Friday, April 29, 2022

'Paradise Square' brings New York history to Broadway


     What a treat, a show-stopping performance in a Broadway musical.  I don’t remember when was the last time I experienced that.  Well before the pandemic, certainly.  But with Joaquina Kalukango’s powerful singing of “Let It Burn” toward the end of Paradise Square audience members rose and applauded long and hard.  Unlike the standing ovations that are routine at the end of Broadway shows, this one was spontaneous and well deserved.

     It’s also a treat to see a new original Broadway musical and not another jukebox offering.  Paradise Square, expertly directed by Mois├ęs Kaufman at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is historical fiction set in Five Points, “the first slum in America,” a Civil War-era neighborhood in lower Manhattan where for a time American Blacks and Irish immigrants lived side-by-side.  A cast of about three dozen brings this period of New York history to life. 

     The engaging story is written by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan.  The score — music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare — represents Irish and Black culture.    

     Kalukango plays Nelly O’Brien, the owner of Paradise Square, the fictional tavern that is the local gathering spot for drinking, music and dancing.  In this world of intermingled cultures, she is married to an Irish-American, Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), who leaves to fight in the war.  She is the focal point from which all of the activity revolves. 

     I loved the dancing.  Choreographer Bill T. Jones draws heavily from Irish step, along with Juba, for one lively number after another.  (Tap was born in Five Points, combining the two dance forms.).  Scenic designer Allen Moyer leaves ample space in the tavern for the large ensemble to kick up its heels.  A.J. Shively as immigrant Owen Duignan (right in photo) and Sidney DuPont (left) as runaway slave Washington Henry are outstanding as each showcases his cultural dance.

     This close community of the two groups is shattered by the 1863 Draft Riots that had poor and working-class New Yorkers prowling the streets to attack Blacks in their anger over the draft lottery.  Blacks were exempt because they were not considered citizens.  Poor whites, especially the Irish immigrants, couldn’t afford the $300 to hire a substitute so they were the ones being drafted. They roamed the streets in mobs, burning buildings and beating or killing the Blacks they encountered.  The danger is portrayed mostly by lighting (Donald Holder) sound (Jon Weston) and special effects (Gregory Meeh), which effectively evoke the fear of being hunted down.  Before it was over 50 buildings would be burned and 119 killed. 

     In the moving closing, Nelly addresses the audience: “This is where I lived.  Where we lived.  In the Five Points.  We witnessed the largest civil insurrection in the history of our country.  A quarter of the Black people left Manhattan.  And now . . .”

     When she can’t go on the ensemble gathers around her to sing “Paradise Square,” about a place where the door is always open.  Nelly rallies to honor what was: “There was a time when, for a brief moment in a small neighborhood, a group of Americans lived in the future.  A future yet to be realized.” 

     I don’t know how interested tourists will be in this story about a small part of New York history, in a show with no name actors.  I hope this show makes it.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

The first revival of 'Funny Girl' in nearly 60 years is disappointing


     I had really been looking forward to the Broadway revival of Funny Girl, the first revival since the show opened in 1964 with Barbra Streisand in the lead.  Its second coming has been predicted for years but for one reason or another the show never materialized.  

    Now it’s here, at the August Wilson Theatre under the helm of Michael Mayer, and is a huge disappointment, largely because of Mayer’s direction.  The biggest problem for me is the lead, Beanie Feldstein (left in photo).  I didn’t see the original but I saw Streisand in the movie and loved her as Fanny Brice, the early to mid-century 20th century Jewish comedienne, singer and star of stage, radio and film.  Streisand was great in the role but another actor could be as well.  I don’t support the notion that any actor owns a role.  With a different director Feldstein could be a worthy Fanny.  She’s got the voice for it and is right at home on the stage but she’s playing Fanny as way too young and cheery.  She has no edginess.  She needs to put some pain in that performance.  When people put Fanny down for her appearance it’s as if Feldstein doesn’t hear it.  I’d like to see some hurt, followed by a steely resolve to overcome it.  All we get, though, is happy, always happy throughout the first act, which drags because of this.  All I could think of was Tracy Turnblad, the perky teenager in Hairspray whose world revolves around her boyfriend and dancing.  We should see Fanny as a woman who struggles.  

     Next, I had trouble with Ramin Karimloo as Nick Arnstein, the slick gambler Fanny falls in love with and marries.  There was no chemistry between them.  I was surprised to read in his bio that he was a Tony and Olivier Award nominee.  He came off as a pretty boy soap actor, and I mean no disrespect to soap stars because there has been a lot of good acting on daytime.  

     The most perplexing casting, though, is that of Jane Lynch as Fanny’s mother.  She’s got great comic timing and a good voice but not one molecule of Jewish sensibility.  She looks like someone who had wandered through the wrong stage door and into the wrong show.  At more than six-feet tall she towers over practically everyone onstage.  She’s railing thin and blond, completely unconvincing as the mother of a fat young woman who is probably about 5 foot 2 and dark haired.  And obviously Jewish.  In a show where being Jewish is part of the story.  My guess is that for a show taking a risk at hiring a lead who isn’t well known the producers wanted someone with name recognition, which Lynch has from her years playing the nasty cheerleaders’ coach on the popular TV show “Glee.”  The moment she appeared the audience started clapping, so possibly she is a draw.

     Visually the show scores.  David Zinn’s sets of Brooklyn, theatres and Fanny and Nick’s estate on Long Island are good and Susan Hilferty’s costumes are sublime, especially in the Act Two opener, “Sadie, Sadie,” where the dresses of the guests at the estate are gorgeous. 

     My favorite part of Ellenore Scott’s choreography was the tap dancing choreographed by Ayodele Casel.  Fanny’s friend and failed suitor, Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes, right in photo), is fantastic.

     Overall, though, I wasn’t drawn into the show, even when those fabulous songs by Jules Style and Bob Merrill were sung.  “People,” which became a breakout radio hit for Streisand, falls flat.  Feldstein sings it to Nick but rather than look at him she gazes off into the distance as if she were daydreaming.  My favorite song, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” is the Act One closer, sung with enthusiasm by Feldstein but by then I was just happy the act was finally ending. 

     Act Two brings Nick’s business failures and Fanny’s cheerful efforts to support him emotionally and financially.  Feldstein goes a bit deeper but not enough, not even when Nick is sent to prison for embezzlement.  Funny Girl is a musical comedy but it has the richness of a dark side that needs much more exploration than it is given in this production.  Fifty-eight years is a long time to wait for the revival of a show that was a major hit, playing for 1,348 performances and earning eight Tony nominations.   Maybe the next revival, whenever that will be, will get it right. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

'The Minutes' on Broadway

     The Minutes starts out like a conventional play.  An idealistic young city councilman is newly elected to an established governing body of veteran politicians and soon grows suspicious about what went on in the last meeting, which he missed because of his mother’s death.  He asks to see the minutes but is told they aren’t ready yet.  When he won’t let go of his quest, the dark side of this town and its officials is revealed in this Steppenwolf Theatre Company production at Studio 54.

     At first it’s a story we’ve heard many times before but since this one happens to be written by Tracy Letts we know going in that’s it’s unlikely to be a naturalistic play.  One can expect weird, creepy and, in this case, macabre things to happen.  To be fair, I should say I don’t like this in any form, be it in novels, movies or plays.  The Minutes was a record-breaking hit when Steppenwolf produced it at home in Chicago. 

     The 90-minute work, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, starts out like a straightforward comedy.  Mr. Peel (Noah Reid, right in photo) is a stock character, young and full of enthusiasm, saying he felt called to make a difference in public service after the birth of his baby girl, whose picture he proudly shows on his phone.  He chatters on and on before the meeting, even though no one is listening.  When he’s asked to give the opening reflection, he drones on so long the other council members start shifting from foot to foot with impatience.  

     This lighthearted comedy continues as Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy) introduces a bill to construct a ramp to the town’s fountain so the disabled, which include his sister, can have access.  Mr. Oldfield (Austin Pendleton), who has been on the council for 36 years, sidetracks the presentation and exasperates Mr. Hanratty with questions about why people enjoy throwing coins in the fountain, what happens to those coins and why would anyone want to see the bottom of the fountain anyway.  Pro that he is, Pendleton keeps the exchange from coming off as too sitcom-ish.  (Among the other cast members are Blair Brown and Jessie Mueller).  

     Throughout all of this Mr. Peel has continued to press for the minutes and to find out why one council member is missing.  Mayor Superba (Letts, left in photo), who chairs the meeting, becomes increasingly annoyed and continues to decline to provide any adequate answers.  

    Tension grows and so does our discomfort as the town’s disturbing history is disclosed bit by bit.  I’m not being a spoiler to say that in one scene the members playact a 1892 town battle, running around the room and throwing themselves on the floor in their zeal for portraying how their ancestors rescued a local white girl from Native Americans, whom they refer to as savages.  They do this for Mr. Peel’s sake because he didn’t grow up there, but they are also uncovering the racist history behind their myths and pride. 

     By the final scene, though, I was completely baffled.  The council members form a semicircle around Mr. Peel.  Mayor Superba brings out a bowl and passes it around and the others dip in their hands to smear what looks like blood on their foreheads.  He then extends it to Mr. Peel before the lights go out.  Had the council members devolved into ritual sacrifice or an eerie initiation right?  

     While I might have been confused by the ending, the set, by David Zinn, made me feel right at home.  As a former government reporter for daily newspapers I sat in rooms that looked just like that — long tables filled with piles of paper and water glasses, an American flag and state flag at the back and a vaulted ceiling.  Sitting in the audience before the show started I was filled with good memories of my years as a hard news beat reporter.  Those were happy days.  Too bad I couldn’t zap back in time to cover one of those meetings for old time’s sake.  I would have been much more in my element.  

Monday, April 18, 2022

Dion deserves better


     The Wanderer, having its world premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse, is yet one more jukebox bio-musical, in this case celebrating the music and a small portion of the life of singer-songwriter Dion DiMucci, the man Bruce Springsteen once called the link between Frank Sinatra and Rock & Roll.  Like so many shows of this genre, it’s bland and unimaginative, and at nearly three hours, too long.

     Before considering all the ways the show, under Kenneth Ferrone’s direction, is lacking, I’ll mention what works.  The cast  members are good, and that’s always important.  To single out two, Mike Wartella, as Dion, offers a high-energy performance and Christy Altomare gives a lovely voiced turn as his girlfriend/wife, Susan.

     Broadway veteran Beowulf Boritt’s large revolving sets move easily to create Dion’s world, focusing mostly on his Bronx street surrounded by tenement buildings and a Catholic Church.  Sarah Laux nicely creates the clothes of the era, 1958 to 1968.

     Now, the problems, the greatest of which is Sarah O’Gleby’s choreography.  The show’s press release describes The Wanderer as Broadway-bound.  I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking or they really have the money to transfer (it’s “produced in cooperation with Dion DiMucci”) but if that happens the first thing the producers should do is replace O’Gleby.  Her choreography is student-level, at best.  

     Next, book writer Charles Messina needs to make major cuts and rewrites.  He should eliminate the two kitchen scenes with Dion’s parents (Joli Tribuzio) and Johnny Tammaro).  They are stereotypical interfering working class parents who slow down an already too long show.  Then he can go through the script and deleted all the cliches, the worst of which is on the order of “love the addict, hate the addiction.”  I nearly groaned out loud. 

     In addition to the verbal cliches are the character cliches.  Dion has a devil on one shoulder, his friend Johnny (Joey McMcIntyre), who pushes drugs on him, and an angel on the other, his late middle-aged neighbor Willie (Kingsley Leggs) who preaches to him about not serving two gods and that he’s “got to be right with the man upstairs.” 

     Messina also needs to add more conflict to the first act.  Aside from some disagreements with his father and manager, Bob (Jeffrey Schecter), about the music he should be signing, Dion makes a meteoric rise to the top, with one hit record after another, starting with “A Teenager in Love.”  He does this at first with three friends from the neighborhood (Stephen Cerf, Billy Finn and Jess LeProtto).  As they develop their sound out in the street and call themselves Dion and the Belmonts, after their Bronx neighborhood, you will think of Jersey Boys.  It is the same scenario. 

     The perfect opportunity for Messina to introduce conflict is when Dion decides to go out on this own.  He should show Dion with some inner-tension over this decision and some justifiable anger from the Belmonts, but instead they just disappear and Dion gets a hit going solo with “The Wanderer.” 

    He also gets a call from Buddy Holly (Finn) asking Dion to tour with him, the Big Bopper (Nerf) and Ritchie Valens (Miguel Jarquin-Moreland).  This gives us the only exciting number in Act One as the artists jam onstage, singing their signature hits — “All of My Love” (Holly), “Chantilly Lace” (Bopper) and ending in Valens’ rousing “La Bamba,” sung by all.

     That glory is short-lived for all of them as Holly, tired of traveling in the group’s unheated bus, hires a private plane to take them to their next stop.  On a coin toss Dion wins one of the three seats but gives it up after learning it cost $36, what his parents pay for a month’s rent.  Valens takes his place.  Shortly after, a radio announces the plane had crashed in snowy weather and all were killed.

     Act Two opens with Dion’s survivor guilt sending him deeper and deeper into his heroin addiction until we see him on his knees on the floor of the church calling out, “Dear God . . .  God . . .  Are you listenin’”, vowing never to touch another drug.  His priest (Joe Barbara) appears, telling him, “You’ve come to the right place,” followed by a string of platitudes.

    The schmaltz continues in the next scene, with Dion sitting in a semi-circle at an AA meeting where the other members sing “Oh, Sweet Surrender” to him.  Then, to get in one last cliche, Dion and Susan are backstage at “The Smothers Brothers” show where Dion is booked to sing his latest song, “Abraham, Martin and John.”  He’s afraid he can’t do it because he’s never performed sober.  But Susan puts his hand on her stomach and says, “We’ll be back here waiting for you.” 

     I really, really don’t think this show is going to Broadway any time soon.  Too bad.  The music is good.  Dion deserves a better show. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Debra Messing's many birthday candles


     Birthday Candles’ playwright Noah Haidle was ambitious in attempting to present nine decades of a woman’s life in one 90-minute intermission-less play.  Unfortunately the result, now at the American Airlines Theatre under the direction of Vivienne Benesch, is an underdeveloped character marking her passing years by baking her own birthday cake each year.

     Emmy Award-winning sitcom darling Debra Messing (“Will & Grace”) has the unenviable task of bringing Ernestine Ashworth to life, starting with her 17th birthday and seeing her through into her 101st.  Onstage the entire time, she needs to suggest different ages through movement and voice since she can’t change costumes or wigs.  Wearing the same yellow, full-skirted dress and white sneakers (costumes by Toni-Leslie James), she adds an apron or cardigan and shifts her shoulder-length red hair from a high ponytail, to hanging long, to a bun (hair and wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout).  She didn’t look or sound much different to me until about the final 20 minutes and then she nicely conveys an elderly woman, with stooped posture, holding onto countertops for stability and speaking in a weakened voice.

     I also had a hard time time distinguishing the other characters.  Only her neighbor Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni), who has been in love with her since elementary school, remains the same.  John Earl Jelks plays a dual role, one of which is her husband, Matt.  That’s OK, but it was hard to keep track of their children and grandchildren and their significant others as Christopher Livingston, Susannah Flood and Crystal Finn juggle five generations of characters at different ages. 

     Haidle’s concept was intriguing but it makes for a play in which I never felt I really knew any of the characters, including the leading one.  Another problem is that the main action is the cake baking.  Snippets of dialogues about births, adultery and death pass for the plot.  Messing actually makes and bakes a cake over the course of the play, taking it out of the oven at the end.  I’m sure I would have enjoyed the smell if my nose hadn’t been covered by two masks.  While some people might find it engaging to watch someone at work in the kitchen, I, as a person who doesn’t cook or bake, was uninterested.  (My oven has been lit only once, in 1999, before I closed on my apartment.)   

     At least Christine Jones’ single set of a large blue and turquoise kitchen is enchanting.  Above it, seemingly in the sky, hang an assortment of household items, like a tricycle, teddy bear and umbrella. 

     I hope Messing will return to Broadway.  I enjoyed her performance the last time I saw her, in Outside Mullingar.  Now she’s trying to light too many candles.  The audience gets burned. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Michael Jackson is resurrected in 'MJ', at least partly


       At the beginning of this new biomusical, an MTV reporter asks her subject if he can separate the man from his work. It seems the answer is no because we get to know plenty about Michael Jackson’s work but little about him apart from it.

     When I first heard a musical about Jackson, now called MJ, was in development I wondered how its creators would handle the multiple allegations of pedophilia.  They don’t.  The show now at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, under Christopher Wheeldon’s direction, only takes Jackson’s story up until 1992, about a year before these stories began to surface.

     Whether that matters isn’t so important to me now that I’ve seen the show.  Had I experienced the spectacular musical I was expecting, based on the fact that Jackson was one of the most talented performers of my generation, I would have had qualms about praising it and encouraging people to go.  I didn’t think I could condone a show that celebrated the artist and ignored the possible criminal activity that capped his life.. 

     Instead, I found MJ to be disappointing.  The music was guaranteed to please and it did.  The performances are great but the character of Jackson is one-dimensional.  By the middle of the second act I was getting bored with him. 

     The show’s Jackson, powerfully portrayed by Myles Frost, was driven to work, work, work but he is never shown as happy.  He had no close relationships.  Although he sang with his brothers when they started out as the Jackson 5, they didn’t seem to relate to each other as family.  He has one snuggly moment with his mother (Ayana George) when he is a child (a charming Walter Russell III last night, alternating with Christian Wilson).  She holds him and sings “I’ll Be There,” but her nurturing is overwhelmed by Jackson’s strongest relationship, the one he had with his father (Quentin Earl Darrington).  Much has been written about this man’s cruelty in driving his children to exhaustion and his demands that they be perfect.  No wonder the adult Michael is popping pills by the handful in his quest to best himself with each new album or tour.

     If this show were about a fictional character we would say he needed to experience some change or growth but that never happens. The character is static throughout. 

     I’m surprised the musical’s book writer, Lynn Nottage, agreed to take part considering that the work would be produced “by special arrangement with the Michael Jackson estate.”  That almost ensures that the writer, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Ruined and Sweat), would have her hands tied.

     Not only is the lead character underdeveloped, but so is the plot.  Set in a Los Angeles rehearsal studio in 1992 (scenic design by Derek McLane), the show opens as dancers, back-up singers and a band are preparing for Jackson’s Dangerous tour of four continents in a 15-month undertaking. Flashbacks recall his difficult childhood followed by success after success as an artist, the work side of Jackson only.   

     Maybe I was right in the first place, that a musical about Michael Jackson shouldn’t have been written, even though he certainly had a full body of work to celebrate and success unequaled.  His “Thriller” album is the biggest-selling record of all time and he sold a total of more than a billion records worldwide.  

     Jackson was only three years younger than I so I have been listening to his music most of my life.  And I enjoyed hearing it again.  This time I even felt it because the amplification is so intense the floor and seats vibrate.  Really.  I have never been so grateful for my earplugs.

     Of course, Michael Jackson wasn’t just music.  He was movement and Frost captures his fluidity and grace like a reincarnation of the man himself.  In addition to directing, Wheeldon choreographed the electric dance numbers.  I certainly was never bored by them.  

     Authenticity-wise, Paul Tazewell recreated those brilliantly colored Jackson 5 suits and the sharply contrasted look of the adult Jackson’s trademark white shirt and black pants. 

     Maybe some day a creative team will have the freedom to tell the full story of Michael Jackson.  With the abundance of talent and conflict in the man’s life, it could be mesmerizing. 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick deserve better


     So much talent, wasted on such weak material.  I would imagine Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite was dated when it premiered in 1968 but now even megawatt star power like Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick can’t redeem it.  The only thing that saved the evening from being a complete washout was seeing this long-married couple onstage playing long-married couples, at the beautifully restored Hudson Theatre.

     I can check off so much that is right about the production, starting with John Lee Beatty's magnificent set, a lavish suite at the Plaza Hotel that was applauded as soon as the curtain rose.  John Benjamin Hickey deserves credit as the director.  Jane Greenwood’s costumes took me back to 1968/69 when the play is set.  I loved the psychedelically colored blue dress in Act Two, except it would have been shorter at that time.  Mine certainly were.  All of this makes the show sparkle visually.

     And Parker and Broderick sparkle with their talent, especially Parker who is a genius of comic timing and, in Act Three, physical comedy.  The trouble is, the play is rarely funny.  Not the lines and certainly not the hackneyed plots of the three different storylines, which amount to three unrelated one-act plays about relationships, all set in Suite 719 at the Plaza Hotel.

     I liked Act One the best.  Parker, as Karen Nash, plays a suburban housewife in her late 40s who has booked the same suite where she and her husband spent their honeymoon.  At first she seems like a woman excited to be celebrating her wedding anniversary but once her grumpy husband, Sam (Broderick), arrives we see that her goal is to try to save her troubled marriage.  He contradicts her on everything — the date of their anniversary, their honeymoon suite number, her age and what they should order from room service.  She wants champagne and he wants black coffee.  I won’t tell you where this leads because many people in the audience gasped at a reveal that was obvious from the start.  

     The reason I liked that act the best is because Parker’s character had the most depth, although that word is too strong.  Simon didn’t create any deep characters for this play.  As an actress she shows the pro she is in every facial expression, line delivery and movement around the set.  She made Karen as real as she could be with the given material. 

     By Act Two the female character, Muriel Tate, has descended to the ditzy blonde stereotype.  Parker looks adorable in that bright blue dress and a long, straight blonde wig (Tom Watson, hair & wig design), playing the high school sweetheart of Jesse Kiplinger, Broderick in plaid pants, blue turtleneck and prominent sideburns.  He’s now a famous Hollywood producer and she’s a New Jersey wife and mother who visits him in his suite, saying she wanted to “drop by for a drink” after not seeing him for 17 years.  You will also know exactly where this one is going.

     Finally, in the most tedious act, Parker and Broderick are again a long-married couple, this time trying to coax their daughter out of the locked bathroom so she can get married downstairs.  This is the most farcical act and the audience loved it.  I didn’t.  Parker’s Norma Hubley was over-the-top in silliness as the mother of the bride.  Broderick, as her husband, Roy, had some good moments, especially when he climbed out onto the ledge in the hopes of making his way to the bathroom to get his daughter through the door and down to the wedding that was costing him a small fortune.  

     I didn’t need to sit through two hours and 40 minutes to know why this Simon play had never been revived on Broadway until now.  I had seen a production decades ago at a Maryland dinner theatre, a fitting venue.  I’m sure the show will do well through its June 26 run, thanks to the star power of its leads.  They haven’t worked together since How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1996 when they were still dating.  I wish, though, that they had been brought back together onstage in a play worthy of their talents and our intelligence.