Anastasia

I will find some good things to say about Anastasia later, but first the sad truth.  This musical is quite bad in very many ways.  Based on both a cartoon movie and an Ingrid Bergman film, this is a musicalized tale of the execution of the Russian Romanoff family and its aftermath.  (They wear Dr. Zhivago white and parade around ghostlike when we need a visual reminder.)  Their daughter Anastasia went missing and was never found.  So, we have an amnesiac heiress named Anya who may or may not be the real deal.  Let’s get her to Paris for the reward money!  Let’s sing “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)” at the opening of the second Act!

I have not seen either movie so my only frame of reference is what I saw from my seat.  A handful of good songs out of 32 in the show.  Music and lyrics are by the often reliable Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Once on this Island, Ragtime).  Act II is significantly better than the first for two reasons:  (1) there is more dialogue so we stop getting bored by the musical monotony, and (2) the main story moves offstage and we get a little fun with Countess Lily and Vlad, played by Caroline O’Connor and John Bolton, in “Land of Yesterday” and “The Countess and the Common Man.”  Never a good sign for a musical to shine when it’s less musical and spends more time with minor characters.

The sets were bad.  The whole show is framed by a Russian palace/rotunda with screen projections that were obviously not working properly.  The creative team here was Darko Tresnjak (Director), Peggy Hickey (Choreographer), Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design) and Linda Cho (Costume Design).  That’s the team behind the Tony winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  I was not a big fan of that one either but at least it was creatively staged.  This was not.  The leads here, Christy Altomare and Derek Klena, sing nicely but could be any young, in love couple in any show.  Mary Beth Peil was nominated for a Tony for her work here as the Dowager Empress and she brought real depth and heart to her performance.  A story that you might care about was trying to emerge.  That’s the last of the good news about Anastasia.

www.anastasiabroadway.com

 

Prince of Broadway

Harold Prince has won 21 TONY Awards.  The titular Prince of Broadway has directed and/or produced some of the most significant musicals of the last sixty years including West Side Story, Cabaret, Zorba, Fiddler on the Roof, Company, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and one of my personal favorites, On the Twentieth Century.  He was involved with dozens and dozens of shows since the 1950s.  Yes, there were some admitted failures, notably Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along which closed after sixteen performances in 1981.  From that abundance of Broadway material, this retrospective has been assembled.

For fans of musical theater, this evening is a rare opportunity to celebrate some historic artistic and commercial successes, along with a few that were not.  Like all “greatest hits” compilations, one can easily find a show or a song which could be added into the mix.  When I sat down, I purposely did not peek at the Playbill so I did not know what was coming.  That’s a nice way to take this show in.  And here I will keep the details to myself.  Eight performers doing a little storytelling and highlighting memorable numbers from major works of Broadway history.  That’s all you need to know.

Also, you need to know this.  Tony Yazbek stole the first Act.  Everything he did was outstanding; the tap dancing alone guarantees a Tony nomination.  Bryonha Marie Parham’s vocals, especially right before intermission, are not to be missed.  Emily Skinner interpreted some well-known classics and nailed them down cold, while looking radiant and gorgeous.  Everyone in the cast had great moments.  Loved the costumes by William Ivey Long; so many periods to be covered.  Beowulf Boritt’s set design kept things moving with interesting and creative hints of what the show was about originally.  The cartoon panel was flawless.  Special mention to Jon Weston for his sound design in which every word was crisp and clear.  To be critical, Act II is not as strong largely due to one segment that did not compare favorably to the frequent revivals.

Yes it helps to be a huge fan of musicals to enjoy Prince of Broadway, directed by Harold Prince himself.  And if you are, it’s a must see.

www.princeofbway.com

The Play That Goes Wrong

Currently, there is a deluge of sharp political humor, for good reason.  John Oliver.  Stephen Colbert.  Samantha Bee.  Most recently Tina Fey’s sheetcake rant.  And on and on.  That’s because the target(s) are big, obvious and, well, it’s oh so easy to stick the landing.  Still, sometimes I want to laugh out loud without being reminded of the shit show that is our government.  When that time arrives (and it is now), head to the Lyceum Theater for The Play That Goes Wrong.  It is hilarious from start to finish.

A 2015 Olivier Award winner for Best New Comedy, this play was created by Mischief Theater and is still running in the West End.  Like another classic British farce, Noises Off, the hijinks are structured as a play within a play but with character development replaced by nonstop tomfoolery.  This time it’s “The Murder at Haversham Manor,”  a slightly run down English manor house with a dead body at the top of Act I.  Think Agatha Christie meets Monty Python in a bad play performed very badly.  If it can go wrong, it does.  The audience with whom I saw this play laughed hard and very, very often.

Everyone in the cast is funny with Dave Hearn’s performance as Cecil Haversham my frontrunner for best in show.  Nigel Hook deservedly won the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play.  The set not only gives the actors the platform to be hilarious, it sometimes even upstages them as if it were a character unto itself.  If you are not a fan of farce, slapstick humor or broad physical comedy, perhaps stay away.  If you are, get your tickets and have a great fun night at the theater.  Even the Playbill goes wrong.  Loved it.

www.broadwaygoeswrong.com

Marvin’s Room

Produced off-Broadway in 1991 and later made into a film with Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Leonardo DiCaprio, Marvin’s Room has been exhumed (or buried for good) by the Roundabout Theater on Broadway this summer.  Here are the essentials:  Marvin, unseen throughout, is dying and his daughter Bessie (Lili Taylor) has chosen to live in Florida to take care of him and his wife for the last twenty years.  She now has leukemia.  An estranged sister and her kids take a trip to see if there is a bone marrow match.  Who did the right thing and who did the wrong thing?  All of this is framed in sort of an absurdist comedy that includes a wisecracking doctor and mostly unfunny one liners.

A small, intimate character play thrust on a large stage does not help at all.  The actors are lost amidst the space.  I was in Orchestra Row F and had to concentrate hard to hear what they were saying despite the fact that much of the time the cast is downstage.  On the way out, people were talking about not being able to hear key speeches.  The set was oddly spacious with a turntable that sometimes moved chairs and benches two or three feet during scenes for no discernible reason at all.  When you notice how many times the actor’s faces are not lit because another person is in the way, it’s hard to praise the lighting design.

The only performance I enjoyed was the troubled son Hank, played by Jack DiFalco who at least developed a full character, one who is in a mental institution for burning the family house down.  (Yes, really.)  The principles were just milling about and, in many cases, mumbling.  The New York Times review of Janeane Garofalo’s performance called her “such a brilliant underplayer that I could hardly tell the difference between Lee’s awfulness and her kindness.”  Bullshit.  The only possible way this play could work is for everyone to be ACTING, in capital letters.  This is not subtle stuff.   This is a play where a costumed animal character rescues Bessie when she faints at Disney World.   (Yes, really.)

The blame for this production of Marvin’s Room has to lie firmly with the director, Anne Kauffman, who has done fine, if not exceptional, work in past seasons that I enjoyed;  Marjorie Prime, Detroit, Sundown Yellow Moon and Belleville.  An unfortunate Broadway directorial debut in a production that can only be graded as poor.

www.roundabouttheater.org

1984

From Wikipedia:  “Nineteen eighty-four, often published as 1984, is a dystopian novel published in 1949 by English author George Orwell.  The novel is set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance and public manipulation.”

Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, 1984 lands on Broadway after it debuted in the West End in 2013.  The play has received a lot of press, noting that it’s making theatergoers faint, vomit, scream at the actors from their seats, and get in fights.  I saw none of that but I will add that a young lady turned to her mom after it was over and said, “sorry, I thought this was a musical.”  1984 does include rough scenes, albeit brilliantly executed and unforgettable.

An inherently violent and disturbing book has been brought to three dimensional life and the result is incredibly theatrical, uncannily in the present time and, yes, uncomfortable.  Adventurous types will be rewarded by watching a knockout performance by Tom Sturridge as Winston, the cautious rebel at the center of this story.  On Saturdays, 1984 is performed at 5:00 and 9:00.  Hard to imagine pulling this role off eight times a week, no less twice in one evening.  Bravo.

Olivia Wilde (Julia) and Reed Birney (O’Brien) co-star in this production, both inhabiting this world and their characters with restrained intensity.  I enjoyed watching the entire cast, with Wayne Duvall (Parsons) and Michael Potts (Charrington) as particular standouts.  The set design, use of projections and lighting is top drawer.

The publication of 1984 popularized the adjective Orwellian, which describes official deception, secret surveillance and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian or authoritarian state.  Winston’s job, as a matter of fact, is to rewrite the historical record so that it always supports the party line. Written in 1948, George Orwell brought us the phrase “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”   The time for this exceptional play is now.  Run.

www.thehudsonbroadway.com

A Bronx Tale

Beowulf Boritt’s scenery can be as large a character as anything in a show.  Take the phenomenal cityscape from Act One (the play from Moss Hart’s memoir) that rotated from tenement to luxury penthouse and back again.  It was an awesome framing device to an exceptional play.  We are treated to big moving brownstones in A Bronx Tale, but this time they get in the way.  Perhaps they were going for choreography but the structures’ spinning, then moving upstage and back throughout the proceedings is distracting, overwhelming this rather underwhelming musical.

Based on his one man show turned into a well-admired 1993 movie, Chazz Palminteri wrote the book with Alan Menken (every Disney musical and the great Little Shop of Horrors) providing the music.  We are in the Bronx alternating between the years 1960 and 1968 in an Italian neighborhood ruled by “goodfellas.”  Young Calogero is a child seduced by the easy money earned from the mob.  The older Calogero is our narrator and lead character in the story who is looking back on choices made, while trying to find the right path for his future (Bobby Conte Thornton, confident portrayal in his Broadway debut).

At far too many curtain calls these days, the audience leaps to its feet like puppies begging for Snausages.  Tellingly, that did not happen at the end of A Bronx Tale although the audience seemed more satisfied with the show than me.  There’s one outstanding song, “One of the Great Ones” sung by our mob-in-chief played by the always solid Nick Cordero (best thing in Bullets Over Broadway, great off-Broadway work in Nice Girl and Brooklynite).  All of the other songs are unmemorable.  Supporting players with little to do are given goombah names (Frankie Coffeecake, JoJo the Whale) but there is no character development whatsoever.  The direction is credited to Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks and Robert De Niro (who also directed the movie, his first).  If telling your cast to stand center stage in the spotlight and sing facing forward is direction, then WOW.  But the set moves a lot so I guess someone had to coordinate that.  The absolute worse thing in A Bronx Tale was the Sound Design.  The cast was amplified like it was playing an arena.  When the material is this subpar, loudness does not help.  I’ve certainly seen worse but this one’s not good.  Terrible may be too strong.  But maybe not.

www.abronxtalethemusical.com

Groundhog Day

Once in a while you go to a Broadway show and leave so completely entertained that you can hardly believe your luck.  If you don’t already know, the basic plot premise is that Phil Connors (Andy Karl) is an irritable, obnoxious weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover Phil, the groundhog, and his shadow prediction for spring.  But something happens and he wakes up to face February 2nd again and again.  I vaguely remember liking the movie on which this show is based and I am a big fan of Andy Karl’s previous work (On the Twentieth Century, Rocky, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Legally Blonde).  His performance (acting, singing, clowning, being an asshole) is astonishingly great and he is onstage nearly the whole show.

I would rather not give too many details, just go.  Groundhog Day is a combination of inventive set design (Rob Howell), a very funny book (Danny Rubin), clever lyrics (Matilda‘s Tim Minchin, another winner) and direction (Matthew Warchus) that tightly packs in so much hilarity throughout.  Importantly, this entire cast was stellar and memorable no matter what the size of the role.  If you want to attend a big Broadway show, be wildly entertained and leave completely in awe of the talent that created and performs this finely tuned machine, then Groundhog Day is a must-see.

www.groundhogdaymusical.com

The Little Foxes

The Little Foxes first opened on Broadway in 1939 with Tallulah Bankhead as Regina Hubbard Giddens, the woman at the center of this story which takes place in a small Alabama town in 1900.  The play is a rich feast of family dysfunction and greed set in the south when times and fortunes had changed after the Civil War.  Other actresses who played this juicy role on Broadway included Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing.  Bette Davis did the movie.  I had never seen the play or the film until now.

This Manhattan Theater Club production stars Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon who alternate the role of strong-willed Regina with her fragile sister-in-law Birdie in different performances.  I saw Ms. Linney as Regina and Ms. Nixon as Birdie in their Tony Award nominated roles.

The Little Foxes deserves its status as a classic.  The good versus bad morality tale is a bit obvious but who cares when the actors have such interesting characters to play, fantastic confrontations and, especially in the case of Birdie, heart-breaking self-revelations.  My Cynthia Nixon theater experiences have been mixed in the past:  Rabbit Hole (enjoyed) and Wit (not so much).  Ms. Nixon was simply awesome here, fully disappearing into the character of Birdie with every big moment perfectly realized.  She won the Tony against an extremely strong group of nominees from Sweat and A Doll’s House, Part 2.    Having seen them all now, it’s hard to argue.

Regina’s husband, Horace Giddens, was played by Richard Thomas, also Tony nominated.  At the start of the play, Horace is sick and away from the family.  When he returns in Act II, Mr. Thomas plays a convincing head of household with a seriously troubling illness.  Regina’s brothers, played by Michael McKean and Darren Goldstein, were perfectly inky.  A very strong cast overall in a play that is a period piece but still has a lot to say about how people are treated and how greed drives our culture and relationships.  Still topical today.

I did not love Ms. Linney’s Regina but she was fine in the part.  I felt there needed to be more edge to this beast of a woman.  Plus, and this happens for me with some actors, you can see the acting and not the character.  That said, this play was a superb revival and a great opportunity to understand why Lillian Hellman’s work remains a classic of the theater.

littlefoxesbroadway.com

Bandstand

Bandstand is a new musical about United States servicemen returning home from World War II and attempting to settle down into normalcy again, “Just Like It Was Before.”  Naturally, this being a musical, our servicemen are accomplished musicians forming a band to win a nationwide songwriting contest.  An enjoyable, if flawed, first Act falls headfirst over a cliff in the second Act, the whole endeavor marred by fatal errors particularly in direction, sets, sound and lighting.

The premise here is a good one:  the integration of our soldiers back into society with all the baggage in their heads and the changes at home which make the journey a true struggle.  Adding to that premise are more than a handful of well-written songs from upbeat swing to heart-wrenching ballads.  Bandstand struggles a bit (like the recent Sunset Boulevard revival) with how much darkness the musical needs to nail the tension.  But I felt there was a solid backbone with which to build a memorable show here.

Laura Osnes (Julia) has a beautiful, clear voice.  I should not have to struggle to hear her over the band which happens.  The set in Act I never changes.  We are always in a bar/nightclub and the cast busily and distractingly moves tables, chairs, pianos, glasses and the like to effect scene changes.

Choreography is inserted whenever possible despite whether it makes any sense or advances the story.  In one scene, Julia and the band are performing and her mother (Beth Leavel, terrific) is on hand to watch.  I’m sitting center orchestra row G and I happen to look stage left and see the mother and the nightclub owner flirting.  I chalk that little throwaway moment to actors embellishing a scene.  Then the four couples dancing spread out wide across the stage.  Ms. Leavel has to move almost completely offstage to allow the dancers room.   They are not really doing anything important, we are just opening up a huge space center stage to be able to see Ms. Osnes and the band perform.  Eventually, the dancers return and Ms. Leavel slides back into full view.  A teensy tiny slice of the show to be sure, but a real example of choreography taking over the proceedings.  Perhaps directors and choreographers (Andy Blankenbuehler) should not be the same person?

Then we get to Act II.  Hard fall approaching.  We are leaving Ohio, going to New York.  No spoiler alert needed as there was no doubt the plot would take us there.  Miraculously, the entire set now moves offstage which annoys me since some scenic movement in Act I might have helped the storytelling.  What follows is a bizarre Art Deco train ride complete with four dancing porters.  We morphed stylistically from Guys & Dolls to On the Twentieth Century.  If you are going to go that far, why is the train just some basic chairs on a platform?  The show then gets bogged down to wrap up plot and minor characters are largely throwaway stereotypes.  Thankfully some good songs help us through.

Happily, the servicemen deliver the goods, lead by Corey Cott (Donny Novitski) who commands the stage and gives us a fully fleshed out anguished leading man.  His band mates were all good, adding shades to underwritten characters giving them life and individuality.  Did the band’s costumes pay homage to Jersey Boys at the end?  And why?

There’s a beautiful song “Welcome Home” at the end of the show.  How about lowering the lights and setting a mood?  Ms. Osnes can certainly sing and dance well, but her acting can come across as two-dimensional.  She’s given an amazing, richly written 11:00 song that she delivers big time.  It might have been nice to help her by framing the drama visually as well.  That is direction which was sorely missing here.

One more thing regarding that little throwaway flirtation mentioned earlier.   In the finale, the nightclub owner and Julia’s mother were, voila, a couple.  Seriously, the almost unnoticeable little mini-scene thrown offstage by choreography was needed to connect that dot at the end.  A hot mess.

bandstandbroadway.com

Six Degrees of Separation

In 1991, I saw the original Broadway production of Six Degrees of Separation with Stockard Channing and Courtney Vance.  At the time, it felt like a very important cultural moment play.  The acting was superb and the concept that we are all connected to everyone in the world through a chain of not more than six people became part of our vernacular.  How would the play hold up?  Do I need to revisit it?  I let the reviews sway me and I caught Six Degrees this week on the day it posted an early closing notice.  Too bad.  The play holds up extremely well; I had feared it might have dated itself by this point.

The play is based on a real life story of a con man and robber who claimed to be Sidney Poitier’s son.  The playwright, John Guare, had a friend who told him the personal encounter that later became the basis for this play.  Set in New York in the 1990, the privileged class is in full exposure.  The plot is quickly set in motion when a Harvard college friend of Ouisa and Flan’s children (Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey) drops by their apartment with minor stab wounds from an attempted mugging.  Paul (Corey Hawkins) happens to be in town because his father is producing a film version of Cats.  I had forgotten how much abuse is heaped on Cats in this play – and the fact that is again running on Broadway at the same time is perfect.

I enjoyed all of the leading performers and also the over-the-top spoiled brattiness of their children.  It should be mentioned that there are 18 characters in this play, adding depth and helping to define the world surrounding Ouisa, Flan and Paul.  A couple of choices made, such as the elongated nude scene, were not necessarily for the better.  However, the play is rich and complex.  We get further and further inside Ouisa’s mind as she comes to term with the events that have shaken their Kandinsky world.  I thoroughly enjoyed this revisit to a classic.