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Idina Menzel Opens In ‘If/Then’ On Broadway: REVIEW

Idina Menzel in If Then photo by Joan Marcus 0299r

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

After a nearly ten-year absence, Idina Menzel returns to Broadway in If/Then, an original yet hackneyed musical from Next to Normal writing team Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) that opened March 30 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. While fans of the Wicked star’s sonorous belt may be delighted to learn that Ms. Menzel does double duty—playing two versions of the story’s heroine as her life fatefully unfolds down divergent paths—its generic rom com stakes rarely justify her volume.

Idina Menzel and IF THEN Cast Photo By Joan MarcusIt’s not exactly source material, but those familiar with Peter Howitt’s 1998 film Sliding Doors may be hip to the concept here. A single event (i.e. whether Gwyneth Paltrow makes the train) dramatically affects the path her life takes from there, so we follow her through a pair of ‘if/then’ scenarios. In Elizabeth’s case, it’s her decision whether to hang out with one friend or another on what, as one of them describes in the musical’s opening line, “feels like a fateful day.”

From her first number “What If?,” it’s clear Elizabeth is feeling particularly indecisive lately. She’s just returned to New York City after over a decade living in Phoenix, where her soured marriage to a grad school sweetheart has caused her to question her judgment. She’s already made fast friends with her free-spirited neighbor Kate (LaChanze, a clear highlight) and reconnected with her old Vassar chum Lucas (Anthony Rapp).

Idina Menzel and James Snyder in If Then photo by Joan Marcus  40rWhen she accompanies her new pal to a concert in Brooklyn, she goes by Kate’s preferred nickname of ‘Liz,’ meets her leading man Josh (a charming James Snyder), misses an important call, and quickly dons a new pair of black-framed glasses to differentiate herself. When she decides to attend a housing activists’ event with Lucas, she goes by ‘Beth,’ takes the important call from another former grad-school flame (who offers her a primo job with the city), and predictably falls into ill-advised romantic encounters with both.

Elizabeth’s vocation as an urban planner is just one of the plot’s overdetermined elements, which include Lucas being bisexual (and in pursuit of a different sex in each plot), and a dual incidence of the typical surprise in any story about a woman (hint: it happened to Gwyneth’s character too).

LaChanze and Anthony Rapp in IF THEN photo by Joan Marcus 801Director Michael Grief (Rent, Next to Normal) brings his usual geometry to bear on Mark Wendland’s spick-and-span set, which more readily resembles an expressively lit yoga studio than the streets of New York City (a giant suspended mirror with obvious symbolic significance also seems an attempt to add visual interest).

For all its questioning of fate, actions and reactions, If/Then neatly fills in the blanks implied by its title: If a woman wants to have a successful, fulfilling career, then she’ll be hapless in love and generally rather joyless. The opposite is also true: If she compromises her career goals, she can more readily dedicate herself to her family and friends. Fortunately, it need not be a conscious decision—fate (or the men in her life) can make the choice for her just as well.  

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


Terrence McNally’s ‘Mothers and Sons’ Starring Tyne Daly Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

MS_Bobby_Steggert_and_Frederick_Weller_in_a_scene_from_Terrence_McNallys_MOTHERS_AND_SONS_on_Broadway_(Photo_by_Joan_Marcus)

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

In his new play Mothers and Sons, which opened on Broadway March 24 at the Golden Theatre, Terrence McNally offers a present snapshot of lives affected by the height of the AIDS crisis—a mother who lost her son in his prime, and the lover who survived him to eventually start his own family. While voicing a crucial chapter in LGBT history that bears repeating, the play feels more like a set of talking points about affluent gay male experience than a well-crafted drama.

MS_Frederick_Weller_and_Tyne_Daly_in_a_scene_from_Terrence_McNallys_MOTHERS_AND_SONS_on_Broadway_(Photo_by_Joan_Marcus)A wry, acerbic Tyne Daly is the play’s emotional center (and indisputable highlight) as Katharine Gerard, the stubbornly intolerant mother to Andre, who died 20 years before the show begins. She arrives unannounced on the doorstep of her son’s lover Cal (Frederick Weller), who cared for him until his death. Cal has a husband now, Will (Bobby Steggert), 15 years his junior, and a 6-year-old son Bud (Grayson Taylor).

Ensconced in a massive, tasteful apartment (designed by John Lee Beatty) with a sweeping view of Central Park, by all accounts the young family couldn’t be happier. Cal is a successful money manger, Will is a stay-at-home writer-cum-full-time father, and Bud is so utterly self-possessed he could be a poster child for This Gay American Life.

MS_Tyne_Daly_in_a_scene_from_Terrence_McNallys_MOTHERS_AND_SONS_on_Broadway._(Photo_by_Joan_Marcus)And so, of course, history comes knocking. Why Katharine stops by and what she wants remain something of a mystery throughout, but mostly it’s to drum up ghosts and open old wounds. Hers, it seems, have never healed, and she quickly resents Cal for moving on and starting a family with Will.

Ms. Daly is top notch, her dry wit and razor sharp delivery bringing to mind another Katharine — Hepburn, just past her prime fighting years. Her ability to draw out our sympathy for a prickly, somewhat bigoted and often bitter woman is impressive, especially given her role as the play’s antagonist in an argument for progress.

In all fairness to Katharine, that argument is mostly one-sided, as she becomes a sounding board with her stockings firmly planted on the wrong side of history. The evening’s bullet points fly at her from two directions—from Cal, who saw many of his peers die from AIDS, and Will, who grew up with a Millennial’s expectations of a gay life not much different from those of his straight peers.

MS_Bobby_Steggert,_Frederick_Weller,_Grayson_Taylor,_and_Tyne_Daly_in_a_scene_from_Terrence_McNallys_MOTHERS_AND_SONS_on_Broadway_(Photo_by_Joan_Marcus)Where Katharine’s arsenal is full of biting, amusing one-liners, Cal and Will speak as though life were a sort of elite cocktail party where being pedantic is part of the dress code. While we’re surely on board with most everything they say, it’s hard to really get behind them (except maybe to slip away and find someone less self-serious to mingle with).

For those, like Katharine, with a ways to go in opening their minds, McNally provides worthwhile, critical instruction. Though the play’s rallying cry for tolerance, and for respect to those we lost in our culture war’s most gruesome era would be that much more moving and persuasive were its gay characters a bit more flesh and blood. 

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


New Production of ‘Les Misérables’ Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

17. Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean.  Photo by Matthew Murphy-Edit

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Yes, she’s back: That tri-colored sketch of a girl staring forlornly off into the distance, heralding the inexorable return of Les Misérables to Broadway. Before you roll your eyes or brace yourself for another dizzying go round of the mega-musical’s signature turntable, the latest incarnation, billed as a “new” production that arrived at the Imperial Theatre March 23, might surprise you.

1. A scene from LES MISERABLES.  Photo by Matthew MurphyFirstly, you can leave the Dramamine at home because the turntable’s been nixed. Co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, who toured their production internationally before bringing it to New York, have rejiggered the musical’s priorities to focus on making its epic story clear and to showcase the powerhouse vocal performances of a bracingly talented cast.

First staged on Broadway by Trevor Nunn and John Caird in 1987, the original Les Mis ran until 2003, followed by a premature and short-lived revival of the same production three years later. Under new direction, the sung-through behemoth’s latest return will surely capitalize on the success of last year’s up close and personal big screen adaptation.

18. Will Swenson as Javert and Ramin Karimloo as Valjean .  Photo by Michael Le Poer TrenchLed by a vigorously dashing Ramin Karimloo in the role of fugitive turned everyman hero Jean Valjean, the company delivers many of the musical’s best-loved solo show-stoppers with the power of a winter gust that catches in your throat and blows your hair back. Call it the American Idol effect at its most worthy, with mercilessly few of the showy pop stylings that have been creeping steadily onto Broadway vocals.

The story, based on Victor Hugo’s novel and written for the musical stage by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alan Boublil, remains unaltered—spanning nearly 20 years (and three hours in real time). Valjean, a petty thief with a tarnished heart of gold, is chased around early-nineteenth-century France by maniacally staunch policeman Javert (Will Swenson, in top form), a pursuit that reaches its climax behind the barricades of the June Rebellion of 1832. Everyone is profoundly unhappy and—spoiler alert!—most of them die.

10. Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle as The Thenardiers.  Photo by Michael Le Poer TrenchWhile the sprawling story requires a certain sized canvas, Conner and Powell’s production feels big but uncluttered, and more fluid than needlessly busy. Matt Kinley’s scenic design incorporates dynamic projections of Hugo’s own sketches, many with the same churning emotional vibrancy of paintings by J. M. W. Turner, Hugo’s British contemporary. Vivid, picturesque lighting by designer Paule Constabile adds both physical and psychological depth.

But it’s robust, sensitive vocal performances by the principal company that elevate this revival above the last, and enhance the thrill of seeing the well-worn tale return to the stage from the Cineplex. Mr. Karimloo, making his Broadway debut after lauded work on the West End, delivers a particularly stunning performance of “Bring Him Home” and Mr. Swenson is likewise remarkable in a commanding rendition of “Stars.”  

With few exceptions, the rest of the principal cast is strong as well, including a fine voiced Caissie Levy has Fantine, and Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle as a fantastically lewd and sinister Thenardier duo. The production’s more modest orchestrations (the electric piano’s also been nixed) put focus on the voices, so you can actually hear the people sing—which is fortunately the best part.  

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: matthew murphy, michael le poer trench)


New Musical 'Rocky' Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

Andy Karl in ROCKY photo by Matthew Murphy_2_10_14-688

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

While you’re likely to fall for an oft-shirtless and doggedly charming Andy Karl in the title role, little else about Rocky, which opened on Broadway March 13 at the Winter Garden theatre, packs too hard a punch. Based on the 1976 film about an underdog boxer given the shot at a world championship, the musical is given a massive and often impressive physical production that dwarfs its decidedly simplistic plot.

Adam Perry and Andy Karl in ROCKY photo by Matthew Murphy_2_08_14-17Those familiar with the movie written by and starring Sylvester Stallone (who also had a hand in writing the musical), will find the story mostly unaltered. Well past his prime sparring years at the age of 29, Rocky Balboa throws minor punches at a local Philly gym, where he also works as hired brawn for the loan shark who runs the joint.

Rocky’s got his eye on Adrian (Margo Seibert), the impossibly shy sister of his mercurial pal Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio), and he woos her with the relentless affection of an attention-starved mutt. When one opponent drops out of a world championship match rolling through town, Rocky is surreptitiously chosen to step in. Rocky gets the girl, trains for the fight, “goes the distance” in the ring and howls “Adrian!” with his eyes swollen shut at evening’s end.

Andy Karl and Margo Seibert  in ROCKY photo by Matthew Murphy_2_10_14-305Scripted scenes by Thomas Meehan (Hairspray, The Producers) and Stallone are a pastiche of well-worn movie and musical clichés. Despite the best efforts of a mostly talented company, the writing lends precious little shading to an unwaveringly straightforward story. (“Hey, Adrian, I’m no thug. No way. I always try to be, ya know, a good person.”)

Music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, longtime collaborators best known for their score of Ragtime, are similarly facile and mostly forgettable, except at their most inane—as in a second act duet between the lovers. (“I’m looking for words, but how do they go, it’s something like… I don’t know… happiness.”)

Yet, the courtship between Rocky and Adrian, while relatively free of conflict, is undoubtedly the most engaging bit of the stage adaptation. First-date ice-skating is as potent a recipe for love as it was four decades ago, and Karl and Seibert make a winning pair of erstwhile outcasts.

Terence Archie and Andy Karl in ROCKY photo by Matthew Murphy 2_08_14-648Director Alex Timbers (Peter and the Starcatcher, Here Lies Love), known for his cheeky sensibility and artful imagination, is surprisingly earnest here. While he makes appropriately elaborate use of a big budget (the prize match, with choreography by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine, really is a sight), his production rests more comfortably on the nose than tongue-in-cheek.

The musical arrives on Broadway following a 2012 German language production (translated from the English), still doing big bucks in Hamburg. Something about Rocky: Das Musical inspires greater faith in the power of camp and a stage full of ripped, shirtless men.

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


Bryan Cranston Goes ‘All the Way’ On Broadway As Lyndon B. Johnson: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

If the finales of House of Cards and Breaking Bad have left a deficiency of political intrigue and binge-worthy Bryan Cranston in your entertainment diet, All the Way, which opened on Broadway March 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre, may go at least part way toward filling the void — depending on your stamina and appetite for American history.

1880Robert Schenkkan’s play, in which Cranston tackles another sort of anti-hero as Lyndon B. Johnson, spans the president’s assumption of office following JFK’s assassination in 1963 to his landslide reelection the following year. During that brief time, Schenkkan shows an LBJ as gruff as he is charismatic, strong-arming the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (initiated by his predecessor) into law with far more pragmatism than passion.

Making his Broadway debut after performing the role at American Repertory Theatre last fall, Cranston barrels through the dense, detail-laden drama with a masterful presence. His LBJ governs with a thick Texas drawl (more commanding than it is charming, though it’s often both), and a shifty swagger that betrays the vulnerability beneath his power-hungry veneer.

0983For all of LBJ’s cold political maneuvering, Cranston always manages to keep the president’s humanity pulsing close to the surface, opaque as that surface may sometimes appear to be. The actor’s unique, subtle manner of evoking sympathy and disdain in the same beat, so brilliantly distilled in his performance as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, translates powerfully to the stage.

Many actors in the sizeable ensemble play multiple characters, and director Bill Rauch does a fine job of keeping political details clear. Though, as with any historical drama that has an obvious outcome, keeping tensions high is key (we already know, in this case, who ends up on the wrong side of this civil rights debate). Clocking in at nearly three hours, Rauch’s production doesn’t always rise above the level of animated history lesson. 

Particularly in the play’s first act, which deals mostly with the politics of passing the Civil Rights Act and the shifting tide of Johnson’s relationships with Martin Luther King Jr. (a fine Brandon J. Dirden) and other key figures, Schenkkan’s writing is both utilitarian and laced with short-order political jargon—more fitting for historical reenactment than nuanced narrative.

0736The play’s second act proves more engaging, with Johnson’s intense focus on reelection set against popular uprisings and the specter of impending disaster in Vietnam. An outbreak of racial violence, highlighted by the deaths of three young volunteers during Freedom Summer, a project to register black voters, raises the stakes and lends emotional heft to the play’s conclusion. Stripping away the politician’s bravado, Cranston lays bare Johnson’s deepest insecurities in a quietly stunning emotional climax.

The messy clash of social ideals with political realities will always be a timely and relevant story, all the more effective the more compellingly it’s told. All the Way sets itself an ambitious goal; having Cranston in the cockpit certainly proves a great place to start, even if Schenkkan’s drama doesn’t quite go the titular distance. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: evgenia eliseeva)


Possessed Puppet Satire 'Hand to God' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

HandToGod454

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The titular appendage in Hand to God, playwright Robert Askins’ wickedly funny comedy that opened Off Broadway last night at the Lucille Lortel 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.

HandToGod290_1Askin’s play, which returns Off Broadway in an MCC production after an acclaimed run at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011, 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 runs 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 (Sarah Stiles) the girl he likes in class, and later how he lashes back at Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) his cocky, oversexed rival.

But it quickly becomes clear 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.

HandToGod193_1Actor Steven Boyer reprises his mind-boggling and Obie-award-winning 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, half the time it’s actually hard to believe you’re watching just one performance.

Joining Boyer from the 2011 cast, Geneva Carr is excellent as Marge, who doesn’t get along with the other church mothers, finding herself stuck in a role she never felt fit to play. She attracts equally ardent attention from Pastor Greg who oversees the church (an always charming Marc Kudisch), and hormonal Timothy, making her the apex of a twisted (and surprisingly athletic) love triangle.

HandToGod018_1Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel keeps action moving swiftly with careful attention to detail and draws out incredible performances and puppetry from the winning company. 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 hand-in-hand is likely to stick around in your mind longer than most.

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


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