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.

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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.

Review: Time and the Conways

This sturdy, smart play from 1937 is equal parts philosophical rumination on the “time” part of the title, and rigorously observed family drama about “the Conways.” In 1919, at the 21st birthday party for Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry), the titular upper-middle class British family see a sunny future ahead – I mean, the worst war in human history had just ended, how could it ever get as bad as that again? Then we jump to 1937, in what is either the actual future, or Kay’s dark premonition, or both.

In addition to its philosophical and “family psychology” themes, J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways is rich with political thoughts that range from the most idealistic socialism to the most mercenary capitalism, which speaks loudly to the anxieties of 2017 America. Director Rebbeca Taichman, fresh off her Tony win for Indecent, is an ideal match for this thoughtful material. Just as with Indecent, she creates several coups de théâtre that express Priestley’s ideas in breathtakingly simple theatrical moments.

The star in this production is Elizabeth McGovern, much loved as Downton Abbey‘s Lady Gratham, Cora Crawley. Here she plays family matriarch Mrs. Conway, a “monster mother” type familiar in American dramas from such characters as Tennessee Williams’s Amanda Wingfield or O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone – well-intentioned perhaps, but blinded by self-interest to the ways she damages her children. McGovern plays the positives here, going full-force into Mrs. Conway’s often unwarranted optimism to heartbreaking effect.

But as with the Williams and O’Neill characters referenced above, Mrs. Conway is not the central character of Time and the Conways. Though the play is in many ways an ensemble show, Kay is the character who holds the story together. Parry does a marvelous job with this sensitive, troubled yet hardy soul. The outstanding performance, though, is Gabriel Ebert as the quietly thoughtful and stoically content Alan. Quiet as Alan is, it’s clear when he does speak that much more is going on inside his head than those of the rest of the family combined. Ebert reflects every nuance, and gives a performance that shines from inside. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Prince of Broadway

I am, in some ways, this show’s ideal audience: an ambitious director / choreographer looking for inspiration from Harold Prince, one of the most successful Broadway directors ever. That makes me not only more attentive to details in his dramaturgy, staging and transitions, but also more forgiving of moments where he trades depth for clarity, or sacrifices complexity for more broadly comprehensible insights.

Because, you see, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective revue of Prince’s Broadway work, has come in for some – I think unfair – critical drubbing since its opening. Other critics have seen it as disorganized and shallow, where I would argue it is neither of these things.

It follows a largely chronological ordering of numbers from Prince’s storied career. The only times Prince (who also directed here) fiddles with the timeline is when a song from slightly earlier in his career makes a better transition or section finale. Which I think is very smart when it comes to structuring a show for an audience concerned with being carried away by a theatrical experience, rather than niceties of opening night dates and the like. In other words, the general Broadway audience that Prince has always been so brilliant at speaking to, pushing them as far as he feels he can get away with, and no further – which has been far enough to establish him as a stunningly prolific innovator.

Also, transitions between numbers are governed by what makes more sense in that particular moment. Sometimes you want to know what happened next for Prince, sometimes following a thematic trail directly into another song from another show makes more sense.

Plus, when those songs are delivered by performers this good, almost nothing else matters. Karen Ziemba totally redefines “So What” from Cabaret with a paradoxically luminous rage. Emily Skinner simultaneously and amazingly celebrates and erases Elaine Strich’s legendary take on “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. And Tony Yazbeck tearing “The Right Girl” from Follies to shreds is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Speaking of “The Right Girl,” that is a number where choreographer / co-director Susan Stroman’s work shines particularly bright. From the waist down, Yazbek’s energetic tap dance is pure exuberance; from the neck up his face is wracked with agony. This split between dancing and acting in one dancer’s body is pure Stroman. Recomended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Terms of My Surrender

This show goes unexpectedly very gay at the end. No Michael Moore isn’t gay (heaven forfend), but there are several delicious, completely apolitical, payoffs at the finale, which made this an even more satisfying evening for me. The Terms of My Surrender was already pretty satisfying, as I am definitely a part of the anti-Trump choir that Moore is preaching to in this often funny, often disturbing dolled-up political rally.

Because, make no mistake about it, much of Terms is what you’d expect: an anti-Trump screed, by turns despairing and gleeful. But ultimately it is more than that, it’s a call to action in the most general of terms. Moore exhorts his audience to get involved in the political process any way they can, and uses stories from his own life – mostly from before his career as a famous filmmaker and author – to drive home the truth that one person can make an enormous difference, and you don’t have to be famous or wealthy to do it. Moore’s own journey began with a trip to a vending machine to get a bag of Ruffles chips; beginnings don’t get more humble than that.

He even gives you a remarkably easy way to begin making that difference, which I will link to here: the website and app 5calls.org. Together with Moore, I urge you to go there now and start being part of the solution. And definitely go see Terms of My Surrender, it is a marvelous and surprisingly entertaining bit of encouragement in these dark days. Recommended.

Remember, 5calls.org!

For tickets, click here.

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

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.