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