Review: Jerry’s Girls

Can’t get tickets to Hello, Dolly? Well for the rest of this week, you can hear all of the major songs from that show sung beautifully, plus just about every other great song Dolly composer Jerry Herman wrote, in the York Theatre’s “Musicals in Mufti” presentation of Jerry’s Girls, a revue of Herman’s best, designed for a trio of women. “Mufti” refers to “everyday clothes,” and this series from the York presents worthy but neglected musicals of the past in something between a staged reading and a full production, in rehearsal clothes with script in hand, minimal rehearsal and no design elements.

The stellar trio in this production are Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Avenue Q), Christine Pedi (Forbidden Broadway) and Stephanie Umoh (Ragtime 2009 revival). Umoh gets the biggest solo of the evening towards the end – a smashing “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles – but everybody stops the show at some point, D’Abruzzo with the wrenching “Time Heals Everything” from Mack and Mabel, Pedi with the comic gem “Gooch’s Song” from Mame.

Music Director and Pianist Eric Svejcar, a fine musical theatre composer in his own right, is very sensitive to the dramatic ebb and flow of the evening. So, too, is director Pamela Hunt, who has elegantly engineered entrances and exits with music stands on wheels (are those used in every “Mufti” production, I wonder?). All in all a terrific representation of the Herman songbook. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Artificial Jungle

Ridiculous Theatre legend Charles Ludlam’s The Artificial Jungle is essential queer theatre viewing – and one hell of a lot of fun. The late, great Ludlam founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company 50 years ago, creating a singular style of campy but rigorously structured theatre committed to outrageousness without apology, but also without any kind of knowing wink.

Jungle was Ludlam’s final play and mercilessly yet lovingly parodies film noir. As was often his wont, Ludlam turned to an older and more sturdily built model, Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin – a tale filled to bursting with lust, murder and horror – for the plotting. For the dialogue, however, he takes film noir‘s “hard-boiled” schtick, turns the heat all the way up and lets the whole thing boil over.

The director for this production is Ludlam’s husband and muse, Everett Quinton (whom I have had the great pleasure of working with several times). Everett is the ideal interpeter of Ludlam’s plays, knowing when to be loyal to what Charles had already done, and when to push things even further into preposterousness to keep it fresh.

Quinton has a marvelous cast to work with, who seem to truly get it. David Harrell takes on the role Ludlam wrote for himself, Chester Nurdiger, the schlubby, happless owner of a New Yawk pet shop, and Harrell gleefully puts the “nerd” in Nurdiger. Alyssa H. Chase plays his frustrated housewife Roxanne with energetic and angular vampiness. Hunky Anthony Michael Lopez takes Quinton’s role, Zachary, an interloping hired hand, which he delivers with muscular intelligence. Anita Hollander takes the one-time drag role of Mother Nurdiger, and puts it across with an appropriately drag-sized performance. Rob Minutoli has terrific comic timing in the small role of Officer Spinelli.

A key part of the action is a tankful of piranhas, which designer Vandy Wood has crafted with the obvious theatricality that is such an important part of the Ridiculous aesthetic, and which puppetmaster Satoshi Haga imbues with surprising expressiveness and personality. Hilarious, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Bandstand

This musical got robbed of the Tony noms it deserves. I think it’s certainly the best musical of the season, and Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score definitely one of my favorites. Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler did get a nom for his choreography – it would have been truly egregious if he’d been overlooked for that – but I think he deserves one for direction as well. Just a shonda all the way around.

Bandstand takes a hoary showbiz trope – underdog artists make good – and makes it so fresh it hurts. Every plot point turns expectations on their heads, and nothing comes easy for our heroes. Or is that anti-heroes?

The story follows fictional Cleveland native, WW II veteran and swing pianist / songwriter Donny Novitski (Corey Cott) as he tries to make the big time in post-war 1945 through a national radio contest. He and his small combo of fellow veterans struggle with the psychological wounds of war, which we would recognize today as post-traumatic stress. What could have so easily been nostalgic hooey is deeply humane, always engaging and even moving.

With Bandstand, Blankenbuehler joins the ranks of the truly great director-choreographers, a very small group. Every step, hell, even every breath in the show expresses something, nothing is wasted, though the movement tapestry he weaves is very rich indeed. This is far and away his best work, topping even his propulsive choreography for Hamilton.

He also, as I indicated above, demonstrates what an actors’ director he is. He helps performers like Cott and Laura Osnes (who plays the female lead, young Gold Star widow Julia) really show the full extent of their chops. Both of these talented young triple threats tend to get cast as stereotypical ingenues, but here they give riveting performances as full, conflicted human beings – they also should have been nominated, gosh darn it all. Egregious, so egregious! And highly, highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jackie Hoffman gets entrance applause!! That just tells me that some things are right in the world, even with all the daily head-slapping news. Of course, this is due mostly to her big role in TV’s Feud as Joan Crawford maid Mamacita, but she is just as much fun as the permanently sozzled Mrs. Teevee in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

This musical is based on the children’s book of the same name, as was the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. While the show uses a couple of beloved songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from the film, the majority of the colorful and exuberant score is by Hairspray scribes Marc Shaiman (composer) and Scott Wittman (lyricist). The story (if somehow you’re not aware) follows chocolate-loving child Charlie Bucket as he longs for a “golden ticket” to tour master chocolatier Willy Wonka’s factory.

Shaiman’s music is charming – full of tasty licks as usual – and you can’t spell Wittman without “wit.” It is most unfortunate that muddy sound design often obscures those witty lyrics. Christian Borle portrays Wonka with his usual élan, with somewhat more humanity than previous incarnations. Director Jack O’Brien has presented a smaller-scale production than Sam Mendes on the West End, and while I’m not sure that was the right decision, it’s still sufficiently splashy and vivid. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Oslo

It is long, it is talky, yet it is never boring. As we begin Oslo we hear Norwegian sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) discussing his theories about the art of negotiation. He feels that secret, face-to-face discussions behind closed doors, with a thoughtful progression from easy issues to thornier ones, works much better than public negotiations, where parties risk losing face if they budge an inch on anything. He terms his approach gradualism in contrast to the “totalism” of public negotiations, emphasizing that once a “gradualist” approach gets underway, things quickly snowball and it is anything but gradual.

As it happened, in 1993 Rød-Larsen had the opportunity to try his theories out on the most intractable discord of the 20th Century, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) was a diplomat in the Norwegian foreign ministry, and they as a couple had developed relationships with people of note on both sides, and had spent time on the ground throughout the area, including the massively overcrowded and impoverished Gaza Strip.

In short, Oslo is the story of the unexpected way the 1993 Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel came to be. Rød-Larsen and Juul created a “back channel” for negotiation that broke decades of literally deadly diplomatic deadlock between the combatants. Mays is quietly brilliant as the quietly brilliant Rød-Larsen. Ehle plays it cooler still, so those moments when Juul puts her foot down have all the more impact.

As for the negotiators, oy the machismo. I don’t think I’d be going out on too much of a limb to say that the deep-rooted ills inherent in patriarchy are the real problem here. They are, however, intelligently portrayed, especially by Anthony Azizi (as the relatively measured Palestinian intellectual Ahmed Qurie), Dariush Kashani (as Palestinian communist firebrand with an unexpected wry streak Hassan Asfour) and the hilarious Michael Aronov as Israeli official Uri Savir, a tacky hedonist, the straight equivalent of Jonny McGovern’s character “Zarzuffa”:

Bartlett Sher’s direction is every bit as smooth and invisible as the Norwegian facilitators. Unexpectedly engaging, surprisingly entertaining, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Little Foxes

This is easily the most entertaining serious play I’ve seen so far this Broadway season. Plays like Oslo and Indecent may be more insightful, even edifying, but Lillian Hellman’s 1939 poisoned chestnut The Little Foxes has far more spicy melodrama. Sure, those other plays don’t exactly fail at entertainment, and Foxes does have some serious issues on its mind, but the reason to see it is exactly the same reason you watch a suspensefully-plotted soap opera.

Set in 1900 Alabama, The Little Foxes follows Regina Giddens – a template for Alexis Carrington, without a doubt – and her conniving brothers as they claw and scratch their way towards wealth and power. Caught in the middle, among others, are Regina’s cultured and much-abused sister-in-law Birdie and Regina’s principled but deathly ill husband Horace.

In a bit of stunt casting, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon trade off playing Regina and Birdie (a smaller but still quite juicy role). The night I saw it, Linney was a steely marvel as Regina, and Nixon heartbreakingly vulnerable and sincere as Birdie.

Either way director Daniel Sullivan has crafted a production so rock-solid, and intelligently observed in its details, that any skilled actor would feel secure and supported. Set designer Scott Pask delivers a drawing room that has exactly the right feeling of severe, effortful elegance. Costume designer Jane Greenwood nails the armor-like padded crispness needed to convey Regina’s intimidatingly powerful presence.

The supporting cast is every bit as potent as the leads. Richard Thomas gives the ill Horace a wounded gravitas which makes him a worthy opponent for Regina even in his diminished state. Michael McKean brings disturbing warmth to mastermind brother Ben, and Darren Goldstein shows us the insecurity behind brother Oscar’s bluster (to great effect). At its core, The Little Foxes is a ripping yarn and this production gives that full play. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Indecent

To say that Indecent tells the back story of the first lesbian kiss on Broadway is to undersell its ambition and scope. The play that featured that kiss, The God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, was a wild Yiddish-language play that shattered all kinds of Yiddish Theatre traditions – the lesbianism was almost the least of it. That said, Asch did craft a romantic scene for two young women that surpassed in frankness and tenderness anything that had come before in literature, and has rarely been equaled since.

For that reason the play has been kept alive in the imaginations of gay theatre artists, like Indecent‘s playwright Paula Vogel and its director Rebecca Taichman. As a matter of fact, the play has its roots in Taichman’s graduate research into the play’s history. God of Vengeance was written in Warsaw in 1907, premiered in Berlin a bit later, and was a sensation throughout Europe in the following years. In the early 1920s, the Yiddish version was given in New York, which led to an English-language version which proved such a hit that it moved to Broadway – where it was in short order closed due to the entire cast being charged with obscenity.

Vogel’s writing and Taichman’s direction are so tightly entwined that it is sometimes hard to know where one begins and the other ends. Indecent is theatrical through and through, and is perhaps most moving in moments where action replaces dialogue completely. The worst that can be said about it is that it is perhaps a bit over-ambitious, trying to cover too much. But that’s a much better problem to have than a lack of ambition. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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