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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Finding Neverland' - Peter Pan Minus Enchantment


The company of Finding Neverland.
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)

For over 100 years now, J.M. Barrie’s tale of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” (i.e. Peter Pan) has sparked touched the imaginations and hearts of people around the globe. Similarly, Barrie’s tale has inspired artists, who have reimagined and refashioned it for different media and to different purposes. With the arrival of Finding Neverland at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre last night, New York theatergoers will discover that Barrie’s work (as well as his biography) have gone through yet another transformation. Sadly, this pandering new tuner lacks any of the magic that has made its source material so enduring.

With a book by James Graham, which is based on the movie of the same name, Finding Neverland relates how Barrie (played by Matthew Morrison) came to write Peter Pan. It presents Barrie as he’s facing a slump in his playwriting career and at a crossroads in a marriage to a woman with whom he is temperamentally at odds. One day, while Barrie is in the park, he encounters a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly), and her four sons.

The boys’ playfulness and vivacious game-playing captures Barrie’s mind and heart, and before long, he has become a boon companion to both the mother and her children. He’s also decided that his newest work for the stage will be for young people, filled with adventures akin to the ones that the Davies boys and Barrie themselves imagine.

Barrie’s behavior and plans shock not only London society at large, but also his chilly wife (Teal Wicks) and his producer, American Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer). At the same time, Barrie breathes a new sort of life into the Davies clan. Sylvia and he fall in love, and Barrie draws on of Sylvia’s children, Peter, out of the grief he feels over the death of his father.

Of course, there are reversals on the course of getting Barrie’s idea to the stage. Frohman’s company nearly revolts over having to do a kiddie play, and Sylvia begins to succumb to tuberculosis, but by the show’s end, there’s a generally happy--although bittersweet--resolution at hand. (Note to parents of very small children the little girl, perhaps five or six years old, sitting behind me at the press performance was initially confused by Sylvia’s illness and then, audibly distressed at its outcome.)

This straightforward story of a man rediscovering his inner child and simultaneously inspiring those around him to do the same has been told time and again, and in Finding Neverland theatergoers will find that book writer Madge has not embellished it in any way that makes it particularly fresh. For anyone familiar with Barrie’s biography, the liberties that are taken with his life to make the story neat amount to their own sort of fiction. For instance, Barrie did not set out to make Peter Pan a stage play. He wrote the story first in book form.

It might help if the show’s songs, from Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, contributed an semblence of magic to the proceedings, but the tunes, with titles like “We’re All Made of Stars” and “All That Matters” and “What You Mean to Me,” are mostly just generic pop anthems. There’s little sense of the Edwardian era period in them, and with the song “Believe,” audiences may feel like they’ve dropped in somewhere in the mid-1970s to revisit one of that decade’s feel-good bubblegum hits. With another, “Circus of Your Mind,” the writers seem to be channeling Jacques Brel.

Throughout the lyrics, riddled with near-rhymes that jar (“arrived” and “strive”) the ear, force the performers to simply belt out notes and emotion. In “Stronger,” Barrie announces “In the darkest place/There’s the faintest light/Gives me hope to face/The hardest fight/Pain delivers me.”

Director Diane Paulus, working in an environment from scenic designer Scott Pask that brings to mind a child’s theater, keeps the action awhirl, but her ability to create theatrical whimsy (demonstrated with her circus-inspired staging of Pippin) never emerges. Like the musical itself, her work has an aura of perfunctory professionalism to it.

Morrison, Kelly, Grammer, and Wicks in the central roles, along with Carolee Carmello, who plays Sylvia’s oh-so-proper mother, deliver sturdy performances, and with the exception of Grammer, who takes a Rex Harrison-like approach to the music half speaking, half singing, they deliver the music with gusto. Their work is never anything less than energetic, but it, like the show, lacks the delicacy that’s so necessary for creating enchantment.

---- Andy Propst


Finding Neverland plays at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 West 46th Street). For more information, visit: findingneverlandthemusical.com.

'Clinton The Musical' - A Cartoonish Look Back on a Presidency and Its Scandals


Tom Galantich, Kerry Butler, and Duke LafoonClinton The Musical.
(Photo © Russ Rowland)

A chance to revisit the glories and infamies of President William Jefferson Clinton’s eight years in the Oval Office awaits theatergoers at New World Stages, where Clinton The Musical has just opened. Writers Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge leave no scandal or personage untouched in this cartoonish tuner that’s been directed and choreographed with hyperkinetic perkiness by Daniel Knechtiges. And though there’s a certain topicality to the proceedings thanks to Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her own bid for the presidency, the show ultimately feels like a comedy sketch that has been stretched well beyond its breaking point.

The writers do start with a clever-enough premise. They split President Clinton into two distinct characters. There’s the “good” one, WJ (played with Southern-fried gravitas by Tom Galantich), and then, there’s the “bad-boy” one, Billy (Duke Lafoon, who, amusingly, often seems to be channeling middle-aged Elvis). It’s up to Hillary (the always engaging powerhouse vocalist Kerry Butler) to keep the latter at bay while the former makes policy and navigates Washington’s political waters.

The split personality concept stays fresh for a while, and then, once Kenneth Starr (played with malevolent and homoerotic glee by Kevin Zak) and Newt Gingrich (whom John Treacy Egan hysterically plays as an adult version of a petulant toddler) arrive on the scene, the show simply founders, leaping from one crass recounting of a scandal or proposed Presidential policy to another. Naturally, Monica Lewinsky (a sweetly pert Veronica J. Kuehn) is on hand, and, as might be expected, Al Gore shows up sporadically - as a cardboard cutout.

The songs---by Paul Hodge---reflect the kind of over-eager pop that predominated during the Clinton presidency. And his lyrics, like the show itself, are blatant, and in-your-face. After Lewinksy and Billy have hooked up, she sings “I'm fucking the fucking president/Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah!”

Oddly, the show, which has a nifty set design that sweeps from the Oval Office to the bowels of the Capitol building from Beowulf Borritt, attempts late in the game to have a heart. After WJ confesses the Lewinsky affair to Hillary, there’s a searing ballad for the first lady, in which she announces, “’Cause now I have had enough/I’ve made up my mind/Enough is enough.” Unfortunately, it’s a lyric that could also be delivered by audience members enduring this tuner.

---- Andy Propst


Clinton plays at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street). For more information, visit: clintonthemusical.com.

'Wolf Hall' - English History in an Epic Stage Production


Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard in Wolf Hall.
(©Johan Persson)

Played in two parts that collectively run just under six hours, the stage version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which opened last night at the Winter Garden Theatre, grabs theatergoers’ eyes and ears from the moment they walk into the theater. An ominous rumbling courses through the theater, courtesy of sound designer Nick Powell, and the show’s scenic design a mammoth gray cavern of sorts which has as its central feature a huge wooden cross impresses. The sense that something intense and important could happen at any minute hangs in the air.

Once the show gets underway, and as director Jeremy Herrin’s handsome production of Michael Poulton's adaptation unfolds, there’s never any question that the events of the drama, a revisitation to Henry VIII’s court as he cycles through his first three wives (Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour), are important. But a sense of intensity only sporadically shines through in what ultimately begins to feel like an exceedingly pretty and impeccably performed pageant of English history.

Most theatergoers will have encountered portions of the story before. Right now, in fact, there’s a BBC Two miniseries of the same title on PBS, and from 2007-2010 the series The Tudors explored the intrigues of the court. Other incarnations of this slice of sixteenth century history include such films as A Man for All Seasons and Anne of the Thousand Days from the 1960s, as well as Charles Laughton’s 1933 movie The Private of Life of Henry VIII, which condenses five of the king’s marriages into a fleet 97 minutes.

One of the things that sets Wolf Hall,in any incarnation, apart is its frame of reference. The narrative centers on Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) and the ways in which he manipulates events and people so that Henry (Nathaniel Parker) can remarry as his whims and desires dictate. It’s an intriguing prism to refract the history through, and the moments when Wolf Hall genuinely zings are the ones when Cromwell uses his formidable linguistic gifts to push his peers, higher-ups, and the king himself in the directions he needs them to go. During the first half, Cromwell’s insinuations that push Henry toward establishing the Church of England are simply delicious, and during the second half, it’s difficult to not begin buying into the ways in which Cromwell elicits confessions from the men who have allegedly had affairs with Queen Anne.

It’s not just the arguments that make these sections of the play work so beautifully, but also Miles’ indefatigable (he’s onstage almost the entirety of the show) performance that brims with an erudite geniality. Yes, Cromwell’s motives become increasingly suspect as his status at Henry’s court rises (and Miles plays the ambiguity beautifully), but there’s also an aura of a huckster around Miles’ Cromwell that proves irresistible.

This sort of humanity, on display time and again from the 22-person company, ultimately becomes the other layer in the production that pulls theatergoers through the show’s languors. Examples range from Paul Jesson’s portrayal of Cardinal Wolsey as pragmatist and almost Renaissance good ole boy to Leah Brotherhead’s superlatively sweet rendering of Jane Seymour. The slight trill that fills her voice when Seymour’s nervous endears.

Similarly, Daniel Fraser, playing Cromwell’s son Gregory, traces one of the show’s most interesting arcs with grace. The character matures over the course of the show from late adolescence through young adulthood, and as in the process, Fraser’s performance, filled initially with innocence, deepens as disillusion creeps in. At the other end of the spectrum is Pierro Niel-Mee’s turn as Christophe, one of Cromwell’s servants and a man with a fascinating sadistic streak. Making viciousness simultaneously funny and creepy isn’t easy, and yet, Niel-Mee accomplishes the feat with aplomb.

And, even when performances such as Lucy Briers’ spitfire turn as Spanish-born Katherine, Lydia Leonard’s rapaciously ambitious Anne, and Parker’s work as the jocular and sexually avaricious Henry veer toward the larger-than-life, they never become caricatures. In fact, Parker’s work has an suprising gentleness about it during the first part.

Yet despite these, and so many other skillfully crafted performances, and the fact that the show continually looks fantastic, just like a Renaissance painting that’s sprung to life thanks to Oram’s opulent costumes and Paul Constable and David Plater’s sumptuously moody lighting design, it becomes difficult to shake a feeling of weariness that creeps in as the show progresses.

Part of the problem is that much of the most interesting action is only reported by the characters. There’s also just a static quality to the staging that emphasizes the importance of composition rather than action. Both conceits are understandable, particularly the former as it keeps the sense of the court as an unceasing rumor-mill at the fore. Unfortunately, though, they ultimately combine to sap Wolf Hall of its dramatic thrust and its potential intensity, which seemed so promising at the production’s outset.

---- Andy Propst


Wolf Hall plays at the Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit wolfhallbroadway.com.

'Buzzer' - A Provocative Look at the Cost of Gentrification


Grantham Coleman, Tessa Ferrer, and Michael Stahl-David in Buzzer.
(©Joan Marcus)

Being pioneers in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn that’s gentrifying has a host of unexpected and painful ramifications for a trio of old friends in Tracey Scott Wilson’s provocative and engrossing Buzzer, which opened last night at the Public Theater.

For Jackson (Grantham Coleman) moving into the gigantic apartment with high ceilings, great light, and even a newly-installed washer and dryer not only makes sense business-wise (he’s buying ahead of the curve while prices are low), but it’s also a statement and visible evidence of his rise out of the neighborhood. As a kid, he grew up a few doors down when crack dens--and not trendy restaurants--were the local businesses. Having made it to Exeter, Harvard, and Harvard Law, Jackson views his return as a symbolic gesture, to both the area and himself.

His long-time girlfriend, Suzy (Tessa Ferrer), however, doesn’t share his feelings about the move. It’s not that she doesn’t like the neighborhood. It’s simply that she’s not sure that they’re ready for the commitment of cohabitation.

Jackson prevails on her, and once she sees the place (which is rendered with fascinating sparseness and a byzantine abstractness by scenic designer Laura Jellinek), Suzy falls in love. She’s less than thrilled, however, when Jackson announces that, for their first few months there, an old friend, Don (Michael Stahl-David), will be living with them. He’s fresh out of rehab and sober (for the seventh or eighth time) and needs a place to crash and start life anew.

As with the apartment itself, Jackson overcomes her objections, and what ensues surprises them all. It’s not just that there are the uncomfortable personal dynamics between the interracial couple and their houseguest, they also all share an uneasy relationship with the area itself. Suzy finds that getting to and from work is fraught with tension because of unwanted advances by guys hanging out on the street. For Don, who hails from a privileged suburban world and used to score in here, well, it’s a chance to return to a place he has romanticized, and for Jackson, there are childhood demons aplenty.

Director Anne Kauffman’s taut and expertly performed production unfolds with grace and a genuine sense of danger, not just from the forces that are outside of the gleaming apartment (brought to life terrifically by sound designer Bray Poor) but from the internal conflicts that each of the characters faces. Watching Buzzer ultimately feels a bit like sitting near a powder keg that’s about to explode, and each performer’s work only adds to this sense. Coleman brings an increasingly feral intensity to his turn as Jackson. Stahl-David imbues Don with an edge that has a nebbishy sweetness to it. And Ferrer’s turn as Suzy has an air of curious, pained desperation throughout.

And even as audiences savor the palpable tension of the work, they can revel in both Wilson’s blissfully natural dialogue and her subtle probing of questions about race, the meaning of community, and the price of success. What makes Buzzer so tantalizing is the fact that these bigger ideas lie just under the surface of a pretty standard-issue domestic drama. Wilson never hits her audience with them, but the queries are there, and they linger well after the piece has concluded.

---- Andy Propst


Buzzer plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.

Stage17 Airs Special for 50th Anniversary of 'Fiddler on the Roof'

Fan Fare, a roundtable series from Stage17 is honoring the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof with a special four-part episode dedicated to one of the all-time classics of musical theater. Fan Fare celebrates beloved historic musicals like Fiddler by reuniting members of the creative team with original cast members to share stories and laughs.

Bringing together the show’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick (the only surviving member of the creative team) with original company members and onstage lovebirds Austin Pendleton (Motel) and Joanna Merlin (Tzeitel), they share their memories with Fan Fare host Julie James. The show films at the theatrically historic Sardi’s.

To get a sense of what the programs contain, take a look at this trailer:

To watch the full four episodes, visit: stage17.tv.