January 28, 2017

"The Liar" is Honestly Just So-So

Staging a farce is a little like whipping up a soufflé. You need good ingredients, a skillful cook and the ineffable airiness that turns ordinary egg custard into a fluffy delight. The Liar, which opened Thursday night at Classic Stage Company, has only two out of the three going for it.

The ingredients are time-tested since the show is based on a comedy by the 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille. Although he isn't as well-known today as his contemporaries Molière and Racine, Corneille penned more than two dozen plays and was just as big a deal as they in his day.

Most of his plays were tragedies but Le Menteur was a satire that poked good-natured fun at the aristocracy. Its main character is a provincial nobleman named Dorante, who is the title's serial fabricator. As soon as he arrives in Paris, Dorante makes up a glamorous backstory for himself to woo one of the two young women he meets in the Tuileries.

Problems ensue when he not only confuses their names (Clarice and Lucrece) but discovers that one of them is secretly engaged to his childhood friend. Also around are Dorante's father, who is trying to arrange a marriage for his son, and some servants who have issues of their own. 

Notes get passed to the wrong person, a duel is fought, faces are slapped and doors are slammed, albeit metaphorically on Alexander Dodge's simple set, which has only door frames.

And skillful hands mix all of this altogether. The play has been adapted by David Ives, the master renovator of old plays who transformed Molière's The Misanthrope into the deliciously funny School for Lies that also played at Classic Stage six years ago (click here for my review of it).

Once again, Ives has maintained the rhyming couplets of the original but spiced them up with witty topical references and some amusing anachronisms. He also throws in a few riffs on Shakespeare just for the hell of it.

Another experienced hand Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company, which commissioned the adaptation and staged it back in 2010, directs the show with brio, although perhaps too much of it. 

The Liar also boasts a game cast, whose members have performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare in the Park, the Red Bull Theatre and a bunch of other companies that specialize in 16th and 17th century plays.

They all work hard and mainly land their jokes, particularly the invaluable funnyman Carson Elrod, who plays Dorante's manservant and also serves as the production's affable master-of-ceremonies. Meanwhile, Murell Horton's costumes, borrowed from the earlier D.C. production, are sumptuous and witty (click here to read more about them).

And yet, the airiness is missing. It's as though Kahn and his actors couldn't decide if they should be ironic or all-out silly and so got caught in the mushy middle. That can sometimes be OK for an eggy custard but not for a soufflé—or a French farce.

January 25, 2017

"Dear Evan Hansen" Leads this Spring's Invasion of New Shows by New Show Makers

It's hard not to be won over by Dear Evan Hansen, the new musical that has made a triumphant transfer from Second Stage Theatre, where it played last spring, to Broadway's The Music Box theater, where it seems destined for a very long run.

A wholly original show, Dear Evan Hansen has a book by Steven Levenson that deals sensitively with such contemporary issues as teen suicide, economic disparity and the power of social media. And it also features a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that echoes the sounds of today, while respecting the time-honored conventions of musical theater (click here for my review of its off-Broadway production).

In fact, under normal circumstances, Dear Evan Hansen would be a shoo-in for this year's Tony for Best Musical. But there's nothing normal about this Broadway season. At least 12 shows will be eligible for the four, or maybe five, nomination slots and seven of those shows haven't yet opened.

Yet what strikes me as even more exciting is the fact that the winner is likely to be, just as it was last year when Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton took the top honors, created by a Gen-Xer or maybe even by Millennials, like the just barely thirtysomething year-olds Pasek, Paul and Levenson.

Now to be sure there are anticipated shows by talented old-hands. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Tony winners for Hairspray, have adapted Roald Dahl's classic children's story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the always-delightful Christian Borle as the eccentric candy maker Willy Wonka. It opens at the Lunt-Fontanne on April 23.

Meanwhile, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, creators of the cult classic Grey Gardens, have turned the rivalry between cosmetics divas Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden into War Paint, a showcase for the Broadway divas Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole that opens April 6 at the Nederlander Theatre. And the formidable team of Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally is doing a musical version of Anastasia, the oft-told tale of the Romanov princess whose family was massacred during the Russian Revolution, which will make its bow at the Broadhurst Theatre on April 24.

But there are signs everywhere that the musicals torch has been passed to a new generation and the shows stirring up the most buzz this season are by Broadway newcomers.

Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a pop-opera spin on an excerpt from Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," has already opened next door to Evan Hansen at the aptly named Imperial Theatre and received loud cheers from the critics (although a somewhat more muted one from me; click here to read what I thought of it).

And still to come are more adaptations of popular movies, as well as original works whose subjects range from a showbiz story about swing bands in the 1940s to an uplifting tale set against the backdrop of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Amélie is an adaptation of the whimsical film about a shy French woman and her neighbors in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre that will open April 3 at the Walter Kerr Theatre with Hamilton's Phillipa Soo in the title role. Its book is by Broadway fave Craig Lucas but the music is by Daniel Messé, leader of the folk-rock band Hem; and its lyrics are by Nathan Tysen, best known for the off-Broadway musical The Burnt Part Boys, both of whom are Broadway first-timers.

Tim Minchin isn't new to Broadway (he got a Tony nomination for the distinctive lyrics he wrote for Matilda) but his age and attitude make him part of the youth brigade and he's coming back with a score for Groundhog Day, a musical version of the 1993 Bill Murray rom-com about a weatherman who gets stuck in a time loop. The show, scheduled to open April 17 at the August Wilson Theatre, was such a sensation when it opened in London last year and its star Andy Karl is so beloved by the Broadway community that Groundhog Day is almost guaranteed a slot on the Tony ballot.

Although his day job has been music director for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, Richard Oberacker has spent his free time writing musicals and now he and his writing partner Robert Taylor seem to have hit the jackpot with Bandstand, their original show about a group of WWII vets vying to win a radio talent contest that will open April 26 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Oberacker and Taylor have also been lucky enough to get everyone's favorite ingénue Laura Osnes to star as a girl singer who becomes the love interest for their fictional band's leader played by Corey Cott.

Probably the least known of the new show creators are the husband-and-wife team of  David Hein and Irene Sankoff who have written Come From Away, which is based on the real-life story in which the residents of a Newfoundland town rallied together to provide food, shelter and inspiration for the thousands of passengers who were stranded there when all flights were ordered to land in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The subject matter and the relative inexperience of the creative team whose previous work has gone little further than fringe festivals might suggest a tough sell but the show has been a crowd-pleaser in its out-of-town engagements from California's La Jolla Playhouse to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, where it broke the box office record at the 109-year-old theater. So don't count it out when it opens at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on March 12.

In other words, it's promising to be a really tough season for Tony nominators but a really great one for musical theater lovers.

January 21, 2017

Speaking Up—and Singing Out—for America

This is a theater blog not a political blog but even before reports surfaced about how the new administration might eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (click here to read about that) the theater community was speaking out—and singing out—in support of the bedrock American values of democracy, fairness and inclusion. And so although I'll go back to talking about shows next week, I feel I must add my voice to that worthy chorus.

Thousands (me among them) turned out at theater locations across the country for Thursday night's Ghostlight Project demonstrations that I talked about in my last post. There were so many folks packed onto the Red Steps in Times Square that stars like Brian Stokes Mitchell didn't even get a turn at the mic.

Over 30 artists, including Jessie Mueller, Kelli O'Hara, Billy Porter, Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen performed in Friday night's Concert for America, which also celebrated diversity. Ticket sales from the event will support such like-minded organizations as the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Immigration Law Center and the Sierra Club (click here to read more about the event and how to stream a screening of it Sunday night).

And folks from the theater community are not only participating in today's Women's March in Washington but have created a fitting anthem for it, which seems a fitting way to end this week:

January 18, 2017

Sharing the Sustaining Light of the Theater

Usually a photo here of the ghost light that theaters turn on when they're temporarily empty means that I didn't have time to write a full post. But it means something very different this time.

The light has become the logo of the eponymous Ghostlight Project that is urging people to gather outside theaters across the country this coming Thursday evening before the presidential inauguration to demonstrate their support for the belief that theater will be a light during any challenging times to come and, as it traditionally has been, a safe space for everyone "regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation." You can find out more about the project by clicking here.

All the rallies will begin tomorrow, Jan. 19, at 5:30 p.m. in their own time zone. There will be five meeting spots here in New York City, including downtown at the Public Theater, uptown at the National Black Theatre, in Brooklyn at BAM and the Bushwick Star and right in the middle of Times Square in front of the now iconic Red Steps.

I tend not to be a political person but these times call for all of us to stand up for what we believe. So I hope to see you on the Steps.

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 but it is a play written by a young person. 

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.