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
One of the hardest things for most people to do, is to realize that the choices we made in life were not forced but voluntary. That often they satisfied some deep-seated need.
In Arthur Miller’s The Price which is getting an outstanding production at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, Victor Franz, a NYC police officer is forced to confront those truths. He must let go of the resentment and belief that the choices he made in life were forced upon him by others. He willingly made them.
It is 1968, Victor Franz is waiting for an antique dealer to arrive. He is finally selling the furniture and artifacts that were his father’s, though the father died 16 years before. But for some reason, it has been undisturbed until now the building has been sold and will be torn down. All he wants is a “price” for the collection of tables, chairs, bureaus, lamps and more that remain. It is clear that at one time, his father was prosperous.
Soon his wife, Esther, stops by and from the conversation we learn a lot: He and his brother have not spoken since the father’s death, the brother (Walter) is a successful physician. Esther, more than Victor, harbors resentment towards the brother, but also envies his affluence. She argues that Victor should not share the proceeds from the sale with Walter. Victor has been trying to contact Walter to let him know about the appointment with the dealer, but he is unsure if Walter got the message or will bother coming.
Soon, Gregory Solomon arrives. He is the dealer though he is in 80s and retired. He is also a talker. He talks in circles, frustrating Victor who wants him to “give me the price.” Through this talk we learn that the father had gone bankrupt during the depression and after his wife died had seemed unable to care for himself; Victor had moved him to take care him, but there was little money. He says they ate garbage.
Act one ends with the arrival of Walter. Act two explores the dynamics between these two estranged brothers. Victor dropped out of college to take care of his father and joined the police force for the security. He had given up the opportunity to pursue his interest in science. Walter, the younger, had stayed in school, contributed little to the father’s upkeep and become successful. But he had suffered a crisis a few years earlier and has developed a different perspective.
The climax of the plot is that at one time Victor had asked Walter for a loan of $500 to continue in school. Walter had told him to ask his father. Walter knew, though Victor would not acknowledge, that the father had managed to keep some money – several thousand dollars. Yet he did not offer it to Victor.
This 1968 play revisits themes that Miller developed in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons. Except in this play the father is dead, although there is a father figure. The play revolves around father-son and brother relationships. How parents often favor one child over another and what that can do to both of them. How brothers can become estranged.
But the play really deals with the choice we make and how often we convince ourselves that there was no choice.
Victor slowly begins to realize that he sacrificed for his father, not because it was the right thing to do or that there was no other option, but because it satisfied some need of his.
This production is blessed with four outstanding performances. Each of the performers mines fully the emotions, the baggage and the back stories of their characters. While you may initially view one of the brothers as the hero and the other the villain, by the end you see them as both complex human beings and feel compassion for both of them.
That is due to the find performances of Mark Ruffalo as Victor and Tony Shalhoub as Walter. They get far below the surface of their characters and show us every aspect through their gestures, voices, bodies and eyes. Too often, Walter is portrayed as both selfish and self-involved. Here you see him as a man shaken by the events of the last few years. You also see that he had more realistic view of his father than Victor had. Ruffalo burrows beneath the self-righteousness of Victor as he slowly begins to acknowledge truths that he had suspected but had pushed down.
Jessica Hecht balances Esther’s resentment of Walter and of Victor, with her realism. She keeps repeating a line that “she did not believe what she knew.”
As the antique dealer, Danny DeVito has the comic role and it makes good use of it. While, occasionally he goes overboard – spitting pieces of hard cooked egg repeatedly, it does help to break the tension.
Director Terry Kinney has managed his talented cast with expertise and has assembled a fine production crew. Each element – set design by Derek McLane, costumes by Sarah J. Holden, lighting by David Weiner and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen—make major contributions to our enjoyment and understanding of this play.
The Price may be considered by some to be “lesser” Miller, but it reminds us that even “lesser” Miller is so much better than so many other works.
It is at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street through May 14. For tickets visitRoundabout Theatre.