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“Nora”

Susan Granger’s review of “Nora” at the Westport Country Playhouse (July, 2014)

 

Referred to as the father of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen was the first to propel contemporary dilemmas onto the stage, addressing changes that were occurring during the late 19th century. In “A Doll’s House” (1879), he explored a woman’s place in male-dominated Norwegian society, which Ingmar Bergman adapted into Swedish in 1981, adroitly cutting about a third of the original play, retitling it “Nora” and, not surprisingly, making it far more cinematic. And the essential dilemma still remains relevant.

In this translation by Fredrick J. Market and Lise-Lone Marker, the characters are reduced to a quintet:  beautiful, beguiling Nora (Liv Rooth), her dominating husband Torvald Helmer (Lucas Hall), her old friend Kristine Linde (Stephanie Janssen), the family physician/confidante, Dr. Rank (LeRoy McClain), and unscrupulous Nils Krogstad (Shawn Fagan), a bank clerk from whom Nora obtained a loan under false pretenses and without her husband’s knowledge, yet, ostensibly, to save his life.

Imaginatively directed by David Kennedy, time and place are amorphous, barely indicated by scenic designer Kristen Robinson’s minimalist set and Katherine Roth’s circa 20th century costumes.  Through sheer artistry, Liv Rooth allows the audience to see through the uncertainty of Nora’s mask, to see the doll dancing, while Lucas Hall brings a warmth and vulnerability that’s rarely seen in Torvald, even when he asserts, “No man will sacrifice his honor for love,” to which Nora replies, “Millions of women have.” She plays her role, just as he plays his – as their co-dependency becomes transparent.

But what audiences will remember most about this production is its bizarre conclusion. Eliminating Nora’s traditional slamming of the door as she leaves the Helmer home in order to grow up and make her own way in the world, instead, there’s Torvald, stripped not only of his clothes but also of his dreams and desires.

The powerful and, inevitably, controversial “Nora” runs through Aug. 2 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

“Endurance”

Susan Granger’s review of “Endurance” (Stage II, Long Wharf Theater: June, 2014)

 

What does contemporary downsizing in a fictional Hartford, Connecticut, insurance company have in common with the challenges facing heroic British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton whose ship was trapped in Antarctica for two years in the early 20th century? That’s the premise of Nick Ryan’s new play at Stage II of the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven.

A lot – at least acccording to Walter Spivey (Christopher Hirsh). When haplessly insecure Spivey is promoted to department manager, while his colleagues are being fired, he learns inspiring lessons about leadership from reading Shackleton’s memoir:  Like getting to know his discouraged staff better by asking unusual questions that reveal their hobbies and interests and creating genuine teamwork by allowing them to invent new solutions to the old problem of backlogged claims. Above all, as Shackleton wrote, “Optimism is true moral courage.”

So when you contrast Antarctica’s icy landscape with the bleak coldness of corporate-profit mentality, the poignant travails of sailors and suits are actually not that much different in today’s business world.

What’s most exciting is how they interweave these diverse elements. According to press notes: “Split Knuckle Theatre creates dynamic, physical, visually striking theater from simple materials. Through imagination, text and movement, we create vast landscapes, vivid characters, and epic stories.”

Working collaboratively, the four energetic, acrobatic actors (Christopher Hirsh, Andrew Grusetskie, Jason Bohon and Greg Webster as Shackleton), playing multiple roles, maneuver three tables on rollers, a metal filing cabinet, hat rack, some chairs and three huge wastebaskets, subtly crafting not only the paper-pushing specificity of their monotonous office environment but also dramatizing the edgy crew on Shackleton’s doomed ship.  Zany humor abounds, augmented by Ken Clark’s musical accompaniment, Dan Rousseau’s lighting and Lucy Brown’s minimal costumes/accessories.

This 90-minute intermissionless work is the most innovative, exciting theater I’ve seen in a long time. But it closes on June 29. So if you want to share this experience, call the box-office at (203) 787-4242 or visit www.longwharf.org immediately.

“Sing For Your Shakespeare”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sing For Your Shakespeare” (Westport Country Playhouse, June 2014)

To celebrate William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, this vibrant new musical revue takes, quite literally, what Cole Porter so aptly wrote in “Kiss Me Kate”: “Brush up your Shakespeare. Start quoting him now….”

In its world premiere, the stylish cabaret show explores through song, dance and verse how the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon’s works have shaped the popular American songbook. The 27 segments include familiar show tunes like “Falling in Love with Love” from “The Boys From Syracuse” by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics), along with “Maria,” “Tonight” and “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).  Others are delightfully different, like Frank Loesser’s novelty number, “Hamlet,” originally sung by Betty Hutton in John Farrow’s 1949 movie “Red, Hot and Blue,” and “Ariel,” written by Julie Flanders (lyrics) and Emil Adler (music) as the second track on their first October Project album released by Epic Records in 1993.

The diverse six-member cast includes Karen Akers, Britney Coleman, Darius de Haas, Stephen DeRosa, Constantine Germanacos and Laurie Wells. They not only sing superbly but enunciate every word clearly, no matter how complex the sonnet or verse.…a remarkable tribute unto itself!

Co-conceived by Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos, music director Wayne Barker and playwright Deborah Grace Winer, the idea originated at the 92nd Street Y, where Winer is artistic director of the Lyrics & Lyricists concert series. Backed by a seven versatile musicians, the creative, if loosely structured revue is set on an elegantly raked stage, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, complete with Elizabethan verses scribbled on the archway, curtain and backdrop. There are glittering lighting effects by Robert Wierzel, playful choreography by Dan Knechtges and graceful costuming by Candice Donnelly.

Running 90 minutes with no intermission, “Sing For Your Shakespeare” is terrific. Rejoice in this unique, festive frolic at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 28. For more information, call (203) 227-4177 or toll-free 1-888-927-7529 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.

 

 

“Just Jim Dale”

Susan Granger’s review of “Just Jim Dale” (Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater – June, 2014)

 

If you’re looking for light-hearted, feel-good fun that’s geared to amuse – you can’t do better than Jim Dale’s 90-minute retrospective of his 64 years in show-business, making tuneful stops at “Barnum” (1980) – for which he won a Tony – and “Me and My Girl” (1986), including revealing that he wrote the Oscar-nominated title song for Lynn Redgrave’s “Georgy Girl” (1966).

Born in the “dead, dead, dead center of England,” Dale says his father worked in an iron foundry and his mother in as shoe factory. Beginning with his childhood introduction to British Music Hall tradition, he took dancing lessons, becoming the “Billy Elliot” of his neighborhood. Dale relates how is proper name was “Jim Smith” – until there was a typographical error on his contract, giving him the same surname as his agent.  As Jim Dale, his career climbed steadily upwards – from pratfalls to curtain calls – with a brief stop as a pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll pop star. He first appeared on the American stage in 1973.

While they may not recognize him in person, Jim Dale’s voice is familiar to children as narrator of all seven Harry Potter books – and he relates a small section as Dobby the House Elf. Dale holds three Guinness World Records: one for creating 134 different character voices for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the second for 147 voices for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” and the third for occupying the first six places in the Top Ten Audio Books of America and Canada. Sadly, Dale never appeared in any of the Harry Potter movies, although, apparently, director Chris Columbus listened to his audiobooks for ideas as to what the characters should sound like.

Directed by Richard Maltby Jr., this musically punctuated autobiography is adroitly written and performed by Dale, accompanied by pianist Mark York. Dressed in belted trousers and a silk shirt, he cavorts around the stage like a teenager, belying his age of 78. And his comic timing is impeccable.

Rejoice in this summer romp!

 

“Violet”

Susan Granger’s review of “Violet” (Roundabout Theatre Co. at American Airlines Theater)

 

Two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster’s back on Broadway in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s low-key, country/bluegrass, gospel-flavored 1977 musical about a vulnerable, scarred 25 year-old who – in the segregated American South in September, 1964 – sets off to see a televangelist she hopes will heal her. Expertly directed by Leigh Silverman, her arduous Greyhound bus trip turns out to be a heart-warming journey to self-acceptance.

An orphaned farm girl, Violet Karl (Sutton Foster) is determined to exorcise her demons when she leaves her tiny hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to head for Tulsa, Oklahoma. Facially disfigured by an accident from a flying axe blade wielded by her widower father (Alexander Gamignani), she’s acutely self-conscious – although the actual scar is left to the audience’s imagination – and filled with dreams about acquiring Gene Tierney’s eyes, Grace Kelly’s nose, Ingrid Bergman’s cheekbones, Judy Garland’s chin and Rita Hayworth’s skin.  Among her fellow travelers are an anxious, elderly lady (Annie Golden) and two young soldiers, fresh out of boot camp and likely to be shipped out to Vietnam:  womanizing Monty (Colin Donnell) and his African-American buddy, Flick (Joshua Henry). By the time they stop for an overnight in Memphis, Violet has teamed up with the guys, who vie for her attention, as she determinedly prepares to visit the self-proclaimed miracle worker (Ben Davis).

Based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” a short story by Doris Betts, this revival was ignited by an Encores! Concert event in 2013 that solidified Sutton Foster’s commitment to the project. Perching music director Michael Rafter and his nine-piece band on-stage, the Roundabout Theater has kept the concept simple and unadorned, eschewing the usual Broadway glitz and glamor. David Zinn’s utilitarian, A-frame set serves as the bus station, diner, gas station, hotel, Beale Street bar and church hall. And talented newcomer Emerson Steele embodies Violet in numerous flashbacks as a feisty 13 year-old, while the most memorable musical numbers include “On My Way” and “Let It Sing.”

It’s captivating, richly soul-satisfying theater.

“Bullets Over Broadway”

 Susan Granger’s review of “Bullets Over Broadway” (St. James Theater)

 

Director/choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”), a five-time Tony Award winner, has staged this exuberant musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s zany 1994 showbiz movie, which asks: How much would you compromise for your art? For those involved in theater, films, art and dance – that question is always timely and very relevant.

Set in 1920s Prohibition Era Manhattan, the story revolves around a delusional, first-time playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff), and his mobster producer/investor, Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore).  Then there’s David’s homespun girl-friend Ellen (Betsy Wolfe) who cannot compete with the glamorous allure of aging diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie) – along with the brainless, gold-digging chorus girl Olive Neal (Helene Yorke) and gluttonous leading man, pompous Walter Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas).  But the real how stealer is 6’5” tall Nick Cordero as Cheech, the sardonic thug assigned to be Olive’s bodyguard who surreptitiously rewrites David’s heavy-handed dialogue, transforming it into sheer fun, when he’s not bumping off rival goons, dumping them into the Gowanus Canal and crooning “Up a Lazy River.”

Adapted by Woody Allen, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Douglas McGrath, the vintage musical score includes Tin Pan Alley songs picked by Stroman and music supervisor Glen Kelly, who tweaked some of the public domain lyrics to fit the timeframe. Santo Loquasto, who designed the film, reprises with lavish sets and William Ivey Long creating splendid period costumes.

Doing a full-fledged Woody Allen neurotic riff, Zach Braff (TV’s “Scrubs”), who says he hasn’t sung since Stagedoor Manor theater camp, is boyishly ingratiating. Memorable, happy-tappy musical numbers include “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Runnin’ Wild” and “Tiger Rag,” although “The Hot Dog Song” is a total dud.  All-in-all – it’s good, not great.

(FYI: In the movie version, John Cusack played the lead with Mary-Louise Parker as his girl-friend, Dianne Wiest as the diva and Chazz Palmintieri as the goon.)

“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.