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“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!

 

“Meteor Shower”

Susan Granger’s review of “Meteor Shower” (Long Wharf Theater: Oct., 2016)

 

Once known as the “wild and crazy guy,” Steve Martin’s sensibility hasn’t changed, judging from his new, outrageously quirky comedy about love and marriage, life and death.

Set in 1993, it revolves around an upwardly mobile, agonizingly self-aware married couple – Norm (Patrick Breen) and Corky (Arden Myrin) – who are expecting guests, Gerald (Josh Stamberg) and Laura (Sophina Brown), to view an upcoming meteor shower from the patio of their suburban home in Ojai, California.

Designer Norm invited Gerald, hoping that it might lead to new business, but it quickly becomes apparent that garrulous Gerald and his passive-aggressive wife Laura have their own playful agenda. They enjoy using sexual temptation and psychological ploys to manipulate people for their own selfish amusement.

Although steadfast in their New Age marriage, Norm and Corky seem, at first, to be vulnerable but then the fiery stars seem to align with destiny in their favor. But one never knows – for sure – because Martin presents so many bizarre possibilities in this alternative universe.

The edgy, underlying menace is playfully directed by Gordon Edelstein on Michael Yeargen’s stylish turntable set. And there’s lots of audience laughter although, admittedly, many weren’t quite sure what was going on – since it veers toward caustic, cosmic confusion.

As playwright Steve Martin’s gently earnest Everyman, Patrick Breen strives for normalcy, which serves as wordplay on his character’s name, perfectly paired with Arden Myrin, whose overly-sensitive, often delirious character suffers from “brain explosions,” presumably caused by youthful cannibalism.

Completing the quartet, Josh Stamberg is mucho macho as obnoxious Gerard, well-matched with overtly sexy, slinky Sophina Brown as the femme fatale.

Crowd-pleasing “Meteor Shower” plays at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater through Oct. 23, 2016. For tickets, visit www.longwharf.org or call the box-office at 203-787-4282.

“Camelot” at the Westport Country Playhouse

Susan Granger’s review of “Camelot” (Westport Country Playhouse: Oct., 2016)

 

Artistic director Mark Lamos concludes the Westport Country Playhouse season with a freshly inventive, far more intimate take on the timeless Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe musical, focusing on the characters, not the grandiosity, delivering a carefully crafted interpretation of the Arthurian legend, filled with noble ideals and forbidden romance, with considerable insight and emotional impact.

Striding on-stage Robert Sean Leonard embodies the perennially conflicted, newly crowned King Arthur, voicing his nervous concern in “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight?”

Yet from the moment Britney Coleman, as feisty Guenevere, begins to warble “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” you can’t take your eyes off her. With a lilting, lyrical soprano, reminiscent of Julie Andrews (who originated the part), this lithe actress moves with seductive delicacy of someone wired with explosives.

That enhances this shorter, sexier version, highlighted by her taunting and teasing the virtuous French Knight, Lancelot du Lac, portrayed by Stephen Mark Lukas, whose commanding presence and utter lack of humility are obvious in “C’est Moi.

Their adulterous attraction becomes fodder for smarmy, suspicious Mordred (Patrick Andrews), who exposes their tryst, condemning the lovers.

The production is well served by a stalwart supporting cast, including Michael De Souza, Mike Evariste, Brian Owen and Jon-Michael Reese, while local actor Sana Sarr acquits himself admirably as young Tom of Warwick.

Based on T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” it’s adapted by David Lee and choreographed by Connor Gallagher with Michael Yeargan’s austere/abstract scenic design, Wade Laboissonniere’s Middle Ages costumes, Robert Wierzel’s bold lighting, Domonic Sack’s textured sound, and Wayne Barker’s eight musicians utilizing new orchestrations by Steve Orich.

Viewed at a preview performance, it’s a sure-fire heart-tugger and marvelously entertaining for longtime fans and newcomers alike.

“In short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happ’ly ever-after’ing than here in Camelot!”

Indeed, “Camelot” has already been extended through November 5. Call the box-office at 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

Cirque du Soliel’s “Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities”

Susan Granger’s review of “Cirque du Soliel: Kurios” (Randall’s Island)

 

Cirque du Soliel’s blue-and-yellow striped Grand Chapiteau is back on Randall’s Island – delivering dazzling delights. Blending distinctive characters, engaging music and stylish choreography into surreal storytelling, it’s sensational – their best show in many years!

Subtitled, “Cabinet of Curiosities,” it’s set amid a steampunk carnival that’s filled with fantastical clockwork toys, Victorian amusement machines, pianolas, phonograph horns and old-fashioned manual typewriters.

It begins as a simulated train pulls into a station, disgorging fashionable women, mustachioed men and an accordion-pleated fellow who join with jugglers, dancers and percussionists in a sensational opening number.

That’s followed by a fast-paced succession of acrobatic acts, each a little gem. One features a tiny ballerina who gets tossed around by huge strongman. Another introduces men wearing fish tails, bouncing up and down in perfect teamwork on a special Acro Net that resembles a trampoline. A pretty bicyclist soars high in the air. And there are the usual Asian contortionists.

Remember when every circus had a “freak show”? Cirque transforms a tiny woman, Mini-Lili (Antania Satsura from Belarus), less than three-feet tall, into an elegant miniature Mae West, whimsically toted around in a bathosphere.

Spanish hand puppeteer Nico Baixas creates magic, using a video camera that records shadowy finger-images that are projected on a hot-air balloon that becomes a big screen. An audience member is invited on-stage to participate on a ‘date’ with an engaging clown who winds up impersonating a cat. And perhaps the most amazing ‘staging’ emerges in “Upside Down World,” a dinner party that transforms into a triumph of rigging with a man climbing on stacked-up chairs.

Written and directed by Michel Laprise with creative direction by Chantal Tremblay, it’s visually enhanced by Stephane Roy’s set, Philippe Guillotel’s costumes, and Marin LaBrecque’s lighting. In many ways, it resembles Martin Scorsese’s film “Hugo” (2011), set in 1930s Paris.

Cirque du Soliel is currently touring 21 different productions but “Kurios” is perhaps its best EVER!

“Kurios” will play on New York’s Randall’s Island through November 27. For tickets, visit www.cirquedusoliel.com/kurios.

“The Birds”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Birds” (59E59 – Theater C: 2016-2017 season)

 

Movie-goers may remember that Alfred Hitchcock used Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 novella as inspiration for his terrifying 1963 tension-filled classic, starring Tippi Hedren.

Originally produced at Dublin’s Gala Theatre in 2009, Conor McPherson (“The Weir,” “Shining City,” “The Night Alive”) has adapted the concept into a futuristic, apocalyptic world in which marauding flocks of birds have achieved domination over Earth’s creatures.

Amid sounds of beating wings and rasping caws, three survivors seek shelter in an abandoned New England farmhouse with no electricity and little food.

Arriving with a flashlight, Diane (Antoinette La Vecchia) is a novelist who chronicles the avian onslaught in her diary/journal. She’s joined by Nat (Tony Naumovski), who is afflicted by crippling headaches and psychiatrically unstable.

They take in younger, injured Julia (Mia Hutchinson Shaw), who quotes from Ecclesiastes, seduces Nat, becomes pregnant, making a bizarre appearance at the conclusion as a birdlike creature carrying an egg.

There are numerous revelations and confrontations, few of which are particularly insightful or interesting. Which is doubly disappointing because Conor McPherson has previously proven himself capable of revelation and suspense.

The script is completely devoid of humor and the full-frontal male nudity is totally gratuitous.

In the tiny, cramped black-box space of Theater C, it seems that no audience members have an uncompromised view of the stage. So people either twist in their seats or stand up to try to glean what’s happening from moment-to-moment since, obviously, no one has scrutinized the sight-lines.

So it’s difficult to discern why Resident Birdland director Stefan Dzeparoski, set designer Konstantin Roth and video designer David J. Palmer made these peculiar staging choices – that result in 90 minutes of almost complete frustration – with no intermission in which to flee.

In a (mercifully) limited engagement, “The Birds” runs through Sunday, Oct. 2, at 59E59 Theaters.

 

 

“Gypsy” at Music Theatre of Connecticut

Susan Granger’s review of “Gypsy” (MTC – Sept. 2016)

 

Launching its 30th anniversary season, the Music Theater of Connecticut reimagines this classic show business fable in a smaller chamber setting, giving it an unusual intimacy.

Set in the 1920s-1930s, the story revolves around the relentless ambition of Mama Rose to make her youngest daughter, Baby June, a star on the vaudeville circuit and, later, turning her focus on her insecure older daughter Louise, who eventually becomes the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

Sharply staged by director Kevin Connors with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, it reveals the shabby backstage shenanigans of an assertive stage mother/manager.

Her girls do her proud with perpetually smiling Abby Sara Dahan and stoic Natalie Steele as the younger versions, melding convincingly with their grown counterparts, played by Carissa Massaro as June and Kate Simone as Louise. The latter take over the roles seamlessly during the “Let Me Entertain You” transition, eliciting spontaneous applause.

Restlessly roaming the small stage, Kirsti Carnahan grapples with pugnacious Mama Rose, never quite summoning the energy and vocal strength to propel the show, eventually allowing the complex poignancy of “Rose’s Turn” to slip from her grasp.

The two most memorable musical numbers feature endearing Joe Grandy as the talented chorus boy Tulsa, warbling “All I Need is the Girl,” and dazzling Jodi Stevens stunning as the stripper Mazeppa, triumphing with her trumpet in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

Rounding out the cast are Paul Binotto, likable as Rose’s agent boyfriend Herbie, along with Jeri Kansas, Marcia Leigh, Peter McClung, Chris McNiff, Abigail Root, and Brittany Cattaruzza. Conductor/pianist Thomas Martin Conroy makes terrific music with Luke McGuinness, Chris Johnson, and Gary Ruggiero.

FYI: Since the show opened in 1959, starring Ethel Merman, Mama Rose has been played by Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, among others. And Baby June became actress June Havoc (Gentleman’s Agreement 1947) and longtime resident of Wilton’s Cannon Crossing.

“Gypsy” plays at MTC through Sept. 25.

“The Trojan Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Trojan Women” at The Flea (Off-Broadway, Sept. 2016)

 

First produced in 415 B.C. in the midst of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, shortly after the Athenian army’s massacre of the men of the island of Melos, Euripides presents a tragic situation which dramatizes the fate of the women, who are considered spoils of war.

Set amid the rubble that once was Troy – after the infamous wooden-horse calamity – the women are asleep, as the sea god Poseidon (Thomas Mucciooli) counsels, “Whatever you dream, even the most horrifying dream, cannot be worse than what you will awake to.”

There’s Queen Hecuba (DeAnna Supplee), widow of King Priam and mother of his 19 children, including the slain warriors Hector and Paris, her vengeful prophetess daughter Cassandra (Lindsley Howard), and Hector’s widow Andromache (Casey Wortmann), who tries desperately to save her infant son, Astyanax.

They all blame the legendary beauty Helen (Rebecca Rad), whom the Greeks went to war to recover, brutally attacking her. “Behind every man who took me stood a goddess/Who steadied his hips and whispered in his ears,” she reminds them.

Developed in 1995 for a staged reading performed by refugees of the Balkan conflict, which followed the fragmentation of Yugoslavia, Ellen McLaughlin’s current adaptation focuses on the wasted lives that war leaves in its wake. And its theme, of course, is timeless.

Classical scholars will note that McLaughlin has totally eliminated the part of Spartan King Menelaus, shortening the play considerably.

Modestly staged by Anne Cecelia Haney with Scot Gianelli’s ominous lighting and Ben Vigus’ sound design, this translation is performed by The Flea’s resident acting company, known as The Bats, many dressed in togas and not well served by Joya Powell’s distracting choreography.

Perhaps because of their youth and relative inexperience, they declaim the choral text, never seeming to grasp the emotional subtlety, which is as relevant today as it was back then.

As Poseidon observes, “Another war has ended. When will the next begin?”

“The Trojan Women” runs through Sept. 26, downstairs at The Flea, located at 41 White Street between Church and Broadway, three blocks south of Canal.