By Karen Isaacs
For those who thought Spamalot and The Book of Mormon were too refined and “high culture,” Something Rotten! will be just the musical for you. For the rest of us, how we react may depend on how many drinks we have had before entering the theater.
Certainly the performances are wonderful, but those who prefer more sophisticated comedy will sometimes wonder why some of the audience is having such a hilarious time.
The concept by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick is to imagine a playwright in Elizabethan England tired of competing against Shakespeare. Nick Bottom is fed up with the adulation of Shakespeare; he can’t get his plays produced. He seeks out a seer — a relative of the great Nostradamus who tells him about this 20th century phenomena of the “musical.” Nick convinces his brother Nigel, who is a Shakespeare “groupie” to write a musical with the help of Thomas Nostradamus giving them plot details which borrow heavily from plays we now recognize as Shakespeare’s though often wildly misinterpreted. Unfortunately Thomas often doesn’t quite get it right.
All sorts of complications and ruses and some slapstick ensue. Including their first musical attempt about the black death and their second called “Omelette” which is Nostradamus’ vision of the Danish play.
But what this show is really about is sending up the Broadway musical, Shakespeare and rock stars –for that is how Shakespeare is portrayed.
If the plot is not that important to the show — do not expect logic or order — what is? It isn’t really the music and lyrics (by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick). They provide the audience with a pastiche of musical genres from rap to everything else and the rhymes could have been written by a talented 10th grader. Sophistication is not their forte.
In fact the entire thing seems like a joke or a spoof put on by Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club. From the deliberately cheesy Elizabethan sets by Scott Pask to the costumes by Gregg Barnes to the lighting by Jeff Croiter. You can get the idea just by the names of the two main characters “Bottom” and by the title of the musical “Omelete.”
The emphasis is on single and double entendres, jokes about sex and sexual organs, and references to Broadway shows that makes Forbidden Broadway seem sophisticated. You can count how many jokes are made about Nick and Nigel’s last name.
Casey Nicholaw, best known for The Book of Mormon, both directs and choreographs. He keeps things moving which does prevent anyone from thinking too much about what they are seeing.
The best thing about the show is the performances. Christian Borle gives us an over-the-top imitation of an egotistical rock star in his portrayal of Shakespeare. Brian d’Arcy James plays the older brother with more seriousness than the part deserves; James is too talented to be wasted in this. John Cariani plays Nigel who adores all things Shakespeare. His is the most realistic and likeable character; he does not over do it. Brad Oscar as Thomas Nostradamus, gives a delightful performance and Heidi Blickenstaff has the somewhat thankless role as Bea, Nick’s wife.
As to the music — you will not leave the theater humming any of the songs. The opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance” goes on much too long as do several others. Perhaps the funniest is “God, I Hate Shakespeare.”
Something Rotten! will for some be brilliant and hilarious and for others — myself among them — tedious and sophomoric. Maybe it is a generational thing, or perhaps some of us like more sophistication and wit in theatrical experiences.
Something Rotten! is at the St. James Theater on W. 44th St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
The opening of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I is spectacular. After listening to the lush overture played by a large orchestra — a rarity in today’s Broadway environment, a ship makes its way slowly onto the stage. As the ship moves forward, the stage also moves covering the orchestra until the ship is docked almost in the laps of the front row patrons.
From the ship emerges the captain, Louis and Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara). It is all there — the sunset lighting, the Siam (Thai) inspired wall hangings on each side of the stage — we are being transported.
What follows feels at times like total immersion in this culture. We feel as confused as Anna does with the traditions, attitudes and beliefs of the country.
For those who have forgotten the plot of this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, it centers around the experiences of Anna, a young English widow with a son, who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam, a man who is seeking to be a “modern” king. Though she has lived in the Far East for a long time, she still finds the court of Siam very different and there are no other English to help make the transition.
She meets the King’s powerful advisor Kralahome, and learns that although the King agreed to give her a house outside the palace gates no such home is ready for her and she is warned not to press the King on this matter. After meeting Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife and the King, she meets the other wives and the children — the King has over 60 children but Anna will only be teaching those whose mothers are favored.
Two subplots figure prominently in the show. The first involves Tuptin and Lun Tha. Tuptin is “given” to the King by the King of Burma and is delivered to him by Lun Tha. Unfortunately they love each other.
The second subplot involves the concern that Siam may be taken over by one of the European powers — the French had just made moves on another Indochina country and the British also were looking to expand their empire. The King is concerned that if he is viewed as a “barbarian” it will provide the western countries with the rationalization they are looking to find.
Both Anna and the King are fascinating, complex characters. Anna is a rarity for the 1860s; an independent woman making her way in the world when she could have retreated to a more secluded life. She also is willing, despite misgivings, to speak her mind and demand that she be taken seriously.
The King is equally complex. He is an absolute ruler who senses his mortality and the need to “modernize” his thinking. But he finds it difficult and confusing to do so; he understand the need to interact with the western world though he finds their ways “a puzzlement.”
This is a musical with a bittersweet ending; two love stories — one that is forbidden and one that is barely acknowledged ; both end with the death of the man.
Bartlett Sher has once again proven his expertise with Rodgers & Hammerstein. His revival at Lincoln Center of South Pacific was just about perfect and this production has many fine touches.
I particularly liked his handling of the introduction of the children to Anna. Each child had a unique personality that made them endearing in the way they interacted with their father and Miss Anna. With the help of his fine cast, these are not characters in a musical comedy but real people who just happen to occasional burst out into song.
Of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein gives them some marvelous songs from the opening “I Whistle a Happy Tune” right through to “Shall We Dance?” In between there are the soaring love songs — though often with a bittersweet tone — such as “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Hello, Young Lovers” as well as songs with a comic touch including “A Puzzlement” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” This is a varied and complete score that under the music direction of Ted Sperling reaches its full potential.
Yul Brynner has been identified with the role of the King — he was rocketed to stardom in the original 1951 production, starred also in the movie and in countless revivals and tours until his death. Let’s start by admitting the Brynner’s King was very theatrical and got more so the longer he played the role.
Ken Wantanbe, the well known Japanese actor, bring more realism to the role. His King is still autocratic, mercurial, demanding and sometimes menacing but yet he seems less like an actor and more like a person. He shows more of the King’s anxieties about the future, ruling and his own mortality. But there is a problem. Wantanbe is not as comfortable with English and therefore some of his lines are so heavily accented as to be difficult to understand. I suspect the longer the plays the role, the clearer he will become. It is not a consistent problem — much of his dialogue IS quite understandable but there are some lines than seem a puzzlement to him and the audience.
Once again Sher has teamed up with Kelli O’Hara who has perhaps the most lyrical voice of today’s leading ladies. O’Hara brings her famed ability to create a connection with both the audience and her leading man. She lets you see the uncertainty beneath the confident exterior and her scene with Sir Edward Ramsey, a British diplomat who obviously is attracted to her is touching. Plus, as usual, she sings magnificently.
Ruthie Ann Miles is fine as Lady Thiang and Ashley Park is radiant as Tuptim. Conrad Ricamora is excellent as Lun Tha.
The entire production is lush — from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Michael Yeargan, the lighting by Donald Holder and the sound by Scott Lehrer.
A final note — I am not usually a big fan of the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” production which is put on for the British ambassador. It seems unnecessary and just delays getting to the final scenes as “Shall We Dance?” But this time, I enjoyed both the staging and the choreography.
The last scenes are always touching when the King and Anna become friends and realize though they do speak of it, their deep affection — dare we say love — for each other. It is then almost immediately followed by the King’s death.
As always these are touching, emotionally charged moments.
It you love The King and I or if you have never seen it, you should absolutely see this production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
The Visit which opened at the Lyceum Theater for a limited Broadway run may be the last “new” Kander and Ebb musical that will we see.
When Fred Ebb died in 2004, several musicals were “in progress”; The Visit is the third to make it to Broadway. First came Curtains in 2006 and then The Scottsboro Boys in 2010 with Kander writing additional lyrics. (Another show, now called All About Us based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth had a production at Westport Country Playhouse in 2007.)
The Visit is based on the play by the same name written by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1956. Dürrenmatt, like Brecht, wrote epic theater that explored political subjects that often reflected the issues of World War II and the post war European world. Though he billed The Visit as a “comedy-drama,” it is less humorous than satiric or ironic.
It tells the story of a much married mega-billionairess (Claire Zachannassian) who returns to the now-poverty stricken village in middle Europe where she grew up and was ostracized. She offers to save them economically but at a price. She wants them to execute the man (Anton Schell) who when they were young broke her heart. Obviously there are multiple themes but as in many post-WWII works — the idea of the ability of “ordinary” people to become cruel is a main one.
While the townspeople are initially horrified, the lure of her ability to raise them from poverty soon becomes very attractive. During her visit to the town, accompanied by a servant and two eunuchs, she meets with the man, Anton, who had done her wrong.
At the same time, we see their younger selves act out their pasts in dance.
This piece originally interested Angela Lansbury who was to star with Philip Bosco in early 2001 but dropped out due to her husband’s ill health; Chita Rivera took over and has remained and championed this show since its initial production with John McMartin in 2001 in Chicago. At that time it was a full-length musical and scheduled to come to Broadway. It was post Sept. 11 and investors got nervous about the dark qualities of the show; the production was shelved. A production in 2008 at the Signature Theater featured Rivera and George Hearn; a benefit concert in 2011 featured Rivera and John Cullum.
Last summer, director John Doyle worked with Kander and book writer Terrence McNally to trim the piece to one act (90 minutes) and it was performed at the Williamstown Theater Festival with many of the same cast in the Broadway production.
The Visit is a musical that will make you think about human nature, the need for revenge and the power of love. It also strikes a number of symbolic notes as well, reinforced by costume designer Ann Hould-Ward and scenic designer Scott Pask.
Chita Rivera is the star and let me say she is magnificent. She looks great and given her age, moves well. Her costumes are a glamorous contrast to the drabness of the townspeople who are mired in poverty and despair. She captures Claire’s absolute control and need to dominate. This is a woman who has planned her revenge over a period of years: it has kept her going. But the question is why? Does she wants the revenge because she hates Anton and what he did to her, or is there a desire — however unacknowledged — that he was her true love and she needs to recapture him? Each audience member can decide for him or herself which is true.
Roger Rees is every bit Rivera’s equal as Anton. He is a man who settled — married the shopkeeper’s daughter — for economic security but who has failed as the town has failed. He does not believe that the townspeople will sacrifice him but soon comes to accept that even his wife and children are seduced by what the money can buy.
The Kander and Ebb score contains some gems, that I can’t wait to hear again — and perhaps to even sing. You will leave the theater humming “You, You, You” and “Love and Love Alone” as well as “I Must Have Been Something.” This is a first rate score.
Jason Danieley is the school teacher and David Garrison is the mayor of the town. Each wrestles with the moral decision in various ways and lets us see their conflict.
As Anton’s wife, Mary Beth Peil brings a hard but also tender edge to the part.
The younger selves of Claire and Anton, Michelle Veintmilla and John Riddle are radiant dancing the parts of the young lovers. The pas de deux with Young Claire and Rivera is touching.
Special praise should be given to scenic designer Scott Pask for his bleak, industrial set and for lighting designer Japhy Weideman who focuses the light where it need to be.
Graciela Daniele did the choreography that makes the most of the two younger selves giving them lyrical and romantic dances and provides Rivera with just enough movement.
If you want your musicals all sweetness and light, with glitter and chorus girls, The Visit will not be for you. But if you want a compelling story and music that enhances the story and its impact, than The Visit is a show to put on your “must see” list.
The Visit is at the Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 45th. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs.
It Shoulda Been You is the “sleeper” of this Broadway musical season. Few were talking about this small, delightful musical before it opened perhaps because it was not a “big” budget show and the composer//lyricist and the book writer are relatively unknowns.
The last time I remember this happening is when Drowsy Chaperone opened on Broadway with minimal advance hype and swept everyone away.
It Shoulda Been You may not sweep everyone away, but it will delight you and should find an audience.
The plot is relatively basic. It is the wedding of Rebecca and Brian and as is often the case, stress is rising. For one, neither family is exactly happy with the choice of spouse. Rebecca’s Jewish family is convinced that her former boyfriend, Marty, should be the groom. Brian’s WASP parents have little in common with Rebecca’s and his mother, in particular, does not like the idea of “losing” her son to another woman.
Rebecca’s sister, Jenny, is being called upon to oversee most of the details with the help of the wedding planner. Although older, she feels she cannot compete with the pretty and slim Rebecca. In addition, Rebecca’s cousin is trying seduce any man she sees.
The complication, besides the normal wedding day jitters and tensions, is that the former boyfriend, Marty, learns about the wedding and is determined to stop it.
The denouement is just enough of a surprise that it should not be revealed here. Let’s just say that it may not be expected by most audience members but is a perfect finish for this piece.
This is a situation almost everyone has been in either as a family member or guest at such a wedding — and does any parent think any potential spouse appropriate or good enough? So there is built in appeal to the story.
Brian Hargrove who wrote the book manages to develop the humor without making it in a TV sitcom. He starts by making all the characters basically likeable. They have their foibles but you really do like them, even Brian’s parents and Marty; the characters that might be the most unlikable due to their actions turn out to be endearing.
Certainly the cast and the work of director David Hyde Pierce contributes mightily to making them likable. Rebecca’s mother, Judy, could be a typical annoying “Jewish mother” but Tyne Daly gives her a touch of humor that causes you to be slightly annoyed with her but never to dislike her. The same goes for Harriet Harris as the groom’s mother. You sense the core of both desperation and loneliness.
While Daly gets top billing, Lisa Howard as Jenny, the bride’s sister really steals the show. She opens the show with a funny but ultimately touching song, “I Never Wanted This” and she copes with the tensions of the day with calm while all around her are slowly losing control.
Sierra Boggess is the bride, Rebecca and David Burtka the groom, Brian. Each is in fine voice but these are probably the least developed of the characters.
As is often the case in actual weddings, the fathers are less important to the story though Brian’s father, played by Michael X. Martin does have a wonderful song and dance number with his son, “Back in the Day.” It was good to see Chip Zien as the bride’s father, Murray, though he does not have enough to do.
That brings me to Edward Hibbert and Josh Grisetti. Hibbert plays the experienced, unflappable, and always anticipating wedding planner with just the right mixture of camp and sarcasm. He has seen it all — or at least he thinks he has. But this wedding has even him surprised!
Grisetti plays Marty, the ex-boyfriend with desperation and determination. All the bride’s family thinks he should be the groom as they tell him in the funny song, “It Shoulda Been You,” but both Rebecca and Jenny are afraid he will try to spoil or stop the wedding. In other hands, or with another director, Marty could be dislikable but Grisetti makes him charming even while you are unsure about his actions.
The music and lyrics are serviceable; I doubt any songs will linger in your memory. The set by scenic designer Anna Louizos recreates a generic hotel ballroom and other spaces and the costumes by William Ivey Long also suit the scenes. This is not a dancing show, but choreographer Josh Rhodes does a good job with a cast that does not necessarily include stellar dancers.
David Hyde Pierce does an excellent job in his directing debut. He and his cast create believable characters that you are rooting for, he keeps the pace moving and emphasizes the laughs without turning it into a superficial farce.
It Shoulda Been You at the Brooks Arkinson Theatre on West 47th St. is a very enjoyable 95 minutes of songs and fun. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
The drawing room comedy is getting its due on Broadway this season with Living on Love at the Longacre Theater on Broadway.
For those unfamiliar with the genre — it has been mostly absent from Broadway — it features a beautiful apartment or house (and mainly the living room), glamorous and apparently wealthy characters, witty dialogue, servants, and a plot where the most serious conflict may be whether to stir or shake the martinis.
No major issues, no earth-shattering ideas, no serious heart-ache. No one dies or gets destroyed.
For much of the 20th century the drawing room comedy was a standard theatrical genre with outstanding examples written by Somerset Maugham, some of Noöl Coward (though he often reveals more true emotion that is usual), and in the United States Philip Barry and S. N. Behrman. I still recall The Pleasure of His Company which was turned into a film with Fred Astaire and Lili Palmer.
Living on Love is adapted by Joe DePietro from Garson Kanin’s 1985 play Peccadillo which never made it to Broadway. It had a Florida production that starred Christopher Plummer, Glynis Johns and Kelly McGillis.
We have the requisite glamorous people — in this case Vito De Angelis a conductor whom everyone calls “Maestro” and his wife, the opera singer Raquel De Angelis, who is referred to as “Diva.” They are living, in 1957, in a gorgeous Manhattan penthouse attended to by two male servants who have been with them for years.
But everything is not as perfect as it could be. Both Maestro and Diva are aging and their careers are not booming as once they did. The money isn’t pouring in. Leonard Bernstein is the new hot conductor — just the mention of his name sends Maestro into spasms, and Maria Callas is getting the parts and salary that Diva once did.
As the play opens, a young author, Robert Samson is waiting for Maestro to emerge from his bedroom to continue work on his autobiography. He’s been given a $50,000 advance but so far, he has fired six ghostwriters and Samson (the 7th) only has two pages written. Not only does Maestro want to dictate it, he is also perennially late. Soon Diva arrives from her tour which has not been a big success and Samson gushes over her. Enter Iris Peabody, a young junior assistant editor who arrives to deliver bad news: the publishers want their advance back.
But all is not lost — suddenly Maestro is willing to work with Iris and Diva decides that her memoirs would be more
interesting and will work with Samson to write them.
What transpires is predictable. Both of the older couple think that the young writers are enamored of them all the while sniping at their spouse. In the meantime Iris and Robert begin to get together as they both have to cope with the outsized egos of the two musicians.
Since the stories always tend to be lightweight, evaluating a drawing room comedy means judging how silly it all is (relatively), the level of wit, the production values and of course the performances and direction. Does it move? Are the characters appropriately outrageous or civilized?
The productions values — scenic design by Derek McLane, costumes by Michael Krass – are glamorous. The penthouse looks terrific and the costumes for the Maestro and Diva may not be authentic but will fulfill how you imagine these people to dress.
Director Kathleen Marshall keeps the pace up so that we don’t ponder for too long the absurdity of it all.
The star of this production is a real life opera diva — Renée Fleming. Ms. Fleming acquits herself very well though I hope she is not quite so melodramatic in reality. But the plus is that she offers snippets of her glorious voice. Douglas Sills, who I had enjoyed in the touring company of The Addams Family (in fact I preferred him to Nathan Lane), plays the over-the-top Maestro with a mane of grey-white hair that becomes charmingly disarranged. This is a man who believes his press clippings.
As the two young writers, their roles are so much blander yet they are needed to balance the extravagance of the older couple. Anna Chlumsky and Jerry O’Connell do the most they can with these sincere, young and mostly dull characters. Playwright Joe DiPietro needed to make them more interesting.
Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson are delights as the two servants, Bruce and Eric, who keep the household running and are not surprised at anything their employers do or say.
Living on Love is a pleasant theatrical “junk food” that will amuse you but not strain your brain. It is a limited run through Aug. 2. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs.
Finally I have seen a new Broadway musical production that I can urge you to immediately plan on seeing. An American in Paris has just about everything: great music, a literate book, inventive sets, lighting, costumes, a cast that is simply marvelous and direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.
As the cast sings at the end of the curtain calls, “Who could ask for anything more?” I can’t.
The show is an adaptation of the famous 1951 film that starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant about an American who goes to Paris to become an artist, meets a cynical American (Levant) who is a pianist, and falls in love with a French girl (Caron). The music was Gershwin’s and the book was by Alan J. Lerner. The highlight of the film was the dance—including a ballet toward the end using Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”
Craig Lucas has reworked the book and I think improved it. The show has been moved from the early ‘50s to just after the end of WWI. Our GI (Jerry Mulligan) misses the train that will take him home because he is sketching and pursuing a young woman he has only seen but is captivated by. He winds up in a café where he meets a young American composer/pianist (Adam Hochberg) and a Frenchman (Henri Baurel) who wants to be a cabaret singer but is afraid to tell his rather straight laced parents who expect him to take over the family fabric business. They proclaim themselves “the three musketeers.”
The girl (Lise Dassin) is still a major part of the plot. She is a ballet dancer and somehow – we don’t know how for much of the show– she knows Henri’s parents who treat her as a daughter. He is in love with her but lacks the courage to ask her to marry him. Through a connection between Henri’s mother and a wealthy youngish American woman (Milo Davenport) who wants to support the arts, Lise auditions for a prestigious dance company and is hired. Milo also ensures that Adam, who is the pianist for the company gets the opportunity to write a ballet and Jerry to design the sets.
We have three men — Henri, Jerry and Adam all smitten with the same girl –Lise– but not aware of each other’s interests. Did a mention that Lise just happens to be the girl Jerry was sketching when he missed the train?
You can easily figure out what can happen –including that Milo will takes more than a platonic interest in Jerry. But Craig Lucas who wrote the book has added in some nice twists.
Dialogue is relatively minimal and much of the story is told through the dances choreographed by Wheeldon. The opening, to Gershwin’s Concerto in F, sets the entire scene — from the arrival of the GIs, the liberation of Paris, the punishment of a young woman who had been involved with the Nazis, to Jerry’s sketching, seeing Lise and pursuing her, missing the train and deciding to stay in Paris.
Scenic designer Bob Crowley (who also did the costumer) has collaborated brilliantly with 59 Projections who has done projections. The result is a flexible, every moving set with projections that help set the scenes and add to our understanding of the story without distracting us. Natasha Katz’ s lighting designs are also excellent as is the sound design by Jon Weston. A few quibbles about the costumes — not all reflect the late 40’s fashion with some of them more ’50s inspired and the French characters look much too well dressed for people who have gone through the deprivation of the war and
occupation. But this minor and it is, after all, a musical.
You cannot talk about the cast without also talking about Christopher Wheeldon who both directed and choreographed. A former principal dancer with both the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet, he has been choreographing for years but this is an auspicious directing debut. We can only hope he does not get side tracked to films or television but brings his immense talent to Broadway frequently.
Jerry Mulligan played by Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, displays not only charm but a very attractive voice and good acting skills. But of course it is his dancing that will take your breath away. Leanne Cope who plays Lise is also primarily a ballet dancer who has been with the Royal Ballet. Again her acting is fine and her voice adequate for the role which has many fewer vocal numbers than Fairchild. He is obviously the primary character; after all it IS the Gene Kelly role.
The supporting actors are excellent. Brandon Uranowitz gives Adam an edge while also singing and dancing well. You realize it is the Oscar Levant character but he makes the role his own. Max Von Essen has charm, a delightful voice and conveys Henri’s uncertainties and lack of confidence. Jill Paice plays Milo Davenport without turning her into a “dragon lady”. She carries more of the singing than Cope — getting to do “Shall We Dance?” “Who Cares?” and “But Not for Me.” As Henri’s mother, Veanne Cox projects the nervousness of someone who has realized how dangerous the world is.
The entire company dances up a storm. This is definitely a dance musical and it is really a ballet musical.
When you combine all the elements including Rob Fisher’s adaptations and arrangements, and the wonderful Gershwin music from the “Concerto in F” to the “Second Rhapsody” and “Cuban Overture” as well as the songs, and you then add in the terrific cast, choreography and direction — the result is a musical that you must see.
An American in Paris is at the Palace Theatre on Broadway at 47th St., Tickets are available through Ticketmaster
By Karen Isaacs
While watching the two parts of Wolf Hall, I sighed in relief that I had spent my younger years fascinated by English history — particularly the Tudors and the Plantagenets. Anyone who has not read the novels on which it is based nor seen the currently running series on PBS of the same name, OR been fascinated by that period in history, will find a score card of characters and events is definitely needed.
It is based on the first two novels of a trilogy (the third has yet to be published) by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. The novels are Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
A little background is perhaps in order. Thomas Cromwell was one of Henry VIII’s chief advisors in his divorce from Catharine of Aragon, the split with the Catholic church, his marriage with Anne Boleyn and later her downfall. While not as famous today as Thomas More (perhaps thanks to the play and film A Man for All Seasons), historians view Cromwell as influential in the break with the Rome and the establishment of the Reformation in England. He is not be confused with the later (Oliver) Cromwell who dethroned Charles I. (Oliver Cromwell was a descendent of Thomas’ sister.)
Cromwell was born into a working class background but rose well above his station: he was a mercenary soldier in France, worked with Italian banking houses, had associations with the Pope, was well known in London business and financial circles, and was a protégé of Cardinal Wolsey, one of Henry’s chief advisors.
As Henry despairs of having a living male heir, he begins to question the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon who has produced only one living child (Mary) and who had been married while a young teen to Henry’s older brother Arthur. She claimed the marriage was never consummated before Arthur died. But Henry has become enchanted with Anne Boleyn whose older sister had been Henry’s mistress. Anne is clever and realizes that “giving in” to Henry will not get her what she wants: the crown as Queen. So she puts him off and he begins to plot ways to end his marriage with Catherine, the aunt of the King of Spain. Buy Catherine is not willing to be set aside by entering a nunnery and wants to ensure her daughter’s inheritance.
Wolf Hall Part I as it is called on Broadway deals with the various plots to achieve that goal, attempts to annul the marriage, plotting by Anne and her family that causes the downfall of Wolsey, and the eventual divorce, the break with Rome and the marriage.
Wolf Hall Part 2 is based on the second book and deals with Cromwell’s increasing importance, the disagreement between him and Anne and Henry’s disenchantment with Boleyn when first a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth I) is born and then a series of miscarriages of boys. His eye has also been captured by one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, the demure Jane Seymour. If you remember any of the many films made about Elizabeth or Anne, you know that Anne was convicted of adultery and other crimes and beheaded, paving the way for Henry’s marriage to Jane.
This Royal Shakespeare Company production which was adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin is fast paced: A series of scenes that move swiftly. This is where some prior knowledge is helpful. The play opens with Wolsey and Cromwell but before you know it we are meeting Queen Catherine, her daughter Mary, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, the Boleyn father and son, as well Cromwell’s wife and assorted others. So it goes — swiftly changing locations, scenes and personages, mixed in with pageantry.
The set by Christopher Oram, who also did the excellent costumes, is minimalist with what appears to be a concrete wall of four panels at the back which can resemble a cross against the concrete. The lighting by Paule Constable (Part I) and David Plater (Part II) focuses on darkness with even the major players and scenes in low light. In addition there is authentic sounding music by Stephen Warbeck, movement by Sian Williams and interesting sound by Nick Powell.
But this play depends on its cast — particularly the main players (Cromwell, Henry, Anne) as well as the major supporting players (Wolsey, More, Crammer, Catherine). Overall they are excellent.
Ben Miles is Cromwell and plays him as both a “company man” and one who always looks out for his own interests. He is a man playing the angles to gain and then keep power. Many in the court cannot forget his humble beginnings. Yet he also projects a man of principle — at least some of his actions regarding the church and the reformation are based on real beliefs and not just expediency.
Nathaniel Parker, known in the US for the Inspector Lynley series on PBS, plays Henry as the King who became increasingly power hungry and impatient. Lydia Leonard plays Anne as a mercurial woman who can switch from innocence to schemer in seconds. Equally fine are those playing the major supporting players. Paul Jesson gives Wolsey a moral authority, while John Ramm makes More much less noble than Paul Scofield did in A Man for All Seasons. Lucy Briers’ Queen Catherine is dignified and determined.
The preferred way to see Wolf Hall is to purchase tickets for both parts — they are
offering some discounts for that — but I would recommend seeing it on two nights and not as part of an matinee/evening marathon. If you want to see only one, take your pick but read up on the history before you go — even a summary of the books will help you if you select to see only Part 2.
This is one those epic productions that will win great attention and probably multiple awards. Yet while interesting, the swiftness of the scenes and the epic scope left me both intellectually and emotionally uninvolved.
Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2 are at the Wintergarden Theater on Broadway at 51st Street to June 28. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Let me count all the excellent elements of On the Twentieth Century which is being revived by the Roundabout Theater Company.
A gorgeous set designed by David Rockwell that captures the beauty of the art deco period. Elegant 1930s costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Terrific lighting by Donald Holder and sound design by Jon Weston. Plus great choreography by Warren Carlyle.
Let’s add in a cast that seems made in heaven: Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl, Mark-Linn Baker, Michael McGrath and Mary Louise Wilson — all multiple award winners and nominees.
Plus it is based on the Broadway hit play, 20th Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that Roundabout revived 11 years ago. Who can forget the film version that starred John Barrymore and Carole Lombard? It is one of the classic Hollywood screwball comedies. The original Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman won numerous awards.
Yet, there is a BUT coming. Despite everything it has going for it, this production of On the Twentieth Century while enjoyable, just misses. It seems as though almost everyone in the cast is trying too hard. Laurence Olivier once said that you should never let an audience see you sweat and by that I think he meant let them see you try too hard. This cast tries too hard.
With a screwball comedy or farce it must be frantic and the characters must at times be desperate but the it should be frantic, light and fun.
In case you don’t remember any of the previous versions of the play, or the musical which opened in 1978 (and won Tony awards for John Cullum, Kevin Kline, best book and score as well as nominations for Hal Prince, Madeline Kahn and Imogene Coca) the show is set on the train from Chicago to New York called the 20th Century. On board is the theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe (Peter Gallagher) who has had a string of flops and is desperate for money and a hit. With him are his loyal press agent (Michael McGrath) and accountant (Mark-Linn Baker). Boarding the train is the Hollywood star Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth) and her leading man and lover Bruce Granit (Andy Karl). Oscar had discovered Garland, changed her name and made her star while also having a romantic relationship with her.
Oscar Jaffe has a plan: get Garland to agree to star in a play which will reunite them and return him to theatrical and financial security.
Mixed into the plot are Jaffe’s former protégé who is now a producer planning a Broadway production for Garland, various passengers who have written plays that they want Jaffe to read and Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson) an elderly woman who goes around the train slapping religious stickers on everything and everyone. But she is “loaded” having founded a very successful patent medicine company.
You can predict what will happen — deception, lies, a lot of slamming doors — did I mention that Jaffe has arranged to have the stateroom next to Garland? — desperation. But you also know there will be a happy ending.
Chenoweth as the spoiled and bossy Garland is in fine voice. Composer Cy Coleman has written a lot of high notes in this somewhat operetta role and Chenoweth hits them all. While she should be spoiled and demanding, we should not totally dislike her but at times we do.
Peter Gallagher plays Oscar Jaffe as the suave, dashing and romantic hero who leaps from desperation to exultation in the span of seconds. He is THEATRICAL. Yet Gallagher does let us see the man beneath the manic and egotistical personality.
Both Mark-Linn Baker and Michael McGrath mine the humor in their characters. They clean up Oscar’s messes and support him. Mary Louise Wilson has a terrific number “Repent” in the first act. Wilson again seems to be one of the few characters in this show who is really having a good time. Andy Karl as Bruce Granit does all he can with the role of the self-loving, little talented, overly muscled movie star and Garland’s lover. He also has some of the best physical comedy scenes.
Any review of this production must mention “the porters” –Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King — who open both acts with terrific tap numbers. (They also appear elsewhere). The sheer exuberance of their dancing is infectious. Yet, while they are one of the highlights of the show, it also indicates a problem. They are not characters in the show, they don’t affect the plot, they just dance magnificently.
I haven’t mention director Scott Ellis; that’s because I think he is part of the problem. On the Twentieth Century is not a great musical BUT I have seen the show before and enjoyed it more than I did in this production. Ellis focused on production values and pace, but he failed to develop chemistry between Garland and Jaffe, he let Andy Karl become a caricature of the muscle-bound movie star; and in the end, left us feeling still hungry.
On the Twentieth Century is at the American Airlines Theater on W. 42nd Street. For tickets contact Roundabout Theatre
By Karen Isaacs
I had one question when seeing The Heidi Chronicles now getting its first Broadway revival: Would this play about the women’s movement from the ’60s to the ’80s and the young women who pushed it seem dated? The answer is a qualified NO. Unfortunately the issues facing women today are not very different from those of that period. Some of us who lived through the period will find that depressing. It may seem as though little progress has been on the core issues of respect, equal pay, careers, options and just being taken seriously. Wendy Wasserstein’s 1989 Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play tells the story of a our heroine, Heidi Holland over 25 years, from adolescence to nearly 40. Both acts open with Heidi lecturing in 1989 a class of college women about women in art history. Spliced into her lecture are comments that draw her students’ and our attention to the fact that for centuries, women were not recognized as artists — in textbooks, exhibitions or museum collections.
From there we go back to Chicago in 1965, when Heidi and her best friend, Susan, were uncertain teenagers attending a school dance. We quickly see that Susan is confident and brave, eager to attract the attention of a young man. Heidi, on the other hand, lags back and looks definitely uncomfortable. When a young man asks her to dance she says she must stay with her friend, to Susan’s horror. But she does meet Peter, who will become a lifelong friend. From there we move to New Hampshire in 1968 and the Eugene McCarthy campaign, where Heidi shows up to volunteer and meets another lifelong friend — Scoop — who is polished, confident, brash and a womanizer. Yet, Heidi falls for him. It is on to graduate school where Susan takes Heidi to a consciousness raising session — women who grew up in that period will remember these with either horror or fondness. Again Heidi stays outside the circle — is it a lack of confidence or shyness? Then stops in Chicago (a demonstration outside the Art Institute to protest the lack of women artists represented in the collection) and New York as the four friends pursue careers, graduate school, medical school, relationships and success.
Act two finds Heidi attending weddings (Scoop’s to a more traditional woman), baby showers, appearing on a TV interview show in which both Scoop and Peter upstage her and more. She is now both lecturer and writer. Scoop is successful, married and unfaithful. Peter, a pediatrician, announces he is gay, and Susan determinedly changes professions and succeeds at everything. Heidi remain diffident and at times sad. Wasserstein has laced the play with great humor and has lovingly skewered the pretentiousness of youth and the seriousness of the women’s movement in that period. We have the contrast of the two super confident figures — Susan and Scoop — that play off the uncertainty of both Heidi and, at the beginning, Peter. Elizabeth Moss (of Mad Men) plays Heidi as a little too diffident and unconfident. You wonder if she is seriously depressed; what would a little Prozac due? At times she almost fades into the background but then again, Heidi is one who observes the world around her more than she participates in it. She is the “listener”. But Moss shows us her passion about women artists. Bryce Pinkham, late of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, is Peter — the gentle, caring and dedicated friend and doctor. His scene late in the play in the pediatrics ward is touching.
Jason Biggs, who has appeared in the American Pie films, captures Scoop’s confidence, swagger and arrogance and yet reveals the uncertainties and unhappiness that seems just below the surface. Ali Ahn is the confident Susan who adapts, re-invents herself and succeeds. But there is a desperate quality to her condolence (is it sham?) and need to achieve. Four other cast members — Andy Truschinski, Leighton Bryan, Tracee Chimo and Elsie Kibler — play a variety of roles and ages. Each manages in a scene or two to show another part of the baby boom generation. Pam MacKinnon as director has connected the multiple scenes, locales and time periods in a way that we see the arc of Heidi’s life. John Lee Beatty has provided a flexible scenic design that also moves us easily through the years and Jessica Pabst’s costume capture the fashion trends without exaggeration.
Is The Heidi Chronicles a great play? No, but it is a very good play even if some scenes feel as though they go on a little too long, But that may be the fault of the director. Overall this is a very good production even if I wished Moss’s interpretation of Heidi wasn’t quite so passive. The Heidi Chronicles is at the Music Box Theater on W. 45th Street. Tickets are available at telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
In her 63-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has met on most Tuesday evenings with the current prime minister. These conversations are intended for the prime minister to inform the Queen of what has the government has done and is planning on doing. She has no say in the matter.
The Audience which is now at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater is play based on these meetings. Helen Mirren plays the Queen from 1952, just after her ascension to the throne, to very recently. Mirren, you may remember, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth in the film The Queen also written by Peter Morgan, the author of this work. Mirren also won an Olivier (the British equivalent of the Tony) for her performance in this role in London in 2013.
Her performance here is remarkable — the play is not told in chronological order — so Mirren is forced to quickly change costumes and decades in just a matter of seconds. She adjusts her voice, her posture and her tone seamlessly.
Her performance is matched by fine performances by many of the actors playing the prime ministers. Eight of the 12 prime ministers are depicted on stage though Tony Blair is given very short shrift.
First of all, we must remember that no-one except the Queen and the prime minister in question knows what goes on in these meetings — no minutes or notes are kept. So this play is totally fiction based on some sketchy facts. But we see prime ministers who sometimes reveal insecurities and at other times attempt to lecture or push her. On the Queen’s part, she is both quiet and at times revealing. You get the sense that while she has no constitutional authority, she does have influence.
Yet for those who enjoy fine acting, for anglophiles and for rhose interested in politics and history this is a satisfying production.
It opens with the Queen’s Equerry (Geoffrey Beevers) setting the scene for us including a detailed description of the furniture (antiques) in the audience room. Then we meet Mirren, later in her reign with John Major, who admits that he is not sure he was cut out to be PM.
Quickly — I defy you to see the costume change — we meet the very new Queen in 1952 who has her first meeting with Winston Churchill. It is here that we discover even as a young Queen she is well aware of the political realities surrounding her — Churchill delaying her investiture to keep himself in power — and we see the seasoned politician “schooling” her in the protocol of these meetings.
And so we parade through a list of prime ministers. Blair barely appears — telling the Queen about his decision to support Pres. Bush in the Iraq invasion — there are jokes made about him, by both his successor (Gordon Brown) and the Queen.
Some of the Prime Ministers try to push the Queen — John Major reports on trying to reconcile Prince Charles and Princess Diana and some of the anti-monarchy comments Diana expressed as well as others who tried to get her to give up the royal yacht; she eventually did.
Throughout the play, we see her 11-year-old self (Lisbeth as she was called) who is both learning and rebelling from her future responsibilities.
Some scenes stand out — there are multiple scenes with Harold Wilson, the Queen’s first Labour PM — we see Wilson on his first meeting, a subsequent one at Balmoral where the summer meetings take place, and later on when he tells her of his decision to resign. At least according to Morgan, Wilson may have been her favorite and he came to admire her even suggesting that there was a “good Labour woman” underneath.
Another scene that stands out — is the scene with Anthony Eden who tells the Queen of the invasion with France of the Suez Canal — a foreign policy blunder that both cost lives and prestige. The Queen’s comments and questions to him and his responses are an eerie echo of Blair’s exchange with her 50 years later.
One scene does not work for any number of reasons. It is the scene between the Queen and a very angry Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher is angry over some leaks in the press from “high Palace sources” indicating that the Queen dislikes Thatcher’s policies. As Thatcher testily reminds the Queen, her role is to agree.
The problem with this scene is not just its stridency but that it comes rather in the play when we have developed an affection for the Queen. So Thatcher berating her just annoys us. It is not helped by the performance of Judith Ivey as Thatcher. After Meryl Streep’s brilliant performance as Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady, this may be an unplayable role. But Ivey’s accent is as much Southern as British and her strident manner as well as a very unattractive striped suit result in us wanting the scene to end.
Overall the cast is excellent from Geoffrey Beevers as the Equerry to the brief performances of Dakin Matthews (Churchill), Rufus Wright (David Cameron and Tony Blair), Michael Elwyn (Sir Anthony Eden), Dylan Baker (John Major) and Sadie Sink (Young Elizabeth). Sink rotates in the role.
But it is Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson who has the largest role among the PMs and he makes the most of it from the slightly awkward new PM until the touching scene at the end of his career.
The design by Bob Crowley captures the splendor of Buckingham Palace as well as the Scottish coziness of Balmoral. He is aided by the fine lighting by Rick Fisher which keeps our attention focused. Ivana Primorac has done the hair and make-up design to help Mirren move from middle-aged to young to old and back again.
Stephen Daldry has directed this production to keep it moving; the exception is the scene with Thatcher that seems to much of a one note rant.
The Audience is an enjoyable evening in the theater made really special by the fine performances. You can expect Mirren to clean up in the season’s awards programs.
It is running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through June 28. Tickets are available through Telecharge.