“Buyer and Cellar”

Susan Granger’s review of “Buyer and Cellar” (Westport Country Playhouse: June, 2016)

 

Laughter rocks the theater as Michael Urie brings Jonathan Tolins’ hit Off-Broadway comedy to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Urie opens the subtly seductive satire with several disclaimers, making it clear that it’s is a work of fiction, since none of this “could possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”

On a stage sparsely furnished with a round café table, chair and bench, Urie relates how Alex More, a struggling gay actor in Los Angeles, gets hired to be the sole, always subservient clerk in the private mini-mall that Barbra Streisand has created for herself in the basement of a barn adjacent to her Malibu mansion.

Since Barbra’s a compulsive shopper, her quaint, European-styled arcade includes an antique shop and clothing boutique, stocked with her abundant collection of vintage dresses, object d’art, and dolls.

Its creation is detailed in Streisand’s 2010 coffee-table photo book “My Passion for Design.” As Alex notes from the front cover flap, this is the “refuge she’s longed for since the days when she shared a small Brooklyn apartment with her mother, brother and grandparents…”

Often recognized as Marc St. James from TV’s “Ugly Betty,” lanky Michael Urie energetically captures the iconic Streisand persona with a few masterfully nuanced mannerisms, including flipping her hair and shrugging one shoulder asking, “Am I right or am I right?”

Director Stephen Brackett reins in campy caricature, cleverly balancing superstar Barbra’s alleged perfectionism with sensitivity, affection, even empathy, adding emotional heft to a subplot involving Alex’s struggling screenwriter boyfriend Barry.

At the after-party, playwright Jonathan Tolins (“Secrets of the Trade,” “Twilight of the Golds”) revealed that the reason Westport was able to book this original production was because the show will be filmed there for broadcast on Theater Close-Up on Channel 13/WNET, joining a new wave of televised theatrical presentations that includes the current Broadway revival of “She Loves Me.”

The obvious question everyone asks is, “Has Barbra seen this?” Apparently not. If she were in the audience, her reactions to the tart absurdity would divert attention from the stage.  So, when it’s on TV, Ms. Streisand can watch in privacy.

Irresistibly amusing, “Buyer and Cellar” runs at the Westport Country Playhouse until July 3.  For more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at (203) 227-4177.

“My Paris”

Susan Granger’s review of “My Paris” (Long Wharf Theater)

 

It was fascinating watching one of the final performances of this dazzling new musical about Belle Epoque artist Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec because, around us, were potential ‘investors’ considering moving it to Manhattan.

Inspired by French singer/songwriter Charles Aznavour’s short-lived “Lautrec” concept, it was workshopped at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris in Chester, then moved to Long Wharf in New Haven, and the potential is certainly there.

With a book by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Robber Bridegroom”) and English lyrics/additional music by Jason Robert Brown (“The Bridges of Madison County”), it’s expertly staged by Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall, utilizing four talented on-stage musicians.

The only son of a swaggering nobleman (Tom Hewitt) who was disappointed that he was born with a congenital disease that crippled his legs, little Henri (Bobby Steggert) always loved to draw. When he grew up, he moved to his family’s apartment in Paris where, briefly, he studied art with Leon Bonnat.

But it was a chance visit to a seedy nightclub in bohemian Montmarte that changed his life. Settling into a tiny studio, he began to earn a living, sketching colorful advertising posters of street performers and can-can dancers even the club’s owner (Jamie Jackson). Henri’s favorite model was aspiring artist Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), whom he deeply loved.

While subtly savvy Bobby Steggert is waiflike, director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall cleverly utilizes Derek McLane’s multi-tiered set to emphasize his deformed, diminutive stature.

What’s most impressive is how Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting and Olivia Sebesky’s projections create a vivid tableau, showcasing Lautrec’s most famous posters and the models who posed for them: La Goulue (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), Jane Avril (Erica Sweany), May Milton (Anne Horak), Yvette Guilbert (Kate Marilley), Valentin  (Timothy Hughes), Clown (Tiffany Mann), and le Chocolat (Darius Barnes). Magnifique!

So what doesn’t work?

The lamenting of Lautrec’s smothering Maman (Donna English) quickly becomes tedious, and the wraithlike Green Fairy (Erica Sweany), representing Lautrec’s toxic addiction to absinthe, is obtuse.

In addition, Suzanne Valadon’s alluring muse character needs to be fleshed out; in real life, she was the mother of artist Maurice Utrillo – as do the bland roles of Henri’s three art-school cohorts (John Riddle, Josh Grisetti, Andrew Mueller) who excel in the rousing “We Drink!” number.

I eagerly await the next incarnation of “My Paris” – with, perhaps, a more haunting, bittersweet title.

“The Father”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Father” (MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre: May, 2016)

 

Frank Langella weaves a tantalizing theatrical tapestry as Andre, an 80 year-old man who is declining into the debilitating dementia, rapidly losing cognitive function.

As the play begins, Andre’s exasperated daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) is explaining to him that she needs to find a new “helper,” since the previous one quit after he physically threatened her with a curtain rod and called her “a little bitch.”

Not surprisingly, Andre denies this but then dismisses it, saying he’s perfectly capable of caring for himself.  Which, obviously, he isn’t since – in the next scene – he doesn’t recognize her. Nor does the audience, actually, since the character of Anne is played by another actress.

While that’s eventually explained, Andre’s misperceptions continue. Is Anne married to Pierre, or is she preparing to go to London to live with a new lover?

Andre’s confusion continues as a strange man slaps him across the face, his watch gets stolen, and the elegant furniture he’s accustomed to disappears, replaced by a hospital bed.

Expressing the terror that is growing within his consciousness, Langella is a consummate actor, whether he’s oozing charm or claiming that he once was an engineer – or, perhaps, a clown – or tap dancer. His original irritation, manifesting itself in arrogance, becomes a pathetic cry of despair as he descends into helpless dependency.

French playwright Florian Zeller’s work has been translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Doug Hughes, who stages 15 short scenes, punctuated by blinding flashes of light that seem indicate Andre’s cerebral synapses. Scenic designer Scott Pask and lighting expert Donald Holder have created a stunning Paris apartment, augmented by music/sound by Fitz Patton and Catherine Zuber’s costumes.

But what exactly is the audience experiencing?

Is it “a tragic farce,” which is what it was dubbed when it opened in Paris in 2012?  Tragic, yes, but I found nothing farcical about Andre’s dilemma.

I believe that Florian Zeller is depicting the various stages of the growing plague of Alzheimer’s, an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that has affected and will touch most of us during our lifetime. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than five million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.

“Art”

Susan Granger’s review of “Art” (Westport Country Playhouse: May, 2016)

 

The psychological and emotional dynamics of friendship are examined in French playwright Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning comedy, which is playing in tandem with “Red” at the Westport Country Playhouse.

When Serge (John Skelly) buys an expensive abstract painting, he invites his two best friends, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan), to view it.

Measuring about 4’x5,’ the stark painting is monochromatic white-on-white; although a fictional artist is cited, it’s obviously meant to be the work of Robert Ryman.

Marc arrives first – and he is stunned that Serge, who is a successful dermatologist but by no means wealthy, spent 200 Euros on it. Smug and sardonic, Marc is dismissive of the artist and his vision.

Amiable Ivan’s reaction is far more diplomatic and less denigrating, perhaps because he’s far more concerned with the invitations for his upcoming wedding.

But neither are as understanding and compassionate as Serge had hoped after his huge expenditure, basically questioning his sensitivity and aesthetic taste.

Admirably structured by director Mark Lamos, the three accomplished actors display solid comic timing, make it superficially amusing, utilizing vigorous language. But below the surface, this play is filled with provocative ideas and observations.

Most of all, it’s revelatory about our appreciation of art which, in turn, is a reflection of our often-confusing culture in which the art world is propelled by money and power.

The audience is asked to ponder, “What is art”? Is it the universal legibility, which abstractionists strive for, or should it be more familiar and representational?

Does Serge really adore the painting? Or did he purchase it as a status symbol?

Unfortunately, since the personalities of the three men seem so diverse, it’s difficult to imagine why they became friends in the first place. Since no cohesive connective tissue among them is ever revealed, it’s difficult to invest any emotional energy in the viability of their relationship.

This month, “Art” will be performed on even-numbered days; “Red” on the odd-numbered days. For more information and tickets, go to www.playhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

“Red”

Susan Granger’s review of “Red” (Westport Country Playhouse: May, 2016)

The Westport Country Playhouse opened the season with two Tony Award-winning plays – “Red” and “Art” – staged in repertory. Intellectually provocative, they’re about creating and owning paintings.

Set in 1958 in a studio in New York City, John Logan’s “Red” delves into the relationship between acclaimed artist Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and his eager, young assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews).

Rothko’s potent first words are “What do you see?” as Ken stares out into the darkened theater, transforming the fourth wall into a canvas worth analyzing.

As mentor, Rothko pontificates, often utilizing the imagery and language of academia. He’s part of a generation of “serious” artists who rebelled against cubism, replacing it with abstract expressionism.

Commissioned by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Rothko is working on a series of murals intended to adorn the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building. According to patron Nelson Rockefeller, their intent was to match fine cuisine with magnificent art.

Each painting has a deep reddish-brown base color over which Rothko places a window-like form in red or black or orange. Rothko’s color palate suggests dried blood, evoking in Ken painful childhood memories of the grisly murder of his parents.

Significantly, Rothko was so enraged by the idea of his murals hanging in a trendy restaurant that he cancelled his contract. Nine were donated to London’s Tate Gallery and seven went to the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of art. Others are on display in The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Written by John Logan and directed by Mark Lamos, it’s a verbal sparring match between mentor and acolyte with Stephen Rowe (who understudied Alfred Molina on Broadway) propelling the play and Patrick Andrews effective as his foil – although I would have loved to see Tony-winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl”) in this role.

According to Artistic Director Mark Lamos, “Red” and “Art” have never been programmed together before and, while each stands on its own, seeing them together creates a new appreciation not only for the artist’s dilemma but also the spectator’s. I just wish they were more emotionally engaging.

For a schedule and ticket information, go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

“Tuck Everlasting”

Susan Granger’s review of “Tuck Everlasting” (Broadhurst Theatre: April, 2016)

 

Based on Natalie Babbitt’s beloved fantasy, this poignant, family-friendly musical poses the question: If you could live forever, would you?

High-spirited 11 year-old Winnie Foster (precociously talented Sarah Charles Lewis) has been sheltered by her over-protective mother (Valerie Wright) and tart-tongued Nana (Pippa Pearthree) ever since her father died – and she’s yearning for adventure. Or, at least, to go to the fair.

Sneaking out into the woods behind their home, curious Winnie discovers the Tucks, a mysterious family that inadvertently drank from the fountain-of-youth almost 100 years ago – and, as a result, have never aged.

There’s Angus (Michael Park), the philosophical patriarch; lonely Mother Mae (Carolee Carmello), who always yearned for a daughter; 21 year-old Miles (Robert Lenz), who has suffered painful loss; and exuberant, 17 year-old Jesse (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), who first befriends Winnie, swears her to secrecy, and proposes that they meet again in six years so she can drink from the magical spring and be with him forever.

Every fable needs a villain, so there’s the Man in the Yellow Suit (Terrence Mann), who is determined to find the Tucks and profit from their enchanted elixir. As Nana notes, he’s “an evil banana.”

So – will Winnie succumb to the lure of immortality?

Sweetly adapted by Claudia Shear (“Dirty Blonde”) & Tim Federle with somewhat repetitive country/folk music by Chris Miller & Nathan Tysen (“The Burnt Park Boys”) and directed by Casey Nicholaw (“Aladdin,” “Book of Mormon,” “Something Rotten!”), it oozes gentle warmth and folksy sentimentality, culminating in a subtly beautiful ballet sequence, superbly choreographed by Nicholaw. Walt Spangler’s rustic, forested set is stunning, basking in Kenneth Posner’s undulating lighting.

Problem is: Broadway ticket prices are so high that it’s a difficult ‘sell’ for families yearning for something that’s, honestly, a bit more memorable.

If you loved the book and are determined to see its musical adaptation, buy tickets now – because I doubt that it’s going to stick around too long on the Great White Way. Perhaps a less-expensive regional theater production will fare better….

 

“Waitress”

Susan Granger’s review of “Waitress” (Brooks Atkinson Theater: April, 2016)

The intoxicating aroma of a freshly baked pie envelops you the moment you enter the Brooks Atkinson Theater – and that cinnamon/nutmeg scent is as irresistible as this new musical.

When the cherry pie-crust-adorned curtain goes up, it reveals a small-town diner where Jenna (Jessie Mueller) discovers to her dismay she’s pregnant and realizes that, perhaps, her astonishing pie-baking skill can finance an escape from her menacing, abusive husband, Earl (Nick Cordero).

As this unexpectedly romantic feminist fable unfolds, spirited Jenna dallies with her married gynecologist (Drew Gehling) while her friends/fellow waitresses (Keala Settle, Kimiko Glenn) concoct their own recipes for happiness while serving up slices of creatively named “Blueberry Bacon,” “Betrayed By My Eggs,” and “My Husband is a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie.”

Based on Adrienne Shelly’s quirky 2007 movie, starring Keri Russell, it’s been adapted by Jessie Nelson with an original score by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles. Director Diane Paulus (“Pippin”) developed this sweet-and-savory project at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater, which also spawned “Once” and “Finding Neverland.”

Vibrant, Tony Award-winning Jessie Mueller, who played Carole King in “Beautiful,” surpasses herself, aided and abetted by a strong supporting cast that also includes outrageously comedic Christopher Fitzgerald and curmudgeonly Dakin Matthews in the avuncular Andy Griffith role.

To complete the soulful confection, toss in the talents of choreographer Lorin Latarro, set designer Scott Pask, costumer Suttirat Anne Larlab, sound by Jonathan Deans and lighting by Christopher Akerlind. And the band that’s discreetly visible on-stage.

As for the delicious, deep-dish pies-in-jars sold by hawkers in the aisles and lobby – they’re created by Stacy Donnelly, who runs Cute as Cake bakery in nearby Hell’s Kitchen.

Bottom line: Never say ‘no’ to a freshly baked pie – or underestimate the earthy, empowering poignancy of Jessie Mueller’s warbling “She Used to be Mine.”

 

“The Crucible”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Crucible” (Walter Kerr Theatre – April, 2016)

Iconoclastic Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s mannered deconstruction of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” revives the notorious 17th century Salem witch trials, stripping the concept down to its timelessly scary essence. Earlier this season, 35 year-old van Hove did a similar avant-garde revival of Miller’s tragic “A View from the Bridge.”

Set in a big country classroom, “The Crucible” revolves around the arrogant manipulators and the ignorance of the manipulated, as a group of pious teenagers accuse puritanical townspeople of witchcraft.

They’re headed by willful Abigail (Saoirse Ronan), a servant girl, who is determined to wreak revenge against her adulterous, guilt-riddled lover, John Proctor (Ben Whishaw), and his wife, Elizabeth Proctor (Sophie Okonedo).

While the schoolgirls are dressed in their proper uniforms on Jan Versweyveld’s utilitarian set, everyone else is in drab, rough-hewn garb, courtesy of costumer Wojciech Dziedzic.

Making her Broadway debut, blonde Saoirse Ronan oozes malevolent intensity, more reminiscent of the mean girl in “Heathers” than the meek, dark-haired Irish lass in “Brooklyn.”

Also making his Broadway debut, British Ben Whishaw exudes surprising vulnerability, albeit hidden under a massive, unruly beard that makes him unrecognizable as the gadget-master Q, sparring with Daniel Craig’s James Bond in “Spectre” and “Skyfall.”

Despite superb performances from the entire ensemble, Ivo van Hove’s supernatural staging of this allegorical drama is uneven and bewildering, particularly when a young girl levitates off her bed, a blast of wind topples the classroom, a wolf is on the prowl and mysterious animation appears as writing on the blackboard – accompanied by Philip Glass’s rhythmically percussive music.

Back in 1953, when “The Crucible” was first staged, it was Arthur Miller’s philosophical denunciation of the intolerance and mass hysteria caused by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee’s hunt for Communists. With much less specificity in 2016, this rendition is less effective, although it could certainly be loosely re-interpreted during this chaotic Presidential election year.

“The Road: My Life with John Denver”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Road: My Life with John Denver” (Ivoryton Playhouse: April 2016)

 

Ivoryton Playhouse opens its 2016 season with John Denver’s recorded voice singing “Aspenglow,” a prelude to this enjoyable, toe-tapping musical tribute.

Actually, it kind of fits into that subspecies known as a jukebox musical. According to Wikipedia, “A jukebox musical is a stage or film musical that uses previously released popular songs as its score. Usually the songs have in common a connection with a particular popular musician or group — because they were either written by, or for, the artists in question, or at least covered by them.”

Premiering at the Milwaukee Rep last summer, it’s scripted by co-writers Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, who played in John Denver’s band for seven years and was his neighbor in Aspen. Wheetman oversees the music, as the production is adroitly helmed by Mylar, utilizing Daniel Nischen’s roadhouse set, Vickie Blake’s costumes, Marcus Abbott’s subtle lighting, and Tate R. Burmeister’s sound design.

The conceit is that John Denver’s music and life are viewed through the reminiscent perspective of Danny (David M. Lutken) and the Singer (Katie Deal), who include favorites like “Rocky Mountain High,” “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and “Sunshine on my Shoulder.”

At times, Deal also assumes the persona of Denver’s first wife, Annie, as well as Danny’s first wife, Penny.  It’s a bit confusing, admittedly, but, over time, as this musical has a few more incarnations, the unevenness may work itself out, even though their ill-fated marriages suffered from them being ‘on the road’ far too long.

“Be careful what you pay with because you will pay,” notes Danny, sadly, “Sometimes with your wife and family.”

What’s in its favor is the audience goodwill engendered by two genuinely likeable, down-home performers, David M. Lutken and Katie Deal.

Concluding, appropriately, with Denver’s iconic “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the audience is invited – once again – to sing along – which they do, or did, at the matinee I attended.

FYI: John Denver died in a plane crash in 1997 at the age of 53.

“The Road: My Life with John Denver” plays at Ivoryton through Sunday, April 24. For more information, call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

“Bright Star”

Susan Granger’s review of “Bright Star” (Cort Theatre – April, 2016)

 

Country is the most popular music in America, so it’s no surprise that Steve Martin and Edie Brickell bring down-home bluegrass to Broadway, opening with Carmen Cusack’s powerhouse song, “If You Knew My Story.”

Inspired by a real-life 1902 incident, Martin’s sweetly sincere book, which he developed with Brickell, begins in 1945, as a W.W. II soldier, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), returns to Hayes Creek, North Carolina. He’s greeted by his love-smitten childhood pal, Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), and his father (Stephen Bogardus), who tells him is mother died in his absence.

An aspiring writer, Billy’s so determined to be published in the Asheville Southern Journal that he hand-delivers several stories to its renown, tart-tongued editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack).

Prompted by her assistants (Jeff Blumenkrantz, Emily Padgett), the focus shifts to Alice’s past in the 1920s when, as a free-spirited teenager in Zebulon, she fell in love with Jimmy Ray (Paul Alexander Nolan), son of Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren), and got pregnant.

This gentle fable of pain and redemption is punctuated by lovelorn ballads, fiddle-playing hootenannies and convivial square-dancing, superbly staged by director Walter Bobbie (“Chicago”), who seamlessly integrates Josh Rhodes’ rollicking choreography.

With a rustic A-frame cabin that rotates and model train running on tracks located high above the audience, Eugene Lee’s versatile set is backed by an evocative cut-out of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some of the musicians are placed within the cabin, others high up on both sides of the stage, plucking the banjo, mandolin, guitar, viola and violin, and keeping rhythm on the drums.

Beginning as a 2013 workshop production at the Vassar & New York Stage and Film Powerhouse Theater in Poughkeepsie, “Bright Star” was staged at the Old Globe in San Diego and then at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. – with major changes occurring in the development process. Some of the music was also on Martin/Brickell’s 2013 Grammy-winning album “Love Has Come For You.”

Aimed at a mainstream audience, eager to experience ebullient, up-beat Americana, “Bright Star” is a musical “must-see.”