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Has there ever been a father/daughter theatrical combo that sets off sparks like when Hallie Foote acts in the plays of her father, the great Horton Foote? For Primary Stages, she’s been heartbreaking as the emotionally repressed title character in The Day Emily Married and downright hilariously self-centered in Dividing The Estate. Now, in the company’s package of three Foote one-acts titled Harrison, TX, she and Andrea Lynn Green open the evening with crackling comic chemistry that’s firmly grounded in reality.
As with most of the playwright’s work, all three pieces take place in Harrison, Texas, a fictional version of his childhood home, Wharton, where he grew up listening to a family full of story-tellers amusing each other with gossip and news. Set in 1928, Blind Date has Hallie Foote as Dolores, a former beauty queen trying to cure her young niece, Sarah Nancy (Green) of her lack of success with potential suitors, despite the fact that the independently-minded Sarah Nancy clearly has no interest in traditional courtship, or in the boys who come a-calling. To prepare for a visit from the hopeful Felix (Evan Jonigkeit), Dolores tries coaching her on a list of questions to ask her potential beau, because boys like girls who can have a conversation. (“Who is going to win the football game next Friday?” “What is the best car on the market today, do you think?”)
Well-experienced in keeping her spirits up, Dolores remains peppy and upbeat despite her mounting disappointment in Sarah Nancy’s sullen, deadpan disinterest, and the continual interruptions of her helpless and hungry husband Robert (Devon Abner), frustrated that she’s not making his dinner. The date with Felix is a disaster until the pair winds up ditching conventions and starts being themselves.
Also set in 1928, The One-Armed Man, is a tense drama; not typical fare for Foote. Alexander Cendese plays a mentally unstable man who worked for a cotton merchant (Jeremy Bobb) until his arm was severed by a picking machine. He makes weekly visits to the boss’ office demanding his arm be returned. The annoyed owner offers him $5 a week to stop bothering him with his irrational demand but this time the title character intends to settle the debt his way, once and for all.
The evening ends with the kind of quiet, character study Foote is more known for. Set in 1952, The Midnight Caller takes us to a boarding home populated by the decidedly girlie “Cutie” Spencer (Green, in a nice reversal from her previous role), the easily-annoyed moralist Alma Jean (Mary Bacon) and the clever and gregarious retired schoolteacher, Rowena (a happily charming Jayne Houdyshell).
The comfortable uneventfulness of their lives is interrupted when the owner (Foote) rents rooms to two new boarders, the divorced Ralph (Bobb) and Helen (Jenny Dare Paulin), a introverted woman disowned by her mother for her relationship with a drunkard (Cendese) who starts desperately calling for her outside the home every evening at midnight.
Ralph’s desire for female company and the scandal created by Helen’s suitor brings up issues of loneliness and morality that affects each character in different ways.
Under Pam McKinnon’s gentle and sensitive direction, the three very different pieces are united by the theme of traditional ideas of class and morality being challenged; sometimes rationally, sometimes not. The simple elegant design is highlighted by Marion Williams' wood-paneled set that quickly converts into three different interiors. Graced by an exceptional acting ensemble, Mr. Foote’s modest trio makes for an extremely satisfying time.
Photos by James Leynse: Top: Andrea Lynn Green and Hallie Foote; Bottom: Jayne Houdyshell and Jeremy Bobb.
When Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s moralistic take on traditional European fairy tales, mostly penned by the brothers Grimm, last hit town in a major production, it was April of 2002. The city was still very much rattled by the events of the past September, but a positive spirit was growing from our observances of acts of heroism surrounding us.
Still, the question that haunted many Americans at that time was, “Why do they hate us?” as the country grew less confident in the traditional belief that we have always been the world’s good guys. It was during this uncertain time that Broadway audiences watched a childless baker and an abandoned Cinderella comfort an orphaned pair of children, Red Riding Hood and Jack, of beanstalk fame, with a quiet lullaby that summarized the second act’s theme of the subjectivity of right and wrong.
“Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good,” instructs the lyric of “No One Is Alone,” as they prepare to kill an enemy whose only offense is the desire for justice against the boy who stole her property and murdered her husband.
There are many such discomforting moments in the often-brilliant text of Into The Woods. Little Red Riding Hood is depicted as a precocious child who disobeys her mother’s instructions because the cunning wolf brings out early pangs of pubescent sexual awareness she’s too young to understand or control. An elderly woman is impulsively killed in an attempt to keep her from acting in a manner that was putting her community in danger and the person who killed her defends himself to those who might have died if not for his actions by saying he was thinking of the greater good. A wife cheats on her husband when a handsome prince arrives, only to be dumped the next morning and left to debate the morality of stepping out of your vows, just for a moment of fantasy fulfillment.
In America, our fairy tale culture is most familiar as presented by the Walt Disney Company, which tells us that wishes come true. Lapine and Sondheim caution us that, “Wishes come true, not free.”
The new Delacorte production of Into The Woods is New York’s first high-profile mounting not directed by its bookwriter, Lapine. Co-directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel have based this one on their Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production, though with a new cast and new design elements it’s not exactly a copy of what played in London. And while it’s always nice to have new ideas and new interpretations injected into old favorites – and New York audiences have learned a lot in recent years about how our British friends like to inject new ideas and new interpretations into our musicals – “nice,” as Sondheim has Red Riding Hood sing, “is different than good.”
In many ways, it is a perfectly nice production, featuring a talented company of actors and several delightful surprises. Someone who has never seen the musical before, and who appreciates serious-minded and literate musical comedy, would certainly find it a worthwhile evening just for the sake of being exposed to the material.
But “good” would be a production that allows for the intimacy needed for Sondheim’s intricate, razor-sharp lyrics and Lapine’s fantasy-deflating dialogue to pull the audience in. The Delecorte’s large stage and semi-circular arena style seating is not the kind of space designed for rapid wordplay, especially when set designers John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour place a vertical maze of trees – making up stairways, walkways and a tower – so far upstage that the actors lose any connection with the audience during the numerous scenes played there. And even when playing further downstage, Ben Stanton’s too dim lighting made facial expressions difficult to take in, even from my second row seat, until the brightness was finally turned up for the bows. In what seems to be an attempt to cover all angles of the stage, ensemble scenes are so spread out that it’s often difficult to tell who is singing or speaking solo lines. This Into The Woods may be heard, but it isn’t felt.
This is an actor’s musical, but more thought seems to have gone into stagecraft. It is very impressive stagecraft, though. The beanstalk created out of green umbrellas is rather fun, as is the puppetry involved in creating the giant (voiced by Glenn Close), though choosing to have the giant wear glasses does raise a question about the feasibility of the story’s ending. And the technique used to climb up Rapunzel’s hair would probably be quite enjoyable to see, if I could see it.
Sheader and Steel have thrown a hodge-podge of ideas into the text, many of them very entertaining, though not all of them make complete sense. The most daring move was to change the character of the narrator from a grown man to a contemporary young boy, perhaps around 12, who, by way of a brief prologue, we find has run away from home to some wooded rural area. Perhaps as a way to alleviate his fears, he takes an assortment of dolls out of his knapsack and begins reciting the story of a baker and his wife who could not bear children because the witch next door placed a curse on their family as punishment for an act of theft. To lift the curse they must deliver to her, "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.” This task, of course, leads to encounters with Jack, Little Red, Rapunzel and Cinderella, as they lie, steal, double-talk and deceive in order to be blessed with a child.
The second act, which deals with the cost of having wishes come true, is presented as a nightmare the child is having while sleeping outdoors on the wood chips. Those familiar with the show may question if that choice is consistent with what the book eventually tells us about the narrator character. Nevertheless Noah Radcliffe, who alternates in the role with Jack Broderick, has a fine stage presence and a strong, clear singing voice.
Costume designer Emily Rebholz, who makes Cinderella’s step-family look like club kids from Boy George’s Taboo, dresses Sarah Stiles’ Little Red Riding Hood as a sort of punked out biker chick. A very talented and funny performer, Stiles plays the role broadly in a boisterous little girl voice and gets her laughs. Having the role played by an adult allows for some graphic comedy between Red and the wolf (a lusty and macho Ivan Hernandez, dressed like he’s about to go on a road tour of Hair), such as the scene where the wolf eating Red is presented to mean that he’s giving her oral sex, but not having the role played by an actual little girl, as was done in the musical’s two Broadway productions, takes away Red’s naïve inquisitiveness about her sexual awakening, which is written so charmingly and subtly into her lyrics.
As the baker’s wife, Amy Adams shows some strong singing pipes but she’s barely playing a character, reducing a role that’s loaded with witty moments into a bland, humorless cipher. As her husband, Denis O’Hare seems almost too grounded in a grim reality, though he does play his familiar pattern of flatly speeding through lines sprinkled with sudden blasts of emotion.
Donna Murphy’s witch is designed to look like a human tree, but her impressive costume pretty much leaves one of Broadway’s top comical leading ladies unable to perform, buried under a concept.
Fortunately, Chip Zien’s Mysterious Man costume allows the ingratiating actor free reign to work his gently humorous charms. The original baker in the musical’s initial run, Zien captures the spirited mixture of urban sophistication and innocence that makes Into The Woods work. His skillful touch with the material will make you believe the magical kingdom is an upper west side apartment with a view of the Hudson and within the delivery range of Zabar’s.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Donna Murphy and Tess Soltau; Bottom: Sarah Stiles and Ivan Hernandez.
Before a frustrated New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses grumbled, "Well, let's build the bastard a theater," and designated city funds to build the Delacorte, Joseph Papp’s dream of bringing free Shakespeare to everyone was being achieved by mobile units of actors that toured the city in small scale productions. Now in its second year, the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit has been recreating that experience for audiences that free Shakespeare In The Park cannot reach.
Director Amanda Dehnert’s greatly abridged 90 minute production of Richard III, now playing The Public for a limited run at the bargain price of $15, is the same show that has been touring prisons, homeless shelters, centers for the elderly and other community support centers in the five boroughs for the past three weeks. And while it’s certainly not being presented as a substitute for a fully mounted production of the complete text, it does provide an excellent theatrical experience on its own terms.
It's a bit like watching an indoor, air-conditioned version of one of the city’s numerous no-frills outdoor Shakespeare productions that are presented with youthful zest throughout the warm months. There is no set, save for some moveable blocks that set scenes from time to time. The audience is seated around a 14 x 14 foot playing space with actors – costumed by Linda Roethke in contemporary clothes styled to suggest 15th Century England – seated among them, making for quick entrances and exits. Most of the minimal props are stashed under the actors’ seats and there is no lighting design; actors and audience are all seen under the room’s normal lighting.
The most prominent set piece on display - a brilliant, darkly humorous idea - is a banner diagramming the complicated royal line of succession following the reign of Edward III; a scoreboard, you might say, where names are blotted out in bloody red ink as each obstacle between the title character and the throne is gruesomely eliminated.
As the scheming Duke of Gloucester, who butchers his way to the crown held by his brother, Edward IV, Ron Cephas Jones is certainly worthy of a full-length production. Not a hunchback, as is typically played, his Richard wears braces on one arm and a leg. His lean figure and drawn face suggest a man who is weary of life’s hardships, and his manner of addressing the audience for many of his longer speeches establishes a sympathetic intimacy. He’s even convincingly sincere when trying to woo Lady Anne (a fine Michelle Beck) over the corpse of her husband, who he himself has killed.
Aside from Jones, the company’s nine members all play multiple roles, highlighted by Suzanne Bertish’s viciously hateful turn as the banished Queen Margaret, riveting as she curses the royal family with tragic prophecies.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this production is the context in which we’re seeing it. How would the inmates at Riker’s react to Richard’s violent plots? How would the residents at a shelter for abused women respond to Anne spitting in the face of her intended seducer? How would a resident of a senior center, perhaps one who was once a regular theatergoer but has not been able to attend for many years, feel to once again be able to enjoy this level of acting? Sometimes the thing is much more than the play.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Michelle Beck and Ron Cephas Jones; Bottom: Suzanne Bertish and Myriam A. Hyman.
Once upon a summer of ’83, a young aspiring actor named Woody Harrelson became close pals with a Harlem-raised fellow named Frankie Hyman while they both worked a construction job in Houston. Eventually, they went their separate ways; one becoming famous for doing something other than playwriting and the other pursuing a career in writing, although these many years later he apparently hasn’t written anything he would care to mention in a Playbill bio.
But when reunited, they decided to put their experiences into play; a comedy with characters based on themselves and all the colorful people they encountered that summer on the job. As Harrelson has mentioned to the media on more than one occasion, they had characters and they had their dynamics and relationships, but they just didn’t have a plot.
After last night’s opening, I’d advise them to keep looking for one.
Oh sure, there’s a first act curtain line in Bullet For Adolfthat hints that the two-and-a-half-hour muddy mess of an evening is going to indulge in a narrative, but clearly it must take a back seat to the numerous gags and detours into subjects like the cause of pedophilia, the consumption of human placenta, white guys acting like black guys, gay guys acting like straight guys and even a quick dig at Judy Garland. (“Unless that chick is skipping down a yellow brick road, I don’t want to hear from her.”)
Fortunately for our two aspiring scribes, there was a theatre production company named Children At Play, owned by a fellow named Woody Harrelson, which seemed happy to give their shoddy work in progress a go at a prime Off-Broadway house, and give the show a big publicity boost by hiring a well-known celebrity to direct; a guy named Woody Harrelson.
Filling in for Woody Harrelson, at least on stage, is Brandon Coffey as the easy-going slacker, Zach, who invites the new guy at his construction gig, Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson), to share his apartment along with his current roommate, Clint (David Coomber), a handsome lad with well-defined muscle tone and the vocal and physical mannerisms of 1983 sitcom heterosexual Jm J. Bullock. When Clint is eventually seen making out with Zach’s ex-girlfriend, Batina (Shannon Garland), it’s suggested that he may be doing it to experience a sexual connection with his roomie.
Lee Orsorio plays a white guy nicknamed Dago-Czech (a tribute to his lineage) who prefers acting like a stereotypical black guy from the streets. Dago-Czech is so hung up on his appearance that he even wears a suit while digging a ditch. Eventually joining the mix are “angry black woman “ Jackie (Shamika Cotton) and “crazy black chick” Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake).
Somehow, this crew consists of the entire guest list for Batina’s 18th birthday party, hosted by her Nazi-sympathizing German father (The fine stage actor Nick Wyman keeps the character from being a total cartoon.) whose pride and joy is a Lugar pistol said to be used in an assassination attempt against Hitler. And yes, the gun is fired before the final blackout.
Bullet For Adolf certainly tries hard to be edgy and offensive, in a hip, casual way, but there are only so many times you can listen to tepid vulgarities such as, “Does your ass ever get jealous of all the shit that comes out of your mouth?”
Though the play has no strong connection to nostalgia for the early 80s, Imaginary Media provides clever and entertaining video montages of news events and pop culture of the day between the numerous scenes. Particularly enjoyable was the one clip showing a pretty and prim young woman in a Boston watering hole asking a loveable elderly bartender if they can use a new waitress.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: David Coomber and Nick Wyman; Bottom: Tyler Jacob Rollinson and Lee Osorio.
Two days after the death of its author, I had the pleasure of taking in director Michael Wilson’s outstanding revival of The Best Man – one of the best evenings Broadway had to offer last season – for the third time. Gore Vidal most certainly went out with a landslide victory.
His 1960 comedy/drama permits us a peek at the seedier side of presidential politics before giving us some hope that decency may stand a chance. Set during the convention of an unnamed major American party, the tense and juicy story is embedded in a time when delegates gathered into town, not to perfunctorily declare a pre-determined winner, but to debate through multiple votes, late night deals and maybe a few protest rallies to come up with a nominee. But every so often a timeless thought flies out of the elegant and insightfully witty text that, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear must have been added to give the play a contemporary jolt.
While many of the major players have been recently recast, the rich center of the production remains the interplay between John Larroquette and James Earl Jones; both of them giving knockout performances at the beginning of the production’s run, now even more striking in subtlety and subtext.
A stately and sardonic Larroquette portrays William Russell, a liberal candidate and former Secretary of State who heads into the convention leading the race over conservative adversary Senator Joseph Cantwell. Russell could win on the first ballot unless the ex-president he served under, Arthur Hockstader decides to throw his support in Cantwell’s direction. And while an unseen third candidate stands little chance of victory, his delegates, if released, could also become a deciding factor.
As Hockstader, a robust and commanding Jones makes it clear that, despite quickly deteriorating health, he’s thoroughly enjoying what is mostly likely his last moment in the public spotlight, savoring the backroom dealings of presidential politics and the power he wields. The scene where the two of them meet to discuss the conscientious intellectual’s shortcomings as a candidate contains some of the best acting you’re apt to see on Broadway these days.
Both Russell and Cantwell have skeletons in the closet; issues that would be more acceptable to many Americans today, but would certainly keep a candidate out office fifty years ago. When one candidate threatens to release evidence against his opponent, the other must consider if he should counter with newly discovered knowledge about a long-ago event – a real doozy for 1960 – that could sink the man’s entire career.
John Stamos replaces Eric McCormack as the sharply groomed Cantwell, whose strength as a leader lies in his capability to hold off definite opinions until the polls determine what the public wants. His performance plays up the lusty moments between the senator and his wife (a sexy and manipulative Kristin Davis) but there’s a bit too much “playing the bad guy” in his sneers and leers.
While Candice Bergen played Russell’s wife as a shy and socially awkward woman trying her best to be the supportive wife despite difficulties in her marriage, Cybill Shepard, as is more typical for her, is cool and cautious; confident in her role as the candidate’s wife. It’s a different, but equally effective approach. Also a lateral move is the switch from the chirpy elegance of Angela Lansbury’s performance as the party’s grand dame of influence to the more businesslike drawls of Elizabeth Ashley, repeating her performance from the 2000 Broadway revival.
Also returning from the previous revival is Mark Blum, who replaced Michael McKeon when his leg was broken in a traffic accident a few months ago. As Russell’s campaign manager he does a fine job showing the character’s professionalism in keeping his nerves in check while surrounded by attention-grabbing politicos.
Solid support is delivered by Jefferson Mays, continuing in his role as a nervous citizen whose word could affect the entire election and Dakin Matthews, whose one significant scene as a hard-drinking, good old boy senator, has grown into a real highlight.
The Best Man remains one of the best nights on Broadway and with presidential conventions coming up, its satire is both funnier and scarier.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Cybill Shepherd, John Larroquette; Bottom: Kristin Davis and John Stamos.
Barely looking, and certainly not sounding, much older than she was over thirty years ago, when her clarion vocals and chipper charm earned her a Tony nomination for playing an unexpectedly pregnant college student in Baby, you might be surprised to know that the weekend before her Monday night concert at Town Hall, Liz Callaway was in Pittsburgh playing the final four performances of a stint as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
But as displayed in Even Stephen: Liz Callaway and Friends Sing Flaherty, Schwartz and Sondheim, Callaway is a deceptively versatile actress and, despite a career that has landed her on Broadway far too infrequently, a tremendously skilled musical theatre lyric interpreter.
The final entry of Scott Siegel’s 6th Annual Broadway Summer Festival, produced by Town Hall, Even Stephen had the bubbly star, accompanied by music director Alex Rybeck’s combo, giving her observations on the songs of Stephen Flaherty (with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Sondheim through personal experiences and amusing stories told with her gentle, self-effacing Midwestern humor.
Her program included selections from musical theatre roles she will never play (Once On This Island’s “Waiting For Life”) and tempting morsels from roles you’d like to see her tackle (a “Losing My Mind” performed with quiet pathos-inspiring naïve simplicity). With “Lion Tamer” she’s a timid girl wishing she could do something impressive to make a man notice her and with “Back To Before” she’s a mature woman valiantly letting go of her innocence. Her thrilling high belt is clear and direct for “There Won’t Be Trumpets” and her warm “Corner of The Sky” is filled with the excitement of anticipated discovery.
Some novelty moments included listening to her taped vocals from an early-career television commercial for an airline that went bankrupt two weeks after the spot first aired and a quick survey of all her isolated solo lines as an ensemble member of Merrily We Roll Along. She quips about being involved with a production of Once On This Island so inappropriately cast that it was nicknamed Once On Long Island and tells the very familiar story – at least for her fans – of how she started singing “Meadowlark” at a singing waitress job, but could only sing it on Tuesdays because that was the only night they had a pianist who could play it. She’s not the only well-known musical theatre actress to claim “Meadowlark” as a signature tune, but her delicately wistful interpretation is just as worthy of the claim as anyone’s else’s.
The “Friends” of the evening’s title referred to two of musical theatre’s outstanding singing actors and one up-and-comer who has been making solid impressions. Jason Danieley’s powerfully gritty “Streets of Dublin” brought out the magnificent blue-collar artistry described in the lyric. Norm Lewis’ soaring “Wheels Of A Dream” was later followed by an introspective “Bring Alive” of quiet yearnings. Joshua Henry contributed a sweet and wide-eyed “Beautiful City” and a simple and touching “I Remember.”
When you spot Ann Hampton Callaway in the audience there can be little surprise that eventually she’ll be called up by her sister to sing. The two artists, one of the musical theatre stage and the other of jazz clubs, combined for a duet of Wicked’s “For Good” that shined lovingly with their mutual admiration and adoration.
With New York’s mayor pushing for size limits on sugary drinks and for keeping baby formula safely locked away until new moms are reminded of the benefits of breast milk, it seems like a good time for Bill Russell and Peter Melnick’s tuneful and amusing new musical, The Last Smoker In America, which eschews debates over the health issues of tobacco use in favor of spoofing government control over personal choices.
In a slightly futuristic urban setting, housewife Pam (the always grand Farah Alvin, an expressive belter who is wonderfully neurotic here) receives an electronic warning from a contraption installed in her home every time it senses that she’s about to light up. A mechanical voice automatically announces the current laws against smoking and the plans to implement even harsher ones.
At the outset, Pam’s habit has caused her husband Ernie (John Bolton) to be fired from his teaching position for smelling of tobacco, and he has reverted back to his rebellious youth by writing angry rocker songs like “Straight White Man.” Bolton and the authors manage to pull off the tricky task of being funny with intentionally bad songs.
Their hyperactive son, Jimmy (Jake Boyd) has obsessions with both video games and gangsta rap, the latter of which inspires one of those “white guy acting like a black guy” comedy songs. And since this high-concept sitcom family requires a nutty neighbor, there’s Natalie Venetia Belcon, forcing a flashing smile to go with her flashy vocals, as the highly-caffeinated, overly perky Phyllis, who’s trying to get Pam to kick the habit and, as her gospel number advises, “Let The Lord Be Your Addiction.”
Melnick, whose music was last heard Off-Broadway in the delightful Adrift In Macao, has a terrific knack for melody, even when he’s sticking satirical pins and needles and bookwriter/lyricist Russell (Side-Show) is continually giving the company funny things to do (under Andy Sandberg’s buoyant direction, the four-person ensemble is made up of exuberant comic performers), but after a promising set-up that suggests some wacky social commentary ahead, the 90 minute musical runs out of plot rather quickly, settling into an assortment of genial bits and novelty numbers before coming back to Pam’s addiction to wrap things up.
It’s all silly and appealing bubble-gum that’s entertaining enough if you ignore the occasional hints that it could be much more. If more of the musical was like its pre-show “turn off your cell phones” announcement – done in a darkly humorously way that is equal parts distasteful and brilliant – The Last Smoker In America might have set off some real sparks.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Farah Alvin; Bottom: Farah Alvin and John Bolton.
The last time the 1933 West End musical Nymph Errant was revived in New York, the Medicine Show Theatre Company advertised their production with the selling point that they haven’t removed any of the show’s racism. Now, while going to see a racist musical is not exactly my idea of a fun night out, there is a certain historic value to watching older musicals performed with the texts the authors wrote, opposed to the frequent occurrence of slapping their books with labels like “creaky” or “dated” and having contemporary authors make wholesale revisions to transform them into suitable entertainments for modern audiences.
Those with no previous knowledge of Nymph Errant would probably see Prospect Theater Company’s current mounting, with a new book by Rob Urbinati (based on the original and its source), as an enjoyable, small-scale production of a mindlessly fun musical typical of the era. But while Nymph Errant is by no means a lost classic, it’s a much more interesting piece than you would guess just by watching this cute, but edgeless revision.
James Laver's identically titled novel was barely a year old when producer Charles B. Cochran, noting the book's commercial success, critical praise and harsh damnation among moralists, thought it a perfect property for Cole Porter and actor/writer/director/fabulous socialite Romney Brent to adapt for the stage as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence. Brent himself directed and discovered that a former sweetheart of his, Margaret de Mille, had a sister, Agnes, who was a fledgling dancer/choreographer so he invited her to join the creative team.
In its typically madcap story, Lawrence played Evangeline, a young Englishwoman, fresh from Swiss finishing school heading back home to Oxford. But keeping in mind her progressive teacher's advice that she "experiment" through life, she takes several detours on the arms of an international parade of questionable gentlemen, leaving each one when she finds his intentions are entirely honorable. When she finally returns to Oxford, frustratingly chaste, the authors served up a delicious ending spoofing D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, still popular at the time.
Though it ran a healthy (for its time) 154 performances in London, Nymph Errant never made it to Broadway, due to illness on Ms. Lawrence's part, and perhaps a feeling that its sexually aggressive and independent female lead, without any central male romantic counterpart, would not seem attractive to American audiences. The show remained unproduced in New York until its 1982 premiere at Equity Library Theatre.
Surprisingly, the man who penned the scores of Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate considered this to be his best effort. Though it contains no standards, there's the familiar "It's Bad For Me" and one of his flashier list songs, "The Physician." ("He went through wild ecstatics / When I showed him my lymphatics") Although Porter certainly had his share of hits by the time Nymph Errant premiered (Anything Goes was still a year away, but "Night and Day" was introduced in the previous season's Gay Divorce), it was still a time when he was writing many of his lyrics specifically to amuse his society friends who would laugh uproariously at references that may leave today's listeners in the dark. He would eventually confess, "Sophisticated lyrics are more fun but only for myself and about eighteen other people, all of whom are first-nighters anyway. Polished, urbane and adult playwriting in the musical field is strictly a creative luxury." Perhaps that's the reason why a song spoofing cross-dressing author George Sand, was replaced during the West End run with a tune about the more familiar "Cazanova.” The infamous "Sweet Nudity" was cut from the original production when Cochran made a deal with the theatre censors to remove a scene set in a German nudist colony in exchange for allowing the rest of the show to remain as is.
The 1930's, of course, was a time of global tension which would eventually lead to the Second World War, and the Broadway and West End musicals of that decade were often steeped in political satire. Though its plot was not particularly political, Nymph Errant, written for an English audience, reflected the decade's intense nationalism and suspicion of foreigners by painting the leading lady’s parade of non-lovers with ethnic stereotypes and racial humor.
Urbinati’s new book smoothes out anything that might be considered racially or ethnically insensitive while following the basic outline of Brent’s original, but the musical’s two most familiar moments have been eliminated. “The Physician” has been removed from the Turkish harem scene and taken away from Evangeline, now sung by another character as part of a nightclub act. An even more drastic change is that the sexually aggressive tone of the show has been altered to something more conventionally romantic by having the heroine already knowing her D.H. Lawrence-inspired heartthrob and pledging to be true to him throughout her travels, nixing the final Chatterley punch line. Urbinati even goes as far as to have the fella back home appear to Evangeline as a memory, popping in on occasion to sing choruses of “Dizzy Baby,” a song lifted from the score of Paris.
A handful of other songs from different Porter scores are added, most jarringly the title song from Red, Hot and Blue and Fifty Million Frenchmen’s “Paree, What Did You Do To Me” because they are so closely associated with their original shows. Urbinati also finds room for Nymph Errant’s notoriously cut songs but there’s a bit of reassigning of numbers from one character to another. The new 5-piece orchestrations by Frederick Alden Terry are attractive and lively, though they occasionally stray into a sound that resembles 1940s big band more than 1930s musical theatre.
But patrons with little concern for theatrical alterations should find director/choreographer Will Pomerantz’s bouncy mounting of this jewel box adaptation – that reduces a lavish West End show to an ensemble piece for an energetic cast of 10 – a satisfying diversion. Charming and pretty-voiced Jennifer Blood plays Evangeline as a typically spunky ingénue of the period and Andrew Brewer provides a sturdy romantic presence as her beau. Sorab Wadia and Abe Goldfarb are both continually amusing as an international assortment of over-the-top caricatures, including a French follies producer, a depressed Russian composer a German nudist and Turkish Emir.
Headlining the evening in a variety of roles, and given some of the choicest material, is Tony-winner Cady Huffman, who is particularly winning as the progressive finishing school teacher with a naughty streak. Though the evening could probably do without Urbinati’s monologue where she plays a lovesick stereotypically butch lesbian athlete.
Photos by Lee Wexler: Top: Jennifer Blood and Sorab Wadia; Bottom: Cady Huffman.
America may have abruptly lost its Camelot on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963, but in the extraordinarily rich and tender new musical Dogfight, it was the night before that a pair of drops in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea began to sparkle.
Based on the same-titled 1991 film, the ambitious and challenging Dogfight sets the bar extremely high for upcoming musicals in this fledgling theatre season. With a dynamic and textured character-driven score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a provocative and heart-tugging book by Peter Duchan and director Joe Mantello’s vibrant naturalistic production, Dogfight takes a story that, at first, you’d never believe could sing, and gives it a realistic shot of romance and pathos.
Initiated by the memory of a marine returning to the states after seeing combat in Vietnam, the action is set in San Francisco on the night before he and his buddies are to be sent out to some little country “near India” that they’ve never heard of, convinced they’re just going to teach the locals how to fight for themselves and then come back home. The primary trio includes the tough, foul-mouthed Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena), the cocky leader, Boland (Josh Segarra) and the nerdy follower Bernstein (Nick Blaemire). (Since the name “Bernstein” doesn’t exist in the film, one would assume it’s added to salute the great composer who wrote a previous musical about three military men about to be shipped off.)
A tradition among their fellow “jarheads” (a derogatory nickname reserved for them to call themselves) on such a night is to hold what’s known as a dogfight; each marine puts money into the pot to cover the expenses for a party and a cash prize for the fellow who can venture into town and come back with the ugliest date.
Sure, it’s a vulgar premise, but in the minds of these kids just out of high school they’re doing no harm. The girls are to be treated with respect and, without ever telling them the real reason they were asked out, each marine is expected to show her a good time. While the authors never ask us to sympathize with their actions, as the drama unfolds we gradually begin to understand that each of these guys has been trained to think that no matter how insecure they may feel about themselves, as a unit they are a privileged, unstoppable force that will achieve every goal, as expressed in their motto "Semper Fi, Do or Die.”
That attitude is undoubtedly necessary to succeed in combat, but their immature minds haven’t adjusted to setting such thoughts aside in the civilian world; especially apparent in a sickening scene where they pressure a prostitute, who has made it clear that she is physically unable to take another customer that night, into taking Bernstein into her bed for his first time. When his mission is accomplished, the young marine gleefully bursts out of the room sporting a big, innocent smile, like a kid on Christmas morning who just unwrapped the bicycle he’s been wanting all year. He has successfully dehumanized the obstacle standing in the way of him fulfilling his assignment.
Perhaps to avoid audience discomfort, the actresses playing their dates are, in fact, attractive women playing exaggerated flaws for comic effect, like Bernstein’s silent, stony-faced pickup (Dierdre Friel) and Boland’s ringer, an abrasive prostitute (Annaleigh Ashford) he’s promised a percentage of the winnings to if she uglys herself up enough to win. An understandable choice that perhaps rings a little false.
But the central relationship of Dogfight is what gives this grim story its pure sweetness and eventual uplift. Eddie wanders into a diner where he flirts with Rose (Lindsay Mendez), a shy, awkward waitress who only feels confident when she picks up a guitar and sings in the style of folk legends like Woody Guthrie and that new guy Bob Dylan. His attempt to impress her with his own knowledge of folk music is ridiculously phony but she accepts his invitation to the party anyway. It’s a fascinating scene through dialogue and song because even though we know Eddie’s initial motivation, Klena, through the excellent material, seems so sincere that it’s hard to tell if he truly likes Rose or if he’s really good at tricking women. And while we can assume that Rose sees right through him, Mendez effectively plays the contrast of her fear of going out with this guy she’s just met and her exhilaration that a handsome marine is showing her attention.
When they get to the party, Eddie starts regretting his insensitivity toward his date, but when Rose finds out the real reason for the festivities she confronts him with the most horrifying words you can say to a soldier being shipped off to a hostile environment. It’s a numbing climax to the first act.
But by then it’s already clear that Mendez, previously exposed to New York audiences primarily as a pop musical belter, is giving a remarkable breakout performance in one of the best written roles to hit Manhattan’s musical stages in quite some time. Though her generous belt is utilized when needed, Mantello guides her into subtler, crushing moments that tear your heart out, especially when she’s expressing the joy of feeling attractive while the audience knows that what’s making her feel that way is a lie.
It’s Rose’s eventual understanding and acceptance of Eddie that allows him to make himself vulnerable and allows the audience to believe that deep down he’s a decent guy who has been protecting his insecurities by going along with the ways of his buddies. Again, it’s in the subtler moments where Klena succeeds in making Eddie, if not a totally likeable character, one deserving of sympathy.
The supporting cast is solid, particularly when Blaemire’s anxious Bernstein tries to prove his worthiness, Segarra’s demeaning Boland tries to establish his authority and when Ashford’s tough-talking Marcy sticks up for herself.
Christopher Gattelli's athletic choreography is a raw, testosterone-driven extension of Mantello’s staging that may not be as flashy as his Tony-winning work in Newsies but tops it for dramatic excitement.
Dogfight may have its occasional stumbling points, like an ending a bit too vague to be satisfying, but the thrill of what it accomplishes as an emotional piece of musical theatre makes it an exhilarating addition to the young season.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Nick Blaemire, Derek Klena and Josh Segarra; Bottom: Lindsay Mendez.
When the original Broadway production of Fela! closed in January of 2011, Zuccotti Park was little more than a block-long plaza where Wall Streeters would enjoy a bit of lunchtime sun. For now, at least, the park has pretty much returned to that status, aside from the tourists taking photos of themselves at the spot now famous for birthing the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Perhaps the still-simmering issues behind that movement would help fuel a heightened interest in the temporary summer return of the docu-musical inspired by the life of Nigerian political activist and musical revolutionary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. If not, then certainly the non-stop exuberance and nearly non-stop joy (only halted for belly punches of reality) of Bill T. Jones’ exhilarating production are enough to pack ‘em into the Hirschfeld.
Born in 1938 with a Christian minister for a father and a mother who was a leader in Nigeria's anti-colonial women's movement, Fela was sent to London for an education in medicine, but was sidetracked by an interest in music; his first influences being Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra. Fusing the jazz and pop styles he heard in London with the rhythms and chants of his homeland's Yoruba and high life, he created the Afrobeat sound and began touring and recording with his band, Koola Lobitos. Influenced by the 1960's Black Power movement through the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, his lyrics began taking swipes at Nigeria's military government in songs like "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" ("Who is the government's teacher? / Corruption and perdition.") and "Zombie" ("Zombie no go think unless you tell him to think."), the song that infuriated the state so much with its depiction of the military that it led to his brutal beating (one of many he endured along with his over 200 arrests) and a fatal attack on his mother, Funmilayo.
Director/choreographer/co-bookwriter Jones and co-bookwriter Jim Lewis establish a performance-within-a-performance structure that sets the piece at the artist's regular haunt, a nightclub he named The Afrika Shrine, at a 1977 farewell concert given shortly after his mother's death as he prepares to exile himself to Ghana.
His onstage band is led by music director Aaron Johnson and Jones' fiercely energetic ensemble of dancers passionately undulate the erotically charged movements of nyansh. Despite the story of oppression and bloodshed Fela! is a festival that demands to be celebratory in the face of hardship.
The focus of that festival is strikingly personified by Sahr Ngaujah (alternating performances with Adesola Osakalumi), who originated the role Off-Broadway. Acting as host ("Everyone say yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Feeling good tonight?") Ngaujah is hardly ever off stage and is continually the center of attention as he narrates the story of Anikulapo-Kuti's political struggle, sings, dances, delivers rimshot-worthy one-liners and even gives the audience a lesson in the proper way to move one’s hips to his music. He is abundantly charismatic and seems to have deepened his already outstanding performance from the initial Broadway run, showing us a bruised and battered artist determined to laugh at his oppressors and combat injustice through the power of his music and lyrics.
Haunting our host throughout the evening is the memory of his mother, sung with a glistening soprano by the warmly regal Melanie Marshall.
Fela! certainly isn't meant to be a complete portrait of its title character. The action of the show takes place before the man dismissed AIDS as a myth (he eventually died from it) and his practice of polygamy (he married 27 women at once) is treated more like nightclub shtick than fact. But the music radiates and Jones and his crew never allow Fela! to be less than visually entrancing.
While the design elements for this touring production making a brief stop in town are mostly the same as in the original Broadway production, some features have been scaled down a bit. During the initial run, set and costume designer Marina Draghici turned the entire theatre into The Afrika Shrine with colorful murals and portraits painted on the walls. Now the set is regulated to the stage. The cast is dressed in an appealing mixture of traditional and 1970's contemporary. Robert Wierzel's lights are appropriately clubby and Peter Nigrini's videos nicely accent key moments.
But most importantly it’s the kinetic force of the hard-working dancers and the talented star that make Fela!’s return to Broadway worthy of celebration.
Top photo of Sahr Ngaujah and Company by Raymond Hagans; Bottom photo of Melanie Marshall and Sahr Ngaujah by Tristram Kenton.
When Phil Geoffrey Bond was named Programming Director at 54 Below, it became a given that the theatre district’s spanking new nightlife venue would include on its schedule Broadway-centric evenings geared for the knowledgeable musical theatre fan who appreciates both past glories and upcoming works in progress. The producer/host of the Laurie Beechman Theatre’s popular Sondheim Unplugged series now makes a significant debut in the same capacities with New Mondays, dedicated to giving audiences a sampling of fresh material from accomplished theatre composers and lyricists.
Closing night of the series’ quintet of performances was my first visit to 54 Below (beautiful sightlines and sound, attractive décor, reasonable prices and charming service) and the packed house went nuts for the evening’s headliner, Maury Yeston. After teasing the audience with snippets of “There She Is,” “Unusual Way,” “Love Can’t Happen” and “A Call From The Vatican,” he noted to the crowd that Bond had ask him to play some of his lesser-known work, thus launching the composer/lyricist into a madcap rendition of Nine’s “The Germans at the Spa,” where he narrated the action from the piano and sang all the parts.
Recalling an assignment he gave to his Yale students, Yeston sang his own clever lyrics designed to help them memorize Louis Armstrong’s cornet solo for his 1926 recording of “Big Butter and Egg Man.” Johnny Rodgers took over the stage briefly to recreate his twangy recording of “Danglin’,” a song Yeston jokes that people didn’t believe he wrote because it’s so different from his other work.
But the main focus of the evening was to be on new works, so next came a pair from Club Moscow, an upcoming musical about post-Soviet Russia. Jill Abromowitz (who the composer/lyricist calls, “a Tony Award waiting to happen.”) sang the comic “Malvina’s Song, where a character relishes her own bitchiness, and Mara Davi steamed up the place with “Tell Me,” where a seductress makes an unusual request. Ending the segment was Rebecca Luker, sounding lovely, of course, with the lullaby from In The Beginning, “New Words."
Preceding Yeston were three talented composer/lyricists who have yet to see their Broadway dreams realized, but have still gathered a following among theatre fans and have been honored will well-respected industry awards.
Joe Iconis is up there with the most famous of musical theatre’s unknown writers, having gathered up a regular troupe of performers he calls “The Family.” Jason “Sweet Tooth” Williams, one of the more familiar family faces and a terrific interpreter of the composer/lyricist’s “everyday guy” characters, was on hand to perform “Helen,” which surprisingly goes from being a one-joke lyric about a guy discovering that a girl he went to high school with is now a porn star, to an interesting reflection on what the people you knew as a kid would think of the way you’ve turned out. A newer song, “Flesh and Bone,” had Williams playing a robot battling his body image insecurities. Iconis himself, appropriately, sang his amusing “The Song,” where a songwriting tells of a woman who, after their breakup, insists he doesn’t write a song about her.
A new Iconis song ranks as one of the best of his I’ve ever heard. “The Actress,” the story of a woman whose originality was stifling her career until she decided to just start doing what everybody else tries to do, is a perfectly satirical piece criticizing a culture that encourages cookie-cutter vocal gymnasts to suffocate music and lyrics with their American Idol stylings. Katrina Rose Dideriksen performed with aggressive high belting, tender pathos and impish glee.
Katie Thompson lovingly performed Adam Gwon’s intensely romantic “One Little Word” and his sweet lullaby, “Think of the Moon.” There was fine work by Whiney Bashor with the endearing “Favorite Places” and “Uncharted Territory” and Carey Anderson in the very cute “Little Mysteries” from The Boy Detective Fails.
Brett Kristofferson’s set included “Joey Runs,” sung by Jonathan Whitton, a meditation on finding serenity through running, “Micki, Go,” sung by Scoot Koonce, a heartbreaking lyric about ending a relationship for a partner’s own good, and the very funny “Lizzie Borden Rag,” belted with comical joy by Kathy Searle. Another heartbreaker, the MAC Award winning “Things That Haunt Me,” was elegantly turned by Angela Schultz.
So now that Patrick Page will be ending his stint as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and begin rehearsals for a piece just a tad worthier of his talents, Cyrano De Bergerac, his replacement Robert Cuccioli, a sensitive lyric interpreter with a beautifully masculine voice, will be taking on the honor of singing “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” eight times a week.
Do you think anybody would complain if they just cut the number and replaced it with Cuccioli doing Jacques Brel’s “Jackie”? Makes sense to me that the Green Goblin would be contemplating the possibility of being “cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way.”
Joe Iconis has written some damn good songs in his day, but this new one I heard the other night at Phil Geoffrey Bond’s New Mondays concert at 54 Below (more on that later), "The Actress," completely floored me. It's a perfectly satirical story-song criticizing a culture that encourages cookie-cutter vocal gymnasts to suffocate music and lyrics with their American Idol stylings.
Here’s Katrina Rose Dideriksen singing it loud and high and impressively…
Posted on: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 @ 03:18 PM Posted by:Michael Dale