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.

Review: War Paint

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows. Most of the creative team previously worked on Grey Gardens, and while this isn’t up to the caliber of that show, it’s still pretty darn good. War Paint follows the decades-long rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for the first half of the 20th Century.

The score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie evokes all kinds of music from the 1930s through the 1960s, with generous doses of big band-style swing. Doug Wright’s book, together with Korie’s lyrics, uses the fierce competition between these two female titans of industry to examine their differences, but more importantly to shed light on the similar challenges they both faced in the male-dominated business world.

Of course, the main draw is seeing not one but two living legends in the lead roles. The songs for Ebersole and LuPone go beyond intelligently painting the personalities of the two main characters – they are as exquisitely tailored for their talents as are their glamorous Catherine Zuber-designed outfits. This is nowhere more apparent than in their twin 11 O’Clock numbers. When Christine finishes her song “Pink” – as pure Ebersole as anything Frankel and Korie gave her in Grey Gardens – it’s hard to imagine they could top it. And they don’t, exactly – Patti’s “Forever Beautiful” is more of a lateral move, just as astonishing a number, and ideal for LuPone.

It’s very well-crafted, but not perfect: There are moments when the dramatic tension goes a bit slack, until our heroines have a new historical problem to face. It’s an inherent weakness of most historically-based theatre, and therefore one I am quick to forgive. For the most part, War Paint is smart and marvelously stylish entertainment. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong

This is silly nonsense! Not trying to be anything but hilariously silly nonsense, and succeeding marvelously at being the absolute best silly nonsense around. The Play that Goes Wrong is entertainment at its purest, irresistibly funny and engaging. All you need to know is that an inept college group is putting on a bad murder mystery play, and failing horribly at it. What fun!

There is, however, some thought and wit and (gasp) character development lurking about. As an example, the main obvious joke about collegiate actor Max (Dave Hearn) is that he is childishly delighted (and pulled out of character) by laughter and applause. A secondary, smarter joke can be seen in how he deals with kisses. He is extremely reluctant to kiss his leading lady, and other moments point toward his only experience with kissing being French kissing a boy (!).

Designer Nigel Hook starts the slapstick before the lights even go down, as “stagehands” attempt to deal with doors that won’t stay closed and the like. That’s hardly the last thing to go wrong, leading one character to scream at one point “this set is a deathtrap!” It’s worth noting that, for a variety of unexpected reasons that’s a big laugh line, as well as tip of the hat to successful stage murder mystery comedy Deathtrap.

Director Mark Bell and the show’s company (several of whom share the writing credit here) have their hands full making sure all this dangerous-looking slapstick comes off with immaculate timing and no actually lethal falling objects. I can’t remember the last time I laughed this often or this hard, so of course I highly recommend this silly, silly nonsense.

For tickets, click here.

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