Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review of "Ghost"

I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the new musical, Ghost, with its power pop score and sometimes brilliant stagecraft and effects.  It’s not like I was going in with negative thoughts, but the recent track record of movies transformed into musicals, most recently Sister Act and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, have not been very satisfying.  Still, for all the positives, there were two aspects of the production, which were quite irritating and exasperating.  More on this later.

As most people know, Ghost is based on the 1990 film that starred Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg, for which she won the Oscar.  [Spoiler Alert:  if you have not seen the movie be forewarned if you read ahead].  The plot of the show closely follows the movie.  Sam, played by Richard Fleeshman, and Molly, portrayed by Caissie Levy, are young and madly in love.  One night, on their way home from a romantic dinner a robbery turns sour and Sam is shot dead.  Grief-stricken, Molly is consoled by the couple’s mutual friend, Carl, played by Bryce Pinkham who, unbeknownst to her, was behind the murder for sinister reasons.  Sam has become a ghost, bound to the world of the living until there is a resolution to his killing.  Enter one Oda Mae Brown, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, a storefront psychic that Sam finds he can communicate through to not only warn Molly, but also thwart the devious plans of his former friend and colleague.

Ghost works because the audience becomes involved in the story by Bruce Joel Rubin, who adapted his Academy Award winning screenplay for the musical.  Choppy and hurried as it may be live, the plot is bewitching, and the sentiment and characters are engrossing.  Caissie Levy, as Molly, provides emotional depth to her character, who is understandably devastated from her lover’s death.  Levy possesses both a powerful singing voice, as demonstrated in “Rain/Hold On,” as well a plaintive sorrowfulness in “Nothing Stops Another Day.”

Richard Fleeshman, well-apportioned and handsome, as Sam, has a fine voice, but lacks a dynamic presence.  True, he is a ghost for most of the show, but too often Director Matthew Warchus has him sitting, observing, fading into the background.  Even those moments where he is the focus, such as the marvelous scene in the subway system, Fleeshman lacks the charisma and power to command the action.  Bryce Pinkham, is a scheming sleaze as his treacherous undertaking begins to unravel.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph is fabulous as Oda Mae Brown, the psychic who discovers her fabricated powers to communicate with the dead are, in fact, real.  She is the spark plug that kick starts the musical every time she appears.

Rockers Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, along with lyrical contributions from Bruce Joel Rubin, provide a highly satisfying score of up tempo anthems and heartrending ballads.

Many of the special effects of the show provided the requisite ghostly atmosphere to the production.  When Sam, now dead, first tries to open a door and his hand passes through unimpeded there was an audible murmur of awe throughout the audience.  Likewise, the initial subway scene when he encounters the subway ghost was quite spectacular.  Sam’s walk to the heavens at the conclusion of the show was also impressive.

So, what’s my beef with Ghost?  First, and foremost, is the continuous and over-reliance on video projections.  Director Matthew Warchus has been quoted as seeking to have music video-like production values.  But when minimalism and intimacy should be the guide, the audience is whacked over the head with pulsating lights and frivolous videos.  Right at the start, when Molly and Sam are in the midst of a passionate embrace, the stage becomes alive with giant size projections of the two caressing and sharing intimate moments.  Why?  Doesn’t the creative team trust the material enough to have the two actors alone on stage without these wispy visions swirling on the semi-invisible projection screen?  Throughout the show the almost non-stop projections distract from the action and pretty much blot out the ensemble.  It wasn’t until the curtain call that I could see their faces (and I was in the eighth row of the orchestra).

The second problem is the character Oda Mae Brown.  Let me restate that.  The problem is not enough Oda Mae Brown.  Ms. Randolph brought the stage alive with her physicality, power, and especially her in-your-face attitude.  Even though she is a supporting character the musical would have been greatly enhanced by squeezing in more of her antics and less music video dance routines.  Throwing in a big, splashy—and pointless—production number for her, “I’m Outta Here,” just before the climax of the show served little purpose other than to showcase her exceptional talents.

Director Matthew Warchus skillfully guides the action through the numerous set pieces.  The pacing of the show is one of its strengths.  His work with the actors, Richard Fleeshman not withstanding, in the more intimate and less busy settings produces a sense of foreboding, intimacy, playfulness.  I just wished he hadn’t insisted on those maddening projections.

Ghost, somewhat imperfect, but still, an entertaining time on Broadway.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review of "On Man, Two Guvnors'"

I cannot remember the last time I have laughed so hard during a Broadway show as I did during One Man, Two Guvnors’.  I was crying.  My stomach hurt.  I thought I was going to die.  The award winning London import, based on The Servant of two Masters, circa 1746, combines almost every style of comedy and schtick you can think of – from slapstick to deadpan to farce to improv.  Throw in some audience participation and a dash of vaudeville and you get the most uproarious production in New York.

The main reason for such sustained hilarity is actor James Corden who plays the somewhat dimwitted, perpetually starved manservant, Francis Henshall, who suddenly finds himself in the employment of two Guvnors’ or bosses.  He is the ringleader and instigator.  When he is on stage you don’t know what is going to happen, except that nonstop laughter will be in the air.

The comedy even starts off with a curveball as the audience is treated to a number of songs by The Craze, a 1960’s skiffle band resplendent in their purple suits.  Acting almost as a Greek Chorus, they provide background and commentary on what we are about to experience through their rocking, tuneful selections.  They take the stage on and off throughout the show—many times accompanied by cast members on such instruments as the xylophone, ukulele and bicycle horns--providing their feel good music.

Trying to describe the plot of One Man, Two Guvnors’ would be an injustice to future audience members.  Let it suffice that the action takes place in the seedy, beachfront town of Brighton, in the year 1963.  Henshall, in the employment of two petty criminals, needs to keep them from meeting while trying to perform some very simple errands for both.  Throw in mistaken identity and unrequited love and you have the ingredients for ceaseless merriment.

Playwright Richard Bean’s reinterpretation of Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic is smartly written as well as devastatingly funny with enough tricks and set-ups to keep the audience gasping for air.  The side-splitting delirium is confined, for the most part, to Act I with the latter half of the show, while still full of laughs, is not as unrelenting in its mad-capped lunacy.  Director Nicholas Hytner shows great fortitude and restraint in keeping the production’s hijinks from spinning out-of-control.  He allows the actors great leeway in their quest to deliver unto us unremitting convulsions.

The actors.  As earlier stated, James Corden is a bundle of unteethered energy.  Whether it’s his interactions with his fellow thespians or exchanges with audience members his tour-de-force performance is deliriously intoxicating and will be remembered for years to come.  His co-stars are no slouches themselves.  Two of the most notable are Oliver Chris as Guvnor number two, Stanley Stubbers.  Chris, almost as boneheaded as his manservant, Henshall, looks and acts as someone right out of a Monty Python sketch.  His nonsensical utterings and absurdist actions are priceless.  Just the entrance of Tom Edden, as the rubbery, elderly waiter Alfie, produces a howl of laughter throughout the Music Box Theater.  His physical comedy and timing are impeccable.

One Man, Two Guvnors’ – indescribably delicious.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review of "The Best Man"

Presidential candidates have a certain aura about them. In person, they can appear larger than life. The revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 political drama, The Best Man, provides the necessary star power to capture the confidence, seductiveness and allure of two contenders battling it out for the presidential nomination of their party. The cast is one of the most star-studded to hit the Broadway stage in recent memory. They include James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, and Eric McCormack. Without such entertainment luminaries, the production would lack the needed brilliance that radiates around such contests.

The Best Man
is old-school political melodrama on par with such early 1960’s classics as Advise and Consent and Seven Days in May. The plot centers around a 1960 Party Convention (we never know Democratic or Republican) being held in Philadelphia. The interior of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is even decked out like a convention hall with party banners and embellishments. The two main candidates are a former Secretary of State, William Russell, played by John Larroquette; and a United States Senator, Joseph Cantwell, played by Eric McCormack. Adding to the drama is a former President, in his last hurrah, looking to sway the nomination outcome, sparring wives, and a host of party hacks and committee persons seeking to peddle their potential influence.

Russell is characterized as a principled East Coast intellectual who runs a clean campaign based on the issues. Cantwell, portraying himself as a more populist, man of the people, will stop at nothing—dirty tricks, smear tactics—in order to secure the nomination. John Larroquette is perfectly cast as Russell. He has a certain snobbishness mixed with a righteous political air. He is noble, while flawed with a possible history of infidelity and mental health issues that handicaps his presidential ambitions. Eric McCormack, better known for his comedic role in the long-running TV series, Will and Grace, oozes insincerity. He is slickly smooth as the arrogant, self-confident, anything goes, Senator Cantwell. James Earl Jones is feisty, yet strong-willed as former President, Artie Hockstader. Hockstader knows this is his last chance in the limelight and he takes every opportunity to hold onto it. Angela Lansbury, still going strong after so many decades on stage, comes across as somewhat flighty as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, the Chairwoman of the Party’s Women’s Division. But make no mistake. There is an undercurrent of steeliness and experience that belies her outward appearance and utterances. Candice Bergen, a bit dowdy as Russell’s beleagured wife, Alice, makes do with a role not as substantial as her fellow actors. The rest of the supporting cast, Michael McKean as Russell’s campaign manager and confidante, Dick Jensen; Kerry Butler, the determined and ambitious wife, Mabel Cantwell; and Jefferson Mays, as the mysterious visitor, Sheldon Marcus, are all superb.

Gore Vidal’s play is full of political maneuverings and melodramatic flair. While entertaining, the show occasionally falls prey to its own affectations and grandiloquence.

What gives strength to The Best Man is its timing, opening in the midst of the Republican Presidential primary season. The bombast, rhetoric, and populist prattle of the Romney and Santorum campaign speeches seem to echo in the background of the production, shadowing it with an eerie relevance. The talk of infidelity and mental stress reminds one of Senator Edmund Muskie’s breakdown on the steps of the Manchester Union-Leader; the revelations of Vice Presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton’s electroshock therapy; and Gary Hart’s photo with Donna Rice on the yacht, Monkey Business.

The interconnecting sets by Derek McLane allow for smooth transitions during the many scene changes of the over 2 ½ hour production. Director Michael Wilson keeps the action flowing, allowing the suspense to slowly build to the somewhat surprising denouement. He rightly gives his outstanding cast enough space and leeway to develop their characters and deliver their sometimes powerful and withering monologues.

In today’s world of 24/7 news cycles and numerous social media outlets reshaping the political landscape, The Best Man is a welcoming throwback to the time of just three television networks, Walter Cronkite, and the importance of daily newspapers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review of "Newsies"

Newsies, the new Disney musical that opened on Broadway last week, is irresistibly close to being an out and out triumph. What makes the show such a sensation also contributes to its one significant flaw. Now, don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed Newsies. The production contains all the ingredients of a successful show—a rousing score; crowd-pleasing dance numbers; an impressive, stage encompassing set; an engaging cast; a charismatic lead, and even a cute, adorable little tyke.

Based on a 1992 Disney movie, the show, slightly altered from the film version, tells the story of an 1899 successful strike by the newsies (the orphans and street urchins that sold the daily newspapers on the streets of New York) against the powerful Joseph Pulitzer and his journal, The World.

The first act is almost flawless with a tight narrative punctuated with solid songs and some of the best production numbers you will see on Broadway today. The musical begins with the introductions of two of the main newsies, Jack Kelly, portrayed with a spunky self-confidence by Jeremy Jordan; and his crippled pal, Crutchie, played with determination and grit by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. Soon the other boys, a ragamuffin group, enter the scene and, from there, the storyline quickly develops as the young men decide to strike over an increase in their upfront costs (newsies needed to buy their newspapers that were, then, resold at a slightly higher price). Fortifying the assemblage’s mettle are two fresh recruits to the newsie ranks—Davey, played with an initial immaturity and then a swaggering resolve by Ben Fankhauser; and his younger brother, Les, at this performance played with an impish pluckiness by Lewis Grotto.

In the end, the newsies triumph over their Goliath-sized opponents and there is a very happy, Disney-esque, ending.

The strength of Newsies, which will ensure its long and profitable stay in New York (if Disney accedes to an open-ended run), is the full-throttled production numbers designed by choreography Christopher Gattelli, especially in “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” There probably has not been such muscular and athletic dance routines on Broadway since West Side Story.

Director Jeff Calhoun, who works seamlessly with Choreographer Gattelli, is able to corral the newsies into a cohesive group of performers, conveying both a sense of pathos, hardship, and comradeship of the street-wise youths. He is less successful in the scenes, few as they are, with the adult performers.

The score, by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, consists mostly of compositions from the movie version (which they also wrote), with a few new songs augmenting their earlier efforts. The score works best during the more up tempo numbers especially when the newsies are involved.

The cast is led by Jeremy Jordan, who reprises his critically acclaimed performance from the Paper Mill Playhouse production earlier this year. Jordan is combative, suave, and vulnerable as the head newsie, Jack Kelly. He is the glue that keeps not only the assemblage of outcasts together, but pretty much the whole show. You also have to feel good for the actor. After leaving Newsies he went in to star in the ill-fated Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway. After that musical’s quick demise he was able to slide back into the role of Jack Kelly and into a show that should be one of the hottest tickest on Broadway. Ben Fankhauser, making his Broadway debut, gives his character, Davey, a bit more shading then the other newsies as he grows from an innocent outsider of the group to a more resolute, strong-willed instigator. The other young men in the production, well, strong acting is not really required for their parts. Delivering a smart aleck remark and palling around is pretty much what is required, besides being able to dance up a storm. The adult actors, while competent and professional, serve more to keep the storyline flowing.

The mostly large-scale, erector set scenic design by Tobin Ost emulates the fire escapes and claustrophobic nature of the late 19th and early 20th century tenements of New York City.

So, what is the significant flaw I mentioned at the onset of my review? The culprit is our expectations and the book by Harvey Fierstein, namely Act Two. The trouble is we have been mesmerized and exhilarated throughout the musical by the electrifying dance routines. The second act then begins with what is the best production number of the show, “King of New York.” Suddenly, as if the creative team realized they needed to finish up the show, the rip roaring choreography, what the audience has come to expect, is scaled back in order to tie up all the loose plot lines. From this point, the storytelling becomes more choppy and less fluid. Director Jeff Calhoun does his best, but too many scenes become stilted. The love interest between Jack and Katherine, a beguiling and charming subplot in Act One, all but fizzles.

But this blemish is not enough of a weakness to derail what is a family-friendly, resoundingly successful piece of musical theater entertainment. Newsies should have a long and healthy run on Broadway.