Saturday, December 31, 2016

A TREASURE TROVE OF GREAT THEATRICAL MOMENTS IN 2016

A Celebration of the 2016 Theater Year


Among the 163 productions I saw on and off Broadway in 2016, there were many delights, surprises, and moments that triggered a surge of Pure Delight. Here are six standouts:


A Surprising Turn After A Raggy Start

AL PACINO: By the time I saw David Mamet's much maligned play China Doll near the end of its Broadway run, things had miraculously fallen into place. Mr. Pacino had no trouble with his lines, his enunciation, voice projection, or performance, all of which were sharply criticized (along with the play itself) during previews and after the long-delayed opening. With rewrites in place and after a lot more work, the star was excellent in a demanding, non-stop role in the play about the waning days of a major power broker who hasn't quite lost his edge, no matter how trapped he seems to be. Other than an ending which came across as oddly tacked on, it seems that Mr. Mamet and Mr. Pacino were on to something after all. And despite predictions that this would be the last we'd be seeing of the 76-year-old actor on stage, he soon will be co-starring with Judith Light in God Looked Away at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Pacino will be playing Tennessee Williams in the final rocky years of his life in the play penned by Williams's close friend and biographer Dotson Rader. Assuming Mr. Pacino wants to bring it to New York, expect to see it in the spring.



Two Performances that Got Better and Better



DANNY BURSTEIN AND JESSICA HECHT:  The delight in this latest rendition of the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof was in seeing two masterful performers, Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as Golde, continuing to grow into these iconic roles over time.  I saw it early in the run, and then again several months later.  Happily neither had fallen into the famous Ethel Merman mantra concerning her opening night performances: "Call me Miss Bird's Eye; it's frozen." In the early days, Mr. Burstein tried so hard to not be Zero Mostel that his Tevye seemed to be just one of the residents of Anatevka   a great ensemble player but not the over-the-top milkman we've come to expect. For her part, Ms. Hecht's Golde started out as an overbearing shrew who you might imagine (as does Tevye) "screaming at the servants day and night." Yet by my second viewing, Burstein had found his Tevye and made him as assertive and generous of spirit as you could ever want to see, and Ms. Hecht shaped her Golde into a tough yet tender-hearted women, beaten but not thwarted by her harsh life.  When they sang "Do You Love Me?" you absolutely could see them as the couple at the core of Fiddler.


A Special Year for a Special Guy

SHELDON HARNICK: 2016 was a great year for the spry, witty, and effervescent 92-year-old lyricist and delightful raconteur.  Mr. Harnick showed up at celebrations and tv shows and lecture halls all over the city as revivals of his shows sprang up everywhere:  Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me on Broadway, and Fiorello! and a reworked version of The Rothschilds off Broadway.  What a guy!

A Director Soars



RACHEL CHAVKIN:  It's a sure bet she will be nominated for a Tony for her thrilling direction of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, now wowing audiences on Broadway. Ms. Chavkin directed all of the previous incarnations of David Malloy's pop opera, which is derived from a section of Tolstoy's War and Peace. A great strength has always been the way in which the performers have woven around the audience members seated at cafe tables in relatively small off Broadway venues. But how on earth could the director recreate that feeling in a large Broadway house?  Suffice it to say, she had taken on the challenge and has flown with it to the stratosphere. Think "Yellow Brick Road" to get an idea of how she skillfully makes the entire Imperial Theater feel like an intimate Russian cafe. Ms. Chavkin has shown herself to be one of the most exciting directors working in New York now.  Great Comet is merely the latest production to have been polished by her gifted  hand.  Recently, she helmed the sit-up-and-take-notice production of The Royale at Lincoln Center, and the folk opera Hadestown at the New York Theatre Workshop. Both were resplendent. Don't be surprised if you see the latter return to another venue before too long.


Theater Company Bats 1000


RED BULL THEATER and its artistic director Jesse Berger keep improving year after year. Just a little over a decade old, the company began by doing off-the-wall productions of rarely-seen Jacobean dramas (e. g. The Revenger's Tragedy)  in whatever venues it could manage to find, and now it is doing first-rate productions with top-tier actors. In 2016, Red Bull gave us two glorious productions:  a fiery version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus and a brilliantly comic production of Sheridan's The School for Scandal.  Three mighty cheers for Red Bull!


A Chance to Brush Up Your ... 



SHAKESPEARE: It was a great year for the bard, as well. In addition to Red Bull's bravado version of Coriolanus, we got to see a marvelous Troilus and Cressidaalong with the great Janet McTeer strutting the boards as Petruchio in the all female production of Taming of the Shrew, both  at Central Park's Delcorte Theater. More recently, we had the opportunity to enjoy the innovative Seeing Place's edgy production of Macbeth in the East Village. Right across the street from it, and playing at the same time, was the Broadway-bound production of Othello, starring David Oyelowo in the title role and Daniel Craig as the nefarious villain Iago.  We also had a quirky and rare production by a company calling itself Bad Quarto of The Tragicall History of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke, the earliest known published version of Shakespeare's tragedy.  

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There were many other highlights to the theater year, of course.  In a previous entry, I identified 15 performances that stood out.  Click here to link: (15 great performances in 2016). 


Have a Happy New Year, everyone, and here's wishing you all the best of theater-going in 2017!!!




Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

  


Thursday, December 22, 2016

FIFTEEN STANDOUT THEATER PERFORMANCES FROM 2016





From the list of 163 plays and musicals I've seen this year on and off Broadway, I'd like to highlight 15 performances I found to be standouts.

Some on the list are seasoned veterans, while others seemingly popped out of nowhere to grab hold of the stage and shake it to its core.  

Those I have identified are, of course, representative of my personal viewpoint and tastes. They appear below in alphabetical order.  




Annaleigh Ashford is always a delight, but she really stood out in the roles of Dot and Marie in the brief fund-raising run of Sunday In The Park With George at City Center in October. Much of the publicity centered on Jake Gyllenhaal as George, but it is Ashford who knocked it out of the ballpark and should only get better as the Sondheim musical moves to Broadway for a 10-week run starting in February.  Go for Jake if that's the draw for you (he's very good in the role), but stay for what is likely to be a Tony nominated-performance by Annaleigh.  


Ato Blankson-Wood (along with Vondie Curtis Hall, featured below) blew the roof off the Public Theater during the production of Heidi Rodewald and Stew's latest show, The Total Bent. Blankson-Wood and Hall appeared as a son and father, and represented the shift in the black music scene from church-style gospel to the world of mainstream funk.  Terrific show.  Terrific performances.




Stephanie J. Block will surely be nominated for a Tony for her performance as Trina is the revival of William Finn's resplendent musical, Falsettos. Her show-stopping "breakdown" song alone is worth the price of admission.  



Alex Brightman in School of Rock. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical cleaved too closely to the movie to provide anything new or surprising, but it sure rang up a winner when it tapped Brightman, a dynamo of energy, for the lead role as Dewey Finn, the rock ‘n’ roll slacker who becomes a long-term substitute teacher at an upscale private school  and bumbles his way into becoming an inspiration to his students.  





Timothée Chalamet exuded charisma and self-assurence by the bucketful as the troubled and troublesome title character in John Patrick Shanley's memory play The Prodigal Son.    




Carmen Cusack gave one of those sit-up-and-take-notice performances as the lead character of Alice Murphy in the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell bluegrass-inspired musical Bright Star.  The original cast recording of the show is up for a Grammy.  Got my thumbs up! 



Vondie Curtis Hall, as mentioned above, shared the spotlight with Ato Blankson-Wood in The Total Bent at the Public Theater and gave an unforgettable performance as a preacher and gospel singer, very unhappy with his gay son's embracing of a personal and musical lifestyle that is totally alien to him.   



Katrina Lenk is Broadway-bound in Paula Vogel's Indecent, which I missed during its acclaimed off-Broadway run. Instead, her appearance on this list is for her performance in the little gem of a musical, The Band's Visit.  She was dazzling as the owner of cafe in an isolated Israeli town that is unexpectedly visited by the members of an Egyptian band,  lost while on their way to another venue. I hope she and the musical, with its lovely score by David Yazbek, get another production (after Indecent, of course).  




Kecia Lewis, like Ms. Lenk, caught my attention at the Atlantic Theater Company.  She wowed in Marie and Rosetta as the gospel and R&B singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her powerhouse performance, including some mighty fine singing, lifted the show far above its bio-play roots.  


Judith Light is an actress who continues to show an undying
love of and commitment to live theater despite her successful career in the television world. Never one to take on easy, lightweight fare, this year we got to see her in Neil LaBute's one-character play All The Ways To Say I Love You, a disconcerting confessional by a school teacher who is a ruiner of lives, including her own. Another splendid performance for the two-time Tony winner.     




Janet McTeer is currently starring on Broadway alongside another terrific actor, Liev Schreiber, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Her place on this list, however, reflects her glorious performance as Petruchio in the all-female Shakespeare In The Park production of Taming of the Shrew in June. Her turn as the raunchy swaggering misogynist was the awesome highlight.



Patrick Page is an imposing presence in any show that
allows him to use his barreling baritone in service of his craft. He has made this list for two performances:  one in the non-singing role of the patrician Menenius in the Red Bull Theater's fiery production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, and the other as the sinister character of Hades in the musical version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hadestown, so wonderfully performed in its Off Broadway production under Rachel Chavkin's pitch perfect direction.  



Ben Platt has been rightly identified as the top contender for a 2017 Tony for his bundle-of-twitchy-nerves performance as a troubled teen in Dear Evan Hansen. The show has made a smooth and easy transition from Off Broadway to Broadway and is consistently drawing sell-out crowds to the Music Box Theatre. Best comparison to Platt's performance is with Alex Sharp's 2015 Tony-winning turn in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  




Jennifer Simard in Disaster. Simard was a comic standout as a nun with a gambling addiction in this spoof of the genre of disaster movies that were all the rage in the 1970s. The show incorporated songs from that era, and Simard knocked it out of the ball park with her rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" as a passionate ode to a slot machine.  


Bobby Steggert always gives 110% in the plays and musicals in which he appears (Ragtime, Yank!, Big Fish, Mothers and Sons, among others). His place on this list is for his performance in a small Off Broadway show, based on a true story, called Boy. In it, he gave a richly layered performance as a young man whose parents attempted to raise him as a girl on the advice of physicians and a renowned psychologist after a botched medical circumcision left him without a penis. This forced transgender role ruined his life even more than the accident. Steggert suffused his performance with warmth, gentle humor, and without an ounce of pathos. This was his best work since Yank!

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

MACBETH: The Seeing Place Offers A Gritty Production in Tune With the Mood of the Country



 Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican
Photo by Russ Rowland



The Seeing Place's rapid-paced production of Shakespeare's Macbeth at the Paradise Factory in the East Village is a flaming roller coaster plunge that engulfs the power-grubbing pair at its center, along with anyone else who has the misfortunate of being in the path of their callous ascent or their inexorable free-fall to doom. 

There is a distinctly nihilistic tone to this gritty production, one that by sheer happenstance permeates another Shakespeare work right across the street at the New York Theatre Workshop, the star-powered Othello that likewise concerns itself with the "collateral damage" wrought by a calculating sociopath. A sign of our times?  

More than is true with most presentations, the characters of Macbeth (Brandon Walker) and his lady (Erin Cronican) come off as minor and ill-prepared members of the aristocracy who are suddenly presented with the opportunity to rise to the highest ranks. All (!) they have to do is murder the sitting King Duncan (G. W. Reed), who conveniently is spending the night with them under light guard.    

As portrayed by Mr. Walker, Macbeth may be a worthy soldier, honored in the opening scene for his valor on the battlefield, but he makes for a lousy civilian leader. He is an out-of-control child whose toy gun has been replaced by a loaded one, and his milk-and-cookies with a flask of artificial courage. Egged on by his glory-seeking wife and by the prophesies of the three witches (Jane Kahler, Lisa-Marie Newton, and Candice Oden), Macbeth does the deed and sets into motion the crumbling of the kingdom and the destruction of any who stand in his way, including women and children and imagined enemies. 

There is no point in blaming things on fate. To pull in a line from another of Shakespeare's plays, "the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves." Here, for instance, the witches come off not so much as key players bent on bringing Macbeth to his knees for their own cackling pleasure, but as passers-by whom Macbeth happens to run into. He is the "something wicked" who enters their world, and not the other way around. All that unfolds lies within Macbeth's capacity to control.     

While keeping up the relentless pacing of the production, the company has avoided any trimming of the play, bringing it in at just under two hours without intermission. Even at that pace, one thing that is nicely highlighted is the sad story of the murders of Lady Macduff and her children, and the later reaction of her husband to the news. These are touching moments that underscore the truly horrific damage that Macbeth has wrought, so that we are complicit in wanting to see his downfall.  

As an actor, Brandon Walker is perfectly suited to this role. Walker is never one to stand still, which fits the anxious, pacing, and often out-of-control Macbeth. By way of contrast, Erin Cronican gives us a quieter, more naturalistic Lady Macbeth, the woman-behind-the-man who whispers him into action. While they manage to hold it together, they come off as the perfect power couple. 

The rest of the cast, a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors, does not always mesh in tone, and sometimes the speed of the line readings results in a lack of clarity, but overall this is a strikingly contemporary take on "the Scottish play" that  captures the mood of the country right now and proves once again that Shakespeare's voice is one to be reckoned with for all times.

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  







  

Sunday, November 27, 2016

FALSETTOS: First Class Revival of William Finn's Quirky, Funny, Touching, and Honest Musical




In a 2005 interview posted at Broadway.com, theater composer/lyricist William Finn said there are two others whose work he especially admires. One is Frank Loesser who, he said, “can musicalize anything and make it sound musical.” The other is Stephen Sondheim, who “can do anything and make it sound natural.”

I would argue that Mr. Finn is minted from the same gold ore as these two. 

Just imagine, for example, what Sondheim might write if instead of tailoring his songs to characters created by others, he were to openly express his own deepest feelings – both emotionally raw and psychologically complex – through his music and lyrics. That’s what it is like experiencing Finn’s work, with melodies and words that are smart and moving, quirky and personal and honest. Only he knows if what he writes about expresses the literal truth, but it is certainly some of the most truthful work you’ll ever hear on the Broadway stage. 

In loving testament to Finn’s talent is the current revival of Falsettos, a Tony winner from 1992 with a book by James Lapine, who has long been associated with both Finn and Sondheim. Mr. Lapine is on hand once again to direct this production, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre.    

Falsettos presents the tale of a group of very neurotic and complicated people, starting with Marvin, a competitive, self-centered man who wants it all, including the good will of his wife and son after he leaves them for another man. His self-deprecating ex-wife Trina is unsure of what she wants or even if she can allow herself to want it. Their pre-adolescent son Jason is moody and worried about his future (will he be gay like his dad?). Marvin’s on-again off-again man-child boyfriend Whizzer has commitment issues. Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel who, after Marvin departs, becomes Trina and Jason’s psychiatrist, and, later, Trina’s second husband. Oh, and there’s the lesbian couple from next door, a caterer and a physician.  

The story unfolds through its songs, with staging that makes use of modular geometric forms (by set designer David Rockwell) that the cast pushes and pulls into various positions for the individual scenes that make up the show. 

In its design, Falsettos may remind you of Sondheim’s 1971 musical Company with its “scenes from a life” approach. At its best, it may also remind you of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, dealing as it does with a gay relationship at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Act I takes place in 1979, while Act II is a mere two years later. Yet in that brief ensuing time, a dark shadow has begun to fall over everything; as Dr. Charlotte, the physician, sings with heart-wrenching frustration:bachelors arrive sick and frightened/They leave weeks later unenlightened/We see a trend, but the trend has no name.”

The central character of Marvin is played by Christian Borle, who won a Tony last year for his strutting portrait of Shakespeare in Something Rotten and who will be taking on the role of Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come spring.

This is a much different role for the actor generally associated with offbeat comic performances, yet Borle shows he has the chops to carry it off, just as he did when he took on and nailed the role of the AIDS patient Prior Walter in the Signature Theater Company’s production of Angels In America in 2010. The rest of the cast is equally strong: Andrew Rannells as Whizzer, Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel, Anthony Rosenthal (terrific as Jason), Tracie Thomas as Dr. Charlotte, and Betsy Wolfe as Cordelia, who winds up catering Jason’s unusual bar mitzvah, which takes place in a hospital room.   

But if anyone steals the show, it is Stephanie J. Block as Trina, who is “tired of all the happy men who rule the world” and wants a piece of that elusive happiness for herself.  Here’s Trina in the midst of a meltdown singing of her erstwhile marriage to Marvin, in a song titled "I'm Breaking Down." 

Oh, sure, I'm sure he's sure, he did his best.
I mean, he meant to be what he was not.
The things he was are things which I've forgot.
He's a queen.
I'm a queen.
Where is our crown?

Ms. Block makes this a showstopper that will almost assuredly guarantee her a Tony nomination. 

Despite all of the dysfunction, Falsettos is full of surprises, many of them capturing life’s funny-awkward moments. A great set piece, for example, has all of the adult cast members sitting on bleachers at a little league baseball game, there to support Jason as he fumbles at bat.   

We’re sitting, and watching Jason play baseball
We’re watching Jason play baseball
We're watching Jewish boys,
who cannot play baseball, play baseball.

Only occasionally are there puzzling choices with respect to how a couple of the numbers are staged, as if Mr. Lapine could not think of how to absorb them into the plot. There’s the opening song, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” in which the characters parade around in Biblical attire, and “March of the Falsettos,” which comes off as an outlier that does not seem to serve a purpose. It possibly is a dream sequence based on Jason's insecurity, but that is not at all clear.  

Falsettos is the finalized version of what started out as two separate one-act shows. March of the Falsettos from 1981 has become Act I, while Falsettoland from 1990 has become Act II. Both are available on CD, and plans are afoot for Ghostlight Records to produce a two-disc set of the current production. (Now would be a good time to interject kudos to Mr. Finn's favorite orchestrator, Michael Starobin, who worked on these, plus Finn's A New Brain and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Starobin is responsible for making the tiny Falsettos orchestra sound so rich.)    

But even before March of the Falsettos was produced, William Finn wrote another show called In Trousers (1979), which essentially serves to provide Marvin’s backstory. It didn’t do well as a theatrical production, but, truly, it contains some of Finn’s best songs. “I’m Breaking Down” is the only number that made the transition to Falsettos, but pretty much every one is a gem. 

William Finn at ATCA lunch at Sardis
Photo by Howard Miller


At the recent 2016 American Theatre Critics Association party at Sardis, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Finn if there were any plans to revive In Trousers. He did not seem to feel that was likely, but he did throw me a bone by saying that Encores! was interested in presenting a semi-staged version at City Center. Last summer, Encores! did a terrific production of A New Brain, so maybe something further will come out of that successful experience.  

Falsettos would be well served by being reunited with In Trousers, and the many fans of Falsettos would be thrilled to be able to see this prequel.  So let me end with a plea to Mr. Finn. Please, please, please allow Encores! to do it.  


Meanwhile, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the In Trousers CD. It is a marvel.   


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.