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Sight Unseen

Susan Granger’s review of “Sight Unseen” (Biltmore Theater – 2004-2005 season)

Before Donald Margulies won a Pulitzer Prize for his “Dinner With Friends,” he wrote this deceptively simple, yet persuasive, play about the poignant reunion between a celebrated, ego-centric artist, Jonathan Waxman (Ben Shenkman), and his former lover Patricia (Laura Linney), who lives with Nick (Byron Jennings), her sarcastic archeologist husband, in an isolated, rustic farmhouse in Norfolk, England.
Years ago, when Jonathan was an aspiring painter, Patricia was his nude model. Now, he has become rich and famous, celebrating his first European exhibition in London, while she is stoically trapped in a lonely, stultifying marriage. This reunion forces them to re-visit their past relationship and reevaluate their lives. In the midst of their discussion about personal and artistic integrity and the commercialism of the modern art world, there’s an amusing interview with Grete (Ana Reder), a conniving German reporter whose questions are tinged with anti-Semitism.
Curiously, in 1992, when “Sight Unseen” premiered in New York at the Manhattan Theater Club’s intimate Stage II, Laura Linney played the supporting role of the journalist – and it’s the play in which she first made a name for herself on the New York stage. Now, sensitively directed by Daniel Sullivan, she radiantly charismatic in her utter authenticity as Patricia, while Ana Reder exudes ferocity as Grete. Byron Jennings delivers a delicately nuanced performance as adoring but insecure Nick, while Ben Shenkman oozes enough charm to make Jonathan’s innate selfishness tolerable. “Sight Unseen” is compelling drama about memory and moral compromise.

Wicked

Susan Granger’s review of “Wicked” (2003-2004 season at Broadway’s Gershwin Theater)

Based on Gregory Maguire’s best-seller, “Wicked” is the prequel to Frank L. Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” explaining the origins of Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. With a banal, conflicted, sanitized book by Winnie Holzman (“thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life”), it’s filled with sly illusions to the Oz tale. Problem is: the music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Pippin”) are so generic that they’re forgettable, even as you hear them. The bloated first-act seems interminable, awaiting the enchantment of the second act.
On the other hand, because of its superbly talented cast and inventive production values, “Wicked” is an audience-pleaser, particularly for children. Directed by Joe Mantello and with musical numbers staged by Wayne Cilento, Kristin Chenoweth, as Glinda, appears to be a chirpy clone of Elle Wood, the character created by Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde.” Her comic timing is impeccable. Idina Menzel, as the angst-filled, green-hued Elphaba, oozes psychological trauma, belting out each song. Carole Shelley mugs shamelessly as the caustic headmistress of the Hogwarts-like School of Sorcery where Glinda reluctantly befriends Elphaba. Despite the fact that he has one, mediocre musical number, Joel Grey cavorts admirably as the Wizard, while Norbert Leo Butz does his best as Fiyero, the obnoxious boy-friend desired by both witches.
Behind-the-scenes, credit Eugene Lee (set design), Susan Hilferty (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lighting), Tony Meola (sound), Chic Silber and Paul Rubin/ZFX Flying Illusions (special effects). Despite their valiant efforts at yellow-brick-road razzle-dazzle, what “Wicked” desperately needs is some witty, musical magic.

Big Bill

Susan Granger’s review of “Big Bill” (Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 2003-2004 season)

Back in the 1920s, Bill Tilden, known as Big Bill, was acclaimed as one of the greatest tennis players of all time. A handsome aristocrat from Philadelphia’s Main Line, he won seven U.S. championships and changed the elite country-club game to the sport status of professional athletics. But timing is everything – and Big Bill was a homosexual when that sort of behavior was deemed socially unacceptable. Worse yet, he was a pedophile, fond of underage young men.
It’s altogether appropriate that the thwap…thwap…thwap sounds of tennis balls punctuates Mark Lamos’s production of A.R. Gurney’s perceptive drama which chronicles Big Bill’s secret isolation, self-deception and public humiliation. But it’s the performance of John Michael Higgins in the title role that elevates this melancholy character-study to a “must-see”. Best remembered from Paul Rudnick’s “Jeffrey,” Higgins cleverly captures the complex torment of this flamboyant athlete who never sacrificed either his dignity, his elegance or his charm.
Nostalgically, the story begins in Bill’s youth, when he was dubbed “Junie,” for Junior, not to be confused with his father, a once-successful businessman. Early on, his mother recognized his bachelorhood, steering him toward a career as an antiques dealer. Back then, playing tennis for a living was unacceptable, particularly for an upper middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (W.A.S.P.) But William Tatem Tilden II was persistent, sacrificing his amateur status.
In supporting roles, Margaret Welsh, Stephen Rowe, David Cromwell, Alex Knold, Michael Esper, Donal Thoms-Capello and Jeremiah Miller are superb, in addition to John Lee Blatty’s grassy set and Jess Goldstein’s costumes. But it’s John Michael Higgins’ portrayal that’s powerful.

Sly Fox

Susan Granger’s review of “Sly Fox” (Barrymore Theater: 2003-2004 season)

Something goes terribly wrong with this revival of Larry Gelbart’s “Sly Fox,” based on Ben Jonson’s 1906 comedy “Volpone.” And it’s a critic’s job to dissect what and why.
Set in San Francisco, “Sly Fox” revolves around a wry, miserly con-man, Foxwell J. Sly, who pretends to be on his deathbed so sycophants will dote on him, making sure they’re his heir.
The subject is avarice, which is certainly relevant these days – what with the Enron, Tyco and Martha Stewart revelations. And as the creator of “M.A.S.H.” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Larry Gelbart knows his way around comedic situations, as does director Arthur Penn. The ensemble has impeccable credentials: Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Stoltz, Bob Dishy, Rene Auberjonois, Bronson Pinchot and Professor Irwin Corey. George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck’s sets and Albert Solsky’s costumes lend authenticity.
So what went wrong? First, miscasting. Richard Dreyfuss does not have the duplicitous stature and energy of George C. Scott, who propelled the 1976 version into a hit. And his curmudgeon con-man “shtick” shows, particularly when he doubles as the corrupt Judge. Eric Stoltz is charming yet bland as Sly’s manipulative manservant/protégé. Then there’s the discordant time structure and diverse acting styles of the supporting players. The dialogue is contemporary, using terms like “bimbo” and “twit,” yet the costumes suggest turn-of-the-century. As a prostitute, Rachel York does a Mae West imitation, while Elizabeth Berkley (last seen cavorting nude in “Showgirls”) tries unconvincingly, to act pious and prim with her clothes on. Add these miscalculations together, and the greedy delight of “Sly Fox” quickly fizzles.

The Boy From Oz

Susan Granger’s review of “The Boy From Oz” (Imperial Theater 2003-2004 season)

You may never have heard of Peter Allen but you’re not going to forget Hugh Jackman!
Best known to movie audiences as Wolverine in “X-Men,” Hugh Jackman is pure magic playing Allen, the wry Australian singer/songwriter who fled from the Outback to find fame and fortune as Judy Garland’s opening act and Liza Minnelli’s first husband. Along the way, he won an Oscar for writing the “Arthur” theme song and sold out two weeks at Radio City Music Hall. Then came “Legs Diamond,” his big Broadway flop. In 1992, at age 48, Allen died of AIDS.
The book, music, lyrics, direction and choreography of this $10 million musical are unabashedly mediocre. Particularly disappointing is how pivotal questions about Peter Allen’s marriage vs. his flamboyant homosexuality are obscured by writer Michael Sherman, along with the emotional scars of his father’s suicide. On the other hand, the real Peter Allen always preferred romance to reality, and Hugh Jackson is such a campy crowd-pleaser that his playful performance makes buying a ticket worthwhile. Isabel Keating is convincing as Judy Garland and Stephanie J. Block is spunky as Liza Minnelli. Beth Fowler is touching as Allen’s mother, as is Jarrod Emick as his doomed lover, and Mitchel David Federan scores as Allen-as-a-child.
Peter Allen’s songs – “I Go to Rio” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud” – are memorable as is Joey McKneely’s flashy choreography, Robin Wagner’s inventive sets, William Ivey Long’s glittery costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting and Philip William McKinley’s staging. The bottom line is this: Hugh Jackman is a far better performer than Peter Allen ever was and he’s the reason to see “The Boy from Oz” on Broadway. If Hugh Jackman doesn’t win a Tony, the ballots were rigged!

Enchanted April

Susan Granger’s review of “Enchanted April” (Belasco Theater – 2003 season)

Why do you go to theater? Perhaps to escape from your ordinary daily life into an ephemeral world of blissful delight? That’s what you’ll find in this sweetly nostalgic romantic comedy.
It’s the story of two dowdy, middle-class, melancholy London matrons who decide to rent a villa in Tuscany for a vacation from their husbands and their dreary marriages. In a bravura performance, Jane Atkinson – as Lotty Wilson, the wife of a pompous lawyer (Michael Cumpsty) – propels the action as she spies an advertisement for the villa in the Times and impulsively recruits Rose Arnott (Molly Ringwald), a woman she barely knows except in church. Rose is unhappily married to a frustrated poet (Daniel Gerroll) who has found fame and fortune writing romantic novels under a pseudonym. In turn, they find two other virtual strangers with whom to split expenses: Lady Caroline Bramble (Dagmara Dominczyk), a feckless socialite, and Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Ashley), a domineering, judgmental widow. And, of course, there’s the villa’s handsome owner (Michael Hayden) and his Italian-speaking housekeeper (Patricia Conolly).
The first act exposition takes place in rainy London, while the whimsically comical second act blossoms in sun-drenched Tuscany. Credit Michael Wilson’s staging, Tony Straiges’ sets, Rui Rita’s lighting, Jess Goldstein’s costumes and John Gromada’s original music. Unabashedly sentimental, “Enchanted April” was written by Matthew Barber, adapted from Peter Barnes’ screenplay for the 1992 film which, in turn, was inspired by Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel. Despite its stylized, formulaic, sex farce plot and seemingly off-kilter casting, it’s bewitching and beguiling, particularly for a middle-aged audience upon whose heartstrings it tugs.

Gypsy

Susan Granger’s review of “Gypsy” (Sam S. Shubert Theater – 2003 spring season)

Director Sam Mendes had a stroke of genius when he cast pretty, petite Bernadette Peters in his revival of “Gypsy” because she totally revises the concept of who Mama Rose is/was, perhaps hitting closer to the truth behind the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc. As portrayed by Ms. Peters, she’s not only a fierce, indomitable stage mother, forcing her daughters to live out her own unrealized ambitions but she’s also a flirtatious, insecure, conflicted woman. Wisely, Ms. Peters doesn’t even attempt the belting style of Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, etc., relying, instead, on her own sweet, alluring, evocative voice. She’s dazzling!
With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and updated orchestrations by Sid Ramin and Robert Ginzler, “Gypsy” relates the classic story of an archetypal stage mother who grooms her dainty, blonde Baby June for stardom, almost ignoring her klutzy older daughter. Predictably, June gets fed up and runs away, leaving Mama with untalented Louise. And as the vaudeville circuit dies, their agent/Mama’s lover (appealing John Dossett) can only find work in burlesque, where Gypsy Rose Lee (poignant Tammy Blanchard) soon becomes a ladylike stripping sensation. “Let Me Entertain You” takes on a new meaning.
“American Beauty” Oscar-winner Sam Mendes has a talent for discarding convention, delving into the depth of characters and “Coming Up Roses.” Observing Ms. Peters’ expression as she watches her daughters perform, as she learns of June’s desertion, and as she finally realizes her own motivations is a revelation. Bravo! And kudos to production/costume designer Anthony Ward, along with lighting experts Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. “Gypsy” has been reborn.

Say Goodnight Gracie

Susan Granger’s review of “Say Goodnight Gracie” (Helen Hayes Theater 2002-03 season)

In the most outstanding solo performance of the season, Frank Gorshin embodies George Burns, the wisecracking comedic genius who concocted the vaudeville team of Burns and Allen which later went on to radio, screen and television fame. “Say Goodnight Gracie” is Rupert Holmes’ amusingly inspired, engaging, biographical play, adeptly directed by John Tillinger, and the title refers to Burns’s traditional last line to his wife and partner, comedienne Gracie Allen.
The evening begins with Burns’ encounter with God in 1996 after his death at the age of 100. “I’m a big fan of yours,” Burns wryly tells the Almighty. “I loved the Ten Commandments.” But in order to get out of limbo, Burns must reveal his life and, thus, be weighed in the balance.
Utilizing film clips and waving his ever-present cigar, Burns relates his childhood on New York’s Lower East Side, peppering his banter with names of other celebs who shared his humble beginnings. He recalls how he met and married his beloved Gracie, whose ditsy delivery turned him from a jokester into a straight man, and how Jack Benny played a pivotal role in his life.
What’s most amazing is how utterly convincing Frank Gorshin is. Growing up in Beverly Hills, I knew the Burnses, who were friends of my parents. And here’s Frank Gorshin, best known as The Riddler in the ’60s television series “Batman,” impersonating George so convincingly that even Gracie would be astonished. Apparently, he always did mimicry and his repertoire includes James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando and Edward G. Robinson. And now Gorshin will convince you that he’s George Burns. “Say Goodnight Gracie” is irresistibly genial, gracefully affectionate entertainment

Nine

Susan Granger’s review of “Nine” (Roundabout Theater at Eugene O’Neill, 2002-2003)

If you have to choose just one musical to see this season, make it “Nine”! Handsome, charming matinee idol Antonio Banderas and 16 – count ’em – glamorous women add up to make this revival the hottest ticket on Broadway.
Written by Arthur Kopit and based on Federico Fellini’s autobiographical film “8 1/2,” the story revolves around Guido Contini (Banderas), a celebrated, self-absorbed Italian movie director who is desperately trying to plot a new film he’s been commissioned to direct. Seeking sanctuary at a health spa in Venice, this self-styled Casanova is “visited” in a stream-of-consciousness fantasy by all the women he’s loved since the age of nine – including his wistful, long-suffering wife (Mary Stuart Masterson), tantalizing mistress (Jane Krakowski), reluctant leading lady/muse (Laura Benanti), Parisian producer (Chita Rivera) and mother (Mary Beth Peil). Director David Leveaux parades the women up and down a steep spiral staircase on Scott Pask’s simple yet spectacular set, and Jane Krakowski’s dazzling, gravity-defying descent on a swing during “A Call From the Vatican” is a sensational showstopper! Why the stage is flooded like the Grand Canal during the second act remains a mystery but Antonio Banderas, damp but undaunted, sloshes on, gamely singing with resonant vibrato.
While Maury Yeston’s score, superbly orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, doesn’t offer unforgettable tunes, it punctuates and propels the emotional, Fellini-esque character study of an ambivalent, petulant man-child. In comparison to the original 1982 version, this shamelessly inventive, revitalized version soars. “Nine” is exuberant, eye-thrilling theatrical entertainment!

Hairspray

Susan Granger’s review of “Hairspray” (2002-2003 season)

In 1962, Baltimore, “The Corny Collins Show” (the local “American Bandstand”) reigns. White kids compete for prizes as they dance to rock ‘n’ roll music. Black kids have a chance only on “Negro Day.” At least that’s the case until Tracy Turnblad (Marissa Jaret Winokur), a plump, perky white rebel, teams up with Seaweed J. Stubs (Corey Reynolds), son of a black DJ (Mary Bond Davis), to break the dance-floor color barrier epitomized by her beautiful blonde teen-queen rival, Amber Von Tussle (Laura Bell Bundy). So much for aerosol-fueled social satire.
Inspired by John Waters’ clever, off-beat 1988 film, this Broadway musical, adapted by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, lacks the brazen goofiness of the movie while retaining the campy concept of a comic fairy tale, particularly in the cross-gender casting. In the movie, Ricki Lake made Tracy believable, while her mother was played by female impersonator Divine; here, that role is outrageously vamped by Harvey Fierstein. Waters wallows in excessively tacky tawdriness, and the audience seems to love it. Far more than I did. Admittedly, director Jack O’Brien generates an ingratiatingly energetic, exuberant ensemble, augmented by David Rockwell’s candy-colored sets, William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs. Problem is: while generating the ’60s ambiance, no one seems to be living in that era. They’re far too smug with their underlying lack of prejudice and penchant for bad taste. The Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman score literally lacks soul, peppered with bouncy but recycled tunes. Plus, at two hours, 40 minutes, it’s far too long. All in all, “Hairspray” is mere shpritz in the pantheon of musicals-adapted-from-movies like “The Full Monty,””Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “The Producers.”