Archive for May, 2014

photo-60This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In a career spanning half a century, this is Terence McNally’s 20th play to be staged on Broadway and, having already secured a Tony Awards nomination for Best Play, it could be amongst his finest. Amidst the bright lights and deafening noise of the Great White Way, it comes as a surprise to find something as small and gentle as Mothers and Sons, a subdued conversation piece involving three adults and a child. Yet its location emphasises McNally’s precise point – that, in a world in which everything moves so fast, changing in ways that we can never expect and maybe not understand, we need occasionally to stop to take stock quietly and learn to cherish our links with past times as we move towards a better future. Katherine (Tyne Daly) drops in unexpectedly at the New York apartment of Cal (Frederick Weller), who had been the lover of her late son Andre. They had neither met nor spoken in the 20 years since Andre’s death from AIDS and Cal regards her as a coldhearted gorgon. He is now married to Will (Bobby Steggert) and they have a six-year-old son, Bud. Katherine is in her 60’s, Cal in his 40’s and Will is 15 years younger than him. The views of the four generations represented here vary widely, each of the individuals having been deposited in a different place by the shifting sands of time, carrying their own baggage and looking at life from their own perspectives. Katherine can neither use the internet nor comprehend the nature of a two-father family. Cal had never imagined that he could marry or have children, whilst Will had never imagined that he would not do both. The two men may occasionally use politically incorrect terms such as “Indian” or “Eskimo” and then instantly correct themselves, but Bud is not even allowed to hear the words. Daly’s portrayal of Katherine is haunting, her large round eyes often staring in bewilderment as she struggles to understand the younger generations, but is unable to shake off her own background and prejudices. The loss of Andre and changes in society have made her question her own role in life and led to her wondering whether there is any point in continuing. She is desperate to reach out to this family and keep alive her own connections with Andre, but she has absolutely no idea how to do so. Weller’s Cal is kindly and forgiving towards Katherine, yet he is also confused by changes that he has seen and disbelieving of his fortune to belong to a blessed generation for a gay man. He proudly gloats over being able to call Will “husband”, insisting that it is the only correct word. Steggert’s Will is certain that the modern way is the only way, but he is suspicious of a woman who cannot bring herself to shake his hand when offered and wary of the long shadow cast by Andre. These are three magnificent performances and Grayson Taylor’s brief appearances as the precocious Bud are very affecting too. Running for little more than 100 minutes with no interval, Mothers and Sons is a sharply intelligent exploration of the human condition, filled with tender emotions and astute observations. A small but sparkling gem.

Performance date: 3 May 2014

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maxresdefaultThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In the blue corner we have musicals, traditionally romantic, emotional and more than a little bit camp; in the red corner there is boxing, traditionally brutish, blood-spattered and very macho. A mismatch for sure, but the fact that this show’s two key elements never feel as if they belong together is just the start of its problems. What audiences could the producers have been aiming for? Perhaps they saw great cross promotional opportunities with a lover of musicals bringing along a sports fan or vice versa. If so, the likely outcome would be each of them screaming to the other at the interval “what the hell did you drag me to this for?”. The 1977 film Rocky was a huge success, spawning five sequels (those less charitable might label them re-makes) and now this. Sylvester Stallone and his collaborators sure know how to stretch out a franchise. The slight story involves Rock Balboa (Adrian Aguilar at this performance), a 29 year old down and out Philadelphia boxer who, by unlikely chance, gets a shot at the World Heavyweight Title, held by Apollo Creed (Terence Archie). At the same time, he is stumblingly embarking on a relationship with Adrian (Margo Seibert), a shy girl from the local pet shop. It is classic triumph of the undergo stuff of the sort that fuels the American dream. Stephen Flaherty’s score incorporates the most famous theme from the films and also imports Eye of the Tiger to provide the show with by far its best song and dance routine. Otherwise, the melodies are pleasant but unmemorable, not helped by Lynn Ahrens’ frequently bland lyrics. The earliest sign that Rocky could be on a rocky road comes when our eponymous hero begins with My Nose Ain’t Broken. The songs get better but not by much. A talented company of actors/singers do their best, but the script never allows them to develop their characters beyond replications of the portrayals seen in the films. The main purpose of transferring a piece to theatre from another medium should be to add a further dimension that only the live experience can bring. However, in this case, all that is achieved during at least 80% of the show is making everything smaller. The use of filmed segments projected onto huge screens, increasing as the show progresses, can be seen as an admission of defeat by the creators, effectively saying that this always worked better as a film and should have stayed as one. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As the climactic fight draws near, a boxing ring appears on stage and audience members sitting in the front half dozen or so rows are ushered to take their places in tiered seating behind it. The ring then thrusts forward into the auditorium, coming to rest above the vacated seats, and the spectacle of the fight commences amidst blinding lights and a cacophony of noise. Brilliantly choreographed (as a simulated fight, definitely not a dance), we are treated to a dazzling display that could probably only be bettered by having a ringside seat for real boxing. There is even tension for those of us who cannot remember whether the show is based upon a film in which Rocky wins or loses. In truth, this is a throwback to the 1980’s when all big musicals seemed to need expensive stunts – a chandelier falling, a helicopter landing, etc – but they tended to be better shows than this one. As for the outcome of the bout between musicals and boxing, the last round ensures a win for boxing by an emphatic knockout. Alas, this is not a good result for musical theatre.

Performance date: 2 May 2014

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photo-57This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Set in California during the depression era of the 1930s, John Steinbeck’s classic tale (a novel which he adapted into a play) about yearning and despair is a parable, near Biblical in its nature. Anna D Shapiro’s revival is handsomely mounted, using four elaborate sets, and features star names, better known for their film and television work, perhaps hoping that their presence will draw audiences to a play in which any trace of a feel good factor stays firmly in the wings. George and Lennie are peripatetic ranch hands and we first meet them as they are preparing to bed down for the night in the open air, prior to starting work on a new ranch the following day. George is solid and practical, but Lennie, a giant of a man with immense physical strength, is a simpleton with faltering memory and an obsession for small animals – mice, rabbits, puppy dogs – which, not knowing his own strength, he literally loves to death. They arrive in the bunk room of their new workplace intent on staying out of trouble and earning the dollars that they need to fulfil their distant dreams. They meet Candy (a deeply moving performance from Jim Norton), an aged, part disabled worker who clings forlornly to his dying dog, knowing that he too faces a future of further decline, but without the hope of someone putting him out of his misery. It is in Candy’s words that Steinbeck’s pleas for a more benevolent society, one which cares for its sick and needy, are heard most eloquently.  James Franco’s George is a dreamer, but also a realist. He instantly recognises the boss’s flighty daughter-in-law (Leighton Meester) as trouble waiting to happen and carefully resists temptation. However, the other characters all question why George hangs around with Lennie and Franco’s performance does not really explain this to the audience either. The big revelation in this production is Chris O’Dowd. In less skilled hands, Lennie could be just a grotesque ogre, a one-dimensional imitation of Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, but here we have a real human being, deserving of sympathy and compassion even at his most wayward. O’Dowd draws on his grounding in light comedy to bring out the humour in the character, but then demonstrates how fine a dramatic actor he has become by making every gesture and every facial expression speak of Lennie’s inner turmoil.  The supporting performances are also strong. Alex Morf as the boss’s oafish son rants in jealous rage as he seeks his potentially unfaithful wife and Ron Cephas Jones, as the only black ranch hand, consigned to separate living quarters, is dignified and defiant in his isolation. As is common when a novel is adapted into a play, there are times when the drama feels over-plotted and contrived, with events seeming to move too quickly. However, Steinbeck’s vivid and unforgiving writing always surmounts such problems. Laden with metaphors and making extensive use of animal imagery, this is a stark and discomforting work, building to a tragic, if inevitable conclusion. The impact of the shocking climax is diminished just slightly by Franco not quite finding his character’s emotional heart, but Steinbeck’s messages come through strongly. In a country still fiercely debating welfare, health care and criminal justice, this potent play has plenty to say more than 80 years after it was written.

Performance date: 1 May 2014

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kinky_boots_broadway_billy_porterThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In the old days, a Broadway musical might have been set in Bali, Siam or the Austrian Alps. Now it is Northampton, which, as a sign on the opening set usefully points out, is in England. When the Americans adapted The Fully Monty into a musical, they re-located it to Buffalo, but this time, working from another modest British film comedy, they have let it stay put in its original home and all the better it is for that. This is the show that won Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical for its star, Billy Porter, at the 2013 Tony Awards. Essentially, it is a song and dance extravaganza in the classic Broadway style, so seekers of depth and subtlety may want to look elsewhere. Here we have a simplistic, joyful and life-affirming show which has its huge heart in all the right places. The story concerns a business manufacturing quality men’s shoes which is going bust through being unable to compete with cheap foreign imports. Charlie inherits the factory reluctantly when his father dies and, after a chance meeting with Lola, a flamboyant drag artist, he develops the idea of saving it by catering for a niche market – designing and making “kinky” boots to be worn by cross-dressers. Having been responsible for the book of La Cage aux Folles, Harvey Fierstein is hardly breaking new ground here and, as with that earlier show, there are times when the script drags (in the wrong way) and becomes overburdened with treacly sentimentality. However, for the most part, the show is bright and witty, helped along considerably by Fierstein’s inspired collaboration with Cyndi Lauper, a girl who just wants to have fun and does exactly that time after time. Billy Porter’s Lola is brash and sassy, coming to vibrant life when decked out in a brightly coloured wig, sequinned frock and very high heels. As she leads her drag troop performing numbers such as the provocative Sex is in the Heel, the show blazes to life and the choreography dazzles. Conversely, playing her alter ego, Simon from Clacton, Porter is touchingly diffident and uncertain. Andy Kelso has the thankless tasks of playing opposite a showstopper and of enlivening the rather dry Charlie, but he does well and handles his big number, Soul of a Man, confidently. The pair’s duet, Not My Father’s Son is very moving, but it is one of several examples of Lauper’s lyrics being stronger than her melodies. The breezy pop songs are often in the style associated with Lauper as a performer. Indeed, when Lauren (delightfully played by Jeanna De Waal), a factory worker with her eye on Charlie, sings the comic The History of Wrong Guys, it is difficult not to imagine the song’s writer standing there. American actors’ command of British accents seems to have come a long way since the days of Dick Van Dyke and notable among a strong supporting cast are Cortney Wolfson as Charlie’s irksome soon to be ex fiancé and Daniel Stewart Sherman as a homophobic neanderthal who, as is inevitable in a show like this, gradually mellows. Jerry Mitchell’s fast moving, slickly choreographed production hits all the right notes, bringing glam and glitter to the fore and it build to a glorious finale with the anthemic Raise You Up. Kinky Boots may not quite belong in the very top drawer of Broadway musicals, but it is an undoubted crowd pleaser and, deservedly, a resounding hit.

Performance date: 30 April 2014

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JPRAISON-articleLargeThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Bruce Norris’s savage satire Clybourne Park, a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 2010, centred on the impact on an exclusively white Chicago suburb of that name when a black family moves in in 1959. Therefore it makes a fascinating theatrical cross reference to now see this play, actually dating from 1959, which is set in a ghetto on Chicago’s South Side and shows a black family, presumably the one that Norris had in mind, in the course of buying a house in Clybourne Park. Lorraine Hansberry’s play is a beautifully constructed work of traditional mid-20th Century theatre, rich with human emotion and the humour arising from everyday life. It also stands as a major landmark in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. Recently widowed, Lena Younger shares her cramped apartment with her restless son Walter, her idealistic daughter Beneatha and Walter’s wife and young son. Lena’s $10,000 insurance pay-out offers the opportunity for Walter to start a business, for Beneatha to study medicine and for the whole family to make that move to Clybourne Park. Latanya Richardson Jackson’s Lena is a fierce but loving matriarch, upholding Christian family values above all else. There are times when her performance dominates this production, upstaging even Denzel Washington who captures to perfection Walter’s frustration and uncertainty in balancing family responsibilities with personal ambitions. He proves to be an actor with the power, range and charisma to command the stage as much as he does the big screen. The strains placed upon Walter’s marriage to Ruth (a fine portrayal by the British actress Sophie Okonedo) are central to the play, but Hansberry uses the developing relationship between Beneatha and her Nigerian suitor Joseph for expressing many of her progressive ideas. Anika Noni Rose’s Beneatha is a naive optimist set on discovering her African roots, whilst Sean Patrick Thomas’s Joseph is a grounded pragmatist and it is to him that the play’s keynote speech, arguably one of the greatest in American drama, falls. He talks of the challenges of equating dreams with reality and of a future in which solutions to problems can never be seen, but in which change will be slow and almost imperceptible. The prescience of Hansberry’s writing, here and throughout the play, is remarkable and it brings home the extent of the tragedy of her early death at the age of just 35. Kenny Leon’s production is sharply focussed and adorned by many delightful humorous touches, whilst Mark Thompson’s carefully detailed set reflects the make-do lifestyle of a poverty line household. Judging by the loud reactions of an ethnically mixed New York audience, the play’s observations on race issues still hit raw nerves, but it would be wrong to see it as being solely about race. The struggles of a working family to hold itself together and maintain standards of decency, whilst combatting life’s challenges, are universal and resonate just as strongly more than half a century after Hansberry’s play first appeared. The Obamas have already seen and publicly given their seal of approval to this production. It is appropriate that they should have done so, because it feels throughout as if it is the definitive modern day interpretation of a towering American classic. Completely unforgettable.

Performance date: 30 April 2014

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