Review: Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot Cort Theatre

This surprisingly sentimental Godot owes its uniqueness to the decades-long friendship of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (which dates back to the 1970s). For the first time I believe that Estragon/Gogo (McKellen) and Vladimir/Didi (Stewart) truly have known each other for the endless lengths of time that playwright Samuel Beckett suggests.

Waiting for Godot revolves around two tramps (Gogo and Didi) waiting on a desolate rural road for someone named Godot who may in some way “save” them. Almost nothing happens while they wait, so they pass the time with wordplay, poetry, slapstick — except when landlord Pozzo (Shuler Hensley) and his slave Lucky (Billy Crudup) turn up, spouting their own slightly different sort of nonsense.

Director Sean Mathias seems more focused on the comic and coolly intellectual sides than many interpreters, to very good effect. And he has his stars’ incredibly easy chemistry to work with, which gives the evening a playful suppleness that leavens play’s air of dark, existentialist despair. Their affection for each other is incredibly palpable – this is the first time I’ve seen an audience respond with a heartfelt “Aww” when Didi and Gogo are kind to each other.

McKellen’s humor tends toward the physical and poignant – his Gogo has already put himself past all hope as a way of coping, and does not hesitate to give into animal impulses. Stewart’s approach to Didi is a more verbal and cerebral one: this Vladimir is a deeply disillusioned humanist and moralist, providing a brilliantly austere contrast to McKellen’s feral clowning. Hensely’s and Crudup’s part are smaller and more one-dimensional, but they execute them with great élan.

Godot is a dangerous play: it can be deadly boring if played too reverently. Mathias and this Sir-lead cast have steered clear of this danger, giving us a Godot that is as full as it should be of humor, intelligence and dread – as well as an unexpected amount of warmth.

For tickets, click here.

Advertisements

Review: No Man’s Land

No Man's Land Cort Theatre

It’s a Pinter laugh riot! I’m not a big fan of Pinter, but I thoroughly enjoyed No Man’s Land. It’s the most engaging and comic play of his I’ve come across, even the most humane. And the current Broadway production, starring an ideally cast Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, is easily the most lucid rendition of Pinter’s famously not lucid dialogue that I’ve ever encountered.

In No Man’s Land, two writers, the wealthy Hirst (Stewart) and the poor Spooner (McKellen), stumble drunkenly into Hirst’s drawing room, and continue plying on the booze. The two may or may not have a history together – as is usual with Pinter, the moment you think you have an important piece of information about somebody, it is suggested that same information might be a lie.

There is a marvelous unforced ease and interplay that McKellen and Stewart have from decades of friendship and working together – they were in the Royal Shakespeare Company together in the 1970s, long before X-Men. Together with director Sean Mathias, they have somehow transformed the menace that Pinter is known for into something altogether more mysterious, even luminous. Love it.

Billy Crudup is suitably sexy as Hirst’s spiky-tempered secretary Foster, who may or may not be bisexual, but is certainly some kind of perv. Shuler Hensley is oddly affecting as Briggs, the butler, who may or may not be “doing” Foster – at the very least he has a man-crush on him. I recommend this as highly as I could ever recommend Pinter – I’ve never enjoyed him more!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Der Rosenkavalier

Rosenkavalier

The Met is currently reviving one of the oldest productions in its repertoire, Nathaniel Merrill’s 1969 staging of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. This revival is wonderfully sung, and Robert O’Hearn’s sets and costumes remain a lush evocation of 18th Century Vienna. The Met has announced that it this is the last time it will present this staging, with plans to open an entirely new production of Der Rosenkavalier in 2016 (can I direct it, please?). It’s a good decision: There are certainly plenty of things about Merrill’s staging that haven’t aged at all well.

But, positives first: The singing in this revival is uniformly excellent. Best of all is Viennese soprano Martina Serafin as the Marschallin, a married princess with a young lover. Serafin’s singing is luscious, oh-so-expressive, just heavenly. That young lover, Octavian, is played by Alice Coote (it’s a crossdressed, or “trouser”, soprano role), whose singing was easily one of the best things in this season’s big Met premiere, Two Boys. She sings beautifully here as well, and when she and Serafin sing together, it’s gooseflesh-inducing.

In Act II, Octavian all but forgets about the Marschallin when he lays his eyes on the more age appropriate Sophie Von Faninal (Erin Morley). The three of them share a musically and emotionally complex trio in Act III, in which they blend really gorgeously.

Merrill’s staging is workmanlike, but there’s a lot of (supposedly) funny bits for members of the chorus that are, by today’s standards, hopelessly corny. Also, two of the best known moments in the music, “The Presentation of the Rose” and the “Mit Mir” waltz, are barely acknowledged in the staging, and certainly not presented in any powerful way. So, bring on the new staging, but bring back this marvelous cast.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Oliver!

oliver!

The lively revival of Oliver! at Paper Mill Playhouse reminded me what a fundamentally odd musical it is. Composer Lionel Bart adapted it from Charles Dickens’s 1838 novel Oliver Twist, one of his darkest works, featuring thieves, whores and murderers galore. Bart lightened the overall tone of this young orphan’s quest to find home and family in 1830s London. The most obvious result was the transformation of the evil master larcenist Fagin into something more like a charming pied piper.

Even with that lightening of tone however, there is still something ineffably strange about these relentlessly cheery tunes (the score is one of the catchiest, ever) cheek and jowl by dark Dickensian London, however whitewashed. Perhaps I should add it is entertainingly strange, especially in a production as energetic as this one, directed by Mark S. Hoebee, with frisky choreography by Joann M. Hunter.

The title character is a bit of a passive cipher – for the child actor playing Oliver, all that is really required is that you don’t get in the way of the audience sympathizing with your predicament, and that you sing your big song “Where is Love?” in a suitably angelic way. This production’s Oliver, Tyler Moran, does both, quite charmingly.

The characters that carry the weight of the show are the tragic prostitute Nancy (Betsy Morgan) and the abovementioned Fagin (David Garrison). Morgan knocks “As Long as He Needs Me”, Nancy’s big belting ballad, out of the ballpark, and Garrison wisely leans into the warmer and more compassionate qualities that Bart imparted to Fagin. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales

Jinkx & Major Unwrapped_729x360

‘Tis the season – time for drag queens to work a holiday theme to buy Mama a new pair of shoes! The hottest drag queen of the moment (a major new talent, really) Jinkx Monsoon has just such a show going on at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, featuring her musical counterpart, pianist/composer/raconteur Major Scales, titled Unwrapped.

Their previous show at the Beechman, The Vaudevillians, was a real stunner, a thoroughly thought-out evening of cabaret theatre, which successfully staked their claim to be regarded as major players in the worlds of both high drag and cabaret. As they are the first to admit, Unwrapped isn’t nearly as structured – they present it as a fairly free-form evening of holiday drag. But the great news is that Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition, even when they aren’t doing something as high concept as The Vaudevillians.

They share traumatic Christmas stories, sing a Lana Del Rey song with “exactly as much effort as she herself puts into performing it” and connect the dots between Mariah Carey, Sarah Silverman and The Drowsy Chaperone. They even sing a couple of strong original songs by Mr. Scales, one a hilarious tribute to Addams Family Values villainess Debbie Jellinsky, one a sincere, affecting (and somewhat dark) ode to absent loved ones. See, crazy and smart!

Unwrapped, as loosey goosey as it may be, is certainly much more thoughtful than your typical holiday drag act. It’s somewhat similar to Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s recent holiday shows – very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface – and since Justin isn’t doing more than a couple nights in the city this season, this is undoubtedly the longest-running holiday drag cabaret of any substance this year (now through December 10!). Don’t miss it!

For tickets, click here.

Review: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, A Walter Kerr Theatre

This musical has a bunch of wickedly subversive undercurrents that belies its fastidious Edwardian trappings, making it much more to my personal taste than, say, Edwin Drood. The most obvious undercurrent is right there in the title – how to be gentlemanly when pursuing serial murder – but there are others, including gay seduction in the countryside and women sharing a man. Fun stuff!

Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank (which was also adapted into the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets), A Gentleman’s Guide follows Monty Navarro, near-penniless at show’s beginning. He discovers that his late mother was disinherited by the rich and titled D’Ysquith family, making him ninth in line to an earldom. After unsuccessfully trying to ingratiate himself honestly into the family, he decides to gain the family fortune by more devious and lethal means.

In order for this kind of story to be comically effective, you need an immensely appealing person in the role of Monty, and luckily the handsome, soulful and winsome Bryce Pinkham fits the bill. Equally, his targets need to be sufficiently odious for us to want to see them go. This is by far the more enjoyable assignment of the two, and the versatile Jefferson Mays plays all eight of his victims at full bore with manic glee.

Steven Lutvak’s score is musically zesty, and the lyrics are clever and have wonderful flow, even if none of the songs are instantly memorable. Director Darko Tresnjak makes his Broadway debut with this production, and does so with real panache and brio. Among the original book musicals on Broadway so far this season, A Gentleman’s Guide is the first one I would deem an unqualified artistic success, and I recommend it highly.

For tickets, click here.