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'Much Ado About Nothing' - Romantic Battlefields


Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater in Much Ado About Nothing
(©Joan Marcus)

Love is a battlefield in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, or, as is the case in Jack O’Brien’s uneven Shakespeare in the Park production for The Public Theater, it’s a very pretty vegetable garden.

Actual warfare has ended just as the romantic comedy begins, soldiers are coming home from their time in service and partaking of some R&R and hospitality at the home (rendered with Italianate stateliness by John Lee Beatty, who does indeed place a vegetable patch front and center) of Leonato, the governor of Messina.

While they’re there, romance crops up, goes sour, but eventually turns sweet for two of them. On one hand there’s Claudio who declares his love for Leonato’s daughter Hero. These two are quickly engaged and a wedding date is set. Sadly on the night before the nuptials, Don John, bastard brother to troop’s leader, the Prince of Aragon, sets up an Othello-like deception meant to impugn Hero's reputation. The next morning, Claudio jilts her at the altar.

At the other end of the spectrum from these two---who wear their hearts blissfully on their sleeves---are Benedick and Beatrice, Leonato’s prickly niece. If Claudio and Hero are open books, these latter two are shut tightly, bound up in their own sense of self-worth and fears of being hurt in the sport of courtship. To keep each other (and others around them) at a remove, they hurl words like linguistic hand-grenades, and it’s not until they’re both duped by their friends and family into believing that they are beloved by each other that they call an armistice.

It’s a play that’s always difficult to calibrate. It needs to start off blithesome, turn painfully dark, and then, return to gaiety, and in the best of worlds, the audience should be whisked along the roller-coaster ride without noticing that the Claudio-Hero plot gets really ugly. Unfortunately, there’s a sense of bitterness that courses throughout the play and though there are some fine, crowd-pleasing performance, this Much Ado ends up rankling more than amusing.

Part of the problem stems from the ways in which Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater have crafted their performances as Beatrice and Benedick. She corsets Beatrice with such a think protective shell that seeing the warmth and ardor that lies underneath becomes impossible. Rabe can certainly land one of Beatrice’s barbs with aplomb. They lacerate and provoke laughter, but generally to uncomfortable effect. It would take a very brave soul, indeed, to withstand this woman's verbal onslaughts.

And as winning as Linklater’s turn as Benedick is, it’s so buffoonish that he never comes across as the guy who’d be the one to withstand and surmount Beatrice’s defenses. It’s curious that this should be the case, the two actors have proven that they are, on some levels, the New York stage equivalent of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. They wooed one another to charming effect in The Merchant of Venice in the park four years ago, and followed that up by playing intellectual soul mates as cross purposes in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar on Broadway two years ago.

As the other couple, Jack Cutmore-Scott and Ismenda Mendes charm. He’s all goofy and doe-eyed as he woos, and, once he has been duped into believing Hero has been disloyal, he sparks with a fury that blisters. Mendes, looking gorgeous in some of Jane Greenwood’s Victorian gowns, imbues Hero with not just sweetness, but also a self-determination that proves to be a grand match for Cutmore-Scott’s turn.

There's also fine work from John Glover, who brings a shrewdness and elegance to Leonato, and Brian Stokes Mitchell delivers a delightfully mischievous performance as the Prince of Aragon. For fans of Mitchell’s singing, he even gets to lend his voice to composer David Yazbeck’s lovely setting for “Sigh No More Ladies,” which carries the telling lyric “Men were deceivers ever.”

Shakespearean comedy wouldn’t be complete without some bumbling members of the lower classes, and here this group, the local constabulary, is led by John Pankow, who delivers energetically, spewing malapropisms at almost unbelievable speed. As Don John the man who sets the plot against Claudio and Hero in motion, Pedro Pascal gives a performance that’s the epitome of seductive villainy and the reminder that whatever war the men have been fighting has stuck with them as they attempt to navigate their way back into life during peacetime.

---- Andy Propst

Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. For more information about the show and how to secure tickets for the free performances, visit www.publictheater.org.

'Fly By Night' - Romance in New York, circa 1965


Peter Friedman, Adam Chanler-Berat and Michael McCormick in Fly By Night
(©Joan Marcus)


A goofy, whimsical nostalgia combines with a metaphysical worldview in the new musical Fly By Night, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons. It's an unusual blend, and although the show has some flaws that threaten to derail it, Carolyn Cantor's sure-handed direction and an utterly winning cast are enough to ensure that it's the sort of tuner that, more often than not, inspires a warm sense of contentment among theatergoers.

Conceived by Kim Rosenstock, who has written it in collaboration with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick, the show gently guides audiences back to New York in the first half of the 1960s, where a trio of twentysomethings find themselves caught up in a love triangle that, depending on how you perceive such things, is either something that's irrevocably fated for them or the result of a series of impeccably timed cosmic coincidences.

At one corner of the triangle you have the off-beat, kind of nerdy Harold (a delightful Adam Chanler-Berat), a lost soul of sorts, who's making his living as a sandwich maker at a deli, and after he finds a guitar that belonged to his recently deceased mother, starts out to become, sort of half-heartedly, a singer/songwriter. At the other corners of the triangle are the gregariously spunky Daphne (played with zeal by Patti Murin) and the down-to-earth, utterly guileless Miriam (rendered with gentle spark by Allison Case) a pair of sisters who have moved to New York from South Dakota.

Daphne has come to Manhattan with dreams of becoming a theater star. Miriam has joined her sister's big city adventure simply because she was invited. Before leaving the Plains, Miriam was pretty content with her job as a diner waitress, and as soon as she lands in the Big Apple, she's thrilled to find that she's found a similar job at an all-night spot in Brooklyn.

These three characters' lives start to intersect when Harold has to buy a new coat for his mother's funeral, and Daphne's the salesgirl (sorry it's the 1960s) who sells it to him. Later, when she shows up at the deli where he works, a friendship begins that eventually leads to a romance and proposal of marriage even as Daphne gets a job, developing a new avant garde musical with a bookish scion of theatrical clan (Bryce Ryness). Harold and Daphne's engagement dovetails with a trip that Miriam has to a psychic (one of the many characters of both genders that are rendered in terrific quicksilver changes by Henry Stram, who's also the show's narrator). The fortune-teller predicts that she's just about to meet her soulmate and that the romance will end tragically.

Even if the narrator had not told theatergoers at the start of the show that it would involve a complicated romance, it doesn't take a seer to know that Harold and Miriam are about to meet ,and that things are going to get complicated. Oddly, though, in Fly By Night the inevitability of this charms rather than annoys. Such moments are a tribute to both Cantor and the cast.

Cantor's directed the musical so that there is a sort of "gosh-darn" simplicity and straightforwardness to both the action and the performances that evokes memories of sitcoms of the era, shows like My Three Sons and The Dick Van Dyke Show come to mind. It's a style that could easily become cartoonish or campy, and Cantor and company are treading a fine, and dangerous, line: one misstep and audiences cease to care or start laughing at the characters. They avoid such pitfalls, however, resulting in a production that shimmers with good-humored, beguiling warmth, and one that could be a grand rebuttal for anyone who thinks, "They don't write musicals like that anymore."

Unfortunately, as careful as Cantor has been with the show's overall style, her work is not enough to mask the musical's longuers as the action stretches into act two, when the romance between Daphne and Harold sours as her career sputters and he obsesses over Miriam, who has left town. Suddenly, what had been fleet and featherweight becomes slow and heavy-going. The action becomes doggedly repetitive ,and by the time the story reaches its climax on the night of the blackout on November 9, 1965, the plotlines of the show, which also ones centering on Harold's widower dad (an underutilized Peter Friedman) and loveably grouchy boss (a fine turn from Michael McCormick), are so complexly intertwined, it seems to take an eternity to unravel them and reach the show's conclusion.

For many, however, the show's considerable assets will be enough to overlook the musical's problematic second half. Not only are there a trio of terrific and engaging performers at the show's center, there's also a tuneful period score, replete with folk, rock and pop sounds that somehow never becomes mere pastiche. Also, the production looks and sounds (thanks to designers Ken Travis and Alex Hawthorn) terrific. Scenic designer David Korins sets the action within the action of a multi-leveled box of midnight blue that transforms beautifully courtesy of a few additional pieces and a sliding panel (which reveals the bucolic world from which Daphne and Miriam hail). Lighting designer Jeff Croiter adds texture and color to the environment in ways that are often pleasantly surprising, and most impressively, he manages to pitch darkness to both realistic and magical effect.

There's a similar duality at work through most of Fly By Night, where honest sentiment brushes up against spiritual and existential questioning, and to have accomplished this feat, in our age of irony, makes the show both notable and welcome.

---- Andy Propst


Fly By Night continues plays at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit playwrightshorizons.org.

'Just Jim Dale' - Endearing Autobiography from a Masterful Performer


Jim Dale in Just Jim Dale
(©Joan Marcus)

Watching the new one-man show that opened last night at Roundabout Theatre's Laura Pels Theatre, the word "endearing" comes to mind over and. over. And, indeed, in Jim Dale Live, the Tony award-winning star of shows like Barnum and Me and My Girl takes theatergoers on tuneful autobiographical tour that's so nimble and self-effacing that you can't help but being charmed.

Directed with simplicity by Richard Maltby, Jr., the show essentially works through Dale's life in chronological order. We learn of Dale's early fascination with the music hall entertainments of his childhood and his earliest days as a performer---when he becomes a part of the tradition that he grew up loving. A detour into the world of pop music and songwriting segues seamlessly into his life as a performer in the "legitimate" theater, and then, finally, Dale reaches the moment that many theatergoers will be waiting for: his experiences as the voice for all seven Harry Potter books.

This latter sequence is one of the many in which Dale bravely decides that he needn't take himself too serious. It's pretty darn funny to learn what it was like the first day he went into the recording booth to give voice to J.K. Rowling's beloved characters. Equally amusing are the travails he undergoes at the top of his career when a slip, quite literally, proves to be the thing that lands him a job.

In between these two sections, Dale revisits his Broadway hits, delivering some of the songs that her performed in them, including the title tune to Me and My Girl and "The Colors of My Life" from Barnum. From this latter musical too, he offers up a decelerated version of "The Museum Song," which allows theatergoers to appreciate Michael Stewart's clever and tricky rhymes. Dale then launches into it at full throttle - the triple time that many audience members will know from either having seen his performance originally or from the cast album of the Cy Coleman musical.

Beyond these familiar pieces of Dale's life, there are a few delightful surprises and trips into the lesser-known details of his career, including that songwriter phase when he was penning top hits in the U.K. and U.S. There's the embarrassing "Dick-a-Dum-Dum (King's Road)" and, then, the Academy Award-nominated "Georgy Girl," which, as with the other tunes in the show, Dale delivers with style, accompanied by Mark York, whose work at the onstage piano throughout impresses.

Perhaps the most unexpected---and original---section of the show is Dale's tribute to Shakespeare, in which her strings together words and phrases that were coined by the Bard into ingenious and very funny sentences, all of which prove "You're quoting Shakespeare."

For anyone who's wondering whether this actor who walked a high-wire in Barnum over thirty years ago and tumbled into New Yorkers' hearts forty years ago in Scapino has lost any of his skills as a physical performer. The answer is no. He is just as fleet-footed and rubber-jointed as ever, and as he journeys through his autobiography, it's rough to not just smile and allow oneself to be beguiled by this masterful performer.

---- Andy Propst


Just Jim Dale plays at the Laura Pels Theatre (111 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: RoundaboutTheatre.org.

'Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging' - A Broadway Lampoon, Fresh and Funny as Ever


Scott Richard Foster and Marcus Stevens in Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging
(©Carol Rosegg)

Probably one of the best things about spring in New York in my book is the knowledge that with warmer weather (generally), more daylight, and flowers blossoming, you can count on a new edition of Forbidden Broadway. Gerard Alessandrini, who created the show back in 1981, hasn't disappointed this year. Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging has just opened at the Davenport Theatre on 45th Street, and it's a marvelously fresh love letter (laced with wicked, pointed satire) to Broadway's current hits and misses.

The show's title, pretty obviously, is not only a reference to Alessandrini's gleeful mocking of what's happening on the Great White Way by refitting familiar tunes with parody lyrics, but also a reference to the fact that boxing has come to town in the form of the musical Rocky. Alessandrini's parody of this show, its montages, and the fact that star Andy Karl's diction might be a bit too good is one of the highlights, particularly when Alessandrini takes aim at the show's spectacular finale by using a child's toy of yore.

It's not the only time that the visuals of Broadway's current offerings are taken to task. For the show's first act finale, an extended lampoon of the new production of Les Miserables, Alessandrini takes aim at its use of projections to hysterical effect, before giving voice to the original production's signature scenic element: the turntable. (Long-time fans of Forbidden Broadway will remember this piece of scenery used to be one of Alessandrini's favorite satirical targets, so it's a bit funny to see him longing for its return.)

Of course, it's not just the physical elements of Broadway fare that are assailed but also trends in theater. Jukebox musicals, including Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, and Beautiful, are fired at in a merry medley, and when "Matthew Warchus," clad as Miss Trunchbull from Matilda arrives on stage to put the title heroine of that show along with Annie and Billy Elliot through some grueling paces, Alessandrini manages to inspire mirth not only about the shows, but also about recent headlines about the way child performers can be treated in their shows.

The stars of Broadway fare---past and present---are also skewered, with affection naturally, and in these sections, it's impossible to not be gobsmacked by the talents of the tireless four person ensemble, who already are having to keep up with umpteen costume and wig changes (designed by Dustin Cross and Philip Jeckman; and Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnik, respectively).

Mia Gentile astonishes in her ability to channel Idina Menzel's vocal pyrotechnics; Marcus Stevens' mimicry Mandy Patinkin's rapid, idiosyncratic delivery of a song is impeccable; Carter Calvert makes for a thoroughly captivating and amusing Liza Minnelli; and in one of the holdover numbers. Scott Richard Foster proves that familiarity breeds excellence: his knack for zinging Steve Kazee's tortured vocal stylings in Once has grown more precise and funnier over the past year or so.

As the performers dash between parodies, which extend to The Bridges of Madison County, Cinderella, Kinky Boots, and even NBC's live "television event" offering of The Sound of Music, they are ably supported by David Caldwell's virtuoso piano accompaniment, and as the 2013-2014 season winds down with the spring awards season, it's grand to welcome this splendid edition of Forbidden Broadway that's fresh as a daisy . . . albeit one laced with venom.

---- Andy Propst


Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging plays at the Davenport Thatre (354 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.forbiddenbroadway.com.

'The Realistic Joneses' - A Singular American Playwright Reaches Broadway,


Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall and Tracy Letts in The Realistic Joneses
(©Joan Marcus)

If Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Thornton Wilder were to have co-written a play, it might have come out something like Will Eno's The Realistic Jones,which is currently at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre. That's not to say that there's anything less than 100% originality at work in Eno's fascinating new play. It's just that he seems to channel the best traits of these four writers and in doing so, creates 95-minute piece that packs a hefty intellectual and emotional punch.

Set in "a smallish town not far from some mountains," the play examines how two couples' lives intersect and the impact that their similarities and their differences have on each other. The older of the couples, Jennifer (Toni Collette) and Bob (Tracy Letts), have come to this spot because Bob's been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and the doctor who leads in the field of treating the illness is located in this tiny bucolic spot. The other couple, John (Michael C. Hall) and Pony (Marisa Tomei), have just moved in next door, and they've come here simply because they thought it would be pleasant to live in "one of these little towns near the mountains."

As theatergoers come to know these four characters through a series of staccato and teasingly disjointed scenes, the fissures---and deep love---of both relationships are revealed. And it's in these that you feel the pull of Albee most strongly. Neither couple has reached the extremes of George and Martha inWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,but the tensions of long-term partnership that pervade Albee's plays can be felt in both Joneses' relationships. Similarly, the ways in which language has becomes a way of obfuscating rather illuminating thoughts hearkens to this playwright's work.

There are also intimations of affairs brewing between both sets of Joneses and their lives are filled with all sorts of benign menace. Just the sort of thing that pops up repeatedly in works by Pinter. John and Pony's arrival in Jennifer and Bob's messy backyard (an abstract, yet naturalistic, scenic design from David Zinn) is preceded by an awful clamor that disturbs a quiet night. (John just tripped over a garbage can.) And, before the scene has ended, Pony's made a pretty gruesome discovery.

As for the pull of the other playwrights, Beckett's existentialism echoes in several of Pony's odd, stream-of-conscious monologues, and the enormous heart that beats underneath Wilder's plays can be felt throughout "Joneses."

It all combines to make an invigoratingly meandering ride through life, and as directed by Sam Gold, it's a production that's consistently artful, but never artsy or pretentious. The same can be said of the performers' work. One never senses that any of them are acting. Instead, they gently and provocatively inhabit their roles.

Hall demonstrates a deft ability to play a character who can be simultaneously present in a conversation and some million miles away in thought, while Letts can hurl a prickly barb with keenly felt affection. Collette's performance courses with a combination of devotion, desperation and unrequited desire; and throughout, Tomei embraces Pony's kookiness with graceful abandon.

Eno, with plays like Thom Pain (based on nothing) and Middletown, has been making a name for himself off-Broadway for nearly a decade now. It's heartening to find his work, so brilliantly realized in this production, and singular voice on Broadway.

---- Andy Propst


The Realistic Jones plays at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.therealisticjoneses.com.