Monday, May 29, 2017

Review of "Thoroughly Modern Millie"

Thoroughly Modern Millie, the first offering of the Goodspeed Opera House’s season, is thoroughly and enormously entertaining.  Possessed of plucky performances and energetic and creative choreographer, the musical is a lively and cheerful production.
“So beat the drums 'cause here comes thoroughly modern Millie now!” the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Thoroughly Modern Millie now playing at The Goodspeed through July 2.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The story, based on the 1967 movie of the same name that starred Mary Tyler Moore, Julie Andrews, and Carol Channing, focuses on Mille Dillmount, a young woman just off the bus from Salina, Kansas looking to make her mark on New York City in 1922.  A self-described modern woman, she is seeking to marry a would-be boss for his money as opposed to love.  Within hours of hitting the streets of The Big Apple she, literally, bumps into Jimmy Smith, a brash, opinionated young man who tells her to go back home.   Their encounter goes as well as oil and vinegar.  Undeterred, she checks into the Hotel Priscilla, an all-women’s hotel populated by aspiring actresses, befriending one of them, Dorothy, a newcomer from California.   Unbeknownst to the residences the proprietress, Mrs. Meers, is running a white slavery ring, along with her two Chinese henchmen, from the establishment.  This sets into motion a series of frothy and frivolous hijinks that culminates in love and justice.
The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Thoroughly Modern Millie now playing at The Goodspeed through July 2.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Book writers Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan have crafted fully developed characters, along with a wholesomely silly plot, as they send up the jazz age with madcap delight.  Their non-stereotypical portrayals of the Asian lackeys give the show a less distasteful sheen.

The score by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan is always highly satisfying and tuneful, encompassing a number of different musical and rhythmic styles.  There are upbeat and jaunty tunes such as the title number and “Forget About the Boy;” the comedic gem, “They Don’t Know;” and yearning ballads that include “What Do I Need With Love” and “Jimmy.”
“Muquin” Christopher Shin (Bun Foo), Loretta Ables Sayre (Mrs. Meers) and James Seol (Ching Ho) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Thoroughly Modern Millie now playing at The Goodspeed through July 2.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The cast, which exudes a youthful exuberance, is spirited, spunky and talented.  They are led by Taylor Quick as Millie Dillmount, a take charge woman who succumbs to the call of love over money.  She is high-spirited and fearless with a marvelous voice and dancing prowess to match.  Dan DeLuca has a winning bon vivant swagger as the loveable, carefree womanizer Jimmy Smith who inevitably falls for the dame.  Samantha Sturm is refined and daft as the wide-eyed, innocent Miss Dorothy Brown.  In the role of Mrs. Meers, Loretta Ables Sayre just about steals the show.  The theater veteran knows how to deliver a line or extend a scene to great comic effect.  Lucia Spina’s Miss Peg Flannery has a layered edge to her portrayal of the stern, matron of the steno pool with an underlying heart-of-gold. Edward Watts is suitably pompous and strait-laced as Millie’s boss Trevor Graydon III.  Ramona Keller has a knowing worldliness and down-to-earth manner as cabaret singer Muzzy van Hossmere.  James Seol (Ching Ho) and Christopher Shin (Bun Foo) provide extra comic relief as Mrs. Meers’ less than menacing gang.  
The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  take “The Speed Test” in Thoroughly Modern Millie now playing at The Goodspeed through July 2.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director/Choreographer Denis Jones is in his element with this bubbly, buoyant show.  As he demonstrated helming Goodspeed’s Holiday Inn two years ago (as well as its Broadway transfer this season for which he is nominated for a Tony Award for Best Choreography) musicals heavy on tap dancing and playfulness are his specialty.  As choreographer, he incorporates many types of dance routines into the production, but he excels when a full-throttled tap number is called for in the musical.  He shows his inventiveness during the scene at the office of the Sincere Trust Insurance Company when the office secretaries, seated at their manual typewriters, tap up a storm while at the same time paying homage to Busby Berkley movie musicals and Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs.

Director Jones keeps the pacing tight and the humor in high gear.  In his dual role, he seamlessly melds scenes from one mode to another. He also imbues each actor and actress with their own unique traits and mannerisms.
“My spirits are truly unruly, For I'm falling in love with someone” Edward Watts (Trevor Grayden) with Samantha Sturm (Miss Dorothy) and Taylor Quick (Millie) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Thoroughly Modern Millie now playing at The Goodspeed through July 2.
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Gregory Gale’s costumes are stylish as well as lavish, evoking the flapper age of the 1920’s.  

Thoroughly Modern Millie, a sweet, summertime concoction to sit back and enjoy at the Goodspeed Opera House through July 2nd.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review of "Building the Wall"

Trump administrative policies, the Holocaust, and even the television show “24” reverberate through the talkative, sporadically, absorbing Off-Broadway play, Building the Wall.  Playwright Robert Schenkkan, who penned the Tony Award winning All the Way, that focused on President Lyndon Johnson’s struggles to enact the 1964 Voting Rights Act, once again addresses politics in his latest endeavor.

The time is the present.  The stage is a starkly furnished room-- a simple metallic table, two chairs and a water cooler--in some unnamed federal prison.  There, Gloria, a History Professor (Tamara Tunie) is preparing to interview a soon-to-be executed inmate, Rick (James Badge Dale) about the catalyst for a crime that has not yet been revealed to the audience.  The conversation, a back and forth, sometimes staccato-like question and answer, begins with the prisoner’s background and then encompasses his beliefs and motivations.  The exchanges conclude with, what turns out to be, a horrific offense reminiscent of the atrocities of the Holocaust.

There are times when Building the Wall can be thought-provoking and provocative but, for the most part, the dialogue is stilted and too studied.  The dramatic arc only becomes evident at the end of the production.  At first, based on the title, the audience may think the prisoner is some evil, malevolent individual steeped in the partisan and highly charged rhetoric of the Trump administration.  But as the 85 minute, intermission-less show progresses you realize this is simply a misled individual with confused morals caught up within a failed system that could have taken place anytime within the past 15-20 years.  His defenseless rationale dredges up the “only following orders” mantra from the Nuremburg Trials.

Schenkkan’s approach gives the show a meandering pace.  There is not a direct road map in Gloria’s line of inquiry.  It’s more like a faculty member’s lecture that constantly darts off into tangential streams of thought before circling back to the main point.  We also do not understand the motivation or interest in the professor’s presence.  While not totally necessary, the reasoning would add a better layer to our understanding.

Tamara Tunie is matter-of-fact as the cool and detached professor.  The all but emotional-less delivery serves its purpose of having her be a somewhat dispassionate observer and chronicler of Rick’s story, but it doesn’t allow for much nuance or shading to the role.

James Badge Dale, as Rick, initially, comes across as a menacing presence.  But he convincingly shifts his persona through the steady outpouring of justifications and confessions to become more of a pathetic, misguided individual.  His talk of shadowy government agents and rogue contractors seem credible and almost…almost evokes some degree of sympathy from the audience.

Director Ariel Edelson is moderately successful in presenting a modicum of liveliness.  There is not much in, what is essentially, a question and answer format to break-up the sameness of the play’s structure.  He partitions the proceedings with Rick’s frequent trips to the water cooler, but there is just so much hydration one can take.  Also, the earlier half of the show’s rat-a-tat deliver and response comes across as rather forced and unnatural.

Maybe it’s too early in the Trump Presidency to develop a stage production that dramatically and effectively processes some aspects of his policies, executive orders, legislative agenda, and his erratic and uncharacteristic Presidential behavior.  Building the Wall is a worthy, but flawed attempt, playing at World Stages Off-Broadway.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review of "Bandstand"

In this jam-packed Broadway season of 13 new musicals where glitz, style, and innovation seem the norm, it is comforting to sit back and enjoy the more old-fashioned, yet still vibrant, musical Bandstand.  The show has a well-conceived story, endearing characters, and the always vigorous and original choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler.

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes and members of the cast of "Bandstand."

The libretto of the show follows a traditional, conventional path.  Returning World War II G.I. Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a jazz piano enthusiast, can’t find work.  Still despondent over the death of his best buddy during the fighting and without luck finding a job tickling the ivories, he forms his own band, consisting of war veterans, to compete in a coast-to-coast music contest.  He convinces the wife of his former pal, Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), to be lead singer, and they take on the nightclub scene in Cleveland by storm on their way to New York and the big-time.  Will they win?  Will he get the girl?  It’s not as pat as you think.

Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker’s book of the show, while straightforward, seems fresh with a finely-honed cast of characters.  The backstories the two have created for each performer enriches the plot without weighing down the flow and pacing of the musical.  They have inserted bumps in the road, giving the story a more realistic ambiance.  While there is an overall, feel-good quality to the production, Taylor and Richard Oberacker deftly weave in the horrors of war and the very real, debilitating problems returning servicemen face.  This gives the musical more heft and seriousness as opposed to, for example, the frothiness of an MGM movie musical.
Members of Broadway's "Bandstand."

The score by Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor pays homage to the jazzy music scene in post WWII America.  There are crackling numbers for the newly formed combo as well as heartrending songs that beautifully and achingly portray a country moving forward from the personal traumas of war.  All the actors play their own instruments.  The authenticity gives an added vibrancy and passion to the production.

The cast boasts one of the largest group of well-developed characters of any of the new Broadway musicals.  The two leads, Corey Cott as Donny Novitski, and Laura Osnes as Julia Trojan, are a winning and appealing twosome.  Cott, breaking free from the bon vivant role he played in his last Broadway role in the musical Gigi, is intense and earnest, giving his character multi-layered levels of emotions and feelings from rage to desperation to guilt to compassion.  You feel his angst and silently hope for his triumph.  He is well-paired with Ms. Osnes who starts off as a withdrawn, bitter war widow, but gradually gains new-found confidence to succeed as a singer and a person in love.  The actress, a waif of a woman, has a powerhouse vocal delivery and a radiance to light up any stage.
The cast from "Bandstand."

The supporting cast, all playing WWII veterans, is a colorful group, expressively drawn and dramatically rendered.  They are James Nathan Hopkins as the well-adjusted saxophone player, Jimmy Campbell; Brandon J. Ellis as the life-of-the-party, yet forlorn bass player, Davy Zlatic; Alex Bender as the hot-tempered, but dutiful trumpet player, Nick Radel; Geoff Packard as the OCD afflicted trombone player, Wayne Wright; and Joe Carroll as the seemingly TBI drummer, Johnny Simpson.  Beth Leavel gives an assured and mother-knows-best performance as Ms. Osnes’ stage mother, Mrs. June Adams.
Director-Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, once again, demonstrates why he is one of the most innovative and creative forces on Broadway.  No one has a better feel for the movement of actors, whether on stage or moving them to and from the performing space.  There is a raw elegance to the way he positions and maneuvers the cast and ensemble members.  Individuals don’t just walk out front, but do so in a stylized fashion.  The simple undertaking of moving an upright piano on stage, for example, becomes an abstract representation of the pain and hardship the musicians face.

Bandstand, an old-time story accentuated with dynamism and inspiration.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review of "Groundhog Day"

Stagecraft wizardry is on full display in the whimsical, and wholly satisfying Broadway musical Groundhog Day, based on the movie of the same name.  The question going into the theater was how the creative team would negotiate the endless loop of that certain February date being relived over and over.  Well, the artisans found a creative and inventive way to bring the story to life that echoes the humor and poignancy of the film.
Andy Karl and members of the cast of "Groundhog Day."

The story by Danny Rubin, the screenwriter for the movie, centers on Phil Connors (Andy Karl), a self-absorbed Pennsylvania weatherman who, year in and year out, is assigned to cover the irrelevant festivities surrounding whether the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow or not, which folklore states will predict six more weeks of winter or not.  On this occasion, a snowstorm traps Connors; his associate producer, Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss); and their cameraman in the small town. When he awakes the following morning in his well-worn bed and breakfast the events of the day, and the townsfolk he interacts with, begin to play out exactly like the previous day.  As does the next day.  And the next.  And the next.  The amount of days is never revealed, but suffice it to say there are enough weeks (months?) for Connors to learn to recite French poetry fluently and to learn to play the piano.  As time wears on, the shallow forecaster becomes more sanguine, agreeable, and even courteous.  His overtly flirtatious attempts to seduce Hanson become less blatant as the two settle into a genuine, caring relationship when suddenly and inexplicitly a new day dawns.  A new chapter begins.

Barrett Doss and Andy Karl from "Groundhog Day"

The cast is led by Andy Karl as Phil Connors.  The actor, a Broadway favorite that has appeared in many productions over the last few years (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Rocky, On the 20th Century), finally gets to sink his teeth into a leading role in a hit show.  He is a charming, handsome cad that delightfully transforms from a chauvinistic rascal to a thoughtful, considerate gentleman.  Karl’s enthusiasm in the role is palatable and infectious.  Even a torn ACL before the show’s opening couldn’t stop him from bounding around the stage.  Barrett Doss as his love interest, Rita Hanson, brings a professional demeanor to her role.  She is independent, yet vulnerable as she tries to make her mark in a sexist world.  The chemistry between the two performers is not very strong, which does undercut the musical’s focus on their love interest.  Notable members of the supporting cast include John Sanders as the loveable, rather insistent insurance agent Ned Ryerson and Rebecca Faulkenberry as the misunderstood, somewhat gullible town beauty, Nancy.

The score by Tim Minchin, who performed the same duties on the hit musical Matilda a few years back, is not as tuneful or noteworthy.  The songs work well within the musical, but only sporadically burst forth into the quirkiness and humor the show calls for. 
The cast of "Groundhog Day."

Director Matthew Warchus, who has helmed such diverse productions as Matilda, God of Carnage and Boeing-Boeing, demonstrates his stagecraft expertise by successfully guiding all the varied components into a cohesive whole.  He is able to deftly make the replays of Pux’s everyday world seem fluid without becoming monotonous.  He cleverly weaves in some inspired lunacy as with the scenes where Phil Connors learns to play the piano and with his suicidal moments and timed-to-the-minute lifesaving episodes.  Together, along with some fancy sleight-of-hand, they all create theatrical magic.

Rob Howell’s Scenic Design is superb.  The various sets are imaginative and resourceful and, as in the coupling and uncoupling of the structural sections for the bed and breakfast, a mechanic tour de force.  He also shows his artistic inventiveness with the Act I car chase, the highlight of the production.  When coupled with Hugh Vanstone’s Lighting Design, the absurd daydream quality of the show becomes magnified.

Groundhog Day, the dazzling absurdity of the film brought winningly to the Broadway musical stage.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review of "Oslo"

The following is my review from the Fall 2016 Off-Broadway run of Oslo.

I am a political theater junkie.  I have been transfixed by such shows as Frost/Nixon, Brian Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson in All the Way and even last season’s Charles III.  Now I can add the Broadway drama Oslo to my list.  The play is based on the real-life, secret negotiations facilitated by a Norwegian diplomat and her sociologist husband that led to the Oslo Accords, a document that laid out the groundwork for a peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).   
Michael Aronov, Jefferson Mays, and Anthony Azizi in the Lincoln Center production of "Oslo."
There is a lot of talk in this crackling, three hour, two intermission production.  But the material and its presentation by playwright J.T. Rogers is so enthralling and intriguing that you don’t notice the time.  Rogers gives us the requisite tense, shouting match negotiation sessions, but they are only one component of the complexities between these two hostile, mistrusting opponents seeking to overcome their adversarial relationship to forge peace and understanding.  There are no simple black and white answers.  Prejudices and biases you may bring to the show will probably be turned upside down, which only adds to the riveting and thoughtful nature of the play.
Members of the cast of the Lincoln Center production of "Oslo."
There are many characters in Oslo.  The primary players are Mona Jund (Jennifer Erhle), the Norwegian diplomat who was instrumental in initiating the talks.  While a more behind-the-scenes person and a buffer between her government and the other involved parties she, nonetheless, is persistent in her beliefs.  Erhle is superb in her portrayal of the resolute envoy.  She is unflinching and forceful in her performance.  Her husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) is a novice, but unshakeable negotiator who gently, yet vigorously continues to push the peace agenda forward.  Mays is convincing in his resolve and skillfully straddles the fine line between the hubris and self-effacement of his character.  Actor Anthony Azizi, as the leader of the two-member PLO team, Ahmed Qurie, gives a layered performance.  He is stoic, suspicious, sometimes boisterous, but determined for the peace process to succeed.  Michael Aronov, as Uri Savir, head of the Israeli group, is a perfect counterpoint to his Palestinian adversary.  Aronov embodies his role with fortitude and passion.  He is fun loving; a man full of life.  However, when he switches on his negotiating persona he is no-nonsense, uncompromising and unapologetic for his words and views.
Members of the cast of the Lincoln Center production of "Oslo."
Director Barlett Sher, most recently known for his large-scale Broadway musical revivals, takes a wordy, complex script and presents it in an intelligent and understandable manner.  He smartly concentrates on the personalities behind the negotiations as a way to flesh out the story.  The emotions, temperament, and individual idiosyncrasies of the characters become the driving force of the play as opposed to the negotiation sessions themselves.  He slides the large ensemble of performers in and off the stage with deftness and precision.  He takes the minimal, circular set by Michael Yeargan to focus the attention on the performers, giving us a birds eye view of the proceedings.  We are like flies on the wall witnessing history in the making.

Oslo, a captivating, historical drama at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont theater.

Review of "The Price"

Brotherly animosity and long pent-up ill will slowly, then explosively, unfolds in the all-star production of Arthur Miller’s The Price.  Starring a superlative cast of Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shaloub, Danny DeVito, and Jessica Hecht, the revival is riveting entertainment.
Danny DeVito, Mark Ruffalo, and Tony Shaloub in the revival of "The Price."
The narrative begins modestly as Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) visits a storage area sheltering his parent’s old furnishings and other household goods.  A policeman, who forfeited his chance for higher education to nurse his ailing father years earlier, he now wants to sell the possessions and secure whatever money he can.  He is soon joined by his judgmental wife Esther (Jessica Hecht) and a fast-talking, aged used furniture dealer, Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito).  Victor and Gregory bicker, thrust, parry and finally negotiate a deal.  Soon, Victor’s brother Walter (Tony Shaloub), a successful doctor, who was invited to the proceedings, but not expected to appear, abruptly arrives to join the discussion.  The siblings, not on the best of terms and having little contact over the years, skirmish over the brokered agreement.  Soon a torrent of bottled up feelings over their father, each man’s life-changing decisions, and family duty and commitment take center stage.  The brother’s bitterness and antagonism surges forth with the power of a tidal flood, ebbing every so often before heaving once again.  In the end, their relationship is unresolved and left in tatters.
Mark Ruffalo and Danny DeVito in the revival of "The Price."
Miller’s tale of family in-fighting is multi-layered, but somewhat long-winded.  He convincingly tackles weighty issues through the construct of selling off timeworn family belongings.  But the playwright is too reliant on verbal assaults and soul-searching monologues, which can be wearing on an audience even with such an esteemed group of actors.  He does, though, soften the drama somewhat by strategically injecting levity into scenes that threaten to become too sober or severe.

The cast is led by Mark Ruffalo, a brooding hulk trying to come to terms with his many relationships.  You can feel his tortured soul despondently searching for answers as he clashes with his brother.  Tony Shaloub is marvelous as his sibling.  Initially, supremely self-confident, he gradually reveals his growing self-doubts and personal demons as the familial skeletons fitfully come forward.  Danny DeVito is fabulous as the elderly businessman.  He effortlessly combines a world-weariness and comic flair to create the most well-rounded character of the show.   What is most impressive about his performance is that he plays a full-bodied character as opposed to his usual television or movie persona.  Jessica Hecht gives a nuanced, understated performance as the discontented wife.
Tony Shaloub, Mark Ruffalo, and Jessica Hecht in the revival of "The Price."
Director Terry Kinney skillfully builds the tension within the show to its fractured conclusion.  He teases out the simmering strain between the married couple without letting the disunion outshine the essence of Miller’s focal point.  Once the inevitable confrontation begins Kinney expertly manages the growing discord and subsequent pyrotechnics through the lens of a long-fused, controlled detonation. The director also deftly injects a playful and humorous component into the production, through Danny DeVito’s character.

Scenic Designer Derek McLane has artfully created a suffocating stage stuffed with furniture and other assorted knick-knacks.  Think of a high-end version of the television program “Hoarders.”

The Price, absorbing and gripping entertainment, through May 14th.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review of "Present Laughter"

One of the high-water marks of the current Broadway season is having the multi-talented Kevin Kline back on stage.  His presence in a New York production is a reason to cheer and his performance in the otherwise pedestrian Noel Coward drawing room comedy, Present Laughter, is full of hilarious delectation.
Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline in the revival of Noel Coward's "Present Laughter."
Kline plays Garry Essendine, an ego-centric, somewhat over-the-hill actor and lothario.  He questions his relevance and abilities, to anyone who will listen, on the eve of a tour of the African continent.  He seduces and fends off women, parries and thrusts with an assortment of friends and hanger-ons and, inadvertently, plants himself within a love triangle among his friends.  His open-minded and tolerant wife, the wise-cracking maid and butler, along with his harried secretary, try to keep him in line while placating his moody disposition.

No one portrays the high-minded English class better than Noel Coward.  In his most successful plays, such as Blithe Spirit  and Private Lives, the exalted language and upper crust characters mesh perfectly with an engaging and refreshing premise.  With Present Laughter, the plot is prosaic and inhabited by just a handful of compelling characters.  Without a magnetic and appealing lead the show would hardly be cause for a Broadway revival.
Kevin Kline and Kate Burton in "Present Laughter."
Kline fits the bill as a captivating and charismatic star.  His clownish and waggish talents, along with his nuanced approach elevate the production whether he is playing the roguish womanizer or a refined country gentleman.  His physical comedic skills have not diminished over time and have, in fact, improved by becoming more subtle and refined. The other members of the cast do an admirable job supporting the star.  The women in the play shine the most.  They include Kate Burton as his businesslike, forgiving wife, Liz Essendine; Kristine Nielsen as the long-time, disconcerted secretary Monica Reed; and Cobie Smulders as the smoldering, self-possessed femme fatale, Joanna Lyppiatt.

Director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel lets the action unfold in an easy, matter-of-fact style.  He adroitly utilizes the many doorways onto the stage in a subtle, but effective farcical manner.  The scenes with Kevin Kline and the female members of the cast resonate with zing and sparkle but, besides these moments, the director has a difficult time churning up a sustained gaiety and sprightliness to the production.

David Zinn’s Set Design perfectly replicates a very lived-in parlor of a country manor.  It is suitably busy, full of floor to ceiling bookshelves, and eclectic bric a brac and assorted showpieces one would collect over many years.

Present Laughter, a breezy, charming comedy with an outstanding performance by Kevin Kline.