Notes From the Field
Second Stage Theatre
Women of a Certain Age
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
Reviewed by David Sheward
Anna Deavere Smith in Notes From the Field
Photo by Joan Marcus
The recent presidential election has shifted the subtext of two Off-Broadway plays. With the unexpected triumph of Donald Trump as president, irony has been added; and at the performances attended, the audience sighed with regret at lines that would have had a different meaning if the outcome had favored Hillary Clinton. Both plays still offer telling and sharp snapshots of America at this moment as we are balanced on a knife-edge precipice between a conflicted recent past and an uncertain future.
The most ironic post-election moment in Notes From the Field, Anna Deavere Smith’s latest hybrid foray into journalism and theater, comes late in the evening. As Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal and Education Fund, Smith states in the next three years, the country will be making a major investment and, hopefully, it will be in education. After speaking those lines, the actor-playwright turned her face from the audience and paused for a few moments to dead silence. One can only imagine that with Trump headed to the White House, Smith may have been struck by the missed opportunity for a renaissance in public education, given the Donald’s statements on drastically cutting federal government funding in this area.
It’s a heartbreaking image in a play of heartbreak. As with her earlier works, this is a collection of monologues derived from the author’s interviews with hundreds of subjects affected by the same topic, with Smith playing all the characters. She has examined the Crown Heights riots (Fires in the Mirror), the Rodney King controversy (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), the relationship between the White House and the press (House Arrest), and the American health care system (Let Me Down Easy). In Notes, she plays educators, politicians, students, and activists caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. She begins with the staggering number of high-profile incidents of fatal encounters between unarmed African-American men and the police and then moves to individual stories of the struggling public school system, revealing how the two are connected.
Among the most striking portraits are a Latino mother going to extreme lengths to keep her kids out of trouble; a woman imprisoned as an accomplice to murder, regretting her choices but deriving joy from training dogs; and a teacher detailing the arduous work of keeping order in her classroom (“It’s like running a jail without a gun”). Each of the 17 characters comes to intense life as Smith assembles a vibrant collage of voices. Leonard Foglia provides smooth direction and transitions between the pieces while cellist Marcus Shelby elegantly accompanies and humorously interacts with Smith.
The election has an even greater impact on Richard Nelson’s Women of a Certain Age, the third and final play in his trilogy about an American family in this tumultuous year. We are once again in the Gabriel kitchen in the upstate New York town of Rhinebeck. It’s Election Day, Nov. 8, in the early evening, a few hours before the returns come in. As the Gabriels prepare a meal, they revive old hurts, face new challenges, and seek comfort as the nation is about to change. As in the earlier works in this cycle, Hungry and What Did You Expect?, politics creeps slowly into the conversation, but it underscores everything that is said in hushed tones.
The play takes place before the ballots are finally counted, and much of the political dialogue focuses on Clinton and what her victory would be like. But the prospect of a moderate woman president instead of a fire-breathing demagogue does not brighten the Gabriels’s discourse or outlook. (The eventual outcome makes the discussion all the more shattering.) The family house must be sold; all of its members are still grieving the recent death of elder brother Thomas, a playwright; and they are facing limited employment prospects. None has faith in government no matter who runs it. Once again, Nelson’s quiet subtle direction and his Chekhovian script evoke a realistic, slightly humorous, and movingly melancholic milieu. The cast continues to excel. Maryann Plunkett’s gracious Mary; Jay O. Sanders’s befuddled, teddy-bearish George; Lynn Hawley’s feisty Hannah; Amy Warren’s wounded, passive-aggressive Joyce; and Meg Gibson’s desperately needy Karin pull at our heartstrings without tugging too hard. Most devastating of all is Roberta Maxwell’s defeated matriarch, Patricia. The fiery spirit she exhibited in the earlier plays is quenched by circumstance and bad choices. Maxwell shows us the ember of Patricia’s barely flickering personality as she attempts to make sense of a confusing new world.
The current political climate even has resonance in a revival of a seemingly frivolous musical from the late Golden Age of Broadway. Sweet Charity was conceived as a star vehicle for Gwen Verdon by her then-husband Bob Fosse in 1966. Shirley MacLaine headlined the 1969 movie versions, and subsequent Broadway productions starred Debbie Allen and Christina Applegate respectively. Cy Coleman’s peppy score and Dorothy Fields’s witty lyrics still snap, crackle, and pop despite the occasional dated reference. Neil Simon’s book transforms the heroine of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria from a soft-hearted Roman prostitute to a soft-hearted Manhattan dance-hall hostess. The position of women allowing customers to paw them as they tango together might have vanished from our culture, but the exploitation of female sexuality continues—even allegedly by the president-elect and the ousted head of Fox News. Director Leigh Silverman puts a dark, feminist spin on the musical in her intimate revival for The New Group at the Signature Center.
The band is all female, offering an ironic slant on female objectification, and costume designer Clint Ramos has dressed Charity and her fellow not-quite sex workers in matching spangled halters and big wigs so they look alike, a chorus of overpainted dolls catering to male fantasies.
Shining through the gloom is the luminous Sutton Foster as the heartbreaking Charity. Her sad-clown antics bring to mind the tender-toughness of Giuletta Masina (of the original Fellini work), the comedy genius of Lucille Ball, and the musical-theater pizzazz of Verdon and MacLaine. This is a performer who will do anything to illuminate her role from literally crawling all over a repulsive boyfriend to being splashed in the face with water (twice) to baring Charity’s confused and torn soul in the climactic “Where Am I Going?”
Shuler Hensley is brilliantly neurotic as her pathetic suitor Oscar; and Joel Perez impressively quadruples as the abusive boyfriend, an Italian movie star, the scuzzy manager of the dance hall, and a flaky cult leader. Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett are delightfully gritty as two of Charity’s co-workers.
At the end of the show, Charity is standing alone in Central Park with no love, no money, and no job, but she looks at the dawn and smiles with hope. Here’s to looking ahead like Charity with belief in ourselves and our national destiny.
November 23, 2016
From the Field: Nov. 2–Dec. 18. Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.,
NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2
hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $92–107. (212)
Women of a Certain Age: Nov. 8–Dec. 4. Public
Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat-Sun 2pm &
7:30pm. Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission. $65. (212)
Sweet Charity: Nov. 20–Jan. 8. The New
Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue
7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm &
8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes,
including intermission. (212) 244-7529.
Love, Love, Love
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Donmar Warehouse at the Booth Theatre
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I
Reviewed by David Sheward
Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber in Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Photo by Joan Marcus
Two current Off-Broadway productions provide a 70-year historical overview of narcissistic British behavior and the decline of that country from envied empire to self-absorbed ruin. David Hare’s 1978 Plenty at the Public traces the crackup of the country from World War II into the 1960s through the scattered and destructive choices of its neurotic but charismatic heroine. Mike Bartlett’s 2010 Love, Love, Love at the Laura Pels in a Roundabout staging picks up where Plenty leaves off, taking us from the mod Beatles era into the 21st century. Love chronicles the tsunami-like romance of Kenneth and Sandra, a Baby-Boomer Everycouple, who destroy everything and everyone in their path and are meant to represent all of the crimes committed by their heedless generation. Both playwrights are angry at their native land and score stinging points, but Hare’s impassioned indictment retains the ring of honest dramaturgy in spite of a less-than-stellar production, while Bartlett’s heavy-handed bash has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Plenty holds a special place for me. The American premiere directed by the playwright at the Public’s Newman stage was one of the first plays I saw when I moved to New York in 1982. I still remember Kate Nelligan’s impassioned yet calibrated performance as the complicated Susan Traherne, shattered by her country’s postwar banality after serving as a courier in the French resistance. Romanticizing her wartime exploits, Susan stumbles through a series of unfulfilling jobs and relationships, paralleling Britain’s national identity crisis after losing its position of world dominance.
Seeing the play in the same theater raises personal memories but also unfavorable comparisons. David Leveaux’s muted new staging seems to exist primarily as a star vehicle for Rachel Weisz, who is in love with Susan’s theatrical breakdowns and takes every opportunity for a diva display. Thus she becomes a weepy victim rather than the complex architect of her own downfall (as Hare and Nelligan saw her in the original). Instead of connecting with the character and the situation, Weisz is saying, “Look at me act!” There are physical sparks between Weisz and Corey Stoll as Brock, her diplomat husband, but no emotional connection, making his self-sacrifices hard to believe.
The limning and bonds among the cast in Love, Love, Love may be more convincing, but Bartlett’s script is less so. Like Susan, his protagonists Kenneth and Sandra are colossal egotists, wrecking lives in order to pursue their individual ends. Divided into three acts, this dark comedy follows them as they careen from a summer of free love in 1967 to suburban opulence in 1990 to retired self-indulgence in 2010. Bartlett has a way with witty, sharp jabs, but, unlike Susan, his characters are symbols of social and political positions rather than flesh and blood. (His earlier play Cock suffered from the same cardboard depictions.) Kenneth and Sandra’s selfish actions lead up to a screaming confrontation with their estranged daughter Rose. In the third act, she gets to deliver a big condemning monologue blatantly indicting her parents and their peers for all of her woes and those of her country. Though Zoe Kazan performs this speech with honest passion, we can hear the playwright talking instead of Rose.
Bartlett pushes his creations to fit his political theses rather than letting them develop organically and consistently. Would Kenneth and Sandra, the feckless flakes of Act One, become the financially prosperous executives of Act Two? (We never do find out how either of them makes money after dropping their pseudo-hippie personae.) Would the alcoholic, unreflective Sandra of the entire play suddenly become capable of responding with self-awareness and insight to her daughter’s harangue in the show’s final minutes?
Fortunately, Michael Mayer delivers a fast-paced, wickedly entertaining production—the on-target period sets and costumes are by Derek McLane and Susan Hilferty—and Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan give outsized, eye-catching turns as the explosive main couple.
Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber play a similarly combustible duo in another British production. Like Plenty, Les Liaisons Dangereuses had a sensational New York production in the 1980s (with the sleekly serpentine Alan Rickman and the lusciously lascivious Lindsay Duncan), and this new edition from Donmar Warehouse must fight the memory of its predecessor. Many critics have given it a thumbs down, finding Josie Rourke’s less ferocious production several grades below Howard Lindsay’s elegant, intense original. More than a few scribes have also called the broodingly naturalistic Schreiber miscast as the sleekly artificial Vicomte de Valmont.
But I thoroughly enjoyed this remounting, taking place in designer Tom Scutt's derelict museum with cast members gradually removing all the discarded art works between scenes, suggesting the decay of the pre-Revolutionary French society that Valmont and the equally malevolent Marquise de Merteuil dominate with their deadly sexual games. Schreiber is a charming cad whose tasteful veneer hides his brutal interior. Rourke takes a decidedly feminist approach to the material, staging Valmont’s carnal conquests for what they are—assaults. She almost makes us sympathize with the villainous Marquise who says to Valmont she was “born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.” McTeer gives us even more cause to identify with her by providing a multilayered portrayal of this stylish viper. At first she is deliciously evil, playfully enumerating her principles of deceit with little hand gestures. But this seductive surface gives way to the needy woman underneath when Valmont genuinely falls in love with one of his conquests. McTeer drops her silky voice an octave at precisely the right moment and her small movements become clawing attempts to suppress her suppressed genuine longings for Valmont. Yes, this is a slow-starting Liaisons, but once it gets going, it burns and consumes.
Finally, the only American play I recently encountered considers the immigrant experience from a decidedly unusual angle. Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at Manhattan Theatre Club chronicles the refugee journey of his South Vietnamese parents after the fall of Saigon through a broadly comic lens rather than via the usual noble, tear-jerking tropes. Rap music, ninja movies, African-American slang, and Twitter are added to mix in this crazy collage. It’s broad, tragic, funny, satiric, and serious all at once in May Adrales’s cartoonish and clear-eyed production featuring another sizzling star pair: Raymond Lee and Jennifer Ikeda.
November 3, 2016
Plenty: Oct. 23–Dec. 1. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 1:30pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 7:30pm, Sat 1:30pm & 7:30pm, Sun 1:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $95–105. (212) 967-7555.
Love, Love, Love: Oct. 19–Dec. 18. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours, including two intermissions. $89–99. (212) 719-1300.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Oct. 30–Jan. 22. Donmar Warehouse at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $77–149. (212) 239-6200.
Vietgone: Oct. 25–Nov. 17. Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $90. (212) 581-1212.
Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54
Oh, Hello on Broadway
Reviewed by David Sheward
Corbin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer, and Bryce Pinkham
Photo by Joan Marcus
There is such a thing as being too nice. That’s the problem with the stage version of Holiday Inn, the classic 1942 movie musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. This new edition is pleasant enough, featuring a treasure trove of Irving Berlin tunes both from the original film (including the evergreen “White Christmas,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” and the title song) and other sources (such as “It’s a Lovely Day Today” from Call Me Madam, “Heat Wave” from As Thousands Cheer, “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” from Miss Liberty, and “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat). All are delivered with charm by a smiling ensemble and directed with precision by Gordon Greenberg. But everyone is such a darned nice gal or fella, there’s no tension or sizzle. It’s like attending a long office Christmas party with an absence of gossip or backbiting.
The book, by Greenberg and Chad Hodge, retains the basic plotline of the movie. Song-and-dance pals Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) split over the female third of their act, Lila Dixon. Jim longs to retire from the showbiz rat race and settle down on a Connecticut farm with Lila. Ted wants to keep chasing the big dream of Hollywood stardom and takes Lila with him. Unable to make a go of it financially, Jim converts his farmhouse into a nightclub open only on the holidays, and Ted, ditched by Lila, makes the moves on Jim’s new romantic interest, Linda. The screenplay was basically an excuse for Crosby to croon and Astaire to hoof, but there was a friction between the two leads giving the slender story a snappy edge. Astaire’s Ted and Virginia Dale’s Lila were career-driven schemers pitted against Crosby’s softhearted Jim and Marjorie Reynolds’s ingénue Linda.
In the new version, all four leads are too goody-goody to be believed. Don’t get me wrong. Bryce Pinkham (Jim), Corbin Bleu (Ted), Lora Lee Gayer (Linda), and Megan Sikora (Lila) are fabulous musical performers, and Bleu is a particularly exciting dancer. But they have been directed and written with no darkness to contrast the constant cheerful light. In addition, Greenberg and Hodge have thrown in a trio of cloyingly cute supporting characters—Megan Lawrence’s syrupy handywoman-housekeeper, Lee Wilkof’s lovable manager, and Morgan Gao’s smart-alecky messenger boy.
There are mildly enjoyable musical consolations, but the numbers don’t take off until late in the first act with choreographer Denis Jones’s dazzlingly clever “Shaking the Blues Away” wherein the chorus goes crazy jumping rope with Christmas garlands. I also got a kick out of Alejo Vietti’s campy costumes. This tame Holiday eggnog could use a lot more spiking like that.
While the cheerful revelers of Holiday Inn are too nice, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland of Oh Hello on Broadway are refreshingly crotchety. For those unfamiliar with these cantankerous oldsters—and I was among this number before seeing the show—Gil and George are bizarre creations of 30-something comics Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. Seen on Kroll’s Comedy Central series, in comedy clubs, and Off-Broadway last season, the pair of kvetching bachelors here holds forth on a variety of topics from theatrical clichés to dating raccoons to their blighted careers on the fringes of showbiz. Gil is a “Tony Award viewing actor” and George is an unpublished writer whose magnum opus is a massive novel called Next Stop, Ronkonkoma(“a train ride told from 1,000 difference perspectives”).
The structure of their two-man show is loosey-goosey. After some hilarious banter satirizing Broadway conventions, the duo performs a play-within-a-play about being evicted from their shared, rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment and reaching the heights of cable-access fame with their talk show Too Much Tuna. Guests are asked a series of non-sequitur questions, confronted with a towering fish sandwich, and requested to utter the titular catch phrase. The latter device allows for a different nightly visit from a celebrity. At the performance attended, the guest was Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation who gamely went along with the stars’ improvisational madness.
Director Alex Timbers keeps the daffy duo on a relaxed leash, allowing them to romp and jump but not run out of control. Scott Pask’s set design is a riotous mashup of leftover scenic elements. Like the show itself, it’s a weird, witty collage of cultural references and skewed observations.
Anyone with a tasty for tangy humor should say Oh Hello. But if you don’t mind too much sugar, check into Holiday Inn.
October 12, 2016
Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical: Oct. 6–Jan. 15. Roundabout Theatre
Company at Studio 54, 254 W. 54 St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm,
Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 15
minutes, including intermission. $47–152. (212)
Oh Hello on Broadway: Oct. 10–Jan. 8.
Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm,
Sun 3pm & 7pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $59¬–149.
Neil Simon Theatre
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre
Reviewed by David Sheward
Andy Huntington Jones and company in Cats
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Meow and forever, Cats is back. After a smash London premiere, the original NYC production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline phenomenon became the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history, inspiring devoted loyalty among fans and disdain among naysayers. The rambling cat-alogue of frisky vignettes ushered in an era of Eurospectacles that were long on flash and glitter and short on substance (Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, etc. The latter is returning to Broadway next spring, God help us). I confess I never saw that original Cats staging live—but I did catch a PBS filmed version. The new production is largely the same with a few tweaks here and there. Trevor Nunn’s staging remains as sleek and taut as an alley kitty skulking after a tasty mouse, and Hamilton’s Andy Blankenbuehler has been brought in spice up Gillian Lynne’s original choreography.
Derived from a book of poems by T.S. Eliot in a rare whimsical mood and chock-a-block with Lloyd Webber’s pastiche ditties, Cats is the theatrical equivalent of sitting by the fire with Tabby and stroking her fur—for over two hours. Like Sondheim wrote in Gypsy “Some people can get a thrill/Knitting sweaters and sitting still…. But some people ain’t me.” The whisker-thin plot—if you can call it that—consists of a group of pussycats competing for the right to take a ride on a huge tire to the “heavyside layer,” whatever that is, and start a new life, apparently after the customary nine have been used up. In between specialty numbers, the shaggy leader Old Deuteronomy goes missing for a few minutes, Grizabella the ex-glamor cat wanders around looking sad, and, after a big build-up about how nasty he is, the menacing Macavity scratches a few of his fellow felines. That’s it for the storyline. Anybody for a warm saucer of milk?
I did enjoy a few individual numbers, particularly in the second act. Jeremy Davis exuberantly leads a merry, bouncy tour of sleeper cars as Shimbleshanks the railway cat, and Ricky Ubeda dazzles like a furry Liberace as the magical Mr. Mistoffelees. Christopher Gurr is adorably pompous as the rotund gourmand Bustopher Jones and the sweet doddering Gus the theater cat. British pop star Leona Lewis takes on Grizabella’s showpiece aria “Memory.” She has vocal power but no nuance, rendering what could have been a soaring epiphany anticlimactic. John Napier’s oversized junkyard setting and anthropomorphic costumes still enchant, while Natasha Katz’s dynamic lighting creates more drama and conflict than the wispy script.
Meanwhile, not all is shallow caterwauling in NY theater. As we enter into a new phase of the seemingly endless 2016 presidential campaign, Lincoln Center Theater presents a powerful theatrical reminder that political plays can be just as spectacular as high-budget musicals. J.T. Rogers’s Oslo portrays the heroic and unheralded efforts of a Norwegian couple to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table when U.S. attempts resulted in stalemate. Derived from real events in 1992–93, this three-hour epic is as gripping as a spy thriller and as absorbing as a Ken Burns documentary.
Currently playing at the Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse, Oslo will transfer to LCT’s Broadway venue the Vivian Beaumont in the spring, just in time for the 2017 Tony Awards, offering an adult alternative to juvenile fare such as Cats. It’s indicative of the Broadway theater scene that not only is this a rare instance of a nonmusical dealing with a serious political topic, it’s one of only two new American plays announced for the current Main Stem season.
Bartlett Sher provides his usual exemplary direction, making clear a potentially confusing story with dozens of characters and story threads woven into a tapestry of international intrigue. Donald Holder’s ghostly lighting, the eerie projections of 59 Productions, and Catherine Zuber’s monochromatic costumes give Oslo the feel of a half-remembered black-and-white dream.
Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle balance steely command with patient deference as the Norwegian facilitators. They are so restrained for most of the play that Michael Aronov and Joseph Singer as fiery Israeli officials nearly steal the show, but in a final devastating montage where the cast recounts the violent history of the region after the Oslo accords, Mays and Ehle deliver a shattering conclusion, equal parts despair and optimism. The rest of the large cast is uniformly excellent as well.
Ideally there should be room on Broadway for both Cats and Oslo, but it will be interesting to see which will draw the bigger crowds.
August 5, 2016
Opened July 31 for an open run. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.,
NYC. Mon-Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7 pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm.
Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $79–$149.
Oslo: July 11–Aug. 28. Transferring
to the Vivian Beaumont Theater beginning March 23, 2017 with an April
13 opening. Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, 150 W.
65th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm
& 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 3 hours, including two intermissions.
$107. (212) 239-6200.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater [closed]
Broadhurst Theater [closed]
Brooks Atkinson Theater
Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Music Box Theatre [closed]
Reviewed by David Sheward
The ensemble of Shuffle Along
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
It’s a wrap for the 2015–16 New York Broadway theater season, and four of the last shows take up radically different positions on the Broadway musical spectrum. American Psycho tries for cold-blooded satire and Tuck Everlasting makes a bid for the Wicked-Matilda family-friendly demographic. Neither is particularly successful in hitting its target. Waitress scores a near bull’s-eye, landing solidly in the middle with its feel-good “up” story of a downtrodden heroine overcoming a dysfunctional home life and limited economic opportunity. To use the story’s small-town diner food metaphors, the recipe perfectly balances the sweet and tart elements. But Shuffle Along aims even higher, going far beyond the normal range of Main Stem entertainment into the realm of social and cultural history. That sound stuffy, but Shuffle shakes the dust off the original show serving as its source and turns it into a spectacle both informative and vibrant.
As you enter each of the four theaters, you get a tip-off about the resident show before it even starts. At the Gerald Schoenfeld for American Psycho, you notice a drop in temperature, menacing rock-edged music, and a plastic screen at the front of the stage indicating you’re in for an evening of blood-splattered mayhem. One of the ushers assured me no one in the front rows would get doused with red stage liquid. While vast quantities of the crimson stuff are spilled during this stage version of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel, the enterprise is relatively bloodless. Yes, Rupert Goold’s production is as sleek as Es Devlin’s silver-and-grey corporate set and Katrina Lindsay’s chic costumes. And yes, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s razor-edged book and Duncan Sheik’s jagged, catchy songs create a screamingly funny picture of a soulless 1980s Manhattan. But Patrick Bateman, the stylish serial killer–investment banker at the center is a cipher (despite a charismatic performance by Benjamin Walker). Ellis’s anti-hero is an abstract symbol of Reagan-era materialism. We learn very little about him other than that he’s driven to insane acts of violence by the period’s shallow values. Without a strong protagonist for the audience to identify with, your show is DOA (pun intended.)
The first act garners numerous laughs of recognition at the mention of ’80s icons, as well as ironic references to Donald Trump and Tom Cruise. (Too many of Sheik’s lyrics amount to lists of famous names and places, from designer Betsy Johnson to the nightclub Tunnel.) But as the quips run out and the bodies pile up, tedium sets in. Too bad Walker and a strong supporting cast including Alice Ripley are largely wasted.
The Broadhurst, where Tuck Everlasting—the syrupy tuner based on Natalie Babbitt’s popular young-adult novel—is playing, offers a pleasanter prospect than the Schoenfeld. Instead of an urban wasteland, Tuck set designer Walt Spangler offers us an idyllic rural glade with an enormous tree stretching out over the audience. The show that follows is as sweet as Psycho is sour, but both share a certain “ick” factor. The fanciful plot revolves around Winnie (an assured Sarah Charles Lewis), a lonely 11-year-old girl in 1890s New Hampshire encountering a family of immortals. Their longevity derives from a magic spring (cute, huh?). Jesse (chipper Andrew Keenan-Bolger), the youngest son who appears 17 but is actually over 100, persuades Winnie to save some of the enchanted water and drink it when she is in her late teens so they can be together—forever! A 100-year-old boy interested in an 11-year-old child? Creepy, right?
Even more off-putting is Terrence Mann as the Man in the Yellow Suit, a carnival con artist out to steal the water for himself. Mann, who starred in the original companies of such Broadway classics as Cats and Les Misérables, turns in one of the most annoying performances in recent memory. Villains can be deliciously odious, but Mann is just plain repulsive. Fortunately, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw delivers a tight production counterbalancing the sugary content of Claudia Shear and Tim Federle’s book. The Scottish-country flavored songs by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tyson (lyrics) are serviceable enough but hardly memorable. The one number that stands out is a throwaway comedy bit expertly put across by the reliable Fred Applegate as a folksy detective and Michael Wartella as his shy deputy. When two minor characters have the best song, something is off. As the rest of the Tuck clan, Broadway vets Carolee Carmello, Michael Park, and Robert Lenzi earn their paychecks but don’t get beyond well-scrubbed eccentricities. Young children may get a kick out of Tuck Everlasting, but for those past adolescence its charms fail to last past intermission.
The preshow sensory sensations awaiting audiences at the Brooks Atkinson for Waitress are not visual, but olfactory. The smell of just-baked apple pie wafts through the lobby as you take your seats, putting you in the mood for comfort food and comfort theater. Apart from one over-the-top nasty character, book-writer Jessie Nelson and composer-lyricist Sara Bareilles deliver exactly what the menu promises: a warm and tender slice of pie that’s filling without making your teeth rot. Derived from Adrienne Shelly’s indie-cult film, the story centers on Jenna, a struggling server in a small-town diner with a genius for baking pies with eccentric names (Mermaid Marshmallow and Ginger Snap Out of It are just two examples). Saddled with an abusive husband and pregnant, she vows to enter a pie contest, take the prize money, and run. Along the way, she launches an affair with her gynecologist, and her comic-sidekicks at the diner provide ribald romantic subplots.
Refreshingly, neither her doctor-lover nor the pie contest proves to be the cure-all for Jenna’s woes. Just as in real life, situations remain messy instead of being neatly resolved. My only problem was the depiction of Earl, the asshole husband who is so disgusting it’s hard to believe a smart woman like Jenna would ever have fallen for him. Nick Cordero does his best to add dimension to this narrow role but cannot fill in the gaps the authors left. Diane Paulus’s generally smooth direction gets a little too busy and the sound design is muddy in places.
Aside from the quibbles, Waitress is a bountiful pleasure. Jessie Mueller’s unique voice, which straddles pop territory and Broadway pizzazz, imbues Jenna with the tender longing of a generous soul unfulfilled. Keala Settle and Kimiko Glen bubble and fizz as Becky and Dawn, her fellow toilers in the service industry, while Christopher Fitzgerald stops the show as Dawn’s eccentric suitor. Drew Gehling makes goofy sexy as Jenna’s medical amour, and Dakin Matthews is gorgeously grumpy as the restaurant owner. Special mention to Charity Angel Dawson who steals her brief scenes as a caustic nurse.
As you enter the Music Box for Shuffle Along, you can hear the sounds of snappy tapping and the bright voices of the dancers encouraging each other from just behind the curtain, preparing you for an evening of extravagant song and dance. However, director-book author George C. Wolfe has concocted much more than a restaging of the original 1921 show of the same name, the first major Broadway hit to be directed, produced, written, and performed by African-Americans. He adds historical context in a behind-the-scenes template, documenting the struggles of black artists in a white-dominated world. Wolfe makes the case that Shuffle was as influential as Show Boat or Oklahoma! George Gershwin borrowed riffs from the overture, Ziegfeld hired the chorus girls to show his chorines how to shimmy, and future stars such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson got their start in the show. But because of the creators’ race, Shuffle has been largely shuffled out of the musical theater history deck.
It sounds like a masters’ dissertation or a Ken Burns documentary, but this is much more than a lecture—it’s a rumination on black culture and white appropriation, as well as a dazzling spectacle thanks to Wolfe’s inventive production and Savion Glover’s scintillating choreography. The cast is a roll call of Broadway excellence: Brian Stokes Mitchell’s dignified baritone, Billy Porter’s impassioned blues wail, Brandon Victor Dixon’s cocky enthusiasm, Joshua Henry’s attractive confidence, Adrienne Warren’s cute appeal, and of course the majesty and intimacy of Audra McDonald’s Lottie Gee, the diva who dominates and charms.
Just as a side note, Off-Broadway’s Cagney has a formulaic bio-pic book by Peter Colley but razor-sharp choreography by Joshua Bergasse and an impressive lead performance by Robert Creighton who also collaborated on the score with Christopher McGovern. The engine of the plot is Cagney’s battle with studio boss Jack Warner to stretch beyond the tough-guy roles. A rather limiting frame for the story, and Colley often shoehorns in excuses for musical numbers such as a tap challenge between Cagney and Bob Hope because the former appeared briefly in one of Hope’s pictures. Despite the book’s hiccups, Creighton and company dance with joy. It’s a brisk if unchallenging piece, unlike Shuffle which totally reinvents the musical theater form.
May 9, 2016
Opened April 24 for an open run. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th
St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm
& 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including
intermission. $67–147. (800) 745-3000.
April 3 for an open run. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue
7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running
time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $89. (212)
School of Rock
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
The Color Purple
Winter Garden Theatre
Second Stage [show closed]
Reviewed by David Sheward
Antoine L. Smith, Patrice Covington, Jennifer Hudson, Cynthia Erivo, Isaiah Johnson, Kyle Scatliffe, and Danielle Brooks
Photo by Matthew Murphy
“Is this some kind of gimmick?” asks a character about the central device of tweens forming a heavy-metal band in School of Rock, the new Andrew Lloyd Weber musical (the English lord composed the music and is the lead producer). The answer is yes, it is some kind of gimmick, but it works. The book by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) based on Mike White’s screenplay for the 2003 film starring Jack Black, is pretty much standard-issue Broadway uplift: Quirky outsider comes into a repressed society and uses music to get its cringing inhabitants to experience fun and freedom. You can see the ending a mile away, yet there is so much infectious enthusiasm and unbridled talent on display, you fall for it.
The show starts slowly, as Fellowes supplies obvious jokes and director Laurence Connor goes for broad stereotypes. Wannabe rock star and full-time slacker Dewey Finn (a riotously funny Alex Brightman) has been kicked out of his band and is about to be similarly booted from his living quarters by his best friend nerdy Ned, a substitute teacher, and Ned’s bossy wife, Patty, for failing to contribute any rent. To earn fast cash, he pretends to be Ned, takes a job at upper-crust Horace Green Academy, and turns his classroom of proto-corporate robots into supercool metalheads. This enables the kids to express themselves and inspire their stuffy parents to love them more openly. As a bonus, Finn romances the stodgy principal Rosalie Mullins (sweet-voiced Sierra Boggess), a secret Stevie Nicks fan.
Yes, it’s corny and clichéd, and Webber’s songs (with undistinguished lyrics by Glenn Slater) are pretty generic, but School’s secret weapons are Brightman as Dewey and a platoon of super-talented preteens. Dewey could have come across as an obnoxious, freeloading jerk, but Brightman reveals his warm heart as well as his crude manners. At first, Dewey is using the kids to get into the Battle of the Bands, but Brightman convinces us that this semi-creepy loser grows to care for his students. He’s full-out hilarious in the book scenes and full-throated in a demanding series of rock numbers, as are the kids who play all their own instruments. Full marks for Isabella Russo’s in-charge Summer, Bobbi MacKenzie’s shy but soulful Tomika, Brandon Niederauer’s troubled Zack, Dante Melucci’s brooding Freddy, Evie Dolan’s deadpan Katie, Jared Parker’s lonely Lawrence, and Luca Padovan’s stylish Billy. And a solid B-plus for School of Rock.
The revival of The Color Purple also grew on me. I went in with trepidations. Gerry Griffin’s original 2005 Broadway production of Alice Walker’s beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning novel was overblown, and Marsha Norman’s book came across as a rushed reprise of the big moments from Steven Speilberg’s 1985 film version. In addition when I entered the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre for director-designer John Doyle’s stripped-down restaging previously presented by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, Doyle’s chair-bedecked set gave me flashbacks to last season’s atrocious Doctor Zhivago and parodies of Les Miz. It didn’t help that Gregory Clarke’s muddy sound design and imprecise diction by the cast made the early songs largely incomprehensible.
But Doyle’s simplified staging emphasizes Walker’s compassionate and powerful tale of Celie, an oppressed African-American woman who raises above the crushing weight of racism and sexism in early 20th-century Georgia. Without distracting elaborate sets and fussy staging, Norman’s adaptation flows more freely, and the eclectic score—by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray—shines brightly like a rainbow of gospel, pop, jazz, boogie-woogie, and R&B.
The three female leads are making dazzling Broadway debuts. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson is the biggest box-office draw and displays her magnificent pipes and a sharp characterization as the magnetic blues singer Shug Avery, but Cynthia Erivo, reprising her London performance as Celie, is the deep center of Purple. Petite and small-voiced in the beginning, she seems to be making herself as tiny as possible to avoid the abusive men in Celie’s life, including her cruel stepfather and husband. Then as she is emboldened by Shug’s example of independence, she appears to expand in size and voice, finally filling the theater and our hearts with her rousing climactic number “I’m Here.” Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black is almost as dynamic as Celie’s daughter-in-law—the strong-willed Sofia, the role played by Oprah Winfrey in the film version.
Invisible Thread at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage leaves an impression opposite to the two Broadway shows reviewed above; it starts strongly but fades towards the end. Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews’s autobiographical musical has an absorbing first act. Griffin and Ryan, NYC-based boyfriends and aspiring musical theater performers and composers, volunteer in Uganda and wind up bankrolling the education of five teenagers they meet there. Before intermission there’s a strong narrative and conflict, but the second act loses focus as the duo return to America and spend most of their time fundraising. Nevertheless, Thread has a lot going for it including Diane Paulus’s tight direction, Peter Nigrini’s movie-like projections, and a sterling cast, lead by Jeremy Pope as Griffin (subbing for Matthews at the performance attended.) It’s a strong Thread; too bad it unravels by the final curtain.
December 12, 2015
of Rock: Opened Dec. 6 for an open run. Winter Garden Theatre, 1634
Broadway, NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm
& 7:30pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including
intermission. $59–145. (212) 239-6200.
Purple: Dec. 10, 2015–Jan. 8, 2017. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242
W. 45th St., NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm &
7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.
$75–145. (212) 239-6200.
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 [closed}
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre [now at the Helen Hayes]
Reviewed by David Sheward
Keira Knightley and Judith Light
Photo by Joan Marcus
It’s the Halloween season and two productions from Roundabout Theatre Company explore scary demons. The big star vehicle, Thérèse Raquin, is full of fake emotion, while the Off-Broadway intimate drama The Humans is truly terrifying in its portrayal of the bumps and creaks in the night we all hear and fear.
The first act of Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s classic 1867 novel, Thérèse Raquin, from Roundabout at Studio 54 really had me going. I was totally enraptured by Keira Knightley’s nearly silent performance as the titular frustrated heroine, expressing her sexual and spiritual longing through body language and eloquent features. Thérèse is trapped in a passionless marriage to her bourgeois cousin Camille, first in a provincial backwater and then in a confining Paris apartment. Edmundson’s conceit is that Thérèse can only react to the stifling conditions of her life and remains silent as the oafish Camille and his control-freak mother order her existence. That is, until Camille’s dashing friend Laurent, a would-be painter, enters the picture. (Spoiler alert here if you have not read the novel or seen any of the numerous previous stage versions, including Harry Connick Jr.’s 2001 musical update Thou Shalt Not.) The connection between Thérèse and Laurent is electric, and they plot to eliminate Camille. The drowning scene on a real river is really scary; kudos to director Evan Cabnet and set designer Beowulf Boritt.
So far, so good, but in the second act Therese opens her mouth. Knightley and Matt Ryan as Laurent start overacting all over the place, and Cabnet turns a tragic tale of passion into an episode of Dark Shadows. The lovers become racked with guilt and imagine Camille’s accusing ghost haunting them as Josh Schmidt’s twisted sound design and Keith Parham’s haunted-house lighting grow more ominous. There are some effective moments, mostly provided by Boritt’s impressive set. Thérèse seems to be crushed by her all-black apartment as it descends from the flies, and she appears to soar when she meets Laurent in his attic, suspended above the stage amid a starry backdrop (Parham’s lighting achieves the right romantic tone here). Gabriel Ebert’s comically clueless Camille, Judith Light’s well-meaning Madame Raquin, and Jeff Still, David Patrick Kelly, and Mary Wiseman as a trio of shallow family friends provide welcome depth. But they cannot rescue this scream fest from the spook house.
Thérèse attempts to evoke genuine fear, but The Humans succeeds in doing so. Stephen Karam’s new play starts out like a dozen other dysfunctional-family works. The Blake clan reveals harsh secrets on Thanksgiving as the turkey is served and the wine flows. What sets this haunting and heartbreaking drama apart is the subtle depiction of the nightmares that invade and twist the lives of everyday people. The six characters’ fears for the future take various frighteningly familiar forms. Dad Erik obsesses over terrorist attacks and floods. Mother Deirdre forwards emails of dire scientific studies to her daughters: Aimee, a lawyer struggling with losing her lesbian lover, her job and her health, and Brigid, a young composer facing a dead-end career. The senile grandmother Fiona (“Momo”) is lost to dementia, and Richard, Brigid’s much older boyfriend, has recovered from depression but still has bizarre dreams. Still, those dreams are much less frightening than Erik’s, which involve a faceless woman and a forbidding tunnel.
During 90 intermissionless minutes, an expert cast, directed with subtlety by Joe Mantello, conveys the petty conflicts and major tragedies of these frightened people, beset by the shifting and uncertain landscape of modern America. Lights switch off, weird sounds emanate from all over Brigid and Richard’s spacious but crumbling Chinatown duplex (great set by David Zinn and sound by Fitz Patton), and the lives of the Blakes are gradually revealed as pitiful and desperate. The entire cast is top-rate with veterans Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell delivering their customary solid work. But Cassie Beck’s Aimee is outstanding in this standout ensemble. Her shattered, scattered cellphone call to an estranged girlfriend is a heartbreaking moment in an intensely real performance.
Just after it opened, The Humans announced its transfer to Broadway next year. It will be fascinated to see if it this disturbing, unflinching look at the way we live now succeeds on the Great White Way.
October 30, 2015
Humans: At the Helen Hayes. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission.
Richard Rodgers Theater
Reviewed by David Sheward
Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Photo by Joan Marcus
About every 10 years, a Broadway musical is christened by the theater pundit class and audiences as a landmark in the development of the art form, becoming more than just a smash hit and transforming into a phenomenon in the larger culture. Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Hair, A Chorus Line, and Rent are the most prominent examples of such fiery productions. Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon approached the status of game-changer but didn’t quite make it. Hamilton, the latest entry in this explosive category, looks to be the most shattering mold-breaker in recent years.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sung-through biography of our most controversial Founding Father opened in February at the Public Theater with the force of a tidal wave, washing away familiar musical-theater forms and winning every award imaginable. Now on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers, Hamilton is poised to add several Tonys to its collection and run at least until the next presidential election and probably the one after that. Is it worth the hype? Definitely. Since the Public Theater engagement, Thomas Kail’s nonstop production and Andy Blankenbuehler’s seamless choreography have maintained their propulsive power and the performances have deepened.
The Off-Broadway staging was overwhelming in its innovation: Hamilton’s revolutionary career and personal tragedy is played by a mostly African-American and Latino cast and told through a hip-hop filter. Miranda’s brilliantly intricate score and script draw parallels between the protagonist’s immigrant status and that of contemporary American minorities striving to establish their own identities just as the colonists were struggling to break free of the oppressive British motherland, personified by a sneering, dandy-ish King George III. (He even has his own signature musical style, 1960s British pop, to distinguish him from the Americans’ rap.)
On this second viewing, a layer of tender emotions is revealed in addition to the cleverness. Hamilton’s relationships with his wife, Eliza, her sister Angelica, his son Philip, and his arch-nemesis Aaron Burr who eventually killed him in their famous duel are now more complex and heartrending. Miranda, who also stars in the title role, has added a passionate tenderness to Hamilton’s bluster. Leslie Odom Jr. is even more multifaceted as the jealous Burr, exposing the character’s burning desire to be as central to the infant government as his rival.
Phillipa Soo makes for a sweet Eliza, while Renee Elise Goldsberry attractively displays the intelligence of Angelica and her barely concealed, more-than-sisterly love for Alexander. David Diggs is exuberantly engaging, doubling as the merry Marquis de Lafayette and a peacock of a Thomas Jefferson.
The only major cast change in this incarnation is Jonathan Groff, who took over the King George role so Brian d’Arcy James could star in Something Rotten. It’s a relatively small role, but Groff turns it into a hilarious cameo, delightfully disdainful of the new United States. Like all the other elements of Hamilton, the performance is perfection.
August 10, 2015
Aug. 6 for an open run. Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 W. 46th St., NYC.
Mon-Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm.
Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermissions. $65–180.
Circle in the Square [show closed]
St. James Theater
Reviewed by David Sheward
Photo by Joan Marcus
Two of the biggest contenders for the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical are polar opposites, but they demonstrate that when theater practitioners are playing at the top of their game, the results can be sublime whether the content is serious or silly. Fun Home is a jagged memory piece about a deeply dysfunctional family, while Something Rotten! is a screwy satire skewering Shakespeare as well as the conventions of musical comedy. The former will break your heart while the latter will break your funny bone.
Fun Home was a hit during its limited run Off-Broadway at the Public Theater last season, winning almost every possible Best Musical accolade including the Lortel, the Outer Critics Circle, and the New York Drama Critics Circle awards. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, the musical takes a zigzag tour through Bechdel’s childhood, focusing on the impact of her coming out as a lesbian had on her family, particularly on her closeted gay father. Not exactly what you’d expect from a musical, but Lisa Kron’s compassionate book and witty lyrics and Jeanine Tesori’s rich music make the potentially intense tale warm, insightful, and, when appropriate, funny.
While a successful commercial engagement on Broadway will prove challenging, Home has become even an even deeper experience in its new environment. Ironically, it’s also become more intimate even though it’s now playing a much bigger house. At the Circle in the Square, the audience surrounds the action, so the performers seem even more like a real family sharing their secrets. Director Sam Gold and set designer David Zinn have adapted the action from the Public’s revolving proscenium to the Circle’s oval by employing trap doors to raise and lower furniture like figures in memory.
The cast is almost entirely intact from the Off-Broadway run. Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn have deepened their portrayals of the repressed parents, while Beth Malone seems more of a central voice setting the memories in motion as the adult Alison. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas still brings multiple layers to her Small Alison, and Emily Skeggs captures the awkwardness of first love as the college-age iteration of the heroine.
While Fun Home wants to make you feel and think, Something Rotten! only wants to make you laugh, and it succeeds like gangbusters. Written by a trio of Broadway neophytes—John O’Farrell and brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick—this lampoon lovingly sends up every musical as well as every Elizabethan comedy, tragedy, or history you could possibly think of (I filled three pages of a legal pad trying to keep up with all the references and finally gave up).
Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom want to take the 17th century stage by storm, but a white-hot rival named Shakespeare is stealing the spotlight. Nick goes to a soothsayer (Nostradamus’s brother, Thomas, get it?) to find out what audiences of the future will crave, and it’s musicals. So the siblings stage the first-ever tuner while the Bard attempts to ruin it. It all sounds like an extended Carol Burnett Show sketch or that episode of Gilligan’s Island where castaways put on a musical version of Hamlet, but it’s brilliantly fleshed out by the authors and staged riotously and tightly by Casey Nicholaw.
The book gets weak in the second act when the initial premise runs out of steam, but it comes on strong with the Bottom brothers’ climactic mock musical “Omelette,” which will go down in Broadway history along with “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers as one of the funniest shows-within-a-show ever. The cast of Broadway veterans constantly delights—Brian d’Arcy James commandingly klutzy as Nick; John Cariani adorably nebbishy as Nigel; Heidi Blickenstaff and Kate Reinders endearingly clever as their respective ladies; Christine Borle rock-star sexy as the Bard; and reliable clowns Brad Oscar, Peter Bartlett, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Gerry Vichi cutting up uproariously.
May 13, 2015
Rotten!: Opened April 22 for an open run. St. James Theatre, 246 W.
44th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm
& 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including
intermission. $15.95–142. (212) 239-6200.
An American in Paris
Neil Simon Theatre [show closed]
It Shoulda Been You
Brooks Atkinson Theatre [show closed]
Reviewed by David Sheward
An American in Paris
Photo by Angela Sterling
Three recently opened Broadway musicals rely on old forms, but only one employs its source material with originality and charm. An American in Paris and Gigi are based on classic 1950s MGM movies set in the City of Light and starring Leslie Caron, while It Shoulda Been You retreads TV sitcoms.
Let’s take the successful one first. The credits for An American in Paris say it was “inspired” by the 1951 Gene Kelly–Leslie Caron film favorite, which won the Best Picture Oscar over such weightier dramas as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay wrapped a simplistic story around the George and Ira Gershwin songbook, and legendary helmer Vincente Minnelli give it his unmistakable stamp of class and joy. Similarly, director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon gives an elegant and intoxicating spin to Craig Lucas’s new book. We are still in postwar Paris, but now the brutalities of the just-ended Nazi occupation seep into the basically silly plot of three pals in love with the same gamine girl, this time a fledgling dancer.
Though the romance is farfetched, the Gershwins’s evergreen tunes (gorgeously adapted by Rob Fisher) and Wheeldon’s ballet-informed dances—along with Bob Crowley’s sophisticated sets and costumes, Natasha Katz’s painterly lighting, and the evocative video projections of 59 Productions—create an inviting Paris that is fantasy and reality. Ballet stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope not only dance the Kelly and Caron roles to perfection, they also sing and act with conviction, conveying the churning emotions of these love-struck dreamers. When they come together in the titular ballet sequence, it’s as close to ecstasy as you’ll get on the Broadway stage. Brandon Uranowitz, Max von Essen, Jill Paice, and Veanne Cox enliven their supporting roles.
Gigi from 1958 also starred Caron, was directed by Minnelli and written by Lerner, and won the Best Picture Oscar over such darker nonmusicals as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones. Lerner and his composer partner Frederick Loewe provided the original score to the film’s sanitized adaptation of Colette’s novel about the title heroine who is bred to be a French mistress but who would rather be a bourgeois wife. Unlike that of An American in Paris, the plot contains scant conflict, and while the songs from the film still enchant, the newer ones from a 1973 stage version add little. Heidi Thomas’s adapted book is even more scrubbed up than Lerner’s screenplay, and Eric Schaeffer has directed his company to play every line with exaggerated “ooh-la-la” broadness (Howard McGillin in the Maurice Chevalier role is particularly guilty of this Gallic mugging).
As Gigi, Vanessa Hudgens of the High School Musical films sings with brio, as does her leading man Corey Cott. She has plenty of spunk but no irresistible sparkle, while Cott exudes manly charm. They are closer in age than the originals of Caron and Louis Jordan, but there is no sexual tension between them. Broadway vets Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty provide much-needed vinegar as Gigi’s worldly guardians. Catherine Zuber’s gowns are ravishing.
It Shoulda Been You is nominally a totally original musical—not being based on an old movie, novel, or play. But, Brian Hargrove’s book uses hackneyed gags that went out of date 40 years ago, and Barbara Anselmi’s music is generic but pleasant. Anselmi is also credited with the “concept,” and five lyricists in addition to Hargrove are credited. This is definitely a case of too many cooks. Two families of stereotypes clash at a Manhattan wedding, and the guestbook reads like checklist of clichés: overbearing Jewish mother of the bride, alcoholic WASP mother of the groom, flamboyant wedding planner, panicky bride, goofy groom, etc. Sitcom-level plot twists proliferate as doors slam on Anna Louizos’s two-level set.
I will admit the show is much better than when I saw it four years ago at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse. It’s much tighter and shorter. Fortunately, director David Hyde-Pierce (Hargrove’s husband) and a cast of polished professionals headed by Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris transform the second-drawer material into a tolerable 100 minutes. Special kudos to Lisa Howard as the plus-sized sister of the bride for creating a full-sized character in this tiny tuner.
Final verdict: cheers for American; a shrug of the shoulders for Gigi and Shoulda.
May 2, 2015
American in Paris: Opened April 12 for an open run. Palace Theatre, 1564
Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm
& 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including
intermission. $47–147. (800) 653-8000.
by Jerry Beal
On a shocking day in 1937, novelist John O’Hara is reputed to have said, “George Gershwin died today, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” A large part of the shock came from the composer’s age, 37. When Mike Nichols left us last week, he was 83. But the loss of this giant creates a similarly great chasm for a different reason: For the last half-century, the man and his work were not only omnipresent but his stamp was everywhere even when he was not. A Mike Nichols Production, regardless of the material, was a guarantee of quality, and as spoken by Linda Loman in his final theater production of Death of a Salesman, one always knew going in that “attention must be paid.”
In summer 1963, a comedy by a fledgling playwright, then-titled Nobody Loves Me, was in pre-Broadway tryout mode at the Bucks County Playhouse. Neil Simon was sure his play was a failure, but like everyone else, he hadn’t yet realized that his novice director had found his calling. “This is what I was meant to do,” thought Nichols. Indeed it was. The now-titled Barefoot in the Park not only brought Simon stardom and Nichols his first of nine Tony awards, it launched a relationship that brought the director four Tonys from Simon work alone. But what was also not yet obvious was that Nichols’s astonishing comic mind would also be able to bring to life the works of Anton Chekhov, Lillian Hellman, Harold Pinter, Trevor Griffiths, David Rabe, Tom Stoppard, and Tony Kushner, not to mention the more obvious Jules Feiffer and Eric Idle.
And in the process, that talent would help nurture indelible performances from among the greatest stage actors of our time. The cast of his 1973 production of Uncle Vanya alone reads like a who’s who of the profession: George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Lillian Gish, Julie Christie, Barnard Hughes. And who can forget the lines that formed hours and even the night before to get free tickets for his Central Park production of The Seagull with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman—Oscar winners all, and each a veteran of Nichols productions.
The cast of the 1973 Uncle Vanya
After being lauded by a stream of actors over many episodes of Inside the Actors Studio, the master himself finally got to speak. And one of the nuggets he shared that night is perhaps the key to his greatness: What is this really about? That, he said, is the question he always asked himself, whether about a single scene or the entirety of the piece at hand. In looking at his complete oeuvre—film, television, and theater—the application of that question explains its consistent excellence. If one accepts that things come in threes, it is hard to argue against the trio of Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Mike Nichols as the defining artists that have given American theater of the last 50 years its shape, its energy, and its value.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Reviewed by David Sheward
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time shouldn’t work. Its protagonist, Christopher Boone, is a difficult young man to like. Incredibly brilliant at math and logic, yet suffering from a form of autism, the 15-year-old cannot comprehend human emotion and hates being touched. He screams and becomes violent whenever anyone does so. He’s also arrogant and selfish. Plus, the titular mystery—the canine of the title is killed and the falsely accused Christopher sets out to find the culprit—is solved at the end of the first act. As if that weren’t enough, there are a lot of math problems—which are not exactly the stuff of high drama. And let’s not forget the original Mark Haddon novel is all told in the first person from Christopher’s skewed perspective.
But just as she did with War Horse, director Marianne Elliott makes brilliant use of stagecraft to bring a seemingly untranslatable literary work to breathing, vital life in this stunning production from Britain’s National Theatre. Playwright Simon Stephens has surmounted the challenge of the source material by having Christopher adapt his journal as a play narrated by his teacher Siobhan, while Elliott employs Bunny Christie’s vast graph-paper-lined box of a set as if it were a blank sheet for Christopher to work out his emotional and mathematical dilemmas. With the invaluable aid of Paule Constable’s lighting, Finn Ross’s video design, and the soundscape created by Ian Dickinson for Autograph and Adrian Sutton’s original music, we journey into the complex world of a suburb seething with subtext and then to the urban madhouse known as London. And it’s all from Christopher’s point of view, so that his trip on the train and subway become a harrowing bombardment of sensations. The ingenious movement by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly perfectly augments the intricate staging.
All this technical wizardry might overshadow the performances, but a powerful American cast proves equal to the efforts of the helmer and her design team. As Christopher, recent Juilliard graduate Alex Sharp does a magnificent job of carrying the show on his boyish shoulders. He masterfully conveys the teenager’s incisive intelligence, childlike neediness, and raging incomprehension at the bad behavior displayed by the grownups. We actually get to like this impossible adolescent. Ian Barford finds the deep love at the center of Christopher’s undemonstrative father, and Enid Graham makes for a sympathetic mother despite the character’s questionable actions. Francesca Faridany as Siobhan provides an anchor for the action, and Mercedes Herrero adds spice, doubling as a nasty neighbor and a vinegary headmistress.
As for the math problems, Elliott uses all the means at her disposal to create a spectacular post-curtain call coda about triangles. If you never thought you’d be cheering about equations, check out this curious and marvelous Incident.
October 14, 2014
Oct. 5 for an open run. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun
3pm. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission.
$27–129. (212) 239-6200.
New Amsterdam Theatre
Reviewed by David Sheward
James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Aladdin, the latest Disney theme-park attraction—I mean Broadway show based on one of the studio’s cartoon features—is not as pedestrian as the flabby Tarzan or the all-wet Little Mermaid. But it doesn’t reach the imaginative heights of Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation of The Lion King. This one is somewhere in the middle, depending too much on the screen version but with just enough silly fun to keep you going until the curtain call and that final walk past the merchandise counter.
The fun is mostly provided by James Monroe Iglehart as the hyperactive genie, who grants Aladdin’s three wishes while reeling off contemporary pop culture references. In the film, Robin Williams voiced this magical maniac, and the animators had a field day transforming his image into thousands of different likenesses of the celebrities Williams impersonated. Iglehart, a burly guy with the infectious spirit of Fats Waller, comes close as any flesh-and-blood performer can to re-creating these zany cartoon antics. The shenanigans reach their zenith in Act 1 near-finale “Friend Like Me,” in which the genie displays his awesome powers along with Bob Crawley’s dazzling sets and Gregg Barnes’s fabulous costumes. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw pulls out all the stops as Iglehart and a hardworking chorus parody game shows, reality TV, and previous Disney shows with wild glee. At the preview performance attended, the number earned a prolonged ovation with several fans standing.
The trouble is, the show doesn’t maintain that degree of inspired lunacy. The two leads— Adam Jacobs as the plucky Aladdin and Courtney Reed as the spunky Princess Jasmine—are attractive and possess acceptable voices, but they lack Iglehart’s charisma to carry an entire production. Even their iconic magic-carpet ride, which features the Oscar-winning song “A Whole New World,” fails to soar. The rest of the Alan Menkin–Howard Ashman–Tim Rice score, augmented by new songs with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, similarly doesn’t levitate.
Beguelin’s book is serviceable but full of groan-inducing puns. “I feel awful” is rejoined with “Did someone say falafel?” by an always-hungry sidekick. Speaking of sidekicks, Beguelin ditches the trademark funny animals from the movie and replaces them with not-so-funny human assistants. Instead of Aladdin’s monkey, we have three caricaturish stooges, and the evil Jafar’s Gilbert Gottfried–voiced parrot is switched out with an annoying clown. Fortunately, Jonathan Freeman repeats his delightfully snarly take on Jafar from the film. He and the bubbly Iglehart are the engines that keep this Aladdin flying as high as it goes. Too bad it doesn’t get far off the ground.
March 22, 2014
March 20 at the New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm,
Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time
2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $49.50–115.50. (866)
Matilda the Musical
Reviewed by David Sheward
Photo by Joan Marcus
From the moment you enter the Shubert Theater and take in Rob Howell’s whimsical Scrabble tile–studded set, you know you’re in for a good time at Matilda the Musical. Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, this hit from London offers a nasty, twisted, and totally joyful view of youngsters and the adjustments they face on the path to adulthood. You see, little Matilda is a genius, devouring dozens of books in a week, making up spellbinding stories, and learning Russian in her spare time. But her horrible parents are too absorbed in ballroom dancing and television to cherish or even recognize her intellectual gifts. So they bundle her off to a hideously oppressive school presided over by the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a fiend who makes Miss Hannigan of Annie fame look like Mary Poppins. There, Matilda finds the ideal teacher in the shy Miss Honey, who encourages her and whom the brilliant child rescues from dire circumstances.
That’s the gist of this marvelously inventive musical, given a fun and fast-paced staging by director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling. Book writer Dennis Kelly keeps Dahl’s cartoonish sensibility in developing the outlandish characters and the bizarre dimension they inhabit: a funhouse version of the real world where smart little girls must find ways to stick up for themselves.
The score, by Australian comic-musician Tim Minchin, captures this wacky flavor when it needs to (most of the time), but also expresses the wistful sentiments of childhood games and friendship without getting treacly. This duality is best exhibited in the opening number, “Miracle” (as in “My mommy says I’m a miracle”), and the Act 2 paean to innocence, “When I Grow Up.” In the former, spoiled brats smash one another with cake and rampage in torn superhero costumes during a nightmarish birthday party. In the latter, the same kids glide over the audience on swings, sweetly warbling about a fantasized version of maturity where they can do whatever they want, including watching cartoons and eating candy all day. Warchus and Darling stage these opposing views of kids with appropriate details—manic energy and mayhem in “Miracle” and subtle simplicity in the “Grow Up.”
Four young actors alternate in the role of Matilda. Milly Shapiro (at the show reviewed) is a pint-sized Maggie Smith with the face of a Norwegian saga. This little dynamo skillfully imparts the character’s dazzling intelligence and taste for mischief, as well as her raging indignation at injustice. Her cry of “That’s not right!” seems to reach out of the theater onto 44th Street. Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita are unabashedly and delightfully vulgar as the uncaring parents. Lauren Ward as Miss Honey and Karen Aldridge as Mrs. Phelps, a friendly librarian who craves Matilda’s cliffhanging tales, are sweetly supportive.
But Bertie Carvel in drag as the grotesque Miss Trunchbull nearly steals the show. Resembling the living gargoyle from a famous episode of Jonny Quest (Howell also designed the clever costumes), Carvel creates a monster who still retains a touch of femininity. It’s a brilliantly funny performance in one of the best musicals Broadway has seen in years.
April 16, 2013
April 11, 2013–Jan. 1, 2017. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue
7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm.
Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $32–147.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
Reviewed by David Sheward
Stark Sands, Annaleigh Ashford, and Billy Porter
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Kinky Boots is anything but. The new musical based on the 2005 British film is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers and not the dangerous kind of footwear the title suggests. Its plot and theme are becoming old hat—sorry to mix clothing metaphors—on Broadway these days. The young hero attempts to save a reliable but crumbling institution (the family shoe factory in the north of England) by introducing a radical new product (fabulous hip-high boots designed for male cross-dressers) with the aid of an outrageously self-reliant outsider (a drag performer named Lola). It’s sort of a cross between La Cage Aux Folles and Billy Elliot with a bit of Sister Act and The Full Monty thrown in for good measure.
But with pros like director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, book-writer Harvey Fierstein, and pop icon Cyndi Lauper who is making her theatrical debut as a songwriter, on the creative team, these Boots are made for walkin’ and that’s just what they do. Fierstein’s book features the same uplifting-spirits and be-who-you-are tropes he inserted in La Cage and Newsies, but the characters are believable and deeply drawn. Even the belligerent factory homophobe changes his tune and does some growing up. Naturally, there is a crisis just before the big event, which will solve everyone’s problems (in this case, a shoe fashion show in Milan), the diva sings a power ballad of self-acceptance and love, and a big hand-clapping finale provides a happy resolution for all. Despite the predictability of the plot, Mitchell’s inventive moves and slick staging make it fun getting to the inevitable conclusion. Not surprisingly, the most exciting numbers feature a sextette of gorgeous dragsters, kicking and slinking around the stage in eye-popping frocks by designer Gregg Barnes.
Lauper’s score borrows a bit heavily from the 1980s vibe of her smash Top 40 hits (one song is too reminiscent of Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” for comfort) and her lyrics won’t be keeping Stephen Sondheim up at night. “Kitsch” and “bitch” are the most memorable rhymes. Still, as skillfully orchestrated by Stephen Oremus, they are infectious, fun, and expressive.
Broadway veteran Billy Porter, who has starred in replacement companies of Miss Saigon and Dreamgirls, finally gets to originate a sockeroo role in Lola. Yes, we have seen divine drag artists in the three productions of La Cage as well as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but Porter gives this one his own stamp. He caresses each syllable, stretching out the word to sound like “shex,” and commanding the stage with dazzling charisma. We also see the shy male inside the fierce female when Porter steps out of drag into a vest, shirt, and pants as Simon, Lola’s masculine alter ego. Stark Sands has the more difficult challenge of playing Charlie, the nebbishy factory owner, opposite the glittering Porter. He manages to enliven Charlie’s struggle to find his own passion. When the two discover their common insecurities in “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” it’s a heart-stopping moment. Annaleigh Ashford integrates endlessly fresh comic bits into the obligatory love interest role, and Daniel Stewart Sherman is suitably gruff as the bullying Dan.
Kinky Boots may not be as dazzling as the footwear on the show’s drag queens, but it’s certainly well-constructed, holds up under pressure, and will give you an entertaining two-and-a-half-hour walk.
April 6, 2013
April 4 for an open run. Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun
3pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission.
$57–137. (800) 432-7250.