Saturday, March 31, 2018

191 (2017-2018): Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES (seen March 28, 2018)

“There Are Devils There, Too”

As of March 31, the website, which aggregates online reviews, was showing 50 critics’ reviews and 266 members’ (regular theatregoers) responses to the current revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The show’s unusually high aggregate scores—an 89 average from the critics and a 91 from the members—testify to the show’s overwhelmingly positive reception.
Amanda Lawrence, Andrew Garfield. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
A surprising number of critics, in fact, have given the work a perfect score of 100, something most other shows, no matter how good, rarely receive. This despite Angels being in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” occupying seven and a half hours over the course of a single day (if you choose to see it that way), part one beginning at 1:00 p.m., and part two at 7:00.
Nathan Lane. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
Angels in America, which originally appeared on Broadway in 1992, is now at the Neil Simon Theatre after its lavishly lauded production at London’s National Theatre. Directed by Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) and starring Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn and Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, the show, which maintains its British supporting cast, has been earning roaring ovations and will likely garner multiple awards. Most serious theatregoers would agree it’s a must-see event.
Lee Pace, Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
Angels in America, which mixes realism with fantasy, fact with fiction, is undeniably epochal in its ambition, thematic significance, humor, theatricality, historical viewpoints, political commentary, and combination of searing rhetoric and crawling profanity. And yet it sometimes seems less than the sum of its parts. 
James McArdle, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
Marianne Elliot’s production is, by and large, excellent, but doesn’t strike me as any more exceptional or groundbreaking than the original. Ian McNeill’s set follows Kushner’s desire for a simple, Brechtian design that allows the play’s episodic structure to move rapidly from scene to scene, Paule Constable’s lighting makes the most of its many atmospheric opportunities, and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are period-and-character appropriate; where flair is needed, she supplies it.
James McArdle, Andrew Garfield. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
The most unusual concept is having the play’s famous Angel (Amanda Lawrence), with her huge, spreading wings, performed as a living puppet handled by a team of Angel Shadows under Finn Caldwell’s direction.
James McArdle, Lee Pace. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
Overall, the performances are of the same high quality as the originals, neither superior nor inferior to them. Lane’s furiously angry Roy Cohn, for example, is just as furiously angry (and bitingly funny) as was Ron Leibman’s, and Garfield’s Prior Walter every bit as painfully sensitive and affecting as was Stephen Spinella’s.
Denise Gough, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
On the other hand, James McArdle is so whiningly high-strung as Louis, who abandons Prior, his ailing lover, that it wears on one’s nerves, as does his and his costars’ frequent shouting. Thankfully, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, the drag queen cum nurse, makes this flamboyant, wise, and wisecracking gay friend, a type we’ve seen in many plays and films, a coolly satisfying presence.
Andrew Garfield, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
As per Kushner’s wishes, most actors play two or more roles, including women playing men. Given the need this creates for us to suspend our disbelief even more than usual, it doesn’t work in every instance. The terrific Susan Brown, for instance, makes striking shifts from Joe’s mother, Hannah, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, to Joe’s male doctor and an elderly Bolshevik. But when the slender Denise Gough, very good as Joe’s wife, Harper, covers Washington insider Martin Heller, she can’t help making us think of Katherine McKinnon doing Jeff Sessions.
Nathan Lane, Susan Brown. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
The play, whose explosive revelations about the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s were once blindingly revelatory, now seems a bit dated. At the same time, its up-to-the-neck immersion in the time of its creation makes its depiction of the conflict between liberal and conservative politics, particularly with regard to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, surprisingly topical.
\Nathan Lane, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
Whereas AIDS, horrible as it is, is now considered manageable, the divisiveness of Reagan’s presence haunts us in triple strength during our current administration. Every anti-Reagan comment seems to be a stink bomb designed to attack Donald Trump (and his family), sometimes earning applause. It’s interesting to note how a play concerned with whether mankind should slow down or move forward reminds us of medical advances while also making us aware of political stasis.  
Lee Pace. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
Then there’s the problem of Joe Pitt (Lee Pace, all 6’5” of him), the straight-arrow Mormon law clerk whose marriage to the anxiety ridden, Valium-popping Harper (Denise Gough) is in trouble because of his homosexuality. Roy Cohn, Joe’s right-wing mentor, is a vicious creep who would sooner ruin his doctor’s career than admit he’s gay, much less that he’s got AIDS. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to believe that gay Republican Joe, a man of ethical integrity, worships the ground Cohn walks on, regardless of how openly Cohn expresses his worst inclinations. There’s an irony here but it’s not a convincing one.
Susan Brown. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
Various other obstacles to full appreciation niggle as well (like the overpowering bursts of Adrian Sutton's melodramatic music) but none more so than the show’s excessive length, which must unravel multiple plot lines before the final curtain: the Prior-Louis relationship; the conflict between Prior and the Angel(s); the story of Joe, his wife, and his mother; the Joe-Louis affair; the link between Joe and Roy; the Roy and Ethel episodes; Hannah and Prior’s connection; Belize’s involvement in all as both compassionate participant and witness, and so on.
Denise Hough. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
Often, the writing seems padded to give everyone more acting time. Is the scene when Joe’s mother gets lost looking for Brooklyn that essential? Until stadium-type seating is installed, a Broadway theatre simply isn’t as comfortable a place to binge-watch as one’s living or bedroom.
Denish Hough, Lee Pace. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
“Millennium Approaches” ends with the Angel saying, as she hovers over the suffering Prior, “The great work begins,” a reflection of Heaven’s conservative wish for mankind to resist change and progress. Prior himself, his condition having stabilized, speaks the words at the conclusion of “Perestroika,” set in 1990, suggesting this prophetic character’s progressive take on the future. The 2018 audience in Trump’s America is left to ponder the prescience of that prophecy.
James McArdle, Susan Brown, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Andrew Garfield. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.
A minority may also ponder if Angels in America is as great a work as everybody seems to think it is.


Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through August 1


Friday, March 30, 2018

190 (2017-2018): Review: A WALK IN THE WOODS (seen March 19, 2018)

"The Russians Are Coming"

For my review of A Walk in the Woods please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

189 (2017-2018): Review: FROZEN (seen March 27, 2018)

"A Broadway Blizzard"

Just as the lingering winter temperatures are showing signs of a spring thaw, along comes the new Broadway musical Frozen to remind us of what we’d like to forget. Based on the enormously popular 2013 animated movie of the same name, this addition to the catalogue of spectacular shows based on Disney movies is not my favorite. Let me, however, mention a few of my favorite things about this Michael Grandage-directed, two hour and 20-minute extravaganza.
Patti Murrin, Caissie Levy. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
First would be the many elaborate special effects created by Jeremy Chernick on Christophe Oram’s Norway-like set, whic includes a stage-spanning bridge of ice, huge icicles that rise from the ground and poke out from the wings, the virtual freezing over of the stage and proscenium arch to the accompaniment of realistic crackling (sound by Peter Hylenski), and an ice castle formed from dazzling curtains of lace-like crystals. 
Jelani Alladin, Patti Murrin. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Oram’s costumes, many of them sumptuous, for Frozen’s 41-member company have the essential storybook feeling (although they do sometimes look like you’ve seen them before), and provide eye-poppingly magical surprises when called upon to do so. And Natasha Katz paints it all with her exquisite lighting, supplemented by the extensive digital projections of Finn Ross. 
John Riddle, Robert Creighton, Jacob Smith.  Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Kids, obviously a large segment of every audience, will love Sven, an appealing, remarkably lifelike, shaggy-haired reindeer, whose hidden animator, ballet dancer Andrew Pirozzi using hand and foot stilts, must require nightly massages to sooth his aching muscles; and Olaf, a wise-cracking, singing, and dancing, three-part snowman puppet, created by Michael Curry (who also made Sven), and operated in full view by the amiable Greg Hildreth, shown as a white-garbed clown. They’ll also thrill to the sensational talents of the children playing Young Anna and Young Elsa (Mattea Conforti and Brooklyn Nelson, when I saw the show). 
Patti Murrin, John Riddle.  Photo: Deen Van Meer.
The score, by the wife and husband team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who wrote the film’s songs, is generally tuneful but often generic. On hand, of course, are such now familiar numbers as the movie’s Academy-Award winning “Let It Go,” wonderfully sung by Princess Elsa (Caissie Levy); the romantically comic routine, “Love Is an Open Door,” performed by Princess Anna (the show-stealing Patti Murin) and Hans (the amusing John Riddle); Anna and Elsa’s “For the First Time in Forever”; and Olaf’s “In Summer,” a snowman’s charmingly impossible paean to the joys of warm weather.
Caissie Levy.  Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Levy is ideal as the isolated ice princess and Murin outstanding as her estranged, much put-upon, but valiant sister, each ringing a bell of sorts for female empowerment, and each creating a model for all the many Elsas and Annas who will undoubtedly follow in the years to come.
Patti Murrin.  Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Among the 11 new songs added is the clever, adult-oriented, company number, “Hygge,” the Danish word for cozy contentment, led by the bearded Oaken (Kevin Del Aguila), owner of a mountain trading post, using an exaggerated Scandinavian accent. The routine incorporates a chorus line of “naked” sauna users joyfully dancing (to Rob Ashford’s satirical choreography) while coyly covering their privates with branches.
Jelani Alladin, Andrew Pirozzi.  Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Not on my list of favorites is the show’s hokey, heavy-footed, overlong book, by Jennifer Lee, who also wrote (and codirected) the movie script, itself loosely inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. It’s the tale of Princess Elsa of Arendelle, whose dangerous (but unexplained) power of being able to turn things to ice or conjure blizzards unleashes familial, romantic, and, eventually, political complications when she inadvertently freezes her entire kingdom. 
Caissie Levy.  Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Ever since nearly killing Anna by accident when they were children, she and her sister have been separated, Elsa having grown up required to keep her powers secret (“Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show”). When that ultimately proves fruitless, she decides to “Let It Go” and be her true self. 
Jelani Alladin and company.  Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Among the other principals are a villainous duke (the underused Robert Creighton of  Cagney, who deserves at least a tap solo) and the ice salesman Kristoff (the talented Jelani Alladin)—Sven is his reindeer—who befriends and falls for Anna. When Anna’s heart is frozen and she’s in danger of dying, the troll-like Pabbie (Timothy Hughes) and Bulda (Olivia Phillip), who appeared earlier on, return to do their EMS mumbo jumbo. 
Caissie Levy, Patti Murrin, and company. Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Of course, this is a story in which true love thaws icy hearts and everyone lives happily ever after. With power, it seems to say, also comes responsibility. Whatever. Even with its darker, adult-oriented psychological hues, and an unexpected character turnaround, too much of Frozen remains icebound.
Company of Frozen.  Photo: Deen Van Meer.
Many adults—grownups unaccompanied by kids reportedly make up 70 per cent of Disney audiences—will love it for stirring the still glowing childhood embers in their hearts; others will value it mainly for the happiness it brings their young companions. Personally, my critical heart requires a good dose of Pabbie and Bulda’s mumbo jumbo.


St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th St., NYC
Open run

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


"Mixed Musical Arts"

Wikipedia tells us that “A rock opera is a collection of rock music songs with lyrics that relate to a common story.” But what would a show be that was both a collection of rock music songs and classical numbers, including operatic ones, that didn’t relate to a common story? A rock and opera concert, which exactly describes Broadway’s newest arrival, Rocktopia, subtitled “A Classical Revolution” in the program.
Tony Vincent, Tony Bruno. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Now ensconced at the Broadway Theatre (take that, purists) for a six-week run, Rocktopia is a straightforward, two act, two-hour and 15-minute concert performance featuring half-a-dozen soloist singers, five featured musicians, the 18-member New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra (under the baton of Randall Craig Fleischer), and, by a rough estimate (they’re not listed in the program), at least three dozen (count ‘em!) members of the New York Contemporary Choir.
Kimberley Nichole, Tony Vincent. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 
Mairead Nesbitt, Tony Vincent, Pat Monahan, Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Rocktopia is one of those odd, crowd-pleasing (mostly) shows that occasionally show up on Broadway and drive traditionalists up the wall while appealing to audiences who know all the tunes (the pop ones, at any rate) and appreciate even cover versions of them. Such visitors will sing along, clap in rhythm, wave their arms from side to side, and shoot videos on their smart phones if the performances are respectful to the originals, and there are at least one or two performers with household recognition. 
Kimberly Nichole. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Unlike at so-called jukebox musicals, the only stories these fans need are the ones they have in their heads about their personal relationships to what they’re hearing. They can get excited from a single chord before a song itself is heard, while others, less informed, sit beside them wondering, even during the song, what it’s called, when it was created, and who first sang it.

The producers obviously felt that such ticket buyers would be in the minority so the playlist they provide in the program is an alphabetical one found under the legally required "Music Credits" on the "Staff for Rocktopia" page. It lists only each number's writer(s), not even mentioning who sings it in the show.
Chloe Lowery, Tony Bruno. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Rocktopia is inspired by the notion that there’s a connective aesthetic tissue tying the classical music of composers like Strauss, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini (to mention only those in Act One) to the strains of The Who, Styx, Elton John, Heart, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, Pink Floyd, and Muse, again staying with the Act One playlist.
Tony Vincent, Mairead Nesbitt, Alyson Cambridge, Kimberly Nichole, Chloe Lowery, Tony Bruno, Rob Evan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Every classical rendering is blended with a familiar pop tune having some musical resemblance, so we hear Handel’s “Lacia ch’io pianga” paired with Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” or Tschaikovsky’s “Overture from Romeo and Juliet” with Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.” In the evening’s most successful fusion, given during the preplanned encore as the concluding performance, the entire company joins in on an exciting mashup of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Mairead Nesbitt, Rob Evan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The featured singers, each capable of competing for volcanic vocal power, not only render such well-known hits as “Come Sail Away,” “Purple Haze,” “Something,” and “We Are the Champions,” but once or twice show off their lung-bursting chops on operatic numbers, like “Nessun Dorma.” The renditions are all traditional, none offering notably original takes. I suspect the audience would revolt at anything bordering on the sacrilegious.
Pat Monahan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The star soloist is Pat Monahan, front man for the popular San Francisco rock band Train, who will be with the show until April 8, when he’ll be replaced by someone else, with Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander booked for the show’s final week, from April 23 to 29. Monahan covers Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” joins the others on Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” does a duet on Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” rocks it with the ensemble on a mashup of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,” and solos on Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” in the encore segment.
Chloe Lowery. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The other rock vocalists are Kimberley Nichole, Chloe Lowery (who had the crowd on its feet for Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”), Tony Vincent (channeling Freddie Mercury), and Rob Evan, the show’s co-creator who also serves as the laconic emcee (his spoken words are little more than a company introduction and a “Hello, New York!” here, a “Hello, Broadway!” there). The gorgeous, gifted Alyson Cambridge proves you don’t have to weigh 300 pounds to sing ear-splitting grand opera.
Tony Vincent. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Alyson Cambridge. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Rob Evan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Of the five musicians who get spotlighted, the most charismatic virtuosos are guitarist Tony Bruno (the show’s music director), looking like a slim cross between Springsteen and Bowie, and Celtic violinist Máiréad Nesbitt, a diminutive, golden-tressed sprite.
Mairead Nesbitt. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
This sizable entourage performs on a set—designed by Michael Stiller, who also did the lights—divided into two banks of metal platforming, one at either side, with the upstage area occupied by 15 vertical stripes on which countless video images, designed by Stiller and Austin Switzer, are projected. Many are of beautiful nature scenes (sunsets, clouds, flowers, water, etc.) others of exploding lights, equations, architecture, historical and documentary clips, and so on, usually with a connection of some sort to what's being sung.

One of the more specific examples is Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” being sung as a memorial to deceased pop stars (Cobain, Jackson, Presley, Tupac, Bowie, Lennon, Mercury, and so forth).
Mairead Nesbitt, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Bruno. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before; too often, in fact, the images distract from the performances in front of them. The idea of including, even briefly, some artfully created video background on the individual songs, including composer, original artists, year of creation, and so forth, seems never to have occurred to the producers.
Tony Bruno. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
And, of course, this being a rock concert, we get a full-scale demonstration of what modern lighting technology can do, with rotating spots, crisscrossing beams (sometimes sending blinding rays directly into your eyes), and every other trick in the designer’s bag of computer-assisted tricks. The sound, as expected, is sometimes suitably deafening, although my plus-one, a regular concertgoer, surprised me by saying arena concerts are actually much louder!
Tony Vincent, Kimberly Nichole, Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
There’s not much else to look at, apart from the soloists (who sometimes join with others in choral numbers), the women dressed in showy outfits, with lots of leggy exposure, the men in a variety of black ensembles: costumes are by Cynthia Nordstrom, with Mimi Prober credited for “fashion design.” There are no dance routines surrounding the songs, and, oddly, no one is credited with the direction.
Mairead Nesbitt, Pat Monahan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
After Rocktopia is gone, the Broadway Theatre will begin preparing for the gargantuan musical King Kong. The sounds of Rocktopia may be causing this venerable theatre (1924) to tremble but we can only wonder how the joint will withstand the big ape’s debut, especially with the Empire State Building only two miles away.


Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway (at 53rd St.)
Through April 29