“The Lion in Winter” Heats Up Two River Theater

Set over Christmas Eve and Day in the year 1183, “The Lion in Winter” is based on events in the lives of seven historical figures: Henry II, King of England, Scotland, Wales, etc.; his Queen-wife-prisoner Eleanor, late of Aquitaine; their three sons; Henry’s mistress Alais; and Alais’s brother Philip, King of France. Real people, yes; but it’s not a history lesson. “The people,” wrote James Goldman in the preface to his play, “while consistent with the facts we have, are fictions.” In that context, concocted as it is out of fact, rumor and inference, “The Lion in Winter” is a flavorsome entree, served up in a thoroughly engrossing staging at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ.

Written 60 years ago and set eight Centuries earlier, neither its style nor its setting is stale. Its “anachronisms in speech, thought, habit, custom and so on…are deliberate” (Goldman again), and the concept of a family squabbling (or worse) over mulled wine at Christmas might just as well be next month as 800 years ago.

King Henry (Michael Cumpsty) to Queen Eleanor (Dee Hoty): Well - what shall we hang? The holly or each other?

King Henry (Michael Cumpsty) to Queen Eleanor (Dee Hoty): Well – what shall we hang? The holly or each other?

At age 50, long-lived for that time, Henry (Michael Cumpsty) is concerned over the succession to his throne. His anointed first-born having died, he now wants to designate youngest son John (Noah Averbach-Katz), despite the 16-year old lad’s overall awkwardness (an understated assessment). Eleanor (Dee Hoty), released from confinement for the Holiday (she had plotted against Henry earlier), favors eldest son Richard (KeiLyn Durrel Jones), which leaves Geoffrey (Hubert Point-Du Jour) in limbo. “There’s no affection for me here,” Geoff laments, in a middle-child whine. (What else is new?)

Toss Henry’s mistress Alais (Madeleine Rogers), who will be wedded Queen to whichever son (Oh, those Royals!), and her King-of-France brother (Ronald Peet) into the mix, and the recipe for familial dysfunction is complete.

Dee Hoty, left, Madeleine Rogers (in designer Andrea Hood costumes) and Michael Cumpsty © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

Dee Hoty, left, Madeleine Rogers (both wearing designer Andrea Hood) and Michael Cumpsty   (Photos: T. Charles Erickson)

No less an authority on acting than Lord Laurence Olivier said “Talent is plentiful; skill rare.” While we might quibble that first assertion, the second is a given, and nowhere does it apply more than in the performances of Michael Cumpsty and Dee Hoty. Throughout, Henry and Eleanor express anger, distrust, jealousy and even murderous intentions toward each other – all amid declarations of undying devotion, including a hinted-at conjugal diversion during Eleanor’s parole. Cumpsty and Hoty enact all those elements, not just in succession, but, it seems at times, simultaneously. Acted to perfection, Goldman’s power-pair are the original Frenemies. And no one betters Cumpsty at mining the humor in dramatic characters and situations, a skill much in evidence here.

Their triangle is completed by Alais, raised by Eleanor from age seven and Henry’s lover from sixteen (an R-rated play, this). Now 23, she is both vulnerable and intuitive. Rogers’ sensitive performance (in an interestingly-written role) is a window into what it must have been like to be a pawn in a game coldly played by Kings and Queens.

Sons Geoffrey (Hubert Point-Du Jour), left, and Richard (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) sit by while French King Philip (Ronald Peet) negotiates with Eleanor (Hoty) and Henry (Cumpsty)

Sons Geoffrey (Hubert Point-Du Jour), left, and Richard (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) sit by while French King Philip (Ronald Peet) negotiates with Eleanor (Hoty) and Henry (Cumpsty)

If the pace falters a bit in scenes where those three are absent, it is a fault shared by the play and the players. None of the sons gets much below the surface, but their function is more to serve their parents’ machinations than to flesh out their own characters, although they do impress in a late scene in the wine cellar. The French King, 33 years Henry’s junior at age 17, bristles at Henry’s repeatedly calling him “boy.” Casting a Black actor adds an extra frisson of tension to Ronald Peet’s respectable performance.

Besides her exemplary staging and some intuitive character etching, director Tyne Rafaeli’s subtle touches illuminate the piece. The script calls for Henry to arrange a wisp of Alais’s hair, for example. “Let’s have one strand askew,” he says. “Nothing in life has any business being perfect.” Later, Eleanor, unprompted by the playwright, adjusts the stray wisp back to its constraint. I’m attributing that telling bit of business to the director. Maybe not, of course; I’ve been wrong before. Nothing in life has any business being perfect.

Through Dec. 4 at Two River Theater, Bridge Ave., Red Bank. Wed. at 1 & 7PM; Thurs&Fri at 8PM (no show Thurs Nov 24th  – added 3PM matinee on Fri 25th); Sat. 3 & 8PM; Sun 3PM. Tickets ($20-$70): 732-345-1400 or www.tworivertheater.org

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“A [Tuneful] Christmas Story” in Red Bank

Beginning at 8PM on Christmas Eve, you can watch the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story” twelve times in a row on TBS-TV, screening on the even hours up to 6PM on the 25th. Sans song and dance. On November 18, 19 and 20, you can see the tale played out live on the stage of the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ. Avec song and dance. Based on the enthusiasm of the opening night audience and the reported advance-ticket sales, Phoenix Productions could probably run their own “24-Hour ‘A Christmas Story’ Marathon,” as TBS bills it.

Movie maven Leonard Maltin calls the film, adapted from radio personality Jean Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” “a delightful memoir of growing up in the 1940s…truly funny for kids and grown-ups alike!” My assessment of the musical is less enthusiastic than Maltin’s of the movie, but in this case the messengers, Phoenix’s energetic cast, transcend the message.

The cast

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Lotsa’ love for “Mad Love” (not so much for “The Cherry Orchard”)

Thinking about Mad Love, the word “lark” popped into my head. Where’d that come from? I thought, so I looked it up in my Oxford: Something mischievous…an amusing adventure or escapade.

Marisa Smith’s play, running through November 20 at New Jersey Repertory Company, is a lark. The self-labeled “Romantic Comedy” may be “just” a RomCom, with the requisite hang-ups, but its additional descriptive “for Cynical Times” elevates it, if not out of that category, at least to its top-quality level.

Alex Trow and Graham Techler (Photos: SuzAnne Barabas)

Alex Trow and Graham Techler (Photos: SuzAnne Barabas)

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Heil you-know-who: “The Producers” at Paper Mill Playhouse

The Producers has the potential to offend pretty much everyone: Jews, gays, women, seniors, prudes and the self-appointed Good Taste Police. When well staged, however, the holder of a record dozen Tony Awards (Hamilton won one fewer) replaces offense with amusement.  Mel Brooks’s adaptation of his own movie is a personal tour de force: he wrote the music, the lyrics and, with Thomas Meehan, the book.

The hit 2001 musical and the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award-winning Paper Mill Playhouse are a winning combination. Paper Mill is widely recognized for first-class musical revivals; The Producers joins recent-seasons Follies and The Full Monty as prime examples. (The venue is also a pre-Broadway house; Newsies and Chazz’s Bronx Tale premiered there, and The Bodyguard musical opens next month).

The cast of "Springtime for Hitler": The musical-within-the-musical "The Producers"

The cast of “Springtime for Hitler”: The musical-within-the-musical “The Producers”

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How to save the farm? Irving Berlin to the rescue!

Back in the day, I produced and performed in summer-stock musicals. They usually featured about six principals and double that number of backup singer-dancers. I like to think the shows were pretty good; the relatively un-demanding audiences certainly enjoyed them.

Those memories came back as I sat through Holiday Inn, Broadway’s latest, if dated, movie-musical adaptation. Billed as The New Irving Berlin Musical, it is based on the 1942 movie, which had already been updated on screen into White Christmas in 1954, which in turn was adapted into a Broadway musical a few seasons ago. Follow that? No matter; just know that “White Christmas” is sung in all four incarnations.

The plot is a variation on “let’s put on a show,” which harks even further back to Andy Hardy. Jim, one of the two men in a night-club trio, moves to a farm in Connecticut, leaving his former partner Ted in the now-duo act with Jim’s soon-to-be-former fiancée Lila. Turns out that the old Mason Family Farm is in foreclosure, which Jim learns as Linda Mason shows up to collect some bric-a-brac. (You’d think at the closing, but whatever.)

Let's put on a show! (Photos: Joan Marcus)

Let’s put on a show! (Photos: Joan Marcus)

How to save the farm…hmmm…well, seeing as Jim (Bryce Pinkham) is a singer and Ted (Corbin Bleu) is a dancer and Lila (Megan Sikora) does some of each, as does Linda (Lora Lee Gayer), they put on a show! Furthermore, since they and their show-biz pals are all laid off during major holidays, they only perform during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Independence Day – ergo, Holiday Inn!

Corbin Bleu and Megan Sikora with "Plenty to Be thankful For"

Corbin Bleu and Megan Sikora with “Plenty to Be Thankful For”

That might be a cockamamie business plan, but it’s made to order for matching up settings, costumes and Irving Berlin selections with a calendar of holidays. For Thanksgiving we get pilgrims, turkeys and “Plenty to Be Thankful For,” for Easter it’s pastels, bonnets and “Easter Parade” and so on. (If you have to ask about Christmas, you haven’t been paying attention.)

h-inn-easter3Corbin Bleu, left, Lora Lee Gayer and Bryce Pinkham in “Easter Parade” finery

                          The show is mildly entertaining, in that it has its moments. The arrangements and the orchestra that plays ‘em are excellent and the ensemble “gypsies” make the most of Denis Jones’ standard choreography (a jump-rope number is nifty). Among the principals, the women fare best. Ms. Sikora, lithe and sultry, has too little to do (her appearances bookend the show), while Ms. Gayer could sing to me all day (“Nothing More to Say,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” etc). The crooner Pinkham and hoofer Bleu are pleasant enough; the fact that their predecessors were Crosby and Astaire gets them a pass. Lee Wilkof and Megan Lawrence offer competent comic relief as the act’s blustery manager and the farm’s brassy caretaker, respectively, and Morgan Gao excels as a precocious banker-in-training (he’s about 12).

With Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge’s old-hat script, and by-the-book direction by Mr. Greenberg, this Holiday Inn would appeal, I’ll bet, to those summer-stock audiences. But on The Great White Way – and at Broadway prices? Not so sure.

Through Jan. 15 at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, 254 West 54th, NYC. Schedule and tickets ($47-$152): 212-719-1300 or online at www.roundabouttheatre.org  


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August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Two River Theater: Stunning!

The Wikipedia entry for Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues, lists her life span as April 1886 to December 1939. Based on Two River Theater’s stunning production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, tacking on a September 2016 resurrection would not be inappropriate. With an incredibly talented (more important, skilled) cast, impeccably directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the voice of one of America’s greatest playwrights has never rung with more passion or clarity. (Wilson died in 2005; another of the greats, Edward Albee, died on the day Ma Rainey opened at Two River.)

August Wilson’s ‘Century Cycle’ is composed of ten plays that explore the 20th Century African-American experience (coping mechanisms, if you will), decade-by-decade. The first to be staged on Broadway (in 1984), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the 1920s entry. It is vividly outspoken on the black-white racial divide of its time. Set in a Chicago recording studio, the play progresses from routine bantering among the band members, through Ma Rainey’s tempestuous arrival and performance, to a devastating conclusion.

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