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

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hello, Dolly! at Ford's Theatre

Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi works her matchmaking magic to utterly delightful results at Washington D.C.'s Ford's Theatre.  A joint production with Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theatre, this production which uses only sixteen cast members brings forth the energy of the more traditional sized productions of this show.  Director Eric Schaeffer brings larger-than-life, yet very human performances out of his cast.  While some of the staging may not truly show the opulence of 1890's New York City, the faults of this production are few and far between.

The musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker will always be indelibly stamped with the memories of original director and choreographer Gower Champion's spectacular stagecraft and the performance of Carol Channing as Dolly, one of the most iconic theatrical performances of all time. The Ford's Theatre revival finds ways to scale the production to fit the intimate Ford's Theatre stage yet retain the heart of the show that many an audience member will remember throughout its decades-long history of  on professional stages, amateur stages and film.

In 1890's Yonkers, New York, Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi makes a living matchmaking for the well-to-do. She has been hired to find a suitable bride for half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder. While plotting to steer Mr. Vandergelder to the perfect mate, Mrs. Levi aids several other couples, including Mr. Vandergelder's love-struck niece, Ermengarde and her beloved Ambrose Kemper. Mr. Vandergelder's clerks, the long-suffering Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker decide to defy orders and follow Mr. Vandergelder to New York City where they hope to find adventure and kiss a girl. Through twists and turns everyone ends up at the elegant Harmonia Gardens restaurant and eventually to a happily-ever-after for all.

Choreographer Karma Camp works miracles with her dancing ensemble of six, yes, only six dancers. Those six, four men and two women, manage to fill every inch of the stage with rousing energetic support to the lively, well-cast principal players. The highlight of the show is the Waiters' Galop, that frenzied number set at the elegant Harmonia Gardens that serves as a warm-up to the title song. If there is any disappointment in this production it comes in the set design for the Harmonia Gardens, that just does not convey any sense of magical opulence.  The title tune also suffers from a lack of true grandeur, the one time that one wishes it were a cast of thirty or more to dazzle the senses.

There are memorable performances from everyone down to Stephen F. Schmidt as the strict maitre-d Rudolph and Maria Egler's slightly vulgar Ernestina. Carolyn Cole makes whining an artform as Ermengarde and Ben Lurye is charming as Ambrose Kemper. Lauren Williams is cute with proper wide-eyed wonderment as Minnie Fay, well partnered by the equally young and slightly naive Zack Colonna as Barnaby Tucker. Gregory Maheu is the older Cornelis Hackl bursting with his first taste of freedom from his years toiling as a clerk. Tracy Lynn Olivera is worldly and wise as the independent widow, Irene Molloy.  Edward Gero is appropriately gruff as a fierce teddy bear as Dolly's prize match, Horace Vandergelder.

Nancy Opel's Dolly Gallagher Levi is reminiscent of the Dolly from the original play, The Matchmaker. She is charming, scheming and has the audience eating out of her hand from her first entrance. Whether she is seeking advice from her beloved lost husband, Ephraim or manipulating her darling Horace Vandergelder into doing exactly as she wishes Ms. Opel is constantly in control. She is poignant singing When The Parade Passes By and the diva of center stage in the title tune. Ms. Opel is plain and simple a marvelous Dolly.

Hello, Dolly! a joint production between Ford's Theatre and Signature Theatre is being performed at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC through May 18, 2013. For tickets and other performance information, please visit

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mary T. & Lizzy K. at Arena Stage

The relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln, "Mrs. President," first lady of the United States and Elizabeth Keckley, her exclusive seamstress and confidente, is an intriguing one, ripe for a theatrical portrayal that is deeper than the slight one shown in the recent film Lincoln.  Tazewell Thompson, well known playwright and director to Washington, D.C. audiences, makes a valiant attempt to bring this relationship to life.  The attempt provides a bold representation of the complex Mrs. Lincoln.  It is less successful at illuminating what is, for the audience, the lesser known and far more compelling Mrs. Keckley.  Mary T. & Lizzy K. is a step in the right direction, but needs more work to make the women as equal on stage as they appear in the title of the show.

This is not a rote biographical sketch. As Mr. Tazewell remarks in the program he was seeking to bring the characters to life "through (his) imagination." This is admirable for it would be tedious to see yet another bio-drama that is simply a highlight parade of the subject's life. Mr. Tazewell sets his scene in a mishmash room, designed by Donald Eastman, one side piled with furniture and trunks, the other stark and uninviting. On these grounds we see the asylum Mrs. Lincoln was committed to by her eldest and only surviving son, Robert Lincoln as well as what appears to be trashed chaos caused by the unexpected eviction of Mrs. Lincoln from the White House following her husband's assassination.

The play, in its one hour and forty minutes, takes us from an audience with the allegedly insane Mrs. Lincoln to Mrs. Lincoln confronting Mrs. Keckley for daring to publish her memoirs. It segues to the height of their professional and personal relationship near the end of Mr. Lincoln's presidency. Using only four characters, it is an intimate portrait, yet ultimately unsatisfying for leaving the audience craving more information about the elusive Mrs. Keckley.

Naomi Jacobson brings hurricanes of emotion as the forceful Mary Todd Lincoln. She dominates the proceedings as Mrs. Lincoln probably dominated anyone who was graced with an audience with the emotional firebrand that Mrs. Lincoln appears to have been in real life. She is charming, irrational, devoted, dismissive and above all, proud and aristocratic. One gets the impression that one would not dare contradict Mrs. President, or insist upon the payment of her bills.  Ms. Jacobson is a slight woman, but within that exterior lives a tiger of a personality that overwhelms the rest of the performances. It is not the fault of the actress, but the nature of the play that Mrs. Lincoln is the more outsized personality and therefore takes an outsized portion of the play.

Sameerah Lugmaan-Harris's Mrs. Keckley is much more self-contained. She conveys a quiet dignity in most of her interactions with her famous client. For two-thirds of the play we get so little insight into this woman that she remains as much of a cypher as she does in her token appearance in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. This is a shame for Elizabeth Keckley's life is just as fascinating as that as Mrs. Lincoln. It is not until the last third of the play that her emotional barriers come down and the audience learns of her heartbreaking past and difficult present. She should be a bolder presence throughout the play. This a woman, who out of financial desperation, risked her reputation by breaking the bounds of nineteenth century propriety by publishing Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, a book about not just her life, but her relationship with the first family of the land. This is a woman who bought her own freedom and that of her son, only to see her son die in action as a Union soldier. While these facts are present in the play, they need to be fleshed out more to make the character of Elizabeth Keckley more of an equal to her name in the title of this work.

The fictional dressmaker's assistant, Ivy, portrayed by Joy Jones, is a riveting figure both in appearance and speech. Part of the problem of the play is that this fictional character takes too much of a leading role in the first half of the play. Thomas Adrian Simpson's Abraham Lincoln, is charming and a very human husband, clearly devoted to his wife and devastated by her heightened emotional state. The third supporting character is the costumes, designed by Merrily Murray-Walsh. We as audience receive quite a lesson in Civil War era women's fashion, from the style of hoop skirt to the intricate nature of fitting a handmade gown. That the actresses portraying Mrs. K and Ivy have to do a complete dress fitting on stage is a testament to the challenges of bringing authenticity to the proceedings.

Tazewell Thompson is to be commended for making the relationship of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley the focus of his play. They have been long overdue for examination in any kind of depth. One wishes that Lizzy K did not remain a shadow in the bright supernova that is Mary T. As this is a world premiere one hopes that this will not be the end for this piece, but a well-intentioned beginning.

Mary T. & Lizzy K. is being performed in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater and has been extended through May 5, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit