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“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.

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812″

Susan Granger’s review of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (Imperial Theatre)

 

There has never been a more imaginative re-interpretation of an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” than this inventive electro-pop operetta which made its debut Off-Broadway at Ars Nova in 2012.

Written by composter Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, it’s become an eclectic, immersive theatrical experience that’s propelled by Josh Groban, making his Broadway debut.

Set just before Napoleon’s invasion, it revolves around Pierre (Groban), an unhappily married aristocrat. His diagrammed family tree is in the program. In their rousing “Prologue,” cast members urge you to read it in order to follow the complicated dramatic narrative.

Young Countess Natasha (Denee Benton) arrives in Moscow with her loving, protective cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) to stay with her god-mother Marya (Grace McLean), while her fiancée, Prince Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is away at the front.

Natasha’s initial meeting with Prince Andrey’s family goes badly. His spinster sister, Princess Mary (Gelsey Bell), notes that Natasha is “Too fashionably dressed, frivolous and vain,” while Natasha views Mary as “Too plain, affected, insolent and dry.”

Pierre’s scheming wife Helene (Amber Gray) flirts dangerously with Dolokhov (Nik Choksi), while her womanizing brother, Anatole (Lucas Steele), a callow cad, is determined to seduce lonely, impetuous Natasha, who doesn’t know he’s married. And so the decadent melodrama unfolds.

Wearing padding to increase his girth, along with a bushy beard, Josh Groban’s magnificent tenor resonates with melancholy, as he accompanies himself on the piano and accordion.

Also making her Broadway debut, Denee Benton has a lovely, lilting soprano. But Brittain Ashford’s soulful lamentations steal the show on more than one occasion.

The Imperial Theatre has been spectacularly reconfigured as an ornate cabaret by scenic designer Mimi Lien. Many audience members are seated onstage at tables and banquettes – with parquet runways for the actors in the orchestra and mezzanine. The walls are hung with gilt-framed Russian artwork and lush red velvet – with starburst chandeliers which lighting designer Bradley King uses to full advantage.

It’s a dazzling production, perhaps the most intoxicating musical since “Hamilton.”

“The Front Page”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Front Page” (Broadhurst Theater, Oct., 2016)

 

Long before the demise of many daily newspapers, long before television, long before anyone even conceived of the Internet, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote this cynical comedy about muckraking reporters in a Press Room in Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building.

These whiskey-guzzling, cigar-smoking, misogynistic ruffians have assembled on the eve of a hanging that’s scheduled for 7 a.m. since Sheriff Hartman (John Goodman) steadfastly refuses to push up the execution so they can make their newspaper’s morning edition.

“Not much you can do with a hanging,” one says ruefully. “Now if we had the electric chair in this state, that’s something you can sink your teeth into.”

Excitement arrives as escaped convict Earl Williams (John Magaro) crashes into the emptied press room, much to the delight of competitive Hildy Johnson (John Slattery), who hides the anarchist in a roll-top desk so he can phone in his ‘scoop’ in time to join his anxious fiancée (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor) at the train to New York.

Although it’s self-consciously stretched to almost three hours, Jack O’Brien directs at a frenzied pace.

The play’s biggest laugh comes – not from the script – but when actor John Slattery from TV’s “Mad Men” voices Hildy’s determination to get out of newspaper reporting to get into something respectable, like advertising.

Although he has top billing, Nathan Lane doesn’t appear until late in the second act. He plays Hildy’s ruthless editor, Walter Burns – and, as always, his comic timing is impeccable.

I attended the matinee on Sunday, Oct. 30, when a medical emergency forced the farce’s third act to an abrupt halt for about 20 minutes so an audience member could be evacuated by ambulance.  Judging by the general age around me, one imagines the victim may have been as old as the play.

Making its Broadway debut in 1928, starring Osgood Perkins (Tony’s father) & Lee Tracy, it was revived in 1969 with Robert Ryan, Helen Hayes, Dody Goodman & Peggy Cass and in 1986 with John Lithgow & Richard Thomas.  It was also filmed several times – first with Pat O’Brien & Adolphe Menjou, then with Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell, and again with Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau.

Kudos to Douglas W. Schmidt’s squalid set with its many candlestick telephones, capturing the sleazy tabloid ambiance, as do Ann Roth’s shabby suits. And the supporting cast includes Jefferson Mays, Robert Morse, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Sherie Rene Scott, Dylan Baker, Lewis J. Stadlen, Patricia Conolly, and Dann Florek, among others.

If you’ve never seen it, perhaps you’ll find it funnier than I did. “The Front Page” has a limited engagement through January 29, 2017.

 

“Heisenberg”

Susan Granger’s review of “Heisenberg” (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre: 10/16)

 

After stunning audiences with 2015’s Tony-winning adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” British playwright Simon Stephens is back with this two-hander about a disparate couple who meet in a London train station.

The title, subtly referring to German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” in quantum physics, reflects the randomness of their acquaintance.

Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker) is a loquacious, profane, 42 year-old free-spirit who latches onto imperturbable, 75 year-old Alex Priest (Denis Arndt), an uptight, antisocial butcher.

After that impetuous first encounter, Georgie unexpectedly shows up at Alex’s butcher shop, determined to develop a sexual relationship with him. Which happens shortly afterward.

“Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” she inquires. The answer is obviously, “Yes.”

As their backstories are revealed, we learn that Georgie, an American, has an estranged son, who seems to have taken off for New Jersey, where the final segment of the drama takes place.

Years ago, in an interview, Mary-Louise Parker, who often plays loud, talkative women, said, “I don’t really ever think about whether or not I like the characters I’m playing. I’m more into the minutiae of their behavior or what they’re doing in a certain scene.”

Which explains how Parker overcomes Georgie’s volatile, inherently annoying demeanor to make this role captivating, particularly in contrast with Arndt’s reclusive Irish bachelor, who lives in a large house, holding imaginary conversations with his sister who died when he was a child.

Mark Brokaw’s astute direction is enhanced by Mark Wendland’s minimalist set, Austin R. Smith’s lighting, David Van Tiegham’s sound and Michael Krass’s costumes.

In a bizarre configuration, some audience members are seated in bleachers on-stage, leaving only a narrow strip on which the actors emote. The usher told me that those seats are deeply discounted but, if you’re concerned about being ‘on display’ for 80 minutes with no intermission, it might be wise to ask before purchasing.

“Holiday Inn”

Susan Granger’s review of “Holiday Inn” (Roundabout Theater/Studio 54: Oct., 2016)

 

Unseasonably early but definitely most welcome, this “new” Irving Berlin musical is the stage adaptation of the lighthearted 1942 movie, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, with a revised book by director Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodges, costumes by Alejo Vietti, and choreography by Denis Jones.

Set in 1946, the crooner Jim Hardy is played by Bryce Pinkham, while Corbin Bleu is Ted Hanover, the dancer. They do a nightclub turn with vampy, mercurial Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora).

But the act folds when Jim buys a farm in rural Connecticut, which – with a scrappy, wisecracking handywoman (Megan Lawrence) and sweet soprano schoolmarm (Lora Lee Gayer) – he turns into an Inn that’s open only on holidays.

In addition, Lee Wilkof, as their talent agent, and Morgan Geo, as a delivery boy, give comic support.

Beginning with New Year’s Eve (“Let’s Start the New Year Right”), there are lavish seasonal celebrations: Easter (“Easter Parade”), Fourth of July (“Let’s Say It With Firecrackers”/”Song of Freedom”), Thanksgiving (“I’ve Got Plenty To Be Thankful For”) and Christmas (“White Christmas”).

Plus Berlin songbook classics like “Heat Wave,” “Shaking the Blues Away,” “Stepping Out With My Baby,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “You’re Easy to Dance With,” “Blue Skies,” etc.

Curiously, with all the recognizable Irving Berlin tunes, the one I found myself humming afterwards is “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” his homage to Valentine’s Day.

Delving into the Berlin archives, most people don’t realize that his firstborn and only son died on December 25, 1928, long before he wrote the poignant “White Christmas,” which won the Oscar for Best Song. As the best-selling single of all time, it was toppled in 1997 by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” tribute to England’s Princess Diana.  And “Blue Skies” is said to have commemorated the birth of Berlin’s first daughter, Mary Ellin Berlin Barrett, who wrote a 1994 memoir about her father.

FYI: In a remake, “White Christmas” (1954), Crosby teamed up with Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.

Filled with timeless, feel-good fun, the Roundabout’s nostalgic “Holiday Inn” is simply joyous!