Theatre Review: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jackie Hoffman gets entrance applause!! That just tells me that some things are right in the world, even with all the daily head-slapping news. Of course, this is due mostly to her big role in TV’s Feud as Joan Crawford maid Mamacita, but she is just as much fun as the permanently sozzled Mrs. Teevee in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

This musical is based on the children’s book of the same name, as was the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. While the show uses a couple of beloved songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse from the film, the majority of the colorful and exuberant score is by Hairspray scribes Marc Shaiman (composer) and Scott Wittman (lyricist). The story (if somehow you’re not aware) follows chocolate-loving child Charlie Bucket as he longs for a “golden ticket” to tour master chocolatier Willy Wonka’s factory.

Shaiman’s music is charming – full of tasty licks as usual – and you can’t spell Wittman without “wit.” It is most unfortunate that muddy sound design often obscures those witty lyrics. Christian Borle portrays Wonka with his usual élan, with somewhat more humanity than previous incarnations. Director Jack O’Brien has presented a smaller-scale production than Sam Mendes on the West End, and while I’m not sure that was the right decision, it’s still sufficiently splashy and vivid. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Cabaret Review: John Pizzarelli

John Pizzarelli photo credit David Andrako 2017_04_25_Carlyle_02

This is “too marvelous for words”: John Pizzarelli, top exponent of cabaret’s jazzier side, plays a show composed only of songs written by Johnny Mercer, arguably the greatest lyricist of the Great American Songbook. And, as always, he does it with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence.

John’s guitar style is amazingly fluid and elegant, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. For Mercer’s “Skylark” he plays an entire melodic line in harmonics, which is not only very unusual (and I’m guessing difficult), but very beautiful and quite evocative of birdsong.

Pizzarelli is also a great interpretive artist in more ways than one. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Also, as a singer John is very sensitive to the multiple meanings a good lyric can have, and has an uncanny ability to communicate several at once. Both qualities are ideal when assaying Mercer, whose wit can be very subtle indeed.

It’s not that surprising for Pizzarelli to do a show exclusively devoted to Mercer. His one and only appearance on Broadway was in the highly conceptual Mercer revue Dream (he opens this act with the title song) and he met his wife Jessica Molasky while working on that show. But, hey, it’s also kind of hard to go wrong with an all-Mercer show in any event.

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Theatre Review: “Oslo”

Oslo LCT 2384

It is long, it is talky, yet it is never boring. As we begin Oslo we hear Norwegian sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) discussing his theories about the art of negotiation. He feels that secret, face-to-face discussions behind closed doors, with a thoughtful progression from easy issues to thornier ones, works much better than public negotiations, where parties risk losing face if they budge an inch on anything. He terms his approach gradualism in contrast to the “totalism” of public negotiations, emphasizing that once a “gradualist” approach gets underway, things quickly snowball and it is anything but gradual.

As it happened, in 1993 Rød-Larsen had the opportunity to try his theories out on the most intractable discord of the 20th Century, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) was a diplomat in the Norwegian foreign ministry, and they as a couple had developed relationships with people of note on both sides, and had spent time on the ground throughout the area, including the massively overcrowded and impoverished Gaza Strip.

In short, Oslo is the story of the unexpected way the 1993 Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel came to be. Rød-Larsen and Juul created a “back channel” for negotiation that broke decades of literally deadly diplomatic deadlock between the combatants. Mays is quietly brilliant as the quietly brilliant Rød-Larsen. Ehle plays it cooler still, so those moments when Juul puts her foot down have all the more impact.

As for the negotiators, oy the machismo. I don’t think I’d be going out on too much of a limb to say that the deep-rooted ills inherent in patriarchy are the real problem here. They are, however, intelligently portrayed, especially by Anthony Azizi (as the relatively measured Palestinian intellectual Ahmed Qurie), Dariush Kashani (as Palestinian communist firebrand with an unexpected wry streak Hassan Asfour) and the hilarious Michael Aronov as Israeli official Uri Savir, a tacky hedonist, the straight equivalent of Jonny McGovern’s character “Zarzuffa”:

Bartlett Sher’s direction is every bit as smooth and invisible as the Norwegian facilitators. Unexpectedly engaging, surprisingly entertaining, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Theatre Review: “The Little Foxes”

LILLIAN HELLMAN’S THE LITTLE FOXESDirected by Daniel SullivanWith Laura Linney, Cynthia NixonDarren Goldstein, Michael McKean, Richard ThomasDavid Alford, Michael Benz, Francesca Carpanini, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Charles Turner

This is easily the most entertaining serious play I’ve seen so far this Broadway season. Plays like Oslo and Indecent may be more insightful, even edifying, but Lillian Hellman’s 1939 poisoned chestnut The Little Foxes has far more spicy melodrama. Sure, those other plays don’t exactly fail at entertainment, and Foxes does have some serious issues on its mind, but the reason to see it is exactly the same reason you watch a suspensefully-plotted soap opera.

Set in 1900 Alabama, The Little Foxes follows Regina Giddens – a template for Alexis Carrington, without a doubt – and her conniving brothers as they claw and scratch their way towards wealth and power. Caught in the middle, among others, are Regina’s cultured and much-abused sister-in-law Birdie and Regina’s principled but deathly ill husband Horace.

In a bit of stunt casting, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon trade off playing Regina and Birdie (a smaller but still quite juicy role). The night I saw it, Linney was a steely marvel as Regina, and Nixon heartbreakingly vulnerable and sincere as Birdie.

Either way director Daniel Sullivan has crafted a production so rock-solid, and intelligently observed in its details, that any skilled actor would feel secure and supported. Set designer Scott Pask delivers a drawing room that has exactly the right feeling of severe, effortful elegance. Costume designer Jane Greenwood nails the armor-like padded crispness needed to convey Regina’s intimidatingly powerful presence.

The supporting cast is every bit as potent as the leads. Richard Thomas gives the ill Horace a wounded gravitas which makes him a worthy opponent for Regina even in his diminished state. Michael McKean brings disturbing warmth to mastermind brother Ben, and Darren Goldstein shows us the insecurity behind brother Oscar’s bluster (to great effect). At its core, The Little Foxes is a ripping yarn and this production gives that full play. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Theatre Review: “Indecent”

(l-r): Katrina Lenk as ‘Manke,’ Adina Verson as ‘Rivkele’ in INDECENT, a new play by Paula Vogel, co-created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, and directed by Rebecca Taichman, at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. © Carol Rosegg

To say that Indecent tells the back story of the first lesbian kiss on Broadway is to undersell its ambition and scope. The play that featured that kiss, The God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, was a wild Yiddish-language play that shattered all kinds of Yiddish Theatre traditions – the lesbianism was almost the least of it. That said, Asch did craft a romantic scene for two young women that surpassed in frankness and tenderness anything that had come before in literature, and has rarely been equaled since.

For that reason the play has been kept alive in the imaginations of gay theatre artists, like Indecent‘s playwright Paula Vogel and its director Rebecca Taichman. As a matter of fact, the play has its roots in Taichman’s graduate research into the play’s history. God of Vengeance was written in Warsaw in 1907, premiered in Berlin a bit later, and was a sensation throughout Europe in the following years. In the early 1920s, the Yiddish version was given in New York, which led to an English-language version which proved such a hit that it moved to Broadway – where it was in short order closed due to the entire cast being charged with obscenity.

Vogel’s writing and Taichman’s direction are so tightly entwined that it is sometimes hard to know where one begins and the other ends. Indecent is theatrical through and through, and is perhaps most moving in moments where action replaces dialogue completely. The worst that can be said about it is that it is perhaps a bit over-ambitious, trying to cover too much. But that’s a much better problem to have than a lack of ambition. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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