December 29, 2015

"These Paper Bullets" Hits the Mark

There's an affinity between Shakespeare and music that rivals the synchronicity between peanut butter and jelly. Sometimes what results is lip-smackingly good like Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter's take on The Taming of the Shrew. Or West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's update of Romeo and Juliet. Or even The Lion King, Elton John and Tim Rice's riff on Hamlet. 

Other times, the outcome is icky sweet or stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth awkward, like Rockabye Hamlet, which lasted just seven performances; or All Shook Up, the mix of Twelfth Night and Elvis Presley songs that limped along for six months in 2005 (click here to see a photo gallery of some hits over the years).

And now we have These Paper Bullets!, a mash-up of Much Ado About Nothing and Beatles-inspired songs written by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, which is playing at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater through Jan. 10. 

The mainstream critics haven't been taken with These Paper Bullets! and the show eked out a ho-hum 61 on a scale of 100 from the review aggregator Show-Score (click here to read some of what they had to say). But, to my delight, I had a good time.

Book writer Rolin Jones has moved the Bard's comedy about the romances of two very different couples to the London of the Swinging Sixties. Jones peppers his adaptation with lines from the original (the title is taken from a speech in the play) but the real fun is the way he incorporates the attitudes and lingo of that era (the look too: the dandified suit jackets and mini-skirted dresses that Jessica Ford has created are totally groovy).

Jones has transformed Shakespeare's central couple, the high-minded nobleman Claudio and his lady love Hero, into Claude, the cute-one in a world-famous band (slyly named The Quartos) and his fiancée Higgy, a world-famous fashion model, whose named is a play on that era's waif-thin supermodel Twiggy. 

But as always, it is the love-averse duo Beatrice and Benedick who are the show's true stars. Here, they are Bea, a tart Mary Quant-style fashion designer who is Higgy's bestie; and Ben, the ironic John Lennon-like leader of The Quartos.

Jones finds counterparts for Much Ado's other characters as well (click here to read more about how he put it all together). His most clever invention may be Don Best, the drummer who left The Quartos before the band hit big, a tongue-in-cheek nod to both the Beatles' first drummer Pete Best and the original play's villain Don John, who attempts to undermine the marriage between Claudio and Hero by making false accusations against her.

Armstrong, whose music from the album "American Idiot" was turned into a Broadway show back in 2010, has gotten into the Swinging spirit as well. His impish songs, smartly arranged by Tom Kitt, are a delightful homage to the pre-Sgt. Pepper's Beatles and had me bouncing along in my seat even if I can't remember any of the tunes now.

The four-member band, which includes Bryan Fenkart as Claude and Justin Kirk as Ben, plays its own music and does it well. Fenkart is also touching in the scenes in which Claude doubts Higgy's faithfulness. Meanwhile Kirk, a master of the charming smirk, makes Ben the coolest dude for miles around (click here for a video essay by him). 

The women are good too. Nicole Parker is particularly pert and snappy as Bea. And she and Kirk spar well, an essential ingredient for any successful version of Much Ado About Nothing.  

But the biggest kudos go to director Jackson Gay who, in the anything-for-a-laugh spirit of the Beatles mockumentary "A Hard Day's Night," uses everything she can think of—terrific video projections of the period, some mild audience participation and a drag Queen Elizabeth—to create the show's jovial mood.

Some of the antics are sophomoric and the show goes on longer than need be. But the unabashed desire by everyone involved to give the audience a good time left me with a grin on my face.

December 25, 2015

Wishing You A Merry, Merry Christmas

There will be no regular post this weekend. Instead, I'm just going to wish you and yours a Christmas sparkling with peace, love, laughter and, of course, the good cheer of good theater.

Dec. 26 is the first ever "Show Day," which more than 5,000 producers, promoters, venues and other live entertainment organizations across the country have jointly created to encourage families to see a live show together this Saturday, or any other day during the holiday season. To find out more about this effort, click here.

In the meantime, to help get you in the spirit of it all, click here.

December 23, 2015

"Once Upon a Mattress" is Kind of Lumpy

With her outsized features, brassy voice and campy sensibility, Jackie Hoffman is an inveterate scene stealer. And that's a problem for the revival of Once Upon a Mattress that is playing in a Transport Group production down at the Abrons Arts Center through Jan. 3. Because Hoffman is its star and without the need to wrench the attention in her direction, she seems a little unsure of how to put her comedic powers to the best use.

And director Jack Cummings III, who has come up with some terrifically imaginative concepts for his company's past productions, seems just as much adrift. His big contribution is having an artist augment the show's low-budget scenery by drawing in additional elements in simulated real time via video projections. But Cummings isn't, alas, able to get his cast performing as though they're all in the same show.

That show is the musical version of the classic fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea" that was written by Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer with a book by Barer, Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller. Their Once Upon a Mattress tells the story of Winnifred the Woebegone who has to prove she's a princess so that she can marry the heir of the realm.

She clinches the deal when she's unable to fall asleep after the Queen Mother, who opposes the marriage to her son, has a pea slipped under a pile of mattresses on Winnifred's bed: it turns out that only someone royal would be sensitive enough to be bothered by something that small.

It's all silliness but it also creates a great opportunity for a female clown to show off her physical comedy chops and Once Upon a Mattress made a star of Carol Burnett when it debuted in 1959. A 1996 revival with Sarah Jessica Parker fared less well.

Hoffman seemed a more fitting successor (click here to read a profile of the actress). And she does have some good moments, including her rendition of the almost-can't-miss song "Shy," in which Winnifred bellows about how bashful she is.

But Hoffman seems stiff and awkward with Scott Rink's amusing choreography. More importantly, she doesn't convey the underlying poignancy that makes Winnifred's quest to be accepted more than just a joke.

Her fans and lots of critics adore Hoffman and they've been touting this performance but I found it hard not to think of what Burnett brought to the role. The current production has the air of a community theater enterprise in which some folks know what needs to be done and others don't.

Jessica Fontana and Zak Resnick as the show's second romantic couple—a nobleman and his pregnant lady fair who can't marry until the prince does—have the demeanor and vocal dexterity that would fit right into any production during Broadway's Golden Age.

But while the decision to cast John Epperson, best known as the drag artist Lypsinka, as Winnfred's nemesis the queen sounded like a lot of fun it turns out not to a lot less than expected. Hoffman and Epperson are both downtown favorites but their approaches to the work are totally different.

Hoffman, a veteran of Broadway shows ranging from On the Town to The Addams Family, tries to work within the script. Epperson, on the other hand, doesn't trust the material (or maybe himself) and falls back on his usual shtick—campy asides to the audience and movie diva impersonations.

There's something off about a show in which the biggest curtain call applause goes to the the person who has sixth billing. That would be Cory Lingner, who has an audience-pleasing turn in the Gene Kelly-style dance number "Very Soft Shoes."

On the other hand I got to the theater early and spent an hour sitting in the lobby of the Henry Street Settlement House in which the Abrons Center is located. While there, I heard the 7-year-old daughter of the receptionist asking her mom if she could see Once Upon a Mattress again because it was so funny. So, the show apparently does have an audience.

December 19, 2015

"Allegiance" May Be Too Faithful to the Past

Allegiance, the new musical about the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, isn't doing well at the box office. On the one hand, that's understandable. It's an old-fashioned show that has none of the edginess of The Book of Mormon or the flashiness of Aladdin. 

On the other hand, it's a shame Allegiance isn't doing better because no other show on Broadway right now speaks more directly to this moment when presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are calling for all Muslims, including those who are American citizens, to be banned from entering the country.

George Takei, forever best known as Mr. Sulu on the original "Star Trek" TV show and movies, is the central force behind Allegiance. He not only stars in the show but it is inspired by his experience as a child in one of those American concentration camps (click here to read his real story).

Takei has made every effort to draw parallels between America's unfair treatment of Japanese-Americans in the '40s and its suspicious attitude toward Muslim Americans today, from his curtain call speeches to a video in which he challenged Trump to visit the show and debate the issue (click here to see the video).

But once past the politics, there's a fusty paint-by-the-numbers quality about Allegiance as though its creators had crammed the Rodgers & Hammerstein playbook right before they wrote it.

Jay Kuo, who has a day job as the CEO of a digital publishing company, has written soaring ballads and endless reprises but none of the show's two dozen songs stuck in my memory. And Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione have collaborated on an R&H-style book that features lovers from different worlds and lots of moral uplift, particularly on the issues of race and tolerance, but they struggle with how to balance the show's overall tone.

It's all well-intentioned stuff and, under Stafford Arima's forthright direction, it's prettily presented (the sets by Donyale Werle do a lovely job with what seems to have been a modest budget) but Allegiance lacks the spark that would make it a must-see. Maybe it just isn't angry enough. And there's plenty to be angry about.

The story is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue set in 2001, 60 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted America's entry into the war. But the heart of the tale begins as the members of a Japanese-American farming community, including the Kimura family—the siblings Kei and Sam and their father and grandfather—are ordered to pack a few belongings, forced to sell their fertile land in the Salinas Valley at a fire-sale price and deported to the barren and isolated Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

Once at the center, the young men detained there split into two factions: those, including Sam, who believe that serving in the U.S. military will prove their loyalty; and those, lead by Kei's love interest Frankie, who refuse to fight for a country that they say has betrayed its citizens and its ideals by locking up innocent people solely on the basis of their skin color. These differing views create a rift that intensifies when Frankie fails to protect the center's young white nurse with whom Sam has fallen in love.

The performances are, frankly, mixed. Takei, now 78, falls back on the personal goodwill he's built up over the years in his role as the grandfather who hands out wisdom and wisecracks in equal measure. Meanwhile, Christòpheron Nomura is as wooden as a ship plank in his role as Sam's dad but has a majestic baritone voice that almost makes up for that.

Luckily, Michael K. Lee is rock-solid as Frankie and Telly Leung is all that anyone could want—sexy and strong-voiced—in a leading man. I've also heard that Lea Salonga, the original Tony-winning Miss Saigon, was just as good as Sam's sister Kei but Salonga was out the night my niece Jennifer and I saw the show.

Perhaps worried that there might be a mass exodus once the word got out, the production and house staffs at the Longacre Theatre kept the news of her absence low-key, burying it in a full cast list that was tucked inside the Playbill, instead of using the slip of paper that traditionally indicates when a replacement is going in or making an announcement at the top of the show.

Two women in the row behind us wondered aloud if they could trade in their tickets when they figured out what had happened. I told them they could and they hurried out just before the lights went down. But the lady sitting next to me, who said she had traveled in from the Philippines just to see Salonga, who is a huge star in her native land, decided to stick it out. And by the end, seemed glad that she had.

December 16, 2015

A Holiday Fable in "Our Friends the Enemy"

Who doesn't love a good Christmas fable?  And over the past decade or so, one of the most popular has become the story of the impromptu cease fires that sprung up between British and German soldiers on the front lines in 1914. These Christmas Truces, as they're now known, have inspired a legion of books, movies and songs (click here to listen to one).

And now that we're in the midst of the centenary of the Great War and anxiety that ISIS may force us into another, they've been the subject of shows that have played during the New York holiday season. Last year brought the musical play In Fields Where They Lay, which I didn't see but wish I had because I heard good things about it. And now running in the small Lion Theatre at Theatre Row through Dec. 20 is the one-man show Our Friends the Enemy.

World War I, which would devastate a generation of European men before it finally ended in 1918, was just five months old during its first Christmas season and enmities hadn't yet hardened. And so when the Brits overhead the Germans singing Christmas carols on the other side of the battlefield, they joined in.

Soon after, white flags were waved, the troops agreed that each could collect and bury their dead. They shared food, exchanged stories about their families and in some cases, played soccer. But a few days later, they retreated to their trenches and began again to kill one another.

Alex Gwyther, a fresh-faced Brit, wrote and performs Our Friends the Enemy, which looks at the events of the truce through the eyes of one British private who chronicles the monotonous chores and futile attempts to hold off fear that form the daily routine of his platoon, the series of unexpected events that lead to the truce in his corner of the war and the tragic way in which the respite unravels.

Straightforwardly directed by Tom O'Brien, the narrative unfolds in just 55 minutes. The story rolls along in predictable fashion but Gwyther is charming and the audience at the performance I attended sat rapt. Unlike me, most also stayed behind for a talkback about the show, perhaps hoping they might find an answer to the eternal question of why it is so hard to have peace on earth.

December 12, 2015

Head Trips: "Night is a Room" and "Lazarus"

Do you have to understand a show in order to like it?  I've been asking myself that question since seeing, back-to-back last week, Night is a Room, a cryptic drama playing in Signature Theatre's small Griffin space through Dec. 20; and Lazarus, the inscrutable David Bowie jukebox musical that is enjoying a nearly sold-out run at New York Theatre Workshop through Jan. 20. I found both to be oddly compelling, even though I don't really know what the hell either is trying to say.

Night is a Room is by Naomi Wallace, who usually writes lyrical plays with feminist themes (click here to read an interview with her). And there are two women in Night is a Room but, violating the Bechdel test that frowns on works in which all conversations between female characters focus on men, they spend all their time talking about the man who is the only other character in the play.

He's an affluent Brit named Marcus. He was given up for adoption as an infant but has lead a charmed life ever since, establishing a satisfying career as a teacher, marrying an even more successful ad exec wife, and raising their daughter who is now out on her own, freeing her still hot-for-each-other parents to indulge in sex whenever and wherever they choose in the elegant home that they're currently remodeling for fun.

As the show opens, Marcus' wife Liana is making arrangements for a surprise 40th birthday present for him: a reunion with his birth mother, a dumpy, almost inarticulate working-class woman named Doré who was forced to give her son up when she was just 15.

By the time the second scene begins, Marcus and Doré have met several times and gotten on so well that the couple has invited her to their home for tea. She arrives with a surprise of her own that hurls the play in a shocking direction and sets the stage for a battle royale between maternal and marital love.

Aided by the supple direction of Bill Rauch, the actors in this odd triangle are excellent. Simultaneously sexy and sensitive, Bill Heck makes it easy to see why each women would want Marcus just for herself while also conveying the anguish of a man caught between those two loves.

Dagmara Dominczyk is particularly good in the early scenes in which Liana strides around the stage in the mistress-of-the-universe outfits in which costumer Clint Ramos has dressed her and treats Doré with the casual condescension that the affluent often show the less fortunate.

But it is the marvelous Ann Dowd, frumpily dressed and unflatteringly made-up, who anchors the show. Her Doré knows that the world thinks uneducated and unattractive people like her don't deserve much and so she is prepared to fight for what she wants, armed with the intensity of her belief in the immutable bond between mother and son (click here to read a profile of the actress).

Despite their impressive work, I'm still not sure what to make of the developments that unspool from Doré's surprise. Much of what follows is melodramatic and some of it borders on the grotesque. 

But Wallace, who is said to have based her play on a real-life story she heard, clearly wants to draw a kind of visceral reaction from her audience. There are intentionally uncomfortable sex scenes and one in which a character pees on the floor.

Wallace gives a hint of her own feelings about the dilemma she's created for her characters with the title of the play. It's taken from a line that the physician-poet William Carlos Williams wrote about a house call to a pregnant woman:

      Night is a room 
      darkened for lovers,
      through the jalousies the sun
      has sent one golden needle!
      I pick the hair from her eyes
      and watch her misery
      with compassion. 

There's poetry in Lazarus too. It comes from the lyrics written by David Bowie, the rock musician who also starred in the 1976 movie based on the novel "The Man Who Fell to Earth." In the movie, Bowie played a space alien who comes to earth seeking water for his drought-stricken planet, calls himself Thomas Jerome Newton, becomes enormously wealthy, falls futilely in love with a woman named Mary Lou and yearns to return to his home planet.

Lazarus is a sequel of sorts but what accounts for the standby ticket line outside the theater is that the score is not only composed by Bowie but the book is by him and Enda Walsh, who won a Tony for his adaptation of the musical Once, and the direction is by the super-trendy Ivo van Hove. In other words, this is the coolest must-see of the season (click here to read how it came together).

But Lazarus is far from being the most lucid show around. The story picks up decades after the movie. Newton is now as rich as  Bill Gates, still mourning the lost relationship with Mary Lou and still yearning to get home. He's also a reclusive drunk but somehow still manages to get entangled with a bunch of new characters.

Those newbies include his assistant Elly who falls hard for him, a slinky psychopath called Valentine who stalks him and a mysterious and unnamed girl who says she can save him. They, along with others— Elly's jealous husband, a dancing geisha, an overly amorous couple—tumble together and apart with the herky-jerkyness of an acid-induced hallucination.

I thought that I might have understood Lazarus better if I'd seen the movie. But my theatergoing buddy Bill watched it before we saw the show and said it didn't help at all. Luckily, van Hove has created captivating  stage images (the video projection by Tal Yarden being particularly spectacular) that kept us leaning in even when we didn't know what they meant.

And the music rocks. There are 18 songs in all, including such favorites as "Changes," "Heroes" and "Life on Mars," plus four new ones written especially for the show. And, of course, fitting the songs into the book is less of a problem when the book isn't all that coherent to begin with. A seven-member onstage band sits behind a Plexiglas wall that buffers the sound just enough so that it's righteously loud without being excruciatingly so. 

Fans may be disappointed to find that Bowie isn't in the show. But Michael C. Hall as Newton, Cristin Milloti as Elly and Michael Esper as Valentine are all in great voice and throw themselves into their performances with passionate abandon. Special kudos to Milloti for doing it in spike heels.

I'm a narrative gal and often get turned off by shows like this one but the commitment to vision here and the sharp execution of it reminded me of my husband K's response to the first van Hove show we saw. "I'm not sure if I can say I liked it," he said about the director's 2010 production of The Little Foxes, which was also done at New York Theatre Workshop,  "But you've got to respect the artistic vision."  And so I do.

December 9, 2015

Honoring Arthur Miller with "An Incident at Vichy" and "A View from the Bridge"

This year marked the centennial of Arthur Miller's birth and for my money, not enough attention has been paid. Sure, there have been a few productions. Both the Nashville Repertory Theatre and the New York Yiddish Rep. have done revivals of Death of a Salesman and the Seattle Rep. did one of A View From the Bridge earlier this fall. Special editions of his plays have been published by Penguin and the Library of Congress and some symposia have been held here and there, including one at the University of Michigan, Miller's alma mater.

But Miller sits on the Mount Rushmore of American playwrights alongside Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams and theater companies around the country should have been putting on not only his major plays but lesser-known works like The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, which marked his last original Broadway production in 2000 and Finishing the Picture, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago just four months before Miller's death in 2005.

Instead, New York theater lovers who revere Miller (as I have since I first wrote a paper on his work in high school) have had to content ourselves  with the Signature Theatre Company's respectful revival of Incident at Vichy, which is running on its Irene Diamond Stage though Dec. 20; and the revelatory new staging of A View From the Bridge at the Lyceum Theatre through Feb. 21.

Incident at Vichy, which was first done in 1964, is set in Nazi-occupied France and opens in a makeshift detention room where a group of men anxiously await questioning by the German officials who have rounded them up. They suspect they have been identified as Jews and, as they are called into the interrogation room one-by-one, debate how they can avoid what is destined to be a tragic fate.

Some are resigned to whatever will happen. Others believe they can appeal to reason. One or two hope to use money or personal connections as leverage. A few argue that they should try to overwhelm the guards and make a run for it. The sole gentile among them knows he has been picked up by mistake and will be released but doesn't know what obligation he has to the others.

The play is, of course, an allegory for how Jews and gentiles responded to the Holocaust (click here for a piece further examining the playwright's feelings about that). But it's also one of Miller's meditations on the moral responsibility we have to one another and to ourselves. Plus it's a trove of great parts for actors.

The waiting men range in age from a teen boy to a character identified only as the Old Jew. They come from professions that run the gamut from artist and philosophy professor to laborer and street thief. And their political beliefs are just as varied. That's a lot of humanity to crowd into 90 minutes and so the actors playing the parts have to create full lives and to make potentially polemic dialog sound like natural speech.

And that's exactly what happened in the superbly performed production that The Actors Company Theatre staged back in 2009. I believed in every character and I felt the horror as each disappeared into the interrogation room (click here for my review). But, under the unsteady direction of Michael Wilson, the acting is more of a mixed bag in the new Signature production.

Several of the cast members—Jonny Orsini as a hotheaded artist and Darren Pettie as the professor instigating the revolt—are too contemporary for their roles. Richard Thomas, the best known of the 17 actors, brings nice touches to the gentile nobleman but none of the innate hauteur that the character would have, which softens not only his story arc but the emotional center of the play.

Oddly, James Carpinello comes off best as the German officer made soul sick by the assignment he's been given. And I'm not sure that the guy wearing the swastika should be the most sympathetic character in a play in which other people are condemned to wear the yellow star that will symbolize their doom.

However, I have no ambivalence abut the innovative production of A View From the Bridge that was first done by The Young Vic in London. It's been directed by Ivo van Hove, the avant garde Belgian director who has been much celebrated for reinventing rather than revising classic plays (click here to read a profile about him).

Van Hove strips Miller's tragedy about a dock worker undone by an illicit obsession with his surrogate daughter down to its bare essentials. Although the play is set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 1950s, the actors wear nondescript modern dress and don't even bother with shoes. And there are no traditional sets or props; instead there is a bare playing space, bordered by a Plexiglas bench and bleacher seating for about 150 audience members who serve as the de facto community (click here for a piece on the making of the show).

The absence of the traditional stagecraft focuses all the attention on the text and the actors bringing it to life. The result is something akin to what watching an original production of a play by Sophocles must have been and makes me sorry I didn't get my butt over to BAM to see van Hove's production of Antigone earlier this fall.

Miller modeled A View From the Bridge after classic Greek tragedy. The lawyer who serves as the neighborhood fixer also functions as the drama's narrator and one-man chorus. But the central figure with the fatal flaw is Eddie Carbone, a seemingly good man who works hard as a longshoreman, has raised his orphaned niece and opens his home to illegal immigrants from Italy desperate to find work in this country.

But a romance between the niece and one of the immigrants stirs up Eddie's own repressed longings for the girl, eventually causing him to break some of his community's most sacred taboos. The trick in playing this part is to maintain the believability of the character's innate belief in his goodness even when he does bad things. Mark Strong is magnificent in the role.

Lanky, ball-headed and wielding an authentic-sounding Brooklyn accent, his Eddie seems like a solid guy at the beginning of the play but as the story progresses and Eddie becomes more and more obsessed, Strong somehow manages to hollow him out: his face becomes more gaunt, his eyes vacant as though life is being sucked out of him. It's hard to imagine that there will be a finer performance this season (click here to read an interview with him).

The  Brooklyn accents of Strong's fellow British cast-members aren't as reliable as his but their acting certainly is. I'm reluctant to single out any of them but Nicola Walker is a quiet powerhouse as Eddie's wife Beatrice, who, unlike her husband, sees the tragedy hurtling toward them but is still unable to get them out of its way.

Making his Broadway debut, van Hove does permit himself a couple of directorial flourishes. A perhaps too-emphatic soundscape by Tom Gibbons mixes samples of Fauré's "Requiem" with hisses and thumps that combine into an aural sense of dread that underscores the mythic intensity of the plot as it races along for nearly two hours without intermission.

There's also a coup d’theatre in the final moments of the play that earns its showiness. Both my husband K and I left the theater feeling simultaneously drained and exhilarated. And now we're counting the days until we can see what van Hove does with Miller's The Crucible, which is scheduled to open on Broadway with an all-star cast in April.

December 5, 2015

A Sampler of Off-Broadway Musicals: "Daddy Long Legs" "Gigantc," and "Invisible Thread"

Not everyone is a theater fanatic like me and my buddy Bill who are so crazy about theater that we will see—and have seen—just about anything. When most people think about seeing a show, their thoughts, particularly during the holiday season, often turn to musicals. Which is why all of the shows that took in over $1 million during Thanksgiving week were song-and-dance shows, with three of the splashiest—Aladdin, The Lion King and Wicked—taking in over $2 million each.

But there are musicals off Broadway too. They tend to be a lot smaller, more idiosyncratic and cheaper (tickets cost half as much as the Broadway shows, or even less). A few of these productions, like Fun Home and Hamilton, later transfer to the big time, giving the folks who saw their earlier productions bragging rights about getting to them before everyone else.

I'm going to indulge in a little bragging of my own right now. I've seen four off-Broadway musicals over the past couple of weeks (although I can only talk about three of them now because the fourth, Lazarus, hasn't yet officially opened and so more about that next week).

In all honesty, I don't think any of them will make it to Broadway and give me bragging rights but, in various ways, each offers some sense of the way the musicals winds are currently blowing.

DADDY LONG LEGS: There's a sweet old-fashioned quality about this two-hander based on the 1912 epistolary novel about a smart orphan named Jerusha Abbott, who is sent to college by an unknown benefactor. There she grows into a feminist, a socialist and a woman in love, all of which she chronicles in letters to her fairy godfather, whom she calls Daddy Long Legs because she caught a glimpse of his tall figure leaving the orphanage where she was raised.

The novel with its feisty heroine was one of the few books that I read over and over again when I was a girl and so I was really curious to see this show because although the story has been adapted for the screen, including a 1955 Fred Astaire musical, I couldn't imagine how a collection of letters could be turned into a stage musical, particularly when it had only two actors and the very tiny stage of the Davenport Theatre to work with.

John Caird, the mastermind behind literary page-to-stage blockbusters like Nicholas Nickelby and Les Misérables; and composer and lyricist Paul Gordon, a Tony nominee for his collaboration with Caird on Jane Eyre back in 2000, have attempted to solve the problem by staging the nearly all sung-through show as a series of musical soliloquies.

That means Jerusha and her patron seldom interact but the inventive Caird finds all kinds of ways to keep them moving around the stage (click here to listen to a conversation between him and his producer)

Like so many in his generation of composers, Gordon has created a score that is heavily influenced by Stephen Sondheim. The melodies aren't as complex and the lyrics aren't are as clever as Sondheim's (whose are?) but the songs are pleasant and they're beautifully song by the real-life husband and wife team of Adam Halpin, who's now replaced Paul Alexander Nolan, and Megan McGinnis, who has been with the show from its start (click here to read about the couple).

The critical response to Daddy Long Legs has been tepid, rating barely a passable 66 on Show-Score. and the producers have already announced that the show is closing on Jan. 10.But you wouldn't have known any of that based on the reactions of the row of school girls who sat in front of me. They were totally enthralled, sighing and crying their way to the show's predictable but still romantic conclusion.

You'll have the chance to make up your own mind about Daddy Long Legs because the show will be live-streaming on Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. in many time zones.  The viewing is free but you do have to register beforehand, which you can do by clicking here.

GIGANTIC. The New York Musical Theatre Festival, or NYMF as it's known, may be having as big an influence on the new generation of musicals as Sondheim does. Unfortunately for me, the festival's programmers seem to have a weakness for puerile subjects, potty-mouthed humor, generic pop-rock scores and parodies of much better musicals.

A show called Fat Camp was a big hit of NYMF's 2009 season. And now, renamed Gigantic, it's running in a Vineyard Theatre production at the company's temporary home at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row through Dec. 20. It has a book by Randy Blair and Tim Drucker, music by Matthew roi Berger, lyrics by Blair and the desire to be one of those self-esteem shows that encourages people to feel good about themselves, whomever that self may be.

In this case those selves are teens who have been sent to a weight loss camp. And that creates a dilemma for the show: it doesn't want to make fun of overweight people but it also finds it hard to resist fat jokes (there are several scenes in which director Scott Schwartz has guys taking off their shirts and jiggling their flesh in a way that's an obvious bid for cheap laughs).

The characters, including the counselors, played by stage vets Leslie Kritzer and Burke Moses, are all one-dimensional (the slutty fat girl, the shy fat girl, the nebbishy fat boy, the overbearing fat boy) and the show gives into the cliché of having the thinnest of the plump girls be the most desirable. Small wonder that I spotted a group of theater industry insiders sneaking out at intermission.

Several members of the cast are making their professional debuts and, from the remarks in their program notes and the genuine giddiness they display onstage, they're delighted to have this chance to show off their talent. And there are moments when they do so engagingly, as in a Hamilton-style homage to the nation's heaviest president William Howard Taft. More bright moments like that might have kept those insiders in their seats.

INVISIBLE THREAD: Actors who tire of waiting for their big break often try to create their own. That usually means self-producing a modest one or two person show. But the show Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould have put together has 15 cast members, a dozen musicians and big production numbers staged by the Tony-nominated choreographer Sergio Trujillo and directed by Tony-winner Diane Paulus.

Inspired by its creators' own experience, Invisible Thread, which is playing at Second Stage Theatre through Jan. 3, tells the story of a gay African-American actor named Griffin who, unable to find work and disowned by his church for his sexuality, seeks solace and a better sense of himself by volunteering in, of all places, Uganda.

The situation on the ground isn't what he expected but Griffin finds another mission when he becomes a surrogate parent to a group of AIDS orphans. After his Jewish boyfriend joins him in Uganda, they agree to take on the responsibility of educating the kids and set about raising the money to do the job.

In [title of show]'s meta fashion, the show that Matthews and Gould have created to tell the story of the young people they've adopted is also a way to fund their efforts to help those young people (click here to listen to a radio interview with the couple).

But the show's scenario sounds a lot more somber than the actual show proves to be. This is a genuinely appealing show even if the storytelling is a little muddled. 

Matthews is a particular charmer playing a fictional version of himself. And the show is filled with fish-out-of-water humor as Griffin tries to connect to his African roots and peppy music (plus a few ballads, including the title tune about the invisible thread that connects Griffin and his students).

And not everything turns out according to the playbook for these kinds of shows. Invisible Thread offers some pointed observations about the assumptions that westerners, white and black, too often make about Africa, even if the show indulges in a few of its own. 

There are plenty of energetic dance numbers but not even the gifted Trujillo seems to have found a way to avoid the butt-jutting and breast-thrusting gyrations that too frequently pass for African dance in musicals.

Paulus is a master orchestrator of onstage fun and here she borrows a little from The Lion King and a little from The Book of Mormon, filters them through her own fertile imagination and then seasons the mix with techniques ranging from arty video projections to simple hand clapping. And yet she gives into another cliché: soulful numbers belted by a large black woman with an even larger voice.

Still, it's hard to complain when you leave a show feeling good and knowing that your ticket price may be doing some good too. It's kind of what the holidays are all about.

*The Daddy Long Leg producers say the show has been "extended  to run indefinitely."

December 2, 2015

"Sylvia" Gets Sent to the Pound Prematurely

New Yorkers are crazy about their dogs. And so I had assumed that the canine crowd would be out in full force at the Cort Theatre to see the Broadway debut of Sylvia, the revival of the 1995 A.R. Gurney comedy about the love affair between a man and his dog. Theater lovers are crazy about Annaleigh Ashford and so I thought a show starring this uncommonly gifted physical comedienne as the eponymous dog would enjoy a long run. But, as it turns out, I was wrong. Last week, just a month after it opened, the producers announced that Sylvia will close on Jan. 3.

Perhaps that's because the show, at least as straight-forwardly directed by Daniel Sullivan, has a lot more in common with Neil Simon's boulevard comedies of the 1960s and '70s than it does with today's edgier laugh fests like Hand to God.

Sylvia is set primarily in the comfortable living room overlooking Central Park of a middle-aged couple named Greg and Kate. Their kids are out of the nest and Kate is excited about all the things she'll now be free to do, from a new job teaching Shakespeare to poor kids to dining out at new restaurants with old friends and maybe even revving up the couple's sex life.

Greg, on the other hand, is fed-up with his job as a bonds salesman and down in the dumps about everything else until he finds a stray dog and brings her home. 

The dog's name tag reads Sylvia and the play's conceit is that she can speak what's on her mind. When Greg commands her to sit, she replies, "I don't want to sit" and proceeds to run around the apartment, jumping on the couch and peeing on the rug, which doesn't endear her to Kate, who also begins to resent the tightening relationship between Greg and Sylvia.

There is, as you might expect, a metaphor here about what can happen to long-married couples when their primary focus switches from their now-grown kids back to one another.

But neither Gurney, who has admitted in interviews that the play was inspired by the relationship he had with his late dog Lucy, nor Sullivan hit too hard on that. The fun of the play rests in imagining how it would be to be able to relate to one's own pet so directly and watching an actress find inventive ways to mimic doggie behavior.

Ashford, dressed by costumer Ann Roth in a shaggy sweater and knee pads to protect her joints as she bounces around David Rockwell's perhaps too lovely set, is great at the job. She combines the expressive eyes and eager-to-please friskiness of a young puppy with the anything-for-a-laugh moxie of an old vaudevillian. The result is something pretty close to brilliant.

The 30-year-old actress won a well-deserved Tony last spring for managing to outshine a constellation of comic geniuses in the all-star revival of You Can't Take It With You and even though the current theater season is still young and Sylvia is closing early, Ashford deserves to be in the awards mix again this time around (click here to read an interview with her).

Julie White, who posses her own well-toned comedic chops, is given less to work with as the disapproving Kate but keeps the role from being annoying. Meanwhile Matthew Broderick, whose wife Sarah Jessica Parker originated the role of Sylvia in the '95 production, does a surprisingly good job as Greg.

Broderick has turned in one disappointingly affectless performance after another since he and Nathan Lane re-energized Broadway with The Producers back at the turn of the century. But his deadpan approach works here for the emotionally conflicted Greg. And he seems genuinely amused by and connected to Ashford's Sylvia.

Three other minor characters, including a sexually ambiguous shrink, are all hilariously—even if a bit over the top—portrayed by Robert Stella, who deserves his own awards consideration (click here to read an interview with the entire cast).

The critics were mixed about the show, with some accusing it of being anti-feminist since one woman is playing a dog and the other something of a nag. But the people who have gone to see Sylvia seem to be having a good time, based on the laughter at the performance my husband K and I attended and the high favorable ratings the show has received on the new review aggregator Show-Score (click here to read some of what they had to say).

In fact, K liked the show so much that he bought tickets as a Christmas present for one of our animal-loving friends. Luckily, he chose a date before Sylvia barks its last on Jan. 3.