Monday, March 21, 2011

Where's Charley: A Sparkling Delight from Encores!

Lauren Worsham, Rob McClure, Jill Paice, and Sebastian Arcelus
Thank you, Encores!

Ever and ever, I have wanted to be part of an audience of happy theatergoers singing the bouncy and infectious Frank Loesser tune, “Once In Love With Amy.” Yesterday evening, it finally happened, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

The sing-along, famously introduced by Ray Bolger during the original run of Where’s Charley? back in 1948, is the highlight of the sparkling production of this cotton candy of a show that just concluded its run at City Center. And what a treat it was!

Where’s Charley? is a piece of fluff, a farce based on the 1892 play Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas. When Charley’s wealthy, widowed, and long-absent aunt plans a visit to her nephew, Charley (Rob McClure) and his pal Jack (Sebastian Arcelus) want her to chaperone a rendezvous they have planned with their respective sweethearts, Amy (Lauren Worsham) and Kitty (Jill Paice)—who, being respectable young ladies, would not otherwise join them. When the aunt postpones her trip, the only way to save the day is for Charley to pretend to be her. He dons a costume he has on hand for a theatrical production, and the rest is what you would expect it to be: lots of running around, complications, and the triumph of love.

Farce isn’t easy to pull off; indeed, the sillier the premise, the more difficult it is to carry the audience along. And Where’s Charley? is about as silly as they come.

Happily, the cast, under the direction of John Doyle, is perfection. They land every line with perfect comic timing, and they sing Loesser’s songs with such panache that every tune comes off as a polished gem, whether it be a straightforward love song like “Lovelier Than Ever,” winningly sung by veterans Howard McGillin and Rebecca Luker, or a comic number, like “The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students’ Conservatory Band,” which serves no purpose whatsoever and which I would not excise for the world.

The Encores! Orchestra, under the baton of Rob Berman, is in glorious form, as is the choreography by Alex Sanchez, as are the singers and dancers of the chorus.  Indeed, I would like to shower everyone associated with the Encores! production of Where's Charley? with rose petals.

But if I must single out one performer, it would be Rob McClure as Charley and as Charley’s alter ego, his aunt Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez who has lived for many years in Brazil…”where the nuts come from.” Mr. McClure’s performance is inspired. He may not be Ray Bolger, but he is Rob McClure, which is high praise indeed.

I want to end this blog entry by taking a cue from Where's Charley? and inviting you to sing along with “Once In Love With Amy.” Direct your computer’s search engine to, where you will find a clip of Ray Bolger singing his signature song, from the 1952 film version of Where’s Charley?. Enjoy!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Tiger Seeks Wisdom While War Rages On and Souls Wander Aimlessly

Robin Williams stars in 'Bengal Tiger'
Quick.  What pops into your head when I say the words “comedy” and “Robin Williams” in the same sentence? 

Wild, perhaps?   Inventive?  Unpredictable?  Hilarious?

Whatever your response, chances are your list does not include such terms as war, rape, death, or angst. 

Yet these are exactly what you get with the new play by Rajiv Joseph, Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo, now in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and most definitely billed as a comedy starring Robin Williams. 

War is hell, or at least purgatory, for both the living and the dead who inhabit the world of Bengal Tiger, and the comedy that comes through is of the darkest existential kind.

Williams plays the title character—yes, the tiger—shot to death after he chomps off the hand of a U. S. soldier who has foolishly stuck it into the beast’s cage at the Baghdad Zoo sometime during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.   After death, the tiger becomes most philosophic, seeking to understand the nature of God and the universe, of sin and redemption:  “Why does God make predators and then get angry with us when we prey?” 

The tiger finds he is not alone in his quest for answers.  Soon he is surrounded by both the dead and the still-living souls whose lives have been upended by war.  These include two American soldiers, Kev (Brad Fleischer), the tiger killer, and Tom (Glenn Davis), he of the amputated hand. 

Both soldiers are young and inexperienced in war and in the ways of the world. Kev is rattled to the bone with a never-ending dread that consumes him, and he is haunted by the vision of the tiger he has shot until he can no longer live with it.  Tom is obsessed with smuggling out of the country a gold toilet seat he has taken from Saddam Hussein’s mansion, and imagines the prize will be his ticket to luckytown. 

As the play progresses, the parade of souls continues to grow.  Musa (Arian Moayed), a Turkish gardener who has been employed as a translator by the U. S. military, is haunted by the ghost of his sister, who was raped by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday (brilliantly and scarily portrayed by Hrach Titizian).  When we first see Uday, he too is dead and is carrying around the head of his decapitated brother. 

Laughing yet?

Being dead stops no one from interacting with the living as if in life.  Uday, in particular, is a very physical presence as he goads Musa into becoming a terrorist, while Musa wants nothing more than to get back to being a gardener.   Rounding out the cast are Necar Zadegan as a leper, and Sheila Vand as both a prostitute and as Musa’s dead sister. 

It should be noted that all of the cast, save for Robin Williams, are recreating their roles from the original production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.   Their experience with the play shows, and all of these performances are sharply drawn, under the polished direction of Mois├ęs Kaufman. 

At the preview performance I attended, Mr. Williams played it straight, seemingly wanting to fit in without disturbing the well-established flow.  There were a couple of moments in which he seemed poised to let loose his comic tongue, but then he pulled back. 

This kind of  existential dark comedy is difficult to pull off.  Williams has had a shot at it before, when he played Estragon opposite Steve Martin’s Vladimir in Waiting for Godot back in 1988.  But Rajiv Joseph--while an interesting playwright--is not Samuel Beckett, and Bengal Tiger--while an interesting play--is not Godot, so Mr. Williams will need to find his voice as the tiger on his own.  

It should be interesting to watch him grow into the role so as not to be seen as a being there solely on the basis of his box office draw.  It would help his cause, I believe, if the production were not billed as a comedy.  Word-of-mouth will make that abundantly clear, in an event.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

War Horse: Indulge Your Inner Pre-Teen Self

Joey, the War Horse, with his owner, Albert
If I were 12 years old—or even if I could be more in touch with my inner 12-year-old self—I believe I would be enthralled with War Horse, now on view at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. 

Certainly there is much to be admired in this magnificent pageant of a show, presented with obvious love, pride, and skill by the National Theatre of Great Britain.   Central to its magnificence is the amazing work by the Handspring Puppet Company (design, fabrication and direction are credited to Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones), which has found a way to bring life-size horses onto the stage and to give real personality to the “character” of Joey, the War Horse of the title.  Basil Twist and Julie Taymor, eat your hearts out!

There are 45 performers on hand to enact this staged version of the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, a popular and prolific author of children’s books.  (A film version, directed by Steven Spielberg, is also in the works.)

The production stints on nothing.  There are revolving turntables and lifts, video imagery and projections similar in style to those used so effectively in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Sunday in the Park With George a couple of years back, depictions of battles, a full-size military tank, fog machines, and live and recorded music to both underscore and heighten the action onstage. 

Given all that has gone into this production, I blush at my curmudgeonly take on the show, which is that whatever War Horse is, it is not a play—and I say this knowing that it is certain to be in strong contention for a Tony Award for best play. 

But first the plot, such as it is:  boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy and horse may or may not be reunited in the end.  (I’m not so much of a curmudgeon that I would give away the ending). All of this is set against the backdrop of World War I, as seen through the eyes of Joey and his human companion, Albert (Seth Numrich).  Don’t go looking for any psychological drama in the manner of Equus; the plot is exactly as I have described it. 

And therein lies the problem.  There may be 45 in the cast, but no character seems to be anything more than a plot device.  Oh, I’ll confess to a drop of moisture in my eyes at one or two pivotal points, but watching War Horse is like watching the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall or Riverdance or some other extravaganza.  It may be theatrical, but it isn’t theater.  It may be dramatic, but it isn’t drama.  It may be well performed, but it isn’t acting, at least not in the sense of depicting fully realized characters or even of serving some grand theme.

War Horse, the show, is perhaps ideal for the same audience as War Horse the book—with the proviso that there are some potentially disturbing scenes of war and one or two uses of the “F” word.   So PG-13 rather than PG. 

I want to reiterate that everything is so well done that if you want to see War Horse just for the spectacle of it, by all means dig up your inner 12-year-old and indulge yourselves.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

The Book of Mormon: Raunchy, Wild, Crazy, and Great Fun

The Book of Mormon.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Let me cut to the chase. The Book of Mormon is the funniest, cleverest, most original and most crowd-pleasing musical I have seen since Urinetown a decade ago.

It’s also the raunchiest and most irreverent, if those things matter to you—though surely you shouldn’t be surprised, given that two of its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are best known for the long-running raunchy and irreverent animated television show, South Park, and the third, Robert Lopez, co-wrote the raunchy and irreverent Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q.

By the way, it’s OK if you are not a big fan of South Park the television show, which is not particularly geared toward a Broadway musical audience. The question is, did you like South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, the—yes—raunchy and irreverent musical movie from 1999 that Parker and Trey co-wrote? If so, you will probably also like The Book of Mormon, which, except for the aforementioned raunch and irreverence, is a good old-fashioned Broadway musical presented with great joy and polish by a uniformly strong cast, under the direction of Mr. Parker and Casey Nicholaw, the director and choreographer for Elf: The Musical and The Drowsy Chaperone, as well as choreographer for Spamalot.

I’ve got to say that I greatly enjoyed South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, and at least two of its songs stick in my mind to this day: "Blame Canada," which was nominated for an Academy Award even though its colorful language meant it couldn’t be sung at the Awards show exactly as written, and "What Would Brian Boitano Do?,"  a song that Mr. Boitano, the Olympic figure skating champion, must have appreciated since he now has a cooking show called What Would Brian Boitano Make?

The songs in The Book of Mormon are at least as much fun. Many of them parody or at least reference other songs with which you may be familiar, including a very funny variation on "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King but whose meaning is rather different from the “no worries” message of the Elton John/Tim Rice song from the Disney musical. Indeed, there are several references to The Lion King throughout The Book of Mormon, as well as tunes that riff off of numbers from Annie, Wicked and, most hilariously, from The King and I.  

The story follows the adventures of Elder Price, a 19-year-old missionary-in-training who is about to embark on his first tour of duty on behalf of the church. Elder Price (Andrew Rannells, formerly of Jersey Boys and Hairspray, who here has incorporated a bit of Jim Carrey into his performance) is the star pupil. Everything is going his way, and he is convinced he will be sent to serve the Lord in his dream location—Orlando, Florida.

Much to his surprise, however, Elder Price is assigned to do his mission work in Uganda, partnered with the shlubbiest of the entire bunch, the dorky, overweight, daydreamer Elder Cunningham, wonderfully enacted by Josh Gad (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) as a pop culture film fanatic who references pretty much everything he says to Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings.

We join this mismatched pair as they meet up with their fellow Mormons in Uganda and take on the task of conversion and baptism.  Meanwhile, the villagers are less concerned with the state of their souls than with the misery of their day-to-day existence (“I have maggots in my scrotum,” the tribal doctor informs Elder Cunningham, wondering how Mormonism will help him). The villagers are also being threatened with forced genital mutilation and other assorted acts of brutality by a self-declared revolutionary general (Brian Tyree Henry) and his band of thugs. With so much to deal with, it is not surprising they show little interest in the message the missionaries bring to them.

That is until Elder Cunningham begins to embellish the official line with his own tales, offering up an unusual treatment for AIDS and warning the villagers that they need to change their wicked ways, lest they “burn in the fiery pits of Mordor!”

Finally, here is one missionary who makes sense, and they begin to warm to this new religion. The funniest moments in the show come when the villagers take Elder Cunningham’s bits of advice and string them together to create a pageant depicting the founding of Mormonism, which they present with great exuberance to the Mission President (Lewis Cleale) who has come to check on how things are progressing.

Needless to say, since The Book of Mormon is truly an old-fashioned musical comedy at heart, all is resolved in the end and the audience leaves the theater in a happy, happy mood.

Hakuna Matata, indeed!

Come Tony Awards time, The Book of Mormon will be the musical to beat. The only question is, what can they possibly show on the televised broadcast without bleeping out every other word?

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Kin: A Sharp and Funny Look at Friends and Family

Sam Gold, Kristen Bush, Bathsheba Doran, & Patch Darragh. 

If I were to have a play of my own produced, I can’t think of a an organization I’d rather have behind me than Playwrights Horizons, with its stated mission of supporting and developing contemporary American playwrights—a mission it lives up to consistently and with great results. 

This season alone has given us such lovely little gems as Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution, and Adam Bock’s A Small Fire, both of which I have written about previously.  Now we have Kin, a new play by Bathsheba Doran, which is so clearly a labor of love for all concerned.  

Ms. Doran, who also writes for television, has several plays to her credit and has garnered a number of playwriting awards, although, to judge by published reviews (I’ve not seen any of her previous work), she has not always been wildly embraced by the critics.  

However, I predict a more enthusiastic response to Kin, a sharp and funny riff on the theme of “boy meets girl” that is being performed by a strong ensemble cast—beautifully directed by Sam Gold, a rising star who continues to bring out the best in the productions he is associated with (Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens, and Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still, to mention but a few of his recent successes).

Kin tells the story of Anna, an Ivy League English lit professor, who becomes romantically involved with Sean, an Irish immigrant who works as a personal trainer.  The pair, well-acted by Kristen Bush and Patch Darragh (“Tom” in Roundabout’s wonderful production of A Glass Menagerie last season), come together, drift apart, and reunite over the course of the play. 

Ms. Doran weaves a tapestry out of short scenes involving the pair and various members of their intersecting and growing circle of friends and family, of which there are perhaps a few more than the weave of the plot can comfortably carry.  At times, I felt as though I were watching one of a series of plays, and that—over time—each of the characters would take turns being the central character. Who knows?  Maybe this is what the playwright has in mind. 

If that is so, at least two of them deserve plays of their own.  One is Anna’s neurotic actress friend Helena who keeps popping in and out of Anna's life.  As portrayed by Laura Heisler, Helena is both wacky-funny and a little scary.  If a scene involving a bear and a hunter seems to have been dropped into Kin from some other play altogether, it is also very much in keeping with the character. 

The other deeply compelling role is that of Linda, Sean’s agoraphobic mother back in Ireland.  Richly portrayed by Suzanne Bertish, Linda is given a powerful and moving back-story, so that when she emerges from her home for the first time in decades, it becomes a momentous occasion.

Director Gold manages all of the intersecting storylines with great skill, aided splendidly by scenic designer Paul Steinberg, who keeps the many scene changes moving at a rapid pace and throws in at least one surprising touch that takes a common theatrical device and pushes it over the top to hilarious results.

Given Ms. Doran’s increasing visibility as a television writer, the playwright may decide that Hollywood is where her future lies.  If that’s the case, I would encourage her to keep the characters she has so lovingly introduced in Kin and further develop them for a wider audience.  And while she is at it, I hope she continues to find time for writing for the theater.  Perhaps an Obie or two would provide the impetus to keep her coming back to New York. 

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Timon of Athens: Smart and Engaging Production of a Problematic Play

Richard Thomas as Timon
Timon of Athens, which may or may not have been written by Shakespeare, is seldom trotted out for public viewing due to its reputation as a confusing mess of a play—either a lesser work by the bard or a not-ready-for-prime-time collaborative effort by two or more of his contemporaries.

Thus, I attended the current production at the Public Theater with some trepidation, not expecting much but drawn by curiosity about a play I’d neither seen nor read before, not to mention the allure of the $15 ticket price.

So—drum roll please—it gives me great pleasure to offer up kudos to all involved for giving us this very accessible and most engaging Timon, directed by Barry Edelstein and performed by a very able cast, headed up in the title role by Richard Thomas, someone I never would have imagined to be so solid a Shakespearean actor.

Edelstein has taken the five-act original and broken it into two, and each act has its own tone and style. Some of the critics have found the two parts somewhat incompatible, but I have a different take, which I will explain anon.

But first the plot: In what we shall call Act I, Timon, a wealthy Athenian, surrounds himself with men he considers to be his closest and most trustworthy companions. He provides for their entertainment and lavishes generous gifts on them in the naive belief that this is simply what good friends do for one another. The seeming friends are, not surprisingly, eager to be the recipients of Timon’s largesse but are also quick to turn their backs on him after he has spent himself into ruinous debt.

In Act II, having lost his home and his worldly possessions, not to mention his trust in his fellow man, Timon has become a mad hermit, hiding out in the wilderness and declaiming: “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.” In his few encounters with others, he rails against humanity for its inhumanity, and in the end dies alone, likely by his own hand.

One hypothesis about the play’s creation posits that Timon represents a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, who counted The Revenger’s Tragedy among his works. Middleton was a member of Shakespeare’s theatrical company, which makes the idea at least plausible. But more convincing is the shift in the aforementioned tone and style of the play itself. The language of the first half of the play fits in well with the Jacobean age, more cynical and modern-seeming than the second half, which is far more Elizabethan (i. e. Shakespearean) in its use of heightened tone and poetic language.

Assuming Edelstein and company did not tinker with the language of the play itself, the stylistic transition from Jacobean to Elizabethan is quite pronounced. It might be the reason some critics have found the play disjointed. Another way of looking at it, however, might consider the change in language to reflect the change in Timon’s world view. A modern take would be that Timon suffers from a bipolar disorder. We see him in the early scenes displaying a manic personality—partying all night, throwing around his money with a patent disregard for the consequences. Then, in the second half, we see his descent into a generalized rage that turns in the end to despair and suicide. While the play toys around with being a more typically Jacobean revenge tragedy—there is a subplot involving a military rebellion that Timon supports—it may be that Shakespeare had something else in mind altogether as he took over the writing duties.

For me, at least, this production of Timon of Athens amounts to the unearthing of a previously undiscovered treasure. Coming on the heels of the terrific Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice, along with still-evolving but generally strong presentations of works by Middleton and his peers by the estimable Red Bull Theater, Timon is yet another example of how Americans are finding new ways of thinking about these classic dramas without the use of fake British accents or silly gimmickry. I look forward to more such discoveries.

In addition to praising Edelstein and Thomas, I would like to tip my hat to scenic designer Neil Patel, who has managed to make much out of little, to the fine guitar work by Simon Kafka, and to actor Triney Sandoval (a standout, as well, in the recent A Free Man of Color) who ought someday to play Harpo or Chico Marx in a production of Minnie's Boys or Animal Crackers

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.