Friday, December 10, 2021

Mrs. Doubtfire

      I received my first Christmas present last night.  Watching Rob McClure transform himself into the title character in Mrs. Doubtfire, the sparkling new Broadway musical at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, was pure gift.  Under the direction of Jerry Zaks, the first-rate cast of two dozen energetically brings to new life the 1993 film about the extreme measures a divorced father will take to see more of his three children.

     “I’m 15 now but sometimes I feel older than my dad,” says eldest child Lydia Hillard (Analise Scarpaci ).  

     It’s easy to see why.  Dad, Daniel Hillard, is an actor who specializes in voices and who seems unable to stop talking or moving.  The children enjoy him but his wife, Miranda, played with just the right amount of anger and exasperation by Jenn Gambatese, is worn down.  She files for divorce and is granted sole custody, setting in motion Daniel’s inventive way of staying in his children’s lives.

     Robin Williams was loved for his antic portrayal of Mrs. Doubtfire in the movie and McClure will be too for his part in the musical.  Watching the silliness live, though, is so much more fun.

     Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell have written the musical’s book.  Just as in the movie, Daniel comes up with the idea of disguising himself as a nanny when he learns Miranda is looking for one for the children, who also include Christopher (Jake Ryan Flynn), who is about 14, and elementary school-aged Natalie (Avery Sell).  Calling Miranda in response to her ad, he employs the voice of an elderly Scottish woman and, after he hangs up, realizes he’s going to have to look like one.

     Enter his brother, Frank (the always dependable Brad Oscar) and Frank’s husband, Andre Mayem (J. Harrison Ghee), theatrical costumers who tackle the challenge of transforming Daniel with gusto.  In the hilarious number “Make Me a Woman,” the couple envision Daniel as an assortment of glamorous women — Jackie O, Princess Diana and Donna Summer — who materialize in song and dance.  When Daniel remembers the voice he used he asks them for someone “older and studier.”  They quickly switch their fantasies to Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child, Janet Reno and Margaret Thatcher.  Choreographer Lorin Latarro has them all dancing together with Daniel, Frank and Andre to pulsing disco-beat music.  It’s a wacky delight, with music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick and lavish costumes by Catherine Zuber. 

     What they come up with when they put aside those dreams is the padded bodysuit with ample bust and derriere, ankle-length plaid kilt and sweater.  A mask gives Daniel a round, pudgy face (makeup and prosthetics design by Tommy Kurzman).  Add glasses and a short, tightly curled gray wig and, voila, Mrs. Doubtfire. 

     Daniel knows just how to work his way into the hearts of the family in his new guise.  But it isn’t long before he encounters his first crisis.  His by-the-books court liaison, Wanda Sellner (Charity Angel Dawson) approves of Mrs. Doubtfire as appropriate for the children.  But trying to play nanny and father come to a head when Wanda wants to talk with Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire at the same time.  

     These hijinks take place in Daniel’s apartment (sets by David Korins)  Mrs. Doubtfire and Wanda are in the kitchen and Mrs. Doubtfire says she’ll go in the bedroom to get Daniel, who she has said is her brother.  (Daniel’s lying had gotten away from him.)  From the bedroom, which the audience can see into but Wanda cannot, Daniel calls out in his voice that he’s just getting out of the shower but will be right in.  We watch him frantically pull off the clothes, bodysuit, face and wig, and casually walk into the kitchen in his robe.  

     This is fine until Wanda says she wants to talk to Mrs. Doubtfire again and Daniel has to pull off another switch, only in his haste he knocks the face and wig out of the window.  The artful Daniel comes up with a cleaver prop and then, quickly, another.  McClure is a marvel.

     Daniel has to play this double role again later at a restaurant, dining on one side of the room with the family as Mrs. Doubtfire and meeting with a TV producer as Daniel on the other side.  Only this time he’s not so lucky. 

     This is a musical comedy so I’m not giving anything away in saying that everything works out in the end.  The journey to that end is a joy.  This is the best movie conversion I have seen in a long time.  Gift wrap a couple of tickets for someone you love this Christmas.  It’s a sure fit for everyone.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Peace in the Morning: Images and Meditations to Begin Your Day

     Peace in the Morning: Images and Meditations to Begin Your Day by Daniel B. Ford Jr. is appropriately named because peaceful is how I feel when I sit with this small hardcover devotional, published by Paraclete Press.  Ford combines his photos from around the world, both majestic landscapes and everyday sights, with quotes from his pastor Hal M. Helms’ national bestseller Echoes of Eternity.        

     The book is divided into four sections: Consider, Pray, Look and Live.  I was drawn in starting with the first reflection, which is titled “Interruptions are also of me.”  I need this reminder frequently:  “Do not forget the parable of the priest and the Levite.  Never let your predetermined agenda keep you from seeing My hand in the interruption.  It is there, whether you recognize it or not.”  The simple accompanying photograph is what appears to be the corner of the first floor and basement of a red brick house with a bike leaning against it.  A window box brimming with jonquils rests between black shudders.  

     This was helpful to me as I went through my day because I tend to see email as an interruption and am always eager to get through it so I can get on to my real work, which is writing.  I want to remember that God’s hand might be in the message someone has sent me and can be in the messages I send as well.

     Another reflection, in just 10 words, reminds me of an equally necessary ingredient for my day, gratitude:  “My child, your thankfulness gladdens my heart and strengthens yours.”  The photo looks like a landscape in Tuscany.

     I love the gentleness of the messages as they are combined with the photos.  This thoughtfully put together book, 156 pages, can be combined with a more detailed devotional like the one I am using for Advent, with its assigned scripture readings and thoughtful commentary, or can be used alone by anyone with little time for morning prayer.  It would also be an excellent gift for someone who has never used a devotional in the morning and might be put off by needing to have a Bible at hand to look up scripture passages.  The snippets of wisdom and the beauty of the photos will sustain the ardent prayer warrior and those just beginning a daily prayer life.  And the book can be read again and again since it is not connected with any liturgical season.  You can finish it and then start again.  What a blessing to begin the morning with peace. 

Friday, December 3, 2021

Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood


     Irving Berlin wrote more than 1,500 songs during his prolific career.  Two dozen of them are brought to life in Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood, the charming song and dance revue that opened last night, presented by The York Theatre Company at Theater at St. Jean’s.

     Four-time Tony Award-nominee Randy Skinner conceived, directed and choreographed the 80-minute show, which features six talented singer/dancers and, under the direction of David Hancock Turner, a five-piece onstage orchestra.  Together they transport the audience to an era of elegance and romance.  Barry Kleinbort’s book provides the cast just enough biographical information to introduce each number and keep the show moving at a good pace.

     The tap numbers are terrific, starting with the first, which features Kaitlyn Davidson, Joseph Medeiros, Melanie Moore (in photo), Phillip Attmore and Jeremy Benton (in photo) giving their all to “Let Yourself Go.”  

     I also loved the Fred and Ginger-style dances for their pure escapism.  Writing for the movies starring that pair had a big influence on Berlin as he made the transition to writing songs that were meant to be danced to as well as sung.  This is evident as Benton, Moore and the company (which also includes Victoria Byrd) glide and swirl around the stage for “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” from “White Christmas.”

     Costume designer Nicole Wee outfits the women in some lovely dresses and James Kantrowitz’s colorful lighting enhances the atmosphere.

    The York’s producing artistic director, James Morgan, wisely keeps the set simple.  Six panels, three on each side of the stage, project old-time movie spotlights alternated by posters of the movies being featured.   

     This show would be enjoyable anytime but the holiday season seems particularly appropriate for this kind of nostalgic singing and dancing.  Cheek to Cheek runs through Jan. 2. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

'The Visitor' makes the immigrant experience personal


     When I read that The Public Theater had in its fall programming a play called The Visitor I wondered if it could possibly be a staged version of the tender and sad 2007 independent film that had touched me deeply.  When I found out it was I was intrigued, until I learned it was a musical and then I was skeptical.

    As I was right to be.  This moving story of an immigrant’s experience in New York is ill-served by singing and, even more, by dancing, with a dozen ensemble members nearly colliding with each other on the small stage of the Newman Theater.

     People attending the show who haven’t seen the film, which I saw twice because I was so affected by it the first time, may have a different reaction because the same involving story is there.  Walter, a white, late middle-aged economic professor played perfectly by David Hyde Pierce, has more or less given up on life.  He has contempt for his students, which he expresses angrily in “Wake Up,” he has taught the same course for 20 years and hates doing so and is on semi-sabbatical, teaching only the one course, so he can write a book that seems to be about as lifeless as he is.  “The only thing that changes is the day,” he sings despondently. 

     A widower, everything about him screams bland — his gray suit (costumes by Toni-Leslie James), gray balding hair and wire-rim glasses.  He spends most of his time living in Connecticut but at the play’s opening he makes a rare appearance at his New York City apartment and that’s when his life starts to change.  He walks in to find a young couple, Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) and Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux), living there.  Undocumented immigrants, from Syria and Senegal respectively, they have been trying to hide under the radar of detection.  When Walter walks in Tarek attacks him, thinking he is an intruder ready to harm Zainab.  After a frightened Walter convinces them it is his apartment, they realize they have been swindled by a conman who somehow got Walter’s keys and, knowing he was mostly absent, rented the apartment to them.  

     They beg Walter not to call the police, gather their things quickly and leave.  But luckily for them they have left behind a photo album.  Walter runs after them to return it and finds them looking scared and realizes they have nowhere to go.  He surprises himself by inviting them back to stay with him.  That’s when the beautiful story, and Walter’s transformation, begin.

     Tarek is a musician who plays his two African drums in the living room.  It’s a delight to watch Hyde Pierce’s Walter eye one of them before tentatively banging out a few sounds, not knowing Tarek is in the bedroom and can hear him.  He’s embarrassed when Tarek appears and encourages him to learn a few notes that he demonstrates on the other drum.  “Feel the beat in your blood,” Tarek tells him and before long they are playing happily, and well, together.  (Music composed by Tom Kitt).  The once uptight Walter even joins Tarek and his fellow drummers playing in the park, boldly soloing in the center of the circle.  Life is good.

     Until it isn’t.  Coming home from playing one day Tarek pays his subway fare but his drum gets in his way before he makes it through the turnstile.  Rather than pay another fare, he jumps over the bars and is promptly arrested by two police officers, even though Walter explains that he had paid.  The police release him into the custody of ICE and he is sent to a squalid detention center. 

     I won’t give away the ending except to say that Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian), arrives from Michigan where she has lived since she left Syria with Tarek when he was a baby.  She and Walter bond as they try to free Tarek with the help of the immigration attorney Walter hires. 

     Director Daniel Sullivan keeps the story moving until a song (lyrics by Brian Yorkey) or dance (choreography by Lorin Latarro) interrupt.  I’ve seen other musicals adapted from small films I’ve liked — Once comes to mind — and haven’t felt the singing and dancing were intrusive but I did here. 

     The show’s book writer, Kwame Kwei-Armah, said in the program notes that he wanted the power of the human gaze “to focus that gaze for the length of the piece, and, we hope, a little beyond, on the power we have collectively to change course, to advocate for justice and to enlarge everyone’s portion, no matter of station or privilege.”  As the book writer, he has been successful in this. 

     Oskar Eustis, The Public’s artistic director, also commented on the importance of this story:  “The movie on which our musical is based, Tom McCarthy’s powerful 2007 film, “The Visitor,” was created in the shadow of 9/11.  It sought to shake America’s conscience, to combat the anti-immigrant and anti-Arab ugliness that was taking deeper root in our culture, and to wake us to the moral obligations we had to the world.”

     Sadly the anti-immigrant and anti-Arab ugliness are still with us.  If this musical works for people as strongly as the movie did for so many of us, then we can be grateful.  

Monday, October 18, 2021

Ruben Santiago-Hudson's storytelling will touch your soul deeply


     Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in 18 months.  I attended a Broadway show.  And what a gift this first one back turned out to be.  Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Lackawanna Blues is a loving tribute to the woman who raised him.  It is also a tribute to the man he grew to be as the playwright, director and star of this one-man autobiographical play at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  

     “Nanny treated me better than my own mother,” Santiago-Hudson says as he opens the play.  For the next 90 intermission-less minutes he portrays Rachel Crosby, better known as Nanny, and the world of her boarding house in Lackawanna, NY, outside of Buffalo, in the middle of the last century.  This world is populated by more than two dozen down-on-their-luck inhabitants, brought to life by Santiago-Hudson with kindness and humor.  “Nanny treated everyone like a human being.”

     Nanny was a Black woman from the South who found the freedom and prosperity of western New York so appealing that she encouraged all of her family members and friends to join her, paying for their tickets if necessary to get them out of the Jim Crow south and finding them jobs when they arrived.

     “Nanny was like the government, if it really worked,”  Santiago-Hudson tells the audience.  

     She worked hard enough to own three boarding houses, a taxi service and a restaurant.  It was to one of those houses that the child Ruben arrived, finding far more than just a place to live after his mother, a barmaid who worked nights, largely abandoned him.  He found a surrogate mother.  

     Scenic designer Michael Carnahan wisely leaves the set bare except for three stools, a small table and a straight-back chair.  The effect of this simplicity, coupled with lighting designer Jen Schriever alteration of light and dark, is to focus all attention on one remarkable storyteller.  The atmosphere is further enhanced through original jazz and blues music by the late Bill Sims Jr. and performed onstage throughout by guitarist Junior Mack.  Santiago-Hudson also livens things up or slows them down with his harmonica playing. 

     This 64-year-old performer, who received a featured actor Tony Award in 1996 for his role in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, slides from character to character, using no props, just a change in his voice and facial expressions.  His storytelling feels fresh, especially when he improvises.  When a member of the audience was heard expressing recognition of Nanny’s love of having her scalp rubbed with grease, Santiago-Hudson turned to the audience and said, “This is some Black culture here for you all.”

     In the larger theatre world this is the season for Black culture.  If the pandemic doesn’t cause another shutdown, at least seven shows by Black writers will open on Broadway.  The season before Covid, only two plays from Black playwrights were presented, and one of those was a revival.  The prior year featured only one and the year before that none.  Broadway has been criticized for years for its lack of diversity.  

     Lackawanna Blues was first produced at The Public Theater in 2001.  Santiago-Hudson then adapted it for a 2005 HBO film, with the characters being played by different actors.  It was nominated for an  Emmy Award. 

     His love for Nanny remains palpable.  When the boy Ruben tells her he wants to die before she does so he won’t have to live without her, she assures him that death is a part of life and that when she dies Jesus will hold out his arms to her and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” 

     Toward the end of the play he describes Nanny as someone who could “take fragments and make them whole.  That’s just who she was.”

     In his final scene he marks Nanny’s passing by looking to the right and up and saying quietly, “Well done,” before soulfully playing his harmonica.  That’s when my tears started, and they continued to fall through the long and well-deserved standing ovation and as I walked up the aisle.  Thank you, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, for such a moving afternoon of theatre.  You blessed my soul.  Now I say to you, well done.