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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Disgraced' - Erudite Drama for Broadway


Gretchen Mol, Hari Dhillon, Karen Pittman and Josh Radnor in Disgraced
(©Joan Marcus)

Race and people’s uncomfortable relationship with it takes center stage in Ayad Akhtar’s bracing play Disgraced, now at the Lyceum Theatre. The piece has come to Broadway after its premiere at Lincoln Center Theater in and en route it has picked up the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Akhtar beautifully sets the stage for the drama at hand introducing husband and wife Amir (Hari Dhillon) and Emily (Gretchen Mol) in their luxe Upper East Side apartment (another gorgeous interior from scenic designer John Lee Beatty) as she sketches him for a painting she wants to paint. Emily’s inspiration stems not only from her fondness for Diego Velazquez's portrait of Juan de Pareja, his Moorish slave whom the Spaniard portrayed dressed as a nobleman, but also from the treatment she witnessed while she and Amir, an attorney bucking for partnership at a high-powered firm, were out having dinner. She was appalled by the way in which he had been treated by their waiter.

The notion of an artist preserving an image of someone as an individual whom they may or may not be, along with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways people react to and regard people of ethnicities other than their own, lies at the heart of Disgraced. And, as this disquieting, gently funny, and ultimately moving play unfolds, Akhtar reveals how Amir, who comes from South Asian descent, and Emily, as blonde and all-American as they come, have built their marriage on a rocky foundation created from their own conscious and unconscious perceptions of race and cultural identity.

The playwright raises the stakes for the couple - and the play itself - when he introduces three other people in Amir and Emily’s world. First, there’s his nephew (Danny Ashok), a 20something who has changed his name from Hussein to Abe, and has begun questioning his own identity and his relationship with the Islamic traditions with which he was raised. Abe’s closeness with a jailed Imam troubles Amir, who wants to have no part in helping with the man’s defense. Emily, however, believes that her husband should become involved with the case, and in an effort to please her, Amir eventually does, albeit tangentially.

It’s a decision that has a direct and profound impact on their relationship with another interracial couple: Caucasian Isaac (Josh Radnor), a curator at the Whitney who is considering showcasing Emily’s work, and African-American Jory (Karen Pittman), another attorney at the firm where Amir works.

The ways in which fireworks fly between all five characters can be both surprising and sometimes a little predictable as Akhtar charts the upheaval in Amir and Emily’s marriage. What’s constant throughout is both the erudition and crispness of the writing. It’s been a long while since Broadway’s been graced with a new play that zings with such intelligence.

Director Kimberly Senior has elicited some terrifically sharp performances from her ensemble, perhaps most notably from Mol, in a turn that heartbreakingly arcs from natural ebullience to benumbed confusion as Emily’s marriage disintegrates and the character is forced to reevaluate not only her personal, but also professional, life. Equally impressive is Radnor, who is always fascinating to watch as he brings darker and more aggressive shades into his performance as a character who seems to be merely a sensitive bookworm.

Throughout Dhillon cuts a fine figure on stage, looking great in Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s perfectly cut trousers and jackets that reflect the character’s penchant for incredibly expensive clothing. Dhillon’s also terrific in navigating Amir’s sharp emotional swings. In between the extremes, though, there’s something incredibly understated about Dhillon’s performance. It’s as if he’s outwardly emphasizing some of the unspoken feelings that Amir has about his heritage. Unfortunately, it means that there are times when this would-be master of the universe comes across as too tentative.

Both Ashok and Pittman make their characters, which might, in other hands, seem to be mere dramaturgical devices, spark to life vibrantly, and Ashok, in particular, proves hauntingly effective as Abe recounts a bigoted encounter he experienced at a Starbucks.

---- Andy Propst


Disgraced plays at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: disgracedonbroadway.com.

'The Last Ship' - An Appealing Theatrical Voyage


A scene from The Last Ship
(©Joan Marcus)

A bounty of lush, evocative music, stunning visuals and heartfelt performances fill The Last Ship, which has laid anchor into Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. It’s an auspicious Broadway debut for singer/songwriter Sting as composer and lyricist, and though not everything in the show is smooth sailing, the show makes for an appealing theatrical voyage.

With book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, Ship tells the story of what happens with Gideon (Michael Esper) returns to his hometown in Northern England after spending 15 years at sea to settle family affairs following his father’s death. Gideon doesn’t only need to cope with his father’s meager estate, but there are also personal matters, notably with Meg (Rachel Tucker), the childhood sweetheart he promised to return for when he left.

It’s little surprise that she’s moved on and has a new steady boyfriend, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), who has helped raised her teenage son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). The couple’s unresolved feelings for one another in light of Meg’s involvement with Arthur create a classic musical theater love triangle that becomes the emotional crux of The Last Ship.

Beyond the romantic aspect of the show, and causing further friction between Gideon and Arthur, is the dismal state of the town’s shipbuilding industry. Arthur, who had been a builder himself, has sided with an entrepreneur who is refitting the factories and promising employment to the populace. The men and women, however, are having none of this, and when Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate) announces that he will use church funds so that the men can build one last ship, Gideon finds himself finally drawn into a profession that he had scorned as a teenager and pitted against Arthur.

While the romantic conflicts in the musical (as familiar as they may be) work well enough, due primarily to the fact that Tucker shares palpable chemistry with both of her leading men, the portions of the show that center on the socioeconomic troubles the community faces never fully catch fire. Part of the problem is that the curious logic behind the priest’s decision to back the endeavor of constructing a vessel makes little sense. He says “To build ships well enough that other men will sail in them -- to make other men safe -- well if that's not God's work I don't know what is.” And yet, he has to divert funds from erecting a new church to underwrite the project. It would seem that perhaps the men’s skills could be just as applicable for creating the building.

Further, even though there are threats by the new owners of the shipyards that the men will be arrested, they never are. A fact conveniently explained away when Gideon tells Tom, “The lads are dug in now, they aren't leaving the yard. And there's no way old Newlands will have them hauled out of there in handcuffs. Not good for the public image.”

The rocky underpinnings of this side of The Last Ship undermine its credibility, even though Joe Mantello’s sturdy staging always looks its best when the men are at work. David Zinn’s scenic design seems to have a power of its own with huge metal bridges cutting through the space backed by corroded iron walls, particularly as its lit with bracing atmosphere by Christopher Akerlind. And when the men sing of their passion for their job, Sting’s music has a rousing, anthemic insistence that’s matched by Steven Hoggett’s intensely rugged choreography, which, at one point, even integrates the men’s welding torches. (Zinn’s cleverly echoes the colors of the flames that come from these tools with dashes of orange and blue in his costume design.)

When the show shifts over to the more intimate dramas that are unfolding in the shadow of this work, it fares better. Esper demonstrates, as he did in American Idiot, that he is a dramatic singer beyond compare, and when Gideon and Tom bond at the start of the show’s second act, as the older man talks about how he learned to make girls like him, the heart and charm of Sting’s writing is remarkable.

The same can be said of a ballad Arthur sings as he proposes (for the umpteenth time) to Meg. Delivered with robust sensitivity by Lazar, it’s one of the highlights of the score in the first act. Another topnotch bit of writing goes to Tucker’s spitfire Meg. “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor” has a continental edge, reminiscent of Kurt Weill, that compels.

Beyond the fine work from these three performers, The Last Ship, Applegate turns in a winningly warm performance as Father O’Brien and Kelly-Sordelet makes an auspicious debut as young Tom. Similarly Jimmy Nail and Sally Ann Triplett bring earthiness and spunk to their portrayals of the show’s more comic, secondary couple.

---- Andy Propst


The Last Ship plays at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: thelastship.com.

'On the Town' - A Sweet, Frothy Musical Valentine


Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, and Clyde Alves in On the Town
(©Joan Marcus)

It’s as substantial as a serving of cotton candy, and while you’re sitting at the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street, the revival of the classic 1944 musical On the Town is just as enjoyable. It’s a sweet, fluffy treat.

By this juncture, the premise of the show is probably known the world over, thanks to the 1949 movie that starred, among others, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Three sailors get 24 hours leave in the Big Apple, and they want to make the most of it. That means seeing the sights and along the way, if they’re lucky, they wouldn’t mind meeting a girl. Or, to use today’s parlance, having a hookup before what one presumes will be weeks or months at sea.

With a gloriously jazz-y score by Leonard Bernstein, outfitted with witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the show’s book writers as well), the musical spirals through the guys’ adventures, which get detoured because of one of them, Gaby (Tony Yazbeck), takes a shine to a poster he sees on the subway. He wants, no needs, to meet the month’s “Miss Turnstiles,” Ivy (Megan Fairchild). So his buds, Ozzie (Clyde Alves) and Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) change their plans to help him find her, and along the way, they meet women for themselves. For Chip, it’s aggressive cab driver Hildy (Alysha Umphress) and for Ozzie, it’s the very-much-engaged, but still on the prowl, Claire (Elizabeth Stanley).

Director John Rando carefully balances the show’s diverging and converging storylines as well as its disparate elements overall. At one moment, On the Town is just a big old fat valentine to New York; at another, it’s satire of the city and its denizens; and then, there are its screwball comedy moments. Of course, as the show was originally adapted from Jerome Robbins’ ballet, Fancy Free, there’s loads of dance, which has been expertly choreographed by Joshua Bergasse and when danced by Fairchild (of New York City Ballet), there are moments of breathtaking beauty and grace to be found on stage.

The same can be said of the music overall. The production uses the show’s original orchestrations with its whopping 28 pieces, a bonanza of musicians by today’s Broadway standards, and as the music cascades up and out of the pit, it sounds as big, brash and buoyant as the fairytale New York the show depicts.

All of this is enough for audiences to lose themselves in this frolicsome tuner, and to, most likely, not notice that the performances are about as varied as the show itself. There are some utterly delightful turns, like Johnson’s warmly goofball Midwesterner Chip, and Alves’ edgy Ozzie. Umphress brings just the right amount of charming coarseness to her work as Hildy, and as mentioned, Fairchild dances like a dream. She also happens to be about as wholesome and fetching as a Kewpie doll that someone might win at Coney Island (where the show eventually lands).

Other performances, though, are wanting. Yazbeck, who like Fairchild, dances up a storm, overplays Gaby’s hangdog simplicity, and as a result, the performance comes across as bland. At the other end of the spectrum is Jackie Hoffman, who strenuously overplays her multiple roles, including Ivy’s strict, alcohol-fueled singing teacher.

Such problems though ultimately disappear when balanced against the show’s bounties, which extend to the physical production. Thanks to the excellent work of scenic and projection designer Beowulf Boritt, costume designer Jess Goldstein, and lighting designer Jason Lyons, On the Town looks like a vintage postcard that’s sprung to life: the ones where pastels take on a wonderful, otherworldly vibrancy, visually proclaiming one of Comden and Green’s best-known lyrics: “It’s a helluva town!”

---- Andy Propst


On the Town plays at the Lyric Theatre (213 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: onthetownbroadway.com.

'The Fortress of Solitude' - Youthful Friends Circa 1975


Kyle Beltran, Carla Duren, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Adam Chanler-Berat in The Fortress of Solitude
(©Doug Hamilton)

The musical sounds of the late-1960s and through the mid-1970s come invigoratingly to life in The Fortress of Solitude, which opened last night at the Public Theater. Composer Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love’s Labour’s Lost) has written his most ambitious---and lengthy---score to date, and it’s a fantastic mixture of R&B, funk, folk, and rap. Unfortunately, this terrific work is all in service of a show that’s still finding its way, and though, the music and performances make for some dynamic moments on stage, the musical itself is an underwhelming affair of unrewarding story-telling.

Based on Jonathan Lethem’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the show tells the story of Dylan, who grows up from pre-teen years through young adulthood in the racially diverse neighborhood in Gowanus Brooklyn in the mid-1970s. He and his dad (Ken Barnett), a painter who makes ends meet by designing book jackets for fantasy novels, find themselves abandoned there after Dylan’s mom, who instigated the move, leaves them to pursue free-spirit dreams in Berkeley.

After his mom’s disappearance, Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat) turns to the record collection that she left and his comic books (the show’s title comes from the name of Superman’s arctic retreat) for solace, and these possessions spark a friendship with a kid his age, Gus (Kyle Beltran), who shares his love of superheroes and whose father Barrett (Kevin Mambo) happens to be one of the unheralded singers that Dylan’s mom admired. Tellingly both young men have also been named after musicians their folks admired, Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus, respectively.

It’s an unlikely pairing, not just because of the difference in race (Dylan is white and Gus is black), but also, seemingly, temperamentally. Dylan’s a nervous, introverted nerd. Gus is extroverted and streetwise; a graffiti artist with the tag “Dose.”

One other item that Dylan’s mom left behind (her wedding ring that she left on the spindle of a turntable) solidifies Dylan and Gus’ friendship, albeit in a surprising way. It imbues them, seemingly, with the ability to fly, metaphorically escaping all of the problems they face in their homes. The exchange of the ring also leads the musical and their relationship down a homoerotic path. When Gus’ dad finds them horsing together around under sheets in Gus’ room, he says, “Look I don’t care what you get up to in here. You just lucky it was me and not your granddad walked in just now. Get a lock for this door, boy.”

But Itamar Moses’ book, which until this point had gracefully charted both characters’ paths, their families’ lives, and those of others in the neighborhood, never returns to whether the ring sparked any other feelings between the two. Instead, it begins to formulaically unfurl to show what pulls the two of them apart, and then, in the second act, the musical perfunctorily takes audiences through their lives as adults.

Director Daniel Aukin (who also conceived the musical) has staged the piece so that it shifts fluidly back and forth through time, and he’s greatly assisted by scenic designer Eugene Lee’s flexible set, which places the band on an ironwork bridge above the action. Another chief feature of Lee’s design a wall of doors that represent the various houses in the neighborhood, and, combined with Lee’s decision to leave the theater’s brick walls exposed, this piece terrifically communicates the sense of the gritty world in which Dylan and Gus are growing up. Lee’s design can also beautifully transform into more magical places, often thanks to Tyler Micoleau’s angular lighting design that can astutely use shadow while also filling the space in otherworldly colors.

What Aukin’s work does not do, however, is illuminate the murkier sections of the musical (the resolution with the ring is particularly mystifying) or mitigate its less elegant sections. This is particularly true during the opening of the show’s second half while Dylan’s girlfriend (ably played and sung by Rebecca Naomi Jones) delivers a musical monologue that tells theatergoers what has happened as Dylan has moved into adulthood.

Chanler-Berat traces this character’s journey with the off-beat charm that has become his hallmark thanks to shows like Next to Normal and Peter and the Starcatcher His work is well-matched by Beltran’s edgier, moodier turn as Gus, and by Mambo’s haunting and haunted performance as Gus’ father. In addition, Mambo suavely executes some of choreographer Camille A. Brown’s smooth moves when the show flashes back to the man’s short-lived heyday as a performer. Brown’s best work, though, comes for several rousing ensemble numbers that capture the energy and diversity of the neighborhood (much like Jessica Pabst’s fine period costumes).

Alongside these turns there are also notable ones from David Rossmer, who plays the neighborhood geek who’s actually more awkward than Dylan, and Brian Tyree Henry makes a neighborhood bully both menacing and a little sweet. And as Gus’ grandfather, a disgraced preacher, André De Shields, delivers a formidable performance.

Impressively, De Shields doesn’t sound much different as he forcefully offers up the gospel-infused “Take Me to the Bridge” than he did when he opened in The Wiz in 1975, and it’s one of the many exhilarating moments back in time that Fortress of Solitude offers. It’s hard not to wish, though, that such excitement were more sustained throughout the production.

---- Andy Propst


The Fortress of Solitude plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.

'The Belle of Amherst' - An Amiable Visit with Emily Dickinson


Joely Richardson in The Belle of Amherst
(©Carol Rosegg)

Theatergoers have the unique opportunity to spend some time with the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, courtesy of William Luce’s biographical play, The Belle of Amherst, which opened last night in director Steve Cosson’s agreeable revival at the Westside Theatre.

The show premiered in 1976 and starred Julie Harris, who picked up one of her six Tony Awards for her performance, went on to tour in the piece, and eventually preserved it on film for PBS. This new production stars Joely Richardson, and she’s delivering a shimmering, fluttery performance that indicates that perhaps one of the reasons Dickinson remained so shut off from the world around was the fact that she had some sort of social anxiety disorder.

It’s an intelligent, insightful choice, which has both its benefits and its pitfalls. On the one hand, it gives Luce’s play, which provides all of the necessary facts about Dickinson’s life along with a healthy smattering of her poetry, a certain urgency. Stories, pieces of her writing, and even a recipe come tumbling out of Richardson’s mouth as Dickinson entertains the audience, her visitors in her comfortable Massachusetts home (scenic designer Antje Ellermann provides the spartanly elegant interior that puts Dickinson’s parlor and study side by side).

At the same time, though, the speed of Richardson’s delivery means that there come points when it’s difficult to not wish that she were taking it just a bit more slowly so that one had a fraction of a moment to savor Dickinson’s verse or a shrewd, gently wry observation that she shares about herself, her family, or the world at large. Similarly, the clip Richardson’s keeping in the show caused her to stumble over her words at a press performance.

As she settles into a run, it’s pretty certain that such slips will disappear, and what will remain is her carefully layered performance that’s simultaneously demure and coquettish (to achieve this in the staid winter white dress that costume designer William Ivey Long has created is in itself an achievement); intensely focused and slightly scattered; and self-assured and marvelously vulnerable.

Richardson’s performance is ably supported by both David Weiner’s lighting design, which helps audiences keep track of shifts in time, and by Daniel Kluger’s sound design, which sensitively indicates the world just outside of this home, where theatergoers will find themselves thoroughly charmed by their hostess.

---- Andy Propst


The Belle of Amherst at the Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: belleofamherstplay.com.