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.

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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.

Review: SpongeBob SquarePants

I’m aware of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon on which this musical is based, but not exactly familiar with it. I’ve gotten a good giggle or two watching a few minutes of this gleefully surreal show, but before seeing this adaptation, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single character outside of the titular lead. So there are a fair number of inside jokes here that went right over my head. That said, I found this relentlessly silly and colorful show irresistibly enjoyable.

In SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, the whole of Bikini Bottom, our hero’s beloved home town, is endangered by a nearby volcano on the verge of erupting. SpongeBob and his intrepid friends fight daunting odds to save the day.

I knew this would be something special when I found out that Tina Landau was directing. Landau is one of a small number of directors who have successfully applied an avant-garde background to commercial theatre work. Puppets, projections and stage tricks are used liberally but judiciously, and so are breathtakingly simple staging strategies that communicate complex moments. The end result is a fun-house ride of a show that celebrates optimism and imagination.

The entire cast works tirelessly, none more so than SpongeBob himself, Ethan Slater. Slater is compact, flexible and well-built, so much so that a friend of mine has taken to calling him SpongeBob HotPants. He also has boundless energy and cheer, which suits the role to a T. Also magnificent is Gavin Lee as SpongeBob’s sourpuss coworker Squidward, especially when tapping the living daylights out of Christopher Gatelli’s kinetic choreography for “I’m Not A Loser.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Junk

Films taking shots at shady dealings in the world of finance are many, The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street being just the ones that come quickly to mind. Playwright Ayad Akhtar is working territory familiar from these films, and very entertainingly at that. He hews closest to Stone’s 1987 Wall Street – both are loosely based on the exploits of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. But where Stone’s film was a moralistic and occasionally sentimental melodrama, Junk is a satirical tragicomedy, as cold, hard and gleaming as steel.

In 1985, Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) – a fictional composite of Milken and several other financial sharks – is the guiding force at investment firm Sacker Lowell. He specializes in making financial magic with junk bonds, working with the counter-intuitive theory that “debt is an asset.” Most interestingly, Akhtar has the eloquent Merkin frame his assault on previously standard financial practices as an attempt of an ethnically diverse group of underdogs to beat the entrenched WASP plutocracy at their own game. It’s a fresh take on this familiar story, and rings intriguingly true.

Akhtar up to this point has built his reputation on small domestic dramas that, while touching on the way politics and religion impinge on our daily lives, have focused on the psychological and the personal. Junk is a big jump into the kind of political epics more commonly associated with British drama, from Shakespeare to David Hare, and is a bracing success.

Director Doug Hughes handles that epic breadth with great aplomb, moving the large cast around John Lee Beatty’s glittering set like pieces in a cocaine-fueled chess match. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Band’s Visit

There is much being said about how innovative The Band’s Visit is, but I think it draws its strength from the ways in which it is very traditional. This musical marries very traditional musical theatre structure, courtesy of Itamar Moses’s sturdy book, and traditional Egyptian classical music, whose roots go back well over a thousand years. To be totally accurate, maybe only half of David Yazbek’s marvelous score is Egyptian classical, with the other half is a gleefully eclectic mix, including the cabaret-ready cool jazz “Haled’s Song About Love.”

The Band’s Visit follows an Egyptian police band that specializes in Egyptian classical, as they get lost on their way to a gig at an Arabic Cultural Center in Israel. With no bus until morning and no hotel in the small town where they are stranded, locals take the musicians in for the night.

Their interactions open up emotional issues for all involved, especially with the tentative yet still intense flirtation between band leader Tewfiq (Tony Shaloub) and local café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk). Dina, you see, is a big fan of Egyptian culture, especially classical chanteuse Umm Kulthum and movie star Omar Sharif, so Tewfiq is a natural focus of fascination for her. Similarly the band’s resident Casanova, the Chet Baker-worshiping Haled (Ari’el Stachel), helps awkward teen Papi (Etai Benson) approach a girl he likes (in between putting the moves on the limited population of single women in the town).

Though the ensemble work is terrific, with Lenk and Shaloub the definite stand outs, the real star here is David Yazbek’s masterful score. He shows that he can create beautiful, affecting music in any idiom he sets his mind to, while never losing sight of the need for theatrical effectiveness. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: M. Butterfly

I’ve been told that this play revisal is much cooler and more cerebral than the original 1988 Broadway production, and you know what, I’m totally okay with that. Playwright David Henry Hwang is dealing with some very complex issues in M. Butterfly, and I’m more interested in exploring those with him than getting caught up in his hapless leading character’s emotional journey.

M. Butterfly, inspired by historical events, follows married French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Clive Owens) as he falls in love with jīngjù (aka “Beijing opera”) performer Song Liling (Jin Ha). Hwang has substantially revised his script, so that we learn that Song Liling is actually a man much earlier in the game. That narrative tension removed, it is much easier to follow the complicated turns that the forward rush of history forces on Gallimard and Liling’s relationship.

Director Julie Taymor, known for her use of spectacle to tell stories, here puts a greater emphasis on acting, to very good effect, underlining how much politics is very, very personal. As a matter of fact, when she uses spectacle in this production, she falters. The set is made up of moving panels – put simply, there are too many of them and they are too automated. Their lack of smooth functioning ends up being a major distraction. The spectacle that does work as it should is choreographer Ma Cong’s marvelous evocations of jīngjù and yàngbǎnxì (Maoist Revolutionary Operas).

The most outstanding thing in the production is Jin Ha’s performance as Song. He is every bit the character conjured by Hwang’s revisions, all steel and chrome under the velvet and lace, and all longing and confusion even further down. Clive Owens is such a fine actor that you lose sight of his matinee idol looks and really invest in him as the socially awkward Gallimard. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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