Categories

“Finding Neverland”

Susan Granger’s review of “Finding Neverland” (Lunt-Fontanne Theater: 2014-15 season)

 

While theatrical politics often propel Broadway’s Awards season, Peter Pan can crow because “Finding Neverland” sprinkles its own fairy dust, becoming one of the season’s most fanciful musicals.

With music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy and book by James Graham (based on the movie and Allan Knee’s “The Man Who Was Peter Pan”), it’s the somewhat idealized but, nevertheless, engrossing story of how playwright James M. Barrie came to write his beloved masterpiece, “Peter Pan.”

In 1904, London, Barrie (Matthew Morrison) is coping with an overbearing American producer, Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer), who’s demanding a new drawing-room comedy. Frustrated and bereft of ideas, Barrie goes to the park, where he’s intrigued by four mischievous lads playing games. That inspires him to jot down ideas about a mythical place called Neverland, where boys never grow up.

Much to the dismay of his social-climbing wife (Teal Wicks), Barrie becomes enamored of the lads’ ailing, widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly), although their relationship remains properly chaste, despite the suspicions of her strait-laced mother, Mrs. DuMaurier (Carolee Carmello).

Artfully directed by Diane Paulus (“Pippin,” “Hair”) and athletically choreographed by Mia Michaels, it’s enchanting – with much credit going to Scott Pask’s set, Jon Driscoll’s projections, Kenneth Posner’s imaginative lighting, Paul Kieve’s illusions, Suttriat Anne Larlab’s costumes, Richard Mawbey’s hair/makeup and Daniel Wurtzel’s “air sculpting” with flying effects by ZFX, Inc.

Playing Barrie marks Matthew Morrison’s first return to Broadway since 2008’s “South Pacific”; for the past six seasons, he’s been starring as Will Schuester on TV’s “Glee” – and Kelsey Grammer was last seen on-stage in the revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” The roles of the children – Peter, George, Jack and Michael – are shared by multiple talented kids.

FYI: J.M. Barrie gave all the “Peter Pan” rights to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1929, which was confirmed when he died in 1937. Since then, the hospital has received royalties every time the play is performed, as well as from the sale of Peter Pan books and other merchandise. Barrie requested that the amount should never be revealed – and the hospital has honored his wishes.

The original Broadway cast recording of “Finding Neverland” will be available on June 23.

“The Liar”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Liar” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

If you’re yearning for a witty, sophisticated comedy, see “The Liar” at the Westport Country Playhouse.

David Ives’ contemporary adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th century romantic romp about a compulsive liar is filled with mischievous sparkle.

Set in Paris in 1643, it revolves around Dorante (Aaron Krohn), a charming cad who arrives in the Tuileries Garden, where he meets Cliton (Rusty Ross), a manservant who cannot tell a lie. While audaciously spinning tales of his military adventures, Dorante falls in love with vivacious Clarice (Kate MacCluggage), not realizing she’s secretly engaged to his pugnacious friend, Alcippe (Philippe Bowgen).  Although Clarice’s more reserved friend Lucrece (Monique Barbee) is aware of Dorante’s glib duplicity, she’s intrigued by him and would make a far better match.

Adding to the fanciful, farcical fun, there’s Dorante’s gullible father (Brian Reddy) and Cliton’s befuddlement with identical twin maids (Rebekah Brockman): one saucy, the other strait-laced.

Commissioned by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where it was originally staged in 2010, it’s meticulously composed in rhyming verse – iambic pentameter – by David Ives (“Venus in Fur”) and propelled by Penny Metropulos’ adroit direction.

In the demanding leading role, Aaron Krohn exhibits dazzling linguistic panache, delving into every nuance of David Ives’ imaginative puns and silly jokes in fluid couplets. Indeed, every member of the cast delivers crystal-clear vowels and crisp consonants.

Kristen Robinson’s superb set, consisting of four stylized trees, is minimalistic, in contrast with costumer Jessica Ford’s frilly gowns and satin trousers, illuminated by lighting designer Matthew Richards.

Fittingly, the play concludes with, “How liars are punished by their own lies!/Was not the moral of this exercise. But rather how, amidst life’s contradictions,/Our lives can out-fick the finest fictions.”

You can catch “The Liar” at the Westport Country Playhouse through May 23. For tickets and information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

 

“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.

 

“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.

“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.

“Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two”

Susan Granger’s review of “Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two” (Winter Garden Theater: April, 2015)

The Royal Shakespeare Company never disappoints! Their new production, exploring the ramifications of the Tudor dynasty, as perceived by Thomas Cromwell, is majestic and magnificent.

Based on Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, the story not only inspired Mike Poulton’s dramatic stage adaptation but also became a six-part BBC/PBS miniseries. The primary difference between the two interpretations is humor; the chronological stage condensation has it, while the meandering, overblown television version doesn’t.

Part One introduces the British court of King Henry VIII. Restless after enduring a 20-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers), which produced only a frail daughter, Princess Mary, and not the required son-and-heir, the volatile King (Nathaniel Parker) has become enamored with shrill, shrewishly clever Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard).

Seeking Royal favor, Boleyn’s family encourages the nuptials, except Anne’s jealous older sister, Mary (Olivia Darnley), the King’s ex-mistress. But that will require a Papal annulment, and Queen Katherine steadfastly refuses to retire quietly to a convent. Her stance is supported not only by her Royal Family in Spain but also her powerful nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Orchestrating the transition is the King’s advisor: ambitious, morally ambiguous Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), a lowly blacksmith’s son whose skill at emotional manipulation is unparalleled – particularly after an unsuccessful intervention by Cromwell’s mentor – wittily irreverent Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) – that cost him his position as Lord Chancellor and, ultimately, his life.

With the help of Thomas Cranmer (Giles Taylor), who would become Archbishop of Canterbury, Cromwell convinced Parliament to make the King the head of an autonomous Church of England, thus allowing him to annul his own marriage.

Part Two features much more juicy Court intrigue, culminating in the execution of Anne Boleyn – after the birth of her daughter Elizabeth and several stillborn sons – to make way for the impetuous King’s subsequent wedding to Lady Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead), a solemn ceremony attended by ghosts.

Director Jeremy Herrin adroitly juxtaposes historical accuracy and pure pageantry with revealing moments of emotional intimacy; the exuberance of his staging is relentlessly compelling.

Christopher Oram’s austere stylized set allows for flexibility, which Paule Constable and David Plater bathe in varying lights.  While Oram’s period costumes are extravagantly authentic, Nick Powell’s sound design makes some of the dialogue inaudible.

One final note: although many theatergoers view both parts on the same day, it’s exhausting to sit – alert and observant – for just under six hours. Given the choice, viewing the segments on separate days might be better.

“Skylight”

Susan Granger’s review of ‘Skylight” (Golden Theater on Broadway: April, 2015)

 

Incandescent performances by Carey Mulligan and Bill NIghy are the hallmarks of Stephen Daldry’s revival of David Hare’s 1995 drama, which delves into the consequences of class, privilege and socio-economic injustice.

On a snowy night in the mid-1990s in the Northwest London, schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Mulligan) arrives back at her small, shabby, cold-water flat, carrying piles of homework to correct, along with bags of groceries to make dinner.

Her first unexpected visitor is anguished, awkwardly immature, 18 year-old Edward Sergeant (Matthew Beard), whose mother died of cancer last year and whose relationship with his father has deteriorated in the interim. It quickly becomes apparent that Kyra had lived as a part of their household for several years.

After Edward leaves, his well-dressed, extravagantly successful restaurateur father, Tom (Nighy) suddenly appears. Refusing to remove his cashmere topcoat, he paces around the dingy premises like a caged animal, repeatedly moving a chair with his foot. Tom’s arrogant sense of entitlement is immediately obvious.

As Kyra assembles ingredients for a modest spaghetti dinner, their conversation reveals their once-clandestine May-December affair which was – after six years – discovered by Tom’s wife. Now a widower, Tom is trying to reconcile and revive their relationship, while idealistic and/or masochistic Kyra seems to have found emotional fulfillment teaching underprivileged children.

Director Stephen Daldry (“The Audience,” “Billy Elliot”) cleverly juxtaposes Nighy’s narcissistic ranting and restlessly twitchy physicality with Mulligan’s calm stillness and righteous, carefully measured introspection. The contrast of anger and affection becomes riveting theater, augmented by Beard’s perceptive poignancy.

Arriving on Broadway intact from London, the production features the intoxicating aroma of garlic, onions, chili and meat, as a pot of Bolognese sauce simmers on the stove. Bob Crowley’s dreary set evokes the squalid authenticity of living in the city’s slums, while Natasha Katz’s lighting turns early evening into frosty night and then into the hope of breaking dawn.

On a limited engagement, “Skylight” is at the Golden Theater on Broadway only through June 14.