Review: Lombardi



This was a pleasant surprise! I’m not completely ignorant of football – not least because I’ve had friends with a football gear fetish – but I didn’t go in thinking “I just have to know more about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.” Happily, playwright Eric Simonson has crafted a smart, solid, modest play about ethics, labor, journalism and strategy that just happens to include enough stats and testosterone to keep your average football fanatic awake for the ride.

We follow fictional Look magazine writer Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs) as he spends a week in 1965 with Lombardi (Dan Lauria) and his hard-nosed but loving wife Marie (Judith Light) trying to get a sense of the man behind the winning team. This isn’t a play packed with incidents, but, surprisingly, it is packed with ideas, and it’s the conflict of various ideas that drives it: management v. labor, work v. family, loyalty v. personal dignity, winning v. losing and much more. Static it isn’t: in every moment there’s something important at stake.

While Lombardi doesn’t deny the dark side of this man who wasn’t the best husband or father, it doesn’t delve into it terribly deeply either. This is, after all, the first Broadway show to include the NFL among its list of producers, and “brilliant if flawed” is probably about as dark as that franchise wants to go where one of it’s greatest figures is concerned.

Lauria is magnificent in the lead role, letting us see Lombardi’s deep, sincere affection for both the game and his players. Light is equally marvelous as a woman who isn’t thrilled with being a “sports widow” but nonetheless loves her man enough to realize that his happiness depends on the game and not on her.

Attractive young out actor Nobbs is in full “tough little guy” mode here – it’s something he does very well (I just like him better when he’s being goofy and loose, which he does equally well). Director Thomas Kail keeps the action brisk, and does a fabulous job of staging in the round for the notoriously tricky Circle in the Square space. You don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy Lombardi, but it wouldn’t hurt.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Almost. This is almost a really good musical. But not quite. Jeffrey Lane’s book, by itself, is an entertaining adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 film. David Yazbek’s Latin-tinged score has plenty of life, especially the infectious title song. But they don’t quite line up, and even occasionally get in each other’s way.

The story follows Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott), a television actress and movie dubber, for two days after her lover Ivan (Brian Stokes Mitchell) has suddenly left her. She agitatedly tries to find him, in the process learning his secrets and rethinking her feelings.

Lane and Yazbek have definitely picked up on the sense that Almodóvar’s movie is, among other things, a heartfelt love letter to Madrid, opening with a big number dedicated to the city. Danny Burstein, as a mambo-loving Taxi Driver, works hard to put it over, but it doesn’t quite land like it should – and I’m not sure why.

That sort of thing happens all night long – a number almost gets there, but fizzles out. Or it works just fine on its own terms, but totally stops the action. Pepa and Ivan have at least one song apiece that are completely unnecessary. I put some of this on director Bartlett Sher’s shoulders, since a new musical needs a director strong enough to let the songwriting team know their beautiful new song isn’t going to cut it theatrically.

Most often the songs are quite wonderful, but are either too long or too slow to match the dramatic demands of the story. Because Women on the Verge is a farce, and farces live or die on pacing and timing (which is why there are so few successful musical farces – there’s no space for the songs).

The cast is beyond marvelous: Scott’s trademark wry humor sits very well on Pepa, and Mitchell is suave perfection as the caddish Ivan. Patti LuPone is deliciously crazy as Ivan’s certifiable ex-wife Lucia, and her two big solos are quite satisfying. And Laura Benanti steals every scene as ditzy model Candela.

I enjoyed Women on the Verge more than many Broadway musicals I’ve seen – it’s a fun, tuneful mess with a knock-out cast working very hard. But is it worth today’s Broadway’s high ticket prices? Well, almost.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Scottsboro Boys

Kander and Ebb have done it again: The Scottsboro Boys resuscitates all that was best about the American minstrel show – arguably the font of all American popular music – while also scathingly annihilating all that was worst about this horribly racist form. They do this by using the minstrel style to tell the story of the notorious 1930s “Scottsboro” case, in which nine African-American men and boys were unjustly accused of raping two white Alabama women.

This juxtaposition does some very provocative things. It renders this rather grim travesty of justice something that we can bear to spend around an hour and a half hearing and learning about. Further, it satirizes minstrelsy’s worst tendencies while also allowing Kander and Ebb to write an energetic, engaging score of minstrel-style songs.

Director and choreographer Susan Stroman is doing some of her best work ever here, using minimal means to create a constantly compelling theatricality. The Scottsboro Boys finds Kander and Ebb combining fetching music with ultra-dark themes, as they’ve done before with Cabaret and Chicago; those were originally directed by Hal Prince and Bob Fosse, respectively, and Stroman’s work here can stand proudly next to those two old masters, no small feat.

Joshua Henry gives a powerful performance as the most vocal “Scottsboro Boy” Haywood Patterson, including his emotional delivery of “Go Back Home”, the score’s standout song. Coleman Domingo of Big Gay Sketch Show fame is fantastic in a collection of smaller roles, as is Forrest McClendon, particularly as the men’s attorney Samuel Leibowitz. Among the uniformly strong ensemble Christian Dante White and James T. Lane stand out, particularly in cannily executed drag turns.

John Cullum hits exactly the right note of condescending, paternalistic “cracker” authority as the show’s only white character, the “Interlocutor”. Sharon Washington is a constant silent presence as “The Lady” – when we find out who she is at the end of the show it is a heart-stopping dramatic moment. However, in what is possibly Stroman’s single misstep, her presence up until this point is often distracting, rather than compellingly mysterious.

With what is shaping up to be a very exciting and competitive season for new musicals, The Scottsboro Boys sets a high bar for both entertainment and artistry. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Driving Miss Daisy

I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the film version of Driving Miss Daisy, so I am a bit surprised to find that the play is slighter – and better – than I expected. It follows the relationship that develops between Daisy Werthan (Vanessa Redgrave) a widowed Jewish Atlanta woman (72 when we first meet her in 1948) and Hoke Coburn (James Earl Jones), the sixty-something black man her son hires to be her chauffeur.

The play covers the years between 1948 and 1972, years in which America’s attitude toward race relations changes dramatically, and in which Daisy and Hoke grow into advanced old age. Driving Miss Daisy deals with those problems only obliquely, repeatedly cutting off scenes before the action reaches any climax. Instead, Driving is the story of two fiercely independent people growing to like each other over time, finally becoming the closest of friends. It is through the lens of this relationship that we glimpse the changing American south.

The way playwright Alfred Uhry cuts off scenes makes Driving feel slight. We see, not high drama, but implied high drama, restrained so that we can continue to focus on the central relationship. Its actually very good playwriting, and is also part and parcel of why I found Driving to be better than I expected. It finds a way to have its cake and eat it to, to tell an affectionate but not saccharine story about a burgeoning friendship while also meditating gently on changes in society. It’s finely crafted chamber theatre.

What make this production particularly satisfying is that this “chamber music” is performed by two proven virtuosos. Redgrave’s Daisy is more staunch than starchy, suspicious but not unreasonable. Jones makes a full meal out of Hoke, finding layers of both feeling and irony far beyond what’s actually in the lines. Director David Esbjornson wisely stays out of his nonpareil cast’s way, delivering a production that is artfully crisp and understated. Not earth-shaking, but recommended nonetheless.

For tickets, click here.

Archive Review: Peter Gallagher

From May 2007:

Peter Gallagher is currently best known for his role as Sandy Cohen in the Fox hit “The OC.” In his show “Songs and Stories” at Feinstein’s at the Regency, he freely admits that he is worlds away from being a “cool dad” like Sandy. He embarrasses his own kids just as successfully as any parent!

This debut cabaret act showcases musical numbers from his illustrious theatre career — featuring a star turn as Sky Masterson in the Broadway production of “Guys and Dolls” that also made a star of Nathan Lane. Most impressive though, are selections from his recent solo debut CD from Epic Records “7 Days in Memphis.” While hearing Gallagher sing such standards as “Luck Be a Lady” is very satisfying on its own terms, hearing him sing Solomon Burke’s “Don’t Give up on Me” is pure revelation — astonishingly he gives this song even more soul than Burke did.

By his own admission, Gallagher’s premiere cabaret act could so easily have been a piece of hackneyed crap. To his total credit, “Songs and Stories” is a smart and sincere evening of songs that reveals Peter as a real, full-throated artist and interpreter.

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

Archive Review: Coram Boy

 

From May 2007:

This is one of the most gratifying Broadway spectaculars in recent years. Coram Boy may not be the deepest show you’ve ever seen, but it is exquisitely well-crafted, gorgeously designed and seat-of-your-pants gripping. This play is set in 18th-century England, and features unequivocal good guys (choirboy teenagers who truly, deeply, madly love music) and bad guys (a scowling but honorable mean dad and a truly mustache-twirling villain who moves from ghastly infanticide to human trafficking). As someone who doesn’t like Les Mis but liked Hugo’s novel and gets its appeal,  Coram Boy is very much the show I wished Mis could be. 

The “Coram” of the title is a home for deserted children, which forms the fulcrum of the complicated plot of this deeply-felt sentimental thriller. The “Coram Home” actually existed in the London of the day. It was a charity dear to the heart of G. F. Handel, the composer of the “Hallelujah Chorus”, whose music is key to the plot – and theatrical impact – of Coram Boy. This National Theatre production from Britain, directed by Melly Still, features a full orchestra and chorus who provide underscoring that beats anything you’ll hear at the movies, as well as interpretations of Handel’s music that would leave only the hardest heart unmoved. This is very traditional, well-made theater at its satisfying best.

Review: Angels in America

Who are the actual angels in Tony Kushner’s epic masterpiece Angels in America? The winged creatures that show up in the course of the work’s seven hours and two parts are more like spiritual bureaucrats, albeit majestic and fearsome ones.

Those who display qualities that we associate with angels – compassion, vision, and so forth – go by the name of prophet or ghost: the prophetic AIDS sufferer Prior Walter (Christian Borle), the ghost of executed American communist Ethel Rosenberg (Robin Bartlett). Perhaps the most angelic of all are the plays most simply human characters: nurse and sometime drag queen Belize (Billy Porter) and hard-nosed Mormon housewife Hannah (Bartlett again). The underlying message of Angels, underpinning its explicit cry for “more life,” is the idea that if we are looking for angels, perhaps the best place to look is the mirror – at least on our better days we are our own “better angels.”

Not that Kushner would ever be be content with a single message or theme! Ranging from earth to heaven, from the personal/political to the visionary/supernatural – and often blurring the edges of all of the above – Angels in America explores what it means to love, to be just, to be (but also to change) who you are. It is set in late 1985 and early 1986, as the AIDS epidemic is decimating the gay population and Ronald Reagan has been elected to a second term in the White House.

In director Michael Greif’s lean yet still expansive revival, the emphasis is on the play’s less angelic elements. Frank Wood gives a powerfully reptilian performance as the infamously closeted lawyer Roy Cohn, chillingly capturing Cohn’s lip-smacking rapaciousness. But it is Zachary Quinto’s astonishing portrayal of Prior’s terror-stricken ex-boyfriend Louis that forms the emotional center of this production.

Louis is the character with the biggest arc, going from cravenly abandoning Prior to courageously taking a stand against the forces arrayed against him, from a Reaganite lover to his own overwhelming guilt and fear. Quinto skillfully navigates every twist of this complicated character, smartly emphasizing his more positive, brazen and seductive qualities. Borle gives a passionate and intelligent performance as Prior, who is more properly the story’s central character, but doesn’t quite match up to Quinto’s bracing emotional honesty.

This is rightly considered one of the greatest American plays of the last century, and this production absolutely does right by it. Get a ticket if you can.

For tickets, click here.