Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

The tiger of the title in Jajiv Joseph’s play (his Braodway debut) is embodied by Robin Williams. This isn’t figurative––he is a tiger. As far as plot points go, BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO is about the war in Iraq and is set in Baghdad in 2003. Two American soldiers, Kev (Brad Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis) are on guard at the zoo. When Tom provokes a caged tiger with a stick, the tiger instinctively bites off his hand. To save his friend, Kev shoots the tiger. The tiger instantly becomes a ghost and is doomed to wander around the war zone trying to figure out how life went so wrong that he was pulled out of his natural habitat to end up in Baghdad haunting humans. After rehabilitation, Tom returns to Baghdad, mainly because he wants to reclaim two souvenirs he left behind: a gold semiautomatic gun and a gold toilet seat taken when he killed Suddam Hussein’s son Uday. He now has the limitation of one hand and thinks the gold items will secure his future. Meanwhile, Kev has been going crazy because he keeps seeing the ghost of the talking tiger. Mixed up in this story is an Iraqi man, Musa (Arian Moayed), who is working for the US military as an interpreter. Turns out his sister was raped by Uday Hussein and now Uday haunts Musa, leading him toward a day when he will be compelled to kill Tom with his own golden gun. Revenge from the great beyond. There are many ghosts walking around Baghdad––the land of death. All of them become very intelligent about the world they once lived in, but all of them are perplexed that they can find no answers about the mysteries of life and death. The tiger has determined that God isn’t listening because not even in death does he answer prayers. Or perhaps, like in the land of Narnia, the tiger is God. He seems to be the only one hearing anyone’s prayers.

Although one tends to follow these fantastic plot points as a linear story, the world of Mr. Joseph’s play is really a place to explore the ramifications of war, religion and the clash of cultures. Will we humans ever understand each other or will we continue to obliterate each other until we are all ghosts wandering aimlessly? In the scheme of things, the tiger has little to do with the story, but this fantasy figure, who has no business being wrapped up in a war in Iraq, pokes and prods us into asking questions. Where is God? As intelligent as we are, are we basically not much different than the tiger––an animal? Even Musa, who allowed himself to kill another man, rejects Uday’s power hungry philosophy to proclaim that his is better than that––he is an artist who makes the world beautiful. Yet he has been driven to senseless killing under the conditions of desperate times. Mr. Joseph paints the war as senseless, misguided and sadly inevitable. Musa thinks that God actually has spoken and the war is His statement. The tiger finds this notion appalling, but if it’s true then God belongs in the cage like an animal.

Mr. Joseph raises plenty of questions, but he offers no possible answers, for it seems he just wants to get us thinking and talking. This aspect of the play will certainly be its legacy. The fact that it is set during current world strife matters very little, for this could be any war. War isn’t the real exploration here, but rather the play is an exploration of human behavior––what drives people to be their worst? Strangely, this grim topic has been handled in a way that makes for a lot of humor. This isn’t because of the presence of Robin Williams, though he certainly helps to lighten the experience. In fact, the play doesn’t depend on Robin Williams at all, for any star of the right age, comedian or otherwise, would do very well in it. But, if Mr. Williams can draw an audience to a play that might seem to be a downer, then all the better, for what the audience will find is not only an entertaining time at the theatre, but they will be provoked to step back and consider much more.

Mois├ęs Kaufman has directed the play with a swift pace, though he is far less theatrical here then in past productions. This is strange when one considers how strong the fantasy element is in this work, but Mr. Kaufman has staged the play with simple economy. Derek McLane’s unit set has a middle-eastern look and serves the purpose for all scenes with simple additions and subtractions. His one big flourish is the larger than life animal shaped topiaries that decorate the zoo. These sculptures are in decay and silently represent the death of the best of man––his ability to make the world beautiful. However, the war is greatly diminishing what is beautiful. David Zinn’s costumes are straight forward, even with the tiger, who is dressed as a man in worn out clothes. David Lander’s lighting does most of the work at defining spaces and times of day. He does very little with enhancing the idea of the ghosts, though his overall design achieves a haunting mood. The cast, which includes a small ensemble doubling roles, are uniformly wonderful. Mr. Williams doesn’t necessarily put a stamp of definition on his role, but he is a kind of added benefit to what is an excellent play all by itself.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book of Mormon

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, famous as the creators of “South Park” for TV, along with Robert Lopez of AVENUE Q fame, have created a hilarious new musical that is so wrong that it’s right. Full of crude humor that gets laughs simply by being shocking and covering topics not usually discussed on the Broadway musical theatre stage, this show is as smart as it is base. The howls of laughter that greeted THE PRODUCERS were in response to the audacity of Mel Brooks to “go there” with jokes that lacked all sense of the politically correct. The jokes in THE BOOK OF MORMON spring from a similar place, which illicit screams of “I can’t believe they said that” laughter throughout the evening.

The story concerns a pair of Mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham (Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad) who are assigned to Uganda, Africa. They join a group of boys already established there, but who have had little success in converting the local population. Elder Cunningham, the least likely to succeed of the leading pair, finds a way to get the locals to listen to his message by basically making up his own version of the religion, interpolating elements of STAR WARS, LORD OF THE RINGS and other mythologies into the Joseph Smith story. The locals take his wacky new version of the Mormon religion to heart and view Elder Cunningham as their new prophet. To explain any more of the story is to give away the abundance of surprises collected in this show, but the premise is a mere springboard for more hilarity than you can imagine.

Andrew Rannells displays a well-scrubbed golden-boy Mormon convinced of his dynamic ability to follow his mission with great success. As with all of the characters, Rannells’ cheery cartoon of a person is likeable and he sings with clean tones and a direct delivery. Josh Gad is rather reminiscent of his character, “Barfee,” from SPELLING BEE, but his particular shtick is just as perfect for this show. There is something of “Abbot and Costello” about this pair and they make a solid comedy team. The rest of the ensemble, lead by the familiar Lewis Cleale as older adult characters, play multiple roles in whimsical costumes by the legendary Ann Roth who does more work than even the cast in defining characters. Nikki M. James is the main character, Nabulungi, of the African population, displaying a comical innocence within the lunacy of the story and a terrific singing voice. The African ensemble is equally funny in individual ways as well as a group when they put on their own version of Cunningham’s revised religion in the style of “Small House of Uncle Thomas” from THE KING AND I­­—one of the most inspired scenes of comedy ever to be conceived for the Broadway stage.

Casey Nicholaw has choreographed and shared the directing duties with Trey Parker. Together they have sharpened this entertainment into a fast paced frolic. If there is any serious criticism of the Mormon religion, it is handled by simply pointing out the facts, which are difficult to dispute. However, in the same breath there is a criticism of all religions, for they all have their illogical and fantastic stories that must be taken in faith without any proof. This musical doesn’t instruct the audience to believe or not to believe, but by having the locals take so easily to Elder Cunningham’s imaginative twist on the “Book of Mormon,” the creators of this musical are pointing out how equally fanciful the stories of the established religions can be.

Underneath the delight of Ann Roth’s costumes sits the clever and detailed sets by Scott Pask. He has added numerous sight gags, from his view of Salt Lake City showing the cathedral surrounded by fast food chains, a drop depicting the amusement parks of Orlando, the fire pits of Hell, to a rather elaborately detailed village in Uganda. All departments have done their part to add comedy at every turn and the result is the most outlandish and hysterical show on Broadway.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Catch Me if You Can

If you took HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS and WILL ROGERS FOLLIES and smashed them together you might get CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. Although, the show biz framing isn’t the ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, but the TV variety show of the 1960s, which is the setting of the story about teenager Frank Abagnale, Jr., who ran away from home, brilliantly passed bad checks, successfully posed as an airline pilot and doctor before getting caught when he made the mistake of falling in love and telling the truth for once. The crazy thing is that it’s all based on a true story, but now it is musical comedy done in the most traditional way with an economically solid book by Terrence McNally and songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Jack O’Brien has directed the fun and Jerry Mitchell has choreographed it to suit the concept. The combination of these smart people have brought us THE FULL MONTY, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS and HAIRSPRAY in the recent past and now they have delivered a bright and entertaining show that should prove to be one of great durability.

It is not so very often that the musical theatre gives us a breakout star turn role in a new musical, but here is one now and Aaron Tveit is the star. He leaves the stage only long enough to change costumes, which is when his costars, Norbert Leo Butz or Kerry Butler get to take stage alone to sing. There is some very nice intermingling with Tom Wopat and Rachel De Benedet as his parents, but this is Aaron Tveit’s show all the way. Mr. Tveit is well known to Broadway as Gabe from NEXT TO NORMAL and he was a dandy Link Larkin for a while in HAIRSPRAY. Here he dances up a storm and the score shows off is gigantic vocal range. He is of course rather handsome and athletic, which makes this scoundrel of a character all the more appealing. Like J. Pierrpont Finch, we should really not be rooting for this devious devil to succeed, but he is so appealing that we want to see him win and take delight in his every illegal achievement. Mr. Tveit’s talents are so unusually broad, that because the role was written to show off his talents, it may be very difficult to satisfactorily replace him when the time comes.

Norbert Leo Butz has turned into one of our prime Broadway personalities and as Agent Carl Hanratty he has stamped his signature on a role in permanent ink and he too will be difficult to replace. His first big number, “Don’t Break the Rules,” with the chorus dancing behind him, shows a style of movement that may have started with steps by Jerry Mitchell, but it will never be danced again as it was danced by Mr. Butz. His rubber band limbs stretch and slide around in a comical abandon that hasn’t been seen since the days of Ray Bolger.

The female characters of the show have very little to do. The female chorus has quite a lot to do. As showgirls, they are in constant use as airline attendants, nurses and back up dancers to frame Mr. Tveit. As the girlfriend Brenda, Kerry Butler was just right, but it is only too bad that she has been given the lesser of songs, “Fly, Fly Away.” Even in this show biz conceptual world, the ability of her character to sing a song of support a second after finding out that her husband to be has lied to her about absolutely every aspect of his life is hardly plausible. This is the one moment when I lost faith in the show and then the song was mundane and didn’t really show off Ms. Butler’s vocal gifts. This will be a disappointment to any Broadway fan who knows just how magnificent Ms. Butler’s powerhouse voice really is. The mother is winningly played by Rachel de Benedet, who has somehow only made small contributions to the Broadway stage over the past twenty years and it’s a shame because she is a wonderful talent. Her beauty and grace, her small dances and her duet with Tom Wopat, “Don’t Be a Stranger,” were all just right. However, knowing this actress from my years at the California Musical Theatre in much more demanding roles, it is too bad that she wasn’t given something to better show her off. The other female principal is practically a cameo as Brenda’s mother, but Linda Hart, who has been popping in and out of Broadway shows for the past twenty years turns in a delightful character again.

It is always nice to see Tom Wopat on Broadway and we have had the pleasure of his company the past decade in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, 42ND STREET, CHICAGO, A CATERED AFFAIR, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM and now a very good turn in this. He has a few nice things to sing and handles the most serious moments of the show as a down on his luck drunk with a kind of sober reality not seen in any other part of the show. One might say that the character of Frank’s father leaves the style of the production to a degree, but the seriousness of this character’s downfall helped to ground the story with a bit of the harshness of life.

The great William Ivey Long, who has been called upon to costume so many sparkling showgirl costumes in the past, has done it again, but he is strangely understated here. He could have gone much bigger and got away with it, but he has accurately evoked the types of costumes seen in the great variety shows that once dominated the airwaves. David Rockwell has designed the simplest set––also accurate to the concept (I think I saw it on the “Judy Garland Show” once). The orchestra is seated within the set up stage and the musicians are all handsomely dressed in white dinner jackets. Stairs cascade down from an upper level and the necessary furniture lifts from below stage when needed. Added elements of design appropriate for each scene fly in and out to complete a look for a sequence. This elaborate unit set is all the show really needed and so, in an unlikely Broadway choice, the show has been restrained from what could easily have gone into design overload. Light Designer Kenneth Posner has given the show just the right pizzaz for the concept and nicely defines areas to create more intimate moments. His flashiest trick is a moving cloud effect across the act curtain, but after that he has simply served the demands of the show.

This is a happy new musical, rather clean in a PG kind of way, completely delightful at every turn and most importantly it propels Aaron Tveit into a new level of Broadway stardom. This musical breaks no new ground, it does not reinvent anything and it might have been written in 1960. There is nothing wrong with any of that, for it unabashedly serves its purpose to purely entertain. The show should be good for at least three to five years on Broadway and a popular national tour, after which the high schools of America will happily take it on and keep it alive for years to come.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Where's Charley?

The way Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, a pair of green Broadway producers, launched their illustrious career was this concept: A musical of CHARLEY’S AUNT staring Ray Bolger. That did it. That got everyone necessary on board––especially after Ray Bolger heard the idea. And on this idea without a single note of music written the enterprise was launched, an opening date chosen, and everyone went to work on what would become Frank Loesser’s introduction to Broadway, WHERE’S CHARLEY. The show ran two years, which equaled a hit in those days, despite mixed reviews and got a rather faithful movie treatment. Two things have kept WHERE’S CHARLEY from entering the cannon of the thirty or so most often revived titles from musical theatre history. The first is because there was a strike in the recording industry and so WHERE’S CHARLEY wasn’t given a cast album. Why it wasn’t made when the strike was over we’ll never know, but there it is. The second reason is that the movie never went to video and hasn’t been released on DVD. It doesn’t even show up on TV anymore, though it used to and so it is possible to hunt down a copy of it from some musical comedy lover or other who happened to record it on their VCR once upon a time. The film features most of the Broadway cast, including Ray Bolger, so we have a fair idea of what those performances were like. Seeing it now at City Center Encores, it seems antique, even for a 1940s show. It seems like a valentine to the Jerome Kern Princess Theater musicals era the way THE BOY FRIEND is a valentine to 1920s musicals. The score, though appropriate to the material, does not yet sound like the Frank Loesser that would follow, so to my ear now it sounds undistinguished. My friend Jim pointed out to me that this may have everything to do with the fact that we don’t have a recording and we didn’t grow up with the movie like we have with so many others of the classic shows. Had we lived with WHERE’S CHARLEY as we have THE SOUND OF MUSIC or so many others, maybe there would be more revivals in the world and maybe I would think more of a mostly unfamiliar score. On the other hand, I have discovered plenty of old shows––even rare ones––and have been enchanted by those scores on a first listen. Recording or no recording, video or no video, maybe WHERE’S CHARLEY isn’t the greatest score in the world. The book by GEORGE ABBOTT isn’t so hot either––one joke over two acts of Charley dressing up as his aunt to play a proper chaperone to he and his roommate’s girlfriends. Complications ensue. Think of it as a Victorian SOME LIKE IT HOT or TOOTSIE, but without any contemporary social commentary to give it substance. When it comes down to it the main attributes of WHERE’S CHARLEY were Ray Bolger and a little number called “Once in Love With Amy.” It’s still the stand out of the show.

John Doyle directs and Alex Sanchez choreographs with Rob Berman heading the usual great Encores full orchestra. Charley is played by a delightful person new to just about anyone, Rob McClure. He made a splash in the press last fall in a new musical about Charlie Chaplin called LIMELIGHT at the La Jolla Playhouse. So, he is brand new to the New York audience and he is a delight. He makes the old boy-in-dress routine work wonders. His girl Amy is the perky Lauren Worsham with a wonderfully expressive soprano voice that made “The Woman in His Room” a show-stopper. Roommate Jack is handled nicely by Sebastian Arcelus and makes the sappy, “My Darling, My Darling,” very lovely with the help of Jill Paice as Kitty. The older couple is elevated by the talents of Broadway stalwarts Rebecca Luker and Howard McGillin with a charming delivery of “Lovelier Than Ever.” Jeff Brooks, Dan Callaway and Dakin Matthews are well cast in supporting character roles. Ann Hould-Ward has given the production nearly the full period treatment with the costumes, which was necessary to properly put us in the period mood. John Lee Beatty’s single garden patio set served its basic purpose. This is a concert staging, so nothing more should be expected and actually, the costumes were rather elaborate for a concert production. There is a strange, but enjoyable, ballet at the end of act one called “Pernambuco,” where Charlie as his Aunt describes her home town in Brazil (where the nuts come from). It’s got a south of the boarder theme to it, which pegs the show as a 1940s entertainment because thanks to FDR’s “good neighbor” policy, south of the boarder subjects were everywhere in show business and a trend was created. The ballet has no business being in the show, but the shenanigans are so implausible that one can shrug and say, “why not?” It is alarming how little happens during the course of this musical and by the end of the two acts how quickly everything is wrapped up. WHERE’S CHARLEY doesn’t really hold up, but it has its charms and it was nice to have the chance to see it at the City Center with the full orchestra and a first class cast.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Anything Goes

Four times has New York seen Cole Porter’s ANYTHING GOES: the original production in 1934, Off Broadway in 1962, at Lincoln Center in 1987 and now at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. In a way, ANYTHING GOES has been a work in progress, getting tweaked every time it gets a major production. P.G. Wodehouse is often given the most credit for the book, although the truth is that he wrote a scenario that Guy Bolton was to flesh out, that is to say, generally add the jokes. Porter would insert the songs into this mix. However, the show was about a shipwreck and in the middle of writing it the headlines were full of a real shipwreck off the coast of New Jersey and it was rightly felt that this event would render the book inappropriate for a musical comedy. So, P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton being in London and unavailable for immediate assistance made necessary the inclusion of two new book collaborators, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who turned the show into ANYTHING GOES as we basically know it. Then, over the years, Cole Porters songs were added and subtracted until we have what emerged by 1987 at Lincoln Center––a tightened up version of what basically happened in 1934, but with modern know how (this revision was penned by Timothy Crouse––the son of Russel––and John Weidman). In other words, the clunkiness of 1930s book musicals was refined without taking the period spirit out of it. Tinkering has occurred again under the direction of director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall with new dance arrangements to accommodate her own original vision for the dances and a general de-Mermanizing of the Reno Sweeney numbers. Sutton Foster is a dancing Reno Sweeney this time, with less emphasis on the Merman belt. In fact, all of those big long held Merman notes that composers inserted into her numbers ever since she exploded onto Broadway with “I Got Rhythm” in GIRL CRAZY were excised, saving big belted notes only for the ends of “Anything Goes” and “Blow Gabriel Blow.” There is a little disappointment in this, for one of the things that makes ANYTHING GOES what it is, is that Merman influence. Patti LuPone didn’t disappoint us in 1987, for her Reno Sweeney was the modern age equivalent of Ethel Merman, as was also displayed in her turn as Rose in GYPSY. Still, Foster is a delight and it is smart to underline her talents as a dancer while allowing her to make the signature Merman numbers her own. Foster actually comes off a little too sweet, when the character is really a brassy broad. Her blonde wig doesn’t help her image either, but she is gorgeous in her Martin Pakledinaz gowns and sort of blends in as an ensemble member in a show actually dominated by the romantic leading man (the new talent, Colin Donnell as Billy), the ingenue girl (Laura Osnes as Hope), the British caricature (Adam Goodley as Evelyn) and the gangster in the form of a Broadway Legend (Joel Grey as Moonface).

Derek McLane has designed the ship setting lengthwise, rather than Lincoln Center’s frontal view. The pieces of this tri-level set open and close to aid in the illusion of changing locals. Wagons track in to supply the staterooms, jail cell and opening scene’s Manhattan bar. The set is more of a surprise than in 1987, for it has a greater variety of changes and yet it has an economical usefulness to it. It all looks properly art deco and functions just as required without being overly designed. The show is a pretty package.

“Your the Top” includes an extra verse of perviously unheard lyrics as a surprise and retains the old school use of the encore to everyone’s delight. Musicals in the 1930s were about clever lyrics rather than character or plot––that’s the point of the enjoyment of this kind of show. ANYTHING GOES could only be turned into an integrated “Rodgers and Hammerstien” style show to a point. In 1962, the changes were all made to try and transform the show into a more integrated and balanced one. That version, until 1987, was the only version that could be licensed. Two key song interpolations from that production have therefore become a part of the fabric of ANYTHING GOES: “Friendship” and “It’s De-lovely.” We would miss them if we simply went back to 1934, so they were kept in the Lincoln Center edition and they are in now as well.

Colin Donnell should be a delightful surprise to all. Several Broadway stalwarts might have played Billy, but we get the unknown Mr. Donnel in this key role. He is like Gene Kelly, dancing quite a lot more than the usual Billy would, but singing better than Gene Kelly ever could. He was seen in JERSEY BOYS, but otherwise has been out of town on various tours. ANYTHING GOES is bound to make a true Broadway star out of him. His “Easy to Love” and “It’s De-Lovely” with Ms. Osnes, both turn into charming “Fred and Ginger” numbers very effectively. Ms. Osnes sings her “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye” beautifully (a song added for the character in 1987) and makes an underwritten character quite easy to love (as the lyric goes).

Adam Godley comes to Broadway from London and is ideal as Lord Evelyn. He has the voice of a character singer and has some trouble with higher held notes, but his perfection in the role triumphs. Joel Grey is adorable as Moonface Martin and is given a little extra time in “Blue Bird” to dance a soft shoe with a blue spot of light. This is a nice gesture to a legendary theatre man who deserves to have a special moment to shine. The other featured roles are all handled expertly by the likes of John McMartin, Jessica Walter, Jessica Stone, Walter Charles and Robert Creighton. The chorus is made up of pretty girls and the most uniform collection of sturdy straight seeming men to be seen in a single Broadway chorus. That is not a plus or a negative, but the uniformity of the type of male dancer cast was interesting and at the moment, unique.

For all the excellence of the cast, design, and choreography, the show comes off as only durable. There is a lack of precision in the book scenes with regards to the execution of all the walk across jokes and gags, but the show is in previews now and this could all tighten up and elevate the production to the level of pop and fizz it should rightly obtain. I may not be able to get over the loss of the Merman-esque arrangements, but that’s my problem. Ms. Foster should not have to be compared to Merman or LuPone, but she will be all the same. Still, after dancing up a storm with the entire cast for the title song, she somehow squares off with the audience and Mermanates her final note to the back of the theater! Where’s the air coming from? There is plenty of delight in this ANYTHING GOES, but it isn’t the exciting blast of old time musical comedy delight I was wishing for. I was hoping to be thrilled to pieces the way I was with recent revivals of 42ND STREET, SOUTH PACIFIC and FINIAN’S RAINBOW. ANYTHING GOES is still worth it, for there is no better place to hear some of the greatest Cole Porter songs sung beautifully with a live orchestra.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Angels in American, Part 2: Perestroika

Billy Porter and Michael Urie

Tony Kushner’s monumental play took the theatrical world by storm when it emerged from the dissolving Reagan/Bush years. It was immediately produced worldwide and included in college text books. The seven hour two part “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” has been canonized the way DEATH OF A SALESMAN and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE have been––it’s that important and like those other classics continues to speak to the human condition in a contemporary and vivid way. Most of the original cast of this new Off Broadway revival at The Signature Theatre has been replaced, but there is no loss, for the current cast headed by Michael Urie (our friend from “Ugly Betty”) as Prior Walter is superb. This production is directed by Michael Greif and as far as the acting is concerned he has lead his cast to a tight and emotionally rich production. On the other hand, there is a cumbersome and muddled set, pushed and shoved around by visible stagehands in black and headsets, with an overlay of projected images to either establish locations or cover transitions. Visually, it’s all a bit of a mess. The Signature Theatre space is not large, yet large pieces of scenery have been squeezed onto that stage. I have seen this play in a college black box space with nothing but the essential furniture and it was every bit as effective. But, clunky scenery aside, the cast makes the show work and certainly Mr. Kushner has designed it to work whether it’s a Broadway spectacle, a community theater production, a college show or this Off Broadway edition. The play is funny, bombastic, romantic, horrifying, shocking, controversial and wildly entertaining. Part 2, with its two intermissions and three and a half hour length, actually seems just right. I felt as I did when I first saw it in the mid 1990s––that I could have seen both parts in one day with a dinner break with no problem. Time has not been unkind to this play all about the 1980s and the confusion of the AIDS crisis. This is the main theme, but the play opens up discussion about gay rights, coming out, dirty politics, religion, family relationships and history. Kushner takes the mythology inherent in religious stories and uses them to create his own contribution to those stories––the Gospel according to Kushner. In Kushner’s heaven, the angels are desperately trying to hold things together without God, because He left with the San Francisco earthquake and we had to fend for ourselves. The result was plenty of war, a hole in the ozone and a plague, among other things. Kushner wrestles with the twentieth century the way Prior Walter wrestles with his angel.

Adam Driver plays the key role of Louis. He is much stronger than the pathetic eternal suffering Louis of the excellent Mike Nichols film version for HBO. His scenes with Belize (Billy Porter) are up to their usual excellence. Billy Porter also makes the verbal wrestling matches with Frank Wood as the villain Roy Cohn a delicious feast. Bill Heck, who has stayed with the production from the beginning as Joe, the married Mormon who comes out to enter into a relationship with Louis, is straight and sturdy even as he crumbles into confusion and sadness. He represents that part of every gay man’s life when he struggles to find his footing as he comes out into an intolerant world. Louis is out, but carries the guilt of his Jewish upbringing. Prior is the most evolved as the unapologetic gay man who is completely at home in his own skin––even though his body is failing him. These three characters touch on the various stages of any gay man’s experience and we can empathize with all of them. There is also Hannah the mother (Lynne McCullough), who has her own erratic way of dealing with her son Joe’s coming out and his wife Harper (Keira Keeley) who is high on drugs in order to not have to deal with her mixed up marriage and contradictory Mormon upbringing. So many areas of life are touched upon that this “gay play” is actually more universal than most. Therein lies its success and its staying power. Every time I see it I always feel that I have spent my time particularly well.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Harry Potter turns it in! Daniel Radcliffe may forever be known as J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard, but he’s been branching out on Broadway––first in the drama EQUUS in 2008 and now in the Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert classic musical. Nothing up until now has prepared us for a singing and dancing Daniel Radcliffe, but sing he does with a suitable voice and dance he does with surprising skill and athleticism. The original J. Pierrpont Finch was the elfin embodiment of Robert Morse, filled with odd quirky business that had no explanation except for hilarity. On the other hand, for all of Morse’s clowning, he found the right moments to be real in an otherwise cartoon world. Matthew Broderick found his own unique brand of comic business along with surprising the world with his singing and dancing talents in the same way that makes Radcliffe a delight, but only thanks to the wit of the Pulitzer Prize winning book of this musical is Mr. Radcliffe funny. He is cute, he is ernest, he is a good sport to be tossed around by the much taller dancers of the company, but he has not found in Finch that strange and quirky character that Morse and Broderick unleashed and that makes the illogical nerve of the character seem plausible. Here we are to believe Finch is capable of propelling to the top of the ladder simply from the voice of Anderson Cooper giving him advise as the guide book of the show’s title. I have before always felt that Finch was somehow insane, causing that lack of judgment that would stop any sane man from actually trying the steps outlined in Shepherd Mead’s satire on big business circa 1960. Although Mr. Radcliffe may not be particularly distinctive as Finch, he comes with a kind of distinction by being the star of the most popular film franchise of the decade––we like him immediately and we want him to succeed. In the end he succeeds most admirably.

Rob Ashford is both director and choreographer, but is most confident when staging the numbers. However, inbetween the numbers the book scenes are muddy and the actors seem to meander. Jokes that high school students have pulled off don’t land and the general delivery of the book does not have that one-two-punch of the “New Yorker” style cartoons that is part of the territory of this show. We are early in previews now, so it is completely possible that the book scenes will clean up a bit. What won’t be improved is the general lack of character in this production’s cast. Luckily we know something of the original production because most of the Broadway talent also did the film (a decent film even if half the score was cut) and what we know is that the characters were CHARACTERS. They were big, they had bits, they had double takes, they could give a slow burn, and in that blown up world they were still credible. This was also the case with the last revival. With few exceptions the current cast does not compare. Is this Rob Ashford being afraid to truly take on the style of the show? I don’t think so because he manages it expertly during the numbers. It can only be the actors’ lack of know how in a kind of performance that may have been lost in the past twenty years or so. The folks that shine include Tammy Blanchard as Hedy La Rue who gives an original take on the dizzy dame sexpot. Rob Bartlett as both Mr. Twimble and Wally Womper pops as that old time character man that the show requires, making the other principal men seem quite dull. There is nothing in Nick Mayo’s Mr. Gatch or Michael Park’s Mr. Bratt to match the delight of Rob Bartlett’s performance––in fact their comic potential has been ignored.

John Larroquette makes his Broadway debut as J. B. Biggley and is appropriate, though he adds nothing special to the role, letting only the book do the very good job of supplying him with all the humor he really needs to succeed. When you consider the Bud Frumps of the past, Christopher J. Hanke isn’t the first person in the Broadway circle that comes to mind and although he is not offensive in the role, he has done nothing for it but accept the Sally Jesse Rafael glasses that costume designer Catherine Zuber has given him to wear. The red glasses are his character definition and he gets only half the comedy out of a character who is usually comic gold. Hanke’s Frump is a spoiled Ivy League golden boy and far too normal and bland to properly inhabit the world of the play. We are better off with the ladies. Rose Hemmingway makes a lovely Rosemary––she is just right and sings brightly. Mary Faber is an ideal Smitty, offering a nice contrast of character to Rosemary. Ellen Harvey has the right stature to succeed as Mrs. Jones and takes us back to the original production’s opera style break out solo during “Brotherhood of Man.”

For the most part, Rob Ashford’s musical numbers are what really hold the show together. Staged around a cubical wall of levels reminiscent of Gower Champion’s BYE BYE BIRDIE, Mr. Ashford manages some inventive surprises. There are times when he has over choreographed, such as the opening sequence of mid-century modern jazz dance set to the title song with Radcliffe in the middle of it all looking bewildered. Then there is the shock of tap dancing added to “Cinderella Darling,” which is glaringly out of place. On the other hand he develops “Grand Old Ivy” into a fantasy football game with the male chorus, who tosses Radcliffe tumbling in slow motion over their heads to great effect. There is the staging of “Been A Long Day” inside the elevator that becomes more crowded with every floor. “The Company Way” is choreographed to the routines of a mailroom and rises to the level of genius. Best of all there is the perfect staging of “Brotherhood of Man” with Radcliffe causing various groups to fall in line to an infectious dance that is precise and intricate and asks the young star to perform as well as the seasoned chorus behind him, which he does with perfection. The number is as rousing as Mr. Radcliffe is astonishing in it.

This revival is welcome and so is its star. It may not be perfectly directed, but it is great fun all the same. The youngsters might not get it and they certainly won’t hold any nostalgia for it––which is inevitably a part of its potential success. The young man sitting next to me said, “I think I saw this show recently and it was called PROMISES, PROMISES.” Yes the two shows cover some of the same ground (certainly similar wardrobes), but this one came first and it is a bona fied musical comedy classic of the first order. The material itself along with the capable star makes up for any other shortcomings the production may have.