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“Singin’ in the Rain”

Susan Granger’s review of “Singin’ in the Rain” (Summer Theatre of New Canaan)

 

There’s great, exuberant fun – for the whole family – under the big white tent at Waveny Park as the Summer Theatre of New Canaan turns what many consider the best movie musical of all time into a rollicking stage production.

It’s 1927 when Monumental Pictures premieres “The Royal Rascal,” yet another silent movie starring the swashbuckling idol Don Lockwood (Mathew Tiberi) and beautiful Lina Lamont (Jodi Stevens).

Suddenly, Hollywood is rocked by the arrival of sound, as Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” fills theaters. Don Lockwood’s game to make the transition to talkies – but what will audiences think when they realize that ditzy, vapid Lina Lamont’s squawky, strident voice could shatter glass?

Cue the arrival of an adorable ingénue, Kathy Selden (Annabelle Fox), an impudent chorus girl who catches the eye and captures the heart of Don Lockwood. At the suggestion of Don’s tap-dancing buddy Cosmo (David Rosssetti), they’ll secretly use Kathy’s dulcet voice to dub Lina’s screech.

Fashioned as a whimsical satire by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it features a catalogue of Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown songs, including “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “You Were Meant for me,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Moses Supposes” and “Good Mornin.’”

While the entire cast is enchanting, Jodi Stevens steals the show. Every time she opens her mouth, it’s hilarious. Lina Lamont’s character is supposedly based on silent screen beauty Norma Talmadge, who couldn’t make the transition to “talkies” and her informant-BFF was supposedly actress Clara Bow.

Credit Melody Meitrott Libonati’s astute direction and Doug Shankman’s choreography, particularly for the inventive staging of the rain-drenched title number – with the entire cast decked out in yellow slickers and rubber boots, twirling umbrellas.

Special kudos to Scott Bryce for filming the imaginative videos and Kelly Loughran as the femme fatale in “Broadway Melody.”

Running through July 30, it’s impossible not to enjoy this tuneful musical – the best of Broadway in nearby New Canaan.

For tickets and more information, call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org.

“1984”

Susan Granger’s review of “1984” (Hudson Theatre: 2017-2018 season)

It’s no coincidence that after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, George Orwell’s 1949 cautionary, dystopian, sci-fi nightmare topped the best-seller list.

And it’s not surprising that astute producers Scott Rudin and Sonia Friedman just brought Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s grimly intense London stage adaptation of that novel to Broadway.

The doomed hero, an Everyman narrator named Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), is introduced through a group of citizens gathered around a table in what resembles a shabby book store/library. It seems that by 2050 the Party fell but, before that, the terror of thought-control reigned throughout the land.

But back in 1984, Winston Smith decides to keep a diary, refusing to accept the oppression of Big Brother’s manipulated reality as chronicled in “The Principles of Newspeak,” which outlines the structure and etymology of the official language of Oceania’s dictatorship.

In newspeak, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength. Those who protest are “vaporized” or “un-personed,” denied existence and obliterated from history.

And if O’Brien (Reed Birney), the interrogator at the Ministry of Truth tells you that 2+2=5, you must accept that as fact. The contemporary parallels are abundantly clear.

When Winston endeavors to evade the Thought Police, he joined by Julia (Olivia Wilde, making her Broadway debut), a red-belted member of the Anti-Sex League, who slips him a note, simply stating, “I love you.”

Although they indulge in what they believe is an intimate tryst, enjoying forbidden delicacies like chocolate and coffee – they subsequently discover that they have not escaped surveillance. Their images appear on a giant screen above the stage – and Winston must pay a horrific price for disobedience.

This wildly innovative production features so much sadistic political torture, punctuated by blinding lights, frequent blackouts and an ear-blasting soundscape that no one under the age of 13 is allowed in the audience. And if you leave for seat for any reason during the performance, you are not permitted to return.

Audience members are also alerted that the play is performed without an intermission and runs 101 minutes which is obviously a reference to Room 101, where the torture takes place. Since nothing in this depressing play is subtle, the audience seems to be numb by the time it concludes.

 

 

“Napoli, Brooklyn”

Susan Granger’s review of “Napoli, Brooklyn” (Roundabout Theatre Company: Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre – off-Broadway)

 

Tolstoy once wrote, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Set in New York City during the 1960s, Meghan Kennedy’s domestic drama revolves around the Muscolino family: an Italian couple and their three American-born daughters.

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

As the play opens, their middle daughter, Vita (Elise Kibler), has been dispatched to a convent after brutish Nic savagely beat her when she tried to protect her younger sister, feisty Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), who has chopped off her long hair. And self-sacrificing Tina (Lily Kaye),the eldest daughter, feels guilty for not protecting Francesca.

Then there’s Albert Duffy (Ejik Lochtefeld), the kindly, courteous, Irish butcher who secretly adores Luda, and his adolescent daughter Connie (Juliet Brett), who bonds with her BFF Francesca. Plus gentle Celia Jones (Shirine Babb), an African-American co-worker who befriends awkward Tina.

Commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre, playwright Meghan Kennedy (“Too Much, Too Much, Too Many”) drew from the recollections of her Italian-American mother who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. In interviews, Meghan Kennedy has alluded 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 when a real-life disaster rocks their Park Slope neighborhood.

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 poignant entreaties.

Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the acting ensemble is superb, and Edelstein handles the episodic, often overwrought drama with finesse, working in conjunction with set designer Eugene Lee, lighting designer Ben Stanton, costumer Jane Greenwood and sound specialist Fitz Patton.

“Napoli, Brooklyn” plays a limited engagement Off-Broadway through September 3, 2017. Tickets are available online at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212-719-1300.

 

“Lettice and Lovage”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lettice and Lovage” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Laughter reigns as Westport Country Playhouse kicks off its 87th season with Peter Shaffer’s delightful comedy which has been imperceptibly snipped and deftly trimmed by director Mark Lamos.

While loquacious Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) is doing her best to enliven her tour of the historic Fustian House in Wiltshire, which, admittedly, is “quite simply the dullest house in England,” her wildly imaginative fabrications raise the ire of strait-laced Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), a formidable bureaucrat from the Preservation Trust.

Summoned to the Trust office, Lettice knows she’s going to be reprimanded and dismissed but, gradually, a bond of friendship develops between these lonely, yet disparate middle-aged women.

They meet on a weekly basis, indulging in grisly historical reenactments and enjoying goblets of a homemade libation, a cordial adapted from a 16th century recipe, containing vodka, brandy, sugar and a parsley-like herb called lovage.

Eventually, an accident occurs in Lettice’s basement apartment in Earl’s Court that requires the services of a solicitor (lawyer), Mr. Bardolph (Paxton Whitehead), summoned to defend her against a charge of attempted murder. Mr. Whitehead originated this part on Broadway in 1987, and he has become a master of befuddlement.

Although Shaffer wrote this play specifically for Dame Maggie Smith, Lamos’ Westport ‘odd couple’ casting is spot on: Kandis Chappell’s charismatic Lettice brims with theatrical vitality and grace, while Mia Dillon’s strident, idealistic Lotte softens, becoming a terrific comic foil.

John Armone’s entrancing set is evocative, complemented by Philip Rosenberg’s lighting, John Gromada’s sound design, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes.

The eloquent characters created by prolific playwright Peter Shaffer (“Amadeus,” “Equus”) always have a timely universality and his acerbic observations about London’s post-W.W.II urban planning lament the destruction of antiquity: “It wasn’t the Germans who destroyed London, it was British architecture.”

“Lettice and Lovage” runs through June 17 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For more information, go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.

 

“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.