Category Archives: Broadway

Indecent

Theater aficionados have long considered Paula Vogel a treasure.  Her plays — including Pulitzer Prize winner How I Learned To Drive — are generally unnerving and always thought-provoking.  Her work has given voice to the typically powerless: those who have been oppressed and abused.  Her teaching at Brown and Yale has nurtured another generation of powerful female voices, including Sarah Ruhl and the most recent Pulitzer winner, Lynn Nottage (for Sweat.)  With this impressive biography it is hard to believe that Indecent marks Ms. Vogel’s Broadway debut.  Fortunately it is an impressive one, with a story made more poignant by recent cultural shifts.

The events depicted stem from the development of another play: Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance.  As newly inserted and much needed program notes explain, Ms. Vogel first read Asch’s piece as a graduate student.  The tender and natural love scene between two women moved the budding gay rights activist to her core.  Nearly thirty years later, director Rebecca Taichman stumbled across God of Vengeance and, as a descendant of a Yiddish poet, longed to understand why it had eventually been renounced by its creator.  She reached out to Vogel and the two eventually had the opportunity to collaborate on Indecent, exploring the entire lifecycle of the groundbreaking and controversial piece.

It took 7 years and 40 drafts for Indecent to finally land on Broadway.  The results are as significant and disquieting as Asch’s was in its time.   Here is a play that takes place at a time when immigrants remade the City of New York landing just when immigrant populations are being targeted by a fresh wave of intolerance and xenophobia.  Director Taichman said in an interview with The New Yorker, “My heart is broken at how much more relevant this play is today than when it opened at Yale, a mere year and a half ago.”

Indecent

Production photo by Carol Rosegg

It is fitting that Vogel and Taichman share “created by” credit.  Vogel’s words and Taichman’s vision are so deeply entwined it is impossible to imagine how one would work without the other.  We are taken on a 50 year journey that starts in Asch’s bedroom with a reading and ends with his retirement from theater.  The actors play multiple roles much as they would have in a touring troupe of that period.  Beautifully crafted exchanges are interspersed with lilting traditional Jewish music composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva.  Dialogue beats are enhanced with projections in Yiddish, German and English designed by Tal Yarden.

The cast works so seamlessly together that it is difficult to call anyone out.  Richard Topol has been nominated for his featured role as Lemml, the stage manager who often serves as our narrator.  Katrina Lenk has also received nods, perhaps because she plays the graceful “older women” in the play within.  However she, along with Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson are named simply “Actor” in the Playbill.  Truly grace and strength course through every performance.  Most of the ensemble transferred to The Cort Theater from a run Off-Broadway.  Perhaps that explains why they seem so comfortable portraying a long-term well-respected road company.

This wrenching and precious play is currently set to run through September 10 at The Cort Theater.  If you value theater that will change you, visit http://indecentbroadway.com for tickets and information.

The Play That Goes Wrong

If celebrated farce Noises Off struck you as too controlled, then The Play that Goes Wrong will knock your socks off, most likely while doing a pratfall.  A more apt title would be The Play That Starts Wrong and Goes Even More Wrong from There.  The entire two hours is loopy silliness, which is either cathartic or annoying depending on your taste.

Even before the curtain rises, we are immersed in the whacky world of The Cornley University Drama Society, a ragtag company of well-meaning amateurs.  Outside the Lyceum, posters of celebrities boast that they haven’t attended or did so to their great regret.  Inside, the cast wanders throughout the theater making small talk, many encouraging audience members to leave and go elsewhere in order to attend a better show.  This practice sets expectations for the messiness that is to come.

As gracelessly explained at the opening by director/designer/customer/prop maker/ box office manager/ etc, etc, Chris Bean, The Murder at Haversham Manor — the play within the play —  was chosen primarily for the number of parts it provides for his tiny organization.  So it is no surprise that the drama they present is a painfully bad jumble of stock characters, tired plot, and melodramatic lines, all the better to fall apart at the hands of the hapless players.  Whether they are reading keywords from their palms or substituting a flower vase for a misplaced notebook, the entire team is well versed in physical comedy.  It also helps set the tone that they come across as likable and well-intentioned.  This is unsurprising since the actors have worked together on multiple “…Goes Wrong” productions from Mischief Theater.

As the multipurpose Mr. Bean, Henry Shields sets the giddy pace.  While he doesn’t wear as many hats as his fictional counterpart, Shields did also write the play with his co-stars Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer, for which they won the 2015 Olivier Award.  He is wonderfully supported by Dave Hearn as the self-conscious Max who somehow landed two parts.  Broad broads Charlie Russell  as Sandra and Nancy Zamit as Annie battle it out to play the female lead role of Florence Colleymoore in full view of their horrified fellow actors.  In the smaller but crucial role of Trevor the Duran Duran-loving sound engineer, Rob Falconer never loses his focus except of course when he’s suppose to.  It is amusing to note that he also provided the original music.

The Play That Goes WrongAn equally important character is the set by Nigel Hook.  Every piece has impeccable timing.  Not since Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce have I seen furniture collapse so slowly and perfectly.  (I will not give away any of its more clever secrets.)  The purposeful fiasco is deftly staged by director Mark Bell.  His training at Ecole Internationale de Theatre and experience teaching at LAMDA likely influence the more overt style of this buffoonery.

If you enjoy seeing one joke played to the millionth degree by an experienced good-natured troupe, pop on over to the Lyceum Theater for The Play that Goes Wrong.  Tickets are available http://www.broadwaygoeswrong.com through the end of the year.

A Doll’s House Part 2

DollsHouse2MetcalfNora Helmer’s exit from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was the door slam heard around the world.  Since 1879, scholars, sociologists, and others have speculated about her fate.  Now playwright Lucas Hnath attempts to reveal what came next in A Doll’s House, Part 2, using modern language and the commanding Laurie Metcalf to deliver a post-feminist message about marriage, freedom and self-knowledge.

While it is certainly a bold move to take on an iconic illustration of the role of women in a male-dominated society, Mr. Hnath’s vision isn’t quite worth the wait.  To his credit, he recreates some of Ibsen’s original patterns, giving middle-aged Nora a number of unpleasant options from which to choose her next steps.  He also does not shy away from examining the questions of criminality and betrayal raised in the original classic.  Having set up his typically provocative framework, however, Hnath wraps it up in a mixture of flippant retorts, tedious arguing, and lectures that are only mildly engaging.  The laughs are largely of the cheap variety, stemming from mugging and the dropping of “shocking” f-bombs.  The plot becomes so buried under bluster that my companion — a wise and wonderful theater vet — missed the final point completely.  This made me wonder what experienced producer Scott Rudin saw on the page that made him invest in this production based solely on the script.  Perhaps the rush to Broadway was a misstep.  On the plus side, being intimately familiar with “Part 1,” while certainly adding to one’s understanding, is not essential.

Hnath is helped along his misguided route by the usually excellent Sam Gold.  Gold has chosen to stage many of the longer speeches as if they are TED talks, with the actors facing the audience instead of their scene partner.  This results in significant revelations being delivered butt first, which is as disengaging as it is contrived.  Whatever flow remains is halted by the intrusion of green neon signs projected on the walls announcing the central character for the next beat. How strong is the exchange of wits in dialogue if you need to be told which viewpoint to follow?  Set off by Miriam Buether’s clean scenic design, David Zinn’s costumes and Luc Vershueren’s hair and makeup are divine.  Nora convey’s almost as much with her outfit as she does in her opening lines.

Despite what appears to be disappointing early ticket sales (there were tumbleweeds blowing through the mezzanine at the preview I attended), Ms. Metcalf is still being discussed as a possible Tony nominee.  She is indeed an excellent Nora-by-way-of-Hnath, with splendid delivery and body language that combines triumph and frustration.  Recent Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell takes on the lighter role of nanny/housekeeper Anne Marie in classic comedic style.  Chris Cooper, returning to Broadway after a 40 year absence, gives us a rather dry and somewhat disappointing Torvald.  (Although one could argue that’s exactly the Torvald we should expect.)  Rounding out the cast is Condola Rashad as the talking-slightly-too-fast Emmy, Nora’s daughter.

With it’s stark set, talky script and short runtime, this production is a modest one by Broadway standards.  It may be difficult to command the $147 asking price for premium seating.  But if you can grab a discounted seat and wade through the tidal wave of words, it is worth seeing the brilliant Metcalf  poke gently through a modern lens at a once scandalous character.  Tickets for the limited engagement ending July 23, 2017 are available at http://dollshousepart2.com.

Come From Away

[4]_Jenn Colella and the cast of COME FROM AWAYWhen the air space above New York closed on 9/11, nearly 7000 passengers were diverted to Newfoundland off the coast of eastern Canada.  That airport had retained several large runways dating from a time when flights between the United States and Europe had to stop and refuel.  Suddenly inhabitants of this 43,000 square foot island had to prepare to double their population for an unknown duration.

A new musical, Come From Away, follows some of their stories, as weary and frightened travelers engage with small town residents.  There aren’t many unexpected plot twists here.  But following their emotional detour is a generally delightful experience.  Frankly in our current often divisive climate, it feels good to be reminded that even at the darkest moments strangers can find many ways to come together.  Perhaps with this in mind, the production has added a page to their website where audience members can dig deeper into the history that inspired such an unlikely Broadway offering.  (I recommend at the very least pulling up the photo of the air strip with 38 jumbo jets parked nose to tail.)

This is very much an ensemble piece.  Each actor portrays multiple characters, usually switching roles with the addition of a hat or jacket and a change of accent.  (Special acknowledgement goes to dialect coach Joel Goldes for helping the actors capture the special Newfoundlander cadence and to costume designer Toni-Leslie James for supplying the perfect wardrobe pieces.)  The entire cast is strong and it is to their credit that within a short period we feel for each and every one.  Past Obie winner Joel Hatch represents two mayors who pitch in with different styles and equal verve.  Jenn Colella takes on a pioneering airline pilot and an oft-smitten assistant principal with the same amount of compassion and insight.  It falls to Q. Smith as Hannah to carry the weight of the desperate mother who doesn’t know the whereabouts of her firefighter son.  One by one the voices of many cultures are heard.

Christopher Ashley’s staging is remarkably clever, using mostly lights and a few chairs to convey many locations from inside a plane to inside a schoolhouse.  Lovers of big musical numbers may be disappointed, however.  The work by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is more of the storytelling-set-to-tunes variety.  Dance Captain Josh Breckenridge has provided some movement, but nothing that could be called a dance number.   Lyrics do their job in moving the plot forward, but aren’t particularly clever or catchy.  Songs are nicely executed and have wonderful echoes of the Irish ancestry shared by the majority of Newfoundlanders, but there isn’t a great deal of variation.  In fact, it wasn’t until the post-bow jam session that I was able to fully appreciate the band’s talent.

Judging from the prolonged standing ovation, I’m not the only one who thinks Come From Away is a welcome addition to lineup for this season.  The show is recommended for ages 10 and over and for a change I can say that entire age range will be engaged by what they see and hear.  Running time is a compelling 100 minutes.  Tickets for the run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater are available for the remainder of 2017 at http://comefromaway.com.

Waitress

Waitress MUSICALORIGINAL BROOKS ATKINSON THEATRE 256 W. 47TH ST.The sweet story of a sorrowful originator, the soaring melodies of Sara Bareilles, and the soulful voice of Jessie Mueller blend like butter, sugar, and flour. Together they produce a tasty joy-inducing creation that was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2016. Regular readers of this column know I am not the world’s biggest fan of modern day musicals, but I honestly can’t wait to see Waitress again. And I’m not just saying that because the entire theater smells like pie.

The movie on which it is based is among my favorites.  It may not possess a philosophical depth worthy of extensive examination, but at its core is some spirited girl-power.  I was therefore quite trepidatious when I heard it was coming to Broadway at all much less in musical form. But Bareilles’s music and lyrics along with the book by Jessie Nelson have preserved all of Adrienne Shelly’s original laughs, aches and gentle twists and added an extra layer of celebration in song that — puns aside — hits all the right notes. The numbers are so genuinely stirring, it’s fitting that the cast hosts regular karaoke nights for audience members who want to take a turn singing one.  (Remembering my mishap while attempting to replicate Baby’s leap at the end of Dirty Dancing, I refrained.)

In the lead role of Jenna, the unhappy pregnant waitress who escapes into her pie recipes, is Mueller, still with a touch of Carole King in her phrasing.  Despite her radiance, the rest of the company is so terrific that she’s in constant danger of being upstaged.  Her inappropriate love interest is portrayed with endearing charm by Drew Gehling.  The perky Caitlin Houlahan and booming Charity Ang´el Dawson play her two co-workers Dawn and Becky like perfect bookends.  Each has a solo that threatens to bring down the house.  But it is Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle winner Christopher Fitzgerald as Dawn’s besotted beau Ogie that elicits the loudest round of cheers for his eccentric rhymes and original dance moves.

The team is in the mighty hands of director Diane Paulus, who also steered the Tony winning revival of Pippin.  Using Scott Pask’s welcoming diner setting as an anchor, she moves her cast fluidly through their small southern town, adding wonderful touches of physical comedy to each performance.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Jonathan Deans’ sound keep the audience focused.  (At least that’s why I think I missed seeing an entire band on stage for the first 15 minutes.)  Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes are appropriately whimsical.

The inclusion of decidedly PG-13 material causes the show to be a little awkward for some families, but the blend of playfulness indulged and lessons learned makes Waitress a generally appealing choice in these overwhelming times.  Tickets for the open-ended run are available at http://www.brooksatkinsontheater.com.

The Present

(Note: This review is based on the December 24, 2016 preview performance.)

The PresentThe supremely talented Cate Blanchett has come to Broadway.  Unlike many film celebrities who flounder on stage, Ms. Blanchett is the former co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, where she also made her theater debut nearly 25 years ago.  The same incredible nuance she brings to her on-screen characters is alive and in proper proportion in her role as Anna in The Present, a modern reinterpretation of an unpublished play by Anton Chekhov.  I would recommend this show simply for the opportunity to bathe in her deeply considered and exceptional work.

Furthermore, there are additional elements to be enjoyed here.  Just as her character has invited friends to celebrate her birthday, Ms. Blanchett and playwright/husband Andrew Upton called upon close associates to share in this production.  Richard Roxburgh — who is technically the star as the pivotal Mikhail— has played opposite her many times including in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Seagull.  When I say he makes a terrific libertine, it’s meant to be a compliment.  The cast is rounded out by other actors who have collaborated frequently at STC and elsewhere.  There is an easy flow among them that only intensity over time can produce.  The range of feelings comes across as genuine even when the words sound less so.  Of particular note is Chris Ryan who gives the fragile and naive Sergei remarkable depth in his few scenes.

If you‘ve ever slogged through a so-called lost work, you can imagine that the finding of the play itself is a mixed blessing.  The original piece is a 300 page rambling tale which was locked away in Chekhov’s desk where it was unearthed after his death.   Upton is certainly skilled at updating classics, giving them new life for a modern audience.  This is a more challenging task when the piece in question has been deliberately set aside by its creator after being rejected by its intended leading lady.  Particularly adroit at restyling pre-revolutionary Russian drama, Upton has previously adapted Uncle Vanya plus two Gorkys and a Bulgakov.  For this unnamed tome, Upton chose to move the period to the more accessible 1990s and age the characters to add believable complexity to their emotional lives.  (I recommend reading his author’s note provided in the program to help you jump into the world and understand the relationships he has sculpted out of Chekhov’s rock.)

The first act of The Present is nearly two hours long, yet it moves steadily on waves of insightful conversation and palpable emotion.  It is surprisingly the far shorter second act that gets bogged down when the vodka-soaked characters more consistently speechify and the plot turns frustratingly soapy.  Director John Crowley has added a naturalness – if also an aural challenge – to the action by having his talent move about without any conventional awareness of the placement of the audience.  Alice Babidge provides a clean canvas for the colorful characters with stark scenic and costume design.  Only sad balloons and tacky streamers are employed to communicate the less-than-festive air surrounding Anna’s birthday bash.  Stefan Gregory’s edgy music and sound design add several strong jump-out-of-your seats moments.

If you relish the opportunity to see deeply connected old friends *play* deeply connected old friends, make time to catch this somewhat uneven endeavor.  Limited engagement ends March 19, 2017.  For tickets and information visit http://thepresentbroadway.com.  Shorties like me should note that the mezzanine of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre has those high hand rails attached to each aisle seat and along the edge of the balcony.  At 5’1” I was just able to see over them from the third row.

In Transit

In Transit Circle in the SquareIn Transit is a delightful bon-bon box of a musical.  A loose structure of interconnected stories holds together 11 appealing New Yorkers and 16 catchy production numbers.  A prerecorded introduction by the producers reminds us that all the sounds we hear are created by human voice.  The pieces are performed a cappella and the “orchestra” is a beatboxing whiz appropriately named Boxman.

As evidenced by the many hearty laughs and heartfelt claps, the tales told are highly relatable.  It’s not so much new ground broken as old ground covered in a fresh way.  A few of the jokes might be missed by those unfamiliar with the eccentricities of the New York subway.  But the human elements touched on are universal.

The foot-tapping melodies are filled with clever rhythmic wording. The feel-good energy comes from proven sources.  The book, music and lyrics come with a warm and friendly pedigree having been created by Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame along with James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth.   Deke Sharon who worked on Pitch Perfect — the movie that brought “aca” to a wider audience — developed the splendid vocal arrangements, which tease out all the details.

In the central part of inspiring actress Jane, is the engaging Margo Seibert.  Last seen on Broadway in Rocky, she fittingly knows when to punch a note.  As her agent, Trent, Justin Guarini brings sensitivity and thought to his every line.  James Snyder is her slightly beaten-down puppy of a love interest with the gentle tone.  Their emotionally spot-on duet “But, Ya Know” is a highlight.  Providing abundant humor and attitude is Moya Angela in her roles as a boss, a mother and a station agent.

Every other part is brought to life by a large cast gifted singers.  There is unmatched support needed when every lead is also someone else’s backup. Holding them all together is Boxman, alternately played by Chesney Snow and Steven “HeaveN” Cantor.  I saw Snow handle the immense and intense responsibility of this Greek chorus/human sound machine and can well understand why it would take at least two sets of vocal chords to cover 8 performances a week.

The production is directed and choreographed with high energy by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall.  She makes terrific use of her deep bench and the 3/4 round stage.  Donyale Werle creates myriad public and private spaces, and of course train cars, using brightly colored plastic seats, lighted stairways and a moving belt.  And costume designer Clint Ramos has provided easy looks plus a show-stopping gown of MTA cards.

If like me you are more than ready to inject a little joy in your day, In Transit is the perfect pick-me-up.  Running a lively 100 minutes, the show is a fit for many tastes and ages.  Tickets are currently available through June 25, 2017 at http://www.intransitbroadway.com/.  All seats at The Circle and the Square have terrific sightlines, so $89 will get you there.