April 13, 2024

An Uplifting Visit to "Tuesdays with Morrie"

It’s being an unusually busy theater season this spring with a baker’s dozen of Broadway shows still scheduled to open between now and the end of the month. So it’s no surprise that smaller shows—even very good ones— might get lost in the crush. And they don’t come much smaller than Tuesdays with Morrie, a two-hander based on journalist Mitch Albom’s 1997 bestseller about the life lessons Albom drew from a series of weekly visits with Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor who was dying from ALS, the horrible degenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The memoir topped The New York Times nonfiction list for nearly half a year and, like millions of others, I read it and was deeply moved by the mutually-sustaining friendship between the two men as the older man figured out how to die with grace and the younger how to live with purpose. 

The book was turned into a TV movie in 1999 with Hank Azaria as Mitch and Jack Lemmon as Morrie. A few years later, Albom teamed up with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher for a stage version that ran at the Minetta Lane Theatre for 112 performances with Jon Tenney as Mitch and Alvin Epstein as Morrie. 

I didn’t see either of those versions. But a new company called Sea Dog Theater revived the show last month and I finally caught up with it last week. This time around Mitch is played by Sea Dog's co-founder and artistic director Christopher J. Domig and Morrie is played by the invaluable Broadway vet Len Cariou.

Their production is a bare bones affair. It’s staged in a chapel room at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a lovely old 19th century Romanesque building on East 16th Street. The set consists primarily of a piano (Albom initially set out to be a jazz pianist) and a wheelchair. There isn't much drama; even if you don’t know the book or movie, it’s obvious that Morrie is going to die. Yet, to my surprise, I found myself deeply moved all over again. 

That response wasn't a sure thing because I had all kinds of worries going in to see the show. The first is that although the chapel at St. George’s is beautiful, its acoustics aren’t great, particularly during the early exchanges between the actors. But as they drew nearer to the audience and my ear adjusted that proved less of a problem. 

I also wondered if Cariou was strong enough to make it through such an arduous role. He entered the chapel slowly, leaning heavily on a cane on one side and the arm of a young assistant on the other before grabbing onto the piano for support before the show began. But although Carious, who is now 84, may no longer be as spry as he was when he won the Tony for playing the title character in the original 1979 production of Sweeney Todd, his acting chops are still supple.

Under Erwin Maas’ deft direction, Cariou sidesteps the story's innate sentimentality and makes Morrie a real person, portraying him as cranky sometimes, fearful at others but always determined to live whatever life remains to the fullest. It’s an impressive performance and it’s nicely balanced by Domig's. (click here to read more about their collaboration).

But frankly what I worried about most was seeing re-created the sections in the book that deal in graphic detail with Morrie’s declining physical abilities. But Albom and Hatcher’s text focuses more on the metaphysical: the beauties of love and friendship and art. What I feared might be depressing turned out to be totally uplifting. Tuesdays with Morrie is only running for one more week.  Seek it out if you can.

March 27, 2024

Happy World Theatre Day 2024

Wishing you all the joy and drama and empathy that good theater always brings


March 23, 2024

Old Stories—and Old Guys—Get the Spotlight in "The Notebook" and "Water for Elephants"

In the journalism business we say that three occurrences of a thing make it a trend and so right now the hottest trend in theater seems to be musicals centered around the memories of old guys. 

It may have started with A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond jukebox musical that opens with a character called “Neil Now” sitting in a therapist’s office and looking back at the pop singer’s life. His memories unspool in flashback scenes punctuated by musical numbers and occasional observations from the old guy that lead up to an epiphany at the end.  

 A similar framing device is used in two new shows that opened this month: The Notebook and Water for Elephants. Both are based on bestselling novels that were turned into movies that leaned into feel-good nostalgia about the supposedly simpler times of the Great Depression and War years. And now both stories are on Broadway in big productions set to scores soaked in roots music and giving some old Broadway vets another moment in the spotlight.

Both Dorian Harewood in The Notebook (click here to read more about him) and Gregg Edelman in Water for Elephants play old men who, in one way or another, are mourning the loss of wives who were—as always is the case in these stories—their soulmates. 

This is a smart conceit because it gives Baby Boomers, an aging but still reliable audience for Broadway shows, characters to identify with. But at the same time, it keeps the old-timers on the edges of these stories, freeing the main narratives to focus on the young people that usually populate Broadway stages.  

Each of the shows also tries to navigate the challenge of reproducing iconic moments from the book or film (Notebook's embrace in the rain, Elephant's animal stampede) while offering something extra that will lure those fans into the theater instead of their re-reading the book or re-watching the movie at home. 

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter has written a smart book for The Notebook that adds some bits of much need humor to author Nicholas Sparks’ somewhat sappy story. But the primary way that The Notebook sets itself apart from its predecessors is to have three, instead of two, sets of actors play its main characters: the working-class Noah and his great love Allie, a rich girl who in old age has developed dementia that is erasing the memories of their love and the life that, against the odds, they built together. 

Michael Greif and Schele Williams, who co-directed the show, have cast their multiple Noahs and Allies in a self-consciously inclusive way in which actors of different races play the same character in different time periods. They’ve insisted that doing so universalizes the story’s theme of true love conquering all (click here to watch them explain it).

It is great to see actors of color being given such centerstage roles but all the color swapping can also be a little confusing. “Wait,” said the guy sitting behind me during intermission.  “You mean that young white guy is now that old black guy?”

The veteran book writer Rick Elice tackles the adaptation of novelist Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” a story about a young guy named Jacob Jankowski who hooks up with a down-on-its-heels traveling circus and falls in love with the ringmaster's wife. 

Elice has gotten rid of a couple of the book’s characters, sanitized others and streamlined the narrative. All of this leaves a lot of plot holes for the audience to fill in. But that may be, at least in part, because Elice had to make room for not only the show’s musical numbers but for its many circus stunts.

For director Jessica Stone (click here to read about her), aided by circus choreographer Shana Carroll, has mixed together traditional stage actors and circus performers. All of them gamely—and fairly competently—take on the skills of the other, with acrobats singing and dancing and actors swinging on trapezes (click here see some of how that's done)

It could just be me but there are moments when there is so much happening onstage that it’s hard to know where to look and too often the meaning of lyrics are missed because you’re too busy gaping at some acrobat doing a handstand on the head of another.

Which brings us to the music. Both shows have brought in composers who are Broadway novices. The singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her friend Waitress composer Sara Bareilles, has written a tuneful score for The Notebook but it’s so heavy on ballads that the production is selling souvenir Kleenex (click here to read about that). 

Meanwhile the Pigpen Theatre Company, a collective of seven singer-songwriters, has come up with a patchwork of songs for Water for Elephants that range from slinky Kander & Ebb-style vamps to hoedown knee-slappers, with a couple of plaintive ballads thrown in for good measure. Some of the tunes are pleasant and they’re all well sung but they don’t add up to a truly cohesive score.

Still, both The Notebook and Water for Elephants have drawn surprisingly positive reviews, with the critics somewhat divided on which of the shows is better. Although Water for Elephants may hold a slight advantage. It’s got a happier ending. And it’s got puppets (the full-sized one for the titular floppy-eared pachyderm really delights the crowd). And it’s got all of that circus stuff. 

As I said earlier, I’m not big on juggling and acrobatics. I’m just too nervous that something or someone will fall. Still even I have to admit that a number in which the aerial artist Antoine Boissereau brings to life the final moments of a dying horse in Water for Elephants was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen in the theater. Plus it was nice to see those old guys again too.




March 16, 2024

"Dead Outlaw" is the Liveliest Show in Town

You can usually tell within the first 10 minutes or so of seeing a show whether you’re in good hands. And I knew right away that I was in very good hands when I saw Dead Outlaw, the first Audible-sponsored musical that is now scheduled to run at the MInetta Lane Theatre through April 7 and then later will be available to listen to on the Audible website. 

To be honest, I had a hunch that this might be a good one even before I got to the theater because the creative team—composer David Yazbek, book writer Itamar Moses and director David Cromer—had also put together the Tony-winning musical The Band’s Visit; plus, each of these guys is a show-making ace in his own right. 

But I had also been a little skeptical because the premise of their new show is totally bonkers. It’s the story of a ne’er-do-well outlaw named Elmer McCurdy, who was killed in a shoot-out after a bungled train robbery in 1911. He probably would have been forgotten except that a local undertaker embalmed his corpse until someone claimed it and when no one did the mummified McCurdy was put on display for a nickel a peek and eventually passed from one sleazy sideshow venue to another until his remains were finally buried in 1977 (click here to read his full story). 

You can imagine that turning such an unlikely tale into a musical is the kind of thing that Stephen Sondheim would have relished. But the Dead Outlaw crewincluding Erik Della Penna, who collaborated with Yazbek on the music and lyrics and plays in the show's onstage bandmore than meets the challenge. 

They’ve turned this macabre saga into a nuanced commentary on the fascination with death and violence that fuels today’s obsession with true crime stories. At the same time, they remind us that we should be more respectful of these narratives because death is the one thing that we’re all eventually going to experience first-hand. And then, they’ve set all of this to some terrific toe-tapping music.

A six-person band plays country tunes and roots music, with occasional foray into hard rock and jazz. The lyrics throughout are wickedly funny but chilling too:

And so you fail with failures and you confront your rivals  

Who stand there armed with Bibles pointing at you 

And you plot, you scheme, you had a chance, you had a dream 

You couldn’t get a witness so you stand here today 

Your mama’s dead  

John Gotti’s dead  

Dillinger’s dead  

And so are you  

Each of the eight cast members, most of whom play multiple roles, gets at least one moment to shine and they all glow. In fact, they’re all so good that it’s unfair to single out any one of them but I can’t resist shouting out a few of my favorites.

Andrew Durand, last seen in Shucked, is amazing as McCurdy; he sings the hell out of the songs he’s given when McCurdy is alive and then somehow is just as charismatic when he spends half the show standing deathly-still in a coffin as the dead man’s corpse

Jeb Brown, who as a kid made his debut as one of the no-necked monsters in the 1974 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and has knocked around Broadway in small parts ever since, has finally gotten the role he's no doubt been waiting for and now totally nails: as the show’s guitar-playing and pork-pie-hat-wearing narrator he is folksy, funny and sexy. 

Meanwhile, the veteran character actor Thom Sesma almost steals the entire show in a cabaret-style number as the famed L.A. coroner-to-the-stars Thomas Noguchi.  

Much of this has to be credited to the nimble direction of David Cromer, who not only keeps everyone on the same page but somehow manages to keep the show simultaneously light and dark. It’s a deft dance with death that you’re bound to enjoy.

March 2, 2024

"The Hunt" Kind of Misses the Mark


We’re now used to getting musicals based on movies but it’s rarer for a straight play to be adapted from a film. However that’s the case with The Hunt, which opened this week at St. Ann’s Warehouse following a run at London's Almeida Theatre in 2019.  

But just as so many musicals have done, the staged version of "The Hunt" has failed to capture the very qualities that made the film special and worth adapting in the first place. 

Directed and co-written by the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, the film tells the story of a recently-divorced kindergarten teacher named Lucas whose life unravels when he’s falsely accused of exposing himself to one of his little students. 

Almost everyone in the rural town where he lives turns on Lucas to the point that he begins to fear for his life. It’s such an affecting morality tale about the dangers of mass hysteria that the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013.

The stage adaption by David Farr hews fairly closely to that storyline. But its effectiveness is undermined by the ways in which the story is told. The film is subtle in its storytelling but right from the start, director Rupert Goold amps up the onstge fireworks. 

The film opens with a scene that establishes Lucas’ role as an integral part of the community. A group of his friends are showing off their manliness by skinny dipping in the frigid waters of the local lake but when one of them cramps up, it’s Lucas who, fully dressed, dives in and saves him. 

The St. Ann's production starts off with the local men literally beating their bare chests, stomping their feet and chanting in a ritualistic fashion that's not only supposed to display their manliness but foreshadows their coming barbarism. Meanwhile Lucas is nowhere to be seen. It's as though he's already an outsider before he's even been accused of doing anything wrong.

Goold seems more interested in the look of his production than its content. And to be fair, some of the images he and his team have created are hauntingly beautiful. 

The trendy set designer Es Devlin (click here to read about her) has created one of those glass boxes that have become the way that British productions (Yerma, The Lehmann Trilogy) now signal that they are really cool. 

Shaped like a kid’s drawing of a house, Devlin's box stands in for the school, the town church, various homes, and the local lodge where the menfolk hangout, drink and talk about guns. 

But the box is especially effective when the lighting by designer Neil Austin turns its walls opaque and the structure becomes a physical manifestation of how shortsighted the townspeople are.

The British actor Tobias Menzies plays Lucas (click here to read a piece about him). Menzies, perhaps best known as Prince Phillip to Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth in the middle seasons of the Netflix series “The Crown,” is too good an actor to fail to elicit sympathy for Lucas. But the show’s ending, which varies in a significant way from the film’s and even from the play's printed script, renders his plight less poignant. 

There’s also something a bit unsettling about watching this show in 2024. The film came out five years before the revelations about the movie producer Harvey Weinstein's sexually predatory behavior sparked the #MeToo movement. The environment is different now.

Throughout the film, the girl’s parents say they believe their child. But even though her accusations aren’t malicious but rather a product of childish anger prompted by Lucas’ rejection of a present she made for him, they still ruin a good man's life. 

The events of the past few years, including the recent verdict in E. Jean Carroll’s suit against Donald Trump, have reminded us that accusers in these situations are usually telling the truth. So I found myself wondering why I was sitting in a theater watching a story centered around the opposite point of view.  

February 24, 2024

Hailing the High-Camp Virtues of "Oh, Mary!"

If I had access to a time machine one stop I’d make would be sometime around 1960 at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village where young playwrights like John Guare, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson staged daringly offbeat shows and up-and-coming actors like Bernadette Peters, Al Pacino and Bette Midler performed in some of them. Of course that kind of time travel isn’t currently available but the next best thing might be seeing Oh, Mary!, the proudly queer and unabashedly ridiculous comedy that has just been extended at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through May 5.

Oh, Mary! is the nonbinary playwright Cole Escola’s bizarro-world version of Mary Todd Lincoln’s activities in the weeks leading up to the assassination of her husband at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865. It’s filled with swishing hoop skirts, swishy leading men, secret love affairs and a liquor-swilling First Lady who wants more than anything to be—of all thingsa cabaret star. 

Escola has said that they did almost no research before writing Oh, Mary! (click here to read more about that). Instead the show cheerfully cherry picks hearsay about the Lincolns (Mary’s reportedly high-strung personality; Abe's supposedly gay proclivities) that will lend themselves to jokes that are silly (the show’s Mary keeps asking who’s fighting in the Civil War) or raunchy (an aide-de-camp brings new meaning to the role of a president's body man).

This kind of high-camp stuff can wear out its welcome pretty fast. But Escola, wearing a wig with sausage curls and looking like Sutton Foster’s deranged kid sister, is so delightfully daffy as Mary that it’s almost impossible to resist this show’s outrageous lunacy. 

The cast and design crew commit to the hijinks too and director Sam Pinkleton has made sure they're all on the same page of the playbook. The witty sets by the design team known as Dots frolic on the line between realism and parody. And the period-appropriate costumes by Holly Pierson and Astor Yang are in on the joke too. 

Meanwhile the five cast members gamely tweak stock roles taken straight out of a 19th century melodrama. But no one breaks character or mugs unnecessarily (although there is plenty of appropriate mugging). Conrad Ricamora is particularly terrific as a Lincoln torn between managing the war, managing his uncivil wife and managing his uncontrollable libido.

Similarly, James Scully is pitch perfect as a tutor the president hires to keep Mary occupied and Scully not only makes for a hunky juvenile lead but delivers a Shakespeare soliloquy that would make any RSC grad proud. And Bianca Leigh and Tony Macht are just as winning in smaller roles. 

Comparisons to the works of Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch are inevitable but Escola brings a deadpan mischievousness to the drag damsel in distress that is utterly unique and deliciously goofy. The result is an 80-minute gigglefest. And who doesn't need a good laugh in these trying times.  

February 17, 2024

"I Love You So Much I Could Die" is Too Intimate for Its Own Good—Or Anyone's

Valentine’s Day was celebrated this past week and the new show I Love You So Much I Could Die, which opened at New York Theatre Workshop on Feb. 14, struck me as an ultimate gesture of love. 

For this playlet—it runs barely more than an hour—was written and performed by Mona Pirnot and directed by her husband Lucas Hnath and it’s unlikely that the show would have been done in such a prestigious venue if they weren't cashing in on the cultural cachet that Hnath has earned as the playwright of such inventive works as A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Dana H.

I don’t mean that as a put down. I Love You So Much is Pirnot’s attempt to deal with the kind of deep grief that any loving spouse would do anything to ease. So kudos to Hnath for being that kind of husband and to Pirnot for having the good sense to hook up with that kind of guy (click here to read more about the couple). But alas, I can’t extend kudos to their show. 

It’s a minimalist affair that takes place on a bare stage, furnished solely with a small desk and chair, a lamp, a laptop hooked up to a speaker, and a guitar sitting on a stand. Pirnot, the sole performer, spends the entire time seated with her back to the audience while a male text-to-audio voice on the computer reads what seem to be diary entries recording her responses to a tragic event involving her sister, although the exact nature of that tragedy is never revealed.

Periodically, Pirnot clicks off the computer, picks up the guitar and, still staring at the back wall of the theater, sings in a wan voice a few songs that further express her grief.  

It’s not unusual for artists to pour their pain into their work. But the goal should be to transform that pain into something that’s larger than just one person's experience. Here, however, withholding the details of the trauma and any visceral intimacy with Pirnot, limits the show's ability to do that. 

People should be allowed to grieve in whatever way comforts them and as someone who is also currently in mourning, I sincerely hope this show brings Pirnot and Hnath some solace. But I also wish they had found some way to bring me something too.