By William Wolf

FORBIDDEN BROADWAY--THE NEXT GENERATION  Send This Review to a Friend

Buffalo may be where “ lost shows” go to die, but the place to go for a new show guaranteeing hearty laughter is the Triad, where creator-writer-director Gerard Alessandrini’s latest version of “Forbidden Broadway—The Next Generation” is installed. The number about the lost shows graveyard is but one of the satirical thrusts that keep the laughs coming.

As has always been the case with the ultra-clever Alessandrini, in targeting Broadway productions he manages to find great versatile performers who can slip into a assortment of characters convincingly as they dispense musical mayhem. The aggregation at the performance I saw consisted of Chris Collins-Pisano, Immanuel Houston, Aline Mayagoitia, Jenny Lee Stern and 12-year-old wunderkind Joshua Turchin.

All get chances to stand out, and I found an array of favorite numbers. One is the spoof of finding a new way to do “Fiddler on the Roof”—in Yiddish. Substituting for the famous song “Tradition” is “Translation,” hilariously performed by Collins-Pisano, Houston and Stern, in addition to an especially hilarious “Brush Up Your Yiddish,” performed by duo Collins-Pisano and Houston. Tossed in are some especially funny Yiddish expressions.

There is a lavish spoof of the garish musical “Moulin Rouge,” with tall, visiaully impressive and elegantly-dressed Mayagoitia singing about having diamonds “up the wazoo” in a production number tagged “Moulin Rude.”

The play “The Ferryman” comes in for intense ribbing, as does the musical “Hadestown.” Turchin, who at his tender age has amassed a huge load of all sorts of acting and musical credits shines in the number “Evan Has-Been,” as well as amusingly taking part in other selections.

Not everything rises to the same quality. The riff on “Harry Potter” could use an infusion of some magic. But then Houston and Collins-Pisano are very funny cavorting as Billy Porter and Lin-Manuel, and Stern and Collins-Pisano broadly spoof Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse.

Stern gets her big moment when the show reaches into the world of film and, playing Judy Garland, she lacerates Renee Zellweger’s portrayal, proclaiming repeatedly that Zellweger “smells in my part.” Stern gives a rousing imitation of Garland’s mighty voice.

Alessandrini was always clever at mixing Broadway shows and characters with one style blended with another, on evidence again with “It’s Got To Be A Musical,” combining “Beetlejuice," “Tootsie” and “Frozen.”

I can’t stress enough what a hilarious performer Immanuel Houston is. His “Jeremy Pope in “Ain’t Too Proud” is a gem, and he stands out in so many of the group numbers as well.

One of the shows I thoroughly disliked last season was the revisionist “Oklahoma!,” which makes me particularly enjoy Alessandrini’s take, “Woke-lahoma!,” with its “Oh What a Miserable Mornin” and also lyrics like “gives you a chill as we crucify Agnes de Mille.” There is a drenched-in-blood finale that comments comically on the terrible revised ending to the revival.

No review of “Forbidden Broadway” would be complete without giving credit to costume designer Dustin Cross and wig designer Conor Donnelly. The amazing costumes and wigs that the cast members rapidly change play a major role in creating convincing character delineation. I still have a vision, for example, of Mayagoitia looking a dead-ringer for Bernadette Peters. Plaudits too for choreographer Gerry McIntyre—the show itself was produced in association with McIntyre-- and for musical director Fred Barton, who at the piano deftly handles the vast selection of musical styles. At the Triad, 158 West 72nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed November 7, 2019.

THE GREAT SOCIETY (2019)  Send This Review to a Friend

Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society” is a sprawling historical play with President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the center while events surrounding him are vigorously enacted. A lot of territory is crowded into the drama, and while other characters of the period (1965-1968) are colorfully portrayed, the intense acting of Johnson by Brian Cox is what energizes and defines the play.

Director Bill Rauch interweaves scenes in the U.S with action in the Oval Office as Johnson meets with a retinue of notables, and the transitions are smoothly executed. Cox imbues Johnson with his reputed temper and ability to manipulate people in his quest for pushing through Great Society programs, and his fury at obstacles that arise. For much of the play that is the side of him we see, but finally, in a private scene with his wife Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick), we see him in more intimate human terms leading to his decision not to seek the presidency again in 1968.

One of the main conflicts portrayed is his trying to calm and slow down the demands by African-Americans for total rights, although he favors that in principle. We see his clashes with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Granthan Coleman), the black power movement promoted by Stokely Carmichael (Marchánt Davis), the Watts riots in Los Angeles and African-American protests in Selma, and also in Chicago, with Johnson demanding action from resistant Mayor Daley (Marc Kudisch).

Johnson finds Robert Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham) a pain in the butt. A host of other key people of the era are smoothly woven into the play with many cast members in multiple roles. Among those depicted are J. Edgar Hoover (Gordon Clapp), Governor George S. Wallace and Richard Nixon (both played by David Garrison), Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Representative Adam Clayton Powell (both played by Ty Jones), Pat Nixon (Angela Pierce), Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch), Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas), Coretta Scott King (Nikkole Salter) and Senator Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood).

Of course, the play also concentrates on the issue that eventually brought Johnson to call it quits and not run again—the mounting casualties in the Vietnam War and the expanding opposition to its continuance. At various moments the numbers of killed and wounded are projected in the bakground. Johnson sinks deeper into the morass that he doesn’t really want. We hear the protest chants of “LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

This is a vast and useful history lesson, and it frequently made me compare the intelligence, skills and wit of Johnson with what sits in the Oval Office today. Enough said. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 1, 2019.

A WOMAN OF THE WORLD  Send This Review to a Friend

From the minute Kathleen Chalfant appears on stage in intimate Theater C in the 59E59 Theaters complex she makes you believe that she is really Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932) in the one-person play “A Woman of the World” by Rebecca Gilman. In case you don’t know who Todd was, she has earned a reputation as the woman who edited and published the poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) after the poet’s death.

The tone of Chalfant’s performance is very informal, as directed by Valentina Fratti in this presentation by the Acting Company in association with Miranda Theatre Company. It is as if we are in Todd’s home and listening to her talk to us personally.

As Todd, Chalfant informs us early on that she is going to tell us about Dickinson as if she knew her very closely. But Todd talks more about her own life, including her relationship with Dickinson’s older brother William Austin Dickinson, as well as with Mabel’s husband, David Peck Todd, and the play gets somewhat juicy at one point with the implication that there were threesomes going on.

Mabel Todd had moved to Amherst, when her husband was offered an appointment as an astronomy professor at Amherst College. She talks a lot about the dramatic course of her life and relationships, and one waits eagerly to hear intimate details about Emily Dickinson’s life and character. It turns out that there is a kicker to Todd’s discourse that comes at us rather dramatically.

It is sheer pleasure to listen to Chalfant in her role as Todd, and in addition to knowing more about the play’s subject, we leave with even more admiration for Chalfant’s superb acting ability that has been evident in such previous plays as “Angels in America,” “A Walk in the Woods” and “Talking Heads.” At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Reviewed November 1, 2019.

BELLA BELLA  Send This Review to a Friend

Applause is guaranteed when Harvey Fierstein makes his appearance as the late Bella Abzug wearing a signature red floppy hat. That’s the only costume suggestion of his being a woman. No dress--just regular male clothing. But when Fierstein begins to speak, there is a tone that reminds one of Abzug’s strong voice that added conviction to whatever political point she was making, especially her advocacy as an ardent feminist.

The time is September of 1976, when Bella was holed up in the bathroom of a room in the Summit Hotel in New York waiting for election results in her losing primary battle to become a U. S. senator from New York. Abzug, who died in 1988 at the age of 77, served as a Congresswoman from New York from 1971 to 1977 and in her lifetime earned and fulfilled her reputation as a political firebrand.

“Bella Bella,” presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Kimberly Senior, has been written by Fierstein from Abzug’s words and works. The format during 90 minutes without an intermission is a confessional recounting of her life, causes and battles coming from the lady herself channeled by Fierstein.

This being New York, statements reflecting her liberal commitment draw special applause from the crowd, such as her statement that “a woman’s place is in the house—the House of Representatives.” Many in an audience will be old enough to remember Abzug.

I was once in a small meeting with Bella and a few others in an apartment where strategy was planned for a cause that she and I supported. She dominated the room, adamant about what she firmly suggested doing, overriding what anyone else said. It might just as well have been a one-woman meeting. But she could be absolutely counted on for her vital help.

Fierstein is remarkable as this liberal icon. He holds our attention, makes the most of injected humor and creates an intimacy that can make one who never met Abzug get a sense of what she was like.

The performance is another plus in Fierstein’s career, and it is especially welcome at this time of need to celebrate women who have made a difference and to inspire others, women and men, to follow the Abzug tradition by fighting today’s political battles in this age of Trump. At New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed October 30, 2019.

SEARED  Send This Review to a Friend

If you are having a dinner party you might try to hire Raúl Esparza as your chef. As an actor, Esparza is cooking away in plain sight in the elaborate restaurant kitchen (designed by Tim Mackabee) in “Seared,” Theresa Rebeck’s play presented by MCC Theater and directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. For quite a while in the opening we see Esparza as the inspired chef Harry actually cooking in real time, showing himself to be a master of slicing, dicing, mixing ingredients, heating his frying pan and going through the complications of preparing his dishes.

Of course, there has to be a story attached, and what we get is a picture of Harry aggravating Mike (David Mason), who has put up the money to finance the restaurant with Harry providing the cooking talent. There is an early crisis. A rave review of Harry’s scallops has resulted in customers coming to seek those scallops. The problem is that Harry doesn’t want to make scallops anymore. Fancying himself as an artist, he just doesn’t want to be pigeonholed with the same old dish. He refuses to do the scallops, and that becomes a running gag and difficulty throughout the play.

Fearing business on the decline and financial problems, Mike brings into the picture Emily (Krysta Rodriguez) as a gung-ho consultant with promotional ideas. She and Harry inevitably clash, but plot-wise something else is inevitable.

“Seared” begins to wear thin after a while. However, Esparza is such a compelling actor that he makes temperamental Harry come alive. Mike and Emily pour on the emotions, and there is another character on whom to keep an eye--W. Tré Davis as the chef’s assistant Rodney, who will come into greater focus as the plot thickens. Emily has arranged for an important critic to come to the restaurant without telling Harry at first. The fate of the place is linked to this visit. Scallops anyone?

The dramatic fireworks that occur are a credibility stretch, but by that time one has been caught up in the dynamics of the relationships and Esparza’s solid acting, plus all of the visual hoopla in the kitchen, and one can have enjoyed Rebeck’s unusual, visually realistic play. At the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street. Reviewed October 29, 2019.

SOFT POWER  Send This Review to a Friend

“Soft Power” deserves to be a hard ticket. Unlike any show I’ve seen, this musical comedy, with play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang and music and additional lyrics by Jeanine Tesori, is a fun-filled, satirical romp. Yes, it is often also somewhat of a wild mix with structural problems. But how many amusing shows have you seen looking at our country from a Chinese point of view? And how many have you seen with Hillary Clinton portrayed in song and dance and in a romantic affair with someone other than Bill--a Chinese theater producer?

The imaginative production at the Public Theater stems from the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre in May of last year. “Soft Power” is choreographed by Sam Pinkleton and directed by Leigh Silverman, and in the current staging has a 22-piece orchestra dramatically spread out above the set (imaginative scenic design by Clint Ramos).

Here’s the set-up. Part of the script is based on the real-life stabbing and recovery of author Hwang, sympathetically played by Francis Jue. But the main thrust involves Chinese producer Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) as a visitor to New York who wants to recruit Hwang to write a major musical to be staged in Shanghai. They argue over the plot in terms of whether a husband stays true to his commitment, as Xing says is the custom in China, or leaves for the woman he really loves.

Ultimately, the time frame moves into the future with a musical in China looking back nostalgically on how things were in the United States of our era. Throughout the production, elaborate set pieces are hilarious to watch and there is spoofing of so-called American democracy. For example, our elections are ridiculed with attempts to explain how the Electoral College works.

There’s a splashy scene set in McDonald’s as the height of night life luxury. Some of the satire uses the formula for “The King and I” as a touchtone, not only with a spirited dance imitation, but with Hillary Clinton, exuberantly and often hilariously played by Alyse Alan Louis, being taught to speak Xing’s name properly.

The injection of Hillary in “Soft Power” is an entertainment plus. She sings, she dances, she strips to a sexy outfit, and we see her passionately kissing Xing. (I’d like to see Hillary and Bill in the audience for this one.) Compliments are due Louis for her effervescent performance as Hillary, who is depicted as sure to be elected. The loss feeds into the ribbing of the Electoral College system, as well as the tragic absurdity of the Trump minority-vote victory.

The show is loaded with humorous touches, such as Xing admiring what he calls Manhattan’s Golden Gate Bridge, shown majestically in the scenic design. The plot also at one point involves a thwarted plan for a U.S. China war.

The entire look of the show is refreshing, enhanced by the extensive Chinese-American casting. The lyrics are often clever, and the music fits nicely with the overall concept. Although there is awkward repetition of the attack on Hwang in the plot structure, one can easily forgive such problems and simply revel in the spirit and originality of “Soft Power.” One might even want to see and enjoy it again. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed October 16, 2019.

PANAMA HATTIE  Send This Review to a Friend

Ethel Merman is delightfully channeled via Klea Blackhurst in the concert version of the 1940 Broadway hit “Panama Hattie,” presented as the third and final show in the tribute to Cole Porter as part of this year’s Musicals in Mufti series of the York Theatre Company. Blackhurst, with her powerful Merman-like voice, previously did a tribute to Merman in “Everything the Traffic Will Allow.”

The original “Panama Hattie,” with music and lyrics by Porter and book by Herbert Fields and B G. DeSylva, has been trimmed for this York concert version, directed by Michael Montel, with the Porter score played by a two-man orchestra, music director Deniz Cordell at the piano and David White on bass. The 13-member cast is on the large side for York productions.

The plot is an especially corny and zany one. The performances are what give life and amusement to the musical, with an array of numbers not generally known, as there has never been a cast recording. Blackhurst leads the way as Hattie Maloney, a performer at a Panama joint, who is in love with Nick Bullett (Stephen Bogardus), who has a very young daughter, Geraldine, chaperoned by the very proper Vivian Budd (Simon Jones).

The big scene stealer is Kylie Kuioka as Geraldine, who is absolutely adorable, flashes mature show biz instincts, and teams charmingly with Blackhurst in the show’s best-known number “Let’s Be Buddies.” The song also gives us a glimpse of the challenge that awaits Hattie if she becomes Geraldine’s stepmom.

Along those lines, at one point Hattie remarks that she always wanted to have a child, but wondered whether she should adopt or “have one the hard way.” Blackhurst earned a huge laugh when she corrected the line with the double entendre “or to get it the hard way.”

The cockamamie plot also involves three sailors (Garen McRoberts, Joe Veale and Jay Aubrey Jones) trying to thwart a German dynamite plot.

There is an amusingly bitchy and sexy performance by attractive Casey Shuler as Leila Tree, who wants Nick for herself and plots to break up his romance with Hattie by turning Nick’s boss against him.

Don’t bother to worry or wonder about how all of the nonsense works out. What makes this Porter tribute fun is the collection of entertaining performances that remind us of what Porter could do with his music and lyrics, even though these songs were not his top-drawer contributions. The York, by recruiting Blackhurst as Hattie, guaranteed the right voice and dynamic flair. And the enthusiastic supporting entourage adds the extra-needed spice. Through November 3. At the Theater at Saint Peter’s, 54th Street, East of Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed October 28, 2019.

THE SOUND INSIDE  Send This Review to a Friend

Mary-Louise Parker always acts with such true-to-life effectiveness that she really seems to thoroughly become the characters she plays. This naturalness permeates her portrayal of 53-year-old Bella Baird, a creative writing professor in Adam Rapp’s odd play “The Sound Inside.”

We first meet her solo as she ruminates to the audience and to herself about her attitudes toward life and literature, including a funny take on God. We get a colorful portrait of a fascinating single woman with literary aspirations. But she is not alone on stage for long in this play that runs and intermission-less 90 minutes.

Into her office storms Christopher, a freshman student, who aspires to be a novelist, intensely played with conviction by Will Hochman. The interplay of their conversation is challenging, and a teacher-student friendship develops. Christopher turns up with a novella, and he wants Bella to read and evaluate it candidly with no dishonest response.

The leading character of the novella is also named Christopher, and as Bella reads, they both recite passages for the audience to follow. The outcome turns out to be especially grim and Bella is impressed.

Bella’s life has turned grim too. She has been diagnosed with what her doctor predicts will be a fatal cancer, and Bella begins to think of wanting to kill herself with lethal doses of barbiturates. She wants Christopher to help.

Playwright Rapp digs deeply into the personalities, aspirations, talents and outlooks of both characters in his two-hander. It is a strange mixture, and one may ponder the effectiveness of the work as a play, but Parker and Hochman extract the maximum from their characters and the writing.

They are aided by the fluid direction of David Cromer and the production design. The lighting by Heather Gilbert is often very dark, especially at the outset. The scenic design by Alexander Woodward is extremely spare. It is very much as if Bella and Christopher are in a world of their own, and we are permitted to peer into their fertile minds and the strange relationship that unfolds, complete with Christopher leaving in what turns out to be a significant departure. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. Reviewed October 24, 2019.

THE LIGHTNING THIEF: THE PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL  Send This Review to a Friend

The audience on the night I saw “The Lightning Thief,” adapted from Rick Riordan’s book, was filled with youngsters and from all indications they were having a good time. That’s as it should be for they are the ones at whom this show is aimed. This is not a musical likely to entertain adults, except in certain spots.

The set (scenic design by Lee Savage) is an ungainly looking structure. It is the lighting (design by David Lander) that carries the visual impact, with vertical up and down streaks at the back of the stage flashing on and off at various moments in the show. Special effects likely to entertain the kids include toilet paper being shot out from a gun-like tube, and confetti showering the audience, as well as strong spotlights sometimes shining in one’s eyes.

The other ingredient likely to impress the target audience is the performance by Chris McCarrell as Percy Jackson, the title youth who is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and a mortal mother. Percy is attending Camp Half-Blood, geared for mixtures like him. McCarrell has appeal and he works hard to pass through the outlandish escapades.

The plot is steeped in Greek mythology, with an array of gods mixed with ordinary humans, and with mortal combat scenes providing the action, and interwoven songs mostly loudly performed. The book is by Joe Tracz, the music and lyrics are by Rob Rokicki. The choreography by Patrick McCollum is consistently hyper, and the direction by Stephen Brackett accents the churned-up intensity, especially as Percy heads off with his pals on his central quest.

The cast is game, with most handling a host of roles. It includes Jorrel Jayier, Ryan Knowles, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jaylnn Steele and Kristin Stokes. Come to think of it, this is a small cast for bringing so many mythical and other individuals to life.

An effort is made to make a statement in the final number, which identifies mortals as the real monsters in the world with a song titled “Bring on the Monsters.” In other words, they are us. Other numbers worth noting include “Another Terrible Day,” “The Weirdest Dream,” “My Grand Plan” and “Son of Poseidon.”

Sitting next to me was a family from Utah, and the two daughters in the group had read the book, which was probably true of many in the audience. The girls appeared to be having a good time, enjoying the opportunity to see a big Broadway show about a subject they knew. At the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 25, 2019.

MOLLY SWEENEY (KEEN COMPANY)  Send This Review to a Friend

Keen Company has revived Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney,” with the company’s artistic director Jonathan Silverstein doing the directing. Friel’s play is powerful, and a good cast has been assembled. Yet, while I appreciate and recommend this presentation, it doesn’t reach the heights of the previous staging by the Irish Repertory Theater that I saw and reviewed (See Search).

Pamela Sabaugh is quite lovely and delicate in the title role of a woman who has been blind since childhood and Molly talks directly to the audience to tell how she learned to cope, with much of her narrative very lyrical, thanks to Friel’s sensitive writing, including Molly’s loving description of how helpful her father was in teaching her to recognize flowers.

Paul O’Brian excellently plays Mr. Rice, who as a doctor tells how Molly’s husband Frank came to him urging him to try surgery to restore Molly’s sight. He also makes clear how important a victorious outcome would be to his life and reputation. Rice also talks directly to the audience—that’s the style of the play, with characters not interacting, but giving individual narrations as they appear together on stage.

Frank Sweeney is played by Tommy Schrider, and when he tells his side of the story he is as intense and talkative as Mr. Rice has described him. Frank also tells of a friendship he has, and the writing about this seems a bit of a detour from the essence of the drama.

The most thrilling part of the play is after the surgery when Molly recounts step by step the process by which she realizes that she can now see and little by little learns to encounter what she had never experienced before. Friel’s writing here is especially superb and Sabaugh makes the most of it.

But Molly’s story has a downside. Molly becomes a case in which the sight regresses, and there is the problem of someone who has learned to cope while blind but just can’t psychologically handle the new situation of being able to see all that is enveloping her, and that leads to illness.

At the end of “Molly Sweeney” there is a speech Molly gives about her feelings and her life, and it is crucial to the impression left on the audience. However, at the performance I attended, Sabaugh, in her effort to be very intimate, spoke so softly and was positioned so far back on stage that it was necessary to strain to catch her lines. Perhaps it is different on other nights, but on this occasion the conclusion was too wispy.

Even though the acting in this production is fine, my memory is that the three in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s staging by Charlotte Moore were a more powerful unit, including the remarkable actress Geraldine Hughes luminous as Molly, and Jonathan Hogan superb as Mr. Rice, with the excellent Ciarán O’Reilly as Frank.

That said, I still urge seeing this new revival, given the quality of Friel’s play and the affability and expertise of this particular cast. At Theatre Five, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 24, 2019.

  

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