AISLE SAY New York

SEASON-END 2015 ROUNDUP

GIGI
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU
HAMILTON
IOW@
SKYLIGHT
WOLF HALL
THE HEIDI CHRONICLES
ON THE 20th CENTURY
THE BELLE OF BELFAST
FISH IN THE DARK
THE AUDIENCE
DOCTOR ZHIVAGO: The Musical
LIVING OIN LOVE
HAND TO GOD
SOMETHING ROTTEN
THE KING AND I
THE VISIT
'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE
THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX

Reviewed by David Spencer

As I upload this seaon-end roundup, I offer many apologies for the delay between Aisle Say editions; for the omission of reviews I intended to write, but couldn’t in time (I salve my conscience a little—only a little—with having also attended them as a Drama Desk voter); and finally for the consolidation of what follows below into one big file.

                  Aside from the normal run of Real Life concerns and preparing to go into rehearsal for the Montreal world premiere of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (by me and Alan Menken, directed by Austin Pendleton)—rehearsals starting on May—I got slammed with a hearth-and-home situation that had to be dealt with immediately and took several full-time weeks out of my life that excluded directing my attention toward anything else. The good news is that, so far, Real Life and Show Life are going as well as they might—and that the emergency situation ended very favorably indeed.

                  Also on the happyish front, regarding the reviews you’re about to read: Because once I start to pontificate, I can’t help myself, most of the notices below aren’t that much shorter than the ones I’d have written with more time; and some of them are the usual length; mostly, my strategy for brevity (when I was in brief mode) was to cut right to analysis and opinion, with only minimum required contextual setup, under the assumption that most of you dear readers, as theatre aficionados, are already in-the-know about certain “backstory details” like well-known plorts and certain involved personnel.

                  But I did selectively “go capsule” with a few of the reviews, and opted for this roundup presentation to save me the several hours it would take to process, index and archive individual pages. (You’ll even note I don’t have the usual full show-header info above, nor links to production websites. Forgive me for that, but I have faith you can navigate the internet briskly enough to get to those on your own when interest is piqued.)

                  Because of Duddy and other obligations, I expect the next edition of the ‘zine will occur upon my return from Montreal—sometime in mid-to-late July.

                  And as always, I thank you for your patience and for hanging in.

                  And now let’s get to it.

 

There are those who are enjoying the “revisal” of Lerner and Leowe’s Gigi, so I can’t assert that it isn’t worth your time. But I nonetheless have to say that it may be the goofiest update—in this case not of era, but of sensibility—that I’ve ever seen. And this because it’s so stunningly transparent.

                  Gigi is a difficult story to put over with contemporary audiences because it’s about a young girl in early 1900s Paris, being trained by two aunts to be a courtesan. And somewhere along the way, a 30ish fellow named Gaston, who has watched her grow up, realizes that she has (at the grand age of 16) matured from girl to woman and that he is in love with her.

                  As originally dramatized by Alan Jay Lerner in his screenplay adaptation of Collette’s novel, it’s a fairly static story, but film allows for a certain amount of up close leisure and treats stories of the Romance genre much more kindly than stage musicals do (in which, usually, romance is the secondary story, or the trigger for larger events, since stage musicals tend to require plot muscle and a narrate motor to keep focus from sprawling). His subsequent stage adaptation of his screenplay was thus attenuated and kind of sleepy and forgettable; but a revival at Paper Mill in the 90s managed to perk it up a little, via faster pacing and fudging the ages of Gigi (cast a bit older) and Gaston (cast a bit younger).

                  But in this new production, with libretto by Heidi Thomas and directed by Eric Schaeffer, it has been transformed into a story about a young girl rejecting the tradition of her training, claiming her independence and insisting that love be mutually chosen by both partners. Gigi is suitably old enough to be “legal,” and Gaston is now young enough that he might have watched her grow up from the vantage point of a surrogate older brother. Virtually all the choices in the new libretto spring from this.

                  The cast is generally fine, as are production values, choreography and etc. And while you might have heard or read quibbles with one performance or another (which one varies), it’s because every character and his/her portrayer is somewhat victimized by the alterations, which sacrifice verisimilitude on the altar of political correctness. It renders fundamental changes in every single character, to the point where, despite ostensible similarities, the show simply isn’t Gigi anymore. Nor is it anything else because it’s so flagrantly anachronistic in attitude. If it’s far less dull (and I’ll give it that), it’s because so much energy has been put into renovating it, which really only draws attention to the attitudes it’s eschewing, rather like an apologia.

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In an interesting bit of universal confluence, another musical that has just opened is also a stage adaptation of a Lerner musical screenplay. This time, though, the screenplay is an original: Lerner’s construction of a storyline around, and ultimately ending with a ballet based on, George Gershwin’s symphonic trail-blazer An American in Paris, also utilizing songs from the George and Ira Gershwin canon.

                  The production will have its proponents and its detractors, because the source film casts such a large shadow, but in this case, the update of sensibility—made manifest in the new libretto by Craig Lucas—is a fairly smart one. For, you see, he doesn’t try to renovate the storytelling universe into something it’s not. Rather, he adds substance and a soupcon of gravitas to the historical setting—Paris at the end of World War Two—and reshapes the characters within that. Subsequently they don’t come off as more aware of progressive thinking, but more aware of their socio-political surroundings, which deepens them enough to think humanistically without also behaving anachronistically. Well, not overmuch, at any rate.

                  Under the direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon, the cast is excellent and the dancing is delivered superbly. Add an excellent design team plus top flight musical direction by the redoubtable Rob Fisher and you have that rare stage adaptation of an iconic film musical that, at the very least, earns its keep and carves out its own unique identity. 

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I find myself distressed at many of the reviews for It Shoulda Been You, because they’re sniping at the show for being part of a genre that the critics find cornball, old hat and outdated. Which seems to me utterly beside the point. Since the show makes no bones about being a one-off wedding day sitcom with archetypal characters, it makes no objective sense to knock it down because you don’t like the category into which it fits. You have to take it on is own terms, as a representative of that category, and then assess how well it delivers the goods. And in that regard, It Shouda Been You works like a Swiss watch. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and the audience responds like crazy. Not reflex pop-culture crazy, but with well-earned laughter and applause for an enterprise delivered with consummate skill. There’s no faking that, no mistaking it, and I find it shameful that the negative reviews I’ve seen don’t at least report that audience response as a primary component of the experience.

                  For a more detailed assessment by me, click here—and you’ll go to my review of the original tryout engagement two seasons ago at the George Street Playhouse. My opinion is pretty much the same, and the only bit of data-updating you might do is to swap in the name of current cast member Chip Zien for his predecessor, Richard Kline. Bear in mind, I’m not saying the show is perfect or high of aspiration—but I am saying it unequivocally succeeds, and it’s an eminently respectable, well-crafted and well-earned success.

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My late review of Hamilton owes its delay not to my life-and-career overload as particularized above, but to the fact that the Public Theatre press office mandated a rescheduling: the performance I was originally booked to see, early in the run, just prior to the show’s press opening, happened to be the one that composer-lyricist-librettist and title role star Lin Manuel Miranda decided to sit out and watch from the house, with his standby performing, the better to update his assessment of the show from a pure author’s-eye view. And at that point, the show had become such a massive sellout that my alternate date would be quite a ways off (just a few weeks ago, in fact).

                  As most of you know by now, it’s a pop-music-flavored look at early American political history—one might glibly think of it as the unofficial rap “music video” sequel to 1776—using the life of Alexander Hamilton as a touchpoint and focusing lens.

                  Though the negative voices seem to have been so overwhelmed by the approbation—and though some of the most unlikely people (i.e. “oldies” and traditionalists, not normally prone to admiring the way pop music tropes are employed in musical theatre) are among its most ardent fans—Hamilton has nonetheless split audiences, if not quite down the middle, into two camps.

                  For me, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

                  Unequivocally, it should be seen, because it is so bold of spirit and approach. Also highly entertaining, as delivered by a multi-ethnic cast under the spirited direction of Thomas Kail. As to the claims that it’s a game changer and an (as yet unquantifiable) bellweather for the future of musical theatre…well, I’m not so sure about that.

                  First of all, it’s so uniquely its own thing that I don’t see the path to emulation. Imitation, yes (and that’s a no-sum game); but emulation toward absorbing its techniques toward development of the form, not so much.

                  Secondly, those techniques are themselves drawn from tradition. As I say, much of the musical staging and choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler) has its roots in music video tropes, those tropes often cleverly put through a traditional musical theatre filter in the service of enhancing story and intensifying thematic focus.

                  As to the play itself: To me Act One doesn’t seem much different in sum and substance than the stuff Tim Rice did in Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar; it presents an overview of a life in quick snapshots that amount to a summary record in verse with a lot of style and not much depth. Well, there is one difference, and it does matter: Miranda is a lot hipper than Rice, and his rap ‘tude is genuinely witty rather than strained, moralistic and sophomoric. He doesn’t editorialize (or if he does, not with moral superiority, and usually through irony raher than declamation), which allows the audience to be more active participants who can draw their own conclusions. Act Two presents the eponymous hero in a more personal light which, not having been earned by dint of Act One, makes it hard for you to suddenly care about the guy (which seems to be the intent), rather than just find his trajectory fascinating. (Ironically, the musical makes it much easier to care about Hamilton’s compatriot-cum-nemesis [and eventual killer] Aaron Burr [Leslie Odom Jr.] because what he wants from the start is clear, not diluted by a mandate to overview his life, and his portrayal never wavers from that specific focus.)

                  As to Miranda’s having achieved a synthesis of rap and musical theatre styles…that’s also following in tradition. Musical theatre has always been late to the pop music party, but there is always eventually a younger voice that will find a way to update its sensibility. Mr. Miranda, in that context, is the natural successor to Stephen Schwartz, who likewise brought the vocabulary of rock into mainstream theatre with Pippin in 1972.

                  In short, Hamilton, though it is—however you may feel about it—as engaging and provocative as it’s cracked up to be, seems very much a thing of its time. And I don’t see it changing the art. Where it may change the game, though, is in its stock-and-amateur licensing future. In high schools and urban areas where blacks, Latinos, Asians and others who aren’t really minorities any more predominate, Hamilton may well (and deservedly) be embraced as a vehicle that lets everybody play equally in the sandbox of both American musical theatre and American history. And that would be a notable and major cultural achievement.           

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There’s only one reason to mention the woefully misbegotten and spectacularly inept Iow@, a surreal musical playing under the Playwrights Horizons banner, and that reason is you need to be warned against giving it so much as a cent of your money or a second of your attention. Beyond that, discretion is the better part of consumer advocacy. Trust me on this.

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When I first saw David Hare’s Skylight, almost 20 years ago, it seemed to me a fairly schematic play about a love affair between a schoolteacher and a business mogul that was doomed to fail (the affair, that is; not the play). But the production came as a highly touted import from he UK with a star of note (Michael Gambon) and another just making her mark (Lia Williams), and it was a limited-run success. And I guess there’s something about the play that UK audiences respond to, because its first major West End revival has also been imported after much approbation, and is now in residence at the Golden Theatre.

                  It’s a difficult play to assess objectively, as there are those who like it far better than I (obviously), but I can say that I liked this incarnation, directed by Stephen Daldry, better than the debut. I re-read my old review to see if (a) there was any text worth recycling (there wasn’t) and (b) if I could determine why I liked the play better second time around; and while the too-faint memory from the two-decade gap prevents me from being absolutely certain, I think it’s because the love affair seesaw seems more even with the two current performers; Carey Mulligan may not be feistier, per se, but her brand of feistiness makes a more distinctive impression; and while Mr. Gambon’s mogul came on like a roaring power broker, Bill Nighy takes the tack of playing the guy as if he worked his way up from lower-class roots (you can hear it in the accent, and see it in his manner), which makes the characters more interesting foils for each other, and more complex. So I had a better experience spending time with them, and the mechanics of the play didn’t feel so exposed.

                  More than that I can’t offer, save that the audience seems to enjoy it. But that should be enough to let you get a feel for whether or not you’ll be rewarded by attending. 

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After all the hype and expectation I found Wolf Hall to be terribly disappointing and even a little bit dry. Adapted by Mike Poulton from the first two novels of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell Trilogy (whose third novel has yet to be published) it comes in two parts, each adapting a volume: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

                  The first part seems like a conflation of every famous historical drama about the period with the quirk of some revisionist personality portraits (i.e. instead of being stoic and noble [a la Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons], Thomas More [John Ramm, a squat sparkplug of an actor] is an extreme right wing conservative who flagellates himself in private in penance for his sins. And especially if you know the history, there are few (if any) surprises to the court intrigues.

                  Those intrigues, by the way, have to do with Henry VIII and his wives, and how lawyer Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) learns to navigate around the controversy. Cromwell is the main character and in Part One mostly an observer, stepping away from personal; controversy as much as he can, thus also making him a cipher, so for all the narrative there is precious little drive at the center.

                  In Part Two, Cromwell has learned the game so well that he has become a sort of anti-Doctor Who—his mantra might well be: “Don’t trust me; I’m the Spin Doctor”)—ubiquitous and with fingers in all pies, manipulating perception and sacrificing lives on the alter of the King’s best interests, gaining power as he goes. The problem here is that since we never truly get inside Cromwell in Part One, he’s not much of either a rooting interest or a fascinating villain in Part Two. And again, if you know the history (perhaps even if you don’t), even his deadliest maneuverings convey only mild tension.

                  My guess is that the problems have more to do with Poulton’s adaptation than Ms. Mantel’s source novels, since when I got home after a full day of Wolf Hall on stage, I decided to sample the first episode of the miniseries, and Peter Straughan’s teleplay, approaching the same novels and the same history quite differently, manages to draw you in instantly. Even allowing that on film, a character like Cromwell starting out only as a cipher is much more easily made dynamic than onstage, Straughan frames it in such a way that Cromwell is perceived as a ticking time-bomb. We wait for him to “go off.”

                  But back to the play; as a colleague of mine quipped, “It’s not the dullest historical drama I’ve ever seen,” and that about sums it up. It has its moments, some wit, some laughs, a few gasps, it’s well acted by the large ensemble and cleanly directed by Jeremy Herrin. But it doesn’t deliver that crackle you so want an event like this to have. (Or, to be perfectly fair: Obviously the theatrical Wolf Hall has its proponents. But based on the number of people, at the performance I attended, who refused to participate in the standing ovation that is usually de riguer these days—about half—it’s at least safe to say that I’m nowhere near alone in my ambivalence.)
 

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Speaking of ciphers, there has always been a big one at the center of The Heidi Chronicles, and it’s the title character, who seems to have been a stand-in for her creator, the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein. And she seemed more interesting when the play first debuted in 1988.

                  The play is about the changing role of women via the feminist movement, as observed by Heidi over two decades, from her vantage as a high school senior through having established herself as a successful art historian—and an adoptive mother. Basically, the play (which is primarily a comedy) clocks Heidi’s interaction with various types of feminism; but while she remains a passionate proponent, she also increasingly finds herself feeling left out of the movement, which consistently seems to marginalize her very modest, very conventional aspirations.

                  In the era of the original production, this was somehow more potent, because Heidi’s retrospective POV was from the world of 1988. 27 years beyond that POV as a touchpoint renders the play not exactly dated, but something of a historical reference point unto itself; an artifact that hasn’t the same timely urgency. That said, it’s still a solid enough piece of writing in the sense of its mechanics, because it still gets (and earns) its laughs.

                  Indeed, it may be even moe solid than it appears, because the usually redoubtable Pam McKinnon’s direction has pushed the playing style into a somewhat hyper mode that calls attention to actors at work and compromises the illusion of spontaneity. Happily, she doesn’t push quite so hard as to compromise decent comedy delivery and timing; but she does seem to be doing a gloss on a certain kind of sitcom acting, rather than let behaviors seem natural and personalities uncontrived. Elizabeth Moss, in the title role, manages to avoid being affected by this—then again, as the hub-cypher-observer-foil, she would naturally be the reactive, lower key character—but the others, particularly Bryce Pinkham as her gay best lifelong friend (an audience favorite, just so I’m not misunderstood; I don’t mean to say he isn’t doing work of quality), are putting way too much visible effort into showcasing the intrinsic qualities that got them cast in the first place; qualities that would be apparent if Ms. McKinnon hadn’t imposed style on the play, and simply let the text and the actors Zen into “well-timed naturalism,” as she has, and quite successfully, before. 

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Since I’m in a kind of time-saving mode, I won’t go into too much detail about the Roundabout revival of On the 20th Century, save to say that it’s about as delightful as can be, and while not being a replication of Hal Prince’s original production, it is nonetheless very reminiscent of tone and spirit—and in the case of a musical based on a 1930s screwball romantic comedy, about a down-and-out Broadway producer trying to woo a movie star and former flame back to the stage, set on train bulleting from Chicago to New York City—that’s precisely what it ought to be. Kudos to Scott Ellis for knowing—as he usually does in musical revival mode—how to assemble the machine, make it go and (in the best sense) otherwise stay out of its way. Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl, Mark Linn-Baker, Michael McGrath and Mary Louise Wilson are every bit as grand, glorious and goofy as their predecessors in the original, and while I might take exception with a moment here and there, I’d have to say that, on aggregate, this is one of the very few musical theatre revivals I’ve seen that ought to deliver an experience worthily comparable to the original—and does.

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From the Irish Rep (in its temporary home in the DR2 Theatre on East 15th, while its West 22nd home is being renovated) comes The Belle of Belfast, wich has all the earmarks of a slightly quaint Irish import, but is in fact a new(ish) American play by Nate Rufus Edelman, in a NY debut, following its world premiere in LA a few seasons ago. In an interview, the author characterizes it as a tragedy, but it’s more along the lines of a bittersweet comedy (arguably a romantic comedy) set against the violent background of Belfast in 1985 (though I hasten to add, onstage violence is not a component of the play; rather, the play examines lives that have been irrevocably changed by violence and how the affected people stumblingly grope their way forward.) The principal characters (of the play’s five) are an orphaned teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood (Kate Lydic, who, with the right breaks and connections, might well have genuine stardom within her grasp) and a thirtysomething priest (an effectively understated Hamish Allan-Headley) who takes his vows and vocation seriously. You can pretty much guess the development.

                  Though that part is fairly predictable (and a fairly long time in coming), the consequences follow a less schematic path (not surprising, but not by-the-numbers, either) and the result, though negligible in the Grand Scheme of Things, is a sweet little play that gives five actors some very nice roles to delve into, and the audience a fair share of solid laughs and a soupcon of pathos. Workmanlike direction (in the best sense of being efficient and unobtrusive) is by Claudia Weill.

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Though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, the nonetheless big surprise about Larry David’s comedy Fish in the Dark was, for me, the realization that it was a solid enough stage comedy to survive without its author in the lead role. In fact I even had a moment of prescience watching it: I predicted that Jason Alexander would probably take over David’s role, and sure enough, at the top of June, through its announced six-week extension, he will. I predicted that only to myself, however. But I’ll go public and say nobody’s going to close a laugh-riot Broadway comedy while it’s still selling out; it’ll keep going at least as long as there’s an equivalent-name (and delivery) comedy expert in the lead role.

                  The lead role is that of a middle aged Norman Drexel (David) in the midst of a big, eccentric Jewish family who start the play visiting the hospital, on death watch for their elderly father (Jerry Adler). Dad pops off early and a number of issues, such as who is meddlesome Mom (Kate Houdyshell) going to live with, then have to be faced.

                  As befits a Larry David script, self-interest is pretty much the order of the day for everyone, and there’s not an ounce of sentiment or reverence to be found anywhere—which makes it all the funnier. Unsurprisingly fine comic turns are delivered by those mentioned above, as well as Lewis J. Stadlen, Ben Shenkman and Rosie Perez; but a revelation is Rita Wilson as Norman’s wife, Brenda. She brings to bear a lay-down-the-law and take-no-prisoners cool burn that’s perfectly timed match (and foil) for the madness around her. I hope we wind up seeing a lot more of her, because she’s a serious (funny) theatrical asset.

                  Crisp comic direction in the expert tradition of Mike Nichols and Gene Saks is by Anna D. Shapiro.
 

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Imported from the UK and the National Theatre, political playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s The Audience is an unusually light entry for him; not to imply that his work is without humor (for it often contains much) but the sum and substance of this one is comparatively a trifle. Writing for the second time about Queen Elizabeth II—his first such foray was his more serious screenplay for The Queen, likewise starring Helen Mirren as the monarch—he views her more in the manner of a canny hostess. Which in a sense, here, she is; the play, spanning her reign, focuses on her weekly visits from her Prime Ministers; a long-standing tradition in which an elected official with actual political power (the PM) confers with the non-elected official who doesn’t (the Queen) yet who holds a certain amount of influence that can be to the PM’s benefit or not.

                  For the most part, though The Audience isn’t about political maneuvering, jockeying for power or collaboration…it’s more about the personal relationship between the Queen and each of her PMs, and about the different dynamics. Churchill (Dakin Matthews), who appears for an audience only once, is clearly there to instruct her on the realities of the relationship and its protocols; John Major (Dylan Baker) seems there for a kind of therapy; Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe) becomes a friend and confidant (also, it would seem, her favorite), and etc. The play doesn’t follow the linear time-line, but rather introduces the ministers—also including Margaret Thacher (Judih Ivey), Anthony Eden (Michael Eden), Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan), James Callaghan (Tony Ward), David Cameron and Tony Blair (both Rufus Wright)—in an order that skips around and back, as needed to round out the picture.

                  It’s a little bit dishy, a little bit historical, a little bit speculative and a bit of a primer on how the relationship between the elected government and the royal family works; and great fun. Excellently acted under the direction of Stephen Daldry.

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I’m one of those people for whom the posted lobby warnings about realistic gunshot noises exist; I can just about bear them and I hate being startled by them. And it says something for the mildness of the musical based on Boris Pasternak’s epic Russian novel, Doctor Zhivago, that it’s full of things that go bang and boom and they hardly made a dent in my equilibrium. It’s hard to believe that so many talented people—librettist Michael Weller, co-lyrcists Amy Powers & Michael Korie, composer Lucy Simon and director Des McAnuff—could have made so many rookie mistakes in structuring the show, but make them they have; the two most egregious being a panorama opening number that paints a generic picture of a country in a historical era—basically a travelogue and a history lesson, straight information—without the filter of attitude or dramatic theme, just about the worst way to open a musical in general but absolutely the worst way to open a complex story, because it doesn't tell you how to focus your attention; and a narrative treatment that takes a cram-it-all-in Cliff’s notes approach, sans tone or point-of-view, such that we never really get to meet the characters before we’re made to go on their ride (hence not caring a fig about them), and are often being told things in retrospect that we haven’t really seen dramatized (several times, Zhivago sings of his regrets and his revised, braver outlook; and I’m like: when was this ever an issue? am I supposed to buy into this existential crisis retroactively?).

                  No pun intended, everything is treated by-the-numbers, from the song of revolution to the trio for the three guys fascinated with the same woman—who, by the way, isn’t all that fascinating as portrayed here. Lest I seem to castigate poor Kelli Barrett, saddled with the role, the musical doesn’t give her anything interesting to play. Every character is reduced to his blandest trope; and of course with that reduction comes the lack of subtext—in scene and song, all simply geschreid heart-on-sleeve feelings.

                  Doctor Zhivago is very interesting source material in another wise too. The Russians don’t much like the way Westerners have dramatized it, and think of the David Lean movie as the naēve posturing of a creative team who have no grasp of the culture’s authentic nuances, perspectives, attitudes or even general physicality. (A few years into the new millennium, the Russian film industry produced its own adaptation, a miniseries, with one of its most renowned actors, Oleg Menshikov, in the title role; and it is bracingly different.) The musical seems to follow suit, to the point of interpolating the film’s signature theme song (“Somewhere My Love”) and echoing some of the Lean film characters’ signature physicality. Oh—and half the characters delivering their dialogue with various British accents. So on top of everything else, whatever book-and-photo research has been done…it doesn’t seem like anybody really bothered to “get” Russia. So there’s that, as well.

                  As a postscript: I don’t share the general cynicism about the ubiquity of standing ovations; it’s one of those cultural shifts—all it really comes to is a change of meaning. Rather than the audience collectively saying, “We are in the presence of greatness,” they’re now (mostly) saying, “We’re happy and satisfied and uplifted” (no pun intended). And there’s nothing wrong with that. But with that acknowledged, It’s fascinating to note that at the musical Zhivago, even the biggest power ballads are greeted with only perfunctory applause, and at the curtain call, the majority of the audience stays stubbornly seated.

                  And if that’s not a barometer for the times, I don’t know what is.

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Writing a play based on another play that didn’t quite finish its creative journey (or so we may believe) is an interesting idea, and web browsing reveals an interesting gestation process behind Joe di Pietro’s Living on Love, a reworking of the late Garson Kanin’s comedy Peccadillo, which never continued to Broadway after two (different and differently cast) regional productions. Further browsing reveals, from script excerpts of the original (thanks to Google Books) and a YouTube clip of a rare mid-90s revival, that the original and the reworking are very different in tone.

                  The premise, though, is basically the same: it’s about a renowned, highly temperamental orchestra conductor (Douglas Sills), his equally renowned-and-temperamental opera diva wife (Renée Fleming), and the poor young ghostwriters (Jerry O’Connell and Anna Chlumsky)—not the first—who have inherited the hopeless task of writing their contractually long overdue autobiographies. Where the two plays diverge is that Peccadillo tends more toward a comedy of manners, and, set in its then-present 1985, has more knowing characters; Living on Love tends more toward screwball comedy and, in collusion with director Kathleen Marshall, has been repositioned to the 1950s, when characters like the Maestro and the Diva were at the height of their international celebrity, and two young, aspiring writers might believably still hold onto a certain highly contrasting innocence.

                  Neither approach seems particularly on target. The premise, though its characters seem fun in thumbnail sketch, yields a plot that lays itself out schematically and goes through very familiar permutations (i.e. a little marital discord leads to harmless flirtation between the generations, but ultimately the older couple’s bond is reinforced more strongly and ever and the younger couple become romantically involved). It’s tough to save that, even delivered as self-aware pastiche. Add to this that the casting is not always ideal. Mr. Sills, always a razor-sharp comedy specialist, is excellent (and excellently accented) as the maestro. But though Renée Fleming, an actual famous opera diva herself, has enough self-possession and stage savvy to hit her marks intelligently and engagingly, you’re still very aware of a performer at work, because her lack of straight dialogue acting experience is nonetheless apparent. (She, however, came with the source material as part of the package, having been sent the original play by the Kanin estate.) It is, however, far easier to make allowances for her than for Jerry O’Connell, a decent, personable actor with a certain sense of humor, but nothing like the easy comedy chops it takes to pull off such a role; and for Anna Chlumsky, who acquitted herself quite well as replacement for the ingénue in the recent revival of You Can’t Take It With You, but has such a difficult task being anchored to O’Connell as a foil that she can’t find her zone, even with this very similar role.

                  Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson as the household butlers are pretty much their own double act, and have the show’s best, most inspired moments. But alas, “the hired help” isn’t why you go to such a comedy, unless the comedy itself is about the hired help. These guys, good as they are, are but an occasionally refreshing color, and a respite.

                  Oh, heavens, that’s a tragic thing to say, isn’t it? That supporting players provide an amusing break from the struggling primary comedy. But so it goes, and so it is…

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If your sense of pop culture goes back far enough, you’ve clocked that every few generations storytellers rediscover the story of puppet vs. puppetmaster; is the puppet truly evil, or is he the voice of his owner-operator’s split personality? And how evil can the evil puppet be?

                  The latest variation on the theme is Robert AskinsHand to God, which takes place in a Texas town church, one of whose programs is a puppet ministry, the brainchild of Margery (Geneva Carr), recently widowed (her husband having committed suicide). It’s hard enough that she has to fend off the advances of Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), and deal with the bullying, lustful teen Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer)—but her shy, sweet son Jason (Steven Boyer) seems to have taken a back seat to his foul-mouthed puppet Tyrone (voiced and operated by Boyer); and Tyrone sees all, notices all, calls everybody on everything and takes no prisoners…with the possible exception of the compassionate teen puppeteer Jessica (Sarah Stiles), who isn’t daunted by his malign influence and finds an ingenious way to deal with it. Tyrone, though, is not merely the iconoclast who exposes hypocrisy. He’s as problematic as he is without pretense, because he’s enraged, incorrigible, out of control and destructive. And his relentlessness threatens to overwhelm and destroy Jason.

                  As you might imagine, the play is a riff on the potentially corrosive influence of organized religion, and the comedy is both very funny and very dark—but where the play takes you by surprise is that in the crunch, it is also unexpectedly compassionate—and sometimes chilling enough to make you gasp.

                  Under the direction of Moritz von Steulpnagel, the entire cast is excellent, with, of course, Steven Boyer, as Jason/Tyrone, making the favorite audience impression; but that’s not to say he “steals the show”; there are extravagantly written roles for all, and all get to shine; or whatever one does in a dark universe. My only caveat, and it’s a small one (so far) is this: because of the nature of the play and the Jason/Tyrone dynamic at the center, a lot of it happens at a high pitch, and keeping that in check, so that it doesn’t become relentless, is no easy task of maintenance. And Hand to God, right now, is just a little bit more shouty (as the Brits say) than it was off-Broadway, and not just because it’s in a bigger house. Before this excess leads to even more, it could do with a tune-up, for a bit of fine modulation.

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Something Rotten seems to have divided audiences down the middle if you go by word of mouth and social media, possibly because those forums can spark debate; but once you’re in the theatre, it’s very clear that the ayes unequivocally have it, and that the mantle of Funniest New Musical in Town has been passed on. Conceived by a couple of brothers, from the worlds of Hollywood/animation screenwriting and pop recording (respectively, Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick), written by them in collusion, I mean collaboration with a screenwriter/novelist Brit (John O’Farrell), its only creative team member with pervious theatre pedigree is director/choreography Casey Nicholaw—but it would seem Nicholaw provided, if not the key ingredient, at least the keys to the kingdom (literally; the show is set in Renaissance London) because Something Rotten is right in his wheelhouse; like The Book of Mormon (which he co-directed) and The Drowsy Chaperone (which he directed directed), Something Rotten is a meta-musical—yes, I fear it has become its own genre—a musical whose existence is built upon the backs of previous, popular non-meta musicals, borrowing and sometimes giddily quoting their signature tropes and indicia for satiric effect.

                  And it comes close to being the best of them sometimes. I’ll often think something is funny without having actually had the physical response of laughter, but Something Rotten took me by surprise more than anything I’ve seen in quite some time.

                  And then there’s Act Two.

                  The show is about two struggling writer brothers (further deponent sayeth not), the Bottoms (further…) who are struggling to keep their theatre company alive, especially in the wake of superstar William Shakespeare (Christian Borle) stealing everybody’s thunder (and stories). Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James), the “idea” brother is paralyzed and blocked, so overwhelmed with envy at Shakespeare (a former actor in his troupe whom he dismissed with the advice that he take up writing); Nigel Bottom (John Cariani), the younger “words” brother, a poet, is a more sensitive soul who wishes Nick would follow the heart rather than the marketplace. I’d rather not say much else but also involved is Nick’s smart, resourceful wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff); a soothsayer who can genuinely foretell the future, but only in odd, misleading fragments (Brad Oscar); a repressive Puritan with his own repressions (Brooks Ashmanskas); his sexy, poetry-loving daughter (Kate Reinders)—and a very nice Jewish moneylender named Shylock who wants to be in show business (Gerry Vichi). And the various plot configurations lead to Nick’s big-deal theatrical offering to steal Shakespeare’s thunder: a musical.

                  How he gets there and what it’s about I leave for you to discover. But what’s clear (and it is no spoiler to say this, the very title Something Rotten preps you) is that, when we see it in Act Two, it will be awful.

                  And therein lies Something Rotten’s Act Two problems.

                  Those of you who’ve read William Goldman’s brilliant book The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, may remember his chapter on Carl Reiner’s play titled—coincidentally?—Something Different—in which—coincidentally?—a playwright is struggling to complete his new play, which, when we see it in the third act (comedies sometimes had three acts back then) is awful. Problem was, Reiner could never solve that conceit: the notion of showing the audience something that’s objectively supposed to be awful, but that is really entertaining. It so flummoxed all involved that finally the decision was made to jury rig the end of Act Two and just drop Act Three.

                  Something Rotten doesn’t quite have that option, but it has sure inherited the problem. The “awful” musical is neither horrific nor splendid, it’s just a hodgepodge of comic hyperactivity, some of which lands, some of which doesn’t. And that’s why Act Two gave the authors so much trouble in previews; they’d saddled themselves with an impossible idea.

                  In The Producers, “Springtime for Hitler” isn’t the realization of the awful show our heroes scheme to put on; it’s a reversal—so magnificently overboard in its bad taste that it’s perceived as a consciously intended big-hit satire, and backfires. That you can do. But bad on bad that we’re supposed to find objectively good…? You see the creative cul de sac.

                  Hence, Act Two, which is amusing enough to float on the good will (no pun intended) of Act One, never quite gets the mojo back. But you say so what and go with it.

                  The score is very lively and tuneful without breaking new ground; the lyrics are often very clever and would be better still without the false rhymes (not so many as to be overwhelming, just enough to signify carelessness; and I distinguish false rhymes from what I call “stupid rhymes”—like Europe with syrup [my favorite one of the evening]—which are right in the spirit of this kind of humor); Casey Nicholaw’s direction confirms his rep as the go-to guy for turning insider humor into an outsider’s joy; and the cast, as the expression goes, can hardly be bettered, as brilliant at musical theatre technique as they are with comedy timing and getting the most out of a “bit.”

                  Oh by the way, I should add, the show has gotten a bum rap for an abundance of crudeness, and it truly isn’t that crude at all. Certainly there’s a profusion of low humor—but it’s of a very high order and employed in a manner that one might even call tasteful. But don’t tell the creative team I said so…it would just ruin a good review for them…

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At the risk of sacrilege, you don’t really have to attend the Lincoln Center Theatre production of The King and I, not if you’re both familiar with the show via happy memories of prior productions, and watching your pennies in a bursting and busy theatre season that demands prioritizing. In that wise and that context, it won’t offer anything too new. For all director Bartlett Sher’s being a dab hand at infusing Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals with nuanced, humanist performances that break with a stagier tradition, he’s not the first to work that magic on this particular show in a mainstream production; that honor goes to Christopher Renshaw, who directed the ’96 revival. And the show itself has undergone no changes in terms of the writing or the version; in sum and substance it is now what it has always been.

                  But…if you want to treat yourself to some genuine design spectacle and the opulence only a very wide, very deep playing space that is as much thrust as proscenium can provide, along with, of course, a nicely sensitive interpretation in the Sher tradition—not to mention a blessedly open orchestra pit, allowing you to hear every nuance of Robert Russell Bennet’s orchestration with audiophile clarity—and particularly if The King and I is not well known to you—then the Vivian Beaumont Theatre is a fine place for you to spend a few hours.       That acknowledged: Kelli O’Hara’s interpretation of Anna isn’t a revelation, but it’s a fine, fine leading lady turn in the realistic mode, with warmly memorable moments.

                  As for Ken Watanabe’s King…He has his moments, too; but despite his Tony Award nomination he is, in the King’s vernacular, a puzzlement. Oh, I know exactly why he was cast: Japanese star of international renown, right age, right type, close enough persona…and there’s also a rawness about his style that’s free of musical theatre gloss, which to some sensibilities really brings home the East-West conflict, and I wouldn’t argue with that in theory. But I was always aware of a guy delivering his lines in the manner of one still finding his way around the character’s own broken English idioms, delivering an impression of what he thinks they might be like, rather than inhabiting the language…and even in the tradition of great character actors who don’t really sing so much as carry a tune and tell the story, he’s a rough go; as a vocal musician there are parts of his range where he’s palpably uncomfortable, and you simply can’t understand most of his lyrics. No mistake, he’s a very acceptable King; he at least has stance and charisma to compensate for the shortfalls. But, man, if your King can’t sell the royal ass off that “Puzzlement” number, you have a performance without its defining centerpiece. And that’s a real piece missing.

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The musical based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit is a strange experience based on a strange play; but the strangenesses are not precisely congruent. The story takes place in Brachen, ruined town in postwar Switzerland, where the citizens are gathering for the return of a former citizen, Claire Zachanassian (a still sharp, still poised Chita Rivera) now world-famous and spectacularly wealthy—surely, they think, to be their savior. Upon arrival with a strange coterie, she is in fact very willing to rescue the town from disaster; all she demands in return is the death of Anton Schell (an uncommonly lackluster Roger Rees), owner of the town’s general store and her former lover. And despite the outrageousness of the demand, Claire is willing to wait for the town’s moral indignation to morph into legal rationalization.

                  Terrence McNally’s book captures a certain amount of the original’s eerie tone, but there are some curious choices as well; when we meet Anton, he’s rather down-and-out personally as well as financially, and the mayor (David Garrison) treats him dismissively. In the play, Schell is the most popular man in town. The choice to change such a detail in a musical adaptation by an A+ creative team (the songwriters are John Kander and Fred Ebb, and this was the last show they completed before Ebb’s death) is not one made without conscious deliberation and reason, and as a musicals writer myself, I cannot declare it “wrong” without some knowledge of why the original dynamic didn’t play, or was thought not to. But as an audience member, I have to wonder at the loss of what seems a crucial irony. Getting the town to turn on a fellow who is already negligible isn’t that much of a challenge. Getting them to turn on a favorite son requires a true cynicism about human nature; and watching them progressively rationalize murder into acceptable community behavior should be the stuff of the living nightmare from which there is no waking. (It was that when Hal Prince directed the original play in 1973 for the late, lamented Phoenix Repertory Company).

                  But on Broadway, in 90 intermissionless minutes under the typically brisk, lean, shorthand direction of John Doyle, it never quite gets past the funhouse mirror reflection. The weird is taken care of, but the deep unsettling chill never materializes. In some ways, the score may be complicit in this; less because what’s falls short…than because what’s missing, the stuff that makes matters of life and death into, well, matters of life and death, that takes you beyond the dark and into the soul, would have been the transformative juice.

                  No mistake, The Visit is certainly worth a visit. It will almost certainly intrigue you and possibly even entertain you, in its dark way. But if such material is to be ultimately fulfilled, it should rock you. And that it does not.

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The Red Bull Theatre production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a Renaissance-era tragedy by John Ford is one of those occasional productions by a highly-respectable, well-intentioned small company that has an unfortunate stock-rep feel to it. It’s designed adequately but not brilliantly; it features some well-cast performers next to (I assume) veterans of the company who aren’t always well-cast (those ranging from the-best-you-can-do-given-the-limitations-of-keeping-it-in-the-family to inappropriate-enough-to-leech-any-semblance-of-verisimilitude) and directed without commitment to a specific tone (well, without apparent commitment to one), which lets several different acting styles mingle, rarely achieving cohesion. A bloody revenge drama with an incestuous (brother and sister) romantic couple at the core, presented by the author within an innocent haze that is less unsettling to us in the audience than to others in the drama, requires more than just keeping the narrative aloft (although that’s no mean feat, and props to director Jesse Berger for that at least); it requires a real sense of mood and atmosphere. If you’re happy enough just to see the play as a rare experience, you may well be as happy to make allowances. But if you want your Guignol genuinely Grand, you may be disappointed.

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If I have a big regret about what unavoidable delays have cost me in terms of timely reviewing, it’s not having been able to tell you sooner about The Mystery of Love and Sex by Bathsheba Doran, directed by Sam Gold, that just ended its run at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center. But I make a point of this postscriptin the interest of its future life in the regionals and with stock and amateur companies.

                  I won’t go into detail save for the only details that really matter. It comes under that dread category—“relationship” play—and is one of the very, very few not to be supercilious or insular or meaningless outside a contemporary urban venue or meaningful within one five years from now. It’s about a young woman (Gayle Rankin), the young man she loves (Mamoudou Athie), and her parents (Diane Lane and Tony Shalhoub) and it takes them through a number of years.

                  Not one of them is a familiar archetype, They’re specific, unique, layered, surprising characters, highly flawed, often confused, touching, funny, sad, victorious—yet above all desperately human. You grow to love and care about what happens to them because you identify so strongly—not with the specifics that make them distinct theatrical creations…but with their yearning to understand and find ways through crisis toward resolution, because, as always, the specificity brings out the universal touchpoints. It’s a lovely play; here in NY, it was charmingly acted and directed with subtle grace by Sam Gold. It can doubtless meet with similar grace, if handled with care, in many other venues to come.


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