Review: A Christmas Carol

This is quite possibly the best stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol I’ve seen. And there have been a lot of them: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. For this Broadway version, which originated at London’s Old Vic, adaptor Jack Thorne brilliantly interweaves sharp social commentary (never far away in Dickens) with ineffable warmth and joy.

Director Matthew Warchus greatly magnifies that warmth even before the show starts, with the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience. They even chat congenially with the audience – a friend of mine had some lovely face time with Andrea Martin (who plays the Spirit of Christmas Past). The smell of people peeling clementines hugely helps to conjure the Christmas spirit. Get there early!

Our Scrooge is Cambpell Scott (whose father George C. Scott played the role in a terrific 1984 TV movie adaptation). He brings great nuance to the role, with flashes of vulnerability even early on, which clearly unnerve Scrooge, but also foreshadow his eventual change of heart. And when that change of heart comes, Warchus turns the warmth and joy all the way up with another bit of audience interaction which spectacularly embraces the entire theatre.

Rob Howell’s set envelops the theatre as well, with Victorian lanterns in huge numbers hanging over the stage and audience. Thorne treats the story as an ensemble piece, and when that ensemble includes performers as fine as Martin and LaChanze, you know you’re in good hands. In another super-smart twist, Tiny Tim is played by a differently-abled boy (Jai Ram Srinivasan at the performance I attended) which makes the scenes with him – which can be mawkishly sentimental – much more realistic and all the more genuinely touching for it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Sound Inside

This subtle play probes enormous life and death issues facing people with big intellects and small lives. Brilliant but defensive (and damaged?) Yale creative writing major Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman) vies for the attention of his self-possessed, reclusive professor Bella Baird (Mary-Louise Parker). She finds herself drawn to him, and mentors him in writing his novel. But life gets in the way, in a big way.

The Sound Inside is above all a vehicle for the actor playing Bella who either narrates or monologues for much of the play. Parker is at the peak of her powers here, playing playwright Adam Rapp’s sometimes purple prose with great precision and restraint. The problems she faces put her in contact with life’s biggest questions, and neither Bella nor Parker flinches in the face of these massive subjects. Hochman rises to her challenge, giving warmth and softness to a young man who could come off as unpleasant. Both performances are remarkably honest and vulnerable.

Director David Cromer does masterful work here, particularly in his collaboration with designers Heather Gilbert (lighting) and Aaron Rhyne (projections). Images and colors appear out of nowhere, and fade back into obscurity with equal delicacy. They wrap Alexander Woodward’s minimalist set in a cloak of mystery and darkness. Daniel Kluger’s music punctuates the play with the lightest of touches. Rapp, for his part, portrays the world of academia with a knowingness that is equal parts affectionate and cynical. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Great Society

Robert Schenkkan compellingly told how Lyndon B. Johnson won the 1964 election in his play All The Way. After Johnson won, he passionately articulated a bold plan to build a just society for all Americans, an agenda of several acts he collectively called “The Great Society.” In the play The Great Society, Schenkkan’s sequel to All the Way, we explore how LBJ went from his landslide victory to his exhausted decision not to run for re-election just three years later.

“The Great Society” was one of the most ambitious reform programs in American history, but would eventually be derailed by ruthless Republican stonewalling, as LBJ himself sank into the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The Great Society‘s inventive creative team brings this very troubled period of history to vibrant life. Director Bill Rauch deftly arranges the frequent shifts in locale and mood with deceptive simplicity. It also helps that playwright Robert Schenkkan successfully conveys a strong sense of time, place and stakes in every line of his jazzy dialogue.

Playing LBJ, Brian Cox brilliantly captures that president’s tireless energy and ruthless political gamesmanship being worn away by circumstances out of his control. The Great Society has the heft of a Shakespeare history play, which is unsurprising given the play’s origin as a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cox’s almost tragic performance as Johnson is the real heart of this production, a moving portrait of a man’s ambitions and dreams rapidly evaporating. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Height of the Storm

In Florian Zeller’s delicately surreal new play The Height of the Storm, Zeller investigates grief for the passing of a beloved spouse, as well as the difficulty of dealing with dementia in a spouse or parent. In the last few years, there have been a spate of excellent plays on Broadway dealing with many varieties of dementia – among them Zeller’s own The Father. While there are echoes of that play here, The Height of the Storm emphasizes the complete loss of your life partner, not you memories.

The play bounces back and forth between different narratives. In one, famous writer André (Jonathan Pryce) is grieving for his wife Madeleine (Eileen Atkins). In another, Madeleine is grieving for André. In yet another both are still alive, but André is slipping into dementia – actually this is happening in all of the narratives.

The play is complex enough that one can interpret it several ways. One person I spoke with perceived that this was all in André’s confused mind, as happened in The Father. I prefer to think that we are seeing several different realities play out, perhaps even more than the ones I described above. In one, André had an affair, in another it was a student of his that had the affair, etc., etc. Certainly Zeller keeps us on our toes with his imaginative and precise writing.

I have never seen Jonathan Pryce better. He moved me with his performance, which he has never done before. Eileen Atkins is also exceptional, and the supporting cast uniformly excellent. Director Jonathan Kent and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone help us track the shifting reality with intricately calibrated lighting changes working hand in hand with thoughtful, rigorous staging. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ink

Playwright James Graham has crafted a Faustian story based solidly on real events. It’s 1969 London, and a devilish thirtysomething Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) is expanding beyond his Australian newspaper empire by acquiring English daily The Sun. He enlists Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) – at the time editor for a Manchester paper – to take over the underperforming Sun and turn it around by any means necessary.

Lamb is the biggest, showiest role in Ink and Miller goes for it with gusto. At the performance I attended, a printer’s mallet fell off the stage and without missing a beat Miller lept off the stage to retrieve it. He totally blazes through the role. Murdoch is a smaller but pivotal role, and Carvel gives him a oddly powerful, evil slouch.

But Ink is much more than a two-hander, and director Rupert Goold weaves a dazzlingly theatrical tapestry from Graham’s play. Mod dancing punctuates the scenes, and projections whizz and pulsate. It’s this kind of surreal sizzle that makes Goold one of my favorite directors, and he’s at the top of his game here.

Graham and Goold cool things off in Act II to take time examining two key moments in the Sun‘s history: the kidnapping of Murdoch family friend Muriel McKay, and Lamb convincing Stephanie Rahn (Rana Roy) to “take it all off” for the first installment of the notorious “Page 3” pictures. When we first meet Rahn in Act I, much is made of her changing her name from Kahn to Rahn for her modelling work – maybe this had a foreshadowing effect for British audiences, but it falls flat here. It is one of very few hiccups in this otherwise riveting show. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Tootsie

Composer David Yazbek is probably the guy you want to have on the job when you’re adapting a successful film comedy to a successful musical comedy. He’s had several triumphs in that area, most notably The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s a very happy thing, then, that his score for Tootsie is every bit as good as those. It spends most of its time in his Sondheim-meets-Steely-Dan comfort zone, which is more than fine by me.

Patter songs, which Yazbek excels at, are more abundant here than in his other shows. Certainly every song gets the feel of the character – and the moment they’re in – exactly right. For my money, he’s one of the very best American musical composers of his generation, certainly the most underrated.

The tricky part: the story of a man taking a woman’s job away is a hard sell these days, for good reason. The task of making that work falls largely to bookwriter Robert Horn, and even if he doesn’t always suceed, boy does he make a valiant effort. On the other hand, his book is never less than meticulously crafted and wickedly, wittily funny. It’s every bit they equal of the source material, which was by comic genius Larry Gelbart, no small feat.

Horn’s hilarious book – which transfers the milieu from soap opera to Broadway musical – is delivered by some of the finest comic actors around. Julie Halston is a standout as hard-nosed producer with a heart of gold Rita Mitchell. Of course the key to making any version of Tootsie work is casting the right actor as Michael Dorsey / Dorothy Michaels, and Satino Fontana is ideal. His flexible tenor makes us believe that everybody else believes Dorothy is not only a woman, but an experienced musical theatre character actress. Plus, Fontana’s energy is unflagging in what must be a truly exhausting role. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Hadestown

How do you find a fresh way to musicalize one of the most-musicalized stories of all time? It’s the story of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to retreive his wife Eurydice – in the 17th Century alone dozens of operas were written on the subject. For Hadestown, composer Anaïs Mitchell has crafted a very fresh musical take, with all kinds of soulful music, including flavors of indie folk, jazz, blues, funk and even New Orleans brass band second lines.

Mitchell’s gorgeous, surging score is definitely the draw here. There’s astonishing variety, and yet it all feels like it comes from the same world. The brilliant director Rachel Chavkin has been shepherding this show for a long time, and it is much helped by her gift for startling and nimble visual storytelling.

I don’t often mention the casting director in my reviews, but the firm Stewart / Whitley has really outdone themselves here. Orpheus and Eurydice are played respectively by Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada, both doing the best work I’ve seen them do. Better still are Amber Gray as a hedonistic, down-home Persephone and Patrick Page as a rumblingly malevolent Hades. Page delivers his songs with a langorous phrasing that nods toward Iggy Pop.

Best of all is the inimitable André De Shields as the narrator Hermes. The moment De Sheilds snakes a single foot oh-so-charismatically on stage, you know that you’re in for one hell of a ride (sorry about that), but you are also in the best of hands. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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