Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bette Pulls Off Hello Dolly in Top Form

Hello Dolly is an old school musical. You can either try to update it somehow, or hire a star and revel in the revival. Director Jeffery Zaks decided to go full on traditional, using Gower Champion’s staging and turning the full wattage of Bette Midler on to a willing audience. And it works marvelously.
Bette Midler charms as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly
Hello Dolly is a star vehicle, a Bette Midler is a star that carries it with ease. The audience loves every minute she is onstage, and she loves it as well. As times when her smile is turned up to 12, you see the happiness under the character, this is a showman that loves to connect with the audience.
For those few that don’t know the story, Bette Midler plays Dolly Levi, a matchmaker and more. She has set her eyes on Horace Vandergelder, the famous Yonkers’ half a millionaire. Horace is played by an always fun David Hyde Pierce, who is too pleasurable in the role to complain about his in and out accent. Dolly has been hired to find him a wife and has procured one Irene Molloy, haberdasher and widow from New York City.
Horace sets out to New York, without realizing he has a house full of trouble. He has a niece that wants to marry an artist. Two store clerks that want an adventure and Dolly Levi who wants Horace for her own. Songs, laughs and mayhem ensue.
The clerks (the always excellent Gavin Creel* and the perfectly cast Taylor Trensch) meet Mrs. Molloy and her assistant, Minnie Fay at the hat shop. Dolly and Horace enter at the same time and tales are spun as to Cornelius’ wealth. Horace leaves, determined to find a more suitable new wife, and Cornelius and Barnaby find their New York adventure by escorting Irene and Minnie to dinner. Kate Burton plays the lovely Irene and Beanie Feldstein is great fun as the bubbly and charming Minnie Fay. The couples have a nice and light chemistry.

The show really revs up in the second half, where all parties converge on the Harmonia Gardens, a swank restaurant that Dolly hasn’t entered in 10 years, since her husband passed. The most famous dance numbers and songs play out here. Personally, I am not a fan of the song as a rule, but the raucous and wonderful delivery and energy sold it to me. It is a showstopper in the true sense of the word.
The show wraps up tidily – and you except nothing else.   
Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce
Hello Dolly delivers exactly what you expect, but delivers it so perfectly you end up getting swept away. Bette Midler’s performance is excellent, and on the rare moments when she falters she easily moves back into her persona that also fits the play. Her years in Las Vegas playing The Showgirl Must Go On have taught her well.
The show has a large cast and many moving parts, both figuratively and literally in terms of staging. Director Jerry Zaks and Choreographer Warren Carlyle have done great work. I never saw the Gower Champion version, so I don’t know how much was changed, but did I love this show.
* I also attended one performance where Mr. Creel's understudy, Christian Dante White, performed fantastically in the role.
 Hello Dolly | Book: Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics: Jerry Herman | Director: Jerry Zaks | Cast: Bette Midler, David Hyde Pierce, Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Beanie Feldstein, Will Burton, Melanie Moore, Jennifer Simard, Kevin Ligon

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Indecent Spins a Tale of Hope

Indecent surprised me in the best possible way. As you walk into the Cort Theater, the actors are sitting onstage under a sign explains this is the story of a little Jewish play. The colors, the actor’s outfits and the set are all various shades of drab. Waiting for the play to begin you don’t feel excitement as much as resignation that what will follow will be more a history lesson as drama.
And the start of the play seems to reiterate that understanding, the players stand, dust draining from their outfits in a move that seems less solemn than portentous as they introduce themselves as types not characters. We are they shown the beginning of a playwright’s first drama, God of Vengeance. This is the play within the play that the story refers to. It is 1907 Yiddish play that tells the story of a Jewish family where the father runs a brothel and the wife and daughter live about it with him. The daughter and one of the prostitutes fall in love and openly kiss and embrace on stage. The father is furious and angry and crushed, condemning his daughter to prostitution for her sin.
Richard Topol (photo: Carol Rosegg)
The playwright shares his draft with members of the artistic community in Poland, who are dumbfounded by the show. They cannot believe that Sholem Asch would expose this part of the community and hold it up to ridicule. They withdraw support, trying to explain that stories of Jews written by Jews should be uplifting, not examples of horrid behavior. The one person who finds the beauty of the play and the love of the women, is a simple farmer, the cousin of one of the men, Lemmel (a fantastic Richard Topol).
Sholem and his wife venture to Berlin and, with a troupe of players, find great success with God of Vengeance on the Berlin stage. Success follows as they tour with the play throughout Europe and ultimately into America.  When success off Broadway translates to a Broadway run, the play is altered. The gentle love between the girls is twisted to be a seduction and exploitation of the daughter, in order to placate the censors. It doesn’t work. On opening night the show is shut down and the players arrested.
At this point, playwright Paula Vogel’s Indecent takes a wondrous and unexpected turn. The focus moves from the troupe and the actions of the police to the reactions of the community and playwright Sholem Asch. The “established” Jewish community of New York is aghast at the drama, echoing the original Polish Yiddish complaints that it shows the community in a negative light.  Sholem, who was so passionate in Poland in defense of his play, is dismissive of it now, some 16 years later. He is tired of being know only for this one play; he’s moved on to writing novels and embarrassed by his lack of English. He abandons the troupe, the play and his friend Lemmel who has faithfully shepherded God of Vengeance for years.
The cast of Indecent (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Indecent raises the question, who owns outrage and story? Is it youth; is it the creator who is allowed to withdraw it at will? These questions grow organically out of the material and force you to think. And it isn’t a Jewish question. African Americans have asked it when they hear Rap that will offend others. Gay Americans ask it as they watch a parade that they are sure would shock their mothers. Christians Americans ask it when they see a car with Jesus bumper sticker cut off someone else on the road and then flip them off.
Indecent answers the question as well, by showing a single scene from God of Vengeance. The moment in time owns it, the actors own it and the viewer owns it. It is a singular moment that deserves to be judged as performed.
Director Rebecca Taichman has created magic at the Cort Theater, helped by Production Designer Tal Yarden - who’s simple and evocative set keeps everything clean and clear. At the end of Indecent I stood, a bit in wonder, that my preliminary expectations were so wrong. Indecent pulls magic out of the air every night. And the players give it to the audience.
Playwright: Paula Vogel | Director: Rebecca Taichman | Cast: Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Richard Topol, Adina Verson, Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva | Indecent

Friday, April 7, 2017

Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersol Make You Forget The Problems with War Paint

I liked War Paint. Which is a bit sad, because I wanted to love it. Having Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersol on stage in a musical is magic. And their voices are sublime. But a lot of this story just didn’t click.
Christine Ebersol plays Elizabeth Arden, the founder of one of the first beauty empires. It is referenced, in passing, that Elizabeth Arden made cosmetics acceptable for the American woman, where it has previously be the province of  street walkers and entertainers. Patti Lupone plays Helena Rubinstein, an Eastern European beauty “scientist” looking to make women healthy and beautiful. Ms. Lupone is also saddled with a heavy and unfortunate accent, which may be true to the character but comes off a bit moose and squirrel.

These two women don’t interact, but are still extremely competitive with each other. The characters face similar delimeas at the same time, quite often in a faux split screen mode. Miss Arden and Mrs. Rubinstein plot to take over the beauty world, always at the expense of the other. John Dosset and Douglas Sills play the men caught up in their personal and professional feud. The competition is laid out with differences in color and tone, but with their more obvious similarities pointedly expressed to the audience.
The production lacks subtly, the pinks of Arden versus the black and white of Rubinstein, but it is nonetheless rich and beautiful. War Paint signposts its intentions a mile away, but you cannot argue with the effectiveness of its presentation. Much like the products it touts, War Paint sucks you in, even though you know it is 75% hype and 25% product.
It is a function of the show that the women, while not interacting, still question the same things at the same time: what it is like to be a woman in the business world, what it is like to grow old in a business marketed at youth, what it is like to give up a personal life for a professional life and what it is like to be an outsider forever. Each question leads to a song and scene, nice and tidy.
War Paint is big and sumptuous and as subtle as foghorn. With these two actresses, it all works for the most part. No amount of chintz, eclectic hats and scenery is going to pull your gaze from Ms. Ebersol or Ms. Lupone when they are hitting the notes they hit. These women own the stage.

Near the end of the show, the two ladies, now quite old, meet in person for the first time. Their chemistry, dialog and wit make the audience long for a version of this show where they interacted more, even if it wasn’t historically accurate.
Director Michael Greif keeps everything humming along quite well. He is aided by some great set design by David Korins. The story is by Doug Wright, with music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. The songs are well sung by the cast and move the action forward, but are not particularly memorable. With these two women, I cannot recommend War Paint enough. But without them, I am not sure I would recommend it at all.
War Paint | Book: Doug Wright, Music: Scott Frankel, Lyrics: Michael Korie | Director: Michael Greif | Cast: Patti Lupone, Christine Ebersole, John Dossett and Douglas Sills

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Present Laughter Shimmers with Kevin Kline and Kate Burton

Character Garry Essendine, the heart of Present Laughter, is a handsome leading man, getting a little long in the tooth. Actor Kevin Kline fills the character with joy, wit and a good dollop of ham, making the rather annoying character of Garry, quite charming. It is said that Nöel Coward wrote Present Laughter, in part, as autobiography; if so it is in able hands with Mr. Kline.

Present Laughter is a traditional “British Drawing Room Comedy” bordering on farce. To be honest, the farcical aspects don’t hold up nearly as well on the stage as the more verbose comedy sections. It opens as a young woman, seemingly one of a number, exits the spare room having spent the night with world famous actor, Mr. Garry Essendine. This particular young lady, Daphne Stillington, is well played by Tedra Millan. Ms. Millan displays the correct amount of hopeful young exuberance and slightly annoyed jilted lover moments to be funny and believable.

Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, Kevin Kline (photo Joan Marcus)
Mr. Essendine’s staff does not treat Daphne with the diffidence she expects. The house runs on the whims of Garry and the staff caters to those whims, not the women that show up randomly. Ellen Harvey and Matt Bittner do an excellent job as cook and butler. The penultimate indignity for Daphne is added by the way Garry’s assistant, Monica (a wonderful Kristine Nielsen). Monica treats young Daphne as a problem to be removed PDQ, as the entire house prepares for Garry’s acting tour of Africa.

Kevin Kline, as Garry, enters and gently nudges Daphne out. You see Garry is loath to face conflict or anger, so he employs a number of strategies - not all fully in sync with the truth - to hasten Miss Stillington’s departure. Garry is aided in his quest by his semi-ex-wife, Liz, played marvelously by Kate Burton. The chemistry between Ms Burton and Mr. Kline sparkles. Daphne leaves, rather angry, and thus the stage is set for a repeat of the same scene, different person, later.

Along with Liz and Monica, a producer and director round out the friends of Garry. The are a long standing bond of five friends who watch out for each other in general, and Garry in particular. Garry is treated rather as a spoiled child that must be entertained or at least distracted at all times.

Throwing a spanner into the works is Joanna, the producer’s wife. Cobie Smulders is beautiful forceful and sensuous as Joanna. It is hard to believe she won’t get what she wants, and here, it is Garry. Garry, and his inability to control his libido, falls prey to Joanna rather easily. The opening scene is then played off, this time with Joanna being the occupant of the spare room. Add in a random socialist dramatist, a healthy thirst for liquor and one member of peerage and you have all the ingredients needed for a wonderful show.

Cobie Smulders, Kevin Kline (photo by Joan Marcus)
Present Laughter is quite cleaver, bumbling around the edges of serious discussions regarding age, without every falling too far into them. Director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel pulls the entire show off without seeming too old fashioned, just old fashioned enough for Broadway. The acting is wonderful although the harsh accent of the cook and the wandering accent of Ms Smulders are sometimes distracting. Like Blithe Spirit a few seasons ago, Present Laughter takes us back to a gentler time, when adultery was funny and showing too much emotion was déclassé. It is a well spent two hours.

Present Laughter | Playwright: Nöel Coward | Director: Moritz Von Stuelpnagel | Cast: Kevin Kline, Kate Burton, Kristine Neilsen, Cobie Smulders. Bhavesh Patel, Reg Rogers, Peter Frances James, Tedra Millan

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Hairy Ape: An Intimate Spectacular

As I settled into my seat, already excited by the scale of the Park Ave Armory and the bright yellow seats, I heard a man to my right say to his friend, “You know, it’s not a good play, right? It is a series of dated and disjointed scenes about man versus machine.” With those words echoing in the evening The Hairy Ape started.

Stokers Quarters
The lights creep up, the sound of the sea washes over you and a turntable envelops the seating, bring a ribbon of stage into view. We are in the belly of a steamship watching the coal stokers on break. It is a varied group of men, different nationalities, but all alike in their thirst, raucousness and cloaked in coal dust. Most of them rail against the heat and work. One argues against a capitalist system that has demeaned them. And then there is Yank, the biggest and strongest both physically and in personality. Given life by Bobby Cannavale, Yank is enthralled by the machine that the ship is. He knows he is a key part of the engine; belonging to the ship and as part of the engine of mankind.  He is key ingredient moving civilization forward into the mechanized future.
Engine Room Sokers from The Hairy Ape top: David Costabile, center bottom: Bobby Cannavale
As the lives below deck swirl away in a fog of coal dust and engine noise, we are introduced to Mildred Douglas, daughter of a steel tycoon and the ship’s owner. Mildred is youthfully determined to upset her rich family, and the easiest way of doing that is to work with the poor. Catherine Combs is a daughter of the patriarchy, determined to work for the interests of the lower classes.
Mildred demands to see the engine rooms and the plight of the men down there. But events conspire. She sees the stokers just as Yank is in full throated rebellion to the engineers and he whirls upon her, scaring her just as the sight of her white dressed ghostly visage frightens him. She faints at the site of him and leaves Yank shaken and embarrassed. His embarrassment is compounded by Paddy (wonderfully acted by David Costabile), who informs Yank that the beautiful woman didn’t even see Yank as a man, but as a ape – The Hairy Ape.

In the remaining scenes Yank tries to find the woman in white and pay her back for her rash judgment. But each step Yank takes pulls him farther from the norms of society, until he becomes the animal he thinks he was accused of being.
The themes of the common man as disposable are every bit as relevant now as they were almost 100 hundred years ago (The Hairy Ape was written in 1922). The disdain shown by the swells of Fifth Ave and the casual violence used by the police are on more obvious display in the piece, but feel quite familiar. The Hairy Ape is a striking and political play, but given an open and venerable heart by Bobby Cannavale.
The design by Stewart Laing is fantastic, transforming the Park Ave Armory into a grand playground, but claustrophobically keeping Yank confined to a minimal part of it. Yank can see that life is much more than he has, and more than he is allowed to dream of – and yet any step off his path is immediately punished. Director Richard Jones has taken The Hairy Ape into our age, forcing us to look at the dichotomies of wealth anew. In a country where we disdain labels for “classes” of people, The Hairy Ape tolerates no other view. It is beautiful, poetic and powerful.

The Hairy Ape | Playwright: Eugene O’Neill | Director: Richard Jones | Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Becky Ann Baker, David Costabile,  Chris Bannow, Tommy Bracco, Emmanuel Brown, Nicholas Bruder, Catherine Combs, Phil Hill, Cosmo Jarvis, Mark Junek, Henry Stram, Jamar Willains, Isaroa Wolfe, Amos Wolff