Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Movies, Books, Theater, Concerts, CDs I've Seen/Read/Heard So Far In 2018

Updated May 27, 2018

KEY: star rating is on the four star scale
          meaning of "/" or "\"
          *** is three stars out of four
          ***/ is three stars leaning towards  3 1/2
          ***\ is three stars leaning towards 2 1/2


BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS
(Increasingly, I am sampling books, reading 10%, 20% even 40 or 50% before deciding to move on. The books below are only the ones I've read completely. That also explains what looks like generous grading -- more and more, if I sense a book is not going to be among my favorites, I stop reading. Too many books; too little time!)


1. Pietr The Latvian by Georges Simenon (1931) (Maigret #1) ** 1/2
2. Enter Talking by Joan Rivers with Richard Meryman (1986) *** 1/2
3. The Common Good by Robert Reich **
4. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (1961) ***
5. The Carter Of La Providence by Georges Simenon (1931) (Maigret #2) ***/
6. The Triumph of Christianity by Bart Ehrman ** 1/2
7. The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon (1931) (Maigret #3) ***
8. A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin (1968) *** 1/2
9. Coffin, Scarcely Used by Colin Watson (1958) ***
10. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris and Jeff Warren w Caryle Adler **
11. The Throne Of Caesar by Steven Saylor ** 1/2
12. A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey ***
13. Bump In The Night: A Flaxborough Mystery by Colin Watson ***
14. The Woman's Hour by Elaine Weiss *** 1/2
15. Space Odyssey by Michael Benson ** 1/2
16. Circe by Madeline Miller *** 1/2
17. Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Bway Revolution by Scott S. Purdum ***
18. Rocket Men by Robert Kurson ** 1/2
19. Factfulness by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund ** 1/2
20. Bob by Wendy Mass and illo by Rebecca Stead ** 1/2
21. Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? by Robert Kuttner ***
22. The Emissary by Yoko Tawada ***
23. Beneath A Ruthless Sun by Gilbert King *** 1/2
24. Endling The Last by Katherine Applegate *** 1/2
25. Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston ***
26. The Boy From Tomorrow by Camille DeAngelis **
27. Imperial Twilight by Stephen R. Platt *** 1/2
28. The Mandela Plot by Kenneth Bonert ***
29. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed by Sulari Gentill **
30. Calypso by David Sedaris *** 1/2
31. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson *** (but *** 1/2 in terms of influence)
32.







CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS CDS (A strong emphasis on the ones I like, so don't think I love everything I listen to -- I just don't bother really listening to the ones I don't )

1. The Alan Parsons Project -- Eye In The Sky (1982) **
2. Dinah Washington -- The Fats Waller Songbook aka Sings Fats Waller (1957) *** 1/2
3. Nina Simone -- Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles ***/
4. The James Hunter Six -- Whatever It Takes ***/
5. Lee Wiley -- West Of The Moon (1956) ** 1/2
6. Petula Clark -- Living For Today ** ("While You See A Chance" cover nice)
7. Kendrick Lamar et al -- Black Panther soundtrack ***/
8. They Might Be Giants -- I Like Fun ** 1/2
9. Fall Out Boy -- Mania ***/
10. Anderson East -- Encore **
11. Jimmy Buffett -- Buried Treasure Vol. 1 **
12. Josh Ritter -- Gathering ***
13. Gaz Coombes -- Matador (2015) ** 1/2
14. Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello -- Flowers In The Dirt demos (1985) *** 1/2
15. Boz Scaggs -- Some Change (1994) *** 1/2
16. Various Artists -- Blade Runner 2049 Soundtrack
17. Jo Stafford -- Autumn In New York (1950) **
18. Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams (2015) *** 1/2
19. Tracey Thorn -- Record ***/
20. Joan Baez -- Whistle Down The Wind ***
21. Thelonius Monk -- The Complete Prestige 10 Inch LP Collection ****
22. Thelonius Monk -- Thelonius Monk Trio (1954) ****
23. Thelonius Monk -- Monk (1954) *** 1/2
24. Thelonius Monk -- And Sonny Rollins (1954) *** 1/2
25. Curtis Roush -- Cosmic Campfire Music ** 1/2
26. Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson -- Landfall ** 1/2 (not enough Laurie)
27. Steve Winwood -- Greatest Hits Live ** 1/2
28. Philip Phillips -- Collateral **
29. Carmen McRae -- Book Of Ballads (1958) ****
30. The Eagles -- Hotel California (1976) ** 1/2
31. Carmen McRae -- By Special Request (1955) ***
32. Brian Fallon -- Sleepwalkers **
33. Paul McCartney and Youth as The Fireman -- Electric Arguments (2008) ***
34. Mabel Mercer -- Merely Marvelous (1960) ***
35. MGMT -- Little Dark Age **
36. The Moody Blues -- Days of Future Passed (1967) **
37. John Oates -- Arkansas ***
38. John Moreland -- In The Throes (2013) ***
39. Jo Stafford -- Starring Jo Stafford (1953) **
40. Glenn Gould -- Bach: The Goldberg Variations (1981) ****
41. Franz Ferdinand -- Ascending **
42. Merle Haggard -- Mama Tried (1968) ***/
43. The Clash -- The Clash (1977) *** 1/2
44. Simple Minds -- Walk Between Worlds ** 1/2
45. Andy Gibb -- Greatest Hits (1980) **
46. Kacey Musgraves -- Golden Hour ** 1/2
47. Jimi Hendrix -- Both Sides Of The Sky **
48. Tim Christensen -- Honeyburst (2003) *** 1/2
49. The Four Lads -- The Singles Collection 1952-1962 * 1/2
50. Cecile McLorin Salvant -- WomanChild (2013) *** 1/2
51. Meshell Ndegeocello -- Ventriloquism ***
52. Don McLean -- Botanical Gardens * 1/2
53. Ashley McBryde -- Girl Goin' Nowhere ***
54. Paul McCartney -- Memory Almost Full (2007) ***
55. The Fratellis -- In Your Own Sweet Time ***
56. Elizabeth Mitchell -- The Sounding Joy (2013) * 1/2
57. Kurt Elling -- The Questions **
58. Jack White -- Boarding House Reach **
59. Toto -- Greatest Hits: 40 Trips Around The Sun * 1/2
60. Brandi Carlisle -- By The Way, I Forgive You *** 1/2
61. Sonny Rollins -- Way Out West (1957) ***/
62. Habibi -- Cardamom Garden * 1/2
63. Ben Harper and Charles Musselwhite -- No Mercy In This Land **
64. Born Ruffians -- Uncle, Duke and the Chief **
65. Bettye LaVette -- Things Have Changed ***
66. The Meters -- Rejuvenation (1974) *** 1/2
67. Patrick Wolf -- Lupercalia (2011) ***
68. Rick Springfield -- The Snake King ***/ (heretic!!)
69. Rhye -- Blood **
70. Vivian Leva -- Time is Everything **
71. Calum Scott -- Only Human **
72. Scotty McCreery -- Seasons Change ** 1/2
73. The Clash -- Give 'em Enough Rope (1978) *** 1/2
74. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong -- Cheek To Cheek: Complete Duet Recordings *** 1/2
75. Vance Joy -- Nation Of Two **
76. Tom Williams -- All Change **
77. Tom Rogerson -- Finding Shore **
78. Tal National -- Tantabara ** 1/2
79. The Clash -- Combat Rock (1982) ***
80. Donna Summer -- Bad Girls (1979) ** 1/2
81. Donna Summer -- The Wanderer (1980) * 1/2
82. Janelle Monáe -- Dirty Computer *** 1/2
83. Mandy Patinkin -- Diary, January 27, 2018 ***
84. John  Prine -- The Tree Of Forgiveness ***
85. Frank Turner -- Be More Kind ** (but "The Lifeboat" lovely)
86. Joshua Hedley -- Mr. Jukebox ***/
87. Sting and Shaggy -- 44/876 **
88. Mary Chapin Carpenter -- Sometimes Just The Sky **
89. Sonny and Cher -- The Beat Goes On: The Best Of Sonny and Cher ** 1/2
90. The Magic Numbers -- Outsiders ** 1/2
91. Charlie Puth -- VoiceNotes ***
92. Jason Aldean -- Rearview Town ***/
93. Josh Rouse -- Love In The Modern Age *** 1/2
94. Beach House -- 7 ***
95. Nellie McKay -- Silver Orchid *** 1/2 /
96. Courtney Barnett -- Tell Me How You Really Feel *** /
97. Old Crow Medicine Show -- Volunteer ** 1/2
98. Maddie Poppe -- Songs From The Basement **
99. Jennifer Warnes -- Another Time, Another Place **
100.




MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES TV MOVIES 

(Not TV movies, of course, but movies and TV -- and TV movies if it comes to that. Mostly I only list TV shows when I've tackled an entire season at once or reappraising an entire series after it's over This doesn't really capture my ongoing watching of current TV.)

1. Downsizing ** 1/2
2. Of Mice And Men (1939) ** 1/2
3. I, Tonya ***
4. Paddington 2 ** 1/2
5. The Post **
6. Black Panther **
7. The Greatest Showman **
8. The Founder *** 1/2
9. Obit ***
10. Good Time *** 1/2
11. Machines ** 1/2
12. Dunkirk ****
13. Una Mujer Fantastica *** 1/2
14. Foxtrot *** 1/2
15. Dawson City: Frozen Time ***
16. Bad Lucky Goat ***
17. Loveless *** 1/2
18. God's Own Country *** 1/2
19. The B-Side ***
20. Love, Simon ** 1/2
21. Logan ***
22. Patti Cake$ ** 1/2
23. The Lost City Of Z *** 1/2
24. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story ***
25. Only The Brave ***
26. A Quiet Passion ***
27. The Breadwinner ***/
28. Happy Death Day ***
29. Land Of Mine *** 1/2
30. Columbus *** /
31. Frantz ** 1/2
32. Get Out ***
33. Brigsby Bear **
34. Risk (Laura Poitras documentary) ***/
35. A Quiet Place ** 1/2
36. Ready Player One *
37. Lean On Pete ** 1/2
38. The Endless **
39. Blockers (esp Ike Barinholtz and Miles Robbins) ***
40. Annihilation **
41. Captain America: Civil War **
42. Le Corbeau (1943) ** 1/2
43. Isle Of Dogs *** 1/2 (prod, score, voice, screenplay)
44. Miracles For Sale (1939) *
45. Deadpool 2 **
46. Solo: A Star Wars Story **
47. At The Circus (1939) *
48. Summer 1993 *** 1/2 (direction, lead perf)
49. Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939) * 1/2
50. Yes, My Darling Daughter (1939) * 1/2
51. The Guardians ** 1/2









THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS THEATER CONCERTS
(The names after the shows are the people who joined me at the performance.)

1. At Home At The Zoo: Homelife and The Zoo Story (at Signature w Luis) ***/
2. Escape To Margaritaville (w Franny) **
3. Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966  (w TJ) ***
4. Lobby Hero (w Michael Cera) (w Noam) ***
5. Frozen (w Luis) **
6. Rocktopia (w Luis) *
7. Angels in America (w Garrett)** 1/2
8. Mean Girls (w Cohen) ** 1/2
9. The Sting (w Harry Connick Jr.) (w Noam) **
10. Mlima's Tale (w Noam) ** 1/2
11. Children Of A Lesser God (w Joshua Jackson) (w Noam) ** 1/2
12. 
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance (w Vincent) ** 1/2
13. The Metromaniacs (w Noam) ***
14. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical (w Cohen) *
15. The Seafarer (w Zoe) **
16. Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) (w Noam) * 1/2
17. Saint Joan (w Noam) **
18. Travesties (w Tom Hollander and Seth Numrich) (alone) *** 1/2
19. My Fair Lady (w Lauren Ambrose) (w Noam) *** 
20. Summer and Smoke (w Marin Ireland at CSC) (w Noam) ** 1/2 
21. Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 (w Luis) ** 1/2
22. August Wilson Monologue Competition at the August Wilson Theatre (w Noam) ** 1/2
23. Paradise Blues (Dominique Moriceau play at Signature) (w Dave Cohen, Zoe, Noam) ** 1/2
24.  Our Lady Of 121st Street (revival at Signature) (w Dave, Zoe, Noam) ** 1/2
25. Dance Nation (at Playwrights Horizons) (w Joanne) ** 1/2
26. 


KEY: star rating is on the four star scale
          meaning of "/" or "\"
          *** is three stars out of four
          ***/ is three stars leaning towards  3 1/2
          ***\ is three stars leaning towards 2 1/2

Updated May 27, 2018

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

THEATER: BROADWAY BY THE YEAR -- 1956 AND 1975

BROADWAY BY THE YEAR 1956 AND 1975 ** 1/2 out of ****
TOWN HALL

The winter-spring series "Broadway By The Year" has been going on for almost twenty years. But somehow it still feels like the best-kept secret in theater. Sure it has full houses and subscribers who've held onto their seats for years and greet each other by name. Yes, creator Scott Siegel has spun this franchise into an ever-growing number of showcases for Broadway and cabaret stars and rising talent both at Town Hall and 54 Below and beyond. Nonetheless, go to BBTY and you'll feel like you've slipped backstage or finally received your theater-insider badge.

This season, Siegel is focusing on one year for each act of the night. On Monday, it was 1956 and 1975, two primo years for musical theater being the last gasp of a golden age and the start of a new flowering. I'm about to tell you what you missed but don't despair: the next Broadway By The Year takes place on June 18 and covers 1988 and the head-spinningly recent season of 2017.

For 1956, the show drew upon Bells Are Ringing, Candide, Mr. Wonderful (the Sammy Davis Jr. showcase), The Most Happy Fella and the peerless My Fair Lady. And 1975? That season offered shows celebrating Tom Chapin (!), Bessie Smith and Rodgers and Hart. Happily it also included the surprisingly successful Shenandoah (I did NOT know that ran more than 1000 performances), The Wiz and two genuine landmarks: Kander & Ebb's Chicago and A Chorus Line.

You come to BBTY to hear covers of classic songs you know well and some rarer songs you're not familiar with, all of them performed by big stars and rising talent. It's a rare night when you don't walk away wanting to hear a "new" song again and write down the name of a performer to keep your eye on. Tonight was no exception, but it was especially good at pointing out new artists ready for their close-up.

It wasn't always as kind to veterans. Lance Roberts is on Broadway right now in the acclaimed revival of My Fair Lady. While he got by on "Too Close For Comfort," Roberts was at sea on the infectious "Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle Of Beer)." It was perhaps the wrong song for the wrong crowd on the wrong evening and when he gamely pointed the mike at the audience for them to sing ("Gimme a pigfoot!") they had blank looks and no idea what to say. He deserved props for selling it anyway as a grand old time. So did Cheryl Freeman on "Home" from The Wiz. That's a song that should bring down the house (any house) but it was an off night for Freeman. However, she delivered a master class in staying in character after the song was over, looking genuinely moved by the tune and the moment even as you knew she was thinking, "Damn! That didn't happen." And Luke Grooms killed it Off Broadway recently in the revival of Jerry Springer: The Opera. But other than singing sans microphone (a BBTY tradition for at least one song), Grooms brought little to "My Heart Is So Full Of You." And "Johnny One Note" was more of a vocal workout than a treat.

Now onto the good news. Douglas Ladnier is a cabaret star and Broadway veteran (from Jeckyl and Hyde among others). His best moment was early on with "Just In Time." But while no one should be asked to sing "Cat's In The Cradle," that slice of bathos simply cannot be sung with too much intensity and was perfect for him. The audience loved it, even as I wondered how Tom Chapin got on Broadway with his own show in the first place. (Ladnier has a new album out now called Heart And Soul showing him equally unafraid of other Seventies hits like "Sometimes When We Touch" and "You Are So Beautiful" alongside classic theater tunes.)

Ladnier had three numbers on the show, which is one of the best parts of BBTY. If someone doesn't wow you right away, chances are you'll get to revise your opinion before the night is over. That was certainly the case for Maxine Linehan, who had the unenviable task of tackling "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady. After a too-serious "It's All Right With Me" I appreciated Linehan's voice but wasn't sure about her interpretations. That changed mightily when she tackled a song from the little known hit Shenandoah. Linehan was singing "The Only Home I Know," a wistful ballad performed by a soldier heading back to his small town after the horrors of the Civil War. A spare, lovely arrangement courtesy of musical director and pianist Ross Patterson allowed Linehan to sit on a stool and deliver the song with unadorned sweetness. You immediately wanted to hear more from Shenandoah and Linehan, a sure sign of success.

And the success of Siegel's showcase Broadway's Rising Stars is how much of the talent that makes it to that annual event keeps popping up all over the theater landscape. Every year Siegel selects the cream of the crop from arts schools all over the country and puts them in Broadway's Rising Stars. This year's show takes place on Monday July 16 at Town Hall. If you'd gone in the past, you would have been among the first to see Joshua Israel and Oakley Boycott. (Note: that's her real name and any suggestion otherwise may lead to legal proceedings.)

Every Broadway By The Year includes some dancing and Israel was on tap Monday. He started off act two in jaunty style with "I Can Do That" from A Chorus Line. "All I Care About" from Chicago was more of the same and they both would have shone better in separate acts. (Is it Siegel's fault they both came out in 1975?) Israel dances with a chip on his shoulder -- that cocky Gene Kelly attitude of yeah, I'm dancing here, you gotta  problem with that? Maybe I'm just a Fred Astaire guy myself, but Israel should balance his attitude with a little more joy or less self-awareness or something.

Three time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello had the right sort of attitude: the pleasure of a star who knows what they're doing and loves it. With shows like Falsettos, Urinetown and Parade on her résumé, it's a well-earned confidence. Carmello first appeared in Act One, delivering the comic gem "I'm Going Back" from Bells Are Ringing with aplomb. It was almost a one-two punch since she returned early in Act Two with "Nothing" from A Chorus Line, underlining that song's irony with bittersweet ease. And she ended the night with the Chorus Line chestnut "What I Did For Love," joined by the entire cast. Simply making it sound fresh is a hard task but she pulled it off. The recent musical Tuck Everlasting wasn't nearly a good enough showcase for Carmello and this night reminded you she's a singular talent that deserves a better one, soon.

And that leaves two newcomers that wowed. Carmello sang a key number from Bells Are Ringing and killed it. That makes it all the more impressive that I kept wondering what Oakley Boycott would have done with the song. Why? Because she'd been onstage just a few minutes earlier delivering a knockout performance of another comic gem from Bells Are Ringing, "Is It A Crime?" Boycott is a statuesque beauty, sporting red hair (at least tonight). (She's also an alumnus of Broadway's Rising Stars, just like Israel.) But two seconds after she began you knew you were in Carol Burnett territory: a terrific voice and talent that is unashamedly ready to make a fool of herself for a laugh or a song that calls for it. That was certainly the case with "Is It A Crime?", with Boycott bringing alive her message center operator with ease, elbows akimbo as she kvetched with the audience, did splits, tottered this way and that and generally had a blast. You immediately want to see a full-blown revival of that show with Boycott as the lead. I spent the rest of the night (especially the second act) waiting for her to return on another number but this was her big moment. She made the most of it.

I felt the same about Kyle Selig. Can you "discover" someone you've already seen perform on Broadway? Yes,  you can! I saw Selig in the new musical Mean Girls. He plays the minor role of boyfriend-to-be to the heroine (hey, it's her show) and I was smart enough to say Selig made "something out of the nothing role of boyfriend-to-be Aaron." Now I see he's been bouncing around, doing out of town tryouts of the potential Broadway musical October Sky among other projects. All I know is that he may be on Broadway in a Tony-nominated musical, but he got a much better showcase in two songs on Broadway By The Year. Up first was the show opener "On The Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady. His take on it is far superior to the one in the current Broadway show. Too often, that song is delivered at full blast, an almost over-the-top bit of bombast. Without changing the song too much, Selig gave it a gentler, more vulnerable and thus more touching rendition. I enjoyed it almost as much as I enjoyed hearing the little old lady lean over to her husband when Selig walked out onstage. "Cute!" she whispered appreciatively. Yes, he's a handsome devil but good looks are a dime a dozen in the entertainment world. Selig has talent and he proved it. Selig followed up his first song with the wistful tune "It Must Be So" from Candide. He was, if anything, even better on one of the best songs from that terrific score. The combination of its relative unfamiliarity and a quiet nature left the audience hushed rather than bursting out with the applause it deserved. Not to fear; it won't be the last time he's onstage doing great work.

So terrific work from Selig and Boycott, a memorable song from Linehan, the pro work of Carmello and you've got more than enough to stamp it another successful evening. And with Siegel, you don't need to wait long: his next production is 54 Sings Broadway's Greatest Hits at Feinstein's 54 Below this Friday, May 25.



THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. Trying to decide what to read next?Head to BookFilter! Need a smart and easy gift? Head to BookFilter! Wondering what new titles came out this week in your favorite categories, like cookbooks and mystery and more? Head to BookFilter! It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. It’s like a fall book preview or holiday gift guide — but every week in every category. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.
Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review. All productions are in New York City unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, May 07, 2018

THEATER: "MY FAIR LADY" SAYS #METOO!

MY FAIR LADY ** 1/2 out of ****
LINCOLN CENTER THEATER

Is My Fair Lady sexist? To anyone with sense, of course it isn't. The show is based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and in both cases the issue at hand is class, not gender. If anything, one might argue My Fair Lady is snobbish. You'd still be wrong but at least you'd be fighting the right battle.

Alan Jay Lerner's terrific book and lyrics pair with the sublime music of Frederick Loewe to tell a story so ingrained in our culture you know it even if you've never seen the show. The latest presentation of it has just opened at Lincoln Center, scored ten Tony nominations and is a shoe-in to win Best Revival Of A Musical.

In it, Henry Higgins is a distinguished phoneticist eavesdropping on the talk of lower class workers at Covent Garden. When a fellow enthusiast for languages greets him, Higgins boasts that in six months he could take even the most untutored peasant and pass her off as a lady. And then Higgins does it. Brilliant man that he is, Higgins relentlessly tutors a flower girl named Eliza, sculpting her into a woman of impeccable diction. She debuts at the Ascot Racecourse (with mixed success) and then attends a fancy ball where Eliza is a triumph. Just as Pygmalion fell in love with one of his own sculptures and brought it to life, Higgins falls for the newly confident Eliza. After the usual roadblocks, they fall happily into each other's arms. The end.

Well, not quite.

If you pay attention, the story of My Fair Lady is much richer and more complicated than that skewed description. And one of the gifts of director Bartlett Sher is to pay attention. He's delivered a string of successful revivals of classic shows, not by re-contextualizing them or imposing some radical concept but simply by listening to the dialogue being spoken, the lyrics being sung, the tale being unfolded. Pay attention and a classic will reward you with fresh insight and humor and drama.

Here Sher focuses like a laser on Eliza and it pays dividends. At Covent Garden our eye is always drawn to Eliza (Lauren Ambrose) even when she is lost in the crowd. We see Higgins and his new friend Col. Pickering (Alan Corduner) start to walk away, turning their backs on the unfortunate creature they were dissecting just a moment ago. It is Eliza who interrupts their departure to parse out exactly what Higgins was saying: with some lessons in diction, she could present herself as respectable and move up in the world. Her way of speaking has doomed Eliza to a life of menial servitude, but her way of speaking can be changed.

The next day, Eliza shows up at the home of Henry Higgins and asks to pay for lessons. She has agency, as someone criticizing the show's gender politics might have to admit. It's not the wealthy Higgins and his boast that put the plot into motion. It's not a genial taunt by Pickering. It's the bold gamble of a flower girl who offers up her worldly wealth to pay for tutoring on how to speak proper.

Now that you're paying attention, you realize even Higgins admits Eliza has a real gift for the task at hand. Once she's had a breakthrough, Eliza soaks up knowledge and works as hard as anyone. Indeed, when she reprises the song "I Could Have Danced All Night" after everyone has gone to bed, it's while grabbing some more books so she can study in bed; Eliza is besotted with learning more than the passing approval of her tutor. It's Eliza who charms and amuses the posh set at Ascot with her frank talk, not just the faux pas we all remember during a race but by calling out a young man she imagines laughing at her. Even under stress, Eliza won't be mocked.

It's Eliza who triumphs at a ball, proving such a perfection of precise English that a rival to Higgins concludes it's too perfect: she must be a foreign born aristocrat! It's Eliza who leaves Higgins of her own accord. And it is Higgins who comes running after her, begging Eliza to accept him as he is, flaws and all. If Eliza comes back at the end, it's clearly her choice to do so.

[In a rare missed opportunity, Sher could have underlined Eliza's independence even more. At the ball, she is the talk of the evening. But a suspicious rival phoneticist --  Professor Zoltan Karpathy -- is circling, waiting for his chance to linguistically pin her down. It's an acid test Eliza shouldn't have to face. Both Col. Pickering and Higgins' mother tell him to avoid the man at all cost. Why risk it? But Higgins and Eliza are dancing, the rival asks to cut in, Higgins hesitates...and then hands Eliza over for the moment of truth. Yet how much better if he hesitated...and Eliza stepped forward of her own accord, ready to meet this final challenge when Higgins had doubt.]


Photo ©2018 by Joan Marcus

So if Eliza as written is her own, steadfast self, why would anyone think My Fair Lady is sexist? The answer surely lies with Henry Higgins, who can be smug, condescending and silly. It's probably more accurate to say Higgins is a self-satisfied misanthrope, but let's assume he is sexist. Clearly depicting a sexist man doesn't mean the show itself is sexist, any more than South Pacific is racist simply because it holds up a mirror to such ugliness.

Does anyone take his battle-of-the-sexes number "I'm An Ordinary Man" seriously? Higgins offers up a string of stereotypes about women, albeit after acknowledging that when two people begin to care for each other she may become tiresome but he becomes jealous and tyrannical. So romance makes both sexes rather irritating. Higgins presents himself in such exaggerated terms (he's got "the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein,"  etc.) that you can play it as gently self-mocking or foolishly boastful but you can't play it seriously. If anything, the joke is on him.

Besides, Higgins is delivering a classic opening gambit for a romantic comedy. He's the character who insists at the top of the show that they will never, ever fall in love. The audience smiles because of course they know -- sure as the sun will rise in the morning -- that this character will fall head over heels in love by the end of the show, if not the end of act one.

Higgins says with some fairness that he's not rude to Eliza in particular -- he's rude to everyone! That's not quite true: he is indeed rude to many people but Higgins is polite to his mother and Pickering, at least. A confirmed bachelor, stuck in his ways, Higgins can be insufferable. So one of the cleverest ideas of Sher was to cast Harry Hadden-Paton in the role. Higgins is usually played by an actor quite a bit older than the one playing Eliza. (Julie Andrews was 20 and Rex Harrison was 48 years old on opening night in 1956. ) With a much older Higgins, his ideas about women can seem...encrusted. He and Pickering become an old boy's club, congratulating each other and ignoring her after the success of the ball.

Here Hadden-Paton is actually three years younger than Ambrose, though he "reads" a little older on stage. Turning Higgins into a younger man than usual and making them contemporaries changes the dynamics considerably. Now his pronouncements seem foolish and silly, more akin to a boy who puts up a "no girlz allowed" sign on his tree fort than a misogynist manifesto. Pickering becomes less of an ally and more of a guilty conscience. And the blooming romance between Higgins and Eliza feels more natural rather than paternal. An elderly Higgins might just want an unpaid servant. A younger Higgins offers the possibility of change and growth and genuine love.

But does he deserve her? In one of the trickiest songs in the canon, Higgins has pleaded his case to Eliza and heads home in frustration, singing "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face." Even when his happiness is at stake, Higgins struggles to admit -- even to himself -- that he loves her. Ironically, he can't speak the words.

SPOILER ALERT -- THE SHOW'S CLOSING SCENE IS DETAILED

In the show's boldest stroke, Eliza does indeed return to Higgins, finding him alone in his library, listening to the voice of Eliza he recorded on the day of her very first lesson. He's a man hopelessly in love, but perhaps hopeless at love, as well. She stands face to face with him, offering an intimacy they've never attempted before. Higgins, in a daze, mutters "Where the devil are my slippers?" just to have something to say. She strokes him fondly on the cheek...and then strides boldly off the stage up into the audience and out into the world opening up for her. Higgins looks on, pride and tears crossing his face in equal measure.

This isn't a terribly radical choice. It's the original ending of the play Pygmalion. It was the original ending of the script for the 1938 Oscar winning film that Shaw wrote. (He didn't know the filmmakers shot it with the two leads clinching romantically until seeing the premiere.) And it's been the ending of My Fair Lady since day one. Shaw fought any musical adaptation and almost certainly would have not allowed one that changed his ending. So the theater world simply waited Shaw out. He died in 1950. My Fair Lady opened on Broadway less than six years later.

This "new" old ending is an admirable, exciting, defensible choice. I just don't think it works. Lerner and Loewe didn't write a show about two people falling in love and then falling apart. Every scene, every song brings them closer and closer together, with Eliza's newfound confidence prodding Higgins to break out of his shell and admit he's a man with feelings and needs. Maybe I'm too used to the contours of this story. After all, it was the very first professional theater I ever saw, starring Rex Harrison no less as he toured the country back in the very early 1980s. But if Eliza is going to leave at the end, I think earlier scenes should play darker, with more emotion and more at risk. And the staging doesn't help. Since we've seen Eliza step off the stage and into the "real" world (if not the actual auditorium) at several points in the show, her final breaking of the fourth wall doesn't have the same impact it might if it was taking place for the very first time.

END OF SPOILER

However it ends, it turns out that My Fair Lady really is a problem play of sorts. Not the problem of sexism, but the problem of being embalmed as a "classic." This is only the third revival on Broadway in more than 60 years. One in 1976 lasted less than a year and one in 1993 lasted less than six months. (I'm ignoring Harrison popping in for a few weeks with bus and truck version in 1981 I saw in Florida as a child.) That's shocking for a show of such immense popularity, boasting such great roles and offering a score that ranks among the most hummable and well-known in history. Who better than Sher to tackle it? He brushed aside the issue of gender with good casting and a faith in the text. Unfortunately, he hasn't performed his usual magic of burnishing a too-familiar show into something fresh and new, work he did so well on musicals like South Pacific and the more problematic The King And I.

Apparently, the wax museum quality of director George Cukor's hugely successful but deadly dull film version has suffocated the show but good. It preserved (in amber) iconic performances by Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway as Eliza's dad, not to mention the dazzling black and white brilliance of the Ascot Racetrack scene. But, oh, how it drags with all the self-importance of a prestige picture. Sadly, those faults are on display here. My Fair Lady should be thrilling, its scenes bursting with brisk excitement and humor, one great song tumbling after another. In most musicals, you wait for the songs to begin. In My Fair Lady, the dialogue is so good you're completely absorbed until a song pops in and you'd almost be annoyed if the songs weren't so good they lifted you up into heaven. Not here. This edition moves with the stately progress of an ocean liner, scene dutifully following scene like island stops on a cruise. Here on your left is "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and coming up on your right? "With A Little Bit Of Luck!"

Photo ©2018 by Joan Marcus

One reason for this is the scenic design by Michael Yeargan. The Vivian Beaumont is a jewel of a space and has a deep backstage that only the Metropolitan Opera can match, I believe. Yeargan makes full use of this when creating a photo-realistic home for Higgins that includes a front entrance, bathroom, stairways and a two-level library I not only applauded this particular set, I wondered if it was available for rent. In a moment veteran theatergoers probably appreciated more than most, one scene transition began with the library set poised way, way, way at the back of theater and slowly gliding into view. The luxurious scope of the moment took your breath away. The problem is that it was always gliding slowly in and out. Every scene change became such a parade that Sher fills the dead air with people moving lampposts this way and that just to entertain the eye. Worse, a gap on the left and right of the stage was needed to allow all these moving parts to twirl around one another. That meant giant black strips of material would glide down from the rafters to fill in the gap on either side. All well and good, but this happened so frequently it became distracting, with the black strips yo-yoing up and down all night long in their own merry dance.

Contrast that and the solid-looking Covent Garden with the more "suggestive" (or bare bone) sets, like the cardboard pop-up of a bar that Eliza's dad is forever strolling into for a pint. "With A Little Bit Of Luck" in particular seemed to take place on a notably sparse stage, all the more so when that lavish study hove into view a scene later. And that seemed to contrast even more starkly with the elegant simplicity of the set for Ascot, which suggested everything it needed with only an unfolding canopy. Here costumer Catherine Zuber managed the neat trick of nodding strongly to Cecil Beaton while leaving her own stamp on the moment. True, not every location can be equally lavish but the scenic design lacked a uniform point of view.

Even the home itself felt fussy and overly-detailed. One brief gag takes place when Eliza is dragged by a clutch of maids into a tiled bathroom for a long overdue shower. It's a modest joke but we're stuck with that tiled space for the rest of the show, which is soon revamped into a room with some sort of medical equipment. (I think.) In any case, the home of Higgins is forever spinning like a top -- often quite unnecessarily -- and every time it spins we see that tiled room, even though it is never used again and I became increasingly annoyed at having to look at it. Couldn't the wall collapse and the room "disappear" or not be used in the first place?

You begin to feel this My Fair Lady is a dutiful recreation of moments from the past rather than a living, breathing story taking place today. It's more diorama than drama. That extends to some of the performances. Norbert Leo Butz sounded like slam-dunk casting for the role of Eliza's philosophizing father. But he brings nothing distinctive to the role, seeming to show up and assume the memory of Holloway and those two great numbers do the rest. "Get Me To The Church On Time" can't help but land -- it's the show's most elaborate number by far, but it's expert rather than thrilling. "With A Little Bit of Luck" in particular felt rote, as if Butz were a year into the run rather than a week.

And why can't anyone rethink Freddy? Every production I've ever seen offers up a silly fop of a Freddy (Jordan Donica) who belts out "On the Street Where You Liiiiiiiiiiive" in a tiresome, old-fashioned style. Donica is certainly a handsome man but he's asked to be a nonentity like every Freddy before him. If only this Freddy were sexy and appealing. Imagine if Eliza was actually charmed by him, at least on a physical level. Imagine if he sang that standard with a lighter, defter touch (Harry Connick Jr. does a nice, sure-footed version) rather than declaiming it to the rafters. Higgins might worry about an actual rival instead of being able to dismiss Freddy as casually as we do. No such luck.

One can't do terribly much with the other roles, though as Pickering Allan Corduner sketches out a man that might be more of a foil to Higgins than we're used to seeing. Manu Narayan is suitably silly as Professor Karpathy. And if anyone deserves to glide gracefully on and off stage it is certainly Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins. She gives her scenes the warmth and bite they need.

That leaves our two leads. Harry Hadden-Paton is a solid, if not revolutionary Higgins. His age does most of the work for him in terms of rethinking the part, though he is certainly jolted by more emotion than found in the reserved Rex Harrison. And he nails "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face," a piece that is far trickier than I ever realized. Hadden-Paton might be more prickly, more frustrating, more anything really. But Sher guides him to a grace note that underlines the better angels of Higgins and why Eliza flourishes. Yes he berates her -- as he does others -- but who could take "you squashed cabbage leaf" to heart? Then on the night of her breakthrough, when the rain in Spain finally falls mainly on the plain, it's not the bullying that helps Eliza. The key to her trying just one more time is the way he brings her a cup of tea and speaks a few kind words, treating her with respect and showing faith that she can accomplish this task. And suddenly she does it!

That moment of intimacy speaks volumes, along with the way Lauren Ambrose soaks it up like a flower thirsty for rain. If there is a flaw in this perfect musical, it might be the lack of one more scene between them where he appreciates her more as an equal than a flourishing student. We are told after the fact that Higgins has come to depend on Eliza, but he makes it sound more like she's a useful employee rather than his true love. All night long we see Eliza come into her own; yet for Higgins, his emotional attachment to her is more implied, perhaps to a fault.

We never doubt the change in Eliza, thanks to Lauren Ambrose in her musical theater debut. For years we've been hearing that this excellent dramatic actress was poised to do a big musical. First they announced Funny Girl. Lauren Ambrose in the role that made Barbra Streisand a star forever? Really?? And then it fell through. Then it was Lauren Ambrose in My Fair Lady, the role that made Julie Andrews a star forever. Really?? For those of us who never heard her sing a note, all we could assume was that the woman sure as hell must be able to sing. And indeed she can. It's a lovely clear voice, if not a big brassy one. It's a lucky thing she started with this show rather than Funny Girl. Ambrose can sing nicely and act the hell out of a lyric, but she's not going to belt it to the back of the house a la Tyne Daly or Ethel Merman. My Fair Lady needs subtlety but Funny Girl? Not so much.

In a way, her vocal talent and neophyte status suit the part nicely. When Ambrose sails into a beautiful register, winning us over and expressing the yearning or anger or joy of the moment, you're rooting for her the same way you're rooting for Eliza. Performer and character coincide in a way they rarely do. In the future, she seems best suited for more thoughtful musicals a la Sondheim where her acting skills will be put to the best use. Unlike Audrey Hepburn in the film version, she wisely downplays the broad comedy of the early section (another reason Funny Girl wouldn't have been the best choice).

Some comic bits don't land, like the scene where Higgins and Pickering share a pastry and she can only stare at it wistfully. This might have as much to do with Sher as Ambrose. What she nails is the hunger and self-worth of Eliza, which is there all along from the flower stalls of Covent Garden to the gilded ballrooms of the upper crust. At the ball, Hepburn was all grace and perfection; you never saw her sweat. Ambrose neatly lets the audience into the terror of the moment so we can keep cheering her own. I can imagine her confidence and performance growing throughout the run; this is almost certainly a show you'll want to catch again before she leaves if you possibly can.

That would be a luxury, whereas with previous Sher productions (The Light In The Piazza, South Pacific, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Oslo and more) revisiting a show of his felt essential. It's a first class production, delivered with professionalism and skill and will surely be the most successful revival since the original blockbuster run. "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "The Rain In Spain" and "I Could Have Danced All Night" are all masterpieces and they're all here. You'll nod your head and think, yes, that's pretty much how they're done. Christopher Gattelli offers fine choreography and Ted Sperling conducts a lush 29 piece orchestra, an orchestra so big I may have lost count. Craft is evident in every detail but you never quite feel the ecstasy a great musical like My Fair Lady should generate or even a moment of surprise until right at the end. The pavement stays right beneath your feet from start to finish.

Perhaps my expectations were too high? But if Higgins can demand the best from everyone around him and Eliza can expect the best from herself, surely we can expect the best from this cast and creative team. They've blown away the suggestions of sexism. Perhaps it will take another production to blow away the dust.

NOTE: Lincoln Center produces The Lincoln Center Theater Review, a lovely magazine filled with articles about their current production. The current one is devoted to My Fair Lady and while the collector's program is always a treat, they've really outdone themselves this time. It includes interviews, essays on the history of the show, poems inspired by the Greek myth that gave Pygmalion its name, odes to the show by other musical theater talent, a New Yorker cartoon and more. It's all handsomely packaged with a gorgeous cover and a back page devoted to album art from the countless cast albums and recordings based on the show. if you're lucky enough to be in New York City, slip into the lobby at Lincoln Center, leave the modest suggested tip and snap up a copy fast.


THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2

Friday, May 04, 2018

THEATER: TENNESSEE WILLIAMS ON SIMMER WITH "SUMMER AND SMOKE"

SUMMER AND SMOKE ** 1/2 out of ****
CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY

Right after the towering, never-to-be-repeated success of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, playwright Tennessee Williams delivered a prequel of sorts with Summer and Smoke. It told the story of how a Blanche DuBois character might come to be.

Alma (Marin Ireland) is the daughter of a preacher who yearns for artistic refinement and a superior existence, not to mention the handsome but callow son of the doctor next door. Their friendship remains just that, from a childhood fancy to adult recriminations, with Alma unable to accept anything other than a "spiritual" bond while John (Nathan Darrow) enjoys more earthly pleasures with every other woman in sight. Needless to say, when Alma approaches spinsterhood and is finally ready to savor the sins of the flesh, John has reformed himself and pairs off with a pretty young thing. Heartbroken and bitter, Alma tosses herself at the first of what is sure to be a string of traveling salesmen. The clanging bell of that streetcar can almost be heard in the distance.

Summer And Smoke shows Williams beginning to reshuffle his obsessions -- damaged women, simmering desire, the stultifying mores of a small town and above all self-deception -- to less and less effect. The melodrama would be produced fitfully over the years, marking a notable artistic triumph for actress Geraldine Page but never really finding an audience. Williams overhauled it completely in 1962, retitling it with the precious name of The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale. No matter.

Classic Stage Company and Transport Group have staged this flawed work with admirable restraint. Anchored by two excellent performances, it avoids the magnolia-scented hysterics Williams can tempt actors with. By underplaying the tragedy, the pain cuts deeper and more realistically. So you can pinpoint both the symmetrical tidiness of the plotting and the more lurid details of the story, all thanks to the lucid direction of Jack Cummings III. They can't make Summer And Smoke a successful drama, but they do make this production an interesting one.

Photo ©2018 by Carol Rosegg


Classic Stage Company's space always brings out the best in set designers and that's true here for Dane Laffrey, who offers up a clean, well-lighted space with minimal props like a picture of a statue and an anatomy chart to indicate a park or doctor's office. The costumes by Kathryn Howe are also on point, not to mention the lighting (R. Lee Kennedy), sound design (Walter Trarbach, never intrusive) and effective original music by Michael John LaChiusa. It's a top-notch creative team all around.

Which makes it a shame that lesser roles are handled with less aplomb. I blame the script by Williams and director Cummings. Numerous lurid details litter the story and the less they're emphasized the better. Alma has a troubled mother and a dour minister father. But in one scene her mother (Barbara Walsh) seems like a woman-child, perhaps the sufferer of a stroke or special needs. In another, she's a truth-telling harridan, fully in command of her senses. So which is it? Walsh and T. Ryder Smith as the Rev. seem to flounder. The less said about the "exotic" lure of a Mexican temptress and her gangster father the better. But if those scenes couldn't be trimmed or cut somehow (like Williams I was immediately tempted to fix this show), Cummings might have encouraged a lower key from the actors trapped in those roles. Further, an unnecessary opening scene shows Alma and John as children and the show makes the fatal mistake of "playing" them as children, complete with exaggerated vocal performances. It's a misstep that takes a good scene or two for the production to recover from.

In contrast, Hannah Elless as Nellie and Tina Johnson (very amusing as a blunt townswoman) are both strong and Jonathan Spivey and Ryan Spahn are good in modest parts. Spivey underplays the sad sack nature of his also-ran love interest and Spahn underplays the potentially lecherous role of the salesman which is all to the best.

Still, that's a lot of problematic characters and performances that Cummings should have and could have focused better. The marvel is how -- despite all this and the essential flaws of the play -- that the two leads prove to be memorable. John Buchanan convinces as a scoundrel and ne'er do well, without ever exaggerating his prodigal son nature. He's lost but not forever, a bad boy but not really bad, not really. Yes, Alma wants to redeem him and he wants to wake her up, but you aren't forced into Greek tragedy by seeing them spar. Buchanan's charisma grounds the show as much as the heroine.

Somehow I've missed the acclaimed Ireland in all but a few stage productions. She's marvelous here. You can't tackle a Williams heroine without some eccentricity, but Ireland never tilts into the grotesque. You're always on the side of Alma -- even if she frustrates, you don't sit there thinking what on God's green earth could this man see in her? I'd hate to see Summer And Smoke with two lesser actors in these parts. And I'd hate not to see Ireland in whatever she does next. Her Alma is sinking slowly at the end. The salesman agrees to a trip to the local casino (a den of inequity if ever there was one) and Ireland flings up her arm in a game attempt at high spirits. Yes, it will become sad and sordid all too soon for Alma. But Ireland lets you feel the deluded romantic in her is still alive, still open to the possibility of magic, even in a hotel room, even if for just one night. And for a moment, Summer And Smoke conjures a little magic too.


THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

THEATER: "TRAVESTIES" IS NOT

TRAVESTIES *** 1/2 out of ****
ROUNDABOUT THEATRE COMPANY AT AMERICAN AIRLINES

Is Tom Stoppard a show-off? His plays are brainy and oh-so-clever and you feel you need to brush up on the topic at hand before the curtain rises or you'll be at sea. Indeed, the program handed out at his masterpiece Arcadia usually includes a helpful summary on the history of British gardens and the philosophical underpinnings of same. Some artists wear their hearts on their sleeve, but Stoppard brandishes his brains, they say!

Stuff and nonsense, I say. Go to the Roundabout's delightful, fizzy revival of Travesties, as you should. I promise, anyone with even a passing understanding of dialectical materialism, pre-Surrealistic art movements and amateur theatricals in Zurich during the war to end all wars will gobble it up.

Now you got that (modest) joke because it's crafted to allow you to enjoy it even if you don't know the topics at hand. Stoppard -- perhaps our greatest living playwright -- is quite a bit better than that. Travesties does indeed involve author James Joyce, Dadaist Tristan Tzara and the revolutionary Lenin along with the many ideas exploding in Europe during World War I. What of it? James Joyce is a towering figure in literature and Ulysses -- the book he is working on while trapped in Zurich -- is a modernist landmark. Does an awareness of Ulysses or Moby-dick now count as hopelessly sophisticated? Lenin for Pete's sake led a revolution that established a totalitarian state in Russia which dominated global politics for a century. Dada-ism is as close to obscure the show gets and even there the mere word Dada practically explains itself. Even 60 Minutes knows modern art can poke fun at the very idea of art, even if 60 Minutes never quite understood it wasn't in on the joke.

Beware of plays that pat you on the back and make you feel a little smarter or smugger for having attended them, the Yasmina Reza boulevard comedies of the world with their knowing middle class archness. They're the theatrical equivalent of James Michener novels or Tom Clancy thrillers, books you can consume and walk away from clutching a few stray details about the conquest of Alaska or nuclear submarines and consider them enlightening.

Go to Travesties knowing nothing about nothing (the way those of us not up on England's dynasties might have first approached a Shakespearean history play) and you'll have great fun. You'll see an old man grapple with his memory, proud intellectuals brought down a notch by their hubris, a strip tease, a romantic comedy of errors in which a passage from Ulysses is unintentionally switched with a diatribe from Lenin that causes quite a bit of confusion, a little song and dance, a lot of limericks, not nearly enough nudity and while you might not always know precisely what is going on you'll be mightily tickled. The true genius of Stoppard is that the play works for everyone but the more you know about any of the historical figures or the movements they inspired in writing and art and politics, the more dazzled you will be. Oh and it all riffs on the classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest to side-splitting effect and if you don't know what that is, well bugger off.



How good is this revival? Stoppard is one of my favorite playwrights and I've waited more than 40 years to see this Tony winning comedy and it met my expectations. To be honest, I read the play just before seeing it and as with Shakespeare, I recommend that for newcomers. Knowing the broad outlines of the story and the dialogue and the various references will allow you to relax and enjoy the shenanigans overseen by director Patrick Marber and his excellent cast.

The marvelous Tom Hollander stars as Henry Carr, who in real life did indeed star in an amateur theatrical production of The Importance Of Being Earnest in Zurich during the war, an event overseen by James Joyce of all people. They had a spat after the play's apparent success and Carr's triumph in the lead role (not Earnest, the other one). Carr sued Joyce, Joyce sued Carr and mostly won and then to rub salt in the wounds mocked Carr by making him a minor character in Ulysses, namely a drunken and obscene soldier. Of course Carr got the last laugh since Joyce's revenge made Carr immortal. And now Stoppard has done it again, making Carr the lead of another great work of art and in the process doubling down on the cleverness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Instead of making use of one masterpiece (Hamlet), here Stoppard makes hay of Ulysses, Earnest, Dadaism and some of Lenin's choicer phrases to boot.

The richly atmospheric set by Tim Hatley is a shambling, book-stuffed library/home with a rostrum or pulpit of sorts that allows various characters to intone with high drama when necessary, when they're not popping out of it to make a dramatic entrance. Out shambles Hollander, who merely stoops over to indicate the elderly Carr, a man aggrandizing his brush with fame whenever he can recall what he's talking about. Revolution is thick in the air in Zurich but much of the action takes place at the library, where Joyce dictates his masterpiece and Lenin refines his economic and political theories.

Tristan has already launched the nonsense revolution of Dadaism but he counts as a relatively minor character in the presence of those two giants. Carr loves the librarian who is helping Lenin. Tristan loves Carr's sister, who is helping Joyce. And they all butt heads as romantic and financial entanglements multiply. It's possible Carr might have prevented the Russian Revolution if he'd followed orders instead of following his heart. Or perhaps he has the dates all wrong.

Did I mention the limericks? Some scenes are written entirely in limericks; others turn dialogue into song and still others call for full-on chaos worthy of a musical. The director Marber has the entire cast focused on the hugely essential stakes because nothing is funnier than people who are deeply committed to a cause -- Tristan may swim across the floor, brandishing his hands like gills and zooming in on Carr while shouting out "Dada dada dada!" and it may be very, very funny but it's certainly not funny to him.

The entire creative team and cast is working at their peak here. Hatley also did the costumes and they're great, but everything is essential for this clockwork mechanism of a play to run smoothly, from the lighting of Neil Austin to the terrific sound design and original music of Adam Cork, which does the work of ten.

I didn't even recognize Dan Butler of Frasier for a while, who plays Lenin and he's fiercely funny here. Opal Alladin has very little to do as his wife but Scarlett Strallen as Gwendolen (the sister of Carr) and Sara Topham as Cecily the librarian have bigger parts and score nicely, especially in their duel over tea. Peter McDonald is good as Joyce but Patrick Kerr has the droll butler with revolutionary tendencies named Bennett to dig into and if I were McDonald I'd be a little jealous.

Yet the triumphs of the evening belong to Hollander and his co-star Seth Numrich. Hollander is one of those actors about which theater-goers automatically say "Oh, he's always good" for the very understandable reason that he's always good. But he's never been better than here in a role that demands razor wit and charm and bluster and fragility and strength. It's not a revelation because, you know, he's always good. Hollander deservedly earned a Tony nomination and if I were voting, he'd win (as would this revival).

And when you go to see Travesties you'll discover that the real travesty is that Seth Numrich was not nominated as well, for Best Supporting Actor. The star of War Horse on Broadway, Numrich has appeared in all sorts of theater and TV and film but never to such dazzling effect. Oh it's a pinwheel of a performance but that's exactly what this farcical play demands. Whether backing onto the stage with a slightly confused look on his face, speaking with an outrageous Hungarian accent (or is it Bulgarian?), cawing out "dada dada dada" like a bird, effortlessly switching from positively indignant to "hale fellow well met" in the blink of an eye or diving into song and dance, he is an ideal partner for Hollander, returning every shot with elan.

How easy it is to take Hollander for granted. How easy not to realize Numrich could do so much more than he's been asked up to now. And how easy to take for granted Roundabout. It's been more than 40 years since anyone revived the Tony winning play, despite a name brand author like Stoppard to sell it and yet who else would bother? And Travesties is hardly proving a commercial slam dunk even with the rave reviews it has earned. So thank goodness they did it right and how lucky for theatergoers: you can still get great tickets to the smartest, silliest show in town.


THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

THEATER: 'SAINT JOAN" LACKS FIRE

SAINT JOAN ** out of ****
MANHATTAN THEATRE CLUB AT SAMUEL J. FRIEDMAN THEATRE

The scenic design was one-note (if striking), the costumes were tragically wrong, the play was repetitive and odd and I couldn't make heads or tails out of the performance by the supremely talented actor Condola Rashad, who I would gladly follow into battle on any stage anywhere. Yet amidst all this wreckage somehow three or four performances remained compelling, Shaw's probing of the clash between earthly powerful and heavenly might was intriguing and it was all..interesting. Fatal words commercially, perhaps. But the Maid deserves honesty.

The story of Joan of Arc will be forever compelling, it seems. A young maiden -- inspired by the voices of heaven -- storms her way to the head of the French army, drives out the British, crowns the king...and is then handed off to the Church so she can be burned as a heretic. Truly, no one is more suspicious of miracles and heavenly intervention than the Church -- that's their job, after all. But Joan's story has proven multi-faceted with each generation of artists discovering a new angle to explore: war and peace, priests and peasants, nationalism and a higher calling, gender (of course), sexuality and so much more.

It all boils down to one essential question: is Joan visited by the voices of heaven, suffering some malady that might suggest such a thing to her, genuinely mad or just mad for power and glory and ready to use any story she can to achieve it? I'm not quite sure where playwright George Bernard Show or Saint Joan land on this question; this is my first time seeing it and I imagine one could approach it with any number of answers to that puzzle. (Indeed, Shaw made clear that to him it was a piece with no villains; everyone behaved in relative good faith.) With no real tension over the direction of the story -- we all know the witch will burn -- the drama over what to think of Joan is all we have. Here, I think, the drama is lacking.

Certainly Condola Rashad is a forceful Joan. She is alight with fervor and determination and soon talks her way into an audience with a man in power who can give her passage to the royal court. And that will lead to Joan breaking the siege of the British, crowning the King and then determines to free Paris. Everyone else has had enough of war and Paris might be too big a prize. They make clear if Joan is captured, no one will ransom her and that is precisely what happens.

It's fun to see Joan finagle her way to where she needs to be. Again and again, Rashad presents Joan as responding simply and clearly to any who question her faith. She's clever, certainly, but not "clever clever." You never get the sense the Maid is calculating. Those around her may suggest this or that complication but a belief in the voices and a trust in their judgment is all she needs. On the other hand, she's never naive or simple-minded, never seen glowing and head tilted towards heaven in rapture. This Joan is more likely to be keeping her eyes on the ground to maintain footing in the mud and blood of battle. It's all quite straightforward: Joan hears voices, she does as she's told and this leads to victory, usually. If she falters when brought face to face with burning at the stake, well who can blame her?

Photo ©2018 By Joan Marcus

With little drama in how to see Joan or her ultimate fate, all we have is this particular production, overseen by director Daniel Sullivan. It's certainly thorough, though I can't help wondering why we have a 20 minute discussion among the Church leaders gathered to try her...which leads into a questioning of Joan that covers the same territory. Clearly, Saint Joan might be trimmed in interesting ways to focus on earthly maneuvering for power or questions of religion. Here we get it all and it's exhausting.

The scenic design by Scott Pask is certainly striking -- it looks as if the entire play is taking place inside a gigantic pipe organ, with golden tubes arrayed across the back and sides of the stage. Along with a few modest props, like chairs or a bed, that's about it. At first visually arresting, it becomes perhaps monotonous. Far worse are the costumes by the Tony winner Jane Greenwood. Someone with as long and distinguished a career as hers must sometimes come a cropper and that she does here. For all I know the costumes are precisely accurate but who cares? They immediately appear like leftovers from a Monty Python sketch and the sense that everyone is wearing a costume never ends for a moment. The entire evening would be immediately (if not dramatically) improved if everyone simply wore anonymous black.

Despite all of this, certain actors made an impression. Rashad's choices didn't add up for me, especially in the crucial scene where Joan recants her claims of spiritual guidance when the prospect of burning at the stake becomes all too real. Is she simply prone to human weakness or suffering a crisis of faith or admitting it's all been a sham? I'm not sure what Rashad had in mind but she's too intelligent and winning an actor to lose me entirely. Whenever she's not on stage, we're waiting for her return.

Patrick Page's voice makes one immediately sit up but it's no surprise that the actor with the juiciest role -- the Inquisitor -- gets to have the most fun. John Glover has the stuffier role of the Archbishop of Rheims, though he manages to suggest a cagy willingness to let the political winds blow and bide his time without overdoing it. Adam Chanler-Berat (of Peter and the Starcatcher) can'[t help but be appealing, even playing the much bullied Dauphin. Still, a less scattershot play would have given him more focus. In contrast, Jack Davenport as the enjoyably wily Earl of Warwick and Daniel Sunjata as Joan's fellow soldier Dunois are so solid you realize this enervating production must be draining the life out of a much better play.

Saint Joan certainly works oddly here, with deeply serious theological debates followed by broad comedy followed by an almost meta post script in which Joan and other main characters crawl into bed with the Dauphin-now-King and discuss the late Maid's newly minted status as a Saint. A better take on it would make sense of all this. But a solid cast at least makes clear Joan of Arc is worth puzzling over and this play deserves doing. Again.



THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2


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Note: Michael Giltz is provided with free tickets to shows with the understanding that he will be writing a review. All productions are in New York City unless otherwise indicated.