Monday, November 23, 2015

Review of "Daddy Long Legs"

Note:  Adam Halpin joined the cast in the role of Jervis Pendleton as of November 20th.

The Off-Broadway musical, Daddy Long Legs, is a sweet and enchanting two-person production.  The show, based on the 1912 book by Jean Webster, centers on Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis), an 18 year old resident of the John Grier orphanage.  One day she is told an anonymous benefactor wants to send her to college.  As part of the agreement Jerusha is told she must write regularly about her life and schooling and that she will never know the person’s identity.  What follows is a series of letters, read aloud, between the two that continues through four year of college and summer vacations in the countryside.  During the years, the young woman wonders, in her correspondence, what the man she has nicknamed Daddy Long Legs, looks like.  What does he do?  The audience soon discovers the mysterious philanthropist, Jervis Pendleton (Will Reynolds), is a gentleman not that much older then the co-ed.  While, at first, just wanting to do some good Jervis soon becomes bewitched by the maturing Jerusha.   As the production ambles towards its inevitable conclusion we slowly fall under its charming spell.

Megan McGinnis is captivating as Jerusha Abbott.  She is buoyant, winsome and delightful.  Her character is more well-rounded and, as the musical progresses, shows a gradual, but steady maturation.  Will Reynolds is splendid as Jervis Pendleton.  However, the role is more one-dimensional and he doesn’t have much opportunity to stretch his acting range.

The score by Paul Gordon is melodic and tuneful, but by the end of the show the songs have begun to have a similar sound.  This has more to do with the small band of three instruments, which doesn’t allow for that much differentiation in the orchestrations.

As librettist John Caird has taken the essence of the Jean Webster novel and successfully created a tale of a young woman who undergoes personal growth and independence at the turn of the 20th century.  While watching the musical I wondered how millennials and individuals rooted in the culture of 140 characters would react to a musical, which greatly revolves around having witty, descriptive and emotion-laden letters read aloud.  Would it generate a rebirth of the written word?

Doing double duty as director Caird, a Tony Award winner for helming such large scale productions as Nicholas Nickleby and the original Les Miserables, skillfully guides the chamber size musical through its meandering paces. He smartly keeps the focus on Jerusha Abbott, having her front and center through most of the production.  The director is less successful in fully incorporating the character of Jervis Pendleton into the production.  Very often he is mere window dressing, seated behind his ornate desk in the shadows.  Caird playfully works within Scenic Designer David Farley’s trunk strewn stage, fashioning places, objects and memories from the multiple chests.

Daddy Long Legs, an appealing and charismatic musical, playing at the Davenport Theatre.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review of "Misery"

Laurie Metcalfe puts on an acting showcase as a fanatical devotee in Misery, William Goldman’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel.  The actress is at times caring, playful, creepy and vengeful.  She is someone to be feared and reckoned with.  Whether you have never read the book or seen the movie version (like myself) or are familiar with the source material you will find the stage production generating a good many chills and thrills.

The plot of the show is simple—recluse Annie Wilkes has rescued writer Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis) from a car wreck near her secluded Colorado home.  Badly injured, she nurses him back to health.  But her motives are not purely altruistic as the self-professed number one fan has more diabolical reasons to mend Sheldon’s injuries.  The result is a convincingly suspenseful play with a sufficient number of twists and gasps.

From the serene beginnings, playwright William Goldman slowly builds up the tension of the story, producing a tranquil environment that goes horribly wrong.  He has transformed the essence of the novel into a 90 minute, intermission-less heart-stopping production.  As a screenwriter (All the President’s Men) and novelist (Marathon Man) the author knows how to weave a dramatic and spine-tingling tale that keeps the audience on its toes. 

The cast is led by the fabulous Laurie Metcalfe.  There are not enough superlatives to describe her singular performance.  She can be flirty one moment and a vindictive, retaliatory presence the next.  Metcalfe successfully brings to life to a very complex and disturbed character.  Bruce Willis, on the other hand, is, initially, too lethargic in his role as the battered author.  Granted, he lies helpless in bed for the first part of the play, but he doesn’t deliver his lines with real emotion or conviction.  However, as the show moves towards its dramatic finish he does become more animated and vested in his part.  Leon Addison Brown is fine in the small but crucial role of the sheriff.

Director Will Frears skillfully uses the confined and suffocating space to tease out a building tension within the play.  The production is well-paced as it almost lazily heads towards its crescendo.  He allows Laurie Metcalfe plenty of room for her acting pyrotechnics without letting the actress go over the edge. 

The creative team of Scenic Designer, David Korins; Lighting Designer, David Weiner; and Sound Designer, Darron L. West have contributed greatly to the eerie ambiance of the play.  Without their artistic involvement the production would not nearly be as fun and ominous.  Special kudos go to set designer, David Korins for his revolving house with its multitude of rooms and Michael Friedman for his original music, which often sets a haunting and menacing tone to the show.

Misery, better then you might expect, now through February 14th.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review of "Ripchord"

In the tepid comedy, Ripchord, Abby Binder (Holland Taylor) and Marilyn Dunne (Marylouise Burke) are roommates in an elderly residence home.  Marilyn, friendly and gregarious, has recently moved into the room much to the chagrin of Abby, who wants nothing more then to be left alone in quietude.  Like oil and vinegar the two do not mix well, at least according to Abby.   Marilyn, seemingly always positive-minded, has no problem with the living arrangements.   Each of the women want something—Abby to be left alone and Marilyn to have the bed by the window.  Eventually a bet is wagered with the winner getting their wish.  Brought into the fray, in some fashion, is the facility attendant, Scotty (Nate Miller), Marilyn’s daughter Colleen (Rachel Dratch) and son-in-law Derek (Daoud Heidami) and a surprising gentleman caller.

Playwright David-Lindsay-Abaire, who has created such impressive dramatic pieces as Rabbit Hole and Good People, has crafted a show that is intermittently amusing.  The two protagonists are ready for battle, but are not always properly armed.  The play is at its best when Abby and Marilyn are trading barbs and lobbing insults at each other.  However, the stinging sarcasm and back and forth repartee is inconsistently funny.  The incorporation of Marilyn’s daughter and her husband do liven up the show, producing a steady stream of smiles and chuckling.  Also, for such a small-scale production there are quite a few set pieces that, again, are hit or miss on the humor meter.

You would expect the set-up of Ripchord to be perfectly suited for the talents of Director David Hyde Pierce.  His sibling rivalry and battles on the television show Frasier were priceless.  In the Broadway comedy, La Bete, his verbal joustings with Mark Rylance were absolutely hysterical.  Here, unfortunately, the pacing is more off then on, which has the tendency of the darts and arrows between the two female leads to miss their target more often then not.  Hyde Pierce is more successful producing laughs when the featured players join in the fracas.

The cast, for the most part, is superb.  Holland Taylor, no slouch when dishing out razor-edged quips and well-appointed bon mots, gives Abby a no-nonsense attitude and laser sharpened glare.  She convincingly portrays her character as a self-absorbed bully, but also a woman that has deep life wounds.   In contrast, Marylouise Burke is effervescent and literally bounces about the stage.  While outwardly cheerful and playful she also gives us a layer of sadness that rounds out her mostly high-spirited character.  Both women are also up to the bits of physical humor the production demands.  The supporting team of Rachel Dratch and Daoud Heidami are terrific.  Every time they appear on stage the twosome provide a needed spark and a dollop of lunacy to the show. 

Ripchord, at City Center in New York through December 6th.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review of "Sylvia"

Annaleigh Ashford, starring in the revival of A.R. Gurney’s comedy, Sylvia, once again demonstrates why she is the reigning comedienne on Broadway.  She plays the title character, a stray dog that is not bashful in speaking her mind.  Ashford was in the original cast of Kinky Boots and her signature song, “The History of Wrong Guys,” is one of the funniest in recent memory.  As Essie Carmichael, a woefully inept dancer in last season’s You Can’t Take it With You, she was absolutely hysterical and was honored with a Tony Award for her performance.  In Sylvia, from the moment the actress enters the stage, the audience was in stitches.  She has the mannerisms of a canine down pat.  Ashford is engaging, frisky and fearless in her physicality.  For anyone that currently owns a dog, has so in the past or even knows such a person then Sylvia will be a welcoming diversion.  Cat owners and other pet lovers will also thoroughly savor Gurney’s genial romp.

The plot is simple.  Gary (Matthew Broderick), a mild-mannered businessman, comes upon Sylvia in Central Park.  Enchanted, he brings her home to his displeased wife Kate (Julie White).  The couple has recently moved to Manhattan as empty nesters without any obligations.  Now, much to her dismay, but to her husband’s unending pleasure, there is another household member to be concerned with and put a crimp in their freedom.  The show examines how the adorable pooch fits in with the twosome and the trouble she causes for the couple’s marriage.

A.R. Gurney has penned a delightful tale that can be very funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously.  His characters are well-defined, uncomplicated, and likeable.  Many older theatergoers can easily identify with the characters.  You could read more into the play such as it being a meditation on midlife relationships, but Sylvia is more a show to sit back and enjoy.

The four-person cast is first-rate.  In addition to the superb Annaleigh Ashford, there is Matthew Broderick, who could use some pep-me-up pills, but is affable and endearing as Gary, a man who begins to reevaluate his life after hooking up with his new pet.  Julie White is a showcase for the slow burn.  She shows real annoyance, disapproval, exasperation, and frustration as Kate.  Robert Sella, playing multiple roles, is flippant, sassy, irreverent, and puckish.  His interactions with the other players vibrantly enliven each scene.

Director Daniel Sullivan brings a creative and inventive flair to the production.  He skillfully guides the actors through the lighter, playful junctures of the show as well as the over-the-top moments.  This usually involves either Annaleigh Ashford in one of her more inspired moments or one of Robert Sella’s slightly off-center characters.

Sylvia, a breezy entertainment, now at the Cort Theatre on Broadway.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Review of "Dames at Sea"

Perky.  Wholesome.  Tuneful.  Small.  Fun.  These are words that come to mind after seeing the delightful Broadway version of the musical, Dames at Sea.  Originally produced Off-Broadway in 1968 (and starring Bernadette Peters in her first New York musical), the show is a spoof of those 1930’s movie musical extravaganzas.  Think 42nd Street in a pared down production and you have the essence of this diminutive—only six performers—but winning musical.

Wide-eyed ingénue Ruby (Eloise Kropp) has just arrived in The Big Apple from Utah looking to make it on The Great White Way.  She immediately snags a minor role; meets Dick (Cary Tedder) a handsome sailor who just happens to pen marvelous show tunes; tangles with the egotistical star Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita); and placates the harried producer Hennessey (John Bolton).  There’s also the requisite secondary couple (Mara Davi as Joan and Danny Gardner as Lucky) that provide laughs and diversions from the central plot.  However, catastrophe looms around every corner.  Will the curtain go up on the seemingly ill-fated show?  Will Ruby and Dick finally get together?  Will Ruby become a star?  Will there be one great finale?  I think you can guess the answers.

Randy Skinner does a superb job as both choreographer and director.  As choreographer he has created one entertaining tap dance routine after another.  If you are a tap dance aficionado then Dames at Sea is a show for you.  The only disappointment is with just a handful of performers the production numbers, while energetic, challenging and exceedingly cheerful, appear modest and a bit of a letdown.  As director, Skinner keeps the pace fast afoot.  He lampoons the overwrought musical spectaculars with a loving, knowing wink.

The score by George Haimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise is refreshingly tuneful.  They are evocative of the Busby Berkeley inspired pageantries the musical so nimbly spoofs.  They include the jaunty, "It's You;” the frolicsome, "Broadway Baby;” the heartfelt ballad, “Raining In My Heart;" and rousing finale, "Star Tar.”

The cast is led by fresh-faced Eloise Kropp as the starry-eyed Ruby.  She is delectably charismatic with high powered dancing feet.   Cary Tedder is engaging as Dick, Ruby’s would-be love interest.  He has a captivating personality, handsome good looks, and an aw-shucks appeal.  Lesli Margherita, coming off an extended run as the despicable mother in Matilda, is equally boorish and conniving as the self-centered Mona Kent.  She adds a little hot-blooded spiciness to the virtuous cast.  Mara Davi as Joan and Danny Gardner as Lucky make an attractive and bewitching twosome.  John Bolton brings an experienced hand as the stressed out showman Hennesey and a sprightliness as the Captain.

Dames at Sea, perfectly adorned in the jewel box size Helen Hayes Theatre.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Review of "The Gin Game"

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, two wily, aged theatrical veterans, give masterful performances in the revival of D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning comedy-drama, The Gin Game.    Friends in real life, Tyson (90 years old) and Jones (84 years old), have an easy rapport with each other that brings alive the story of two disparate individuals living in a rundown nursing home. 

Through the card game of gin rummy Weller Martin (James Earl Jones) meets newcomer Fonsia Dorsey (Cicely Tyson) at their ramshackle residence.  Martin, a self-professed gin rummy expert, entices Ms. Dorsey to play a hand to his everlasting  regret.  Through their subsequent games the audience learns about each person’s past and present life configurations.  They also begin a sometimes raucous, often funny pas de deux as the two lonely, elderly tenants become more dependent on each other’s company. 

D.L. Coburn’s play, as with the current production, can be a tour de force for seasoned actors.  The playwright successfully uses the device of gin rummy to slowly tease out two interesting and compelling character studies.  The show closes with an unsatisfactory ending but, nonetheless, the play is an entertaining and engaging piece of theater.

Cicely Tyson is wonderful as Fonsia Dorsey.  She is mischievous, crafty and brings a spark of resilience to her character.  Her mannerisms and facial expressions speak volumes.  James Earl Jones’ Weller Martin is rude, a bully and a monumental sore loser.  The actor, a gregarious and imposing presence, knows when and how to use his bearing to enhance his role.  He can be a boisterous intimidator as well as a frisky, caring companion.

Director Leonard Foglia has the luxury of working with two acting legends.  He lets them play out their theatrical virtuosity while intelligently guiding the production through its requisite paces, its bursts of energy and subtlety.  For this revival of The Gin Game less intrusiveness by the director is more fitting.

The set by Riccardo Hernandez, an outdoor porch strewn with junk and residents’ clutter off to the side, is sufficiently rundown and evocative of a home for the aged.

The Gin Game, playing now at the John Golden Theater on Broadway through January 10th.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review of "Rear Window"

The stage adaptation of Rear Window, receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is an unfulfilling theatrical presentation.  It closely follows the short story written by Cornell Woodrich rather then the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.  Gone are the characters played by Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter.  The play still retains is voyeuristic main character and murder mystery core.  However, this is more a low-key character study between the two central protagonists.  It is grittier then the movie and addresses post-World War II racial prejudices.

The show starts off with a cinematic flourish.  A rousing, suspense tinged musical introduction greets the audience as the title of the show is projected above the stage.  The curtain rises onto a claustrophobic looking apartment where crusading reporter, Hal Jeffries (Kevin Bacon), is laid up with a broken leg.  We are quickly introduced to Sam (McKinley Belcher III), an African-American young man who met Jeffries the previous night in a bar.  After a few drinks he convinced the newspaperman to hire him to help out while in his current condition.  Through their sometimes contentious talks we slowly learn about each.  Jeffries drinks and smokes too much and ferrets out the injustices in the world for his readership.  He was once married and deeply in love.  Sam is polite, dutiful, but more of a mystery as are his real motives for being there. 

Each night, after Sam has left, Jeffries satiates his curiosity with people by peering out his window to the building complex across the way.  There, among the humanity in the adjacent apartments, he fixates on one specific dwelling—that of a sulking wife and her meek, attentive husband.  Soon the wife is missing.  Did her husband Lars Thorwald (Robert Stanton), as Jeffries thinks, murder her?  Or not?  Here, the suspense is ratcheted up as Sam and the police become involved in the mystery, which for audience members not familiar with the story, concludes with a satisfying and suspenseful ending. 

The adaptation of the Woolrich story by Keith Reddin keeps the action sparse with little dramatic tension when the characters are within the confines of Jeffries’ dreary apartment.   There is a great deal of chatter among the cast, but little else of consequence happens.  The play blossoms only when we are allowed to peer into the world of neighboring residences and the potential murder mystery machinations begin to unfold.

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries is subdued and introspective, lighting cigarettes, downing scotch and being thoroughly irascible.  We feel his inner rage, but it all doesn’t add up to be an overly interesting character.  On the other hand, McKinley Belcher III is impulsive, dynamic, and emotional as Sam, a twenty-something man looking for his place in society where racism reigns.  Robert Stanton as Lars Thorwald is sufficiently creepy and seemingly maladjusted as a would-be murderer.  John Bedford Lloyd’s Detective Boyne is hard-boiled with an unforgiving racist streak.  Melinda Page Hamilton, in the dual role of the brooding Mrs. Thorwald and Hal Jeffries’ former wife, is convincingly disconsolate as the former and glamorous and winning as the latter.

The real star of the production is scenic designer Alexander Dodge.  He has created an eye-popping set that literally rises and falls to reveal the side of an apartment building that Hal Jeffries spies on.  It is an artistic as well as breathtaking mechanical achievement.  Lighting designer York Kennedy and sound designer Jane Shaw also add a cool film noir mood to the play.  Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projection design, when used sparingly, contributes winningly to the overall vibe of the show.  When overused, as in the latter part of the play, they create an unnecessary cinematic style.

Director Darko Tresnjak is hampered by a play with two very different sets.  When in the apartment of Hal Jeffries the actors primarily talk as they move from one side of the stage to the other.  Their routine becomes somewhat monotonous for them and the audience.  When the opens to reveal the adjoining back end of the adjoining apartment building the action perks up.  The vignettes within each dwelling are intriguing (even though they are hard to see if seated off to the side of the theater) and keeps our interest.  However, as the production proceeds it becomes a bit choppy as the plot constantly shifts between the two set pieces.

Rear Window, at Hartford Stage through November 15th.