Review: Macbeth

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Thank goodness I know this play very intimately – I played Macbeth’s nemesis MacDuff in college – otherwise I might not have been able to follow this artful but somewhat opaque adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

This Macbeth is set in a clinical room deep within a forbidding psychiatric unit. Alan Cumming plays the lone patient, who for some reason relives the events of the play, inhabiting all of the roles himself.

The context is never fully explained, but it seems that the patient has either been witness to a murder or murders, or committed them himself in a fit of madness. There is a whiff of virulent Scottish nationalism in his ramblings (Cumming is Scottish-born and director John Tiffany went to school at Glascow and worked at the National Theatre of Scotland). Most notably, the king that Macbeth kills, Duncan, is played as a haughty Englishman, with more than a hint of contempt from the patient as he plays him.

Cumming has disavowed this interpretation in interviews, observing that Macbeth is nobody’s idea of a good role model. However, if one thinks about the negative psychological effects of imperialism while watching this production (as I did after hearing Duncan’s twee Brit accent), it all makes a good deal more sense. Still pretty opaque even then, though.

Tiffany has always owed something to high art European theatre – as a matter of fact his ability to mix that sensibility with soulful, clear storytelling has made him one of the directors I admire most. This has many soulful moments, but doesn’t tell the story of Macbeth with any clarity. This is far closer to pure high art than Tiffany’s other productions; while I personally like that kind of stuff, I recognize that it is definitely an acquired taste. Plus, I also like his more accessible stuff better, myself.

There is no denying, though, that visually and aurally this production is very fully realized. In particular, Merle Hensel’s set and costumes and Max Richter’s music truly bleed eerie, emotionally wrought atmosphere.

Finally though, this is all in service of a genuinely virtuoso performance from Cumming. Using all the intense energy and aching vulnerability he brings to every role, Cumming won me over. I may not have understood why the patient did any particular thing, but I certainly understood what he was doing, and how this tortured soul felt about it. Tremendously compelling, but not for everybody.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Trip to Bountiful

The Trip to Bountiful Stephen Sondheim Theatre

This is so sentimental – and irresistible. First appearing on Broadway in 1953, featuring silent movie star Lillian Gish in the role now played by Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful follows Carrie Watts, an elderly woman who dreams of returning to her small Texas hometown of Bountiful one last time. Her bossy daughter-in-law forbids it, her overprotective son worries it’s too much for her frail health and nobody will cash her pension check.

Playwright Horton Foote favors subtle, well-made, even quiet dissections of the ordinary people of his native Texas, of which The Trip to Bountiful is the most popular. It’s a character sketch of Carrie more than anything else, and Tyson puts everything she’s got into her deeply heartfelt portrayal. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Williams give her solid support as, respectively, her quietly dignified but hen-pecked son Ludie and glamorous but too-hard city girl daughter-in-law Jessie Mae.

Director Michael Wilson, who has done many of Foote’s plays over the years, wisely puts his trust in the underlying warm emotionality of Carrie’s trip. This approach elicits an equally warm response from the audience, to the point of joining in when Carrie sings her favorite hymns.

That’s not to say that Wilson pays no attention to the unspoken flintiness in Carrie or grudging compassion from Jessie Mae. It’s just that he realizes that’s not where the real payoff of this play lies – that’s all just texture, albeit brilliantly rich and brilliantly executed.

For a sentimental drama that’s over 50 years old, The Trip to Bountiful has aged exceptionally well – it’s still quite entertaining and its insights still make abundant sense. Very satisfying.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Orphans

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I liked this a great deal more than I expected! It’s no secret that I don’t care much for melodramatic plays full of straight boy attitude – I’m talking to you David Mamet and Neil LaBute! Of that sort of thing, I most enjoy Sam Shepard, who digs a lot deeper than the abovementioned duo; plus, his plays are filled with visual and literary images of great (and often somewhat mysterious) impact.

Lyle Kessler doesn’t dig as deep as Shepard in Orphans, but the play is more lucid and humane than anything I can think of from any of the authors I’ve mentioned. Plus, Kessler’s characters and plot are every bit as evocative and mysterious as Shepard’s imagery.

In Orphans, two orphaned brothers are living in a decrepit North Philadelphia house. Older brother Treat (Ben Foster) supports his “slow,” perhaps autistic younger sibling Philip (Tom Sturridge) by petty thievery, and is overprotective to the point of making Philip afraid of air from outside the house. One night Treat kidnaps a rich older man; Harold (Alec Baldwin) turns out to have his own motives and becomes the father figure the boys have always yearned for.

Baldwin is the money name here, and the whole production was his idea. This only confirms my feeling that Baldwin is quite a savvy theatre artist (though I wouldn’t take personal advice from the man for all the money in the world). Orphans is very much an ensemble piece, so you can’t say that Baldwin carries the show. True, the play really takes off after a gag is taken off Harold’s mouth, but that has more to do with smart structure on Kessler’s part that Baldwin’s admittedly considerable charisma.

Certainly the other two actors can more than stand up to Baldwin: Tom Sturridge’s Phillip makes up for in monkey-like agility and grace what he lacks in reasoning power, and Ben Foster has the right high-testoterone attitude for the angst-ridden Treat. Orphans is a fundamentally odd play, but oddly right for this exciting, energetic trio of actors.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Big Knife

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This revival is decidedly better than many reviews out there suggest. Perhaps the problem is that Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife, a very good play, is showing up in a season with top-flight revival of what many feel is his best play, Golden Boy.

In late 1940s Hollywood, the Hoff-Federated studio has its most successful star, Charlie Castle, over a barrel since it helped cover up a mistake that could have ended his career. When a woman with insider knowledge threatens to come forward, the studio heads will stop at nothing to protect Charlie’s secret.

I’ll admit that while I like Odets, I’m not his most enthusiastic fan. The Big Knife has everything I like about Odets – penetrating thematic intelligence and engrossing characters – and everything I don’t – an unthinking sense that tragedy equals seriousness, and moral points stated so baldly and melodramatically that they are rendered inescapably corny. In short, The Big Knife is identifiably Odets, full stop.

And this production, directed by Doug Hughes, does a first-rate job of giving us Odets, full stop. Bobby Cannavale is suitably sexy and tortured as Charlie. In the shows strongest performance, Richard Kind plays a manipulative studio exec who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but works very hard to pretend that he only wants what’s best for his stars. The designers are old Broadway hands, John Lee Beatty on sets and Catherine Zuber on costumes, so it’s hardly surprising that they make us want to live in Charlie’s mid-century modern house and wear his old Hollywood glamour wardrobe.

It really all boils down to how much you enjoy Clifford Odets in general. As I said above, I like but don’t love Odets, so I liked but didn’t love The Big Knife – I certainly can’t fault Hughes and company for getting Odets wrong, as others seem to.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Nance

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This is Douglas Carter Beane’s best play yet! In The Nance, he delves into a world that has long fascinated me, the world of effeminate gays as characters in nightclub entertainment of the early 20th Century.

In the early 1930s there was a now mostly forgotten “pansy craze” whose most successful performer was one Jean Malin, who we can see knocking gangsters on the floor and channeling Mae West and Sophie Tucker in this video:

Jean Malin-Arizona to Broadway-1933 by redhotjazz

Contrary to the video, however, Malin mostly emceed out of drag. He didn’t impersonate women, but performed as an openly gay male, confidently swishing.

The Nance deals with a slightly later era, around 1937. The craze itself had passed, but pansy comics or “nances” were still popular in burlesque houses. The play tells the story of Chauncey Miles (Nathan Lane), one such headline nance performer.

Combining burlesque sketches with comedy, romance and drama, Beane paints a complex, fascinating portrait of a gay man, living and working in the secretive and dangerous gay world of 1930s New York, whose outrageous stage antics stand in marked contrast to offstage life.

Just as Beane is doing some of the best work of his career so far, so is Nathan Lane. His burlesque performances are rich with the comic timing for which he’s so well known. But the main story is Chauncey’s romance with pretty young thing Ned (Jonny Orsini), in which he plays so many shades of desire and insecurity and even love – it’s a knockout.

Orsini is a knockout too, not only visually – there’s no question why Chauncey is attracted to Ned – but also in the acting department. Orsini plays Ned with such sweetness and joy of discovery that Ned almost takes over as the play’s central character. Almost. Lewis J. Stadlen is marvelously hilarious, too, as Chauncey’s boss and comic partner. Cady Huffman also stands out in her zesty portrayal of a communist stripper.

The Nance is incredibly ambitious, mixing dirty jokes with great poignancy, politics and even a hint of mysticism, and Beane carries it all through with dazzling intelligence, plunging the depths and hitting the heights. It’s the best play I’ve seen on so many levels in a very long time, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Motown

Motown: The Musical Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

I’ll admit I’m biased – I may not be a boomer who lived through the glory days of Motown, but I have loved Detroit soul for as long as I can remember. So, even though Motown the Musical isn’t as well constructed as, say, Dreamgirls (ahem), I still had a royally good time.

We see the story of the legendary record label’s rise from the point of view of its founder Berry Gordy. It’s more than a little telling that Berry Gordy, in addition to being the musical’s central character, is also the bookwriter and producer.

So, is the story the show tells self-serving as a result? Very much so! But I was surprised and pleased to find that matters much less than I thought it would. I think this is in large part due to the man playing Gordy, Brandon Victor Dixon – he plays the role with such commitment and conviction that even if we find what Gordy (both character and bookwriter) says is occasionally perhaps a half-truth, we never doubt for a second that Gordy the character believes it totally, and means every word he says. That helps in a big way.

You would hope that something called Motown the Musical would do right by the music itself, and, hip hooray, it does! The label produced such a huge amount of stunningly good music that some of it inevitably gets compressed into medleys and the like, but thankfully never in a way that feels rushed. Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook’s arrangements are suitably theatrical while always remaining faithful to what made the originals so great.

Often, when I mention the sound design of a musical it’s to complain about it, but in the case of Motown the Musical it’s quite the opposite. Ladies and gentlemen, take note – this is how you amplify music for the theatre! Sound designer Peter Hylenski makes sure the bass booms when it should boom and the cymbal hisses when it should hiss, all the while never getting in the way of every last lyric being crystal clear. This is a new gold standard, and Hylenski deserves a Tony for it.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright’s direction is spot-on, especially when it comes to setting a clear emotional context for the “in-performance” songs. Choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams is even more on target, to the point of being positively eerie – yes indeed, Jackie Wilson moved exactly like that, and so did Mary Wells and Diana Ross and so on.

But, as with Kinky Boots, what I say hardly matters, this is an honest-to-goodness critic-proof hit. For what it’s worth I found it often thrilling, and came very close to loving it.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie

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This is exactly the kind of flashy, fun musical comedy at which Paper Mill Playhouse has always excelled. Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in (and all about) the Roaring Twenties, as young Millie Dillmount arrives in New York City, seeking all the excitement it can provide before she completes her mission of marrying a wealthy captain of finance.

It’s a vigorous and vital show, with an energetic score by Jeanine Tesori and a patchwork of other composers from Sammy Cahn to Arthur Sullivan (a handful of songs in the musical are from the 1967 movie of the same name on which it’s based). Director Mark S. Hoebee has keyed into that energy and delivered a production that’s appropriately brisk and delightful.

Laurie Valdheer plays Millie with great earnestness, an approach which gives the role an extra emotional pull. It also means that some moments that call for a twinkle in the eye don’t get that twinkle, but it’s a reasonable trade-off, and she certainly sings the hell out of her songs.

Lenora Nemetz is a hoot and a half as Mrs. Meers, a classically-trained American actress pretending to be a Chinese landlady. When Meers is in her Chinese disguise, Nemetz adds misplaced r’s and l’s where they never should be to sick-and-wrong comic effect. When Meers is being her tough-as-nails self, Nemetz delivers her lines with a deliciously vaudevillian bump, grind and panache.

The musical is ultimately a love letter to New York, which brings about a curiously wry tone when it’s being performed in New Jersey. Mostly, Thoroughly Modern Millie is intended to be dizzily diverting fun, and this production is that in spades.

For tickets, click here.