Saturday, December 7, 2013

No Man's Land and Waiting For Godot at the Cort Theatre

Who knew that existentialism could be so much fun?

To call a veteran actor a master thespian can come off as a bit of a cliche. Yet, that term applies to Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. The two have known each other for decades and their long friendship deepens their performances. Particularly as Samuel Beckett's tramps, Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot (God-oh)  Day after day the two meet on a desolate landscape entertaining themselves and the audience with discussions both sacred and mundane, always waiting. Beckett's script makes reference to Didi and Gogo knowing each other for 50 years. In this production, you genuinely believe they have known each other and supported each other through the terrors of the nights they spend alone into the interminable days they spend together. Their philosophical sparring brings forth the humor of the script. Yet, the hopelessness of their situation is ever present. Given strong support by Shuler Hensley as the bombastic slave master, Pozzo and Billy Crudup as the heavily burdened Lucky, Waiting for Godot is a triumphant production.

The playwrights Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett can be challenging for the average audience. In particular Pinter's No Man's Land, written in 1974 and first produced in 1975 is a difficult script. In brief it takes place in the home of Hirst, a alcoholic upper-class man of letters where he is served by two men, Foster and Briggs, who are very protective of their status as his secretary and bodyguard. One night Hirst meets Spooner, a failed poet, at a local pub and invites him home.  Over much alcohol the two men engage in lengthy reminiscences about their past discussing their university days and their acquaintances and relationships.  The question becomes are they really friends from long ago? Or is Spooner feeding Hirst the conversation he seems to desperately craves?

No Man's Land ultimately is the less satisfactory production. That is due to Pinter's abrupt endings to both acts. The relationships between the four men are quite engaging, particularly Stewart as the bon vivant Hirst, mired in an increasing alcoholic haze and McKellen's Spooner, all threadbare in appearance, yet spry in words and movement.  Here, Mr. Hensley and Mr. Crudup are more menacing, always seeming to wish to maintain their control of Hirst and thus seeing Spooner as a threat to their cozy existence.   The set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is deceptive in its spaciousness, revealing itself as the evening wears on as cold and prisonlike.

For a crowd pleasing and easily satisfying foray into existentialist drama see Waiting for Godot. For a more challenging and thoughtful experience see No Man's Land. For the opportunity to see two esteemed master thespians at the top of their craft, do not miss rare opportunity to see either play or both this Broadway season.

No Man's Land by Harold Pinter and Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett are being performed in repertory at the Cort Theatre on Broadway through March 2, 2014.  For ticktets and other performance information please visit

Monday, November 25, 2013

If/Then Pre-Broadway Engagement at The National Theatre in Washington DC

Washington DC audiences have the opportunity to see The National Theatre being used as it once was in the golden age of musical theater, as a try-out location for new works headed to the Great White Way. Bit of trivia: for those too young to remember when it was normal for musicals and plays to iron out their kinks with several stops prior to opening in New York the wonderful opening number from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate is a love letter to this practice ("in Philly, Boston, or Balti-mo"). The creative team behind the Pulitzer-prize winning musical drama Next To Normal have chosen as their next project another original story. The challenge is that the way the story is told still needs to be clarified so that audience members who purchase tickets without knowledge of the format do not walk out hopelessly confused. The good news is that there is an ember of a potentially great musical on the stage of The National Theatre. By the end of its run, it may be ready for the big time.

If/Then tells the stories of Elizabeth, a divorcee in her late 30's who has left her marriage and life in Phoenix to return to New York City. Yes, I meant stories. In a fateful encounter in Madison Square Park she meets with both her best friend, Lucas and her new neighbor Kate. Both of these friends make her an offer, Kate to simply go out with her and Lucas to attend a protest. Whichever offer she accepts will change the path of her life over the next five years. The challenge of If/Then is that these tales unfold simultaneously. It is not yet 100% clear for the audience that this is happening. Yes, the film Sliding Doors had the same concept, but Elizabeth's story is a unique tale of the possibilities of chance.

There are two devices used to keep the story straight.  In Kate's story Elizabeth decides to call herself Liz. Background lighting for Liz's story is pink. In Lucas' version Elizabeth decides to adopt her college nickname of Beth. Beth's story lighting is blue. Unfortunately, there are a couple of moments when different lighting is used (and at least one instance at this performance where the pink storyline had the blue lighting). Anything the director and writers can do to continue to iron out the ambiguity would be a plus.

Within each tale are several supporting characters. Not all of the characters appear in each story and those that do have very different arcs. The most affected are Kate (LaChanze) and Lucas (Anthony Rapp). Kate, a lesbian kindergarten teacher has a romance with Anne (Jenn Colella). The ups and downs of their romance are documented with very different outcomes. Lucas is a bisexual man who in Liz's story develops a romance with David (Jason Tam), a doctor. In Beth's storyline Lucas' life is much more tied to Beth's and David simply appears in his role as a physician. Beth hires a personal assistant in Elena (Tamika Lawrence). Elena does not exist in Liz's story at all. A last pivotal character that appears in both stories is Stephen (Jerry Dixon) another of Elizabeth's friends from college who serves as a mentor in both stories, and potential love interest only in one.

The most significant difference is the character of Josh (James Snyder). Josh is a doctor and Army reservist who briefly encounters Liz in the park at the beginning of the show and only Liz. By choosing the Liz story Josh becomes the love of Elizabeth's life. Yet, book writer Brian Yorkey has not made If/Then into a simple tale of love and family in one direction, powerful job in the other. That is what elevates If/Then's intertwining stories to another level.

As with Next To Normal, the songs, music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, serve to either advance the plot or deepen character development. There is no song list in The National Theatre's Playbill reflecting the nature of the constant changes that occur during an out-of-town production. Suffice to say that LaChance and Anthony Rapp both receive good songs that truly enliven their characters. James Snyder's Josh has a wonderful heartfelt song about the joys and terrors of parenthood.

The best material goes to our girl Elizabeth, portrayed by the perfectly cast Idina Menzel. Her act one song "WTF" (spelled out in the show) is a comedic highlight that straddles both storylines. Her act two ballad, "Learn To Live Without" is raw with heartache.  Given that she is playing two very different stories, but the character development must be possible for the same woman, Ms. Menzel rises to the challenge with aplomb.

If/Then shows the growing pains inherent in new work. We should rejoice that this is a work intended for Broadway that is not based on a film. If/Then in its infant stage is challenging and its twists and turns are not always crystal clear to the average audience member. Give it a chance to grow up, the potential to shine is there.

If/Then is in its pre-Broadway engagement at The National Theatre in Washington DC through December 8, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Note: the performance reviewed was in the second week of previews. As with many new works, changes were being made to the show prior to its official opening on November 24, 2013.

Maurice Hines is Tappin' Thru Life at Arena Stage

Wanna be charmed for a couple of hours by a master entertainer? Maurice Hines, a true theatrical treasure, takes his audience on a trip down memory lane that is by turns suave, sophisticated, rousing and poignant. Tappin' Thru Life is not a standard autobiographical show. It does not travel simply from point A to point B, although the reminiscing by Mr. Hines makes you want to grab some coffee and just pick his brain about all of the wonderful performers he has worked with and gives glorious glimpses of as the evening progresses.

The structure of Tappin' Thru Life is staged as if it was a headlining act from the heyday of the Las Vegas strip. Backed by the incredible Diva Jazz Orchestra, musical direction by one of the best drummers alive, Dr. Sherrie Maricle, Mr. Hines uses a bit of big band, bit of swing, a sprinkling of jazz and some golden age Broadway tunes to bring this love letter to his family to life. For, yes, you will be treated to some very adorable baby pictures and really sweet portraits of his parents, Maurice, Sr. and Alma Hines. His late brother Gregory seems to be hovering in the wings waiting for his turn to take his natural place as part of Hines and Hines (and Dad). While we get treated to tales about performing or simply meeting Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Tallulah Bankhead and Judy Garland, it is the stories of Maurice's family that deepen the meaning of this production. Do not be surprised if a tear or two sprinkling into the joy that the audience will take away from seeing this show.

Jeff Calhoun is listed as the director, but it is clear that Mr. Calhoun has merely guided Mr. Hines in the shaping of this show. Mr. Hines tells the love story of his parents, his partnership with his brother and the amazing opportunities he had to mingle with famous performers over the years. Mr. Hines does not shy away from mentioning the natural prejudices that he faced as a child growing up in the 1940's and 1950's. Not many younger audience members may realize that even Las Vegas in the 1950's was segregated. The relating of that dark reality is not heavy-handed. Simply using the story of that time as he remembers it, coupled with poignant images and a heart breaking rendition of the old standard Smile suffices.

Maurice Hines is a generous performer and firmly believes in passing down his incredible body of knowledge to the next generation of tappers. To that end he shares the stage with the Manzari brothers, who were featured in Arena Stage's revival of Sophisticated Ladies at the Lincoln Theater a few seasons back. He goes one step further and adds the even younger Heimowitz brothers to the mix. Tap is an American institution that needs to be nurtured. With Mr. Hines as mentor and inspiring performers like the Manzari and Heimowitz brothers the future of tap is in great hands, or perhaps more appropriately, in great feet.

Audiences will laugh, clap along and sing along with Maurice Hines, the Manzari Brothers, the Heimowitz Brothers and the Diva Jazz Orchestra. For an energetic evening of theater that's a bit different than the usual holiday fare you could not do any better than to unwrap this hot chestnut from under your theatrical tree this season.

Maurice Hines is Tappin' Thru Life is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater through December 29, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Glass Menagerie at The Booth Theatre

Tennessee Williams' 1944 play The Glass Menagerie is the very definition of a classic chestnut. After all it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.  It is very likely that we read the play in high school or college. Esteemed actresses of a certain age via to put their stamp on the overbearing mother Amanda Wingfield. Yet, it is a rare production that succeeds on every level as does the current revival on Broadway. The cast of four is simply perfect. The direction of John Tiffany is sublime. The set, designed along with the costumes by Bob Crawley evoke a dream state.

For The Glass Menagerie is famously a dream play. Tom Wingfield, author and poet,  is haunted by his past. He relates to us the tale of how and why he abandoned his family, his faded belle of a mother, Amanda and his pathologically shy and crippled sister, Laura. It is Laura who truly haunts him. The Wingfield apartment floats on a black sea of stars. The fire escape entrance stretches abstractly to the heavens. The score by Nico Muhly settles our minds into the nostalgic past.  Yet, it is not a happy nostalgia that Tom invites us to revisit with him.

The story that Tom Wingfield relates is set in 1930's St. Louis. Tom is the main breadwinner for his mother and sister, the family having been abandoned by their salesman father years ago. Tom and his sister Laura are adults, yet Laura is incapable of any meaningful socializing with outside people. When Laura fails to tell her mother that she dropped out of business school weeks before, her mother becomes determined to get her daughter a husband. Fatally Amanda, wishing the same popularity with young men that she enjoyed decades before, ignores that such an encounter may emotionally ruin her daughter's life. Tom agrees to invite a co-worker home for dinner. That co-worker's effect on his sister leads to heartbreak for all.

Where does one begin to praise the performances of this quartet of perfectly cast actors. Brian J. Smith, as Jim O'Connor the gentleman caller is charismatic and charming, yet with a sweet gentleness as he weaves his romantic spell on shy Laura. Celia Keenan-Bolger breaks our hearts as we long to comfort her disappointments and grant her the happy ending we know will not occur.  Zachary Quinto gives narrator Tom an intriguingly complex performance. We understand his anger with his situation, his heartbreak for his sister and his needs and wants that he can only express to his mother as his desire to constantly "go to the movies." Cherry Jones is the definitive Amanda Wingfield for this generation. Driving her children to deeper despair by her well-intentioned actions, we still see a mother trying to do her best for her unhappy adult children, never realizing that her choices damage them all forever.

As Laura literally fades from our view and Tom forces the candles to go out, we are left with our own memories. Leaving the Booth Theatre we ponder the tragedy that has unfolded, wishing for a better outcome that we know can never be.

The Glass Menagerie is being performed at the Booth Theatre in New York City through February 23, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Saturday, November 23, 2013

MacBeth at Lincoln Center Theatre

There is a bounty of Shakespeare on and off-Broadway this New York theater season. Unfortunately Jack O'Brien's production of MacBeth does little to recommend it over the vastly superior productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III being performed a little ways down the Great White Way. The Lincoln Center Theatre production is a classic example of what happens when a director has an specific concept through which he interprets Shakespeare's text that ends up being detrimental to the proceedings.

A director having a strong vision is not necessarily a bad thing. A few seasons ago in a regional theater production that performed in New Jersey and Washington DC Aaron Posner and Teller brought a marvelous mysticism to MacBeth by incorporating actual magic to the proceedings. Alan Cummings' one-man performance on Broadway this past spring was a masterful distillation of the essence of the play highlighting the power and the madness in the story. The problem here is that the audience gets a lot of sound and fury, wrapped in a dark, gothic bow that surrounds a center with very little substance.

Jack O'Brien is not the first director to focus MacBeth on the supernatural elements. Nor is he the first to have said witches portray various background characters to suggest that fate is always manipulating the outcome of the story. The witches, vibrantly portrayed by Byron Jennings, John Glover and Malcolm Gets, are delightful in their wickedness. Aided by Francesca Faridany as the seldom included Hecate, the witches give hope from the start that this will be a passionate, bloody evening of theater. It would be except that the central characters of MacBeth and his Lady seem neutered by stripping away their own raw ambition for power.

Ethan Hawke's MacBeth gives us little reason to understand why this loyal Scottish general turns into an ambitious and paranoid murderer. It does not help that his diction is lacking. Racing through crucial speeches in the text, meaning and nuance get lost. Mr Hawke is stronger in the second half of the story once he starts to struggle to secure his throne. However the change comes too late in the evening to salvage his performance.

Anne Marie Duff is an icy Lady MacBeth. Seemingly directed to not be the driving force behind ensuring that MacBeth murders King Duncan that decision lessens the impact of her performance. Her sleepwalking scene is riveting, another example of showing the audience too late the potential of what her performance could have been.

The ensemble that supports them is filled with a mixed bag of performances. It is clear who has classical training and who does not. The standouts include Bianca Amato in her one scene as the doomed Lady MacDuff, Daniel Sunjata as a passionate and angry MacDuff (someone consider having him play the title role sometime soon) and Brian d'Arcy James as the loyal Banquo who shows great nuance as he witnesses his friend's ambitious rise to power then falls victim to it.

The design elements are interesting. The set is dominated by a replica of "The Seal of God's Truth" a medieval mandala showing God and his angels, well executed by designer Scott Pask. Catherine Zuber's costumes are of no particular period seeming a dark mashup of leather and couture. Mark Bennett's sound and original music is quite bombastic, in many ways overpowering the actors.

In the end Jack O'Brien and his company of actors deliver a most unsatisfying evening of theater. The witches and Hecate will entertain you, but it is not enough to save this bloodless production of Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy.

Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont presents Shakespeare's MacBeth with tickets currently available through January 12, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Friday, November 22, 2013

Shakespeare's Globe on Broadway: Twelfth Night and Richard III at the Belasco Theatre

Oh, for a Shakespeare Production that firmly believes that the text should dictate the performance rather than a director's misguided vision that the Bard desperately needs updating.  What's that you say? There are two, count them two such productions on Broadway this Fall season. Three hearty huzzahs for London's Shakespeare's Globe Productions of Twelfe Night, or What You Will and The Tragedie of King Richard III now in repertory. What gimmicks there are is in the service to promoting original staging practices, including using an all-male cast. There is an American Shakespeare company that is also devoted to original staging practices (the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia), but Shakespeare's Globe takes us two steps further. The first is in using the aforementioned entirely male cast. The second is deciding to use authentically hand-sewn costumes, which the actors don in front of the audience.

Designer Jenny Tiramani was director of theatre design at Shakespeare's Globe from 1997-2005, and her meticulous research has paid off with stunning costumes that clearly aid the actors in developing their characters. From shirt or chemise and hose, to ornate doublets for the aristocratic gentleman and stunning gowns for ladies, the costumes truly serve to enhance the performances.  Be sure to arrive early as the actors get dressed on stage before the performance. Lighting Designer Stan Pressner uses a few stage lights to augment the beeswax candles that light the stage. The audience finds itself lit as well as the house lights remain on for these shows. Along with the decision to place several audience members in tiered box seats on the stage this permits an easy rapport between actor and audience. When Richard III or Viola confides in the the audience there is a genuine connection to that audience that gets lost in the darkness of modern theatrical practices.

Music, all period pieces adapted by Claire van Kampen is played on Renaissance instruments. This particularly enhances Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's most musical plays.

Richard III is the more difficult production to get tickets for as it is only being performed twice a week. Shakespeare's gleeful deformed villain is given an unusual interpretation by Mark Rylance. His Richard appears to be a slow-witted buffoon, and his victims seem to embrace him as a genuine ally never seeing the betrayal coming until it is far too late. Mr. Rylance perhaps takes this characterization too far as several times the outright mugging for laughs from the audience detracts from the horror of Richard's monstrosity. It is to Mr. Rylance's credit that he does not shy away from his decision to play Richard so over the top.

Highlighted performances from Richard III include Liam Brennan as the devastated Duke of Clarence and Peter Hamilton Dyer as Catesby, never wavering in his loyalty to Richard.  Angus Wright is a proud Buckingham and Joseph Timms a sweet, melancholic Lady Anne. Kurt Egyiawan doubles as the contemptuous Duchess of York and the saintly savior of the future Tudor dynasty, Richmond.

Samuel Barnett is a revelation as Queen Elizabeth. Nemesis of Richard and his allies, Mr. Barnett makes Elizabeth a tower of strength. Written to not be swayed by Richard's tricks, Mr. Barnett gives a commanding performance as this maligned Queen consort who turns to steel once her sons are dead.

Richard III is a bit of a jarring production, mostly due to the decision to overplay the macabre glee of Richard's villainy. The more satisfying production is that of Twelfth Night. It is here that the conceit of a woman pretending to be a man being subsequently mistaken for her identical twin brother genuinely works.

For Twelfth Night's comedic tale of two women, Viola the shipwrecked maiden trying to survive disguised as a boy and Olivia, the newly empowered Countess forswearing the company of men whilst in deepest mourning for her brother. The choice to use an all-male cast provides true revelation in the in the performance.

Mr. Rylance portrays Olivia with the character's emotions bare to all. At first reserved and steady in her grief, it is a riotous joy to see Olivia just let go with giddy joy when she falls in love with the disguised Viola.  Here the over-the-top nature of Olivia in love works as a natural part of the romantic comedy.

This is perhaps one of the few productions of Twelfth Night in which the mistaken twins, one male the other a disguised female actually works. It helps that Joseph Timms is as close to a twin to Samuel Barnett as possible thanks to a physical resemblance aided by costuming and makeup. One cannot forget that there are men playing the women, but Mr. Barnett makes the audience look past it. His Viola is a genuine sweet lady deeply distressed by her circumstances, in love with her employer, Duke Orsino, yet forced to woo on his behalf the lady Olivia who has in turn fallen in love with her. One hopes Mr. Barnett is not overlooked come awards season.

Twelfth Night is filled with many excellent supporting performances. Stephen Fry is practically bursting with pomposity as the haughty steward Malvolio. We will pity his gulling, but Paul Chahidi's Maria lets you understand why she orchestrates Malvolio's comeuppance. Colin Hurley makes for a bawdy drunk Sir Toby and Angus Wright a wonderfully dense Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Peter Hamilton Dyer is the wry melodious fool, Feste, who, while acknowledging his own professional tomfoolery, delights in pointing out that the rest of the cast is just as delightfully foolish as well.

Twelfth Night is a marvelous good time for an evening of theater. Richard III, despite some shortcomings,  is equally welcome this Broadway season. The other productions of Shakespeare proliferating this season could learn a thing or two from Shakespeare's Globe. The best productions do not necessarily require fancy sets or strange directorial interpretations. The best Shakespeare productions let the text speak for itself.

William Shakespeare's Twelfe Night, or What You Will and The Tragedie of King Richard III are being performed in repertory at the Belasco Theatre in New York City through February 2, 2014.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Betrayal at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Director Mike Nichols has assembled an "A" list cast for his revival of Harold Pinter's Olivier-award winning 1978 drama, Betrayal. Betrayal is well known both for its reverse chronological structure and for being inspired by the playwright's own years-long extramarital affair. With an economy of words, Betrayal relies on its cast giving the audience their characters' motivations for their rather despicable behavior through the actors own emotional responses. Deciding to cast real life husband and wife Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as the married Robert and Emma does not necessarily add any particular insight to the playwright's intentions. Betrayal is a solid production of a play that was considered groundbreaking in the 70's but for a 21st century audience lays bare the shortcomings of the text.

Betrayal begins to unspiral its tale in 1977 with the end of the affair between Emma and Jerry (Rafe Spall), who tells us multiple times that he is the cuckolded Robert's longest friend and best man at his wedding. From there we weave backwards to 1968 until we glimpse the start of the affair as the play ends. During two pivotal years, 1977 the year of the break-up and 1973 the year that Robert finds out about the affair, the story fleshes out with additional scenes that move the drama forward.  In the end the audience is left unsatisfied. We do not really understand the nature of Robert and Emma's marriage, or why Jerry is compelled to initiate the affair. Pinter leaves us wanting answers that he chooses not to give.

Given its limitations the fine trio of actors must work hard to enlighten us as to why they constantly "betray" each other. Daniel Craig gives a nonchalant matter-of-factness to Robert. At one point he casually mentions to Jerry that he has hit Emma, a violent act that is not dramatized and is disturbingly laughed off by the two male characters. Rachel Weisz' Emma is reserved and seemingly composed when interacting with both men yet she has an appealing vulnerability hiding beneath the surface that hints at the raw unhappiness of her life. Rafe Spall has the more histrionic character, Jerry.  Jerry in his hands does not hide his emotions and anxieties freely keeping them on the surface.  Yet, all three characters are ultimately unlikeable human beings. It is difficult for the audience to engage or root for any of them.

Special note must be made of the rather elaborate scenic design by Ian MacNeil. Pinter's nine scenes all take place in different locales requiring multiple scene changes. Mr. MacNeil has devised a system of sliding platforms and flying walls that smoothly glide into place. Along with the rather hypnotic original score by James Murphy it makes the scene changes as interesting to watch as the rest of the performance.

Betrayal is a good production of a play that shows its age. The production features good acting and excellent direction. Yet, without characters that have any redeeming qualities it is difficult for the audience to genuinely care about the reasons for the perfidy. In the end you may feel that this trio has gotten everything they deserve.

Betrayal is being performed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City through January 5, 2014.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Troilus and Cressida at the American Shakespeare Center

The American Shakespeare Center has returned to its staging roots for its 25th Anniversary Season production of William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.  This play, so rarely performed, receives a revelatory mounting at the Blackfriars' Playhouse. The American Shakespeare Center has long embraced the original staging practices of Early Modern Theatre. They famously "do it with the lights on." The audience has the opportunity to sit both on the stage and above it. They use only a few props and furnishings to evoke time and place. Yet, when the American Shakespeare Center began 25 seasons ago as the touring company Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, they faced additional challenges. By honoring those early conditions, Troilus and Cressida comes alive with an exuberant production that will leave you pondering the mess that is love and loss in a long and futile war.

As Artistic Director Jim Warren states in his director's notes, he informed the actors that they would be producing Troilus and Cressida as if they did not have the luxury of a discovery space or a backstage area. The actors when they are not on stage stay seated around the stage watching the action, requiring costume changes to be made in full view of the audience. The aisles and walls surrounding the stage are utilized as additional entrances and exits thereby truly immersing the audience in the action. Costume Designer Victoria Depew clads the actors in basic grey tunics and cut-off pants (Cressida wears a skirt). The actors don minimal additional costume pieces, forest green for the Greeks and rustic red for the Trojans, those pieces instantly imposing the characters status, whether the regal general Agamemnon or the elderly warrior, Nestor.

These choices free the actors to even more embrace Shakespeare's text. Troilus and Cressida is a famously messy play. It takes place in the seventh year of the Trojan War, yet focuses more on the relationships of the various characters rather than on mighty battle scenes. The play itself is rife with raucous humor, most of it balancing the tightrope between PG-13 and R. Yet, the tragic elements are equally raucous. This is a story filled with deep emotional passion, whether it is the shy and gentle love story that anchors the first half of the play or the wounds of loss and betrayal when that love is torn asunder by the realities of war.

The characters of Troilus and Cressida simply anchor the tale. They compete with the drama going on in both the Greek and Trojan war camps. At the center of that drama is the character of Achilles. Benjamin Curns evokes the pride and ego of Greece's greatest warrior who has decided that he has had enough of war and will fight no longer. When finally goaded into battle by the death of his close companion, Patroclus, Mr. Curns' great warrior first presents himself as the chivalric hero of legend, then shatters that persona as he fights the Trojans' noble Prince Hector.

Chris Johnston's Prince Hector carries himself with a noble bearing. One step across the stage and the audience knows that here is a warrior that is the embodiment of knightly courtesy, whose word is golden. Equally noble is the brave Aeneas, yet, Tim Sailer barely keeps his contempt of the Greeks in check. Josh Innerst's Agamemnon never lets you forget that he is a King. Rene Thornton, Jr. was absent from this performance. In his stead, veteran company member Daniel Kennedy took on the role of Ulysses with script in hand, managing to still create the wise and wily warrior who will eventually win the war and suffer the consequences on his long journey home. Dylan Paul is both the cowardly, indolent Paris who started this mess and then,  with the addition of a cane and head cloth,completely transforms into the elderly firebrand Nestor.

John Harrell is the brash blowhard Greek warrior Ajax, naively accepting the challenge to battle Prince Hector not knowing that he is being used to shame Achilles into action. Mr. Harrell also practically steals the production in the famous role of Pandarus, Uncle to Cressida, who lasciviously arranges his niece's love affair with Prince Troilus. Mr. Harrell does not shy away from the rather naughty remarks that Pandarus teases the young couple with both before and after they consummate their union.

Three of the four ladies in the acting company have been given the opportunity to portray three vital male characters. Emily Brown is the proud young companion of Achilles, Patroclus, deftly ignoring the snide remarks that hint that this relationship is rather more than boon companions. Tracie Thomason is given the noble Greek Diomedes who becomes the protector and seducer of Cressida when she is traded to the Greek camp. There is no unease from the audience at this rather intimate portrayal which is a testament to Ms.Thomason's full commitment to the character's story.

Allison Glenzer explodes with energy every time she takes the stage as the Greek commentator, Thersites. Thersites is the clown character, but is no ordinary fool. A man of honest and biting wit, Thersites does not hold back whether telling Achilles off for ignoring his duties on the battlefield or helping to lift the veil from the lovestruck Troilus' eyes.

Cressida may have the smallest number of lines of any of the title characters in Shakespeare's plays. Yet, Lee Fitzpatrick creates a true enigma. Her stage time is brief. Cressida must go from a shy and awkward young woman who deeply loves her Prince, yet foreshadowing her own betrayal of that love in heartrending honesty. When traded to the Greeks, Cressida becomes almost a new character. It is a testament to both Ms. Fitzpatrick and her director that they do not try to justify this abrupt change in Cressida's nature simply allowing the text to dictate the character's behavior. Ms. Fitzpatrick benefits by the decision to have the actors sit upon the stage when not performing. Whether being praised or condemned particularly by the man she loves, Ms. Fitzpatrick openly wears her character's emotional responses bravely.

Gregory Jon Phelps must also travel a complex path as Troilus. Another warrior who eschews the battlefield, Mr. Phelps is dealt a character who is young, naive and awkward in wooing and then devastated by the betrayal of his false Cressida.  Mr. Phelps then makes Troilus' change into bloodthirsty avenger justified. His Troilus is a brash young man dictated by his passions whether the passions of love or the brimstone of war.

Is Troilus and Cressida a history? A tragedy? A great satire of war? In truth it is a hot mess. There is no clean resolution to any part of the story. The audience is left with an abrupt ending that feels unsatisfactory. We want confrontation between the sundered lovers. We want revenge for noble Hector's death. We want catharsis. We are given unanswered questions. What is the greatest gift of this production is Artistic Director's Jim Warren decision to simply allow the text to speak for itself. The audience is responsible for seeking out their own interpretation of what has transpired in this two and a half hour's traffic upon the Blackfriars' stage.

William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is being performed at The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertory with Romeo and Juliet, Alls Well That Ends Well, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer and Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet through November 30, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Romeo and Juliet at the Richard Rodgers Theatre

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is one of the most produced of Shakespeare's plays. There are many professional productions being produced in any given theatrical season. So why would anyone be compelled to pay Broadway prices to see a show that is readily available at much cheaper prices? The short answer in the case of the current Broadway production is the chance to see well-known film heartthrob Orlando Bloom portray Romeo and two-time Tony Award nominee Condola Rashad portray Juliet. Whether the production itself justifies making that a reason to see Romeo and Juliet on Broadway is another tale.

If anyone is going to complain that a review of Romeo and Juliet is filled with spoilers the simple response is this. The chorus that begins the show gives away the ending. Directors shape Shakespeare's text to suit their vision of the play. Verse is cut, characters may not get the death that Shakespeare wrote. The question becomes how a director's vision for the production enhances or hinders the audience's enjoyment of the production. Unfortunately David Leveaux makes some choices that are bizarre and rather heavy handed in their symbolism. The actors, for the most part, overcome these disastrous decisions. Therefore if you choose to see Romeo and Juliet on Broadway pay attention to William Shakespeare's words in the steady hands of a fine ensemble of actors and ignore the trappings those words are wrapped within.

Jesse Poleshuck's scenic design creates a Verona that is beyond its glory days. A faded mural of Renaissance Saints is plastered in graffiti. These walls shift to create chambers and walls. Unfortunately layered upon this simple and effective set are flames clearly meant to symbolize the conflict between the warring families. It's very heavy handed as is the presence of an alarm bell that raises and lowers throughout the show providing no real purpose to the proceedings as it is rung exactly twice. It only serves as a hinderance to the actors who must sidestep the lengthy rope that gets in the way of their movement at points in the play.  The less said about the completely unnecessary brief appearance of a motorcycle the better.

The costumes by Fabio Toblini are contemporary and rather grungy. It makes it very strange to hear Lord Capulet refer to Romeo as a well-thought of youth when he crashes the Capulet ball in faded and torn jeans and a hoodie. The colors are gray, black and earth tones perhaps welcome to anyone who sees productions of Romeo and Juliet that attach a color scheme to the Montagues and the Capulets so that the audience can tell quickly which characters belong to which families.

The saving grace of this production is the supporting acting ensemble. All speak Shakespeare's verse clearly and interpret his words so that a novice in the audience will easily be able to understand the story and the characters. Amongst the supporting players Conrad Kemp is a loyal and honest Benvolio and Chuck Cooper a loving father as Lord Capulet yet a wrathful force when his daughter disobeys his spontaneous wish that she marry. Justin Guarini is a pleasant enough Paris, but without the character's actual fate from the text, the role is simply that of a nice, pleasant guy. Christian Camargo makes his Mercutio a sharp wit although some of the jokes inherent in the famous Queen Mab's speech do not get the humorous response that is in Shakespeare's text.

Condola Rashad takes a while to find Juliet's soul. She really doesn't embody a young girl's hopes and dreams of a romantic future with her true love until she is married and awaiting the arrival of her wedding night. It is at the turning point of tragedy that Ms. Rashad makes an impact as her dissembling with her parents as she plots her desperate escape shows a Juliet with a steely resolve that creates a heartbreaking ending for our heroine. Yet, throughout her performance she lacks Juliet's urgency that leads her to agree to marry her family's enemy less than 24 hours after they meet. Her Romeo also lacks deep passion.

Orlando Bloom's Romeo is a lover not a fighter.  Mr. Bloom speaks the verse quite well and makes some very interesting line readings during the balcony scene that speak to Romeo's possible disbelief that this girl, unlike his unrequited Rosaline, returns his love. Yet, the brash impulsive nature that leads Romeo to avenge a friend's death lacks any fire. Without that part of Romeo's nature, coupled with the director's decision to eliminate a sequence which reinforces that unpleasant part of his character, we are left unsatisfied. The ladies in the audience will still swoon and Mr. Bloom is charming and Ms Rashad beautiful but without the passion that the flames on stage promise the tragedy in the story is lost.

Romeo and Juliet is being performed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway through January 12, 2014.  For tickets please visit

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Miss Saigon at Signature Theatre Virginia

Let's get the big question out of the way. How is the Fall of Saigon without a full-sized helicopter landing on the stage? Answer: awesome.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer is becoming quite the specialist in taking the large musicals of the 1980's and 1990's and reinterpreting them in the intimate space of the Max Theatre. Here he tackles one of the most challenging shows, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil's Miss Saigon. From its beginnings this sung-through musical which takes the premise of Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly and sets in in the desperate final days of the Vietnam War has not been without its controversies.  The original London production was faulted for casting Jonathan Pryce in the lead role of the French and Vietnamese Engineer and having him wear eye makeup that was offensive. Currently in Minnesota there are protests and heated discussions over the depiction of the Asian women in the show as submissive and sexualized objects.
While there may be moments in the script that justify the criticism audiences should make an effort to see Signature Theatre's production as at the heart of this show is a young woman's performance that shows that the leading lady is not just a love-struck, passive Asian stereotype. She's a survivor of war and a woman who fights to protect her son.

As in Madame Butterfly this is the story of a love affair between a young Asian woman and an American who leaves her behind. It is April 1975 on the eve of the end of the Vietnam War. Chris, a Marine nearing the end of his second tour of duty is weary of war. Goaded into going to the Dreamland Bar by his friend John, he meets Kim.  Kim who has fled the destruction of her village has no choice but to become the newest prostitute for the club owner, the Engineer. John buys Kim for Chris for the night and the two fall in love. They decide to spend two weeks together, Kim considering it a real marriage. Three years later, Chris has gone home to America and married Ellen, suffering nightmares about the fall of Saigon. The Engineer has spent three year in reeducation camps. Kim is surviving on the streets of the renamed Ho Chi Minh City guarding a secret. Kim commits murder to protect that secret, that she has a half American son, Tam. The Engineer always scheming to find his way to America uses Kim and her son as his ticket out of Vietnam.  It all comes to a head in Thailand and no one completely gets their dream.

The strength of the Miss Saigon script is in its descriptions of the brutality of war. Stripping the spectacle away allows the lyrics to have emotional resonance. This is enhanced by the environmental set and sound design. As you enter the Max Theatre you immediately see the trappings of the military. As you scurry to your seat take the time to stop and look at the antechamber display. The dismantled airplane and the video screen showing rice paddies and villages being bombed help to put the play into context.  Entering the theater proper you will see tattered parachutes and hear the sounds of planes and helicopters flying overhead. It is brilliant design work by scenic designer Adam Koch and sound designer Matt Rowe.  Their work is complemented by the spot on lighting design by Chris Lee and the understated costume designs of Frank Labovitz.  The entire production palette eschews glitz and spectacle for a more realistic depiction of a war torn country. The 15-piece orchestra under the expert direction of Gabriel Mangiante does Claude-Michel Schonberg's score justice without overpowering either the small performance space or the singers. Choreographer Karma Camp has very little actual dancing to choreograph but she provides inspired choreography to illustrate the change of the regimes in The Morning of the Dragon.

Eric Schaffer has cast a wonderful ensemble of actors to bring this tale to life. No matter the size of the role each performance is well-thought out even if some of the characters suffer from a lack of real character development. This is the case for the part of Ellen, the American wife who discovers the source of her husband Chris' nightmares creating a nightmare reality for herself. Erin Driscoll does what she can with the role and with the new song written for Ellen, Maybe, a less harsh version of  Ellen's original song Now That I've Seen Her covers the same dilemma as the original song, that of a wife learning the hard way about her husband's war-time romance.

Chris Sizemore handles the awkward duality of John, the best friend who buys him a girl in a bar to cheer him up and then makes a 180 to become the advocate for the half Vietnamese half American Bui Doi children. Christopher Mueller has the intensity of a fanatic as Thuy the villager turned Viet Cong loyalist. Cheryl Daro sings her solo in The Movie in My Mind with pathos really showing that the prostitutes of Miss Saigon are more than just objects of Marine lust.

Just prior to the opening of the production the original actor cast as Chris, James Michael Evans suffered a vocal injury that forced him to leave the show. His understudy, Gannon O'Brien took over the role with little rehearsal. Mr. O'Brien has a strong voice and he does a good job with the weariness of Chris of war and Vietnam itself. He still needs to find the deep passion for Kim that leads Chris to commit the mistakes his character makes.

Thom Sesma as The Engineer is the audience's gateway into the seedy world of Saigon's nightlife. The character is a train wreck, you want to be repulsed by his opportunism yet you can't help being somewhat charmed by his reptilian way of clawing his way to success. When he sings The American Dream you smile and cheer him on, even though you know his world is about to crash around him for the upteenth time.

The heart and soul of Miss Saigon is Diana Huey's Kim. Diana Huey is outstanding. Her Kim is no meek and mild lovestruck girl. Listen to the bite of her words as she strips the romance from Chris' eyes describing the destruction of her village and the graphic deaths of her parents. She is a woman who finds a way to survive living for her son and always holding on to her dream that one day Chris will return and grant her little family a happily ever after. Her decision as to how to ensure her son's future causes a lot of criticism, but Ms. Huey shows in her performance that Kim genuinely does what she does out of a belief that it is the only way to ensure her son's happiness.

Miss Saigon is being performed in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia and has been extended until October 6, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

First Date at the Longacre Theatre

The songwriting team of Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner have been friends and colleagues for a very long time. Their best known work has been the Disney Cruise Line musical Twice Charmed, a twist on Cinderella. Teaming up with book writer Austin Winsberg they bring to Broadway the new musical First Date. Pretty much the synopsis is summed up in the title of the show. This is a blind date between uptight Aaron and the edgy and artistic Casey. Just like with any normal blind date these characters are hounded by an ensemble that portrays the well-meaning and occasionally destructive voices in their heads. It should resonate with a lot of theatregoers.

First Date may be too small a show to have a long run on Broadway. It is entertaining and fun, but it does have a number of flaws. The songs that express each character's doubts early in the evening come off as superficial, going for the easy sitcom laugh. This includes such material as Bailout Song (versions 1, 2 and 3) with the stereotypical gay bestie and the song The Girl For You which occurs when it slips out that Casey is not Jewish and hilarity ensues with a comic sledgehammer as everyone bursts into a disapproving family attempt at a showstopper. 

Yet, there are some truly terrific moments in this brisk 90 minute show. Krista Rodriguez's hard-edged Casey gets a deeply satisfying emotional moment in the Safer where she confesses her characters fears and genuine vulnerabilities. Zachary Levi equally gets a similar moment when Aaron relates a heartbreaking moment from his youth, dueting with Sara Chase as Aaron's mother on The Things I Never Said.  It is these little gems that almost stop First Date from simply hitting all the requisite notes of the standard romantic comedy. The audience is laughing and cheering these characters on, but in the end there just isn't a real satisfaction in the end of the date. 

This is a very tight ensemble. The five actors who portray multiple roles, each a part of the main characters' lives, embrace those roles with a great deal of enthusiasm. The real standouts and the best fleshed out of these characters are Sara Chase as Casey's pushy suburban sister Lauren and Bryce Ryness as Aaron's lascivious best friend Gabe. Although Kate Loprest deserves a nod for portraying the ex-girlfriend from H-E-double-LL Allison. 

Krista Rodriguez and Zachary Levi are well matched as the wary daters. Each has great comedic skills and excellent voices.  As Mr. Levi plays the more uptight character he gets the larger growth arc in the play. Let's just say that when he lets loose in In Love With You, it's a major highlight of the evening.

First Date is an intimate romantic comedy that seems too small for Broadway. It is not the greatest show and it it is not the worst. It simply is what it is. First Date is  a fun, quick evening of musical comedy featuring a cast that delivers a charming, but flawed blind date.

First Date is being performed at the Longacre Theater on Broadway in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please contact or

Sunday, July 28, 2013

All's Well That Ends Well at the American Shakespeare Center

Girl, he's just not that into you.

The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia's third offering this 25th anniversary season is William Shakespeare' All's Well That Ends Well. This comedy is, as director Ralph Alan Cohen states in his director's notes, one of two plays in which Shakespeare seems to tell the audience how to feel about the play. Famously labeled over the centuries as a problem play, All's Well That Ends Well is a mature comedy that really posits that happily ever after is not always as happy as it seems. The acting company brings out all the comedy, romance and rich characterizations that Shakespeare created, but when all is said and done, the ending of this play is a troubling one. By choosing to not make changes to that ending to make it more satisfying, Dr. Cohen and his cast are presenting this play as Shakespeare intended. It is an evening of theater in which you may well find yourself pondering the outcome for quite some time.

The Countess of Rossillion is recently widowed and her son Bertram accedes to his father's title. Still a very young man he is made a ward of the King of France and his summoned to court. Helena, the daughter of the Countess' famed physician, also recently deceased, pines for Bertram knowing that as a poor physician's daughter she cannot hope to marry the far above her station Count. The King of France is deathly ill and has given up all hope of a cure. Helena decides to travel to the French court to cure the King using one of her father's famous remedies. The King agrees to undergo the treatment, but if Helena fails she will die. If she succeeds she may choose any of the unmarried men at court for her husband.

Helena succeeds and chooses Bertram. Bertram protests against the marriage even though the King grants Helena a rich dowry. They are married and Bertram swears that he will not consider Helena his wife unless she gets his father's ring from his finger and his pregnant with his child. Encouraged by his follower, the boastful Parolles, Bertram flees France for the war in Florence. Helena decides to follow him. There are tricks and twists before Helena gets her happy ending.

There are many delightful secondary characters in this play and it is through them that the majority of the very funny comedy ensues.  The fusty old lord LaFew, wittly portrayed by Rene Thornton, Jr. matches wits with the Countess' clown, LaVatch, endearingly cute with wonderfully crisp delivery of his many, many puns by Gregory Jon Phelps. Benjamin Curns is a perfect flamboyant, cowardly braggart as Parolles. His many foibles and follies that lead to a very funny comeuppance for his character is a major highlight of the production.

Allison Glenzer is the calm, rational center as the wise Countess. Emily Brown is sweet and sly as Diana, the object of Bertram's lust in Florence. Tracie Thomason threads a careful path between being a pining lovelorn girl and a strong virtuous heroine, managing not to trespass into stalker territory. Her performance makes you believe that Helena deserves to win her love, although given what she's in love with, we still question her choice.

Dylan Paul has one of the more difficult leading man roles in Shakespeare's comedies. Face it, Bertram is a jerk. Fortunately, Dr. Cohen has his cast emphasize the many times that Shakespeare calls Bertram young and a boy. For in the text, it is clear that Bertram is a very immature young man. He is not yet, of age having been made a ward of the court. His behavior towards his forced marriage is one of the rash and the foolish and his willingness to be advised by the blowhard Parolles also shows just how immature Bertram is. Mr. Paul's Bertram still comes off as quite the charmer. It is easy to see why Helena falls in love and Diana is partly dazzled by him. Yet, it is the unpleasant aspects of Bertram's behavior that show how Mr. Bertram carefully navigates this difficult role. In the end, Helena wins him, and Mr. Paul shows appropriate remorse and love towards Ms. Thomason's Helena. The question becomes does the audience believe that all is well in the end.

William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is being performed at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriar's Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia through November 29, 2013. It is being performed during the summer season in repertory with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet. In the Fall these productions will be joined by Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Spin in the SigLab at Signature Theatre Virginia

Signature Theatre is giving audiences the chance to see the birth of a new musical through their SigLab program. For a very reasonable price of $30 a ticket it is possible to see this very good production of a promising new work before it travels to South Korea for its next incarnation.

Yes, South Korea. Spin, based on the South Korean Film whose English title translates to Speedy Scandal, is a fun confection of musical theatre just perfect for a summer date night. The staging is minimal, reusing the set from the recently closed production of Company. With a very witty book by Brian Hill and music and lyrics by Neil Bartram, there are  a few places where the script could use some tweaking. This is to be expected in a brand new play. The creators are best known for their very short lived Broadway show, The Story of My Life. It's easier to predict a much longer life for Spin.

Evan Peterson was once the lead singer of a popular boy band. He struck out on his own and his solo career tanked. Evan now hosts an early morning music contest show. His rival, Richard Riddle, is the local gossip reporter looking for a juicy scandal to bring him fame. A popular caller to the program is Makalo, a young woman searching for her father. Evan discovers he's Makalo's father when she shows up on his doorstep with a grandson in tow. To force a connection, Makalo becomes a contestant on the show. When a viral video brings the local show national exposure Evan faces a dilemma.  Will he ride the exposure to revive his own career or acknowledge his new found family. Meanwhile, Richard is sniffing around trying to expose Evan's secret for his own personal gain.

Spin is filled with a lot of fun characters and the small ensemble under the direction of Eric Schaeffer makes them fully realized human beings.  The studio chorus not only provides the typical background singers for the tv show within the show, they also act as a all-knowing chorus commenting hilariously at certain points in the story.

Young Holden Browne is sweet and adorable as the grandson Jesse. Stephen Russell Murray starts out rather ominously as the potential internet stalker, Danny, who turns into a slightly creepy yet sweet love interest for Makalo. Erin Driscoll does her best with the only normal person in the story, the teacher Allison Reynolds.

Our villain comes very close to stealing the show. Bobby Smith as Richard Riddle is a slimeball through and through. Yet he wins cheers not jeers when he opens act two with the great production number, "Everybody Loves a Scandal." If this production is Helen Hayes eligible, do not be surprised to see Mr. Smith remembered come nomination time.

Carolyn Cole has become a welcome staple of Signature productions since she played Tracy in Hairspray. Here she gets to show off her amazing rock and roll belt as Makalo. Yet, under her emotional armor there is a vulnerable young woman desperate to connect with the father she never knew and Ms. Cole is compelling in both the comedic scenes and the heartbreaking emotional core of the story. Highlights include her biting delivery of the song, "All I Wanted From You." On a gentler note the trio "Little Frog"sung by Ms. Cole, James Gardiner's Evan and Jamie Eacker's Latrissa Washington is a sweet little gem about family connection.

Another long time Signature veteran tackles the boy singer who doesn't want to grow up Evan Peterson. At first you may feel that James Gardiner is too young to play a grandfather. The script provides the clues to the math. These are teenage pregnancies  Evan sleeps with Makalo's mother when he was 15, Makalo is 22 and has a 6 year old son. That makes Evan at the most 38. So, while it seems implausible making the character a grandpa in his late 30's leads to some very funny moments, especially when he trains his grandson to be his wingman. Mr. Gardiner embodies the devil-may-care playboy yet he taps a great inner strength to pull off the yearning to really belong to a family that Evan hides so well.

Spin is being performed in The Max theatre at Signature Theatre through July 27, 2013. It is being produced in association with OD Company. For tickets and other performance information please visit

For a great article on the origin and development of this show please read The Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks article at

Monday, July 1, 2013

Return To The Forbidden Planet at The American Shakespeare Center

Welcome aboard the Intergalactic Spaceship Albatross. Captain Tempest and the Damage Control Crew invite you to accompany them on a routine survey mission. Who is the mysterious, yet strong as nails new Science Officer? Why does she abandon the crew at the first sign of trouble? Can Bosun Arras (all around good guy), the Navigation Officer (knows where they are going) and Cookie the lovelorn ship's cook help Captain Tempest as their ship hurtles towards the mysterious Planet D'lliria? What of the long-lost scientist Dr. Prospero missing for years after his wife Gloria sent him into hyperspace not knowing their precocious baby daughter Miranda was stuck on board the shuttlecraft? Will the Albatross survive the asteroid field and the strange creatures that threaten the ship? Will Dr. Prospero succeed in creating the world-changing secret formula he's strived to perfect for the past several years? Will Captain Tempest resist the charms of the nubile Miranda? Will Cookie fight the Captain for Miranda's love? Is the Damage Control Crew the greatest rock and roll band in the history of Staunton, Virginia? For answers to these questions rush right down to the American Shakespeare Center where rock and roll has taken over the Blackfriars' Playhouse.

Return to the Forbidden Planet, written by Bob Carlton, takes the classic 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet, loosely based on William Shakespeare's The Tempest, adds dialogue from several of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets (and a bit of Christopher Marlowe sprinkled on top), then throws in a jukebox full of 50's and 60's rock and roll classics to create a really fun evening that will leave your ribs aching from laughing, your hands sore from clapping along and a smile that comes from seeing a show that just exists to give you a great time. The plot is very silly and the talented repertory company is clearing enjoying embracing their over-the-top characters, letting their hair down and having a blast showing off their vast musical skills.

If you are familiar with how the American Shakespeare Center stages Shakespeare plays you will know that members of the company are talented musicians and singers who perform music before each performance and during the intermission. Music Director Chris Johnston has taken the twelve actors and made a great acoustic rock and roll band out of them. They all get their moments to shine musically and what a breath of fresh air to attend professional musical theater and not have the actors miked so they can be heard over the music. By choosing to go acoustic Mr. Johnston and Artistic Director Jim Warren create a balance between the instruments and the voices that makes the audience engage more closely with the actors.

Every character is perfectly cast. Dylan Paul is handsome and dashing as Captain Tempest, although its very clear to the audience that he's really, well, not too bright (it's a good thing he's pretty). He's well matched by his leading lady the sweet teenager-in-love Emily Brown as Miranda. Her protective father, the brilliant mad scientist played by Rene Thornton, Jr. shows that he's perfectly comfortable taking the lead on one his  rock numbers.

It takes a special person to don the faithful robot Ariel's very shiny skates and John Harrell comes very close to stealing the show just with his first entrance. Lee Fitzpatrick as the mysterious Science Officer plays buttoned-up and no-nonsense sensibility, just as a highly qualified scientist should.  Ms. Fitzpatrick lets her hair down joining in the rock-and-roll madness once her character's secrets are revealed. The real scene stealer is Gregory Jon Phelps as the lovelorn Cookie. Tormented by unrequited love, Mr. Phelps delivers his heart not on his sleeve, but with his mad saxophone skills. Many a young lady in the audience could be heard sighing every time Cookie gets his heart broken.

Jim Warren clearly had fun directing this show and with the help of the aforementioned Mr. Johnston's music direction, Stephanie Holladay Earl's classic rock dance choreography and Erin M. West's mod space uniforms, the American Shakespeare Center is transformed into a rock-and-roll palace. If you are looking for Shakespeare with a twist, Return to the Forbidden Planet is Shakespeare as a malt shop sundae with your sweetheart after school.

Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet is being performed in repertory as part of the 25th anniversary summer season at the American Shakespeare Center with William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Alls Well That Ends Well through December 1, 2013. In September Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer will join these shows in repertory. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Parental advisory: Return to the Forbidden Planet contains very little that parents would find objectionable. There is, however, one utterance of a common four-letter word as part of a joke and it is briefly repeated.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Center

The American Shakespeare Center kicks off its 25th anniversary season with that well-known staple of Shakespeare companies and high school curriculums Romeo and Juliet. Artistic Director Jim Warren stages a Romeo and Juliet that, as he states in his director's notes, mines every compelling moment in this story. As Mr. Warren comments there is no right side in this deadly feud.  The kids aren't right and the parents aren't wrong, and most importantly, by striving to strike a balance in this story of more woe, it is very clear that everyone is making their decisions, however rashly and quickly, because they truly believe that are doing it for the right reasons.

All of the elements are present in what has become known as the American Shakespeare Center's performance style. There is universal lighting, the audience can sit upon the stage and there is ample interaction between actors and audience. Yet, no matter how many times you have read the play or seen a production of Romeo and Juliet this production will contain surprises for even the most seasoned Shakespearean theatre-goer.

Unlike other productions, minor characters are not cut or consolidated with other characters to give a better known character a larger part.  So, when, for example,  Romeo's cousin Benvolio vanishes from the story after Act III, Scene 1, he stays vanished from the story. Cousin Capulet shows up to dance at Capulet's ball. The entire comedic role of the servant Peter is intact. Most surprising, the prologue to the  balcony scene is enacted here.

A very strong artistic team assists Mr. Warren and his ensemble of actors in bringing the world of Romeo and Juliet to life. Costume designer Erin M. West creates contemporary ensembles that seem right for this Verona and a color scheme that helps the audience keep track of whom belongs to which feuding family or the royal family as soon as that character enters the stage. Stephanie Holladay Earl has choreographs a jolly bit of fun for the dance at the Capulet ball. Benjamin Curns creates heart-stopping fight choreography that is both beautiful to watch and, when called for, astonishing in its brutality.

Tracie Thomason and Dylan Paul are charming, youthful, brash and impulsive as the star-crossed lovers. They easily mine the comedy in their impulsive first meeting and the anguish when their love story provides the catalyst for the horrendous tragedy that follows. Rene Thornton, Jr. shows a surprising deep love for his daughter Juliet that many other Lord Capulets lack. When he turns from doting father to outrage at his daughter's willful disobedience the audience is just as taken aback at his rage. Lee Fitzpatrick is a colder Lady Capulet, yet behind her reserve, there is a passionate side that she lets the audience see when her beloved family members die. John Harrell seems a preening peacock as the hotheaded Tybalt, his proud facade barely containing his rage.

There are three revelatory performances in this outstanding ensemble and they are all three, long time American Shakespeare Center vets. Gregory Jon Phelps turns Mercutio into such a lovable rogue that we genuinely feel the loss of his character at his untimely death. Mr. Phelps takes one of the best known poetry speeches, the famed Queen Mab speech, and mines it for every bawdy, comic image and joke and wrings laughter and groans from the audience. For once the speech feels like the natural teasing of a love-sick friend, rather than simply a recitation of beautiful poetry.

There is a tradition at the American Shakespeare Center of cross gender casting. As is well known, in Shakespeare's day, all of the women's roles would have been played by men. The American Shakespeare Center uses that tradition upon occasion and also gives women the opportunity to portray men's roles as well. Allison Glenzer takes on the role of Friar Lawrence in this production. Ms. Glenzer takes the role of Friar Lawrence and has him react in ways that the adults in the audience probably would do in similar circumstances. Lawrence's chastising of Romeo for falling in and out of love so quickly establishes Lawrence as that authority figure that teenagers can trust and Ms. Glenzer easily earns the trust of the audience as well.

Juliet's Nurse is one of the great female comic roles in all of Shakespeare. In the hands of Benjamin Curns the Nurse is a towering terror of a mother bear to her precious Juliet. Yet, there is a gentle warmth to Mr. Curns particularly when the Nurse must counsel Juliet in the aftermath of Romeo's banishment. Whenever an actor takes on a female role there is an initial bit of tittering from the audience. With Mr. Curns that initial "egad, it's a man" quickly vanishes as he gives us a complex woman, Juliet's true mother, who loves her charge fiercely.

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is being performed as part of the American Shakespeare Center's 25th Anniversary summer season through November 30, 2013. It is being performed in repertory with Shakespeare's Alls Well That Ends Well and Bob Carlton's Return To The Forbidden Planet.  In September it will be joined in repertory by Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Monday, June 24, 2013

Anything Goes National Tour at the Kennedy Center

There is something refreshing about a revival of a musical, first produced in 1934, that is presented exactly as it was intended. Anything Goes is a wonderful piece of fluff musical comedy that has memorable characters, jokes that have actual punch lines, rousing choreography and, most importantly the incomparable score by Cole Porter. Roundabout Theatre Company's 2011 revival deservedly won the Tony Award for Revival of a Musical that season. The touring production preserves the high quality of the original revival giving audiences across the country the opportunity to see the same great show New York audiences saw.

Anything Goes is another one of those shows that has constantly had its libretto tweaked, including before the original 1934 production opened on Broadway. It also has had tunes added and subtracted from Mr. Porter's vast output, which Mr. Porter did himself in many other shows. This production preserves mostly the script update from the 1987 Lincoln Center revival which followed the basic premise from the 1934 production. The advantages of that script include making the central love story seem more plausible and fleshing out two supporting characters so that they develop into vibrant members of this wacky cast of characters.

Billy Crocker, who works on Wall Street for  the wealthy lush Elisha Whitney, laments that he can't find Hope Harcourt, a girl he spent a memorable night with just a few weeks ago. His pal, nightclub singer and evangelist, Reno Sweeney mentions that Hope is sailing to England on the S.S. American. Hope is marrying Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in order to save her mother's dire financial situation. Billy goes to the ship launch to find Hope. Traveling on board is the gangster, Moonface Martin and his moll, Erma. They await the arrival of their partner, Public Enemy Number One Snake-Eyes Johnson. When Snake-Eyes doesn't show, Billy takes his ticket and passport. Meanwhile the Captain of the ship laments that he doesn't have any real celebrities on board the ship, which disappoints his passengers. When Billy is discovered, the ship is thrilled to have their celebrity, but Hope is not. There is a lot of mad-cap scenarios before we achieve a rather silly happily-ever-after for everyone.

The ship design is based on the original scenic design by Derek McLane. Its' three stories are filled to the brim by director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall's terrific old-school dancing. Yes, this is a show that has real dancing in the choreography whether it is the Astaire-Rogers style romantic ballroom moves that accompany Billy and Hope's duets or the rousing tap that accompanies the title tune. Martin Pakledinaz' 1930's costumes perfectly complete the period setting.

If there is anything detrimental about the production it is minor. One is technical. As with all professional Broadway and touring production this cast is miked for sound. In the Kennedy Center Opera House it really sounds miked as opposed to simply enhancing the actors' voices. The other problem is with the script. It does contain two stereotyped characters in the Chinese Christian converts. Fortunately their names were updated in the 1987 revival to something less offensive and the actors playing the parts do not adopt a stereotypical Chinese dialect.

Despite these minor issues let the touring cast present for you this infectious revival. Sandra Shipley, as the overbearing Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt is channeling the great Margaret Dumont in her best comic pomposity. Paired with the unabashed lush Elisha Whitney, Dennis Kelly clearly relishes his comic moments. Joyce Chittuck as the man-hungry gangster's moll, Erma brings the house down when accompanied by the sailor boys in her big number "Buddy Beware."Fred Applegate has immense comic timing and do not be surprised if Public Enemy Number 13 brings tears from laughter to your eyes in "Be Like the Blue Bird."

Edward Staudenmayer's Lord Evelyn Oakleigh is more than an upper-class British twit. By giving the character the song "The Gypsy in Me", Mr. Staudenmayer cuts loose showing Evie's animal magnetism. His fate at the end of the show makes much more sense with this additional aspect to his character.Alex Finke has a clear, beautiful soprano and comes across as genuine as the ingenue Hope. Josh Franklin has much more of a classic leading man vibe than some of the more cad-like Billy Crockers of earlier scripts. He has a marvelous voice and well-matches his love interest in their duets and his friendship with the true leading lady, Reno Sweeney.

Rachel York is a tall glass of cool water. Her lanky, sensuous frame and legs that go on to tomorrow are perfect for our nightclub evangelist. She's a swift-talking dame that belts Porter's tunes vibrantly. Her dancing skills burn up the stage floor. She surely converts the audience to the religion of musical comedy.

Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Anything Goes is playing in the Kennedy Center's Opera House through July 7, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit For additional tour dates please visit

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Celebrating the Lives of Artists We've Lost

Whenever a famous performing artist or celebrity dies, there is the inevitable sadness that accompanies the announcement of their passing. In recent weeks, four people who made an impact in their artistic field died. All of them lived into their 90's. I would like to suggest that instead of mourning their loss we should celebrate their longevity and rejoice in the contributions they made to their art.

Deanna Durbin - 1921-2013 - 91.  Miss Durbin was a brilliant coloratura singer when she was signed by MGM at the age of 13. She was paired with another 13-year-old, Judy Garland, in a one-reel short, "Every Sunday"in which she sang classical music and Miss Garland sang swing. Shortly afterwards her contract was not renewed.  Signed by Universal she became a popular star in her first film, "Three Smart Girls."  However, she became disillusioned by Hollywood when she became typecast as the girl who solved problems for the grown-ups in her life. In 1949, she married her third husband, French director Charles David, who had directed her in one of her few more adult roles in "Lady on a Train." She retired to France, raised her children and rarely gave interviews for the rest of her life. Miss Durbin was a brilliant singer and actress, who when frustrated by the constraints of Hollywood stereotyping found a way for a happily-ever-after in the French countryside.

Frederick Franklin - 1914-2013 - 98.  Mr. Franklin was a British-born ballet dancer who made an impact on the world of classical dance throughout his life.  He not only was a dancer and choreographer, but also the founder of several dance companies. In his later life he became the crucial preserver of the original choreography of "Giselle," which he staged for Dance Theatre of Harlem in an updated setting in the Creole culture of Louisiana. He also memorably remounted Michel Fokine's 1910 "Scheherazade"on DTH. I had the privilege of seeing the production at the Kennedy Center. It was announced before the curtain rose that Mr. Franklin would substitute that night in the role of the Chief Eunuch. I distinctly remember the audience members around me saying "Who is Freddy Franklin?" My response was elation as I knew exactly who he was.  Into his 90's Mr. Franklin continued to dance. I once again had the privilege of seeing him dance the role of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet with American Ballet Theatre. Mr. Franklin was a treasure to the classical ballet world.

Ray Harryhausen - 1920-2013 - 92. Mr. Harryhausen was the most brilliant stop motion special effects artist working in film. There will never be another artist like him, yet his influence on modern film special effects remains. From the famous skeleton fight in "Jason and the Argonauts" to the many dinosaurs he animated for such films as "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" and "One Million Years, B.C." to the original, and in my opinion vastly superior, 1981 "Clash of the Titans," Mr. Harryhausen's painstaking frame-by-frame work was sheer genius.  His development of the Dynamation technique  allowed his creations to appear as though they were a natural part of the story, whether walking behind trees or fighting the actors. Mr. Harryhausen's work led to a well deserved Academy Award for technical achievement in 1992. If it existed in real life, I'd say we all head to "Monsters, Inc.'s" Harryhausen restaurant to give Mr. Harryhausen a proper wake.

Merrill Brockway - 1923-2013 - 90.  Mr. Brockway was responsible for producing the PBS series "Dance in America" which brought dance by the leading companies in the United States to a broadcast audience. He also produced "Camera 3" a half-hour program broadcast on CBS on Sunday mornings from 1967- 1975 that was devoted to culture. Taking a cue from Fred Astaire films and the advice of George Balanchine  "Dance in America" was known for showing the dancers in full-body shots. Without him, many people outside of New York and the major touring cities might not have had a chance to see the works of such amazing choreographers as Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, etc., etc. etc. Mr. Brockway received two Emmy Awards and two awards from the Directors' Guild of America. Bravo and thank you.

As a postscript, I'd like to add one more person to this list. She didn't make it to her 90's, but, in my opinion, her contributions to her art, deserve the same accolades.

Jeanne Cooper - 1928-2013 - 84. Miss Cooper is the last of the Soap Opera grande dames. It is true that there are many actors in daytime drama that are superstars, but Miss Cooper was the last one of her character type.  The longest serving member of the cast of "The Young and the Restless," Miss Cooper began her tenure six months into the show's run in 1973. She played Katherine Shepherd Reynolds Chancellor Thurston Sterling Murphy, the wealthy older woman who was in a triangle with the younger, poorer Jill Foster and her then-husband, Philip Chancellor.  Over the decades, Miss Cooper was rarely on the back burner portraying story lines that involved  alcoholism, kidnappings and her many, many marriages.  In other words, par for the course. What made Miss Cooper so enduring was her willingness to incorporate events in her own life into Katherine's story. Most famously this included the actress' facelift, shown on camera in 1984. Miss Cooper was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy Award in 2004. She then, deservedly, won the Outstanding Performance by a Leading Actress in a Daytime Drama Emmy in 2008.  She was 80 when she won.  Outside the word of daytime drama, she was best known as the mother of actor Corbin Bernsen. To her fans she will always be the irreplaceable Mrs. Chancellor.

May all these artists rest in peace knowing that their impact on the world of the performing arts will endure.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Breakfast at Tiffany's at the Cort Theatre --- What Went Wrong

I am dropping the third person "writing a review" persona on this post.  I saw Breakfast at Tiffany's on Sunday, April 14, 2013. The show closed one week later on April 21, 2013.  This will serve as a critique of the script and the production rather than a more traditional review.  As the show has closed I will reveal several plot points that in other circumstances would be considered spoilers.

Truman Capote wrote his novella in 1958.  Set in the middle of the second World War it is the narrated tale of Holly Golightly, a teenage girl from a poor, rural background, who ran away first to Hollywood and then to New York, where she makes a living as an entertaining companion to wealthy men.  Mr. Capote preferred that Holly not be seen as a call girl or prostitute, but as an American Geisha. Made into a very popular film in 1961 that updated the setting to the then present day, and gave the narrator and Holly a bittersweet romance and a happily ever after, the film version has become the iconic version of the story, preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  Audrey Hepburn is forever Holly, although she was not really what Capote intended. (He famously wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the part).

Theatrically the novella has been adapted several times, most notably in a mid-60's Broadway musical that closed after only four performances.  The current attempts to dramatize the story led to a script by Samuel Adamson for a 2009 production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London and the now closed 2013 Broadway production with a script by Richard Greenberg.  So, what went wrong with the latest adaptation?  Why couldn't Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke sell enough tickets to keep the show going through awards season?

Mr. Greenberg's script is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie in its structure.  It is a memory play recalled by the narrator (Cory Michael Smith), named Fred by Holly and Joe the bartender (George Wendt).  Joe and Fred have always wondered what happened to Holly when she vanished in 1944 and a photograph from present day Africa gives the men hope that she is alive and well.  Flashing back to 1943, Fred, an aspiring writer, moves into a tiny brownstone apartment.  One night, a young woman crawls into his room through the fire escape. Holly Golightly is fleeing one of her clients.  The two strike up a friendship, with Fred developing a crush on Holly.

We are introduced to several characters, including tenants of the brownstone including Holly's former Hollywood agent, her suitors and a rival. When I watched the Broadway production I was struck by the number of secondary and tertiary characters played by the ensemble of twelve actors.  Here is where the first problem with the script occurs.  Hardly any of these secondary characters is fleshed out into a three-dimensional human being.  We don't care about her wealthy suitor Rusty Trawler and when he up and marries Holly's friend and rival Mag Wildwood, there isn't enough dramatic tension for the audience to sympathize with Holly's emotional fury at Mag's betrayal.  The same occurs during her romance with the diplomat Jose.  Even Joe the bartender, who from his appearance in the opening scene leads you to believe that he will play an important supportive role to the two leading characters, barely makes an appearance in the rest of the show.  If Mr. Greenberg had reduced the number of Capote's characters so that the important ones to the story could have a more meaningful existence than the play might have been a more compelling drama.

The narrator, who never reveals his real name, seems to be content to be known by the name bestowed upon him by Holly in honor of her beloved brother. Fred is a bit of an enigma.  He is not the gigolo portrayed by George Peppard in the 1961 film.  Capote hints that he is homosexual and the play does show him being propositioned by a potential employer and being fired from his magazine job for seeking bathroom encounters with men.  But, this comes off in the play as superficial.  We are never allowed to see what makes Fred really tick.  His romance with Holly, when it happens, doesn't have the emotional punch that it should.  Mr. Smith was perfectly adequate given the limitations of the script.

This leads us to Holly.  As portrayed by Emilia Clarke she had the right youthful look and the actress was absolutely stunning in Colleen Atwood's 1940's costumes.  Yet, something was off.  She does not have the problem that Audrey Hepburn had of being too sophisticated to pull off the country hick from Texas masquerading as a posh good time girl.   Ms. Clarke can play a wide range of emotions, simply witness her character's arc from child bride to warrior queen on Game of Thrones. As Holly Golightly Ms. Clarke is missing Holly's barrier of steel that she has built to hide her rather horrific past.  Holly, real name Lula Mae Barnes, was sexually abused as a child (she mentions that anything before the age of 13 doesn't count).  She was married to the much older Doc at the age of 14 and she walked away from her Texas home.  When Doc shows up in New York City to bring her home, Holly jumps into bed with him.  It is a rather disturbing scene.  Murphy Guyer, who played Doc in the production, was folksy and sympathetic as was Buddy Ebsen in the film.  There should be an uncomfortable reaction by the audience to this distasteful revelation about Holly's past.  Like all of Holly's disturbing lifestyle revelations being a child bride just seems another part of the mystery to check off rather than an giving us any deeper understanding about the life Holly fled and is trying to hide.

Ms. Clarke is a very good actress, and she had both a devil-may-care attitude on the surface and genuine vulnerability when the script called for it.  Yet, she just didn't have the art of being the real phony that Holly is described as being  by her former agent, Sid Arbuck.  Given the material, Ms. Clarke was also less likely to attract the fans of Game of Thrones which, coupled with the lukewarm reviews doomed this production to an early demise.

This script and production had potential.  What it would have benefited from were a few regional theater outings where the scripts shortcomings could have been addressed.  Perhaps it or the West End script will get additional outings and the right version of Truman Capote's story will finally get its proper due.

Alan Cumming in MacBeth at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

"By the pricking of my thumbs, 
Something wicked this way comes."

---2nd Witch, Act IV, Scene 1

Entering the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, audience members are faced with a stark pale green institutional room. This cavernous chamber, designed by Merle Hensel, is reminiscent of an old time horror film version of a hospital wing of a prison, with a curtained observation window and three video screens high above the floor. It is an uneasy setting. Coupled with the eerie score composed by Max Richter, this will not be a comfortable evening of classical theater.  Which is fitting, for William Shakespeare's MacBeth has always been a dark tale of ambition, corruption and power, set in motion by supernatural forces of fate.

A doctor (Jenny Sterlin) and an orderly (Brendan Titley) bring a patient (Alan Cumming) into this foreboding room.  The man is stripped of his disheveled clothing, which is placed in evidence bags. A gash upon his chest is cleansed and samples are taken from his mouth and fingernails. Redressed in white hospital garments they leave him.  As they depart, the man cries out "when shall we three meet again?"

Mr. Cumming takes off from there to perform the entirety of MacBeth with occasional assistance from his two partners. This is no mere stunt recitation of a classical work, but a well thought out telling of a story by a man, who seems to be atoning for a crime he has committed. The script is judiciously cut, leaving out several minor characters. The essence of the tale is intact.  A synopsis is provided in the program for those audience members unfamiliar with the story.

Mr. Cumming physicalizes each character with ease. He is aided by only the barest of props, for example an apple, a baby doll, a bathtub, a sink. Highlights include a sensuous bath for Lord and Lady MacBeth, and a genius use of those video screens during the haunting of MacBeth in the banquet scene.  Mr. Cumming brings humor and pathos to Master Shakespeare's eloquent words.  He will break your heart when MacDuff finds out about the massacre of his wife and children.  And Mr. Cumming's rendition of the famous, "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech is that of a man, devastated by the untimely death of his partner in love and life, and a battle-weary warrior readying to face his fate.

It is an astounding performance. MacBeth is being performed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York in a strictly limited run through July 14th, 2013. It is being performed without an intermission and has a running time of approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella at the Broadway Theatre

Are you a Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren or, if younger, a Brandy? For many Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella was a staple of childhood.  Whether it was the original black and white live Broadcast from March 31, 1957 or its television remakes, the perennial staple of the colorful 1960's or the multicultural 1990's,  there is a lot of nostalgic love for this musical, particularly the score.  Ever since the 1957 original, the remakes for television and the stage have added additional songs and rewritten the book so it is not surprising that for the 2013 Broadway revival continues the tradition of adding songs and rewriting the story yet again.

Douglas Carter Beane takes on the latest rewrite of the Cinderella book.  Some of the changes are welcome such as an expanded role for the fairy godmother integrating her into Cinderella's life from the beginning of the story. Other changes are tiresome. There seems to be a trend in contemporary retellings of "Princess" fairytales to do everything to modernize the heroine so that she no longer requires a prince to rescue her from her hum-drum existence. This can be a good thing, if it is executed well.  Yet, Mr. Beane saddles the story with a power to the proletariat subplot that adds a cumbersome layer to the natural story. Inserting contemporary phrases into the dialogue such as "hello, I'm talking" or "will you be my boyfriend" takes away from the universality of the story. When Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella focuses on our heroine and her prince and their fairytale, there are genuine moments of magic on the stage.

In this version, Prince Topher has recently returned from university and is preparing to assume his throne. His parents have died and Lord Protector Sebastian has been ruling the kingdom oppressing the peasants.  "Cinder" Ella, lives with her widowed stepmother, Madame and her stepsisters, the gentle Gabrielle and the comically crass Charlotte, waiting on them hand and foot.  Local villager Jean-Michel, who loves Gabrielle, is determined to speak with the Prince about the injustice in the kingdom. To distract the Prince from figuring outSebastian's misrule, a ball is announced during which the Prince will choose a bride. Ella longs to attend the ball and thanks to her kindness to crazy Marie, her Fairy Godmother in disguise, her wish is granted.  After a magical night filled with dancing and love, Ella flees the ball at the stroke of midnight. The Prince is determined to find his love as much as Sebastian and Madame are determined to thwart him.  There are twists and turns until everyone finds their happily ever after.

The design elements are whimsical. Anna Louizos creates an enchanted forest set. William Ivey Long's costumes are a rainbow of color and sparkle.  The magical transformation of Cinderella from rags to ball gown, which happens without smoke or mirrors, will leave you wondering how did they did it in front of your eyes.  David Chase's musical adaptation coupled with the new orchestrations by Danny Troob are lushly performed by a twenty-piece orchestra that does justice to Richard Rodgers score.

The cast is in fine voice. It is wonderful to hear a classic Broadway score sung traditionally by a cast that is not singing the pop-rock vocals so prevalent in today's Broadway shows.  Phumzile Sojola as Lord Pinkleton uses his clear operatic tones to make "The Prince Is Giving a Ball" the rousing production number it should be.  Ann Harada accompanied by the ladies of the court turns "Stepsister's Lament" into a comedic gem.  Greg Hildreth sings "Now Is the Time" with revolutionary fervor.Harriet Harris as Madame and Peter Bartlett as Sebastian are appropriately hissable villains. Victoria Clark soars physically and vocally through the classic "Impossible."

Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana are well matched as Cinderella and her Prince.  With beautiful voices and unmatched chemistry they are the best couple on Broadway.   Yes, its true that there really isn't anything with an old-fashioned love story currently on the New York stage, but let that not distract from the fact that you could not ask for a better representation of love and honest emotion than Ms. Osnes and Mr. Fontana.

Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella is far from a perfect show. The errors in changes to the book nearly derail what is otherwise a fine production.  Go to see Laura Osnes, Santino Fontana and the rest of this excellent cast do justice to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's beloved score.  Perhaps someday the musical will get a book that will do equal justice to the story.

Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella is being performed on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre. For tickets and other performance information please visit or