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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Hamilton' - Lin-Manuel Miranda's Magnificent Musical Reaches Broadway


Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton
(©Jaon Marcus)

The magnificent achievement that is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton arrived at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre last week. The show was a stunner when it premiered earlier this year at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, and it still is, but even more so. In the larger house its almost volcanic energy has a chance to explode freely. Also, the company has fine-tuned performances to perfection. Using the word “electrifying” to describe the effect of Hamilton now feels like an understatement.

The musical, a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, jazz and more, charts the life of the man who was, among other things, the nation’s first Secretary of Treasury and founder of the New York Post, Alexander Hamilton. It literally is a rags to riches story against the backdrop of the American Revolution and the earliest days of our newly independent country’s government.

Miranda’s not only responsible for the astute distillation of the sprawling biographical tale, but also the show’s gorgeously crafted and densely packed lyrics, and its melodically diverse score, he’s also the production’s star, and his portrayal of the title character still has all of the spark and rawness that it did at the Public. It’s also become deeper emotionally, particularly as Hamilton weathers bad times after his ascent in public life.

Also richer is Leslie Odom Jr.’s portrayal of Aaron Burr, who becomes an almost Iago-like foil to Hamilton. Odom crafts a fine portrait of a man who yearns for the acclaim he sees Hamilton receive and yet is constitutionally unable to achieve it. It’s a spell-binding performance, one that slyly overlays an outward cheerfulness on a darker, brooding soul.

Beyond these rivals, there are the other names familiar from history books. There are the two Georges: Washington (a haunted and commanding Christopher Jackson) and the King (played with foppish yet malevolent glee--pardon the pun--by Jonathan Groff). Also, in a bit of brilliant double-casting, Daveed Diggs plays both the Frenchman who aids the revolutionaries, Lafayette, and the man who was, among other things, an inveterate Francophile, Thomas Jefferson. In both roles, Diggs displays a beautiful sense of comic timing as well as a keen sense for the dramatic. He can make a funny barb pierce.

As the women in Hamilton’s life, there’s not just a sterling performance from Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza, the woman who becomes his wife, but also a radiant one from Renée Elise Goldsberry as Eliza’s older sister who finds in him an unattainable soul-mate. As with the men, these two women have refined their performances since earlier this year, particularly Soo, whose performance after Eliza has been betrayed by Hamilton, has become a model of restrained grief, sadness and bitterness.

Director Thomas Kail’s staging---set against David Korins’ intricately gorgeous wood-scaffolded and brick-backed scenic design---has retained all of its flair, and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler’s dances keep the company in what seems to be constant riveting and energizing motion. What’s perhaps most exceptional about their work, even on a second viewing, is that one cannot tell where one man’s work ends and another’s begins.

It’s craftsmanship that stems from Miranda’s tautly conceived writing, and as all of the elements fuse, one senses history is in the making as both the story of our country’s birth is retold and as the artists propel musical theater into a new realm.

---- Andy Propst


Hamilton plays at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (226 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.hamiltonbroadway.com.

'Steve: A Docu-Musical' - Endearing, Quirky Tunes and Tales


Colin Summers in Steve: A Docu-Musical
(©Hunter Canning)

A trans-Pacific meeting of kindred souls gets chronicled in the endearing and delightfully offbeat Steve: A Docu-Musical, which opened last night at the 4th Street Theatre, courtesy of the New York Neo-Futurists.

Written and performed by Colin Summers, the whimsical 90-minute piece explores the artistic relationship he, along with fellow songwriter Andrew Eckel, have had with a lyricist for the past seven years. The play would be an unremarkable history of a collaboration were it not for one thing: Summers has never met the lyric writer. Their work has only been done thanks to the internet, and in fact, Summers only knows the wordsmith’s first name. He doesn’t even know what the guy, known as Steve, looks like.

In Steve, Summers recounts how they came to know Steve, who first approached him and his partner after they started a website business that offered to set people’s lyrics and poems to music for a fee. Steve was one of their earliest customers and soon became their main one, submitting a voluminous number of lyrics. He also became a regular correspondent, to the tune of 8,000-plus emails, with the composer-performer

The goofy tunes that have resulted from this digital partnership comprise part of Steve, from the oddball paean to Microsoft Windows that opens the show to a gentle rock number about picking up girls at clubs to a Southern-fried ditty about Halloween. Steve’s almost stream-of-conscious lyrics are less than artful, and oftentimes, the strenuous work that Summers and his partner have done in setting them to music shows. Still, they charm, particularly as delivered by the raffishly hip Summers as he moves from guitar to banjo to guitar.

Beyond serving as a showcase for the songs, the show functions as a fascinating counterpoint of two obsessives who have found one another thanks to the Internet. Just as Steve seems unable to stop his writing (he tries, he really does), Summers can’t stop attempting to figure out who is unseen collaborator is. He Googles. He tracks down Steve’s self-published books. He searches for where Steve posts the songs that they’ve written. From all of this, Summers can share semi-portrait of Steve.

This “docu” side of the show meets the “musical” one in a production that, under Nessa Norich’s direction, unfolds with a casual grace on a set from Joey Rizzolo that consists of a few pieces of furniture and Summers’ varied instruments. Gene Kogan’s projection design has a bit more flair, displaying snippets of Steve’s emails, some animations or video captures from the computer, and some live action video via a hookup with Summers’ smart-phone. Sarah Livant’s lighting design uses color wisely and effectively, and all of this, supporting Summers’ performance, make Steve a winning and winsome theatrical excursion.

---- Andy Propst


Steve: A Docu-Musical plays at the 4th Street Theatre (83 East 4th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.nynf.org.

'John' - Wistful, Creepy, Wonderful


Georgia Engel, Christopher Abbott, and Lois Smith in John
(©Matthew Murphy)

When the curtains are pulled aside to reveal Mimi Lien’s meticulously realized set for Annie Baker’s John, which opened last night at the Signature Center, audiences are treated to a ravishing recreation of a cozy parlor and cheery breakfast room at a B&B that’s been decked out for Christmas. As this wonderful play proceeds, though, it seems that maybe the more appropriate decor might be jack-o’-lanterns and paper skeletons.

It’s not that the place is haunted, although people do talk about hearing odd noises, and it turns out that the B&B located in Gettysburg, PA has a somewhat grisly past: it served as a Union hospital during the pivotal Civil War battle. All of this, however, is tangential to the genuinely scary thing that’s taking place at the establishment. People simply attempting to make connections and navigate their relationships.

Baker’s wistful, hyper-naturalistic, and yes, sometimes creepy, play unfolds over just a couple of days, and centers on both the B&B’s owner, who though named Mertis prefers to be called Kitty, caters to her lone guests, Elias and Jenny, a young couple traveling home to New York after they have spent some time with her family in Ohio. And though Kitty refers to her ailing husband, George, he never appears. The play does, though, contain one other character: Kitty’s best friend Genevieve, a blind woman who proudly discusses the time she “went mad.”

The chief drama of John involves Elias and Jenny, who are going through a rough patch in their three-year relationship, and their sojourn in Gettysburg is meant as a chance for them to work through some of their issues. Beyond that, the action of the play proves to be relatively benign. Breakfast is served. Jenny’s coping with her period. Genevieve comes to visit and just chat. Yet, all of this in Baker’s capable hands proves both troubling and haunting.

Take for instance, Elias and Jenny’s first night. She’s unable to sleep because their room is too cold. She skulks downstairs to the dimly lit parlor. When she glimpses an American Girl doll that’s placed in a nook beside the staircase, she’s creeped out and yet strangely drawn to it. As she reaches for it, she inadvertently trips the player piano, and it starts up loudly. Soon Elias comes downstairs to check on her, and the two share an awkward and yet intimate moment on the couch as he tries to lull her to sleep with a story.

Thanks to director Sam Gold’s superlative staging and the marvelously detailed, restrained work of Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau, this sequence commands attention, stirs hearts, and disquiets. During the course of the production, similar sensations are evoked time and again: when Genevieve describes events following the dissolution of her marriage, when Elias confides in Mertis the source of the problems he’s having with Jenny, and even when Mertis reads a section from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu to Genevieve.

Beyond Abbott and Chau, who bring a grand sense of urban intensity to play, the production features Georgia Engel (who will forever be identified as the winsomely sweet Georgette from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as Mertis. In John, her delicate voice and slightly doddering demeanor have both a comforting and oddly distancing effect, both on her guests and theatergoers. As Genevieve, Lois Smith turns in a performance that seems to supercharge the action. The woman might be elderly and blind, but Smith’s energy and delivery belie both age and infirmity. There is an intensity and insistence to her performance that demands attention. Even during a curious, yet pivotal, speech that breaks the fourth wall.

Beyond direction, performance and scenic design, John benefits from Mark Barton’s remarkable and sensitive lighting design, Bray Poor’s immaculately conceived soundscape, and Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costume design that’s filled with terrific character details. All of these contribute to the atmosphere of the play, and its portrait of lonely souls aching to connect.

---- Andy Propst


John plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.

'Cymbeline' - A Shining Heroine in a Muddy Production


Kate Burton, Lily Rabe, and Hamish Linklater in Cymbeline
(©Carol Rosegg)


In Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s late romances, the Bard liberally borrows from himself, melding plot elements from many of his greatest plays into one. The disparate story-lines that converge in the play give it the feeling of an Elizabethan fairy tale for the stage, and in the right directorial hands, the play can enchant and stir hearts.

Daniel Sullivan’s unevenly conceived new staging for the Public Theater playing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park occasionally rouses theatergoers’ emotions, but more frequently, this production and its intention simply confound.

The play unfolds, ostensibly, during the years just after the Roman occupation of England and centers on what happens after the king Cymbeline banishes Posthumus, the commoner whom his daughter Imogen has married. Posthumus retreats to Italy, and when one of his new acquaintances, Iachimo, hears the Englishman extolling his wife’s virtue a bet is made. Iachimo believes he will be able to seduce Imogen.

And, even as Shakespeare sets in motion this Othello-Iago-Desdemona-like plot, he also incorporates Cymbeline’s scheming queen, who hopes to murder Imogen so that her son, Cloten, can assume the throne. After these two story-lines converge, Imogen retreats from court where she encounters a trio of foresters, and while Cymbeline worries about what might have become of his daughter, he must also contend with growing unrest with Rome and eventual war.

It’s a lot, and Sullivan’s production, which unfolds in front of two gilded prosceniums which are flanked by crates, statuary, and a few haphazardly strewn chandeliers (scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez) has as its chief asset lucidity. The performers deliver the verse beautifully and the story never becomes unclear.

What’s difficult to understand is what Sullivan hopes to be driving the far-flung tale. The show opens with two of the performers (Jacob Ming-Trent and David Furr), in contemporary dress, extolling the sponsors of the Free Shakespeare before seguing into the exposition of the play’s first scene.

After this, designer David Zinn dresses the company in costumes from a variety of periods. The Queen (an understatedly evil Kate Burton) wears a black gown that makes her look as if she stepped out of a painting by El Greco while Iachimo (a playfully oily Raúl Esparza) wears a bright blue suit that brings to mind William Ivey Long’s Dick Tracy--like costumes for Guys and Dolls.

When the Romans come to England, they sport extravagant capes and accessories that we all associate with the era of Julius Caesar while Posthumus’ loyal servant Pisanio (endearingly rendered by Steven Skybell) wears what looks to be a Victorian-era cutaway.

These visual cues only serve to distract from Shakespeare’s twisting tale as does the show’s other central conceit: double-casting of all of the roles. Sullivan’s chosen to employ a 12-person company. Thus, Hamish Linklater plays both Posthumus and Cloten. Patrick Page portrays both Cymbeline and the man in Italy to whom Posthumus flees. Burton’s called upon to play both the Queen and the father to the two young foresters.

As with the costumes, the actors’ double-duty raises the question of “Why?” rather than shedding light on what Sullivan intends with his staging. The same can be said, too, for Tom Kitt’s music for the show, which ranges from the innocuous to brash and encompasses everything from razzmatazz showbiz to 1970s bubblegum pop.

Thankfully, at the show’s center are not just Linklater, whose Posthumus brims with deeply-felt passion and a modicum of arrogance, but also Lily Rabe, who makes Imogen an impossible to resist spitfire heroine. As this woman is buffeted by her husband’s unfounded jealousy, her stepbrother’s unwanted romantic advances, and her father’s stubbornness, Rabe’s Imogen sparks with unstinting dignity, cunning intelligence, and touching bewilderment. There are even some terrific flashes of fierce anger, particularly when Imogen attacks Iachimo during their first meeting, believing that he has come merely to report on Posthumus’ infidelity to seduce her.

It’s at moments such as this that theatergoers might have the clearest sense of why they are at this Cymbeline; it’s simply a chance to catch Rabe at the top of her game. But even so, this richly intricate play needs something more.

---- Andy Propst


Cymbeline plays at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Tickets are free. For more information and ticketing details, visit publictheater.org.

'Amazing Grace' - A Decidedly Retro Musical


Erin Mackey and Josh Young in Amazing Grace
(©Joan Marcus)

Theatergoers should expect a rocky theatrical voyage if they’re planning on seeing Amazing Grace, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre.

The show, which relates the events that led John Newton (Josh Young) to compose the classic hymn that gives the musical its title, has been written by two newcomers to theater. Christopher Smith, a self-taught musician has written the score, and he and Arthur Giron have co-written the show’s book. The fact that these writers have gotten their first effort into a Broadway berth in and of itself is pretty impressive. Further, Smith’s ability to pen songs in the vein of Boublil and Schönberg (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon) or Frank Wildhorn signals a potential talent to be reckoned with.

Tastes have obviously changed since the former team’s heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and so, Amazing Grace has a decidedly retro, if not horribly dated, feel to it. At the same time, some numbers, particularly a pastiche of a operatic Christmas carol that’s sung by Newton’s love interest Mary (Erin Mackey, sounding ravishing), are quite pleasing to the ear.

As lyricist, Smith has less success. His lyrics come in the blunt declamatory style of the popera, which proves wearisome, and this, along with the show’s shallowly conceived book, is what proves to be the undoing of Amazing Grace.

For this show about British slave traders in the eighteenth century, Smith and Giron have conceived characters that hearken back to works much older than the poperas. On many levels, the show can feel as if it comes from the mold of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Caucasian characters are troubled souls, just waiting to be redeemed, noble beyond compare or simply villainous, while the African-American ones suffer their servitude stalwartly and with dignity.

Thus, we have the hero of Newton, who as the show opens has returned to England after 11 months at sea. He had fled the school his father had put him in and still wants to rebel. He’s also desperately seeking his father’s approval, so much so that he steps in to oversee an auction of newly-arrived slaves. “I'll make more money than father ever dreamed,” he says. Before the show has ended, though, Newton has had an epiphany (thanks to surviving a storm at sea), and has become a staunch abolitionist.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mary, Newton’s childhood sweetheart. She witnesses the auction and eventually becomes part of the illegal abolitionist movement, spying on the Major (Chris Hoch), who hopes to win her hand in marriage.

Both Newton and Mary have slave servants. For him, it’s Thomas (Chuck Cooper), who serves as both a confidante and eventual voice of conscience for his younger master, and for her, it’s Nanna (Laiona Michelle), who finds herself paying the price for her mistress’ subversive activities. Amazing Grace features another principal African character: Princess Peyal (Harriet D. Foy), a member of the royal family in Sierra Leone, where Newton’s held captive for a period after a ship he is on is attacked and sunk by pirates. The princess also practices in the slave trade, selling off her subjects and keeping them as her servants.

The characterizations and the twists and turns in the plotting combine to make Amazing Grace feel as if it might have been adapted from a nineteenth century potboiler, and one that becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously. After the storm at sea, Newton’s ship is “full of holes” and yet, his first command is to head to not sail for home, but rather Barbados.

Thankfully, director Gabriel Barre has an estimable company at his command. Young has a powerhouse voice that commands attention. Mackey not only sounds terrific, but she also imbues Mary with a winning spunk, making the character one audiences can’t help but cheer for. The same can be said of Cooper, whose deep voice has never sounded smoother and who navigates the dicey role of Thomas with grace. Additionally, Tom Hewett makes curmudgeonly gruffness almost endearing in his portrayal of Newton’s father, and Hoch, playing the vain, foppish Major, proves to be a villain that audiences love to hate.

Beyond the performances, Barre’s production benefits from some top-flight designers, particularly Toni-Leslie James’ handsome period costumes and Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s understated lighting design. Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s scenic design keeps the action moving fluidly, and Jon Weston’s sound design subtly amplifies the company and orchestra alike.

And, while this work, as well as the performers', provides Amazing Grace with a polished sheen, it’s not enough to cover the musical’s underlying flaws.

---- Andy Propst


Amazing Grace plays at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st Street). For more information and tickets, visit: amazinggracemusical.com.