By William Wolf

BAT OUT OF HELL--THE MUSICAL  Send This Review to a Friend

Packed with songs made famous by Meat Loaf, “Bat Out of Hell” explodes loudly at the audience from the outset and hardly ever lets up. Arriving from previous runs in London and Toronto, it is both a visual extravaganza of light, sound, projections, splashy scenery, frantic choreography and bizarre costumes. Best of all are the rousing vocal performances by a talented cast that compensates for having to follow the cockamamie plot that serves what is essentially a juke box musical.

Jim Steinman is credited with book, music and lyrics, and Joy Schelb has directed the onslaught, with choreography adapted by Xena Gusthart. Credits include musical supervision and additional arrangements by Michael Reed, music direction by Ryan Cantwell and orchestrations by Steve Sidwell. Behind-the-scenes forces also include set and costume designer Jon Bausor, original costume designer Meentje Nielsen, video designer Finn Ross, lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and sound designer Gareth Owen. Citing so many of these extensive credits--and there are deserving others--is a way of saying that the total production of “Bat Out of Hell” is what dominates, along with the outstanding singing.

We are introduced to a futuristic setting with focus on a group known as The Lost, consisting of 18-year-olds frozen in time by a chemical mishap. The odd group, which constitutes a tunnel community, is led by the charismatic Strat, played by Andrew Polec.

The villain in the plot is Falco, a powerful tycoon played by Bradley Dean. He is married to Sloane, portrayed by Lena Hall, who drinks too much and has fallen into a desolate state, rendered comically by her lackadaisical body language. They battle nastily, except in a flashback that shows their earlier passion, with hot, simulated sex in a convertible. They have a daughter, Raven, played by Christina Bennington, who has fallen in love with Strat. Falco is furious and wants to break up the romance, but Raven stubbornly resists such control. How will it work out? Does it matter?

Apart from the basic set-up, there are side situations dramatized in dialogue and song by other members of the musical’s talented contingent, which includes Avionce Hoyles in the important role of Tink, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Paulina Jurzec, Danielle Steers, Will Branner, Lincoln Clauss, Kayla Cyphers, Jessica Jaunich, Adam Kemmerer, Nick Martinez, Harper Miles, Erin Mosher, Aramie Payton, Andres Quintero, Tiernan Tunnicliffe snd Kaleb Wells. It is the singing, whether solo or choral, that bursts through as a strong attraction geared especially to those who know and like the numbers sung by Meat Loaf on his phenomenally-selling recordings.

For example, one highlight consists of Dean and Hall singing “What Part of My Body Hurts the Most?” Polec as Strat gets to show his vocal zest with “Heaven Can Wait.” Bennington as Raven gets her chances to stand out vocally, and so do others in the supporting cast in the parade of songs included in the show.

Among the numbers are ”Bat Out of Hell,” of course, and “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “All Revved Up with No Place to Go,” “Love and Death and the American Guitar,” “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are,” and many more.

How one reacts to all of the above will depend on such variables as taste for the chosen songs, endurance for the super-loud effects, ability to follow or care about the plot and whether one is impressed by the overall production. I appreciated the aggressively creative staging that went into the show, but mainly came away with admiration for the cast members, leading and supporting, and the dynamism of their singing, into which they poured heart, soul and talent. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed August 15, 2019.

ANDERSON TWINS IN 'SONGBOOK SUMMER' HIGHLIGHT DUKE ELLINGTON AND LOUIS ARMSTRONG  Send This Review to a Friend

I spent a sublime time with the music of Duke Ellington last night (August 13), thanks to the salute to The Duke opening this year’s “Songbook Summer” program by Peter and Will Anderson, the superb twin brother musicians who are masters at playing variations of clarinet and sax instruments. They are also engaging showmen.

Their program this summer at the Peter Norton Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre, Broadway at 95th Street, includes Ellington (Aug. 13-15), followed by Louis Armstrong (August 21-23). There are two shows a night, 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

As in the format used in the past, not only do the Andersons perform, but a witty running commentary by Will surveys the lives and music of those honored, all illustrated on a screen at one side of the stage with drawings, quotes and film clips. With Ellington, for example, one gets The Duke being interviewed and commenting perceptively on his approach to music.

The clips also include clever use of Ellington’s appearance on the popular old “What’s My Line?” TV show, with Duke as the mystery guest as blindfolded Arlene Francis probes with her questions.

All of that was entertaining and illuminating, but the ultimate pleasure came down to being immersed in music Ellington composed, often in collaboration, as in the case of his long-time association with the brilliant Billy Strayhorn. Their first meeting at which Strayhorn dazzled Ellington and his musicians with his own interpretation of Ellington’s songs was amusingly described.

Listening to the Andersons playing in tandem or soloing with dazzling riffs is pure joy. They are joined by three excellent musicians—Jeb Patton on piano, who gets a chance to show his skill with some special soloing, as do Neal Miner on bass and Chuck Redd on drums and vibraphone. Molly Ryan provides the vocals with an excellent voice and charm as she smoothly interprets assorted lyrics, as for example, with “I Got It Bad (And that Ain’t Good).”

Some of the Ellington numbers offered are well known. What would such a program be without the opener, “Take the ‘A’ Train”? There were also, for example, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,”and “Drop Me Off in Harlem.” But lesser known numbers illustrated Ellington’s range.

I was fascinated listening to “Ad Lib on Nippon,” which incorporated Japanese-style melodies with American jazz-swing style, an example of how Ellington, even early in his career, was beginning to expand. I also enjoyed Ellington’s lesser known “The Mouche.”

Of course, one program, no matter how much Ellington is revealed and lauded, can’t begin to do justice to his musical legacy, but the Andersons and their colleagues on stage can sure get you to think more about him, and at the same time provide pure performing pleasure. I’m certain you can also count on added enjoyment with the upcoming Louis Armstrong program. At the Peter Norton Symphony Space Leonard Nimoy Theatre, Broadway and 95th Street. Phone: 212-864-5400. Reviewed August 14, 2019.

SEA WALL/A LIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

Previously staged at the Public Theater, “Sea Wall/A Life” has reached Broadway, which means that more theatergoers are able to savor the separate but thematically connected monologues by impressive actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge.

“Sea Wall,” constituting the first act, has been written by Simon Stephens, and “A Life” has been written by Nick Payne. Both are directed by Carrie Cracknell. They are presented on an almost empty stage, save for a movable ladder, an elevated walkway, a desk and chair, and a light switch, all against the background of a brick wall. (The set design is by Laura Jellinek.) At the end there is a clever dramatic projection design by Luke Halls of an apartment building with a pullback effect that progressively shows more and more floors and windows, suggesting that what we have just witnessed in the monologues might be applied to the world at large.

There is indeed universality in the perspectives offered about life, loss and dealing with both joy and unexpected tragedy. In “Sea Wall,” Sturridge as Alex tells us about his life and experiences with utter charm. He is a master at pausing to reflect and indicate mulling over what he wants to say. He has a natural, easygoing style, increasing the volume as occasionally he moves about the stage, indicating tension as his story builds.

Alex arrives at time when, he, his wife and eight-year-old daughter have been visiting with his father-in-law in the south of France. Having gone out for a swim, Alex tells how he looked back to see the unbelievable sight of his daughter taking a sudden fall. The account that he gives, harrowingly written and performed with eerie emotion, is chilling and poignant. I happened to see the play soon after the El Paso and Dayton massacres in which lives were suddenly ended and families upended. Although Alex’s situation is entirely different, the element of chance that can change things forever is similar.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Abe in “A Life” shows a more outgoing and jaunty personality. However, his monologue also deals with loss but in the context of a new beginning of life. Abe deeply loves his father, who is dying, and his emotions are raw as he wants to show love for his dad and expresses deep pain at what will be lost.

But on the bright side, his wife is about to give birth and there is much humor in the description of his frantically trying to do what is expected of him in his role of helping his wife through the experience. Background about their romance and marriage is worked into the narrative, and Gyllenhaal demonstrates his acting expertise in the way he meshes the death of his father and the birth of a baby in Abe’s description of his life at that crucial time. The point is made: One life ends, another begins.

The author and the masterly interpretations by Sturridge and Gyllenhaal have managed to put a philosophical emphasis on the meaning of it all in the larger context. The effect is cemented by that projection finale. When Gyllenhaal and Sturridge appear together for their richly deserved curtain call, one is made freshly aware of the implicit connection of the different individual experiences revealed in each play. Above all, “Sea Wall/A Life” offers the opportunity to see two fine actors giving memorable performances. At the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street. Phone: 855-801-5876. Reviewed August 9, 2019.

CORIOLANUS (2019)  Send This Review to a Friend

British actor Jonathan Cake provides a powerful center to the Public Theater’s dynamic production of “Coriolanus,” part of the Public’s free Shakespeare offerings in Central Park. Shakespeare’s violent, often bloody play is a challenging drama to stage. It involves heroism, betrayal, stubbornness, and familial relationships against a background of military, political and class conflict. Under Daniel Sullivan’s excitingly incisive direction and with wizardry by the technical staff as well as all-around excellent acting, this “Coriolanus” stands out as a major success.

Cake cut his teeth on Shakespeare in England before gaining international prominence. It shows. He is a dominant force in the title role, which is difficult because of the complexities the Bard has given the character. Caius Martius Coriolanus is no Mr. Nice Guy. He fights heroically as a military leader against enemies who would conquer Rome and is most at home on the battlefield. But when he returns bloodied from the warfare, and is rewarded with the position of Consul, he shows his contempt for the common man and won’t knuckle under to what is expected of him by politicians in power. This stirs resentment, which ultimately leads to his banishment.

What does he do? Coriolanus decides to join the forces against whom he caused so much death and destruction in his earlier triumph. Not surprisingly, he is soon turned upon, with the result that he meets a tragic end. Given his conflicted persona and condescending attitude, it is hard to feel sorry for him. Thus Cake is presented with the challenge of being a fallen hero as well as someone who is at least partly responsible for his fate.

Kate Burton works up passion as Coriolanus’ tough-minded mother Volumina, who pleads with him to relent and not risk his life. Angry and desperate, she does her best to be persuasive and take advantage of his closeness with her. Volumina finds an ally in Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, stoically played by Nneka Okafor, but Coriolanus is not one to heed advice.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has provided a set dominated by ramshackle buildings that look as if stitched together with castaway metallic junk. Most of the costumes (designed by Kaye Voyce) are what might be called rabble-modern, not traditionally Shakespearean, which provides an update that gives the conflicts a contemporary edge without belaboring the point. The lighting for the production is spectacular as designed by Japhy Weideman, in tandem with the effective sound design by Jessica Paz. Steve Rankin is fight director, contributing importantly in capturing the aura of battlefield bloodshed.

A large cast infuses the production and the overall effect is one of a well-coordinated drama that pulsates with tension throughout. The many contributions notwithstanding, it is hard to take one’s attention from Cake, such is the command that he asserts with his strong stage presence, impressive voice and delivery of the Bard’s pungent lines with untmost clarity. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, entrances at Central Park West at 81st Street or Fifth Avenue at 79th Street. Reviewed August 6, 2019.

NATIVE SON  Send This Review to a Friend

The 1939 novel “Native Son” by Richard Wright (1908-1960) became a controversial literary and financial success after being a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. It became a Broadway play written by Wright and Paul Green, directed by Orson Welles and starring Canada Lee in 1941.There have been three film versions. Nambi E. Kelly has written a play first staged in Chicago in 2014, and it is her play that The Acting Company is now staging in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”

The result is a harrowing, well-acted version of Wright’s vision of a young black man raised in the racist environment of 1930s Chicago and stumbling into an initial crime he did not mean to commit and as a result becoming as symbol of an African-American caught up in the evils of society. Liberties have been taken with the novel, most notably in the trial and outcome, here played out in the protagonist’s mind as to what might be coming and ending in a leap to death instead of awaiting execution as in the novel.

In Kelley’s play, Galen Ryan Kane, giving a searing, poignantly desperate performance as Bigger Thomas, who has been living with his mother, sister and brother in a rat-infested apartment in Chicago’s South Side, is accompanied by Jason Bowen playing Black Rat, actually Thomas’s mind in a raspy voice communicating his thoughts.

The writing and staging within a bare-bones set under the direction of Seret Scott is free form, jumping back and forth in time and meshing scenes that blend into one another, thus covering extensive territory in the 90-minute running time without an intermission. It is a tribute to the production that there is consistent plot clarity as the tragic events relentlessly unfold.

Thomas is no angel. His upbringing in the context of the oppression he has faced has led him to plan an intended robbery with a buddy. He has already been in juvenile detention. But what mainly goes wrong stems from his being hired by the wealthy white Dalton family as helper and chauffeur. Mrs. Dalton (Laura Gragtmans) is blind. One night Thomas is assigned to drive her daughter Mary (Rebekah Brockman). She has secretly planned getting together with her communist boyfriend, Jan (Anthony Bowden).

Mary has been flirting provocatively with Thomas, forbidden fruit for a black man, and making him uncomfortable. She and Jan lavish attention on Thomas, drinking together, filling him with communist ideology and trying to convert him. Mary gets drunker and drunker, and by the time Thomas drives her home, he has to carry her inside and up to her bedroom. In her drunken state Mary has become increasingly cozy, and after he places her on the bed he can’t resist kissing her. When he hears her mother coming, he places a pillow over Mary’s face to keep her silent, unintentionally smothering her to death. In the play’s freewheeling structure we get this scene early on, and Thomas’s desperate journey commences.

The play creates tension all the way, fueled by Kane’s excellent acting and a series of events, including disposing of Mary‘s body, Thomas also killing his girlfriend, investigation by a detective, Thomas trying to lay the blame for Mary’s death on the communist Jan, the anguish of Thomas’ mother and Mary’s mother and the ensuing manhunt. The staging has the power to keep one riveted. There is success in capturing Wright’s attempt to show a man whose actions stem from the plight of African-Americans, one of whom is driven into tragic behavior that can be largely blamed on society. At The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Phone: 646-223-3010. Reviewed August 6, 2019.

MOULIN ROUGE! THE MUSICAL  Send This Review to a Friend

If spectacle is your thing there is the glittering new “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” based on the film that was directed by Baz Luhrmann. It is set in Las Vegas—oh, excuse me, I mean 1899 Paris. Apart from the huge signature windmill of the famed Paris entertainment palace, cancan dancing, and a mini-Eiffel Tower standing like an erection as background for a romantic duet, the show might just as well take place in Vegas.

OK, I’m exaggerating. But the gimmick here is a juke box litany of modern songs—an avalanche of them, including popular hits--tossed into a saga that is supposed to take place at the Moulin Rouge and parts of Paris. That wipes out most of the Parisian ambience needed for the unfolding of the book by John Logan under the lavish direction of Alex Timbers.

The good news is that the cast is first-rate, including Danny Burstein giving a broadly colorful portrayal of the proprietor, Harold Zidler, doubling as an MC; the wonderful Karen Olivo as the tenacious singing star Satine; the excellent Aaron Tveit as her suitor from Ohio, the penniless and francless songwriter Christian, and Tam Mutu as the unscrupulous Duke of Monroth, who wants to own both Satine and the Moulin Rouge.

On entering the Al Hirschfeld Theater we know immediately that we are in spectacle territory. Sexily costumed men and women are slowly gyrating at both sides of the theater. Two gals swallow swords. An imposing scenic elephant hovers over the right side of the theater. In-depth layers of huge, valentine-like hearts are part of the scenic splendor. As the show progresses the sets and flashing lights get more and more dazzling. The costumes become increasingly lavish.

Scenic designer Derek McLane, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Justin Townsend, sound designer Peter Hylenski, choreographer Sonya Tayeh and everybody who had a hand in the physical production deserve applause. Also, Justin Levine merits praise for music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements and additional lyrics.

Add praise for the large aggregation of hard-working, talented male and female chorus members, as well as supporting cast members Sahr Ngaujah as Toulouse-Lautrec, Ricky Rojas as Argentine dancer Santiago and Robyn Hurder as Satine’s supportive colleague Nini.

By the second act the concept and plot start wearing thin. Satine is plagued by deepening consumption, the Moulin Rouge is threatened with closure and unemployment for all if everyone doesn’t knuckle under to the power of the Duke. Will Satine give in to him or revolt to follow her true affection for Christian? All of this is mirrored in the plot within a plot as the new show to be staged at the Moulin Rouge reflects lives of the characters, their conflicts and coming tragedy.

True to form, spectacle takes over for the finale, in which, if you please, male dancers in top hats and tails are also wearing white skirts. Anything goes.

The idea for the show, whether or not you find it misconceived, is carried through with show biz expertise. It is amusing to hear lyrics from “The Sound of Music” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” even if the result eclipses Paris. And it is a delight to hear Olivo, Tveit and Mutu sing the assembled numbers and to enjoy ever-skillful Burstein getting in his licks.

Tourists who can see on Broadway the spectacle they don’t get back home are a built-in audience, and the show is also geared for anyone else who delights in such spectacle and solid performances to match without worrying about what’s lacking. But for the real thing, take a trip to Paris, where the Moulin Rouge, after going through various incarnations since its founding in 1889, will celebrate its 130th anniversary in October. At the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed August 4, 2019.

LOVE, NOËL  Send This Review to a Friend

What could have been only an entertaining cabaret act has been built into a delightful theater work celebrating the songs and letters of Noël Coward as well as the creative man himself. A lovely intimacy has been created in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s downstairs Studio Theatre, with co-stars Steve Ross and KT Sullivan enchanting us by sharing samplings of Coward’s extensive repertoire and revealing his associations and persona as expressed in correspondence with notables of his day. Coward was born in 1899 in Middlesex, England. He died in 1973 at the age of 73 after a long, illustrious career as a playwright, composer, lyricist, actor and director.

In addition to praising Ross and Sullivan, I can’t stress enough what director Charlotte Moore has achieved in working with them in this show devised and written by Barry Day. The result is as if we have been invited into a private salon to share music and conversation. The tone is one of sophistication, as befits Coward, who achieved the height of sophistication in his songs and writing. “Love, Noël” sustains its mood of intimacy throughout the show’s running time of 90 minutes without the interruption of an intermission.

Scenic designer James Morgan has provided a simple environment, with a bust of Coward prominently displayed, a piano, a stool and an easy chair. The show begins with Ross entering, going over to the bust, and staring as if paying homage. He is soon joined by Sullivan, both wistfully singing “Where Are the Songs We Sung?” and then in duets and solos, they move into the world of Coward with well-scripted finesse.

Not only do they sing, but reading from Coward’s correspondence, they stress his wit and the various connections he had with notables, including actress Gertrude Lawrence, whom he greatly admired and was saddened by her death in 1952 at the age of 54. There were also, among others, connections with Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Elaine Stritch. Sullivan does amusing right-on imitations of the later three. I have known Sullivan primarily through her enjoyable cabaret performances, but her earlier theater work is reflected in her fine acting here and the perfect control in her tightly written role without the kind of nightclub chatter that goes with cabaret.

Ross is a master of integrating piano and singing, as he does in performances in assorted countries as well as many parts of the United States. His role here calls for him to be the voice of Coward in the sharing of correspondence. He consistently maintains an aura of elegance and knows how to get a laugh out of a witty Coward line.

Ultimately, the songs are the main attraction. Ross taps into the comic vein with “Mrs. Worthington,” advising the lady not to put her daughter on the stage. Sullivan tears into “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” with a vengeance and the result is extremely funny.

Both sing “Mad About the Boy,” and when Coward handles the lyrics, there is the implicit suggestion of male-to-male attraction. We are rewarded with fresh interpretations of Coward’s more sentimental songs—“If Love Were All,” “Someday I’ll Find You,” “I’ll See You Again” and “The Party’s Over Now,” the latter appropriately concluding the show. Sullivan reveals an exquisite voice and Ross shows his expertise on the piano while singing simultaneously, an art he has long displayed since his early performing days.

There are also songs that are lesser known—“I Like America,” “Together With Music,” “Never Again,” “Bronxville Darby and Joan,” “I Travel Alone,” “World Weary” and others. The combination of Ross and Sullivan is engagingly smooth, and by the end of the performance, one can feel the satisfaction of having entered the realm of Coward and gained further knowledge about his remarkable talent and what a unique person he was. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737.

LITTLE GEM  Send This Review to a Friend

Three excellent actresses bring to life the characters in Elaine Murphy’s unusually constructed play, “Little Gem,” which takes place in Dublin in what appears to be a waiting room. One by one the characters make their appearances and individually speak directly to the audience to tell their stories. We learn that the women are a mother, her daughter and granddaughter. Each confides her problems to us, and only near the end are the three seen together as this three-generation family.

The success of the play, directed by Marc Atkinson Borrull, depends primarily on the level of the performances. The good news is that all three portrayals are superb--Lauren O’Leary as Amber, the youngest, Brenda Meaney as Lorraine, Amber’s mother and Marsha Mason as Kay, Lorraine’s mother and Amber’s grandmother.

Amber spins her youthful story of being in love with Paul, who impregnates her and then takes off, leaving her to have the baby alone. Her character is placed in the context of friendships and experiences characteristic of her generation growing up in Dublin.

Lorraine, is looking for a new man in her life following the collapse of the relationship that fathered Amber. There is joy when she describes her eventual liaison with a lover who woos her and takes her on an exciting trip to Paris. Meaney does a fine job of detailing Lorraine’s inner passions and frustrations.

Marsha Mason’s portrayal of Kay, mother and grandmother, touched me the most. She is caring for her terminally ill husband, Gem, whom we don’t get to see. They have not had sex in a long time, and she hungers for it. Her purchase of a vibrator and trying to learn to use it is hilarious.

But the real payoff in Mason’s performance as Kay is her sadness when Gem dies in her arms, and the terror she feels at losing him and being left alone. Her description of the funeral and trying to face the fact that he is really gone as his coffin is lowered into the ground is shattering. A bright spot for Kay was the birth of the son born to Amber and his being named after his grandfather.

One has to listen intently to catch every bit of the monologues, as talk is rapid, particularly in the case of Amber and Lorraine in their efforts to sound Irish as they deliver the playwright’s dialogue filled with Irish expressions. It took me a while to grasp the rhythm.

The production of “Little Gem” comes across as another feather in the cap of the very vital Irish Repertory Theatre, with its reputation for good performances and staging. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737. Reviewed July 28, 2019.

ROAD SHOW--NEW YORK CITY CENTER ENCORES! OFF-CENTER  Send This Review to a Friend

A valuable service of providing a fresh look at Stephen Sondheim’s “Road Show” has been contributed by Encores! in its Off-Center series, which included an impressive concert version (July 24-27) of the work, which has undergone various revisions. In reviewing a previous staging of the musical at the Public Theater (see Search) I wrote: “Sondheim’s music and lyrics require more than one sit-through.” This is especially true with “Road Show,” and I was happy to get this new opportunity, particularly when the Encores! offering is so well-performed.

This time the staging is built around a radio broadcast, which serves to provide unity to the story of two very different real-life brothers who seek their fortunes in the first part of the 20th century. The radio idea pretty much falls by the wayside as the musical progresses, but the framework has provided the set-up.

Sondheim’s approach combines a very personal familial saga with his cynical take on ambition under capitalism that tempts dishonesty in a boom or bust economy thrust on society. The style is intimate and somewhat vaudevillian, with Sondheim’s clever lyrics and music advancing the plot in the book by John Weidman.

The brothers are superbly performed by Brandon Uranowitz and Raúl Esparza. Uranowitz plays Addison Mizner, the brother who attempts to ethically search for success, while Esparza brashly portrays Wilson Mizner, who casts ethics to the side in his quest and is willing to take chances in chasing the almighty dollar as a goal in itself, referred to as “the game.” The musical chronicles the clash of the brothers with their respective values, as well as emphasizing an underlying bond between them.

In Sondheim’s vision, both brothers start out to seek their fortune in the Alaskan gold rush, and Esparza as Wilson has some great comic touches with language imitations and funny body movements in satirizing his brother’s ventures in Hawaii, India and China. Eventually Addison, who realizes architecture is his calling, begins to fulfill that ambition by becoming involved in the Florida land boom and building houses in Palm Beach. Wilson, who becomes a desperate failure, gets in on the action by prodding his brother into shady speculation in Boca Raton with disastrous results.

Early on the musical depicts their father, Papa Mizner, touchingly played by Chuck Cooper, dispensing go-forward advice via a powerful song, “It’s in Your Hands Now.” Mama Mizner is given an outstanding performance by Mary Beth Peil, who excels with her show-stopping solo, “Isn’t He Something!” and we see the parents again in an afterlife, as well as the brothers who talk about their careers and deaths in Sondheim’s nervy closing portion.

A moving aspect of “Road Show” is Addison’s involvement with Hollis Bessemer (excellent Jin Ha), which starts as a business relationship and evolves into a tender gay love affair. A high point in the score is their moving duet, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” which comes across as a moving, beautiful universal love song apart from the specificity of it being sung in a gay relationship.

There is a section in “Road Show” in which a stretch of dialogue between the brothers begins to become somewhat stiff, but songs and plot advancement soon come to the rescue. Sondheim has provided many superior numbers, such as “Gold!” “The Game” and “Boca Raton.” This new look at his work reveals much about his sophistication in blending music and lyrics to express character, feelings and a view of society. “Road Show” has been underrated and needs to be re-examined for its place in the Sondheim’s collection of work.

As usual, the Encores! orchestra does an exemplary job with the score, although it is smaller in this Off-Center presentation. James Moore is musical director and conductor, with orchestrations by Joathan Tunick. The direction by Will Davis strives to provide fluidity and emphasis where required, and Davis also did the choreography. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed July 27, 2019.

TWO'S A CROWD  Send This Review to a Friend

Before venturing to see Rita Rudner in her new musical play “Two’s a Crowd,” I looked up and savored on YouTube a few of her clever and personable vintage standup performances. I am happy to report that her wit and humor, enhanced by her acting ability, remain alive and well in this delightful new comedy that she has written with her husband, Martin Bergman, who also effectively directs. You are guaranteed a barrage of laughs and good cheer, augmented by entertaining outbursts of character-expressive songs.

The writers have concocted a bizarre situation. Rudner plays Wendy, who, wounded by her husband’s cheating, has booked into a Las Vegas hotel to chill out alone. But she quickly finds that the room has been over-booked. Robert Yacko as Tom turns up and is determined to fulfill his reservation. Alas, there are no more available rooms in the hotel. So there Wendy and Tom are, hostile at first, not only because of the room conflict, but with clashing personalities and attitudes.

Wendy is a bundle of quirks. Nuts for cleanliness, she has even brought her own sheets, along with her container of air spray. One can relish the way in which Rudner makes the most of her character and funny lines, which she dispenses with perfect timing. She isn’t doing standup, but she has incorporated those skills into her performance, which reflects technique honed during her long career in various aspects of show business.

Yacko is vigorous as Tom, who reveals his continued sadness over the death of his wife. Although he can match Wendy in the sharp retorts department, Tom really wants to break through the barrier. Of course, we already assume that things will get cozy. A portable bed is brought in for Tom and they are destined to spend the night. Intermission arrives with an unexpected flair.

In addition to the smart writing and amusing plot development, “Two’s a Crowd” benefits from the superb contributions of two other players. Kelly Holden Bashar shines in totally different roles--Louise, the officious hotel assistant, and Lili, the sharp-tongued Slavic maid. In the second guise Bashar scores with a very funny number that she sings with gusto.

Brian Lohmann also is excellent as a gay waiter and later as Wendy’s erring husband desperate to win her back and full of pleas for forgiveness. By this time there is predictable competition with the newly smitten Tom.

Blend all of this with the music and lyrics of musical director Jason Feddy, who also plays guitar and sings some of his own compositions. The music mostly has an easygoing country-western twang. The other members of the trio perched on high are Eli Zoller, bass guitarist, keyboards and mandolin, and Julian Bridges, percussionist.

Bergman has provided much fluidity in his direction, with cast members sometimes merging to sing together even though their characters might not normally be side by side at those moments.

Tessa Ann Bookwalter has designed an attractive Vegas-type hotel room, with a large bed centered—a set which, when spun around, simply features a restaurant table for two against a wall.

“Two’s a Crowd” comes across as pure entertainment and merits appreciation for its writing, acting and direction. At the core is Rudner’s luminous performance that makes one appreciate anew her comedic and overall acting expertise that melds with her perky, winsome stage personality. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 646-892-7999. Reviewed July 22, 2019.

  

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