You’ll Seem to Find the Happiness You Seek/ When You’re Out Together Seeing “Cheek to Cheek”

Eleven outstanding performers (six singer-dancers and five musicians) are at the top of their game on stage, but the biggest stars of “Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood” are the title composer, of course, and the director/choreographer, Randy Skinner, who also conceived the piece. The York Theatre Company production, staged in a surprisingly posh venue below St. Jean’s Baptiste Church on East 76th Street (having been flooded out of their former basement digs, twelve blocks south), is consistently upscale and upbeat, even when the tempos are in ballad mode.

From left: Joseph Medeiros, Victoria Byrd, Phillip Attmore, Melanie Moore, Jeremy Benton, Kaitlyn Davidson [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

Performed in chronological order, abetted by Barry Kleinbort’s minimal book, the show opens with a soundtrack clip of Al Jolson singing “Blue Skies” from “The Jazz Singer,” the first “talkie,” from 1927. That song, one of Berlin’s most enduring, had been a last-minute insert into the Rodgers and Hart musical “Betsy” at the behest of its star, Belle Baker. “Betsy” ran just 39 performances, but “Blue Skies” is said to have received twenty-four encores on opening night. And legend has it that Ms. Baker went up on the lyrics during #24, prompting Berlin to stand in the audience and finish the song with her. (Let’s believe it together.)

In between “Blue Skies” and the 1965 standalone “I Used to Play It by Ear,” are two dozen Berlin numbers, most from the Golden Age of movie musicals. One such, the 1935 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic “Top Hat,” is represented by “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be caught in the rain),” “The Piccolino,” which fostered a dance craze, and “Cheek to Cheek,” Berlin’s first Oscar-nominated song, which lost in 1935 to “Lullaby of Broadway” by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics).

From left: Jeremy Benton, Phillip Attmore, Joseph Medeiros

[Neither the show, nor certainly this review, is an in-depth Berlin bio (several are in print), but it is worth noting that while Warren had Dubin, George had Ira, Rodgers had Hart and, later, Hammerstein, etc., etc., Irving Berlin was the first major composer to write his own lyrics. He was also the first to append his name to titles,  a la “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.”]       

While about a third of the selections were new to me, “Cheek to Cheek” is not a resurrection. The selections make their points; several, in fact, were purely instrumental dance compositions, “The Piccolino” and “The Yam” among them. The chronology makes for an interesting thread, and the classic numbers, for anyone even vaguely familiar with them, are wonderfully arranged by musical director David Hancock Turner and choreographed by Skinner (tap routines, swing and jazz moves, even a tango dip)…all performed with second-nature aplomb. Nicole Wee’s varietal costume designs evoke the period, and Jason Kantrowitz’s lighting is spot-on.

Victoria Byrd and Joseph Medeiros dancing “Back to Back” in “Cheek to Cheek” (or the reverse)

You’ve heard the quip about Ginger dancing as well as Fred, even backwards and in heels? That came to mind during “Back to Back,” a number written for the 1939 film “Second Fiddle,” in which the couples perform intricate soft-shoe, swing and balletic moves in perfect synchrony…back-to-back. It is a marvel of choreography and execution. (Stage right and stage left are which way now?)

The set list is as notable for what is not included as for what is. “White Christmas” and, but for a snippet illustrating its re-cycled opening bars, “Easter Parade” are among the missing. The inclusion of those revered Christian-holiday pop hymns, both written by a Jewish Russian immigrant, would be fodder for a show of a different hue, one that will not be fleshed out here. (We are also spared “God Bless America,” perhaps in anticipation of a Kate Smith musical.) What is there is choice, from Jolson’s grainy warble through to the “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” finale.

“Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” for Phillip Attmore and Melanie Moore to be caught in the rain

The first-rate cast includes Phillip Attmore (“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”); Jeremy Benton (“My Walking Stick” with Attmore); Victoria Byrd (“Better Luck Next Time”); Kaitlyn Davidson (“Be Careful, It’s my Heart”); Joseph Medeiros (“Change Partners”); and Melanie Moore (“Isn’t This a Lovely Day?”): a superlative sextet of solo and multi-combination song-and-dance pros.

And let’s name the terrific band, led by music director and arranger Turner on piano, with Louis B. Crocco, whose “Drum Crazy” solo slays; Noelle Rueschman and Amy Griffiths on reeds (at least two each); and Joseph Wallace, whose stand-up bass anchors the group.

Irving Berlin died in 1988 at age 101. Many of his 1,500 song titles directly reference singing or dancing, including ten in this show. This “Cheek to Cheek” ensemble is as fine a musical collaboration as you will see on or off Broadway – or anywhere else. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” indeed. (Or back up to it.)

Through Jan. 2 at the Theatre at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street, NYC. Tues-Thurs at 7pm; Fri at 7:30; Sat at 2 and 7:30; Sun at 2:30pm. For tickets, including gift cards ($59-$79): 212-935-5820 or by emailing boxofice@yorkthtre.org

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

“Morning’s at Seven” revived: The Play and Its Players Have Aged Well

At the intermission of “Morning’s at Seven,” directed by Dan Wackerman in revival at the Theatre of St. Clement’s, I mentioned to my companion that Paul Osborn’s 1940 comedy, which I had recently read, did not seem as good on its feet as it did on the page. Soon enough, I realized I had based that opinion on having read the entire play but having seen at that point only the first third. (Written in three acts, it is performed with one break.)

Like many (most?) worthy plays, especially comedies, the first third – or even half – is necessarily heavy on character and plot exposition, allowing them to proceed in such a way that we do not question what follows. What follows in “Morning’s at Seven” is a wonderfully warm, comforting tale of four sisters in their late-60s/early-70s whose mutual bonds of affection and concern have remained secure through the thick and thin of…well, of life.

From left: Alley Mills, Lindsay Crouse, Patty McCormack, Alma Cuervo [Photos: Maria Baranova]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

“A Bronx Tale” Well Told at Axelrod PAC

“A Bronx Tale” cast members on Belmont Avenue  [Photos: Mark Krajnak]

The Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, New Jersey has emerged from Covid lockdown with a stylish and engaging production of “A Bronx Tale,” the full-scale musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s 1989 autobiographical solo show. The 1993 (non-musical) film version starred the writer as neighborhood gangster Sonny, who took young Chazz under his wing, and Robert De Niro, who also directed, as Chazz’s working-class father. Palminteri revived his solo version on Broadway in 2007, and the musical, long in development, premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2016, before an extended Broadway run.

That was “A Bronx Tale” then. Axelrod’s, directed by Richard H. Blake, who originated the father on Broadway, is now. Palminteri’s streetwise dialogue is still way cool; the rangy show-music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) is catchy; and Glenn (“The Little Mermaid”) Slater’s lyrics serve the story well. Blake brings affection and insight from the Broadway run, and bolstered by professionals in a few roles, the large, variously experienced cast executes his direction and Abbey M. O’Brien’s spirited choreography with confidence. The show’s overall smoothness belies its “local” origin. It is first-rate entertainment.

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Blog, Community, Professional, Regional

A Couple Thousand Miles (And a War) Between Friends: “Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise” in New Jersey

It is no knock on A. R. Gurney’s much-admired “Love Letters” to note that “Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise” takes Gurney’s premise and runs with it…literally. Gurney has a man and a woman seated at desks reading aloud the letters they wrote to each other over a fifty-five-year span. They remain seated throughout and do not interact or handle any props. (Gurney’s instructions are specific.)

“Jack…Louise” also consists of a couple reading letters they wrote to each other as well as some received (and other missives), and while Ludwig at first considered a seated-at-desk format, he opted instead for full staging, with physical movement, even though the two characters do not so much as look at each other [spoiler alert] until the very end. (Same with the Gurney.) Under David Saint’s appropriately free-form direction and performed with charm and nuance by Bill Army and Amelia Pedlow at George Street Playhouse, Jack and Louise emerge as warm, humorous and passionate individuals. Even though they remain separated (it bears repeating), they exude charisma – between each other and into the audience.

 

Jack (Bill Army) and Louise (Amelia Pedlow) [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

Not to belabor the comparison, but where Gurney’s characters and letters are pure fiction, Jack and Louise are based on Ludwig’s actual parents, whose letters, re-created here (originals were not kept), are the stuff of Ludwig family lore. Introduced at a distance by their fathers, their correspondence spans the WWII period from June 1, 1942, to VE Day, May 8, 1945. Louise, a Brooklyn native in her mid-twenties, is an aspiring dancer in NYC; Jack, an Army Captain from Coatesville, PA, was drafted right out of medical school, a tidbit he mentions only in passing. (“You’re a doctor? Don’t you know every girl in the world wants to go out with a doctor?”)

Their correspondence evolves from tentative revelations and mild flirtation to “full disclosure” (some of it awkward) and acknowledged affection. (Louise is first to sign off with “Love.” Ahhh…)

In designer James Youmans’s finely detailed separate areas, Jack’s barracks room and Louise’s bedroom, the two go about their mini-chores – folding clothes and such – while the other reads and reacts to the letters without, as Ludwig cautions, “pulling focus.” It is naturalistic acting at its non-pretentious best.

Over two hours (including intermission), Louise meets Jack’s family, including eleven judgmental aunts, falls out a window, is passed over at an audition, does a scene from “Arsenic and Old Lace” (her Cary Grant needs work), hits the road with “Hellzapoppin,” and volunteers at the Stage Door Canteen. Jack performs surgery (offstage), declaims some Winston Churchill, is shipped overseas, takes a bath in his helmet liner (also offstage…whew), goes MIA, and loses Louise’s phone number. (Don’t worry; it works out.)

Bill Army

Bill Army and Amelia Pedlow do not miss a beat. If there has been a better evocation of the 1940s in recent years, I missed it. Army’s army persona is spot-on. In regulation fatigues or military dress-up throughout, it all happens with his on-and-off military posture, his expressive face, and his resonant voice. (He proves hunky, too, in a shirtless flashing.)

Pedlow is a delight. Her emotional range, tested by the vagaries of Louise’s long-distance romance during a world war, is limitless, and effortlessly modeling designer Lisa Zinni’s  half-dozen period costumes (tap shorts, print dresses, more), Pedlow could well be a 1940s Vogue/Glamour cover girl.

Amelia Pedlow

The play is a departure for Ludwig, best-know for the nonpareil farce “Lend Me a Tenor.” A heartfelt, humor-infused tribute to his parents, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is a uniquely relatable romance. It is the perfect date-play, in the most positive intent of that phrase.

Among its admirable aspects is the under-the-radar ‘historical’ context. Jack’s warzone setting and Louise’s 1940s show-biz milieu are so well evoked in words and communicated in the acting that one feels, at more than a few moments, steeped in the period. Examples abound: “…I’m accomplishing something specific and useful,” Jack writes. “Some [patients] are so wounded, they can’t communicate at first. Some of them just don’t get better.”  And this from Louise: “Last week I saw ‘Oklahoma’ and it was so wonderful I nearly fainted.” And who knew that a dancer celebrating her first role in a Broadway road company in 1944 would run in circles shouting OH MY GOD over and over? (Some of Louise’s best lines are dated to perfection. One such gem is a toss-off about not liking the way Rosalind Russell dresses.)

Whether or not all the exchanges were Ken Ludwig’s parents’ exact words, he honors them by telling us they were. “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is a splendid play.

Through Nov. 21 at George Street Playhouse, housed in New Brunswick, New Jersey’s elegant new Performing Arts Center. For Wed-Sun performance schedule and tickets ($25-$75): www.georgestreetplayhouse.org

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Four Actors Play Multiple Characters in Two Broadway Plays

In his very fine book “A Lifetime with Shakespeare” (McFarland),  about having directed all of Shakespeare’s plays, the late Paul Barry postulated that casting is eighty-five percent of directing and that good directors, by definition, cast well. If that is so, “Lackawanna Blues” director Ruben Santiago-Hudson owes most of the brilliance of the play to his casting and to the acting of the play’s 25-plus roles. Each character of variety and nuance, to paraphrase  Pseudolus (“…Forum”), is played by an actor of such…well, let me put it this way: Santiago-Hudson plays every one of them. And, oh yes, he also wrote the piece.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson and guitarist Junior Mack [Photos: Marc J. Franklin]

While the play, named for the town in upstate New York where Santiago-Hudson grew up, is based on his early childhood (and later vignettes), it is less autobiographical than it is auto-observational. Or even straight biography, concentrating as it does on Ms. Rachel Crosby, the Lackawanna boarding-house proprietor known as “Nanny,” who raised the young Ruben.

Nanny is the leading character, but the supporting cast of misfits, hangers-on and other generally needy folk who show up at her boarding houses are as vivid a supporting cast as one could imagine. Among them are extended-family members from the south and other newcomers that Nanny would counsel and guide toward employment in the  1950s booming industrial economy. (Arrive on Monday, have a job by Wednesday.) Nanny was “like the government if it really worked.”

A fight between a man with a missing finger and one with an amputated leg was the “nine-finger/one-legged fight of the Century.” There is also a one-armed man, an abused wife who Nanny takes in, a fascinating riff by a former Negro League pitcher, and a well-traveled old man, given to uttering  malaprops, who was in awe of New York’s “Entire State Building.”

Accompanied onstage by the blues-inflected guitarist Junior Mack, Santiago-Hudson embodies all the characters unerringly, via distinct vocal tones and deft shifts in posture and demeanor – even in rapid conversation with one another. (Ruben also plays a mean harmonica.)

The solo “Lackawanna Blues” ran off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 2001 and was later a multi-cast HBO film. However it fared in those settings, it is more than comfortable and is, in fact, comforting, on a Broadway stage, where Santiago-Hudson’s deep feelings for the people he brings to life bear out that love really is “a many blended thing.” That befuddled old man was onto something.

At Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, only through November 7. Information and tickets: ww.manhattantheatreclub.com 

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As much as “Lackawanna Blues” provides insight into the lives and experiences of certain African Americans over a certain limited time, “The Lehman Trilogy” does the same for certain Jewish immigrants to America over a longer period. The latter play is in fact a veritable history lesson, which is not to suggest it is academic, dry or even a tad boring. On the contrary, “The Lehman Trilogy” is as entertaining – enthralling even – as it is instructive, and vice versa.

“The Lehman Trilogy” has the feel of a long-established historical account, but having been inspired by the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers financial dynasty, it is necessarily a recent creation. The play is adapted by British National Theatre associate director Ben Power from Richard Dixon’s 2019 translation of Italian writer Stefano Massini’s 2016 fact-based novel-in-verse. It originated at the National in London and ran at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2019 before moving to Broadway where it was an early-preview victim of the Covid shutdown. Now resumed at the Nederlander Theatre, “The Lehman Trilogy,” fluidly directed by Sam Mendes, is a monumental achievement…in content, execution, performance and, not least, in its three-plus hours (including two intermissions) that whizz by.

From left: Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester [Photo: Julieta Cervantes]

After a brief prologue, the story unfolds chronologically, beginning with Heyum Lehmann, Americanized to Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), arriving at New York harbor from Bavaria (Germany) in 1844 at age 22 and soon establishing a sole-proprietor dry-goods store in Montgomery, Alabama. With the arrival of his brothers Mayer (Adam Godley) and Emmanuel (Adrian Lester), the store, re-named Lehman Brothers, expands from selling finished cotton goods to accepting raw cotton in payment and re-selling it in the north, effectively inventing the term “middlemen.” (There are nods to the slave-labor production of the cotton and a reference to it being a “crime,” but a deeper exploration would be, one must acknowledge, another play entirely.) Various endeavors follow, until, having morphed into a financial-services and investment company, they move to NYC and the rest, we’ll say, is history. They weather the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression and prosper through World War II manufacturing and post-war real estate investments, continuing on a roll until the 2008 bankruptcy of the by-then fourth largest financial institution in America.

A well-populated history it is. About the same number of characters as in “Lackawanna Blues,” twenty-five or so, are variously portrayed in “The Lehman Trilogy” by that three-brother trio of actors. Among the characters they inhabit with minimal costume change and maximal skill are the principals’ sons and grandsons; their clients, enablers, and deniers; even several women and wives. All played out on Es Devlin’s revolving-cubed set and with live-piano accents (Candida Caldicot), “The Lehman Trilogy” is a tour de force. Not just of acting (although surely that), but of live theater’s unique ability to not just show rather than tell, but to explore a stirring, wide-ranging, fascinating tale by…well, by showing.

Through January 2 only at the Nederlander Theatre,208 West41st Street. Schedule and ticket information: www; thelehmantrilogy.com

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

The Dazzling Half-Dozen: “Six The Musical” on Broadway

Henry VIII wasted no time embarking on his multiple-marriage mission. Just weeks after assuming the English throne at age 19 in 1509, he wed number one of six, Catherine of Aragon, his older brother Arthur’s widow. (Catherine was the daughter of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had, in 1492, backed a certain Italian explorer to sail the ocean blue.) Henry eventually divorced Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn, who, failing to produce a male heir, was beheaded on a questionable charge of adultery.

Henry’s next wives were, in order: Jane Seymour, who died from childbirth-related causes; Anne of Cleves, who, after Henry rejected her over her appearance, accepted a generous settlement to split; Catherine Howard, married at 19 to three-decade-older Henry and summarily executed at 21 on a fabricated charge of treason; and finally, Catherine Parr, who hung around, outliving Henry by a year.

Now, six centuries on, a half-dozen women of extraordinary talent and infectious magnetism are portraying those erstwhile Queens on Broadway in “Six The Musical,” which was shuttered by the pandemic hours before its intended opening in March 2020. So…the obvious question: Was it worth the wait?

From left: Abby Mueller (Jane Seymour), Samantha Pauly (Katherine Howard), Adrianna Hicks (Catherine of Aragon), Andrea Macasaet (Anne Boleyn), Brittney Mack (Anne of Cleves), Anna Uzele (Catherine Parr) [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater