Wednesday, December 14, 2016


“Sweet Charity” is as good a musical as can lap at the heels of top tier, and can even, in the right production, make it there. It does, after all, have a book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and is based on a movie by Federico Fellini—what better credentials can there be? Now add to this the lead played by Sutton Foster, and you should have a non plus ultra. But some problems remain.

You may recall that this is the story of Charity Hope Valentine, the defiantly optimistic dance hall hostess, a variation on the topos of the whore with the heart of gold, only here not quite a whore and with not only a heart of gold, but indeed, as embodied by Sutton Foster, pure gold from top to toe.

In the 1957 Fellini film, “Notti di Cabiria,” the heroine is in fact a hooker, but for America in 1966 things had to be made a bit more decorous, and Neil Simon’s book, transferring the action from Italy to New York managed to be neither wholly funny nor especially moving. But Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon did make things exciting, a married couple as were Fellini and his Cabiria, Giulietta Masina. And the premiere 608 performances were not too bad for that pre-Fantasticks and pre-Phantom time.

But then as now, much depended on the female star, and Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 movie, like Debbie Allen in the 1986 Broadway revival, did pretty damn well too. Not so much, however, Christina Applegate in the 2005 Broadway version., which made it only to 279 performances, despite commendable support from Denis O’Hare and Paul Schoeffler. How many will the show net this time round?

At the Pershing Square Signature Center, we are offered what may be viewed as a chamber musical version, small-scale and very low-budget. In a small theater, however, with the audience on three sides, one gets to be almost within hugging distance of the superb Sutton, and how well she acts, sings and dances her role, how girlish she manages to look in a blond wig, and how boldly she jumps up to straddle the waist of a new customer, no matter how disappointing the last one was.

Unlike the other girls in this dance hall, for which the good designer Derek McLane has simply designed a porous back wall and a bare wooden floor, Charity, with sweet naivete, hopes that the next client will be her redeemer. It is a bit too hard for that floor to impersonate the river into which a heartless customer, after fleecing her, tosses Charity so she almost drowns, and this is where the film or a grander staging comes off better. But of course sight lines in theater in the round, or even near round, do not allow for much scenery. 

Clint Ramos had no such problem with the costuming, and has done particularly well by the short, inexpensive, pale blue dress, almost like a child’s play dress, which is all Charity has on when not working. Ms. Foster’s wears it with a touching grace.

The big problem here is the low-rent casting. Joel Perez simply isn’t a versatile enough actor for four parts, least of all for that of the older star actor, Vittorio Vidal, who after a tiff with his young girlfriend picks up Charity for a one-night stand, which doesn’t come to much after the girlfriend returns and Charity has to hide in the closet. I did rather like Emily Padgett as a fellow taxi dancer, Helene, but intensely disliked Shuler Hensley as Oscar.

Oscar is the seeming good guy who will apparently marry Charity, but turns out to be another loser, showing his true color when he panics in a stalled elevator with Charity and, terrified, drops his pants. Eventually he too crumps out on Charity, which, given how unprepossessing this overweight actor has become, may make it a blessing when he decamps. It pays off to follow Fellini’s casting of the accountant Oscar with Francois Perier, a presentable if ever so slightly sinister actor. Likewise, the star Vittorio is best played by an actor like Amedeo Nazzari, an older, polished, very popular leading man of the De Sica variety.

The orchestra has been reduced to six women seated visibly on a balcony above the action. The reduced orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell work reasonably well, and such female contribution is fitting. Song like “Hey, Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This” are still winners.

But Leigh Silverman, the canny director, has moved to the ending “Where Am I Going,” substituting a semi-dark number for both Simon’s and Fellini’s endings, each somewhat different, but both vaguely hopeful

There remains the all-important matter of the choreography, which from Bob Fosse was innovative and dazzling. That of Joshua Bergasse is more conventional, not bad, but not even as good as the one he did for the last revival of “On the Town.”

Yet finally all this pales in comparison to Sutton Foster performing her customary wonders. You would think that even those dastardly males that toss her about could not resist her; the ecstatic audience certainly can’t.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

More Second Opinions

“Dear Evan Hansen” was, in my view, an undeserved hit Off Broadway, and is so again on Broadway, once more harvesting critical raves as numerous and useless as fallen autumn leaves.

In one respect, though, this show is typical—indeed archetypal—of current musicals: it has poor, monstrously repetitive lyrics, and absolutely not a single tune, either sung or instrumental. It is a wonder that such so-called music can be sung at all, although false notes would fit imperceptibly in.

The contrived and pretentious book is by Steven Levenson, the music and lyrics are by the currently hotshot team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose previous flukes include “Dogfight,” “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” and “James and the Giant Peach.”  All of them should be subtitled “The Musical,” lest the score be mistaken for so much noise.

This is the tale of prototypical nerd Evan Hansen, a high-school kid sorely lacking friends and advised by his shrink to write himself encouraging letters. He signs them “Me.”  One such is printed in the school computer lab and pocketed by a fellow student, Connor Murphy, who later commits suicide due to loneliness and depression.

Connor’s bereaved parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy, find Evan’As letter signed “Me” in Connor’s pocket, on the basis of which they assume that Connor and Evan were secretly bosom buddies, and, what with Evan loath to disillusion them, more or less adopt him as a substitute son. This partly because his own mother, Heidi Hansen, a single parent constrained to toil at two jobs, has scant time for her boy.

There is also the Murphy daughter, Zoe, the class belle, who warms to Evan as he co-founds, with a couple of other kids (one Jewish, one black—make your own deductions), a manifold memorial, turning the hostile Connor into a posthumous hero, with a feel-good ending for all concerned.

The cast, even under the undistinguished direction of Michael Greif, does well enough—I particularly liked Laura Dreyfus (Zoe), Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi) and, as Evan, Ben Platt, doing almost frighteningly well down to the last stammer and nervous tremor in his legs. The final insult, presumably to epitomize the role of the Internet, consists of dogged but irrelevant projections by Peter Nigrini onto David Korins’s drab, dromomaniac panels, depressingly matching a certifiably tuneless score.

The quasi-autobiographical story of Chazz Palminteri’s early life, “ A BronxTale,” can match any Indian cult of avatars with reincarnations worthy of the phoenix. Having begun as a play and re-emerged as a movie, it now pops up as a musical, with who knows what further variations to come. A comic strip? A ballet?

As a musical, it has lyrics by Glenn Slater and music by Alan Manken, the former an old hand and the latter an all but perennial one. It returns co-directed by Jerry Zaks, another old pro, and Robert De Niro, who co-directed and starred in the movie version. So, you see, there is a kind of Bronx Tale industry, somewhat larger than a cottage one, but just as dedicated. The book of the musical, need I say, continues to be by Chazz.

I won’t go into details of a plot that you can hardly have wholly avoided, but will say that it is the story of a boy with two fathers: the real one, a decent hard-working bus driver, and an adoptive one, Sonny, crime boss of the neighborhood, who took him on after the kid, then nine years old, refused to finger him upon witnessing a flagrant murder.

Chazz figures as the plucky boy and, later, devoted Sonny protege called Calugero, which the gangster, good at cutting lives and names short, reduces to a mere C. As C.  Calugero becomes head of his own, noncriminal gang, and courts a black girl from a neighborhood with which his Italian one has strictly no truck. He does get support and a sexual education from Sonny (which is quite amusing), and, under his real father’s guidance, manages to outlive the murdered Sonny and, we assume, go straight.

The show makes it all amorally jolly, and Sergio Trujillo furnishes it with a lively choreography. There is good scenery from Beowulf Boritt and authentic costuming from William Ivey Long, as well as helpful lighting by Howell Binkley.

But here again, the score, with only passable lyrics, gets second-rate support from the experienced Alan Menken. Having provided music for so many works in various media, largely for Disney, Menken may have depleted his stock that, for his penultimate, “Aladdin,” still managed rather better. Which is not to say that it does not surpass drear [sic] “Evan Hansen.”

 The acting is mostly fine, though I do not prefer the current Calugero, Bobby Conte Thernton, to the previous one at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. But there is one performance that outshines all others, the Sonny of Nick Cordero. This, down to the tiniest threatening facial expression and most sparing minatory gesture, is sheer perfection, making criminality unleashed fun. You may have reservations about everything else, but Cordero, even in an ominous silence, is an ungainsayable last word.

“Sweat” is another show hailed by the reviewers as a masterpiece, though it is not the author’s finest. Lynn Nottage is, along with August Wilson, the black theater’s best; the rest, no matter how many genius awards are lavished on them, are not in the same league. Among Nottage’s virtues are the not inconsiderable ones of never repeating herself, and of basing her work on irreproachable on-site research.

Here she deals with blue-collar workers of uneventful Reading, Pennsylvania; the  bar in which they hang out; their financial, social, emotional problems; their friendships and hostilities; their boozing and gossiping. It is impossible to provide a précis of the goings on, what with nine characters’ tribulations complicatedly interwoven and in constant, however minor, change.

What is particularly good about “Sweat” is the capture of these mentalities and misadventures in the exact language in which they are given voice, rendering them incontrovertibly real. But therein lies also the danger: in this long, perhaps overlong, play, no character commands more than a genuine but transient empathy. Turns and tensions abound, but our feelings are never vitally engaged.

This said, Kate Whoriskey has perceptively directed a persuasive cast, and we can practically smell the beers and hard liquor being prodigally consumed. Except perhaps for Johanna Day, we get a set of most likely unknowns, thus favorably contributing to our not viewing them as actors. In John Lee Beatty’s detailed scenery and Peter Kaczorowski’s unsparing lighting, we get a kind of reality show unknown to television.

The ending may be just a trifle pat, but this is forgivable after the authentic disorder we have been witnessing. You can apply quite a few gritty phrases to the proceedings, but “Don’t sweat it,” is not one of them.

In my opinion, Richard Greenberg , author of numerous plays, has scored only one winner: “Take Me Out,” directed by Joe Mantello and given a flawless production. Otherwise, neither his spotty wit nor his latent sentimentality has carried much weight with me.  It was Frank Rich, in a Times rave review for what may have been Greenberg’s questionable first attempt, who put this smartass on the map despite such blatant turkeys as “The Violet Hour” and “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” among others.

We now have “The Babylon Line,” neither his worst nor his best, but in which Greenberg tries to be a bit different. He has undoubtedly taught some classes in writing, and this is about such a one in unglamorous Levittown on Long Island’s Babylon railway line in what is doubtless some second-rate institution.

The unrewarded but conscientious teacher is the youngish Aaron Port, author seemingly of only one story in an obscure academic journal. His six students are three variously typical Jewish Long Island housewives  and mothers, and a weird, goyish, childless woman, plus one middle-aged man whom life has passed by and one quite oddball younger one, working on the first paragraph of a yet unwritten thousand-page opus . None of these have an easy time providing a piece of writing for discussion, though they do come up with eventual bits, as comic as they are banal.

Joan Dellamond is at least a strange kind of intellectual; Frieda Cohen is humorously commandeering; Anna Cantor is a squeaky mouse; and ludicrous Madge Braverman is somewhere in between. Aaron, in most cases, might have an easier time extracting the entrails from a goose, but, an underpaid and humble commuter from the Village, he tries to do his best.

There are some funny moments, and even a smidgen of pathos in an aborted love story between Aaron and Joan (a partial recluse who dreams of kicking a baby), but somehow the whole thing does not jell. You hope for a resolution, a purpose, at least an arc, but you just keep getting numerous short scenes, on and on, not leading anywhere. A pat ending is mercifully avoided, but something more is desperately needed.

Still, under Terry Kinney’s sedulous direction, an expert cast does yeoman’s work. As Frieda, Randy Graff, one of our finest actresses, is marvelous as a loudmouth and know-it-all, expertly making an annoying character just enjoyable enough but not too lovable. There is lovely work from one of our top comediennes, Julie Halston, as Madge Braverman, who comes into her questionable own, and Maddie Corman, who squeezes maximum life out of subaltern Anna Cantor.

On the men’s side, that most dependable of balding actors, Frank Wood, does touchingly by painfully ordinary Jack Hassenpflug; Michael Oberholtzer, as the untalented fanatic Marc Adams, couldn’t be more droll. The most notable character, Joan, may not be quite nailed by Elizabeth Reaser, but she comes disturbingly close enough. Richard Hoover (set}, Sarah J. Holden (costumes) and David Weiner (lighting) make sterling contributions.

On a show-off level, some of this works passably enough; if you can keep your expectations as low as those of Aaron Post, winningly acted by Josh Radnor, you can have a tolerably good time.

We come now to the modest Off Broadway musical “The Band’s Visit,” which I find slight but likable. Based on an Israeli movie by Eran Kolirin, this is a story of the uniformed Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving at an invitation of the Israeli Betah Tikva  Cultural Department to perform at the Culture Center. At the outskirts of Bet Hatikva, they are informed that there is a Petah Tikva or a Bet Hatikva, but no Betah Tikva, and, as the owner of Dina’s Café and hangers out inform them, there is “Not culture, no Israeli Culture, no Arab, no culture at all.”

This leads to the first songs and much comical disputation about where the visitors are or should be, to the probable latter there being no bus any longer till next morning. What follows is the varied fascinating interaction among the Egyptians and sundry Israelis--chiefly, but by no means exclusively, between Dina, the spunky café owner, and Tewfyk, the widowed and repressed conductor of the orchestra.

There are quite a few minor characters with their several intertwined stories, including one family with a variously passed around baby, a young man afraid to woo a desired melancholy young woman, another chap glued endlessly to the sole payphone, hoping for a call from his girlfriend that doesn’t seem to be coming. Also some provocative female soldiers and a character or two whizzing about on roller skates, plus others just waiting for something different to happen.

The show is staged by David Cromer, a famous but somewhat overrated director, who can be effective as he is here, turning turmoil to scenic advantage. Conveyed is a sense of something larger, implied and all-encompassing, that bespeaks a confused and confusing society to which, however, music and goodwill may bring redemption.

The book is by Itamar Moses, whom I don’t trust as a writer, but who proves an acceptable adapter. David Yazbek has provided pleasant music and rather less impressive lyrics, although a kind of love song with “Omar Sharif” for refrain is not without piquancy. At the very least, credit must be given for Tewfiq and Dina not having the expected fling, despite her flagrant efforts.

And speaking of Dina, her embodier, Katrina Lenk, strikes me as the most interesting actress currently on view, displaying a perfect fusion of talent and looks, and easily worth the price of admission. Altogether, this “Visit” is worth visiting.

Nicky Silver, Perky and Pointed

All writers in general and playwrights in particular are uneven. Perfection is not a widely recognized human attribute. As the poet Horace cannily observed, “Sometimes even good old Homer nods.” So does Shakespeare, the greatest of all. And Nicky Silver, bless his heart, can doze off with the best of them.

But whereas Horace referred to occasional passages in the Homeric epics, dramatist Silver can be somnolent for an entire play. All that glitters, we know, is not gold, but neither is it Silver. At his worst. he can be merely self-indulgent; at his best, as in the current “This Day Forward,” he puts his best foot forward. Here, I guarantee, there is no shuteye either from him or for you; you will be kept pleasurably alert.

This is particularly interesting because the play is in equal measure funny and serious, blending those opposites with conspicuous skill. The first act takes place in 1958, the second in 2004, enabling spectators to speculate about what the passage of 46 years can do to a person.

In Act One, Irene and Martin are well-off Jewish newlyweds in a suite of the posh Saint Regis hotel, with Martin scarcely able to contain his eagerness to bed his bride. But Irene, somewhat belatedly on their wedding day, reveals that she does not love Martin. Early in the day she was in fact in bed with Emil, a supposedly very handsome gas station operator, her clandestine lover for some time. The revelation drives Martin nearly crazy, while Irene evinces only a middling embarrassment.

Emil duly shows up and claims Irene for himself. Although Joe Tippett, as the Emil In this production, looks consummately ordinary, this only confirms the insidious illogic behind physical attraction or its lack. Act One implies that Irene, or even Martin, might subsequently split, even as Martin and Emil fight over her, or seem to, but the whole thing remains differently absurd..
                                                                                                                                                            After the intermission, we gather that, whether in love or not, Martin and Irene have stayed together for forty odd years, and that Irene, now an eccentric widow and mother to adult Sheila and Noah, drives the caregiver daughter nuts, and infuriates son Noah by repeatedly calling him Martin. Both offspring are understandably exasperated.

In this Second Act, Noah is a successful stage director, homosexual with a live-in partner, Leo, a young actor not entirely undemanding. Sheila is sick and tired of caring for Irene, who just made off to the airport in nightgown and robe, only to be returned with police assistance. Irene, as sassy as can be, and in most ways pleased to lord it over her children, is not all that complaisant with either of them.

Out of this material, Silver has fashioned a provocative comedy—really a comedy drama—that elicits both laughter and thoughtfulness from its viewers. We cannot but be amused when Irene rebukes her son, “For God’s sake, I know that you are gay, Noah. I made you gay. I did it to spite your father.” Or when she comments about her alarming escape, “I had a Toblerone bar a the airport. Why can’t you get those anyplace but the airport? They’re delicious.”

One of the not inconsiderable virtues of “This Day Forward” is that it offers no easy solution to its problems. Noah is, though physically satisfied by Leo, no less eager to get away from him to Hollywood and avoid commitment. He is loath to take on Irene as his responsibility, yet not so sure about making it in Tinseltown. So the play becomes, on top of comedy and even farce, tinged with drama, as we worry about what is to become of Irene in her widowhood. But we are also concerned for her children, to whom, kvetch that she is, she is a genuine burden.

The direction by Mark Brokaw is impeccable, overcoming the threat of remaining too talky and static by means of inventive stage movement and well-paced dialogue. The cast could not be more apt, whether in reproach or resignation, repartee or rebarbativeness. Thus Holly Fain is subtly provocative as the young Irene, and June Gable is jovially grouchy as the aged one. Michael Crane is equally commendable as the sideswiped groom Martin and the restless homosexual Noah. Andrew Burnap and Francesca Faridany are helpful in encompassing the real and the ridiculous in well handled double roles.

Allen Moyer’s contrasted sets—plushly traditionalist for the Saint Regis, and edgily modern for Noah’s bachelor pad—are on target, and Kay Voyce’s costumes, like David Lander’s lighting, are similarly to the point. Nicky Silver, without quite being Shakespeare, has his gift of melding the real and the ridiculous, of turning the everyday into the oddly endearing.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Etcetera

So now we have “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1912,” transferred after a hiatus to Broadway and ensconced at the Imperial Theater, in a grandiose setting it does not really deserve. “Enthroned” might be nearer the mark, because Mimi Lien, the set designer, and Rachel Chavkin, the director, have redesigned the Imperial’s auditorium, so as to make the setting for a “War and Peace”-based show truly imperial.

But “Comet” the musical does not even equal other feeble new musicals. Yet for it, the fascinating seating now comprises various levels for action that partly respects the original seating, but also uses two aisles and two staircases, as well as the stage level for sideline bleachers and a lower free-floating one as well as an overhanging one--and even movement on the mezzanine--to achieve notable diversity. There is also impressive lighting design by Bradley King, involving an upstage bank of lights that can appear and disappear, and lighting units from above that are effectively lowerable and retractable.

The staging allows cast members to interact with the spectators in sundry ways, even unto briefly sitting down among them or having orchestra members ply some instruments up and down the aisles to cajole our adjacent ears.

Dave Malloy has inflicted on us his book, lyrics, music and orchestrations, as well as his obsession with things Russian. He also specializes in uncalled-for adaptations, having previously attacked Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, as well as Beowulf and Schubert’s “Winterreise,” while his Shakespearean “Henriad” is waiting in the wings. He is part of the Anglophone branch of Regietheater, in which a director or adapter craps on masterpieces that cry out for being left alone, as for instance in Simon Godwin’s disastrous current revival of “The Cherry Orchard.”

In the previous, outdoor version of “Comet,” Malloy also had the effrontery of playing the male lead, which made him a very unlucky Pierre. On Broadway, the role has gone, more commercially, to Josh Groban, who sings it much better, and even acts the part decently enough. But he is not the big, affable bear of a man the text calls for, despite some extra stuffing in his waistcoat.

Yet since this is supposed to be nothing less than a pop opera, let me begin with noting the arrogance of competing with Prokofiev’s marvelous nonpop opera, “War and Peace,” which, even unfinished, outshines a thousand Comets. Malloy’s music as well as instrumentation generate a vaguely Russian sound, but there is in it not a single memorable song. On the contrary, there are long stretches in which what passes for music sounds like a concert by assembled metronomes, not even worthy of an obbligato. Sometimes the human voice manages a Pyrrhic victory over mere sound and fury, but the accomplishment is the singer’s, not the song’s.

As for the lyrics, they are prosaic as can be and wallow in repetition of the same phrase countless self-indulgent times. Thus “There is a war going on/ out there somewhere/ and Andrey isn’t here, or “Helene is a slut” is repeated often enough, but never dramatically conveyed, to revulse even a besotted masochist.  Rhyme is only slightly less rare than hen’s teeth—not that it helps much when allowed to interlope.

As for the book, there is little to recommend extracting a fragment from a long, major novel. It is doubly grievous, both for what is omitted and for what is not. For motivation, insight, and style, it remains on the level of a second-rate graphic novel: Tolstoy for Marvel Comics.

Which brings us to the casting. I have grave problems with the Natasha of Denee Benton, somewhat because she is black, but overwhelmingly because she is not much of an actress, and indeed has a babyish quality of looks, voice, and demeanor. Yes, Natasha is supposed to be guileless, but is she meant to be infantile? She sings well enough, but in a slightly black English accent that, for me, wrongly colors what she sings. Nicholas Belton, the Andrey (a Belton for a Benton?) has too slight a role, and his doubling in a wig as Prince Bolkonsky, his semidemented father, is horrendous ham.

 I have already commented on Groban, but the rest of the cast surely deserves specific mention.  They are all fine in various roles: Brittain Ashford, Amber Gray. Grace McLean, Gelsey Bell, Nick Choksi and Paul Pinto do well by their parts. But only one manages to be outstanding, largely because of the longest and most theatrical role: Lucas Steele as Anatole, the vile seducer.  Pale, blond, and manifestly devious, with a touch of the showily histrionic, he steals the show no less than Natasha’s heart. His being easily the center of attraction skews what is already  unbalanced into the barbarous. 

As for the Great Comet of 1912, its greatness is limited to a rhetorical apostrophe in Pierre’s concluding lyric, no more distinguished than all that preceded it. I repeat, “War and Peace” is a remarkably wrongheaded source for a Procrustean adaptation, doing scant justice to Peace (a grand Imperial ball? Forget it!), and none whatsoever to War. I can see no excuse for the critical raves “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1912” has garnered from all over beyond perhaps some awe for its literary source.  But to Tolstoy’s prose epic, “Comet” is like a children’s sleigh attached to a mighty troika.