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Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Hadestown

Hadestown_178x236

May 23, 2016: “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.” We certainly do. The words refer to the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has been told and retold — sung and resung, danced and filmed — over the centuries in many genres and styles. Now it has become a folk opera, “Hadestown,” by the gifted singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, which opened on Monday at New York Theater Workshop in a gorgeously sung, elementally spare production directed by and developed with Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”).

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Toast

Toast

May 2, 2016: Walter Nelson — known to his co-workers as Nellie — has the stunned appearance of a leprous Lazarus, newly wakened from the grave. His eyes are rheumy, his body is crusted in gluey globs of white; and when he speaks, it is usually in monosyllables (“Ay, “Yah,” “Nah”) that sound bewildered or alarmed. That’s what 45 years of working in a bread factory can do to a man. Played by Matthew Kelly in “Toast,” Richard Bean’s trenchant 1999 comedy of the rhythms of a blue-collar workday, Nellie is treated as a sort of mascot by the men who toil alongside him, mixing and shoveling dough. He is also the image of their probable futures, which you would think would give them pause. Yet the characters in “Toast,” which opened on Sunday night as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, don’t seem disturbed by this lumbering vision of what their work might make of them in time. What scares them is the prospect of losing that work, and not just for financial reasons. It’s more the daunting question of how they’d ever be able to fill all those empty hours. Mr. Bean, a playwright of wide-ranging satirical scope, is best known on these shores for “One Man, Two Guvnors,” his knockabout transposition of an 18th-century Goldoni comedy to the British seaside of the 1960s (seen on Broadway in 2012), which made a star of its leading man, James Corden. The current production of “Toast,” which toured Britain this year, definitely has its farcical side.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen

May 1, 2016: If an exposed nerve ending could walk, talk and attend high school, it would surely resemble the title character of the terrific musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” about a friendless 17-year-old played with such prickly authenticity by the wonderful Ben Platt that you can practically feel his flop sweat on your own brow. What’s Evan so anxious about? Well, what have you got? Even ordering in food — a seemingly stress-free transaction, as his mother points out, in the age of online access — sends Evan into a tailspin of fear. “You have to talk to the delivery person when they come to the door,” he explains. “Then they have to make change. You have to stand there while it’s silent and they’re counting the change and … ” His voice trails off, as he envisions the horrific scene in his angst-addled mind. But it’s primarily the agony of being a misfit facing his first day as a high school senior — with a crush on a junior he can’t bring himself to approach — that gives Evan the jitters. He has been advised by his therapist to improve his self-image by writing himself daily pep notes. As he’s dutifully printing one out at school, it’s snatched up by another outsider, the black-clad Connor (Mike Faist), who stuffs it in his pocket. And noticing that poor Evan has been unable to find anyone to sign the cast on his broken arm, Connor scrawls his name across it with a mocking sneer.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire

May 1, 2016: It really is a jungle out there, Blanche, that same cruel, do-or-die world described by Darwin. And while it’s noble of you to plead with your sister not to “hang back with the brutes” — to choose the aesthetes over the animals — you surely know it’s a waste of breath. The New Orleans neighborhood where Blanche DuBois comes calling so disastrously in Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” has never seemed quite as atavistic as it does in Benedict Andrews’s compellingly harsh revival, which opened on Sunday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. This production pits a fully adrenalized Gillian Anderson, as Blanche, against Ben Foster, as her adversarial brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, in a riveting study of the survival of the fittest. Even if you are unfamiliar with the plot, you shouldn’t have trouble predicting its outcome. Mr. Foster’s slyly commanding Stanley — a performance that makes the specter of Marlon Brando, who created the part, temporarily retreat into the dusk — is obviously the younger, stronger and more confident of the two. But Ms. Anderson’s Blanche has her own arsenal of weapons, and though they may be outdated, she puts up a vigorous defense. This fading feline beauty is clearly fated to lose, but she’s also going down fighting, tooth and manicured nail.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Shuffle Along

Shuffle Along

April 28, 2016: So just what is it, this tart and sweet, bubbly and flat, intoxicating and sobering concoction being dispensed from the stage of the Music Box Theater? “Shuffle Along,” which opened with a whoop and a sigh on Thursday night, has been suffering from an identity crisis in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the Tony Award nominations. It shares its name and most of its song list with a landmark musical from 1921, which means this production should qualify as a revival, right? (That’s what its producers, for strategic purposes involving a juggernaut called “Hamilton,” have argued.) But wait a minute. The latest version of this show, which features immortal songs by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, has a subtitle, dangling like an heirloom earring: “Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” So is this “Shuffle Along” old or new? The answer is emphatically … both, though not in the ways you might expect. That old-as-the-Rialto story line is — bear with me — what’s new in this “Shuffle Along,” the part written by Mr. Wolfe, and it’s what feels stalest. The book of the original “Shuffle Along,” by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, involved a mayoral campaign in a small town. The Broadway of the 1920s had no doubt seen similarly plotted shows. What made this one unusual was that its cast and, more startlingly, entire creative team were black. What made it a bona fide hit, running close to 500 performances, was the jaw-dropping virtuosity of its singing and dancing. Which is also what makes the reincarnated “Shuffle Along” one of the season’s essential tickets. As staged by Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Glover — and interpreted by stars who include Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter and the incomparable Audra McDonald — routines first performed nearly a century ago come across as defiantly fresh.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Long Day's Journey Into Night

April 27, 2016: A violent storm front has moved into the American Airlines Theater, where Jonathan Kent’s static, star-packed revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” opened on Wednesday night, and like so much of our weather these days, it seems to be human-made. It may be the special-effects team that’s generating all that moody fog and wind. But it’s Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Lange, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. who are providing the thunder and lightning. I mean the histrionic kind, of course, the sort of heavy-weather acting you associate with the distant era in which James Tyrone, the aging, grandstanding matinee idol played (very effectively) by Mr. Byrne, ruled as a king of the stage. Voices are raised, lapels are grabbed, fate is cursed, backs are turned, shoulders are squared, and bodies are sent tumbling to the floor. Yet you can’t avoid the feeling that this tempestuous climate is artificially controlled. All of the leading performers in this production are proven powerhouses. They all have at least moments of the probing intensity that they’ve shown in their previous work. And Mr. Byrne serves one of the most subtle, fine-grained slices of theatrical ham on record.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting

April 26, 2016: Family-friendly musicals on Broadway generally come in just one flavor: flashy. Enter “Tuck Everlasting,” a warm-spirited and piercingly touching musical that has nothing flashy or splashy about it. The nearest this small-scale production comes to the kind of spectacle we associate with kiddie bait is a toad hopping across the stage. Based on the popular children’s book by Natalie Babbitt, the musical, which opened on Tuesday at the Broadhurst Theater, has been deftly adapted by Claudia Shear (“Dirty Blonde”) and Tim Federle and features a winning, varied score by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics). A little surprisingly, the show is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who specializes in the kind of musicals “Tuck Everlasting” very much is not: the razzle-dazzly “Aladdin”; the exuberantly vulgar “The Book of Mormon”; and last season’s anything-for-a-laugh Elizabethan spoof, “Something Rotten!” (Remarkably, he now has four musicals running on Broadway.) Mr. Nicholaw does let loose in a couple of rousing numbers led by the show’s mysterious villain, a carnival worker, with high-kicking dancers swirling and strutting across the stage; you can almost feel his delight in getting to flex the muscles he’s most often used. But he also evinces a natural feel for the tender emotional core of the material and even its layers of mildly dark philosophical inquiry. Yes, I did just use the phrase “philosophical inquiry” in reference to a Broadway musical aimed at the family crowd. “Tuck Everlasting” rings a variation on the fountain of youth myth, ultimately asking what life would mean if it never ended, and whether a never-ending life would be worth living.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Fully Committed

Fully Committed

April 25, 2016: As a struggling actor who earns a living taking reservations for one of Manhattan’s high-end food temples — once known as restaurants — Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the sole performer in Becky Mode’s “Fully Committed,” is a comic dynamo with seemingly endless energy. Bounding around the stage of the Lyceum Theater, where the play opened on Tuesday, he jousts with not one or two but three different phones, nearly sweating through his gingham shirt as he gives voice to more than 40 characters, among them the harried but even-tempered central character, Sam; an imperious French maître d’; a patronizing bully of a chef; a chipper assistant to Gwyneth Paltrow; a socialite with a manner even more imposing than her name; and a lively menagerie of other New York types. Mr. Ferguson, who began his career in the theater but sources his Broadway-headliner status from his role on ABC’s “Modern Family,” brings such warmth and variety to his performance that you may not notice that in the more than 15 years since the play opened Off Broadway, it has acquired a slightly sour aftertaste.

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