Six Degrees of Separation: Broadway Review, Pics

Near the end of Six Degrees of Separation, Allison Janney, portraying the first rich white victim of a young black con man, tells her husband that she doesn’t want to turn the experience into an anecdote, “with no teeth and a punch line you’ll mouth over and over for years to come.” But it was an anecdote that John Guare heard from friends, reportedly at a dinner party, that inspired him to write Six Degrees of Separation in the first place, and his 1990 play, now being revived on Broadway for the first time, in fact feels like the theatrical equivalent of a dinner party anecdote. It is funny – sometimes very funny — well crafted, coated with a patina of sparkling sophistication, even at times pointed and almost poignant. It’s an enjoyable entertainment. But it does not add up to the significant experience that Allison Janney’s character feels. And, while the play touches on such matters as race and class and the struggle for connection in modern life, it does not offer the profound insights that the playwright evidently intends.

Full review on DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
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Anastasia on Broadway: Review, Video, Photographs

In dramatizing the legend surrounding the youngest daughter of the last Czar, the show has created a new villain, a Soviet official named Gleb….Anastasia winds up promoting nostalgia for the last reign of the Romanovs, those elegantly attired autocrats who sponsored pogroms against the Jews and violently suppressed popular Russian calls for democracy.
..the real strength of this production – its beautiful design and its wonderful cast…Given the pleasures in this escapist fare largely geared to children, few parents will probably care that we have to endure lines like “Anya survived for a reason: to heal what happened or Russia will be a wound that never heals.”

Full review on DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged

Groundhog Day Musical Review: Indestructible Andy Karl, From Jerk to Jack-of-all-Trades

So there was Andy Karl, the star of “Groundhog Day,” on stage in what’s supposed to be a seduction scene, but he was proudly showing off the elaborate black knee-brace on his bare outstretched leg, sticking a glass of Scotch on top of it. The brace was the only visible sign of the accident that injured Karl three days before the opening, causing him to miss several performances on doctor’s orders. But here he was back again in spectacular form, adding this cheeky bit of improvisation in an inventive, energetic and wholly winning performance that is the main reason to see this musical adaptation of the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray.
Like the movie, the musical tells the story of TV weatherman Phil Connors who, in a metaphysical twist, is suddenly forced to relive over and over again a single day, Groundhog Day, February 2, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, an actual small town that turns Groundhog Day into an annual celebration. That celebration is built around a groundhog named Phil, who either sees his shadow or doesn’t, thus predicting whether spring will come six weeks early.
It’s not as easy to predict who will like “Groundhog Day,” a musical built around Andy Karl as Phil Connors, despite the Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Lead Male performance that the show received in London.
The story, with a book by Danny Rubin, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with the late Harold Ramis, is fairly faithful to a movie that I love, and that I have watched, um, repeatedly. Yet the translation to the stage presents logistical problems that the theatrical team solves with only varying degrees of success. The score by Tim Minchin, best known for Matilda, is full of clever, saucy lyrics and music that ranges from rock to jazz to country to funk to folk to lovely ballads. Yet some of these original songs seem inserted jukebox style rather than flowing organically from the action. Director Matthew Warchus has assembled a 20-member supporting cast comprised mostly of reliable Broadway regulars, and hired the same exuberant choreographer Peter Darling and the same design team that wowed audiences at Matilda, including Paul Kieve, a master of special effects. Yet supporting cast, choreographer and designers are sometimes employed in what one can describe as cartoon extravaganzas – technically impressive fast footwork and flashy stage effects that fill both eyes and ears but reach neither mind nor heart (nor funnybone!) All I can say about “Groundhog Day” without ambivalence is that Andy Karl’s performance is one that nobody should miss.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.


It’s intriguing to see the evolution of Karl’s reaction to yet another repeated day in Punxsutawney – shocked, hostile, destructive, hedonistic, suicidal, resigned…until finally, he becomes enlightened: He takes the time to learn speak French, play piano, recite the almanac…and to learn about the lives of the individual townspeople of Punxsutawney, and to care about them.
The creative team makes a show of caring about the townspeople too; the most obvious example is their giving solo songs to people Phil has treated dismissively — Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry), a beautiful blonde who feels doomed to being mistreated by men ( “Playing Nancy”), and to Ned Ryerson (John Sanders), Phil’s nerdy high school classmate who now sells insurance (“Night Will Come.”) In and of themselves, these are lovely songs, but they are not enough to turn the characters from Phil’s cartoony adjuncts into people we feel we know.
The one character who gets her full due, while also serving as one of Phil’s foil, is the one portrayed sympathetically by Barrett Doss — Rita, the associate producer who has accompanied him on the trip to Punxsutawney from their home studio (which is apparently in Ohio.) A highlight of the musical is the scenes that chronicle Phil’s courtship of Rita. On each first date he does something that makes her slap him in the face, but day after day, he tries to fix his faux-pas of the previous first date.
In “One Day,” one of Rita’s several songs, we see her ambivalence towards even the possibility of love:

One day, some day, my prince may come
but it doesn’t seem likely
and even if he came and he liked me
it’s likely
he’d be
not quite
my type

The song continues, after a scene in which Phil asks what she wants in a man. She sings:

He’ll be tender but tough, and smart but not smug
and attentive but not fawning and he’ll smell good in the morning
and he’ll dance.

Phil interrupts: “This is a guy we’re talking about, right?”

This mix of mockery and heart was central to the success of the movie, a tone it navigated with great skill. The musical is not always as successful in doing so.
As in the movie, there is a series of scenes in which Phil, driven almost mad by the day’s repetition, tries to kill himself. At one point, he electrocutes himself with a toaster in a bathtub, and we instantly see him wake up the next morning in bed — one of the several terrific stage effects designed by Paul Kieve. But we also see ensemble members commit suicide in a macabre array of ways, while Karl sings a Minchin song entitled Hope:

Never give up hope
Never let yourself be defeated. if you tried it once, you can try again

The problem here is that the song is a soaring, tuneful ballad, and rather than funny, as the juxtaposition is surely meant to be, it comes off as confused and tasteless.

It must be said that Karl’s performance is untouched by this occasional tonal dissonance. He manages the transition from cynicism to sentiment credibly. He is also able to juggle admirably the comedy, romance and demanding physicality of the role. In doing so, Andy Karl establishes himself as a leading man in a way that his eight previous turns on Broadway have not, as good as they were; his last two were as Rocky Balboa in Rocky and the muscle-headed boy-toy in On The Twentieth Century.
Karl also drives home the most important themes of “Groundhog Day,” which resemble those of “Our Town,” albeit nearly overshadowed by state-of-the-art Broadway stagecraft — the everyday is wondrous if you take the time to pay attention; nobody takes the time to pay attention.

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 Preview the score

Groundhog Day
August Wilson Theater
Book by Danny Rubin, based on the screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis; Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreography by Peter Darling. Scenic Design by Rob Howell; Costume Design by Rob Howell; Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone; Sound Design by Simon Baker; Video Design by Andrzej Goulding; Hair Design by Campbell Young Associates; Make-Up Design by Campbell Young Associates; illusions by Paul Kieve
Cast Andy Karl, Barrett Doss, Rebecca Faulkenberry, John Sanders, Andrew Call, Raymond J. Lee, Heather Ayers, Kevin Bernard, Gerard Canonico, Rheaume Crenshaw, Michael Fatica, Katy Geraghty, Camden Gonzales, Jordan Grubb, Taylor Iman Jones, Tari Kelly, Josh Lamon, Joseph Medeiros, Sean Montgomery, William Parry, Jenna Rubaii, Vishal Vaidya, Travis Waldschmidt and Natalie Wisdom

Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission.

Tickets: $69.50 to $159. General Rush and digital lottery: $40. Premium: $219

The Little Foxes Review: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon Alternate Roles in Lillian Hellman’s Tale of Greed

Cynthia Nixon, left, and Laura Linney, as Regina

Now we call it racism, sexism and domestic abuse, but it’s just everyday life in “The Little Foxes,” Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play about a rapacious Southern family, which is being given an engrossing Broadway revival with a superb cast at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater.

The production, finely directed by Daniel Sullivan, is getting the most attention because of a gimmick, but it’s a smart, appealing gimmick: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon take turns portraying either Regina or Birdie at alternate performances.

I saw it with Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie, which was the cast on opening night, and thus how the two will be considered by the Tony nominating committee – Linney for best actress in a leading role, Nixon in a supporting role. And they surely will be nominated. In any case, it is the casting I preferred to see, since both actresses can be said to be playing against type.

Click on these photographs by Joan Marcus of the “blue performances” (Laura Linney as Regina) to see them enlarged.

The malevolent heart of “The Little Foxes” belongs to Regina, a juicy role originated by the fabulous Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway, and portrayed by the great Bette Davis in the 1941 film directed by William Wyler. Regina Hubbard Giddens is what you might call a piece of work – coquettish, crafty, manipulative, murderous. The daughter of a store owner who snubbed her and gave his entire inheritance to her two greedy brothers, Regina married Horace Giddens (Richard Thomas) in hopes that he could further her insatiable ambitions. But, though he is a kind-hearted and respectable banker, he has gravely disappointed her, so much so that she has not shared her bed with him for ten years.

As the play begins, it is 1900, Horace has been in a hospital in Baltimore for five months because of heart trouble, and Regina is scheming with her two brothers to land a deal with a Northern industrialist, Mr. Marshall, to build a cotton mill on their plantation.  Regina and her brothers need Horace’s money to make the investment, but he has not replied to their letters. So Regina dispatches his young beloved daughter Alexandra to travel by herself to Baltimore to convince him to come home, indifferent to his feeble condition, wanting only his money.

Laura Linney, an 11-time Broadway veteran (Tony nominated for Time Stands Still) and accomplished screen actress (Oscar-nominated for Kinsey, You Can Count on Me, and The Savages), has in previous roles given off a flower child vibe (she played Mary Ann Singleton in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the Cities miniseries.) It makes her portrayal of Regina all the more impressive – at times calculatedly charming, at other times sarcastic or bitter or venomous, at all times hardened steel.

Cynthia Nixon, a 13-time Broadway veteran who made her Broadway debut at age 14 and won a Tony for Rabbit Hole ,is also an accomplished screen actress (Sex and the City.) In previous roles, her persona has been someone who knows her own mind, who can come off as bossy. Birdie, by contrast, is a delicate soul and music-lover, the one-time belle of an aristocratic family brought down and then bought out by the Hubbard family. She is married to Regina’s brother Oscar, who humiliates and abuses her, as does his brother Ben: “Twenty years ago,” Ben tells Mr. Marshall about Birdie’s family during the dinner party at the start of the play, “we took over their land, and their cotton, and their daughter.” Birdie has become an anxious and insecure drunk. It is to Nixon’s credit that she does not portray Birdie as a skittish woman, who talks too rapidly and too much (which is how I’ve seen other actresses depict the character.) Rather than the foolish woman her husband Oscar accuses her of being, Nixon’s Birdie is a woman with natural enthusiasms, and innate intelligence, who is constantly being beaten down. This makes her victimization all the more upsetting.

Having Linney and Nixon swap parts elevates Birdie in our consideration of the play – she is no longer just a minor character — and I think this makes sense for our era’s heightened sensitivity to women’s degradation. That she is so dismissed by the other characters is the very reason we should not do so ourselves.

Linney and Nixon wouldn’t shine so brightly without a supporting cast full of stand-out performances. Richard Thomas is exactly right as the goodly, dying Horace Giddens. Thomas made his Broadway debut at the age of eight, and has been in a dozen Broadway plays over the past 50 years, yet for a couple of generations he’s still best known as the aspiring writer John-Boy Walton in The Waltons, a saga of a family in Virginia that ran as a TV series in the 1970s and then as a series of TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s. One can almost see his Horace as John-Boy grown old, with life turning out not the way he had hoped. Darren Goldstein, best-known for portraying jerks (Oscar Hodges in The Affair, Calhoun in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson), here takes it up a few notches with Oscar Hubbard, a blunt, dull, vulgar man who has no discernible redeeming qualities – he even kills animals every day for sport, and then throws their bodies away, while the African-Americans in the area go hungry. Goldstein deserves credit for keeping such a character credible. So does Caroline Stefanie Clay, who portrays Addie, a character who is 180 degrees from Oscar — a kindly black servant who is a fount of wisdom and dignity. Michael McKean, like Thomas nearly enshrined for youthful roles (Laverne and Shirley, This is Spinal Tap), and last on Broadway as J. Edgar Hoover in All The Way, seems to get better and better as he ages. His Ben is a subtle knave, more articulate and intelligent than Oscar, but no less evil. (McKean is also terrific as the mentally ill older brother lawyer Chuck in Better Call Saul, the prequel TV series to Breaking Bad.)

The Little Foxes 1939 nypl.digitalcollections.86f82796-eb02-e6a0-e040-e00a180638c2.001.w

Eugenia Rawls and Tallulah Bankhead The Little Foxes,  Feb 15, 1939.

After rhapsodizing about Tallulah Bankhead in the original Broadway production of “The Little Foxes,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in his review: “It is obviously unfair to discuss Miss Hellman’s new play as if it were a vehicle. Although in my opinion it does not have the general significance she intends, it is an unusually creditable example of the well-made play that is skillfully written and that communicates burning convictions.”

It’s true that Hellman didn’t do nuance. “The Little Foxes” might be admired more if the good characters weren’t quite so saintly and the bad characters so utterly evil. The playwright took the title from the Song of Solomon in the Bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” But she might as well have called it The Gentle and the Jackals.

But the play’s craftsmanship and its intensity have not diminished in this fifth, fierce, Broadway production (the last in 1997 with Stockard Channing as Regina), enhanced not just by the performances but by Scott Pask’s elegant set and the sumptuous costumes by Jane Greenwood. And I believe the changing times – and these particular times – have invested “The Little Foxes” with greater significance.  The issues of race, class and gender that Hellman weaves into her play are far more at the forefront of our consciousness and concerns now.  (One feels the impact of some seemingly throwaway lines, such as the brothers’ promise to force wages low and prevent any strikes in their mill, and Addie responding to Horace’s promise of leaving her some money: “Don’t you do that, Mr. Horace. A colored woman in a white man’s will! I’d never get it nohow.”) I’ve always been chilled and enthralled when Addie says “there are people who eat the earth” and “there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.” Hearing this now, it feels like a timely call to arms.

Click on these photographs by Joan Marcus of the “green performances” (Cynthia Nixon as Regina) to see them enlarged.

The Little Foxes

MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Written by Lillian Hellman; Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting design by Justin Townsend, sound design by Fitz Patton,

Cast Cynthia Nixon as Regina/Birdie, Laura Linney as Regina/Birdie, Darren Goldstein as Oscar Hubbard, Michael McKean as Ben Hubbard, Richard Thomas as Horace Giddens, David Alford as Mr. Marshall, Michael Benz as Leo Hubbard, Francesca Carpanini as Alexandra Giddens, Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie and Charles Turner as Cal.

Running time: Two and a half hours, including two 10-minute intermissions

Tickets: $89 to $179

The Little Foxes has been extended to July 2, 2017.

The State of Gay Love? Daniel’s Husband and Gently Down The Stream Reviews

The gay couples at the heart of two separate plays currently running Off-Broadway have been together for years, and yet, neither are married because one partner in each of the relationships doesn’t want to be, apparently on philosophical grounds:

“Who ever said we were meant to be legal?” Harvey Fierstein as Beauregard says in “Gently Down The Stream,” a play by Martin Sherman through May 21st at the Public Theater. “ We’re supposed to be outlaws; we’re supposed to be inventing new rules, not imitating all the old conventions, not going backwards.”

“The entire concept of marriage, I find it outdated, musty and fundamentally wrong… The only thing to be gained by gay marriage is the legal stuff,” Matthew Motolongo as Mitchell says in “Daniel’s Husband,” a play by Michael McKeever, in a Primary Stages production through April 28 at the Cherry Lane. “We’ve gone to our lawyer and had all of that taken care of.”

The decision not to get married has unforeseen consequences in both new dramas. Do these plays say anything about the state of love after the nation-wide legalization in 2015 of marriage between two people of the same gender? Or do they say more about the state of gay playwriting?

Click on any photograph by James Leynse to see it enlarged.

“Daniel’s Husband” begins the way so many gay plays have in the 49 years since “Boys in the Band” first opened Off-Broadway – gay friends gathered together making witty banter. At a dinner party in a tastefully appointed home (admirably detailed by set designer Brian Prather), we get to know Mitchell, who makes a living as a gay romance novelist, an odd occupation given his cynicism; and Daniel (Ryan Spahn), his partner of seven years, an architect who clearly likes structure in his life; he does want to get married. Their guests for the evening are Barry (Lou Liberatore), Mitchell’s literary agent and best friend, and Barry’s date, Trip (Leland Wheeler), whom Barry met just a few weeks earlier, one of an endless series of short-lasting Barry boyfriends less than half his age. Trip, 23, has never seen a record album before, and he doesn’t understand Mitchell’s attitude towards marriage.

Almost an hour into the 90-minute running time, “Daniel’s Husband” turns into a different play. Since the second half is fresher and more powerful, I feel comfortable revealing what is obviously meant to be a surprise twist, but shouldn’t be. Daniel gets deathly ill, unable to speak. This winds up putting Mitchell at odds – psychologically, and legally — with Lydia, Daniel’s mother. In the first half of the play, we heard Daniel say that Lydia was a selfish mother, and we saw her during a visit drinking champagne and badmouthing Daniel’s dead father. This was preparation for her becoming the villain in the second half. This is true even though (or maybe in part because) she says: “I’m not the villain in this. There is no villain in this.” But she is made the classic straw man – a character who exists to be knocked down.

Given Mitchell’s explicit arguments against gay marriage in the first half of the play, the turn of events becomes an implicit refutation of Mitchell’s beliefs, a one-sided argument for the necessity of gay people getting married. “Daniel’s Husband” becomes an odd and simplistic cautionary tale. Only the acting under Joe Brancato’s direction saves us from utter authorial strong-arming. Rather than deriving any satisfaction at what we could take as Mitchell’s comeuppance, we are moved by Montelongo’s depiction of Mitchell’s desperate love for Daniel. Similarly, both Anna Holbrook as Lydia the selfish mother and Leland Wheeler as Trip the twink defy the potential for stereotype baked into their roles.

Just as Lydia and Mitchell wind up warring with one another, so do the two halves of the play. Both wars are undermining…and avoidable. Had McKeever begun “Daniel’s Husband” with Daniel’s illness – and shelved the first half, perhaps to be used in a future play – “Daniel’s Husband” might have been a wholly affecting drama.

Click on any photographs by Joan Marcus to see them enlarged.

Like Michael McKeever in “Daniel’s Husband,” playwright Martin Sherman in “Gently Down the Stream” seems to believe that same-sex marriage is important, and that there is some resistance to it from within the gay community that he finds regrettable. But Sherman’s approach is less an argument than a simple explanation for attitudes like Beau’s.

Beau (Harvey Fierstein) is a New Orleans-born piano accompanist who lives as an expatriate American in a London flat lined with books (the elegant set is by Derek McLane.) The play begins in 2001, when Beau, using a new-fangled online dating site, has just hooked up with Rufus (Gabriel Ebert, Tony winner for Matilda, and a veteran of Fierstein’s Casa Valentina.) Rufus is a 28-year-old eccentric, bipolar lawyer. Beau is 62. Beau doesn’t expect this “assignation” to last beyond a day. “I’m old enough to be your ancestor.” Yet it develops into a relationship that we track through some sharp-edge curves over the next 13 years.

“Gently Down the Stream” also has a second track. Rufus is interested – obsessed – with gay history. He doesn’t just ask Beau many questions about the past; he insists on videotaping Beau’s recollections. Much of “Gently Down The Stream” is taken up with these recollections, rather awkwardly inserted monologues about old lovers meeting tragic ends – “I knew it would end badly, because that was just simply the way it was with our lot” — and sad moments in gay history. It turns out that, much like Zelig or Forrest Gump, Beau has a talent for being at the right place at the right time – or, with certain tragic events, the exact wrong place. He was also friends, or at least acquainted, with such gay celebrities as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and Larry Kramer, and lesser known but no less intriguing historical figures, like singer Mabel Mercer (Beau was her accompanist.) Add in the references to AIDS and the crystal meth epidemic among gay men, and the play starts to feel like a forced crash course in gay life. There is another rich layer simply in the casting of Harvey Fierstein, who since his Broadway debut as the author and star of Torch Song Trilogy in 1982, has himself become a figure in gay history.

All of Beau’s recounting of both his personal and communal past, much of it morose, offers a bracing explanation for the character’s pessimism about the future. Even the gay moments (in both senses of the word) are laced with melancholy. In one of his monologues, Beau recalls how “gay life, always secret and furtive and forbidden, blossomed” during World War II, and tells the story he heard from a veteran named Sam of a soldier from the hinterlands, temporarily stationed in New York, taking a room at the YMCA to have sex for the first time with another man, and jubilantly singing the nursery rhyme “Row, row, row your boat/gently down the stream” – which had an odd effect:

“…and suddenly from another room, he heard another soldier’s voice, joining in, a very deep baritone, and then from another room, another voice, and, and then the entire Young Men’s Christian Association, including Sam, seemed to be singing, but not just singing, singing a roundelay, everyone remembering their own childhood and the pain of it, and now suddenly this sense of release….Sam said that was the happiest moment of his life. “

But such euphoria ended abruptly, repression returned at the end of the war, and when Beau met Sam, he had become a drunken bum in Rio.

Beau’s experiences, and that of his circle, have bred in him a sense of hopelessness, leading him to self-sabotage. Convinced that the relationship will end badly, as all his others have, Beau rejects Rufus’ marriage proposal, and in effect pushes him away.

Playwright Sherman, whose best-known play, Bent, was about gay inmates of Nazi concentration camps, obviously knows where Beau’s pessimism comes from, but he evidently does not share it. He presents the optimism of a new generation, embodied not just by Rufus, but by the lover that Rufus eventually finds, Harry (a delightful Christopher Sears), a performance artist younger than Rufus. When Harry, in torn jean, black leather, pierced and tattooed full punk regalia, croons the Gershwin’s The Man I Love, there is something so hilarious, charming and touching about it that you begin to share the play’s optimism, even if Beau never does.

It’s been just 14 years since Massachusetts became the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage, six years since New York State, and just two since the Supreme Court legalized it in all 50 states – a decision that, many say, the new administration will try to undermine. Surely, nobody would be surprised by the recent study that concludes that married LGBT adults are happier than single ones. But if there’s been enough time to offer some sociological insight, we may have to wait for our dramatists to fashion from this new reality searing dramas with sophisticated insights.

Indecent on Broadway: Review, pics, video

There are many reasons to find deep satisfaction in the arrival on Broadway of the play “Indecent,” a fascinating tale wondrously staged about a century-old Jewish drama that featured a scandalizing kiss between two women, whose Broadway cast was prosecuted for obscenity.
It marks the long-delayed Broadway debut of Paula Vogel, who at 65 is one of the theatre community’s most admired playwrights…”Indecent” is also something of a homecoming and even vindication for “God of Vengeance”…”Indecent” is further proof that a play can explore a range of frighteningly relevant issues – threats to the arts and an entire culture, anti-immigrant bigotry, homophobia, even genocide – and do so in a production that is not only enlightening, and moving, but entertaining.

Full review on DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged

Oslo on Broadway: The Surprising Story Behind Middle East Peace

Last year, “Oslo,” a fascinating if talky play about the surprising story behind the first peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians, ran for a couple of months Off-Broadway. It is opening tonight on Broadway.  But since Lincoln Center produces the play, all that means is that it’s moving from the Mitzi Newhouse in the street level of Lincoln Center theater one flight up to the larger Vivian Beaumont on the plaza level, with cast and creative team intact, only minor changes to the script; the same three-hour running time but the elimination of one of its two intermissions…and a top ticket price 50 percent higher.

The biggest news about the show was announced earlier today: “Oslo” will be turned into a film, also directed by Bartlett Sher, and produced by La La Land’s Marc Platt (Ben‘s Pop.)

Below are a video and the photographs from the Broadway production and my review of “Oslo,” slightly altered, when it opened at the Mitzi Newhouse.

 

.According to “Oslo,” a little-known Norwegian couple instigated and pushed along the secret negotiations between the two warring sides that led to the famous moment when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House in 1993.

The versatile Jefferson Mays (“I Am My Own Wife,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”) portrays sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen; Jennifer Ehl (“The Coast of Utopia”) is his wife Mona Juul, an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, who serves as narrator. As Mona explains, the couple was working in the Middle East when they came upon a confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters in a back alley in Gaza:

“Two boys facing each other, one in uniform, one in jeans, weapons in hand, hate flowing between them. But their faces—and we both see this—their faces are exactly the same. The same fear. The same desperate desire to be anywhere but here. To not be doing this, to this other boy. And there, in that moment, for us, it began.”

They used their connections and their convictions to forge a secret “back channel,” at the same time that official negotiations in Washington D.C. were going on with no progress. The Norwegian couple relied on their tenacity and Rod-Larsen’s model for negotiating between implacable enemies, which called for focusing on one issue at a time, rather than all issues at once, with the aim of building up personal bonds of trust. Within nine months, the back channel became the official channel, and the two sides signed the Oslo Accords.

“Oslo” is written by J.T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher (better known for helming luscious revivals of “South Pacific” and “The King and I.”) They are the same team that put together “Blood and Gifts,” about America’s covert involvement in the Soviet Union’s war with Afghanistan. Like that 2011 drama, “Oslo” has a long running time full of a large cast portraying multiple characters engaged in lots of…talking. Unlike “Blood and Gifts,” the three-hour running time of “Oslo” went by relatively swiftly for me. The creative team invests the principal characters with personalities; we see them get passionate, yell, apologize, share stories about their families, even tell jokes and mock their superiors…slowly, in other words, build those personal bonds, turning from nervous and outraged in each other’s company, to standoffish, to something approaching friendship. It helps that the adversaries are played so credibly – especially by stand-out Anthony Azizi as Ahmed Qurie, the finance minister for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Daniel Oreskes both as a schlemiel of a professor of economics and as stately foreign minister Shimon Peres.

In a program note, the playwright points out that, although “the events in the play all happened,” the words the characters say “are mine,” and the chronology and other details have been altered. This makes one wonder whether the play could have done without some of those details.

The issue of Lincoln Center magazine about the play offers a debate as to the significance of the long-ago negotiations, and whether they should be admired as a model or regretted as a mistake – something that the end of the play toys with as well. Still, “Oslo” gives us not only a lucid refresher course on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and provides us entertainment that is both surprisingly funny and suspenseful. It also leaves us with the hope that maybe even the world’s most unsettling situations can someday be settled.

 

Oslo

Written by J.T. Rogers; Directed by Bartlett Sher
Sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Peter John Still, Projections by 59 Productions
Cast: Michael Aronov, Anthony Azizi, Adam Dannheisser, Jennifer Ehle, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani, Jeb Kreager, Jefferson Mays, Christopher McHale, Daniel Oreskes, Henny Russell, Joseph Siravo, Angela Pierce, and T. Ryder Smith
Running time: three hours, including one  intermission.
Tickets: $87-$147. (Digital lottery: $39)

War Paint Review: Patti LuPone vs Christine Ebersole, Face to Face

In “War Paint,” Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole are sharing a Broadway stage for the first time in their careers, portraying rival cosmetic industry pioneers Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. If I might have preferred they be given a rivalry as grand as the talents of these extraordinary performers – say, Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she beheaded – they do much to help make this new musical both entertaining and fabulous. No, they can’t make it a great musical. But LuPone and Ebersole, each with two Tony Awards apiece (LuPone: Evita, Gypsy; Ebersole, 42nd Street, Grey Gardens) , give star turns of equal weight, Most impressively, though they are portraying life-long rivals, these are bravura performances that don’t clash; they blend.

They and the rest of the 15-member cast are costumed by Catherine Zuber, likely to snag her ninth Tony Award for designs that are to die for, especially her literally over-the-top hats, offered like a tour of twentieth century fashion.

Songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, book writer Doug Wright and director Michael Greif – the team that put together the much-admired musical Grey Gardens, based on the true story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and cousin – here explore another pair of real-life magnetic women.

War Paint 6 Patti LuPoneElizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein were exact contemporaries – both born in the 1870s (the one Florence Nightingale Graham in Canada; the other Chaja Rubinstein in Krakow), both died in the 1960s – immigrant outsiders who changed the face of America’s women, becoming rich and famous in the process, but never as powerful or accepted as they would have been had they been men.

War Paint Ebersole

There are some lovely, funny little scenes, such as one in which Helena tries her new secret formula face cream on her assistant. As she vigorously slaps her face with it:

HELENA: Sit down, darling. There are no ugly women; only lazy ones. Every day you must apply. Always with the up motion. To rub this cream into the skin is to swim in the Fountain of Youth!
Voilà! How you feel now, Magda?
MAGDA: Like rich woman with expensive cream.
HELENA: And when women feel rich, I become rich. Dziekuja, Magda. [Thank you in Polish]

Yet, for all its appeal, “War Paint” does not surmount some logistical problems that are likely to make some of the scenes heavy-going to all but ardent students of the beauty industry that the two women helped create.

The musical, inspired by a book of the same name and a subsequent documentary, The Powder and the Glory, must grapple with the fact that the two women apparently never met. Most of the songs they sing are solos; their duets are not with one another, but side by side. We hear them disparage one another, but not face-to-face.

They also apparently sacrificed most of their personal life to build their respective empires. There is a subplot involving the husband of Arden and the gay business manager of Rubinstein, each of whom feels taken for granted, which leads to a  remarkable development; they both switch sides. But this is the only personal  “War Paint” becomes something of a history of the beauty industry.

Some of the tidbits are fascinating. When I began my business, the only women wearing lipstick were on the stage or in the gutter,” Elizabeth lectures her new assistant. “I needed brave young women to broaden the trend. So what did I do?”

“Free samples to the Suffragettes,” her assistant responds.

“And now I cater to the very highest echelons of New York Society.”

 

We see the two women trying to one-up each other in beauty products in the 1930’s; their rivalry results in a Senate hearing that concludes with their being forced to reveal the ingredients of their products, a revelation that they fear will cause their customers to flee. During World War II, they both cleverly innovate products that will appeal to women newly enlisted in the armed forces and the workforce, and that work around the material shortages. In the 1950’s,they both ignore the competition from those who indulge in the growing trends that they abhor – teenagers, television!

War Paint 7 Patti LuPone

Their rise is far less interesting in this musical than their fall. The last half hour of “War Paint” is as good as it gets on Broadway, with two women knocking us with back-to-back powerhouse solos that are both touching and tuneful – Ebersole sings “Pink,” her signature color that now haunts her; LuPone sings “Forever Beautiful” about the portraits of herself she commissioned over the years. Then there is a final scene in which they meet at last – with hilarious digs, and affecting reconciliation – followed by a rousing finale. If only that had actually happened.

The curtain at War Paint

War Paint
Nederlander Theater
Book by Doug Wright; Music by Scott Frankel; Lyrics by Michael Korie; Choreography by Christopher Gattelli; Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein. Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden. John Dossett
as Tommy Lewis.Douglas Sills as Harry Fleming. Mary Ernster as Society Doyenne, Mrs. Trowbridge-Phelps & others; David Girolmo as Senator Royal Copeland, William S. Paley, Mr. Levin & others. Joanna Glushak as Countess, Magda & others. Chris Hoch as Mr. Simms, Hal March, Mr. Baruch & others. Mary Claire King as Miss Beam, Tulip, Arden Girl & others. Steffanie Leigh as Dorian Leigh, Arden Girl & others. Erik Liberman as Charles Revson, Sailor & others. Barbara Marineau as Grand Dame, Beauty Technician & others; Stephanie Jae Park as Arden Girl, Beauty Technician & others; Angel Reda
as Heiress, Miss Smythe, Arden Girl & others. Jennifer Rias as Miss Teale, Arden Girl & others.
Running time: Two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $69-$196
“War Paint” is scheduled to run through September 3rd, 2017

Amélie Review: Phillipa Soo to the rescue

Adam Chanler-Berat and Phillipa Soo in Amélie

Judging from the last few minutes of “Amélie,” when the two adorable eccentrics Amélie and Nino finally kiss, the new musical feels like a charming and almost traditional romantic comedy, especially since the leads are portrayed by two of Broadway’s most appealing and talented young stars, both of whom have names that it takes practice to spell correctly — Phillipa Soo and Adam Chanler-Berat.

But the first 90 minutes or so of “Amélie,” an adaptation of the 2001 French movie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, are a full-out exercise in whimsy. Indeed, before “Amélie” even begins, the curtain comes alive with the random flittering of little birds, bunnies and butterflies. The animation is subtle and endearing, but I suppose I could have taken it as a warning. The last time I remember seeing such a wonderfully animated Broadway curtain was at the 2011 musical Wonderland, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that failed to win over critics or the public, and closed after a month.

“Amélie” features a fine cast; clever, playful design; and a pleasing if unmemorable pop score. It also features Fluffy the singing goldfish, a plaster Garden Gnome come to life, (a character impersonating) Elton John singing to Amelie as if she were Princess Diana, a café full of lovelorn eccentrics, and Soo/Amelie disguising herself at times as a nun and as Zorro. Much of this was in the movie as well, but there the colorful characters and fanciful subplots all felt part of the enchanting if ironic swirl on screen (underscored  by composer Yann Tiersen bouncy French soundtrack full of accordion and mandolin.)  The stage at the Walter Kerr, by contrast, feels crowded with details, distractions and digressions that are sometimes hard to follow, even though the characters take turns narrating; saying things like “Her true destiny confirmed,Amélie decides to celebrate her new life by daydreaming alone in her apartment.” (It very much helps to have seen the movie.) The musicalized vignettes are often presented like children’s theater run amok. “Amélie” the musical has a shorter running time than “Amélie” the movie, but it feels longer.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

Like the movie, the musical begins with Amélie as a child (here portrayed winningly by Savvy Crawford), being raised by a cold-fish physician father who only touches her when he gives her an annual physical, and a neurotic mother who insists on homeschooling her daughter, which means she is kept isolated from children her own age. On an educational trip to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Amelie’s mother is killed when a Belgian tourist commits suicide by jumping off the cathedral and landing on top of her.

The adult Amelie moves to Paris and, five years later, is working as a waitress in Montmartre.

The upbringing we just witnessed seems to have turned her into a loner, who is unable to form intimate relationships, and who lives largely in her imagination. After the death of Princess Di, she imagines herself as the Princess (hence the fantasy with Elton John), and sees herself assuming Diana’s legacy by performing kindnesses for strangers. This is where all the side stories kick in. A blind beggar objects when Amelie drops a coin in his cup because “It’s after 5; I’m not working,” but she eventually wins him over by her vivid descriptions of the street life. Lucien loves his figs, seeing the vegetables as almost human, so Amelie sets one of the figs up with a date. (Get it?) Above all, she serves as a secret matchmaker for the denizens of the café.

Amélie first encounters Nino in a train station on her way to one of her rescue missions. Nino is kneeling in front of a photobooth collecting the discarded photographs on the ground, and she trips over him. He’s an artist, you see, although he works as a clerk in a porn shop to make a living (which is one of the things that probably makes “Amelie” inappropriate for children.)

Thus begins, more or less, their romance — long-developing, much-interrupted, in which Amélie spends much of her time running away from him. My favorite song of the two dozen in the show, “A Better Haircut,” – tuneful, clever and energetic – occurs when Nino, through a series of odd events, winds up on Nino’s instruction at her café, where her workers and customers confront him about his intentions. The ensemble sings:

You might be a lover for the ages
but can you prove that you
are not highly contagious

Finally, he responds that there are no guarantees, and

I understand she may not even feel the same
[but]
I love her and I don’t know her name

This is near the end of the musical and Nino and Amélie have not really even had a conversation with one another.

So perhaps their love affair is unrealistic, but certainly more realistic than the talking goldfish, and also fully in keeping with romantic comedy convention. Besides, many a theatergoer has already fallen in love with Phillipa Soo. Straight out of Juilliard, she was cast at age 22 as Natasha in “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812”, to great acclaim, but left that show before it transferred to Broadway in order to originate the role of Eliza in “Hamilton.” It might be difficult to find anybody who would say that her performance in the role she originates in “Amelie” is as wondrous as the ones she originated in “The Great Comet” or “Hamilton,” but it puts her on stage where she belongs, and where I suspect she will be from now on – front and center.

Amélie

Walter Kerr Theater

Book by Craig Lucas; Music by Daniel Messé; Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé; Musical staging and choreography by Sam Pinkleton

Directed by Pam MacKinnon

Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by David Zinn; Lighting Design by Jane Cox and Mark Barton; Sound Design by Kai Harada; Projection Design by Peter Nigrini; Puppet Design by Amanda Villalobos; Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe;

Cast: Phillipa Soo as Amélie, Adam Chanler-Berat as Nino,David Andino as Blind Beggar, Garden Gnome, Anchorperson; Randy Blair as Hipolito, Belgian Tourist; Heath Calvert as Lucin; Adrien Wells as Mysterious Man; Alison Cimmet as Amandine,Philomene; Savvy Crawford as Young Amélie; Manoel Felciano as Raphael,Bretodeau; Harriett D. Foy as Suzanne; Alyse Alan Louis as Georgette, Sylvie , Collignon’s Mother; Maria-Christina Oliveras as Gina;Tony Sheldon as Collignon, Dufayel; Paul Whitty as Joseph, Fluffy, Collignon’s Father. Swings: Emily Afton, Trey Ellett, Destinee Rea and Jacob Keith Watson. Understudies: Emily Afton (Amélie), Audrey Bennett (Young Amélie), Alyse Alan Louis (Amélie), Jacob Keith Watson (Nino) and Paul Whitty (Collignon, Dufayel)

Running time: 110 minutes, no intermission.

Tickets: $79.50 to $199.50

War Paint Reviews: Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in An American Feud

Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole

“War Paint” depicts the feud that changed the face of America’s women. The cosmetics industry was born from the rivalry between two immigrants turned entrepreneurs:
Elizabeth Arden,  a Canadian born Florence Nightingale Graham, portrayed by Christine Ebersole and Helena Rubinstein, a Jew from Poland born Chaja Rubinstein  played by
Patti LuPone
What do the critics think now that it has opened on Broadway’s Nederlander Theater? Details below:

click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater:  Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole are sharing a Broadway stage for the first time in their careers… If I might have preferred they be given a rivalry as grand as the talents of these extraordinary performers – say, Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she beheaded – they do much to help make this new musical both entertaining and fabulous…For all its appeal, “War Paint” does not surmount some logistical problems that are likely to make some of the scenes heavy-going to all but ardent students of the beauty industry that the two women helped create.

Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: “There are two excellent reasons to see War Paint, and their names are above the title…the musical doesn’t make a persuasive case that its stories must be told.”

Ben Brantley, New York Times: “The two stars “are not coasting on the market value of their star appeal. They’re strategically deploying the knowledge and craft of a combined eight decades in musicals to make us believe that the show in which they appear is moving forward, instead of running in place in high heels….[T]hough my eyes occasionally glazed seeing “War Paint” for the second time, I wouldn’t have missed it, if only to hear its leading ladies’ climactic ballads.”

Charles Isherwood, Broadway News: “…Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole [give] performances of such resplendent force, wit and vivacity that the evening gleams like a freshly applied coat of nail polish catching the light…All the gloss cannot mask a monotony that sets in when we realize that the story unfolding will never acquire the emotional depth that can turn an enjoyable musical into a memorable, even transporting one.”:

Jesse Green, New York Magazine: Beguiling but frustrating…For all the intelligence, sophistication, and sheer talent involved — LuPone and Ebersole are in top form — ‘War Paint’ keeps falling between an older model of storytelling and a new one, never fully climbing its way out of the gap

Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News: “They’re so good, you wish the show were better. As is, it’s polished to a high shine but bland and scarcely skin deep.”

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: “The stars are starry, the sets are glossy, and the book is full of snappy one-liners. In the end, though, “War Paint” fails to keep its costly promise… The plot of the show fails to pass the who-cares test.”

Linda Winer, Newsday : “War Paint” may not be one of the great musicals, but it is an enormously satisfying one. Yes, it is a showcase for established artists hungry for new material. But the show, sleekly and compassionately directed by Michael Greif and created by the team that made the haunting “Grey Gardens,” looks at American women from 1934 to 1964 through a new lens — from the lives of two business titans who took lipstick from harlots to high society.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: “War Paint” is a musical about Catherine Zuber’s fabulous costumes and magnificent hats, as modeled by the great Patti LuPone as Helena Rubenstein and her Highness, Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden. And if those hallowed names mean nothing to you, this is not your show….it really is hard to concentrate on the plot when Ebersole is swanning around in a gorgeous rose-petal-pink silk suit…Luckily, there’s not much plot”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “…despite its relatively low-key dramatic engine, this is a smart, sophisticated exploration of two uncompromising personalities.”

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: “These ladies who wear hats but do much more than lunch are knockouts. How rare it is to see two great female performances in one season, much less one musical…”

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: “…the musical’s DOA, a high-stakes game of table-tennis…manages to be a huge bore.”

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: “..the show ultimately demurs when it comes to holding the great titans of makeup, and the men who surrounded them, to moral account. And that is what might just have made “War Paint” a truly great musical, instead of a highly entertaining and provocative one.”

Robert Kahn, NBC: “…The score, by “Grey Gardens” team Scott Frankel and Michael Korie — Wright and Ebersole were also both part of that memorable 2006 musical — is tuneful and catchy, winding up to a pair of bittersweet releases for the stars, just before the finale: “Pink,” sung by Ebersole, and “Forever Beautiful,” from LuPone. Good God, the women’s voices are in astounding condition.

Matt Windman, AM New York “The musical is built around an unwieldy and repetitive Ping-Pong structure of shifting back and forth between the two characters…However, “War Paint” still has a lot going for it, including self-empowered protagonists, high-powered performances, well-crafted period-style songs, the classy aura of old-school New York and the smooth direction of Michael Greif.”

Christopher Kelly, NJ.com“…earnest and relatively subdued…Anyone heading into “War Paint” looking for “Valley of the Dolls”-style hair-pulling — or even “Dynasty”-style name calling — will likely be disappointed; in fact, until the very last scene, LuPone and Ebersole’s characters don’t even directly speak to one another.”