Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review of "Finding Neverland"

There is a song in the middle of Act II of the new musical, Finding Neverland, the story of how playwright J.M. Barrie created Peter Pan, simply entitled “Play.”  The show’s producer, Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer), exhorts his troupe of actors to have fun with their roles, not to be so serious if they want to connect with the audience.  I only wish the creative team of Finding Neverland would have taken their own advice.  The musical too often lumbers along with an earnestness that belies the nature of the show.  The production can soar, as in the Act I closer, “Stronger,” but that is more the exception then the rule. 

Finding Neverland tells the story of how the beloved play, Peter Pan, came into existence.  Barrie (Matthew Morrison), a highly successful London playwright at the turn of the twentieth century, is searching for inspiration for a new show to write.  Pressured by his longtime producer; beautiful, but dispirited wife (Teal Wicks); and others the writer’s creative spark is ignited by a chance meeting in the park with four boys and their sickly, widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly).  The boys are rambunctious, full of energy and imagination.  Barrie, who’s life is anything but exciting, immediately takes to Ms. Davies and the children.  Their frequent rendezvous leads the author to his breakthrough play even though it takes a toll on his marriage and the health of the woman he now admires and respects. 

The book of Finding Neverland by James Graham, based on the movie of the same name, moves the story along, but lacks any sustained dramatic tension.  We never become seriously involved with most of the characters.  The show mostly plods from scene to scene, rarely achieving hoped for magical heights.

The score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, two hugely popular artists in the United Kingdom, is a huge letdown based on their previous chart successes.  The songs fitfully spring to life, but only occasionally do they fly or hit a tender chord.

The cast is uniformly good except for Matthew Morrison as J.M. Barrie.  He is overly solemn and somewhat stiff.  His underlying joy is suppressed and, literally, hidden behind a full facial beard.  Kelsey Grammer as Charles Frohman and Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, however, sparkle.  Grammer, coming across a bit like his frumpish, pompous “Frasier” television character, nonetheless, commands the stage, has the best lines and enlivens the stage during a couple of production numbers.  Laura Michelle Kelly is endearing and radiates an inner strength, which makes her the emotional core of the musical.  Carolee Carmello, as Ms. Davies’ mother, is sufficiently Victorian in attitude and demeanor. The four children are energetic, hit their marks, and sing competently, but they do not charm nor are they appealing as a group.

Director Diane Paulus, who has worked magic with such recent Broadway musicals as the revival of Hair, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Pippin, cannot salvage this one.  She has the production come sporadically to life and shows some real flourishes in certain scenes, but the overall effect is a bumpy one. 

Finding Neverland, a show that should have enchanted but, instead, disappoints. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review of "Living on Love"

Living on Love, the comedy that marks the Broadway debut of opera diva Renee Fleming, is a trifling amusement.  The time is 1957.  She plays Raquel De Angelis, an opera star on the way down who is now forced to book concerts in such second-tiered cities as Fort Lauderdale.  Her husband, the volatile, larger than life, maestro Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills) duels with Leonard Bernstein for music engagements, always ending up as the second choice.  As the play opens we meet would be writer Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell) who has been hired to ghost write the conductor’s autobiography.  The relationship sours quickly and Samson quits.  Enter Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), an Assistant Assistant Editor at the publishing house Little, Brown and Company.  Originally there to collect the $50,000 advance from the maestro for breach of contract she ends up being engaged to help write his book.  His wife, jealous of his new arrangement, rehires Samson to assist in composing her life story.  Both she and her husband also need the money for their depleted bank account.  The two bicker, try to one-up each other, and behave badly.  Samson and Peabody have a more cordial relationship, but the competition to complete their respective book’s first causes some combative moments.  Running interference, and providing the only consistent comedic moments in the show, are butlers Bruce (Blake Hammond) and Eric (Scott Robertson).  In the end—surprise--each couple finds happiness as the final curtain comes down.

Playwright Joe DePietro, who has based the play on Garson Kanin’s Peccadillo, has written a well-constructed comedy which, unfortunately, is only mildly diverting at best.  We are not invested in the narcissistic central characters and only somewhat interested in the secondary players.  This overall premise is just not that intriguing.

Renee Fleming makes an inauspicious, muted Broadway debut.  Her role does not have much substance and her character is less fiery diva then worrisome, wrung out former leading lady.  Her voice—and she does vocalize every so often—is still pure and captivating.  Douglas Silk is sufficiently boisterous and makes an exuberant prima donna.  By Act II, though, we have tired of the one-dimensionality of the maetro.  Jerry O’Connell is suppose to be a spineless writer with zero self-confidence, but he just doesn’t pull it off.  Anna Chlumsky is beautifully flummoxed as a woman who dreams of editing the great American novel.  Her facial expressions and gangly arms help to create a truly funny persona.  Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson just about steal the show as the obedient, perfectly in-step personal staff of the household.  Their entrances are a gratifying relief each time they enter the stage.

Director Kathleen Marshall keeps the pacing quick as the actors move in and out of the penthouse set, designed by Derek McLane.  She elicits bravado when necessary and nuttiness when appropriate. Her palette is broad, subtlety having little place in the production.  The problem is her well-orchestrated guidance cannot save the anemic script.

Living on Love, a lackluster, mildy distracting comedy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review of "Skylight"

Sparks fly, passions run deep, and the clash of elitism and classism make the revival of playwright David Hare’s Skylight scintillating theater.

Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan), living in a seedy, urban-centered  apartment complex, has a surprise visitor one night with the appearance of Edward Sergeant, a young man who’s family she use to live with.  Edward tells her his mother died a year earlier and his dad, sullen, unable to articulate his feelings to his son, misses Kyra.  Exit the teenager and later that night the father, Tom Sergeant (Bill Nighy), arrives at the small, cramped apartment.  A number of years previous, when she first arrived in London as a teenager, Kyra began working for his restaurant empire.  She also lived with his family, becoming very close to them, especially Tom, which led to a six-year affair while under his roof.    After the tryst was finally exposed Kyra suddenly left the cozy confines of luxury to become a teacher in the battle-scarred public education setting.  She also broke off all contact with Tom.  Until this night. 

Playwright David Hare has crafted a thought-provoking show where business values expressively espoused by Tom Sergeant are met with by Kyra’s equally forceful defense of her work with the underprivileged.  Their dueling arguments are animated, persuasive, and highly volatile.  Yet for all the rancor and contempt the underlying theme is of heartbreak and love.  The older, world-weary businessman, now free from the shackles of an unsatisfying marriage, trying to rekindle an old romance with a much younger, but now more mature woman.  She, too, feels both the pangs of the past and the pull of a new future.

Bill Nighy as Tom is an upper class snob and proud of it.  He can be charming, loving, and a real scoundrel.  When agitated Nighy’s uncontrollable rage pierces through the silence of the theater.  At times he appears like a caged tiger, prowling the stage, ready to pounce.  His body language and facial ticks only amplify the emotional depths he brings to the role.  Carey Mulligan as Krya is more then a match for her former lover.  Mulligan is less demonstrative, most of the time, in the verbal sparring that takes place.  But the passion of her beliefs, her principles and her feelings can be just as unrestrained as that of her co-star’s histrionics.  In the short time that Matthew Beard, as Edward, is on stage he convincingly conveys a young man trying to come to terms with both his unapologetic father and his anguished steps into adulthood.

Director Stephen Daldry has very little space to work with on the cluttered stage.  He focuses on the small, seemingly inconsequential, movements of the two actors.  A drawn out sequence of cooking what looks to be a delectable pasta dinner is one of his directorial flourishes.  Also, because the verbal jousting is so prominent there is not a whole lot the director can do with the actors as they skulk about their half of the apartment setting. 

The set, designed by Bob Crowley, realistically gives us a picture of life in a gritty apartment building.  It’s not just Kyra’s confined living conditions, but the façade of the complex we can see through her windows.

Skylight, a clash of beliefs and ideologies surrounded by love and bitterness.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review of "Gigi"

A musical can look good and sound good, but if the show doesn’t have a soul all is for naught.  So it is with the revival of Gigi.  Catherine Zuber’s costumes are a feast for the eyes; Derek McLane’s scenic design, evoking the steel structures of the Eiffel Tower and the gaiety of Maxim’s, are impressive and eye-popping; and the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe score is a classic.  But there is very little connection with what is taking place on stage and the audience.  The main problem, unfortunately, is the star, Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi.  She is too broad in her affectations and lacking in any nuance with the role.  When she becomes a “woman” the transformation is almost instantaneous.  It’s just not believable.

Gigi is based on the 1958 Academy Award winning film of the same name.  There have been some changes to storyline, which while helpful, do not help with the overall production.  Gaston and Gigi are now closer in age and instead of the aged Honore Lachaille crooning “Thank Heave for Little Girls” it is now the job of Gig’s grandmother and aunt to present the song.

The plot of the show is simple.  The locale is a Paris.  The 1900 World Exposition has recently opened and the wealthy show no bounds. Change is in the air.  The old ways are slowly transforming life in the City of Lights.  The focus is on Gaston Lachaille (Corey Scott), the young “Sugar King” heir.  His almost daily exploits, transgressions, and travels are well-documented by the newspapers and magazines of the day.  Lachaille is a good friend of Mamita (Victoria Clark), grandmother of the young, impetuous Gigi.  Over time, Lachaille begins to fall for the 18 year old, coaxed along by both Mamita and her sister Alicia (Dee Hoty).  They, along with Lachaille’s uncle Honore Lachaille (Howard McGillin) hope the two will come together with Gigi becoming Gaston Lachaille’s mistress—not wife (Parisians at the turn of the twentieth century had some interesting values).  Gigi refuses the arrangement.  The two lovers argue, yet reconsider as love triumphs over tradition.

The Pygmalion overtones in Gigi, while present, are muted.  But the song writing duo of Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe, that also gave us My Fair Lady, have crafted a first rate score rarely heard on the Broadway stage of today.  They include such memorable numbers as “The Parisians,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” “Paris is Paris Again,” “The Night They Invented Champagne,” and “Gigi.”

While Ms. Hudgens is not ideally cast in the title role and Corey Cott, as Gaston Lachaille, is too often over-exuberant the supporting cast sparkles.  Dee Hoty as Alicia may strut and bark commands, but her steely eyed gaze would stop anyone in their tracks as it does in the song “The Contract.”  Victoria Clark is outstanding as Mamita as is Howard McGillin as Honore Lachaille.  These seasoned veterans bring a sense of order and professionalism to the production.

Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is evocative of the carefree times and sumptuous nightclubs of the era. 

Director Eric Schaeffer helms a polished production, but the musical feels hollow and distant.  The main problem is his handling of the two young leads.  They show a lot of exasperation and exuberance, but don’t temper their zeal with any shading or subtlety.  Schaeffer does show a deft touch in the more intimate scenes, especially those with Clark and McGillin.  But, maybe, the material is not meant for the Broadway.  This is now the second attempt to bring the film to life on the stage.

Gigi, disappointing from Broadway to the Champs-Elysees.

Review of "An American in Paris"

People that know me know I do not do standing ovations.  Nowadays, they have become perfunctory by audiences, a rote exercise.  A standing ovation should be reserved for that magical moment in the theater where something special, not often seen on stage, has occurred.  At a performance of the new Broadway musical, An American in Paris, I stood and applauded.  I was overwhelmed by the breathtaking dance numbers and the performances of the talented cast.  I almost cried.   But the primary accolades were for the stunning Broadway debut of lead actor Robert Fairchild (the Gene Kelly role in the film).  A principle dancer with the New York City Ballet, Fairchild assuredly shows his prowess as a triple threat with his acting, singing and, especially, his mesmerizing dancing excellence. 

The musical, based on the 1951 MGM film classic that starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant, centers on American expatriates Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild), a budding painter; and Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), a pianist and composer living in Paris right after the end of World War II.   They befriend a French café owner, Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), who’s very proper family is well-off in the textile industry.  Henri dreams of becoming a nightclub performer instead of going into the family business.  He also plans to marry his longtime sweetheart Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), a graceful and highly skilled ballet dancer.  The problem is that both Jerry and Adam, through chance meetings, have also fallen in love with the young lady.  Enter American heiress and arts patron Milo Davenport (Jill Paice) who agrees to fund a new ballet with Jerry as the scenic and costume designer, Adam as composer, and Lise as the principle dancer.  The relationships between the primary protagonists continue to intersect, develop, and shift allegiances culminating in the breathtaking 13 minute ballet sequence.  In the end, truths are exposed and love interests are realigned.

Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who has worked with ballet companies worldwide, has created one of the most extraordinary and spectacular works for the musical theater I have seen in many years.  Working with librettist, Craig Lucas, he has fashioned a book musical that is utterly alive with song and dance.  The actors, many, including the ensemble, come from the world of dance.  They don’t just walk across stage they glide, they float, they soar.  His dazzling dance routines incorporate many styles including ballet, jazz, and traditional Broadway fare.   His creations heighten the emotional and dramatic content of the show.  Not every aspect of An American in Paris revolves around dance and his handling of the more dialogue-laden scenes are handled with confidence and aplomb.  However, these parts of the show never last too long before dance takes center stage.

The two stars of the show, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, make splashing Broadway debuts.  Enough cannot be said about Fairchild who will, hopefully (for audiences’ benefit), find consistent work in the realm of musical theater.  He is athletic, poised, and has a commanding presence on stage.  Cope’s character is shy, reserved, and shrouded in mystery, which she bewitchingly conveys. Her precision and elegance within Wheeldon’s choreographic structure is a sight to behold.  Brandon Uranowitz, convincingly wraps his portrayal of Adam Hochberg, into parts comic foil and embittered, lovelorn artist.   Max von Essen as Henri Baurel, initially comes across one-dimensional until, by show’s end, he has untethered his past to become a more sympathetic and likeable character.  
The score by George and Ira Gershwin is vibrant and spirited.  Musical Supervisor Rob Fisher, as he has done for so long in the City Center’s Encores! series, makes the music come alive and sound fresh.  The songs?  How about, for starters, “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “S Wonderful,” and “Fidgety Feet.”

In keeping with the flow and movement of the production, most of Bob Crowley’s sets utilize moveable screens and partitions.  His use of rear screen projections is understated and highly effective.  The sets and costumes for the two no-holds barred Act II dance numbers—‘I’ll Build You a Staircase” and “An American in Paris”—are exceptional.

An American in Paris, one of the best musicals in recent memory.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Review of "It Shoulda Been You"

It Shoulda Been You, the new Broadway musical, is a throwback to an earlier age when lightweight fare would regularly open and stay around for the season before interest waned and the show quietly closed.  Don’t be surprised if this production lingers at the Brooks Atkinson theater for the summer before becoming a memory by early fall. 

It Shoulda Been You is a good-humored musical with a pleasing, but not very memorable score; and a very fine, but underutilized cast stocked with Broadway veterans and younger, yet accomplished, performers.

The action centers on the upcoming nuptials of Judy and Murray Steinberg’s (Tyne Daly and Chip Zien) 30 year-old daughter (Sierra Boggess).  She is set to marry 30 year-old Brian Howard (David Burtka), the son of Georgette and George Howard (Harriet Harris and Michael X. Martin).  She’s Jewish.   He’s not, which leads to a clash of cultures, faith, and provides fuel for constantly well-placed zingers.  Furthering the chaos and upheaval is the bride’s former lover (Josh Grisetti), intent on stopping the marriage vows, the obedient, weight challenged older daughter (Lisa Howard) and the flippant Best Man (Nick Spangler) and Maid of Honor (Montego Glover).  Mix in a show-stopping surprise and you have all the ingredients for a frisky, cheerful, yet meager romp.

Book writer Brian Hargrove infuses enough jokes and amusing situations to keep the audience entertained.  The only twist to this well-worn tale is the subject of gay marriage, which is provided both as comic effect and social commentary.  The brief step into the seriousness of the issue momentarily impedes the storyline and should have been simply jettisoned.  In a sense, you can’t have your wedding cake and eat it too.

The cast is outstanding, but they are divided into the haves and have nots.  The haves are those performers with more fully developed characters that help propel the action on stage.  They also have some of the best lines of the production.  They include Tyne Daly as the in-your-face Jewish mother, tart-tongued, and as bossy as they come; Edward Hibbert as the highly efficient, problem-solving wedding planner; and Lisa Howard as the long-suffering older daughter.  The have nots are Harriet Harris as the tipsy mother of the groom, Sierra Boggess as the fretful bride; Montego Glover as the worrying Maid of Honor; and Josh Grisetti as the former lover of the bride.  Each of these actors are so talented, yet their abilities are greatly underutilized in their supporting roles.  I was especially disappointed with Josh Grisetti’s character.  Finally making his Broadway debut this very funny, triple threat actor, a Ray Bolger type presence, is not given a chance to really shine and show his wares.  Hopefully, some producer will scoop him up to much better effect.

The score by Brian Hargrove and Barbara Anselmi is serviceable and playful with some hummable moments.  But this is second tier Broadway music and lyrics with too much inconsequential frivolity.

Director David Hyde-Pierce, making his Broadway debut in this role, skillfully takes command of the musical.  All his years as a deft comic performer serves him well as he guides his troupe of actors and actresses through their paces.  He makes good use of the multi-tiered set with its numerous entranceways and doorways onto the stage.  There could be slightly less running back and forth and here and there but, overall, his initial outing as director is a success.  Let’s see what he can do when given better material to work with.

It Shoulda Been You, a trifling production that coulda been so much more.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Review of "Fish in the Dark"

The new comedy by and starring Seinfield and Curb Your Enthusiasm writer Larry David, Fish in the Dark, is full of laughs, but the overall feel is one of an extended sitcom.  This is a show for aficionados of the two TV classics as was evident by the legions of Larry David fans at the performance I attended.  His entrance on to the stage was greeted with glee and sustained applause. 

The comedy follows a dysfunctional family as the patriarch of the group, Sidney Drexel, lies dying in a hospital bed.  The bickering, and jokes, come fast and furious as members of the extended family come to pay their last respects.   Just before he passes on Sidney asks one of his sons, Norman, played by Larry David; and Arthur, played by Ben Shenkman, to look after their mother after he is gone.  The problem is with his last gasp who did their father actually look at while making his request?  Neither of the two want mom at home.  More arguing, more laughs with nothing being settled.

At the shiva,  the Jewish ritual where mourners gather to pay their respects to the family, more quarrelling and bickering.  In addition, Norman’s maid, formerly employed by his parents, reveals some shocking news, which propels the second half of the show.  In the next scene, mom moves in with Norman (he lost the battle), which thoroughly upsets his wife, Brenda, played by Rita Wilson.  More hiijinks, but lesser laughs until we end up back in the hospital where hatchets are buried.  Sort of.

The cast of Fish in the Dark is game for whatever Larry David throws at them.  Mr. David, by his own admission, is not an actor and his schtick gets a little tiring by the end of the production.  Ben Shenkman, as brother Arthur, is laid back, self-centered and a suitable sparring partner with Larry David.  Rita Wilson’s Brenda is sufficiently discontented and vexed with her new living arrangements, but she is used more as a foil for the playwright’s jokes.   Rosie Perez is feisty and scrappy as the maid with the dark family secret.  Jane Houdyshell plays Mr. David’s mother with just the right amount of Jewish guilt and annoyance.  In smaller roles Lewis J. Stadlen, as the overly loud and obnoxious, Stewie Drexel; and Marylouise Burke and Kenneth Tigar as disagreeable and whiny cousins Rose and Harry Kanter add a welcome spark to the production.

Director Anna Shapiro molds the script, with all its shenanigans, into a serviceable piece of comedic theater.  Her role is more to keep the antics on stage from spilling over to utter chaos, which she does with a self-confident hand.

Fish in the Dark, for the true Larry David fans.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Review of "Hamilton"

When the musical In the Heights opened in March 2008 it was a fresh breeze across the Broadway landscape.  Composer (and star) Lin-Manuel Miranda brought an urban grittiness and a mixture of rap and traditionally-styled Broadway songs to the stage.  His new production, Hamilton, again fuses rap, hip-hop, and Broadway melodies into the best new musical to open in New York this year.

The show is based on the life of one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.  From my high school American history class, many years ago, I can only remember this historical figure as being the first Secretary of the United States Treasury and his duel with longtime nemesis, Aaron Burr.  That’s it.  In Hamilton, Miranda, who is also the book writer, presents a more vivid picture of this arrogant, brash, patriotic, and talented man.  He traces his life from the time he arrives in this country as a young immigrant to his appointment as George Washington’s senior aide during the Revolutionary War, his marriage, law practice in New York City, the many treatises he penned including the majority of The Federalist Papers, his joustings with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and his untimely end. 

It may sound like a dull subject for a musical, but Miranda brings his subject matter alive, supported by a multi-ethnic cast that don’t just present the material, but rather pounce on it.  The first act is more impelling and dynamic then act two because Hamilton’s life was more colorful and dramatic, as a theatrical presentation.  The second half of the musical, while gripping and full of backroom deals and politics, is less rousing as it revolves around the machinations of a new nation coming to grips with how to govern itself. 

The spirited group of actors bring the material to vigorous life.  This isn’t the staid group of older white males from 1776.  The performers are young, hip, and full of intensity.  The cast is led by Miranda’s splendid, multi-layered portrayal of Alexander Hamilton.  The forefather was full of zeal, brimming with insolence and indignation, but also a cerebral and impassioned man.  Miranda brings all these attributes to life.  Other notables include Daveed Diggs as a hang loose, chilled out Thomas Jefferson looking to find his groove; Leslie Odom, Jr. as the indecisive and and disdained Aaron Burr; and Jonathan Groff as a hilarious, though perceptive King George.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score fuses current musical trends with conventional Broadway melodies.  They meld beautifully into an energetic and electrifying whole that both Broadway purists and younger audiences can embrace.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, a frequent collaborator with Miranda, brings the urgency of a blossoming nation to the fore.  His dance arrangements and movements for the actors, as he did in In the Heights, flow from the action and situations on stage as opposed to developing inorganically.

Thomas Kail’s direction syncs wonderfully with Blankenbuehler’s choreography.  He has a good feel for the material whether it is the combative events portrayed in the show or the more poignant moments surrounding the statesman.  Even with minimal props and scenery Kail creates a world we want to know more about.

Hamilton, a sold-out hit downtown at the Public Theater, moving to Broadway in July 2015.