Moonlight and Magnolias

Susan Granger on “Moonlight and Magnolias” (Manhattan Theater Club: 2004-2005)

If you love old movies the way I do, particularly “Gone With The Wind,” you gotta relish the nostalgia of “Moonlight and Magnolias.” Fiddle-dee-dee – it’s sheer theatrical fun!
Behind-the-scenes delight begins before the curtain rises with screen tests of wannabe Scarlett O’Haras like Susan Hayward, Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, Jean Arthur and Vivien Leigh.
Inspired by real events and set in 1939 in the office of producer David O. Selznick, the broad comedy revolves around how “Gone With the Wind” was hammered into shape over a frantic five-day period by Selznick, legendary script-doctor Ben Hecht and Clark Gable’s favorite director, volatile Victor Fleming, whom Selznick snatched off the set of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Problems abound: Hecht has never read Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller, dismissing it as “moonlight and magnolias,” so neurotic Selznick and rugged Fleming act out the story for him.
To Selznick’s consternation, Hecht realistically points out that “no Civil War movie ever made a dime” and that the slave-abusing heroine is not only unsympathetic but amoral. Unable to leave the office confines during the sleepless marathon, the men munch peanuts and bananas supplied by Selznick’s harried secretary, Miss Poppenguhl. Unseen but always lurking in the background is Selznick’s tyrannical father-in-law, M.G.M. studio mogul Louis B. Mayer.
Writer Ron Hutchinson and director Lynne Meadow relish the bantering farce, faltering only when trying to delve into Hollywood’s Jew-Gentile dilemma. Douglas Sills captures Selznick’s meticulous, maniacal obsession, while David Rache, Matthew Arkin and Karen Trott get laughs as the insecure Fleming, skeptical Hecht and loyal Poppenguhl. Frankly, my dear, it’s hilarious!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Susan Granger’s review of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (Hilton Theater, 2004-2005 season)

You know producers are family-friendly when they begin shows at 7 p.m. – and this lavish, spectacular adaptation of Ian Fleming’s whimsical book is aimed at children and their parents.
The story revolves around Caractacus Potts (Raul Esparza), an eccentric inventor/widower who delights his wistful twins (Henry Hodges, Ellen Marlow) by purchasing and refurbishing an old motorcar which they name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – thereby incurring the wrath of two spies (Chip Zien, Robert Sella) from Vulgaria. (Think Nazi Germany!) It seems the Baron Bomburst (Marc Kudisch) desperately wants the magical car, while his evil Baroness (Jan Maxwell, channeling Marlene Dietrich) so loathes children that she employs the services of a creepy Childcatcher (Kevin Cahoon) to keep them off the streets. Joining in the fun are Grandpa Potts (Philip Bosco) and Truly Scrumptious (Erin Dilly), the daughter of a confectionery tycoon.
Jeremy Sams’ book is adapted from Roald Dahl’s film script with rhythmic music and sweetly repetitious lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert Sherman (“Mary Poppins”), but it’s Anthony Ward’s whimsical Rube Goldberg-like props, imaginative scenery (particularly the Potts’ windmill home) and enchanting costumes that steal the show, along with choreography by Gillian Lynne (“Cats”). I suppose it’s mean to quibble with a gleaming mechanical marvel that “flies” right over the first few rows of the orchestra, but I do wish director Adrian Noble had given Chitty a bit more personality through surprising gadgetry. You know, bells and whistles. But the amount of promotional merchandising in the lobby is preposterous!

Brooklyn Boy

Susan Granger’s review of “Brooklyn Boy” (Biltmore Theater, 2004-2005 season)

Playwright Donald Margulies proves that it’s easier to take the boy out of Brooklyn than to take Brooklyn out of the boy. Within this semi-autobiographical meditation about a middle-aged writer, Eric Weiss, who has just sold the film rights to his novel, is the concept of identity – that whatever you are in denial about ends up defining you as much as the goals you acknowledge
As the story begins, Eric (Adam Arkin) is seeking approval from his dying father (Allan Miller) in Maimonides Hospital in Borough Park, telling him that his novel is #11 on the Times best-seller list and he’s been interviewed by Katie Couric on the “Today” show. Somewhat estranged from one another, the father and son have always had a prickly, difficult relationship. Later in the hospital cafeteria, Eric bumps into a childhood pal, Zimmer (Arye Gross), who runs a deli he inherited from his father. Conversation is awkward since Zimmer’s obviously jealous of Eric’s success and resentful about being left behind, accusing Eric of basing a character in his novel on himself. Then there’s Eric’s soon-to-be-ex wife (Polly Draper), a Britney-clone college student (Ari Graynor), high-powered producer (Mimi Lieber) and airhead actor (Kevin Isola).
Adam Arkin is brilliant as Eric. The eldest of director/actor Alan Arkin’s three sons, he was born in Brooklyn Hospital and grew up in Brooklyn Heights. With the skillful help of director Daniel Sullivan, set designer Ralph Funicello, costumer Jess Goldstein and the supporting acting ensemble, Arkin transmits Margulies’ heartfelt humor into an emotional theatrical experience.
“Brooklyn Boy” is dedicated to the late Herb Gardner, a fellow Brooklynite whose play “A Thousand Clowns” was the first Margulies remembers seeing on Broadway – at age nine.


Susan Granger’s review of “Doubt” (Walter Kerr Theater – 2004-2005 season)

Without doubt, “Doubt” is the richest, most gripping and exciting drama to hit Broadway in a long, long time. If you can see just one play this season, “Doubt” should be your choice.
Written by John Patrick Shanley, it’s compelling, absorbing and timely, delving into the nature of dealing sexual abuse within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Set in 1964 at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, it begins as idealistic young Father Flynn (Brian F. O’Bryne) is preaching about doubt as a contemporary necessity for growth. Doubt isn’t weakness, he asserts. Instead, doubt brings about change which, Flynn argues, is vital and beneficial.
None of this appeases elderly Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), the parochial school principal who is suspicious about Father Flynn’s “going out in the community and making believe that you are just one of the other folks.” And she suspects that Father Flynn has violated the priesthood by “befriending” a young, black altar boy. “I will bring him down,” she vows. Her devious plan involves manipulating an unwitting, novice history teacher, Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh), as a “witness,” when she confronts the boy’s street-smart mother (Adrienne Lenox).
Under Doug Hughes’ deft direction, Cherry Jones is brilliant and she’s masterfully matched by Brian F. O’Byrne. In supporting roles, Heather Goldenhersh and Adrienne Lenox excel. Kudos to John Lee Beatty’s two rotating sets and the authentic simplicity of Catherine Zuber’s costumes.
What’s most intriguing about “Doubt” is that all the “facts” exist in the eye of the beholder. Truth lies in that gray area of ambiguity. Did he or didn’t he commit an evil act? It’s your call – and I suspect the playwright is delighted when discussions continue long after the curtain falls.


Susan Granger’s review of “Spamalot” (Shubert Theater, 2004-2005 season)

You don’t have to be a Monty Python fan to devour “Spamalot” – but it helps! With an absurd book, puns and bawdy lyrics by Monty Python veteran Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Mike Nichols’ smart, screwball direction, it’s laugh-a-lot lunacy.
The lunatic opening number sets the zany, non-linear tone. A historian appears with a map, intoning, “England 932 A.D., a kingdom divided. To the West, the Anglo-Saxons. To the East, the French. Above, nothing but Celts and some people from Scotland. Legend tells us of an extraordinary leader who arose from the chaos to unite a troubled kingdom…Arthur, King of the Britons.” The scene then erroneously cuts to Finland, where Scandinavian peasants are singing, dancing and schlapping each other with dead fish in a mock musical. Oops!
“I said, ‘England!'” the historian corrects…as droll King Arthur (Tim Curry) rides in on an imaginary horse, accompanied by his lowly vassal Patsy (Michael McGrath). His merry medieval cohorts soon appear: most memorably, cowardly Sir Robin (David Hyde Pierce) and gay Sir Lancelot (Hank Azaria). Parody reigns as Sir Galahad (Christopher Sieber) duets with the Lady of the Lake (Sara Ramirez) in “The Song That Goes Like This,” sending up Andrew Lloyd Webber romantic arias, complete with chandelier, and a knight chorus line apes “Fiddler on the Roof” with goblets on their heads, culminating with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,”
Credit Casey Nicholaw’s choreography, Tim Hatley’s crazy sets and costumes, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and a superb ensemble cast. So if you’re in the mood for a stupendously silly, banal, merry old time, head for a feudal farce known on Broadway as “Spamalot.”

Steel Magnolias

Susan Granger’s review of “Steel Magnolias” (Lyceum Theater – 2004/2005 season)

Robert Harling’s sweetly sentimental saga that chronicles several years in the lives of the sisterly Southern women who congregate at Truvys’ beauty salon stands the test of time. Originally staged off-Broadway, it transitioned to Hollywood and is now revived on Broadway.
Set in Chinquapin, a small Louisiana town, the melodramatic story begins as a new assistant, Annelle (Lily Rabe, daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh), comes to work for genial Truvy (Delta Burke). Soon Annelle meets the “regulars.” There’s M’Lynn (Christine Ebersole), a protective mother who’s worried about her diabetic daughter Shelby (Rebecca Gayheart), and Ouiser (Marsha Mason), an irascible curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Plus acid-tongued Clairee (scene-stealing Frances Sternhagen), the football-crazed, wealthy widow of the town’s recently deceased mayor. Clairee not only lifts Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s memorable quip, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me,” but also murmurs, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”
Director Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”) transitions from puppets to people quite well, moving the six ladies smoothly through this lightweight comedy/drama on Anna Louizos’ tacky set, clad in David Marin’s aptly stereotypical costumes. But somehow there’s a odd feeling this intimate production belongs in a dinner theater, not on Broadway.
The primary problem with this revival is that you can rent Herb Ross’ 1989 screen adaptation with Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard and Dylan McDermot. And, frankly, the movie’s better.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Susan Granger’s review of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Imperial Theater 2004-2005 season)

The Con Men of the Riviera have hit Broadway! Based on the 1988 movie about a pair of scam artists, it’s got deliciously unsavory characters and an antic plot with a tantalizing twist.
The glittering opening number, “Give Them What They Want,” sets the stage, as suave, sophisticated Lawrence Jameson (John Lithgow), along with his droll aide-de-camp Andre (Gregory Jbara), specializes in charming lonely women out of their fortunes from his impeccable chateau on the French Riviera. Then along comes brash Freddy Benson (Norbert Leo Butz), an American upstart who is eager to learn the tricks of the trade. Blackmailed into teaching him, the roguish Jameson takes the vulgar Benson along as he brazenly swindles two willing marks (ditzy Joanna Gleason, pushy Sara Gettelfinger), until the two men become competitive and bet who can wheedle $50,000 out of the newly arrived “American Soap Queen,” bubbly Christine Colgate (Sherie Rene Scott). But then, as another number illustrates, “Love Sneaks In.”
Once again, the collaborators of “The Full Monty,” Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek, show their knack for adapting screenplays to the Broadway stage with finesse and fun, not to mention relentlessly clever lyrics. John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz inhabit the Michael Caine/Steve Martin characters so completely that they recreate them in their own campy image. Lithgow’s preening, lighthearted persona and debonair banter dominate, while Butz relies more on old-fashioned, scene-stealing slapstick. Jack O’Brien’s imaginative direction, Jerry Mitchell’s lively choreography, David Rockwell’s enticing set design and Gregg Barnes’ glamorous costumes enhance the frivolous tone. This stunning Broadway musical is worth the price of admission.

Pacific Overtures

Susan Granger’s review of “Pacific Overtures” (Studio 54, 2004-2005 season)

In its continuing quest to revive problematic theatrical works, the Roundabout Theater brings Stephen Sondheim’s highly intellectual and complex 1976 musical to Broadway this season.
Utilizing on a multi-layered book by John Weidman with additional material by Hugh Wheeler, the show consists of a fluid series of vignettes depicting the peaceful arrival in Imperial Japan in 1853 of the American Navy fleet in an attempt to open East-West trade relations with this isolated, feudal nation. As the Recitor (B.D. Wong of TV’s “Law & Order: SUV”) mediates the story, as well as revealing bits of Japanese history, it becomes a kind of political parable within an authentic dramatic context, considering our contemporary involvement in Iraq.
The plot involves a timid Samurai-turned-Governor and a feisty fisherman who are delegated to confront Japan’s would-be Western “invaders,” the Americans under Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who are depicted as comical caricatures with curly wigs and grotesquely deformed faces.
Directed and choreographed by Amon Miyamoto, utilizing sliding shoji screens, it’s an unconventional, stylized, episodic musical, influenced by ritualistic Asian musical forms, like Noh theater, and European operetta. Jonathan Tunick’s new orchestrations make the subtlety of Sondheim’s score soar. “Someone in a Tree” captures how the eye-of-the-beholder shapes what is seen, “A Bowler Hat” explores loss of identity and “Chrysanthemum Tea” cleverly masks poison.
The Asian-American cast is superb, particularly Michael K. Lee, Paolo Montalban, Alvin Y.F. Ing, Sab Shimono and Francis Jue as the amusing “chief welcomer” to Kanagawa. Still, the audacious concept of “Pacific Overtures” seems far better than its execution.

The Frogs

Susan Granger’s review of “The Frogs” (Vivian Beaumont Theater – July-Aug., 2004)

Back in 1974, I saw “The Frogs” performed at the Yale University pool. While teaching there, Burt Shevelove wrote his irreverent, free-wheeling adaptation to which Stephen Sondheim contributed six songs, including the title number that inspired a water ballet. Back then, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang – as Yale grad students – were in the chorus.

It’s 30 years later on a dry stage and, while Aristophanes “The Frogs” is still croaking exuberantly, it hasn’t improved with age. This time, the ancient Greek satire stars Nathan Lane as Dionysos, the god of wine and drama. He journeys down the River Styx to Hades to get at great playwright in hopes that a play with big ideas might set a moral example and  illuminate our muddled world, one where corrupt and inarticulate leaders have entered “a war we shouldn’t even be in”. This leads to a debate between George Bernard Shaw (Daniel Davis) and William Shakespeare (Michael Silbery) with Dionysos as judge as to whom is the greater playwright.

As a comic Dionysos, Nathan Lane as no comic peer but, as a co-writer, he’s saddled with a soggy story that becomes an anti-Bush allegory. Roger Bart, as his slave Xanthias (a last-minute replacement for SNL’s Chris Kattan) suffers the same fate. The only role that succeeds in being truly funny is Pluto, played by Peter Bartlett, particularly when he’s warbling “Hades.”

But even director/choreographer Susan Stroman and costumer William Ivey Long are unable to overcome the confines of the satirical, yet stagnant, contemporary libretto which also traces its demented origins to the Shevelove/Sondheim “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Somehow its sophomoric silliness and schtick seems better suited to college audiences.

Shakespeare’s Women

Susan Granger’s review of “Shakespeare’s Women” (Blue Heron Arts Center 2004-2005)

The one-man – or, in this case, one-woman – show has always seemed to me to be the height of theatricality. It’s a unique genre that cannot be adapted to the screen. So it was with a special delight that I viewed Susannah York’s “Shakespeare’s Women.”
This one-woman show, conceived, written and performed by the veteran British thespian, introduces and explains Shakespeare’s most memorable female characters. Above all, Ms. York links these disparate women together with the general theme of love in its many permutations: maternal, passionate and filial.
There’s Juliet, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Hamlet’s mother. Those are the best-known. But there’s also Emilia from “Othello,” Constance from “King John,” Queen Margaret from “Henry VI, Part III” and Cressida of “Troilus and Cressida.” While Ms. York obviously takes special pleasure in romping through Mistress Page and Mistress Ford of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” her interpretation of the cross-dressing Rosalind of “As You Like It” borders on campy.
For 80 minutes, Susannah York weaves her own personal magic spell over the bare stage, adorned only with set designer Krishan Khana’s tapestries, a candelabra and end tables, and illuminated by lighting designer Christopher Bailey. At 63 years, Ms. York is eternally blithe and lithe with her spiky blond hair and ultra-blue eyes.
Whether you catch “Shakespeare’s Women” off-Broadway at the Blue Heron Arts Center or at other venues around the country, it’s an indelible lesson about the minds and motivations of the Bard’s top female characters.