Tuesday, 23 February 2016

NOiSES OFF and SHE LOVES ME at the Roundabout

     I had some trepidation about seeing NOISES OFF again. I have seen it many times before and feared I wouldn't find it funny on the fifth or sixth viewing. I was wrong. Jeremy Herrin's revival for the Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre is hilarious.
     By this time, most regular theatergoers know what happens in NOISES OFF. In Act I, an oddball assortment of professional actors are having a dress rehearsal of one of those British sex farces that used to be popular in the 1950s and 1960s. This one, called "Nothing On" is supposed to begin a tour of English provincial theatres on the next evening, but the dress rehearsal seems endless. Dottie, the has-been actress cast to play the maid (Andrea Martin), can't remember her stage business. Frederick Fellowes (Jeremy Shamos), is looking for the motivation of his character (there isn't any). Frederick also has a tendency to faint at any violence or blood. Brooke Ashton, the dumb blond (Megan Hilty), can't act and keeps losing her contact lens. Of course, she is sleeping with the director, but so is neurotic, pregnant Poppy, one of the stage managers (Tracee Chimo). Between keeping the two women apart and trying to get his cast through the dress rehearsal and some ghastly performances, it's no wonder that the director (Campbell Scott) is increasingly frantic. In the second act, a month later, we see the play from backstage. By this time, conflicts between the actors have escalated and there is more action going on backstage than in front of the fictional audience. Two months later, the performance has descended into sheer chaos.
     NOISES OFF takes a cast of superb actors who are masters at physical comedy. The play has to be choreographed as completely as a ballet. The timing has to be perfect. One could not ask for a better cast than that appearing at the Roundabout. Andrea Martin is brilliant as always. Everyone else is fine, but I have to give special recognition to Megan Hilty's screamingly funny, uncoordinated dumb blond and Rob McClure's frantic stage manager.
     The night we went, the packed theatre was full of young people who were probably seeing the play for the first time. They screamed with delight, as well they should.
      Twelve blocks uptown, the Roundabout is reviving one of my favorite musicals, the great Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joe Masterhoff show SHE LOVES ME. Twenty-three years ago, the Roundabout had a great success with this intimate musical. This revival is the best production of the show I have seen including the original. Scott Ellis's direction sets the proper mood for this sweet show, David Rockwell's sets earned repeated applause, Scott Mashie's costumes were lovely and the cast couldn't be better.
     SHE LOVES ME was never a big hit. It's an intimate musical with half a dozen major characters, a small chorus that seldom appears and very little dancing. The show takes place in and around a parfumerie in Budapest in 1934, shortly before that city would be wounded by Hitler and Stalin, though  there is nothing political about the musical. The colorful sets evoke a fantasy old world middle Europe. At the center of the show is a tempestuous romance between coworkers George (Zachary Levi) and Amalia (Laura Benanti). While they feud at work, they don't realize that they are writing endearing letters to each other through a lonely hearts club. A slight plot, yes, but SHE LOVES ME has a great score, up there with the best scores that the American musical has produced, far better, I think, than the score Bock and Harnick wrote for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF a year later.  
    SHE LOVES ME takes excellent singing actors. I can't believe I am writing this, but Laura Benanti, always a winning performer, sings her gorgeous songs as well as Barbara Cook did fifty-three years ago. That's high praise, but Benanti deserves it. I have seen a number of productions of SHE LOVES ME, but this is the first in which George was played by someone who is really a good singer. Zachary Levi has a lovely baritone voice. We all know he's a winning actor who is also incredibly handsome. Gavin Creel magnificently sings and acts the caddish Kodaly. The weak link in the early preview I saw was Jane Krakowski, who usually can effortlessly steal a show. She underplays Ilona's witty songs too much. It may be the miking, but her parts in the duets didn't come through in the front mezzanine. Everyone else--Michael McGrath, Byron Jennings and Nicholas Barasch--make the most of their moments on stage but never lose sight of the fact that this is an ensemble show.
     I saw the second preview and was surprised at what good shape the show is already in. It can only get even better. A fabulous production of one of my favorite musicals.
NOISES OFF. American Airlines Theatre. February 19, 2016.
SHE LOVES ME. Studio 54. February 20, 2016.

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