On the Aisle with Larry, April 30, 2017

Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on CHURCH AND STATE, COME FROM AWAY, BANDSTAND, A BRONX TALE, WAR PAINT, PRESENT LAUGHTER, MISS SAIGON, THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS and VANITY FAIR.

It had to happen – plays which take on the abhorrent mindset now dominating our politics. New World Stages has one, with another coming there soon. Running now is Jason Odell Williams’ Church & State, with Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall opening there in late May. You can guess what the latter is about.

In Church & State, a Republican Senator from a southern state is running for re-election, abetted by a feisty campaign manager from New York and his fiercely ambitious wife, when there is a Sandy Hook-like school shooting in his state, causing him to question not only his knee-jerk rejection of any attempts at gun control but also his faith in God. To the chagrin of his wife and his campaign manager, he expresses this to a blogger at the funeral of one of the shooting victims and it goes viral. Can the political fallout be contained? Not if he doesn’t want it to be.

Williams’ play is an entertaining exercise in liberal fantasizing that it is possible for a Republican to realize and admit the error of his ways. I was willing to go with this, aided enormously by Rob Nagle’s anguished performance as the Senator, a decent man undergoing crises both of faith and of conscience; but my problem with the play has to do with the character of the campaign manager, who is identified as a Jewish Democrat from New York. I refuse to believe that any Democrat – particularly from the reddest of Red States — would work to help elect a Republican, all of whom have proven themselves time and time again to be a bunch of liars, frauds and nincompoops, simply because of her ravening ambition (She thinks her guy has a shot at the White House). Her politics and her home state should have been left unmentioned, which would have made her much more believable as a craven political operative.

That said, all the performances in Church & State are terrific, starting with the aforementioned Nagle and moving on to Nadia Bowers as his wife, who portrays what is basically a caricature with much wit and brio, and Christa Scott-Reed, as the campaign manager.

Come from Away, at the Schoenfeld Theatre, has a wonderful story that needed to be told. It’s set in Gander, Newfoundland, to whose airport planes were diverted on 11 September, 2001. An intrepid cast plays befuddled passengers who were forced to wait for days until their planes can take off, and the townspeople who took them in. What emerges is a compelling portrait of people coming together at a time of crisis.

Christopher Ashley direction of this ensemble is brilliant, as are the book, music & lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. My faves among the performers were Lee MacDougall, as a mild-mannered Brit and Patricia Wheatley as a Texan woman, both middle-aged passengers on an American Airlines flight from London to Dallas, who fall in love and, especially, Jenn Colella as the pilot of their flight, whose song “Me and the Sky,” about her love of flying, is a “wow.” In fact, the whole show is a wow. Don’t miss it.

Also mighty fine is Bandstand, at the Jacobs Theatre, about a piano-playing ex-World War II soldier who founds a band comprised of vets in hopes of winning a radio swing band contest. His girl singer is not a vet, but she’s a war widow. Her husband was Our Hero’s best friend. Will they win by echoing the feel-good patriotic sentiment of the national zeitgeist or will they take a chance with a song which tells the truth about the horror of war?

The band members are as adept musicians as they are actors and Laura Osnes, as the singer is, as you might expect, delightful. Corey Cott, as the band leader, oozes charisma.

Andy Blankenbuehler’s direction is wonderful and his choreography is spectacular. The original score by Richard Oberacker (both book and lyrics), makes us believe that we are hearing music of the period. And Rob Taylor’s book is terrific.

I had a very good time at Bandstand. I think you will, too.

As much as I enjoyed Bandstand, I liked A Bronx Tale, at the Longacre Theatre, even more. Adapted by Chazz Palminteri from his one man play and the film thereof, it’s a very compelling coming of age story of a young man from the Italian section of the Bronx torn between his father’s admonition that he make something of himself and the pull of a local gangster named Sonny, who takes the kid under his wing. Bobby Conte Thornton is wonderful as Cologero, oozing as much charisma as Corey Cott in Bandstand, and Nick Cordero makes more of Sunny than just your basic garden variety thug (Ironically, Cordero played Cheech in the musical version of Bullets over Broadway, for which Palminteri received an Oscar nomination). The direction, by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks (more Zaks than DeNiro I suspect) is absolutely first rate, as is the cast of supporting players – especially, Ariana DeBose as a girl from the black neighborhood with whom Cologero falls in love, and Richard H. Blake and Lucia Gianetta as Cologero’s parents. The score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) is brilliant – one great song after another.

This is the most competitive season for Broadway musicals in my memory. I hope A Bronx Tale survives the Tony Roulette, even if it doesn’t receive a nomination for Best Musical. It certainly deserves to. I hear the “word-of-mouth” for the show is very strong so maybe, just maybe …

On the other hand, I think War Paint, at the Nederlander Theatre, is a shoo-in for a nice run even when it doesn’t win the Tony (which I don’t think it will), due to the presence of two great stars in its cast, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole, playing cosmetics divas Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, respectively. Book writer Doug Wright compares their stories perfectly in what has the feel of two separate musicals melded together. Did you know that before these two great female entrepreneurs, cosmetics were considered appropriate only for prostitutes and showgirls? I didn’t. War Paint tells the story of how Rubinstein and Arden sold women on making themselves artificially beautiful, as they became the first two women who had their name on a major corporation. Even their great success, though, did not get them what they really craved – acceptance into the crème de la crème of Society. Arden was a farm girl from Ontario and, hence “new money” – Rubinstein was Jewish. Wright’s book chronicles their rise and fall, the latter due to their refusal to embrace the new medium of television advertising, unlike cut-rate competitors such as Charles Revson (Revlon).

At the performance I attended, Patti Lupone was out but her understudy, Donna Migliaccio, was not only fabulous but was a dead ringer for Lupone. I’m sure half the audience thought they were seeing Patti. Christine Ebersole is magnificent as Elizabeth Arden, embodying the efficacy of her cosmetics in that she doesn’t appear to age a day over the roughly 30-year period in which the show takes place. Douglas Sills and John Dossett, perfectly cast, are excellent as the Men in Their Lives.

Michael Grief’s direction is excellent, and the score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) is effective though only once in a while rises to greatness (Arden’s big solo number at the end, “Beauty in the World,” is a terrific song, sold outstandingly by Ebersole.

War Paint is a show which will appeal mostly to women and, I expect, gay men; but then, they buy most of the tickets, don’t they? Husbands will have to suffer in silence, as they usually do when dragged to the theatre by their wives.

The sterling revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter at the St. James Theatre, marking the return to Broadway of Kevin Kline, is an absolute delight. Director Moritz von Stuelpfnagel keeps this tale of narcissistic West End actor Garry Essendine perfectly paced with a strong supporting cast, and Kline is hilarious as Essendine. He is much the best of the four I have seen in the role, the others being George C. Scott, Victor Garber and Frank Langella, who was pretty good though he was stuck in a misbegotten production which came about at a time when gay men were rediscovering Coward as Gay Playwright, so the production was gay gay gay, which I think would have discomfited Sir Noël, living in a time when gay people had to keep it under wraps or face gaol.

Present Laughter is old-fashioned theatre at its best. If you enjoy a Blast from the Past once in a while, it’s tea time for you.

Another revival on the boards is Boublil and Schonberg’s (of Les Míserables fame) Miss Saigon, at the Broadway Theatre, which is every bit as good as the original and features a fantastic performance by Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer. The score is magnificent, and Laurence Connor’s direction is top-notch. Eva Noblezada is heart-breaking as Kim, the Vietnamese bar girl who falls in love with an American G.I., played compellingly by Alistair Brammer. My date, unfamiliar with the show, was blown away, and I was very moved once again by this musical tragedy. I have been a “Theatre Geezer” for several years now, as I often see revivals and I saw the original production. Lord have mercy, how did I get so old?

Miss Saigon is a don’t-miss.

As is The Play That Goes Wrong at the Lyceum Theatre, a hit import from London, about an inept amateur troupe attempting to put on a cheesy murder mystery called “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” Years ago, Michael Green wrote a best-selling book called “The Art of Coarse Acting” satirizing bad British amateur theatre, which sparked a vogue for coarsely acted plays (“The Coarse Acting Show,” and so on). The Play That Goes Wrong is firmly, and hilariously, in this grand tradition. Mark Bell’s direction is endlessly inventive as is the cast, and the collapsing set by Nigel Hook is in itself worth the price of admission.

If you’re in the mood for an evening of Nothing But Laffs, The Play That Goes Wrong is definitely for you.

I also enjoyed John Leguizamo’s new one-man show, Latin History for Morons, at the Public Theater, though not as much as I have his others, such as Spic-o-Rama and Mambo Mouth. Here, he was less funny and more earnest, as he recounts how Latinos have been excluded from the history books. It is something that needed to be said, though, and Leguizamo makes a compelling case.

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, something of a follow up to her Sense and Sensibility, an off Broadway hit last season, about orphan girl Becky Sharp’s attempts to rise in the world, scruples be damned, is cleverly done, with a small cast playing multiple roles, often men playing women. It is directed very simply though very inventively by Eric Tucker. My only quibble is that it seems over long at more than 2 and a half hours, which audiences just aren’t used to any more, having increasingly short attention spans (I have a friend who has what I call a “90-Minute Fanny.” Anything over 90 minutes is Too Long.)

Still, if you can spare the time, Vanity Fair is well worth seeing.

CHURCH AND STATE. New World Stages, 240 W. 50th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

COME FROM AWAY. Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

BANDSTAND. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

A BRONX TALE. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St,

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

WAR PAINT. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 42st St.

TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929

PRESENT LAUGHTER. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929

MISS SAIGON. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

TICKETS: http://www.broadwaygoeswrong.com/tickets.php or

www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Alas, closed.

VANITY FAIR. Pearl Theatre. 555 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.pearltheatre.org or 212-563-9261

 

“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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