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?