By William Wolf

SMALL WORLD  Send This Review to a Friend

What would a meeting between Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky have been like? In “Small World, playwright Frederick Stroppel imagines such an encounter, and the sparks fly. Disney and Stravinsky, so unlike one another as colorfully performed by Mark Shanahan (Disney) and Stephen D’Ambrose (Stravinsky), have much to fight about.

Stravinsky is depicted as outraged that Disney will co-opt his “The Rite Of Spring,” being in the public domain, for his ambitious “Fantasia,” the animation king’s bold effort to blend his cartoon art with classical music. Stravinsky is appalled at the idea that his music will wind up as accompaniment for dramatizing the beginnings of the world and subsequent dinosaurs roaming the earth. For Disney the idea is glorious, for Stravinsky it is sacrilege. (Actually, Disney also used the work of various other classical composers as well, although the play implies that Stravinsky’s was the only one.)

There is much humor in the dialogue between the two men, Disney with his enthusiastic populist approach to art, and Stravinsky with his hauteur about his position in the classical music world, far from the likes of Disney’s Mickey Mouse. (“Fantasia,” released in 1940, received mixed results from critics, failed at the box office at first, but eventually made money and has emerged with classic status.)

Leopold Stokowski was the maestro associated with the film, and in the play Stravinsky expresses contempt for Stokowski’s descending to Disney’s level. The dialogue between Disney and Stravinsky is cleverly written, and director Joe Brancato keeps the confrontations between the men lively. Not surprisingly, the two begin to bond despite their artistic differences.

“Small World” makes a misstep by tacking on a superfluous coda, with the men, having died, meeting in the afterlife. That section is labored and it would have better to have figured out an ending without the clumsy ploy. But even so, the play is filled with enough wit to make seeing it a very enjoyable experience, with special appreciation for the fine acting. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Tickets: 212-279-4200. Reviewed September 18, 2017.

PRINCE OF BROADWAY  Send This Review to a Friend

Lovers of Broadway musicals are in for a special treat if they hurry to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of “Prince of Broadway,” marking the brilliant producer-director career of Hal Prince. One smashingly executed number after another, variously performed by a versatile cast of nine, reflects highlights of Prince’s show business journey. And to further illustrate his know-how, Prince directs, together with co-director and choreographer Susan Stroman. The effect is often electric.

The show is quite elaborate for this relatively intimate staging, with scenic and production designer Beowulf Boritt coming up with just the right sets to characterize numbers representing particular musicals, and William Ivey Long going to town with eye-popping costumes, boosted by Paul Huntley’s hair and wig design. The minute the excellent pit orchestra plunges into the overture, we already begin to be transported by the sampling of what was and what’s to come as affectionate reprises.

You’ll have favorites of your own. For me it was worth going just to see African-American Chuck Cooper sing “If I Were a Rich Man” as the Jewish Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and also hear his profound rendition of “Ol’ Man River” from “Show Boat.” Or Tony Yazbeck doing a sizzling, breathtaking dance to “The Right Girl” from “Follies.” Or Emily Skinner giving her memorably wrenching interpretation of “Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company.” Or Bryonha Marie Parham’s lovely singing of “Will He Like Me?” from “She Loves Me,” and later dynamically singing “Cabaret” from that show. Or Karen Ziemba as Frãulein Schneider giving a superb interpretation of “So What?”, also from “Cabaret.”

I can go on and on. Rarely can one find such a compendium of musical favorites in one production, which offers treat after treat as we go down memory lane with Prince. The thin book by David Thompson that holds the musical together has Prince giving tidbits about his career and what he has learned along the way, but wisely not embodied by one performer. Male and female cast members take turns delivering his comments, always with his signature look of eye glasses perched above his forehead.

So many more compliments are due the performers. Kaley Ann Voorhees is poignant singing “Tonight” from “West Side Story.” Michael Xavier and Janet Dacal team delightfully on “You’ve Got Possibilities” from “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman,” with Dacal also impressive as Eva singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from “Evita.” Brandon Uranowitz has nifty turns as the nervous George singing “Tonight at Eight” from “She Loves Me” and singing the role of Molina in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Yazbeck is touching summoning hope as Leo Frank sinigng “This is Not Over Yet” from “Parade,” about the wrongful murder conviction of the Jewish Frank and his kidnapping from prison by a mob and being lynched in Georgia in 1915.

There is so much more, including selections from "Damn Yankees," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Merrily We Roll Along," "Sweeney Todd" and "The Phantom of the Opera."

The inventiveness of Susan Stroman’s choreography is evident throughout. With all of the shows involved, the arrangements, orchestration and musical supervision by Jason Robert Brown must have presented a herculean task, and ditto for the orchestra that has such a variety of hit numbers to play.

The nostalgia evoked by “Prince of Broadway” is a boon to those who have enjoyed the shows presented, but there also can be a valuable education for younger theatergoers who may have only heard about some of them. Fortunately, this fine cast ensemble does justice to the rich material virtually every step of the way. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Reviewed August 26, 2017.

THE BARONESS--ISAK DINESEN'S FINAL AFFAIR  Send This Review to a Friend

In this strange work presented by the Scandinavian American Theater Company (SATC), written by Danish playwright Thor Bjørn Krebs and translated by Kim Dambœk, Karen Blixen, known in the literary world as Isak Dinesen, is depicted in a friendship with a much younger man. While fictionalized, the play is said to be based on reality drawn from letters, books and anecdotes.

Anyone expecting the subtitle with the word “Affair”to indicate some hot sex between an older woman (Blixen is 62 at the time of the drama) and the young poet and writer, Thorkild Bjørnvig (he is 29), will not find any such thing depicted. What we see is largely Blixen attempting to control her friend with her emotional aggression that borders on increasing desperation.

Frustrated by writer’s block after initial success, Bjørnvig welcomes an invitation by Blixen to live in her Denmark home and work there, which means being apart from his wife and child. Conrad Ardelius gives an earnest performance in the role, framed by his narration about the experience. The writer doesn’t know what he is in for with his benefactor.

Under the direction of Henning Hegland, Dee Pelletier gives a go-for-broke performance that dominates the stage. As Blixen, she comes across as an increasingly demanding harridan. On the one hand she urges her friend to line up mistresses, on the other it is clear that she would like to have him sexually, but she never makes a firm move. However, her behavior is such that any attractiveness she may have possessed is undermined by her obnoxious personality. In the course of their verbal intimacy, she confines in him a health secret, treatment for the venereal disease her former husband brought her.

Meanwhile, Bjørnvig becomes increasingly estranged from his wife. What sexual relationship that does exist in the play stems from the attraction between Bjørnvig and Benedicte, Blixen’s friend, seductively played by attractive Vanessa Johansson. Eventually the two meet in Germany and fall in love, the news of which infuriates Blixen and sends her into one of her periodic rages.

The play would gain from shortening (it is two hours plus an intermission), but the performances hold attention, especially that of Pelletier in what amounts to a showcase role for her. Audience members may wonder about what is true and what is fiction, and some may be inspired to do some research into that part of Blixen’s life. At the Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed September 6, 2017.

THE SUITCASE UNDER THE BED  Send This Review to a Friend

The Mint Theater Company continues its infatuation with Irish playwright Teresa Deevy (1894-1963), whose plays were previously staged by the Mint. On this occasion the offering consists of four short plays that again demonstrate her concern for women and class status.

Deevy was very perceptive in creating her characters and placing them in environments that dictate challenges. Her career, which included plays produced by Ireland’s national theater, The Abbey, flourished mainly in the 1930s. She was remarkable, able to overcome the obstacle of her losing her hearing when she was 20. She pursued lip reading, which she practiced by often going to the theater, and as I noted previously with respect to her work, she was not deaf to the ways of life that she explored. (See under Search reviews of "Wife to James Whelan" and "Katie Roche.")

The plays under the title “The Suitcase Under the Bed,” are all directed by the Mint’s artistic director, Jonathan Bank, with precise understanding of Deevy’s work. Included are “Strange Birth,” “In the Cellar of My Friend,” “Holiday House,” and “The King of Spain’s Daughter.” It is intriguing to see how the playwright pays special attention to the problems of women in the various settings.

In one a woman loves a young man who goes off to become a monk, leaving her the only choice of marrying his father. In another play, a wife becomes jealous when the husband’s ex love turns up at a summer gathering and works her wiles.

The playwright is insightful in her male characterizations as well, as when she conjures a postman in love who delivers a personal letter to the object of his affection. The plays are just long enough to hold our attention without overstaying their welcome.

This sort of compilation requires excellent actors who can be skilled if required to play contrasting roles. Director Bank’s cast members come through in grand form. Included are Ellen Adair, Gina Costigan, Cynthia Mace, Aidan Redmond, A.J. Shively, Colin Ryan and Sarah Nicole Deaver.

On display at the theater for purchase are two volumes of Deevy’s plays under the title of “Teresa Deevy Reclaimed,” edited by Jonathan Bank, John P. Harrington and Christopher Morash. At the Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed August 25, 2017.

MICHAEL MOORE: THE TERMS OF MY SURRENDER  Send This Review to a Friend

The new Broadway show written by Michael Moore and directed by Michael Mayer is a political pep rally spiced with Moore’s entertaining persona. It is surprising what an excellent comedian he can be in the process of reviewing his life and promoting his political commitments, all the while attuned to his current role of trying to build resistance to Donald Trump and his administration. Moore exhorts his audience to follow through by aiding the fight-back movement, which makes this an unusual—and enjoyable—Broadway theater outing.

I had kind of expected an indulgent show, and when I was informed on entering that it would be two hours long without an intermission, I wondered how Moore could hold even en enthusiastic crowd for that long. But lo and behold, the time breezed by (with only a slight lull here and there) as Moore held firm command, veering from immensely entertaining and often hilarious segments, to his very serious effort to change the political landscape.

The show begins with huge projections of a mammoth Trump campaign rally, then cuts to the lone figure of Michael Moore, emerging as if a one-man army against the Trump onslaught. His assembled audience is clearly supportive, and ready to be regaled by the host.

Moore can be a laugh riot, as when he reads from a brochure of what he cannot bring along on an airplane flight. He has on a desk a travel case, which clearly has a false bottom, and he withdraws a series of assorted power tools that could never fit in one case. I won’t spoil the ultimate joke.

At one point he asks a volunteer from the audience, whom he describes as an ultra smart American who got high grades in school. Then he asks for a Canadian in the audience who just about got by. With both volunteers taking the stage, Moore proceeds to conduct a quiz show to prove that the dumbest Canadian is smarter than the smartest American. Obviously, the result can vary from night to night; at the performance I attended the American upended Moore’s thesis.

Especially interesting, and, as usual, entertaining in his manner of presentation, is Moore’s account of how he was elected to the school board at an early age in Davison, Michigan, thereby, in revenge for being whacked on the butt, managed to get the principal and assistant principal of his school fired. He also tells the story of how he and a Jewish friend traveled to Bitburg, Germany, to get, by various manipulations, to the cemetery site in question and unfurl a sign blasting Ronald Reagan’s visit that would honor Nazis buried among to German soldiers. A photo that records the protest is projected.

Moore turns most serious and angry when he describes how children have been made ill by a poisoned water supply in Flint, Michigan. He is outraged that there has been no proper punishment for those knowingly responsible.

As for the show’s terms of surrender in the title, Moore affirms that he is not ready to surrender to Trump, and there is a planned sequence, emblazoned with lots of flashing lights, when he playfully pledges to run for the presidency. It’s a very funny gambit. In addition to ticking off major campaign pledges, he promises there will be only one electrical cord for the variety of smart phone devices in circulation.

Moore comes up with a hilarious surprise grand finale that I will avoid spoiling for you. All through the show Moore exhibits an informal manner. There are two monitors hanging from the mezzanine, but all they do is provide subject cues, not text.

Unless you happen to be a Trump supporter (poor you), Michael Moore’s Broadway stand is a show you can welcome and thoroughly enjoy. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed August 17, 2017.

VAN GOGH'S EAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Ear or no ear, the blend of music and Van Gogh’s life and art as presented by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century is a highly unusual venture. Writer Eve Wolf’s vision is a very different take on the renowned artist. The result is more of an elegy than a drama, with expert musicians and vocalists blending with Carter Hudson’s performance as Vincent van Gogh to make an exotic conception of art as something to be listened to as well as visualized.

As the painter, Hudson’s interpretation of the dialogue, based on the artist’s letters, is rather emotionless. He talks of his demons, but his demeanor doesn’t reflect the inner turmoil that he is describing, even when he is confined to a mental hospital for treatment. When he emerges with a bandage covering blood from the mutilated ear, which he carries, the appearance doesn’t have the dramatic impact that it should have.

What makes a more profound impression is the playing of compositions by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson and César Franck. The musicians are excellent—Henry Wang and Yuval Herz, violins; Chieh-Fan Yiu, viola; Timotheos Petrin, cello, and Max Barros and Renana Gutman, pianists. Renée Tatum and Chad Johnson are in superb voice in the roles they assume.

Under the direction of Donald T. Sanders, the production has a haunting quality, but its lack of intense drama can make the effect at times soporific. Apart from the music, the most striking aspect is the projection of van Gogh’s art, whether on differently positioned panels or on the artist’s easel. Projection designer David Bengali has done a superb job in integrating the art with the music and acting.

The pathos of the artists life and the support of his brother Theo (Johnson) do come through in this low-key approach. But it would help if there were more sparks to the enterprise. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Reviewed August 18, 2017.

GERSHWIN SA;UTE A SONGBOOK SUMMIT HIGHLIGHT  Send This Review to a Friend

Having thoroughly enjoyed the Cole Porter program that is part of Songbook Summit presented by ultra-talented musician twins Peter and Will Anderson, I went back for their George Gershwin session (August 15-20) and it was an evening of pure heaven. Listing to selections of Gershwin played by the Andersons and three other talented musicians, plus the vocals by Molly Ryan, is totally joyful.

For one thing the music by George Gershwin, at times abetted by the lryics of his brother Ira, occupies a very special place in American musical history. Will Anderson deals interestingly at length with background information. For example, he speaks of how in only a few weeks, to keep a concert obligation with conductor Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin wrote his phenomenal “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The group proceeds to play it, with Will soaring on clarinet at the outset and pianist Jeb Patton soloing fantastically. (Among the many film clips projected is one showing what a whiz George Gershwin was as at the piano). As pointed out, Gershwin elevated his music to a combination of jazz, classic, folk and contemporary to create his very special legacy, including the groundbreaking “Porgy and Bess.” Tragically, George Gershwin died of a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of only 38. But what music he left for the world in his short time of intense productivity!

Among the sampling given us by the Andersons is their opener, “Fascinating Rhythm,” followed by such gems as “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” marked with a superb match of Peter on sax and Will on clarinet. “Embraceable You,” is sung with great feeling by Molly Ryan, who also scores effectively with, among other numbers, “Our Love Is Here to Stay“ and “But Not for Me.”

There are numerous clips from “Hollywood Movies” for which Gershwin composed musical numbers, especially those starring Fred Astaire. There is even a funny clip of the Muppets singing Gershwin. Highlights include recorded comments by Ira about his brother. And to further delight, drawings by Al Hirschfeld are liberally projected.

Musicians accompanying the Andersons, in addition to pianist Patton, are Neal Miner on bass and Phil Stewart on drums. Peter Anderson’s instruments include tenor sax, soprano sax and clarinet, and Will excels with alto sax, clarinet and flute. Their arrangements and riffs dazzle. (The concluding program in the series dedicated to Richard Rodgers is August 22-27.) At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-753-5959. Reviewed August 16, 2017.

A PARALLELOGRAM  Send This Review to a Friend

Step into the dark-comedy, satirical, existential world of playwright Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park”), who now gives us “A Parallelogram” a wildly philosophical meditation involving time, space, what-ifs and our inability to control the future.

That’s a tall order, but a super cast and Michael Greif’s sharp staging of Norris’s snappy dialogue, characterizations and provocative insights, make for an entertaining if sometimes overextended journey.

Lording over the proceedings is wonderful Anita Gillette as future versions of contemporary Bee, a woman in her thirties played with brittle bewilderment mixed with anguished outbursts by the excellent Celia Keenan-Bolger. Gillette appears as Bee 2, 3 and 4, and the conversations the Bees have thrust the playwright’s ideas at us.

Gillette is terrific as she uses a remote-type device to go back and forth in time to make her points with the present Bee, and cynically talks about the dim future that awaits Bee (and we). Gillette also make the most of direct speeches to the audience, with some daringly acerbic observations, including how the future eventually will dim concerns and memories about such seminal events as the Holocaust and 9/11, and foretelling a plague that could destroy the world. Throughout she shows excellent timing and acting ability, as when she conjures a situation in which people descend upon the White House only to have the president drop dead when they get there. At the performance I attended there was a big laugh at the subsequent line that nobody liked him anyway.

The action that the older Bee oversees and sometimes manipulates involves the relationship between the Bee 1 and her live-in, irritable, hyper, neurotic boyfriend Jay (Stephen Kunken), who has left hs wife for Bee and tries to keep up a relationship with his children separate from Bee. (One may wonder how Jay and Bee ever became attracted to each other in the first place.) The sparring between them is enacted excellently as the sparks fly. At one point Bee1 is delighted to hear future Bee call Jay “an asshole,” which, of course, he can’t hear.

Jay becomes totally befuddled by what occurs when Bee has her invisible relationship with Bee 2. Although Bee doesn’t smoke, we see that she will when she becomes Bee 2. Jay smells the smoke, although Bee denies she is smoking and doesn’t yet in her present state. It’s all very funny and Kunken and Keenan-Bolger milk the situation to its fullest.

To complicate matters, there is the sexually attractive, Spanish-speaking handyman JJ (Juan Castano), hired to mow the lawn at the suburban house, and (spoiler here), he will soon do a different kind of mowing when Bee takes up with him.

The play gets increasingly complex, with swift dazzling scene changes (set design by Rachel Hauck, lighting design by Kenneth Posner). Bee finds herself depressed in a hospital room as she faces a suspicion that she may have a brain tumor, and she is also confronted with Jay and JJ competing for her attention and affection.

Lurking throughout are questions for Bee and people in general. What if you could go back in time—would your actions be any different? What if you could know what your future holds? Would you want to go on living if it were grim? How much of a difference would any of that make if, say, the world were engulfed by a plague, or, one might add beyond Norris’s speculations, nuclear oblivion?

Some of the in and out of time gambits might be shortened, and some of the ideas become repetitive. But the concepts with which the playwright deals are intriguing, and with his perspective and expertise, he succeeds in laying them out in often hilarious situations and conversation. The right cast has been chosen to deliver it all. And hovering over everything is the superb, memorable and enjoyable performance by the very theatrically experienced Gillette in the multiple Bee roles that she entertainingly commands while being the messenger expertly delivering the playwright's theoretical ideas. At the Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street. Phone: 212-246-4422. Reviewed August 6, 2017.

JERRY'S GIRLS  Send This Review to a Friend

You don’t always need a big production to evoke the joy of memorable composing for Broadway shows. There is absolute delight in the concert revival of “Jerry’s Girls” in the Musicals in Mufti series of the York Theatre Company. Three splendid singers—Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Christine Pedi and Stephanie Umoh—and Eric Svejcar, musical director and one-man orchestra at the piano, do the job amazingly in presenting the work of Jerry Herman.

Director Pamela Hunt has built in a steady supply of movement that keeps the show zipping along. The women smoothly shift positions on stage, rolling their music stands along for song references, needed after only a week of rehearsals. That’s the routine of such low-budget shows at the York, and there is generally a congenial feeling of spontaneity. The expertise of D’Abruzzo, Pedi, Umoh and pianist Svejcar provide sparkling entertainment and do justice to Herman.

“Jerry’s Girls” was performed on Broadway in 1985. This reprise packs much nostalgia with respect to Herman’s career as the singers perform one hit after another. D’Abruzzo, Pedi and Umoh have individual strengths, and the song selections provide opportunity to display them.

Pedi, for example, has a flair for comedy, illustrated by her hilarious rendition of “Gooch’s Song” from “Mame,” dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. But she also can turn on the passion, exemplified by her singing “If He Walked Into My Life,” also from “Mame.”

D’Abruzzo has a special twinkle and sauciness, as when she and Umoh team to amusingly sing “Busom Buddies” (“Mame”), but she can also soar with the “Before the Parade Passes By” from “Hello, Dolly!”

Umoh has what it takes to become a major star. She has terrific stage presence, power and acting ability, and she pulls it all together when she sings “I am What I Am,” an exciting rendition of the coming-out anthem from “La Cage Aux Folles.” She demonstrates that the impassioned musical statement can be as strong and meaningful coming from a woman as from a man. Umoh is also a knockout with “It Only Takes a Moment” (“Hello, Dolly!”) and “I Won’t Send Roses” and “Movies Were Movies” (both from “Mack and Mabel”).

Apart from the striking solos, the three work beautifully together in creating a charming ambiance, as when they do “Tap Your Troubles Away,” “Mame,” “Shalom” and “Milk and Honey,” “La Cage Aux Folles” and “The Best of Times.” They do a hilarious burlesque-style “Take It All Off,” with Pedi topping it with the very funny “Put it Back On.”

There are projections (design by Justin West) on a screen at the back of the stage to note what shows the songs come from, or to picture a scene to suggest a theme, as with a movie theater for “A Movies Medley.” It is also nice to see a portrait of Jerry Herman. At the York Theater at St. Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street). Phone: 323-935-5820. Reviewed August 7, 2017.

CURVY WIDOW  Send This Review to a Friend

Nancy Opel deserves to be up for this new season’s awards for her dynamic, captivating performance in the musical “Curvy Widow,” with a clever book by Bobby Goldman and lively music and lyrics by Drew Brody.

The book springs from Goldman’s life, as she is the widow of noted screenwriter and playwright James Goldman. Opel plays Bobby, a woman in her fifties suddenly thrust into widowhood and having to get a fresh start in life, which includes taking a stab at the modern dating scene. Therein is the fun, as well as the serious meaning in this sassy tale wittily spun and given a colorful, appealing performance by Opel, who flashes a strong voice and winsome personality.

The solidity of Bobby’s life at the outset is depicted via Bobby and company singing “Under Control,” until suddenly it isn’t, and Bobby finds herself at sea. Fortunately, she has the encouragement of close friends Caroline (Andrea Bianchi), Heidi (Elizabeth Ward Land) and Joan (Aisha de Haas), who sing their support. There is also forward-looking advice from Alan Muraoka as her psychiatrist, who urges her to get laid. The cast members play a variety of roles as director Peter Flynn and choreographer Marcos Santana keep them zipping in and out of the situations that Bobby confronts.

Reluctantly, Bobby takes to internet dating sites and adopts the correspondence handle of Curvy Widow. She meets an array of men, married and single. She bemoans that she goes from widow to being “a piece of ass.” The various encounters are hilarious, whether in dialogue or songs expressing her dismay.

Eventually she lands a guy with whom she develops excellent rapport. But a question is raised: does she really want to give up her new independence for a fully committed relationship? One ploy annoys me. In the midst of her adventures her dead husband Jim (Ken Land) materializes a few times to express jealousy at her new encounters. It’s an old idea, and it becomes gimmicky, interfering with the smooth flow of the rest. Yes, it is a way of trying to show conflict in Bobby, but there is nothing in her behavior to suggest that emotional attachment to the man she loved is preventing her from realistically moving on with her life.

The high spirits of the production and the energetic delivery of the songs combine to be entertaining. One number, for example, is “Gynecologist Tango” and it is a hoot. Nancy Opel, who has had a busy and varied theater career, seizes the opportunity to really standout in this performance. At the Westside Theater/Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed August 4, 2017.

  

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