Friday, April 20, 2018

THEATER: "SANCHO: AN ACT OF REMEMBRANCE"

SANCHO: AN ACT OF REMEMBRANCE ** 1/2 out of ****
THE CLASSICAL THEATRE OF HARLEM

On the silly and enjoyable NBC show Timeless, actor Paterson Joseph plays the owner of a company that built a time machine. But before that show debuted in 2016, Joseph had already constructed his own way of traveling through history: a one-man show about "the extraordinary Negro" Ignatius Sancho, the first Briton of African descent to cast a vote. Joseph has performed the piece all over the world (including BAM in December of 2015) and brings it back to New York for another run at the newly refurbished National Black Theatre on Fifth Avenue, home of the Classical Theatre Of Harlem.

Aptly subtitled "An Act Of Remembrance," Joseph's play about a little-known historical figure is typical of the genre -- it is gently informative, genially entertaining and offers only a modest dollop of drama. Happily, it has two key elements that allow Sancho to be worthy of your time rather than just worthy. Ignatius Sancho is a fascinating, quirky hero and Joseph is an exceptional actor who brings this man to life with the command and ease of a charismatic performer who has been showcased in London by the RSC, the National and was once the favorite to become the next Doctor. (Doctor who? If you have to ask....)

Joseph yearned to explore British history and find himself in it. Yet the very aspect of Sancho's life that made him intriguing to Joseph is perhaps what keeps the play earthbound. This life does not lack for excitement of a sort, but the journey from a child of enslaved people to a man of letters and ultimately a greengrocer who dies of gout is more curious than compelling.


(Photo © by Robert Day)

Thanks to Joseph's skill, the 80 minute work flits by with ease. We see Sancho born on a ship during the horrific era of the Middle Passage, bought as a pet for a household run by three stern women, escape into a world of letters and music, become the most prominent black Briton to speak out on the evils of slavery, befriend everyone from actor David Garrick to novelist Laurence Sterne and ultimately turn into a man of property who has earned the legal right to vote. (Even white men without property could not vote at the time.)

This mounting includes co-direction by Simon Godwin, minimal but effective sets by Michael Vale, unfussy costumes by Linda Haysman and a subtle sound design by Ben Park that adds atmosphere at key moments without calling attention to itself. It is no discredit to their efforts that Joseph is what one remembers.

A one-person show can become exhausting but, as writer, Joseph has wisely employed the usual devices to break up the evening. He begins by addressing the audience, sharing why he wrote this piece,  casually tucking his pants into leggings -- thus transforming before our eyes into a man from the 18th century -- and then explaining his choice of a modest lisp to portray his main character.

Joseph also smartly incorporates the work of others for flavor, such as the famous letters on slavery exchanged between Sancho and Sterne, a passage from that writer's hilarious masterpiece Tristram Shandy (a novel so meta and modern I wouldn't be the least surprised if Sterne was actually from the future himself) and an engaging chunk of Don Quixote. At one point Joseph even brings a woman out of the audience to dance with him, addressing her throughout the rest of the show to keep us alive to the moment.

If Sancho does not transcend its genre as a piece of writing the way Sancho transcended his time, one is happy to see it delivered by Joseph. The lisp, the mildly foppish manner reveal a man of social standing. But Joseph also shows the small boy abandoned by the world, the young man thirsting for knowledge and the adult who tempers his righteous anger with a keen intellect. Tilting his head, Joseph becomes the love of Sancho's life; dripping with disdain, he is the public official all too eager to deny Joseph his dignity and rights at the climactic election. If the handsome Joseph never quite suggests the jelly-like physique of the real Sancho, well, it would take a lot more padding than this production could afford.

Like me, you will be drawn to the historical exhibit in the lobby (and accessible to the public.) You will search out some of the letters and music penned by this richly talented artist, a clip of which I've embedded here.  And sadly, you will find parallels in today's world, where the poor, the elderly, women, college students and people of color face roadblocks to exercising their right to vote by a demand for this or that piece of paper which white adult men of means need not provide or can easily afford.

A typo in the program states the action of the play takes place from 1968 to 1980. They meant 1768 to 1780, but for a moment, I was brought up short. Surely black people had the vote in the UK before 1968? I knew this was true. But since black people were effectively denied the vote until right about that time in the former slave states of the US, it didn't seem so absurd and, briefly, I wondered. How sad. How telling. And thus how essential to share Sancho's story again and again until it is a permanent part of history rather than also a pointed commentary on today.






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

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 and features 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, April 16, 2018

THEATER: "MLIMA'S TALE" OF SHAME; "CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD"

MLIMA'S TALE ** 1/2 out of ****
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD ** 1/2 out of ****


MLIMA'S TALE ** 1/2 out of ****
PUBLIC THEATER

It begins so promisingly. A simple stark stage. An actor, posed in a contorted way that somehow suggests the Kenyan elephant the show is named after. Offstage but visible, the composer and musician Justin Hicks breathes arrestingly into a microphone, calling to mind the wind and a storm and the anguished cry of a beast in distress all at once. You sit up straight.

A gorgeous moon is in the sky and that actor --  Sahr Ngaujah of Fela! -- addresses us, sharing his plight as a magnificent, tusked creature hunted for his ivory, a noble character who stays away from his family to shield them from danger. "My distance is my weapon," he says with pride and sadness mingled.

Soon we move from the elephant to the hunters tracking him and waiting for Mlima to die from the poison they've used. And the hunters lead us to the corrupt chief of police who hired them and on to the public official in Kenya who wants to blame the death of Mlima on Somalis and on to the clerk at the port, the middleman, the artist hungry to carve those tusks and right on to the wealthy wife who wants a showpiece for the entrance to her new home. This La Ronde-style chain of provenance establishes the guilt of everyone involved in the slaughter of elephants -- however much they explain away their personal choices. Mlima lived a long life but he never stood a chance.

Ultimately, neither does the show. It has style and presence and runs a nimble 80 minutes: unlike Nottage's last play -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat -- it does not belabor its points. But they remain lecture points and the aura of an After-School Special is heavy. After a modest amount of nuance granted to the hunters (they are doing what they've always done for generations and quickly get screwed over by more powerful people), pretty much everyone else is guilty and uninterestingly so. They may not be moustache-twirling villains, but villains they are.

That's the problem with La Ronde itself and as a structure for a work of art. The entire point becomes merely carrying the story forward person by person, link by link. You can establish a character in just a few words but when they disappear after two scenes, it's hard to develop them or make the audience care. Ngaujah is always there as a ghost-like presence to stare balefully at one and all, but the other actors -- Kevin Mambo, a stand-out Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere -- merely slip in and out of characters as quickly as they slip in and out of their clothes.



(photo © by Joan Marcus)

Happily, Mlima's Tale has some strong stagecraft to maintain our interest. Director Jo Bonney keeps the show brisk, despite the monologues and Kenyan proverbs flashed onto the set that might have leant the evening a portentous air. Full credit to Riccardo Hernandez for some marvelous scenic design, memorable lighting by Lap Chi Chu and the sound design of Darron L. West working in concert with the excellent score by Hicks.

They support the exceptional Ngaujah, so you never doubt for a moment his regal stature as one of the last of the long-lived elephants and a national treasure for Kenya. When he poses on stage for the various people eying his tusks, the echo of the slave trade is fitting and affecting. That works because it's theatrical and unspoken. Most everything else is spelled out and underlined for our edification, though who will feel enlightened by learning some wealthy people spend obscene amounts of money to obtain illegal works of art and don't care about where they came from? Even the closest we have to a good human -- the warden tasked with protecting Mlima -- can be qualified as merely trying to protect his job or just not wanting to look impotent.

While succinct and never quite dull, thanks to the talent involved, Mlima's Tale is a dramatically static essay that offers no specific details about the ivory trade that will astonish anyone. I was far more engaged by Mlima's life, which we hear about mostly at the start. His mother calls him handsome but this is a warning, he tells us, for his beauty will make him more appealing to hunters. He fights with another elephant for so long that they become exhausted and have no choice but to be friends. He sneezes upon first sensing the acrid stench of humans. He pursued his love -- the elephant Mumbi -- for a week before she succumbed to his charms. And it is heart-rending to see that when Mlima is poisoned and tracked by hunters he must stay away from his family. He hopes they understand why. All of this comes in the first and most potent two scenes of the show. Here is the fresh and surprising story Nottage might have told, a character we've never seen before. If only this play had ended with Mlima's death, rather than begun with it.



CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD ** 1/2 out of ****
STUDIO 54/ROUNDABOUT THEATRE

What a confusing, fascinating and frustrating play you'll find in the revival of Mark Medoff's one major success, the 1979 Tony winner Children of A Lesser God. Somehow it manages to be both ahead of its time, sadly relevant and weirdly behind the times all at once. Medoff and Hesper Anderson adapted and improved on the play for the Oscar-winning feature film starring Marlee Matlin and William Hurt.

Both are about a young deaf woman who refuses on principle to talk vocally and the speech therapist she falls in love with. Yet this is the original play, replete with the debate in the Deaf community about how much to accommodate the hearing world, along with office and sexual politics that come across a lot more awkwardly than they must have in 1979. It's cumbersome, generally well-acted, saddled with a dreadful set design and I doubt any of this matters. Children Of A Lesser God is more than a "problem play," but it still has problems and always will. Happily, it also has two solid lead roles and an excellent Lauren Ridloff and a solid Joshua Jackson do well by their characters.

James (Jackson) is a passionate, unconventional teacher who gets great results working with deaf kids who are learning to speak. But Sarah (Ridloff) is older than his other students, a beautiful young woman. And she has no interest in learning to speak. She doesn't want to do anything she can't do well and since Sarah was born deaf, vocalizing will never be a strong suit for her. Besides, why should she have to learn to speak? Why can't hearing people learn to sign?

James is struck by her beauty, challenged by her politics and engaged by her wit. Instead of another dull classroom session, he invites her out to dinner and soon they are mixing business with pleasure. (Rather uncomfortably so, from our current perspective.) Soon James is offering Sarah a life she never really imagined as a wife and perhaps mother, with James as her personal interpreter to the hearing world.

Her friend Orin (a passionate John McGinty) wants to agitate for more Deaf teachers and other changes at the school (or is it an institution?) where they reside. Will Sarah forget her Deaf friends? Will James get in trouble with his boss Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards) for fraternizing with a student, even if she is 21 years old?  And deep down, is James always hoping and expecting he can convince Sarah to use her voice, to speak? And will that be a step forward for her...or a step back?

(photo © by Matthew Murphy)

It's very, very hard to "unpack" the issues of this play. (Dreadful word, that.) The debate in the Deaf community is sadly just as relevant today as it was almost 40 years ago. Precious little progress has been made with the Hearing community, though certain technological advances (the internet, subtitling) might count as practical if not cultural progress. On the plus side, the question of assimilation, of what one gives up to be accepted will always be universal for marginalized people. Yet the minute you try and see the insight the show can offer, other pressing issues come to the fore, like the fact that James is quickly seducing a young woman he's supposed to be teaching and thus has authority over. (She lives and works at the school as a maid).

Worse, another student seems much younger, but James lets her drink beer and be sexually suggestive without truly addressing her needs appropriately. His boss (Edwards) comes across vaguely when not being a jerk, though it's hard to know if he's just being blunt or intended as the nominal villain. So you focus on the romance, but then Sarah is enraptured by a blender like any good little housewife and feels reduced, along with women in general. Her story of the sex she had with numerous men when she was younger is hard to parse in this #MeToo era. Is it more sexually liberated (which is how it plays here -- Sarah owns her sexual pleasure) or is it abusive on the men's part?

And the biggest problem of all is that the whole damn thing takes place in the mind of James. He is reflecting back on the woman he loved and lost and hopes to get back. That's all fine and a simple black box would have served us well. Yet the dreadful scenic design by the deserved Tony winner Derek McLane is a disaster: for some reason, it's lit in moody blues and hot pink and looks like South Florida circa Miami Vice. Instead of a vague no-man's land, it feels like a suburban mall and is impossible to put out of your mind. Thus no one can just pop into James's office or home -- every character's entrance feels weighted with symbolism the way a naturalistic set or no set at all would not have done. The score by Branford Marsalis (a favorite artist of mine) is a modest plus but the pre-existing music that appears throughout -- from Stevie Wonder to Paul McCartney to classical pieces -- feels oddly random and lacking in impact. Surely in a show about sound and the lack thereof, any music that is played should have major import. Not so here.

Worse, we're constantly adjusting our expectations about issues the play is raising versus the issues it had no clue would arise with future audiences. What we want is to simply follow the romance but that can't happen. Medoff keeps getting in his own way by piling on the backstory. Sarah is estranged from her mother, while her father abandoned the family over his daughter's deafness. James has his own heavy tale, with a mother that committed suicide (!) and a father he hasn't spoken to in years. Surely falling in love and navigating a new relationship should be enough, without tossing in family woes, legal battles and so much more.

On the bright side, sign language is simply a beautiful, expressive language and it's a pleasure to experience it. I can't speak to Jackson's fluidity in ASL, but he convinces as a thoroughly decent guy, if not the compelling rebel suggested in the text. Ridloff holds us from start to finish with her expressive face, body and signing. They are reason enough to see a play that makes their characters seem more confused than Medoff intended.

McGinty is also memorable as the rabble rouser Orin, though Treshelle Edmond is fuzzier as the student Lydia. She comes across as so young (is she 12? 15? 18?) that it's hard to understand James's dealings with her as anything other than clueless and thoughtless. Actually everyone other than the leads and Orin are fuzzy, from the lawyer (a fine Julee Cerda) to Edwards in the thankless role of the administrator to Kecia Lewis, who has little to do as Sarah's mother but be hurt and angry. That is surely the weakness of a play that has so very much to say but not quite the skill to say it well.


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


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 and features 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.

Friday, April 13, 2018

THEATER: "MEAN GIRLS" PLAY NICE; O, HARRY CONNICK, WHERE IS THY "STING?"

MEAN GIRLS ** 1/2 out of ****
THE STING ** out of ****


MEAN GIRLS ** 1/2 out of ****
AUGUST WILSON THEATRE

In theater there are first nighters and second nighters. First nighters get to see a show right before it opens. Second nighters get to see a show right after it opens. One of the benefits of being a second nighter is that you hear the buzz -- you can either get pumped up for a great night or lower your expectations. That leaves you open to a happy surprise, which is certainly the case of Mean Girls. It's a three star production of a two star work and so I chose the friendly leaning two and a half stars out of four. I'll say this: sitting in the theater surrounded by a very happy audience that broke out in chatter during the break and applause at the end, I'd happily invest in Mean Girls right now. It's going to have a good run on Broadway, a successful tour and then mop up in community theater and high school productions for years to come.

The Tina Fey-penned film (based on a young adult novel by Rosalind Wiseman) is a kinder, sweeter Heathers. A new kid in school is adopted by the school's fierce queen bee Regina, turned into a star and then all hell breaks loose when she tries to claim the throne for herself. At the end, instead of the nihilistic nightmare of Heathers, we get some girl power and the message to be nice to others.

All of that translates easily to the stage in a musical that improves on the 2004 film on every level.  Some modest additions about social media (and not one but two Trump zingers) make clear our story is set today without belaboring the point. (Those two Trump jokes will date quickly but boy did the audience love them.) The Tina Fey role is wisely trimmed down. And with the young women all getting their solos, their characters are given a tad more complexity without straining too hard. And really, how much complexity do you want in a show about the new kid at school who tries to fit in? Not much, honestly.

All Cady wants to do is make friends. She grew up in Kenya surrounded by animals and home schooled by her scientist parents. Now Cady (an appealing Erika Henningsen) is exploring the hazardous terrain of high school in Chicago. (In one of the show's niftier gambits, characters break into animalistic rituals and screeches as if they're marking territory and the like.) She finds safe harbor with Janis and Damian (scene stealers Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson), who teach her to beware of Regina, the girl most likely to shred you with a vicious takedown or -- worse-- ignore you as not worth noticing. Regina's "friends" are the needy Gretchen (Ashley Park) and the dumb but not so mean Karen (Kate Rockwell) but really, she stands alone. Among the show's many painless but unmemorable numbers is the clunky tune "Apex Predator" in which Cady tags Regina as the most dangerous person around. With the help of Janis and Damian, she plans to take down Regina's dominance. But will Cady become a mean girl in the process, losing both her real friends and the dreamy boy Aaron (who -- duh -- dumped Regina because she was mean)? Of course she will! Followed quickly by the moral of the story and hugs all around, though not before a school bus kills someone dead. (No one dies, though they kind of do, actually.)



In other words, Mean Girls is thoroughly familiar territory done with enough energy to make you forget that for a while. In the thankless role of adults, Rick Younger is smoothly affable as the principal and Kerry Butler does yeoman's work as both the Tina Fey teacher and two parents (notably the dippy Mrs. George). Taylor Louderman has a blast with her Shirley Bassey-circa Bond theme song numbers and a drawling delivery. But really, everyone scores nicely, from Park's desperate need to be liked to Rockwell's lovely timing as the dippy  Karen down to Selig making something out of the nothing role of boyfriend-to-be Aaron and Cheech Manohar having over-the-top fun as mathlete and rapper Kevin Gnapoor. (And props to his parents for the name Cheech!) Toss in an ensemble so cute and sharp in their dancing you'd gladly take them to prom and you can see why a show with a poor score manages to be such fun. At the center of it all is Hennginsen as Cady -- like Fey on 30 Rock, she's the straight person surrounded by a carnival of clowns. That's no easy task.

While the melodies of Jeff Richmond are awkward, the lyrics of Nell Benjamin are at best workmanlike. Its' hard to judge anyone as a singer on this show since few of the songs give them a melody worth delivering. So this is the rare musical whose book is superior to the songs -- and good enough to make you not care.

Give Fey the Most Improved award. You can also credit the nimble direction and choreography of Casey Nicholaw, who earns the school's Most Talented by taking not-bad songs like "Where Do You Belong?" "Stop" and "Whose House Is This?" (the show's best three, by far) and turning them into rousing successes with great staging and clever touches like the Busby Berkeley-like use of lunch trays. And amidst a strong ensemble, Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Hanson deserve Class Clown awards for their thoroughly winning hijacking of the entire night.

And a special nod to scenic designer Scott Pask and video design team Finn Ross and Adam Young. Broadway has been embracing digital projection to set scenes for a number of years now. And the technology has caught up with their needs. In the past, digital displays simply looked like a cheap way to cut corners. No more. From a brick-lined school hallway to a bathroom to a classroom to the wilds of Kenya, the sharp and utterly convincing backdrops allowed for cinematic scene changes with a minimum of props like a few rolling desks or some bathroom stalls. In the future, when a show decides to build an old-fashioned practical set, it will be a choice rather than a necessity. And video displays won't be a cheesy alternative but a tool for the artists working on the show to make wise use of -- exactly as they do here.

Sure, it's a Broadway show and you want to have fun. (Anyone who thinks critics show up ready to throw darts has never gone to the theater three times a week every week. We really, really want a show to work.) And when your expectations are a little lowered, it's easier to be pleasantly surprised. So Mean Girls is by no means a great or even especially good show. Seeing it at your kid's high school a few years from now will probably be a chore. But with this talented cast and director Nicholaw energizing the evening, who would want to be a mean girl and put it down?


THE STING ** out of ****
PAPER MILL PLAYHOUSE

After five years in development, the creative team behind The Sting got two things emphatically right. First, they hired Harry Connick Jr for this musical adaptation of the classic Robert Redford/Paul Newman flick about con artists and they made damn sure he played the piano and charmed the crowd whenever possible. Second, they didn't keep Scott Joplin at arm's length -- there's no tepid nod to ragtime and his signature tune "The Entertainer." They introduce it right at the start and Joplin songs are scattered throughout. Unfortunately, Harry Connick Jr. on the piano remains the high point of the show (rather than a pleasing bonus as in The Pajama Game) and Joplin's music is so melodically strong it leaves the original score in the dust. There's not enough Joplin to lift the evening and just enough Joplin to make you miss him when it's gone.

Since a musical version of Ghostbusters is probably right around the corner, no idea is too wacky. But unlike most movie to Broadway adaptations, a musical version of The Sting makes sense. You've got the period setting, lots of colorful characters, a rock-solid script and the music of ragtime to play with.  Paper Mill has been a launching pad for Broadway hopefuls and while a first class production can send something like Newsies right into the Tony mix, it can also expose a show's many flaws. Give the top-notch talent involved, no excuses can be made for a show that wouldn't con even a tourist into thinking they're having a good time. (The audience was notably tepid.)

Have you seen the Oscar-winning film, one of the most popular movies of all time? If not, here's the set-up. Some small time con artists get "lucky" and scam a guy out of his wallet. Turns out the guy is making a delivery for the feared crime boss Doyle Lonnegan and their luck is all bad. In the blink of an eye, the elderly Luther (a charming Kevyn Morrow) is dead and the kid Johnny Hooker (J. Harrison Ghee) has fled for his life. He ends up in Chicago, searching for the one man Luther said was as talented as Hooker at the con. That's Henry Gondorff (Harry Connick Jr.), a washed up alcoholic playing piano in a brothel.

Hooker pours a pitcher of water on Henry, Henry barks at the "kid" that he's got a lot to learn and a bromance is born. With the sexy and capable aid of Billie (Kate Shindle) -- a woman who is Henry's sometime lover and full-time equal in scams -- they gather an all-star team of shysters and swindlers to pull off the "long con," fleece Doyle but good and get sweet revenge for Luther.

Henry poses as an obnoxious gambler who transparently cheats the cheating Doyle at a private poker game. Then Hooker plays the disgruntled underling who gives Doyle a chance to ruin Henry by placing a bet on the horses at Henry's (fake) gambling den. Doyle test drives the plan, enjoys humiliating Henry with his winnings and then goes all in with a massive $500,000 bet. With crooked cops and a straight arrow FBI team closing in and Doyle the epitome of a sore loser, how will they pull it off? In a sting, only the scammers get the pleasure of knowing how it's done. But in The Sting the fun for the audience is learning how they've been fleeced as well.

The con men and women are not the only ones gambling here. The Sting is also the story of its creators. Book writer Bob Martin enjoyed a rousing Broadway debut with The Drowsy Chaperone, followed only by the shoulder-shrug of a holiday offering Elf. Most of the music and lyrics are by the team of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, who themselves enjoyed a remarkable Broadway debut with the musical Urinetown, which famously progressed from a stag party sketch to fringe fest success to Tony-winning triumph. Like any gambler, once you get a taste of the big score, you want nothing more than to do it again (and again) and this property is the sleekest bid yet for these artists.

They're surrounded by blue chip properties: director John Rando, choreographer Warren Carlyle, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, costume designer Paul Tazewell and on down the line can all boast impressive credits. But you can have all the chips in the world. If the cards you draw are duds, you're not going to win.



The problems start at the very beginning. As in the film, it begins with a con. But unlike the film, the show prefaces that with Luther as a sort of narrator, telling us we're about to see a show about con artists and not to trust what we see. Then we're walked through the con they're about to pull, then they fleece the guy -- all done in such a laborious "here comes the switch" manner that the fun is drained out of it. You want to be scammed and then realize it was a trick, not have the trick explained to you at length in advance.

(I have not seen the film in many years, even though it's my favorite from 1973. I preferred to give the stage version the best shot possible by not rewatching the film. If I get any details wrong, then I'd suggest that even if the film did spell out this con in advance, it was able to do so quickly and deftly. On stage, it has to be drawn out so thew punters in the back can track what is happening and the fun is spoiled.)

The problems mount. Choreographer Warren Carlyle emphasizes tap, which somehow is perfect for con artists. Maybe it's because we get so hypnotized by their feet we have the sneaking suspicion they could lift our wallets at the same time and we'd never notice? Whatever the reason, that rhythmic style feels right. But one gets the impression most of the actors are dancers first and singers second. Not that I'd make much of a judgement on anyone singing the songs here. A few have the right lyrical idea, such as "Don't Treat Your Friends Like Marks" and the cleverly done act one closer "The First Race," which allows numerous betters to pepper the song with their cheers for a certain horse while Christopher Gurr has a blast delivering the sports announcer commentary. That's the show's modest high point, along with "The Card Game," with Connick Jr. having a grand old time infuriating the gangster with his boorish manner.  Everything else from "The Thrill Of The Con" to Billie's torch song "Sometimes" feels rote and interchangeable.

And while tap is surely the right style for The Sting, it's perhaps not ideal for staging chase scenes. Too many scenes involve people tapping this way and that across the stage, fine if you're staging a lark like On The Town but deadly if you're looking to create any suspense. A scene where Hooker is on a staircase trying to outrun some bad guys is especially ludicrous -- they face each other and tap up a step and down a step and you can't imagine what anyone was thinking. (Another poor choice is attempting to duplicate scenes of a mysterious assassin hunting down Hooker. That person in the movie is usually off camera. On stage, they stand around waving a gun and it just doesn't work.)

The sets of Boritt are serviceable though it wavers between the full-on realism of the casino and the more suggestive style of other scenes. (And why are the paintings on display in Lonnegan's home and elsewhere so blurry?) In another example of poor staging by director John Rando, we have six or so doors to suggest the hallway of an apartment building. One would have been plenty and when that scene is over they sort of slide over to one part of the stage, waiting for a chance to be dragged off. And why are they there? So a neighbor can spot Hooker and a waitress he's fallen for having a tryst. But since the next scene dismisses the crucial importance of that neighbor (a plot point from the movie), they never needed her or the other five doors in the first place.

These minor faults of the book can't hold a candle to the major missed opportunity. The film starred Redford and Newman in a re-teaming of their work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (Those two men had so much chemistry they should have followed up The Sting with Brokeback Mountain.) Yet the original screenplay by David S. Ward conceived of the younger man Hooker as black. This version jumped on that idea and cast Ghee alongside Connick. Brilliant! You can immediately introduce the blues and all other sorts of musical colors and rethinking that character gives the show a great chance to see this story anew.

The story is set in1936 during the Great Depression and a white man and a black man teaming up to defraud a gangster and some crooked cops immediately becomes more interesting if one of them is black. But other than a few throw-away lines by Lonnegan and that crooked cop (played by Robert Wuhl, who has little to do but glower) the show makes absolutely nothing of this. That might be admirable if it weren't such a wasted opportunity. Hooker's pushy manner with Lonnegan works in the movie because Paul Newman has such a twinkle in his eye even Lonnegan (played by Robert Shaw) can't help admiring his chutzpah. That would hardly be the case if it were a black man eating off his plate, a moment which is just ridiculous here. Imagine Hooker using his race to con Lonnegan: Hooker's bristling anger towards his boss could be more easily understood (though a chance for Connick to demean him racially is ignored) and Lonnegan's own prejudice would make it impossible for him to consider Hooker might be conning him. So much might have been done with this decision but book writer Martin doesn't even try.

What they do instead is bring Luther back from the dead. Morrow is immediately appealing in his opening scenes. Yet the show has no narrator and once he's dead, he's dead. In a too-long act two, however, Hooker blithely says he wishes Luther could have seen the trick he just pulled off...and lo and behold, there is Hooker for a very unnecessary musical break when what we want to do is tighten the screws and let the long con take its course.

And that brings us to the casting. Despite the thin material, some of the supporting talent bring humanity and depth to parts that otherwise lack it, including Shindle as Billie, Janet Dacal as the waitress Loretta, Gurr as Singleton and Morrow. Others with more to do can't paper over the show's deficiencies, such as Tom Hewitt as the entirely unthreatening Lonnegan, Wuhl as the crooked cop and Peter Benson as the nervous Erie Kid, a part better left out entirely. Connick is certainly up to the role of Henry and does a lot of heavy lifting to make the evening bearable. Musicals move fast but this one does such a poor job of spelling out the characters anyone who hasn't seen the movie will probably be wondering why Henry and everyone is so eager to take part in this con and be surprised when we're told Henry and Hooker have become friends. (They have.)

But the biggest problem is Ghee, who has huge shoes to fill when it comes to Paul Newman in his wily prime and doesn't come close. As Hooker he offers nothing -- no danger, no anger, no humor, no charm. It's a shock to see he played the flamboyant Lola in Kinky Boots on the road, given how tamped down he is here, so I will adamantly stick to my rule of not judging people's talent based on their appearance in a poor show. The more stage time people have, the less they shine (except for hard-working Harry) and that surely is the fault of The Sting, not the artists.

It's a dispiriting evening towards the end. Could they rescue this project? Would recasting, a little cutting and maybe another number turn it around? No, I don't think so; not even close. Gamblers know when you've tossed in a lot of chips, the hardest thing in the world to do is to fold...and that's when suckers really lose their shirts. Sometimes you just have to walk away from the game.


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

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 and features 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.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

THEATER: WRESTLING WITH "ANGELS IN AMERICA"

ANGELS IN AMERICA ** 1/2 out of ****
NEIL SIMON THEATRE

Is Angels In America a great play? The question is almost absurd. It's clearly a landmark work of theater. It's unquestionably a good play. If you traveled back in time and asked me the same question when I exited the theater after seeing Part 1 on Broadway in 1993 I would have laughed: the entire production and certainly the exhilaration of Part 1 remains one of the most thrilling nights of theater in my life. No one questioned the play's greatness; that wasn't allowed. I just knew that decades from now, this show would be revived and performed again and again. Indeed, here we are on Broadway 25 years later. I've no doubt it will be back in 2043.

And yet, after two problematic revivals (the fine Signature revival Off Broadway and this more problem-plagued revival on Broadway), I am starting to wonder. It's a pity I didn't get to see the Ivo Van Hove production at BAM. But I'm left with what I have seen and I'm worrying over whether a play that looms so large in my imagination has stood the test of time. Maybe it's a simple case of nothing being able to match my memory.

If you saw Marlon Brando directed by Elia Kazan in the Broadway debut of A Streetcar Named Desire, could any subsequent production do anything but pale in comparison? The impact of Angels In America in that brilliant original version helmed by George C. Wolfe and let by a peerless cast ranks right up there. (And dear god, was that stage teeming with characters really performed by just eight people?)

On the other hand, a great play should reveal new facets, new depths with a good revival. Every time I see an August Wilson play, I become ever more convinced of his towering achievement. The same has not happened with Angels in America. 

For the moment, I'm going to blame the productions, not the play. The big sweeping moments -- the undeniable ambition and desire of playwright Tony Kushner to sweep up history and communism and religion and family and sexuality and the plague of AIDS and decades of American history and so much more in his all-encompassing work -- feels less crucial now. Not dated, just not as involving. Today, it's the human moments and not the spectacle, the sympathy and not the didactic speeches that touch me. "It's not you, it's me," I want to say, though usually when we say this we're being polite and it's really you.



Ok, enough with the nonsense, the dithering. Here is the good news. The theater is packed, the audience is notably young for Broadway and a punch line about President Reagan doesn't just get laughs, it gets applause. Simply seeing Angels In America in that atmosphere is fun -- if you've never seen it before, by all means do what you can to see this before it's gone. Certainly my strong reservations about this particular production and more modest concerns about the play in general are by far the minority (if not a minority of one).

Denise Gough has improved since London (maybe after nailing down her American accent enough to focus on her performance?), James McArdle takes the undeniably tricky role of Louis Ironson (the man who abandons his lover when AIDS rears its ugly head) and pulls it off, Lee Pace is an appealing addition as a closeted Mormon disciple of Roy Cohn, Susan Brown is a little soft as Hannah Pitt but redeems herself as Ethel Rosenberg and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett finds a subtler angle on the nurse Belize. I don't think anyone will ever pull off the odd mannered speech of the Angels ("I...I...I...I...I really don't") but Amanda Lawrence creates a distinctive spin on the part. The other Nathan -- Nathan Lane -- I assumed would be chewing up the scenery a la Ron Leibman. But he's too good an actor for that: Lane finds a quieter, more human Roy Cohn, still funny and still ferocious but less of a broad brush-stroke villain. It's terrific work (of course) and you should see this Angels In America for Nathan Lane's performance alone, but that's true of Nathan Lane in almost anything ever.

Here is the bad news: Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. He's a very good actor I've admired on stage and screen. Here Garfield makes a conscious choice about how to play the central role of the piece and for me it just doesn't work. I adamantly do not believe only gay actors should play gay roles, but I can't think of a better way to describe what he's doing than to say Garfield is playing gay while Stephen Spinella in the original production simply was gay. Oh he wasn't playing himself or just being gay. Spinella was playing a specific character and that character both toyed with and subverted and celebrated gay stereotypes in a high-wire act that took your breath away.

Garfield lacks nuance and melody by starting each scene emotionally at 11 and then turning it up higher. He's made a bold choice and sticks grimly to it throughout the night; it's just the wrong choice. I'd say much the same about numerous other passages in a show directed by Marianne Elliott. Some of the fights between Joe and Harper Pitt or Joe and Louis or Harper and Joe's mother and most anything with Prior Walter -- it plays at one pitch and one pitch alone and it's a very high pitch. Rarely have I wanted to give notes to so many actors to modulate, to find some quiet place and build a scene rather than begin at the peak. Only Nathan Lane in a role that was famously broad and big and huuuuge from start to finish crafts his scenes with care so they can actually go somewhere.

Other more fundamental problems exist. The scenic design by Ian MacNeil -- especially in Part 1 -- is simply disastrous. Three different revolving sets appear on stage in a row, vaguely indicating settings like hospital room or office or home. The problem is that they are ugly, utilitarian and hard to tell apart. When one set revolves to indicate we are now outside that setting, you can barely tell the difference. They dominate the entire first half until with a flourish we get a hint of more elaborate sets to come in part two. Those are more open, more theatrical (a hospital room might include a bed and some neon lights to indicate the walls surrounding it) but they're unprepossessing on their own. The contrast between part one and two offers no particular reward visually. The sense of the stage opening up is modest and amounts to very little when all is said and done. And the music by Adrian Sutton is so jarring, so intrusive and grandly self-important that it feels like a joke. After hearing it for two nights I am astonished they didn't just remove it entirely. (Sutton has done excellent work on War Horse and The Curious Incident... and other shows. I can only assume he was giving Elliott precisely what she wanted.)

The Angel is augmented with puppeteers for her movement and wings -- I do love puppetry so while this gambit isn't a problem as such, I wish I liked it more. More positively, the Angel Shadows are the cast members clad in a mottled sort of costume who serve as puppeteers and move pieces of the set on and off the stage. They scuttle on and slither off in a creepy sort of way that adds an unsettling undercurrent to Part Two that at least adds interest where so little else of Elliott's choices do.

And yet...and yet. Every time I wanted to dismiss some aspect of the play or its structure or the themes it ambitiously tackled, damned if I wasn't drawn in again by a scene, a character, a splash of bitter humor. I sat there for eight hours and was never bored for a second. I was provoked or angered or moved or pricked or ready to argue, but I was never bored. That alone speaks to the achievement of Kushner.

Even after seeing it three times and reading the text, I can be surprised by what's in it. The show has an admirable empathy for all its characters -- including the electric scene in which Roy Cohn dies and others recite the Kaddish while stealing his bootleg supply of AZT. And yet, I'd forgotten that every character is accounted for and embraced by the end in one way or another...except the poor conflicted, once closeted Joe Pitt. Was there no room for him to find peace or at least be blessed in his confused journey towards self-discovery or self-destruction?

So I want to wrestle with Angels, just as Jacob wrestled with the angel. I want to argue and talk back and applaud and kvetch. And just when I think I've got the angel pinned down (ok, maybe this play isn't dated so much as "of its time") then it slips out of my grasp and surprises me again. Jacob had only one night while I needed two, but even that doesn't seem enough for a work that still confounds and challenges me. When 2043 rolls around, I'll be ready for a rematch.



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

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 and features 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.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

THEATER: INVITING "LOBBY," COLD "FROZEN," OFF-KEY "ROCKTOPIA"

LOBBY HERO *** out of ****
FROZEN **
ROCKTOPIA *


LOBBY HERO *** out of ****
2ECOND STAGE AT THE HELEN HAYES THEATER

Kenneth Lonergan is a good playwright. His plays are shaggy and shambling and perhaps as flawed in modest ways as their characters. But they're alive -- plays like This Is Our Youth and Hold On To Me Darling and Lobby Hero and the rest are funny and engaging and bristling with the tension of everyday life.

In Lobby Hero, Jeff (Michael Cera) works in the lobby of a New York City apartment building. His boss William (Brian Tyree Henry) swings by each night to chat and check up on Jeff, encouraging the military washout to make something of his life. Jeff can't think much further than the end of his shift, but he is attracted to the pint-sized rookie cop Dawn (Bel Powley). She's partnered with the dickish veteran Bill (Chris Evans) who forces her to linger in the lobby while he dallies with the lady in 22-J.

With almost no fuss, Lonergan creates a compelling drama. William confides that his loser brother needs an alibi for a horrific crime the cops are pinning on him. A principled man, William hates lying but knows his brother is the perfect fall guy. And he's almost certain his brother had nothing to do with it. Almost. Dawn is trapped by an altercation with a drunk that led to the man's hospitalization. She needs the favorable testimony of Bill for the inquiry to follow...and Bill wants her to return the favor with favors. And Jeff? Well, Jeff has to decide if telling the truth is the right thing to do or just an easy way to win over Dawn.

2econd Stage was built on taking a second look at plays and this is a more satisfying revival than the Tony-nominated production of This Is Our Youth from 2015. I was lucky enough to see the original production of Lobby Hero, featuring a memorably quirky Glenn Fitzgerald Off Broadway. Here it is again, on Broadway this time, with Cera as a slightly more sad sack version of the same lonely lobby attendant.



The play is as delightful as I remember, offering up four colorful roles, lots of humor and proving a little more elegant in its construction than I recalled. (Everyone lies in ways large and small -- especially to themselves -- but Lonergan doesn't make a big deal of this.) Is it revealed as a masterpiece? No, but any show with four roles that can give four actors the chance to dig into parts as satisfying as these deserves to be revived again and again. David Rockwell's deceptively simple set design includes an open-air assemblage of walls and doors that allows the show to switch easily from inside to outside without calling attention to itself -- it's a set that admirably keeps the cast front and center from start to finish. That cast is ably led by the naturalistic direction of Trip Cullman, doing some of his best work.

Chris Evans is the headline here, making his Broadway debut. He has star power on film, from Captain America: Winter Soldier (the best of the recent Marvel movies) to Snowpiercer and other more offbeat projects. But can he conquer the stage? Easily. I don't know who to credit for his haircut and mustache but they alone makes you understand this is not a guy to trust. Yet it's not just his outward appearance that convinces -- that's not enough on stage, any more than a dashing figure means you can pull off a stalwart if conflicted hero on film. Evans convinces completely, making the whipsaw changes in this self-regarding, self-justifying cop very amusing and a little scary. It's one of the show's sneaky triumphs that we accept the contradictory Bill, who can be selfish and selfless in almost the same breath.

Yet, he's just part of the story. Brian Tyree Henry is exceptional as the no-nonsense William. His slow-burn over Jeff's nonsense, his anguish over his brother and his desire to stay true to his code without ignoring the realities of the world around him are a treat to behold. That's no surprise to anyone who has seen him in shows like The Brother/Sister Plays or Fortress Of Solitude and it's even less of a surprise to see his growing and impressive credits on film and TV.

Michael Cera proves his strong turn in This Is Our Youth was no fluke either. A very winning and quirky presence on film and TV, Cera is just as quietly charming on stage, from his dead-pan humor to his yearning for a little human sympathy.

But it's Bel Powley I'll remember most. She is sensational in the film The Diary of A Teenage Girl and back in 2011 she made a lovely Broadway debut in a sterling revival of Arcadia. Now here she is, so tiny and pugnacious and vulnerable and sweet and just a little too loud as the rookie Dawn.

Powley's eyes are racoon-sized as she swivels from hurt to anger to tender appreciation, ping-ponged this way and that by the mercurial untrustworthiness of a cop she desperately needs to believe in. Barking out some lines, mumbling others, painfully obvious as she tries to tamp down her pain or confusion -- Powley does it all here with terrific stage presence, great control of her voice and fully mining the inevitable moment when Dawn unleashes her anger.

And that's why you revive such a solid play by Lonergan. It doesn't suddenly reveal itself as a Major Work Of Drama, but it has riches that good actors can mine again and again. I'm not sure why Lonergan is a good playwright but a great filmmaker. After all, his strength is with words and characters, not visuals.  But I'd hate to lose him in either field and this impeccable revival is all the explanation you need.


FROZEN **
ST. JAMES THEATRE

Disney has a remarkable track record on Broadway. They've opened seven shows and five of them have been smash hits. Those five have been nominated for Best Musical, with The Lion King winning the top prize. And though they sometimes get it right, Disney has also proven willing to tinker and tinker again until they make a show better. Newsies was an experiment that leaped directly to Broadway. But The Hunchback Of Notre Dame has proven a harder nut to crack, getting mounted again and again all over the world but never getting the green-light for that final test. Aladdin needed two times at bat in regional theaters before they nailed it. And though The Little Mermaid has already come and gone on Broadway, they're still trying to make it work. (God knows the score needs no help -- it's terrific.) Now comes their eighth show -- and Frozen looks set to run for at least two years on the momentum of the film alone.

Better than anyone, Disney knows that theater doesn't have a formula. A great film like Tarzan or The Little Mermaid can prove very difficult to transfer to the stage. Sometimes being faithful pays off  for fans if not critics (Beauty and the Beast); sometimes a show can improve on a film (Newsies) and sometimes it has to go in an entirely new direction (Aladdin). Look at their work in theater and one thing is clear: Disney will take chances, Disney will tinker and Disney can be bold.

Unfortunately, none of that applies to Frozen. Perhaps the film was so successful they figured, why fix what ain't broke? Out of town, they reportedly considered a darker take on the story of two sisters who are separated by magic and misunderstanding. That's gone and what remains is a dutiful adaptation, with the same modest book, new songs weakening an already thin batch of tunes and the expensive yet somehow underwhelming sets recreating moments from the film rather than reimagining them. The story is by Jennifer Lee, who also wrote and co-directed the animated film. And the professional if not passionate direction is by Michael Grandage. Frozen will surely prove the first stop for parents with little girls who have already seen Wicked (and even those who haven't).  It won't get the cold shoulder from initial audiences but one doubts repeat business or word of mouth will be nearly as strong as expected.



Refreshingly, the princesses are front and center in Frozen and neither the main storyline nor the climactic action depend on guys: Frozen is girl power from beginning to end. Princess Elsa's power is a magical sort she can barely control. And when a spell gone awry almost kills her beloved younger sister Anna, the king and queen urge their gifted daughter to keep her powers tamped down. They lock her away from her sister, close the doors to the castle and hope for the best. But everyone knows your true nature can't be denied. When the parents die at sea, Elsa becomes the new ruler of their kingdom and unintentionally creates havoc with her icy skills: their land is plunged into an endless winter while Elsa flees to a mountain hide-away. Anna rushes after to save her, helped along by a magical snowman and a friendly guide. Oh, and they sing "Let It Go."

As with the film, the first 20 or so minutes of the show are the strongest. Two little girls play together late at night, with Elsa innocently urged on by Anna to display her powers. Near-tragedy is averted, Elsa is shut away and before you know it she's getting crowned Queen and Anna is meeting a really cute prince from the Southern Isles. The action here is elevated by the two best songs: the adorable "Do You Want To Build A Snowman?" and the blossoming romance number "Love Is An Open Door." The latter is head and shoulders above the rest of the songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert. In it, the goofily endearing Anna and the goofily endearing Prince Hans finish each other's sentences, top one another via a melody that continually ups the ante with key changes and otherwise captures people falling in love with the economy and precision of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

But it's fairly downhill from there, despite a game cast. The many problems of the film's book remain: the villain of the piece is a last-minute reveal that feels like a cheat. And this production reduces the role of the secondary villain (Robert Creighton), making Anna's mockery of his height seem petty and frankly out of place in a show that celebrates difference. (And his last-minute reversal to non-villain seems equally abrupt and unsatisfying.)

This adaptation might have easily revealed the villain sooner or at least made Hans more complex. And its weird fear of Elsa needed real fixing. Her mother is clearly the source of Elsa's magic. And they call on the Hidden Folk for help when that sorcery goes awry. So why exactly don't they ask for help in training Elsa to control it? At the very least, it would have been nice to try. Instead we have a timidly faithful reproduction of a flawed film.

That leaves the stage magic. One hoped there at least Frozen would shine. Instead the scenic and costume designs by Christopher Oram mostly disappoint. The costumes are fine (though I kept expecting the villagers to burst into songs from The Sound Of Music) and Elsa's quick-change when she bursts out of her shell garners cheers. But the real castle, the ice castle and the icy barriers that spring up during action scenes are thoroughly disappointing. Poor Elsa waves her hands around...and video projections dimly suggest the proscenium of the stage being iced over. At the climax those video projections...extend a few feet into the auditorium. The stakes on Broadway have been raised too high for that. You expect to be in a wintry wonderland the moment you step into the theater and that just doesn't happen.

Worst of all, the magical Hidden Folk are poorly conceived and executed on every level: they look like "primitive" cavemen and women, except for the tails that feel added on to suggest they're creatures rather than humans. Their leader has washboard abs, their hair is vaguely Rastafarian and it all seems more Clan of the Cave Bear than the (also poorly conceived) rock creatures of the film.

On the bright side, the cast is solid and makes the most of what they're given. The young Elsa and Anna along with the King and Queen score warmly. In much bigger roles, both John Riddle and Jelani Alladin are appealing as Hans and Kristof, competitors for Anna's heart. Kevin Del Aguila has fun with the most welcome addition to the score: the second act opener "Hygge." It doesn't quite land as the show stopper you want (body stockings for the playfully almost-nude chorus line are weirdly distracting) but it's a breath of fresh air anyway. And the show's decisions on how to portray the reindeer Sven (Andrew Pirozzi, who hopefully has a world-class chiropractor) and the snowman Olaf (Greg Hildreth) are spot-on. Sven is just a guy in a costume, but it works very well. And having Hildreth manipulate the puppet Olaf in full view is ideal. Even better, he captures the whimsy of Josh Gad's vocal performance without going as over-the-top. It's true in spirit, but Hildreth manages to put his own spin on the film's best element.

As the two sisters, our leads also do their best. Caissie Levy has the far less fun role of the tortured Elsa, though she does get to belt out that iron-plated hit "Let It Go" with iron lungs at the end of act one. But Patti Murin has the much better part of Anna and scores very nicely. Even though I caught her on an off night vocally (she had to cancel a performance due to bronchitis soon after), Murin was quite winning. Truly, there's nothing wrong with any performance or any element of this live action version of Frozen. There's just nothing terribly right about it either. Magic can be dangerous, but boy do you miss it when it's not there.


ROCKTOPIA *
THE BROADWAY THEATRE

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I thought Rocktopia was just "classic rock songs backed by a full-ish orchestra," a show popping onto Broadway for a few weeks before heading back out on tour. I knew Pat Monahan from Train would be a guest star on a few songs and that Robin Zander of Cheap Trick and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister were booked to guest star later in the run. I didn't realize it was a spin on the successful touring acts Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller. Those stadium-friendly shows combine souped-up covers and originals (mostly rock and classical for the first, mostly holiday songs and classical for the second) with splashy pyrotechnics and top-notch visual/audio pizazz. And I really wasn't prepared for mash-ups of classical music with Elton John, the tired observation that Beethoven was the rock star of his day or the giddy kitsch of hearing Queen's "We Are The Champions" being performed while a parade of heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Anne Frank are displayed on video screens. No, seriously, Anne Frank! It was silly, it was sad, it was by no means good but I won't forget it.

I want to say it's a cut-rate version of what TSO does on tour, but I don't really know, having never seen TSO on tour. I also want to say the idea that there's an audience for a mash-up of classical music and classic rock is deeply misguided. People who love classical music and opera are surely not waiting around to hear very poor versions of war horses like "Nessun Dorma." And people who love Led Zeppelin and the Who presumably don't pause Houses Of The Holy and say, "You know what I really want to hear right now? Puccini!" But I am wrong, as the grosses of TSO and Mannheim Steamroller can attest year after year. The same is apparently true for Rocktopia. The dude next to me sighed with pleasure when the opening strains of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" were heard and seemed just as happy in a way when Máiréad Nesbitt of Celtic Woman appeared on stage looking like a white witch and sawed away on her violin. (How does she keep her hair from getting tangled up with the strings and the bow?) And the show grossed an astonishing (to me) $800,000 on Broadway last week, which I would bet the house is less than their operating costs. People really DO want to hear Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring"...as long as it's followed by "Purple Haze." Who the hell knew? Well, co-creators Rob Evan and Randall Craig Fleischer, that's who. They and the audience really don't care if I and other critics sneer.



And sneer we must. Act One begins with the theme song from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a tune snobs might refer to as "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Strauss. That garnered one of the show's many moments of sheer nuttiness. Conductor and co-creator Fleischer comes out in the usual conductor's outfit, though it has a ratty, rock and roll vibe to it. He begins conducting the musicians...and the taped recordings clearly augmenting the show's sound. Hey, it's not the first Broadway show to do that but there is something hilariously off-key about a conductor leading machines in a fanfare. I'd like to think there's a moment in the show where Fleischer is conducting ONLY taped recordings but I don't believe it actually happened.

It doesn't get any better unless you have a taste for kitsch, in which case it most surely does get much better indeed. Act One's songs are backed by video projections that seem drawn entirely from public domain footage -- it looks like the videos randomly generated by karaoke machines when you sing in a bar -- beaches, deserts, rainbows and the like That gives us a two-fer of sorts: Handel's heartbreaking "Lasicia Ch'io Pianga" is sung while images of flowers opening to spring are displayed, making it seem as if one of the saddest songs ever written is a happy number about new love. In a remarkable coincidence, this 1705 number was being performed on Broadway in not one but TWO different Broadway shows, since Mark Rylance's Farinelli and the King was in its final week. That surely will never ever happen again in history.

I won't soon forget the finale, where Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" was mashed up to delirious, absurd effect with Beethoven's "Ode To Joy." But the best moments were human and unscripted.

The backup singers are recruited locally in each city and placed on a platform above the action. They are a ragtag group of people and seem so unrehearsed it gave their presence a compellingly random vibe. A guy on the right in the back row seemed to run out of steam and leaned on a rail to rest every once in a while. A cute young guy on the left looked as if he woke up from a dream, found himself suddenly on a Broadway stage and gamely tried to sing and boogie along with everyone else while wondering exactly what the hell was going on. In stark and wonderful contrast, the backup singer in the front row on the right (stage left) was a woman with blond hair and a bustier-style outfit that was music video ready. This gal is making the most of her moment. She was focused and in character the entire evening: every time you looked over at her she was pumping her fists and singing along and acting as if she'd never had more fun in her entire life. When a female singer onstage was vocalizing, this woman had a look of admiration and respect as if to say, "Wow, this person is amazing!" But deep down you knew she was really thinking, "I should be the one on stage and SHE should be up here and someday soon that's exactly what's going to happen!" I loved her.

Even better was the opening moment when co-creator Rob Evan came out to belt Styx's "Come Sail Away"...only to realize his microphone was dead. The audience --so primed to sing along you'd swear they were British -- delivered the words all the louder as he urged them on. A new mike was trotted out and he laughed off the flub, saying, "It's live theater!" and they cheered all the louder. Towards the end, Pat Monahan finished his lines from "Nessun Dorma." Yes, Pat Monahan of Train has a stab at opera. Why not? He finished, exhaled and smiled as if to say, "Hey! I got through it!" and you sort of had to smile along with him. It was sweet and genuine and real and of course it only lasted a moment.


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 *

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the founder 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 and features 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.