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Photo: Joan Marcus

BROADWAY REVIEW: Airline Highway

Airline Highway

April 23, 2015: The motley characters in Lisa D’Amour’s ebullient “Airline Highway” are gathering for the funeral of one of their own, Miss Ruby, a former stripper who lived alongside them in a rundown New Orleans motel. Or rather lives. Strictly speaking, Miss Ruby isn’t dead but dying. She has requested the premature funeral — which turns out to be a raucous wake — so she can attend the festivities, even if it means being lugged down from her room to the parking lot on a hospital gurney. The piteous truth is this funeral party might really be held for almost any of the characters, whose lives have crashed and burned, sputtered and stalled, or become mired in confusion, disappointment, addiction. Although they may still have the breath of life in them, and a hunger for stray shards of joy that bleeds through their armor of resignation or defiance, their futures are little brighter than Miss Ruby’s. Ms. D’Amour’s dark comedy, which opened on Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in a bright-blazing production directed by Joe Mantello, draws a compassionate but unvarnished collective portrait of the underclass of New Orleans, a city where millions of tourists converge to party, little noticing that among the bottles and beads littering the streets are plenty of people who refuse to let the party end, and often pay a hard price for it. The production, from the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, here presented by Manhattan Theater Club, brims with humor and pungent life. It features a flawless cast led by the Tony winner Julie White (“The Little Dog Laughed”), whose harrowing performance handily surpasses her superb prior work in lighter comedies. Ms. D’Amour’s play has a loose, baggy structure that sometimes works against it, but this aptly reflects the aimlessness of its characters, who live day to day and would rather not think about the unhappy past or the foggy future.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: The Visit

The Visit

April 23, 2015: When Chita Rivera steps solemnly to the edge of the stage in the opening scene of “The Visit,” she sweeps the audience with a gaze that could freeze over hell. Yet a quickening warmth spreads through the Lyceum Theater, where this macabre, long-gestating Kander and Ebb musical opened on Thursday night. The woman who stands so regally before us may appear as glacial as Siberia. But longtime theatergoers know that beneath the frost, this ice queen is hot stuff. Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s fabular 1956 drama of greed and vengeance, “The Visit” arrives with lots of baggage. That includes the ominous black valises that figure prominently in the show’s set and the many obstacles and alterations this musical has experienced on a 13-year-long journey to Broadway. But it’s the history that the 82-year-old Ms. Rivera carries and the expertise with which she deploys it that keep the chill off this elegant dirge of a production, directed by John Doyle. Portraying a woman with a storied past, she brings with her the legacy of more than six decades as a Broadway musical star. That career has had its spectacular peaks (the creation of classic roles in the original “West Side Story” and “Chicago”) and valleys (the doomed “Merlin”). If “The Visit,” which also stars Roger Rees and features a tartly didactic book by Terrence McNally, occupies a sort of landscaped plateau in this terrain, its leading lady continues to tower. “I’m unkillable,” Ms. Rivera’s character says, and a line uttered with throwaway bravado stops the show.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Something Rotten!

Something Rotten!

April 22, 2015: Unchecked enthusiasm is not always an asset in musical comedy, despite the genre’s reputation for wholesale peppiness. “Something Rotten!,” the rambunctious new show that opened on Wednesday night at the St. James Theater, dances dangerously on the line between tireless and tedious, and winds up collapsing into the second camp. If that sounds exhausting, the large cast onstage betrays no signs of flagging. Clad in what are surely very heavy Elizabethan costumes, and performing what is essentially the same determined showstopper again and again, the ensemble members in this Broadway-does-the-Renaissance frolic remain as wired as Adderall-popping sophomores during exam week. “Sophomoric” is the right adjective for “Something Rotten!,” and presumably its creators wouldn’t have it any other way. Conceived by the Kirkpatrick brothers, Wayne and Karey, who wrote the score, with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, this production wallows in the puerile puns, giggly double-entendres, lip-smacking bad taste and goofy pastiche numbers often found in college revues. All those traits, I should add, have also been in evidence in two of the most successful Broadway musicals of recent years: “The Book of Mormon” and Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.” Yet how restrained and elegant those shows seem next to “Something Rotten!,” directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who provided the same services for “Mormon.” I never thought I’d be saying this, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the “South Park” collaborators who came up with “Mormon”) and Mr. Brooks turn out to be masters of the art of knowing when to stop.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Unexpected Guest

The Unexpected Guest

April 22, 2015: The actors weren’t even onstage yet when a man behind me tried to guess the culprit in Agatha Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest.” Clues were scarce, but he deduced what he could from the set: a wainscoted room with French windows, a cane-back wheelchair parked in front of them. The killer, he declared, would be the person in the wheelchair — unless the person in the wheelchair was the one who turned up dead. Bingo on that second prediction, but please don’t bother pitying the victim. When Richard Warwick is discovered late one night, shot through the head at his home on the Welsh coast, even his elderly mother isn’t terribly torn up about it. The not-so-dearly departed was a sadistic bully. Loads of people had reasons to want him gone. Theater Breaking Through Barriers employs artists with and without disabilities, and fighting stereotypes is central to its mission. “The Unexpected Guest” (1958) includes one character described by the woman of the house as deaf, and another — Richard’s teenage half brother, Jan (Christopher Imbrosciano) — as “what they call retarded.” Ike Schambelan, the troupe’s founding artistic director, who died of cancer in February, had staged the play before and was set to direct this production.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago

April 21, 2015: “Doctor Zhivago,” the endless Boris Pasternak novel familiar to most of us from the endless David Lean movie, has been resurrected for dramatic purposes once again, as a musical that opened at the Broadway Theater on Tuesday night. The verdict: Um, is it over yet? Hold your fire, Russophiles and cinephiles. Obviously many revere the book, first published in Italy in 1957 after being banned by the authorities in the Soviet Union, where it wasn’t published until decades later. The 1965 movie, starring a luminous Julie Christie and a pair of moist, doggy eyes otherwise known as Omar Sharif, is considered by many a classic in Lean’s late, sumptuously pictorial style. But after slogging through both recently, I remain staunch in my opinion that the book is among the most drearily indigestible of so-called modern classics, and the movie rich in visual atmosphere but dramatically flaccid. My reaction to the musical, with a book by Michael Weller, music by Lucy Simon and lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, doesn’t derive from the usual sorrowful observations about the inferiority of the stage version to a beloved book or movie. No, the dismay here has to do with the musical itself, a turgid throwback to the British invasion of Broadway in the 1980s, and more specifically to the epic-romantic style of the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil shows “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.” Of course, those musicals, too, have innumerable admirers. If full-throated love ballads and thundering militaristic anthems, baggy plots, highly expositional dialogue and doomed romances are your cup of tea, fire up the samovar and give the show a try. But be warned: Even as it shares similarities with those long-running hits, “Doctor Zhivago” is inferior in most respects to the musicals it is emulating.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: 8 Stops

8 Stops

April 21, 2015: Talk about refreshingly low-key. When Deb Margolin walked up the aisle of the Cherry Lane Theater and bounded up the steps to the edge of the stage, I thought she was the house manager, there to make the opening announcements. She was wearing a blue dress, footless black tights and ballet flats and carrying some papers. But she was there to perform “8 Stops,” her eloquent one-act solo show about, among other things, life in Montvale, N.J.; “the grief of endless compassion”; her battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma; and her little son, who, at regular intervals, becomes panicked by and obsessed with “the death thing.” Ms. Margolin, who has regularly turned her life stories into performance pieces, is undeniably funny, and her new show is filled with lovely, offbeat points of view and surprising turns of phrase. “I’ve always reserved for myself the right to commit suicide,” she confesses, using the metaphor of a social gathering. “If the party was unpleasant and featured unsavory types or too much small talk and booze, if it was just a greasy sausage ball on a plate and someone telling me they were in a play once in summer camp, I could just ‘leave.’ ”

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Living on Love

Living on Love

April 20, 2015: Making her Broadway debut in “Living on Love,” the lumpy little comedy that opened on Monday night at the Longacre Theater, Renée Fleming seems like far too nice a woman to be playing a diva. That sounds irrational, I know, since Ms. Fleming, the great soprano, is one of the most celebrated opera stars in the world. But “diva,” in that case, is a job description and a tribute to the professional heights to which Ms. Fleming has ascended. In “Living on Love,” which is written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Kathleen Marshall, Ms. Fleming is required to be a diva in the more pejorative sense, as when you call somebody out for melodramatic or selfish behavior by saying, “Oh, don’t be such a diva.” Raquel De Angelis, the opera star portrayed here by Ms. Fleming, is such a diva and then some — a capricious, tantrum-throwing egomaniac who doesn’t even step into her own living room without making sure she has the proper lighting, entrance music and drop-dead outfit. Ms. Fleming, who knows from ball gowns, wears such attire with grace. The accompanying attitude, however, isn’t a natural fit. And when someone says Raquel reminds him of Eleanor Roosevelt (albeit a beautiful and sensual version of that redoubtable first lady), the description isn’t as incongruous as intended.

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