Thursday, November 28, 2019

122 (2019-2020): Review: A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY (seen November 27, 2019)

“Heil Trump”

Tony Kushner, of course, is mainly known for Angels in America, his epochal, two-part play inspired by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. But before Angels in America made Kushner a playwriting icon there was A Bright Room Called Day, his first play, fueled by his conviction that Ronald Reagan’s presidency was somehow comparable to the rise of fascism in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
Nikki M. James. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Oskar Eustis (who later commissioned Angels in America), seeing its 1985 Off-Off-Broadway premiere under Kushner’s direction (he was a directing student at NYU), was so impressed he directed its first fully professional production two years later at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater. In 1992, Michael Greif directed the first New York production, at the Public Theater, where Eustis is now the artistic director. It bombed but, given its politically provocative subject matter, there have been many other productions (especially at colleges) over the years.

Following the outcome of the 2016 election, with the ascension of a president who makes Reagan look like FDR, it was only natural that someone would present a major revival of a play equating Trump with Hitler, and that’s what the Public has again provided, with Eustis (who gave us a Julius Caesar with the title role resembling our Dear Leader) once more at the director’s helm.

The dramatist has done some heavy lifting to bring the material up to date, and Kushner being Kushner, there’s much to admire and ponder. Speaking of pondering, though, much of A Bright Room Called Day’s two hours and 45 minutes is nearly as ponderous as the six and a half required to sit through Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance on Broadway.
Crystal Lucas-Perry, Jonathan Hadary.
I never saw the play’s first version but the chief revision appears to be the addition of a new character—an avatar of Kushner himself—called Xillah (Jonathan Hadary, humorously kvetchy), to engage in interstitial discourse with a woman named Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry, fiery), originally a Jewish woman from Long Island but now played by a black actress. Xillah and Zillah are fourth wall-breaking characters who periodically interrupt the episodic plot, which focuses on the thoughts and actions of a group of leftist friends in Berlin in 1932-1933.
Crystal Lucas-Perry.
Set in the high-walled, tastefully shabby apartment (smartly designed by David Rockwell and lit by John Torres) of actress Agnes Eggling (Nikki M. James, intense but unconvincing), the play expresses the relative commitments of each character to the constantly shifting dictates of Communist Party ideology and their response to the nation’s dangerously rightward shift.
Linda Emond.
As the plot proceeds, projections inform us of specific political events, among them the crumbling of the Weimar Republic as the Nazis gain power, the burning of the Reichstag, Hitler’s election, the violence toward the left, the creation of the Dachau concentration camp, and so on. With the pressure mounting, the friends must decide whether to stay or flee. Ultimately, it’s implied that we, the audience, face similar dangers, and that we must not repeat the feckless inaction of the Germans but take measures to prevent the destruction of liberalism from happening here.
Grace Gummer.
Agnes’s friends—suitably garbed by Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows—are Paulinka Erdnuss (Grace Gummer, too shrill), a fashionably accessorized, opium-puffing actress; Vealtninc Husz (Michael Esper, heavily accented), a passionate, bearded, Hungarian filmmaker who lost an eye in a 1919 communist uprising; Annabella Gotchling (Linda Emond, truthful), a graphic designer; and Gregor Bazwald (Michael Urie, mannered but persuasive), called Baz, an openly gay man in a homophobic world, employed at the Institute for Human Sexuality. Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke) and Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) are CP functionaries with differing views on party positions.
Max Woertendyke, Nadine Malouf.
These realistic persons are countered by an aged, disheveled, nightgown-wearing crone called the Älte (Estelle Parsons, at 92 still a powerful presence)—the Elder—a mysterious, poetry-spouting figure who enters through a window in search of food. We also meet Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis, rhetorically strong), summoned by Husz. A businessman from Hamburg, he’s really the devil, offering a powerful diatribe boasting of his resurgent powers as the fires of hell rise up behind him.
Mark Margolis.
And then there are the metatheatrical presences of Xillah and Zillah, who periodically enter to argue about not only politics and morality but to comment on Kushner’s play, including his revisions, with commentary even extending to apologies for its length and loquacity. At one point, Xillah takes up time with an anecdote about how the play got its unusual name.
Jonathan Hadary, Nikki M. James, Crystal Lucas-Perry.
So, the play is now not only a warning about what Kushner perceives to be our current flirtation with fascist leadership but about his own negative evaluation of the play’s first incarnation. Cute? Momentarily. Necessary? Hell, no. Speaking of irrelevancies, should I mention that Zillah opens act two singing “Memories of You” while Xillah accompanies her? Or how about . . .
Michael Urie, Nikki M. James.
For all the suspense implicit in the situation of 1930s German leftists being threatened by a frighteningly oppressive regime, Kushner’s play is a garrulous discussion drama that reads better than it plays. The ideas may be stimulating but, even with considerable use of colloquial language, the dialogue is frequently prolix and, at first hearing, not always easy to follow. Sturm und drang arguments fill the air but the actors, many among New York’s best, rarely seem more than mouthpieces for Kushner’s thoughts. They display high-quality technical skills and lots of emotion but, with one or two exceptions, create people we can neither believe in or care for.  
Nikki M. James, Michael Esper.
For many, the opportunity to hear Donald Trump trashed in Kushner’s rich invective will prove satisfying enough for them to remain awake during this linguistically dazzling but often-soporific exercise. On the other hand, such abuse has become so endemic in the op-eds, social media outlets, and late-night monologues that, its point made, it’s quickly blunted.
Estelle Parsons.
While it’s easy to share the author’s frustrated rage—why else so many current shows shooting poisoned darts at POTUS—A Bright Room Called Day, for all its intrinsic historical interest, places too much emphasis on didactic polemics (with which I happen to agree) and not enough on drama to brighten one's day.

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through December 8

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

122 (2019-2020): Review: EVERYTHING IS SUPER GREAT (seen November 26, 2019)

"People Needing People"

For my review of Everything Is Super Great please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Guest review 19 (2019-2020): THE GIANT HOAX

“Dueling Carnies” ***

By Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)

Indieworks invites families to step right up and learn about a fun piece of New York history with The Giant Hoax, a new musical by Kit Goldstein Grant. Marking the 150th anniversary of “the biggest hoax in history,” the production riffs on the true story of the Cardiff Giant, a fabricated 10-foot sculpture passed off in 1869 as a real-deal, petrified, prehistoric corpse of a giant. Crowds lined up to pay 50 cents for a glimpse. (If that sounds far-fetched, the business of catering to gullible chumps is alive and thriving at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, right down the street from The Giant Hoax.) 

Grant’s account of the infamous hoax is told from the perspective of headstrong, but naïve, 10-year-old Emily (young adult Staci Stout). Outfitted in a blue checkered dress, she's a farm-girl who believes in fairies and mermaids and giants (oh my). Tired of being scolded for telling tall tales, she runs away from home to see the Cardiff Giant. Short on pennies, Emily becomes an apprentice as a barker to William “Stub” Newall (Forest VanDyke), the shady showman with whom the girl forms an unlikely bond. Stub had the Cardiff Giant manufactured to make a profit off an easily duped audience, but VanDyke instills in him a sincere likability that might make you want to get in line with your half-dollar, too. 
Staci Stout and company. Photos: Brian E. Long.
There is one place where the Cardiff Giant is very much real, and that’s in Emily’s imagination. The giant comes to life as her imaginary friend in the form of a huge (well, giant) puppet voiced by the tall (if not quite 10-feet tall) Daniel Moser, who manipulates the puppet along with Jianiz Colon-Soto and Mary Albert, who control the ample hands. As they play cards and sing, Emily becomes absorbed in her larger-than-life friend.

Star-to-be Staci Stout effortlessly switches gears between the Annie Oakley-like farm girl, literally standing on a soap box with gusto, and the scared kid quietly lost in her imagination, with a vocal range that charms and impresses.

When the famed circus impresario P.T. Barnum (a cartoonish Paul Aguirre) hears of the buzz garnered by the Cardiff Giant’s success, he tries to buy it from Stub. Irked that Stub refuses to sell him the attraction, Barnum manufactures a Cardiff Giant of his own, publicly proclaiming his is the real deal and Stub’s is a fake. When a trial ensures to prove the validity of the giant monuments, both showmen are forced to confess they produced the giant, and Emily must come to terms with reality. 

In the happy ending you would expect, Emily returns home to her mother with renewed zest about the world holding “wonderful things.” As for Stub, it turns out the crowd will now pony up a full dollar (double the original price) to see the Cardiff Giant (the namesake of a Brooklyn pub a century and a half later), because checking out the source of a scandal is even cooler than an actual petrified giant.  
Company of The Great Hoax.
Director Christopher Michaels makes solid use of the ensemble, most of whom play multiple characters and rotate on and off to produce the effect of larger crowds. Tyler Carlton Williams’s costumes and Theron Wineinger’s sets place the show appropriately in 1869 upstate New York.

Kit Goldstein Grant delivers an effective score with a few leave-the-theatre hummers and fun, playful lyrics. But despite some catchy tunes, the already-short, 90-minute family production lags and feels caught in an identity dilemma: perhaps too slow and complex for children but not savvy enough for adults. 
Theatre One/Theatre Row
410 W42nd St., NYC
Through December 7

Elyse Orecchio studied musical theatre at Emerson College, acting at CUNY Brooklyn College, and English Linguistics & Rhetoric at CUNY Hunter College. She has worked in nonprofit communications for more than a decade. She lives in Sunnyside, Queens, with her husband Joe, kids Theo and Melody, and three cats. @elyseorecchio

Monday, November 25, 2019

120 (2019-2020): Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (seen November 24, 2019)

“Give and You Shall Receive”

I just discovered a darling clementine in my shoulder bag, still fresh, and not lost and gone forever. I’d forgotten it after receiving it the other day during the moments preceding the latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’s amazingly enduring A Christmas Carol, a novella first published in 1843.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not the most frequently filmed and dramatized work of fiction in history. There are several other versions currently on tap, as traditional, during this holiday season, one example being A Christmas Carol in Harlem.
Andrea Martin, LaChanze, Campbell Scott, Rachel Prather. All photos: Joan Marcus.
The one I saw is an import from London’s Old Vic,  where it premiered in 2017, its script by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and its direction by Matthew Warchus (Matilda). It's at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, with Campbell Scott as the flinty old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Andrea Martin and LaChanze playing the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present, respectively (La Chanze also covers Mrs. Fezziwig).

This joyous version resembles the look of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s great 1980 (Broadway in 1981) adaptation of Dickens’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, although it trims the original to two hours, whereas Nicholas Nickleby held its audience enthralled for eight and a half hours over the course of two separate plays.
Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott.
A simple platform stage, designed by Rob Howell (who also did the costumes), and thrillingly lit by Hugh Vanstone, thrusts into the auditorium (necessitating the removal of prime ticket-buying real estate) beneath a starry sky created from dozens of hanging lanterns. Using barely any scenery (mainly four slender door frames that rise from the floor and sink back as needed) and only a highly selective number of props (among them an elaborate coffin), the production scampers briskly through the familiar story.
Campbell Scott.
That, of course, is the one about the greedy old buzzard who considers Christmas a “humbug,” who mistreats his needy clerk, Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves), before being chastised by a visit from the ghost, in chains, of his late business partner, Marley (Chris Hoch). Unrepentant, Scrooge is then visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come (here represented by Scrooge’s dead sister, Little Fan [Rachel Prather]).
Sarah Hunt, Campbell Scott.
He revisits the failure of his youthful love for Belle (Sarah Hunt), envisioned by Thorne as the daughter of Fezziwig (Evan Harrington), to whom young Ebenezer was apprenticed. In Dickens, Fezziwig is a successful businessman, but here he’s an undertaker. In the most haunting scene, filled with hooded phantoms, Scrooge also glimpses his own death before he reforms completely, ending with his altruistically providing the family of his wretched clerk with a bounteous feast, topped off by the immortal “God bless us. Everyone,” of Bob’s disabled young boy, Tiny Tim (the adorable Sebastian Ortiz, who has cerebral palsy, at the performance I attended). I defy you not to weep at this classic moment.
Campbell Scott, Dashiell Eaves.
It’s also hard not to weep at the way in which Dickens’s tale of income inequality continues to reverberate today, where—especially as noted by the Ghost of Christmas Present—the distribution of wealth has caused heartbreaking conditions. It’s almost too easy, in fact. to fantasize about parody versions of the narrative featuring names that appear in our daily newsfeeds. Who is the most mean-spiritedly unphilanthropic, or, shall I say, illegally philanthropic, billionaire, you can think of? See what I mean?  
Campbell Scott.
Warchus makes the event as celebratory as possible, beginning with a small band on stage playing lively Christmas music as the cast—dressed authentically in mid-19th-century clothing, the men in black coats and stovepipe hats, the women in wide dresses—walks down the aisles with baskets. As they go, they distribute tangerines and cookies, while actors on stage throw them to outstretched arms in the auditorium. 
In preparation for the feast at the Cratchits’ home, two, long, white sheets are tossed from either side of the balcony to crisscross on the stage, where they serve as chutes for an abundance of fruits and vegetables that soon pile up in baskets. Meanwhile, foods both real (like cabbages) and artificial (like sausage links) are passed along through the spectators’ hands.
Campbell Scott and company.
Now and then, carols are inserted into the performance, and music underscores most of the production. But the loveliest musical moment of all comes as an encore, when Scrooge, addressing us directly, asks if we’d like one more. At the audience’s enthusiastic response, the entire company, singing not a word but each holding one or two handbells, play out, note by note, in Christopher Nightingale’s exquisite arrangement, the beloved “Silent Night,” with the very last tinkle, following those by Scrooge himself, given to Tiny Tim.
Andrea Martin.
Campbell Scott, white-haired and mutton-chopped, plays Scrooge in a long, red garment looking like a cross between a coat and a sweater. He makes a robust, if a bit too perpetually gruff, geezer, a man who brusquely chases off the carolers at his door. The ghosts played by Andrea Martin and LaChanze push prams, looking more schoolmarmish than spectral. Martin, one our most dependably laugh-generating comediennes, isn’t given enough opportunity to do what she does best, which is also true of the chances given to the vocally exhilarating LaChanze, here adopting a West Indian accent.
Campbell Scott, LaChanze.
The supporting company of 13, several playing two roles, is admirable, although their English accents aren’t always pure. Chris Hoch, who plays both Marley and Scrooge’s cruel father, sings splendidly, and Sarah Hunt's Belle, especially when Scrooge revisits her after she's been happily married to another, is touching.
Company of A Christmas Carol.
What else is there? Oh, yes. If you feel wet drops on your head, it’s because snow is falling on you from snowmakers in the balcony. You might, in the holiday spirit, wish to reciprocate when you depart with a drop or two in the buckets waiting in the lobby for use by charitable organizations.

Lyceum Theatre
149 W. 45th St., NYC
Through January 5

Saturday, November 23, 2019

119 (2019-2020): Review: CYRANO (seen November 22, 2019)

“No Nose for Cyrano”

An old novelty song I learned as a kid goes: “Noses, noses / they run in my family / Some are big / Some are small / Some you cannot see at all.” As most sapient theatregoers know, there’s a particular nose that didn’t belong to Jimmy Durante and has dominated the stage and screen since 1897. It’s the one planted on the face of Edmond Rostand’s eponymous hero in Cyrano de Bergerac, the still widely produced romantic melodrama about the 17th century duelist, poet, and playwright. So significant is Cyrano’s elongated proboscis that Rostand provides him with the opportunity to defend it against insult in one of the most brilliant satirical monologues in theatre history. 
Scott Stangland, Peter Dinklage, Christopher Gurr. All photos: Monique Carboni.
Sadly, the nose, and with it, the speech, are lopped off in Cyrano, Erica Schmidt’s disappointingly reductive musical adaptation (which she also directed) of Rostand’s swashbuckling classic, starring Schmidt’s husband, esteemed actor Peter Dinklage, as the prideful cadet with the elephantine snout.
Ritchie Coster, Peter Dinklage.
Not that there aren’t one or two snotty references to it. However, since Dinklage’s own muzzle is more cute than colossal, all negative comments regarding his appearance are of the euphemistic, wink-wink variety, allowing him and us to react to such slights with an awareness of what they’re really looking down their noses at. The diminutive hero even laughs at himself, saying, “I am proof that God has a sick sense of humor.”
Jasmine Cephas Jones.
Dinklage is unquestionably a marvelous actor, recognized not only for his renowned, multiple award-winning work on “Game of Thrones,” but for many other screen and stage roles. Gamely cast against type as Rostand’s master swordsman/sacrificial lover/poetic wordsmith, he provides a host of interesting readings and makes his presence indelible.
Christopher Gurr, Hillary Fisher, Nehal Joshi, Josh A. Dawson, Scott Stangland.
Cyrano is a musical, though, and Dinklage’s singing talent is, shall we say, modest. His few songs are designed to exploit his powerfully resonant but severely limited baritone by allowing him to act-speak-sing them in a Leonard Cohen-like delivery rather than give them full-out musical expression.
Peter Dinklage, Josh A. Dawson.
Dinklage handles Cyrano’s emotional life—from his critical arrogance to his outsized pride to his erotic passion to his wounded heart to his ironic wit—with panache, but he remains unpersuasive as a character so devastatingly skilled at swordplay he can lay waste to 100 men. On the other hand, if you would accept Tommy Tune as Toulouse Lautrec or Rebel Wilson as Marilyn Monroe, you might consider him an apropos Cyrano.
Blake Jenner, Peter Dinklage.
Panache, by the way, is nearly as significant a part of Cyrano de Bergerac as Cyrano’s nose but it, too, has vanished from the script. Not only is the word never spoken, the performance fails to provide it either as an attribute of the hero’s character or as the flair embodied in Rostand’s style.
Blake Jenner, Peter Dinklage, Jasmine Cephas Jones.
Schmidt sets the action, which takes place in 1640, in a timeless world suggested by Tom Broecker’s costume scheme, combining classical and modern elements, with Rostand’s flowery dialogue replaced by contemporary commonplaces (including several iterations of “shit”). Her minimalist approach deprives Rostand’s play of the flamboyance necessary to disguise the implausibility of its impossibly sentimental plot, making the entire enterprise seem absurd (reductio ad absurdum, as they say).

Rostand’s original somehow manages to suspend our disbelief in the possibility that Cyrano, secretly in love with the beauteous Roxanne (Jasmine Cephas Jones), would selflessly conspire to further the aspirations of a love rival, the tongue-tied Christian (Blake Jenner), merely because Roxanne is enamored of Christian’s looks. In Schmidt’s watered-down version, the concept seems exaggeratedly artificial. This is particularly evident in the scene when Cyrano, in the garden’s shadows, woos Roxanne, overlooking the scene from a balcony, on Christian’s behalf. Moreover, the inability of anyone to realize that it will only be a matter of minutes after Christian and Roxanne are married that she’ll realize the extent both of her, his, and Cyrano’s stupidity seems ridiculously apparent here.
Peter Dinklage, Jasmine Cephas Jones.
Schmidt’s script waters the five-act play down to two, taking up a little more than two hours. Its music is by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner, and its lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, members of the Grammy-winning indie rock band The National. One song after the other, played by a six-piece band, repeats a simple note progression over and over as the lyrics, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, carry plodding narrative messages. While occasionally clicking, the score too frequently flirts with the banal. And with a dominant tone of rueful melancholy depriving the score of variety, the show begins to drag.

Still, Jasmine Cephas Jones (Hamilton) has such an exceptional sound she manages to make even sow’s ear lyrics sound like silk purse ones. Blake Jenner’s voice goes far toward compensating for Dinklage’s musical limitations, while Josh A. Dawson does nicely as Cyrano’s friend, Le Bret. Ritchie Coster, as the posh-accented De Guiche, the nobleman love rival for Roxanne, creates an effective blend of the insidious and sympathetic, and Grace McClean is pleasing as Roxanne’s chaperone, Marie. The remaining ensemble of five keeps busy doubling nicely in a variety of roles.

Schmidt’s staging, combined with Jeff and Rick Kuperman’s choreography, is enacted on an efficient set by Christine Jones and Amy Rubin that allows for rapid scene shifts with a minimum of props and scenic decorations (like the wisteria hanging in Roxanne’s garden). The overall tone is dark. Even the costumes, with the exception of several dresses—red, blue, and white—worn by Roxanne, are mainly on the black and gray scale. Such bleakness requires considerable input from Jeff Croiter’s strikingly dramatic lighting.
Peter Dinklage, Blake Jenner.
Several scenes are creatively realized, the best being the battlefield sequence, especially when the doomed soldiers sing (“Southern Blood”) of the loved ones who will learn of their deaths. There are too few such moments to rescue the show from blandness.

Cyrano, produced by the New Group at the Daryl Roth Theatre following its premiere last year at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Theatre, is the latest in a line of musical (and operatic) adaptations of Rostand’s play, including two on Broadway (1973 and 1993). There’s even a modest little musical called Serrano: The Musical, which sets the action among mobsters in Little Italy. It  isn't The Godfather but, in a creative shootout with Cyrano, it wins by more than a nose.  

Daryl Roth Theatre
101 E. 15th St., NYC
Through December 22