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Stratford Festival Roundup
Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario

Reviewed by David Sheward


Seana McKenna, Mike Nadajewski, and Randy Hughson in The Physicists
Photo by David Hou

The theater experience changes when you visit a town where the stage is the main industry. There is a sense of community and celebration absent when patronizing most commercial productions. Instead of consuming a mass Broadway product, you’re sharing the artisanal offering of passionate local practitioners. (Even Off-Broadway companies’ seasons tend to be seen as containing potential transfers to bigger runs or possible prizewinners as opposed to pure dramatic expressions.) In the Canadian province of Ontario, several hours’ drive from Manhattan, two well-established annual theater festivals—the Stratford in the town of the same name and the Shaw at gorgeous Niagara-on-the-Lake, offer the opportunity for playgoers to indulge in nonstop theater for its own sake with two and sometimes three performances a day. On a recent visit, I crammed in 11 shows in five days. My Stratford impressions are below and I’ll take up the Shaw shows in the next column.
   My theater marathon began at the impressive Festival Theater (my favorite venue of the seven attended) with a matinee letdown in the form of a rather sleepy staging by John Caird of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. This merry comedy of four academic male courtiers unsuccessfully resisting the romantic advances of the French princess and her three ladies-in-waiting falls victim to the trap of over familiarity. The capable cast led by handsome Mark Shara’s Berowne and attractive Sarah Afful’s Rosaline relies on flowery and forced line readings rather than establishing connections with each other. There is no chemistry between any of the four supposedly loving pairs, and so their witty declarations of amour fall flat. The supporting comic turns are equally stale; Juan Chioran’s pompous Don Armado and Josue Laboucane’s buffoonish Costard strike poses instead of believably pursuing the dairymaid Jaquenetta (Jennifer Mogbock in one of the few sincere performances, probably because she has little to say).

Matters improved that evening at The Physicists, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s black comedy in a new Canadian translation by Birgit Schreyer Duarte. Written at the height of the Cold War in 1961, this dark play imagines a nuclear nightmare set off by three allegedly insane scientists in a Swiss asylum. When nurses begin turning up dead, the authorities intervene, and a complex plot combining elements of Agatha Christie, John le Carré, and Jonathan Swift is unraveled. The play premiered on Broadway in 1964, starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. It’s hard to imagine such a cynical satire on today’s comfy Main Stem.
   Miles Potter’s sharp direction strikes just the right balance between outrageousness and verisimilitude. The world the characters inhabit is crazy, and the actors proceed logically within its terms, no matter how nuts their actions may seem. As the trio of afflicted physicists, Gearing Wyn Davies, Graham Abbey, and Mike Nadajewski are dazzling as they switch from goofily eccentric to coolly rational and back again, and Seana McKenna is riotously versatile as their Strangelove-like psychiatrist, transforming from flustered administrator to power-mad dictator without missing a beat.

The following day provided examples of smashing productions of oft-seen favorites, staged with imagination and flair. Martha Henry’s She Stoops to Conquer makes clever use of Douglas Paraschuk’s revolving set and doesn’t attempt to “conceptualize” Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 farce of mistaken identity in a rambling country house. Henry delivers the antics in a straightforward, fun manner. Unlike the disconnected lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Maev Beaty’s Kate Hardcastle and Brad Hodder’s Charles Marlowe shoot sparks toward each other, and their blazing dynamic is apparent despite the obstacles Goldsmith places in their way. Joseph Ziegler and Lucy Peacock make merry as the confused heads of the household, and Karack Osborn is a jolly Tony Lumpkin, the chief prankster.
   Next was The Taming of the Shrew. Modern productions of this Shakespearean warhorse can cross themselves by trying too hard to repudiate its period sexism. Simon Marsden wisely tones down any apologies for the behavior of the chauvinistic Petruchio and emphasizes the unlikely love match between him and the headstrong Kate and the wild comic elements surrounding it. He begins by restoring the oft-cut prologue wherein the drunken Christopher Sly is duped into thinking he’s a great lord and Shrew is an entertainment for his pleasure. Here Sly is a disruptive arts blogger refusing to turn off his cellphone, played with proper petulance by Ben Carlson who later turns up as Petruchio. This allows tasty insider jokes about both the Stratford and Shaw festivals and sets the right ungirdled atmosphere. Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Kate are perfectly matched combatants, athletically tossing each other around during their jousts, and spectacularly romantic when their boxing gloves come off. The supporting clowns are among the best I’ve ever seen in these roles. Tom Rooney and Gordon S. Miller as the servants Tranio and Biondello nearly steal the show with the on-target tomfoolery. This Shrew provided a glorious and joyous ending to my two-day visit. (The Shaw Festival will be covered in my next review.)

August 31, 2015
 
Love’s Labour’s Lost: Aug. 14–Oct. 9. Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St., Stratford, Ontario. Running time 3 hours, including one intermission.

The Physicists: May 27–Sept. 20. Tom Patterson Theatre, 111 Lakeside Dr., Stratford, Ontario. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

She Stoops to Conquer: June 4–Oct. 10. Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St. Stratford, Ontario. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

The Taming of the Shrew: June 8–Oct. 10. Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St., Stratford, Ontario. Running time 3 hours, including one intermission.

All productions: repertory schedule. $(Canadian)25–195. (800) 567-1600.

www.stratfordfestival.ca
 

 
Man and Superman
NT Live

Reviewed by David Sheward


Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes

When Ralph Fiennes makes his first entrance in the National Theatre’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s epic comedy Man and Superman, he’s talking a mile a minute and constantly in motion. He remains that way for the show’s marathon running time of three hours and 40 minutes, which includes the usually excised “Don Juan in Hell” dream sequence. It’s an athletic endurance test for actor and audience as Fiennes bounds about Christopher Oram’s stark, sterile set and precisely spouts Shaw’s brilliant arguments for the destruction of conventional morality. This challenging, riotously funny production is now being broadcast to cinemas worldwide as part of the NT Live series and theater- and filmgoers eager for a huge intellectual meal should partake.
   First produced in 1905, Man and Superman was hailed as Shaw’s most brilliant and controversial work. Fiennes plays Jack Tanner, a revolutionary philosopher determined to break down the repressive structures of Western society to create a new, freer one inhabited by the superior beings of the title, not necessarily those with capes, tights, and super powers. Chief among his targets is marriage, which he regards as a trap set by pregnancy-minded women to ensnare the creative life-force of the male. Determined to capture Jack in that unhappy state of wedlock is Anne Whitfield, the manipulative debutante whom Jack compares to a python. A subplot concerns the secret marriage of Violet Robinson to American Hector Malone, which allows Shaw to expound on his theories of class and morals.
   After a conventional beginning in the study of Roebuck Ramsden, a stuffy representative of the British upper-middle class, Shaw breaks all theatrical boundaries and sets the characters on a mad chase across Europe with Anne in hot pursuit of the fleeing Jack. Along the way, they encounter an intellectual brigand named Mendoza and his band of socialist-minded thieves. This leads to the famous “Don Juan” portion with Jack, Anne, Ramsden, and Mendoza becoming figures from myth and opera in a metaphysical debate in hell over the nature of man, religion, heaven, hell, and wars between nations and the sexes.

Director Simon Godwin’s decision to place the play in contemporary times at first seems unnecessary and gimmicky (the stylish modern costumes are also by Oram). But with only a few minor alterations in the dialogue (a delivered letter becomes a text and the automobile speeds are increased), the transposition works. Though the roles of men and women have altered drastically in the 110 years since the play was written, the elemental conflict between the genders remains, as do the basic questions Shaw raises about marriage, wealth, sexual relations, and the aspirations of humanity. Godwin wisely stages the action at a rapid pace so that it is never bogged down in talk.
   Fiennes is one of the few international film stars who tackles the classics with any degree of regularity—I can’t think of an American star of his stature who would dare take on this role—and he handles the complex repartee and physical demands with agility and poise. Indira Varma makes a formidable adversary as Anne, pleading innocence with a smile while scheming to advance her own ends. Tim McMullan is devilishly entertaining as the rascally Mendoza and the devil himself in Jack’s dream. Nicholas Le Prevost is a convincingly rigid Ramsden who loosens up considerably in the underworld scenes. Faye Castelow is a determined Violet and Nick Hendrix a stalwart Hector. Ferdinand Kingsley is adorably forlorn as the puppy-dog-like Octavius, who moons over Anne and loses her to Jack.
   This is a massive, funny, challenging comedy. You’ll barely notice that nearly four hours have flown by. It’s a great opportunity to see the best of London theater without purchasing an expensive plane ticket.

May 18, 2015
 
Screenings worldwide from May 14. Running time 3 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.

www.ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk
 

 
Doctor Zhivago
Broadway Theater

The Visit
Lyceum Theater

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
 
Doctor Zhivago: Opened April 21 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 40 minutes, including intermission. $42.50–145. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com

The Visit: Opened April 23 for an open run. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 100 minutes, no intermission. $29–149. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com

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
 

 
Fish in the Dark
Cort Theatre [show closed]

Hand to God

Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward



Sarah Stiles and Steven Boyer in Hand to God
Photo by Joan Marcus

Two new Broadway comedies feature obnoxious main characters. Ironically, the one made of fabric with sewn-on eyes is more complex than the flesh and blood one. Tyrone, the demonic sock puppet of Hand to God, Robert Askins’s dark and scary examination of the souls in a tiny Texas town, exhibits a lot more depth than Norman Drexel, the latest iteration of Larry David’s misanthropic TV persona in the star-writer’s first work for the theater, Fish in the Dark.
   Fish, one of the biggest financial hits of the season, is really an extended sitcom. Norman, a grouchy urinal salesman, has a lot on his plate: His father is dying, his mother is moving in, his wife is moving out, his brother is putting him down, his daughter is driving everyone crazy practicing her accents for an amateur production of My Fair Lady, all his relatives are constantly kvetching, and his housekeeper has just revealed a tremendous secret. That’s about it as far as the plot goes. As in David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm series, the humor derives from his misanthropic character’s total lack of self-awareness as he boorishly commits one social faux pas after another. In Seinfeld which David co-created, this role of chief schlemiel was taken by the George Castanza role played by Jason Alexander (who will replacing David as of June 19). If you find this sort of shtick funny for two hours, you’ll get plenty of laughs, but it wears a bit thin for me.
   This kind of light nonmusical entertainment used to be a staple on Broadway where you could include the kind of slightly racy antics that were not allowed on network TV. But then small-screen shows like David’s broke down these barriers, and there was no reason for audiences to spend big bucks on Broadway when they could get the same easy, somewhat spicy laughs for free (or the price of a monthly HBO subscription).
   Director Anna D. Shapiro demonstrates that her proficient style works as well with shallow comedy as with the pyrotechnic family confrontations in August: Osage County. David gives the audience what it wants: the same character as he played on Enthusiasm. Fortunately, Broadway veterans Marylouise Burke, Lewis J. Stadlen, Ben Shenkman, and Jayne Houdyshell offer a bit more in the way of characterization as Norm’s batty extended family. Glenne Headley, filling in for a reportedly ailing Rita Wilson, is bubbly and charming as Norm’s long-suffering wife, leading us to wonder what such a wonderful woman would be doing with such a schlubby husband.

While David delivers a TV retread, Robert Askins dives into the depths of demonic darkness while laughing hysterically on the way down. His Hand to God arrives at the Booth Theatre after downtown productions at Ensemble Studio Theatre and MCC Theatre, and brings with it a refreshingly brutal sensibility that rocks tired old Broadway.
   Like Norman, shy teenager Jason is beset with problems. His father has recently died, his mother, Margery, is struggling financially and emotionally, he pines after the equally quiet Jessica, and he is tormented by the bully Timothy. But, unlike Norman, Jason has an outlet in the form of his raging sock puppet, Tyrone, innocently created so the lad can participate in a Christian puppet workshop at the church of Pastor Greg, who has a thing for Margery. Tyrone spews all the repressed emotions Jason conceals as well as revealing the hidden passions swirling within everyone else, challenging the pious hypocrisy of his community.
   Directed with a fever-pitch intensity by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who staged both Off-Broadway runs, the play is both wildly funny and terrifyingly honest. The five-person cast marvelously blends the outrageous with the sincere. Chief among the actors is Steven Boyer, delivering a double-barreled shotgun of a performance as the tormented Jason and the satanic Tyrone. He somehow manages to simultaneously convey the fear and longing of the puppeteer and the titanic fury of the puppet. Even though we see Boyer’s mouth moves as he speaks Tyrone’s guttural lines, he’s also still convincing as the nerdy Jason. It’s a colossal feat of acting. Not quite as dazzling, but equally truthful, are Geneva Carr’s equally repressed Margery, Sarah Stiles’s deadpan Jessica, Michael Oberholtzer’s libidinous lunkheaded Timothy, and Marc Kudisch’s well-meaning but ineffectual pastor.
   Hand to God is dangerously hilarious, forcing us to confront the very real monsters within, while Fish in the Dark reduces them to annoying little pests to chuckle over.

April 7, 2015
 
Hand to God: Opened April 8 for an open run. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $67–137. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

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


Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe
New World Stages Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Clockwise from left: Andy Grotelueschen, Emily Young, Ben Steinfeld, Claire Karpen, Patrick Mulryan, Noah Brody, and Jennifer Mudge in Into the Woods
Photo by Joan Marcus

Into the Woods has probably become the musical for which Stephen Sondheim is best known. In addition to the current Disney film version and innumerable high school, college, and community theater productions, there have been four NYC productions including the 1987 Broadway original (which should have won the Tony Award for Best Musical over Phantom of the Opera). You would think with all these Woods growing in Gotham (the latest was just two and a half years ago in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre), another iteration of the fairy-tale mashup concocted by Sondheim and book-writer James Lapine would be repetitive. Not so.
   The current incarnation is a barebones staging from Fiasco Theatre presented Off-Broadway by Roundabout Theater Company after a successful run at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. It features 10 actors and the musical director playing all the roles and the instruments, in the style of John Doyle, whose productions of Sondheim’s Company, Sweeney Todd, and Passion used a similar multitasking technique. Though the singing is not quite up to NYC standards, the enchanting direction by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who also appear in the cast, cleverly exploits its limited means and ingeniously illuminates the show’s themes of the connections between folk tales and family, community and growing up.
   The small cast is like a group of enthusiastic kids gathered to relate the complicated multiple storylines on set designer Derek McLane’s simple yet evocative set. Ropes resembling piano wire suggest the ominous forest all the characters venture into to make their wishes comes true. Simple props become magical objects. A painting serves as Cinderella’s distant father, a crocheted skein of yellow yarn is transformed into Rapunzel’s luxurious locks, a ladder is Jack’s beanstalk. Stripped of elaborate trappings, the relationships became more intimate and believable. Even the orchestrations by Frank Galgano and music director Matt Castle, employing such wonderful instruments as a toy piano and a hotel-desk bell, are more elemental and denote character.
   I especially enjoyed Patrick Mulryan’s boyishly naïve Jack, Emily Young’s doubling as the boisterous Red Ridinghood and the neurotic Rapunzel, and Jennifer Mudge’s tough-as-nails Witch. Mudge also shows the tender side of this frightening enchantress. These three also possess the best voices in the company. Andy Grotelueschen steals a few scenes as the cow Milky White. His “moos” speak volumes. He and co-director Brody, two beefy guys, are a riot as Cinderella’s simpering stepsisters.

Another Off-Broadway story-theater production is less successful. Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, from Canada’s Catalyst Theatre and previously presented at Off-Broadway’s New Victory Theatre in a brief run, also uses a small cast and scant scenery to tell its fanciful tale. Whereas Fiasco’s Woods is endlessly inventive, writer-director-composer Jonathan Christenson’s nightmarish biography of the macabre American author strikes the same melancholy note over and over.
   The conceit places Poe on a riverboat amid a troupe of actors who play out the sad story of his life. He’s orphaned as a child, abandoned by his adoptive parents, and drunken and broke as an adult. But there’s very little about Poe’s works. We get an atmospheric rendering of “The Raven,” complete with eerie papier-mâché re-creations of the titular bird, but not much more. Almost all of the lengthy show is narrated by ensemble members in verse that has the same rhythm. Not only are we removed from the action, but it’s repetitive. Plus the creepy music is recorded and relies too heavily on percussion. Only Bretta Gerecke’s black-and-white picture-book costumes capture the imagination.

January 31, 2015
 
Into the Woods: closed.

Nevermore: Opened Jan. 25 for an open run. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., NYC. Mon 7pm, Wed 8pm Thu 2:30pm & 8pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $75–95. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
Side Show
St. James Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


In foreground: David St. Louis, Emily Padgett, and Erin Davie
Photo by Joan Marcus

The current revival of Side Show is a big improvement over the 1997 original. In that version, as directed by Robert Longbottom, this true-life musical bio of the conjoined Hilton sisters, circus curiosities who rose to fame in vaudeville and brief film stardom, was a bare-bones affair. The set consisted of a set of bleachers, and there were no elaborate costumes to reproduce the Hiltons’s condition and that of their fellow “freaks” in the carny show where they started. Bill Condon, the director and screenwriter of the film version of Dreamgirls and the scripter for the movie Chicago, uses his cinematic know-how with this totally revamped resurrection. Now with the aid of David Rockwell’s midway-from-hell set, Paul Tazewell’s lavish and evocative costumes, and the spooky lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, the world of the Hiltons is frighteningly real—1930s glamour cheek by jowl with the gritty sawdust-and-tinsel surroundings of the side show. Condon has substantially rewritten Bill Russell’s book and lyricist Russell and composer Henry Krieger have come up with several new tunes.
   Condon’s staging is slick and inventive, giving the story a film-like flow. The musical numbers, snappily choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, evoke classic such shows as Chicago (a razzle-dazzle courtroom scene) and Follies (a satiric “Loveland” pastiche complete with hearts, flowers, and cupids). The story is more strongly told than in the original, and Russell and Krieger’s soaring ballads are now complemented with sturdier comedy and narrative pieces. But slow stretches remain, and the overall tone is still too syrupy when it could have been vinegar sharp (as in the HBO series Carnivàle).
   Erin Davie and Emily Padgett meld together almost as one being as the linked siblings, yet retain their individuality with Davie sweet and demure as the shy Violet and Padgett brash and outgoing as the flirtatious Daisy. When they harmonize on the gut-wrenching “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” they melt even the hardest hearts. (This is one instance when the sugar content is just right.) The male leads, Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik, are proficient but weaker than the ladies, while David St. Louis gives a powerful accounting of Jake, the girls’ loyal African-American protector who has more than friendly affection for Violet. Robert Joy is a hissable villain as the sideshow owner, and Blair Ross and Don Richard make the most of ensemble roles.

November 23, 2014
 
Opened Nov. 17 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 20 minutes, including intermission. $49–155. (212) 239-6200.

www.telecharge.com
 

 
On the Town
Lyric Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, and Clyde Alves
Photo by Joan Marcus

On the Town, the iconic musical following three sailors pursuing romance while on a 24-hour leave in wartime Gotham, has had a strange life since its 1944 premiere. That watershed original staging marked the Broadway debuts of a quartet of talents whose collective influence on the American musical has been nothing less than seismic: composer Leonard Bernstein, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, and book authors–lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green who also played leading roles. A weird hybrid of the sophisticated sensibilities of Bernstein and Robbins and the showbiz sketch humor of Comden and Green, Town was a smash-hit celebration of youthful exuberance having one last fling before facing the perils of war. But the 1949 MGM film version, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, scrapped most of Bernstein’s complex score, replacing it with Hollywood pablum. Revivals in 1971 and 1998 did not strike the right balance between high and low culture, received mixed notices, and achieved only brief runs.
   In its latest incarnation at the newly renamed Lyric, director John Rando, who won a Tony for his outlandish staging of Urinetown, has restored the zany cartoon aspect of the show. The performances are mostly as broad as the character’s names—Claire DeLoone, Pitkin W. Bridgework, Lucy Schmeeler, Professor Figment—but there is also just the right hint of sentimentality amid the shenanigans. For starters, the show opens with “The Star-Spangled Banner” rather than the traditional overture. Beowulf Borritt’s comic-strip sets and projections, Jason Lyons’s primary-colored lighting, and Jess Goldstein’s Technicolor costumes create a kiddie-fantasy New York in which the sailors and their girls cavort.
   But the biggest contribution toward blending the satiric with the humane is made by Tony Yazbeck as Gaby, the lovelorn serviceman. While his pals Ozzie (a comically macho Clyde Alves) and Chip (a sweetly naïve Jay Armstrong) make sexual conquests, Gaby hunts for a more idealization goal: the illusive Ivy Smith (the gorgeous Megan Fairchild, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet), Miss Turnstiles for June. He sees her poster on the subway and immediately falls in love. As singer, dancer, and actor, Yazbeck captures Gaby’s intense longing for amorous connection, perfectly meshing virility and vulnerability. His intense rendition of “Lonely Town” accompanied by the chorus stationed throughout the theater, is achingly real. When paired with the magnificent Fairchild in choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s extended ballet sequences, Town soars like an eagle. Completing the lead female contingent are the deliriously highbrow Elizabeth Stanley as a sex-mad anthropologist and Alysha Umphress as scat-singing cab driver, who cooks on “I Can Cook, Too,” a double entrendre–laden ode to the character’s kitchen and bedroom skills.
   The always hilarious Jackie Hoffman pops up in multiple roles—including Ivy’s alcoholic voice teacher, an irate old lady, and a pair of put-upon club singers. If she doesn’t get a Tony nomination, there is no justice. There are also riotously effective contributions from a deep-voiced Philip Boykin, a pompous Michael Rupert, an antic Allison Guinn, and a versatile Stephen DeRosa. Altogether a wonderful Town.

October 20, 2014
 
Opened Oct. 16 for an open run. Lyric Theatre, 213 W. 42nd 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. $46.25–157.25. (800) 745-8000.

www.ticketmaster.com
 

 
You Can’t Take It With You
Longacre Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


James Earl Jones, Kristine Nielsen, Fran Kranz, Reg Rogers, Annaleigh Ashford, Patrick Kerr, and Mark Linn-Baker
Photo by Joan Marcus?

Though it’s nearly 80 years old and the leading man is even older than that, the new Broadway revival of that favorite of high-schools and community theaters, You Can’t Take It With You, packs quite a kick. The comic template is familiar through variations from The Munsters TV series to La Cage Aux Folles. When the “normal” offspring of an outrageously eccentric family brings home the conventional parents of his/her beloved, all hell breaks loose. But the Pulitzer winning 1936 script by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart holds up admirably while director Scott Ellis and a delightful cast of Broadway vets runs the mad antics like comic clockwork.
   Written during the Depression, You Can’t fulfills a fantasy of pursuing your passion, however frivolous, in spite of economic necessity and government interference. The Sycamore clan practices its outlandish hobbies including playwriting, snake collecting, ballet dancing, manufacturing fireworks, xylophone playing, and throwing darts in David Rockwell’s wonderful knickknack-stuffed set. The family’s only visible means of substantial support are provided by property income from retired Grandpa (a jovial James Earl Jones) and the salary earned by the practical daughter Alice (a sparkling Rose Byrne) as a Wall Street secretary who sets the comedy in motion when she falls in love with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby Jr. (a dashing Fran Kranz). The inevitable clash between the fun-loving Sycamores and the stuffy Kirbys provides the plot, but main action is watching an enormous—by contemporary Broadway standards—company expertly cut up.

Best known for his dramatic turns, Jones displays a bubbly humor as the warmhearted Grandpa, particularly when convincing the ulcer-ridden broker Kirby Senior (the expert Byron Jennings) to relax a little and stop obsessing over wealth. In what could have been a drab ingénue role, Byrne gives Alice her own slight madness, showing she is truly a part of the same family as her nuttier relations. As Alice’s mother, Penny, Kristine Nielsen—who has made a career of playing daffy mothers, sisters, and aunts—gives her expected brilliant turn, adding just the right inflection or gesture to accentuate Penny’s goofy observations. She even manages to make uttering the word “potato” hilarious. Reg Rogers draws guffaws as the Russian ballet master Kalenkhov, stretching out his lines and loping around the stage like a Slavic Snagglepuss. Even the tiniest cameos shine brightly here with Johanna Day adding subtext to the snobbish Mrs. Kirby, Elizabeth Ashley imperially imposing as an exiled Russian duchess working as a waitress, and Julie Halston drunkenly lurching up the stairs as an alcoholic visitor.
   But even in this glittering company, there are two standouts: Annaleigh Ashford and Will Brill as Alice’s kooky sister and brother-in-law, Essie and Ed. Essie studies ballet with Kalenkhov while Ed accompanies them on the xylophone, and usually that’s all we see them do. But Ashford and Brill give this crazy pair such a full, zany life, you can’t take your eyes off them even they are standing to their and watching the main action. Ashford invents wild dance moves for Essie, creating a brilliantly funny portrait of a woman with two left feet who thinks she’s Pavlova. Likewise Brill endows Ed with a pretended sophistication manifesting itself in riotously weird gestures and behavior. They are a perfect pair of lovable loons, happy in their own world, just like all the Sycamores and theatergoers lucky enough to catch them.

September 28, 2014

Opened Sept. 28 for an open run. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including two intermissions. $37–152. (212) 239-6200.

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Belasco Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Neil Patrick Harris
Photo by Joan Marcus

Neil Patrick Harris is the new king, queen, or whatever royal personage you choose, of Broadway thanks to his electrifying performance in the title role of this revival of the 1998 cult rock musical. Descending from the upper reaches of the Belasco Theatre, looking resplendently decadent in Arianne Phillips’s trashy-chic duds, Harris starts the evening off with a sleazy bang. As the 95-minute evening progresses, he banishes all thoughts of Doogie and Barney from How I Met Your Mother, the TV roles that made him famous, as he takes on the flamboyant Hedwig, a German transgender wannabe rock star. Combining standup comedy, dramatic intensity, and a hard-rock voice, Harris alternately dazzles and convulses us.
   As in the original staging of this mock concert, the title character is performing a one-night stand while her ex-lover Tommy Gnosis is blasting out a sold-out gig next door. Only now instead of a little club, Hedwig is in a Broadway theater, conveniently available after a musical version of The Hurt Locker closed during intermission—Julian Crouch’s brilliantly funny set incorporates elements of the fictional flop—while Tommy has taken over Times Square. In between Stephen Trask’s blistering songs, Hedwig delivers her bizarre life story of enduring political upheaval in her native country as a “girly boy,” falling in love with an African-American GI, and being mutilated in a botched sex change operation. The second half of the title refers to what is left of Hedwig’s genitals and is the name of her band, lead by her Estonian-Jewish husband Yitzhak (a powerful Lena Hall in another example of cross-gender casting.) The book, by John Cameron Mitchell, who also originated the title role, still stings and has been tweaked with contemporary theater references.

The only problem here is the sheer wattage of Harris’s luminosity and director Michael Mayer’s colossal production. Filling the demands of a Broadway house and the expectations of a Broadway audience, Mayer has transformed the intimate original into a spectacle with explosive lighting effects by Kevin Adams and imaginative projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions. Likewise, Harris is giving a magnificent star turn. But Hedwig is not a star, and her one-night concert is not a triumph. She is degraded by her former lover’s abandonment, but she pulls herself together after stripping off her wig and feathers and staggers into the street almost naked. In the original production, Mitchell was heartbreakingly shattered at his final exit. But Harris’s unstoppable Hedwig will no doubt go on to a magnificent career and the cover of Rolling Stone. Though this Hedwig is a rocking good time, it’s as not as effective nor moving as the original.

May 5, 2014
 
Reopens Jan. 21 with John Cameron Mitchell. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., NYC. Wed-Fri 8pm.; Sat 7pm & 10pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission. $47–142. (212) 239-6200.

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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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A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Walter Kerr Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


The cast, with Bryce Pinkham (standing center), Jefferson Mays (in red), and Jane Carr (seated)
Photo by Joan Marcus

You would think one actor playing eight roles would be the highlight of any musical production, especially when the actor is Jefferson Mays, who took on 40 personages in the one-person I Am My Own Wife. Though Mays is amazingly dexterous as an entire eccentric upper-crust British family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, now on Broadway after runs at Hartford Stage and San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, he’s not the only reason to rush to see this highly polished comic gem. There’s also the dashing and charismatic Bryce Pinkham, the gorgeous and razor-sharp Lisa O’Hare, the sweet and charming Lauren Worsham, the delightfully droll Jane Carr, a hardworking and fun-loving six-person ensemble, plus the cleverest staging and the most enjoyable score in quite some time.
   All of these elegant elements are in service of an equally elegant and somewhat familiar story, derived from an obscure 1907 novel, Israel Rank, which also serves as the basis of the classic 1949 British film comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. Impoverished artist Monty Navarro discovers he is ninth in line to the fabulous D’Ysquith fortune and earldom. To obtain the glittering prize, he murders all eight distant relations standing in his way. In the movie, this octet was played by Alec Guinness; here, Mays takes on the daunting task.
   Woven throughout the witty and well-structured book by Robert L. Freedman are the sparkling songs featuring Steven Lutvak’s wide-ranging music and intricate lyrics by Lutvak and Freedman that recall the driest and funniest of Gilbert and Sullivan and Noël Coward.
   Employing Alexander Dodge’s toy-theater set that resembles an Edwardian-era music hall, director Darko Tresnjak devises endlessly inventive stage business to accomplish each of the murders, involving rapid-fire changes of Linda Cho’s exquisite period costumes and mad backstage dashing by Mays. It’s a breathtaking tour de force for star and stager. Mays manages to draw laughs with raised eyebrow or an upward inflection, creating a gallery of hilarious grotesques.
   But, as stated above, this is far from a one-man show. As Monty, Pinkham never leaves the stage and carries the narrative along with unflappable style and virile charm. Though his role is considerably less flashy than Mays’s, Pinkham creates a believable and sympathetic serial killer, which is no mean feat. Complicating Monty’s schemes are the seductive Sibella Hallward, married but on the make, and the innocent Phoebe D’Ysquith, a distant cousin. Both are madly in love with the would-be earl. O’Hare makes a sinfully delicious Sibella and Worsham an irresistibly adorable naïf. The high-voiced Carr is the scene-stealing Miss Shingle, a sly and secretive family retainer out to aid Monty. The small, versatile chorus shines in multiple roles; Joanna Glushak gets a stand-out cameo as the shrewish wife of the last relative Monty knocks off. She delivers as full and wacky a performance as Mays. When a supporting player, and the entire cast, is on a par with your showstopping star, you know you’ve got a hit.
November 23, 2013

Opened Nov. 17 for an open run. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $50–147. (212) 239-6200.

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John
Signature Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward


Georgia Engel, Christopher Abbott, and Lois Smith
Matthew Murphy

The everyday and the cosmic are addressed in John, Annie Baker’s wonderfully weird new play at the Signature Center. As in her previous works—including The Aliens, Circle Mirror Transformation and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Flick—Baker uses an ordinary setting such as the back porch of a summer snack stand, a community-center acting class, or a rundown movie theater as a platform to examine such profound issues as faith, love, and the human condition. Through incomplete sentences inarticulately expressing longings, prolonged pregnant pauses, and real-time stage action of seemingly mundane tasks, she shows us what goes on underneath the familiar surface. Her probing plays are never pretentious or obvious, and they offer a rare glimpse into the souls and minds of amateur musicians, waiters, ushers, etc.—people like you and me.
   This time we’re in an aggressively cozy, knickknack-stuffed bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pa., designed within an inch of its kitschy life by Mimi Lien. The only guests are Elias and Jenny, a young couple working through a rough patch. The eccentric innkeeper Mertis—but you can call her Kitty—offers a sympathetic ear to each, inquires as to their spiritual beliefs, and records her impressions of the sunsets in a journal. There are also visits from Kitty’s mysterious blind friend Genevieve. Oh, and the whole place may or may not be haunted.

All four are groping blindly, either literally or figuratively, for a connection outside themselves. Elias and Jenny fumble toward each other despite the barriers each erects, then push each other away. Kitty seeks confirmation of someone watching out for her and cherishes the beauty in nature and in her many dolls and figurines. Like an ancient mystic, Genevieve recounts her frightening past of spending time in an asylum when she believed she was possessed by the spirit of her late husband, John. Significantly, Jenny is also haunted by a man with the same name. It doesn’t sound like enough material to fill more than three hours of playing time, but Baker and her frequent director Sam Gold find the fascinating poetry in these confused characters.
   The admirable cast documents their search with compassion. Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau are heartbreakingly real as the distraught couple. The bond between them is solidly conveyed (watch Chau’s enraptured face as Abbott tells her one of Elias’s improvised ghost stories) and so is the seemingly unbridgeable gulf. The baby-voiced Georgia Engel is the perfect embodiment of Kitty’s childlike awe and her sage wisdom. Lois Smith is a chilling Genevieve. Her shatteringly monologue describing the seven stages of madness delivered directly to the audience right after the lights come up for intermission will haunt me along with rest of this mesmerizing play.
  

August 16, 2015
 
Aug. 11–Sept. 6. Signature Theatre Company at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 3 hours and 30 minutes, including two intermissions. $25. (212) 244-7529.

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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.

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Amazing Grace
Nederlander Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward


Chuck Cooper
Photo by Joan Marcus

During a recent early morning subway ride, a street preacher loudly burst into the traditional hymn Amazing Grace. When she finished with the last verse, she told the entire car the story of the song’s writer, John Newton, a reprobate 18th-century English slave trader who had a religious conversion and became an advocate for abolition. This impromptu performance was more interesting and authentic than the new Broadway musical about Newton, which bears the name of his most famous work. The subway preacher’s tale contained messy and convincing details, while the melodramatic book by theater neophyte Christopher Smith, who also wrote the music and lyrics, and the more-experienced Arthur Giron is filled with enough clichés and neat plot resolutions to stock a 1970s TV miniseries.
   You have to admire Smith, a former Philadelphia police officer, for following his dream and getting the show, his first professional writing credit, onto the Main Stem. But his score is a generic retread of Les Miz and Lloyd Webber, featuring simplistic rhymes and familiar melodies. (There are a few African-influenced interpolations for the black characters.) The book is also a stew of reliable tropes following the rakish young Newton as he rebels against his imperious father, courts the gracious Mary Catlett, has numerous adventures at sea with his loyal retainer Thomas, and finally reconciles with dad—on the latter’s deathbed, marries Mary over the objections of her buffoonish Army suitor, frees all of his slaves, and leads the entire cast in the title song (the sole distinctive one in the entire score).

Director Gabriel Barre does a serviceable job of staging the action, supplying a thrilling first act finale with Thomas appearing to rescue John from drowning by means of flying harnesses. It’s an exciting effect, achieved with the aid of Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s evocative aquatic lighting, but it’s the only surprising moment in otherwise pedestrian production.
   Josh Young as Newton and Erin Mackey as Mary display impressive pipes, but the supporting cast steals center stage. As Thomas, Chuck Cooper serves as narrator and provides a steely spine for this limp spectacle. His rumbling bass injects real drama into “Nowhere Left to Run,” Thomas’s indictment of Newton as he sells his friend into servitude in Barbados. In a drippy reconciliation scene with the former slaver rescuing Thomas, Cooper’s eloquent eyes and physical life convey the inhuman cruelty the character has suffered far better than the treacly words of Smith and Giron. As he did in Doctor Zhivago, another Les Miz wannabe, Tom Hewitt lends a subtle gravity to the villain role, in this case Newton’s rigid father. Harriett D. Foy is deliciously evil as the treacherous Princess Peyai, an African royal selling her own people to the likes of Newton. She gives a refreshingly nasty bite to these overly earnest proceedings.

July 26, 2015
 
Opened July 16 for an open run. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st 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. $65–135. (800) 653-8000.

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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.

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

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An American in Paris
Palace Theatre

Gigi
Neil Simon Theatre

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

Gigi: Opened April 8 for an open run. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $75.75–156.75. (877) 250-2929.

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.

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The Heidi Chronicles
Music Box Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs
Photo by Joan Marcus

When The Heidi Chronicles opened Off-Broadway in 1988 and then transferred to Broadway a year later, it perfectly captured its historical moment. Wendy Wassterstein’s bittersweet survey of one woman’s journey through social upheavals, female empowerment, sexual revolutions, and the morning after evaluated the impact of the feminist movement with equal measures of humanity, humor, and sorrow. Heidi Holland, the heroine not unlike Wasserstein, is in the generation between housewives and “have-it-all” superwomen. Born at the end of the Baby Boom, she comes of age just as doors are being broken down and women are forced to choose between family and careers rather than opting for both. An art historian specializing in neglected female painters, Heidi pursues her work passions, but the men in her life are either emotionally unavailable or gay. Her women friends go on different tracks, some forsaking ideals for money, others giving up their dreams for husbands and kids. Heidi feels abandoned but ultimately relies on herself for fulfillment, adopting a baby and looking to the future with hope. Wasserstein, who died at 55 in 2006, detailed Heidi’s trek with wit and compassion.
   The issues still resonate, but the first Broadway revival of this Pulitzer Prize winner feels somehow diminished. Perhaps it’s the direction, by Pam MacKinnon, which tends toward the sitcom in some of the more satiric scenes such as a 1970s consciousness-raising vignette and is strangely muted in the big moments between Heidi and her on-again, off-again romantic partner Scoop Rosenbaum, an obnoxious but attractive magazine editor. Perhaps it’s the low-key lead performance by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame. Moss overdoes Heidi’s fragile vulnerability and doesn’t endow her with much of a backbone. She displays welcome rough edges during Heidi’s quirky art lectures and totally nails her long monologue summarizing the character’s sense of loss as she details the differences between an idealized perfect woman and Heidi’s real, lonely life. But other than these solo moments, the actor seems to vanish into the background, allowing flashier supporting characters to dominate.
 
These include Bryce Pinkham’s vibrant Peter Patrone, Heidi’s pediatrician gay best friend; Ali Ahn’s mercurcial Susan who morphs from committed women’s legal advocate to shallow TV exec; and Tracee Chimo’s quartet of cultural stereotypes including a vapid talk-show hostess and a foul-mouthed radical lesbian. Jason Biggs’s Scoop lacks the necessary charisma to explain why Heidi would keep coming back to this creep who treats her pretty shabbily. He looks too much like the kid from American Pie in an ill-fitting suit trying to appear grown up.
   John Lee Beatty’s versatile sets and Jessica Pabst’s costumes accurately place us in the right decades and locations, but these Chronicles just miss completely conveying the feel and impact of their times.

March 22, 2015
 
Opened March 19 for an open run. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $59–139. (212) 239-6200.

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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.

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If/Then
Richard Rodgers Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp
Photo by Joan Marcus

Heaven knows Idina Menzel is talented enough to play two different roles in a massive Broadway musical, but even she cannot save the bifurcated and bipolar If/Then. The show is an artistic failure, but it will probably be a financial success; it’s selling out thanks to Menzel’s Wicked and Frozen fans. (It’s also too long by a good 20 minutes.)
   Borrowing heavily from the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, this well-intentioned but ultimately befuddling and clichéd tuner follows two different possible life-paths for Elizabeth, a 40-ish city planner just moved to New York after 12 years of marriage in Arizona ended in divorce. The action starts in Madison Park as the heroine must chose between hanging out with impulsive and spunky new lesbian neighbor Kate (the sparkling LaChanze) or attending a protest meeting with her politically driven, bisexual college chum Lucas (the endearing Anthony Rapp). The premise: Seemingly insignificant choices like this one can alter your life. The script splits in two from there.
   In one scenario, the protagonist goes off with Kate, who rechristens her Lizzie, and she finds the man of her dreams, a gorgeous doctor named Josh (the robust but bland James Snyder). In the other she joins Lucas, who says she should be known by the more serious moniker Beth—so we can tell them apart, get it?—and is rewarded with a fulfilling government job but must pay for it with unhappy love affairs. Oh, and she wears glasses as Lizzie, to further help us differentiate between parallel plotlines.

Despite slick, clever staging by the always imaginative Michael Grief (Menzel and Rapp’s helmer on Rent) and fun, quirky choreography by Larry Keigwin, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on and even harder to care. There are some memorable songs by the Next to Normal team of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, as well as witty spoken dialogue from Yorkey, but the musical seems to be saying you can either have love or career, ladies, not both.
   And then there is Menzel. She is seldom offstage, and her powerful voice fills the Richard Rodgers. Her dramatic skills go far to add dimension to Lizzie and Beth, half characters not even adding up to a single whole one. She runs the gamut from comically flummoxed after sleeping with the wrong man (“What the Fuck”) to coping with an avalanche of mixed emotions as her spouse must leave her for a tour of duty in Iraq (“I Hate You”). It’s a colossal performance that just might win her a second Tony and push the confused and confusing If/Then into the profit zone.

April 9, 2014

Opened March 30 for an open run. Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $67–142. (800) 745-3000.

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Aladdin
New Amsterdam Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward


James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

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

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

March 22, 2014

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

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Matilda the Musical
Shubert Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

April 16, 2013
  
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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