Review: Mean Girls

One of my favorite things about the stage musical adaptation of the film Mean Girls is just how much gayer conceiver and bookwriter Tina Fey has made the character of Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson), who now enters wearing an Alyssa Edwards t-shirt emblazoned with the word “beast” (thank you costume designer Gregg Barnes, for always going the extra gay glam mile). The new dialogue Fey has given him gives teeth to the assertion by his goth gal pal Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) that Damien is “too gay to function.” He even gets to lead a showstopping tap number to open the second act!

Since Fey’s adapting her own screenplay – and since she is one of the canniest living writers of comedy – Damien’s increased luminosity is only one of several improvements on the film. Fey quite rightly adds social media elements to her tale of high-school status-seeking, to appropriately toxic effect. Casey Nicholaw is exactly the right director-choreographer for this material, with crack timing in the books scenes and bristling energy in the dance numbers.

Nicholaw also assembled a truly stellar design team: scenic designer Scott Pask delivered my favorite innovation: a enormous stage-spanning half-circle cyclorama exclusively devoted to providing a canvas for the vivid, imaginative video design of Finn Ross and Adam Young. There’s nothing about the “cyc” that says Mean Girls, that work is done entirely by projection. A similar setup would be really terrific for doing shows in rotating repertory – what a great idea!

This is a show where you do go out singing the book scenes, but not in a bad way – it’s just as entertaining and smart as the film. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Frozen

Bringing to the stage something as spectacular as the Disney animated musical Frozen – an instant classic if there ever was one – is a singular challenge. Thank goodness that the film’s creative team created a very solid thematic and structural basis. There’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s earworm-packed music and lyrics (anybody wanna build a snowman…or just, let it go?). And then there’s Jennifer Lee’s imaginative screenplay, which very effectively satisfies expectations and defies them in equal measure.

For the stage version, thank goodness once again: the Lopezes and Lee have more than ably filled out their score and book. Lee has added detail to the relationship between royal sisters Elsa (a closeted ice sorceress) and Anna (a sheltered adventure seeker), and dimension to the imaginary Northern kingdom of Arendelle which they will one day rule.

In the new songs, the Lopezes have largely maintained the high quality of their film score. The biggest winner among the newbies is “Hygge,” the “charm song” / production number that opens the second act. It’s as delightfully loopy as any Mel Brooks showstopper, with sauna-centric choreography by Rob Ashford that gleefully recalls burlesque. Stephen Oremus works his usual magic with the orchestrations, giving this version a more specifically Scandinavian flair while pulling out all the stops when needed.

But any take on Frozen stands or falls on its Elsa. Caissie Levy is the one called to “Let It Go” in the glorious anthem of female self-empowerment that’s the show’s breakout hit. She’s got the high notes and the emotional heft needed, and she’s given a lift from an astonishing costume change from designer Christopher Oram and icily brilliant lighting from Natasha Katz. The rest of the cast are all just as excellent, especially Patti Murin who plays Anna with great warmth and comic ingenuity.

As always I have a smattering of issues. Does every major character have to have a heartfelt ballad in Act II? I mean it’s not a big enough problem to constitute proper “second act trouble” but it makes for some slight drag. Also, many of the theatrical tricks director Michael Grandage uses to make the Frozen magic are old-fashioned; which wouldn’t be a problem at all, really, except a small handful of them feel old-fashioned.

These are the merest of quibbles, and if you loved Frozen the film, you’ll find much to enjoy in Frozen: The Broadway Musical. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Three Tall Women

I’ll call it: chances are very good that Dame Glenda Jackson is going to get a Tony nomination for her spectacular performance in Three Tall Women. In the current Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s 1991 play, Jackson plays a wealthy widow looking back on her life, first to a captive audience – a 56-year-old caretaker and a 26-year-old legal professional – then in an impressionistic dialogue with herself at those women’s ages.

Jackson returns to the Broadway stage after a 30-year absence, giving a masterful performance that is by turns imperious, hilarious and mesmerizing. Laurie Metcalf also rivets your attention with her drolly nuanced take on the middle-aged role. Alison Pill has much less to work with in the remaining role, but she acquits herself well in this impressive company, no small feat.

Joe Mantello’s direction is supremely tidy. He’s cast the play with talent that’s beyond incredible, and he just lets the actors go about their work while keeping them out of each other’s way. Honestly I think that its really easy for Pill and Metcalf to throw their focus to Jackson – they’re as excited to see her do her stuff as we are.

Mantello’s work dovetails beautifully with Miriam Buether’s elegant and functional set design. The set suggests taking steps in and out of “reality” in a marvelously understated way. The production is exquisite in every possible way: visually, intellectually, emotionally, artistically and on and on. Very highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Rocktopia

As corny as this might be, there is no resisting the visceral power of an amplified symphony orchestra blasting the most crowd-pleasing classic rock out there. The concert opens with Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey and segues directly into The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which is tantamount to saying: “Yes, this is exactly what you expected it would be.” Which is a whole lot of cliched yet still powerful classic rock fun.

Rocktopia takes a slightly surprising turn when it pairs Handel’s aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” – which also appeared earlier this season as the thrilling finale of Farinelli and the King – with Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Less obvious and genuinely clever. The evening as a whole leans toward the pleasantly accessible.

The only real failure is a too-gentle version of Led Zeppelin powerhouse “Kashmir” accompanied by images, not of the region of India that gives the song its name and sound, but of Egypt. Wha? The only right-on element in this song was the gorgeous vocal of Pat Monahan from the band Train.

Which bring me to the most rock-solid part of the show: the vocals. Guest star Monahan makes several appearances, mostly covering Zeppelin which is perfect for his voice. The most consistently magnificent – and versatile – singer is Chloe Lowery, who pairs fantastic range with a flair for dramatic builds. Tony Vincent, a personal favorite, brings his soaring tenor vocals and incandescent glam-rock fire to lots of Freddie Mercury material, but also, most unexpectedly and thrillingly to Muse’s “Uprising.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Stories By Heart

I had a deeply personal reaction to Stories by Heart. It’s above all John Lithgow’s love letter to his father, and the love of storytelling that his father conveyed to him. About half of it is Lithgow talking about those issues, and the other half is Lithgow performing literary short stories that his father read him as a child. My parents were also great tellers of great stories, so I strongly identify; for me it was H. G. Wells and C. S. Lewis, for Lithgow, Ring Lardner and P. G. Wodehouse. Lithgow’s love for his father is palpable in this piece, and I found that particularly moving.

The Ring Lardner story “Haircut” throws a bit of a curve: it starts out as a tale of charming small town life which Lithgow himself freely admits “slowly turns into a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny and murder.” P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” is pure literary comfort food in which the titular Fred, a loopy English Lord, has a madcap adventure that starts by simply trying to get out of the rain.

Lithgow is marvelously specific in the physicality he gives these short stories, realistically pantomiming an early 20th Century “two bit” shave-and-a-haircut in the Lardner. By the same token, he gives a ridiculously stylized personality to all of the crazy people (and parrots) we encounter in the Wodehouse.

This production is lively and vivacious, due in equal parts to Lithgow’s native theatrical intelligence and Daniel Sullivan’s canny direction. Stories by Heart is thoroughly sincere and sentimental, which I find very refreshing. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Farinelli and the King

This gentle play with music is essentially a vehicle for two of the world’s greatest talents, actor Mark Rylance and operatic countertenor Iestyn Davies, both the very best at what they do, and at the peak of their talents. Rylance stars as King Philippe V of Spain, at a point in his life where he is plagued with what we would today call mental illness, some mix of depression and delusion.

Enter Farinelli (born as Carlo Broschi, played by Sam Crane and sung by Davies), brought in by Queen Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove). Farinelli sings, and the king’s spirit significantly lifts. Call it music therapy, centuries before the fact.

Rylance is of course the main draw here, and he is unsurprisingly magnificent. Some people call him mannered, but I think the way in which he applies his undeniable mannerisms is masterful and deeply intelligent. It is to me what great acting should be, the actor’s own personality and / or persona applied with precise thought and detail – and deep emotion and vulnerability – to the given circumstances of the piece.

Davies singing, however, is the soul of this love letter to the power of music, and he is every bit as terrific. He may be physically incapable of replicating Farinelli’s unearthly castrato voice, but he is without a doubt as subtle and feeling a musical interpreter as the man he plays. He sings Handel almost exclusively here, and I would have liked to have heard more by Porpora (Farinelli’s mentor, who gets the only non-Handel aria here), or even better composers like Hasse or Vinci, who are undeservedly forgotten today, but very important at the time. Still, there is no denying that Davies caressing Handel’s gorgeous “Lascia, ch’io pianga” is the perfect way to close the evening.

John Dove’s marvelous staging, set among Jonathan Fensom’s sumptuous set and costumes, rises to the level of his collaborators. I have a minor quibble with the script itself, which falters toward the end with an entirely non-historical love triangle between the two titular characters and the queen. It rings false, and breaks the gentle spell that the show casts until that point. It’s really unnecessary. It also contributes to the general error in the portrayal of Isabella Farnese, a far more formidable figure than suggested by the sentimental way the role is written. Not a big problem, though. A real pleasure of a show, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Children

This drama begins after a tragedy, since the worst has already happened – a Fukushima-level or worse nuclear plant disaster in a coastal English town. The play’s story largely follows a trio of people dealing with the aftermath. Though not without humor, The Children is heavy going, but intelligent and humane enough to reward the effort.

Given the nature of the disaster, it is no coincidence that all three characters are nuclear engineers. It is also thematically important to the play that they are all retired scientists. Married couple Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), who worked at the plant, are visited by old friend Rose (Francesca Annis). Rose has some highly personal issues to settle with both of them before she moves on to a larger issue later in the play (which I won’t spoil).

This quietly naturalistic three-hander is inevitably all about the acting, and it is truly superior. Annis brings to Rose a fading sensuality – she is quite self-conscious that the sexuality which played a big part in her life is on the wane. Cook is given a rogue of a man to portray, but anchors all the performance to Robin’s surprisingly ethical core (Sidebar: there was a significant portion of the play that felt a bit, well, anthropological to me, since the way straight people deal with sex roles has always been fundamentally strange to me).

Hazel is the character on whom the plot and theme both hinge – she has the biggest arc – Deborah Findley gives great nuance to a woman who is simultaneously rigorously practical and helplessly selfish. James Macdonald’s direction is so seamless that not a single moment seems writerly or forced, and as easy as that may sound on paper, I can tell you it’s devilishly difficult. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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