Goodspeed’s “Millie” Is Fun But Not Fantastic

thoroughly Millie by Diane Sobolewski

Taylor Quick.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Thoroughly Modern Millie is a lightweight, fun musical that is getting a very good production at Goodspeed Theater in East Haddam, through July 2.

The show may seem like it was written in the 1920s when it set, but in reality, the show hit Broadway in 2002. The plot is based on the 1967 movie musical that starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie. For the movie, original music was written by Jimmy Van Huesen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn as well as others; popular music of the 1920s was also an integral part of the score. The show, part camp satire of the period and part serious, was a success and earned a number of Oscar nominations.

The stage version of the show began in 1999 but did not hit Broadway until 2002. The music of the ‘20s was discarded as were most of the songs written specifically for the movie.  Jeanine Tesori wrote new songs for the show with lyrics by Dick Scanlan who took over the role of book writer after Dick Morris passed away.

The plot is fairly typical for 1920s shows.  A young woman, Millie, arrives in New York City from Kansas, eager to break out of the confines of her small town existence and to enjoy the big city. She is ready for the new haircuts, short skirts, and the freer behaviors that were beginning to sweep the country. She is also determined to find a job as a secretary (or “typewriter” as the women were often called) and to marry her boss.

The secondary plots involve Miss Dorothy Brown, another single young lady but seemingly more shy. She too arrives at the same hotel for young women as Millie. But there is a secret at the Hotel Priscilla presided over Mrs. Meers. It seems that young women who have no family mysteriously and suddenly “check out” never to be heard of again. We quickly discover they have been drugged, abducted and sent to the Far East for the white slave trade.

Millie gets a job working for Trevor Graydon, a handsome (and single) executive, but she also meets Jimmy, a young man who seems less motivated. Of course, we can anticipate what will happen. While Millie has her eye set on Graydon, she unwillingly becomes increasingly attracted to Jimmy. Graydon, meanwhile, meets Miss Dorothy and is immediately smitten. Once Mrs. Meers learns that Miss Dorothy is an orphan, she sets in motion the plot to kidnap and sell Miss Dorothy.

Of course, all ends happily. Neither Jimmy nor Miss Dorothy are exactly what they seem. Mrs. Meers is defeated.

There’s also Muzzy Can Hossmere, a wealthy, older nightclub performer who was married to a very wealthy man. She tries to convince Millie that love is most important and helps Millie, Jimmy and Trevor save Miss Dorothy.  Two Chinese brothers work as hotel employees for Mrs. Meers; they are forced to assist her in her evil ways because she has promised to bring their mother to NYC.

Even in 2002, the portrayal of the two Chinese brothers was problematic. While the authors tried to make them less stereotypical “Asian” characters, some elements of that remained. But they did have them speak Chinese, with English translations projected for the audience, and gave one of the brothers a rebellious streak. Ching Ho falls for Miss Dorothy and does everything he can to save her.

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Dan DeLuca and Taylor Quick. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The Goodspeed production has a lot going for it. As usual, the production values are terrific. Scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III has created a wonderful art deco backdrop and an elevator for the hotel. Between him and the lighting design by Rob Denton, you are convinced the elevator is moving. Gregory Dale’s costumes bring you back to the 1920s and the Jazz Age. Jay Hilton’s sound design adds to the overall affect and keeps the sound from blaring.

Denis Jones, a Tony nominee this year, has returned to Goodspeed to direct and choreograph. Once again he has used the small stage adeptly and his tap numbers are terrific.

That brings us to the hard-working cast. The ensemble of dancers and singers, who often play multiple roles is excellent. And certainly the cast all sing and dance very well. But at times, something seems missing.

Taylor Quick, who has her on “new girl in town story,” is Millie. While technically fine, in such a slight musical, the role requires star power; the ability to focus our attention on her and to project a joie de vivre. Unfortunately Quick lacks, at least at this point in her career, those abilities. She just seems like a nice average girl, trying hard. When the show opened on Broadway, Sutton Foster who had been in the ensemble but had taken over the lead during the tryout period, radiated that charisma.

In fact the only performer who made you focus was Edward Watts as Trevor Grayden and that be in part due to his ruggedly handsome looks. Technically Dan DeLuca as Jimmy, Samantha Sturm as Miss Dorothy, Ramona Keller as Muzzy and James Seol as Ching Ho were all good.  Loretta Ables Sayre was a rather tame Mrs. Meers; some of the evil intent seemed lacking.

If you want an enjoyable evening of nice tunes, terrific dancing and good performances, you will enjoy Thoroughly Modern Millie. Just don’t expect insightful drama. It is just good, clean fun.

It is at Goodspeed Musical Theatre in East Haddam through July 2. For tickets, visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

Thoroughly Millie 2

Samatha Sturm, Taylor Quick and Edward Watts. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

World Premiere at Yale Rep May Puzzle You

Mary Jane

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Amy Herzog’s new play, Mary Jane, is an interesting new drama that will leave you puzzled by its abrupt ending. The play is getting its world premiere at the Yale Rep through Saturday, May 20.

The title character is the mother of a severely handicapped two-and-a-half year old son, Alex. She is a single mom trying to juggle a job, a plethora of care-givers, doctors and social services while maintaining her sanity.  Over the course of several months, Alex faces several crises with the last one most likely leading to his death.

In the first act which is set in Mary Jane’s apartment, we meet the superintendent of her apartment building (Ruthie), one of the nurses that stay overnight (Sherry), and another mother (Brianne) who is just beginning this journey. Mary Jane is sharing important information about how to negotiate the system with her.

The act ends with Alex suffering a crises (a seizure) and 9-11 is called.

Act two is in the hospital where Alex has been for many weeks going through a series of setbacks. Mary Jane is constantly at his bedside which leads her to losing her job. Again, she is surrounded by women: Dr. Toros who tries make her realize the likely outcome; Chaya, a mother keeping a vigil for her daughter; Tenkei, a Buddhist chaplain; and Kat, the music therapist.

The play ends abruptly when Mary Jane, who suffers from migraines and feels one is coming on is talking with Tenkei. The chaplain dims the lights until there is just a spotlight on Mary Jane’s face, she gets up and walks towards the light. The last line is “God. What a strange…”

That may be the words that playgoers are thinking as they exit the theater. As in most world premieres, this is a play that needs work.

From the playwright’s notes in the program, it seems as though she is trying to emphasize the support that women give each other. Yet she is only partially successful in that. It seems more that Mary Jane – who retains an almost impossibly optimistic point of view and sense of humor – is constantly negotiating with these other women. It begins with the Super of the building who while fixing a stopped up drain, notices that the window bars (required by law for child safety) have been removed. Mary Jane removed them so that Alex would have a clearer view; yet she must cajole the super into either not forcing her to reinstall them or reporting the removal. Next is the nurse Sherry who want to report another of the nurses for falling asleep on the job. Mary Jane knows how hard it is to get all of the shifts covered; even a lax nurse is better than having no one there. And so it goes.

In act two, the negotiations continue, although to a lesser extent.  Here it is the doctor who must negotiate the system to get the music therapist to visit.

One of the concerns with this play is that it switches gears so often; no wonder the audience is puzzled. Act one seems like a traditional TV drama about a single mother (the husband left almost immediately after Alex’s birth), and the problems of raising a severely disabled child. Alex suffers from generalized seizure disorder and lung disease. The result is that he is dependent on breathing assistance, has almost no mobility and cannot really hold his head up. This may be the result of his being very premature.

So act one has some laughs as Mary Jane optimism and good humor makes her seem like a “little Miss Sunshine.”  Does she every break down? How does she manage on so little sleep? With so much responsibility? Has she walled off the likely prognosis from her consciousness? How does she go on?

Act two becomes both more symbolic and more surreal. One of the mechanisms that Herzog uses is Mary Jane’s migraines.  Migraines – a very severe headache with a variety of causes that are still not totally understood or controllable — often start off with visual auras which can affect vision and hearing as the headache progresses. The onset of one of Mary Jane’s headaches is the rationale for some of the surreal aspects. In the throes of a migraine, a sufferer may be unsure of what is real.

Mary Jane’s difficulties multiple in act two.  Alex is in the hospital for weeks and seems to move from one crises to another; at the end of the play he is in surgery. She loses her job because she has taken seven weeks off to be at the hospital, and her migraines are back. (Stress can be a trigger for them).

Herzog has made some interesting choices, but also some puzzling ones. One choice is that except for Mary Jane, all the actors play two roles – one in the first act and one in the second. Those roles in the second act seem to be variations of the roles they play in the first act.

Thus Katherine Chalfant plays the building super in act one, talks about the mind-body connection and that Mary Jane seems to have stress in her body. In act two, she in Tenkei, the Buddhist chaplain at the hospital.

And so it goes. Ruthie, the nurse in act one becomes Dr. Toros  in act two; Amelia (Ruthie’s teenage niece) who visits in act one becomes the music therapist who visits Alex; and Brianne (the mother) who is beginning the journey of parenting a disabled child becomes Chaya in act two. Chaya, who is an orthodox Jew, has seven children including her frequently hospitalized daughter.

Anne Kauffman has directed the play with finesse, keeping the various parts moving and helping us to understand much of the play, though she does not totally succeed. She is aided by the lighting created by Elizabeth Green and the sounds designed by Ian Scot. The sound in particular sets the two location – a busy city with subway and traffic noises, and a hospital. Laura Jellinek has created the two setting – the apartment where Mary Jane seemingly sleeps in what should be the living room and the hospital – its waiting room, snack room and patient bedside.

Emily Donahoe is very good as Mary Jane. She brings to the role a down-to-earth quality that combines humor and resilience. She creates a woman who keeps going because she must and the only way to retain her sanity is with a positive outlook.

The other performers are equally adept at creating characters that are for the most part more sketched in than fully developed.

As I was watching this play, I had to wonder about the title character’s name: Mary Jane. We all know that it is often a reference to marijuana. Was this intentional? If so, why and what does it mean?

Mary Jane is a play that may be depressing for many people, especially those who have experienced or dealt with disabled children and their families.

It is at the Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven through Saturday, May 20. For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.

Content courtesy of Shore Publishing and ziip06.c0m

Mary Jane

Photo by Joan Marcus

 

Broadway’s Terrence Mann to Host Connecticut Critics Awards

Terrence Mann_edited

Terrence Mann

Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be master of ceremonies for the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards on June 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield. A private reception will precede the awards show.

The Monday night event, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, is free and open to the public. At the ceremony, Paulette Haupt, founding artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference in Waterford, will be honored with the Connecticut Critics Circle’s Tom Killen Award, given in recognition of her 40 years of extraordinary achievement and service to Connecticut theater.

Last year’s top honorees — Yale Repertory Theatre’s “Indecent” and Hartford Stage’s “Anastasia” — are currently on Broadway.

Mann joins the Connecticut theater community as artistic director of the Nutmeg Summer Series at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Mann received Tony nominations for his roles as Javert in “Les Miserables,” as the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” and as King Charles in the revival of “Pippin.” He also originated the role of Rum Tum Tugger in the Broadway production of “Cats.”

His Broadway debut was in 1980 in “Barnum.” Other Broadway credits include “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Rags,” “Getting Away with Murder,” “Lennon,” “The Rocky Horror Show” “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” “The Addams Family,” “Finding Neverland” and last season’s “Tuck Everlasting.” He was in the original off-Broadway production of “Assassins.”

Mann also has a recurring role in TV’s “Sense8.” Other television roles include the role of Earl Boyd in “All My Children.”

In film, Mann played bounty hunter Ug in the four “Critters” films. Other movie roles include  “A Chorus Line” and “A Circle on the Cross.”

He has also acted and starred in productions at UConn, including “Les Miserables in Concert,” “Peter Pan,” “Man of La Mancha” and “My Fair Lady.” Mann will direct the first show of the Nutmeg season, “1776,” with performances starting June 1.

A graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts, he is a professor of musical theater at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. He is married to actress Charlotte D’Amboise.

Andy Karl Makes “Groundhog Day” Worth Seeing

Groundhog DayAugust Wilson Theatre

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Movies into Broadway musicals. The trend continues with Groundhog Day starring Andy Karl. The musical will not make you forget about the film, but it does provide a diverting evening in the theater featuring a terrific performance by Andy Karl and some clever “sleight of hand” illusions.

You won’t leave the theater humming the tunes or anxious to see it all again, but you will have enjoyed it.

The musical keeps the basic plot of the 1993 movie which starred Bill Murray as the TV weather forecaster Phil Connors who gets caught in an interesting time-warp. He works for a Pittsburgh TV station and is sent to cover the Groundhog Day activities in Punxsutawney, home of one of the most famous of the groundhogs.  He’s done it all before.  Add to the fact that Phil has a healthy ego who enjoys the celebrity status he has achieved although it has gone to his head a bit; he is not the nicest of guys.

Groundhog DayAugust Wilson Theatre

Andy Karl. Photo by Joan Marcus

In the film, he arrives in Punxsutawney with his producer, Rita and a cameraman, Chris. On Groundhog Day he wakes up and does a half-hearted and somewhat snide on-camera presentation and then wants to immediately leave. Rita wants to stay but soon a blizzard (which Phil had predicted would not hit the area) has closed all the roads. The next morning, Phil awakens to find it is Groundhog Day again and that cycle is repeated many times with Phil becoming upset, depressed and angry. Finally the cycle is broken when Phil becomes a nicer, friendlier man.

The musical retains the central idea but has made significant changes. The producer Rita is no longer an experienced producer whom Phil has worked with before and for whom he may have feelings. Now she is a total surprise to Phil; she’s young and this is her first time producing a segment. While Phil does eventually develop feelings for her, at first he finds her enthusiasm annoying. The musical is also stuffed with a variety of “colorful” local characters.

The problem is that much of the show is repetition of the events of Groundhog Day. So we see the sheriff misplacing his gun, the “cute” teenage couple giggling and excited to see Phil over and over again. The time warp seems to go on 10 or more times. How many times is it funny or interesting to see the mundane lines repeated?

So despite the endless loop of repetition, the show offers some good performances and some respectable, if not highly creative, songs by Tim Minchin who did the same for Matilda. Let’s just say that the music/lyrics are serviceable with only one song “Nobody Cares” that I’m interested in hearing again.

Groundhog DayAugust Wilson Theatre

John Sanders and Andy Karl. Photo by Joan Marcus

What will keep you wondering is how Phil can be in so many places almost simultaneously. I won’t spoil the illusion, but you see Phil singing one song and a moment later he is waking in bed to start the day over again. In film, that would easy to accomplish; on the stage it will have you oohing and aahing.

Andy Karl carries the show; he manages to make even the irascible Phil somehow sympathetic and likeable. Right now he is doing that with a brace on his left leg; theater fans know that he hurt his knee right before the opening night. After missing a few performances, he returned with the brace which has to be awkward, heavy and tiring. It’s not clear if any choreography was changed to accommodate his injury, but he certainly moves around the stage a great deal.

Groundhog DayAugust Wilson Theatre

Barrett Doss. Photo by Joan Marcus

As Rita, Barrett Doss does a good job as the overly gung-ho producer who doesn’t really know how to handle Phil. John Sanders manages to find a variety of emotions for Ned Ryerson the old friend and insurance agent that Phil meets on each reiteration of the day.

While the movie was almost a dark comedy, here that element has been lost. Despite Phil’s increasing depression and agitation at the repetitions of the day, it all remains too perky and happy.  In the middle of the second act, there is the “big” dance featuring the entire company that simply seems both out of place and a delaying tactic to get to the final curtain.

All the production elements are very good including the scenic design by Bob Howell (he also did the costumes) that includes a wild car ride among its effects. Matthew Warchus as directed it efficiently.

See Groundhog Day for Andy Karl’s performance. He has the potential to be a long-term presence on Broadway and a major star.

It is at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

Groundhog Day
August Wilson Theatre

Groundhog DayAugust Wilson Theatre

Photo by Joan Marcus

Seven Angels Theatre Delights with “Trav’ling – the 1930s Harlem Musical”

traveling 1 Gary Rosengrant

Photo by Gary Rosengrand

By Karen Isaacs

 Discovering a little known composer – at least to me – and finding his works delightful and well-presented is one of the joys of being a theater critic.

That’s what happened when I saw Trav’ling – the 1930s Harlem Musical now at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through June 11.

The music for this production – which is more revue than true musical – is by J. C. Johnson. Don’t recognize the name? We’ve all heard his songs. He wrote “This Joint Is Jumpin’” with Fats Waller with whom he collaborated for many years. But he also wrote with Andy Razaf.  The Ink Spots, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Connie Boswell ( and the Boswell Sisters) were among the artists who performed and recorded his music.

The plot is slim but the emphasis is on the talented performers presenting these songs that will have your feet tapping.

It’s about three couples in Harlem in the 1930s. There’s Deacon George who sort of overseas the Harlem bloc and his niece Cherry recently arrived from Chicago to go to nursing school. Then there’s Nelson, a young man who sells Bibles but is still naïve, inexperienced and awkward with women. You can bet that Nelson and Cherry will hit it off but there will be some complications.

We have the neighborhood beautician Roz who is older and wiser, but still in love with Archie Stone, a smooth talking, womanizing traveling salesman. She thinks they have an agreement that he will not mess around in NYC.

And then there’s Billie. Billie is older and arrives in the neighborhood from New Orleans; she has mission to put to rest a romantic ghost from her past, so for a while at least she is Ethel from Mississippi.

You don’t have think much about the plot – in fact, some of it doesn’t withstand logical scrutiny. Let’s just say these three couples – yes, Billie and George become a couple – each have minor bumps on the way to a happy ending.

But if the plot is miniscule, the performances aren’t. This is a top-notch cast of experienced actors who can sing and dance and even make the story seem logical. They are backed up by a four piece orchestra, ably conducted by musical director/pianist John DiPinto.

traveling 3

Jacobi Hall and Cherry Torres. Photo by Gary Rosengrant

You may not recognize the songs, but quite a few caught my attention. I’m going to be seeking out recordings to hear them again. The opening number, “Somebody Loses, Somebody Wins” is terrific as performed by Lothair Eaton as George. But there is the “Empty Bed Blues,” the jazzy “Believe It Beloved,” the danceable “Hold My Hand,” and the terrific “When You Fall in Love.” And I forgot to mention “Dancin’ with My Love.”

Each of the performers knows how to put over a song, from Teren Carter as the jivin’ and smooth talking Archie to Yewande Odetoyinbo as the long-suffering Roz. Jacobi Hall conveys the uncertainty of the young Nelson and Cherry Torres projects the innocence and joy of Ella. But I can’t leave out Miche Braden as Billie and Lothair Eaton as George; he reminds you a bit of Waller.

Paul Stancato has directed and choreographed the show with finesse. He keeps the pace moving and the tone is just about perfect – respectful of the characters but with a hint of a wink behind it all. His choreography is also good and in Hall and Torres he has talented dancers.

Stephen Dobay has created a clever set that provides an interesting backdrop for the projections by Christopher Ash. Kudos also to costume designer Janell Berte and lighting designer Keith A. Truax.

Treat yourself to this enjoyable show.

Tickets are available to Trav’ling – the 1930s Harlem Musical ­ by calling 203-757-4676 or online at Seven Angels Theatre

travelilng 4

Miche Braden, Cherry Torres, Yewande Odetoyinbo. Photo by Gary Rosengrant.

“Anastasia” – Production Values Are Terrific; Musical Isn’t

anastasia - by matthew murphy

Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

 When Anastasia opened at Hartford Stage a year ago I enjoyed it but felt it needed work. Yet I believed the show would attract an audience due to its fairy tale romance qualities, the popularity of the animated film of the 1997 and the top-notch people involved.

It’s now opened on Broadway. The pluses that delighted me at Hartford, continue to entrance. But while changes were made, the weakness of this show is its less than stellar book and a score that is ho-hum.

This is a show that young girls and women will love: it combines elements of Cinderella, My Fair Lady and Gigi: the story of a young woman transformed into the equivalent of a princess.

The basic story of Anastasia, the thought that the Tsar’s youngest daughter escaped execution, has been the basis of plays, films and even a musical (Anya) in 1965 for years.  It was a gold mine for mentally disturbed women and con artists who could coach them with information. Anastasia’s grandmother lived in Paris surrounded the refugee Russian nobility. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for the role in 1956. It is based on a kernel of truth: there was a search for Anastasia and a number of imposters tried to claim the money. In the 1920s Anna Anderson, who claimed to be an amnesiac gained notoriety for her claim to be Anastasia. Most of the versions take some elements from her story and the 1952 French play by Marcelle Maurette.

The book of the show by Terrence McNally has been substantially changed from the film; gone are the animated animals and now we have complex villain in Gleb, a Communist official whose father was at the execution but who becomes attracted to Anastasia.

The musical moves from the opening at the court to the streets of St. Petersburg to Paris. The basic outline remains the same: we see the royal family before the revolution when the Dowager Empress gives her youngest granddaughter a music box before she leaves for Paris where she lives. The revolution arrives and the royal family is captured and later killed.

Soon we are in the midst of the Communist regime of the mid-1920s. A young woman is sweeping the streets; she has no memory of her past. Two men (Dmitry and Vlad) – both of whom live by their wits — know that the Dowager Empress has offered a reward for finding Anastasia; they decide to look for someone to impersonate the Princess and find the young woman.  In a My Fair Lady like story, they tutor her and groom her so she can pass; occasionally she recounts a memory that surprises them.

They escape Communist Russia and travel to Paris – after some narrow escapes – where they manage to arrange a meeting with the Dowager Empresses’ companion and then the Dowager herself, who has become weary of the parade of imposters. Do you really need for anyone to tell you the ending? It is predictable.

Anasatasua --Ramin by Matthew Murphy

Ramin Karimloo and Christy Altomare. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Composer Steven Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, A Man of No Importance, Once on this Island and more), have kept some of the songs from the film including the Oscar-winning “Journey to the Past,”  “Once Upon a December,” “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” “Paris Holds the Key” and a couple of others.  Many others have been added – some work really well and some seem to detract. I did like “My Petersburg,” “A Secret She Kept,” and  “We’ll Go from There.”

The plusses of this show are all in the production elements, as they were in Hartford.

The production is opulent; every aspect of the production will take your breath away. Let’s start with the set by Alexander Dodge. He creates the court of Imperial Russia, Paris, and a wide variety of places in between. Particularly ingenious is his handling of the train on which Anya and her companions ride to escape Communist Russia.

Then we can praise the costumes by Linda Cho – the gowns of Imperial Russia and later the gown for the Dowager Empress — are elegant and opulent. But she goes beyond that to create authentic 1920s costumes as well. Her costumes are supplemented by the wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe.

Let’s praise the sound design by Peter Hylenski and the lighting by Donald Holder. I

anastasia - altomare and lena

Christy Altomare and Derek Klena. Photo by Matthew Murphy

marveled at some of the lighting effects Holder achieved including one scene where only Anya is in color.

But the highest praise must go to the video and projection design by Aaron Rhyne. His designs create three-dimensional images of St. Petersburg – the winter palace, the cathedral and so much more – Paris and the various scenes in-between.

Certainly Darko Tresnjak’s direction and concept is brilliant. He has his production team create wonderful effects, he transitions the multiple scenes and locations splendidly, gives us ghost-like flashbacks, plus he draws the best from his performers. He is aided by choreographer Peggy Hickey who creates everything from court quadrilles to folk dances and even a ballet.

Most of the performers are also terrific. Mary Beth Piel plays the Dowager Empress with both elegance and touching emotion. Derek Klena is fine as Dmitry but doesn’t really create a three dimensional character until the second act. John Bolton is Vlad, who is part comic figure and part somewhat tragic one. Ramin Karimloo is dynamic ats the villain-like character Gleb. He makes him more than just a villain; there is undercurrent of conflict between his commitment to the Party and his attraction to Anya. Caroline O’Connor plays Lily the Dowager Empress’ companion. She is excellent and brings both pathos and comedy to the part.

Christy Altomare has the difficult job of transforming a somewhat typical “Disney princess” into a real woman. She succeed partly, yet I never quite believed in her or even cared about her. She seems to lack a “spark” that the role requires. She is very effective in her songs, particularly the act one closer “Journey to the Past.”

anastasia - klena and alotomare

Derek Klena and Christoy Altomare. Photo by Matthew Murphy

But the problem is that the musical seems to be split between the more serious first act and act two in Paris. Two comic numbers featuring the Dowager’s lady in waiting are back to back in the second act. They seem a total distraction and interruption of the flow of the somewhat predictable plot. I was surprised they had survived the transition from the original production; at least the first of them, needed serious pruning. The momentum is also halted by an extended ballet sequence that seems overlong.

If so much was right with Anastasia, why wasn’t I totally enchanted? But the real problem for me was that I never became emotionally involved in the show; I can see My Fair Lady multiple times and always root for Eliza and even the semi-romance with Higgins. Here I wasn’t invested in the show or the characters. They seemed more two-dimensional. Pleasant but not emotionally engaging. Formulaic but well done.

Certainly it is a show that romantics and all those enchanted by Cinderella stories will enjoy. And the production values are certainly worth Broadway prices.

Anastasia is at the Broadhurst Theater, 235 w. 44th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

anastasia - bolton oconnor

John Bolton and Caroline O’Connor. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Ivoryton’s “Biloxi Blues” Downplays the Comedy

By Karen Isaacs

 A word association: Neil Simon.  Many people will think of The Odd Couple and then associate Simon with lots of laughs and one-liners. A good comedy.

If that’s your view of Simon, Biloxi Blues now at Ivoryton Playhouse through May 14 will surprise you.

Yes, there are some humorous situations and some one-liners, but the tone of this play is more serious. It’s part of the Eugene Trilogy that Simon wrote based loosely on his early life. Brighton Beach Memoirs told a family drama of growing up in Brighton Beach in the pre-WWII era. The third play, Broadway Bound tells of his attempts to work in comedy on TV. This middle play, is about his experiences in 1943 in basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Eugene Jerome, the Simon character, is a big city young man who aspires to being a writer; he is keeping a journal. But he is also naïve; he has little experience outside his neighborhood and family; he’s still a virgin and seems to have lived a sheltered life.

The play begins with Eugene and four others traveling by train to basic training in Biloxi. These are all East coast guys. Soon they arrive and quickly meet Sargent Toomey – a longtime army noncom with battle scars to prove it. He is loud, profane and hard driving. He quickly sizes them up as out of shape. They need to be “broken” and put together as a unit that will die for each other. While the others immediately accept that Toomey is to be obeyed, one of them, Arnold Epstein seems unaware. He is the “Jewish intellectual” from Queens, who has decided that he will refuse to allow Toomey and the Army to make him conform. Of course, he is the one that is most attacked by Toomey.

As basic training progresses, another GI, Hennessey joins the group. They finally get a weekend pass and Eugene visits the local prostitute to lose his virginity. He is nervous and anxious and still naïve. He is amazed that she is married (to an Army man) and does this on the weekends; he is astounded that when he visits her again, she doesn’t remember him.

Among the other things that happen is the discovery that one recruit is homosexual, Eugene falls in love for the first time at a USO dance; the young lady is Catholic.

The play ends with them going off in different direction; Eugene tells us what happens to each of them. As to be expected, there is some tragedy and some heroism.

The characters are stereotypical. Wykowski is a not-very-bright, tough guy from Bridgeport; Arnold Epstein is the intellectual and the non-conformist; Carney is an aspiring singer; Selridge is the jokester; and Hennesey is the quiet one.

It is interesting in researching this play to see how it was viewed when it was first produced (there was also a film version).  The emphasis was on the laughs. Eugene though the narrator (and played by Matthew Broderick) was not considered the central character; that was Arnold Epstein, who constantly challenges the system and has the lines that most question how Eugene reacts.

The Ivoryton production seems to shift the focus to Eugene, played by Zal Owen. He projects the correct nerdy, naïve attitude for the 19-year-old Eugene. Conor M. Hamill has the muscular, “dumb jock” look and persona as Wykowski. Alex Silberblatt as Epstein at times fades into the background. We can admire him and his ethical/moral stances, but our eyes don’t gravitate to him. The two women – Andee Buccheri as the sweet Daisy and Mora O’Sullivan as the prostitute Rowena – project their contrasting roles in the play: the experienced “older” woman and the naïve young girl.

Director Sasha Brätt has done a good job with keeping the pace moving. The humor has been subjugated to the more serious elements of the play. Glenn David Bassett’s set emulates Quonset buildings, the barracks and the other locations.

In the how times have changed category, it is interesting to note that Ivoryton felt it necessary to include in the program the following: “Offensive language, including racial and ethnic insults, is used in the play.”  It refers to the use of swear words as well as insults referring to various ethnicities.

For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.

“Indecent” – A Compelling Drama about a Ground-breaking Play

indecent topol and lenk rosegg

Center: Richard Topol and Katrina Lenk. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

“Indecent,” the new play by Paula Vogel blends music, dance, song, scenes from the famous Yiddish play “The God of Vengeance” and the history of the play so seamlessly that you are entranced.

It weaves these multiple stories plus episodes from the life of its author Sholem Asch to create a multi-dimensional piece performed by a true ensemble. Six actors are assigned multiple roles based on age — the two older play an older characters, the 40ish actors play characters of that age and the younger performers play the younger characters. Yet you never are confused about who is playing which character.

With the exception of Richard Topol who plays the stage manager/narrator (as well as other characters), the program simply lists them as “actor”.

The piece was directed by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman who has been with the project since its beginning. It had its world premiere at Yale Rep in 2015 and won numerous awards from the Connecticut Critics Circle. It then played off-Broadway before now making it to the Great White Way.

During its travel, the same cast has remained with it as well as the same production team and musicians.

The Broadway production is stronger than the one I saw at Yale. Yet it retains the essence of the story.

For most theatr-goers, the incidents which the play recounts will not be familiar.  It involves the novelist/playwright Sholem Asch who wrote initially in Yiddish and his play The God of Vengeance.

This play delves deeper than just the history of the production of this work and its author.  It raises an issue that every minority who is looked down upon by mainstream society faces: Should the less-than-admirable aspects of our group be revealed for those who already denigrate us?

Indecent covers the period from the play’s writing and first reading in a Warsaw literary salon in 1907 through WWII and even beyond.

At that time, in what was called the Jewish Enlightenment, many Eastern European Jews were promoting literature written in Yiddish.  But many of those who promoted this also wanted positive portrayals of the Jews living in Eastern Europe.

At the first reading, God of Vengeance was controversial; the young Asch writes a play that includes a Jewish owned brothel, a love affair between the owner’s daughter and one of the prostitutes, and the “shocking” treatment of a Jewish scroll.  It showed a side of Jewish life which many did not want told.

The men start reading the play but are soon horrified. The play tells the story of a Jewish man who runs a brothel, his wife is one of his former prostitutes and he has a virginal daughter. But the daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes to her father’s horror.

Yet the play was produced in Berlin with the great actor Rudolph Schildkraut as the father, St. Petersburg, Moscow and other locations throughout Europe in both Yiddish and native languages.  In New York City’s lower east side, the play had various successful productions for more than 15 years.

Asch and some of the performers in the actors (including Schildkraut) emigrated to the US and in 1923, the Provincetown Playhouse in New York (known for producing the works of Eugene O’Neill) produced an English production.

It is here that the story of The God of Vengeance turns.  The producer wants to bring it to Broadway, but feels the story must be revised to fit the up-town audience; Asch lets the producer do it, but never reads the changes. His English was very limited and he had turned his attention to writing novels. Many felt the new version makes the play even more controversial; instead of a love story between the prostitute and the daughter, the prostitute is simply trying to recruit the daughter the life.  A Rabbi files an obscenity complaint and the entire cast, producers and theater owner are all arrested and convicted of indecency. (The conviction is later overturned).

Indecent 3

Photo by Carol Rosegg

During the course of the 100 minute play, a very talented cast of six plays a variety of roles.

Max Gordon Moore portrays Asch as a man of conviction though flawed.  He admits he agreed to the cuts for the Broadway production without reading them and refuses to testify at the company’s criminal trial.   Katrina Link is luminous as the prostitute Manke who falls in love with the daughter – on stage and with the actress in real life.  Her commitment to the work is clear.  Adina Verson plays not only Asch’s wife but also Rifkele, the daughter.  Tom Nellis plays I.L. Peretz, the salon host but also the actor Rudolph Schildkraut with elegance and grace.  Mimi Lieber plays the mother in Asch’s play and Steve Rattazzi plays the producer, the Rabbi and others.

Richard Topol serves as both the stage manager and the defender of the piece.  His portrayal is heart-breaking as the young man from the provinces who first hears the play read and is totally transformed by it and is the stage manager/defender during its controversial production.

The movement choreographed by David Dorfman adds an elegant touch, especially the very graceful Tom Nellis.

The play begins as if the characters have been packed away for years, perhaps even buried and it moves among the various scenes with props pulled from old-fashioned suitcases.

Taichman as director has a sure hand at managing the multiple scene changes and characters in the play.  She is aided by her production team – lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, costume designer Emily Rebholz, sound designer Matt Hubs and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez.

Three fine musicians – Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva (both of whom composed the music) and Travis W. Hendrix – provide an accompaniment that is reminiscent of klezmer music.

Indecent is a fascinating play that any theater lover should see. It explores a piece of theater history as well as raising challenging questions about the role of literature for minority populations.

It is at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. For tickets visit Telecharge.

indecent = max moore richard topol

Max Gordon Moore and Richard Topol. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Outer Critics Circle Announces Awards Nominations – Some Interesting Omissions

By Karen Isaacs

 The major NYC theater awards kicked off with the nominations for Outer Critic Circle awards on Tuesday (April 25).  By the way, I am a member of the group.

The OCC honors both Broadway and off-Broadway productions, sometimes in combined categories. Only the categories of outstanding play and musical are separated into Broadway and off-Broadway categories.

If a play or musical has previously been eligible for awards off-Broadway in an earlier season, it will only be eligible for awards when it arrives on Broadway IF there have been substantial revisions, or new cast members.

Thus, this season, Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 and Dear Evan Hansen were not eligible except for new elements/performers. Glenn Close was not eligible for her performance in Sunset Boulevard since she had won for that performance years earlier. Three shows that were off-Broadway earlier in the season but moved to Broadway were eligible for best play in the Broadway category (Indecent, Oslo and Sweat.) Also, shows that declared themselves ineligible or did not invite OCC members to review were not eligible for any awards. This included Sunday in the Park with George.

I was surprised at some of the omissions in the nomination list. War Paint did not receive a nomination for Outstanding New Musical but Holiday Inn did.  Present Laughter was not nominated for Outstanding Revival of a Play. In the performances categories, Reed Birney (A Man from Nebraska,) John Douglas Thompson (Jitney) and Mark Ruffalo (The Price) were passed over Outstanding Actor in favor of four off-Broadway performances. In the musical category, Josh Groban (The Great Comet) was ignored.

Jennifer Ehle was omitted for her performance in Oslo and Sutton Foster was skipped for her fine performance off-Broadway in Sweet Charity in Outstanding Actress categories.

Outstanding Featured Actor/Actress in either a play or musical also omitted some of my favorites. I thought Tony Shalhoub (The Price) was more deserving than Danny DeVito and Brandon Darden deserved a nomination for Jitney. Jessica Hecht (The Price) and Sherie Rene Scott (Front Page) were ignored. For musicals, Tony Sheldon (Amelie) and Bobby Conte (A Bronx Tale) deserved nominations.

Winners will be announced in mid-May and the awards will be presented at a ceremony on May 25 at Sardi’s.

Outstanding New Broadway Play
A Doll’s House, Part 2
Indecent
Oslo
Sweat

Outstanding New Broadway Musical
Anastasia
A Bronx Tale
Come From Away
Groundhog Day
Holiday Inn

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play
If I Forget
Incognito
A Life
Linda
Love, Love, Love

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical
The Band’s Visit
Hadestown
Himself and Nora
Kid Victory
Spamilton

Outstanding Book Of A Musical (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Terrence McNally, Anastasia
Itamar Moses, The Band’s Visit
Chazz Palminteri, A Bronx Tale
Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day
Irene Sankoff & David Hein, Come From Away

Outstanding New Score (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Stephen Flaherty & Lynn AhrensAnastasia
Alan Menken & Glenn Slater, A Bronx Tale
Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day
Irene Sankoff & David Hein, Come From Away
David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit

Outstanding Revival Of A Play (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
The Front Page
Jitney
The Little Foxes
Othello
The Price

Outstanding Revival Of A Musical (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Finian’s Rainbow
Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon
Sunset Boulevard
Sweeney Todd

Outstanding Director of a Play
Lila Neugebauer, The Wolves
Jack O’Brien, The Front Page
Daniel Sullivan, The Little Foxes
Rebecca Taichman, Indecent
Kate Whoriskey, Sweat

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Christopher Ashley, Come From Away
David Cromer, The Band’s Visit
Darko Tresnjak, Anastasia
Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day
Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly!

Outstanding Choreographer
Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand
Warren Carlyle, Hello, Dolly!
Savion Glover, Shuffle Along
Kelly Devine, Come From Away
Denis Jones, Holiday Inn

Outstanding Set Design (Play or Musical)
Alexander Dodge, Anastasia
Nigel Hook, The Play That Goes Wrong
Mimi Lien, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Scott Pask, The Little Foxes
Douglas W. Schmidt, The Front Page

Outstanding Costume Design (Play or Musical)
Linda Cho, Anastasia
Susan Hilferty, Present Laughter
Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!
Ann Roth, Shuffle Along
Catherine Zuber, War Paint

Outstanding Lighting Design (Play or Musical)
Christopher Akerlind, Indecent
Donald Holder, Anastasia
Natasha Katz, Hello, Dolly!
Bradley King, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Kenneth Posner, War Paint

Outstanding Projection Design (Play or Musical)
Duncan McLean, Privacy
Jared Mezzocchi, Vietgone
Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions, Oslo
Aaron Rhyne, Anastasia
Tal Yarden, Indecent

Outstanding Sound Design (Play or Musical)
Gareth Fry & Pete Malkin, The Encounter
Gareth Owen, Come From Away
Nicholas Pope, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Matt Stine, Sweeney Todd
Nevin Steinberg, Bandstand

Outstanding Orchestrations
Doug Besterman, Anastasia
Larry Blank, Holiday Inn
Bill Elliott & Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand
Larry Hochman, Hello, Dolly!
Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit

Outstanding Actor In A Play
Daniel Craig, Othello
Michael Emerson, Wakey, Wakey
Kevin Kline, Present Laughter
David Oyelowo, Othello
David Hyde Pierce, A Life

Outstanding Actress In A Play
Janie Dee, Linda
Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie
Allison Janney, Six Degrees of Separation
Laura Linney, The Little Foxes
Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Outstanding Actor In A Musical
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Nick Cordero, A Bronx Tale
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!
Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit

Outstanding Actress In A Musical
Christy Altomare, Anastasia
Christine Ebersole, War Paint
Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!

Outstanding Featured Actor In A Play
Michael Aronov, Oslo
Danny DeVito, The Price
Nathan Lane, The Front Page
Richard Thomas, The Little Foxes
Richard Topol, Indecent

Outstanding Featured Actress In A Play
Johanna Day, Sweat
Jayne Houdyshell, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Katrina Lenk, Indecent
Nana Mensah, Man From Nebraska
Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes

Outstanding Featured Actor In A Musical
John Bolton, Anastasia
Jeffry Denman, Kid Victory
Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!
Shuler Hensley, Sweet Charity
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos

Outstanding Featured Actress In A Musical
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos
Jenn Colella, Come From Away
Caroline O’Connor, Anastasia 
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Outstanding Solo Performance
Ed Dixon, Georgie: My Adventures with George Rose
Marin Ireland, On the Exhale
Sarah Jones, Sell / Buy / Date
Judith Light, All the Ways to Say I Love You
Simon McBurney, The Encounter

John Gassner Award
(Presented for an American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Jaclyn Backhaus, Men on Boats
Sarah DeLappe, The Wolves
Paola Lázaro, Tell Hector I Miss Him
Qui Nguyen, Vietgone
Bess Wohl, Small Mouth Sounds

“The Little Foxes” with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon Is Must See Theatre

LILLIAN HELLMAN’S THE LITTLE FOXESDirected by Daniel Sullivan
With Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon
Darren Goldstein, Michael McKean, Richard Thomas
David Alford, Michael Benz, Francesca Carpanini, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Charles Turner

Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Two outstanding actresses are alternating roles in the current revival of The Little Foxes now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are each playing Regina and Birdie in this excellent production directed by Daniel Sullivan.

I only saw one performance, so this review will focus on Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie. Regina is the larger and showy part; but Birdie has an exceptional scene in the third act that any actress would want to perform.

Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes gives us a tale of greed and duplicity as two brothers and a sister try to build their fortune in the post-Civil War south. The Hubbards are striving upward mainly by stepping all over people. Ben and his brother, Oscar, have built wealth by overcharging, cheating and general unethical business behavior.

Their sister, Regina, has married a banker but she wants more. She wants to move to Chicago and be part of society there. These are people who have “made it” and have no compassion. Whatever they want they will take, by any means necessary.

The play opens at Regina’s home. Her husband has been at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for five months with a heart condition, but it seems that only their teenage daughter, Alexandra, and the two loyal black servants, care. Regina certainly doesn’t except that she needs her husband to provide $75,000 so that she can be an equal partner with her two brothers in a deal with a northern business man. They plan is to build a cotton mill in the town; it will make then rich.

But Horace, Regina’s husband, has not responded to her letters and has said nothing about agreeing to invest. She and the brothers are nervous; the deal must be completed soon. So among the family squabbling and negotiations she decided to send her daughter to Baltimore to bring Horace home. This is after she has forced her brothers to give her more than one-third of the ownership; she knows they don’t want outsiders involved.

Little Foxes

Richard Thomas and Francesca Carpannin. Photo by Joan Marcus

While the brothers are antsy for the deal, they are also suspicious that Horace doesn’t want to participate. Plus Oscar is unhappy that Regina’s larger share is coming from his portion. But he has another plan in mind; in fact, he has two. His ne’er-do-well son, Leo works at the bank and through snooping knows that Horace has more than enough bonds in a safe deposit box that could be used to consummate the deal. Neither of the two older men are averse to “borrowing” those bonds. Yet Oscar has another plan up sleeve: he wants Regina to agree to Alexandra marring Leo.

Once the ill Horace arrives home, exhausted, Regina badgers him to get him to agree. He’s angry when he learns that Ben and Oscar have promised the factory owner low wages and no strikes.

Two weeks later, Horace is still not doing well (he has a serious heart condition) and he still has not agreed to provide the money. But he has discovered the bonds are missing from his safe box and he knows that Leo took them. He tells Regina that while he won’t force the brothers to give her a share, he will leave her the bonds in his will: she can then collect the $80,000 from her brothers. This is nowhere near the riches she has her heart set on. After an act of unmitigated cruelty the play ends with Regina being subtly threatened by both her brothers and Alexandra.

Regina is the central role in this play; she can be charming when she wants to be, but she also has an iron will and a cold heart. She will not be thwarted. As Linney plays her, there is not a spark of human kindness in her veins. Her very erect posture shows us she will not bend to anyone – her husband, her brothers, or her daughter. She will get what she wants. If there is a criticism of Linney’s performance, it would be that it is almost too cold; the charm seems so obviously fake, that you don’t see why Horace fell for it long ago or why the Chicago industrialist falls for it in the first scene.

Birdie is a sympathetic character and can be symbolic of the Southern gentry that have seen their wealth and status diminished to those who have no ethics. She is bullied and abused by her husband, ignored by the rest of the family and often shrinks into the background simply observing the machinations of the Hubbard siblings.

But Cynthia Nixon gives us such a multi-layered performance, that even when she off to the side, you can barely keep your eyes off of her. She may be defeated, but there is a spark of life and determination in her. Nixon mines this for the scene in act three where she tells of how she has survived and counsels Alexandra to avoid her fate. Rather than just pity her, you want to cheer her.

Richard Thomas is outstanding as Regina’s husband, Horace. He doesn’t appear until act two (this is a three act play), but he absolutely convinces you both of nearing death and of his realizations about Regina. He is a man who knows he will die soon and want to make right what he can; this includes thwarting Regina. Thomas doesn’t overplay the illness, and thankfully director Sullivan has staged his final moments out of sight of the audience; diminishing what can be a melodramatic moment.

In fact this entire cast is very good. Michael McKean gives us a steely Ben who will bide his time to get back at Regina; Darren Goldstein is Oscar, the brother that both Ben and Regina out-maneuver; you see that he has less of the polish than the others and thus his bully nature is clearer.

In addition Michael Benz gives us the pampered Leo as the youthful cad-in-the-making that he is. His opposite is Francesca Carpanni as Alexandra. She seems to have missed her mother’s manipulativeness, except with her ominous curtain line.  The two servants, who often seem the most aware are given fine performances by Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner.

The production values are excellent from the impressive mansion by Scott Pask complete with a curving staircase that allows for wonderful entrances, to the costumes by Jane Greenwood, the lighting by Justin Townsend, and the sound by Fitz Patton.

What is most impressive is the way director Daniel Sullivan has kept the play from becoming an over-wrought melodrama. Everything is held in check and balanced.

I can only imagine how the production with Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie might be. I suspect it would be equally good.

The Little Foxes is at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. It will run through July 2. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

Little Foxes

Richard Thomas, Michael McKean, Darren Goldstein, Michael Benz. Photo by Joan Marcus.

%d bloggers like this: