By William Wolf

LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL  Send This Review to a Friend

Older folks may remember having seen and heard Billie Holiday in person, but others may know the legendary singer only from her recordings. Now the essence of Holiday’s voice and style is being brilliantly communicated by Audra McDonald, playing Holiday in the revival of Lanie Robertson’s play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” effectively directed by Lonny Price. The conversion of McDonald’s voice to a replica of Holiday’s is stunning, given the totally different McDonald voice to which we are accustomed. In addition, given McDoanld’s acting prowess, she is also able to dramatize poignantly Holiday’s downward spiral leading to her tragic early death at the age of 44.

The Circle in the Square has been converted into a cabaret style setting to suggest the Philadelphia venue where Holiday is entertaining in 1959, about four months before she is to die. On stage is a band consisting of Shelton Becton, conductor, portraying Jimmy Powers at the piano, Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass. McDonald enters to applause, and magically becomes Holiday.

The show is both exhilarating and sad, the former because of the joy of our hearing songs as Holiday sang them and our appreciation for McDonald’s remarkable skill. In the course of the appearance she sings such renowned numbers as “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer),” “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I do,” and, of course, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” At one point she brings her Chihuahua on stage with her and the shown-off, cuddled pet licks her face.

In telling about her life between songs, she is getting more and more zonked out from her alcohol and drug addictions. She summons humor to tell of an incident under the racial discrimination she endured. When denied the right to use a bathroom despite her arguing, she let go a gusher onto the floor much to her feeling of triumph and the consternation of the woman who had refused permission. But in a momentary acting tour de force, McDonald eases tellingly into a somber, sad expression that reflects the reality of what she and others of her race have been subjected to throughout her life. That leads to her singing the piercing, haunting “Strange Fruit,” which she popularized as a protest against lynching.

The format of mixing telling about her life with performing is mechanical, but no matter. McDonald’s outstanding depiction of Holiday and the uncanny channeling of her voice command rapt attention to every inflection, movement and anecdote. McDonald is unforgettable, as is the great Billie Holiday. At the Circle in the Square, West 50th Street (near 8th Avenue). Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 18, 2104.

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY: THE MUSICAL  Send This Review to a Friend

After seeing “Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical” I was in a very good mood, happy to have enjoyed a fun-filled, snazzy Broadway show. It’s a production that has everything—sexy-looking, long-legged chorus gals, snappy choreography, smartly-designed costumes, striking sets, a witty book and, most of all, a terrific cast with various lead performers maximizing scene-stealing opportunities. It is just the kind of show that has been missing from the Broadway musical comedy scene.

Woody Allen supplied the book based on the screenplay that he wrote with Douglas McGrath for the film “Bullets Over Broadway.” Set in 1929 New York City, the show uses well-known songs from the past instead of an original score. Susan Stroman has directed and choreographed with her trademark inventiveness and savvy.

The story involves David Shayne, an aspiring, idealistic playwright (Zach Braff); a gangster, Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore), who puts up money for a Broadway production on condition that his untalented floozy girlfriend, Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke), acts in it; the fading one-time star Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie); the gluttonous actor Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas); Valenti’s right-hand thug Cheech (Nick Cordero), who takes to revising Shayne’s play, thereby making it a hit, and assorted other characters adding to the zany mix that director Stroman stirs with frequent hilarity.

There’s fun right from the start. The show’s title appears gradually splattered in the background with machine-gun fire. And when the chorus gals appear at Nick’s Club to the tune of “Tiger Rag” dressed in amusing costumes with tails wagging, we know we are in good hands. Using established music, a favorite pattern in Allen’s films, means no original score. But who could write an original score today that would match the assortment that includes “The Hot Dog Song;” “Up the Lazy River;” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World;” “Let’s Misbehave;” “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You;” “’Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do;” “Runnin’ Wild;” “There’s a New Day Comin’;” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” “I’ve Found a New Baby;” “She’s Funny That Way” and more?

Braff is a perfect choice as the playwright overrun by what he is up against in moving to the Broadway scene from Pittsburgh. Mazzie, with her powerhouse voice and acting chops, is a whirlwind force as the egotistical star making her comeback and seducing the playwright. Ashmanskas is consistently funny gobbling up food wherever he can, including the dog biscuits that the amusing Karen Ziemba as actress Eden Brent, an actual cute little dog in hand, gives to her pet. Cordero is a show-stealer as Cheech, and Yorke is a delight giving the inept actress gal of the mobster boss a style of her own. She nails down voice and gestures that distinguish her portrayal from similar types and manages to be very, very funny until Cheech bumps her off, gangland style, for being such a lousy actress.

I also enjoyed the performance of Betsy Wolfe as Ellen, the playwright’s back-home girl whom he is ready to cast aside for his infatuation with Helen Sinclair. The book yields a surprise on that score when Ellen has her big moment, singing “I’ve Found a New Baby.” There is another good portrayal by Lenny Wolpe as Julian Marx, the ever-compromising agent.

Stroman’s choreography for the men playing gangsters is smart, and they, as well as the chorines, work very hard. The women dancers look great, whether garbed in fur for a number, or as train stewardesses dancing in front of or on top of a train bound for a New Haven tryout. Stroman has a stroke of genius with her dancing men garbed as hot dogs in buns for one big number. Santo Loquasto’s set designs are eye-catching and William Ivey Long’s costumes are great, whether for those sported by the chorus gals or the dazzling gowns worn by Mazzie. Everything clicks harmoniously.

This is one big, amusing show that provides plenty of enjoyment for those who have a taste for this kind of production. The movie-to-stage transfer has been achieved with plenty of style and oomph. At the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 17, 2014.

THE REALISTIC JONESES  Send This Review to a Friend

Will Eno wrote a one-man play titled “Thom Pain (Based on Nothing),” and indeed it was about nothing—a total bore. Now his “The Realistic Joneses” is about next to nothing. Yes, he is capable of writing some funny lines here and there, and a good cast makes the play seem more than it is. But the characters are boring, insipid and tiresome.

The point apparently being made is the difficulty in communicating and expressing the angst that lies within Eno’s people as they go through life, and presumably meant to indicate the broader malaise that Eno sees. But the result is annoyingly minimal. The humor is derived mostly from the off-beat remarks that run counter to what the characters may really mean. A little of that goes a long way.

However, the cast is to be appreciated. Tracy Letts and Toni Collette play the elder Joneses, Bob and Jennifer, holed up in “a smallish town not far from some mountain.” Their lives are in a deadlock and they are shown bickering without involving serious exchange of thoughts with one another.

One evening along comes a new set of Joneses, who insinuate themselves into the lives ot their neighbors. Michael C. Hall plays John Jones, who says what he thinks, whether it makes sense or not, and Marisa Tomei portrays Pony Jones, who is on the ditsy side. She dotes on her mate, is all bubbly and chatters a lot.

The situation is complicated when John comes on to Jennifer when they are alone, and Bob is stimulated by Pony. But even such attractions don’t add much spark .

None of these characters is interesting. They prattle on in Eno’s next to nothing style, spewing occasional remarks that are somewhat funny in the context of characters having trouble communicating anything substantive in the way of thoughts and desires, assuming they have any. Sam Gold has directed accordingly, emphasizing the humorous lines when they surface. At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 10, 2014.

THE MOST HAPPY FELLA (CITY CENTER ENCORES!)  Send This Review to a Friend

The great Frank Loesser, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the 1956 “The Most Happy Fella,” based on Sidney Howard’s 1924 play “They Knew What They Wanted,” extended his reach with this moving show, ranging far from his Broadway-style “Guys and Dolls” and toward the realm of romantic opera. His moving as well as entertaining achievement has been magnificently reflected by the New York City Center Encores! staging (April 2-6, 2014). Loesser’s gorgeous songs had the right performers to sing them in this production directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, with musical director Rob Berman leading the large Encores! Orchestra, which never sounded better and thoroughly enriched the score.

Shuler Hensley, who has a profound, penetrating voice and admirable acting ability, made Tony, the aging California vineyard proprietor, a sympathetic, believable character. His fractured English-Italian accent could easily have turned the character into caricature in the wrong hands, but with Hensley in the role, Tony became a full-bodied, very appealing man whose hunger to find a wife was touching and believable. Loesser advances all the emotions through his score and Hensley was wonderfully up to the singing and acting task.

Laura Benanti as Rosabella is first seen by Tony when she is working as a waitress. He doesn’t speak to her but leaves a love letter and then begins a correspondence with her. Benanti, with a thrilling voice, became most entrancing as his Rosabella, who arrives on the property expecting to marry a younger, handsome man. As the plotting goes, Tony had sent a photo of his foreman, Joe, played by the good-looking Cheyenne Jackson, whom Rosabella initially mistakes for Tony. There are immediate sparks between Rosabella and Joe, which, of course, lead to complications.

The glow in the work comes from the gradual warmth that builds between Rosabella and Tony, with kindness on Tony’s part bridging the age gap. There’s also the power of forgiveness when Tony learns about the one-night stand between Joe and Rosabella and the result, and the practical resolution is the one that ultimately counts.

Loesser brilliantly blends the aspirations he demonstrates for operatic flourish with traditional comedic gambits in the Broadway vernacular. On the one hand there are the luscious songs. To hear Hensley and Benanti sing “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance” and “My Heart Is So Full of You” to each other was to revel in the joy of what can be achieved in the musical form. One can say likewise for the solos, such as Hensley singng “Roseabella” and Benanti singing “Warm All Over” and “Please Let Me Tell You.” Jackson also had a key moment singin “Joey, Joey, Joey.”

On the other hand there was the more conventional Broadway material, thoroughly enjoyable via the character of Rosabella’s waitress friend Cleo, played with entertaining sharpness by Heidi Blickenstaff, who falls for the employee Herman, enjoyably played by Jay Armstrong Johnson. Herman goes through life always smiling no matter who bosses him around, and that annoys Cleo, until he finally shows gumption and takes a swing at someone, leading to the triumphant “I Made a Fist “ number with Cleo. Blickenstaff shined in the role, from the moment early on when she sang “Ooh! My Feet!”

Many may not realize that “Standing on the Corner” comes from “The Most Happy Fella,” and it was given a fun interpretation by a quartet consisting of Johnson, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Ward Billeisen and Arlo Hill. A large chorus did plenty of singng and dancing to instill additional life into the ambitious production, which, as Encores! shows increasingly do, moved beyond the concert version category.

Jessica Molaskey was effective as Tony’s sister Marie, who tries to turn her brother off the idea of marriage. Marie expresses her emotions in the number “Young People,” but in the end, after a losing battle, there is resignation on her part that her brother must follow his heart.

By the time the plot reached its conclusion and Hensley and Benanti sang of their love backed by the ensemble, if you were fortunate enough to have seen the show in its brief run, you might have had tears in your eyes, both because the production was so sincere and convincing and because it was so very gratifying to experience such an exquisite staging of this work that speaks so well for its late creator. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed April 7, 2014.

IF/THEN  Send This Review to a Friend

An ultimately annoying musical, “If/Then” has going for it the vocal prowess of Idina Menzel. But the back and forth—if this happened, or if that might have happened—begins to grate, especially since none of the characters, including that of Elizabeth, played by Menzel, is especially interesting. They’re there to flesh out Brian Yorkey’s rather tedious book.

The score, with music by Tom Kitt, is on the banal side, with only a few good numbers that stand out. What can you say about Yorkey’s lyrics when one of the highlights is Menzel singing a song that thrives on the word f--k?

The plot involves the life, loves and tragedy in the life of Elizabeth, who becomes a city planner. The concept involves the idea that life can go this way or that way, depending on the choices one may make. It isn’t a deep idea, but it serves to have the plot bounce around, with Elizabeth’s friends getting into the ifs as well.

There are no what ifs about the casting—all members do well. LaChanze performs entertainingly as Elizabeth’s friend Kate, who is in love with Jenn Colella as Anne. The men include Anthony Rapp, James Snyder, Jerry Dixon and Jason Tam. There is too much going on for too long, and into the second act, the characters pretty much have worn out their welcome. Menzel comes through with a strong singing stint, which would be a good moment to end, but then we get a dose of plot resolution.

The two-tier set design by Mark Wendland fits with the busy doings of the show. There is a vast ceiling mirror idea, and the upper portion is crowded with trees, but not much use is made of that section. Supporting cast members tend to wander around the stage, in some cases with a distracting effect.

But Director Michael Greif usually knows how to focus on the greatest asset—his star--even though the plot with which he has to deal provides a challenge. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed April 3. 2014.

THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1940-1964  Send This Review to a Friend

Overkill can be a good thing. Where else could you find the line-up of talent and great numbers that were on display at the latest edition of the Broadway By the Year celebration of 100 years of Broadway musicals? The cultural feast took place March 31, 2014 at The Town Hall as part of the super idea by creator/writer/host Scott Siegel—a song for each year over a century of Broadway. The 1940-1964 span was the second in the series that needs four events to cover the extensive territory.

The period in this show was especially fertile for striking, durable numbers from a broad list of productions. Whether the shows were hits or misses, appealing songs endure. And what talented performers were assembled to bring the music to resounding life! Men and women with thrilling voices. Stars and relative newcomers.

Of course, there’s nobody who can top Marilyn Maye. I’ve heard “Guess Who I Saw Today” from “New Faces of 1952” so many times. But Maye sang it with such interpretive perfection that it seemed I’d never heard it before. The mate she was exposing would cringe in the face of her final line, especially when she pointed her accusing finger. That would have been enough of a triumph for one night, but she returned in the second act to cap the show with “Before the Parade Passes By” from the 1964 “Hello Dolly!” In her mid-eighties, Maye can still sing rings around everybody else with her fabulous energy, dynamic voice and skill at making every syllable count.

At the relative newcomer part of the spectrum, the first act ended with vocally-gifted Maxine Linehan giving a fresh, passionate rendition of “I Love Paris” from the 1953 “Can-Can.” She sang with such affection and feeling that I felt ready to book a flight.

The impressive men’s voices included those by the ever-superb William Michals singing “This Nearly Was Mine” from the 1949 “South Pacific,” in which he did the male lead in the latest revival; Robert Cuccioli doing “Were Thine That Special Face” from the 1948 “Kiss Me, Kate;” Aaron Lazar performing “They Call the Wind Maria” from the 1951 “Paint Your Wagon;” Ben Davis soaring with “If Ever I Would Leave You” from the 1960 “Camelot;” Brian Charles Rooney singing the durable “Maria” from the 1957 “West Side Story” and Ron Bohmer performing “Her Face” from the 1961 “Carnival.”

There were numerous specialty treats. Patrick Page, assisted by the Broadway By the Year Chorus, opened the second act with a rousing and amusing “Captain Hook’s Waltz” from the 1954 “Peter Pan.” Jason Graae is expert at putting over a song, shown by his spirited “She Loves Me” from the 1963 show of that name. Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano, the epitome of a successful performing couple, with Comstock at the piano as well as singing, gave us “Ev’rything I’ve Got” from the 1942 “By Jupiter” and “You’re Just in Love” from the 1950 hit “Call Me Madam.” Jeffrey Schecter deftly extracted the comedy from “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” from the 1947 “Finian’s Rainbow,” as did Carolyn Montgomery-Forant with “I Can Cook, Too” from the 1944 “On the Town.” Liz Larsen kicked off her shoes and stretched out atop the piano to bemoan “Ooh! My Feet!” from the 1956 “The Most Happy Fella.”

Gavin Lee, who recently did the Fred Astaire role in the London musical “Top Hat,” defined the word debonair with his lithe dancing to and singing without a mike “I’ve Got Your Number” from the 1962 “Little Me,” for which he did his own choreography. Erin Denman and Jeffry Denman are always a delight when they dance together, and they choreographed a splendidly stylish performance of “Two Lost Souls” which they also sang, from the 1955 “Damn Yankees.”

Among the especially appealing women, Anita Gillette, shapely in a clinging gown, offered a bonus number treat performing “Nightlife,” the song she did back in the 1962 show “All American,” providing plenty of pizzazz with her years of Broadway know-how experience since then. Natalie Douglas gave a sampling of her trademark jazz interpretations when she opened the show with her twist on “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from the 1940 “Pal Joey.”

There was a striking range of expertise dispensed by the selection of female singers. Nancy Anderson did a beautiful rendition of “My Ship” from the 1941 “Lady in the Dark.” Marissa McGowan made “People Will Say We’re in Love” from the 1943 blockbuster “Oklahoma!” seem fresh. Alexandra Silber didn’t need a mike to radiate with “If I Loved You” from the 1945 “Carousel.” The program also included effective performances by Amber Iman singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” from the 1946 “St. Louis Woman,” Deborah Tranelli singing “Love, Look Away” from the 1958 “Flower Drum Song” and Lisa Howard doing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from the 1959 “The Sound of Music.”

The Broadway By the Year Chorus collaborated on “Sunrise, Sunset,” from the 1964 “Fiddler on the Roof,” with Scott Siegel taking time form his introductory chores to amusingly stomp on a glass to suggest a wedding ritual. Members of the show’s choral group include Sean Buhr, Paula Buresh, Kristin Dausch, Nikki Guevara, Mary Lane Haskell, Jeanette Minson, Joanne Shea and Dominique Solano.

Of course, all the singing and dancing could not have happened without the super musical accompaniment by the Ross Patterson Little Big Band, with Patterson conducting and at the piano, Tom Hubbard on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums. Scott Coulter’s direction of the show consistently maintained the excitement inherent in all of the terrific Broadway music and the dazzling array of performers. The final concerts in the series will be The Broadway Musicals of 1965-1989 on May 12 and The Broadway Musicals of 1990-2014 on June 23. The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Phone: 800-982-2287. Reviewed April 1, 2014.

HELLMAN v. McCARTHY  Send This Review to a Friend

The battle harking back to the clawing against one another by two literary lions is captured dramatically in “Hellman v. McCarthy,” an unusual play by Brian Richard Mori presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company. The creative casting and the clever staging under Jan Buttrum’s direction make the drama work exceedingly well on both a political and human level.

It is an excellent stroke to have Dick Cavett as a star on the bill. It was on a 1980 Cavett PBS talk show that author Mary McCarthy ripped into playwright Lillian Hellman, calling her a liar with the quip that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Cavett starts by introducing the play and during the course of it makes further comments, as well as slips into the interviewer’s chair in a recreation of his fateful broadcast. He also is shown giving a deposition in the lawsuit that Hellman unleashed against McCarthy with persistent vengeance. Cavett is in top, wry form, seducing the audience with jokes and recollections. He is a great host for the evening.

On one side of the stage is the Hellman home. Roberta Maxwell plays her brilliantly as a woman in sadly declining health and attended to by Rowan Michael Meyer as her aide, who takes plenty of abuse from his crotchety, acid-tongued employer. Maxwell is a gem, spewing obscenities, bitchy remarks and utter rage when she watches television and unexpectedly sees McCarthy malign her. But we also see the sad side of the heavy-drinking, seriously ailing playwright, whose stage dramas were widely hailed (“The Little Foxes” and “Watch on the Rhine,” for example). Hellman would die before the lawsuit could ever be fully played out in court.

One the other side of the stage is the home of McCarthy (“The Group” and “The Company She Keeps,” for example), played strongly and intelligently by Marcia Rodd. Although the role of Hellman is more showy and complex, Rodd is terrific illuminating McCarthy in both a personal and political way. She believes her assessment of Hellman is true, and although she is portrayed as not having the level of money needed to defend the lawsuit, she is determined not to be beaten by Hellman whatever the cost.

Their political views being at odds had something to do with the venom generated. McCarthy derided Hellman as being Stalinist while Hellman derided her as being right-wing. The political discourse in the play recalls a time when such arguments raged. Hellman had lived for years with left-wing Dashiell Hammett, famous for writing “The Thin Man” and “The Maltese Falcon.” He did a prison stretch for standing on principle and refusing to give membership names of an organization on the U.S. Attorney General’s subversive list. In the play Hellman refers to their life together, his drinking and their mutual infidelities.

Hellman achieved political fame for telling the House Un-American Activities Committee that she would willingly testify about her own political activities, such as they were, but would not name others. Her comment, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” was widely hailed as a show of bravery. The committee denied her offer, which forced her to rely n the 5th Amendment, which resulted in her being blacklisted.

Mori provides a fictional gamut in which McCarthy is induced to meet Hellman to offer an apology that would end the lawsuit. It is an opportunity to see the writers face off. It starts very humanly and friendly but the antagonism flares anew and there is no apology. Although such a meeting never happened, it makes for further excellent theater.

Jeff Woodman and Peter Brouwer respectively do a fine job as the lawyers for the combatants. Hellman is advised not to pursue the suit, and ignoring such advice earned her enmity for trying to legally punish a writer for exercising free speech, which she had always made a point of defending. Had she retorted with a clever remark of her own and let it go at that her life would have been different instead of the anger and lawsuit taking such a personal toll on her. At least that’s the impression that grows out of the play. Defending the lawsuit also took a toll on McCarthy, who was also in declining health. She died in 1989.

After the curtain calls, Cavett, showman that he is, takes a few questions from the audience and handles them deftly, At the performance I attended, he was dismissive of Hellman as “no Molière” with regard to her quality as a playwright. (Unfair, Mr. Cavett. Who is?”) He also said that Hellman’s famous line defying the House Un-American Activities Committee was written by Hammett. I could only wish that the real Hellman and McCarthy could have been alive to appear in an after-talk. At the Abingdon Theatre Company, 312 West 36th Street. Phone: Phone: 66-811-4111. Reviewed March 30, 2014.

MOTHERS AND SONS  Send This Review to a Friend

Terrence McNally has written a sensitive play with perspective on loss of gays during the AIDS epidemic brought up to date with the remaining pain mingled with the process of moving on. At the center is an impressive performance by Tyne Daly as Katharine, a recently widowed Texas mother who has never reconciled herself to her late son Andre’s homosexuality and still nurses bitterness toward his death and his partner. She also also feels a measure of guilt for not having been there to support him.

But McNally doesn’t leave her character at that. He also examines her unsatisfactory life, which adds interest and provides the opportunity for Daly to show how well she can handle complexity.

The plot is triggered by her unexpected visit to the Manhattan Central Park West apartment of her son’s lover Cal, played superbly by Frederick Weller. The apartment is perfectly designed for authenticity by John Lee Beatty, and we meet Katharine and Cal, facing the audience, and looking at the view across Central Park. When they begin to speak to one another beyond the initial banter, the air is full of tension and it is clear there is a huge emotional chasm to bridge.

Time has marched on. Cal is now married to Will (an excellent Bobby Steggert), and they have a young son, Bud (a cute Grayson Taylor). Katharine cannot wrap her mind around any of this—gays married and bringing up a child. She reveals to Cal how angry she is, and as emotion leads to more emotion, she eventually blurts out information about her unhappy life, a marriage she resented and an abortion that she had.

McNally indulges in polemics, with Cal lecturing her on what a miserable death her son died and what a terrible toll AIDS took on a generation. She should have been supportive, she is told. Little by little she becomes more relaxed with the child, who wants to consider her a grandmother, but she still harbors the idea that the child cannot have a normal life being raised by gays. By the end of the play there is some emotional connection she can find in an embrace with Cal, but McNally doesn’t cheapen the play by having Katharine undergo a startling change. She is who she is and still struggles with her attitudes and loss that can never be replaced or resolved, and Daly incisively illuminates the portrait.

The production, directed with insight by Sheryl Kaller, is an outgrowth of a shorter work, “Andre’s Mother,” and subsequently a television play, that McNally did on the subject. By fleshing it out into a full stage work (90 minutes without an intermission) he has given himself more room for exploration, including probing the residue with which many are still grappling despite the passage of time. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-139-6200. Reviewed March 28. 2014.

LES MISÉRABLES  Send This Review to a Friend

The strength of the theater musical “Les Misérables” continues in this latest revival that has thundered into the Imperial Theatre, which was jam-packed with an enthusiastic audience at the performance I attended. It was fascinating to see how eager the audience was to embrace the show with ovations after each rousing song. The show has its fans, no doubt a base increased by the recent film version. But the basic fact remains—the music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer do justice to Victor Hugo’s great novel, and that makes for an enduring work of musical theater. The framework is there for new singers to come along and win the hearts of audiences all over again.

This production abandons the noted turntable set. This time around there is set and image designed by Matt Kinley inspired by the paintings of Hugo, who was quite an artist in his own right. Projections are used extensively, especially for the Paris sewer through which Jean Valjean, the hero of the novel, drags Marius, the beloved of Cosette, whom Valjean has raised after the death of her mother, in rescuing him after his being wounded at the revolutionary barricades.

Hugo’s work has perennial appeal to readers and viewers—there have been various film and TV versions—who are captivated by the revolutionary fervor of the story, with its theme of heroism, reform in the way prisoners are treated and the overall concept of justice. Thus the issues in the story, although in the 19th century, never go out of date. Witness demands for prison reform in our own country today and excess sentencing for minor offenses. Valjean was sentenced to a long term in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread.

The current cast rises to the occasion. Ramin Karimloo makes a rousing Valjean. He has a voice underscored with emotion whether with the powerful “Who Am I?” or with the tender, haunting “Bring Him Home.” Karimloo connects strongly with his audience. Nikkim James as Éponine sings “On My Own” heart-wrenchingly in expressing her ill-fated love for Marius, well-played and sung by Andy Mientus.

Will Swenson is a strong Javert in word and song, important because he must be believable as the obsessed pursuer of Vajean in the name of the law, even after the former convict rebuilds his life. Javert’s crucial “Soliloquy” sets the stage for his suicide and Swenson delivers convincingly. Caissie Levy effectively makes a tragic Fantine.

There is the required and expected comic relief from Cliff Saunders as Thénardier and Keala Settle as Madame Thénardier, who first cavort in the very funny “Master of the House” and near the show’s end top that with “Beggars at the Feast.” They are justifiably audience favorites.

Under the direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell, the entire company exhibits élan and the overall impact that provides the show with needed energy throughout. Perhaps there could be some tightening, but this remains a mighty show that is in a good position to carry on the tradition of the musical and provide new enjoyment and inspiration for a generation who may not have experienced it on stage and for those who want to renew their acquaintance. At the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed March 24, 2014.

ALADDIN  Send This Review to a Friend

Disney’s “Aladdin” has floated into town on what would appear to be a magic carpet of success. The show is immensely attractive family entertainment, with scenic splendor, special effects, gorgeous costumes, dancing girls and highly entertaining performances. It is not an “Aladdin” on the cheap, but an eyeful of spectacle.

Adam Jacobs in the title role and Courtney Reed as Princess Jasmine are charming, but as anyone seeing the show will surely agree, it is vigorously held together by James Monroe Iglehart as the affable Genie. Iglehart is a show business force, a compendium of theater razzmatazz. He sings, dances, cavorts comically in a dynamic performance that is endearing, ever-entertaining and show-stealing.

Although “Aladdin” is family-geared, Casey Nicholaw has directed the show as more than that. Nicholaw has tackled it as a full-blooded piece of musical theater. The music by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, with book and additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin, provide a solid foundation, and the film popularity has created a built-in audience that pretty much knows what to expect. The supporting cast members effectively add to the fun.

Apart from all the attractive scenery (designed by Bob Crowley), colorful costumes (designed by Gregg Barnes) and flashy lighting (designed by Natasha Katz), there is an especially beguiling scene in which Aladdin and his princess float aloft on the flying carpet against a background of the moon and a sky filled with stars. The effect is lovely—a delicate high point. The carpet betrays no signs of how it is manipulated, at least from where I sat, and the moment was indeed magical.

Going to the theater has become expensive, but families seeking entertainment have a new show to put on their radar. At the New Amsterdam Theatre, Broadway and 42nd Street. Phone: 866-870-2717. Reviewed March 26, 2014.

  

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