Susan Granger’s review of “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart” (Quick Center/Fairfield Univ.)
As Thanksgiving approaches, my gratitude goes to Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts for the opportunity not only to appreciate the arts but also to see unique theatrical performances like this close to home.
Conceived, written and consummately performed by John Lithgow, “Stories by Heart” is an evening of storytelling, consisting of personal reminiscences, a poem and two classic short stories from a well-worn anthology. As Lithgow recalls, they were read to his father Arthur and his siblings by his grandmother in their Massachusetts home. Arthur Lithgow was a regional stage actor/director/producer who passed on the storytelling tradition to his children. So when Arthur was in his 80s, recovering from serious surgery, John reversed roles, reading to his ailing parents before they went to bed each night.
Incredibly charming and versatile as an actor, John Lithgow assumes multiple roles, including a parrot, during P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a yarn about a timid, young Londoner who accompanies his eccentric uncle on whimsical journey into the English countryside. There’s an
intermission – then Lithgow begins Act II with a bizarrely rhyming folk ballad, “Eggs and Marrow Bones,” about adultery and murder, which leads into a full-length recitation of Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” in which he embodies a gossiping, small-town Midwestern barber, giving a shave and trim to an unseen customer. It’s a dark monologue that reflects turn-of-the-20th century Americana, a twisting tale that involves a beautiful woman, a doctor and a mentally challenged young man.
Best known as an Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor, John Lithgow’s heart is in literature, specifically, storytelling. His plummy, resonant voice lends itself to a variety of audacious impersonations and transformative characterizations, and his uncanny ability for pantomime rivals the best in the business. Having acknowledged his considerable craftsmanship, I must also admit that Lithgow’s solo memoir stretches a bit too long. He says he added a second act when he sensed his audience wanted more, but I think – in its entirety – the evening could use some judicious pruning.
John Lithgow’s “Stories by Heart” played at the Quick Center for the Arts on Fri., Nov. 15, 2013, for one-night only – but it’s on tour around the country in various theatrical venues. Catch it if you can!
Susan Granger’s review of “A Time to Kill” (Oct. 2013, Golden Theater/Broadway)
In Rupert Holmes’ theatrical adaptation of John Grisham’s 1989 thriller, the audience becomes the jury as a young, idealistic defense attorney combats racism in Clanton in Ford County, Mississippi.
It’s obviously no accident that director Ethan McSweeney (“The Best Man”) cast Sebastian Arcelus (“House of Cards”) as Jake Brigance, since he bears a remarkable resemblance to Matthew McConaughey, who played the role in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 screen version. It’s also notable that the Broadway opening coincides with Doubleday’s Oct. 22 publication of Grisham’s sequel “Sycamore Road,” which sends Brigance (obviously Grisham’s literary alter-ego) back into the same courtroom, arguing another race-related case.
Set in the early ‘80s, the plot revolves around the brutal, backwoods beating and rape of Tonya, a helpless 10 year-old African American girl, by two drunk, drugged-up rednecks (Lee Sellars, Dashiell Eaves). Aware that these obviously guilty culprits will do less than 10 years’ prison time, Tonya’s enraged father, Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) guns them down inside the courthouse before their case is tried. Arrested immediately and seemingly doomed, Hailey begs Brigance to take his case, opposing opportunistic, politically ambitious District Attorney, Rufus R. Buckley (Patrick Page), before no-nonsense Judge Omar Noose (Fred Dalton Thompson). While preparing a ‘temporary insanity’ plea, Brigance is joined by his former mentor, disbarred lush Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt), and an outspoken law student, Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams). (For those trying to recall the movie, Kevin Spacey was the Judge with Sandra Bullock as the law student.) Brigance’s only hope for acquittal is to persuade the jury to look beyond color and empathize with Hailey as a righteous, if irrational father.
While the tense courtroom drama is enhanced by the versatility of James Noone’s curved, wooden set and Jeff Croiter’s lighting, the movie and Matthew McConaughey do a better job with the same story.
Susan Granger’s review of “Big Fish” (Neil Simon Theater, NYC: Oct., 2013)
Adapted from Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s whimsically enchanting 2003 movie, this estranged father-and-son story has been transformed into a new, quintessentially American musical, starring Norbert Leo Butz as the enthusiastic, if rambling storyteller, Edward Bloom and Kate Baldwin as his loyal, loving wife.
After a folksy, picturesque prologue on the banks of a river in Alabama, Edward’s opening number “Be the Hero” sets the stage for the amazing adventures, outlandishly tall tales filled with improbable, fantastical characters, which will dazzle his young son Will (Zachary Unger) yet perplex adult Will (Bobby Steggert). They include a sexy mermaid (Sarrah Strimel), a future-revealing witch (Ciara Renee), an amiable giant (Ryan Andes) and a circus manager/werewolf (Brad Oscar).
Since analytical Will is about to be married to Josephine (Krystal Joy Brown) and expecting a child
of his own, there’s an urgency to his desire to understand his traveling salesman father and stubborn determination to separate fact from fiction, particularly when he finds out that Edward is dying of cancer, epitomized by the song “Strangers.”
Working from John August’s revised book with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, director choreographer Susan Stroman maintains a consistently disarming tone of magical realism from start to finish. The visual “Daffodils,” concluding Act I, and the dancing elephant butts in the circus sequence are particularly delightful. As self-glorifying Edward, Norbert Leo Butz is charming and engaging. As angst-filled Will, William Steggert radiates acrimonious discontentment, which is not necessarily a good thing. And radiant Kate Baldwin does the best she can with her regrettably underwritten role.
The exaggeratedly imaginative concept is enhanced by the resourceful craftsmanship of production designer Julian Crouch, costumer William Ivey Long, projection creator Benjamin Pearcy, sound
designer Jon Weston, lighting designer Donald Holder and Larry Hochman’s orchestrations.
While it was wise to soften Edward’s character by eliminating his extra-marital affair, unfortunately, the decision to move the pivotal “How It Ends” to the hospital, rather than at Edward’s funeral, dilutes Will’s final mythical ‘reveal’ on the river bank that was so emotionally effective on film.
Susan Granger’s review of “Room Service” at the Westport Country Playhouse (Oct. 2013)
Perhaps best known as a 1938 Marx Brothers/Lucille Ball movie, this zany comedy by John Murray and Allen Boretz was first staged on Broadway by legendary director George Abbott, starring Sam Levene, Eddie Albert and Betty Field. Now it’s been revived by Artistic Director Mark Lamos, recalling an era when the primary job of inventive impresarios, like Mr. Abbott, Jed Harris and David Merrick, was raising money to finance their shows.
Set in 1937 at the second-rate Times Square White Way Hotel, it revolves around a tenacious, if penniless producer, Gordon Miller (Ben Steinfeld), who is desperately trying to find backers for a new play, “Godspeed,” an epic history of the United States as seen through the eyes of an ignorant Polish miner. Threatened with his own eviction, along with his director (Jim Bracchitta) and cast, he harangues his hapless brother-in-law, Joseph Gribble (David Beach), the hotel manager, to allow him just a little more time, particularly since his gal friend (Zoe Winters) has arranged an appointment with the mysterious representative of a prospective benefactor. But just as “Godspeed’s” naïve playwright Leo Davis (Eric Bryant) unexpectedly arrives from upstate Oswego, so does the hotel’s irate auditor, Gregory Wagner (Michael McCormick). Saving them all from starvation when their access to Room Service is terminated, the Russian actor/waiter (Peter Von Berg) Sasha Smirnoff is hilarious. And the rest of the obliging cast includes Donald Corren, Hayley Trieder, Richard Ruiz and Frank Vlastnik.
Familiar with the frenetic tenets of a four-door farce, Mark Lamos keeps the pace fast and the tightly constructed chaos under control, although the set, designed by John Arnone and fronted by blinking footlights, seems a bit too claustrophobic. Russell Champa’s lighting is evocative of that era, as are Drew Levy’s sound and Wade Laboissonniere’s period costumes.
FYI: unlike frivolous French farces, there are no mistaken identities or sexual innuendos. And two intermissions in a two-hour show serve to deflate the comedic energy.
The final play of the season, “Room Service” runs through Oct. 27 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.
Susan Granger’s review of “Cinderella” (Broadway Theater – Oct., 2013)
It’s happened to all of us…you find your seat at a Broadway show, open your program and out flutters little white slips of paper, indicating there are understudies or ‘swing’ performers. Exciting or disappointing? That depends. When Shirley MacLaine stepped in for Carol Haney in “Pajama Game,” a star was born. You never know.
So imagine how delighted the audience was when lovely Alessa Neeck sings “In My Own Little Corner” in a sweet, wholesome soprano. Looking and sounding remarkably like Julie Andrews, who originated the role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1957 made-for-TV musical, Ms. Neeck is enchanting, fitting perfectly into those Venetian glass slippers and enthralling dozens of little girls dressed in their glittery Disney princess gowns and sparkling tiaras. Another ‘swing,’ Linda Mugleston is beguiling as the forest vagrant, known as Crazy Marie, who, magically, becomes Ella’s elegant, high-flying Fairy Godmother.
Witty book writer Douglas Carter Beane (“Lysistrata Jones,” “Xanadu,” “Sister Act”) has cleverly re-imagined and updated Charles Perrault’s classic tale, adding several contemporary subplots, including the neurotic Prince’s identity crisis, and humorous supporting characters, which director Mark Brokaw from the Yale Institute for Music Theater has superbly cast and adroitly staged with dazzling visual effects.
Orphaned after her beloved father died, kind, obedient Ella lives with her sarcastic stepmother (Harriet Harris) and scornful stepsisters (Ann Harada, Maria Mindelle). When her Fairy Godmother grants her wish to attend the Ball and meet Prince Topher (Santino Fontana), Ella’s post-feminist adventure begins – and we all know how that ends.
While there are several, less memorable, new songs, “Impossible,” “A Lovely Night” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” remain, beautifully adapted and arranged by David Chase. Anna Louizos’ flexible sets accommodate choreographer Josh Rhodes’ exuberant choreography, while William Ivey Long’s elaborate costumes are captivating and Paul Huntley’s wigs are disarmingly whimsical.
If you’re looking for the best holiday treat imaginable for a tiny tot, chose “Cinderella” – and you’ll have a great time too. It’s a charming crowd-pleaser.
Susan Granger’s review of “Oblivion” at the Westport Country Playhouse (Aug/Sept. 2013)
Someone once said that you can tell your child is growing up when she stops asking where she came from and starts refusing to tell you where she’s going. That’s precisely the dilemma faced by a frustrated teenager and her progressive parents in Carly Mensch’s inventive, unpredictable dramedy, currently having its world premiereat the Westport Country Playhouse.
Pam and Dixon consider themselves to be ultra-liberal, open-minded parents, living in upscale Park Slope, Brooklyn. She’s an executive at HBO; he’s a former corporate lawyer-turned-wannabe novelist. But when their 16 year-old daughter, Julie, suddenly starts lying to them about where she was last weekend, they’re bewildered. Sullen and fiercely defensive, Julie claims she was with her best-friend Bernard, an earnest wannabe filmmaker with a fixation on film critic Pauline Kael. As it turns out, Julie has been sneaking off with Bernard to a fundamentalist Christian youth group, and they spent the weekend at an evangelical retreat. This absolutely flummoxes her
part-Jewish-turned-secular-atheist parents – and that’s the thematic conflict.
TV scriptwriter (“Nurse Jackie,” “Weeds”)/playwright, twentysomething Carly Mensch adroitly tackles sensitive subjects – belief, as opposed to religion, along with spiritual identity – that are not often explored on-stage. With four
fully-realized, three-dimensional characters, it’s challenging social commentary, cleverly staged as provocative theater by Mark Brokaw (“Rodgers
& Hammerstein’s Cinderella”). The ensemble cast of Katie Broad, Johanna
Day, Aidan Kunze and Reg Rogers artfully and believably embody the
coming-of-age drama – making for compelling theater.
You can see “Oblivion” at the Westport
Country Playhouse through Sept. 8. Tonight –Wed., Aug. 28 – is Teen Night, when
teens are invited to meet the actors for pizza and soda at 6:30 and will
receive one complimentary ticket for the 8 p.m. performance and 50% discounted
tickets for their parents/friends. The 3 p.m. matinee on Sat., Aug. 31, is
Mom’s Day Off – with a mimosa toast on the patio and tickets priced at $30. For
more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportcountryplayhouse.org.
Susan Granger’s review of “The Show-Off” (Westport Country Playhouse July, 2013)
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes a play turns out to be less than a sum of its parts. The
current revival of this antiquated dramedy is a case-in-point.
Before he became best known as Grace Kelly’s uncle, playwright George Kelly churned out vintage Americana; other plays include “The Torch Bearers” (1922) and “Craig’s Wife” (1925), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. Director Nicholas Martin recently won a Tony nomination for Broadway’s hit comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Veteran actress Jane Houdyshell has accumulated a long list of theatrical achievements. Will Rogers is a talented young actor. And scenic designer Alexander Dodge knows how to visually encapsulate an era in time.
Yet their efforts are for naught in this tiresome, often repetitious evening of theater. Set in the
parlor of a North Philadelphia home in the 1920s, the story revolves around the trials and tribulations of a middle-class family, the Fishers. When their younger daughter Amy (Clea Alsip) falls in love with Pennsylvania Railroad clerk and Aubrey Piper (Will Rogers) descends upon them. Full of bluster and braggadocio, he’s the titular show-off. Problem is: he’s also an irritating, insufferable
bore, someone with whom you certainly don’t want to spend two-and-a-half hours.
According to Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy, what distinguishes “The Show-Off” is that it prized character over plot and forsook many of the narrative clichés of its time to embrace a depiction of the rhythms and details of life as it is actually lived. Unfortunately, however, Aubrey Piper, as depicted by Will Rogers, is obnoxious. And he doesn’t have to be. Given a different director and/or different actor, there could be an underlying layer of sympathy, or even endearment, with Aubrey.
The supporting cast – including Mia Barron, Nat DeWolf, Robert Eli, Adam Lefevre, Karl Baker
Olson, and Marc Vietor – struggles valiantly against the slowly descending tedium.
Mercifully, “The Show-Off” will play only until June 29 at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Susan Granger’s review of “Sachi Parker’s LUCKY ME” (Off-Broadway Theater/New Haven)
“You’re Shirley MacLaine’s daughter?” people would exclaim to Sachi Parker. “Lucky you!”
Yes – and no. Sachi Parker’s one-woman show is filled with love – and longing. Shirley MacLaine and Steve Parker had an open marriage. So Steve Parker moved to Japan while Shirley MacLaine pursued her career in Hollywood. Sachi shuttled back and forth, although her formative years were spent with her father and his mistress. A Japanese governess taught her obedience and subservience. Then she was shipped off to boarding schools in London and Switzerland, where her parents forgot to pick her up for summer vacation. Since her mother considered college an unnecessary expense, Sachi worked as a waitress and explored the world as a Quantas stewardess. Marriages and children followed, sometimes eclipsed by Sachi’s incessant struggles to create viable emotional bond with
her elusive mother.
Although it’s astonishingly compassionate in tone, Sachi Parker’s LUCKY ME characterizes Shirley MacLaine as a totally self-absorbed movie star, propelled by delusions about extra-terrestrial conspiracies, and Steve Parker as an unrepentant con-man. Rising above daunting challenges, captivating Sachi Parker explodes with great personal appeal in dramatic scenes and sheer, spirited magic in her MacLaine impersonations.
Based on Parker’s book, co-written with playwright Frederick Stroppel, the fascinating, yet fragmented, anecdotal narrative is astutely directed by Douglas Moser and set on an elegant
Asian-themed set designed by Andrew Rubenoff with costumes by Deighna DeRiu.
With performances Wednesday thru Sunday, LUCKY ME runs through June 9 at New Haven’s Off Broadway Theatre at Yale University, 41 Broadway – entrance on York Street, next to Toad’s Place. For tickets and information, call 203-305-7762 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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!