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04/19/2007


Ethan Hawke Stars In ‘Macbeth’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

A lot of sound but not much fury suffuse director Jack O’Brien’s cacophonous production of Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke in the title role, which opened on Broadway November 21st in a Lincoln Center Theatre production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Only a handful among the mostly misused cast of talented actors escape Hawke’s fate of being dwarfed by the production’s overbearing design and concept.

Macbeth LCT 10-13 062 CAPTIONED A note in the Playbill identifies the ‘Seal of God’s Truth,’ a mandala with origins in the Hebrew Kabala’s system of planetary magic, as inspiration for the circular markings on the stage floor and other elements of O’Brien’s production. Set in what seems like a massive black void accented with expensive-looking set pieces by accomplished designer Scott Pask, the production indeed leans heavily on magic—of the sort conjured by both its designers and its witches.

Another of Shakespeare’s deluded men who leaves a bloody trail on his way to the throne, Macbeth is told early on by three witches that he’ll become king, thus planting seeds of ambition that fuel the rest of the story. O’Brien carves out a more significant role for his witches at nearly every turn, played here in a sort of monstrous drag by the estimable Byron Jennings, Malcolm Gets and John Glover. The three actors double as other characters throughout to make clear that the witches’ magic (and, unfortunately, their magic alone) drives this production forward.

Macbeth LCT 10-13 186 CAPTIONED It’s a compelling idea and one skillfully executed by the three men and Francesca Faridany as Hecate (their queen bee). But it takes the onus off Mr. Hawke (among others) to develop his character’s own place in the story.

While his signature emo charm could be fitting for a somewhat reluctant villain arguably seduced by his wife into murder, Hawke often rushes through his performance without making sense of his lines (or even, at times, speaking them audibly). Far from a stranger to the stage, or to this particular stage where he earned a Tony nomination for his performance in O’Brien’s productions of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy in 2007, Hawke even has a knack for characters caught in a downward spiral (he played one Off Broadway in Clive earlier this year)—but his presence shrinks from the production’s looming canvas.

Much acclaimed for her work in the West End, Anne-Marie Duff makes a resonant Broadway debut as Lady Macbeth despite an uneven showing from her sparring partner. In scenes that tend to emphasize her carnal influence over a weak willed husband, Duff brings a vigor and emotional precision to her performance that is refreshing by contrast.

Macbeth LCT 10-13 263a CAPTIONED Shakespeare’s shortest play certainly doesn’t feel it here, and high concept design elements rarely allow a moment of the story to escape without being marked by some blunt, illustrative visual—a stark lighting special, a swelling sound cue, a murderer dressed in blood red.

By the time the witches light up a pipe packed with hallucinogens and pass it over to Macbeth in the play’s second act, some of the production’s manic, expressive energy begins to make a bit of sense—though unfortunately they don’t pack enough for everyone.  

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: t. charles erickson)

Sarah Jessica Parker and Blythe Danner Open Off Broadway In ‘The Commons of Pensacola’: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Amanda Peet’s playwriting debut The Commons of Pensacola, about the wife and daughters of a Bernie Madoff type criminal, opened Off Broadway November 21st in a Manhattan Theatre Club Production directed by Artistic Director Lynne Meadow at New York City Center Stage I. Starring Blythe Danner as the willfully unknowing wife and Sarah Jessica Parker as her somewhat anchorless daughter, Peet’s play looks at the fallout of an infamous scandal on the culprit’s family.

Commons 4Since losing nearly everything, Judith (Ms. Danner) has relocated to a small condo in Pensacola, where her daughter Becca (Ms. Parker) and Becca’s younger boyfriend Gabe (Michael Stahl-David) arrive to spend Thanksgiving—though not without something of an ulterior motive. A struggling actress who babysits for her agent’s kids, Becca has decided to team up with Gabe to produce a project meant to give her family’s side of events a public hearing, provided Judith agrees to participate.

For reasons unknown at the start, Becca’s sister Ali (Ali Marsh), cut off communication with their mother shortly after the family scandal broke. Ali’s sassy (and foulmouthed) teenage daughter Lizzy (Zoe Levin) flies down to Florida to spend the holiday with Judith and Becca without telling her mother. Though Lizzy, of course, isn’t the only one keeping secrets.

Peet's story unfolds with sufficient intrigue—sexual and financial, but familial above all—to keep the drama interesting and engaging, if not wholly original and always unpredictable. Though its subject is by now familiar territory, the play provides enough dramatic fodder for its stars to demonstrate their command of the stage.

Commons 1This is particularly true of Ms. Parker, making her return to New York theatre after nearly a decade of dominating the city’s portrayal onscreen. While it may be tough to buy that a woman of Parker’s not uncertain glamour could be struggling to get noticed in Hollywood, her performance as Becca is both assured and emotionally refined. Her signature qualities as a performer—a certain innate vulnerability, and warm, sometimes goofy charm—are in fine form and a pleasure to see on stage.

These are in many ways Ms. Danner’s signature qualities as well, and the two make a well-matched mother-daughter pair. Commons marks something of a reunion for the two, having first performed together in this same theatre in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia in 1995. As the wife of a man who deceived and ruined many (including herself), Danner toes a delicate balance—between rolling with the indignities of aging (including a proportionately large number of fart jokes in the play’s swift 80 minutes), and holding on to her own dignity with a sharp wit. 

Commons 2Others in the cast, including Nilaja Sun as Judith’s attentive maid, deliver fine supporting performances throughout. But it’s when the commotion clears leaving mother and daughter alone to face each other that the play delivers its most powerful moments. In startling emotional outbursts and silent exchanges of intimacy, Becca and Judith ultimately reveal their most guarded truths to stirring results. 

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

All-Male Productions Of ‘Richard III’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ Open On Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Performed in repertory by an exquisitely skilled company of actors, including two-time Tony Winner Mark Rylance, Richard III and Twelfth Night opened on Broadway November 10th at the Belasco Theatre. Transferring from London’s West End and marking the debut of Shakespeare’s Globe on Broadway, the productions make careful efforts toward material authenticity—including meticulous period costumes, candlelight, and of course, male actors in the female roles.

Shax 2Director Tim Carroll, previously an associate director of Shakespeare’s Globe, brings a fantastic vitality and freshness to these productions, making them into popular entertainment—the most authentic achievement of all. Whether modernized with movie stars or presented with Elizabethan trappings, good Shakespeare should feel both insightful about the human condition and as engaging as a Netflix marathon of your favorite nighttime soap—as these productions do much more often than not.

A frequently celebrated actor on Broadway in recent years and a renowned Shakespearean, Rylance is a pleasure to watch as the title character in Richard III, a deformed Duke determined to take down every obstacle between himself and the throne. Where actors with less experience tend to get lost in Shakespeare’s language or count on it to do most of the heavy lifting, Rylance is bold, specific, and grounded in a way that reveals the inner lives of his characters. On top of being well studied, his interpretations also happen to be wildly entertaining.

Shax 5Rylance's Richard is far from the monstrous villain with bloodthirsty ambition played often by many actors—including Kevin Spacey in Sam Mendes’ production at BAM last season. In this production the Duke of Gloucester is still a sociopath (there’s no getting around that), but one of a different sort—he is by turns wildly insecure, cloying, flippant, and more than a bit silly.

While his treachery out of weakness is both compelling and often funny to watch, by the time heads start rolling (off stage for the most part, to be fair), this Richard doesn’t seem quite ambitious enough to be the one behind the guillotine—nor do the weight of his actions seem to fully register with him. Rather, the tragic stakes of this production rest on superb performances by Joseph Timms as Lady Anne (whose husband and father Richard murders before wooing her to be his wife) and Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth (most of whose family is also murdered on Richard’s orders).

Anne and Elizabeth are the play’s emotional registers by design, and Timms and Barnett are masterful in their carefully stylized portrayals. With faces painted pale white and smooth gaits by which they seem to float across the stage, their every move and expression is deliberate and captivating.

Shax 6The same actors play twins in the comedy of Twelfth Night, with Barnett as Viola (again in a female role) and Timms as her brother Sebastian. When the play opens, the twins are separated in a shipwreck far from home, each believing the other drowned. Viola disguises herself as a young man named ‘Cesario’ for her own protection and goes to serve the Count Orsino (Liam Brennan). Cesario is sent to woo Olivia (Mark Rylance) on Orsino’s behalf, a lady in mourning for the death of her father and brother. Olivia balks at Orsino's advances, but finds herself immediately smitten with Cesario (aka Viola, who is herself in love with Orsino). We’ve all been there.

Rylance reprises his role as Olivia from Carroll’s 2002 Globe production, employing the same smooth gait and deliberate physicality as the ladies of Richard’s court, though with a bit of exaggerated flair. Like his Richard, Rylance’s Olivia is a pleasure to experience on stage—his skill and prowess unmistakable. She is emotional, unpredictable, and very much alive. It is perhaps a testament to Rylance that his Olivia is more desperate in love than she might be were she not quite so much older than Cesario.

Shax 4But, it’s Barnett as Viola and Paul Chahidi as Maria (Olivia’s gentlewoman, and a member of the troublemakers who assemble the comedy’s secondary plot) who are this production’s MVPs. Barnett navigates his portrayal of a female character disguised as a man with extraordinary precision and a magical sort of grace that’s nearly impossible to look away from. Chahidi’s Maria has the impeccable comic timing of a classic old-school comedienne.

The cast of Twelfth Night also includes a charming Stephen Fry as Malvolio, Olivia’s steward and victim of a humiliating plot hatched by her cousin Toby, Maria and other members of the household. That Malvolio, so often a clear bad guy, deserves our sympathy in Frye's hands drives home a clear point made by both productions: everybody's human—especially in Shakespeare.

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‘After Midnight’ Guest Starring Fantasia Barrino Brings Cotton Club to Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

A vibrant and seductive new musical revue featuring the music of Duke Ellington among others, After Midnight transforms the Brooks Atkinson theatre, where it opened November 3rd, into a Harlem nightclub teeming with all the energy and explosive talent of the Jazz Age. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle , the show comes to Broadway after two popular engagements at New York City Center Encores, where it was conceived by producer Jack Viertel.

After_Midnight3Featuring seventeen on-stage musicians hand-picked by Wynton Marsalis from Jazz at Lincoln Center, After Midnight barrels tirelessly through a string of jazz standards performed by a cast of show-stopping dancers and singers. Aside from occasional excerpts of poetry by Langston Hughes recited by the evening’s host and co-star Dulé Hill (Psyche), the numbers flow seamlessly into each other over ninety minutes.

While the show doesn’t tell a straightforward story, it focuses on a singular subject from many angles—love (after midnight, what else is there?). Each song tells a story of its own, whether in lyrics or through dance, and the all-star performers seem to play consistent characters through different numbers. From the hopeless romantic (Hill) to the soulful, wisecracking skeptic (Tony winner Adriane Lenox), without names or dialogue, the characters that come alive in each song are unmistakable.

After_Midnight2Much credit is due in this respect to Mr. Carlyle, whose extraordinary choreography not only showcases the awe-inspiring talent of his dancers, but brings narrative energy to a show that might otherwise feel disjointed—more nightclub act than Broadway musical. From multiple fiery-footed tap numbers to the more subtle grace of one number involving single strands of red balloons, Carlyle’s broad range is truly impressive.

Unlike other time capsule musicals already up this season (including Billie Holiday musical Lady Day and A Night with Janis Joplin), After Midnight finds more effective ways of engaging its audience than the sort of slipshod books that make the others seem more contrived. Even its on-stage band contributes to the show’s purely musical dialogue, with horns assuming the voices of men in conversation with female singers, or the band assuming center stage while actors look on in wonder.

After Midnight is uniquely conceived to accommodate a rotating roster of special guest stars (American Idol winner Fantasia is the first, K.D. Lang and Toni Braxton are both set to follow), a design meant to keep audience interest fresh as the show continues its run. While Ms. Barrino’s pop vocals make a fine addition to the line-up, the core company hardly needs marquis star power to add to its many merits. 

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

New Musical ‘Big Fish’ Brings Tall Tale to Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Big Fish, an ambitious and touching new musical based on Daniel Wallace’s novel of the same name and John August’s screenplay for Tim Burton’s acclaimed film, opened on Broadway October 6th at the Neil Simon Theatre. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman (The Producers), with book by screenwriter August (Big Fish, Go) and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family), the musical tells a moving story of a son seeking the truth about his father, though without quite the coherency and visual mastery of a Burton movie.

Bigfish5Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), leads the cast in a characteristically powerhouse performance as Edward Bloom, the father with a head full of fantastical stories about his life’s adventures. The show opens on his son Will’s wedding day at the family’s Alabama home, with Will (Bobby Steggert) begging his dad to keep quiet at the reception (no dice). A rift forms between father and son, but when they learn Edward is dying of cancer, Will and his wife Josephine (Krystal Joy Brown) return from New York to be by his side.

Prompted by his dad’s illness and his own impending fatherhood, Will sets out to learn the truth behind Edward’s many elaborate stories in an effort to know the man before he dies. Present day scenes are intercut with flashbacks of Edward at story time with his young son, encouraging him to be a hero and make life into an adventure. The stories unfold in colorful production numbers and scenes much like fairytales—with a witch, a mermaid, a friendly giant, and a werewolf circus master among others in supporting roles.

Bigfish2Talent runs in the onstage family, with both Steggert and Kate Baldwin as Edward’s wife Sandra delivering polished and emotionally resonant vocal performances. August does a fine job of adapting the story for the stage, paring back and reworking some of the movie’s more complex elements, whittling it down to manageable size. Yet while Edward’s stories soar to some imaginative heights, Lippa’s score rarely lifts off to match. However wonderfully performed by a cast of theatre pros, the show’s music feels less original than the story it’s trying to tell.

Director-choreographer Stroman pulls off the weighty task of mounting a new musical from (somewhat) familiar material, though perhaps without quite the flourish and precision for which she’s previously been celebrated—for her work on commercial mega-hit The Producers and critical darling The Scottsboro Boys.

In what often feels like a collage of loosely connected parables and tall tales, the father-son story at its center holds this Big Fish together. Whether it’s enough to hold audience attention through a somewhat mixed bag of episodic numbers remains open to question. 

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

New Musical ‘Lady Day’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

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Lady Day, the new musical featuring a knockout vocal performance by Dee Dee Bridgewater singing the music of Billie Holiday opened Off Broadway last week at the Little Shubert Theatre. Though the production’s buoyant jazz would undoubtedly be more at home in a cabaret—rather than saddled with a cliché-ridden book by director Steven Stahl—when Ms. Bridgewater opens her mouth to sing, it’s tempting to forget about everything else.

DDflowers300The show is set late in Holiday’s career, on the opening night of her London concert on the West End in 1954. Having lost her cabaret card (necessary accreditation to perform in New York City clubs) due to drug related criminal charges, Holiday has been touring Europe in the hopes that winning popular acclaim abroad may help her chances of getting it back. 

Act one finds Holiday rehearsing on stage with her talented band of musicians on the afternoon of her first London performance, the tour’s final stop. As if conscious of his strained effort to inflate what is essentially a jazz medley into a stage musical, Stahl’s book includes repeated references to Billie’s nerves about the size of the theatre.

Here is a creature of smoky, intimate jazz clubs, thrust up into the spotlight where she feels distant and isolated from her audience. Though Ms. Bridgewater is certainly up to the task of filling the (not so) Little Shubert with her vocal performance, Stahl’s writing doesn’t quite do the same when the music stops.

Between songs Billie falls into reminiscences of her painful childhood. Alternately addressing no one in particular, unseen characters from her past, and herself in the second person (‘Billie, baby, remember that time?’), she tells of her rape at the hands of a family neighbor, abandonment by both parents, and painful racial prejudice she experienced in the Jim Crow south. While they help reveal emotional scars behind her anguished voice, Billie’s stories in the first act unfold with little dramatic logic and only tenuous connection to one another.

DDBand300Act two more comfortably soars on the power of Ms. Bridgewater’s vocals, with Billie (however drunkenly) in her element—on stage for her opening night and finally playing directly to the audience. Here Billie’s colorful stories are somewhat more thrilling—a legendary performer unraveling and spilling her dirty secrets to a live audience, rather than to an empty rehearsal room.

An acclaimed Grammy and Tony Award winning jazz vocalist, Ms. Bridgewater brings Holiday’s signature bluesy sound to life with a captivating emotional precision. The on stage band, including Bill Jolly (piano), James Cammack (bass), Jerome Jennings (drums), and Neil Johnson (sax) all play wonderfully to match. When Lady Day hands the reins to its gifted musicians, they take command of the room—however out-sized it may be.
 
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: carol rosegg)

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