placid banker’s exterior. Jayne Houdyshell as Anne Marie and Condola Rashad as Emmy create in-depth portraits of two characters who are largely incidental in Ibsen’s original. Similarly, Hnath expands on a classic and provides his own insights into the issues it raised more than 100 years ago.

Just as both parts of A Doll’s House speak to us today, John Guare’s 1990 Six Degrees of Separation is startlingly relevant though certain technological aspects of its plot are outdated. A young African-American con man claiming to be the son of Sydney Poitier would now be found out with a quick Google search. But the longing for identity and a home is just a strong a motivation despite the supposed extended community of the Internet. Based on a real-life hustler, Paul deceives several wealthy Manhattanites by posing as the movie star’s offspring and the chum of their bratty college kids. Chief among those duped are Ouisa and Flan Kittredge whose liberal guilt and alienation from their own children draws them to the charismatic young man. When the schemes are revealed and Paul further complicates the couple’s lives, Flan is outraged, but Ouisa will not dismiss the experience and attempts to make a lasting connection, to reach through the six degrees that separate everyone on the planet.
   Guare’s merciless observations of our media-driven, shallow society still hold. But the play was overlooked for the Pulitzer and the Tony in its original production in favor of the sentimental Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon, who dismissed Six Degrees as slick. Trip Cullman’s sharp revival veers close to the edge of such slickness in its satiric broad strokes, but never takes the fatal leap. Just as Chris Cooper sheds Torvald’s protective covering, Allison Janney slowly peels back Ouisa’s shell of sophistication to expose the vulnerable, confused woman beneath. Corey Hawkins captures Paul’s quicksilver intelligence as well as his pathetic desperation. John Benjamin Hickey conveys Flan’s basically superficial nature. (Ouisa and Flan’s marriage somewhat resembles that of Nora and Torvald with the wife wanting to explore new territory and the husband holding back.) In a uniformly vibrant and large company, Michael Countryman, Lisa Emery, Colby Minifie, Chris Perfetti, and Ned Eisenberg have moments to shine. Mark Wendland creates a rich, suggestive set, perfectly lit by Ben Stanton. Clint Ramos’s costumes suggest the luxurious and aspiring-to-be-luxurious lifestyles of a cross-section of America in this still-relevant and entertaining play.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is neither relevant nor even consistently entertaining, but it does provide the occasional guilty-pleasure shot of sweetness, like one of Willy Wonka’s candies on conspicuous sale in the Lunt-Fontanne lobby. Unfortunately these shots are few and far between. Derived from Roald Dahl’s beloved novel and the 1971 and 2005 film versions, this uneven kiddie show takes us on a roller coaster ride with too many flat stretches. The score incorporates four songs from the ’71 movie by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, as well as new numbers by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (some were also in the London stage version which has been reworked for this Broadway production). The old tunes such as “Candy Man” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” remain sources of delight, as do a handful of the newer ones.
   But David Greig’s book misses the strong narrative drive of the original and the cinema versions. The entire first act is a stretched-out tease leading up to a wacky tour of Wonka’s Dr. Seuss–like confectionary in Act Two. The big secret is revealed at the very opening—no spoilers here—so that Christian Borle as Wonka can have more stage time. Plus a vital character—the mysterious stranger apparently working against Wonka and attempting to influence his five kiddies guests to betray him—has been cut, eliminating any dramatic tension.
   Borle’s chocolatier lacks the charm Gene Wilder displayed in the 1971 film and instead gives us a mean-spirited zany who can do comic voices and accents. On the plus side are a vicious Nutcracker ballet spoof and several of the comic numbers introducing the awful factory tour–winning kids. These roles are played by adults, except the lead part of Charlie, enchantingly played by Jake Ryan Flynn, one of three alternating child actors, at the performance attended. I was less than enchanted with puppet designer Basil Twist’s Oompa Loompa creations and the usually precise Jack O’Brien’s splatter-shot direction. There are occasional zingers that land, mostly delivered by Jackie Hoffman as Mrs. Teevee, the mother of the most obnoxious of the nasty kids. Too bad they haven’t written a new Broadway musical for her caustic talents. Maybe in 2017–18.

May 6, 2017
   
A Doll’s House, Part 2: Opened April 27 for an open run. John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $39–149. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Opened April 23 for an open run. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., NYC. Mon-Tue 7pm, Wed 1pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $69–150. (877) 250-2929.

Tickets
 

 
Groundhog Day
August Wilson Theatre

Hello, Dolly!
Shubert Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


The cast of Groundhog Day
Photo by Joan Marcus

The future and past of musical theater are being triumphantly celebrated this week on Broadway with two exhilarating new productions. Groundhog Day, based on the 1993 film comedy starring Bill Murray, combines an innovative premise with a fresh, eclectic score influenced by many genres, while Hello, Dolly! is a sterling example of the Golden Age of Tuners, employing a familiar template and tropes so well that it seems brand new.
   At the center of each are outsize lead performances. One is a surprising turn by a steadily working pro breaking out of the ranks of the reliable into stardom, and the other is a highly anticipated outing by an established megastar that confirms her status as a world-class entertainer. Andy Karl rockets into the stratosphere in Groundhog Day, and Bette Midler soars even higher in Hello, Dolly!. Ironically, both have had trouble during preview performances. Karl suffered a knee injury that put him out of a few showings, and Midler had a coughing fit, briefly delaying her big Act One finishing number during an evening show. As of this writing, Karl has returned to the show and Midler has had no further reported interruptions.

The devastatingly handsome Karl has played supporting roles in such shows as Legally Blonde, 9 to 5, The Mystery of Edwin Drood , and On the Twentieth Century. He played the title role in the relatively short-lived Rocky, but his work as Phil Connors, a smug weatherman with a déjà vu problem has earned him an Olivier Award for the London production and will grab a basketful of nominations and prizes for the American premiere. The plot conceit of book-writer Danny Rubin, who also penned the original screenplay, is devastatingly simple. Connors is stuck in a time-loop, endlessly reliving the same excruciatingly dull 24 hours when he must cover Groundhog Day festivities in a tiny Pennsylvania hamlet. Without imitating Murray, Karl captures Phil’s gigantic egotism, his dizzying descent into despair and madness, and incremental attempts to become a better person as he adjusts to this hellish repetitive cycle. He flavors Phil’s narcissism with just the right hint of charm so we don’t find him a beast, and his gradual transformation to decency is believable. He’s equally credible and fun as a snide lout, a drunken lech, or a budding humanitarian, plus his vocals and physical movement skills are top notch.
   The surrounding production, inventively staged by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell, is a feast of the imagination. Variations on the same segments of time are played out from different angles and perspectives, achieving an almost cinematic quality (Hugh Vanstone’s lighting aides immeasurably). Set pieces fly apart, revolve, and reassemble like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Tim Minchin’s multilevel score and witty lyrics push the story along and provide character insight. As noted, the musical vocabulary extends beyond Broadway to rock and country.
   Barrett Doss makes an appealing leading lady as Rita, Phil’s news producer and object of affection, matching Karl’s snark with spunk. Rebecca Faulkenberry, John Sanders, Andrew Call, and Raymond J. Lee have individual moments to shine in smaller roles. So this is not a one-man show, but Andy Karl is the brightest spot in Groundhog Day.

While Karl is getting his first taste of unqualified, above-the-title stardom in a major hit (no counting Rocky ), Bette Midler is reasserting her claim as a combination supernova and goddess in the ultimate “big-lady” musical, Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! . Incredibly, this is the Divine Miss M’s Broadway acting debut in a leading musical role. She did play one of Tevye’s daughters in a replacement company of the original Fiddler on the Roof, headlined two concert productions, and played legendary agent Sue Mengers in the solo show I’ll Eat You Last. She brings all of her considerable talents to bear in this scintillating revival. You would think after Carol Channing’s numerous returns in the show, there would be nothing new to be found in this war horse. But director Jerry Zaks, Midler, and a superb company breathe new life into the old gal.
   Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle give the show speed and youthful energy, and Santo Loquasto has created Easter egg–bright sets and costumes. Midler injects her own style of raucous comedy into the role, plus she unabashedly plays to her adoring fans—just about everyone in the civilized world—and establishes a personal connection. Though her voice is limited, she brings reams of subtext to each number, even playing off her supposed exhaustion by leaning against the proscenium arch (but she wisely keeps such shtick to a minimum). From the first moment when she peeks out from behind a newspaper with impish eyes aglow to her grand entrance in Loquasto’s stunning red gown down that stairway for the big title number, Midler takes command of the stage, implicitly saying to the audience, “Look, I know this show is kinda corny, but let’s have some fun with it, kids.” Even a coughing attack just as she began “Before the Parade Passes By” at the performance attended did not stop her from wrapping the entire Shubert Theater around her little finger. She made a joke of her hacking, plowed right on after co-star Gavin Creel brought her a cup of water, and deservedly received the first of three standing ovations.
   David Hyde-Pierce’s ultra-stuffy Horace Vandergelder is the perfect foil for Midler’s life-embracing Dolly. Creel and Kate Baldwin are a gorgeous couple as Cornelius and Irene, while Beanie Feldstein and Jennifer Simard steal their scenes as Minnie Fay and Ernestina. This joyous Hello, Dolly! is a loving salute to a past tradition, while Groundhog Day shows us its dazzling future.

April 20, 2017
 
Groundhog Day: Opened April 17 for an open run. August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $79–249. (800) 745-3000.

Tickets

Hello, Dolly!: Opened April 20 for an open run. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., NYC. Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $79–169. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets
 

 
The Hairy Ape
Park Avenue Armory [show closed]

Sweat
Studio 54

The Play That Goes Wrong
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


The cast of The Hairy Ape
Photo by Stephanie Berger

There’s more than a tinge of irony in the fact that two current NYC productions depict the travails of the American working class and probably none of the characters could afford the price of a ticket. Aside from this economic consideration, The Hairy Ape and Sweat offer insightful looks at their struggling subjects. Though written nearly a century apart and from different dramatic perspectives, both shows portray their protagonists at the mercy of gigantic forces beyond their control.
   Yank, the bull-headed coal stoker at the center of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 expressionist drama The Hairy Ape, starts out as the king of the lower decks, proclaiming he is the engine that drives the mighty ocean liner where he works. Likewise, the habitués of a Reading, Penn., bar in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Sweat, now at Studio 54 after a hit run Off-Broadway at the Public earlier this season, imagine their jobs in a tubing factory are secure because of their generation-old seniority. (There is another layer of irony in this tale of proletariat woe taking place in the former headquarters of elitist disco revelry.) Both O’Neill and Nottage’s regular Joes are in for a rude awakening.
   Another similarity is the high-caliber direction, design, and acting each play receives. Richard Jones’s brilliantly bizarre production of the O’Neill takes full advantage of the cavernous Park Avenue Armory space. Designer Stewart Laing places set pieces on a circular conveyor belt; they glide into place before the audience like the stations on an assembly line or cages in an exhibition. Yank and his fellow toilers are tiny figures in a huge, nearly empty warehouse, lit like a jungle nightmare by Mimi Jordan Sherin and supplied with a frightening soundscape by Sarah Angliss. Yank (a magnificently robust Bobby Cannavale) is the alpha male swinging from the roof of his enclosure, flaunting his muscles and dominating the rest of the crew. But when a millionaire’s spoiled daughter (an appropriately bratty Catherine Combs) calls him a “filthy beast,” he loses his sense of belonging and vainly attempt to regain it in various locations symbolic of the rich (Fifth Avenue), labor (a radical union hall), and his animal instincts (the Central Park Zoo). Jones turns Yank’s journey into a road trip to hell, creating one amazing encounter after another. A noir-ish Jazz Age dance number (Aletta Collins provided the frantic choreography) is followed by a riot in a cellblock, then we get a Metropolis-like vision of faceless wage slaves trudging in rhythm as a heedless rich couple drunkenly falls over themselves and a huge balloon with the face of the shipping line CEO floats above it all.

While Hairy Ape is a daring example of unconventional theatrical forms, Sweat is a relatively safe specimen of the kitchen-sink genre (in another ironic instance, the older play is the more adventurous). Nevertheless, Nottage’s slice-of-lifer is moving and impactful even if the plot is somewhat melodramatic, thanks to Kate Whoriskey’s detailed direction and the cast’s compassionate performances.
   The play opens in 2008 with parallel scenes of a parole officer interviewing Jason and Chris, two recent ex-cons, on their difficult readjustment to life on the outside. Then we switch back to 2000 when Jason and Chris, along with their respective mothers, are working for the local factory. Prospects for the future seem rosy with their wages secure and the union strong, but trouble begins to brew as management downsizes and workers clash along ethnic and racial lines. Based on interviews with real Rust-Belters, Nottage’s script feelingly captures the plight of the working class, frozen out by internationalism and technological advances. Monologues by Tracey, Jason’s mom, recalling the beauty of her grandfather’s carpentry skills, and co-worker Jessie on her regretted life choices, are particularly moving.
   Yet too much of the action feels like a checklist as topics such as opiate addiction, immigration, and automation are crossed off. The story culminates in a soap-operatic, tragic act of violence connecting the two timelines with lives shattered by the uncaring actions of the unseen factory owners. (The play probably would have been more powerful and true-to-life if Nottage had not created such an obviously theatrical, tear-jerking finish.) Kudos to Johanna Day’s flinty Tracey, Alison Wright’s wistful Jessie, John Earl Jelks’s conflicted Brucie (Chris’s drug-addicted dad), Michelle Wilson’s fiery Cynthia (Chris’s determined mom), and Will Pullen and Khris Davis who convincingly portray Jason and Chris at different stages of their lives. John Lee Beatty’s set captures the gritty atmosphere and Jeff Sugg’s video projections provide the political and social context.

For bracing comic relief from all this gloom, the Mischief Theatre Company, a troupe of British loonies, have brought two hours of hilarity to the Lyceum Theater with The Play That Goes Wrong. A college theater troupe mounts a cliché-ridden murder mystery, and everything goes south. Cues are missed, props go missing, the set falls apart (Nigel Hook designed the “deathtrap” of an old mansion). A fellow theatergoer best described it as “Noises Off on steroids.” You would think this one-joke premise would run out of steam after an hour, but Mark Bell’s breakneck staging keep the guffaws building as the play-within-a-play keeps deteriorating. The English company is an inspired lot of buffoons, with playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Chris Bean pulling double duty as a prime suspect, frazzled butler, and nincompoop police inspector. I particularly enjoyed Dave Hearn as an upper-class twit and the brainless actor playing him. He smiles goofily at every flub and basks in audience laughter as if it were approval rather than mockery. The Play That Goes Wrong is marvelously right, with English visitors giving us Americans a welcome break from the Trumpian onslaught predicted by Sweat and The Hairy Ape.

April 11, 2017
 

Sweat: Opened March 26 for an open run. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $59–149. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets

The Play That Goes Wrong: Opened April 2 for an open run. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $30–139. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets
 

 
The Glass Menagerie
Belasco Theatre [show closed]

Sweeney Todd
Barrow Street Theatre

Man From Nebraska
Second Stage Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Madison Ferris, Sally Field, and Joe Mantello in The Glass Menagerie
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve,” says Tom, the melancholy narrator of Tennessee Williams’s beloved The Glass Menagerie. “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In the new Broadway revival, the seventh since its 1945 premiere, director Sam Gold has stripped this delicate memory play of the magic Tom evokes. The stage is bare, the walls of the Belasco Theatre are exposed, there are few props, and Adam Silverman’s lighting is as unforgiving as the naked light bulb that exposes Blanche DuBois’s true age.
   Unlike John Tiffany’s 2013 haunting, surrealistic dream vision, Gold offers a raw, unvarnished retelling of Williams’s autobiographical tale of the fantasy-ridden Wingfield family and the brief, heartbreaking visit by a charismatic Gentleman Caller to the painfully shy daughter Laura. Tiffany’s staging stressed the script’s ephemeral memory aspect but also brought out the deep love among the Wingfields. The deep affection among the family is here thanks to soulful connections between Joe Mantello’s layered Tom and Sally Field’s somewhat clownish, rage-filled Amanda, the desperate mother. But Gold’s inconsistent, concept-driven direction obscures this bond, as well as Williams’s themes of comforting lies versus harsh reality.
   Why have a drenching onstage rainstorm during the Gentleman Caller dinner scene when you’ve established a minimalist, no-frills aesthetic? Why have that sequence accompanied by a contemporary song when the rest of the score evokes the time of the play, the late 1930s to early ’40s?
   To add to the confusion, Gold has cast Madison Ferris, an actor with muscular dystrophy, as Laura, whom Williams describes as having a limp. Ferris exudes a confident air even as she is helped in and out of her wheelchair and moves with difficulty by herself. This is totally contrary to Williams’s depiction of Laura as a pathetic creature who can’t even sit through a typing course without being ill. This Laura can take care of herself, a choice that diffuses the impact of the tender encounter with Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, played as a shallow narcissist by Finn Wittrock.
   It’s understandable that Gold would want to try a startlingly different tack, since the play has been done so often and Williams’s original intent was to shake up theatrical conventions. I have previously seen the play three times on Broadway (with Julie Harris, Jessica Lange, and Cherry Jones). I’ve seen it Off-Broadway (Judith Ivey), in summer stock (with Maureen Stapleton), in regional theater in Philadelphia (Geraldine Fitzgerald), in community theater, Off-Off-Broadway, in film (Gertrude Lawrence and Joanne Woodward), and on TV (Katharine Hepburn). (I have not yet seen the restored 1966 broadcast with Shirley Booth.) So a fresh approach is admirable, but why blast away all the poetry?

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s magnificent musical horror show Sweeney Todd is as gritty as Menagerie is gauzy, and a radical staging shift does not diminish its power. Harold Prince’s original 1980 production was set in a giant factory. In 1989 Susan L. Schulman placed it on a crowded London street. In 2005, John Doyle moved it to an insane asylum, and last summer’s Glimmerglass version was played out in a 1950s town hall. A new production imported from London places the thrilling tale of a throat-slashing barber and a cannibalistic cook in its most logical setting—a meat pie shop—and the results are deliciously devilish. Designer Simon Kenny has transformed the Barrow Street Theatre into a cozy eatery with audience members crowded into shared tables and benches, munching on Mrs. Lovett’s delicacies before the show starts.
   Like Sam Gold, director Bill Buckhurst has stripped Sweeney down—there are only eight actors and three musicians—but he has not attempted to deconstruct it. Buckhurst uses the intimate setting to create a terrifyingly close experience, having the actors move around and on top of the tables. It’s like being trapped inside a closet with a razor-wielding maniac (Amy Mae’s lighting, with the instruments hidden behind gratings, makes the atmosphere particularly spooky). At one point, the deranged Sweeney screams “Move!” to a theatergoer so he has enough room to strangle a victim.
   That bloodcurdling command is uttered by Jeremy Secomb, a holdover from the British production and probably the most frightening Sweeney you’ll ever see. His rumbling baritone and imposing physique are accompanied by a thousand-year stare, which he fixes on certain patrons. Siobhan McCarthy captures Mrs. Lovett’s jolly amorality with precise comic timing. Two other Brits, Duncan Smith and Joseph Taylor, create memorable impressions as the vile Judge Turpin and the spritely Toby. Among the fine American players, I especially enjoyed Betsy Morgan’s double turn as the addled Beggar Woman, and the boisterous rival barber Pirelli. Music director Matt Aument and his trio manage to impart the lushness of Sondheim’s complex and gorgeous score.

Tracy Letts’s Man From Nebraska at Second Stage begins minimally but gradually takes on the weighty subjects of faith and finding your place in the universe. The opening scenes depict late-middle-aged businessman Ken Carpenter and his wife, Nancy, on a typical Sunday, with very little dialogue: attending church, eating out, visiting Ken’s elderly mother in a nursing home as the TV blares, driving home, going to bed. But suddenly Ken bursts into sobs and cries, “I don’t believe in God anymore.” The rest of the play follows Ken as he searches for meaning in a meaningless world. Letts’s script is packed with subtext, brought out by an insightful cast and director (David Cromer). As he did in last season’s The Humans, Reed Birney as Ken creates a shattering and affecting portrait of a man suddenly without moorings. Annette O’Toole is equally heart-wrenching as his alienated spouse. The playwright is best known for the Pulitzer Prize winner August: Osage County, which was something of a massive melodrama about a large dysfunctional family right out of Shepard and Albee-ville. He achieves more devastating effects by tightening his focus onto one Man adrift.
  

March 12, 2017
 
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: March 1–Dec. 31. Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., NYC. Tue-Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 2:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $69.50–$135. (866) 811-4111.

Tickets


 
The Liar
Classic Stage Company [show closed]

Yen
MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre [show closed]

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Imperial Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Tony Roach, Christian Conn, and Carson Elrod in The Liar
Photo by Richard Termine

Could there be a more appropriate historical moment at which to mount a new adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s comedy The Liar? As our newly elected president and his spokespeople substitute “alternative facts” for truth, Classic Stage Company presents David Ives’s intricate semi-updating of the hilarious tale of Dorante, an epic braggart exaggerating and fabricating his way through romantic entanglements in 17th-century Paris. He’s accurately described as “a lying genius, if a moral zero.” Sound familiar? This is Ives’s third foray into refashioning French theatrical meringues. He previously adapted Molière’s The Misanthrope (as The School for Lies) and Jean-François Regnard’s The Heir Apparent, both of which have played CSC.
   This latest fluffy dessert is delicious and full of lighter-than-air rhymes. The script is all in verse. The catchier lines rhyme “experience” with “Presbyeterians,” “moister” with “oyster,” and “bivalve” with “my valve.” There are sprinklings of anachronisms but they do not distract. Director Michael Kahn, who commissioned the new version for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where he is artistic director, maintains a light-footed pacing throughout.
   Though Dorante is the title character and Christian Conn makes him a dashing rogue, the real star of the evening is Carson Elrod as Dorante’s sad-sack servant Cliton. While his master cannot tell the truth, Cliton suffers from the opposite malady—he finds it impossible to lie. (Add an “n” to his name and you get another victim of a huge prevaricator, adding a layer to the relevant political subtext.) Elrod is a masterful clown, expertly prattling and mugging, but never going over the top. The highlight of the show is a lesson in falsifying, taught by Dorante to his honest-to-a-fault valet. As Conn elegantly demonstrates the necessary gestures and looks to lend verisimilitude to whoppers, Elrod gives Cliton’s awkward attempts to be appear smooth a riotous reality. Then the servant tries out his new fibbing skills on Isabelle (Kelly Hutchinson), the pretty maid he’s been after, and receives a slap for his pains.
   Hutchinson comes in a close second behind Elrod in the comic sweepstakes. She has a slight advantage over her fellow players because she plays not only the flirtatious Isabelle but also her twin sister, the scolding sadomasochist Sabine. Also worthy of mention are Adam Lefevre as Dorante’s befuddled father and Ismenia Mendes and Amelia Pedlow as the two young ladies caught in the hero’s lies.

At the other end of the theatrical spectrum, British playwright Anna Jordan’s Yen offers a searing, sordid portrait of alienated youth, under the ripping direction of Trip Cullman from the MCC Theatre. At first glance, this piercing drama seems like a great many other works about lost boys behaving badly—such as Orphans, This Is Our Youth, and Saved. In Mark Wendland’s spare box set with peeling wallpaper and drab lighting (designed with appropriate moodiness by Ben Stanton), we find teenage half-brothers Hench and Bobbie watching porn and playing video games while their alcoholic, diabetic mother, Maggie, drops in occasionally for cigarettes, money, and food. The kids’ only regular companion is their German shepherd Taliban (so called because “He’s vicious and he’s brown,” Bobbie explains). Into this dysfunctional mélange comes neighbor Jennifer. At first she wants only to care for the neglected canine, but gradually she takes on the role of girlfriend for Hench and mother to Bobbie. Predictably, a misunderstanding leads to tragedy, but the writing is so realistic and the acting and direction so sharp, this familiar story still has a walloping impact.
   Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Stefania LaVie Owen (The Carrie Diaries) feelingly convey Hench and Jenny’s tentative attractions and damaged psyches. Ari Graynor is brilliantly brittle as the out-of-control Maggie. Justice Smith gives a standout performance as the feral Bobbie: Violently leaping around the stage one moment, barking like a dog the next, Smith captures Bobbie’s almost animal-like need for attention and his hair-trigger code switching from lonely child to violent aggressor.

In other stage adventures, I managed to catch up with the Broadway edition of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. I was scheduled to see Dave Malloy’s techno-pop-rock musical version of a slice of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace when it opened in November, but star Josh Groban was out that night and the next available performance was not until recently. There have been three previous Off-Broadway incarnations, in 2012 and 2013. When I attended the second of these at a site-specific tent called Kazino in the meatpacking district, director Rachel Chaikin’s immersive experience was so involving, I felt as if I were in the room with the characters. In the transfer to the much larger Imperial Theater, set designer Mimi Lien has done her best to re-create the atmosphere of a Russian dinner club, but the experience is much less intimate. Maybe those seated on the stage feel close to the Rostovs, Bolkonskys, Kuragins, and Bezukhovs as they wrestle with passions and loyalties, but from the orchestra seats, I felt removed from their machinations. The musical’s delicate closing moments brought me to tears Off-Broadway, but here I just admired the stagecraft.
   As Pierre, Groban exhibits a magnificent voice but lacks the depth to fully inhabit the role. Denée Benton’s Natasha is charming and bubbly, yet when her liaison with Anatole is shattered, she fails to move us. Original cast members Lucas Steele as the caddish Anatole, Amber Gray as his licentious sister Helene, and Grace McLean as the overbearing aunt Marya have blown up their parts to fill to larger space. Only Brittan Ashford as Natasha’s cousin and confidante Sonya maintains the heartbreaking pathos she achieved Off-Broadway, particularly in her shattering solo. In this roundup, Off-Broadway scores the higher points while Broadway only has higher prices.

January 31, 2017
 
The Liar: Jan 26–Feb 26. Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. Tue–Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $60. (212) 352-3101.

Tickets

Yen: Jan 31–Feb 19. MCC Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., NYC. Tue–Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $49–99. (866) 811-4111.

Tickets

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812: Opened Nov 14 for an open run. Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $59–299. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets
 

 
Paramour
Lyric Theatre

Incognito
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center [closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Charlie Cox, Morgan Spector, Geneva Carr, and Heather Lind in Incognito
Photo by Joan Marcus

Athleticism of the body and brain are on display in a pair of new productions on and Off-Broadway. With Paramour, the ubiquitous international circus troupe Cirque du Soleil makes its first attempt at a plot-driven musical with traditional songs and book; while Manhattan Theater Club presents Incognito, Nick Payne’s multilayered exploration of neurological phenomena. The casts of both perform admirable feats—the Cirque troupe flips, bounces, tumbles, and soars all over the stage and into the house of the Lyric Theatre—while the four actors in Incognito juggle multiple roles with dexterity. The former show is a brainless entertainment while the latter is all about the brain. Each achieves its goals and offer theatrical pleasure, but of very different kinds.
   Cirque’s Paramour is nothing more than a tissue-thin excuse to trot out the various acrobatic routines for which the Canadian troupe is famous. If you go looking for clever dialogue or memorable songs, you won’t find them. However, if you come in expecting spectacular circus-themed joy, it’s here in abundance. The ridiculous story takes place in the Golden Age of Hollywood, with maniacal director AJ pulling the Svengali routine on singer Indigo who is in love with struggling composer Joey. That’s it for the plot.
   It’s telling that among the numerous creative credits on the title page of the jumbo-size program—everything about Cirque du Soleil is big—no one is listed as writing the execrable book. (The songs, by no fewer than five authors, are generic at best.) Only West Hyler gets a nod for “story” along with being “associate creative director and scene director.” Hyler is joined by Philippe Decouple as “Director and Conceiver” and Shana Carroll as “associate creative director, acrobatic designer, and choreographer.” With so many stagers involved, it’s no wonder the production is confusing. There’s no single clear vision at work, and too much goes on at once.
   A restaurant scene in which AJ discovers Indigo singing becomes an overcrowded mash-up of dancing, juggling, and clowning. You don’t know where to look in order to follow the action. Fortunately enough high-flying pizzazz takes center stage to make the overall show worth enough “oohs” and “ahs” to justify your time. The fictitious film AJ creates for his new star serves as a platform for a succession of elaborate set pieces—which are diverting and fun, if totally unrelated. (If this movie were ever edited together, it would be even more of a mess than Paramour itself.) The most thrilling of the sequences belongs to gorgeous twin brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton, who soar above the stage and the pitiable story in a breathtaking, more-than-slightly homoerotic aerial strap act. The climactic chase scene with the lovers fleeing AJ’s thugs is deliriously goofy, resembling one of those weekly fisticuff fests on the 1960s Batman series with performers bouncing off unseen trampolines.
   There is also an intricate pas de trois avec trapeze with dancer-aerialists Martin Charrat, Myriam Deraiche, and Samuel William Charlton beautifully expressing the otherwise banal love triangle among the leads played by Jeremy Kushnier, Ruby Lewis and Ryan Vona, all of whom possess impressive legit-musical chops but are hopelessly upstaged by the Cirque shenanigans.

The four-person cast of Nick Payne’s Incognito gets a more balanced workout in Doug Hughes’s fascinating and challenging production presented by Manhattan Theatre Club. Each plays a variety of roles in three separate storylines concerning the effect of the brain on personality and memory. At first, they seem unconnected, but by the end of 90 intriguing minutes they are bound inextricably together like strands of DNA. A pathologist steals Albert Einstein’s brain to find a physiological cause for genius. A neurologist’s personal and professional lives collide when she embarks on her first lesbian affair. A man’s memory deteriorates over several decades but he still recalls his love for his wife. Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, and Morgan Spector achieve the dramatic equivalent of the Cirque company’s acrobatic feats with their limber and lifelike limning. Kudos also to Ben Stanton’s lighting for creating a variety of environments on Scott Pask’s spare, disklike space.

June 6, 2016
 
Paramour: Opened May 25 for an open run. Lyric Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $55–$145. (877) 250-2929.

www.ticketmaster.com


 
Buried Child
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center [show closed]

The Humans
Helen Hayes Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Paul Sparks, Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan in Buried Child
Photo by Monique Carboni

The American family comes in for a drubbing in two productions: The New Group’s revival of Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize–winning Buried Child and the Broadway transfer of Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which could well win the same award for 2016. Both plays tear apart the idealized view of the nuclear clan, exposing the disillusionment and despair beneath the rosy exterior. Though the plays are written almost 40 years apart, their observations are startlingly similar. Shepard is more savage and Karam more compassionate, yet both are subtle and mysterious in their examinations of the terrors in everyday life.
   Buried Child premiered in San Francisco and then Off-Broadway in 1978. A revised version produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company played Broadway in 1996 (the playwright’s long-overdue Main Stem debut). Gary Sinise’s 1996 staging was ominous to the point of Hitchcockian suspense with a huge staircase right out of the mansion in Psycho dominating the set. In the current production, now playing at the Off-Broadway Signature Center, director Scott Elliott emphasizes the dark humor so that the grim revelations are more startling.
   Derek McLane’s deceptively simple set with its faded wallpaper and beat-up furniture suggests the ruin of the characters. The patriarch, Dodge, is confined to the couch, an alcoholic shell of his once-vital self. The family’s decimated farm is suddenly sprouting huge vegetables. His delusional wife, Halie, indulges in fantasies of her dead son, Ansel, as an all-American hero, while their living children Tilden and Bradley are respectively damaged psychologically and physically. Into this decaying milieu comes Tilden’s long-absent son, Vince, and his girlfriend, Shelly, for what they think will be a friendly visit. But no one recognizes Vince, and a horrifying secret is gradually revealed. Shepard leaves a lot unsaid. Who was Vince’s mother? What trouble did Tilden get into in New Mexico? How did Ansel die? The buried child of the title doesn’t answer any of these queries, but it symbolizes the devastated dreams and fake hopes of the family and American society.
   Ed Harris’s Dodge dominates the action, a weakened lion growling with an echo of diminished power, furious at his weakness. He finds the brutal comic punch in Dodge’s fury. Amy Madigan, Harris’s real-life, is appropriately pinched and repressed as Halie and expresses shattering anger as her illusions are destroyed. So does Rich Sommer’s Bradley, a bully with the spine of a coward. Paul Sparks is heartbreaking as the diminished Tilden. We don’t know all of this tragic figure’s wrecked past, but hints can be found on Sparks’s eloquent features. Larry Pine is hilariously befuddled as Rev. Dewis, Halie’s ineffectual spiritual advisor and possible lover. As Vince and Shelly, Nat Wolff and Taissa Farming, young actors with mostly film and TV credits, fail to plumb the depths of Shepard’s dark vision.

Shepard is merciless in his unraveling of the comfy American dream, while Karam shows compassion for those whose slumbers are beset with nightmares. The Humans, opening at the Helen Hayes Theatre after a hit Off-Broadway run with the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels, takes a familiar template—a holiday gathering with too much drinking leading to too much truth—but gives it a ghostly twist.
   The Blakes are victims of strange nocturnal horrors such as a faceless woman and an endless tunnel. They also obsess over apocalypse-predicting websites, natural and man-made disasters, and monsters in comic books and on TV shows. These are manifestations of their anxiety and inability to cope with economic and social pressures. Like the Buried Child family, their illusions have been exploded.
   Joe Mantello’s tight direction and the sterling, deeply felt performances from a magnificent ensemble of six are intact from the Laura Pels engagement. David Zinn’s two-tiered set might have some sightline problems for those on the extreme ends of the narrow Helen Hayes Theatre house, but that is the only quibble for this stunningly accurate snapshot of how we live now.

February 17, 2016
 
The Humans: Opened Feb. 18 for an open run. Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 35 minutes, no intermission. $39¬–125. (800) 447-7400.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Fiddler on the Roof
Broadway Theatre

Once Upon a Mattress
Transport Group Theatre Company at Abrons Arts Center [closed]

These Paper Bullets!
Atlantic Theatre Company at Linda Gross Theatre [closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Danny Burstein in Fiddler on the Roof
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two heretofore supporting players take the center spotlight in musical revivals with varying results. Danny Burstein, a five-time Tony nominee in featured or co-starring roles, finally gets to carry a show in Bartlett Sher’s intensely moving reinvention of Fiddler on the Roof. But Jackie Hoffman, a wildly funny second banana in such productions as Hairspray, The Addams Family , and On the Town, is thrown off-balance in Once Upon a Mattress.
   Fiddler is best known as a vehicle for whomever plays Tevye, the downtrodden Jewish milkman struggling with anti-Semitism and challenges to tradition in Tsarist Russia. I was too young to see Zero Mostel in the 1964 original, but his gigantic personality overwhelms the original cast recording my family listened to constantly. A miscast Alfred Molina dominated David Leveaux’s beautiful but passionless 2004 revival. In Sher’s tenderly understated staging, Burstein makes Tevye a human-sized individual coping with the irresistible tide of history rather than a larger-than-life force of nature wrestling with God and selling a star turn of “If I Were a Rich Man.”
   The deceptively simple production is a bit of a departure for Sher, whose colossal versions of South Pacific and The King and I took full advantage of the enormous Vivian Beaumont stage at Lincoln Center. The action here starts in a nearly empty stage. The only scenery is a railroad sign with the name of Tevye’s tiny village, Anatevka, in Russian letters. Burstein enters dressed in contemporary clothes and reads the opening lines from a book—presumably by Sholom Aleichem, whose stories inspired Joseph Stein’s book. He removes his overcoat to reveal Catherine Zuber’s detailed shtetl wear and becomes Tevye. This device establishes the connection between the world of the show and our own, as Michael Yeargen’s floating, dream-like sets create a memoryscape.
   Burstein as Tevye is the narrator, but also part of the ensemble, and he never takes over the proceedings. Sher makes Anatevka into a believable community rather than a musical-comedy version of one. Each cast member is equally vivid, from Jessica Hecht’s shrewish but strong Golde (Tevye’s wife) to Alix Korey’s meddling yet lonely Yente the matchmaker to Jesse Kovarsky’s flying fiddler who represents the dreams and aspirations of the town. Another new element is the choreography. In previous Broadway productions, Jerome Robbins’s original steps were always incorporated, but London-based, Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter introduces a loose-limbed, free-form movement to the Anatevkans just as Sher and Burstein have transformed a traditionally showbiz work into a shatteringly real one.

Unfortunately, the new Once Upon a Mattress does not make the transition as smoothly. Like Fiddler, Mattress is traditionally seen as a star showcase. The original 1959 production helped launch Carol Burnett’s career, and a 1996 revival ran aground due to a mismatched Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead. This fractured fairytale version of “The Princess and Pea” is basically an extended revue sketch with too much filler, but with the right cast it can be loads of silly fun. That’s why I had high hopes for the Off-Broadway Transport Group production. Jackie Hoffman has stolen almost every show she’s been in with her grouchy humor; and, with drag star John Epperson (better known as his creation Lypsinka) as the domineering Queen Aggravain, what could go wrong?
   Plenty. The lead role of Princess Winnifred is a blustering good-time gal, the opposite of a stereotypical dainty flower, but she must also be warm and kindhearted. Hoffman has the bluster—along with anger, wit, and smarts—but she lacks the charm and kindness necessary to make us care about Winnifred’s quest to win the nerdy Prince Dauntless. She seems detached from the show, and her ad-libs give the further impression that she’s looking down on the proceedings. That leaves Epperson to fill in the gaps, and he does with an outrageously camp performance referencing every drag-adored movie icon from Joan Crawford to Katharine Hepburn (he also gets help from Kathryn Rohe’s stunning costumes). But Aggravain, Dauntless’s mother, can’t be the center of the show, and director Jack Cummings III fails to redress the imbalance.
   There are compensations in the form of David Greenspan’s whimsical king, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka’s charismatic minstrel, and Cory Linger’s light-footed jester, but they can’t smooth out the lumps in this Mattress.

Another Off-Broadway show successfully incorporates the musical style that usurped the Broadway sound in the popular consciousness around the time Fiddler first opened. These Paper Bullets! at Atlantic Theatre Company morphs Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing into a merry, mod romp featuring a Beatles-like group called the Quartos. Playwright Rolin Jones doesn’t strictly adhere to the Bard’s playbook, introducing clever variations on the war-of-the-sexes theme. The songs, by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, offer catchy pastiches of the Fab Four’s hits, and director Jackson Gay delivers a zany staging, abetted by Michael Yeargen’s spiffy revolving set and Jessica Ford’s gorgeous costumes. Justin Kirk is a bit long in the tooth for the Benedict character but still makes him a dashing rogue, and Nicole Parker is a marvelous physical comedienne as Beatrice, here a high-end fashion designer. Bullets! is as goofy as Mattress, but it fully commits to its own nuttiness and succeeds as a result.

December 30, 2015
 

Fiddler on the Roof: Opened Dec. 20 for an open run. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $35–167. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
King Charles III
Music Box Theatre [closed]

Sylvia
Cort Theatre [closed]


On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan
Marquis Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Tim Pigott-Smith in King Charles III
Photo by Joan Marcus

Three recent openings offer examples of the most prevalent types of Broadway shows: the British snob hit (King Charles III), the star-vehicle revival (Sylvia), and the jukebox musical, Lifetime-TV biopic subdivision (On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan). The first is perfection. The latter two have their share of flaws endemic to their genre but still contain pleasures of a kind.
   King Charles III arrives from London on a wave of adulation including the Olivier Award, and it’s all deserved. This is an ingenious political satire, acted and staged with just the right combination of passion and humor. Employing Shakespearean verse and referencing several of the Bard’s royal dramas, playwright Mike Bartlett imagines a near future when Queen Elizabeth II has died and her son, patient Prince Charles (the brilliant Tim Pigott-Smith) will finally ascend the throne. But a constitutional crisis arises when Charles refuses to sign Parliament’s bill curtailing freedom of the press. Machiavellian plots unfold as Prince William (a dashing Oliver Chris) and a Lady Macbeth–like Kate Middleton (the multidimensional Lydia Wilson) scheme to surpass the new king before his coronation. William’s brother, a fun-loving Prince Harry (a strong Richard Goulding) provides another wrinkle. Tired of endless public scrutiny, he begs his dad to allow him to renounce his title and join his girlfriend Jess (flinty Tafline Steen), a radical art student, as a private citizen. Both plot threads examine the perilous role of the monarchy in the 21st century. Bartlett asks hard questions such as: Is England still England without a crowned head, however ceremonial, atop its government?
   I was pleasantly surprised at Bartlett’s clever and deft script, since I was less than enchanted by the last play of his I saw, the simplistic and condescending Cock, presented Off-Broadway in 2012. King Charles is light years away from that bisexual triangle comedy, where gay relationships were reduced to purely sexual connections. Government, media, history, and national identity are considered here in complex and fascinating detail. Rupert Goold’s sleek production and the gradually deepening performances draw us in. At first these royals seem like caricatures and are greeted with audience laughter, but as the stakes grow higher, they take on the Shakespearean qualities of ambition and tragedy their dialogue suggests. Pigott-Smith is shattering as the Richard II–ish Charles, initially a buffoon but increasing in dignity as he battles for his convictions against the forces of convenience.

From sharp satire, we move to comfy comedy. Sylvia is a pleasant enough little number from the prolific pen of A.R. Gurney, the chronicler of the American WASP in such keenly observed works as The Cocktail Hour, Love Letters and The Dining Room. Originally presented Off-Broadway in 1995, Sylvia concerns Greg, a disaffected money-market salesman whose midlife crisis manifests itself in a borderline obsessive affection for the titular stray mutt he finds in Central Park. The gimmick is the pooch is played by an actor, and she communicates with the other characters in intelligent speech. (Barks are replaced with Hey-Hey-Hey.) Gurney affectionately depicts Greg’s malaise and the anchor he finds in the Sylvia’s unconditional love, much to the dismay of his practical and jealous wife, Kate.
   This revival has its share of chuckles and pathos, but the four-person ensemble is wildly off-balance in a rare disjointed staging by the usually proficient Daniel Sullivan. The nominal star is Matthew Broderick, whose wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, played Sylvia in the original production. The once-charming Ferris Bueller and adorably nebbishy Leo Bloom of The Producers is now in a middle-age funk not unlike Greg’s. In his last few Broadway outings such as It’s Only a Play and the musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, Broderick has been stiff and dull, bordering on zombie status. He does show signs of life here, but a regular pulse is hardly enough to sustain a leading role. As if to compensate, Robert Sella overplays his three supporting parts—including a boorish fellow dog-lover Greg meets in the park, an alcoholic female friend of Kate’s, and a transgender marriage counselor (this last one borders on the offensive).
   The real star power is wielded by the two women of the cast: Tony winners Annaleigh Ashford as the canine female lead and Julie White as the put-upon spouse. The delightful Ashford has the showier role, flinging herself around David Rockwell’s cartoonish set with abandon, but both are brilliant. White captures Kate’s comic frustration with Sylvia’s slobbering, pooping, and stealing her husband’s affection without going overboard as Sella does. Because of the two actors’ dynamism, the focus shifts to the interspecies rivalry between Sylvia and Kate, and away from Greg’s male menopausal struggle. The most striking moment of the show comes at the end when Greg and Kate address the audience directly about their final days with Sylvia. White laughs to hide Kate’s reluctant but real love for the dog, and then she pushes back tears. It’s a beautiful ending. But Broderick’s Greg barely registers.

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan registers on the Richter scale, but not on the believability curve. This latest jukebox-bio musical is given a dance floor–worthy staging by director Jerry Mitchell and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, but Alexander Dinelaris’s book is strictly by the numbers. There is one genuinely funny line about Swedish fans at an Estefan concert being so white they look like Q-tips, and only the Act 1 finale displays any originality. In order to get their potential crossover hit “Conga” played on mainstreams stations, Gloria and Emilio play it anywhere they can get a booking—including a bar mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and a Shriners’ meeting (shades of Bye Bye Birdie). The partygoers at these various events joyously clash with audience members in the aisles in a riotous celebration.
   Otherwise it’s business as usual: the Estefans rising to the top despite personal hardships, then suffering a catastrophic setback, to finally triumph with Gloria belting out an inspirational number at a music award ceremony. All of these events are true, yet they could have been depicted with more wit and imagination. Despite the shortcomings, the rhythm will definitely get you. Ana Villafane becomes a Broadway star in a blazing turn as Gloria, re-creating her vocals but not imitating them. Josh Segarra is a sexy and compelling Emilio, Andrea Burns gives steely support as Gloria’s disapproving mother, and Alma Cuervo is an endearing grandmother. On Your Feet!
will get you on your feet, Sylvia will give you a few laughs, but King Charles III gives you a truly exciting night of theater.

November 8, 2015
 
On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan: Opened Nov. 5 for an open run. Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $55–149. (800) 653-8000.

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Stephen Sondheim Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Jessie Mueller
Joan Marcus

“Who wants to hear a normal person sing?” asks Jessie Mueller as Carole King in the new musical based on the performer-songwriter’s life and works. The answer is every lonely girl dreaming in her bedroom, every woman looking to fulfill herself, or anyone who longs to hear their own fantasies in the form of melody and words. That was the appeal of King, who emerged as the voice of a questing generation with her album Tapestry. The musical captures a pinch of that sweet, smooth, painfully real sound and the churning emotions it evoked, but, in the end it’s too much like a dozen other jukebox shows. Like Motown, Jersey Boys, A Night with Janis Joplin, and Baby, It’s You, Beautiful is ultimately another “And-then-I-wrote” attraction.
   That’s a shame because King’s biography is tailor made for more than a “Behind-the-Scenes” bio-tuner. While still in high school in Queens, Carole Klein was selling teenage crush songs under the name Carole King to record mogul Don Kirshner. While still in her teens, she meets and marries fellow Queens College student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (a sexy, tortured Jake Epstein), and the two pen more than 50 hits. Their professional and personal union dissolves when Goffin begins taking drugs and sleeping with the singers who warble the couple’s tunes. With her collaborator and husband gone, Carole overcomes her fear of performing and writing solo to create such soulful, heart-stopping anthems to life and love as “You’ve Got a Friend,” “So Far Away,” and the shattering “It’s Too Late.”

Unfortunately, Douglas McGrath’s slick book reduces the storyline to a predictable soaper, and too much of the dialogue is used as intros to songs from the King canon in the manner of Mamma Mia. (“Carole, we need a new song for The Drifters.”) McGrath also works in a parallel plotline with Carole and Gerry’s best friends, the songwriting couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (game and likable Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector), which allows for even more awkward melody-shoehorning. Barry Mann serves as a convenient Woody Allen type so McGrath can get off a set of neurotic, hypochondriac gags.
   Mueller manages to rise above these shortcomings and emerges as Broadway’s newest star after promising cabaret work and supporting turns in revivals of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She captures the throbbing ache in King’s voice and charts her journey from shy girl to feminist icon with loving detail.   Marc Bruni’s staging is just a bit too smooth, as are the ensemble’s re-creations of the King-Goffin-Weil-Mann songbook. For the first time, I understood Simon Cowell’s criticisms of American Idol contestants being “too Broadway.” The Beautiful cast members standing in for the Drifters, Shirelles, etc., lack the rough, raw edge of the originals. Fortunately, the star delivers a warm and wonderful rendition of Carole King’s sound and soul.

January 13, 2014
 
Opened Jan. 12 for an open run. Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $75–162. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 

 
                          

 
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Time and the Conways
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre

Measure for Measure
Public Theater/Elevator Repair Service

A Clockwork Orange
New World Stages

Reviewed by David Sheward


Elizabeth McGovern, Charlotte Parry, and Anna Baryshnikov
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Experiments with time, space, and staging can illuminate or obscure a playwright’s intent. Three current productions on and Off-Broadway juggle traditional concepts with varying results.
   The most conventional of the three is Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways. This is the first time the time-tripping British family drama has been seen on Broadway since 1938. Priestley had written several plays exploring in heavily ironic terms how seemingly unimportant acts can have devastating effects. Stephen Daldry’s surrealistic interpretation of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, wherein an upper-middle-class family is indicted for lack of social responsibility by a mysterious policeman, proved a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1990s.
   Rebecca Taichman’s production of Conways for Roundabout Theater Company is far less way-out than Daldry’s nightmarish vision, and the impact is not as devastating, yet it still produces a sting of recognition and sadness. The story is relatively simple: A contented bourgeois clan in an English provincial town looks forward to a bright future as World War I ends and daughter Kay celebrates her 21st birthday. The twist comes in the second act as we jump forward almost 20 years to 1937. Not surprisingly, each of the six Conway offspring and their flighty mother are leading miserable lives. For the third act, we double back to Kay’s party in 1919. All their rosy predictions ring hollow since we know the dismal outcome. Kay and her sanguine elder brother Alan may have a chance at happiness, since both have a glimmering of the second-act vision.
   Taichman’s direction is tight and measured, though she allows some of the cast to limn their upper-crust cluelessness a bit too broadly. There is an arresting coup de théâtre between the two eras as Neil Patel’s golden-hued living room (brightly lit by Christopher Akerlind) recedes into the back of the theater to be replaced by a melancholy, blue version descending from the flies. The 1919 version of the set can be glimpsed through the windows creating a visual equivalent of Priestley’s vision of the past and the present overlapping each other.
   As the matriarch, Elizabeth McGovern gets top billing and the only solo curtain call because of her Downton Abbey fame. She delivers a creditable portrait of the impulsive, child-like Mrs. Conway. But the bulwark of this production is Charlotte Parry’s conflicted Kay, the only sibling aware of the crushing demands adulthood can bring. Parry intensely charts Kay’s struggle to comprehend the vagaries of life, and her final moments of attempting to reconcile youthful optimism with mature reality are heartbreaking. There are also moving moments from Gabriel Ebert’s compassionate but weak Alan, Steven Boyer’s blustery son-in-law, Brooke Bloom’s disappointed radical daughter, and Anna Baryshnikov’s life-affirming yet doomed Carol, the youngest. Though the ironic storyline is predictable, particularly in the third act, this is Time well spent.

Elevator Repair Service takes a more radical approach in its breakneck rendering of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. ERS has previously tackled such literary giants as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner in imaginative realizations of these authors’ classic works. In this bizarre production at the Public, they take on the Bard for the first time, armed with projections of the text and a caffeinated pace. Director John Collins imposes a meta sensibility, throwing out conventional staging. He assumes we know the plot of the publicly moral and privately corrupt Angelo forcing himself on the virginal Isabella in return for her brother Claudio’s life. (Given the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, these scenes are particularly relevant.)
   With the words of the script rapidly scrolling on Jim Findlay’s utilitarian set, the cast races through the dialogue striking exaggerated stereotypical poses and posturing in mock “Shakespearean” style. Some speak with stagey British accents like Monty Python characters on amphetamines. The idea may be to comment on overused methods of Elizabethan stagings, and there is a sort of fascinating slickness to the approach, but it negates the wit and the still-relevant sharp commentary on government hypocrisy. Yet just as Collins’s quirky concept wears thin, the speed-freak patter slows down during the jailhouse scene between Isabella and Claudio (a stunningly real Rinne Groff and Greig Sargeant). She has to tell her brother he must die because she’s refusing Angelo’s vile offer. Speaking deliberately and slowly on old-fashioned French telephones, they connect on such an honest level, it’s as if they’re in a different production. The contrast with the self-conscious previous scenes increases the emotional resonance and temporarily brings a stunning authenticity to this Measure, but the rest is a showy, if interesting gimmick.

The message is also lost amid flashy direction in the stage version of Anthony Burgess’s groundbreaking dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, now at the multiplex theater New World Stages in a transfer from London’s West End. Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s highly stylized staging employs sleekly choreographed mayhem and fisticuffs to Emma Wilk’s ear-splitting soundscape incorporating classical musical and ’90s pop tunes. The all-male ensemble displays impressive pecs and abs as they go through their perfectly timed gut punches and kicks to the groin. Jono Davies, who also serves as fight captain, exudes a raw, nasty charisma as Alex, the rancid-souled teen transformed via a government experiment into a law-abider, ending up as out of place as the title oxymoron. It’s entertaining and flashy, yet Burgess’s themes of free will versus social safety are lost among the biceps and jetés. It’s an attempt at combining a Chippendales revue with 1984, but only the former emerges strongly.

October 15, 2017
 
Time and the Conways: Oct. 10–Nov. 26. Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $39–$149. (212) 719-1300.

Theater

Measure for Measure: Oct. 10–Nov. 12. The Public Theater/Elevator Repair Service at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue–Fri 7pm, Sat 1pm & 7pm, Sun 1 pm. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, no intermission. $45–$165. (212) 967-7555.

Theater

A Clockwork Orange: Sept. 25–Jan. 6, 2018. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., NYC. Mon 8pm, Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $59–$99. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets
 

 
Mary Jane
New York Theater Workshop

As You Like It
Classic Stage Company is association with Bay Street Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Liza Colón-Zayas and Carrie Coon
Photo by Joan Marcus

The single mother unfolds her sofa bed, gets undressed, and settles in to check over a huge binder containing medication levels for her seriously ill child. This simple scene is performed in a seemingly offhand manner by the magnificently subtle Carrie Coon as the title character in Amy Herzog’s shattering play Mary Jane, yet it speaks volumes of a heartbreaking situation without tears or bathos. The fact that Mary Jane has to sleep alone in her living room tells us that Alex, her 2-year-old son, is in need of such constant and extensive medical support that the equipment required to keep him breathing takes up the master bedroom (which is offstage in Laura Jellinek’s masterfully functional and evocative set design). And, it incidentally emphasizes the not-insignificant detail that Alex’s father is nowhere in her life. It’s a beautiful demonstration of the playwright showing rather than telling the trials Mary Jane must go through.
   By indirect means, Herzog, Coon, and director Anne Kauffman, who recently staged the similarly themed Marvin’s Room on Broadway for Roundabout Theater Company, reveal the overwhelming details of Mary Jane’s stoic existence. Her son is the center of her universe. His challenges include cerebral palsy and lung damage. The mom’s work, marriage, and personal life have been put on indefinite hold as she juggles the multiple responsibilities necessary to get him adequate care. The play unfolds with compassion, yet at the same time it’s unsparing in its matter-of-factness. It opens literally in the kitchen sink as the female building super is unclogging the drain. Similar mundane vignettes are juxtaposed with the backbreaking routine of maintaining Alex’s health. One minute Mary Jane is chatting with one of the many at-home nurses she employs about the latter’s garden, then they seamlessly segue into debating whether Alex had a seizure the night before.
   Coon delivers the most heartbreaking yet un-theatrical performance in recent memory. The almost casual manner with which she rattles off the merits of specially equipped strollers belies the heartache inside. The pain comes through only occasionally, but when it does it’s devastating. Watch her face crumble as a doctor explains a difficult, decades-long diagnosis for Alex. Or witness her slowly building fury over the bureaucratic red tape she must unravel just to schedule a visit from the music therapist. Four exemplary actors play two roles each with equal conviction. Liza Colón-Zayes effortlessly switches from a warm nurse to an all-business doctor. Susan Pourfar provides welcome comic relief as two different mothers in situations similar to the heroine’s. Brenda Wehle gives quiet depth to the compassionate super and a Buddhist nun. Danaya Esperanza injects empathy into a visiting relative of Mary Jane’s nurse and the music therapist. Kauffman’s straightforward, smooth staging is the perfect means to reveal this shattering portrait of how illness can complicate lives.

While Mary Jane takes a hyperrealistic, no-nonsense view of a tragic situation, director-designer John Doyle gives us a hyperwhimsical slant on Shakespeare’s already frothy As You Like It, now at CSC after a staging at the Bay Street Theater. The trouble is it’s too whimsical, if such a thing is possible. Plucky heroine Rosalind’s charade in trousers to win the heart of the displaced Orlando is joyous and fun, but it exists against the backdrop of a dictatorial Duke exiling his just brother (Rosalind’s dad) to the Forest of Arden. Doyle remembers the goofiness, but the stakes in the romance of the leads and the redemption of the refugees are not very high. Employing a pared-down, 100-minute, intermissionless script, a bare-bones set, and a lighter-than-air performance style, this Like zips along but doesn’t stick.
   There are moments of delight, chiefly during the musical interludes. This being a Doyle production, most of the cast members play their own instruments, and Broadway’s Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, etc.) has supplied Rodgers-and-Hart-like music to accompany the Bard’s lyrics.
   The leads fail to offer much weight. Hannah Cabell’s starchy Rosalind doesn't make much of a connection with Kyle Scatliffe’s earnest Orlando. As a result, Quincy Tyler Berstine’s wry Celia steals most of her scenes with her deadpan reactions to the implausible goings-on. Ellen Burstyn dryly delivers the world-weary witticisms of Jacques, normally played by a male actor. André De Shields is a subdued jester, and Bob Stillman attempts to create two distinct characters as the nasty Duke and his virtuous sibling, but the action is so short and fast, not much registers in this soap-bubble Shakespeare.

October 3, 2017
 
Mary Jane: Sept. 25–Oct. 29. New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $45–65. (212) 460-5475.

Theater

As You Like It: Sept. 28–Oct. 22. Classic Stage Company in association with Bay Street Theater at CSC, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 100 minutes, no intermission. (212) 352-3101.

Theater
 

 
Red-Letter Plays:
In the Blood and Fucking A

Signature Theater Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center


Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender
Belasco Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


The cast of In the Blood
Photo by Joan Marcus

As the last millennium ended, when Suzan-Lori Parks penned her Red Letter Plays—two theatrical riffs on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter—the horrifying issues of alienation, racism, misogyny, and class oppression that they raised were prevalent. Then we had a black president, and for a few brief moments, it seemed we really were living in a post-racial world. Or, at least, the more extreme manifestations of these nightmares appeared to be laid to rest. Now almost 20 years since these pieces were written, those same demons have crawled out of their hiding places. Their resurgence in the Age of Trump makes the Signature Theater Company’s tandem revival of both works especially moving and relevant.
   In the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000) create modern variations on Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, demonized and branded with a red letter “A” for adulterer by her Puritan fellows for bearing a child out of wedlock. The parallels in contemporary society of castigating female sexuality are strongly and equally developed in the two pieces. Blood’s Hester LeNegrita is condemned to a life of poverty for bearing five children by a quintet of fathers. Fucking A’s Hester Smith exists in a dystopian world where she is forced to perform abortions because of a minor crime.
   Both productions sock you in the gut with their visceral and violent imagery, but I would have to give a slight edge to director Sarah Benson’s imaginative interpretation of Parks’s vision with In the Blood. The characters are symbolic and derived from Hawthorne’s originals (Chili for Chillingworth, Hester’s first love, and Reverend D. for Reverend Dimmesdale, the minister who betrays her), but Benson and a sensitive cast makes these allegorical figures into living, breathing people.
   The physical production is also arresting. The script calls for Hester and her brood to be living under a bridge. Benson and her set designer Louisa Thompson have re-imagined the setting as a combination abandoned subway stop and garbage dump. Refuse periodically spews out of a giant tube which the family repurposes as toys and furnishings. At the back is a curved wall used as a slide by the kids, but it’s also impossible to climb to the street, so Hester can literally never get the financial “leg up” she keeps saying is all she needs. Saycon Sengbloh is luminous and heartbreaking as the downtrodden Hester. In a clever casting move specified by Parks, the five children are played by the same adult actors who portray the unwed mother’s faithless lovers and friends, and Jocelyn Bioh, Michael Braun, Russell G. Jones, Ana Reeder, and Frank Wood give equal depth to their dual assignments.
   Jo Bonney’s staging of Fucking A emphasizes the allegorical aspects of Parks’s script, which takes on a more Brechtian tone. The characters directly address the audience, they sometimes speak in a bizarre invented language called Talk, there are harsh Weill-like musical numbers, and the actors double as musicians. Though we are always aware we are sitting in a theater and never identify with the people stage as much as we do with those from In the Blood, Parks’s prescient insights are particularly haunting. Christine Lahti’s Hester is forced to clean up the messes made by the upper class, first as a cleaning woman and then as an abortionist. Marc Kudisch plays a Trump-like duplicitous mayor. Brandon Victor Dixon is Hester’s son Boy, who escapes prison and is labeled a monster (“Better a monster than a boy,” he claims, echoing the rage of minorities driven into the pipeline-prison system.) The cast, which also includes Joaquina Kalukango as a no-nonsense prostitute and Elizabeth Stanley as the Mayor’s desperate wife, provides piercing perspective on damages wrought by misogyny and class oppression.

Meanwhile on Broadway, filmmaker-provocateur Michael Moore takes a more direct approach to challenging the status quo and the results of the recent presidential election. “What the fuck happened?” he asks as soon as he steps on the stage of the Belasco Theater in his one-man man The Terms of My Surrender, following clips of the Trump triumph accompanied by ominous music. In the following two and half intermissionless hours, Moore preaches to the choir on the current dark political climate, taking occasional detours to relive past insurrections and play game-show parodies with the audience. The show is a combination standup comedy routine, rant, memoir, and cozy chat. As in his documentaries Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko, Moore builds his arguments against the current administration with deceptively comforting humor and startling statistics. (“That can’t be true,” said one woman behind me when the star revealed that 53 percent of women voted for the Donald.)

   Moore is not a Broadway-caliber comic and he mocks his lack of musical skills with a refreshing self-deprecation, but his delivery is sincere and his expressions and timing produce laughs. (Watch as he lovingly caresses a bag of chips.) Director Michael Mayer delivers a smooth evening, with strong visual support from Andrew Lazaro’s projections and video design. There are a few surprises saved for the final curtain, but this is mostly a familiar call to arms for Moore’s left-leaning fans.

September 17, 2017
 
In the Blood: Sept 17–Oct 15. Signature Theater Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours, no intermission. $30-$40. (212) 244-7529.

Theater

Fucking A: Sept 11–Oct 8. Signature Theater Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, no intermission. $30-$40. (212) 244-7529.

Theater

Michael Moore on Broadway: The Terms of My Surrender: Aug 10–Oct 22. Belasco Theater, 111 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $29–$149. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, no intermission. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets
 

 
Prince of Broadway
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Chuck Cooper
Photo by Matthew Murphy

No one can deny the incredible track record of Harold Prince, the winner of a record 21 Tony Awards and the director and/or producer of almost 50 Broadway shows over six decades. His innovative stagings of such landmark works as Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Evita, and Phantom of the Opera (to name just a few) revolutionized American musical theater. Having said that, his highly anticipated career retrospective, Prince of Broadway, now in a limited run from the non-commercial Manhattan Theater Club after an earlier version played Japan, is perfectly enjoyable but not the stunning blockbuster we’ve come to expect from Mr. Prince.
   The show is basically a series of numbers from 17 of Prince’s productions, loosely strung together by first-person narration by David Thompson (presumably based on interviews with and quotes by the subject), shared by the high-caliber nine-member cast. Unlike previous helmer hoedowns such as Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Fosse, the material doesn’t flow smoothly or fit together neatly. That may be because those previously mentioned productions celebrated the works of single choreographers—creating evening-long pieces with a unified vision and theme of movement, whereas Prince is a jumble of mostly solo or small-scale singing vignettes from a multitude of sources. There are 35 book-writers, lyricists and composers listed on the title page of the Playbill.
   Thompson’s narration provides scant context and fails to tie together the wildly divergent selections or answer such questions as “What is Prince’s aesthetic? And what do all these shows have in common other than the fact that Prince was involved in their creation?” Despite the solid production by Prince and his choreographer and co-director Susan Stroman and top-drawer design elements (particularly Howell Binkley’s lighting), the structure resembles a random “And-Then-I-Directed-or-Produced” pageant. One similar number follows another, and the pace slackens considerably in the second act, especially when two static songs set in prison (from Parade and Kiss of the Spider Woman) are placed next to each other.

To be fair, one doesn’t go to the theater for a documentary or a lecture in stage history, and there is much to relish even if the overall package is not greater than the sum of its exemplary parts. Tony Yazbeck has a spectacular dance solo from Follies (fantastic choreography from Stroman). Emily Skinner corners the market on wry regret with “Send in the Clowns” and “Ladies Who Lunch.” Chuck Cooper delivers depth as Tevye, Joe from Show Boat and Sweeney Todd. Brandon Uranowitz is a delightfully decadent Emcee from Cabaret. Bryonha Marie Parham conveys the poignancy of Sally Bowles from Cabaret and the joyful sass of Queenie from Show Boat . Karen Ziemba pours reams of subtext into her Fraulein Schneider and Mrs. Lovett. Kaley Ann Voorhees displays a lovely soprano in vignettes from West Side Story and Phantom. Michael Xavier and Janet Decal are zesty and zippy in “You’ve Got Possibilities” from Prince’s short-lived Superman musical.
   There is so much potential here. Too bad the experience was like leafing through a photo album (remember those?), or to use a more up-to-date reference, clicking through a series of YouTube videos that happen to pop up when you type “Harold Prince” in the search engine.

August 31, 2017
 
Aug. 25–Oct. 22. Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2 & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2 & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $89–$169. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets
 

 
1984
Hudson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

While it is not a direct response to the young Trump administration, the bracing and horrifying stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 arrives on Broadway at a startlingly appropriate time. Though it was published in 1949, the trends Orwell was spotting in political and social life are even more prevalent nowadays. The newspeak and shifting truth perpetrated by Big Brother, the tyrannical leader of a repressive future state, are shockingly similar to the “fake news” and “alternative facts” surrounding us today. The denizens of Airstrip One, the decimated remains of London after an atomic conflict, are mesmerized by their TV sets just as anyone you see on a New York City subway is locked in an embrace with their smartphones. “They won’t look up from their screens long enough to know what’s happening,” warns Winston Smith, the tragic Everyman hero of the tale.
   There have been film versions produced in 1956 and in the titular year, as well as a limited-run Off-Broadway production in 1987. This new edition, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, has had four British stagings and arrives on the heels of the controversial Central Park Julius Caesar depicting the assassination of a Trump-like figure and the resultant political chaos as a fascist Marc Antony rises to power. That production is a picnic compared to this nightmare vision of the alternative future.
   The familiar plot of Winston and his lover Julia vainly attempting to thwart the authoritarian dictates of the pervasive party remains. But Icke and MacMillan have rewritten it as a sort of dream, framing the action with a meeting of a group of intellectuals from even further in the future discussing the merits of the original book (here it is Winston’s diary) and debating if it is real or not. This tension between reality and illusion pervades the script as scenes are repeated several times with slight, disturbing variations; Chloe Lamford’s initially bland yet cozy set comes apart and reconfigures; Natasha Chivers’s frightening lighting blazes on and off’ and Tom Gibbons’s blaring soundscape assaults our eardrums. The idea is to makes us as unsettled and unsure as Winston as he faces the monolithic power of Big Brother.

That impact is fully revealed in the final section of a harrowing, intermissionless 100 minutes in one of the most realistic depictions of torture I’ve ever seen presented on any stage. Winston’s final degradation and capitulation to the state is presented to us like a Soviet show trial in a stunning coup de theatre. The lights are brought up and we become complicit witnesses in Big Brother’s final victory as Winston pitifully cries, “Someone stop it. Make them stop!” The future-historian device, which reappears at the end, somewhat lessens the shattering impact, but this production remains devastatingly memorable.
   Tom Sturridge plays Winston like a sleepwalker occasionally waking up to his terrifying surroundings. You can feel his pain, horror, and rage as his lethargy is slowly shrugged off and he realizes what an inescapable trap he’s in. Olivia Wilde’s Julia is simultaneously seductive and innocent, a wild animal and a frightened little girl. As the party official O’Brien who oversees Winston’s destruction, the reliable Reed Birney is chillingly ordinary, a shark with a quiet smile. His is the bland, calm face of Big Brother’s world and it’s frighteningly familiar. He is watching us indeed.

June 22, 2017
 
June 22–Oct. 8. Hudson Theatre, 139 W. 44th St., NYC. Mon-Thu 7pm, Fri-Sat 5pm & 9pm. Running time 100 minutes, no intermission. $35–149. (646) 975-4619.

Tickets
 

 
Bandstand
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Anastasia
Broadhurst Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Corey Cott and Laura Osnes in Bandstand
Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy

As the Tony Award deadline approaches, Broadway is flooded with new musicals. Two of the last on the current season’s roster follow familiar templates but have varying degrees of success departing from them. Bandstand employs the scrappy-underdogs-making-it-against-the-odds formula, while Anastasia attempts the plucky-heroine-triumphs-and-finds-love trope. The former at least adds a few new wrinkles, but the latter is just wrinkled.
   Though Bandstand’s book, by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, is a fairly standard-issue affair about World War II vets seeking redemption and stardom by forming a swing band, director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has a startlingly different take on the material. As the show starts, David Korins’s homey small-town juke joint set is transformed by Jeff Croiter’s spectral lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s frightening soundscape into a deafening nightmare of a battlefield. Utilizing identically dressed chorus members, Blankenbuehler creates a shattered hall-of-mirrors vision of protagonist Donny’s wartime memories. In another staging coup, Blankenbuehler has several scenes with the vets accompanied by those chorus members as their dead buddies, showing that these dark reminders are always with the vets.
   The plot follows a clichéd track as piano player–songwriter Donny assembles a crew of colorful misfits; falls in love with widow Julia who just happens to have a great voice and a knack for writing lyrics; and, together with the boys in their band, they bet everything on a radio contest. Fortunately, Taylor and Oberacker delve deep into the traumas suffered by Donny and his crew, and the score (Oberacker composed the music and collaborated on the lyrics with Taylor) cleverly uses period music to create mood and explore the theme of the vets’ alienation. Blankenbuehler’s integrated direction and choreography brilliantly enhance these elements.
   Corey Cott has charm and chops (dramatic and vocal) as Donny, as does Laura Osnes, fast becoming one of Broadway’s most reliable leading ladies, as Julia. For an added bonus, the quirky band members (Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, Geoff Packard) expertly play their own instruments and create distinct characterizations. Bandstand does sing a familiar tune, but it has drawn up some new and arresting arrangements.

While Bandstand is that Broadway musical rarity—a totally original piece not based on a book, play, or movie—Anastasia has been through the recycling mill several times. First the legend of an amnesiac girl claiming to be the sole survivor of the Russian imperial family was made into a 1955 Broadway play by Maurice Maurette, then a 1956 Oscar-winning film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, followed by a 1997 animated film which “inspired” the current stage version. It may go over with the Wicked-Annie-Matilda tween girl crowd, but this live cartoon is not for adults.
   Full of flashy video projections by Aaron Rhyne, Darko Tresnjak’s broadly played production is like one of those combination rides and shows at Disney World or Universal Studios. In Terrence McNally’s primary-colored book, Anastasia is portrayed as a feisty heroine, full of spunk and grit as she escapes Communist Russia and slogs her way to Paris to claim her identity before the Dowager Empress. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have augmented their score for the 1997 movie with new songs, all of which employ simplistic tunes and words.
   Echoes of greater musicals abound. “Learn to Do It” where the title character is drilled in Tsarist history and court etiquette by two male tutors and then the trio celebrates in dance, is too close to similar sequences in My Fair Lady. There’s even a scene where the girl enters in a stunning evening gown for her transformation (Linda Cho created the sumptuous costumes) just like Eliza Doolittle and Gigi. A new character, a strident Bolshevik officer, pursues Anastasia to France, obsessed with bringing her to justice, just as Inspector Javert is hell-bent on apprehending Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Both treks are accompanied by an introspective solo. Clownish second leads provide comedy relief, and the heroine runs after her man after discovering he nobly sacrificed a fortune for love.
   The competent cast led by Christy Altomare and Derek Klena earns its paychecks but rarely raises above the stale script. Only Caroline O’Connor as a buffoonish countess and Mary Beth Peil as the stern Empress create an original impression.

April 26, 2017
 
Bandstand: Opened April 26 for an open run. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minuts, including intermission. $59–159. (212) 239-6200.

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Anastasia: Opened April 24 for an open run. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu, 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $69–352. (212) 239-6200.


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War Paint
Nederlander Theatre

The Little Foxes
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone in War Paint
Photo by Joan Marcus

The new musical War Paint and the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939) featuring alternating leading ladies represent more than just two spectacular rounds of dueling divas—though that would be reason enough for rejoicing. Both productions afford fascinating takes on the shifting role of powerful women and how they are portrayed in popular media.
   Hellman’s Southern melodrama is set in 1900 when women had to use charm, subtlety, and sexuality to achieve prominence. War Paint profiles two pioneering titans of the cosmetics industry who shattered glass ceilings from the 1930s into the ’60s, but still meet male resistance. Attitudes about female empowerment have significantly altered, as well. Hellman’s avaricious Regina Giddens is a hissable villain, as rapacious as her cutthroat brothers in her quest for material wealth. She is countered by her teenage daughter Alexandra, who slowly realizes her mother’s cravenness and vows to fight it at the final curtain. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, the heroines of War Paint, are portrayed as admirable and courageous, even if they are almost as implacable as Regina and just as unscrupulous in their business practices (though they do stop short of Giddens’s negligent homicide). In addition, I found both productions tremendously satisfying.

War Paint has largely been greeted as an opportunity for theater fans to worship at the feet of its super-size stars, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, who give their usual spectacular performances, while the show itself has been criticized as uneven and lacking in spark. We don’t know whom to root for, whine its detractors: Both women are portrayed as ruthless and remote, so it may as well be a PBS documentary. Yes, Doug Wright’s book is inspired by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s TV doc The Powder and the Glory and Lindy Woodead’s book War Paint, and it doesn’t take the traditional Broadway musical route of asking the audience to identify with its protagonists. Instead, Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie present their characters warts and all, just as they did in the equally unconventional Grey Gardens.
   Wright offers a fascinating history of 20th-century fashion and makeup, as well as an insightful character study, directed with speed and style by Michael Greif. The incomparable decades-spanned designs are by Catherine Zuber (costumes), Angelina Avallone (makeup), and David Brian Brown (wigs). The score is sharp, funny, and intricate, employing the musical vocabulary of its various eras to convey rapid changes and emotional depths.
   Rubinstein, a Polish Jew, and Arden, a farm girl from Ontario, remade themselves into queens of beauty and business, and were at each other’s throats for 50 years. They never actually met, so opportunities for clashes are limited. But, just as Schiller invented an encounter between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, for Mary Stuart, Wright fabricates a greenroom tête à tête for his ladies near the final curtain. LuPone and Ebersole milk this climactic scene for all it’s worth, each dripping with contempt and then gradually admitting grudging admiration for the other.
   Before this they command the stage separately but equally. LuPone’s Rubinstein is a defiant force of nature, a bejeweled battleship. The Slavic accent is a bit thick at times, making Korie’s lyrics somewhat blurry, but the star’s magnetic charisma, unique vocals, and impeccable timing cut through the fuzziness to establish a figure as strong and memorable as Evita or Mama Rose. She’s not afraid to show Rubinstein’s unattractive drive for immortality in offbeat numbers such as “Forever Beautiful.”
   Ebersole’s machine-gun delivery and empathic acting capture Arden’s elegant façade and her tough-as-nails interior. In ballads such as “Pink,” reminiscent of several of her numbers in Grey Gardens, Ebersole delineates the executive’s regrets and anger as Arden is forced to sign away her company and her worth is reduced to her signature color. John Dossett and Douglas Sills offer sturdy support as their right-hand men, but the show belongs to its two divas.

Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon forge a similar partnership in Manhattan Theater Club’s revival of The Little Foxes, alternating between the lead role of the domineering Regina and the supporting one of her pathetic alcoholic sister-in-law Birdie. (I saw Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie.) Director Daniel Sullivan provides a rip-roaring production dripping with melodrama and histrionics, but never going over the top into camp territory. Linney’s Regina is a monster of deceit and narcissism, stunning in her beauty (Jane Greenwood’s gowns and Tom Watson’s hair design are particularly flattering) and seductive in her use of feminine wiles. Watch as the smile fades from her face and her eyes narrow into slits when she is thwarted and must switch from honey to venom to achieve her ends. This is no victim of sexism as Stockard Channing played her in a feminist interpretation for the 1997 Lincoln Center revival.
   Similarly, Nixon asks for little sympathy as Birdie, the dipsomaniac aunt shoved into a corner. She doesn’t overplay this desperate woman’s loneliness but conveys the intense lengths she goes to to mask it and her brief moments of self-awareness and honesty made possible by drink.
   Richard Thomas as Horace—Regina’s ailing, conscience-stricken spouse—provides a fiery curtain speech as he denounces his wife, while Michael McKean and Darren Goldstein are suitably wily as the grasping Hubbard brothers. The audience utters an audible gasp when Ben states the Hubbards and their kind “will take over this country some day.” Hellman’s warning of corporate greed trumping the common good is coming true, and she accurately saw that women will be on both sides of the fight.

April 19, 2017
 
War Paint: Opened April 6 for an open run. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $75–170. (800) 745-3000.

Tickets


 
Come From Away
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Idomeneo
Metropolitan Opera [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Sharon Wheatley and Lee MacDougall, smooching at center, with their fellow castmembers of Come From Away
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Is it appropriate for a Broadway musical to address the staggering impact of the 2001 attacks on America? Come From Away, the new Canadian tuner, answers with a resounding yes. Husband and wife librettist-songwriters Irene Sankoff and David Hein have solved the problem of their super-heavy subject matter by focusing on a positive aspect of the tragedy. When terrorists were using planes as bombs targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, several hundred flights were diverted to Gander, a tiny town in Newfoundland, where thousands of passengers had to remain for days. How the citizens and their guests from around the world coped with this logistical nightmare forms the main thread of the show with several individual story-strands interwoven throughout. The Newfoundlanders respond to the demands with grace and humor, and the panicked “plane people” gradually warm to them.
   Yes, the book is episodic and the songs are a bit treacly here and there, occasionally taking a mite too much inspiration from the Titanic theme, which is quoted ironically more than once. However, Sankoff and Hein resist these Lifetime TV temptations for the most part, leavening syrupy “feel-good” tropes with sharp wit and memorable, Gaelic-flavored music.
   Director Christopher Ashley keeps the many characters and settings clear with a precise, fluid direction and strong, detail-laden performances from a 12-member cast playing multiple roles. Jenn Colella has the sole solo number as a pioneering female pilot, and she soars with it. Joel Hatch is dryly deadpan as the town’s mayor. Rodney Hicks gets maximum comic mileage out of a New Yorker’s skepticism at his hosts’ hospitality. Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley are endearingly awkward as middle-aged strangers who become long-distance lovers. Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa lend snap to a quarreling gay couple. Petrina Bromley delivers an animal lover’s concern for pets trapped on board with a direct honesty. Astrid Van Wierren is refreshingly blunt as a no-nonsense teacher. Kendra Kassebaum makes a nervous new TV reporter endearingly eager, and Q. Smith emotes with intensity as a mother seeking word of her firefighter son.
   Not all instincts tapped by the crisis are noble. A Muslim traveller (played with dignity by Samayoa) is treated with fear and suspicion, though gradually befriended by the townspeople, and then subjected to a humiliating interrogation. I would have preferred Sankoff and Hein had ventured further into this darkness, to give a fuller picture of the story. But despite its slight flaws, Come From Away offers a reassuring and heartening take on the earth-shattering event that launched us into an age of terrifying uncertainty.

The Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo is also about a community in crisis, but the citizens of ancient Crete are handling a ravenous sea monster rather than an influx of displaced passengers. This revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1982 staging is gorgeously sung by soprano Ying Fang as the delicate princess Ilia, baritone Matthew Polenzani in the title role, and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in the trouser role of the prince Adamante. Maestro James Levine delivers his customary exquisite handling of the Met orchestra. But the four-hour evening is stolen by Elza van den Heever as the treacherously jealous Elettra.
   Like a libidinous tornado swooping in from another opera (such as Strauss’s modernistic Electra about the same mythological figure), van den Heeven sweeps away all before her in a whirlwind of diva passion. During her Act Two aria in which Elettra eagerly anticipates thwarting her rival Ilia and ensnaring Adamante, she practically makes love to the furniture as she physicalizes her character’s devouring lust. Then after everyone else finds a happy ending, she consumes the stage in a towering rage and collapses, choking on her own fury. Most of Ponnelle’s staging is of the “stand and deliver” or “park and bark” variety where the singers are planted center stage and hold forth for their solos. Van den Heever is anything but stationary or static, taking command of this massive work and wrestling it to the ground.

March 19, 2017
 
Come From Away: Opened March 12 for an open run. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. $47–$157. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. (212) 239-6200.

Tickets

Idomeneo: March 6–March 25. Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, 66th Stret and Broadway, NYC. Repertory schedule. Running time 4 hours, including two intermissions. $25–$460. (212) 362-6000.

Metropolitan Opera
 

 
A Bronx Tale
Longacre Theatre

The Band’s Visit
Atlantic Theater Company at Linda Gross Theatre [show closed]

The Death of the Last Black Man in Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead
Signature Theatre Company [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Jamar Williams, William DeMeritt, Mirirai Sithole, Amelia Workman, David Ryan Smith, Nike Kadri, Reynaldo Piniella, and Daniel J. Watts
Photo by Joan Marcus

If the recent presidential election has taught us anything, it’s that racism and stereotyping are still prevalent despite polite wrist-slapping by the media elite. A spate of new productions address prejudice in various forms with varying degrees of creativity and imagination. It should come as no surprise that the Broadway entry in this roundup is the softest and least dangerous of the three, while the Off-Broadway shows are edgier and more honest.
   A Bronx Tale, the Broadway show and the safest production under consideration here, is the latest iteration of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical solo play about his boyhood attachment to a local mob figure and its affect on his hardworking father. After successful 1989 runs in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway with Palminteri playing his younger self and all the other characters, Robert De Niro made his directorial debut with the 1993 film version and played Lorenzo, the father, with Palminteri as Sonny, the neighborhood boss. The movie’s success launched Palminteri’s film acting career, usually limning tough guys, most notably in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. The author-star returned to Bronx Tale in a 2007 Broadway revival directed by Jerry Zaks.
   In this age of recycling material, a musical version was inevitable. Many of the personnel associated with earlier editions are associated with the new product. Palminteri wrote the book and Zaks and De Niro co-direct. Sonny is played by Nick Cordero, who starred in the Palminteri role in the so-so stage musical version of Bullets.
   The show is slick, professional, and enjoyable, with smart staging from Zaks and De Niro (though I suspect Zaks is largely responsible for the musical’s zip, along with Sergio Trujillo’s street-savvy choreography). Palminteri attempts to retain the grittiness and depth of his original script, but it gets drowned in nostalgic musical suds. The score, by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, employs the 1960s sounds of the settings and has some grabby high spots but feels mostly derivative.
   In the original, Sonny and Lorenzo emerge as complex figures. The mobster is a brutal killer but also compassionate when young Chazz (his full name is Calogero) reveals he wants to date an African-American girl. The dad is a role model of honesty, rejecting Sonny’s easy money and loose morals, but he intolerantly rejects his son’s reaching across racial lines. In this musical, these rough edges are smoothed over with everybody singing about finding their “heart.”
   Despite Cordero’s charismatic performance, or maybe because of it, Sonny’s darkness is totally eclipsed by a sunny—no pun intended—demeanor. This Sonny is a great guy, a romantic crooner, and a “cute” gangster we root for even as he smashes rivals with a baseball bat. It’s the latest example of stereotyping mob figures in a rosy, admiring aura.
   This qualm does not lessen my admiration for Bobby Conte Thornton, who, as Calogero, carries the show on his shoulders with style; sturdy Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo; and spunky Hudson Loverro as the child version of the hero.

While Bronx Tale offers cuddly criminals serving sweet tiramisu, The Band’s Visit by Atlantic Theatre Company is a spicier slice of falafel. Derived from a 2007 Israeli film, this small-scale tuner is intimate and authentic, while Bronx Tale is big and broad like a tourist version of reality. When an Egyptian policeman’s band is stranded in an isolated Israeli town for a night, the musicians must rely on the hospitality of the residents. Unexpected connections form as cultures clash and stereotyping breaks down. David Yazbek’s moving songs incorporate an exotic blend of influences rarely heard on or Off-Broadway, and David Cromer’s direction has a refreshing verisimilitude. There are dozens of tiny, evocative moments such as an exhausted wife angrily simmering as her husband and father entertain their visitors; two men awaiting calls from their distant sweethearts battling over a pay phone; the band’s Romeo offering romantic advice at a roller-skating rink; and the autocratic conductor letting his guard down as the lonely cafe owner sings of her attraction for him.
   Tony Shalhoub is pricelessly stiff as the proper bandleader, and Katrina Lenk convincingly conveys both the brittle sheen and soft center of Dina, his sarcastic hostess. Daniel David Stewart, Ari’el Stachel, John Cariani, Kristen Sieh, and Erik Liberman also provide endearingly real portraits.

In the third look at theatrical responses to cultural stereotyping, we move from desert realism to abstract symbolism. Suzan-Lori Parks’s singularly titled The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead (1990), at Signature Theatre, takes on the most brutal aspects of prejudice in a nightmarish tone poem populated by race-based figures. Black Man with Watermelon (an intense Daniel J. Watts) dies over and over, by lynching and the electric chair, as his wife Black Woman with Fried Drumstick (a magnificent Rosyln Ruff) perpetually says goodbye and goes into mourning. Their narrative of sorrow is augmented by a chorus of mythical stock characters with names like Old Man River Jordan, Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut, and Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz makes this satiric parody into a lively dance-meditation on race, and Ruff’s emotive acting transforms a symbol into a living, breathing person. In this era of Black Lives Matter and the triumph of Trump, Parks’s angry, mysterious, and challenging work is especially relevant—and dangerously real.

December 12, 2016
 
A Bronx Tale: Opened Dec. 1 for an open run. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $45–$162. (212) 239-6200.

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Plenty
Public Theater

Love, Love, Love
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Donmar Warehouse at the Booth Theatre

Vietgone
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward


Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber in Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two current Off-Broadway productions provide a 70-year historical overview of narcissistic British behavior and the decline of that country from envied empire to self-absorbed ruin. David Hare’s 1978 Plenty at the Public traces the crackup of the country from World War II into the 1960s through the scattered and destructive choices of its neurotic but charismatic heroine. Mike Bartlett’s 2010 Love, Love, Love at the Laura Pels in a Roundabout staging picks up where Plenty leaves off, taking us from the mod Beatles era into the 21st century. Love chronicles the tsunami-like romance of Kenneth and Sandra, a Baby-Boomer Everycouple, who destroy everything and everyone in their path and are meant to represent all of the crimes committed by their heedless generation. Both playwrights are angry at their native land and score stinging points, but Hare’s impassioned indictment retains the ring of honest dramaturgy in spite of a less-than-stellar production, while Bartlett’s heavy-handed bash has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
   Plenty holds a special place for me. The American premiere directed by the playwright at the Public’s Newman stage was one of the first plays I saw when I moved to New York in 1982. I still remember Kate Nelligan’s impassioned yet calibrated performance as the complicated Susan Traherne, shattered by her country’s postwar banality after serving as a courier in the French resistance. Romanticizing her wartime exploits, Susan stumbles through a series of unfulfilling jobs and relationships, paralleling Britain’s national identity crisis after losing its position of world dominance.
   Seeing the play in the same theater raises personal memories but also unfavorable comparisons. David Leveaux’s muted new staging seems to exist primarily as a star vehicle for Rachel Weisz, who is in love with Susan’s theatrical breakdowns and takes every opportunity for a diva display. Thus she becomes a weepy victim rather than the complex architect of her own downfall (as Hare and Nelligan saw her in the original). Instead of connecting with the character and the situation, Weisz is saying, “Look at me act!” There are physical sparks between Weisz and Corey Stoll as Brock, her diplomat husband, but no emotional connection, making his self-sacrifices hard to believe.

The limning and bonds among the cast in Love, Love, Love may be more convincing, but Bartlett’s script is less so. Like Susan, his protagonists Kenneth and Sandra are colossal egotists, wrecking lives in order to pursue their individual ends. Divided into three acts, this dark comedy follows them as they careen from a summer of free love in 1967 to suburban opulence in 1990 to retired self-indulgence in 2010. Bartlett has a way with witty, sharp jabs, but, unlike Susan, his characters are symbols of social and political positions rather than flesh and blood. (His earlier play Cock suffered from the same cardboard depictions.) Kenneth and Sandra’s selfish actions lead up to a screaming confrontation with their estranged daughter Rose. In the third act, she gets to deliver a big condemning monologue blatantly indicting her parents and their peers for all of her woes and those of her country. Though Zoe Kazan performs this speech with honest passion, we can hear the playwright talking instead of Rose.
   Bartlett pushes his creations to fit his political theses rather than letting them develop organically and consistently. Would Kenneth and Sandra, the feckless flakes of Act One, become the financially prosperous executives of Act Two? (We never do find out how either of them makes money after dropping their pseudo-hippie personae.) Would the alcoholic, unreflective Sandra of the entire play suddenly become capable of responding with self-awareness and insight to her daughter’s harangue in the show’s final minutes?
   Fortunately, Michael Mayer delivers a fast-paced, wickedly entertaining production—the on-target period sets and costumes are by Derek McLane and Susan Hilferty—and Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan give outsized, eye-catching turns as the explosive main couple.

Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber play a similarly combustible duo in another British production. Like Plenty, Les Liaisons Dangereuses had a sensational New York production in the 1980s (with the sleekly serpentine Alan Rickman and the lusciously lascivious Lindsay Duncan), and this new edition from Donmar Warehouse must fight the memory of its predecessor. Many critics have given it a thumbs down, finding Josie Rourke’s less ferocious production several grades below Howard Lindsay’s elegant, intense original. More than a few scribes have also called the broodingly naturalistic Schreiber miscast as the sleekly artificial Vicomte de Valmont.
   But I thoroughly enjoyed this remounting, taking place in designer Tom Scutt's derelict museum with cast members gradually removing all the discarded art works between scenes, suggesting the decay of the pre-Revolutionary French society that Valmont and the equally malevolent Marquise de Merteuil dominate with their deadly sexual games. Schreiber is a charming cad whose tasteful veneer hides his brutal interior. Rourke takes a decidedly feminist approach to the material, staging Valmont’s carnal conquests for what they are—assaults. She almost makes us sympathize with the villainous Marquise who says to Valmont she was “born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.” McTeer gives us even more cause to identify with her by providing a multilayered portrayal of this stylish viper. At first she is deliciously evil, playfully enumerating her principles of deceit with little hand gestures. But this seductive surface gives way to the needy woman underneath when Valmont genuinely falls in love with one of his conquests. McTeer drops her silky voice an octave at precisely the right moment and her small movements become clawing attempts to suppress her suppressed genuine longings for Valmont. Yes, this is a slow-starting Liaisons, but once it gets going, it burns and consumes.

Finally, the only American play I recently encountered considers the immigrant experience from a decidedly unusual angle. Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at Manhattan Theatre Club chronicles the refugee journey of his South Vietnamese parents after the fall of Saigon through a broadly comic lens rather than via the usual noble, tear-jerking tropes. Rap music, ninja movies, African-American slang, and Twitter are added to mix in this crazy collage. It’s broad, tragic, funny, satiric, and serious all at once in May Adrales’s cartoonish and clear-eyed production featuring another sizzling star pair: Raymond Lee and Jennifer Ikeda.

November 3, 2016
 
Cats
Neil Simon Theatre

Oslo
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Andy Huntington Jones and company in Cats
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Meow and forever, Cats is back. After a smash London premiere, the original NYC production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline phenomenon became the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history, inspiring devoted loyalty among fans and disdain among naysayers. The rambling cat-alogue of frisky vignettes ushered in an era of Eurospectacles that were long on flash and glitter and short on substance (Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, etc. The latter is returning to Broadway next spring, God help us). I confess I never saw that original Cats staging live—but I did catch a PBS filmed version. The new production is largely the same with a few tweaks here and there. Trevor Nunn’s staging remains as sleek and taut as an alley kitty skulking after a tasty mouse, and Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler has been brought in spice up Gillian Lynne’s original choreography.
   Derived from a book of poems by T.S. Eliot in a rare whimsical mood and chock-a-block with Lloyd Webber’s pastiche ditties, Cats is the theatrical equivalent of sitting by the fire with Tabby and stroking her fur—for over two hours. Like Sondheim wrote in Gypsy “Some people can get a thrill/Knitting sweaters and sitting still…. But some people ain’t me.” The whisker-thin plot—if you can call it that—consists of a group of pussycats competing for the right to take a ride on a huge tire to the “heavyside layer,” whatever that is, and start a new life, apparently after the customary nine have been used up. In between specialty numbers, the shaggy leader Old Deuteronomy goes missing for a few minutes, Grizabella the ex-glamor cat wanders around looking sad, and, after a big build-up about how nasty he is, the menacing Macavity scratches a few of his fellow felines. That’s it for the storyline. Anybody for a warm saucer of milk?
   I did enjoy a few individual numbers, particularly in the second act. Jeremy Davis exuberantly leads a merry, bouncy tour of sleeper cars as Shimbleshanks the railway cat, and Ricky Ubeda dazzles like a furry Liberace as the magical Mr. Mistoffelees. Christopher Gurr is adorably pompous as the rotund gourmand Bustopher Jones and the sweet doddering Gus the theater cat. British pop star Leona Lewis takes on Grizabella’s showpiece aria “Memory.” She has vocal power but no nuance, rendering what could have been a soaring epiphany anticlimactic. John Napier’s oversized junkyard setting and anthropomorphic costumes still enchant, while Natasha Katz’s dynamic lighting creates more drama and conflict than the wispy script.

Meanwhile, not all is shallow caterwauling in NY theater. As we enter into a new phase of the seemingly endless 2016 presidential campaign, Lincoln Center Theater presents a powerful theatrical reminder that political plays can be just as spectacular as high-budget musicals. J.T. Rogers’s Oslo portrays the heroic and unheralded efforts of a Norwegian couple to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table when U.S. attempts resulted in stalemate. Derived from real events in 1992–93, this three-hour epic is as gripping as a spy thriller and as absorbing as a Ken Burns documentary.
   Currently playing at the Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse, Oslo will transfer to LCT’s Broadway venue the Vivian Beaumont in the spring, just in time for the 2017 Tony Awards, offering an adult alternative to juvenile fare such as Cats. It’s indicative of the Broadway theater scene that not only is this a rare instance of a nonmusical dealing with a serious political topic, it’s one of only two new American plays announced for the current Main Stem season.
   Bartlett Sher provides his usual exemplary direction, making clear a potentially confusing story with dozens of characters and story threads woven into a tapestry of international intrigue. Donald Holder’s ghostly lighting, the eerie projections of 59 Productions, and Catherine Zuber’s monochromatic costumes give Oslo the feel of a half-remembered black-and-white dream.
   Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle balance steely command with patient deference as the Norwegian facilitators. They are so restrained for most of the play that Michael Aronov and Joseph Singer as fiery Israeli officials nearly steal the show, but in a final devastating montage where the cast recounts the violent history of the region after the Oslo accords, Mays and Ehle deliver a shattering conclusion, equal parts despair and optimism. The rest of the large cast is uniformly excellent as well.
   Ideally there should be room on Broadway for both Cats and Oslo, but it will be interesting to see which will draw the bigger crowds.

August 5, 2016
 
Cats: Opened July 31 for an open run. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., NYC. Mon-Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7 pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $79–$149. (800) 653-8000.

www.ticketmaster.com

Oslo: July 11–Aug. 28. Transferring to the Vivian Beaumont Theater beginning March 23, 2017 with an April 13 opening. Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 3 hours, including two intermissions. $107. (212) 239-6200.

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American Psycho
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater [closed]

Tuck Everlasting
Broadhurst Theater [closed]

Waitress
Brooks Atkinson Theater

Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Music Box Theatre [closed]

Cagney
Westside Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


The ensemble of Shuffle Along
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

It’s a wrap for the 2015–16 New York Broadway theater season, and four of the last shows take up radically different positions on the Broadway musical spectrum. American Psycho tries for cold-blooded satire and Tuck Everlasting makes a bid for the Wicked-Matilda family-friendly demographic. Neither is particularly successful in hitting its target. Waitress scores a near bull’s-eye, landing solidly in the middle with its feel-good “up” story of a downtrodden heroine overcoming a dysfunctional home life and limited economic opportunity. To use the story’s small-town diner food metaphors, the recipe perfectly balances the sweet and tart elements. But Shuffle Along aims even higher, going far beyond the normal range of Main Stem entertainment into the realm of social and cultural history. That sound stuffy, but Shuffle shakes the dust off the original show serving as its source and turns it into a spectacle both informative and vibrant.
   As you enter each of the four theaters, you get a tip-off about the resident show before it even starts. At the Gerald Schoenfeld for American Psycho, you notice a drop in temperature, menacing rock-edged music, and a plastic screen at the front of the stage indicating you’re in for an evening of blood-splattered mayhem. One of the ushers assured me no one in the front rows would get doused with red stage liquid. While vast quantities of the crimson stuff are spilled during this stage version of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel, the enterprise is relatively bloodless. Yes, Rupert Goold’s production is as sleek as Es Devlin’s silver-and-grey corporate set and Katrina Lindsay’s chic costumes. And yes, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s razor-edged book and Duncan Sheik’s jagged, catchy songs create a screamingly funny picture of a soulless 1980s Manhattan. But Patrick Bateman, the stylish serial killer–investment banker at the center is a cipher (despite a charismatic performance by Benjamin Walker). Ellis’s anti-hero is an abstract symbol of Reagan-era materialism. We learn very little about him other than that he’s driven to insane acts of violence by the period’s shallow values. Without a strong protagonist for the audience to identify with, your show is DOA (pun intended.)
   The first act garners numerous laughs of recognition at the mention of ’80s icons, as well as ironic references to Donald Trump and Tom Cruise. (Too many of Sheik’s lyrics amount to lists of famous names and places, from designer Betsy Johnson to the nightclub Tunnel.) But as the quips run out and the bodies pile up, tedium sets in. Too bad Walker and a strong supporting cast including Alice Ripley are largely wasted.

The Broadhurst, where Tuck Everlasting—the syrupy tuner based on Natalie Babbitt’s popular young-adult novel—is playing, offers a pleasanter prospect than the Schoenfeld. Instead of an urban wasteland, Tuck set designer Walt Spangler offers us an idyllic rural glade with an enormous tree stretching out over the audience. The show that follows is as sweet as Psycho is sour, but both share a certain “ick” factor. The fanciful plot revolves around Winnie (an assured Sarah Charles Lewis), a lonely 11-year-old girl in 1890s New Hampshire encountering a family of immortals. Their longevity derives from a magic spring (cute, huh?). Jesse (chipper Andrew Keenan-Bolger), the youngest son who appears 17 but is actually over 100, persuades Winnie to save some of the enchanted water and drink it when she is in her late teens so they can be together—forever! A 100-year-old boy interested in an 11-year-old child? Creepy, right?
   Even more off-putting is Terrence Mann as the Man in the Yellow Suit, a carnival con artist out to steal the water for himself. Mann, who starred in the original companies of such Broadway classics as Cats and Les Misérables, turns in one of the most annoying performances in recent memory. Villains can be deliciously odious, but Mann is just plain repulsive. Fortunately, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw delivers a tight production counterbalancing the sugary content of Claudia Shear and Tim Federle’s book. The Scottish-country flavored songs by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tyson (lyrics) are serviceable enough but hardly memorable. The one number that stands out is a throwaway comedy bit expertly put across by the reliable Fred Applegate as a folksy detective and Michael Wartella as his shy deputy. When two minor characters have the best song, something is off. As the rest of the Tuck clan, Broadway vets Carolee Carmello, Michael Park, and Robert Lenzi earn their paychecks but don’t get beyond well-scrubbed eccentricities. Young children may get a kick out of Tuck Everlasting, but for those past adolescence its charms fail to last past intermission.

The preshow sensory sensations awaiting audiences at the Brooks Atkinson for Waitress are not visual, but olfactory. The smell of just-baked apple pie wafts through the lobby as you take your seats, putting you in the mood for comfort food and comfort theater. Apart from one over-the-top nasty character, book-writer Jessie Nelson and composer-lyricist Sara Bareilles deliver exactly what the menu promises: a warm and tender slice of pie that’s filling without making your teeth rot. Derived from Adrienne Shelly’s indie-cult film, the story centers on Jenna, a struggling server in a small-town diner with a genius for baking pies with eccentric names (Mermaid Marshmallow and Ginger Snap Out of It are just two examples). Saddled with an abusive husband and pregnant, she vows to enter a pie contest, take the prize money, and run. Along the way, she launches an affair with her gynecologist, and her comic-sidekicks at the diner provide ribald romantic subplots.
   Refreshingly, neither her doctor-lover nor the pie contest proves to be the cure-all for Jenna’s woes. Just as in real life, situations remain messy instead of being neatly resolved. My only problem was the depiction of Earl, the asshole husband who is so disgusting it’s hard to believe a smart woman like Jenna would ever have fallen for him. Nick Cordero does his best to add dimension to this narrow role but cannot fill in the gaps the authors left. Diane Paulus’s generally smooth direction gets a little too busy and the sound design is muddy in places.
   Aside from the quibbles, Waitress is a bountiful pleasure. Jessie Mueller’s unique voice, which straddles pop territory and Broadway pizzazz, imbues Jenna with the tender longing of a generous soul unfulfilled. Keala Settle and Kimiko Glen bubble and fizz as Becky and Dawn, her fellow toilers in the service industry, while Christopher Fitzgerald stops the show as Dawn’s eccentric suitor. Drew Gehling makes goofy sexy as Jenna’s medical amour, and Dakin Matthews is gorgeously grumpy as the restaurant owner. Special mention to Charity Angel Dawson who steals her brief scenes as a caustic nurse.

As you enter the Music Box for Shuffle Along, you can hear the sounds of snappy tapping and the bright voices of the dancers encouraging each other from just behind the curtain, preparing you for an evening of extravagant song and dance. However, director-book author George C. Wolfe has concocted much more than a restaging of the original 1921 show of the same name, the first major Broadway hit to be directed, produced, written, and performed by African-Americans. He adds historical context in a behind-the-scenes template, documenting the struggles of black artists in a white-dominated world. Wolfe makes the case that Shuffle was as influential as Show Boat or Oklahoma! George Gershwin borrowed riffs from the overture, Ziegfeld hired the chorus girls to show his chorines how to shimmy, and future stars such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson got their start in the show. But because of the creators’ race, Shuffle has been largely shuffled out of the musical theater history deck.
   It sounds like a masters’ dissertation or a Ken Burns documentary, but this is much more than a lecture—it’s a rumination on black culture and white appropriation, as well as a dazzling spectacle thanks to Wolfe’s inventive production and Savion Glover’s scintillating choreography. The cast is a roll call of Broadway excellence: Brian Stokes Mitchell’s dignified baritone, Billy Porter’s impassioned blues wail, Brandon Victor Dixon’s cocky enthusiasm, Joshua Henry’s attractive confidence, Adrienne Warren’s cute appeal, and of course the majesty and intimacy of Audra McDonald’s Lottie Gee, the diva who dominates and charms.

Just as a side note, Off-Broadway’s Cagney has a formulaic bio-pic book by Peter Colley but razor-sharp choreography by Joshua Bergasse and an impressive lead performance by Robert Creighton who also collaborated on the score with Christopher McGovern. The engine of the plot is Cagney’s battle with studio boss Jack Warner to stretch beyond the tough-guy roles. A rather limiting frame for the story, and Colley often shoehorns in excuses for musical numbers such as a tap challenge between Cagney and Bob Hope because the former appeared briefly in one of Hope’s pictures. Despite the book’s hiccups, Creighton and company dance with joy. It’s a brisk if unchallenging piece, unlike Shuffle which totally reinvents the musical theater form.
May 9, 2016
 
Waitress: Opened April 24 for an open run. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $67–147. (800) 745-3000.

www.ticketmaster.com


Cagney: Opened April 3 for an open run. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $89. (212) 239-6200.

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School of Rock
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

The Color Purple
Winter Garden Theatre

Invisible Thread
Second Stage [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Antoine L. Smith, Patrice Covington, Jennifer Hudson, Cynthia Erivo, Isaiah Johnson, Kyle Scatliffe, and Danielle Brooks
Photo by Matthew Murphy

“Is this some kind of gimmick?” asks a character about the central device of tweens forming a heavy-metal band in School of Rock, the new Andrew Lloyd Weber musical (the English lord composed the music and is the lead producer). The answer is yes, it is some kind of gimmick, but it works. The book by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) based on Mike White’s screenplay for the 2003 film starring Jack Black, is pretty much standard-issue Broadway uplift: Quirky outsider comes into a repressed society and uses music to get its cringing inhabitants to experience fun and freedom. You can see the ending a mile away, yet there is so much infectious enthusiasm and unbridled talent on display, you fall for it.
   The show starts slowly, as Fellowes supplies obvious jokes and director Laurence Connor goes for broad stereotypes. Wannabe rock star and full-time slacker Dewey Finn (a riotously funny Alex Brightman) has been kicked out of his band and is about to be similarly booted from his living quarters by his best friend nerdy Ned, a substitute teacher, and Ned’s bossy wife, Patty, for failing to contribute any rent. To earn fast cash, he pretends to be Ned, takes a job at upper-crust Horace Green Academy, and turns his classroom of proto-corporate robots into supercool metalheads. This enables the kids to express themselves and inspire their stuffy parents to love them more openly. As a bonus, Finn romances the stodgy principal Rosalie Mullins (sweet-voiced Sierra Boggess), a secret Stevie Nicks fan.
   Yes, it’s corny and clichéd, and Webber’s songs (with undistinguished lyrics by Glenn Slater) are pretty generic, but School’s secret weapons are Brightman as Dewey and a platoon of super-talented preteens. Dewey could have come across as an obnoxious, freeloading jerk, but Brightman reveals his warm heart as well as his crude manners. At first, Dewey is using the kids to get into the Battle of the Bands, but Brightman convinces us that this semi-creepy loser grows to care for his students. He’s full-out hilarious in the book scenes and full-throated in a demanding series of rock numbers, as are the kids who play all their own instruments. Full marks for Isabella Russo’s in-charge Summer, Bobbi MacKenzie’s shy but soulful Tomika, Brandon Niederauer’s troubled Zack, Dante Melucci’s brooding Freddy, Evie Dolan’s deadpan Katie, Jared Parker’s lonely Lawrence, and Luca Padovan’s stylish Billy. And a solid B-plus for School of Rock.

The revival of The Color Purple also grew on me. I went in with trepidations. Gerry Griffin’s original 2005 Broadway production of Alice Walker’s beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning novel was overblown, and Marsha Norman’s book came across as a rushed reprise of the big moments from Steven Speilberg’s 1985 film version. In addition when I entered the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre for director-designer John Doyle’s stripped-down restaging previously presented by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, Doyle’s chair-bedecked set gave me flashbacks to last season’s atrocious Doctor Zhivago and parodies of Les Miz. It didn’t help that Gregory Clarke’s muddy sound design and imprecise diction by the cast made the early songs largely incomprehensible.
   But Doyle’s simplified staging emphasizes Walker’s compassionate and powerful tale of Celie, an oppressed African-American woman who raises above the crushing weight of racism and sexism in early 20th-century Georgia. Without distracting elaborate sets and fussy staging, Norman’s adaptation flows more freely, and the eclectic score—by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray—shines brightly like a rainbow of gospel, pop, jazz, boogie-woogie, and R&B.
   The three female leads are making dazzling Broadway debuts. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson is the biggest box-office draw and displays her magnificent pipes and a sharp characterization as the magnetic blues singer Shug Avery, but Cynthia Erivo, reprising her London performance as Celie, is the deep center of Purple. Petite and small-voiced in the beginning, she seems to be making herself as tiny as possible to avoid the abusive men in Celie’s life, including her cruel stepfather and husband. Then as she is emboldened by Shug’s example of independence, she appears to expand in size and voice, finally filling the theater and our hearts with her rousing climactic number “I’m Here.” Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black is almost as dynamic as Celie’s daughter-in-law—the strong-willed Sofia, the role played by Oprah Winfrey in the film version.

Invisible Thread at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage leaves an impression opposite to the two Broadway shows reviewed above; it starts strongly but fades towards the end. Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews’s autobiographical musical has an absorbing first act. Griffin and Ryan, NYC-based boyfriends and aspiring musical theater performers and composers, volunteer in Uganda and wind up bankrolling the education of five teenagers they meet there. Before intermission there’s a strong narrative and conflict, but the second act loses focus as the duo return to America and spend most of their time fundraising. Nevertheless, Thread has a lot going for it including Diane Paulus’s tight direction, Peter Nigrini’s movie-like projections, and a sterling cast, lead by Jeremy Pope as Griffin (subbing for Matthews at the performance attended.) It’s a strong Thread; too bad it unravels by the final curtain.

December 12, 2015
 
School of Rock: Opened Dec. 6 for an open run. Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $59–145. (212) 239-6200.

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The Color Purple: Dec. 10, 2015–Jan. 8, 2017. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $75–145. (212) 239-6200.

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Thérèse Raquin
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 [closed}

The Humans
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre [now at the Helen Hayes]

Reviewed by David Sheward


Keira Knightley and Judith Light
Photo by Joan Marcus

It’s the Halloween season and two productions from Roundabout Theatre Company explore scary demons. The big star vehicle, Thérèse Raquin, is full of fake emotion, while the Off-Broadway intimate drama The Humans is truly terrifying in its portrayal of the bumps and creaks in the night we all hear and fear.
   The first act of Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s classic 1867 novel, Thérèse Raquin, from Roundabout at Studio 54 really had me going. I was totally enraptured by Keira Knightley’s nearly silent performance as the titular frustrated heroine, expressing her sexual and spiritual longing through body language and eloquent features. Thérèse is trapped in a passionless marriage to her bourgeois cousin Camille, first in a provincial backwater and then in a confining Paris apartment. Edmundson’s conceit is that Thérèse can only react to the stifling conditions of her life and remains silent as the oafish Camille and his control-freak mother order her existence. That is, until Camille’s dashing friend Laurent, a would-be painter, enters the picture. (Spoiler alert here if you have not read the novel or seen any of the numerous previous stage versions, including Harry Connick Jr.’s 2001 musical update Thou Shalt Not.) The connection between Thérèse and Laurent is electric, and they plot to eliminate Camille. The drowning scene on a real river is really scary; kudos to director Evan Cabnet and set designer Beowulf Boritt.
   So far, so good, but in the second act Therese opens her mouth. Knightley and Matt Ryan as Laurent start overacting all over the place, and Cabnet turns a tragic tale of passion into an episode of Dark Shadows. The lovers become racked with guilt and imagine Camille’s accusing ghost haunting them as Josh Schmidt’s twisted sound design and Keith Parham’s haunted-house lighting grow more ominous. There are some effective moments, mostly provided by Boritt’s impressive set. Thérèse seems to be crushed by her all-black apartment as it descends from the flies, and she appears to soar when she meets Laurent in his attic, suspended above the stage amid a starry backdrop (Parham’s lighting achieves the right romantic tone here). Gabriel Ebert’s comically clueless Camille, Judith Light’s well-meaning Madame Raquin, and Jeff Still, David Patrick Kelly, and Mary Wiseman as a trio of shallow family friends provide welcome depth. But they cannot rescue this scream fest from the spook house.

Thérèse attempts to evoke genuine fear, but The Humans succeeds in doing so. Stephen Karam’s new play starts out like a dozen other dysfunctional-family works. The Blake clan reveals harsh secrets on Thanksgiving as the turkey is served and the wine flows. What sets this haunting and heartbreaking drama apart is the subtle depiction of the nightmares that invade and twist the lives of everyday people. The six characters’ fears for the future take various frighteningly familiar forms. Dad Erik obsesses over terrorist attacks and floods. Mother Deirdre forwards emails of dire scientific studies to her daughters: Aimee, a lawyer struggling with losing her lesbian lover, her job and her health, and Brigid, a young composer facing a dead-end career. The senile grandmother Fiona (“Momo”) is lost to dementia, and Richard, Brigid’s much older boyfriend, has recovered from depression but still has bizarre dreams. Still, those dreams are much less frightening than Erik’s, which involve a faceless woman and a forbidding tunnel.
   During 90 intermissionless minutes, an expert cast, directed with subtlety by Joe Mantello, conveys the petty conflicts and major tragedies of these frightened people, beset by the shifting and uncertain landscape of modern America. Lights switch off, weird sounds emanate from all over Brigid and Richard’s spacious but crumbling Chinatown duplex (great set by David Zinn and sound by Fitz Patton), and the lives of the Blakes are gradually revealed as pitiful and desperate. The entire cast is top-rate with veterans Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell delivering their customary solid work. But Cassie Beck’s Aimee is outstanding in this standout ensemble. Her shattered, scattered cellphone call to an estranged girlfriend is a heartbreaking moment in an intensely real performance.
   Just after it opened, The Humans announced its transfer to Broadway next year. It will be fascinated to see if it this disturbing, unflinching look at the way we live now succeeds on the Great White Way.

October 30, 2015
 

The Humans: At the Helen Hayes. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission.
 

 
Hamilton
Richard Rodgers Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Photo by Joan Marcus

About every 10 years, a Broadway musical is christened by the theater pundit class and audiences as a landmark in the development of the art form, becoming more than just a smash hit and transforming into a phenomenon in the larger culture. Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Hair, A Chorus Line, and Rent are the most prominent examples of such fiery productions. Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon approached the status of game-changer but didn’t quite make it. Hamilton, the latest entry in this explosive category, looks to be the most shattering mold-breaker in recent years.
   Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sung-through biography of our most controversial Founding Father opened in February at the Public Theater with the force of a tidal wave, washing away familiar musical-theater forms and winning every award imaginable. Now on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers, Hamilton is poised to add several Tonys to its collection and run at least until the next presidential election and probably the one after that. Is it worth the hype? Definitely. Since the Public Theater engagement, Thomas Kail’s nonstop production and Andy Blankenbuehler’s seamless choreography have maintained their propulsive power and the performances have deepened.
   The Off-Broadway staging was overwhelming in its innovation: Hamilton’s revolutionary career and personal tragedy is played by a mostly African-American and Latino cast and told through a hip-hop filter. Miranda’s brilliantly intricate score and script draw parallels between the protagonist’s immigrant status and that of contemporary American minorities striving to establish their own identities just as the colonists were struggling to break free of the oppressive British motherland, personified by a sneering, dandy-ish King George III. (He even has his own signature musical style, 1960s British pop, to distinguish him from the Americans’ rap.)

On this second viewing, a layer of tender emotions is revealed in addition to the cleverness. Hamilton’s relationships with his wife, Eliza, her sister Angelica, his son Philip, and his arch-nemesis Aaron Burr who eventually killed him in their famous duel are now more complex and heartrending. Miranda, who also stars in the title role, has added a passionate tenderness to Hamilton’s bluster. Leslie Odom Jr. is even more multifaceted as the jealous Burr, exposing the character’s burning desire to be as central to the infant government as his rival.
   Phillipa Soo makes for a sweet Eliza, while Renee Elise Goldsberry attractively displays the intelligence of Angelica and her barely concealed, more-than-sisterly love for Alexander. David Diggs is exuberantly engaging, doubling as the merry Marquis de Lafayette and a peacock of a Thomas Jefferson.
   The only major cast change in this incarnation is Jonathan Groff, who took over the King George role so Brian d’Arcy James could star in Something Rotten. It’s a relatively small role, but Groff turns it into a hilarious cameo, delightfully disdainful of the new United States. Like all the other elements of Hamilton, the performance is perfection.

August 10, 2015
 
Opened Aug. 6 for an open run. Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 W. 46th St., NYC. Mon-Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermissions. $65–180. (800) 745-3000.

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Fun Home
Circle in the Square [show closed]

Something Rotten!
St. James Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


The ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two of the biggest contenders for the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical are polar opposites, but they demonstrate that when theater practitioners are playing at the top of their game, the results can be sublime whether the content is serious or silly. Fun Home is a jagged memory piece about a deeply dysfunctional family, while Something Rotten! is a screwy satire skewering Shakespeare as well as the conventions of musical comedy. The former will break your heart while the latter will break your funny bone.
   Fun Home was a hit during its limited run Off-Broadway at the Public Theater last season, winning almost every possible Best Musical accolade including the Lortel, the Outer Critics Circle, and the New York Drama Critics Circle awards. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, the musical takes a zigzag tour through Bechdel’s childhood, focusing on the impact of her coming out as a lesbian had on her family, particularly on her closeted gay father. Not exactly what you’d expect from a musical, but Lisa Kron’s compassionate book and witty lyrics and Jeanine Tesori’s rich music make the potentially intense tale warm, insightful, and, when appropriate, funny.
   While a successful commercial engagement on Broadway will prove challenging, Home has become even an even deeper experience in its new environment. Ironically, it’s also become more intimate even though it’s now playing a much bigger house. At the Circle in the Square, the audience surrounds the action, so the performers seem even more like a real family sharing their secrets. Director Sam Gold and set designer David Zinn have adapted the action from the Public’s revolving proscenium to the Circle’s oval by employing trap doors to raise and lower furniture like figures in memory.
   The cast is almost entirely intact from the Off-Broadway run. Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn have deepened their portrayals of the repressed parents, while Beth Malone seems more of a central voice setting the memories in motion as the adult Alison. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas still brings multiple layers to her Small Alison, and Emily Skeggs captures the awkwardness of first love as the college-age iteration of the heroine.

While Fun Home wants to make you feel and think, Something Rotten! only wants to make you laugh, and it succeeds like gangbusters. Written by a trio of Broadway neophytes—John O’Farrell and brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick—this lampoon lovingly sends up every musical as well as every Elizabethan comedy, tragedy, or history you could possibly think of (I filled three pages of a legal pad trying to keep up with all the references and finally gave up).
   Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom want to take the 17th century stage by storm, but a white-hot rival named Shakespeare is stealing the spotlight. Nick goes to a soothsayer (Nostradamus’s brother, Thomas, get it?) to find out what audiences of the future will crave, and it’s musicals. So the siblings stage the first-ever tuner while the Bard attempts to ruin it. It all sounds like an extended Carol Burnett Show sketch or that episode of Gilligan’s Island where castaways put on a musical version of Hamlet, but it’s brilliantly fleshed out by the authors and staged riotously and tightly by Casey Nicholaw.
   The book gets weak in the second act when the initial premise runs out of steam, but it comes on strong with the Bottom brothers’ climactic mock musical “Omelette,” which will go down in Broadway history along with “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers as one of the funniest shows-within-a-show ever. The cast of Broadway veterans constantly delights—Brian d’Arcy James commandingly klutzy as Nick; John Cariani adorably nebbishy as Nigel; Heidi Blickenstaff and Kate Reinders endearingly clever as their respective ladies; Christine Borle rock-star sexy as the Bard; and reliable clowns Brad Oscar, Peter Bartlett, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Gerry Vichi cutting up uproariously.

May 13, 2015
 
Something Rotten!: Opened April 22 for an open run. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $15.95–142. (212) 239-6200.

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An American in Paris
Palace Theatre

Gigi
Neil Simon Theatre [show closed]

It Shoulda Been You
Brooks Atkinson Theatre [show closed]


Reviewed by David Sheward


An American in Paris
Photo by Angela Sterling

Three recently opened Broadway musicals rely on old forms, but only one employs its source material with originality and charm. An American in Paris and Gigi are based on classic 1950s MGM movies set in the City of Light and starring Leslie Caron, while It Shoulda Been You retreads TV sitcoms.
   Let’s take the successful one first. The credits for An American in Paris say it was “inspired” by the 1951 Gene Kelly–Leslie Caron film favorite, which won the Best Picture Oscar over such weightier dramas as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay wrapped a simplistic story around the George and Ira Gershwin songbook, and legendary helmer Vincente Minnelli give it his unmistakable stamp of class and joy. Similarly, director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon gives an elegant and intoxicating spin to Craig Lucas’s new book. We are still in postwar Paris, but now the brutalities of the just-ended Nazi occupation seep into the basically silly plot of three pals in love with the same gamine girl, this time a fledgling dancer.
   Though the romance is farfetched, the Gershwins’s evergreen tunes (gorgeously adapted by Rob Fisher) and Wheeldon’s ballet-informed dances—along with Bob Crowley’s sophisticated sets and costumes, Natasha Katz’s painterly lighting, and the evocative video projections of 59 Productions—create an inviting Paris that is fantasy and reality. Ballet stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope not only dance the Kelly and Caron roles to perfection, they also sing and act with conviction, conveying the churning emotions of these love-struck dreamers. When they come together in the titular ballet sequence, it’s as close to ecstasy as you’ll get on the Broadway stage. Brandon Uranowitz, Max von Essen, Jill Paice, and Veanne Cox enliven their supporting roles.

Gigi from 1958 also starred Caron, was directed by Minnelli and written by Lerner, and won the Best Picture Oscar over such darker nonmusicals as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones. Lerner and his composer partner Frederick Loewe provided the original score to the film’s sanitized adaptation of Colette’s novel about the title heroine who is bred to be a French mistress but who would rather be a bourgeois wife. Unlike that of An American in Paris, the plot contains scant conflict, and while the songs from the film still enchant, the newer ones from a 1973 stage version add little. Heidi Thomas’s adapted book is even more scrubbed up than Lerner’s screenplay, and Eric Schaeffer has directed his company to play every line with exaggerated “ooh-la-la” broadness (Howard McGillin in the Maurice Chevalier role is particularly guilty of this Gallic mugging).
   As Gigi, Vanessa Hudgens of the High School Musical films sings with brio, as does her leading man Corey Cott. She has plenty of spunk but no irresistible sparkle, while Cott exudes manly charm. They are closer in age than the originals of Caron and Louis Jordan, but there is no sexual tension between them. Broadway vets Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty provide much-needed vinegar as Gigi’s worldly guardians. Catherine Zuber’s gowns are ravishing.
  
It Shoulda Been You
is nominally a totally original musical—not being based on an old movie, novel, or play. But, Brian Hargrove’s book uses hackneyed gags that went out of date 40 years ago, and Barbara Anselmi’s music is generic but pleasant. Anselmi is also credited with the “concept,” and five lyricists in addition to Hargrove are credited. This is definitely a case of too many cooks. Two families of stereotypes clash at a Manhattan wedding, and the guestbook reads like checklist of clichés: overbearing Jewish mother of the bride, alcoholic WASP mother of the groom, flamboyant wedding planner, panicky bride, goofy groom, etc. Sitcom-level plot twists proliferate as doors slam on Anna Louizos’s two-level set.
   I will admit the show is much better than when I saw it four years ago at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse. It’s much tighter and shorter. Fortunately, director David Hyde-Pierce (Hargrove’s husband) and a cast of polished professionals headed by Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris transform the second-drawer material into a tolerable 100 minutes. Special kudos to Lisa Howard as the plus-sized sister of the bride for creating a full-sized character in this tiny tuner.
   Final verdict: cheers for American; a shrug of the shoulders for Gigi and Shoulda.

May 2, 2015
 
An American in Paris: Opened April 12 for an open run. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $47–147. (800) 653-8000.

www.ticketmaster.com


 
Tribute
Mike Nichols


by Jerry Beal



O
n a shocking day in 1937, novelist John O’Hara is reputed to have said, “George Gershwin died today, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” A large part of the shock came from the composer’s age, 37. When Mike Nichols left us last week, he was 83. But the loss of this giant creates a similarly great chasm for a different reason: For the last half-century, the man and his work were not only omnipresent but his stamp was everywhere even when he was not. A Mike Nichols Production, regardless of the material, was a guarantee of quality, and as spoken by Linda Loman in his final theater production of Death of a Salesman, one always knew going in that “attention must be paid.”
   In summer 1963, a comedy by a fledgling playwright, then-titled Nobody Loves Me, was in pre-Broadway tryout mode at the Bucks County Playhouse. Neil Simon was sure his play was a failure, but like everyone else, he hadn’t yet realized that his novice director had found his calling. “This is what I was meant to do,” thought Nichols. Indeed it was. The now-titled Barefoot in the Park not only brought Simon stardom and Nichols his first of nine Tony awards, it launched a relationship that brought the director four Tonys from Simon work alone. But what was also not yet obvious was that Nichols’s astonishing comic mind would also be able to bring to life the works of Anton Chekhov, Lillian Hellman, Harold Pinter, Trevor Griffiths, David Rabe, Tom Stoppard, and Tony Kushner, not to mention the more obvious Jules Feiffer and Eric Idle.
   And in the process, that talent would help nurture indelible performances from among the greatest stage actors of our time. The cast of his 1973 production of Uncle Vanya alone reads like a who’s who of the profession: George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Lillian Gish, Julie Christie, Barnard Hughes. And who can forget the lines that formed hours and even the night before to get free tickets for his Central Park production of The Seagull with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman—Oscar winners all, and each a veteran of Nichols productions.


The cast of the 1973 Uncle Vanya

   After being lauded by a stream of actors over many episodes of Inside the Actors Studio, the master himself finally got to speak. And one of the nuggets he shared that night is perhaps the key to his greatness: What is this really about? That, he said, is the question he always asked himself, whether about a single scene or the entirety of the piece at hand. In looking at his complete oeuvre—film, television, and theater—the application of that question explains its consistent excellence. If one accepts that things come in threes, it is hard to argue against the trio of Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Mike Nichols as the defining artists that have given American theater of the last 50 years its shape, its energy, and its value.

November 30, 2014
 

 
A Bronx Tale
Longacre Theatre

The Band’s Visit
Atlantic Theater Company at Linda Gross Theatre

The Death of the Last Black Man in Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead
Signature Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward


Jamar Williams, William DeMeritt, Mirirai Sithole, Amelia Workman, David Ryan Smith, Nike Kadri, Reynaldo Piniella, and Daniel J. Watts in The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World....
Photo by Joan Marcus

If the recent presidential election has taught us anything, it’s that racism and stereotyping are still prevalent despite polite wrist-slapping by the media elite. A spate of new productions address prejudice in various forms with varying degrees of creativity and imagination. It should come as no surprise that the Broadway entry in this roundup is the softest and least dangerous of the three, while the Off-Broadway shows are edgier and more honest.
   A Bronx Tale, the Broadway show and the safest production under consideration here, is the latest iteration of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical solo play about his boyhood attachment to a local mob figure and its affect on his hardworking father. After successful 1989 runs in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway with Palminteri playing his younger self and all the other characters, Robert De Niro made his directorial debut with the 1993 film version and played Lorenzo, the father, with Palminteri as Sonny, the neighborhood boss. The movie’s success launched Palminteri’s film acting career, usually limning tough guys, most notably in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. The author-star returned to Tale in a 2007 Broadway revival directed by Jerry Zaks.
   In this age of recycling material, a musical version was inevitable. Many of the personnel associated with earlier editions are associated with the new product. Palminteri wrote the book and Zaks and De Niro co-direct. Sonny is played by Nick Cordero, who starred in the Palminteri role in the so-so stage musical version of Bullets.
   The show is slick, professional, and enjoyable, with smart staging from Zaks and De Niro (though I suspect Zaks is largely responsible for the musical’s zip, along with Sergio Trujillo’s street-savvy choreography). Palminteri attempts to retain the grittiness and depth of his original script, but it gets drowned in nostalgic musical suds. The score, by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, employs the 1960s sounds of the settings and has some grabby high spots but feels mostly derivative.
   In the original, Sonny and Lorenzo emerge as complex figures. The mobster is a brutal killer but also compassionate when young Chazz (his full name is Calogero) reveals he wants to date an African-American girl. The dad is a role model of honesty, rejecting Sonny’s easy money and loose morals, but he intolerantly rejects his son’s reaching across racial lines. In this musical, these rough edges are smoothed over with everybody singing about finding their “heart.”
   Despite Cordero’s charismatic performance, or maybe because of it, Sonny’s darkness is totally eclipsed by a sunny—no pun intended—demeanor. This Sonny is a great guy, a romantic crooner, and a “cute” gangster we root for even as he smashes rivals with a baseball bat. It’s the latest example of stereotyping mob figures in a rosy, admiring aura.
   This qualm does not lessen my admiration for Bobby Conte Thornton, who, as Calogero, carries the show on his shoulders with style; sturdy Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo; and spunky Hudson Loverro as the child version of the hero.

While Bronx Tale offers cuddly criminals serving sweet tiramisu, The Band’s Visit by Atlantic Theatre Company is a spicier slice of falafel. Derived from a 2007 Israeli film, this small-scale tuner is intimate and authentic, while Bronx Tale is big and broad like a tourist version of reality. When an Egyptian policeman’s band is stranded in an isolated Israeli town for a night, the musicians must rely on the hospitality of the residents. Unexpected connections form as cultures clash and stereotyping breaks down. David Yazbek’s moving songs incorporate an exotic blend of influences rarely heard on or Off-Broadway, and David Cromer’s direction has a refreshing verisimilitude. There are dozens of tiny, evocative moments such as an exhausted wife angrily simmering as her husband and father entertain their visitors; two men awaiting calls from their distant sweethearts battling over a pay phone; the band’s Romeo offering romantic advice at a roller-skating rink; and the autocratic conductor letting his guard down as the lonely cafe owner sings of her attraction for him.
   Tony Shalhoub is pricelessly stiff as the proper bandleader, and Katrina Lenk convincingly conveys both the brittle sheen and soft center of Dina, his sarcastic hostess. Daniel David Stewart, Ari’el Stachel, John Cariani, Kristen Sieh, and Erik Liberman also provide endearingly real portraits.

In the third look at theatrical responses to cultural stereotyping, we move from desert realism to abstract symbolism. Suzan-Lori Parks’s singularly titled The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead (1990), at Signature Theatre, takes on the most brutal aspects of prejudice in a nightmarish tone poem populated by race-based figures. Black Man with Watermelon (an intense Daniel J. Watts) dies over and over, by lynching and the electric chair, as his wife Black Woman with Fried Drumstick (a magnificent Rosyln Ruff) perpetually says goodbye and goes into mourning. Their narrative of sorrow is augmented by a chorus of mythical stock characters with names like Old Man River Jordan, Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut, and Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz makes this satiric parody into a lively dance-meditation on race, and Ruff’s emotive acting transforms a symbol into a living, breathing person. In this era of Black Lives Matter and the triumph of Trump, Parks’s angry, mysterious, and challenging work is especially relevant—and dangerously real.

December 12, 2016
 
A Bronx Tale: Opened Dec. 1 for an open run. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $45–$162. (212) 239-6200.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Barrymore Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Alex Sharp

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time shouldn’t work. Its protagonist, Christopher Boone, is a difficult young man to like. Incredibly brilliant at math and logic, yet suffering from a form of autism, the 15-year-old cannot comprehend human emotion and hates being touched. He screams and becomes violent whenever anyone does so. He’s also arrogant and selfish. Plus, the titular mystery—the canine of the title is killed and the falsely accused Christopher sets out to find the culprit—is solved at the end of the first act. As if that weren’t enough, there are a lot of math problems—which are not exactly the stuff of high drama. And let’s not forget the original Mark Haddon novel is all told in the first person from Christopher’s skewed perspective.
   But just as she did with War Horse, director Marianne Elliott makes brilliant use of stagecraft to bring a seemingly untranslatable literary work to breathing, vital life in this stunning production from Britain’s National Theatre. Playwright Simon Stephens has surmounted the challenge of the source material by having Christopher adapt his journal as a play narrated by his teacher Siobhan, while Elliott employs Bunny Christie’s vast graph-paper-lined box of a set as if it were a blank sheet for Christopher to work out his emotional and mathematical dilemmas. With the invaluable aid of Paule Constable’s lighting, Finn Ross’s video design, and the soundscape created by Ian Dickinson for Autograph and Adrian Sutton’s original music, we journey into the complex world of a suburb seething with subtext and then to the urban madhouse known as London. And it’s all from Christopher’s point of view, so that his trip on the train and subway become a harrowing bombardment of sensations. The ingenious movement by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly perfectly augments the intricate staging.
   All this technical wizardry might overshadow the performances, but a powerful American cast proves equal to the efforts of the helmer and her design team. As Christopher, recent Juilliard graduate Alex Sharp does a magnificent job of carrying the show on his boyish shoulders. He masterfully conveys the teenager’s incisive intelligence, childlike neediness, and raging incomprehension at the bad behavior displayed by the grownups. We actually get to like this impossible adolescent. Ian Barford finds the deep love at the center of Christopher’s undemonstrative father, and Enid Graham makes for a sympathetic mother despite the character’s questionable actions. Francesca Faridany as Siobhan provides an anchor for the action, and Mercedes Herrero adds spice, doubling as a nasty neighbor and a vinegary headmistress.
   As for the math problems, Elliott uses all the means at her disposal to create a spectacular post-curtain call coda about triangles. If you never thought you’d be cheering about equations, check out this curious and marvelous Incident.

October 14, 2014

Opened Oct. 5 for an open run. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission. $27–129. (212) 239-6200.

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Aladdin
New Amsterdam Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Aladdin, the latest Disney theme-park attraction—I mean Broadway show based on one of the studio’s cartoon features—is not as pedestrian as the flabby Tarzan or the all-wet Little Mermaid. But it doesn’t reach the imaginative heights of Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation of The Lion King. This one is somewhere in the middle, depending too much on the screen version but with just enough silly fun to keep you going until the curtain call and that final walk past the merchandise counter.
   The fun is mostly provided by James Monroe Iglehart as the hyperactive genie, who grants Aladdin’s three wishes while reeling off contemporary pop culture references. In the film, Robin Williams voiced this magical maniac, and the animators had a field day transforming his image into thousands of different likenesses of the celebrities Williams impersonated. Iglehart, a burly guy with the infectious spirit of Fats Waller, comes close as any flesh-and-blood performer can to re-creating these zany cartoon antics. The shenanigans reach their zenith in Act 1 near-finale “Friend Like Me,” in which the genie displays his awesome powers along with Bob Crawley’s dazzling sets and Gregg Barnes’s fabulous costumes. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw pulls out all the stops as Iglehart and a hardworking chorus parody game shows, reality TV, and previous Disney shows with wild glee. At the preview performance attended, the number earned a prolonged ovation with several fans standing.

The trouble is, the show doesn’t maintain that degree of inspired lunacy. The two leads— Adam Jacobs as the plucky Aladdin and Courtney Reed as the spunky Princess Jasmine—are attractive and possess acceptable voices, but they lack Iglehart’s charisma to carry an entire production. Even their iconic magic-carpet ride, which features the Oscar-winning song “A Whole New World,” fails to soar. The rest of the Alan Menkin–Howard Ashman–Tim Rice score, augmented by new songs with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, similarly doesn’t levitate.
   Beguelin’s book is serviceable but full of groan-inducing puns. “I feel awful” is rejoined with “Did someone say falafel?” by an always-hungry sidekick. Speaking of sidekicks, Beguelin ditches the trademark funny animals from the movie and replaces them with not-so-funny human assistants. Instead of Aladdin’s monkey, we have three caricaturish stooges, and the evil Jafar’s Gilbert Gottfried­–voiced parrot is switched out with an annoying clown. Fortunately, Jonathan Freeman repeats his delightfully snarly take on Jafar from the film. He and the bubbly Iglehart are the engines that keep this Aladdin flying as high as it goes. Too bad it doesn’t get far off the ground.

March 22, 2014

Opened March 20 at the New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $49.50–115.50. (866) 870-2717.

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Kinky Boots
Al Hirschfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Stark Sands, Annaleigh Ashford, and Billy Porter
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Kinky Boots is anything but. The new musical based on the 2005 British film is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers and not the dangerous kind of footwear the title suggests. Its plot and theme are becoming old hat—sorry to mix clothing metaphors—on Broadway these days. The young hero attempts to save a reliable but crumbling institution (the family shoe factory in the north of England) by introducing a radical new product (fabulous hip-high boots designed for male cross-dressers) with the aid of an outrageously self-reliant outsider (a drag performer named Lola). It’s sort of a cross between La Cage Aux Folles and Billy Elliot with a bit of Sister Act and The Full Monty thrown in for good measure.
   But with pros like director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, book-writer Harvey Fierstein, and pop icon Cyndi Lauper who is making her theatrical debut as a songwriter, on the creative team, these Boots are made for walkin’ and that’s just what they do. Fierstein’s book features the same uplifting-spirits and be-who-you-are tropes he inserted in La Cage and Newsies, but the characters are believable and deeply drawn. Even the belligerent factory homophobe changes his tune and does some growing up. Naturally, there is a crisis just before the big event, which will solve everyone’s problems (in this case, a shoe fashion show in Milan), the diva sings a power ballad of self-acceptance and love, and a big hand-clapping finale provides a happy resolution for all. Despite the predictability of the plot, Mitchell’s inventive moves and slick staging make it fun getting to the inevitable conclusion. Not surprisingly, the most exciting numbers feature a sextette of gorgeous dragsters, kicking and slinking around the stage in eye-popping frocks by designer Gregg Barnes.
   Lauper’s score borrows a bit heavily from the 1980s vibe of her smash Top 40 hits (one song is too reminiscent of Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” for comfort) and her lyrics won’t be keeping Stephen Sondheim up at night. “Kitsch” and “bitch” are the most memorable rhymes. Still, as skillfully orchestrated by Stephen Oremus, they are infectious, fun, and expressive.
   Broadway veteran Billy Porter, who has starred in replacement companies of Miss Saigon and Dreamgirls, finally gets to originate a sockeroo role in Lola. Yes, we have seen divine drag artists in the three productions of La Cage as well as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but Porter gives this one his own stamp. He caresses each syllable, stretching out the word to sound like “shex,” and commanding the stage with dazzling charisma. We also see the shy male inside the fierce female when Porter steps out of drag into a vest, shirt, and pants as Simon, Lola’s masculine alter ego. Stark Sands has the more difficult challenge of playing Charlie, the nebbishy factory owner, opposite the glittering Porter. He manages to enliven Charlie’s struggle to find his own passion. When the two discover their common insecurities in “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” it’s a heart-stopping moment. Annaleigh Ashford integrates endlessly fresh comic bits into the obligatory love interest role, and Daniel Stewart Sherman is suitably gruff as the bullying Dan.
   Kinky Boots may not be as dazzling as the footwear on the show’s drag queens, but it’s certainly well-constructed, holds up under pressure, and will give you an entertaining two-and-a-half-hour walk.

April 6, 2013
 
Opened April 4 for an open run. Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $57–137. (800) 432-7250.

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