By William Wolf

COAL COUNTRY  Send This Review to a Friend

You can have a tremendously moving theater experience seeing “Coal Country,” the strongly performed play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen exposing the devastating 2010 West Virginia mine disaster from the viewpoint of relatives of the 29 men who died. There is original music by Steve Earle, who also performs, and Blank directs the play in a manner that brings out the passion and impact of the event at the Upper Big Branch mine. Authenticity is firmly established in the wake of interviews that were done with families involved.

(Although I have never mined a lump of coal, seeing “Coal Country” triggered a slice of nostalgia for me---just a tiny personal footnote in the shadow of the monumental story being dramatized. More about that later.)

The saga begins with Earle on guitar playing and singing the union song “John Henry” and other numbers, as well as providing an introductory narration. By setting the musical and verbal tone, Earle quickly creates coal country atmosphere with traditions traced to the days when the United Mine Workers union was a powerful force that protected the rights of workers, generations of whom earned their livelihood in the dangerous underground work.

Soon the stage becomes a courtroom in which company honcho Don Blankenship is on trial under charges of responsibility for the disaster. That scene segues into the individual portraits of those who perished.

The strength of the production comes from the stalwart performances depicting surviving characters and the family relationships they describe. The cast members tell one story after another of personal loss and the shock of learning what happened and the realization that loved ones will never be seen alive again. Each monologue packs great force, and some statements can bring a viewer to tears. Sometimes here is an incessant rhythm in the grieving, as with the foot-stomping accompanying the dialogue in one section.

Ezra Knight as Roosevelt recalls his father. Deirdre Madigan as Judy mourns the loss of her brother. Especially poignant is Mary Bacon as Patti, who tells us of her loving relationship that because of the disaster only lasted some four years but will forever remain as the best and most memorable years of her life. Others in the superb cast include Thomas Kopache, Michael Laurence, Michael Gaston, Amelia Campbell and Melinda Tanner as the stern Judge Berger.

The play is basically an indictment of the crime committed and the light sentence administered by the judge in an eventual second courtroom scene. After all that has gone on we and the survivors learn that defendant Blankenship is found guilty on a minor charge and gets off with a one-year sentence. The decision triggers our outrage as well as those in the courtroom.

The cumulative power of “Coal Country” places the work firmly among other dramas of injustice in the world. Blank and Jensen, who are married, also wrote the impressive play “The Exonerated,” about innocent people sent to death row.

Regarding my aforementioned personal note: My first job after journalism school was with the Associated Press in West Virginia, where stories about the coal mines were staples long before the explosion described in “Coal Country.” Later, I did publicity for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in the very building that is now the Public Theater. My office was on the second floor. Every time I visit the theater memories of my days there return. (I also picketed for Public Theater founder Joseph Papp’s right to stage Shakespeare in Central Park despite the opposition by then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.) In seeing “Coal Country” there is also the recollection of my having been a member of the United Mine Workers--for a few weeks.

Along with other HIAS employees, I was a social worker member of the then called Department Store and Warehouse Union. The HIAS executives regarded that union as too militant and left-wing and tried to bring in the AFL-CIO instead. As a counter-punch, we succeeded in joining the United Mine Workers. Newsweek magazine ran a story about the oddity of social workers in the mining union. HIAS executives feared having to sit down and negotiate with the high-profile mine leader John L. Lewis.

Alas, the gambit only worked for a short time, and management ultimately did get the AFL-CIO to replace the more militant union. Addendum: Later, as an adjunct professor at New York University I became a member of the United Auto Workers union covering university adjuncts. All as a proud union member, but never having had to mine coal or build an automobile.

Undoubtedly I would have been deeply moved by the powerful play “Coal Country” and the excellence of the Public Theater production without this personal background intrusion. But I thought this little footnote might be of reader interest. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed March 7. 2020.

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY (2020)  Send This Review to a Friend

When I reviewed “Girl from the North Country” in its 2018 Public Theater presentation, I noted that just the opportunity to hear Bob Dylan’s music and lyrics would be enough of a treat. That still holds true in the new Broadway revival, as does the observation that there is a good musical fit between the Dylan creations and the story by writer-director Connor McPherson. However, in bringing the work to a larger stage, a bit of the impact of the same material in the smaller Public Theater venue has been lost. All seems more spread out and not always as punchy. (“Girl from the North Country” was first presented by the Old Vic in London.)

There have been a few key cast changes in the migration to Broadway from the Public of the story set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934 during the depression that gripped the United States. Characters depicted share the struggle to exist economically as well as in their personal relationships.

This time around the role of Nick Laine, the boardinghouse owner who is hard pressed financially, is played by the excellent Jay O. Sanders, who cuts an impressive figure trying to hold things together, including dealing with his mentally screwed-up wife, Elizabeth, again played colorfully by Mare Winningham. Kimber Elayne Sprawl is back touchingly as their pregnant adopted African-American daughter Marianne. But Joe Scott, who pursues her, is this time well-played by Austin Scott. Also new is Matt McGrath as the Reverend Marlowe. But Robert Joy is back as Dr. Walker, whose narration from a side of the stage frames the plot. Marc Kudisch continues to stand out as the egotistical boarder Mr. Burke, with Luba Mason giving her broad portrayal of his alcoholic wife.

The show is again strengthened by broad chorus participation in Dylan numbers that are either rousing or contemplative and several solos are outstanding. Among the more than 20 songs to enjoy are “Slow Train,” “License to Kill,” “I Want You,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “True Love Tends to Forget” and “Forever Young.”

Director McPherson’s staging smoothly integrates the music into the story most of the time. With only one change, the same on-stage musicians from the Public’s presentation are playing the score.

Those who missed the off-Broadway production would do well to see this one, and even those who did see the off-Broadway staging might want to have a second look at this unusual amd rewarding work. At the Belasco theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed March 12, 2020.

INCANTATA  Send This Review to a Friend

Stanley Townsend is a charismatic actor, as he demonstrates in the staging of the highly unusual, hour-long poem “Incantata,” written by Irish poet Paul Muldoon and being presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre. Previously enacted at the Galway International Arts Festival, it is having its U. S. Premiere.

When we enter the theater we see Townsend already on a stage moving about as an artist creating designs on paper spread out on a table. There is a camera attached to a chair focusing on his work, which is being projected onto the back wall. Townsend labors meticulously, expressing the art of printmaking, and there’s a reason for that.

When the play formally begins, Townsend, identified in the program as Man, plunges into the words of Muldoon, who has written this poetic work as an elegy creatively mourning the death of his long-time partner, Mary Farl Powers, who was a printmaker. In the process of the expression of love and pain we get two basic views of Townsend.

We see him moving restlessly about the stage, and we see his face projected very large on the screen. I was surprised by my favorable reaction to this technique. Recently I criticized the use of such projection in the new version of “West Side Story” as belittling the actors made to look miniscule by contrast. But on the small stage of the Irish Rep, there is interwoven intimacy, and so much of Townsend’s performance depends on reading his various facial expressions—pain, exaltation, intensity, being transported etc.

Muldoon’s writing is very complex and it is a great challenge to bring it to life in a theater. After all, he wrote to be read, not dramatized. But in the hands of Townsend the work emerges as absolutely fascinating in its cadences and references, an outpouring of poetic observations and feelings. The very experienced actor compels us to listen carefully in an attempt to devour it all. Communicating the thoughts of Muldoon, he can make one think of personal loss as well as that of the author.

One leaves the theater appreciating having seen a great performance, as well as the direction by Sam Yates, whose staging helps make the production so vivid. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737.

ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE  Send This Review to a Friend

I’m still trying to tap into the brain of playwright Alice Birch to understand what she is trying to do with her play, “Anatomy of a Suicide,” an Atlantic Theater Company presentation. She gives us troubled women representing three generations who are on display with various symptoms but without sufficient depth to make us understand what causes the obvious problems. Considering the hour and 45 minutes running time, what we observe is mainly surface and consistently grim.

The basic set by Mariana Sanchez is a huge space that suggests a vast hospital area, where we watch confrontations and actions. Characters in various areas often talk simultaneously, and occasionally in sync with the same words. These are competitive grabs for our attention, which create confusion, compounded by cast members playing multiple parts. What’s more, three different generations are expressed on stage at the same time, represented by a mother, her daughter and her daughter.

The title is misleading, as there are two suicides, one woman reportedly run over by a train, the other woman electrocuting herself in a bathtub. Perhaps Birch is trying to show suicidal unity via a tendency that runs in the family.

We start with meeting Carol (Carla Gugino), who has slit her wrists but insists to her upset husband John (Richard Topol) that it was an accident. As we follow Carol’s trajectory, we see her pregnant and later terrified that when her baby is taken to be weighed she will not get the infant back.

Anna (Celeste Arias), presumably Carol’s grown daughter, is also a psychological mess unable to come to terms with herself and spewing a long monologue at the audience expressing the inner turmoil. Later we see her getting electroshock treatments.

Bonnie (Gabb Beans) is the next generation. She is a doctor and an impressionable patient played intriguingly by Jo Mei becomes infatuated with her and tries to establish a relationship.

This all poses quite a job for director Lileana Blain-Cruz to pull everything together, but she has good cast members with whom to work and they plunge into the odd story with skill. Others in the cast include Jason Babinsky, Ava Briglia, Julian Elijah Martinez, Vince Nappo and Miriam Silverman. Jiyoun Chang provides crucial lighting effects.

Seeing “Anatomy of a Suicide” is a demanding but not very rewarding experience. Viewers can spend much mental energy trying to figure out everything that is going on and why. At the Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone 866-811-4111. Reviewed March 5, 2020.

WEST SIDE STORY (2020)  Send This Review to a Friend

People complain about the high price of movie tickets, but they are bargains compared to the high price of seeing a movie in a Broadway Theater, as with “West Side Story.” Yes, that’s right. Most of the show in this misguided revival consists of watching actors and dancers via huge wall-to-wall projections dwarfing those going through their paces on stage. Only in comparatively rare moments when the focus is on actual stage interaction minus the overwhelming projected images does the production pick up the spirit of what made the original so beloved.

This misfire is the handiwork of director Ivo van Hove, who has made a career of shaping works in ways that are different and reflect his egotistical insistence on putting his personal stamp on works, as with his butchering of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge” and “The Crucible.” I did like his prominent use of screen projection with “Network,” but that was about television so the gambit made sense. Here the incessant distractions were even accented by projected buildings moving along when the cast members were meant to be in the same space. One often couldn’t help looking at the monumental imagery rather than at the cast below.

At the outset of van Hove’s “West Side Story” there is huge introductory projection of actors’ faces, which is interesting, but then he gets carried away so that a vast portion of the show consists of the projected images. There was a movie made of “West Side Story.” Who needs another on a Broadway stage?

The magnificent Jerome Robbins dances have been jettisoned by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, whose movements for the Jets and Sharks gang-members are a harsh updating that fits the overall concept of making the work more menacing in spinning the Romeo-and-Juliet-like tragedy. The look of the gang members is contemporary-sleazy, with tattooed bodies and ugly costuming. Yes, the talented de Keersmaeker provides some gritty contemporary dance but does not evoke the pleasure of watching Robbins’ Broadway-geared creativity.

So what’s left to praise? There is the terrific score by Leonard Bernstein and the smart lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. (Missing is the captivating “I Feel Pretty” number.) Yet somehow even the “Gee, Officer Krupke” song has lost its comedic bite. And the famous “America” number led by Anita (Yesenia Ayala) is frittered away.

When not looking miniscule compared to their gigantic screen images, Maria (Shereen Pimentel) and Tony (Isaac Powell) capture the romantic sparks inherent in the story, and they make the most out of singing “Somewhere.” They have welcome appeal.

This version of “West Side Story” has been cut to one hour and 45 minutes. I don’t have a basic problem with that, as the original book by Arthur Laurents had its heavy-going moments without the poetic beauty of Shakespeare’s language in “Romeo and Juliet.” Also, more cynically, I was glad to see the misbegotten show end, although I have to say that on the night I saw it the audience applauded enthusiastically.

The original in 1957 may be remembered vividly by older audiences, although many have seen the enduring film version. (There was a Broadway revival in 2009—see review under Search.) I suspect that younger audiences unfamiliar with the show that won so many hearts may be more receptive to what van Hove and de Keersmaeker have wrought. Major credit is owed video designer Luke Halls whose complicated work was integrated effectively on purely technical grounds. At the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway (at 53rd Street). Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed February 27, 2020.

BROADWAY BY THE YEAR--2000-2004  Send This Review to a Friend

The 20th anniversary season of The Town Hall’s Broadway by the Year series began last night (February 24) by celebrating the landmark and Broadway musicals of 2000-2004, the first in the season’s new programming that will bring us up to date with ensuing shows. Congratulations for such a successful run are in order. Now, how could the series created, written, directed and hosted by Scott Siegel get off to a dynamic fresh start?

No problem. A smash opening number, “42nd Street” from the revived show of that name--the program included originals from the period as well as from revived previous shows--featured a contingent of 25 excellent tap-dancers, plus choreographer Danny Gardner, scintillatingly interpreting the selection. At one point the dancers covered their bodies so that all we saw were the tapping feet, simulating the way the curtain rose partially in the Broadway staging. (There’s no curtain used at The Town Hall.)

There was another special aspect of the production, which marked the 20th anniversary of musical director Ross Patterson’s participation, having been with the series since the beginning. Once again he was also at the piano, on occasion soloing brilliantly and also leading the night’s musicians, Don Falzone on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums.

The second number was an impressive rendition by Max von Essen of the lilting “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from a revived “Oklahoma!” that made me long for the original conception instead of the scaled-down impostor that invaded Broadway last season.

As usual, Broadway by the Year featured a host of high-level performers. One of my favorites is jazz singer Nicole Henry, who creatively delivered “After You’ve Gone” from “One Mo’ Time” and “Falling in Love with Love” from “The Boys From Syracuse.”

Brian Charles Rooney was another standout, dynamically singing the anthem “I Am What I Am” from “La Cage Aux Folles” and deliberately doing it in a very gay style. Rooney also excelled entertainingly with “Sweet Transvestite” from “The Rocky Horror Show” and the dramatic “Once Before I Go” from “The Boy from Oz.”

Ben Jones also impressed with strikingly original takes on “You Walk with Me” from “The Full Monty,” “The God-Why Don’t You Love Me Blues” from “Follies” and the moving “Gethsemane” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Tovah Feldshuh, who was a special guest star, tore into the famous “Some People” from “Gypsy” with Merman-like blasting heralding self-assertion. The hit number “I’m Going Back” from “Bells Are Ringing” was forcefully interpreted by Jenny Lee Stern, who also sang “Somewhere That’s Green” from “Little Shop of Horrors.” Lianne Marie Dobbs sang “The Next Best Thing to Love” from “A Class Act” and “The Winner Takes It All” from “Mamma Mia!” The aforementioned Max von Essen further showed his talent singing “For Sarah” from “Dance of the Vampires” and “What Do I Need with Love?” from “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

I always enjoy when considerable dance and choral singing are integrated into Siegel’s shows. Further examples last night included “I’ve Loved These Days” from “Movin’ Out,” with Danny Gardner and dancers Yuriko Miyake and Michael Santomassino, “Run, Freedom, Run!” from “Urinetown,” with the Broadway by the Year Chorus and Bailey Callahan, Bryan Hunt, Oren Korenblum and Kelly Sheehan, plus the show’s hefty finale, “I want to Be a Producer” from “The Producers,” sung by Gardner backed by the Broadway by the Year Dance Troupe.

Siegel is aided by important assistance to mount these shows, with last night’s credits going to Holly Cruz, long-time staging consultant; Carl Acampora, stage manager; Rick Hinkson, assistant director and assistant stage manager, and Joe Burke, production assistant. Although not officially credited, Scott Siegel’s wife, Barbara Siegel, is praised by her husband as a major creative force in staging the productions.

I think it only right to name the many the chorus singers ad dancers. Here goes: The Broadway by the Year Chorus includes Christopher Brian, Pedro Coppeti, Mara Friedman, Brian Gabriel, Esmeralda Garza, Emily Janes, Dongwoo Kang, Emma Maxwell, Emily Royer and Ashley Ryan.

The Broadway by the Year Dance Troupe: Emily Applebaum, Anna Backer, Ashley Bice, Bailey Callahan, Hannah Fairman, Kirsty Fuller, Illana Gabriella, Erin Joy Grgas, Bryan Hunt, Megan Kelly, Ryan Koerber, Oren Korenblum, Sarah Fagan Kunce, Lily Lewis, Chris McNiff, Yuriko Miyake, Melinda Moeller, Vince Orabona, Sean Quinn, Emilie Renier, Joseph Sammour, Michael Santomassimo, Kelly Sheehan, Christine Sienicki, Edward Tolve and Michael J. Verre.

At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Reviewed February 25, 2020.

BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY  Send This Review to a Friend

Pearl Cleage’s play “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” a Keen Company production directed by La Williams and getting a New York showing for the first time, grips one’s attention throughout thanks to some smart writing, realistic African-Americans and first-rate performances. But the playwright eventually takes a tragic soap opera turn based on a temper-fueled confession that the leading female character is too smart and calculating to have done. Still, one can’t take eyes off of everyone and all that’s happening.

The setting is an apartment building in 1930 Harlem during the depression and the Harlem Renaissance period. Angel Allen, given a superb, rangy performance by Alfie Fuller, is first seen coming home drunk, escorted by Guy Jacobs (John-Andrew Morrison), the flamboyant gay costume designer who has sheltered her in his apartment. He is helped by a stranger, whom we later learn is Leland Cunningham (Khiry Walker), a straight-laced, conservative type who hails from Alabama.

Angel has been fired from her cabaret chorus job after she lashed out at the married Italian lover who has dumped her. Badmouthed for her behavior, she has no new job prospects and feels thoroughly rejected and down in the dumps. But Guy, himself fired from his designer job for defending her, tries to boost her morale by promising to take her along to Paris if his dream comes true. His vision is to design costumes for the famous Josephine Baker, the African-American star who has been all the rage in France. Guy is often hilarious as a larger-than-life figure given great lines by the playwright, and Morrison consistently makes the most of the role.

Sheldon Woodley plays Sam Thomas, Harlem Hospital doctor, who falls in love with the neighbor across the hall from Guy’s apartment—the very warm, friendly and likable Delia Patterson (Jasminn Johnson). We watch their romance slowly progress. Delia is a a social worker enthusiastically working at a Margaret Sanger family planning clinic.

Meanwhile, Leland comes around to introduce himself and see how Angel is recovering from the drunken stupor he had seen her in. They are total opposites. He is outraged by Guy being gay, and he recoils at the idea of anyone having an abortion in the wake of his having lost a wife and baby son at childbirth. But he becomes ardent in his romantic pursuit of Angel, who resists but begins to see him as a meal ticket out of her state of affairs and also is basically flattered by his perception of her as a worthwhile woman. We can, of course, spot trouble ahead for these very believable characters. All of this includes occasional references to the Harlem Renaissance scene, with such name dropping as that of Adam Clayton Powell and writer and poet Langston Hughes.

I’m not going to be a spoiler by giving details, but I must tell you that after Angel has concocted a story in the midst of a crisis and a fresh opening to expand her life, she blurts out a mean-spirited confession that is out of character and seems only written as a gimmick to serve the explosive direction that the play takes. One would have to regard her at that point a horrible person and foolish as well, and that is not the portrait of her until then.

But that’s an assessment of the play plot-wise. The fact remains that “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is well worth seeing for the other reasons stated above. At Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed February 20, 2020.

CHEKHOV/TOLSTOY: LOVE STORIES  Send This Review to a Friend

Different kinds of love are explored in the adaptations of one play by Anton Chekhov and another by Leo Tolstoy being presented by the Mint Theater Company. Both stories have been adapted for the stage by Miles Malleson. The Chekhov drama concerns romantic love, while the Tolstoy piece is about love for humanity.

First up, “The Artist” is from Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story,” with the translation by Constance Garnett and direction by Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s producing artistic director. Set in the garden of a Russian country house, the play introduces us to Alexander Sokovikov as Nicov, an impoverished artist working away with dedication in his effort to be creative.

There is a major distraction, Anna Lentz as Genya, the young daughter in the well-heeled family that owns the estate. She and Nicov interact interestingly, with Genya pondering the mysteries of life and Nicov fascinating her with his attempts to provide worldly answers to her curiosities. It becomes clear that they are falling in love and she could become a bright star in his life.

However, we realize the obstacles. He has no money, which prejudices Genya’s mother (Katie Firth) against him. Genya’s older sister, Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu), has personal reasons for being against any liaison between Genya and Nicov. There is both sadness in the story and beauty in the way Genya and Nicov converse as they get to know one another.

“Michael,” has been adapted from Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By,” with a translation by L. and A. Maude and direction by Jane Shaw. The plot is complex and metaphorical, involving redemption that arrives through appreciation for humanity shown via a character we first know just as Michael (Malik Reed) and a poor shoemaker, Simon (J. Paul Nicholas).

When Simon discovers Michael naked at a roadside and clothes him with his coat, he brings him home to his humble abode. At first Simon’s wife, Matryona (Katie Firth), is angry at what Simon has done, but soon she warms to Michael and the couple allows him to stay providing that he goes to work helping to make shoes.

What we eventually learn is that Michael is really an angel who has been punished by God for disobeying instructions. However, it turns out that his disobedience was an admirable act of mercy, and that the husband and wife befriending Michael also have proved their humanity by extending compassion to one they have regarded as a fellow human being. Their home also becomes the place of a visit that movingly reveals the outcome of the good deed that Michael has done.

Tolstoy’s take on all of this is embedded with religion, faith and supernatural belief. The excellent acting, direction and atmosphere created cut through the complexities and hold our attention whether or not we accept the premise.

Once again the Mint provides us with a fresh, imaginative experience, this time with this 90-minute intermission-less double-barreled program. At Theatre Four, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed February 11, 2020.

THE CONFESSION OF LILY DARE  Send This Review to a Friend

Charles Busch, the master of satire in drag, achieves something wild and crazy in his latest comedy, “The Confession of Lily Dare,” which he wrote. In this Primary Stages production, he also romps through the title role. On the one hand Busch delivers an often hilarious look at the kind of weepy films that Hollywood churned out in the pre-and-post code 1930s. Amazingly, even while he is mercilessly spoofing such films and the actresses who starred in them, there are moments in which he can makes one emotionally sympathetic toward his problem-beset heroine. That’s quite a feat.

Directed by Carl Andress, the play has a superb cast that picks up exactly on the camp tone of this latest Busch confection. As for Busch as Lily Dare, he appears in assorted regalia (his costumes designed by Jessica Jahn, those of other characters by Rachel Townsend). A lot of phases in Lily’s life must be reflected in what she’s wearing—naïve young orphan, cabaret singer, brothel madam, murderess and condemned prisoner. Lily wears amusingly flamboyant wigs (design by Katherine Carr). One highlighted appearance is as a Dietrich-type cabaret singer dubbed Mandalay, in which Busch is at Lily’s sexiest looking. As the eventual madam of a chain of whorehouses, she appears tough and powerful.

The plot involves her marriage to Louis, a bookkeeper, who, after making her pregnant, dies in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. How can Lily raise a child alone? She wants to, but the daughter is taken from her by the corrupt and criminal Blackie Lambert (Howard McGillin) and placed with an upscale couple, Dr. and Mrs. Carlton (Christopher Borg and Jennifer Van Dyck). Lily is sent to prison to take the rap for Blackie, and when released, she wants her daughter back.

The plot is packed with incidents ripe for mockery and amusing lines, one of the funniest of which, in a list of Lily’s degradations, the lowest by intonation of disgust is—cabaret singer. The entire story spins from a retrospective visit to the grave of Lily by Nancy Anderson as Emmy Lou, a former colleague in sin. Anderson gives an enjoyably funny and sympathetic performance throughout. At the grave-site she encounters their mutual pal, pianist Mickey (Kendal Sparks). There is back and forth between that location and flashbacks.

Jennifer Van Dyck is particularly outstanding in her multiple roles, including Lily’s Aunt Rosalie, a madam who takes in the young Lily; a supposed baroness, and as Lily’s long estranged daughter Louise, who becomes a famous opera singer and—surely you’ll expect it—has an emotionally overwrought reunion with her mom under the most dire circumstances.

Christopher Borg also excels in multiple roles. In addition to Dr. Carlton, he plays the ill-fated Louis, the phony baron; Maestro Guardi, an opera conductor, and the priest in the death house. The supporting cast members deserved all the loud applause they received on the night I attended.

There are some lulls in the course of the two hour play (including intermission), with parts that could have been tightened, such as some of the graveside talk by Emmy Lou and Mickey. But overall “The Confession of Lily Dare” is the hoot it is meant to be, further evidence of Busch’s enduing talent and as pointed out earlier, also evidence that with is acting expertise he can elicit sympathy for his character even in the process of dishing out so many laughs. At the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street. Phone: 212-352-3101, Reviewed February 9, 2020.

BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE  Send This Review to a Friend

One might think that the plot of the film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” which came out in 1969 when depicting wife-swapping was considered so outré, would be old hat by now. Ditto with the characters smoking pot. But sex of any variety never seems to go out of style. Thus adapting the film into a play with music, as presented by The New Group, doesn’t seem dated and emerges as enjoyable.

The music by Duncan Sheik, with lyrics that he wrote with Amanda Green and with musical staging by Kelly Devine in the show directed by Scott Elliott, is not in-your-face dynamic but easygoing and seductive in tune with the overall tone of the production. The cast members, each of whom is excellent, also function smoothly within the concept.

In the film, directed by Paul Mazursky, who wrote the screenplay with Larry Tucker, the stars were Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon. Despite the titillation, there was a disappointing copout ending. In this new form, with the book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, the stars are Joél Pérez as Bob, Jennifer Damiano as Carol, Michael Zegen as Ted and Ana Nogueira as Alice. You can ponder whether the four winding up in bed together have had sex or perhaps just foreplay—only the kissing is shown. But in the aftermath one gets the impression that the four have gotten whatever stirred desires and emotional justifications out of their systems and the interchange won’t happen again.

We are led into the story by Suzanne Vega as a character called Band Leader, who does a singing narration, and she is exquisitely low-key and inviting as she seduces us into following the journey of the two friendly couples. The musicians include music director Jason Hart, keyboards; Simon Kafka, guitars/sitar/bass; Noelle Rueschman, reeds, and Jamie Mohamden, bass/drums. The accompaniment is pleasingly integrated when the performers take turns at the mikes to sing.

The couples, who live in Los Angeles, attend one of those retreats geared to encouraging participants to unwind and express themselves as to their inner thoughts and feelings. That’s the springboard for what follows--confessions of infidelity, determination to show what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and eventually ideas about experimenting with switching partners in their long-time friendship.

The audience is positioned on three sides of the stage and there is one sequence in which audience members are plucked to sit in on a psychological discussion. The result is awkward, as the audience participants haven’t anything to do but just plop there.

What works better is when the cast members select people from the audience to become dance partners. That portion has charm and gives an edge to the idea of intermingling.

“Bob & Carol & Ted and Alice” runs one hour and forty-five minutes and is performed without an intermission. It all evolves amusingly with its candid conversation and sexual undertone, and thanks especially to the cast, score and lyrics, one can leave with the feeling of having enjoyed being with the people portrayed and even somewhat sympathetic to what they were getting into. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 917-935-4242. Reviewed February 5, 2020.


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