Adam B. Shapiro and company in The Golden Bride
(© Ben Moody)
One of the most delightful theatrical surprises for the end of 2015 comes courtesy of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. It’s the 1923 operetta The Golden Bride, now playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.
The confection—with a lighter-than-air score by Joseph Rumshinsky, a charming libretto by Frieda Freiman, and slyly funny lyrics by Louis Gilrod (performed mostly in the original Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles)—essentially takes period uptown romantic musical comedy tropes and transfers them to a milieu that would have appealed to Lower East Side audiences of the day. The result is a slightly loopy and always lovely sounding show that also happens to be a great example of cultural appropriation.
The action begins on a shtetl in Russia, where the community is abuzz over the fact that a young woman, Goldele (Rachel Policar), raised by adoptive parents, an innkeeper Pinchas (Bruce Rebold) and his wife, Toybe (Lisa Fishman), has just come into an amazing fortune. Her recently deceased father, who had been living and working in America, has left the millions he earned there to her. All of the local young men are vying for Goldele’s hand, but there’s only one whom she loves, Pinchas and Toybe’s son, Misha (Cameron Policar).
Because Misha reciprocates Goldele’s love, happily ever after should be a quick and foregone conclusion for the couple, but a bit of caprice on her part means that they have to wait a while to reach it. Goldele won’t marry until her long-lost mother is found, and the only man she’ll marry is the one who finds the woman.
As Misha and the other suitors set off to scour the globe on the quest Goldele has set for them, she heads to America with her Uncle Benjamin (Bob Ader) and cousin Jerome (Glenn Seven Allen) and settles into a life of luxury. Other members of the shtetl travel alongside her. Pinchas and Toybe, who receive a million dollars as payment for having raised Goldele, settle into a nouveau riche existence in Manhattan and attempt to assimilate. They also bring their daughter, Khanele (Jillian Gottlieb), who’s smitten with Jerome, and these two dream of a life as stage performers. The other Russian who makes a new life in the U.S. is Kalmen (Adam B. Shapiro), the local matchmaker, who pursues a similar career once stateside.
While Act 1 romanticizes life in Russia as a bucolic heaven, Act 2 glamorizes what life in New York could be for the fortunate. Adding welcome heft to both halves of the show are songs that bring social awareness into the story. The first act opens with a number that lyrically sounds as if Marc Blitzstein might have penned it, even as the music remains utterly sparkling. When Toybe sings the query “Who has the greatest possible power today?,” the chorus responds, “The dollar, oh, oh, the dollar.”
Similarly, in Act 2, after Misha’s travels across the world in search of Goldele’s mother, he delivers an aria, “A Greeting From the New Russia.” It’s a piece that both lauds and laments the changes the country has undergone subsequent to the revolution.
Impressively, co-directors Byrna Wasserman and Mott Didner’s handsome staging allows these two more serious sections of the show to live comfortably within the otherwise gossamer piece. More important, the directors have ensured that the actors, backed by a 14-piece orchestra led by music director Zalmen Mlotek, never condescend to the material. From Shapiro’s Kalmen listing the sorts of husbands that he can get for the plethora of maids that attend Goldele and her uncle in New York to Allen’s goofily goyishe Jerome and Gottlieb’s sweetly starry-eyed Khanele imagining their lives on stage, the performers deliver the show’s highest bits of comedy with sensitivity and zest.
Policar and Johnson, playing the central couple, are equally adept with regard to the show’s airier moments, and they also sound superb. Her delicate soprano and his commanding tenor serve Rushinsky’s lush melodies beautifully, and when their voices combine the effect is sublime.
A top-notch physical production completes the picture for this sterling rejuvenation of The Golden Bride. John Dinning’s latticework-framed set proves equally apt for both the Russian and American halves of the show, Izzy Fields’ colorful costume design has period flair, and Yael Lubetzky’s lighting design appears to twinkle as much as the delectable material.
---- Andy Propst
The Golden Bride plays at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place). For more information and tickets, visit: nytf.org.
Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson in The Color Purple
(© Matthew Murphy)
Stunning. It's the best word to describe both John Doyle's remarkable new production of The Color Purple that opened last night at Bernard Jacobs Theatre. The word also applies to Cynthia Erivo’s electrifying Broadway debut in the show.
The musical, of course, revisits the story told in Alice Walker's 1982 novel that inspired Steven Spielberg's 1985 film of the same name. The tuner premiered on Broadway a decade ago, and at the time, the overblown show, which ultimately proved to be a financial success, masked the emotional potency of Walker’s tale. The musical looked and sounded like a “big Broadway musical” and nothing at all like the story of a black woman who slowly comes into her own despite soul-crushing events she endures during the first half of the last century.
Visually, Doyle’s production, played out on a stage that Doyle (working as scenic designer), leaves essentially bare. It’s just backed by a mammoth planked wall on which a variety of straight-backed wooden kitchen chairs hang. It’s a stark visual and also a curiously comforting one as it somehow collapses a number of rural small town kitchens, so often called the heart of a home, into one abstract whole.
Ann Hould-Ward’s earth tone costume designs (although flashes of color do arise) and Jane Cox’s warm lighitng design, which also modestly uses color, complete the gorgeously simple sepia-toned world in which this show, with book by Marsha Norman, and a score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, unfolds.
Take these visuals and combine them with the new orchestrations from Joseph Jourbert and Catherine Jayes, which give gospel, country-western, spiritual, and gentle R&B underpinnings to songs that had sounded like slick pop originally, and you discover an entirely new musical with this staging.
It allows the tale of Celie and her strong-willed and much put-upon sisters (both actual and figurative) to take center stage, fully pulling in hearts and then shattering them.
A sense of both sadness and joy comes during the first moments of the show as theatergoers encounter the still-teenage Celie and her sister Nettie (an understatedly sunny performance from Joaquina Kalukango) and learn that Celie is pregnant for the second time by her late mother’s boyfriend. There’s a girlishness and innocence that the two share, which makes the discovery that Celie will have to give up her child to an uncertain future as soon as she’s given birth feel like a punch to the gut. A second blow arrives as she’s essentially sold into marriage to an abusive tobacco farmer, Mister (Isaiah Johnson).
Once at Mister’s, Celie works dawn to late night taking care of his needs as well as those of his children. It’s not until Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson), a woman born and raised in the small Georgia town, who escaped to a life on her own as singer, returns that Celie finds a modicum of happiness. Mister, who has an undying love for Shug, takes her as his mistress. While she’s in the house she also becomes Celie’s confidante and lover.
It’s through Shug, and the example of Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the outspoken woman whom Mister’s soft-spoken son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe) marries that Celie begins to learn her worth and discover her own innate strength.
Watching Erivo’s performance slowly transform from that of a timid, hopeful despite her circumstances child into that of a self-confident woman proves to be the other unquestionable joy of Doyle’s staging. With each new hardship, friendship, and sometimes eye-opening experience, Erivo’s Celie modulates slightly, and audiences witness a small mile-marker in the woman’s growth. In the process, it gains an irresistibly powerful pull, so that by the time Erivo unleashes her formidable vocal power with the 11 o’clock number “I’m Here,” audiences are primed to see this woman succeed. The combination of Erivo’s masterful performance throughout the show and her delivery of the tune in particular leads to a moment of intense catharsis for both the character and the audience.
Beyond this star-making turn, the show bursts with terrific performances, particularly from Jennifer Hudson who not only sounds fantastic, but also imbues Shug with a no-nonsense free-spiritedness, that never turns the character into a cliché of the “bad woman” returned to small town life. Similarly, Brooks’ turn as Sofia proves to be both hysterically funny and also deeply moving.
As for the men who love, tolerate, and sometimes abuse the women, principally, Mister and Harpo, Johnson and Scatliffe deliver beautifully calibrated performances. Johnson traverses Mister’s story, one which ultimately has a redemptive end, with grace, and it’s just as easy to loathe the character early on as it is to smile at his ability to change by the musical’s end. Scatliffe, in the tricky role of Mister’s both henpecked and womanizing son, delivers a performance that allows audiences to understand that Harpo is both a person who is a product of his times and one who’s attempting to adapt as times and expectations of a what makes a man change.
The ability to savor the nuances in these performers' work stems directly from Doyle’s clear-sighted vision for the production, which places the emphasis on the characters’ tales and simply allows tunefulness to be one of the languages in which they tell their stories.
---- Andy Propst
The Color Purple plays at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: colorpurple.com.
Brynn Williams, Cristin Milioti, Michael C. Hall, Krista Pioppi, and Sophia Anne Caruso in Lazarus
If nothing else Lazarus, the new musical with David Bowie songs that opened last night at New York Theatre Workshop, looks and sounds terrific. The show, directed by Ivo von Hove who’s currently got a Broadway hit with his emotionally supercharged revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, integrates live performance and electronic imagery to frequently stunning effect. What’s more, the company, led by Michael C. Hall, belts out Bowie’s music with power and emotional grit.
But, while the visuals and musicality of the show are to be savored, the piece itself confounds.
Based on Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, which in turn inspired the 1976 movie of the same name that starred Bowie, the show, with a book by Enda Walsh (Once) and Bowie, still centers on the hero of the book and film, Thomas Jerome Newton (played by Hall), an alien trapped on earth.
Lazarus, though, doesn’t aim to replicate the plot of Earth, but rather, seems to be a sequel of sorts, or perhaps hallucinogenic riff on the book's and movie’s themes and characters is more apt. As audiences meet him, Newton’s living a recluse’s existence in a spartanly furnished Manhattan penthouse where he subsists on gin, Lucky Charms cereal, and Twinkies.
For some reason, he’s hired a personal assistant, Elly (Cristin Milioti), and her fascination with her boss is tanking her relationship with her husband (Bobby Moreno). It doesn’t help that Elly also happens to be transforming into Mary-Lou, the earth woman whom Newton married and who eventually abandoned him.
Beyond Elly, Newton’s world includes a business colleague, Michael (Charlie Pollock), and an otherworldly child, known just as “Girl” (Sophia Anne Caruso). This character initially appears to be a figment of Newton’s imagination, but as the show progresses, the notion that she had, at some point, a basis in her own reality arises. Regardless, Girl serves an important function for Michael. She helps him process his grief over losing Mary-Lou and assists him in fashioning a mechanism of sorts to return to his planet.
A third visitor to Netwon’s sterile, huge-windowed, beige-walled home (Jan Versweyveld’s scenic design provides an amazing canvas for his own lighting and for Tal Yarden’s astonishing video work) is a black-suited Mephistophelean gentleman by the name of Valentine (Michael Esper). This character appears to be some sort of representative of “The Man,” desperate to further isolate Newton and undermine his already shaky psychological condition.
These strands of plot and motivation whirl together in what could be described as an electro-kaleidoscope of text, song, and imagery. At some points, particularly when a video doppelganger for Newton trashes the apartment while Hall is also onstage and when a live video feed projects Hall laid out on outline of a spaceship that has been created with masking-tape on the stage floor, Lazarus resembles an early 1980s music video transferred to the stage. All of the pieces loosely fit together, but their collective meaning remains obscure. (For an example, revisit the 1983 video for Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”)
The cumulative effect of this the show becomes one of both frustration and rapt fascination. It’s pretty difficult to not get sucked in by the remarkably intense and thoughtful performances that Hall, Milioti and Esper deliver. Milioti’s work on “Changes,” one of the Bowie classics in the musical, electrifies with its rawness. Throughout Hall turns in a performance that’s a mixture of tortured pain and emotional detachment. When he sings, sounding very much like Bowie himself, Hall fills the songs with emotion, from the new song “Lazarus” that opens the musical to the classic “Where Are We Now?” As for Esper, his performance is the epitome of unnerving menace. It’s actually often a relief to have Caruso’s delicate and wonderfully sweet Girl on stage simply to offset the creepiness that Esper provides.
The problem is that even as Lazarus draws theatergoers in (other familiar songs like “The Man Who Sold the World” from 1971, “Absolute Beginners” from 1986, and the more recent “Dirty Boys” don’t hurt in this process), it delivers confusing roadblocks. A sidebar plot about a couple’s pending nuptials, as well as Valentine’s ironic and violent loathing of their happiness, left me scratching my head.
Ultimately, the key to the meaning and intent of Lazarus may lie in the final request that Girl makes of Newton and his response to it. Suddenly a hopelessness and helplessness that pulses as an undercurrent to the musical becomes physically palpable, and oddly, it saddened me a little. Part of my response stemmed from the nihilism that I felt from the show overall, but more to the point, I felt that, if if the musical had been less opaque, the final moments might have been tremendously powerful and maybe even gut-wrenching.
---- Andy Propst
Lazarus plays at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: nytw.org.
Alex Brightman and the company of School of Rock – The Musical
Andrew Lloyd-Webber rocks the theater once again with School of Rock – The Musical, which opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre last night. This new show, based on the popular 2003 Richard Linklater film of the same name, finds the man who brought audiences the grandiose and record-breaking The Phantom of the Opera, the chamber musical Aspects of Love, and the Gothic infused Woman in White returning to the sounds that catapulted him into the spotlight over 40 years ago with seminal rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Electric guitars wail and the bass pounds in this new show, and it’s hard not to feel that the composer is having a blast (quite literally) as he once again stretches his rock ‘n’ roll musical muscle.
The score for this show about Dewey Finn (a breakout star-making performance from Alex Brightman), a wannabe rocker who inveigles his way into a prep school as a teacher, provides just one of the show’s undeniable joys. The other comes from watching a group of kids, all but one under 13, unleashing their considerable talents as they rip into the music after Dewey has turned their characters from straight-laced and academically driven youngsters into full-fledged rockers with a dream of winning it all in a “battle of the bands” competition.
The formula behind the show and the movie that inspired it couldn’t be more familiar. It’s standard issue: a down-on-his-luck luck hero finds himself in a foreign milieu working with others whom he doesn’t really like and who don’t really like him. Yet, somehow as the show, which has a gracefully constructed book by Julian Fellowes, never feels completely old had and always manages to charm.
Smiles start as soon as the show begins, and Dewey’s revealed playing with a group that he helped form. All of the band members are past their prime, which makes Glenn Slater’s amusing lyric for the number they're performing “I’m Too Hot for You” even funnier. The scene becomes hysterical once Dewey bursts into a self-indulgent guitar solo, completely unaware of his surroundings.
After this, though, Dewey’s out of the band, and facing eviction from the place that he shares with Ned (Spencer Moses), an old school pal, and Patty (Mamie Parris), Ned’s career-driven and none-too-sympathetic fiancé. She wants rent out of Dewey, and that’s when he gets himself the job (one that was meant for Ned) as a substitute teacher at the school.
He doesn’t take to the kids, and they don’t take to him, particularly one girl Summer (made deliciously humorless by Isabella Russo), who sees his decree that they have a day’s recess as completely destroying her future. After Dewey has heard the class rehearse as a band, led by the schools’ oh-so-prim principal, Rosalie (Sierra Boggess), things change. He throws out their classical repertoire (Boggess trilling Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” while the kids play thrills), and starts them on their route to becoming the pint-sized equivalent of Led Zeppelin.
With the introduction of Dewey’s new all-music curriculum to the classroom, the kids discover their own voices, ones which are not heard by their parents (Fellowes book wisely gives theatergoers a glimpse into the kids lonely home lives), and as the students become more self-assured and confident with the new musical language they learn, the show builds toward the joyous and anti-establishment “Stick It to the Man.”
Dewey’s plans for his new group, named “School of Rock,” naturally hits some snags. There’s the thorny issue of permission slips that arises when he wants to take the students to audition for the competition, and he also needs to make sure that no one discovers that he’s not really a teacher. Romance with Rosalie also plays into the mix.
These aspects of the show don’t always delight as much as the parts that focus on the kids, but they need to be part of the mix. Thankfully, Fellowes’ book and Lawrence Connor’s efficient production make sure that the young performers—with Dewey at their side—are never far from the spotlight.
That’s a good thing because whether it’s Brandon Niederauer’s Zack riffing with astonishing intensity on the electric guitar, Dante Melucci’s Freddy providing a thundering drum solo, Jared Parker’s Lawrence jamming out some nifty improvisations on keyboard, or Evie Dolan’s Katie providing thundering beats on bass, the youthful ensemble always enchants. This extends to Bobbi Mackenzie, who gets to offer up a terrific surprise in her turn as the so-shy-she-doesn’t-speak Tamika; and Luca Padovan, who garners laughs with a perfect sense of comic timing.
As for Brightman, he makes Dewey a prickly and acerbic almost-loser who’s nearly impossible to not love. Brightman’s gift for humorously letting loose with wild abandon extends from the character's first zany guitar riff. He delights as he improvises both a Thanksgiving lesson when the principal shows up unexpectedly in his classroom and a goofy sung-through math lesson when Rosalie decides to observe his nontraditional teaching techniques.
More important, Brightman understands how to carefully calibrate Dewey’s rougher qualities. Calling a group of kids “douchebags” and not making theatergoers wince is a feat unto itself.
Anna Louizos’ marvelous scenic design straddles the rarified world of the school and high-tech world of pop music, and her costume designs burst with wit. Her ensembles for the kids’ folks tell audiences everything they need to know about these adults and the transformation that the school uniforms undergo is side-splitting. Lighting designer Natasha Katz’s work also sparks with a duality perfect for the show.
Lloyd-Webber’s score also shifts between the pulsing rock so near and dear to Dewey’s heart (and later the kids’). He provides a couple of classically-based numbers that set the tone of the school, and even shifts over to a lighter pop sound for “If Only You Would Listen,” a beautifully plaintive number that the kids deliver about their problems at home. But as good as this latter number might be, it’s the rock tunes that linger well after the curtain has fallen on immensely enjoyable new show.
---- Andy Propst
School of Rock -- The Musical plays at the Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit: schoolofrockthemusical.com.
Al Pacino in China Doll
For anyone who has ever wondered what it might be like to listen to Al Pacino talk on the phone for a couple of hours, they now have the opportunity to eavesdrop on the stage and screen star as he wheels, deals and connives courtesy of David Mamet’s China Doll, which opened last night on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
In this newest work from the multi-award-winning playwright, Pacino plays Mickey Ross, a powerful, connected and very wealthy man who’s contending with a thorny issue. A private jet that he purchased has gone missing. Well, not quite missing. It’s in Canada, as is his much-younger unseen British girlfriend.
Ross had hoped to avoid paying sales tax on the Swiss-manufactured plane, but as it was en route from the Caribbean to Canada, it had to make a emergency stop on American soil. Because of this, Ross now faces a bigger price tag for this oversized toy, which has an interior designed by the girlfriend. The touchdown in the States means that Ross is looking at a $5 million dollar sales tax bill.
Theatergoers glean all of this, and much more, as Ross, looking disheveled in a tux and prowling a copiously chic apartment (respective designs by Darek McLane and Jess Goldstein),swaps between phone calls to his attorney, an old pal who’s also a seeming aide to the governor in the unnamed state where the play unfolds, the girlfriend, and a representative from the aircraft manufacturer overseas.
The trouble with the conceit of Ross dealing with all of this on the phone is that he has to keep repeating to each person what has gone wrong. Thus, audiences learn several times that the plane’s call numbers have been changed. The repetitive information in the calls and Pacino’s often stammering delivery mean that China Doll (which one assumes refers to the girlfriend) can make much of the first half of the play exceptionally slow-going.
Things do liven up as Ross begins to realize that he’s not as all-powerful as he believes. It would seem that the governor, whose father was also an old friend of Ross’, has decided to make an example of the man regarding the evasion of sales tax, and in retaliation, Ross threatens to expose some damning secrets from the man’s past. Unfortunately, in this instance, Mamet leaves audiences to guess what sort of dirt Ross might have on his gubernatorial foe, and so while it’s intriguing to watch Pacino raise the stakes, it’s also frustrating.
As with so many of Mamet’s plays, tables turn several times for Ross and his unseen foes before the play has ended. Along the way, Ross also imparts pieces of his “wisdom” to his incredibly patient assistant, Carson (an admirably supportive and sly performance from Christopher Denham).
Throughout, audience members familiar with Mamet’s other works can’t help but sense how China Doll fits into his worldview. The machinations at work in this new play recall the kinds of scams at work in American Buffalo, and if the men on the other end of the phone were to actually appear, one imagines that fireworks similar to those between the real estate agents of Glengarry Glen Ross would erupt. (Not coincidentally, both of these earlier works are ones in which Pacino has appeared.)
Sadly, Ross’ adversaries do not appear, which means that audiences have to content themselves with listening to a string of one-sided phone conversations for two hours. At least, there’s some joy to be had in watching Pacino command attention with offbeat intensity. Further, the play’s indictment of how big business and wealth has the potential to corrupt our political system has an unfortunate and disheartening timeliness.
---- Andy Propst
China Doll plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: chinadollbroadway.com.