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Review: On the Twentieth Century

On the 20th 0903- Karl, Chenoweth

Witnessing Kristen Chenoweth at the top of her form and perfectly cast is the whole reason to see this revival. The show’s creators, composer Cy Coleman and wordsmiths Betty Comden and Adolph Green, were all masters of musical theatre, but On the Twentieth Century is nobody’s best work. Don’t get me wrong, the musical is very entertaining and quite well-crafted, but it finally works best as a star vehicle. And, thank goodness, Chenoweth is one hell of a star!

Chenoweth plays bawdy and chic Hollywood star Lily Garland, whom bankrupt theater producer Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher) wants to cajole into playing the lead in his new, yet-unwritten epic drama. This madcap pursuit takes place aboard the Twentieth Century, a luxury train travelling from Chicago to New York City. Chenoweth is truly incandescent here, her frisky comic chops ideally matched to Comden and Green’s smartalecky wit.

Gallagher is far nuttier and better looking than David Belasco, the fading impresario on whom Jaffee’s based. Not to mention hammier, in a good way (although he would be hard pressed to out-ham Andy Karl as vain, muscle-bound movie leading man Bruce Granit)! Director Scott Ellis is having a lot of success this season combining fearless comic actors with suitably over-the-top characters, both here and in You Can’t Take It With You. His staging also imparts a much needed impish energy to the show.

There’s also an adorable quartet of train porters – who execute some of the best moves I’ve seen from choreographer Warren Carlyle. They even get a showstopping number of their own, the Act II opener “Life’s a Train”. The whole show is never less thans a giddy good time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Audience

Audience

Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth II in a script by Peter Morgan is some kind of magic formula. It worked wonders in the film The Queen, and that alchemy works equally well in the new stage production The Audience.

The Audience is based on the fact that British Prime Ministers have a weekly audience, or private meeting, with the monarch. The play imagines a series of pivotal audiences from Winston Churchill to David Cameron, as each Prime Minister uses these confidential conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.

The play’s chronology is non-linear, starting with John Major (1990-1997) and following a trail of themes and memories that make sense of both monarch and monarchy. Slowly, a central conflict emerges between the Ministers’ necessarily narrow focus on British problems, and the queen’s broader responsibility to the international organization she heads, the Commonwealth of Nations. It’s a wider conflict than the crisis of Lady Diana’s death portrayed in The Queen, but no less powerful and engaging.

Stephen Daldry directs the piece with equal parts grace and vigor. He makes sure the intellectual complexities are clear and easily understood, but he also provides pure theatrical splash where needed.

This is Mirren’s show above all, and she peels off the years as easily as her dressers peel off her wigs and dress (often in on-stage slight of hand). The Audience in particular shines a light on the less-remembered Labour PM Harold Wilson (1964-1970, 1974-1976), with whom Elizabeth seemed to share a particularly easy rapport. Richard McCabe portrays Wilson with a mix of bluster, smarts, and wry good humor. Judith Ivey also scores bringing Margaret Thatcher to terrifying life (in an equally terrifying, high-flying wig). Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Mark Nadler

Mark Nadler Addicted

Cabaret star Mark Nadler is one of the greatest showmen of our time, capable of leaping from floor to piano bench, tap-dancing madly, singing and keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all this while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. His last few shows have been a little more subtle, but in his latest “Addicted to the Spotlight”, the taps shoes are on and all bets are off.

In this show, Nadler interweaves stories from his more than four decades in show business with those of two other guys who were addicted to the spotlight — Al Jolson and Danny Kaye. The songs in this act are all numbers that those two supreme show-offs did.

In addition to the hoofing, he plays and sings with virtuosic abandon, in a show constructed with the passionate intelligence I’ve come to expect from him. The result is pretty stunning. There are always many layers in a Mark Nadler show, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives an “oomph” far, far beyond your typical cabaret show.

The show evolves into a complex portrait of Nadler, Kaye and Jolson, capturing both the bright joys and dark nights that a life devoted to show business brings. There are occassional moments that flirt with schmaltzy sentiment, perhaps not inappropriate in a show about performers who express themselves in bold strokes. Even with that, this is as giddily entertaining – and breathtakingly smart – as cabaret gets. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall

Herb Alpert & Lani Hall-47_0T7A563320150310L copy

Pure musical pleasure. But not just that. By the second song of their latest Cafe Carlyle gig, Herb, Lani and the boys are already improvizing into the stratosphere with outlandish zest, in a version of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” which features the most tasteful, sophisticated and syncopated use of synthisizers and drum machines I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, come on!

Trumpeter Herb Alpert is most associated with his group the Tijuana Brass, and was also a recording industry executive – he is the “A” of A&M Records, which he founded with business partner Jerry Moss. His wife Lani Hall sang with A&M artist Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, most famously on their hit version of “Mas Que Nada”. In the act at the Carlyle they perform selections from Alpert’s latest album In the Mood (which features that groovy “Choo Choo”), as well as the two albums they’ve recently recorded together, plus medleys of Tijuana Brass and Brasil ’66 hits.

I can’t overstate the impressive and exciting musicianship in this act. Alpert has structured the songs in intricate ways that leave abundant room for improvisation. They may play the same songs from night to night, but musically every performance will be utterly different. Alpert is a breathtakingly soulful player, and Lani has that kind of liquid crystal voice that songwriters dream of.

For example, Alpert dropped the melody from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” into brilliant Brazilian songwriter Edu Lobo’s “Viola Fora de Moda”, provoking appreciative smirks from Lani and pianist Bill Cantos, and inspiring several minutes that lifted the gorgeously melancholy Lobo song into something more playful and sun-kissed. Stunning.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Constellations

Constellations Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

I love how this show manages to quickly shift genres, from farce to tragedy, without feeling forced. Constellations turns on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which suggests that a potentially infinite number of parallel universes exist simultanteously. British playwright Nick Payne has applied this brain-teasing idea to the most basic of stories, a love story.

It all starts out quite comically, showing how this relationship doesn’t get started in several universes, as one or the other of the couple is married, or expresses no interest in getting together. In a decidedly non-linear fashion, we build to an extended tragic scene in which the couple faces disease and mortality. And then we end up with what is perhaps the most sweetly romantic of the scenes.

This flexibility makes for a very satisfying evening of theatre, giving us a more that usual portion of the things we look for in stories. Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal play the lovers at the heart of this puzzle, and both prove to have impressive stage chops. They enchant with their easy chemistry, and impress by conquering the sheer technical difficulty of executing subtle but revealing shifts in an often repetative and circular script. Plus, Gyllenhaal has an English accent every bit as solid as his sister Maggie’s in the BBC mini-series The Honourable Woman.

Scenic designer Tom Scutt keeps it simple but evocative. The stage is bare of furniture or large set pieces, it’s populated only by an extensive collection of white balloons of various sizes, which, depending on how lighting designer Lee Curran frames them, suggest subatomic particles, neurons, lamps, planets or whole universes. Director Michael Longhurst manages the complex proceedings with great precision and clarity. Highly recommended.

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: Side Show

Side Show

This rarely happens with musicals, but the reason to see this impeccably staged show is the director: Bill Condon, the man who arguably did the most to revive the movie musical with his script for Chicago (2002) and his script and direction of Dreamgirls (2006) (while also writing and directing such queer-themed films as Gods and Monsters and Kinsey). His love of musical theater is obvious, so it was probably only a matter of time before he entered the Broadway arena. With Side Show Condon successfully translates his storytelling magic to the stage.

Side Show follows the true story of the conjoined Hilton twins, Daisy and Violet, who went from being attractions in the titular fairgrounds, to being the highest paid performers on the vaudeville circuit, and stars of the cult film Freaks. Condon brings the combination of polish and precision that marks his film work to bear, to impressive effect.

Condon has worked with composer Henry Kreiger and lyricist/bookwriter Bill Russell to reshape the piece to be sleeker and more cogent than before (so I’m told, I don’t know much about the original production). Certainly a message – own who you are, whatever the world thinks – comes through clearly, without feeling preachy or trite.

I do know that one of the most loved elements in the first production was the chemistry between the women playing the twins, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley. Here Emily Padgett plays the fame-craving Daisy and Erin Davie as the shier and more retiring Violet. They blend beautifully, communicating that essential sense of twin-ness, while creating decisively individual personalities.

I can see what people saw in the original, but I’m even more impressed at the grace with which Condon has applied his gifts to the stage. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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