Tag Archives: Broadway

Noises Off

This my third time seeing Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, considered by many to be the perfect comedy.  My first encounter with this piece of zaniness was in the early 1980s on London’s West End.  I laughed so much I couldn’t catch my breath.  Years later I could still quote lines.  Since then, the play has had an award winning run on Broadway with a cast headed up by the terrific Dorothy Louden.  It was also made into a considerably-less memorable movie with Carol Burnett.  Now it has returned to the Great White Way with an ensemble that includes Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott, Tracee Chimo, Daniel Davis, David Furr, Kate Jennings Grant, Megan Hilty, Rob McClure and (my cousin) Jeremy Shamos.  The script has been altered somewhat and it feels a little longer, but it remains a funny lighthearted event, perfect for these stressful times.

The story is structured as a farce within a farce.  The actors mentioned above star as the cast and crew of the touring company of Nothing On.  Audience members would do well to read the yellow program within a program for important backstory and a few additional giggles.  For example, it becomes clear that the reason Ms. Hilty’s Brooke Ashton as Vicki keeps mouthing all the words of her co-stars is that she’s never played a part with lines before.  We also learn that several of these people worked together in a long running television series, which explains their remarkable familiarity with one another.

But the joy of a first-rate physical comedy like this is that you don’t have to know anything in particular, except maybe the properties of gravity.  That’s why Act II — which of the three relies most on slight of hand, gestures and easily misinterpreted silhouettes — is by far the strongest.  The actors are astonishingly in tune throughout and provide hilarious points that a child could understand.  (In fact, three groups of school children had thoroughly enjoyed themselves at the matinee the day of my attendance.)  Credit should be given to director Jeremy Herrin and stunt coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni for the orchestration of these fabulous moments.

As Dotty Otley, the always-excellent Andrea Martin seems to be having a blast.  Her timing is impeccable and her shifts from hapless housekeeper to the frazzled leading actress who portrays her are brilliant.  David Furr manages to deliver his character’s many drifting lines with subtle difference that keeps him from being one-note.  (Ms. Hilty could take a lesson here.)  Kate Jennings Grant provides a centering influence as the closest thing to a straight man in this circus.  Jeremy Shamos is spot-on as usual.  (See you at Thanksgiving, Jer.)  The surprising weak link is Tracee Chimo as overwhelmed stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor.  She tries to be farcical, which is one layer too many.  Like an improv that starts with an unbelievable premise, her performance quickly becomes forced and simply not funny.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s Noises Off is playing at the American Airlines Theater through March 13, 2016.  Given the amount of energy required by the cast, it will remain a limited run.  If you are in the mood for some high-spirited fun, it’s the perfect choice.  Visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org for tickets and information.

King Charles III

I am an unabashed Anglophile who can recite the British line of succession with greater ease than I can list the early US presidents.  So I was enormously intrigued by the premise of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III.  Described as “a future history play”, the drama portrays the early days of the rule of the current Prince of Wales.  What would it be like for the second-oldest heir in history to ascend to the throne after the world’s longest reigning monarch passes away?  What impact would the founder of the enlightened Prince’s Trust have on England’s social issues?

Sadly, Mr. Bartlett squanders this opportunity for a fascinating exploration of what-ifs and instead gets bogged down in a completely unbelievable and already outdated conversation about freedom of the press.  Worse, his portrayals of members of the royal family are so cartoonish that I was by turns embarrassed and creeped out (not in a good way).

I was able to take time out from my shuddering to admire some of the performances.   As Prince Harry, Olivier Award nominee Richard Goulding is a standout.  He gives “the spare” heart, warmth and realistic soul-searching. Tim Pigott-Smith makes a simultaneously dignified and self-doubting King Charles.  Lydia Wilson’s conniving and manipulative Kate certainly has all the right gestures and tone.  Disappointing is Oliver Chris who, in the pivotal role of William, seems to be trying to deliver all of his lines with his mouth closed.

Much has been made of Bartlett’s writing this piece in blank verse.  This device does add an air of the Shakespearean to the proceedings.  Jocelyn Pook’s music provided by cellist Maria Jeffers and oboist Christa Robinson also lends a dash of the regal.  However, Rupert Goold’s direction is as choreographed as a Rockettes’ kick line.  The overall movement was so mechanical that it practically lulled me to sleep.

By the end of the 2 hours and 45 minutes, I found myself wondering why anyone thought this production was a good fit for Broadway.  While the British may have a love/hate relationship with their monarchy, the Americans certainly have a love/hate/disinterested one.  I cringe at the thought that, absent true knowledge, any audience member would take at all seriously the script’s boring and outlandish speculation.

King Charles III is playing at the gorgeous Music Box Theater through January 31, 2016.  For tickets and information, visit http://www.kingcharlesiiibroadway.com.

The Color Purple

The audience attending The Color Purple represented the New York I want to live in.  It encompassed a dazzling variety of ages, races and temperaments all sharing the experience of Broadway musical theater.  They held back tears, clapped with joy and on a few occasions rose to their feet.  In my view, that factor alone makes this production a triumph, even though I was personally left a little chilly.

I’ve never been a fan of this Pulitzer Prize winning work.  Intellectually I know it should be moving, but it’s never touched my heart.  I found Spielberg’s film version overcooked and never got through the book.  This leap to the stage doesn’t fare much better in part because the dialogue is delivered almost as an aside.  Plot points are swallowed and it’s easy to get lost if you aren’t already familiar with the material.

There’s no denying the vocal talent that fills the theater between these wasted lines.  British import Cynthia Erivo is positively darling as Celie, the central character of the story.  It’s hard to believe her tiny body can contain such a rich sound.  Despite her voice, Jennifer Hudson is a disappointment as Shug Avery.  While she can certainly belt out a tune, her movements are awkward and uncomfortable, as if her neck and arms belong to another body entirely.   It’s a particularly poor casting choice given that Shug is supposed to be sultry, sexy and earthy.  Danielle Brooks’s Sophia on the other hand is a revelation.  The Orange is the New Black actress has pipes and attitude to spare.  Here’s hoping Taystee is given a jazzy jailhouse number in season 4.

The rest of the company — most particularly the three “swings” who act as a type of Greek chorus — display a terrific range of style.  If only the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray were stronger.  By the time I got to the subway, I couldn’t remember a single phrase.  (Meanwhile, I’m still humming “Musical” from Something Rotten.)

Many reviewers have praised John Doyle for stripping down this production.  I did not see the previous incarnation, but certainly found the general motion of the piece to be clean and well paced.  However, I was baffled by his set design, which included dozens of chairs scattered about the stage and hung along the walls.  They were like four-legged cigarettes, often providing “business” for the actors, but if there was metaphorical meaning to their presence it was lost on me.

The Color Purple is currently playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.  For tickets and information visit http://colorpurple.com.  Clearly the more-than-twenty producers of this project hope it has a good long run.  For the sake of those who were swept away, I do too.

Old Times

I’ve been a fan of Clive Owen since he played Derek Love in 1990’s Chancer.  As Love (and Smith in my unconventional favorite Shoot ‘em Up), Owen demonstrates a superior ability to embody a flirtatious character with intension and intensity while simultaneously winking at his own sexiness.  He draws on this skill as Deeley in his Broadway debut, Harold Pinter’s Old Times.  Moving with feline grace around the platform center stage, Owen’s Deeley spins his vivid tales as both seducer and seduced.  His silky rich tones almost make up for the fact that most of what he shares probably never happened.

Deeley’s epic storytelling is rivaled by Eve Best’s Anna, who may be his wife’s best friend or her alter-ego depending on your interpretation of this hazy work.  Dressed in a flowing white pants suit, she literally reflects most of the light and energy on stage.  If only those two were equally matched by Kelly Reilly’s Kate, the woman at the heart of the plot.  Ms. Reilly is so distant she could be having a beer at the Dave and Buster’s across the street.  Her overly relaxed manner even affects her ability to articulate clearly, as if she’d taken elocution lessons and forgotten to remove the marbles from her mouth.  This is particularly frustrating at the end of play, when she delivers a closing speech that’s hard to follow under the best of circumstances.  Whether this is fault of the actress or misguided cues from director Douglas Hodge is hard to judge.

The exploration of the relationship between reality and imagination is emphasized in the marvelous set by Christine Jones.  At times it looks like natural ripples in a pond, a metaphor for the way in which Kate enters relationships.  At other moments it appears as a giant abstract painting under Japhy Weideman’s dazzling lighting design.  Totally out of synch with the atmosphere is Thom Yorke’s music, an unwelcome intruder into the powerful space usually occupied by the famous Pinter pauses.

Old Times is short on story and long on mood.  If you give yourself over to the dreaminess — not too hard to do with Mr. Owen in the house — it’s a pleasant enough way to spend 65 minutes.

Old Times is playing at the American Airlines Theater through November 29.  Visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Old-Times.aspx for tickets and information.

Fun Home

Fun Home is the Little Engine That Surprised the Heck Out of Everyone.  Despite its lack of star power or big dance numbers, it beat out more likely contenders including Something Rotten and American in Paris to take home this year’s Tony for Best Musical.  More startling, the book is based on an autobiographical graphic novel about a woman coming to terms with her sexuality as well as that of her father.  Not exactly the most obvious source material for show tunes.   Consequently, I arrived at the performance ready to be blown out of the water.  Instead I was mildly splashed.  To be sure, the piece is thought provoking, but there’s also something remarkably flat about the experience.

The structure of Fun Home is extremely inventive.  The main character, Alison Bechdel, is portrayed by three profoundly talented actresses.  Beth Malone plays modern Alison and is our guide, drawing and telling her story throughout.  Emily Skeggs brings to life college-age Alison, who goes from struggling with her homosexuality to embracing it as a critical part of her identity.  Most thrilling is Sydney Lucas as young Alison.  She’s one of those almost-scary kids with a huge set of pipes and a presence to match.

The staging by uber talented Sam Gold is ingenious, moving the story through time while nodding in the direction of the source material.   Gold also makes the most of the in-the-round venue, sometimes swirling the characters through the space.

The piece is written as an operetta; think Gilbert and Sullivan.  While I am delighted that Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron are the first all-female team to win a Tony for writing a musical, this is not my favorite form (unless it is actually Gilbert and Sullivan).  I’m simply distracted by heart to heart dialogue delivered in singsong.  But the real buzz kill for me happened early on when the adult Alison summed up the entire plot to come in one sentence.  From that point on there was little at stake.  I became increasingly passive and wondered why I wasn’t trusted to follow a more engaging evolution of the story.  That would have been a spectacular journey to take.

Fun Home is currently playing at the Circle in the Square Theater.  For tickets and information, visit http://funhomebroadway.com/tickets.php.

Something Rotten

While I tap my toes to many classic musicals and once sang “Godspell” in French, that world lost me somewhere around dancing cats and warbling beggars.  My ambivalence towards the modern day musical makes me the perfect audience member for Something Rotten.

The plot revolves around the invention of the musical as a new entertainment form that just might knock Will Shakespeare from his perch as the most popular dramatist of the Renaissance.  The clever lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick manage to simultaneous praise and make fun of the genre.  And their music borrows no more than seven seconds of no less than 15 other famous scores.  It’s a veritable aural Where’s Waldo for the initiated.

There is no doubt I was further seduced by the delightful performances of the two leads.  Brain d’Arcy James, painfully wasted as the spurned husband in NBC’s Smash, is put to great use as the sweet, ambitious and misguided Nick Bottom, desperate to secure a comfortable life for his family by making a decent living as a playwright.  And two time Tony Award winner Christian Borle — channeling Tim Curry — takes on The Bard as 16th Century Rock Star.  The two bring out the best in each other and their performances are further elevated by a staggeringly talented group of supporting and ensemble actors.

Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography keep the action moving at a swift pace and allow the cast members to move breezily from one beat to the next.  He even makes a potentially tedious kick-line work to advantage.

I could certainly make my usual complaints that most of the tunes were forgettable and the characters broke out into song at annoying intervals.  But since these criticisms are supplied by the show’s own book, instead I can report that I laughed at just about everything.  Yes, it’s all over-the-top and ridiculous, but I appreciated the self-awareness of the piece.  In fact my only disappointment is that my own chuckles and snorts got in the way of my hearing every line.

Something Rotten is currently playing at the St. James Theatre.  For tickets and information visit http://rottenbroadway.com.

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is a little like that supposedly hot date with whom you didn’t have a terrible time, but you know you’re going to make an excuse not to go out with again.  The story of how King Henry VIII divested himself of wife #1 in order to marry wife #2 is sexy, fascinating and historically significant.  (Greetings, Church of England!)  The tale has been interpreted many times with great success.  (Love you, Keith Michell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers!)  The twist this time is that we see events through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.  (Farewell the oft portrayed saintly image of Thomas Moore.)  Yet even with this legacy, reputation, and potential, there’s something a little off-putting about the results of this rendition.

Based on two popular award winning novels by Hilary Mantel and brought to life by The Royal Shakespeare Company, Wolf Hall is certainly splendid looking.  Beginning with a lively dance, the rich costumes and period music draw the audience in.  As adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin, Part I moves at a brisk pace injected with a little humor.  However, the storytelling is patchy and potentially confusing for the uninitiated.  For example, Jane Seymour delivers a single line in a spotlight, a moment which only holds significance to those who know she eventually became Henry’s bride #3.

In Part II, events are told even more episodically.  Additionally, while Ben Miles makes a pensive Cromwell, we’ve learned so little about his personal life and credo, we have no sense of him as our guide.  The script becomes a series of call and response scenes in which we have no emotional investment.  Anne Boleyn may hold the future of the realm in her six-fingered hands, but whether she loses her head or embroiders another pillow is of equal interest and concern.

Sadly, Wolf Hall is neither an insightful piece of historical fiction nor a thoroughly entertaining piece of pageantry.  It is, however, 5 1/2 hours long and upwards of $150 a ticket.

Wolf Hall Parts One & Two are playing in repertory at the Winter Garden Theater through July 5, 2015.  For tickets and information, visit http://wolfhallbroadway.com/tickets/.

The Audience

The Audience, a play about Queen Elizabeth II talking with eight of her Prime Ministers, may not sound like compelling drama to many.  But when the script is written by Peter Morgan — who so brilliantly explored the relationship between her Majesty and Tony Blair in the Oscar nominated film The Queen — and the role of Elizabeth is once again in the immensely capable hands of Dame Helen Mirren, you are in for an enjoyable and enlightening evening.

If you don’t know your Anthony Eden from your Gordon Brown or your parliamentary procedure from a ham sandwich, there’s no need to panic.  The action is introduced and clarified by a droll Geoffrey Beevers as the Equerry.  Following his background information won’t secure an A in English history, but it’s enough to help you grasp the significance of the proceedings you are about to witness.  Mr. Morgan increases the level of engagement by laying out the events as they relate to one another rather than chronologically.  We come to understand how each relationship and experience enriches the others.

Ms. Mirren has obviously continued to study her subject (if one can use that phrase to describe royalty).  Her tone, body language and expressions are perfect reflections of Queen Elizabeth without actually being imitation. It is a delight to watch the masterful actress move silkily among ages ranging between 26 and 88, aided by director Stephen Daldry’s clever staging and Bob Crowley’s spot-on design.

The performances delivered by the assorted PMs are of less uniform quality.  Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson is a particular revelation, helped along by having the most layered dialogue.  Rufus Wright elegantly takes on David Cameron and, in a more recently added flash-back, Tony Blair.  Surprisingly, the usually wonderful Dylan Baker as John Major appears ill at ease and occasionally loses track of his accent, while the equally gifted Judith Ivey’s interpretation of Margaret Thatcher is crushed under a tsunami of wig and teeth.  It should be noted that I attended the last preview, so these rough edges may be smoothed out during the run.  Regardless, there are enough bright spots to increase the heartbeat of any anglophile and the appreciation level of the more casual viewer.

The Audience is scheduled to run through June 28 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater.  For tickets and information, visit http://theaudiencebroadway.com.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

If you don’t thoroughly enjoy yourself at The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, chances are good that you just don’t like plays.  The theatrical interpretation of the award-winning novel takes complete advantage of everything the medium has to offer.  Artful script.  Check.  Talented cast.  Check.  Clever staging.  Check.  Audience engagement.  Check.

Critics have raved about the lead performance of Alex Sharp who plays Christopher, the autistic teen through whom the story is told.  I can only imagine how brilliant he is since I  found Taylor Trensch — who takes the role at some performances — utterly enthralling.   On stage for the entirety of the show’s 145 minutes, Mr. Trensch is pitch perfect, skillfully knitting ritualistic movement and compulsive behavior in with his rapid fire dialogue.  I am generally not a fan of breaking the fourth wall, but I found his Christopher so enchanting I was happy to have him reach out to me directly on occasion.  The compassion and pride he inspires is critical to appreciating the production.

But Curious Incident is an ensemble piece and neither Trensch nor Sharp could succeed if they didn’t have such a strong supporting cast.  They not only play multiple roles but sometimes function as part of the scenery as well.  While everyone is top-notch, Mercedes Herrero in her Broadway debut deserves special mention for having the unenviable task of switching between two of the more outrageous characters, sometimes mere moments apart.

I also applaud the design team who have taken the black box concept to a whole new level.  Their combined use of lighting, video, movement and props convey Christopher’s viewpoint in a way that is as elegantly simple as it is brilliant.  I don’t want to give a single moment away, but I encourage you to let them finish what they start.

Tickets for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Ethel Barrymore Theater are available at http://curiousonbroadway.com.  For those on a tighter budget, consider National Theater Live’s broadcast of the London production when it returns to these shores.  Bookmark http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/36297-the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time.

Constellations

If you have ever played theater games — or watched “Whose Line is It Anyway” for that matter — you are familiar with the “change” exercise.  Two players begin a scene and are then given instructions to change something: their last line, their mood, their relationship to one another etc.  Now imagine that this exercise goes on for 80 minutes.  That is the effect of Nick Payne’s Constellations.  It isn’t a play so much as a master class in the performing arts.

Fortunately for the audience, the two actors striving hard for an A+ are Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson.  Ms. Wilson mines each segment for emotional depth as Marianne, who takes the more complicated journey of the two characters.  Every part of her body is so consistently engaged in demonstrating physical manifestations of “feeling”, I became exhausted for her.  Mr. Gyllenhaal displays remarkable range while living in the other character, Roland’s, very thin skin.  Although he has little to work with besides an unusual trade (beekeeping) and an (unlikely) attraction to Marianne, he manages to be by turns awkward, vulnerable, frustrated, and charming.  Frankly, I’d expect nothing less from this extraordinary talent and it’s a joy to experience.

Tom Scutt’s sets and Lee Curran’s lighting impressively convey the multiverse in which Marianne and Roland meet.  Both design team members were recognized for their work on the West End production of Constellations.

Unfortunately the conceit on which the script is built — that time is an illusion and the past, present and future all exist together — makes it impossible to forge any real connection to these characters.  When the reality is fluid, you can’t get any sense of who these people are as individuals much less as a couple.  I kinda sorta wanted them to end up together, but mostly because there was no one else on the stage.  Ultimately, I just wished I could go back in time and see If There Is I Haven’t Found it Yet.

Tickets for Constellations at the Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater are currently on sale through March 15, 2015 at http://constellationsbroadway.com.