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: Ethan Slater

In a really good way, Ethan Slater’s Feinstein’s/54 Below debut is about as far from his star-making role in Broadway’s SpongeBob SquarePants as possible. Here he emerges as a smart, earnest singer songwriter with impressive multi-instrumental skills. His songs have a quirky edge that reminds me of the solo work of Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies: like Page, Slater deals with themes of love, loss and healing, with rich veins of humor, ruefulness and wonder.

Slater is writing a handful of musicals, both on his own and with Nick Blaemire. One is intended as a film titled Write Me In, about two brothers, both writers. Another is a stage musical called Edge of the World, about a single father who relocates himself and his young son to Alaska – songs from this one are the majority of the evening’s repertoire. Thank goodness, too, that they are sturdy enough to sustain our interest, which bodes well for the musical itself.

There are a handful of songs not by Slater that help to anchor the evening. Folk music is an important background for Ethan, and he does one song apiece by Paul Simon and Dave Van Ronk early in the show. Tony Nominee that he is, he also does a smattering of musical theatre, including a very affecting rendition of “Happiness Is…” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and his big number from SpongeBob, “(Just a) Simple Sponge.” To top it all off, Slater is blessed with a golden voice, and tons of affable charisma. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Galas

Diva! Here we have one diva (in the most positive goddess-like sense) playing another diva (in both senses). Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. We have a man with goddess-like acting gifts (Everett Quinton) portraying a fictionalized version of opera diva Maria Callas. Drag doesn’t get much higher than this.

The play is Galas by the late great Charles Ludlam, Everett’s partner in art and life – and the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement. Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Galas in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run.

As director, Everett fills the play with truly “Ridiculous”detail, as well as lots of warmth and romanticism, appropriate to the story of a diva with such great skills at singing Romantic Era opera. As an actor, Galas confirms Quinton as the greatest living actor in the Ridiculous tradition – and among the best in any tradition, as far as I’m concerned.

He attacks the role with great precision, and the almost supernatural conviction that is the hallmark of great Ridiculous acting, expertly playing the deep seriousness of this tragicomedy as well (its actual subtitle is “A Modern Tragedy” but it’s far too funny for that). Everett is the ideal interpreter of Ludlam’s plays, knowing when to be loyal to what Charles had already done, and when to push things even further into preposterousness to keep it fresh.

This is above all a star vehicle for the actor playing Galas, but there is one other fantastic performance in this production, as well as someone who shines in a smaller part. On the fantastic side is Jenne Vath as the diva’s mad maid Bruna. The role is nutty as hell and Vath plays it to the hilt. And, as Galas’s romantic rival Athina, Maude Lardener Burke leads you to believe – in a very few lines – that she is every bit as formidable as the great singer.

The production’s venue is the acoustically unforgiving main hall of St. John’s Lutheran Church, and its biggest flaw is lack of vocal projection equal to the echo-y space. That is for sure, a mere quibble when you are seeing such a great artist as Quinton vigorously at work. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Interview: Everett Quinton in “Galas”

I have had the great pleasure of directing Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton twice, in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea. The Williams play got some terrific reviews, which you can read here (and you can see some lovely photos here). Charles Ludlam was perhaps the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement, and Everett was his partner in art and life.

Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Ludlam’s fictionalized tribute to opera diva Maria Callas, entitled Galas, in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run. I sat down with this humble genius to talk about it.

So how did this revival of Galas come about?

It was suggested last fall. I’ve been working with the Yorick Theatre Company. Chris Johnson, who is the Artistic Director of Yorick, talked with Pastor Mark Erson who is the Artistic Director of Theatre at St. John’s Church on Christoper Street, where Yorick performs. They came up with the idea of doing Galas – because of the Stonewall 50th anniversary and World Pride – suggested it to me and I said “good.”

Is this a role you’ve wanted to do?

Yeah, people over the years have suggested it, but there was never the opportunity to do it. Now that it has, I’d be a fool to say no; its a terrific part. I’m having fun with it. When you’re directing it and you’re in it, like I am with this, there are so many pots on the stove. But now me and the other actors are starting to cook! [Laughs] I love the actors in this group, they’re a wonderful group and we’re finding our way.

There’s humor in everything Charles wrote, but am I right in thinking this is one of his more serious plays?

It does play as more serious, yes. That’s the beauty of it. It starts out one way and it flips midway, which is not accidental on Charles’s part. You carefully study the script and he sets up the flip early on. I’m really enjoying exploring that. When I was in the original production, for which I also did the costumes, I didn’t worry about the big picture. So that’s a joy of this production for me. It’s around this time that Charles blossoms from a good writer into a really fabulous one, so skillful. We all improve as we go along, right?

Funny thing is, this big play was originally supposed to be a two-hander for me and him, about an actress and her maid. I don’t know what was going on at the time that provoked him to turn it into a life of Maria Callas. Because usually that’s the way he worked, something in the air tweaked him.

I know this is fictionalized – she’s named Galas not Callas – but I recall that it actually tracks pretty closely with Callas’s life.

Pretty closely, except there’s a couple of things I couldn’t make sense of and then I realized that’s the fictionalized part. I thought I knew from the original production that the last act takes place in Paris – and it doesn’t [Laughs], that’s the fictional part. But it is a close tribute, and I’m using her speaking voice. All of the scene changes are her singing.

I love that Callas demanded a dollar more than all her contemporaries – she would say “so-and-so’s getting so much so I want a dollar more.” I love her arrogance, and when you realize who those contemporaries were, you realize oh my God she had cojones, she had ovaries. [Laughs]

Are you an opera fan yourself?

A fan, yeah. I have no intellectual conceptions about it, I just love it. Tony Randall called it the greatest of art forms, which is arguable. Those singers just do so many wonderful things. I mean I walk around the apartment pretending to be one. When I got the costumes for the original production, I had a decent budget and I found this beautiful green dress for Charles to wear as Galas. But when I first got it home, I wore it and went around the apartment pretending I was soprano Shirley Verrett [Laughs]. So I’m a lip synch opera queen. Charles liked opera but there were bigger opera queens in the company and our chatter could annoy him. I called it “gay baseball,” we talk about opera and musicals like straight guys talk about baseball.

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: 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.