Archive Review: Pygmalion

From October 2007:

Goddess bless the Roundabout, indeed, since their other Broadway space currently hosts one of the best George Bernard Shaw revivals I’ve ever seen. Certainly this astutely executed Pygmalion is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit than their heavy-handed revival of his Heartbreak House last season.

In case you somehow missed the play’s famous musical adaptation My Fair Lady, the plot goes something like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague Colonel Pickering that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to act and speak like a lady, he gets more than he bargained for: Eliza Doolittle provokes his interest, his anger, and ultimately, his passion.

As her lessons progress, it becomes obvious that it is Henry who has the most to learn about what good manners really mean. My Fair Lady, however, romanticizes Higgins, making him a likable rogue, especially in Rex Harrison’s film portrayal. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins, and a much more self-possessed Eliza (she leaves him in the play, but not in the musical), making the play decidedly protofeminist (while Lady is suffused with Higgins own cryptomisogyny).

The amazing Jefferson Mays (of I Am My Own Wife fame) spares no quarter: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Mays has audaciously chosen to lean on everything unpleasant about this character, a choice with dazzling results. Claire Danes is a fittingly strong-willed Eliza, but Mays is without a doubt the reason to see this Pygmalion.

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

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Review: Melba Moore

There’s no denying that Melba Moore sings her freaking face off in her cabaret act at Cafe Carlyle. Most of the time that’s great, pure diva pleasure, but there are also a handful of times when all of those notes start to get in the way.

Moore is perhaps best remembered for her 1980s hit “You Stepped Into My Life”, but she started on Broadway, firstly in the original production of Hair and then another hit, Purlie, which earned her a Tony Award and rave reviews. She then went on to a career as a disco and r&b diva, and has just released a new r&b single “Love Is”, which she sings toward the show’s conclusion.

She sings “Love Is” with great simplicity and feeling, perhaps because she wants to make sure that this new song gets a hearing the way it was written. Earlier in the evening, however, she gets really flashy singing jazzy arrangements of standards. The show has a subtly chronological structure, going through the songs and artists that influenced Moore, to the songs she sang on Broadway, finishing up with her hits.

It’s revealing that, in tipping her hat to Ella Fitzgerald, Moore chooses to sing “Air Mail Special” Ella’s fastest, flashiest showpiece, rather than something more melodious from the songbooks, say Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan” (a song that would be a good fit at the swanky Carlyle). It’s as though Moore is out to prove something about her improvisational abilities and vocal range. Melba, we all know you can turn it out, you just don’t have do turn it out so hard on every song.

The fireworks work best on the standards, especially an impassioned “Stormy Weather” and the concluding “Lean On Me” (the Aretha Franklin song, not the Ben E. King one). All in all a very entertaining and slightly exhausting evening.

For tickets, click here.

Archive Review: The Ritz

From October 2007:

Terence McNally’s recent “gay history” play Some Men featured a couple of scenes set in the gay bathhouses of the 1970s. It’s territory that McNally had trod before: The Ritz, a sexy, silly farce set in the titular bathhouse, was his first bona fide Broadway hit in 1975. A revival would have seemed unlikely, given that McNally has in the interveningthirty-some years become a “serious playwright,” and The Ritz – for all its considerable charms – is decidedly slight and un-serious.

Goddess bless the Roundabout Theatre Company, then, ever the friend of forgotten but smart and worthy comedies, for bringing us this juicy new production, clearly a labor of love for director Joe Mantello and his leads Kevin Chamberlain and Rosie Perez. Chamberlain plays garbage man Gaetano Proclo, hiding from his violent mobster brother-in-law in the most bewildering place – a gay bathhouse. Perez plays Googie Gomez, the Ritz’s resident “singing” diva. Gomez makes up for in sheer determination what she decidedly lacks in talent.

One of the show’s high points is Gomez’s nightclub act, a demented showtune medley that Perez delivers with aplomb – it takes a whole lot of talent to make a bit this willfully bad feel so good. Chamberlain imbues Proclo with a bumbling sweetness that renders this breeder’s squeamish reaction to so much concentrated queerness a bit more palatable.

The show’s heart, not so surprisingly, is in the gay characters, most notably Chris, the bathhouse’s very own slutty queen(y) bee. Brook Ashmanskas, who plays Chris, was nominated for a Tony last season for playing random comic bits in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me; while I enjoyed his performance there, I never quite understood what made it award-worthy. His warmly nutty portrayal of Chris surely deserves the nod even more.

The way-gay supporting cast is even more praiseworthy: the always hilarious Seth Rudetsky delivers what is easily the funniest single moment in the show with his “handy” rendition of “Magic to Do” from Pippin as part of the Ritz’s amateur talent show.  Porn star Ryan Idol makes an amusing cameo as a cigar-smoking daddy organizing a “Crisco party.” David Turner redeems his leading role in the musical flop In My Life with a charming turn as the sweetly cynical go-go boy Duff (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe makes less of an impression as Duff’s look-alike lover Tiger).

Scott Pask’s set successfully evokes the steamy atmosphere of bathhouses gone by. The Ritz is 70s gay sex farce at its very best (were there that many?) and that comes across in this affectionate revival.

Review: War Horse

Expectations can have a lot to do with how you receive a given play. War Horse has been praised to the skies, and the videos I’d seen of the life-size horse puppets designed by gay South African puppeteers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones were indeed captivating. The show I actually saw at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, however, was not as thoroughly compelling as I had been led to believe.

War Horse takes place before and during World War I, when Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Albert (played by the adorable Seth Numrich) then embarks on a mission to find him and bring him home.

That’s the heart of the plot right there, but it takes somewhere around an hour into the play for any of that to start happening. And therein lies the main reason I didn’t connect more deeply with War Horse: both in in its plotting and its staging, it moves at too slow a pace.

For example, there are early episodes that find Albert bonding with Joey – and the play definitely needs some of that – but there is just too much of it, in too much detail. War Horse was originally a novel, and that kind of leisurely pacing is completely acceptable there, but it can really try one’s patience in the theatre.

That said, pacing to one side, War Horse is actually largely well constructed. The tear-jerking emotional payoffs at show’s end are very well set up and totally earned. And the horse puppetry is truly moving and astonishing. If this had just been more tightly engineered, I might have needed three hankies instead of just one at the end of this long evening.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Wonderland

I like these new adult sippy-cups they’re selling at Broadway show these days; what a cute, clean way to take a beverage to your seat! But I never actually buy them – too expensive for too cheap a piece of plastic. Except at Wonderland, where I needed a drink at intermission so much that I was willing to pay for the cup that went with it. Then I noticed people I knew clutching these cups. And then, when I got home, yet other people I had seen at the show were posting on Facebook about their much-needed intermission drinks.

Yes, kids, Wonderland is that special Broadway creature, a genuine, jaw-droppingly bad flop. One of those collectibles that you have to see just to say you were there. You know, Carrie, Dance of the Vampires, In My Life, that kind of thing. Oh, they offer their own kind of pleasure, but part of the deal is that they are in fact awful. You need that merch-encased cup of courage to steady your nerves.

Composer Frank Wildhorn, who must continue to get produced on Broadway solely because of his legendary personal charm, here attempts a new spin on Lewis Carroll’s classic story of Alice in Wonderland. Here Alice is a modern-day woman whose adventure takes her far below the streets of Queens, where all the familiar characters help her…do what? Rediscover her sense of wonder? Deal with her shadow self? Forgive her too-proud husband? There are all kinds of Hallmark card clichés being bandied about, but there is no sincerely meant thematic spine to this hot mess.

But this is only really dreary in the big second-act ballads; most of the time it is as spectacular as it is spectacularly bad. The design is colorful and fun, especially Susan Hilferty’s costumes, especially her creations for the Queen of Hearts. This is admittedly Wildhorn’s most tuneful score (which isn’t saying a whole lot), but in a blandly generic way, making me think Wildhorn should forget Broadway and give all of his work to Nashville or L. A.

Wonderland also has a terrific, hard-working cast, and choreography by Marguerite Derricks that is several times wittier than the words and music to which it is set. This show might actually run – I once heard a film executive talking about entertainment products that are “execution independent”, in other words, that don’t actually have to be good to sell. The Alice in Wonderland “brand” may keep this show around for a few months, and the sheer spectacle may generate some word of mouth. In other words, Wonderland will probably be on Broadway longer that it actually deserves to be.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Jerusalem

Playwright Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, title to one side, is a seriously pagan play. Drawing its title from a hymn based on a mystic poem by British poet William Blake, Jerusalem takes place in the woods of South West England, where Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Mark Rylance), a middle aged former daredevil motorcyclist and modern-day Pied Piper, is a wanted man. The council officials from town serve his rural trailer an eviction notice, while a motley crew of friends, mostly very young but ranging up in age to an elderly, visionary English professor, continue to consume his ample supply of drugs and alcohol.

The show opens with a little fairy singing Blake’s odd yet patriotic hymn, interrupted by a blast of lights and dance music reminiscent of English raves. That opening is pregnant with signifiers of everything that follows – Rooster’s deep roots in the land, his Dionysian hard-partying ways (which is what brings all the kids to his trailer) and hints of powerful magic in this charismatic, limping gypsy. He tells stories that are too supernatural and just plain crazy to be true and then produces what appears to be physical evidence.

Mark Rylance (Boeing Boeing, La Bête) proves once again that he is one of the English-speaking world’s greatest actors, this time in a role that, while wildly funny, goes way beyond comedy. Rylance is well served by his taste for parts that have fireworks built into them that he is uniquely suited to exploit. Rooster is beyond Shakespearean, he’s something out of myth or legend, while also being just a broken-down sodden bloke.

Jerusalem also owes a great deal to those raves mentioned above, even though that opening salvo is as boogie-down as the evening gets. English raves have reconnected whole generations, not only with the outlaw spirit of English heroes, but with the deeply weird druidic magic of the English countryside. That trancey dancing spirit definitely courses through this play’s veins. In fact, Jerusalem gets most bogged down when trying to show us the more ordinary parts of Rooster’s life. With a tapestry this vivid, we only need a little bit of neutral for a background, and there’s at least an unnecessary half-hour of kitchen-sink drama in the play.

With this, Rylance is the man to beat for the Tony, and the play itself is one of the more gleefully baroque pleasures to hit Broadway in quite some time. Not necessarily everybody’s cup of tea, but I loved it!

For tickets, click here.

Archive Review: The Beebo Brinker Chronicles

From October 2007:

The early 60s are very much in the air these days – the new Hairspray flick barely scratches the surface. One of the most critically acclaimed television series of 2007 is AMC’s Mad Men, a stylish and smart (if somewhat chilly) nighttime soap about a New York advertising firm in the year 1960. The Beebo Brinker Chronicles surveys that era’s Manhattan from a very different angle: the Greenwich Village lesbian underground of the late 50s and early 60s.

Beebo has more authentic period credentials than the AMC soap: it’s based on a steamy series of lesbian pulp novels actually written between 1957 and 1962. Author Ann Bannon’s melodramatic, noir-ish coming-out tales have been embraced by three generations of gay readers.

These characters may be self-loathing by today’s standards, but Bannon portrayed real gay people in a more rounded and humane way than any other fiction of that era. This was a time when the gays and lesbians of Greenwich Village began breaking the old rules, setting the stage for the Stonewall riots in the late 60s. And Bannon’s descriptions of lesbian love-making are so viscerally sensual that they have been the catalyst for untold sexual awakenings.

Beth and Laura, secret lovers in college, go their separate ways after graduation: Beth marries and has children (much like Bannon herself), Laura moves to New York. They pine for each other, but they find themselves entangled in the web of the titular Beebo Brinker, a loquacious and wildly confident butch barfly with a soft spot for young lesbians fresh off the bus.

Coauthors Linda Chapman (Gertrude and Alice) and Kate Moira Ryan (25 Questions for a Jewish Mother) have done an amazing job of condensing three of Bannon’s books into a dramedy that runs just over ninety minutes. They gently kid the pulpy melodrama of Bannon’s dialogue, while always making sure that her sharp psychological portraits are rendered with lots of flesh on their bones.

Personally, I would have liked a little more over-the-top gusto and a slightly heavier wink in the performances than director Leigh Silverman has elicited from her superb cast. To my taste, David Greenspan portrays older, affluent gay man Jack with just the right juicy fruitiness. Carolyn Baeumier strikes a similarly frisky series of stances as several characters, notably the busty, trashy Lili and embittered, blowsy novelist Nina.

Anna Foss Wilson endows the titular super-butch with abundant swagger and tremendous self-confidence. Marin Ireland plays the seemingly less interesting Laura with great feeling – Laura is the character who changes the most in the course of the story, and Ireland is equally convincing as a naïve girl and an utterly sophisticated woman.