Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bunty Berman Presents ***

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Ayub Khan Din's 1996 play "East Is East" is one of the funniest plays I have ever seen (rent the movie!), so I have been looking forward to his new musical, an affectionate look at Bollywood, now in previews at The New Group. This time around, he wrote the book, lyrics and, with Paul Bogaev, the music. Due to an injury that forced the lead actor to drop out, he even took over the title role. I found the show charming, but many might disagree. If you have a taste for silliness, cartoonish characters, corny jokes, ridiculous plot developments, pratfalls, sight gags and word play, you will have a good time. Bunty Berman is head of a third-rate Bombay movie studio whose success was built on its star Raj Dhawan (the hilarious Sorab Wadia), who is now long in the tooth and broad in the beam. The studio's only hope for survival is to take in as a partner a notorious gangster Shankar Dass (Alok Tewari) who wants to turn his son Chandra (Raja Burrows) into a star. Bunty's loyal personal assistant Dolly (Gayton Scott) longs for his attention. Saleem, the tea boy (Nick Choksi), is in love with the leading lady Shambervi (Lipica Shah). Dass is smitten with exotic dancer Sandra de Souza (Lyn Philistine). There is a running gag that one of the henchmen is a walking thesaurus, ever ready with an apt synonym or two.  Derek McLane's functional set is enhanced by projections by Wendall K Harrington. William Ivey Long's costumes are wonderful. The choreography by Josh Prince is hilarious. Scott Elliott's direction is fine. I laughed myself silly, but I am aware that not everyone would share my delight. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, including intermission.

Nikolai and the Others **

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Judging from his new play at Lincoln Center Theater, Richard Nelson does not believe that less is more. He gives us 18 characters to keep track of over a span of 2 hours, 40 minutes, with a ballet excerpt thrown in for good measure. 15 of the characters are Russian emigres involved in the arts, including choreographer George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris), composer Igor Stravinsky (John Glover), conductor Serge Koussevitsky (Dale Pace), actor Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino), set designer Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein) and, last but not least, Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), a minor composer who is working for the U.S. government spreading largess to win the cultural Cold War. They, their wives, ex-wives and admirers are gathered on a Spring weekend in 1948 in rustic Connecticut to celebrate the ailing Sudeikin's name day and view a rehearsal of Orpheus, Balanchine and Stravinsky's current collaboration. The remaining three characters are the dancers Maria Tallchief, Balanchine's current wife (Natalia Alonso), and Nicholas Magallenes (Michael Rosen), and an uninvited guest "Chip" Bohlen (Gareth Saxe), a U.S. diplomat who keeps an intimidating eye on important Russian emigres. The play is most successful in capturing the pathos of those cut off from their cultural heritage, nostalgic for their homeland, clinging together, insecure and fearful in their adopted country. The rehearsal scene gives some insight into the creative process and provides us with some gorgeous dancing. The ballet sequence also provides a welcome respite from the nonstop conversation, table setting and clearing and eating. The role of the wives (Blair Brown, Kathryn Erbe and Betsy Aidem) is mainly to look after their men. The dancers don't get much respect either. During the course of the weekend, Nikolai comes to regret abandoning composing for his job helping fellow emigres and feels the sting of ingratitude. The acting seemed a bit flat, but with such a large cast, there is not much opportunity to develop deep characterization. David Cromer directs with a sure hand. The shabbiness of Marsha Ginsberg's set is deliberate, I assume. Jane Greenwood's costumes seem appropriate. Even though I was predisposed to like the play because of my interest in Balanchine and Stravinsky, I found it less rewarding than I had hoped. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pippin ****

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Seeing Diane Paulus's imaginative revival of Stephen Schwartz's 1972 musical about the coming of age of Charlemagne's son is almost like getting two shows for the price of one. She has cleverly chosen to enhance -- or, in the opinion of some, to distract from -- Roger D. Hirson's book by setting the action in a circus milieu, adding the prodigious talents of Les 7 Doigts de la main, a Montreal-based troupe similar to Cirque de Soleil. The circus sequences are breathtaking and are, for the most part, well-integrated into the book. The dance numbers choreographed by Chet Walker "in the style of Bob Fosse" are terrific, although they sometimes seem unrelated to the action. The cast is strong. Patina Miller has the unenviable job of following in Ben Vereen's footsteps as the Leading Player, but she is up to the task. British actor Matthew James Thomas is excellent in the title role. Charlotte d'Amboise, Terrence Mann and Rachel Bay Jones are all fine, but Andrea Martin steals the show as Berthe, Pippin's spritely grandmother. (She looks so great that it's almost impossible to believe that she's 66.) Scott Pask's set design and Dominique Lemieux's costumes are wonderful. The audience seemed largely composed of avid Pippin fans who burst into wild applause at every opportunity. Most of it was well-deserved. I had a good time. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Last Five Years ***

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Second Stage Theatre has revived Jason Robert Brown's popular theater piece in a production with two excellent singing actors, Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe, directed by the composer. I say "theater piece" rather than "musical" because the work is basically a song cycle with aspirations. The gimmick is to have the two characters alternate songs, with Jamie telling the story of their relationship from beginning to end while Kathy tells it in reverse from breakup to first meeting. They share a song only once when their chronologies meet and again, very briefly, at the end. When I saw the original production, I wasn't sure whether the gimmick enhanced or detracted from the work and I'm still not sure. What I am certain of is that the score is very good. Brown's music and lyrics and the way he integrates the vocal and instrumental lines are admirable. Kantor and Wolfe have big shoes to fill (Norbert Lee Butz and Sherie Renee Scott in the original), but succeed completely. The six fine musicians, who are arranged on individual platforms on the back wall, perform beautifully. Derek McLane's set is appropriately simple as are Emily Rebholz's costumes. Jeff Sugg's projections are used sparingly, but effectively. I still don't fully embrace the show's underlying concept, but I enjoyed the evening. The audience was notably younger and more enthusiastic than usual. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Trip to Bountiful **

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The concept of this revival of Horton Foote's classic play, now in previews at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, is a puzzler. Although the four leading roles are played by black actors, the authority figures -- the ticket sellers and the sheriff -- are not. If the entire cast were black, that would make some sense to me. But the gimmicky casting raised distracting questions in my mind. Would the bus station and the buses in Texas have been integrated in 1953? Would blacks have owned farms and attended dances in Harrison, TX in the 1920's? Would a white sheriff have been so kind to a black woman? Wondering about these irrelevant matters might not have distracted me had other aspects of the production been more compelling. Even allowing for Foote's leisurely writing, the pace seemed sluggish. Cicely Tyson had some good moments, but occasionally swallowed her lines. Cuba Gooding Jr. was monotonously hangdog as her henpecked son and Vanessa Williams was relentlessly shrewish as his wife. Condola Rashad hit the right notes as Thelma and Tom Wopat was fine as the sheriff. Jeff Cowie's set for the family's cramped apartment didn't find a clever solution to differentiate the two rooms; his set for the final scene was quite lovely though. Van Broughton Ramsey's costumes seemed correct for the period. Michael Wilson, whose direction of other Foote plays has been so assured, seemed a bit off his stride here. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Call ***

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There is much to admire in Tanya Barfield's new play at Playwrights Horizons. The characters are vividly drawn and excellently realized by a fine cast, the dialog is lively and convincingly authentic, and the premise is promising. Annie (Kerry Butler) and Peter (Kelly AuCoin) are a white couple who, after a long battle against infertility that has left Annie depressed, decide to adopt an African baby. Their best friends, a black lesbian couple Rebecca (Eisa Davis) and Drea (Crystal A. Davidson), have mixed feelings about their decision. Peter had been a close friend of Rebecca's older brother, who died after a trip he and Peter made to Africa. The circumstances of his death are a topic usually avoided, but that come out late in the play. Peter and Annie have a new neighbor from Africa, Alemu (Russell G. Jones), whose perpetual smile masks survivor guilt. When they get a picture of the girl they are planning to adopt, they think she looks considerably older than her alleged age, which sets off new doubts in Annie. Unfortunately, the play spins its wheels a bit in act two and the various strands do not blend very successfully. Nevertheless, it is a worthy effort that I was glad to see. Rachel Hauck's set and Emily Rebholz's costumes are effectively understated. Leigh Silverman's direction is assured. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes including intermission. Note: It's merciful that there is an intermission, because the semi-upholstered seats in the Peter J. Sharp Theater become very uncomfortable after a while. And why would anyone build a theater in this day and age without staggering the seats?

The Nance ***

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All praise to Douglas Carter Beane for creating Chauncey Miles, a role that Nathan Lane was born to play. He is a complex character -- a homosexual who plays a flamboyant gay stereotype in burlesque, but who finds drag demeaning, whose politics are arch-conservative, whose preferred sex is a romp in the park or a pickup at the Automat in Greenwich Village, but who, surprisingly, attracts the love of Ned (Jonny Orsini), an young innocent new to the big city. A pre-election vice crackdown in 1937 puts both his livelihood and his lifestyle in jeopardy. Beame's clever concept is to alternate scenes of Chauncey's personal life with burlesque routines and backstage scenes. The burlesque sketches with his stage partner Efram (the excellent Louis J. Stadlen) are hoary but still hilarious. The three strippers, Sylvie, Joan and Carmen (Cady Huffman, Jenni Barber and Andrea Burns) are the funniest to tread the boards since "Gypsy." The rapid alternation of short scenes in the first act works like clockwork. The second act does not fare as well. The level of inventiveness is not as high, the focus gets a little blurry, and the ending is peculiar and abrupt. For Lane fans, his performance makes the play a "must-see" despite the flaws. Orsini runs the gamut from wooden to inspired; he certainly shines in the obligatory nude scene. John Lee Beatty's set design is effective and Ann Roth's costumes are evocative. Director Jack O'Brien's work is mostly fine. I wish the second act were better, but I am still very glad that I saw the play. This Lincoln Center Theater production at the Lyceum is still in previews as I write this. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Big Knife **

After the success of the recent revivals of "Awake and Sing!" and "Golden Boy," it must have seemed like a good idea for Roundabout Theatre to revive another Clifford Odets play. Unfortunately, it wasn't -- at least not this minor work set in Hollywood in 1948. Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) is a disillusioned leading man whom  studio head Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind) is determined to get to sign a 12-year contract by whatever means necessary. Charlie's idealistic wife Marion (Marin Ireland) threatens to divorce him if he signs. Their screenwriter friend Hank Teagle (C.J. Wilson), who is going back to New York to write a novel about Tinseltown, hopes Marion will leave Charlie and come with him. We also meet Buddy Bliss (Joey Slotnick), the PR man who took the rap and served time for an auto accident that Charlie was responsible for, his unsatisfied wife Connie (Ana Reeder) who has slept with Charlie occasionally, Dixie Evans (Rachel Brosnahan), the ingenue who was in the car with Charlie when the accident occurred and whose silence the studio has bought, the aptly named Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers), Hoff's right-hand man, Charlie's agent Nat Danziger (Chip Zien), gossip columnist Patty Benedict (Brenda Wehle) and the butler Russell (Billy Eugene Jones). While I have much admired Cannavale and Ireland on other occasions, I found them inadequate here. In their defense, their roles are less interesting than the supporting characters, up to and including the butler. The play springs briefly to life in the final scene, but by then it is far too late to care. The dialog is overwrought, the characters are underwritten and the production is undercooked, all adding up to a long tedious evening. Doug Hughes' direction shows no improvement over the mess he made out of "Enemy of the People" last year. On the plus side, John Lee Beatty's set design is superb and Catherine Zuber's costumes are wonderful. If the trite plot really interests you, you can save a lot of money by renting the film version with such Hollywood luminaries as Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, Ilka Chase and Everett Sloane. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, including intermission.