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“The Bridges of Madison County:

Susan Granger’s review of “The Bridges of Madison County” (Gerald Schoenfeld Theater ‘2014)

 

Translating the iconic 1995 love story in which Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood’s simmering passion ignited the screen into a Broadway musical is a challenge.  Yet composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown does it superbly, while the exquisite voices of Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale soar gloriously.

Set in 1965, melancholy Francesca Johnson (Kelli O’Hara) nostalgically recounts her journey as a young Italian war bride transplanted from Naples to the vast cornfields of Iowa with the opening number “To Build a Home.”  Married to stolid Bud (Hunter Foster) for 18 years, they now have two teenagers, Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena). When Bud and the bickering kids take off for a few days at the Indiana State Fair, Francesca stays home. So when National Geographic photographer, Texas-born Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale), stops by to ask directions to a particular covered bridge, she offers him iced tea and a home-cooked meal.  Acutely aware of their emotional connection, one intimacy inevitably leads to another as they trill the ballad “Falling Into You.”

With a lilting Italian accent, Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific,” “Pajama Game”) gracefully embodies Francesca’s unspoken sadness and earthy, repressed sensuality, while Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”) exudes soulful conviction. Their second-act duet, “One Second and a Million Miles” is a show-stopper. As Francesca’s nosy but kind-hearted neighbors, Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin add much needed humor, while Whitney Bashor, as Robert’s ex-wife, sings the folk ballad “Another Life.”

Based on Robert James Waller’s sudsy, 1992 best-seller about loneliness, love and longing in the American Midwest, it’s adapted by Marsha Norman (“’night Mother,” “The Color Purple”), who dilutes the essential romantic aspect by devoting far too much time to trivia with Bud and the farm kids.  And director Bartlett Sher, perhaps inspired by Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” clutters the stage with far too many distracting, obviously disapproving, rustic bystanders who keep busily moving props on Michael Yeargan’s stylized set, enhanced by Donald Holder’s dramatic lighting.

“Cirque du Soliel: Amaluna”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cirque du Soliel: Amaluna” (CitiField)

 

I’ve been privileged to see all the Cirque du Soliel shows that have played in New York which is why I regret to report that “Amaluna” is a deafening disappointment. If you’ve never visited the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau, it may be a pleasant distraction but, if you’ve been enchanted by its previous eloquence and elegance, this production doesn’t measure up. And the decibel volume may blast you out of your seat.

Claiming inspiration from Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” writer/director Diane Paulus (“Pippin”) has created a feminist spin but the empowerment concept never really becomes clear. Prospera (Julie McInnes) is an enchantress, ruling over a kingdom of mythical beasts, Amazons and goddesses drawn from various cultural traditions. There’s the Moon Goddess (Andreanne Nadeau), the Peacock Goddess (Amy McClendon) and the Balance Goddess (Lily Chao), among others. When Prospera’s contortionist daughter Miranda (Ikhertseteg Bayarsaikan) comes of age, she creates a massive storm that shipwrecks sailors, including Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin). Enraged by the immediate attraction between Miranda and Romeo is the jealous lizard/man Cali (Viktor Kee), who wants Miranda for himself. So far, so good – but in Act II, the plot gets completely muddled, involving kidnapping, lovers in Purgatory and a Valkyrie rescue. To make matters worse, the tedious ineptitude of the clowns (Nathalie Clause, Shereen Hickman) adds to the annoyance.

As always, the aerial acrobatics are amazing and Meredith Caron’s costumes are dazzling. But the screeching, wailing grunge and folk rock score by the Canadian duo Bob & Bill comes across like loud, dissonant noise.

FYI:  Previously, I’ve received a pass to the Tapas Rouge (VIP area). This year, we paid: big mistake. It’s a tiny space, crammed with people grabbing drinks and gobbling mediocre hors d’ouvres – with no place to stand or sit. Not worth the money.

“Amaluna” runs through May 18, 2014, at Citi Field, Flushing, Queens. For information, visit www.cirquedusoliel.com/amaluna or call 1-800-450-1480. Bring ear plugs!

“Need for Speed”

Susan Granger’s review of “Need for Speed” (DreamWorks/Walt Disney Pictures)

Based on the most successful racing video game franchise, the gimmick of this new adrenaline-propelled action adventure is that there’s no CGI.

Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad”) is a mechanic who races muscle cars on the unsanctioned street-racing circuit.  Desperate to keep his family-owned garage afloat, he reluctantly partners with arrogant, wealthy ex-NASCAR driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). But just after he’s made a major sale through car broker Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), a disastrous race, in which Tobey’s protégé Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) is killed, allows sleazy Dino to frame Tobey for manslaughter. Dino then steals his high-school sweetheart, Pete’s sister Anita (Dakota Johnson), and expands the business.

Out of prison two years later, Tobey is determined to wreak revenge by defeating Dino in a secret, high-stakes, no-rules race known as the De Leon, run by online shock jock Monarch (Michael Keaton). Problem is: Tobey’s in Mt. Kisco, New York, and the race starts 2800 miles away in San Francisco in 45 hours. Driving a $2.7 million custom Ford Mustang  - “the one Carroll Shelby was building when he died” – Tobey and Julia careen across America, dodging cops and determined mercenaries who want the massive bounty that Dino’s put on his head. Helping along the way are Rami Malek, as a bug-eyed mechanic, and hip-hop star Scott Mescudi  (a.k.a. Kid Cudi),as an Army Reserve pilot.

Incoherently scripted by George Gatins with numerous plot holes and clichéd dialogue, it’s choppily directed by Scott Waugh, whose father, legendary stuntman Fred Waugh, coordinated movie sequences for 40 years. Scott’s own resume includes “Act of Valor,” “Spider-Man,” “Speed” and “Batman Forever.”  He was determined to keep the rubber-burning action real without resorting to CGI, so when you see that gravity-defying, 160-foot leap across multiple lanes in downtown Detroit traffic, “hot-fueling,” aerial flips, helicopter lifts and other joyriding feats – they’re genuine.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Need for Speed” stalls out with a stilted, finish-line 4. The exhilarating, high-octane speed is authentic but the acting is abysmal.

“Bronx Bombers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Bronx Bombers” (Circle in the Square Theater 2013-2014 season)

Eric Simonson had a clever idea: stage an inspirational, sports-themed human interest story to bring the jocks, an underserved audience, into mainstream theater. First he did “Lombardi” about the Green Bay Packers and leadership, then “Magic/Bird,” focusing on baseball and competition. Now he’s come up with the concept of what makes a great baseball team, focusing on the New York Yankees, an organization with 27 championships, more than anyone else, to its credit.

The play begins in a Boston hotel suite during the summer of 1977, when scrappy, hot-tempered Billy Martin (Keith Nobbs), the Yankees manager, benched his star right fielder, Reggie Jackson (Francois Battiste), accusing him of loafing in the outfield, igniting a famous Fenway Park dugout fallout when they lost to the Boston Red Sox. Catcher-turned-coach Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari) and team captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes) try to make peace in the name of sportsmanship. Tension takes the form of the tradition of teamwork versus personal stardom, as narcissistic Jackson declares, “I didn’t come here to melt into someone else’s idea of a team.”

Then, in the second act, Yogi Berra, fearing repercussions from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, drifts off into a fantasy in which he and his wife Carmen (Tracy Shayne) host a dinner for Yankee greats, past and present, including Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), Elston Howard (Francois Battiste), Derek Jeter (Christopher Jackson), Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes) and Babe Ruth (C.J. Wilson), who muses, “The times, they do change you know – and, then again, they don’t.”

While writer/director Eric Simonsen toys with a provocative premise, it never fulfills its pinstriped promise, quickly becoming as sugary as a a box of Cracker Jacks, although the actors’ impersonations seem to work quite convincingly.

FYI: according to reports, when actor Peter Scolari (Lena Dunham’s dad on TV’s “Girls”) and his real-life spouse Tracy Shayne had dinner with the real-life Yogi Berra and his wife, the four immediately hit it off, perhaps igniting a friendship that may last longer than the run of the play.

“John Lithgow: Stories by Heart”

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!

“A Time to Kill”

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.

“Big Fish” on Broadway

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.

“Room Serivce” at the Westport Country Playhouse

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.

“Cinderella”

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.

“Oblivion”

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.