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“Groundhog Day”

Susan Granger’s review of “Groundhog Day” (August Wilson Theater)

When Andy Karl tore a knee ligament three days before this new musical opened, people worried whether he’d be able to perform the strenuous routines. I’m happy to report that, miraculously, he runs, jumps and leaps – magnificently – aided by a black leg brace that he doesn’t even bother to disguise.

Based on Billy Murray’s beloved 1993 film, it’s the saga of worn-out Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors, who is trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, for a single day, February 2nd – that repeats and repeats and repeats.

As Groundhog Day dawns, supercilious Phil shows nothing but contempt for the celebrated rodent and “small town hicks” he’s forced to contend with, sarcastically sneering, “Will he see his shadow? Won’t he? Civilization once again hangs in the balance.”

“Small towns, tiny minds/Big mouths, small ideas…”is the way he refers to the quaint, rural community, despite the entreaties of his producer, Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss). Eventually, of course, bewildered Phil is humbled by the surreal situation in which he’s trapped and comes to recognize the kindness and humanity of the townsfolk who surround him.

Adapted by Danny Rubin from his own time-loop screenplay with songs by composer/lyricist Tim Minchin, it’s adroitly directed by Matthew Warchus, utilizing Rob Howell’s ingenious set designs, utilizing five interlocking turntables, and Paul Kieve’s amusing optical illusions.

What’s missing is the strong character arc that Bill Murray established with director Harold Ramis. While his Phil Connors was a nasty misanthrope, Andy Karl’s is just snarky and cynical. Nevertheless, you cheer when Rita helps him drop his negativity and open his heart to the simple pleasures of the world around him.

A Broadway veteran whose resume includes “Rocky,” “On the Twentieth Century” and “Legally Blonde,” Andy Karl is terrific, deserving of the standing ovation he gets after every performance. And Rebecca Faulkenberry brings down the house with her “Playing Nancy” lament.

Warning note to theatergoers: the August Wilson Theater is riddled with stairs, up-and-down, more than any other Broadway Theater. To get to your seats, it’s a hike!

Susan Granger’s review of “Come From Away” (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

 

Why do you go to theater? Because it’s entertaining and fun. Because it opens your heart, teaches life-lessons and transports you to another time, another place. Because, occasionally, it conveys the essential goodness and resiliency of the human spirit at the same, shared moment in time.

That’s why I stood up and cheered when the cast of this new Canadian musical took their bows.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, all flights in and around U.S. airspace were diverted to the nearest airport. Once a popular refueling spot on the edge of North America, Gander, Newfoundland, suddenly became the destination for nearly 7,000 bewildered passengers from around the world.

The rousing “Welcome to the Rock” introduces the insular townspeople whose morning coffee at Tim Horton’s began like any other – before the “38 Planes” began to land, sending them scrambling for “Bedding and Blankets,” not to mention school buses, warm clothing, food and medicine, as a nervous, novice TV reporter tries to chronicle the chaos.

Its book is largely based on interviews that Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein conducted in 2011, when some of the travelers returned for a 10th anniversary ceremony – because Gander’s genial, person-to-person hospitality was beyond remarkable.

A gay couple from Los Angeles was afraid of encountering homophobia but, instead, found warm acceptance, along with a distraught mother whose son was a New York City firefighter, a Texas divorcee, her amorous British acquaintance, a wary urban Black man, a Muslim chef and a rabbi – to name a just a few.

Admittedly, many of these characters are composites, but not trailblazing American Airlines pilot Beverly Bass, played by Jenn Colella, whose rousing “Me and the Sky” is a wistful feminist anthem.

Director Christopher Ashley (from California’s La Jolla Playhouse) cleverly utilizes his talented cast of 12, having them don and doff Toni-Leslie James’s accessories, like hats and jackets, to play multiple roles. Beowulf Boritt’s versatile set accommodates these shifts, as does Howell Brinkley’s lighting. The catchy, conversational, Celtic/folk rock songs are often accompanied by Kelly Devine’s stomping choreography.

The crowd-pleasing, one-hour-45-minute performance fittingly concludes on a life-affirming note: “We honor what was lost – but we also commemorate what we found.”

 

 

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

Susan Granger’s review of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Lunt-Fontanne Theater)

By the time this garishly grotesque new musical concludes, Charlie’s fabled Golden Ticket is so tarnished that its creator, Roald Dahl, would barely recognize it. “Pure Imagination” goes terribly awry!

Admittedly, it’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of Gene Wilder’s bewitching Willy Wonka, but Christian Borlie tries, embodying the charming, mischievous chocolatier, opening the show, singing one of its most popular numbers: “The Candy Man.”

The story revolves around virtuous, young Charlie Bucket (Jake Ryan Flynn) who lives with his impoverished family in the shadow of Willy Wonka’s mysterious Chocolate Factory.  Lonely and looking for a successor, Willie launches a contest, offering to open his factory to five lucky children who find Golden Tickets tucked in their candy bars – along with their parents.

Introduced by smarmy TV personalities, there’s the gross Bavarian sausage glutton, Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie); Russia’s entitled ballerina, Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle); California’s gum-snapping Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison); and Idaho’s smartphone-obsessed Mike Teevee (Michael Wartella).

Bizarrely, these obnoxious caricatures of ‘children’ are played by adults. And the cacao-craving Oompa-Loompas are “humanettes,” kneeling performers whose heads bobble above their puppet bodies.

At one point, Mrs. Teavee (Jackie Hoffman) aptly quips, “The little people are singing again. That’s never a good sign.”

Since this fanciful musical ran for almost four years on London’s West End, it’s surprising that the producers replaced not only director Sam Mendes with Jack O’Brien but also most of its creative team, as Scottish playwright David Greig relies on the bond created between fatherless Charlie and childless Wonka for emotional resonance.

While O’Brien and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman previously collaborated on “Hairspray,” the most memorable music is from the film score by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Mark Thompson’s serviceable sets and costumes disappoint, as does Joshua Bergasse’s clunky choreography.

FYI: Roald Dahl’s subversively popular 1964 book was first filmed as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) with Gene Wilder; then Johnny Depp played a creepy Wonka in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005).

Since family fare is always in demand on Broadway, it’s too bad that something magical must have been lost crossing the Pond.

“Anastasia”

Susan Granger’s review of “Anastasia” (Broadhurst Theatre)

 

Snowflakes fall as the doomed family of Tsar Nicholas II and his family frolic in the palace in St. Petersburg. Then comes the Revolution in 1918, and the Bolsheviks slaughter them, one-by-one – except 17 year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, who somehow escapes the massacre.

Skip ahead to 1927, when Anastasia (Christy Altomare) – suffering from amnesia and dubbed Anya – takes up with ambitious, young proletariat Dmitry (Derek Klena) and his mentor, paternalistic Vlad (John Bolton). They’ve devised a get-rich-quick scheme to claim that Anya is Anastasia, something that she herself doesn’t believe at first.

After hours of Henry Higgins-style tutoring, haunting dream sequences and the recollection of a lullaby hidden in a music box, Anastasia is ready to travel to Paris to be presented to her beloved Nana, the elegant Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), who fled to France along with other White Russians.

To add a note of danger, Anya’s being pursued by Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a suspicious Soviet officer. And Caroline O’Connor injects humor as the Dowager’s confidante, flirtatious Countess Lily.

Unless you’re an impressionable tween, you’ll probably come out singing the sumptuous scenery – because that’s the most impressive aspect of the show. Designed by Andrew Dodge, the immense set is stunning, particularly the imaginative train carriage, encompassing Aaron Rhyne’s amazing landscape projections. And Linda Cho’s period costumes are authentic, including Tsarina Alexandra’s tiara.

Unfortunately, Stephen Flattery’s insipid music and Lynn Ahrens’ serviceable lyrics are almost immediately forgettable, as is Terrence McNally’s dutiful libretto. So director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey visually dazzle, ingeniously moving the cast like swirling, sparkling Swarovski crystals.

FYI: If the story’s familiar, you probably saw the fanciful 1997 animated version with Meg Ryan voicing Anastasia or, better yet, Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning 1956 adaptation with Yul Brynner.

Tucked into the program, there’s a postcard on which audience members can jot down what they’d do on their journey with the hashtag #onmyjourney. Given my druthers, I’d reinstate Rasputin and his bat Bartok.

 

“Oslo”

Susan Granger’s review of “Oslo” (Vivian Beaumont Theater/Lincoln Center)

The phone rings and, suddenly, representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization are talking with officials from the government of Israel through a remarkable conduit in Oslo, Norway.

J.T. Rogers’ new play imagines how Norwegian Foreign Ministry diplomat Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) and her husband, sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), deftly organized the series of high-level, top-secret meetings that culminated in the signing of the historic 1993 Oslo Accords.

A riveting political drama revolves around these clandestine gatherings in which the unlikely participants not only negotiated peace terms but also did impersonations and told jokes. Their diligence led to the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chief Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in front of then-President Bill Clinton.

According to director Bartlett Sher, the idea ignited when Norway’s U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen told J.T. Rogers the largely unknown background history.

The initial encounters with lower-ranking officials take place at the Borregaard Estate, a chateau near Oslo, where even-tempered Mona and excitable Terje act as neutral hosts, while the cook (Henny Russell) delights the famished guests with fluffy waffles.

What made these talks work – when others failed – was utilizing the academic theory of gradualism, rather than totalism, which, as Terje explains, is rooted in the personal, not the organizational. Basically, that meant that each point of contention was addressed separately, by the participants as individuals, not as spokesmen for the sides they represented.

“It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are,” he says. And, indeed, the cross-cultural friendship that these disparate men established in Oslo over a period of nine months continued.

The various locations are delineated on the stark set designed by Michael Yeargan with crimson-cushioned benches on the floor circling the stage. Kudos to costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Peter John Sill and Marc Salzberg and projections by 59 Productions.

Admittedly, its almost three-hour length could use some judicious editing, but, as an ensemble presentation, it’s a multifaceted gem!

“War Paint”

Susan Granger’s review of “War Paint” (Nederlander Theatre)

 

Alphabetically, it’s Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein. Now, if none of these names is familiar to you, this should not be your Broadway destination.

But if you’re eager to see two dueling divas conquer the cosmetics industry. Run to the box-office.

Their story began in the mid-1930s, when women realized that a freshly scrubbed face could be chemically enhanced, giving birth to the cosmetics industry.

In Manhattan, Elizabeth Arden’s “Red Door” warmly welcomed sophisticated socialites, as genteel Miss Arden, a Canadian WASP, dispensed eternal youth in pretty, pristine, rose-petal pink packages that, admittedly, cost more than the lotions they contained.

But then formidable Helena Rubenstein, a heavily-accented Polish Jew, returned from Europe with her own innovative, scientifically formulated rejuvenation creams.

Both were determined that American women should put their “Best Face Forward.”

A bitter rivalry ensued, as Ms. Arden’s ambitious, marketing-savvy husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), transferred his allegiance to Ms. Rubenstein, while Ms. Rubenstein’s gay right-hand man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), duplicitously delivered her secret ingredients to Ms. Arden’s laboratory.

After deliberately avoiding meeting one another, yet leading parallel lives with posh salons only a few blocks from one another on Fifth Avenue, both beauty entrepreneurs ruefully confess what they’ve sacrificed to achieve success – in “If I’d Been a Man.”

And they come to realize that savvy new competitors, like glitzy Charles Revson (Erik Liberman), are crowding their extravagantly expensive products off the shelves. Looking back, Ms. Rubenstein once noted, “With Arden’s packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world.”

Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s dual biography that became a PBS documentary, it’s created by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), and artfully staged by Michael Greif with Catherine Zuber’s chic period costumes, David Korins’ artful set, and Kenneth Posner’s flattering lighting.

But the character-driven concept is only skin deep, something one realizes only at the conclusion when both ferociously competitive makeup mavens thoughtfully question: “Did we make women free-er? Or did we enslave them?” One only wishes they’d pursued this pertinent dilemma a bit further.

“War Paint” is currently playing at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street.

 

 

“In and Of Itself”

Susan Granger’s review of “In and Of Itself” (Daryl Roth Theatre)

 

Magician Derek DelGaudio astounds audiences with his new one-man show, combining confessional storytelling with amazing effects, revolving around the philosophical concepts of illusion and identity.

Even before you’re seated, audience members are presented with a pegboard, displaying about 200 small cards that begin with I AM.  Each one has a different label, like “A Doctor,” “A Happy Housewife,” “A Pirate,” “A Skeptic,” “A Film Buff” or “A Nasty Woman” (that was me!). You pick the card that best describes you and then hand it to an usher. The stack is placed on a table on the stage.

Standing in front of a wall with six cut-out compartments, DelGaudio begins by explaining the disparate items on display. There’s a figure with a gun, a bottle of booze, a wolf’s head, a balancing scale, a cabinet filled with mail and a gold brick. Each diorama has its own symbolic meaning in his life, and each precedes a magic “trick.”

But trick is the wrong word. Each demonstration serves as a metaphor and is, therefore, an integral part of the performance. Which eventually includes identifying audience members by the card they chose.

That gold brick, for example, is vital to DelGaudio’s wizardry with playing cards, yet its subsequent “disappearance” is even more of a mystery. DelGaudio asks an audience member to name a Manhattan street and another to name a cross-street. Like Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. He then explains that the gold brick has been transported to that location; if you look for it, you will find it.

The most memorable feat revolves around the cabinet filled with mail. DelGaudio chooses a seemingly random audience member to select an envelope, then open it and read the contents – not out-loud but to herself/himself – as the audience watches. The heartfelt message is obviously very intimate and personal, and the participant is moved almost to tears. How does he do it? I have no idea.

Adroitly staged by Frank Oz with mood music by Mark Mothersbaugh and subtle lighting by Adam Blumenthal, it’s a dazzling theatrical display of the magical arts.

 

“The Play That Goes Wrong”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Play That Goes Wrong” (Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre)

 

For sheer fun and laughter, you’re 100% right in choosing the hilarious “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

Imported from London’s West End after winning the coveted Olivier Award, it’s the Corney University Drama Society’s disaster-prone production of Susie H.K. Brideswell’s vintage “Murder at Haversham Manor.”

Even as the cast and crew are making last minute adjustments to the set, it begins with a warm welcome by the Society’s director, Chris Bean (Henry Shields), and the subsequent discovery of Charles Haversham’s corpse in the drawing room of his proper English country house, followed an investigation by Inspector Carter (Henry Shields).

As the whodunit unfolds, there’s deceased Charles (Greg Tannahill), and the suspects, including Charles’ deceitful brother, Max (Dave Hearn); Charles’ duplicitous fiancée, Sandra (Charlie Russell); Charles’ best-friend, Robert (Henry Lewis); and the old family butler, Perkins (Jonathan Sayer).

Meanwhile, as furniture falls, props flop, doors stick, scenery collapses and corpses walk, there’s the ubiquitous stage crew: distracted Trevor (Rob Falconer), who mismanages lights-and-sound while searching for his Duran Duran CD, and the hapless stage manager, Annie (played brilliantly by understudy Bryony Corrigan at the performance which I attended).

While the supremely talent cast delivers farcical slapstick performances, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python and “Noises Off,” the biggest kudos go to the scenic and lighting designers Nigel Hook and Rick Mountjoy who create the visual mayhem.

Devised by the collaborative group known as the Mischief Theater, it’s cleverly scripted by twentysomethings Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – from the London Academy of Dramatic Art (LAMBDA) – and adroitly directed by Mark Bell – with utmost precision and a not-so-subtle a nod to the receptiveness of American audiences.

There’s a line, “The set’s a bloody deathtrap,” and I’m told the all-British cast, making their Broadway debut, has acquired T-shirts stamped with that dialogue. I’m tempted to get one too…eagerly anticipating their sequels: “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and “A Comedy about a Bank Robbery.”

 

 

“Amelie: A New Musical”

Susan Granger’s review of “Amelie: A New Musical” (Walter Kerr Theater)

 

“Amelie: A New Musical” is absolutely awful! Let me count the ways…

Based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsical 2001 French film, starring Audrey Tatou, it’s about a young woman, Amelie Poulain, with a soaring imagination who feels compelled to do good deeds, confounding those around her.

“I can see the world I’m dreaming all around me,” sings Young Amelie (Savvy Crawford), raised in isolation by a coldly distant doctor father (Manoel Felciano), who suspects she has a heart condition, and an unloving mother (Alison Cimmmet), who’s killed by a suicidal man jumping from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral.

When she grows up, Amelie (Phillipa Soo) works in a Parisian café, surrounded by Montmartre eccentrics – plus Amelie’s nosy neighbor, Dufayel (Tony Sheldon), a fragile, elderly artist who repeatedly copies Renoir paintings.

Quirky Amelie is voyeuristically obsessed with the philanthropic nobility and tragic death of Princess Diana, which prompts a fantasy sequence as she’s serenaded by Elton John (Randy Blair).

Princess Di’s image prompts Amelie to do kind things- like returning lost ‘treasures’ and romantic match-making. Then there’s this sensitive fellow, Nino (Adam Chanler-Berat), a Pigalle porn shop clerk who collects strips of discarded snapshots from Metro station photo booths. And let’s not forget Amelie’s father’s garden gnome, who hooks up with a curvaceous stewardess and becomes a world traveler.

Ineptly adapted by Craig Lucas with charmless, derivative music by Daniel Messe and inanely rhyming lyrics by Nathan Tysen, it’s awkwardly directed by Pam McKinnon, who drenches everything with a cloying, artificial cuteness, and frenetically choreographed by Sam Pinkleton.

Waifish Phillipa Soo, who originally played Eliza in “Hamilton,” has a lovely, lilting voice; too bad it’s wasted on this drivel.

As a friend once cautioned me about a dreadful show, “Don’t even walk by the theater because it might start to rain and you’d duck in for cover” – and be trapped for an hour and 40 minutes – without an intermission. Revered New York Times critic Walter Kerr must be spinning in his grave!

 

“Kid Victory”

Susan Granger’s review of KID VICTORY (Vineyard Theater Off-Broadway)

 

An angst-filled adolescent is the pivotal player in an elusively dark, dour and disturbing new musical by Greg Pierce (“Showgirl”) and renowned Broadway composer John Kander (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), who previously collaborated on “The Landing” (2013).

In a flash-image prologue, a young man is seen handcuffed to a basement wall with only an air-mattress on the floor.

It turns out that, after disappearing several months, 17 year-old Luke Browst (Brandon Flynn) has been rescued from drugged captivity in this dungeon and returned to his small Kansas hometown.

Luke used the moniker ‘Kid Victory’ when playing an Internet boat-building and racing game. That’s how he met Yachticus Nine, a.k.a. Michael (Jeffry Denman), a creepy former high school teacher who abducted him, tranquilizing him with opiate-laced root beer.

“Her found out where I lived and…took me away,” Luke says.

Once the sordid ordeal is over and he’s back with his perplexed parents, Luke’s adjustment is difficult. His domineering mom (Karen Ziemba) is very religious, inviting a fellow churchgoer into their home for some bizarre counseling involving marbles.

While Luke’s orthodontist dad (Daniel Jenkins) tries to understand, his old girlfriend (Laura Darrell), confused by his emotional distance, warbles “I’d Rather Wait.”

The one person Luke relates to is bohemian Emily (Dee Roscioli), who gives him a job at her eclectic garden supply store. Then there’s a “Not Quite True” confrontation with a suspicious detective (Joel Blum).

Although director Liesl Tommy elicits fine performances from her cast, the book is quite confusing. Playwright Greg Pierce (nephew of actor David Hyde Pierce) never achieves the dramatic intensity of the book/film “Room,” which is also about a sexual predator holding someone in captivity.

Quite deliberately, Luke has no song. He has lost his identity. And the Kander’s downbeat music is less than memorable. This is not a ‘cast album’ you’d want to acquire and listen to later.

Bottom Line: It’s a disappointing theatrical experience.