Review: Time and the Conways

This sturdy, smart play from 1937 is equal parts philosophical rumination on the “time” part of the title, and rigorously observed family drama about “the Conways.” In 1919, at the 21st birthday party for Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry), the titular upper-middle class British family see a sunny future ahead – I mean, the worst war in human history had just ended, how could it ever get as bad as that again? Then we jump to 1937, in what is either the actual future, or Kay’s dark premonition, or both.

In addition to its philosophical and “family psychology” themes, J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways is rich with political thoughts that range from the most idealistic socialism to the most mercenary capitalism, which speaks loudly to the anxieties of 2017 America. Director Rebbeca Taichman, fresh off her Tony win for Indecent, is an ideal match for this thoughtful material. Just as with Indecent, she creates several coups de théâtre that express Priestley’s ideas in breathtakingly simple theatrical moments.

The star in this production is Elizabeth McGovern, much loved as Downton Abbey‘s Lady Gratham, Cora Crawley. Here she plays family matriarch Mrs. Conway, a “monster mother” type familiar in American dramas from such characters as Tennessee Williams’s Amanda Wingfield or O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone – well-intentioned perhaps, but blinded by self-interest to the ways she damages her children. McGovern plays the positives here, going full-force into Mrs. Conway’s often unwarranted optimism to heartbreaking effect.

But as with the Williams and O’Neill characters referenced above, Mrs. Conway is not the central character of Time and the Conways. Though the play is in many ways an ensemble show, Kay is the character who holds the story together. Parry does a marvelous job with this sensitive, troubled yet hardy soul. The outstanding performance, though, is Gabriel Ebert as the quietly thoughtful and stoically content Alan. Quiet as Alan is, it’s clear when he does speak that much more is going on inside his head than those of the rest of the family combined. Ebert reflects every nuance, and gives a performance that shines from inside. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Advertisements

Review: Prince of Broadway

I am, in some ways, this show’s ideal audience: an ambitious director / choreographer looking for inspiration from Harold Prince, one of the most successful Broadway directors ever. That makes me not only more attentive to details in his dramaturgy, staging and transitions, but also more forgiving of moments where he trades depth for clarity, or sacrifices complexity for more broadly comprehensible insights.

Because, you see, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective revue of Prince’s Broadway work, has come in for some – I think unfair – critical drubbing since its opening. Other critics have seen it as disorganized and shallow, where I would argue it is neither of these things.

It follows a largely chronological ordering of numbers from Prince’s storied career. The only times Prince (who also directed here) fiddles with the timeline is when a song from slightly earlier in his career makes a better transition or section finale. Which I think is very smart when it comes to structuring a show for an audience concerned with being carried away by a theatrical experience, rather than niceties of opening night dates and the like. In other words, the general Broadway audience that Prince has always been so brilliant at speaking to, pushing them as far as he feels he can get away with, and no further – which has been far enough to establish him as a stunningly prolific innovator.

Also, transitions between numbers are governed by what makes more sense in that particular moment. Sometimes you want to know what happened next for Prince, sometimes following a thematic trail directly into another song from another show makes more sense.

Plus, when those songs are delivered by performers this good, almost nothing else matters. Karen Ziemba totally redefines “So What” from Cabaret with a paradoxically luminous rage. Emily Skinner simultaneously and amazingly celebrates and erases Elaine Strich’s legendary take on “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. And Tony Yazbeck tearing “The Right Girl” from Follies to shreds is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Speaking of “The Right Girl,” that is a number where choreographer / co-director Susan Stroman’s work shines particularly bright. From the waist down, Yazbek’s energetic tap dance is pure exuberance; from the neck up his face is wracked with agony. This split between dancing and acting in one dancer’s body is pure Stroman. Recomended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Terms of My Surrender

This show goes unexpectedly very gay at the end. No Michael Moore isn’t gay (heaven forfend), but there are several delicious, completely apolitical, payoffs at the finale, which made this an even more satisfying evening for me. The Terms of My Surrender was already pretty satisfying, as I am definitely a part of the anti-Trump choir that Moore is preaching to in this often funny, often disturbing dolled-up political rally.

Because, make no mistake about it, much of Terms is what you’d expect: an anti-Trump screed, by turns despairing and gleeful. But ultimately it is more than that, it’s a call to action in the most general of terms. Moore exhorts his audience to get involved in the political process any way they can, and uses stories from his own life – mostly from before his career as a famous filmmaker and author – to drive home the truth that one person can make an enormous difference, and you don’t have to be famous or wealthy to do it. Moore’s own journey began with a trip to a vending machine to get a bag of Ruffles chips; beginnings don’t get more humble than that.

He even gives you a remarkably easy way to begin making that difference, which I will link to here: the website and app 5calls.org. Together with Moore, I urge you to go there now and start being part of the solution. And definitely go see Terms of My Surrender, it is a marvelous and surprisingly entertaining bit of encouragement in these dark days. Recommended.

Remember, 5calls.org!

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.