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The Tempest

Stratford Festival

Reviewed by David Sheward

André Sills in Coriolanus
Photo by David Hou

Visionary Canadian director Robert LePage has been accused of stressing his technologically dazzling concepts at the expense of the text. In his magnificent staging of Shakespeare’s infrequently performed saga of power and mass hysteria Coriolanus for the Stratford Festival in the province of Ontario, he gives the lie to that calumny. LePage’s innovative and ultramodern effects are anything but gimmicky and serve the purpose of the Bard’s theme of easy public manipulation, an especially relevant trope in this age of social media and governing by Twitter. This astonishing production combines elements of film and theater to create a third, hybrid form, moving with the speed of light yet still carrying the full weight of Shakespeare’s dynamic and scathing indictment of thoughtless mob mentality.
   Through means of LePage’s intricate set and Laurent Routhier’s multidimensional lighting, the stage of Stratford’s Avon Theater transforms into a dozen locations with fascinating fluidity. LePage, along with Steve Blanchet, listed as creative director and designer, has created individual box units, which travel horizontally and vertically and can seem to shrink and expand through the use of black masking curtains. Thus, he delivers the theatrical equivalent of close-ups, dissolves, and other cinematic tricks. He even begins the evening with movie-like titles credits. One particularly dazzling sequence features a transformation from a stylish, subdued cocktail lounge to a blaring airstrip complete with a landing plane in a matter of seconds.
   This filmic approach and totally modern setting (Mara Gottier created the sleek costumes) is perfect for the plot. Coriolanus is a proud Roman general refusing to stoop to court the public’s good will in order to be elected to a civilian position in government. A pair of jealous tribunes stirs the common people’s ire against the arrogant military hero, and he is banished. LePage updates the setting to our media-crazed present with plebeians phoning in to radio talk shows, soldiers exchanging texts projected on a giant screen, and the exiled Coriolanus driving what appears to be a real sports car through a video terrain of ruined cities and dense forests to his former enemy’s encampment.
   Fortunately the sterling performances of the Stratford cast are not overwhelmed by LePage’s wizardry. In the title role, André Sills is a combination action hero and tragic towering figure. He employs his massive bulk to convey the sheer the power of this military man, as well as his rich voice and precise diction to impart his intelligence and pride. Yet he becomes a churlish boy in the presence of his lioness of a mother, Volumnia, played with fiery intensity by Lucy Peacock. When these two collide, the stage explodes. Tom McManus makes a sagacious and sober Menenius, Coroilanus’s trusted mentor; and Stephen Ouimette and Tom Rooney are suitably conniving and self-interested as the plotting tribunes. Graham Abbey brings the necessary macho swagger to Aufidius, Coriolanus’s battlefield rival and nemesis, plus an intriguing tinge of gay sexuality, hinted at in Shakespeare’s text and brought into the open by LePage. This is a perfect production and one that hopefully be brought to other stages outside of Stratford.

While LePage perfectly combines all the elements of script, cast, and production, Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino comes up short with a tepid Tempest. His concept and several stage effects are arresting, but the beating heart of the play is missing. Bretta Gerecke’s dazzling sets and costumes beautifully create a fanciful, magical world, and Cimolino staged numerous effective sequences including a rousing initial storm scene and a truly terrifying tormenting of the villains featuring an impressive giant harpy.
   There are also many fine individual performances, but the necessary connections between the makeshift island community created amid the shipwrecked magician Prospero, the daughter Miranda, the ethereal sprite Ariel, and the resentful reptilian Caliban were not credible. Stratford veteran Martha Henry makes Prospero into a wise, matriarchal figure, but her bond with Mamie Zwettler’s energetic Miranda was perfunctory. Apart from Henry’s occasional fussing with Zwettler’s hair, there was no tenderness or spark between the two. Henry’s approach to the role is more temperate and mild, lacking the usual explosive dynamism (lest I be accused of sexism, I have admired previous female Prosperos, including Helen Mirren’s interpretation in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version). Andre Morin’s Ariel was earthbound, while Michael Blake was muted in delivering Caliban’s simmering rage. The only joy and liveliness is provided by Stephen Ouimette and Tom McCamus who inject a sense of reckless wiliness into the drunken clowns Trinculo and Stephano.

More reaction from the Stratford and nearby Shaw Festivals will follow in upcoming reviews.
August 15, 2018
Coriolanus: June 22–Oct. 25. Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St. Stratford, Ontario. Running time 2 hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission.

The Tempest: May 28–Oct. 26. Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St., Stratford, Ontario. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.

All productions: repertory schedule. $24.50–$191.53 (Canadian). (800) 567-1600.


Head Over Heels
Hudson Theatre

Fiddler on the Roof
National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at Museum of Jewish Heritage

Twelfth Night
Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater/Central Park

This Ain’t No Disco
Atlantic Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Taylor Iman Jones and company in Head Over Heels
Photo by Joan Marcus

A quartet of musical productions on and Off-Broadway mash up musical styles, time periods, and cultural perspectives. Three of these blenderizings result in diverse delight, while one produces a pulpy mess. Head Over Heels on Broadway and a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Central Park employ Elizabethan romantic romps as their template and deliver modern messages of inclusion, while a Yiddish-language staging offers a new and moving view of the beloved Fiddler on the Roof.
   Head Over Heels could have been just another jukebox musical, but the clever book originally by Jeff Whitty and rewritten by James Magruder mixes Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th century prose work The Arcadia with songs by the 1980s girl group The Go-Go’s (along with tunes from the solo career of member Belinda Carlisle) for a surprisingly fun, silly joyride. The usual tangle of hidden loves and gender-bending disguises gets a 2018 twist with lesbian, transgender, and feminist themes interwoven.
   The mythical kingdom of Arcadia, a weird collage of ancient Greek, Elizabethan, and 1980s sensibilities (Julian Crouch designed the charming storybook sets), lives by the beat, a harmonious life rhythm and also a good excuse for the cast to open the show with “We Got the Beat,” the Go-Go’s’ biggest hit, and dance Spencer Liff’s infectious choreography. The revelry is interrupted by a dire prophecy of doom delivered by Pythio, a sexually binary figure played by Drag Race contestant Peppermint. Chauvinist king Basilius (sturdy Jeremy Kushnier) leads his court into the woods to avoid the deadly predictions, much to the objections of his strong-minded queen Gynecia (diva-fierce Rachel York).
   Confusion in the forest ensues, staged with just the right balance of zaniness and precision by Michael Mayer. Royal daughters Pamela (comic find Bonnie Milligan) and Philoclea (sparkly Alexandra Socha) find unconventional love with trusty handmaid Mopsa (vibrant Taylor Iman Jones) and shepherd Musidorus (adorable and funny Andrew Durand) respectively. Whitty and Magruder invert the usual gender-bending by having Musidorus disguise himself as a fetching Amazon lass. The myriad plot patches are woven into a brightly colored crazy quilt, reflecting the creators and cast’s appreciation and love of sexual diversity, pop culture, and the beat.

The Central Park Twelfth Night gives off similar vibes of inspired nuttiness and celebratory sexual ambiguity. The Bard’s perennially popular tale of separated boy and girl twins has previously been musicalized with the hit Your Own Thing and the flops Love and Let Love, Music Is, Play On!, and All Shook Up. This latest updating is as much fun as Heels and obliterates any memory of predecessors.
   Like Heels’ Arcadia, Twelfth Night’s Illyria is an imaginary realm where identities blur and overlap. Director Kwame Kwei-Armah envisioned the setting as a gigantic block party with participation from local community groups when this production was done as a limited Public Works staging in 2016. Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis takes up the reigns for this renewed staging, while Kwei-Armah fulfills his new position as artistic director of the New Vic in London.
   The Delacorte stage literally overflows with people as Tony winners Nikki M. James and Shuler Hensley and other Broadway and Off-Broadway vets mix with nonprofessionals in a riotous configuration expertly controlled by Eustis with hip choreography by Lorin Latarro. In addition to the solid James and Hensley, Ato Blankson-Wood, Nanya-Akuki Goodrich, Daniel Hall, Andrew Kober, and Lori Brown-Niang prove capable clowns. Shaina Taub leads the orchestra with aplomb, plays the fool Feste with zip, and wrote the splendid songs, which explore themes of gender switching and perspective. This infectious and fizzy spectacle rushes by in 90 minutes, a delicious summer cooler. What a pity it will gone soon. But that makes it all the more special. If the Public Theater attempts to transfer it to a commercial run, it would have to scale back the size and trim the bubbling excess. It wouldn’t be the same indoors or smaller.

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production of Fiddler on the Roof performs a reverse operation—reducing the scale of a huge Broadway smash to a more intimate experience in the small auditorium at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The result is not a diminishment. The production staged with love and professionalism by the Oscar-Tony-winning actor Joel Grey creates a sense of a community telling the story of a small village in Tsarist Russia rather than a series of star turns and showstoppers. The Yiddish-language adaptation by Shraga Friedman from the 1965 Israeli premiere further adds to the spirit of the setting since this is the language Sholom Aleichem’s characters would have spoken. (English and Russian translations are provided on screens on either side of the stage.) Grey’s staging and Stas Kmiec’s choreography convey the close connections within the village of Anatevka as its flinty inhabitants scrape out a living in the shadow of an oppressive anti-Semitic government. The horrors of the pogroms become frighteningly real as Beowulf Borritt’s simple set and a banner with Hebrew writing are ripped apart.
   Steven Skybell leads the company as Tevye, the long-suffering milkman with five daughters, a nagging wife, and a close relationship with God. Skybell, a New York theater veteran with numerous Broadway and Off-Broadway credits, conveys the full range of Tevye’s reactions to the eroding of his beloved Old World traditions as they give way to 20th-century shifts. Here is a father wrestling with challenges to his authority and love for his children instead of a comic delivering a big number or going for the laugh lines. Jennifer Babiak captures the rough edge of Tevye’s spouse, Golde, as well as her hidden tenderness. Each member of the company becomes a full-fleshed citizen of Anatevka from Jackie Hoffman’s kvetching matchmaker to every beggar, butcher, and ghost.

The same cannot be said for This Ain’t No Disco, a new musical from Atlantic Theater Company with major-name involvement but minor impact. The self-described “rock opera” also attempts to depict a community—that of the late 1970s-’80s NYC club scene—but produces only stereotypes and derivative songs. This is a surprise since the score is by Stephen Trask and Peter Yankowitz who worked on Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Trask as composer and Yankowitz as the original drummer), the book is by Trask, Yankowitz, and Rick Elice (co-author of Jersey Boys), and direction is by Tony winner Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder).
   There are individual moments of excitement provided by Samantha Marie Ware as a troubled recording star, Chilina Kennedy as a smarmy publicist-turned–TV personality, and Will Connolly as an Andy Warhol clone. But the storyline is overly familiar with goodhearted Sammy (Ware) and Chad (sweet Peter Laprade) caught up in the phony milieu of Studio 54 and the Mudd Club. Instead of insightful commentary and portraiture of a bizarre and intoxicating era, we get warmed-over tropes of innocence corrupted, accompanied by pedestrian tunes and lyrics, traffic-cop direction by Tresnjak, aerobics-class choreography by Camille A. Brown, and outrageous mugging by Theo Stockman as Steve Rubell, the real-life owner Studio 54.
   You’ll have a joyful night at Head Over Heels, Twelfth Night, or Fiddler, but This Ain’t No Disco ain’t worth your time.

August 1, 2018
Head Over Heels: Opened July 26 for an open run. Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th 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. $49–$290. (855) 801-5876.

Twelfth Night: July 31–Aug. 19. Free Shakespeare in the Park/Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West, NYC. Tue–Sun, 8pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. Free. (212) 967-7555.

Fiddler on the Roof: July 15–Sept. 2. National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, NY. Wed 1pm, Thu 1pm & 7pm, Fri noon, Sun 1pm & 6pm, Mon 7pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $75–$105. (866) 811-4111.

This Ain’t No Disco: July 24–Aug. 12. Atlantic Theatre Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 2 hours, 20 minutes, including intermission. $91.50–$111.50. (866) 811-4111.


On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Irish Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The ensemble of On a Clear Day
Photo courtesy of Irish Repertory Theatre

In the world of Broadway musical theater, do terrific songs offset a limp book? That’s the question raised with Irish Repertory Theater’s small-scale revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s 1965 curiosity On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. This is one of those tuners that has more than its share of flaws, had a modest original run, and is occasionally hauled out of the closet for its memorable melodies. Lerner’s brilliant lyrics and Lane’s smooth, sweet music are always a pleasure to listen to, but you have to suffer through Lerner’s sitcom-like book, unmitigated by director-adaptor Charlotte Moore’s alterations.
   The plot, such as it is, centers on Daisy Gamble, a waifish kook and unknowing wielder of such trendy supernatural skills as ESP, precognition, and the ability to make flowers grow rapidly by talking to them. When psychiatrist Mark Bruckner hypnotizes her to cure her smoking habit, she regresses into a past existence as sophisticated British aristocrat Melinda Welles. Naturally, Mark falls in love with the alluring Melinda but can’t stand the quirky, odd-duck Daisy. Despite the absurdity of the plotline, the score contains numerous gems. “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” is a delightfully whimsical charm number for Daisy to coax blossoms into bloom. (Who else but Lerner could rhyme “geranium” with “subterranium” or “RSVP” with “peonies”?) “He Wasn’t You” is lushly romantic; “S.S. Bernard Cohn” is zippy and full of show-biz razzmatazz; and “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have” is a satisfying 10 o’clock number, but it’s sung a half-hour too early.
   As noted, the original starring the gamine Barbara Harris and the virile John Cullum was an uneven shipwreck, lost amid smashes like Man of La Mancha, Mame, and Sweet Charity, and closing after 280 performances. (Excerpts from the show performed on a TV special can be found on YouTube.) Vincente Minnelli’s overstuffed 1970 film version featured the unlikely pairing of Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand with a young Jack Nicholson in a tiny role. Cecil Beaton’s costumes for the regression scenes were the movie’s highlight. A 2011 revival recast Daisy as David, a gay male florist, and Melinda as a female 1940s jazz singer, injecting a bisexual subtext into Mark’s attraction, but Peter Parnell’s revised book failed to stitch together these myriad sexual and psychic threads, and the attempt closed after only 57 performances.

Moore returns the show to its goofy origins, stripping away extraneous characters such as Daisy’s stuffy fiancé, her hippie stepbrother (Nicholson’s role in the film), and a Greek shipping magnate desperate to find the secret of reincarnation so he can leave his fortune to his future self. Moore’s staging is direct and efficient with the small ensemble and an underused revolving staging providing scene changes (James Morgan designed the simple sets and the sweetly cartoonish projections). The show is still something of a hot mess with the songs the only bright spots. Kudos to music director John Bell and the small orchestra.
   As Daisy and Mark, Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus are reliable Broadway veterans, professionally hitting their marks and notes, but failing to generate any electricity between each other or the audience. John Cudia displays a sexy, strong baritone as Melinda’s Regency lover, and the eight-member chorus is pleasantly versatile. Unlike other constantly revived and retuned shows such as Follies or Show Boat, On a Clear Day will never be more than mildly pleasant. Moore has made the show a bit clearer, but I wouldn’t want it to last forever. A brief listen to those catchy songs is enough.
July 14, 2018
June 28–Sept. 2. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC. Wed 3pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $50–$70. (212) 727-2737.


Log Cabin
Playwrights Horizons

Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theater/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Cindy Cheung, Dolly Wells, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Phillip James Brannon
Photo by Joan Marcus

You can trace the rising trajectory of the gay community in America through recent revivals of landmark plays presented on New York Stages. From vicious self-pity in The Boys in the Band to questing romance in Torch Song to revolutionary anger and AIDS advocacy in Angels in America, LGBTQ characters have transformed from pathetic outsiders to fierce warriors. Jordan Harrison’s new comedy Log Cabin, depicting a clash of ideals between two gays couples and their transgender friend, arrives Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons as the latest theatrical commentary on the gay/trans experience. Harrison has previously captured cultural collisions in incisive and moving plays such as Maple and Vine and Marjorie Prime, but here his conflicts feel manufactured and his protagonists are little more than animated talking points.
   The action beings in 2012 in the tasteful urban apartment of lesbian wives Jules and Pam (Allen Moyer designed the handsome revolving set). The women are celebrating the forthcoming arrival of a new baby and the upcoming nuptials of their best friends, gay male couple Ezra and Chris. The quartet discusses the odd sensation of having won their major battles and lacking a driving direction. After a few scenes rife with witticisms, enter Ezra’s boyhood friend Henry (formerly Helen), whose trans status throws a monkey wrench into the other characters’ complacency. In a party sequence reminiscent of Boys in the Band and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Henry and his younger girlfriend Mynah act as catalysts for a conflagration between the seemingly content couples. Henry also complains he’s now the lowest minority on the totem pole. This leads to a shouting match over who is the most oppressed. The three pairs face serious relational rifts and reconfigure in unconventional and hardly plausible patterns (Spoiler alert: The masculine Henry who still has a functioning uterus acts as a surrogate for Ezra and Chris’s baby. I didn’t buy it either.)
   Harrison brings up vital points about the interconnections between the gay and trans communities, but the characters are not fully developed, so we care little about the outcome. Chris is African-American and Pam is Asian-American, but their racial identities receive scant play as does Jules’s status as a transplanted Brit.

Joshua Harmon’s Skintight, at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater Off-Broadway is almost as superficial. Ironically, shallowness, not just of the homosexual variety, is the subject matter. It, too, raises interesting questions but fails to examine them with any depth. Forty-ish Jodi has fled to the swanky townhouse (another exquisite set, this time by Lauren Helpern) of Elliot, her internationally famous fashion-designer father. Her husband has left her for a 20-something beauty. What she doesn’t know is Elliot, about to celebrate his 70th birthday, is living with Trey, a gorgeous young man, also in his 20s. To add spice to the comedy, Jodi’s gay son Benjamin, arrives and is drawn the hunky Trey. The playwright’s theme is the obsession with beauty, which possesses or affects all the characters and by extension our entire society.
   Like Harrison, Harmon supplies us with a fair quotient of laughs, and while Harrison has not sufficiently developed his people, Harmon gives his more dimension. Yet all are whiny, selfish, and unlikable. He has created other unpleasant and/or narcissistic protagonists in previous works such as Bad Jews, Significant Others, and Admissions. But in those pieces they were complex, if deeply flawed. Here you just want to get away from them. Elliot neglects his family and is obsessed with Trey’s physical attributes. Jodi and Benjamin hungrily crave attention and lack compassion for anyone else. Trey is crude and boorish; Harmon tries to give him some sympathetic shading late in the play, but it’s by then it’s too late to garner any audience empathy.

Fortunately, directors Pam MacKinnon and Daniel Aukin deliver taut productions, and the respective casts are sharp and funny. Jesse Tyler Ferguson of TV’s Modern Family displays his precise comic timing as Ezra, and Cindy Cheung makes the most of the underwritten role of Pam in Log Cabin. In Skintight, Eli Gelb finds nuances in the disagreeable Benjamin, and Will Brittain does his damnedest to make Trey more than just eye candy. Idina Menzel and Jack Wetherall fare less well with the objectionable Jodi and Elliott. Both Log Cabin and Skintight deal with financially secure citizens moaning about first-world problems. Both playwrights are skilled at witty quips and plot structure, but it’s hard to get involved with either work past the chuckles.
June 30, 2018
Log Cabin: June 25–July 15. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 2:30pm & 7pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $59–$99. (212) 279-4200.

Skintight: June 21–Aug. 26. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theater/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $119. (212) 719-1300.


Free Shakespeare in the Park/Delacorte Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Chukwudi Iwuji as Othello

The latest entry in the Public Theater’s annual free Shakespeare in Central Park series is a traditional one on the surface, but there are subtle shifts in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s sturdy staging that give this Othello a modern perspective. Racial issues are not as strongly emphasized as sexual ones, and the women emerge as the strongest voices.
   The dynamic between the trusting, easily led title character and his deceptive ensign Iago is the usual engine of most productions. Iago’s hateful machinations to drive Othello into a murderous rage over his innocent wife, Desdemona, are the main propellants of the drama. Othello’s outsider status as a black Moor in white European society underlies Iago’s malice, though Iago professes that his suspicion of his commander as cuckolding him with his spouse, Emilia (Desdemona’s lady in waiting), is the main motive. Santiago-Hudson has toned down the edge of the play’s themes of racism by casting several African-American actors in supporting roles—including Roderigo, a foolish rival for Desdemona’s affections.

Corey Stoll’s Iago is a tad too lighthearted and comical in his villainy, garnering laughter from the large outdoor audience as he confesses his treachery in soliloquies. Chukwudi Iwuji’s Othello is properly commanding and passionate, but he switches on the anger too abruptly, accelerating into full explosion mood with little transition. Having reached volcano status early in the proceedings, Iwuji only increases in volume and fury. He twists his body like a contortionist, bending it into a knot of rage. Despite these shortcomings, Santiago-Hudson delivers a compelling, straightforward telling of Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, aided by Rachel Hauck’s elegantly simple set, Toni-Leslie James’s rich period costumes, and Jane Cox’s sensitive lighting.
   The momentum increases in the second act when Heather Lind’s Desdemona and Alison Wright’s Emilia get more time. In the spirit of the #MeToo movement, Lind gives Desdemona a backbone. Though she submits to her husband’s irrational rantings, this Desdemona stands up for herself—as much as possible given Shakespeare’s constraints. Likewise, Wright’s Emilia is a fiery advocate for her mistress’s virtue and the rights of all women. Her intense unraveling of her mate’s cunning is the highlight of the evening. But when Emilia is the most interesting character, it’s a lesser Othello.
June 23, 2018

June 18–23. Free Shakespeare in the Park/Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West, NYC. Tue–Sun, 8pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. Free. (212) 967-7555.


2018 Tony and Drama Desk Predictions
By David Sheward

Ari’el Stachel, David Garo Yellin, Goerge Abud, Tony Shalhoub, Harvey Valdes, Sam Sadigursky, and Alok Tewari in Atlantic Theater Company’s The Band’s Visit
Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Just like last year, the Tony and Drama Desk awards are going to be very different.
   In 2017, Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 dominated the Tonys but were ineligible for the Drama Desks because they were in the running for 2016 because of their earlier Off-Broadway runs. The Tonys are only for Broadway shows, and the Drama Desks include on and Off. Usually the Drama Desks and Tonys results are similar because the Drama Desks voters tend to go for Broadway shows.
   The Tonys are voted on by 841 industry insiders including producers, directors, designers, actors, stage managers, and a few critics who belong to the New York Drama Critics Circle; the Drama Desks are voted on by about 100 theater reviewers, editors, and reporters.
   This year, The Band’s Visit is the likely Tony champ, but it played Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company last season, taking home several 2017 Drama DeskAwards, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. In addition, several Broadway performers and creative personnel who received Tony love are absent from the Drama Desk list, particularly Lauren Ambrose and Norbert Leo Butz of My Fair Lady (the seven-member Drama Desk nominating committee didn’t seem to like Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center revival of the Lerner and Loewe classic). Ambrose won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical for her scrappy Eliza Doolittle, and Butz took the OCC Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his boisterous Alfred Doolittle. Harry Hadden-Patten’s Henry Higgins is in the running for both a Drama Desk and a Tony.
   Here are my predications for both sets of awards. The Drama Desks will be presented on June 3, and the Tonys the following week on June 10.

Best Play
Tony: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Drama Desk: Admissions

Harry Potter isn’t even nominated for the top DD play category. In fact, all of the DD outstanding play candidates are Off-Broadway shows. This will be one of the few times the DD award goes to a non-Broadway show. In the more than 40 years since the Drama Desk began given out Best Play awards, it has done it only six times. The rare past exceptions are Tribes (2012), Ruined (2009), Wit (1999), How I Learned to Drive (1997), Marvin’s Room (1992), and A Lie of the Mind (1986).

Best Musical

Tony: The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: SpongeBob Squarepants
The Band’s Visit is the favorite to take the top Tony prize, but since it is absent from the Drama Desk field, that accolade’s final destination is not a certain thing. The only Broadway musicals the DD has nominated are SpongeBob Squarepants and Mean Girls. The Off-Broadway nominees are the short-lived K-Pop and Old Stock, and the York Theater’s Desperate Measures, which is scheduled to re-open in a commercial Off-Broadway run at New World Stages. Mean Girls has my Drama Desk vote—I thought it was a delightful expansion of the movie—but I have a feeling SpongeBob will be the ultimate winner as it was at the Outer Critics Circle Awards. The OCC divides its Best Play and Musical Awards between Broadway and Off-Broadway. Its Outstanding Broadway Musical was SpongeBob and Off-Broadway it was Desperate Measures, a Wild West remake of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Several DD members thought it was wonderful, but I found it average. In the absence of a huge Broadway favorite, DD voters could go the nontraditional route and award Desperate the big award. The award has only gone to an Off-Broadway show twice before: Hamilton (2015) and Little Shop of Horrors (1983).

Best Play Revival
Tony and Drama Desk: Angels in America

Best Musical Revival
Tony: My Fair Lady
Drama Desk: Carousel
The DD nominating committee was not as crazy about Lady as the Tonys. The show reaped 5 DD noms and 10 for the Tonys. Everyone seems to have forgotten about Once on This Island, innovatively reimagined by Michael Arden (who didn’t even get a DD nomination for Outstanding Director). If Arden was DD nominated he would have my vote, and I will vote for him for the Tonys.

Best Actor in a Play
Tony, Drama Desk: Andrew Garfield, Angels in America

Best Actress in a Play
Tony, Drama Desk: Glenda Jackson, Three Tall Women

When an 82-year-old British legend returns to Broadway after a 30-year absence and a career in Parliament, of course she’s going to win every award going. It doesn’t hurt that her performance as the crotchety matriarch A in Albee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play is magnificent. Interesting side note: Many award presenters mistakenly assumed Jackson is a Dame of the British Empire. She corrected the Outer Critics Circle on this point after she was introduced as one at their award ceremony: “I am not a dame and the Outer Critics Circle does not have the power to make me one. Only the Queen can do that.”

Best Actor in a Musical
Tony: Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: Ethan Slater, Spongbob Squarepants

This category is wide open with no surefire winner, and the two groups could split or agree. Tony Shalhoub could take home the Tony as part of a Band’s Visit tidal wave. Ethan Slater has already won an Outer Critics Circle Award for his athletic performance in the title role of Spongebob. Tony-DD nominees Joshua Henry of Carousel and Harry Hadden-Paton of My Fair Lady also have their advocates. I have a feeling the DD voters will go for Slater, following the OCC lead, though Henry and Hadden-Patton gave more complex performances.

Best Actress in a Musical
Tony: Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: Jessie Mueller, Carousel

Lenk is not eligible for the DD because of Band’s Off-Broadway run last season, but she will probably win the Tony for her seductive, sad cafe owner. Mueller will take the DD for her updated Julie Jourdan. Lauren Ambrose of My Fair Lady not nominated for the DD, but she won the Outer Critics Circle Award. If she were up for the DD, I would vote for her, but evidently the DD nominating committee was not enchanted.

Best Featured Actor in a Play
Tony, Drama Desk: Nathan Lane, Angels in America

Though he has won two previous Tonys and five Drama Desks, Lane will add another pair of prizes to his trophy shelf for his searing portray of Roy Cohn, the closeted, demonic power broker in Tony Kushner’s two-part classic. Ron Leibman won Best Actor Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Part One for the same role.

Best Featured Actress in a Play
Tony: Denise Gough, Angels in America
Drama Desk: Jamie Brewer, Amy and the Orphans

Gough will win the Tony for her pill-popping Harper Pitt in Angels, but she is not nominated for the same performance for the DD. She is in the DD Best Actress race for a stunning performance in People, Places and Things, which played the Off-Broadway St. Ann’s Warehouse earlier this season before Angels opened on Broadway. As a result, the Desk Award in this category will probably go to Jamie Brewer, an actress with Down syndrome playing a similarly afflicted character in Lindsey Ferrentino’s Off-Broadway play.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Tony: Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Drama Desk: Gavin Lee, SpongeBob Squarepants

Once again, the DD snubbed a My Fair Lady cast member who is a strong Tony candidate. Butz will win his third Tony for his boisterous Alfred P. Doolittle and he has already won the Outer Critics Circle Award, but he did not receive a DD nod. Gavin Lee will probably take the DD for his eight-legged tap dance as Squidward J. Tentacles, Spongebob’s grouchy neighbor and co-worker at the Krusty Krab. I am voting for Grey Henson, the gay best friend who nearly steals Mean Girls.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Tony, Drama Desk: Lindsay Mendez, Carousel

Audra McDonald won the same two awards for her Broadway debut as Carrie Pipperidge in the last revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic (1994), and it looks like Lindsay Mendez will repeat the feat for the same role. Mendez has already won the OCC Award.

Best Score
Tony: David Yazbeck, The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: Music: David Friedman, Desperate Measures; Lyrics: Nell Benjamin, Mean Girls

The Drama Desk splits its musical score award between the music and lyrics, so it’s possible for two different shows to be honored. The Tonys will go for The Band’s Visit and the DDs will share the wealth between Desperate Measures and Mean Girls.

Best Book of a Musical
Tony, Drama Desk: Tina Fey, Mean Girls

Tina Fey will add a Tony and a Drama Desk to her nine Emmys, three Golden Globes, and five SAG Awards.

Best Director of a Play
Tony, Drama Desk: John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Best Director of a Musical
Tony: David Cromer, The Band’s Visit
Drama Desk: Jack O’Brien, Carousel

Best Choreography

Tony, Drama Desk: Justin Peck, Carousel
June 1, 2018

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Lyric Theater

Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
New York Theater Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward

Sam Clemmett, Brian Abraham, and Anthony Boyle in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The 2017–18 Broadway season ended with the usual rush of productions racing to qualify for the Tony Awards. There was no unifying theme amid the final plethora of shows, but two of them share a common element—their producers banking on American theatergoers’ love affair with all things British. Two imports featured feats of English legerdemain: a theatrical sequel to J.K. Rowling’s beloved series of book on the boy wizard Harry Potter, and Travesties, a revival of one of Tom Stoppard’s early works of intellectual sleight of hand.
   Harry Potter and the Cursed Child flew into the Lyric Theater after an Olivier Award–winning run in London. This two-part continuation of Rowling’s enchanting saga is a strong favorite to repeat that triumph at the Tonys. The intricate script by Jack Thorne (based on an original new story by Rowling, Thorne, and director John Tiffany) begins 19 years after the events of the last book with Harry all grown up and his son Albus— named for his mystical mentor at Hogwarts school—encountering myriad magical trials and tribulations as the boy attempts to establish his own wizard identity outside of his dad’s legendary shadow.
   A knowledge of Potter lore is helpful to enjoy the spectacle, since Thorne alludes to almost every aspect of the entire seven-volume canon. Devoted followers will be in seventh—or eight and ninth—heaven. (At the performance attended, the audience was filled with fans dressed in witchy regalia, and a dad accompanying his two kids behind me loudly whooped for every reference and magic trick.) For non-Harryheads, Cursed Child is still a joyous thrill ride, staged with such speed, ingenuity, and affection by Tiffany that the seven-hour running time bullets along like the phantom train to Hogwarts. By the way, that train is prominently featured, cleverly re-created thanks to Christine Jones’s jigsaw-puzzle set and Neil Austin’s multidimensional lighting.
   A large British and American cast brings the faculty, students, and alumni of Harry’s alma mater to life, but special kudos is due to Anthony Boyle as the bumbling Scorpius Malfoy, who is the son of Harry’s nemesis and currently young Albus’s best friend. Boyle gives several new twists to the traditional awkward but lovable teen staple character, with multiple shadings and inventive delivery to Scorpius’s ardent quest to befriend Albus and escape his father’s dark legacy. Boyle is just one of many delights in a galaxy of theatrical wonders.
Patrick Marber’s dazzling revival of Tom Stoppard’s Tony-winning Travesties (1974) is another imported dish worth savoring. First presented by Menier Chocolate Factory and produced here by Roundabout Theatre Company, this vital comedy of ideas raises complex questions about the confluence of art, revolution, and war. Just as Harry Potter requires some prior knowledge of the hero’s history, this rollicking intellectual roller coaster assumes you know a thing or two about European literary history and politics. Stoppard takes his complex premise from the coincidence that three revolutionaries—Irish novelist James Joyce, Russian rebel Lenin, and Tristan Tzara, leader of the radical Dadaist art movement—were all in Zurich, Switzerland, at roughly the same time (1917). Henry Carr, a minor clerk with the British consulate during this period, in a senile flashback mashes together these separate storylines and filters them through the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest (Carr performed in an amateur version of Wilde’s classic comedy staged by Joyce.)
   Tom Hollander repeats his scintillating and versatile London performance as Carr, effortlessly switching for the decrepit elderly narrator to the young, pompous, and pretentious protagonist tangling with the mental heavyweights of his age while romantically pursuing the librarian Cicely (a delightful Sara Topham). As Tzara, Seth Numrich energetically bounds across Tim Hatley’s handsome book-stuffed set, spouting absurdist nonsense as he embarks on a parallel amorous quest parallel for Gwendolyn (an equally delightful Scarlett Strallen). If this all sounds confusing, it is a bit, but Marber’s precise and whip-smart direction is so fast and funny, you’ll joyfully laugh along for the whole ride.
While Stoppard’s wit is well served in this revival, his contemporary and fellow British risk-taking playwright Caryl Churchill’s innovative and brash style is not given adequate realization in a new production of her Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, at the Off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop. Written in 1976 (during the same era as Travesties), Light also mixes historical and fictional figures in an examination of the 17th-century British Civil War which split the very fabric of English society. A king was beheaded and the ensuing chaos pitted faction against faction. Religion, government, family life—all were affected.
   Churchill developed her script in collaboration with the Joint Stock Theatre Company, combining historical texts with improvisations and short scenes depicting farmers, soldiers, politicians, parsons, lords, butchers, and housewives living through tumultuous times. The play is a fragmentary portrait with few solid through-lines to follow. In her later works such as Cloud 9, Top Girls, and Serious Money, Churchill perfected the technique of attacking a big topic through the fractured lens of multiple perspectives. Here it’s just confusing. Obie winning director Rachel Chavkin has employed her bold imagination to produce startlingly fresh stagings of such shows as Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, The Royale, and Hadestown (also at NYTW). But she settles for a flat, stagnant staging. Despite the valiant efforts of a diverse cast of six, this Light is too dim.

May 20, 2018
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two: Opened April 22 for an open run. Lyric Theater, 213 W. 42nd St., NYC. Wed Part One 2pm, Part Two 7:30pm; Thu Part One 7:30pm; Fri Part Two 7:30pm; Sat-Sun Part One 2pm, Part Two 7:30pm. Running time: Part One: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. Part Two: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $20–$199 per part. (212) 556-4750.


Travesties: April 24¬–June 12. 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 20 minutes, including intermission. $59–$252. (212) 375-3939.


Light Shining in Buckinghamshire: May 7–June 3. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 7pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $69. (212) 460-5475.


The Iceman Cometh
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Saint Joan
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Condola Rashad in Saint Joan
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two massive works by dramatic theatrical giants Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw are making rare appearances on musical-heavy Broadway. The fact that masterworks The Iceman Cometh in a commercial, limited run and Saint Joan from Manhattan Theater Club as part of its subscription season at the Friedman are being presented at all in the same lowbrow venue with Disney and Donna Summer musicals should be cause for celebration. But their current incarnations fall short of their full, devastating potential. The directors and casts fall into the easy trap of audience-pleasing laughs—and yes, they are there even in somber, dark-hued O’Neill—and they miss the mark as complex portraits of man’s conflict with the illusions and institutions he has created.
   Iceman is O’Neill’s most challenging, unforgiving epic. Debuting on Broadway in 1946, this marathon of regret and pain was considered a failure until Jose Quintero directed a definitive production in 1956 at the new Off-Broadway Circle in the Square. Jason Robards’s iconic performance as the glad-handing but self-loathing salesman Hickey established him as his generation’s prime interpreter of O’Neill. The setting is ironically- named Harry Hope’s downtown dive in 1912 Manhattan where the drunken denizens deceive themselves with dreams of achieving their past glories—tomorrow. The normally jocular Hickey arrives for his annual binge but offers unforgiving truth rather than comforting pipe dreams. Stars such as James Earl Jones, Kevin Spacey, Nathan Lane, and Lee Marvin (in the leaden 1973 film version) have attempted to put their mark on Hickey, but none have approached Robards, whose masterful liming survives in a 1960 TV version and which he re-created in a 1986 revival.
   Denzel Washington makes a game effort to conquer this combination jester and devil, and he nails some of the character’s dimensions. From his first entrance charging up the theater’s aisle and through much of the show’s nearly four-hour running time, he captures Hickey’s intense jocularity. Unfortunately, he misses the darkness beneath the sunny exterior. Robards managed to simultaneously convey the drummer’s boisterousness and his inner disgust. Washington doesn’t latch onto that anger and hatred of self, just as he missed those qualities in the protagonists of Fences and A Raisin in the Sun.

Similarly, his director, the versatile and usually incisive George C. Wolfe (Angels in America, Lucky Guy, Shuffle Along), emphasizes the humor of Hickey and the huge cast of pitiable drunks clinging to their fantasies. As a result, the audience gets a hearty chuckle at their foibles but no gasps of recognition that they share the same condition. Wolfe seems to be saying to us, “Let’s have a laugh at these kooky old alcoholics from 100 years ago,” while O’Neill was saying “These kooky drunks are you people. They are all of us. We all need our illusions or we die.” Wolfe further shatters O’Neill’s horrifying construct by having Washington play his climactic confessional monologue seated center stage straight to the audience, removing any doubt that this is a star vehicle for Washington rather than a shattering indictment of all humanity.
   There are moments of mirth and some depth supplied by Reg Rogers, Neal Huff, Bill Irwin, Michael Potts, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and Tammy Blanchard as various delusional dreamers, but this Iceman is a mild summer cooler rather than a stiff belt that freezes your insides.
   Just as Hickey is an Everest of role for males, Shaw’s Saint Joan is an irresistible summit for actors such as Sybil Thorndike, Katharine Cornell, Wendy Hiller, Siobhan McKenna, Diana Sands, Lynn Redgrave, and Maryann Plunkett. Condola Rashad is more successful in probing the depths of the fiery maiden than Washington is of getting to the heart of Hickey, but she still doesn’t deliver Shaw’s complete package in Daniel Sullivan’s tepid production.
   The play opens with Joan boldly entering the castle of a powerful lord, claiming she hears voices from heaven telling her to lead the 15th century French army against the occupying British. Shaw casts her as a voice of reason and a symbol of the coming modern age of Protestantism and nationalism threatening the omnipotence of the Catholic Church and the wealthy secular barons. In the early scenes, Rashad plays her as a mad mystic with a wild look in her eye rather than a practical young woman speaking truth to power. As the play advances and Joan moves from soldier to martyr to saint, Rashad grows in power and conviction, but she never convinces as Shaw’s plain-spoken woman of the people or as a charismatic leader.
   Another similarity to the new Iceman is this Joan’s simplistic, hollow staging. Sullivan is content with showy theatrics when mounting Shaw’s witty and dense debates between figures of royalty, church, and military. A vital scene between the Bishop of Beauvais and the Earl of Warwick that conveys Shaw’s central theme of the warring factions of church and state falls flat due to the superficial liming of Walter Bobbie and Jack Davenport. It’s more of a shouting match than a clash of ideas.
   There is a modicum of surprise and snap in the epilogue when Joan and all the figures of the play appear in a dream to explain her impact on modern society. Patrick Page displays a glimpse of the deeper forces at work by underplaying The Inquisitor, Joan’s chief judge at her trial for heresy. Robert Stanton in three contrasting roles and John Glover as a pompous archbishop also supply satisfying work but it’s not enough to light Shaw or Joan’s fire.

May 2, 2018
The Iceman Cometh: April 26–July 1. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue–Fri 7pm, Sat 1pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 3 hours and 50 minutes, including two intermissions. $79–$209. (212) 239-6200.


Saint Joan: April 25–June 10. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 7pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $65–$159. (212) 239-6200.


Three Tall Women
Golden Theatre

Lobby Hero
Second Stage at the Hayes Theatre

Frozen: The Broadway Musical
St. James Theatre

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Brian Tyree Henry, Bel Powley, Michael Cera, and Chris Evans in Lobby Hero
Photo by Mark Seliger

Recycling continues to be the main mode of operating on Broadway. Two American plays (Three Tall Women, Lobby Hero) are making their belated Main Stem debuts after successful Off-Broadway engagements roughly two decades ago and yet another Disney cartoon (Frozen) is transitioning to the live stage. Meanwhile Off-Broadway, a brand-new work (Admissions) is challenging conventions and rigidly held beliefs in a production that induces both laughs and squirms of discomfort. The Broadway revivals do the same, but it’s indicative of our large-scale commercial theater that fresh innovation is confined to our smaller stages.
   Both of the straight plays are also fueled by star power. Two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson returns to New York theater after an absence of 30 years as the domineering matriarch in Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize–winning Women, while Chris Evans takes a perhaps permanent break from playing Captain America in the onscreen Marvel universe to limn a less virtuous law enforcer in Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero. These marquee names provide the drawing power for their respective vehicles, but they are really part of a pair of tightly knit ensembles.
   The majestic Jackson is joined by the precise Laurie Metcalf and the intense Alison Pill in Joe Mantello’s reimagining of Albee’s examination of the life of a domineering woman not unlike his adoptive mother. In the first act, we are in the well-appointed bedroom of A, 92 years old and definitely not going gentle into that good night as she rails against the infirmities of her body and mind and reminisces on the challenges and joys of her long life. B, her middle-aged caregiver (Metcalf), and C, her young lawyer (Pill), spar over A’s foibles and attempt to sort through the debris of her unpaid bills. In the second act (there is no intermission in this staging), Miriam Buether’s elegant set transforms into a hall of mirrors, and each actor becomes A at various ages. Mantello cleverly conveys this triangular vision without turning it into a gimmick. He also manages to inject action into what is basically a long debate peppered with Albee’s observations on the nature of mortality. Jackson is a fearsome lioness, roaring at the loss of her vitality. Metcalf and Pill are equally fearsome in defending their stances and marking their territory. It’s a triple tour de force.

Lobby Hero (2001) doesn’t address life and death like Three Tall Women, but its focus is almost as sweeping, considering issues of morality rather than mortality. Kenneth Lonergan’s intricately plotted Chinese puzzle box of a play asks when we should put the common good above our personal interests. Two security guards and two police officers are faced with a series of interconnected moral dilemmas. As he did in his compassionate screenplays for Manchester by the Sea and You Can Count on Me, Lonergan skillfully balances humor and pathos, endowing each point of this rectangle with flaws and virtues.
   This first production by Second Stage at its new Broadway home, the refurbished Helen Hayes Theater, is cleanly staged by Trip Cullman on David Rockwell’s spare revolving set. But the four players are not equally strong. Chris Evans is appropriately and comically bellicose as the bullying cop Bill, but Michael Cera (of Arrested Development and Juno) fails to shade Jeff, the lovable loser security guard, often settling for easy laughs. Jeff is the center of the play, and Cera does not provide a reason for us to care about his actions. Likewise Bel Powley as Dawn, Bill’s female partner and Jeff’s love interest, just delivers broad caricature. Brian Tyree Henry gives an in-depth portrayal of William, Jeff’s supervisor, and the most believable liming of a character’s conflict.
   Despite Lobby Hero being a non-risky bet with its previous pedigree and movie-and-TV-star casting, it’s heartening to see a theater company committed to presenting American playwrights on Broadway.

Meanwhile, down the block from the Hayes, the Disney Industrial Complex is presenting its latest potential cash cow, Frozen. Derived from the popular 2013 animated feature and the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Snow Queen,” this kiddie tuner hits all the proper notes: female power ballad (the Oscar-winning “Let It Go”), plucky heroine, briefly thwarted but ultimately resolved romance, comic anthropomorphized sidekick (a sweet snowman), lots of chases. But the conflict (repressed ice queen versus her warmhearted sister) provides little gripping action. Michael Grandage’s stiff staging, the syrupy book by Jennifer Lee (who also penned the original screenplay), and the pleasant but familiar score by husband-and-wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez are too by-the-numbers and left this non-Disney-worshipping adult cold.
   At the performance attended the young audience, particularly girls, oohed and ahhed after every ice storm projected onto Christopher Orem’s storyboard set. There will likely be enough of them dragging their parents in to keep the box office unfrozen and to provide plenty of jobs for capable leading ladies such as Caissie Levy and Patti Murin, who turn in professional work as the obligatory princesses. Greg Hildreth is oddly muted as the cute snowman Olaf, perhaps because he was busy operating the puppet version of the character. Jelani Aladdin makes for a refreshingly unconventional male love object, and Kevin Del Aguila did get a smile out of me as a comic innkeeper. So far only Julie Taymor has managed to create a startlingly stageworthy vocabulary to tell a Disney story on Broadway with her dazzlingly original Lion King.

At Lincoln Center’s intimate Mitzi Newhouse space, Joshua Harmon’s Admissions takes an unflinching look at liberal assumptions about engineering diversity in education. Like Albee and Lonergan, this young playwright, who also wrote the barbed Bad Jews, combines razor-sharp humor with pointed commentary to produce a scathing satire of our racial politics. When the white, ultra-progressive admissions director of a New Hampshire prep school finds her own son the loser (because of the very policies she has been practicing) when he applies to an Ivy League college, she and her husband, the school’s headmaster, must question their values. Director Daniel Aukin wisely keeps the satire from becoming too broad, as does his exemplary cast led by Jessica Hecht as the conflicted mother. Once again, Off-Broadway is leading the way in presenting fresh, challenging work.

April 3, 2018
Three Tall Women: March 29–June 24. John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $47–$159. (212) 239-6200.


Lobby Hero: March 26–May 13. Second Stage at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 25 minutes, including intermission. $99–$179. (212) 239-6200.


Frozen: The Broadway Musical: Opened March 22 for an open run. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $82–$199. (866) 870-2717.


Admissions: March 12–May 6. Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $92. (212) 239-6200.


Escape to Margaritaville
Marquis Theatre

The Low Road
The Public Theater

Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

Paul Alexander Nolan and Alison Luff in Escape to Margaritaville
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Let me confess that margaritas are my cocktail of choice. Having one while watching the new Broadway musical Escape to Margaritaville certainly put me in the appropriate relaxed mood, but the salty sweet concoction in the plastic souvenir glass could not entirely overcome the show’s deficiencies. This is the latest in a long line of jukebox tuners with the canon of a musical artist employed as fodder for either a bio (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Jersey Boys, and the upcoming Donna Summer and Cher shows) or a flimsily constructed original story (Mamma Mia!, Good Vibrations). Escape falls into the latter category and it makes Mamma Mia! look like My Fair Lady by comparison.
   The laid-back Jimmy Buffet songbook serves as the spine (if you can call it that) for a simplistic rom-com extolling the virtues of sandy vacations, excessive alcohol intake, and willing suspension of disbelief. The soothing “Margaritaville” was a huge hit in 1977 and inspired a chain of bars and resorts. In addition to his previous hits, Buffet has composed new numbers for the score. The book by sitcom veterans Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl) and Mike O’Malley (Shameless) is a Hallmark TV movie with pauses for songs.
   Handsome, hunky beach bum-musician Tully meets cute with uptight scientist-tourist Rachel at the grungy hotel Margaritaville on an unnamed tropical isle. She encourages him to take life seriously while he prods her to let her hair down and knock back a few. Rachel’s caustic best friend Tammy and affably goofy bartender Brick, as well as colorful barfly J.D. and the hotel manager Marley, provide comic contrast. The minimal conflict arises when Tully and Rachel fall for each other—surprise!—and their radically contrasting lifestyles clash. Along the way, a volcano explodes, one wedding is averted and another is celebrated, there’s a tap number with dead insurance agents (don’t ask), and a seaplane lands in the Ohio River (offstage) with four of the passengers none the worse for wear walking straight into a Cincinnati bar in time for drinks.
   Just as in Mamma Mia!, details are planted to allow for jokey references to Buffet’s songs such as the lost salt shaker and mysterious tattoo of the title tune. Parrot Heads—Buffett enthusiasts—in the audience sang along with many of the lyrics at the performance attended and seemed to be having a grand time. But, for me, the musical buffet blended together as if we were on an endless cruise on which the band only knew one song. If you’re a fan of this kind of schmaltz, it’s the perfect escape from wintery NYC. Christopher Ashley’s slick staging, Garcia and O’Malley’s pleasant-enough dialogue, and a game cast keep Margaritaville from becoming a totally bad beach day. Paul Alexander Nolan and Alison Luff are a charming, attractive pair of leads, but Lisa Howard’s sweetly feisty Tammy and Eric Petersen’s lovably off Brick are the ones who got me through this mildly amusing but not particularly exciting vacation excursion.

As much as Margaritaville is silly and shallow, Bruce Norris’s The Low Road at the Public following a British premiere at the Royal Court, is complex and challenging. The concept sounds unpromisingly dry: a picaresque Tom Jones–like adventure based on the writings of free-market philosopher Adam Smith, principally The Wealth of Nations. But Norris has previously created entertaining and inventive explorations of such deep topics as racism (the Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park), sexuality (The Qualms), time travel and physics (A Parallelogram), and the paranoid hysteria of post-9/11 America (The Pain and the Itch).
   To examine the ramifications of Smith’s economic theories of unfettered capitalism, Norris has created a fascinating journey through 18th-century America, designing ironic parallels between the greedy excesses of colonial entrepreneurs and their 21st century counterparts. His hero is Jim Trewitt, a selfish bastard both literally and figuratively. As Adam Smith himself (played with dry wit by the invaluable Daniel Davis) narrates the tale, baby Jim is deposited on the doorstep of a brothel with a note proclaiming him as the illegitimate offspring of one G. Washington.
   Norris puts Jim through a series of misadventures and encounters, sometimes taking us on wild trips to the future, all directed with speed and imagination by Michael Greif, who makes brilliant use of the limited Anspacher space at the Public. Chris Perfetti skillfully captures Jim’s burning self-interest, and Chukwudi Iwuji is his perfect foil as John Blanke, a refined slave who is as erudite as Jim is crude. A large company of versatile veterans including Harriet Harris, Kevin Chamberlain, Max Baker, Crystal A. Dickinson, and Richard Poe shines in multiple roles. This is a challenging work that might be a tad too ambitious—Norris crams in an awful lot—but it’s still that rare thing: an American play tackling a big subject with style and intellect.

Travelling even further from the mindless beach of Margaritaville, my cultural week including the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Rossini’s rarely performed Semiramide. John Copley’s 1990 production is stodgy and stiff, but the vocal strength of the company was dazzling. As the titular queen of ancient Babylon, soprano Angela Meade is not a moving actor, but she displays a magnificent voice, capturing the intricacies of Rossini’s arias. In the trouser role of Arsace, commander of the Assyrian army, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong possesses dramatic as well as musical verve. Javier Camarena’s tenor is pure, Ildar Abdrazakov’s bass darkly thrills, and Sarah Shafer’s soprano soars.

March 21, 2018

Escape to Margaritaville: Opened March 15 for an open run. Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat, 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $79–169. (800) 653-8000.


The Low Road: March 7–April 8. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue–Fri 7:30pm, Sat-Sun 1:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, presumably including an intermission. $75. (212) 967-7555.


Semiramide: Feb. 20–March 17. Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, Broadway at 66th St., NYC.

Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Billy Carter, Richard Hollis, John Horton, Johnny Flynn, and Owen Campbell
Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Martin McDonagh takes the phrase “gallows humor” a bit too literally in his new play Hangmen, now at the Atlantic Theater Company after hit London runs at the Royal Court and in the West End. As in his previous stage work such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore and his Oscar-nominated film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the darkly comic playwright offers grisly scenarios of violence and vengeance replete with ironic and ambiguous twists. Just like his earlier plays and films, Hangmen is entertaining, well-structured, and funny, but it follows a familiar template and has little new to say other than McDonagh’s usual refrain of “People are bloodthirsty, and, given half a chance, they’ll slice your throat open over the pettiest little thing, or worse, for no reason at all.”
   Set in the north of England rather than his usual desolate Irish countryside, the play focuses on bellicose braggart Harry Wade (an Oliver Hardy–like Mark Addy), a purveyor of the titular trade, and Peter Mooney (the oily Johnny Flynn), a charming stranger with a mysterious background. The action takes place mostly in Harry’s pub, which he runs as a sideline in 1965 after hanging has been abolished in the United Kingdom. As Harry boasts of his macabre record of executions to a crew of admiring cronies, the enigmatic Mooney arrives and vaguely threatens the former hangman and his family—consisting of Harry’s dissatisfied wife, Alice (a delightfully shrewish Sally Rogers), and moody daughter, Shirley (Gaby French who displays great comic timing). There are also visits from Syd (sniveling Reece Shearsmith), Harry’s mousey former assistant, and Albert Pierpoint (domineering Maxwell Caulfield), a rival nooseman whose ego is even bigger than Harry’s, each with his own agenda. Without divulging any spoilers, a few people wind up dead, and we never find out certain characters’ motivations.

There are several hilariously macabre sequences dealing with corpses and torture, but the characters are too close to archetypes from other works. Harry is a puffed-up buffoon riding for a fall ,not unlike Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners (Mark Addy has played Kramden knock-off Fred Flintstone in the film The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas). Alice is the nagging wife who’s the real boss—she’s even got the same name as her model in the classic TV sitcom. Syd is the dimwitted second banana akin to Art Carney’s Ed Norton. Mooney is the enigmatic, vaguely threatening intruder we all know from the plays of Joe Orton and Harold Pinter. (I found Flynn more annoying than scary.) Mooney even self-consciously describes himself as “menacing.” Hint to playwright: If a character has to describe himself as menacing, then he’s probably not going to be.
   Matthew Dunster’s direction is slickly professional and well-paced, and the cast, which combines members of the original British troupe with American newcomers, exhibits exquisite comic characterization and timing. There is talk that the play may move to Broadway after its sold-out, Atlantic Theater Company run, but Hangmen feels more like a retread of familiar McDonagh themes and sitcom tropes rather than a frightening glimpse of humanity’s dark nature. Save your money and see the author’s much more effective Three Billboards.

February 13, 2018
Feb 5–Mar 7. 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 15 minutes, including intermission. $90. (866) 811-4111.


Fire and Air
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Marsha Mason, John Glover, Douglas Hodge, and Marin Mazzie
Photo by Joan Marcus

“Does my enthusiasm exhaust you?” exclaims Douglas Hodges as Serge Diaghilev in Terrence McNally’s new play Fire and Air about the volatile Russian impresario, his relationships with his star dancers Nijinsky and Massine, and his revolutionary company Ballets Russes. Hodges’s virtuoso turn is indeed exhausting. Every intonation, gesture, and movement expresses the fiery temperament of the implacable visionary who set the stage for some of the greatest works in dance history. But the performance and John Doyle’s fast-paced staging aren’t enough to pull together McNally’s unfocused script and provide a clear, dynamic picture of a genius and his explosive impact on 20th-century culture.
   Glancing through the program notes by Sophie Andreassi for the Classic Stage Company world premiere production and the jam-packed historical timeline, it’s easy to see McNally’s problem. There is so much material and so many potential themes to chose from that it’s difficult to imagine them being contained in one evening. So McNally includes too much. There’s Diaghilev’s obsessive sexual and romantic passion for Nijinsky, the greatest dancer of the modern era; the shift in artistic taste from classical to contemporary; Diaghilev’s dysfunctional relationship with his mother country Russia and his neurotic narcissism; the arc of Ballet Russes and its influence on performance; Nijinsky’s madness and the ambition of his successor Massine; and on and on. McNally attempts to cover all of these and short-changes them as a result.
   Even with this kitchen-sink approach, many fascinating and vital elements are left out or minimized. Nijinsky is a minor player and Massine an afterthought, and a little thing like the Russian Revolution and how it affects the expatriate characters is barely mentioned.

An additional hurdle is the nature of the subject: dance. Rather than showing the exquisite movement of such signature groundbreaking Ballet Russes pieces as Afternoon of a Faun, Spectre de la Rose, and The Rite of Spring, McNally has Diaghilev describe them as Nijinsky (the sublimely beautiful James Cusati-Moyer) is enacting them offstage.
   The play travels like an out-of-control locomotive from the company’s inception in 1909 to Diaghilev’s death in 1929, barely stopping at a variety of European cities. Aside from Jane Cox’s atmospheric lighting, the only way we know where we are is through expositional dialogue such as, “Welcome to Monte Carlo,” “Here we are in Venice,” and “We’re on our way to Athens.”
   As noted, Hodge delivers an over-the-top whirlwind of a performance as the temperamental producer. Cusati-Moyer as Nijinsky and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Massine exhibit exquisite dance technique, but they are not given much of a chance to explore the psyches of these gods of the dance. John Glover lends a world-weary elegance and deep sorrow to Dima, Diaghilev’s business manager who also has a crush on him. Marsha Mason makes a lovable, motherly nanny, and Marin Mazzie is stylish and arch as a wealthy patron, but her role doesn’t require much beyond feeding lines to Hodge. This is a potentially fascinating subject, but there’s more air than fire here.

February 1, 2018
Feb 1–25. Classic Stage Company, 136 E 13th St, NYC. Tue–Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $61. (212) 677-4210.


The Children
Manhattan Theater Club/Royal Court Theatre at Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Farinelli and the King
Belasco Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Ron Cook, Francesca Annis, and Deborah Findlay in The Children
Photo by Joan Marcus

The year ends with two emblematic productions for Broadway: The Children, presented by Manhattan Theater Club as part of its subscriber season, and Farinelli and the King in a commercial limited run at the Belasco. Both are transfers from London complete with British casts. We Yanks are supposed to salivate over these shows because of their snob-appeal pedigree. Both feature exquisite acting, but only The Children connects to its audience on a level deeper than stagecraft. Farinelli stars one of the finest actors in the English-speaking world, Mark Rylance, but his breathtakingly realistic technique is in service of an overly familiar, underwritten play.
   There are no actual kids in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children; the title refers to adult offspring and possible future generations of the three characters, all in their 60s. The setting is a remote cottage in a very possible near future where a nuclear accident has devastated Britain. (Miriam Buether’s askew set parallels the disastrous outlook for the world of the play.) Retired married scientists Robin and Hazel are coping with rationed food, electricity, and bleak prospects. Rose, a former colleague of the pair and lover of Robin’s, pays them an unexpected visit. To reveal anymore would lessen this deceptively simple plot’s impact. Suffice it to say that Kirkwood structures her compassionate, heart-wrenching treatise on social responsibility with such craft, you become wrapped up in the interrelations of this trio without even realizing they are symbols of modern society, poised on the brink of annihilation yet struggling to redeem itself.
   James Macdonald’s direction keeps the action on a credible level with a welcome lack of showy theatricalism. This subtlety is echoed in the acting, particularly by Deborah Findlay as Hazel. She keeps the character’s bottled-up rage well-corked, allowing it to burst out in short spurts and then pushing it back down. We see all of Hazel’s anger, love, and finally fear mixed together through Findlay’s eloquent expressions and gestures. Ron Cook is equally understated as Robin and convincingly conveys his sorrow over the scientific tragedy and Robin’s resolve to make it right. Francesca Annis as Rose is a little too reserved in the Masterpiece Theater style for my taste, but she does limn the interloper’s conflicted attitudes toward her hosts with depth.
   Though this production is definitely praiseworthy, it raises a red flag. Manhattan Theater Club brought it over directly from its Royal Court Theatre run with the British ensemble. MTC’s previous production at the Friedman this season was Prince of Broadway, a plotless musical revue, and the next show will be a revival of Shaw’s Saint Joan. Hopefully MTC is not abandoning presenting new American plays on Broadway.

Like The Children, Farinelli has an intriguing concept, but here the execution is wanting. Based on historical events in the 18th century, the play focuses on the strange relationship between the mentally erratic Spanish King Philippe V and the heralded castrato Carlo “Farinelli” Broschi. The unhinged monarch was soothed by the dulcet tones of the high-voiced singer who became a member of his court. Like The Madness of King George III, the play traces a royal’s bizarre behavior and how a civilian attempts to cure him. But unlike George’s dramatist Alan Bennett who skillfully constructed an intricate portrait of power and insanity, Farinelli’s author Claire Van Kampen is a first-time playwright, and she fails to develop her premise beyond some keen acting opportunities for her husband, Mark Rylance (who plays the king) and staging possibilities for director John Dove.
   We get the familiar tropes of court intrigue, backstage politics, a few speeches in praise of high musical art, and a hastily stuck-in romantic triangle, but there are no real stakes here. It’s never fully explained why we should care if Philippe is deposed, if the gorgeously voiced singer stays or leaves the court, or if the queen acts on her attraction for Farinelli.
   Fortunately, Rylance delivers his usual magnificent work, delivering Van Kampen’s somewhat clichéd dialogue as if it were Shakespeare and imparting Phillipe’s shattered sensibilities with a combination of humor and pathos. His debate with a goldfish, which opens the play, is priceless. Sam Crane captures the tortured Farinelli’s struggle between his craft and living a normal life. In an arresting stroke of staging, the castrato’s singing is done by famed countertenor Iestyn Davies (alternating with James Hall at certain performances) in identical costumes to Crane’s (Jonathan Fensom designed the luscious period sets and clothes). The musical interludes are beautifully staged by Dove with two performers expressing the gorgeousness of Handel’s arias and the inner turmoil of the artist. With the candlelit atmosphere and period instruments expertly played, these moments are superb mini-concerts. Farinelli makes for an entertaining historical curio, but not a full dramatic experience like The Children.

December 23, 2017
The Children: Dec. 12–Feb. 4. Manhattan Theatre Club and Royal Court Theatre at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun, 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. $60–149. (212) 239-6200.


Farinelli and the King: Dec. 17–March 25. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th 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. $32–157. (212) 239-6200.


Once on This Island
Circle in the Square

SpongeBob SquarePants the Broadway Musical
Palace Theatre

Meteor Shower
Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore in Once on This Island
Photo by Joan Marcus

Hurricanes, volcanoes, and meteor showers mark a trio of recent Broadway openings with laughter and delight rather than devastation. Theatergoers entering Circle in the Square for Michael Arden’s life-affirming revival of Once on This Island will think it’s been hit by a hurricane. Before the show starts, cast members dressed in castoff materials wade through debris, tend to a live goat and chickens, and give and receive vaccinations. Reflective of the recent spate of natural disasters afflicting the play’s Caribbean setting, Arden and set designer Dane Laffrey have created an incredibly lifelike community struggling to come back from disaster. Against this tragic backdrop, the magnificent company tells book-writer-lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty’s joyous story of survival and spirituality. Music supervisor Chris Fenwick makes the score feel like it’s being played by a really top-notch beach band.
   The simple plot follows the vibrant orphan girl Ti Moune as she sacrifices everything for the love of a rich boy. Meanwhile, the island gods of water, earth, life, and death guide her. In its original 1990 Broadway staging, Island was a charming bauble; now it’s a stirring, enveloping experience. Laffrey’s environmental set, complete with an onstage pond and a wrecked truck, are an entire world, cleverly morphed into dozens of locales by Arden’s supple direction and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s mercurial lighting. Clint Ramos’s imaginative costumes add to the makeshift milieu. Examples of Ramos’s ingenuity include a plastic tablecloth skirt and a crown fashioned from extension cords.
   Newcomer Hailey Kilgore is a spectacular surprise as Ti Moune, displaying a rich, emotive voice, expressive dancing (Camille A. Brown’s choreography is stunning), and an impressive acting range. She conveys Ti Moune’s gritty determination, her bubbly zest for life, and her heartbreaking sorrow when the gap between the two lovers proves too wide. Elegant Lea Salonga, earthy Alex Newell, diabolical Merle Dandridge, and powerful Quentin Earl Darrington make a fearsome foursome of deities in this enchanting Island.

Another Broadway musical offers an equally joyful seaside-themed evening, but a decidedly goofier one. SpongeBob SquarePants features all the adorable characters from the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon series, brought to life by David Zinn’s wacko costumes. Zinn also designed the Rube Goldberg–inspired set, which resembles a giant water-park ride. Familiarity with the perennially cheerful SpongeBob and his fellow citizens of the underwater hamlet of Bikini Bottom is helpful but not essential for delighting in this fun-filled romp, staged with a combination of childlike glee and adult sophistication by Tina Landau.
   There are a few caveats. The average series segment runs 11 minutes, but this show clocks in at a somewhat bloated two hours and 20 minutes. Kyle Jarrow’s otherwise snappy book could lose a half-hour, particularly during an extended adventure sequence as SpongeBob, Sandy the Squirrel, and Patrick Starfish scale a mountain to plug up a soon-to-erupt volcano. In addition, one or two songs could be excised from the pop-flavored score. Despite boasting 22 composers and lyricists—including David Bowie, Sara Bareilles, Aerosmith, They Might Be Giants, and Cyndi Lauper—all the tunes sound the same as every other ditty about overcoming obstacles, having perfect days, and keeping friends.
   As the titular yellow porous hero, the athletic Ethan Slater twists his body into outrageous shapes and expresses the essence of SpongeBob (child-like enthusiasm) without becoming too syrupy. Danny Skinner’s clueless Patrick and Lilli Cooper’s spunky Sandy also capture the spirit of their animated counterparts, while Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles stops the show with a flashy multilegged tap number (Christopher Gattelli provided the flashy choreography). There are also comic and vocal highlights from Wesley Taylor’s villainous Plankton, Brian Ray Norris’s hard-shelled Mr. Krabs, and Jai’ Len Christine Li Josey as his daughter Pearl the Whale (you have to know the show to understand how father and daughter can be of two different species). Some adults may chafe at all the giggly silliness, but for kids and kids at heart, this is a sweet, watery treat.

Like SpongeBob, Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower is as substantial as a soap bubble. At 75 minutes, it feels skimpy for a high-priced Broadway attraction, but that one hour and 15 minutes is packed with hilarity. The playlet is essentially an extended Saturday Night Live skit with nicey-nicey repressed hosts Corky and Norm tormented by aggressive guests from hell Gerald and Laura as they watch the titular cosmic light show. Like Martin’s previous works for the theatre (Picasso at the Lapine Agile, Wasp), Meteor takes a slight idea and stretches it as far as possible without snapping it. Jerry Zaks’s zippy direction mines extra yuks from Martin’s brief but gut-busting script. As Corky, comedienne-writer Amy Schumer exhibits split-second timing and an instinct for physical comedy worthy of Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball. Laura Benanti nearly steals the show with her sexy, bitchy take on the guest Laura. Jeremy Shamos as Norm and Keegan-Michael Key (of the comedy team Key and Peele) as Gerald don’t shine quite as brightly as the women, but do get their share of laugh-inducing moments. Don’t waste any brain cells trying to search for hidden meaning, messages on marriage and relationships, or satire on the Theater of the Absurd. Just sit back and guffaw.

December 9, 2017
Once on This Island: Opened Dec. 3 for an open run. Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway, NYC. Mon 8pm, Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $49–$159.50. (212) 239-6200.


SpongeBob SquarePants the Broadway Musical: Opened Dec. 4 for an open run. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, with intermission. $39–$139. (877) 250-2929.


Meteor Shower: Nov. 29–Jan. 21, 2018. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time 75 minutes, no intermission. $59–$169. (212) 239-6200.



Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theater

The Public Theater

Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage II

Reviewed by David Sheward

Joey Slotnick at center, in Junk
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

“Nobody knows what any of this shit means!” cries one of the characters in Ayad Akhtar’s gripping play Junk, now at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater after a previous production at the La Jolla Playhouse. The line is spoken by a government agent investigating the monetary tomfoolery of Robert Merkin, a fictional version of junk-bond king Michael Millken. The character is expressing the exasperated view of most of the public who are not in the financial field when the intricacies of big-time investment are discussed. Fortunately, Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer for Disgraced, and his director Doug Hughes makes these complex maneuverings fascinating and exciting, if not entirely understandable.
   The story follows the not-strictly-legal shenanigans of Merkin (played with a savage gusto by Steve Pasquale) who upends Wall Street in the 1980s by hostilely taking over blue-chip corporations with high-risk, debt-rich securities known as junk bonds. The money trail takes us from Los Angeles to New York to Allegheny, Pa., home of Everson Steel, Merkin’s latest target, a third-generation family business ripe for plucking. Along the way we encounter insider trading, poison pills, white knights, racism, anti-Semitism, class conflict, political ambition, and the disturbing observation that Merkin’s predatory practices have become commonplace in both business and public life. Akhtar paints a compelling and large canvas depicting an America celebrating massive wealth and moral bankruptcy.
   Hughes’s crisp staging on John Lee Beatty’s chrome-and-steel unit set keeps the action moving as fast as those neon symbols on the stock market news zipper, and the large cast (more than 20, which is huge for a nonmusical Broadway show) creates distinct and vibrant characters so we follow the sometimes confusing storyline. Particularly memorable are Michael Siberry’s patrician financier, Rick Holmes’s bewildered and blustering steel tycoon, and Joey Slotnick’s shady stock trader.

Like Akhtar, Richard Nelson has created a compelling view of an insider world. His Illyria focuses on the theater folk behind the fledgling New York Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 1958 as they face myriad financial, artistic, and political setbacks and prepare for a production of Twelfth Night (which is set in the imaginary idyllic land of the title). Illyria is being presented at the Public Theater, the current home of the NYSF, now a respected cultural institution. Unlike Akhtar, Nelson has not invented thinly veiled fictional versions of his characters, but gives their real names. In another dissimilarity, Junk is full of bombast while Illyria is played and directed (by Nelson) in such a low-key manner it’s like eavesdropping on private conversations. But that’s exactly the effect the playwright-director is after. In his Apple and Gabriel family plays, also produced at the Public, we seemed to be dropping in on real-life situations where tiny, everyday details mix with momentous events.
   The main conflict is between the Festival’s fiery-tempered, imaginative producer Joseph Papp and the cooler, more pragmatic resident director Stuart Vaughan. Papp sees the free Shakespeare venue as a service to underserved audiences and an end in itself while Vaughan views it as a temporary steppingstone to a Broadway career. Nelson skillfully mines this struggle to explore such themes as art versus commerce, the rich against the poor, theater’s place in society, and the use of public space. His technique of underplayed dialogue is deceptively simple. He slips in the big ideas amid debates over which movie to see and who’s dating whom.
   John Magaro conveys the fury and brilliance of Papp while John Sanders captures Vaughan’s measured cautious nature. They and the rest of the company create an illusion of intimacy as a legendary theater is born.

While Akhtar and Nelson have made their mark, Anna Ziegler is emerging as a vital new voice. Her play The Last Match is currently playing at Roundabout’s Laura Pels, and her Actually recently opened at Manhattan Theater Club’s studio space after engagements at the Geffen Playhouse and Williamstown Theater Festival. The play could not be more timely as the flood of sexual-harassment allegations raises a myriad of issues. This sharp and scary two-hander pits what some see as black-and-white into troubling realms of gray. Sexual and racial overtones arise as African-American Tom and Jewish Caucasian Amber give separate accounts in alternating monologues of a night that may or may not have been a date rape, depending on whom you believe. Ziegler wisely does not choose sides but endows each character with virtues and flaws. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz manages to maintain tension and intensity through the play’s 90-minute running time despite the limitations of the format. Joshua Boone and Alexandra Socha bring a galaxy of conflicting emotions to these confused young people. Like Illyria, Actually with its modest set and tiny cast, sneaks up on you.
   These Off-Broadway shows may not be as overwhelming as Broadway’s Junk, but their punches are just as powerful. You just won’t feel it right away.

November 21, 2017
Junk: Nov. 2–Jan. 7, 2018. Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 7 pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $87–147. (212) 239-6200.


Illyria: Oct. 30–Dec. 10. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue–Fri 7:30pm, Sat-Sun 1:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. $75. (212) 967-7555.


Actually: Nov. 14–Dec. 10. Manhattan Theater Club at City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2:30pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2:30pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2:30pm. Running time 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission. $30 and up. (212) 581-1212.

Torch Song
Second Stage Theater at the Tony Kiser Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Ward Horton, Jack DiFalco, Michael Urie, and Mercedes Ruehl
Photo by Joan Marcus

When Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award in 1983, presenter Diahann Carroll wasn’t even allowed to accurately describe the tender, hilarious play. While giving a detailed synopsis of each of the other nominees, her copy for Torch merely summarized it as being “about love and the merciless mayhem loves wreaks.” When the play unexpectedly won, producer John Glines sent shockwaves across America by thanking his male lover. (I remember Johnny Carson made a joke about it on The Tonight Show the following evening.) Even the show’s TV commercial covered up its then-controversial content. Producers were afraid if Straight John and Jane Q. Public knew the show was about an unapologetic gay drag performer’s quest for a long-term relationship and an extended family, they’d shy away.
   After Falsettos, Will & Grace, Ellen, same-sex marriage, and Transparent, Fierstein’s heartwarming work no longer shocks, but it still moves. Originally presented as three separate one-acts Off-Broadway, the nearly four-hour comedy-drama with Fierstein repeating his role as the autobiographical Arnold Beckoff, Torch Song made the case for gay romance outside of bars and bathhouses. The current revival at Second Stage has been wisely slimmed down to two hours and 45 minutes with only one intermission, and the title has been shortened (not to be confused with Joan Crawford’s 1953 film sudser of the same name).

Moisés Kaufman’s trim and slick production veers a bit too far into sitcom territory with broadly limned performances and borderline-shticky staging, yet the cast remembers there are pulsating hearts amid the pratfalls. At first Michael Urie’s Noo Yawk–accented Arnold comes across as clownish. Plus it initially appears the athletic and boyishly cute Urie is all wrong for the gravel-voiced, self-deprecating Arnold. (“I’ve never been young or beautiful,” he confesses to the audience in a revelatory opening monologue.) But Urie makes us believe that Arnold sees himself as unattractive and alone. He shows us the yearning beneath the mascara and that makes the sometimes exaggerated comic lines ring true.
   Mercedes Ruehl is his equal as Arnold’s sharp-tongued, judgmental mother (a role that led Estelle Getty to be casted on Golden Girls). She deals dexterously in pathos as well as punchlines. So do Ward Horton, Michael Rosen, Jack DiFalco, and Roxanne Hope Radja as various friends and lovers.
   Later this season, there will be Broadway revivals of Angels in America and The Boys in the Band. Along with Torch Song, it will interesting to see how these snapshots of gay culture play in today’s somewhat-more-accepting climate.

November 14, 2017
Oct. 19–Dec. 9. Second Stage at the Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43 St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $99–129. (212) 246-4422.


M. Butterfly
Cort Theater

The Portuguese Kid
Manhattan Theater Club at City Center Stage I

The Last Match
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Zoë Winters, Wilson Bethel, Alex Mickiewicz, and Natalia Payne in The Last Match
Photo by Joan Marcus

The war of the sexes rages on various fronts in Julie Taymor’s Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and John Patrick Shanley’s self-directed new play The Portuguese Kid. Butterfly addresses gender fluidity while Kid is one of Shanley’s screaming matches with lovers driven wild by their libidos. Both offer moments of entertaining and fast-paced staging, but lack depth in their dispatches from the front.
   Butterfly chronicles the truth-based case of French diplomat René Gallimard, imprisoned for espionage committed with his Chinese mistress whom he did not know was a man. John Dexter’s Kabuki-and-Noh-influenced original 1988 Broadway production was a smash hit, running 777 performances, a rare feat for a nonmusical show. The news that Julie Taymor, one of the most imaginative directors of the modern theater, would be working her magic on a new version was a thrilling prospect. The result is occasionally striking but ultimately disappointing from the director of The Lion King and a dazzling Midsummer Night’s Dream. As she did with her Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark disaster, Taymor focuses on visuals and neglects the human connections.
   The opening is gripping. Clive Owen as Gallimard is crouching in a prison cell made of two panels, with a single light bulb dangling over head. (Donald Holder’s stark lighting creates an appropriately bleak picture.) The same basic image is repeated with Owen in various poses of despair. Finally, a tiny white butterfly puppet symbolizing his vanished love flutters just out of his reach. This vividly conveys the basic story in economic and poetic terms. But the subsequent staging consist mostly of actors running on and off, rearranging set designer Paul Steinberg’s bland screens. There is brief excitement during the Chinese opera segments (Ma Chong provided the intricate choreography) and when Owen’s Gallimard demands Jin Ha as Song Liling strip for him.
   Owen strikes out at the highly artificial set pieces, screaming he is tired of exaggerated theatricality (I felt the same way by this time late in the first act). Too bad there is little spark between Owen, who is miscast as the fumbling diplomat, and Ha, who is intriguingly feminine in his gender-bending role. The ruggedly handsome Owen is just not right for the inept, self-conscious Gallimard. The character is supposed to be hopeless with women until he meets the idealized Song who is not even a “real” female. In the original, John Lithgow exquisitely conveyed the Frenchman’s foolish fascination with an illusion. Owen doesn’t fully commit to Gallimard’s obsession. He doesn't even don a wig in the final moment of ironically transforming into a geisha.
   Further muddying the waters, Hwang has updated his script with graphic descriptions of Song’s sexual deception and details about his/her gender identity based on revelations about the real figures involved. With today’s higher awareness of transgender issues, you would think these alterations would make the play more relevant, but they serve only to make it confusing. The first version was infused with mystery and sexual longing, but playwright and director have clipped the play’s wings, leaving us with an earthbound Butterfly.

Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid doesn’t soar either, but the playwright’s trademark wit and a crackerjack cast at least get it off the ground. Jason Alexander provides a variation on his schlubby George Constanza character from Seinfeld with Barry Dragonetti, a scrambling Rhode Island lawyer caught in a love-hate tug-of-war with Sherie Rene Scott’s ferocious Atalanta Lagana, a man-eating two-time widow. As he did in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck and such plays as Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Italian-American Reconciliation, Shanley charts the explosive elemental conflict between man and woman. The strange title refers to a teenage hood who attempted to rob a panicked Barry. Atalanta thwarted the crook, and Barry has never been able to forgive her for emasculating him.
   There are uproarious laughs and sharp characterizations, briskly directed by Shanley, but the predictable plot runs out of steam before the 90-minute running time. A bit too neatly, Barry and Atalanta have taken up with much younger partners who have been previously involved with each other. I’ll give you three guesses as to who ends up with who. Despite the familiarity of the premise, Kid is an enjoyable if forgettable comedy. Alexander and Scott clash with relish, and Aimee Carrero and Pico Alexander provide spunk and spark as their new flames. But the show is nearly stolen by Mary Testa as Barry’s harridan of a mother. This Broadway veteran is a force of maternal nature, dominating the action in her few scenes.

More successful than either of these mismatched love fights is Anna Ziegler’s The Last Match, which portrays a different kind of rivalry but one that is just as binding. Two tennis champs—Tim, an American legend considering retirement, and Sergei, a Russian-born hotshot on the rise—face off in the climactic final of the US Open. Theatrically depicting the thrill of athleticism can be difficult. Lucas Hnath scored with the fascinating Red Speedo, which featured a real swimming pool onstage. However, Eric Simonson’s odes to baseball (Bronx Bombers), basketball (Magic/Bird), and football (Lombardi) failed to rack up many winning points, not conveying the intense physical exuberance of their respective games. Ziegler employs an expected choice of depicting the protagonists’ highly touted courtside encounter onstage (Tim Mackabee created the effective stadium set) and intercutting it with flashbacks featuring the players’ love interests. Ziegler’s incisive, spare dialogue and Gaye Taylor Unchurch’s inventive staging manage to give a sense of the ecstatic blood-rush of competition and how it drives these two men.
   Wilson Bethel captures Tim’s charismatic confidence without being arrogant, and Alex Mickiewicz takes full advantage of the juicier challenge of combining Sergei’s Slavic temper with his devastating insecurity. Zoe Winters manages to give a shine to Mallory, Tim’s wife, who could have fallen into a melancholy trap since she is called upon to fall apart often. Natalia Payne is zesty, nasty, and delightfully resilient as Galina, Sergei’s brutally pragmatic girlfriend. Mackabee’s set includes two gigantic scoreboards on either side of the stage, and we follow the points just as eagerly as if we were at the real match.
   For these three productions, love in tennis beats love off the courts.

October 28, 2017
M. Butterfly: Oct. 26–Feb. 25, 2018. Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $39–$159. (212) 239-6200.


The Portuguese Kid: Oct. 24–Dec. 3. Manhattan Theater Club at City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 100 minutes, no intermission. $95–$112.50. (212) 581-1212.


The Last Match: Oct. 24–Dec. 24. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 100 minutes, no intermission. $79. (212) 719-1300.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Hairy Ape
Park Avenue Armory [show closed]

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.


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.


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.


The Liar
Classic Stage Company [show closed]

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.


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.


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.


Lyric Theatre

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.

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.

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.

King Charles III
Music Box Theatre [closed]

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.

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.




West Side Story
Glimmerglass Festival at the Alice Busch Opera Theatre

The Cunning Little Vixen
Glimmerglass Festival at the Alice Busch Opera Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Vanessa Becerra and Joseph Leppek in West Side Story.
Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Casts and creative staff trained in opera don’t always gel with musical theater material. The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., has sought to combine the two disciplines in its annual offerings since Broadway and opera director Francesca Zambella took over the reigns as artistic director. Under her leadership, of the four mainstage productions, at least one has been a popular musical. This summer, opera and theater blend almost seamlessly in Zambella’s staging of West Side Story, the landmark updating of Romeo and Juliet that electrified Broadway when it premiered in 1957. Street gangs replaced Shakespeare’s battling Italian noble houses. Jerome Robbins effectively integrated his explosive dance sequences and Arthur Laurents’s snappy book scenes. Leonard Bernstein’s innovative score balanced popular Latin American and jazz elements along with atonal and harmonious chords, expressing the clashing emotions of the characters. A young Stephen Sondheim’s intricate lyrics were sophisticated yet believable as uttered by unsophisticated youths.
   Even though this is a traditional production retaining Robbins’s original dynamic choreography, faithfully and intensely re-created by Julio Monge, the material retains its relevancy. In Trump’s America, cultural and ethnic divisions are as strong as ever, and the violence between the second-generation Italian- and Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks is all too familiar, though their neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side was razed to make way for Lincoln Center not long after filming was completed for the Oscar-winning film version. Peter J. Davison’s flexible and realistic set could be any blighted urban landscape in the past 60 years, and Jessica Jahn’s costumes have a hint of hip-hop.
   In addition to Zambella’s incisive and fluid staging and the incomparable musicianship of conductor David Charles Abeil and the Glimmerglass orchestra, this West Side Story succeeds because the majority of the cast are the right ages with most coming from the festival’s Young Artists Program. Many’s the West Side revival marred by casting obvious thirtysomethings as teenagers. Joseph Leppek as Tony and Vanessa Becerra as Maria, the doomed lead lovers from rival gangs, exhibit strong, expressive voices as well as dramatic chops. In their solos and duets, they are fully convincing as passionate youngsters falling into the first throes of romance. Amanda Castro sizzles and simmers as Anita, equally effective in the show-stopping “America” and in her mournful, angry duet with Maria, “A Boy Like That.” Corey Bourbonniere and Andrew Vu exude energetic rage as the competing gang leaders Bernardo and Riff, as do those playing the Jets and Sharks and their girls, creating individual characters rather than anonymous chorus figures. My only quibble is with the liming of the adults, which tends to be over-the-top.

Youthful exuberance also infuses E. Loren Meeker’s sleek and endearing production of Leos Janacek’s 1923 folk opera The Cunning Little Vixen. Like West Side Story, Vixen features numerous Young Artists as woodland creatures and village inhabitants enacting a tale of the endless cycle of life. Based on a series of Czech newspaper features and drawings, the story blends folk music and lush orchestrations in its depiction of the relationship between a kindly forester and a untamable female fox. Conductor Joseph Colaneri produces a symphonic, massive sound, evoking an entire woodland world full of life. The vixen represents wild, joyous nature. When the forester attempts to capture her as a pet, only tragedy can ensue. The simple travails of the animals in their search for love and shelter is echoed in the behavior of their human counterparts. A covetous badger resembles a grasping, selfish preacher. A marauding wolf is like an avaricious poacher. This duality is cleverly emphasized by Erik Teague’s imaginative costumes, which dresses the animals like Victorian middle-class townsfolk.
   The main thrust of the opera is the connection between the forester and the vixen. Resident Artist Eric Owen and Young Artist Joanna Latini create a moving and mercurial bond. Owens’ rich bass-baritone conveys the Forrester’s love of the natural world and his tender memories of early manhood, both qualities he sees reflected in the vixen’s spunky spirit. Latini’s gorgeous soprano captures that attractive feralness, as does her animal-like movement (Eric Sean Fogel created the choreography, which replicates nonhuman physicality). As with the Sharks and the Jets, the chorus members of Vixen are all individuals with signature characteristics, from the strutting rooster to the bustling hens to the bloodthirsty mosquito to the preening screech owl. Each plays his or her part in this rarely performed charmer.
August 9, 2018
West Side Story: July 7–Aug. 24. Glimmerglass Festival at the Alice Busch Opera Theatre, 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y. Repertory schedule. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $26–$149. (607) 547-2255.

The Cunning Little Vixen: July 8–Aug. 25. Glimmerglass Festival at the Alice Busch Opera Theatre, 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y. Repertory schedule. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $26–$149. (607) 547-2255.


Straight White Men
Second Stage at the Hayes Theatre

Mary Page Marlowe
Second Stage at the Tony Kiser Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer, and Paul Schneider
Photo by Joan Marcus

Second Stage’s two current productions are mirror images of each other. On Broadway at the company’s newly renovated Helen Hayes Theatre, Straight White Men examines majority men’s crises of self from an Asian female playwright’s perspective. Off-Broadway at the Tony Kiser, Mary Page Marlowe is an ordinary woman’s journey through life written by a male dramatist. Both deliver insights into how we cope with the identities—ethnic, sexual, or racial—that society proscribes for us. The direction and acting are polished and confident in both.
   Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men marks the first Broadway production by a female Asian-American author, and she takes the unexpected turn of sympathizing with the plight of her title characters, usually the ones on top. Originally presented Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2014, this combination dark comedy and satiric “living-room” drama explores the cultural attitudes of a family wrestling with the effects of privilege. Three upper-middle-class WASP brothers and their widowed father celebrate a boys’ Christmas—engaging in roughhouse horseplay and examining their life choices. The former can be pretty monotonous and the latter is sometimes pretty dry, but director Anna D. Shapiro and her vibrant cast infuse zest and sting into what could have been a staged doctoral thesis.
   The opening is deliberately off-putting. From the opening of the house until curtain, the audience is greeted by high-decibel rap music with indistinguishable lyrics, bright strobe lighting, and a tinsel curtain. Once the house lights snap off, two performers of fluid gender and sexuality (Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe) dressed by costume designer Suttirat Larlabb in what appear to be turquoise ringmaster outfits, step in front of the curtain and explain the author’s intention to put the title species under the microscope. The tinsel curtain rises on Todd Rosenthal’s suburban rec room set, surrounded by a giant frame and labeled “Straight White Men” as if we were viewing an exhibit at a museum.

Not much happens for the first hour or so in the way of plot, except for the four males alternating between stereotypical jocular behavior and ruminating on their status in this age of minority ascension. The minimal action is triggered by eldest sibling Matt breaking down in tears during the traditional Christmas Eve Chinese take-out dinner. After graduating from Harvard, Matt has moved back home and works as an office temp for a non-profit. His more successful brothers Jake, a banker, and Drew, a novelist and teacher, cannot fathom his lack of ambition and contentment at performing the traditionally female role of cooking and cleaning for their dad Ed. Lee employs this loose structure to examine the white-male attitude toward a changing society where their alpha status is no longer relevant. The literal framing device and the introductory figures (listed as Person in Charge 1 and 2) are unnecessary, but Lee makes pointed observations on cultural stereotypes and raises intriguing basic questions about the meaning of success and happiness in our materialistic, label-driven world.
   As Matt, Paul Schneider has the most difficult acting task since his character has no clear, strong objective. Matt claims not to be depressed and dissatisfied about his lot, yet he never examines or explains his teary outburst. Schneider subtly captures both the remnants of Matt’s boyish bluster and adult uncertainty. In his Broadway debut, Armie Hammer exudes charm and genuine concern as Drew while Josh Charles embraces Jake’s childishness as well as his self-awareness (Jake acknowledges he’s an asshole). Stephen Payne makes for a believable, bewildered Ed.
   The play is a weird blend of traditional family drama in the Arthur Miller vein, and a meta-view of those plays. It’s funny and entertaining, yet distant and cold at the same time.

Tracey Letts’s Mary Page Marlowe at Second Stage’s Off-Broadway space is somewhat more conventional, but not entirely. The script follows the title character from literal baby boomer to hospice patient, played by six actresses and a plastic infant doll, but not in chronological order. Eleven scenes depicting turning points (deaths, marriage, affairs, etc.) are shuffled like a deck of cards and presented in seemingly random order, but each segment bears a link to the one before and after it. Letts has previously written about the existential angst in everyday life in such works as Man From Nebraska and Superior Donuts. He went over the melodramatic top in the Pulitzer Prize–winning August: Osage County, but I found this intimate series of snapshots quietly moving.
   Like Lee, Letts can be a bit too on the nose. Scenes reinforcing the theme of the randomness and collage-like nature of Mary Page’s life (a Tarot card reading, a description of a patchwork quilt, etc.) pop up a mite too often. But the majority of the vignettes provide piercingly realistic moments in a woman’s life, unlike Lee’s somewhat clinical and satiric approach.
   It’s a complicated script. There are 12 actors in addition to the six playing the title role, and a plethora of locations in Ohio and Kentucky. Yet we are always certain who is who and where we are in Mary’s story. This is due to Lila Neugebauer’s economic and fluid direction, as well as Laura Jellinek’s mobile set, Tyler Micoleau’s specific lighting, and Kaye Voyce’s decade-spanning costumes. The entire 18-person company delivers glittering little cameos, vivid glimpses of not only Mary Page’s story but also those of their characters. The most piercing is provided by Kellie Overbey who plays Mary at age 50. In a single scene, she conveys the woman’s repressed emotions, the horror of causing pain to others, and the realization she must pay for her carelessness. It’s a devastating few minutes in a fascinating theatrical mosaic.

July 24, 2018
Straight White Men: July 23–Sept. 9. Second Stage at the Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $69–$149. (212) 239-6200.

Mary Page Marlowe: July 12–Aug. 19. Second Stage at the Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $69–$129. (212) 246-4422.


Cyprus Avenue
Abbey Theatre and Royal Court Theatre at the Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Stephen Rea and Amy Molloy
Photo courtesy Public Theatre

Though it takes place in Northern Ireland, Cyprus Avenue, the shockingly dark comedy now at the Public Theater after acclaimed runs in Dublin and London, addresses issues of violence, racism, and nationalism afflicting many other parts of Europe and the US. The playwright, the ironically named David Ireland, satirizes bigotry and the death-struggle between Protestants and Catholics in his native land, but the venom could be found anywhere hatred motivates violence.
   The main character is Eric Miller (a deceptively subtle Stephen Rea), a staunch Loyalist Protestant driven to extremes by his abhorrence of Catholics and Irish separatists. Obsessed by what he perceives as infringements on his cultural heritage, Eric believes his new baby granddaughter is really Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican political party. This absurd delusion is symbolic of Eric’s creeping fear that he is as Irish as the hated Adams. (Loyalists identify themselves as being part of Great Britain rather than Gaelic.) Like a demented Archie Bunker, Eric rails against Irish Republicans, spewing stereotypes and labeling them as “Fenians,” finally exploding in an unbelievable series of violent acts. The action is framed by Eric’s sessions with a psychiatrist, a young woman of African descent, allowing the protagonist to pour out even more repellant slurs.
   The first hour of this intermissionless piece is scathingly funny, with Eric drawing a beard on the offending infant and engaging in a bizarre debate on murder and celebrities with a young man he encounters in a park. The latter is bent on launching a career as a terrorist and wants to do it right. The playwright’s humor is effective in exposing the irrationality of Eric’s racism, but the themes become repetitive and lose their sting after a while. Events take a decidedly sinister turn at the 60-minute mark as the main character’s anti-Catholic barbs are replaced with gruesome physical acts. (At the performance attended, three elderly women walked out at this point.)

Vicky Featherstone directs her cast—three are holdovers from the British production, two are American newcomers—to maintain a straightforward demeanor so that the climactic Martin McDonagh–like orgy of killing comes as a shock and the audience’s laughter sticks in our collective throats. Unfortunately, playwright Ireland lays on the bloodiness too thick and the impact is lost amid the groans of disgust. Kudos to Rea for keeping Eric from turning into a total monster and carefully charting the slow takeover of his humanity by his demons. He orchestrates several long monologues of rage without becoming hysterical.
   As the would-be terrorist, Chris Corrigan similarly injects unexpectedly humor into his character’s repellant rants as he suddenly offers a capsule review of a Tom Cruise movie while threatening to shoot Eric. Roanoke Adekoluejo as the therapist, Andrea Irvine as Eric’s wife, and Amy Molloy as his daughter are stuck with reacting to the multiple outrages. Designer Lizzie Clachan created the sterile, all-white environment depicting the doctor’s office and Eric’s tony Belfast living room (Cyprus Avenue is a ritzy address in that city). Gradually it becomes a mud-splattered battlefield.
   Ireland bravely treads where few dramatists dare venture. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say only Edward Bond with Saved and Neil Labute with The Distance From Here come to mind as contemporary examples of depictions of such brutality. Full marks for boldness. The play wounds and cuts with jagged laughter, but its pervading bleakness overwhelms the message of tolerance.
July 8, 2018
June 25–July 29. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue–Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $85. (212) 967-7555.


Carmen Jones
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Justin Keyes, Soara-Joye Ross, Anika Noni Rose, Erica Dorfler, and Lawrence E. Street
Photo by Joan Marcus

The grand passion of opera and the minimalist aesthetics of director John Doyle blend perfectly in Classic Stage Company’s intimate revival of the rarely performed Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Bizet’s classic. This is the first full New York staging of the hybrid piece since its Broadway premiere in 1943 (there were London versions in 1991 and 2007, as well as a Hollywood movie directed by Otto Preminger in 1954). After attending a performance of the original opera, Hammerstein was struck by the universality of its themes of jealousy and uncontrolled ardor. In between collaborating with Richard Rodgers on Oklahoma! and Carousel, the lyricist transported the story from a cigarette factory in 19th-century Spain to an Army base during World War II where African-American soldiers and women manufacture parachutes. The titular gypsy became a free-living factory worker breaking hearts among the local military.
   As he did with his pared-down stagings of Sweeney Todd, Company, and The Color Purple, Doyle, CSC’s artistic director, strips the material down to its essence and allows its raw, explosive power to explode fully. Set designer Scott Pask converts the company’s small space into a factory floor where boxes, chairs, and parachute fabric hung over lamps, as well as Adam Honore’s versatile lighting, suggest the numerous settings of the story. A spectacular 10-person cast delivers the vocal and dramatic goods, many playing multiple roles and effortlessly bridging the gap between opera and musical theater. Kudos also to music director Shelton Becton and music supervisor–orchestrator Joseph Joubert for the full-bodied rendition of Bizet’s sensuous score.
   The star is Anika Noni Rose as the scintillating seductress Carmen. Costumed by Ann Hould-Ward in flaming red, the appropriately named Rose sets fire to the stage as she slinks, slides, and trills up and down Bizet’s scales and Hammerstein’s saucy lyrics. She totally convinces us that any man would gladly die for her charms. Clifton Duncan employs his thrilling tenor tones to convey the anguish of her main victim Joe, while Lindsay Roberts has just the right amount of grit and sweetness as Joe’s rejected girl Cindy Lou. David Aron Damane rumbles with authority as the boxer Husky Miller. Soara-Joye Ross stops the show with a vibrant rendition of “Beat Out That Rhythm on a Drum.”
   Carmen Jones has not been performed in New York for more than 70 years, probably because Hammerstein’s book and lyrics employ crude, stereotypical slang. It’s also a portrait of African-American female sexuality written by a white male (just like Porgy and Bess, which was adapted by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for its most recent Broadway revival). Doyle wisely downplays the exaggerated nature of the speech and emphasizes the emotional connections of the story and Bizet’s music, resulting in an unforgettable rediscovery of a curio from Broadway’s Golden Age.

June 28, 2017
June 27–July 29. Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. Tue–Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission. $72–$127. (212) 677-4210.


The Boys in the Band
Booth Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Robin De Jesús, Michael Benjamin Washington, Andrew Rannells, and Jim Parsons
Photo by Joan Marcus

When The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play focusing on the gay experience, opened Off-Broadway in 1968, critics praised it as a sympathetic portrait of a persecuted sexual minority. But many reviewers tellingly revealed their bias. One expressed disgust at having to watch men dance together, while another described the work as an accurate depiction of those suffering from a disease. The current revival at the Booth of this devastating artifact—the first one for Broadway after two major Off-Broadway stagings—shows how far we have come as far as gay acceptance goes. The director Joe Mantello, one of the lead producers Ryan Murphy, and the entire nine-man cast are all openly gay and have not suffered any career damage.
   The acting and direction are strong and precise, as Crowley’s bitchy wisecracks are dropped like nasty bombs exactly on target. But, like George C. Wolfe’s surface-deep rendering of The Iceman Cometh a few doors down at the Bernard Jacobs, this production settles for easy laughs and fails to offer the full depth of the first production, preserved in a 1970 film version with the original ensemble, directed by William Friedkin. Crowley has trimmed his script and eliminated the intermission, and Mantello delivers his usual tight pacing, but it feels as if we are looking at these boys through the prism of 2018 sensibilities rather than directly experiencing their pain and loneliness.
   The concept is ingeniously theatrical and accounts for the original’s smash run of 1,000 performances. A group of funny-on-the-outside-sad-on-the-inside gay friends gathers for a birthday party, but a wild card is dealt when the supposedly straight college friend of the host shows up and all bets are off. A Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style party game forces the guests to reveal bitter secrets, and each somewhat stereotyped figure is stripped metaphorically bare.
   The attitudes towards gays at the time—reflected accurately in the script—ranged from outright repulsion to condescending pity. None of the partygoers is in a healthy relationship, and the object of their game, engineered by the self-loathing host Michael, is to expose the impossibility of romantic love between men. (Each player must telephone the one person they have truly loved and tell him so—a bold challenge to express the passion that dare not speak its name.) In 1968, homosexuality was seen as a curse, not a healthy state of being. Mantello’s sharp direction does not touch on this theme, but does offer plenty of yuks and attempts at pathos. At times, he pushes the melodrama, such as freezing the action and throwing a spotlight on Michael as he takes his first cocktail of the evening as if to shout at the audience, “Look out, dramatic fireworks ahead!” But his choices are rarely this blatant.

Jim Parsons deserves kudos for his caustic Michael, a notoriously difficult role that the lovable Big Bang Theory star tackles with conviction despite a fall during previews. He wisely does not water down Michael’s venom, but he misses his fathom-deep anguish and anger. The latter half of the play is usually stolen by Harold, the acerbic birthday boy who is given the lion’s share of biting barbs and is Michael’s equal when it comes to powerful put downs. Unfortunately, Zachary Quinto plays Harold on one affected rumbling bass note, sort of like a cartoon villain.
   Robin de Jesus reveals the ache beneath the effeminate clowning of Emory, the “nelly queen” of the bunch. Matt Bomer is relegated to reacting to the others’ excesses as Donald, Michael’s sometime lover, but he makes the most of it. Michael Benjamin Washington, Andrew Rannells, Tuc Watkins, and Brian Hutchinson complete this proficient ensemble. Even Charlie Carver, in the small role of the cowboy-hustler bought as a gag gift for Harold, has moments to shine.
   David Zinn designed the appropriate period costumes and the red-velvet duplex apartment set, which gets a trifle crowded. But the split-level effect is employed cleverly by Mantello. With the aide of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, he uses mirrors and glass panels in a technique similar to the one in his staging of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, a revival that, unlike this Boys, fully mines the depths of its source.

June 10, 2018
May 31–Aug. 11. Booth Theater, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Mon 8pm, Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm. Running time 105 minutes, no intermission. $69–$199. (212) 239-6200.


Dan Cody’s Yacht
Manhattan Theater Club at City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward

Rick Holmes, Jordan Lage, Meredith Forlenza, Kristen Bush, and Laura Kai Chen
Photo by Joan Marcus

A wealthy parent confronts his son’s economically strapped teacher over a failing grade for an essay on The Great Gatsby. As the scene progresses, the dad sits at the instructor’s desk, questions her qualifications and her teaching methods, and finally slaps a handful of bills down. The teacher is appalled at the blatant bribe, but she hesitates for a split second, giving the obnoxious parent his opening. That’s the arresting opening sequence of Anthony Giardina’s intriguing but ultimately uneven new play Dan Cody’s Yacht, now playing at Manhattan Theater Club’s Off-Broadway space at City Center. It turns out Kevin O’Neill, the arrogant briber, wants something besides a better score on his kid’s homework. The teacher, Cara Russo, is the main advocate for a bill to merge two Boston suburban school districts: ritzy Stillwell, where Kevin lives and Cara teaches, and lower-class Patchett where Cara lives. Kevin offers the financially struggling Cara his considerable investing acumen in return for dropping her support of the measure.
   It’s a gripping premise, and Giardina has added several factors to up the stakes. For instance, both protagonists have children approaching senior year, and their college futures depends on the vote. In addition, the central theme is compelling, crystallized by the symbolism of the title. The titular watercraft is the fictional one Gatsby sees as a harbinger of the status and privilege he desires and ultimately achieves. Kevin invokes it as a glimpse of the world Cara cannot touch but sees all the time through the parents of her well-to-do students.

The theme of wealthy privilege versus idealist near-poverty is worthy, but Giardina adds too much freight to his boat and it sinks before the final fade-out. The main question of the school vote is resolved halfway through, and more issues arise that are not fully developed. Kevin announces he’s gay in the first scene, but we get no hint of any romantic attachment or how his queerness influences his actions. His son Conor is a handsome shadow, while Cara’s daughter Angela is more complex and appealing (both kids speak far more eloquently than any teenagers I’ve ever encountered). There are intense confrontations, but too many of the plot points are just not believable. Would Cara really recklessly invest all of her money with the impulsive Kevin? Predictably her rash decisions led to a bad outcome. This is a disappointment since Giardina’s last major New York production, The City of Conversation, was such an insightful and deep portrayal of political conflict.
   Luckily, Doug Hughes delivers a sleek and sure staging, while Rick Holmes and Kristen Bush are capable and intense sparring partners as Kevin and Cara. Casey Whyland captures Angela’s fear and confidence, while Roxanna Hope Radja provides sass and spice as Cara’s blunt-talking best friend. John Lee Beatty created the stylish sets suggesting the contrasting economic environments.

June 6, 2018
June 6–July 8. Manhattan Theater Club at City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $90. (212) 581-1212.


My Fair Lady
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theater

Dance Nation
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Lunt-Fontanne Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Allan Corduner in My Fair Lady
Photo courtesy Rinaldi PR

Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist and lyricist of My Fair Lady, once joked to Rex Harrison, the original Henry Higgins of that classic musical, that they both should have been gay because of their terrible history with women. Lerner had eight wives and Harrison six. Lerner’s misogyny permeates Lady, and Barlett Sher’s new production for Lincoln Center attempts to counter it. This new version with its steely heroine is the latest in a trend of reshaping Golden Age tuners to address the Me Too movement (Jack O’Brien’s Carousel is another example).
   The story of Eliza Doolittle, the bedraggled Cockney flower girl, and Higgins, the haughty phonetics professor who transforms her into a lady by refining her speech, has captivated audiences since George Bernard Shaw first penned his Pygmalion. When there was talk of transforming the material into a musical, many teams balked at the notion. Shaw wrote the play as an anti-romance concerned primarily with class distinction. The connection between Eliza and Higgins is intellectual, and the missing love was a necessary ingredient in popular entertainment of midcentury Broadway. Lerner and Loewe solved the problem by uniting the unusual pair as the music swells at the final curtain. But along the path to reconciliation, Higgins expresses his contempt for the female sex in two numbers, and Eliza is treated like an object, a live doll, a household drudge, and a pseudo-wife. Shaw has her stand up for herself and leave Higgins. Lerner had her coming back and smiling as Higgins relaxes and asks her to fetch his slippers—the very ones the girl had previously thrown at him in defiance.

Spoiler Alert: Sher restores Shaw’s dynamic, with Eliza bravely exiting Higgins’s house (elaborately designed by Michael Yeargan) like Nora in A Doll’s House. But she also acknowledges their hidden emotions by tenderly stroking the cheek of a devastated rather than triumphant Higgins. Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton give this explosive reinterpretation reams of subtext as they do with the entire show, which is as vital and fresh as Sher’s previous retakes on such evergreens as South Pacific, The King and I, and Fiddler on the Roof. Christopher Gattelli’s seamless choreography is all wild, drunken mayhem for the antics of Eliza’s boisterous father Alfred (a winning and grizzled Norbert Leo Butz) and restrained precision during the elegant Embassy Waltz and buttoned-up Ascot race sequence (beautifully costumed as always by Catherine Zuber). Donald Holder’s lighting places Yeargan’s diverse settings in the proper time, from a shabby dawn in Covent Garden to bright sunlight at Ascot to a romantic evening at the embassy.
   In addition to the indispensable Butz, girder-like support is provided by a sweet-voiced Jordan Donica as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Allan Corduner as a warm and perhaps closeted Col. Pickering, Linda Mugleston as the starchy housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and the stylish Diana Rigg as Higgins’s mother. Just beneath Rigg’s spritely smile and dry delivery, you can detect a hint of devilish mischief not unlike that of Emma Peel, the leather-clad karate expert she immortalized on the 1960s adventure series The Avengers.
   Of course the success of any production of this show depends on its stars, and Ambrose and Hadden-Paton are worthy combatants in a Shavian battle of wills. Ambrose miraculously transforms from struggling urchin to confident courtier, navigating the confusing rules of etiquette, diction, and class, singing beautifully along the way. Watch as she finally enunciates the famous “Rain in Spain” like Helen Keller grasping speech for the first time. Hadden-Paton’s Higgins likewise undergoes a metamorphosis from arrogant language expert to bumbling victim of love. His precise delivery of Lerner and Loewe’s patter songs is as expert as Harrison’s, and he crumbles like a child bereft of a toy when Eliza is taken from him. This is a memorable match in a lovely and loving Lady for our age.

Off-Broadway in the intimate Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation also concerns a male teacher figure clashing with female students. In this case, it’s Dance Teacher Pat (a sternly serious Thomas Jay Ryan) mercilessly drilling his troupe of 13-year-old Ohio girls (and one boy) in quest of glory at the National Championships in Tampa Bay, Fla. But the adult teacher is not a primary figure in Barron’s arresting and fragmentary script. The focus is on the girls as they deal with sexism and self-esteem. Amina is the one undeniably talented star in the troupe, but she downplays her abilities. Meanwhile, Dance Teacher Pat has chosen Zuzu, who burns to dance but lacks charisma, to take the lead in the group’s latest competition piece, a pretentious meditation on the life of Gandhi. The tension between the two friends, the troupe, their teacher, and their moms (all played by the versatile Christina Rouner) is the stuff of Barron’s drama. It sounds like a bad episode of Dance Moms, the reality-based TV series, but Dance Nation is an insightful portrait of the quest for female identity, incisively directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans.
   Played by actors in their 20s to their 50s, the young women reveal their inner fears and frustrations in a series of unexpected and penetrating monologues and scenes. Eboni Booth expertly captures Zuzu’s tentative doubt, and Dina Shihabi nails Amina’s fire and the fear that keeps her from fanning it. Lucy Taylor delivers an incandescent speech on teen destiny, while Ellen Maddow has a sweet and lilting fantasy on flying. Ikechukwu Ufomadu is a perfectly fumbling Luke, the sole male in the troupe. Purva Bedi and Camila Cano-Flavia complete this estimable ensemble.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
clumsily attempts to make a similar statement on female empowerment, but the flimsy musical bio skims TV-movie clichés about the disco diva’s life in between mostly uninspired renditions of her hits. Sexual abuse, male oppression in the music industry, growing up on the mean Boston streets, numerous love affairs, family, daughters, and finally death from cancer—all flash by in the crowded book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and director Des McAnuff, whose staging is like a flashy Vegas concert. Only in “She Works Hard for the Money” does McAnuff’s direction, Sergio Trujillo’s slick choreography, and the performance of Ariana DeBose, one of three actors playing Summer, combine to create an exciting and powerful sequence moving the story forward and offering commentary on the subject’s trials. Otherwise this is a cold, fast Summer.

May 28, 2018
My Fair Lady: April 19–Jan. 6, 2019. Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat, 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $97–$199. (212) 239-6200.


Dance Nation: May 8–July 1. Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue–Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. $59–$99. (212) 279-4200.


Summer: The Donna Summer Musical: Opened April 23 for an open run. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $48–$149. (800) 745-3000.


Miss You Like Hell
Public Theater

Mlima’s Tale
Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Kevin Mambo, Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah, and Jojo Gonzalez in Mlima's Tale
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Public Theater is currently presenting two productions about journeys: one a well-intentioned but familiar musical tracing a mother-daughter road trip, the other an innovative and startlingly scary voyage documenting the cruelty of the ivory trade. Both have professional and talented guides but only one takes us to new places.
   Miss You Like Hell, playing at the Public’s largest space the Newman, addresses topics rarely featured in tuners but does so with a tried and true template. The precarious lives led by undocumented immigrants form the background of the sweet-natured but ultimately conventional show. Beatriz travels to Philadelphia from her home in California to reconnect with her estranged daughter Olivia after the young girl posts a suicide threat on her blog. The mother, who has been out of her offspring’s life for several years, proposes a cross-country bonding adventure in her broken-down van. What Beatriz has not told Olivia is that she needs her daughter to testify for her at a deportation hearing.
   Of course, the two fight, cry, and make up by the end of 100 intermissionless minutes. Quiara Alegría Hudes crams a lot into her often sharp but too syrupy book. There are moments of poignant connection between the nonconformist, impulsive Beatriz and the lonely, whip-smart Olivia. But there are also too many TV-movie clichés as they encounter a small army of friendly strangers to help them on their way. The score features eclectic and engaging music by Erin McKeown and quirky lyrics by McKeown and Hudes. Lear DeBessonet’s staging makes innovative use of Riccardo Hernandez’s revolving set and Tyler Micoleau’s scene-setting lighting.
   Daphne Rubin-Vega creates an appropriately all-over-the-place Beatriz. Her scratchy alto captures Beatriz’s colliding emotions. Gizel Jimenez makes for a crackling captivating Olivia, obnoxiously bright yet desperately vulnerable. The young actor careful chronicles her character’s journey from lost teen to strong adult. The diverse supporting cast has many delights and surprises, from the pairing of Broadway veterans David Patrick Kelly and Michael Mulheren as a biker gay couple to LaToya Edwards as a hip park ranger.

Upstairs at the Martinson, Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale also features innovative and spare staging, by Jo Bonney, but avoids the familiar tropes of Miss You. This incisive 80-minute explosive device of a play follows the spiritual voyage of Mlima, a beloved Kenyan National Park elephant murdered for his prodigious tusks. Following the template of La Ronde, the pachyderm’s ghost (played with expressive, dance-like eloquence by Sahr Ngaujah) spans continents as his tusks are moved from hunter to bribable police official to fence to artist to millionaire collector. Based on an article by Damon Tabor, Nottage’s cynical roundelay of greed maps out the trail of corruption, which makes such cruelty commonplace and lucrative. Riccardo Hernandez designed the spare setting transformed in rolling veldts, dirty shipping docks, and luxurious boutiques and penthouses by Lap Chi Chu’s versatile lighting. All of the human roles are played with dexterity and diversity by Ito Aghayere, Jojo Gonzalez, and Kevin Mambo. Mlima’s Tale is a harrowing trip, but well worth taking.

May 11, 2018
Miss You Like Hell: April 10–May 13. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue–Fri 8pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 8pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $90.


Mlima’s Tale: April 15–June 3. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue–Fri 8pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 8pm. Running time 1 hour and 10 minutes, no intermission. $85.


Imperial Theatre

Mean Girls
August Wilson Theatre

Children of a Lesser God
Studio 54

Reviewed by David Sheward

Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell, and Barrett Wilbert Weed in Mean Girls
Photo by Joan Marcus

A classic and a new musical offer contrasting views on abusive relationships, while a revival of a Tony-winning Best Play deals with the struggles of the hearing-impaired community. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and the musical version of Tina Fey’s 2004 cult teen comedy Mean Girls depict women coping with oppressors, and Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God also has a downtrodden heroine. The tuners are exhilarating and entertaining, while the play shows its age.
   You could make the argument all three shows represent the shifting depiction of female roles and empowerment. Millworker Julie Jourdan, the struggling heroine of Carousel (1945), is a victim of spousal abuse and neglect, but sings of her undying love for the loutish carnival barker Billy Bigelow (“What’s the use of wonderin’/If he’s good or if he’s bad?/He’s your fella/And that’s all there is to that.”) Sarah Norman, the deaf leading lady of Children (1980), does stick up for herself and sets out on her own like Ibsen’s Nora, but she is presented as a figure in need of rescue by her hearing lover, a male literally speaking for her to the audience. To bring us up to date, Mean Girls’ teenage protagonist Cady Heron challenges the shallow values of her high school by toppling the vicious queen bee Regina George and winds up becoming just like her nemesis. Both conveniently reform by the final curtain, but not before Tina Fey lets loose with stinging observations on how women allow themselves to be enslaved by image.
   For this new production of Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein evergreen, director Jack O’Brien has slimmed it down by cutting some numbers, toughened up Julie, and softened Billy’s brutality. A slap on the face has been replaced by a blow to the hand. Despite these alternations, O’Brien has retained the magic of the unforgettable score and the raw power of the heartbreaking story. Justin Peck’s graceful and inventive choreography accentuates character and give a vibrant sense of the 1890s New England community of the setting. There is electricity—both vocal and emotional—between Jessie Mueller’s spunky Julie and Joshua Clarke’s muscular Billy from their first tentative encounter to their troubled marriage. Opera star Renee Fleming gives velvety tones to the immortal anthem of hope “When You Walk Through a Storm,” Lindsay Mendez lends sparkly comic relief as Julie’s best friend Carrie, and ballet dancers Amar Ramasar and Brittany Pollock give sensuous life to Peck’s movement. Purists may quibble with O’Brien’s innovations such as having the Starkeeper (a dignified John Douglas Thompson) silently observe the action long before his usual entrance in Act Two, but this is a ravishing and heartbreaking revival.

Just as Carousel is a shimmering example of a Golden Age tuner given a perfect modern production, Mean Girls is the very model of a modern movie-into-musical, taking the wit and charm of the source material and enhancing it with clever and character-specific songs by composer Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband), and lyricist Nell Benjamin. Fey has adapted her original screenplay into a sleek, fast-paced portrait of media-obsessed youth, as funny and smart as her TV projects such as 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Casey Nicholaw’s precise, quirky staging and choreography perfectly complement Fey’s dry humor. He’s not afraid to have a character start a song, change her mind, exit, and then start again, getting enormous laughs with each action.
   As the fish-out-of-water Cady, Erika Henningsen admirably carries the show on her shoulders, but she is surrounded by an ensemble of scene stealers. Taylor Louderman is deliciously bitchy as the nasty Regina, with Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell hilarious as her toadying benchwomen. Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson are endearing and offbeat as the school misfits, Kyle Selig is the ideal romantic interest, and Kerry Butler is a multiple riot in several adult roles.

Children of a Lesser God also features a strong female lead, but director Kenny Leon’s tame revival of an award-winning play about the deaf community fails to ignite any sparks. That’s mainly because there is no chemistry between Joshua Jackson, an actor know mainly for his film and TV work, and Lauren Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America and a sensational find. Jackson plays well-meaning speech teacher James Leeds who falls in love with student Sarah (Ridloff). Their conflict derives from the profoundly deaf Sarah’s fervent resistance to speaking and James’s insistence that she learn to communicate by voice with the hearing world. Medoff’s script raises several meaty issues, and it was a huge hit in its original Broadway run, and the subsequent film version won an Oscar (Marlee Matlin as Best Actress). But Leon’s staging is flat, and the performances are uninvolving, save for the vibrant Ridloff.
   Jackson deserves praise for taking on an enormous role—James seldom leaves the stage and speaks for himself as well as Sarah, but he fails to exude any charisma. Fortunately, Ridloff is a blazing comet of vitality, intensely conveying Sarah’s passionate stance for her rights and the difficult path this damaged but life-affirming woman has taken, all through sign language, gesture, expression, and movement. Too bad such a striking actor is confined to a lesser production of Children.

April 25, 2018
Carousel: Opened April 12 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 time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $59–$169. (212) 239-6200. Mean Girls: Opened April 8 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. $118–$189. (800) 745-3000. Children of a Lesser God: April 11–Sept. 9. Studio 54, 254 W. 54 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. $29–$149. (212) 239-6200.

Angels in America:
A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Neil Simon Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Nathan Lane and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Photo by Helen Maybanks

It has been more than 20 years since Angels in America , Tony Kushner’s epic two-part dramatic response to the AIDS crisis, burst onto the world stage. In spite of its age and the fact that it takes place 10 years earlier (1985-1986), this epic remains startlingly relevant, and Marianne Elliott’s highly theatrical and insightful new production, now on Broadway after a smash run at the National Theater in London, is simultaneously massive and intimate. When the play opened (Part One—Millennium Approaches premiered in San Francisco in 1991, Part Two—Perestroika debuted on Broadway in 1994), critics predicted it would take its place alongside the masterworks of O’Neill, Williams, and Miller. This quirky, heartfelt revival confirms that status.
   Kushner’s saga chronicles the struggles of a diverse group of characters—including displaced Mormons, urban gay men, disturbed spirits, and actual historic figures—as they cope with a devastating disease, heavenly visitations, and political, religious, and sexual hypocrisy and oppression. The author’s complex and pointed observations on America’s schizophrenic attitudes toward its citizens can be applied just as readily to 2018. Though we have same-sex marriage, theoretical LGBT rights, and gender equality, powerful forces are still poised to roll the clock back. “The world only spins forward,” proclaims Prior Walter (a vibrant, wonderfully bitchy Andrew Garfield), the reluctant gay prophet, in the final scenes of the play. He is railing against panicked angels abandoned by God and desperate for humans not to progress. The same conflict between forward motion and stasis still exists, and Angels still addresses it.

As in her Tony-winning productions of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Elliott employs frankly theatrical elements such as puppetry and visible, Noh-like stagehands to underline the gradual stripping of the characters’ defenses. In the first part, Millennium Approaches, Ian MacNeil’s intricate set is full of revolving stages and showy effects. Paule Constable’s lighting creates eerie nightmares and dewy dreamscapes. But in the second part, Perestroika, artifices are removed and we are left with a mostly bare stage. The heavenly angels and the gods of the theater cannot save humankind. As Pryor proclaims, we’ll have to do it ourselves.
   This balance of realism and showmanship is spectacularly exemplified by the performance of Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, the real-life power lawyer who advances a right-wing agenda while living a closeted gay life. Cohn is the deliciously evil villain of the play whose politics of greed and narcissism are a feast of malice for any actor to chow down on. But Lane also captures Cohn’s charm and his confused paternal connection with Joe Pitt, the repressed gay Mormon (a brilliantly conflicted Lee Pace). (These elements were played down or missed by Ron Leibman who played Cohn in the original Broadway production, Frank Wood in the Signature Theater revival Off-Broadway, and Al Pacino in the HBO miniseries.) Lane is at once is the hissable creep delivering Kushner’s screamingly funny put-downs and the twisted human being reaching out for solace as he is struck down by AIDS. (It should come as no shock that Cohn was a mentor to the young Donald Trump, and Angels still blazingly depicts the American cultural civil war that our current president is waging.)

Another fascinating mix of verisimilitude and high art is provided by the depiction of the Angel who visits Pryor, played with daring sexual ambiguity by Amanda Lawrence. In the original New York production, she looked as if she had stepped out of a Renaissance painting. Here, costume designer Nicky Gillibrand has placed her in a rag-tag frock with a ruined American flag for a skirt and grey droopy wings. Rather than flying on Peter Pan wires, she is carried and manipulated by several black-clad “shadows.” She is a symbol of the sad state of the world and a breathing figure seeking a way to heal that broken planet.
   In addition to those already mentioned in the stellar company, Susan Brown captures the motherly strength of Pitt’s mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; Denise Gough gives eloquent voice to the inner panic of Joe’s pill-addicted wife, Harper; James McArdle finds the shattered core of Louis, Pryor’s unfaithful boyfriend; and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is sizzlingly witty and razor sharp as Belize, Cohn’s sassy nurse and Pryor’s supportive friend.
   It is possible to see both parts in one glorious marathon day as this reviewer did. The whole seven-and-a-half-hour experience moves like a jet-propelled dream. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

March 25, 2018
March 25–July 1. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: Part One: Millennium Approaches: 3 hours and 30 minutes, including two intermissions; Part Two: Perestroika: 4 hours, including two intermissions. $49–169. (877) 761-2770.


Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo
Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Jerry Springer—The Opera
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Good for Otto
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Amy and the Orphans
Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Rileigh McDonald, Rhea Perlman, and Ed Harris in Good for Otto
Photo by Monique Carboni

The Pershing Square Signature Center is currently housing a diverse array of theatrical attractions Off-Broadway: one from the resident Signature Theater Company, and a pair from The New Group, which is renting two of the complex’s spaces. Signature presents its revival of Edward Albee’s double bill At Home at the Zoo at the Diamond stage, while The New Group offers the long-awaited Jerry Springer—The Opera in the Linney, and David Rabe’s new play Good for Otto is at intimate Griffin. Meantime, Amy and the Orphans runs at the Laura Pels.
   At Home at the Zoo consists of The Zoo Story, Albee’s shattering one-act of alienation and violence that put him on the map in 1959, and Homelife, a 2004 prequel. Zoo Story depicts the Central Park encounter of conformist textbook publisher Peter and wildly provocative drifter Jerry. As Peter attempts to read on an isolated bench, total stranger Jerry relentlessly pokes and prods, desperately seeking a connection of some kind. He forces Peter to question his safe, conventional lifestyle choices. After Jerry’s devastating monologue chronicling his desperately lonely existence, their meeting results in a fatal challenge. Paired with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in its original Off-Broadway premiere, this body-blow of a play asks disturbing questions about what it means to be a human being and how our materialistic society was changing our values.
   Almost 50 years later, Albee wrote Homelife, a curtain-raiser to flesh out Peter who spent most of Zoo Story silently reacting to Jerry. Before leaving his Upper East Side apartment and running into Jerry, Peter has an uncomfortable dialogue with his wife Ann who is also questioning their cozy co-existence. Homelife is definitely the lesser work. It follows the same template of many of his later pieces: an erudite pair quibbles cryptically and repetitively over their choice of words before finally getting to the meat of the conflict, which is usually, “We don’t get along, something’s missing, life is boring, boo-hoo.”
   Fortunately, director Lila Neugebauer injects the same vitality into these uneven halves. On Andrew Lieberman’s stark, Jackson Pollack–splatter set, Robert Sean Leonard’s exquisitely repressed Peter, Katie Finneran’s delicately disturbed Ann, and Paul Sparks’s spectacularly unbalanced Jerry play a frightening three-side chamber piece of dynamic despair.

While Albee’s Zoo Story retains its impact after half a century, Jerry Springer—The Opera is way past its sell-by date. The satiric tuner opened in London in 2003, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical and running 609 performances before touring the UK. It was written when Springer’s tabloid-trash talk show was at its ratings zenith, and Brits loved its characterization of vulgar Americans descending to the lowest cultural depths. But, apart from two performances of a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 2008, the work has not been seen on a New York stage until now. John Rando, stager of such wacky works as Urinetown and The Toxic Avenger, is the perfect choice for this bizarre sleaze buffet. His staging is fast and furious, and the talented company—particularly Luke Grooms, Jill Paice, Tiffany Mann, and Sean Patrick Doyle—combine skilled vocals with unabashed comic abandon.
   The trouble is, in a world where a Twitter-obsessed, reality-show host is president of the United States, Springer’s vulgar antics are no longer shocking nor particularly funny. Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’s almost completely sung-through libretto offers parodies of a typical Springer slugfest with double- and triple-crossing lovers, diaper fetishists, pole dancers, crack whores, and tap-dancing Klansmen (a gimmick Mel Brooks previously used to better effect with Nazis in 1968’s The Producers and less so with the Spanish Inquisition in 1981’s History of the World, Part I). Having a transgender character brag about an affair with redneck hetero fails to register as a surprise these days.
   After being shot by a guest just before intermission, Springer (a game Terrence Mann) descends into hell in the second act and hosts a grudge match featuring Satan (overplaying Will Swenson), God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Adam, and Eve. Predictably, these combatants parallel those of the earthly first act and the no-longer-scandalous behavior becomes repetitive. Thomas’s score consists of simplistic operatic takeoffs often repeating profanities (one number consists of variations on the “u” vowel in “fuck” for three minutes. It’s amusing once, but for two and a half hours? This once explosive hand-grenade of a show now comes across as an overlong and outdated SNL sketch. Kudos to Sarah Laux’s clever costumes, though.

Down the hall, David Rabe offers a more ambitious and sobering view of mass suffering. His new play Good for Otto focuses on the massive caseload of two stressed-out therapists at a rural Connecticut psychiatric center. Dr. Bob Michaels (earnest and intense Ed Harris) and Evangeline Ryder (flinty yet vulnerable Amy Madigan) work through the tribulations of half a dozen clients while battling insurance providers. We also get a look inside Dr. Michaels’s psyche where his mother (a sensitive Charlotte Hope), who committed suicide at a young age, wanders, and all of his troubled patients cheerfully join in group singing of reliable favorites like “On Moonlight Bay” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Most of the play consists of therapy sessions with counselor and patient sitting in old-fashioned swivel chairs center stage surrounded by the cast and members of the audience seated amid Derek McLane’s accurately institutional set (Jeff Croiter’s warm lighting helps set the intimate, dream-like mood).
   Scott Elliott’s staging and the performances of the large cast are appropriately realistic, but, at nearly three hours, the stories blend together and the play loses focus. Rabe needs a ruthless editor to separate the excess from the essence of his probing encounters. The shorter vignettes work best. These include a mother (an intense Kate Buddeke) afflicted by throbbing headaches after the sudden suicide of her drifter son (an affable, troubled Michael Rabe) and the attempts of the socially challenged Timothy (insightful Mark-Linn Baker) to fit into society. (The Otto of the title refers to Timothy’s pet hamster with whom he gets along better than with people.) Sterling actors F. Murray Abraham, Rhea Perlman, and Maulik Pancholy are trapped in overdrawn storylines.

While Rabe’s play rambles, Lindsey Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Off-Broadway venue is more tightly focused and moving. Her darkly funny family drama centers on three siblings, each with coping issues. Jacob and Maggie are in their 60s, unsure and insecure. Ironically, their sister Amy, who has Down’s Syndrome, is the most centered of the three. She loves movies, and she has a job and a boyfriend. When their father passes, this mismatched family, along with Amy’s caregiver, the feisty Kathy, embark on a bittersweet road trip to his memorial.
   Amy, based on Ferrentino’s aunt, is played by Jamie Brewer who also has Down’s Syndrome. She gives an insightful and assured performance, sharply delivering Amy’s favorite movie quotes and her deceptively insightful observations of her confused brother and sister. Debra Monk and Mark Blum capture Jake and Maggie’s yearning resentment and need to be loved. Vanessa Aspillaga is a fiery cannonball as the opinionated Kathy while Diane Davis and Josh McDermott sympathetically play the trio’s parents in flashbacks. Scott Ellis’s direction skillfully balances Ferrentino’s bleak humor and compassionate pathos.

March 14, 2018

Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Feb. 2–March 25. Signature Theater at Pershing Signature Theatre 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, including intermission. $50. (212) 244-7529.

Jerry Springer—The Opera: Feb. 22–April 1. The New Group at the Pershing Signature Theatre 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 20 minutes, including intermission. $95–135. (212) 279-4200.

Good for Otto: March 8–April 15. The New Group at the Pershing Signature Theatre 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 55 minutes, including intermission. $85–125. (212) 279-4200.

Amy and the Orphans: March 1–April 22. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30 pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30 pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. (212) 257-9840.

In the Body of the World
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I

He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box
Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Eve Ensler in In the Body of the World
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two short, explosive new Off-Broadway works depict wars of race and gender with women’s bodies as the battlefield. Both are intense and earnest, challenging theatergoers’ expectations and perceptions. In the Body of the World from Manhattan Theater Club at City Center marks Eve Ensler’s return to the solo performance format after her landmark Vagina Monologues and The Good Body. Adrienne Kennedy is premiering He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, her first new work in a decade, at Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Like her previous Obie-winning one-acts Funnyhouse of a Negro, June and Jean in Concert, and Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Heart is an abstract American dreamscape examining the devastation caused by racism. Each work has autobiographical elements, runs for less than two hours, and leaves us wanting for more.
   In Body, Ensler chronicles her struggle with uterine cancer as she works to open a women’s center in Congo for victims of rape. The figurative and literal overlap of the two crises provides dramatic and comic fodder. “Do you know who I am,” she cries to her doctor when receiving the diagnosis, “Have no sense of irony?” Here is a woman who has chronicled female empowerment through their sexual organs, finding out she has a poison in the very part of her body she has been celebrating. On Myung Hee Cho’s warm set, which combines elements of a cozy living room with an exotic jungle, Ensler weaves the narrative of her medical issues with world issues. Climate change, the #MeToo movement, the triumph of Trump—all are grist for her creative mill.
   At times, the parallels are a tad heavy-handed, but the author-performer quickly balances self-deprecating humor and cutting observations with her social commentary. (“Have I been talking too much about my vagina?” she quips at one point.) She adroitly plays with language, comparing the common Latin roots of hysteria and uterus, and how “an infusion suite” where she receives medical treatment sounds like an artisanal tea salon. Diane Paulus’s measured direction seamlessly guides us through Ensler’s multistage journey of horror and triumph, aided immeasurably by Jen Schriever’s evocative lighting and M.L. Dogg and Sam Lerner’s sensitive sound design.
   Ensler is a passionate advocate, spritely comedienne, and friendly host. She coaxes the audiences to stand up and dance one minute, then recounts the harrowing tales of the systematic rape of African women the next. It’s an intense, inspiring encounter.

Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box also recounts tales of violation and despair, but there is no reprieve of joy or connection. The 45-minute play chronicles the doomed 1940s romance of Chris, the white son of a wealthy Southern landowner, and Kay, a light-skinned African-American woman who attends the boarding school Chris’s father endows. Told in fragments on Christopher Barreca’s imposing set depicting the long stairway leading into the school, Kennedy’s poetic script has several intense images and concepts, but ultimately it’s too slight to stand alone. The two characters speak to each in a brief dialogue at the opening of the play, and then they alternate monologues relating their troubled pasts and uncertain futures. Kay recounts the tragedy of her mother dying mysteriously at 15 after a white man rapes her, and Chris simmers with rage at his father (represented by an onstage dummy) and leaves their Georgia hometown to pursue a New York stage career. The two plan to be together in the Northern city, but their ultimate fate is uncertain. The work ends with a shattering image of death; whether it’s actual or a metaphor is unclear.
   Director Evan Yionoulis creates a number of gripping stage pictures as Austin Switser’s videos blend with Kennedy’s hypnotic words. Snatches of Noël Coward songs intermingle with scenes from Christopher Marlowe’s revenge play The Massacre at Paris. It gets a bit confusing at times, but evidently Chris acted in these works in college. Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka bring reams of subtext to Kay and Chris, but the final result is a fascinating intellectual exercise rather than a visceral drama.

February 8, 2018
In the Body of the World: Feb 6–March 25. Manhattan Theater Club at City Center Stage I, 131 W 55th St, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2 pm. Running time 80 minutes, no intermission. $90. (212) 339-3050.


He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box: Jan 30–Feb 11. Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Pl, Brooklyn. Tue–Fri 7:30pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 45 minutes, no intermission. $90–$125. (866) 811-4111.


John Lithgow: Stories by Heart
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

John Lithgow
Photo by Joan Marcus

The funniest moment on Broadway so far this season is not provided by a witticism from a beloved comic or a pointed political observation by an astute social commentator. It’s the incredibly accurate re-creation of a parrot’s expression as it asks a roomful of stuffy British types if they would like to share a nut. The priceless simulation of avian inquiry is provided by the incomparable John Lithgow in his solo show Stories by Heart, presented now by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre after previous versions had a short run at Lincoln Center and a national tour. Lithgow’s eloquent mouth twists and curves into an elongated bill, his eyes bulge and twitch, and he emits a sound between a bark and a squawk.
   The format of the show is simplicity itself: The actor performs two classic short stories, “Haircut” by Ring Lardner and “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse (the parrot appears in the latter). Before each, he relates their significance during different points in his relationship with his father, also an actor and a director. It’s an intimate celebration of the art of storytelling, the actor’s craft, and the love of literature and family.
   Lithgow has always been an exemplary artist who could read the phone book and draw plaudits for his interpretation. The most striking example of his limning skill was his six-season run on the goofy NBC sitcom Third Rock From the Sun. He managed to take the gimmicky role of an alien posing as a university professor and turn it into a tour-de-force comedy turn, full of subtext and depth. His base material is of higher quality here, but he performs a similar feat of alchemy, transforming raw materials into theatrical gold.

He begins each act with a deceptively laid-back chat, explaining how each tale fit into his life. The Lardner was an early favorite read by his dad to young John and his siblings during their peripatetic childhood as Lithgow Senior eked out a career as a director of Shakespeare festivals in the Midwest. The Wodehouse lark was read by John to both of his parents as they were suffering the advances of aging and he had temporarily moved in to care for them. He starts each by reading from the very anthology of stories his family owned and gradually acting out each role and action.
   “Haircut” imperceptibly evolves from a folksy portrait of 1920s small-town America to a grim indictment of sexism and small-mindedness. The narrator is a gossipy barber unspooling the local scandals to a newcomer. Lithgow endows him with a giggly maliciousness as well as heartbreaking, unexpected empathy. “Uncle Fred” is a riotous romp satirizing British middle-class snobbery in which the author creates a roomful of varying citizenry representing a cross-section of physicalities, attitudes, and classes.
   Daniel Sullivan’s subtle direction, John Lee Beatty’s handsome drawing-room set, and Kenneth Posner’s cozy lighting complement Lithgow’s tour-de-force turn perfectly. This one-man show has artistry as well as Heart.

January 15, 2018
Jan 11–Mar 4. Roundabout Theatre Company at 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, including intermission. $39–139.


Describe the Night
Atlantic Theater Company at Linda Gross Theater

Twelfth Night
Fiasco Theater at Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Danny Burstein, Zach Grenier, and Tina Benko
Photo by Ahron R. Foster

Mixing myth, urban legend, conspiracy theory, and historical fact, Rajiv Joseph creates a weird tapestry of truth and lies in his new drama Describe the Night at the Atlantic Theater Company. Set in various parts of the former Soviet Union and Europe over nearly a century of political turmoil, this overwhelming saga asks hard questions about the relationships between government and media, regular citizens and dictators, and how people manage to live through decades of upheaval. As in his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj, Joseph depicts individuals caught up in the tide of history, swept along by fanciful and real events.
   Shifting back and forth between regimes and locales, Night traces the difficult and slippery path trod by writers and journalists through the dark forest of various forms of Russian tyranny. Real Stalin-era figures such as Odessan novelist Isaac Babel and Soviet secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov are connected with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2010 plane crash that killed the entire top level of the Polish government. In fascinatingly poetic and detailed dialogue, Joseph links the various epochs, demonstrating how the truth can be twisted to suit the purposes of whoever happens to hold the reigns of power, be it Stalin, Putin, or—by extension—our current US president.
   The title derives from the opening scene in which the idealistic Babel and the brutish Yezhov become unlikely friends while presenting their alternative impressions of the night after a battle in 1920 Poland, the same area where the plane crashes 90 years later. By a series of coincidences, Babel’s journal, a symbol of artistic freedom, passes from hand to hand right up until Putin’s regime. The plot stretches credulity—some characters live to be older than 100—but in Joseph’s shadowy world, it doesn’t matter. This is a dreamscape of epic proportions enveloping theatergoers with Joseph’s storytelling magic as it stuns with unrelenting anger at authoritarian monsters.
   Yet none of the multilayered characters is completely good or evil; each has a mixture of both. Babel is a gentle soul but also launches an affair with his friend Yezhov’s wife, Yevgenia. In turn, Yezhov commits numerous atrocities as Stalin’s stooge and also lovingly seeks to shield his wife and granddaughter from government purges. Vova, who closely resembles a certain Russian president, is a thug, but also a damaged child seeking his mother who abandoned him. Giovanna Sardelli’s subtle and sleek staging emphasizes this ambiguity, as do the shaded performances, particularly Danny Burstein’s charming but wary Babel, Zach Grenier’s bearish Yezhov, Tina Benko’s delicate yet steely Yevgenia, and Max Gordon Moore’s brutal, insecure Vova.

Meanwhile, Classic Stage Company is presenting another Night but it’s not as complex nor intriguing. The company hosts Fiasco Theater’s staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. My only previous experience with Fiasco was its intimate and clever small-scale version of Into the Woods, so I was looking forward a new take on this oft-produced comedy.
   Unfortunately, the unimaginative direction by Noah Brody and Ben Seinfeld, who also play Count Orsino and the clown Feste respectively, never rises above the level of a competent college production. The concept seems to have been to plunk the dizzy lovers of the Bard’s Illyria down in a New England fishing village so the cast could warble atmospheric sea shanties between scenes. There is not much spark between the various victims of Cupid’s arrows, and those with comic roles push their zany shtick too hard to elicit any honest laughter. Too bad this is just a so-so Twelfth Night after such a brilliant take on Woods.

December 14, 2017
Describe the Night: Dec. 5–24. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions. $49.50. (866) 811-4111.


Twelfth Night: Dec. 14–Jan. 6, 2018. Fiasco Theater at Class Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $61. (212) 677-4210.


The Parisian Woman
Hudson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Uma Thurman, Blair Brown, and Phillipa Soo
Photo by Matthew Murphy

It seemed like the perfect set-up. A political comedy-drama written by the creator of Netflix’s House of Cards starring the elegant Oscar nominee Uma Thurman in her Broadway debut. That’s why it’s a pity that The Parisian Woman, the first major Broadway show to tackle the Trump administration, is such contrived claptrap. Listed in the program as “inspired by” Henry Becque’s 1885 play La Parisienne, Beau Willimon’s uneven script has the creaky feel of a century-old potboiler.
   Willimon peppers his overboiled plot with pointed barbs directed at the Orange President, which draws appreciative laughs and some applause from the sympathetic New York audience (the play opened in 2013 at South Coast Repertory and has undergone some rewriting to reflect current events). Yet popular progressive sentiment fails to save this Woman from soapy suds and unconvincing characterization both in the writing and acting.
   Thurman plays Chloe, a Washington socialite not above using her considerable charm and sex appeal to advance the career of Tom, her tax-lawyer husband. When a federal judgeship opens up, Chloe schemes to secure it for Tom. The pursuant twists and turns among the political elite fill the show’s 90 minutes. At first Chloe and Tom appear to be a ruthless power couple whose only goals are achieving power and influence—not unlike Frank and Claire Underwood, the main characters of House of Cards. But in order to advance the storyline, the author has them undergo a 180-degree personality change midway through, and suddenly they’re altruistic liberals out to thwart the regressive agenda of the new prez. More unbelievable reversals follow, plus ridiculous dialogue such as, “Do you really think so little of me?” and “It’s a miracle what we have; to be so free together.”

Director Pam MacKinnon won a Tony Award for breathing new life into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but she fails to make these cardboard figures believable even though her staging is smooth and sleek (Derek McLane’s attractive D.C. sets help). Thurman and Josh Lucas are beautiful to look at but cannot overcome the impossible switcheroo demands Willimon has placed on them. These are glittering shells rather than flesh-and-blood people. Martin Csokas does make a hissable high-level Trump insider, though it’s hard to believe Thurman’s character would ever become involved with this guy, even to gain political advantage. Blair Brown has moments of authenticity as a Republican power-broker, and Phillipa Soo from Hamilton briefly breaks through the melodrama to create a credible young idealist abused by the machinations of the other characters.
   Today’s off-stage drama, leaving us reeling after every news cycle, is much more exciting and scary. Willimon was forced to suspend production on Cards when his leading man Kevin Spacey was slammed with allegations of sexual harassment, and before the play opened Thurman tweeted she might have damning material against disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. An in-depth examination of either of those incidents would have made a more compelling evening of theater than The Parisian Woman.

November 30, 2017
Nov 30–March 11, 2018. Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $69.50–250. (855) 801-5876.


The Exterminating Angel
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

Kevin Burdette, David Adam Moore, Christine Rice, Rod Gilfry, Sally Matthews, Iestyn Davies, Alice Coote, and John Tomlinson
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Existentialist angst is not your usual fodder for the opera stage, but Thomas Ades’s The Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Bunuel’s classic 1962 film, explores the terrifying territory of lost identity and purpose. Now at the Metropolitan Opera after a world premiere last year at Salzburg and a production in London, this disturbing work challenges notions of traditional musical staging.
   The libretto, by director Tom Cairns and the composer, follows the original screenplay by Bunuel and Luis Alcoriza. The setting is the home of Edmondo and Lucia De Noble, where a glitzy dinner party attended by the cream of Mexico City society is about to take place. But the dazzling affair takes a bizarre turn as almost all of the servants flee in terror, and after dinner the guests find themselves unable to leave. Days pass and the formerly elite attendees descend into madness and savagery as food runs out, their tuxedos and ball gowns become rags, and bodies turn dirty and smelly. An elderly gentleman expires, and a pair of lovers commits suicide in a closet. Finally, the survivors are able to break the spell of confinement, but the streets outside are just as full of chaos. The partygoers are a microcosm of upper-crust society, including an opera diva, a conductor, a doctor, and a countess. But art, wealth, and titles are no protection when the characters must confront their inner terrors.
   Ades’s modernist score emphasizes the darkness at the core of Bunuel’s vision. Even during the brighter moments when the guests exchange frothy chitchat as they enter, the music stirs and rumbles. There are occasional brief forays into Spanish-influenced, flamenco-like tones, but the prevalent leitmotif is ominous. Within this limited palette, Ades delivers a gripping musical vocabulary of foreboding.
Likewise, Cairns’s staging manages to maintain tension even though there is no ultimate resolution. Yes, the guests are finally released from their hellish predicament, but there is no relief when they flee to the outside world, and there is no explanation for their inertia. The pacing flows smoothly as Hildegard Bechtler’s stark, sleek set revolves slowly, and the action builds to a harrowing climax of despair as the guests spill into the city and an enormous chorus erupts into further panic.
   Soprano Audrey Luna reaches vocal and dramatic heights as the temperamental opera singer. Joseph Kaiser and Amanda Echalaz capture the anxiety and nervous bluster of the hosts. Sophie Bevan and David Portillo as the suicidal lovers infuse an especially intense duet with passion and despair. The rest of the stunning company—which includes Alice Coote, Christine Rice, and John Tomlinson—conveys the bleakness of Bunuel’s view of the human condition.

November 17, 2017
Oct. 26–Nov. 21. Metropolitan Opera, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, Broadway at 66th St., NYC. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $113–245. (212) 362-6000.


People, Places, and Things

National Theatre/Headlong at St. Ann’s Warehouse

Reviewed by David Sheward

Photo by Teddy Wolff

The first 20 minutes of Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places, and Things at St. Ann’s Warehouse after a smash-hit London engagement, display the most bracing collaboration of playwright, actors, director, and designers in recent theatrical memory. At first, it appears we are watching the final act of a revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull. But the actor playing Nina seems a bit unsteady on her feet. She is slurring her words and lurching as she moves. She slips and asks the actor playing Constantine if he remembers shooting a seagull and laying at her feet “earlier in the play.” She catches herself, realizing she has broken the performance’s delicate fabric of illusion and then does so literally by ripping down a gauzy back curtain. Immediately James Farncombe’s jagged lighting design and Tom Gibbons’s heart-throbbing soundscape explode, attacking our senses as Bunny Christie’s stark-white, hospital-like set shifts into several different locales at once. With shattering precision, director Jeremy Herrin choreographs the the actor’s subsequent smash-up.
   Images swirl and scatter like fragments of a dream, all from her bleary point of view, similar to the staging in The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another London-to–New York transplant featuring a set by Christie. Through strobes and deafening backbeats, we can barely perceive that she has entered a club, gotten even more drugged out and drunk, and crash landed in a rehab center where a patient is ranting in the reception area. As the inebriated thespian—we eventually learn her name is Emma, or is it?—Denise Gough launches into a tour-de-force monologue, pleading with her mother on her iPphone to dispose of all the drugs in her apartment while battling to stay conscious.

The remainder of this harrowing play’s two hours lives up to this devastating beginning. Without sentiment or shame, MacMillan leads us on Emma’s soul-churning journey to sobriety, realized with daring imagination by Herrin and his inspired team. The story is told through the actor’s eyes, and when she sneaks a hit of cocaine or endures the agonies of withdrawal we feel it too, as Christie’s elastic set breaks apart and the lighting and sound re-create her altered sensibilities. The clear-eyed script is refreshingly cliché-free. Emma is not a noble victim or a valiant warrior; she’s nasty, difficult, and too clever by half, fighting her therapist and fellow recovering addicts every step of the way. Most rehab stories end with the protagonist as either a tragic corpse or an energized saint. MacMillan takes the more realistic middle path, depicting the messy steps to becoming a functioning human being.
   Gough, who won an Olivier Award for her London liming in this role, brilliantly portrays the whirling kaleidoscope of Emma’s psyche—her distinct intelligence, her narcissism, her defiance of the 12-step program, and, finally, her vulnerability as her last defense is dropped and she must confront the underlying causes of her excesses. The rest of the ensemble is equally incisive, especially Barbara Marten who creates three distinct women: Emma’s doctor, therapist, and in a devastating turn her unforgiving mother. Later this season, Gough will re-create her Harper Pitt in the Broadway transfer of the National Theater’s Angels in America. If this performance is any indication, it should a dazzler.

November 3, 2017
Oct. 26–Dec. 3. St. Ann’s Warehouse, 40 Water St., Brooklyn, NY. Tue–Fri 7:30pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $46–$71. (718) 254-8779.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

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.

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.

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.


Come From Away
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

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.


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.

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

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
Neil Simon Theatre

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.

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.

American Psycho
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater [closed]

Tuck Everlasting
Broadhurst Theater [closed]

Brooks Atkinson Theater

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

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.

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.
School of Rock
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

The Color Purple
Winter Garden Theatre [show closed]

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.

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.

An American in Paris
Palace Theatre

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.

Mike Nichols

by Jerry Beal

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 [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 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.
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.

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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