By Karen Isaacs
Of the 40 or so shows I saw in NYC in 2017, which were my favorites
Come from Away
In 2017, I needed a show that reminded me of people’s goodness and caring. Come from Away did just that without being manipulative nor saccharine. The show combined extraordinary direction by Christopher Ashley, fine cast with Jenn Colella as a standout and a enjoyable score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. I was delighted it was a hit.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
I had missed the various off-Broadway incarnations of this show, but the one at the Imperial Theater was amazing. I loved how the theater was totally transformed into a Russian café and the cast was all around me. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of musical genres and was delighted with Josh Groban’s performance as the depressed and lonely Pierre. I only regretted the limited awards it won and the producers’ missteps that led to its early departure.
The Band’s Visit
David Yazbek’s score and this sweet, gentle story—though occasionally slow – again reminds us of people’s innate kindness. Plus it featured an astounding performance by Katrina Lenk.
I won’t say this is a definitive production of this classic musical, and Bette Midler may not be the perfect Dolly, but what a show it was. She is an amazing performer and the rest of the cast was able to hold own against her star power. Brava!
My runner-up Musicals
Of, the Broadway musicals that opened or were revived, I enjoyed War Paint the best. To see Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole together was wonderful. Plus I found the score delightful.
Off-Broadway, John Kander (with new partner Greg Pierce) tackled a tough subject in Kid Victory. The return of a teen boy who was abducted and held captive by a predator before being returned to his conservative, religious family. Karen Ziemba as the mother and Jeffrey Denham as the predator were terrific.
My Top Plays
The back story of the Israeli-Palestine Peace Accords signed in 1993 might not seem made for theater, but playwright J. R. Rogers, director Barlett Sher and a top notch cast led by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle turned this into a fascinating and suspenseful drama.
I saw this play at Yale Rep and was entranced; the magic continued on Broadway with this spectacular ensemble cast and a fascinating look at a piece of forgotten American theater history.
Lynn Nottage play about blue collar workers losing their economic footing in 21st century America made me want to cry. It was real, it touched the economic issues and the personal ones. It featured another terrific ensemble cast.
A strong ensemble cast led by John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden plus superb direction by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and a great set by David Gallo brought out all the strengths in this August Wilson play.
This revival of William Nicholson’s play about the unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving. It also featured a fine cast and set – that easily would have garnered praise on Broadway.
The Little Foxes
I saw Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie and wished I had also seen them in the opposite roles. They were terrific as were the entire cast including Richard Thomas as Horace. The production was both chilling in its depiction of greed and spell binding.
In the runner-up category, I’d include
Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht were all terrific in this revival of Arthur Miller’s play, directed by Terry Kinney. I found that Danny DeVito was over-the-top as the antique dealer, detracting from the piece.
Kevin Kline made this revival a must see. He WAS the perfect actor to play Gary Essendine. Of course, the fabulous set and the strong performances by Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders and Bhavesh Patel added to the fun.
The Home Place
It isn’t Brian Friel’s best play, but this production at the Irish Rep was so good and focused on such interesting topics that any failings of the play were easily overlooked.
The Man from Nebraska
Pitch perfect performances by Reed Birney and Annett O’Toole as a conventional man who loses his faith and his wife, made this Tracy Lett’s play at Second Stage riveting. Lett shows us what happens when those who always follow the rules, stop doing so, but he doesn’t provide easy answers. Birney and O’Toole also did not take the easy road in their performances.
By Karen Isaacs
It’s generated buzz since its debut off-Broadway last fall. Now The Band’s Visit has made it to Broadway and it lives up to all of the hype.
It is a warm story about people learning about themselves and about people they have viewed as very different from them.
The show, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, is based on the 2007 Israeli film that won acclaim and prizes throughout the world. The film told the story of the eight member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra that has been invited to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center in PetahTikva. Due to a language mix up (it isn’t important to understand the how) the group arrives at Beit Harikva in the Negev Desert.
In this small “no wheresville” town, there are no hotels, but a few of the residents take the band members in and provide food, shelter and companionship for one night. Bonds of friendship are formed in the few hours before the band departs on a bus to take them to their correct location.
It’s a gentle story. Yes, there is an occasional brief instances of prejudice by one or two townspeople, but other than that, the dramatic conflict is minimal.
This musical is more about people getting to know each other, than about disagreements and conflict.
Director David Cromer must be given credit for not trying to make this piece more “Broadway” then it should be. He moves the scenes along without rushing them and allows the audience to involve themselves in the characters and the story.
Each of the characters is finely drawn and beautifully performed. Tony Shalhoub plays Tewfiq, the very proper leader of the group. Though he only has one number, “Something Different” which is a duet with Dina, his performance is the backbone of this piece. It’s all in his reserve, his posture, his gestures – it is he who sets the tone and acts as the parent to the others in the orchestra.
If he is the backbone, then Dina, played by Katrina Lenk is the soul of the play. Dina is the owner of the café where the band comes to ask for directions. It is she who organizes the food and accommodations for the night. She is the leader among her group of friends. Lenk, who was brilliant in Indecent last year, is equally brilliant here. She conveys her concern for fellow humans in every way. It is she who sets the tone with the songs, “Welcome to Nowhere” and “It Is What It Is.” And it is she that that breaks through the reserve of Tewfiq.
While many of the other characters begin as “types” – they soon emerge as much more than that type. John Cariani as Itzik begins as the “man-child” who is abdicating responsibility for his wife and child, but by the end has gained new ambition. Haled, played by Ari’el Stachel is the lothario in the band, but he too becomes much more than that as he spends the evening wondering the town with Papi, played equally well by Etai Benson. Even though some of the band members have few lines, they still create unique characters.
Each of the characters have known loss and disappointment. From the band member who started a concerto only to stop after the first few bars, to the young man who sits waiting for an out-of-service phone (in a phone booth) to ring.
These characters are separated by language, distance, nationality, religion and sometimes politics though that is not the focus on the piece. Yet they forge human connections and learn about each other while discovering things about themselves.
It is difficult to say too much about the magnificent music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Once again, he has adapted to his environment. This score pulls from the tonal palate of both Arabic and Jewish music while still being totally accessible to American audiences. I can’t wait for the cast CD to be released.
Itamar Moses’ book is smooth and handles the transitions and changes in mood adeptly. It is not obvious but it is important.
Scott Pask has created a turntable set that allows for the multiple locations – the café, the street, Itzik’s home, Dina’s apartment, and more. The set combined with the lighting design by Tyler Micoleau and the costumes by Sarah Laux, immerse in the small town evening/night. Her costumes for the band makes a statement all by themselves. They are humorous, self-important, and yet with their powder blue color, non-threatening. This may be a police orchestra, but you can’t imagine any of them actually being police officers.
The Band’s Visit is a musical that will captivate many. It is gentle, romantic, wistful and regretful. Those who want high energy dancing, chorus numbers and more in their musicals, will be disappointed unless they are willing to accept the quiet depth of this piece.
In some ways it reminds me of Come from Away last year’s surprise hit. Both deal with ensemble casts, both feature the band as much as the singers, both leave us feeling hopeful and optimistic about people. They are different, but they are also both excellent.
A Band’s Visit is a tender, thoughtful musical that is so very worth seeing. It is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
“Indecent,” the new play by Paula Vogel blends music, dance, song, scenes from the famous Yiddish play “The God of Vengeance” and the history of the play so seamlessly that you are entranced.
It weaves these multiple stories plus episodes from the life of its author Sholem Asch to create a multi-dimensional piece performed by a true ensemble. Six actors are assigned multiple roles based on age — the two older play an older characters, the 40ish actors play characters of that age and the younger performers play the younger characters. Yet you never are confused about who is playing which character.
With the exception of Richard Topol who plays the stage manager/narrator (as well as other characters), the program simply lists them as “actor”.
The piece was directed by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman who has been with the project since its beginning. It had its world premiere at Yale Rep in 2015 and won numerous awards from the Connecticut Critics Circle. It then played off-Broadway before now making it to the Great White Way.
During its travel, the same cast has remained with it as well as the same production team and musicians.
The Broadway production is stronger than the one I saw at Yale. Yet it retains the essence of the story.
For most theatr-goers, the incidents which the play recounts will not be familiar. It involves the novelist/playwright Sholem Asch who wrote initially in Yiddish and his play The God of Vengeance.
This play delves deeper than just the history of the production of this work and its author. It raises an issue that every minority who is looked down upon by mainstream society faces: Should the less-than-admirable aspects of our group be revealed for those who already denigrate us?
Indecent covers the period from the play’s writing and first reading in a Warsaw literary salon in 1907 through WWII and even beyond.
At that time, in what was called the Jewish Enlightenment, many Eastern European Jews were promoting literature written in Yiddish. But many of those who promoted this also wanted positive portrayals of the Jews living in Eastern Europe.
At the first reading, God of Vengeance was controversial; the young Asch writes a play that includes a Jewish owned brothel, a love affair between the owner’s daughter and one of the prostitutes, and the “shocking” treatment of a Jewish scroll. It showed a side of Jewish life which many did not want told.
The men start reading the play but are soon horrified. The play tells the story of a Jewish man who runs a brothel, his wife is one of his former prostitutes and he has a virginal daughter. But the daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes to her father’s horror.
Yet the play was produced in Berlin with the great actor Rudolph Schildkraut as the father, St. Petersburg, Moscow and other locations throughout Europe in both Yiddish and native languages. In New York City’s lower east side, the play had various successful productions for more than 15 years.
Asch and some of the performers in the actors (including Schildkraut) emigrated to the US and in 1923, the Provincetown Playhouse in New York (known for producing the works of Eugene O’Neill) produced an English production.
It is here that the story of The God of Vengeance turns. The producer wants to bring it to Broadway, but feels the story must be revised to fit the up-town audience; Asch lets the producer do it, but never reads the changes. His English was very limited and he had turned his attention to writing novels. Many felt the new version makes the play even more controversial; instead of a love story between the prostitute and the daughter, the prostitute is simply trying to recruit the daughter the life. A Rabbi files an obscenity complaint and the entire cast, producers and theater owner are all arrested and convicted of indecency. (The conviction is later overturned).
During the course of the 100 minute play, a very talented cast of six plays a variety of roles.
Max Gordon Moore portrays Asch as a man of conviction though flawed. He admits he agreed to the cuts for the Broadway production without reading them and refuses to testify at the company’s criminal trial. Katrina Link is luminous as the prostitute Manke who falls in love with the daughter – on stage and with the actress in real life. Her commitment to the work is clear. Adina Verson plays not only Asch’s wife but also Rifkele, the daughter. Tom Nellis plays I.L. Peretz, the salon host but also the actor Rudolph Schildkraut with elegance and grace. Mimi Lieber plays the mother in Asch’s play and Steve Rattazzi plays the producer, the Rabbi and others.
Richard Topol serves as both the stage manager and the defender of the piece. His portrayal is heart-breaking as the young man from the provinces who first hears the play read and is totally transformed by it and is the stage manager/defender during its controversial production.
The movement choreographed by David Dorfman adds an elegant touch, especially the very graceful Tom Nellis.
The play begins as if the characters have been packed away for years, perhaps even buried and it moves among the various scenes with props pulled from old-fashioned suitcases.
Taichman as director has a sure hand at managing the multiple scene changes and characters in the play. She is aided by her production team – lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, costume designer Emily Rebholz, sound designer Matt Hubs and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez.
Three fine musicians – Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva (both of whom composed the music) and Travis W. Hendrix – provide an accompaniment that is reminiscent of klezmer music.
Indecent is a fascinating play that any theater lover should see. It explores a piece of theater history as well as raising challenging questions about the role of literature for minority populations.
It is at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. For tickets visit Telecharge.