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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 Uncategorized

 

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On The Town (Broadway) – Review

On The Town

A town’s a lonely town, when you pass through and there is no one waiting there for you, then it’s a lonely town.

A surefire (at least temporary) cure for that loneliness is to head over to the Lyric Theatre for the most recent (nearly perfect) revival of On The Town. Leonard Bernstein’s moving and joyful score (conducted by John Miller) and Jerome Robbins’ inspired dance would be enough to lift one’s spirit and believe that New York is in fact a helluva town. But the execution of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Book & Lyrics are what make this production soar. Much attention is paid to the dance and that’s the way it should be. On The Town is first and foremost a dance show (originating from by Mr. Robbins’ ballet, Fancy Free.)

Director John Rando understands and allows the dance and general movement to tell much of the story. He choreographs additional movement having the actors move through the house several times (to varying effect.) This device works best during Lonely Town as Ensemble members sing plaintively to the house. This might not work with every cast but this Ensemble is flawless and inspiring. There seems to be nothing they can’t do. Much of the principals are equally up to the task. Tony Yazbeck is a poignant Gabey, and I wished for more stage time for him. His sailor brothers, Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip) and Clyde Alves (Ozzie) are no less wonderful but saddled with much more distraction than Gabey. The purest moments happen when Gabey is on stage.

That purity (otherwise known as relying on the brilliance of the material) is widely in place. The orchestra (Yes, and actual in-house orchestra!) is stupendous and spot on. The sets are clean (Beowulf Boritt) yet evocative and only add to the experience. Much of the casting generates the same effect. Megan Fairchild (Ivy) is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and makes her acting debut  with On The Town. She holds her own up there and is a brilliant dancer. It’s never quite clear what the attraction is between she and Gabey however. Alysha Umphress is a very entertaining Hildy, and while my heart still belongs to Leslie Kritzer (in the NY City Center Encores! 2008 production) Ms. Umphress was very good. Elizabeth Stanley plays Claire, who is obsessed with the primitive man, or any man for that matter. She has a lot of personality but might not be best suited to the role. Not a dancer and by nature a booming singer, her performance was a bit too burlesque for that of Claire (originated by Betty Comden.) The characterization made for very little difference between Hildy and Claire. Mention must be made of Philip Boykin who opened the show with I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet. He enlivened and deepened every character he played and was an absolute joy to behold. The audience’s favorite however was Jackie Hoffman. Playing the Little Old Lady, Maude P. Dilly and others; she is on stage an awful lot. This role was played by Andrea Martin in the 2008 Encores! production. Ms. Martin was funny and lovely and pitch perfect. I longed for her. Ms. Hoffman’s portrayal (of everyone) was cartoonish and the audience loved it. But nothing, not even the thickest slice of ham can spoil this New York specialty. Yes the costumes (Jess Goldstein) were more suited to the Guys & Dolls gangsters and gals. The addition of overt sexuality and discomforting homosexual stereotypes was distracting and in very bad taste. And yes it was a bit odd to have the show stopped to sing Happy Birthday to & discuss the career aspirations of (presumably) a child of one of the (THIRTY) producers. But the truth of the matter is that three hours flew by and there was never a dull moment. And sitting with all those wonderful people in the dark, soaking in one of the great American Musical was the panacea for a lonely town.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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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 Uncategorized

 

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Romeo And Juliet – Review

R&J

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 Uncategorized

 

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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 Uncategorized

 

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