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“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.

“Rasheeda Speaking”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rasheeda Speaking” (The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center)

 

Set in a doctor’s office in Chicago, this edgy comedic drama revolves around rival receptionists.

It opens with Ileen Van Meter (Dianne Wiest) having a morning chat with Dr. David Williams (Darren Goldstein) concerning the return of Jaclyn Spaulding (Tonya Pinkins) after a five-day sick caused by amorphous complaints about “toxins” in the air.

Dr. Williams tells Ileen to “keep her eye” on Jaclyn, noting in a log any observations of unusual or suspicious activity. He’d obviously like to fire Jaclyn for her “poor attitude” but he needs something of substance to satisfy Human Resources.

Jaclyn appears to be a stunning, if overbearing African-American who lurks in the hallway for the big hand to reach 12 before she clocks into the workplace and is furious because she finds her plants wilting when they weren’t watered during her absence.

Perceiving Ileen’s promotion to “office manager” as a personal insult, Jaclyn rudely vents her anger on Rose Saunders (Patricia Conolly), a frail, elderly patient who appears in the office without first checking in downstairs. And Ileen is no match for her manipulative vindictiveness.

As delineated by Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson, the theme is office politics and underlying racism. It marks the directing debut of actress Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City,” “Law & Order”), who slyly handles the four-person ensemble adroitly.

Appearing at first as modestly mild and meek, Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest (“Hannah and her Sisters,” “Bullets Over Broadway”) gradually reveals neurotic Ileen’s subconscious passive-aggressive tendencies, while Tonya Pinkins (Tony-winner for “Jelly’s Last Jam”) leavens Jaclyn’s nasty hostility with humor.

Allen Moyer’s utilitarian set defines each secretary’s space, while Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design captures the familiarly functional workplace glare.

Although it’s filled with memorable moments as, obviously, the “toxins” are both symbolic and literal, the 90-minute play lacks the necessary subtlety and cohesiveness to propel it further.

“Rocket to the Moon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rocket to the Moon” (Theatre at St. Clement’s)

 

Set in New York City during the Great Depression, this rarely performed play by Clifford Odets is a moralistic drama, revolving around a middle-aged dentist who falls in love with his naïve, idealistic assistant. With his career and loveless marriage in shambles, he must decide whether to “Take a rocket to the moon. Explode!”

Directed by Dan Wackerman, this revival by the Peccadillo Theater Company at the Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street is set in the sweltering summertime in dreary waiting room of an office shared by two dentists. Dr. Ben Stark (Ned Eisenberg), who is dominated by his wife Belle (Marilyn Matarrese), and money-strapped Dr. Phil Cooper (Larry Bull).

When Stark hires a new, 19 year-old dental assistant, Cleo Singer (Katie McClennan), she quickly makes herself indispensable not only to him but also to his wealthy father-in-law, Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary). Plus there’s the wolfish choreographer, Willy Wax (Lou Liberatore). Stark’s multi-leveled inner conflict propels the play.

While filled with good intentions and capable, if not memorable, performances, “Rocket to the Moon” seems to be missing the intimate, emotional connective tissue between the characters. It skims the surface while exploring the power and pain of love, along with the need for psychic freedom, which dilutes the ultimate effect of the problematic conclusion.

The stagecraft by Harry Feiner, David Thomas and Amy C. Bradshaw serves to authenticate this play as a time capsule to the past.

Historically, playwright Clifford Odets (“Golden Boy,” “Awake and Sing!”) is perhaps best remembered for his appearance before Joseph McCarthy’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, when he named Elia Kazan as a card-carrying Communist.  Reportedly, he regretted making that accusation until his premature death in 1963 at the age of 57.

Originally produced on Broadway in 1938 by the Group Theater, “Rocket to the Moon” starred Morris Carnovsky, Ruth Warrick, Luther Adler, Eleanor Lynn and Sanford Meisner. In 1986, it was adapted for television by the BBC with John Malkovich, Judy Davis, Eli Wallach, William Hootkins and Connie Booth.

“Lives of the Saints”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lives of the Saints” (Primary Stages, the Duke on 42nd Street)

 

David Ives is one of the most inventive, off-beat playwrights in the American theater today. With “All in the Timing” and “Venus in Fur,” among others, to his credit – he’s now assembled an evening of six one-act skits.

But the collection is disjointed, despite a versatile five-person performing ensemble – Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth – expertly directed by John Rando (“On the Town,” “Urinetown”).

It begins with “The Goodness of Your Heart” in which a neighborly friendship is threatened when one asks the other to buy him a new big-screen TV with all the newest technology. “Why?” he inquires. “’Cause you like me” is the reply.

“Soap Opera” finds a washing machine repairman (Carson Elrod) grappling with a snobbish maitre’d as he tries reserve a table at a fancy French restaurant for himself and his new love, a ‘Maypole’ appliance, who observes, “In my experience, everything is a cycle.”

Double identity-themed jokes are rampant in “Enigma Variations,” in which a woman goes to see a doctor with both characters represented by identical dopplegangers to act and speak in perfect unison. Remember Doublemint gum?

In “Life Signs,” a son discovers that his recently deceased mother (Kelly Hutchinson) may not be dead. To his utter chagrin, she begins a vividly candid discussion of her sexual past.

“It’s All Good” depicts an encounter between a New York-based writer (Rich Holmes) and a friendly stranger who invites him home for dinner after they meet on a train bound for Chicago. As it turns out, the hospitable host’s wife turns out to be the writer’s old girlfriend.

The titular piece concludes the evening; it’s a sweetly touching diversion featuring two church ladies preparing a post-funeral collation.

Despite its obvious appeal for people with short attention spans, it’s a far-from satisfactory sampler that’s only intermittently amusing.

This limited engagement runs through March 27 at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street,

 

“Kill Me Like You Mean It”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kill Me Like You Mean It” (Fourth Street Theater: 2014-15 season)

 

Billed as a “film noir for the stage,” this silly Off-Off Broadway parody follows hard-boiled Detective Ben Farrell (Nathan Darrow) as he tries to prevent his own murder. If he looks familiar, Darrow is best known as FBI agent Edward Meechum on TV’s “House of Cards.”

Farrell’s convoluted quest begins when he reads a realistic and eerily specific description of his own impending murder in a popular pulp serial by writer Tommy Dickie (David Skeist). Not surprisingly, the life-imitates-art concept involves leggy femme fatales, laconic dialogue and spiritual corruption. The duplicitous dames are bodacious blonde Lydia Forsythe (Natalie Hegg) and sassy brunette Vivian Ballantine (Sarah Skeist).

Playwright Kiran Rikhye, director John Stancato and composer/multi-instrumentalist Sean Cronin encompass every detective cliché imaginable, including references to classic movies like “Laura” and “The Maltese Falcon.”

Cleverly, they directly include the audience, with limited “Director’s Cut” seating directly on the stage.  As a result, the show’s conceit encompasses different point-of-view. No one can see everything, but everyone views something intriguing – with credit going to set designer Michael Minahan, lighting expert David Bengali, costumer Angela Harner and Ava Meyer’s props/graphics.

Beginning during the early 1940s, coinciding with the end of W.W.II, a new genre of American films emerged. These dark, melodramas dealt with issues of obsession, addiction and jealousy, delving into the dark, haunted mysteries of human nature.  While their antecedents can be traced back to German Expressionism of the 1920s, they borrowed elements from the gangster, detective and mystery genres, combining them into a new cinematic form, known as film noir. Indeed, the darkness that characterized most scenes was a deliberate embracing of oppressive shadows, utilizing the claustrophobic effect of a lack of light.

This is the latest absurdist production of Stolen Chair, the innovative theatrical troupe that previously scored with “The Man Who Laughs.”

“Kill Me Like You Mean It” plays at the Fourth Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street, between Bowery and 2ns Avenue, through March 8. For more information, visit www.stolenchair.org.

“Let the Right One In”

 Susan Granger’s review of “Let the Right One In” (St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn: 2014-15 season)

 

The National Theatre of Scotland has adapted the popular Swedish horror film, “Let the Right One In” (2008), transferring it to the stage of St. Ann’s Warehouse, 29 Jay Street in Brooklyn.

Combining an examination of teenage alienation with a chilling vampire fable, this thriller revolves around lonely, socially awkward Oskar (Christian Ortega) and wan, mysteriously agile, eternally adolescent Eli (Rebecca Benson).

Set near a housing project in a Stockholm suburb in the 1980s, their bleakly compassionate story begins in a wintry forest, where a serial killer, Hakan (Cliff Burnett), drains his victims’ blood into a plastic jug.  “Forgive me,” he mutters, slicing his latest prey’s throat.

Procurer/enabler Hakan and his ‘child’ Eli have just moved next door to Oskar and his embittered, alcoholic single mom (Susan Vidler). While creepy Eli is obviously a vampire, she shuns that label, saying, “I’m not that. I choose not to be that…so I am not that.”

Yet, when meek Oskar is abused in the school’s locker room by a sadistic bullies led by cocky Micke (Andrew Fraser), feral Eli uses her supernatural powers to come to his rescue, resulting in bloody carnage.

Rebecca Benson’s performance is remarkable, using her voice to alternate between innocent, childlike sincerity and weary, ancient wisdom.

Originally based on John Alvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel and screenplay of the same name (remade in English as “Let Me In”), it’s been adroitly adjusted for the stage by Jack Thorne and stylishly directed by collaborators John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett (“Once,” “The Glass Menagerie”).

Christine Jones’s icily sparse “Scotlandavia” production design sets the haunting atmosphere, as does Olafur Arnalds’ cello-laden musical score, Gareth Fry’s sound design, Chahine Yavroyan’s phosphorescent lighting and Jeremy Chernick’s special effects.

Running 140 minutes with one intermission, the miraculously effective “Let the Right One In” has been extended through March 8.