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

Brave Title, Generic Show: “The Book of Moron”

When’s the last time you heard a Dumb Blond joke? Me neither, until Robert Dubac pulled one early in “The Book of Moron,” his solo comedic commentary in a limited engagement through October 3 at SoHo Playhouse, hard by the Holland Tunnel entrance. Later, he seems to retract the transgression, but instead doubles down on it. Granted, it is a small part of the 80-minute running time, but the “lengthy pre-show announcement” suggests that people might leave with some unwanted ideas. Those antediluvian gags were mine.

Robert Dubac [Photos courtesy of Moment-to-Moment Productions]

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NY Theater, Off Broadway

“Merry Wives” in Harlem, via Central Park

Tradition holds that Queen Elizabeth I, enamored of Sir John Falstaff from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, asked the playwright to depict that character in love, and that he complied, writing “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in under a fortnight. Maybe she asked and maybe she didn’t, and maybe The Bard speed-quilled and maybe he didn’t, but the play got writ. Somewhat short of a masterpiece, it has nonetheless remained a comic touchstone for four hundred years and counting.

It’s been said that alterations and updates to Shakespeare generally do no harm, but neither do they shed new light. Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation of “Merry Wives,” playing through September 18 at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, sheds new and different light on the farcical warhorse. Transposing the only Shakespeare comedy set entirely in England to one set entirely in Harlem is an unexpectedly smooth transition.

The cast of “Merry Wives” on designer Beowulf Boritt’s Harlem street set [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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Long Live the King! (Lear, that is…and Cordelia too)

In calendar year 2014 I saw four different productions of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” In all of them, and six or eight others over the years, Lear and his daughter Cordelia [spoiler alert] died at the end.  As devastating as are the deaths of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it is Lear’s death from heartbreak as he cradles the just-hanged body of his loyal daughter that routinely brings me to tears. Performed as well as I’ve seen it at Stratford, Ontario, for instance (three since 2002), the only onstage Shakespeare death not externally caused can be agonizing to watch.

Apparently, Irish poet and gospel preacher Nahum Tate thought so as well, because in 1681 he published a “happy ending” version of the play that became the dominant one until Shakespeare’s original text was restored some 150 years later, circa 1838. Rarely seen since then, it is being performed in Manhattan parks through August 8 by NY Classical Theatre Company, whose artistic director Stephen Burdman took Tate’s makeover and ran with it. The resulting mashup succeeds on multiple levels. (Shakespeare purists may now be excused.)

The Lear family of Olde England: Foreground from left, Duke of Albany (Clay Storseth), Goneril (Jasminn Johnson), Cordelia (Connie Castanzo), papa Lear (John Michalski), Regan (Aryana Sedarati) and Duke of Cornwall (Michael Stewart Allen). [Photos:Miranda Arden]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

The Gershwins and Oscar Wilde Live On Stage! What’s not to like…

As ‘S Wonderful as “Who Could Ask for Anything More? The Songs of George Gershwin” is as it stands, and it truly is, I would suggest one change: adding George’s principal lyricist, his brother Ira, to the (already long enough) title. In Barrington Stage Company’s exhilarating tribute to the Gershwins’ American Songbook, five exceptional singers honor George’s incandescent melodies with pitch-perfection while also using Ira’s sublime lyrics to elevate the concert into real Theatre. (The whole enterprise having been co-conceived and co-directed by BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd and musical director Darren R. Cohen undoubtedly contributed to that result.)

From left: Alan H.Green, Alysha Umphress, Jacob Tischler White, Allison Blackwell, Britney Coleman [Gershwin photos: Daniel Rader]

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Blog, Professional, Regional