Friday, February 19, 2016

Review of "Hamilton"

This review is adapted from my Off-Broadway review of the show.

Hamilton, the juggernaut that has seized the theater world, is a game changing musical.  In this respect, it can be compared to such pivotal musical theater productions as Oklahoma, A Chorus Line and Rent.  Hamilton’s move from the small, more intimate Public Theater Off-Broadway to the larger Richard Rodgers Theater has not diminished its power and significance.  It has actually enhanced its impact.

Just as composer (and star) Lin-Manuel Miranda brought an urban grittiness and a mixture of rap and traditionally-styled Broadway songs to his previous endeavor, In the Heights, Hamilton, again, fuses rap, hip-hop, and Broadway melodies into the best new musical to open in New York this year.  For many years.

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 pounces on it.  As a theatrical presentation, the first act is more compelling and dynamic then Act II because Hamilton’s life was more colorful and dramatic.  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 for 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 musical theater must…if you can afford the tickets.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review of "Noises Off"

The revival of Noises Off is not only consistently funny, but a wonderment in precision acting and movement.  This modern day farce, with slamming doors and frequent missteps, is a highly choreographed piece of theater magic…and mayhem.

The play begins as an inept British acting troupe is in the throes of final rehearsals.  The assorted thespians, bungle their lines, their entrances, and make a general mess of everything, much to the agony of the harried director.  In the beginning of Act II the company is near the end of their tour of the provinces.  Nerves are frayed and backstage shenanigans and hanky-panky among the players has left many hard feelings.  We see the exact part of the play from Act I, but from a backstage vantage point.  Audience members can see all the behind-the-scene pandemonium and discombobulation.  The latter portion of Act II is a third rendition of the play which, at this point, is a hopeless mess as the cast valiantly presses forward.

Playwright Michael Frayn has written a valentine to lovers of the theater, both for actors and audiences.  He delivers a lovingly slapstick, extremely clever and humorous show.  There is not one wasted scene or extraneous moment in the script.

The cast members are all outstanding and work so well together, which is absolutely critical for the show to achieve its diverting objective.  The more notable performers include Andrea Martin as the veteran character actress Dotty Otley.  Martin is pure and simply hysterical, but why should that be a surprise?  Throughout her career, no matter what the production, Ms. Martin has always been a beacon of comedy virtuosity.  Campbell Scott is hilarious as the director Lloyd Dallas.  His slow burns and growing frustrations with his charges are priceless.  David Furr is marvelous as the befuddled actor Garry Lejeune.  Megan Hilty is beautifully bewildered as the blonde bombshell Brooke Ashton.

Director Jeremy Herrin deserves special commendation for the exactitude he brings to the production and his meticulousness to detail.  He guides the cast, sometimes at a dizzying pace, with both nuanced, subtle performances as well as outright uproariousness, producing an always lively, very funny show.   

Noises Off, a thoroughly engaging, often side-splitting comedy, playing through March 13th at the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Review of "Fiddler on the Roof"

The current revival of Fiddler on the Roof is a highly satisfying production with a solid cast, exuberant choreography, and a memorable score by the legendary team of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock.  The book of the show by Joseph Stein, is based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem.  It centers on Teyve (Danny Burstein), a milkman; his wife, Golde (Jessica Hecht) and five daughters all who live in the small Russian town of Anatevka.  It is a hard and demanding existence where the old ways are rapidly changing.  The focus of these changes are brought to the fore by Teyve’s three eldest children who’s courtship and marriage challenge age-old traditions and religious beliefs. 

What makes Fiddler such a beloved musical are its universal themes centering on family and religious tolerance and oppression.  In the cacophony of today’s Presidential election they resonant even more loudly.  While the Jewishness of the material is obvious and pronounced it is dealt with in a manner where all faiths, all audience members can relate to the subject matter.  Look at the original production’s accomplishments—it was the first Broadway musical to surpass 3,000 performances and for most of the 1970’s it was the longest running Broadway show in history.

The heartbeat of the musical is the score by the renowned Broadway team of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock.  It’s richness is truly one of the most distinguished in all musical theater.  From the exuberant opening of “Tradition” to the joyous “If I Were a Rich Man” and “To Life” to the touching “Do You Love Me” to the closing, somber note of “Anatevka” there is not one song that isn’t a melodic, glorious gem. 

The cast is workman-like and skilled, which is an attribute to the production.  The character of Teyve, for example, is the central focus of the musical, and should be an everyday type person as opposed to being portrayed as the star.  Danny Burstein, as Teyve, displays this commonplace quality and hardiness of soul.  The audience can relate to his trials and tribulations of being a parent in a new age.  Jessica Hecht as his wife Golde, can be somewhat dour, but her steadfastness and inner fortitude provide a more grounded sensibility about the family’s struggles.  The three eldest daughters—Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber), Hodel (Melanie Moore), and Chava (Jenny Rose Barker)—are spirited, with one foot firmly in the future, but one foot proudly in the past.  Adam Kantor as Motel, the Tailor, is a bit too jittery and apprehensive at first before growing more comfortable and assured in his role.  Ben Rappaport as Perchik, the rebel student, is forceful with his convictions, but could be more attentive and affectionate to his betrothed.  Nick Rehberger as Fyedka, a Russian youth who is a non-Jew, does a convincing job of walking the fine line between his world and that of his future wife.

Director Bartlett Sher, who has successfully helmed such large-scale Lincoln Center productions as South Pacific and the current revival of The King and I, nimbly and energetically guides the large cast of Fiddler on the Roof.  Whether in scenes with a multitude of performers or those more intimate Sher shows his strength and artistry.  However, sometimes his sensibilities run rampant, creating a more bloated feel that takes away from the essence of a scene as in “The Dream” sequence.  His decision to use a fiddler, roaming the stage at integral moments, is unnecessary and distracting as is the opening moments of the show with the actor Danny Burstein playing a modern day relative looking forlornly at the remnants of his ancestor’s birthplace.

Choreographer Hofesh Shechter, a newcomer to the Broadway stage and a dance director of Israeli background, brings a unique dynamism and perspective to the production numbers.  The vitality and ethnicly-tinged dances honor and celebrate the tradition of original choreographer, Jerome Robbins.  At the same time he stakes out his own

Fiddler on the Roof, a triumphant and jubilant musical for audiences of all ages and faiths.