Review: Merrily We Roll Along

Although it has a gorgeous score by Steven Sondheim – with some songs that are among his very best – Merrily We Roll Along is nobody’s best work. Nor, to be completely fair, is it anybody’s worst. And it has always been thus. The 1934 Kaufman & Hart play on which the musical is loosely based received good notices but was not a commercial success, in marked contrast to their collaborations before and afterwards. The major stumbling block is the way both play and musical are structured – telling the story of broken friendships backwards, each scene taking place a few years before the previous one.

The unfortunate result of this approach is we first see the characters as cynical and a little bit nasty, which makes it hard to identify with them. On the other hand, the payoff for this approach is that, generally the show gets progressively more optimistic as it continues. This makes a lot of intriguing thematic points, but all told makes for very unsatisfying storytelling. Merrily We Roll Along is a problematic puzzle of a show, which does manage to enlighten and often entertain, while intractably evading solution.

The current Off-Broadway revival by Fiasco Theater and Roundabout gives a very lean and clear-eyed account of this story, and does well with the music, especially considering that some of the cast are more actor-singers than singer-actors. Noah Brody’s direction leans into Merrily‘s most dynamic element, which definitely helps. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Cher Show

This ain’t no chickenshit gig! Whatever problems it may have (mostly the structural difficulties all jukebox bio-musicals share), The Cher Show is rarely less than spectacular, and derives a lot of comedy from it’s sharp-toungued, free-speaking subject.

Cher is played by three different actresses of different ages. The real star is Stephanie J. Block as the mature Cher, who narrates the show and sings the biggest numbers. (This isn’t the first time Block has played a gay icon – she played Liza Minnelli in The Boy from Oz. Is she on a quest to play all of them?). Cher’s a perfect fit for Block, who makes playing to the back row seem effortless. She, and the other two Chers, sing in a loose imitation of Cher’s style, leaning more on delivering the emotional core of the songs than a precise impersonation.

Bob Mackie, whose outlandish costumes for TV’s The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour helped form Cher’s public persona, also designed the costumes for this. Aside from adding glamour to the proceedings – especially in an eye-popping production number that is all about those outfits – Mackie reminded me that under the sequins, he is a visual storyteller of the first order, and a surprisingly subtle one at that. The sparkle will hook you, but the details are where he really does his work.

Jason Moore’s fluid direction smartly leans into variety show glitz and giddy kitsch, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is here to entertain and astound you with it’s energy and flash. The Cher Show is hardly perfect, but it’s undeniably lots of fun, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Prom

Brooks Ashmanskas is The Prom‘s shining star. After decades of being a comic scene-stealer in roles that ranged from ensemble to supporting, he finally has a lead role, and boy does he make the most of it. Oh, he’s still the comic scene-stealer, even up against such expert competition as Christopher Sieber and Beth Leavel (Leavel was out sick the night I went, her understudy Kate Marilley chewed the scenery with a fervor that would have made Beth proud – Marilley’s one to watch for sure). But in the character of Barry Glickman, the authors of The Prom have given Ashmanskas a role with a touch more depth, giving him a chance to show all his gifts.

As The Prom opens, Glickman is co-starring with diva Dee Dee Allen (Leavel / Marilley) in Eleanor! A musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. They find out at the opening night party that the reviews mean the show will close for sure, and they drown their sorrows with chorus gal Angie (Angie Schworer) and out-of-work pretentious Julliard grad Trent Oliver (Seiber). When these theater relics hear that young lesbian Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) is being excluded from a small-town Indiana prom – and the press is shining a spotlight on it – they know that it’s time to get involved, and grab a little of that spotlight for themselves while they’re at it. As a t-shirt available at the merch table says, they’re out to “kick-ball-change the world.”

The spine of The Prom is the growing friendship between Glickman and Emma, bonding over what being oppressed queers does to you – it’s a sweeter thing than that description suggests. Kinnunen is as grounded as Ashmanskas is flighty; with all these shameless hams in town, it’s Emma that gets the 11 O’Clock number, the achingly earnest “Unruly Heart,” which Kinnunen knocks out of the ballpark. Director / choreographer Casey Nicholaw is fresh off Mean Girls, so he knows his way around the high-school scene (he’s long known his way around Broadway!), and gives it his usual heart and pizzazz. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Midnight at the Never Get

This show is a “memory” musical, in much the same sense that The Glass Menagerie is a “memory” play. Singer Trevor (Sam Bolen), shows us his young self, in the early- to mid-1960s, when he was in love with a young pianist / composer named Arthur (Jeremy Cohen). And like memory, what Trevor shows us is unreliable: was Arthur a an idealist or an opportunist? Was Trevor the love of Arthur’s life? His muse? Something else altogether?

It’s seen through the lens of the act they did together in the back room of a gay bar, the titular Never Get. Mark Sonnenblick’s emotional music and elegant lyrics hearken back to the Great America Songbook, giving Arthur’s songs a distinctive voice. One thing Trevor does remember clearly was Arthur’s passion for Porter, Gershwin and so forth, and the feeling that this kind of music was getting lost in the rise of rock and roll.

Bolen is quite appealing as the love-struck Trevor, and sings Sonnenblick’s compositions with a tenderness well suited to the story. He’s also capable of a très gay élan for the evening’s lighter moments. Jeremy Cohen plays piano and acts with great ease and sophistication. Orchestrator Adam Podd has arranged the songs for a medium sized band with a horn section, and they sound more like an ensemble at the chic Blue Angel than a place like the Never Get – which serves both the story and the music very well indeed. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Head Over Heels

It’s an ancient and powerful idea that the ultimate “safe space” for queer people is the wilds of nature, the “pastoral” landscape. We can go all the way back to the Idylls of Theocritus around 300 BCE, which are rife with shepherds falling for pretty boys. In Shakespeare, the meeting of love and gender fluidity often happens in the forest. For the pastoral’s continued power, you only have to look at the way that queers have latched on such sentiments in Bernstein & Sondheim’s “Somewhere”: “There’s a place for us / Somewhere a place for us / Peace and quiet and open air / Wait for us somewhere.” To say nothing of Dorothy telling Toto: “Somewhere, over the rainbow / Skies are blue / And the dreams that you dare to dream / Really do come true.”

Well, the ever-witty Jeff Whitty (bookwriter of Avenue Q and Jake Shears’s Tales of the City) had the bright idea to take one of the most event-packed pastoral romances ever written in the English language, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and pair it with the music of one of the greatest all-female rock bands of all time, The Go-Go’s. Sidney’s romance takes its name from a bucolic region from Greek mythology – where, incidentally, all of Theocritus’s horny shepherds frolicked. Whitty has taken considerable liberties with Sidney’s intricate plot, generally to the purpose of giving the winning hand to the women, the transgender and the androgynous.

You can take it all as a silly, happy, perky joyride, and have a perfectly good time. Whitty is a master of both satisfying theatrical structure and the one-liner, and the Go-Go’s spiky guitar pop hits just the right tone. But it’s deeper and more subversive than that. Classical comedies always end in marriages. While some couplings at the end of Head Over Heels are nominally heterosexual, none retain classical or even traditional gender roles. Plus the chorus boys are encouraged – by the way they are styled and Spencer Liff’s fleet-footed choreography – to be just as pretty, fey and gay as the ones in Theocritus.

The cast is consistently superb. The most plum roles in the show are the ones that have the richest gender story, and the people in those roles make a full meal of them. Bonnie Milligan is a hoot as buxom beauty Pamela finding her hidden desires. Andrew Durand, as doofy shepherd Musidorus, is both hilarious and touching when he dons Amazon garb to pursue the hand of his aristocratic lady love. Rachel York is every inch the fierce ruling royal as Queen Gynecia. Most fabulous of all is Drag Race Peppermint as the oracle Pythio. She is the first trans woman in a lead on Broadway, and the way Whitty plays Pythio’s story out gives her ample opportunity to be both over-the-top and moving. She handles it with all the sass and grace which made her such a fan favorite. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Carmen Jones

Once Anika Noni Rose starts her sultry take on “Dat’s Love” (to the melody of “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera Carmen), you know at least one thing: this Classic Stage Company revival of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones is going to be an evening of beautiful music, beautifully sung. Not in a purely operatic way, but in that style sometimes called “legit,” somewhere between opera and musical comedy.

In adapting Bizet’s opera for the Broadway stage, Hammerstein moved the action from early 19th Century Spain to the American South during World War II. In Hammerstein’s version, Carmen (Rose) is a passionate but fickle and reckless parachute factory worker who desires – and is desired by – many men, including an airman and a prizefighter.

While I’m a great aficionado of opera, I’ve always been ill at ease with the pervasive misogyny and toxic masculinity in the repertoire. Carmen is a big offender in this area, with men vying to possess Carmen, and Carmen herself being portrayed as a “man-eater.” Hammerstein, one of the most humane writers in American literature, helps matters greatly with his more sympathetic portrayal of all involved, but that only makes her murder by the one she loved most all the more senseless, and not “tragic” in any larger sense. Still, the music is irresistible, and it’s hard not to be charmed by Hammerstein’s warmth and wit.

John Doyle’s direction is well within his minimalist, story-centric approach. Sometimes things get a little too still for my taste, but that also means when Bill T. Jones choreography bursts through it’s all the more powerful. It’s finally Rose’s show, though, and she is magnificent. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: My Fair Lady

Bartlett Sher directing tasteful yet thoughtful revivals of “Golden Age” musicals at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theatre – by this point it’s definitely “a thing.” This time Sher has turned his sights on Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the plot goes like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to act and speak like a lady, he gets more than he bargained for: Eliza Doolittle provokes his interest, his anger, and ultimately, his passion.

This astutely executed My Fair Lady is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit and proto-feminist point of view than any other production I’ve seen. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins than is found in the My Fair Lady book, and a much more self-possessed Eliza – and Sher leans toward that every chance he gets.

The excellent Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie on Downton Abbey) is central in this approach: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Lauren Ambrose is a fittingly strong-willed and vocally expressive Eliza. The most showstopping performance, however goes to Norbert Leo Butz, who fills Eliza scoundrel father Alfred with pointed glee. He really brings the house down with his delivery of “Get Me To The Church on Time” positively bursting with kinetic energy.

There’s always a great danger that My Fair Lady might play as romanticizing what essentially is a manipulative, borderline abusive relationship – that certainly happened in the film version. That is far from Shaw’s original intention, and Sher has largely succeeded in saving My Fair Lady from its worst impulses. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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