Barnum, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, review:
Gordon Greenberg's striking, flashy, warm-hearted production transforms the small Menier Chocolate Factory theatre into a Big Top and circus ring with comedian Marcus Brigstocke in the title role
“P T Barnum is the name and miracles is the game,” declares our hero in the Menier's likeable, energetic revival of this flashy, warm-hearted, rather frustrating 1980 musical (music by the great Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, book by Mark Bramble) about the 19th century showman celebrated for staging The Greatest Show on Earth. Barnum styled himself the “Prince of Humbug” and fake news was his stock-in-trade as he suckered the public with his supposed mermaids and 160-year -old women and falsely re-rebranded attractions such as General Tom Thumb. The musical takes a genial approach to the flim-flam seeing it as evidence that he was a “dreamer” whose personality is constantly contrasted here to that of his level-headed New England- schoolmarm wife Charity. She can't really resist him either and the Menier provides much to enjoy on the level of pure spectacle in Gordon Greenberg's striking production which transforms this small theatre into a Big Top and circus ring.
When Barnum first opened, the eponymous role (MC and ringmaster) was performed by Jim Dale on Broadway and Michael Crawford in the West End – big theatrical beasts both. At the Menier, it's taken on by the comedian, Marcus Brigstocke. He establishes a very easy, unforced rapport with the audience as was immediately apparent on press night when at the start he asked a punter if he had ever seen an elephant. The man said no. “You've really never seen an elephant?” he remarked delightedly. “This show is going to blow your mind..” To underline the risky temptation of starting an affair with Jennie Lind, the Swedish Nightingale (Celinde Schoenmaker), Barnum is supposed to end the first act by walking a tightrope across the stage. Word has it that the night before press night, he performed the feat in one go. The point, though, is that Brigstocke joked his way through his falls on the first night (“I hope that none of you have ordered interval drinks...”) with the good humour that characterises his portrayal.
The performer works well with Laura Pitt-Pulford who sings and acts beautifully as Barnum's sorely tried but unfailingly devoted and intermittently guileful wife. You believe in their marriage, Bramble's book is very thin, though; you want to know much more about the hero's shift into politics, say, and his advocacy of civil rights. How does his life as the Prince of Humbug relate, if at all, to his being a man ahead of his time on these issues? It would help if Brigstocke occasionally appeared as driven as a figure with such a CV must have been.
It's the ensemble and the gloriously brassy band (under Alex Parker) that are the main attractions however. The former astound with their gravity-defying tumbles and twirls. The choreography by Rebecca Howell is witty throughout (in one sequence, the central couple squabble while pegging out the washing and wound up romantically tied together). She and Scott Maidment (the circus director) have come up moves that take breath away. It's for all these reasons that you should want to roll up, roll up to Barnum.
Barnum review – Brigstocke's shameless showman leads a charming Toe Tapping carnival
There’s no big top at the Menier Chocolate Factory, but it’s been reconceived as a festive in-the-round theatre for this intimate revival of the musical about the 19th-century showman PT Barnum. It’s less grand circus, more travelling carnival, and everything comes together for a charming, toe-tapping affair despite its wobbly tentpole – a thinly sketched biography of the so-called “Prince of Humbug”.
Barnum, previously portrayed by the charismatic Michael Crawford at the Palladium, is played with strained aplomb by Marcus Brigstocke, who despite wavering vocals and an obvious unease with onstage stunts, conveys the celebrated impresario’s invincible sense of derring-do. It’s Laura Pitt-Pulford as tough, sweet Chairy who carries the quiet heart of a frenzied show, and you miss her when she’s gone.
The ensemble leap, tumble and whirl about the stage, showing off an impressive range of tricks and stunts
Their romance is swaddled by an ensemble of enormous energy who leap, tumble and whirl about the stage, showing off an impressive range of street magic tricks and edgier stunts. Director Gordon Greenberg’s decision to scale down for a more immersive environment means the theatre is packed with up-close performances, some gentle audience participation, and cute perspective tricks. The musical parades at a breathless speed through Barnum’s life, pointedly skirting his faults and infidelity, and creating a “humbug” all of its own by reimagining the relationship between Chairy and Barnum, embellished by Mark Bramble to make the plot stick.
Bramble’s book revels in the spectacle of showcasing Barnum’s exotic acquisitions, whether it’s Swedish soprano Jenny Lind or the 25-inch tall General Tom Thumb, and touches just briefly on Barnum’s political aspirations and a fascinating laundry list of the causes he stood for, including the abolition of slavery.
Barnum’s advice to the young man we know will become his partner, Bailey, is to “hook your attractions to the mood of the country”, and there’s a well-milked nostalgia here for a more oblivious era, where lies and truth were more distinguishable, and the media circus and the political circus were less insidious purveyors of fake news. Barnum’s hoaxes and political campaign feel innocent by comparison with their bald profiteering and straightforward sensationalism. “The circus needs you” – so the finale goes – championing its seductive powers of illusion over the masses.
Barnum, Menier Chocolate Factory review - A Big Blowsy Spectacle
Director Gordon Greenberg stages a big, blowsy, TOUCHING spectacle in the round, and its cast of 18 pack a real punch
You have to hand it to Menier Chocolate Factory, a venue that doesn't let size matter as it stages an all-singing, all-dancing new production of Barnum, a musical about Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum – the 19th-century showman famed for staging “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Director Gordon Greenberg stages a big, blowsy spectacle in this small theatre, in the round, and its cast of 18 pack a real punch.
Barnum (music by Cy Coleman, book by Mark Bramble, lyrics by Michael Stewart), was a hit on Broadway in 1980 and ran for more than 850 performances, before coming to the London Palladium in 1981, with Jim Dale and Michael Crawford the respective leads. At the Menier, comic Marcus Brigstocke takes the title role.
Barnum is MC, ring-master and narrator on Paul Farnsworth's inventive set (complete with revolving circus ring) as he tells his life story and introduces his circus acts, explaining how he uses the power of persuasion, or “humbug” as he calls it, to get the public to roll up, roll up at his shows. There are jugglers and tumblers – plus real-life characters from his shows such as Tom Thumb (Harry Francis), Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (Celinde Schoenmaker) and the world's oldest woman Joice Heth (Tupele Dorgu).
Much of what Barnum says is hokum – the opening song is after all “There Is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute” – but his serious-minded and loyal wife Chairy (Laura Pitt-Pulford) has his number. She's even represented in one circus vignette as “the most ferocious of all jungle beasts” and the scenes between husband and wife are often touching while providing much of the evening's comedy as they bicker over nothing much.
Brigstocke is not a powerful singer but what he lacks in vocal skills he makes up with humour and ease in a role where he is on stage most of the time. The singing by the two women in Barnum's life is, however, superb, and Pitt-Pulford laces Chairy's long-suffering sweetness with some guile, while Schoenmaker plays the vampish diva – Barnum loses his head, and almost his marriage, over her – with aplomb. The ensemble are terrific, and their tumbling and gravity-defying body throws often take the breath away, while Rebecca Howell's choreography cleverly marries movement and their circus skills in what is a very energetic show. Barnum wasn't about reality, he just wanted people to have a good time – and you certainly will at this show.
Broadway Review: ‘Holiday Inn’
“Holiday Inn,” the 1942 film that starred Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and a calendar full of Irving Berlin tunes, has gotten a complete and first-class stage redo at Roundabout Theatre Company. Director Gordon Greenberg and co-writer Chad Hodge have significantly rethought, reshaped and revitalized the script, giving the show more heart, a modern sensibility and a joyful spirit. Engaging performances, dynamic dancing and a lively orchestra make it the feel-good show of the fall.
The musical has an entirely new cast and has been significantly sharpened since its well-received launch at the Goodspeed Opera House in 2014, and its second perch last year at the Muny of St. Louis.
Produced in association with Universal Stage Prods. with access to much of the Berlin catalogue, the show is stuffed with standards, supplementing the film’s “Easter Parade,” “Happy Holiday” and “White Christmas” with such hum-alongs as “Shaking the Blues Away,” “Heat Wave,” “Blue Skies” and “It’s a Lovely Day Today.” And that’s just in the first act.
Choreographer Denis Jones is the star player of the production, keeping things playful by finding dance opportunities with wheelbarrows, firecrackers and Christmas garlands — and nearly stopping the show with the exuberant “Shaking the Blues Away,” which evokes the best of MGM musicals. Terrific also are Alejo Vietti’s costumes and fab Easter hats, which embrace ’40s swank, showbiz glitz and stylish down-on-the-farm casual. (It’s Connecticut, after all.)
The story, now set in more optimistic postwar times, follows singer Jim (Bryce Pinkham) as he splits with his dancing partner and best bud Ted (Corbin Bleu) in order to follow his bliss by buying a farm and living a simpler life. But when the crops run a-crapper and the mortgage is due, he and his Broadway pals (between gigs, natch) turn the homestead into an inn-with-entertainment that’s only open on the holidays. (Huh?) There’s also the likelihood of romance with local schoolteacher Linda (Lora Lee Gayner) — until Ted shows up, reviving her showbiz dreams.
The lead performers are smashing, especially Pinkham, who turns what could be a bland role into a charmer. As he did in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” he brings sex appeal, dark grace and a beguiling tenor that underscores the character’s sweet sincerity and vulnerability.
There’s still not much to Ted’s self-involved, ever-smiling character. But Bleu, formerly of the “High School Musical” franchise and “Dancing With the Stars,” is a spark plug of energy, and his hoofing in “You’re Easy to Dance With” and “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers” are two of the musical’s dance delights.
Gayner’s character here gets an upgrade, given intelligence, wit and some life experience. Her performance showcases triple-threat skills throughout, with a sterling soprano and a dry delivery that is both human and hilarious. (Confident director Greenberg knows just when to take that extra moment to wait for a laugh, or for a look to land.)
Offering solid comic support are Megan Lawrence as the inn’s wisecracking handywoman, who can cut loose with the best of them even with milk pails on her feet; Lee Wilkof as the veteran talent agent; Megan Sikora as Ted’s former dance partner and fiance; and Morgan Gao as a local kid with special deliveries.
This clever musical should have longer legs than the Yule-centric stage version of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” especially for those yearning for an old-fashioned respite from political angst, or for those who just can’t wait until “Hello, Dolly!” comes to town in the spring.
Irving Berlin’s ‘Holiday Inn’ Sleighs ‘Em In Times Square
An exuberant, shamelessly old-fashioned tap-and-tuner presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at its Studio 54 theater, this adaptation of the 1942 Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire Paramount film is an endorphin assault, inducing warm-bath pleasure like no other show since 42nd Street. The dancing is spectacular, the singing sublime, the visuals are ingenious and, almost incidentally, there’s the cataract of Irving Berlin songs that includes his sole Oscar winner, “White Christmas.”
As with recent archaeological digs into the Gershwin canon (Crazy For You, Nice Work If You Can Get It), fidelity to the source material is a non-starter. With 1,500 songs in the Berlin catalogue to choose from, the new show’s adapters Gordon Greenberg (who also directs) and Chad Hodge have augmented the film score with a basketful of chestnuts including “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “It’s A Lovely Day Today” and “Cheek To Cheek.”
The story’s as predictable as February. B-level song-and-dance trio Jim Hardy (Bryce Pinkham), Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu) and Lila Dixon (Megan Skora) may be on the cusp of a big-time booking but Jim, the singer, has had enough of the grind. He proposes to Lila and produces the deed for a farm he’s bought in Connecticut. But he’s underestimated the ambition of both Ted (the primo dancer) and Lila (the sex angle), who opt for a major gig their agent Danny (Lee Wilkoff) has just arranged.
That leaves Jim down on the farm, where the spinsterishly alluring previous owner Linda (Lora Lee Gayer) endows him with her invaluably yentalike caretaker Louise (Megan Lawrence, in the Mary Wickes role). If that last reference is familiar, it’s because even in this version, you can still see the bones of what became, a dozen years after Holiday Inn, the smash film White Christmas, in which Wickes played just such a part. Of course Jim and Linda fall in love; of course Ted shows up to muck it all up, of course the old gang appears out of the blue to put on a show and save the farm as well as the day. You gotta problem with that?
Pinkham, a Tony nominee for A Gentlemans Guide To Love & Murder, is no crooner; indeed, he’s the Ethel Merman in the mix, singing like the brass section and selling every word to the balcony. Corbin Bleu, of the High School Musical franchise, is the discovery, tapping up a storm that recalls the young Sammy Davis Jr., technical brilliance and cockiness and goodtime in one barely containable package. Sikora also has the right metalurgy of voice, while it’s up to Lawrence to infuse the operation with warmth, and she’s endearingly up to the task.
The show, which was developed at Connecticut’s redoubtable Goodspeed Opera House, has more set changes than I could count, and everyone of the stage pictures designer Anna Louizos unveils is a postcard-perfect bit of vaguely surreal whimsy; ditto the delicious costumes by Alejo Vietti (with a special nod to the inventor of weighted hemlines). Above all, Denis Jones (Honeymoon In Vegas) deploys a smallish troupe of dazzling hoofers with a perfect mix of precision (enforced) and abandon (brilliantly faked, no doubt).
It may be instructive to think back to last season’s revival of Dames At Sea, a similarly retro show that featured plenty of talent but lacked the spark of life so evident here. The one nit I’d pick is the interpolation of “Cheek To Cheek,” a centerpiece of the show but one I felt was out of place; it’s indelibly linked to Astaire and Rogers and a level of elegance that’s beside the point here. (I also could have done without the hawking of Universal Pictures, which now owns the film and is a producer of the show.)
Nertz on that, however. Holiday Inn found me cranky and left me otherwise, and there’s really nothing more to say.
'Holiday Inn' Broadway review: This musical is worth checking into
directed with generosity and warmth by Gordon Greenberg (who also co-wrote the show with Chad Hodge) — and as performed by a pair of dashing and very endearing leading men, Bryce Pinkham and Corbin Bleu — this "Holiday Inn" wears down all defenses.
Pinkham ("A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder") takes the Crosby part, playing Jim Hardy, a song-and-dance man who has bought a Connecticut farm out of foreclosure, with the hope that he and his co-star / girlfriend Lila (Megan Sikora) will quit show biz and settle down there. Lila has other plans, taking off with Jim's partner Ted Hanover (Bleu) on a national tour — who needs pigs and chickens when a possible Hollywood contract is on the horizon?
Luckily, Jim soon falls for Linda (Lora Lee Gayer), the lonely schoolteacher whose family used to own the farm, and together they hatch a plan to salvage the ramshackle place by turning it into an inn and performance venue only open on the holidays. Which actually sort of works, until Ted and Lila part ways, and he shows up in Connecticut in search of a new dance partner. One guess as to who he falls for.
Bleu — a former Disney Channel star and "High School Musical" alum - brings a sweet innocuousness and knowing self-awareness to such numbers as the one where Ted dances with all the female members of the chorus.
Pinkham, too, manages to soften his character's roughest edges, so that Ted comes off as less of a selfish jerk for potentially sabotaging Lila and Linda's showbiz futures, and more like a lovably square, if occasionally stubborn guy.
Besides, when numbers land the way they do here, the audience quickly finds itself in a very forgiving mood. Director Greenberg and choreographer Denis Jones are at their best when they're employing the full ensemble — witness the show-stopping act 1 number "Shaking the Blues Away," in which strings of Christmas tree garland are transformed into jump ropes, or the act 2 "Easter Parade," featuring some spectacularly vertiginous Easter bonnets.
"Easter Parade" was actually written in 1933 and later shoehorned into the film (as well as into the 1948 film "Easter Parade"). In turn Greenberg and Hodges have taken creative liberties with their adaptation in order to squeeze into their show many other Berlin standards. That means you'll also hear splendid renditions of "Stepping out with My Baby," "Heat Wave," and "Cheek to Cheek," alongside the movie's most famous number, "White Christmas," sung here in lovely, low-key fashion by Pinkham and Gayer.
Of the supporting cast, Gayer does her best with a stock part, while Megan Lawrence ("The Pajama Game") proves a stealth scene stealer as Louise, Jim's caretaker at the inn, and apparently the town's sole gay resident. The very funny Sikora comes off best, perhaps because even if she's playing a cliché — the stardom-obsessed diva — she's also playing the one woman in the show who doesn't allow men to decide her fate.
You can also luxuriate in the lovingly detailed sets by Anna Louizos, the playful costumes by Alejo Vietti, and the general air of good-will emanating from the stage. Flaws and all, "Holiday Inn" leaves you unreservedly happy — these days, no small feat.
Guys and Dolls, theatre review: This unstoppable hit keeps getting better and better
Now in its third incarnation after the premiere at Chichester and an initial West End run at the Savoy, Gordon Greenberg’s delicious production of Frank Loesser’s classy classic once again boasts chemistry in all the right places.
There’s absolutely nothing not to like about this rendering of Damon Runyon’s assortment of colourful New York low-lifes, says Fiona Mountford
It is, as Sky Masterson and Miss Sarah realise, all about the “chemistry”. It’s not just in the relationship between a charming gambler and a Salvation Army “doll” that this invisible ingredient is all-important, but in the casting mix of a hit musical, too.
The big draw here is double Olivier Award winner Samantha Spiro as “the well-known fiancée” Miss Adelaide, and what a treat she proves in this effervescent part. A pocket rocket of smiles and charisma, Spiro is a knock-out — why on earth has Nathan Detroit (Richard Kind) been dallying for so long?
There’s lovely chemistry between roguish Sky (soaring singing from Oliver Tompsett) and strait-laced Sarah (Siubhan Harrison); when they head off for their evening in Havana, the romantic tension is palpable, greatly aided by sublime extended choreography for the bar scene from Andrew Wright and Carlos Acosta.
In short, there’s absolutely nothing not to like about this rendering of Damon Runyon’s assortment of colourful New York low-lifes. The songs are as tuneful as ever, with Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat once more a foot-stomping inducer of encores. This show is tingle-down-the-arms good — a rarity in the West End.
Guys and Dolls review
expert revival plays its cards right
Savoy theatre, London
With outstanding leads and fizzing choreography from Carlos Acosta, the classic gambling musical is staged with elan.
It seems fitting that the Chichester production of Guys and Dolls (1950) should follow Gypsy (1959) at this address. Not only do these two fabulous shows bookend a great decade for the musical, but they prove that the genre is at its best when the songs and the dance routines grow out of a strong book.
Watching Gordon Greenberg’s expert revival, I was reminded yet again that this is the wittiest of American musicals. It derives, of course, from Damon Runyon’s stories about the peculiarly chivalric Broadway underworld and one particular fable about a Bible-quoting gambler who ends up dating a Salvation Army girl with missionary zeal. Runyon’s wit is not only encapsulated but even magnified in the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.
The show teems with funny lines such as that delivered by a sharp-suited hood who, seeking to aid the elopement of Nathan Detroit with his long-time fiancee Miss Adelaide, tactfully announces: “I’ll lend you my getaway car.” The wit of the book extends to Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics, which are driven by character rather than events. A classic example is Adelaide’s Lament, in which a showgirl’s frustration at being as permanently engaged as a box-office telephone leads psychosomatically to a constant cold. Even a big showstopper, such as Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, allows the song and dance to emerge naturally from the ecstatic vision of a habitual gambler.
In this production the choreography by Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright also feels inherently dramatic rather than arbitrarily inserted; and it is hard not to see the hand of the former in the number, Havana, in which the liberated mission-girl, Sarah Brown, finds herself engaged in a Carmen-like sexual duel with an exotically plumed local over the body of her escort.
I’ve seen more spectacular versions but this one is propelled, like the songs themselves, by the people and the key roles are very well played. Jamie Parker as Sky Masterson combines a Kirk Douglas voice with a covert romanticism that allows him to naturally sing “the street light fills the gutter with gold”. Siubhan Harrison similarly conveys the contradictions in Sarah who, even in the opening number, casts fascinated glances at the lascivious activities of the Times Square denizens.
David Haig as Nathan neatly epitomises the anxiety-driven small-time hustler and he is perfectly partnered by Sophie Thompson who, as Adelaide, captures not just the comedy of the chronic fiancee but also the pathos of a woman who realises the crow’s-feet are getting deeper. A classic musical has been delivered with grace and elan.
Guys and Dolls -reviews of 'triumphant' musical revival
Chichester 'hit factory' wows critics again with exhilarating staging of golden-age musical
What you need to know
A revival of the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls has opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre. The hit 1950s show, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, was adapted into a movie starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.
It tells the story of a down-on-his-luck crapshooter, Nathan Detroit, who tries to raise the stake for a dice game by challenging fellow gambler Sky Masterton to woo a an icy missionary.
Gordon Greenberg directs the production featuring choreography by former Royal Ballet star Carlos Acosta. Runs until 21 September.
What the critics like
Chichester has done it again, this time "doing justice to the greatest golden-age musical of them all", says Dominic Maxwell in The Times. Mixing heart and humour, pain and pizzazz, this production is a delight.
When it comes to wit, panache, heart and sheer exuberant joy Guys and Dolls is "the nonpareil in musical theatre", says Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph. Greenberg and his cast bring a buzzing energy to the show, in which almost every sentence makes you smile.
The well-oiled Chichester "hit factory" powers triumphantly onwards with a production that is "unfaultably fine", says Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard. The songs, ranging from seamlessly up-tempo show-stoppers to soulful numbers are a treat, and there's sassy choreography by Carlos Acosta.
Anyone who saw Richard Eyre's great 1982 National Theatre version will always have that as a favourite, says Mark Lawson in The Guardian. "But Gordon Greenberg's exhilarating Chichester staging comes in, unlike Nathan's horse tips, a very close second."
American director Gordon Greenberg makes a notable debut on these shores
So supreme and indestructible a musical is Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (1950) that the question with each new revival is not whether it will be good, but precisely how good it will prove.
The delightful news is that the well-oiled Chichester hit factory powers triumphantly onwards here, offering up a production, including sassy choreography from former Royal Ballet star Carlos Acosta, that is unfaultably fine.
The songs, which range so seamlessly from the up-tempo show-stopper of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat to the soulfully intimate I’ll Know, are the treat they always are. Nonetheless, Loesser’s foray into Damon Runyon’s stories about the low-life underbelly of Broadway requires four superlative lead performances to justify a five-star rating.
American director Gordon Greenberg, making a notable debut on these shores, gets just that from Peter Polycarpou and Sophie Thompson as beleaguered crap-game organiser Nathan Detroit and his beloved Miss Adelaide, “the well-known fiancée”, and above all from the sizzling pairing of Clare Foster and Jamie Parker.
Foster, who starred in the recent West End hit Merrily We Roll Along, and Parker, for my money the most talented of the original History Boys, deserve instant promotion to the front rank of British musical theatre stars.
They complement each other exquisitely, both vocally and emotionally, as the strait-laced Salvation Army sergeant Sarah Brown and gambler Sky Masterson, who view it as a great inconvenience to find themselves so suddenly and completely smitten with each other. We’re with them, breath held where necessary, on every faltering step of their journey towards happiness.
The crucial test of the choreography comes in the Havana scene, when Sky whisks Sarah off for a night of hedonism.
Acosta and co-choreographer Andrew Wright gradually and stylishly turn the heat up on the action, which reaches such a crescendo that it topples over into a bar-room brawl, from which Sky has to extricate Sarah in a fireman’s lift.
I’d say it’s better than even money that this show will be rolling its dice in the West End very soon.
Guys and Dolls, Chichester Festival Theatre, review: 'one hell of an evening'
I left THE THEATRE with a grin of pure happiness on my face
On his Radio 2 show a few weeks ago the lyricist Don Black confessed that he could never quite decide whether West Side Story or Guys and Dolls was his favourite musical. I have no such doubts. When it comes to wit, panache, heart and sheer exuberant joy Guys and Dolls strikes me as the nonpareil in musical theatre.
Mind you, it is a hard show to pull off. Richard Eyre delivered a wonderful production at the National Theatre back in 1982, with a Rolls-Royce cast that included Ian Charleson, Julie Covington, Bob Hoskins and Julia McKenzie, which I count among the greatest nights I have ever spent in a theatre. But the usually superb director Michael Grandage didn’t quite do justice to this glorious show in his West End production in 2005.
In the final analysis this new production by the American director Gordon Greenberg doesn’t eclipse memories of Eyre’s, but to borrow a phrase from Damon Runyon, on whose Broadway stories the show is based, a dollar will get you ten that you’ll have one hell of an enchanted evening.
The book by Abe Burrows fizzes with wit, and the music and lyrics by Frank Loesser are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. The band blows up a brassy storm under MD Gareth Valentine and Peter McKintosh’s evocative design of Fifties advertising posters works a treat.
Greenberg and his cast bring a buzzing energy to the show and get full value from the deliciously formal Runyonesque dialogue, in which almost every sentence makes you smile.
The company also dance up a storm. Two choreographers are involved, the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta, who I would guess is responsible for the delirious rumba sequence when the action briefly relocates to Havana, and Andrew Wright. All the routines are blessed with exuberant energy and wit, not least the great Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sequence, but I felt a bit short-changed that we were denied a full ensemble tap-dancing finale.
Among the performers, there is especially fine work from Peter Polycarpou as Nathan Detroit, the battered but never quite beaten professional gambler who runs the “oldest established, permanent floating crap game in New York”, and Sophie Thompson as the cabaret artiste Miss Adelaide, his fiancée of 14 years standing, who despairs of ever getting him to the alter. She gets terrific value from two of the show’s greatest and funniest songs, Adelaide’s Lament and Take Back Your Mink, combining gawky vulnerability with a heart as big as a house. There is a real emotional truth about this interminable courtship that lends the show depth as well as laughter.
There is also a palpable charge in the relationship between Jamie Parker’s Sky Masterson, a man so addicted to gambling that he even takes bets on how high his temperature will rise when he has flu, and Clare Foster as Sarah Brown, the Salvationist from the mission hall who finds herself head over heels in love with a sinner.
Parker put me in mind of the young Frank Sinatra, singing superbly and with something of the night about him, while Clare Foster touchingly captures her character’s sense of hurt and betrayal before the final glow of love and confidence.
Among the supporting cast look out (though you could hardly miss him) for Nic Greenshields, only marginally less tall than the Empire State Building, and an absolute hoot as the sinister heavy, Big Jule.
I left the theatre walking on air and with a grin of pure happiness on my face.
Gordon Greenberg’s revival of this 1950 classic leaves the whole audience purring with pleasure.
Chichester has done it again. After triumphant revivals of Singin’ in the Rain and The Pajama Game, both of which reached the West End, now it’s doing justice to the greatest golden-age musical of them all. And if Gordon Greenberg’s revival ushers us in gently at first to this Damon Runyon-derived 1950 fairytale of gangsters and gamblers, showgirls and missionaries, the longer it goes along the more the troublesome real world disappears. This production is a delight.
This is a story about two couples who must learn to accept each other’s flaws: “Why is it the minute you dolls get a guy that you like,” asks Jamie Parker’s street-suave Sky Masterson, “you take him right in for alterations?” Yet Frank Loesser’s songs and Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’s book integrate flawlessly. They dovetail two love stories: Peter Polycarpou’s Nathan Detroit needs $1,000 to set up a new craps game, so he bets Sky that he can’t take a stern-faced missionary — Clare Foster’s Sarah Brown — to Havana. Meanwhile, Sophie Thompson’s Miss Adelaide, for 14 years Nathan’s fiancé, is pressuring this would-be player to finally make an honest goyl of her.
That’s right, goyl: Thompson’s Adelaide is brassy all right, but also lovelorn and gorgeously self-aware. She mixes vulnerability with va-va-voom in a hilarious yet heartfelt turn. And though Parker can’t entirely junk his English diffidence alongside his New World charm, he’s superb too, looking composed and sounding swell as Sky loses his tough-guy heart to Foster’s Sarah, who unbuttons divinely as the show goes on. Polycarpou is a poised putz of a middle-aged Nathan, a man trying too hard to be something he’s not.
Peter McKintosh’s shiny-floored set is spare but evocative thanks to a fanned backdrop of neon-lit Broadway signs. And at least three numbers here offer the best sort of musical-theatre high. The Havana scene brings out the sinuous, acrobatic best from the choreography by the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright. Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, in which the cast weaves in and out of a circle of chairs, is sensational. Simpler staging triumphs too: Parker makes Luck Be a Lady Tonight scintillating with only a spotlight, backing vocals from the cast in the shadows and Gareth Valentine’s horn-heavy 14-piece band to help him.
With such a nice central quartet, the whole cast of 30 are in on the plan, all committed to mixing heart and humour and pain and pizzazz. This Guys and Dolls leaves the whole audience purring with pleasure.
FRANK RIZZO, Variety
The Connecticut farmstead setting in “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” isn’t the only thing that receives a makeover in this charmer of a tuner preeming at Goodspeed Musicals’ Opera House (and produced in association with Universal Stage Prods.).
The 1942 movie musical that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire gets an impressive and stylish re-do, too. Far superior — and more marketable — than the single-holiday-themed stage version of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” this “Holiday Inn” is better conceived and crafted.”
Many of the show’s elements — Denis Jones’ witty choreography, Alejo Vietti’s fab costumes, the clever script by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge and playful and measured helming by Greenberg — recall that gold standard of re-purposed shows, “Crazy for You.”
The show couldn’t be more jam-packed with song standards, supplementing the film’s “Easter Parade,” “Happy Holidays” and “White Christmas” with a wide scoop from the Berlin songbook, adding “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” “Heat Wave,” “What’ll I Do,” “Blue Skies” and a few lesser-known gems. But it takes more than music to make an audience care, and this creative team re-calibrates this tasty trifle wisely and well.
Reset in sunnier days of the post-war era, the story centers on the showbiz split of singer Jim (Tally Sessions) and dancer Ted (Noah Racey), with Jim seeking a simpler life running a New England inn. For Ted, showbiz is the only biz. But a return from the old pal — with a tempting lure of fame and fortune — jeapardizes Jim’s romance with local teacher Linda (Patti Murin).
Offering old-school laugh support is a crew that Capra and Sturges would be proud to enlist: Susan Mosher as the inn’s wisecracking handywoman, Danny Rutigliano as a sparkplug of an agent, Hayley Podschun as Ted’s former dance partner and Noah Marlowe as the very funny, nonplussed local kid.
The script by Greenberg and theater newbie Hodge (whose many TV projects include the upcoming “Wayward Pines” for Fox) grounds the work around the theme of the authenticity of “real” country life versus the artificiality of showbiz — but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously either. (“Connecticut? You’ll end up wearing plaid and repressing your feelings,” says Ted on hearing Jim’s decision to ankle the biz.)
Racey has a fine time with his character’s ego-driven obliviousness, and his dancing is terrific. Sessions sings beautifully, but sometimes his sad-sack moments tend to lessen this leading-man role, while Murin brings sex, intelligence and humor to a part that was forgettable in the film — and stellar here.
“Holiday Inn” has the potential for full-calendar bookings.
HEDY WEISS, Chicago Sun Times
Superb ‘Working’ Explores What We Do, Who We Are
‘So what do you do?”
As we are reminded in “Working,” the musical inspired by Studs Terkel’s revealing 1974 book of oral history — now at the Broadway Playhouse in a winningly reimagined, enhanced and fully engaging new production — that is the crucial, ever-present question we Americans ask each other. And the answers invariably are tightly entwined with matters of ego, identity, legacy and self-worth (every bit as much as net worth), especially in our current economic times.
Adapted and gently updated by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked!”) and Nina Faso, this edition of “Working” comes with fresh, clever, richly animated direction by Gordon Greenberg; a superb cast; an ingenious use of M.C. Escher-like projections of office cubicles, and two charming new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) appended to the zesty, often-poignant existing list that includes work by Schwartz, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. A spirited, life-affirming production, it not only pays subtle homage to Studs, the Chicago icon, but also to the “work” of theater, for which he was a lifelong enthusiast.
The new conceit that binds together the show’s many episodic elements has everything to do with both those things. Beowulf Boritt’s two-level industrial set gives us the dressing rooms of the show’s six performers, and we are reminded that actors are tremendous physical laborers as well as artists who can magically transform themselves. In addition, an opening setup puts Studs’ reel-to-reel tape recorders (the essential tool of his trade) in full view. The songwriter’s “job” also is beautifully spotlighted here, with each concise verse capturing a character, actual workaday duties and plenty of attitude.
While James Taylor’s “Millwork” remains the score’s great gem (with a gorgeous rendering by the stellar Emjoy Gavin as a felt processor in a luggage factory), Schwartz’s well-known “It’s an Art” is revealed as pure caviar by Barbara Robertson as the waitress who’d be a star at any table. (Robertson also nails Rodgers and Birkenhead’s honest portrait of aging schoolteacher Rose Hoffman.)
Carnelia’s bittersweet ode, “Just a Housewife,” is touchingly rendered by E. Faye Butler, who can just as easily play a flamboyant hooker. And his “Joe,” about a man uneasy in retirement (Gene Weygandt is brilliant here, and also as a press agent and ironworker), as well as his “The Mason” (lovingly portrayed by Michael Mahler), also are finely polished.
Miranda’s new songs are a seamless fit, with the wholly charming Gabriel Ruiz and Gavino, as caregivers for kids and the aged, singing “A Very Good Day” in Spanish and Filipino.
It’s a very good show, too.
CHRIS JONES, Chicago tribune
Working' at the Broadway Playhouse: Finding the resonance in working lives in Chicago
In Gordon Greenberg's moving and fresh production of a new revision of the musical “Working,” which opened Wednesday at the Broadway Playhouse, workers' words and dreams live on in an economic climate that, at least as far as ordinary workers are concerned, has plenty in common with the late 1970s.
When the late, great Studs Terkel created his oral history “Working” around 1974, he asked an array of Americans, mostly Chicagoans, “What kind of work do you do?”
The responses to Terkel's brilliantly simple question revealed, to Terkel's amazement, “the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people.” Some 37 years later, many of those interviewees have died — including, just a month ago, the homemaker who famously told Terkel that she was “just a housewife, nothing special, nothing great.”
But in director Gordon Greenberg's moving and fresh production of a new revision of the musical “Working,” which opened Wednesday at the Broadway Playhouse, these workers' words and dreams live on in an economic climate that, at least as far as ordinary workers are concerned, has plenty in common with the late 1970s. Or so this show makes you think.
“Working” links this remarkable material more explicitly than before with the man who created it. At the top of the performance, you see and hear Terkel, and you see his tapes, rolling.
His subjects sing, of course, as they have since Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, James Taylor, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead and, most notably, Stephen Schwartz first put music behind their interviews in 1977, when “Working” premiered at the Goodman Theatre. But this new commercial production also features two much newer songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”). One witty Miranda ditty is based on his own first job in a Manhattan McDonald's and another gorgeous song looks at how we rely on immigrant workers to take care of our very young and our very old. The work we don't want to do for our own family.
These numbers are crucial to this project: they reflect the growing role of the service economy and the changing demographics of the workforce; they have a hipper style that contrasts with the show's otherwise folk-pop roots; and they play with a vital zest and pep that enlivens and amplifies the show at a point where it always used to sag.
It doesn't hurt that these songs feature the two knockout younger performers in Greenberg's show: Emjoy Gavino and Gabriel Ruiz.
This new production fully achieves one very notable aim: it successfully updates a 24-year-old Broadway show that has remained in the production repertory ever since, but has seemed a little tired for at least the past decade. Now that the references feel timely, the audience feels freer to connect with the timeless human desires articulated, in myriad ways, in Terkel's tapes.
I'm talking about the need we all feel to have “something to point to” at the end of our working lives; our desire that our children will both honor us and exceed our achievements; our wish to make a difference of some kind in the world; our need for workplace integrity and personal independence and, last but hardly least, a workspace with walls. Or fresh air.
And then there is the thorny matter of regrets: the business of what we could have done, if a spouse or kids or just the workaday need to make a living had not intruded. Those feelings really hang in the air here. You have a sense of how time just goes, faster and faster.
The show doesn't turn workers into sentimental stereotypes — we see an embittered schoolteacher (Barbara Robertson) who misses the paddle and a smug 19-year-old (played by Michael Mahler) headed to business school with a life all mapped out that we know won't stay that way. But one of the takeaways of this new “Working,” which packs more of an emotional punch that you'd expect, is that we really don't ever hear much these days from ordinary workers — unless politicians are assaulting them or employers are laying them off — and that discussions about the relationship of work and life have receded from the national conversation. Terkel does not have an obvious heir.
But he did leave us a show dedicated not to glitz nor distant European struggles of mineworkers or French convicts, but to the workers of Chicago. Especially now, this show has an existential quality — the ultimate quitting time is not one we anticipate with glee.
The most moving part of this show — when Gene Weygandt, digging deep, plays a retiree whose biggest regret is retiring — makes that all too clear. For many of us, the only thing worse than work is no work. You might argue that the score of “Working” is a patchwork of different songwriters and thus not the equal of more unified scores — and, indeed, some of the songs are better than others (there have been a couple of cuts). E. Faye Butler has some marvelous scenes in this show, but I'm not sure she was ideal for “Just a Housewife,” a masterful Carnelia song about anonymity which the force of her personality rather seems to fight. But other that, these performers make a rich and accomplished ensemble, paying homage to their subjects yet also tending to the whole. Robertson's waitress, Weygandt's trucker, Butler's hooker, Mahler's fireman: all ring true. And a theater of this modest size is the ideal venue.
Greenberg (and the choreographer Josh Rhodes) are careful not to over-conceptualize the material and Beowulf Boritt's set is designed to frame the people — they know how to preserve everyone's dignity, emphasize truth, and stay out of the way of Studs and his workers. Therein lies a fine contribution to the history of a notable American work, made, then and now, in Chicago.
BOB VERINI, Variety
The Old Globe's stimulus package transforms a heavily self-conscious pageant into 100 uninterrupted minutes of buoyant pleasure
In these hard times, it seems oddly fitting for a tuner titled "Working" to have been downsized (from 17 thesps in its 1978 debut to the current six) and its score partly outsourced (to "In the Heights" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda). Happily, the Old Globe's stimulus package transforms a heavily self-conscious pageant into 100 uninterrupted minutes of buoyant pleasure. Economic indicators have been cloudy for intimate entertainments eyeing the Main Stem, but if sheer entertainment is any criterion, luck may be with these laboring folk should their jobs be transferred to Gotham.
Studs Terkel's bestselling 1974 oral investigation, granting expression to the hitherto-unheard toilers of office and factory, got lost amidst the tuner's original overproduction. Yet despite a quick shuttering, the show's roster of meaty roles and a jauntily eclectic score by a consortium of pop and Broadway tunesmiths ensured a long life in schools, communities and regionals thereafter.
For this new incarnation born at Florida's Asolo Rep, the spoken and sung interview excerpts have been streamlined and rearranged for pellucid unity. Situations and images become passed batons: from a trucker with cell-phone trouble to the Verizon support staffer who thanks him for his business; from a prostitute complaining, "People aren't built to switch on and off" to a bone-weary mill worker doing just that.
Helmer Gordon Greenberg marshals the transitions with precision and wit, turning a goofy PR man (Wayne Duvall) into a doddering retiree, or a housewife (Danielle Lee Greaves) into a hooker, before our eyes. Black-clad techies participate openly in the changes -- even the stage manager and band visibly work their magic on an upper tier of Beowulf Boritt's boxy set -- to remind us we're not just hearing about work, we're seeing it in action.
Show's relative brevity reduces the need for dramatic build; the collage is everything, and what emerges is just enough taste of Terkel to whet the appetite for more. People's need to be recognized for what they do, others' disdain for menial labor and routine's mind-numbing effect are commonplace. But the everyday worker's dignity takes on new poignancy, and even urgency, when dramatized in these pointed snippets.
To its credit, "Working" neither demeans its witnesses nor idealizes them: Job slackers and overachievers are equally represented. We're brought up short when, for instance, that nice UPS man (Adam Monley) reports he kicks dogs and baits neighborhood women to pass the time; or a kindly schoolteacher (Donna Lynne Champlin) remembers her class writing out spelling words: "Ten times for the dumb ones/And twice for the smart."
But even Monley's cluelessly rapacious hedge fund manager (one of the occupations updated to account for 30 years' worth of workplace changes) wins a measure of affection, so sympathetically and skillfully is every figure played by Greenberg's first-rate cast.
At the risk of violating the evening's democratic spirit by singling anyone out, it's only right to mention a few Employees of the Month: Nehal Joshi, dazzling in Miranda's new near-rap about food deliveries; Duvall's unbearably moving Joe the retiree; and Marie-France Arcilla's devastated mill hand. But only a heart of stone could resist the tug when Craig Carnelia's inspiring finale picks up on the very first witness's wistful reminiscence. "Some mornings I look across the skyline," says ironworker Mike Dillard (Monley). "See that building? I helped build it."
The closing song agrees: "Everyone should have something to point to .../Look what I did/See what I've done." In a sense, "Working" never comes to an end but stands tall as a chain of Hands Across America whose ends finally meet in harmony and symmetry.
Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Mattie Ullrich; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Tony Smolenski IV; music director-conductor, Mark Hartman; orchestrations, Alex Lacamoire; projection design, Aaron Rhyne; stage manager, Dan Rosokoff. Opened March 12, 2009. Reviewed March 14. Runs through April 12. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.
Unbuckle your swashbuckle, channel your inner Johnny Depp and prepare to have a blast at “Pirates!” — a delightful new adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic “Pirates of Penzance” at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
Cornwall’s rocky shore has given way to a sun-drenched Caribbean island setting, and a pirate curse (borrowed from “Ruddigore”) has been added as dramatic spice. Co-produced by Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House and the Paper Mill, this “Pirates” takes the beloved operetta to rollicking heights.
The show is billed as “a fully-staged theatrical concert with costumes, choreography and sword fighting,” a format popularized by the “Encores!” series at City Center in New York. Gordon Greenberg, Nell Benjamin and John McDaniel are credited with conceiving this version, tweaking the score and book to inject the kind of energy and visual pizazz that takes into account the conventions of contemporary musical theater. Still, when the last pirate has swaggered his final swagger and the maidens have tittered their final titter, it’s the wit and satire of the original Gilbert and Sullivan that lift the show into the realm of memorable entertainment.
The cast of characters, all old friends, remain endearing in their new iteration. There’s duty-bound Frederic, who, through the error of his bawdy, loving but less than competent nursemaid, Ruth, is apprenticed until his 21st birthday to a pirate instead of a pilot. His master, the outrageous Pirate King, combines dastardly derring-do with a soft spot for any orphan, real or feigned, who crosses his path.
One such self-proclaimed orphan is Major-General Stanley, governor of the island and father to a bevy of six vacuous blond beauties and to their sister, Mabel, who is dark-haired and, therefore, predictably brainy yet socially awkward. Mabel’s adventuresome spirit and feminist sensibility inspire her to act boldly in claiming Frederic’s heart.
From the opening strains of the overture to the big finish, “Pirates!” is well served by its musically gifted cast under Mr. Greenberg’s spirited direction. Andrew Varela gives camp a good name with his deliciously over-the-top performance as the Pirate King; he flirts with the audience and struts his stuff in the best rock-star fashion. As Frederic, the charming Barrett Foa transforms a potentially insipid character into a winsome hero. Mabel, played wisely and radiantly by the vivacious Farah Alvin, lights up the stage at each entrance.
Liz McCartney as Ruth invigorates the role of the good-hearted slattern with her audacious manner, and Gerry McIntyre brings down the house as the Sergeant sounding the call to battle in “Tarantara!”
But the true star turn is offered by Ed Dixon as Major-General Stanley. With extraordinary diction and sure-fire comic timing — Shawn Gough’s musical direction is outstanding — Mr. Dixon gives a performance that rivals the Savoyards of old.
Gilbert and Sullivan would no doubt be proud, “for it is, it is a glorious thing” to see this Pirate King.
ROBERT L. DANIELS, Variety
Shiver my timbers! Not since the swashbuckling days of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power has the Jolly Roger flown so high. Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" has been reworked as "Pirates!" and the production abounds in vivacity, charm and musical allure.
While faithful to the original operetta's core, this freshly conceived and performed update is an appealing confection. When this happy band of pirates bounds ashore on a little Caribbean island brandishing blades and swigging from tankards of rum, they are also singing those infectious lyrics so craftily designed by William Gilbert to the lilting melodic tunes of Arthur Sullivan. The delights are legion.
Andrew Varela's Pirate King is a rascally buccaneer with a richly booming voice and a lusty presence. His crew is a comic band of knockabout clowns, including one raffish swab who wears an eye-patch and hook and seems unaware of the parrot perched on his shoulder. Ed Dixon stops the show when he sings the tongue-twisting "very model of a modern Major General." The young lovers are played with delicious comic allure by Farah Alvin and Barrett Foa. And Liz McCartney's blowzy nursemaid is all fun and fancy; she even strides a cannon and shoots candy chocolate coins into the audience. One couldn't ask for a more agreeable sextet of marriageable maidens than the golden-haired, giggling beauties in pink and white pantalets. Instead of the customary buffoonery of Keystone Kops, the Major General is protected by a legion of sappy servants led by Gerry McIntyre's high-kicking valet.
Gordon Greenberg's lively staging takes shape with the orchestra onstage and the principal action downstage, virtually in the audience's lap. The colorful buccaneer garb wardrobe and props came via Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut.
FRANK RIZZO, Variety
There's piracy aplenty in Goodspeed's rousing and riotous adaptation of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta "The Pirates of Penzance," as it boldly swindles songs, plunders archetypes and shamelessly steals from the mega-smash "The Pirates of the Caribbean."
It's hardly the first time the 1870 period piece received a spirited or even radical makeover (most notable of them was the frolicsome early-'80s Broadway version starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt). But this adaptation goes further still, interpolating songs, slashing recitative, creating new text, revamping orchestrations and even (gasp!) tampering with lyrics. All this might cause apoplexy with G&S purists -- for the rest of us, its jolly-roger good fun.
Under Gordon Greenberg's delightful helming, fun is the operative word in a production that proudly sails the flag of comedy, often above its musical banner. By shrugging off the corset of operetta and slipping into something more sassy, "Pirates" is dressed for a more free-wheeling party likely to attract a larger crowd. Working with Greenberg and musical supervisor John McDaniel, Nell Benjamin's adaptation (she's also co-composer/lyricist on Rialto-bound "Legally Blonde") reconfigures the show into the template of musical comedy, resetting it into a more Pirate-friendly Caribbean, creating a more coherent plot (a curse from "Ruddigore" comes in handy) and overall making time for comedy. McDaniel matches eclectic spirit with a score that's also loose, modern and even goes calypso for "Tarantara!" Rest of creative team also gets playful. Warren Carlyle's dances are quirky as well as energetic. Set designer Rob Bissinger has fun with the arriving pirate ship, with Mabel's entrance in a winch-driven botanist basket and a tropical manse perfect for hiding marauders and cowards.
As the Pirate King, Andrew Varela seems to be dipped in Depp (black nail polish, permanently arched eyebrow and a twinkle as if he swallowed a Sparrow). His commanding delight is infectious and his singing equally assured. Ed Dixon mines every syllable, note and breath as the wonderfully blustery Major General. Joanna Glushak finds new highs in low comedy as the exceptionally lusty Ruth. But there are also some terrific turns in places one least expects them. The gaggle of virginal maidens are hysterically loopy. Brightest surprise are the young ingenues, cast not for traditional good looks but more as good sports. Jason Michael Snow's dutiful Frederic is a gawky, awkward, sweet-natured kid (with a dreamy voice) and Farah Alvin's Mabel is far from the cupie-doll tradition, looking she bolted from a production of feminist comedy "On the Verge." She even gets to be a bit wacky. (Watch how the performer's eyes twitch when her ideas are summarily dismissed by her oblivious dad.)
The show, which has dropped its "the" from the title, will also lose "of Penzance" and gain an exclamation point when the production gets remounted in June at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Though casting is not announced, it would be folly not to embrace this talented and off-beat crew who understand the spirit, the songs and the silliness in this very model of a modern major adaptation.
With heart-stirring transparency, this is Brel in its purest and most persuasive form.
Gordon Greenberg, the director of this powerful revival, recognizes that Brel's popularity in America derives from a specific cultural moment, the tumultuous days of the late 1960's when disillusion perfumed the air, and a homegrown singer-songwriter tradition had emerged to challenge the dominance of British rock and put a personal stamp on the pop charts. The evening's four performers two men and two women, as in the original are dressed and tressed to suggest the late 60's, sporting bangs and knee-high boots, skinny suits and skinnier ties. They wander the Zipper Stage, which is decorated by the designer Robert Bissinger in antique-looking bric-a-brac and bruised furniture, with little glasses of amber liquid in hand, retreating into the shadows to sip forgetfulness when they are not at center stage, singing of the follies of the world and its inhabitants.
Mr. Greenberg has strengthened the current of antiwar sentiment that ran through the original, which opened as protests against the Vietnam War were gaining momentum. He begins the evening with the somber "Le Diable (a Va)," in which we are reminded that "men kill each other willingly, then pray for peace in loud laments," rather than "Marathon (Les Flamandes)," a more chipper tune, which has in fact been dropped from the roster. The continuing role of the doomed, exploited soldier is forcefully embodied by Rodney Hicks at various points in the evening. Each of the four performers has a loosely defined role to play in the Brel universe. If Mr. Hicks is the symbol of wasted youth sacrificed on the altar of man's inhumanity, Natascia Diaz, dressed to travel in a mod, thigh-high trenchcoat, represents the damaged soul searching eternally for love. Ms. Diaz's pure, girlish tone brings the needed note of poignance to the melancholy "I Loved," an ode to the hot but fleeting raptures of romance. Robert Cuccioli, dark of brow and commanding of presence, sings most of the songs rousingly performed by Mr. Shuman in the original production, the quirky character studies of vagabonds and sailors like "Jackie" and "Amsterdam."
The evening's most quietly enchanting performer is Gay Marshall, who could be said to represent, well, France. Although she is in fact American, the petite, fine-boned Ms. Marshall has lived in France for 20 years. She has played Edith Piaf in a one-woman show seen in the United States and France, and possesses some of Piaf's spirit as well as the throbbing mixture of steel and cotton in the voice. Mr. Greenberg's decision to occasionally season the evening with Ms. Marshall's superb French diction was wise. To hear her sing Brel's despairing "Ne Me Quitte Pas," in the original French and with heart-stirring transparency, is to experience Brel's art in its purest and most persuasive form.
In his radiant revival of the 1968 revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Zipper Theatre, director Gordon Greenberg captures what made Belgian-born poet/musician/raconteur Brel's oeuvre at once distinctly of a certain place and time and enduringly universal.
Brel can, in the wrong hands, seem effete or depressing. But Greenberg and his cast emphasize the yearning at the core of Brel's bittersweet melodies and darkly probing lyrics, which expose the scars of lost innocence and the fine line between dreams and madness.
Under the expert musical supervision of Eric Svejcar, who also performs, Robert Cuccioli, Natascia Diaz, Rodney Hicks and Gay Marshall — all strong singers and supple presences — supply a life force that breathes through the elements of despair, decay and alienation.
The original production of "Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris," which ran for 1,847 performances at the Village Gate starting in 1968, is one of Off-Broadways all-time success stories, as well as a prototype of todays jukebox musicals.
Lightning isn’t supposed to strike twice in the same place, but I wont be surprised if they get lucky, because this revival is the best performed musical revue to hit New York in ages.
The pocket-sized cast, led by the magnetic Gay Marshall, smartly directed by Gordon Greenberg and accompanied a terrific three-piece band, tears into M. Brel’s tales of romantic disillusion with a blend of gusto and abandon thats hard to resist. Performers as fine as this are not to be denied.
I ended up cheering as loudly as anyone. So will you.
An exhilarating experience. Gordon Greenberg has brilliantly resurrected Jacques Brel Is Alive & Well in a spine tingling production that gets just about everything right.
With marvelous vaudeville-style choreography, it is a heady form of theatre. The four perfectly cast singers, including the extraordinarily talented Robert Cuccioli and the scorching Rodney Hicks, have both the range and the smarts to pull off Brels songs. The show has some of the best stage choreography to be seen in New York.
This is moving, human-scale theater of a kind that is rarely found anywhere nowadays. I hope it runs for another few thousand performances."
With its disreputable location and junkyard decor, the Zipper proves the dream setting for this timely revival of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," which introduced Yanks to Brel's emotionally bruising songs of love and loss and postwar Euro angst.
While this new edition remains entirely faithful to the spirit of the 1968 cabaret show that ran four years at the Village Gate (the Zipper of its day) before transferring to Broadway, helmer Gordon Greenberg has heightened the cynicism of the Belgian troubadour's impassioned song narratives, giving a whole new audience a chance to connect with the fierce antiwar poetry of earlier generations.
Nearly all of the 30 or so songs that comprise "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" are performed in English, so no one need fear they won't know what's usually going on.
Still, the moods these songs generate are so intoxicating that rather like a fly buzzing over a glass of cabernet a viewer can be lured into practically drowning in their heady vintage. Distilling a glimmering atmosphere is necessary to correctly stage this intimate revue, which originally ran at the Village Gate from 1968 to 1972.
Brel's songs are intense, big-city evocations of mostly sordid times and characters whores, winos, wastrels so any successful production should better conjure up a sense of Bohemian revelry.
That's precisely the flavorful quality that director Gordon Greenberg achieves in his excellent "Jacques Brel . . .," which opened yesterday at the Zipper Theatre.
Of course, the 200-seat theater created from a former factory nicely suits the show, what with its seating taken from old cars and its authentic industrial ambience. A long, narrow stage fosters a close performer-viewer relationship. Drinks can be purchased at the bar in the funky lounge-like lobby and taken into the show. Jeff Croiter's shadowy yet sharply focused lighting provides smoky accents. Ratty chairs, a fringed lamp and some artful bits of this 'n' that plastered across the peeling rear wall are designer Robert Bissinger's contributions to the louche environs. Popular recordings by the likes of Judy Collins ("Sons Of"), Shirley Bassey ("If We Only Have Love") and David Bowie ("My Death") brought Brel international fame before his death at 49 in 1978. But this revue, adapted by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, offers a songbook that evokes a rueful world of people larking across the graves of 20th-century Europe. One of the best known, "Carousel," is a madly accelerating waltz that suggests souls helplessly spinning with their times.
Yet, there's considerable sweetness to be taken among the bitter moments of such an existence and Greenberg's four-member ensemble whirls through the two-hour show with expertise and high spirits, their casual motions aptly choreographed by Mark Dendy. A snifter of brandy in one hand, hooded eyes darkly circled by too many late nights, Robert Cuccioli is the embodiment of a fraying libertine whose sense of irony mingles with sensuality. Slim, sprightly Gay Marshall depicts the eternal gamine with her little black dress and slow, gleaming smile. Earnest, at times endearingly awkward, Rodney Hicks suggests all those young, young men who unwillingly grow older. Portraying a sadder-but-wiser woman who cannot hide her vulnerable side, Natascia Diaz reveals the pleasure one derives from being unhappy. Backed by the jaunty playing of musical director Eric Svejcar's onstage trio, the performers swirl with meaning through the tangos, fox-trots, ballads, struts, laments and incantations of Brel's pungent songs.
DENNIS BROWN, St Louis Riverfront Times
Respond with Crickets: The Muny's West Side Story renders everything still
In Act Two of Shakespeare's Cymbeline (which to my knowledge has never been adapted into a Broadway musical), the cowardly Iachimo hides in a bedroom trunk in order to spy on a sleeping woman. As he stealthily emerges from the trunk, Iachimo whispers that "the crickets sing." The line suggests how still the night is, as crickets (and cicadas) are at their most musical in the absence of competing noise. So it was that the insects were singing up a deafening storm this week during the final scene of the Muny's West Side Story. As the still-poignant musical drama about gang warfare in 1950s New York City reached its breathless climax, rapt patrons remained glued to their seats. No one will be rudely slipping out of the Forest Park amphitheater ahead of the curtain call this week.
West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet, transposed to 1957 Manhattan. In his 2010 memoir Finishing the Hat, lyricist Stephen Sondheim writes, "For most people West Side Story is about racial prejudice and urban violence, but what it's really about is musical theater. It's about the blending of book, music, lyrics and, most important, dance, into the seamless telling of a story." Sondheim is right. Yes, the evening is fraught with emotion, but mostly we respond to the satisfaction of seeing craft transmuted into musical-theater art.
At age 56 West Side Story is to theater as The Nutcracker is to ballet. It is an established set piece, showing its age, yet not to be arbitrarily tinkered with. The Sondheim lyrics have become old friends; the Leonard Bernstein score (gorgeously rendered by the Muny Orchestra, sensitively conducted by James Moore) retains its kinetic richness, especially when compared to the scores Broadway is turning out today. Jerome Robbins' virile choreography is now iconic. The daunting challenge for the Muny staff is to be true to these timeworn components while still making the show feel fresh.
Director Gordon Greenberg's playbill biography does not reference West Side Story, so it's unclear if he has staged this musical before, but there is a sense here that Greenberg has grown up loving West Side Story yet wanted to approach it as if for the first time. (Does Maria always appear like a vision at the end of "Something's Coming"?) Among Greenberg's many deft touches, he restores the shimmering sound of chainlink fences, which was one of Robbins' major contributions to the original production but which has been overlooked in recent revivals.
The startling scenic design by Robert Mark Morgan is a marvel. Finally someone has found a creative use for the Muny's antiquated scenery booms. Here, the booms don't move the scenery; they are the scenery. These steel tenements include a bridge (that morphs into balconies), thus doubling the playing space. Choreographer Chris Bailey adapts Robbins' original dance routines in inventive new ways. The Jets and Sharks veritably explode in a series of dazzling ballet and jazz pieces, yet the pace is so brisk that the evening feels brief.
But even if all the cylinders are spinning at full throttle, as they are here, that's still not enough to guarantee a transcendent evening. Enter Ali Ewoldt, a pitch-perfect Maria. Ewoldt's innocent yet coy portrayal of a radiant child on the cusp of maturity is a beguiling wonder. There is nothing of the performer about her; she looks like a waif plucked off the street. But as both actress and singer, she has total command of the role. Ewoldt's understated bravura embodies Sondheim's phrase "the seemless telling of a story."
When at evening's end Maria holds the dying Tony (Kyle Dean Massey) in her fragile arms and sings the word "somehow" directly into his face, as if the urgency of her voice might restore him to life, even the crickets in the onstage trees are stilled. This is musical theater at its most sublime and majestic. Surely it's no accident that West Side Story is the final offering of this Muny summer. What show could follow it?
After 30 years of fine tuning, Messieurs Stein and Schwartz have the lovely little musical they always wanted.
"What is as luscious as a brioche is?" When the answer is Genevieve, the delectable young wife of a middle-age baker, Monsieur Castagnet, you know that the erotic fevers will soon start rising, along with the buttery croissants and the irresistable strawberry tarts. At the Papermill Playhouse's charming new revival of "The Baker's Wife," Joseph Stein's and Stephen Schwartz's 30 year-old musical also-ran, it is the Genevieve of Alice Ripley - simmering with sexual desire, haunted by a love denied - that makes this production directed by Gordon Greenberg cook. Ms. Ripley, one of Broadway's most talented new stars, adds her brand of spice and heat to the role of the lonely, restless Genevieve in this play based on the film "La Femme De Boulanger." She sings beautifully, taking the lyrical, near cult favorite "Meadowlark" and making it her own. But it is in her scenes with Lenny Wolpe, as her husband, Aimable Castagnet, that the aching tenderness of this May/December couple finds expressive voice. Monsieur Castagnet, gentle and unconditionally decent in Mr. Wolpe's touching portrayal, has been summoned to the town of Concorde in Provence to replace the former baker, who has died.
For several weeks, the squabbling citizens of this ill-named hamlet (enchantingly evoked by the set and costume designers, Anna Louizos and Catherine Zuber) have existed without fresh bread, and tempers are flaring. Denise, played humorously by Gay Marshall, is the wife of Claude, owner of the cafe. She sets a distinctly Gallic tone with her Piaf-echoing "Chanson" about a village on the brink of change. The arrival of the Castagnets immediately raises questions about Genevieve - her youth, her aloofness, her beauty. Claude (Richard Pruitt) sees the future clearly, cynically suggesting "When an old rooster casts his eye on a young chicken, there will be trouble in the barn." And trouble there is in Dominique, a testosterone-charged hunk of a chauffeur played by the vocally splendid Max Von Essen. Dominique falls desperately in love the moment he spies Madame Castagnet in the shop, only bemoaning the "crying shame that the love of my life should have to be another man's wife."
For the feuding folk of old Concorde, another breadless stint begins as Aimable, the baker, retreats into wifeless melancholy. But, never fear. This is Provence, after all. In the spirit of "amour toujour," you can bet your last euro that the baker;s wife will ultimately receive the gift of forgiveness and that the inhabitants of Concorde will come to appreciate the transforming power of love. Before anyone can say, "Adieu," Act II will end in a joyful celebration of neighborly good will. And, after 30 years of fine tuning, Messieurs Stein and Schwartz will have the lovely little musical they always wanted.
One of the most poignant orphans in musical theater is Stephen Schwartz's "The Baker's Wife," which has found an excellent foster home at the Paper Mill.
Director Gordon Greenberg catches all the nuances, and choreographer Christopher Gattelli adds considerable wit.
Anna Louizos' set, a loving re-creation of provincial France, is a triumph.
The whole thing could - and should - be moved to Broadway, where it could find a well-deserved home.
One of the most poignant orphans in musical theater is Stephen Schwartz's "The Baker's Wife," which has found an excellent foster home at the Paper Mill. The 1976 musical, based on a 1938 French film, closed out of town with a cast that included Patti LuPone and Paul Sorvino. It was revived 20 years ago at York Theater with Jack Weston hideously miscast as the lovable baker.
The Paper Mill production is perfectly cast and superbly performed. "Baker's Wife" is set in the ironically named French town of Concorde. Its citizens, constantly at war with one another, have been without bread since their baker died a few weeks earlier. A new baker arrives with a young bride. When she runs off with a handsome young man her own age, the town, again breadless, patches up its numerous quarrels to bring her back. It is a sweet fable enlivened by Schwartz's gorgeous score. Its best known number is "Meadowlark," a bittersweet retelling of a fairy tale. Alice Ripley, in the title role, gives the extraordinary song every benefit of her powerhouse voice. Lenny Wolpe could not be more winning as the hapless baker. As the cad who steals Ripley, Max von Essen is simply stunning, especially in "Proud Lady." One of the impressive things about the production is that there is no chorus. Every member of the town has a distinct character, and all are richly brought to life. If I single out Gay Marshall, it is because she sings the opening ballad so beautifully.
Director Gordon Greenberg catches all the nuances, and choreographer Christopher Gattelli adds considerable wit. Anna Louizos' set, a loving re-creation of provincial France, is a triumph. The whole thing could - and should - be moved to Broadway, where it could find a well-deserved home.
Director Gordon Greenberg has delivered a wonderful production, featuring a beautiful set design by Anna Louizos and a first-rate cast.
New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse has done an admirable job resuscitating "The Baker's Wife," the 1976 musical that closed out of town and has been given only fitful revivals since.
Charming and tuneful thanks to Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein, of "Pippin" and "Fiddler on the Roof," respectively it deserves to be more widely seen. Adapted from the 1938 French film "La Femme du Boulanger," "The Baker's Wife" is set in a rural town whose residents eagerly await the arrival of a new baker, having been left breadless for more than a month since the last baker died. The replacement, Aimable (Lenny Wolpe), turns out to be a jovial older man with a much younger wife, the beautiful Genevieve (Alice Ripley). It isn't long before she has been swept off her feet by Dominique (Max Von Essen), the village's resident hunk, and the two run off together.
The cuckolded baker is too bereft to resume his duties, so the villagers take it upon themselves to retrieve his wayward spouse.
The romantic triangle is depicted with a sensitivity toward its principals, particularly the anguished Aimable, that gives the show a true heart. Schwartz's score, a favorite among musical theater buffs, is one of his best, featuring such gorgeous numbers as "Meadowlark" (beautifully sung by Ripley), "Proud Lady" and "If I Have to Live Alone."
Director Gordon Greenberg has delivered a wonderful production, featuring a beautiful set design by Anna Louizos and a first-rate cast. Wolpe is utterly endearing as the baker. Ripley is both sexy and highly sympathetic as his wife, and the handsome Von Essen is convincing as the man who sweeps her away.
This is exactly the sort of show the Paper Mill, long stuck in a rut of presenting tired musical war-horses, should bring back to life.
The curtain rises, and before it's a foot off the floor, the magic has already begun.
Even a glimpse of Anna Louizos' set for "The Baker's Wife" shows a charming French village, enhanced by Jeff Croiter's warm lighting. If this were all the scenery that theatergoers would see all night, it would still be enough of a treat. But that set has a few surprises in store.
Enter a lovely actress named Gay Marshall -- a latter-day Edith Piaf -- as a caf owner's wife, to sing one of the most glorious opening numbers in the musical theater canon. "Chanson" is a swirling waltz that sets the tone for this graceful tale, which has a good deal of sentiment, but a dollop of realism, lest matters become too sweet.
"The Baker's Wife" was originally a 1938 French film, adapted as a musical in 1976 by songwriter Stephen Schwartz and librettist Joseph Stein. Alas, the director, leading man and leading lady did not work out, and replacements came in too late to save the show. "The Baker's Wife" closed before it even reached Broadway. French toast. Over the years, the authors have continually rethought it, and now they're getting the Broadway-caliber production they've always wanted. In a Manhattan season where the musical hits are laugh-fests ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Monty Python's Spamalot"), here's the best musical around, one with humor, to be sure, but heart, soul, passion and a sumptuous score.
The story: All the townspeople are so impressed with Aimable, their new baker, and his delicious bread. They may even be more impressed that this late-middle-aged man has such a young and beautiful wife in Genevieve. Especially smitten is Dominique, a man who is Genevieve's match in age and attractiveness. Soon the two run off, and the townsfolk feel terrible -- somewhat for Aimable, but mostly for themselves -- for Aimable is so depressed that he can't work.
No more of that delicious bread? The town rallies to bring back Genevieve -- and becomes a better place for its efforts. Schwartz wrote the pop-rock "Godspell," "Pippin" and "Wicked," so those familiar with those shows will be astonished by his lush, romantic Gallic score. Max von Essen (Dominique) sings best of all, though Alice Ripley (Genevieve) and Lennie Wolpe (Aimable) are only a whit behind. Wolpe's finest moment actually comes in the second act, when Aimable speaks to the townspeople after weeks of self-imposed exile. Credit Stein for that moving speech, but he also shows that a good writer can get more from a single word. When Dominique pays his first visit to the bakery and sees Genevieve, they're both smitten. Genevieve can only ask, "Yes?" -- which is a clerk's response to a customer, but sounds more like Genevieve's assent to whatever Dominique wants of her.
Director Gordon Greenberg (who's staged the entire show superbly) get the most of this moment, too. Everyone knows that man does not live by bread alone. He needs a good musical in his diet, too. "The Baker's Wife" certainly is one to savor.
‘Jesus Christ Superstar' In Revisionist Staging: Imagine coming upon a new, thrilling “Jesus Christ Superstar” after all these years,
A BLOOD-RED banner, unfurled in rude, defiant control of the stage, flaunts a swastika-like symbol, black on white, at its center. It is the first eye-popper as you go, startled and hesitant, to your seat at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center here. Could this be ''Springtime for Hitler,'' live and in color?
Then you see the steely catwalks, the ramps and the balconies. Surely yet another ''Evita'' awaits, only this time Eva's surname is Braun, not Peron.
But doesn't the marquee read, ''Jesus Christ Superstar''?
Indeed it does, and this is a revisionist staging that works. The musical's director, Gordon Greenberg, relates the New Testament to South Africa in its apartheid horrors, the martyrdom of Jesus Christ to the sacrifices made by Nelson Mandela.
''It is not a coincidence that the official emblem of the Afrikaners bore a striking resemblance to the Nazi swastika,'' Mr. Greenberg writes in a program note. ''The Sermon on the Mount,'' he goes on, ''would look to us much like a political rally.''
The banner is ripped down; black apostles hurl their fists against the white secret police. If oppression is in the air, so is revolution. After all, in Tim Rice's lyrics, the cursed rabble are ordered ''to be quiet/We anticipate a riot.'' Soldiers threateningly brandish placards: ''Obedience,'' ''Punish Blasphemy,'' ''Trust Authority,'' ''Know Your Place.''
With a percussive accent, the 1971 score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, enhanced by tambourines and bongo drums, foreshadows ''Evita,'' to be sure, which is among its most durable aspects. Its now ingenuous pop-rock oratorio sound welcomely predates the overblown, pseudo-operatic repetitiousness and self-importance of Lord Lloyd Webber's later music.
The nondenominational effectiveness of Mr. Greenberg's conception is the production's major blessing. It sweeps across religiosity. Biblical parallels may have informed his ideas, but they are not reflected on stage. The musical emerges as a forceful statement of universal oppression, of idealism against sheer evil. Mr. Greenberg's production, a jolting fusion of sound and light, palpitates with immediacy and theatricality, from crowd scenes to the Judas kiss.
Most surprisingly, ''Jesus Christ Superstar,'' which is not usually a dancing show, is galvanized by its variously show-biz and expressionistic choreography, connoting jubilation as well as cruelty and betrayal, by Ken Roberson, whose significant and varied credits include John Leguizamo's ''Freak'' and George C. Wolfe's production of ''Blade to the Heat'' at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
In an excellent, seamlessly multicultural cast, Billy Porter portrays suffering and destruction with dramatic credibility and sings with remarkably sustained force and lyricism as Jesus of Nazareth. Nathan Lee Graham's slick, jiving, altogether terrific King Herod, a character once described by Mr. Rice as ''a bit of a debauched bloke,'' should be a definitive rendering of a role all too often reduced to silly camp. And notice Mr. Graham's two backup singers, much like the Dreamettes. Drew Sarich is a rather effortful Judas.
The poignancy of Emily Skinner's rapturously sung Mary Magdalene is in harmony with her powerful performance. Robert Aronson makes an ominous Pontius Pilate.
Imagine coming upon a new, thrilling ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' after all these years.
FLOYD COLLINS at the SIGNATURE THEATRE: giddily inventive staging.
You'd be hard pressed to come up with a more constricting theatrical premise than one that traps a man for 16 days in a cave, still harder pressed to imagine a theatrical event more spirit-freeing than Floyd Collins, the exhilarating musical Adam Guettel and Tina Landau have fashioned from that premise.
Even for Signature Theatre, a troupe that specializes in breathing fervor into problematic musicals, this show must have seemed daunting. Based on a true story that has all the messy complexity of real life, it boasts a soaring but jawbreakingly difficult score and covers geographical terrain tricky enough to have given director Gordon Greenberg and his designers fits.
Still, damned if everyone isn't up to the challenge. Remarkably, for a show that has previously been regarded even by its enthusiasts as a work-in-progress, Floyd Collins is not merely a hugely satisfying success for Signature, it's a flat-out triumph--at once searing and expansive, inspirational and shattering.
The evening's eponymous young hero is a dreamer who in 1925 got trapped hundreds of feet underground while exploring a warren of caves near his family's Kentucky farm. Despite an elaborate rescue operation, the real Collins died before rescuers could free him, though not before journalistic sensationalism had turned their efforts into a national, newspaper-selling obsession.
Seeking to capture both the flavor of this media circus and the spirit of the frightened, increasingly inward-looking man at its center, Guettel's score begins with a rustic-sounding "Ballad of Floyd Collins" that morphs into a character-defining musical soliloquy as the title character plunges into the cave that will become his tomb. Floyd (an impetuous Rich Affannato) initially clambers in near-darkness over platforms and across ceiling girders at Signature, hemmed in by a tight spotlight while singing of the call he says he hears from the rock itself. Then he lets loose with a sort of yodel, waits a second, and beams broadly when it comes bouncing back at him in ever-receding echoes. He's searching for the sort of massive underground cavern that he can turn into a tourist attraction, and those reverberations mean it's nearby.
Soon, with dozens of echoes bouncing in counterpoint (the technical requirements are handled superbly), Floyd is singing a duet with himself, then an ecstatic round, and by the time he finds the cavern he's been looking for, it almost sounds as if he's leading a choir. Until, that is, a sudden rockslide puts an end to his celebration. In seconds, his legs are immobilized. Then his arms.
At which point, Guettel and his librettist and co-lyricist Landau bring the world above ground back into focus. In quick vignettes, Floyd's family marshals a rescue effort, a mining company recognizes the publicity value in helping to extricate him, and impoverished locals, including his father, start selling curios to the curious. Alas, Floyd's younger brother, Homer (full-voiced Will Gartshore), and a small-boned Louisville reporter named Skeets (Jason Gilbert, at once wry and terrified) are the only folks who can get near him in the tight limestone cave. When their attempts to free him prove unavailing, his bad situation turns dire, and the score (which has briefly turned conventional to deal with more conventional dramaturgy) catches fire.
Reviews of Floyd Collins stagings in New York and London have almost invariably suggested that, although the music is gorgeous, audiences may find it difficult to absorb. I'll never understand why critics say things like that. Frankly, I can't imagine anyone who's ever hummed a Joni Mitchell song having any trouble with a score this rich in long, arching melodic lines. Nor will the songs distress anyone familiar with the theater music of Stephen Sondheim--which presumably includes most of Signature's likely patrons. Like Sondheim, Guettel has a gift for soaring dissonance and is adept at cloning period styles--witness his Act 2 ditty "Is That Remarkable?" which briefly turns three male reporters into the Andrews Sisters.
The 34-year-old composer has also acquired--perhaps from his grandfather Richard Rodgers--near-perfect pitch when it comes to matching emotion to melody. I'm not the first to note that the tricky 20-minute soliloquy he gives his doomed Kentuckian in Floyd Collins has much in common with the "Soliloquy" Rodgers wrote for a doomed New England carnival barker in Carousel. And Guettel is no less savvy about the syncopation in a jaunty little cheer-up song like "Lucky," which is sung by Floyd's sister and stepmom (Garrett Long and Patricia Pearce Gentry, both terrific) before they know how grim Floyd's situation is. For those who have wondered whether the post-Sondheim generation of musical-theater creators will ever match its mentor, this score (and Landau's libretto, which leaps cleverly past plot points that don't lend themselves to musicalizing) will be hugely reassuring.
So will Greenberg's giddily inventive staging. The rescue and the media-feeding-frenzy aspects of the story obviously offer a director plenty to work with (as Billy Wilder proved in his acerbic 1951 film based on the incident, The Big Carnival), but Floyd's interior musings are another matter. As Affannato plays him, with boyish earnestness and fading faith, he's hardly a deep thinker. Nor are his dreams--of a girl with blue eyes, of a cave with box-office appeal--the sort that would set toes tapping in a conventional musical.
All the more remarkable, then, that Greenberg not only finds so many ways to illuminate Floyd's limited frame of reference, but does so without getting all mawkish about his physical imprisonment. When the music opens up--as it does when Homer tries to distract Floyd in "The Riddle Song," which may just be the most horizon-expanding theater song to come along since Sondheim's "Someone in a Tree" a quarter-century ago--the director widens the frame to give the performances more room. And then, when his focus re-tightens to the stage equivalent of a close-up, the intensity is heightened to the point that he can find enormous emotion in whispers and head turns.
He's aided by James Kronzer's setting, which confines the title character in a girdered iron chamber that looks a bit like a carbon crystal, and which takes full advantage of Signature's intimate, low-ceilinged auditorium by incorporating the theater's roof beams into its maze of caverns. Also helpful is Jonathan Blandin's alternately claustrophobic and ethereal lighting. For long stretches, Blandin's effects and Brian Keating's precisely calibrated sound design pretty much create the cave, allowing the director and his sharp cast to concentrate on the resonance of what happens in and around it. That resonance has everything to do with echoes--of other rescues, other media frenzies, other hapless dreamers, other families in crisis, and other musicals--but it can also take your breath away simply because the echoes come back so gracefully, or, in one exquisitely harrowing moment in the second act, don't come back at all.
You'll want to discover those echoes for yourself...and soon, so you'll have time to catch them again before they recede forever. There's a possibility of an extension, but I wouldn't take any chances if I were you.
"Half a Sixpence" performed to exhilarating effect by Goodspeed Musicals
Pop quiz: What other musical about class warfare is based on a celebrated piece of Edwardian literature? Answer: "Half a Sixpence," now being performed to exhilarating effect by Goodspeed Musicals, was adapted by David Heneker and Beverley Cross from "Kipps," H.G. Wells's once-popular 1905 novel about a working-class draper's apprentice who inherits a fortune and is catapulted into the ranks of medium-high society. Needless to say, Cross's book retains little more than the bare outline of "Kipps," a 500-page socialist tract disguised as a Dickensian romance in which the author of "The War of the Worlds" railed against "the great stupid machine of retail trade," but the musical still manages to hint at Wells's righteous anger, albeit in much-blunted form.
A monster hit in London in 1963, "Half a Sixpence" ran for 511 performances in New York and was then turned into a big-budget film that was a box-office turkey. The stage version is still remembered in England, but Goodspeed's new revival appears to be the first one of any importance in the U.S. since the show closed on Broadway in 1966. It isn't hard to see why "Half a Sixpence" failed to make its way into the musical-comedy repertory -- the ballads are bland -- but the music-hall numbers are full of spunk, and Goodspeed's production proves they still have the power to delight when staged with imagination and charm. The cast is marvelous, with Jon Peterson giving a high-powered performance in the starring role that was created four decades ago by Tommy Steele.
To my mind, though, the brightest stars of the evening are Gordon Greenberg, Patti Colombo and Rob Bissinger, the director, choreographer and set designer, who make miraculously resourceful use of the Goodspeed Opera House's tiny stage. I've never seen a smaller show that looked bigger, and the intimacy imposed by the size of the 400-seat house in which "Half a Sixpence" is performed further enhances its impact. Why doesn't some smart producer invite these three fine artists to do a Broadway show together? They make a smashing team.
'33 Variations' a superb opener for Cap Rep
MICHAEL ECK, Times Union
In 1819, Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli composed a brief, inconsequential waltz and sent it to a number of composers, challenging them to write a variation on his theme. A savvy man, he knew the resulting folio would sell well, boasting contributions from the biggest names of the day. Ludwig von Beethoven took the challenge. And how. Eventually, Beethoven, growing deafer by the day, composed 33 responses that have been called the greatest set of variations ever written. In 2007, Venezuelan-born playwright Moises Kaufman wrote a play based in part on Beethoven's creative process, called "33 Variations."
Capital Repertory Theatre is opening its 30th season with the play and it is, to say the least, an auspicious occasion.
"Variations" also hinges on musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt, who unlike Beethoven, is a fictional creation. In the past, Kaufman has often based his characters on actual figures, but Brandt is an original, and actress Barbara Walsh brings her to shining life. Brandt is stricken with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and her body is atrophying as she attempts to finish her life's work of studying Beethoven and his drive to create the variations. Kaufman weaves many stories into "33 Variations" and he also weaves time, with much of the action taking place simultaneously in the 19th and 21st centuries. The stories -- relationships between Beethoven (Bob Stillman) and his amanuensis, Anton Schindler (Kevin Gardner); between Shindler and Diabelli (Ward Dales); between Brandt's daughter Clara (Julie Jesnick) and her nurse, Mike Clark (Mark Scheibmeir); and between Brandt and Beethoven librarian Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Eileen Schuyler) -- are all variations on a theme. At heart, the most important story is between Brandt and Clara, whom the musicologist, as Ladenburger points out, treats like a second-rate waltz.
Director Gordon Greenberg has assembled a magnificent production.The acting across the board is superb and so is virtually every other aspect of this production.
There are many thrilling moments in the show, when the stage arts come together to create magic -- as when Michael Gilliam's lights and projections soak Tobin Ost's miraculous set (populated by monochromatic bookshelves and sliding scrims). Combined with the old fashioned stagecraft of acting they create wonder.
Stillman is an excellent pianist and he makes his Beethoven mad without making him crazy. Walsh, playing a strong woman in an unbeatable situation, enacts her disease while keeping her spirit. And Jesneck is similarly on target as a girl who can do little, it sometimes seem, but let her mother down.
One need not have interest in classical music; a loved one touched by disease; or even a fascination with 19th century Germany to appreciate this play. One only needs a heart and a mind.
Edward Burroughs, Gannett journal news
A NEW EVITA: To see today the expertly staged production is to appreciate anew the show's substance.
Gordon Greenberg's staging is so flashy and fast moving, with fine performances in the central roles, that those who want to settle back for just light and fury will be satisfied.
Of added interest is that this production features a revised version of the show that incorporates musical and character elements used in the 1996 movie version that starred Madonna and Antonio Banderas.
There is no "Evita" without a convincing Eva. Felicia Finley delivers... The staging of, and her acting in, the songs "High Flying Adored" and "Rainbow High" make beautiful character studies of a woman getting what she wished for and not knowing quite what to make of it. Later, as Eva's health declines, Finley is remarkable in showing the conflict of mental strength and physical weakness...
Throughout the show, director Greenberg makes innovative use of the two-level stage and large ensemble. This doesn't look like the typical "Evita" production. Silent tableaus often appear on the higher rear level to underscore the action on the main stage. Movement between scenes is seamless except when deliberately stopped for dramatic impact. Peron's rise to the presidency at Eva's urging ("A New Argentina"), Eva's mission to Europe to promote Argentina ("The Rainbow Tour") and the famous balcony scene ("Don't Cry for Me Argentina") are each staged with a feel of freshness.... "Evita" is powerful theater.