The Band’s Visit

Based on a 2007 film of the same name, The Band’s Visit was first produced by the Atlantic Theater Company last season.  Although I had already seen (and loved) this musical, I decided to revisit its uptown transfer to Broadway.  A band from Eqypt has been invited to play a concert in Israel but manages to get lost.  As a result, they wind up in Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikvah.  What’s the difference?  Upon arrival, they hear the song, “Welcome to Nowhere.”

From this point, the band and its members interact with the locals.  Rather than being an overtly political musical, The Band’s Visit is more interested in life and relationships from multiple perspectives.  The young and the not so young.  The practical and the hopelessly romantic.  And, especially, those who can hear and savor the music of life.  Like its not so distant cousin, the Tony Award winning musical Once, music is the connective tissue to drive the plot and develop characterizations in very intimate scenes.  This is a slow, quiet, funny, sad, realistic, magical, musical tour of a very ordinary town awakened by visitors.   They bring something new to cherish, if only for a moment.

Director David Cromer (The Treasurer, Tribes, Our Town, Adding Machine) sets a melancholy but beautiful mood and tempo to deliver the welcome Middle Eastern influenced music and lyrics of David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).  As the band’s leader, Tony Shalhoub (Act One) is near perfect, as usual, with the right combination of dignified and human.  Golden voiced Ari’el Stachel has one of the peak moments, singing the melodious song “Haled’s Song About Love” with Papi, one of the locals, played by Etai Benson.  However, The Band’s Visit belongs first and foremost to Katrina Lenk (Indecent) as Dina, the proprietor of the café who first greets the band.  Effortlessly sexy and seductive, bored and world-weary yet still dreaming, Ms. Lenk’s performance is equally luminous and grounded.

An excerpt from the Playbill bio from George Abud (Camal, a band member):  “I hope young Arabic kids … know there there is starting to be a place for their expression, their stories and their faces.  The Arab voice, rich in history and beautiful music, is vital in American theater.”  Indeed.

www.thebandsvisitmusical.com

Time and the Conways

“An Experiment with Time” was a widely read 1927 book by J. W. Dunne, a British soldier, aeronautical engineer and philosopher.  One of the theories he posited was that all time is happening simultaneously.  Past, present and future are one and linear time is the only way in which human consciousness is able to perceive this.  J. B. Priestly used these ideas in his plots for three “Time Plays,” including An Inspector Calls, his most famous work.

Time and the Conways takes place in both 1919 and 1937 Britain between the World Wars.  The play opens with Kay’s 21st birthday and a grand party at their home in well-to-do Manningham.  (The original Kay on Broadway in 1938 was Jessica Tandy.)  Four sisters and two sons, one of whom just returns from the war, are still living at home with their mother (Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern).  While this is certainly a family drama filled with sibling rivalries and emotional baggage, thematically it is much bigger than that.  Priestley also comments on Britain between the wars, class privilege, socialism, life choices and missed opportunities with a dash of unrequited love.  Add in a beast of a mother, a game of charades and a whiff of metaphysical time travelling.  I loved this play, its naturalistic style and its structure.

Everyone in this talent-rich cast was good and the staging by Rebecca Taichman (last year’s Tony winner for Indecent) effectively presented the mundane and the mysterious.  Particular standouts for me were Gabriel Ebert as Alan (Tony winner for Matilda), Charlotte Parry as Kay (Tony winner for The Real Thing), Matthew James Thomas as Robin (Pippin, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and Anna Baryshnikov as Carol (film debut in Manchester by the Sea).

As Ernest, Steven Boyer was just as intense as his unforgettable performance in Hand to God.  His character is an entrepreneurial climber from the lower class who desperately wants to meet the Conways.  A study in simmering physicality, perhaps Mr. Boyer’s character is Priestley’s commentary on British society.  As time passes and dreams are realized, why is there still just pent up anger and unhappiness?  Time and the Conways is rich with characters and ideas.  A rewarding piece of theater and a Broadway revival well worth seeking out.

www.roundabouttheatre.org

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