January 14, 2017

"The Present" Attempts to Update Chekhov

People may be crowding into the Ethel Barrymore Theatre to see Cate Blanchett make her Broadway debut in The Present, her husband Andrew Upton's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's first play Platonov, but I suspect they'll leave singing the praises of Blanchett's co-star Richard Roxburgh and the exhilarating chemistry between the two of them.

Chekhov wrote Platonov when he was just 18 but it wasn't produced until 1923, 13 years after his death at the premature age of 44. The play's main character is Mikhail Platonov, a provincial school teacher who once dreamed of being a writer. And it's intriguing that such a young man should choose to center his story around the frustrations of a 40-something guy entangled in a midlife crisis. 

The melodrama in Platanov is higher than in Chekhov's mature masterworks like The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard but it's fun to see that his archetypal characters (the ineffectual aristocrat, the disillusioned intellectual, the insecure arriviste, the restless middle-aged diva) and his familiar tropes (the beloved country home, the ennui of country life, the agonies of unrequited love, and, of course, a gun that will eventually have to go off) were there from the beginning.

In his youth, Platonov served as tutor to two young men and fell in love with the beautiful young stepmother of one of them. Twenty years have passed when the play opens and the stepmother Anna, now widowed and anxious to remarry a wealthy man who can secure her future, is celebrating her 40th birthday at the family dacha with food, fireworks and lots and lots of wine and vodka. 

Her guests include her bumbling stepson and his much-smarter wife, the local doctor and his frisky fiancée, two rich would-be suitors and Platonov and his dumpy but devoted wife. Over the course of the play's four acts and this production's three-hour running time, each of the four women declares her love for Platonov. The result proves tragic.

Upton has updated the setting from its original pre-Revolutionary period of the late 1870s to the post-Soviet era of the early 1990s but he doesn't do much with that, except to lard the dialog with profanity and to underscore the action with punk music that, at one moment, gets the normally regal Blanchett pogo dancing on a table.

But as always with Chekhov, the meat of the drama rests with the psychological interplay between the characters and, under the high-energy direction of John Crowley, this cast, all members of Australia's Sydney Theatre Company, the artistic home for both Blanchett and Upton, sink their teeth deep into it.

Blanchett's movie-star fame makes her first among equals and as, you might expect, she's superb as Anna, equal parts imperious and insecure.  Plus she looks stunning in Alice Babide's subtle but character-defining costumes. 

Yet Blanchett doesn't overshadow her cast mates (in fact, she refuses to take the customary star bow and the entire 13-member ensemble bows together for the curtain call).That leaves space for others to shine and two of the standouts are Chris Ryan as Anna's hapless stepson Sergei and Jacqueline McKenzie as his mismatched wife Sophia.

Ryan makes Sergei aware of his inadequacies but resigned to accept them so long as he can hold onto a bit of happiness, which adds a satisfying streak of poignancy to a character who might have just been played as comic relief.  

Meanwhile, McKenzie, a look-alike for the young Juliet Binoche, captures the ferocious intensity of a woman who has tried to repress her passions only to find them unexpectedly unleashed (click here to read aninterview with the actress).

But blazing brightest of all is Roxburgh. He exudes a mixture of virile charisma and little-boy neediness that makes it easy to understand why all the women would fall for him.

Roxburgh and Blanchett have been acting opposite one another for over 20 years (click here to read more about that partnership) and they use that history and knowledge of one another to great effect as their characters shift between caring and cruelty. 

The Present rambles on longer than I'd have liked but the scenes between the two of them more than made up for the lulls. I'd pay premium prices to see them in a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.


January 11, 2017

Festival Fever for the Cold Theater Months

It's been cold and snowy in New York over the past few days, the kind of weather that makes even a theater lover want to stay home and snuggle up with a book or something on the DVR.

The theater world accommodates by slowing down, as old shows depart (The Color Purple, The Encounter, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Falsettos all closed last weekend and The Humans, Holiday Inn and even the long-running Jersey Boys take their final bows this coming weekend) and meanwhile, new ones ready themselves for spring openings (22 are scheduled to hit the boards before the season ends in April).

But over the past few years, a growing number of winter festivals have popped up to provide relief for those of us who get too antsy going without live theater for too long. As a bonus, the festivals offer experimental works and other kinds of shows that don't get seen as regularly. And the ticket prices run cheap too.

Even I, who can't stand the cold, ventured out last weekend to see Blueprint Specials, a revival of the variety shows that the military commissioned folks like Broadway showman Frank Loesser and comedy writer Arnold M. Auerbach to create and then shipped out, along with instructions for easy-to-make costumes and scenery, for soldiers to perform for their mates during World War II.

The current production, lead by Broadway regulars Laura Osnes and Will Swenson, featured a cast of 34 and included both Broadway gypsies and active service men and women. The show, which was performed on the huge hangar deck of the USS Intrepid, the decommissioned ship that is now a sea, air and space museum, maintained the sweet and silly humor of its 1940s origins. I appreciated it more than I was amused by it. But it did get me thinking about what kind of entertainment the folks now defending us are getting.

The final of the five sold-out Blueprint performances is tonight. They were part of the Public Theater's Under the Radar series, which began Jan. 4, runs through Jan. 15 and features theatrical events from around the world. You can find out more about them by clicking here. 

And here are some other festivals that you might want to consider, listed in order of how much time you still have left to see them; click on their titles for more info:

Prototype: Now in its fifth season, this festival devotes itself to chamber operas and other musical theater works and is scheduled to present seven of them from Jan. 5-15

La Mama's Squirts: The venerable downtown theater champions queer artists from a variety of ethnic, gender and generational backgrounds in this theater jubilee that runs from Jan. 6-15
  
STEM Fest: The worlds of science and theater come together when performers ranging from storytellers to burlesque specialists will present shows dealing with science, technology, engineering and math at the Under St. Marks performance space from Jan. 4-21

The Coil 2017 Festival: The performance art space PS 122 will host 12 shows that include dance, film, theater and works that resist being categorized from Jan. 3-22

The Fresh Grind Festival: Just six-months old, newcomer Black Coffee Productions is precociously presenting staged readings of works by 10 emerging playwrights at TheatreLab from Jan. 18-22

Act One: One Act Festival: Manhattan doesn't have a monopoly on festivals, four different programs of short plays will run at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City from Jan. 12-28

The Exponential Festival: Based in Brooklyn, this festival will spotlight some 30 works, all by New York theater artists, between Jan. 13-30

The Fire This Time Festival: Black playwrights from all parts of the African diaspora will be celebrated in this festival that includes a mini-festival of 10-minute plays, all running from Jan. 16 - Feb. 5

Winterfest: The New York Theater Festival's showcase for still unknown-writers will feature some 50 productions between Jan. 2 and March 5.

Frigid New York Festival: Now in its 10th year, this eclectic festival will feature works by 30 different companies from Feb. 13 thru March 5

That's a lot of stuff so if you'd like a little help deciding what to see, you can check out the Maxamoo podcast's preview of the festivals in which its knowledgable regulars list the shows they most want to see by clicking here.  

And, finally, there's BroadwayCon, the three-day fandom extravaganza of panels, workshops and sing-alongs that will take over the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center from Jan. 27-29. Not even a blizzard kept last year's inaugural fest from taking place and even more stars have signed up to participate this year. You can find more about all it by clicking here.  



January 7, 2017

"Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" Shines Brightly But Illuminates Little

The Oxford Dictionary declared "post-truth" to be 2016's word of the year but in the theater world, I think a better choice would have been the word "immersive." 

Everywhere you looked, folks seemed to be adding some kind of interactive element to their production, be it something as simple as pumping the aroma of pies into the theater (and selling them during intermission) as Broadway's Waitress does or as intricate as staging a James Joyce novella in an actual Fifth Avenue mansion and having audience members join the actors at a dinner inspired by the one in the story as the Irish Rep did with The Dead 1904, which ends a month-long run at The American Irish Historical Society tonight.

But nowhere is the trend more celebrated than it is in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy's musical adaptation of a selection from Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace." It has turned all of the Imperial Theatre into its playing space, with seats onstage as well as in the traditional orchestra area, actors scampering up and down the aisles and along specially built catwalks and vendors peddling vodka and giving away aromatic pierogies to some lucky audience members including my theatergoing buddy Bill but not, alas, me.

The production mimics, albeit in a much more lavish way, the experiences of the earlier off-Broadway versions of the show done at Ars Nova, in a tent in the Meatpacking District and in another tent next door to its current home. So if you saw and liked The Great Comet in any of those incarnations, you'll no doubt like it here.

I felt so-so about the show when Bill and I saw it downtown and I still feel that way (click here to read my original review). The Great Comet is an ingratiating show but, despite its source material, it's not really a substantive one.

Malloy and his inventive director Rachel Chavkin (this production's true MVP) throw a great party but they fail to dramatize the complex inner lives of Tolstoy's lovelorn aristocrats or to make it clear why they even wanted to retell Tolstoy. Instead, they've just put a synopsis of the plot and a family tree in the Playbill. And I saw lots of people intensely consulting both during the intermission.

Still, the new leads who have joined the Broadway production do much with the little they've been given. The pop singer Josh Groban, almost unrecognizable in a fat suit, shines as the clumsy and cuckolded Pierre. 

Groban has a marvelous tenor voice but he also started off as an actor and he uses both talents to evoke something of the awkward grace and nobility that have endeared the character to generations of readers (click here to read about how he created his performance).

Although Groban is clearly the show's marquee name, the final curtain call bow is given to newcomer Denée Benton (click here for an interview with her) who now plays the naive Natasha, the role that was originated off-Broadway by Phillipa Soo, who went on to play Elizabeth Schuyler in Hamilton and is scheduled to star as the title character in the upcoming musical Amélie.

It is the tale of Natasha's entry into Russian society and the three very different men who vie for her affections that provides the storyline for The Great Comet and praise should be given to the creative team for casting first an Asian-American woman and, now, an African-African woman in the role.

Benton is lovely, looks wonderful in the Cinderella-like gowns Paloma Young has created and has a delicate soprano that is just right for the character. But its her simple presence that may be most significant.

Set designer Mimi Lien has placed tables around the lip of the stage (click here to read more about her concept) and I saw a little black girl of about eight or nine and her mom sitting at one of them. The little girl, whose dark chocolate skin tone exactly matched Benton's, couldn't take her eyes off the actress and her enchantment was exactly the kind of immersive experience the theater has always offered. And which has always been magic enough for me.

January 4, 2017

The Top 10 Shows That I Was Happiest to See in 2016...Plus Some Other Looking Back

Most 10 Bests list came out around mid-December so I'm obviously arriving really late to the party with this one.  Which is probably OK because I can't even pretend to say which were the best shows of last year—or any year.

The major critics (and my theatergoing buddy Bill) loved The Band's Visit (Bill even bought tickets for a return visit) but I found it to be only so-so and had far more fun watching its star Tony Shaloub as he graciously worked the table and charmed the guests at a cast member's birthday party at a restaurant around the corner where Bill and I had dinner after the show.

Similarly, the critics roundly dissed A Bronx Tale, while I had a good time (click here to read my review).  What I've learned over the years is that there's no one empirical standard and that the best use of the year-end bests lists is as a guide to which critics' taste line up with mine and can serve as reliable guides when I'm trying to determine whether to see something or not. 

So I invite you to do the same with mine.  I enjoyed a bunch of stuff this past year and my initial list had 20 shows. My final choices (listed alphabetically) may not have drawn the most critical acclaim or earned the most money but they're the ones that I'm happiest to have seen because they didn't just entertain me but helped me see the world around me differently and did it with distinctive flair:

The Effect: British playwright Lucy Prebble and director David Cromer probed the meaning of love and the greed of Big Pharma in this rom-com about a medical study on an experimental anti-depressant and its effect on both the test subjects and the scientists overseeing it. The result was both thought-provoking and heart-gladdening.

Familiar: Her other play Eclipsed about women caught up in the Liberian civil wars drew most of the attention and a run on Broadway but I also enjoyed Danai Gurira's domestic comedy about a Zimbabwean family at Playwrights Horizons, which, under Rebecca Taichman's skillful direction, dug deeper than we usually see into the experiences of affluent blacks and immigrants living in contemporary America.

Hadestown: Anaïs Mitchell's roots-music spin on the Greek myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice was my favorite new score this year. And Rachel Chavkin not only beautifully staged the show  at New York Theatre Workshop but highlighted its allusions to the growing schisms between the haves and have-nots in today's world.

Men on Boats: Just as Hamilton reimagined the Founding Fathers as people of color, Jaclyn Backhaus' witty adventure tale about the 1869 expedition that charted the Grand Canyon cast women as the explorers and she and director Will Davis allowed them to display the kind of swagger and bravado that men—onstage and off—have always enjoyed.

Oslo: The name refers to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and playwright J.T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher have turned the back story about the Norwegian diplomats who brought about that first official agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization into a surprisingly entertaining thriller that Lincoln Center will transfer for a Broadway run at its Vivian Beaumont Theater in April.

Sense & Sensibility: Even if, like me, you're not a big Jane Austen fan, you'll probably still be delighted by the Bedlam theater company's delightful adaptation of her first novel, which uses story-theater techniques and sensational acting to recreate Austen's tale about love among the 18th century British gentry.

Skeleton Crew: Dominique Morisseau's drama about factory workers facing a plant closing shares a concern about the decline of the American working class with Lynn Nottage's Sweat but Ruben Santiago-Hudson's dynamic staging at the Atlantic Theater and a terrific ensemble made this one hit me harder.

Small Mouth Sounds: It seemed that Rachel Chavkin could do no wrong last year and her staging of Beth Wohl's wonderfully original play about a disparate group of people at a silent retreat didn't make as much noise as Hadestown or Chavkin's much-lauded Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 but it was one of the season's true treats.

Vietgone: Using rap music, hipster speech and graphic-novel-style video projections, playwright Qui Nguyen and director May Adrales spun a refreshingly different—but ultimately touching—story about the Vietnam War, based on Nguyen's parent's experiences of moving to this country after the fall of Saigon.

The Wolves: The Playwrights Realm focuses on works by "early career playwrights" and it backed a winner with Sarah DeLappe's first-produced play about the members of a girls' soccer team who, under Lila Neugebauer's sharp direction, talk about everything from having their periods to geo-politics.
  
I also had a good time reading other people's lists and here are five of my favorites that I think you might enjoy too; you can check them out by justing click on the title:

The New York Theater blog put together a month-by-month rundown of all the year's major theater news, from the we-don't-care-if-there's-a-blizzard success of the first BroadwayCon in January to the debate that broke out last month over whether the Rockettes should perform at Donald Trump's inauguration.

Plays and musicals about people all along the gender spectrum have begun to move beyond the traditional coming-out story and The Advocate magazine celebrated the best of them.

In the spirit of it takes one to know one, Playbill asked some of the top people in the theater to name their top theater experiences of 2016.

It's traditional for year-end lists to celebrate theater's best but a bit of schadenfreude can also be fun and amNewYork let's it rip with its list of the biggest flops.

Playbill helpfully aggregated the choices of several major critics.

PLUS....
I mean, how can we look back at 2016 without talking about the greatest theater sensation of the year.

December 31, 2016

Happy New Year from Me to Each of You

Here's a toast to us all: may the next 365 days be filled with love, laughter, fortitude to get through the bad stuff and, of course, the sustaining comfort of good theater. Cheers!

December 28, 2016

Why "Finian"s Rainbow" Doesn't Glow for Me

Melissa Errico visited the cable news show "On Stage" this past weekend to talk about her latest show, the Irish Repertory Theatre's revival of Finian's Rainbow, which has been extended through Jan. 29. Depending greatly on who's asking the questions, "On Stage" interviews can be a trial. 

But Errico handled hers like the pro she is and was charming, funny and such a terrific advocate for her show that it made me want to see it. Until I remembered that I already had seen it and had been only so-so impressed by it.

Although I have to confess that, once again, I seem to be playing the Scrooge role because judging by the grades on Show-Score, the site that aggregates reviews, most of the critics were quite taken by this musical fable about an Irish man who steals a magical pot of gold from a leprechaun and flees to the fictional American state of Missitucky, where he and his daughter Sharon encounter singing and dancing sharecroppers, a labor organizer with a mute sister and a bunch of crooked politicians, including a racist senator who is eventually transformed into a black man.

Finian, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary next month, was considered an innovative and even daring show when it opened in 1947. It brazenly took on the issue of bigotry by satirizing the white supremacist senator Theodore G. Bilbo and was the first show on Broadway to feature an integrated ensemble of black and white singers and dancers.

The score, with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by Yip Harburg, features such still-beloved  songs as "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" "Look to the Rainbow" and "Old Devil Moon" and is considered by connoisseurs to be one of Broadway's best.

In his opening night review, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson declared that the show put "the American musical stage several steps forward for the imagination with which it is written and for the stunning virtuosity of the performance." And as I said, lots of critics love this current production too (click here to read some of their raves). 

But there's a hokiness about Finian's Rainbow that has never sat right with me (click here to read my review of the 2009 Broadway revival with Kate Baldwin, Cheyenne Jackson and Jim Norton) and in many ways, the Irish Rep's stripped down version (the 1947 original boasted a cast of 56 and even the 2009 revival had 30, while this one makes do with 13) struck me as little more diverting than an average high school production.

The Rep's revival, adapted and directed by its artistic director Charlotte Moore, has condensed the plot, making the story even more difficult to follow than it originally was. And the production is so bare-bones that costume designer David Toser simply put a scarf on Errico's head to indicate a major costume change. 

The entire cast works hard but while they all have great voices, they're a mixed bag when it comes to acting. Ryan Silverman, who usually plays the role of the labor organizer Woody, was out the night my sister and I saw the show and so we gave some leeway to his understudy Matt Gibson.

But we didn't have to make any excuses for Errico, who first played the part of Sharon in another Irish Rep production 12 years ago. She looks great and has a glorious voice that is just right for the show's sweet melodies and it was lovely to hear it in an intimate space with no amplification. Still at 46, Errico really is too old to play the role of a winsome ingénue (click here to read her views about that). 

The best thing about the show is the newcomer Mark Evans, who is making his New York debut in the role of the leprechaun Og. Evans puts such a delightfully novel spin on the character that he comes across like the wunderkind in the high school show whom everyone expects to move on to better things. And I'm betting that he'll do exactly that.