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“The Christians”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Christians” (Playwrights Horizons: 2015-2015 season)

Lucas Hnath tackles the internal politics of theology, as the founding pastor of an evangelical megachurch declares a radical shift in doctrine during his weekly sermon.

Set in a stunning wood-paneled church with a giant white cross – and large video screens showing images of nature – the play commences with several hymns, performed by a blue-robed chorus, followed by a Sunday sermon, delivered by charismatic Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman).

In a lesson covering “The Fires of Hell,” Pastor Paul declares that Hell doesn’t actually exist and that everyone – from saints to sinners – will wind up in Heaven, whether or not they’re believers.

Amid general consternation, Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), quoting Scripture, announces his disagreement, leaving the church, followed by like-minded congregants, as Pastor Paul notes, “In order for a tree to grow, some pruning is necessary.”

As a result of this schism, there are a series of skirmishes, including an ostensibly private one with Jay (Philip Kerr), a church elder. A financially-strapped single mother, Jenny (Emily Donahoe), asks if Paul believes that someone as evil as Hitler went to Heaven. When Paul responds affirmatively, she says, “That’s hard to swallow.”

Unfortunately, despite all of Paul’s provocative ideas and the best efforts of the cast, including Paul’s wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), whose final confrontation is devastating, the drama never fully ignites. Perhaps that’s because it’s overly stylized. Director Les Waters marches each actor up to the pulpit, holding a hand-held microphone to deliver the dialogue.

With “Isaac’s Eye” and “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney” on his resume, author Lucas Hnath’s passion about religion was kindled by his upbringing, and he demonstrates profound knowledge about this subject, which is particularly relevant now, as conservative congregations are grappling with the concept gay marriage.

“The Christians” is making its Off-Broadway New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, running through October 11, before transferring to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

“Hamilton”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hamilton” (Richard Rodgers Theater, Sept. 2015)

 

Even seasoned New York theater pundits are amazed that this vivacious, innovative musical about the nation’s first Treasury secretary just bested “Aladdin,” “The Book of Mormon,” and “Wicked” to become the second-highest-grossing show on Broadway, following Disney’s “The Lion King.”

Utilizing a racially/ethnically diverse cast singing exhilarating R&B, jazz, pop and hip-hop music, writer/composer/performer Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the story of a poor immigrant kid who was born in 1755 and came from a broken home on the tiny island of Nevis in the West Indies.

Cocky, energetic and verbally blessed, Alexander Hamilton (Javier Munoz) was known as George Washington’s (Christopher Jackson) favorite strategist – until he was killed in a duel by his perennial frenemy, manipulative Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.).

Based on Ron Chernow’s exhaustive and insightful biography (2004), it not only revels in Hamilton’s relentless ambition but also his capacity for romantic entanglements. Even after marrying Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), he maintains a relationship with her sister Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who was his intellectual soulmate, and indulges in an adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) that became the nation’s first sex scandal.

Most of the humor derives from arrogant King George III (Jonathan Groff), who is clueless about why the rebellious colonists demanded their independence.

And Hamilton’s duet with France’s Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) delivers a timely patriotic tweak, astutely observing: “Immigrants – we get the job done.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda reunited with his 2008 Tony-winning “In the Heights” collaborators director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and music director/orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, along with set designer David Korins, costume designer Paul Tazewell and lighting designer Howell Binkley.

I suspect “Hamilton” will equal or outrank “1776,” which first introduced members of the Continental Congress in song; it played 1,222 performances and was adapted into a 1972 movie musical.

A cultural phenomenon and the best musical on Broadway: “Hamilton” is absolutely fantastic!

“Love and Money”

Susan Granger’s review of “Love and Money” (Pershing Square Signature Center)

 

After three weeks of previews in Connecticut at the Westport Country Playhouse, A.R. Gurney opened his latest play at Off-Broadway’s Signature Center, where he’s the distinguished playwright-in-residence for the 2014-15 season.

Set in the library of a posh Upper East Side townhouse, the surprisingly trivial story revolves around elderly Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), who is determined to sell or donate everything she owns before moving to a retirement home. Her two grown children have died, and she’s decided that wealth is a “curse.” Which is why she wants to give it all away.

Her attorney, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik), advises her to re-think her Will when, suddenly, Walker “Scott” Williams (Gabriel Brown) claims to be her long-lost grandson after a Buffalo newspaper article reveals Cornelia’s charitable intentions. His doubts are echoed by is Cornelia’s Irish maid of 30 years, Agnes Munger (Pamela Dunlap), who dutifully supplies soup and sandwiches.

Walter is a callow, obviously ambitious African-American who claims to have a letter, supposedly written by his mother, Cornelia’s daughter who died of cancer. Then there’s a sassy Julliard student, Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), who’s hoping to acquire Cornelia’s player piano for her school. For a brief interlude, Cole Porter’s music reigns supreme.

But then it’s back to wealthy Cornelia’s dilemma. Is Walter really her grandson or just a clever opportunist? How will this eccentric, melancholy matron handle his outrageous demands?

Although A.R. Gurney’s humorous plays (“The Dining Room,” “The Cocktail Hour”) are astute observations, set in the WASP world of wealth and privilege, unfortunately, this simplistic plot isn’t really plausible, given the circumstances.

But perhaps that lack of focus and credibility can be forgiven in lieu of director Mark Lamos’ astute choice of the strong ensemble cast, headed by Maureen Anderman, who effectively embodies the genteel, altruistic widow.

Another plus is Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous scenic design with tags hanging from the antique furniture, rare books and expensive art work, indicating their future destination.

“Love and Money” runs through October 4 at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, Signature Center on 42nd Street…for tickets and more information, go to http://www.signaturetheatre,org.

 

“This Side of the Impossible”

Susan Granger’s review of “This Side of The Impossible” (NY Int’l Fringe Festival, Aug. 2015)

 

Sebastian Boswell III’s mentalism show made its New York premiere at the 2015 International Fringe Festival in front of an audience of about 70 in a tiny basement experimental theater space called Under Saint Marks in the East Village.

Proclaiming himself “world-renowned,” Boswell declares that he is not a magician; instead, he claims to possess extraordinary powers as a result of a lifetime of study and travel. He credits Edmond Chastbury’s old tome about Thought Transference, explaining how words and images float on air waves.

Professing disdain for Harry Houdini, he claims to have been present when Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel created “The Andalusian Dog,” which he depicts with surrealist sock puppets.

Enlisting audience participation, Boswell begins his somewhat retro routine with counting cards and drawing exercises before proceeding to the highly-anticipated demonstrations of telekinesis, clairvoyance and extra-sensory perception, as practiced throughout history by fakirs and mystics.

During one, he swallowed a pill upon which he’d written some numbers, telling the audience he intended to regurgitate it – and then removed it from his eye. He followed that by pounding a 4-inch nail into his nostril with a hammer – and then extracting it with a pair of pliers.

While Boswell previously won “Best in Fest” at the 2014 San Francisco Fringe Festival, his pompous persona is a bit off-putting. When a performer assumes such an outrageously flamboyant character, he must commit 100%, otherwise it looks like a caricature.

On the other hand, Boswell’s mental agility is amazing, as are his effects, although – at a mere 45-50 minutes – this show seems a trifle short for the effort it takes to attend a New York International Fringe Festival event.

The New York Fringe Festival runs until August 30. If you missed Sebastian Boswell III in Manhattan, you can catch him at the 2015 San Francisco Fringe in September, introducing a new show, entitled “The Ineffable Experience of Impossible Achievements.”

“Legally Blonde, The Musical”

Susan Granger’s review of “Legally Blonde, The Musical” (Summer Theatre of New Canaan)

 

Omigod! They’ve done it again! The Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s production of “Legally Blonde, The Musical” is better than Broadway!

Omigod, you guys! I saw this gleeful show when opened in Manhattan in 2007 – and director Allegra Libonati has not only assembled a stellar, multicultural cast and staged a perfectly-paced production but Doug Shankman’s inventive choreography has elevated the energetic chorus numbers to stand-up-and-cheer level.

Based on Amanda Brown’s novel and Reese Witherspoon’s movie (2001), it’s all about Delta Nu president Elle Woods’ empowering quest to win back her smug, social-climbing ex-boyfriend – who wants a “Jackie,” not a “Marilyn” – by getting into Harvard Law School.

The rousing opening number, “Omigod, You Guys,” performed by the spunky, talented ensemble, sets the stage for the frothy fun of Heather Hach’s playful book, enhanced by Laurence O’Keefe and Neil Benjamin’s peppy, light-hearted melodies.

Kara Dombrowski sparkles as the smart ‘n saucy UCLA sorority girl with a Chihuahua named Bruiser and a penchant for Pepto-Bismol pink. While Ivy League snobs view Elle as not serious enough for Harvard, her resourcefulness impresses Emmett (Matthew Christian), the scruffy teaching assistant.

Elle’s spirited sorority sisters form an amusing Greek Chorus, appearing at her side as she faces various dilemmas, but the real highlights come from Jodi Stevens as Paulette, the warmly humorous hairdresser, and Stephen Hope as predatory Professor Callahan.  Jodi Stevens shows her versatility, commanding the stage with hilarious timing, while Stephen Hope’s sly mannerisms are masterful.

Let’s not forget Brooke Wyndham’s exuberant skip-rope “Whipped into Shape” number and the scene-stealing UPS guy (Maxwell Schuster).

Julia Noulin-Merat’s sturdy two-tiered set is multi-functional, while Lauren Gaston’s costumes are fanciful, enriched by Daniel B. Chapman’s lighting.

Filled with vitality and joyous from start-to-finish, this show celebrates its bubbly ridiculousness with perceptive wit. Like “Hairspray,” it’s a feel-good family fare.

“Legally Blonde, The Musical” plays at The Summer Theatre of New Canaan through August 9. For tickets & information, visit www.stonc.org., contact boxoffice@stonc.org or call 203-966-4634.

 

“And a Nightingale Sang”

Susan Granger’s review of “And a Nightingale Sang” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Told from the compassionately wistful perspective of Helen Stott (Brenda Meaney), this nostalgic melodrama by C.P. Taylor recalls a mundane slice-of-life in Newcastle, England, from 1939-1943, during World War II.

Helen’s close-knit, yet outspoken family consists of her genial, piano-playing father (Sean Cullen), peripatetic yet observant grandfather (Richard Kline), devotedly Catholic mother (Deirdre Madigan), and younger sister (Jenny Leona), who’s initially indecisive about marrying the young soldier (John Skelley) who – in turn –  introduces Helen to his taciturn comrade (Matthew Greer) who becomes her lover.

Their rambling conversations overlap, as each is only concerned with his or her personal travails – yet a pervasive sense of human fallibility serves as a universal connective thread.

Along with the perceptive performances, particularly Brenda Meaney’s, what distinguishes this memory piece is its richly detailed authenticity, including musical selections, ration books, air raid shelters, spam sandwiches, wartime romances, a unwanted pregnancy and a rising interest in Communism, presaging the post-war influence of the working-class.

Even the use of the plural pronoun “us,” referring to oneself, was common in northern England during that period of time. As bit of background information, this C.P. Taylor play was written in 1977 – and commissioned by Newcastle upon Tyne’s Live Theatre Company as a chronicle of that time and place.

Kristen Robinson has created a simple, suggestive set that transforms itself in the observer’s eye from a modest, two-room house into an outdoor courtyard – under the deft direction of David Kennedy.

Michael Krass’ period costumes are obviously vintage, and Matthew Richards’ lighting is evocative, particularly when the family cowers in terror as German planes bomb the area.

“And a Nightingale Sang” will be performed at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 27. For more information, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box-office at (203) 227-4177.

“Finding Neverland”

Susan Granger’s review of “Finding Neverland” (Lunt-Fontanne Theater: 2014-15 season)

 

While theatrical politics often propel Broadway’s Awards season, Peter Pan can crow because “Finding Neverland” sprinkles its own fairy dust, becoming one of the season’s most fanciful musicals.

With music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy and book by James Graham (based on the movie and Allan Knee’s “The Man Who Was Peter Pan”), it’s the somewhat idealized but, nevertheless, engrossing story of how playwright James M. Barrie came to write his beloved masterpiece, “Peter Pan.”

In 1904, London, Barrie (Matthew Morrison) is coping with an overbearing American producer, Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer), who’s demanding a new drawing-room comedy. Frustrated and bereft of ideas, Barrie goes to the park, where he’s intrigued by four mischievous lads playing games. That inspires him to jot down ideas about a mythical place called Neverland, where boys never grow up.

Much to the dismay of his social-climbing wife (Teal Wicks), Barrie becomes enamored of the lads’ ailing, widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly), although their relationship remains properly chaste, despite the suspicions of her strait-laced mother, Mrs. DuMaurier (Carolee Carmello).

Artfully directed by Diane Paulus (“Pippin,” “Hair”) and athletically choreographed by Mia Michaels, it’s enchanting – with much credit going to Scott Pask’s set, Jon Driscoll’s projections, Kenneth Posner’s imaginative lighting, Paul Kieve’s illusions, Suttriat Anne Larlab’s costumes, Richard Mawbey’s hair/makeup and Daniel Wurtzel’s “air sculpting” with flying effects by ZFX, Inc.

Playing Barrie marks Matthew Morrison’s first return to Broadway since 2008’s “South Pacific”; for the past six seasons, he’s been starring as Will Schuester on TV’s “Glee” – and Kelsey Grammer was last seen on-stage in the revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” The roles of the children – Peter, George, Jack and Michael – are shared by multiple talented kids.

FYI: J.M. Barrie gave all the “Peter Pan” rights to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1929, which was confirmed when he died in 1937. Since then, the hospital has received royalties every time the play is performed, as well as from the sale of Peter Pan books and other merchandise. Barrie requested that the amount should never be revealed – and the hospital has honored his wishes.

The original Broadway cast recording of “Finding Neverland” will be available on June 23.

“The Liar”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Liar” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

If you’re yearning for a witty, sophisticated comedy, see “The Liar” at the Westport Country Playhouse.

David Ives’ contemporary adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th century romantic romp about a compulsive liar is filled with mischievous sparkle.

Set in Paris in 1643, it revolves around Dorante (Aaron Krohn), a charming cad who arrives in the Tuileries Garden, where he meets Cliton (Rusty Ross), a manservant who cannot tell a lie. While audaciously spinning tales of his military adventures, Dorante falls in love with vivacious Clarice (Kate MacCluggage), not realizing she’s secretly engaged to his pugnacious friend, Alcippe (Philippe Bowgen).  Although Clarice’s more reserved friend Lucrece (Monique Barbee) is aware of Dorante’s glib duplicity, she’s intrigued by him and would make a far better match.

Adding to the fanciful, farcical fun, there’s Dorante’s gullible father (Brian Reddy) and Cliton’s befuddlement with identical twin maids (Rebekah Brockman): one saucy, the other strait-laced.

Commissioned by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where it was originally staged in 2010, it’s meticulously composed in rhyming verse – iambic pentameter – by David Ives (“Venus in Fur”) and propelled by Penny Metropulos’ adroit direction.

In the demanding leading role, Aaron Krohn exhibits dazzling linguistic panache, delving into every nuance of David Ives’ imaginative puns and silly jokes in fluid couplets. Indeed, every member of the cast delivers crystal-clear vowels and crisp consonants.

Kristen Robinson’s superb set, consisting of four stylized trees, is minimalistic, in contrast with costumer Jessica Ford’s frilly gowns and satin trousers, illuminated by lighting designer Matthew Richards.

Fittingly, the play concludes with, “How liars are punished by their own lies!/Was not the moral of this exercise. But rather how, amidst life’s contradictions,/Our lives can out-fick the finest fictions.”

You can catch “The Liar” at the Westport Country Playhouse through May 23. For tickets and information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

 

“Living on Love”

Susan Granger’s review of “Living on Love” (Longacre Theatre – April, 2015)

 

Back in 1985, Garson Kanin’s “Peccadillo” – about the tempestuous relationship between a legendary conductor and his opera star diva wife – opened and closed in Florida’s Ft. Lauderdale summer stock, despite the best efforts of co-stars Glynis Johns and Christopher Plummer.

But Kanin’s comedic concept inspired playwright Joe DiPietro to create a new play, one geared specifically for celebrated soprano Renee Fleming, who is making her Broadway debut, and filled with ‘inside’ opera references and jokes.

As the curtain opens on a posh Manhattan penthouse in 1957, Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell), an aspiring novelist, is desperately trying to ghost-write the autobiography of aging Italian maestro Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills).  Elusive, delusionary Vito refuses to cooperate – until his equally egomaniacal wife Raquel (Fleming) unexpectedly returns and capriciously decides to write her own memoirs.

Fearing loss of their hefty advance, Little, Brown publishers dispatches an earnest assistant junior editor, Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), to cajole vain Vito, while reluctantly middle-aged Raquel latches onto besotted Robert for her autobiography, saucily seducing him with fragments from “La Boheme” and “Tosca” Not to be outdone, amorous Vito demonstrates to Iris how he conducts “Bolero.”

Meanwhile, there are two scene-stealing butlers (Scott Robertson, Blake Hammond) who speak and sing in unison, often while they’re serving breakfast and moving the furniture around.

Director Kathleen Marshall – whose husband Scott Landis serves is lead producer – plays it like a drawing-room farce with running gags about Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein, while upping the ante with superb casting. Douglas Sills’s impeccable comic timing makes the most of the dialogue, while tempestuous Renee Fleming is a deliciously flamboyant comedienne, clutching her Pomeranian, dubbed Puccini.

Relishing the slapstick, Jerry O’Connell is amiable, as is Anna Chlumsky from HBO’s “Veep.” Kudos to designers Derek McLane (set), Michael Krass (costumes) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting).

Bottom line: it’s an amusing, fanciful confection – that plays at the Longacre Theater through August 2.

“On the Twentieth Century”

Susan Granger’s review of “On the Twentieth Century” (American Airlines Theater: April, 2015)

While Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher are delightful, this lavish revival turns out to be a frivolous farce that’s musically disappointing, despite book & lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman. Seriously, there’s not one singable tune.

Set aboard a streamlined 1930s luxury train from Chicago to New York, the zany operetta introduces egomaniacal Oscar Jaffee (Gallagher), a Broadway producer whose recent flops have left him penniless.

Oscar dispatches two flunkies – press agent Owen O’Malley (Michael McGrath) and company manager Oliver Webb (Mark Linn-Baker) – to reserve a drawing-room compartment next to Academy Award-winning actress Lily Garland (Chenoweth), whom he discovered when she was Mildred Plotka, a dowdy rehearsal pianist from the Bronx.

His plan is to spend the 16-hour trip convincing Lily to sign a contract to do his next, albeit-non-existent play. Complications arise since Lily is accompanied by her vainly preening leading man, Bruce Granit (Andy Karl). In addition, entrepreneurial Oscar needs the necessary financing from Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson), a religious fanatic who happens to be on-board.

While director Scott Ellis frantically juggles the screwball silliness, he seems to hold each scene a bit too long. After a while, that gets tedious, as do the uneven, unremarkable songs and Warren Carlyle’s uninteresting choreography.

Kristin Chenoweth (who created the role of Glinda in “Wicked”) and Peter Gallagher (Sky Masterson in the 1992 revival of “Guys and Dolls”) push their over-the-top flamboyance as far as it can go, but even their mischief derails with repetition.

Kudos to David Rockwell’s dazzling art-deco set design, William Ivey Long‘s sumptuous period costumes Donald Holder’s lighting and Jon Weston’s sound design.

FYI: If the concept sounds familiar, there was an unproduced play, “Napoleon of Broadway,” by Bruce Millholland about his experiences working for legendary impresario David Belasco, which inspired Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur’s screwball comedy, “Twentieth Century” (1932); that, in turn, became a 1934 Howard Hawks film, starring Carole Lombard and John Barrymore.

Back in 1978, Harold Prince’s Tony Award-winning Broadway cast included John Cullum, Imogene Coca, Kevin Kline and Madeline Kahn, who abruptly left the production after her understudy, Judy Kaye, became an overnight sensation.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s “On the Twentieth Century” is at the American Airlines Theater thru July 5.