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.

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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.

Review: Burn This

I heard a rumor that playwright Lanford Wilson intended Burn This to be a satire of straight people. Whether that’s true or not, the current revival is the strongest production of the play I’ve ever seen because it’s the one that comes closest to satire. A gay dancer dies in a boating accident in mid-1987, bringing together his dancer roomate Anna (Keri Russell) and his older brother Pale (Adam Driver), who begin a tempestuous relationship. The key performance in this revival, however, is the terrific Brandon Uranowitz as Larry, Anna’s gay roommate. The self-possessed yet compassionate way Uranowitz plays the role moves the play’s center of gravity so that we get a clearer picture of the absurdity of how the heterosexual characters comport themselves.

While part of this conception belongs to Uranowitz, director Michael Mayer definitely helped steer him in this direction – Mayer is always very smart about carefully working through ideas about sex and gender in his productions, and you can feel that same intelligence at work here. It has the side benefit of skewing the whole play to be played more comically, which, if my sources are right, is what Wilson was going for.

The role of Pale is a big juicy piece of actor meat, and the big, meaty Adam Driver makes an appropriately full meal of it. Here again, I can feel Mayer urging him to consider the contrast between what Pale really feels and what he thinks he’s expected to feel. Burn This will never be my favorite Lanford Wilson play – his cycle of plays about the Talley family and his early masterwork The Madness of Lady Bright are far superior – but this is the best rendition it’s likely to get. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Oklahoma!

Director Daniel Fish’s new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, in the broadest terms, does Act I as a picnic (where chili can actually be consumed over intermission), and Act II as a hoedown. The music (in Daniel Kluger’s very reduced orchestration) is performed in a style consistent with the Grand Old Opry in 1943, the year of the musical’s premiere. Fish’s staging sometimes recalls that Opry, especially in the way he has performers use standing mics.

I’m thinking Fish mostly wanted to stage the musical as simply as possible, letting the thematic points in Hammerstein’s mind rise to to the surface as naturally as possible. Fish does spice his minimalist approach with – by now fairly standard – postmodern techniques and touchs, sometimes pointlessly but more often to provactive effect. Through these effects Fish shows the main story of a tense love triangle in 1906 Oklahoma is even more complex and fraught – in many ways – than earlier productions suggested.

But the biggest joys in the production are the secondary comic characters. Mary Testa is perhaps the grittiest Aunt Eller ever, with her willful blindness to dangers, early in the show, explained in a later monologue about “toughness” that she and Fish underline in the most successful way. But Testa’s abundant comic gifts aren’t in any way held back, and she’s easily the strongest singer in the show.

Ali Stroker’s hilarious take on Ado Annie is surely the horniest ever, which makes her paring with the oddly sensual James Davis (playing the dim but sweet Will Parker) just about perfect. Overall, an imperfect but often insightful revival, which is rarely less than compulsively watchable. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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