Saturday, August 9, 2014

Commentary: Farewell, Dear Elaine Stritch

The last time I saw Elaine Stritch was in the lobby of the Imperial on 46th Street not too long before she left New York. For just a moment, i thought I’d try to catch her as she left the theatre and hurried down 46th Street. And now that she is gone, I regret that I didn’t make the attempt, that I never got the chance to tell her how long I’ve been an admirer. My devotion to Stritch began during the run of Pal Joey at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1952. I saw the production so often that my parents suggested that I just move into that theater on 45th Street. There was much to admire in that O’Hara - Hart- Rodgers masterpiece, of course, and Stritch’s rendition of “Zip” (“My artistic taste is classic and dear —/ “Zip! Who the hell’s Lilli St. Cyr?) was just one of the show’s highlights.
I did not get to see her again until she appeared in Bus Stop, William Inge’s 1955 play, which I attended half a dozen times. The play, which was directed by Harold Clurman, starred the great Kim Stanley as Cherie, a down-on-her-heels nightclub singer who is stranded with other travelers at a very small restaurant in Kansas very late at night. It doesn’t surprise that each “guest” had a story to tell. At first Stritch was the waitress. And then, in 1961, I took a group of students to see Noel Coward’s Sail Away. It was fun to watch Stritch cavorting on the stage of the Broadhurst again.

Although it was a mediocre work, I saw Stritch perform in Goldilocks at the Lunt-Fontanne in 1958 with a book by Walter and Jean Kerr based on the 1955 The Vamp. The plot was based around the silent movie industry in 1913, and it was set in the film colony at Fort Lee, New Jersey. But an audience was never really found for the production; however, I still enjoy listening to Leroy Anderson’s tuneful score.

It was her distinctive gravelly sound and sardonic delivery (in “The Ladies Who Lunch”) that made Stritch a perfect Jo-Anne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970). For that show, George Furth provided a book that was almost without any plot. And the musical centered around several birthdays in the life of the show’s main character, a New York city bachelor named Bobby (Dean Jones) . His friends are all bored New Yorkers; and when he sees how boring the marriages around him are turning out, he has a problem. And at the play’s end, he attempts to stay “Side By Side By Side” with his friends as everyone asks, “What Would We Do Without You?” And yet, finally, Bobby goes off on his own.

I have written more about Elaine Stritch in a separate article on my site. And, too, there is a wonderful DVD of this great performer (Elaine Stritch: At Liberty). Watching this excellent recording isn’t quite the same as seeing the great Stritch in person. But, except for our memories, it’s all we have.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Theater Review: Cabaret

Cabaret is back in town. And the Roundabout Theatre Company's production is decidedly worth your attention. The first time I saw this musical was at the Broadhurst in 1966. But the production was seriously damaged by the inadequate performance of Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles. And so, in spite of fine performances by Jack Gilford, Bert Convy and Lotte Lenya, the casting of Sally was cause for concern. That egregious error, I believe, kept us from fully appreciating the brilliance of the production. But the situation changed in 1968 when I saw the sublime Judi Dench perform the role of Sally in London.

I'm old enough to have seen the late, great Julie Harris in I Am a Camera, the play by John Van Druten that was inspired by the short stories of Christopher Isherwood. That play, of course, celebrated the birth of a character, Sally Bowles. And now we have Sally again; and this time she is portrayed by Michelle Williams.The Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54 has been converted into the Kit Kat Club, complete with tables and chairs so that members of the the audience can pretend that they are actually patrons of the club in the play. Michelle Williams is a lovely Sally Bowles. And, too, she effectively captures the character's vulnerability.

The major performances are commendable. In addition to Michelle Williams, Linda Emond is a fine Fraulein Schneider; Bill Heck is excellent as the sexually ambiguous Clifford Bradshaw. Danny Burstein is just right as Herr Schultz, a man who must hide his true identity. And the supporting roles are all very ably handled here.

Everything in this production (setting, characterizations, choreography) appears to capture the Berlin of 1930. And we get the feeling that the doors in Fraulein Schneider's house will lead us to something dangerous and dreary, even deadly. The Berlin of 1939 was insecure and squalid. Robert Brill's settings, containing minimal furniture, also reflect the menace. And the one character who best personifies the ugliness and dangers of the time, of course, is the Emcee; and, once again, he is brilliantly portrayed by Alan Cumming. Reserve a table at Studio 54. Attention must be paid.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Theater Review: Bullets Over Broadway, The Musical

Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway at the St. James, which is based on his 1994 film and adapted for the stage by Allen himself, has songs from the 1920s. You might recall that the story line centered around several gangsters who want to get into show business. And since the production has been directed and choreographed by the seemingly ubiquitous Susan Stroman, you know that there will be much to enjoy. Stroman starts the show with a fast-moving tap routine that is so exciting that I'm afraid the show reaches its peak at that point. Still, there are so many things to admire and applaud thereafter that it won't spoil your evening, even if I suggested that nothing matches the velocity of that prelude.

The plot line doesn't much matter: Cheech (Nick Cordero) iis a mobster who is employed by Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) a night club owner in the 1920s. Warmer Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas). Warner, Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie) and Olive Neal (Helene Yorke) are show-business people who have been cast in an inane play by a new (and very young) playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff). But Chech, who appears to know all about playwriting, begins to change the script until it actually has merit. But the book of the show here is mediocre. And the numbers appear to be forced into place. When, for example, a dead body is thrown into a canal, the tune is "Up a Lazy River." But the nightclub numbers appear to work nicely enough. And there's a little bit of The Producers here; and, given the situations with thugs, there's something right out of Guys and Dolls, too. But nothing is on the sublime level of those two works.

Still, the dance routines have spunk. The performances, too, have merit. And Santo Loquasto's colorful settings appear to adequately suit the time and place. And I must report that it was gratifying to see Karen Ziemba as Eden Brent. I have been enjoying Karen's performances ever since I first saw her in Miami years ago. She never disappoints.

Theater Review: Les Miserables

The revival of Les Miserables, the pop opera currently on the boards at the Imperial, still manages to get the audience to stand and shout its approval at the final curtain.  That in itself is not an accomplishment, of course, since every show on the boards these days manages to do just that.  Still, the production is worth your attention. This musical, which is based on Victor Hugo's novel and takes place in France during the nineteenth century, tells the story of a solemn fugitive, Jean Valjean (Ramin Karimloo), who is pursued by police officer Javert (Will Swenson) for an extraordinarily minor infraction.

It appears that Paris in 1832 was a dangerous place: There was the threat of insurrection and revolutionists were scheming to scale the barricades.  Meanwhile, the unhappily tragic Fantine (Cassie Levy), who was forced into prostitution, dies; her daughter, Cosette (Samantha Hill), is adopted by Valjean after he whisks her away from devilish innkeepers  (Andrew Kober and Christinne Tisdale).  When Cosette is grown, she marries a handsome student, Marius (Andy Mientus).  By now, however, the revolution has begun, and crucial events follow: Javert and Valjean meet squarely; Valjean allows the police officer to go free; and Javert loses his senses and takes his own life.  And now, Valjean is at peace at last.

Claude-Michel Schonberg's lilting score, Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics, Mat Kinley's set design and Paul Constable's lighting are all worthy of commendation.. And the directors (Laurence Connor and James Powell) appear to have put the entire production into splendid shape.  And not for a moment did I miss that ubiquitous circular revolving platform.

But the truth is that this has never been one of my favorite shows.  Still, I must have been enjoying the performance because I never thought about that wonderful parody of the show in Forbidden Broadway: In a spoof of the song "Bring Him Home," a member of the cast sang (as he painfully reached for the high notes):  "Bring it down. It's too high."

Monday, January 28, 2013

Theater Review: Annie

On 20 April 1977, the choral director, who was also the orchestra conductor for the annual high school musical that I supervised and directed, accompanied me to the last preview of Annie at the Alvin Theatre.  And so, it seemed appropriate that I invite him to a recent performance of the current revival of the 1980 musical, which is now on the boards of the Palace. And the good news here is that the show, based on Harold Gray’s once-popular comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, still affords playgoers an enjoyable entertainment.

The popular work, for which Thomas Meehan wrote the book and Martin Charnin provided lyrics to Charles Strouse’s music, is set in New York City during the great Depression.  This was a time when a huge chasm existed between the underprivileged working class and the bourgeoisie.  But the show, which has been skillfully directed by James Lapine, is primarily about kids during this difficult time; and so, it’s not surprising that the curtain rises on a dormitory in an orphanage at bedtime.  Annie (the energetic Lilla Crawford) helps to calm the other girls by offering some hope to these inmates who lead “a hard knock life.”  She sings as she attempts to sooth the other orphans because “no one’s there when your dreams at night get creepy.”  The suitable dance steps here (and elsewhere) were created by Andy Blankenbuehler.

But it’s not long before we’re introduced to the villainous termagant, Miss Hannigan (an effectively over-the-top Katie Finneran), who insists that “if I wring/Little Necks/Surely I will get an acquittal.”  But Annie knows that “just thinkin’ about/Tomorrow/Clears away the cobwebs,/And the sorrow.” And it isn’t long before she’s rescued and living in the huge mansion owned by Daddy Warbucks (the excellent Anthony Warlow).  It is in this lavishness that Warbucks instructs his devoted secretary (Brynn O’Malley) to make sure that Annie is made to feel comfortable at her new home, where her orphan friends are always welcome.  And with a huge staff of butlers and maids, that task proves not to be too difficult.  She even gets to sing “Tomorrow” with F.D.R. (Merwin Foard).

Complications set in when Hannigan, her disreputable brother. Rooster (Clarke Thorell) and his scatterbrained girlfriend, Lily (J. Elaine Marcus) try to initiate a blackmail scheme.  But they are quickly dispelled. FDR promises a “New Deal for Christmas” and Sunny, Annie’s dog, gets his own curtain call.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Theater Review: Nice Work If You Can Get It

"And Gershwin keeps pounding on tin,” the brothers George and Ira Gershwin once sardonically wrote. But a visit to the Imperial Theatre, where Nice Work If You Can Get It appears to be entertaining audiences, will confirm that George’s infectious, lilting tunes and Ira’s clever lyrics still sound remarkably fresh and vibrant. The production, which has a book by Joe DiPietro and was directed and choreographed by a seemingly ubiquitous Kathleen Marshall, stars Kelli O’Hara as a 1920s bootlegger and Matthew Broderick as a millionaire playboy. These two stars (along with a super supporting cast) do a great deal to breathe a bit of life into a musical that still provides us with a rather creaky libretto.

The show’s book by Joe DiPietro is supposedly similar to the one the Gershwin brothers used in 1926 for the production of Oh, Kay! The musical takes place during the Prohibition era and is set on Long Island, where wealthy Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick) is scheduled to wed Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson). But everything changes when Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara), a gal who illicitly provides the liquor for the numerous parties that Jimmy often attends, appears on the scene. Billlie, it appears wants someone “who’ll carry the key” to her heart, and this lad need not “put on some speed” because he’s already there. And how can he resist? Even in men’s apparel this gal looks appealingly sexy.

Everything in this old-fashioned musical is meant to please, but there are libretto problems. Still, when the book stalls (and occasionally it certainly does), there’s always someone like the inimitable Judy Kaye who amuses by happily swinging from a huge chandelier. While it’s true that the production often relies on gimmicks to keep things rolling, the supporting players also do much to help. On hand, for example, is Michael McGrath as Cookie McGee, a glorious comedic role that conjures the late great Bert Lahr. (I’m old enough to report that I saw Lahr in several Broadway shows.) Also participating in the festivities here are an amusing Jennifer Laura Thompson, Robyn Hurder and Stanley Wayne Mathis.

Derek McLane has provided the production with elaborate and colorful sets; Martin Pakledinaz is responsible for the excellent lighting design; and David Chase deserves the credit for the lively musical arrangements.

A couple of times during the proceedings, the two protagonists argue that “You like potato and I like po-tah-to;/You like tomato and I like to-mah-to;/Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, to-mah-to--/Let’s call the whole thing off!” But before you call off or cancel a trip to the Imperial, know that although Nice Work... might generally be sniffed at, here and there something shines amid the commonplace proceedings on the Imperial’s stage.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Theater Review: Death of a Salesman

I was a student at the University Heights campus of NYU in the Bronx when, in 1949, a girlfriend and I climbed the stairs at the Morosco Theatre, where we were seated in the last row of the balcony. The occasion was a performance of the original production of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s “elegy in a Brooklyn side street,” which starred Lee J. Cobb and was directed by Elia Kazan and had received glowing reviews in the New York papers. After the curtain came down on this brilliant documentation of man’s frustration and we were attempting to return to our respective homes in the Bronx, we discovered that we had mistakenly taken a train to Brooklyn. It was, in fact, the powerful theatrical experience we had just witnessed that had actually disoriented us.

I have since seen the role of Willy Loman performed by George C. Scott (1975), Dustin Hoffman (1984) and, more recently, Brian Dennehy (1999). And all of these fine actors performed the part brilliantly. In the current production at the Ethel Barrymore, expertly directed Mike Nichols, Willy is portrayed by the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman. And when the lights come up on Jo Mielziner’s original scenic design, we see that the entire setting is almost completely transparent.

And so, too, is the play’s title character. Willy is coming to the end of his career, and his dream that financial success awaits the salesman who is well-liked is quickly evaporating. He had once pinned his hopes on his two sons. But Biff (Andrew Garfield), who was a star athlete in high school, seems to be as much of a mediocrity as Happy (Finn Wittrock), his younger brother. It is Willy, however, who preaches that nothing is more urgent and important to a salesman than working hard and that children, even if they sometimes hide it, have an inherent love for their parents. It is his belief, too, that wealth can be obtained quickly, and it is this false hope that ultimately destroys him.

I was (during the current production) particularly moved by the scene in which the two sons decide to entertain Willy in a Sixth Avenue Manhattan bar. In a phone conversation, Willy’s wife, Linda (the admirable Linda Emond), admonishes Biff to “be sweet to” his father. “Be loving to him. Because he’s only a little boat looking for a harbor.”  But in the scene where Willy pleads for his job, he’s told by his boss (Remy Auberjonois) that “I don’t have a single solitary spot.... It’s business, kid, and everybody’s gotta pull his own weight.”  And the bar scene that follows turns out to be grim and shocking.

Everything begins to spiral downward. And after Willy’s suicide, we’re once again moved by his long-suffering wife’s speech. Linda, who pleads for forgiveness at her husband’s grave, says that she “made the last payment on the house today.  Today, dear.  And there’ll be nobody home... We’re free ... We’re free...We’re free” she repeats and as Biff wraps his arms around Linda and leads her away, the stage darkens and the curtain falls on what remains an American masterpiece.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Theater Review: Porgy and Bess

On a Saturday in 1953, a friend and I attended both a matinee and an evening performance on Broadway, something we customarily did on a weekend. It had already been a busy week of playgoing for me. I was scheduled to report to the army for active duty shortly, and I was determined to see everything on the boards before then. And so, we went to a matinee of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (certainly not my first visit to watch Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza at the Majestic); after the performance, we picked up a couple of tickets at the beautiful (and now sorely missed) Ziegfeld for the evening performance of Porgy and Bess in which an incomparable Leontyne Price was so gloriously singing the female lead. When the curtain came down at the Ziegfeld, my friend insisted that the Gershwin work actually “dwarfs even South Pacific,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical. I could not dispute that.

That 1953 revival of Porgy and Bess, which had already been acclaimed during its international tour in Berlin, Vienna, London and Paris, did, in fact, receive glorious notices from the New York reviewers. Brooks Atkinson, the dean of New York critics, informed his readers in the New York Times that “this is what a theatre classic ought to be-- alive in every fiber, full of passion for a theme.” But Broadway didn’t get a full-length Porgy and Bess again until the fall of 1976 when the work was performed at the Uris by the Houston Grand Opera Company. Clamma Dale was the sensational Bess in that thrilling restoration.

And now, 35 years later, we’re being given another production of the George and Ira Gershwin work (revised and directed by Pauline Paulus) at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The current version, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, was not without controversy. The estimable Stephen Sondheim, for example, complained about changes that were made to the libretto. It’s true that the work’s script (adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray) has been trimmed here and new lines have been added. This production is meant to be palatable for all playgoers, not only for opera lovers. But those who feel that the original version is sacrosanct might indeed be disappointed.

The settings by Riccardo Hernandez, beautifully lit by Christopher Akerlind and suitably dismal and bleak, are certainly appropriate for this story (by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward) of a love affair between a handicapped black man, Porgy (the excellent Norm Lewis), and a drug-addicted woman, Bess (the magnificent Audra McDonald) in Catfish Row, a fictional slum district in South Carolina. But Bess must choose between Crown (Phillip Boykin), the drug-pusher villain here and the crippled Porgy. Porgy might have “plenty o‘ nuthin’; however, he claims that he’s “got my gal, got my song./Got Hebben the whole day long.”

After a murder and a wrongful arrest, Act II begins with a picnic on Kitterwah Island. David Allen Grier (as Sporting Life) does much to cheer the group with his splendid rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So." ("De tell all you children/De Debble's a villain/But 'taint necessarily so....") Finally, however, Sporting Life informs Bess that "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon" for New York. And Bess knows that for her own survival, as well as the community's, she must leave. When Porgy is released, he looks for Bess and (failing to find her) tells us that "I'm on My Way."

This is a work (an American folk opera actually) that expertly and sensitively explores the weakness, buoyancy, misfortune and, ultimately, the worthiness of a burdened, unfortunate but closely united group of individuals.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Theater Review: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

The morning after Barbara Harris opened in The Apple Tree at the Shubert in October of 1966, Walter Kerr in the New York Times noted that Harris is “exquisite, appetizing, alarming, seductive, out of her mind, irresistible and from now on unavoidable.” I had seen the performance, but I made it a habit to get to the Shubert from time to time (a standing room ticket cost something like $2.40 in those days) to witness the magic at least six more times.

It was especially rewarding to watch Harris then because exactly one year earlier I saw her perform stoically in a mess of a show entitled On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. And although Burton Lane’s musical score was extraordinarily lilting, the work’s book about a woman with ESP was thin and often incomprehensible. Alan Jay Lerner’s libretto dealt with a young woman named Daisy Gamble (Harris) who is being treated by a Freudian analyst for a smoking habit. It is when she is under hypnosis that the doctor appears to be falling in love with Melinda, the person Daisy was in a past life. Alan Jay Lerner’s book might have been deadly dull, but Burton Lane’s score was a melodic marvel.

A revival of the 1965 musical at the St. James, which stars Harry Connick Jr., fares slightly better. This time Peter Parnell’s revised book, set in 1974, centers around Mark Bruckner (Harry Connick, Jr.), a psychiatrist who reluctantly agrees to treat a young, gay florist’s assistant, David Gamble (David Turner), for a smoking addiction. If he were to be cured, David feels, his boyfriend will agree to marry him. While under hypnosis, the addicted lad divulges that he had previously existed as Melinda Wells (Jessie Mueller), a jazz singer in the 1940s. It is Melinda who apparently interests the psychiatrist and that’s the reason the young man is asked to return for more sessions. Melinda, it appears, is the only one who can make the psychiatrist stop grieving for his deceased wife. (I should note here that Mueller is a suave, brassy belter, and there were moments when she evoked Garland.)

The new libretto might be somewhat more effective than the work’s original book, but it is still often obtuse and inane. The pop art, bright sets by Christine Jones are appealing; and so, too, are Catherine Zuber’s colorful costumes. Credit Jo-Ann M.Hunter for some energetic (but unoriginal) choreography. However, it is the memorably buoyant musical numbers that keep the show alive. Some of the songs have been lifted from other Lerner and Lane works. A favorite, for example, is “Too Late Now” (“Too late now to forget your smile/The way we’d cling when we danced awhile...”) from Royal Wedding (1951), the movie musical that featured Fred Astaire and Jane Powell.

Still, the musical has been damaged once again by another bizarre book. Michael Stewart, the Broadway librettist, appears to have been stymied. He has moved the story forward by ten years. But by changing the time period, adding a gay counterplot and focusing on the psychologist, there hasn’t been much done to improve the libretto. And yet, Michael Mayer, the show’s director, does what he can to hold our attention.

It’s fair and logical to assume that most of the audience was at the St. James to see and hear Harry Connick Jr. And he does a great deal to bring Bruckner, a man beset by various troubles, to vibrant life. The show’s book, however, remains its primary problem. After playwright James Kirkwood saw the original production, he mentioned that he was feeling so happy in the intermission because he didn’t know how it was going to end. “I didn’t either,” Lerner added, and “that was the trouble.” There are some cyclic pleasures to be had at the St. James now, but they have still not found a suitable way to being down the curtain.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Theater Review: Ten Cents a Dance

In one of her cabaret shows, the excellent Mary Cleere Haran, who recently passed away at the age of 58, offered her theory on how Richard Rodgers’s collaborations with Lorenz Hart differed from the ones he had with Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein’s lyrics, she said, tell us how “we should feel,” while Hart’s explain what “we did feel.” To better appreciate the association that Rodgers had with his first collaborator, I strongly recommend that you attend a performance of Ten Cents A Dance (The Music and Lyrics of Rodgers and Hart). I saw the show, which is on tour and en route to Broadway, at the McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton University. No musical theatre-rhapsodist should miss this production, which is performed without an intermission.

The entire evening has been conceived and directed by John Doyle. And if you’ve seen Doyle’s previous revivals on Broadway (Sweeney Todd, Company), you know that he favors a minimalistic style and that there is never an orchestra in the pit. The actors, you see, always carry and play their own instruments. All of the action here takes place in a deserted bar, which the performers enter by descending Scott Pask’s huge spiral staircase (not unlike the one he designed for the last Broadway revival of Pal Joey).

In the show’s opening moments, Jane Cox’s fine lighting design reveals a man (Malcolm Gets) who cautiously makes his way down the staircase, surveys the desolate surroundings, sits at the piano and, after several palpably hesitant moments, begins to softly play “Blue Moon.” (“ saw me standing alone,/Without a dream in my heart,/Without a love of my own.”) At that moment, his playing appears to summon the five women, all similarly outfitted and made up. And like the ghosts in the recently revived Follies, they slowly, purposefully descend the staircase. The women all share the same name: Each is called Miss Jones, and the Miss Joneses One through Five are played by Elisa Winter, Jane Pfitsch, Jessica Tyler Wright, Diana DiMarzio and Donna McKechnie respectively. You’re thinking correctly, of course, that this eponymy is a reference to the R & H classic, “Have You Met Miss Jones?” (“And we’ll keep on meeting till we die, Miss Jones and I.”)

The songs here are gusty and effervescent and cynical. LIsten, for example to “It Never Entered My Mind”: “You have what I lack myself,/And now I even have to scratch my back myself.” When Rodgers began his collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein, the tone changed to a much more sentimental key. But Hart, who died in 1943, was an extremely unhappy fellow and sentimentality was not his style. However, sophistication most certainly was. No one else could have written, “Sir Marmaduke was awf’lly tall;/He didn’t fit in bed./I solved that problem easily --/ I just removed his head.” This man was amusingly irreverent.

Don’t be fooled by those bright, witty words. Hart was, more often than not, restless and unhappy. And every member of the excellent cast succeeds in capturing the various moods, which are sometimes contradictory: “Your looks are laughable,/Unphotographable,/ Yet you’re my favorite work of art.” Hart’s lyrics, like the man himself, were filled with subtle rebuttals. In “Dancing on the Ceiling,” for example, the singer confesses: “I whisper, ‘Go away, my lover,/It’s not fair.’/But I’m so grateful to discover/He’s still there.”

After the performance, when my companion and I were leaving the Princeton campus, I thought of an appropriate line from the late, great Larry Hart to describe this theatrical offering: “Oh, what a lovely time it was,/How sublime it was, too!”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Theater Review: Follies

I think about the late Christopher Reeve every time I attend a performance at the Marquis Theatre.  And I recall that ominous photo of him standing (tears running down his sculptured face) in the middle of New York City’s 45th Street as he displayed a huge sign to protest the destruction of two venerable Broadway houses: the Bijou and Morosco. There were five classic theatres that were destroyed so that the tacky Marriott Marquis Hotel could be built. As an attempt to atone, the hotel houses a large, modern arena that has none of the old-style charm and design features of the stately auditoriums that were torn down. However, as a compensative signal, something worthy is sometimes presented on its huge stage. And an excellent revival of Follies, the production currently being offered there, successfully transports the audience to another time, another place.

My first visit to Follies was during its original (now legendary) run at the Winter Garden when (on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in August of ’71) I approached the box office and asked whether I could buy a ticket in the orchestra for the matinee performance, which was about to start. I was handed a ticket for a seat on the aisle in row M just a few moments before the magic began. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had never seen anything like what was unfolding on stage. The cost to reproduce Boris Aronson’s glorious set designs today, for example, would be prohibitive. And I don’t know that we’ll ever again see anything on the boards as lavishly outfitted as that first production. It’s true that there have been numerous revivals and concert versions, but nothing has ever matched the original for sheer elegance.

Still, the revival now on the boards is most certainly worth your attention. It is said that the idea for the first mounting of Follies stemmed from a photograph of Gloria Swanson (outfitted in a Jean Louis sheath and exhibiting $170,000 worth of jewelry), her arms raised high in tribute, standing in the ruins of the demolished, incomparably grand Roxy Theatre in New York. “Are they repairing the walls of this theatre?” my companion for the evening asked as we were guided to our seats at the Marquis. I explained that the draped walls were part of Derek McLane’s skillful scenic design.  After all, this musical takes place on the evening before the theatre is to be torn down to make room for a parking lot. And James Goldman’s book for the event combines the past with the present by having younger Follies girls appear on stage as ghosts of their former embodiments together with their more mature, current selves for one last reunion.

The new production, directed by Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, revolves around two couples: Sally (Bernadette Peters) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) are married to Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines) respectively.  It is immediately apparent that everyone is unhappy. (“Could I leave you?” Phyllis sings, “Yes. Will I leave you?  Guess!”) And just listen to Peters’s rendition of “Losing My Mind” (“The sun comes up,/I think about you. The coffee cup,/I think about you...”) and you’ll know how palpably wounding unhappiness can be. 

This is a show that successfully merges the past with the present.  And so, the staging reminds us of the earlier days by giving us a parade of ghosts of the characters’ former selves throughout much of the action. And it is not surprising that Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant score pays tribute to the work of past greats like Rodgers, Berlin and Porter. In addition to the musical numbers that propel the plot, there are pastiche songs that are meant to salute those composers of Broadway’s Golden Age. In one “memory” number, the women upstage move in mirror-image to the chorus girls down front. And a bit that stops the show cold is Jane Houdyshell’s knockout version of “Broadway Baby”: “At/ My tiny flat/There’s just my cat,/A bed and a chair,/Still/I’ll stick it till/I’m on a bill/All over Times Square.”

There have been several revivals of Follies, some lavish and others rather simple; there were multi-star concert versions, including one at the Shubert Theatre and another at Lincoln Center. And there was an 1987 London production with a fine Dianna Rigg as Sally.  And, of course, we’ve been given several Broadway revivals throughout the years.

In its latest reincarnation, Follies is so captivating that it makes you eager to see more gems from the inimitable Stephen Sondheim.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Theater Review: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

My personal taste does not usually draw on what is commonly referred to as jukebox musicals, and were it not for some civilized inhibitions you might have seen me desperately running up the aisle of the Winter Garden Theatre in search of any exit sign when Momma Mia took that glorious house hostage for what now already seems like half a century. There is the occasional exception, of course, and Jersey Boys (reviewed on this site in October 2010), though it technically falls into a similar musical category, provided an enjoyable and stirring evening at the theatre.

And if (like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock) I were tied to the stake, I’d have to confess that there are some guilty pleasures to be enjoyed currently at New York’s historic Palace Theatre, where Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which is certainly a crowd-pleaser extraordinaire, is unsurprisingly enthralling (and sometimes electrifying) a large turnout eight times each week. This jukebox musical, which was co-produced by Bette Midler and is based on Stephan Elliott’s 1994 Oscar-winning Australian film about three drag queens who receive an offer to perform their outrageous, lip-synching act in a very remote town in central Australia, literally makes the legendary, symbolic phrase about audience members dancing in the aisles simply a matter of fact.

The campy, picaresque show, under the direction of Simon Phillips, like the independent movie on which it is based, tells a road-trip tale. It lifts off when Tick (Will Swenson), who is also known as Mitzi, a drag artist, accepts an offer to perform his act in a desert resort called Alice Springs. First, however, he must persuade two fellow entertainers, Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), an aging transsexual, and Adam (Nick Adams), who is also known as Felicia, to accompany him to the boondocks. Tick had apparently received a call in which his ex-wife (Jessica Phillips) convinces him that he should visit the son (now six-years-old) Tick abandoned when he chose to become a female impersonator. It appears, too, that Tick’s former mate is now an entrepreneur who could use a drag act at the club she operates. And the moment the audience catches sight of the dilapidated tour bus named Priscilla (with a large shoe on its roof), which will serve as the mode of transportation for the trio, it erupts with cheers more suited to a ballpark than a legitimate theatre.

The musical’s book (by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott), which has been directed by Simon Phillips, traces the foolhardy journey of the trio. And the three performers do have a fine rapport on stage.  Among the adventures these actors experience “on the road” during their bizarre, picaresque journey are the antics of a group of rednecks and several novelty numbers, most notably an old gal who performs a strange act with a part of her anatomy. However, the scraggy plot doesn’t much matter.  What gives the show its energy and spark are the musical numbers.  You’ll recognize some (if not all) of the  selections, which include “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Material Girl,” I Will Survive,” “Like a Prayer,” and, more to my taste, “A Fine Romance,” the classic number by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields: “You’ve never mussed the crease in my blue serge pants/You never take a chance, this is a fine romance.”

Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar for the film’s costumes, repeat their wizardry here. Nick Schlieper is responsible for the fiery lighting and the hoedown-like choreography is by Ross Coleman. And, too, I suppose that theatergoers should be cautioned that there are enough feathers, both on stage and off, to tickle your fancy.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Theater Review: War Horse

For a long stretch, almost 25 minutes, at the beginning of Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), we’re looking at the chaotic depiction of piercing horror that defines the blight and the futility of war. It’s D-Day, the invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose black-and-white images of the death camps in Schindler’s List continues to haunt, uses his camera here as if he were filming a documentary. The carnage he captures on Omaha Beach is terrifying, grim. And the colors are so diffused and misty that the red blood appears brighter, more startling. We want to -- we try to -- resist, to recoil, to avert our eyes; however, the direction and camerawork are so expert at capturing the annihilation that we continue to watch in horror. This is understandably the most brilliantly wrenching footage of war in a film we’ve ever seen.

I am not surprised that Spielberg, who had much success with the Private Ryan movie, is now filming War Horse, this year’s recipient of the Tony Award for best play. War Horse is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo and continues to entice enthusiastic audiences at Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont. Morpurgo’s work, which is also a sizable success in London, doesn’t resemble anything currently on the Broadway boards. The play’s protagonist, you see, is a horse called Joey; and Joey is essentially a lifelike cane-and-plywood puppet (created by Handspring Puppet Company).

The play, which begins in southwestern England, was artfully adapted from the novel by Nick Strafford and skillfully directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. It introduces us to a 16-year-old lad called Albert (an excellent Seth Numrich) who is told by his usually inebriated, stony-broke father (Boris McGiver) that he must teach the horse, recently won in a bet, how to plow the field. It doesn’t take long at all for the lad and Joey to become attached: “Joey and Albert play./They bond./They fall in love./They go into transition from young Joey to grown Joey. Albert trains Joey to rear up.”

This was a time when horses on the battlefield had not yet been replaced by tanks. And so, when Albert’s father surreptitiously sells the horse to the Army, the youngster feels irreversibly bruised, lies about his age and, propelled by a profound love for the animal, volunteers his service, too, so that he might search for his treasured Joey. We watch attentively as young Albert, now a member of the calvary, heads for the French battlefields, where soldiers fight the enemy on horseback for what was most likely the last time. The battles, conjured by Paule Constable’s strikingly brilliant flashes of light and Christopher Shutt’s startlingly effective sound design, are horrific, especially when the boy endures distressing setbacks, including the deaths of fellow soldiers.

Nothing in the play is so powerful and stunningly directed as the battle scenes. And the production certainly does provide several harrowing moments here. We care, of course, about the human sacrifices that were made; however, the work is written and staged in a way that makes us appear to focus on the pain and deaths of the animals. In one memorable scene, for example, a horse is trapped in barbed wire. The two opposing teams frantically wave white flags to halt the fighting so that the snared animal might be dislodged. When the rescue succeeds, you can sense and feel the collective relief in the audience.

The dialogue is occasionally trite, not much different from those “B” war films we’d see at the local cinema years ago. Sometimes, too, the German soldiers are as sympathetically depicted as the British. However, the play is primarily about a boy’s love for his horse. And you sense the audience’s elation when, near the play’s end, Albert discovers Joey just seconds before the tired, wounded horse was to be executed. When the lad sees what’s about to occur, he shouts: “Don’t off him! Don’t off the bon horse.”

This is, admittedly, shamelessly sentimental stuff, of course, but it is, after all, based on a children’s story. At curtain calls, all 39 actors, some of whom also help move Rae Smith’s impressive sets during the performance, appear to be pleased by the appreciative, enthusiastic response of a grateful audience. Let us hope that in Mr. Spielberg’s inventively directorial hands War Horse on film will also be captivatingly commendable.