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The Last Ship – Review

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Lately it seems that before you can even pull a room temperature pint, there’s another “working class” British musical rolling into town. Small industrial towns (having seen better days) apparently are where hardscrabble dancers and designers are born. Perhaps Broadway has become the yin to television’s posh yang of Downton Abbey and Selfridges. No one would blame you for taking one and only one look at the press releases for Sting’s The Last Ship. Enough already! But I assure you, you would regret that decision. The Last Ship is how you remember (false memory or not) musicals to be. It is moving and soaring, with dance and music that serves the story.

It is a recognizable story, one perhaps with its roots in earlier theatre – edgy son, disappointed father, abandoned love and child, redemption. There is nothing particular unusual or revelatory about the book (John Logan and Brian Yorkey) it’s simply solid and moving. It is the firm foundation for what is ostensibly a light opera. A small town has lost its only industry (ship building,) out of work and hope the men have a chance to build one last ship together. But of course it is the love story buried in the welding and winching that will break your heart. The music and lyrics (Sting) are rich, understandable and at times quite stirring. The orchestration (Rob Mathes) fills the theatre and at times transforms what very well could be considered pub music into a score. While the direction (Joe Mantello) of this large cast is superb, it is the choreography (Steven Hoggett) that brings The Last Ship to an entirely new level.

The movements are natural yet entirely rhythmic throughout the production. Set changes become dance, and the dances are so deceptively simple they are just life. Many in the large chorus are hefty blokes and to watch them move is a delight. The movement/dance suits the characters and the story and seems to be continuously in play. When the characters dance it is merely an extension of their expression. This naturalism is how they sing as well.

Nobody bursts into a number in The Last Ship. All the singing comes organically from dialogue. The character Jackie White (Jimmy Nail) actually talk/sings (a la Rex Harrison) his way through solos until joined by a chorus. It is a very effective use of his rich baritone and his role as the foreman. Gideon, the wayward son is played by two actors, the younger (Collin Kelly-Soredelet) also playing the son of Meg (Rachel Tucker.) Sound confusing? It’s not. The elder Gideon (Michael Esper) is a strong presence and it’s always clear who is who. The women are splendid but this really is a men’s show. One man practically steals it in the role of Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate.) It’s a delicious role and storyline and Mr. Applegate is just delightful.

The set (David Zin) is stark, clever, effective and serves the actors and the story. There is also some very clever lighting (Christopher Akerlind) that works as additional set. If there is any flaw at all in this production it is one song that doesn’t quite belong. I believe it’s a recycled Top 40 (of Sting’s) and I leave it to you to discover it. To find it is tantamount to finding a tiny crack in a masterpiece; it makes you appreciate the mastery even more.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2014 in Theatre

 

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The Winslow Boy – Review

Winslow Boy

Sometimes it really is just a matter of right. It can turn the world upside down and erodes health and home; letting right be done, but it is one of the few things that separates us from the animals. A flawless example of this phenomenon can be seen in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Winslow Boy. This (1946) Terrence Rattigan is based on a true turn of the (20th) century incident in England. A 14-year old boy has been accused (and expelled for) stealing a five-shilling postal note. It is a minor, at best, infraction but one that is entirely relatable in our modern world. Even without adjusting for inflation one can easily imagine a family fighting to clear the name or rectify a similar slight today.

In this production from The Old Vic and directed by Lindsay Posner it isn’t necessary to impose any modern or personal reality. The story and performances are so compelling and relatable as to stand completely on their own. For almost three hours the audience watches a family, at home, struggle with the realities of doing the right thing. We see them over the course of two years wrangle with declining resources and health. Their uncertainty, certainty, regrets, and pride are real and raw, all of it under the constraints of 1912 London manner. Making period pieces and characters believable and relatable is no easy thing. Often it is unnerving to see only a familiar actor in a wig or buckle shoe. Posner’s actors disappear into the play and all the audience sees is the characters. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Grace Winslow) is a joy to behold as she rides the emotional roller coaster the events have created. Her husband Arthur played by Roger Rees captures the quiet internal struggles of his class, time and circumstance. Charlotte Parry and Zachary Booth play the elder Winslow children to perfection. It is the youngest boy of the play’s title that is the most surprising. His role, while not huge, is pivotal and he must achieve the most challenging of technical feats. Due to the timing of the incident and length of the pursuit of justice, Ronnie Winslow must age two adolescent years. Many writers and directors suffer from age-blindness and see few gradations from 0-21. Under Posner’s direction Spencer Davis Milford portrays Ronnie with heartbreaking age accuracy. He is almost unrecognizable as he ages from Act to Act. The fragile and vulnerable child morphs into a blasé teenager. He grows up (quietly and subtly) before our eyes.

Henny Russell, Chandler Williams, Michael Cumpsty and Alessandro Nivola are wonderfully cast as Violet, John Watherstone, Desmond Curry and Sir Robert Morton. The set by Peter McKintosh has a smaller role, but a no less perfectly executed one. The living room, with doors opening to the garden and dining room, is a homey depiction of middle-class Britain. The choice to make the set static is wonderfully retro and adds much to the production. The audience feels they are peeking into a window not watching a play.

The Winslow Boy opens at the Roundabout Theatre on October 17th

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Theatre

 

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Romeo And Juliet – Review

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Within the first five minutes of Romeo and Juliet the audience is treated to; a pyrotechnics show, a flying live bird, amplified kettledrums and a movie star arriving on a motorcycle. It isn’t until the arrival of the Capulets, all played to beautiful perfection, that we realize that this is a show that has something for everyone.

Under David Leveaux’s direction this Romeo and Juliet is in essence two plays. The Montagues all appear to be Caucasian and far paler in most respects to the Capulets. The Montagues all seem to be British while the Capulets are American. This blatant use of differing accents might be apt if the setting was the Revolutionary War. But the setting is undefined. There is a bit of sand and an enormous faded fresco wall with graffiti that intentionally or not evokes the opening credits of West Side Story. The costumes are mostly subdued hued flowing Eileen Fisher type garments, and some people don’t wear shoes. In short, we’re not sure exactly where and when this is taking place, but we do know that shiny modern (and loud) motorcycles have been invented already.

The duality at play goes far beyond skin tone and accents however. The actors surrounding Romeo (Orlando Bloom) seem subdued. The fight scenes are hesitant and involve little touching (as if the actors were marking the scene.) Mr. Bloom is the most physically timid and we can almost hear him count out his moves. It doesn’t make for very interesting fight scenes, and it is a bit difficult to discern who is supposed to be injured. The physical hesitation becomes even more jarring when Romeo is paired with the fluid Juliet (Condola Rashad). Her lithe youthful movements in contrast to the (significantly older) Bloom’s rigid timidity make the age difference all the more glaring. Their scenes together often shift into consecutive monologues as it’s impossible to see what’s between them. We are certain that Juliet is smitten, but are never quite sure what Romeo feels. Several times, when Mr. Bloom could be heard and understood, I found myself wondering; is he sad is he happy? The restraint of all of the Montague players is in such contrast to the bold performances of the Capulet clan. When Juliet, the nurse (Jane Houdyshell) and either parent; (Chuck Cooper) and (Roslyn Ruff) are on stage, we’re watching a different play entirely. The theatre comes alive with their modern and passionate interpretation. They are subtle and fierce and funny and wonderful.

The fresco wall moves in several ways throughout the play and makes for a simple unobtrusive backdrop. It’s a reprieve from the frequently used blasts of fire. There is a large bell hanging from the fly throughout most of the play. It’s purpose and/or symbolism is not entirely clear. The music (when not being used to demand the audience’s attention) is a lovely addition. The cellist (Tahirah Whittington) took to the stage to play during the party scene and helped to create the most dramatic and delicious moments of the production. Luckily there are enough of these exquisite scenes to satisfy those who enjoy such things. There is also plenty to make special effects fans happy. And the people who come to see a movie star stand on a stage and speak will be satisfied as well. It is an interesting balance Mr. Leveaux has achieved.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Theatre

 

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The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin – Review

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What is rehabilitation and is there such a thing as redemption? Can time served ever neutralize crimes committed? Can a life, interrupted by crime and punishment ever resume a recognizable form? Or is a prison term simply the beginning of the punishment? Steven Levenson’s The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin poses these questions with honest, powerful and very real results.

Tom Durnin (David Morse) appears at his son James’ (Christopher Denham) door after five years in prison. Tom is charming and smooth as he convinces his estranged son to temporarily house him. Father and son have much in common as they struggle (quite independent from one another) to get their lives back utilizing similar means. However, it is the wide chasm between them that dominates their relationship. They both grasp, with fits and starts at women to shape their lives. James meets the lovely, skittish Katie (Sarah Goldberg) at a creative writing class. Their attempt at courtship rings painfully true with equal parts endearment and frustration. Meanwhile Tom keeps his eye on the prize of seeing his ex-wife Karen (Lisa Emery). He cajoles, connives and threatens his son and his son-in-law Chris (Rich Sommer) for his ex’s whereabouts. He is unrelenting and there’s no doubt he will get his way. Chris endures much of the bewitching and terrifying negotiations of Tom. Chris is an easy and vulnerable target as he’s agreed to meet with Tom against his wife’s wishes. Tom’s got him, and courts and threatens him in pursuit of a job and his ex-wife.

Tom is charming and scary, and there is no better actor than Mr. Morse than to deftly and winningly play such a character. Tom’s explosions are not simply the result of rage, but are driven by a profound sadness and loss. In Mr. Morse’s hands these episodes send chills down the spine and tears to the eyes. He wants his life back. He’s done his time, he’s apologized and taken responsibility, but there’s no going back. His ex-wife has remarried, after enduring public humiliation and financial ruin. His daughter and her children are lost to him. And it’s not clear if he will ever be reinstated to the bar and move on from his barrista job. In less deft hands, the play might verge on cloying or even twee. But there is no slipping into sentimentality and these characters are fully formed (and beautifully performed.) No one is a villain or a hero; there are no right or easy answers only varying shades of grey. Directed by Scott Ellis, the production is delicately balanced. The fluid staging and the honest performances are the perfect match to the script. The ending is the finest example of Mr. Levenson’s restraint. Everything is poised for a satisfying and definitive conclusion, but instead it all stays very real making it all that much more moving.

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durning is playing at the Roundabout Theatre

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2013 in Theatre

 

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The Old Friends – Review

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What constitutes binding ties? Are they marital, familial or just familiarity? Horton Foote looks to untangle this question in the posthumous premiere; The Old Friends. Set in 1965 outside of Houston, Texas six adults are locked in a combustible and static pattern of interaction. The (often alcohol fueled) attacks and schemes are delivered daily. They may be dressed slightly differently from day to day, but they are the same greed, jealousy and loneliness inspired displays. These displays make for some phenomenal scenes and performances but are difficult to absorb.

Julia (Veanne Cox) is married to fabulously wealthy Albert (Adam LeFevre). Her mother Mamie (Lois Smith) lives with them. The play opens with the family awaiting the arrival of Julia’s ne’er do well brother and his wife Sybil (Hallie Foote.) Sybil arrives alone, freshly widowed and destitute. Mamie is distraught but not for reasons one might assume. Her son is dead and so is her plan of living with him (evidently life with her daughter is a virtual living hell, or so we’re told.) Small, stunned, nondescript Sybil is left alone in the living room when tornado Gertrude (Betty Buckley) arrives. In perhaps the greatest character study of pure narcissism ever to hit a stage, Gertrude goes on the most delicious rant about how she’s been treated at the cocktail party. Julia has been hitting on her man Howard (Cotter Smith) who incidentally is the brother of Gertrude’s late husband. There sits newly widowed Sybil looking and being treated like part of the furnishings. She’s better off to be frank, as there is an odd vortex at work here. Unlike Mamie’s reported mistreatment we actually see all the other wretchedness. These people are caught in an interpersonal dance that one might expect on a remote island not amongst people with the means to escape. Julia and Gertrude fight over the same men over and over again. They are not related and have gobs of money. Why are they locked in this mode, dragging everyone in and down with them? It’s not clear.

What is clear is that these parts are written with actors in mind and director Michael Wilson makes the most of that. Betty Buckley’s Gertrude will be the standard for every subsequent performer. It is no easy feat to portray drunkenness and keep a character interesting. Ms. Buckley is riveting and uses her voice (not surprisingly) in the most powerful way. The soft raspy sadness that bubbles up after one too many, the controlled and uncontrolled rage and the lyrical flirtations make for a vocal symphony. Howard (or probably any other human) is no match to her passions and fervor. He is merely there to keep away the loneliness (as we learn in a confession reminiscent of a 3:00 AM Judy Garland phone call) and she will fight to the finish to keep her fear of loneliness at bay. Howard however has been pining for Sybil for years. He seems a bright and interesting guy and it’s hard to see why he’d be holding a torch for such a meek and mousy woman. Perhaps it’s simply the result of thirty years in the presence of Gertrude and Julia. Julia (who seems to go after Howard in some sort of non-sibling rivalry with Gertrude) is loud and boozy as well. She just wants to have a good time and feels everyone is standing in her way. Her wig, physique and mannerisms often hint to Carol Burnett’s poignant portrayal of Eunice. Again, why don’t these people leave? This question hangs in the air as a trip to New York City is cancelled by Gertrude. Why didn’t they just go without her? How does a woman who’s not even related hold the reins so firmly?

We never really discover what the ties are. The ending of the play is so abrupt as to suggest that there are no answers to be had.

The Old Friends is playing (August 20 – September 29) at the Signature Theatre

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2013 in Theatre

 

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