Category Archives: 2017-18 New York Theater Season

A Joy to Have Janet McTeer on Broadway as Sarah Bernhardt

BernhardtHamlet, Photo by Joan Marcus, 0462_Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar in_edited

Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Janet McTeer doesn’t appear enough on Broadway. This gifted actress always wins praise – whether it was as Nora in A Doll’s House, or in God of Carnage, Mary Stuart or other works. It’s great to have her playing famed actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is a new play by Theresa Rebeck that tries to capture both Bernhardt and comment on our modern era. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

But the joy is the splendid cast led by McTeer who captures all of what one suspect is Bernhardt’s mercurial temperament and artistic extravagance. It is a delight to watch an actress play an actress who was known for her acting, her outsized persona and her lavish and unconventional lifestyle.

 Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanor Duse were the two great theatrical stars of the 19th century and therefore, of course, they were rivals. Bernhardt started at the Comédie Française, she played Camille well into her middle age, toured the world and believed in carpe diem.

She also was a renegade for the times. She left Comédie Française when she realized they were making huge amounts of money from her performances but paying her little. She also had the audacity of running her own company (and directing) as well as playing male roles.

Bernhardt lived into the 1920s and we have motion pictures (silent, of course) of her.

But Rebeck has wisely not tried to give us her whole life: she sets her play in the 1897; Bernhardt is producing Shakespeare’s Hamlet with herself in the title role. It’s to be performed at a large theater and the financial risk is also huge. As usual she needs money.

Just one problem emerges during rehearsals – she absolutely dislikes and cannot understand the title character. She views Hamlet as a man of inaction which she finds annoying and impenetrable. A second problem is that she is having difficulty with the verse. So, she does what any diva might: she commissions a playwright to rewrite the play into prose and to make Hamlet more decisive.

That’s the background as we see Bernhardt with her current lover – the playwright Rostand and members of her company.

She has persuaded (bullied?) Rostand, who had yet to write Cyrano de Bergerac, to work on the adaptation. He fails but two other playwrights actually do create a version that she performed.

The plays action centers on the rehearsals, her dislike of Hamlet, her relationship with Rostand and his wife’s action to derail it.

But Rebeck has attempted to make Bernhardt a mouthpiece for women’s empowerment. Dialogue talks about women being ignored, being criticized for daring to take charge and having opinions. All well and certainly true particularly in Bernhardt’s time. But the dialogue doesn’t ring true. It seems more like Rebeck talking rather than “the divine Sarah.”

So while program notes say that the play “explores the sacrifices necessary to shatter centuries of tradition, take on the untouchable and command one’s own legacy,” the play itself does not achieve those lofty goals. It is more about the outsized ego of a celebrity actress who is determined to do whatever she wants to do with a character and a play.

For some reason, Rebeck has felt it necessary to include a scene from Cyrano which starred one of Bernhardt’s company in the title role. The purpose of this scene is puzzling.

Besides McTeer, fine performances are given by Dylan Baker as the actor Costant Coquelin, Jason Butler Harner as Rostand, and Matthew Saldivar as the artist Alphonse Mucha who designed the famous art deco posters for her shows. Only Ito Aghayere as Rostand’s wife seems to be in a different production.

The rotating set by Beowulf Boritt is terrific as are the costumes by Toni-Leslie James. Bradley King’s lighting is also very good.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s work melds the various parts of the plot together.

But the reality is that this a play that could be tightened to be more effective. It seems to lose focus between act one and two.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street through Nov. 18. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre

BernhardtHamlet, Photo by Joan Marcus, 1_edited

Janet McTeer. Photo by Joan Marcus

Is “Three Tall Women” an Albee Classic? Glenda Jackson’s Acting Is

Three-Tall-Women-Billboard-2By Karen Isaacs

 Funny? Edward Albee?  For many people, that isn’t the adjective that first comes to mind when thinking of playwright Edward Albee’s work. Yet the revival of his 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Three Tall Women, has a great deal of humor in it.

It also raises interesting questions about how we become the people we are.

The play opens on a scene with the three characters: A – an elderly woman, B- a middle-aged woman and C- a young, professional woman. We aren’t sure of the relationship between the three. A is in a wheelchair and seems to have difficulty not only walking but also remembering things. She is obviously wealthy. B seems to be her paid care-giver; she is accustomed to A’s ways and demands. C is a young lawyer who was sent by the firm to work with A; it appears that she is not paying her bills. A also does not seem to trust anyone even though her mental faculties are declining.

In the second scene, we see A apparently in a hospital bed. In this production, the bed is behind a scrim facing away from the audience. In front of the scrim are the three women – but now it is clear that all of them are the same woman, just at different stages of her life. As such they talk and argue. How did C (the younger version of A) become B and A? What led B (in her middle fifties) become A? What was A’s life like?

As with any Albee play, one can spend hours dissecting the lines and the characters. Was A based on his mother, who from all reports was about as negative and destructive as any parent could be to a child. Yet he has said, that the audience tends to love her.  It is not necessarily the person he wanted to create, but the fine actresses who have played the part, have managed to infuse a humanity that perhaps his mother lacked.

In this case, it is the splendid Glenda Jackson who plays A. In the first part, she is irritable, stubborn and difficult, yet you sense that much of it is due to the normal fear of losing control that aging and illness brings.

In the second part, when she is elderly but heathy, Jackson creates a character that has lived her life her own way with few regrets. Others may not have approved, but she didn’t care. She doesn’t care if you like her, accept her or admire her.

As B, Laurie Metcalf offers us a woman in part one who is well aware of A’s idiosyncrasies and has learned how to deal with them. Even when being ordered about or reprimanded, she stays calm. In the second part, Metcalf doesn’t seem as focused, perhaps because I found that this character seemed less developed; we learn less about her.

Alison Pill as C gives us a woman who, in many ways, has her life before her. She is confident and capable, but unaware of the choices and compromises she will make. In her portrayal you see glimpses of the woman she will become.

Miriam Bleuther has created an effective set which is enhanced by the lighting by Paul Gallo.

The question remains if director Joe Mantello got the most from this play. Like many Albee plays, the merits of the work itself is hotly debated. Mantello doesn’t seem to convince the doubters that this is a major work; so in that way he failed to an extent.

Three Tall Women is at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St,   to June 24. Tickets are available through Telecharge.



Josh Henry Shines in “Carousel”


Josh Henry. Photo by Juleta Cervantes

By Karen Isaacs

 Josh Henry is well known among Broadway aficionados, but after his stunning portrayal of Billy Bigelow in the revival of Carrousel his name should become known to a much wider audience.

Henry is so dominating in the role that multiple Tony winner Jessie Mueller seems to slide into the background as Julie Jordan. It doesn’t help Mueller that Renée Fleming as Nettie and Lindsay Mendez as Carrie Pipperidge shine so brightly.

Jack O’Brien has directed this revival with choreography by Justin Peck.

Carousel the second of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, has a problem for today’s audiences: namely that not only does Billy seem to verbally abuse Julie, but there is physical abuse. Late in the second act, she seems to defend it. O’Brien has handled that problem very well; you cannot eliminate some indication of physical abuse, but it is minimized and the lines which Julie speaks that seems to condone it are removed.

If you are one of the few who have never seen the show or the movie, it is based on a play, Lilliom by Ferenc Molnár. Rodgers and Hammerstein moved the show to the late 19th century Maine coast. Billy Bigelow is a handsome carnival barker whom the girls flock around. In this factory town, where many girls work at the mill under the strict rules of the owners, Julie and her friend Carrie have visited the carousel several times and Julie has noticed Billy.

One evening they actually talk and she willing stays with him which will mean losing her job since she will be locked out of the company owned boarding house. They quickly fall in love. Carrie is also in love but with a more reliable and steady, though perhaps boring Mr. Snow who plans on becoming the owner of a fleet of fishing boats and sardine cannery.

Marriage does not suit Billy; he’s fired from his job because his boss, Mrs. Mullin, wants him for herself and also doesn’t think the girls will be attracted to a married barker. He can’t find work, Julie’s devotion, understanding and love grates on his nerves. When Jigger, a sailor friend with a criminal past suggests holding up the ship owner when he delivers salaries to the captain, Billy decides to go along: Julie has just announced that a baby is on the way.

Overall, this is a straightforward revival of the play with two exceptions. One I’ve already mentioned; the lines where Louise (Billly and Julie’s daughter)  says that she was hit but it didn’t hurt; it felt like a kiss and Julie’s lines “It is possible, dear – fer someone to hit you – hit you hard – and not hurt at all” have been eliminated. Even Billy’s slap seems almost like a tap though the audience gasped.

But the second change is more problematic. The Starkeeper is a character that Billy meets in heaven. In this production, the Starkeeper, played by the fine actor John Douglas Thompson, shows up through the play. He is seen in the very beginning, later when Billy and Jigger are planning the robbery, he sits between them on the park bench. Unless you know how he is, you may very puzzled by what he is doing in these scenes; in fact even if you know the character, you may wonder why O’Brien has him appear so often.

Josh Henry is the standout performer in this show. His Billy is physically imposing and his voice is also. You can see why the young girls at the mill would be so interested in him. This makes it harder to understand his attraction to Julie as played by Mueller. She must have spunk to defy the conventions of the time and to risk her job to stay with him, but it doesn’t come across. She seems an unequal partner in this relationship.

As Carrie Pipperidge Lindsay Mendez scores with the numbers, particularly “Mister Snow.” You can overlook that at times she looks too old for the young Carrie and that the humor is sometimes too broad, at least she grabs your interest. Alexander Gemignani makes a fine Mister Snow; sure of himself and later on both pompous and uncharitable. The duets with Carrie are lovely.

Renée Fleming is a younger Nettie Fowler than we usual see in productions of Carousel. But that brings a vitality to the role and, of course, her voice is well suited for her big numbers, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,”

Amar Ramasar is menacing as Jigger, but the role has also been given more dancing by choreographer Justin Peck, so Jigger becomes more of a presence.

Peck’s choreography has wonderful moments – the ballet is excellent – but at other times the moves seem to have no relationship to the location of the show or the characters.

Outstanding elemente of the production are the scenic design including projections by Santa Loquasto and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt.

Carousel is always a musical that many will find emotional, almost a tear-jerker. In this production it is hard not to succumb to these feelings. Not only is the plot designed to do that but the last two songs, reprises of “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” emphasizes the romance and the tragedy of the story.

Carousel is at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.


Photo by Juleta Cervantes



“Admissions” Skims the Surface of Important Issues

admissions posterBy Karen Isaacs

 Admissions, the new play by Joshua Harmon,, the author of Bad Jews and Significant Other, attempts to deal with an interesting subject. How do those individuals who support and promote diversity handle the results of their support when it impacts them personally? Or the even larger question, what happens when a social movement you support is going to be detrimental to you or someone you love?

In Admissions which played on LIncoln Center’s Mitizi Newhouse Theatre, we have parents, both private educators (he’s the headmaster and she is the admissions director) who support the idea of diversity. She has worked tirelessly to increase the minority population; the school is now nearing 15 percent). Their son, Charlie, is a senior and in the fall of his senior year, the early decision letters arrive. To his and their dismay, he did get early acceptance to Yale. His good friend who is biracial did get accepted.

Charlie is upset. He has already had a disappointment during the fall. He was in line to be named editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, but the person in charge selected a minority girl for the position.

In act one, Charlie rails against the idea that his opportunities are limited because past discrimination occurred. Why should he suffer for the faults of others?  It is a long rant. His mother, Sherri, is disappointed in what has occurred. She also feels it is unfair. Charlie is convinced that his friend was not as worthy a candidate for early acceptance as he was; that his biracial status was what the difference.

The father, Bill, views his son’s statements as reflecting “sniveling drivel” and tells him, in effect, “that’s the way the world works. Get over it.”

As the play progresses, the issue evolves but don’t really move forward.

Charlie has a complete change of attitude and heart, which may be indicative of the volatility of the opinions and views of an 18-year-old. His new decision puts his parents in an even more uncomfortable position: do they go along with what they feel is a self-destructive, immature choice or force him to agree to their desires?

Along the way, Sherri has to deal with the friend’s mother (Roberta) – who, when she learns that Charlie feels her son was accepted only because of race, is very upset.

In addition, we have Sherri dealing with an older woman, Ginnie, who works in the Development office and who is responsible for publication of the school promotional materials.

Harmon attempts to raise some interesting issues, particularly in the setting of the elite prep school. What is meant by diversity? It seems that Sherri is focusing exclusively on race/ethnicity and ignoring economic diversity. She is counting among her “diverse” successes, the son of a South American ambassador, the daughter of wealthy parents in India, and a son of wealthy Arab parents. While these students may represent ethnic diversity, they all come from backgrounds of privilege.

One of the funniest parts of the play is when Sherri is talking with Ginnie about the photos in the upcoming publication. She is telling Ginnie that the photos should reflect this new diversity, but then complains that one of the students who does represent diversity, doesn’t look like he does. Ginnie is obviously confused.

Harmon is trying to point out some of the absurdities that become part of the debate and the process. For those in academic settings, the whole thing seems contrived and unrealistic.

Director Daniel Aukin has made it has realistic as possible, with the help of an excellent cast.  Ben Edelman plays the volatile teenager with total commitment. Whether he is ranting against the injustice of using ethnicity as a determining or the opposite side that he must pay for the past injustices, he is totally convinced.

Jessica Hecht is fine as Sherri, who seems so proud of her achievements and doesn’t recognize the hypocrisy in her “mother bear” attitude about the effect on her son. Andrew Garman is good as the father who has little patience for his son’s rants.

Sally Murphy is the older, befuddled Ginnie. She doesn’t quite get what all the fuss is about and is totally confused by Sherri’s seemingly contradictory demands.

Harmon has promise as a playwright though I’ve found his previous works, Bad Jews and Significant Other, too often go for the obvious when much more could be explored.


Broadway Revival of “Angels in America” Features Outstanding Performances

By Karen Isaacs

 Spectacular acting and fine direction combine in the current production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It is thrilling to see the entire cast on such a high level in this emotional moving and thought provoking epic play.

 Angels in America is one of the major theatrical events on Broadway this Spring. The highly acclaimed National Theatre Production is here for a limited run through June. Tickets are difficult to get.

The two parts Millennium Approaches and Perestrokia make for a marathon of theater going (well over 7 hours) but you will leave the theater dazed by what you have seen and heard. You may not find all of it meaningful.

Kushner subtitled the play: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and it is just that and more. During the course of the play, we follow the early years of the AIDs crises, but we also are plunged into religious and philosophical debates about values, fantasies, God, responsibility on so much more.

A variety of characters are interlinked in multiple ways. We have Joseph Pitt and his wife Harper; she’s mentally unstable and he is a conservative rising young lawyer being touted for a Justice Department position in Reagan years (1985). But he is also becoming increasingly aware that he is a homosexual.

Then there is Louis, a clerk in the government office where Joe works now, and Louis’ lover Prior Walter. Prior – the name comes from a long family history- he says he is the 33rd of that name – is showing early signs of HIV.

Finally, there is Roy Cohn – the lawyer/behind-the-scenes manipulator who came to prominence in the 1950’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy hearings and who made a career of ruthlessness and influential friends. He is Joe’s mentor and pushing him to take the Justice Department job, because he needs a friend there. He feels the raptors are circling. Cohn – though he fervently denied it – was a homosexual well known on the NYC party scene of the period. During Part I, he also is diagnosed with HIV.

But just enumerating these characters and their interconnections gives you only the vaguest idea of the scope of this work.

You may be surprised at the humor, particularly in part 1. Such serious subjects yet so much laughter.

Many of the characters have visions or hallucinations. Harper is convinced there is a man in the bedroom and has other visions. She believes in angels. Prior, as he get sicker and on medication, also increasingly has visions of his ancestors (one killed by the medieval pestilence and one from the later Black plague), but also of an angel that seems terrifying.

In Part 2, the hallucinations increase as both Prior and Cohn become sicker, Joe acts on his impulses, and Cohn is hospitalized and his ethical lapses catch up with him.

Each play is broken into three acts with two intermissions.

Interestingly, each play begins with what seems like a non-sequitur. Part 1 begins with an elderly rabbi officiating at the funeral of an elderly woman whom he admits he knows nothing about. The woman, we learn, is Louis’ grandmother.  Likewise, Part 2 begins with a speech by an elderly Russian soldier at a political rally. We then plunge back to the US and the deteriorating health (both physical and mental) of many of the characters. Remember, perestroika was the term used during the Mikhail Gorbachev era for the reformation of the communist party from within.

Just this alone can keep you pondering for hours. Is Kuhner talking about the reformation of America who he seems to feel has lost its way?

Director Marianne Elliott has made some choices that are problematic, particularly the Angel that is so central to the symbolism of the piece. This angel does not look typically angelic. Instead The Angel looks more like a combination of an avenging Angel and a harpy. She doesn’t have gossamer wings. Her wings are dark and look more like bird wings or even the skeleton of wings of prehistoric creatures. They are held and manipulated by cast members.

But central to the success of this play is the performance. Here we are blessed. Nathan Lane gives us a Cohn who is manipulative, ruthless and also, in a strange way, powerless as his downfall both politically and physically takes place. At times, against your better judgment, you even can feel pity for him.

Andrew Garfield is equal to the task of Prior Walter, the man at the center of play. His nuanced performance catches us by the throat; however, James McArdle as his partner Louis, doesn’t quite match his intensity.

The role of Joseph Pitt is a tough one – he is by turns likeable and dislikeable, easy to feel pity for yet also easy to distrust. Lee Pace brought out all the facets in this role. It is a very fine performance.

Women don’t play a major role in this work with the exception Pitt’s wife Harper played by Denise Gough. It’s a good performance of a woman teetering on the brink of a severe mental condition. Susan Brown plays a variety of roles including the Rabbi who opens Part I and the Old Russian soldier who opens part 2 and as Joe Pitt’s mother. She is effective in all of them.

Angels in America is a must see for theater lovers. Afterwards you may debate whether this work lives up to its reputation. If it doesn’t, it is not the fault of this production.

It is at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. For tickets visit ticketmaster.

John Lithgow’s “Stories By Heart” Is Acting at Its Best

John Lithgow Stories By Heart, photo by Joan Marcus_61.jpg

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 John Lithgow is one of America’s outstanding actors. He’s created numerous roles and won multiple awards, most recently an Emmy for playing Winston Churchill on “The Crown.”

His wide ranging talent is on display at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater where his one-man play, Stories by Heart is until March 4.

Go see it.

As an audience member said, “I could listen to him read his laundry list.”

A small part of the show is about his father, Arthur Lithgow who was an actor, director, artistic director and founder of various theater groups mainly in the Midwest. He founded the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (which continues to this day), worked with a group of actors who became well known, but always managed to have it end in disaster – feuds with boards of directors, financial difficulties, and more. But the family would pull up stakes, move on and start over.

Yet Stories by Heart is really Lithgow presenting two short stories to us.  The first is by Ring Lardner, “Haircut.” It is essential the thoughts and words of a small town barber, circa 1925 talking to his customer who sits silently in the chair. With no props, Lithgow recreates the old-time barbershop experience from the hot towels, to the stropping of the blade, the lather and more. He even creates wonderful sound effects. But the story which begins as a pleasant tale of small town America and one of the men of the town, slowly turns into something more. Before our eyes, we begin to realize that while the barber tells the story of this man who liked to play practical and cruel jokes on women and weaker men, rather than feeling disgust at his antics, sees nothing wrong in them. It becoming chilling to realize that he is complicit in the casual cruelty.

Lithgow gets it all right – the body language, the accent and more. He seems transformed; I began to picture him as this round-faced, medium sized, bald man with the white jacket. That is talent.

In the second half, he talks about his father’s last years and how, when his father was recovering from surgery and seemed to have given up, Lithgow stayed with his parents for several months, caring for them. He tells of finding the thick book of short stories from which his father had read to him and siblings, and his decision to reverse it: he would read to his parents.

It was with delight that he found parents chose the same light story that he and his siblings had loved: P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”. This silly comic story about a man whose uncle (Fred) always gets them into various pickles is a laugh fest. Here Lithgow gives us multiple characters from Uncle Fred, to the nephew, to the nephew’s friend and others.

Again he is marvelous. He does so much with his voice, his eyes, his gestures his posture. We see the characters and we laugh at the ridiculous situations they find themselves in, all due to Uncle Fred.

This two hour production is delight for anyone who enjoys seeing talented actors demonstrate their skills.

For tickets, visit Roundabout Theatre.Lithgow poster.jpg

“The Parisian Woman” – Elegant Play of Political Manipulation

Parisian Woman 3 by Matthew Murphy

Josh Lucas and Uma Thurman. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

 Sometimes when I start to write my review, I feel torn. I know the work wasn’t that good or that some of the performances could have been better BUT I really enjoyed the show.

That’s the case with The Parisian Woman which marks Uma Thurman’s Broadway debut. The play won’t stand the test of time and her performance won’t go down in the history of Broadway greats.

YET….I am very glad I saw it.

The plot is familiar; a wife who will do almost anything to help her husband gain a position of prestige and power. In this case, it is Chloe (Uma Thurman) whose husband is being considered for a judgeship on the Court of Appeals, but things are not progressing as quickly or surely as both would hope.

In a series of scenes we see Chloe operate behind the scenes to ensure the appointment. From using charm (and more?) on a wealthy admirer to talking up an influential woman at a party to engaging in some not-so-subtle blackmail.

The play is by Beau Willimon, not only a playwright but the creator of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards.” It is loosely based on a French play la Parisenne by Henri Becque first produced in 1885. The play scandalized Paris.

So, if the plot isn’t really new, what makes it modern? First of all there is a twist which I don’t want to reveal about Chloe’s private life. Let’s just say it was an “open marriage.”)

But this is a play about politics. The politics of getting what you want and the political situation in the US today. The play is set in the Trump Administration and several of the characters are high powered Republicans who are trying very hard to convince themselves that all will be well.

This leads to lines that will make both supporters and detractors of the administration laugh.

What makes this play enjoyable is seeing a character so confidently and expertly maneuver and manipulate. Thurman may not be a great stage actress, but with gorgeous costumes, beauty and sophistication, it is a pleasure to watch her operate.

Director Pam MacKinnon has surrounded her with a cast of fine actors. Blair Brown is a delight as the woman, Jeannette, who becomes the ultimate target. Brown’s intonations and body language reveal both how uncomfortable she is with the administration but also how she hopes to benefit from it. It is a fine, well defined performance. Marton Csokas has the less interesting role of Chloe’s admirer. Playing a relatively boring businessman/millionaire is challenging; if you make him too interesting you defeat the purpose of the part. Philliipa Soo plays the daughter of Jeannette and the one who provides the “twist.”

Josh Lucas has the difficult job of helping us understand, Tom, the husband. He needs to convince us that the two are in love and couple, while at the same time, convincing us that he is accepting of Chloe’s admirers, many of admirer from very close range. It’s difficult and made more difficult because Thurman seems at times so remote. (Think Grace Kelly). It’s hard to feel that there is any chemistry. Lucas does the best he can with the role.

Derek McLane has given us a variety of sets including the very comfortable living room of Tom and Chloe. It reveals their economic status without being pretentious. Jane Greenwood has had the task of creating the elegant costumes for Thurman – which she wears beautifully – as well as the others.

The Parisian Woman is not a great play and Thurman’s performance is lacking, BUT (and this is a big but), I had a thoroughly enjoyable time seeing it.

It’s running through March 11 at the Hudson Theatre, 141 W 44th Street. Tickets are available through

Parisian Woman 2 by Matthew Murphy_edited

Uma Thurman, Blair Brown and Phillipa Soo. Photo by Matthew Murphy

“Once on This Island” Immerses You in the Caribbean Culture

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By Karen Isaacs

 No one would blame you if, upon entering Circle in the Square, you had an irresistible urge to kick off you shoes, take off your coat, and order a tropical drink.

That’s the kind of atmosphere that Once on This Island inspires. This revival of the 1990 musical, now at Circle in the Square immediately creates the Caribbean atmosphere. Not the atmosphere of the wealthy residents or the port areas where the cruise ships dock, but the other side of the island, where the residents live. As you walk in you see clothing hung along the walls of the theater, as though they are on clotheslines or trees.

Circle in the Square features a large rectangular playing space with the audience seated all around and above it. Here as you settle into your seat, you see sand everywhere. You are looking down on a village, with various ramshackle buildings, clotheslines and more. Before the show starts, various cast members are on the beach and even a goat makes an appearance. It certainly sets the mood.

Unfortunately what follows is only partially successful. That may be due to the source of this musical – a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy entitled My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl. The plot seems bifurcated. Is it the telling of an island myth? Is it a Romeo & Juliet story? Some have said it draws on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” With so much going on it is easy to get confused.

As a huge storm blows through the island, a small girl is frightened. From there we are cast into another story of a young woman, Ti Moune who falls in love with one of the wealth islanders after saving him from drowning and nursing him back to health. Four gods and goddesses are involved in the story of Ti Moune and Daniel Beauxhomme which, as many myths must, ends both unhappily and yet inspiringly.

The problem for me was that the more I thought about this story, the more confused I became. Was the young frightened girl at the beginning the reincarnation of Ti Moune?  What were the four women Goddesses of? Was one a God? Why did one of them wear a stethoscope at the beginning of the show? What was the point – that we sacrifice ourselves for love?

The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (she also wrote the book), is tuneful and captures the feel of the Caribbean.

Director Michael Arden has used the playing space extremely well. The scenery by Dane Laffrey extends up some of the aisles; Arden uses the aisles extensively for entrances and exits. When we left the theater, evidence of sand was everywhere. This uses of aisles and even some interaction with the audience keeps us involved and brings an intimacy to the piece. You are both spectators but also feel like participants, when performers are singing next to you.

Chris Fenwick, the music director does an outstanding job with this mainly sung-through piece. For a 90+ minute show, there are over 20 songs plus some reprises. It is well sung.

Two other members of the production team did exceptional work.  The costumes by Clint Ramos are spectacular. Plus lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer created wonderful effects on this stage.

It is mainly an ensemble show, with one major exception. Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune is the central character and she must grab us. Kilgore does. She displays a fine singing voice and the optimistic and romantic nature of the character. She is a new face, that I hope to see in other shows.  The primary “name” performer is Lea Salonga who plays one of the Goddesses. She is more like a Cinderella fairy godmother. But her one solo, “The Human Heart” is lovely.

Two other songs stood out; “Forever Yours” a love song sung by TiMoune and one of the Gods and “Mama Will Provide” which stopped the show the night I saw it. It’s given a rousing performance by Alex Newell.

Isaac Powell as Daniel is fine as a person that is hard to like – he is entitled and snobbish, rejecting true love in order to up-hold family expectations. Powell could bring more strength to the role.

Overall, your reaction to Once on This Island may depend on how you react to this fairy-tale, mythic story that attempts much symbolism. You will either be totally enchanted by the characters and the island or you will walk away with a shrug.

It is at Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

“A Band’s Visit” Is a Wonderful, Gentle Broadway Musical

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By Karen Isaacs

 It’s generated buzz since its debut off-Broadway last fall. Now The Band’s Visit has made it to Broadway and it lives up to all of the hype.

It is a warm story about people learning about themselves and about people they have viewed as very different from them.

The show, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, is based on the 2007 Israeli film that won acclaim and prizes throughout the world. The film told the story of the eight member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra that has been invited to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center in PetahTikva. Due to a language mix up (it isn’t important to understand the how) the group arrives at Beit Harikva in the Negev Desert.

In this small “no wheresville” town, there are no hotels, but a few of the residents take the band members in and provide food, shelter and companionship for one night. Bonds of friendship are formed in the few hours before the band departs on a bus to take them to their correct location.

It’s a gentle story. Yes, there is an occasional brief instances of prejudice by one or two townspeople, but other than that, the dramatic conflict is minimal.

This musical is more about people getting to know each other, than about disagreements and conflict.

Director David Cromer must be given credit for not trying to make this piece more “Broadway” then it should be. He moves the scenes along without rushing them and allows the audience to involve themselves in the characters and the story.

Each of the characters is finely drawn and beautifully performed. Tony Shalhoub plays Tewfiq, the very proper leader of the group. Though he only has one number, “Something Different” which is a duet with Dina, his performance is the backbone of this piece. It’s all in his reserve, his posture, his gestures – it is he who sets the tone and acts as the parent to the others in the orchestra.

If he is the backbone, then Dina, played by Katrina Lenk is the soul of the play. Dina is the owner of the café where the band comes to ask for directions. It is she who organizes the food and accommodations for the night. She is the leader among her group of friends. Lenk, who was brilliant in Indecent last year, is equally brilliant here. She conveys her concern for fellow humans in every way. It is she who sets the tone with the songs, “Welcome to Nowhere” and “It Is What It Is.” And it is she that that breaks through the reserve of Tewfiq.

While many of the other characters begin as “types” – they soon emerge as much more than that type. John Cariani as Itzik begins as the “man-child” who is abdicating responsibility for his wife and child, but by the end has gained new ambition.  Haled, played by Ari’el Stachel is the lothario in the band, but he too becomes much more than that as he spends the evening wondering the town with Papi, played equally well by Etai Benson. Even though some of the band members have few lines, they still create unique characters.

Each of the characters have known loss and disappointment. From the band member who started a concerto only to stop after the first few bars, to the young man who sits waiting for an out-of-service phone (in a phone booth) to ring.

These characters are separated by language, distance, nationality, religion and sometimes politics though that is not the focus on the piece.  Yet they forge human connections and learn about each other while discovering things about themselves.

It is difficult to say too much about the magnificent music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Once again, he has adapted to his environment. This score pulls from the tonal palate of both Arabic and Jewish music while still being totally accessible to American audiences. I can’t wait for the cast CD to be released.

Itamar Moses’ book is smooth and handles the transitions and changes in mood adeptly. It is not obvious but it is important.

Scott Pask has created a turntable set that allows for the multiple locations – the café, the street, Itzik’s home, Dina’s apartment, and more. The set combined with the lighting design by Tyler Micoleau and the costumes by Sarah Laux, immerse in the small town evening/night. Her costumes for the band makes a statement all by themselves. They are humorous, self-important, and yet with their powder blue color, non-threatening. This may be a police orchestra, but you can’t imagine any of them actually being police officers.

The Band’s Visit is a musical that will captivate many. It is gentle, romantic, wistful and regretful. Those who want high energy dancing, chorus numbers and more in their musicals, will be disappointed unless they are willing to accept the quiet depth of this piece.

In some ways it reminds me of Come from Away last year’s surprise hit. Both deal with ensemble casts, both feature the band as much as the singers, both leave us feeling hopeful and optimistic about people. They are different, but they are also both excellent.

A Band’s Visit is a tender, thoughtful musical that is so very worth seeing. It is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, Tickets are available through Telecharge.


“Shadowlands” about C.S. Lewis Is Getting an Outstanding Revival Off-Broadway

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By Karen Isaacs

 If there is a dry eye at the end of Shadowlands now Off-Broadway at the Acorn Theater, you have never experienced the loss of a loved one.

This fascinating play by William Nicholson is an unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis – specialist in medieval literature, a lay theologian, radio personality and author and an American woman and writer, Joy Gresham.

Many may remember either the original Broadway production starring Jane Alexander and Nigel Hawthorne or the 1993 film with Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins.

What makes the play so fascinating is watching the middle-aged Lewis – who many know from his Narnia books –slowly let down his barriers to the rather unconventional American.

It’s being produced by the Fellowship for Performing Arts – which describes itself as creating theatre for a Christian worldview but they don’t shy away from controversy.

Immediately when you enter the theater, you notice the set. It looks opulent for a small theater. Dark wood doors immediately set the mood – they are carved and look old and expensive. Two steps help divide the playing area. The furniture fits perfectly in the university setting of the play. Kelly James Tighe is responsible for it. It has the British 1950s style. As you see Lewis and the other faculty members gather, again the costumes by Michael Bevins are absolutely right. Not just tweeds but suits from the period. These are formal men.

When the play begins, you are taken with the blending of the set, costumes and lighting with the expertise of the actors.

Daniel Gerroll could not be more perfect as C. S. Lewis. He’s religious but secular, reserved but questioning. As the play unfolds, Gerroll peels away the layers of Lewis’ protective reserve and shows the heart of the man which has been hidden.

Uniformly the other men are excellent well. Each conveys not only the British academic sensibility but also the different types. Christopher Riley, in a sharp performance by Sean Gormley is the faculty member who is most argumentative and contrary to Lewis’ Christian beliefs. They joust constantly. Others include Dan Kremer as the aging Rev. Harry Harrington, the younger academic Dr. Maurice Oakley, Alan Gregg and John C. Vennema as Lewis’ brother Major Warnie Lewis. He isn’t a member of the faculty but accept by all. He lives with his brother in a house near campus. All are puzzled by the relationship that ensues.

The discussion early on hints at the meaning of the play. Lewis holds that God wants us to be worthy of love or lovable. He also views suffering as a normal part of life.

Into the world of academic men, comes Joy Davidman, played by Robin Abramson. Joy is a contradiction in many ways. She has gone from Jewish to atheist, to now Christian. She is a divorced American woman who has decided to take herself and her son to live in England. She is a poet. As played by Abramson, she is very American and at times very gauche. This may be overdone but it makes the dislike of the other men easier to understand and Lewis’ willingness to continue to interact with her, harder to understand.

How do they know each other? Lewis was a well-known writer and BBC personality. She had written to him and a correspondence had grown. Now that she is in England, she writes that she wants to meet Lewis, so he reluctantly invites her to tea.

For Lewis, who in this play seems to have eschewed romantic relationships, Joy is confounding. She is outspoken and impulsive – very American, while also possessing a very fine mind. Lewis finds conversation with her stimulating as they spar over numerous subjects.

The other faculty members are bewildered by Lewis’ friendship with Joy. They view her as annoying and irritating and a disruption to their quiet lives.

Slowly the two develop a relationship and Joy also develops a relationship with Warnie. For Lewis the annoyance at being disturbed changes as he finds Joy bringing a fresh air into his decades long routine.

I’ll not go into all of the events that occur, but as might be suspected, eventually Lewis acknowledges that he loves her – perhaps loving someone for the first time in his life.

The play uses the son to interject a few Narnia references and some symbolic touches most relating to an open window. It may be a little too obvious.

This play could easily become too talky, too melodramatic or too snobby. Director Christa Scott-Reed has managed to avoid most of these pitfalls. She does not let anyone overplay the elements that are in the script.

What makes this play so worth seeing is not only the overall fine production values, but the excellent acting and direction by Scott-Reed.

Yes, the ending may seem melodramatic but this is play is based on what actually happened. It reminds us that happy endings don’t exist for everyone.

Shadowlands is at the Acorn Theatre, at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street. Tickets are available through Jan. 7 at Telecharge or TheaterRow.


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