By William Wolf

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.

GOD OF VENGEANCE  Send This Review to a Friend

A Yiddish play by Sholem Asch that was shocking in its time has been revived and is being staged at La Mama by the New Yiddish Rep around the corner from where the play first opened in 1907. “God of Vengeance” went on to be staged on Broadway in 1923 and the lesbian kiss between two women led to the arrest of the entire cast (later reversed on appeal), and the play has tantalized those interested in Yiddish theater. Earlier this year “Indecent,” about the creating of “God of Vengeance,” was staged off-Broadway and is reported to be headed for Broadway.

Now we have the original, which still has a controversial kick to it, no longer for the kiss, but for the subject of a pious, domineering Jewish brothel owner trying to keep his daughter pure and buying her a torah as a symbol of her piety and purity. The production, directed by Eleanor Reissa, is in Yiddish with easy to follow English super titles.

Shane Baker gives a strong performance as Yekel Tchaptchovitch, the father, and director Reissa also acts the role of Sarah, Yekel’s wife, who once worked as a prostitute, a fact that their daughter Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt) has learned. Rifkele‘s life is so constricted that she is filled with resentment and yearns to break away. Thus she is primed for the come-on that her friend in the downstairs brothel, prostitute Manke (Melissa Weisz), gives her, leading to their embracing and kissing. Manke is involved in a plot to lure Rifkele into the profession in a scheme organized by a corrupt couple hoping to open a larger enterprise of their own.

But the most morally corrupt person in the tale is really Reb Eli, a rabbi played slimily by the excellent David Mandelbaum. Although he assumes that Rifkele has probably already lost her virtue, he covers this up in order to promote her marriage to an eligible man who doesn’t know he is being hoodwinked. The rabbi’s motive is to get money attached to the match-making. Ultimately, it is the father who won’t lie and denounces his daughter, even though when pressed for an answer she says she doesn’t know whether she lost her innocence.

While women kissing on stage is no big deal these days, there is enough in the play to still upset those offended by figures tied to religious passion shown in the way they are presented here. Although there is quite a bit of repetition in parts, the play still works as high drama, and the cast does a first-rate job in bringing the characters and situations to life with plenty of turbulence.

The New Yiddish Rep has performed a service in giving audiences who have heard of this iconic play but have never had a chance to see it staged the opportunity to view and evaluate it, as well as to see what the fuss was all about. At La Mama, 74A East 4th Street. Reviewed December 26, 2016.

IN TRANSIT (BROADWAY)  Send This Review to a Friend

The creative, a cappella musical that was so entertaining in its off-Broadway version has now moved to Broadway and in its larger space is also entertaining. The basic idea comes through with vigorous performing by a mostly new cast. The characters are seen in a New York subway setting, and as in the symbolic title, are mostly in transit in their lives. We gradually get to know them through talk and song.

The unusual aspect here is that all of the show’s music is vocalized by the cast, whether in solos or background music. There are no instruments, only the versatile voices of the actors. The book, music and lyrics are credited to Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, based on an original concept created along with Gregory T. Christopher and Karla Lant.

We get the idea at the outset, thanks to the exuberant and often hilarious performance by Chesney Snow in the role of Boxman. (It is also performed on some nights by Steven “HeaveN” Cantor.) Boxman communicates in a variety of sounds that go with what he tells us. Snow seems to be able to imitate any sound one could imagine, all flowing swiftly in syncopation with his lines.

The 11-member cast also includes of David Abeles, Moya Angela, Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, Erin Mackey, Gerianne Pérez, Margo Seibert, James Snyder, Mariand Torres and Nicholas Ward.

The space is a rectangle in the Circle In the Square, a theater that usually presents staging problems, depending upon where one sits. At one length of the set (design by Donyale Werle) is a subway entrance, complete with ticket machines that don’t always work, a booth with a sharp-tongued attendant, and stairways leading down to the platforms. Where the tracks would be, there is a movable stream of seats and (think imaginatively) office desks that shuttle back and forth within the rectangular space. I sat at the far end from the subway entrance, which provided a clear overview.

But the broader playing area made it take more time for me to get to know the individual characters closely than it did in the more intimate off-Broadway milieu. But eventually the bond was struck with characters that include two gay men wanting to marry but with one having problems breaking the news to his very religious mother; an aspiring actress who keeps being rejected; a subway rider who repeatedly has trouble with the attendant, and characters searching for romance.

The direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall makes the company come across with sparkle. The musical direction is by Rick Hip-Flores, and the a cappella arrangements are by Deke Sharon.

The songs reflecting the problems of the characters include “Not There Yet," “Broke,” “Saturday Night Obsession,” “A Little Friendly Advice” and “Getting There,” along with other defining numbers. The solos are generally striking, and when the company breaks loose in song as a unit, such as in the finale, the effect is electric.

“In Transit” merits a stop on anyone’s theater going circuit. At the Circle in the Square, 50th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed December 15, 2016.

THE BAND'S VISIT  Send This Review to a Friend

First “The Band’s Visit” was a charming Israeli film (See film review via Search)), and now it is a musical based on Eran Kolirin’s screenplay, with a book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Like the film, the musical thrives on an understated tone and the mix of comedy and the concept of people from different cultures able to get along.

We meet the members of an Egyptian band when they arrive in Israel in 1996 for an engagement, but through a misunderstanding wind up via bus at the town, Bet Hatikva, with a similar name to the city that the band is supposed to go to, Petah Tikva. The arrival at a café is very funny, as the uniformed band members face locals who don’t know what to make of the strangers, as if they were from outer space.

What follows is the casual interplay between the band members and the residents, with lovely songs and getting-to-know-one-another conversations. The direction by David Cromer is very clever, as is the use of the revolving stage in Scott Pask’s set design, which ferries the cast members around to display and highlight the characters and help accomplish the easy flow of the show.

There are performance standouts, foremost among them Katrina Lenk in the role of Dina, the café owner. There is a delightfully fresh originality to her performance, highlighted by her singing “It Is What It Is” and “Omar Sharif,” and more importantly, her duet, “Something Different,” with Tony Shalhoub as Tewfiq, the band conductor, in an expression of the closeness they achieve in their intimate conversation.

The overall implications of the meeting that takes place within a 24-hour period is that people from different countries can get together in peace and harmony, a hopeful ideal that needs application in today’s Middle East.

The catchy music in the show is a mix of regional and show-biz contemporary, and at the end the band assembles for a rousing, audience-pleasing number.

One occasional weakness is that in the effort to maintain a low-key style, some of the conversations meant to be very intimate can require one to strain to hear. But overall, the 100-minute intermission-less show achieves a warm, meaningful encounter that mixes comedy with a gentle example of strangers bonding in a visit that wasn’t supposed to happen. At the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 212-691-5919. Reviewed December 10, 2016.

LIFE IS FOR LIVING: CONVERSATONS WITH COWARD  Send This Review to a Friend

Noêl Coward was the height of sophistication as reflected in the lyrics of his songs. Sophistication is also an indelible quality that can be applied to Simon Green, who superbly sings Coward in his current show, "Life Is For Living: Conversations with Coward." Mixing readings from Coward with a program of songs, accompanied on piano by David Shrubsole, Green exudes wit and charm.

Green has specialized in Coward and, while not trying to do a direct imitation, captures Coward’s high-brow tone. It is exceedingly pleasurable to watch Green channel the late multi-faceted star with simplicity and an ultra engaging manner.

For example, he brings new life to such favorites as “Later Than Spring,” “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” and “Sail Away.” The performance is in a tiny theater with tables arranged nightclub style, and that provides an audience with welcome intimacy.

Green also sings numbers by a few others, as listed in the program. One with special appeal is “The Little Old Bar at the Ritz,” which has lyrics by Cole Porter and music by Green’s accompanist, Shrubsole. However, Green should make a point of noting every song not by Coward, as some sound as if they could have been written by him. But Green obviously tries to keep a smooth flow between singing and reading and doesn’t take much time for commentary or tidbits of information.

He keeps the program simple and nimble, and in the process we learn much about Coward’s life and thoughts on a variety of subjects. If you are a Coward fan or just seeking enjoyment, Green is someone to spend time with in making your entertainment rounds. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed December 19, 2016.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN (BROADWAY)  Send This Review to a Friend

Having enjoyed “Dear Evan Hansen” when it was presented off-Broadway at the Second Stage, I was curious to see how it fared when revived in a larger Broadway house, and the result is just as dynamic and moving. If anything, the larger space offers the opportunity for broader flash in the background design of Facebook-age technology.

The cast is mostly the same as in the previous incarnation, and I see no reason to try to revise what I wrote previously, apart from pointing out that “Dear Evan Hansen” takes its place as a major musical on Broadway that deserves to find a new audience, especially one on the youthful side.

The flashing visual scenic backgrounds of texting, emails, Facebook entries and photos are an eyeful. They set the tone for the contemporary high school atmosphere in which an appealing story of teenage problems both entertains and provides an emotional charge. The entire show is marked by creativity both in staging and performance.

Ben Platt is outstanding throughout in reprising the title role of the production, which has a clever book by Steven Levenson and involving music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. When we first meet Evan, he is an unhappy, withdrawn, desperate and frenetic young man who has no high school friends and is too meek to try to establish relationships. A therapist has suggested that he write letters to himself.

That sets up the plot. One of these letters is mistakenly taken to be from Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), an off-putting, unfriendly youth with his own problems. Connor has rebelled against his parents, who are annoyed at his lack of scholastic interest, and when he commits suicide, the grieving parents want to see more of the emails of the purported correspondence. Evan and his mischievous schoolmate Jared (Will Roland) conspire to write emails that fuel the false picture of an adoring friendship between Connor and Evan. There is also a resulting social media frenzy.

Connor’s parents (warmly played by Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson) regard Evan as a replacement for their son and give him a close relationship that he never felt at home, despite the heroic efforts of his divorced mom Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones). Besides, Evan has a secret crush on Connor’s sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) that now begins to flower.

With Connor dead, students begin raising funds for a memorial orchard to recall the woods where Evan and Connor are supposed to have bonded. We know, of course, that truth must out, but how it all happens, revealed with story and music, is inventively evolved, and by the end of the show, there is an emotional impact, especially for Connor’s parents, Evan’s mother, and Evan and Zoe.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is one of those shows that can captivate teenagers, boys and girls alike. The high school connection is captured so that all seems very contemporary and the emotions generated hit home.

The most moving number, “Only Us,” is tenderly and assertively sung by Evan and Zoe, but a host of well-integrated numbers expertly express various characters and situations. The visual impact cannot be over-stressed, with scenic design by David Korins, lighting design by Japhy Weideman and projection design by Peter Nigrini. The sound design by Nevin Steinberg also has a major impact. Michael Grief has directed with expert meshing of the show’s many ingredients, including the choreography by Danny Mefford.

The staging is especially vivid and the book, although on occasion a bit cumbersome in required plot resolutions in the second act, is enlivened by arresting ideas, such as the entertaining appearances of Connor after his suicide to add amusingly wry perspective. We are ultimately made to feel not only for Evan, but for just about everyone else. “Dear Evan Hansen” is not only an enjoyable show, but an admirable one that bears repeat viewing to absorb all of its energy and imagination. At the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.

A BRONX TALE (THE MUSICAL)  Send This Review to a Friend

The creative memory play by Chazz Palminteri, previously also a movie, has now yielded an entertaining musical version, with Palminteri providing the book, Alan Menken the music and Glenn Slater the lyrics. It is getting spiffy joint direction by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, and Sergio Trujillo has contributed striking choreography appropriate to the 1960-68 time frame and the Bronx milieu. A terrific cast brings the show alive with its humor and basic morality tale.

The show explodes with a great, creative opening sweep that sets the scene dramatically and musically. A group of Doo-Wop Guys sing near a lamppost, and Bobby Conte Thornton as Calogero reflects on the days when he grew up on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx. All in the same number, frames of buildings (scenic design by Beowulf Boritt) appear populated by local characters, and the number moves on to meet assorted types. It is an extremely vibrant introduction, and the musical proceeds from there, following the source from which the show has been adapted.

We soon see Calogero as a nine-year-old portrayed by Hudson Loverro. He sees a shooting by the local crime boss Sonny, acted by Nick Cordero in one of the musical’s best and most entertaining performances. Young Calogero has the good sense to keep mum when questioned, and for his refusal to be a squealer, he is taken under the wing of Sonny. Loverro does a winsome acting job as the boy, both as an actor and singer. A sure audience pleaser, Loverro, on the night I saw the show, acted extra triumphant at the curtain all, a kid aware of how good he is.

The Sonny-Calogero relationship sets up the moral issue. Calogero’s hard working bus driver father Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) tries to shield his son from Sonny’s world of crime, but Calogero is blinded by his affection for Sonny and the benefits the relationship brings, as well as the dangers. When he grows up, Calogero falls for an African-American, Jane (Ariana DeBose), and their love for one another is entangled in a sort of Romeo and Juliet conflict between Italian and African-American warfare. Calogero and Jane, backed by the ensemble, ultimately have a powerful duet, “In a World Like This.”

As with many musicals, working out the plot and the issues involved intrudes upon the show’s most entertaining elements, which provide fun for an audience. Sonny and his cronies, who have such names as JoJo the Whale, Frankie Coffeecake and Tony-Ten-To-Two, contribute ample laughter, and the song and dance numbers make “A Bronx Tale” delightfully colorful. For all his sinister behavior, Sonny is entertaining in scenes such as when he advises Cologero how to test a girl to see if she can be “one of the great ones” encountered in life. The comedy payoff comes when Jane passes the test.

Thus, despite a few heavy-handed plot moments, the staging, acting and Palminteri’s take on the character assortment make “A Bronx Tale” delightful in its new incarnation. At the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street Phone: 212-249-6200 Reviewed December 8, 2016.

SWEET CHARITY (2016)  Send This Review to a Friend

Having seen Sutton Foster in dynamic roles, I wondered whether she could be the vulnerable Charity Hope Valentine in the New Group, in association with Kevin McCollum, revival of the hit musical. No need for worry. Foster comes through with wrenching vulnerability as the forlorn dance hall hostess, but also adds an appealing ability to fight back to survive.

It’s no news that he star is a terrific singer and dancer, and she has a sure-fire gift for comedy and timing. Foster’s performance in “Sweet Charity” deserves to go beyond this limited off-Broadway run, and so does this production directed by Leigh Silverman and smartly choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, with colorful costume design by Clint Ramos.

Although this scaled-down show lacks the power of a large orchestra playing the Cy Coleman score, a six-member all-women band is very good (with orchestrations by Mary –Mitchell Campbell) in making the score come alive in relation to the size of the production.

With the audience on three sides of the stage in the small Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in the Pershing Square Signature Center complex, there is considerable intimacy. An impact is made early on with the dance hall gals parading about sexily singing “Big Spender.” (One sang directed to me.) A nice attribute is that in the unfurling of the plot the dance hostesses are not caricatured. The roles are appealingly acted and that makes the characters come across as real people

There are numerous striking numbers. Naturally, Foster has the key ones, “Charity’s Soliloquy,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “I’m a Brass Band” and “Where Am I going?” But there are also the vibrant “Too Many Tomorrows” sung by Joel Perez as handsome actor Vittorio Vidal, and excellent Shuler Hensley, as the up-tight Oscar who woos Charity, singing, along with Foster, “I’m the Bravest Individual” and later, “Sweet Charity.”

I’ve never much cared for “The Rhythm of Life” number, although it serves the function of moving the plot along and is done well here. Looking at the show as a whole, one can admire the lyrics by Dorothy Fields and enjoy the comedy in Neil Simon’s book.

“Sweet Charity” is based on an original screenplay by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Plaiano. The character of Charity stems from the heartbreaking role played by Giulietta Masina in “Nights of Cabiria.”

Praise for Sutton Foster has made “Sweet Charity” a hard ticket, but if you can manage to book it, you’ll have a very entertaining time. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: (212) 244-7529.

THIS DAY FORWARD  Send This Review to a Friend

In this Vineyard Theatre presentation Nicky Silver’s comedy “This Day Forward” comes together in the second act with more strength than in the first act, although there is much humor in the initial half too.

The year is 1958 in Manhattan and we are introduced to a situation in which Michael Crane as Martin and Holly Fain as Irene have just been married and are in their honeymoon hotel room. Irene, still dressed in her white bridal gown, rejects Martin when he makes his expected sexual moves. She has a secret she must tell him.

No spoiler here. Her revelation, which takes her time to spit out, throws him into turmoil. There’s more to the scene, and unfortunately, despite the laughter induced, it drags out so much that one’s patience can be tested.

Time has passed to 2004 in the second act and we see what the playwright is up to. He weighs what might have been and comes to grip with reality. Now Crane plays Martin’s son Noah, who is gay and living with his very touchy partner, Leo (Andrew Burnap), resenting that Noah is separating him from his family life.

Enter Noah’s sister Sheila (Francesca Faridany) with their mother, Irene—the same Irene from the first act only now elderly and played by June Gable. (In Act I Gable amusingly was the chambermaid.) She doesn’t look anything like the Irene we first met, but she is absolutely hilarious as the dotty woman losing her marbles and exasperating Sheila, resentful of having to look after her mother and planning to leave her with Noah. Faridany, who is excellent, delivers a heroic women’s rights speech protesting why it is always the sister who gets such responsibilities.

A key cast member is Joe Tippett as the muscular Emil, who figures in the lives of Irene and and Frank—just how is better left to those seeing the play. Silver takes a whack at marital relationships and also the relationship between Noah and Leo. Heterosexual or gay—it doesn’t matter. Relationships can be hell, and people’s dreams can remain unfulfilled and only wispy memories. At the Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed November 27, 2016.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT  Send This Review to a Friend

Molly Ringwald is giving a remarkable performance as Aurora in the production of “Terms of Endearment.” I especially enjoyed watching her in this emotionally-charged tale of love and loss written by Dan Gordon based on the novel by Larry McMurtry and the screenplay that James L. Brooks wrote for the 1983 film. There is a personal note to my special interest.

When Ringwald was a teenage star I interviewed her and was impressed by her pleasant demeanor and her effort to deal with the publicity she was receiving. I could not have imagined then seeing her so much later excelling in the role of a mother and grandmother. Of course, Ringwald has had much acting experience in film and on stage since then, but it still was a thrill to see her give such a wonderful performance in “Terms of Endearment.”

In the role of Aurora, she is raising her daughter, Emma, superbly played by Hannah Dunne, and is a hypercritical mom, who intensely dislikes Flap (Denver Milord), the young man Emma marries. Aurora is a widow raising her daughter as a single mom and has all the fears of seeing herself aging, and when Emma has her first child, Aurora is horrified at the thought of being a grandmother. What man would want her now?

Ringwald provides a range of images for us to appreciate. She is attractive but forlorn, sexy but reserved, basically warm, but defensively off-putting yet deft at dispensing lines meant to make us laugh. Aurora’s escapades with Garrett, the sexually aggressive but independent-minded, woman-chasing former astronaut who lives next door and is dynamically and amusingly played by the excellent Jeb Brown, are a marvel, especially when she throws away caution and decides to bed him.

When Ringwald has to turn the corner and become lovingly close to Emma when she is stricken with cancer, there is a whole new aspect to her performance, a further dimension that shows what a very fine actor she has become in maturity.

“Terms of Endearment” has all the makings of a tear-jerker, but as staged here under the direction of Michael Parva, it is so much more than that. There is much humor present, thanks to the level of the performances and the writing, and one gets to feel that this is ultimately a very human and even entertaining story that rises above button-pushing to elicit tears and instead evokes real emotions and well-earned wet eyes.

It is a long time since I have seen the film that starred Shirley MacClaine as Aurora, Debra Winger as Emma and Jack Nicholson as Garrett, so memory dims. That is just as well, for this “Terms of Endearment” deserves to be taken on its own merits without comparisons, and on that basis it stands as an impressive work well worth visiting. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4299. Reviewed November 24, 2016.

  

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