Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theatre


Someone needs to propose writing a dissertation on the recent trend of depicting the end of industrial Britain in musical theater. There certainly are more and more candidates for analysis. The latest is Sting's love letter to his home town, Wallsend, a former shipyard town most famous for building the Carpathia, the ship that responded to the sinking of the Titanic. What is good about The Last Ship is the haunting score by Sting, some terrific performances by the acting ensemble, and the atmospheric direction by Joe Mantello. What hurts The Last Ship and ultimately makes it not quite a satisfying evening of theater is that its subject invites comparison to the death of industrial Britain musicals that have come before it. Many of the themes in The Last Ship will lead a veteran theatergoer inevitably to start making comparisons, not in favor of the well meaning The Last Ship.

Gideon Fletcher is a young teenager with a girl he loves and a father with whom he has a difficult relationship. When Dad is permanently injured he pressures young Gideon into entering the family business. Instead Gideon runs away taking to a life at sea. Fifteen years later he returns after learning of his father's death. The town's shipyard has closed and the ghosts of the past haunt Gideon in the present day. When the Catholic priest Father O'Brien proposes that the workers occupy the shipyard and build one last ship to show the world what skills are being lost forever in the name of progress and cheap overseas labor, Gideon ends up becoming a reluctant leader.

A large problem with The Last Ship lies in its book which is co-written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Mr. Yorkey left this project to bring If/Then to Broadway. The plot has holes in it and suffers from having too melancholic a tone throughout the piece. As an example, Father O'Brien puts up the church building fund to build the ship. For an economically depressed area that must have been quite the fund. There is no clue what will happen to the ship once it is completed beyond its maiden voyage. The script would have been served by simply adding perhaps publicity for the project (bring in journalists or television coverage) and an actual goal for the ship rather than what seems like a metaphorical ending.

The tale is also not served by having characters and plot points that are almost cliches. The hero has conflicts with his father (see Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots). The good hearted Catholic priest, played with the tough love and blue humor that is needed by the always capable Fred Applegate is saddled with an unnecessary plot devise that will bring to mind the fate of a similar character in the film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain. Naturally the girl left behind had Gideon's son. (this is really not a spoiler as said teenage son appears very quickly in the first act). Collin Kelly Sordelet makes an impressive Broadway debut as both Young Gideon and Gideon's son Tom. Both characters are distinctive and the script fortunately does not contain any true melodrama about the son not knowing who is his real father.

Rachel Tucker is tough as nails as Meg, the girl left behind. A love triangle is created by adding the character of Arthur, a shipyard worker turned executive who has been steadily in both Meg and Tom's life. Aaron Lazar helps make Arthur a genuine good sensible man and father figure so that there is fortunately no detour into, once again, melodrama land when it comes to reuniting Meg and Gideon after all those years.

Michael Esper has the perfect voice for the wayward Gideon Fletcher. In many ways he sounds like composer Sting, although that may be the nature of how Sting wrote the music. Mr. Esper has a challenge in that his character is part prodigal part absolute jerk, yet by the end of the evening the character reaches a satisfactory redemption.

Sting has written a beautiful score. It ranges from the haunting themes "Island of Souls" and "Ghost Story" to the rousing "If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor" and "Mrs. Dees' Rant."  The score is served well by the earthy character driven choreography of Steven Hoggett who did a similar style for the musical Once. The scenic elements of David Zimm and the lighting of Christopher Akerlind are atmospheric and suit well the piece.

One wishes that only one writer had shaped the book of The Last Ship as tightening the plot holes would have made it a more seaworthy evening of theater.

The Last Ship is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit thelastship.com or ticketmaster.com

Monday, October 27, 2014

On The Town at the Lyric Theatre

'New York, New York, it's a helluva town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.
The people ride in a hole in the groun'.
New York, New York, it's a helluva town!."


If you like your Broadway musical revivals big, bright and brassy run to the Lyric Theatre.  If you were thrilled when the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific performed the score of that show with a huge orchestra, well, folks, the 70th anniversary Broadway revival of On The Town is the perfect show for you.

Opened originally in 1944, On The Town was inspired by Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, one-act ballet about three sailors on leave with music by Leonard Bernstein.  Transformed into a Broadway musical the later that same year, the book and lyrics were handled by then Broadway first timers Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  The result is a charming dance-filled musical that to paraphrase the cliche, just ain't made this way anymore.

On the Town is the story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City. Chip is looking forward to seeing the sights his father saw on a visit more than a decade ago.  Ozzie just wants to get a "date." Gabey, the dreamer, wants to meet a girl just like his childhood sweetheart.  When Gabey sees on the subway a poster of the monthly winner of Miss Turnstiles, Ozzie and Chip, who owe Gabey their lives make a pact to help him find the girl of his dreams.  In the course of the day the sailors each find a girl, wreck havoc, start a city-wide chase and have a memorable day before they report back on board ship.

The Lyric Theatre is a very large venue and there was a concern that after its last oversized tenant, Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, any other show would be swallowed up by the very large space. On The Town's director John Rando keeps the action bustling and bursting out of the stage almost as if On The Town just can't contain itself to the stage.  Beowulf Boritts' scenic and production design evoke a marvelous version of 1944 New York City that easily handles the vast size of the Lyric's stage. Joshua Bergasse' choreography takes full advantage of the space to create beautiful dances and ballets, particularly the "Miss Turnstiles Ballet" and the "Times Square Ballet" that fills the audience with a sense of spectacle that comes from the wonder of good theatrical ballet and pays homage to the original stylings of Jerome Robbins.

The 28-piece orchestra under the baton of musical director James Moore will have you on your feet before the curtain rises. The marvelous acting ensemble will keep you smiling the rest of the evening. There are many, many standout performances.  As was the case in the original production the role of Ivy Smith, Miss Turnstiles is performed by a ballet dancer. Megan Fairchild 's dancing is fluid and beautiful and if her acting and singing are not on the same level of her dancing, this is a gentle reminder that a lot of musicals used to not have roles written for today's triple threat performers. As her ardent admirer and chaser Gabey, Tony Yazbeck is a leading man in the mold of Gene Kelly. Clyde Alves is earthy as Ozzie, the potential caveman to comedic soprano and anthropologist Elizabeth Stanley's Claire. Jay Armstrong Johnson's adorably goofy Chip is well matched to Alysha Umphress' brassy taxi driver and "cook, too" Hildy.

While the leads are terrific they are nearly upstaged by a trio of supporting performers. Michael Ripkin as the "I Understand" fiancee of Claire, Allison Guinn as Hildy's wallflower roommate Lucy make the most of their limited stage time. Please make a game out of "is that Jackie Hoffman again?" in her myriad hilarious appearances, the most prominent one as Ivy's broke lush of a music teacher Maude P. Dilly.

On The Town is a great evening of theater that shows a 21st-century audience that the old supposed warhorses still have life in them with the right production team and ensemble of actors and dancers. If you are traveling to New York City and want to have a great time you can do no better than to visit the Lyric Theatre and follow a trio of sailors on shore leave On The Town.

On The Town is being performed at the Lyric Theatre in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.onthetownbroadway.com.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre


There are many complex novels that get labeled as incapable of being adapted for the stage and screen. You would think by now that cliche statement would be tossed in a rubbish heap. The National Theatre imports the highly anticipated adaptation of Mark Hadden's popular novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is well worth the wait.

15-year-old Christopher Boone has a brilliant mathematical mind couched within the challenges of autism. Christopher has poor social skills and is prone to sensory overload and cannot stand being touched. One night he goes to visit Wellington, his neighbor's standard poodle, only to discover to his horror that Wellington is dead, stabbed with a garden fork. (that's a pitchfork for us Americans) Briefly detained as the prime suspect he becomes obsessed with solving the crime. What Christopher does not realize is that in his zeal to solve the mystery he will unravel dark family secrets that will forever change his life. It is a journey in reality, fantasy and for this fascinating young man that leads to a sentimental yet surprisingly mature conclusion. 

This is an example of a perfect marriage between playwright and director.  Simon Stephens adaptation and Marianne Elliott's wonderful out of the proverbial box direction is the key to bringing Christopher Boone's story to the stage. Simon Stephens script, framed in a way to evoke the first person narration of Mark Haddon's novel mostly works. Narrated, well actually read, primarily by Christopher's sympathetic teacher and counselor, Siobhan, from the start the audience is aware that the tale will be revealed as Christopher perceives it. What makes it astounding is how organic the technical aspects compliment and vividly enhance the play. The audience enters into the Barrymore Theatre to face a barren stage marked in a grid like graphing paper.  Bunny Christie's scenic design brands the design as the canvas for Christopher Boone's complex need for order and his astounding ability with mathematics.  Combined with Paule Constable's lighting, Finn Ross's video design, Ian Dickerson for Autograph's sound design and Adrian Sutton's music the stage is transformed into the inner workings of Christopher's mind.

Some of the design may remind audiences of the visual concept for the trouble lead character of Ron Howard's film A Beautiful Mind where the way that film's troubled genius' mind saw the world was literally drawn on the screen. What really hammers home in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time  is the sensory overload that envelops both Christopher Boone and the viewing audience whenever he is faced with a crisis. To understand how this young man perceives the world and to share in being overwhelmed by the ordinary sights and sounds we easily take for granted as background noise is one of the supreme accomplishments of this remarkable play.

Keeping it all together is director Marianne Elliott, probably best known in the states for her Tony award-winning work on another difficult piece War Horse. Working with a duo of choreographers, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly, Ms. Elliott brings this complicated world to vibrant life.  The ensemble of actors work as a unit to assist and obstruct Christopher on his journey of discovery whether helping him imagine the universe or survive the terrors of the London Underground.
If there is a weakness in Mr. Stephens' script it is the few times in act two, when the tale changes from a story being read to a play being staged that the conceit of "we are watching Christopher's play" is hammered home a bit too literally, such as when Christopher interrupts a scene to make corrections. It is just not needed and would work better if the audience was simply trusted to accept the play as it unfolds. The one exception to that concept that truly works well leads to a marvelous encore for the show and its engaging lead actor. Suffice to say you do not want to miss the curtain call.

Without the perfect leading man, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would fall flat. Making an impressive Broadway debut is recent Julliard graduate, Alex Sharp. Mr. Sharp embodies all of Christopher Boone's eccentricities and challenges without forgetting that Christopher, while deeply challenging to watch at times must also remain for the audience immensely likable, especially when expressing his wonderment with the universe. Mr. Sharp is the center of Curious Incident's universe, without him it would deflate. 

The small ensemble ably supports Mr. Sharp's remarkable performance. Highlights go to Francesca Faridany, as the teacher who encourages Christopher in his determination, Enid Graham as Judy, Christopher's absent mother and Ian Barford as Christopher's weary father, who makes decisions for his family made in the heat of anger and a desire to protect his vulnerable son lead tragically to a deep chasm between father and son. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a challenging play. It is emotionally satisfying, occasionally melodramatic, but leaves its audience with the delight in knowing that Christopher Boone, this marvelous young man with so many obstacles to overcome eventually achieves triumphs that are not at all possible when the play begins. May its audience leave the Barrymore Theatre as equally hopeful and emotionally satisfied.

Please note: due to the physical and emotional exertions required to portray Christopher Boone the role is played by Taylor Trensch at certain performances.

The National Theatre's Production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is being performed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit curiousonbroadway.com 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

You Can't Take It With You at the Longacre Theatre




Chestnut.
Pulitzer Prize winner.
War horse.
Best Picture Academy Award winning film adaptation.
Staple of high school and community theater.

If this was a question on Jeopardy! the answer is - You Can't Take It With You.

Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's madcap family comedy makes a very welcome return to Broadway this season. Yes, the play is as old as the hills. Yes, some of the jokes are married to the original 1930's time period. Yes, any number of theatergoers are probably thinking, I did this show in high school, why, oh, why is it on Broadway in 2014?

The answer to that question lies in the hands of director Scott Ellis who has assembled a cast that does not contain a weak link. Is the scenario of the normal member of a wacky family dreading bringing her fiancee's straight laced folks to dinner done to death?  Of course it is. What many don't realize is that You Can't Take It With You was one of the first, if not the first play to use that scenario. Mr. Ellis has given his ensemble such great direction that the zany aspects only compliment the true message of Hart and Kaufman's play. This is a family that at the end of the day loves each other, respects each other and above all encourages everyone, no matter their talents, or lack thereof, to pursue happiness. To paraphrase Linus van Pelt, that's what You Can't Take It With You is all about, Charlie Brown.

For the few who don't know the story, Martin Vanderhof, grandfather and patriarch of his family, one day decided to quit his job and pursue whatever struck his fancy. The rest of his family has followed his lead. Daughter Penelope Sycamore, writes plays because one day a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house. Her husband, Paul makes fireworks in the basement. Daughter Essie has taken ballet lessons for eight years from Boris Kolenkhov, a Russian emigre. Essie's husband Ed plays the xylophone and prints phrases from whatever book or manifesto inspires him. The household help just kind of showed up one day and stayed. The only normal member of the family Alice works on Wall Street and has recently fallen for her boss, Tony Kirby.  It is their engagement that leads to the main conflict as the Kirby family is invited to dinner with Alice's strict instructions that, for once, everyone behave like how she thinks normal people should behave. Needless to say hijinks ensue.

Enveloped in the marvelous home designed by David Rockwell and with beautiful period costumes by Jane Greenwood, every member of the cast shines. Leading off is James Earl Jones as Grandpa Vanderhof, simply bemused by life and his family, yet grounded in love and his faith.  Kristine Nielsen brings her usual comic flair as momma Penelope, whether auditioning Julie Halston's insane lush actress, painting Patrick Kerr's Mr. DePinna or herding cats. (adoption of said kittens is possible inquire at the theater)  Mark Linn-Baker balances the pyro his Paul Sycamore is so fond of with genuine love and compassion for his harried daughter, Alice. Rose Byrne makes an impressive Broadway debut as the normal Alice, showing in her delight at being in love that she's inherited just as much emotional vibrancy from her Vanderhof/Sycamore genes as the rest of the family.

What a pair is Patrick Kerr's naive Ed and Annaleigh Ashford's ever dancing Essie. If you want to take notes on comic genius, just watch the perfect landing when Ms. Ashford delicately poses next to Johanna Day's regal Mrs. Kirby. It would also be remiss to forget to mention Elizabeth Ashley's spot on Grand Duchess Olga. Her time on stage is oh so brief, yet this refugee from the Russian revolution who is now the best hash slinger in New York City is a gem.

It feels inadequate to leave out the rest of the large cast. Let's just say that even the G-men are perfectly cast.  It would be easy to embrace the crazy, so hats off to director Scott Ellis for remembering the love and humanity at the heart of this play.

You Can't Take It With You is being performed at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit http://youcanttakeitwithyoubroadway.com/

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Shoplifters at Arena Stage


There seems to be a plethora of new works hitting Washington DC area stages this season.  This includes four new works planned at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Five counting the special event The War coming to the Center's Kogod Cradle.) For that we should applaud artistic director Molly Smith's commitment to continuing to showcase both classic American theater works and nurturing playwrights to create new experiences for theatergoers.

The first out of the gate is Canadian playwright Morris Panych' The Shoplifters. This rather slight comedy shows glimmers of potential as most works garnering a first or second production should. What keeps The Shoplifters from being just a pure sitcom on the stage is the central performance by Jayne Houdyshell, making her Arena Stage debut.

Taking place in a store room of a grocery store, designed with towers of name brand boxes by set designer Ken MacDonald, two female shoplifters, Alma and Phyllis, are apprehended by Dom, a rookie security guard. They are interrogated both together and separately by Dom and his more experienced colleague, Otto who is more inclined to let the ladies off with perhaps a warning. Over the course of several hours, there are tantalizing glimpses into all four characters, before the situation reaches resolution.

Directed by the playwright, Morris Panych, The Shoplifters is funny and in a few brief moments, rather poignant. The problem is that the scenario is slight. The play runs 90 minutes, 100 with a completely unnecessary intermission. We never learn any real reasons why Alma and Phyllis are shoplifting, nor do we ever understand their friendship. Dom is a militant deeply religious Dudley Do Right. He even states that he is former member of the Salvation Army. This makes the character entertaining, but again rather shallow. Otto, the world weary 30 year veteran guard is the only character that feels fleshed out.

The performances are uniformly good. The evening that this reviewer attended, the role of Otto was played by understudy Michael Russotto. Mr. Russotto had that blend of experience and laissez faire that comes from the character understanding the ways of the world. Adi Stein's Dom is intense with the zealotry that comes from a young man who easily sees the world in black and white, saved and damned. He presents a figure desperate to fill out the three sizes too big uniform he has been issued.

Jenna Sokolowski is physically awkward and neurotically in a tizzy as the hapless Phyllis, conned or perhaps bullied or shamed by Alma into being her partner in crime. The marvelous Jayne Houdyshell is brassy, defiant and unashamed as Alma the queen of petty thievery. Ms. Houdyshell takes her very entertaining character and runs with it, making some of the more absurd twists of the story believable.

If you decide to see The Shoplifters you will be thoroughly entertained. The play is very funny, but the comedy is very much sitcom crossed with an adult version of "a very special episode" of social conscientiousness.  Fleshing out the relationships, eliminating the intermission and, perhaps, splitting the set into the two rooms that are implied by the script, thereby making scene transitions more believable would go along way to improving the play.  Here's to its' next incarnation.

The Shoplifters by Morris Panych is being performed at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre at the Mead Center for American Theater through October 19, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit arenastage.org.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Is Our Youth at the Cort Theatre


The petty problems of disaffected youth are not a new subject matter for theater. One of the better depictions is Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 play This Is Our Youth now receiving its Broadway debut by way of  Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.  The problems of rich post adolescents aimlessly trying to handle a potentially dangerous crisis is rather funny, but ultimately sad. For these characters are drifting primarily because they come from wealth and privilege.

Set in 1982 in the upper west side apartment of Dennis (Kieran Culkin), Dennis is roused from a late night tv binge by the arrival of his neurotic friend, Warren (Michael Cera) who has stolen $15,000 from his businessman father and run away with the cash and a suitcase of collectibles. Dennis, who makes his living as a drug dealer, only half heartedly advises Warren to either leave the country or return the money before it's discovered missing. Into this mix is added Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) Warren's current girl of his dreams.

Mr. Lonergan's script is witty and filled with dialogue that actually sounds like it should be spoken by young adults in their late teens and early twenties as opposed to many scripts where the dialogue sounds like an older generation thinks the younger should sound. The play is ultimately a character study, there is little resolution to the central crisis. This leads to a non-ending that perfectly fits these poor little rich slackers. The value in the script is in the revelations about the character's backgrounds, whether it is Warren's family tragedy involving his older sister or Dennis dealing with an unexpected death. Jessica is the least interesting character, although Ms. Gevinson manages to capture the part wary, part up for adventure persona of Jessica who shows her immaturity(as do all three characters) in act two's harsher light of day.

Director Anna D. Shapiro keeps the pacing interesting, and the tone as funny and slight as the characters. Todd Rosenthal's set is clearly early 1980's from the polaroids and posters pasted on the walls to the messenger bike hanging above the kitchen.

Michael Cera is perfectly at home in his portrayal of the neurotic Warren. Mr. Cera has made his career out of playing socially awkward characters. For his Broadway debut he is in his comfort zone. One hopes that he considers taking a role outside this zone for his next effort.

The real standout performance is given by Kieran Culkin. He has portrayed Warren in a previous production in the West End. His bemused Dennis who only half-heartedly really tries to deal with the potentially dangerous intrusion by Warren into his cosy existence is perfect. Mr. Culkin is that cool, bullying friend that tolerates the awkward one, yet doesn't want to actually get too involved. Mr. Culkin, of the three performers, truly is that privileged slacker incarnate.

This Is Our Youth is being performed at the Cort Theatre on Broadway through January 4, 2015. For tickets and other performance information please visit http://thisisouryouthbroadway.com
or telecharge.com

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sunday In The Park With George at Signature Theatre in Virginia

"White. A blank page of canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities..."

Director Matthew Gardiner brings to Signature Theatre's Max stage an outstanding production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George. A truly original work, inspired by the neo impressionist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte, it is a lyrical love letter to the creation of art and the dangers of losing connection with humanity. The first act imagines the process of the creation of the painting, dot of paint by dot of paint. The subjects in the urban park setting are vividly imagined by Lapine and Sondheim and the tensions between the aloof artist, Georges Seurat and his fictional mistress, Dot ferry the audience through struggles and poignant realizations until at last the finished work is recreated in front of the audience.

Act two, which takes place one hundred years, later has always been problematic. The real George Seurat died at the age of 31 and his two known offspring died shortly thereafter. The musical gives us Dot's descendant, another artist named George who is struggling to find his artistic vision despite a good deal of success with his computerized chromolume series. It takes the gentle persuasions of his grandmother, Marie, Seurat and Dot's daughter to convince her grandson that recognizing what matters most, "Children and Art" will lead him to find his artistic vision as his great grandfather did, by starting over with a blank canvas.

In previous productions, act two has been the less satisfying section of this musical. It takes a revelatory performance by Brynn O'Malley who doubles as Dot and Marie to show the possibilities of this act's redemptive qualities.  Ms. O'Malley is feisty as Dot the artist's muse, who yearns for real love and connection with the cool, almost unemotional Seurat. Yet, it is as the 98 year-old Marie that Ms. O'Malley truly shines. Her Marie is unequivocal in her belief in her family history and ties to the Sunday Afternoon painting. Ms. O'Malley's rendition of "Children and Art" is very soft spoken, yet she draws the audience in letting us learn the life lessons Marie wishes her grandson to learn. One should expect Ms. O'Malley to be remembered come Helen Hayes Award time.

Clybourne Elder acts the dual George(s) roles well. His voice is occasionally ragged as if straining. Yet he is clearly capable of the vocal range necessary for the part. The problem seems to be that by acting the music so well Mr. Elder is not getting adequate support making one worry about his stamina over the run of the production. That said, he marvelously embodies the emotionally distant Georges Seurat and the less aloof, yearning for new artistic expression George the grandson.

The rest of the ensemble is well cast. Standouts include Paul Scanlan as the gruff boatman and the technical wizard Dennis and the always delightful Donna Migliacchio as the Old Lady and Elaine.
Daniel Conway's scenic design is fluid marrying well with Robbie Hayes projection design and Frank Labovitz's costumes. Jon Kalbfleisch's musical direction brings harmony between his acting ensemble and the eleven piece orchestra under his steady baton.

This is an emotionally satisfying production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George. Do not miss this chance to be re-acquainted with this masterpiece.

Sunday in the Park with George is being performed in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA through September 21, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit signature-theatre.org.