Category Archives: Broadway

The Lifespan of a Fact

In this age of high anxiety and bitter divide, it didn’t seem possible that anyone could write a play that was both timely and hilarious.  Amazingly The Lifespan of a Fact — based on true events surrounding the development of an article about a Las Vegas teen’s suicide — achieves this blissful combination.  Written in vivid detail by nonconformist writer John D’Agata, the original 2005 article was assigned for fact-checking to an ambitious magazine intern, Jim Fingal.  D’Agata and Fingal’s conflict over the nature and role of facts spanned seven years and resulted in an essay and a book which in turn inspired Lifespan’s script by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. With so many fingers on keyboards, this production could have been a cacophonous mess, but the logic and story are sound. Fingal’s on stage persona makes a strong case for journalistic integrity and thorough research.  Equally persuasive is D’Agata’s viewpoint that the right words, however poetic, are needed to attract and hold readers’ attention. Perhaps most importantly for Lifespan’s audience, their 90 minute argument elicits many cathartic chuckles.

The well crafted material hits the intended target in large part because of the wise direction of Leigh Silverman.  She has a keen instinct for when to punch up the humor without going too broad.  Rather, she peels back the layers of each of the three characters in slowly building rhythm.  She has the great advantage of being blessed with a magnificent cast, each of whom has an incredible sense of pace and timing.  Charmingly obsessive in his role of fact checker Jim Fingal, Daniel Radcliffe is physically taut and verbally cranked to 11.  He prepared for the role by actually working as a fact checker for New Yorker magazine, which clearly gave him a strong foundation on which to draw character details.  His opponent in the battle of wits, writer John D’Agata, is bought to irritated life by a blustery and brilliant Bobby Cannavale.  That the two actors are nearly a foot apart in height adds a shiny layer of physical humor on top of their perfectly orchestrated banter.  Standing between them with a commanding hand and a touch of grace is the charismatic Cherry Jones as the magazine’s editor, Emily. 

7013b The Lifespan of a Fact, Pictured L to R, Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe, Photograph by Peter Cunningham, 2018

Many hands add their own magical touch to bringing out the best in the piece. Mimi Lien’s scenic design includes some smile-inducing details.  Linda Cho’s costumes give good visual cues.  The playwrights have raised the stakes by putting their characters on a four day deadline.  Projections by Lucy Mackinnon and music and sound by Palmer Hefferan keep us on edge as the clock ticks stressfully onwards towards publication day.  

Suitable for teens and up, The Lifespan of a Fact brings much needed smart laughter to Broadway’s fall season.  Though the ending may be unsatisfying to some, the overall experience is everything you want from an afternoon or evening at the theater.  It is playing at Studio 54, which has particularly good sight lines.  Tickets for performances through January 13, 2019 are for sale at https://www.lifespanofafact.com and on most entertainment apps.  A limited number of affordable $40 seats are available for purchase in-person at the Studio 54 box office for same-day sale.

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Bernhardt/Hamlet

In 1899, Sarah Bernhardt decided to take on the role of Hamlet.  The most famous actress of her—perhaps of any — time was no longer comfortable playing ingenues, and the parts written for women in their 50s held no interest for her.  Her daring gender crossing is considered a seminal moment in the history of performing arts.   She could keep a pet tiger and a fleet of lovers, and even sleep in a coffin, but her decision to play a man was treated by critics at the time as one “eccentricity” too far.  The event should have made for a compelling play, at least for theater buffs and cultural historians.  Unfortunately in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, the excitement is smothered by too much talk and upstaged by scenes written by the Bard himself.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is the first commissioned original work that Roundabout has brought to Broadway.  Despite a lengthy development process, the piece still feels like it was created by committee and at the very least could do with another round of editing.  There are a number of enlightening themes explored in Rebeck’s script including the inner life of Shakespeare’s famed Danish Prince.  It becomes obvious that Hamlet and Bernhardt share an almost crushing doubt about their purpose.  Strongest of all are Bernhardt’s observation about gender issues that persist to this day, especially the challenges facing talented women who are too old to play 20 something convincingly and too fierce to take a tiny supporting role.  Bernhardt had successfully portrayed Cleopatra, Cordelia, Desdemona and Ophelia, all of which had become inappropriate.  What was left for an actress of her range to play except Shakespeare’s most defining role?  Sadly, too much of the banter sounds like it’s coming from the head instead of the heart, robbing the exchanges of any emotion that could move and inspire the audience.  The production comes across like someone sharing the love of ballet by drawing it on a chalkboard. 

0462_Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar in BernhardtHamlet, Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018

The characters’ nattering is made worse by the static direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel.  Even the more crackling stretches of Rebeck’s dialogue are choked off by the lack of movement. The enclosed feeling is made worse by Beowulf Boritt’s suffocating set.  Never has Paris seemed less lively. This lack of energy becomes is most noticeable during fast paced scene changes, which are accompanied by dramatic original music by Fitz Patton.  At least costumes by Toni-Leslie James and hair and wigs by Matthew B. Armentrout are appropriately jazzy.

What’s happening front and center is worthy of the Divine Sarah.  Like the one-of-a-kind star she is portraying, Janet McTeer dominates the stage with her honeyed voice, graceful stature and sheer presence.  Slightly more exaggerated is Dylan Baker’s performance as Constant Coquelin, Bernhardt’s frequent leading man.  Though he can’t match her vigor, he injects wit into their banter.  Jason Butler Harner as her lover Edmond Rostand embodies a realistic combination of lust and haplessness.  As his wife, Ito Aghayere who sparkled in Junk last season, is disappointing and flat in a significant scene.

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, Bernhardt/Hamlet will likely be a slog for all but the most dedicated lovers of “straight” theater. It’s a missed opportunity to share a shining moment when a talented actress took charge of her own career.  Bernhard, Hamlet, and Ms. McTeer all deserve better.  Tickets are on sale through November 11 at https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Bernhardt-Hamlet.aspx.

Head Over Heels

Like one of its stars, Peppermint, Head Over Heels has a refreshing sense of self.  A blend of 16th Century verse, music by 1970s pop stars The Go-Go’s, and an ultra modern “love is love is love” message, Broadway’s newest musical eludes “pegging”.  Based loosely on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, the story follows King Basilius as he attempts to defy a prophecy delivered to him by Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. She declares four tragedies will befall his kingdom, each one signaled by a veil falling from the sky. Should all come to pass, the land is doomed. Determined to cheat fate, Basilius packs up his citizens and travels deep into the woods.  Anyone who knows their way around a Greek myth can predict how successful the well-meaning ruler’s plan will be.

The Go-Go’s repertoire —including Mad about You, Cool Jerk and Vacation — contains many catchy ear-worms, but they are hardly known for their deep meaning.  While the dialogue is often witty, characters sometimes tee-up the next production number by delivering forced lines. If hearing that what makes this kingdom distinctive is that they’ve “got the beat” makes you cringe, you should have second thoughts about purchasing tickets. On the other hand, if you find yourself going along with the playfulness, there is more where that came from.

There is none of the over amplification which dominates rock musicals and every word is clearly articulated. Many eyes will be on the aforementioned Peppermint, a fierce RuPaul Drag Race competitor and first “out” trans  actress to develop a lead of a Broadway musical. Her Pythio may be the only character to literally sparkle, but she is not alone in that quality of performance. The cast – some of whom have been with the production since its early days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – is uniformly strong and everyone seems to be having one heck of a good time. In particular, Andrew Durand steals every scene he’s in as the sweet shepherd Musidorus on his road to self discovery and empowerment. Bonnie Milligan making her Broadway debut is another standout as the difficult and vain Pamela, the older of the king’s two daughters. She ably avoids becoming a tedious “fat joke” by infusing her character with gentle confusion which elicits compassion. She is well paired with Taylor Iman Jones’s Mopsa, her several-steps-ahead admirer.

Head Over HeelsA New Musical

Taylor Iman Jones in the San Francisco Production of Head Over Heels

Director Michael Mayer has his cast members veer towards the hammy, a superfluous move with this broad book created by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder. The moments that are less heavy handed are also more visually exciting, including a seduction scene accomplished in shadows. The production design wonderfully captures the glow and fizz of The Go-Go’s heyday as well as the bejeweled styling of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Scenic designer Julian Crouch’s amusing backdrops include fake curtains and two dimensional trees in a pallet that is pure disco. Arianne Phillips picks up this mixture in her costume design in which half naked male suitors are topped with metallic ruffs, and bows are painted onto the princesses’ elaborate dresses.  Hair and makeup by Campbell Young Associates complete the look to whimsical perfection.

Familiarity with The Go-Go’s is not essential, but it adds to those moments when distinctive guitar licks foreshadow an upcoming production number. Sadly, though, something is off with Kai Harada’s sound. It is admirable that the creative team chose to use only female band members, but their output lacks sufficient depth and energy.  This becomes particularly noticeable upon exit when the original article can be heard throughout the lobby.

Perhaps because it’s a fun and flashy romp, Head Over Heels is attracting a particularly undisciplined audience to the Hudson Theater. The young woman next to me crackled her way through a large bag of gummy bears throughout the 2 hour 15 minute runtime, while the 60-something woman behind me got so drunk that by Act Two she was discussing the quality of the house wine with her friends in what can only be described as her outdoor voice. It may help you get into the proper mood by imagining yourself at the Globe with sawdust under your feet and jolly old England just outside the door. Tickets are on sale now through June 30, 2019 at https://headoverheelsthemusical.com.

The Children

Perhaps it’s our collective mood that has brought on a slew of dystopian dramas.  Certainly the catastrophe that prompts the events covered in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children isn’t novel.  The facts of “the accident” in question are based on those that actually transpired in Japan just a few years ago.  What is fresh is the way in which Kirkwood all but ignores the usual condemnation of nuclear power and instead uses the localized event to explore bigger and more human issues including the responsibility of each generation to the next and what comprises a well-lived life.  Then she sprinkles in enough humor and love in its many forms to prevent the discussion from becoming soul-crushing.

THE CHILDRENAmerican premiere by Lucy Kirkwood
Directed by James Macdonald

With Francesca Annis, Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay

Deborah Findlay and Ron Cook in The Children, Photo © Joan Marcus 2017

To be honest, if the invitation to this production had announced that Francesca Annis, Ron Cook, and Deborah Findlay were coming to town to read American Greetings cards at my local Duane Reade, I still would have bought a ticket.  I know all three primarily from their television work (any other Reckless fans out there?) and wanted the opportunity to see them live.  The quality of the acting did not disappoint.  There is a lived-in feel to all three performances that is not only a delight to experience, but essential to making the story’s ending believable.

 

The character set-up is as deceptively simple as the situation.  Annis’s Rose has come to see Findlay’s Hazel and Cook’s Robin, a couple of retired physicists with whom she worked over 30 years ago.  These three supposed old friends obviously have serious catching up to do, and from the subtle undertones it’s clearly not just about Hazel and Robin’s biological children.  It is slightly disappointing that the playwright cannot come up with anything more original than off-stage phone calls to get characters out of the room when necessary, but this can be overlooked given the overall strength of the writing and its interpretation by a seasoned cast.

The behind-the-scenes team is equally sophisticated and deft in their approach to the material.  Director James Macdonald provides his talent with purposeful “business” that keeps the play from feeling talky while revealing subtleties about the characters.  His job is made easier by a brilliant, askew set conceived by multiple award winner Miriam Buether.  Buether also created the everywhere-and-nowhere costumes.  Peter Mumford’s disquieting lighting and projection designs add just enough menace to the atmosphere to hint at what lies beyond the slightly claustrophobic kitchen that we see.  The three players are confined, at least for the moment.

The Children is a play you simply cannot leave behind you.  The questions it poses and feelings it prods are too profound and intertwined in our everyday practices.  If that sounds enticing rather than overwhelming, get ye to The Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  Tickets are on sale through February 4, 2018, at http://thechildrenbroadway.com.

Junk

Junk Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

If you principally enjoyed the movie The Big Short but thought it had too much humor and heart, Junk might be the play for you.  The ripped-from-the-headlines drama by Ayad Akhtar is a work of fiction illustrating the exploitative practice that blossomed in 1985 of making debt an asset.  Akhtar’s dialogue is precise and natural and, when not bogged down by the essential vocabulary lesson, the 150 minutes pass swiftly.  But the experience is rather like a tasty dish that’s been added to the buffet table after you’ve already loaded your plate three times.  One only has to follow Twitter for five minutes to be reminded that the world is full of ultra wealthy predators. There simply isn’t room for any more in our collective bellies.

The quality of the acting throughout the piece is uniformly high.  The large dynamic cast is led by suave Steven Pasquale.  He’s silky smooth as power deal-maker and recent Time Magazine Cover Boy Robert Merkin.  Merkin is in the process of orchestrating the take-over of a family owned steel company and has obviously misplaced his soul several hundred million dollars ago.  He’s on a mission to reshape the world and won’t let anyone or anything dim his vision.

Having a cold-hearted manipulator at the center of the story would be thrilling if he weren’t surrounded by characters who are for the most part just as dislikable.  There is the captivating Ito Aghayere as Jacqueline Blount, a woman whose only loyalty is to herself.  Elegant Teresa Via Lim’s self-accepting Judy Chen who would fornicate with a dollar if she could figure out how.  Even would-be white knight Leo Tresler  played with bluster and a hint of insecurity by Michael Sieberry tramples all over his own code of ethics.  Miriam Silverman is the closest thing you’ll find to a hero as she finds strength and avoids shrillness in the tricky role of Merkin’s wife Amy.

Director Doug Hughes does his usual brilliant job of bringing out the best in each performance and every beat.  John Lee Beatty’s clever set of sliding platforms and illuminated doorways works well to define the space.  However, the essential projections created by 59 Productions are hard to see from the sides of the three-quarter round theater.  And the original music by Mark Bennett was sometimes so faint, it seemed to be seeping in from another room.

That “everything has a price” — including salvation — is not a new revelation.  If somehow you have not had your fill of this theme, then seek out a ticket to this well played production at the Vivian Beaumont.  Tickets for Junk are available at http://www.lct.org/shows/junk/ through January 7, 2018.

The Terms of My Surrender

N.B. This review is based on a late preview.

As film personalities on Broadway go, Michael Moore lands somewhere between a shining Bradley Cooper and a shunned Bruce Willis.  Stringing together personal accounts and observations, Moore makes some forceful motivating statements in The Terms of My Surrender. Unfortunately, these powerful moments are diluted by muttered off-the-cuff remarks and self-indulgent digressions.

Terms of My SurrenderMichael Moore

Michael Moore ©️Joan-Marcus

To be sure, there is plenty of anti-Trump rhetoric.  Moore has made it clear as a frequent talk show guest that he considers Mr. Trump an entertainer, unqualified to hold public office.  The show’s Playbill includes a somewhat sarcastic personal invitation to the President, written in Russian, to attend any performance.  But while Moore clearly has liberal leanings, he also recognizes that many of the issues about which he is concerned have roots before January of 2017.  He digs into his private vault of stories going back to the early 1970s to illustrate a number of social injustices and troubling trends that have only been magnified in the light of recent events.

Fans of Moore’s documentaries will likely enjoy learning about his formative years, when a combination of intellectual curiosity and a rabble-rousing nature led to the important discovery that anyone can make a difference.  These amusing and inspiring highlights are further enhanced by projections and videos by Andrew Lazarow making his Broadway design debut.  Tossed in are rapid sight gags (some of which work), a potentially funny game, a disturbing phone call, a needless interview, and a physical bit I won’t spoil in case it comes together after more rehearsal.  This piling on of elements resulted in a runtime of well over two hours on the night I attended.  That’s at least 30 minutes longer than necessary or desirable for Moore to make his point.  By the time he announced the terms of his surrender, I’d forgotten that was even the title of this work.  Moore is a bright and witty guy, but in this case he desperately needed an editor.

Director Michael Mayer, who was behind the vivacious and colorful revision of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, appears not to know what to do with what is essentially a monologue.  The stage seems to be unfamiliar territory under our hero’s feet.  One can almost sense the stage manager’s queues as he moves robotically from podium to desk set to faux living room.  At least there is plenty of distraction provided by David Rockwell’s backdrop of a magnificent and impressively functional American flag.

While I wish The Terms of My Surrender was a stronger piece, it has enough to recommend it.  Admirers of Moore’s films should take the time to see what he does with the live medium.  And those looking for a call to action in a polarizing political climate might well find one among his tales.  The limited run at the Belasco Theater is scheduled to end October 22.  Tickets and information are available at http://michaelmooreonbroadway.com.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day August Wilson TheatreAs Broadway musicals go, the small scale charmer of a flick Groundhog Day doesn’t seem the most obvious of inspiring sources.  The comedic drama relies heavily on Bill Murray’s ability to deliver a stinging blow that is somehow forgivable.  With the film’s move to the stage, that burden falls on Olivier Award winner Andy Karl as weatherman Phil Conners.  He is charismatic and a joy to watch, but his wonderful performance isn’t quite enough to balance out the slightness of the material.  The overall experience is theatrical cotton candy: ultimately sweet and instantly vanishing.

Director Matthew Marchus has done a wonderful job of bringing to life the near cartoon-like nature of the movie.  It is rare in the second paragraph of a review to call out those in tiny print such as video designer Andrzej Goulding, Finn Caldwell who created the car chase movement, and Paul Kieve who conceived the illusions.  Yet it is those behind-the-scenes team members who best exploit the story’s limitations with imaginative results that are in direct conflict with the general “wowness” one expects to see on the Great White Way.

Karl pulls off the slights of hand and other body parts with wonderful energy.  His song-styling brings out the most in the accompanying gleeful lyrics.  Unfortunately, Barrett Doss as Connor’s love interest Rita Hanson does not reach his level of skill.  Despite a number in which she recites the highlights of her story, the character remains thinly drawn.  It is simply not believable that this woman could pull this man out of his destructive cycle.  The rest of the cast is solid and there are some terrific running gags.

The lack of balance between the two main characters is one of several key points in Danny Rubin’s book that seem to rely on memories of the original (which Rubin co-wrote with Harold Ramis) to bring them to fruition.  I’m not at all sure that someone who has no familiarity with the movie would completely follow the plot.  The content is also problematic in that it is too risqué for general family viewing and it doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to be a full adult experience.  Additionally, I had a personal problem with the scenes poking fun at alcoholism.  Surely we live in a time when drinking and driving is not the stuff of lighthearted jesting.

The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are spirited, although there are a few numbers that add to the running time more than the storyline.  I was not alone in questioning the selection of “Seeing You” as the song chosen for the Tony broadcast.  I can understand not wanting to give away the funnier moments including “Stuck” (featuring some hilarious healers).   But there are other songs that reveal Phil’s slow evolution from his sarcastic womanizer beginnings that are more entertaining and well executed by the company.

Groundhog Day offers plenty of smiles and a striking lead in Andy Karl.  It’s important to remember that the movie version was a modest success that earned about $70M in its initial run.  It  has been only through the eyes of film history that it became a classic and gave rise to the term “Groundhog Day” meaning the feeling of repeating the same experience.  It should therefore not be a surprise that the show is a mild entertainment and perhaps not the best fit for $200 per ticket territory.  It is scheduled to play at the August Wilson theater through January 7, 2018.  (http://www.groundhogdaymusical.com/tickets/).