Suzanne Bertish, Paxton Whitehead, and David Pittu in The Heir Apparent
A trio of connivers work feverishly to make sure a dying man's wealth falls to them in David Ives' The Heir Apparent, which opened last night at Classic Stage Company in the East Village. LIke the playwright's The School for Lies, which debuted at the theater three years ago, "Heir" is Ives' update/riff on a French classic, in this instance a little known work by Jean-Francois Regnard. But unlike "Lies," which had delicate kind of lunacy to it, this new piece, directed by John Rando, strains, sometimes to the point of breaking, in its quest for theatergoers' laughs.
The plotters in "Heir" include Eraste (David Quay), a young man hoping to inherit a vast fortune from his ailing uncle Geronte (Paxton Whitehead), along with the old man's two servants, Lisette (Claire Karpen) and Crispin (Carson Elrod). Eraste needs Geronte's money in order to wed the beauteous young woman he loves, Isabelle (Amelia Pedlow). Lisette and Cripsin are eager to help Eraste because, should he come into the fortune, they will be set for life too. Unfortunately, the deluded Geronte also has designs on Isabelle, and all her mother Madame Argonte (Suzanne Bertish) is simply willing to marry her off to whichever man has the money.
How Crispin leads Lisette and Eraste in a series of ruses to dupe the old man into leaving his fortune to his nephew constitutes the bulk of the play. They must first get him to change his mind about a couple of distant relatives to whom Geronte has been planning to bequeath his wealth. Then, they need to deal with Scruple (David Pittu), a diminutive lawyer who arrives to take down Geronte's last will and testament.
As with "Lies," Ives has written in rhyming couplets, that brim with contemporary slang and a plethora of scatological references, and the playwright's sense of wordplay seems to know no bounds. With "Heir," though, he seems to have been tripped up by the difference in tone between Moliere's work ("Lies" is based on The Misnathrope) and Regnard's. The societal satire that's part of the former work transferred beautifully in Ives' script, and helped give his play a balance between cartoonish farce and comedy of manners. With Regnard's play, though, Ives only has broad comedy to update and tinker with, and sadly, it means that "Heir" bounds from one setup to the next without any sort of respite from the zaniness.
The result is a play that can elicit some rollicking laughs, but it also proves wearying as the show barrels through its two-hour running time. Among the show's chief highlights are Pittu's turn as the prickly and determinably precise Scruple, Bertish's superlatively dry rendering of the avaricious mother, and Whitehead's ill-spirited Geronte.
The main weight of the show falls on Elrod, who's playing Crispin, and here the talented and indefatigable actor works to mixed effect. He is an utter delight when he assumes Geronte's identity, for instance. But in some of the character's other disguises, notably when Crispin pretends to be Geronte's distant relative from America, his antic behavior proves quickly tiresome.
There's little doubt that the show looks like a million bucks. John Lee Beatty indicates the opulence of Geronte's home and his splendid array of possessions with grace; David C. Woolard's period costumes are a colorful, comic lot (particularly a trio of gowns that are needed by the schemers); and lighting designer Japhy Weideman gets to play some fun tricks with one of Ives' running gags about French films.
---- Andy Propst
The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: ClassicStage.org.
David Cromer, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose,
Denzel Washington, and Sophie Okonedo in A Raisin in the Sun
The sound of theatergoers sniffling at a Broadway show isn't that uncommon, particularly as musicals or dramas reach sentimental or tragic heights during their final moments. It's a sound that one doesn't often hear, however, during the earliest moments of a production. Generally neither the script nor the performances have kicked into a high enough gear to elicit such a strong emotional response from audience members. The exception to this rule can currently be found, though, in Kenny Leon's stirring revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, playing at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
The star attraction of the show is, of course, two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, who plays Walter Younger, an African-American in 1950s Chicago, who's chafing at just about everything in his world. His marriage to Ruth (Sophie Okonedo) has stalled. He's sick of his job as a chauffeur. And perhaps the worst indignity he's suffering is that he and Ruth---along with their son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins)--- are living with Walter's widowed mother Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and his college age sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose) in a cramped South Side apartment (rendered with a spirit-crushing dinginess by scenic designer Mark Thompson).
It's the kind of role that some stars might attempt render to scene stealing effect, but not Washington. Instead, he delivers a performance of searing intensity that blends into the fabric of the play itself and the overall work of the terrifically talented ensemble. Before the play's end, Washington's work might cause theatergoers to shed a tear or two, but not during the first act. This feat is achieved by Jackson's Lena, who after listening to Beneatha rail against the concept of God, slaps her daughter, without viciousness or outward anger, and demands, in almost hushed tones, an apology from the young woman.
The gut reaction this moment causes stems from the superlatively crafted level of tension that has flowed through Leon's taut production from the outset. It's not only Walter who is on edge. Everyone in the Younger household is, particularly as they all have their own idea about how Lena should spend the $10,000 that will be arriving in 24 hours, the payment on her late husband's insurance policy.
As most theatergoers know, Lena will ultimately use the money as a down payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood in Chicago (a decision which has its own sad repercussions), but at this juncture, Leon's production has so perfectly captured all of the raw, nervous energy in the Younger clan. Lena's slap is not just the response of a mother demanding the respect that she believes she's due in her home; it's also the physicalization of the tension that has been caused by five people living on top of one another for too long. It's a tribute to everyone concerned that, even at this early juncture, the characters' pain has become so palpable that audiences are simply rooting for these people to somehow get out.
The Youngers' path to a brighter future is filled with more obstacles than infighting among the family members. Once Lena has put the down payment on the home, the residents of the neighborhood send a representative (an immaculately understated performance from actor/director David Cromer) to stop the family from moving in, offering to buy back the house at a profit to the Youngers. Similarly, a decision that Walter makes causes Lena to reconsider her decision.
The rhythms of the Younger household, and the themes of Hansberry's play, extend well beyond the money, thanks primarily to the two men in Beneatha's life. One is student from Africa whom she has come to know and who is helping her explore her sense of identity as an African-American, while the other is a fellow from a relatively well-heeled Chicago family, who cannot understand why Beneatha, aspiring to become a doctor, wants so much out of life. These roles are played to pitch-perfect effect by Sean Patrick Thomas and Jason Dirden, respectively.
Equally effective is Okonedo's portrayal of Ruth. She captures not only the bitterness that this woman wears all too evidently on her sleeve, but also the warmth and gentility that courses just underneath the woman's hardened exterior. Further the unimpeachable quality of Jackson's and Rose's performances extends beyond the initial fraught moment that mother and daughter share. They are splendid throughout, and have the ability, like their cast mates, to also evoke hearty, and most welcome, laughter.
Branford Marsalis has provided some beautifully conceived incidental music that not only evokes the period, but also echoes the ache of the play itself, and Ann Roth's costumes spark with terrific details. Brian MacDevitt's shrewd lighting design not only creates atmosphere, but it also conspires with Thompson's scenic design during the final moment to induce theatergoers' smiles, even as they might be batting away one final tear or stifling one last, well earned, and so satisfying, sniffle.
---- Andy Propst
A Raisin in the Sun continues at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: RaisinBroadway.com.
Laura Osnes and Michael Park in The Threepenny Opera
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
For a show that's supposed to be "so cheap that even a beggar could afford it," Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, in Marc Blitzstein's now classic adaptation, is looking and sounding pretty swell these days in a new production that opened last night at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea. Directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke, the 1928 musical unfolds within a ghoulishly gray expressionistic environment (scenic design by Robert Israel) that aptly pays tribute to the theatrical styles of the period in which the show was first performed, while also providing a gently creepy background for Brecht's tale of Victorian London’s beggars, thieves, and whores. And though the show may not have quite the acerbic edge that the playwright may have intended, there's so much to savor and admire in Clarke's and the company's work that this "Threepenny" proves curiously engaging.
Clarke has assembled a topnotch cast for the production that's led by Michael Park as Macheath, or "Mack the Knife" as he's familiarly known, one of London's top criminals. Park, looking a bit like a screen idol or yore in gray pinstripe suit and bowler (the show's gorgeous monochrome 1920s costumes come from Donna Zakowska), uses his rich baritone to exquisite effect, traversing Weill's tricky melodies with ease. He also brings just the right level of suave detachment to the stage as Macheath woos and marries Polly Peachum, the daughter of the man who licenses all of London's beggars; carouses with his favorite ladies of the night; and convinces the pregnant Lucy Brown, daughter of his old friend, Police Chief Tiger Brown, that she’s the only woman he’s ever loved.
Like Park, Laura Osnes, playing Polly, never looks anything other than terrific and makes Polly a cross between a couple of her most recent Broadway roles, Bonnie Parker and Cinderella, all the while using her clarion soprano to sublime effect. Sally Murphy, who plays Jenny the prostitute who turns Macheath into the police, palpably connects with Jenny's embittered hardness and bruised gentility, and finds new shadings to one of the show's most famous numbers, "Pirate Jenny." There’s a fine turn, too, from Lilli Cooper, who brings a cunning earthiness to her work as Lucy.
Beyond this quartet of performances, you’ll find F. Murray Abraham giving a muted sardonic turn as Polly’s father, and Mary Beth Peil, as Polly's mother, gives a performance with a gentle edge, sounding lovely as her tremulous voice quavers over Weill’s melodies with grace. And, as the man torn between his duty to the crown and his friendship with Mack, Rick Holmes gives a performance that’s model of bureaucratic befuddlement.
Throughout Clarke deploys these principals, along with the ensemble, to create arresting stage pictures, which are often made breathtaking by the exquisite work of lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and thanks to the musical direction of Gary S. Fagin, there are some keen phrasing choices in the songs. Beyond these riches, the seven piece combo that’s tucked in a nook center stage behind the action has been outfitted with an actual harmonium and Hawaiian guitar, which makes this production not only musically authentic, but also an aural treat.
Words like “pretty” and “treat” are generally not the ones that one associates with this show, and for this reason, audiences hoping for a bracing night out, in which the evils of capitalism are indicted, might want to look elsewhere. All others, though, might find themselves enjoying this production that, ironically, is rather luxe.
---- Andy Propst
The 3penny Opera plays at the Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: .org.
Brian Sutherland and Diane Sutherland in A Second Chance
(© Joan Marcus)
Through the Shen Family Foundation, Ted Shen has spent over a decade supporting some of the most exciting new musical theater around, from last fall's Fun Home at the Public Theater to Playwrights Horizon's Grey Gardens, which eventually hit Broadway. His deep commitment to and passion for cutting-edge tuners is pretty well-known in theatrical circles, and so it's not entirely surprising that he has struck out as a writer himself with A Second Chance, a delicate two-character piece which opened last night at the Public.
Shen has provided book, music and lyrics for the show that, over the course of 90 minutes, charts the relationship between the recently widowed Dan (Brian Sutherland) and divorcee Jenna (Diane Sutherland), who meet one night at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends. They hit it off, and, though both are intrigued by the other, neither of them makes any attempt to ensure that they might be able to stay in touch. He's concerned that his grief is still to fresh and that embarking on a relationship would constitute some sort of infidelity to his deceased wife. Jenna, a free-spirit through and through, worries that this somewhat introverted, stodgy banker just might not be right for her.
Fate (or Shen, whose script has a number of convenient contrivances) intervenes for these two, though, a month later when they run into one another on the subway. After this, well, it's not difficult to imagine the highs and lows of these two lost souls' romance.
Though hardly the stuff of groundbreaking storytelling, the script does charm, and the show is made all the more appealing by the work of the performers, particularly Ms. Sutherland, who finds ways to make whimsical neurosis both fresh and endearing. Two sequences when she works things out with her therapist are particularly well-crafted.
What makes both of the actors' work most remarkable, though, is their deftness in navigating the tricky melodic and linguistic twists and turns of Shen's nearly through-sung work, which has been beautifully orchestrated for a five piece ensemble by Bruce Coughlin. As a composer, Shen has been influenced by the artists like Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon (with whom Shen studied), and A Second Chance brims with swooping and circuitous melodies that tease--and sometimes taunt--the ear. Impressively, Shen's work never seems to be borrowing directly from any one composer and he has a musical voice that could evolve into something terrifically special, evidenced by a pair of jazz infused numbers that sparkle.
As a lyricist, Shen uses impounded and tricky rhyme schemes that call to mind the work of Stephen Sondheim (whose name is invoked one song), and though not always as adept as this latter songwriter, Shen does deliver some turns of phrase in song that surprise.
Directed by Jonathan Butterell, the show gleams with the kind of affluence that both Dan and Jenna enjoy in their respective Brooklyn and Greenwich Village existences. Scenic designer Robert Brill places only a trio of chairs on a highly polished light wood floor that's flanked and backed by three large screens, onto which artful black and white photographs are projected to indicate location (design by Rocco Disanti). Susan Hilferty's costumes both indicate character and add color to the otherwise physical space, as does Jen Schriever's lighting design. It's an elegant packaging for Shen's debut effort that, despite of some shortcomings, satisfies.
---- Andy Propst
A Second Chance plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.
A scene from Amaluna
(Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)
With the new show Amaluna, Shakespeare has come to Cirque du Soleil's Grand Chapiteau in Amaluna, which has been erected at CitiField this spring. Given that the production's director is Tony Award winner Diane Paulus, who before staging things like Hair and Pippin on Broadway, was putting a visually and musically inventive spin on the Bard with things like The Donkey Show, it's not a big surprise that she's brought a classic theater element to her first outing with Cirque.
Nor is it any real surprise that she's tried to shake things up a bit. The music for the show dispenses with the European new age sound that one has come to expect at a Cirque production, and instead, Amaluna has a electric rock score, by Bob & Bill, that's performed by an all-female band. This group takes center stage as the second half of the show starts up, and giving these artists a moment to shine in their own right is indicative of another that this theater-based director has brought to the Cirque. Amaluna has the feeling of an ensemble-performed piece, rather than being a series of specialty acts that perform independent of one another.
Paulus' attempts to shake the tried and true up a bit meet with mixed results. For instance, while Vanessa Fournier and Maxim Panteleenko perform a beautiful aerial act representing a storm at the top of the show, there's another performer, Julie McInnes, floating high above the stage alongside them. McInnes plays Prospera for this riff on The Tempest, and she's playing the cello cradled in a crescent moon as Fournier and Panteleenko gracefully swoop through the air. There's nothing wrong with either element in this sequence, but there choosing which of the performances to focus on during it does become a little frustrating.
More successful is a bit of comic interplay that comes in the middle of the teeterboard act, where five gorgeous guys, who are men from the ship that Prospera has caused to be wrecked on her island, propel one another into flips through the air and into landings that seem to defy gravity. Their clownish captain (Nathalie Claude, who's paired with Shereen Hickman in the show's strained comic sequences) shows up and they have a grand time messing with him before delivering the finale to their routine.
It's a lot of juggling in terms of pulling the audience's attention to the right element on the stage, which scenic designer Scott Pask backs with graceful arcs of verdant reeds. And though Paulus' sense of ensemble and stage craft are to be applauded, the most successful moments in Amaluna come when you're allowed to simply concentrate on the acts themselves. Among the highlights are the lithe contortionist work that Ikhertsetseg Bayarsaikhan, who's playing Prospera's daughter Miranda, offers after dunking herself in a water bowl center stage; and the incredible pole work by Evgeny Kurkin, who's playing Romeo, the stranded sailor Miranda falls for.
In this latter instance, kudos go to the performer not only for his strength and agility, but also for imbuing the routine with an actor's intent. Romeo's trying to reach Miranda somewhere in the sky after she's been spirited away into the sky by the malicious, reptilian Cali (Viktor Kee, who himself does an astonishing--and amusing--juggling act).
For those keeping track of the Shakespearean references, there's also a pair of beneficent creatures on the island to match the Bard's Ariel. One is Amy McClendon, who performs a gentle "peacock dance." The other is Andréanne Nadeau, who plays the Moon Goddess and performs an elegant hoop routine mid-air.
In the end, it's not necessary to know The Tempest to enjoy Amaluna's highs, it does help, simply because it allows you to appreciate Paulus' attempts to re-imagine the familiar format of a Cirque du Soleil show.
---- Andy Propst
Amaluna plays in Cirque du Soleil's Grand Chapiteau at CitiField. For more information, visit: cirquedusoleil.com/amaluna.