The paws that refresh: “CATS” back on Broadway

Has any long-run Broadway show counted as many detractors as has Cats? (Besides Oh, Calcutta! I mean.) Upon hearing that I was attending the Broadway revival, comments from friends and colleagues ranged from mild disdain (“It’s not one of my favorites”), through haughty derision (“It’s touristy kitsch”), to outright loathing (“You couldn’t pay me to sit through that crap”). Well, Cats is not my all-time favorite, and I hardly classify it as high art, but you could (and they did) pay me to sit through it, which I would gladly do again.

The naming of cats is a difficult matter, It isn’t just one of your holiday games;  You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter/When I tell you, a cat must have three different names.

          So begins “The Naming of Cats,” the first poem in T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, upon which the musical is based. The characters are from the poems and nearly all the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s more-than-serviceable score are verbatim. Cats had been running in London for 18 months when it opened on Broadway in October, 1982 and went on to run for 18 years. Its 7,485 performances ranks fourth all-time, behind Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, at 12,000; the Chicago revival, approaching ten times the original’s 936; and The Lion King, nearing 8,000. (All three are still running.)

The cats of CATS

The CATS cats

Directed, as was the original, by Trevor Nunn, and with Gillian Flynn’s original choreography re-created/enhanced by Tony Award-winner (for Hamilton) Andy Blankenbuehler, the revival is two hours of tightly disciplined purrrpetual motion. Natasha Katz has taken the original lighting design and run with it; her spectacular results enhance without distracting from the proceedings. Bright cats’ eyes from trash-strewn crevices, multi-colored slashes of light crisscrossing the stage (and occasionally beyond), and bodice-blinking onesies are feasts for the senses. John Napier’s junkyard set extends up the aisles, where various and sundry felines also pussyfoot from time to time.

To be sure, it is the same show, but the fresh 30-member cast of Broadway gypsies ignites it with an up-to-date spark. Cavorting about in exotic kitty-kat costumes and painted-on whiskers is work, not play, but who wouldn’t want to be Rum Tum Tugger or Jennyanydots or Bustopher Jones (The Cat About Town) for a while? Standouts in the terrific ensemble include Jess LeProtto and Shonica Gooden, whose song-and-dance as Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer is a show-stopper; Rickey Ubeda, who lights up the stage (literally) as Magical Mister Mistoffelees; and the duo of Kim Fauré and Christine Cornish Smith, whose slinky intro of Macavity, the Mystery Cat, is downright pussycat sexy. The whole gang (litter? pride? whatever) also executes a nifty tap-dance number. Who knew?

'Macavity's not there...' but Demeter (Kim Faure, left) and Bombalurina (Christine Cornish Smith) will do just fine

Here, kitty, kitty: Demeter (Kim Faure), left, and Bombalurina (Christine Cornish Smith) put the moves on “Macavity, the Mystery Cat”

Cats also catapulted Grizabella’s song “Memory” into the pop-culture stratosphere (along with the original Grizabella, Betty Buckley). The song is hinted at several times during the show before its full-throated rendition by “British singing sensation” Leona Lewis. The song is gorgeous – on its own and as emotionally rendered by Ms. Lewis.

I refer those who dismiss Cats as just entertainment to Anthony Shaffer’s rejoinder to that same critique of his play Sleuth: “What do you mean ‘just’? It’s a bloody sight harder to entertain than to bore.” You will not be bored at Cats; you will be entertained.

A Cat’s entitled to expect/These evidences of respect.  So this is this, and that is that. And there’s how you ad-dress A Cat.

         Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, NYC. Tickets: Ticketmaster/877-250-2929

Old Deuteronomy (Quentin Earl Darrington) invites audience members on stage during intermission for a photo op. My 12-year-old granddaughter was happy to acc intermission. My 12-year old granddaughter was among the eager visitors.

My 12-year-old granddaughter was among the audience members to visit Old Deuteronomy (Quentin Earl Darrington) during intermission.


 

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

At Shaw Festival: Wilde, Gilbert and young Alice too!

[As appears in September issue of American Mensa Magazine]

In 1962 a group of Canadians and Americans produced weekend performances of George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell and Candida in a Court House hall in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. From that modest beginning was born the only Theatre Festival in the world devoted to the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries (and modern plays that reflect Shaw’s values). There could be no better representation of that early mandate than the four plays I saw there recently: one each by Shaw himself, Oscar Wilde, W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan), and one by Lewis Carroll, via a musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Their Alice is indeed a wonder of design and execution. The sets, costumes, lighting and rear-wall projections are spectacular and the stylized performances are triumphs of impersonation, with a 22-member cast inhabiting some 70 roles. (One actor plays a sardine, the Caterpillar, the King of Hearts and, um, a lobster.)

Alice (at right) with Wonderland denizens (Photos: Emily & David Cooper)

Alice (at right) with Wonderland denizens (Photos: Emily & David Cooper)

Continue reading

Blog, Canadian Theatre

“To Kill a Mockingbird” at Holmdel Theatre Company

Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s semi-autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most revered American novels of all time, and the 1962 movie is one of the best book-to-films ever made. Christopher Sergel’s redundant stage adaptation premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1991, going on to be widely produced in Regional and community theaters as well as in high schools, where it was, in fact, intended.

The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the movie won multiple Oscars, including Best Picture. The play’s dialogue is mostly lifted from the source(s), and it falls back on periodic narration, as did the film (voiced by Kim Stanley), a device which, on stage, impedes continuity.  Its community theater popularity is fostered by nostalgia and by its box office appeal. By and large, Holmdel audiences are getting their money’s worth.   

The story is embedded in the American firmament. In a small Alabama town in the 1930s, a white lawyer defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The outcome of the trial is pre-determined by the racial makeup of the participants; an all-white jury finds the defendant guilty despite clear evidence to the contrary. The emotional center, however, is the effect the widowed lawyer’s actions have on his two children. The first act centers on the family dynamics; the second act shows the trial itself. As vivid as courtroom drama can be, the first is the more satisfying act, as directed and acted at Holmdel.

From left: Ceci Lihn, Will Ehren and Aman Tolia in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

From left: Ceci Lihn (Scout), Will Ehren (Jem) and Aman Tolia (Dill) in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Photos: Jaye Freeland)

Continue reading

Blog, Community, Regional

The “Butler” Did It (Really)

Rarely has a slice of history been as entertainingly portrayed as in Butler. Richard Strand’s play depicts an actual Civil War development with a creative imagining of how it might have unfolded. The circumstances and characters in Butler really existed. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the dialogue was lifted from an actual recording.

There was, of course, no recording device in the office of the Commanding General of Fort Monroe, Virginia on May 23, 1861, six weeks after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter precipitated the War Between the States. No, the dialogue between General Benjamin F. Butler and an escaped Negro slave, as he’s called, is fabricated by Strand, who, fortuitously, molded it into Butler, running through August 28 at the 59E59 off-Broadway complex, after premiering at New Jersey Repertory in 2014.

General Butler and his adjutant, Lt. Kelly, are astonished by the audacity of Shepard Mallory who, seeking sanctuary, “demands” to speak with the General. Fort Monroe, a Union facility, was in Virginia, which had declared itself a Confederate state. The Articles of War mandated that fugitive slaves, deemed “property,” be returned to their owners.

John G. Williams, left, and Ames Adamson in "Butler"

John G. Williams, left, and Ames Adamson in “Butler”

Continue reading

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Shakespeare and more at Canada’s Stratford Festival

(As published in the August 2016 issue of  the Magazine of American Mensa)

William Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, known as the Henriad, covers 22 years of English history, from 1398 to 1420. He wrote the compilation’s four plays over five years, from 1595 to 1600. Canadian actor and director Graham Abbey spent 15 years combining them, from 2001 to now, when his Henriad mashup is being staged at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival in two sections: Richard II with Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II with Henry V. That Abbey completed the project is remarkable; that he captured the four plays so well in 90 minutes each is more so. And as usual at Stratford, the plays are eminently accessible; 20 actors playing some 70 roles understand every word and therefore so do we.

Richard II is Shakespeare’s only play written entirely in verse; here the words soar in tone and clarity. The play covers the last two years of Richard’s life, from the mysterious murder of his own uncle and his ill-advised banishment of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) through to his descent into despair as his power wanes. Tom Rooney’s performance captures both extremes and the process between them. Richard’s iconic “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings…,foreshadowing Richard’s murder, is but one exquisitely rendered speech. John of Gaunt’s “…this scepter’d isle… This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” is another. Richard II, probably the least familiar of the four plays, is the most fully realized.

King Richard II (Tom Rooney, left) hands over the crown to Hewnry IV (Graham Abbey) ]Photos: David Hou]

King Richard II (Tom Rooney), left, hands over the crown to Henry IV (Graham Abbey)     [Photos: David Hou]

Several male roles are acted by women. (The plays are dense with male characters.) The genders are portrayed as written, and while Carly Street’s Archbishop of Canterbury may be a stretch, her Thomas Mowbray registers just fine.

Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies) and his cronies

Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies) and his cronies

Henry IV Part I introduces one of Shakespeare’s grandest characters, Sir John Falstaff. The rotund, carousing companion of Prince Hal/Harry (son to Henry IV, later Henry V) is a classically comical tour de force by Geraint Wyn Davies. The play begins with news of a Hotspur-led English victory over the Scots and ends with Henry’s defeat of Hotspur, whose loyalties had shifted, at Shrewsbury, in as exciting a battle scene as I’ve seen on stage. Graham Abbey himself plays Henry; he’s excellent as both the young and older monarch, and support in the many other roles, including a motley gaggle of Falstaff’s cohorts, is outstanding.

If the final two “chapters” of the Henriad come up a bit short, it is in the interpretation of Prince Hal/Henry V. Young and reckless in Part I, a more mature Hal ascends to the throne at his father’s death in Part II. Araya Mengesha is an immature-seeming Hal, whose transition into the regal, charismatic, orating warrior Henry V is unconvincing. The fault, it should be said, lies in the casting; Mengesha does justice to the language.

Henry V (Araya Mengasha) leading his troops into battle

Henry V (Araya Mengasha) leading his troops into battle

As You Like It features audience participation, to which I am congenitally allergic. Everyone was given a bag containing a plastic tree branch, a paper crown and other props, which, when instructed by a comedy-club-like emcee, were to be waved (“Show us your bush!”) or worn to indicate the Forest of Arden, the court, et al.

Notwithstanding the foliage, the play, supplemented by onstage musicians, unfolds at a merry pace. The production is set in 1980s Newfoundland, director Jillian Keiley’s home province, where the disparity between the oil-wealthy capital, St. John’s, and its less-favored rural areas, parallels the play’s exiles from the court to the forest. (My Canadian companion noted Newfoundland accents, costumes and scenic devices, which, while eluding me, were endorsed by the audience, which included busloads of Newfoundlanders and appreciative youngsters.)

Seana McKenna as (Ms) Jaques

Seana McKenna as (Ms) Jaques

Rosalind (Shakespeare’s longest female role), disguised as macho Ganymede, outfoxes love-struck Orlando. (Pinning his love poems on audience tree limbs is a clever touch.) Gender-switching both actor and character, Seana McKenna plays the melancholy Jaques, and Duke Senior, Rosalind’s father, becomes Duchess Senior, her mom. Both seem acceptable enough in 2016, and Ms. McKenna’s rendition of the Seven Ages of Man speech was everything it should be. (She actually played Richard III in 2011. Can Lear be far behind?)

Among the Festival’s non-Shakespeare offerings, both A Chorus Line and A Little Night Music outstrip their most recent Broadway revivals by a long shot, and the North American premiere of the stage version of the movie Shakespeare in Love is fabulous.

Reconfigured for the festival’s spacious thrust stage, director-choreographer Donna Feore’s A Chorus Line employs angles and depths not seen in prior productions. The 1975 Pulitzer and Tony-winning musical, choreographer Michael Bennett’s crowning achievement, has a life of its own; it inspires whoever does it, not excepting the marvelous Stratford Company.

 A Chorus Line (Oh yes!)

A Chorus Line (Oh yes!)

Built around the hopes and insecurities of a group of auditioning dancers, the musical resonates with anyone who has ever interviewed for a desired job. Some roles are more prominent than others, but A Chorus Line is a true ensemble piece. When these 20 extraordinary dancer/singer/actors sing “What I Did for Love,” backed by the same number of top-notch musicians, the emotion overflows the stage.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler’s (book) A Little Night Music is a wry view of several couples’ romantic entanglements in early 20th-century Sweden. If you, like I, have found the scenario overly complicated, get yourself to Stratford, where the story has never been more clear, the humor more pointed, the couplings more natural or the musical portions, all in three-quarter time (or multiples thereof), more delightfully rendered.

Members of the company in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Members of the A Little Night Music company.

Middle-aged Fredrick; his virginal child-bride Anne; his son Henrik (in love with Anne); his former mistress, actress Desiree Armfeldt; Count Malcolm, Desiree’s current lover; Charlotte, Count Malcolm’s wife; Madame Armfeldt (Desiree’s mother) and assorted other participants are all distinctly individual as the roundelay plays out. Among the highlights: the ensemble “A Weekend in the Country” and Desiree’s “Send in the Clowns.” Staged a tad differently by director Gary Griffin, “Clowns” has never been more meaningful or poignant.

Shakespeare in Love opens with an inspired bit. The young Will Shakespeare is struggling over a particular sonnet. “Shall I compare…um…,” he trails off… several times…until he gets help: “THEE” from audience members. Thus unblocked, he retreats into the play, and we’re off into two blissful hours of romance and comedy.

A scene from Shakespeare in Love

A scene from Shakespeare in Love

“You could be the best of us,” Marlowe tells the struggling young playwright, who, inspired by luscious upper-class Viola de Lesseps, goes on to write Romeo and Juliet (casting aside his draft of Romeo and Esther, the Pirate’s Daughter). If that’s not really the way it came about, including the then-unheard-of appearance of a female as Juliet, you’ll have to prove it to me.

Rich with Shakespearean puns and out-of-context passages, Tom Stoppard’s witty screenplay is well-served by Lee Hall’s adaptation. Look for a Broadway transfer for sure. This production, imported from London, is cast from Stratford’s own company, and if you look up “romantic chemistry” in your OED, you should see the picture below. As Shakespeare himself noted (in another context, to be sure), ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Viola/Juliet and Will Shakespeare. ('Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished)

Shannon Taylor as Viola/Juliet and Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare

The Stratford season runs through October and also includes Macbeth, All My Sons and several other works including an adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For a schedule brochure, call 800-567-1600 or visit stratfordfestival.ca.

Ontario is also the home of the (George Bernard) Shaw Festival, which we’ll be reporting on soon. Both Stratford, in south-central Ontario, and The Shaw, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, just north of Niagara Falls, are easily accessible by car, and the currency exchange rate greatly favors U.S. budgets.

Blog, Canadian Theatre

Dick Gregory bio off-Broadway; “Tommy” in Red Bank

“TURN ME LOOSE”                                                               As someone who saw Dick Gregory in person years ago (in Philadelphia-area night clubs) and who still admires his commentaries when the social activist, now 83, calls in to the Imus in the Morning radio program (“Hello, my brother,” he greets Imus), I can vouch for the authenticity of Joe Morton’s portrayal in Gretchen Law’s anecdotal bio-play Turn Me Loose. It’s not a slavish imitation of the precedent-setting comedic genius, rather an immersion into the essence of the man, embodying his deeply felt and brilliantly expressed thoughts on the passing parade. And is it funny! Reprising some of Gregory’s appearances in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, much of his biting, then-topical material, centered on race relations, is still biting and, unfortunately, still topical.

Joe Morton as Dick Gregory

Joe Morton as Dick Gregory

Gregory was the first African-American comic to headline the Playboy Club in Chicago (which his cab driver found hard to believe), where his weekend gig stretched into a six-week engagement. He was also, famously, the first to be invited onto the Tonight Show convo-couch after doing his stand-up act. (He turned down Jack Paar’s invitation to be on the show until that condition was met.) He also relates that he titled his 1964 autobiography “Nigger” so that every time someone said that word they were plugging his book, and in a similar (somewhat milder) vein, he named one of daughters Miss, assuring that Miss Gregory would always be addressed with respect. (He also first-named a son Gregory. Really.)

Joe Morton captures the comic presence of the young Gregory, but it’s the portion of the 90-minute running time devoted to social issues that that is most telling. In pin-drop quiet after bursts of knowing laughter, the audience is mesmerized by, for example, his consideration of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, when “poor white folks voted Republican for the first time in their lives.” Not because they cared about what the Republicans stood for, he points out; “they were just tryin’ to hide their bigotry.” That was 1968. Or maybe it ‘was’ next November.

With support by John Carlin, who plays a heckler and other bits, and directed by John Gould Rubin, Turn Me Loose is a tribute to Dick Gregory, with Joe Morton burrowing into the man’s very essence.

The limited off-Broadway run closed last week, but a well-sourced rumor has it that the play will soon open on Broadway.

 

The rock opera Tommy was written in 1969 by guitarist Pete Townshend and recorded by the British group The Who. It was made into a movie in 1975. In 1993, Townshend and theatrical director Des McAnuff adapted it into The Who’s Tommy for Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards (including Best Original Score) and high praise from then-NY Times theater critic Frank Rich, who called it “at long last the authentic rock musical that [had] eluded Broadway for two generations…an entertainment juggernaut.”

TOMMY light showIf Mr. Rich were to see Phoenix Productions’ The Who’s Tommy, he’d be unlikely to change that opinion. With a large cast whose energy defies the laws of physics (they’re mostly young, okay?), a dynamite eight-piece band on gliding platforms and a terrific light show, the show dazzles. The piece is crammed with action, memorable rock riffs and a story that stirs the senses, all qualities that director James Grausam and choreographer Alex Acevedo grab hold of and run with.

Continue reading

Blog, Community, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Regional