Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Cort Theatre

It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. One might add it takes a major film star to bring plays to Broadway. Every season several well known film actors take a stab at performing on the Great White Way. Most only do so once or twice. The dedicated ones return again and again lending their names to productions that would not happen without their name featured prominently on the marquee. 

The relatively new Michael Grandage Company was started by Mr. Grandage and James Bierman following their successful work together at the Donmar Warehouse in London. They have been responsible for several award winning productions, including the Tony Award winner, Red. They have a knack for selecting A-list actors with genuine theater skills. With this Broadway premiere production of Martin McDonagh's 1996 The Cripple of Inishmaan, Michael Grandage places trust in Daniel Radcliffe.  

Mr. Radcliffe has broadened his acting resume with three appearances on stage. Equus on the West End and Broadway, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying on Broadway and now The Cripple of Inishmaan, again following a successful run in London. The marquee features a trio of portraits of Mr. Radcliffe, clearly recognizing that he is the reason many people will purchase tickets to the show. It does not matter why the seats are filled, the truth is that this tale of a poor eccentric Irish community gets an audience.

Written in 1996, The Cripple of Inishmaan tells the story of a small Irish village that scrapes a living through fishing and living for mundane gossip. When word comes that Hollywood is making a film on the nearby island of Inishmore, it provides the hope of something life-changing particularly for the titular character. However, being that this is Mr. McDonagh, there are twists and turns and moments of violence that keep The Cripple of Inishmaan a true dark comedy.

Mr. Grandage directs in such a manner that the players truly become members of the island community of Inishmaan. Aided by Christopher Oran's earth tone design palette for the sets and costumes this is a barren island existence.

What makes this production work as well as it does is that it is truly an ensemble piece. Daniel Radcliffe's name is above the title and he takes a star solo bow, but he is one cog in the community. His Cripple Billy is the dreamer with a horribly twisted body that spends his time reading and staring at cows always wondering the truth of his parents' drowning death when he was an infant. This is Mr. Radclffe's most mature stage performance. His physical choices are grueling, yet fully committed and his performance is filled with heartache that reaches the farthest seat in the balcony.

Raised by the sisters Eileen and Kate Osbourne who are played with understated common sense by Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie. They seem relatively normal despite odd behavior such as Kate's talking to stones when she is stressed. In tandem, Ms. Hanna and Ms. Craigie are a delight whether they are bantering over Kate's repetitive worrying or Eileen's secret hoarding of prized sweets.

Padraic Delaney shows compassion as Babbybobby, the fisherman who grants Billy's wish to travel to Inishmore against his Aunts' wishes. His quiet nature hides an unexpected violent twist when he learns that Billy used Babbybobby's past to get him to cooperate. The two younger members of the community are sweet craving and telescope dreaming Bartley McCormick, portrayed by Conor MacNeill, and his hot-tempered sister, Helen. Sarah Greene's Helen is a scary force of nature. There is no question that she commands everyone the moment she enters the scene. Ms. Greene's Helen is scary and violent, but also pretty beneath her unkempt red hair. It is easy for the audience to see that no one, least of all Billy should desire Helen, especially when she gives him as much contempt and bullying behavior as she does everyone else. Yet, one can understand Billy's attraction for the one person who shows her emotions openly and isn't afraid to speak the truth, unlike everyone else whom he interacts with on a daily basis.

Mr. McDonagh creates odd characters and it is a credit to the actors that their weird behavior does not stream into caricature. No more could that be than by town gossip Johnnypateenmike who seems plucked from a Dickens novel in his interpretation by Pat Shortt. Equally extreme could be Johnnypat's Mammy, the 90 year old he is trying to kill with whiskey. Portrayed by June Watson, she is a meld of Irish bluff and the fountain of knowledge of the island's past history. The one sane member of the community is Gary Liburn's Doctor a steady force whose ministrations knit the weaving story together.

If you are coming to see The Cripple of Inishmaan solely because Daniel Radcliffe is headlining, good for you. If you are a fan of the work of Martin McDonagh excited to see this play finally come to Broadway, excellent. If you are someone who craves great performances and a funny but heartbreaking evening of theatre, please choose to see The Cripple of Inishmaan. You will not regret it.

The Michael Grandage Company's production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan is being performed at the Cort Theatre in New York City in a limited engagement through July 20, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco Theatre

Neil Patrick Harris returns to Broadway headlining the first Broadway production of the popular rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.   Hedwig is the very definition of what makes a show a cult phenomenon.  The original production starring the writer of the show John Cameron Mitchell opened at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998. A film version followed in 2001 for which Mr. Mitchell received a Golden Globe nomination. Does mounting the show in a large Broadway venue hurt the rock concert vibe for the show's legion of Hedheads?

The answer is a resounding no. Hedwig and the Angry Inch turns the Belasco from a Broadway showcase into a creditable rock concert experience.  Director Michael Mayer aided by the musical staging by Spencer Liff have found a way to turn this lovely theatre into the right venue to showcase Hedwig and her life experience.  John Cameron Mitchell's script has been tweaked to bring it to the present day. While this may make some audience members go crazy trying to do the math on Hedwig's age, you really should just forget reality and let Hedwig dazzle you with her funny, poignant life story, punctuated with incredible rock music that will make you laugh, cry and get your mind expanded.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of Hedwig, born Hansel in East Berlin to a German mother and American GI father. Meeting another American GI Hansel gets an offer of marriage and a chance to immigrate to the US. However, in order to marry he must become a woman. The subsequent sex change operation leads to the Angry Inch of the title. Landing in the US, Hansel, now using mom's name Hedwig meets a general's son, Tommy. A brilliant songwriter, Hedwig helps Tommy start his rock career before being abandoned by Tommy who steals and takes credit for the songs Hedwig wrote. Hedwig follows Tommy's tour playing in the shadows, a bitter musical stalker. Now in NYC Hedwig plays Broadway, ("well, east of Broadway") while Tommy plays in Times Square. The stage is set for the failed musical that closed the night before. (Suffice it to say that the title of that failed musical is brilliant satire of the movie to musical trope).  Telling her life story through a concert experience Hedwig takes her audience along on an emotional ride.

When Neil Patrick Harris was offered the role of Hedwig he had gigantic gold boots to fill. While he has an extensive theatrical resume, the average member of the audience will know him for his nine seasons as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother or as a popular host for the annual Tony Awards. Would Mr. Harris be able to make the audience accept him as Hedwig or would they simply say, "oh, that's the charming host banter he does so well." Fear not, Hedheads. It may take a few moments for you to let Neil Patrick Harris disappear and Hedwig Robinson to emerge. Once he gets the show rolling, Mr. Harris is a ball of nuclear energy that blazes through the cosmos that is Broadway. Yet, in the melancholy moments Mr. Harris has the heart of his audience. The quiet moments are pin drop quiet, the rock moments bring the roof down. It is a mesmerizing performance that will be recognized by the Tony committee.

Mr. Harris is ably backed up by the Angry Inch band. Justin Craig (Skszp, music director), Matt Duncan (Jacek), Tim Mislock (Krzyzhtoff) and Peter Yanowitz (Schlatko). Yet the gem of this seeming solo endeavor is Lena Hall as Yitzhak, Hedwig's put upon husband. Ms. Hall has an amazing voice filled with anger and anguish. One hopes the Tony committee does not overlock her contributions to the experience that is Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Hegwig and the Angry Inch is being performed at the Belasco Theatre in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder at the Walter Kerr Theatre

Injustice! Revenge! Murder! Great fun!

If you are looking for a true musical comedy on Broadway look no further than the Walter Kerr Theatre. The wonder and whimsy of English Music Hall tradition, gleeful farce and a soaring operetta score that for once is actually written for classically trained voices will satisfy audiences that enjoy a silly evening of theatre. Oh, what a lovely lark is the delicious twisted new musical A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder.

Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of A Criminal by Roy Horniman the story may seem somewhat familiar. The same material inspired the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets starring Sir Alec Guinness famously playing eight different members of an aristocratic family. While the names have been changed, perhaps to shame the guilty, A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder simply delights itself in embracing its rather macabre story.

Monty Navarro discovers after his mother's death that she was a disgraced member of the D'Ysquith family who disapproved of her marriage. By a stroke of luck Monty learns he is ninth in the line of succession to the Earldom. Seeking out his estranged family he is initially rebuffed leading dear Monty to begin to plot the demise of his snobbish new family and claim the Earldom avenging his mother's honor. Along the way Monty experiences love, lust, revenge and regret, all the while improbably getting closer to his goal.

Director Darko Tresnjak keeps the pace of this blackest farce brisk never letting the audience forget the fun in Monty's rise through ever more creative forms of murder. Alexander Dodge has created a set evokes the English music hall tradition. The marvelous score by Steven Lutvak compliments the outrageous story presented through Robert L. Freedman's book and lyrics.

The small ensemble of actors mostly portray multiple roles, no one more than Jefferson Mays, who like Sir Alec Guinness in the film plays most of the members of the D'Ysquith family. Mr. Mays gives an amazing performance which is sure to be recognized during awards season. Despite the outrageous characters he must portray, several with very little time for quick costume changes, he manages to make each one have a distinct personality. While most of the characters are played strictly for laughs, a few such as Lord Asquith D'Ysquith Sr. evoke real emotional feeling.

Bryce Pinkham has rakish charm as the murdering social climber Monty Navarro. Mr. Pinkham has a delightfully expressive face that allows him to charm the audience keeping them rooting for his success. Monty's two love interests, the shallow Sibella (Lisa O'Hare) and the sweet Phoebe D'Ysquith (Lauren Worsham) have stunning voices which complement the operetta-style score.

If you are looking for a fun evening of theater that defines musical comedy for the 2013-2014 theater season you could do no better than to lose yourself for a couple of hours with the zany A Gentleman's Guide To Love and Murder.

A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder is being performed at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Politics Is Drama: All The Way at the Neil Simon Theatre and Camp David at Arena Stage

The popularity of Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon has led other dramatists to examine pivotal moments in American History without resorting to the tedium of the cradle to grave biography of an historical figure. For the 2013-2014 theatrical season two Presidents have been given this treatment. Lyndon Baines Johnson is brought to life in All The Way, which purports to examine the political maneuvers behind the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but in reality it is more focused on Johnson's bid to win the election in 1964 banishing from him the label of accidental president. Jimmy Carter's highest achievement, brokering peace between Egypt and Israel in September 1978 is given similar treatment. Both plays have thoughtful dramatic moments that help them rise above the political history lessons at the heart of their texts. Both plays also suffer from structural flaws that keep them from being completely satisfying dramas.

All The Way was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. It was given a pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater before opening on Broadway in March 2014. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Robert Schenkkan, it takes its title from LBJ's 1964 campaign slogan "All The Way With LBJ." Covering the period from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to election night 1964 All The Way is structured in such a way to give insight into how this Texan democrat, master of the political give and take from his years of service in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, manages to pull together the votes to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and use his political muscle to win election as President by a landslide vote.

Staged by director Bill Rauch on Christopher Acebo's set which evokes both a legislature and the courtroom of history All The Way manages to make those in the audience who are familiar with history actually question how it will come to pass. Where All The Way falters is in its sprawling cast of secondary characters which are difficult to keep straight even with the help of projections telling the audience who is who during heated debates.

The most compelling secondary story involves Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his efforts to maintain control over the fracturing civil rights groups, particularly the younger less patient student groups. The attempted undermining of King's credibility by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed bringing to mind modern day parallels to the NSA's monitoring of ordinary Americans. Brandon J. Dirden is spot on with the lilting cadence of Dr. King's voice, yet is simply not an imitation of the saintly martyr of history. Mr. Dirden makes Dr. King all too human, a statesman who has his faults.

All The Way pays mere lip service to the women portrayed. Lady Bird Johnson (Betsy Aidem) is simply the supporting spouse stereotype in the mold of the early seasons of Mad Men. Coretta Scott King (Roslyn Ruff), Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey (Susannah Schulman as both ladies) serve as one dimensional characters not given any real material to flesh their stories out. Each of the actresses portrays more than one character, but only Ms. Ruff is given any compelling material in her brief scenes as Fannie Lou Hamer, SNCC Organizer whose dramatic testimony at the Democratic Convention nearly derails LBJ's careful political plans.

Bryan Cranston as LBJ gives a performance that is as large, coarse and brassy as the real LBJ. At first it feels like a caricature, the physicality Mr. Cranston chooses as well as the vocal choices seem exaggerated until you realize that it is a spot on portrayal of the real man, right down to his habit of smacking his lips as he speaks. Mr. Cranston dominates the three hours on stage as LBJ was a dominating personality during his five years as President of the United States.

President Jimmy Carter is a quieter, gentler presence in the world premiere production of Lawrence Wright's Camp David at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.  That is how it should be as the political maneuvers by President Carter to get two men, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat to agree to the impossible, peace between their countries and a solution to the problems in the entire middle east.

Camp David is a more intimate affair all around than the larger in scope and running time All The Way. A mere 90 minutes in length and using only four major characters, Camp David narrowly focuses on the primary players in those crucial thirteen days of tense negotiations that astonishingly resulted in the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that is still in effect today.

Walt Spangler creates a set that brings to mind the peaceful seclusion that is the presidential retreat in western Maryland. Molly Smith's direction keeps the story moving at a pace that gives the drama its due. The focus remains on the four characters as it should.

The three men that history has rightly honored for their peace efforts are brought to life on stage in ways that subtly help the audience understand both the historical strife between these nations and the complex nature and, in the cases of Begin and Sadat, the more unsavory aspects of their backgrounds. Richard Thomas is congenial with an iron will as President Carter. Ron Rifkin plays Begin with caution and reserve, ever careful with words and emotions, cautious in his dealings with his country's enemy. Khaled Nabawy has Sadat's charm and magnetism and his urgent passion for wanting to leave the legacy of peace and the potential political costs of his goals. All of the mens' deep faith is incorporated into the story, which gives a deeper understanding to all of their characters.

The fourth member of this intimate drama is Rosalynn Carter. The definition of steel magnolia has never been as apropos as here in the capable hands of Hallie Foote. Unlike in All The Way this first lady is crucial to the success of the story. Yes, Rosalynn is the supporting spouse and the sounding board for her husband's frustrations. Yet, at critical moments it is Rosalynn who diffuses tensions, offering moments of clarity to each of the other participants.

Where Camp David falters is in making the drama so intimate that some of the challenges behind the historic peace agreement get lost by only being referred to in a few sentences here, a scurried moment there. Perhaps in a subsequent production this could be addressed by adding a composite aide for both Begin and Sadat to give the viewpoint of those who either favored or more importantly did not favor the peace accords.

All The Way is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway through June 29, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit or Camp David is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage in Washington DC through May 4, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Disney's Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre

Disney Theatrical Productions have once again dipped into the well of its well-known animated musicals to bring their take on Aladdin to Broadway. A journey of several years with productions along the way in Seattle and Toronto, Aladdin is sure to please audiences with its' high production values, familiar songs and beloved characters.  Many may dismiss the production's shortcomings due to the show's target family audience. Yet, with the quality of such earlier productions as The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Newsies, family audiences would not be amiss in demanding a better evening of theater than Aladdin provides.

Along the road to Broadway the stage concept for Aladdin has evolved. Gone are any talking animals, although one of the film's animals makes a brief, amusing cameo appearance. Going back to earlier concepts for the film, Aladdin now has three thieving friends as his sidekicks. Princess Jasmine still finds herself yearning for true love instead of an arranged marriage, a goal that seems antiquated in the wake of recent Disney/Pixar princesses such as Brave's Merida who decides to fight for her own hand.

The best thing about the decision to bring Aladdin to the stage is the restoration of some of the late Howard Ashman's songs that were discarded for the film. In particular the haunting ballad "Proud of Your Boy" sung by a wistful Aladdin to his recently deceased mother brings some emotional depth to the handsome scoundrel whose story we see unfold.

It is the story that is the biggest problem with Aladdin. Somewhere along the way from film to the stage the heart of the story has become lost. The familiar tale of the "diamond in the rough" street rat who goes on a journey of discovery to happily ever after with the Sultan's daughter is here. Chad Beguelin's book goes for broad comedy and easy laughs over real emotion and character development. The only genuine moments are few and fleeting.  The emotional stakes are low. Remembering the film there was actual conflict for Aladdin in allowing Jasmine to love him for himself without the trappings of feigned royalty. The final confrontation with the evil Jafar was dangerous. Here the ending is anti-climatic, no one is in danger of getting hurt and the threat is over swiftly so we can get to one more big production number and the audience can pour out onto 42nd Street humming the score.

Despite its shortcomings there are good things about this production starting with the high quality that one expects from Disney Theatrical Productions. Bob Crowley's scenic design is appropriately opulent as is Gregg Barnes blinding bright costumes.  Alan Menken's score is pleasantly conducted by Michael Kosarin leading the 18 member orchestra. Unfortunately a few of the numbers, particularly the Academy Award-winning song "A Whole New World" actually sound slight making you wish for a more rich orchestration at times. Casey Nicholaw's direction and choreography is laid on with a broad brush that seems to fit the go for the glitz style of the show.

The cast does as it can with the mostly one-dimensional characters. As the newer characters, Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz and Brandon O'Neill are broadly comic as the friends and sidekicks Babkak (the hungry one), Omar (the cowardly one) and Kassim (the hot-headed one). Don Darryl Rivera makes Iago an eager little evil apprentice. Jonathan Freeman, reprising the role he voiced in the film, channels a bit of elegant villainy in his Jafar. Clifton Davis is a concerned princess-pecked father as the Sultan.

Courtney Reed has the feistiness of Princess Jasmine and although her singing voice is not consistent when she reaches the famous duet of "A Whole New World" she is fine. Adam Jacobs' Aladdin is handsome and charming with a blazing smile. He gives Aladdin what depth he can, mostly through Howard Ashman's lyrics in "Proud of Your Boy" and the few moments of real feeling he gets when discussing freedom with the Genie of the Lamp.

As for the Genie himself, anyone taking on that role has to live with the fact that the Walt Disney animation team managed to animate Robin Williams' brain. The performance by Mr. Williams in the film is the definition of iconic and it takes an actor of great charisma to put their own stamp on the role. James Monroe Iglehart has done the impossible and makes the audience almost forget the original film performance. He is commanding from the moment he enters to narrate "Arabian Nights." Disappearing for almost the entire first act, when he re-appears he raises the energy whenever he alights. "Friend Like Me" is a true-showstopping number that travels many, many, many tangents to its rousing conclusion. Mr. Iglehart is gregarious and sharp witted, yet his Genie has a heart-ache that yearns for freedom from always being forced to grant wishes. When Aladdin breaks the Genie's heart, you get a pang of real feeling for the Genie that you wish was present in more moments in the show.

Aladdin will enjoy a long run on Broadway. If only the quality of the entire production matched its box-office thus making Aladdin truly a worthy addition to the better-quality Disney Theatrical Productions that it joins.

Disney's Aladdin is playing the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

If/Then at the Richard Rodgers Theatre

What a difference a pair of eyeglasses make!

It's a bit more complicated than that, but suffice it to say, the creators of the new Broadway musical If/Then used their tryout in Washington DC and the subsequent months prior to their opening to fix the major problems with the structure of their work. When the show premiered out of town it needed a lot of work. If/Then Pre-Broadway Engagement at the National Theatre.  The creative team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who had spectacular success with their Pulitzer-prizewinning musical Next To Normal have taken a lot of pains to make the duality of the story of If/Then more accessible to the average theatregoer.

If/Then tells the story of Elizabeth Vaughan, a 38-year-old divorcee moving back to New York City and trying to decide what to do with her life. Meeting Lucas, her best friend from college and Kate, her new neighbor across the hall, both friends offer Elizabeth a choice. From there two tales emerge: one of Liz who follows Kate in search of true love and the other of Beth who follows Lucas towards a dream job in city planning. Each story leads to different outcomes and affects not just Elizabeth's life but the lives of her friends.

There is less confused chatter at intermission about the two stories and how to tell what is going on and in what scene is in which version of the lead character's life. In the DC tryout it was primarily indicated with lighting. Here the lighting changes are still used, but there is less reliance on it. Instead, the opening song now clearly tells the audience how the play will unfold. Liz wears glasses and Beth does not. There are costumes changes, mostly jackets, to emphasize whether we are in the world of Beth's government job or Liz's romance. There is still occasional confusion. Amember of the audience audibly whispered "wait, she has two kids" in a scene in the life of the childless one.

Tom Kitt has reshaped the book to better focus on Elizabeth's life. Certain events that affected the supporting characters have been completely removed or rewritten and in the case of a life threatening event placed in a different part of the show with clarification as to the nature of the tragedy.

Brian Yorkey's music serves to move the plot forward or color Elizabeth's development over the course of the two stories arcs. You will not find a list of songs in the program. It will not surprise you that the best numbers are performed by the leading lady, Idina Menzel. The role of Elizabeth is formidable. Not only is Ms. Menzel portraying two different versions of her character, she gives both Liz and Beth a rich emotional stage life particularly in such songs as "Learn To Live Without" which feature both characters.

Ms. Menzel is given ample support by Anthony Rapp as her fluidly sexual best friend Lucas. His "Ain't No Man Manehatten" is an upbeat love letter to the City and its Boroughs in the middle of Act One and his "You Don't Need To Love Me" is heartbreaking. LaChanze is vibrant as Kate, the no-nonsense believer in destiny, belting her belief in the power of fate ("It's A Sign). In smaller roles, Jenn Colella as Anne, Kate's love interest and Jason Sam as David, Lucas' love interest in Liz's world are solid.

James Snyder as Stephen, the love of Liz's life and the one that was never met in Beth's is simply charming. He will melt your heart as he sings "Hey, Kid" to his newborn son of the hopes and fears of parenthood. Like Liz you will "I Love You, I HateYou" when a fateful moment breaks Liz's heart.

If/Then is a welcome original addition to Broadway in the midst of so many movie adaptations. It is not the perfect show, but it wins the most improved from its out-of-town tryout. Idina Menzel gives a masterful performance in a leading role that requires her to rarely leave the stage for its entire 2 hour and 35 minute running time. If/Then is a great showcase for the return of a Broadway favorite.

If/Then is being performed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit or