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On A Clear Day You Can See Forever – Review

A new Broadway Baby has been born, and delivered to an unstable home.  Jessie Mueller is making a show-stopping debut in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever in what used to be the starring role of Daisy/Melinda.  This revival, starring Harry Connick Jr. (Dr. Mark Bruckner) has been “re-conceived” within an inch of its life.  (On the heels of the “new” Porgy and Bess, this phenomenon really begs the question; “If you don’t care for the original show, why are you reviving it?”)

The basic premise of all former productions including the film is; a wonderfully talented woman (Daisy/Melinda) with low self-esteem seeks out a psychiatrist to assist her in quitting smoking.  Through clinical hypnosis sessions, her past life (in the 19th century) is revealed.  After a few sessions, the psychiatrist falls in love with the recovered memory.  With music by Burton Lane, and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, it was a kicky addition to the 1960s musical genre.  The songs aren’t terribly memorable (save for the title song) but there is a certain charm about the show.

Today, with approximately 20 producers (including Mr. Lerner’s daughter) and a new book by Peter Parnell, the show is almost unrecognizable.  The character of Daisy, is now a gay man (David Turner) when awake in present day.  The time period (of present day) is now 1974 and the flashbacks are 1943.  Mr. Turner’s character, David, has none of the charm and talents of the original character Daisy.  He is a milquetoast slight child/man who is hesitant to move in with his boyfriend on their one-year anniversary.  The boyfriend, Warren (Drew Gehling) makes many musical and non-musical references to their one day getting married.  Because that is what homosexual men in 1974 evidently talked about.  Changing the gender and sexual orientation of the lead serves no purpose except self-indulgent ones (whatever they may be.)  It adds nothing to the story, if anything it takes away any believability and creates awkward moments.  Is my world view to be challenged by accepting it is not offensive to suggest a homosexual man is no more than a repressed woman inside?  And while we’re at it, am I not to be offended by a (presumably) all white cast?  The biggest of all the crimes of this “re-conception” is that it diminishes Jessie Mueller’s role to that of a walk-on.  Her voice and demeanor are reminiscent of a young Liza Minnelli.  She is funny and poignant, has incredible stage presence and possesses a voice that is not to be believed.  She stopped the show with her number Ev’ry Night At Seven.  That second act number and a ballroom dance number (in Act I with David, Melinda and Dr.Bruckner) are the true gems of the show.

Directed and “re-conceived” by Michael Mayer, the show has very little dancing, which really is just as well, as the ensemble includes not one dancer.  The two requisite chorus song and dance numbers are dull and give the impression of fulfilling a requisite.  But the ballroom dance number (Joann M. Hunter, choreographer) is wonderfully conceived and executed.

The set (Christine Jones) is simple and streamlined and a bit noisy.  The costumes (Catherine Zuber) are somewhat schizophrenic.  The 1943 costumes are simply lovely, they are appropriately costume-y, to portray a waitress, band singer, etc.  The 1974 ensemble of the show is dressed as H.R. Puffentstuff extras.  They are color coordinated cartoon-y interpretations of how students (in their 30s) dressed.  Mr. Connick is dressed in a 2011 suit and tie.  His long suffering colleague Sharone (the lovely Kerry O’Malley) is dressed for a Cosmopolitan photo layout.  She has more costume changes than anyone else, and each wrap dress is stunning.  There is nothing about her character to suggest she is a fashionista, but I enjoyed the clothes.

Clumsy, self-serving revisions aside, it can not go without mention, that a director needs to work very very hard to strip Harry Connick Jr. of all charm and humor.  Granted, Dr. Bruckner is not the most scintillating character ever conceived, but in this production he is on thorazine.  Luckily, Dr. Bruckner has many songs, and oh to listen to Harry Connick Jr. sing from just a few feet away!  But if you have ever seen Mr. Connick Jr. live, even having just a casual conversation, you will not recognize him in this fugue state.  Meanwhile, much exuberance and stage time is given to the character of Muriel (Sarah Stiles,) David’s roommate.  She is a non- traditionally attractive quasi ethnic looking friend to all gay men (get it?)  I’m sure she’s a talented woman, but this role is a caricature and employs one of those novelty voices that I don’t enjoy (think Kristin Chenoweth as a muppet.)  Giving this character more stage time than Jessie Mueller, is a poor but fixable choice.

And some fixing they will do.  I saw this production one week into previews and on the night the second act was entirely re-worked (and ran 20 minutes over.)  Removing the misguided attempts at laugh lines (Cher and Barbra Streisand cringe inducing “jokes”) is an easy cut.  There is time to fix the sound and give Harry Connick Jr. more to work with, but the re-conceived conceit is not going anywhere.  I am not a stolid traditionalist, I like new things.  I loved Mr. Mayer’s Spring Awakening.  But I am not a fan of changing something just to say it’s new.  I am not buying that something is improved just because it’s changed either.  And I will never ever support squandering talent.  Ms. Mueller deserves a better debut and Mr. Connick Jr. deserves a better role.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Private Lives – Review

I’ve never been a fan of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.  I suppose I have found the play to simply belabor the issue.  A little voice in my head starts declaring; “very well then, get on with it will you.”  Don’t get me wrong, I am not immune to the charms of a well delivered; “Don’t quibble Sybil,” I just find the premise does not warrant a full length play.  However, nothing was going to stand in the way of seeing Paul Gross on stage.  Mr. Gross (Slings and Arrows) is a delicate actor who is a master of comedy and quite simply is dreamy.  There, I’ve said it.

So it was Mr Paul Gross who got me to the Music Box to see the newest (via London’s West End and Toronto) production of Private Lives.  Directed by Richard Eyre, and originating in London, the cast speaks in British accent.  I found this far less distracting than did others in the audience.  Mr. Gross (Elyot) and Kim Cattrall (Amanda) are clearly not British but the supporting cast; Simon Paisley Day (Victor) and Anna Madeley (Sybil) are.  There is a lightness, or perhaps a gaiety to this production which I have never before seen.  Ms. Cattrall plays Amanda as a lovely ephemeral good time gal.  While Mr. Gross relishes his role as Elyot, giving the character subtle and overt humor.  It is very easy to see why they would be besotted with each other.  Yet, the actors seem to be anything but.  Independently, they are quite wonderful.  However, there really is no chemistry between them.  Their kisses are awkward and somewhat embarrassing.  Yet, even seen as interlacing monologues, their scenes are enjoyable.  The production is at its best when all four actors are on stage together.

There are some technical issues with this production that left me scratching my head.  This Private Lives has joined the ranks of age-blind casting.  Always such a baffling endeavor in a play which announces everyone’s age.  I suppose it should not be surprising today when people dress and inject themselves to remain forever young.  But people in their fifties playing people who are 30 will always seem strange to me.  I am not a fan of changing a playwright’s words to suit a director’s agenda.  So I will have to declare this play simply miscast.  There were some technical issues with the set as well.  This is at least the third staging of this production, yet some of the set (Rob Howell) struck me as a bit community theatre.  During intermission, two stage hands came out to the apron with a hand-held drill to dismantle the balcony.  In Act II, several props pooped out and the fish tank terrified the actors (I’m guessing something very very bad had happened recently.) The canned music coming out of the piano being “played” by Mr. Gross was just bizarre.  Adding to that the curtain delays and missed light cues, I was left wondering what the story was.

Ms. Cattrall does a lovely job with Amanda’s dialogue, delivering her lines on the top of her voice and also looking divine.  However she is terribly uncomfortable with the physicality of the role.  There is a mental metronome in her head that is very distracting to the audience: “Step two three four. Light cigarette two three four. Place glass on ledge two three four.”  The “fight” scene in Act II was painful to witness.

Yet for all of these bumps in the road, of a play I don’t really care for, I am terribly pleased I had the opportunity to see Mr. Gross stake his claim to the Broadway stage.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Cotton Club Parade – Review

Last night I stepped into a magical way-back machine and found myself at The Cotton Club in the 1930s.  The Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Parade is a phenomenal collaboration of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) and City Center Encores.  These two organizations, on their own, produce some of the finest arts experiences in New York City.  Together, they have created an astounding evening.

The newly renovated N.Y. City Center was a packed house dotted with celebrities and what appeared to be audience members from the actual Cotton Club’s opening night.  The crowd’s reaction was equal parts stunned silence and pounding ovation.  Warren Carlyle directed the evening, with an old fashioned show biz sensibility.  Two dozen numbers were performed by the Wynton Marsalis Orchestra and a powerhouse cast of singers and dancers.  Lighting and one portable set of five steps were the only devices in play.  The voices were pure and perfect and the dancing was simply not to be believed.  I relished my fourth row view of tap dancing feet, which reinforced that yes, these men really were defying the laws of physics.

All the numbers had Mr. Ellington’s fingerprints on them (either through composition or arrangement) and some were recognizable classics.  Even more enjoyable however, were the new (to my ears) numbers that rarely receive play anymore.  The interplay between orchestra, singers and dancers was lovely and organic.  I was at times reminded of the show Black and Blue (1989) a revue of the music of Paris in the 1930s.  From the very first note, I longed to be seated at a cabaret table sipping champagne.  My feet tapped the rhythm uncontrollably and my fingers drummed the melody as I itched to bound onto a dance floor.

Like all Encores productions, Cotton Club Parade has a very limited run.  There is a bitter-sweetness about seeing this production.  It is a jarring reminder that excellent theatrical experiences can be created, if people so chose.  Shows with nary a gimmick, a video projection, an engineered voice or a television personality can sell out and be enthusiastically received.  I do hope that this JALC and Encores collaboration is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

 

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Seminar – Review

Not all writing is the same.  To write effective fiction (plays, stories, novels,) one must create a believable world.  The writer starts with nothing and creates a reality.  It can be a lonely and torturous task fraught with countless potential missteps.  It is no wonder that there is a robust cottage industry of workshops, salons, colonies and retreats for these people.

One of these workshops is the setting for the new Theresa Rebeck play Seminar.  Four young(ish) fiction writers are gathering weekly in an upper west side apartment to reap the wisdom and guidance of a larger than life writer/editor.  The bombastic arrogant tutor, Leonard (Alan Rickman) creates a centrifuge where only the talented survive.  The four writers; Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O’Connell and Hettienne Park are easily recognizable types.  Kate (Rabe) is our Bennington graduate host.  She lives in her parent’s nine room rent – controlled apartment, presumably alone.  Rabe is an absolutely delightful actress.  (The part of Kate is somewhat mannered and at times Ms. Rabe’s similarity to her mother was staggering.)  Martin (Linklater,) Kate’s friend from high school is quiet, insecure, stewing in his own juices.  Douglas (O’Connell) is an amusing blowhard with a family name, connections and penchant for unknowingly inventing words.  Izzy (Park) carries her sexuality like a miniature chihuahua.  She is never without it and uses it as if she’s invented it.  Three guesses which one of these people is the one with the earth shattering talent.

Seminar, directed by Sam Gold hits every performance note perfectly, yet it did not move me.  The acting is superb, without question.  And while, talking about writing is tantamount to dancing about architecture, that wasn’t entirely the issue.   Let’s be clear though, navel gazing gets old fast, particular on a large Broadway stage.  I think it was the cleanliness that left me cold.  All but the last 20 minutes of the play are set in the sprawling overly decorated apartment.  We never meet the rightful “owners” nor know anything about them.  But would parents who sired a Bennington writer and have called the upper west side home for decades, really decorate with color coordinated books?  I understand the point designer David Zinn was making, particularly at the reveal of Leonard’s dark loft groaning under the weight of thousands of books.  But believability was sacrificed to make that particular point.  None of the writers spoke of jobs or any means of support.  Where on earth they did come up with 5,000 dollars each for this seminar?  The only character who convinced me was Douglas.  He’s been around the block.  He is not a novice, having done his time at Yaddo and currently in conversations with The New Yorker.  Making a connection with Leonard is a solid investment for Douglas and one no doubt paid for by his family. For the most part, the characters were too predictable as were their sexual dalliances.  It was all a bit too tidy.

Taking nothing away from the performances or even the production as a whole, the play left me cold.  However, I also walked out on Midnight in Paris.  Please do not let the fact that I don’t consider “look how clever I am” to be a sufficiently entertaining premise, prevent you from enjoying this very solid and beautifully acted production.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Man and Boy – Review

The Rondabout Theatre Company has mounted a revival of Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy.  For those with a pressing engagement or abbreviated attention span, I will cut to the chase: it is phenomenal.

Frank Langella (‘nough said?) stars in this drama set in Greenwich Village in 1934.  Directed by Maria Aiken, the fluid and balanced action unfolds in real time one October evening.  Man and Boy, written in 1961, feels terribly modern both in its storyline and style.  Langella’s character, Gregor Antonescu is an international financier, credited with resuscitating the European markets after World War I.  He is debonair, larger than life, steely, and by his own admission, without conscious.  Things have come to a bit of a nasty head for G.A., as he is known to his trusty assistant Sven Johnson (Michael Siberry) who bears a second cousin resemblance to Max in Sunset Boulevard.  Sven seeks out the Greenwich Village apartment of G.A.’s estranged son Basil (Adam Driver) for a clandestine business meeting.  Basil has denounced his lineage and lives as a piano playing socialist in a dreary basement apartment (designed by Derek McLane.)  Underneath the thin layer of his disguise is Basil’s adulation of dear old dad.

Not surprisingly G.A.’s impulse upon seeing his son for the first time in five years, is to offer the young man to his closeted business adversary.  Prostituting one’s young, does not earn any parenting awards, but it feels completely in character for G.A.  There is nothing surprising about the turn in the story, yet it must be said that the matinee audience (of a certain age and with just a hint of bridge and tunnel A.O.C.) giggled nervously with the implications.  This storyline is not meant to be funny, and in 1934 Greenwich Village socialist circles, homosexual activity would not be unknown.  I suspect a different audience would have a different response.

The cast is perfectly balanced out by Basil’s girlfriend Carol (Virginia Kull,) the business nemesis Mark (Zach Grenier) his accountant Beeston (Brian Hutchinson) and  G.A.’s second wife the (purchased title of) Countess (Francesca Faridany.)  The relationships and interactions between these characters is completely thought out and believable.  Most of us won’t commandeer a basement apartment in an attempt to rescue our international financial empire, but we can relate and understand the words and actions of all of these characters.  That is the mark of truth in writing.

This production has an overall British feel to it, no accident considering the lineage of some of the creative team.  There is a simple intelligence to the production that this play richly deserves.  There are plays that take (well rewarded) effort on the part of the audience.  I love Martin McDonagh, but you better not blink for 2 hours or you will be lost.  Additionally, plays steeped in symbolism can be a delicious intellectual exercise.  But there is something to say for clean, emotionally true drama.  And when it’s exquisitely executed, it is a must see.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2011 in Theatre

 

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