Sunday, January 15, 2017

Friday, January 6, 2017

117. Review: CONFUCIUS (seen January 5, 2017)

"Everything Has Beauty But Not Everyone Sees It"

Tang Shiyi. Photo: Liu Haidong.
I tried hard to count how many dancers appear in Confucius, the visually beautiful, dramatically stultifying dance drama now enjoying a four-performance visit at the David H. Koch Theater. I did this because the 90-minute piece itself gives you very little else to think about as it tells the story of Confucius, described in the subtitle as “teacher, philosopher, man who shaped a nation.” My reaction was much like the title of this review, taken from the master himself: I acknowledge the show's beauty but I couldn't always see it.
Confucius. Photo: Liu Haidong.
Confucius. Photo: Liu Haidong.
Performed against an impressive setting (designed and brilliantly lit by Ren Dongsheng) dominated by huge bamboo strips covered with Confucius’s writings, the production resembles an expensive Hallmark greeting card vision of ancient China. Hordes of perfectly coordinated choral dancers swirl about while swathed in designer Yang Donglin’s gorgeous reimaginings of long-sleeved ancient garments, designed with yards of silky, billowing fabric for maximum effect, as prerecorded music (uncredited), now stirringly martial, now lushly romantic, booms forth continuously (and loudly).
Hu Yang. Photo: Liu Haidong.
The show premiered in Beijing in 2013, a product of the state-supported China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater, and has been presented internationally. Directed and choreographed by Kong Dexin, billed as “a 77th-generation direct descendant of Confucius” (which apparently allows her the longest curtain call), it has a wordless scenario by Liu Chun that dramatizes the difficulties experienced by the title character, who lived during the Zhou Dynasty and died in 479 B.C. Widely revered but sometimes reviled (especially during the Cultural Revolution), Confucius’s ideas on harmony and benevolence continue to resonate in Communist China as a buffer to Western liberalism.
Confucius. Photo: Liu Haidong.
Confucius’s six scene divisions are communicated via video titles (which include a few grammatical errors) on large side screens, but the information (Prelude: Inquiry; Act I: The Chaotic Time; Act II: Out of Food; Act III: Great Harmony: Act IV: Mourning for Benevolence; and Epilogue: Happiness) is less helpful than a fortune cookie message. More substance is provided by the occasional quotes, most of them cryptic, but some familiar, that flash by accompanied by a note on what tome they first appeared in. It’s hard for the uninitiated to know what to do with comments like: “Collapse of etiquette, Loss of benevolence,” or “In the morning hear the way, In the evening die content,” to cite two of the shorter ones. Words like “Incensing,” “Remonstration,” and “Rebellion” occasionally appear to give some idea of what the following scene is about, but essentially you’re on your own (unless you read the program synopsis) in a tale whose telling is largely free of dramatic development, with each scene's emotional level much the same as the one before and after.
Hu Yang. Photo: Liu Haidong.
The music—sounding like a big-screen sound track combining Western-style music with Asian touches—supports exceptionally well-performed choreography that is predominantly ballet-based but has many attitudes clearly derived from traditional Chinese theatre. Supplemented by remarkably acrobatic leaps, somersaults, pirouettes, and cartwheels, the abundant physical activity enacts a narrative that fails to clarify who, aside from Confucius (Hu Yang) himself, the other personages are, what they're doing, or why we should care.
Hu Yang. Photo: Liu Haidong.
The handful of “characters”—as opposed to swarms of identically costumed concubines, soldiers, courtiers, or peasants—are identified as “Concubine” (Tang Shiyi), “Minister” (Guo Haifeng), Duke (Zhu Yin), “Eunuch” (Xing Yan), and “Confucius’s Apprentices” (Yang Tianyuan, Hou Meng).
Confucius. Photo: Liu Haidong.
Hu Yang’s Confucius is a slender, bearded, dashing hero, with many opportunities to display his athletic virtuosity, including a flamboyant sword dance whose presence even my companion, a Chinese scholar, couldn’t explain. The standout performance is the exceptionally lithe, almost butterfly-like Tang Shiyi, whose ability to spin in place would make any champion figure skater jealous.
Confucius. Photo: Liu Haidong.
I began by saying I occupied some of my time trying to count the performers. Judging by the program, which lists 47, I was off by only one or two. Interestingly, Confucius will be followed at the Koch on January 11 by Shen Yun, a competitor in the world of spectacular dance productions set in ancient China. With its New York-based performers being followers of the persecuted Falun Dafa/Falun Gong movement, it suggests a political as well as artistic rivalry. Hopefully, there will be more to hold one’s interest than visual prettiness and the company’s size.
Tang Shiyi. Photo: Liu Haidong.
David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center
Through January 8

Monday, December 19, 2016


"Classy Master"
Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of Life Is for Living: Conversations with Coward please click on Theater Pizzazz.

Please also note that this will be my last review for 2016. During the year I reviewed over 190 shows, some of them part of the 2015-2016 season, which ended in late April, and the rest (116 of them) since May; there would have been more but I sometimes am unable to land press seats to everything I want to cover. 

I thank you for reading this blog and the other sites for which I review and hope to see you again sometime next month. Here's wishing you a Happy Theatre New Year and whatever other holiday you celebrate at this time of year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

115. Review: HIS ROYAL HIPNESS LORD BUCKLEY (seen December 9, 2016)

“Knock Him Your Lobes”
Stars range from 5-1.
When I was in high school and college in the late 1950s and early 60s, listening to “adult” comedy records at parties was a popular way to rouse laughs while making out or getting high. Among those we enjoyed for their convention-busting humor—sometimes sexual, sometimes political, and always hilarious—were Shelly Berman, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, Redd Foxx, and Lenny Bruce (when you could get a bootleg recording of one of his controversial gigs).

There was also the American comedian-musician Lord Buckley, a former lumberjack, who pretended to be an English aristocrat with an upper-crust accent mingled with the slurry speech of a black jazz musician. His words were an exaggerated hipster jive you might have heard from the Rat Pack on verbal steroids, where everyone was a cat or a daddy-o, you dug things, you did solids, you wailed, you grooved, you blew, you swung.
Jake Broder. Photo: Vincent Scarano.
Lord Buckley (1906-1950), who died of a stroke after losing his cabaret card because of a much earlier marijuana conviction, has been brought back to life, more or less, in a 90-minute cabaret-type act, his persona assumed by actor-singer-musician Jake Broder, who has been doing variations of the work for over a decade, including a 2005 gig at 59E59, where he's presently holding court. Its current incarnation premiered at San Diego's North Coast Theatre.

Many great standup comics, writers, and musicians of the Beat Generation and later admitted that Buckley was an influence, among them George Carlin, Dizzy Gillespie, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits, George Harrison, Ken Kesey, and Robin Williams.
Jake Broder. Pboto: Vincent Scarano.
Buckley had to have been one hip cat to turn these guys on but I myself never dug his stuff; too square, I guess. I went to His Royal Hipness hoping to get hip to his groove, but the show didn’t give me the solid I was hoping for. His material, at least as contemporized by Broder, is leaden, and the hipster lingo of half a century ago, with which the show’s obsessed, seems as dated as stereos and old LP comedy records. 

His Royal Hipness is not all Lord Buckley’s domain. Backing Broder is a terrific three-piece band of drums (Daniel Glass), bass (Brad Russell), and piano (Mark Hartman), and they blow some really hot licks of familiar standbys. The music—referencing Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and the like—is the best part of the show, which also includes, as an emcee/sidekick, Michael Lanahan, tall, slim, bespectacled, crew cut, and very period in his “Mad Men” suit. He reads the barely amusing “Hip News” at various intersections, and ably sings along with Lord Buckley on several tunes, like a hopped-up “Sunny Side of the Street.”
Jake Broder. Photo: Vincent Scarano.
As Lord Buckley, the hardworking Broder stands before a mic dressed in the white tie and tails sometimes affected by Buckley. He looks nothing like the original, carries a half-smoked joint in one hand, and doesn’t bother to sport Buckley's carefully waxed and pointed mustache or wear his familiar pith helmet. He narrates stories in what he calls “the semantic of the hip,” which allows him to tell familiar tales, like A Christmas Carol, by “Chazzy D,” or Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” in jazzy jargon  (he famously calls Jesus “the Nazz”) so you can graduate Magna Cum Swingy from the University of Hip.

In one of his classic bits, he translates into hip “The Gettysburg Address,” as Lanahan, dressed in comical Lincoln top hat and beard, recites it. Beginning “Four big licks and seven licks ago,” it’s no longer very funny nor was it ever in the best of taste (if you’re really down with what the words say), even if Lincoln (“Lanky Linc”) was one of Buckley’s favorite cats. Another Buckley classic here is “The Hip Gahn,” about that “divine swinger,” Mahatma Gandhi. I'm afraid its swung its last swing.

As Broder/Buckley speaks, his narratives are constantly highlighted by music, moments which he accentuates with snapping fingers, sound effects, and body language. When he’s not speaking, he’s singing, often abandoning the lyrics for bebop or scat; he also displays proficiency on the sax and piano. His singing of “Georgia on My Mind,” in a tribute to Ray Charles, sharply turns the mood serious just before the intermission as he inserts dialogue about a Georgia lynching (it’s not, however, “The Black Cross” poem that, reportedly, deeply affected Bob Dylan).

Throughout the show, the most obvious target is that currently most obvious of targets, the president-elect, at least for a liberal audience; think Scrooge, for example, for an attack on parsimony; or the Mayor of Hamelin, who refuses to pay the piper for his work; or a Walt Whitman verse that goes, “I celebrate myself.” Buckley may be hip but he's not Bill Maher, Steven Colbert, Samantha Bee, Jon Stewart, or Seth Myers. 

On the other hand, for all its Trump-bashing, the show trumpets a message of love, and Buckley even imagines himself being named Secretary of Love. And why not? It would make more sense than the Donald's other picks.


59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through January 1

Friday, December 9, 2016

114. Review: A BRONX TALE (seen December 8, 2016)

“All That Chazz”
Stars range from 5-1.
You won’t hear the name Chazz in A Bronx Tale; all the same, the central character, Calogero Lorenzo Anello, is based on the youth of writer-actor Chazz Palminteri, born Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri. In 1988, seeking to get his struggling acting career on track, he created a pasta fazool of a one-man play called A Bronx Tale, in which he played 35 characters. Its LA production was so successful it moved to New York in 1989, became a hit, and then was directed by Robert De Niro as a 1993 movie, in which Palminteri and De Niro costarred. In 2007, Palminteri revived the original on Broadway.

Nick Cordero, Hudson Loverro, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Hudson Loverro, Richard H. Blake. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Rory Max Kaplan, Keith White, Dominic Nolfi, Joe Barbara, Hudson Loverro, Cary Tedder. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Now, with De Niro sharing staging honors with musical comedy maven Jerry Zaks, and with Palminteri writing the book, Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors) the music, and Glenn Slater (School of Rock) the lyrics, what began as a solo effort has been blown up (so to speak) into a 30-performer Broadway musical, which world premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Much of it is raucously enjoyable—it received a sincere standing ovation—and the heart of Palminteri’s original remains intact, but its soul seems compromised by the window dressing of a big-budget production.
Bobby Conte Thornton. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This, you may recall, is the story—set in 1960 and 1968—of Calogero, son of a bus driver, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake, solid and big-voiced in the De Niro role), and homemaker Rosina (Lucia Gianetta, lovely but underused), growing up in the Belmont section of the Bronx, an Italian-American enclave bordering Belmont Avenue. Nearby, in their own ghetto, is the African-American community bounded by Webster Avenue. Racial tensions between the neighborhoods are high even though both send their kids to Roosevelt High School.
Bobby Conte Thornton, Luciana Gianetta. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The tale is narrated by the grown-up Calogero (long, lean Bobby Conte Thornton, making a strong Broadway debut), beginning when a shooting is witnessed by his nine-year-old self, played by the gifted Hudson Loverro. (Wait till you see him rock “I Like It” like a pint-sized Elvis.) The shooter is local mafioso Sonny (Nick Cordero, perfectly recreating another swaggering, Palminteri movie tough guy, as he did in the Broadway musical of Bullets over Broadway); when questioned by the cops, Calogero refuses to finger Sonny, his godlike idol.
Hudson Loverro, Richard H. Blake, Lucia Giannetta. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This endears him to the powerful hood, who takes him under his wing, and, in a world where every wiseguy has a nickname, dubs him “C.” The friendship precipitates a crucial conflict between C’s incorruptible, hardworking dad and the dangerous, racketeering Sonny over what’s best for Calogero, who’s torn between the values of the two men he loves most.
Nick Cordero, Richard H. Blake. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Eight years later, C (Thornton) is a high school punk, hanging out with his even punkier crew, when he falls for Jane (Ariana Debose, appealing), a beautiful black classmate. This opens the door for a look at the racially charged biases of both sides (very West Side Story), but especially at the brutally violent bigotry of C’s greaser friends. Sonny is still a potent force in C’s life, but C will learn even more life lessons when fate catches up with his charismatic mentor.
Richard H. Blake, Bobby Conte Thornton, Nick Cordero, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There are thus two plots here: Act One: a tug of love with C being pulled in two directions between Lorenzo and Sonny. Act Two: racial conflict based on C’s love for Jane. Do they mesh? Just barely. Are there extraneous things? Yes. Like the unconvincing scene when bikers crash Sonny’s hangout. For all that, one leaves with a sense that what began as a one-man show has ballooned out of proportion to the material that inspired it.
Gilbert L. Bailey II, Bradley Gibson, Ariana DeBose, Trista Dollison, Christina Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Beowulf Borritt’s set, terrifically lit with reddish hues by Howell Binkley, consists mainly of towering units representing tenement segments, fire escapes, shopfronts, and all, that can be swiftly moved into differing arrangements. On it, De Niro and Zaks (the latter having directed the original’s 2007 revival) create a colorful world dominated by the usual suspects; their casting is spot on.

We meet mugs like JoJo the Whale (Michael Barra), all 400 pounds of him; Frankie Coffeecake (Ted Brunetti), named for his pockmarked face; and Tony-Ten-To-Two (Paul Salvatoriello), whose feet are always in that position. One of the best moments comes when C introduces these goombahs while lights flash and a shutter clicks as if they’re posing for mug shots.
Trista Dollison, Ariana DeBose, Christina Pitts. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sergio Trujillo choreographs cool dance sequences but more would be welcome. William Ivey Long’s costumes aren’t always helpful, though; why, for example, is nice-girl, high-school-student Jane dressed in a hooker-like miniskirt and high heels when we meet her? The skirt, maybe. The heels?

Performed with pumped up gusto for a fast-moving two hours, only occasionally stopping to catch its breath, the show, with its saucy profanity and comical sexual allusions (“she likes the pepperoni so she ain’t fit for matrimony” goes one fellatio-related line), isn’t for audiences seeking Disney-type entertainment.
Bobby Conte Thornton, Nick Cordero. Photo: Joan Marcus.
About two-thirds of the easy-listening but generally uninspired score reflects the kind of music popular back in the day, mostly Doo-wop, R&B, Sinatraesque balladry, golden oldies Rock ‘n Roll, and Motown, but the rest resembles generic Broadway show tunes. The schmaltzy throwback, “Look to Your Heart,” sung by Lorenzo to Calogero, and reprised by Rosina, serves as a thematic throughline, while “Nicky Machiavelli,” advocating fear over love, has a different point of view.
Bobby Conte Thornton, Nick Cordero, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As a postscript, it might be noted for those who believe in the theatre as an instructive force that, in 2005, Lillo Brancato, Jr., the actor who played the older Calogero in the film version, was involved in a Bronx burglary during which a police officer was killed. His accomplice was sentenced to life in prison and Brancato was sent away for ten years. Perhaps one day he’ll offer a Bronx tale of his own.


Longacre Theatre
220 W. 48th St., NYC
Open run

Thursday, December 8, 2016