Monday, 29 December 2014


It has been an extraordinary year for new American plays. I have had to cheat and add a long Honorable Mention list. In no particular order, here are my Ten (well, actually 11) Best New York productions of 2014:
APPROPRIATE and AN OCTOROON. These two very different plays demonstrate the unique talent of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. APPROPRIATE, produced at the Signature, focused on a white family in an old Southern plantation home discovering the shameful aspect of their inheritance. AN OCTOROON, produced at Soho Rep, was a dizzying revision of Dion Boucicault's nineteenth-century hit. Don't miss it when it comes to Brooklyn this Spring.
BOOTYCANDY (Playwrights Horizons). Robert O'Hara's hilarious series of sketches on growing up gay and Black.
OUR LADY OF KIBEHO (Signature). Katori Hall's absorbing play about a teenage girl who has a vision of the Virgin Mary in Rwanda shortly before the horrors that took place in that country. Michael Greif gave this captivating play a brilliant production.
FUN HOME (Public). The best new musical of 2014. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's adaptation of the classic graphic novel has three actresses playing the central character at three ages. Michael Cerveris is heartbreaking as her closeted gay father. Great score.
THE INVISIBLE HAND (New York Theatre Workshop). The mix of American capitalism and Islamic terrorism set off a powerful chain reaction in Ayed Akhtar's provocative, intelligent play.
THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE (Public). A great score by Michael Friedman, a good book by Itimar Moses, a vivid production by Daniel Aukin and a winning star turn from Adam Chanler-Berat made this story of the friendship of two boys in Brooklyn in the 1970s one of the best musicals of the year.
THE REALISTIC JONESES (Broadway). I'm not sure that Will Eno's oddball dark comedy about communication in marriage belonged in a big Broadway theatre, but it's a fascinating play. Great performances by Marisa Tomei, Tracey Letts and Michael C. Hall.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (Broadway). The most ravishingly beautiful Broadway score in years; a well-crafted book; simple, but effective staging and grand performances from Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME. I don't put this in this year's Top Ten because it is a British import and I included it last year. It's the one Broadway show that should be on everyone's must see list.
MOTHERS AND SONS (Broadway). Terrence McNally's most recent look at where gay men -- at least upper-middle-class urban gay men -- are now. The premise is a bit shaky, but the writing is beautiful.
ON THE TOWN and SIDE SHOW. Two great revivals. John Rando and Joshua Bergasse's production of the Leonard Bernstein classic ON THE TOWN is sheer magic from beginning to end. Even the dated comic scenes take on new life in this production. Bill Condon's rethinking of SIDE SHOW gives the show more coherence and emotional power than the original and Henry Krieger's score -- hardly Bernstein, but still one of the best of the past twenty years, is beautifully sung.
Conor McPherson's sad but riveting THE NIGHT ALIVE (Atlantic), Stephen Adley Guirgis's BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY (Atlantic) and Susan Lori Parks FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS (Public).
And the fabulous production of Ionesco's THE KILLERS at Theatre for a New Audience.

POCATELLO by Samuel D. Hunter at Playwrights Horizons

     As I look back on my theatergoing in 2014, two of the best performances I have seen were in plays by Samuel D. Hunter: Gideon Glick's kinetic performance in as a teenager looking for a home in THE FEW at Rattlestick and T.R. Knight's total immersion into the lonely, desperate central character in POCATELLO. Hunter is an actors' playwright. He's also a theatrical poet whose terrain is the loneliness, anger and despair people can feel in twenty-first century America. His plays are set in the area in which he grew up, the towns and highways of Idaho.
     The setting for POCATELLO, convincingly designed by Lauren Helpern, is one of those chain faux-Italian restaurants that offer large salads in plastic bowls and endless breadsticks. Within this restaurant, a group of people try to maintain a fantasy of family. Eddie (T.R. Knight), the manager, has invited his mother and his older brother and his wife who are visiting from St. Paul, to dinner. Eddie has been making a futile attempt to keep this failing restaurant afloat. His father owned a diner and killed himself when the business failed. Like everything else in this town, the restaurant Eddie manages is owned by a corporation, but Eddie cannot stand the idea of failing as his father did. He hasn't informed his workers that the restaurant is abut to shut down. Eddie wants and needs a sense of love and protection from his family, but they have moved on emotionally and geographically. His mother decided to distance herself from Eddie when she discovered he was gay. She feared that her closeness to him was a contributing factor. His brother can't stand being back in the town where his father killed himself. We see Eddie's panic mount as his behavior gets more and more erratic. A romantic would say that Eddie needs a boyfriend, a partner, but we don't see much sign that love and marriage make people happy in the land of chain restaurants and box stores. At a neighboring table we see the family of Troy (Danny Wolohan), one of Eddie's waiters. Troy's father is suffering from dementia and has been placed in the county home. He still suffers from losing the hardware store he once owned -- it has been replaced by a Home Depot. Troy's wife, who falls on and off the wagon, isn't quite ready to settle for a compromised life. Their seventeen-year-old daughter is obsessed with the poisons in everyone's food, water and air. Max (Cameron Scoggins), another waiter, has a drug problem.
     POCATELLO is a better written twenty-first century version of Eugene O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH, but here there are no pipe dreams to stave off bleak reality. Yet, unlike O'Neill's lumbering play, POCATELLO doesn't feel bleak -- and it's half as long!. Hunter clearly loves all of his characters and he has the gift, through his graceful language, of making us care for them. Here are people who lead lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation, but there is grace and sometimes humor in the way they deal with the grayness of their lives. Only poor Eddie can't find a way to move on. He keeps trying to go back to the past, but that is impossible.
     Under Davis McCallum's superb direction, the ten member cast are truly an ensemble, performing as if they have acted together for years and all totally convincing. At the center, T.R. Knight gives a beautifully nuanced performance, moving from sweetness and control to terror to heartbreak. His performance alone is reason to see POCATELLO, but it is only one of the play's many treasures.
     Don't miss it!
POCATELLO. Playwrights Horizons. December 28, 2014.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Marianne Elliott's production of Simon Stephen's dramatization of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME on Broadway

     I had seen this production in London last year and have reviewed it here (See under June, 2013). It is still a show everyone should see.
     Playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott have produced a powerful stage realization of Mark Haddon's novel. The book itself, like Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, is a classic tale of a troubled adolescent boy surrounded by mendacious grownups. Fifteen-year-old Christopher is somewhere on the autism spectrum. He cannot be touched. He's also something of a math genius. When a neighbor's dog is killed, Christopher becomes obsessed with discovering the murderer. Solving the mystery leads Christopher, who cannot tell a lie, into a web of adult weakness and deceit. The people around Christopher have their flaws, but Christopher is not easy to live with. We can sympathize with Christopher's mother's boyfriend when he shouts "Do you ever think of anyone but yourself?" Christopher's parents love the boy, but such love isn't easy.
     Haddon's novel is narrated by Christopher. The challenge of any stage production is that it must objectify a very subjective narrative. Stephens builds on the conceit of the narrative Christopher has written, which his school has turned into a theater piece. Christopher may not like theater -- actors are liars -- but the conceit allows Stephens and Elliott to turn Christopher's experience into powerful drama. A small company of actors play multiple roles to create the frightening world Christopher inhabits. Bunny Christie's set, basically a box with a grid design, Finn Ross's videos and Paule Constable's lighting create theater magic.
     The New York cast is as good as the London cast I saw. Alex Sharp makes Christopher more prickly and less sweet than Joe Gibbons, his London counterpart at my performance. That's all to the better. Christopher is probably the most emotionally and physically demanding role in contemporary theater and Sharp's energy and focus are admirable. Everyone else in the ensemble matches their London counterparts.
     It was nice to see so many teenage boys with their families at my performance. Haddon's novel is required reading in England. Clearly it is also known here in the U.S. THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME is the best thing on Broadway right now. I'm glad to see that it is a success.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME. Ethel Barrymore Theatre. December 26, 2014.  

Bill Condon's revision of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's SIDE SHOW at the St. James

     The 1997 musical SIDE SHOW had a short run even though some critics praised it and many who saw it loved it. It quickly became a cult musical, beloved by musical theater aficionados. It is brave and a bit mad to bring it back to Broadway. This production of SIDE SHOW, which has travelled to New York from the La Jolla Playhouse and the Kennedy Center, is more of a revision than a revival. Director Bill Condon has rewritten and refocussed Bill Russell's book and Henry Krieger's score contains some new songs. This "new and improved" version of the show has suffered the same fate as the original. It's closing next week after a run of three months.
     It was clear at last night's performance that the extremely enthusiastic audience loved the show. Why is this critically praised production a commercial flop once again? The fate of SIDE SHOW says a lot about the current state of Broadway. Successful Broadway shows are now brands that are marketed worldwide. Like McDonalds, Disney's THE LION KING, which opened the same season as SIDE SHOW, is everywhere. It is the perfect example of the musical as a product. Universal's WICKED repeated the process. Tourists and folks who may see one Broadway show a year flock to these shows rather than try something new. Disney can pour infinite amounts of money into marketing their shows. One cannot blame Disney for the fate of SIDE SHOW and the other recent musical productions that are faltering at the box office (ON THE TOWN and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS are barely holding on and THE LAST SHIP has been saved from sinking by Sting's willingness to join the cast). Broadway audiences aren't willing to gamble when tickets are insanely expensive. I saw SIDE SHOW, ON THE TOWN, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS and THE LAST SHIP for $45 thanks to my tdf membership, but a show cannot survive when a sizeable percentage of the audience is paying half or  a quarter of the regular ticket price. Frankly, in the current climate, you'd have to be certifiably insane to invest in a Broadway musical. Last season the producers of the quirky, delightful GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER kept a losing venture alive for over six months in the hopes of help from the Tony Awards. In a season of mediocre musicals (except for the superb BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, another example of audiences avoiding a really fine musical), GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE swept the Tonys and has been a hit ever since. How many investors can afford to pour money into a losing venture for months in hopes of a win at the Tonys? Maybe you have to be equally insane to invest $150 or more in a ticket to a Broadway show -- and there is the major problem. No wonder people want to go to shows that offer them some social status -- "I saw THE BOOK OF MORMON on Broadway!"). There are a batch of new musicals and revivals (GIGI again -- why??) coming in this Spring, most notably AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Good luck to them all. We'll see which of them is still running at the end of 2015.
     Back to SIDE SHOW. Fans of the show know that it is the story of the conjoined twins the Violet and Daisy Hilton (Erin Davie and Emily Padgett). In this much improved version, we follow them from the moment they are discovered at a touring freak show by Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) an ambitious producer of vaudeville acts and his choreographer friend, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), to their discovery by Hollywood director Tod Browning, who put them in his classic 1932 film FREAKS. The show also traces the sisters' discovery of love. Terry loves Daisy, put can only conceive of a relationship with her if she is surgically separated from her sister (possible, but one sister is likely to die in the process). Buddy is gay, but sees a relationship with Violet as a possible salvation from loneliness. The wedding is a giant publicity stunt that will catapult the sisters into even greater celebrity. There is more of the sisters' back story than there was in the original version and less focus on the potential kinkiness of any attempt at a sexual relationship. Moving Buddy's sexuality from subtext to text makes his behavior more coherent. The girls sing "I Want to Be Like Everyone Else." Of course, they can't be. Nor can the gay man or the African-American in 1932. This is a fascinating story well told. Henry Krieger's score is terrific, Bill Russell's lyrics less so. Yes, this is a fine musical that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
     Bill Condon's production is excellent. David Rockwell's sets are simple, but highly effective. Paul Tazewell's costumes move us from the tawdry world of the freak show to glitzy vaudeville numbers. The cast is uniformly fine. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett look like twins, but delineate their differences in personality, particularly in the second act where they are at odds -- How do you fight with a conjoined twin? How can you possibly have a moment to yourself, much less intimacy with a lover? More important, they sing together magnificently. Silverman and Hydzik make their character's dilemmas convincing. David St. Louis is superb as the devoted African-American protector of the twins, He deserves the ovations he gets for his three big numbers. Robert Joy is appropriately sleazy as the freak show producer.
     One observation. At the intermission there was no line at the ladies' room and a long line at the men's room. There were also a number of gay couples and groups of gay men in the lobby. Show queens are an aging breed, but we're not extinct yet.
     Our audience loved every moment of the show. Thanks to all involved in gambling on Broadway success for the show. If I offered stars, SIDE SHOW would get five out of five. *****
SIDE SHOW. St. James Theatre. December 27, 2014.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

ON THE TOWN at the Lyric Theatre

     This is the fifth revival of ON THE TOWN I have seen and the only one that totally works. There was one in the early 1970s directed and choreographed by Ron Field with Bernadette Peters as Hildy, the horny cab driver and Phyllis Newman as the equally horny anthropologist. That one suffered from the problem that besets many choreographers. ON THE TOWN is a dance show with a series of long dance numbers, one dream ballet after another. The original production was a vehicle for the young choreographic genius Jerome Robbins. Ron Field was no Jerome Robbins and the extended dance numbers kept repeating the same steps. Nor did he really have a take on the dated comic book scenes. The next revival in the 1990s, directed by George C. Wolfe was a general mess. About ten years ago the English National Opera mounted a revival in London. Stephen Mears' choreography was food and the principals were all fine, but the production looked cheap and the book scenes needed better pacing. About five years ago the Paper Mill Playhouse revived the show -- the best production I have seen until this one. The score to ON THE TOWN by the young Leonard Bernstein is brilliant. As everyone knows, the MGM film contains few of the original songs -- the powers that be at the studio thought the score too difficult.  the lyrics (Betty Comden andAdolph Green) better in the comic songs than in the ballads. The challenge of producing the show is that the humor is a bit dated and heavy-handed for audience who have lived through sixty plus years of television sitcoms. It takes a very good director and a cast of inventive comic performers to make the long comic scenes work. They can seem to go on forever, particularly when you've seen them a number of times before. It's also a little hard to believe that sailors, even in 1944, were as innocent and virginal as the three central characters of ON THE TOWN.
     ON THE TOWN began as a ballet, FANCY FREE, choreographed by Jerome Robbins to music by Leonard Bernstein. The ballet was such a success that the two, joined by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, decided to turn it into a musical. The story is simple. Three sailors are on twenty-four hour shore leave in New York CIty. Gaby (Tony Yazbeck) falls in love with the picture of Miss Turnstiles (Megan Fairchild) and decides to hunt for her. His friends Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (understudy Cory Lingner at my performance) decide to join in the search but get waylaid; Chip by an anthropologist (Elizabeth Stanley) and Ozzie by a cab driver (Alysha Umphress). A good time is had by all. On this simple story hangs a gorgeous score.
     This production of ON THE TOWN, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, is not only the best production of ON THE TOWN I have seen. It is also one of the best revivals of any musical I have seen. Through clever stylized movement, fine casting and excellent pacing, John Rando makes even the book scenes click. That's no easy feat with this show. I could say that even the book scenes seem to dance. The musical staging is constantly inventive and thrilling. The three sailors sing, dance and act brilliantly. From the second row Tony Yazbeck seems a bit too old for the role of Gaby, particularly when twenty-three year old Cory Lingner is playing Ozzie. Lingner has the right callow look for a young sailor. Yazbeck has a lovely singing voice. New York City Ballet prima ballerina Megan Fairchild dances beautifully (of course). Junoesque Alysha Umphress is a fine singer and comic as is Elizabeth Stanley. Jackie Hoffman is hilarious in four character parts. Beowulf Borritt's sets are beautiful as are Jess Goldstein's costumes. The ensemble dances up a storm and a thirty-plus piece orchestra plays the Bernstein score superbly.
     This ON THE TOWN deserves the critical raves it has received. The audience clearly loved it.
ON THE TOWN. Lyric Theatre. December 19, 2014.