Donmar Warehouse and the Public Theater at the Public Theater
Reviewed by David Sheward
Photo by Joan Marcus
How many times have you gone to the theater and been asked to leave your phone on? This singular request occurs before the lights go down for Privacy, the new meta-play at the Public Theater, when artistic director Oskar Eustis’s gentle voice delivers a set of instructions in the manner of an airline steward, requesting that ringers are switched off, but phones left open. There’s even a huge illustrated card in the seat in front of you, just like the ones you’re supposed to read before your flight takes off, to help along the luddites. It’s an amusing beginning to an amusing evening. But the overall play is not an in-depth analysis of the ever-increasing and potentially dangerous role technology plays in our lives.
Created by playwright James Graham and director Josie Rourke, the work was previously presented in London at the Donmar Warehouse (where Rourke is artistic director) and revised for this American premiere. The slim premise focuses on an equally slim character called The Writer (played here by Daniel Radcliffe), attempting to be more open with his emotions after a bad breakup. He goes so far as to move from Britain to New York City because we Americans are so outgoing, and also the former lover just happens to have moved there. The Writer equates letting down his guard with joining the social media revolution, and his adventures in cyberspace form the slender thread of the plot.
This quest is really an excuse for a combination debate on issues of privacy and demonstration of tech wizardry. Graham and Rourke interviewed dozens of journalists, entrepreneurs, and politicians on the impact of digital media on our lives. Five versatile performers play the real-life commentators, acting as a 21st-century Greek chorus to the protagonist’s journey as he orders from Amazon, joins Facebook and Twitter, uses ride share apps, seeks romance through dating sites, and even channels a video image of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden reciting lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (I suppose likening the Bard’s magical isle to the unknown territory of the internet).
The audience becomes involved as characters ask us to use our phones to snap selfies, check our ranking as Uber customers, and step on stage to play potential dates for The Writer. Onstage “Research and Digital Associate” Harry Davies and projection designer Duncan McLean create the surprising and entertaining effects. At the performance attended, I heard one woman cry out, “That’s my house,” as images of ticket buyers’ residences and their estimated worth flashed on the giant screen.
The proceedings are more fun than frightening, even when things turn somewhat sinister as the information gathered from the audience gets twisted into anti-government evidence (at the final curtain, Radcliffe requests we not give away any spoiler details). The final scenes feel more like Saturday Night Live skits—Rachel Dratch, an SNL alum, is in the company—and the desired chilling effect is lost.
Radcliffe, one of the few child stars to grow into a respectable legit stage actor, does his best to fill in the sketchy Writer. He conveys the necessary heartbreak, but the author has created a catalyst for conversation rather than a flesh-and-blood man. The supporting cast has an easier time delivering quick observations and zingers. Dratch, Reg Rogers, Michael Countryman, Raffi Barsoumian, and De’Adre Aziza juggle personae, genders, and accents with dexterity.
Privacy raises numerous important issues about our media-crazed, totally public world but addresses them with parlor tricks rather than with serious thought.
July 23, 2016
18–Aug. 14. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue-Fri 7:30 pm,
Sat-Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including
intermission. $80. (212) 967-7555.
The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theatre
The Total Bent
Himself and Nora
Minetta Lane Theatre
Reviewed by David Sheward
The ensemble of The Taming of the Shrew
Photo by Joan Marcus
With its celebration of Elizabethan-era sexism, The Taming of the Shrew has always been a challenging production for modern audiences. In bringing the rebellious Katherina to heel, the chauvinistic Petruchio employs starvation, abuse, and possibly even rape, and is rewarded with an obedient spouse and riches from his father-in-law who essentially sells the contentious bride to be rid of her. Most contemporary stagings sidestep the work’s essential misogyny and concentrate on the comic elements, but the current Shakespeare in the Park edition faces it head on in a radical interpretation featuring an all-female cast staged by a female director. The intentions may be honorable, but the results are mixed at best.
Stager Phyllida Lloyd shifts the action from 16th-century Italy to a weird American circus where a beauty contest is taking place. The unseen emcee sounds suspiciously like a certain presidential candidate who ran the Miss USA pageant. The ironic concept of male objectification and oppression being portrayed by cross-dressing women is intriguing but feels imposed on the text as the beauty pageant scenes are tacked onto the rough-and-tumble courtship between the contentious leads. In another awkward sequence, Judy Gold who plays Gremio, one of the unsuccessful suitors of Katherina’s sweeter sister Bianca, drops her Shakespearean character and launches into a contemporary standup routine decrying the advancement of women and longing for the good old days when tired businessmen would come home from work to a submissive wife and dinner on the table. Gold, a veteran comic, delivers the monologue with expert timing and gets her laughs, but it’s as if she and director Lloyd were hitting us over the head with a feminist cudgel. “See, look how terrible these sexist pigs are,” they seem to be saying.
Despite the directorial overkill, Lloyd knows how to keep a show moving: With numerous cuts and no intermission, this is a rapid Shrew at only two breathless hours. Plus, there are performances to cheer. Janet McTeer is irresistibly infectious as a macho Petruchio, mocking the masculine posture by exaggerating his swagger, but she does not make him a cardboard bully. Cush Jumbo’s Kate is spirited and fiery, but she fails to make sense of the heroine’s final conversion to domesticity or the frantic denouement imposed by Lloyd (no spoilers but the director choses to invert Shakespeare’s conclusion and tie in the beauty pageant theme, which had been abandoned much earlier in the evening).
Donna Lynne Champlin is a surprisingly vivid Hortensio, and Gayle Rankin delivers a coquettishly ditzy Bianca. Mark Thompson’s appropriately garish sets and costumes reflect the carnival atmosphere. I confess I did love Petruchio’s massive RV smashing onto the Delacorte stage and steamrolling everything in its path. Too bad Lloyd did the same thing to the play.
Meanwhile, downtown, the Public Theatre presents another uneven production. Like Shrew, The Total Bent, the new rock musical from Stew and Heidi Rodewald of Passing Strange fame, starts out with a potentially strong premise. TV gospel singer-preacher Joe Roy vies with his gay son Marty, a talented songwriter-performer, over race and identity. As the Civil Rights movement rages, Marty seeks his own destiny away from his recreant dad, eventually becoming a rock star. Vondie Curtis-Hall and Ato Blankson-Wood give thrilling vocal and dramatic limning of the combatants, and the score is sizzling. But the plot becomes repetitious and feels drawn out at under two hours.
Himself and Nora, another Off-Broadway musical playing in the Greenwich Village area, is adept but shallow. This portrait of literary giant James Joyce and his strong-willed romantic partner Nora Barnacle—they lived together for 27 years and had two children before marrying—is a like a musical Wikipedia entry. All the facts are there, but author-composer Jonathan Brielle doesn’t probe very deeply into the creator of the greatest works of the 20th century nor his primary relationship. The five-member cast is proficient and lively, and director Michael Bush paces the proceedings smartly enough, but Brielle’s choices are conventional. Hardly fitting for the most unconventional of authors. While Shrew goes too far, the two Off-Broadway musicals don’t go far enough.
June 19, 2016
Taming of the Shrew: June 13–26. Shakespeare in the Park at the
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park West at W. 81st St., NYC. Tue–Sun 8 pm.
Running time 2 hours, no intermission. Free. (212) 967-7555.
The Total Bent: May 25–June 26. Public Theater,
425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue–Fri 7pm, Sat-Sun 1 pm & 7pm. Running
time 1 hour and 50 minutes, no intermission. $65. (212) 967-7555.
Himself and Nora: Opened June 6 for an open run.
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm,
Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours, including
intermission. $89–125. (800) 745-3000.
The Signature Plays
Pershing Square Signature Center
Reviewed by David Sheward
The ensemble of Indecent
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Two highly theatrical productions demonstrate that the avant-garde stage can challenge as well as mystify. Paula Vogel’s Indecent at the Vineyard Theaters is a combination theater history lesson and searing docudrama on the impact of censorship and the oppression of groups deemed as “other.” Signature Plays, a triple bill of one-acts by revered playwrights in celebration of Signature Theatre’s 25th anniversary, offers bizarre examinations of death, loneliness, and race. Both shows are not for the easygoing theatergoer who just wants to sit back and be entertained. They ask you to think about what the plays mean and how they reflect your world.
In Rebecca Taichman’s brilliantly imaginative staging, Indecent follows the long path of the little-known Yiddish drama God of Vengeance from acclaim in Europe to a controversial Broadway premiere resulting in the arrest of the cast. Written in 1906 by Sholom Asch, Vengeance centers a Jewish brothel owner who strives to keep his family life separate from his business. But when his virgin daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes, his two worlds collide and his hypocrisy is exposed. Despite featuring sympathetic views of hookers and a lesbian relationship, the play was a dramatic smash in Berlin and across the Continent. After a staging on New York’s Yiddish Second Avenue district, it moved uptown to Broadway in an English translation but closed after being raided by the police when a rabbi filed a complaint calling the play immoral. The show closed after only a few performances and the author, who now moved to America after fleeing the horrors of Europe, never wrote another work for the theater.
Vogel uses this daring play’s trajectory to create a history of Jewish and gay struggles in the first half of the 20th century. From acceptance in the capitals of Europe to demonization and destruction by the Nazis to blacklisting in the 1950s, the performers who stage God of Vengeance strike out to be heard. Vogel traces their artistic battles with passion and flair.
Taichman creates numerous staggering yet simple stage effects. Most striking is the introduction of the main characters by the enthusiastic but awkward stage manager Lemml (a heartbreaking Richard Topol). As each comes forward, they dance to music provided by the three-piece onstage band, and dust copiously falls from their sleeves. The dust represents both the fleeting, ephemeral nature of theater and the fate of many of the characters, victims of the Holocaust. In addition to Topol, the six actors and three musicians create a kind of fascinating cultural cabaret.
The Signature Plays takes an equally unconventional route. Each one represents an absurdist view of its subject and has received a previous production during Signature Theatre’s quarter century. Edward Albee’s The Sandbox (1959) provides a darkly comic take on mortality and jabs at middle-class suppression of emotion. The 20-minute cartoon takes place on a blazingly bright beach (Mark Barton’s lighting is appropriately summery). Archetypal suburbanites Mommy and Daddy dump Grandma in the sand and await the Angel of Death, who turns out to be a gorgeous young man performing calisthenics. Phyllis Somerville sharply delineates the feisty-to-the-end Grandma’s final exit, while Alison Fraser and Frank Wood are wickedly funny as the shallow Mommy and Daddy. Ryan-James Hatanaka gets laughs as the muscular but brainless messenger for the inevitable. In Sandbox, Albee greets the unknown with a sardonic chuckle rather than a scream of terror.
Maria Irene Fornes’s Drowning (1986) is much bleaker and more confounding. In what appears to be a desolate bus station or cafe, three human-like mud creatures moan over the failed love affair of one of them. The play was written in response to a Chekhov short story, but this staging is so slowly paced and obscure it fails to generate any of the insights of the human condition usually associated with the Russian master. This despite Mikeah Ernest Jennings’s shattering sadness of the afflicted Pea. It doesn’t help that there is a dull nine-minute pause to change scenery between the Albee and the Fornes pieces, filled only with an actor (Nicholas Bruder) listening to a radio.
The uneven evening concludes with Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964). This Obie-winning nightmare of a play is set inside the mind of Sarah, a self-hating African-American academic who identifies with such Caucasian figures as Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg. While yearning to be white, cool, and emotionless, she is haunted by reminders of her race, especially her father, represented by Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated leader of Congo. These fantasy figures—Jesus Christ is another one—skulk through Mimi Lein’s grim set while Brandon Wolcott’s spooky original music plays.
Funnyhouse has its moments of effective anguish, mostly provided by Crystal Dickinson’s tormented Sarah. But Lila Neugebauer stages this hour-long piece like a Hammer House of Horror screamfest, punctuated with total blackouts and crescendos. (In an annoying distraction, the safety lights for the theater aisles keep snapping back on after each submersion in darkness.) Too bad Neugebauer gets the right tone for the witty Sandbox only. She lets Drowning drown and Funnyhouse is more like a haunted house.
May 24, 2016
May 17–June 15. Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., NYC. Tue–Wed 7pm,
Thu–Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun, 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no
intermission. $79–$100. (212) 353-0303.
Plays: May 23–June 12. Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square
Signature Center, 420 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm &
7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8 pm, Sun, 2 pm. Running time 2
hours, including intermission. $25. (212) 244-7529.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
Brooks Atkinson Theater
Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Music Box 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
Psycho: Opened April 21 for an open run. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236
W. 45th St., NYC. Mon-Tue 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun
2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including
intermission. $69–148. (212) 239-6200.
Everlasting: Opened April 26 for an open run. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W.
44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm
& 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including
intermission. $59–147. (212) 239-6200.
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.
Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That
Followed: Opened April 28 for an open run. Music Box Theatre, 239 W.
45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm
& 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including
intermission. $79–169. (212) 239-6200.
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)
Walter Kerr Theatre
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
Reviewed by David Sheward
Sophie Okonedo and Ben Whishaw
Photo by Jan Versweyveld
All is not as it appears in two recent Broadway openings. Dutch-Belgian director Ivo van Hove turns The Crucible, the oft-produced Arthur Miller witchcraft trial drama, inside out and Frank Langella takes a harrowing journey into dementia in the American premiere of French playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father. Van Hove eschews a traditional, literal staging for a modern-dress allegorical setting. Zeller’s work, translated by Christopher Hampton, purposefully confounds and confuses as it re-creates the experience of losing your grip on reality, which many experience as they advance in years. Both productions can be baffling and upsetting, but they push us into dark, scary places as all effective drama should.
This is the sixth Broadway Crucible, Miller’s 1953 indictment of rigid politic conformity, employing the hysteria of colonial Salem as an example of unthinking fear overturning common decency. It is also a great favorite of community and academic companies (I even played the Reverend Parris, the sanctimonious spiritual leader of the community, in college). But forget about the usual pilgrim hats and wooden cabins you get with most stagings. As he did in his production of Miller’s A View From the Bridge seen earlier this season, van Hove strips the play down to its essence. Unconcerned with props or period accuracy, the innovative director places the action in a drab schoolhouse (his frequent collaborator Jan Versweyveld created the imposing environment) and costumer Wojciech Dziedzic dresses the Salem residents as modern PTA members and students.
At the time of its opening, the play was seen as a metaphor for the ruthless Communist-baiting tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his ilk, but van Hove has broadened its scope so that its message can be applied to any repressive regime in any age. He has added special effects, Tal Yarden’s frightening video designs, and a creepy, haunting score by avant-garde icon Philip Glass. The spooky turns are just frightening enough to suggest they come from within the minds of the characters who genuinely believe there are satanic forces among them. But the flying girl and shattering windows do not overwhelm the action.
At heart this is the story of rough but basically noble John Proctor, a simple farmer who refuses to falsely confess to witchcraft in order to save his life. Reed-thin Ben Whishaw is the last person you would think of for this role, but he infuses it with a solidity and weighty moral authority belying his slender frame. Sophie Okonedo is equally moving as his wrongfully accused wife, Elizabeth. Saoirse Ronan deftly provides the counterweight of selfish ego as Abigail Williams, the girl leading the cry of demonic mischief in order to cover up her carnal longings for Proctor. Ciaran Hinds is the heavy, imposing voice of authority as Judge Danforth, while as Reverend Hale, Bill Camp ably represents the quavering conscious of those who allow evil to be done in the name of expediency. The magnificent cast also includes Tavi Gevinson’s rattled Mary Warren, Jason Butler Harner’s self-serving Reverend Parris, Brenda Wehle’s saintly Rebecca Nurse, and Tina Benko and Thomas Jay Ryan as the envious and malicious Putnams. All make this a fiery and scalding Crucible.
While The Crucible burns, The Father freezes as its central theme slowly creeps up on you. Florian Zeller’s 90-minute play is just as frightening as Miller’s work, but rather than political horror, Zeller examines the inevitable demise of the human mind. The premise is deceptively simple. Adrian, a formerly robust and domineering engineer now in his 80s, is deteriorating mentally as his put-upon daughter Anne must find a means for his care, either live-in help or a nursing home. The action is seen from Adrian’s point of view as his gradual slipping down is dramatized in a series of increasingly bizarre scenes. The furniture in Scott Pask’s elegant apartment setting constantly vanishes and reappears, different actors play the same people in Andre’s life, and flashes of light like bursting synapses illuminate blackouts in a disturbing simulation of the protagonist’s disorientation.
We don’t know the difference between what is really happening and what is in Andre’s mind. Information is changed, rearranged, and twisted. Is Anne living in London with her new boyfriend or in Paris with her dad? Did she just bring home a chicken for dinner or is it breakfast time? Is that her husband or Andre’s doctor? We never know for sure, and neither does Andre.
Frank Langella, who has played such towering figures as Sherlock Holmes, Sir Thomas More, Richard Nixon, King Lear, and Count Dracula, is shatteringly small-scale as Andre, clutching desperately at his disappearing dignity. His transformation from grandiose tyrant to babbling infant is full of terror and pity. Kathryn Erbe is appropriately and beautifully restrained as the eternally patient Anne. Doug Hughes’s staging is slick and smooth, but also deeply affecting as the rug is forever being pulled out from underneath the audience. It’s a harrowingly real hour and a half on usually bouncing, fun Broadway.
April 19, 2016
Crucible: March 31–July 17. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun
3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.
$42–152. (212) 307-4100.
The Father: April 14–June
12. Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th
St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm,
Sun 2pm. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. $70–150. (212)
She Loves Me
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54
Reviewed by David Sheward
Zachary Levi and Michael McGrath
Photo by Joan Marcus
A big, chocolate-centered valentine, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of She Loves Me is just sweet enough to instill bliss but not so sweet as to give you sugar shock. Written at the tail end of the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, this intimate, innocent romance lacked overblown pizzazz—there wasn’t even the traditional huge chorus—and had a relatively brief run in 1963. But the enchanting score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (who are also represented this season with a powerful production of Fiddler on the Roof) lived on in a cast album featuring the immortal voice of Barbara Cook. Bock’s music wisely employed the story’s Hungarian setting without borrowing too heavily from that country’s tradition, while Harnick’s deceptively clever but straightforward lyrics were simultaneously specific enough to advance the plot and general enough not to require an intimate knowledge of same.
The show remained a cult item for 30 years until Roundabout delivered the first Broadway revival in 1993, a gorgeous candy box of a show staged with love by Scott Ellis. Now Ellis has returned to the material with an equally enchanting but totally different staging. Joe Masteroff’s slightly screwball but cute book still enchants. After all, the original play, Parfumerie from 1937, about two bickering clerks who are romantic pen pals without knowing it, also provided the template for such cherished film comedies as The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail. Set designer David Rockwell has created a Fabergé egg–world of old-time Budapest.
But the strength of this production is in its perfect casting. As the dreamy shopgirl Amalia, Laura Benanti impresses with her considerable vocal skills and flawless comic timing. Zachary Levi displays the perfect blend of manly charm and humorous self-deprecation as her unbeknownst admirer Georg. Jane Krakowski takes the supporting role of the unlucky-in-love, slightly daffy Ilona and turns her into a three-dimensional figure, albeit one who does splits and runs through sprayed perfume to catch the scent.
Gavin Creel oozes oily charisma as the rogue Kolday, while Michael McGrath perfectly embodies the lovable but obsequious Sipos, Georg’s confidante. Byron Jennings provides bite and backbone as Maraczek, the officious but ultimately unraveling owner of the shop. Nicholas Barasch is fresh-faced and appealing as the delivery boy, Arpad. Peter Bartlett in the tiny role of a put-upon headwaiter delivers a comic gem of a performance, and Michael Fatica is deliriously clumsy as his klutzy busboy. Even the small roles are sources of joy in this lovely and loving She Loves Me.
March 30, 2016
17–June 4. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.,
NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun
2pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.
$52–147. (212) 719-1300.
Reviewed by David Sheward
Akosua Busia, Lupita Nyong’o, Saycon Sengbloh, and Pascale Armand in Eclipsed
Photo by Joan Marcus
Sexual exploitation is a rare subject on Broadway, but two new productions are addressing this explosive topic. Both have honorable intentions, but only one totally succeeds while the other suffers from a strained starring performance. Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed is stunning in its total approach to the sensitive topic, allowing humor to mix with pathos, while the brutal impact of David Harrower’s Blackbird is lessened by Michelle Williams’s bizarre reading of a damaged child-woman.
Eclipsed had a smashing run Off-Broadway at the Public Theater earlier this season and has moved uptown mainly on the strength of its star, Lupita Nyong’o, who gave a luminous Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years a Slave and also graces the back cover of the Playbill in a glamorous perfume ad. Ironically, she eschews the Hollywood routine as a downtrodden victim of war and sexism. But this is far from a one-woman show. The rest of the all-female cast is equally intense and moving.
The blighted principal setting (Clint Ramos created the appropriately ragged sets and costumes) is a ruined hut in the midst of war-torn Liberia. Three women bicker, gossip, and bond as they wait to be called to sexually attend to the unseen rebel commanding officer. Taken as carnal prizes in a bloody civil conflict, they have lost their homes, families, and even their names, referring to themselves only as Wife #1, Wife #3, and The Girl. Wife #2, who appears later, has sought another avenue out of this hell by becoming a soldier. The fifth character, Rita, is a peace worker struggling to help the end the women’s degrading servitude. But Rita also has a somewhat melodramatic ulterior motive; she’s searching for her abducted daughter. Her storyline is the only extraneous element in Gurira’s otherwise well-observed script.
Nyong’o is heartbreaking as The Girl, detailing every step of her desperate attempts to escape her impossible plight, seeking to protect herself from the horrors around her. Watch as she joins Wife #2 in the army, rounding up young women like herself for the same fate. Nyong’o puts on the hard shell of a ruthless killer, but when confronted with imposing misery on others, she lets the emotional covering crack open, revealing the tender soul underneath. Saycon Sengbloh captures the wounded pride of Wife #1 who takes on the mantle of mother figure for both the wives and the commander. Zainab Busia brilliantly blusters and bristles as the warlike Wife #2 but also displays brief flashes of her buried humanity. Pascale Armand is a sparkplug of vitality as the spunky Wife #3. Akosua Busia makes of the most of the dramatic-device role of Rita.
Eclipsed sounds like a dark devastating night in the theater, but Gurira and director Liesl Tommy have also injected plenty of leavening laughter, much of it derived from the women reading and commenting on a biography of Bill Clinton. These various elements and observations, along with Tommy’s balanced direction, make for a multilayered portrait of women swept up in a tidal wave of despair and doing their best to swim rather than sink.
Blackbird, a gut punch of a one-act, is not as richly varied. It had been presented Off-Broadway in 2007 by Manhattan Theatre Club with the same director (Joe Mantello) and lead actor (Jeff Daniels), where it gradually built to a crescendo of pain and loss. This new Broadway edition starts at a screaming pitch and has nowhere to go. Daniels plays Ray, a 50-ish office drone confronted with a ghost from his troubled past: Una, the young woman he had a “brief affair” with when she was 12. In the bland break room at the dental supply company were Ray now works (realized with grey corporate accuracy by set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt), Ray and Una replay their twisted relationship, which ended in a jail sentence for him and a dysfunctional adulthood for her.
Mantello turns the decibel level all the way up, so the impact is not as devastating. Daniels modulates Ray’s compulsive obsession somewhat, but Williams goes way over the top from her first entrance. She delivers a studied, actress-y performance with little honesty and too much hysteria. Only during her long monologue describing the characters’ pathetic tryst are there moments of verisimilitude. Then we feel as if we are listening to a broken girl’s plea for help rather than sitting in a theater watching a movie star dine on the scenery.
March 19, 2016
March 6–June 19. Golden Theatre, 252 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. $77–146. (212) 239-6200.
March 10–June 12. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., NYC. Mon 8pm, Tue
7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm. Running
time 80 minutes, no intermission. $39–145. (212) 239-6200.
New York Theatre Workshop
Reviewed by David Sheward
Catherine Ricafort, Roger Bart, Baylee Littrell, Seth Rudetsky, Rachel York, Kevin Chamberlin, and Olivia Phillip in Disaster!
Jeremy Daniel Photography
Water figures prominently in two diverse new productions, each incredibly seaworthy but very different types of stage vessels. Disaster!, the wild spoof of destructive film thrillers, takes place on a doomed floating casino and is a hilarious guilty pleasure. Its only aim is to make audiences laugh, and it succeeds admirably. Red Speedo, Lucas Hnath’s devastating and dynamic one-act play, features an onstage swimming pool and provides a tightly structured mediation on the American Dream. It will make audiences think, as well as gasp and laugh.
Disaster! sails into Broadway’s Nederlander Theater after two previous Off-Broadway voyages. The basic concept sounds as if it might work for a 15-minute TV sketch: Throw together elements from such 1970s crash-and-burn epics as The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno, and a slew of pop and disco Top 40 hits from the same era, and hope for laughs. Though there are slow spots in the book by Seth Rudetsky (who also appears in the cast) and Jack Plotnick (who also directs), they are remarkably few. Most of Disaster!’s humor comes from the absurd shoehorning of the songs into its zany plot—such as the “ooka-chaca” opening from “Hooked on a Feeling” supplied by rescue helicopters and “Muskrat Love” denoting rabid rodents about to attack cowering passengers. There’s even a clever use of “Nadia’s Theme,” the instrumental association with the beloved Romanian gymnast.
The kooky material is given its best possible treatment by a seasoned cast displaying clockwork timing. A slew of Tony winners and nominees expertly plays a shipful of stereotypes—including the low-class casino promoter (razor-sharp Roger Bart), his ditzy lounge-singer girlfriend (delightfully daffy Rachel York), and a heartbroken heartthrob waiter (sexy and full-voiced Adam Pascal) and his former love, a gutsy reporter out to expose the dangers of the ship (cute and incisive Kerry Butler). Rudetsky gets in a few zingers as a know-it-all scientist determined to prevent the inevitable explosions and fatalities.
Even amid this expert company, there are a few standouts. In the Shelley Winters role of a good-natured matron dying of a weird disease, Faith Prince mines comic gold from the character’s shtick symptoms of uncontrollable pelvic thrusts and cursing at inappropriate times. She also leads one of the funniest numbers, tap dancing lifesaving information in Morse code to “A Fifth of Beethoven.” (Unfortunately, Kevin Chamberlin as her jolly husband is given too little to do, as is Max Crumm as Pascal’s pal who gets bumped off early in the second act.) Young Baylee Littrell deftly switches genders as opposite-sex twins, and Lacretta Nicole displays impressive pipes as a down-on-her-luck disco diva.
But the real star of this shindig is Jennifer Simard as a glum nun set on saving souls as her gambling addiction kicks in. Simard, who has been toiling Off-Broadway for nearly two decades, gives a brilliantly deadpan performance, delivering every line with the clouded darkness of a miserable soul yearning to find release amid the gaming tables. She can make falling down (with exaggerated stiffness) or just looking at another actor (with blank incomprehension) riotous. Her ecstatic rendition of “Never Can Say Goodbye” to a slot machine is the comic highlight of the season, and I am praying she gets to perform it on the Tony Awards.
Is Disaster! the most brilliant musical in years? No. But it is a goofy, silly ride, transforming the Nederlander into a joyful amusement park.
As noted above, there’s a real swimming pool onstage at New York Theatre Workshop for Red Speedo, but it’s not a source of fun like the crazy ship in Disaster! Designer Riccardo Hernandez’s magnificent environment provides the setting for a brutal examination of the cravenness of the modern sport scene in particular and America in general.
Swimming champion Ray may be implicated in a doping scandal just before the Olympic trials and a lucrative endorsement deal. His brother and manager, Peter, who is heavily dependent on Ray raking in Speedo money, desperately attempts to keep the situation under wraps while Ray’s coach threatens to go public. Meanwhile, Ray wants to get back with his ex-girlfriend, sports therapist Lydia, whom Peter deeply mistrusts and who may have supplied Ray with the illegal drugs.
As with his earlier plays, The Christians (seen at Playwrights Horizons earlier this season) and Death Tax (presented at Actors Theater of Louisville a few years back), playwright Hnath constructs an intricate web of needs and counter-needs, with the four players each battling and scheming to come out on top (the quartet of actors deliver sharp, piercing work). Lurking underneath the surface of the plot is a bitter indictment of our winning-at-all-costs culture. Peter has a particularly scary monologue, delivered with just the right amount of offhanded arrogance by Lucas Caleb Rooney, justifying his dishonesty and avarice for the sake of his young daughters. (“Because poor kids have it so rough,” he rationalizes.)
Hnath’s script and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction are as lean and muscular as the bare torso displayed by Alex Breaux, who gives a deceptively complex rendition of Ray, balancing the athlete’s apparent guilelessness with a cunning and aggression as ruthless as his sibling’s. When the two clash in an ugly climactic fistfight (staged with gut-wrenching detail by Thomas Schall), this depth charge of a play hits you where it counts.
March 14, 2016
Opened March 8 for an open run. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.,
NYC. Schedule varies. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including
intermission. $59–140. (877) 250-2929.
March 3–April 3. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., NYC. Tue-Wed
7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 80 minutes,
no intermission.$72. (212) 460-5475.
Reviewed by David Sheward
Photo by Joan Marcus
In such pieces as Vienna: Lusthaus and Belle Epoque, director-choreographer Martha Clarke is not concerned with telling a story, but with evoking a specific time and place. Fusing dance and theater, Clarke creates a third, hybrid form. Movement and dialogue convey the interactions and life-blood of communities. Her Angel Reapers, featuring text by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Alfred Uhry and traditional hymns and works songs as the score, portrays the Shakers—the religious sect so called because of their erratic, uncontrolled physical vibrations during worship services. (The work is now at Signature Theatre but was previously presented in 2011 at the Joyce Theater.)
The group’s ecstatic gyrations were probably manifestations of their repressed sexual urges. One of the tenets of this offshoot from the Quakers was celibacy. They believed married couples should live chastely as brother and sister to avoid the original sin of Adam and Eve. That explains why their numbers gradually dwindled from 6,000 Shaker villages in the mid-19th century to only one in 2016.
Such suppressed carnality is a perfect vehicle for a dance piece, and Clarke devises fascinating moves of longing for her company of 11 actor-dancers. Bodies twist around each other and explode in rhythmic outbursts. There is a thin sliver of narrative with bits of storyline for each of the villagers. There’s the historically accurate Mother Ann Lee, the sect’s leader, who along with her brother William, sternly preaches abstinence. Brother Jabez burns for the caress of a male farmer, while the orphan Brother Valentine chafes under the enclave’s harsh restrictions. When he runs away with an equally rebellious young woman and she returns in a worldly colorful dress, the contrast with the community’s severe garb is startling. Donna Zakowska’s costumes are particularly effective here.
Equally apt are Marsha Ginsberg’s stark meeting-house setting and Christopher Akerlind’s sun-drenched lighting. The company is intensely fluid and expressive, employing scant back history to convey three-dimensional people, especially Sally Murphy as the puritanical Mother Ann. Running at little more than an hour, Angel Reapers is a mood piece more suited for dance fans than theater aficionados who expect a more robust story with their choreography.
March 2, 2016
Feb. 22–March 20. Signature Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center, 420 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 70 minutes with no intermission, $25. (212) 244-7529.
Reviewed by David Sheward
Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker
Photo by Marc Brenner
“Jesus, what a dead dump,” moans a melancholy Forest Whitaker as Erie Smith, the down-on-his-luck gambler assessing the seedy hotel he calls home in Eugene O’Neill’s 1942 one-act Hughie. Unfortunately Erie could be describing Michael Grandage’s lifeless revival, as well as Christopher Oram’s appropriately funereal set. Whitaker, an insightful and moving actor on screen in such films as The Crying Game, Bird, and The Last King of Scotland, is vague and removed, mistakenly playing a tentative character tentatively. He speaks haltingly, frequently pausing in odd places as if searching for the next line. There were published reports of his being unsteady in delivery during previews and lurking by an onstage water cooler behind which a stage manager would feed him dialogue.
The star appears to have somewhat overcome the memorization problem, but he still hasn’t solidified a through line for his role. The brief play consists of a run-on monologue in which Erie laments the unexpected death of the hotel’s night clerk, the titular Hughie who served as Erie’s combination lucky charm and sounding board. With Hughie gone, Erie has lost his confidence, hasn’t had a big win in weeks, and is on the run from thugs out to collect his overdue losses. The only other character is the new desk jockey, an amiable cipher who occasionally responds to Erie’s ramblings and gradually takes his predecessor’s place as mascot. Like the pipe-dreaming drunks in O’Neill’s four-hour epic The Iceman Cometh, Erie dissolves into despair when faced with the bleakness of his existence. Stripped of romantic delusions of money and Broadway glamour, he fears climbing the stairs to his empty hotel room. He recovers the false joy of living when the clerk takes on the role of a “sap” to listen to his daydreams of winning big stakes at racetracks and crap games.
It’s a potentially powerful short play, but Whitaker is so shaky and insubstantial that Erie’s desperate situation seems no more important than a toothache. The marvelous character actor Frank Wood manfully tries to bring life to the clerk, but even his one flash of emotion expressing a desire to burn down the city is weirdly muted. Grandage attempts to fill the gap by inserting dramatic shifts in Neil Austin’s noirish lighting and Adam Cork’s purple original music during pauses in the action. It’s like switching channels between a Humphrey Bogart flick on TCM and live feed from a fleabag hotel. If you need the lighting designer and the composer to supply the tension, your show is in serious trouble.
O’Neill wrote the piece as part of an unfinished series of playlets called “By Way of Obit,” focusing on characters dealing with the demise of close ones. It was not produced until after his death, in a Swedish production. Subsequent stagings have starred Jason Robards, Al Pacino, Ben Gazzara, and Brian Dennehy. The latter two wisely paired it with a second short play. Running barely more than an hour, Hughie makes for less than a full evening of theater, particularly with this limp staging and especially not at steep Broadway prices.
February 27, 2016
25–March 27. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm
& 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running
time 65 minutes, no intermission. $55–149. (212)
School of Rock
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
The Color Purple
Winter Garden Theatre
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
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.
Purple: Opened Dec. 10 for an open run. 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.
Invisible Thread: Dec. 2–27.
Second Stage, 305 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri
7pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours, including
intermission. $64–79. (212) 246-4422.
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 [closed}
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
Humans: At the Helen Hayes. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission.
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
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.
Circle in the Square
St. James Theater
Reviewed by David Sheward
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
Home: April 19, 2015–Sept. 10, 2016. Circle in the Square, 1633
Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm &
8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission.
$75–150. (212) 239-6200.
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.
An American in Paris
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
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.
Reviewed by David Sheward
Lin-Manuel Miranda and ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
American history gets a vigorous shot in the arm with Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s bracing new musical about the most abrasive of our founding fathers, now playing at the Public Theater. You could argue, and Miranda does, that outside of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton was the key figure in the birth of our new nation. Scrappy, ambitious, and sometimes obnoxious, he didn’t care whom he offended as he fought at Washington’s side and instituted the national debt as a means of financing our government. After being disgraced by a sexual scandal, he famously dueled with the power-hungry Vice-President Aaron Burr and lost his life at 47.
Already a sell-out hit and announced for a Broadway transfer, Hamilton—which Miranda wrote, composed, and stars in—takes the bold step of telling its audacious hero’s story with largely hip-hop and rap, and recasting the historic roles with mostly African-American and Latino actors. By using the music of today’s disenfranchised youth, Miranda reinforces the image of the young American rebels as dangerous outsiders. Hamilton, a bastard born in the Caribbean, is constantly derided as an “immigrant,” drawing parallels to hot-button issue of the 21st century. In addition, the dueling machismo culture of Hamilton’s era echoes the sometimes violent jousting amid contemporary rappers.
Miranda’s score, brilliantly orchestrated by musical director Alex Lacamoire, incorporates a variety of styles to convey the diverse mixture of the new nation. Even the distant figure of King George III, played as a hilariously effete snob by Brian d’Arcy James, is given a signature leitmotif, a Beatles-style pop sound for his ballad of lost love for his former colonies.
This is an invigorating history lesson, but it’s not a perfect one. Clocking in at close to three hours, it could do with cutting before it moves to Broadway, and Miranda is bit too much in love with his subject at the cost of just about everyone else. His Hamilton is almost too smart for the room; all the other main figures—except Washington—come across as jerks or cads such as the preening, shallow Jefferson, the doddering Madison, and the incompetent, unseen John Adams.
Despite the show’s flaws, Miranda’s overall achievement is staggering. He tells a complicated story in a sung-through work with a host of distinct voices, juggling political intrigue, passionate ideals, and interpersonal connections. Hamilton’s complicated rivalry with Burr, his tragic family life, and his father-son relationship with Washington are given full weight and depth. Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who served in those capacities on Miranda’s In the Heights, stage the sweeping epic with invention and energy. Howell Binkley’s versatile lighting sets the scenes from battlefield to executive mansion.
Miranda intensely conveys Hamilton’s quicksilver intelligence as well as his quick temper. Leslie Odom Jr. delivers a breakout performance as the nefarious Burr, equally convincing as a scheming politician and a loving father tenderly crooning to his baby daughter. Phillipa Soo, so moving in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, is just as heartbreaking here as Hamilton’s put-upon wife Eliza while Renee Elise Goldsberry gives off sparks of wit and passion as her sister Angelica, also smitten with the title treasury secretary. Christopher Jackson is a stalwart Washington, Okieriete Onaodowan is formidable as a rough rebel, and Daveed Diggs is delightfully bubbly as a party-boy Lafayette and a popinjay Jefferson.
Although this Hamilton is not quite as revolutionary as Oklahoma!, Hair, Rent, or even 1776, it’s an exciting sign that American musical theater is moving forward with the times even as it examines our past.
March 3, 2015
Feb. 17–March 2016. Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat-Sun
2pm & 8pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including
intermission. $120. (212) 967-7555.
by Jerry Beal
On 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.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Reviewed by David Sheward
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
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.
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
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)
Matilda the Musical
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.
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
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.