Into Each Life “The Rainmaker” Should Fall: N. Richard Nash’s Play in New Jersey

The theme of the mysterious stranger who arrives on the scene and changes people’s lives has long been a staple of American fiction, never more than it was in the 1950s. That decade produced Shane, who vanquished evil with gun-barrel justice; “Picnic”’s Hal Carter, who outed a few midwestern women’s libidos; and Harold Hill, the rascally Music Man. There was also the title character of N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker,” Bill Starbuck, a con-man whose roguishness is transparent even to those who willingly fall for his pitch.

The 1954 play ran only 125 performances on Broadway, but it had a sturdy after-life on Regional and community stages. I saw it years ago with Farley Granger in the title role, and then a few other times, most recently the 1999 Broadway revival with Woody Harrelson. Seeing it again last week at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, where it runs through August 18, was like re-kindling an old friendship. The play is dated in time, place and style, but it holds up, especially when its time, place and style are honored, as here.

Set on a western ranch in “a time of drought,” the drought that plagues the Curry family is metaphor for their dried-up lives. The widowed patriarch H. C. oversees the family in name only. His inflexible elder son Noah tends the books and rules the roost, keeping a tight rein on his younger brother Jimmy. The three are focused on staving off spinsterhood for repressed daughter Lizzie by pairing her up with recalcitrant Deputy Sheriff File.

Starbuck (Anthony Marble), Lizzie Curry (Monette Magrath) and Jimmy (Isaac Hickox-Young)   [Photos: Joe Guerin]

Into the Currys’ lives strides Starbuck, a glib, charismatic rainmaker. He fast-talks the desperate family out of a hundred dollars with the promise of rain. No out-and-out spoilers here, but if you think within minutes of Starbuck’s entrance that Jimmy ends up standing up to Noah, that Noah himself softens a bit and that Lizzie lets her hair down (literally) before coupling-up with File, well…you’re on the right track.

Those familiar with the 1956 movie probably remember Burt Lancaster’s toothy Starbuck as the focal point, even though Katharine Hepburn is a wonderful Lizzie. The male role is indeed dashing, but Geraldine Page reportedly owned the original against Darren McGavin, and Jayne Atkinson was Tony-nominated opposite Harrelson.

Fittingly enough in today’s social climate, Monette Magrath’s Lizzie is the centerpiece of this production, opposite the worthy Anthony Marble, whose Starbuck seduces the entire Curry clan…in one way or another.

From left: Noah (Benjamin Eakeley), Jimmy (Isaac Hickox-Young), H. C. (Mark Elliot Wilson) and File (Corey Sorenson)

Lizzie buries her unhappiness under forced acceptance of her impending old-maid status and her oft-proclaimed ‘plain’ appearance. Magrath reveals all the layers and really does seem plain – until she isn’t. It is a lovely performance that invigorates and informs her two-scenes with family members and the iconic one in the tack room with Starbuck.

Mark Elliot Wilson is the ideal weather-worn H. C., in appearance and exasperated-father demeanor. He and Nick Plakias, fine in the essential supporting role of Sheriff Thomas, are right out of central casting, lending authenticity to the setting.

Isaac Hickox-Young is an exuberant Jim, who grows up in the course of one day. If there’s a sort-of villain in the piece, it is thorny Noah, whose treatment of Lizzie ranges from dismissive to outright nasty. The words are there, and they can hurt, but as played by Benjamin Eakeley – and directed by Bonnie J. Monte – he’s more killjoy than provocateur. Corey Sorenson finds just enough depth in repressed Deputy File to make his decisive moment resonate.

Ms. Monte also designed the excellent ranch-interior set, with a stage-left are that doubles nicely as the sheriff’s office and the tack room. The costumes (Hugh Hanson) are generally period-authentic, if rather tidy for working ranchers, and Starbuck’s greatcoat is more spaghetti western than Depression-era America.

The play is perfectly constructed. We learn all we need to know about the characters in director Monte’s languidly paced first act, and watch with satisfaction as their relationships evolve in the second. Playwright Nash’s gift lies in how well we know these people a scant two hours after encountering them as strangers. “The Rainmaker” is an unabashed feel-good play, a characteristic in short supply these days, on or off the stage. Hasn’t it rained on our parade enough?

Through August 18 at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the Drew University campus in Madison. Tues & Wed at 7:30pm; Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2pm. For tickets: 973-408-5600 or at www.ShakespeareNJ.org

Blog

Organs, Oral and Orgasms, Oh My: “Get On Your Knees”

Let us clarify up front: the title of Jacqueline Novak’s 90-minute theater piece is not an invocation to prayer. Rather, it refers to a position oft identified with the performance of oral sex, a phrase Ms. Novak scorns in favor of the street term for the act. (Bear with me, folks.)

Pacing up, down and across the stage of the Cherry Lane Theatre in a gray tee shirt and black jeans, she describes that act and the associated organs frankly, including her own introduction to it. And while the presentation is tightly scripted, it comes across as a stream-of-consciousness rumination, with no details too graphic or intimate to share.

Jacqueline Novak [Photos: Monique Carboni]

Continue reading

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Music Ten, Book Three: “I Spy a Spy” off-Broadway

The best element of the musical “I Spy a Spy,” running through September 21 at the Theatre at St. Clements, is its music. Sohee Youn’s diverse score is mostly easy-to-take rock and jazz, peppered with Latino, middle Eastern and Russian themes, befitting the ethnic makeup of the characters. And the four musicians who play it, anchored by musical director Dan Pardo’s own versatile keyboard, might constitute the best small pit band off Broadway.

Emma Degerstedt and Andrew Mayer in “I Spy a Spy” [Photos: Russ Rowland]

Continue reading

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

The Stratford Festival: Geniuses at Work

The Stratford Festival in Ontario routinely employs the talents of two Theatre geniuses, separated in their endeavors by four centuries. The earlier is, of course, William Shakespeare, around whose plays the Festival was founded and continues to flourish, now in its 67th season. Over the years, I have seen three pairs of star-crossed lovers, two melancholy Danes, a pair of crook’d Kings (one female), multiples of the popular comedies, and Christopher Plummer as both Lear and Prospero.

The modern genius is director-choreographer Donna Feore, whose grasp of musical theatre and ability to communicate its wonders are boundless. Her “Crazy for You” in 2014 was spectacular and last season’s dance-centric “The Music Man” stands out in vivid memory. In 2016, with rarely-granted approval from the Michael Bennett estate, she re-staged “A Chorus Line” on the Festival’s expansive thrust stage with a thrilling result.

Recently I saw four of this season’s twelve productions, two by Shakespeare and two musicals staged by Ms. Feore. An abundance of riches.

No two of Shakespeare’s plays could be any more different than “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is from “Othello.” That one is a rollicking comedy and the other a dark tragedy is just the tip of the comparison.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In “Merry Wives,” two assertive married women turn the tables on Sir John Falstaff, their bungling would-be suitor, whose indignities and other comic capers lead to the play’s satisfying resolution.

In “Othello,” Iago, a villain for the ages, plots against trusting Othello, leaving both of their compliant wives slain, each by her own husband’s hand. At this play’s gut-wrenching resolution, my companion asked rhetorically, “How can these actors possibly do this again tomorrow?”

Othello (Michael Blake), left, and Iago (Gordon S. Miller)

Also distinguishing the two plays from one another is their contrasting forms. “Merry Wives” is 87 percent in prose (the most of all the plays) and 13 percent verse, while “Othello” is near the inverse at 19 percent prose, 81 verse. This factor by itself bespeaks the need for opposing acting styles. The Stratford company masters both. Their “Merry Wives,” driven by Geraint Wyn Davies’ superb Falstaff, moves along at a merry clip, its sharply comic dialogue enhanced with a dose of slapstick.  What makes the dual accomplishment even more remarkable is that fully sixteen actors appear in both plays, including, most notably, Michael Blake, who plays the jealousy-driven Othello and Mr. Page, the trusting of the two “Merry Wives” husbands. If you find two more contrasting Shakespearean roles, let me know. Blake plays them both to perfection.

The Merry Wives: Sophia Walker (left) as Mrs. Ford and Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page.

Perhaps to avoid over-playing his sliminess, Gordon S. Miller’s Iago is a straightforward bad guy. The character has significantly more lines than Othello (1100 to 890), much of that difference directly to the audience. His letting us in on his nefarious intentions, usually with a friendly-confidante tone, can have you, perversely, on the verge of siding with him. Miller just tells us straight out, without the character’s quasi-erotic enjoyment of his evil doings. It is director Nigel Shawn Williams’s choice, I guess, but I missed the glint in Iago’s eye.

Michael Blake as Othello and Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona

What I did not miss is Desdemona’s usual complacency in the face of her husband’s intention to kill her. Played with emotional depth by Amelia Sargisson, this Desdemona fights like a hellcat, first verbally and then during Othello’s murderous attack, until, significantly bigger and stronger, he finally overpowers her. (There’s only so much you can change.)  It is a shattering enactment and the final scene that follows it, which can feel anti-climactic, is anything but.

None of the Shakespeare actors is in either “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Billy Elliot the Musical,” but if they were, they would probably excel in those contrasting musicals under Ms. Feore’s direction. Her “Little Shop” is an especially lively take on the show. The R & B girl-trio, for example, dances as well as sings their narrative segments, and the few mini-crowd scenes are spirited, but there’s a limit to what even she can do with the piece…an odd choice in the #MeToo era.

Audrey (Gabi Epstein) and Seymour (André Morin) with Audrey II as a toddler

Ostensibly about an insatiable person-eating plant gobbling up all of humanity (think unfettered Greed), the boy-friend-battered heroine Audrey getting nothing but platitudes from her male co-workers is cringeworthy. The abuser does become the plant’s first human meal (post-mortem), but its second course is the kindly florist, intentionally enticed into the plant’s orifice by shop assistant Seymour, whom the proprietor had adopted as his son.

Seymour with Audrey II, grown up (and hungry)

Then it is Audrey’s turn. Chewed upon but lingering, she offers herself up to Audrey II, as the plant is dubbed, to demonstrate her love for Seymour. I get that it’s an allegory, and audiences seem to enjoy it, but for me “Little Shop” is past its sell-by date.

“Billy Elliot the Musical,” on the other hand, is timely, emotionally resonant and exquisitely conceived. After an early number, I thought “It doesn’t get any better than this.” And then it did, in pulse-quickening dance sequences that include energetic tap, classic ballet and every style in between.

Nolen Dubuc (centre) as Billy Elliot with members of the company

In a rarely-achieved fusion, the numbers spring from seemingly incompatible themes: young Billy’s burgeoning interest in the ballet and the economic and political fallout from Britain’s 1984 coal miners’ strike. Against the background of the strike that crushed the British National Union of Mineworkers, Billy’s evolution-in-dance is an uplifting saga.

That the contrasting story lines mesh so well is a tribute to Lee Hall, who adapted his own screenplay (from the 2000 British film), and to Elton John’s exciting musical score. Under Ms. Feore’s direction and choreography, the whole of this “Billy Elliot” exceeds the sum of its parts.

Growing up in a single-dad household (mom had died), eleven-year old Billy stumbles into a young girls’ dance class after his boxing lesson.  Caught up among the girls’ awkward pliés and off-balance pirouettes, he catches the eye of Mrs. Wilkinson, the bored ballet teacher. Against the wishes – even the core values – of his father and brother, Billy continues in the class, eventually earning an audition for Britain’s prestigious Royal Ballet School.

You needn’t have seen the movie to predict the outcome, but getting there is a stirring dramatic and musical journey. Tears of compassion well up for the struggling miners and their families, while the exhilarating dance sequences are heaven-sent…joyous.

Three young dancers rotated in the title role on Broadway, where the show won ten Tony Awards including Best Musical, but it is impossible to imagine a better Billy than Nolen Dubuc, whose rapport with Ms. Feore is palpable. The lad acts the role impeccably and progresses from inept novice to accomplished dancer right before your eyes. There are also nine Ballet Girls, age about five to twelve, with nary an affectation among them. Mrs. Wilkinson is tough, sarcastic and very funny. Hard-bitten as she seems, she becomes something of a surrogate mother to Billy; Blythe Wilson is perfection in the role. (Billy’s real mum appears to him in several poignant scenes.)

Swan Lake fantasy: Billy (Nolen Dubuc) and Older Billy (Colton Curtis)

And, oh, the musical numbers: there’s the rousing “Solidarity, ” sung in counterpoint by the robust chorus of grim coppers and miners facing off with the brightly tutu’d Ballet Girls between them; “Expressing Yourself,” a nifty Music Hall song-and-dance of Pride between Billy and his chum Michael (Emerson Gamble) and an exquisite “Swan Lake” fantasy-danced by Billy with his older self (Colton Curtis). “Electricity,” Billy’s ‘eleven o’clock number,’ sets the Festival stage ablaze, and there’s more…much more.

Substituting our current political woes for the British coal miners’ despair and replacing Billy’s passion for the dance with whatever dreams or ambitions you harbor for yourself completes the metaphor.

How fortunate these performers are to be able to perform Donna Feore’s magnificent “Billy Elliot” again tomorrow.

The four shows reviewed here run through October. The season also includes Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” the classic comedies “The Front Page” and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” and other offerings including family-friendly “The Neverending Story” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” For complete brochure: 800-567-1600 or visit www.stratfordfestival.ca

Blog, Canadian Theatre

Predicting the Tony Awards

The Broadway theater season, which ends in late April, culminates with the American Theatre Wing’s Antoinette Perry Awards – the Tonys. For the 2018-19 season 42 nominators considered 34 eligible shows in 24 categories. (No critics are among the nominators and few are among the 831 voters, some of whom have personal and/or financial interests in the productions…a topic for another day.)

The Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards, both of which are nominated and voted by critics, have already been announced. Some winners coincide, but where Tony is exclusively Broadway, OCC and DD consider off-Broadway as well. Here are predictions in sixteen Tony categories:

Best Musical: Two of the five nominees would be shoo-ins if the season did not include the other. “The Prom” was my runaway favorite until I saw “Hadestown,” a brilliant riff on the Orpheus/Eurydice and Hades/ Persephone Greek myths (in modern vernacular). “The Prom,” with its dual tracks of self-involved Broadway actors and a same-sex prom date, is both humorous and heart-warming. Both are deserving and either could win, but the glittery “Hadestown” is more likely.

The cast of “The Prom” [Photos courtesy of the productions]

        Best Play:  The British-imported “The Ferryman,” a play set against Ireland’s 1980s “troubles,” is a galvanizing three hours. The largely American replacement cast is every bit as good as the original Brits. Prediction: It will (and should) win.

“The Ferryman” now features Brian D’Arcy James and Holley Fain

Musical Revival: With only two contenders, either “Kiss Me, Kate,” which is tweaked to reflect the #MeToo era, or the totally re-imagined “Oklahoma!” will win. My choice would be the latter, but a conservative voter base might not be ready for its makeover. “Kiss Me, Kate” is the likely winner.  (Both Outer Critics and Drama Desk cited the off-Broadway “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.”)

        Play Revival: Arthur Miller’s 1947 “All My Sons” is infused with new energy by terrific direction and performances. The plot, revolving around faulty airplane parts, remains all too relevant. The recently-closed “The Waverly Gallery” is a formidable contender, spurred by its star (and Best Actress nominee) Elaine May.

Santino Fontana, center, in “Tootsie”

Leading Actor in a Musical:  Dustin Hoffman was Oscar-nominated for the “Tootsie” movie in 1983, losing out to Ben Kingsley, for “Gandhi.”  Santino Fontana is Tony-nominated for the same role in the musical “Tootsie.” Gandhi himself couldn’t beat him.            

Leading Actress in a Musical: Stephanie J. Block is the likely winner as the eldest of three incarnations in “The Cher Show” in a close vote over Kelli O’Hara, who re-invents the “Kiss Me, Kate” diva as a feminist. (Vote totals are not made public.)

Bryan Cranston on the “Network” set

        Leading Actor in a Play: This is a Finch face-off between Bryan Cranston in the Peter Finch “Network” role and Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Neither drama was nominated for Best Play, but one of those leading men will win. (My guess is Cranston, if only for the mad scene.)

Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) at the defense table with Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe)

Leading Actress in a Play:  In this strong category, Elaine May is first among equals for the progressively addled proprietor of “The Waverly Gallery.” Equally deserving are Annette Bening for “All My Sons,” Janet McTeer as The Divine Sarah in “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” and Laurie Metcalf for her half of “Hillary and Clinton.” Elaine May, at age 87, is your winner. (In a notable snub, Glenda Jackson was not nominated for her King Lear.)

Featured Actor and Actress in Musicals: Even if he were less than wonderful as Greek god Hermes in “Hadestown,” André de Shields could win for his lifetime body of work. But he is and he will. In the same show, Amber Gray is a goddess Persephone to die for, but she’s up against a formidable contender in Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, as a captivating Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” Both women are deserving. A tie vote would be perfect.

Amber Gray fronting the “Hadestown” ensemble

Featured Actor and Actress in Plays:  Benjamin Walker as the anguished Chris in “All My Sons,” and Celia Keenan-Bolger as adolescent Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” should prevail. Walker’s main competition is Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch in “Ink.” Keenan-Bolger’s is…forget it. Bet the ranch.

Celia Keenan-Bolger accepting the Outer Critics Circle Award for Scout in “Mockingbird” (She’ll probably dress down for the Tonys)

Two technical Tonys should be unanimous selections: Best Musical Costumes to Bob Mackie for the fabulous “The Cher Show” outfits; Stephanie J. Block alone has 30 costume changes! The Best Musical Lighting Tony is surely Bradley King’s, whose spectacular effects for “Hadestown” deserve top billing.

Stephanie J. Block, center, rocking one slinky “The Cher Show” costume

Best Directors of a Play and a Musical:  While these do not always coincide with the respective Best production winners, my prediction is that they will this year: Sam Mendes should win for “The Ferryman,” as should Rachel Chavkin for “Hadestown,” whose composer/lyricist/book writer Anais Mitchell is also a woman. About time, right?

The 73rd Annual Tony Awards, hosted by James Corden, will be televised live by CBS-TV on Sunday, June 9 from 8 to 11PM. The festivities will include numbers from seven current Broadway musicals. Really.

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

A “MAC BETH” for the (Teen) Ages

A lot of stuff in plays happens offstage. Not just unsavory events, but things that are easier to tell than to show. (The plot of the play reviewed here last week, “Happy Talk,” turns on offstage happenings.) Many such are dictated by logistics – and common sense. You’ll not see Willy Loman’s car crash on stage, nor do you need to in order to gather its meaning.

Shakespeare abounds with examples. In “The Winter’s Tale,” for one, Antigonus’s ursine pursuer presumably eats him…offstage. And, alas, the Midsummer Night consummation between Titania and Bottom takes place after the scene ends.

Nowhere in Shakespeare is this device more critical than in “Macbeth.” The murders of King Duncan and his hapless attendants, the fatal attack on Banquo and (spoiler alert) Macbeth’s ceremonial be-heading all occur out of audience view.

MAC BETH cast: Dancin’ in the Rain [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

Continue reading

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway