Susan Granger’s review of “I’ll Eat You Last” (Booth Theater – 2012-2013 season)
To understand John Logan’s hilarious comedy, you’ve got to know that Sue Mengers was the first female “superagent” at a time when women talent agents were almost unheard of. At the height of her career in the 1970s, she represented Hollywood’s hottest stars, like Barbra Streisand, Ali MacGraw, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Cher, Joan Collins, Nick Nolte and Burt Reynolds – until the big agencies, like CAA, eventually devoured celebrity representation.
The message on the opening curtain warns: “This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use – and gossip.”
Deception and deceit was a way of life in the shamelessly competitive jungle of studio politics, along with the inevitable feuding and fighting. While Bette Midler’s performance is deliriously decadent for a full 90 minutes with no intermission, most of her anecdotes and quips are familiar dish to those who’ve read star-struck ‘Vanity Fair’ over the years, particularly the December, 2011 issue. Indeed, that magazine’s editor Graydon Carter is listed as one of the show’s lead producers.
Nevertheless, Bette Midler is marvelous. She’s lowered her speaking voice to Mengers’ level and replicated her mocking tone, as Joe Mantello’s minimal staging has her writhing around on a 10-foot couch, enlisting an audience member to fetch a drink or a joint, murmuring, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit by me…”
Scott Pask has adroitly recreated Mengers’ John Woolf-designed Beverly Hills home, circa 1981, with its tall Regency doors and spacious, white orchid-adorned living room, filled with comfortably contemporary furniture and a couple of palm trees, the windows overlooking an unused, egg-shaped swimming pool – bathed in Hugh Vanstone’s soft lighting – as costumer Ann Roth duplicates the kind of comfortable caftan that Mengers favored.
For those who relish Hollywood lore, “I’ll Eat You Last” is delicious. But Bette Midler’s only committed to a limited run, so get your tickets now.
Susan Granger’s review of “The Dining Room” (Westport Country Playhouse/May ,2013)
Playwright A.R. Gurney’s cultural observational comedy is an affectionate, yet acerbic, homage to the place that this privileged and important room – filled with its own rituals and decorum – has had in the homes of many generations of New England WASPs.
In this revival, under the witty, warm and wise direction of Mark Lamos, six actors – Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henry Coffey, Keira Naughton (James’ daughter), Jake Robards (Jason’s son), Charles Socarides and Jennifer Van Dyck – play a more than 50 roles, ranging from the very old to the very young. Moving on and off Michael Yeargan’s subtly elegant set, marked by a long, formal wooden table with its six matching chairs in the pale blue hues of Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design, the characters tell their often-poignant stories – beginning with a real estate agent and her client.
There’s the father dawdling over his morning coffee, ignoring his son’s plea to drive him to school. An elderly woman with Alzheimer’s is unable to remember her children. A wife plops a typewriter on the table to work on her master’s degree thesis. Adulterous parents flirt during a child’s birthday party. Teenagers raid the liquor cabinet. A domestic servant is determined to quit. An adult daughter returns home, hoping to rebuild her life and a dutiful grandson asks for money for college. And so it goes until, finally, an architect, haunted by bitter childhood memories, tries to convince a psychiatrist to turn the family dining room into his office.
Gradually, it becomes obvious that, as the more casual eating habits of the younger generation conflict with those of their parents, the concept of even having a specific room devoted to dining is slowly inching toward obsolescence.
What an auspicious way to begin the summer season! Running 90 minutes with no intermission, this irresistibly involving and profoundly touching production of “The Dining Room” will be at the Westport Country Playhouse thru May 19. For tickets/information, call 203-227-4177. Don’t miss it!
Susan Granger’s review of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (Golden Theater – 2012/2013)
If you’re looking for laughter, you’ll definitely find it at Christopher Durang’s blithely hilarious Chekhovian riff. Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen play unhappy siblings Masha, Vanya and Sonia, spending time at their ancestral home in bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Lonely spinster Sonia (Nielsen) and her sad-sack gay brother Vanya (Pierce) have devoted their lives to caring for their now-deceased professor parents on the family estate, living on funds supplied by their glamorous, globe-trotting movie star sister Masha (Weaver). Sonia, in particular, despairs that life has passed her by since she was adopted and has never felt as privileged as her siblings. Their gloomy ennui is relieved only by the dire premonitions voiced by their high-strung housekeeper, Cassandra (Shalita Grant): “Beware of Hootie-Pie!”
Arriving somewhat unexpectedly, narcissistic Masha (Weaver) is obviously undergoing her own midlife crisis, accompanied by her hunky aspiring actor/boy-toy, Spike (Billy Magnussen), who has problems keeping his clothes on, particularly when their doe-eyed, naïvely demure neighbor, Nina (Genevieve Angelson), appears.
Wryly written by Christopher Durang (“Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”) and adroitly directed by Nicholas Martin, this whimsically contemporary, satirical and often surreal comedy-of-manners first opened Off-Broadway last fall at Lincoln Center. Durang explores themes of longing and loss, as he mixes-and-matches storylines from four different plays by Anton Chekhov (“The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters,” “The Seagull”), along with Aeschylus’ “The Oresteia” and wacky allusions to Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” And the title suggests Paul Mazursky’s 1969 social commentary “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
Each actor/actress has some memorable moments, the two most notable being Kristine Nielsen’s poignantly channeling Maggie Smith from the movie “California Suite,” and David Hyde Pierce’s impassioned second-act soliloquy, in which he yearns for the simpler culture in which we were raised, railing against the change brought about by technology and expresses anxiety about the future.
Production designer David Korins’ picturesque stone farmhouse set, drenched in Justin Townsend’s lighting, delightfully adapts Chekhov’s beloved Russian dacha into contemporary architecture. And Emily Rebholz’s costumes are perfection. Get tickets NOW because it’s a limited run through June 30.
Susan Granger’s review of “Matilda the Musical” (Shubert Theater – 2012-2013 season)
Inspired by the late Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel and nurtured by Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, “Matilda” is destined to follow “Annie” as Broadway’s favorite family entertainment choice.
Solemn ‘n’ spunky, five year-old genius Matilda Wormwood (Milly Shapiro) lives a bleak, hard-knocks life as the unwanted daughter of a dancing-obsessed mother (Lesli Margherita) and con-man father (Gabriel Ebert). Her verbally abusive parents disapprove of her nasty habit of reading books and, worse yet, thinking. Until she’s old enough to go to school, Matilda’s only refuge is the library, where she’s encouraged to tell fanciful tales to a rapt librarian (Karen Aldridge). When she turns six, Matilda’s sent to Crunchem Hall, ruled by a cruel, nasty headmistress, Dickensian Miss Agatha Trunchbull (cross-dressing Bertie Carvel). Then she’s befriended by a kindly teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), whose life seems to have sprung out of one of Matilda’s on-going stories. As she’s struggling along with other ‘revolting’ students in a subversive battle of wits, Matilda suddenly discovers that she has telekinetic powers!
Matilda’s sophisticated signature song, “Naughty,” comes early, as she muses why ill-fated characters like Jack & Jill and Romeo & Juliet have allowed themselves to become victims, questioning: ” I wonder why they didn’t just change their story?”
Adroitly directed by Matthew Warchus (“God of Carnage,” “Ghost”) from a book by Dennis Kelly with quirky, audacious songs by Australian comedian/singer Tim Minchin, it’s cleverly designed and costumed by Rob Howell and lit by Hugh Vanstone – with illusions by Paul Kieve (“Ghost”). Scrabble letters abound, along with books and blocks, all utilized as part of Peter Darling’s inventive choreography. Four youngsters rotate in the role of Matilda, including Milly Shapiro (whom I saw), Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence and Bailey Ryon – just as three boys played the role of “Billy Elliot.”
Those familiar with Matilda’s edgy, somewhat dark fantasy are obviously enchanted, but newcomers may struggle a bit to decipher the lyrics, sung at top volume with shrill English accents. But that’s a minor quibble, amidst the awesome eye-candy, including trampoline acrobatics, laser beams and canons filled with confetti.
Susan Granger’s review of “Kinky Boots” (Al Hirschfeld Theater – 2012-2013 season)
If you’ve been wondering where all those fun-lovin’, high-steppin’, drop-dead gorgeous drag-queens from “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” and “La Cage Aux Folles” have gone, Cyndi Lauper’s got ‘em.
Based on a campy, fact-based 2005 British comedy, Harvey Fierstein wrote the story of how Charlie Price (Stark Sands) inherits his family’s failing shoe factory in Northampton and realizes he must come up with a new niche market. After a fateful encounter with strong ‘n’ sassy Lola (Billy Porter), a London drag-queen, he decides to focus on flashy, thigh-high, stiletto-heeled footwear – for cross-dressing men. Or, as diva Lola puts it: “You’re going to have to start manufacturing sex: two-and-a-half feet of irresistible tubular sex…in bright red!”
Their goal is to dazzle buyers at the upcoming international shoe expo in Milan, but the road there is filled with dangerous detours en route to self-esteem. Not only is one of the provincial factory workers homophobic, bullying Lola, but Charlie’s status-seeking fiancée Nicola (Celina Carvajal) wants him to convert the industrial site into condominiums. Then there’s Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford), one of Charlie’s employees, who’s had a crush on him for years, despite a “History of Wrong Guys.”
Sure, the father/son plot’s formulaic and predictable but director Jerry Mitchell is a terrific choreographer, and composer/lyricist Cyndi Lauper’s quirky score gives him lots of propulsive show tunes to work with. Memorable numbers include “The Most Beautiful Thing (In the World is a Shoe),” “The Land of Lola,” “Raise You Up/Just be,” “Soul of a Man,” “Sex Is in the Heel” and “Everybody Say Yeah” – while cheeky costumer Gregg Barnes, hair/wig expert Josh Marquette and make-up artist Randy Houston Mercer work overtime with the stunning sparkles and sequins.
While audience members can buy a T-shirt, the dazzling boots are not for sale. Costing approx. $2,500 a pair, they’re designed by cobblers T.O. Dey, Phil LaDuca and Manolo Blahnik and made in Puglia, Italy.
If you’re looking for flashy, flamboyant fun, “Kinky Boots” is a blast.
Susan Granger’s review of “Lucky Guy” (Broadhurst Theater, 2012-1013 season)
Beloved author Nora Ephron was right when she ruefully noted that there would be no “Lucky Guy” without two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, making his Broadway debut. Sporting a gray-flecked moustache, Hanks’ portrayal of problematic journalist Mike McAlary is the heart and soul of her prickly eulogy for the frantic, insular, testosterone-propelled New York tabloid newspaper business of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Ephron was working with Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe right up to the time of her death last year. Like Woody Allen, who framed “Broadway Danny Rose” with talent agents swapping stories at the Carnegie Deli, Ephron gathers McAlary’s inebriated cronies singing “The Wild Irish Rover” at a local pub, starting in 1985. As his longtime editor/friend Hap Hairston (Courtney B. Vance) tells it, ambitious McAlary was in the right place at the right time, beginning as an outer-borough reporter at Newsday and then bouncing between the Daily News and the Post. Cleverly cunning and cocky, he was a natural muckraker, wheeling and dealing crime and police corruption scandals with the help of lawyer Eddie Hayes (Christopher McDonald) and the forbearance of his long-suffering wife Alice (Maura Tierney). Then, after botching a Brooklyn rape story, recovering from a near-fatal car crash and while undergoing chemotherapy for advanced colon cancer, McAlary got the scoop of his life – the sadistic sodomizing of Haitian émigré Abner Louima (Stephen Tyrone Williams) by NYPD officers – for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, just before his death at age 41.
Problem is: arrogant, attention-hungry Mike McAlary was not a likeable human being, and only a consummate actor like Tom Hanks could infuse his complex, often ambiguous character with the innate decency and charming likeability necessary to ingratiate himself to the audience. And, whenever Ephron’s episodic, unconventional, anecdotal narrative wavers, Wolfe’s taut staging and savvy use of newsreel projections bring it back into focus – with credit also going to his technical production team and stalwart support from McAlary’s boozing, foul-mouthed colleagues played by Peter Gerety and Peter Scolari (Hanks’ “Bosom Buddies” co-star).
Since Tom Hanks has agreed only to a Limited Engagement, consider yourself ‘lucky’ if you can snag a ticket to this often hilarious yet heart-breaking play.
Susan Granger’s review of “Hands on a Hardbody” (Brooks Atkinson Theater 2013 season)
A grueling promotional endurance contest at an automobile dealership seems like an unconventional concept for a Broadway musical – but, surprisingly enough, it works!
Ten poverty-stricken Texans are ready to stand under the scorching sun and lonely night chill – keeping at least one hand on a new, red Nissan truck – in order to win it and drive away with the American Dream. With periodic food and bathroom breaks, but no leaning and no kneeling – the contest lasts more than three days. That gives plenty of time for each likeable competitor to step forth and tell his or her story, revealing their pressing problems and fervent dreams. Much like “A Chorus Line,” they’re united by their desperate determination to persevere and win the coveted prize.
The dealership’s adulterous general manager (Jim Newman) offers to help a sexy, blonde (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) win in exchange for sexual favors, much to the dismay of his perpetually perky co-worker/contest director (Connie Ray).
Among the six men and four women, Hunter Foster is outstanding as a cocky previous winner, as is Keala Settle as a Bible-thumping, gospel-warbling housewife and Keith Carradine as an aging construction worker recovering from a crippling leg injury. Two young people (Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson) discover romance, plus there’s a Marine (David Larsen) suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a genial Black man (Jacob Ming-Trent) and an ambitious Mexican-American (Jon Rua) who wants to become a veterinarian.
Based on a 1997 documentary about a similar group of poor people in Longview, Texas, competing to win a Nissan Frontier truck, the book is by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”), lyrics by Amanda Green (“Bring It On: The Musical”) and music by Fort Worth-born/New Jersey-raised Trey Anastasio, best known as the front man for the group Phish, and Amanda Green Adroitly directed by Neil Pepe (“Speed-The-Plow”), the musical staging is credited to Sergio Trujillo (“Memphis,” “Jersey Boys”).
A spirited mood of frivolity is prevalent, unlike the far darker 1969 film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” about Depression-era dance marathons, as everyone seems to be rewarded with redemption.
Susan Granger’s review of “Ann” (Vivian Beaumont Theater/Lincoln Center 2013 season)
What began as my review of writer/actress Holland Taylor’s “Ann” at Lincoln Center has become an unadulterated fan letter:
Dear Ms. Taylor,
A one-person show is, to me, the purest form of theatricality. As writer, you have inventively – and affectionately – captured the essence of Ann Richards, the brassy, outspoken one-term Governor of Texas, who has emerged as one of the most colorful and provocative contemporary political figures.
Directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, your play opens at a Commencement address, as indomitable Ann, who served from 1991 to 1995, has recently been defeated at the polls by George W. Bush.
“I’ll bet some of you probably remember me just ‘cause of my air,” Ann says, tartly observing, “I notice most of you guys who tease me about my hair don’t have any.”
As Ann addresses the graduates, she recalls her Depression-era childhood, adored by her father and chafing under her domineering mother. Married at 19, she ran for county commissioner and then so electrified delegates at the 1988 Democratic National Convention with her keynote address that she was catapulted into the Texas Governor’s office. Advocating for a greater role for women in politics, she said, “…if you give us a chance we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did; she just did it backwards and in high heels.”
As a divorced mother of four and recovering alcoholic, Ann ran herd on her often recalcitrant children with the same crisp, if comical and often salty efficiency that she worked the telephones, convincing politicians to actively combat their racial/ethnic prejudice and do the right thing.
Dressed in a white suit with a diamond Lone Star brooch and carefully coiffed gray wig, as an actress, you boldly embody the essence of Ann’s witty, feisty image, and your plain-talking Texas twang is rhythmically perfect. Broadway has missed you in the past three decades, while you’ve been entrancing and amusing television audiences in “Two and a Half Men,” “The Practice” and “Bosom Buddies.”
Welcome home, Ms. Taylor, you’re back on center-stage where you belong.
With awe and admiration,
Susan Granger’s review of “Totem” (Cirque du Soliel – 2013)
Canada’s Cirque du Soliel has set up its trademark blue-and-yellow tents, celebrating the sensuality of spring, at Citi Field (Lot C), where its spectacular new production will dazzle audiences through May 12, 2013.
Conceived and staged by theater/opera director Robert Lepage, “Totem” traces the fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. Inspired by an international variety of myths illustrates, though a visual and gymnastic language, the evolutionary progress of mankind. The show begins as a sparkling Crystal Man descends from above, as an unfolding disco ball, launching various creatures on their journey as they venture out into the primordial ooze from the skeleton of a giant turtle, the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations.
Seamlessly transitioning from science to mythology, 11 acrobatic acts perform in an ever-changing environment. Through the magic of virtual images from various parts of the world, the tilting set becomes a swamp, a river, a marsh, a lake, an ocean, a volcanic island, a pond and a starry sky. It’s an ingenious, aquatic concept, combining the titular totems, Darwin’s theories, Gnosticism and other creation stories, augmented by lively music – incorporating various percussion instruments, flutes and a didgeridoo – along with dazzling, eye-catching, exotic costumes.
Highlights of the awesome 2½ hour show include five young women pedaling unicycles who toss-and-catch silver bowls perched on their heads, a captivating trapeze seduction, intrepid balance-beam artists, high-flying acrobatics and death-defying spins on roller skates.
There’s a thematic connection with the circle of life, utilizing symbolic hoops and rings. As always, the somewhat amusing clowns, often venturing into the audience and teasing various patrons, punctuate the production, including an Italian ‘tourist’ and a ‘scientist’ who whirls illuminated ‘atoms’ inside a giant glass container.
“Totem” is an astonishing extravaganza of acrobatic anthropology – perfect for family, friends and foreign visitors, since knowledge of the English language is completely unnecessary.
For the complete New York schedule and ticket information, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem.
Susan Granger’s review of “Scandalous” (Neil Simon Theater, 2012-2013 season)
Howard Dietz once wrote, “Sing a lament for the plays that fail – a dirge for the shows that fold – a tear on the bier of the flops of the year and the tickets that couldn’t be sold.”
Nobody sets out to write a flop. Perennially perky Kathie Lee Gifford from NBC’s “Today” show spent 12 years working on the book and lyrics, calling it “a labor of love.” But what emerges is disappointing.
Aimee Semple McPherson was a fascinating character. Born and raised on a farm in Ontario, Canada, and seduced into faith healing by an Irish-born Pentacostal preacher, she traveled to China, where he died and she gave birth to her first child. Another failed marriage to an accountant named McPherson followed, along with another child, as ambitious Aimee took her traveling tent-pulpit to Hollywood, where she got herself into all sorts of scrapes with the law. That was back in the 1930s, when she launched a media-savvy generation of impassioned faith healers. Aimee Semple McPherson was the second woman ever to be granted a broadcast license, broadcasting her weekly sermons at Angelus Temple, where she staffed a soup kitchen and medical clinic during the Great Depression.
What frames the story is a controversial incident when Sister Aimee vanished for six weeks. Was she kidnapped? Or did she simply escape with one of her lovers? Gifford offers no explanation, although she’s a member of the Foursquare Church which Aimee founded.
Indeed, there’s little that’s either fun or compelling in Gifford’s formulaic, musical comedy rendition of Sister Aimee’s travails. Which is a shame since Aimee is played terrific actress/singer Carolee Carmello, who deserves a far better showcase than this. She gamely belts functional inspirational songs by David Pomeranz and David Friedman but – as directed by David Armstrong – it all amounts to a great deal less than a sum of its parts, never utilizing the talents of George Hearn and resorting to sheer camp with its splashy, silly, second-act Biblical pageants.
Audiences that pay Broadway prices deserve better than this