Fool for Love

October 8, 2015: They never stop moving in the same circle, as one of them observes, sounding angry and doomed. Their end is evident in their beginnings, and vice versa. You know where they’re headed as well as they do. Yet as May and Eddie perform the savage, cyclical dance that is Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” which opened in a breathtaking production on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, you feel the gut-clutching suspense generated by a full-throttle cliffhanger. After all, odds are you’ve been on the edge of this particular cliff yourself, terrified and elated and wondering if you’re really going to jump. Love as a battlefield on which nobody wins has seldom been mapped as thrillingly as it is in Daniel Aukin’s definitive revival of this bruising drama from 1983. That’s in large part because as the inexorably coupled May and Eddie, Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell exude the sort of chemistry from which nuclear meltdowns are made.



Old Times

October 6, 2015: Theatergoers who cringe at the sight of a lighted cigarette, be warned: They’re smoking up a smog storm at the American Airlines Theater, where Douglas Hodge’s overwrought revival of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” opened on Tuesday night. And they’re not just puffing discreetly and defensively, the way those poor huddled herds of New Yorkers do outside office buildings on their coffee breaks. No, this flamboyant production’s three vibrant performers – Eve Best, Kelly Reilly and Clive Owen – are brandishing their cigarettes with a glamorous fury not seen since Bette Davis was the nicotine queen of the movie melodrama. Like Davis, they know the value of punctuating a threat with a staggered exhalation of gray clouds. So when I say that sparks fly in this play — a 1971 portrait of a man, a woman and her friend discovering how much and how little they know about one another — I am not speaking metaphorically, or at least not only so. Once you can see past the, uh, smoke screen, there’s evidence of real emotional embers smoldering among this talented ensemble, who are just waiting for the moment to turn into human flamethrowers.


BROADWAY REVIEW: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening

September 27, 2015: One of the great musicals of the last decade was born anew on Sunday, when the thrillingly inventive Deaf West Theater production of “Spring Awakening” opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Any qualms theater-lovers might have about this being a premature, whiplash-inducing revival — the original closed in 2009, after all — will vanish like frost in strong sunlight when the young cast of both hearing and deaf actors floods the stage. Deaf actors in a musical? The prospect sounds challenging, to performers and audiences alike. But you will be surprised at how readily you can assimilate the novelties involved, and soon find yourself pleasurably immersed not in a worthy, let’s-pat-ourselves-on-the-back experience, but simply in a first-rate production of a transporting musical. “Spring Awakening,” with a fluidly written book by Steven Sater and a beautiful score by Duncan Sheik, is adapted from the 19th-century German play by Frank Wedekind, which was banned after publication. In this production, directed with remarkable finesse by Michael Arden (who starred in the same company’s “Big River,” seen on Broadway in 2003), the primary roles are divided among deaf and hearing actors, with the deaf performers’ songs and some of their dialogue being delivered by actors who double the roles.




August 6, 2015: Yes, it really is that good. At this point, it would be almost a relief to report that “Hamilton” — the musical that opened at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Thursday night — has shrunk beneath the bloat of its hype. Since it was first staged at the Public Theater this year, this brave new show about America’s founding fathers has been given the kind of worshipful press usually reserved for the appearances of once-in-a-lifetime comets or the births of little royal celebrities. During the past several months, while it was being pumped up and trimmed down for its move from the East Village to Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap-driven portrait of the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton (this country’s first secretary of the Treasury) has been the stuff of encomiums in both fashion magazines and op-ed columns. A friend of mine recently said that there were three subjects she never wanted to see in a newspaper again: Caitlyn Jenner, the Harper Lee novel “Go Set a Watchman” and “Hamilton.”


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.



Fun Home

April 19, 2015: “Fun Home” knows where you live. Granted, it’s unlikely that many details of your childhood exactly resemble those of the narrator of this extraordinary musical, which pumps oxygenating fresh air into the cultural recycling center that is Broadway. Yet this impeccably shaded portrait of a girl and her father, which opened on Sunday night at the Circle in the Square Theater, occupies the place where we all grew up, and will never be able to leave. That’s the shifting landscape where our parents, whether living or dead, will always reign as the most familiar and elusive people we will ever encounter. Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s fine graphic novel of a memoir, with an incisive book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and heart-gripping music by Jeanine Tesori, “Fun Home” might be described as a universal detective story. Set in three ages of one woman’s life (embodied by three perfectly matched, first-rate actresses), it tries to solve the sort of classic mystery that keeps grown-ups in analysis for decades: Who are these strange people who made me? The focus of that question here is an especially knotty case. Meet Bruce (Michael Cerveris), who teaches high school English, restores old houses and runs a funeral home in a small Pennsylvania town. As the husband of Helen (Judy Kuhn) and a father of three, Bruce is as divided personally as he is professionally, a fastidious upholder of the perfect-family facade who picks up young men (all played by Joel Perez) on the down low.



The King and I

April 16, 2015: A big, scrupulously detailed 19th-century ship glides toward the audience in the opening moments of Bartlett Sher’s resplendent production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” which opened on Thursday night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. It’s an impressive sight, worthy of every “oooh” it elicits. But its presence wouldn’t count for nearly as much if it weren’t carrying such precious cargo. That’s the determined, hopeful, anxious woman in a hoop skirt who runs onto the deck, toward the ship’s prow, and into our field of vision as if in cinematic close-up. Her name is Anna Leonowens, and she is played, you lucky theatergoers, by Kelli O’Hara. One look at her face, agleam with intelligence and apprehension, and you suspect you’re in the hands of a guide you can trust. Then she starts to sing. And even if the familiar song she delivers (“I Whistle a Happy Tune”) usually makes you cringe, your confidence in her — and the Lincoln Center Theater production in which she appears — starts to soar. It will stay contentedly aloft for the next 2 hours and 50 minutes. As you probably already know, Mrs. Leonowens’s task in this 1951 musical is to educate a passel of royal Siamese pupils in the ways of the West. The job of Ms. O’Hara — and that of Mr. Sher and Ken Watanabe, the commanding Japanese film star who portrays the King of Siam — is to educate 21st-century audiences in the enduring and affecting power of a colonialist-minded musical that, by rights, should probably embarrass us in the age of political correctness.


BROADWAY REVIEW: Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland

April 15, 2015: The first entrance applause occurs before even the overture begins. Riotous clapping is occasioned when a bright point of light travels over the ceiling and the curtain of the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York, where the push-button, button-pushing musical “Finding Neverland” opened on Wednesday night. This little light, you see, is pretty much guaranteed to elicit a Pavlovian response from anyone familiar with the story of “Peter Pan” in its various incarnations, which surely includes everyone who shelled out the big bucks for this show. Said light equals Tinker Bell, the temperamental fairy who requires your applause to stay alive. Clap if you believe in brand names. Directed by Diane Paulus — with the guidance of Harvey Weinstein, its chief producer — “Finding Neverland” is filled with such triggers. The most brazen, perhaps, comes when an English actor in a pub asks an American, “Do they say ‘cheers’ where you come from, mate?” The simple query sets the audience aroar. That’s because the man playing the American happens to be Kelsey Grammer, who was a regular on the long-running sitcom “Cheers.” Neither Mr. Grammer nor the show’s leading man, Matthew Morrison (of the television series “Glee”), appear wholly invested in their performances. But that’s O.K. Their mere presences do most of the work for them. As with many a Broadway musical these days, “Finding Neverland” — which features a book by James Graham and sticky soft-pop power ballads by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy — is based on a popular film. That would be the 2004 biopic about the playwright J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, which starred Johnny Depp and for which Mr. Weinstein was an executive producer.


BROADWAY REVIEW: An American in Paris

An American in Paris

April 12, 2015: The city of light is ablaze with movement in the rhapsodic new stage adaptation of “An American in Paris” that opened at the Palace Theater on Sunday, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, a gifted luminary of the ballet world. This gorgeously danced — and just plain gorgeous — production pays loving tribute to the 1951 movie, to the marriage of music and movement, and to cherished notions about romance that have been a defining element of the American musical theater practically since its inception. Just about everything in this happily dance-drunk show moves with a spring in its step, as if the newly liberated Paris after World War II were an enchanted place in which the laws of gravity no longer applied. Even the elegant buildings on the grand boulevards appear to take flight. Musicals based on classic movies, or not-so-classic movies, have become a familiar staple on Broadway. Just last week, “Gigi,” another show based on an Oscar-winning MGM movie set in Paris — also featuring a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner — opened a few blocks away. Dance, on the other hand, has become the wallflower at the Broadway prom in recent decades, which makes Mr. Wheeldon’s triumph all the sweeter. Still, unlike the shows directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp — “Movin’ Out” being the most successful — “An American in Paris” is very much a traditional Broadway musical, with a book by the playwright Craig Lucas that amplifies the movie’s thin story line, mostly to witty and vivifying effect. And while its two radiant leading performers, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, are ballet dancers by profession, they also sing (quite well) and deliver dialogue (more than quite well).



Hand to God

April 7, 2015: Stand down, Inspector Javert, vengeful foe of bread-snatchers. A more formidable villain now stalks the Broadway boards, one who makes you seem about as frightening as a French pastry. His name, Tyrone, is not the scariest handle, but he’s as ruthless as any dedicated evildoer, with a spectacularly foul mouth and a thirst for young flesh. Oh, and he’s also made of a gray sock, some felt and a fringe of fake fur. The terrible Tyrone is, in short, a hand puppet. If you imagine that to be merely a punch line, forget it. The fearsome critter, who takes possession of a troubled teenager’s left arm in Robert Askins’s darkly delightful play “Hand to God,” really inspires goose bumps as he unleashes a reign of terror on that teenager, Jason, and everyone in his orbit. But unlike the grim Javert, he’s also flat-out hilarious, spewing forth acid commentary that will turn those goose bumps into guffaws. “Hand to God” popped open on Tuesday at the Booth Theater like a cackling jack-in-the-box, scaring away (really) a couple of audience members at the performance I caught, but bringing peals of joy to most everyone else. In a Broadway season dominated by the usual fodder — musicals new and old, and a healthy serving of Important British Dramas — Mr. Askins’s black comedy about the divided human soul, previously seen in two separate Off Broadway runs, stands out as a misfit both merry and scary, and very welcome.