Thursday, January 16, 2020

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

142 (2019-2020): Review: LONDON ASSURANCE (seen December 30, 2019)


"An Assured Production"


 It's a pleasure to report that my final review for 2019 is for a charming, five-star rendition of a mid-19th-century comedy, once the rage of London and New York, and now available in a polished rendition delectably directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Repertory Theatre. It’s called London Assurance and was written in 1841 by the Irish-born Dion Boucicault, who was only 20 and would become one of the era’s most popular and prolific playwrights, with a booming, if scandal-riven, career on both sides of the pond.  (Theatre buffs can find more history at the end of this review.)  

London Assurance, which suggests a cross between the late-18th-century high comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (The School for Scandal) and the late-Victorian ones of Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), is not entirely a stranger to the modern New York stage. Once a late-19th-century stock company staple, it largely disappeared from local theatres until  a sparkling 1905 revival at the Knickerbocker Theatre provided British actress Ellis Jeffries a chance to score as the vibrant Lady Gay Spanker. 
Colin McPhillamy, Rachel Pickup. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
The next revival was in 1937, at the Vanderbilt Theatre, with musical interpolations, but it lasted only four performances. More successful was the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1974, directed by Ronald Eyre, with award-worthy performances by Elizabeth Spriggs as Lady Gay, Polly Adams as Grace Harkaway, and Donald Sinden as Sir Harcourt Courtly. And in 1997, the Roundabout produced the play, with Brian Bedford as Sir Harcourt and Helen Carey as Lady Gay. 
Rachel Pickup.
Lady Gay, “a devilish fine woman!,” is a part that—even though she doesn’t appear until act three of the five-act play—had enjoyed great popularity since first being seen here with the great Charlotte Cushman (better-known for tragedy than comedy), and afterward given memorable performances by such stars as Laura Keene, Ada Rehan, Fanny Davenport, and Rose Coghlan. At the Irish Rep, Rachel Pickup brings considerable verve and vivacity to the part of this enthusiastic horsewoman and huntress. 
Charlotte Cushman as Lady Gay Spanker in the 1841 New York production of London Assurance.
But London Assurance depends on colorful characterizations across the board, each of its 1l characters (in the current version) being jam-packed with comic opportunities of which this expert ensemble takes full advantage. Cool (Elliot Joseph) is the wiser-than-his-master valet (as per the ancient stage tradition), who serves Sir Harcourt Courtly (Colin McPhillamy), pompous, fatuous, and vain (63, he insists he’s 40, and even rouges his cheeks). 
Brian Keane, Colin McPhillamy.
Sir Harcourt plans to marry the 19-year-old heiress, Grace Harkaway (Caroline Strang, a star aborning), an arrangement that will net him 15,000 pounds a year. He’ll have to contend, however, with a rival in the form of his own wastrel son, Charles (Ian Holcomb, channeling a young Colin Firth), ripe for reform. Naturally, Sir Harcourt hasn't a clue about his son's late-night gambols.
Brian Keane, Caroline Strang, Rachel Pickup, Ian Holcomb, Craig Wesley Divino, Colin McPhillamy.
When Sir Harcourt meets the spirited Lady Gay, however, a woman married to the much older Adolphus Spanker (Robert Zukerman, deliciously doddering), his affections begin to shift. By this time, multiple complications have invaded the plot. These include the machinations of a n’er-do-well parasite called Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino, pointedly prankish), the conniving of a weaselly, avaricious lawyer named Meddle (Evan Zes, creepily ingratiating), the openhearted ministrations of Grace’s generous Uncle Max (Brian Keane, bringing on the gusto), and the manipulations of the comic maidservant, Pert (Meg Hennessy, like her character’s name).  
Robert Zukerman, Evan Zes.
Boucicault handles the mix-ups with considerable smoothness, taking full advantage of the contemporary fondness for asides that allow characters to address the audience with what’s really on their minds. His style mingles farcical situations with eloquent drawing-room phrasing, aphorisms both witty and wise, and thematically appropriate points about greed and vanity. Conventional as it is in such plays, there's also talk about the relative virtues of country versus city life. The complications are silly but even the outrageous notion that Sir Harcourt can be convinced that his own son is not his son but a dead ringer called Augustus Hamilton somehow clicks in this lighthearted environment.
Meg Hennessy, Caroline Strang.
It’s all very foolish, of course.  Nevertheless, when invested with the sprightly, British-accented manner affected here, especially that of McPhillamy’s marvelously posh Harcourt, broad yet rakishly droll, it’s a price we willingly pay to suspend our disbelief so we can laugh at the results.
Rachel Pickup, Colin McPhillamy.
As so often at the Irish Rep, the physical production is first-rate. This intimate theatre, with its small stage burdened by a thick supporting pillar to one side, manages time and again to overcome any technical obstacles and provide imaginative settings ranging from the grittily naturalistic to, as in London Assurance, exquisitely stylish ones. The only drawback is the lack of space when the entire cast appears, creating rather cramped tableaus.
Elliot Joseph, Evan Zes, Ian Holcomb, Brian Keane, Colin McPhillamy, Caroline Strang.
James Noone, using a checkerboard-patterned revolve, has managed to create several gorgeous representations of mansion-worthy rooms, perfectly lit by Michael Gottlieb. Similarly, Sara Jean Tosetti’s 19th-century costumes look as attractive and persuasively authentic, including striking boutonnieres on male lapels, as any you might see in a more heavily budgeted production. Ryan Rumery’s sound design (co-credited to M. Florian Staab) and original music offer the ideal fillip to the visual delights.
Evan Zes, Ian Holcomb. 
When London Assurance was first produced, at London’s Covent Garden, in March 1841, the playwright, who used a pseudonym, Lee Moreton, had appeared as an actor in Brighton but had not previously done anything in London. Boucicault is alleged to have bought the play's idea from American actor-playwright John Brougham. What he did with it was considered the finest new comedy in  years. The Covent Garden production, managed by the redoubtable Mme. Vestris, is said to have introduced the box set, offering a lifelike representation of the beautiful drawing rooms required.
Caroline Strang, Meg Hennessy, Rachel Pickup.
As George C. Odell says in Annals of the New York Stage, Vol. IV, “Staging was probably never again so shabby or so stereotyped in London or New York, after London Assurance had pointed the way to stage rooms which actually copied details of contemporary house-furnishings. . . . A room with three walls became, from that date, a necessity in fashionable playhouses; furthermore, this room must be luxuriously furnished in the latest mode.”
Brian Keane, Craig Wesley Divino.
Within months of its London opening, the play was produced in October at New York’s Park Theatre, where the box set idea was adopted. A review declared that the sets were “very splendid; the carpets, chandeliers, ottomans, windows, and looking-glasses were real . . . while the exterior views are so managed as to create a perfect illusion.”
Company of London Assurance.
Also revolutionary was the play’s three-week run, at a time when much briefer runs were normal. This, in fact, planted the seed of the long-run system. The Irish Rep’s run will be a bit longer but it is, of course, a limited one that closes at the end of January. Theatergoers are thereby notified that if they want to begin the New Year by catching this charming piece of 19th-century theatrical tomfoolery, their days are limited.

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through January 26



Monday, December 30, 2019

141 (2019-2020): Review: 42 FT: A MENAGERIE OF MECHANICAL MARVELS (seen December 29, 2019)


“They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease”


There was once a time when saying “the circus is back in town!” was cause for universal celebration, as it normally happened only once or twice a year. While that may still be true in smaller towns, big cities nowadays normally host a variety of circus shows, large and small, many of those visiting New York showing up at the New Victory Theatre.

Battulga Battogtokh. All photos: Maike Schulz.
This fabulous Times Square venue, a beautifully renovated (in 1995) theatre that originally opened in 1900 as the Republic Theatre, is devoted to family (i.e., kid-friendly) entertainment, as perfectly represented by their latest offering, 42 FT: A Menagerie of Mechanical Marvels. It’s the brainchild of the Las Vegas-based Cirque Mechanics (founded in 2004), which has produced three previous shows at the New Victory since 2008.

As circuses go, this is a small-scale one featuring a dozen performers in a traditional format almost entirely wordless. The smooth direction is by Chris Lashua, the choreography by co-director Aloysia Gavre, and the lively (prerecorded) score by Michael Picton, with a familiar oldy or two (like “Those Daring Young Men on the Flying Trapeze”) thrown in.  

Of course, in the tradition of the biggest of today’s big-top spectacles, Cirque du Soleil, there’s a theme of sorts (Steven Ragatz is the credited “writer”), or at least a through-line that binds it all together. This is the presence of an amiable clown named Justin Therrien, whose pointy hat and short pants suggest an adult Pinocchio. Wandering by a fence with circus posters, his curiosity is aroused. Soon, he’s trying to join the show.

Therrien is a terrific mime, doing marvelous, Chaplinesque things, like his bit with a suitcase that refuses to budge, or a gold sheet that takes on a life of its own. He can also gulp down a sword or create a micro-drama with no more than a feather. At one point, he gives the acrobats, aerialists, and strongman who occupy most of the performance a chance to rest by bringing an audience member on stage to join him in some amusing mimic business; the young dad selected when I attended proved a perfect comic foil.

But the show’s pulsing heart, naturally, resides in the remarkable acrobatics allowing the muscular cast to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, or the built-like-a-Mack-truck strongman to demonstrate not only superhuman feats of strength but do some fancy flips of his own. The latter’s name is Battulga Battogtokh, he comes from Mongolia, and he’s sturdy enough to place a huge pole across the back of his neck, and then, bent over, spin it around and around with two young ladies installed in the swing-like seats dangling from its ends. He also must have jaws of steel because he’s able to clamp his teeth around a bit attached to a double steel chain and give those ladies, holding on to the chain’s other ends, another dizzying ride for their money. And then there are those golden bowling balls . . .
Tatiana Vasilenko.
42 FT makes no pretense it’s anything but a circus, albeit one with a decidedly retro, old-fashioned aura, as witness Caroline Rogers’s artfully dated costumes, redolent of the 20s and 30s, like those in HBO’s “Carnivale.” Once that fence slides off, we’re in a traditional circus tent (designed by Sean Riley, and lit by Anthony Powers and Joe D’Emilio). The floor is occupied by a metal ring—its standard diameter of 42 feet gives the show its name—capable of being rotated to accommodate whatever mechanical contraptions need to be installed within it. Tying one side of the ring to the other is a large metal arch, which makes technical contributions to the action.

The several "mechanical marvels" include a revolving ladder and a Russian swing. The former is manipulated so that multiple performers can do gymnastic feats on it as it rotates up or down. The latter is used so that two or more performers standing on it can rock it back and forth to create enough centrifugal force to send someone flying nearly to the top of the high proscenium, doing one or more flips, and landing on a thick mattress, held slightly off the floor to soften the impact when their flying partner makes his or her rapid descent.
The revolving ladder.
If you’ve gone to enough circus shows, visited Las Vegas, or watch “America’s Got Talent,” you won’t see much here you haven’t seen before. These include a beautifully executed trapeze act starring Nikki Unwin and Elijah Newton, a terrific juggling routine with rubber balls done on a mechanical horse by Tatiana Vasilenko, a slack-wire number by Esther De Monteflores, a “lion tamer” piece (sans lion) in which Austin Bradley leaps about while snapping (Crack! Crack!) a bullwhip, and a variety of other familiar yet nonetheless awesome sets featuring daredevils Brysen Bishop, Brooke Neilson, Michael Rubino, and Taylor Stevens.

The “mechanical marvels” announced in the subtitle of 42 FT may not quite qualify as a “menagerie,” but its human marvels, flying, flipping, and flexing with impeccable flair, will flutter your heart, whether you’re under five or over fifty.  

New Victory Theatre
209 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 5

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE'S BEST PLAYS OF 2019



During 2019, Theatre’s Leiter Side reviewed nearly 260 shows, 19 of them covered by guest reviewers Elyse Orecchio and Aron Canter. My own 240 or so reviews were distributed among four sites, Theatre’s Leiter Side, The Broadway Blog, edited by Matthew Wexler; Theater Pizzazz, edited by Sandi Durell (with great assistance from J.P. Clarke), and Theater Life, edited by Barry Gordin and Patrick Christiano. My lists of the year's best are below.

The list represents only shows I covered between January 1 and December 31, 2019 (there are two more to go, so I’ll adjust it if necessary). Elyse and Aron’s reviews aren’t included in the tallies.

Each show I review is given at least three grades, some getting as many as four. First there’s the thumbs-up or -down system where Samoji, as we’ll call him, offers two thumbs up for shows in the 85-100 range, one thumb up for the 70-84 range, arms crossed indecisively for the 50-69 range, one thumb down for the 30-49 range, and two thumbs down for anything below that.

Through the goodness of his heart, Samoji gave only two shows (Midnight Street and God of Marz) a two thumbs-down rating in 2019. That matches the total for the previous year. Last year I posted all the titles with one thumb down, but won’t be doing that this year.

If you look closely at Samoji’s shirt, you’ll see he also rates shows by a star system, ranging from one for the worst and five for the best. Thus, two thumbs up gets ***** while two thumbs down gets *.

Until the middle of 2019, Show-Score.com, where online reviews are excerpted, used a numerical grading system. When too many critics neglected to provide such grades, the site abandoned the practice, reserving it for general member reviews. Thus, the numerical average now posted on Show-Score represents only the grades submitted by the many theatregoers who’ve signed up with the site, but not the professional reviewers.

Finally, Theater Life has its own star system for which I provide another star grade.

The Best Plays of 2019 list represents all shows to which I gave two thumbs up.

New Plays
A Christmas Carol
Accidentally Brave
Ain’t no Mo’
Awake
Colin Quinn Red State Blue State
Fleabag
Ink
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain
Katsura Sunshine’s Rakugo
La Bute New Theater Festival
The Black History Museum . . . According to the United States of America
The Lehman Trilogy
To Kill a Mockingbird
Toni Stone
We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time
What the Constitution Means to Me
Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom


New Musicals
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Anything Can Happen in the Theatre: The Musical World of Maury Yeston
Broadway Bounty Hunter
Dog Man: The Musical
Hadestown
Moulin Rouge
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical


Revivals of Plays
Fires in the Mirror
for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf
Juno and they Paycock
The Crucible
The Plough and the Stars
The Secret Life of Bees
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time


Revivals of Musicals
Fiddler on the Roof
Kiss Me, Kate!
Little Shop of Horrors
The Sorceress