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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Violet' - Sutton Foster Shines in a Dramatic Musical


Sutton Foster in Violet
(©Joan Marcus)

What a pleasure to find Tony Award winner Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Anything Goes) in a show where her formidable talents are put to a use other than propelling a lighter-than-air musical comedy. In Violet, which opened last night at Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, her soaring voice and the indomitable spirit that have been so in evidence for so many years serve a dramatic tale. It's a satisfying breakthrough for this fine actress.

With music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change and Fun Home) and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, the piece centers on Violet (Foster), a young woman who was disfigured as a child. She was watching her father wield an axe and was struck in the face when the blade dislodged from the haft. The result was a scar stretching across her right cheek and as the musical begins, she is preparing to take a bus trip form her rural hometown in North Carolina to Arkansas, where she hopes that a televangelist will heal her.

It's a journey that proves metaphorically, if not literally, transfiguring for her, thanks particularly to two soldiers whom she meets along the way, the superlatively handsome womanizer Monty (Colin Donnell) and Flick (Joshua Henry), an African-American who finds a kindred spirit in Violet. Crawley's ability to draw parallels between the different feelings of invisibility that this latter man and Violet share is particularly graceful.

Under the direction of Leigh Silverman, and featuring some gently integrated choreography by Jeffrey Page, the show unfolds within the confines of a sort of roadhouse, which can transform to a variety of locations, from the buses that Violet rides to the boarding house in Memphis where the trio spend a layover en route to their respective destinations to the studio from which the preacher broadcasts.

Silverman's staging doesn't entirely mask the longueurs of some sections of Crawley's book, particularly when the complicated relationship between Violet and the two guys becomes overly complicated, but it nevertheless elegantly glides through the American south and back and forth in time as Violet remembers the life she shared with her father (rendered with sensitive gruffness by Alexander Gemignani) as a girl (played by Emerson Steele).

Tesori 's fills the show not only with twangy toe-tapping country-western appropriate for the milieu, but also some deft R&B numbers, a little gospel, and even some early rock 'n' roll (the piece is after all set in 1964). And, throughout, Foster, with Donnell and Henry at her side primarily, traverses the score with power, and the production becomes particularly satisfying when she and these two men raise their voices together, where, as is her wont, Tesori can seamlessly blend two---theoretically conflicting---musical styles.

Further, as Foster's vocals ripple with sheer force, there's a wounded gentility to her entire performance that touches. The men match her work terrifically---note for note and nuance for nuance. Donnell imbues Monty with both preening arrogance and the vulnerability of a little boy. Henry's turn sparks with searing bitterness that's moderated with a shrewd level of fragility and need.

Fine performances come, too, from the multiply cast ensemble, particularly Annie Golden, who plays a both a priggish old woman whom Violet meets on the bus, and a drunken hooker who's prowling Memphis; and, as the preacher on whom Violet has pinned her hopes, Ben David delivers a performance of intriguing complexity. In David's hands, this character becomes something more than a snake oil salesman.

It's taken some seventeen years for Violet to reach Broadway (it premiered off-Broadway in 1997 at Playwrights Horizons and this incarnation was seen last summer as part of City Center's Encores! series). It's not only welcome as a musically complex entry in the 2013-2014 season, it's also splendid vehicle for Foster.

---- Andy Propst


Violet plays at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.

'The Heir Apparent' - Grasping for a Fortune (and Laughs)


Suzanne Bertish, Paxton Whitehead, and David Pittu in The Heir Apparent

(©Richard Termine)


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.

'A Raisin in the Sun' - A Soul-Stirring Experience


David Cromer, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose,
Denzel Washington, and Sophie Okonedo in A Raisin in the Sun
(©Brigitte Lacombe)

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.

'The Threepenny Opera' - A Classic Looking and Sounding Luxe


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.

'A Second Chance' - Two Lost Souls Romance Each Other, Musically


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.