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“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.

“If I Forget”

Susan Granger’s review of “If I Forget” (Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre)

 

Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hanson”) has written one of this year’s most provocative Off-Broadway plays.

This Jewish-American family drama takes place in an upper-middle class neighborhood of Washington, D.C., at the turn of the last century – 2000-2001 – in the midst of political turmoil, specifically the breakdown of the Israel-Palestine peace process.

As the three adult Fischer offspring gather to celebrate the 75th birthday of their recently widowed father, Lou (Larry Bryggman), it becomes obvious that he can no longer live alone in the family home.

Although he’s up for academic tenure, scholarly son Michael (Jeremy Shamos) is about to publish a highly controversial book, “Forgetting the Holocaust,” asserting that the Holocaust obsession that haunts the minds of American Jews has made contemporary Judaism “a religion and a culture of, frankly, death and death worship.”

As a W.W. II veteran who helped liberate Dachau, Lou is deeply offended. “For you, history is an abstraction,” he says. “But for us, the ones who survived this century, this long, long century, there are no abstractions anymore.”

Adding to their angst, Michael and his Gentile wife Ellen (Tasha Lawrence) have a troubled teenage daughter, Abby, currently traveling in Jerusalem on a Birthright trip to Israel.

Like most families, each sibling has his/her memories and often differing versions of family history. Michael’s older sister, caustic Holly (Kate Walsh from TV’s “Private Practice”), is married to Howard (Gary Wilmes), a successful lawyer/stepfather to her teenage son Joey (Seth).

The youngest, unmarried Sharon (Maria Dizzia from TV’s “Orange Is the New Black”), has been their father’s primary care-giver and is bonding with the Guatemalan family who run a bodega in a building the family owns.

Superbly cast and sensitively staged by director Daniel Sullivan, it evokes other intense family sagas, like “August: Osage County” and “The Humans.” Kudos to Derek McLane for his multi-level set, Jess Goldstein for costumes, Kenneth Posner for lighting and Dan Moses Schreier for original music & sound design.

The world premiere of “If I Forget” is at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.

Given the current rise of anti-Semitism, “If I Forget” could not be timelier.

 

“Yen”

Susan Granger’s review of “Yen”  (Lucille Lortel Theatre, Off-Broadway)

 

With an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for “Manchester By the Sea” tucked into his resume, Lucas Hedges makes his New York stage debut in this MCC production.

Hedges plays 16 year-old Hench who – with his mentally-challenged, hyperkinetic half-brother, 14 year-old Bobbie (Justice Smith) – occupies a filthy room in one of London’s council flats. Since their diabetic, alcoholic mother, Maggie (Ari Graynor), lives with her latest boyfriend, they have no parental supervision.

As a result, these dysfunctional adolescents spend most of their time playing violent video games and watching porn. Between them, they own one T-shirt which they exchange whenever one or the other leaves to steal food, batteries, etc.

Their dog, named Taliban, is confined to another room because of his tendency to bite.

The tedious isolation of the boys’ lives is broken by the arrival of a 16 year-old Welsh neighbor, Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen), from across the courtyard, who is concerned about Taliban’s incessant barking and perceives the parallel between Taliban’s abandonment and their own.

To explain the title, Yen is a synonym for longing and it’s what Jenny’s late father used to call her.

In this latest import from London’s Royal Court Theatre, playwright Anna Jordan so overloads the melodrama with desolation and depression that it’s hard to relate to the characters on an emotional level. So something must have been lost mid-Atlantic.

Confidently directed by Trip Cullman, the acting ensemble does its best, but this Greenwich Village production – with Mark Wendland’s set, Paloma Young’s costumes Ben Stanton’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s music & sound design – radiates bleakness, augmented by Lucy Mackinnon’s video projections, jolting sound effects and a bright light that shines directly at the audience.

 

“Napoli, Brooklyn”

Susan Granger’s review of “Napoli, Brooklyn” (Long Wharf Theatre 2016/2017)

 

New Haven’s Shubert used to be the go-to place for theatrical try-outs. Now it’s the Long Wharf Theater, currently hosting the world premiere of Meghan Kennedy’s “Napoli, Brooklyn,” co-produced by Manhattan’s Roundabout Theatre Company.

Set in New York City during the 1960s, the domestic drama revolves around the Muscolino family: an Italian immigrant couple and their three American-born daughters.

The parents, Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) and Nic (Jason Kolotouros), are caught between their Sicilian culture and Old World values and the freedom of the New World, epitomized by Brooklyn.

As the play opens, their oldest daughter, Vita (Carolyn Braver), has been dispatched to a convent after brutish Nic savagely beat her when she tried to protect her youngest sister, feisty Francesca (Jordyn DiNatalie), who had the temerity to cut her long hair. And middle daughter Tina (Christina Pumariega) feels guilty for not stepping in to protect Francesca.

Then there’s the kindly, courteous, Irish butcher, Mr. Duffy (Graham Winton), with his adolescent daughter Connie (Ryann Shane), who bonds with her BFF Francesca. Plus gentle Celia (Shirine Babb), a black woman who befriends awkward Tina at a factory where they both work.

Playwright Meghan Kennedy drew from the recollections of her Italian-American mother who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. In the program notes, Kennedy alludes to how girls born to immigrants “had to fight so hard to find their voices, and even harder to keep them intact.”

Character development is what propels this immigrant experience, as each participant poignantly changes within the context of the play. As long-suffering Luda, Alyssa Bresnahan is outstanding, expressing her love for her family through her cooking, praying to an onion because God seems to be ignoring her entreaties.

Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the acting ensemble is superb, and Edelstein handles the episodic drama with finesse, working in conjunction with set designer Eugene Lee and lighting designer Ben Stanton to delineate the various locations.

“Napoli, Brooklyn” is at Long Wharf Theater through March 12 before moving to the Roundabout Theatre Company], where it will play from June 9 thru Sept. 3.

Call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

 

“I’ll East You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers”

Susan Granger’s review of “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers” (MTC in Norwalk)

 

To appreciate John Logan’s caustic comedy, you’ve got to know that Sue Mengers was the brassy barrier-breaker who became Hollywood’s first female super-agent, handling stars like Barbra Streisand, Ali MacGraw, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, Cher and Burt Reynolds, along with directors Mike Nichols, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Brian DePalma, Bob Fosse and Sidney Lumet.

Deceit and deception were a way of life in the shamelessly competitive jungle of studio politics, along with the inevitable feuding and fighting. Famed for her deliriously decadent, drug-fueled dinner parties, Sue Mengers loved movie stars; she called them “sparklies.”

Evoking her famed 1975 interview with Mike Wallace, Mengers relates how she was able to become what Time magazine described as a “cross between Mama Cass and Mack the Knife.” And the play’s rueful pathos revolves around Streisand’s defection after Mengers pushed her to appear the dreadful “All Night Long,” directed by her Belgian husband Jean-Claude Tramont.

Resembling a young Candice Bergen/Faye Dunaway, luscious, lanky Jodi Stevens embodies this ferocious yet vulnerable Jewish mama in a breezy, gossip-fueled, theatrical monologue that’s a juicy tour-de-force. The play’s predatory name comes from a book Sue wanted to write: “A Cannibal Love Story.”

Lowering her speaking voice to Menger’s growl and replicating her mocking tone, Stevens, clad in a bejeweled caftan, writhes around on a long couch, enlisting an audience member to fetch a joint or a drink, murmuring, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit by me…”

Sue Mengers was wickedly funny. One time, viewing someone else’s less-than-impressive dinner party guests, she snobbishly hissed, “Schindler’s B-list.” And after Charles Manson’s family killed Sharon Tate, she reassured Barbra Streisand, “Don’t worry, honey, they’re not killing stars, only featured players.”

Director Kevin Connors, set designer Jordan Janota, lighting designer Michael Blagys and costumer Diane Vanderkroef re-create the atmosphere of Menger’s home, located not far from the Beverly Hills Hotel, with its tall Regency doors, soft colors, Aubusson carpet and white orchids.

For those who relish Hollywood lore, “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers” is delicious. It’s on the Mainstage of the Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk thru March 5…www.musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883.

“The Band’s Visit”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Band’s Visit” (Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company)

 

The best news out of the Middle East this year is composer David Yazbek’s fresh, funny, engaging take on cross-cultural miscommunication:

“Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited for the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva in Israel. It’s an important engagement since budget cuts and internal reorganization have threatened the Egyptian musicians’ very existence.

Dressed in crisp, robin’s-egg-blue uniforms and observing full military protocol, they arrive in Tel Aviv with no one to greet them. Unable to contact their Israeli hosts or the Egyptian consulate, they board a bus that’s, ostensibly, bound for their destination but, instead, wind up in a dreary, Negev desert town called Bat Hatikva.

To his dismay, their dignified conductor, Tewfiq Zakaria (Tony Shalhoub), discovers that substituting “B” for “P” makes a major difference, since “B” denotes “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah,” according to Dina (Katrina Lenk), the radiant owner of a local café, singing, “Welcome to Nowhere.”

Since they’re stuck overnight, Dina graciously offers to host Tewiq, an emotionally restrained widower, and Haled (Ari’el Stachel), the flirtatious trumpeter who asks everyone he meets, “Do you know Chet Baker?” before launching into his own rendition of “My Funny Valentine.”

The others – each with his own angst – stay at the café or with Itzik (John Cariani), his resentful wife Iris (Kristen Sieh) and her father, Avrum (Andrew Polk).

Inevitably, the evening leads to some curious confusion, a bit of chaos in a 1970s roller rink, and a large measure of compassion – on both sides.

Adapted by Itamar Moses from from Eran Kolirin’s ingratiating 2007 Israeli comedy and fluidly directed by David Cromer, it’s wistfully droll and charming, subtly incorporating various Middle Eastern influences. The climactic number, “Answer Me,” featuring the entire ensemble, is splendiferous.

“The Band’s Visit” should delight theater aficionados who enjoyed David Yazbek’s previous shows: “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

Set designer Scott Pask inventively utilizes the rotating stage; Sarah Laux’s costumes are austere, yet exotic; and Tyler Micoleau’s intense lighting is effective, particularly evoking the desert at night.

In a limited run, “The Band’s Visit’ plays at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater – at 336 West 20th Street – until January 1, 2017.