Friday, 30 December 2016

DEAR EVAN HANSEN by Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

     This deeply moving, original, intimate musical deserves its success. It's alway refreshing to see a musical that is not based on a movie, but DEAR EVAN HANSEN is one of the few musicals I have seen with a book so strong that it could stand alone as a play. This is not to denigrate in any way the work of songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Their songs do what songs in a good musical should do--deepen the characters and their relationships. They are as heartfelt as Levenson's book. There's not a wasted moment in this show. It's a textbook example of the ideal of the integrated musical we have talked and written about since OKLAHOMA.
     Evan Hansen is a teenager with what is now called social anxiety disorder. He is frightened of contact with his peers but also deeply lonely--in need of that contact. Like many teens (and a lot of their elders), he feels shut off from the "normal" world. The child of a poor single mother, he dreams of being part of a real nuclear family. During the course of the show he gets caught up in a lie that, like many lies, gets bigger. Evan's therapist has told him to write a daily letter to himself. He shows one of those notes to an even more troubled teen, Connor Murphy, who later commits suicide with Evan's note in his pocket. Evan claims to be Connor's best friend (he barely knew him), and a lie becomes a myth and Evan becomes an internet sensation. Connor's family treats him as their surrogate son and Connor's sister and Evan begin a relationship. The lie has liberated Evan but it has also trapped him.
      This is a small show--only eight characters--but that is it's virtue. There's no unnecessary spectacle. Everything is character oriented. It reminded me of another rich intimate musical, NEXT TO NORMAL. The songs grow organically out of dialogue. They always seem in character.
     DEAR EVAN HANSEN is also a vehicle for the extraordinarily talented Ben Platt. Here is one of those ideal marriages of character and performer. Platt so thoroughly embodies his character that I can't imagine anyone else playing it. And what a singer! A rich baritone chest voice and an amazing falsetto. A friend has called Platt "the next Ethel Merman." He is an amazing singer, but the comparison isn't totally apt. Merman couldn't act anything but herself. Platt fully channels Evan Hansen. The supporting cast is Broadway standard--the highest compliment one can give. Everyone is top notch. They all maintain the show's honesty. Michael Greif has staged the musical beautifully. The simple scenery flows on and off as gracefully as the actors move. I love the way Greif uses space. The distance between characters becomes part of the story.
      The audience last night was full of young people. DEAR EVAN HANSEN also speaks to old codgers like me. We've all felt like Evan Hansen at some time in our lives.


OK, here goes, in no particular order:
VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen. This may be the most brilliantly clever work I saw in 2016. Nguyen has mixed various popular cultural forms from Kung Fu movies, to comic books to rap to create a theatrical picture of the romance of his parents, two young Vietnamese who feel lost in America in the 1970s.
FALSETTOS by William Finn and James Lapine. A heartfelt revival of this AIDS-era musical with nary a false moment. The cast couldn't be better. Funny and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
SHE LOVES ME by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joe Masterhoff. Another perfectly cast revival of a classic musical. Even better than the original production.
RED SPEEDO by Lucas Hnath. A powerful picture of American corruption and the commodification of people that is right up there in quality and intensity with works like Arthur Miller's ALL MY SONS and Clifford Odet's GOLDEN BOY. This deserves to be considered a contemporary classic.
THE HARVEST by Samuel D. Hunter. A church basement containing a group of lost young people about to go save souls in the Middle East. A sweet, but powerful picture of people who feel the need for faith and religious ecstasy.
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard. An extremely inventive look at American racism through a middle-school assembly.
WILD by Mike Bartlett. I saw this in London but it is bound to come to New York. A funny, scary riff on Edward Snowden that asks whether meaningful, heroic action is possible in the 21st century.
INDECENT by Paula Vogel. A powerful celebration of theatre and lgbt history. This is the story of the first American production of Sholem Asch's play GOD OF VENGEANCE which had at its center a lesbian romance. It's moving to Broadway. Don't miss it.
HOMOS by Jordan Seavey. Here's an intimate little play that asks the big questions about being gay and same-sex love in the 21st century.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Without a doubt, the best new musical of 2016. Strong book, lovely score, superb performances and a touching story everyone can relate to.

MY BEST ACTING AWARDS this year go mainly to ENSEMBLES in which it is impossible to single out on Best Actor: the casts of FALSETTOS, SHE LOVES ME, and INDECENT.
Nor can one choose between two brilliant DUETS: Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, who are amazing in their various split-second transformations in UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME or Michael Urie and Robin De Jesus who play off of each other so brilliantly in HOMOS.
Ben Platt gives a SOLO performance in DEAR EVAN HANSEN that must be seen to be believed. Never out of character whether acting or singing, Platt fully inhabits his troubled character.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

THE MIKADO performed by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players

     I have never been a great Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast. I had friends in high school and college who loved G&S (I doubt that would be the case today). There were (and still are in some places), local G&S societies who mount an annual production. I was once involved in a production that almost destroyed Princeton's G&S society but that's another story. All this is a preface to the fact that I don't go out of my way to attend G&S productions. When I do, I am always more impressed with the music than I expected. Though the lyrics are often amusing, I find the books a bit twee now.
     My husband asked at the intermission of this production of THE MIKADO why G&S never led to anything else in England. Opera and musical theatre have never thrived in England, at least not until Benjamin Britten came along. For all his popularity, one can't rank Andrew Lloyd Webber with the great composers of American musicals and Lloyd Webber has always been indifferent to the mediocre lyrics attached to his songs. It was American composers like Gershwin who adored G&S and tried to write in their vein (listen to the album of the first, commercially unsuccessful version of STRIKE UP THE BAND).
      So, at my husband's insistence, we went to THE MIKADO, produced by the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, the major professional organization devoted to the works of G&S. The group had planned a production a few years ago and had to cancel it because of protests about a Yellow Face production that mocked Asians. So the group rethought their production and have mounted it a Gilbert's dream with the citizens of Titipu in outlandish Victorian costumes. Why not?--the work has nothing at all to do with Japan. The set was a version of Japan out of a woodblock rather than personal observation. thirty years ago, Jonathan Miller set THE MIKADO in a resort hotel in the 1920s complete with tap-dancing maids and bellhops and guests in evening dress. That production is still in the repertoire of the English National Opera.
     Once again I was pleasantly surprised at how good Sullivan's music is -- not great, but very good. The musical values of this production were excellent. Fine singing, good orchestra. However, all the camping and shameless mugging of the principals reminded me of why I don't like productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. This kind of awful hamminess seems to go with the territory. At times the camping of the male principals seemed like a Victorian version of THE BOYS IN THE BAND. The jokes might have landed better with some underplaying. However, the audience was obviously full of fans of G&S and of this company and seemed to relish every moment.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Richard Greenberg's THE BABYLON LINE at Lincoln Center Theater

     Richard Greenberg's plays have been produced in New York for three decades now, so we know what to expect--highly literate, witty, bittersweet depictions of middle-class, usually Jewish life. There is often an uptight man and a charismatic woman at the center. Yes, I know, his most successful play, TAKE ME OUT, doesn't fit this description. Structure has never been Greenberg's strong suit. His plays tend to ramble in ways that might work well in a novel but don't necessarily work on stage. THE BABYLON LINE is an enjoyable, though flawed, play superbly acted.
     The play takes place in a classroom in Levittown, Long Island in 1967, that cusp year before all the revolutions of 1968. Vietnam was already causing a radical split in the country, second wave feminism was beginning, sexual freedom was in the air. In this classroom and atmosphere, Aaron Port (Josh Radnor), is conducting an adult education creative writing class. Most of the Jewish housewives in the class are there because their first choice course was full. There's also a middle-aged veteran and a strange young man. Aaron Port has had one story published but so far has not shown any writing potential himself. Nor does he display any talent as a teacher. The three housewives--are they the fates or the furies?--are dominated by Frieda Cohen (Randy Graff), a ruthless, outspoken defender of the Levittown way of life. Her companions Anna (Maddie Corman), and Midge (Julie Halston), both suffer quietly from unhappy marriages. Despite Frieda's protestations, Levittown doesn't seem to be the ideal neighborhood pictured in the ads. The wild card in the class is Joan Dellamond (Elizabeth Reaser), who seems to represent the liberations that are taking place outside this classroom. Joan has literally imprisoned herself in her own home for seven years. As Frieda points out, no one in Levittown knows her. Joan is terrified of the judgments of these women (for good reason). She is the only woman who has come to this class because she really wants to write and what she writes are stories of entrapment and domestic violence--punching her equally agoraphobic husband and literally kicking a baby who has accidentally crawled into her living room. Joan wants the class to be artistically liberating. She also wants a bit of sexual liberation with Aaron who, though disdainful of the world of Levittown, is as conventional as Frieda.
     The classroom scenes are very well written. They are sometimes funny, but often filled with tension, particularly in the battles between Frieda and Joan who from the outset see each other as enemies. The best scene in the play is the one in which they are alone in the classroom. Yet, as usual with Greenberg's plays, THE BABYLON LINE desperately needs editing. Aaron's character is little more than a cipher, yet he narrates the play and functions as its central character. He's a writing teacher who can neither publish nor teach--he ends up as a successful television writer, which is probably anathema to Greenberg. He spurns Joan's blatant advances but doesn't seem more than comfortable in his marriage. Greenberg never makes clear what Aaron wants, which makes him difficult to act. Josh Radnor has to hold his part and the play together by the force of his own personality. The second major problem with the play is that Greenberg has provided too many endings. Aaron narrates the play as an old man in the present and tells us the fate of each of the characters, then tells us to forget all he has narrated in the past fifteen minutes and gives us the final scene between Aaron and Joan, yet another scene of Joan advancing and Aaron retreating. Did we really need to move beyond the confines of the classroom in 1967?  Did we need another spurned seduction?
     Elizabeth Reaser has a tendency to deliver all of her lines in the same plaintive tone. Joan is a tough cookie who becomes a feminist icon--why is Reaser delivering her lines like she's playing Laura in THE GLASS MENAGERIE? Randy Graff, Maddie Corman and Julie Halston bring humor and complexity to their parts. Frank Wood is convincing as the male voice of suburban discontent.
Terry Kinney has given a relatively static play some convincing movement and the right rhythm.
     THE BABYLON LINE has some fine moments but doesn't totally cohere.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Sutton Foster in SWEET CHARITY Presented by The New Group

          SWEET CHARITY has always been an odd duck of a musical comedy. Bob Fosse created it as a vehicle for his muse and ex-wife Gwen Verdon. Based on Federico Fellini's film NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, created for his wife, Giulietta Massina, SWEET CHARITY boasted top level creative talent, composer Cy Coleman, lyricist Dorothy Fields and book writer Neil Simon. The Coleman score is his best and Fields' lyrics perfectly capture the major characters. The problem for audiences used to more integrated numbers is that Fosse also insisted on novelty numbers that could showcase his choreography. So the show stops so Charity (Sutton Foster) and her new beau, the dangerously neurotic Oscar (Shuler Hensley) can go to a beatnik church for a novelty number, "The Rhythm of Life" and stop again right before the denouement for "I Love to Cry at Weddings." Old fashioned musicals did this, even in the mid-1960s (think "Turkey Turkey Time" from PROMISES, PROMISES). One has to accept this convention and enjoy the numbers for their own sake. The major problem with reviving SWEET CHARITY fifty years after its opening is that it is no longer possible to laugh at the awful things that happen to the central character. This revival, directed by Leigh Silverman, takes Charity's. situation seriously while keeping much of the fun in the show.
      Charity is what used to be called a "taxi dancer," a girl you hired by the minute (remember the Rodgers and Hart song, "Ten Cents a Dance"), to dance with and be nice to paying male customers. In our less subtle age, they have been replaced by pole dancers. Charity's problem is, as she confesses, that she's "too giving," particularly of her sexual favors. She wants desperately to be loved but picks the wrong men to love her. The men in this musical are a pretty rum bunch. Silverman has rearranged the order of scenes and songs to allow us to take Charity seriously, ending with Charity at a kind of crossroads, realizing that she can't continue to live her life as she has. Unlike her cynical colleagues at the ballroom, Charity is a hopeless optimist. By the end, she has grown up a bit.
      The New Group has given SWEET CHARITY a fine, small-scale production. Silverman's staging on the thrust stage flows beautifully. Joshua Bergasse isn't Fosse, but the choreography is more than good enough. The cast couldn't be better. Sutton Foster can't do vulnerable as well as Verdon did, but she is winning as this cockeyed optimist. And, of course, she sings splendidly. She's not as good a dancer as Verdon, but that's setting the highest possible standard. Shuler Hensley makes the neurotic Oscar a real character. Joel Perez is excellent in all the other male leading roles. Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett sing and dance superbly as Charity's sidekicks. The rest of the company are of the amazingly high caliber one expects in a New York musical. Special kudos to the six piece all-female band. Bravos all around.  

Friday, 23 December 2016


     I had not seen this work in its earlier incarnations. Stodgy old me didn't like the idea of a musical in a faux nightclub where I would have been surrounded by people eating borscht and drinking vodka. So I waited to see it at the Imperial Theatre, which has been turned into a faux nightclub where there is no food and only the usual drink seller. Still, I sat next to a tiny nightclub table with a cute little lamp on it. Actually the transformation of the Imperial Theatre (aptly named for this adaptation of a section of WAR AND PEACE) into a large night club is one of the most impressive aspects of NATASHA, PIERRE, etc. Performers are everywhere--even on a playing area halfway up in the rear mezzanine. Director Rachel Chavkin and her designer Mimi Lien have created a thrilling piece of environmental theater inside an old Broadway barn. Even the entrance lobby of the Imperial has been transformed to look temporary. The old chandeliers have been replaced by fluorescent strips. I particularly like the witty imitations of the Metropolitan Opera's chandeliers. Like those at the Met, these rise and fall on cue. The central one becomes the comet Pierre sees.
     Dave Malloy has chosen an early section of WAR AND PEACE. Headstrong teenage aristocrat Natasha has been betrothed to Andrei, despite the disapproval of Andrei's eccentric old father. When Andrei goes off to fight Napoleon, Natasha is restless and lonely, easy prey for a rake like Anatole, who is the brother-in-law of Pierre, a very lost young man interested only in reading mystical works and drinking himself into a stupor. Natasha is saved from ruin through the intervention of her sensible, devoted sister, Sonya and her strong mother but is so heartbroken that she attempts suicide. Pierre goes to console her but ends up declaring his love. He is trapped in a miserably unhappy marriage to Helene, who despises him and openly flaunts her adulteries. The musical ends with the moment Pierre sees the comet and vows to give his life some purpose. As you can see, a lot happens in NATASHA, PIERRE, etc., and all of it, save one crucial line, is sung.
     My problem with the musical is that except for Pierre's music, beautifully sung by Josh Groban, and a song Sonya (Brittain Ashford), has about her relationship with her sister, I don't care much for the music. I emphasize that this is my problem. The score is certainly eclectic--some heavy rock, some quasi Russian, some ballads. Little is melodic in a conventional sense. Malloy's lyrics often seem to be more prose than poetry--at times they seem like bad translations of lyrics written in another language. A lot of the score sounds like recitative. It's not as clumsy as the four note recits in shows like EVITA or LES MISERABLES, but his music seems to be accompanying the words and not always having much intrinsic interest. Not caring for much of the music in a show that is all music is a problem.  
     Given this, the production is brilliant. As always in New York, the cast is brimming with talent. Denee Benton is a beautiful, mercuric Natasha with a lovely singing voice. Groban moves and acts like a defeated man. Lucas Steele has been directed to play Anatole as a cartoon cad, but he sings superbly. This is Tolstoy on steroids, not a proper Masterpiece Theatre version. It's great theatre, less great musical theatre.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Nicky Silver's THIS DAY FORWARD at the Vineyard Theatre

     Sorry, New York TIMES, I really liked this show. Yes, it had the usual elements of a Nicky Silver piece, a monster Jewish mother and her neurotic gay son who cannot maintain a relationship, but in THIS DAY FORWARD, Silver is interested in the causes of the neuroses. Act One is set in a hotel room in 1958. Martin (Michael Crane) and Irene (Holly Fain) have just gotten married and are settling in for their wedding night. Irene is avoiding Martin's advances while she trues to tell him the truth--that she doesn't love him and is in love and carrying on a passionate affair with Emil, an auto mechanic. Emil arrives on the scene along with a Polish-born hotel maid and her thieving bellhop son with whom she constantly fights.. What ensues may seem to be typical bedroom farce, but Silver is particularly interested in Irene's character. It is 1958 and nice Jewish girls like Irene are supposed to snag successful husbands like Martin. Irene is looking for emotional and sexual fulfillment. Act II takes place in 2004 in the apartment of Irene and Martin's son Noah (also Michael Crane), a playwright eying a more lucrative career in television. Noah has a sweet younger lover Leo (Andrew Burnap), whom he doesn't treat very well. Irene (June Gable), is now beginning to have spells of dementia. She lives with Noah's sister, Sheila, who no longer can deal with her alternating periods of dementia and cruelty. Neither Noah or Sheila have much feeling for their parents. Martin was an abusive father and Irene an indifferent mother and their children still suffer from the battle scars of being raised in that unhappy household. Only sweet Leo offers to take care of Irene, but Noah viciously rejects him. As always in Silver plays, the mother has some brilliant zingers and June Gable makes the most of them, yet she always stays rooted in a rich, sympathetic characterization.
     THIS DAY FORWARD is not the collection of funny, cruel one-liners that have dominated Silver's recent plays. It is far more rooted in character. It is funny, but also more character driven. Irene, young and old, is a fascinating character, the centerpiece of a play filled with rich characters.
     Mark Brokaw has paced the play perfectly and the ensemble couldn't be better. June Gable offers star turns as the Polish maid in Act I and the older Irene. Holly Fain's younger Irene is blithely unaware of her own selfishness and callousness. Michael Crane is a baffled Martin in Act I and in Act II a self-absorbed man who is prone to cruelty. Andrew Burnap is convincing both as the larcenous bellhop and the sweet, devoted lover in Act II.
     I saw the last performance of THIS DAY FORWARD. The play deserves a future in regional theatre and beyond. It is one of Silver's best.

THE BAND'S VISIT at the Atlantic Theater Company

     THE BAND'S VISIT is a charming, intimate play with music, but I couldn't help feeling the it would have been even better with more music and a stronger sense of continuity from the director, David Cromer.
      The story is a simple one. A group of Egyptian musicians hired to play at the opening of a Pan-Arabian Cultural Center in an Israeli city, Petah Tikva, get the name wrong and end up in tiny village of Bet Hatikva. With no bus until the next day, the musicians are hosted by the lonely, forlorn villagers who are delighted at any break from their routine. In good American musical theater style, the villagers are changed for the better by this brief alien invasion. A young man gets over his shyness around women with the help of an Egyptian trumpet player. The clarinetist helps heal the rift between a young married couple. The forlorn conductor (Tony Shaloub, the master at playing forlorn characters), is able briefly to lift the cynicism of the town's female innkeeper. Music heals. In this case, it heals loneliness. Yet THE BAND'S VISIT is skimpy on music. The conceit seems to be that the residents of the village don't have music in their lives until the musicians arrive. Still, I kept thinking, "This is a musical. Why are these people talking so much?" Most of the songs go to one character, the lonely innkeeper, Dina (Katrina Lenk). Music could also have provided more continuity between scenes. Even though the show is played on a revolve, the show has too much of a sense of stop and start. It could flow better. Cromer did bring a sense of depth and authenticity to the characters but he seemed more interested in the book scenes than in the musical numbers. I did like the way he used every inch of the stage space.
     The conceit of the production is that some of the Egyptian band members are also the instrumentalists for the musical numbers. They wander onto the stage as needed to accompany songs. Indeed, one of the high points of the show is the moment after the curtain call when the Egyptian band finally plays together. The audience loves it, but I wondered why that moment couldn't have been integrated into the final scene of the show. David Yazbek has never been my favorite Broadway composer, but his songs for this show, often with an Arab or Israeli inflection, are solid and his lyrics witty and often eloquent. Itamar Moses has written some lovely short scenes.
     Even with its flaws, I found THE BAND'S VISIT thoroughly enjoyable greatly because of its excellent cast. Tony Shaloub is always enjoyable and he is surrounded by a superb ensemble. I was particularly impressed by Daniel David Stewart as the shy young man and Ari'el Stachel as the Egyptian Lothario who teaches him courtship. John Cariani is affecting as the sweet but feckless husband. We've seen Dina's character in many musicals--the lonely woman who takes affection where she can find it--but Katrina Lenk makes the most of the songs she is given.
     THE BAND'S VISIT is a sellout hit at the Atlantic and there is talk of a Broadway transfer. Will it lose its sweetness in a big Broadway house?

Monday, 21 November 2016

RANCHO VIEJO by Dan LeFranc at Playwrights Horizons

     The first question retiree Pete (Mark Blum), asks his wife Mary (Mare Winningham), in Dan LeFranc's weird, enjoyable play is "Are you happy?" I'm not sure how anyone could be happy living with Pete, who obsesses more on the lives of people he doesn't know than on the needs of his own wife. Mary hasn't thought much about whether she is happy and, when she does start thinking, she finds her marriage unsatisfying. Nobody seems to think much in this play filled with characters whose lives seem to be lived totally on the surface and who seem to have no meaningful connections at home or among their so-called friends. RANCHO VIEJO is named after the California subdivision where these characters live. One unchanging living-room set serves as the domestic spaces of four different married couples. Clearly their homes are interchangeable. One character speaks in Spanish, which only her husband can understand, but the other characters listen intently as if they understand. Their conversations in English don't suggest much connection. Pete and Mary have a gift for saying the wrong thing in every social situation. One neighbor has a hole in her eye that makes it impossible for her to see heads, so recognizing people is a problem. Even the dog seems oblivious to its master and mistress.
      Mary seeks solace in art, but it isn't clear what spiritual enrichment can come from the pictures of whales that she admires. She hopes a shared love of art will provide some connection with her friends, but that seems doubtful. A neighbor has written a book that uses culinary imagery to convey life lessons. He wants Mary to create the cover art even though it isn't clear that she can draw or paint. Tate (Ethan Dubin), a rather strange young man who appears mysteriously in people's houses, forces Pete to watch his artistic creation, a bizarre dance that seems part martial arts, part pole dance. The dance may represent Tate's inner self (if he or any other character in the play has such a thing), but Pete totally rejects it. Toward the end of the play, Mary asks Pete, "Am I art?" It's a nonsensical question to which Pete tries to give a rational, comforting answer but it belies the bafflement these characters experience if they start reflecting on their hollow existence.
     I recount these details to give you a sense of the play's bizarre vision of meaninglessness and disconnection. RANCHO VIEJO is funny in places. It's an oddball vision of suburban life. The first two acts of this three-and-a-quarter hour play are static and repetitive. This is more an observation than a criticism. LeFranc is showing us static, repetitive lives. The two acts are never dull. Act Three takes Pete on an odd, funny, fascinating nighttime odyssey.
     Daniel Aukin has given the play the sweet, somewhat surreal atmosphere it needs. The cast is excellent, particularly Blum, who gives Pete, the central character, a sweet, kooky quality. I loved watching Julia Duffy's face in the group scenes. Everyone acts as if this were a realistic play. The style is a mix of American domestic realism and absurdist dramas like Ionesco's work and Albee's THE AMERICAN DREAM. Here, however, these vacuous folk are immensely likable.
     I thoroughly enjoyed RANCHO VIEJO. If I had any reservation, it is that the cozy resolution seemed unearned and unconvincing.  

Thursday, 17 November 2016

HOMOS: OR EVERYONE IN AMERICA by Jordan Seavey presented by Labyrinth Theater Company

     In the affecting, often funny HOMOS, Jordan Seavey takes a relatively standard narrative for romantic drama and film--lovers "meet cute," fall in love, fight, break up, reunite after one is badly injured--and uses it as a platform for arguments about contemporary racial, gender and gay politics. What makes HOMOS original is Seavey's non-linear arrangement of events.
     For some reason, Seavey's lovers aren't given names, but are known only by their profession (The Academic, The Writer). This only makes sense of these characters are generic (are there generic writers and academics?). The Writer has written a short story that bears many similarities to Seavey's play, THE TRUTH WILL OUT. Are we, perhaps to see the play as autobiographical? The Writer is a Jewish atheist whose political views are often less logical than passionate. The Academic (his fields are gender and media studies) easily pokes holes in the writer's lack of logic. From what we see, the two spend most of their  time together arguing. In fact, as I watched the play, I couldn't help but wonder what kept these guys together beyond a need to be with someone. As in many dramas we categorize as gay plays, the lovers spend a lot of time arguing about what it means to be gay. Monogamy is a key issue: The Writer wants to experiment but The Academic wants a stable, committed relationship.  Seavey also wants us to see that being gay can still be perilous, even in trendy Brooklyn.
     My summary makes the play seem more hackneyed than it is. Seavey knows how to write vibrant dialogue and the non-linear time frame keeps the audience absorbed in putting the pieces together. HOMOS is thoroughly enjoyable even if we have the sense at times that we've been there before. What makes the play more than the sum of its parts is its presentation. Like Mike Bartlett's COCK, HOMOS is given a stripped down, minimalist production. No set except a window, few props, no costume changes for the principals who barely leave the stage. In the tiny Bank Street Theatre, the playing area is about as wide as a hallway. The audience is so close to the actors that we could touch them. The success of the production depends on the actors and Seavey and his director Mike Donohue couldn't have a better pair than Michael Urie and Robin De Jesus. There's a real challenge to acting that close to an audience, particularly in a play as emotionally raw as this one. Any inauthenticity ruins the performance. These two fine actors make what could be cliched moments believable. Regular New York theatergoers know how well Michael Urie can win over an audience. Is there a more charming performer? His character is deeply flawed, but Urie makes us see how someone could fall in love with him. De Jesus, usually a featured performer in musicals (he won a Tony for his performance in IN THE HEIGHTS), has the greater challenge as his character is more emotionally raw, more vulnerable. It's not always easy to modulate the big moments he is given in such a small space. He never overdoes it. When he cries out that he needs to be held, it's hard to resist reaching out and comforting him. As I walked back to the subway I pondered what the play would be like with other actors in the roles. It will happen, of course, but I'm glad I got to see these two fine performers work together so brilliantly. Aaron Costa Ganis and Stacey Sargent are fine in small supporting roles but the play belongs to the two leads who give real star turns. Mike Donahue has crafted the perfect production for this play.
     I hope Labyrinth can extend this superb production so more folks can see Urie and De Jesus work together in this enjoyable, often moving play.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

SWEAT by Lynn Nottage at the Public

     SWEAT couldn't be more timely. Here's a play about the sort of folk who enthusiastically voted for Donald Trump, the men and women who no longer trust any aspect of the system. The plant owners are asking for 60% pay cuts or they'll move to Mexico, which they are already stealthily starting to do. The unions do nothing except offer supermarket vouchers to factory workers who have been locked out. George W. Bush's face is on the television screen (it is interesting that it is Bush's face we see--the play is set in 2000, the end of Bill Clinton's era of prosperity), but we don't hear his voice. Politicians don't care about Reading, Pennsylvania, the depressed area where SWEAT takes place. Lynn Nottage's play has powerful moments, yet there is something that rings false about the play. The characters are far more sententious than they would be. Nottage went to Reading and interviewed a number of people. The result is that the play seems to hover between realistic drama and docudrama. In docudrama, in which actors present the voices of real people, we expect paragraphs rather than sentences. In realistic drama, characters don't constantly give speeches to each other. SWEAT is also a barroom drama, a genre that seems to allow for more speechifying (think of O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH, in which characters speak in very long paragraphs). The second act, in which tensions come to a violent head, is far more  effective than the talky first act. I kept asking myself during the first act, "Where is this going?"
     Nottage's play focuses on the friendship of three women who work together on a factory assembly line. The sons of two of the women also work on the line. This is the expected life of workers at this plant. As Tracey, the meanest and seemingly toughest of the women, tells us, her father worked on the line, and now her son does. The jobs are family legacies. Racism is not an issue here, Tracey's best friend, Cynthia, is Black; Tracey's son Jason, and Cynthia's son, Chris, are best friends. Yet racial difference is an issue. For all their closeness, Tracey and Cynthia, Jason and Chris, see their positions in their world very differently. Chris wants to get away from the plant and go to college. The men in this world are already beaten down. Tracey's husband is dead; Cynthia's husband, already out of work, walks around in a drug-induced haze. Stan, the bartender, is maimed from an accident on the assembly line.
      There is a more crucial racial-ethnic element in the play. Oscar, American-born but of Colombian descent, quietly goes about his menial tasks in the bar. Tracey, the most voluble and least sympathetic of the characters, calls him a Puerto Rican and tells him that work in the factory is not for his kind of people. Tracey proudly tells him that her people have been in reading since 1920. To Tracey, Oscar is not an American. The play moves toward violence (egged on by Tracey), when Oscar takes a job as a "scab" at the factory that has locked out Tracey, her son and her friends.
     The action in 2000 is framed by events eight years later when we see the fallout from the violence in the bar and further economic depression in Reading. In SWEAT it is the whites who cannot cope with change, who fester from their lack of empowerment. The subtext of the play is the necessity of adaptability. Anger only backfires.
      There are powerful moments in SWEAT, but their are flaws. The framing scenes of Jason and Chris talking to their parole officer are out of television drama. This sort of post-prison counseling is done so well on RECTIFY (one of the best shows on television), that here these scenes seem formulaic. The socio-economic reversals at the end aren't totally convincing. I found Tracey such a monster that I had no sympathy for her.
    The ensemble couldn't be better. It is impossible to single anyone out. Kate Whoriskey has given the play as much of a sense of authenticity as the script allows. John Lee Beatty's set is totally convincing.    

Monday, 24 October 2016

Mikhail Baryshnikov in LETTER TO A MAN by Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson

     After reading some of the negative reviews, I dreaded seeing LETTER TO A MAN. The reviewers seemed to find it incoherent and dull. We (my husband and I) found it fascinating and quite clear in its intention. This is not a conventional play based on Nijinsky's mad memoir, but a dreamlike meditation on madness. The Nijinsky we see is not the great dancer-choreographer in one of his famous costumes, but a madman dressed like a mid-twentieth century cabaret performer (think of Joel Grey in CABARET). Reminiscences come into play here, but the work is more about obsessions--repeated words and phrases, stunning visual images, quirky movement to a soundscape filled with all sorts of musical fragments. There is no conventional chronology, no realistic sense of time or place. One accepts this work by its own rules or is alienated by it -- or both.
     At sixty-eight, Baryshnikov, one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth-century (I am glad I saw him in his prime with ABT and the City Ballet), is still a potent performer. Baryshnikov has always been open to new challenges. He moves gracefully and is blessed with an expressive face. He uses it more like a mime or clown than a serious actor, but that is what the part calls for.
     If you want a biographical piece on the subject, go to works like the 1980s film NIJINSKY. LETTER TO A MAN is far more abstract and poetic.

FALSETTOS by William Finn and James Lapine

     As I watched this superb revival of FALSETTOS yesterday afternoon, I realized that this show deserves to be considered a classic of American musical theater. Its detractors may say that it is dated, but that is because it is in the small group of musicals that speak directly to the time and place in which it was created. For us watching it in 2016, it is history, but history specifically and touchingly created through song. FALSETTOS (the joining of two one-act musicals, MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS and FALSETTOLAND, written a decade apart) chronicles two moments in the life of a gay man and his nuclear and intentional families. Marvin (Christian Borle), is an affluent, Jewish gay man who in the heyday of pre-AIDS gay liberation, has left Trina, his wife (Stephanie J. Block),  and Jason, his ten-year-old son (Anthony Rostenthal), to live in a turbulent relationship with a vain, beautiful younger man, Whizzer (Andrew Rannells). At the end of the first half, Marvin is without wife or lover and his trying to forge a solid relationship with his son. His wife has married Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), who has been shrink to both Marvin and Trina. In part two, a few years later, everyone has grown up a bit. Marvin has become close to the lesbian couple next door, a Doctor Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia, a caterer (Betsy Wolfe). Just when Marvin and Whizzer get back together and forge a less turbulent and more loving relationship, AIDS hits in a way that affects everyone in this small group.
     FALSETTOS is about different forms of love. These seven people are brought together in various ways to form a larger, devoted family. Sometimes bonds are surprising. Much to the dismay of his mother, father and stepfather, young Jason turns to Whizzer for advice and assistance even after Marvin and Whizzer have broken up. Trina realizes that she must include Whizzer in her family.
     I don't know of a funnier or more deeply touching musical than FALSETTOS. Finn has written a witty score in the post-Sondheim vein. His ballads couldn't be more beautiful or touching and his lyrics are simply brilliant in their quirky way. Like COMPANY and RENT, it is also a moving tribute to a page of New York history and of the history of gay men and the people who stood by them in the crisis of the eighties and early nineties. As I said, it's a classic.
     I wondered at first why James Lapine was again directing this show (he directed its original Off-Broadway and Broadway versions). Wouldn't it have been wiser, twenty years later, to let someone else give his or her vision of the show? Nonetheless, this is a winning production with an ideal cast. I thought the 1996 Broadway production was too cute, schtick-filled and a bit defensive about its subject matter. This ensemble treats the show as a sung drama. There isn't a false moment. You couldn't find a better cast of Broadway's most talented performers. It's difficult to single anyone out. Stephanie J. Block keeps Trina real even in her more comic songs. One can't help but feel the chemistry between the immensely talented Borle and Andrew Rannells. Uranowitz never lets Mendel sink into cliche and Anthony Rosenthal makes you realize how central young Jason is to the plot. This is a dream cast who don't have a dishonest moment. FALSETTOS is through sung, but you always feel as if you are watching a drama unfold.
     FALSETTOS is having a limited run at the Walter Kerr. Get your ticket now. This is a very special event.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A LIFE by Adam Bock at Playwrights Horizons

     Who would kill off his central, fascinating character halfway through a play, particularly when that character is played by David Hyde Pierce, and even more so when he hadn't really figured out what do do when said character dies? A LIFE has an excellent first forty minutes, but what follows is a mess.
     A LIFE begins with a half-hour monologue by Nate (Pierce) a middle-aged assistant editor who has been through a series of relationships with men that have ended badly. Nate has trouble with love. He tells us that when someone professor their love for him, he feels he no longer exists. He has an adoring best friend, Curtis (Brad Heberlee), but doesn't want to destroy the friendship by trying to turn it into love. He is filled with more philosophical doubts. When he realized that nothing he was taught was true, he sought truth in other ways, particularly through astrology.  In other words, Nate is a complex, fascinating, screwed-up character. Once he dies of a heart attack, the play has lost his focus. Nate has experienced what many of us fear, dying alone in one's apartment not to be found for days. Devoted Curtis panics when Nate doesn't answer his calls and goes to he apartment to check. We then get a series of post-death scenes: Curtis with the medical examiners, two funeral home workers engaging in small talk while preparing Nate's corpse for the funeral, Curtis and Nate's sister at the funeral. Life goes on but the life of the play has effectively stopped. None of these scenes hold much interest because Nate is the only developed character. Heberlee does what he can with Curtis, but he hasn't been given enough to do. We have been given to reason to care about the other characters. A lot of money has been spent on relatively elaborate scene changes, but so what?
     I am surprised Playwrights Horizons would accept such an unfinished play.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

HEISENBERG by Simon Stephens

     I'm sure essays will be written on the ways in which Heisenberg's uncertainty principle relates to Simon Stephens' sweet, oddball romantic comedy which, after a sellout run at one of Manhattan Theatre Club's intimate spaces, has moved into its Broadway space. Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker), a forty-something woman who accurately describes herself as "possibly winsome, maybe psychotic," observes, "If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it's going or how fast it's getting there." Voila--Heisenberg! In this play by Simon Stephens, one of the two best younger (under 70) British playwrights (Mike Bartlett is the other), we never fully understand Georgie's motivations.
     In eighty minutes HEISENBERG chronicles the beginning of a relationship between Georgie and Alex (Dennis Arndt), a seventy-five-year-old Irish born London butcher. They "meet cute," as Hollywood folks used to say. In a London train station, Georgie kisses the back of Alex's neck. Was this an impulsive act, or did she choose Alex as a mark. Since Georgie prevaricates on a Trumpian scale, we never know with any certainty why she did it or why she appears weeks later at Alex's shop. Yet staid Alex, who has been a lifelong bachelor and who presides over a failing business, is attracted to this chaotic individual. Where can a relationship between an unstable forty-year-old and a stolid, senior citizen go? Well, this one goes to Newark, New Jersey, of all places, but you'll have to see the play--or the movie someone is bound to make out of it (a juicy part for Redford, Nicholson or Eastwood),--to see how and why.
     Much like Mike Bartlett's brilliant COCK, HEISENBERG is presented on a bare stage with minimal props. There are two chairs and two tables that are moved around as needed. The audience surrounds the action (most of the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is take up by audience seating. The focus is on the words and the actors. I wish I had seen the play in a more intimate space. Mary-Louise Parker has had to turn up the volume on her "winsome" voice in this large space, making her performance seem calculated. Georgie is a perfect part for an actress who has specialized in vulnerable oddballs. I can't imagine anyone else playing it as well. Dennis Arndt seems the perfect foil for Parker. He's all stillness against her chaos.
     This sort of eccentric romantic comedy about the unlikely coming together of two lonely people was once a staple of the commercial theatre and film. Stephens, who, I am convinced, can do just about anything brilliantly, has mastered the genre. Clearly there's a hunger for this sort of charming play. The theatre, with an additional 120 seats on stage, was packed.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

THE HARVEST by Samuel D. Hunter at LCT3

     I saw an early preview of this rich, thought-provoking play. Some specifics may change but I'm sure its haunting quality can only improve.
     Samuel D. Hunter represents one important facet of American literature. He is, in one sense a regional writer, writing about a specific location, Idaho, and inhabitants who are in some form of spiritual crisis. What gives his work its rich flavor is his specificity. Like most regional writers, he is also drawn to vivid, detailed renderings of his characters' physical surroundings. Yet the crucial aspect of his characters is spiritual yearning. They usually come from a specific religious background that they have not found totally nourishing, yet they ask the ultimate questions. Many sophisticated New Yorkers, the sort who go to the theatre frequently, have given up on religion and, perhaps, even given up on the big questions religion is there to answer--or they won't discuss their spiritual hunger in polite society. Hunter takes these theatergoers into a somewhat alien world.
     THE HARVEST is set in the basement of an evangelical church in Idaho Falls. For the first few minutes of the play we watch a group of young people in ecstatic prayer. They speak in tongues as the roll on the floor or pin themselves against the wall. Hunter and his director, Davis McCallum, have emphasized the connection between such religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy (hardly a new connection--look at Renaissance religious art). It's a powerful opening. This small band of twenty-somethings are about to leave to do missionary work in the Middle East. We know from the news what happens to some Christian missionaries in these dangerous places. These folks have learned some basic Arabic and have improvised ways of conveying their message. This is hardly an ideal group of missionaries. Marcus's wife has discovered that she is pregnant. Without consulting her, he has played the role of traditional husband and seen to it that they will be working in an office and not in the field. This has created a rift between them that is not easily sealed back up. Josh, the central character, has been at odds since the death of his father, living in a tent outside his family home rather than venturing inside. When he is not in the tent, he is in the church basement. Unlike his comrades, who are going to the Middle East for a few months, Josh plans to stay there. Everyone tells him that this is courageous, but he knows that it is running away. Josh is desperate for his attempts at faith to be real, for his life to have meaning. His sister, who ran away as a teenager and left him in an unhappy, abusive home, has returned to try to stop him from leaving. Josh's closest friend, Tom, is as lost and unhappy as he. If these young men have not been physically involved, they certainly have a deep emotional connection, perhaps the only real love they have felt in their lives. The patriarchal figure, Pastor Chuck, unseen until almost the end of the play, offers lots of words, but no warmth. Fathers seem useless or worse in this world and mothers have long gone, victims of disappointment and loneliness. Nothing seems more false in this play than smiles.
     As usual, Hunter offers no easy conclusion. It seems clear that Josh and Tom are deeply ambivalent about going on this mission, but don't have the courage to escape together even when escape is offered to them. There's a moment when Josh and Tom are listening to Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" (both men share a love of music). Tom describes how this was written in a prison camp during World War II with the instruments available to the composer and played out in the rain. Beauty made out of misery. The prison these men are in is mental and spiritual. Perhaps love and/or art could be an escape.
     Hunter couldn't have a better ensemble of actors for his lovely play. Peter Mark Kendall makes us care deeply for his bruised, yearning character. Gideon Glick, who was so powerful in Hunter's THE FEW, captures Tom's deep anguish. At the preview I saw, Glick wasn't always audible. He's such a fine actor that I am sure that in the future he'll be loud and clear without losing any of the authenticity he brings to the part. Everyone else is equally honest. Dane Laffrey's setting for the church basement--not quite finished--with the unpainted stairway leading to the sanctuary and the outside world, is just right as is the harsh lighting. Thanks to sound designer Leah Gelpe, we hear the distant music of choir rehearsals.
     I continue to be amazed at how brilliantly Hunter creates big work out of seemingly small situations. Don't miss this.    

Monday, 10 October 2016


      This challenging, funny and at times creepy play written by and starring Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard begins in a West Virginia barn in the mid-9th century. A runaway slave meets a noble Quaker abolitionist who will escort her across the Mason-Dixon line. The acting in the scene moves from naturalistic to something so melodramatic that it is almost Brechtian. What we are actually seeing is a scene between enacted by two middle-school teachers in front of an assembly. The teachers are introducing the new unit on the Civil War. The audience becomes the group of middle school students who will be assigned to play the Underground Railway Game. We are also witness to the budding, then violently evolving, relationship of the two teachers, a white male and an African-American woman, sometimes played out in public, sometimes in private. The play is really a meditation on the ways in which race, gender and sex can clash. Can Americans, white and black, escape our country's racial history? Can well-meaning liberals ever understand their own racism? I don't want to give away too much of what happens during the seventy-five minutes of this work. Surprise is part of its pleasure and challenge. UNDERGROUND RAILROAD GAME is amusing at times, disturbing at others. It is definitely not for the prudish.
     Co-creators Kidwell and Sheppard are also excellent performers. Director Taibi Magar has given the piece the right look and excellent timing.
      I saw the play on the matinee after the infamous tape of Trump's sex talk was published. The play's many uses of "pussy" received particularly uncomfortable laughter from the audience.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

VIETGONE by Qui Nguyen at Manhattan Theatre Club

     First of all, what a pleasure it was to see a predominantly young audience at the Manhattan Theatre Club instead of a room filled with seniors like myself. VIETGONE deserves a large, diverse audience. It's a delightful, moving, even challenging evening of theatre. In it Nguyen creates a theatrical extravaganza out of the romance of his parents in an Arkansas refugee camp at the end of the Vietnam War. It's typical of Nguyen's playfulness that at the outset "the playwright" (an actor) greets the audience, reads the usual instructions and announces that the characters we will see are purely fictional. He also demonstrates, with the help of the actors, that the Vietnamese will speak good English while the Americans speak some ridiculous patois, the sort of awful English usually given to stick Asian characters from Charlie Chan on. Five virtuosic actors play all the roles. When the lead characters have to articulate their deepest feelings, they do so in rap numbers. There are comic strip projections and kung fu battles with ninjas. Throughout, Nguyen and his excellent director, May Adrales, and designers, particularly projection designer Jared Mezzocchi, give us a dynamic production that alternates between realism and comic book fantasy.
      All the elements of theater serve a simple love story between two young people suffering the psychic and spiritual wounds of an awful war. Quang (Raymond Lee), was a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese military who had to fly out the last refugees and leave his own wife and children behind. His principal desire is to get back to his family. In the Arkansas refugee camp, he meets Tong (Jennifer Ikeda), who wants companionship and sex but no attachment. It takes Quang a long physical and emotional journey to realize he can't go home again.  Throughout, the one thing that enrages Quang is the American point of view toward the Vietnam War -- that it either was criminal or a tragic mistake. Quang never falters in his hatred of the Vietcong and what they did to his people.
     One cannot speak highly enough of the superb cast. Lee and Ikeda demonstrate both the strength and sexiness of their characters, as well as their battle scars. Samantha Quan makes Tong's mother more than a comic stereotype. She also ably plays half a dozen other characters. Jon Hoche and Paco Tolson play all the other Vietnamese and American men, each a distinct character. Together these five artists comprise and excellent ensemble.
     This show deserves a life beyond the intimate Manhattan Theatre Club. Five stars.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


     I don't know why I waited so long to see this delightful show. The music isn't memorable, but the whole package is great entertainment. Since I saw the show toward the end of the run, there have been lots of cast replacements. I can imagine Christian Borle having a less forced take on William Shakespeare, played in this production as an arrogant rock star type, but Will Chase was amusing, though the role didn't seem a natural fit for him. I can't imagine anyone better in the leading role of Nick Bottom (not the same character as in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM) than Rob McClure. McClure has the ability to play an exhausting role without looking like he's working too hard. Everything seemed natural and he acted as if he was having the time of his life--on a Wednesday matinee. Brad Oscar was hilarious (as usual) as the soothsayer Nostradamus, who has the prophesy that musicals are going to be the wave of the future.
     Why begin with the cast? SOMETHING'S ROTTEN is an old fashioned musical entertainment that depends on performers with both talent and personal charm, performers who bring something of their on stage personae to their roles (what was missing from the revival of FIORELLO). Without this, the show would fail. The show demands a cast of thirty, a fairly large band and lots of sets and costumes. The book lands all its gags, the lyrics are very witty. The weakness is the generic score. It's OK, but forgettable, hardly the match of Golden Age musical comedies. In its most energetic moments, the score sounded like something from the 1970s -- I kept being reminded of Charles Strouse's score for APPLAUSE, not one of the greatest in musical theatre history.
     Fortunately the zany book hold's one's interest. For those who don't know, the show centers on Elizabethan playwright Nigel Bottom (Rob McClure), who is constantly overshadowed by Shakespeare. He consults a soothsayer who tells him that the answer is musicals, so he writes an awful musical, Omelet, based on another inaccurate prophecy. The result is something like the zaniness of a Marx Brothers movie. Some of the musical numbers are hilarious, greatly thanks to brilliant director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw who has created an A musical out of some B material. And thanks to the excellent cast.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016


     The fact that we in the audience are more or less sworn to secrecy about what transpires in WHITE RABBIT, RED RABBIT, a one-person  (with help from the audience) show written by young Iranian writer, Nassim Soleimanpour, reflects the police state the playwright lives in. The play has echoes of Beckett, but one is always aware of a political subtext. The story that gives the play its title is about creatures turning on one another as they fight for a single carrot and suffer punishment if they don't get it. What happens to identity when you have to hide so much of yourself? Suicide can seem the best option. There are many, playful funny moments in the 75 minute show, but it has a bitter core.
     The gimmick of the play and this production is that at the outset of each performance the actor or actress is handed the script which he/she has never seen or read before. The cold reading is part of the experience of the play, the surprise of the performer as she/he experiences the script for the first time--as the audience experiences the play for the first time (though I am sure many folks come back to see how different performers deal with the script). The producers have amassed an amazing lineup of one-time-only performers beginning with Nathan Lane and including both men and women. I saw operatic diva Joyce DiDonato, who was delightful in the light passages and effective in the darker moments, which I think surprised her. Of course there were a lot of opera fans in the packed house who cheered her on. She got the sort of ovation at her entrance that most performers dream of getting.
     That's all I can tell you. See it for yourself. I'll be going back.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

FIORELLO produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group at the East 13th Street Theatre

     In many ways this production of FIORELLO, enjoyable as it was, reinforced one's sense of the artifice of musicals. Brecht would have loved the audience awareness of the gap between character and actor. First of all, there was the very young cast, too young for the roles they play. Most were just out of college making their professional debuts. The production couldn't help but remind me of all the student produced and performed musicals I saw during my years teaching theatre at Duke. There are a lot of well-trained young performers who better deserved a shot at an Off-Broadway debut than some of these kids. The leads were game but, with a few exceptions, didn't yet have enough personality of their own to  give color to their roles. In the original production, the cast was comprised of seasoned veteran character performers. Here we had youngsters with a wide range of talent or relative lack of same. Austin Scott Lombardi is going to be a good performer when he finds his persona and when he does something about a high speaking voice that gets irritating after a while in such a long role. He has presence but he's too good looking to play this role. FIORELLO was first played by Tom Bosley who went on to become a television sitcom actor (HAPPY DAYS). Lombardi is still in the "juvenile lead" category. Matt McLean is the strongest man in the cast, giving an honest portrayal of LaGuardia's loyal Jewish sidekick. In the original production, this was played by Broadway stalwart Nathaniel Frey, who specialized in goofy roles. Frey was a bit chubby, homely and had a deep, funny voice. He specialized in playing sweet men who weren't too bright. McLean had leading man good looks and a good singing voice, but found a way to make sense of the role. The constant phone calls from his unseen wife weren't played as gags as they were in the original production, but as a problem for a man who couldn't balance career and home life. Ryan Morsbach is a generation too young to play the cynical old political hack (veteran Howard da Silva was brilliant in the original production), but he made the most of his big moments. Rebecca Brudner has a lovely singing voice, but no one can make much of the underwritten character of LaGuardia's first wife. Katie Birinboim pushed too hard in the wonderful eleven o'clock song, "The Very Next Man."
      Then there was the musical staging. FIORELLO is an odd combination of musical and play (more on that anon). So much of it is comprised of well crafted book scenes that it is a shock when, for instance, old political hacks get up from the poker table to dance during numbers like "Politics and Poker" or "Little Tin Box." To do so breaks character and weakens the political satire. These satirical numbers are  among the strongest in the show and should be played in character. The movement seemed forced, particularly since Michael Callahan's choreography throughout the show was mediocre and the dancing not very good. Bob Moss's staging is fluid and effective though everyone needed more character work.
       FIORELLO is a battle between two narrative threads. The story of Fiorello LaGuardia's rise from lawyer-champion of the poor to congressman to war hero to mayor of New York is the strongest thread. The musical numbers that chart LaGuardia's rise are witty and winning. Then there's the inevitable love story of the faithful colleague who waits fifteen years to get her man and the less well written story of LaGuardia's romance of his first wife, who dies young. The love plot(s) generates two songs, both, oddly, in the second act; first wife Thea's ballad, "When Did I Fall in Love," and Marie's clever "The Very Next Man." However, one feels that the romance is there because it is a necessary convention, not because it is essential to the story. This is even more true of the relationship between Dora, a striking seamstress, and Floyd, the cop who arrests her, then marries her. Dora and Floyd are shoehorned into the musical because in 1959 the show needed a dance number and a leading dancer. Dora's song, "I Love a Cop," is delightful but tangential. Even more tangential is the dance break that follows it. In the original production, Dora was played by Pat Stanley, a good dancer who often got these novelty songs in 1950s musicals. The women get fine songs, but the romances seem more obligatory than essential. The same is true to a lesser extent of HAMILTON where the real interest is on the men, not the women; the rivalries and politics, not the romance. One of the odd aspects of the show, and one of its weaknesses, is that Fiorello doesn't sing much and what he does sing is weaker than the rest of the score (his forgettable second act soliloquy was not included in the original cast album--for good reason). It's a part written for a non-singer back when non-singers often carried musicals (Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison, Robert Preston). Mr. Lombardi can sing quite well, so one notices the absence of much for him to do. It's hard to carry a musical when your character isn't musical.
      This is the third Bock-Harnick musical to get a New York revival this year. There was Bartlett Sher's beautiful revival of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (still running) and Scott Ellis's perfect revival of SHE LOVES ME. This production is nowhere near on that level, but it reminds on how good FIORELLO's score is. The singing throughout is quite good. I did miss a decent sized band. Here there are two pianos and a violin.
      Worth seeing if you've never seen FIORELLO or if, like me, you love the score and were hungry for a revival.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016


     When one thinks of Jane Austen adaptations, one recalls the period pieces created by film makers and television producers -- lovely period settings and costumes inhabited by British actors. Works that emphasize the narrative of intelligent women seeking appropriate, somewhat rebellious mates. Often they lose Austen's wry wit, though Whit Stillman's recent LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP is laugh out loud funny. Bedlam's stage version of Austen's SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, adapted by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker, is nothing like the pretty Ang Lee film version. In the Spartan confines of The Gym at Judson with the audience on two sides of the playing area, Bedlam gives us Austen on speed. The show begins with the actors in contemporary dress dancing to a contemporary tune as if this were a party. Gradually the music changes as the actors transform into early 19th century characters dancing at a very different, more proper sort of social function. In a sense, the dancing never stops. Characters, along with furniture and set pieces (on wheels), whirl around the stage gossiping to each other and often to us in the audience. The production is one big dance. Ten actors take a variety of roles, sometimes within the same scene. The result is both immensely entertaining and a fitting twenty-first century homage to Austen. It is also very timely. This SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is about gossip and misinformation as is much of our lives in the internet age.
     The acting by this fine ensemble is a lively blend of period and contemporary. There are a few moments when the comedy gets a little too broad, particularly when the actress in question is literally in your face or on your lap, but over all, this is one of the most delightful evenings of theater I have seen in the past few seasons. The costumes look like they came out of a trunk in someone''s attic, but that fits the style of the production.
     One friend of mine has seen Bedlam's SENSE AND SENSIBILITY three times. It is the most enjoyable production in New York right now. I eagerly await Bedlam's next production.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. The Gym at Judson Memorial Church. August 2, 2016.

Monday, 1 August 2016

PRIVACY at the Public

     At the end of James Graham and Josie Rourke's delightful, if a bit overlong, interactive show, PRIVACY, at the Public, Daniel Radcliffe order the audience not to reveal what happens during the show. I'll try to obey their edict.
     PRIVACY is a docudrama, part fiction, but greatly fact, in which a group of actors play multiple real people. The script is full of quotes from experts on privacy in the internet age. It's the kind of play one finds in major London fringe theatres like the Tricycle. This production came from London's Donmar Warehouse, best known for starry revivals, but Josie Rourke, the Donmar's current artistic director, the co-author and director of PRIVACY, honed her skills on the London fringe (she was artistic director of the Bush Theatre). Docudrama isn't as common in the U.S. as it is in London, though we have had classics like THE LARAMIE PROJECT and the solo work of Anna DeVeare Smith.
     In PRIVACY, a writer (Daniel Radcliffe) is in a personal crisis after a breakup. His ex-boyfriend accused him of being too guarded, too remote. Is he capable of opening up? The question PRIVACY poses is how to open up, to be oneself, in the internet age? It also asks whether we surrender too much information to our phones and computers.
     The originality of this show is in its engagement with the audience. It's very much an audience participation show, particularly through our cellphones which we are encouraged to keep on throughout.
     That's all I can tell you, except that Daniel Radcliffe is his usual charming self onstage and that he is surrounded by an excellent ensemble including Rachel Dratch of Saturday Night Live fame. The show is fun, challenging, frightening at times. It does overstay its welcome a bit. An intermissionless 90 minutes would have been enough.
PRIVACY. Public Theatre. July 31, 2016.

PRIVACY at the Public

     At the end of James Graham and Josie Rourke's delightful, if a bit overlong, interactive show, PRIVACY, at the Public, Daniel Radcliffe order the audience not to reveal what happens during the show. I'll try to obey their edict.
     PRIVACY is a docudrama, part fiction, but greatly fact, in which a group of actors play multiple real people. The script is full of quotes from experts on privacy in the internet age. It's the kind of play one finds in major London fringe theatres like the Tricycle. This production came from London's Donmar Warehouse, best known for starry revivals, but Josie Rourke, the Donmar's current artistic director, the co-author and director of PRIVACY, honed her skills on the London fringe (she was artistic director of the Bush Theatre). Docudrama isn't as common in the U.S. as it is in London, though we have had classics like THE LARAMIE PROJECT and the solo work of Anna DeVeare Smith.
     In PRIVACY, a writer (Daniel Radcliffe) is in a personal crisis after a breakup. His ex-boyfriend accused him of being too guarded, too remote. Is he capable of opening up? The question PRIVACY poses is how to open up, to be oneself, in the internet age? It also asks whether we surrender too much information to our phones and computers.
     The originality of this show is in its engagement with the audience. It's very much an audience participation show, particularly through our cellphones which we are encouraged to keep on throughout.
     That's all I can tell you, except that Daniel Radcliffe is his usual charming self onstage and that he is surrounded by an excellent ensemble including Rachel Dratch of Saturday Night Live fame. The show is fun, challenging, frightening at times. It does overstay its welcome a bit. An intermissionless 90 minutes would have been enough.
PRIVACY. Public Theatre. July 31, 2016.

PRIVACY at the Public

     At the end of James Graham and Josie Rourke's delightful, if a bit overlong, interactive show, PRIVACY, at the Public, Daniel Radcliffe order the audience not to reveal what happens during the show. I'll try to obey their edict.
     PRIVACY is a docudrama, part fiction, but greatly fact, in which a group of actors play multiple real people. The script is full of quotes from experts on privacy in the internet age. It's the kind of play one finds in major London fringe theatres like the Tricycle. This production came from London's Donmar Warehouse, best known for starry revivals, but Josie Rourke, the Donmar's current artistic director, the co-author and director of PRIVACY, honed her skills on the London fringe (she was artistic director of the Bush Theatre). Docudrama isn't as common in the U.S. as it is in London, though we have had classics like THE LARAMIE PROJECT and the solo work of Anna DeVeare Smith.
     In PRIVACY, a writer (Daniel Radcliffe) is in a personal crisis after a breakup. His ex-boyfriend accused him of being too guarded, too remote. Is he capable of opening up? The question PRIVACY poses is how to open up, to be oneself, in the internet age? It also asks whether we surrender too much information to our phones and computers.
     The originality of this show is in its engagement with the audience. It's very much an audience participation show, particularly through our cellphones which we are encouraged to keep on throughout.
     That's all I can tell you, except that Daniel Radcliffe is his usual charming self onstage and that he is surrounded by an excellent ensemble including Rachel Dratch of Saturday Night Live fame. The show is fun, challenging, frightening at times. It does overstay its welcome a bit. An intermissionless 90 minutes would have been enough.
PRIVACY. Public Theatre. July 31, 2016.  


     Bartlett Sher loves the look of a big, bare stage, a canvas he can draw on. When one enters the giant Broadway Theatre, one sees a bare box painted light grey, decorated only with a sign "Anatevka." Occasionally the side wings rise to make way for scenery (designed by Michael Yeargan), but even then one is still aware of an expanse of stage behind and around it. Characters often enter by walking up stairs at the rear of the playing area, as if they are ascending out of some pit of basement. FIDDLER ON THE ROOF is both a show about a coherent, tradition bound community, and about the people who assert their individuality. Women who defy tradition. Men who rebel. A patriarch who is also too much of a romantic. Sher's brilliant, if a bit chilly, revival emphasizes that this community isn't ever as coherent as some would have it. The dances that are so important to this show (the original Jerome Robbins choreography with additions and revisions by Hofesh Schecter), aren't as orderly as they were in the original production. There's more of a sense of improvisation, of individuals dancing.
     FIDDLER ON THE ROOF is an odd show. It's more book heavy than most classic musicals, more a play with music. The music is nowhere near as inspired as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's score for SHE LOVES ME, which opened the year before and just had a perfect revival a block away from the Broadway Theatre where FIDDLER is being performed. Sher's production avoids the show's pitfalls. It is never awash in sentiment. Most important, Tevye isn't played as a self-indulgent star turn as it was with Zero Mostel and some of his many successors. Danny Burstein, a performer of immense talent and integrity, makes Tevye a real character. There's no cheap schtick, the stock in trade of many Tevyes of yore. Some might miss that. The female comic leads are played straight, so straight that they barely seem to exists. Bea Arthur was the first Yente the matchmaker, but this Yente (Alix Korey) is played so straight that she hardly seems to be in a musical. I've never understood the critics' love for Jessica Hecht. Her Golde just seems depressed. Why is Tevye so frightened of her when she's so passive? The daughters and their boyfriends are well cast. Throughout there's an overriding sense of intelligence and taste. As much as I hate sloppy, self indulgent performances of FIDDER, I occasionally wanted some sense of "this is a musical, folks." I was in the second row and couldn't help wondering how it played in the far reaches of one of the biggest Broadway houses.
     A mixed bag, but gorgeous to look at.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Broadway Theatre. July 30, 2016.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Mike Bartlett's WILD at the Hampstead Theatre, London

     The two strongest new plays I saw during my two weeks of London theatergoing were Ayad Aktar's THE INVISIBLE HAND at the Tricycle and Mike Bartlett's WILD at the Hampstead. Alexi Kaye Campbell's plodding allegory of the relationship between the U.S. and Britain, set during the Greek junta, was an uneasy combination of domestic drama and political commentary. I had raved about the New York production of THE INVISIBLE HAND in an earlier entry. The play seemed even more powerful in the claustrophobic production at the Tricycle.
     Mike Bartlett is still on his thirties, but he has given us a string of brilliant, very different plays from the minimalist COCK to the maximalist EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON. The main question is plays ask is whether contemporary individuals really have any agency. WILD gives us a version of Edward Snowden sitting in an anonymous hotel room in Moscow (is it really Moscow?) after pushing the "Send" button on all those NSA documents. Snowden is convinced that he is a hero whose actions have changed the world and a martyr to his cause. During the course of the intense, often hilarious one-act play, he is mocked, belittled, threatened and psychologically tortured by a man and a woman who are agents of some unnamed power. "We represent power," one of them finally asserts. At first the agents seem to want Snowden to become a spokesman for Russia, but Snowden is definitely not a joiner, but an ardent believer in the individual. By the end they want him to "join anything." Above all, they want to destroy his faith in the meaning of any individual action. Power rests on the fact that people don't want to know about the abuses of power. They are happy so long as they can get stuff for free via the internet. As one of the agents says, Snowden hasn't changed the egregious abuse of power, "You just pointed at it." But nothing is as it seems. The hotel room is not really a hotel room and by the end the laws of physics don't even apply. In a spectacular coup de theatre, Snowden's world is turned, if not upside down, at least at a 90 degree angle. The laws of gravity don't even apply. Bartlett has written a dizzying, funny, thought-provoking and funny play that turns downright scary. His vision is dark but the play is anything but.
     Director James Macdonald has captured the play's depiction of a man who has gone down the rabbit hole. Jack Farthing's quiet, determined libertarian hero is a foil for Caoilfhionn Dunne's depiction of the wacky, mocking unnamed female agent who alternates tearing the central character down with John MacKay, who plays her quietly menacing counterpart.
     WILD should transfer to New York. It's a terrific, funny, terrifying play.

OSLO by J.T. Rogers at the Lincoln Center Theatre

     OSLO depicts the negotiations of the 1993 Oslo accord, a courageous attempt to broker an agreement between the leaders of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It led the the PLO governing the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but obviously didn't lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The idea for these back channel negotiations came from a Norwegian sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen (the always wonderful Jefferson Mays), who believed that only unmoderated face-to-face meetings between enemies could lead to a successful outcome, and his wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle on top form), an officer in Norway's foreign ministry. These two connived, dickered and sometimes lied to their superiors and leading figures in the Israeli government to get the talks started and keep them going. What was most surprising and sad was that the Arab diplomats had never sat down with Israelis and vice-versa. On the whole, this is an absorbing, intelligent and entertaining play. It could be improved with some judicious pruning. There are too many lame attempts to make the Israelis and Palestinians likable--too many scenes of drinking and joking--and a few too many reminders of how momentous it all was. The scenes of negotiation are fascinating. OSLO is the kind of play British playwright David Hare has been writing for years. Rogers does it better.
     Bartlett Sher has given the play a fleet, beautifully staged production on the Mitzi Newhouse stage. The cast couldn't be better. Mays gives the central character great charm, but doesn't hide his hunger to be at the center of events (at the end, his wife has to remind him, "This is not about you"). Anthony Azizi and Adam Dannheisser are brilliant as the passionate PLO and Israeli representatives. These actors head a superb, large ensemble.
     OSLO gives us a slice of history that is still timely. I was still jet-lagged when I sat through its three hours, but I was totally fascinated.


      One of the hottest tickets in London this season has been the revival of the 1964 Barbra Streisand vehicle FUNNY GIRL. The production, directed by Michael Mayer, began its life at the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory where the run sold out in advance. The revival earned raves from the critics. A few weeks ago its star, Sheridan Smith, collapsed, claimed total exhaustion, and temporarily left the show. She was replaced by understudy Natasha J. Barnes who got the old "understudy to star" treatment in the press. Jule Styne's score for FUNNY GIRL is pleasant enough, but not on the level of his work on GYPSY or even BELLS ARE RINGING. Bob Merrill's lyrics aren't Sondheim, but are clever. Harvey Fierstein has revised Isobel Lennart's book. I don't remember the original well enough to assess what he has done, but it seems to be a conflation of the book of the musical and the screenplay for the hit film.
     Like GYPSY and BELLS ARE RINGING, FUNNY GIRL is an old-fashioned star vehicle. The original production succeeded for years after Streisand left because Mimi Hines, a well known television and nightclub comic (half of the Phil Ford and Mimi Hines comedy team), found a way to make the show work on her own terms. Plans for Broadway revivals have floundered because the right star wasn't found. FUNNY GIRL demands star quality. In this production, Natasha J. Barnes provided lots of energy and perkiness, but it wasn't Fanny Brice or anything resembling a star. She's not a particularly good singer and she doesn't have the unique stage personality that makes one taken notice -- star quality. She works hard, in fact watching her is exhausting.
     Michael Mayer's staging is routine. Like many transfers from the Menier, it looked low budget for West End prices. I came away feeling cheated.
     Thom Sutherland's revival of TITANIC at the Charing Cross Theatre is a small-scale revival of a megamusical that totally justifies itself. Maury Yeston's score is a gem, one of the best since Sondheim's heyday. In this production two dozen excellent singing actors did the work of the forty-some performers in the original cast. Instead of the giant, four level set of the original production, we had a simple, two-level unit set plus moveable ladders and ropes.  This production was more character-oriented than spectacle, and Peter Stone's book made much more sense than it did in the original production. TITANIC became a show about social aspiration, particularly about women who would not settle for the social roles assigned to them. Here was a revival that justified itself, one that is an improvement over the original production. Bravo to the director and his amazingly gifted cast.
     Daniel Evans' production of SHOW BOAT, which has moved into the New London Theatre from the Crucible Theatres in Sheffield is an excellent production despite the offensively loud amplification, a source of complaint for everyone seated around me. The Black performers steal the show from a pretty bland bunch of white performers. Malcolm Sinclair, excellent at playing befuddled English toffs, doesn't do anything with Captain Andy, the central character of the show.  For all Evan's flair at staging, there's something a bit impersonal about the production. The theatre was only about 1'3 full, which may have led to a sense of routine.
     There is nothing routine about Rufus Norris's production of the Brecht-Weill classic, THREEPENNY OPERA at the National Theatre. Simon Stephens has updated the script and made it more about sex than capitalism. This Mack the Knife is what we would now call a sex addict. Everyone seems to be more motivated by sex than greed. The Peachums, models of respectability and hypocrisy in the original are now cartoons of lasciviousness. Mrs. Peachum slinks around in a red dress like an aging madam and Peachum is a grotesque queen. This changes the work considerably and not always for the better, but the performance is so lively and inventive that you forgive it its excesses. It's the first production of THREEPENNY OPERA I have seen that didn't seem endless.
     The less said about the revival of Terrence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA in the cavernous Lyttleton Theatre the better. When a production is lit to be so dimly that one cannot see faces, an alienation effect sets in. When the set of that is supposed to be a tiny, sleazy apartment in a boarding house is the size of a football field, any sense of intimacy is lost. I can't say much about the acting because I could barely see the characters through the murky blue lighting. I have considerable admiration for Rattigan and for this play, but could barely keep awake through this revival.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

SHUFFLE ALONG at the Music Box

     Those of us who study American musical theatre know that while there was a wholesale appropriation of African-American music by white popular composers, particularly in the 1920s, there was SHUFFLE ALONG, a Black created and performed musical that ran over 500 performances (a good run in those days) in a shabby theatre near what is now Lincoln Center. The score was by Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon), the book by the comedy team of F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter). All four men were in the original cast of the show along with Lottie Gee, a diva of the Chitlin Circuit (Audra McDonald). George C. Wolfe's SHUFFLE ALONG is not a revival of the show, though the producers tried to convince the Tony Award committee that the show is a revival so they had a chance against the HAMILTON juggernaut. The first act is about the creation of the show, the second about its effect on the lives of its creators and performers. The focus overall is on a chapter of African-American history--how a group of artists temporarily overcame all the obstacles Black writers, composers and performers faced a century ago. Even though Broadway and Off-Broadway now welcome artists of color, it is crucial to remember that this is a recent phenomenon. Wolfe's book is intelligent and always absorbing. The musical numbers are all from the score of the original SHUFFLE ALONG and they're terrific.
     The production--what can one say? The five leads are the creme de la creme of current musical stars. Audra McDonald is funny as the diva-ish Lottie Gee. She sings magnificently, of course and even dances up a storm. I will run out of superlatives for the performances of Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry. Brian Stokes Mitchell has less to do, but adds even more star power. How often does one get to see this many great stars in the same show? Brooks Ashmanskas is delightful as all the white characters. Savion Glover's tap choreography is awe-inspiring and one can only cheer the great ensemble that dances it. A special cheer to Ann Roth's spectacular costumes.
     Nobody seems to be able to talk abut anything but HAMILTON right now, but SHUFFLE ALONG is also a great show. Even the band is special. Don't miss it.
SHUFFLE ALONG. Music Box Theatre. June 2, 2016.

INCOGNITO by Nick Payne at Manhattan Theatre Club

     INCOGNITO is a descendant of the best of Tom Stoppard's early plays, a collage of characters and situations taking place over many years, built on science and connected by a vision of the paradoxical ordering and chaos of the human brain. On a circular playing area, four superb actors enact twenty-one characters who interact over generations. Slowly we come to see the links between these characters who are related really and metaphorically. We see a man who, due to a brain disorder, lives in an eternal present. Another man, a pathologist, has stolen the brain of Albert Einstein, hoping to understand how the brain of a genius works. Einstein's granddaughter tells him that science won't help. The man was "a shit." A woman is great at dealing with people professionally, but an unhappy drunk out of work. As the title suggests, people aren't really knowable even to themselves. This is a brilliant, witty play that in its best moments is also heartfelt.
     Under Doug Hughes direction, the cast acts as an ensemble, like a great string quarter. Best is Charlie Cox, particularly in his touching impersonation of a man who has no memory. His Henry is sweet, but pained at his realization that he is mentally unmoored.
      This is one of the best plays I have seen so far this season.
INCOGNITO by Nick Payne. City Center Stage 1. May 3, 2016.

DAPHNE'S DIVE by Quiara Alegria Hudes at the Signature

     Well, they can't all be good. You can't fault the acting or Thomas Kail's direction of DAPHNE'S DIVE. There's just not much of a play there, so little that one wonders why the Signature decided to produce this.
      DAPHNE'S DIVE is one of those barroom plays, though with all the free liquor that is consumed and no customers except the five who seem to drink for free, one wonders how the saloon has survived for the nineteen years of the play's action. Over those nineteen years, the characters don't change except to drink more. The most obnoxious of the characters, one of those life worshipping "free spirits" without a coherent idea in her head, immolates herself between scene two and three. It would be a relief if the other characters didn't insist on talking about her for the rest of the play. Daphne and her friends allow her adopted daughter to become a self-righteous drunk and a scold. A politician is, of course, an adulterer.
      The cast is so good that at some moments they almost convince the audience that there's a play there.
DAPHNE'S DIVE. Signature Theatre. June 5, 2016.

THE TOTAL BENT at the Public Theatre

     What to say about this enjoyable, brilliantly performed, but not always coherent musical that soars when it sings? Basically it is about the clash of generations of Black preacher-performers in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Yes the boycotts, riots and police brutality are going on outside the church and recording studio. Joy Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall), represents the older generation. He's a former blues singer turned preacher who is moving from church to television studio. Joe has been wild with women and with money, but he preaches that Christ forgives all sins, so he, to paraphrase Faulkner, tries to endure and prevail. His message is that Blacks should be good and unthreatening. He's against Martin Luther King and his followers. Joy Roy believes that one survives by making nice with white folk. After all, how many poor Blacks had television sets in Alabama in 1965? Joe Roy's power comes from his gospel songs, which are ghost written by his more talented son, Martin (the brilliant Ato Blankson-Wood).  Joy Roy depends on Martin but is also frightened of him. Their rivalry is maintained by Byron, a British record producer who is an aficionado of old blues and particularly of Joe Roy's early work. To this middle-aged British blues fan, Black music is "authenticity." Joe tries to stop Joy Roy from producing Martin's work. Nonetheless, Martin become a star in England, though the American rock press calls him an Uncle Tom. What is "authentic" music? Martin's mocks the religion his father sells.  It is also very much of its time and Martin, Black, anger and queer, represents the present and the future. I can tell you that much but dare anyone to figure out the last ten minutes of the show.
      THE TOTAL BENT is well worth seeing for its dynamic music (Stew and Heidi Rodewald), the star-making performance of Ato Blankson--Wood, who is filled to the brim with talent, and the great band. Everyone in this all-male cast is excellent. The production (Joanna Settle) is  more staged concert than full production, which doesn't help the muddle of the ending. Stew's attempt at rhymed dialogue and his lyrics are best when they are taking a humorous view toward a very serious topic. Having just seen, SHUFFLE ALONG, I was interested in this take on Black culture and politics.
THE TOTAL BENT. Public Theatre. June 4, 2016.

Monday, 16 May 2016

DO I HEAR A WALTZ at City Center Encores

     Is there a more devoted audience than the one for the City Center Encores series? These are folks who really care about musical theatre. They're also curious about past musicals and often quite knowledgable. The folks around me at the Saturday matinee performances of DO I HEAR A WALTZ (music, Richard Rodgers; lyrics, Stephen Sondheim; book, Arthur Laurents), had all read Laurents' memoirs. Two gentlemen had been involved with productions of Laurents plays during their students years. Everyone, of course, knew the work of Rodgers and Sondheim and the unhappy saga of the creation of DO I HEAR A WALTZ in 1964.
     What can one say about this show that Sondheim didn't say. He described it as a "Why" musical, a show that has no reason for existence. There's no reason for the characters to sing. There seems to be more book (a condensation of Laurents' play, THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO) than music and, except for the title song and one ballad, the music is forgettable. Sondheim's lyrics are better than the music.
       The production was enjoyable because of the superb performances of a top-drawer cast. Melissa Errico gave real star quality to the leading role, a lonely 40-ish secretary looking for romance in Venice. Richard Troxall didn't look very Italian, but he sang beautifully and gave substance to the role of the Italian shopkeeper with whom Leona has a brief romance. Karen Ziemba was wonderful, as usual. The rest of the cast did all they could to make a weak show enjoyable. Rob Berman conducted a large, excellent orchestra. The choreography (Chase Brock) was cliched, but Evan Cabnet's staging was very effective.
      Not a show I want to see again, but I'm glad I had this opportunity.  

Thursday, 12 May 2016

INDECENT by Paula Vogel at the Vineyard Theatre

     Despite its dark subject matter, INDECENT, created by Rebecca Taichman (who also directs), and Paula Vogel and written by Paula Vogel, is a superb theatrical celebration. Basically is tells the story of Polish born Jewish writer Sholom Asch, whose Yiddish play, GOD OF VENGEANCE, was banned on Broadway in 1923 after being celebrated all over Europe and Off-Broadway. GOD OF VENGEANCE contains a lesbian romance. INDECENT is also the saga of a dedicated company of actors who dedicated much of their lives and careers to the play. After the play was banned in New York, Lemmi, the stage manager and central character of the play, goes back to Poland where he keeps producing the play in attics in the Polish ghettoes. Lemmi falls in love with theatre when he is invited to an early reading of Asch's play. Ultimately he devotes his life to keeping the play on stage. By the time GOD OF VENGEANCE opened on Broadway, Asch was a celebrated novelist and no longer interested in theatre or the fate of his play. Lemmi and the actors are the ones devoted to it. GOD OF VENGEANCE is banned because a leading Rabbi is furious at a Broadway play that presents Jews in a bad light. The patriarch is a brothel keeper and his daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes. The play falls victim to conservative identity politics--the influential Rabbi doesn't want people to see bad Jews on stage and certainly not lesbian Jews. A few years after GOD OF VENGEANCE's one night on Broadway, the Wales Padlock Act would be enacted that forbid any play that brought homosexuality on to the New York stage. At the end, as rain pours down onto the stage, we see the touching lesbian love scene, still one of the sweetest love scenes between two women ever written for the stage.
     INDECENT is a celebration of theatre, of Jewish art and culture, and of same-sex love. On a bare stage a company of performers and musicians act multiple roles, sing and dance this multi-layered story. However sad life is for the characters these actors play, there are the saving graces of love and art.  Vogel's script is inspiring, Rebecca Taichman's direction is lyrical and masterful, David Dorfman's choreography looks natural. The company of actors and musicians couldn't be better. All in all, INDECENT is a lovely experience. The audience was on its feet cheering at the end. This was not one of those automatic Broadway standing ovations, but a heartfelt gesture of appreciation for something special.
INDECENT. Vineyard Theatre. May 11, 2016.

THE RUINS OF CIVILIZATION by Penelope Skinner at the Manhattan Theatre Club

     Though I have spend my life devoted to making and going to theatre, I find myself much more drawn these days to concerts (classical), opera and dance performances. A live drama has to justify itself in this age of competition from quality television and other media. I thought about all this as I wasted a lovely, sunny Spring afternoon at THE RUINS OF CIVILIZATION. What is playwright Penelope Skinner trying to say in this confused bit of dystopian soap opera? The only question that kept me going was who was going to be the victim of the cat poison (yes, cat poison), introduced early in the play--remember Chekhov's dictum that if you introduce a gun in Act I, you've got to shoot it by Act III.
     We're in some future time where global warming has caused much of the world to be flooded. Altruism no longer exists. Since the play takes place in England (hence some really awful British accents), I couldn't help wondering why that small island has survived. For some reason--there is a lot that isn't explained in the play--women are not supposed to have children. Nor, it seems, are people supposed to have cats, which are considered vermin to be eliminated. Silver is an author (the now embattled publishing industry seems to have survived into the future). He's also a sanctimonious prig and bully who treats his wife as if she were a child. The usually charming Tim Daly has not found a way to make this character at all likable. In fact, I spent much of the play praying that Silver would be the recipient of the cat poison. Silver's wife, Joy, who is recovering from psychological problems because she can't have a child, brings into the house a pregnant Eastern European woman. Mara's child is the product of a brutal rape by her employer (the playwright isn't a fan of the male gender). Joy sees the baby as a kind of Christ figure who can save the world. Of course, Silver isn't happy with harboring a criminal in his home.
     What's the point of all this? The world is a mess because male brutality has won over women's love, fertility and generosity. Unfortunately, the play is heavy-handed. Has Joy been cast with a Black actress to give a racial dynamic to Silver's domestic tyranny? Rachel Holmes seemed to strong for her somewhat desperate character. I saw an early preview. Perhaps Leah C. Gardner's direction will get some rhythm during subsequent performances.
     Not a must see.
THE RUINS OF CIVILIZATION. Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II. May 8, 2016.