Arts In LA
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The Liar
Classic Stage Company

Yen
MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Imperial Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

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

Tickets

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

Tickets

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

Tickets
 

 
The Present
Sydney Theatre Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Richard Roxburgh, Chris Ryan, Jacqueline McKenzie, Anna Bamford, Toby Schmitz, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs, and Cate Blanchett
Photo by Joan Marcus

The box office draw of radiant Cate Blanchett may be the reason The Present, Australian playwright Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Chekhov’s first untitled play, in a production from Sydney Theatre Company, is now on Broadway. But the double-Oscar-winning star is just one shining jewel in a mostly dazzling show full of farcical humor, heartbreaking pathos, and pointed political observation. Clocking in at three hours, the comedy-drama has its slow points; the third of four long acts is especially lead-footed. Yet the intense and witty moments more than make up for the snooze-inducing snatches.
   Usually when a classic work is translated into a modern setting, it feels mismatched, like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. But Upton, Blanchett’s husband, has managed to fit the late-19th-century work, unpublished until long after Chekhov’s death under the title Platonov, into a contemporary slot without shoving or straining. We are still in Russia, but rather than the original pre-Revolutionary era, it’s post-glasnost with the oligarchs in charge rather than the tsar. In celebration of her 40th birthday, the vivacious Anna Petrovna (Blanchett) has gathered a group of friends to her late husband’s estate for a festive weekend. Chief among the celebrants is Mikhail Platonov (the charismatic Richard Roxburgh), a failed but still vibrant intellectual approaching middle age who attracts all the women at the party.
   Like their country, everyone at the gathering is in a state of upheaval. Their emotional turmoil parallels the national state of confusion as the rigid Communist structure gives way to chaotic quasi-capitalism with Anna attempting to play influential elderly suitors against one another as she eyes Platonov. Mikhail performs a similar romantic juggling act, barely balancing Anna, his wife Sasha, and Sophie and Maria, the respective romantic partners of his two best friends Sergei and Nikolai.

This plot summation makes the play sound like a riotous farce, but it’s also a sharp portrait of the shifting state of Russia. Anna’s dead husband, referred to as The General, and his contemporaries represent the ruthless former regime, while the younger guests are the confused and displaced inheritors of a broken system. John Crowley’s sharp staging expertly blends comedic and melodramatic elements. The polished performances of the Australian cast allow us to differentiate among the myriad characters and keep their complex relationships straight.
   In addition to Blanchett and Roxburgh, I particularly enjoyed Chris Ryan’s comically insecure Sergei, Susan Prior’s conflicted Sasha, and Marshall Napier’s blustering Ivan (Sasha’s alcoholic father). The action flags after intermission when we discover a drunken Platonov seated centerstage bemoaning the mess he has made of his and everyone else’s life. One by one, his fellow guests approach him to restate their individual problems and then wander off into the night. This gets repetitive really fast, but fortunately, the final scene, where all the conflicts come to a crashing conclusion the next morning, regains the dizzying pace of the earlier sequences.
   The title refers to both senses of the word—a gift as well as the current time. Though it has its flaws, this Present is a stunning evening of theater and an insightful examination of how echoes of the past can influence how we live now.

January 9, 2017
 
Jan. 8–March 19. Sydney Theatre Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 1:30pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7 pm, Fri 7:30pm, Sat 1:30pm & 7:30pm. Sun 3pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $79–$149. (212) 239-6200.

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In Transit
Circle in the Square

The Babylon Line
Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre

L’Amour de Loin
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward


The cast of In Transit
Photo by Joan Marcus

Transportation plays a part in two new stage productions in NYC, and while they have a few pleasant stops along the way, the ride is over familiar territory. In Transit has taken the long route to Broadway. After Off-Off-Broadway iterations in 2004 and 2008 and a Drama Desk Award–winning Off-Broadway run in 2010, this mildly entertaining but clichéd musical has pulled into the Circle in the Square. The chief attraction here is a novelty gimmick of being Broadway’s first a cappella tuner. This has caused some theater pundits to wonder if consumers will be willing to play Main Stem prices for a show with no orchestra. But Deke Sharon’s arrangements and the scintillating vocalizing of the 11-member cast create a dazzling illusion of one.
   The problem is the book, credited to Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen), James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth who also wrote the score. (Side note: When you have four people—with another two, Karla Lant and Gregory T. Christopher—collaborating on a musical, it’s bound to be uneven.) The story follows a group of interconnected New Yorkers (fired Wall Street-er, aspiring actress, gay couple coping with the closet, transplanted West Coast young woman getting over a breakup) as they attempt move on romantically and career-wise while negotiating the city’s subway system. A beat-box artist (played at alternate performances by Chesney Snow and Steven “Heaven” Cantor) provides commentary and sound effects. At the performance attended, Snow offered startlingly whimsical beeps, clicks, and buzzes. While Snow and the tunes are upbeat and inventive, we’ve heard these people’s stories and the humor before. The jokes reference subway inconveniences (indecipherable announcements, delays, broken turnstiles and fare machines) and ads (the dermatologist Dr. Zizmor, lessons in Chinese) we’ve been putting up with for decades.
   From what I recall of the 2010 production at the 59E59 Theater, Kathleen Marshall’s new staging is tighter and cleaner—Donyale Werle’s flexible set with a moving walkway helps keep the transitions swift and smooth—plus the book has been streamlined. The hardworking cast is enjoyable, particularly Erin Mackey as the dejected love refugee desperately and hilariously trying not to stalk her ex on social media, and strong-voiced Moya Angela in a variety of roles including the personification of the underground train system (kudos to costumer Clint Ramos for the fabulous frock made of Metrocards she wears.) But In Transit remains a forgettable trip as soon as you step off. Watch the closing doors.

Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line, at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, also uses a train system as a central metaphor and has familiar situations and characters, but they’re not as shopworn and shallow as those in Transit. The main conceit has struggling Greenwich Village–based author Aaron Port (a solid Josh Radnor) taking the titular reverse commute to 1967 Levittown, Long Island to teach a creative writing course to bored housewives (funny and moving Randy Graff, Julie Halston, and Maddie Corman) and assorted misfits (intriguing Frank Wood and Michael Oberholtzer). Of course there is a stunningly talented student (valiant Elizabeth Reaser) who just happens to be pretty and sports a Southern accent and eccentric past right out of a Flannery O’Connor short story. The teacher and pupil’s electric connection is the juice of the play, along with Greenberg’s pointed observations on nonconformism and literature. In his previous works such as Take Me Out, The Violet Hour, and Three Days of Rain, the playwright can get too wordy with the characters just sounding like they swallowed dictionaries. Even though the theme is literary aspiration, Greenberg wisely avoids verbosity and celebrates the power of stories to transform and inform. Terry Kinney’s subtle staging, with the aide of David Weiner’s versatile lighting and Richard Hoover’s pliable set, keeps this train moving with few bumps.

The voyage of Kaija Saariaho’s modern opera L’Amour de Loin was not as smooth at the performance attended at the Metropolitan. As he did with his famous Ring Cycle, director Robert LePage has installed a gigantic machine at the center of his staging. This time it’s a sort of moving staircase that looks like an oil derrick. At the performance reviewed, this monster malfunctioned and caused a delay between scenes (similar mishaps with machinery occurred during the Ring). Despite the slight technical snafu, LePage’s gorgeous production of this shimmeringly beautiful meditation on love from afar (a translation of the title) hypnotizes. Michael Currey’s glittery seascape of a set becomes a living, breathing entity thanks to “lightscape image designer” (that’s a new credit) Lionel Arnould.
   Saariaho’s 2000 work has been criticized for its lack of action. All that happens is a troubadour falls in love with a distant noblewoman, travels across the sea to meet her, and promptly dies when he arrives. Yet the magnificently rich vocals of Eric Owens as the pining musician, Susanna Phillips as the object of his affection, and Tamara Mumford as the seafaring pilgrim who brings them together make this an operatic journey worth savoring.

December 16, 2016
  
In Transit: Opened Dec. 11 for an open run. Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $89–159. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com

The Babylon Line: Dec. 5–Jan. 22. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $77-87. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com

L’Amour de Loin: Dec. 1–29. Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, 66th St. and Broadway, NYC. Repertory schedule. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $27–460. (212) 362-6000.

www.metopera.org
 

 
The Front Page
Broadhurst Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Nathan Lane
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

If you think of the new revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page as an all-star baseball game, then Nathan Lane is the closing relief pitcher, hurling perfect comic strikes with every throw. He doesn’t come on until the last few innings, and his team has been flagging with a few walks but not many solid base hits. Director Jack O’Brien has not given his cast the proper pacing for this frantic 1928 farce of foul-mouthed scandal-sheet scribblers cracking wise and chasing scoops in corrupt Chicago. This comes as a surprise since O’Brien is such an adept hand at large-scale ensemble pieces such as the musical Hairspray, the conflation of two Henry IV plays, the three-evening The Coast of Utopia, and a London stage adaptation of His Girl Friday, the 1940 movie version of Front Page that transformed the original into a romantic comedy by switching the lead character’s gender to female.
   That central relationship is between ace reporter Hildy Johnson (John Slattery of Mad Men) and his ruthless “anything for a story” editor Walter Burns. Just as Johnson is about to chuck his ink-stained-wretch status for a well-scrubbed fiancée (the charming Halley Feiffer) and a cushy New York job in advertising, Burns pulls him back for the biggest byline ever, covering the escape of unlikely convicted cop killer Earl Williams (rabbit-like John Magaro).

Hecht and MacArthur based this knockabout romp on their own raw experiences as newspapermen with two dozen denizens of the sleazy side of the fourth estate and various hangers-on trouncing through the courthouse press room (appropriately squalid set by Douglas Schmidt). Burns enters late in the action and is meant to be a capper to the mad media circus. But, in the current staging, the preceding one hour and 45 minutes is only intermittently rollicking, and Lane delivers a much needed jolt with his amazing timing, phrasing, and reactions. (Watch his body slump as he attempts to move a huge roll-top desk or his face contort into a galaxy of horrified disgust at a hack writer’s poetic drivel.)
   As Hildy, a game Slattery anchors the action for much of the show and valiantly attempts to keep up with Lane, but Slattery pales once his co-star steps onto the field. The remainder of the large company is perfectly acceptable but rarely reaches Lane’s Olympic-level antics. Those who come closest are Dann Florek as a pompous, platitude-spouting mayor; Micah Stock as a dim-bulb cop on a psychology kick; and Jefferson Mays as that would-be rhymester, a fussy proto-Felix Unger, prissily spraying disinfectant. Sherie Rene Scott achieves genuine pathos as the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, and Robert Morse earns guffaws in the cameo role of a nebbishy messenger. Lewis J. Stadlen and Dylan Baker register the strongest among the crowd of Hildy’s fellow newshounds. John Goodman goes for Foghorn Leghorn cartoonishness as a goofy, good-ole boy sheriff. They’re a strong team, but Lane is unquestionably a star among stars.

October 26, 2016
 
Oct. 20–Jan. 29. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions. $67–157. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
The Encounter
John Golden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Simon McBurney
Photo by Tristram Kenton

What was that blowing in your ear? Did it send a chill up your spine? Was it a real whisper of air or just the sound of one? Simon McBurney and a brilliant crew of technicians provide such auditory thrills in The Encounter, that rare Broadway event: a solo show that opens minds rather than celebrating individual personalities or showcasing a star’s facility with accents and quick costume changes. Inspired by Petru Popescu’s book The Encounter: Amazon Beaming, the piece ostensibly focuses on real-life National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre’s 1969 mind-altering journey into the Amazon rain forest where he meets up with the primitive Mayoruna tribe or “Cat People.” The Mayoruna are constantly on move, escaping from the civilizing forces of the white man. The photog’s perceptions of time and space bend and twist as he follows the tribe deeper into the forest. The tribe’s chief, who seems to be able to communicate with McIntyre telepathically, relays that they are going back to their “beginning,” a possible reference to death, to preserve their identity.
   This could have been a simple action-adventure tale with McIntyre as a Harrison Ford–type hero caught in a trap with suicidal maniacs and scheming for a daring rescue. But McBurney, who also directs the show, adds layers of meaning and dimension. He begins with deceptive casualness, strolling onto Michael Levine’s sound-studio set while the house lights are still on and the audience is testing out the headphones found on their seats. Almost offhandly, he introduces the concept of reality being a shared illusion. “We’re all here on what we agree is a Saturday night at 8 p.m. in New York City,” he says without even batting an eye, and then launches into McIntyre’s bizarre journey, employing Cheese Doodle bags, unstrung videotape, and other found material to create an immersive soundscape. The voices of academics, journalists, philosophers, and commentators dart in and out of the tale, along with occasional visits by McBurney’s little girl asking her daddy for nocturnal drinks of water and stories as he reads the book that will become the play we are watching.

Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin’s sound design envelops us completely as McBurney draws us in, aided by Paul Anderson’s evocative lighting. We’re watching a live podcast, and the sounds create the mesmerizing environment. McIntyre begins to doubt his place in the universe when he loses all his possessions—including his camera, clothes, and even his sense of identity as the tribe keeps moving and ritualistically burns everything it owns.
   As artistic director of the innovative British theater company Complicite, McBurney has challenged our notion of what a play is and should be in such genre-shattering works as Mnemonic and A Disappearing Number. Here he forces us to question our reality as he breaks down the familiar conventions of theater, eventually transforming McIntyre into a wild beast trashing the set. The creator-performer daringly submerges himself into an alternate universe of sound and sensation, taking venturesome theatergoers on a wild ride.

September 30, 2016
 
Sept. 29–Jan. 8, 2017. 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 50 minutes, no intermission. $59–$149. (212) 239-6200.

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Paramour
Lyric Theatre

Incognito
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center [closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com


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

The Humans
Helen Hayes Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

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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.

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King Charles III
Music Box Theatre [closed]

Sylvia
Cort Theatre [closed]


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

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

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

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Doctor Zhivago
Broadway Theater [show closed]

The Visit
Lyceum Theater [show closed]

Finding Neverland
Lunt-Fontanne Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer in Finding Neverland
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The 2014–2015 Broadway season has come to an end with a flurry of new musicals that opened just before the cutoff date for Tony Award eligibility. They all know what they want. Doctor Zhivago wants to be Les Miz. The Visit wants to be a Brecht-Weill punch to the gut. Finding Neverland just wants to make money. Only the third one is succeeding.
   Based on Boris Pasternak’s massive novel and David Lean and Robert Bolt’s 1965 film adaptation, Doctor Zhivago is the latest in a long line of Euro pop–influenced tuners seeking to cash in on the record-shattering success of the first smashes in the field, Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables. Zhivago’s emulation of the latter show is apparent throughout, right down the same upturned-chairs motif in Michael Scott-Mitchell’s stark set design. Only this time, instead of the French revolution, we’re in the middle of the Russian one, and the saintly hero (Zhivago in place of Les Miz’s Jean Valjean) has two antagonistic adversaries (the slimy Komarovsky and the fanatic Pasha) rather than one (Valjean’s nemesis Inspector Javert).

   Book-writer Michael Weller crams in enough plot twists for a decade’s worth of Soviet soap operas, while the music of Lucy Simon and lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers evoke the score of every other show of this genre, from Chess to Love Never Dies to A Tale of Two Cities. Only Maurice Jarre and Paul Francis Webster’s “Somewhere My Love,” the familiar theme from the movie, imparts honest emotion rather than clichés. Yet the song is basically thrown away, briefly sung by a chorus of wartime nurses. Unlike Les Miz, this show includes no comic relief (remember the avaricious Thenardiers?) except for one forced number in which the jokes involve vomiting and the toilet. Des McAnuff’s frantic staging confuses rather than clarifies the action, despite constant projected supertitles announcing the dates and location as if we were in a train station.
   Tam Mutu has a virile presence and singing voice, but there’s not much chemistry between him and Kelli Barrett’s sweet-voiced but too contemporary Lara. Paul Alexander Nolan’s hysterical Pasha goes way over the top, while Tom Hewitt’s subtler Komarovsky is the only compelling figure amid the endless carnage and upheaval. The Doctor’s prognosis for a long run is not a good one.

Fake tumult pervades Zhivago, but actual mortality haunts The Visit. It’s the last show by the late Fred Ebb and John Kander and will likely be the final star vehicle for the legendary Chita Rivera. “I’m unkillable,” her character, the icy millionairess Claire Zachanassian, says, and the audience wildly applauds. That acknowledgement jerks us out of the dark world book-writer Terrence McNally, the songwriters, and director John Doyle have created and thrusts us into the nicey-nicey region of “up” Broadway musicals. And that’s the show’s whole problem. This visit is supposed to be a journey into the corrupt soul of mankind, and it winds up being a stroll down memory lane.
   The original play, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, details the return of Claire, the world’s wealthiest woman, to her impoverished hometown. She promises to give the burg billions if the citizens will give her the corpse of shopkeeper Anton Schell (a bedraggled Roger Rees), the man who wronged her as a girl. Employing only black suitcases, a coffin, and yellow shoes symbolizing Claire’s golden offer, and setting the story in designer Scott Pask’s nightmarish depot environment, Doyle delivers an eerie, hypnotic production. But McNally, Kander, and Ebb emphasize the long-ago romance of Claire and Anton. They add ghost versions of the couple’s younger selves (gorgeous Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle) and transform Claire from an avenging angel into a slightly sardonic old darling. The authors are split between cynicism and sentiment, and the result is a middling porridge, neither too hot nor too cold, but not just right either.
   But Rivera is the raison d’être of this show, and she elegantly conveys Claire’s harsh history of abuse, neglect, and avarice. Though in her 80s, Rivera moves with grace and economy, her slightest gesture evidencing decades of experience. The same holds true for her voice, which she husbands with care, doling out each note like a precious drop of her very essence. When she dances with Veintimilla as her girlish self, it’s heartbreakingly bittersweet. Rees adeptly depicts Anton’s shabbiness and desperation—aided by Ann Hould-Ward’s eloquently distressed costumes—but Anton is required to sweetly accept his fate with a smile in this version, a move not even an actor of Rees’s skill can make creditable. Plus, Rees seemed unsure of his lyrics at the performance attended. David Garrison, Mary Beth Piel, Rick Jones, and Jason Danieley are suitably grasping as the townspeople, and Tom Nelis, Chris Newcomer, and Matthew Deming are fascinatingly spooky as Claire’s entourage.

The Visit may be a lukewarm entrée, but Finding Neverland is an overly sweet plate of melted ice cream. Based on Allan Knee’s play and the 2004 film, this gloppy confection follows Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie as he draws inspiration from a widow and her four boys to create Peter Pan. The film appealed to adults and kids, but this musical version is strictly for the small fry. James Graham’s book is loaded with ninth-grade gags, and the music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are generic and sloppy. I ran out of space on my notepad to write down all the awkward rhymes (“time/blind,” “hide/survive,” “leaving me/believe in me”). The biggest shock was Diane Paulus’s juvenile staging. This skilled director has combined the wonder of theater with a mature sensibility in Pippin, but here the effects are theme-parkish and the actors mug up a storm, forcing tears and laughs instead of allowing them to flow naturally. As Barrie, Matthew Morrison does his best to create a believable throughline of character, as does Laura Michelle Kelly as Mrs. Davies, the charming widow. Kelsey Grammer stoops to sitcom shtick as the producer Charles Frohman and a dream version of Captain Hook. Unless you are 7 years old, don’t bother trying to find this Neverland.

May 2, 2015
 
Finding Neverland: Opened April 15 for an open run. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $72–147. (800) 745-3000.

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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.

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Evening at the Talk House
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward


Clockwise from left: Matthew Broderick, Annapurna Sriram, Jill Eikenberry, Wallace Shawn, John Epperson, Claudia Shear, and Michael Tucker
Photo by Monique Carboni

As you enter the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center for Wallace Shawn’s new play Evening at the Talk House, you’re greeted by a familiar-looking lady dressed in the traditional white shirt and black pants of a waitron. “Would you like a sweet or some sparkling water?” she asks. It takes a minute to realize this is Jill Eikenberry, best known for L.A. Law. Wait, isn’t that the still-boyish Matthew Broderick wandering around Derek McLane’s cozy clubhouse set? And the squeaking voice of the Yoda-like playwright himself, also a cast member, can be heard chatting with the audience. From this relaxed and inviting opening, you might think you’ll be experiencing a nice, warm night with familiar faces from stage and screen delivering cute career anecdotes. But, you’re in for a surprise.
   As in his previous works The Fever, The Designated Mourner, and Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn has chosen an easy, comfortable milieu in which to examine the banality of evil. At first the bonhomie of the preshow carries into the opening moments of the play in Scott Elliott’s deceptively laid-back staging. Broderick, in his character of Robert, a successful playwright, delivers a long monologue explaining that he and several friends are at the Talk House, a run-down theater club, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the production of his best play. There is much praise of the club’s snacks and cocktails and friendly chit-chat with actor Tom (jovial Larry Pine), producer Bill (avuncular Michael Tucker, Eikenberry’s husband and L.A. Law co-star), wardrobe mistress Annette (caustic Claudia Shear), composer Ted (waspy John Epperson, aka drag creation extraordinaire Lypsinka), and Nellie (Eikenberry) who runs the club along with her sole employee Jane (Annapurna Sriram), a sometime actor.

But it’s gradually revealed we’re in a dystopian future where theater is dead, soulless TV sitcoms are the dominant cultural offerings, and murder has become a government policy. In fact, several of the group have become part-time assassins to make ends meet since there are so few jobs in the arts. A charming but ruthless figure named Ackerley has risen to power, and his dictatorial whims are dismissed as necessary measures to keep the population safe. Shawn plays Dick, an unemployed actor and the lone voice of dissent. He is a pitiful figure in pajamas, frequently beaten by his “friends” for speaking out against Ackerley’s repressive regime.
   This is an intriguing concept. But the air of casual acceptance of these horrors is so pervasive, it deadens the impact. Yes, that’s Shawn’s point—fascism creeps in on little cat feet. But the acting and direction is so mild, the effect is soporific. Excerpts from Robert’s supposedly great play are as dry as the rest of the dialogue, so there is no contrast between the golden past the characters long for and their gloomy present. The all-star company has been directed to underplay every word and action, except for Shawn and Sriram. Shawn delivers a moving performance as the pathetic Dick, raging against the dying of the light of art. Sriram is saddled with the difficult task of making Jane, who matter-of-factly discusses poisoning old people and whines about her lack of acting work, sympathetic, but she manages to pull it off. Apart from these two bright spots and Shawn’s valid themes of the slow creeping effect of political oppression, it’s a pretty dull Evening with all talk and little action.
  

February 16, 2017
 
Feb. 16–March 12. The New Group 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 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. $75-100. (212) 279-4200.

Tickets
 

 
Jitney
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Michael Potts, John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisolm, Keith Randolph Smith, and André Holland
Photo by Joan Marcus

It’s hard to pick one, but Jitney is probably my favorite in August Wilson’s decade-by-decade, 10-play cycle of the African-American experience in the 20th century. It’s kind of the underdog of this mammoth collection, and maybe that’s why I like it best. There are no star parts. There are no flashy elements of mysticism, which can be found in The Piano Lesson and Gem of the Ocean. Jitney was one of Wilson’s early plays, written even before his breakout hit (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). It was the first Wilson play to premiere in NYC in an Off-Broadway theater (Second Stage in 2000) and is only now making its Broadway debut, in a dynamic revival from Manhattan Theatre Club.
   While other Wilson works contain powerhouse central roles and have attracted big names such as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington (Fences), Whoopi Goldberg (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Phylicia Rashad (Gem of the Ocean), and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams (King Hedley II), Jitney is a true ensemble piece with the dramatic weight almost equally distributed among its nine characters—the original won Drama Desk and Obie awards for the entire company. The setting is a run-down Pittsburgh car-service station in 1977 (David Gallo, who designed the 2000 version, returns with a different but equally arresting and detailed environment).

Taxis don’t travel to this section of the city, so residents rely on unlicensed cabs for transportation. Becker, who runs the station, provides moral support as well as wheels. He’s an unofficial leader of the community, finding jobs for nephews and cousins attempting to get their lives in order and organizing his fellow businessmen to protest a city plan to tear down their buildings. But while he’s a figurative father to the neighborhood, his own family is in ruins. His son Booster is being released from prison after 20 years, and their strained reunion is one of many threads in the vivid tapestry of the play.
   The drivers and their steady clients come and go, telling stories and dreams, and living out their personal narratives, which sometimes cross over each other. There’s gossipy Turnbo, constantly inserting himself in others’ dramas; alcoholic Fielding, barely scraping by on his fares and subsisting on visions of the past; wily Shealy, using the station’s pay phone to run his numbers operation; and fiery Youngblood, a Vietnam vet struggling to hold down three jobs to support his girlfriend Rena and their infant son.
   There are flaws—obvious exposition and a silly subplot involving jealousy and secrecy between Youngblood and Rena. But Wilson creates a rich, fully inhabited group portrait of a community struggling to define itself in the shadow of bureaucratic and corporate white America. The symbolism and poetry are subtle, and the characters are brilliantly alive.
   Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Featured Actor Tony Award for Wilson’s Seven Guitars, brings out more humor than Marion McClinton did in his 2000 staging. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James’s splashy 1970s outfits for Shealy draw audience guffaws with his every entrance. The more serious moments are equally intense. A minor dispute over a cup of coffee can escalate into near tragedy. A confrontation between father and son becomes an earth-shattering debate over the black man’s dignity and how to achieve it.
   John Douglas Thompson, one of our best actors in classical roles, turns in his usual stellar work as Becker, skillfully displaying the man’s strength and his heartbreak. Brandon J. Dirden is a worthy opposite as his struggling son Booster. Anthony Chisholm, a veteran of the 2000 production, is deeply affecting as the tippling Fielding, particularly as he recounts a dream about his estranged wife. Michael Potts captures the anger underneath Turnbo’s pettiness; and the reliable Keith Randolph Smith makes a wise Doub, a driver who shares his wartime experiences with Youngblood. André Holland and Carra Peterson clash and connect with conviction as Youngblood and Rena. Harvy Blanks and Ray Anthony Thomas provide comic support as Shealy and Philmore, customers with woman trouble.

Since Wilson’s death, in 2005, few African-American playwrights have gotten their work produced on Broadway—interestingly most have been women. Katori Hall, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lydia R. Diamond, and Danai Gurira have had one or at the most two shows on the Main Stem, and Lynn Nottage will make her belated Broadway debut this spring with a transfer of her play Sweat from Off-Broadway. Wilson’s voice remains one of the most important in all American theater, but it speaks volumes that he is the sole African-American author to have had a consistent presence on the country’s main commercial stage for the past three decades. We should be grateful that Jitney has driven onto New York’s most popular theater thoroughfare and more audiences will be exposed to it, but more productions from new young authors of all races will truly reflect our national psyche.

January 19, 2017
 
Jan 19–March 12. Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $60–$140. (212) 239-6200.

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Othello
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward


David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig
Photo by Chad Batka/New York Theatre Workshop

The moment you enter New York Theatre Workshop for Sam Gold’s searing production of Othello, you know it will be a startlingly different interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the noble Moor. Set designer Andrew Lieberman has reconfigured the normally spacious playing area into a tight, claustrophobic army barracks. Mattresses and macho gear like nudie magazines, snack food bags, and electric guitars are strewn everywhere. There’s even an actor’s actual artificial limb by his bedside. Audience members are crammed like sardines into uncomfortable wooden bleachers to view this tense drama of jealousy, manipulation, and power. Jane Cox’s striking lighting employs headset flashlights and floodlights to create an eerie, battle-torn atmosphere.
   In Gold’s unsparing staging, Othello and his followers are modern American and English soldiers occupying a Middle Eastern territory. Parallels are drawn between the Bard’s themes of racism and misogyny and contemporary issues of the same conflicts along with imperialism and cultural oppression as the self-hating, Cockney, Caucasian Iago (a brilliantly devious Daniel Craig) is driven to distraction by the merits and advancement of the foreign, dark-skinned Othello (David Oyelowo in a powerhouse, career-defining performance). You could infer similarities to Trump and Obama, but that’s up to you.
   Regardless of the political implications, the production has the impact of a gut punch. Iago and Othello are engaged in a wrestling match to the death, which sometimes becomes literal (kudos to fight director Thomas Schall). Craig captures the broiling rage of Iago and his insidious drive to spread lies and “fake news” about Desdemona’s fidelity. This is an Iago akin to Richard III in his quest to destroy anyone who has what he doesn’t. His envy of Othello’s happiness in marriage and career inspires him to infect the Moor with the same disease. Many only know Craig as James Bond, but his performance here—and in Broadway productions of A Steady Rain and Betrayal—displays a subtle craft unseen in the 007 franchise.
   Oyelowo matches Craig in intensity and masterfully calibrates Othello’s descent into uncontrolled madness. He begins as the assured general, confident in his military ability and his love for Desdemona (a charming and spirited Rachel Brosnahan) despite the heated disapproval of her bigoted father Brabantio (an appropriately indignant Glenn Fitzgerald). His doubts, fed by Iago’s lies, gradually take over Oyelowo’s noble visage, twisting it with fury and turning him into an inhuman monster. His humanity returns with devastating force at the final denouement when the truth of his wife’s faithfulness and his ensign’s deceit trigger a howl of despair that seems to come from the pit of hell.
   Even the supporting roles are fully fleshed out. Marsha Stephanie Blake is a flinty Emilia, Finn Wittrock is a valiant but flawed Cassio, and Nikki Massoud makes a heartbreaking Bianca, a role usually thrown away. Special mention to Matthew Maher, whose comic timing and honest limning give depth to the normally buffoonish Roderigo. At one point he crawls out of a footlocker. I’m not sure how this was accomplished, but it was just one arresting moment in a landmark production.

December 29, 2016
 
Dec. 12–Jan. 18. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., NYC. Running time 3 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. Schedule varies. $125. (212) 460-5475.

www.nytw.org
 

 
]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.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Plenty
Public Theater

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

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Donmar Warehouse at the Booth Theatre

Vietgone
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

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

November 3, 2016
 
Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

Oh, Hello on Broadway
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Corbin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer, and Bryce Pinkham
Photo by Joan Marcus

There is such a thing as being too nice. That’s the problem with the stage version of Holiday Inn, the classic 1942 movie musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. This new edition is pleasant enough, featuring a treasure trove of Irving Berlin tunes both from the original film (including the evergreen “White Christmas,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” and the title song) and other sources (such as “It’s a Lovely Day Today” from Call Me Madam, “Heat Wave” from As Thousands Cheer, “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” from Miss Liberty, and “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat). All are delivered with charm by a smiling ensemble and directed with precision by Gordon Greenberg. But everyone is such a darned nice gal or fella, there’s no tension or sizzle. It’s like attending a long office Christmas party with an absence of gossip or backbiting.
   The book, by Greenberg and Chad Hodge, retains the basic plotline of the movie. Song-and-dance pals Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) split over the female third of their act, Lila Dixon. Jim longs to retire from the showbiz rat race and settle down on a Connecticut farm with Lila. Ted wants to keep chasing the big dream of Hollywood stardom and takes Lila with him. Unable to make a go of it financially, Jim converts his farmhouse into a nightclub open only on the holidays, and Ted, ditched by Lila, makes the moves on Jim’s new romantic interest, Linda. The screenplay was basically an excuse for Crosby to croon and Astaire to hoof, but there was a friction between the two leads giving the slender story a snappy edge. Astaire’s Ted and Virginia Dale’s Lila were career-driven schemers pitted against Crosby’s softhearted Jim and Marjorie Reynolds’s ingénue Linda.
   In the new version, all four leads are too goody-goody to be believed. Don’t get me wrong. Bryce Pinkham (Jim), Corbin Bleu (Ted), Lora Lee Gayer (Linda), and Megan Sikora (Lila) are fabulous musical performers, and Bleu is a particularly exciting dancer. But they have been directed and written with no darkness to contrast the constant cheerful light. In addition, Greenberg and Hodge have thrown in a trio of cloyingly cute supporting characters—Megan Lawrence’s syrupy handywoman-housekeeper, Lee Wilkof’s lovable manager, and Morgan Gao’s smart-alecky messenger boy.
   There are mildly enjoyable musical consolations, but the numbers don’t take off until late in the first act with choreographer Denis Jones’s dazzlingly clever “Shaking the Blues Away” wherein the chorus goes crazy jumping rope with Christmas garlands. I also got a kick out of Alejo Vietti’s campy costumes. This tame Holiday eggnog could use a lot more spiking like that.

While the cheerful revelers of Holiday Inn are too nice, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland of Oh Hello on Broadway are refreshingly crotchety. For those unfamiliar with these cantankerous oldsters—and I was among this number before seeing the show—Gil and George are bizarre creations of 30-something comics Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. Seen on Kroll’s Comedy Central series, in comedy clubs, and Off-Broadway last season, the pair of kvetching bachelors here holds forth on a variety of topics from theatrical clichés to dating raccoons to their blighted careers on the fringes of showbiz. Gil is a “Tony Award viewing actor” and George is an unpublished writer whose magnum opus is a massive novel called Next Stop, Ronkonkoma(“a train ride told from 1,000 difference perspectives”).
   The structure of their two-man show is loosey-goosey. After some hilarious banter satirizing Broadway conventions, the duo performs a play-within-a-play about being evicted from their shared, rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment and reaching the heights of cable-access fame with their talk show Too Much Tuna. Guests are asked a series of non-sequitur questions, confronted with a towering fish sandwich, and requested to utter the titular catch phrase. The latter device allows for a different nightly visit from a celebrity. At the performance attended, the guest was Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation who gamely went along with the stars’ improvisational madness.
   Director Alex Timbers keeps the daffy duo on a relaxed leash, allowing them to romp and jump but not run out of control. Scott Pask’s set design is a riotous mashup of leftover scenic elements. Like the show itself, it’s a weird, witty collage of cultural references and skewed observations.
   Anyone with a tasty for tangy humor should say Oh Hello. But if you don’t mind too much sugar, check into Holiday Inn.

October 12, 2016
 
Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical: Oct. 6–Jan. 15. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 W. 54 St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $47–152. (212) 719-1300.

www.roundabouttheatre.org

Oh Hello on Broadway: Oct. 10–Jan. 8. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $59¬–149. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Cats
Neil Simon Theatre

Oslo
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Andy Huntington Jones and company in Cats
Photo by Matthew Murphy

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com

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

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American Psycho
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater [closed]

Tuck Everlasting
Broadhurst Theater [closed]

Waitress
Brooks Atkinson Theater

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

Cagney
Westside Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


The ensemble of Shuffle Along
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

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

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

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com


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

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School of Rock
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

The Color Purple
Winter Garden Theatre

Invisible Thread
Second Stage [show closed]

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thérèse Raquin
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 [closed}

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

Reviewed by David Sheward


Keira Knightley and Judith Light
Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

October 30, 2015
 

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

 
Hamilton
Richard Rodgers Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Fun Home
Circle in the Square [show closed]

Something Rotten!
St. James Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


The ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

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An American in Paris
Palace Theatre

Gigi
Neil Simon Theatre [show closed]

It Shoulda Been You
Brooks Atkinson Theatre [show closed]


Reviewed by David Sheward


An American in Paris
Photo by Angela Sterling

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com


 
Tribute
Mike Nichols


by Jerry Beal



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


The cast of the 1973 Uncle Vanya

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

November 30, 2014
 
A Bronx Tale: Opened Dec. 1 for an open run. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $45–$162. (212) 239-6200.

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A Bronx Tale
Longacre Theatre

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

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

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

December 12, 2016
 
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Barrymore Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Alex Sharp

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

October 14, 2014

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

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Aladdin
New Amsterdam Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

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

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

March 22, 2014

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

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Matilda the Musical
Shubert Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Photo by Joan Marcus

From the moment you enter the Shubert Theater and take in Rob Howell’s whimsical Scrabble tile–studded set, you know you’re in for a good time at Matilda the Musical. Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, this hit from London offers a nasty, twisted, and totally joyful view of youngsters and the adjustments they face on the path to adulthood. You see, little Matilda is a genius, devouring dozens of books in a week, making up spellbinding stories, and learning Russian in her spare time. But her horrible parents are too absorbed in ballroom dancing and television to cherish or even recognize her intellectual gifts. So they bundle her off to a hideously oppressive school presided over by the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a fiend who makes Miss Hannigan of Annie fame look like Mary Poppins. There, Matilda finds the ideal teacher in the shy Miss Honey, who encourages her and whom the brilliant child rescues from dire circumstances. 
   That’s the gist of this marvelously inventive musical, given a fun and fast-paced staging by director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling. Book writer Dennis Kelly keeps Dahl’s cartoonish sensibility in developing the outlandish characters and the bizarre dimension they inhabit: a funhouse version of the real world where smart little girls must find ways to stick up for themselves.
   The score, by Australian comic-musician Tim Minchin, captures this wacky flavor when it needs to (most of the time), but also expresses the wistful sentiments of childhood games and friendship without getting treacly. This duality is best exhibited in the opening number, “Miracle” (as in “My mommy says I’m a miracle”), and the Act 2 paean to innocence, “When I Grow Up.” In the former, spoiled brats smash one another with cake and rampage in torn superhero costumes during a nightmarish birthday party. In the latter, the same kids glide over the audience on swings, sweetly warbling about a fantasized version of maturity where they can do whatever they want, including watching cartoons and eating candy all day. Warchus and Darling stage these opposing views of kids with appropriate details—manic energy and mayhem in “Miracle” and subtle simplicity in the “Grow Up.”

Four young actors alternate in the role of Matilda. Milly Shapiro (at the show reviewed) is a pint-sized Maggie Smith with the face of a Norwegian saga. This little dynamo skillfully imparts the character’s dazzling intelligence and taste for mischief, as well as her raging indignation at injustice. Her cry of “That’s not right!” seems to reach out of the theater onto 44th Street. Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita are unabashedly and delightfully vulgar as the uncaring parents. Lauren Ward as Miss Honey and Karen Aldridge as Mrs. Phelps, a friendly librarian who craves Matilda’s cliffhanging tales, are sweetly supportive.
   But Bertie Carvel in drag as the grotesque Miss Trunchbull nearly steals the show. Resembling the living gargoyle from a famous episode of Jonny Quest (Howell also designed the clever costumes), Carvel creates a monster who still retains a touch of femininity. It’s a brilliantly funny performance in one of the best musicals Broadway has seen in years.

April 16, 2013
  
April 11, 2013–Jan. 1, 2017. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $32­–147. (800) 432-7250.

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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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