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“Bright Star”

Susan Granger’s review of “Bright Star” (Cort Theatre – April, 2016)

 

Country is the most popular music in America, so it’s no surprise that Steve Martin and Edie Brickell bring down-home bluegrass to Broadway, opening with Carmen Cusack’s powerhouse song, “If You Knew My Story.”

Inspired by a real-life 1902 incident, Martin’s sweetly sincere book, which he developed with Brickell, begins in 1945, as a W.W. II soldier, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), returns to Hayes Creek, North Carolina. He’s greeted by his love-smitten childhood pal, Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), and his father (Stephen Bogardus), who tells him is mother died in his absence.

An aspiring writer, Billy’s so determined to be published in the Asheville Southern Journal that he hand-delivers several stories to its renown, tart-tongued editor Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack).

Prompted by her assistants (Jeff Blumenkrantz, Emily Padgett), the focus shifts to Alice’s past in the 1920s when, as a free-spirited teenager in Zebulon, she fell in love with Jimmy Ray (Paul Alexander Nolan), son of Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren), and got pregnant.

This gentle fable of pain and redemption is punctuated by lovelorn ballads, fiddle-playing hootenannies and convivial square-dancing, superbly staged by director Walter Bobbie (“Chicago”), who seamlessly integrates Josh Rhodes’ rollicking choreography.

With a rustic A-frame cabin that rotates and model train running on tracks located high above the audience, Eugene Lee’s versatile set is backed by an evocative cut-out of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some of the musicians are placed within the cabin, others high up on both sides of the stage, plucking the banjo, mandolin, guitar, viola and violin, and keeping rhythm on the drums.

Beginning as a 2013 workshop production at the Vassar & New York Stage and Film Powerhouse Theater in Poughkeepsie, “Bright Star” was staged at the Old Globe in San Diego and then at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. – with major changes occurring in the development process. Some of the music was also on Martin/Brickell’s 2013 Grammy-winning album “Love Has Come For You.”

Aimed at a mainstream audience, eager to experience ebullient, up-beat Americana, “Bright Star” is a musical “must-see.”

 

“The Humans”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Humans” (Helen Hayes Theatre – March, 2016)

 

On Thanksgiving, the Irish-American Blake family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, gathers at the creepy Chinatown apartment recently acquired by daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard Saad (Arian Moayed).

It’s a grungy ground-floor/basement duplex which, as her father Erik (Reed Birney) notes, is in a flood zone and disturbingly close to the downed World Trade Center.

Twentysomething Brigid is an aspiring composer/musician, working as a waitress, while thirtyish Richard is completing his Master’s in social work with a trust fund in his future.

Underneath the illusion of gaiety, there’s tension-filled emotional quicksand. The highly-stressed Blakes are struggling with socioeconomic, medical and romantic problems, to mention only a few agonies stacked on their plates.

Erik and his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) have disturbing news that they’re reluctant to reveal, while Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer who was recently dumped by her girl-friend, is facing a serious illness. And then there’s Fiona a.k.a. “Momo” (Lauren Klein), Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother, suffering from dementia.

Momo mutters gibberish, as if to emphasize the entire, lower-middle-class family’s inherent difficulty with communication.

This is the third play by Stephen Karam, moved intact from the Laura Pels Theatre, having been nurtured by the Roundabout Theatre’s Off-Broadway wing.

Evolving on David Zinn’s two-level set with Justin Townsend’s gloomy lighting, it’s subtly directed by Joe Mantello, and punctuated by what the playwright describes as “a sickening thud” from the apartment above – that’s accurately rendered by sound designer Fitz Patton.

Led by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, the cast is uniformly superb. But with no resolution in sight, Karam delivers an ultra-naturalistic, even banal, slice-of-life drama that leaves the audience with a wrenching sense of dread and little hope for the future.

Or, as Erik says, “Whatever gifts God’s given us, in the end, everything you have goes…”

As for the title, it stems from Richard’s unsettling description of his favorite comic book series, revolving around a race of monsters who, idiosyncratically, fear humans.

FYI: “The Humans” is performed without an intermission and there’s a posted warning that if you leave your seat for any reason during the performance, you will not be permitted to return.

 

“Blackbird”

Susan Granger’s review of “Blackbird” (Belasco Theater – March, 2016)

 

It’s challenging, shocking, and profoundly disturbing – this play about pedophilia.

The harrowing drama ignites immediately, as a twitchy, twentysomething woman, Una (Michelle Williams), corners cowering, contrite, middle-aged Ray (Jeff Daniels) at the end of the day in a medical supply company’s bleak lunch room that’s strewn with debris.

Apparently, when Una was a nubile 12-year old and Ray was 40, he had ‘consensual’ sex with her and, subsequently, served time in prison. Now he’s got a new name and a new life in another town. All that’s in jeopardy when obviously agitated Una shows up unexpectedly to confront him.

In a compelling performance, wispy Michelle Williams evokes Una’s bare-legged, childlike demeanor, aided immensely by costumer Ann Roth’s short, flowery frock and heels. Nevertheless, her tremulously controlling tone is deliberate, even vicious, as she recounts exactly what happened that fateful night, as if she’d been rehearsing this encounter for the past 15 years.

Jeff Daniels, who played this same part Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007, is now even older; his hulking physique belies Ray’s festering guilt and vulnerability as he begs and bargains with her, realizing that there is still an ambiguous, unbreakable bond between them.

Scottish playwright David Harrower won London’s prestigious Olivier Award – and it’s obvious why. Not since Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” and Paul Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” has this guarded subject been as provocatively explored, particularly since Harrower raises more questions than he ever attempts to answer.

Director Joe Mantello deftly utilizes Scott Pask’s stark set under Brian MacDevitt’s brutal fluorescent lighting for their grim, emotionally-charged reckoning.

This taut, 80-minute revelation is performed without an intermission – and late-comers are not seated after the curtain rises.

FYI: David Harrower has adapted his play for the screen, and it will premiere later this year, directed by Benedict Andrews, starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn.

 

“Hughie”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hughie” (Booth Theatre: 2016 season)

 

Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, who embodied Dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” makes his Broadway debut in this revival of Eugene O’Neill’s short, one-act play about a down-on-his-luck gambler. Written in 1942, it’s a character study about self-deception.

Set in a spacious, yet shabby hotel lobby in Times Square in a summer’s night in 1928, it revolves around Broadway barfly/gambler Erie Smith (Whitaker) telling the laconic new night clerk, Charlie Hughes (Frank Wood) all about the relationship he shared with the night clerk’s predecessor, Hughie.

Smith has been on a five-day bender since Hughie’s funeral and claims his luck has been jinxed ever since Hughie was hospitalized. Charlie’s obvious disinterest never fazes him, as Hughie drones on, insisting, “Something always turns up for me. I was born lucky. I ain’t worried.”

Former artistic leader of London’s Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage, who has been honored for directing “Frost/Nixon” and “Red,” helms the impressive production, working seamlessly with set/costume designer Christopher Oram, lighting designer Neil Austin and composer/sound designer Adam Cork. But Whitaker’s restrained, somewhat disconnected performance lacks the depth necessary to maintain interest in what amounts to a monologue.

Since playwright Eugene O’Neill had already explored the same concept in “The Iceman Cometh,” this plotless, 55-minute drama has always been considered one of his minor works. First produced in Sweden in 1958, it was staged in English in 1963, when Burgess Meredith played the lead in London. Later moving to Broadway, Jason Robards assumed the role, followed by over the years by Ben Gazzara, Al Pacino and Brian Dennehy.

While serious actors, like Whitaker, are understandably attracted to the meaty role of Eric Smith, audiences may feel they don’t get their money’s worth, particularly when a single Broadway ticket can cost about $150. So it’s not surprising that “Hughie,” originally scheduled to run through mid-June, will close on March 27.

 

“School of Rock”

Susan Granger’s review of “School of Rock” (Winter Garden Theatre/Jan., 2016)

 

In this screen-to-stage adaptation, Alex Brightman plays Dewey Finn, the aging wannabe rock ‘n’ roller who is summarily fired by his own band. It’s the comedic role that catapulted slobby, manic Jack Black to fame and fortune back in 2003; Brightman echoes his comic energy and volatile physicality.

Broke and facing eviction, freeloading Dewey impulsively impersonates his ex-bandmate Ned Schneebly to get a job as a substitute teacher at Horace Green, an elite prep school. That’s where he transforms his fifth-grade class into Battle of the Bands contenders.

Following the plot of Mike White’s screenplay, the book been adapted by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey,” “Mary Poppins”) and Disney lyricist Glenn Slater with the score composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Cats,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera”).

It’s oddly reminiscent of Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which was originally written for high schoolers. And this is the first time Webber has opened a musical on Broadway before London since “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1971).

While none of the songs are particularly memorable, Brightman’s enthusiasm ignites the terrifically talented pre-teens, who immediately endear themselves with “You’re in the Band” and “Stick It to the Man” under the direction of Laurence Connor, who staged the current “Les Miserables” revival, and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter.

Starchy, skeptical Summer (Isabella Russo) is the’ goody two-shoes’ who becomes the band’s manager. Yearning to connect with his father, Freddy (Dante Melucci) defiantly takes out his frustration on the drums. Classically trained pianist Lawrence (Jared Parker) lets loose on the keyboard.  Prodigy Zach’s (Brandon Niederauer) on lead guitar with Katie (Evie Dolan) on bass.

Encouraged by her two gay dads, tiny belter Tomika (Bobbi Mackenzie) emerges from her shell of shyness, joining the back-up vocalists (Carly Gendell, Taylor Caldwell). And Barbra Streisand fan Billy (Luca Padovan) becomes the band’s stylist.

Wailing “Where Did the Rock Go?” Sierra Boggess plays the uptight principal with a secret penchant for Stevie Nicks, while Spencer Moses as the real Ned Schneebly with Mamie Parris as his bossy girl-friend.

The production design is superb – from Anna Louizos’ flexible sets and imaginative costumes to Natasha Katz’s lighting and Mick Potter’s sound design. One suggestion: since the music is very, very loud, it would be merciful if ear plugs were sold in the lobby, along with drinks and candy.

 

 

“King Charles III”

Susan Granger’s review of “King Charles III” (Music Box Theatre: November, 2015)

 

“Game of Thrones” has moved from the Middle Ages into the House of Windsor via Mike Bartlett’s audacious, satirically provocative “future history” drama, set just after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Told in Shakespearean blank verse with occasional rhyming couplets, the politically potent story revolves around the refusal by King Charles (Tim Piggott-Smith) in the weeks before his Coronation to sign Parliament’s new privacy bill that would restrict freedom of the press.

The more the Prime Minister (Adam James) presses, the more adamantly the King asserts that an unrestricted press is “the way a just society should work” – which is curious, given his previous phone-hacking angst and scandalous affair with conniving Camilla (Margot Leicester).  Despite having waited in the wings for most of his life, Charles’s highly principled conscience prevails, as he expresses fear that censorship will lead to governmental corruption.

When the ghost of demure Princess Diana (Sally Scott) visits him, she flirtatiously proclaims in a whispery voice that he will be “the greatest King.”  Not surprisingly, she voices the same assurance to her elder son, Prince William (Oliver Chris), whose fashionable, now emboldened, wife Kate (Lydia Wilson), the Duchess of Cambridge, turns out to be a manipulative, 21st century Lady Macbeth.

Meanwhile, feckless Prince Harry (Richard Goulding), weary of being “a ginger joke” among his Falstaffian friends, ignites a romantic relationship with socialist art student Jess (Tafline Steen), prompting his desire to reject his Royal heritage to become a commoner.

Eschewing impersonation, Tom Piggott-Smith delivers a subtly nuanced, poignant performance, aided and abetted by a strong ensemble, culminating in a chilling ceremonial climax.

Adroitly directed by Rupert Goold, its moral complexity is treacherously clever – and riveting, beginning with a solemn funeral procession and composer Jocelyn Pook’s Requiem. Designer Tom Scutt’s set consists of a brick-walled chamber with a carpeted dais, evoking Buckingham Palace; his costumes include traditional regalia – with protesters in Guy Fawkes masks.

Winner of London’s prestigious Olivier Award, it’s the most exciting new play on Broadway since “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time.”  In a Limited Engagement through January, 2016, it’s a must see for Anglophiles!

“Ugly Lies the Bone”

Susan Granger’s review of “Ugly Lies the Bone” (Roundabout Underground Black Box: Oct.,2015)

In the World Premiere of this new drama, writer Lindsey Ferrentino confronts the topical dilemma of the wounded female soldier whose biggest battle is on the home front.

Jess (Mamie Gummer) has just returned to her hometown on Florida’s “Space Coast” after her third tour in Afghanistan. After being nearly killed by an improvised explosive device (IED), she’s in a pain management program, bravely trying to stretch her limbs and move her scarred skin – since third-degree burns cover over 90% of her body.

But it’s her deeply scarred face that reflects her enduring emotional agony.

After the suspension of NASA’s shuttle program, Titusville’s economy has plummeted. Jess’s mother (Caitlin O’Connell) suffers from dementia. Her schoolteacher sister Kacie (Karron Graves) is struggling to make ends meet, while Kacie’s boyfriend, Kelvin (Haynes Thigpen), lives on disability for a knee injury.

Jess’s former boyfriend, Stevie (Chris Stack) is now married and working as a gas station/convenience store clerk. He shares a memorably poignant scene with Jess, as she asks him to describe what she looked like before the burns disfigured her.

Helping her tenuous grip on sanity, Jess is participating in a new form of therapy which involves Virtual Reality headgear and a disembodied vocal guide to psychically take her out of the painful present and into tranquility.

Director Patricia McGregor was wise in casting talented, versatile Mamie Gummer. The oldest daughter of Meryl Streep, Mamie made her New York stage debut 10 years ago in “Mr. Marmalade” and recently appeared on-screen opposite her mother in Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash.”

But any play is only as good as its script – and Lindsey Ferrentino needs to do more work. Clocking in at 75 minutes without an intermission, it’s overly bleak and needs to be fleshed out, particularly the supporting roles.

FYI: The title is allegedly derived from Albert Einstein’s couplet about the impermanence of beauty.

Apparently, Ferrentino was inspired by a therapeutic video game called Snow World, in which burn victims are immersed in a wintry landscape, complete with penguins. After the show, audience members can try the game in the lobby.

“Ugly Lies the Bone” has been extended at the Roundabout Underground’s Black Box through December 6. For ticket information, call 212-719-1300 or go to roundaboutheatre.org.

 

“Other Desert Cities”

Susan Granger’s review of “Other Desert Cities” (Hudson Stage Company: Oct., 2015)

 

Truth hurts – it stuns, shocks and stings. That’s why Jon Robin Baitz’s dazzlingly dry, witty observations about parents and children, secrets and blame have such resounding resonance.

Patrician former movie star-turned-United States Ambassador Lyman Wyeth (Malachy Cleary) and his self-righteous, Jewish wife, Polly (Colleen Zenk), are Old-Guard Hollywood conservatives, now living in retirement Palm Springs. Polly’s bitter sister, Silda (Peggy J Scott), a recovering alcoholic and Polly’s former screenwriting partner, has just moved in with them.

It’s Christmas, 2004, as their grown children gather for the holidays.  Depressive Brooke (Brenda Withers) is an anguished novelist whose upcoming memoir spills long-kept family secrets, while Trip (Davy Raphaely) is a laid-back ‘reality’ television producer. An older son, Henry, is there in spirit only; he committed suicide after being implicated a fatal Weather Underground-style bombing which mortified and socially ostracized his parents during the Reagan era. This shame is the subject of Brooke’s book.

Creator of ABC-TV’s “Brothers & Sisters” (2006-2011), Baitz is in familiar territory, exploring social dysfunction, hypocritical politics and tantalizing drama. His barbed dialogue crackles as the family painfully probes its past.  Ironically, Baitz was fired in 2007 by ABC executives because he wanted the series to take a darker, more dramatic tone, while they insisted on retaining its sit-com sensibility.

Familiar to TV audiences from “As the World Turns,” Colleen Zenk embodies the ferocious matriarch who is determined to protect the family from her daughter’s betrayal. She’s an extraordinarily witty actress who can deliver a good line like a stiletto through the ribs.

As her combative, liberal offspring, Brenda Withers is determined to breaks the barrier of things that polite, well-bred Republicans simply don’t discuss – supported by her diabolical aunt, Peggy J. Scott. Davy Raphaely and Malachy Cleary add satisfying support as voices of reason.

Deftly directed by Dan Foster, who staged the play in Nantucket this summer, it’s a redemptive tale of reconciliation, made even more believable by the entitled authenticity of David L. Arsenault’s sleekly chic set, Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s costumes, Andrew Gmoser’s lighting and William Neal’s sound.

(For those unfamiliar with California geography, the title comes from a roadside sign on Interstate 10, indicating the way to Palm Springs and Other Desert Cities.)

“Other Desert Cities” runs through Oct. 31 at North Castle Public Library’s Whippoorwill Hall in Armonk, New York. For ticket info, call 914-271-2811 or go to www.hudsononstage.com.

“Clever Little Lies”

Susan Granger’s review of “Clever Little Lies” (Westside Theatre, off-Broadway: 2015-16 season)

 

Marlo Thomas headlines Joe DiPietro’s domestic comedic about infidelity – not hers, her son’s.

Set in the suburban Connecticut living room of Alice (Ms. Thomas) and her husband Bill (Greg Mullavey), it revolves around their wayward son, Bill Jr. (George Merrick), and daughter-in-law, Jane (Kate Wetherhead), whose three month-old daughter gurgles off-stage in another room.

When Bill returns from a tennis match with their New York-based son, busybody Alice immediately senses that something’s wrong. Determined to delve into whatever dilemma’s bothering him, she insists that Billy and his wife drive up to New Canaan for cocktails, cheesecake and espresso.

It seems that Billy’s canoodling with a sexy 23 year-old personal trainer named Jasmine, an adultery concept that has already become a cliché. Observing his gym-honed abs, Alice notes: “There’s no reason for a straight married man to be in that good a condition.”

Bookstore owner Alice then reveals an extramarital secret of her own, a kind of randy mind game or parable – which may or may not be true.

“In the long run,” she says, ruminating on the merits and perils of marriage, “people always stop showing you their shiny side and reveal their unpolished truths.”

Daughter of comedian Danny Thomas, Margaret Julia Thomas is perhaps best known as ABC-TV’s “That Girl” (1966-71) – and now, at age 77, Marlo hasn’t left her wide-eyed sitcom sensibility far behind, meaning that the audience can anticipate the punchlines long before she delivers them.

Director David Saint does his best to make these genial but obviously stock characters likeable, primarily by astute casting. After seasons of sparring with Louise Lasser on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” Greg Mullavey has mastered a deadpan expression, while Kate Wetherhead, who co-created her own web series “Submissions Only,” exhibits quiet strength and George Merrick’s distress is palpable.

First presented in 2013 at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, this trifle follows Joe DiPietro’s last year’s “Living on Love” with Renee Fleming. Previously, DiPietro authored the long-running comedy “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and wrote the book/lyrics for the musical “Memphis.”

Running 90 minutes without an intermission, “Clever Little Lies” plays at the Westside Theatre through January 3, 2016.

“Broken Glass”

Susan Granger’s review of “Broken Glass” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Westport Country Playhouse concludes its 2015 season with this respectful revival, celebrating the centennial of the birth of playwright Arthur Miller, who lived in Roxbury, Connecticut, for many years.

Set in November, 1938, it evokes Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in Germany, when Nazi mobs burned synagogues and looted stores belonging to Jews, forcing the elderly to scrub the streets with toothbrushes.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, New York, Philip Gelberg (Steven Skybell) is concerned about a strange paralysis that has suddenly afflicted his wife, Sylvia (Felicity Jones). For the past two weeks, she has been unable to stand, walk or feel anything but numbness in her legs.

After running a full battery of tests, attentive Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Schnetzer) concludes that Sylvia’s problem is psychological. To that end, he quizzes Philip about their sexual relationship and begins visiting bedridden Sylvia at home, much to the chagrin of his wary nurse/wife (Angela Reed).

In talking with fragile Sylvia, Dr. Hyman realizes that she’s obsessed with brutal Nazi oppression of Jews in Germany. And that neither she nor Philip have been intimate or honest with each other for many years, an observation confirmed by Sylvia’s sister (Merritt Janson).

Felicity Jones is subtly riveting as the emotionally vulnerable wife, while Steven Skybell embodies the anger, frustration, and resentment of a Jew coping with an anti-Semitic boss (John Hillner) in WASP-dominated banking. Propelling the complexity of the plot, Stephen Schnetzer epitomizes an empathetic physician trying to unravel the cause of his patient’s mysterious malady.

Under Mark Lamos’s astute direction, this intense, affecting play runs for 90 minutes without an intermission. Written in 1994, it’s one of Arthur Miller’s lesser-known works and his only exploration of the conflicts inherent in Jewish/American identity. Its world premiere was at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater before a brief Broadway run, starring Amy Irving, David Dukes, Ron Rifkin, and Frances Conway.

Michael Yeargan’s abstract set of shard-like, reflective glass panels is stunning, as are Candice Donnelly’s period costumes, Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting and David Butler’s sound.

You can see “Broken Glass” through Oct. 24 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or online at www.westportplayhouse.org.