BSmith

Jun 102019
 

The Tony Awards broadcast last night was a wonderful show, although, as in the past, it gave only minor attention to plays (vs. musicals) and the awards for designers and other specialities.  But the show’s “indigenous” musical numbers and the performances by the casts of nominees for best musical were absolutely entertaining as was M.C. James Cordon. For those of you who looked at my “should win” and “will win” posting, below is that list updated with those who “did win.”  My predictions (“will win”) were 76% on the mark, but my personal preferences (“should win”) were only 53% fulfilled.

There were a few surprises. “The Boys in the Band” won for best revival.  I liked that production but thought the fact that it has been closed since last summer would have worked against it. But NYC is hyper-Gay Pride right now with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall approaching and that might have helped this once controversial, now historic, gay-play. I guess I should not be surprised that Celia Keenan-Bolger won for her portrayal of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  There was some buzz for her and she certainly made the most of the “adult playing child” challenge. It’s notable that Keenan-Bolger was the only winner among nine nominees for “Mockingbird.” The other unexpected winner was Rob Howell for the set for “The Ferryman,”  This unit set (with one drop) was quite functional and evocative of a farmhouse in Northern Ireland.  But Bunny Christie’s design for “Ink” and Santo Loquasto’s imagining of the burial ground after Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” for “Gary” were both as much characters in their plays as were the living actors.

THE SCORE BOARD

Best Play

Should: The Ferryman

Will: The Ferryman

Did: The Ferryman

Best Musical

Should: Hadestown

Will: Hadestown

Did: Hadestown

Best Revival

Should: All; My Sons

Will: All My Sons

Did: The Boys in the Band

Best Revival of a Musical

Should: Oklahoma!

Will: Oklahoma!

Did: Oklahoma!

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

Should:  Hadestwon

Will: Hadestown

Did: Hadestown

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Should: Bryan Cranston

Will: Paddy Considine

Did: Bryan Cranston

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Should: Annette Benning

Will: Elaine May

Did: Elaine May

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Should: Brooks Ashmanskas

Will: Santino Fontana

Did: Santino Fontana

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Should: No preference

Will: Stephanie J. Block

Did: Stephanie J. Block

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Should: Bertie Carvel

Will: Bertie Carvel

Did: Bertie Carvel

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Should: Fionnula Flannagan or Julie White

Will: Julie White

Did: Celia Keenan-Bolger

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

Should: Andre De Shields

Will: Andre De Shields

Did: Andre De Shields

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Should: Ali Stroker

Will: Ali Stroker

Did: Ali Stroker

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Should: Bunny Christie (Ink)

Will: Bunny Christie or Santo Loquasto (Gary)

Did: Rob Howell (The Ferryman)

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Should: Rachel Hauck (Hadestown)

Will: Rachel Hauck or ???

Did: Rachel Hauck (Hadestown)

Best Direction of a Play

Should: Rupert Goold (Ink)

Will: Sam Mendes (The Ferryman)

Did:  Sam Mendes (The Ferryman)

Best Direction of a Musical

Should: Daniel Fish

Will: Rachel Chavkin or Casey Nicholaw

Did: Rachel Chavkin

 Posted by at 1:59 pm
May 222019
 

As June 9, the Tony Awards night, nears, here are my thoughts on who and what will win versus should win.  The “will” part always requires a certain application of features that have little to do with the quality of the nominee: Will a Tony help the show in touring and will the voters with touring connection carry the voting? Is there a certain sentimentality or feeling of respect for the nominee?  Is the show still running so the Tony might effect box-office or be fresh in the mind of the voters?  Occasionally I cheat on the “will” category, predicting two possible winners.  The “should,” of course, is entirely my own assessment of the category.  Unfortunately, there were probably performances or achievements that I feel should have been nominated but were not.  With a few exceptions, rather than question the nomination process (and there is certainly room for that), I stick to only those who were nominated.  Finally, I see almost all the shows that play Broadway, but, at times, various factors prevent me from seeing production: scheduling, cost, and, yes, personal taste.  I will note those missed shows.

Best Play

Going into the nominations, it appeared one play was a sure bet.  The Ferryman has been a favorite and deservedly so.  Jaz Butterworth’s portrait of a Northern Ireland extended family in the later days of the IRA conflict is certainly the best play by him that I have ever seen.  The production directed by Sam Mendes is absorbing and the original cast was truly remarkable (including a live baby and an equally alive goose).  While I had a few reservations about the handling of the IRA elements, it was a moving and engrossing drama.  Of late, there has been a lot of buzz about What the Constitution Means to Me that transferred to Broadway after two successful runs Off-Broadway.  The nomination of Heidi Schreck’s autobiographical argument that the U.S. Constitution has failed to adequately protect women has taken on political steam.  Ms. Schreck’s analysis is right on the button and particularly relevant in light of “#Me Too” and recent legislation aimed at reversing Roe v. Wade.  But as theatre, “What Means” is more of an agitprop rather than a fully realized play.  It makes its points by revisiting Ms. Schreck’s childhood debate competitions on the Constitution and ends with a contemporary debate – partially written, partially improvised – between Ms. Schreck and a teenage challenger. 

The strangest nominee is Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by performance artist Taylor Mac.  This a combination farce and satire that finds two lowly Romans cleaning up the mess of bodies left at the end of Shakespeare’s violent first tragedy. This might have been a very entertaining comedy were it not for George C. Wolfe’s surprisingly misguided direction.  The characters spend the entire 90 minutes yelling at each other and that gets quite tiring after about 15 minutes.  There is no sense of the rhythm or structure of farce in Wolfe’s interpretation and even two comic giants, Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen, cannot overcome the director’s excesses (e.g., for some strange reason, the Roman clown played by Lane has a cockney accent). In any other season, Ink, a lively and fascinating retelling of Rupert Murdock’s initial venture into British media in collaboration with his ruthless editor, Larry Lamb, would be a winner.  The production, directed by Rupert Goold and first produced by London’s Almeida Theatre, is full of telling observations and lots of theatricality with amazing performances by two of Britain’s best, Bertie Carvel and John Lee Miller.  A worthy runner-up!

It is interesting that neither of the adaptations of movies (and a novel) were nominated as best play.  Both “Network” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” were not nominated, even though both productions received multiple nominations in other categories.

Should: The Ferryman

Will: The Ferryman

(Note: I saw one of the nominees, Choir Boy, in its Off-Broadway production several years ago at the Manhattan Theatre Club, it’s Broadway producer.)

Best Musical

This category is a competition between utter originality and wonderful traditionalism. It’s tough to predict which will win out, although the outcome could be related to touring marketability and one good show attracting votes from another good show.  Hadestown is a remarkable achievement.  I fell in love with it several years ago in its acclaimed Off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop, one of NYC’s premiere developmental theatre companies.  It started out as a cult concept album by Anais Mitchel, a sort of folk opera telling of the Greek myth, Orpheus and Eurydice, merged with the story of the King of Hades and his wife, Persephone.  The NYTW production was an intimate and moving modern portrait of the lovers’ battle to save themselves from the tyrannical ruler of Hell. After it’s downtown run, it moved to a regional theatre in England and, eventually, in a greatly expanded production, to the National Theatre in London and a run in the West End.  Throughout its development, director Rachel Chavkin collaborated with Ms. Mitchel and the result is a truly original and fascinating show like no other you have ever seen.  For that successful originality, Hadestown is both my “should” and “will,” although that is hardly a reliable prediction.  There are two other very traditional shows in the running that could defeat the unusual, Tootsie and The Prom.  Of course, the former is an adaptation of the classic film and it is the level of success in adapting the original that puts it into the running.  Frankly, entering the theatre I expected another disappointing effort to make money off of the original’s popularity (think “Pretty Woman”).  But Robert Horn’s book is so full of laugh-outloud lines and skillful avoidance of the potentially negative contemporary political offenses of the original that it is that rare movie adaptation that feels fresh.  At times, that reworking is supported by David Yazbeck’s music and lyrics.  Mr. Yazbeck, whose extraordinary score for “The Band’s Visit” helped drive it to winning 11 Tonys last year, is most successful in the songs related to character development (a la Band’s Visit), but his production numbers come off a bit too traditional to match the book’s success. 

If Hadestown does not win, I would be perfectly happy to see The Prom take the award.  This original musical tells the story of four long-ago famous Broadway stars trying recapture their coverage in the media by traveling to a small town in Indiana to support a lesbian high school student who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom.  This is a show with a very funny book and lots of attractive music to support its portrait of the washed-up actors and the efforts to convert the town to support the young gay couple (a bit of a stretch for Indiana).  It’s full of jokes about Broadway (the principal implores the actors to remember that “there are straight people who like musicals”).   The company is uniformly strong and the production numbers are lots of fun.  However, both Tootsie and The Prom could fall victim to one of the uncontrollable factors in voting by theatre professionals: they could attract votes from each other allowing Hadetown to take its rightful place as “Best Musical.”

Best Revival of a Play

For me, there is only one choice, but there is certainly competition.  Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons was an insightful and harrowing production as relevant today as it was when it was written just after WWII.  I had always seen Miller’s play as a good, but not quite great, play.  But veteran director Jack O’Brien and a stellar cast headed by Annette Benning, Tracy Letts, and Benjamin Walker showed me things I had never noticed in Miller’s critique of responsibility in “military industrial complex” years before that phrase became an American idiom.  It’s a great example of Miller’s skill in humanizing the effect of the external on the internal.  Almost every element of this production was pitch perfect, capturing the audience in the struggles of its characters to live with their past.  Two other shows have a reasonable chance of winning. The revival of The Boys in Band last summer was a startling look at the portrayal of gays, historically and currently.  Mart Crowley’s play, the first to celebrate and comment on the life of urban homosexuals circa the 1960s, has been the subject of admiration and rejection by the gay community for 50 years.  This star-studded revival won praise both from the press and the gay community.  In those 50 years, the gay culture moved from closets to pride parades and the current proliferation of gay-based plays made Mr. Crowley’s biting portrait of pre-Stonewall life appear to be just one more historical snap-shot.  While the production had “sparkle,” figuratively and literally, the editing of the text into a one-act, 90 minute piece greatly reduced the power of the destructive game played by the characters, originally the full subject of the second act.

There is some “buzz” that The Waverly Gallery might be a dark horse winner. Frankly, I was puzzled by the warm reception received by this revival of the play by Kenneth Lonergan.  It’s the story of family and acquaintances dealing with the progression of an aged Village art dealer into dementia.  I did not find many interesting insights and the performances were generally “workable” (see Best Actress comments below).  The revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, no longer a “trilogy” but a skillfully edited two-acter, was wonderful with Michael Urie when I saw it Off-Broadway last year.  But its transfer to Broadway could not find an audience and it closed long before anticipated.  I did not see the other nominee, Burn This, with a critically acclaimed powerful performance by Adam Driver.

This is a tough category to predict a winner.  The “buzz” around The Waverly Place is significant, if undeserved.  Boys in the Band has a chance; it is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and NYC is planning a big celebration in theatres and on the streets.  All My Sons received raves from every mainstream critic except Jesse Green in The Times.  It’s produced by a not-for-profit which can be a disadvantage in a competition with for-profit voters.  So my “will win” is more a matter of hope than expectation — and it’s still running, usually an advantage, even for the profitless.

Should: All; My Sons

Will: All My Sons

Best Revival of a Musical

This year’s “competition” demonstrates the disadvantage of limiting the nominees to Broadway productions.  There are only two nominees because there were only two Broadway revivals and one was a transfer from an Off-Broadway production.  Both are the products of not-for-profits.  Kiss Me, Kate, produced by Roundabout Theatre, is a great revival of a musical that fails to live up to its reputation. Not surprisingly, Kelli O’Hara gives a smashing performance as the title character; not so much so for Will Chase’s Petruchio.  But some of the tamed fire in Chase’s performance is due to director Scott Ellis’ efforts to tone down the shows inescapable misogyny. For me, the real fault in this production is the show itself.  Written several years after Rodgers and Hammerstein along with Agnes de Mille changed musical theatre by integrating all of the elements of the show — book, music, and dance.  Kiss Me, Kate plays like a 1930s musical where the musical numbers are only tangentially related to the plot and the book is paper thin.

Ironically, the other nominee is a rethinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ground-breaking creation, Oklahoma!.  This production originated at Bard College’s summer festival a few years back and was revived at the always experimental St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall before transferring to Broadway’s only theatre-in-the-round, Circle in the Square.  This is a remarkable production, stripped of the usual dazzle typical of traditional musicals.  Instead, this Oklahoma! is played amazingly realistically — with the realism and down-to-earth viewpoint of its inspiration, Lynn Riggs’ “Green Grow the Lilacs.”  The cast is small and they are all more actors than singers and dancers. Ado Annie is played convincingly by Ali Stroker, a person with a disability in a wheelchair.  This new take on this classic lets the audience see the brilliance of Hammerstein’s book and especially his lyrics.  This is a portrait of the American push to the West and this production allows this musical to be worth looking at anew.

Should: Oklahoma!

Will: Oklahoma!

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

If Hadestown does not win this award, there is no justice.  Original, frequently hummable, and full of insight, Anais Mitchell has joined a genre that has not been on Broadway for a very long time: a folk-opera.  As noted above, both The Prom and Tootsie have workable, and at times distinctive, music, but neither even attempts the level of sophistication and inventiveness of Hadestown.  There is a possible sleeper in this category, Be More Chill. I did not see this show and the critics were not kind, but it’s a very popular show with the millennials, giving it an audience in spite of its negative critical reception and the usual demographics of audiences for Broadway musicals.  Another oddity is the nomination of To Kill a Mockingbird in this category.  “Mockingbird” is a straight play with incidental music; frankly, I saw this production and have no memory of the incidental music.  Composer Adam Geuttel is considered a Broadway composer and his musical fame rests largely on “The Light in the Pliazza.” I can only guess that the nominating committee wanted to recognize a line of composers usually ignored at theatre awards. (Note: I have not seen the other nominee, Beetlejuice.)

Should:  Hadestwon

Will: Hadestown

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

This is a stiff competition. Paddy Considine, as the would-be master of the house in The Ferryman,” was fascinating and multi-dimensioned.  Playwright Jaz Butterworth is always more interested in character than plot and Considine fulfilled that interest.  Jeff Daniels was competent as Atticus Finch but unfortunately he falls into the trap of playing a character made famous by one of Hollywood’s greatest, Gregory Peck — he’s no Gregory Peck.  But Daniels does not fail because of Peck’s shadow.  He is a good actor with good instincts.  But Atticus Finch has to have a sort of charisma.  We have to be drawn to him for reasons we cannot explain, even though the play (movie and book) gives us lots of obvious reasons to like this southern small town lawyer.  It was recently announced that Richard Thomas will head the cast of the national tour of “Mockingbird.”  While he’s no Gregory Peck either, he has a natural charm and earthiness that could make the tour especially attractive.  For me, the best performance was unquestionably Bryan Cranston as the dangerously disenfranchised anchorman, Howard Beale.  This is another role for which the actor has to overcome the memory of an Oscar wining performance, in this case by Peter Finch. Unlike Daniels, Cranston succeeds in flying (but disturbing) colors.  Seeing this play, I kept thinking about the brilliance of the original author, Patty Chayevsky. Forty-five years ago he predicted exactly where we are today in the world of media.  Cranston clearly recognizes the contemporary relevance and Ivo van Hove’s production gives him the unrestrained environment that makes Beale’s excesses not only credible but also terribly distressing.  The prediction of “will win” is tough.  Daniels certainly has a good chance as does Jeremy Pope who gave a wrenching performance in “Choir Boy,” especially if Cranston and Daniels cross each other out in the voting.

Should: Brian Cranston

Will: Paddy Considine

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Another tight race!  For me, Annette Benning gave the most remarkable performance among the nominees.  She took a character that is usually portrayed as the moping mommy incapable of confronting the truth and turned her into a controlling “master of the house,” largely responsible for the suffering of her family and her husband’s deserved guilt.  But I will be surprised if Elaine May does not win for her portrayal of the art dealer with dimentia in “The Waverly Place.”  Ms. May is a legend on Broadway dating from her early years as Mike Nichols comic partner.  Her performance received critical acclaim, although I found it to be one dimensional and bland when it should have created empathy for the characters trying to interact with her.  The other strong competitor is Heidi Schreck in her almost single character performance in “What the Constitution Means to Me.”  Many of the voting factors I noted in this play’s “Best Play” competition apply to Ms. Schreck’s performance, as do the the negative aspects that I noted.  She certainly believes in what she is saying and she turns her play into imploring the audience to see things as she does.  Yes, her analysis is correct and timely, but does that justify such a “hammer in the head” performance?  Laurie Metcalf is in a misguided and ever so superficial portrait of the Hillary and Bill Clinton written by the promising playwright Lucas Hnath.  She has won Tonys two years in a row (Hnath’s “The Dolls House. pt 2” and Albee’s “Three Tall Women”).  So it’s fair to assume that even though her performance is up to her high standard, she is unlikely to get three in a row.  However, she is the reigning queen of theatre on Broadway. 

Should: Annette Benning

Will: Elaine May

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

I have little doubt that Santino Fontana will win for “Tootsie.” He also was faced with the shadow of an amazing film performance by Dustin Hoffman.  He also had to “tame” the character so as not to offend the current audience members.  This was another competent but, to me, not particularly impressive performance.  Yes, he sang like a woman and landed the carefully crafted funny lines, but this was a character with very little character.  This was most telling when he was not talking; he always seemed to be waiting for next line rather responding to the various eccentricities of the other characters.  Damon Daunno acted the part of Curly in “Oklahoma!” convincingly, giving us a much more realistic view of a cowboy in the emerging state.  But his voice just was not up to the Richard Rodgers challenge.  Some would suggest that his insecure range contributed to the realism, but for me, it was a distraction.  I did not see either “Ain’t Too Proud (the Temptations music-box) or the musical adaptation of “Beetlejuice,” so I cannot comment on Derrick Baskin or Alex Brightman respecitively.  However, Brooks Ashmanskas was a joy in “The Prom.”  He conquered a very unique challenge; he had to play an ultra-swishy aging gay man without offending swishy aging gay men or unfairly reenforcing a stereotype.  His performance was so funny and always so on-the-mark that I had little time or desire to think about what this role on Broadway says about gay people, swishy or not.  While all four actors portraying actors were wonderful, Ashmanskas’ performance was charming and truly memorable.

Should: Brooks Ashmanskas

Will: Santino Fontana

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

For me, there are no standouts for this category.  Kelli O’Hara was her usual knockout self in “Kiss Me Kate,” almost singularly responsible for the revival’s popularity. Caitlin Kinnunen

as the persecuted lesbian in “The Prom” was endearing but the role was more of a motivation for others to shine than a probing portrait of the challenges a young gay person faces.  Beth Leavel was lots of fun as one of the egocentric actors in “The Prom,” but there was very little to compete with Brooks Ashmanskas’ “queen of the night.”  I did not see “The Cher Show” but friends and critics raved about Stephanie J. Block’s insightful portrait of the pop star and she is likely to win.

Should: No preference

Will: Stephanie J. Block

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

There is really no competiition in this category.  Bertie Carvel’s portrayal of the young Rupert Murdock won the Olivier Award in London and almost assuredly (and deservedly) will win the Tony in New York. Carvel gives fascinating dimension to a person we usually see as simply a villain.  James Graham’s script shows Murdock in conflict between his business instincts and his dwindling humanity and Carvel makes that conflict believable, even to those who loath the “mature” Murdock.  Robin De Jesus was truly wonderful as the ultra-queen in “Boys in the Band,” but the production is only a memory now.  Gideon Glick was as good as can be expected from an adult actor playing a young boy in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but the “adults as children” in this production was acceptable but not totally convincing.  Benjamin Walker as the surviving son in “All My Sons” was very good and were it not for Carvel’s performance, he might be my favorite. 

Should: Bertie Carvel

Will: Bertie Carvel

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

This a particularly rich category.  Fionnula Flannagan is both funny and ingratiating as the dementia stricken Aunt Maggie Far Away in “The Ferryman.”  She elicits very real empathy from the audience.  Celia Keenan-Bolger overcomes the challenges of an adult playing a young girl as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The audience comes into this play with a preexisting picture of what Scout should be and Keenan-Bolger fulfills that expectation.  Two masters of comedy are nominated from the messy production of “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus.”  Kristine Nielsen can make the dullest comic line hilarious by the simple contortions of her face and she certainly uses that skill liberally as Janice, the experienced clean-up woman.  But as noted above, George C. Wolfe’s direction forces the actors to overplay every aspect of the script.  It should be noted that Andrea Martin was originally scheduled to play Janice, but dropped out due to an injury. Martin’s name appeared above the title making Janice a major character (versus “featured”). But for some reason, Nielsen was reduced to a supporting character even though the character is on stage through the whole production and is no less a leading character than Lane’s clown.  The other “Gary” nominee, Julie White, is the likely winner and that would not disappoint me.  For some reason, she does not scream all of the time and her petite commentaries at the beginning of the play and toward the end are thoroughly entertaining.  There is lots of buzz around Ms. White and is likely to win. The strangest nominee comes from one of the strangest casting choices of the season, Ruth Wilson in “King Lear” played both Cordelia, daughter of Lear, and the fool. There were so many bad choices in Sam Gold’s production that trying to figure the point of this dual assignment is  pointless. 

Should: Fionnula Flannagan or Julie White

Will: Julie White

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

This is another rich category and unfortunately I did not see two of the performances in “Ain’t too Proud”: Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes.  Andy Grotelueschen is the perfect roommate, Jeff, in “Tootsie” and he has one the show’s most entertaining musical numbers at the start of the second act, “Jeff Sums It Up.”  This is a stereotypical role — the true pal — but Grotelueschen makes the most of it.  Patrick Page has an amazing lower range, a true basso profondo, and that deep sound provides most of his strength as the King Hades in “Hadestown.”  On the other-hand, Andre De Shields’ jazzy vocals and ultra-smooth movement provides a rhythm and sparkle to the show’s narration as “Hadestown’s” Hermes.  He is a a living legend and his performance confirms that the legend is alive and well at 73 years.

Should: Andre De Shields

Will: Andre De Shields

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Lillie Cooper plays the role originated by Jessica Lange in the movie of “Tootsie,” Julie Nichols, the woman that Tootsie begins to see romantically.  Ms. Cooper plays the “straight woman” to Fontana’s drag well, but the performance is not that special.  On the other hand, Sarah Styles eats up the franticness of Sandy Lester, Tootsie’s former girlfriend, and her songs are delivered with crazed humor.  Amber Gray has gotten a lot of praise and buzz for her performance as Persephone, Hades’ frustrated wife.  She certainly knows how to sell a number and steal the scene — there’s no subtlety in her performance.  For me, the real competition is between Ali Stroker and Mary Testa in “Oklahoma!”  Ms. Testa is a favorite of mine and she is a perfect choice for Aunt Eller.  Her performance is probably the closest to the usual take on an “Oklahoma!” character in a production that consistently breaks with tradition.  It is Ali Stroker who best represents the total rethinking of this classic.  Her Ado Annie is in a wheel-chair but has all of the pep and uncontrollable “can’t say no” energy this role requires.  Yes, at first you say “Ado Annie in a wheel-chair?” But a few minutes into her performance, you just see a great Ado Annie.

Should: Ali Stroker

Will: Ali Stroker

Best Scenic Design of a Play

All of the nominees produced interesting and supportive designs. Rob Howell’s unit set for “The Ferryman” gave a true feeling of the locale and social status of struggling Northern Ireland farmers.  Santo Loquasto designed the stacks of bodies in “Gary” with a sense of absurdism that matched Taylor Mac’s farcical humor.  Miram Buether’s flexible design for “To Kill a Mockingbird” served Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation well, but it was not particularly distinctive. The two remaining nominees are my favorites.  Jan Versweyveld’s unit set for “Network” was possibly the most active unit set I have ever experienced.  Views of the control room, a small dining area, a fully operational studio room, and projections gave a real sense of the environment and matched the size and frenzy of the uncontrollable central character.  But for me, the most creative and informative set was Bunny Christie’s piled up newsrooms for “Ink.”  The stacked remnants of tradition news rooms gave a sense of the chaotic nature of the play’s action and set an appropriate environment for the play’s unusual style (e.g., dancing reporters vs. intimate cafe scenes).

Should: Bunny Christie

Will: Bunny Christie or Santo Loquasto

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Once again there are two shows in the running that I did not see: “Beetlejuice” and “Ain’t Too Proud” and my guess is that Beetlejuice is certainly in the running.  “Oklahoma!” had very little in the way of a set, part of the show’s charm.  The few elements that Laura Jellinek provided were very supportive of the style of the production. The Tony nominators have taken the unusual step of announcing ahead of the awards show a special Tony for the creators of the monster in “King Kong.”  Since that mega-puppet is the main attraction of this otherwise boring musical, and the sets look like the 1930s styles of the original movie, Peter England’s set in not distinctive — but what a monster!  For me, the “Hadestown” set by Rachel Hauck deserves Tony recognition.  It’s another unit set with moving parts that beautifully supports the action of the show.

Should: Rachel Hauck

Will: Rachel Hauck or ???

Best Direction of a Play

It’s tough to distinguish among several truly remarkable works by directors.  For me, “Ink,” “The Ferryman” and “Network” were each lessons in fine directing.  Unfortunately, the director I would give the directing award to was not even nominated: Jack O’Brian for “All My Sons.”  His production left me literally breathless.  Bartlett Sher did what Bartlett Sher does best for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Even though this is a play about a horrible injustice, Sher brought a tone of sentimentality to this production, sort of pandering to an audience that has loved this book and movie for generations. Sam Mendes gave “The Ferryman” a moving sense of time and place.  The emphasis in Butterworth’s writing is on characters and Mendes knows how to bring out the true souls of his actors. Ivo van Hove is one of those “love him” or “hate him” artists and I am happily a member of the former group.  The challenge here was to create a theatrical telling of a story that the audience knew very well from its classic film.  Working with his production team from his home-base in Amsterdam, he created a fascinating sense of the current excesses of media superstars.  Yes, he goes overboard occasionally, like a live video broadcast from the street near the Belasco Theatre, but then this is a play about being overboard.  For me, Rupert Goold’s direction of “Ink” made this play a fascinating and entertaining portrait of a time and place that continues to distort and pander to our weaknesses.  The success of a new play frequently requires a productive collaboration between the playwright and the director.  It is clear that the collaboration between Goold and playwright Graham blossomed in the original production at London’s Almeida Theatre and continued in the Manhattan Theatre Club transfer.

Should: Rupert Goold

Will: Sam Mendes

Best Direction of a Musical

There are three strong contenders in this category: Casey Nicholaw for “The Prom;” Daniel Fish for “Oklahoma!” Rachel Chavkin for “Hadestown.”  Casey Nicholaw proved that an old-fashioned musical with a contemporary twist could still entertain a Broadway musical audience.  “The Prom” does slow down during the second act, but Nicholaw’s energetic choreography and sleek comedic sense in direction make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.  Rachel Chavkin has shepherded “Hadestown” from a small Off-Broadway adaptation of a cult concept album to a full-scale Broadway extravaganza.  What is most amazing about her collaboration with composer Anais Mitchell is her ability to rethink and expand each iteration.  But for me, the most remarkable achievement in musical direction this year is Daniel Fish’s reimagining of “Oklahoma!”  Last year we had a luke-warm restaging of “Carousel” that could have left a young theatre goer saying “what is all the fuss about?”  Fish’s realistic, scaled down “Oklahoma!” is exactly the type of new wave that rethinks “the old wave” that should stimulate future productions of classics.  A remarkable achievement.

Should: Daniel Fish

Will: Rachel Chavkin or Casey Nicholaw

(Note: Did not see “Ain’t Too Proud” and was not impressed by Scott Ellis’ work on “Tootsie”)

 Posted by at 4:00 pm
Dec 062018
 

Network adapted by Lee Hall based on Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay

At the Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street

BS Rating: A-

Show-Score Rating: 90

“Network,” at the Belasco Theater, is based on the famous (dare I say infamous) 1976 film. However Lee Hall’s faithful but pointed adaptation and Ivo Van Howe’s elaborate electronic production is definitely a work for a 2018 audience.  It’s tough to disassociate this multimedia extravaganza from the original movie.  They both clearly share one thing in common: the vision of Patty Chayefsky.  There is much talk about the play’s central character as “a prophet.”  The real prophet is Mr. Chayefsky.  In the mid-1970s he saw where our media and, more generally, corporate amalgamation were going.  Over forty years later, his vision has become our reality. 

Initially, I was put off by the extremely contemporary media used in this production — while the adaptation maintains the original period, the television equipment and the complex use of multimedia is very 2018. But, as the play progressed, that dichotomy became a central part of this production’s message.  We are living out Chayefsky’s predictions — a news media that is so personality-based that those personalities can tell us the news as they want to see it, not necessarily based on any objective journalistic ethics.  Those audience members who expected a timely allegorical commentary from the very disappointing production of “1984” last year will discover in Mr. Chayefsky’s 1976 vision a much more accurate reflection of the current threat that global corporate mergers pose to democracy — think who owns CBS or ABC and what is the risk of  mergers like Time-Warner with Charter Communications or Sinclair Broadcasting’s expansions.

Ivo Van Howe, whose directing style previously has seemed to lean toward minimalism, uses the anachronisms of 2018 technology in a play set in the time of Gerald Ford to make this production address the time of Donald Trump. However, until a post-curtain call slide show of past presidents, Mr. Van Howe keeps the play focused on the effect of personality-based news coverage and the threat of global capitalism with no overt references to our current morass.

As expected, Bryan Cranston is phenomenal as the mentally unbalanced Howard Beale.  In the space of two hours, he portrays a reasonable man losing his touch with reality just as his faithful and enthusiastic fans are seeing him as their only source for reality (sound familiar?).  Cranston is an actor who seems to have a special talent for portraying charismatic figures, a few seasons ago as LBJ and now as the ultimate blind-leading-the-blind newscaster.

Appropriately, the rest of the very good cast are overshadowed by Mr. Cranston’s persona.  Tony Goldwyn as Beale’s producer, Max Schumacher, provides a convincing man of ethics caught in the swirl of changes.  Tatiana Maslany embodies the producer who sees her only function as raising ratings to generate more advertising money. Unfortunately, the subplot of her romantic affair with Max requires such a different tone from the production’s media saturation that their attraction to each other is less than believable and their romance is more of a distraction in the play than an added dimension. Alyssa Bresnahan, as Max’s wife, suffers a similar fate, although both actors performances are perfectly credible. 

Mr. Von Howe has cast two African American actors as the chief corporate executives, one a remnant of the past management that never saw news as a money-making endeavor, the other a disciple of the new generation that insists that news become a cash-cow.  While we would expect to see high-level black executives in a play set in 2018, their presence in a 1976 setting is another one of those anachronistic dichotomies that forces us to see this production as timely and prophetic.  Both Ron Canada as the old-timer and Joshua Boone as the brash voice of the future are perfect representations of our times.

When the play reaches the pinnacle portrayal of Beale’s nightly campaign rally posing as news, the current New York audiences willfully join in shouting Mr. Chayefsky’s most memorable line: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  And mad they are.  Unfortunately (spoiler alert), an act of violence puts an end to the chaos caused by Howard Beale’s rantings — or does it? We see the public’s willingness to give themselves over to distortions of reality when reality itself is distorted or ignored.  “Network” does not give us much guidance for getting out of our current situation, but it is an insightful (and entertaining) portrait of the problem.

 Posted by at 11:12 pm
Oct 022018
 

Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan

At The Public Theater at Astor Place

BS rating: A+

Show-Score rating: 95

A thing of beauty wrapped in sadness – that’s the musical “Girl from the North Country” written and directed by Conor McPherson with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan currently at the Public Theater.  It is that rarest of productions where everything comes together to create a work of art that is engaging, insightful, and chillingly beautiful.

Mr. McPherson has created a moving portrait of life in the heart of America at the height of the Great Depression.  Set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (Mr. Dylan’s hometown) in 1934, the play introduces us to thirteen characters, each struggling to make a life for themselves in the face of financial disaster and personal hardships.

Nick Lane, the proprietor of the boarding house, is facing mortgage foreclosure, and his wife, Elizabeth, is losing her mind as she ages.  His son, Gene, is a would-be, but never published, writer who, like so many classic writers, buries his failures in “the bottle.”  The Lanes have an adopted daughter named Marrianne, a black child that was left in a suitcase at the boarding house 20 years ago. In the face of losing his business, Nick tries to interest Marrianne in a local merchant who is three times her age.

Their current guests include Mr. and Mrs. Burke and their grown son, Elias, who suffers from autism nine years before that disability was named and recognized as a separate and complex condition. Mrs. Neilsen, recently widowed, is anxiously waiting for $3,000 once probate on her late husband’s will is settled.  During her extended stay in Duluth, she and Mr. Lane have developed an illicit affair, allowing them to dream of a better life when her money comes through, if it comes through.

Joe Scott is an African-American former boxer who claims to have been wrongly incarcerated based on prejudicial testimony regarding a crime he did not commit.  Reverend Marlowe travels the Mid-West hawking bibles and occasionally falling from grace with drink and bad deeds.  The local physician is Dr. Walker with a history of prescribing himself the types of medication that make him feel good, at least for a while.

The play spans a few months as the challenges of the times close in on these struggling individuals.  It is surprising that an Irish playwright has so insightfully captured these classic victims of this dark period in American history, although the Irish are no strangers to a history of financial ruin.  Each character is so well fleshed out that by the end of the play you feel like you know these people and can empathize with their dilemmas.

What is even more amazing is the way McPherson has integrated the music of Bob Dylan into the stories of these troubled people.  If you entered the theatre not knowing that the music and lyrics were by one of America’s most celebrated folk singers, you would feel like you had found a new composer who could create lovely melodies with lyrics that expand the meaning of the play and comfortably fit the characters singing those songs. The music has been arranged and orchestrated by Simon Hale in a variety of styles to match the mood of the moment.  If you are someone who is not a Dylan fan, or at least not a fan of the way our folk legend sings his music, fear not; each song is beautifully sung, frequently backed-up by ensembles silhouetted at the rear of the stage.

For example, when the struggling young writer, Gene, discovers his girlfriend has accepted the marriage proposal of a more stable suitor, he sings “I Want You So Bad,” an ode to a rejected lover.

The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you

I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you

The boy’s father, Nick, about to lose his home and income, torn between a mentally deranged wife and a dream of better life with a woman who can bail him out, sings “What Can I Do for You?”

Soon as a man is born, you know the sparks begin to fly
He gets wise in his own eyes and he’s made to believe a lie
Who would deliver him from the death he’s bound to die?
Well, You’ve done it all and there’s no more anyone can pretend to do
What can I do for You?

I am usually leery of plays directed by their author.  Most productions benefit from the “new eyes” of an independent director.  But Mr. McPherson frequently directs his plays (as well movies) to much acclaim.  This production has a unity and ethos in which every element seems to come together to paint a vivid picture of these people and their trials.  The style fluctuates between realistic scenes and musical numbers that either grow out of, or comment upon, the action presented as if they were in a country-music concert hall.  A narrator fills in details.  Actors move from playing their characters to becoming backup ensemble singers seamlessly.

Rae Smith’s sets and costumes have just enough detail to suggest who and where we are while maintaining a certain sense of universality.  A false proscenium and foot lights suggests we are seeing some type of staged performance, perhaps a musical review.  The scenery is appropriately suggestive of small-town America in the ‘30s.  The lighting by Mark Henderson is atmospheric. Movement director Lucy Hind keeps the limited choreography simple and organic for small town Minnesotans in the middle of the 20th century. Together, these elements create a truly unified work of art.

This show is a remarkable achievement.  At times it sends chills down your spine and at other times it brings you to tears. You feel for these people and identify with their challenges.  The music expands our understanding and connects us with these people and their situations.  The cast is uniformly perfect.  There is no need to single out anyone; they are all terrific.

As I left The Public, I started to think there must be something special about their Newman Theater, the original home to “Hamilton” and “Fun Home.” Both of those shows took musical theatre into unexplored territory and became mega-hits.  Add “Girl from the North Country” to that theatre’s history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Posted by at 12:24 am
Sep 272018
 

The Nap by Richard Bean

At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on 47th Street

BS Score Rating: A

Show-Score Rating: 95

The Nap, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, is a rare occurrence on Broadway these days – it’s a comedy.  And it is very, very funny. The recent death of America’s all-time master of comedy in the theatre, Neil Simon, provoked a lot of reflections on why pure comedies have become such persona-non-grata on the Great White Way. There are plenty of plays that use humor in the pursuit of their seriousness.  But playwrights whose highest goal is to make an audience laugh have a tough time getting produced on Broadway.

Leave it to the British to remind us of what we are missing.  If we ignore musicals, Richard Bean, The Nap’s playwright, was responsible for one of the few pure comedies to make it to the “hit” level on Broadway in recent memory, One Man, Two Guvnors.  While that play was a brilliant adaptation of a classic farce by the 18th century Italian playwright, Carlo Goldoni, The Nap is totally original and thoroughly modern.

Dylan Spokes is a working-class youth whose only goal in life is to win the Worldwide Snooker Championship in Sheffield, England, and he’s pretty good with a cue.  Snooker is a little-known sport in “the colonies,” but this variation on pool has become an international fascination beyond its roots in Great Britain.  Don’t worry, you do not need to know anything about this foreign sport to enjoy this play; the basic concept of the game is explained, and the actual game-playing is a very small part of the action.

What is a major part of the action is a sort of thriller that tests Dylan’s integrity. I will not spoil the fun of the play to provide too many details here, but a transsexual friend of Dylan’s family, and his mother’s lover before the transition, schemes to make a killing by betting on a round of snooker that Dylan will intentionally lose.  Meanwhile, a governmental inspector and a dull-witted snooker expert are investigating Dylan because there was an unusually large wager on one of his recent competitions and they suspect he might have been in cahoots with the people betting on him. When Dylan refuses to compromise his integrity and, in fact, collaborates with the investigators, things get complicated.

Mr. Bean has populated his play with a classic set of comic characters.  Waxy Bush is the transsexual who has a lot of trouble choosing the right word, a sort Mrs. Malaprop.  “I am nothing if not an optometrist,” she explains. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Bean has given this character such a debasing name; otherwise, happily, he never seeks laughs based on Ms. Bush’s sexual identity. The governmental inspector appears to be the type of British authority we would see on one of those serial mystery shows on PBS, until she becomes sexually attracted to the man she is supposed to be investigating.  When she lets her guard down, she explains, “I went from being a pole dancer to the national crime unit – It must have been genetic. My dad was a fireman.”  Dylan’s father is a former criminal on the mend who consistently belittles his son.  Dylan’s manager is a loud-mouthed buffoon who can’t even manage his wardrobe.

The performances are uniformly top notch.  Alexandra Billings is hilarious as Ms. Bush.  John Ellison Conlee is appropriately lethargic as Dylan’s dad.  Heather Lind plays the inspector/lover with aplomb. Dylan’s snooker opponent really knows how to play the game; Ahmed Aly Elsayed is a two-time champion of American snooker.  And at the center, usually functioning as the straight-man, is Ben Schnetzer as Dylan, making us truly feel for a committed and competitive player who gets caught up in a conspiracy to force him to choose between his life-long goal and his relations with family and friends.

Daniel Sullivan, one of Broadway’s most experienced directors, knows how to stage comedy and he has made the British elements totally understandable for an American audience.  The sets by David Rockwell are particularly impressive, flying in four realistic three-walled environments.  The dialect coach, Ben Furey, has made the American actors into authentic Brits.

The real hero of this production is Mr. Bean.  He has intertwined a hilarious comedy with a thriller filled with surprises.  What more could we ask of a play designed to simply entertain? Pure comedy is back on Broadway.

 

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Sep 182018
 

Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts by Anton Chekhov

Translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

At the Hunter College Frederick Lowe Theater, 68th and Park Avenue

BS Score Rating: C-

Show-Score Rating: 65

Richard Nelson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” is disappointing, not so much for the translation of the Russian master’s play but for the production Mr. Nelson has directed on the Frederick Lowe stage at Hunter College.  Chekhov’s “scenes from country life in four acts” (the play’s subtitle) is full of humor and emotional angst as seven residents of a rural estate grapple with their inability to find happiness.  This production lacks the humor and the emotional clout that makes Chekhov’s work so fascinating.

Mr. Nelson was hailed as a sort of American Chekhov when his two family cycles, the Gabriels and Apple Family, were produced at The Public Theater.  Those plays, three in one cycle and four in the other, focused on everyday middle-class family challenges framed around the dates of current major political events, the Obama years and the 2016 election.  They were quiet plays that focused on small talk that revealed underlying tensions and frustrations – very Chekhovian.

So, the connection between this playwright/director’s recent successes and this production of Chekhov’s classic is quite clear.  Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson has carried over to this Chekhov production one of the elements of the family series that made those plays so special, but also made them a challenge for many audience members.  The actors speak at normal voice levels, that is, they do not project their lines.  So, it is quite difficult to even hear what the actors are saying, particularly when they are facing in another direction in this theatre-in-the-round setting.

In interviews, Mr. Nelson has contended that this style makes the play more realistic – the people speak as real people speak.  He even suggests that the audience’s struggle to simply hear the actors is productive, forcing the audience to pay closer attention.  Alas, the effect for Uncle Vanya is quite the opposite.  The battle to hear was a massive distraction.  In fact, the style was quite unrealistic.  Each of the characters is going through a disturbing self-assessment, but each shows little emotion in their voice or gesture.  Much of the play’s humor relies on the logical fallacies that each character utters. But with Mr. Nelson’s muttered voices, the play is stripped of its desired effect upon the audience.  BTW – Any well-trained actor is fully capable of projecting his/her voice without losing the tone of natural conversation.

Two of the actors from the Public Theater’s family series appear in this production.  Jay O. Sanders conquers the restrictions of the production’s style to provide a full-blown and thoroughly interesting portrait of the title character.  Similarly, Jon Devries, another Apple family veteran, commands the stage as the aging professor with a beautiful, and surprisingly young, wife

Jesse Pennington is terribly miscast as Mikhail Astrov, the country doctor buried in alcohol and plagued by his conservationist beliefs.  His speech is particularly difficult to understand; but, more significantly, he never convinces the audience that his is a troubled soul searching for his identity – a major flaw in the production.  Yvonne Woods, as the marriageable but plain daughter of the professor, and Celeste Arias, as the professor’s young wife, both suffer from the totally bland style Mr. Nelson has imposed on the play.  Their interactions become indecipherable.

Mr. Nelson clearly has a feel for this play.  The adaptation, translated in collaboration with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, very effectively captures Chekhov’s characters’ musings with a sense of contemporary language.  The actors are in modern dress.  All of the action is set up around a non-descript dining area reinforcing the present-day approach.  This simplicity is at the core of Mr. Nelson’s style and it works very well for Chekhov’s portrait of lost souls.  Mr. Nelson has elected to have no intermission, a decision that might have been more effective had the production’s style allowed the audience to more effectively enter the world of these characters.  But an hour and fifty-minutes of struggling to hear the dialogue would have benefited from 15 minutes of recovery halfway through the four acts.  Sitting in the second row, I had the feeling that this might have been a Chekhov production to remember – if I had been sitting in the middle of the stage.

 

 Posted by at 9:51 am
Sep 122018
 

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties by Jen Silverman

MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street

BS Score Rating: B
Show-Score Rating: 82

Writing about “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties,” a MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, poses a linguistic challenge. This is a play about women’s vaginas. Yes, a 90-minute exploration by five women named Betty of their genitals. But the real challenge in discussing Jen Silverman’s wacky play is the fact that word “vagina” is rarely uttered; this is a play about “pussies.”

Three of the five Betties are lesbians; the other two are exploring their options. The play is a series of intertwined scenes as the various Betties interact with each other exploring the meaning of “their organ.” To say that the play has a plot is a bit of a stretch, although the outlandish preparations by the five women for a theatre presentation does give some sense of direction to the action. However, it is quite clear that Ms. Silverman does not mean to abide by the Aristotelian model.

In fact, this play is written in that rarest of genres. It’s a travesty. That’s not a criticism; it is, in fact, a source of delight. A travesty paints an absurd or distorted representation of something, in this case the worship of the female sex organ. “Collective Rage” is very funny and totally off-the-wall. The play’s full title makes it clear how we are to take this 90 minutes of genital geniality:

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; in essence, a queer and occasionally hazardous exploration; do you remember when you were in middle school and read about Shackleton and how he explored the Antarctic?; imagine the Antarctic as a pussy and its sort of like that.

Clearly, Ms. Silverman does not expect the audience to connect the dots. We are just supposed to sit back and enjoy the antics of five actresses set loose in a hellzapoppin look at pussy appreciation. Dana Delany and Adina Verson are particularly good as the two women “in transition.” In the midst of hilarious awkwardness, each gives us a sense of the amazing discoveries they are making about their anatomy. Comedian Lea Delaria plays the butch lesbian, not exactly a stretch from her stand-up persona; but she never really projects the kind of authenticity that her character demands. Ana Villafane has the least believable Betty to portray: a beautiful model-type who decides she is going to write, direct, and star in a play and recruits the other four Betties to join her. Ms. Villafane doesn’t let credibility get in her way. She brings energy and determination to her Betty, giving the audience the delusion that the play is actual going somewhere – it’s not.

Director Mike Donahue has collaborated with a design team that captures the play’s inanity. On a blank stage, furniture falls from the ceiling, convoluted scene descriptions are projected onto the ceiling, and rap music accompanies antics. Only the title is a bit misleading unless you use the a more colloquial definition of “rage,” as in “my pussy is all the rage.”

 Posted by at 11:23 pm
Aug 162018
 

Pretty Woman-The Musical

At the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street

BS Score Rating: C-

Show-Score Rating: 60

If there is a full blown example of mediocrity on Broadway these days, it has to be “Pretty Woman” at the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street.  This musical adaptation of the ever-popular 1990 film starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts holds pretty close to the plot of the original.  This is not surprising since the original writer, J. F. Lawton, collaborated with the late Garry Marshall, the film’s director, on the book for the stage.  The program acknowledges Marshall’s “passion to make it a Broadway musical because he loved live theatre.” 

But as any number of flops, and near flops, adaptions of popular movies into a musical of late have illustrated, that transfer is very tricky.  The best transfers reconceive the original, finding ways to draw the audience into the story and telling that story with inventive music, choreography, and design.  On the surface, “Pretty Woman” has a creative team fully capable of delivering that innovation.  Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell brought us the revival of “La Cage aux Foiles” and “Kinky Boots,” both appealing and surprisingly imaginative adaptations from the cinema. For the recent revival of “She Loves Me,” set designer David Rockwell gave us one of the most charming designs for a Broadway revival in recent memory.  Similarly, costumer designer Gregg Barnes has a long list of successful meldings of period and character into wardrobes that help us appreciate the person in the clothes.

But to make a musical production rise above competence, there needs to be a chemistry among all of those elements and “Pretty Woman” lacks even a whiff of that mixture of imagination and creativity.  The story is a sort of Cinderella meets heartless capitalist.  Vivian is an abused woman from Georgia who resorts to selling her body on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.  By chance, she meets Edward, a handsome, seeming amoral businessman who buys out failing companies regardless of any concern for the human toll.  By the end of the show, we are expected to believe that Vivian has gone through an Eliza Doolittle transformation and Edward has come to see his need to be a human businessman.  And why do these miraculous changes take place?  Because each of these “love at almost first sight” opposites see something in each other that transforms them. 

The only problem is the script never really lets the audience in on what it is about their attraction to each other that produced these changes.  In fact, it never even reveals what it is they see in each other except “that something.”  Plenty of musicals use love as a source for transformation, but the good ones show us what is in their attraction to each other and how that changes them.  In “Pretty Woman” it just happens, no “ifs ands or buts.”  To be fair, many of the songs in Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance’s pleasantly pop-style score, show the two leads questioning who they are and what they are doing.  But the book never shows us how those questions lead to their inevitable love for each other.

In the age of “me too” and the questions surrounding the portrait of women in classics like “My Fair Lady” and “Carousel,” it’s rather disturbing that this portrayal of prostitution in the dregs of Hollywood comes off like production numbers by the citizens of Dogpatch

in “Li’l Abner” – yes, these people are “different,” but joyful. Ugh!  The effete prejudices of the Beverly Hills culture are treated no more insightfully.  Edward’s associates in corporate destruction are portrayed like Sky Masterson’s thug-associates in “Guys and Dolls” – “Where’s the game?”

The sets are merely functional.  David Rockwell has chosen to portray most of the settings with skeletal outlines– except for the required palm trees that, you guessed it, light up every so often to remind us we’re in SoCal.  There is no connection in the style of the various set wagons that float onto the stage. For a city like Los Angeles, that has its own “look,” there is little to connect us with the styles of the entertainment capital except for the requisite rear view of the Hollywood sign that acts as the curtain warmer.

Mitchell’s choreography is probably the most disappointing.  It’s filled with conga lines and faux 80’s disco.  Perhaps the most disquieting choreographic element is the very strange ballroom dancers in the background as Edward and Vivian watch the performance of “La Traviata” from an opera house box seat – a memorable moment from the movie that sticks out like a sore thumb in this stage adaptation. 

Both of the leads do everything they can to make their characters credible without a script that reveals why they are attracted to each other and how that attraction transforms them.  Eric Anderson is quite ingratiating as the combination “Happy Man” and hotel manager. Orfeh, as Kit De Luca, Vivian’s best friend and counsel, presses a little too hard as the experienced hard-line lady of the streets making her transformation into a vice squad intern at the end of the show down-right silly.  Tommy Bracco in the minor part of the bell-boy (and one of the street people on Hollywood Blvd) brings a smile to his antics that is one of the few consistently humorous elements of the show.

“Pretty Woman” has been doing very well at the box-office and, like “Mean Girls,” the fans of the movie may assure it of a reasonable run.  But what was once charming and engaging in the movie theatre has become mediocre and bland in the Broadway theatre.

 Posted by at 8:41 pm
Jul 162018
 

Fire in Dreamland by Rinne Groff

At The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Place

BS rating: D+

Show-Score rating: 55

Love stories usually have a catch – the couple’s opposite personalities, their professional or political differences, their disparate heritages.  It’s those very complications that draw us into their romance.  After all, who wants to sit through a play that is nothing but happy bedroom scenes followed by mushy dinner conversations.  Those differences either melt the characters’ resistance to each other or bring their would-be romance to an end.

Playwright Rinne Groff certainly demonstrates a commitment to fill her love story with lots catches.  In fact, the play itself melts down in the face of its complications.  Let’s start with the title, “Fire in Dreamland.” On the surface, it relates to an effort by the play’s central characters to capture the horror of the fire at Coney Island’s Dreamland in 1911 in a movie focused on the terrified animals as victims.  Jaap Hooft is a Dutch filmmaker who has a fake student visa; Kate (no last name) is a government worker, perpetually dissatisfied with her life choices. They meet near the ocean on the Boardwalk at Coney Island.  I guess you can imagine how things proceed from there.

Actually, you probably cannot imagine how things progress because Ms. Groff brings in a set of complications that defy credibility and lack any perceptible insights into love, art, or the death of animals (lions, tigers or people).  First there’s the difficulty they have communicating due to language differences: Jaap must be the only Dutchman that is not fluent in English.  He consumed by the his inspiration for the film. forget the details involve in make it.  Kate can’t get past the details – funding, permits, etc.  But none of this gets in the way of what appears to be their growing romance.  Then there is the possibility that Jaap had a sexual relationship with his well-to-do would-be assistant, Lance, a real film student who signs-out equipment from his film school for Jaap’s use.  That does not get in the way of their romance.  And then, I’m sure you guessed: the pregnancy.

These complications, and at least three or four more “mis-catches,” are framed in an inconsistent stylization.  The first half of the play is short scenes that are literally clipped by the sound of a man pounding a film-scene-clap-board.  Mid-scene, repeatedly, the lights isolate Kate or Jaap to capture their thoughts – later in the show these freezes focus on Kate’s obsession with the film’s story.  It turns out Lance has been the clap-board man and he enters to save Kate when Jaap squanders his charm, but, of course not Kate’s love.  Jaap loses his visa and is returning home with another woman as Lance and Kate appear to be developing a relationship – no clap-board scene changes but just as underdeveloped as everything else in this mish-mash of a play.

The actors and director do their best to make the play’s 90 minutes tolerable.  Rebecca Naomi Jones plays her emotions with commitment and passion.  Enver Glokaj brings a sort of handsome charisma to his character.  Kyle Beltran plays Lance as a confused dork – a portrayal that explains Jaap’s ability to use him, but only confuses Kate’s eventual attraction to him, unless we are to believe her pregnancy is her motivation.  Marissa Wolf, making her NYC directing debut, has done her best to make the play’s senselessness interesting.  But, as any director will tell you, the play’s the thing and this one has just too many unconnected things.

The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, has adopted the practice of including a note in the program that tells us why we should like this play, or at least why he liked the work.  This is the type of play that I left thinking “what made the theatre dramaturgs and play-readers recommend it for production?”  Eustis tells us “Rinne has always been a beautiful sensitive cartographer of the human spirit.”  More importantly, he cites his long-term relationship with the playwright.  His first Public production was Ms. Rinne’s “The Ruby Sunrise” followed by “Compulsion.”  It appears that, like the play’s main character, Mr. Eustis was also blinded by a relationship.

 Posted by at 10:19 pm
Jun 042018
 

The Great Leap by Lauren Yee

At Atlantic Theatre Company 2nd Stage, West 16th Street

BSonArts rating: A-

Show-Score rating: 90

Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” at the Atlantic Theater Company’s 2nd Stage, has its own imaginative leaps to overcome.  A 17-year-old Chinese-American high school basketball player forces his way into the lineup for the University of San Francisco’s goodwill challenge to the University of Beijing’s team in the capital city.  The big game coincides with the peak of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  And, as the personal story of the short but determined dribbler unfolds, the audience is usually one-step ahead of the plot.  In short, the plot is quite predictable.

But Ms. Yee handles the development of the plot and characters with so much aplomb that the audience is more than happy to take those leaps with her.  There is humor throughout, even in the tensest scenes.  The American basketball coach is a classic crass Brooklynite who is initially responsible for teaching the Chinese coach the ins and outs of the game.  Much of the humor involves the Asian’s efforts to understand American slang and basketball terminology, but Ms. Yee’s style is never condescending; it’s always about communication.  Similarly, the American coach transplanted to San Francisco has a tough time communicating with the teenage star player from Chinatown.

The play’s most interesting element is the complex pressures and historical legacy that haunt the Chinese coach who survived the brutality of the cultural revolution.  The play has one of the finest Asian-American actors in that role.  B.D. Wong is wonderful as the would-be Chinese basketball coach, showing as much of the character’s tensions in his body language as in the dialogue. Ned Eisenberg, opposite him as the Brooklyn bomber, fully embodies the fowl-mouthed coach whose back story is not unlike the ambitions of the young Chinese-American upstart.

At the center of the show is a knock-out (and exhausting) performance by Tony Aidan Vo as a 17-year-old high school dribbler who forces himself onto a college team to play the “good-will” game with the Beijing University team. The American and Chinese coaches meet again 17 years after their initial encounters. While the turns in the story are frequently predictable, Ms. Yee’s writing is so crisp and dimensioned that we just go with its flow. The direction by Taibi Magar strikes a balance between the humor (and there’s lots of it) and the unraveling of the characters’ stories at an energized pace.

The Atlantic 2nd Stage is turned into a basketball court by designer Takeshi Kata. Projections by David Bengali effectively set the tone and remind us of events as the play jumps between 1971 in China and 1989 in San Francisco and Beijing.

 Posted by at 9:08 pm