On the Aisle with Larry – January 5, 2018

Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in the New York theatre scene. In this column, Larry reports on Cross that River, Hundred Days, Sprongebob Squarepants, Once on this Island, Red Roses Green Gold, Junk, The Parisian Woman, Farinelli and the King and Pride and Prejudice.

I always enjoy attending productions at 59 E 59, a complex containing three small theatres founded by Elyzabeth Kleinhans, who ran it for several years before retiring and turning the reins over the Val Day, formerly a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor and ICM Partners. The productions at 59 E 59 are usually of very high quality, largely because the Artistic Director, now Ms. Day, decides what goes into one of the theatres, which are very much in demand. In January, Ms. Day’s choices start kicking in, and I am eager to see what she has come up with.

One of the last Kleinhans shows is Cross that River, a bio-musical about a black cowboy named Blue, played by Allan Harris as an older man and Jeffery Lewis plays young Blue, a runaway slave who managed to make it to Texas, becoming a trail hand, later a trail boss and eventually a rancher. Harris wrote the songs and co-wrote the book with Pat Harris. Harris’ songs are a mixture of country and jazz, and are altogether delightful, and he is a wonderful guitarist as well.

There is not much in the way of staging in Cross that River but the story is so compelling you won’t much care. And the music in wonderful!

Hundred Days, at NY Theatre Workshop, is also a narrated bio-musical, wherein Shaun and Abigail Bengson, backed up by a killer band, sing songs they have written about their love, which culminate when Shaun had a brush with death, leading them to wonder, if you find out you only have 100 days to live, how much living can you cram into that finite period?

Shaun Bengson has a pleasant voice, but Abigail’s is phenomenal, reminding me more than once of Janis Joplin.

Hundred Days is more concert than musical, but a damn fine concert.

If you saw that there is a new Broadway musical based on the kiddie cartoon, Spongebob Squarepants, and figured this must be a kiddie show, think again. Yes, this show at the Palace Theatre, which has become a surprise hit, can be enjoyed by kids, but the wacky humor of the cartoon show has been enhanced here by librettist Kyle Jarrow, and Tina Landau’s production is spectacular with wonderfully witty sets and costumes by David Zinn, and hilarious choreography by Christopher Gatelli.

The story, such as it is, involves a grave threat to the undersea community Bikini Bottom.
A submerged volcano names Mount Humongous is about to erupt, which will wipe out everything and everyone. The Mayor is ineffective in organizing an evacuation because of lack of funds, so Squidward Q. Tentacles, organizes a fundraising concert involving an undersea supergroup called The Electric Skates, but this goes awry. Meanwhile, the evil Sheldon Plankton wants to wipe out Bikini Bottom with a death ray developed by his computer, Karen. It’ll all left up to Spongebob and Sandy the Squirrel, who has invented a substance to drop into the volcano which will prevent its eruption joined, eventually, by Patrick Star, who has gotten tired of being worshipped by a horde of acolytes.

Ethan Slater is hilarious as that good-natured eternal optimist, Spongebob, and Danny Skinner as Patrick steals the show more than once, as does Gavin Lee as the nerdy Squidward Q. Tentacles.

The witty songs are by a multitude of songwriters, such as Cindy Lauper and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (of Aerosmith) but they all have a unity of style and work beautifully.

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to like this show as much as I did, but I was quickly won over and had a wonderful time.

As I did at Once on this Island at Circle in the Square, a new production of a musical which started at Playwrights Horizons more than two decades ago before moving up to Broadway, marking the debut of Lynn Ahrens (book & lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). This production, directed by Michael Arden with choreography by Camilla A. Brown, is delightful.

The story focuses on a girl named Ti Moune, orphaned by a storm, who is taken in by a kindly, elderly couple and raised in their close-kit, poor community. She rescues a rich kid who has been in a car accident and falls in love with him. Alas, he is betrothed to a girl from his world. Hailey Kilgore is wonderful as Ti Moune, and there is strong supporting work all around. My faves were Philip Boykin as Ti Moune’s new father and Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge, one of the island gods who watch over Ti Moune.

Don’t miss this one.

Unless you’re a Deadhead you could, however, skip Red Roses Green Gold, at the Minetta Lane Theatre, which grafts songs by the Grateful Dead into a very flimsy, almost nonsensical story set in a saloon in a mining town called Cumberland which I take it sets the show in Appalachia; but this is just an excuse to perform the Dead’s songs. These songs are performed by terrific musicians but ones lacking in much acting ability. Often, the dialogue is unintelligible due to their poor diction and lack of projection.

I somehow missed the Grateful Dead in their heyday, so I was curious about their music. Turns out, it was a strange mixture of country, folk, jug band and rock – emphasis on the country, the soul music of red state America, played at the Minetta Lane by what appear to be a band of Trump voters. You have got to be kiddin’ me. In New York City? Lord have mercy …

Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, is about the unscrupulous world of Wall Street. Although it’s set in the 1980’s it couldn’t be more timely, as the Republicans and President Tweet are busy throwing out regulations which protected us from financial predators. The Greed Decade is coming back folks, with a vengeance. Those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.

The central character is the play, Robert Merkin (clearly based on Michael Milken) has invented a new way to finance corporate takeovers involving so-called “junk bonds” – high risk but high yield devices of mass destruction which saddled companies with so much debt they could no longer continue. The takeover artists then liquidated the company’s assets, everyone loses his job, they take a big tax write-off and then moved on to the next victim. This process in a simplified form was chronicled brilliantly by Jerry Sterner in Other People’s Money which ran 1000 performances at the Minetta Lane Theatre (now running real junk, Red Roses Green Gold), going on to become of the most produced plays in America and abroad for several years.

Akhtar’s play is much more complex, but just as trenchant as Other People’s Money. A financier wants to take over Everson Steel, using Merkin’s junk bonds, which, although it has diversified into pharmaceuticals, is vulnerable because its steel operation is not profitable. It’s third generation CEO, Thomas Iverson, Jr., is desperate to fend the guy off, because he knows the guy will liquidate the steel part of Iverson Steel, throwing all the workers, whom he views as family, out of work. He finds a “white knight” in the person of Leo Tresler, a gruff sort who is appalled by what Merkin is doing. Also in the mix are Judy Chen, a reporter who is writing a book about the junk bond craze, for whom the much older Tresler has the hots and a crusading D.A. out to take Merkin down obviously based on Rudolph Giuliani.

The production by Doug Hughes is spectacular, and the cast equally fine, with particular kudos going to Stephen Pasquale as Merkin, played as a true believer who believes he is saving the economy from white show gentiles, such as Tresler.

Junk only runs through this weekend. See it if you can. I think both play and production will be much-honored in the Spring when awards time rolls around.

I also enjoyed Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, at the Hudson Theatre, a political drama about a woman named Chloe, played by Uma Thurman, married to a high-powered attorney who is trying to wheel his way into a federal judgeship. Chloe appears to be a rather callow woman at first, but she turns out to to be even more devious than her husband.

Pam MacKinnon’s direction is fluid and on the mark, although the female cast members are stronger then the males. Thurman is wonderful as Chloe, and there is strong work as well from Blair Brown, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, who might be able to swing the judgeship for Chloe’s husband, and from Philippa Soo as her daughter, a recent college graduate who wants a career in politics.

The Parisian Woman is an enthralling play about politics in the Age of Trump, and well worth seeing.

Also recommended: Farinelli and the King, at the Belasco Theatre, principally for Mark Rylance’s performance as addled King Philippe of Spain, the grandson of France’s Louis the 14th. At the outset of the play, Philippe is fishing in a goldfish bowl and his chief minister is trying to get him to abdicate. Set against the minister is Queen Isabella, who does not think the King is really incapacitated. She gets the idea to bring Farinelli, a world renowned castrato, to Spain in hopes that hearing him sing will restore the King to his senses – which it does.

The problem with the play is the lack of a truly credible threat, as the minister is portrayed as a fool. Also, the playwright, Claire van Kampen, plays fast and loose with the historical facts. In order to build up the role of Queen Isabella, for instance, she has the importation of Farinelli be her idea and even has her travel in London to fetch him, when in fact it was the king’s doctor who felt that hearing Farinelli sing would bring the king back to his senses, and it was the Spanish ambassador who arranged this in London.

What really makes the play sing, as it were, is the device of having a real contra tenor sing while the actor playing Farinelli stands by. Not that I think this device works very well – obviously, it would have been better to have had the actor playing Farinelli sing – but the opportunity to hear contra tenor Jestyn Davies sing is priceless.

So, go for Rylance and to hear Davies.

Playwright/actress Kate Hamill specializes in irreverent adaptations of classic English novels, in which she plays the female lead. She made a big splash two years ago with her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which still has hopes of moving on to Broadway, then moved on to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the final production by the late, much lamented, Pearl Theatre. She’s back with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where they appear to have taken up residence. All the hallmarks of Hamill’s previous adaptations are here in force: small cast with much doubling (usually of female roles played by men), deliberate anachronisms, etc. What emerges is a spoof of the novel rather than a straightforward adaptation. What was fresh and funny in her previous plays now seems merely silly, more for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading the novel. If you are a Jane Austen fan, I think you’ll find it rather annoying.

CROSS THAT RIVER. 59E59, 59 E. 59th St.
Tickets: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-249-4200
HUNDRED DAYS. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.
Tickets: www.nytw.org/show/hundred-days/#PBoffer or 212-460-5475
SPRONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway
Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway
Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
RED ROSES GREEN GOLD. Minetta Lane Theatre
JUNK. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center
Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
THE PARISIAN WOMAN. Hudson Theatre, 131 W. 44th St.
Tickets: www.thehudsonbroadway.com/whatson/the-parisian-woman or 855-801- 6876
FARINELLI AND THE KING. Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.
Tickets: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Primary Stages at Cherry Lane Theatre, 36 Commerce St.
Tickets: www.ovationtix.com or 212-352-3101

“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

Menu