Thursday, October 30, 2014

'The Real Thing': Revival of Tom Stoppard's Romantic Comedy Is Unfortunately Meh

Quick:  What pop song from the late 1950s is being featured in two different current Broadway shows?

While you are pondering that, let me ask another question.  How could a play written by a world class playwright, a play that won multiple Tony Awards both for its original Broadway production and for a later revival, a play that in its current incarnation features a talented cast and director, be such a yawn-inducing experience to sit through?

Let’s take care of the good news first.  The answer to the first question is Oh Carol, a hit tune for Neil Sedaka in 1959.  It is featured in a live rendition in Beautiful:  The Carole King Musical and via a recording in the revival of the play we’re about to talk about, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

The Real Thing, originally produced in 1982, is Stoppard’s take on love, marriage, trust, and betrayal among the British well-to-do. In many ways, you could say it follows in a straight-line path that includes Noël Coward’s Private Lives from 1930, the 1958 Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate (the British connection is, of course, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal from 1978. 

By 1982, Stoppard had already penned more than a dozen plays and had made a name for himself as a clever wordsmith in the arena of absurdist theater, with such works as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound, Jumpers, and Travesties. With The Real Thing, he tested new waters by putting his hand to what is essentially a romantic comedy, albeit one that employs clever little tricks, literary references, politics, and a serious consideration of questions of the heart. What is it, he asks, that brings people together and then breaks them apart?  To put it another way, and since we’ve already brought Cole Porter into the picture, “What is this thing called love?”

The main characters are three actors, Max, Charlotte, and Annie, and one playwright, Henry. In the beginning, Max is married to Annie, and Henry is married to Charlotte (though, due to one of Mr. Stoppard’s theatrical tricks it takes us a while to figure all this out).  Later, after some onstage hanky-panky and offstage divorces, it is Annie and Henry who are married to each other, and, once things settle down, it is their relationship that becomes the focus of the play. 

Because it mixes elements of a comedy of manners and modern realism, and because it steps outside of itself to comment on the “art of making art,” The Real Thing can be a challenge to produce, but done well, it can be touch both the mind and the heart, and can provide a wonderful opportunity to display first-class acting and directing talents. Back in 1984, with its initial Broadway production, The Real Thing won the Tony Award for best play, and garnered additional Tonys for Jeremy Irons as Henry, Glenn Close as Annie, and Christine Baranski as Charlotte, and for its director Mike Nichols.  A production in 2000 led to Tonys for Stephen Dillane as Henry and Jennifer Ehle as Annie, as well as one for best revival.    

But that was then; this is now. The current revival at the American Airlines Theatre falls flat in every way imaginable, with perhaps the single exception of Ewan McGregor, making his Broadway debut as Henry. Josh Hamilton as Max, Cynthia Nixon as Charlotte, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Annie are all either terribly miscast, or they are all poorly directed by Sam Gold, whose own history as a director has run hot  (his collaborations with playwright Annie Baker; and Fun Home, which will be coming to Broadway after a highly praised run at the Public Theater) and cold (Picnic; Look Back In Anger). 

Not to belabor things here, but nothing works, from David Zinn’s uninspired set that is stretched across the stage like a film in letterbox format, to Kay Voyce’s equally uninspired costumes, to the very poor renditions of British accents coming out of the mouths of the American actors, a flaw that is on heightened display every time Mr. McGregor converses with any of the others.

Unfortunately, the best thing about The Real Thing is the interspersing of pop tunes like the aforementioned Oh Carol (Henry is a fan of music from the 1960s), in which members of the cast join in singing between scenes.  Maybe it would lift the audience’s spirits to be invited to sing along.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

'On The Town': Glowing Revival of Iconic Musical and a Star Turn for Its Choreographer

A star is born and another is honored in spirit in the glowing first-rate revival of On The Town at the Lyric Theatre. 

To begin with there is, of course, Leonard Bernstein’s score and Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s lyrics – all pure gold. Pretty much anyone who is familiar with Broadway musical theater will recognize at least some of the songs: the jaunty I Can Cook, Too, the soulful Lonely Townthe wistful Some Other Time, and the quintessential ode to the Big Apple, New York, New York (a helluva town!). There is not a clunker in the bunch, a rather remarkable accomplishment given that this was the trio’s very first Broadway show.

Now a new star arrives with a bang as On The Town continues its tradition of “firsts.” This is Joshua Bergasse’s first Broadway stint as choreographer, and from the looks of things, he has the chops to rise to the top of the heap among his peers. He uses every number to tell a carefully crafted story, and while he graciously tips his hat to the 1944 musical’s original choreographer, the sublimely brilliant Jerome Robbins, he decidedly puts his own stamp on things. The second act’s outstanding ballet sequence, in particular, is beautifully staged and beautifully danced by two of the show’s stars, Tony Yazbeck and Megan Fairchild, who happens to be principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. 
On The Town takes a cue from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway the previous year, by starting not with an overture, but with a single singer. In this case, the singer is Phillip Boykin, who does a splendid job playing several supporting characters throughout the production. He gets the ball rolling with the sleepy early-morning work song, I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet, which he begins in his booming bass while approaching the stage from one of the aisles. As he sings, the lights get brighter onstage, marking the rising of the sun. The music then makes a jolting upturn in tempo, as three sailors come down the gangplank and launch into New York, New York. It’s a helluva way to start this wonderful musical, setting the tone as the city leaps headlong into action. 

Yazbeck plays Gabey, one of the triumvirate of sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City. He and his buddies, Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) are determined to make the most of their time, with the ultimate goal of hooking up with a willing gal before they have to return to their ship. It isn’t long before Chip meets up with Hildy (Alysha Umphress), a cabby who is determined to get him to forget about sightseeing and “come up to my place.”  Ozzie, too, quickly finds his partner in Claire (Elizabeth Stanley), a libidinous anthropologist. The two of them meet cute in the Museum of Natural History, where they launch into the brilliantly staged Carried Away, featuring, among other things, a dancing dinosaur skeleton. 

That leaves Gabey, who has set his sights on Ivy Smith (Ms. Fairchild), whose picture he spots on a poster of “Miss Turnstiles” in a promotional campaign for New York’s subway system. Will Gabey and Ivy get together? Will the guys avoid being arrested?  Need you ask?

There is truly little by way of a plot to On The Town. It’s basically a series of set pieces, each of which features one of the show’s marvelous songs. John Rando directs with a strong sense of style that captures both the silliness and the underlying sense of uncertainty and the preciousness of fleeing time felt by the characters during wartime. Ms. Umphress and Ms. Stanley bring a grand giddiness to their performances, and Mssrs. Yazbeck, Johnson, and Alves are full of charm and personality.  

Adding another level to the comic wackiness is Jackie Hoffman, who seems to have been given free rein to go over the top as she plays multiple parts, each nuttier than the previous ones.  My favorite is a bit about two different nightclub singers, each of whom starts to sing a torch song of miserable heartbreak until they are cut off by Gabey’s friends who are trying to cheer him up. 

Everything about the production works to sweep the audience into its embrace. Beowolf Boritt’s set and projection design are utter perfection, with a color scheme that seems inspired by all 133 Crayola crayons. And the full orchestra (so rare these days) under James Moore’s musical direction is a real joy to listen to. This revival of On The Town is a true gem, honoring a musical deserving of every bit of love that has been bestowed upon it.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Disgraced: A Case of ‘What If…’ That Transcends Its Premise

What if we were to set up a playwriting competition – a contrived situation that brings together four disparate characters, and then let ‘er rip! 

Let’s see…  Make one of them a Muslim man, one of them a Jewish man, the third a white woman, and the fourth an African American woman. Make them all intelligent and financially comfy (two lawyers, two in the art world). Plunk them down in a picture perfect Upper East Side apartment.  Stir and let ferment. 

If you are lucky enough to have Ayad Akhtar take you up on your proposition, and once he pushes past the manipulative set-up, you will discover you have one terrific play on your hands, something called Disgraced. It comes loaded with razor sharp dialog, solid acting, excellent directing, and a great set.  Broadway here we come!  Pulitzer Prize here we come!!! 

Actually, the Pulitzer Prize came last year, and Broadway is here right now, with tonight’s opening at the Lyceum Theatre after the play's previously successful Off Broadway mounting last season.

Disgraced unfolds on a world that is a decade past 9/11 and well into the age of the seemingly endless war on terrorism, jihadist extremism, and generalized Islamophobia. 

Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) is a successful attorney, expecting to be named partner in his law firm. A Pakistani Muslim who has found it convenient to be perceived as Indian, he considers himself to be fully assimilated. He has little patience for those who give Islam a bad name by attempting to impose a way of life he says reflects beliefs and values and living conditions from 1,500 years ago.

Amir is married to Emily (Gretchen Mol), a white woman and an artist who is about to have a breakthrough exhibit of her work that was inspired by Islamic artistic traditions. Curating the art show is Isaac (Josh Radnor), the Jewish boyfriend of Jory (Karen Pittman), an African American woman, also an attorney and a colleague in the same law firm where Amir works. 

The four come together for a celebratory dinner at Amir and Emily’s lovely apartment (elegantly designed by John Lee Beatty), where friendly conversation quickly segues to friendly debate, and then to not-so-friendly arguing that threatens to turn into open warfare. Suffice it to say, and without giving away the specifics, many lines are crossed during and after the dinner party, and it remains very uncertain as to what the future will hold for any of them. 

Every good fight needs a spark or two to ignite it, and the playwright has obliged with three instigating elements. The first comes in the form of Amir’s nephew Abe (Danny Ashok), “Abe” being another identity-concealing name chosen to ease assimilation. Abe (or, as his uncle calls him, Hussein) wants Amir to come out in support of a local imam who has been charged with abetting terrorism. Another spark is lit by the suspiciously non-professional relationship between Isaac and Emily. And a third has to do with Amir’s situation at work, which also involves Jory. Knots within knots within knots. 

There is so much manipulation of the situations (did I mention that Emily is serving pork for dinner?) that you would not expect this play to work. Yet somehow it does. Ayad Akhtar is able to humanize the characters so that the dialog feels honest and true, and Kimberly Senior’s fast-paced direction (the play runs 90 minutes without an intermission) and solid performances by the tight-knit cast make for an intensely thrilling theatrical experience. 

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

'The Fortress of Solitude': Music Is King in Adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's Best-Selling Novel

The Fortress of Solitude Cast Members
Photo by Doug Hamilton

Music is king in the adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling coming-of-age novel, The Fortress of Solitude, opening tonight at the Public Theater. 

Imagine a really good jukebox musical, but one with all new, creative and original tunes that set the mood and propel the plot, and you will have a sense of the remarkable job that composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and playwright Itamar Moses’s have done. 

Almost completely sung through, The Fortress of Solitude comes jam packed with every style imaginable of music that succeeds in capturing the emotional touchstones of the 70s, 80s, and 90s: rock, rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, folk, punk, funk, pop ballads, and rap. 

Fans of musical theater may well be reminded of Dreamgirls, Hair, Rent, and In The Heights as its progenitors, and you will find yourself bombarded with more cultural references than you’ll come across in a Stephen King novel.

Yet it is a tribute to its creators—not to mention its director Daniel Aukin, choreographer Camille A. Brown, and the outstanding cast—that The Fortress of Solitude earns its place in the sun without feeling like it comes coasting in on easy nostalgia.           

Just as Lin-Manuel Miranda did with In The Heights, where the wonderfully diverse neighborhood of Washington Heights took center stage, the setting of The Fortress of Solitude is of utmost importance to the telling of the stories of two boys—one white, one of mixed race, and both named for musical icons—Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat), and Mingus (Kyle Beltran).     

Dylan, a quiet nerdy white kid of 12, has been ripped from his roots in monochromatic, monocultural Berkeley, California and has been plunked down in what he finds to be a very scary world of the distinctly downscale Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.  At his mother’s insistence, the family has relocated in order to keep their son from growing up without having had the experience of living in a culturally, racially, and ethnically mixed community. But Mom (Kristen Sieh), having done her duty to her son’s  upbringing, succumbs to some California dreamin’ of her own and leaves him with his casually inattentive father (Ken Barnett) and to his own devices.    

Act I is largely Dylan’s story, and the musical does a splendid job of capturing the angst of someone living through a painful and lonely early adolescence. He must  figure out how to negotiate the neighborhood and its assorted denizens, including Robert, the requisite bully (Brian Tyree Henry). The closest he has to a friend is the annoying, whiny, and even more nerdy Arthur (David Rossmer), who goes nowhere without his beloved chessboard.

Then Dylan meets Mingus, who has the self-assured survival skills that Dylan craves, and it’s love at first sight. The boys bonding is solidified through a shared appreciation of comic books, a flair for graffiti tagging, and the common experience of being raised without a mother. Both thrive under the watchful eye of Mingus’s father, Barrett Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo), former lead singer for a R&B group called the Subtle Distinctions, who takes Dylan under his wing. 

Gradually, though, things fall apart, not through any quarrel but through the normal drifting apart that occurs when we fail to pay attention. Dylan goes off to the academically elite Stuyvesant High School, leaving Mingus behind to deal with the mean streets, epitomized by the appearance of his malevolent and dangerous grandfather, Barrett Rude Senior (André de Shields). 

With Act II, we have entered the 1990s.  Now grown, Dylan is a successful music critic living back in California. He has returned to Brooklyn for a short visit to solidify a deal to release a collection of the Subtle Distinctions’ music, his way of thanking Mingus’s father. The Brooklyn he returns to, however, is not the one he remembers. Instead, it is in the process of gentrifying, and even though he gets to see some of his old companions, things are just not the same, and he is struck by the truth behind the cliché: “you can’t go home again.” Nothing is frozen in time, and even the left-behinds have moved on to follow their own destinies. 

The transition between Act I and Act II is a bit bumpy. Where Act I is deeply rewarding and emotionally honest, the tone of Act II is more distancing. The adult Dylan is far less interesting than the boy had been, and the emotional core has shifted to the story of Barrett Rude Junior.

That story deserves the spotlight of a full show of its own, especially as it reveals itself through Kevin Mambo’s masterful portrayal of a man on the verge of superstardom who is all but crushed by life’s harsh blows, including the violence, drugs, and racism that seem to be unavoidable within the territory he has inherited. He is trapped, along with his much-loved and now-lost son Mingus.    

There are times when the dropped cultural references pile up more deeply than necessary (I now have an earworm of Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime playing endlessly in my brain), and it can be a challenge to keep up with all of the main stories and side stories that pull you along like a whirlwind, but The Fortress of Solitude is a powerhouse of a musical with richly drawn characters who will stick with you for a very long time.     

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