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Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams Open On Broadway in ‘Cabaret:’ REVIEW

Cabaret - Don't Tell Mama wWilliams, Cumming 0065

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

A decade after ending its six-year run on Broadway, directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s acclaimed revival of Cabaret returns to Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, where it opened on April 24. Stepping back into his Tony-Award-winning turn as the Emcee, Alan Cumming reigns over the evening with an unshakable carnal magnetism, while Michelle Williams makes a brave Broadway debut with a deeply felt, if less than iconic performance as Sally Bowles.

Cabaret - Willlkommen Cumming1464rAs it was then, the theatre is transformed into something closer to its nightlife roots, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting home for the seedy glam of Cabaret’s Kit Kat Klub than Studio 54. Based on stories by Christopher Isherwood and a play by John Van Druten, the musical by John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and Joe Masteroff (book) has been on Broadway four times since its debut in 1966. Though reviving a revival could easily seem like a lesson in unoriginality, it feels, in this case, like a welcome homecoming.

And who wouldn’t want to come home to an army of omnisexual pretty young things, writhing, dancing and playing an array of instruments in various states of undress? If not—well, you’ve come to the wrong place. 1930s Berlin is not for the unadventurous, and fortunately, Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Heck), an American writer searching for his novel abroad, is not. Just hours after his arriving in town, he’s already gotten chummy with Sally, an itinerant English club singer, and shared a passionate lip-lock with something of a former beau.

Cabaret - engagement party 0397Running parallel to Cliff and Sally’s tryst is the more modest courtship between Fräulein Schneider (Linda Emond), from whom Cliff lets his room, and Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein), owner of the local fruit shop. That the supporting romantic storyline is far more affecting than the first is a testament to both the supreme talents of Broadway vets Ms. Emond and Mr. Burstein (Tony-nominated this week for their performances), and the lukewarm chemistry between Heck and Ms. Williams.

As the pragmatic Schneider, Emond strikes a touching balance of world-weary warmth that’s especially powerful in her commanding performances of ‘So What’ and ‘What Would You Do?’ Burstein is perfectly matched, with his intuitive handling of Schultz’s vacillating pride and vulnerability. Heck’s Clifford seems a bit more inscrutable than hungry for experience, which may help explain his less than magnetic connection with Williams’ Sally.

Standing up to the memory of an indelible, Tony-winning performance by the late Natasha Richardson in the original version of this production is a daunting task, even—and maybe especially—for a young Hollywood star. Williams brings the sort of clever beauty and coy sensibility of a Marilyn Monroe to the role, and a well of readily available emotions to draw upon. She does fine work leading early club numbers like ‘Don’t Tell Mama,’ and passable renditions of more emblematic songs like ‘Maybe This Time’ and the title finale. But to her Sally, chasing pleasure seems more like a whim than an addiction, and most of the company (except for Nazi Erst Ludwig) look to be having more fun.

Cabaret - Williams Don't Tell Mama 0059Of course, pre-Nazi Germany is anything but all fun and games, and the air in the Kit Kat Klub is as thick with danger as it is sexual thrill. Brewing the show’s heady mix of hedonism and doom, carelessness and dread is Cumming’s dynamite Emcee—straddling a line between masculine and feminine and making near bedfellows of everyone in the room. With him at the mic, you have little to no choice but to do as he says and leave your troubles at the door.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:joan marcus)

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Daniel Radcliffe Opens on Broadway in ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan:’ REVIEW

Cripple

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Swapping profanities reaches the level of high art in the first Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s Tony-nominated 1996 black comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan, which opened April 20 at the Cort Theatre. The show features an admirable performance by above-the-title star Daniel Radcliffe and expert work from the cast and creative team behind the production’s acclaimed run on London’s West End.

Cripple1Set on a small group of islands off the western coast of Ireland, the story is based around the filming of an actual 1934 documentary Man of Aran, about daily life there. News of the film crew’s arrival on a neighboring isle shakes up the insular community of Inishmaan—none more so than the one they call ‘Cripple Billy’ (Radcliffe), who’s spent most of this life shuffling to and from the doctor (and, apparently, staring at cows).

Orphaned as a boy, Billy was raised by his biddy aunts Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craige), who run a singularly modest general shop specializing in canned peas. They get their daily news from assiduous town gossip Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) and their oft-broken eggs from the hot-tempered, acid-tongued young Helen (Sarah Greene). When Helen and her little brother Bartley (Connor MacNeill) arrange a boat passage with Babbybobby (Pádraic Delaney) to the film set, Billy hitches a ride with dreams of a Hollywood escape.

Cripple2Artfully directed by Michael Grandage with beautifully artless set and costume design by regular collaborator Christopher Oram, the production propels through McDonaugh’s rhythmic dialogue with precision timing, comedic and otherwise. Peppered with repetition and viciously creative insults, the play has a musicality that sings thanks to a gifted company.

Accepting Mr. Radcliffe as an ugly duckling may stretch your imagination, but his portrayal of Billy’s physical deformity goes far to convince. Despite being the title character, Radcliffe plays one of the quieter roles on a stage full of outsized personalities, and turns in a sensitive, engrossing performance. As his pair of hand-wringing, occasionally daffy caregivers, Ms. Hanna and Ms. Craige may be the most entertaining odd couple of the season. And Ms. Greene and Mr. MacNeill provide stiff competition as warring brother and sister.

For all its bitter humor, a certain bleakness and cruelty hover over Inishmaan like fog off the sea. The place feels a lot like the edge of the world, and there’s a looming temptation to peer right over and consider leaping off, for better or worse. Though it’s hardly clear which would come to pass.

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James Franco and Chris O’Dowd Open On Broadway In ‘Of Mice And Men:’ REVIEW

OF MICE AND MEN_ Photo by Richard Phibbs

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

James Franco’s quest for ubiquity now includes a starring role on Broadway, in the revival of John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 drama Of Mice and Men, which opened April 16 at the Longacre Theatre. Anyone hoping for a spectacular crash and burn may have to settle for a gentle sputter, as the pseudo art-star fades against the glare of stage lights and the formidable talents of co-star Chris O’Dowd.

OF MICE AND MEN_ Photo by Richard Phibbs1From the first moments of director Anna D. Shapiro’s imposingly designed production, the familiar story of two men versus the world is writ large. George (Franco) and his companion Lennie (O’Dowd) are migrant ranch hands in Great Depression California, working to survive equally harsh economic and natural hardship. Lennie is preternaturally strong but has the slow mentality of a child, and the dependency of one, too. The two are en route to a new job, having just fled their last on account of some seemingly innocent misbehavior involving Lennie and a woman in a pretty dress.

The pair encounters a host of characters at the new ranch, including old-timer Candy (a venerable Jim Norton), who soon joins in their dream of owning a plot of land; Curley (Alex Morf) the owner’s hot-headed son, who instantly spells trouble; and his flirty, restless wife (Leighton Meester), who likewise leaves behind the scent of trouble every time she leaves a room.

OF MICE AND MEN_ Photo by Richard Phibbs2Steinbeck’s story is full of visible landmines, and Shapiro’s production navigates them with a certain finesse, thanks in large part to a sensitive and engrossing performance by Mr. O’Dowd. Known best for his starring role in Bridesmaids, the Irish actor does an exceptional job crafting Lennie’s myopic world and inviting viewers inside with every gesture and look of wonder.

As is no surprise by now, Franco also inhabits his own unique world, which doesn’t quite do him the same credit on stage as it may off. George and Lennie have a shared dream—that one of them has control of his wits only makes him more determined to escape their bum fates. But Franco’s George often registers as little more than resentful. With a few notable exceptions, his harshness toward Lennie feels flat rather than mixed with the brotherly love on which the story hinges.

OF MICE AND MEN_ Photo by Richard Phibbs3Lacking a credible bond between the two marquee leads, the production struggles to take off, despite some fine performances from its supporting cast. Norton brings his usual level of ease and expertise to Candy, as does Ron Cephas Jones in the role of the isolated black workman Crooks. Ms. Meester (late of Gossip Girl), cuts a pretty figure and is admirably poised in her major theatre debut, but falters when called on for emotional depth.

Despite ending with a bang, stakes remain low in the escalation to this production’s climax. If Steinbeck’s play relies on our investment in the American dreams of his characters—for George to be a landowner, for Lennie to be a tender of bunny rabbits, for Candy and Crooks to live out their final years with dignity, for Curley’s wife to be a Hollywood star—believing in some, but not all, makes for a soft landing.  

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Harvey Fierstein On Straight Men In Stockings And His New Broadway Play 'Casa Valentina': INTERVIEW

Harvey Fierstein photo by Bruce Glikas

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Harvey Fierstein knows that a play about straight transvestites is bound to raise eyebrows, and he’s hoping it does more than that. Casa Valentina, which opened on Broadway last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, has already riled up some severe backlash. “I wrote a play that you’re either going to walk away from with all of your prejudices pushed aside or brought forward,” says Fierstein.

CV1After one preview, the Tony-winner explains, a woman waited at the stage door to tell every actor the play was “absolute garbage,” because no woman would ever marry a man who wears dresses.

But the play is in fact based on true stories, from men who frequented the Chevalier d’Eon Resort in the Catskills during the 50s and 60s. Think of it as summer camp for guys who prefer makeup kits to toolboxes and makeovers to car repairs. Most of the guests were family men, who escaped there to “express the girl within,” donning women’s clothes, sharing meals and performing sing-alongs.

Casa Valentina begins as what might have been a typical summer at the resort, but for the arrival of Charlotte (played by Reed Birney), a character based on Virginia Prince. An activist for transgendered men and the publisher of Transvestia magazine, Prince was also virulently anti-homosexual.

CS3In the play, Charlotte attempts to recruit the guests of Casa Valentina to her nationally recognized sorority of transvestite men—on the condition they agree to ban gays from their ranks. If a straight man in a dress is the first hard pill to swallow, a perfectly coiffed and intensely homophobic one is even more outrageous.

I spoke to Harvey about gay people’s responses to the play, if homophobia can ever be justified, and whether you should feel bad about saying ‘tranny.’

Naveen Kumar: What was your initial approach to writing this play?

Harvey Fierstein: I knew about the resort from my childhood, because my father grew up in the Catskills. Years later I saw the book of photographs, Casa Susanna [published in 2005 by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope, who discovered a wealth of snaps from the resort at a New York flea market]. [A group of producers] came to me and begged me to write a play. I thought, you know it’s cute—a bunch of straight guys go up and put on dresses, but really? A play?

CS1But there’s something about the photographs. There’s a certain calmness, a happiness and a freedom [to them]. It’s not like looking at pictures of drag queens. There’s a nervous energy to drag queens—they’re projecting forward, they’re pushing out at you, they’re trying to show you something. They’re not being. These people in these photographs, there’s a sort of relaxed happiness, which I didn’t understand.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Woody Allen’s ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ Musical Starring Zach Braff Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Of the many musicals to roll off Broadway’s assembly line of popular film adaptations, the arrival of Bullets Over Broadway at the St James Theatre on April 10 seems like a natural, if not exactly foregone conclusion. Written by Woody Allen with a buoyant musical score of standards from the 20s and 30s, the production helmed and choreographed by Susan Stroman spares no expense and radiates the sort of seductive visual glamour you’d expect from its creators. But the combo of Allen’s idiosyncratic style with musical theatre makes for a strange marriage.

Bullets2716Like the 1994 film, which Allen co-wrote with Douglas McGrath, the musical tells the story of hapless playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff), who gets his new play produced on Broadway by notorious mobster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) on the condition that Nick’s birdbrained girlfriend Olive (Heléne York) play a part in the show. The cast comes together to rehearse, including its vain star Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie), the cloying Eden Brent (Karen Ziemba) with her puppy in tow, and perpetually hungry Walter Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas). Olive’s bodyguard Cheech (Nick Cordero) pipes in with unsolicited changes to the script, eventually becoming David’s ghostwriter.

Allen’s comedy assembles a cast of classic New York archetypes (neurotic writer, tough guy, dimwitted blonde, aging diva, etc.), and the film’s stellar ensemble achieves a sublime sort of campy-chic, balancing over-the-top performances (theatre people are so dramatic) with enough vulnerability to ground their characters. The story would seem to lend itself well to a musical, where over-the-top is par for the course.

Bullets2712Stroman’s production fares best in its beautifully choreographed musical numbers, from Cotton Club-style showgirl acts and a back-alley gangster tap dance to a hilarious chorus of singing hot dogs (yes, really). In dance she captures the fun, frenetic energy of the era, while scenic design by Santo Loquasto and costumes by William Ivey Long create a remarkable feast for the eyes.

Yet the show resists the same level of camp in dialogue as it embraces in song, feeling more often like a straightforward Broadway musical rather than a satire of one. On screen Allen’s heady dialogue vacillates between subtle and bombastic, moving at the clipped pace for which his movies are known. While the book scenes are elevated enough here to make for typical musical theatre, they rarely reach the nuanced level of parody inherent to the story.

Bullets2708In his Broadway debut, Braff’s likability does him credit, though his presence remains somewhat subdued (in his rendition of “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” the refrain “I’m just rollin’ along” is maybe a bit too apt). Ms. Mazzie and Ms. York both shine in song, while Broadway vets Ashmanskas and Ziemba make the most of their roles, though they’re mostly confined to repeating one-note bits (gluttony and a frisky pup, respectively).

As the tough guy with a mind for playwriting, Cordero emerges as the show’s clear highlight. Just as Cheech takes over writing David’s play with an ear for what works on stage, Cordero creates the sort of grounded character here that works so well in the movie. Cheech might have done wonders were he tasked with setting the tone for this show, too.

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Denzel Washington Opens in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ On Broadway: REVIEW

A RAISIN IN THE SUN cap1267_A_crop

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Just before the curtain rises on a beautifully acted production of A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway April 3 at the Barrymore Theatre, a recorded interview with Lorraine Hansberry pipes through the darkened house, the playwright advocating for broader audiences and greater accessibility in American theatre. The irony will be lost on no one who’s managed to snag a ticket to see the starry ensemble, led by Denzel Washington.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN 1960AcapHansberry’s 1959 drama, last on Broadway just ten years ago in a revival headlined by Sean Combs (aka P Diddy), is as much a chronicle of mid-century black experience in America as it is an uncluttered family portrait. Set on Chicago’s south side, the story looks in on the Younger family in their small, shabby apartment housing three generations under one roof. Grandfather Younger has recently passed, and a life insurance check is en route to his widow Lena (a sublime LaTanya Richardson Jackson).

Her son Walter Lee (Mr. Washington) has his mind set on using the cash to buy and run a liquor store. His sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose) could use some of the money to follow her dream of going to medical school. And Walter’s wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo) shares Lena’s wish to move the family to a larger house where Ruth and Walter’s son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) can have a room of his own.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN cap1052_A_cropThe play’s relatively straightforward plot functions as a vehicle for Hansberry’s revelatory account of pre-Civil Rights black experience in all its particulars. Some of her talking points feel more seamlessly integrated than others, but the uniformly stellar cast draws us into their story from its first moments. Like every family, this Younger clan has its own practiced rhythms and ways of relating, and together the company creates a captivating alchemy it’s hard to look away from.

A master of the wordless glance, Ms. Jackson’s Lena balances quiet wisdom with a glorious and equally commanding bluntness. Ms. Rose is wonderful as the young, ambitious Beneatha, the vulnerability beneath her character’s idealism always coursing close to the surface. Rounding out remarkable performances by the show’s leading women, Okonedo (Oscar nominated for Hotel Rwanda) dams up a precarious swell of feeling behind Ruth’s firm exterior.

Washington, a Tony winner for his performance in August Wilson’s Fences, has a star-powered stage presence that translates into palpable command of audience sympathy. His Walter Lee carries an easy charm that makes it difficult to resent his follies for long, so he’s likable even at his most despicable. Though he doesn’t tread a difficult path to redemption, Washington’s interpretation is no less believable and moving for it.  

Director Kenny Leon, who also helmed the 2004 revival, maintains focus on drawing out fine performances from the talented company and forging an engaging, accessible family dynamic. If the drama feels more peppered with casual humor even at its most serious, moments of levity keep the pacing brisk and make the play that much more enjoyable to watch.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:brigitte lacombe)


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