Disgraced Theater Review: Bluntly Provocative, Dramatically Satisfying

disgraced-large-643x441When Amir was a child, he spit in the face of a Jewish classmate, a girl he had a crush on, he says in “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar’s bluntly provocative play that has now opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. Amir is explaining to his nephew that he had been imitating his Pakistani-born mother, who had spit in his face when she discovered an affectionate note the girl had written to him in class. “You will end up with a Jew over my dead body,” his mother had said to him.

Now Amir is a successful, hard-charging corporate attorney in New York working for a largely Jewish law firm. He has angrily rejected the Islamic religion of his childhood because of attitudes like his mother’s, changed his name so it is not recognizably Muslim or Pakistani, and married a white woman – not a Jew but a blonde WASP.

His wife, Emily, is an artist who not only incorporates motifs from Islamic art into her paintings but defends Islam from her husband’s attacks. She also inadvertently sets into motion the two plot lines that climax, at a dinner party with another couple, in the most explosive surprises of the play (which I refuse to give away.)

It is easy to argue that the playwright exerts an almost mathematical craftiness in his work: His wily navigation through charged terrain includes putting the anti-Muslim arguments into the mouth of the Muslim character, and giving the non-Muslims the reasonable counter-arguments.

But it is hard to dispute that “Disgraced, which debuted at Lincoln Center’s experimental LCT3 two years ago, introduces a fresh and important new voice to the American stage; the play is in my view deserving of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that it won. What makes this all the more astonishing is that “Disgraced” was the first play Ayad Akhtar ever wrote (after twenty years of writing fiction and screenplays.) He’s already on his third play, The Invisible Hand, which opens December 8 at New York Theater Workshop.

Akhtar does not shy away from the kind of in-your-face beliefs that confront us daily in the world outside the theater, and that have even escalated into even greater relevance since its Off-Broadway production; he includes a character (Amir’s nephew) who credibly voices the extremist views of some Muslims. There are fierce debates about Islamic terrorism and of Islam itself.  But what he has created is not just a needed exploration of an urgent clash of world views, but a deeply satisfying dramatic experience.

And, in the Broadway production directed by Kimberly Senior, he has lots of help in making that happen.

Hari Dhillon portrays Amir as somebody who has donned the identity of an arrogant corporate player in order to shield himself from the resentments and vulnerabilities of his ethnic identity. As the play progresses, we see his ambivalence and internal conflicts apparently more clearly than he does. Gretchen Mol,who was so dazzling as Gillian Darmody in the just-completed HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” is completely transformed as Amir’s demur, intelligent, well-meaning blonde wife Emily. Similarly,  Josh Radnor, who played Ted Mosby for nine years on the CBS series “How I Met Your Mother,” is unrecognizable as Isaac, the bearded Jewish museum curator who is interested in Emily’s art work — and in Emily. He is persuasive as he turns from nerdy and complacent to enraged.  Karen Pittman,  the only one of the actors who is a holdover from the Off-Broadway production, makes the most of her role as Jory, who is Isaac’s wife and Amir’s colleague — and, as it turns out, rival — at the law firm.  That Isaac is Jewish and Jory African-American adds another (crafty) layer to Akhtar’s exploration of ethnic identities and tensions. Rounding out the cast is Danny Ashok as Abe, Amir’s nephew, who has changed his name from Hussein, but, by the end of the play, changes it back.

John Lee Beatty’s set and Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costumes establish the outwardly comfortable life of these affluent residents of the Upper East Side. There is never a feeling that the play is satirizing these characters, even when Emily is serving a fennel and anchovy salad or chirping with Isaac about the London art scene. But what “Disgraced” does do, smoothly and theatrically, is confront us one by one with our assumptions and pieties about the culture clash that is defining our era.

Disgraced

At the Lyceum Theater (148 West 45th Street)

By Ayad Akhtar; directed by Kimberly Senior; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting by Kenneth Posner; sound by Jill BC Du Boff.

Cast: Hari Dhillon (Amir), Gretchen Mol (Emily), Josh Radnor (Isaac), Danny Ashok (Abe) and Karen Pittman (Jory).

Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $37.50 – $138.00

Disgraced is scheduled to run through February 15, 2015

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Lift Review: Walter Mosley’s Stalled Play About Two Trapped

Lift, a play about a man and a woman stuck in an elevator after a terrorist attack, is written by Walter Mosley, who has had three decades of success as a novelist, especially with the Easy Rawlin mysteries, such as Devil in a Blue Dress, which was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington. Although he is new to playwriting, one expects from a Mosley play three things — suspense, surprise, and an African-American perspective. One doesn’t expect tedium.

Theodore (Biko Eisen-Martin) and Tina (MaameYaa Boafo) don’t know each other, although they work in the same corporation, when they are trapped together in the elevator’s skyscraper. But they have plenty of time to learn about one another. Theodore is an executive, who was first brought on board because his skills as a basketball player would help the corporate team. Tina is an African-born daughter of privilege, who graduated from Princeton. Each as it turns out has a dark secret, which they’ve never told anybody before.

There is much that’s intriguing about these characters, their wary and intensifying interaction holds our attention for a time, and their predicament is even a fitting metaphor for the stalled rise of black people in America. But there are too many missteps in Lift, from pointless ancillary characters to plot holes to pacing to length – 120 minutes over two acts!  Perhaps Mosley can use these characters again in a different story.

Lift

at 59E59 Theaters

By Walter Mosley

Directed by Marshall Jones, III

Lighting and projections design by Rocco Disanti, costume design b yAnne E Grosz, scenic design by Andrei Onegin, sound design by Toussaint Hunt

Cast: MaameYaa Boafo, Shavonna Banks, Biko Eisen-Martin, Martin Kushner

Tickets: $70

Lift is scheduled to run until November 30th.

Angels in America at BAM, in Dutch. Stressing the “Universal” (European) and the Intimacy

Louis (Fedja van Huet)  and Belize (Roeland Fernhout)

Louis (Fedja van Huet) and Belize (Roeland Fernhout)

The first time I saw “Angels in America,” the awe-inspiring 1993 play about intermingled lives during the AIDS crisis, I was thrilled by the confrontation between Louis, the Jewish word processor, and Belize, the black nurse and former drag queen. Theirs is not a central relationship in the play, but I admired how playwright Tony Kushner could create a scene with dialogue that distilled so much about the relationship between blacks and Jews in the New York of 1985, as well as political/intellectual conflicts throughout the country during the Reagan era, yet still made his characters fleshed-out individuals whom I could recognize from my own experience.

That scene had a similar effect on me when I saw the 2003 HBO adaptation and the 2010 revival at the Signature. It had no such effect for me this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s Dutch-language production of the play cast two members of his theater company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, to portray Louis and Belize — Fedja Van Huet and Roeland Fernhout….a couple of Dutch guys, with little discernible trace of anything Jewish or black or New York.

This is one of the slightest changes, truly, in a production that radically revises this epic play – a production that, despite such disappointments, ultimately worked for me.

Originally with some 20 characters, this Angels in America has only 10 characters performed by eight actors. Originally with a running time of some seven hours, here it is cut to a little bit more than four hours (with a dinner break midway through.) Gone are any scenery (not even furniture), elaborate costumes, nor even makeup to speak of: When the actress Marieke Heebink comes on stage to begin the play, performing as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz to deliver the funeral eulogy for Louis’ grandmother, she is not wearing (as in past productions) a long white beard and a skullcap; she looks exactly the same way as she will to portray the Mormon mother Hannah Pitt, and the executed Ethel Rosenberg.

Most noticeably of all, there is no angel descending spectacularly from the skies. Now, the angel is a male E.R. nurse in surgical whites (no wings) and he stays on the stage, which is nearly bare, except for a desk with a turntable, some LPs and a couple of amplifiers. (In place of the normal sound effects, we mostly hear David Bowie tunes from the 80s. )

Van Hove’s troupe has been performing this version since 2008, reportedly to great reception in Europe. There is a little cultural adjustment required to see it in Brooklyn, which is perhaps ironic, since this is where the play is partially set. The spare approach seems especially dissonant at the moment of the arrival of the angel, with the meta/catty line: “Very Steven Spielberg” – a reliable laugh line when the winged angel crashed through the ceiling; now, with nothing at all happening, just odd.

Van Hove has said that the sparseness of the production is meant to leave room for the imagination. Others have praised it as making the piece “universal” – or bringing out its universality. Universal, of course, can be a loaded word: Theater makers (consciously or not) have often used it to reassure prospective audiences when characters are different from themselves – ethnic, gay, whatever. Reading the English supertitles above the spare stage at BAM’s Harvey Theater, I wondered: Does “universal” mean “European?”

By the end of “Angels in America,” however, I had put my intellectual qualms aside. By paring down Kushner’s work, van Hove, intentionally or not, wound up eliminating some of its excesses, its flights of fancy, especially in Part II, Perestroika, and thus leaving us a clearer view of the evolving intimacy between the characters. Intimacy is something that von Hove does well – witness his stage adaptation, just closed at the New York Theatre Workshop, of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

When “Angels in America” had begun, Louis learned that his long-time lover Prior had contracted AIDS, and abandoned him; Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt could no longer repress his homosexuality and abandoned his troubled, hallucinating wife Harper; repulsive McCarthyite and finagling lawyer Roy Cohn learned that he had AIDS and hallucinated a visit by Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he executed. But by the end, the separate worlds these characters inhabited have all merged into one; and a series of deeply moving one-on-one scenes between the unlikeliest of pairs melded Kushner’s great insight and compassion with the company’s bravely vulnerable acting and with van Hove’s inspired, albeit European, vision.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

 

Angels in America

A Toneelgroep Amsterdam production, presented as part of the Next Wave Festival by Brooklyn Academy of Music,

By Tony Kushner; directed by Ivo van Hove; sets and lighting by Jan Versweyveld; costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic; video design by Tal Yarden; music by Wim Selles; translated by Carel Alphenaar; dramaturgy, Peter van Kraaij.  Running time: 5 hours 10 minutes, including a 45-minute dinner break. In Dutch with English subtitles.

Cast: Eelco Smits (Prior Walter), Fedja van Huet (Louis Ironson), Hans Kesting (Roy Cohn), Marieke Heebink (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg), Marwan Kenzari (Joe Pitt), Hélène Devos (Harper Pitt), Roeland Fernhout (Belize/Mr. Lies) and Alwin Pulinckx (the Angel).

There were just three performances of this play at BAM, Thursday through Saturday.

Glamour On Broadway: Sting, Tatiana Maslany, Keira Knightley. Week in New York Theater

Both Tatiana Maslany and Keira Knightley announced they would be making their Broadway debuts, the rock star Sting made his debut this week as a Broadway composer, and an Off-Broadway play opened about the filming of Double Indemnity. If all that’s not glamorous enough, the New Yorker released videos of Sondheim talking about Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and West Side Story.

Below are excerpts and links to my reviews of “Billy and Ray,” “The Fortress of Solitude,” and “The Last Ship.”

The Week in New York Theater Oct 20-26

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OnTheTwentiethCentury1stphoto

Andy Karl (Rocky) as Bruce Granit, Mark Linn-Baker (You Can’t Take It With You) as Oliver Webb, Tony winner Michael McGrath (Nice Work If You Can Get It) as Owen O’Malley, and Tony winner Mary Louise Wilson join Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher in Roundabout’s On The Twentieth Century revival

Harvard is planning to offer a major in “theater, dance and media,”leaving Princeton as only Ivy League not offering theater degree

Brian Yorkey, Tom Kitt

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal) are making a Broadway-aiming musical out of 2007 indie film The Visitor, in which a college professor discovers that somebody has rented his apartment to a young unmarried immigrant couple. He lets them stay, bonds over music, and then has his friendship tested when one is faced with deportation.

BillyJoel

Billy Joel, who hasn’t put out new music since 2001, is working on songs about L.I. history. (A musical?)

Billy&Ray3

My review of Billy and Ray

“No killing, no dead body, no sex, no nothing. Just talk.”
That line is uttered near the end of “Billy & Ray,” a play about the collaboration of director Billy Wilder and writer Raymond Chandler on the film “Double Indemnity.” The film’s producer is on the phone with the head of the Hollywood censorship office, using these words to describe the film in order to reassure him.
It is a sly description of the 1944 movie starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck that embodied a genre later labeled film noir, where, to get around the censors, all the dark doings an audience could want happen off-screen (sometimes inches off screen.)
Yet the line could also describe Mike Vencivenga’s play itself: Nothing much happens, just talk, in this disappointing production at the Vineyard Theater, directed by Garry Marshall. Its main appeal, to be honest, is in being able to witness the New York stage debuts of two of the performers in the four-member cast – Vincent Kartheiser, Pete Campbell from Mad Men, portraying Billy Wilder, and, as his secretary Helen, Sophie von Haselberg, who looks and acts uncannily like a young Bette Midler — and is in fact her daughter.

Full review of Billy and Ray

21

Hand to God MCC at the LucilleLortel Theater
Robert Askins’s Hand to God, featuring Tyrone the shock puppet, will open on Broadway’s Booth Theater April 7, 2015!

tatiana-maslany-thomas-sadoski

Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany to make her New York stage debut in Neil LaBute’s The Way We Get By, opposite Thomas Sadoski at Second Stage, about two people who wake up after spending the night together faced with a number of challenges.

Study: Trips to live theater enhance literary knowledge,tolerance, and empathy among students. Science Daily

Ticketmaster vs. Stubhub: Who’s Winning the Resale Battle?

BradleyCooper

Bradley Cooper on The Elephant Man: “It was the reason why I wanted to become an actor, because of David Lynch’s movie. And then I discovered it was a play, and I did it for my thesis in grad school.”

22

Romala Garai
Romola Garai, so luminous in Indian Ink interviewed by The Interval 

Remember abruptly canceled “Hearts & Lights” at Radio City? Diane Paulus et al creating “NY Spring Spectacular,” opening March 26.

Only 10 percent of art school grads wind up as working artists, according to a new analysis

The Magic Jukebox,  musical sketch comedy, will inaugurate a new (temporary, aka pop-up) theater at South Street, Nov 6-22

Free play reading series at The Labyrinth Theater begins with  Empanada Loco,a Latin Sweeney Todd starring Daphne Rubin Vega http://bit.ly/1vNQzEk

11 playwrights you need to know about (all but 3 of them women) by Karen D’Souza

Alphabetically:

Annie Baker

Will Eno

Gina Gionfriddo

Amy Herzog

Tracy Letts

Linda McClean

Lynn Nottage

Sarah Ruhl

Enda Walsh

Naomi Wallace

FortressSolitude3

My review of Fortress of Solitude

“The Fortress of Solitude” begins with a sensory overload of song…the sounds of a Brooklyn block, circa 1975. That sets the tone for this energetic, inspired, heartbreaking and sometimes rushed and overwhelming stage adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling coming-of-age novel, centered on a friendship between a white boy named Dylan and a black boy named Mingus.

Full review

23

Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley to make her Broadway debut in Roundabout Theater’s Therese Raquin (based on Emile Zola novel), directed by Evan Cabnet, about a woman who embarks on an affair with her husband’s friend. It will open in October 2015

Alex Timbers will direct Permission by playwright Robert Askins in his follow-up to Hand to God MCC theater April 29 to June 7, 2015

Our research indicates that the ways Americans are participating in the arts is expanding, along with the demographics of those who participate. We are seeing more diversity in the groups (African American, Asian American and Hispanic) who are most likely to approach art in new ways, such as electronic media, to create and share music and visual art. As a matter of fact, in this the digital age, 74% of American adults are using their mobile devices, computers and tablets to view and listen to arts~NEA chair Jane Chu

Feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than feeling of contentment~Francis Bacon

Annie Danger on “queer art” and how it’s like farming: you’ve got to love shoveling sh*t and hope it’s fruitful

24

Grand Prize Winner Chelsea Ravich

Grand Prize Winner Chelsea Ravich

Phantom of the Opera Pop Up Shop opens, displaying prize-winning masks

 

25

A Critic’s Lexicon

Raves vs. rants

pans vs. pouts

puffs vs. doubts

All eight articles from this week’s #transgender theater series on Howlround

Theaters With Your Favorite Audiences?

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timothyhuang

Advice to a musical theater writer, by Timothy Huang:

Go see everything.

Ask for things.

Say yes.

Share

Apply for all things, all the time.

 

Also Sondheim on:

“Sweeney Todd” and Sondheim’s process for writing a musical

And

video of his announcing details of his new musical with David Ives

The Last Ship by Sting

The Last Ship by Sting

My review of The Last Ship

Sting’s songs are haunting and lyrical, the creative team is made up of Broadway royalty, the acting helps lend a sense of authenticity to this heartfelt tale based on the struggles of the shipbuilding community where the rock star grew up in Northern England. So why did “The Last Ship” ultimately feel to me so much like an overlong commercial for beer or aftershave lotion — all manly fellowship and honest, muscular effort, without much purpose except to work up a sweat?

The opening scenes promise much more than that.

Full review of The Last Ship

 

The Last Ship Review: Sting’s Hometown Tale on Broadway

Sting’s songs are haunting and lyrical, the creative team is made up of Broadway royalty, the acting helps lend a sense of authenticity to this heartfelt tale based on the struggles of the shipbuilding community where the rock star grew up in Northern England. So why did “The Last Ship” ultimately feel to me so much like an overlong commercial for beer or aftershave lotion — all manly fellowship and honest, muscular effort, without much purpose except to work up a sweat?

The opening scenes promise much more than that.

 

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Gideon (Michael Esper) is returning to Wallsend after 15 years of self exile to attend a funeral.

“Someone close?” a fellow sailor asks on the ship bringing him to port.

“No,” Gideon replies. “Just me dad.”

In the song “All This Time,” Gideon explains why he went away.

So I ask myself why the hell would I stay?
Just churches and pubs where ye drink or ye pray, and the sky’s still the same old battleship grey,
if only the pubs stayed open all day

Once back in town, he goes first to the church, to confession with the local priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), who reminds him of the promise he made to his girlfriend Meg to return for her.

GIDEON: Aye, a promise I broke.
FATHER O’BRIEN: Or that you haven’t kept yet.

He then goes to find Meg (Rachel Tucker) at the Ship at the Hole Pub. There, the laid-off workers from the closed shipyard, led by former foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), have just rejected a businessman’s offer of working at his scrap yard.

“You can keep your blinders on as the world leaves you behind,” the businessman says, “or you can face reality and apply for a new job with me.” They choose the former.

We’ve seen this set-up before in musicals, gritty, atmospheric tales of plucky British workers challenged by an industry in crisis – in Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Kinky Boots.

But while the others set sail, this two-masted ship stays waterlogged.

In one of the two plots, Father O’Brien, who has just discovered he is dying, gives the town a mission – build one last ship, and sail it “out into the wide world.” In the other plot, Gideon discovers that Meg is now in a couple with another man, and that Meg has a 15-year-old son – Gideon’s!

Now, the book, by John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal, If/Then), reportedly borrows from two separate real-life incidents — involving Scottish shipbuilders who staged a “work-in” in the 1970s, and more recently by a Polish priest who illicitly funded unemployed workers to assemble a ship that was to sail around the world.

So, shouldn’t this be as inspiring on stage as it was in real life? But it isn’t. Perhaps this is in part because we do not see:

  1. much point in their building the boat
  2. their overcoming many obstacles to do so
  3. their spending much time in the actual construction – a couple of shifting around of two-by-fours, some welders emitting orange sparks, and lots of synchronized stomping and jaunty thrusts in the air (giving me a momentary urge to shout out “Stop your prancing and build the boat already!”)
  4. the boat

David Zinn’s industrial-looking set suggests the immense size and power of a shipyard, but we never actually see a boat. The design team only suggests it, climaxing with one special effect at the end.

The ship-building must compete with the love triangle, which offers opportunity for some lovely ballads – oddly enough, most notably “What Say You, Meg” by Gideon’s rival, Arthur (Aaron Lazar, last seen on Broadway as the rival in A Little Night Music!)

Here is a video of the song as sung by Sting

and a snippet of the song sung by Lazar in the Chicago production

Some have suggested that it was Sting’s modesty that prevented him from making this story more obviously autobiographical, turning Gideon into a rock star returning to his blue collar hometown. That might not have worked, but the current Gideon seems to have done very little in the 15 years of his absence except…be absent. There’s none of Sting’s charisma built into the character; you almost wonder why Meg, having found a more mature, loving partner and lovely balladeer in Arthur, would feel conflicted after meeting the man who abandoned her as a teenager. Esper, who was terrific on Broadway in both American Idiot and in The Lyons, makes the most of Gideon and does it in fine voice.

Indeed, the cast of almost two dozen is full of first-rate performers. Applegate is a delight as Father O’Brien, the Irish-born unorthodox (foul-mouthed), caring and beloved priest of the town, even though my tolerance for twinkle-eyed Irish priests with irreverent wisdom is not what it used to be.

Standouts include four performers making their Broadway debuts:

Jimmy Nail, a well-known singer-songwriter in Europe who came out of retirement to help Sting with the songs, is channeling his father, who was a foreman in a Newcastle shipyard. Rachel Tucker is silver-voiced and persuasive as a Meg who has hardened on the outside, but remains softly romantic underneath it all.

Collin Kelly-Sordelet plays Gideon as a young man, and also the son Gideon didn’t know he had. He is the 19-year-old son of stage fight director Rick Sordelet, and exhibits a grace on stage that will serve him well.

Shawna M. Hamic as the feisty barkeep Beatrice Dees who leads the Act II opener, “Mrs. Dee’s Rant” with its much-needed humor:

When I was a maiden truly,
Such dreams would fill my head
I thought I’d marry a goodly man, to keep me warm in bed.

A goodly man, a shapely man,
of noble heart and true, instead I married a shipyard man and the rent’s always overdue.

If to an untrained ear, too much of the music seems much the same, I’ll wager that theatergoers who did not know of Sting before might be moved to explore his music further; for his fans, the lilting, sweet-sad, folk-tinged music might be enough to satisfy.

I suspect “The Last Ship” will be a future Encores! concert, treated like rediscovered sunken treasure.

 

The Last Ship

At the Neil Simon Theater

Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey; Music by Sting; Lyrics by Sting; Associate Music Director: Dan Lipton; Musical Director: Rob Mathes

Directed by Joe Mantello, choreographed by Steven Hoggett

Cast: Michael Esper, Rachel Tucker, Jimmy Nail, Fred Applegate, Aaron Lazar, Sally Ann Triplett, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Eric Anderson, Ethan Applegate, Craig Bennett, Dawn Cantwell, Jeremy Davis, Bradley Dean, Alyssa DiPalma, Colby Foytik, David Michael Garry, Timothy Gulan, Shawna M. Hamic, Rich Hebert, Leah Hocking, Todd A. Horman, Sarah Hunt, Jamie Jackson, Sean Jenness, Drew McVety, Johnny Newcomb, Matthew Stocke, Cullen Titmus, Jeremy Woodard.

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including intermission.

Tickets: $55 to $147. Lottery: $30.

On The Twentieth Century Revival with Kristin Chenoweth – first photo

The first photograph of Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher in Roundabout Theatre Company’s On the Twentieth Century, which opens March 12, 2015 at the American Airlines Theatre.

This will be the third production of this musical comedy, which was written by Comden and Green (“On The Town“), in which a bankrupt theater producer tries to lure a Hollywood starlet into playing the lead in a new epic drama, while they take a luxury train from Chicago to New York.

The show is reportedly based on three sources – the 1934 Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century; the original 1932 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; and another play Napoleon of Broadway, written by Charles Bruce Millholland about his experiences working for theater producerDavid Belasco.

Phantom of the Opera Pop-Shop Opens, With Masks

The Phantom of the Opera Art Gallery and Pop-Up Shop is open for business — as of noon, Friday October 24th — showcasing the 26 winners of the nation-wide contest, including the six Grand Prize Winners.
“PHANTOM: The Art of the Mask.” Below are some examples.
The shop, which is located on the ground floor of the Paramount Hotel, will be open only through Thursday, October 30. It is a block from The Majestic Theatre,which houses the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

All of the masks featured in the gallery, are up for auction through November 3, with all proceeds going to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

In addition to the masks, the shop will have”
costume displays including those worn by original stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman
ceate-Your-Own-Mask station
photo opportunity recreating the Phantom’s Lair
Q&A with current cast members, Tuesday October 28 at 5:30 p.m.

Since its debut on January 26, 1988, the Broadway production has grossed $978 million with total attendance of more than 16 million. Worldwide, it’s been seen in 14 languages by 140 million people in 30 countries

Fortress of Solitude Theater Review: A Music-Lover Grows in Brooklyn

“The Fortress of Solitude” begins with a sensory overload of song…the sounds of a Brooklyn block, circa 1975. That sets the tone for this energetic, inspired, heartbreaking and sometimes rushed and overwhelming stage adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling coming-of-age novel, centered on a friendship between a white boy named Dylan and a black boy named Mingus.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

“Everybody’s singing

A different song

But if they all fit together

Then they can’t be wrong,”

…sing a character named Rachel and various other members of the extraordinary 18-member cast, at the start of a musical that fills the stage at the Public Theater with pop, punk, funk, rap, and especially soul — a brilliant exercise in musical pastiche by Michael Friedman, best known as the composer of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, but deserving of admiration as well for his work with The Civilians.

Rachel has named her son after Bob Dylan, and moved him and her husband Abraham, a painter and book cover designer, to Dean Street, a white family in a neighborhood that is then primarily black and known as Gowanus, soon to be gentrified and renamed Boerum Hill. The move to her is a kind of social experiment, a social statement; she sings:

The block is the kind of space the world should be
A better America than the one that’s on TV

Then she abandons her family.

Dylan Ebdus, who is Rachel’s son and the narrator of all that is to follow, meets his neighbor, a boy of his same age who is also motherless, and also named after a musical hero – Charles Mingus – and also the son of an artist, a once-great lead singer of a soul group known as the Subtle Distinctions.   The friendship between Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude begins with Mingus artfully protecting Dylan from a neighborhood bully. But they share an interest in music and in comic book Superheroes, and Mingus turns Dylan on to graffiti tagging and to dj scratching (As he manipulates the record, we hear the live singers sing as if they’re recorded.) Thanks to a ring Dylan’s mother left him, they also fly in the sky like Superheroes — or maybe they do.

At this point, theatergoers who have read Lethem’s 2003 novel have a clear advantage. In the novel, a homeless man hands Dylan and Mingus a magic ring that gives them super powers, the ability to fly and to be invisible. The ring figures prominently in the plot of the 500-page novel including a tragic fantasy-filled climax. Playwright Itamar Moses, the book writer for the 150-minute musical, has retained the ring, but altered the story around it, and pared its significance. The average theatergoer will not be sure the ring has any magical powers at all or indeed what it means; they’ll know only that it’s important in some way (perhaps as a metaphor?)

That in a nutshell gets at a problem with the musical version of “The Fortress of Solitude.” The creative team realizes that its adaptation does not have the time or the space to contain the full complexity of the novel. Yet the team, led by director Daniel Aukin, who conceived of the show a decade ago, seems committed to giving us as much of the novel as possible. The results can make us feel as if we’re being rushed through the proceedings, especially once Dylan is accepted into Stuyvesant High School – a specialized high school (my alma mater!) that is located in Manhattan – and he and Mingus go on their very separate paths. There are moments on stage that can feel like a secret coded message to the people who’ve read the book.

The occasional lack of clarity, however, does not ultimately undermine “The Fortress of Solitude” – at least it did not for me – thanks largely to two aspects of the show.

First, the 18 musical numbers are tuneful, electric and eclectic, and often cleverly staged. The mash-ups are a delight: At one point we hear both snatches of Wild Cherry’s 1976 hit “Play that funky music white boy” and “Nava Nagila,” the number one song on the Bar Mitzvah circuit. (Most of the music is original, in the style of 70’s songs, but Friedman does a lot of sampling.) We understand that this music is central to the lives of the characters – they say again and again how it saves them; it evokes moments of glory and of love – but it works not just as theme but as entertainment.

Above all, what makes the musical so worthwhile are the performances. It’s hard to picture a better choice of casting than Kyle Beltran as Mingus and Adam Chanler-Berat as Dylan. Both are adorable as young boys without being cloying, and both age persuasively over the quarter-century span of the musical into distinctly different young men: Beltran’s hopeful, cool countenance and angelic voice transform into the hardened face of a prison inmate just trying to get by; Chanler-Berat’s passive cipher full of wonder becomes a bespectacled music writer living in California, who is full of doubt, guilt, indecision. There is something almost unbearably touching about both their eager/awkward first steps toward connection and the chasm that grows between them.

Dylan is the show’s center – he is the narrator, it seems told from his point of view, his character in the semi-autobiographical novel was the obvious stand-in for the author. It would be too easy to relegate many of the other characters to extras in Dylan’s story, yet this doesn’t happen often, because of the stand-out performances. For example, the relatively small part of Mingus’ grandfather, a preacher jailed because of his penchant for underage girls, is played to the hilt by Andre De Shields, who enters like James Brown in the rip-roaring “Ballad of Barrett Rude, Sr.” Kevin Mambo is superb, because so understated, as Mingus’ father Barrett Rude Junior, the soulful, sexy singer who’s become just a regular guy, drugs and the TV his only audience. We see him in flashbacks fronting for the soulful Subtle Distinction, a suave, pitch-perfect trio made up of Britton Smith, Akron Watson and Juson Williams.

A special shout-out to David Rossmer as Arthur Lomb, the chess-playing nerd of the block who grows up to be a neighborhood entrepreneur and landlord. Rossmer apparently got into an accident shortly before the performance I saw, but the show must go on, despite a most visible splint on his injured hand.

If the design team offers only an abstract hint of Brooklyn – brick walls, a row of poorly painted doors – the show still manages to capture the agitation and confusion and menace and occasional warmth of a Brooklyn block. My favorite single image – because it explains an entire world in one hilarious instant – was the moment when Dylan first returns for a visit, and passes by a young white man carrying a baby in a sling and talking on a cell phone.

“It looks…really different around here,” Dylan says.

 

 

 

The Fortress of Solitude

Book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem

Conceived and directed by Daniel Aukin,

Scenic design by Eugene Lee, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Robert Kaplowitz, projection design by Jeff Sugg, hair and wig design by Leah Loukas.

Cast: Ken Barnett (Abraham Ebdus); Kyle Beltran (Mingus); Adam Chanler-Berat (Dylan); André De Shields (Senior); Carla Duren (Marilla); Stephane Duret (Swing); Rebecca Naomi Jones (Lala, Abby); Jahi Kearse(Raf, Henry, Desmond, Jared); Kevin Mambo (Junior); Malaiyka Reid (Swing); Noah Ricketts (Swing); David Rossmer(Arthur); Conor Ryan (Radio Guy, Mike, Gabe); Kristen Sieh (Rachel Ebdus);Britton Smith (Subtle Distinction); Brian Tyree Henry (Robert) Akron Watson (Subtle Distinction); Alison Whitehurst (Skater Girl, Liza); and Juson Williams (Subtle Distinction).

Tickets: $80

“The Fortress of Solitude” is scheduled to run through November 2.

Oct 23 Update: The musical has been extended to November 16.

Billy and Ray Review: The Making of Double Indemnity

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Larry Pine as Raymond Chandler and Vincent Kartheiser as Billy Wilder as they create a scene from “Double Indemnity”

“No killing, no dead body, no sex, no nothing. Just talk.”
That line is uttered near the end of “Billy & Ray,” a play about the collaboration of director Billy Wilder and writer Raymond Chandler on the film “Double Indemnity.” The film’s producer is on the phone with the head of the Hollywood censorship office, using these words to describe the film in order to reassure him.
It is a sly description of the 1944 movie starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck that embodied a genre later labeled film noir, where, to get around the censors, all the dark doings an audience could want happen off-screen (sometimes inches off screen.)
Yet the line could also describe Mike Vencivenga’s play itself: Nothing much happens, just talk, in this disappointing production at the Vineyard Theater, directed by Garry Marshall. Its main appeal, to be honest, is in being able to witness the New York stage debuts of two of the performers in the four-member cast – Vincent Kartheiser, Pete Campbell from Mad Men, portraying Billy Wilder, and, as his secretary Helen, Sophie von Haselberg, who looks and acts uncannily like a young Bette Midler — and is in fact her daughter.

Sophie von Hasselberg and Drew Gehling as Wilder's secretary and producer.

Sophie von Hasselberg and Drew Gehling as Wilder’s secretary and producer.

The play begins in the dark with sounds of a fight, and, when the lights come on Wilder’s Hollywood studio office in disarray, we learn that his long-time writing partner has quit, refusing to help him adapt James M. Cain’s novel “Double Indemnity,” because it is “full of sex and violence, perversion and lust.”

“But that’s why we love it,” says Joe Sistrom the producer (Drew Gehling.)

So, on Sistrom’s recommendation, Wilder turns to a writer he’s never met, the crime novelist Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine, a first-rate New York stage veteran, most recently in Casa Valentina)

Wilder is expecting a tough guy, and when the mild-mannered, middle-aged Chandler shows up at the door, he assumes he’s the exterminator, until the visitor clears up the confusion: “I’m Raymond Chandler,” he introduces himself.

“Are you sure?” a disappointed Wilder asks — a line that makes no sense except in the world of a bad sitcom, where it would exist solely to get an unearned laugh.

Director Garry Marshall began as a joke writer. Yet nearly every joke, verbal or visual, falls just as flat. It’s not the only area in which his track record doesn’t seem to help the show.

Marshall also brought “The Odd Couple” to television, and one might expect some similar entertaining clashes here: Wilder is depicted as an elegantly foul-mouthed, hard-drinking philanderer, an expatriate from Vienna with a strong Austrian accent, while Chandler is presented as a Chicago-born loner, a family man and former schoolteacher who is an alcoholic but tries to hide it (taking frequent gulps, when nobody’s looking, from a bottle in his briefcase.) At one point, Chandler yells at Wilder “You and your whole expatriate crowd make me sick. You stand back and smirk at this country.” I find this an extremely unlikely exchange, given that (unmentioned in the play) Chandler himself spent ages 12 to 24 in Europe, mostly in England (where he became a British citizen), but also Munich and Paris. In spite of the apparently bogus effort to goose the disparity in their backgrounds and character, nothing much comes of it. We don’t get anywhere near Odd Couple humor; the bickering most often sounds like what one might overhear from colleagues in the next cubicle: “If you insist on smoking that pipe,” Wilder says at one point, “I must insist that we open the window.”

Marshall has been a film director for several decades now (Beaches, Pretty Woman, Princess Diaries), and one might expect at the very least something of a class on film history. There are some tidbits here and there. We learn in an epilogue that Wilder’s subsequent film, The Lost Weekend, was inspired by Chandler’s alcoholism. We get an explanation of the Hollywood Production Code, and how filmmakers reacted to it

BILLY: It forbids us from doing stories about adultery, cold blooded murder and suicide. And they’re not too crazy about us showing how to steal money from insurance companies.

RAY: Then what can we do? To tell this story we’re going to have to be very subtle.

BILLY: Ugh. Don’t give me with the subtleties.

RAY: You don’t like subtleties? 

BILLY:  Subtleties are fine. As long as we make them obvious. To get  this by the censors we have to be ingenious…

The bulk of the play is taken up with Wilder and Chandler  “writing” the scenes of the film by talking it all out. They figure out the practical challenges of executing the dark plot about an insurance salesman and a sinful woman conspiring to kill her husband.  (Sometimes, as in the photograph above, the lights dim and music plays while they describe a scene, as if to re-create what it will feel like once it’s filmed — an effect that’s not very effective.)  These talked-out scenes offer little new for somebody who’s seen “Double Indemnity” and might prove excruciating for somebody who hasn’t, but I could picture this providing some enjoyment to a fanatical cinephile.

A different stage director might have improved the pacing of “Billy & Ray,” but it’s difficult to know whether a different cast would have been better at covering up the flaws of the script. This is not one of Larry Pine’s best performances.  Kartheiser seems miscast as the European bon vivant and sophisticate whose family has perished overseas, but my reaction might reflect my inability to get over his indelible performance as the whiny advertising man in Mad Men.  In the performance I saw, there were some signs of a newcomer to stage acting. Wilder regularly throws his hat on a hatrack. One time, he missed and the hat fell to the ground. Wilder didn’t pick it up — and worse, neither did his secretary, although she was standing right next to it — just letting it stay on the floor until the next blackout.

On the other hand, before I even realized who she was, it struck me that von Hasselberg was taking her moves directly from the Bette Midler playbook, and making them her own. In another scene,  Wilder calls in Helen “to flirt with Mr. Chandler,” in order to demonstrate how women flirt with men so that he can get into the head of the Barbara Stanwyck character in the film. He tells her to slink up to him as if in a bar, then look at him sexy…

BILLY: Good. Now tip your carriage toward him.

HELEN: My what?

BILLY: Your carriage. Your caboose. Move it toward him

Helen shakes her booty.

BILLY: No no. Like a woman! Not a Cocker Spaniel.

HELEN: All right. That’s it. Show’s over.

It’s a totally silly scene, a bit awkwardly executed — and the only time I laughed out loud.

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On The Town with Found, Sting, Emily Dickinson, Leslie Odom Jr. Week in New York Theater

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Eugene O’Neill, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller and Angela Lansbury and Linda Lavin all had birthdays last week, “On The Town” was reborn on Broadway to the biggest raves since The Book of Mormon, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy is getting a new life Off-Broadway. Shia LaBeouf spins his arrest at Cabaret, while Emma Stone reveals her arresting look as the new Sally Bowles. Sting answers questions online (Have you enjoyed the collaborative nature of theater? “Even so-called solo artists have to collaborate; you can’t make art in a vacuum.”)

They all ignored the warning signs of theater.

Week in New York Theater, October 13-19, 2014

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Dance professor Anusha Kedha interprets the hands-up gesture at Ferguson protest rallies.

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Anne Hamburger founded avant-garde En Garde Arts, then left for Disney, is now back with show at BAM, Basetrack Live http://bit.ly/1sCJyEY

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My review of Found musical

Davy Rothbart was having a weird day – his boss fired him; a mugger took his wallet and shoes; he couldn’t get his car to start – when he found a slip of paper that changed his life….and the world.

That anyway is what happens in “Weird Day,” the opening number of “Found,” the lively and tuneful, if not entirely successful musical based on Rothbart’s sudden revelation more than a decade ago. He realized he could publish discarded notes, memos, letters, lists, postcards, posters, classified ads, showing the treasure in other people’s trash. This led him to found Found magazine…The note itself and dozens upon dozens to follow in the show are projected onto the stage of the Atlantic Theater, and simultaneously recited or sung by a young, appealing and greatly talented cast of 10, to a rocking score by Eli Bohn.

Full review of Found

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Neil Patrick Harris has been asked to be host of the Oscars. He has been host of both the Tony and Emmy Awards (and won both as well.)  Will he be an #EGOT soon?

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Sting and Michael Esper Chat about The Last Ship

What was the first Broadway show you saw?

Michael Esper: “One of the first shows I ever saw was “Passion” by Sondheim.”

What has been the biggest change in the show since you began working on it?

Sting: “We wrote 40 songs, and half are in the play. It’s been about paring away to get to the heart of the story”

What’s it like to watch the cast sing your songs and story?

Sting: “It’s an out of body experience without being dead.”

Have you enjoyed the collaborative nature of theater?

Sting: “Even so-called solo artists have to collaborate; you can’t make art in a vacuum.”

 

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Al Pacino in The New Yorkers

Al Pacino is returning to Broadway October 2015 as a billionaire in David Mamet’s new 2-character play, China Doll. Pam MacKinnon will direct.

StephenMcKinleyHendersoninBetweenRiverside

Between Riverside and Crazy  by Stephen Adly Guirgis will be remounted, with same cast, in different theater, Second Stage, in February

Elegant Elaine Stritch

Star-studded tribute to Elaine Stritch, Monday, Nov 17, 4pm, Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Open to the public first-come, first-serve.

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My interview with Leslie Odom Jr

Two months after Leslie Odom Jr. saw Act I of “Hamilton,” a work in progress by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miranda sent him an e-mail, asking for help with the show. This is what one could call a coincidence, or connections (“We knew each other casually.”), but Odom looks at it differently: “It took ten years of backbreaking hard work to get an opportunity like that. One thing leads to another. You find yourself in these rooms.”

How can other theater artists get into these rooms? Spontaneously, he comes up with three rules he lives by:

1.) Never wait for permission to practice your art. You cannot wait to get a job to be an artist.

2.) Study your art. Never stop studying.

3.) Find a spiritual practice that works for you.

Full article on Leslie Odom Jr.

On the Town 1

My review of On The Town

The audience at “On The Town,” the thrilling Broadway revival of the 1944 musical that brought us“New York, New York, it’s a helluva town,” doesn’t wait until the end to give a standing ovation. They stand before the show begins.
That’s because, before the curtain rises on the story about three sailors meeting three dames while on shore leave for 24 hours in New York City, a 28-piece orchestra plays the national anthem in front of a curtain festooned with a giant American flag — one with just 48 stars.
This is how the original musical started, during wartime, a show that marked the Broadway debuts of four now-legendary musical theater artists – composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and book writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

If “On The Town” does not hold the kind of sacred place as the flag or the Star-Spangled Banner, it is part of its own American tradition – an early American musical comedy classic: The show opened on Broadway just a year after Oklahoma and six years before Guys and Dolls. Not every production has been able to rekindle the original excited reaction to this savvy mix of silken song, dazzling dance and silly story – high-brow art in a pas de deux with middle-brow entertainment. This fourth Broadway production does.

The full review of On The Town

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Here Lies Love 4

Here Lies Love will close at The Public Theater January 3, but plans to “go global.”

The Shubert organization, which owns 17 of the 40 Broadway theaters, has bought 20,000-sq. ft ex warehouse on W 48th near 11th Ave. #Newtheater?

Alice Ripley to star in A Christmas Memory, amusical based on Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story, November 25 to January 4 at Irish Rep.

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20 Musicals That Won The Tonys: Ken Davenport’s Infographic

Theater producer Ken Davenport looked at the shows that won the Best Musical Tony over the past 20 years, sliced and diced facts about them, and produced the info graphic in the link. Most interesting to me:
*Almost half of the Best Musical winners were based on movies.
*The vast majority did not feature stars.
*All but one (“Rent”) were written by a team, rather than a single individual.
*Three-quarters of them made money. (Three-quarters of Broadways overall don’t make money.)

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Joelly Richardson in The Belle of Amherst

Joelly Richardson in The Belle of Amherst

My reviews of The Belle of Amherst and Excuse My Dust

Whatever else the great American writers Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker have in common, they are each by coincidence the subject of solo stage plays that are opening tonight, “The Belle of Amherst” in which Joely Richardson portrays the 19th century poet and wit; and “Excuse My Dust,” in which Jennifer Engstrom portrays characters created by the 20th century wit and poet.

Jennifer Engstrom in Excuse My Dust

Jennifer Engstrom in Excuse My Dust

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