By William Wolf
SUNSET BOULEVARD Send This Review to a Friend
I always enjoy pointing out that when Glenn Close was in her early acting days I was impressed with an off-Broadway performance I saw and wrote an article titled “It’s Time for Glenn Close.” Attention was due her and she rightly was to become an established star. Once again she is proving her exceptional talent by returning to Broadway in a role in which she excelled before, that of the desperate, faded movie actress Norma Desmond. Close is sensational in the role on many counts and deserves every bit of the prolonged ovations she is getting in this English National Opera production.
Actually there were two ovations in the Palace Theatre on the night I saw the revival of “Sunset Boulevard.” Before the show started Hillary Clinton was spotted walking down an aisle to her seat and Palace exploded with applause and audience members rising to get a look at her. This is New York, solid Clinton territory, and the adulation showed, probably both in appreciation of her and anti-Trump.
The show, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black ad Christopher Hampton based on the Billy Wilder film, begins impressively with visuals suggesting the Hollywood scene. The production aspect of the musical is a key part of its success. The overall set (design by James Noone) suggests the Paramount Pictures studio, with other locations turning up within it. Great use is made of projection, including some vintage clips, to broaden the effect and also suggest a geographical area beyond the studio. The orchestra, doing justice to the score, is on stage in the background.
The book follows the plot of the film closely. The opening has handsome Michael Xavier as writer Joe Gillis launching the story while his corpse is seen at the side of the stage after he has been shot and killed by Desmond. The back story takes off, and Xavier is excellent throughout as we see him seizing the opportunity to earn money that he desperately needs by working on Desmond’s massive screenplay which feeds her illusion that it will return her to stardom. He also succumbs to becoming a kept man and the object of her love even though he deeply resents the situation.
When Desmond first is seen, the effect is dramatic, and Close plays the entrance to the hilt and follows through with a performance that is dazzling whether she is acting or singing. Her number “With One Look” is a dynamic mixture of pride and hope, and is a highlight of the show. When Desmond dramatically visits the studio in belief that her film will be made, Close is brilliantly touching as she makes us feel deeply for her. It is a prime scene that comes off poignantly as well as evoking the old days with people who remember her and newcomers who don’t. Paul Schoeffler plays director Cecil B. DeMille with deference and care not to hurt Desmond’s feelings.
Other praiseworthy performances are by Fred Johanson as Max von Mayerling, Desmond’s loyal and protective ex-husband, the role played in the film by Erich von Stroheim. Siobhan Dillon is appealing as Betty Schaeffer, who falls in love with Gillis. The many singers and dancers add immeasurably to the musical's breadth and color.
Lonny Price as director knows exactly how to showcase Close, positioning her front and center at key moments and allowing her maximum opportunity to engage and win over her audience. Price also manages to skillfully pull together the disparate elements of the action to give the musical the needed scope.
The strong, pulsating score adds intensity, but I have to say that I find the sing-song rhythm and tonality of dialogue in various recitative passages annoying. But that is a quibble. This is a hugely entertaining musical and a chance to enjoy the artistry of Glenn Close at the height of her stage power. At the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed February 15, 2017.
BERLIN TO BROADWAY WITH KURT WEILL: A MUSICAL VOYAGE Send This Review to a Friend
The pure pleasure afforded by the latest in the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series is an off-Broadway highlight of the season. The concert-style revival of the 1972 show “Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage” revels in Weill’s glorious music, both in his German period associated with Bertolt Brecht and in the dazzling Broadwayization of his work after he settled in the United States.
A cast of five, seeming much larger, backed by the piano and melodica accompaniment by conductor and musical director Eric Svejcar, does Weill proud. There is an incredibly broad selection of numbers, and whether together or in solos, the troupe assembled and directed by Pamela Hunt consistently brings out the striking elements in Weill’s work. Hunt keeps the show flowing harmoniously, with the cast members moving about intriguingly with their mobile music stands. Given that the musical is performed after less than a week’s rehearsal, it is necessary for the cast to have the score and lyrics at hand, although at times performers have committed all to memory.
Bryan Charles Rooney assumes the role of narrator, who fills us in on the details of Weill’s career and life, and also sings with a satirical wink. Stunning Rachel de Benedet pours heart and soul into “Surabaya Johnny” from the 1929 “Happy End” and in a sexy switch is wickedly entertaining with her interpretation of “The Saga of Jenny” from the 1941 “Lady in the Dark.”
Meghan Picerno, with her thrilling soprano voice, has several highlights, exemplified by the emotional rendition of “That’s Him” from the 1943 “One Touch of Venus.” Michael Halling, who shows versatility in a range of numbers, is especially poignant singing “September Song” from the 1938 “Knickerbocker Holiday.” From the 1936 “Johnny Johnson.” Karl Josef Co excells with two numbers, “Hymn to Peace” and “Johnny’s Song,” as well as makes other important contributions from the Weill repertoire.
The breadth of the musical is impressive, with other shows covered including “The Threepenny Opera,” “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” “Marie Galante,” “Love Life,” “Street Scene” and “Lost in the Stars,” the particularly expressive title song of the latter given an exquisite group rendition.
It is unusual to find such a fabulous composite of music in one show. The level of the lyrics is also high, reflecting Weill’s work with such collaborators as Jacques Deval, Paul Green, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Alan Jay Lerner and Langston Hughes.
Weill died in 1950 when he was only 50 years old. But he left an enormous legacy, and it is so gratifying to have an opportunity to enjoy so much of it in this stellar revival, thanks to the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series. The next one coming up is a concert revival of “Dear World,” February 25-March 5. At The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street. Phone: 212-935-5820.
RING TWICE FOR MIRANDA Send This Review to a Friend
Alan Hruska has written an ambitious, metaphorical play that attempts to make a point about being trapped in life because of class and unable to escape, with conditions being even worse in the alternative. It treads on Beckett-style territory, but is off-the-wall-flamboyant and directed accordingly by Rick Lombardo with in-your-face, exaggerated acting. The attempt is more interesting than the result, as the play lacks the tightness and synchronized drive needed to rise above good intentions.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some entertaining passages along the way, and the cast members enthusiastically play it to the hilt. Katie Kleiger is Miranda, a feisty, sexy chambermaid, and George Merrick is Elliot, a contentious butler, who work in a mansion ruled by the mysterious Sir (Graeme Malcolm), whose dictatorial edicts are carried out by his haughty, nasty manager Gulliver (Daniel Pearce).
Elliot is attracted to Miranda, who is standoffish with him, and Elliot is jealous, as Miranda is often summoned by Sir for what Elliot thinks is sex. When we see Sir and Miranda together, there is psychological play between them, with Miranda trying to figure out what Sir wants, while he demands that she show new ways to please him. That’s never possible.
When Elliot is summoned by Gulliver to tell him that he is fired, Miranda goes to bat for him, with the result that she and Elliot leave together. Outside the insular world of Sir’s domain, life is chaotic, with destruction, violence and starvation. In their wandering Miranda and Elliot encounter Chester ( William Connell) and his girlfriend Anouk (Talia Thiesfield), and also Felix (Ian Lassiter), a plumber. The jockeying that ensues reflects the raging competitiveness for survival.
It is hardly surprising that when Miranda and Elliot decide to go back to Sir’s domain, they find that their jobs have been taken by—guess who? How the situation is resolved reflects the play’s basic theme.
Despite the colorful performances, the work lacks the sophistication to make us either care about the characters or their plight. It all seems like an exercise in existentialism without the sufficient wit and know-how to succeed on the level needed to fulfill the play’s commendable ambition. At City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed February 13, 2017.
BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (ENCORES!) Send This Review to a Friend
New York City Center Encores! has rediscovered the 1985 Broadway production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a musical adapted from Mark Twain’s novel, and given it a new, lively concert-style staging (February 8-12, 2017). A large company and the on-stage Encores! Orchestra combine to creatively capture the music and lyrics by Roger Miller and William Hauptman’s book.
The plot is very incident-packed and a bit too sprawling. Still, the essence of Twain’s vision is there, wrapped in the twang-y country-style score mixed with passionate songs that give meaning to the tale involving the ultimate freeing of the slave Jim, Huck’s pal in their adventures and flight.
Nicholas Barasch makes a delightfully rebellious Huck, who befriends Jim, played with dignity by Kyle Scatliffe. Huck can be immature and insensitive to Jim’s status in life, illustrated by Huck’s playing a mean trick on him, but during the show there is gradual bonding as Huck helps free Jim after he is captured and sold as a runaway slave. The musical is historically uplifting when Jim sings “Free At Last.” Scatliffe has a commanding voice, also exemplified in his “Muddy Water” and “Worlds Apart” duets with Barasch.
The adventures of Jim and Huck are quite extended, with all of the dangers encountered, and the role of Tom Sawyer is woven in with Charlie Franklin amiably playing Tom. Along the way we get to meet two comic, scene-stealing charlatans-- David Pittu as The King and Christopher Sieber as The Duke. They make a funny team as they try to fleece the gullible.
The production, set along the Mississippi River Valley in the 1840s, has some nifty numbers with the Ensemble adding strength backing the soloists. The director is Lear deBessonet, with musical direction by Rob Berman and choreography by Josh Rhodes. A wide photo representing the Mississippi area (scenic design by Allen Moyer) serves as background, abetted by Paul Miller’s lighting design. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed February 11, 2017.
GEORGIE: MY ADVENTURES WITH GEORGE ROSE Send This Review to a Friend
Ed Dixon has a delightful demeanor, often delivering a line with an implied wink. In “Georgie: My Adventures with George Rose,” which he has written and performs, he recalls the late prominent British-born actor (1920-1988), whom he met and admired and with whom he developed a 20-year friendship. He doesn’t do an imitation of Rose, except when he quotes something Rose said or did, but it would seem that Dixon fancies himself in the same mold.
Dixon looms on stage as the kind of larger than life figure that Rose was in whatever part he assumed in his impressive 41-year Broadway career (Two-time Tony winner and a total of five Tony nominations). Being such a successful actor and colorful character makes George Rose an excellent candidate for a one-man show like this.
Directed by Eric Schaeffer, Dixon tries to keep the homage lively, moving about and pouring his heart and his talent to evoking Rose while spinning narratives describing some of the outrageous things Rose liked to do and references interactions with a bevy of stars. It is clear that Dixon idolized Rose and it shows throughout.
I once was invited to dinner with Rose and a mutual friend, and can attest that Rose could be amusing in person as well as on stage. As for the actor’s personal life, Dixon notes that Rose was openly gay.
For all of the colorful anecdotes and insights associated with Rose, there was a horrible ending to his life. He was tortured and murdered under mysterious circumstances in the Dominican Republic, were he had a home and had adopted a 17-year-old youth. It was a brutally undeserving fate for a man with a kind heart as well as enormous talent.
Dixon covers Rose’s life with flair and fine-tuned recollections. I generally find that one-person shows can be shortened, as it takes a lot for an actor to succeed in holding the stage firmly in delivering a performance that is 90-minutes long with no intermission. Dixon succeeded admirably in bonding with his audience on the night I saw the show, but his “Georgie,” while entertaining, moving and glowing with expertise, could still stand some tightening. At the Davenport Loft, 354 West 45th Street. Reviewed February 2, 2017.
MILK AND HONEY Send This Review to a Friend
Jerry Herman’s first Broadway musical, “Milk and Honey” (1961), for which he wrote the music and lyrics with a book by Don Appell, is being revived in a lovely concert-style staging this week (through February 5) as part of the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series. An appealing cast does a formidable job in capturing the spirit of the show reflecting the enthusiasm for the then 13-year-old state of Israel. It also is a tender love story against the backdrop of visiting Americans.
Mark Delavan treats us with a strong voice and excellent acting in the role of Phil Arkin, who is estranged from his wife and visiting his daughter living in Israel with her partner. Phil is romantically smitten when he meets Ruth Stein, part of a tour group and exquisitely portrayed by Anne Runolfsson, who acts and sings beguilingly. The nagging problem is that Phil doesn’t tell Ruth that he is married, and when she learns the truth she is not the type who can blithely live under that shadow even though she has fallen deeply in love with Phil.
The musical is enlivened by humor, much of it coming from the performance by Alix Korey as Clara Weiss, a widow who is part of the tour group. Clara tries to cement the romance between Phil and Ruth, and is desperate to find a new husband for herself to replace her late beloved Hymie. She also wants to find husbands for other widows in the group. (Molly Picon played the role in the original production.) Korey is a delight, touching both the comic aspects of husband-hunting and the emotional element as well. She makes the most of the number “Chin Up, Ladies” which she sings with the widows, and also impresses with her liberating solo “Hymn to Hymie.”
Herman wrote a tuneful score. Foremost is the title song “Milk and Honey.” Other likable numbers include “Shalom,” “I Will Follow You,” “That Was Yesterday” “Let’s Not Waste a Moment,” “There’s No Reason in the World” and “As Simple as That.” Supporting characters also add sparkle in word and song.
Musicals in Mufti presentations are bare-bones affairs with minimal scenery and props. The audience on opening night broke into applause when a group of tied together music stands labeled “Sheep” were pulled across the stage. Also, instead of an orchestra, the score is played with élan by conductor-pianist and musical director Jeffrey Saver. The show has been directed by Michael Unger, with choreography by Yehuda Hyman.
There is an underling sad note related to the musical when viewed from the present perspective. “Milk and Honey” abounds with the enthusiasm of the newly burgeoning Israel and its ideals. One can still feel and enjoy that enthusiasm, but one can also view the musical against a background of regret at the ensuing wars and the persistent difficulties over the years in achieving peace between Israel and Palestinians. At the York Theatre Company at St. Peters, 54th Street and Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed January 30, 2017.
THE LIAR Send This Review to a Friend
Although it is the 17th century in David Ives’s clever adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s “Le Menteur,” the production by the Classic Stage Company (CSC) couldn’t be timelier. Our present world, in which a Trump spokesperson talks of “alternative facts” to misrepresent reality and sends sales of George Orwell’s “1984” soaring, lying is a subject very much on the table. “The Liar” is a delightful farce sparked by one man who cannot tell the truth and another who cannot lie.
The truth-teller is Cliton, given a wonderfully funny performance by Carson Elrod, who is blessed with a great gift for comedy. He sets the tone at the outset by introducing the play. The compulsive liar, Dorante, to whom Cliton is a servant, is portrayed by a swaggering Christian Conn, most amusing in his pursuit of a damsel and for the misinformation he spins with reckless abandon.
True to the requirements of farce, an assortment of characters, Cliton’s penchant for telling the truth and the plot’s delightful complications make for lively entertainment. Ives meshes all of this into iambic pentameter, a rhythm that threatens to become soporific but is rescued by the sheer wit of the adaptation.
Michael Kahn has directed with briskness and an eye for what to stress to obtain maximum laughter. The character collage is felicitously portrayed by excellent actors, who include Aubrey Deeker, Kelly Hutchinson, Adam LeFevre, Ismenia Mendes Amelia Pedlow and Tony Roach. Murell Horton’s costume design gives a visual boost to the horseplay.
The overall result is a breezy romp that is consistently enjoyable, and becomes another feather in the cap of Ives, who also did such a good job writing the totally different “Venus in Fur.” At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 212-352-3101.
YOURS UNFAITHFULLY Send This Review to a Friend
The Mint Theater Company has unearthed the never-produced play by the British writer Miles Malleson (1888-1969), who also had a career as an actor. Set in 1933, the play takes a wry look at attempts to have an open marriage, with what was probably unusual candor for its time.
The staging by director Jonathan Bank and the acting by the cast of five convey an air of sophistication to the plot and discourse. One is invited to feel as if we were truly back in that era listening to the concerns and problems that are at work when a couple attempts to be open to affairs meant to be harmless, even helpful in sustaining a marital relationship. Good luck. The more serious the talk, the funnier the play.
Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray portray the married couple Stephen and Anne Meredith. Stephen is a writer with an intensely happy-go-lucky air. Gray, very beautiful, conveys Anne’s attempt to be ultra sophisticated. We soon learn that Anne encourages Stephen to have an undisguised affair with seductive Diana Streatfield, played by the warmly attractive Mikaela Izquierdo.
Is it any surprise that Anne soon grows jealous and resentful? The intelligent conversation written by Malleson is perfectly captured as the cast members do justice to it under Bank’s direction that highlights the outward sincerity but underlying angst. Banks and his cast play it straight, not reaching for laughs, but letting the seriousness itself communicate amusement at the complications created.
There are two other characters—the level-headed family friend Dr. Alan Kirby, nicely portrayed by Todd Cerveris, with whom Anne once had a fling, and Stephen’s angry father, The Rev. Canon Gordon Meredith, played by Stephen Schnetzer, who won’t condone his behavior.
When Anne’s husband, goes off for a rendezvous in London, Anne decides to go to London and have a dalliance of her own. It is a liberating experience, and Stephen, still expressing adoration for his beautiful wife whom he professes to love dearly, is going to have an entirely new situation on his hands.
Malleson, who deserves to have his work further explored, writes with sophistication, and that is the level of the excellent staging in this latest Mint Theatre Company offering. At the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed January 27, 2017.
THE PRESENT Send This Review to a Friend
At the start The Sydney Theatre Company production of “The Present,” Andrew Upton’s modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s early play “Platonov,” the ambience doesn’t seem very Russian, especially with scenic designer Alice Babidge’s modern version of a Russian country house. But when a birthday party fueled by plenty of vodka gets tumultuous and the characters begin complaining about their lives, the drama starts to look more convincingly Russian.
The play also begins to be explosively entertaining, given that party is meant to celebrate the 40th birthday of Anna, who is played by Cate Blanchett. She is a marvel to watch as she looks terribly bored at the insipid conversation and philosophical pronouncements uttered by the unhappy Russians. Blanchett has a startling stage moment as her boredom leads her to reach inside her dress, remove her bra and toss it on the floor, a hilarious gesture.
As the party gets increasingly out of hand, Anna has a fabulous scene as she rises from her listening and begins to shout her views and rage. She leaps onto the long table, and unleashes the party into music-accompanied madness, with couples throwing off inhibitions and dancing erotically in fornicating positions as the musical beat pounds away.
As for the ensuing plot, it involves various characters trying to untangle old relationships and start new ones, with deception running rampant. The supporting cast members are excellent, and in addition to the pleasure of watching the very watchable Blanchett demonstrating the meaning of good acting, there is the added attraction of Richard Roxburgh as Mikhail, who knew Anna before she married a famous general, who has since died.
Sexual feelings are displayed between Mikhail and Anna, but there is also ambivalence. Mikhail gets busy with eyeing other women as he drinks and drinks and demonstrates his irresponsible attitudes and behavior. It is a strong role for Roxburgh and he makes the most of it on the road to becoming a tragic figure.
John Crowley’s direction is spirited, with some effective lighting and other effects. The play itself, while sampling Chekhov’s talent, lacks the impact of his later achievements. Still, there is plenty on stage to hold one’s interest, although one can question the concept of modernization, with all of the use of the f word, blatant behavior and body movement that seem more now than Chekhovian.
However, this is a fine opportunity to see Blanchett and Roxburgh at work, admire the efforts of the Sydney Theatre Company and evaluate this unusual interpretation of an early work by the great Russian dramatist. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.
JITNEY (BROADWAY) Send This Review to a Friend
August Wilson had the ability to write characters who when enacted excellently come to life on stage as if they are real people. His skill is demonstrated once again in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s powerful revival of “Jitney,” this time directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. (See Search for the review of a previous off-Broadway production.)
The setting is the headquarters of a car service in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the fall of 1977. Looming ominously is a plan to wall up the building and eventually demolish it to make way for a development. David Gallo has designed a convincing, shabby headquarters, with windows through which we can see a parked car with a for-sale sign, neighboring buildings and people ambling by or arriving to enter.
Gradually we meet the men who answer calls for transportation and go off on their runs. Between calls they gather to chat or gossip. Their frustrated aspirations are delineated, reflecting conditions for the black community. Wilson’s gifts include mixing comedy with a serious side. There is humor, for example, when one of the drivers, Youngblood (André Holland), secretly buys a house and his partner, Rena (Carra Patterson) is taken aback when she blasts him for not letting her see it first. One can find the encounter funny, as well as serious and revealing about their relationship.
Also, in getting to know the men, we are treated to an amusing discussion about who is more beautiful, Lena Horne or Sarah Vaughan. The men are an odd assortment, and we are made aware of how difficult life is and the obstacles that block paths toward fulfillment.
An intensely dramatic scene occurs between the operator of the car service, Becker, played by the extraordinary actor John Douglas Thompson, and his son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden). Bosster has been released from prison after serving a long stretch for killing a woman for revenge. Becker bitterly disowns him. Later the plot takes a further tragic turn.
The cast picks up the rhythm of Wilson’s dialogue and speech patterns, with each actor doing a superb job, including Harvey Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith and Ray Anthony Thomas.
One can walk away feeling one knows these struggling men with vivid mental pictures of them. Wilson’s poignant, well-conceived play is getting the fresh staging it deserves, and the playwright is receiving a growing appreciation for his body of work. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-139-6200. Reviewed January 23, 2017.