Arts In LA
                                 Arts In NY

 
Paramour
Lyric Theatre

Incognito
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com

Incognito: May 24–July 10. Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri, 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $90. (212) 581-1212.

www.nycitycenter.org
 

 
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Dear Evan Hansen
Second Stage

Fully Committed
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne
Photo by Joan Marcus

A pair of intense lead performances illuminates two new productions on and Off-Broadway. Jessica Lange’s shattered Mary Tyrone unexpectedly dominates Jonathan Kent’s searing revival of Eugene O’Neill’s massive classic Long Day’s Journey Into Night for Roundabout Theatre Company, while Ben Platt’s heartbreakingly lonely teenager is the soul of the sensitive musical Dear Evan Hansen at Second Stage. A piercing profile of O’Neill’s own family, Long Day’s Journey is meant to be a quartet of agony, but Lange’s high-strung playing of Mary’s drug-addicted pain turns it into a concerto with the other three Tyrones on second fiddle. It’s still a moving, vital production but not the full symphony of sorrow O’Neill intended. Platt’s Evan is meant to be the center of the show, and he delivers the necessary ache and yearning.
   In Journey, each of the four Tyrones plays out his or her toxic relationship with the past in a single day in 1912 at the Tyrones’ gloomy summer cottage. Tom Pye’s set features a low ceiling tilted at a menacing angle to signify the clan’s sense of inescapable misery, while Natasha Katz’s lighting provides the right ghostly atmosphere. Father James is a famous actor handcuffed to regret because his Shakespearean ambitions were crushed by the easy lure of a lucrative melodrama (O’Neill’s real father starred in the kitschy Count of Monte Cristo for many seasons). Partially because of James’s stinginess, mother Mary became dependent on morphine and is in relapse after a brief clean period. Sons Jamie and Edmund have their own demons of alcoholism and tuberculosis, respectively.
   Lange’s physical life is so precise you can feel the pangs of Mary’s withdrawal and the cherished release into her drug-induced dream world far from the miserable guilt of her marriage. This comes as something of a surprise because Lange’s previous Broadway attempts at great-lady roles were either too small—Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire—or overblown—Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. Perhaps it’s because she played the O’Neill role on the London stage in 2000, but the Oscar winner’s stagecraft has caught up with her film brilliance.
   Gabriel Byrne’s James is too subdued, and John Gallagher Jr.’s Edmund comes across as whiny rather than tormented. Michael Shannon’s quirky Jamie is frighteningly oft-kilter and arresting, but he doesn’t have enough stage time to equal Lange’s impact. Colby Minifie provides welcome comic relief as the maid Cathleen.
   Despite the imbalance, Kent’s production is haunting and intimate. He often has the characters come to extreme edge of the stage, practically throwing their desperate plights into the audience’s collective lap.

Dear Evan Hansen also deals with families in pain. The title character is an isolated teen outsider with a long-absent father and an overworked mother. At Evan’s school, another suffering kid, rebellious Connor Murphy, falls over the edge of despair and commits suicide. Through an accidental meeting between the two, Evan becomes involved in an elaborate Internet hoax, convincing the world and Connor’s grieving family that the boys were best friends when in fact they didn’t even know each other. But his new status as encouraging pal of the dead kid makes Evan into a media hero, a substitute son for the Murphys and boyfriend to Connor’s sister Zoe. Should he tell the truth and go back to being a nobody?
   That’s the crux of this jarring, small-scale gem, directed with his usual fluid grace by Michael Grief (aided by Peter Nigrini’s impressive video designs re-creating the universe of the Internet). Steven Levenson’s compassionate and witty book goes far beyond Afterschool Special clichés, and the songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, run the gamut from riotous comedy to wrenching ballads to piercing character portraits. As mentioned earlier, young Platt is stunning as the shy Evan, making the young man’s urgent need for companionship so real you can feel his pain—just as Lange makes you feel Mary’s morphine cravings. The rest of the ensemble is equally moving, especially Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s well-meaning but bewildered mother, and Laura Dreyfuss as the angry, needy Zoe.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson of TV’s Modern Family, makes an attempt at a bravura performance in the revival of Becky Mode’s solo play Fully Committed. But his energetic if narrow limning of 40 characters led me to admire him for trying such a monumental task rather than becoming absorbed in the crazed action. Originally presented Off-Broadway in 1999, the show employs one actor to play the stressed phone-reservation worker at a posh Manhattan eatery, his co-workers, his family, and all the demanding clients at the other end of the line. Ferguson can be endearing and amusing, but he has a limited range of funny voices and mannerisms, which lose their freshness well before the 90-minute running time is up. Much like the show’s trendy restaurant that features ridiculously expensive dishes dusted with edible dirt, this Fully Committed is a cute little show but not worth the Broadway prices.

May 14, 2016
 
Long Day’s Journey Into Night: April 27–June 26. Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 7pm, Sat 1pm & 7pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 3 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $107–137. (212) 719-1300.

www.roundabouttheatre.org

Dear Evan Handler: May 1–29. Second Stage, 305 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue–Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2 & 8pm, Sun 3pm & 8 pm. Running time two hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $84-89. (212) 246-4422.

www.2st.com

Fully Committed: April 26–July 24. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu–Fri 8pm, Sat 2 & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes with no intermission. $75–147. (212) 541-8457.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings
Royal Shakespeare Company at BAM Harvey Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Antony Sher in Henry IV
Photo by Richard Termine

Shakespeare’s majestic cycle of Richard and Henry plays (Richard II; Henry IV, Parts I and II; Henry V) gets a rousing marathon treatment from the Royal Shakespeare Company in a stunning, four-evening repertory touring presentation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. Gregory Doran’s lively staging is short on the usual pomp and long on pathos. The quartet also emphasizes an element usually missing from stodgy productions: humor. Yes, there is always the madcap Falstaff, the recreant mentor-in-mischief to young Prince Hal. This rotund, lovable rascal always gets his yuks, and Antony Sher earns them by the boatload here. But the entire galaxy of the contentious court has its moments of levity balanced with bitterness and sorrow. In other words, these are no stuffy saints done up in purple robes, but real sweating, laughing, and crying three-dimensional people who happen to be vying for the English crown.
   In addition to Sher’s life-embracing Falstaff, David Tennant, best known as the 10th Doctor Who, mines the tragic depths of Richard II. His monarch is a mincing egomaniac whose downfall seems justified, but the actor makes him so tenderly human that we feel for him anyway. Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke, Richard’s nemesis, is refreshingly down to earth rather than the usual tin hero. Alex Hassell does the heaviest lifting as the fiery Prince Hal, the son of Bolingbroke, later Henry IV. Hassell brilliantly chronicles the prince’s twisting journey from rebellious reprobate to warrior king. You can read the conflict on his handsome face as he rejects Falstaff after ascending the throne and sense the rage in his heart as he marches across the fields of France in the battle-scarred final play. As a rollicking conclusion to the whole cycle, he engages in an edgy and witty war of words with Jennifer Kirby as a feisty princess Katherine for a memorable wooing scene. Leigh Quinn is a wise and knowing Alice, Katherine’s lady in waiting who acts as translator for her French mistress.
   Even the smaller supporting roles are solidly enacted. The subtly dry Oliver Ford Davies contributes a lovably befuddled Duke of York, a delightfully senile Justice Shallow, and a cozy Chorus leading the audience through Henry V with a wink and a smile. There are several priceless moments with Shallow where Davies draws howls with just a raised eyebrow. Jane LaPotaire makes a devastating impression in two cameos as the grieving Duchess of Gloucester and an imploring Queen Isobel. I also loved Joshua Richards’s bumbling Bardolph and pompous Fluellen, Sarah Parks’s gravel-voiced Duchess of York and Mistress Quickley, and Sam Marks’s smooth-faced but duplicitous Aumerle, Poins, and Constable of France.

April 29, 2016
 
April 1–May 1. Royal Shakespeare Company at BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY. Repertory schedule. Running time for each production: 3 hours. $35–200. (718) 636-4100.

www.bam.org
 

 
Broadway and Off-Broadway Roundup:
Bright Star, Hold on to Me Darling, Head of Passes, Ironbound, Familiar, and Dry Powder

Reviewed by David Sheward


The cast of Bright Star
Photo by Joan Marcus

At the top of the second act of Bright Star, the onstage bluegrass band cuts loose for a brief hootenanny, which sets the audience to clapping and hollering. Unfortunately, it’s the highlight of the show. The surrounding story and songs by comedy legend–banjo plucker Steve Martin and Grammy winner Edie Brickell offer a few sparks and smiles but not much more. The sappy plot is reportedly based on a true incident but comes across as soap-opera fodder.
   There are two timelines. In 1920s North Carolina, brainy but poor Alice Murphy has a ill-starred romance with rich boy Jimmy Ray Dobbs, resulting in a pregnancy but no marriage. Twenty years later, Alice, now a literary editor, encounters a promising young writer just back from Word War II. If you have an ounce of sense or ever read a book or seen a movie, you’ll predict how the two tales will merge before the final curtain. Director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes provide innovative flashes, Carmen Cusack makes an impressive Broadway debut as Alice, and a regiment of Main Stem veterans such as Dee Hoty, Stephen Bogardus, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Michael Mulheren, and William Youmans earn their paychecks, but Bright Star fails to shine.
   Off-Broadway another country-themed show bursts into intermittent flames. Kenneth Lonergan, one of my favorite playwrights, takes a hard look at our entertainment-obsessed culture in Hold on to Me Darling at Atlantic Theater Company. Timothy Olyphant of TV’s Justified and Deadwood is hilariously self-centered and clueless as country-western superstar Strings McCrane, who foolishly attempts to chuck his celebrity lifestyle to return to work in the feed store in his Tennessee hometown. While Bright Star drips with familiar homilies and nostalgia for honeysuckled mythos, Darling is a razor-sharp satire of American shallowness, directed with just the right combination of winking parody and hard-edged reality by Neil Pepe. Jenn Lyon delivers a slyly multilayered turn as Nancy, Strings’s biggest fan and later his avaricious wife. She shifts so subtly from innocent admirer to emotional vampire you barely notice the change.

Two more Off-Broadway attractions feature similar miraculous performances, but in works of varying merit. Phylicia Rashad perseveres through and finally conquers Head of Passes, Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s rather mawkish rewrite of the Book of Job at the Public; while Marin Ireland dazzles as a wily Polish immigrant in Martyna Majok’s clever but slightly flawed Ironbound, a co-production of Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and Women’s Project Theater. Head of Passes takes the familiar dysfunctional-family-reunion route in the first act and then veers into a tour-de-force monologue for Rashad in the second. She plays the domineering Shela, a religious matriarch whose faith is severely tested when her home and relationships are destroyed. Rashad rises above the familiar material and as does G.W. Mercier’s collapsing set.
   Majok’s Ironbound has a more inventive premise. At one grim New Jersey bus stop (Justin Townsend did the brilliantly drab set), Darja goes through 22 years and a repetitive series of dead-end jobs and romances. Loose ends are tied up a bit too neatly, and a teen hustler character is extraneous. But, like Rashad, Ireland wrestles the flawed play to the ground and beats it into submission. Her Darja is crafty, pragmatic, tough, tender, broken, and indomitable all at once.
   Danai Gurira deals with many of the same themes as Majok in Familiar at Playwrights Horizons: immigration, identity, the difficulty of sustaining relationships. The author, whose Eclipsed is currently a hit on Broadway, has a sure hand with dialogue and situation, but tends to tip a bit toward the sitcom and melodrama in this otherwise delightful comedy-drama about an Zimbabwean-American family coping with a stressful wedding and conflicts over their traditions and assimilation. Fortunately, director Rebecca Taichman and a solid cast—including Ito Aghayere, Roslyn Ruff, Tamara Tunie, and Myra Lucretia Taylor—keep the action moving at a rapid clip so that Gurira’s occasional lapses such as an absurd reaction to a family secret and, as in Ironbound, a too tidy conclusion don’t impair the overall experience.

To wrap up this roundup, we return to the Public for Dry Powder, Sarah Burgess’s witty comedy of equity funds, leveraged takeovers, and economic imperialism. It’s funny and clever, and Thomas Kail of Hamilton fame gives it a sleek staging, but Caryl Churchill covered this territory nearly 30 years ago in her Serious Money, as did Jerry Sterner in Other People’s Money. The big revelation here is that financial managers are ruthless—surprise! The four-person cast does its best with the stilted yet well-spoken characters, but Claire Danes has a particularly tough time making Jenny, the empathy-impaired numbers whiz, more than a series of nasty quips. Unlike the previously mentioned Off-Broadway productions, Dry Powder doesn’t rise above its limitations.

April 11, 2016
 
Bright Star: Opened March 24 for an open run. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $45–145. (800) 447-7400.

www.telecharge.com

Hold On to Me Darling: March 14–April 17. Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $65. (866) 811-4111.

www.ovationtix.com

Head of Passes: March 28–April 24. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat-Sun 1:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $40–50. (212) 967-7555.

www.publictheater.org

Ironbound: March 16–April 24. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Women’s Project Theater at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 227 Waverly Pl., NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $45. (866) 811-4111.

www.ovationtix.com

Familiar: March 4–April 10. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $75–95. (212) 967-7555.

www.playwrightshorizons.org

Dry Powder: March 22–May 1. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 8pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $95. (212) 967-7555.

www.publictheater.org
 
 

 
Hungry
The Public Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Amy Warren, Lynn Hawley, Maryann Plunkett, and Meg Gibson
Photo by Joan Marcus

Political thought and reaction is sadly missing from the American stage, few of our plays or musicals reflecting our raging national conflicts. The British tend to consider social and political context in their theater, but here not so much. One of the few exceptions is Richard Nelson, whose penetrating and subtle works often provide a double focus on the private and the public. From 2010 to 2013 he wrote a series of plays for the Public Theater, featuring the same cast, about the Apple family of his native Rhinebeck, N.Y. Each work took place on a significant day and reflected how the likes of Obama, Clinton, and Romney seeped into the Apples’s troubles with death, senility, and sibling rivalry. There wasn’t much “plot” in this quartet, just the family gathering, talking about current events, reading from old books and letters, and discoursing on the state of themselves and the country at large. Through arguments, anecdotes, and revelations on life, love, and work, Nelson captured the uneasy mood of an insecure and jittery America.
   Nelson returns to this format with The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, three works compressing his perspective in one political cycle from the primaries to election night. The first play in the trio, Hungry takes place on March 4 (also opening night). The larger event is the battle for the presidency—it’s the Friday after Super Tuesday—but the Gabriels are more concerned with a memorial for son, husband, and brother Thomas, a novelist and playwright who died four months before. In the kitchen, Thomas’s third wife, Mary (a moving Maryann Plunkett), is suppressing her grief and rage as she prepares his favorite meal for the family and copes with the needy Karin (deceptively quiet Meg Gibson), Thomas’s first wife. (“There’s another wife in between, we both hate her,” Mary explains.) There’s also Thomas’s brother George (brilliantly simmering Jay O. Sanders) and sister Joyce (sarcastic Amy Warren), both struggling economically in low-paying jobs, as is Hannah (warm Lynn Hawley), George’s wife. All are concerned about elderly mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell in a sharp cameo), who is slowly losing her strength and memory.

As they discuss family difficulties, their disillusion with both political parties, and the loss of grace and elegance as exemplified by the dumbing-down of the nearby national park at the home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Gabriels become a microcosm of our unsettled society. Nelson’s writing and his direction is almost invisible. It feels as if we are listening in on private confabs, an effect enhanced by the intimate set by Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West.
   The gestures are small and concise. The tone of conversation is quiet. But there are reams of subtext in those hushed tones and half-completed movements. I look forward to joining the Gabriels again for the next play, set to open in September, and listening in on our national conversation.

March 30, 2016
 
March 4–April 3. Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $45–60.(212) 967-7555.

www.publictheater.org
 

 
The Robber Bridegroom
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre

The Royale
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Leslie Kritzer and company in The Robber Bridegroom
Photo by Joan Marcus

Inventive direction and design enliven two Off-Broadway productions, providing a pair of exciting evenings in the theater. Alex Timbers has helmed such unexpected and creative events as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher, and Here Lies Love. His latest blazing staging is a revival of the cult musical The Robber Bridegroom for the Roundabout Theatre Company at its Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. Based on a fanciful Eudora Welty novella, this charming show had brief runs on Broadway in 1974 and 1975 and is chiefly remembered because Barry Bostwick had an unexpected Tony win for Best Actor in the title role for the second production.
   The country and western–flavored score by Robert Waldman and Alfred Uhry and fairy-tale book by Uhry provide the ideal springboard for a festive backwoods hoedown. Severed heads, magical potions, swapped bodies, and disguises figure in the storybook plot. The enthusiastic performers play birds, sit on audience members’ laps, and generally have a rip-roaring good time as they tell the story of Jamie Lockhart, gentleman thief in mystical 18th-century Mississippi. Donyale Werle’s homey juke joint of a set, Jake DeGroot and Jeff Croiter’s jamboree lighting, and Emily Rebholz’s fun period costumes provide just the right atmosphere of foot-stomping pleasure.
   Steven Pasquale is a swoon-worthy rogue as the dashing Jamie, and Ahna O’Reilly combines sass and sweetness as his lady love Rosamund. But the biggest thief is Leslie Kritzer as Rosamund’s wicked stepmother Salome. With nasty asides to the audience, fearless pratfalls, and delightful devilishness, Kritzer steals this Robber. Andrew Durand as a luckless thug and Greg Hildreth as Salome’s slow-witted henchman also deserve mention.

Like Timbers, Rachel Chavkin has directed dazzling productions—including Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 181, the dinner-theater adaptation of a segment of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, due on Broadway next season. In Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, she manages to create startling theatrical equivalents of boxing matches. Based on the real-life career of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, the play considers the intersection of racism and sports as Jay, the Johnson figure, prepares to take on the reigning white titleholder in the early 20th century. Like his successor Muhammad Ali, Jay is cocky, brash, and unstoppable, which enrages white America enough to retaliate against random African-Americans. A visit from Jay’s frightened sister Nina causes him to hesitate in his quest for the prize.
   Johnson also serves as the inspiration for the 1968 play The Great White Hope, which made a star of James Earl Jones and delivered a more complex mosaic of its subject and the country he challenged. Ramirez’s take is simpler and more obvious than the earlier work. You can see the playwright’s hand in the forced interactions. But Chavkin’s boldly daring direction of the opening and closing pugilistic encounters (along with exciting lighting of Austin R. Smith) grab your attention with their intricate choreography, hand-clapping punctuation, and ingenious use of the ropes and metal rods of the boxing ring to suggest body blows. However, the scenes in the middle feel clichéd and overly familiar.
   The magnificent cast includes Khris Davis’s cyclonic Jay, John Lavelle’s bombastic promoter, Clarke Peters’s wily trainer, McKinley Belcher III’s earnest sparring partner, and Montego Glover’s powerful Nina. They help make The Royale a solid bout, but it’s still not quite a knockout.

March 19, 2016
 
The Robber Bridegroom: March 13–May 29. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for the Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes with no intermission. $99–109. (212) 719-1300.

www.roundabouttheatre.org
 
The Royale: March 7–May 1. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $77–87. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Buried Child
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

The Humans
Helen Hayes Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

February 17, 2016
 
Buried Child: Feb. 17–April 3. The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $27–107. (212) 279-4200.

www.ticketcentral.com

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

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Fiddler on the Roof
Broadway Theatre

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

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

Reviewed by David Sheward


Danny Burstein in Fiddler on the Roof
Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

December 30, 2015
 

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

www.telecharge.com
 

 
King Charles III
Music Box Theatre [closed]

Sylvia
Cort Theatre [closed]


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

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Doctor Zhivago
Broadway Theater [show closed]

The Visit
Lyceum Theater [show closed]

Finding Neverland
Lunt-Fontanne Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Les Misérables
Imperial Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Ramin Karimloo
Photo by Matthew Murphy

When I mentioned to my partner I was reviewing Les Misérables, he asked, “Why? Did it ever close?” He was under the impression the popular blockbuster based on Victor Hugo’s gargantuan novel of redemption in 19th-century France had been on Broadway continuously since it first opened there in 1987. That’s easy to understand. Only three years after that initial production closed down in 2003, another opened and ran for more than a year. Then Tim Hooper’s 2012 movie version was released and, thanks to endless renditions of several of the songs on such TV shows as Glee, The Voice, and American Idol, the show has never long been out of public consciousness.
   Now yet another version, a touring one originating in 2010, has found its way onto Broadway, and the undeniable strength of Hugo’s story and the rich score by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer still have the power to hold and move an audience for three hours. Recast with Broadway and London A-listers, this Les Miz is definitely worth a look, whether you’re a newcomer to the show or a veteran. Directed like a locomotive by Laurence Connor and James Powell, it lacks the massive feel of the original with its huge turntable, but it achieves a grittier intimacy via Matt Kinley’s lived-in set and atmospheric projection design (the latter “realized” by Fifty-Nine Productions), inspired by Hugo’s paintings. Paule Constable’s lighting manages to convey the gloom of the downtrodden denizens without becoming too shadowy.

The two male leads provide the emotional and vocal engine to this enterprise, giving the familiar cat-and-mouse conflict between the virtuous ex-convict Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert a fresh supply of adrenaline and testosterone. Ramin Karimloo, an Iranian-born Canadian who has played the Phantom of the Opera and several Les Miz roles in London, endows Valjean with blood, sweat, tears, and a soaring voice. He starts off strong with his wronged hero snarling and biting like a feral dog and then, after the character is shown kindness by a priest, transforming into an angelic savior in movement and tone. Will Swenson as Javert reveals a steely spine unseen in his previous Broadway outings as the feckless heroes of Hair and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
   Caissie Levy and Nikki M. James are heartbreaking as the equally tragic Fantine and Eponine, while Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle provide much-needed comic relief as the avaricious Thenardiers. (Settle’s stunned reaction to a luscious wedding cake is one of the highlights of the show.) Andy Mientus and Samantha Hill are somewhat colorless as the lovers Marius and Cosette, as is Kyle Scatliffe as the student revolutionary Enjorlas. But Gaten Matarazzo makes the street urchin Gavroche a believable rascally kid as opposed to the obnoxious showoff we usually get.

The only major problem with this tough, intense revival is the tendency to American Idol-ize the solos with loud, prolonged “money notes.” The classic tale of faith triumphing over injustice does not require this pandering to the crowd. It’s not a competition.

March 24, 2014

Opened March 23 for an open run. Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $57–139. (800) 432-7250.

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Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Stephen Sondheim Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Jessie Mueller
Joan Marcus

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

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

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

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The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theatre

The Total Bent
Public Theater

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
 
The 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.

www.publictheater.org

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.

www.publictheater.org

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.

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Indecent
Vineyard Theatre

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
 
Indecent: 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.

www.ovationtix.com

The Signature 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.

www.signaturetheatre.org
 

 
American Psycho
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater

Tuck Everlasting
Broadhurst Theater

Waitress
Brooks Atkinson Theater

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

Cagney
Westside Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


The ensemble of Shuffle Along
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

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

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

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

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

Just as a side note, Off-Broadway’s Cagney has a formulaic bio-pic book by Peter Colley but razor-sharp choreography by Joshua Bergasse and an impressive lead performance by Robert Creighton who also collaborated on the score with Christopher McGovern. The engine of the plot is Cagney’s battle with studio boss Jack Warner to stretch beyond the tough-guy roles. A rather limiting frame for the story, and Colley often shoehorns in excuses for musical numbers such as a tap challenge between Cagney and Bob Hope because the former appeared briefly in one of Hope’s pictures. Despite the book’s hiccups, Creighton and company dance with joy. It’s a brisk if unchallenging piece, unlike Shuffle which totally reinvents the musical theater form.
May 9, 2016
American 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.

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Tuck 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.

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Waitress: Opened April 24 for an open run. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $67–147. (800) 745-3000.

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Shuffle 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.

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

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The Crucible
Walter Kerr Theatre

The Father
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
 
The 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.

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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) 239-6200.

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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
 
March 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.

www.roundabouttheatre.org
 

 
Eclipsed
Golden Theatre

Blackbird
Belasco Theatre

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
 
Eclipsed: 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.

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Blackbird: 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.

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Disaster!
Nederlander Theatre

Red Speedo
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
 
Disaster!: 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.

www.ticketmaster.com

Red Speedo: 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.

www.nytw.org
 

 
Angel Reapers
Signature Theatre

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.

www.signaturetheatre.org
 

 
Hughie
Booth Theatre

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
 
Feb. 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) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
School of Rock
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

The Color Purple
Winter Garden Theatre

Invisible Thread
Second Stage

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

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

www.telecharge.com

The Color 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.

www.telecharge.com

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.

www.2st.com
 

 
Thérèse Raquin
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 [closed}

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

Reviewed by David Sheward


Keira Knightley and Judith Light
Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

October 30, 2015
 

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

 
Hamilton
Richard Rodgers Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


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

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Fun Home
Circle in the Square

Something Rotten!
St. James Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


The ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

May 13, 2015
 
 
Fun Home: Opened April 19 for an open run. 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.

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

www.telecharge.com
 

 
An American in Paris
Palace Theatre

Gigi
Neil Simon Theatre [show closed]

It Shoulda Been You
Brooks Atkinson Theatre


Reviewed by David Sheward


An American in Paris
Photo by Angela Sterling

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

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

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

www.ticketmaster.com

It Shoulda Been You: Opened April 14 for an open run. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. $90–149. (800) 653-8000.

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Hamilton
Public Theater

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.

www.publictheater.org
 

 
Tribute
Mike Nichols


by Jerry Beal



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


The cast of the 1973 Uncle Vanya

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

November 30, 2014
 
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Barrymore Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Alex Sharp

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

October 14, 2014

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

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Aladdin
New Amsterdam Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

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

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

March 22, 2014

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

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
Matilda the Musical
Shubert Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

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Kinky Boots
Al Hirschfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

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

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

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

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