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.

Review of "Hello, Dolly!"


The adulation for Bette Midler begins the moment she sets foot on stage.  The outpouring of love—continuous applause and rousing cheers and even a standing ovation midway through the show—signals this will be unlike most theater experiences you will have witnessed.  As Dolly Levi, in the sumptuous revival of Hello, Dolly!, The Divine Ms. M puts her own spin on the revered character.  Not so much the belter anymore she, nonetheless, puts her quintessential stamp on every number.  She manages to stay in character, most of the time, while bathing the role with comedic touches honed during her long concert and film career.  The actresses also manages some soft-shoe hoofing to boot.
 
Bette Midler hoofing it at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant in the revival of "Hello, Dolly!"
Hello, Dolly! tells the story of a brash yenta type character, Dolly Levi, who has been hired by the gruff, cantankerous half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder to match him up with a suitable bride.  Dolly, though, has other plans.  Instead of the intended young, pretty Irene Molloy, she has her own eyes set on the businessman.  Meanwhile, as the irascible Yonkers entrepeneur heads to New York City to meet his prearranged wife, his two clerks, Barnaby and Cornelius, decide the time is ripe for their own excitement and head off to the big city for adventure and, possibly, romance.  By the end of the musical cupid’s arrow has targeted all for the proverbial happy ending.

The producers have intelligently surrounded Ms. Midler with a superior supporting cast led by the incomparable David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder.  With longish hair and bushy moustache, Mr. Hyde Pierce more than holds his own in his scenes with Bette Midler.  The actor has perfect comic timing that enlivens every occasion he is on stage.  The golden voiced Kate Baldwin as Irene Malloy endows her character with an independent minded attitude mixed with a wistful, loving glint.  Gavin Creel is an exuberant Cornelius Hackl, fumbling and bumbling on the road to romance.  Taylor Trensch as Barnaby Tucker and Beanie Feldstein as the smitten millinery employee Minnie Fay are high-spirited with a youthful enthusiasm and ardor.  Jennifer Simard, in the small role of Ernestina, once again demonstrates why she is such a comedic gem that sparkles and shines.  Hopefully, one day, a stage vehicle that showcases her considerable talents will be produced.
 
Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce in "Hello, Dolly!"
The celebrated score by the acclaimed composer Jerry Herman overflows with one memorable song after another.  Just a handful would satiate an audience’s eagerness for tuneful, hummable compositions.  But here, every song, even the lesser-known numbers, are a pure listening and toe-tapping delight.  The many gems include “It Takes a Woman,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” ‘Before the Parade Passes By,” and the title number, “Hello, Dolly.”

Jerry Zaks, a multiple Tony Award winning director, has taken the war horse of a musical and injected an invigorating twinkle into the show.  The storyline is old-fashioned, at best, but he breathes new life into the musical by keeping the pacing brisk and refreshing.  Having a first-rate supporting cast of award-winning actors and actresses doesn’t hurt.  And, of course, there is Bette Midler as your star.  He allows her to overplay a scene here or there and incorporate some schtick.  No one really cares.  Zaks adroitly keeps the focus on Ms. Midler, not so much that the other components of the show become mere window dressing but, instead, are stylized accouterments.  An extension of the stage, curving around the pit orchestra, brings the star even closer to her beloved fans.  The director seizes every opportunity to utilize this alteration to the musical’s advantage.
 
Taylor Trensch, Bette Midler, and Gavin Creel in "Hello, Dolly!"
Warren Caryle puts his own mark on the original Gower Champion choreography.  The production numbers are vigorously executed with an almost fearless audaciousness.  The dancers soar and strut through high-stepping routines mixed in with lively promenades.  The Act II showstopper, “The Waiters’ Gallop,” at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, with waiters hustling and bustling on and off-stage with an energetic and athletic prowess is a sight to behold.

Santo Loquasto’s costume design, in bold colors as well as vibrant pastels, add an exclamation point to the production.  His set design does not overpower the show, allowing the audience to focus on the very talented cast.  However, when a signature piece is called on Loquasto doesn’t scrimp.  This includes a life-size train chugging on and off the stage and the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant scene with the iconic staircase, which Dolly Levi uses to make her grand entrance to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!”
 
Beanie Feldstein, Taylor Trensch, Kate Burton, and Gavin Creel in "Hello, Dolly!"
Hello, Dolly!, a classic musical with the bedazzling presence of a true Broadway star.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review of "Anastasia"



The following review is adapted from an earlier production of the show at Hartford Stage in Connecticut.

If an audience’s exuberance is any measuring stick, the new Broadway musical Anastasia is a sure-fire hit.  It is a first rate, crowd-pleasing production starring a young heroine that the theater-going, female teenage audience yearns for.

Derek Klena and Christy Altomare in "Anastasia."
Based on the 20th Century Fox animated film, the plot, part history lesson, part Pygmalion, and part fairy tale, centers on two self-confident rascals, Dmitry, a young lad and Vlad, an older gentlemen and former member of the royal court.  They are searching for a young woman to impersonate the Duchess Anastasia.  Rumors abound that she alone survived the murder of her father, Tsar Romanov of Russia, and the rest of her family at the onset of the Russian Revolution.  Her grandmother, living in Paris and believing she is still alive, has offered a handsome reward to anyone locating her lost granddaughter.  By sheer happenstance the pair discover a young lass, Anya, who has amnesia, but resembles Anastasia and curiously knows details of the Romanov household.  After some coaching the three succeed in their perilous journey to Paris to consummate their deceitful intentions.  But a blossoming romance between Dmitry and Anya, a cagey Russian assassin, and a disbelieving Dowager Empress conspire to thwart the well thought through plan.  In the end, a satisfying resolution is reached even as an air of mystery continues to surround the young woman.

Terence McNally’s libretto smartly puts Anya front and center.  She is strong, outspoken, independent, and vulnerable—just what tween and teenage girls, a huge audience for Broadway musicals, want to see.  Act I is concise and flows effortlessly from scene to scene.  Character’s traits and motives are quickly developed, as is the overall arc of the show.  Act II is a bit choppier as scenes, while entertaining, seem somewhat horseshoed into the show as we wait for the two protagonists—Dmitry and Anya—to come together as well as see a verdict on Anya’s origins. 
 
One of the big production numbers from "Anastasia."
The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composing team behind such Broadway shows as Ragtime, Seussical, Once on This Island, and My Favorite Year, is one of the best the duo has written over the last several years.  The songs, augmented from the movie soundtrack, are rooted in a more classical Broadway vein and are tuneful, haunting, and high-spirited.  They are wonderfully sung by the superb group of performers.

The cast is led by Christy Altomare as Anya.  The actress is spunky, courageous, intelligent and beautiful.  She has a powerful voice that literally soars throughout the theater.  Derek Klena, with a self-confident swagger, is convincing as the scheming, big-hearted, and handsome Dmitry.  He and Ms. Altomare have a wonderful chemistry that lights up the stage.  Both John Bolton as Dmitry’s partner in crime, Vlad, and Caroline O’Connor, as Countess Lily, add a pleasing and lively comic touch to the musical.  Ramin Karimloo shows focus and restraint, yet also hesitancy and contradictory emotions as as the Russian official Gleb.  Mary Beth Peil is snobbishly regal, showing pain and heartache, as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.
 
Mary Beth Peil and Christy Altomare from "Anastasia."
Darko Tresnjak’s sure-handed direction keeps the action fluid and focused.  The scene changes are quick and straightforward.  He adroitly balances the many tonal qualities of the show—its brashness, suspense, and comic sensibilities--to fashion a rewarding whole. 

The choreography by Peggy Hickey is skillfully incorporated into the musical without being showy or overbearing.  The dances suitably fit within the framework of the time periods and include elegant promenades, jaunty swing steps and comic hoofing.

Aaron Rhyne’s video and projections are some of the finest I’ve seen on a New York stage.  They seamlessly blend into each scene eliciting murmured praise from the audience.  While reproducing lush forests or architectural wonders they never overpower the production or call undo attention to their wizardry.

Alexander Dodge’s scenic design is perfectly in sync with Rhyne’s video projections.  The two create a triumphant, symbiotic whole. 

The costumes by Linda Cho are sumptuous and cover a wide range of styles from aristocratic finery to peasant garbs. 

Anastasia, a gorgeous and gratifying new musical.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"


The new Broadway musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is a superb delight.  The show is based on the classic Roald Dahl children’s book and the memorable movie version that starred Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka (not the remake that featured Johnny Depp in the lead role).  The production manages, for the most part, to capture the whimsical, dream-like world of the story.  There are imaginative and creative set pieces to go along with the winning performances by the cast, primarily Jake Ryan Flynn as the ever-optimistic lad, Charlie Bucket; and Christian Borle, delivering his second first-rate musical portrayal of the current season (he appeared last fall in Falsettos) as Willy Wonka.  The rendering of the mysterious Oompa Loompas is both clever and comical.
Kristy Cates, Madeleine Doherty, Paul Slade Smith Emily Padgett, John Rubenstein and Jake Ryan Flynn.


For those not steeped in the book, the plot centers on the Bucket family, so poor they can only afford rotting, moldy vegetables for their dinner.  Mom, a widow, works unceasingly to bring in a meager income.  The two sets of grandparents, ensconced in an upstairs bedroom, have been happily bedridden for decades.  Charlie, a young boy, is close to Joe, his mother’s father, who regales him with wild tales including his time as a guard at the Wonka Chocolate factory.  A youthful connoisseur of their confectionary products, he constantly wonders about this titan of industry who disappeared behind his factory walls, severing all ties with the world, years earlier.  Then one day a proclamation is broadcast that the enigmatic Willy Wonka will open his gates to five lucky winners who find a golden ticket in one of his Wonka chocolate bars.  Naturally, Charlie is one of the fortuitous children from around the world who unearths the prized treasure.  Quickly, each child, accompanied by an adult, enters the mystical, magical environs of the Wonka Chocolate factory where surprise after surprise awaits their every step.  In the end, only one of the visitors will win the grand prize of a lifetime supply of chocolate…as well as so much more.
Christian Borle (center) and members of the "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" cast.
Librettist David Greig has streamlined aspects of the original book, adding a new back story and his own spin on two of the youthful characters, giving them a very satisfying up-to-date feel. There is a lot of humor and playfulness within the narrative and, especially, with the Willy Wonka character.  However, Greig also keeps intact the underlying darkness so prevalent in the works of Roald Dahl.  In the film, when the young children behave badly they are unceremoniously, but innocently removed from the scene.  Not necessarily so in the musical version.  

The score incorporates such iconic numbers from the movie, including “The Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination,” and the “Oompa Loompa Song,” written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.  The new numbers, penned by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can), are joyful, silly, and full of amusement and dynamism.  There are tender ballads and expository compositions, but they never intrude upon the daftness and farcicality of the overall score. 
 
Christian Borle and Jake Ryan Flynn with one of the mysterious machines from the musical.
The cast is wonderful, led by Christian Borle.  His Willy Wonka is part wise guy and part carnival huckster.  The stage comes childishly alive with his nonsensical patter and juvenile antics.  He is the circus ringleader that keeps the pacing ablaze.  Other notable performers include an undiscernible John Rubenstein as the slightly mad, a touch oft-kilter but, nonetheless, loving, doting surrogate father, Grandpa Joe.  There is still a spry step in his gait and glimmer in his eye.  Jake Ryan Flynn, as Charlie Bucket, has the fascination and innocence of a youth buoyantly confronting his rather humble situation in life.  He is endearing, confident and has an overall winning presence.  Jackie Hoffman, as Mrs. Teavee, is always a welcome sight in any production.  She possesses a well-honed, subversive presence that goes along with her very funny quips.  The actors portraying the four children—Trista Dollison (Violet Beauregarde), F. Michael Haynie (Augustus Gloop), Emma Pfaeffle (Veruca Salt), and Michael Wartella (Mike Teavee)—have well-defined, slightly over-the-top traits, which is a positive alternation to the story. 

Director Jack O’Brien has crafted a production rich in invention and cleverness.  He never lets the largeness of the show get away from him.  Even at the other end of the spectrum, when there is mere nothingness on stage, he demonstrates his creativity and resourcefulness.  This occurs, with great hilarity, as the visitors transverse an unseen gauntlet of surprises.  O’Brien gives Christian Borle plenty of room for inspired theatrics that still stay in line with the Wonkiness of his character.  His depiction and restrained usage of the enigmatic Oompa Loompas never fails to bring a smile to audience members, young and old alike.  My one major criticism is the scene where Charlie discovers his golden ticket.  It happens too quickly, not allowing the audience enough time to savor, along with the boy, in his fortunate piece of luck. 

The artistic team has produced a realm of awe and astonishment.  Mark Thompson’s sets form the foundation with a plethora of zany gadgetry that bellow, smoke, and convulse.  He has also incorporated minimally designed staging that pairs well with the more elaborate construction.  This allows for the audience’s imagination to take over.  Jeff Sugg’s hypnotizing projections, Japhy Weideman’s impactful lighting, and Andrew Keister’s off-beat and enterprising sound design complete the whole package.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the few family oriented shows playing on Broadway that adults will also find diverting and entertaining.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of "Come From Away"


The events of 9/11 still strike a raw nerve within the national psyche.  The books, movies, and television programs that have been rolled out over the past 16 years have been graphic and numbing.  Their blunt, straightforward portrayal of that morning have been, for the most part, unvarnished and overpowering.  The unintended consequences has been a separation, a significant chasm that precludes our mind from fully processing that tragic episode in American history.

Come From Away, the new Broadway musical, approaches that Tuesday in September differently.  The show relates the true story of how an abandoned airfield in Gander, Newfoundland in Canada suddenly became the pit stop for dozens of commercial airlines when the United States airspace was closed because of the attacks.  In aviation history Gander was the central refueling depot for planes crossing the Atlantic.  With the advent of jet propulsion the Gander locale became an abandoned footnote, until that fateful day when the population of the small town grew overnight from 9,000 to 16,000 residents.  The musical relates how the townspeople and “plane people” reacted, adapted, and came together over a five day period of time.  It humanizes the events of 9/11 through personal stories, song and dance.   The result is a show that is uplifting, funny, and forlorn.  It is a joyous celebration of life and the human spirit even as the very fabric of our lives was upended.    
 
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
Librettist Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a well-structured narrative where the cast portrays a multitude of roles from stunned and shaken airline passengers to the average man and woman on the streets of Gander.  The husband and wife team focus on the determination of everyone to make an unthinkable and untenable situation work.  This optimistic attitude is carried throughout the show.  Some would-be audience members might think any art form with 9/11 as the backdrop would be maudlin and depressing.  But Sankoff and Hein’s book for the show is more heartening and inspirational.  Are there moments when the tissues come out?  Sure, yet they are offset by humorous and tender moments that make you want to stand and cheer.

The ensemble cast is full of individuals you would find at any main street diner.  They exude their own can do spirit as they forcefully take hold of the material with a dynamism and drive that is heartfelt and genuine.  Every one of the actors and actresses fit so well together.  If there was a Tony Award for Best Ensemble Come From Away would be the hands down winner.  Three of the group that do deserve mention are Jenn Colella, who primarily portrays the gritty pilot of one of the diverted planes; Joel Hatch, who’s main character is the unflappable mayor of Gander; and Astrid Van Wieren, who’s central role is as the levelheaded, problem-solving school administrator.
 
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
The score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is a mix of haunting and soul-searching compositions and exuberant melodies that joyfully reverberate throughout the theater.  Tinged with the Irish roots prevalent in this northern Canadian province, they are almost all ensemble pieces.  The songs are performed by a tight knit, boisterous band that would be welcome at any Emerald Isle drinking establishment.

Director Christopher Ashley does a superb job with the flow of the cast as they assemble from one scene to the next.  There is a good deal of logistics involved as chairs forming the interior of a jetliner may quickly become the setting for the neighborhood bar or coffee shop.  He keeps the pacing quick without rushing the storyline. Under Ashley’s guidance, the transformation of the actors and actresses from one character to another is skillfully executed.  Gratifyingly, the overall effect allows the audience to slowly absorb the impact of what is happening without a preachy or moralistic tone.  The integration of the musical numbers, under the musical staging of Kelly Devine, is organic, developing naturally and mirroring the action on stage.  The dancing is buoyant and lively and reflects the down-to-earth nature of the towns folk. 
 
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
Beowulf Boritt’s Scenic Design is spare with, for the most part, tables and chairs, serving a variety of functions.  A smart choice.  Anything more elaborate would have lessened the pace of the show and tethered our imagination.

Come From Away, an absorbing and moving musical that will leave you searching for words of praise. 

Review of "War Paint"


The fierce rivalry between cosmetic titans Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden during the post-World War II era seems like an unlikely subject for a big Broadway musical.  But War Paint, with two certified stars in the leads—Patti Lupone (Ms. Rubenstein) and Christine Ebersole (Ms. Arden)—and the same creative team behind the Tony Award winning Grey Gardens, proves to be an engaging, captivating, and classy production.
 
Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole in "War Paint."
The show examines the competition between the two women who ruled corporate boardrooms when very few women were even in the upper echelons of the business world.  The musical also looks at their individual empires and the ups and downs of both their businesses and personal lives.  Librettist Doug Wright has fashioned a coherent narrative that, while not perfect, manages to include a good deal of information in a dramatic and entertaining manner.  He also succeeds in nimbly touching on a number of notable topics as sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism without appearing so obvious or deliberate.  By covering such a significant amount of historical terrain, character development has been somewhat compromised, more so with the men in the story then the two female protagonists, but not to the detriment of the overall production.
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The high voltage women in the cast—Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole—are worth the price of admission.  Both are seasoned musical theater veterans that are able to embody the heart and soul of their characters.  They are iron-willed, classy, sophisticated, but also vulnerable and alone.  Ms. Lupone, who’s Russian √©migr√© accent sometimes gets the best of her, nonetheless is superb as Helena Rubenstein.  Her performance is bold, defiant, and self-assured.  Throughout the show, she delivers a number of very funny, sharp-witted bon mots.  Ms. Ebersole, as Elizabeth Arden, presents a less hyperbolic portrayal.  She is well-poised and assured in her demeanor and possesses a razor-like focus on her goals, no matter what the sacrifices and slights, both personal and business.  Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming) and John Dossett (Tommy Lewis), the two men in Arden and Rubenstein’s lives who serve as their creative directors, publicists and confidantes, give well-honed performances within the limitations of their roles.   The primary focus is on the female leads and their story, which doesn’t allow the necessary time for expanding and refining the Fleming and Lewis characters.
 
Douglas Sills and Patti Lupone in "War Paint."

Director Michael Greif once again succeeds in birthing a musical with two strong, independent-minded female leads just as he accomplished with Grey Gardens.  He has skillfully worked out a stage management schema for Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole to shine individually and in tandem.  He deftly guides the production through its pace to create a series of tightly woven scenes that together form a persuasively structured, unified whole as opposed to a series of strung-together vignettes.  Mr. Greif also manages to successfully weave through the show feelings of sadness, humor, triumph and defeat.
 
Christine Ebersole and members of the cast of "War Paint."
The score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie afford each star a chance to, literally, shine in the spotlight as well as together.  The songs are effective in providing shading and nuance to the characters and moving the plot along its many twists and turns.  While none of the numbers will be remembered once leaving the theater they are engaging, finely written compositions well-suited within the confines of the show.

David Korins’ scenic design, along with Kenneth Posner’s Lighting Design, has fittingly captured the essence of the two corporate cultures and the world the women inhabit.   They bring a stylish and polished look to the production.  The costumes by Catherine Zuber are elegant, chic, and smart.

War Paint, a well-crafted musical with two bona fide stars delivering tour de force performances.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review of "The Play That Goes Wrong"


Take Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – and amplify it’s outcome to the nth degree.  That is the quite amusing, sometimes hilarious premise behind the British comedy, The Play That Could Go Wrong.  It is opening night for the Cornly University Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor.  From the onset, the members of the school’s decidedly amateur cast is undermined in their efforts to entertain by uncooperative scenery, misplaced props, and a corpse that won’t stay dead.  As the play progresses all manner of mayhem giddily erupts.  Just as you think the turmoil couldn’t get worse it does, again and again.

The playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sawyer, and Henry Shields – all actors in the show – must have had a grand time coming up with the situations and anarchy portrayed on stage.  They have written a stage comedy in the tradition of such other London imports as Noises Off and One Man, Two Guvnors.  This show is full of vaudevillian antics, slapstick and a great deal of physical humor..  Question – why can’t American playwrights pen such consistently convulsing shows.  There are some very inspired moments that would spoil the fun and merriment if they were revealed.  Suffice it to say you will not leave the theater without a smile on your face.


The superb cast successfully portrays a troupe of bumbling, provincial actors and actresses.  They butcher the English language, miss their cues, and are literally battered into submission.  If I had to spotlight one actor it would be David Hearn.  His character Max is self-important and smug within his role.  Everytime the audience laughs or applauds he turns his head to the seats with a broad, appreciative smile.  At other times he gesticulates wildly, arms flailing about like a pathetic contestant in a game of charades.  He is so bad, he’s good.  The two women in the cast – Charile Russell as the woeful femme fatale Sandra and Bryony Corrigan (making a superlative Broadway debut) as the overworked stage hand Annie – deliver a master class in stage fighting and pummeling.  You feel their pain, albeit in your funny bone.

Mark Bell does a fabulous job directing his cast to be…awful.  It can’t be easy guiding the actors and actresses through a purposeful dreadful performance, but he does so with skill and aplomb.  In addition, he cleverly  weaves into the production a recalcitrant and disintegrating set, flinging bodies, and even an invisible dog.


You get the impression that Scenic Designer Nigel Hook was like a kid on a sugar high when he created the concept for the show.  He has gone hog wild in coming up with a set that, by play’s end, literally implodes.  On the way to the final destruction he, along with Andrew Johnson’s playful sound design, generate a cornucopia of pandemonium and madness. 

Special mention needs to go to the unnamed stage crew (who actually take a bow with the cast at the curtain call).  Not only must they stay on their toes throughout the entire two hours of the show, but they have to rebuild the set every day (twice on matinee days).  They are the unsung heroes of the production.

The Play That Goes Wrong, a diverting and wacky respite during our topsy-turvy times.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Review of "Assassins"


A musical about Presidential assassins and would-be assailants is the highly unusual, somewhat creepy, premise for a full-fledged musical.  Yet, in 1990 Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman created such a show called, aptly, Assassins, which is receiving a spirited and passionate production at Yale Rep through April 8th.
 
The cast of Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2017.
The production features an impressive ensemble cast, who bring to life the irrationality and disturbed state of each person.  Librettist Weidman mashes up groups of characters as well as scrutinizing their individual foibles and beliefs.  He tries to get into the soul of each person through probing vignettes that examine their backstory.  He is successful in creating three-dimensional characters, most mentally ill, hold unfounded grudges or are deranged nationalists.  The rogue’s gallery includes John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln; Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield; Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot John F. Kennedy; and John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.   

The score by Stephen Sondheim echoes the time-period reflected by each Presidential era.  The songs explore the human condition and failed dreams of the protagonists.  Passionately sung with urgent and probing lyrics and melodies this is the work of a mature artist at the peak of his craft.
 
P. J. Griffith, Julia Murney, Stephen DeRosa, and Robert Lenzi in Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2017.
The acting troupe is outstanding.  Each person thoroughly embodies their character, mostly with chilling effectiveness.  While every member is superb, standouts include Stephen DeRosa as the delusional Charles Guiteau; Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer, who comments on the proceedings and as the languid and unsure assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; Richard R. Henry as the unbalanced Nixon hater Samuel Byck; Robert Lenzi as the self-important, courtly John Wilkes Booth; Lauren Molina as the Charles Manson loving Lynnete "Squeaky" Fromme; and Julia Murney as a pathetic and distressed Sara Jane Moore.

Director James Bundy plays on the theme of the carnival setting by injecting menace, the unknown and even humor into the production.  He is keenly attuned to the desperation and torment of the characters, weaving their stories together in a socio-pathetic interpretive dance.  The strength, however, of the show is when the focus is on the individual assailant and their inner turmoil. 

Assassins, a chance to see the rarely revived Weidman/Sondheim collaboration, playing at Yale Rep through April 8th.