Thursday, October 30, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: It's Only a Play with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane. Photo by Joan Marcus
It’s Only a Play, but Nathan Lane Makes it Something More
By Lauren Yarger
If you wanted to write a play designed to give comic genius Nathan Lane a chance to shine in the spotlight, Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, getting a revival on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre, would be it.

McNally’s original 1978 play predated Lane’s triumph in The Producers, (he is reunited with co-star Matthew Broderick here), but seems the perfect vehicle for him. Even a facial expression brings laughs.

Lane is James Wicker, an actor who turned down the lead role in the play of his best friend, Peter Austin (Broderick), ostensibly because the shooting schedule of his popular TV program conflicted. But really, he didn’t want to be in such a turkey. He shows up for Peter’s opening night party where everyone awaits the all-important review from Ben Brantley in the NY Times.

The real action isn’t at the party.  It’s upstairs in the townhouse of Producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) where partygoers go to escape. Especially nervous is the play’s star, Virginia Noyes (a lusciously lushy and vibrant Stockard Channing), who is hoping some stage work will reinvigorate a waning movie career.

Not nervous, and actually hoping for some bad reviews instead of the boring ones he always gets calling him a genius, is odd British Director Frank Finger (Ruper Grint, of  Ron Weasley, “Harry Potter” film fame). Finger also has an uncontrollable urge to steal small trinkets from the townhouse…

Joining the entourage are drama critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham) and Gus P. Head (Micah Stock in an impressive Broadway debut), a new-to-town, wannabe actor who was hired to take coats and pour drinks, but who finds himself in the middle of the opening-night angst.

Humor abounds – it is a group of self-obsessed actors, after all – and the play elicits out-loud guffaws throughout, thanks much to recent updates by McNally to replace out-of-date names and references with modern ones. One prayer scene is particularly funny. And Brantley’s review is hysterical. If you’re not a theater aficionado, you might miss some of the meaning, but you’ll probably still laugh.

At the heart of it all is Lane, who doesn’t miss a beat and who attacks the role with anything but a lackluster energy that would have you believe it’s only a play. He’s totally enjoyable, and truth be told, I took very few notes since I was simply enjoying watching him work. Kudos to Director Jack O’Brien for letting that happen. It also was fun to see some of the actors trying to keep a straight face on stage.

Channing is a hoot and a treasure (as always). Young Stock as the stage-struck kid gives a performance that proves he is a star in the making himself.

Some notes I did take however (and maybe O’Brien could have grabbed the reins a bit more on these):
·         Didn’t like Mullally’s Southern accent and didn’t quite buy her as the ingenue producer
·         Costumes by Ann Roth were puzzling. Julia looks like she’s wearing a wedding dress, for example. Not sure what the heck the suit Finger wears is supposed to be.
·         Grint is a bit over the top as the eccentric director (though he may be just as much a box-office factor as the Lane/Broderick combination -- folks stopping outside the theater to gaze at a massive cast photo plastered on the stage door were stopping to say, “Hey, isn’t that the guy from Harry Potter?”)
·         Surprisingly, there isn’t any magic between Lane and Broderick, who seems oddly subdued.

It's Only a Play runs at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St., NYC. http://itsonlyaplay.com.

Christians might also like to know: 
-- Language
-- Lord's name taken in vain
-- Sexually suggestive dialogue and actions


Monday, October 27, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: On the Town

Clyde Alves, Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson. Photo: Joan Marcus

Ballet Gets a Big Night On the Town in Old Fashioned Revival
By Lauren Yarger
More than 30 actors and an unusually large orchestra bring back the first Leonard Bernstein music heard on Broadway in an old-fashioned revival that’s a sort-of love song to the place where the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.

You might recognize those lyrics (and perhaps the whole thing thanks to the old film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra). Yes, “New York, New York” is one of the tunes getting played by the 28-piece orchestra musically directed by James Moore. The original 1944 musical was based on an idea by Jerome Rpbbins, who had choreographed Bernstein’s tunes in a ballet called Fancy Free for the American Ballet Theater.

The book and lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who gave us the screenplays for classics like “Singing in the Rain and “Good News” and the books for stage musicals Applause, Wonderful Town and On the Twentieth Century (which also will be revived this season on Broadway) among others.

And since its roots are in the ballet, this production features a lot of it. Far more than we usually get to see on a Broadway Stage. Joshua Bergasse, who choreographed the Barrington Stage revival which was the precursor for this Broadway revival, is making his Broadway debut. You might know his work from the TV show “Smash,” for which he won an Emmy.

Pulling the production together is excellent Director Jon Rando (A Christmas Story, Urinetown) on sets designed by Beowulf Boritt that use mirrored effect to let us see the choreography from all angles (and which make the 30-plus ensemble look even larger).

Now if you wonder why I have been talking about the creative part of the show instead of the show itself, there’s a reason. There’s not much of a plot. Three sailors on shore leave hope to find love (or at least some sex) during their night on the town. That’s about it. OK, I will fill in a few more details.
Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) has an old guide to the city and hopes to see some of the same sites his father told him about visiting a decade ago. He is disappointed to find many of them no longer exist, but ready-for-action cab driver Hildy (Alysha Umphress) adds her place to the itinerary and the two are soon taking a different kind of tour…

Ozzie (Clyde Alves) finds himself at the Museum of Natural History where anthropologist Claire de Loone (Elizabeth Stanley, whose high soprano is often hard to understand) finds him very much like the Neanderthals she is studying.  Because she’s also ready for action and eager to escape boring, but understanding Pitkin Bridgework (Michael Rupert), she is soon joining Ozzie for another kind of study about the development of man….

Meanwhile, the romantic adventures of Chip and Ozzie take them away for their real purpose that night: helping War hero buddy Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) track down June’s “Miss Turnstiles,” a.k.a. Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild), whom Gabey fell in love with when he saw her face on a subway poster. Gabey manages to find Ivy on his own, however, but will their romance be thwarted by Maude P. Dilly (Jackie Hoffman)? The vocal teacher has been giving the suggestive dancer/wanna-be-actress vocal lessons and would rather the girl go to her dancing job wants the girl to go to work, rather than on a date with Gabey, so she can pay off her bill.

OK. I told you the plot was iffy….

There are some fun moments. The show opens with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem and the opening number features the delicious baritone of Phillip Boykin, who is totally underused in this production. Hoffman gets to play a number of comedic parts (much needed in this sleepy no plotter) and has them rolling in the aisles with her vocal warm-up. Fortunately Boritt gives the sets a sort of cartoonish feel so we never feel the show is taking itself too seriously. That’s good, especially when one of the dinosaurs at the museum starts to boogey….

All of the performances are good, but I kept thinking that if I had wanted to see ballet, I would have headed up to Lincoln Center (Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, makes her Broadway debut as Ivy). I’d rather hear that rare, large orchestra playing some tunes to which a full chorus could sing (most of the numbers are largely orchestral with little singing) and tap dance (though Bernstein’s tunes here don’t really lend themselves). It’s nice to look at, but didn’t engage me much, especially with premise that presents women mostly as mannequins, beauty contest contestants and willing objects of lust.

On the Town pirouettes at the Lyric Theatre, 213West 42nd St., NYC (kind of ironic that an old-fashioned musical replaces the high-flying, modern tech wonder Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark which previously ran in this large house, then known as the  Foxwoods Theater). http://www.onthetownbroadway.com.

Christians might like to know:
-- Lord's name taken in vain

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: You Can't Take It With You

Kristine Nielsen and James Earl Jones. Photo: Joan Marcus
You Can’t Take it with You, but You Can Enjoy it a Lot While You Are in the Theater
By Lauren Yarger
They don’t get much better than this. A wonderful play with a dream cast, lovingly directed by Scott Ellis.

Moss Hart and George S. Kauffman’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play You Can’t Take It With You is the star-studded revival on Broadway that has me smiling this fall. The antics of the zany Sycamore family play out in a rambling old house crammed full of eclectic knickknacks and collections as unique as its inhabitants (designed by David Rockwell).

There is a hodgepodge of people living in the house, headed by Penelope Sycamore (comedic genius Kristine Nielsen), who decided to become a novelist one day when a typewriter was delivered by mistake, and her husband, Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), who spends his time developing fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), who delivered ice one year and who just never left….

Daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford)contantly practices the ballet she learns from Boris Kolenkhov (Reg Rogers), who escaped Russia before the revolution and makes candies for shy husband, Ed (a delightful Will Brill who evokes Mr. Bean) to sell when he isn’t busy composing something for her to dance to on the xylophone (Ashford’s attempted dancing is a hoot).

Meanwhile, Grandpa Vanderhof (James Earl Jones) collects snakes, drunken actress, Gay Wellington (Julie Halston), falls asleep in one of the rooms, Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Elizabeth Ashley) grants an audience and IRS agent Wilbur C. Henderson (Karl Kenzer) wants to know why Grandpa never has paid any income tax. (Vanderhof walked away from his stressful business and the money it brought a long time ago. He prefers not to think about money….)

Now, throw into that mix a love story. Daughter Alice Sycamore (Rose Byrne “Bridemaids,” “Damages”) has fallen in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kanz), son of wealthy Anthony P. (Byron Jennings) and  Miriam Kirby (Johanna Day) who shows up gown-draped and wearing a tiara (thanks to brilliant costume design by Jane Greenwood) on the wrong night.

Alice is mortified at the thought of the proper and “normal” Kirbys meeting her family and sparks do fly (the most entertaining of which are watching Day’s face at the sight of Ashford fluttering about). Chaos ensues when government agents show up to investigate explosives in the house and throw everyone in jail.

You Can’t Take It With You, first presented in 1936, was adapted for film and went on to win the Academy Award. Much of the humor, particularly about taxes and the government’s uses of them, still are relevant. So are the themes about family and unconditional love.

·         “Life is kind of beautiful if you just let it come at you.”

·         “The only thing that matters is that we love each other.”

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Nielsen is brilliant as the mother writing lusty romances and Ellis skillfully keeps the stars from competing with each other, or from walking over Byrne, who is making her Broadway debut. He miscasts the role of servant Rheba (Crystal Dickinson), however, and Halston is just a bit too over-the-top.

It’s a lighthearted romp (which probably could use a bit of trimming) into simpler -- and probably better -- times in two hours and 15 minutes (there are three acts and two intermissions).

You Can't Take It With You runs through Feb. 22, 2015 at the Longacre Theatre,  220 West 48th St., NYC.  Performances: Tuesday and Thursday at 7 pm; Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday at 3 pm.  http://allthewaybroadway.com/

Christian might also like to know:
--God's name taken in vain


Monday, October 6, 2014

Broadway Review: The Country House


A Tip of the Hat to Chekhov While Creating a Family Drama All Its Own
By Lauren Yarger
All the world’s a stage and by the number of productions of his works or productions owing their inspiration to his works one would think drama could not take place without Anton Chekhov. Donald Margulies’ newest play, The Country House getting a Broadway run by Manhattan Theatre Club, tips its hat to The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, but happily focuses on the roles people play in the drama unfolding on life’s stage rather than on trying to pay homage to the Russian classics.

Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty sets the stage with a comfortable-looking, gable-roofed family cottage in the Berkshires. Its location has been convenient for the family of actors and theater types who stay there while working at the Williamstown festival. But that is the end of convenient and comfortable for this family.

The gathering this season is bittersweet as it marks the one-year anniversary of the passing of popular Kathy, who in many ways held the family together.

Matriarch and Queen of the Theater Anna Patterson (Blythe Danner) agrees to let her director/ son-in-law, Walter (David Rasche), bring his new and much-younger actress fiancee Nell (Kate Jennings Grant) to the house, a decision that is not popular with granddaughter, Susie (Sarah Steele) who still misses her mom or unemployed actor/son, Elliot (Eric Lange) who hasn’t gotten over the loss of his sister and best friend. Not only is Nell seen as a too-soon replacement for the beloved Kathy, but the family can’t figure out why such a beauty would want to be saddled with an aging guy facing knee-replacement surgery, unless of course, she is just after his money or a starring role in one of his films…
Also causing angst is Anna’s decision to invite old friend Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata) to stay at the house during his Williamstown engagement since his own house is being fumigated. Astor and Kathy had been lovers and Susie, who has been following the very successful career of the dashingly good-looking, old family friend, lets him know that she is interested in pursuing some of the other action the actor is famous for  -- in bed.  Meanwhile, Anna lets Michael know that he is welcome in her bed if he gets tired of sleeping on the couch in the living room. . . To the sexual frustration of Grandmother and Granddaughter, however, Michael’s eye roams toward Nell.
When pathetic loser Elliot announces that he has written a play and wants the family to do a reading of it, the tension really ratchets up a few notches leading to revelations about Elliot’s feelings of playing understudy to Kathy in his mother’s affections all his life. In fact, all of the family members explore the roles they play with each other. Could any of them even be nominated for an “Unconditional Love” Tony?
Standing out on the performance side in this production are Steele (“Spanglish”), who plays the self-confident, blunt-speaking Susie with a fierceness that rips off the drama masks being worn by her family members and Lange (“The Bridge,” “Weeds,” “Lost”), who delivers sarcastic lines of rapier wit with a fine-edged sword. The humor is a defense for a very depressed guy behind the tragedy mask and Lange expertly shows us the complexities of a character who just wants to be loved.
Danner, much like the grand dame she portrays, delivers a layered performance with a touch of elegance, and Daniel Sullivan aptly directs solid performances from the rest of the ensemble: We understand Walter, feel for Nell and discover shallowness under Michael’s “Hollywood-star-but-I’m-a-Humanitarian” charity work to build schools in the Congo.

While the plot developments are fairly predictable (though there is one surprise, delightfully revealed by Lighting Director Peter Kaczorowski ), Pulitzer-prize winner Margulies (Dinner With Friends) delivers a family drama all its own in this homage to Chekhov.

The Country House plays through Dec. 9 at  Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., NYC.  http://www.manhattantheatreclub.org/

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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