Photo: Sara Krulwich

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

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July 28, 2016: As a drunken and possibly lunatic millionaire, Santino Fontana gives a performance of ineffable sweetness in “Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” an odd duck of a musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that’s being presented as the final entry in City Center Encores! Off-Center summer season. As he bumbles through the thickets of picaresque plot in this doggedly weird satire, Mr. Fontana maintains an air of almost saintly purity, portraying a man seeking purpose and finding it in a most un-American pursuit: giving away all of his millions.





July 27, 2016: Who, or what, is really in charge of our destiny? We like to believe that our will, our imagination, our reason are meticulously clicking away, taking hold of the future and shaping it to our desires. But what about that little companion in our pocket we consult so regularly, with its innumerable little helpers that we refer to dozens if not hundreds of times a day, attending to their chirps and beeps and rings as if to a relentless taskmaster?


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance


July 26, 2016: PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It’s hard to imagine more ideal summer entertainment than the exhilarating production of “The Pirates of Penzance” swashbuckling across the stage — and often tumbling merrily off it — at the Barrington Stage Company here. Rarely have I felt an audience and a cast coming together in such a happy communal bear hug. And we could all use one right now, no? This superbly realized production is directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, who teamed up for “On the Town,” which was first seen at Barrington Stage before moving to Broadway. It embraces an anything-goes spirit that is both in keeping with the distinctive silliness of Gilbert and Sullivan at their best, and establishes its own brand of inspired goofing. (There’s even a little “Brexit” joke at the finale.) The production uses the revised version of the operetta originally presented by the Public Theater in Central Park, back in 1980, before moving to Broadway, with Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Kevin Kline in the central roles, and directed by Wilford Leach. On this occasion, for more modest star power, we have Will Swenson (“Hair” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” among other Broadway shows), perhaps never better cast than he is here as the Pirate King. Mr. Swenson’s swarthy good looks are matched here with a sexy pirate swagger, but he’s also in possession of a powerful baritone. Most important, he has such an assured natural comic flair that even the raising of an eyebrow — or, in one delightful bit, the donning of an eye patch — becomes the stuff of belly laughs. A few audience members are seated onstage, and Mr. Swenson’s jovial joshing with them (including a reference to his “pirate booty”) is handled with just the right smiling lewdness. While they may not be as familiar, the rest of the principals are equally terrific. Where has the fabulous Scarlett Strallen, who plays the ingénue, Mabel, been hiding herself? She hasn’t really been pining in obscurity, but has been performing mostly in her native Britain, although she also appeared in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” on Broadway. A lyric soprano with a voice as flexible as it is rich, she is also a fine actress whose instinctive feel for the Gilbert and Sullivan ingénue idiom — play it straight with just a sly wink peeking out from the batting eyelashes — makes her every scene and song a joy. One of two numbers interpolated from other Gilbert and Sullivan shows, “Sorry Her Lot,” from “H.M.S. Pinafore,” is a solo for Mabel. A half-dozen more could have been added — and the full mad scene from “Lucia di Lammermoor” (which is mildly spoofed in the score), for good measure — and I wouldn’t have complained. As the conscience-stricken pirate Frederic, apprenticed by mistake to the band of brigands by his adoring nursemaid (you’ll recall she was meant to put him in service to a pilot), Kyle Dean Massey, recently on the TV series “Nashville” but also in Broadway’s “Pippin,” has the square-jawed handsomeness and boyish virility that suit the role. His light tenor is not large, but it’s nimble and it suits the squeaky-clean nature of the good-hearted Frederic nicely, as does his throbbing earnestness as he switches his allegiance from his pirate crew to the bumbling bobbies trying to capture them, and back again. The veteran David Garrison imparts the Major-General, the father of a brood of capering lovelies, including Mabel, with a dithery pomposity. The litmus test for any actor in this part — and, in Gilbert and Sullivan in general to a degree — is an ability to twist the tongue around the dense lyrics set to beat-the-clock tempos in their dizzyingly fun patter songs. Perhaps the most famous of all is “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” and Mr. Garrison passes with flags flying. Rounding out the principal roles with equal polish is another supremely good stage veteran, the British-born Jane Carr as Frederic’s devoted Ruth. (Ms. Carr was also in “Gentleman’s Guide.”) Ruth’s attempts at acting the demure would-be bride of her young charge are delightfully funny — a nice deadpan glance to the audience at the mention of her being “middle-aged” — but she also brings a bustling maternal warmth to the role that fits it snugly. Mr. Bergasse’s zesty choreography keeps the cast in almost constant, exuberant motion. Among the highlights are the dances for the policemen set to capture the pirates, led with aplomb by the excellent Alex Gibson. Clearly these fellows, who twitch and squirm at the thought of the dangerous duties before them, would much rather kick up their heels and risk a hamstring injury than scratch so much as a pinkie finger chasing seafaring miscreants. The staging, on a set by Beowulf Boritt that deftly switches from the deck of the pirate ship to the estate of the Major-General for the second act, takes full advantage of the auditorium. A narrow platform stretching into the audience brings us closer to the fun, as when the pirates steal upon the Major-General’s mansion, with their catlike tread, hissing “meow” and admonishing the audience to shush. Remaining silent, however, is not an option at this buoyant production, which had me giggling with delight more or less from silly start to silly finale. Mr. Rando, long an expert in comedy with a specialty in delirious zaniness, liberally sprinkles the staging with frisky bits of business that wouldn’t be fair to spoil. Any reviewer so foolhardy as to describe them in detail would deserve to walk the plank.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child


July 25, 2016: Oh, for a wizard’s spell that would allow me to tell you everything, and then erase it completely from your memory. But though I paid rapt attention during the afternoon and evening I spent at “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which opened in a blaze of outrageous enchantment on Monday night at the Palace Theater here, I failed to pick up on any recipe for inducing post-tell-all amnesia in Muggles, which is Potter-speak for nonwizards like you and me. This eagerly anticipated, two-part, five-hour-plus sequel to J. K. Rowling’s best-selling, seven-volume series of “Harry Potter” novels is the kind of play that you want to describe in detail, if only to help you figure out how it achieves what is does. That would be a kind of magic that is purely theatrical yet somehow channels the addictive narrative grip of Ms. Rowling’s prose. Unfortunately, those who have scored tickets to this two-part production, which is sold out through May, are given buttons as they leave the theater that admonish “#KeepTheSecrets.” And I do not want to antagonize Potter fans, who tend to be as vigilant and vengeful as the army of Death Eaters that polices the evil empire of He Who Must Not Be Named, Lord Voldemort. Voldemort is now long gone, of course. Or is he? The story of “The Cursed Child” — conceived by Ms. Rowling with its playwright, Jack Thorne, and director, John Tiffany — makes such questions impossible to answer, and I’m not just being coy because of my pledge of silence. This is a work in which the past casts a distressingly substantive shadow. The past, as Faulkner would say, isn’t even past. Photo Anthony Boyle, left, and Sam Clemmett in this play. Credit Manuel Harlan This point of view saturates “The Cursed Child,” which seems to occur in a land of hypnotically luminous darkness that should mesmerize adults as effectively as children. By even existing, this play is destined to fight against the gravitational force of the memories of young readers. I mean the ones whose coming of age paralleled that of Harry Potter (who advanced from 11 to 17) in the books and the eight blockbuster films they inspired and who may want the Boy Who Lived to stay frozen forever as he was when they last encountered him. As a character in “The Cursed Child” says, “Playing with time — you know we can’t do that.” But playing with time, both gleefully and earnestly, is exactly what this show’s creators are doing. (The production’s memorable images include the most dazzlingly disturbing clocks since the heyday of Salvador Dalí.) Its plot is built on a fantasy that most of us indulge from early childhood: What if we could rewrite our own histories? That premise has been the basis for works as different as the “Back to the Future” film franchise and Nick Payne’s recent physics-infused boy-meets-girl play, “Constellations.” But the notion is singularly well suited to the purposes of “The Cursed Child,” which unfolds as a sort of multiple-choice narrative, allowing Potter fans to encounter various might-have-been, might-yet-be paths for characters they already know intimately and for the new ones introduced here. Continue reading the main story Related Coverage And yes, the old gang is back, or at least the members of it who survived Ms. Rowling’s final Potter novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” The first scene of the play is identical to the last one in that novel, and uses much of the same dialogue. Ask Ben Brantley a question about the London theater scene. * Continue By submitting to us, you are promising that the content is original, does not plagiarize from anyone or infringe a copyright or trademark, does not violate anyone’s rights and is not libelous or otherwise unlawful or misleading. You are agreeing that we can use your submission in all manner and media of The New York Times and that we shall have the right to authorize third parties to do so. And you agree to our Terms of Service. Harry (Jamie Parker, who does Potter pain beautifully), now on the edge of middle age and an employee of the Ministry of Magic, and his wife, Ginny (Poppy Miller), are found at King’s Cross railroad station in London, seeing two of their sons — James (Tom Milligan) and Albus (Sam Clemmet) — off to his alma mater, Hogwarts, the academy of magic that provided him with an especially enlightening, if punishing, education. It will be the anxious Albus’s first year, and like his dad, he is a proud, prickly and sensitive plant. Joining Harry and company are his old chums and allies in the fight against darkness, the goofy Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley, delightful) and the perpetual A-student Hermione Granger (Noma Dumezweni, a black actress whose casting provoked controversy but who is perfect in the part), now married and the parents of a Hogwarts-bound girl, Rose (Cherrelle Skeete). Harry’s former archrival, Draco Malfoy (Alex Price), is there, too, with his son, Scorpius (Anthony Boyle). Like Albus, Scorpius is a Hogwarts newbie and the two boys seem destined to become best friends, along with an amiable young woman with blue-tipped hair, Delphi Diggory (Esther Smith). It is a triumvirate that will prove dangerous for, well, pretty much the entire world. Fraught, yearning relationships between fathers and their progeny shape both the play’s form and its content. Who is that cursed child, anyway? More than a few of this story’s many, many characters (the adeptly multifarious cast numbers 42) might fit the description. Like the novels that preceded it, “The Cursed Child” is stuffed with arcana-filled plots that defy diagrams and baldly wrought sentimental life lessons, along with anguished dives into the earnest, tortured solipsism of adolescence. By rights, such a combination should try the patience of any grown-up. But like Ms. Rowling’s books, the play vanquishes resistance. Photo From left, Alex Price, Paul Thornley, Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker and Poppy Miller. Credit Manuel Harlan I reread “The Deathly Hallows” on the flight to London from New York, and I was amazed at how naturally what I saw on the stage seemed to flow from the page. Mr. Thorne, Mr. Tiffany and their movement director, Steven Hoggett, and set designer, Christine Jones, collaborated previously on the chilling adolescent vampire play “Let the Right One In,” and they are all expert in mapping the intersection of the uncanny and the everyday. Along with a team that includes Katrina Lindsay (costumes), Neil Austin (lighting) and Imogen Heap (music), Mr. Tiffany and his cast conjure the self-contained world(s) of Ms. Rowling’s books with imagistic wit, precision and, occasionally, stark terror. A convocation of wizards is evoked through the simultaneous swirling of black capes; an otherworldly, xenophobic and unsettlingly topical-feeling Fascist brigade materializes and multiplies out of yawning darkness; and staircases, bookcases and suitcases assume varied and miraculous lives that propel both themes and story. This production captures Ms. Rowling’s sensibility even more persuasively than did the special-effects-driven films. True, the movies were blessed with an unmatchable stable of idiosyncratic British character actors like Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith and, as Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes (now safely ensconced across town at the Almeida Theater, embodying another avatar of evil, Richard III). But in “The Cursed Child,” everyone onstage has direct, present-tense responsibility for the story being told. And most of them play many parts. That includes the show’s principals, though I won’t reveal how and why they do so. Suffice it to say that these transformations become haunting, funny physical reflections of our desire to connect with the people we only think we know well, with the dead who linger in our lives and with the selves we once were and will be. The word for these imaginative leaps of faith is empathy. That’s the magic practiced so affectingly and entertainingly in “The Cursed Child,” and it turns everyone in the audience into a sorcerer’s apprentice.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice


July 22, 2016: Light barely seems to penetrate the atmosphere of “The Merchant of Venice” in the brooding, powerful production from Shakespeare’s Globe that’s being presented through the weekend as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Little illumination filters through the carved wooden walls that dominate the set, and a blanket of smoke often shrouds the stage like a thick fog, as if to hide the iniquity so vividly on display. The production, which stars a deeply moving Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, does begin on a frolicsome note, with masked actors dancing onstage, as during Venice’s carnival. But a note of discord, of brutality, brings the merriment to a disturbing close, as two Jewish men passing by are attacked and thrown to the ground. Throughout the director Jonathan Munby’s lucid and strongly acted staging, we will remain aware that while this Shakespearean play is classified as a comedy and is poised ambivalently between light and dark, it will generally be the baser aspects of humanity that prevail. This overriding tone, I’m sorry to say, seems eerily attuned to the current troubles that roil the world. The exception, to a degree, is Mr. Pryce’s eloquent, beautifully rendered Shylock, whose abuse at the hands of the Christians of Venice is drawn in stark relief. He is treated with an unusually vicious scorn and even violence by the title character, Antonio (Dominic Mafham), to whom he agrees to lend money in exchange for a bond demanding the famous pound of flesh. But he greets this debasement, and more, with a degree of measured calm that suggests that Shylock has known — or fears — far worse, and must temper his reaction to suit what he knows of the world in which he lives and prospers. It is only in the enclosed realm of his own home, where he can lock the brutalities of the world outside, that he feels any measure of safety. But, of course, Shylock also locks the world’s joys outside — the pleasures of music and play — feeding the discontent and yearning for freedom of his daughter, Jessica, here played with rich feeling by Mr. Pryce’s daughter, Phoebe Pryce. We can sympathize with Jessica’s sense of suffocation and her escape into the arms of the Christian Lorenzo (a likably dashing Andy Apollo), even as Ms. Pryce gently underscores Jessica’s growing ambivalence at her casual, impulsive betrayal of her father. While Mr. Pryce invests even Shylock’s fits of anger and vengeance with a measured complexity, the Portia of Rachel Pickup has fewer grace notes, coming across here mostly as a smart but imperious young woman. She asserts control over her destiny with a brisk asperity that never reveals many glints of warmth, rendering the romantic comedy of the play almost an afterthought. True, the passages in which suitors must choose among three caskets — gold, silver and lead — to win Portia’s hand, is played for robust laughs, with the Prince of Morocco portrayed as a bumbler by Giles Terra, and the Prince of Aragon as a simpering fop by Christopher Logan. But this supposed comedy’s humorous aspects are largely handed over to Stefan Adegbola’s wily, exuberant Launcelot Gobbo, who invites two members of the audience to join him onstage, embodying his debate about whether to abandon his Jewish master, Shylock, and throw his lot in with the Christians. (Gobbo’s father, a rather tiresome character, has been mercifully excised.) The trial scene, the play’s dramatic climax if not its conclusion, brings out the contrast between the affecting dignity of Mr. Pryce’s Shylock and the less palatable aspects of his enemies. Mr. Mafham’s Antonio is shackled to an iron bar, his arms splayed out and his body lifted from the ground, in a pose that obviously evokes Christ on the cross, suggesting that those who are conducting this trial are intent on drawing the comparison, turning Shylock into the stock Jew of vile stereotype, the Christ-killer. Mr. Pryce’s Shylock, meanwhile, evinces little rage and thirst for vengeance — he knows better than to fall into the traps laid for him — but instead argues his case with a measured rationality that, despite its monstrous consequences, never feels tinged with unbridled malice. On the other hand, Portia — disguised as the lawyer Bassanio, arguing for the life of Antonio — seems almost sadistic when she gives her verdict in Shylock’s favor, only to reverse herself at the last minute and, with cool calculation, assert that Shylock himself is guilty of trying to take the life of a Christian. Mr. Pryce’s confusion and abasement are painful to watch, as Antonio seems to relish his control over his persecutor’s fate, allowing him to live only if he converts to Christianity. But in the unsparing view of Mr. Munby’s production, even the victorious Antonio must face the harsh truth that those who do not conform to the prescribed standards of the Christianity of the period are doomed to be outcasts. As in many productions, it is hinted early on that Antonio’s feeling for Bassanio (a solid Dan Fredenburgh) contains elements of sexual, or at least romantic, attraction. But when, after the trial has concluded, Antonio impulsively draws Bassanio into an overly warm embrace, Bassanio rebuffs him with a disgusted shove. “The Merchant of Venice” ostensibly (well, literally) ends with the reunion of Portia and her maid Nerissa (a nicely dry Dorothea Myer-Bennett), with their lovers, Bassanio and Gratiano (Jolyon Coy). But even this scene comes across as something less than flirtatious and celebratory. There’s an element of teasing cruelty in the air as Portia and Nerissa demand to see the rings they gave to their lovers, after blackmailing them, in their male guises, into handing them over in thanks for saving the life of Bassanio’s benefactor, Antonio. The pealing of wedding bells doesn’t exactly ring in our ears as we watch them play with their men like cats batting around mice. But a more cheerful slant to the scene would belie the production’s overriding sense of melancholy. A coda depicting Shylock’s enforced baptism, while Jessica sings a Jewish prayer for forgiveness, concludes the evening on a harrowing note. Mr. Pryce illuminates Shylock’s anguish so vividly, his face a contorted mask of spiritual suffering, that it all but erases any sense of contrasting light and dark in the play. We have reached the heart of the matter, and it is a place where mercy, love and what we commonly think of as simple humanity hold little sway.


BROADWAY REVIEW: Motown: The Musical

Motown the Musical

July 21, 2016: “What’s going on?” When Jarran Muse, playing Marvin Gaye, sings those words and a verse or two of the song they come from in “Motown: The Musical,” which has opened at the Nederlander Theater in a limited return engagement, they carry an unsettling relevance they did not have when the show originally opened more than three years ago. A celebratory musical paying tribute to the black music explosion led by Berry Gordy’s Detroit label, “Motown” devotes only a few scenes to the civil rights movement and the tumult of the late 1960s. But they give it a new and unusual relevance after more than a year of troubled race relations, with many commentators drawing comparisons (and others making distinctions) between now and then. By no means has “Motown” been transformed into a thoughtful or probing musical. Under Charles Randolph-Wright’s direction, it remains what it was: a sparkling and enjoyable, if lumpy, journey through 25 years of Motown history. It’s just that the climax of the first act, and the opening minutes of the second, give the show a jolt of emotional currency that contrasts strikingly with its nostalgic spirit. The central roles have been recast, with excellent singing actors who are mostly equal to the fine originals. As Gordy, Chester Gregory could use more intensity to illuminate the relentless — some would say ruthless — drive of the man who helped usher in a pop-music revolution. But he brings some nice nuances to the role, accentuating Gordy’s brooding grievance as the stars he created begin to desert him. (Mr. Gordy himself wrote the musical’s book.) As Diana Ross, Gordy’s love interest and one of his biggest discoveries, Allison Semmes, who understudied the role in the show’s first go-round (and played the famously ousted Supreme, Florence Ballard), exudes a mixture of calculating ambition and youthful naïveté, coquettishly keeping an eye on the main chance even as a teenager. Her singing evokes the cotton candy purr of Ms. Ross’s, without being mere vocal mimicry. And, at the performance I saw, Ms. Semmes revealed a nimbly funny way with audience interaction during the “Reach Out and Touch” number. Jesse Nager’s honeyed tenor is a perfect match for Smokey Robinson, one of Gordy’s strongest allies and early stars. Mr. Muse finds the fiery rebellious streak that emerges as Gaye finds his voice and sometimes finds himself in conflict with his boss. And as the young versions of Gordy, Little Stevie Wonder and, most spectacularly, Michael Jackson during the Jackson 5 years, Leon Outlaw Jr. proves a ferocious little dynamo, tearing up the house with his exuberance. (J. J. Batteast alternates in these junior roles.) “Motown” has so much story to tell — Mr. Gordy clearly feels a highlights reel of his career could go on forever — that there’s no time for dramatic subtlety or complexity of character. But who’s coming to see “Motown” for anything other than the fabulous songbook? (The more than 55 titles is surely a record for a jukebox musical.) True, some of your favorites may be shortchanged, or used somewhat awkwardly as “book” songs. But there’s so much music pouring from the stage that Motown fans probably won’t complain when the needle skips to the next track before they have had a chance to savor the last fully.



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