Apr 132018

Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

At the Imperial Theatre, 45th and Broadway

BS Rating: B-

Show Score Rating: 78

Walking into the Imperial Theatre, I thought “Carousel” was my favorite musical from the classic, pre-1960s, repertory. I love the score and I have always found Rodgers and Hammerstein’s conversion of a fairly dark drama, “Liliom,” into a musical that mixes the dark with the light as an extraordinary accomplishment.  While “Oklahoma!” is frequently cited as the start of the modern musical that integrates book, music, and choreography to tell a story, “Carousel” proved that the integration of these elements can take the musical into dark and complex areas.

As I watched the new Broadway production, under the direction of Jack O’Brien, I began to question the way R&H deal with some of those dark issues.  Set in Maine at the turn of the last century, Julie Jordan, an innocent factory worker, falls in love with a rough-hued carousel barker, Billy Bigelow.  They marry almost instantly — as only a musical can make acceptable.  But their marriage is not exactly a typical musical marriage.  Billy loses his job and feels guilty and restless.  He goes off on binges at night.  In a rage Billy slaps Julie and suddenly we have violence against women injected into a Broadway musical.

Rodgers and Hammerstein are frequently recognized for the insertion of social issues into their works.  “You’ve got to be taught…to hate the people your relatives hate” in “South Pacific” is a plea for tolerance as is the main character’s confrontation with her prejudices about “mixed marriages.” But the way this team portrays women and treats marital violence in “Carousel” raises questions in a contemporary audience.  In the famous “Soliloquy,” as Billy considers the possibility of having a daughter, he tries to suggest she will be exceptional by singing “she’ll be half again as smart as girls are meant to be” (emphasis added). Julie’s response to Billy’s violence against her is even more troubling. “What’s the use of wonderin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad, he’s your fella and you love him, that’s all there is to that,” sings Julie.  R&H foreshadow the show’s ending later in that song: “common sense may tell you that the ending will be sad and now’s the time to break and run away,” she continues, but “he’s your fella and you love him, there’s nothing more to say.”

Clearly, R&H are exploring how love can make a person blind to their lover’s bad side; but there is certainly “more to say.”  At its best, this portrait of an abused wife shows us the type of irrational delusions that some abused women live with. The show suggests that Billy is “redeemed” when he is offered the opportunity by the Starkeeper, who guards the back door to heaven, to return to earth after his suicide to advise the teenage daughter, who is being harassed by her school-mates. She resists his advice and, in another rage, he slaps his daughter. The show then moves to its finale at the daughter’s high school graduation.  Billy again urges her to be herself as the chorus sings R&H’s classic “When You Walk Through a Storm.”  The Starkeeper puts out his hand, we assume, to take Billy to his heavenly destiny. Curtain! Watching this 1945 musical in 2018, especially in this year of heightened awareness of the abuse of women, begs for some rethinking of how a new production should color its interpretation. 

Unfortunately, Mr. O’Brien’s production does little in that direction.  It’s a pleasant enough production, but it lacks imagination and any new insights into this classic musical.  Anyone who saw the extraordinary English National Theatre production 26 years ago knows that there is much a production team can do to make this show meaningful as well as wonderfully entertaining.  Instead, this production plays like it’s 1945.  In fact, it looked like O’Brien and Santo Loquasto, the set designer, intentionally wanted the production to look like a reconstruction of the original production. The set relies heavily on drops with minimal three-dimensional scenery except for a show-stopping appearance of the top of the Carousel.

One contemporary touch is the blind casting, i.e., multiracial actors playing parts that in the time and place of the play would not have been people of color.  But even that raises questions.  Billy is played by Joshua Henry, a talented and vocally gifted black actor, and his comrade in crime, Jigger, is played by Amar Ramasar, a mixed race principal dancer at the New York City Ballet.  Did Mr. O’Brien mean to suggest that the “bad people” are people of color?  We have to assume not, and he seems to try to counter balance that casting with a Black Starkeeper and even a Black policeman.  Of course, the whole point of blind casting is to have the audience see the actor inhabiting the character and without any superficial judgements based the color of the actor’s skin.   But in a production that otherwise looks so traditional, it’s tough not see the color as significant in New England at the end of the 19th century. 

Jessie Mueller plays Julie.  She received a well-deserved Tony Award for her portrayal of Carole King in “Beautiful” and her voice was perfectly suited to that pop music.  Unfortunately, while Ms. Mueller works hard at selling some of the most beautiful music in R&H ever wrote, her voice never quite meets the near-operatic quality of “If I Loved You” and “What’s the Use of Wond’rin.”  One of true delights of the show is someone who has no trouble meeting the composers’ operatic demands.  Renee Fleming is perfect as Nettie Fowler, the would-be surrogate mama to Julie.  She retired from the opera world last year and this performance makes you anxious to see her take on some of the most vocally challenging Broadway musicals.

The other treat is the perfect pairing of Lindsay Mendez and Alexander Gemingnani as Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, the comic relief couple that has long been a staple of classic musicals.  Ms. Mendez knows how to twist a line for a laugh and Mr. Gemingnani has the lyrical voice of a very fine Irish tenor.  The stage lights up whenever they are singing and they both make the most of their comic romance.  John Douglas Thompson looks like someone who could control the back door to heaven as The Starkeeper.  But for some inexplicable reason, Mr. O’Brien has him physically coming between Billy and Jigger every time they discuss their nefarious plans and looking on when Billy and Julie have a spat.  What is he doing there?  Does Mr. O’Brien really think that we need to be reminded that the authorities in heaven see our transgressions?

One the biggest challenges in any new production of “Carousel” is the choreography.  The legendary Agnes de Mille changed the role of dance in musical theatre with the original choreography for this show.  Kenneth MacMillan, the late artistic director of the Royal Ballet, choreographed the English National Theatre production with clear references to Ms. de Mille’s achievement.  This production’s choreographer, Justin Peck, also comes from a classical ballet background.  He is currently resident choreographer at the New York Ballet and has worked internationally.  However, very little of that classic ballet expressiveness is to be found in Mr. Peck’s dances for this show.  Jumping and spinning seems to be his predominant style with a kick here and there.  The exception is his inventive and entertaining choreography for the men in “Blow High, Blow Low.”

This show has a ballet as its 11 o’clock number rather than the usual big singing and dancing chorus number.  It portrays the harassment that Billy and Julie’s daughter is experiencing and the difficulty she is having “finding herself.”  There is little to excite an audience in Mr. Peck’s bland approach.  The point of an 11 o’clock number (or, in current Broadway scheduling, 10:15 number) is to energize the audience when their attention might be drifting toward the end of the show. I drifted quite a bit during this ballet.

The sound of the music was rich and sweet.  The show is accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra – a rarity in Broadway musicals these days. The score has been reorchestrated by the reigning king of accompaniment, Jonathan Tunick.  He has maintained the lush sound that the score demands while playing up the comedy and the drama.

If you have never seen “Carousel,” this production is pleasant and worth seeing. Several of the performances are as good as they possibly could be.  But the production lacks imagination and never really thrills an audience the way some past revivals have.  It does, however, remind us that our view of abuse and race has changed – or not.

 Posted by at 12:04 am
Mar 072018

The Low Road by Bruce Norris

At the Public Theater on Lafayette Street off of Cooper Square

BSonArts Rating: A-

Show-Score Rating: 93

“The Low Road” is a fascinating look at our current economic trends through the eyes of an 18th century youth who takes some of the words of one of the most influential economic philosophers of his time, Adam Smith, and turns them into a rationale for an amoral approach to capitalism.  Bruce Norris’ play is a sort of epic historical fiction designed to critique and connect us to the excesses and misguided presumptions about our current economics – and it could not come at a more relevant time as our nation faces renewed challenges to our view of the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Oscar Eustis, in his Public Theater Artistic Director program notes, provides a useful framework for Mr. Norris’ style and structure.  Mr. Norris has “written a rollicking picaresque adventure, a kind of anti-Candide.”   Indeed, the would-be young capitalist, Jim Trewitt, goes on an adventure through colonial America, moving from one location to another, and, at each stop along the way, tries to build his fortune, honestly and dishonestly, only to end up with neither capital nor dignity.

The baby Trewitt is left on the door step of a colonial “madam.”  She takes him in believing he is related to George Washington and that her reward for housing Jim will be substantial. Jim is very smart and, at a crucial moment in his development, he misreads Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” “By pursuing his own interest,” as Smith describes the capitalist, “he frequently promotes that of the society more than he really intends to promote it… I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”  Thus, we have the one of the earliest arguments for the trickle-down theory.

But while Smith argued that competition in the free market would inevitably benefit society, he also warned against businessmen in their “conspiracy against the public or in some other contrivance to raise prices” (think the American drug industry!).  More importantly, Smith asserted that the pursuit of self-interest must function within “conditions of justice.”  And that is where the young Jim Trewitt becomes a reflection of our contemporary CEOs who see their role as profit at any cost to the well-being of our society (again, think of our drug industry and the opiate crisis).  Jim sees no ethical or moral restriction on his pursuit of wealth and Norris shows us both the terrible consequences of such a perspective as well as its futility.  Like Candide, Trewitt’s pursuits are frustrated at every turn; but unlike Candide, his efforts only lead to ruin, not enlightenment.

There is little doubt that Norris expects us to see this play as an indictment of the fallacies and excesses of Smith’s philosophy and its continued influence on American economics.  The action of the play is narrated by Adam Smith, played with delightful wit and appropriate authority by Danial Davis.  Norris uses another 18th century historical reality to counter Trewitt’s viewpoint: slavery.  As Jim sets off on his journey to make his fortune, he needs someone to carry his belongings – and after all, is not the presence of servants a sure sign of wealth?  He uses the money he embezzled from his adopted mother, “the madam,” to purchase a slave, John Blanke.  Norris uses the conflicts between Jim and John to illustrate the good and the bad.  And by the end of the play, Jim is an outcast from society and society is adjusting to, if not totally welcoming, John.

The play has been labeled a satire.  While satire usually raises smirks rather than laughs, I found Norris’ drama to be historical fiction with current social and political overtones.  Regardless of its genre, “The Low Road” is totally engaging with a timely critique of our economic and social values.  It is not intended as a Trump commentary.  In fact, to avoid a direct connection with our current President, Norris changed the name of the lead character from Jim Trumpett in the original 2013 London production to Jim Trewitt for its American premiere so that audiences would see the play as a refutation of much more basic and long-term American beliefs and values.

Director Michael Greif has staged the complex action of the play with style and lucidity.  We are swept into this 18th century world while still grounded in our 21st century morass. The cast of 18, with many actors playing two or three roles, is uniformly flawless (and only a not-for-profit like The Public could bring us such a large and rich cast).  Chris Perfetti shows us Trewitt’s innocence and naiveté laced with an amoral and self-consumed world view.  Chukwudi Iwuji portrayal of John Blanke pulls at the audience’s desire for reason and justice in a world where economic class eclipses equity. Harriet Harris’s performance as Jim’s adopted mother (and three other characters as the epic unfolds) is especially impressive.  But all of the roles are inhabited by actors with a fine sense of detail and clarity.  The sets and costumes provide a feeling of authenticity and the relative intimacy of the Anspacher theater makes a large epic drama into a personal experience.

“The Low Road” is an ambitious piece of theater that actually fulfills its ambitions. If only our nation could see its historical heritage as a lesson for our future.  In the words of Candide, that “would make our garden grow.”

 Posted by at 10:38 pm
Mar 052018

Queens by Martyna Mojak

At the LCT3 – Claire Tow Theatre at Lincoln Center

BSonArts Rating: C-

Show-Score Rating: 65

Watching LCT3’s production of Martyna Majok’s “Queens,” it’s important to remind yourself of the mission of Lincoln Center Theater’s most recent addition – it is a place for “new playwrights to develop plays for a new audience” according to the theater’s website.  The creation of “Queens” has had unusually robust support including a Lincoln Center Theater commission, several awards with financial support, and development at the renowned Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference last year.

So, it is rather puzzling why Ms. Majok, with so much interesting and relevant material, and creative support from so many sources, has not received the kind of guidance that a young playwright needs to move from inspiration to a well-crafted and engaging play.  “Queens” is about the challenges, losses, and potential gains that young immigrant women experience when they leave their homeland for the promises of life in the United States.  The play centers on a sort-of basement half-way house in Queens where women who immigrated from Poland, the Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Honduras are housed as they try to find their way into some form of stability in their new land.

The play jumps forward and backward in time and place, frequently making it difficult for the audience to figure out where we are and what this time and place has to do with what came before. Because the play moves so freely in time, we frequently see characters dealing with events that took place long ago before we see (or are provided information about) that event in the past.   In addition, new characters appear causing more confusion about who is interacting with whom and when these exchanges occur in the history of this basement refuge.

However, Ms. Majok does identify many of the common challenges these women face. How do I deal with the loss of family and friends in my homeland?  Will I ever be reunited with my mother or my child who I left behind or who left me behind?  What do I have to do to survive in this new land? Do I still have the hopes and dreams that drove me here?  Will I ever be recognized as a member of this society or will my accent always make me an “other”?

Ms. Majok clearly has empathy with these characters.  She feels their pain and frustrations and frequently communicates those feelings to the audience.  She paints a convincing picture of people caught between their former identity in their homeland and the discovery that they are now in a different world that demands a new identity.  “You become different when you leave your country,” says one of the women, “you are here – no longer there.”  Sounds simple, but Ms. Majok has tapped into its complexity.

The cast is quite good, each handling their appropriate accent, while communicating the insecurity and anguish they are experiencing.  Ana Reeder, as Renia, the manager of the housing, portrays a character who is warm and considerate one minute and a fowl mouthed bully the next.  Sarah Tolan-Mee, as Inna, is a new arrival and her initiation into the culture of basement forms the plays most unifying aspect.  Ms. Tolan-Mee brings a pitiful innocence to this role.

Unfortunately, director Danya Taymor and her production team have done little to bring clarity and focus to the play.  The full stage at the Claire Tow Theater is revealed and the different settings are arranged using the simplist of furnishing and props.  At times, the same furnishings represent the basement and locations in foreign lands.  At other times, the representation of the basement changes for no seeming reason.  There is a large ceiling that rises and falls with no apparent consistency in what a particular position is supposed to indicate about the location. Previews are a time that a director and playwright can collaborate on clarifying the play’s actions and messages.  If that went on during the three weeks before this play’s opening, it was not evident to this observer.  Still, the potential for this material was clearly apparent, if only Ms. Majok could get some good advice.


 Posted by at 10:11 pm
Mar 012018

Amy and the Orphans by Linsey Ferrentino

At the Laura Pels Roundabout Theatre on 46th Street

BS Rating: C+

Show-Score Rating: 70

“Amy and the Orphans” is a very entertaining play.  And that’s something of an accomplishment for a play about how a family – mother, father, and siblings – deal with a daughter with Down’s syndrome.  However, it is the playwright’s desire to entertain that makes this 90-minute play less than satisfying.

The show opens with a funny and exasperating scene between the mother and father shortly after the birth of their disabled child.  They are in the waiting area for an office that has something to do with their decision on how to care for their new daughter.  There is a hint that the two parents have different opinions on what they should do next, but that is not the focus of this scene.  Instead, the wife insists on involving her husband in a “truthfulness exercise” that does not permit discussion of their current problem, i.e., shall we care for the child at home as part of the family or institutionalize her.  Yes, avoidance is probably a major factor in a couple’s efforts to deal with such an unexpected challenge.  But this humorous battle over an exercise never reveals anything about their very real conflict: how do we deal with our new born daughter, Amy?  Instead, the audience is entertained (and diverted from the issue at hand) by the very funny machinations the couple go through around the truthfulness exercise.

Next, we meet the Amy’s brother and sister, 50 years later, in an airport terminal, planning on picking up Amy from her institutional care center to attend their father’s funeral.  Once again, this scene turns into an entertaining diversion as the two siblings argue over their plans for the father’s funeral, how they will break the news about their parents’ deaths to Amy (they never told her the mother had died some time ago), and the different directions each of their lives have taken. And once again, the laughs created by a classic brother and sister conflict camouflages the absence of the real issues underlying this play’s reason for being. Some details are revealed about the way the family dealt with the institutionalization of Amy over the years.  But we are left wondering what exactly these people feel about their treatment of their sister, their responsibilities for that treatment, and the impact that treatment had on them and their sister.

Before we actually meet Amy, we are introduced to Kathy, her loud-mouthed, opinionated, but very faithful professional caretaker from Amy’s current institutional residence.  Kathy becomes the comic foil to virtually anything the brother and sister say.  All of the siblings’ plans for this visit (and the future) are uprooted by regulations related to Amy’s commitment to the care center, delivered by Kathy with a sort of “gotcha” delight. The impact of those regulations is one of the rare times the play deals directly with the choices made for Amy by others and the way those decisions have enriched and restrained her life.  It’s not inappropriate to reveal these facts through humor; that is certainly one of the effective techniques used by our finest playwrights. But Kathy’s waggish refutation of Amy’s siblings becomes more like a farce than a meaningful articulation of reasons her continued institutionalization is the best future for Amy.

The production at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre is stylish and well-acted.  Roundabout commissioned the play and wisely agreed to one of the playwright’s demands: the actor playing Amy should have Downs syndrome.  Jamie Brewer meets the playwright’s demand and gives an engaging and revealing performance. For matinees and as standby, Edward Barbanell, a male actor with Downs syndrome, performs the sibling with a script adapted by the playwright. Debra Monk and Mark Blum are totally credible as the sister and brother who went down different paths in their lives and struggle to find some points of connection with each other and with Amy.  Diane Davis and Josh McDermitt, as the young mother and father, do a fine job of making their game playing an entertaining, and at times revealing, look at their relationship.  Vanessa Aspillaga takes full advantage of the broad writing of her care-taker role, Kathy.  Scott Ellis’ brings his usual skills to the staging.  He clearly saw the opportunity for humor and exploited it – any other interpretation would have been a violation of the playwright’s writing.

Lindsey Ferretino is a skilled playwright.  She carefully weaves the details about each character into each part of the play – what we learn about the father and the mother is verified in the scenes with the son and the daughter.  She successfully shifts from the past to present and back again.  And she manages to reveal much about each of the characters in this short drama.  But she apparently wants to win her audience with humor more than she appears to want to inform or challenge them. There are certainly worse things than an entertaining 90 minutes, but there was so much more potential in this subject matter.

 Posted by at 10:08 pm
Feb 212018

At Home at the Zoo by Edward Albee

At the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street

BSonArts rating: A

Show-Score rating: 95

Once again, the Signature Theatre has brought us an enlightening revival of a frequently produced play that is timely and worth re-experiencing now.  Actually, Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” and its prequel, originally titled “Homelife,” has gone through a number of iterations since the playwright decided to revise and expand his first success, “The Zoo Story,” written in 1959, into a two-act play in 2004.  So, this Signature production is valuable because we see these two dramas made into one that literally spans the life of one of our greatest playwrights.

The Signature production of “At Home at the Zoo” is a beautifully conceptualized and an impressively executed evening in the theatre unto itself.  But it is equally remarkable in the way it illustrates a through-line in Albee’s oeuvre.  “The Zoo Story” is an examination of relationship.  At its core, the famous story of Jerry and the dog tells us about a man’s struggle to develop an “authentic” relationship.  He is incapable of having such a true bond with another person. – he tells us his longest “relationships” with the opposite sex have all been one-night stands.  So, he tries to forge a liaison with a dog in his rundown flop house – a dog that tries to tear into him whenever he returns home.

The plot of “The Zoo Story” is the story of that same man trying to establish an authentic relationship with a total stranger.  And like his comment about his efforts to reach out to the dog, his strategy is to “kill him with kindness, and if that doesn’t work, just kill him,” or be killed by him.  Albee distinguishes between simply having a relationship with another individual and having an “authentic relationship.”  As Jerry clearly articulates, a true relationship depends on a balance between love and hurt and a truly authentic relationship requires both partners to accept both qualities in the other.

This is a recurring theme in much of Albee’s work.  “The Delicate Balance” shows us a family that has come to accept and even thrive on the balance with which they perceive the good and bad in each other.  That balance is threatened when two friends seek salvation in their home and they must be sent home before the true relationships within the family deteriorate.  George must rescue Martha from her delusionary state to maintain the balance in their fractious marriage and preserve their tolerance for “authentic” love and hurt in Albee’s most famous play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”  Even in one of Albee’s more outlandish, but puzzlingly reasonable, concept plays, “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”, we are confronted with a man who has come to see his relationship with a goat to be more satisfying and more fulfilling than his bond with his wife.

So, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Albee’s prequel to “The Zoo Story” would contextualize Peter, Jerry’s would-be “friend,” with similar discoveries about his “happy marriage” to Ann, his wife of fifteen years.  They know they love each other and they value the stable and satisfying life they have built with each other.  But as this mini-drama progresses, they discover that even though their sexual relationship is as physically pleasing and as steady as both desire, it is not nourishing – something is missing.  Is it spontaneity or a lack of brutality or any one of many other possibilities? Or is it simply a result of the inability to fully know the other person? Can we totally know anyone outside of ourselves and can we even know ourselves?

And that brings us to another reason that the Signature production is so timely.  Later in the spring season, we are getting a much-anticipated production of one of Albee’s finest and most acclaimed plays, “Three Tall Women.”  There are many Albee themes in this fascinating drama, but at its core is the question of how well we can know ourselves.  “Three Tall Women” is one of Albee’s late plays, written 25 years after Zoo Story. So, it should not be surprising that this master playwright expanded his first success to show us the fallacies in our perceptions about the self and its relationship to others in his prequel. If you know what is coming in the second act, you cannot help but sit and connect the dots between the story of Peter and Ann and the story of Jerry and Peter.  This first act is more intellectual and lacks the punch of the second act, but it also reflects Albee’s later interest in the more abstract and less definable aspects of self and connections with others.  Besides, in any drama with quite literal punch, it should come in the second act.

The Signature production is near perfect.  The real standout among a very strong cast is Paul Sparks as Jerry.  He takes a role that is usually played as a series of aggressions and retreats and plays it as a happy-go-lucky story teller — the kind of person that, if you met them while sitting on bench in Central Park, you would indeed just sit back at enjoy their rants.  Sparks loses none of the points in his histrionics as he quite literally dances around the stage.  And when he sets out to consummate his relationship with Peter, as only Jerry can, he transforms into an aggressor that is totally consistent with what came before.

This interpretation of Jerry makes Robert Sean Leonard’s portrayal of Peter much more credible.  We never wonder why he puts up with this seeming nut case; after all, we are perfectly happy to put up with it.  Leonard’s real character is revealed in the first act as he and his spouse slowly realize they may not have exactly the relationship they think they have.  He and Katie Finneran as Ann are a well-matched pair, at least as far their acting is concerned.  Lila Neugebauer’s direction of this happy couple’s learning exercise is filled with perfectly placed pauses and perplexing moments of reflection. It’s always tough to know who is responsible for the type of performance given by Mr. Sparks, but at the very least, Ms. Neugebauer deserves a lot of credit for exploiting Ms. Sparks remarkable talent.

We rarely get to see the young playwright and the experienced mature craftsman in the same evening.  It is rarer still to see both so closely aligned and thoroughly understood.


 Posted by at 9:29 pm
Jan 012018

As I look back at my theatre experiences this year, it was full of interesting “first-time” plays and musicals as well as a number of revivals that stood out.  There were also more than a few premieres and revivals that were remarkably disappointing.  I have decided to classify these plays as memorable and disappointing.  So, first, the memorable standouts.

One play took me completely by surprise and qualifies as a truly extraordinary playwriting accomplishment.  I entered the theatre to see Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Pt. 2” with great trepidation.  A number of playwrights have tried to tackle “the post-door slam” of Ibsen’s masterpiece; the most memorable failure being Comden and Green’s musical “A Doll’s Life,” that I saw in a Los Angeles try-out before it closed after five performances on Broadway in 1982.  Hnath’s Nora returns home after fifteen years during which she became a controversial author of books critiquing society’s treatment of women (in 19th century Norway).  The play is very funny and as dramatic and engaging as the original.  The Broadway production had a great cast lead by Laurie Metcalf who won the Tony Award for best female actor.  It’s one of the best plays I have seen in years, full of stimulating observations about marriage, family, and the roles of men and women.

“Indecent” by Paula Vogel, based on a concept by the play’s director, Rebecca Taichman, was a fascinating look at a Yiddish theatre company’s presentation of “God of Vengeance” by Sholem Asch as it moved from unprecedented success in Europe eventually to Broadway in 1923, where it was closed for “indecency.”  I found Vogel’s script a bit lumpy – over emphasizing a lesbian relationship in “God of Vengeance” when its portrayal of a Jewish house of prostitution and the duplicity of the orthodox father/pimp were just as “indecent.”  But Taichman’s direction was pitch perfect and made Vogel’s script into a fascinating portrait of the theatre company’s trials and tribulations. I was as surprised and gratified as she appeared to be accepting the Tony Award for best direction – well deserved.  Another distinguished Broadway play was “Oslo,” which I saw last year in Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Newhouse Theater before it moved upstairs to the Beaumont.  Playwright J. T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher combined to make a three-hour, very detailed retelling of the back-story of the Oslo Agreement on Israel and Palestine into an almost sit-on-the-edge of your seat drama.  That’s no small achievement, especially since 24 years later the audience knows this play might have been titled “Much Ado about Nothing.”

Another play that I saw last year at The Public Theatre made it to Broadway.  Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” won the Pulitzer Prize and no play more fully meets the definition of that prize: “For a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.”  I had the good fortune to see “Sweat” at The Public a few days before the presidential election.  Nottage’s portrait of factory workers losing their jobs in Reading, PA, was an insightful examination of the pressures and frustrations that drove so many middle Americans to believe the lies of Trump.  The play is not political; it’s about struggling people – their fears, desires, and their racial attitudes.  But it was a depiction of Trump’s America playing to an “elite” audience at The Public, many of whom had a hand in creating this desparate version of America.  That’s what makes live theatre so powerful.

One straight play revival stands out: Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of August Wilson’s “Jitney.”  This was the first play written by Wilson in his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, although in terms of 20th Century decades, it represents the 1970s.  Like so many of his plays, it is a character study, carefully observed and fully recreated.  The MTC production employed many of the most experienced and talented African American actors on the US stage.  Very little actually happens, but so much is communicated.

The new traditional Broadway musicals that I saw were pretty lackluster.  But three less traditional shows were definitely worth seeing.  At the top of the list is “Dear Evan Hanson,” a show I saw in its Off-Broadway incarnation.  The story of a pathologically shy teenager who becomes the center of a social media extravaganza is deserving of the buzz and awards it achieved, including Tonys for best musical and best performance by Ben Platt, a truly remarkable Broadway debut. The book by Steven Levenson and the music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul work together seamlessly to portray the world of youth in the age of the internet.  The other remarkable achievement in musical theatre is “The Band’s Visit,” an adaptation of an Israeli film that tells the story of the Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving in the wrong city in the Negev Desert of Israel to give a concert at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center.  They are taken in by members of the small town and what follows is a beautiful and moving portrayal of ennui.  With a gorgeous score by David Yazbek and an equally engaging book by Itmar Moses, the two leads, Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, bring new dimensions to angst.

“Come from Away” is a much happier portrayal of people ending up in the wrong place even though 9/11 hangs over every moment of joy.  When air traffic is frozen and planes are diverted to the nearest airport, the small Newfoundland town of Gander is forced to accept 38 planeloads of disoriented passengers.  The writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein carefully researched the events surrounding Gander’s open-armed acceptance of their visitors and created credible and delightful composites of stranded passengers and town-folk.  For me, much of the charm of this show grew out of the music that was (with one exception) sung as ensemble numbers.  While there are clear connections to tragedy down below – a mother worried about her son, a NYC fireman – the consistently upbeat atmosphere of the show creates a sort of anxiety in viewer who vividly remembers those very dark days.

And then there is best musical revival: “Hello Dolly.”  Yes, the main attraction was Bette Midler as the resourceful Dolly Levi and she certainly met and surpassed the challenge of the Broadway legends who have tackled this role.  But what really made this show so wonderful was the production and its magnificent cast.  Director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle resisted any temptation to reconceptualize the style of the show; instead they make anew the elements that have made this show a musical classic with flair and panache. Truly, Dolly was back where she belonged!

“Big River,” presented as part of the Encores series at New York City Center, confirmed my love of this melodic musical.  Encores revives shows for six performances, billed as staged readings; but scripts were nowhere to be seen and “Big River” does not need great sets to portray Mark Twain’s nuanced story of Huckleberry Finn and his friend (and adopted mother’s slave) Jim.  William Hampton’s book avoids some of the thorny elements of Twain’s original and Roger Miller’s score captures the atmosphere and the challenges of life on the Mississippi River.

As usual, the really “meaty” offerings were Off-Broadway.  Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane” is another play that I entered with some trepidation.  The story of a single-mother caring for a severely ill young child sounded like another “woe is me” drama (not that that type of story is not a good case for “woe is me”).  But Herzog portrays a mother with an immutable positive attitude, a woman who cannot let herself get in the way of what she cares for.  We never see the child; instead we see the details of this mother’s everyday life played with subtlety and strength  by Carrie Coon.  The audience is drawn into this mother’s world and cannot escape empathy and deep feelings.

Annie Baker’s “Antipodes” has the opposite effect using a completely different style – it portrays a group of writers trying to develop a unique story for some type of unnamed entertainment outlet.  Nine men and women gathered around, and eventually locked in, a stark office conference room.  It’s hard to describe exactly what the play means – it explores the role of storytelling in cultures past and present.  But it also portrays story creators unable to master their task and escape the personal stories.  Some found this play unfocused and boring; but I was taken on a fascinating ride through the impact that myth and legend has on our existence.  Baker is probably the hottest young playwright on the New York scene these days.  I was mystified by the acclaim she received (including a Pulitzer) for “The Flick.”  But her two most recent plays, including last year’s totally different but equally as fascinating “John,” have made me anxious to see what comes next.

Zayd Dohrn’s “The Profane” at Playwrights Horizons introduced a fascinating twist into the portrayal of Muslim Americans, a topic that has become the subject of many new plays recently – and rightly so.  On the surface, the play is about the daughter in a fully assimilated Muslim family who is in love with a young man from a very traditional orthodox Muslim family. In fact, it could be argued that Dohrn’s play is less about levels of belief and more about the conflict between liberal progressivism and any form of orthodoxy.  The play has some structural weaknesses, but like so many of the Playwrights Horizon’s productions, it provided a lot of food for thought.

The Canadian Soulpepper “National Civic Theatre” shares many characteristics with Playwrights Horizons and this summer they brought several of their most successful productions to the Signature Theatre.  “Kim’s Convenience” is a fairly traditional comedy about an immigrant Korean family that runs a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park.  In fact, the original production of this play lead to the creation of a very popular Canadian television sit-com.  The timing of this American premiere could not have been more timely.  The underlying themes of this very funny sit-com are race relations and the acceptance of immigrants by our neighbors to the north, playing in New York as our nation was confronting the Trump administration’s suppression of immigrants and uttering racial slurs.  I saw the opening performance after which the company’s artistic director greeted the audience.  “Any Canadians in the audience?” he asked.  Following a round of applause he said, “Any people hoping to be Canadians in the audience?”  Much more applause.

The Public Theater put Louis Elfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey” in its smallest theatre, but this was anything but a small undertaking.  Elfaro moves Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” to gang-infested South Central Los Angeles.  The amazing and fully credible achievement of this work is how faithful Alfaro is to the original – an up-and-coming gang lord who ends up killing his father and marrying his mother with every twist and turn reconceived in the traditions of southwestern American Latino populations.

Several Off-Broadway revivals are worth recognizing.  “Sweeney Todd” is given an intimate environment in an English production that originated in an actual pie shop. The small Barrow Street Playhouse was converted into a pie shop and the audience sits at tables as they are threatened (and cajoled) by the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Having seen the original production in its beautifully inflated environment meant to give the sense of a dark opera, it was truly enlightening to re-experience this masterpiece up close and uncomfortable.

Two revivals benefited from the multitalented Michael Urie.  The first was a hilarious adaptation of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” presented by The Red Bull Theater, a company that specializes in producing classics.  While some of Gogol’s political edginess was missing, who cares when you are laughing your head off.  The second Urie spectacle was “Torch Song,” a slightly edited version of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” (all three acts compressed in two acts and 2 ½ hours).  The most rewarding aspect of that production at the 2nd Stage Company was how well the play stands up after 35 years.  So much has changed since I saw the original Broadway production, yet Fierstein’s insights are as current and valid as ever.  Urie’s performances was very good, as expected.  However, when he was in his drag scenes, you could not separate this Arnold from Urie’s wonderful take on Barbra Streisand in Buyer and Cellar.  But then, what drag queen hasn’t dabbled in the funny girl.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” was given a shattering revival at Signature Theatre.  On the surface, this play appears to be about the treatment of prisoners at New York’s legendary Rikers Island.  But the main action in the play is the conflict between a serial killer who has adopted salvation in religion and a young, relatively innocent man who committed a murder trying to rescue his best friend from the cult-like Unification Church.  While Guirgis seems to have no real message about either religion or prisons, he draws the audience into each character’s point of view and the Signature Production, plagued by last-minute cast changes, was totally absorbing.

The Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) in Brooklyn specializes in revivals of classics, most often Shakespeare.  But last February they turned their attention to an American classic – one that is very difficult to pull off.  Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” is about war and love and catastrophe and evolution and…!  The cast includes dinosaurs, Plato, Mosses and a mammoth, as well as an all-American family struggling to maintain some type of order in the world of chaos.  Frankly, when I read this play in graduate school, I dismissed it as an unproducable vestige of WWII insecurities – little did I know that it is one of the most produced plays in the American canon. TFANA’s production showed me everything I had missed – the charm, the insight, the fun and the horrors — and when in our current American history is it better to remind us that we will survive by the skin of our teeth?

Now for a brief look at the disappointments. There were lots of plays that just were not good, but some had promise and failed so miserably that I left the theatre more disappointed than angry at the production’s failure.  Sam Gold’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” with Sally Field and Joe Mantella in the lead roles stripped the play of costumes, scenery, and even Amanda’s southern drawl.  The theatre lights stayed on for the first half hour for some inexplicable reason.  Gold’s actors refused to give any rhythm or musical tone to Tennessee Williams’ poetic language.  While there were moments when Joe Mantella helped us to understand that the play is really about Williams and not his mother or sister, there was little else to recommend this interpretation.

Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” was given a star-driven production lead by Kevin Kline, full of his usual comic stage antics.  The critics loved it, but I felt that director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s decision to violate the classic structure of a sitting comedy by turning the three acts into two was a big mistake.  For me, this destroyed the rhythm of the play – Coward knew that the first act sets up the very funny and chaotic second act while the third provides resolution.  In an effort to cater to our contemporary audiences’ fear of a full-length play and expectation that a good play lasts only 90 minutes, the craft and joy of Mr. Coward was lost.

Another production that got raves from the critics and a “so what” from me was another Sam Gold production, “Hamlet” at The Public Theater in another stripped-down production starring Oscar Isaac.  This was a flat interpretation with no flare even in its most dramatic moments.  Sitting in the Anspacher Theatre, my mind kept wandering to my memories of Joe Papp’s totally unorthodox production that starred Cleavon Little fifty years ago.  At the plays end, using all sorts of lethal weapons, Hamlet survived.  Little looked at the audience and said, “Well you know this is not how this is supposed to end” and then he started up a set of stairs where he tripped and his gun went off.  Revisionist, yes.  But then this is a play about indecisiveness in the face of a chaotic world.

Two new Broadway musicals held out a lot of promise but failed to deliver.  “War Paint” had the dynamic duo of Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole playing the fascinating founders of the cosmetic industry, as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.  I thought with a book by Doug Wright, who turned another unusual duo into mesmerizing figures in “Grey Gardens,” this musical would be a war of personalities.  But it played more like a documentary of the founding of the women’s makeup industry with a forgettable score and production numbers that did little to advance the story or reflect on the characters.  “Groundhog Day” was equally disappointing.  After London reviews that went so far as to describe it as an “instant classic,” I looked forward to a movie adaptation that was a natural for conversion to a musical.  Alas, the repetitiveness that made the film charming (and at times meaningful) was just plain tiring on stage.  Another meritless score did not help.

A tribute to the brilliance of Hal Prince has been in the workings for years.  It finally got produced this fall by the usually inventive Manhattan Theater Club.  It may have been impossible to meet the audience’s expectations for this show.  After all, the best work of a director or producer in a musical is usually invisible and trying to select tid-bits that might demonstrate the director’s impact is nearly impossible.  Instead, “Prince of Broadway” was a collection of mainly famous songs from Prince’s shows.  Occasionally, there were lesser known songs that gave some unexpected pleasure and the performers were outstanding.  There was a rather lame narration culled from some of Prince’s public statements.  It was pleasant, but unremarkable in light of the towering figure it meant to celebrate.

Finally, we looked forward to a tribute that LaMama is running to one of my favorite “off-off” playwrights, Charles Ludlam, who sadly perished in the early days of AIDS.  I was a devoted advocate for the extraordinary way Ludlam could take a classic format and turn it inside out with comedy and insight.  His adaptations of Hamlet and Camille were classic and his ever popular “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is still produced regularly.  So, when LaMama announced that it would produce of one his earliest pieces that I had never seen, “Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide” under the direction (and starring) Ludlam’s theatrical and personal partner, Everett Quinten, I rushed to purchase tickets.  Theoretically, the play is inspired by Marlow’s “Tamburlaine,” but 45 minutes into the play I was thoroughly confused and perceived little humor and none of the wonderful poking fun at form and content that was at the core of Ludlam’s genius.  It was awkward to walk out in LaMama’s main theatre, but I succeeded.

The good certainly outweighed the not-so-good this year.  And even when you see a turkey, there’s a sense that live theatre gives you something no other form provides – a chance to live with live artists making something to entertain, challenge and/or enlighten you and you are an essential part of what they are producing.  Without a live audience, there is no theatre. It’s that communion between me and the performers that makes every outing worthwhile.

Dec 072017

The Parisian Woman by Beau Willimon

At the Hudson Theatre on 44th Street

BS Rating:  D

Show-Score Rating: 50

“The Parisian Woman” offers its audience a fairly unique experience.  Unfortunately, it’s not a very pleasurable sensation because the play and its production patronizes its audience.  The production’s website describes it as “dark humor and drama collide at this pivotal moment in Chloe’s life [the title character], and in our nation’s, when the truth isn’t obvious and the stakes couldn’t be higher.”  But the humor is anything but “dark” and the “high stakes” relate solely to a successful tax attorney’s efforts to secure an appointment to a federal district court.

The humor in the show, based on audience responses, occurs whenever there is a reference to Donald Trump.  But these are not richly satirical lines; they are merely pandering to the frustrations of a liberal New York audience.  “Public opinion doesn’t matter anymore,” declares one character.  “If it’s good enough for the President, it’s good enough for me.”  These lines get laughs, but this is not the sort of rich humor or insightful observations that make a political drama worth attention.  They are nervous defense mechanisms that give the audience the illusion of understanding.

The play also portends to reflect the behind-the-scenes life styles and maneuverings of the Washington elite.  This is not surprising since the playwright, Beau Willimon, is the creator of the highly successful television series, “House of Cards.”  And like that series, the plot is full of sex (or more accurately, would-be sex), political intrigue, and betrayal.  But this is not a TV series.  We expect a Broadway political drama to provide some insight, some viewpoint that we have not previously considered.  There is none of that in “The Parisian Woman’s” 90 minutes – full of very broad strokes of plot and stereotypical characterizations.

That is not to say that this short play does not arouse our interest in a number of its complications.  The central couple, the conniving Chloe and her ambitious attorney husband Tom, have an open relationship in their marriage.  Much of the first twenty minutes of the play focus on Chloe’s effort to end her affair with Peter, a self-centered banker whose helpless persona makes us wonder how he could have ever seduced Chloe into anything other than a polite “no thank you.”  Chloe and Tom try to entice, Jeanette, POTUS’s recent appointment to Chair of the Federal Reserve, into helping Tom secure his judgeship. When Tom’s nomination seems to be almost lost, Chloe’s open relationships become the source of power in a plot twist that mirrors so many political dramas while pandering the liberal audience’s support for “non-traditional” relationships.

The box-office draw for this show is Uma Thurman’s debut on Broadway.  On paper, it’s clear why a movie star who made her name as a hyper-sexual seductress in films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” would be a perfect Chloe.  She certainly looks the part.  But there is nothing subtle about her performance and she is rarely able to project what is going on inside of her.  Playwright Willimon deserves some of that blame – he touches on several interesting observations about a loyal wife who does not seek anything other than the success of her husband and her own earthly pleasures.  But Willimon never provides anything other than hints of her inner life and Thurman does not fill in those blank spaces.

Josh Lucas as Tom faces similar challenges based on the limited character development that the playwright has provided.  There’s plenty of possibilities – open marriage, a “fixer” tax lawyer, a man obsessed with making a mark – but they are not explored.  I felt sorry for Marton Czokas who has to play a totally over-the-top lover of Chloe with writing that makes Cyrano de Bergerac look subtle.  Blair Brown is in her element as the stereotypical Washington operative, Jeanette, who thinks she has everything that she wants.  Phillipa Soo is believable as Jeanette’s ambitious daughter, although the play’s final plot twist requires her to evoke the audience’s empathy without enough development to make us care. Director Pam MacKinnon seems to have tried to cover up the play’s underdeveloped elements by encouraging the broadest possible performances from her actors.  But the play’s 90 minutes seemed to pass very slowly, punctuated by nervous laughs at the mention of “The Donald.” So little about so much.

 Posted by at 8:15 pm
Aug 282017

Prince of Broadway

Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J Friedman Theatre, Broadway

BS rating: B-

Show-Score Rating: 75

On the way out of the theatre after experiencing “Prince of Broadway,” my husband turned to me and said, “Well that was the best cruise ship show I have ever seen.”  For those of you not familiar with the type of entertainment on large-scale cruise ships, Broadway medleys sung by young performers are standard fare in these floating theatres.  It’s unfair to compare the overwhelmingly talented cast at the Friedman Theatre to the choristers turned soloists on the ship stage.  But the overall effect of this tribute to a Broadway legend is not unlike the musical diversions at sea.

There is a sort of “Catch-22” in attempting to capture the genius of Hal Prince by stringing together many of the most popular (and a few lesser known) songs from his many decades of Broadway shows. Prince is a director and producer.  He doesn’t write songs.  He does not create lyrics.  And he does not write the dialog that tells the story – although all of these elements are tools for a director and their success relies on his skill in integrating all of the elements into an artistic whole.  It’s that “artistic whole” that distinguishes the work of a great director (and producer).  So, it is not surprising that an evening of knock-out singing and dancing does not fully satisfy those who have experienced Prince’s “whole.”

Prince and Susan Stroman (the co-director and choreographer) certainly evoke the memories of those Broadway hits and misses.  Each sequence from a show has scenery (by Beowolf Boritt) that replicates the style of the original production as do the costumes by former Prince collaborator, William Ivey Long.  The book (and there is not much) by David Thompson uses quotes by Prince, most of which sound like they were pulled from a press release rather than containing any specific insights about any of the productions or wisdom about the art of directing and producing.

But “Prince on Broadway” is entertaining. It is full of juicy numbers that let a brilliant collection of musical theatre pros sell each song as if they were introducing it to an audience who had never heard “Tonight” from “West Side Story” or “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita.  For me, the stand-out performer is Tony Yazbeck who went from a wide-eyed, beautifully sung WSS Tony to a reflective Buddy in the “Follies” sequence.  Brandon Uranowitz brings a freshness to the Emcee in “Cabaret.”  One of the treats from lesser known Prince creation, “You’ve Got Possibilities” from “It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman,” was deliciously delivered by Michael Xavier and Janet Dacal.  If there’s an award for adaptability, it should go to Chuck Cooper.  He goes from Tevye’s “If I Were a Rich Man” to “Ol’ Man River” to “My Friends” (Sweeney Todd’s tribute to his razor blades) – all carried out totally “in character.” 

There is also a bit of a “Catch 22” for the singers in this Broadway potpourri.  They are singing these songs to replicate their impact in the productions that Prince produced.  So it is quite natural to think of the late and very great Barbara Cook as Bryonha Marie Parham beautifully delivers “Will He Like Me?” from “She Loves Me.”  Ms. Parham is given another classic memory to compete with in the title song from “Cabaret,” although, ironically she is not up against the original Broadway Sally Bowles (Jill Haworth) but the unforgettable Liza Minelli in the film.  However, Ms. Parham provides good competition with those recollections, bringing her own take on these memorable numbers as well as “Show Boat’s” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”.

As with any retrospective, the memory that each number triggers inside the head of each audience member depends on how that audience member first experienced each of the shows –the original production, a revival, a road company, etc.   And some of those memories might not have been Hal Prince’s original production.  Yet is was the Prince of Broadway who made the shows part of the history of great musicals.

There is not a weak number in the show.  But it does go on too long — there is too much of a good thing.  But after two hours and fifty minutes you leave the theatre satisfied, even if this tribute fails to go beyond a pleasing review of songs from Hal Prince’s Broadway creations without capturing the genius behind their original incarnation.

 Posted by at 1:52 pm
Aug 142017

Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender by Michael Moore

Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street

BS Rating: B

Show-Score Rating: 80

It’s a revival meeting with brother Moore preaching to a choir that believes it has lost its voice and cannot sing.  That is what it is like to experience Michael Moore’s “The Terms of My Surrender.” The audience is self-selective, not unlike the audiences that flock to holy rollers.  We come into the theatre knowing what to expect from the Prophet who predicted the victory of the devil Trump and he delivers.

But rather than wallow in self-pity or scream futile outrage, Moore is on a mission in his Broadway debut. Like the preacher, he is out to convert his believers into action.  His message is about the power and responsibility of the individual.  At the start of the meeting, he directs his audience to a website that makes it amazingly easy to phone their representatives with daily directive messages.  He does not let his congregation escape responsibility by blaming the current fall from grace on those misguided people who “live between the Hudson River and La Cienega Boulevard.”  “We let it happen,” he declares. 

For Mr. Moore, we need to take responsibility for allowing the extreme voices to go unchallenged among the people who are listening to those voices. We cannot sit back and say, “we’ll let Rachel Maddow or Elizabeth Warren take care of that.” 

Moore’s approach is to illustrate each of his points with a recollection of his personal experiences.  So, he plays a recording of Glenn Beck: “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore.” Beck muses, “And I’m wondering if I could kill him myself or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. I think I could…is that wrong?” Well, yes, it is!  And Moore wants us to combat this type of hate speech.  He does not want to arouse the masses; he wants to motivate the individual.  So, he explains how, as a teenager, he got himself elected to the local school board because he objected to the high school’s corporal punishment policy.  When Ronald Reagan went to Germany during his presidency and he decided to lay a wreath at a cemetery for dead Nazi’s, Moore and his Jewish friend who lost family in the Holocaust went to Germany and infiltrated the press to raise a protest sign in front the then-President Reagan.

Some have taken this personal story approach to be “bragging” or self-aggrandizing.  But that criticism misses Mr. Moore’s point.  These stories are designed to show his congregants that each one of them, as single person, can make a difference.  As with his acclaimed documentaries, Moore establishes a direct relationship with his audience.  When he sits in his lounge chair or at his desk, we feel like we are alone in a room with our down-to-earth but witty friend.

As an almost one-man show, there are times when things seem to drag a bit and other times where Moore and director Michael Mayer mistakenly try to “Broadway-ize” the presentation.  For me, the long and detailed description of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis was way too drawn out.  Yes, it’s a perfect example of the “we let it happen” accusation.  But putting that lengthily (and fairly well-known) report toward the end of the of the show’s two hours was a strain.  In a sort of 10:15 number, there is a glitzy quiz show that pits American and Canadian audience members against each other with questions about their respective countries. It’s the one of the two times that the show breaks with the one-on-one relationship between Moore and the audience and it felt out of place. 

The other break occurs at the end of the show with a rather silly “finale,” but I will avoid a spoiler except to say that there is little that is silly about the rest of Mr. Moore’s on-the-mark musings.  They are insightful, frequently funny, and definitely worth heeding, even when he appears to be rambling.  It’s not surprising that so many viewers have described “The Terms of My Surrender” as uplifting in a time that has so little that is positive or comforting.  But then, isn’t that exactly why the preacher preaches and the congregation responds, “hallelujah and amen”?

 Posted by at 1:59 pm
Jul 122017

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The Public Theater at Lafayette and Astor Place

BS Rating: C+

Show-Score Rating: 60

Sam Gold’s production of Hamlet at the Public Theater is just that: SAM GOLD’s production.  It has the hallmarks of his recent interpretations of classic works: minimalist design, modern street dress, emphasis on text while rather than the writing style, lights on the audience during the first act.  This approach brought some interesting portrayals and unique insights in his production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” and many viewers felt his recent “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop had a similar effect.

But each of those productions had lead actors who were capable of living in their reinterpretations of the classic.  In “Glass Menagerie,” Sally Field and Joe Mantella abandoned the accents and stripped their characters of most of their embellishments, but there was never a moment that you did not believe they were experiencing what they were expressing.  Mr. Gold’s “Hamlet” is filled with competent actors.  They make sense of the lines; they reflect emotion; they put emphasis where emphasis is required.  But you never feel they are living their characters’ lives.

At the head of the cast, Oscar Isaac knows his craft.  He delivers Shakespeare’s lines with a clarity of meaning and colored with appropriate emotion.  He dominates the stage.  But I never felt like he was experiencing the tortured indecisiveness that is at the core of Hamlet’s being.  His interpretation is broad and aggressive with little questioning.  If Hamlet were that assured, those of us in the audience would not have to wait four hours for him to seek revenge. However, even allowing for that textual inconsistency, Mr. Isaac’s Hamlet never seems to have any internal life.  Even in the famous “To be, or not to be” speech, he seems to be debating a philosophical idea rather personally reflecting on how “conscience makes cowards of us all.”  In fairness, Hamlet is one of those roles that really requires an actor with great natural magnetism; no amount of craft can substitute for that rare quality.

Without a riveting Hamlet, there is little the other actors can do to make this any more than a competent but insignificant production.  And that company is truly a mixed bag.  Ritchie Coster as Claudius demonstrates the skills of an experienced classical actor.  Even though Shakespeare shares very little about Claudius’ internal conflicts or even his motivations, he is a man who killed his brother and married the brother’s widow.  Coster gives him a sort of “Trumpian” pushiness along with little awareness of its effect.  Peter Friedman gives Polonius more dimension than this character is usually accorded.  There are certainly times when Friedman’s Polonius evokes the laughter so commonly associated with this role; but Friedman also makes him a voice of reason and his advice is treated as good advice. Anatol Yusef brings a background in the Royal Shakespeare Company to Laertes and it shows.  He is able to inhabit the character and we feel his tragedy within the tragedy.

Neither Charlayne Woodward as Gertrude or Gayle Rankin as Ophelia live up to the potential of their roles.  Ms. Woodward is in a character-defining costume – a baggy maroon dress with huge arms and legs that swell when she moves – that suggest a woman of style and strength.  But Ms. Woodward’s Gertrude is almost meek.  It’s never clear how she is responding to Claudius or Hamlet and Mr. Gold consistently places her out of focus.  Gayle Rankin is miscast as Ophelia, but she is certainly not helped by the costume and hair style she has been given.  A dark baggy romper suit topped by a heavy gray men’s sweeter with a rolled-up hair-do usually found on 19th century downstairs servants.   Nothing in her performance (or appearance) make her look or sound like the love of Hamlet’s life.

Keegan-Michael Key plays the ever-loyal Horatio and carries it off fairly well.  There is a wonderful moment in Hamlet’s advice to the players when he discusses keeping the clowns in check with Mr. Isaac looking accusingly at Mr. Key.  In Mr. Gold’s typical (and frequently laudable) embrace of casting-against-type, Roberta Colindrez (the original Joan, the college-lover in “Fun Home”) plays Rosencrantz.  It’s not clear what (if anything) Mr. Gold means to be saying in this odd casting, but Ms. Colindrez is terribly miscast.  She looks and sounds silly especially against the entirely successful casting of Matthew Saldivar as Guildenstern.  Both of these “gentlemen of the court” are dressed for a bar-b-que in the back yard.

BTW – All the other roles are played by one of the nine members of the company.  In a wonderfully effective piece of direction, Mr. Friedman and Ms. Rankin (the dead Claudius and Ophelia) play the grave diggers.  If only the other choices Mr. Gold made were as clever and potentially insightful as the dead father and daughter discussing the appropriateness of the daughter’s burial and the legacy of the dead.  Instead, we have another example of the director’s style without the requisite connections between his style and what he is trying to communicate to the audience. Style should be in service of meaning, not the opposite.


 Posted by at 10:24 pm