A likeable “As You Like It” off-B’way and a tasty Dinner Theater in the suburbs

There must be as many ways of creating the Forest of Arden onstage as there are productions of “As You Like It.” In director John Doyle’s minimalist production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy at Classic Stage Company, you know you’re in Arden when the multiple globes hanging over the playing area glow green. That effect is enhanced by the light touch of the mostly young, buoyant cast, headed by spritely Hannah Cabell as Rosalind, Shakespeare’s longest female role by line count.

Beginning as a reading, with the ten-member cast grouped around Ellen Burstyn seated on a theatrical trunk holding the book, the play soon spills out onto the playing area. Burstyn, who goes on to play Jaques, stays seated, following along, keeping us aware that what’s unfolding is a play, a point that Shakespeare makes in several plays (“Shrew,” pointedly). The “As You Like It” characters often see themselves as actors, and at the end, the audience is invited to think of themselves the same.  Doyle’s vision unfolds over 100 continuous minutes, made possible by judicious editing that retains the play’s witty interlacing of disguises and mistaken identity.

Duke Senior (Bob Stillman) and Jaques (Ellen Burstyn) [Photos: Richard Termine]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

A first-class revival of an American classic: “A Raisin in the Sun” at Two River Theater

There is little that I can add to the praise that has been heaped upon Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” virtually from the hour it opened on Broadway in 1959. Ms. Hansberry, at 29, was the youngest American playwright and the first African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Her play has not only stood the test of time, it has become a revered classic. Reviewing a revival in Chicago twenty-four years later, New York Times critic Frank Rich declared that playwright Hansberry had “changed American theater forever with her first-produced play.”

What I can do, having seen the original, which cemented Sydney Poitier’s stardom, plus a 1995 staging at George Street Playhouse and the 2004 and ’14 Broadway revivals (with Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs and Denzel Washington, respectively), is to offer an assessment of the current production at Two River Theater in Red Bank NJ.

Deeply felt and superbly directed and acted, it is a triumph. If you have never seen the play or would like a reminder of its brilliance, get yourself to Two River before October 8.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

“Prince of Broadway” = Nostalgia on Broadway

“Prince of Broadway” has been variously compared to a highlight reel, a mix-tape and a best-of list. Simply stated, “Prince” is a compilation of musical numbers from sixteen of the twenty-or-so Broadway musicals produced and/or directed by Harold Prince. Performed by nine Broadway veterans over two acts, the numbers span Prince’s career, from “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees” in the 1950s through “Phantom of the Opera,” directed some 30 years after those early successes.

In between, and also represented here, were “West Side Story,”  “Follies,” “Cabaret” and “Sweeney Todd,” to name a few. (They weren’t all hits: remember “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman”? Me neither.)       The critical reaction to the show has been lukewarm at best; I rather liked it.

Tony Yazbeck and Kaley Ann Voorhees from “West Side Story”

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“F Theory” in Long Branch NJ: an imperfect blendship

For starters, the F in “F Theory,” world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, does not stand for what you are thinking. No; it represents friendship, in this case not even with benefits, so if you stop reading now and go back to surfing Facebook, I’ll understand.

The friendship in the play is between two women who meet as college roommates and whose relationship endures – for better and for worse, in richer and poorer, etc. – into old age. Theirs is a friendship-interruptus, with alternating periods of bonding and ghosting as their experiences and values variously coincide and diverge. A show of hands, please, from those who have never had an on-again, off-again friendship? Didn’t think so.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

Curvy Widow on 43rd Street and Songbook Summit on 59th

Pinpointing a target audience for some shows is easy. Ten-to-twelve-year-old girls whose parents took them to “Annie” were seen a decade or so later with one another at “Rent,” while their college professors were at a revival of “Mourning Becomes Electra.”  Along those lines, it is unsurprising that, at a recent Saturday matinee of “Curvy Widow,” I sat among a couple hundred women within shouting distance of 55, either way. And judging by their reactions, they were all having a fine time, vicariously sharing the racy activities of leading character Bobby, one of their own, played with earthy humor by Nancy Opel, one of their own. (Admittedly, I got into it, too, just not to the same extent.)

Nancy Opel, center, and the “Curvy Widow” cast [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” come true in Central Park

Settings and casting variations on Shakespeare are virtually infinite. “Othello” in an Army barracks? “Shrew” on a Dude Ranch? A female Prospero or even Richard III? A campy “Pericles” set in a tavern? Been there, seen that.

Due to its being the most widely produced of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is beneficiary (or victim) of an outsized number of such constructs. In 2014, for example, the Stratford Festival in Ontario had two men alternating performances as Oberon and Titania on the main stage, while in a nearby venue four intense young actors presented a “chamber” version that turned it into a dirge (no easy task).

How refreshing, now, to see the romantic, magical work played where it is largely set, in an open-air nocturnal park, and cast by-the-gender (mostly), if not by-the-book (hardly). The comedy, as funny here as you’ll ever see it, is a perfect fit for The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in Central Park, where last month a recognizable Julius Caesar bought the farm. No killings or politics in this one.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway