December 31, 2016

Happy New Year from Me to Each of You

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

December 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 24, 2016

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

And may your day be merry and bright, sparkling in whatever way you choose.

December 21, 2016

"The Babylon Line" Doesn't Go Anywhere

Earlier this year, the playwright Richard Greenberg released a collection of odd little pieces that weren't entirely fiction but not quite memoir either. Instead they unspool like the unanchored ramblings of the guy everyone tries to avoid at the office holiday party. And, alas, The Babylon Line, the new Greenberg play running at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse through Jan. 22, comes off pretty much the same way.

It's framed as the memory of a now-elderly man named Aaron Port who looks back at a time in the late '60s when, needing money, he took the eponymous train line from Manhattan to Long Island to teach a writing class for an adult education program in the Ur-suburb of Levittown.

His students are a group of bored housewives and a couple of emotionally damaged men, most of whom wanted to take some other course but settled for this one when they couldn't get their first choice. But among them is the neighborhood oddball Joan Dellamond, who enthralls the married Aaron with her natural writing talent and earthy sexiness.  

It's a promising enough premise, and it seems ideal for Greenberg who has chronicled midcentury middle-class angst in such plays as The American Plan and The Assembled Parties. But the playwright seems flummoxed by what to do with the Babylon plot once he's set it up.

Instead of dramatizing the story, he lets Aaron narrate its developments in direct address to the audience. Then, the actors, under Terry Kinney's flat direction, perform short scenes that illustrate some of the revelations, read excerpts from their writing assignments and deliver a few decent jokes.

The cast, particularly the supporting players who include such heavyweights as Frank Wood, Randy Graff and Julie Halston, is first-rate. But the characters they're given to play are just thin stereotypes: the angry war vet, the bossy Jewish matron and her ditzy and mousy sidekicks.

The relationship between Aaron and Joan is pretty flat too, although it's hard to fault Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser who do the best with what little they've been given.

The pieces Aaron's students write get better as the course—and the show, which runs 2 hours and 20 minutes—progresses but there's still more telling than showing. And ultimately the individual stories, like the play they're in, go nowhere.

December 18, 2016

"In Transit" Stalls Due to Stereotypes

It took me awhile to get the double meaning of the title In Transit, the a cappella musical that opened last Sunday at Circle in the Square. The show is set primarily in the subway so I got that transit reference right away. But it also focuses on a supposedly random group of people (although we later discover that they're connected in ways that I suppose I shouldn't spoil) and their lives are in flux, or in transit. Alas, neither meaning worked for me.

For starters, who wants to see a story set in the subway?  Most of us New Yorkers consider the subway a necessary evil and want to spend as little time there as we can. And tourists are unlikely to get jokes that reference things like Dr. Zizmor, the now-retired dermatologist whose ads were a regular fixture in subway cars.

The people populating the show's cars aren't likely to draw ticket buyers either. By coincidence I saw In Transit on the same day I'd listened to an oral history about the making of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on the Broadway Backstory podcast (which by the way if you aren't listening to, you should be listening to; click here to check it out).

The characters in Spelling Bee are a motley crew too but each has a distinctive personality and set of problems. Plus they all share the common goal of wanting to win the bee, which binds them together and gives the audience a rooting interest in them.

By contrast, the main characters in In Transit are just a bunch of people who all take the subway. But they could just as easily have bumped into one another at a Starbucks.

Primarily white and entirely young and middle class, they include an actress juggling auditions and a day job as an office temp, a laid-off junior exec who can only find work at Staples, a woman trying to get over being ditched by the guy she moved to New York to be with and a gay couple planning to get married although one still isn't out to his mother.

None of them—or anyone else in the show—rises beyond the level of stereotype. When the gay couple goes to Texas to reveal their marriage plans to the closeted one's family, I knew right away what his mother was going to say and what his fire-and-brimstone minister was going to say and they both said exactly those things.

Meanwhile, back in New York, a black subway musician (played at the performance my friend Jessie and I saw by beat-box master Chesney Snow, who alternates the role with Steven "HeaveN" Cantor) provides the rhythmic beats for the instrument-free numbers and fills the role of the Magical Negro who seems to exist only to dispense wise advice—and even free train fares—to the confused yuppies.

The book, music and lyrics for In Transit were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, four friends who sang a cappella together and began developing the show 15 years ago, long before Anderson-Lopez broke out with the song "Let It Go," which she and her husband, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon composer Robert Lopez, wrote for the movie "Frozen" (click here to read more about her).

In Transit's songs are fine and a few are even better than that, although I found myself wishing that a couple of them had been accompanied by instruments instead of the vocal harmonizing arranged by Deke Sharon, who did the same for the "Pitch Perfect" movies (click here to read moreabout him).

But what In Transit really needed was an experienced book writer or at least a strong dramaturge who might have helped craft a compelling narrative. Director Kathleen Marshall does what she can by keeping the show moving. Donyale Werle's set centers around a treadmill that serves as the train tracks and a conveyor belt for the bits of furniture that move in and out to signal scene changes.

And the top-notch cast, lead by Margot Seibert, James Snyder, Justin Guarini, Telly Leung and Erin Mackey, races on and off and jumps into and out of costumes (kudos to Clint Ramos for one spectacular dress, worn with just the right swag by Moya Angela) as they play the main characters as well as supporting roles, all the while harmonizing.

They're all ingratiating and in terrific voice. If only they'd been given something to sing about.

December 14, 2016

"Sweet Charity" Adds Bitter to Its Sweet

The pop culture magazine Entertainment Weekly made Sutton Foster's TV show "Younger" its top pick of the week and even though I've not seen the show, I'm not surprised. Foster is a joy box of talent and never more so than in The New Group's revival of Sweet Charity which is running in Signature Theater's Romulus Linney Courtyard space through Jan. 8.

Sweet Charity is based on Federico Fellini's film "Nights of Cabiria," which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1957. Bob Fosse, with the help of Neil Simon (who wrote the book) and Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields (who did the score,) turned the film into a vehicle for Fosse's then-wife Gwen Verdon, changing Fellini's tale about a downtrodden Italian prostitute name Cabiria into a musical about a Times Square taxi dancer optimistically named Charity Hope Valentine.

That original 1966 production was nominated for eight Tonys (losing out to Man of La Mancha for the top prize but picking up the choreography award for Fosse). It went on to play 608 performances, was turned into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine and has been revived twice on Broadway.

Like the movie, the musical opens with Charity being pushed into a lake by a caddish boyfriend who then steals her purse and sets back her dream that she'll be able to leave the dance hall business and settle down into the ordinary life of being a wife and mother.

Charity's quest for a better life takes her into the home of a famous film star, a hippie church and eventually into a chance encounter with a sad-sack named Oscar who just might be her Mr. Right. 

Throughout are marvelous Coleman-Fields songs such as "Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "Rich Man's Frug," which are played in this production by a six-member all-female band and, as always, offer plenty of opportunities for show-stopping dance numbers.

So any production of Sweet Charity needs a leading lady who can sing, dance, perform physical comedy and do it all while projecting a believable vulnerability. Foster, now 41 and with two Tonys behind her, delivers on all accounts.

My theatergoing buddy Bill, who saw the original, said he missed Verdon's unique gamine-like quality. But Foster's trademark pluckiness and impressive stamina (she's on almost every minute of the show's two hours and 20 minute running time, spending much of that time hoofing Joshua Bergasse's Fosse-inspired dance routines) seemed just right to me and deserving of all the praise she's been getting (click here to read an interview with her).

The rest of the show impressed me less. With the notable exception of Shuler Hensley whose work as the schlubby Oscar is as rich and poignant as Foster's. The scenes between them rank high among this theater season's true delights.

But perhaps in an effort to return the show to its Fellini roots, director Leigh Silverman has tried to darken Sweet Charity. The dance hall gals are grubbier than they usually are. The plaintive ballad "Where Am I Going" has been moved from the middle of the second act to the end in this production.

But the darkening is hard to do when you've got a script laced with Neil Simon one-liners and the innate razzle dazzle that Fosse embedded in all his work. It's also harder these days to be entertained by watching a woman get dumped on over and over again.

Silverman has also streamlined Fosse's original 30-member cast to an ensemble of 12, which puts an extra strain on the performers. The young actor Joel Perez, the father's boyfriend in Fun Home, takes on four key roles that were played by four different actors in the original. And as fine an actor and singer as Perez is, he's understandably better at some than at others.

The director and her creative team have also had to find a way to stage the show in the Linney's small playing space. Silverman does that by having the audience surround the stage on three sides, which creates an intimate experience (most of us are unlikely to see Foster this close up again unless invited to a dinner party at her house) but it also allows audience members to see how hard the performers are working.

There's been talk of moving the production to Broadway and the producer Kevin McCollum was there the night Bill and I saw the show. I'm certainly not going to presume to tell McCollum, whose credits range from Avenue Q to Something Rotten, what to do but if he does move Sweet Charity, I hope he finds a way to make the production as delicious as its star.

December 10, 2016

Why "A Bronx Tale" Deserves More Respect

Some shows just aren't made for critics, theater snobs and other members of the theatergoing aristocracy who are always on the prowl for something cutting edge. A Bronx Tale, which opened at the Longacre Theatre last week, is one of those shows. It's a well-crafted traditional musical with an easy-listening score, peppy dance numbers, entertaining performances and an accessible plot with a comfortable can-we-all-get-along message.

Yet the show isn't getting much respect. And the nods it is getting kind of damn it with faint praise. The New York Times' Charles Isherwood, one of the more welcoming of the major critics, opened his review by likening it to "plain old pasta with red sauce."

On the other hand, the show is getting lots of audience love. It's been playing to 90% capacity since previews began a month ago, with its average ticket price hovering around $100.

The aristocrats sniff that the people coming out to see A Bronx Tale are the bridge-and-tunnel crowd that made Jersey Boys, which is scheduled to play its final performance on Jan. 15, a 12-year hit. Or they blame the tourist ticket buyers who might have seen the 1993 movie, which was directed by and starred Robert De Niro. But you can also count me, a native New Yorker, among the show's fans. A Bronx Tale isn't the most innovative show I've ever seen but it offers a good time.

Its story about a kid growing up during the '50s and '60s in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, where his loyalties are torn between his father, a bus driver; and Sonny, the local mob boss, is familiar because this is a tale that's been told several times.

Chazz Palminteri, who wrote the book for the show, began performing a semi-autobiographical version as a one-man show in Los Angeles in the late '80s, brought that to off-Broadway in 1989, played the role of Sonny in the film four years later and then did another solo version on Broadway in 2007 and took it out on a national tour (click here to read the complete history).

The new musical version hits every plot point, including the kid's teen romance with a black girl, which carries echoes of West Side Story. Everything else is in place too. the show's score by Alan Menken evokes the doo-wop of the 1950s and the R&B of the early '60s. Glenn Slater's lyrics aren't as clever as they're pretending to be but they get the job done. And Sergio Trujillo's dances make all the right moves (click here to read an interview with him).

The directing duties have been split between the very different sensibilities of De Niro and stage vet Jerry Zaks but the double-teaming has somehow worked and they've managed to land everyone in their 30-member cast on the same page. 

The sweet-faced Bobby Conte Thornton (click here for a Q&A with him) is enormously appealing as the conflicted protagonist, whose given name is, like Palminteri's, Calogero but who goes by the nickname C. And Ariana DeBose sings the hell out of the songs she's been given as C's love interest Jane.

But there's no doubt that the show's MVP is Nick Cordero who plays the charismatic mobster Sonny. Cordero won a Tony nomination for playing a similar role in Bullets Over Broadway and the finely honed swagger he displays here makes it easy to understand why C is so enthralled by him.

The show attempts to offer some substance and complexity by having C's good-guy dad oppose his interracial relationship with Jane, while Sonny, a certified bad guy who kills a man before the opening number is finished, supports it.  But Isherwood is basically right. A Bronx Tale is comfort food. And that may be why I liked it. 

Those with more refined palates might argue that such a show, no matter how competently done, is taking up space that could go to a work that advances the art form.  But what if you're not in the mood for the umami of a form-advancing show but just want a well made one?  Cause, to be honest, given the past few weeks, comfort is just what I've been hungry for. 

December 7, 2016

An Intermission

I've fallen into another hole and so can't post today but I'm hoping to have climbed out by the weekend and to see you then.

December 3, 2016

"This Day Forward" Lacks Momentum

The playwright Nicky Silver sat in a seat in the back of the audience the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Silver's new play This Day Forward, which is running at the Vineyard Theatre through Dec. 18. But the seat was empty by the start of the second act.

Later over dinner at the venerable Pete's Tavern, which opened in 1864 and prides itself on being the oldest bar in the city, Bill and I speculated about why Silver might have left. It could have been because his show, ostensibly a comedy, drew so few laughs during the first act. Or it might have been that he didn't want to relive the pain of the more dramatic second act.

Silver is known for acerbic family satires that feature unhappily married couples, overbearing and unloving mothers and gay men emotionally damaged by neglectful parents. They all show up in This Day Forward, which opens in a swanky hotel room in 1958. Martin and Irene, a newly married couple still wearing their wedding clothes, are preparing to spend their first night together as man and wife.

Martin interprets Irene's jitters as nervousness about losing her virginity. But she soon confides that the real problem is that she doesn't love him, even though he's handsome, rich and besotted with her. Instead, she's fallen for someone else and called that guy to come and get her.

Hilarity should ensue, especially since Joe Tippett, a master at playing loveable lunks, has been cast as the other man. But everyone else seems, under Mark Brokaw's unsubtle direction, to be trying too hard, almost turning to seek the audience's approval after each funny bit.

There were still a few smiles to be had but that kind of desperation can make even the most supportive theatergoer feel uneasy. More than a few people left at intermission, which meant they missed the more interesting second act.

Nearly five decades have passed when the curtain rises on the sleek apartment of Irene's now-grown son Noah, a stage director looking to get into TV and living with his younger boyfriend, a wannabe actor. Their life is also upset by an unexpected visitor: this time it's Noah's older sister who's insisting that it's his turn to care for their mother, whose Alzheimer's has made her even more abusive to her children than she was during their difficult childhoods with her.

The rest of the act is devoted to Noah's struggle (and the playwright's) to come to terms with his feelings toward his mother. There's nothing wrong with a playwright using his plays to work through his personal problems (if there were, there might be no Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams) but here I felt as though I was getting the unedited notes from one of Silver's therapy sessions.

Noah's efforts do allow Silver to display more empathy toward his parents than he has in his previous works from his 1989 first produced play Fat Men in Skirts, where the character actually rapes his mother, to his 2012 Broadway debut The Lyons (click here to read my review of that one).

But, alas, he's still news at the empathy game, which makes for an awkward time for the audience.  So I wish him well as he tries to resolve his issues with his mother cause it would be nice for him—and for us—to move on.