Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Vanya Photo 4

Playwright Christopher Durang has figured out why Chekhov should be funny – transposing Chekhovian characters to 21st Century Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Durang has made sense of how rueful melancholy can be hilarious. It might not make sense for us to laugh at landowners missing all the serfs they used to have, but we can easily “get” a fifty-something missing his three channels of black-and-white TV from the 1950s and 60s. It also helps that Durang doesn’t write in a realist style like Chekhov, but a style altogther more absurd and impishly laugh-seeking.

In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now receiving a solid revival at Paper Mill Playhouse, Vanya (Mark Nelson) and his adopted sister Sonia (Michele Pawk) have lived their entire, quietly desperate lives in their family’s country house. While they stayed home to take care of their ailing (and now dead) parents, their sister Masha (Carolyn McCormick) has become a successful movie star. When Masha unexpectedly reappears with her twenty-something boy toy Spike (Phillipe Bowgen), the siblings’ stagnant lives are thrown into disorienting – but also exciting – chaos.

I should pause here for just a moment to say “HELLOOO, SPIKE!!!” Bowgen (pictured above) is a stunningly fit young man, and Durang has Spike disrobe at any opportunity. While that is more reminiscent of Inge than Chekhov, it is certainly very welcome in these quarters.

Nelson gives the most Chekhovian performance as the gay Vanya, who quietly lusts after Spike’s bod but gives him a very big comeuppance by play’s end. The other stand-out performance in this production is Gina Daniels as the fortune-telling Cassandra; Daniels’ combination of crack comic timing and warm sweetness is very winning. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You RThomas

This production has just gotten tighter and more joyful since it opened. It also has added depth, thanks in no small part to two additions to the cast. You Can’t Take It With You celebrates the joy of being different, being yourself, more than almost any other play out there, which long ago earned it a special place in my heart.

The Sycamores are a family of happy eccentrics, led by easy-going paterfamilias Grandpa Vanderhof (magnificently played here by James Earl Jones). When youngest daughter Alice (cast addition Anna Chlumsky) invites her fiancé’s straight-laced parents over for dinner, Grandpa and company find they must heartily defend their unusual way of life.

Chlumsky is by turns tender and playful, has a natural kookiness that lets her immediately make sense as a Sycamore. The other addition, Richard Thomas, plays Alice’s father Paul with a great good-natured warmheartedness that’s deeply appealing. Director Scott Ellis has kept the proceedings appropriately fast-paced and light-hearted, paying careful attention to making distinctions among this household’s wide variety of personalities. David Rockwell’s set perfectly captures both the eclectic chaos and the liberated spirit Grandpa’s philosophy has unleashed.

Jones has always been capable of a light touch, it just isn’t what is usually asked of him. You Can’t Take it With You gives him ample opportunity to apply such a touch – this is, after all, a man who relishes relaxing into life. And the result is wonderful: gentleness backed up with kilowatts of reserved power.

This is definitely an ensemble show, though, and what an ensemble! It’s lucky that Rockwell has designed such a massive set, and surprising that the scenery hasn’t been entirely chewed away at the end of every evening (I mean this as a compliment, by the way). Julie Halston, as a soused actress, has one of the smallest parts in the show, but treats it like a full meal. Annaleigh Ashford hits the show’s sweetly hilarious tone most effortlessly as the forever en pointe would-be ballerina Essie.

The title refers to the money that 9-to-5ers and salarymen are forever chasing after, and to the fact that, in the final analysis, money has little to do with finding happiness here and now. And that’s a message that’s just as needed now as it was in 1938. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Les Contes d’Hoffman

contes d'hoffman

God I love French opera! There’s just something about the French angle on opera, from the 17th Century to today, that really engages me. I’m beginning to think that it’s “the fantastic” in French opera that turns me on, and Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman (Tales of Hoffman) has that in spades.

Even moreso in director Bartlett Sher’s production, which is now easily my favorite operatic work by Sher. He matches Hoffman’s phantasmagorical love stories with elaborate exuberance and color; Sher’s productions that have worked less well for me have tended to oversimplify, so this complexity is most welcome.

Offenbach’s masterpiece follows a highly fictionalized version of German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann through tales of his lost loves, which may or may not be true. The real vocal draw of this production is Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffman. He portrays the lovesick writer with real magnetism and charisma, and is possessed of a clarion voice that is engaging and robust.

The other vocal highlight is Erin Morley as the beautiful automaton Olympia. Hoffman and Offenbach were both great devotees of Mozart, and Olympia owes a lot to Mozart’s Queen of the Night. Like that Queen, in her big aria Olympia hits long sequences of ridicuously high notes, and Morley executes this spectacular piece of music with confidence and style. She also walks a fine line acting-wise, successfully portraying a machine that is able to imitate human behavior.

I go to the opera as much to see spectacular, epic flights of visual imagination as to hear great singing. This Hoffman has plenty of both, which makes it easy to recommend.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: The Merry Widow

Merry_Widow_Fleming

There is definitely fun to be had in the Met’s new production of Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow, directed and choreographed by Broadway stalwart Susan Stroman. While this is neither her best work, nor the best production of The Merry Widow ever, it has enough virtues to make it a real pleasure, if not quite the lush, effervescent fun-fest it should be.

It’s a surprise that Julian Crouch’s sets are a bit problematic. Crouch is a very accomplished designer as well as a director in his own right. And, indeed, his set for The Enchanted Island at the Met had all kinds of nooks and crannies that helped make sense of that pastiche. Also, his Act III set for this opera, which represents the legendary Paris restaurant Maxim’s, is an eye-popping delight, and the way it emerges is a real coup de theatre.

Why then are his designs for the first two acts so static? They’re impressive, even pretty, but tend to dwarf the action of this basically intimate operetta about a woman whose riches might save her Balkan homeland. Why, too, does Paule Constable’s lighting not narrow its focus for two person scenes, something she did so masterfully for Curious Incident on Broadway?

All this makes the show’s natural fizz go a bit flat. None of this, though, is in any way the fault of Merry Widow‘s thoroughly excellent cast. Diva extraordinaire Renée Fleming plays Hanna Glawari, the title role, a peasant’s daughter which married a ridiculously wealthy man not long before his death. She positively floats in a slick and lustrous performance, bewitchingly exquisite in its musicality. Her rendition of the “Vilja Song” is particularly lovely, sung in warm, hushed tones that beautifully underline the aria’s rueful wistfulness.

Kelli O’Hara is a marvelous Valencienne, a baron’s wife who longs for illicit excitement. O’Hara is particularly good in the third act, when Valencienne cuts loose and dances with the showgirls at Maxim’s. Stroman does her best work in this act – in fact her work throughout is witty and clever, which makes the fact that it’s generally framed poorly all the more frustrating. Recommended, but not as good as hoped.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Marilyn Maye “By Request”

Marilyn-Maye-Headshot

Ella Fitzgerald once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” That’s no exaggeration; she may be the only singer alive who combines a great vocal instrument with interpretative flair and savoir faire equal to Ella’s own. I can think of no other living singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range – at 86, her voice is the envy of singers 40 years her junior.

She’s also a “saloon singer”, a singer who has a fantastic rapport with her audience, singing them beloved songs from a startlingly wide variety of genres. These shows at the Metropolitan Room take full advantage of this facet of her talent. Marilyn asks her audience to pick her “Marilyn By Request” set list by making song suggestions when making their reservations. It makes for an evening filled with surprises, and plenty of energy from both sides of the footlights.

Musical director Billy Stritch – a frequent foil for the likes of Liza Minnelli and Christine Ebersole – is the perfect match for this footloose kind of approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. And always, always fully at home in – and totally committed to – the music.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host – the night I went she sang a version of “I Will Survive” that she premiered with Carson. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: The Elephant Man

Elephant Man, The Booth Theatre

This proves – as no doubt it was intended to – that Bradley Cooper is a bona fide stage actor with considerable chops, not just a slumming movie star. Often, when a star of Cooper’s magnitude shows up on Broadway, the best news that can be expected is that they didn’t suck, but didn’t quite hold the stage either. Not the case here: Cooper is the real deal.

Based on the life of Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man tells the story of a 19th-century British man who became a star of the traveling freak show circuit. When a concerned doctor named Treves (Alessandro Nivola) takes Merrick in, the “elephant man” surprises him, not only with his quick intelligence, but also with his very human hunger for approval.

While Merrick’s deformities might seem to cry out for prosthetics (as were used in the 1980 David Lynch film of the same name), playwright Bernard Pomerance insists that he be portrayed by an able-bodied actor contorting himself into Merrick’s posture. Cooper is more than game for this, and pulls it off more naturally than any other actor I have seen in the role.

It doesn’t hurt that this is easily director Scott Ellis’s best work to date, finding as he does the humor and style in this often grim story. This is the most incisive direction I’ve seen from him, and he is much assisted by Timothy R. Mackabee’s fluid set design. Victorian in its details but minimalist in its fundamental conception, Mackabee’s approach is a marvellous marriage of imagination and function.

Pomerance has made the play as much Dr. Treves’s story as it is Merrick’s. Alessandro Nivola is excellent as the already deeply conflicted doctor, who is only driven further into confusion by Merrick’s predicament.

This may read like an unqualified rave; I have to admit that the play itself, while smart and engaging, is not one of my all-time favorites. Still, when faced with a production as immaculate as this one, it does prove hard to resist. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Michael Feinstein

Feinstein Xmas 2014 73-atjmbo

The foremost conservator and champion of the Great American Songbook, Michael Feinstein has made it a tradition to do a musically exciting Christmas show in New York City. For many years that was in the cabaret that bore his name at the Regency hotel. Last year and this year it’s at Birdland – and next year it will be at “Feinstein’s On Broadway” in the same building that houses Birdland.

Each year is somewhat different – this year is a swinging edition with a 17-piece big band, all slow burns and steady builds. One of the first Christmas shows I saw at Feinstein’s was Rosemary Clooney’s, in her later years a close friend to Michael. For this show, Feinstein movingly reprises two Irving Berlin songs from White Christmas, in which Clooney starred.

His reading of the song Clooney shared with Bing Crosby, “Count Your Blessings” is gentle and sweet. The uptempo “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” gets a really expansive big band treatment. For years, Feinstein has also included non-holiday stardards in these seasonal sets, and this act climaxes with a big Sinatra medley, to kick off the celebration of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ centennial.

Where some of Feinstein’s previous Christmas shows had an unstoppable optimism just under the surface, this one has a more rueful undertow. Oh, it’s still a genuinely swinging good time, but any show that includes the melancholy “After the Holidays” is paying attention to the darker side of this time of year. Above all, however, this is simply a really engaging show that adds both heartfelt warmth and swinging fun to the holiday season.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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