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“The River”

Susan Granger’s review of “The River” (Circle in the Square 2014-2015 season)

 

Without Hugh Jackman, Jez Butterworth’s murky new play might run in a tiny off-Broadway theater for, perhaps, two weeks. Because Jackman’s charisma is what keeps it afloat, particularly given the intimacy of Circle in the Square, where audience members have an up-close-and-personal connection.

Jackson plays an intense, unnamed Man who is obsessed with finding love and fly-fishing.  To that end, he has brought a Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his isolated cabin on the banks of a river to join him on a very special, moonless, late-summer night when the sea trout are running.  Despite his romantic entreaties, she’s peevishly reluctant, yet she agrees to accompany him, only to slip away in the dark. Enter the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), a mysterious presence from the past who complicates matters in the present.  Love – it appears – is as elusive as the silvery trout that the Man envisions.

Playwright Jez Butterworth scored big with the cryptic tragicomedy “Jerusalem” back in 2009, so this 85-minute lyrical meditation on the tenuousness of love seems trivial in comparison. And since it’s so realistically staged by director Ian Rickson, including the Man’s gutting and stuffing a fresh fish, the narrative flights of fancy – quotations from the poetry of Ted Hughes and William Butler Yeats – seem even more stilted and artificial, along with the symbolic Celtic imagery. What’s missing is a sense of mystery and, perhaps, menace – which would have made it far more compelling.

The open-sided setting designed by Ultz is interesting with lighting by designer Charles Balfour and intriguing night sounds by Ian Dickinson of the Autograph design team.

Jez Butterworth splits his time between stage and screen. This year he also wrote the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” with his brother John Henry, along with Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow.”

FYI: While ardent Jackman fans are told to shut off (not just silence) their cellphones and cameras during the performance, they’re given ample opportunity to snap away when the genial, gracious actor comes forth to do an AIDS charity pitch for Broadway Cares after the curtain calls.

“The River” will run at Circle in the Square through February 8, 2015.

“The Big Apple Circus: Metamorphosis”

Susan Granger’s review of THE BIG APPLE CIRCUS: METAMORPHOSIS – Lincoln Center (2014/15)

 

The Big Apple Circus has never been more magical than this all-new show, “Metamorphosis” – which means “possibility.” It is the power that turns the everyday into the extraordinary, like when the lowly caterpillar wondrously becomes a butterfly.

Butterflies are everywhere in this family-friendly production. There’s a big one on the jacket of ringmaster John Kennedy Kane, another on cavorting Francesco the Clown, and a swarm of illusionary butterflies projected on the tent walls, as the Circus Band plays high above the signature single ring.

First, Mongolian contortionist Odbayasakj Dorjoo gracefully folds herself into a tiny Lucite cube.  Then Jenny Vidbel frolics with playful farm animals, followed by an astonishing aerial act as Giovani Anastasini & Irene Espana spin with a whirling spaceship and their sons Guliano and Fabio are a wonderful diabolo juggling duo. And that’s just the first act.

After intermission, Jenny Vidbel returns with a Living Carousel (the exotic alpacas, loping camels and scuttling porcupine elicited the most murmurs) and clowns indulge in Musical Moments. Founded by graduates of the Moscow Circus School, the amazing Aniskin Troupe has added a trampoline act to their repertoire. Also from Russia, quick-change artists Olga and Vladimir Smirnov entertain. But the biggest thrills come once again from the fearless Aniskins with their skillful trapeze act. The entire show runs 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission – and every seat is a good seat.

Now in its 37th year, the not-for-profit Big Apple Circus provides entertainment year ‘round to thousands who are not able to get to the show. There’s Clown Care, as professional clown doctors bring laughter and joy to the bedsides of 250,000 acutely and chronically ill children in 19 leading pediatric hospitals nationally. Circus of the Senses is a unique performance for children who are vision or hearing-impaired. Circus After School gives at-risk children the opportunity to develop teamwork and commitment skills by learning and performing circus acts. And Circus For All annually distributes 50,000 free and discounted tickets to public schools and organizations serving economically disadvantaged children.

Catch the Big Apple Circus: Metamorphosis at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park through Jan. 11, 2015. Learn more at www.bigapplecircus.org.

 

Sting’s “The Last Ship” on Broadway

Susan Granger’s review of “The Last Ship” (Neil Simon Theatre – 2014/15 season)

 

Can Sting’s wistfully haunting score save this dreary, mournful musical? That’s the question.

Inspired by Sting’s childhood memories in northeast England, it’s set in Newcastle’s close-knit, seafaring Wallsend neighborhood, where young Gideon Fletcher (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) refuses to step into the well-worn boots of his father (Jamie Jackson) and become an apprentice shipbuilder.  Instead, he bids farewell to his forlorn girl-friend Meg (Dawn Cantwell) and heads off to find his fortune as a merchant seaman. The prodigal son doesn’t return until his father’s funeral – 15 years later – only to discover that the local shipyard is closing and that Meg (Rachel Tucker) not only bore him a son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet),  but has also – in the meantime – found an ardent, dependable suitor, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), who wants to settle down with her. Encouraged by the terminally-ill parish priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), who dips into the church’s building fund to finance the ambitious project, grown Gideon (Michael Esper) joins the gruffly righteous foreman, Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), and his proud workers in their defiant determination to build one last ship and launch it on the River Tyne.

Although multi-talented Sting has written excellent music and melancholy lyrics about loss and letting go, the show’s bloated narrative is bogged down by John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s tediously ponderous book, filled with cardboard characters, uttering tiresome, clichéd dialogue. Director Joe Mantello’s testosterone-propelled staging is lively and polished but there’s far too much loud foot-stomping that Stephen Hoggett passes for rugged choreography, while the unemployed workers wallow at the local pub. Production designer David Zinn’s modestly symbolic sets, consisting of metallic scaffolding, are appropriate as are his costumes.

Bottom Line: Buy the concert version.

“On the Town”

Susan Granger’s review of “On the Town” (Lyric Theatre – 2014-2015 season)

 

This rousing revival of the 1944 musical by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, gets the audience to its feet immediately – with “The Star Spangled Banner” overture.

Set during W.W.II, it follows three sailors on 24-hour leave in the Big Apple. Warbling “New York, New York” with its “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down…,” they’re searching for Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild) – a.k.a. Miss Turnstiles – a beauty contest winner who has caught the fancy of naïve Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), who spies her face on a subway poster and immediately falls in love with her. As their quest progresses, macho Ozzie (Clyde Alves) hooks up with an aggressively amorous anthropologist, Claire de Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), who picks him up at the Museum of Natural History, confessing “I Get Carried Away,” while nerdy Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) rides around with Hildy Esterhazy (Alysha Umphress), a sassy, sex-starved cabby who boasts “I Can Cook Too.” Eventually, the three couples meet up for the Coney Island finale before the guys return to the pier, board their ship and head off to sea.

Exuberantly directed by John Rando (“Urinetown”) and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (TV’s “Smash”), it’s a helluva frothy, dance-dominated show with the melancholy “Lonely Town” and memorable “Lucky to Be Me” remaining the most haunting songs.  Developed last year at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., it makes the transition to Broadway with high hopes and simplistic, candy-colored sets by Beowulf Boritt, period costumes by Jess Goldstein, and lighting by Jason Lyons.

Although whirling, twirling Megan Fairchild hails from the New York City Ballet, her dancing still cannot compare with Gene Kelly’s in the 1949 M.G.M. musical. And she can’t act.  Indeed, despite their youthful enthusiasm, the Broadway cast pales in comparison with Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett and Vera-Ellen. Back in 2006, this film version was ranked No. 19 on the American Film Institute’s list of best musicals.

“Pippin”

Susan Granger’s review of “Pippin” (Music Box Theater)

 

Cleverly shifting the casting, the flashy Broadway revival of “Pippin” ups its exhilarating razzle-dazzle with the addition of Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, the high-spirited grandmother.

Originally conceived with a book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, it’s been impudently enhanced by visionary director Diane Paulus (“Hair,” “Porgy and Bess”) with circus gymnastics and acrobatics created by Gypsy Snider, co-founder of the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers).

Choreographed by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse, this insightful, coming-of-age pop musical revolves around befuddled Prince Pippin (Kyle Dean Massey), the son and heir of medieval King Charlemagne (John Dossett). Having graduated from university, Pippin earnestly embarks on a search for meaning in his life as a lively carnival – filled with tumblers, jugglers, aerialists, contortionists and magicians – swirls around him, eventually finding true love with a widowed mother Catherine (Kristen Beth Williams) – much to the dismay of his manipulative step-mother, Fastrada (Charlotte d’Amboise), who fancies her warrior son Lewis (Mike Schwitter) on the throne.

But – before that – Pippin is led astray by the devilishly seductive Ringmaster/Leading Player (Carly Hughes); unfortunately, Hughes’ performance seems formulaic and calculated, almost robotic, in stark contrast with the rest of the exuberant case. FYI: in the original 1972 production, the Leading Player was charismatic Ben Vereen, who did a variation on the ominous role in Bob Fosse’s autobiographical “All That Jazz” (1979).

Straddling a flying trapeze, Lucie Arnaz almost stops the show with her playful, sing-along rendition of “No Time at All.” Daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, she was raised in show business. Lucie made her Broadway debut in “They’re Playing Our Song,” followed by “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune, along with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and Terrance McNally’s “Master Class.”

When Lucie Arnaz departs to resume the National Tour of “Pippin,” taking Kyle Dean Massey with her, Josh Kaufman, winner of NBC’s “The Voice,” steps in as Prince Pippin from Nov. 4 to Jan. 4, 2015.

“A Broad’s Way”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Broad’s Way” at the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport, CT

 

Sizzling Jodi Stevens rocked the roof of Bridgeport’s Bijou Theater with her one-woman show, “A Broad’s Way,” tracing her peripatetic life as a singer/actress, wife and mother.

Clad in black sequins and displaying her long, to-die-for legs, Jodi displays not only a talent for choosing the right material but also handling it with taste, singing a repertoire of pop and cabaret songs that includes familiar favorites, like “More Than You Know,” “You’d be So Nice To Come Home To,” and “That Old Devil Moon” from “Finian’s Rainbow,” to contemporary hits like Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and patter ditties like “Is This Any Way To Fall In Love?,” detailing the perils of dating in Manhattan.

Jodi’s background includes participating in the original casts of “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Urban Cowboy: The Musical,” along with playing Marlene Dietrich in the New York production of “Dietrich and Chevalier: The Musical.” She was also featured in “Annie,” “Harmony” and “Dracula: The Musical.”

Because she’s such an astute and accomplished actress, Jodi can be sexy, sultry and sensual one moment – then delicate or sweetly spicy the next.  Her versatility is astonishing – her range awesome.  Basically, Jodi Stevens owns the stage, displaying great synergy with her three-piece band.

Jodi Stevens doesn’t just sing the music – she becomes it.

“Intimate Apparel”

Susan Granger’s review of “Intimate Apparel” at the Westport Country Playhouse (2014-2015)

The Westport Country Playhouse saved the best for last. The final play of the season is Lynn Nottage’s vibrant, sensitive story about her great-grandmother, a black seamstress who lived on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1905. That’s back when women weren’t allowed to own property or vote.

At 35 years-old, Esther (Nikki E. Walker) is considered a plain, middle-aged spinster.  For the past 15 years, she’s diligently created lovely, fashionable lingerie on a sewing machine in her room at a boarding house run by Mrs. Dickson (Aleta Mitchell), who keeps urging her to come down to the parlor to meet ‘eligible’ men.  But Esther has a dream: she wants to save enough money to open a ‘beauty parlor’ for black women.  One day, Esther’s humdrum life is turned upside when she receives a letter from George Armstrong (Isiah Johnson), a Panama Canal laborer from Barbados. A co-worker told him about Esther, and he begs to correspond with her.  Problem is: Esther can neither read nor write. So she turns to a sympathetic client, Mrs. Van Buren (Leighton Bryan), a boozing, bourgeois socialite on Fifth Avenue, to compose an answer. As the letter-writing becomes feverish, Esther also enlists the help of her friend Mayme (Heather Alicia Simms), a black prostitute. Meanwhile, Esther develops a courteously friendly relationship with gentle Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider), an Orthodox Jewish fabric salesman in the Garment District. They’re obviously attracted to one another but race and religion keep them in separate worlds; all they can do together is marvel over fine fabrics. When opportunistic George eventually arrives in the United States and marries virginal Esther, her problems become even more complicated and heartbreak looms.

With deft artistry Lynn Nottage, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama and whose play Ruined won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and director Mary B. Robinson create an acute awareness of the dismissive anonymity of African-Americans during that era.  Eschewing sentimentality, they also draw a timely parallel with the perils of contemporary, on-line dating. While the acting ensemble is superb, much credit must also go to Michael Krass, whose choice of costumes speaks as eloquently as the dialogue.

“Intimate Apparel” runs through Nov. 1 at the Westport Country Playhouse.

“You Can’t Take It With You”

Susan Granger’s review of “You Can’t Take It With You” (Longacre Theatre)

 

If you’re looking for laughter, this is the ticket for you.  Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, this classic comedy won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Frank Capra turned the screwball mayhem into a movie and it’s enjoyed many stage revivals – but few as good as this slyly zany gem with an ensemble of 19 superbly-cast actors, directed by Scott Ellis.

Set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in June, 1936, this giddy romp revolves around the extended family that dwells in spacious Vanderhof house on Claremont Avenue. Entrancing Rose Byrne makes her Broadway debut as sensible yet spunky Alice Sycamore, who must introduce her straitlaced Wall Street beau, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), and his prim, patrician parents (Byron Jennings, Johanna Day) to her eccentric clan. Ruling the roost is Grandfather Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), a perennial tax-dodger who quit work 35 years ago to enjoy life to its fullest.  Her parents, Penelope and Paul Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen, Mark Linn-Baker), relentlessly pursue their own frivolous hobbies, as do her dancer sister Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) and musician brother-in-law (Will Brill). There’s also the levelheaded cook Rheba (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her handyman boy-friend Donald (Marc Damon Johnson). Self-involved individualists, they’re, nevertheless, loving and strangely harmonious. Visitors are always welcome, like inventive Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), ballet teacher Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers), alcoholic actress Gay Wellington (Julie Halston) and Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Elizabeth Ashley), who has been reduced to waitressing at Child’s in Times Square.

The charming chaos generated by this nostalgic culture clash is guaranteed to amuse, along with occasional fireworks and the onslaught of determined G-Men.  David Rockwell’s splendid, two-story, turn-of-the-century set is crammed with treasures, like the photograph of George S. Kaufman hanging over the kitchen door and Moss Hart’s on the upstairs wall; a snapshot of the original cast is on the desk. Jane Greenwood’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting design, Jon Weston’s sound and Jason Robert Brown’s music add to the delight.

An escapist tonic during the Great Depression, “You Can’t Take It With You” is still relevant today.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (Barrymore Theatre)

 

This British import is the most exciting, innovative theater to arrive on Broadway on a long, long time. Life-affirming, it not only touches the heart and but also provokes the mind, a rare combination.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s 2003 best-seller of the same name, it revolves around Christopher Boone (Alex Sharp), an inquisitive 15 year-old boy who discovers the corpse of Wellington, a neighbor’s dog, with a pitchfork stuck into it. Clearly on the autistic spectrum but highly gifted in math, logic and ethics, Christopher sets out to investigate whodunit, even though his father warns him not to stick his nose into other people’s business. His persistent inquiries get him into trouble with the police and lead him on a scary, bewildering trip from suburbia into metropolitan London.

Structured in a series of monologues, it’s propelled by Alex Sharp’s sympathetic and extraordinarily energetic performance. He is on-stage the entire time; a 25 year-old recent Julliard graduate, Sharp makes a brilliant Broadway debut. Supporting him are Francesca Faridany, as his helpful special needs teacher; Ian Barford, as his father; and Enid Graham, as his mother.

With dazzling technical expertise, director Marianne Elliott (“War Horse”) taps into the essence of minimalism to stimulate the imagination, along with a dazzling array of lighting, scenic, music and projection designers and choreographers. The stage is surrounded by walls of black squares divided by white lines into boxes, like vaults in cemetery mausoleum. Within them, doors suddenly appear, along with drawers containing props.  Strobe lights flicker and, at one point, confetti falls from the ceiling. Inventive and meticulously detailed, at times it feels like sensory overload – which is exactly what goes on inside Christopher’s brain. It’s emotionally enveloping and quite spectacular.

And FYI: the title comes from a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Steve Solomon’s one-man show at Foxwoods

Susan Granger’s review of Steve Solomon’s show and evening at Foxwoods Resort & Casino

 

Forget about driving to Atlantic City or flying to Las Vegas, Foxwoods delivers it all – right here in Connecticut.  Conveniently located off I-95, the Northeast’s largest resort casino offers not only superb accommodations and excellent dining but also top-notch entertainment.

Like Steve Solomon’s “My Mother’s Jewish, My Father’s Italian and I am in Therapy” – in which comedian Solomon regales the audience for 90 minutes with hilarious ethnic stories about his fractured family while he’s ostensibly waiting in his therapist’s office. At the end of WWII, his Jewish GI father brought home an Italian war bride, but the two families never got over the culturally mixed-marriage. This one-man show ran for two years in New York, which is not surprising since he riffs on his Brooklyn roots and life as a physics teacher on Long Island. Now, Solomon’s touring the United States. Clad informally in a blazer, he artfully involves spectators as he jokes about his increasingly deaf parents, his chain-smoking sister and terminally stupid cousin, while doing vocal imitations of each of these characters, as well as sound effects.  His receptive audience convulses with laughter.

But before heading to see whoever’s headlining at the Fox Theater, be sure to schedule a sumptuous dinner at Cedars Steak House, where Mark can regale you with his up-close-and-personal Sinatra stories while Shawn supervises the impeccable staff. Entrees include delicious double-cut Colorado lamb chops with fresh herb demi-glace (which we had), an array of seafood, including Maine lobsters, along with steaks and prime rib. Cedars is the perfect place for a family gathering or to celebrate a special occasion.

If you’re staying at the impressive Grand Pequot Tower, your car will be whisked away to free valet parking while you’re greeted by a friendly front desk attendant. The reasonably priced rooms and bathrooms are spacious and scrupulously clean, offering a breath-taking panorama of the surrounding forest.  You have free access to a well-equipped gym and pool, and you can choose from an array of luxurious spa treatments.  The Foxwoods Rewards Card enables you to earn points while playing your favorite slot machine and table game, including Bingo, Keno, Poker or Race Book. The only downside is the smoke-filled air. While we slept comfortably on a non-smoking floor, Foxwoods’ many gaming casinos reek with cigarette smoke, including the so-called smoke-free Rainmaker casino, which is only open on weekends.

Foxwoods is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, a native Algonquin people known for their tenacity and spirit of survival in southeastern Connecticut.