Saturday, December 31, 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.  


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


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 from 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.