By Karen Isaacs
Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night” is a classic of American theater. O’Neill is considered America’s first great playwright – and even today may be our greatest. It also offers spectacular roles for actors, including a role that older actresses view as the Mt. Everest of roles.
Given the many challenges it presents, it is a wonder that the play is revived as often as it is. But the chance to portray Mary Tyrone keeps the play returning.
This revival at the Roundabout Theater’s American Airlines Theater features a stellar cast that scale the mountains the play presents. The play also presents challenges for the audience; it runs almost four hours with just one intermission and it is an emotional roller-coaster. Of course, given Broadway prices, it is also a bargain; the cost per minute is the lowest on Broadway.
Jessica Lange is the box office name probably driving this production, but she is joined by Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr. as members of the dysfunctional Tyrone family.
Long Day’s Journey has an interesting history. It is viewed as an autobiographical play and was completed in the mid-‘40s. O’Neill, however, sealed it and signed an agreement with his publisher that it would not be published until 25 years after his death. His third wife allowed the play to be published in 1956, three years following his death and productions soon followed. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957.
The play is set during one day at the Tyrone’s Monte Christo Cottage (the name for the O’Neill family cottage which still exists in New London). It is summer 1912. James Tyrone is the patriarch of the family, who emigrated from Ireland. He is an actor who found the role that he could tour with forever and make money, but he resists spending it, always looking for the ”bargain” which often turns out to be no bargain. Also at the house is his wife, Mary who has battled morphine addiction for years but has been apparently “clean” since her last stay at a sanatorium. The older son, James, is in his thirties, and like Biff Loman in Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman is still “finding” himself. He acts but prefers bars and whorehouses. Edmund is the younger son; a reporter and promising writer who is ill with consumption.
From morning until almost midnight, the old arguments, regrets, recriminations, slights and hatreds are brought to the surface. You can easily see how this work must have influenced Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
We learn so much about the events of the past that have led this family to this point, the dynamics of the family, and the tragedies that have befallen each of them.
It’s easy to see Edmund’s tragedy – during that day, the diagnosis of consumption is confirmed and given the realities of the time, the audience knows it is probably a death sentence.
James’ tragedy is his lack of direction and underlying dislike of himself. He has become an actor at his father’s urging; he knows he will never be as good as his father was, he doesn’t know what else he can do, and it is all too easy to drown his disgust with booze and women.
But it is the older Tyrones who rivet our attention. James is filled with regret though he masks most of it with an exaggerated sense of self. He still wants to be the star and center of attention. The dream part that made the easy money also stunted his growth and reputation as an actor. The one night stands across the country for years has taken its toll, the uncertainties of acting profession has reinforced his frugality to the point that he always takes the cheapest option even when it comes to the health of his wife and children. Even with the seriousness of Edmund’s diagnosis, James is not willing to send him to a private, top rated sanatorium but instead is choosing the free state-run facility.
But it is Mary, around whom all three men revolve. Mary Tyrone has battled addiction for many years – since a hotel doctor gave her the medication following the birth of Edmund. Now, she has apparently been “clean” for months, but there are disturbing signs that she has relapsed. The three men tip-toe around the issue. They observe her constantly for signs of backsliding which makes her nervous and defensive. She too has her backstory.
Overall this is an excellent production, directed by Jonathan Kent. The set design by Tom Pye captures the waterfront cottage and he is added by the lighting by Natasha Katz and the sound design by Clive Goodwin. Jane Greenwood’s costumes reflect the formality of the period. Men wore shirts and dress pants even while cutting the hedges.
So that leads us to the outstanding acting. From Colby Minifie who plays the maid and has a substantial scene with Mary late in the play to the four principals, all are excellent.
John Gallagher, Jr. plays the consumptive Edmund. I found him riveting both in his long scenes with his brother and later his father or when he stands still in the corner observing the others. It is likely that he will be another victim of his father’s frugality.
Michael Shannon, who many know from HBO’s Boardwalk, is the older, dissolute James, Jr. He projects a man who is dead behind the eyes, though he is still breathing. His anger at his father is deep seated. He develops his role slowly, and it not until later in the play that he shows you the explosive anger, so like his father’s.
What can we say about Gabriel Byrne? This fine actor gives us James Tyrone in all his dimensions – bully, miser, loving husband, and uncertain actor. Like the others he is full of regrets and anger at both himself and at others. He can’t quite “own” his choices, so must blame others. Byrne shows us James that at times we want to hug and at other time shake.
Mary Tyrone is a challenge for any actress, but Jessica Lange just about masters it. At times her Mary has a tinge of Amanda Winfield, but you can see her slowly descend into her morphine. The costumes by Jane Greenwood give her a ghostly presence; even when she is in the room, it sometimes seems she isn’t really there. You are fascinated in how she rounds out the performance with gestures that absolutely capture the nervousness of the addict.
Overall, while this production may not be the definitive production of this play, it is a very, very good production. Director Jonathan Kent and his production team create the right atmosphere: the seaside, the barrenness, the anger and the sadness. To handle the multiple issues of this play, requires a director of great insight and sensitivity; Kent possesses this.
At the end, you are left reflecting on these lines from Mary: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”
A Long Day’s Journey into Night is a Roundabout Theater production at the American Airlines Theatre, 227W. 42nd St. through June 26. For tickets visit roundabouttheatre.org.
By Karen Isaacs
I’ll admit that I am still puzzled by The Father by French playwright Florian Zeller that is now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on West 47th Street to June 10.
Is it meant to be a surrealist play? Is the playwright attempting to have us experience what the central character, André, played by Frank Langella, is experiencing? Is it a take on the classic play and movie Gaslight? And finally, do today’s theater audiences who are often over 55, really need to see another play about the horrors of what use to be called senility?
Zeller is little known in the English speaking world, but at least some critics consider him a major literary talent and a hot commodity. He has won numerous awards and written many plays but few have been translated.
Christopher Hampton, whose works have garnered four Tony nominations, has translated this work which was first produced in England. Among Hampton’s other works is the book and lyrics for the musical Sunset Boulevard, as well as the translation of Les Liaisons Danereuses for which he won an Oscar for best screenplay.
André is aging and succumbing to memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s; it is difficult to tell. He lives alone – or does he? Is it his apartment or his daughter’s? Was he tap-dancer or an engineer? Is his daughter married or not? Perhaps she is moving to London to live with a new love.
Little is sure to us as we apparently experience André’s world. Which of these things are true may not matter or they may matter a great deal.
The audience is also left wondering about two characters who appear periodically. Sometimes they claim to be his daughter and her husband/lover. Other times the woman claims to be his caregiver, but does he have one?
If it all sounds confusing it can be. During the first part of the play, the audience spends time trying to get its bearings. It opens with André’s daughter, Anne, played by Kathryn Erbe arriving after he apparently has insulted (possibly hit?) a caregiver. She is exasperated and tells him, she will be moving to London. There is talk about her sister, whom André cruelly says was magnificent and the one he loved.
But what we think we know is quickly turned on its heels. Soon she is interviewing another potential care-giver. André is charming and all seems to be going well. Yet even then, he makes a cruel remark about the woman.
Soon, strange things happen. Another woman followed by a man, billed simply as Woman and Man show up in the apartment. The woman claims she is Anne. André becomes puzzled and upset by all of this.
By then, you have a sense that André is in some stage of dementia and that the author is playing out his confusions and emotions. He can be charming; he can be cruel. He recognizes people and things and then doesn’t. He’s confused about what is reality.
It is role made for an actor like Frank Langella – a consummate stage performer (I just recently watched yet again his Prospero on the dvd of The Tempest done at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival). He has a complete bag of tricks and can keep all eyes on him. At times, some of his mannerisms—when he is “being charming” remind me of Olivier. To say that he can “chew the scenery with the best of them” is not an insult or criticism but admiration for his talents.
You are upset with him and his random cruelty to his daughter and others, but you also sympathize with this vital man slowing losing everything. There is one moment in the play, I won’t reveal the details, where the audience gasps in horror and our fears and sympathies immediately focus on him.
The surrounding cast is good. Kathryn Erbe is the classic “sandwich generation” woman
trying to juggle career, spouse/lover and care for her father. She is exasperated and concerned; loving and wounded. The other actors have less to do and less defined roles but each is good.
Doug Hughes, former artistic director at Long Wharf directs this piece with understanding. He keeps the mood swinging as it must be swinging for André.
The scenic design by Scott Pask gives us a lovely Paris apartment although I felt the symbolism of how it changes over time, too obvious. Donald Holder’s lighting adds to our mood as does the music and sound design by Fitz Patton. Catherine Zuber has created costumes that would be at home on the streets of Paris.
It is hard to say that The Father is enjoyable, since it plays out before us, the greatest fear of many aging Americans. But it is emotionally intense, and the opportunity to see Langella exhibit his formidable talents is always one not to be passed on.
The Father is a Manhattan Theater Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., thought June 10. For tickets visit Telecharge.com
By Karen Isaacs
Roundabout Theater is doing a fine revival of the musical She Loves Me at Studio 54. And yet…..
This Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical, with book by Joe Masteroff, has become a musical theater classic even if its original Broadway run was much too short (302 performances). It is based on the play The Little Shop Around the Corner, which was made into successful film with James Stewart and Margret Sullavan and then a musical with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, In the Good Old Summertime. In the more modern era it was the basis of the film, You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The story is set in Budapest in the 1930s where Georg Nowak is manager of a parfumerie. When Amalia Balash is hired over his objections, they immediately butt heads. Both are single and both are corresponding with a “dear friend” whom they met through a lonely hearts advertisement. You can guess the rest. Several subplots include the Don Juan salesclerk and the woman clerk he is on-and-off with, the shop owner and both the messenger boy and the clerk who just wants to keep his job.
I saw the original production (Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy, Barbara Baxley, Ludwig Donath, Nathaniel Frey and Ralph Williams) at the Shubert Theater in New Haven during its initial pre-Broadway tryout. I was totally enchanted with the story, the music and the performances. The two-LP original cast recording was a favorite.
In 1993, Roundabout Theater had a successful revival directed by Scott Ellis that ran for close to 400 performances. It featured Boyd Gaines, Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillin, and Sally Mayes among others.
Now Scott Ellis is directing this revival. He has broadcast that this is “new” version of the show and certainly, the night I saw it, the audience loved it.
I wish I was as enthusiastic. The cast is very good, the set and costumes are terrific, the orchestrations are good, the voices overall are excellent, but something about this production bothered me.
Ellis has lost the subtlety of this show. Everything has been broadened out, played for hearty guffaws, overplaying moments that should be more controlled. It’s lost some of its sweetness. Maybe that’s what today’s audiences want, but for me, it subverted the real mood of the show.
Perhaps I am not recalling correctly the other productions, I’ve seen – including a fine one directed by Mark Lamos at Westport Country Playhouse in 2010. But I don’t think so.
First of all the positives. The cast is vocally terrific though some of the other aspects of
the performances are lacking charm. Laura Benanti plays Amalia but lost some of the charm of the character. I found I wasn’t rooting for her, as much as should have. Zachary Levi follows up his Broadway debut in First Date with a fine performance as the confused and reticent Georg. Gavin Creel plays the lothario Steven Kodaly with true egotism though he misses on some of the charm that Jack Cassidy brought to the role. Michael McGrath is terrific is Ladislav, the clerk who only wants to keep his job. Byron Jennings is outstanding as the owner, Mr. Marczek who is facing his own mid-life crisis. You are touched by his performance. And Jane Krakowski is excellent, if much too attractive, for Ilona Ritter, the clerk who is easily taken in by Steven Kodaly. Nicholas Barasch is also excellent as the messenger/delivery boy, Arpad.
Next, let’s applaud the set by David Rockwell. It gives us the outside of the elegant show and then reveals the inside. It is easy to see what the audience applauded the set and later when it is changed into the “romantic café” applauded again. Jeff Mahshie’s costumes reflect the 1930s in their design and sensibility. Donald Holder’s lighting has created the seasonal changes and the atmosphere of the period.
The music direction by Paul Gemignani and the new orchestrations by Larry Hochman are fine. Today’s Broadway orchestras are smaller than those in 1964 but the musicians succeed in capturing both the 1930s feel to the show and the middle-European schmaltz so much a part of the Viennese musical tradition.
My biggest problem was with the choreography by Warren Carlyle. It broke the mood and often went for broad strokes and moves rather than subtle touches. The most egregious example is the song “Ilona” in which Kodaly tries to convince Ilona to stay with him. Should the audience be laughing loudly at this a gentle and seductive tango? Should some of the moves be reminiscent of “Dancing with the Stars”? I refer to Kodaly’s imitation of a pawing bull and Ilona’s split which then results in Kodaly pulling her across the floor? I shook my head in both dismay and dislike. It broke the mood. Also, no matter how feverish or upset she is, would Amalia really jump on the bed like a five year old during “Vanilla Ice Cream”? Again, I think not.
Highlights of the production include Jane Krawkowsk’s rendition of Ilona’s “A Trip to the Library” and Byron Jenning’s entire performance, particularly “Days Gone By”. But many more of the songs were good but not as great as they could be.
If you have never seen this delightful, romantic show, you will certainly enjoy this production of She Loves Me, but for some of us, we wish it were the perfect production we were hoping for.
She Loves Me is at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street, through June 12. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
Blackbird, which is now getting a belated Broadway production starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, is a disturbing play. It will alternately have you horrified and unsettled. It exemplifies what drama should do for an audience.
David Harrower’s play debuted in 2005 at the Edinburgh Festival and went on to London, where it won the Olivier award for best new play, and to productions around the world. Jeff Daniels starred in the Manhattan Theater Club’s off-Broadway production in 2008.
This two character piece focuses on a meeting between Ray (Jeff Daniels) and Una (Michelle Williams) fifteen years after a traumatic event. They have a complicated history. When Una was 12 and Ray 40, there was a sexual molestation; a one-time thing. Ray was arrested and jailed and has now rebuilt his life. Una is now an adult and has sought Ray out.
But why? You are never quite sure why Una comes to Ray’s workplace and barges in. Is it to seek some sort of revenge? To try to understand or rehash the past? To make him suffer? Or hidden beneath the surface, is there something else? The possibilities are endless.
She is certainly the aggressor in this meeting – controlling the space and the conversation. Ray is confused by her appearance and her motives. He has rebuilt his life, even changing his name, and he does not want to lose that.
During the course of several hours, tensions and emotions run high. Una alternately attacks Ray and reminisces about the events. She had a 12-year-old’s crush on him, a neighbor whom her father invited into the house. She talks about planning ways to see him, wanting him for herself, and fantasies that are typical of the young adolescent.
Ray was a loner, perhaps uncomfortable in relationships, and he was drawn to Una and her
admiration. In many ways he treated her like an adult and viewed her that way; he claims he felt a love for her. One night, he takes her to a seaside resort and they have sex. He leaves her in the room to go out for cigarettes, but now tells her that he became horrified at what he did, and drove around. When he goes back to pick up, he couldn’t find out her– she went out looking for him – so he took the ferry back to the mainland. Una was taken in by a couple and her parents and the police were called.
It is interesting that Daniels wants to revisit this role which is emotionally draining. When he first performed it in 2008, he was probably too young for Ray; now he looks the part of a 55 year old man – a little paunchy, a little gray, and tired.
Michelle Williams plays Una as all nervous energy – you expect to see her explode. She fidgets, moves around the room, stands awkwardly and at times still seems like an adolescent. We learn very little of her present day life exception that the neighbors and town folk pointed her out and gawked at her during her teenage years and that she has undergone much therapy. Was this meeting a therapist’s idea?
As Williams plays her, Una is many ways both angry and jealous. She is jealous of Ray’s new life and is very interested to know whether he is in a relationship (he is) and what his woman friend looks and acts like. The thought may cross your mind that Una is still a little bit smitten with Ray and unconsciously she may want to rekindle the relationship.
Daniels plays Ray as a man initially wary and trying to control (not totally successfully) his panic. He feels cornered by her presence and unsure if she has talked or told anyone who now knows him about the past. He sees his world falling apart. His portrayal deepens in many ways – to anger, regret, memory and exhaustion.
Joe Mantello has directed this piece with finesse; he is also revisiting this piece, having directed the off-Broadway production. At times, it seems as though both performers start on too “intense” an emotional level which gives them very little room for building the emotions. But it also works by letting them at some point move into exhaustion.
The set and lighting by Scott Pask and Brian MacDevitt recreate a sterile company break room – all white, hard surfaces and glaring florescent lights. Even the debris of other employees’ food wrappers adds to the feeling.
Blackbird now at the Belasco Theater, 111 W. 44th Street through June 11, is a challenging, well acted play that may have you questioning your own reactions to it. Tickets are available through Telecharge
By Karen Isaacs
The Humans opened off-Broadway at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater last fall to very positive reviews. It had a limited run, but now the production has moved to a relatively small Broadway house – the Helen Hayes – with its cast intact.
The Humans, written by Stephen Karam who is a younger playwright of much promise. I’ve seen his Speech & Debate; his Sons of the Prophet won a number of awards and was a 2012 Pulitzer finalist.
It is Thanksgiving and three older members of the Blake family have traveled into New York City from Scranton (Karam’s home town) to spend the holiday with their two daughters. Making the trip are Eric (Reed Birney) and his wife, Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell), long married and in their early 60s, plus his mother Fiono or “Momo” (Lauren Klein) who suffers from dementia; Eric and Deidre are her caregivers.
They arrive at Brigid’s, their daughter, new apartment of which she and her boyfriend, Richard (Aaron Moyaed) are incredibly proud. Only a young NYC couple would find the below ground, Chinatown apartment acceptable. The woman living above seemingly stamps or drops heavy objects randomly, the trash compactor goes on and off making loud noises and the boiler also makes noise. Joining them is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer.
The first part of this one-act 95-minute play is about setting the scene. We learn a lot; money is tight; Eric works for a private school as an equipment manager for the athletics department. He has done so for years and it allowed his daughters to attend the school. Deidre is an office manager, underpaid and under-appreciated.
We also learn that Richard is a graduate student in social work while Brigid (Sarah Steele) bar tends to pay bills but is an aspiring artist – later we learn she is a composer. Aimee is a lesbian who suffers from colitis.
The family is awkward with each other – they don’t really know Richard, Eric doesn’t like the apartment or its location, and Aimee and Brigid squabble as sisters do.
As the play progresses, the problems this lower middle class family have multipled to an astonishing degree. It begins to be like a soap opera.
That is part of the problem. Karam seems to be “piling on” the problems and complications. He even manages to bring in Sept. 11.
Aimee in addition to her illness, is being let go from her law firm probably because of it, her girlfriend has left her, and she may need surgery.
But the biggest problem/complication is revealed near the end of the play. Eric has been waiting to tell his daughters some disturbing news. He has been fired from the school and will not be getting a pension. The reason? He apparently had a liaison with a female teacher.
The cast is uniformly good and the set by David Zinn absolutely reveals a quirky NYC apartment that only young New Yorkers would accept. Fitz Patton deserves credit for the variety of sounds that emanate from above and outside the apartment.
Birney and Houdyshell are terrific as the parents, even if I did not believe that Birney would have had an affair. They are a blue collar couple, scrimping and saving and making do. They care for Fiona because there is no money to pay for assistance. Deidre puts her faith in religion, but cannot totally hide her bitterness. Eric just seems worn out; he is gray.
Cassie Beck as Aimee draws on our sympathies; she has so many problems, and seems so vulnerable. Sarah Steele as Brigid has the optimism of youth; though she too has her problems; she recently learned that the recommendations a professor is writing for her various grant applications are halfhearted, at best.
Richard is the odd man out in this group. He seems to have no real problems; he’s in his late 30s but goes to school, doesn’t work and at 40 will be able to tap the trust fund his grandmother left him. No worries about student loans. Yet, despite his upper middle class background, he seems lonely – his parents are in two different places and he obviously, doesn’t want (or wasn’t invited) to visit either for the holiday.
Despite their problems, this family loves each other and tries to support and help each other. They accept Richard, but he is mainly an observer to the family dynamic.
Joe Mantello’s fine direction gets beneath the surface of the characters and creates a true reality– you feel as though you are eavesdropping on their lives.
The Humans combines a superb cast with insightful comments about the societal and economic conditions facing the lower middle class and those that strive to leave it behind.
It is at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 w. 44th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Fiddler on the Roof is such a classic musical that is done in so many places by so many groups that it is hard to get excited about yet another production; even one directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Danny Burstein.
But after seeing this production at the Broadway Theater, I am excited. It is a marvelous production that moved me more than many productions I’ve seen – even the excellent production directed by Rob Ruggiero at Goodspeed a few years ago. I thought that set a high standard, but this production easily out does it.
You may not have heard of Danny Burstein who plays Tevye, but you should have. He is one of those consummate Broadway performers who doesn’t have a recognizable name but if you are a New York theater aficionado, you have seen him give memorable performances time after time after time. He has played Herr Schultz in Cabaret, Buddy in Follies, Luther Billis in South Pacific and Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone. That doesn’t include his work in straight plays from Chekhov to A.R. Gurney to Lanford Wilson.
He is joined by an overall excellent cast.
Since, almost everyone has seen Fiddler, do I really need to go into detail about the story of the milkman Tevye living in a small village (Anatevka) in Czarist Russia, his wife and his five daughters, three of whom find husbands before the musical ends? He is an everyman. He is wise beyond his education, and though deeply tied to tradition and his Jewish faith, also willing to change with the times.
Sher has framed this piece in modern times. It may have been to help modern audiences get into the story or to show its relevance; after all TV shows about finding your roots get large audiences. So as the show begins we see a wooden sign that says “Anatevka” and then a bearded man in a red winter jacket enters. He is carrying a book and reading what turns out to be the story by Sholem Aleichem. He walks to the front of the stage, takes off his jacket and he is Tevye as he begins “Tradition.” As he talks and sings, we see the fiddler on the roof and the house slowly rises in the background. Soon he is joined by the rest of the cast.
From there the story begins; we always realize this is a theatrical production – but that doesn’t take away from the power of the show. The cast members wheel on and off trees to help set the scene.
It is the performances that make this production special.
Let’s start with Burstein. His Tevye is worn out at times but not old; he is still a vital man who has optimism for the future. Yet you see his yearning for and understanding emotional connections. It makes the song “Do You Love Me?” even more touching. You see him struggle with the new ideas that his daughters force him to accept; that he is willing to move away from tradition to more modern ideas reflects his awareness of the world around him. Often, Tevye is played by an actor who is more an actor than a musician or such a major star that the show loses its balance. Burstein is an accomplished singer as his many musical credits attest. So his musicality adds to this characterization.
Playing his wife, Golda, Jesssica Hecht gives a nuanced performance though her voice cannot compare with Burstein’s. But the role has minimal musical numbers and therefore, her limited vocal experience doesn’t harm the performance.
As the three older daughters who all break tradition in their choices of husbands, Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, Samantha Massell as Hodel and Melanie Moore as Chava, each mines the characters for the core elements. All of them have both the acting and singing talents to make these characters come alive which they demonstrate right from the beginning in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” The scene (and song “Far From the Home I Love”) where Hodel says goodbye to her father as she leaves to join her husband in Siberia is touching.
As the three suitors (and later husbands), Motel, the tailor as played by Adam Kantor combines the acting and singing requirements most effectively. I could quibble that he plays Motel as too afraid of speaking to Tevye, always cowering. But that is a minor quibble.
Ben Rappaport plays Perchik, the radical student who arrives in the village and woos Hodel. His acting is fine, but he does not have the vocal chops to make the most of “Now I Have Everything”.
Nick Rehberger is Fyedka, the young Russian (and Christian) soldier with whom Chava falls in love with. It would have been good to see a little more depth in the characterization though his is a more minor character.
Alix Korey gives us a fine Yente and Adam Dannheisser is effective as Lazar Wolf, though it is not the best performance of that role I’ve seen.
The costumes by Catherine Zuber remind us that we are watching a performance; they seem too varied for the poor people living in Anatevka, especially the wedding dress for Hodel.
Michael Yeargen’s set is fluid and flexible. The opening is very effective.
One question that always arises is the choreography: Jerome Robbin’s choreography is so iconic in parts (as also happened with West Side Story) that even when it is new, it seems not. Hofesh Shecter has taken inspiration from the Robbins work – in fact, in the program it says that the entire production is “inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins.” But he has created his own choreography. Of course, he has kept the iconic hat dance in the wedding scene.
Sher also has paid homage to some of Robbins staging, particularly in the next to last scene as the villages depart Anatevka for an uncertain future. As in the original they go around in a circle carrying their belongings. But then he brings us back to the present.
A final quibble about this production: the curtain call does not give Burstein a proper “moment.” He comes out last but then instead of a second bow – or another bow by the principals – the cast goes into a closing dance. It deprives him of the standing ovation he richly deserves.
This Fiddler on the Roof will send you from the theater both thoughtful and filled with warmth.
It is at the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway (between 52nd and 53rd St.). Tickets are available from Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
King Charles III which is playing a limited run at the Music Box Theater in New York calls itself a “future history.” Other might call it speculation and theater lovers are going to say it is a very enjoyable evening in the theater.
The play by Mike Bartlett envisions the time when the current Queen dies and her son, Charles, the Prince of Wales becomes King Charles III. It is a position he has waited for all his life. Unfortunately, as Bartlett sees it, his reign not only does NOT go smoothly but it all becomes a Shakespearean tragedy.
At the play’s opening, it is Elizabeth’s funeral and Charles is King. But immediately he is faced with a dilemma. The current Prime Minister presents him with a bill passed by the House of Commons and Lords that in the name of protecting individual privacy eviscerates freedom or the press and other freedoms. The press would be under strict government control. The monarch’s signature is a necessary to make the bill law, but, for hundreds of years, that is a pro forma event.
Charles and his family have certainly had their privacy violated by the press over the years. Most of us can remember some juicy and perhaps strange sexual comments from his hacked phone and other indignities. But this Charles does not want to sign. He views the bill as undermining basic liberty and allowing the government to lie and cover up abuses. He tries to get the PM to review the bill and perhaps make some changes in it. But the PM is adamant; Charles must sign the bill. Even the opposition leader, who has serious reservations about the bill, believes Charles must sign it.
So this is the set up for the play which, like Shakespeare, is written in iambic pentameter. Bartlett has done that so well, and the cast is so at ease with it, that you will seldom be aware that it is verse.
Charles hits on a way to avoid signing the bill, but that has not been used in centuries when the King actually had power. It causes public uproar (think of armed soldiers protecting Buckingham Palace) and a new set of problems.
Then there is the rest of the royal family. Camilla tries to protect Charles
while William and Kate see their chances – and their son’s chances – at the throne in jeopardy. Harry falls in love with a socialist commoner art student and starts mingling with the common folk and decides he wishes no longer to be royal.
There’s even a ghost – of Diana, Charles’ first wife and mother of William and Harry – who tells both Charles and William that they will be the “greatest king ever.”
If you notice references to Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, you are not wrong. Charles in his quandary about signing or not signing the bill, recalls Hamlet. (Depending on how you calculate the time span in Hamlet, the Danish Prince is either a young man or someone who has been waiting around for years for the throne.). Kate displays definite Lady MacBeth qualities as she urges her husband to do more in confronting his father and solving the problem. And the ghost of Diana is either Hamlet’s father or the witches of MacBeth, or perhaps both.
Even Harry shows a resemblance to Prince Hal from King Henry IV, Part I, while his girl friend – and her friends – resemble the rabble rousers at any of the taverns that populate so many Shakespeare plays.
Bartlett has certainly drawn on some of the qualities we think we know about Charles – his tendency to get caught up in controversy (remember the flap when he criticized modern architecture), his interest in organic gardening and more. He has also seemed to be someone who dithers though that may be due to his nebulous role.
Charles is in the same position as his great-great grandfather, Edward the VII, who had to wait until he was sixty to assume the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. He only held the throne for nine years before dying and being succeeded by his son, George V.
Charles is 68 years old. He has waited longer for the throne than any one; unlike Edward VII who became known for his many mistresses, Charles has tried to keep busy but he can only do what the Queen, his mother, permits him to do.
This production has been imported from London’s Almeida Theatre, where it won the Olivier award for best play last year, pretty much intact.
Tim Pigott-Smith is terrific as Charles, the man and King who is caught up in the machinations of everyone else as he tries to do what he feels is not only right but required by his conscience. He is the center of the piece and the tragic hero. The cast is his equal – from Anthony Calf as the leader of the opposition to Adam James as the Prime Minister. Lydia Wilson plays Kate as cool, ambitious and manipulative and Oliver Chris shows us a William who is torn between loyalty to his father and dedication to protecting his own interests. Richard Goulding shows us depths of Prince Harry that let us see not only the party boy but also the young man who knows he will always be in the shadows with a limited and often meaningless career; too important to be able to do what he wants, but not important enough to do something significant. Jess (Tafline Steen), Harry’s girl friend, is the life force who questions everything.
Director Rupert Goold has directed this ensemble piece – many of the cast members double in crowd scenes with a deft hand. He has been assisted by the fine scenic and costume design by Tom Scutt, the lighting by Jon Clark, the sound by Paul Arditti and the music composed by Jocelyn Pook.
Do try to see King Charles III at the Music Box Theater on W. 45th Street, before it closes on Jan. 31. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Allegiance, the new musical with Lea Salonga and George Takei, is a heartfelt story about human resilience, family and regrets.
If you just hear about the subject matter, you might think this was a depressing or dark show. Yet in the end you are amazed at the joy you will find while also considering the issue at hand.
The story is about what may be one of the most disturbing actions that the U. S. ever committed: the internment of 120,000 American born citizens of Japanese descent from the west coast in what was euphemistically called “relocation centers” in the early days of WW II. That these camps or centers existed until the war’s end and that the Supreme Court upheld the right of the government to strip these citizens of their basic Constitutional rights is disturbing enough.
The rationale was that though these people had been born in America and some were second and third generation, their loyalty could not be counted on because of their Japanese ancestry.
Parenthetically, fewer than 2,000 Italian immigrants (not citizens) were considered “enemy aliens” and about 12,000 German nationals in the US were interned. There was no mass relocation of Italian-Americans or German-Americans from the east coast.
I saw the show just a day after the Paris bombings, and long before some pundits and political figures began similar rants about Muslims.
Allegiance focuses on one family; the Kimuras who are farmers in northern California: the grandfather (Ojii-chan) who came to the US, his son Tatsuo, his granddaughter Kei and his grandson Sammy. As the war starts, they are forced to sell everything (at bargain prices to neighbors who were white) and report for transportation to a center, taking only what they could carry; not even baby strollers were allowed. The center the family is sent to, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, is barren, dusty and windy.
But despite the injustice, the families make do and over the years build a community. They practice “gaman” which means “endurance with dignity.” Yet there are divisions within the community. Sammy and some other young men are anxious to enlist with the hope that by proving their loyalty their families will be allowed to go home; others become angry at the second-class treatment and later in the war refuse to be drafted. Then there is the loyalty questionnaire that all are required to complete; two questions caused great consternation: one asked if they would fight for the US and the other asked them to renounce any loyalty to the Emperor. Those who did not answer yes to both questions were moved to harsher camps and some were deported.
The main characters in Allegiance reflect all of those difficulties. The grandfather, Ojii-chan, played by George Takei endures, while his son Tatsuo (Christópheren Nomura) refuses to answer the questionnaire appropriately and is taken away in handcuffs. Sammy (Telly Leung) is gung ho to fight, enlisting in an all-Japanese unit that is given the toughest and most dangerous assignments. He fights in Italy and becomes a war hero. Before that, he has become attracted to the white nurse on the base, Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke). She slowly realizes that being a nurse at the camp is not what she signed up for and realizes the injustice of it all. They plan to make a life together after the war. On the other side is Frankie (Michael K. Lee) another college educated internee who becomes bitter and refuses induction; Sammy’s sister Kei (Lea Salonga) is attracted to Frankie and becomes pregnant.
Interwoven into the story of the Kimura family is the efforts of Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanbe) and the Japanese American Citizens League. The League and Masaoka have been heavily criticized for urging Japanese Americans to go along with the internment and not fighting hard enough against the prejudice and restrictions. (The League is an organization that still exists and Masaoka was its field executive of the organization.) Yet given the times, it is difficult to know what he and the League could have achieved.
The musical moves between locations. It is framed as a flashback. It opens with the elderly Sammy (also George Takei) learning that his sister has died and that she has left some items for him. It is clear that there has been a terrible breach and he had not seen her in decades. From there we go Salinas, California and the start of the war. In act one, we switch between life at the camp at Heart Mountain and Washington, DC, where Masaoka does try to ameliorate conditions but is met by brick walls.
Act two switches first between Heart Mountain, and the war front in Pisa and France in 1944 and later during the close of the war between Heart Mountain, Washington, DC (where Sammy is hailed as a hero), and San Francisco where Ojii-chan, Kei and Frankie are living.
The musical brings us back to the elderly Sammy in the closing scene.
The book by Marc Aciuto, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thorne moves smoothly between the various locations and does a good job at illustrating the diversity of opinions not only among the Japanese-Americans but also among the whites. It is the white political leaders that come off the worse.. The music and lyrics by Jay Kuo captures the 40s sound of the pop hits and presenting us with some heartfelt ballads. He does not stoop to pseudo-anthems that manipulate emotions. These are songs that derive from the characters.
A number of the musical numbers made me look forward to the original cast CD which will soon be available.
Director Stafford Arima has done an excellent job at letting us know exactly where we are, which is not as easy as it seems. He helps the songs and dances to seem natural without slowing the action. He effectively balances both the dark elements of the story with the more hopeful elements and the more cynical political elements. The choreography by Andrew Palermo is reflective of the 1940s and reflects the many young people at the camp.
Lea Salonga gives a touching performance as Kei, the young woman is uprooted from her life and finds herself attracted to someone whom her brother opposes his. She is torn between concern for her grandfather, father, brother and her growing attraction to Frankie.
Telly Leung is the young Sammy – a man who is also torn. He shows us the young man who is trying to find a way to manipulate the system – to get medication for his grandfather or better facilities for his family. He finds himself attracted to the white nurse. His voice is strong and his dancing excellent. Sammy is a difficult role since at times he seems “too good to be true.”
George Takei plays the dual roles of the grandfather and the older Sam with quiet grace and determination.
So many of the cast are so very effective, it is hard to mention them all: Christópheren Nomura as the father keeps his anger at what is happening just below the surface. Katie Rose Clarke is both touching and lovely as the nurse, Hannah Campbell. Greg Wantanbe is smooth as Mike Masaoka while Michael K. Lee gives us an increasingly angry Frankie.
The scenic design by Donyale Wele, costumes by Alejo Vietti, lighting by Howell Binkley and other members of the production team contribute mightily to the effective of this piece.
Allegiance is a moving and touching story which some delightful music. It is at the Longacre Theater, 220 W. 48th St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Sylvia, the play by A. R. Gurney which is currently on Broadway, is, on the surface, about a man and his dog. But underneath, it is about so much more: a mid-life crisis and the feelings of disconnection that so many feel in our increasingly abstract work places.
We all know that a man and his dog are inseparable; when that dog is cute and wiggly and blond, the man is apt to be even more smitten.
That is the impetus for the plot. Greg (Matthew Broderick) is a middle-aged executive who is unhappy in his job One day walking in NYC, a stray dog captures his heart so he bring her home (her tag says she is Sylvia, but no other information is provided), to the city apartment he and his wife have recently moved in to. As empty nesters, they are starting a new phase of their lives. His wife, Kate (Julie White) is less than thrilled. She’s been there and done that. Plus she has now started a rewarding career as an English teacher in the NYC schools; in fact she is caught up in a project to engage middle schoolers with Shakespeare.
So that is the set up: Greg wants to keep the dog and Kate does not want the responsibility or the limitations that caring for a dog involves.
The kicker is that Sylvia is played by an actress, in this case Annaleigh Ashford. (In the original cast it was Sarah Jessica Parker).
It is not a gimmick because it illuminates the triangle of man-dog-wife. Sylvia becomes the person, woman, who listens to him and gives him unquestioning devotion. She considers him a God and worships him. What man – or woman – wouldn’t want that type of devotion? Sylvia senses his discontent.
Kate is too busy to really be aware of Greg’s discontent and when he expresses it, she does not understand it. He has found his career becoming increasingly abstract – from manufacturing, where he says he could “see what your making, I could touch it” but from there he has been moved on to sales (“I still knew the product, I could picture it”) to trading futures in oil, corn and soybeans. Now his company wants him to trade currencies, money markets, derivatives. As he says, “Nothing to touch, to see, to get a purchase on. And that’s what I mean when I say it’s too abstract.”
Like any long term married couple, Kate and Greg are leading parallel lives; they still care about each other, but they seldom talk about the issues and emotions that are deep inside them. Conversation is about social engagements and work obligations.
Kate is obviously worried about Greg’s habit to leave work in the afternoon to walk or spend time in the park; she fields calls from his obviously annoyed boss. He can’t lose his job, but this is a man who is feeling disconnected and probably suffering from a middle-age depression.
With Sylvia he finds a new focus on interest. There long walks lead to interactions with the random people of NYC; the other owners in the dog park share a common interest.
The plot revolves around Greg’s increasing devotion to Sylvia and efforts to train her and the increasing distance between Kate and him. Afterall, she is still excited and energized by a career she has both waited for and loves.
To help explore these issues, one actor, Robert Sella, play three different roles. Tom is a dog park friend who obviously loves the hype-masculinity of his dog Bowser. Phyllis is an old friend that Kate meets whose purpose in the play seems to be to highlight the growing distance between Greg and Kate and his fixation on Sylvia. Leslie is an androgynous therapist they see.
So that brings us to this production directed by Daniel Sullivan.
Annaleigh Ashford is delicious as Sylvia. She has obviously observed dogs for a long time. She captures their neediness, their desire for attention and love. She has the physical moves down to a “T”. You can’t help but fall in love with her.
Julie White plays Kate to show us both her concern for her husband and her realization that some extent Sylvia has replaced her in his affections. Kate is neither a selfish person nor insensitive but occasionally she acts that way. White makes sure we see that underneath it all, Kate is a caring individual who is puzzled by what is going her husband’s life and somewhat threatened by it.
Robert Sella does a good job with the three roles. Tom is the “he-man” wannabe whose dog has the tough masculinity he would like; Phyllis is the socialite who understands too well what Kate is going through; and Leslie is a therapist seemingly amazed at Greg’s devotion to Sylvia. She/he is astonish when Greg suggests that Sylvia be a part of the therapy.
That brings us to Matthew Broderick. His Greg just seems bland. The character may be depressed about getting older, feeling alienated from his job and dealing with the fact that his wife’s attention is focused more on her job than him. BUT…it just seems like a low energy performance. While I have been naturally sympathetic to the character in other productions, this time, it was harder to generate that sympathy.
The scenic design by David Rockwell creates a background of the NY skyline and easily moves from the apartment (which isn’t a chicly furnished as I would have thought it would be), to the park and to other locations. Ann Roth’s costume designs delineate the characters and, of course, create delightful costumes for Sylvia. Japhy Weideman did the lighting design and Peter Fitzgerald, the sound design. You really do feel that you are surround by dogs.
Sylvia is an absolutely must for any dog lover. At intermission, audience members were sharing dog stories with total strangers.
Sylvia is at the Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St., NYC. Tickets are available through Telecharge. It is a limited run through Jan. 24.
By Karen Isaacs
Dames at Sea is a delightful, small musical that is a spoof of all those 1930s movie musicals about putting on a show. So the questions that needs to be asked are: Does this show deserve a Broadway production? Can it work in an 800+ seat theater? Can it attract an audience?
Billed as its Broadway debut, this production of Dames at Sea features a number of newcomers who are certainly talented, but the questions remain. My best guests are: a qualified yes, yes and with difficulty.
The show began life as a sketch in 1966 which was expanded until it reached its current two hour length and moved to off-Broadway where it ran for several years. It is credited with launching the career of Bernadette Peters.
As in any spoof, it helps if you are familiar the source material: The multiple ‘30s movie musicals that featured Busby Berkley numbers, and stories that revolved around the eager young actress and the aging star. A number of years after Dames at Sea closed, Broadway did have a huge hit show that told the same story: 42nd Street, based on a specific film.
In 2015, most of the audience is not familiar with this genre so the spoof elements of the show are lost.
The show opens when Ruby, an eager aspiring dancer from Utah, arrives backstage at a musical currently in rehearsal. At the urging of Joan, an experienced performer, the harried producer/director lets her show her stuff and voilá – she’s in the chorus. But her excitement is short-circuited when she realizes she left her suitcase at the bus terminal. Never fear, a young sailor had seen her, picked it up and followed her to the theater: she is reunited with her red tap shoes. In typical film fashion, it turns out that Dick is from her home town and a composer. Soon Lucky, Dick’s sailor friend shows up and is smitten with Joan.
But there are two major flies in the ointment. One is in the person of Mona Kent, the aging and demanding star who takes a romantic interest in Dick and wants his songs for her. The other is that the theater is being torn down. So hours before opening night, Dick suggests that given the title of the show, it be performed on the Navy ship he’s assigned to. Mona helps up because the Captain is an all flame and…..well, you know the rest. Mona gets seasick, Ruby goes on, and everything ends happily.
The show was written George Haimsohn and Robin Miller (book and lyrics) and Jim Wise (music) – not names that are known. None of them did much theatrical work after this success.
As in any musical spoof, the numbers must sound familiar. They must reference specific song types and often specific, well known songs. Again, if you are familiar with ‘30s music, it will be easy to see the connections; they easily could have appeared in musical films or stage musicals of the period.
The six person cast works hard and conveys the “gee-whizz” enthusiasm needed. Each sings and dances very well.
Eloise Kropp plays Ruby with verve and incredible tap skills; she’s joined by Cary Tedder as Dick the obtuse sailor, Mara Davi as Joan and Danny Gardner as Lucky. Each of them dances up a storm and sings delightfully.
John Bolton plays both the harried producer and the ship’s captain and creates two different characters. Lesli Margherita as Mona Kent seems at times to over stress the “chewing the scenery” aspects of the character.
Credit Randy Skinner for both the direction and choreography – you often forget there are just six performers on stage. The production team creates both the backstage and the ship; they aren’t supposed to look realistic but as if they were created on a backlot. Anna Louizos did the scenic design while the costumes by David C. Woolard did a good job creating the ‘30s feel.
Dames at Sea is at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St. For tickets contact Telecharge.