By William Wolf
ON THE TOWN (BROADWAY) Send This Review to a Friend
The current revival of “On the Town” harks back to the World War II 1944 year when the show first appeared on Broadway. An American flag is displayed as the orchestra plays the national anthem and the audience rises to sing. Then the fun begins. The result is a smash splash of entertainment that more than does justice to this icon of creativity, with book and clever lyrics by a young Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the score by a young Leonard Bernstein and choreography by an up-and-coming Jerome Robbins. This new production is directed by John Rando, who previously staged the New York City Center Encores! concert version and a production at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts, which has spawned this Broadway coup.
Now the choreography is in the hands of Joshua Bergasse, and while I can’t attest to how much of the Robbins original work remains, the current result is a glorious achievement with moving dancing by the principals and terrific work by the men and women of the chorus.
You could not ask for a better cast. Tony Yazbeck is perfect as Gabey, the sailor who arrives in New York on a 24-hour leave. His acting is appealing, and his dancing is dynamically wonderful. He certainly deserves awards for his performance. His two sailor pals Clyde Alves as Ozzie and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Chip also shine in both the acting and dance departments.
Gabey is smitten by a poster of Miss Turnstiles, the title changing monthly for women selected from among subway riders. His mission is to find her, and his buddies pledge to help, although in the course of their wanderings they find adventures of their own. Ivy, Miss Turnstiles, is played by Megan Fairchild in a lovely performance. When she and Gabey get to dance together, they are a dream team and an absolute joy to watch in some superbly choreographed sequences.
Elizbeth Stanley plays Claire de Loon, a ditsy dame who is studying anthropology and is kept by Judge Pitkin (Michael Rupert), a sugar daddy whom she deceives. Up to a point he keeps saying “I understand.” (In the original show Claire was played by Betty Comden.) Claire’s scene at the Museum of Natural History turns into a laugh riot, as it always has been when done properly.
Alysha Umphress as the romance-hungry taxi driver Hildy gives the best performance in that part that I can remember. In addition to being hilarious when needed, she is very likable in the romance department, a winning combination when that role can so easily turn into mere comic caricature. Her “I Can Cook Too” number is a gem. Hildy’s hapless, ever-sneezing roommate, Lucy Schmeeler, is portrayed by Allison Guinn, who gives the part exactly the comic turn required.
Veteran scene-stealer Jackie Hoffman can get a laugh from a shift in her body, and she is uproariously at work here as Maude P. Dilly, the boozing mess of a voice teacher in one of the studios of the kind that once existed at Carnegie Hall. She also turns up as downbeat nightclub singers Diana Dream and Dolores Dolores, and as if that were not enough, she appears as the little old lady forever dashing across the stage. A Hoffman decrepit dash is something to behold.
Supporting cast members, called upon to do more than one role, are excellent. The staging is consistently inventive, as when projection helps turn a taxi ride into a harrowing race through Manhattan. The scenic and projection design is by Beowulf Boritt, and the eye-catching costume array has been designed by Jess Goldstein. The lighting design by Jason Lyons and sound design by Kai Harada play especially important roles.
Then there are those songs—among them “New York, New York,” “Carried Away,” “Lonely Town,” “Lucky to Be Me,” “So Long, Baby,” “ I Wish I Was Dead,” “Some Other Time” and more. The pit orchestra deserves special praise for showing off the Bernstein score as it deserves to be played, figuring importantly in the general course of the action and dance.
My only quibble s with the mess of the plot in the Coney Island sequence when Ivy is doing supposedly erotic dancing and the cops raid. But that goes by quickly, and soon we are at the dock when the sailors must say goodbye to the women they have met and board their ship. The moment is tender, but comically capped when three just-arrived sailors get off their ship for their own expedition in Manhattan. The departure scene must have been particularly poignant during the war when the servicemen were off to face danger.
It is a tribute to the leading cast members that by the end of the show we can feel we have gotten to know their characters as real folk during the day passed in theater time. “On the Town” now exists as a great new Broadway treat. At the Lyric Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed October 24, 2014.
LENNON: THROUGH A GLASS ONION Send This Review to a Friend
British-born John R. Waters, who has built a career in Australia and who summons the life and art of John Lennon in the show that he does with Stewart D’Arrietta at the piano and sometimes pitching in with the singing, gives a warm tribute to the late revered Beatle. Whether or not you enjoy the voice of Waters is another matter.
Waters makes no pretense of trying to imitate Lennon in “Lennon: Through a Glass Onion.” But after the show I listened again to a few examples of Lennon’s singing. As the world knows, he had a rather melodic, appealing voice, but the raw singing of Waters mostly sounded more as if he were channeling Bob Dylan in a tone so very different than Lennon’s.
Still, it is good to hear the array of songs chosen as a refresher to help keep Lennon’s memory alive. Where Waters excels is in the biographical comments interspersed with the music and delivered in the first person as if he were Lennon. The show begins with the sound of shots fired, and near the end we again hear the gunfire. In between, Waters provides assorted anecdotes, some of them humorous, including what it was like being a Beatle.
He talks of his relationship with Yoko Ono, about the drug scene, and his family background. There is a light, reflective tone to most of it, but not when he talks about the stranger he sees linger outside his apartment building. Lennon finds it odd but doesn’t recognize the danger.
Among the 31 songs performed by Waters are “All You Need Is Love,” “Come Together, “Imagine,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The show was conceived by Waters and D’Arrietta in 1992 and first performed on a small stage in Sydney, Australia. Since then they have been touring with it.
At the Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street. Phone: 1-800-982-2787. Reviewed October 16, 2014.
INNER VOICES 2014--'GRACE' AND 'THE OTHER ROOM' Send This Review to a Friend
Two solo offerings in this season’s “Inner Voices,” presented by Premieres, dedicated to bringing new musical theater to light, are “Grace” and “The Other Room,” continuing through November 1. The voices may be “Inner,” but they contain bursts of outer passion in the respective performances.
“Grace,” with music by Kirsten Childs and libretto by Charlayne Woodard, is performed dynamically by Ancrea Frierson, who sings title character role. It is a tale of a successful writer who discovers that she is going blind and must struggle to triumph over this adversity.
As Grace, Frierson has a powerful voice and a sparkling personality, as she looks back on her life, referencing her mother and her strong father, and her feelings as a writer. A collection of canes are present as symbols, a sturdy cane epitomizing the strength of her father, and others stand-ins for the blindness that awaits her.
The performer is moving as she hears her fate from her doctor, “Wet Macular Degeneration! Wet Macular Degeneration! Wet Macular Degeneration!!!” ...“Tempus fugit. Too soon. It is all happening too soon...I’ve run out of time. I took ‘Cane Class’ as suggested.”
The music by Childs comes in the style of a strong force in synch with the passion of the libretto and the dynamic quality of Frierson’s persona as Grace. Under the direction of Shirley Jo Finney, the piece succeeds in providing a perspective on a lifetime up to the point where a writer must cope with the inevitable that has descended upon her.
“The Other Room,” the second offering on the program, deals with an even more tragic subject—AIDS and the death of an artist’s friend. The loss is off-stage but woven passionately into solo lament by actress-singer Phoebe Strole.
Strole portrays Lena, a painter, who works at her easel and sings and talks about her friendship and political activism. The libretto is by Mark Campbell, the music by Marisa Michelson.
In the beginning Strole is hard to hear against the loud competitive piano, but she rises to the occasion at key moments when the balance is better and her voice shines through. Strole has a winsome personality in capturing the theme of the piece, directed by Ethan Heard.
As Lena paints and gazes at what she has done, the repeated reference to the color green becomes symbolic, and the work ends with a projected gradual splash of her art in the background. In the interim “The Other Room” builds poetically and musically to express Lena’s range of thoughts and emotions to the ultimate telephone revelation that her friend Steve has died with the dignity he wanted. There is a tearful breakdown by Lena, until she composes herself and returns to her painting.
Both “Grace” and “The Other Room” are alive with depth of feeling and creativity, but musically and in terms of libretto and performance appeal, I found “Grace” the stronger selection. At the TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, Phone: 212-866-4444. Reviewed October 14, 2014.
WHILE I YET LIVE Send This Review to a Friend
Billy Porter has poured his heart out in his new play, “While I Yet Live,” a Primary Stages presentation. We know Porter primarily from his dazzling award-winning performance as Lola in the musical “Kinky Boots.” Now his play demonstrates his writing gifts as well, and although it may have far too much going on, its passion is dramatically and emotionally touching, and the fact that it has been inspired by his own background adds interest.
The setting is a two-story house in Pittsburgh occupied by an African-American family, and an exemplary cast brings to life the assorted characters, their relationships and problems. In particular, there is a memorable performance by S. Epatha Merkerson as Maxine, the mother whose humanity and spiritual strength in the face of her declining muscular powers as a result of illness anchors the play.
I have known Merkerson mostly via the endless hours I have enjoyed her in the “Law and Order” television shows. I have also seen her doing excellent work on stage before. But at last, here is a role that demonstrates what mighty power she has as an actress. It is a glowing, deeply moving performance that makes her character seem absolutely real and further burnishes her reputation.
Larry Powell is convincing as her gay son Calvin, who, as well as needing to come to terms with his sexuality, carries the baggage of having been molested by his stepfather Vernon (Kevyn Morrow), a dark secret that nobody wants to address. Calvin moves from home, leaving his younger sister to cope with their ailing mother.
Sheria Irving as Tonya, the sister, is a delight in the early scenes as she spiritedly regales the audience with amusing insights into the process of growing up in the household. Later, with the passage of time and the return of Calvin, we see her as a strong young woman demanding her own opportunity in life.
Another key character whom we meet is Maxine’s close friend Eva, finely acted by Sharon Washington, who is suffering from cancer and has her own secret that undercuts the strong religious beliefs both share. Lillias White plays Maxine’s mother, Gertrude, with Elain Graham cast as Aunt Delores.
Porter demonstrates a gift for writing sharp dialogue, and injecting humor into the lives of his characters, although it is risky to pack so much into the drama. The staging in the hands of director Sheryl Kaller maintains the required intimacy, aided by the realistic set designed by James Noone.
One carries away sympathy toward Porter’s people, and I still have visions of Merkerson as Maxine struggling up and down the stairs, step by step, and finally moving about in her mobile scooter when walking becomes nearly impossible. All of this makes the communication of her determination to retain her dignity all the more impressive. At The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Phone: 646-223-3010. Reviewed October 13, 2014.
IT'S ONLY A PLAY Send This Review to a Friend
Until now I thought that the revived “You Can’t Take It With You” was the funniest play on Broadway, but not to take anything away from that laugh-getter, the return of Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play” offers its own brand of laugh-aloud hilarity delivered by a smashing cast.
The new arrival is geared particularly to those who follow the Broadway theater with plenty of “in” jokes and name-dropping, the latter not empty celebrity references but attached to bitchy humor and uproarious observations. There are also allusions to Hollywood and television that earn more laughs.
The scene is a lavish New York townhouse (smart set design by Scott Pask) of producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally), who knows nothing about the theater, and not much else for that matter. (She thinks the “C” word is spelled with a K.) But she is loaded and has invested in a play written by Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick).
Before we get to meet either of them we meet Nathan Lane as actor James Wicker, and he sets the audience laughing as Nathan Lane can reliably do when he is at his best making cracks and using his sharp timing. He encounters a newcomer to New York with acting aspirations, Gus P. Head, given an outstandingly funny performance by Micah Stock, who has a job tending coats for the opening night party going on downstairs. The new play has been unveiled and the tense wait for the reviews is on.
Wicker, who has a TV series about to be cancelled, has seen and hated the play, but can’t let on at first to the playwright, a long-time close friend. Head has insinuated himself into the mix, and gets his own laughs as he brings back coats from guests—a huge, furry, blanket-like garment that belongs to Tommy Tune and a bubbly plastic design of a coat from Lady Gaga, two among the elite mentioned but whom we never see at the party.
We do meet acerbic Virginia Noyes, given an extremely funny performance by Stockard Channing, who has performed in the play in an effort to make a comeback. With her career on the skids and a history of rehab, she sniffs cocaine, even from her coat when she drops some on it, and when she flashes her legs, there is an ankle bracelet signifying her status with the law.
A flamboyant Rupert Grint in the character of Frank Finger broadly satirizes British directors working in the New York theater. F. Murray Abraham turns up as Ira Drew, a critic known for his nastiness and with an agenda of his own. It is unlikely that he would be hanging around througout the night, but as long as he is there, it is yet another occasion for laughs and barbs hurled at critics.
The piece de resistance comes as a lacerating review by Ben Brantley in the New York Times, so mean that line after line is funnier that the previous one. Those skewered react accordingly, as tension explodes, guaranteeing further guffaws from the audience, which at times is also targeted, as with Noyes making fun of the senior crowd who can’t hear and are always asking companions, “What did she say?” McNally has cleverly altered the play to include present day targets replacing former ones. When the play originally opened in 1986, Frank Rich was the ruthless Times critic quoted. Now Brantley gets the spotlight.
Director Jack O’Brien doesn’t allow for many lulls, although some relatively quiet moments are necessary for pacing, as well as for leading to further comedy. Broderick is excellent and relatively restrained as the playwright. Mullally is ditsy and uses a high-pitched, squeaky voice with an accent I can’t define. There is an occasionally barking dog out of sight in the bathroom, described as a vicious menace guilty of biting, and there’s a surprise at the end of the show.
Writing about farce only goes so far. You have to be there. But rest assured, when you are, you’ll find plenty to laugh about. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 12, 2014.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME Send This Review to a Friend
I’ve never seen a play before that gets into the head of its protagonist with the effectiveness that we find in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a National Theatre production of the play by Simon Stephens based on the novel by Mark Haddon. The achievement, excitingly directed by Marianne Elliott, is especially impressive because the15-year-old youth in question is autistic, with his brain in perpetual turmoil and his behavior impulsive. One constant is that he can’t stand to be touched and screams when he is.
Christopher Boone is portrayed by Alex Sharp in what is surely an outstanding, award-level performance of the current season. (Taylor Trensch play plays Christopher on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees.) Sharp manages to be very likable so that we are deeply sympathetic to him. A magnificent array of highly unusual stagecraft helps us to penetrate Christopher’s certain type of brilliance.
Complementing the engaging acting are complex projections, a box-like black and white set with all sorts of openings when needed, great lighting effects, and a terrific sound design that accentuates Christopher’s inner and outside world. Much applause is due Bunny Christie (scenic and costume design); Paule Constable (lighting design); Finn Ross (video design); Jan Dickinson and For Autograph (sound design); Adrian Sutton (music) and Scott Graham and Steven Hogget for Frantic Assembly (choreography).
The swift movements of the large supporting cast are choreographed to emphasize the turbulence in Christopher’s life. He is brilliant mathematically and with meticulous tasks, but he has trouble caring for himself. Yet he is a determined lad when he sets out to see his mother in London by taking a train on his own. Christopher has been living with his father (Ian Barford), who when his wife left, first told Christopher that his mother (Enid Graham) was in a hospital, then that she was dead. When the lad sees letters from his mother, he is determined to visit her.
The scene in which Christopher struggles to take a train and make the trip is harrowing, and the effects here reach special heights. He travels with a pet white rat, and when the rat escapes onto the tracks in the London underground, Christopher leaps from the platform to search for it and bystanders are frantic as a train approaches. Given his phobia, Christopher doesn’t want to let anyone touch him to pull him up.
The title of the play comes from Christopher’s discovery at the outset that a neighbor’s dog is dead, with a pitchfork protruding from the animal. He is determined to find out who killed that dog. What he learns is deeply upsetting.
Christopher’s world is effectively explored, with cast members playing multiple roles as teachers, policemen, train officials and others in the mix of those he encounters. Francesca Siobhan excels as the boy’s special ed teacher, who sets an early tone by reading from a diary that he has written. By the end of the play, all’s well in the immediate situation, but of course, Christopehr’s autism is still there. A big help is the new puppy his father brings him, a face-liking pet bound to elicit “ahs “from the audience.
One thing I did not like was the ultimate lone curtain call that Sharp takes. He gives a dazzling turn explaining aspects of math in rapid-fire cadence, complete with wall illustrations. The audience may enjoy the bit, but the gambit turns Christopher into a vaudeville act that diminishes the sensitivity of the play we have just seen and creates an air of pandering show biz rather than the fine work that has been so moving. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 9, 2014.
THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE Send This Review to a Friend
When the play by Frank Marcus first emerged in the 1960s on stage and in a screen adaptation, it was quite unusual to have a drama about overt lesbian relationships and attention was paid accordingly. Actually, the play is also a spoof of soap operas. TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) has now given it a revival, and even though times have changed it is still an interesting and entertaining piece of work that is a good showcase for the four actresses in the cast.
Caitlin O’Connell plays June Buckridge, known as George because for many years she has starred as Sister George, a good-hearted nurse in a BBC radio serial in England. She lives with Alice “Childie” McNaught (Margot White), whom George subjugates in their lesbian relationship. Alice acts much younger than her age, and as the stage set demonstrates so effectively, dotes on her a vast collection of dolls and toy animals. George can be sadistic and disciplinarian in controlling and taunting her companion.
The crisis begins when Mrs. Mercy Croft (Cynthia Harris) of the BBC visits to tell George that
her role is going to be eliminated in an effort to seek a a younger audience. The representative informs her that that she will die in a car crash, and the plot description delivered solemnly by the wonderful, scene-stealing Harris, much to the consternation of George, is hilarious. It turns out that to appease George and her fans, there will be a funeral to commemorate her death.
A friend of George, Madame Xenia, who considers herself a psychic, is given an over-the-top but amusing performance by Dana Smith-Croll.
If my recollection is correct, the much-lauded Beryl Reid, who played George originally, was more strident and flamboyant than O’Connell is here. However, O’Connell’s interpretation is human and realistic. White meets the difficult challenge of playing Alice on her different levels, adult and child-like, and she and O’Connell are well attuned to the mood of this staging, as directed by Drew Barr.
The actions by Mrs. Croft of the BBC turn out to be more than just that of a messenger. She is attracted to Alice and subtly moves to steal her away from George. I have to say another word about Harris. She is brilliant in the delineation of this character, both in furthering the satire of soap operas, and even more so in the delicate way in which she indicates her lesbian feelings as she delicately seduces Alice.
The overall effectiveness of the production makes for a valuable look back at the way in with the author creatively approached a theme that cried out for attention at the time. As for the satirical skewering of soap opera, that transcends time, as similar series treatments persist in various guises on television. At the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 9, 2014.
THE COUNTRY HOUSE Send This Review to a Friend
Can it really be that long ago that a young Blythe Danner won a Tony award for her performance in “Butterflies Are Free.” Now, in Donald Margulies’s play “The Country House,” presented by Manhattan Theatre Club in association with The Geffen Playhouse, Danner plays an aging actress, Anna Patterson, who is presiding over her Berkshires house near Williamstown, Massachusetts. A lot is set to happen over a summer weekend with visitors.
Anna has had an illustrious theater career that has seen better days. She is mourning the loss of a daughter who succumbed to cancer. Anna’s son, Elliot, played in an impassioned performance by Eric Lange, is mourning his sister as well as his career as a failed actor. Susie (Sarah Steele), Anna’s granddaughter, is mourning the death of her mother.
Three visitors become the catalysts for turmoil, some of it sexual. Susie’s widower father, Walter Keegan (David Rasche), a hot shot, financially successful Hollywood director of formula films aimed at teenagers, shows up with his new girlfriend, Nell (Kate Jennings Grant), and Susie thinks that it is tacky, to say the least, to turn up at the family home with his new gal only a year after the death of her mom. Making the mix even more volatile is the visit of seductive star actor Michael Astor, played by good-looking Daniel Sunjata, who once had a crush on Anna, who eyes him with a glint of desire, while he and Nell find each other attractive.
Margulies writes plenty of funny, often acerbic dialogue, and there is much to laugh at as the relationships become increasingly complex and embarrassing. Elliot has decided that he is a playwright and with his just-completed play, he browbeats everyone into a reading of it. Mercifully, the curtain descends after the start and quickly rises when it has finished, so we don’t have to listen to any of it.
Elliot seeks an opinion from Walter, who warns him that all that people seeking opinions about their work want is validation. Elliot doesn’t know to let well enough alone. When Walter not only tells him the play is lousy but berates him as loser of an actor nobody wants to work with, all hell breaks loose.
Director Daniel Sullivan is challenged to keep the play running smoothly with so much plot packed into it, too much. Elliot justly feels that his mother never liked him and there is an embarrassing break-down scene before Anna, who is especially effective as she shies away in her distaste for Elliot.
“The Country House” is best when funniest, weakest when serious. But all give excellent performances, and Danner is luminous in her actress-mother role, who exercises control over the mess and makes the point that after all, this is her house. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 4, 2014.
INDIAN INK Send This Review to a Friend
It is intellectual time again in theatergoing as Tom Stoppard’s stimulating and intelligent play “Indian Ink” is playing courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company with an excellent cast, including the celebrated Rosemary Harris. With movement back and forth in time spotlighting intensely personal stories, relationships and discourse, we become privy to characteristics of Indian civilization contrasted with British perceptions and attitudes toward the complex country.
The play takes place in India in the 1930s and also in England and India during the 1980s. The framework is a nifty one. A key character in the past is Flora Crewe. a much-talked about poet of the 30s, who has fascinated an eager American scholar, Eldon Pike (Neal Huff), who has churned fresh interest in her work. He visits Flora’s younger sister, Eleanor Swan, now elderly and played by Harris. A trove of old letters that Eleanor possesses, written to her by Flora, tell much of what was happening in Flora’s life before her untimely death. Harris is in customary top form as the aging survivor looking wistfully at the past and protective of her sister and how she is remembered.
Romola Garai is really the star of the play in her captivating portrait of Flora. She exudes everything about Flora that is inherent in Stoppard’s characterization. She is fascinated by India, where she has gone for her health, and we see her interacting with the locals, especially with Nirad Das, a painter, given a superb, finely-tuned performance by Firdous Bamji. It is through their conversations and Das’s undertaking to paint a portrait of Flora that we learn much about cultural differences, as does Flora.
Flora’s personal life, including her illness, her being wooed by a Brit from who she breaks away and her ultimate significant closeness with Das is sensitively expressed. Garai is a delight to watch; she is attractive, graceful and displays a wide acting range. Stoppard’s shifts in time are deftly handled by director Carey Perloff, and the dialogue is rich, the kind that demands that we listen carefully or miss elements that are important in understanding the whole. Typical Stoppard.
In a scene at Flora’s grave, her sister Eleanor in her youth, then known as Nell, is played poignantly by Brenda Meaney. In the panorama of the different periods, we also meet Das’s son Anish Das, portrayed by Bhavesh Patel.
On occasion it seems that Stoppard is crowding too much into the narrative, but by the time the play is over, and we see the assorted cast members assembled into stage positions in the delicate closing moments, there is the feeling of having seen a charming and significant, well-performed look at individuals of well worth spending the time with in a quite lovely play elegantly staged. Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed October 4, 2014.
YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU Send This Review to a Friend
The craftsmanship of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman is sublimely evident in the often uproarious revival of their 1936 Broadway play “You Can’t Take It With You,” which a year later won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. I don’t know about the drama designation, but as for comedy, this re-staging sure fits the bill, thanks to a treasure house of a cast and Scott Ellis’s exuberant staging. Yes, there’s a serious note about how to inject joy into living that still rings a bell today, but laughs are the main focus in this multi-producer offering in special arrangement with Roundabout Theatre Company.
The play has had its revivals, and many will remember the 1938 movie version directed by Frank Capra. But the current mounting is oven-fresh, and while there is considerable hamming it up, the work lends itself to being over the top and that’s where much of the fun comes in.
Where to start? James Earl Jones is a main attraction as Martin, the grandfather in the Sycamore clan, who retired years ago and dedicated himself to the pursuit of happiness on his own work-free terms. For example, he doesn’t believe in paying income tax because he can’t see anything useful that the government does with the money. Jones’s voice is large and forceful, and he is a pleasure to watch, with his easy-going eloquence and timing.
Penelope Sycamore, the dithery mother in the household, who is forever writing unfinished plays, is portrayed by Kristine Nielsen, whose offbeat demeanor and line delivery generate laugh after laugh.
Annaleigh Ashford surely deserves best supporting actress status as Essie, who is committed to ballet dancing and moves through the play almost entirely doing crazy maneuvers on her toes. There is Penelope’s husband Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), who with border Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), is committed to creating fireworks that explode, sometimes on cue, but more spectacularly when not expected.
The one who lives life more sanely is Alice, delightfully played in a Broadway debut by Rose Byrne (“Damages” on TV), who also has her moments when her desperate survey of the scene says more than dialogue. She has fallen in love with smitten Tony Kirby, the son of the wealthy boss of the company where she works. Independent-spirited Tony is ardently performed by Fran Kranz. His society-oriented parents, the Kirbys, played by Johanna Day and Byron Jennings, are due for dinner when everyone is supposed to act normal to help Alice get her man, but, wouldn’t you know that they arrive a night early?
As if this entourage were not enough, there are Essie’s husband Ed, who overacts and twitches way over anything resembling reality, but is hysterically funny doing so; Rheba (Crystal Dickinson), the cheerfully busy African-American housekeeper; her boyfriend Donald (a very amusing Marc Damon Johnson), who, shades of 1930s humor, boldly complains about having to lose time lining up for his relief check; Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers), a once-aristocratic refugee from Stalin’s Russia, who teaches ballet to Essie and is fond of saying “It stinks;” forlorn drunken actress Gay Wellington, played by Julie Halston, who is an old hand at scene-stealing and demonstrates that anew, and for good measure, another scene-stealing turn by Elizabeth Ashley as Olga, introduced by by Kolenkhov as Russian royalty, now reduced to being a waitress and taking over the kitchen to make blintzes.
Assorted other cast members include Karl Kenzler, the IRS agent Henderson, and Nick Corley, Austin Durant and Joe Tapper as G-Men. The producers are to be credited with assembling this large cast in the face of contemporary Broadway costs. David Rockwell has designed a great set, a house on the outside, and when turned around, a high-ceilinged living room that has more memorabilia on the walls than one could believe might possibly be crowded into one household.
Jane Greenwood’s costumes and Tom Watson’s hair design are period-perfect, and I assume that Hudson Theatrical Associates, credited with technical supervision, is the contributor to salute for making the fireworks display seem like a mini 4th of July.
In case I haven’t yet made myself clear, this is the show to see for an upbeat time in the theater. At the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 1, 2014.