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Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Novel Comes to Broadway in New Musical ‘Fun Home’: REVIEW

Fun_Home_0450_Sydney_Lucas__Michael_Cerveris_-_Photo_Credit_Joan_Marcus

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The dizzying rush of the first time we had sex or set eyes on a dead body aren’t the sort of memories most of us try putting into boxes (the cropped squares of Instagram can only hold so much); such is the task laid out on the pages of Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed memoir and graphic novel. The author’s coming-of-age story about growing up as a lesbian with a closeted gay father, who killed himself just as she embraced her own self-discovery, comes vividly to life in a new musical that opened last night at Circle in the Square — one of the most stirring and inventive on Broadway in years.

Fun_Home_3980_-_Beth_Malone__Emily_Skeggs_-_Photo_Credit_Jenny_AndersonFirst produced at the Public Theater last season, the transformative adaptation presents an adult Alison (Beth Malone) as the writer and cartoonist trying to make sense of her formative experiences by distilling them into captions as they unfold on stage. The show lights on key moments in her relationship with her father (an unknowable character played with aching conviction by Michael Cerveris), particularly the intertwining paths of her sexual awakening with his struggle to suppress the shame and consequences of being gay himself. His end is her beginning, and telling their stories together becomes an integral part of her identity.

Fun_Home_0088_-_Sydney_Lucas__Beth_Malone__Emily_Skeggs_Photo_Credit_Joan_MarcusA young Alison (a poised and buoyant Sydney Lucas) appears in scenes of her 1970s childhood spent in an elaborately restored home, which her father curates like a museum, and which also houses the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home (she and her brothers call it “fun home” for short). A post-adolescent Alison, played by a searching and lovable Emily Skeggs, makes her way through the often magically awkward rites of young adulthood (including an effusive morning-after song that’s a delightful high point), and faces sobering revelations about her father’s secret life and sudden death.

Music by Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (Well) lend lifelike dimension to the already rich story, adding new and compelling layers in both dialogue and song. Tesori and Kron brilliantly transpose the graphic novel’s focus on the author’s search for her voice, as well as its framework of visual recollection. Like Bechdel’s drawings, Kron’s lyrics capture the way memories are often marked by specific, often random visual details — like a ring of keys on someone’s belt loop, or the rise and dip of telephone wires rushing past a car window.

Fun_Home_0493_-_ITR_Photo_Credit_Joan_MarcusDynamically staged in the round by director Sam Gold (The Real Thing, Picnic), the production has the nostalgic palette and warm, faded hues of a ‘70s photo — as though we are watching Alison thumb through a family album. By the end, you may feel you know the family as well as if the album belonged to you — their story may be a far cry from yours, but its extraordinary telling touches on emotional truths that will surely hit home for everyone.

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


Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe Open In Lavish Broadway Revival of ‘The King and I’: REVIEW

K7-119_King_OHaraWatanabe caption

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The best of American theatre tends to come from rare and kinetic collaborations. This season, two such pairs have joined forces for a breathtaking revival of The King and I, which opened on Broadway last night in a Lincoln Center Theatre production at the Vivian Beaumont. They are artful director Bartlett Sher and the luminous Kelli O’Hara, whose incomparable talent reaches new heights in the role of Anna. And, of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein, who penned the 1951 musical along with a host of other midcentury classics, including South Pacific, which Sher and O’Hara revived to much acclaim on this same stage in 2008.

K4-263_King captionIn a scenic feat that warrants its own applause (the stunning, yet economic set design is by Michael Yeargan), a widowed Anna arrives in the port of Siam from Singapore with her young son, to teach the King’s many children (and his many wives) about the world (i.e. the West). The King, played with unimpeachable charm by Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) is facing down colonial overtures from Europe, determined to stand firm against Victorian imperial sprawl. As much as he resists the West, he also understands that knowledge is power. Anna has it in spades, and stands her own ground in their ongoing battle of wills, eventually teaching him to know his enemies in order to overcome them.

K7-140_King_OHaraWatanabe captionBased on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon (whose story is drawn from memoirs by a governess who served the king in the 1860s), the musical carries with it a distinct danger of feeling both racist and misogynistic — two American men conjuring up a vision of Asia (in musical form, no less) makes for a slippery slope. But Sher’s approach to the material is nuanced at every turn, spreading sympathies equally across the sprawling cast of characters (which, yes, includes a host of very adorable kids) and generating disarming humor from the tension between cultures.

The resulting success is thanks in no small part to O’Hara, whose indelible performance marks the pinnacle in her track record for reinventing classic heroines. On top of being the warm-hearted but strong-willed, pugnacious Anna with whom audiences may already be familiar, she’s also silly, imperfect, and utterly knowable — not to mention something of a badass (and a feminist!). Watanabe’s King is far sillier than Anna (actually, he’s a kook), which works to balance out his stubborn pride and sometime cruelty. He’s the shrew in need of taming, and it takes an educated woman to do the job.

K6-284_King captionIn the supporting romantic plot, Ashley Park (as Tuptim, a slave promised to the King) and Conrad Ricamora (Lun Tha, her lover and the emissary sent to bring her) are exceptional, as is Ruthie Ann Miles as the King’s first wife (all three sing beautifully). Christopher Gattelli recreates Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, which manages to make the polka feel like the most expressive dance of all time (in part thanks to Catherine Zuber’s ebullient costume design). And when Anna finally takes the King's hand and asks, “Shall we dance?” — there is only one resounding answer floating in the room. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: paul kolnik)


Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer Open in ‘Finding Neverland’ on Broadway: REVIEW

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The plot of Finding Neverland, a new musical that opened on Broadway last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, doesn’t promise many surprises. Google can tell you that (spoiler alert!) J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan, and that by the end of this story, he’s going to do it. But, you may be surprised to discover that this adaptation (for which more than one beloved story has lit the path) could lose its way quite like this.

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (3)There’s the proven affection for its source material — and not just for the much-celebrated 2004 movie by David Magee (or the much lesser-known play on which it’s based, The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee), but for the boy — or, more often, young woman — in the green tights. (Hey, didn’t we just see her on TV?) And, there are the pedigrees of nearly everyone involved, including the film’s producer Harvey Weinstein (in his first theatrical effort), Tony-winning director Diane Paulus, and stage and screen stars Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer, among many others.

The movie’s quietly imaginative story, about Barrie finding inspiration for the play in his relationship with a widow and her young boys, is scaled out for the stage with a book by James Graham, and amplified with middling pop musical stylings. The score, written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, the songwriting duo whose success stories include the UK group Take That (of which Barlow is a current member and Robbie Williams a former one), has moments of cleverness, but far more moments of unabashed cheese. The act one finale shares its title refrain with anthems by both Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears. (Quick: Name that tune!)

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (1)Morrison, late of TV’s Glee and terrific when last on Broadway in South Pacific, is honey-voiced as ever, though he makes the business of playing make-believe seem quite sober; rather than a boy who never wishes to grow up, he is unequivocally the dispassionate adult in the room. As Barrie’s producer, on the other hand, Grammer seems to harbor an inner smile behind every stern phrase, even when he’s acting the sourpuss. (His turn as Captain Hook will almost certainly conjure up Christopher Walken flashbacks, and, yes, they even lob him a Cheers pun.)

But its marquee stars are just two of the many elements on stage that seem to have wandered in willy-nilly from different shows in the neighborhood. Evidence of Paulus’ imaginative hand — responsible for acclaimed recent productions of challenging (if proven) musicals like Pippin and Hair — is occasionally evident, and one glittering moment of stage magic knocks the air from the room. But the production’s madcap tone rarely coheres (in this respect, Mia Michaels’ strange and spasmodic choreography seems bizarrely appropriate).

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (2)The danger of trudging up familiar stories is not just coming off as unoriginal (with so many layers of adaptation going on here, that was a given), but ringing cliché — which Finding Neverland does at nearly every turn. The musical’s frequent allusions to Peter Pan more often serve as punch lines or cues for audience purrs than compelling points along the way to the play’s writing. Whether the 9 million viewers who watched the live telecast of Peter, Hook and the Darling clan a few months back enjoyed every minute or squirmed in their seats and found it hackneyed — they didn’t have to shell out the price of a Broadway ticket to do it.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: carol rosegg)


Ballet Meets Broadway in Dazzling New Musical ‘An American in Paris’: REVIEW

American in paris 1

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

There is an airy and dizzying quality to Christopher Wheeldon’s wonderfully imaginative production of An American in Paris, a new musical that opened last night at the Palace Theatre. It feels something like a first gasp of air after holding your breath for a long, long time. Broadway is currently awash in questionable movie-to-musical marquees, but a stage version of the 1952 Oscar-winning picture starring Gene Kelly feels like a foregone conclusion held in suspension. And over half a century later, the wait was worth every minute.

American in parisThe show features an assembled score of beloved tunes by George and Ira Gershwin (including those the pair wrote for the movie and other favorites), and an expertly reworked story by book writer Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza), which artfully expands on the movie’s characters and reimagines its sparse plot into a more satisfying one for the stage. Made just years after World War II, the movie is pure Hollywood escape; but Lucas grounds the airborne musical in the aftermath of Nazi liberation in 1945—in a Paris in the throws of reinvention.

GI-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan (a charming and fleet-footed Robert Fairchild) stays behind after the war to pursue both an artist’s life and, of course, a woman. He falls in with Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), a composer and fellow expat, and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), the son of their French landlords and a closeted cabaret singer (and possible closet case).

American in paris 2As quickly becomes clear, all three men are in some stage of falling in love with Lise Dassin (a graceful and beguiling Leanne Cope), a ballet dancer and very close consort of the Baurel family. Jerry also catches the eye of a wealthy patron, Milo Davenport (Jill Pace), adding another dimension to the plot’s romantic web.

Lucas lends the characters rich backstories and reasons to sing and dance (largely absent in the film), and the company brings their characters to life as if for the first time (with a couple new characters added into the mix). Fairchild, a principal member of NYC Ballet, and Cope, of London’s Royal Ballet, are both captivating on their toes, and equally winning in dialogue and song. The rest of the cast is likewise excellent, including von Essen in a rousing rendition of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” and Veanne Cox as Madame Baurel, his coolly droll mother.

American in paris 4Wheeldon, a renowned ballet artist, makes a remarkable directorial debut (the production first premiered in Paris last fall). Every aspect of the show unfolds like an effortless, mesmerizing dance.

His masterful choreography can be seen everywhere from the limbs of his actors to the movement of furniture and gliding of cityscapes. The gifted design team—led by a visionary Bob Crowley—mines the city’s art history to stunning effect. The city, sketched to life as it wakes up from war, grows back into the vibrant forefront of modern art. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: angela sterling, matthew murphy)


'90s Political Sex Farce 'Clinton the Musical' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

Clinton The Musical _13. Photos by Russ Rowland

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Hillary may have just set up campaign digs in Brooklyn, but Bill’s two terms are getting a bawdy send-up across the river in Clinton the Musical, which opened Off Broadway at New World Stages last night. The loose-limbed romp down memory lane offers a Mad TV meets Cliff’s Notes-style recap of the scandals that rocked Mr. Clinton’s reign, from Whitewater to Lewinsky. But, it’s also an origin story for the Clinton on everyone’s lips, and in the brilliantly zany hands of Kerry Butler (whose turn as Olivia Newton John’s character in Xanadu is the stuff of Broadway musical legends), the likely nominee for 2016 is a comedic force to be reckoned with.

Clinton The Musical _10. Photos by Russ RowlandFirst presented stateside at the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival (and previously in Edinburgh), the musical by Peter and Michael Hodge has plenty to delight, not least of all the kooky and charming Ms. Butler. While these may not be the first descriptors the former First Lady calls to mind, the scribes take (many) liberties in their behind-the-scenes peek at a national sex farce in era of dial-up modems and monochrome pantsuits. While Butler’s two rousing solo numbers are worth all that comes between, this is a story about Bill—or, rather, two dueling sides of him.

Clinton The Musical _02. Photos by Russ Rowland“In my whole life, I have only ever loved two men—and they happen to be the same man.” With her opening line, Hillary introduces two versions of the former president: one, “William Jefferson” (Tom Galantich), is upstanding and trustworthy, while the other, “Billy” (Duke Lafoon), likes French fries, sex, and thumbing his sax. The two are often on stage at once, meant to be just one person (at first, only Hillary can actually see Billy). But trying to wrap your head around the stage logic of this simple, two-sides-to-every-coin metaphor proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.

Shoehorning a (relatively) high-concept stage gag into what is otherwise a low satire proves to be an awkward endeavor. Quarrels between the two Bills, presumably meant as inner dialogue, offer little insight on the man’s thinking, and Hillary debating them both makes for an odd political threesome. It’s Billy (the id among the three), of course, who meets Monica (Veronica J. Kuehn), who the Hodges have written as a scheming, blow-up-doll of a character that makes for easy laughs but feels uncomfortably misogynistic.

Clinton The Musical _09. Photos by Russ RowlandThe musical’s score has its ups and downs (the opening number, entitled “Awful-Awesome,” is inadvertently and mostly accurate), and director Dan Knechtges (Tail! Spin!, Lysistrata Jones) makes fun use of a rotating set and recurring sight gags (including a life-sized cutout of Al Gore and a singing portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt). The show’s juiciest laughs come from its super villains, Newt Gingrich (a rotund and petulant John Treacy Egan), first seen scarfing marshmallow goo from the jar in the sub-sub-basement of Congress, and Kenneth Starr (a gleefully maniacal Kevin Zak), whose pursuit of Bill is as awesomely perverse as it is sinister.

With the real political stage about to light up, a silly escape to root for our heroes and vilify our opponents may be just what the 24-hour pundits ordered. And, focusing on Hillary (and the idiocy of her family's rivals) while allowing Bill to fade into the background may be perfect practice, too.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: russ rowland)


Possessed Puppet Comedy 'Hand to God' Opens on Broadway: REVIEW

HAND_TO_GOD_on_Broadway

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The titular appendage in Hand to God, playwright Robert Askins’ wickedly hysterical play that opened on Broadway last night at the Booth Theatre, goes by the name of Tyrone. He delivers some of the most apt criticism of western religion you’re ever likely to hear, and has zero tolerance for B.S.—including from the hand that wears him. A sharp-tongued (and awesomely foul-mouthed) sock puppet, Tyrone may or may not in fact be possessed by the devil. Forget everything you know about puppet shows: On the hand of a preternaturally masterful Stephen Boyer, this puppet is unlike any other you’ve seen before.

HAND_TO_GOD_on_Broadway1Askin’s play, which transfers to Broadway after a critically acclaimed run Off Broadway at MCC last spring, is set in a small Texas town, where a few teenage kids meet at the local ministry to rehearse a puppet pageant and stay out of trouble. Jason and his mother Margery (who leads the puppet group) are both reeling from the recent loss of his father to a heart attack. For Marge, running the group seems like a much-needed distraction; for Jason and his puppet Tyrone, it’s a lot more than just that.

Aside from his recent loss, Jason is a shy, quiet type, and giving voice to his puppet helps raise the volume on his own. Tyrone starts out like the devil on Jason’s shoulder, a wisecracking voice for thoughts the boy might not otherwise say himself. It’s how he first connects with Jessica (a wonderfully droll Sarah Stiles) the girl he likes in class, and later how he lashes back at Timothy, his cocky, oversexed rival (a perfectly bro-ey Michael Oberholtzer).

HAND_TO_GOD_on_Broadway4But it quickly becomes clear that Tyrone has a mind of his own, or at least a will separate from Jason’s, who can’t just take him off as he pleases. By the play’s second act, blood is drawn, puppet sex is had, and it seems an exorcism may be in order. Yet still, his puppet’s violent temper and wild libido are qualities Jason could use himself in moderation—courage to stand up for himself and the nerve to get the girl.

Boyer reprises his mind-boggling, virtuosic performance as Jason (and Tyrone), spending much of the play in conversation with his own left hand—from acting out an Abbot-and-Costello routine to impress Jessica, to full-on hand-to-sock combat. Jason and Tyrone are so distinct in personality and their two-way dialogue is so convincing, at times it’s astonishing to step back and realize you’re watching a single performance.

HAND_TO_GOD_on_Broadway3Joining the others from the Off-Broadway cast, Geneva Carr is equally warm and maniacal as Marge, who doesn’t get along with the other church mothers, and who attracts equally ardent attention from Pastor Greg (an ever charming Marc Kudisch), and hormonal Timothy, making her the apex of a twisted (and surprisingly athletic) love triangle.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel scales up the production from its downtown digs, keeping the action moving swiftly around its rotating set and amping up the laughs for a larger crowd, while also firmly grounding the play's human (non-puppet) drama. The stellar company reprises its expert performances with assurance, fueled by the uproarious energy of a Broadway audience.

Often shockingly funny, the play's disarming humor makes its dark conclusions all the more startling. We’re accustomed to puppets who have something to teach us, like the difference between good and evil. Tyrone's lesson that the two go inextricably hand-in-hand is likely to stick in your mind longer than most.

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


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