Thursday, October 30, 2014

99. Review of THE LAST SHIP (October 29, 2014)


If you’ve been following the press reports on THE LAST SHIP, the big new Broadway musical with a score by the estimable Sting, you’ll be aware that it received what are usually called mixed reviews. Sting didn’t write the book, which is by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, but it’s inspired by his gritty youth in northeastern England’s town of Wallsend.  As others have pointed out, the book is the show’s chief drawback, but it has more than enough genuine heart to support the mostly beautiful, often thrilling score, which (despite some detractors) is as good as and far superior to most of the new Broadway musicals of the past two seasons. And the production itself is as fine as they get, with perfect casting, smashing movement/choreography, splendid acting and singing, and superb design elements. 

Rachel Tucker, Michael Esper. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Three stories work in tandem in THE LAST SHIP. First, there’s the one about a gritty town that learns its shipbuilding business is closing. The shipbuilders reject the company’s offer to get them other work, and decide to illegally occupy the shipyard. Using the funds being saved for a new church (with the priest’s approval, no less), they determine to build one last ship. What kind of ship it is we never learn, but it would surely cost much more than a single church to pay for it. In fact, it’s only when the ship’s launching is celebrated that the men realize they haven’t given it a name, which is just as unlikely as everything that gets us to this point. (What the men will do when the last ship sails is not addressed.)

Thus, much as it’s presented within a musical’s version of rough-accented, profanity-spewing, working class hero naturalism, you have to navigate this musical ship’s conceit with your disbelief billowing like a sail in the wind (or dismiss it all as “a metaphor”). Like other British-inspired tales of resolute everymen banding together to achieve some seemingly impossible goal—think KINKY BOOTS and THE FULL MONTY—THE LAST SHIP commemorates the spirit of camaraderie that insists nothing is impossible if decent souls band together for the common good.

Second, we have the prodigal son story in which Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), loosely based on Sting himself, is first seen as a young lad (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) who, fed up with the limitations of Wallsend, leaves behind the young Meg Dawson (Dawn Cantwell), the girl he loves, to see the world and make something of himself. When he returns, 15 years later, having failed in his mission, he tries to reconnect with Meg (Rachel Tucker), but, much as she still loves this gruff yet tender wanderer, she’s engaged to Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar). Arthur, an upright guy who wants to marry Meg and care for her and Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), her 15-year-old son by Gideon, is the show’s closest thing to an antagonist, since he works for the company and tries to prevent the last ship from being built. 

And third, there’s Gideon’s struggle to come to terms with the memory of his late father, Joe (Jamie Jackson), whose death has brought him home. Joe was a brutal man who often beat Gideon, and Gideon now must also resolve issues with his own son that arise on his return. Arthur, whom Tom calls Dad, complicates matters. Another father also plays a role, the humorously dissolute Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), from whom Gideon, on coming home, almost immediately seeks absolution, but whose own time on earth is coming to an end. 

Rachel Tucker, Aaron Lazar. Photo: Joan Marcus.

These principal story elements—and minor ones, including that concerning the foreman, Jackie
White (Jimmy Nails) and his wife Peggy (Sally Ann Triplett)—are tied together by 20 songs, every one of them tuneful, ranging from lyrical, even heartbreaking, ballads to dirges and stirring anthems, some with a Celtic echo, others in the Kurt Weill vein, and all of them definitely Sting. Several are reprised (the rousingly rhythmic title song, gets four shots), and each is staged with imagination, sensitivity, and beauty by director Joe Mantello or choreographer Steven Hoggett. There are many standouts, but I might mention “Island of Souls,” “What Say You, Meg,” “We’ve Got Now’t Else,” and “The Night the Pugilist Learned to Dance” as among my favorites.

Sally Ann Triplett (red jacket), Fred Applegate (to her left), Jimmy Nail (standing center), and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As per his well-deserved reputation, Mr. Hoggett’s dances derive from everyday activities and avoid the standard leaps, thrusts, and kicks of conventional Broadway terpsichore. His shipbuilders, for example, go about their routines with shifting masculine attitudes, lots of stamping, and, in one memorable sequence, their tools, including a brilliant use of fiery welding torches. The finale to Act 1, where the men are lined up at the rear, holding hands across their bodies in the pouring rain before they rush toward a downstage chain link fence to climb it, is breathtakingly vigorous and exciting. 

Company of THE LAST SHIP. Photo: Joan Marcus.

THE LAST SHIP can be grim and dark, but, other than being set in suitably dreary environs, including a church, shipyard, jail cell, and pub (sets and costumes by David Zinn, lights by Christopher Akerlind), it has plenty of emotional variety, leavened by robust humor embodied in Father O’Brien’s proclivity for scandalous behavior and language. There’s also a powerfully infectious spirit of optimism that often lightens the mood.

Michael Esper. Photo: Joan Marcus.

All the characters are compellingly acted and well sung. Michael Esper’s Gideon sings with huskiness reminiscent of Sting’s own sound, and carries himself with properly romantic machismo. Rachel Tucker’s Meg is ballsy and sexy, her rich voice a perfect match for Mr. Esper’s. Mr. Lazar’s good looks and more traditional Broadway voice make him an appropriately sympathetic rival for Meg’s affections, while Mr. Nail absolutely nails the authenticity of the rough-edged (although seasick-prone) Jackie, and Ms. Triplett never trips as Peggy. Fred Applegate couldn’t be better as the avuncular Irish priest, smoking, drinking, cursing, and lightening everyone’s load despite his own burdens. 

Sally Ann Triplett and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

This vessel may now and then list in choppy seas, but it always rights itself. When the voyage is over, you’ll be glad you traveled aboard THE LAST SHIP.

Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd Street
Open ended run.

98. Review of SHATTER (October 29, 2014)

My review of SHATTER is now available at THEATER PIZZAZZ:


Saturday, October 25, 2014

94. Review of THE COUNTRY HOUSE (October 24, 2014)


I saw the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of THE COUNTRY HOUSE, Donald Margulies’s imperfect, sporadically enjoyable comedy about a theatrical family, on a Friday, but it’s really a throwback Thursday kind of play. Veteran theatregoers visiting the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre won’t be challenged by the show, which premiered at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse this past summer, but they’ll bask in the comfort of the kind of immediately recognizable writing, scenery, staging, and performance for which the Great White Way is famous.
From left: Kate Jennings Grant, Daniel Sunjata, Sarah Steele, Eric Lange, Blythe Danner. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The play is an homage to Chekhov, and the influences can easily be detected, especially in the mommy-issue relationship of the incessantly whiny, self-hating Vanya/Constantine conflation, Uncle Elliott (wonderfully embodied by Eric Lange), and his glamorous Arkadina-like mother, Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner, perfectly cast), a grand actress at whose spacious country home in Williamstown, Mass., the action transpires. However, except, perhaps, when Uncle Elliott is even shriller than Uncle Vanya, the play’s tone seems more far more redolent of Broadway chestnuts about theatre families, like Nöel Coward’s HAY FEVER and Kaufman and Ferber’s THE ROYAL FAMILY, than it does of the Russian playwright. So, for all the fun you may think you’ll have finding Chekhov in Margulies, you’d be better off forgetting it and just watching THE COUNTRY HOUSE as a mildly predictable, old-fashioned comedy about theatre folk.
Williamstown, of course, is the Berkshires home every summer to a major theatre company that attracts important stars (like Ms. Danner), many of them famous in films or TV and seeking to find artistic solace by returning, if only briefly, to the stage, usually in the revival of an old play. Anna, whose beautiful country house, which, like her, is beginning to show its age, is conveniently nearby, making it a suitable place for theatrical types to visit. She’s preparing to play Mrs. Warren in Shaw’s MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION, which gives her opportunities to express the frustrations faced by an aging star, both in terms of the difficulties of learning lines and finding suitable stage work, not to mention the “work” performers need to do to maintain their appearance.
At the supermarket, Anna runs into Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata, charming), a handsome hunk of an actor in his 40s against whose Marchbanks she once played Shaw’s Candida. Michael’s going into rehearsal for Molnar’s THE GUARDSMAN, the show preceding Anna’s, so, possibly because she feels the stirrings of her still simmering libido, Anna invites the much younger man to stay at the house while his own digs are being fumigated to eliminate an insect infestation.  
The presence of this gorgeous man, now starring as a doctor in a hit sci-fi TV show, stirs more than Anna’s juices; it affects the hormonal chemistry of both her outspoken, 19-year-old, “plainly lovely” (as Margulies describes her), college student granddaughter, Susie Keegan (Sarah Steele, just right), who admits to having had a crush on him since she was in her crib, and of another woman, Nell McNally (Kate Jennings Grant, lovely). Nell, a struggling actress, is the beautiful 35-year-old fiancée of Walter Keegan (David Rasche, outstanding), Susie’s 66-year-old dad, a film director known for a moneymaking blow ‘em up film franchise.
Kate Jennings Grant, David Rasche. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Walter and Nell have come from Los Angeles in his Porsche to visit, much to the frustration of Elliott, who’s carried a torch for Nell since he acted with her at Louisville’s Humana Festival 11 years earlier; he’s also enraged that Walter not only is marrying someone—much less Nell—so soon after the early death from cancer of his wife, Kathy, but that he’s brought Nell with him on this visit. Kathy, a successful actress, was Elliott’s beloved sister, whom he regarded as his soulmate. Susie, Kathy’s daughter, also resents Nell’s intrusion and treats the woman rudely, although Nell is much more decent than others care to recognize.
Mr. Margulies allows these ingredients to stew as the characters renew old acquaintances or begin new ones, with plot lines involving Michael’s humanitarian work in Africa; his loveless—but far from sexless—love life and brief attraction to Nell (which culminates during the very funny conclusion of a power outage); Elliott’s attempt to rekindle what he imagines to have been a love affair with Nell; the reading by the characters of Elliott’s first play (his acting career in a shambles, he’s chosen playwriting as his new métier); and the disastrous aftermath of that reading when the tenaciously defensive Elliott seeks feedback.
Mr. Margulies’s dialogue is always crisp, convincing, and clever, suiting his characters and making their conversations entertaining. But the real fun in a play like this is the impression it gives that you’re overhearing real show people talk about the things that real show people talk about. Susie’s deconstruction of Michael’s status as an actor, and what people seek in a star, is one example; another is Walter’s  critique of Elliott’s playwriting aspirations, and his response to Elliott’s condemnation of him for “selling out” as an artist in order to make commercially successful schlock. The confrontation between Walter and Elliott, in fact, even though it doesn’t include Ms. Danner, the putative star, is the liveliest scene in the play, made vivid by the vitriolic dynamics of Mr. Rasche and Mr. Lange.
The play’s three acts, with one intermission, play out over a little more than two hours in John Lee Beatty’s classic iteration of the kind of realistically homey set he does so well, with its cutaway peaked wooden roof, upstage staircase, and down center couch. Peter Kaczorowski’s lights (especially during a fierce thunderstorm and blackout) and Rita Ryack’s costumes, supplemented by Peter Golub’s original music and Obadiah Eaves’s sound design (that storm again), give the show the Broadway gloss it requires.
THE COUNTRY HOUSE has a tendency to meander, and sometimes seems more like a collection of scenes than a fully integrated play, but, as directed by Daniel Sullivan, it gives the ensemble plenty of opportunities to shine, although you have to wait a bit for Ms. Danner to have her big moments. Elliott’s bitchiness, which annoys everyone on stage, eventually threatens to irk even the poor ticket-buying eavesdroppers, and too many moments, especially the closing ones, tend to drag, but, if you're in the mood for a pleasant, old-fashioned, throwback evening on Broadway, with a still glowing star leading the way, THE COUNTRY HOUSE’s doors are open for you to enter.