February 27, 2013

"The Dance and the Railroad" Then...and Now

Few things are more annoying than having someone go on and on about how some long-gone production was so much better than the one that you can see right now.  So I’m going to have to beg your forgiveness because that’s exactly what I’m about to do. 

For as lovely as it is, the revival of David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad that opened on Monday in The Griffin theater at The Pershing Square Signature Center is nowhere near as magical as the original production that debuted at the New Federal Theater at the Henry Street Settlement in 1981 and then moved to the Public Theater where I saw it.

This revival is the second production of the season that Signature, which celebrates one playwright each year, has dedicated to Hwang. Although 25 years have passed since he wrote his best-known play, M. Butterfly, Hwang remains the only Asian-American playwright with broad name recognition (click here to read a profile of him). 

The American-born son of Chinese immigrants who made good (his dad was a banker; his mom a pianist) Hwang specializes in plays that deal with assimilation, alienation and other mutabilities of modern identity. The first play in his Signature season was Golden Child, a wry comedy from 1996 that tells the story of how a traditional Chinese family with one husband and three wives made the transition to western ways.  

My friend Jesse and I enjoyed that production even though the acting and some of Hwang's updates on the original script were uneven. It also made me look forward even more to seeing The Dance and the Railroad again.

I didn’t know who Hwang was when I first read about that play back in 1981 but I was intrigued by it because a Chinese-American friend had told me stories, then left out of history books, about the scores of young men who emigrated from China to America in the 19th century, believing that they’d make their fortunes here only to end up as underpaid laborers on the transcontinental railroad.

Hwang’s 70-minute play is a series of encounters between two of those workers:  Lone, who, after two years in the country, now finds his sole comfort in the rituals of the Chinese opera he studied as a boy; and Ma, a callow youth who has been in the U.S. less than a month and is still optimistic about the future, particularly because, as the plays opens, the Chinese labors have gone out on strike for higher wages to match those paid whites doing the same jobs.

The production was such a close collaboration between Hwang and the actors John Lone and Tzi Ma that the characters still carry those actors’ names.  John Lone, who, like his fictional counterpart, had trained for Chinese opera, also directed and choreographed the production and even wrote the music for it, infusing the show with his own ethereal elegance.

Like Ma in the play, I was transfixed by him and although the conversations between Lone and the less-refined Ma offer plenty of laughs, I ached for the plight of those young men, so far from home and in a place that resembled so little of the heaven they’d imagined.

It's probably unfair to expect the current production to have the emotional charge that the original drew from the personalities and passions of the people who created it but the revival does have its virtues.

Mimi Lien’s set is lyrical in its simplicity and superbly lit by Jiyoun Chang.  Composer Huang Ruo’s music is nicely evocative and May Adrales, assisted by Chinese opera consultant Qian Yi, has made the dance moves the highlight of the show and cast it with appealing actors.

Yuekun Wu has some lovely moments as Lone, even if he isn’t as soulful as John Lone was in the role.  Ruy Iskandar lacks the earthiness that Ma brought to his namesake part but Iskandar has an engaging goofiness that almost makes up for that shortcoming.  

Still, while much of the dance they perform is the same as the original's, the steps for me are just slightly off.

February 23, 2013

"Really Really" is Actually Really Worth Seeing

It takes both talent and moxie to make it in show business. And Paul Downs Colaizzo, the 27-year-old playwright whose first play Really Really opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Tuesday night, seems to have both.  

According to the several profiles that have already been done on him (click here to read one) Colaizzo had moxie enough to walk up to director David Cromer in the street, strike up a conversation, and, eventually, get Cromer to stage his play’s New York production, with follows its premiere at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. last year. 

And although Really Really is far from perfect (beginning with the vapid title) it shows that its author has got talent too.  And he’s also got something to say, both to and about the members of his generation. 
It’s obvious that this is a young writer’s play. It’s occasionally too on-the-nose and not as insightful as it thinks it is. But Colaizzo gets big points for breaking outside the comfy sinecure of domestic drama to take on the issue of class in this country. And although I didn’t agree or like everything he has to say about it, I admire him for speaking up.
Colaizzo wrote the first draft of his play while he was still in college at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It was around the same time that some Duke University lacrosse players were accused—wrongfully, it now seems—of gang raping a woman who’d been hired to perform a strip number at one of their parties and a similarly complicated sexual incident sets off the action in Really Really too.  

It opens with two young women—Grace and Leigh—returning to their dorm room from what seems to have been a boozy college party. The next morning, Leigh, a scholarship student, admits that she had sex with Davis, a rich and hunky good guy on campus, who also happens to be a good friend and teammate of her also wealthy fiancé Jimmy.   

When Jimmy returns from a family vacation, Leigh claims the encounter was rape.  Davis says he was so drunk he can’t remember what happened but insists he’s not the kind to force himself on a girl.  Their mutual friends—a handy cross section of slacker jocks and ambitious geeks—try to get as far away from the mess as they can.  
But Colaizzo isn’t really concerned with what actually happened between Leigh and Davis that night. Plot twists constantly switch the audience’s sympathies between them. His real focus is on what’s going on inside this pair and their friends. And by his reckoning, that’s the true scandal. 

For, much like Lena Dunham and her controversial HBO show “Girls,” Colaizzo is tough on his peers, portraying them as total narcissists concerned solely by what they can gain from a situation.  As Grace, president of the school’s Future Leaders of America chapter, says in a speech she delivers directly to the audience, their motto is  “What can I do to get ahead?”  

The "Girls" connection is driven home even more by the fact that one of that show's stars Zosia Mamet (yes, daughter of David, who wrote the he-said-she-said drama Oleana) plays Leigh.  Adding to the production's coolness factor is the presence of Matt Lauria from the cult TV show "Friday Night Lights” as Davis.  

But this is not just stunt casting. Both Mamet (click here to read a Q&A with her) and Lauria are excellent, as is the rest of the seven-member cast. During the talkback that followed the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended, Colaizzo said he most identified with Johnson, the friend played by the black actor Kobi Libii. So I wish I were going to be there for one of the three performances when the playwright steps into that part while Libii films a TV pilot this weekend.

As always, Cromer is a master at getting his actors to plumb the emotional depths of their characters.  Although I could have done without his decision to have the clunky scene changes in which stagehands come out to push the bulky set around as the action moves back and forth between the students’ apartments.
Colaizzo says that Really Really is the first part of a trilogy called “Want, Give, Get.”  The other two are supposedly already written and I’m betting that based on the reception to this one (the show has already been extended until March 24) they’ll get produced.  And I, for one, plan to be there to see them.

February 20, 2013

A Great DVD Set for Musicals Lovers

The folks at Warner Bros. emailed to ask me if I’d be interested in receiving and reviewing their new DVD box set of movie musicals. I get offers like this a lot and I tend not to respond because I don’t want B&Me to become a shill for companies that can afford to pay for their own advertising.  But this offer was too good for any lover of theater or movie musicals to ignore. For the “Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Musicals,” issued as part of the studio’s 90th anniversary celebration, brings together 20 of the top movie musicals of all time.  

And that’s not an exaggeration. Warner Bros. produced the first feature-length talkie in 1927 and it was a musical, “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson. Over the next 60 years, Warners released such classics as “42nd Street,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Wizard of Oz,” ”Singin in the Rain,” “A Star is Born,” “Cabaret”, “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Hairspray.”

My technical knowledge of DVDs could be packed into a sewing thimble with room to spare so I can’t say much about the aspect ratio, resolution, sound quality or any of those terms that techno buffs toss around, except to say that the movies I checked out looked and sounded OK to me.

However I can say that most of the titles in the set are as evocative for me as a madeleine was for Proust. I spent hours watching James Cagney’s portrayal of master showman George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” because it was a standby on the old “Million Dollar Movie” series that used to air repeat showings of one film for a week when I was a kid.  And I still got a kick out of watching the jaunty Cagney perform his distinctively stiff-legged dance numbers, including the title song and Cohan's signature "Give My Regards to Broadway."


Similarly, I have seen every incarnation of “A Star is Born” (including the 1976 remake with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson) but there is no besting the  1954 version of this showbiz morality story with Judy Garland and James Mason (although I can’t figure out why the set producers left out all the great extras that are on the disc already in my DVD library).

Meanwhile, the movie version of John Kander & Fred Ebb’s Cabaret, which two friends and I enjoyed so much when we first saw it that we stayed for a second showing (which movie theaters used to be more tolerant of) is slightly different from the staged version but just as terrific and showcases Liza Minnelli at the top of her game. Plus its disc includes several featurettes including one in which Minnelli and her co-stars Joel Grey and Michael York reminisced in 1997 about the making of the movie and the genius of their director Bob Fosse.

It was great to make some discoveries too. I’d never seen “Broadway Melody,” which like so many of the films in the set is a backstage musical.  It opens with a cacophonous scene that recreates the music rooms of Tin Pan Alley where songwriters hawked their ware to publishers and producers, signaling right from the start that this movie is going to be a loud-and-proud musical. The film’s not-so-subtle “nancy boy” jokes made me flinch but it was sweet to see how fleshy chorus girls used to be.  

The entire 20-disc set is just $70 on Amazon.com, which is a bargain when you consider that watching these films, particularly if you do it sequentially, is like taking a course in the history of movie musicals, where almost everyone involved deserves an A.

February 16, 2013

A Hope-Filled Preview of the Spring Season

Let’s face it:  the fall theater season was disappointing as hell.

Of the 20 or so shows that opened on Broadway between last year’s Tony broadcast and the dropping of the ball in Times Square on New Year's Eve only five are still playing. And four of those survivors—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Picnic, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—are scheduled to close before spring officially arrives next month.

To be fair, some productions had planned limited runs, like the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Harvey (which pleased audiences and critics) and its Cyrano de Bergerac (which did not). And, of course, the Christmas-themed shows Elf and A Christmas Story had the expected seasonal limitations.

A few other shows were just quickie drive-bys like Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth, Lewis Black: Running on Empty and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on Broadway. But their very existence is tacit commentary on the state of the fall season. 

Even more distressing were the out-and-out flops like The Performers, Scandalous, Dead Accounts and The Anarchist, which despite being a new play by David Mamet and starring Patti LuPone, lasted just 17 performances. Meanwhile, off-Broadway fared only slightly better.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal and, like every other theater lover, I’ve got my fingers crossed that better shows are in the wings. Here are six that I’m particularly looking forward to: 

PASSION A show by Stephen Sondheim is a pretty obvious choice but this one about the unlikely love between a handsome young soldier and a homely older woman in 19th century Italy has always been one of my favorites. I'll confess that I was nervous when I heard that John Doyle was going to direct the revival that is opening at Classic Stage Company on Feb. 28. I didn’t want to see either of the lovers tote around a tuba or some other instrument the way Doyle had the actors do in the previous Sondheim musicals he’s directed. But he's allowing this cast, which includes Judy Kuhn as the yearning Fosca, to play it straight and now I can hardly wait to see the show and hear its gorgeous score again. 

BELLEVILLE: Word is that this play about the troubled marriage of a young American couple living in Paris is the best thing that Amy Herzog has written.  Which is saying something because Herzog’s previous works—After the Revolution, 4,000 Miles and even the less successful The Great God Pan—have made her one of the best playwrights to emerge in the last five years. Belleville, which stars the always worth-seeing Maria Dizzia,  is scheduled to open on March 3, at the New York Theatre Workshop, which has been on a recent winning streak. 

THE FLICK. Another playwright whose name on the marquee is reason enough for me to want to see the show is Annie Baker, whose latest wry meditation on quiet desperation is set in a run-down movie theater. The show is being directed by Baker’s frequent collaborator—and the hot director of the moment—Sam Gold. It opens on March 12 at Playwrights Horizons, where they both broke out with the sensational 2009 production of circle, mirror, transformation and I'm hoping that history will repeat itself. 

LUCKY GUY.  This is the most high-profile show of the season. It’s bringing Oscar-winner Tom Hanks to Broadway for the first time. It is the last work by the writer Nora Ephron, who died last summer.  And it’s being directed by the always-inventive George C. Wolfe. As though all of that weren't catnip enough, the play is about the controversial newspaper columnist Mike McAlary, who lead the coverage on the story of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was beaten and sexually assaulted by a group of cops in a Brooklyn precinct back in 1997. It’s scheduled to open for a limited, 10-week run at the Broadhurst Theatre on April 1 and I'm wishing it, well, luck. 

THE NANCE. Everyone knows that Nathan Lane is a comedic genius but over the past few years, he’s also been honing his skills as a dramatic actor.  All of his prodigious talent will be on display in this Douglas Carter Beane play about a closeted burlesque performer whose specialty is playing the campy homosexual characters that were traditionally portrayed by straight actors. The great Jack O’Brien is directing this Lincoln Center Theater production which opens at the Lyceum Theatre on April 15. It has the potential to make us laugh, make us cry and make us cheer. 

THE BIG KNIFE. He’s been dead for 50 years but Clifford Odets is having a big year.  Lincoln Center earned glowing reviews for its revival of his 1937 boxing drama Golden Boy and now the Roundabout Theatre Company is reviving The Big Knife, his 1949 piece about the movie business. It has a killer cast lead by Bobby Cannavale as a movie star with a secret that could destroy his career. It opens at the American Airlines Theatre on April 16.

February 13, 2013

A Sixth Anniversary Message

Tomorrow is going to be a big day for me because it is both Valentine’s Day (for which my beloved husband K and I have special plans) and the sixth anniversary of Broadway & Me, which I can hardly believe.   
So I’m taking time off to celebrate both events. And to celebrate all of you—much appreciated longtime readers and much welcomed newcomers—for sharing this love of theater with me. The romance will continue with a regular post on Saturday.

February 9, 2013

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is a Killer

Audience participation is not my thing.  So you might think that The Mystery of Edwin Drood would not be my kind of show. At least, that’s what I feared. 

For this musical, based on Charles Dickens’ final and unfinished novel, famously calls on each night’s audience to vote on how the story should end. The Roundabout  Theatre Company’s current revival ups the involvement by having cast members roam around before the show starts, chatting up people, pretending to flirt with some and even posing for photos with a few.  

I pretended to be very busy reading my Playbill so that none of them would interact with me. But, once the show got going, I had a pretty good time. Although not as good as most of the critics who have raved about this production, which is now playing at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 through March 10 (click here to read some of those reviews). 

The audience the night my husband K and I saw the show seemed to love it just as much. But the people who looked to be having the best time were those on stage, an A-level  collection of Broadway musical vets including Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton, the fast-up-and-coming Jessie Mueller and the legendary Chita Rivera.

They play a troupe of 19th century music-hall actors (click here to read faux bios the real-life actors have made up for their fictional counterparts) who are performing Dickens’ story about a man named Edwin Drood and his uncle, a choirmaster with an opium habit, who are both in love with the same woman. 

Adding to the intrigue is yet another suitor, a hotheaded newcomer who has just arrived from Ceylon with his perhaps too devoted twin sister. When Drood suddenly disappears, all of them (plus the woman who runs the opium den and the too-good-to-be-true local parson) become suspects for his supposed murder. 

All of this allowed Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book, music and lyrics (and did the orchestrations too) to stuff in as many Victorian-era theatrical conventions as he could think of, including sing-alongs, bawdy music hall jokes and the lead boy tradition of having the young male protagonist played by an actress wearing boy's clothing.
The original 1985 production, directed by my old theater teacher Wilford Leach, starred Betty Buckley as Drood, Howard McGillin as the uncle, George Rose as the troupe’s master of ceremonies and Cleo Laine as the opium den madam. It started out as a summer offering at Central Park's Delacorte Theater but moved to Broadway just three months later, where it won five Tonys, including Best Musical, and ran for 608 performances.  
This is the show’s first Broadway revival and the current cast, nimbly directed by Scott Ellis, has its moments too, reveling in the chance to be as hammy as their 19th century counterparts might have been. 

Norton is superb as the unflappable emcee, who must keep his temperamental stars in line and the show moving along. Chase is having so much fun as the leading villain that he can barely contain himself (click here to read a joint interview with the two actors).  And then there’s the incomparable Rivera, who at 80 can still do a high kick.  
The weak spot for me is Block, who, ever since being replaced by Idina Menzel after the first reading of Wicked, always seems to be waiting in the wings for her big-star moment. Block’s got a great voice but she always comes off to me as the really good replacement who takes over nine months into a long run and she strikes me that way here too.  
But no matter.  The set and costumes are witty, the spirits high and there are some infectiously joyous numbers like the opener “There You Are” and the crowd-pleasing “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead.”  This may not be the best show you'll see this year but it's a shoo-in for the most jolly.

And  so when it came time to vote on the ending, I put aside my usual persnicketiness and participated right along with everyone else.

February 6, 2013

Lukewarm on This "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

Everything I’d read about the latest revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof promised that it was going to be a hot mess. The show’s top-billed star Scarlett Johansson kept hinting about how she wanted to tone down the sexiness of the character Maggie, who is known for her sexiness. In his interviews, her co-star Benjamin Walker, who plays Maggie’s alcoholic and perhaps closeted husband Brick, was saying that “bringing a sexuality and a vitality to the play” would distinguish it from previous productions. Notice any contradictions?

Meanwhile, their director Rob Ashford, better known for staging musicals than classic dramas, was reportedly experimenting with touches like ghost characters and musical numbers (click here to read gossip columnist Michael Riedel’s early account of that). 

So I’ll admit that when my friend Priscilla and I settled into our seats at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where the show is scheduled to play a limited run through March 30, I was prepared to wallow in the schadenfreude of it all. But guess what? The show isn’t as bad as I thought it would be or as bad as some of the critics have made it out to be, judging by the C- it scored on StageGrade, which aggregates the opinions of the city’s top reviewers (click here to read some of them).
This is not to say that the production is all that good either. But even a tepid production of Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play (his second to win the prize) is a reminder of just how great he really was.

Because of the 1958 movie, with an unabashedly sexy Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie and Paul Newman as Brick, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the most familiar plays in the canon.  And Williams’ tale about the secrets and lies of a nouveau riche southern family gathered for what may be the final birthday of its patriarch is one of the most frequently revived. 
This is the sixth Broadway production since the original premiered in 1956. The standouts among them have been Elizabeth Ashley’s legendary turn in 1974, Kathleen Turner’s smoldering one in 1990 and an all-black version five years ago in which James Earl Jones stole the show as the domineering Big Daddy. 
The current production is unlikely to join that list of the memorable ones.  But it’s still an interesting effort. For the actors playing each of the principal family members—Maggie, Brick, Big Daddy and his wife Big Mama—have tried to come up with fresh takes on their now-iconic characters.
The temptation to do that is understandable.  Who wants to play—or see—the same old thing that has been done a zillion times? But there are some limitations.  First, any new interpretation must be rooted in the text. And second, it helps if the director coordinates the individual explorations that the cast members are making. Alas, there were lapses on both fronts in this production.

Having won a Tony three years ago for her supporting role as the niece in A View From the Bridge, Johansson was eager for a bigger challenge (click here to see an interview with her). Indeed, her sultry voice, curvaceous body and feisty personality make Johansson a natural for Maggie, who grew up in genteel poverty and will do whatever it takes to hold on to her place in the rich family she’s married into.  

But in her effort to be a different kind of Maggie, Johansson mutes the character to the point that Maggie’s impassioned desperation comes across as petty whining. Similarly, Walker, tall, lean and almost girlishly pretty, would seem to be an ideal Brick (click here to read about him).  But the role is mainly subtext and Walker just stays on the surface so that his Brick seems little more than a sullen rich boy who likes to drink. 
The stage vet Debra Monk completely reimagines Big Mama, who is usually played as an aging airhead totally cowed by her husband. But Monk’s Big Mama is so ballsy that it’s not hard to imagine her taking over the running of the family plantation and doing a decent job of it (click here to read an interview with her). It’s an interesting spin on the character but I’m not sure it was what Williams intended.
I had worried most about Ciarán Hinds, not so much because the actor is less physically imposing than previous Big Daddys have been or because he is Irish but because I had seen him in “Political Animals,” the TV series in which he played a Bill Clinton-like ex-president to Sigourney Weaver’s Hillary Clinton-like Secretary of State and Hinds’ accent and mannerisms were so over the top that I stopped watching midway through the pilot.  
But Hinds has toned down the cornpone for his rendition of Big Daddy.  He isn’t as crude or menacing as some of his predecessors have been in the role but Hinds is so honest in the man-to-man talk between father and son that it is not only the centerpiece of the second act but the best part of the entire evening (click here for a Q&A with him).  
It isn’t, however, enough to overcome the baffling things that Ashford has done to make the play his own. Both the onstage ghost and the interporlated songs had been cut by the time I saw the show.  But just as egregious was the decision to keep sound effects so intrusive that they often drowned out important lines in the dialog.  And don’t get me started on the “happy darkies” motif he's woven throughout the show.  
Even set designer Christopher Oram has been allowed to improvise—again to the detriment of the text.  The play has Maggie saying “walls have ears.” But there are few walls in sight. If there were as much transparency as all this set’s windows and gauzy material would suggest, lots of secrets would have been outed long ago. 
And yet, the pathos in Williams’ script still manages to claw its way out.  Some regular theatergoers gripe that Broadway gets too many revivals of plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But not me.  

I know that these old shows may be driving out some new shows (click here to see NYTimes theater reporter Patrick Healy's smart piece on this phenomenon) but I’m still envious of the opera lovers who get to see what different performers bring to their noblest warhorses season after season.  And so I’m already itching to see another production of this play—but I'm also hoping that one will bring more heat.

February 2, 2013

"Fiorello" Makes an Unsuccessful Return

Sometimes you really can’t go home again. Encores!, the great concert series that celebrates the American musical, decided to celebrate its 20th season by going back to  Fiorello!, the first show it presented when the series started in 1994. It sounded like a good idea. 

The original 1959 Broadway production won three Tonys, tying with The Sound of Music for Best Musical (they both beat out Gypsy)  won the Pulitzer Prize and ran for 795 performances, an impressive showing in those days

 The original Encores! production featured an all-star cast that included Jerry Zaks, Faith Prince, Gregg Edelman, Liz Callaway, Philip Bosco and Donna McKechnie. It put the series on the map and in the heart of every musical theater lover. This new revival of a revival has some stars (Kate Baldwin, Shuler Hensley, Emily Skinner) but it left this theater lover cold.

Fiorello! charts the rise of Fiorello LaGuardia, the famed New York City mayor now best know for having both the airport and the city’s performing arts high school named after him. But, although barely 5 feet tall, LaGuardia was a giant political figure in his day and an irrepressibly charismatic guy.

The son of an Italian-Catholic father and a Jewish mother, he had crossover appeal in New York’s immigrant communities and was elected to Congress multiple times and to City Hall for three terms. A progressive Republican, he took on the corrupt Tammany Hall and unabashedly supported FDR’s New Deal. He became a beloved folk hero by reading the comics on the radio when the city’s newspapers went on strike. 

In short, LaGuardia's colorful life gave composer and lyricist Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick plenty of material to work with. And the book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, who directed the original production of Fiorello!, gave the show romantic appeal by weaving in the love stories of LaGuardia’s two marriages (click here to read a terrific piece about the making of the show). 
The roly-poly Tom Bosley, later known as the dad on TV’s Happy Days,” originated the role and, by all reports, was sensational. Although Zaks was probably a foot taller than LaGuardia and had already directed three hit productions (The House of Blue Leaves and the Lincoln Center revivals of The Front Page and Anything Goes) Encores! tapped him to play the part and he was, by all reports, sensational.  
Alas, Danny Rutigliano, a journeyman actor who has been given the title role in the current revival, is, at best, just run-of-the-mill

Short and round, Rutigliano bares a physical resemblance to LaGuardia and he works hard but he simply doesn’t have La Guardia’s star power. When Rutigliano finished the song “The Name’s LaGuardia,” at the performance my husband K and I attended, he sounded neither triumphant nor determined, but just relieved to have gotten through it.
Of course the Encores! productions have notoriously short rehearsal periods. In the early days, the cast carried, and used, scripts.  But the productions have become more elaborate over the years—adding fully choreographed numbers and costumes instead of the dark suits and cocktail dresses that the early participants wore. 

And, as any regular Encores! goer knows, the actors now make it a point to be off book and to put a little zing into their performances. Baldwin even hired a dialect coach to help with her character's Italian accent (click here to read an interview with her).  

Baldwin plays LaGuardia’s first wife, who died from tuberculosis two years after they married. She gets to sing the big second act ballad “When Did I Fall in Love.” And she sings the hell out of it. But, even putting aside her still shaky accent, the rest of Baldwin’s performance is pretty one note. 
There are a couple of performances that do have some zing. Adam Heller is amusingly wry as LaGuardia’s beleaguered campaign manager and Shuler Hensley seems to be having a fine time as the blustery political boss who is LaGuardia's closet ally. Hensley leads the male members of the ensemble in “Little Tin Box,” a jaunty song about political corruption that is one of this production’s few genuinely winning numbers.
But I suspect that what they did, they did on their own.  Because director Gary Griffin seems to have been totally at sea on this one, staging each scene as though it had nothing to do with the ones that came before or after it. 
I’m assuming that Griffin also signed off on costume consultant Jess Goldstein’s bewildering decision to dress the cast in turn of the 20th century garb for the first act and in contemporary dress for the second, which takes place just a few years later.  
“How many years were supposed to have gone by,” K asked as we tried to makes sense of what we’d seen over dinner at Milos, the Greek seafood restaurant a few doors down from New York City Center, where  the production will play through Sunday.
I wish Encores! had pulled out all the stops for this supposedly celebratory production. It should have gotten down on its knees and begged Nathan Lane to play LaGuardia and Donna Murphy and Kristin Chenoweth to play his wives (and I don’t care if they aren’t exactly age appropriate).
It should have implored Zaks to come back and direct the production and it should have thrown itself on the mercy of the very busy William Ivey Long (who in addition to his duties as chairman of the American Theatre Wing, has designed the costumes for the current productions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella) and gotten him to do the costumes for the show.
After all, when you’re hosting a celebratory reunion, it’s time to break the bank, bring out the good china the expensive crrystal and put on the kind of show that people will remember for at least another 20 years. Otherwise, why do it?