Guest Review: “Face Off” A review of WAR PAINT at the Nederlander Theatre

Face Off

A review of

WAR PAINT
at the Nederlander Theatre
by Moshe Bloxenheim

April 26, 2017

WAR PAINT is a glamorous show with a marvelous cast, stunning sets, stylish costumes and a really engrossing Second Act.

Act Two shows the competing heads of the cosmetics and beauty industry, Miss Elizabeth Arden and Madame Helena Rubinstein, having survived Governmental hearings and the Food and Drug Administration’s investigations into their product lines. All seems bleak until the outbreak of war causes an increased demand for cosmetics and a need for technologies that are patriotically developed and supplied by both Mme. Rubinstein and Miss Arden’s companies. The Postwar boom places the two ladies in what seem to be unassailable positions in the cosmetics market. After a few years, the business changes as new competitors seek out the youth market, use new forms of advertising and sell product lines that our heroines deem tasteless and shoddy. Miss Elizabeth Arden and Mme. Helena Rubinstein must then face being figures of the past with shrinking empires who cannot adapt because their pride and high standards will not let them come to terms with a rapidly changing trade and radically different concepts of beauty. The ladies must also live with the effects that their drive and determination have left on their personal lives.

There is much that is thoughtful and sympathetic this last act and the show delivers some fine moments of theater. Unfortunately to get to Act Two, one must sit through a First Act that tells much about the protagonists but can’t quite figure out how to hook the audience.

Act One begins with Miss Elizabeth Arden approaching the height of her career as the socially approved supplier of cosmetics and beauty treatments. As her success increases, her husband and merchandising assistant Tommy Lewis chafes at the fact that he is his wife’s subordinate and cannot be a public part of MISS Arden’s success. To add to her worries, her competitor Madame Helena Rubinstein has returned from Europe and has repurchased the American wing of the firm she had sold off before the 1929 stock market crash. Mme. Rubinstein is zealously developing new products and treatments and her assistant Harry Fleming is eagerly providing new ideas to reestablish her cosmetics as a necessary luxury. Unfortunately he too is beginning to feel that his work is not being properly appreciated. Deep in the throes of competition new alliances are forged, relationships severed and the ladies bring the FDA down upon the entire cosmetics industry.

Based on Ms. Lindy Woodhead’s book “War Paint” and Ms. Ann Carol Grossman and Mr. Arnie Reisman’s documentary “The Powder & the Glory”, Mr. Doug Wright’s book for WAR PAINT clearly had to deal with an embarrassment of riches. It was a brave decision to focus on the ladies at their best and follow their paths to becoming obsolete relics in the fields that they had created, but the audience ends up being told about the things that make and drive Miss Arden and Mme. Rubinstein, rather than being shown what happened. True, there are quite a few interesting scenes, such as Harry Fleming showing Mme. Rubinstein how her face crème can be marketed in different ways or Miss Arden’s rejection of Revlon founder Charles Revson while she inspires his young lady assistant, but the actions are a double course of the characters: 

  • Being successful at any cost.
  • Making decisions that alienate the men in their lives because they are women.
  • Wondering what that horrible woman at the other company is doing.
  • Scheming how to get ahead of that horrible woman at the other company.

 None of these are bad story points by any means, but as they are currently presented they are easily topped by the more intriguing references of prior events – Mme. Rubinstein leaving Poland for Australia to escape an arranged marriage or Miss Arden’s being born as Florence Nightingale Graham, etc. Instead of fully focusing on how their climb has made them who they are, we see these ladies spend much of their time pushing concoctions on a credulous public, aggravating men and playing dirty tricks on one another. While this still provides Act Two with a solid basis to tell the story, it also leaves Act Two to do the work of pulling the audience in: Both ladies may be outsiders who aspire to an American Dream they are not allowed to be a part of, but there is little reason in Act One to care for either of them.

The cast is really great and work so very hard to make the most of WAR PAINT.

Ms. Christine Ebersole is amazing as Miss Elizabeth Arden, the lady who longs for acceptance into the highest social circles, but who has worked too hard to ever leave behind the days when she mixed up the face lotions herself. Even in Act One she has some magical moments such as her performance of the number “Better Yourself” which is sung to a young lady who also has business aspirations, but it is in Act Two where Ms. Ebersole shines, becoming downright heartbreaking in the angry self-review of her career “Pink”. We feel for this Elizabeth Arden who is appalled by the world that seems to be turning cheap and inferior while remaining as unwelcoming as ever.

As Miss Arden’s nemesis, Ms. Patti LuPone brilliantly creates a fierce and dominating Helena Rubinstein who has never left her past, in part because she knows that no one else will let her forget who she is: a Jew and a woman. She too must battle to keep ahead and she feels that every cosmetic advance she can create is hers and hers alone even if she hires the brightest people to help market her products. There are times when Ms. LuPone’s take on her character’s Polish/Yiddish accent (by way of Australia, London and Paris) defeats her intelligibility, but all vocal confusions are forgiven whenever Ms. LuPone lands a number. In the End of Act Two, Helena sings “Forever Beautiful”, a number about trying to stop time with art that could have easily been a tribute to a woman’s self-absorption and mania as a collector of her own portraits, but Ms. LuPone makes it a touching appreciation of a woman who is facing the end of her life without any of the consolations of love and family.

Tommy Lewis is the husband of Miss Elizabeth Arden. He is a very talented businessman and gives much to his wife’s enterprise, but resents being Mr. Elizabeth Arden. Harry Fleming begins as Mme. Rubinstein’s brilliant marketing and advertising man who is treated like a son and soon enough discovers some of the reasons Mme. Rubinstein’s male family members keep a good distance from her. Mr. John Dosetti’s Tommy Lewis is excellent as the husband who feels more and more out of place in his wife’s world. Similarly, Mr. Douglas Sills gives an admirable performance as Harry Fleming, a man who thinks he deserves more credit than Madame will give anyone. There is humor and much pathos in the fact that these two individuals can be so interchangeable in the lives of Mme. Rubinstein and Miss Arden that when they end up leaving these ladies both gentlemen merely switch bosses and much continues as before (which makes one wonder how intelligent Lewis and Fleming really are if they think the other lady would give them any more recognition – but who am I to quibble with a reality that does make for a darned good plot twist?). When watching Messrs. John Dosetti and Douglas Sills play these roles so expertly, I just kept imagining Director Michael Greif saying “You are the embodiment of all the emasculated men in the lives of these ladies.” A surprising highlight was their number “Dinosaurs” sung by the gentlemen at the end of their careers as they see their bosses and their companies being left behind by the youth culture and changes in fashion. Of course, after some of the really bad advice they both give their bosses in Act One (which brings on the FDA) I wondered why anyone would keep listening to them.

Mr. Erk Liberman’s Charles Revson is fine as a determined though unpolished male parallel to Miss Arden and Mme. Rubinstein and Ms. Steffanie Leigh is memorably eye-catching as Dorian Leigh. They also perform other people in the in the world of our two Ladies as do the rest of the superb company: Most notably Ms. Mary Ernster who summons up the best of Helen Hokinson’s Dowager cartoons from the New Yorker.

 Director Michael Greif clearly understands the importance of Act Two because he could have easily introduced an element of camp into Act One which might have made it more enjoyable (indeed it begs for camp) but that would have hurt the Second Act. Instead, regardless of its flaws, Act One is consistent with Act Two which gives the decline from greatness far more grounding. Mr. Greif also shows skill in how he deftly handles two lead characters who are constantly on the same stage yet cannot acknowledge each other’s presence. This makes for a wonderful payoff in certain scenes, especially at the end of the show.

Unfortunately he too cannot overcome the snags of Act One nor the problems with some of the numbers.

Elizabeth and Helena exhibit a dignity and maturity that does not allow for much in the way of high kicks and twirls, so Choreographer Christopher Gattelli makes them the center of a world that dances around them, creating some very imaginative numbers such as “Best Face Forward” an overview of how cosmetics can affect a woman’s world and “Step on Out” where Tommy Lewis and Harry Fleming both have a night out to blow off steam in their different (yet similar) ways.

Mr. Lawrence Yurman ably conducts Mr. Bruce Coughlin’s standard Broadway house orchestrations of Mr. Scott Frankel’s Music and Mr. Michael Korie’s lyrics. This makes for some songs that show off Mss. LuPone and Ebersol to their best advantage, and lay out the situations quite well. But besides the funny, self-pitying “Dinosaurs” and the angry “Pink” the tunes seemed to vanish from memory. The scenes were there, but not the numbers themselves. Additionally, certain pieces made very important points but didn’t know when to stop. “Now You Know” is Helena’s musing upon overhearing Elizabeth having one of her greatest disappointments right after Helena herself has been reminded that as a Jew she is still sometimes unwelcome. It is a sincere and sympathetic song that underscores their outsider status and similarity but kept on long after its message was delivered. Similarly the Revlon TV commercial “Fire and Ice” begins as the ideal contrast between the changing world of the 1950’s and the ideals of Elizabeth and Helena, but since it is also out to evoke the banalities of a television ad, this 60 second spot goes on for at least five or more minutes more than necessary as if the producers were determined to get their money’s worth of the gowns and mirror sets.

Admittedly, the sets and costumes are well worth showing off. Mr. David Corin has come up with some striking scenic designs that range from the beautiful salon backdrop of frosted geometric bottles and jars on row after row of illuminated shelves to the simple yet effective TV studio mirrors for the “Fire and Ice” number and the sedate St. Regis restaurant where people can be heard and not seen. Mr. Kevin Posner lights up each scene with great care allowing moments to successfully transition in a cinematic way and enables intimate scenes to flow easily into public displays.

The look of the people onstage is just as outstanding. Ms. Catherin Zuber’s exceptional costumes capture each period from the 1930’s to the 1960’s and Ms. Angelina Avallone’s makeup designs and Mr. David Brian Browns’ wigs are superb, making Ms. Ebersole a feminine vision of pink determination and giving Ms. LuPone the perfect look of Helena Rubinstein down to her the unforgettable jet black hair.

Mr. Brian Ronan’s sound system works admirably, assisting the performers on stage instead of taking over for them.

Overall, the stage work is truly top notch and the high caliber of the performances alone could have done much to make a reasonably good show become a must-see treat for the audience. But all the effort given to WAR PAINT is sadly defeated by a weak first act and an often unremarkable score.

NEDERLANDER THEATRE
208 West 41st St
Between 7th & 8th Ave

BOOK BY DOUG WRIGHT ~ MUSIC BY SCOTT FRANKEL ~ LYRICS BY MICHAEL KORIE
ALSO STARRING JOHN DOSSETT AND DOUGLAS SILLS
CHOREOGRAPHED BY CHRISTOPHER GATTELLI
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL GREIF

NEW BLOCK OF TICKETS AVAILABLE SOON!
BUY TICKETS

About the reviewer:

MOSHE BLOXENHEIM
I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
 Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

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GUEST REVIEWER: Life behind the Wicked Stage. PERFECTING THE KISS

Life behind the Wicked Stage

A review of Mind The Gap Theatre & YouBlinked Productions presentation of

PERFECTING THE KISS

At the NuBox Theater/John DeSotelle Studios
April 20, 2017
by Moshe Bloxenheim

 

Billed as a “Mocumentary for the Stage”, Mr. Scott C. Sickles’ excellent play PERFECTING THE KISS is a savagely hilarious show that finds its wit in the way very real and flawed personalities pursue their desires even when it clashes with how they present themselves and what they want to achieve.

Helen McMillan – the former Stage Manager of Harvest Carruthers’ latest overwrought play – very bluntly begins by announcing that what we are about to see is a form of therapy. We are then taken back to the very first script reading of Harvest’s play where we see director Edwina cheerfully welcoming the sensitive and word-proud author, the two actors Mike and Buck and kind of acknowledging Helen. It is soon very clear that Edwina has her own reasons for casting Mike in this show and Mike is not exactly thrilled with either her motives or the show itself. Mike is also disconcerted by Buck’s rather overblown first reading which does not quite mesh with his own low-key style of rehearsing. But Harvest seems more and more fascinated by Buck even as he begins to change his sacred texts… and so it continues.

Mr. Sickles lets his situations evolve into farce in a way that is every bit as sidesplitting as it is realistic. This is theater: an industry where everyone acts on what they think they have heard and seen and are all too willing to take each other at face value. So actions and reactions pile up in a believable comedy of manners that works on multiple levels – firstly as a really funny show where people have to work together even while pursuing each other in a sort of mad Mobius strip of desire. Then there is the added treat of evil recognition for anyone who has been to one too many play readings or rehearsals of a certain offbeat theatrical type.

The cast is wonderfully directed by Ms. Paula D’Alessandris, who clearly understands that the characters of PERFECTING THE KISS are not mere theatrical stereotypes hyped up for a laugh, and that the reality of these people make the show even funnier. If there is any exaggeration it is all in the realm of possibility so that we can really feel Helen’s anguish even when we laugh at the ludicrousness of it all.

Ms. Helen McMillan is brilliant as the alternately pestered and ignored Stage Manager Helen McMillan (Yes, that is the name of both actress and character). As the Cinderella who blows up the Ball just as her fairy coach arrives, Ms. McMillan’s understated recollection of the egos and issues of the people involved absurdly heightens her sense of walking on emotional whoopee cushions. She is truly an actress who knows how wield a wry brief comment and isn’t afraid to use it.

As Harvest Carruthers, the playwright, Mr. Hugo Trebels presents one of those sensitive creative types who cannot easily write a simple sentence if several pages of dialogue can suffice. Of course every one of his written words is sacrosanct and woe betides the people who cannot read his mind: he wants to uplift the audience’s intellect. Mr. Trebels never misses a trick, whether Harvest is being outraged by the honesty of a person who truly admires him, flattered by one of his actors or taking out his frustration in his scripts revisions.

Harvest’s director Edwina O’Halloran is another prize piece of work. She is intent on keeping Harvest happy, while trying to make his play more presentable. But besides the many concerns involved with the show, Edwina wants actor Mike Porter to be in love with her and cannot appreciate the fact that Mike is gay. This all leads to some fascinating mind games which Ms. Janette Johnston‘s superb Edwina plays with great skill.

Mr. George Redner gives a fine tuned performance as Mike Porter, one of the two actors in Harvest’s play. Though he may not show it initially, Mike is one of those actors who will put everything he has into doing a good job – no matter what he thinks of the material and in spite of having to cope with Edwina’s maneuverings.

The other actor, Jonah ‘Buck’ Jackson is played with a delightful Gee Whiz charm by Mr. Patrick Harman. ‘Buck’ may seem innocent enough but he knows what to do when he needs to, even if he apparently has no idea how much Harvest is attracted to him. In addition, Messrs. Harman and Redner’s work as two actors of VERY different styles and their interactions in rehearsals are some of the comic highlights of PERFECTING THE KISS. Both gentlemen are truly believable in their offstage and onstage moments.

Naturally kudos must be given to Ms. Judith Feingold as the actual Stage Manager for helping PERFECTING THE KISS move forward convincingly with only lighting, sound and minimal sets.

 PERFECTING THE KISS is a truly funny show that I cannot recommend highly enough. Alas, it has just ended its limited run and I can only finish by wishing that it soon be brought back onstage again.

CAST & CREATIVES
PATRICK HARMAN – Jonah “Buck” Jackson
JANETTE JOHNSTON – Edwina O’Halloran
HELEN MCMILLAN – Narrator
GEORGE REDNER – Mike Porter
HUGO TREBELS – Harvest Carruthers
Directed by PAULA D’ALESSANDRIS
Written by SCOTT C SICKLES

About the reviewer:

MOSHE BLOXENHEIM
I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

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GUEST REVIEWER: We’ll Take Manhattan! A review of Encores! concert reconstruction of Cole Porter’s THE NEW YORKERS

We’ll Take Manhattan

A review of Encores! concert reconstruction of

Cole Porter’s
THE NEW YORKERS

At New York City Center
March 22, 2017

by Moshe Bloxenheim

 THE NEW YORKERS originally featured specialty acts, material built around Mr. Jimmy Durante’s unique personality and took a very amused look at the world of Park Avenue Society, Gangsters and Prohibition, making no bones about the fact that this was not a show for “The Little Old Lady from Dubuque” though I daresay she might have had a whale of a time too. Encores! manages in a case of sheer theatrical chutzpah to piece together a fine entertainment that gives an impression of the enjoyment that was to be found in the original 1930 show even if an accurate reconstruction is not in cards.

Mr. Cole Porter’s score alone is well worth the price of admission. Admittedly many numbers are hits imported from other shows, but they seem to make themselves perfectly at home sometimes showing up in surprisingly adroit ways. Mr. Jack Viertel assists in this with a concert adaptation of Mr. Herbert Fields original book that allows the plot to entertain and move the show onward without ever forgetting that the songs come first.

The gangsters, good time girls, vapid socialites, adulterers, hoofers, gigolos, prisoners and so on that inhabit THE NEW YORKERS are all likeable and occasionally endearing and make the most of whatever story had first been furnished by Mr. E. Ray Goetz and the famous New Yorker Magazine cartoonist, Mr. Peter Arno: Alice Wentworth, a pretty socialite, is engaged to marry the stodgy, wealthy and reputable Phillip Booster. She expects her marriage to be like that of her parents, Dr. Windham and Mrs. Gloria Wentworth. The Doctor is the swain of the entertainer Lola McGee and the famous inventor of the pick-me-up drug Alcodol while Gloria has Captain Hillary Trask as her special pick-me-up. When the handsome young Captain goes off with Lola, the Doctor and Gloria are rather nonplussed to have to go home together. All plans for a similar life with fiancé Phillip go out the window the moment Alice meets the dashing speakeasy owner Al Spanish. Al and Alice are quite smitten and, for good measure, Philip falls hard for Al’s girlfriend, the singer Mona Low. Unfortunately, complications arrive in the guise of Feet McGeegan, who wants Al to keep out of the Caviar Racket (as if rum-sunning wasn’t hazardous enough). Merry mayhem ensues with some frequency and lots of great music and dancing. Through it all comedian and drink Inventor supreme Jimmie Deegan struts his stuff, the Three Girl Friends Trio and the Varsity Eight chorus sound and look stunning, and jokes about prohibition, politics, society, prison and Cole Porter references are tossed in with happy abandon. Oh yeah – it all ends right.

Delightful Ms. Scarlett Strallen ensures that Alice Wentworth is no mere pretty face, making the most of the character’s savvy naiveté and getting her some wonderful laughs in Alice’s discovery of Real Life (in the form of Al Spanish). Ms. Strallen can also deliver a song with the best of them making the well-known “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love” and “Night and Day” just two of the many high points of a very well scored evening.

Anti-antihero Al Spanish may be a gun-toting gangster but Mr. Tam Mutu makes him the perfect gentleman from the wrong side of the tracks. He exhibits a sort of Gee Whiz quality that makes him the good guy even as he guns down his rivals. Mr. Mutu has an ability to put a number over that looks downright effortless and yet so enjoyable.

Usually a musical has one main lead couple and one subplot. But THE NEW YORKERS delivers far more.

Ms. Mylinda Hull gives a wonderful performance as Mona Low. Mona may be losing her Al to Alice but Ms. Hull can make one quite believe that this torch singer knows how to set the stolid Phillip Booster on fire and Mr. Todd Buonopane’s Phillip is a hoot as he transforms from Alice’s burden to Mona’s pleasure.

Alice’s parents are the second couple as they discover that although infidelity is lots of fun, it is always nice to come home to one another. Dr. Windham Wentworth is one of those urbane if slightly vague men-about-town and Byron Jennings plays him with fine understatement. Ms. Ruth Williamson makes Gloria Wentworth a fine contrast to the good Doctor, giving us a woman-about-town who might like home better. Her delicious delivery of “The Physician” comes across is the complaint of a lady who feels a bit ashamed that she much prefers her husband to her boyfriend – if he would only give her a glance!

Then there is Lola McGee and Captain Hillary Trask. These two may not end up together living happily ever after, but Ms. Robyn Hurder and Mr. Tyler Lansing Weaks ensure that they and the audience have a good time for the present. When Ms. Hurder delivers “Please Don’t Make Me Be Good” it is clear that she already is.

Then there is Mr. Kevin Chamberlain in the role of Jimmy Deegan – the comic mixologist. Just the knowledge that Mr. Jimmy Durante originated the part makes his memory a hard act to follow. Still, Mr. Chamberlain makes Jimmy Deegan truly funny and gets the best out of the silly dialogue, yet he is able to add enough Durante mannerisms to make us see how Mr. Durante might have laid them in the aisles in 1930 just as Mr. Chamberlain proceeds to do in 2017. His Act One closer “Wood” is an example of how great absurd comedy can really last.

Aiding and abetting Mr. Chamberlain are his two comic and dancing sidekicks Monahan and Gregory, played with gleeful skill by Messrs. Clyde Alves and Jeffery Schecter.

While Jimmy Deegan is a unique comedy turn all by himself, there are several other specialty acts that deserve much praise:

The Gangster Feet McGeegan is the villain of the show in the mold of Snidely Whiplash or Witch Hazel. So naturally as one of those characters who deserves killing, THE NEW YORKERS obliges, having Feet coming to an untoward end over and over and over again. Mr. Arnie Burton manages to give him just the right level of cartoonish melodrama proving that death may be easy and comedy is hard but comic death is an art all its own. As an added highlight, Mr. Burton stops the show with the brilliant patter number “Let’s Not Talk About Love”.

Other musical delights include the trio of Mss. Christine DiGiallonardo, Lindsay Roberts and Kathryn McCreary as the Three Girl Friends and the Varsity Eight in the guise of Messrs. Matt Bauman, Sam Bolen, Brian Flores, Matthew Griffin, Curtis Holland, Timothy McDevitt, Brendon Stimson and Cody Williams, who recreate the numbers originated by the megaphone-wielding Waring Pennsylvanians.

Many of these performers double up in several roles but Mr. Eddie Korbich laudably wins the multiple casting honors as he appears and reappears as a doctor, a nightclub major domo, a waiter at a deli, a policeman, a butler…

The rest of the company deserve top marks for their acting and dancing, but even with the wealth of pleasure offered onstage, one performer still stands out indelibly: Ms. Cyrille Aimée delivers “Love for Sale” on an empty stage without any introduction and brings down the house. This lonely, haunting performance on its own would have made THE NEW YORKERS worth seeing.

Director John Rando has no trouble with the fact that THE NEW YORKERS is a series of songs with barely enough plot to keep the show from being designated a revue or vaudeville (not that there would be a problem with either one). But Mr. Rando ensures that even with all the numbers being launched in so many ways by different people and acts that everyone gets to shine and nothing ever clashes so that the show buckets along engagingly to its loopy conclusion (the memorable “I Happen To Like New York” chorale). Mr. Chris Bailey’s choreography has a lot to do with this because so much movement and dancing carry THE NEW YORKERS forward. A gangster battle where the machine gun fire is enacted by tap-dance emphasizes the period, plot and cartoonish nature of the show since the assailants and their would-be targets just keep happily tapping and firing. More than that, the specialties are clearly staged to make the most of the talents involved yet invoke their predecessors in the roles. In fact, where many songs have at least a line to cue them in, Messrs. Rando and Viertel know that sometimes a song should be left to fend for itself and ensure that a moment like Ms. Cyrille Aimée’s singing of “Love for Sale” stands alone as the jewel of the show as the original piece did in 1930.

This care with THE NEW YORKERS songs and music is obviously shared by the Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra. Mr. Berman’s arrangements and conducting and Messrs. Josh Clayton’s and Larry Moore’s orchestrations are out to get the best of musicians and actors and all deliver beautifully. Even when a number is an import from another show and of a slightly different style (like “The Physician” from the English show NYMPH ERRANT), it just seems to be a natural fit in THE NEW YORKERS. Certainly it would have been braver and wiser for the show to have selected more obscure pieces from Mr. Porter’s songbook and give them the currency they may deserve but I enjoyed myself too much to quibble with what is on offer.

The look of the show is also quite striking with designs that appear as an idealized 1930. Thanks to Mr. Allen Moyer’s scenery and Mr. Alejo Vietti’s costumes one can see glitz and glamor even in Sing-Sing prison and Mr. Ken Billingtons’s top-notch lighting makes even the shimmering reflections of the ladies’ lamé gowns become part of the visual pleasure.

I was a little surprised at the unevenness of Mr. Dan Moses Scheier’s sound system, but besides a few aural fades in Act One, everything sounded pretty good, upholding the illusion that you could hear the voices from the actors rather than the loudspeakers.

THE NEW YORKERS is a loving and varicolored bouquet to the people, foibles and theater of that 1930’s city but it still has an enchanting effect in today’s Empire City as well. As with all first public Encores! performances there was a slightly tentative feeling as the performers gauged how the material was landing, but all went wonderfully well and I am sure that the future performances will only get better and even funnier.

Encores! final Performance of THE NEW YORKERS was 7 PM Sunday Night, March 26, 2017.

About the reviewer:

MOSHE BLOXENHEIM
I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

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For more info on Elli -- The King of Broadway www.thekingofbroadway.com
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GUEST REVIEWER: DEAR WORLD at The York Theatre

Small WORLD, isn’t it?

A Review of Musicals in Mufti’s concert production of

DEAR WORLD

At the York Theatre
by Moshe Bloxenheim 

Musicals in Mufti’s concert production of DEAR WORLD is one of those lovingly staged productions that can beguile an audience into wondering why this show didn’t work the first time? With a book based on Monsieur Jean Geraudoux’s play THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT and an often delightful score by Jerry Herman, DEAR WORLD relates how Countess Aurelia, Madwoman of Chaillot saves humanity from being overrun by the soulless seekers of money and power. In the Countess’ adventure the audience is introduced to the characters who make up her world and those who threaten it.

The Prospector and the three corporate Presidents seek to destroy the Countess’ beloved Paris for the lake of oil that they know is below the city. Mr. Gordon Stanley is a perfectly peevish Prospector who is driven by oil and cannot see any romance beside it. He fits perfectly in with the Presidents who are played with relish by Messrs. Stephen Mo Hanan, Peter Land and J. Bernard Calloway. All the gentlemen gleefully twirl a metaphysical villainous mustache with panache, bringing their best to their anthem of greed “Just A Little Bit More” and being merrily hissable in “The Spring of Next year” where they exult in the destruction of Paris.

The young executive Julian had been one of their crew until he realized that people would be hurt and Mr. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka manages to show this change of heart quite briefly and yet credibly. Indeed, under the Countess’ idealistic spell Julian goes from accomplice to uncertain to penitent to hero and lover and the handsome Mr. Herdlicka accomplishes the changes with charm and ease, most memorably in a tender scene where Julian pretends to be Adolphe Bertaut – the man who had broken the Countess’ heart many years in the past.
Nina is a waitress and general factotum at the Café Francis – the bistro where the Countess holds court and the place that the Prospector wants to destroy to start the oil drilling. Ms. Erika Henningsen makes a sweet and pretty Nina who clearly enjoys being a part of the Countess’ world. We root for her Nina and Julian to fall in love with each other and cheer when Ms. Henningsen sings “I Never Said I Love You” (even with its inept positioning in the show).

One of the Countess’ aides and links from the harsh real world to her romantic existence is Mr. Lenny Wolpe’s jovial Sewerman. From his number “Pretty Garbage” and onwards Mr. Wolpe creates a man who has his mind in the most delightful of gutters, giving cheerful denials about the outrageous world below that make it seem even more wonderful and fantastic. When the Sewerman gives a “sympathetic” defense of the rich in Act Two, Mr. Wolpe extracts some wonderfully timely comedy out of the moment.

It is a talent indeed to play a role without practically a word and Mr. Kristopher Thompson-Bolden makes a beautiful Mute – the observer of all and assistant to the Countess. For a man who will not speak, Mr. Kristopher Thompson-Bolden’s Mute is a real chatty soul and can even deliver a song with flair – allowing gesture and dance to supply the lyrics that are then picked up and sung by the other performers.

Other helpful men who brighten the stage are Mr. Dewey Caddell as the Police Sergeant and Ben Cherry who is the Waiter at the Café Francis.

Two other Madwomen assist the Countess: Ms. Alison Fraser gives us a striking and memorable Madame Constance, Madwoman of the Market. She could have jauntily stepped out of an Edward Gorey drawing but her fancies are less gothic and more aurally and erotically absurd.

Adding to the fun, Ms. Ann Harada’s superb Madmoiselle Gabrielle, Madwoman of Montmarte is relentlessly virginal and unsullied. Ms. Harada’s character could simply be childish and a bore about her imaginary lap dog, Dickie, but Ms. Harada makes us see why the others would care for her and even makes us wonder if we aren’t seeing the dog too, even though Mlle. Gabrielle then claims she hadn’t brought Dickie after all.

Finally, the Doyenne of Madwomen: Countess Aurelia, Madwoman of Chaillot.
Ms. Tyne Daly gives a definitive performance as the sanest Madwoman there ever was, living in a romantic dream that must be cruelly interrupted to save the beauty of the real world. As a Madwoman, Ms. Daly sensibly gives her Countess the only French Accent in this stage Paris and often seems to have to refocus her fantasy driven mind. Musically, Ms. Daly does not sing her songs prettily but delivers them to brilliant effect, making them truly enchanting. The Countess’ plea against reality “I Don’t Want to Know” is downright heart-stirring as Ms. Daly performs it. Then again, the Madwoman’s tea party in Act Two could easily become a scene stealing battle, but Ms. Daly is clearly at stage center joining in with Ms. Harada and Ms. Fraser in creating a wonderful piece of musical theater studded with comic gems. You want to hug and take care of Ms. Daly’s Countess even while knowing full well that she is more than capable of taking care of you.

Mr. Michael Montel directs DEAR WORLD with the clear understanding that the more intimate this show is, the better it will work and makes the most of the small York Theatre Stage with its basic setting by Mr. James Morgan and lighting by Brian Nason. He does his best to make us forget some of the bumpier moments of the book and well evokes the fairy tale atmosphere of this whimsical story.

There have been times when I have been to a musical that sadly manages to evoke earlier recording of the show by its current shortcomings. Happily, this cannot be said of DEAR WORLD where Mr. Christopher McGovern’s first-rate musical direction and piano playing – along with the fine bass and accordion skills of Mr. Louis Tucci – sound anything but spare.

Messrs. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s original book for DEAR WORLD has been revised by Mr. David Thompson and he has made a noble effort of reworking and tightening the show, changing the song order, working with added material and introducing some numbers to better effect. While “Just a Little Bit More” is not my favorite number, it now gives a suitable way for our Villains to better define who they are and relocating “The Spring of Next Year” to Act Two gives these characters a number that lets them reestablish themselves to the audience as evil beings when they musically celebrate Paris’ impending ruin. The Countess’ “Kiss Her Now” has become a very satisfying moment, framing Julian and Nina’s love towards the end of Act Two. Still, even the concert premise cannot really overcome the clumsy placement of Nina’s lovely “I’ve Never Said I Love You” which suddenly erupts without rhyme or reason.

And then there is the Title Song.

Mr. Jerry Herman creates some unforgettable pieces: “I Don’t Want To Know”, “Each Tomorrow Morning”, “Kiss Her Now”, etc. – but the title song “Dear World” is one of those things that must be gotten through because it is a TITLE SONG. Messrs. Thompson and McGovern clearly have done their level best to make “Dear World” work as an anthem that will bring heart back to the protagonists but in spite of their efforts, it still feels like being beaten repeatedly between the eyes with a Hallmark Get Well card. One annoying aspect of the song is the fact that the people singing “Dear World” are the ones being forced save the world – it will not save itself like the song repeatedly insists. The song that immediately follows it, “One Person”, is actually more to the point and moves things forward. Perhaps it is heretical, but I think the show would be much better if “Dear World” was totally rewritten with more suitable lyrics or even dropped altogether.

Still, even in its current condition, DEAR WORLD is well worth it – as a marvelous entertainment with a great cast and as an appropriate fable for these times. Even the flaws are intriguing and some of the more creative spectators may leave the theater both thrilled with what they have seen and contemplating what might be done do to overcome the imperfections.

 Alas, DEAR WORLD closed March 5.

About the reviewer:

MOSHE BLOXENHEIM
I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

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DEAR WORLD
Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
New Version by David Thompson
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman

Based on The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux as adapted by Maurice Valency
Directed by Michael Montel
Music Directed by Christopher McGovern
Featuring Tyne Daly
With Dewey Cadell, J. Bernard Calloway, Ben Cherry, Alison Fraser, Stephen Mo Hanan, Ann Harada, Erika Henningsen, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Peter Land, Gordon Stanley, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Lenny Wolpe
 

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GUEST REVIEWER: Return to the Comet

On revisiting NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, I was pleased to discover that several points in my original review of December 3, needed updating for the better.
The reconsideration will come before the original review. 
Thank you,
Moshe Bloxenheim
—————————————————-
 

Return to the Comet

 Some additional thoughts about
the current Broadway Production of

 NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812

At the Imperial Theatre
February 19, 2017

by Moshe Bloxenheim 

Perhaps some performances have improved since December 3, or maybe on that night I had caught some cast members who were not at their very best.  It might even be that I needed a second visit to better appreciate the performances and the nuances of Ms. Rachel Chavkin’s direction.  Whatever the reason, I am delighted to say that I like NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 even more now than when I had seen the show on December 3, 2016 and much of the “roughness” I had then perceived has been smoothed out.
While I still believe that Pierre’s Act One number “Dust and Ashes” is an unnecessary and badly placed song, it is now harder for me to resent Mr. Josh Groban’s star turn because his Pierre has become an excellent portrayal of the alienated and injured man who saves himself by saving Natasha’s reputation and throwing off his affected cynicism.
While Ms. Denée Benton’s previous performance already revealed the naïve and adored young lady who is the charming Countess Natasha, I now find Natasha’s state of high emotion and eventual despair in Act Two when her world collapses far more sympathetic and believable.  Natasha is no noble heroine but a real human being gripped in the power of an infatuation that she does not fully understand.  It is through Ms. Benton’s interpretation that we feel for Natasha and appreciate this innocent girl’s desperation when love, attraction and desire threaten her ideals, reputation and life.
Mr. Lucas Steele has added subtlety to his already admirable Prince Anatole, heightening the sense of a swaggering, self-involved predator who can easily delude himself that he and his amour share the same fascination.  There is less of the Muscovite Frat-Boy out to score now and more of the man who is lost in the sense of his own desirability and need for pleasure: never deliberately evil or out to harm, but extremely dangerous and so very alluring.
Finally, thanks must go to Mr. Nicholas Pope for achieving a better level of amplification.  There is less far less sonic blasting in the show than there had been at the December 3rd show and the voices are clear and can be far more easily associated with the performers who produce them.
 
Now on to the original review…
 

Back from the Front  

A review of the new Broadway Production of

NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812

At the Imperial Theatre

December 3, 2016

 
NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is a remarkable show that sweeps the audience into the chaotic and hedonistic world of Moscow during the Napoleonic wars.
Based on several chapters on Mr. Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel WAR AND PEACE, the story focuses on the Countess Natasha’s life-changing journey to this imposing city.  She and her cousin and dearest friend Sonya have gone to visit Natasha’s godmother Marya D. while she waits for her fiancé Prince Andrey to return from the war.  After paying a disastrous call on Andrey’s sister, the sacrificing Princess Mary, and his vicious and elderly father, Prince Bolkonsky, the distraught Natasha encounters the dangerously alluring Prince Anatole.  He is the brother-in-law of Pierre, an old family friend of Natasha.  Pierre has made a very unhappy marriage to Anatole’s sister, the unfaithful and manipulative Hélène.  In disgust at his life, Pierre isolates himself in his books, keeping a kindly but vague eye on the distressing world around him.
With the assistance of Hélène and his comrades, Anatole overwhelms the naïve Natasha with his fervent declarations of love. Ignorant of the fact that Anatole is already married, Natasha throws over her engagement to Andrey and prepares to elope with the romantic Anatole.  Sonya and Marya D. do their best to save Natasha in spite of herself, but it is Pierre who must try to put back the pieces of Natasha’s wrecked world and in doing so, discovers that he is not as isolated from life as he believes himself to be.
 
Ms. Denée Benton exhibits a girlish charm as the beautiful Countess Natasha.  Natasha knows she is pretty, loved and admired – especially due to her advantageous engagement to Prince Andrey – but in spite of the resentment this could have created, Ms. Benton shows the innocence of a girl discovering the big world that makes her very assumptions of rank and privilege downright endearing.   Ms. Benton lets us feel Natasha’s bewilderment as she rapidly finds herself clearly out of her depth and thrill to her discovery of what passion can be.  She has a fine acting range but in Act 2 there are moments that jar against the overall portrayal of the desperately heartbroken Natasha.  Perhaps it is the direction and staging, but Ms. Benton’s character sometimes comes across as shrilly self-dramatizing.  Musically, however, Ms. Benton is wonderfully consistent and does Natasha full justice at all times.
With her delightful vocal catch and country artlessness, Ms. Brittain Ashford’s Sonya is a delight to watch and hear.  She is truly an affectionate cousin, taking joy in being with Natasha, but when Natasha rushes into danger, Sonya understands that saving her dearest friend might cost her the friendship that she values so highly and Ms. Ashford’s performance of “Sonya Alone” is truly profound and honest.
Marya D. is a warm and caring hostess of these two young ladies while they are in Moscow and the glorious Ms. Grace McLean gives her role a booming enthusiasm that makes it impossible not to feel that she is welcoming the entire theater.  Whether Marya D. is chaperoning her charges and showing them the suitable pleasures of Moscow, or trying to avoid a disaster, Ms. McLean is no stranger to the grand manner, tossing off vital exposition in so matter-of-fact a way that it feels downright conversational.  Ms. McLean is always a vital presence in the show and unforgettable in the songs “In My House” and “A Call to Pierre” where she brings out Marya D.’s visceral turmoil in the face of Natasha’s crisis.
As the man who turns Natasha’s world upside down, Mr. Lucas Steele expertly plays Prince Anatole.  One can appreciate why Natasha loses her head over this charmer who is so invested in his own pleasure and aware of his own desirability that he assumes that everybody else will have a good time too, even his victims in amour.  In his acting and singing Mr. Steele never misses a note, whether Anatole is enticing Natasha at the ball, gathering up his resources for the elopement or having to face the ruin of his plans.
Hélène, Anatole’s sister is another fascinating and dangerous person and Ms. Amber Gray beautifully conveys her manipulative and dissolute allure.  In the alluring number “Charming,” Ms. Gray’s Hélène is the consummate seductress who turns Natasha’s head and makes the young Countess even more susceptible to Anatole.  Even when winning this young girl over Hélène exudes a slightly smirking air of someone who has lost all morals.  Hélène could be a truly evil character but Ms. Gray manages to let us feel the sadness of this lady who cannot comprehend anything better for herself than her lovers and her feckless brother.
If Hélène is a siren without virtue, Natasha’s intended Prince Andrey – starkly played by Mr. Nicholas Belton — provides the unspoken rebuke to all the indulgence that is going on in the face of war.  Though he is Natasha’s valiant hero, Andrey’s ideals seem better at a distance.  When Andrey does return, his rigid lack of empathy makes one feel that Natasha has a knack for unfortunate entanglements.  Mr. Belton also doubles in the role of Andrey’s father the decrepit and unpleasant Prince Bolkonsky.  Perhaps it fits in with the tongue-in-cheek conceit of this production, but I think that Mr. Belton’s dress-up charade of an elderly Prince could have been better developed to bring out more of the possessive decaying man who is out to embarrass his daughter and disconcert Natasha.
On the other hand Ms. Gelsey Bell’s Princess Mary is a brief but memorable character.  Both she and Mr. Belton are a worthy duo in “The Private and Intimate Life of the House” where Mr. Belton’s aged Prince Bolkonsky grinds down his selfless daughter, but it is Ms. Bell’s Princess Mary whose character gets fully shaded in as she combines the resentments and aggravation of this duty-bound young lady whose life is passing by with the protectiveness and even love that Mary feels as she watched her father’s deterioration.  The Princess Mary may be the only one who really cannot appreciate the fortunate and beautiful Natasha but Ms. Bell’s plain, spinsterish Mary with her isolation and anxieties deserves our sympathy.  Ms. Bell also makes a surreal impression in Act One as a stylized opera singer.
Speaking of stylized opera singers, Mr. Paul Pinto is quite striking as the other grotesque and stately performer at the Opera, and it is his rollicking, don’t-give-a-damn performance as the troika Driver Balaga that is a highlight of the evening.
Dolokhov’s role is described as “Minor” in the Prologue, nevertheless Mr. Nick Chokis ensures that he is a vital figure, providing a notable delivery as Hélène’s lover, noted duelist and Anatole’s comrade in dissipation.
The Prologue also asks: “What about Pierre?”
Mr. Josh Groban’s performance is very much in keeping with the outsider nature of everybody’s friend, the awkward and unhappy Pierre.  Unfortunately the direction Mr. Groban receives often seems to be intent on giving the audience their money’s worth of this famous star which does not assist the unity of the show.  There are times where he would be better served retreating into Pierre’s oft stated discomfort and confusion on the sidelines or offstage rather than remain left out on center stage (primarily in the piano pit where he plays some of his numbers).  It may not be Mr. Groban’s fault that he cannot become the definitive Pierre and we must settle for a star who gives a decent performance while singing beautifully.
The rest of the cast is made up of circuit party Muscovites, peasants and gypsies who are often undistinguishable from contemporary clubbers and that is both part of the fun and enhances the timelessness of the story.  They are certainly picturesque but are never mere window dressing.
 
Mr. David Malloy who created the book, music and lyrics of this fascinating adaptation of Mr. Leo Tolstoy’s novel does not attempt to create a period piece nor a modern reworking.  He presents the situations and the people and lets it all take place.  This creates some high powered storytelling where the action often happens at the same time as the narrative which describes it which can also shift speedily between a character’s viewpoint and that of the people around them.  Perhaps this is not always in keeping with typical musical theater but there are elements of a classic operatic mode and even something of a dramatic recital too.
Most of the incredible score is inseparable from what is happening.  Starting from the delightfully catchy opening Prologue which thumbs its nose at the current disdain for exposition and gleefully sets forth who is who in show, Mr. Malloy takes us through a variety of styles that push the story onwards – a folk song can become a dance rave; a quiet duet becomes an operatic challenge.  Conductor Or Matias and Music Coordinator John Miller both perceive how integral the music is and allow their skillful musicians to become part of the story.
For me, the only flaw in the dynamic score of NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is Pierre’s number “Dust and Ashes.”  It is a marvelous and thoughtful song and Mr. Josh Groban makes it a showpiece.  But it is the only song in the entire musical that does not add new insight to a character nor carry the action forward.  Instead, Mr. Groban takes the stage to sing a poetic and introspective song that restates much of what Pierre has already established, causing everything to grind to a halt for a badly placed star turn.  The audience loves “Dust and Ashes” but more for Mr. Groban’s sake than any other reason.  Placed where it is, the song actually weakens the show.
Besides the occasional highlighting of Mr. Groban, Director Rachel Chavkin obviously has worked hand in hand with Choreographer Sam Pinkleton in the inventive staging, uniting the different types of acting and singing and bringing the audience along as each step of the story unfolds.  Characters flow in and out of scenes and practically populate the Imperial Theater as they all head towards the shattering climax and its aftermath.  Even Ms. Mimi Lien’s flowing multileveled settings and Mr. Bradley King’s varied lighting schemes get into the act with performers in the audience, massive doors slamming and lights constantly moving and changing as if to comment on the story.
A show occurring in 1812 might be expected to have costumes firmly set in that time frame, but while much of Ms. Paloma Young’s attractive costumes and Ms. Leah J. Loukas’ wigs and hair designs are rooted in that era, these Napoleonically garbed performers could easily find themselves at home at the current Goth scene or one of today’s more baroque downtown gatherings.  This sense of timelessness allows even the use of modern light up sneakers or neon glow bands fit into the show as if in mocking comment on the idea that humanity is so much better now than in the turbulent years of the early 19th century.
Mr. Nicholas Pope is one of those Sound Technicians who sadly has yet to learn that even the loudest moment of a show can be handled with clarity and subtlety.  In justice, Mr. Pope’s sound design make the most quiet moments clear to the audience, but he cannot seem to comprehend what harm he is causing Mr. Malloy’s fine score, the excellent actors and the audience’s eardrums by his constant over amplifying of the show’s louder sequences.
Considering all the players and musicians who have to circulate through both the stage, orchestra and mezzanine areas of the theater, Production Stage Manager Karen Meek and her staff do first-rate work to make everything flow as seamlessly as it does.
 
While it might have its rough spots, NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is an amazing and engrossing show with a score that is unforgettable and I highly recommend it.
 
One final thought:  Since so much happens all over the Imperial Theatre, the best place to see NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is the Mezzanine.  Even the Rear Mezzanine gives a great view of all the proceedings.

About the reviewer:

MOSHE BLOXENHEIM
I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

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NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
Runtime
2 hrs. and 30 min. Open Ended Run

Credits Book, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy; Directed by Rachel Chavkin

Cast Josh Groban (thru 7/2), Denée Benton, Dave Malloy (on select performances 5/4-6/27), Okieriete Onaodowan (starting 7/3), Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Belton, Nick Choksi, Amber Gray, Grace McLean, Paul Pinto, Scott Stangland, Lucas Steele, Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Nick Gaswirth, Alex Gibson, Billy Joe Kiessling, Mary Spencer Knapp, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Ani Taj, Cathryn Wake, Katrina Yaukey and Lauren Zakrin

3 WAYS TO PURCHASE TICKETS

BOX OFFICE HOURS: MON – SAT, 10AM – 8PM SUN, 12PM – 6PM

RUSH POLICY

A LIMITED NUMBER OF $39 RUSH TICKETS WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE IN PERSON AT THE IMPERIAL THEATRE BOX OFFICE AT 10AM (12PM ON SUNDAYS) ON THE DAY OF THE PERFORMANCE. LIMIT OF TWO TICKETS PER PERSON. SUBJECT TO AVAILABILITY. CASH AND MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED. SEATING LOCATIONS WILL BE AT THE DISCRETION OF THE BOX OFFICE.


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GUEST REVIEWER: THE MIKADO (Revised)

Sword-Play

A review of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of
THE MIKADO: or, the Town of Titipu
at the Kaye Playhouse

by Moshe Bloxenheim

December 31, 2016

The new NYGASP production of THE MIKADO has closed after an all too limited run, but even though I had already reviewed one cast during the run, attendance of later performances convinced me that the alternate principal actors deserved mention as well (and I could clean up some of my worst typos).  So here is the expanded “get the whole set’ review, in the usual text below and DOC attachment formats.

Moshe
——————————————————————————————————

Sword-Play

 A review of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ new production of

THE MIKADO: or, the Town of Titipu

At the Kaye Playhouse

 Covering the performances of December 31, 2016, January 5 & January 8, 2017

 As this MIKADO is a significant production for NYGASP, it seemed only fair to cover ALL the performers who alternated in the lead roles.

According to theatrical legend, a falling Japanese battle sword inspired Sir William S. Gilbert to create a new operatic satire of English foibles set in the contrasting framework of the Japonaiserie craze that was then sweeping London.  Whatever the cause, Sir William, aided by his producer Richard D’Oyly Carte then embarked placing THE MIKADO in as authentically Japanese a setting as could be possible for an 1885 English Comic Opera Company.  The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Player’s (NYGASP) brand new production of THE MIKADO sets the work as it might have appeared newly born in Sir William’s mind – a very English world in “Japanese” fancy dress that has yet to be touched by the research in costume and sets that was to come.

To prepare the audience for this cerebral concept, NYGASP’s Mr. David Auxier has written very brief and effective tongue-in-cheek prologue that confronts Sir W.S. Gilbert with the challenges faced by an author in a successful theatrical partnership: To create a new work that is acceptable to his composer partner Sir Arthur Sullivan, their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte and some very distinctive and demanding members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.  Suffice it to say a Japanese sword figures most effectively, literally knocking the author into a world based on the characters, expressions and Japanese goods he had just experienced.

Sir William’s hero, Nanki-Poo arrives in the town of Titipu.  He is, in fact, the heir to the throne of Japan, but has disguised himself as a minstrel to escape the matrimonial claims of the formidable lady Katisha.  In his musical wanderings, Nanki-Poo has fallen in love with Yum-Yum who is a ward of Ko-Ko, a cheap tailor.  When Ko-Ko is condemned to death under the Mikado’s ban for flirting, the town of Titipu promote him to Lord High Executioner under the reasoning that Ko-Ko can execute other miscreants after he carried out the job on himself.  Circumstances soon require that Ko-Ko execute SOMEBODY and as he would rather not be the victim, he strikes a bargain with the love-blighted Nanki-Poo.  Betrothals are made, revelations are prevented, complications run cheerfully rampant, logic is taken to lunatic extremes and eventually all ends happily with more than a few sacred cows being taken on.

 Musically, THE MIKADO shows its composer Sir Arthur Sullivan as a worthy match to Sir William’s language.  Sir Arthur clearly enjoys the characters of THE MIKADO and carefully fits the music to the characters and actions, whether for Ko-Ko’s busy sounding list, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum’s youthful, romantically teasing “Were You Not To Ko-Ko Plighted,” Katisha’s threatening yet sympathetic melodies or the brashly imposing “A More Humane Mikado” sung by the title character.  This score is not simple accompaniment, but is a vital contribution to the setting and action of the play and THE MIKADO shows both men at a creative high point.

In revising and refreshing THE MIKADO, NYGASP has cast the roles very carefully and quite successfully.

 Mr. Jesse Pimpinella’s Nanki-Poo may appear at first glance to be a wide-eyed youth, but he certainly knows when he has the advantage and takes it, to the glee of the audience.  This Prince disguised as a Wandering Minstrel is uniquely artless and direct and I am sure time and experience will make Mr. Pimpinella’s performance even more enjoyable.

It is easy to see why Nanki-Poo falls in love with Yum-Yum because the charming Ms. Quynh-My Luu is everything one could hope for in the role.  Her Yum-Yum is a pretty and sweet girl but Ms. Luu also adds a bit of assurance and a hint of steel that brings certain scenes to new life as well as making the most of some classic bits of humor.  Vocally, Ms. Luu’s redition of “The Sun Whose Rays are all Ablaze” is a highlight of the evening and reveals the smooth transition from the girl first seen in “Three Little Maids From School” to a woman who is aware of her powers.

Yum-Yum’s sister Pitti Sing is given a wonderful zest by Ms. Jessica Rose Futran.  Her character is always a bit more aware of the situation to excellent effect, delightfully culminating in her desperate, yet eager taking of the spotlight in the Trio “The Criminal Cried’

Ms. Lauren Frankovich is quite winning as Yum-Yum’s other sister, Peep-Bo, with her drolly unfortunate tendency to state the obvious when everybody else would rather not hear it.

One wonders HOW these three girls became the wards of the cheap Tailor Ko-Ko, but the audience should consider itself very fortunate that Mr. Adam B. Shapiro is performing as the guardian who became Lord High Executioner.  Already amusing in the prologue as the unsatisfied Arthur Sullivan, Mr. Adam B. Shapiro takes elements from that introduction and creates what is for me one of great Ko-Kos.  This is a man who cannot believe where he has ended up and is waiting for the other anvil to drop.  Nevertheless, this Ko-Ko is more than a cartoon and even when he is forced to woo the aggressive Katisha, there is byplay between the two that is very human.  Mr. Shapiro’s mastery of musical numbers is a pleasure to witness ranging in moods and delivery from the updated list of social quirks in “A Some Day it May Happen” through the comic yet touching ballad “Tit-Willow.”

Ms. Cáitlín Burke’s Katisha is fantastic.  In the prologue as the lead Contralto and in Katisha’s later Act One entrance, the fire and storminess of the part blast onto the stage, but Ms. Burke then reveals shading in the character that makes her so much more than a villainess.  Katisha may be a pain in the neck, but she earns our sympathy and beneath the bossiness it is clear that she has something to offer.  Ms. Burke’s ability to capture all this makes for musical, dramatic and comic gold, especially in Act Two when Katisha mourns her single state in “Alone, and yet Alive,” and is then won over by the fearful Ko-Ko, culminating in the buoyant duet “There  is Beauty in The Bellow of The Blast.”

Considering Katisha’s demanding presence in his court, the Mikado clearly has a lot to put up with and Mr. Cole Grissom plays the Emperor of Japan with the smooth, disdainful air of one who might easily have entire the cast executed; would it not make such a mess and bother.  In the Mikado’s song, “A More Humane Mikado,” Mr. Grissom’s character knows how uncomfortable the townsfolk are in his royal presence and uses that to great advantage.  HE is the Mikado and do not forget it!

Another man with aspirations to power is Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else.  Mr. Andy Herr builds an admirable Pooh-Bah of flash and cash who is obviously rooted in the prologue part of the urbane producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte.  Both men will do it all – so long as there is money in it.  Pooh-Bah uses his alleged dignity to his advantage as Mr. Herr shows quite entertainingly but I truly enjoyed his eagerness to gild the lily in “The Criminal Cried as he Dropped Him Down.”

In the Gilbert and Sullivan canon there are Ko-Ko roles, Pooh-Bah parts and Katisha contraltos, etc., but not as much thought about Pish-Tush, “A Noble Lord.”  But it is here where the genius of NYGASP’s new version lies, because this Pish-Tush is the William S. Gilbert of the prologue who is dreaming up this new operetta.  The estimable Mr. Chris Vaughn embodies the author discovering, enjoying and even critiquing his own idea; Tentative at first, as a dreamer realizing who he is supposed to be, Gilbert/Pish-Tush becomes a keen witness and eager contributor to the proceedings.

 In the course of the current production, other NYGASP members have taken on these roles and deserve their own mention too.

Mr. Daniel Greenwood’s Nanki-Poo gives the air of innocence that such a young hero must have, but adds a delightful touch of awareness that allows him to deliver a line or even a pause that homes right into the humor of the moment.  Vocally as well, this Nanki-Poo ranges from heroic to tender to whimsical with ease.

If Mr. Greenwood knows how to provide just the right amount of cleverness, Ms. Sarah Caldwell Smith understands how to take part in the most nonsensical situations with skillful sincerity, giving THE MIKADO another truly fine Yum-Yum.  Musically as well Ms. Smith is superb and her scene and duet with Mr. Greenwood in “Were You Not To Ko-Ko Plighted” is an “anti-flirtatious” highlight.

If Yum-Yum lacks irony, Ms. Amy Maude Helfer makes a very effective Pitti-Sing with her air of one who has a good idea of how silly things are becoming and has to pitch in against her better judgment.  She is neatly contrasted by Ms. Alexandra Haines as the third little maid, Peep-Bo: a most amiable girl who drops social bricks with amusing nonchalance.

As their guardian, Mr. David Macaluso’s truly funny Ko-Ko is indeed a tailor out of his element.  Even when he wants to take advantage of his new rank of Lord High Executioner, this Ko-Ko knows something is bound to go wrong.  It is just a question of What Now?  Yet for all Ko-Ko’s foolery, Mr. Macaluso also develops a subtly sympathetic side that really works well in his wooing of the daunting Katisha.

Ms. Angela Christine Smith creates a marvelous Katisha who may enter in a fury, but we can see her humanity from the very first.  If we feel the force of this lady’s anger and desire for vengeance, Ms. Smith also makes us see the despair and loss of hoped for love.  This Katisha has been hurt and she is downright heartbreaking in her aria “The Hour of Gladness is Dead and Gone.”  Though the “Daughter-In-Law-Elect” is a bossy-boots there is a feeling that she may be doing it to ensure that she is not left out in the cold.  While Ko-Ko’s winning of Katisha is still wonderfully comedic, Ms. Angela Christine Smith made me root for Katisha too.

Katisha’s intrusive presence seems to be the one thing that visibly annoys the Mikado because Mr. Chris White splendidly portrays him as a dangerously jovial fellow – this Emperor clearly takes pleasure in his absolute power and how is it his fault if his witty inclination for boiling oil may unnerve some people?

One citizen of Titipu who does not care extreme punishment is the “Lord High Everything Else” Pooh-Bah.  Mr. Matthew Wages quite lives up to Sir W.S. Gilbert’s best satire of mendacious bureaucracy and class consciousness.  This Pooh-Bah will certainly “…put in his oar” to great amusement, and does very nicely too in the prologue as the eager Richard D’Oyly Carte.

As I mentioned before, the role of Pish-Tush is now far more significant because he is now the unconscious W.S. Gilbert who is literally dreaming up the show in front of us.  As played by Mr. Joshua Miller, Pish-Tush/Gilbert is ever the creative playwright who is happy to see how the plot unwinds to his prodding, even if he might give a grimace or two at a rhyme or joke that his characters deliver.

 The Chorus of Noblemen, Schoolgirls and Townspeople are all to be praised, populating Titipu with as Victorian a suburban London crowd as could ever be found in Japan.

 In addition to the admirable cast, Mr. David Auxier’s brilliant reconsideration and careful direction of THE MIKADO goes very far to ensure the success of this production.  With the directorial assistance of Mr. Kelvin Moon Loh, Mr. Auxier has not missed a trick in highlighting and reviving the humor of the story and its characters while keeping everything united and moving merrily along.  These gentlemen understand that this is an English comedy set in a “Japanese” framework of the imagination –The non-English setting pointing out the absurdity and parody without being a caricature on its own.  Even the most radical of changes are carried out with respect to context: While I am quite partial to the original “Mi-ya Sa-ma” chorus that greets the Mikado of Japan and his entourage, I believe Mr. Auxier’s new lyrics “Oh Mikado, Great Mikado” are not merely an effective substitution, but cleverly add to the Gilbertian whimsy of the moment by allowing the citizens of Titipu to express their true feelings while ostensibly chanting praise of their monarch.

In addition, Mr. Auxier’s choreography is very well done, ideally setting off the music and singing or to create tableaux that highlight the story itself.

The unreal, dreamlike atmosphere is further enhanced by the beautiful setting by Mr. Anshuman Bhatia – based on Japanese Block prints and Mr. Quinto Ott’s highly stylized costumes that feature exotic yet recognizable touches such as straw derbies and ornate open framework bustles and even snippets of other Gilbert and Sullivan operas.  Mr. Ott truly excels with his fanciful Mikado regalia and Katisha’s striking outfit.  Mr. James Mills also rises to the occasion in his make-up work especially in his expressive design for Katisha.  Sets, costumes and visages all look extremely well under Mr. Benjamin Weill’s deftly handled lighting and all unite to give a sort of picture-book aspect that is most appealing.

In the first version of this review I had mentioned that the first performance I saw under the baton of Conductor and Music Director Aaron Gandy seemed a bit out of sorts.  Knowing how good the NYGASP musical direction usually is, I assumed this was a unique occurrence.  I am pleased to say that later shows found Mr. Gandy and the NYGASP orchestra back in top form.  Mr. Gandy and the musicians clearly enjoy the vitality and range of Sullivan’s music and share the same energy and sense of fun as the performers onstage.

Production Stage Manager David A. Vandervliet and Assistant Stage Manager Annette Dieli do amazing work ensuring the smooth flow of THE MIKADO, ensuring that it entertains without a hitch.

There is always much risk and a great deal of work inherent in any new production. So Producer David Wannen and Mr. Albert Bergeret, the founder of NYGASP and Production Manager deserve special congratulations for their willingness to bring this new version of the classic work to fruition.  As it is now, NYGASP’s new staging of THE MIKADO has shed a lot of distracting addenda, firmly and happily returning the focus back to where it belongs: on Sir William Gilbert’s witty libretto and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s timeless score. 

Performances:
Click on any of the links for tickets or go to:
https://kayeplayhouse.primetix.com/Tickets/?perfid=425

*Family Overture – Musical introduction and plot summary made entertaining for the entire family (1 hour and 15 minutes before curtain in theatre)

The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
68th Street Between Park and Lexington Avenues

About the reviewer:

I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

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GUEST REVIEWER: Encores! Concert staging of CABIN IN THE SKY

Devil may care.

A review of Encores! concert staging of
cabin

at New York City Center
February 11, 2016

CABIN IN THE SKY is one of those battles between the Heavenly and Hellish forces over a soul – that of the hapless Little Joe to be specific – that encourage the spectators to root for the good and grand even if there seems to be much more entertainment in the bad and brassy. To be fair, both sides are blessed with the marvelous music by Mr. Vernon Duke and the fine lyrics of Mr. John Latouche as well as some eye-catching choreography inspired by Mr. George Balanchine’s work for the original production, but even at its most buoyant moments, CABIN IN THE SKY’s Virtue always has a whiff of smug schoolroom morality. I can’t say if this was inherent in Mr. Lynn Root’s original book for the show or the result of Messrs. Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Jack Viertel’s concert adaptation for Encores! but no one is exactly at the edge of their seat rooting for Righteousness. Especially since the Devil has the charm, the campier lines and most of the best dance numbers.

Nevertheless, the cast of CABIN IN THE SKY provides some very winning performances that often transcend the limitations and triteness of the material.

Mr. Chuck Cooper is a petulant delight playing the Head Man: a son of the Devil who is trying to “make good” in his Poppa’s business by getting Little Joe’s soul. While his satanic efforts may not exactly breed success, they are always diverting and earn well deserved applause. Musically as well, Mr. Cooper never flags, and his rendition of “Do What You Wanna Do” backed up by his superb assistants in evil – Ms. Tiffany Mann and Messrs. Dennis Stowe and André Garner – is a veritable crowd pleaser.

blog-cabincast
On the other side of the scale, Mr. Norm Lewis makes a gratifyingly caring Lord’s General, earnestly fighting for good but with a level of amusement that keeps him from being a cardboard seraph. The problem is, that even while the Lord’s General is trying to help Petunia and Little Joe, the best argument he can offer up is the very engaging but still tame “It’s Not So Bad to Be Good.” Not exactly heady stuff for Little Joe after the production numbers that the Head Man brings onstage. Basically Mr. Lewis’ Lord’s General and his angels – played by the worthy Ms. Kristolyn Lloyd and Messrs. Jared Joseph and Nicholas Ward – are the sort of beings you would bring home to impress your folks, whereas Saturday night is more entertaining in Mr. Cooper’s diabolically fun company.

10-cabin-in-the-sky.w529.h352As for the object of Good and Bad’s dispute. Little Joe is a schmo, yet, we don’t wonder why Petunia bothers with him, because Mr. Michael Potts makes Little Joe Jackson a likeable and sympathetic hero. Indeed, Mr. Potts makes even Little Joe’s enjoyment of his newly virtuous life believable. His playfulness when singing “In My Old Virginia Home (On the River Nile)” with Petunia makes us fully appreciate why his wife has been fighting for him when she obviously can do better.

Of course, there is nothing like another woman to mess things up for a man and Georgia Brown – as played by the talented Ms. Carly Hughes – is perfect for the job. Georgia Brown is one of those terribly attractive and self-assured ladies who is perplexed when she cannot get what she wants – such as Little Joe. Ms. Hughes gives her pursuit of Little Joe a good dash of humor as well as spice, and plays off Mr. Michael Potts most effectively.

Fighting to save her man from Hell is Little Joe’s devoted wife Petunia. By rights, this lady should be a romantic doormat, but the admirable actress billed as “LaChanze” creates a plausible woman with backbone who can see the good in her husband and lovingly draw it out. This heroine is both a worthy wife and darned good company who easily captivates the audience with numbers like “Taking a Chance on Love.” When it appears that she has reached the last straw, Ms. LaChanze’s Petunia changes dramatically into a woman who can best even the worldly Georgia Brown and bring down the house with the impressively sung number “Savannah”

bww-tv-watch-highlights-of-lachanze-norm-lewis--more-in-encores-cabin-in-the-sky_1

The rest of the company is truly first-rate and deliver many high points in the show, most memorably the wonderful and boisterous “Dry Bones” which in itself is worth the price of admission.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson creates many memorable moments in the action of CABIN IN THE SKY but while I was entertained and interested, I was never really gripped by the sometime sitcom setup of the story (which Mr. Santiago Hudson also had a hand in). There is unevenness in the narrative that saps some of the drama out of the twists in the plot.

On the other hand, Ms. Camile A. Brown’s choreography provides impressive pieces of dance and movement. But at times certain numbers seem to get lost in a sort of Balanchine recital mode that merely extends the performances instead of enhancing the songs or adding to the story.

Musically the Encores! Orchestra conducted by Mr. Rob Berman is superb and Mr. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations of Mr. Vernon Duke’s music is a joy to listen to, taking full advantage of the chorus’ Gospel voices along with a big band sound reminiscent of the early 1940’s. Everything is properly amplified by Mr. Scott Lehrer’s audio designs, though the body microphones seem to be a little more obvious than intended.

Keeping with the concert staging, Ms. Anna Louizos’ sets are basic yet very effective – especially the opposing twin thrones in which are seated the Head Man and Lord’s General. Ms. Karen Perry is just as skilled in providing attractive costumes that go far in illustrating the personalities of the characters from the cheerful red garments of the Head Man and his henchmen to the white suit and amusing silver lamé cape worn by the Lord’s General. Everything is lit to good advantage by Mr. Ken Billington.

With its unequal book and overabundance of “Balanchine,” this CABIN IN THE SKY could have used more work on its dramatic foundation. But if it does not approach perfection, CABIN IN THE SKY is often very entertaining, with splendid songs and a praiseworthy cast who work hard to give the show a substance that it might not otherwise have.

About the reviewer:

I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

Originally produced in 1940, Cabin in the Sky followed Porgy and Bess in celebrating African-American music and dance traditions. The musical tells the story of “Little Joe” Jackson (Michael Potts), a charming ne’er-do-well who dies in a saloon brawl and is given six months on earth to prove his worth to the Lord’s General (Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis) and the Devil’s Head Man (Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper)—all while struggling to remain true to his loving wife Petunia (Tony Award winner LaChanze) and resist the wiles of temptress Georgia Brown (Carly Hughes). Long considered a lost treasure, the score of Cabin in the Sky—which includes jazz hits like “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe”—will be restored to its original glory for Encores!

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GUEST REVIEWER: THE VISIT At the Lyric Theatre

Be our guest.

A review of
THE VISIT
at the Lyric Theatre

April 12, 2015 and April 21, 2015 – Opened April 23, 2015

THE VISIT offers so much that one does not usually get in a typical new musical nowadays: a score with memorable songs, a plot that is thought provoking and best of all, a Star Turn of the Highest Caliber. THE VISIT is also a brave show, in the sense that it does not try to stroke the audience’s sensibilities and even dares to make them work at understanding what happens onstage. In the VISIT, the citizens of the desperately poor Swiss town of Brachen welcome Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, who is returning to the hometown that she had fled long ago. The impoverished villages hope that they can persuade Claire to use her wealth to revitalize the town. To their surprise Claire agrees but lays out a deal. She will endow the village with untold billions if they kill the man who loved her, impregnated her and then denied being the father of her child, forcing her to flee Brachen when she was a young girl and make her own way in a cruel and dangerous world. That man is Anton Schell, an impoverished shopkeeper who can’t even win the respect of his own family. The leaders of the town indignantly reject such a horrendous offer, but soon after townspeople start buying expensive items from Anton’s store, charging their purchases to some unmentionable windfall they expect and talk darkly about how Anton had so foully wronged poor Claire…

Mr. Terence McNally has created an often powerful book based upon the original play by Mr. Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Mr. Fred Ebb’s lyrics and Mr. John Kander’s music further hone the sharpness of this Brechtian Fractured Fairy Tale. Justice, revenge, the violent collision of love and self-interest, and the moral fluidity of honorable people are all covered in rather raw terms, but somehow there is a humor and even lightness that flavors even the most severe and unsavory moments of this story with a touch of vaudeville. Messrs. McNally, Ebb and Kander work very carefully together contrasting the diverse feelings of the Brachen denizens with their attempts to form a united front in the face of poverty with such numbers like the community glee “Out of the Darkness.” They eventually show these same people descending into moral self-delusion with the bitterly entertaining “Yellow Shoes.” As far as Claire is concerned, her very first entrance provides her with firm dramatic footing augmented with strong numbers like the unforgettable matrimonial success catalogue “I Walk Away” or Claire’s soulful description of her feelings for and about Anton and their broken past in “Winter.”

Admittedly, not every song is a gem – Anton’s first number “I know Claire” has a very general feeling as if it could be from any show at any period from 1965 to the present. In fact there is sometimes an uneven style that seems less an attempt at being rustic and more a case of needing more work. Nevertheless much of what is on offer is choice indeed.

The opening scene of THE VISIT makes for a most appropriate introduction to the threadbare inhabitants of Brachen: Ms. Diana Dimiarzo’s plays the Mayor’s wife and local gossip and Messrs. David Garrison, Rick Holmes, Aaron Ramey, Timothy Shew and Jason Danieley are the town’s Mayor, Priest, Policeman, Doctor and Schoolteacher respectively: all are excellent as desperately respectable people who will throw aside all scruples if they have to, all the while convincing themselves of their decency.

Just as bad – and very good – are the members of Anton’s own family. Ms. Mary Beth Peil is wonderfully acerbic as Matilde Schell, a wife who never hesitates to reminds Claire that she is the woman who married Anton, yet doesn’t even find much satisfaction in that fact. Mr. George Abud is Anton’s son Karl and Ms. Elena Shaddow plays daughter Ottilie, showing a very effective indifference for a father who couldn’t even afford to let them have things from their own family store. The promise of prosperity brings this family and the town to life, even though they all have to keep tamping down that little part of them that knows what the price will be. Mss. Piel and Shaddow and Mr. Abud make this painfully clear in the song “A Car Ride;” a pleasant and simple number sung with Anton where the Schells enjoy what is the first happy family moment that they have had in many years. Everyone is delighted but the unspoken cost is still there.

Contrasting the dingy indigence of Brachen’s people is Claire Zachanassian’s astonishing entourage led by Mr. Tom Nelis’ imposing Butler Rudi. Mr. Matthew Deming is Eunuch Louis and Mr. Chris Newcomer takes the role of Eunuch Jacob. All three are always dressed in dapper suits, carefully hatted and walking in eye-catching footgear. These performers shine in their marvelously fantastic roles, often taking the spotlight with remarkably controlled insanity beginning with the Eunuch’s startling backup chorus in “I Walk Away.”
Since this is a show about a present that can never escape the past, the figures of the young Claire and Anton are part of every scene whether reenacting their amour or watching the current situation. Ms. Michelle Veintimilla and Mr. John Riddle truly haunt the show, vividly showing the joy of young love and standing aside as observers to the demands and cruelties of the real world. When Ms. Veintimilla and Mr. Riddle join their present counterparts (such as in the beautiful song “You, You, You”) the contrast of destroyed youthful romance and the cynicism, hurt and longing that has taken its place is deeply moving.

Of course the present Anton has long been a beaten down man who cruelly sacrificed love for security and has since had to make do without either. Mr. Roger Rees plays this role expertly rising from the miserable storekeeper to the hopeful former lover who dares to hope a little. Mr. Rees displays every turn of amazement, disgust and realization that is inherent in Anton Schell as he sees the past catch up with him and the future demand his removal. Mr. Rees makes it painfully clear that anyone in Brachen could have been as cruel and stupid as Anton had been in his youth, but there are times in the middle of THE VISIT when Anton is less caught by the story than bogged down in it.

Of course it is a task indeed for Anton to approach the level of the fabulous Claire Zachanassian – especially when Ms. Chita Rivera so embodies that adjective. This is natural, not only due to Ms. Rivera’s phenomenal performance but because Claire’s presence simply permeates the play – even when the action does not focus on Claire, it occurs because of her. Ms. Rivera imbues this glamorous and wealthiest of women with the world weary brio of one who is always in charge, but when Claire turns to the only happy memory of her past, Ms. Rivera lets the joy and pleasure of that youthful love melt her hardness. This is one of the reasons that Claire Zachanassian is not a monster of vengeance, but someone all too human and desperate to take back something that had been stolen from her so long ago. This performance keeps the play’s ending from being the grotesque finale that it might have been and transforms it into something that ought to be seen to be appreciated: a true example of Theatrical Power at its height.

Director John Doyle does amazing work with THE VISIT giving the story the universal feeling that a fable ought to have. But Mr. Doyle wisely never paints anyone as an outright villain, making the wrongs committed all the more real. People can disassociate themselves from bad actions that happen in the present just as they did so many years ago. Other folks may demonstrate what can happen when justice is withheld. But the moral caprices are far from alien. Unfortunately, while the show engrosses and appeals and appalls two thirds of the way through THE VIST seems to get stuck. The depiction of Anton feeling trapped and his putting up with the emotional justifications of an apologizing villager is essential but the storytelling at this point seems to go awry and put a drain on the energy of THE VISIT’s surreal narrative. Maybe Anton ought to have more or different emotional power as he watches his own world turn on him, but as done now, Anton, Mr. Doyle and THE VISIT seem to just soldier through this void, until theatrical balance returns. Happily the ending is well worth it.

Ms. Graciela Daniele’s choreography lets the citizens of Brachen make much use of Mr. Scott Pask’s spare scenic design with its decrepit railroad station setting and Claire’s vast pile of luggage and coffin. With the addition of Mr. Japhy Weideman’s lighting, we are taken all over Brachen from station to hotel to woods to past and present with amazing clarity, giving a wonderful meaning to the idea of dealing with people’s baggage. Then also, both Mr. Doyle and Ms. Daniele gives nodding acknowledgement to the notion that Claire Zachanassian now has some trouble with her limbs, but they allow Ms. Rivera to soar gloriously beyond such commonplaces as physical infirmity in this mythic role. When handling the young Anton and Claire too, director and choreographer are amazingly able to let these shades be a part of the action and still keep them firmly in the past.
Music Director David Loud contributes mightily with the orchestra allowing the different types of numbers – choral to star solo to ghostly echoes – to shine and fit the action even when the music suddenly shifts from one style to another.

The costumes by Ms. Ann Hould-Ward with hair and makeup by Messrs. Paul Huntley and J. Jared Janas are downright spellbinding with the dusty threadbare denizens of Brachen contrasted strikingly against the glamorous and dapper beings that are Claire and her crew and the cream white garb of the young Claire and Anton.

As it is now, Ms. Chita Rivera and Messrs. Kander and Ebb’s score make THE VISIT a truly amazing spectacle to behold and well worth the trip to the Lyceum Theatre, but there is still a feeling of inertia in the middle of THE VISIT that cannot be ignored and must be endured as one goes from the extraordinary start to its dazzling finish.

Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission

LYCEUM THEATRE
149 West 45th Street
Between 6th Avenue and Broadway
Box Office Hours:  Mon – Sat: 10am – 8pm | Sun: Noon – 6pm
Online Tickets: Or Call 212.239.6200

About the reviewer:

I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

EDITOR’S UPDATE: 04/28/2015

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GUEST REVIEWER: A review of Lincoln Center Theater revival of THE KING AND I

Anna’s Undies
or
The Front Row Follies

A review of Lincoln Center Theater revival of
THE KING AND I
At the Vivian Beaumont

April 7, 2015 IN PREVIEWS

NOTE TO READERS: I usually try to treat every show I review as if I am seeing it for the first time. However in the case of THE KING AND I such a position was not entirely possible.

Mr. Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the book and lyrics for the classic 1951 musical THE KING AND I basing his work on Ms. Margaret Landon’s novel ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, (which is in turn a reworking of Ms. Anna Leonowens’ dramatic memoirs of the 1870’s). THE KING AND I tells the story of the young widow Anna Leonowens who in the 1860’s has journeyed to Siam with her young son Louis. Anna has been hired as teacher for the King of Siam’s royal family as part of the King’s plan to modernize (westernize) his country while fending off the imperialist ambitions of European powers. As she starts her work, Anna finds herself being drawn into the intrigues of Palace life and even having conflicts with the King – primarily regarding a certain term of her contract that he claims to have no knowledge of. In turn the King is intrigued by the Englishwoman who apparently has no fear of him and who represents the western advances in sciences and ideas that he is aspiring to achieve. When Western adventurers call the King a barbarian whose country should be made a protectorate Anna helps him to entertain and influence an English Delegation with results that deeply affect the King, the Royal Family, Siam and herself.

Director Bartlett Sher and his production team are clearly in awe of THE KING AND I and have mounted a revival that is both an astonishing eyeful and a veritable crowd pleaser. But for all that Mr. Sher and Co. have accomplished to impress the hell out of the audience and make it feel that it has gotten its money’s worth, there is an air of self-importance and a tendency to miss details that keeps this revival from being the truly outstanding production it so clearly is trying to be.

The book itself is an example of this problem: the current revival makes certain revisions to Mr. Hammerstein’s book and cuts the song “A Puzzlement” in a way that adds emphasis to the King’s difficult position as a traditional Eastern monarch who must adapt and strategize in the face of European imperialism. For the most part, I actually like these changes which make His Majesty seem less naïve and driven by personal desires than in previous productions. However, there is a tendency to make the situation clear and then immediately expound upon another variation of the same point. This causes certain scenes to lose their tension and focus and become rather labored. Judicious cutting and refining would definitely help.

Of course even with such changes, the rest of the score is wonderfully intact: from the optimistic trepidation of “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” through the endearing “Getting to Know You,” and the climactic “Shall We Dance,” Composer Richard Rodger’s and Mr. Hammerstein’s widely ranging music and lyrics define characters, enhance the action and make up one of the truly great musical scores.

This production of THE KING AND I is indeed “Mrs. Anna’s” show as Ms. Kelli O’Hara’s Anna Leonowens sweeps into Siam with all the apparent eagerness and self-confidence of someone who is certain that she is right. But Ms. O’Hara makes it clear that Anna’s assuredness and insistence of promises being fulfilled is actually the armor her character uses to protect herself and her son in this strange new place. Bit by bit this shell is removed, letting us see the woman who can become a discreet champion of doomed lovers in the moving “Hello Young Lovers,” make a classroom of royal children into a believable mutual adoration festival through the joyful “Getting to Know You.” It is Ms. O’Hara’s ability to contrast Anna’s humanity and vulnerability with her overwhelming desire to have everything set to rights in the Kingdom that makes this Governess a heroic and sympathetic person instead of the interfering intruder she might easily have been. This Anna may be exasperated and critical of the King – earning our sympathy and well deserved laughs and applause in the explosive and difficult soliloquy “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” – but she champions his goals and even makes some effort to understand him.

As Anna’s employer, Mr. Ken Watanabe is a truly formidable King Mongkut of Siam, presenting a man driven by politics as well as royal prerogative. This King understands how essential it is for him to speedily assimilate new ideas and languages, while trying to maintain authority in a changing world. Thus for Mr. Watanabe’s King, his fascination for Mrs. Anna is that of someone who represent the challenge of a Western influence as well as a colleague with whom he can communicate. Mr. Watanabe uses his accent to provide a vocal brusqueness that would be natural for a Monarch who is still feeling his way through English. Alas, some of the spectators around me did have some trouble fully understanding him – especially when he sometimes hastened though his sentences. Furthermore – although I fear this may have been due to Mr. Bartlett Sher’s direction – Mr. Watanabe’s depiction of angst was often of an “all or nothing” style of delivery that made his version of “A Puzzlement” appear less a song of intellectual perplexity than of digestive trouble.

Adding to His Majesty’s anxieties is the emotional isolation of his new wife, the Lady Tuptim. A gift from the court of Burma, Tuptim had already fallen in love with Lun Tha, one of the Burmese delegates, before she had ever been presented to the King. Charming Ms. Ashley Park is a wonderful Lady Tuptim, giving her role a grace and spirit that makes Tuptim more than just a girl driven by love. This is a woman who dares to hope for a better future even in the face of futility. Ms. Park’s memorable rendition of “My Lord and Master” – a song describing Tuptim’s emotions when she has been accepted as a wife to the King – manages to be both operatic and yet believably from Tuptim’s secret heart.

Although the handsome Mr. Conrad Ricanora’s Lun-Tha is not as imposing or even as heroic a character as the King is, his reckless and despairing love for Tuptim endows his role with its own power. When he sings “We Kiss in a Shadow,” Mr. Ricanora makes it Lun-Tha’s musical lure that unites him to Tuptim in their dangerous dream.

Where Tuptim feels trapped in the world of the Palace, Ms. Ruthie Ann Miles’ brilliant Lady Thiang is a poised inhabitant. Ms. Miles’ shows us the embodiment of a loving consort, who truly loves the King and does all she can for him and her son, the Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, seeing their potential for good. This is clearly shown in Ms. Miles’ moving performance of “Something Wonderful” which can all too easily become a hymn to enablement rather that the longing need of a woman to assist someone she loves in their aspirations for greatness.

As the heir of the King, Prince Chulalongkorn represents the aspirations for the future. Mr. Jon Viktor Corpuz presents us with a sturdy young prince who is not sure that he is really thrilled with life under Anna’s instruction and plays the Prince’s gradual warming to his teacher most quite well, keeping Anna unsure of how much her lessons are reaching him.

Mr. Jake Lucas succeeds nicely in preventing Anna’s son Louis Leonowens from becoming a mere prompt for other people’s dialogue. Indeed Mr. Lucas’ sunny young man provides an interesting contrast to the Royal Children, always being part of the crowd yet apart from them too which gives his duet with Chulalongkorn in the recap of a “A Puzzlement” a bit more depth than I expected in a reprise that was originally devised to cover a scene change.

Another surprise was Mr. Paul Nakauchi’s finely tuned performance as the King’s Prime Minister, the Kralahome. Mr. Nakauchi created an aloof dignitary who truly understands and respects his ruler, letting his feelings for him show briefly but most effectively.

The rest of the performers are all excellent, be they wives, children, courtiers, dancers and foreigners. Indeed the troupe who dance the balletic play-within-a-play THE SMALL HOUSE OF UNCLE THOMAS are simply phenomenal, performing this earnest “Siamese” take of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN with a flair and sense of fun that never crept into parody.

It is obvious from this splendid cast and the ornate production that Director Bartlett Sher truly has an embarrassment of riches on his hands. I only wish he could let some of that wealth fall to the sidelines when a concept does not quite work. Also it is apparent that Mr. Sher is enthralled by staging and designs that can only be appreciated properly from the back rows of the theater. This results in a lovely and inspiring state of affairs for anyone seated in the rear of the house but downright frustrating to those holding seats closer to the action, starting with the opening scene which became a debacle for many people sitting in the first four or five rows around the Orchestra Pit: As the stage extends over the musicians in orchestra an imposing model steamer sails onward, its prow towering above the front of the stage apron. When Captain Orton and Louis Leonowens appear on the top deck of this vessel, all that is visible for those unfortunates in the closer seats is Captain Orton’s cap. Then Ms. Kelli O’Hara makes what ought to be THE star entrance as Anna Leonowens. Her voice is clear and her hat the only visible part of her until she approaches the ship’s rail and treats the spectators seated beneath the ship to several long and unnerving views of the vast underside of her hoopskirt. After THAT introduction, I can report that under the interesting array of her crinoline, Ms. O’Hara wears sturdy traveling shoes, proper hose and clean pantalets that ended above the knee.

After this annoyingly awkward sequence, everyone climbs off the ship which pulls away to reveal a quayside setting that would have been perfectly fine from the very beginning since most of the action and singing takes place here anyway IN FULL SIGHT. But clearly someone’s judgement was woefully affected by the concept of that unfortunate ship.

This “sightlines be damned” tendency occurs consistently and aggravatingly throughout the evening, caused by the arrangements of the set, a prop or groupings of the cast members and I firmly and regretfully lay the blame for this ineptitude at Mr. Bartlett Sher’s feet. Doubtlessly Mr. Sher is trying to emulate the beautifully cinematic flow of SOUTH PACIFIC (a show he dazzlingly revived at the same theater some years ago), but the palatial progression and set pieces of THE KING AND I constantly works against such a dynamic approach due to the need for the action to be visible to the entire audience and because all the time taken for the constant onstage shifting and rearranging of scenery tends to drain off more and more energy.

Then too, it appears that Director Sher sometimes focuses on the impressive climax of a scene but lets everything coast into it. At other times he allows the action to build up ponderously, such as the aforementioned thematic repetition of the King’s concerns with Europe. For me the worst instance of all this sloppiness is in Act 2 during Anna’s final confrontation with the King. Each of her accusations is rushed along like a run-on sentence that comes to a halt with her final indictment of His Majesty. This haste robs Ms. O’Hara and Mr. Watanabe of their most powerfully dramatic moment since each of Mrs. Anna’s charges is meant to hit the king like an emotional body blow until he can no longer take it and finally erupts at her.

Still, there is much to praise in Mr. Sher’s work from the scholarly and politically shrewd King through Anna’s delightfully individual relationship with each of the Royal Children. Mr. Sher makes certain that even the smallest role onstage provides another character in the story rather than function as mere walking scenery. If I had to argue with any of the characterizations it would be with Mr. Edward Baker-Duly’s Sir Edward Ramsey: why must this visiting dignitary who had been part of Anna’s past always get played with a sort of to-the-gallery vapidity? I have seen this style of portrayal often enough to assume it is traditional with revivals of THE KING AND I but to me is just seems silly and makes Anna and the King’s interaction with Sir Edward of far less importance than we have been led to believe it should be, especially after all the highlighting of the King’s political concerns.

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli is quite faithful to Mr. Jerome Robbin’s original dances but marvelously makes the fullest use of the vast Vivian Beaumont stage to permit the performers to come alive rather than merely re-enact the glory of Mr. Robbin’s past work.

Similarly Mr. Ted Sperling directs a wonderfully large orchestra that truly glories in Mr. Richard Rodgers unforgettable music (with the classic orchestrations of Mr. Robert Russell Bennett and Ms. Trude Rittman’s additional arrangements). Alas the Overture deserves better treatment, not merely being truncated which would have been understandable given the length of the show, but being rewritten into a mere hit parade of tunes lingering on “Shall We Dance,” a theme that is usually never heard in the overture because it is reserved for actual performance to heighten it’s impact. Such a spoiler of an overture is better discarded altogether.

The sets (besides the confounded boat) are simple yet grand. Mr. Michael Yeargan understands how sumptuous and magnificent does not have to be overwhelming. He skillfully evokes the Bangkok riverside and the Palace Environs on the large performance space with care and even delicacy. The sets and stage action were admirably lit by Mr. Donald Holder and Mr. Scott Lehrer’s judicious sound designs assured that even if the scenes cannot be fully seen by everybody, they can clearly be heard.

It has been observed that certain moments of THE KING AND I star not only the actors but the costumes they wear and Ms. Catherin Zuber’s gorgeous creations take the stage most impressively. From English hoopskirts to Siamese pha nungs, Ms. Zuber’s garments both capture the eye and define the character of the wearer. While using new designs to make Mrs. Anna look most charming, Ms. Zuber wisely does not eschew the magic of the famous pink satin ball gown that has always made “Shall We Dance” one of the most memorable moments in musical theater. On an irreverent note, THE KING AND I’s opening scene makes it most clear to the closer seat holders that Ms. Zuber is as just meticulous about designing the cast’s underclothes.

THE KING AND I is slated to open on April 16 and it is sure to be a popular draw and should not be missed. All the same, I feel sad that some unfortunate and thoughtless choices will prevent this revival from being the defining hallmark production that it ought to be. And I close with a word of advice:

When booking your seats, avoid the first five rows around the stage.

and an ardent plea to Mr. Sher:

SINK THAT SHIP!

About the reviewer:

I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

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Guest Review of ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE

Oh! What a past.

A Guest Review of

“ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE”

at the 13th Street Repertory Company

November 10, 2014

How does one bring Fanny Brice back to the stage? The inspired insanity of her comedy departed with her. The ornate and riotous reviews in which she performed are a long gone memory. All that is left are very few films, some recordings and broadcast transcriptions of her “Baby Snooks” radio show. In ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE, Author Chip Deffaa realizes that attempting to minutely recapture that unique side of Fanny Brice would do no favors to either the subject or the actress who would have to make the attempt. To be sure ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE provides a good framework with an impressive song list that illustrates and comments on Fanny Brice’s life and career. The show even manages to invoke brief flashes of her stage presence and humor. But it is her life story backstage and out of the theater that drives this play. And what a story Fanny shares with the audience! She guides us along her girlhood start in the vaudeville amateur nights, works her way through the burlesque circuit and then makes her name as a star on Broadway and finally in radio. At the same time Fanny must copes with her dysfunctional but fascinating personal life. A lot is revealed – much of it surprising – that show what a complex woman Fanny Brice was, but Mr. Deffaa focuses largely on her relationship with Nicky Arnstein. This makes sense as Arnstein – gambler, swindler and lothario – was the love of Fanny’s life and so much has been romanticized about their love affair and marriage that part of the fun of the evening is having Fanny set the story straight. Still the glimpses of her dealings with her stage associates – producers such as Florenz Ziegfeld and friends like W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Gypsy Rose Lee – or the rather offhand description of her final marriage with Billy Rose, offer up the promise of so much more that Fanny ought to be able to tell. But as the Show Business saying goes; always leave them wanting more.

Ms. Chloe Brooks gives an outstanding and memorable performance. Her Fanny Brice really comes to life in Mr. Chip Deffaa’s play; chatting with her audience and taking them through her life as if she is sharing their amazement and amusement on how it all happened. We see Fanny re-enact a crucial episode of the past, first as herself and then another person and then, in the middle of it all, toss an observation to the audience that really defines the situation. This Fanny Brice truly relishes a good story – including her own. Ms. Brooks also understands that an impression is better than a slavish imitation and if she only occasionally slips into the phrases and accents that Fanny was known for, it is because Fanny is telling her story – not giving a performance in a Ziegfeld production. It is the same for the singing as well: in ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE Fanny is using the songs to tell her story – not telling her story to sing the songs, and in Ms. Brooks’ hands the songs are nicely delivered whether with an amused detachment as in her burlesque number “Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee” or using “My Man” both seriously and ironically to punctuate how her biggest hit song capitalized on her troubled relationship with Nicky Arnstein. Ms. Brooks’ singing is adeptly aided by Music Director Richard Danley who deserves high praise for his skilled and delightful piano playing.

A good deal of credit for this exceptional presentation must also be shared with Director Rachel Hundert. She paces the proceedings extremely well, making it hard to believe that this is a nearly two hour performance of a one actor show. Every scene and number flows onwards believably even when Fanny is being Fanny imitating the other people who are talking to Fanny.

As Producing Artistic Director, Ms. Sandra Nordgren created a very simple but highly effective stage setting that always kept the focus on Fanny and perhaps it is she who provided Ms. Chloe Brooks with the costuming that allowed her to span Fanny’s life so effectively.

If anything significant was missing from ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE it was the way Fanny often used an exaggerated Yiddish accent in her sketches and songs. Perhaps there was fear that the ethnic side of her comedy might not play so well and needed to be diminished but it was an essential part of Fanny’s career. Now Ms. Chloe Brooks does give some idea of Fanny’s inflections in performance, but I think that had she been given the opportunity, Ms. Brooks would have marvelously captured Fanny Brice’s wonderfully incongruous onstage mixing of the Yiddish and the Uptown.

But even with that deficiency, this is still very much a fascinating telling of Fanny Brice’s story, but even more, it is truly Ms. Chloe Brooks’ show and should not be missed.

One Night with Fanny Brice
Monday, November 24, 2014 at 7:00PM

Tickets available here


13th Street Repertory Company
50 West 13th Street
New York, NY 10011
The theatre is located between 5th Ave and 6th Ave.
Take the 1, 2, 3, F, M train to 14th Street; A, C, E to West 4th Street; 4, 5, 6, N, Q, R, W to Union Square; L to 6th Avenue.
 
One Night with Fanny Brice Written and Arranged by Chip Deffaa Starring Chloe Brooks Directed by Rachel Hundert Musical Direction by Phillip Cheah The legendary Fanny Brice–whose life inspired Funny Girl–rose from poverty to become America’s highest-paid singing comedienne. ASCAP award-winning writer Chip Deffaa has crafted a solo show featuring songs Brice made famous, from Second-Hand Rose to My Man. “Deffaa has distilled Fanny Brice’s busy life and career into a well-paced two-hour show.” The Associated Press. This show “delves deeper into Brice’s story than Funny Girl ever did” The New York Times.

About the reviewer:

I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com

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Brought to you by the NEW www.broadwaykingdom.com

For more info on Elli -- The King of Broadway www.thekingofbroadway.com
Facebook | Twitter | IMdB | Actors Access

For more interviews & reviews go to www.broadwaykingdom.com

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