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“Living on Love”

Susan Granger’s review of “Living on Love” (Longacre Theatre – April, 2015)

 

Back in 1985, Garson Kanin’s “Peccadillo” – about the tempestuous relationship between a legendary conductor and his opera star diva wife – opened and closed in Florida’s Ft. Lauderdale summer stock, despite the best efforts of co-stars Glynis Johns and Christopher Plummer.

But Kanin’s comedic concept inspired playwright Joe DiPietro to create a new play, one geared specifically for celebrated soprano Renee Fleming, who is making her Broadway debut, and filled with ‘inside’ opera references and jokes.

As the curtain opens on a posh Manhattan penthouse in 1957, Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell), an aspiring novelist, is desperately trying to ghost-write the autobiography of aging Italian maestro Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills).  Elusive, delusionary Vito refuses to cooperate – until his equally egomaniacal wife Raquel (Fleming) unexpectedly returns and capriciously decides to write her own memoirs.

Fearing loss of their hefty advance, Little, Brown publishers dispatches an earnest assistant junior editor, Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), to cajole vain Vito, while reluctantly middle-aged Raquel latches onto besotted Robert for her autobiography, saucily seducing him with fragments from “La Boheme” and “Tosca” Not to be outdone, amorous Vito demonstrates to Iris how he conducts “Bolero.”

Meanwhile, there are two scene-stealing butlers (Scott Robertson, Blake Hammond) who speak and sing in unison, often while they’re serving breakfast and moving the furniture around.

Director Kathleen Marshall – whose husband Scott Landis serves is lead producer – plays it like a drawing-room farce with running gags about Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein, while upping the ante with superb casting. Douglas Sills’s impeccable comic timing makes the most of the dialogue, while tempestuous Renee Fleming is a deliciously flamboyant comedienne, clutching her Pomeranian, dubbed Puccini.

Relishing the slapstick, Jerry O’Connell is amiable, as is Anna Chlumsky from HBO’s “Veep.” Kudos to designers Derek McLane (set), Michael Krass (costumes) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting).

Bottom line: it’s an amusing, fanciful confection – that plays at the Longacre Theater through August 2.

“On the Twentieth Century”

Susan Granger’s review of “On the Twentieth Century” (American Airlines Theater: April, 2015)

While Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher are delightful, this lavish revival turns out to be a frivolous farce that’s musically disappointing, despite book & lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman. Seriously, there’s not one singable tune.

Set aboard a streamlined 1930s luxury train from Chicago to New York, the zany operetta introduces egomaniacal Oscar Jaffee (Gallagher), a Broadway producer whose recent flops have left him penniless.

Oscar dispatches two flunkies – press agent Owen O’Malley (Michael McGrath) and company manager Oliver Webb (Mark Linn-Baker) – to reserve a drawing-room compartment next to Academy Award-winning actress Lily Garland (Chenoweth), whom he discovered when she was Mildred Plotka, a dowdy rehearsal pianist from the Bronx.

His plan is to spend the 16-hour trip convincing Lily to sign a contract to do his next, albeit-non-existent play. Complications arise since Lily is accompanied by her vainly preening leading man, Bruce Granit (Andy Karl). In addition, entrepreneurial Oscar needs the necessary financing from Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson), a religious fanatic who happens to be on-board.

While director Scott Ellis frantically juggles the screwball silliness, he seems to hold each scene a bit too long. After a while, that gets tedious, as do the uneven, unremarkable songs and Warren Carlyle’s uninteresting choreography.

Kristin Chenoweth (who created the role of Glinda in “Wicked”) and Peter Gallagher (Sky Masterson in the 1992 revival of “Guys and Dolls”) push their over-the-top flamboyance as far as it can go, but even their mischief derails with repetition.

Kudos to David Rockwell’s dazzling art-deco set design, William Ivey Long‘s sumptuous period costumes Donald Holder’s lighting and Jon Weston’s sound design.

FYI: If the concept sounds familiar, there was an unproduced play, “Napoleon of Broadway,” by Bruce Millholland about his experiences working for legendary impresario David Belasco, which inspired Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur’s screwball comedy, “Twentieth Century” (1932); that, in turn, became a 1934 Howard Hawks film, starring Carole Lombard and John Barrymore.

Back in 1978, Harold Prince’s Tony Award-winning Broadway cast included John Cullum, Imogene Coca, Kevin Kline and Madeline Kahn, who abruptly left the production after her understudy, Judy Kaye, became an overnight sensation.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s “On the Twentieth Century” is at the American Airlines Theater thru July 5.

“Something Rotten!”

Susan Granger’s review of “Something Rotten!” (St. James Theatre: April, 2015)

 

If you’re starved for a sophisticated, light-hearted farce, run – don’t walk – to buy tickets for this delightful, very new musical comedy.

In London in 1595, during the Elizabethan era, the Bottom brothers, ambitious Nick (Brian d’Arcy James) and neurotic Nigel (John Cariani), are desperately trying to write a hit play. Problem is: they’re stuck in the shadow on that prolific Renaissance impresario, a fellow named William Shakespeare (Christian Borle).

When Nick consults soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), nephew of the legendary prophesier, he’s told that the future of the theater involves singing and dancing. So, despite the jeers of their cohorts, the Bottom brothers set out to write the world’s first ‘musical,’ receiving backing from Jewish moneylender, Shylock (Gerry Vichi).

Songwriter/musician brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick originally conceived of the idea of a silly backstage Shakespearean musical, shamelessly combining highbrow and lowbrow humor, not unlike Monty Python’s “Spamalot.”

Then along came British screenwriter John O’Farrell who shaped it into a rambunctious parody, complete with a pair of star-crossed lovers and a feminist woman-disguised-as-a-man, along with garbled lines from “Hamlet,” Romeo and Juliet,” and “Richard II.”

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”) added his own exuberantly irreverent pizazz, including the show-stopping production number, simply called “A Musical,” parodying almost every Broadway musical in recent memory – from the floor-scrubbing orphans in “Annie” to “Cats” to the high-kicking Radio City Rockettes.

Brian d’Arcy James (“Shrek”) struts his song-and-dance shtick, while Christopher Borle (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) plays the Bard as an impishly slippery, scheming rock star, rollicking to “Will Power” with an overstuffed codpiece.

Completing the stalwart supporting cast are Kate Reinders, Heidi Blickenstaff, Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Bartlett, and Michael James Scott, as the ubiquitous, lute-strumming minstrel.

Credit for the superb production design goes to Scott Pask (scenic), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Jeff Crolter (lighting), Peter Hylenski (sound), Phil Reno (music direction/vocal arrangements) and Larry Hochman (orchestrations).

FYI: Several Shakespearean plays have been made into musicals, among them “Kiss Me Kate,” “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “Lone Star Love,” “These Papar Bullets” and  “Play On!” This show’s title is from “Hamlet” – “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark…”

Laughter reigns: “Something Rotten!” is the freshest, funniest show on Broadway.

 

“Child 44″

Susan Granger’s review of “Child 44” (Summit Entertainment/Central Partnership)

 

Perhaps there are some novels that should never be made into movies – which may explain why Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 suspenseful best-seller just doesn’t translate onto the big screen.

Set in the paranoid claustrophobia of late Stalin-era Russia, it revolves around Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a Ukrainian orphan who became the W.W. II hero who raised the flag over the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945.  Now, Leo works as an interrogator in the MGB (predecessor of the KGB), chasing alleged spies to get them to rat on other alleged traitors.

One day, he’s summoned to handle a case involving a child’s death, the son of a colleague. Superficially, it appears to be an accident by the train tracks, but it soon becomes obvious that it’s murder.

Problem is: Leo’s told that murder is a capitalist’s disease that does not exist in the U.S.S.R. And it’s not just one homicide; it’s a series of grisly, grotesque child killings that no one wants to acknowledge.

Heavy-handedly adapted by veteran screenwriter Richard Price (“The Color of Money”) and ploddingly directed by Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”), filmed on location in the Czech Republic, what should be a tension-filled thriller becomes mired in a multitude of undeveloped characters with too many clichéd subplots and incoherent complications.

Always a sturdy, reliable protagonist, Tom Hardy’s performance is weighed down by his overly thick accent. As his miserable, supposedly ‘unpatriotic’ schoolteacher wife Raisa, Noomi Rapace is burdened with motivations that continually change as the plot thickens. Which leaves Joel Kinnaman with the juiciest part as sniveling, cowardly agent Vassili.

Supporting roles are ably filled by Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine, Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, who does a couple of memorable scenes before disappearing for the final third of the film.

FYI: There was a brief international incident when this film was pulled from distribution in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus for so-called “historical inaccuracies,” but even that failed to arouse much interest.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Child 44” is a forbidding, forgettable 5. Read the book instead.

“Unfriended”

Susan Granger’s review of “Unfriended” (Universal Pictures)

Like the ‘found footage’ of “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), this is a gimmick picture. It’s a cautionary tale of a group of high-school friends who become the target of an unseen cyber-stalker.

What makes it unique is that it’s shot while looking at a computer screen. The teenagers communicate through Skype with back-story information handled through texts and online searches. Even the soundtrack is comprised of tunes stored on one of the computers.

The stream-of-consciousness story takes place in real time on the Apple desktop of popular, virginal Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who starts to receive mysterious Facebook messages from the account of her former BFF Laura Barnes (Heather Sossamon), who committed suicide exactly a year earlier by shooting herself in a parking lot; Laura was humiliated when a prank video of her was anonymously posted on YouTube and circulated online.

Faced with this taunting, enigmatic entity seeking vengeance, Blaire is obviously conflicted. She says one thing to a friend on Skype, while she contradicts herself in text messages to someone else.

Multi-tasking Blaire’s on-line cohorts include her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), yuppie Adam (Will Peltz), wisecracking Ken (Jacob Wysocki), vain Jess (Renee Olstead), and volatile Val (Courtney Halverson).

Bazelevs writer/producer Nelson Greaves and Russian director Levan Gabriadze utilize the ubiquitous WiFi and social media to develop the horror movie theme, which is tediously similar to Agatha Christie’s thriller “And Then There Were None.”

Their point is that, while we use passwords to maintain the illusion of safety in our online spaces, they’re useless when creepy hackers take over, resulting in cyberbullying.

Surprisingly, what never occurs to any of the participants is that they can simply turn their computers off and take a break from the screaming hysterics.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unfriended” is an unnerving, flashy 4, delving into internet-obsessed teens’ daily digital lives.

 

“Monkey Kingdom”

Susan Granger’s review of “Monkey Kingdom” (Disneynature)

 

This is the eighth Disneynature live-action eco-documentary – and one of the best.  Narrated by Tina Fey, it follows a toque macaque monkey in Sri Lanka on her journey up the social ladder.

Since Disney movie-makers routinely anthropomorphize animals, giving them names, the heroine is Maya. She and her simian troop live in abandoned Buddhist temple ruins, now overrun by jungle.

Poor Maya is at the bottom of the social order. Which means that – while Raja, the alpha male macaque, and a trio of his favored females can climb to the top of a fig tree and eat the ripest fruit – Maya and the other low-born must remain on the ground, foraging for scraps.

One fine day, male macaque named Kumar comes visiting. Tina Fey wryly dubs him a “hunky monkey.” Kumar is banished by Raja but not before impregnating Maya, who gives birth to a baby called Kip.

Soon afterwards, a rival band of macaques invades their Castle Rock habitat, exiling Maya’s tribe to fend for themselves as they’re forced to explore neighboring terrain, including a nearby town.

Using her ingenuity to care for her tiny son, feisty Maya finds her way into favor, particularly when Kumar returns to replace aging Raja as leader of the clan.

According to writer, co-director and producer Mark Linfield: “Maya is kind of like any female human, trying to do the best for her kid. But she’s got the weight of macaque society pressing on her as well. So she has to use her street smarts to get out of this sort of social straitjacket that she was in.”

What’s remarkable is how close Linfield’s crew could get to the primates over the 2½ years of filming, focusing on their recognizably human traits. Amplifying the effect is Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, which includes “The Monkees” TV theme song.

FYI: It’s quite family-friendly except for a few tense scenes that might briefly frighten preschoolers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Monkey Kingdom” is an engaging 8, combining education with entertainment – and proceeds from Disneynature documentaries help protect the natural world.

“The King and I”

Susan Granger’s review of “The King and I” (Lincoln Center Theater: April, 2015)

 

Director Bartlett Sher dazzles with his sumptuous revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic 1951 musical, beginning with the arrival of a massive ship, bringing British widow Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) and her young son Louis (Jake Lucas) from Singapore to Bangkok for her job as schoolteacher to the Royal children and their mothers.

When Louis expresses his fear of such a strange place, Anna reminds him to “Whistle a Happy Tune,” one that she herself will repeat when faced with the intelligent, if imperious King (Ken Watanabe).

Although their relationship is marked by a continuing cultural conflict over patriarchy and women’s rights, along with the bigger issues of slavery and freedom, feisty Anna soon becomes aware that she’s been hired as part of the King’s drive to modernize his country, as well as maintain its independence as a nation.

Based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” it’s derived from the real memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s.

As Anna, four-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara is exquisite, singing “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” in her rich, lilting soprano.  Although no one can ever fill Yul Brynner’s imposing shoes, Oscar-nominated Japanese star Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai”) embodies the proudly autocratic monarch whose English diction is slurred at times; it’s particularly garbled during his pivotal solo “A Puzzlement.”

Ashley Park and Conrad Rickamora shine as the clandestine young lovers from Burma, warbling the wistful “We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed,” while Ruthie Ann Miles scores as devoted Lady Thiang, clarifying the King’s forceful behavior to Anna in “Something Wonderful.”

“The March of the Siamese Children” reveals many adorable youngsters, each with individual quirks, along with their protective mothers. Jon Viktor Corpuz is memorable as the eldest, Prince Chulalongkorn.

This ambitious production is spectacular and sublime – from the 29-piece orchestra, led by Ted Sperling, to Michael Yeargan’s resplendent Royal Palace with its giant golden Buddha and Catherine Zuber’s colorful costumes and Donald Holder’s subtle lighting.

Act II’s play-within-a-play, a Siamese interpretation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” is flawless, recalling Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, adapted by Christopher Gattelli.

Indeed, by the time Anna and the King clasp each other tight, whirling to “Shall We Dance?” their performance is something wonderful to behold.

“Closer to the Moon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Closer to the Moon” (IFC Films)

 

In Bucharest in 1959, a disillusioned group of old friends from the WWII Jewish Resistance hijack a van delivering cash to the Romanian National Bank, staging the robbery so it looks like a movie shoot – which fascinates a young onlooker, a café waiter named Virgil (Henry Lloyd).

In time, the four men and a woman are arrested, tried in a kangaroo court and convicted. While waiting for their execution, they’re forced by the Securitate – a.k.a. Romanian secret police – to re-enact the robbery in a slyly anti-Semitic propaganda film depicting the crime.

Meanwhile – being in the right place at the right time – enables Virgil to become an eager assistant to an alcoholic Romanian film director (Allan Corduner) and, later, he’s the cameraman assigned to chronicle the re-enactment which is supervised by bumbling bureaucrats.

Exhibiting remarkable camaraderie, the intrepid Rosenthal gang, as they’re called, consists of Max (Mark Strong), the chief police inspector; Alice (Vera Farmiga), a political-science academic; Iorgu (Christian McKay), a history professor; Dumi (Tim Plester), a rocket scientist; and Razvan (Joe Armstrong), a respected journalist.

But what prompted them to steal bags of banknotes that were worthless outside of Romania? Was it a Zionist plot that failed? Was it a conspiracy to get money to send Jews to Israel? Why did they commit such a heinous crime – one they realized would inevitably lead to the death penalty?

Eventually, only Virgil will know the real answer to these questions, as flashbacks reveal a secret that the Communist authorities never discovered.

Based on a true story, the provocative, darkly comedic, absurdist drama is cleverly written and boldly directed by Nae Caranfil, who has chosen to have the cast – energetically propelled by Farmiga and Strong – speak English instead of Romanian.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Closer to the Moon” is a fascinating 7 – with glimpses of the real documentary over the closing credits.

“An American in Paris”

Susan Granger’s review of “An American in Paris” (Palace Theater, April, 2014)

 

A nostalgic romance set in 1944, right after the liberation of Paris post-W.W. II, this re-crafted, modernized version of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 Oscar-winning film is glorious, opulent – and thoroughly captivating.

Dazzling dancer Robert Fairchild of the New York City Ballet plays Jerry Mulligan, an amiable ex-G.I. who has decided to remain in Paris because he wants to be a painter. But first he befriends sardonic pianist Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz) and charming Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), who yearns to be a cabaret star, although his domineering mother (Veanne Cox) wants him to settle down, go into the family textiles business and marry Lise Dassin, an aspiring ballerina.

Director/choreographer Christopher Wheedon was wise to find a bona fide French girl to play the pivotal role of Lise. Plucked from Britain’s Royal Ballet, Leanne Cope’s waif-like Lise turns out to be the elusive woman all three of the men desire, unbeknownst to one another.

Playwright Craig Lucas has amplified Alan Jay Lerner’s wispy storyline with mumblings about the German Occupation, Nazis, Vichy, swastikas and the Resistance. Jill Paice plays Milo Davenport, a predatory American art patron who not only supports Jerry’s painting but bankrolls a ballet to be composed by Adam, designed by Jerry, starring Lise.

What’s most memorable are the music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, including classics like “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” But Not For Me,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” adapted and arranged by Rob Fisher.

Complete with elaborate staircase and plumed show girls, Max von Essen’s extravagantly staged “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” is taken almost completely from the vintage Technicolor movie which – in case you forgot – starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse and Oscar Levant.

Set and costume designer Bob Crowley creates the essential elegance that befits the indomitable City of Light – with its Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and banks of the Seine, bathed in Natasha Katz’s rippling light, and amplified by visuals from 59 Productions.

But make no mistake: “An American in Paris” is ballet-centric, not merely dance, not a series of beautiful, moving tableaux, but an exhilarating, emotional whole, melding all the artistic genres in the extended, climactic fantasy. As a brilliant, new Broadway musical, it’s is a triumph!

 

“Gigi”

Susan Granger’s review of “Gigi” (Neil Simon Theater: April, 2015)

 

Back in 1944, French novelist Colette wrote a naughty novella about a naïve Parisian teenager being groomed by her grandmother for a career as a high-class courtesan and her unexpected relationship with Gaston, the worldly, wealthy playboy who eventually marries her.

It became a 1949 French film before Anita Loos (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) adapted it for the stage, introducing gamine Audrey Hepburn in the title role. In 1958, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady”) revised it, adding music for Vincent Minnelli’s opulent screen version, starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan and Maurice Chevalier, which won nine Oscars, including Best Picture. In 1973, Lerner and Loewe attempted a stage musical, which flopped.

Now, British playwright Heidi Thomas (BBC’s “Call the Midwife”) and director Eric Schaeffer (“Follies”) have drained every drop of Gallic charm out of Lerner & Loewe’s concept, sanitizing Colette’s unsavory story and re-casting it with bland, squeaky-clean Americans who don’t even attempt a French accent.

Instead of celebrating romance in an era when women, unfortunately, had few options, Thomas and Schaeffer turn it into a negotiated, antiseptic liaison between a somewhat dimwitted, 18 year-old tomboy and a rich, diminutive suitor who is close to her own age.

As giggly Gigi, perky Disney princess Vanessa Hudgens burbles and belts with “High School Musical” effervescence, while the ultra-sophisticated boulevardier Gaston Lashille (Corey Cott from “Newsies”) has become a bumbling, science nerd, nicknamed the Sugar Prince.

Gigi’s influential grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Victoria Clark), now sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” along with her gold-digging great-aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty), while Gaston’s irascible, elderly uncle Honore (Howard McGillin) acts as the suave narrator.

There’s a touch of the old magic when Victoria Clark (“Cinderella”) and Howard McGillin (“Phantom of the Opera”) warble the wistful “I Remember It Well,” followed by Clark’s heartfelt “Say a Prayer.”

While Derek McLane’s iron-lattice art nouveau set, Natasha Katz’s lush lighting and Catherine Zuber’s gowns evoke the Bois de Boulogne and Grande Palais in 1900s Paris, Joshua Bergasse’s clunky, overly acrobatic choreography is far from anything seen in the Belle Epoque.

To say that this revival of “Gigi” on Broadway is a colossal disappointment is an understatement.