On the Aisle with Larry, April 29, 2015

Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York and, this time, in Louisville. In this column, Larry reports on 39 STEPS, FINDING NEVERLAND, THE KING AND I, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, THE BELLE OF BELFAST and the HUMANA FESTIVAL.

The 39 Steps is back, this time Off Broadway at the Union Square Theatre, For Some Strange Reason “re-branded” as 39 Steps, once again directed by Maria Aitken but with a new cast except for Arnie Burton, who plays one half of the team of intrepid clowns who play multiple roles, often in a quick-change blink of an eye. The play is a spoof of the Hitchcock movie about an idle man who gets caught up in trying to foil a Nazi spy ring, done with 4 actors, 3 of whom play a cast of, seemingly, thousands. Aitken’s direction is as clever as ever, and Robert Petkoff, as Our Hero Richard Hannay, is as good as the guy who did it originally. Also wonderful is recent Juilliard grad Brittany Vicars, a gifted comic actress, who plays many of the female roles, from spy to Scottish housewife. I say “many” because equally many of the ladies are played wonderfully by the two aforementioned male clowns.

If you missed The 39 Steps before, here’s your chance to see it, albeit as “39 Steps.” If you saw it and loved it before, as I did, here’s your chance laugh with it once again.

Finding Neverland, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is a musicalization (book by James Graham, music & lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy) of the movie which starred Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, the author or Peter Pan, which itself was adapted from Allan Knee’s play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan. It’s the story of how a rather conventional boulevard playwright came to write one of the great works of the dramatic imagination, inspired by his friendship with a widow and her 4 sons.

You may have heard that this show is a turkey. It’s not. It’s inventively staged by Diane Paulus and features terrific performances by Matthew Morrison, as Barrie, and Laura Michelle Kelly as the boys’ mother, with delightful supporting turns by Kelsey Grammer, as impresario Charles Frohman and a wonderfully wicked Captain Hook, and Carolee Carmello as the boys’ grandmother. There are several wonderful songs, by Gary Balow and Eliot Kennedy, beautifully sung by Morrison, Kelly and Carmello, and humorously sung by Grammer. I could quibble with this and that, but overall this is a very entertaining show. See it soon, though. It got shut out of the Tony Awards, so it’s a big loser in the Tony Roulette and probably won’t run much longer.

While I quite enjoyed Finding Neverland, I loved Lincoln Center Theatre’s wonderful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, featuring the always-incandescent Kelli O’Hara as Anna and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam. My only quibble with Watanabe’s performance is that sometimes he is difficult to understand, which was a minor inconvenience to me as I know the show so well, but which will prove problematic if this is your first time seeing this great musical. Bartlett Sher’s direction is superb, and the supporting players are wonderful, my faves being Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang and Ashley Park as Tuptim. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are lush and lavish, and Michael Yeargan’s sets are spectacular. The Tony Award for best revival of a musical is shaping up to be quite a horse race. All three nominees (the others are On the Town and On the Twentieth Century) are terrific. I must confess, I hold a candle for On the Town, not only because it’s so good but because if it doesn’t win it will close. For some reason, although it has received excellent reviews it has struggled at the box office. On the Twentieth Century and The King and I have subscription audiences to jump-start them, and both have mega-stars (Kelli O’Hara and, in On the Twentieth Century, Kristin Chenoweth). I’m hoping that On the Town will turn out to be this season’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which also struggled until it won the Tony, after which it started selling out. Such is the power of the Tony Awards. They can make you a hit or they can kill you.

Another supposed turkey, Doctor Zhivago, at the Broadway Theatre, got slammed in the NY Times by the Ish for imitating British pop musicals such as Les Miserables. And that’s a bad thing? The Ish also said that both the novel and the David Lean film, upon which this new show is based, are boring. Well, Mr. Ish, Boris Pasternak’s novel is one of the great master works of the 20th Century, and shortly after its publication in Italy (it was banned in the U.S.S.R.) Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. And as for the film it, too, is a masterpiece. So much for critical objectivity.

That said, is the new musical version of Doctor Zhivago perfect? No. Michael Weller’s book has a Cliff Notes feeling to it, and I quibble strongly with the inclusion of “Lara’s Theme (Somewhere, My Love”) from the film. Tam Mutu, in the title role, sings beautifully but lacks the passionate intensity that Omar Sharif brought to the role in the film, and Kelli Barrett (Lara), although she too sings beautifully, seems like a generic blonde Broadway diva – and I never felt the chemistry that burned through the celluloid when Sharif and Julie Christie (Lara in the film) were together.

All of that said, Doctor Zhivago is still a great story, confusing and simplistic at times but still very compelling, with a lovely score by Lucy Simon, inventively directed by Des McAnuff. Like Finding Neverland, it lost in the Tony Roulette and will soon die the death. It’s too bad.

Irish Rep has been ensconced this season in the DR2 Theatre, where their current offering, The Belle of Belfast by Nate Rufus Edelman, has just opened in a beautiful production directed by Claudia Weill. The play is set in Belfast in 1985, during the height of the Troubles, and concerns a surly teenaged girl who has lost both her parents in an I.R.A. bombing, and a handsome young priest. She’s in love with him, and pursues him until he finally succumbs, with poignant consequences for them both. Kate Lydic and Hamish Allan-Headley are wonderful as the girl and the priest, and there is strong supporting work from Patricia Connoly, who plays a gossipy old lady who goes every day to confession to have someone to talk to, Arielle Hoffman, who plays the girl’s friend and Bill Meleady as an elderly priest more interested in getting drunk than in ministering to his flock – a stock Irish character, to be sure, but Mcleady is so delightful you don’t care.

The Belle of Belfast is one of the finest productions I have seen at Irish Rep, and well worth checking out.

Finally, I attended this year’s Humana Festival, which I have attended every year save two since 1980. I had to skip one year when I was on the Drama Desk Nominating Committee, because we had to see 23 shows in April (all before the 22nd, which was our cut-off date, and I boycotted last year’s festival when they brought back that humbug Anne Bogart for the 6th or 7th time, whose event most people felt was the Bomb of the Festival – as it has been every year they have inflicted her on their audience. They think she’s a genius. I say, the emperor has no clothes.

Fortunately, Actors Theatre of Louisville decided not to Bogart that joint this year. While there were no break-out hits, all the plays I saw were thoroughly engaging (I skipped the Chuck Mee play because I needed to get back, because I don’t get his work and because several people I talked to who had seen it disliked it (one called it the “worst pile of crap I have ever seen” – to which I replied, “Well, I guess you’ve never seen an Anne Bogart production”).

This year, my faves were Dot by Colman Domingo and The Roommate by Jen Silverman.

Dot was a conventional, realistic family drama about an African American family in Philadelphia dealing with Mom’s increasing dementia, with a terrific performance by Sharon Washington as the eldest daughter, Shelly, who’s been coping with Mom and who can’t seem to get her siblings to understand the scope of the problem. Marjorie Johnson as Dotty, the mother, was also a standout in director Meredith McDonough’s terrific cast. Domingo told me that there are plans afoot to bring this fine play to New York. I hope so – and I also hope that the cultural ayatollahs here will not damn it because it’s from the Humana Festival, as they have done so many times in recent years.

The Roommate was a two-hander about a middle aged Midwestern woman who takes in a roomie from New York who turns out to be not only a lesbian but a grifter on the lam. The two actresses (Margaret Daly as the landlord and Tasha Lawrence as the roommate) were wonderful under the subtle direction of Mike Donahue. The play kinda fizzled out at the end, but still it was a very humorous clash-of-cultures play which deserves a further life.

Erin Courtney’s I Will Be Gone was a rather convoluted drama about the denizens of a small town in California, living near an abandoned mining town which may be haunted. As it wore on, I got less and less interested. That said, the cast was great, as was Kip Fagan’s direction.

The weirdest play of the Festival was I Promised Myself to Live Faster, a gay sci-fi epic, which was a Ridiculous (in the Charles Ludlam sense) devised-text play by Gregory Moss with Pig Iron Theatre Company out of Philadelphia, wherein a depressed young gay guy gets sucked into an alternative universe by three nuns, who need him to recapture the Eternal Gay Flame, which enables the creation of more gay people and which has been stolen by the evil emperor, who plans to eat it. The play got sillier and sillier as it wore on, but the cast was delightful. It wouldn’t surprise me if it turned up here as Pig Iron has something of a reputation in New York, having won an Obie Award.

Although the Humana Festival is not nearly the Big Deal that it used to be, you still ought to make the hajj to Louisville at least once. Maybe next year?

39 STEPS. Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th ST
TICKETS: 800-982-2787
FINDING NEVERLAND. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000
THE KING AND I. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE BELLE OF BELFAST. DR2 Theatre, 103 E. 15th St
TICKETS: www.irishrep.org
2015 Humana Festival. Actors Theatre of Louisville.
www.actorstheatre.org

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.com.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

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