Review: The Gentleman Caller

Wow, the prose in The Gentleman Caller is purple! That’s not a negative; when your two characters are Tennessee Williams and William Inge, two gay literary lights know for their loquacity, purple captures something important about them. It also means that the play, while loosely based on fact, isn’t exactly realistic – but it was Williams’s own Blanche DuBois who said “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” So let the queer magic begin!

The play takes place in 1944, while a “known” but not yet famous Williams is having out of town tryouts in Chicago for the play that will become known as The Glass Menagerie. In the first act, Tennessee is visiting his family in St. Louis, and agrees to be interviewed by local arts reporter William Inge. At this point Inge is firmly in the closet as both gay and playwright.

In playwright Philip Dawkins’s telling, they size each other up pretty quickly and engage in a game of sexual cat and mouse. Whether Inge and Williams ever had sex is open for debate. Dawkins hedges his bets by presenting some awkward sexual lunges at each other: awkward because of booze for Williams, awkward because of innate awkwardness (and booze) for Inge. But these never quite end in consummation.

This is less a story about them having a sexual or romantic encounter, and more about their artistic sensibilities colliding, and them sharing some queer warmth and mutual support. Director Tony Speciale has staged the play somewhat athletically, and with a strong sense of what Williams described as “plastic theatre” – a theatre that is simultaneously sculptural and kinetic. This is especially true in the sexual byplay, but pervades every moment of the production.

Juan Francisco Villa clearly relishes playing Williams as an unbridled sexual and verbal Dionysus, while Daniel K. Isaac captures both Inge’s tightly-wound nerves and the surges of emotion and desire that well underneath. It took a while for my ear to tune to the purpleness of Dawkins’s prose, but once it had, The Gentleman Caller had many pleasures to offer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Summer and Smoke

Now, while this is a very good Tennessee Williams play, I think it’s much less compelling than his later, rarely performed rewrite The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Both tell the story of Alma Winemiller, a minister’s daughter in Glorious Hill, Mississippi in the years before World War I. But Eccentricities gives us an Alma who is noticeably more self-possessed, while in Summer in spite of her best efforts, she is buffeted by the decisions of others.

Eccentricities also cuts a borderline offensive subplot about a Mexican father and daughter, and replaces overheated histrionics with something simpler and more genuinely touching. Thus, when somebody mounts Summer and Smoke, I always feel a momentary pain that they didn’t do the play that both I and Williams himself felt was better. Still, Summer and Smoke is actually a quite solid melodrama, the closest thing to a bodice ripper Williams wrote, while still having the penetrating insight into human psychology that never left him.

Director Jack Cummings III has shorn the play of anything but the most important elements. There are no props, and the actors don’t even mime using them, they just make a single gesture that confirms what the dialogue suggests. Cummings focuses on a fiercely precise rendering of language and characters, two of Williams’s greatest strengths.

This is another one of those plays that has to have a strong performance in the lead role to make sense. Marin Ireland is easily the best Alma I’ve seen, fully understanding that while Alma might not know herself too well, she is otherwise nobody’s fool. We see not only every self-controlling thought but also every uncontrollable emotion, which is truly dazzling and moving – and so Alma.

The play’s action is driven by Alma’s passion for the ne’er-do-well boy next door, young Dr. John Buchanan, who breaks all kinds of rules in the pursuit of pleasure, but feels intensely guilty about doing so. Nathan Darrow has exactly the languid charm needed to give life to this decidedly lost soul. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Travesties

The plays Tom Stoppard wrote in the 1960s and 1970s are too clever by half, and Travesties is no exception. I mean that as only half a compliment: Stoppard spends so much time showing off his erudition and technical skill as a writer that it’s quite easy to lose the thread of his characters and themes. And those themes are often so compelling on their own that you wish the man would, I don’t know, take a breath. What Stoppard actually has to say – in this case about art, war and revolution – is very intelligent, so it’s worth the effort. But, really

Thank goodness, then, that director Patrick Marber has engineered a production that leans heavily on fun, visceral, and visual excitement. Travesties examines Zurich circa 1916 though the eyes of a dilettante working at the British consulate named Henry Carr. Zurich was the largest city in Switzerland, which remained neutral in the World War then raging everywhere else in Europe. As such it was a magnet for expatriate artists like Irishman James Joyce and Romanian Tristan Tzara.

The cast is uniformly terrific, the best being Seth Numrich as Dadaist poet Tzara. He thoroughly embodies both the smirking suavity Tzara displayed socially, and the feral charisma he brought to performing his poetry. Dan Butler is an appropriately steely Vladimir Lenin (also in Zurich at the time, plotting the Bolshevik revolution), and Butler’s fellow Frasier alum Patrick Kerr is acidly hilarious as hyper-intellectual butler Bennett. Tom Hollander as Carr ably carries the majority of scenes with marvelously nutty brio. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Saint Joan

When I first read Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, it gave me the impression of telling the story of Joan of Arc as if she were another thoroughly modern young Shavian heroine, like Major Barbara Undershaft, Vivie Warren or Eliza Doolittle. The characters portrayed in Saint Joan may have been French folk of the Late Middle Ages, but they sounded like early 20th-century English business people talking on the street. I enjoyed this quality, as it made the story crisply accessible, and signaled that Shaw (as usual) had social commentary on his mind, not just history.

Director Daniel Sullivan wisely has these medieval French people speak in American or Mid-Atlantic accents, except for the handful of characters who are actually English, like the Earl of Warwick, played with oily charm by Jack Davenport. Sullivan also understands that, although Joan met a tragic end, Shaw never stopped writing comedy, and applies a needed light touch.

Of course, the actress playing Joan defines any production of Saint Joan, and in this case we have Condola Rashad who does solid, thoughtful work. I’ve seen far too many bad puns about fire in reviews of Saint Joan, so believe me when I say I mean no such thing when I tell you Rashad gives her a slow steady burn. She is aided by a superb supporting cast, particularly Patrick Page as a terrifyingly calm and methodical Inquisitor, and John Glover as an archbishop as politically cunning and he is theologically astute. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The title of this enormous theatrical adventure is a bit misleading. Sure, an adult Harry Potter is a significant part of this play, but it really belongs to his son Albus Potter and Albus’s best friend, Scorpius Malfoy (that’s right, a Potter and a Malfoy are best friends). And just who is that cursed child? At times it seems to be Scorpius, at others Albus himself, and at yet others somebody else entirely.

As for Harry, he’s a investigator for the Ministry of Magic, a husband, and the father of three school-age children – Albus is a middle child, and has all of the neuroses that go with that. Albus feels, arguably correctly, that his father has done serious wrong to some people in his battles with dark forces. Albus and Scorpius set out to correct those wrongs, but only succeed in making things worse. Right, that’s all the plot you’re going to get from me, there’s far too much good stuff that shouldn’t be spoiled.

You need somebody adept in theatrical magic to make this dazzle as it should, and director John Tiffany fits the bill perfectly. When wonder can be created using simple means, that’s the way he goes, but he isn’t shy about going big and high-tech when that’s the better path. Movement director Steve Hoggett, a frequent Tiffany collaborator, makes great fun working swirling capes for all they’re worth. Pop composer Imogen Heap is also an ideal choice for this material, since her work is always full of rich feeling and mysticism.

As Albus, Sam Clemmett gives a marvelously shaded performance, capturing both his pain and youthful sense of wonder. Scorpius is a much more colorful character, a witty but awkward nerd, and Anthony Boyle goes deliciously over-the-top (sometime to the point of unintelligibility) without ever losing this emotional thread of this lonely boy. Byron Jennings gives his usual excellent all to two surprising characters in part two. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.

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.