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Climb on Board: Pippin at the Music Box Theatre

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be a sucker. Step right up to Pippin, the greatest homegrown show of the season.

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Pippin
Photo: Joan Marcus

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be a sucker. Step right up to Pippin, the greatest homegrown show of the season. It even has a puppy. This eye- and pelvis-poppin’ extravaganza seems willing to stop at nothing to make us ooh and aww. But miraculously, it never stoops. Instead, most of its nonstop thrills, chills, and threat of spills fly as high as the tip of its big-top tent. Yes, director Diane Paulus has traded out the original’s trope of an itinerant commedia dell’arte band of players for a troop of traveling cirque performers. And the dazzlingly executed change gives the Broadway revival, its first, a leg up facing down its biggest threat: the looming shadow of Bob Fosse.

The legendary director-choreographer won two Tonys for the first production and was roundly credited for its blockbuster success. Without his hands-on involvement, such as a later tour with Chita Rivera and returning star Ben Vereen, much of the magic was gone. Subsequent reimaginings in London (with a video-game concept) and in regional and community theaters have usually failed, giving the material a reputation as a relic tied to an era and a genius long since passed. But Paulus, of the recent Tony Award-winning revivals of Hair and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, has come to the rescue. Her Pippin moves as fast and forcefully as if it were shot out of a cannon.

The new conceit allows Paulus to conjure her own staging ideas without looking like she’s competing with her predecessor. Throughout, she uses dazzling circus tricks to enliven moments that either hadn’t been given much focus before or had been told with Fosse’s inimitable language. Paulus is too smart to jettison completely what can’t be beat, so she has choreographer Chet Walker evoke, quote briefly, or lift (with due credit acknowledged in the program) Fosse’s signature sequences. But they seem fresh when seen within the context of socko routines devised by Gipsy Snider, a founding member of the circus theater company Les 7 doigts de la main.

It’s a fully integrated vision, with Paulus meshing the fly-through-the air acrobatic amazements with the greatest-of-ease sly slink of splayed hands and swiveling hips. Tumblers sing. Actors swing on the trapeze. Most everyone pulls at least double duty and, even when balancing precariously on a pyramid of slip-sliding cylinders, they look like they’re having the time of their lives. The feeling’s contagious.

The joyous warmth, which Paulus also emphasized in Hair and Porgy and Bess, jibes well with the earnest side of book writer Roger O. Hirson and composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s material. While in college, the latter had written a musical called Pippin, Pippin about the rebellion of King Charlemagne’s son against his warrior father. Soon after graduation, as a follow-up to his smash hit Godspell, he and Hirson developed an entirely revamped Pippin as an allegory of a young man’s search for a greater purpose, which they felt had a special resonance for the Vietnam era. Paulus honors the sincerity of Pippin’s search, while keeping the wit about it.

Her way into the material stands in direct contrast to Fosse. He, not surprisingly, identified most with the Dionysian side of Pippin’s quest. To personify the seductive pull of sex, war, and other kinetic diversions, he created the Leading Player out of several smaller roles and made it as much the focus as the title character. He wrested control from Schwartz, whom he famously banned from rehearsal, and stamped out even the scent of any sentiment. It seems Fosse saw the mephistophelean Leading Player leading pure Pippin down the garden path as the story of his life. And anyone who’s seen Chicago, which he co-wrote, or his film version of Cabaret knows which side gets his juices going.

Paulus shifts that dynamic in one fell swoop. She opens the show with a shadow of her own devising, the silhouette of a reimagined Leading Player, a woman (the phenomenally talented Patina Miller). Now a ringmaster, she’s a brash presence whose primary connection is with us as she makes sure the astonishments keep coming. The primal pull between the character and Pippin (Matthew James Thomas, rocking a boy-band haircut, tender tenor, and sweet disposition) is lost, but it gives him space to develop relationships elsewhere and it enables many of the others performers to shine.

Charlemagne, played by a funny and formidable Terrence Mann, now has a reasonably complicated paternal hold over Pippin, whose rebellion, violence, and retraction seem less abstract than in the original. Charlemagne, like the others, has a circus act that adds flash to his character and fleshes out his relationships. He throws knives at his new queen, Fastrada (a game Charlotte D’Amboise), which tells you all you need to know about their marriage.

Charlemagne’s mother, Berthe (the indelible Andrea Martin), gets the first grin out of Pippin. Martin could melt a stone, which Thomas often seems to be imitating until this scene. It seems part of Paulus’s strategy to build momentum into a piece that usually loses steam before the end, so she has Pippin warm up ever so gradually. Martin herself heats up the entire theater during the climactic circus of her big number, “No Time at All.” Until this point, the production’s been consistently exhilarating but often busy. Here it evokes awe through a sweet simplicity that demonstrates how Berthe rises above the constraints of age. Martin has already won a Tony award by being funny, and she may very well win a second by being altogether fetching.

Thomas and Miller do finally connect during the appropriately named showstopper “On the Right Track” at the top of the second act. Miller’s already impressed by proving to be a true triple threat, performing the Fosse moves with precision, but I wish she could let go a bit. Perhaps Paulus believes that wouldn’t be the right move for a controlling ringmaster, but it limits the actress’s performance. Thomas on the other hand gets to cut loose with surprisingly accomplished dance moves. He’s got the face of an anime hero: jet black hair, round light blue eyes, and an often blank expression. When he smiles, though, Thomas animates the entire theater.

He does that more often when Pippin gets smitten by the widow Catherine (Rachel Bay Jones, the charming find of the season). While the first act is chock a block with blockbuster numbers, this section is usually where productions come a cropper. With fewer opportunities for the Leading Player to rev things up, even Fosse’s ingenuity flagged. In the production’s most welcome turnabout, this lower key sequence is where Paulus’s touch bears its best fruit.

She prepares us for Catherine’s importance to the story by weaving in Jones throughout as a kind but daffy clown and then invests the relationship between Pippin, Catherine, and her young son, Theo, with genuine emotion and gentle invention. When that adorable puppy, Porridge the terrier, makes his appearance festooned with a bow, it’s a wink at Pippin’s own over-the-top desire to draw Theo out of a funk. And it’s a nod toward Pippin’s slow, unsteady move beyond the me-me-me search for self-satisfaction.

Paulus finds subtle ways to bolster the appeal of familial love in the production.  Porridge really is Thomas’s dog. Off stage, Mann is married to his on-stage wife, D’Amboise. In marked contrast, Fosse’s version found more to parody than support in the conventional move toward romance and responsibility. He crafted a finale in which the Leading Player eggs Pippin on to perform an unforgettable finale, in which he’ll set himself on fire. It’s death by show business, the yin to the yang of traditional family structures that Fosse explored more fully a few years later in his film autobiography a clef All That Jazz.

In the end, when Pippin rejects the Leading Player for a life with Catherine and Theo, Fosse had her ask, “How do you feel?” Pippin answered, “Trapped, which isn’t too bad for the end of a musical comedy. Ta da!” Those lines have been presto-changeo-ed out of Paulus’s production, where settling down isn’t seen as settling. But it also isn’t problem-free. There’s a new coda that accepts the perpetual pull of these allegedly greatest shows on Earth. And this canny revival is another example. Its opening line is “Join us,” and if at the end Miller’s Leading Player asked me to join the company, I wouldn’t hesitate to climb on board. I’ll have to settle for attending as often as possible.

Pippin is now running at the Music Box Theatre.

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Review: Tracy Letts’s Linda Vista Doesn’t Make Enough Space for its Women

Letts trips over the line between objectifying women and satirizing the objectification of women.

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Linda Vista
Photo: Joan Marcus

Where’s the line between objectifying women and satirizing the objectification of women? Wherever it is, it’s one that Tracy Letts stumbles over in Linda Vista, his first play on Broadway since Superior Donuts. The graphic sex between crummy, middle-aged deadbeat Wheeler (Ian Barford) and bubbly life coach Jules (Cora Vander Broek) takes the play into the land of Too Far, where it doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to return from. You’re supposed to laugh at Jules’s lingo-laced explanation of why she won’t be able to reach climax with Wheeler tonight, and, then, at Jules’s flip-flop from walking out on Wheeler to deciding to stay the night. But a better play, one that showed real interest in its female characters, could make space to build up Jules, even after dressing her down like this.

Linda Vista only really cares about Wheeler. He’s a former photographer turned camera repairman who’s finally moved out of his almost-ex-wife’s garage, leaving behind his teenage son and his dignity. As he rebuilds his life, he turns out to be mainly interested in pursuing women: cheery Jules, down-on-her-luck neighbor Minnie (Chantal Thuy), and camera-store colleague Anita (Caroline Neff). Each of them had bad experiences with men lately, and Wheeler, though also openly self-hating and miserable, casts himself in the role of savior every time. (Jules describes him, aptly, actually, as a “turtle who doesn’t know he’s lost his shell.”)

Barford lithely animates Wheeler’s monotonous grossness, almost eliciting some real compassion when he gives up his grouchy jokester act and begs weepily for redemption, but Linda Vista also short-changes the star. Since Wheeler just doesn’t know how to listen, the guy is rarely fully present in any scene, even as he inevitably upstages everyone around him. Broek, Thuy, and Neff each join Barford in pushing their performances a little bit beyond the material, sculpting far greater specificity than Letts’s material invites.

Why is anyone laughing when Wheeler describes kids today as “a bunch of allergic, autistic mole-rats”? Often, the play races to punchlines it hasn’t earned, like when Jules, celebrating the couple’s time together, announces that “one month is auspicious” and Wheeler nonsensically butts in with, “I hate auspice.” Only very occasionally does Wheeler’s icky sense of humor land a little, as when he declares, “I think a woman should be able to terminate until the child is old enough to make a cogent argument in its own defense.”

Linda Vista’s self-awareness never quite comes into focus—is it Wheeler who makes really bad jokes or is it Letts?—and that’s precisely why those sex scenes feel so discomfiting or gratuitous. Even if we’re meant to focus on Wheeler’s vulnerability or pathetic lack of empathy, the fact that we’re still seeing these scenes from Wheeler’s slightly lecherous, probably porn-addled point of view feels like a violation of the partners who haven’t been—and won’t be—fully fleshed out after their flesh is out fully. (That sense only strengthens with the later suggestion that one of those encounters wasn’t entirely consensual.)

The play lives most potently in Wheeler’s relationship with Margaret (Sally Murphy), a college ex who’s now long-married to Wheeler’s friend Paul (Jim True-Frost). Margaret’s the only woman in Linda Vista who Wheeler doesn’t ogle or bed, at least on stage, and there’s therefore something far less hazy, lazy, and distracted about this partnership than any other. When Margaret finally chews Wheeler out for his crude callousness and self-pitying treachery, it feels like case closed. Her clarity is far more compelling than his rehabilitation.

Sure, Letts intends to write all of his female characters as empowered women who ultimately take control of their destinies and dress down Wheeler for dehumanizing them: One partner’s triumphal exit line is “I am a person,” and the other’s is “I respect myself.” But that’s as far as his intentions go, as these women are props in Wheeler’s odyssey toward wokeness—and apparent evidence that Letts has completed his. Even in the play’s final moments, the feeling that Wheeler’s tragedies matter most never dissipates.

Todd Rosenthal’s revolving (and revealing) San Diego set keeps the action spinning quickly, but director Dexter Bullard (who also staged the show in an earlier incarnation at the Steppenwolf Theatre) can’t awake the momentum that Linda Vista lacks. After Wheeler subjects Jules and Minnie to the three-hour Barry Lyndon as part of a Stanley Kubrick film marathon, Minnie grumbles, “You know your movie’s too long when you have to take an intermission.” Not always so with theater, but, in this case, I knew what she meant.

Linda Vista is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theater.

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Review: The Lightning Thief Struggles to Summon Epic-Scale Spectacle

As the stakes grow increasingly life or death, the production’s campy structure becomes less capable of supporting it.

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The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

“Knockoffs don’t come more transparent and slapdash than Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” wrote our own Nick Schager back in 2010, before proceeding to outline the countless ways in which Chris Columbus’s wannabe-franchise jumpstarter aped J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga “every step of the way to Mount Olympus.” Both series focus on a trio of heroes, most of whom are just discovering their magical gifts, who attend a magical institution where they’re soon embroiled in a banished evil lord’s plans. And maybe because the comparisons between them are so obvious, one gets the sense that the makers of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical have gone to considerable lengths to distinguish their production from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

To begin with, The Lightning Thief is played almost entirely as a comedy. There are a few emotional nods to what Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell) and his single mother, Sally (Jalynn Steele), have been going through ever since his deadbeat father abandoned them, but for the most part, it’s all talking squirrels, disco-ball sequined ferrywomen, and floods of “water” (toilet paper) spraying out into the audience. It’s also a rock musical, one that shoves malapropisms (“Tartarus? Like the fish sauce?”) into every offbeat it can.

Above all, however, The Lightning Thief is a scrappy production. There are fancy Greek columns all the way into the background of Lee Savage’s minimalist stage design, but your eye is drawn more to the graffiti and scaffolding on and surrounding them. The winged furies and the minotaur are courtesy of AchesonWalsh Studios, a Brooklyn-based creation studio, and everything else is a practical effect, most notably the centaur, Chrion (Ryan Knowles), whose hindquarters are simply left to the imagination, or the leggy costume that Sydney Maresca designed to show off the true satyr form of Grover (Jorrel Javier), Percy’s best friend.

If The Lightning Thief’s low-budget displays soared when the show had its fleet-footed off-Broadway premiere in 2017 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, they feel smaller than they should on the stage of the Longacre Theatre. A high-stakes game of capture the flag now seems, well, childish, and leaves the menacing Hades (Knowles) as nothing more than a small man in a gold-spangled jacket. There’s only so much that David Lander’s smart lighting choices can do to disguise the fact that the characters are being dwarfed by their surroundings, either by using spotlights to focus on slivers of the stage or by adding pulsating effects to the background to make things look more active than they actually are.

The seven-person ensemble also works overtime to fill the largely empty stage, making you focus more on the way in which they’re chewing the scenery in the hopes that you don’t notice that the scenery itself is missing. Under these circumstances, only Percy and his “dream girl” campmate, Annabeth (Kristen Stokes), are given an opportunity for character growth, as they’re the only two characters whose actors aren’t feverishly changing into additional roles. They’ve got the whole show to leave an impact, but the rest of the cast often has to cram everything into a single scene, which results in them taking up broader and broader characterizations to differentiate between each new part. And the over-the-top acting also clashes with Rod Kinter’s fight choreography. Because the cast moves a mile a minute, both lyrically and physically, the action scenes are comparatively slower, making them feel like the least epic part of The Lightning Thief. As the stakes grow increasingly life or death, the production’s campy structure becomes less capable of supporting it.

All of these conflicting artistic choices really come down to a question of what story the show wants to tell. At its best, The Lightning Thief earnestly and endearingly homes in on its characters as they confront their problems, as when Percy sings through all of his insecurities and misdiagnosed ADHD in “Good Kid,” Annabeth faces down her mother Athena’s legacy in “My Grand Plan,” and all the demigod rejects of Camp Half-Blood discuss their irresponsible godly parents in “The Campfire Song.” Less effective, particularly given the stakes of its plot, is how the show keeps splitting off into superficial, comic tangents, as when Dionysus (Javier) jazzily rattles off the things he hates about his demigod charges in “Another Terrible Day” or Charon (Steele) summarizes the Underworld in “D.O.A.” as she takes the kids to meet Hades.

All this jokiness is so intrusive that it becomes difficult to take Percy’s angst seriously. There are moments of sincerity and hilarity throughout the show, but the handling of the tonal shifts is so whiplash-inducing that the conclusion, perhaps inevitably, falls flat. Percy’s reconciliation with his long-absent father, Poseidon (Knowles), ought to be a dramatic conclusion to everything Percy’s been singing about. But because Poseidon is so cartoonishly depicted as a way-cool surfer dude, one who casually resurrects Percy’s instantly horny mother for good measure, this meeting is about as emotionally satisfying as it could have been.

The Lightning Thief is also hampered by the creators adapting an existing, well-known novel into a stage production, as opposed to building something new from scratch, as was done for Harry Potter. Rob Rokicki’s music and lyrics do their best to save time, compressing the whole cross-country road trip from Long Island to Los Angeles almost entirely into a single song, “Drive,” but that just forces Joe Tracz’s script to do a lot of expositional lifting between songs, leaving little time to develop characters like Luke (Rodriguez), Hermes’s apparently bitter son. Things that may have worked on the page or on the silver screen like the Oracle, feel shoehorned into an overstuffed production already teeming with monsters and motorcycles.

The wittily quipped premise of The Lightning Thief is that “normal is a myth,” but the truth is that this little-production-that-could makes the book’s myths seem normal. No matter how hard the cast tries to spice things up—or perhaps because of all that visible effort—it’s just a glass of watered-down ambrosia, slightly amusing, but never fully entertaining.

The Lightning Thief is now playing at the Longacre Theatre.

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Review: The Wrong Man Suggests a Concept Album Propped Up on Two Legs

Ultimately, it’s the wrong man who animates the stage.

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The Wrong Man
Photo: Matthew Murphy

There’s nothing so unusual about the conversion of a concept album into a fully staged musical. Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Chess all began as studio recordings before making the leap to the theater. Ross Golan’s The Wrong Man, however, is a somewhat different story. Though he’s been performing the songs live for nearly 15 years, Golan’s story of an innocent man on death row wasn’t available for purchase or streaming until this year: It’s now been released by Interscope Records, along with an animated movie version that debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, just as the stage adaptation opens.

Golan has penned some appealing acoustic jams, which he performs on the album with disarming ease as he navigates his knotty, often rapped lyrics. But transformations are tricky, and unlike its eminently theatrical vinyl-to-stage ancestors, the show, playing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, just feels like a concept album propped up on two legs.

Down on his luck, Duran (Joshua Henry) picks up Mariana (Ciara Renée) in a Reno bar. Duran envisions a future with Mariana, but she has a psycho ex who’s been busted by the cops for his stash of child pornography. Fresh out of jail, this wicked Man in Black (Ryan Vasquez) goes on a murderous, jealous rampage, then calls the cops after leaving Duran in possession of the literal smoking gun. Unsurprisingly, things go downhill quickly for Duran from there.

Only Golan, best known as a songwriter for the likes of Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande, appears on the album, performing what is essentially a musical monologue. The stage show features nine performers, and even the hyper-capable director Thomas Kail doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with all those extra people up there. The ensemble mainly looks on, moves benches around the otherwise bare set, and executes Travis Wall’s convulsive choreography, which is sometimes sexy but usually superfluous. There’s also some nice backup singing: The show’s arrangements and orchestrations are by Alex Lacamoire (In the Heights, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen), who works his usual crafty magic for a small rock band, animating Golan’s sometimes static harmonies with piano-centric hip-hop licks and Latin percussion grooves.

Not much of substance has changed from album lyrics to sung-through script, but there’s now a sweet but could-be-anyone pillow-talk duet for Duran and Mariana (and did I detect a theater nerd’s reference to Company’s post-coital “Barcelona,” when Duran croons that he’d like to travel to “Paris, New York, Barcelon’”?). Mainly, though, the show is still all Duran, as he sinks into greater and great despondency at his plight from arrest to trial to sentencing.

Golan, who’s white, envisioned himself as the sole performer; original lyrics on the concept album even explicitly reference the narrator as Caucasian. Transposing this story of a corrupt justice system and the execution of an innocent man for Henry, who’s African American, isn’t as simple as altering a few words here and there. Because Golan gives only the faintest outline of who Duran is, or has been, prior to this nightmare scenario, it seems like the character is meant to represent the legions of men, most of them brown and black, who’ve been the victims of the legal system’s injustice. But how many of them have been framed for a double murder (with two weapons in two locations!) by a conniving psychopath (with a clichéd nickname) who planned the setup in meticulous detail? This is no wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time tragedy. And, in a musical otherwise devoid of specifics, this particular eyebrow-raising plot point prevents The Wrong Man from being recognizable as a far-too-familiar story. It’s hard to feel too much empathy when Duran’s experience is both thinly sketched and ludicrous.

Henry does all he possibly can to fill out that sketch. It’s a passionate, powerfully sung, and heart-broken performance that leaves him drenched with sweat and twitching, as if he has patches of electricity coursing through his body, as Duran prepares for his execution. If only he had a more complex character to work with, as he did for his riveting star turn in Carousel last year. Even with the material in its current shape, Henry would probably be better served performing an un-reimagined version of The Wrong Man as a solo show, free from distractions—even including the splendid, sizzling singing of Reneé as doomed Mariana.

Ultimately, though, it’s the wrong man who animates the stage. A pair of raucous numbers for the maniacal Man in Black as he parties in prison and details his villainy arrive as a welcome relief from Duran’s deluge of angsty ballads. When Vasquez jubilantly crows, “I’m a cold, cold man with little to no pity/I killed my pregnant ex-wife and left for Mexico City” and “I stabbed her in the front cause she stabbed me in the back,” it’s a totally inappropriate betrayal of the show’s serious subject matter and tone. Much worse, it’s completely delightful.

The only other really riveting scene also comes in a rare moment without Duran on stage. As Mariana and the Man in Black survey each other from opposite sides of the stage, two dancers, Tilly Evans-Krueger and Kyle Robinson, fiercely and balletically enact the couple’s last terrifying, violent moments together in a wordless, writhing pas de deux. Fleetingly, The Wrong Man finally feels like it belongs in the theater.

The Wrong Man is now playing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.

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Review: As Anatomy of a Presidency, The Great Society Is No Revelation

The play is too overstuffed and too easily distracted to say anything profound or potent about its subject matter.

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The Great Society
Photo: Evan Zimmerman

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro,” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared before Congress in March 1965. And it’s a crucial line in Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, especially as delivered by Brian Cox at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. So, if Johnson himself knew that to be true, why doesn’t the playwright? Schenkkan’s second drama about LBJ—following All the Way—devotes most of its nearly three-hour running time to the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s but barely any of its attention to the impact of national events on the lives of the people fighting for their freedom.

All the Way, which starred Brian Cranston, kept its focus tight, covering only the first year of Johnson’s presidency. That play zeroed in on the politically expedient and morally pressing tightrope that LBJ walked in pushing the Civil Rights Act through Congress while securing his own presidential future in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The sprawling sequel, meanwhile, with its 19 actors playing nearly 40 characters, hurtles through the next four years (1965 to 1968) at an exhausting speed that never lets up. The Great Society is about pre-Nixonian politics and Johnson’s jumbled judgment in Vietnam and the Voting Rights Act and the core years of the civil rights movement, but it’s ultimately too overstuffed and too easily distracted to say anything profound or potent about any of those topics.

Schenkkan recognizes that the civil rights movement and the formation of the Black Power movement were—along with Bloody Sunday, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and the March Without Fear—among the formative events of the mid-‘60s. Director Bill Rauch dutifully reenacts each of them on stage, complete with projected historical footage. But the players in each of these scenes, especially the inciting incident in Watts which ends the play’s first act, are usually anonymous, except for the few Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders whose personhoods are gestured at but never developed. Luckily, there are particularly strong performances from Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr. and Marchánt Davis as Stokely Carmichael (as well as John Lewis). It’s not their fault that The Great Society contributes little that’s new or different in its dutifully dignified depictions of these political figureheads.

Not that Johnson and his circle of allies, foes, and frenemies are well fleshed out either. In the central role, Cox, while compellingly vigorous and foul-mouthed throughout the play, never quite transcends Schenkkan’s assemblage of free-floating traits associated with LBJ. In trying to illustrate the ultimate incompatibility between Johnson’s behind-the-scenes legislative work and King’s massively public demonstrations, The Great Society leaves the president doing an awful lot of reacting, a commentator on the real action.

All the Way managed to capture Johnson before he became crippled by compromise, and The Great Society blanches at coming down too hard on the president, even when he turns against King and then the American anti-war efforts, raging, “You need to kill more Vietcong!” David Korins’s courtroom-like set slowly crumbles across the course of the play to symbolize, well, what exactly? Is it Johnson’s presidency? The trust between Johnson and the era’s civil rights leaders? The nation’s war economy? Neither Schenkkan nor Cox illustrate clearly enough Johnson’s descent from committed candidate to surprise abdicator.

And at the slightest hint of the president approaching something like intimacy with the audience, a moment of soliloquized earnestness or a smidgeon of soul-bearing with the faintly present Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick), we’re off to the next rest stop on the history highway. There’s a sense that if the president can’t be fully formed here, then no one can. VP Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas) comes across as ideologically pure early on but barely registers as the play chugs forward. David Garrison plays Richard Nixon with a refreshingly charismatic sleaziness (the Married with Children actor also turns up as Governor George Wallace, Sheriff Jim Clark, and the Quaker minister Norman Morrison), but Tricky Dick is mainly there for exposition, as it’s through Nixon that we learn of the deaths of MLK and Robert F. Kennedy.

The red-hot hostility between RFK (Bryce Pinkham) and his brother’s successor provides some comic relief early on, as the pair masks their disgust on a sort of split-screen phone call, but, except for some blaring headlines, Kennedy also fades into the background. There’s lots more, including Marc Kudisch as Chicago’s Mayor Daley, but to list them all would be to substitute quantity for dramatic clarity in the same way The Great Society Does does.

Despite how much is crammed in, and despite the daunting cast of characters listed in the program with biographical identifiers, the play’s events are seldom hard to follow, which is, in itself, an achievement. There’s some crackling momentum in a few Oval Office scenes in which LBJ juggles a revolving door of senators, advisors, and lobbyists jockeying for his attention. And Rauch’s ample use of the courtroom pews that surround three sides of the stage allows simultaneous action to play out in occasionally clever ways (like the perpetually postponed appointment forever waiting outside the Oval Office) that keep things moving along.

Elsewhere, The Great Society’s breakneck pace comes with loaded consequences. A dramaturgical drive-by of the 1966 March Against Fear, during which Stokely Carmichael delivered his divisive “Black Power” speech, doesn’t get enough time or background context. Since only the perspectives of Dr. King and President Johnson receive real consideration, and both of those men, for different reasons, opposed what Carmichael stood for, Schenkkan’s play appears tacitly to denigrate the Black Power movement from all directions.

The Great Society perks up when it enters factoid territory, bite-sized encounters or vignettes that may have you rushing to Wikipedia to see how true to life they are. Did Carmichael really storm the stage at an MLK rally at the March Against Fear, dividing the crowd against civil disobedience? (Sort of, but MLK himself wasn’t present that day.) Did LBJ really dismiss his African-American assistant (Nikkole Salter) after her son lost his life in Vietnam, a pivotal-seeming plot point? (Uh, no. The real “Sally Childress,” Gerri Whittington, was actually the first black presidential secretary, and she was neither fired nor bereaved.) And did LBJ really spring a surprise press conference on the head of the American Medical Association (AMA), forcing him to endorse Medicare? (That one’s pretty much accurate, and it’s also the scene where Cox is at his best, showing off the president’s ebullient cunning.)

But so what if I learned something when I felt nothing at all? The Great Society premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014, as All the Way was going all the way to Broadway, so any resonances with 2019—the Nixonian ones come to mind—are just coincidence. But the origins of the pair of plays as a would-be Shakespearean duology throw into relief the hollow crown at The Great Society’s center. If this is Lyndon the First: Part II, there’s never enough sense of the paralyzing, overwhelming weight of the White House to elevate the play from robust synopsis to fresh take, let alone revelatory anatomization of a presidency.

The Great Society is now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

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Review: Freestyle Love Supreme Pumps You Up with Rhyme and Rhythm

The production gets out of the way and lets its stars do what they do best.

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Freestyle Love Supreme
Photo: Joan Marcus

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s majestic shadow lingers over the proceedings at Freestyle Love Supreme, the improv comedy freestyle rap show that’s currently taking Broadway by storm. Miranda co-created the show’s earliest iteration way back in 2003 alongside two Wesleyan classmates, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and improvisor-educator Anthony Veneziale. Miranda’s a lead producer here, and he’s also one of a cadre of guest artists who are liable to show up unannounced at any given performance. That list includes Hamilton alumni Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, James Monroe Iglehart, and Wayne Brady.

Miranda turned up in the final minutes of Monday’s 10 p.m. performance, but it wasn’t the Miranda we were expecting. The real Miranda had, according to Twitter, already appeared as a guest in the 7 p.m. show, and, as the end of the evening neared, it became increasingly clear that he’d gone home long ago. But you never know what you’re going to get at Freestyle Love Supreme. So, when a volunteer audience member told a story about meeting Miranda outside the Booth Theatre earlier in the day, the tale inspired host Andrew Bancroft, a.k.a. Jelly Donut, to trot out a spot-on impression of the Hamilton creator. As he freestyled a la Miranda, the rest of the show’s cast backed him up with a spontaneous parody of Hamilton’s “My Shot.”

If it’s the promise of one of these big names—and let’s face it, Miranda is the main attraction—that helps sell out a Broadway house at 10 p.m. on a Monday night, it’s the new faces running Freestyle Love Supreme who will leave audience members eager to return. The performance I attended was decidedly celebrity-free (the special guest was actress Ashley Pérez Flanagan, a.k.a. Reina Fire, funniest in imitating Christine Daaé’s high notes in a fleeting Phantom of the Opera send-up). But, with no superstar stealing the spotlight, the four lead performers had ample opportunity to stake their claims to a Broadway debut.

Holding down the beat at this performance was two-time World Beatbox Champion Kaila Mulladay, a.k.a. Kaiser Rözé, a one-woman percussion section and sound-effects catalog. A request for a verb from the audience (the cast went with “vomit”) yielded a gurglingly explosive soundstorm from Mulladay. Aneesa Folds, a.k.a. Young Nees, who got her start as a rapper in Freestyle Love Supreme’s academy program, delivered some sizzling R&B vocals and an amusing rant about the disastrous impact of humidity on her hair. Bancroft’s quick-thinking banter with the audience made him a winning MC, and he showed a nifty knack for inserting references to earlier sketches and discarded audience suggestions into each scene.

But the star-is-born moment—or a whole lot of moments, really—belonged to Utkarsh Ambudkar, a.k.a. UTK the INC, an actor whose dexterous control over rhyme and rhythm is dazzling. After that Mulladay vomit impression, Ambudkar spat out some deliciously site-specific commentary: “Kaiser Rözé, it’s just not fair/I think she just ate somewhere in Times Square.” Ambudkar registers, not unlike Miranda, as simultaneously goofy and brilliant: He’s equally at home caricaturing imagined characters and rocking out in his own skin.

Some audience ideas yield more fabulous fruit than others. Freestyle Love Supreme’s “Second Chance” routine, in which a lucky volunteer gets to see their worst mistake in life acted out and then rewound and repaired, proved particularly meaty fodder: A young woman named Meg recounted how, in her Minnesotan adolescence, she lost control of her vehicle while driving over black ice, careened into a barn, and crushed a very unlucky pig. That’s just the sort of ridiculous premise that Freestyle Love Supreme’s cast members can sink their teeth into. Ambudkar was delightful as designated-driver Meg, while Bancroft gleefully portrayed the shocked farmer, and Mulladay the ill-fated squealer.

A sketch featuring an audience’s member’s tutoring session with a young man with autism and an overlong tribute to the Muppets benefitted less from the utter unpredictability of the format. Luckily, Ambudkar again rescued the latter section, this time by coincidental virtue of his own real-life experience as a performer on The Muppet Show, which he shared movingly. And whether routines go south or catch fire, they’re gone for good in the instant that they’re over. (To make sure of that, the ushers seal all cellphones in magnetic Yondr pouches as the audience enters. Don’t worry: Your phone still never leaves your hands.)

“I can’t believe these dummies let us on Broadway,” Folds rapped at one point early on, but bringing these rap-scallions all the way doesn’t seem like a dumb idea at all. (How many other outstanding acts might make the leap if only for an omnipotent benefactor and collaborator like Miranda?) Freestyle Love Supreme, staged by Kail and lit snappily by Jeff Croiter, does its performers an extraordinary service: The production gets out of the way and lets its stars (from the freestylers to the beatboxers to co-music supervisor Arthur Lewis, leading the small band on keys) do what they do best. They may be young, scrappy, and hungry, but there’s no way, whatever performance you attend, that they’re throwing away their shot.

Freestyle Love Supreme is now playing at the Booth Theatre.

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Review: American Moor Richly Illuminates the Experience of Acting While Black

Keith Hamilton Cobb’s play offers a promising avenue into the future of Shakespeare performance.

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American Moor
Photo: Nina Wurtzel

Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor dramatizes an audition for the role of Othello, where a seasoned black actor endures patronizing comments and questions from a white director younger than himself. The play will interest Shakespeare fans, but also anyone interested in the life of an actor, the dynamic between actor and director, the dark side of creative collaboration, and the racial dimension of all these things.

The main incident in American Moor is a debate between the actor, Keith (Cobb), and the director (Josh Tyson) over the delivery of his audition text: Othello’s speech before the senators of Venice. Keith prefers a reserved delivery, while the director wants him to be more obsequious. This disagreement, with all it implies about the director’s discomfort with Keith’s own self-possession and his preconceptions about black performance, provides the occasion for the speeches and asides that make up most of the play: glimpses into Keith’s fraught history as a working black actor who loves Shakespeare and his increasingly furious internal monologue as he weighs the incompatible possibilities of, on one hand, standing up for himself and his reading of the passage and, on the other, getting the part.

These musings, Keith’s dispatches from “the corner of Me Street and Shakespeare,” amount to an indispensable work of creative criticism. In addition to the debate over the scene with the senators, American Moor allows us to see what it means to a black actor, who hasn’t had the opportunities he deserved, to have to bend to a white reading of Othello just to have a shot at getting the only big role in Shakespeare that he’s traditionally seen as fit to take on.

The director barks out Keith’s name like he knows him well and feels free to make comments about his body. He asks if Keith has any questions, as though his academic ideas about the play outweigh Keith’s lived experience of blackness and the sense of Shakespeare’s lines that comes from taking them into his body and memory. He “plays devil’s advocate” to Keith’s ideas in order to dismiss them and accuses him of playing the race card as though unaware that, as Keith puts it in one of the play’s best lines, by taking on Othello in the first place, he “picked up the race deck.” The play’s audition conceit creates a compelling analog to Othello’s audience with the Venetian senate; as Othello must placate white authority as he answers for his secret marriage to Desdemona, Keith makes his own stand in a creative context.

Race is at the heart of American Moor, but it’s also a pleasure to see Cobb dream his way into Shakespeare’s female roles as Keith recalls a past experience with an acting teacher. When first asked what role from the canon he would like to play—an inauthentic question, as it turns out, since the only acceptable answers are black characters—Keith went, not for Hamlet or Macbeth, but for Titania, the fairy queen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (The teacher scoffed at this choice and gratuitously corrected his pronunciation of her name.)

While the main analogy in Shakespeare to the situation between Keith and his would-be director is Othello’s speech in front of the senators, Cobb expands the range of association by channeling Cordelia before Lear as well, her refusal, in her integrity, to misrepresent herself in deference to her father’s authority. In this vein, we get to hear Keith recite, not only Romeo’s “teach the torches,” but also Juliet’s “Gallop apace.” If it’s familiar to imagine a black actor who dreams of playing Hamlet pigeon-holed into the role of Othello, it’s more striking to watch Cobb claim all of the Bard as his terrain and indulge his fantasy of playing Shakespeare’s women in love. Movingly, American Moor’s female dimension is also alive in Keith’s admiration for Desdemona, a character sometimes dismissed as one-dimensional, who in this show becomes a heroic figure, brighter than those around her, fiercely devoted and brave.

In addition to a compelling account of black performers’ ambivalence toward Othello, the burden that the play and its title role can be for them, American Moor also offers a promising avenue into the future of Shakespeare performance, a conversation with the text, in a modern idiom, as opposed to a translation of it, that brings us closer to Shakespeare’s language, not further away. With the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent foray into modern-English “translations” of Shakespeare and the release of strange, unsatisfying film adaptations like Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, not to mention David Michôd’s upcoming quasi-Shakespearean The King, the future of Shakespearean adaptation, how the old material will be reheated and served to 21st-century audiences, for better or worse, is up for grabs. It’s heartening, then, to see a rich, composite performance that incorporates Shakespeare’s language, thinks hard about it, and brings it into conversation with contemporary themes and concerns.

To take just one example, after delivering his version of Titania’s “forgeries of jealousy” speech, Keith teaches the audience that he learned from the OED that in Shakespeare’s day jealousy meant not only what it means to us but suspicion too. Later in the play, he applies the same phrase—the forgeries of jealousy, now with the added association of suspicion—to the microaggressions coming at him from the young director. In this way, the audience is guided deeper into Shakespeare’s words while, at the same time, those words are given new meaning, as they are applied to a situation we recognize, and recognize as morally serious.

American Moor is full of the love of Shakespeare’s language. In fact, Keith tells us that it was the power of Shakespeare’s words that impelled him to act and taught him how, not “the method” or any other technique. It’s this close relationship with Shakespeare’s language that makes the creative criticism of American Moor so powerful, and its rich, composite form so promising for the future of Shakespeare performance.

American Moore is now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

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Review: The Actors Are the Thing in Betrayal, the Stage-Craft Not So Much

Jamie Lloyd’s gauzy new production of Harold Pinter’s play aims for the abstractly lyrical.

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Betrayal
Photo: Marc Brenner

There’s no possibility of poetry in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Best known through its four Broadway productions in as many decades for its clipped exchanges and rewinding timeline, this anatomy of an affair strives to present life and conversations as they really are. (Walter Kerr’s original Broadway review shrewdly called the dialogue “vodka-dry.”)

But Jamie Lloyd’s gauzy new production—like the original, a West End transfer—aims for the abstractly lyrical. The mundane locales—a pub where former lovers reconnect, the cheap flat where infidelity blossoms, a bedroom where the dalliance sparks—all dissolve in the largely empty space, designed by Soutra Gilmour and featuring little more than a pair of chairs. Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, and Charlie Cox, all directed to take 10-second pauses between most of their lines, float on turntables in counter-clockwise patterns around each other as the play moves them back and back and back in time. The underscoring—including a Vivaldi aria, a cover of “Enjoy the Silence,” and, bizarrely, three instrumentals from the Gone Girl soundtrack—similarly unmoors the play from any practical sense of time and space.

That disorientation is offset, though, by the whip-smart and sometimes bitterly funny performances of Hiddleston and Cox as, respectively, the wronged husband and his backstabbing best friend. Hiddleston’s Robert follows his most biting lines with a half-grimace, half-smile that becomes a toothier, more playful grin as the timeline moves backward. Robert’s furious when the play begins, but he’s also bemused at his friend Jerry’s total lack of self-awareness: The ultimate betrayal, Jerry suggests, is Robert keeping his knowledge of the affair to himself. Cox captures Jerry’s confused self-interest convincingly.

There’s an unvarying rhythm to Lloyd’s production, and treating every moment with the same dynamic and tempo—a mezzo-piano adagio, perhaps—makes Betrayal feel ever so slightly like a rehearsal-room exercise. Moments of brilliance do emerge from this elongation, like the electric spaces in one critical conversation between Robert and Emma in which Ashton’s eyes, so darting, shimmering, and wincing, work a mile a minute to convey rich, unspoken monologues. But that halting pacing starts to become monotonous, especially as Pinter pushes further back in time. The early scenes, as characters contemplate years of memories, get room to breathe, but those later ones, which take place before the trio considers the consequences of their actions, lack much sense of impulsive urgency.

Lloyd traffics, too, in bold-lettered symbols that tend to underestimate the psychological clarity of the characters’ sparse lines and the audience’s capacity for reading between them. We know the walls are closing in without needing to see the actual walls closing in. If the heavy-handed stagecraft (they’re drifting apart, literally!) isn’t an out-and-out betrayal of the actors’ self-sufficient performances, it’s not a great show of trust either.

Most of Pinter’s scenes play out as duets, but Lloyd keeps the absent figure in the emotional triangle always on stage, lurking, sometimes very close by, as a constant reminder of the third vertex of that triangle. Highlighting Emma as the odd one out during the tensely buddy-buddy scenes between Robert and Jerry emphasizes the possibility of an unspoken attraction between the two men. It’s not necessarily just a play about two friends competing for the same woman, and Lloyd even seems to hint at times that Robert knowingly allows Emma’s dalliance to develop as a sort of proxy for his own longing. Usually, though, Hiddleston and Cox seem to resist Lloyd’s choices that lean in that direction. There’s probably more depths to be plumbed from Robert’s sour jibe at his wife: “To be honest I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.”

There’s something vaporous, too, in Ashton’s performance, except for that one riveting scene with Hiddleston. Pinter told the New York Times back in 1979, when Betrayal was first opening on Broadway, that “the play is about a nine-year relationship between two men who are best friends” and the character of Emma still hasn’t fully recovered from that authorial oversight. Ashton seems more of the fuzzy, airy world of Lloyd’s imagination, at least when up against the grounded, affably quotidian men created by Hiddleston and Cox.

From the way she positions herself, legs splayed over her chair almost at 180 degrees like a praying mantis, to the carefully maintained indifference in her voice, Ashton’s Emma anxiously constructs the version of herself she wants to show the world, or, at least, the two men who seem to take up so much of it. In the final scene, we see her surveying herself in the mirror, perfecting that image, but Ashton never totally transcends Emma’s pawn-like purpose in the play or conveys what she’s hiding behind the veneer.

It’s that kind of fogginess that finally makes this production only intermittently memorable and rarely revelatory. The extraordinary acting moments tend to arrive in spite of Lloyd’s vision for the play rather than because of it. But when they do—in Hiddleston’s smile or Cox’s lazy swig of beer or Ashton’s pulsating eyes—they form a set of memories worth rewinding.

Betrayal is now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

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Review: Hercules Wrestles More with Heroism Than with Female Liberation

If we’re going to update Hercules for 2019, let’s take Meg’s dreams of independence seriously.

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Hercules
Photo: Joan Marcus

It has been an extraordinary summer at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. First, director Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing gave us an unforgettable new Beatrice in Danielle Brooks, as well as a new way to imagine the war in the background of the play, replacing Shakespeare’s soldiers of fortune with soldiers for racial justice. Then, Daniel Sullivan set the Bard’s Coriolanus in a dystopian future where climate disaster has brought about a water crisis and exacerbated economic inequality. With stirring performances by Jonathan Cake and Kate Burton and a set design redolent of Mad Max, Sullivan transformed one one of Shakespeare’s least likable plays into a compelling and enjoyable one.

Even more special is Public Works’s new musical adaptation of Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules. With its simple story, Greek chorus of gospel singers, and iconic songs like “Go the Distance,” Hercules was asking to be adapted into a stage musical. The book for the show, by Kristoffer Diaz, stays close to the plot of the film while streamlining it a bit (bye, Pegasus) and updating its references. The lead actors—Jelani Alladin as Hercules, Roger Bart as Hades, and Krysta Rodriguez, a standout as Megara—are all winning in their roles, as is James Monroe Iglehart as Philoctetes (Phil for short), who delivers “One Last Hope” while an all-male workout troupe gets physical all over the stage. As Phil, Iglehart delivers the line that gets the loudest gasp of recognition from the audience: “Experience,” he says, “is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” The savvy-cynical edge of that line surfaces now and again in Hercules the musical, elevating the at times simplistic, go-the-distance source material.

But however charming they are throughout Hercules, the actors in the main roles can’t keep up vocally with the Muses, a chorus of five thrilling gospel singers: Ramona Keller, Brianna Cabrera, Rema Webb, Tamika Lawrence, and Tieisha Thomas. The highlights of this production are those moments when all five women are on stage: in “The Gospel Truth,” “Zero to Hero,” and the strongest of the new songs, “Great Bolts of Thunder.” The Muses also get the best costumes in the musical, ranging from the sparkling white of their first entrance, when they sweep away a more conservative choir in standard black robes (“We’ll take it from here!”), to the glam camouflage coveralls they sport in a later scene.

In addition to the Muses’s vocal prowess, it’s a joy to be reminded, in a lighter strain, of another late-summer production at the Delacorte in which American gospel music was woven into an ancient Greek story and themes: last summer’s glorious Gospel at Colonus. While the two shows would not seem to have much in common, in both, gospel bridges the divide between the ancient material and our modern sensibilities.

Director Lear DeBessonet, the founder of Public Works as well as the director of a memorable Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Delacorte in 2017, directs traffic as masterfully as always, arraying the stage with a vast number of ensemble members in ways that never feel intrusive. But the creatures she and puppet designer James Ortiz summon to the stage are a mixed success. Nessus the River Centaur becomes a lovely, loping ogre, the features of his blue body responding to an expressive physical performance by Joel Frost, who wears them like a huge suit. The Hydra, however, so thrilling in the film with its multiplying jaws—it takes a mountain to bring it down—is reduced here to a few heads, like those in a Chinese dragon dance that don’t put up much of a fight. The gods, Zeus and Hera, appear on high behind enormous, wonderful masks when they are in their glory and in sparkling, colorful suits when they are in human form; the terrors that Hades summons to destroy the world make an impression, particularly Gluttony, looking like Slimer from Ghostbusters.

It’s especially gratifying to see Hercules after seeing Coriolanus. There’s a tradition in scholarship of understanding Coriolanus as a Herculean, as opposed to an Aristotelian, tragic hero—a volcanic, out-of-place presence, rather than a flawed, mistaken one, tormented by fate—so the two plays complement each other well. Where in Shakespeare’s play the hero is destroyed by his inability to reconcile himself with the people he serves, in this version of Hercules, the people—of Greece, of New York City—band together to take their hero, who cannot make it on his own, across the finish line. This moment in the show is a little corny and probably less powerful than intended, but I felt an added resonance against the memory, from earlier in the summer, on the same stage, of Shakespeare’s wretched plebeians.

The set, just a few Greek columns and a little grotto for the band, doesn’t deliver that rush you get when you walk into the Delacorte and get your first look at what they’ve done with the stage. But this spare presentation turns out to be an advantage: With little to no set design, the action is framed, as is proper, by the great swaying trees beyond the stage and, farther off, by a clear view of Belvedere Castle. Throughout the performance, teenagers would bravely (and dangerously) creep out onto the rock face leading down from the castle to the lake below, briefly enjoying unobstructed rearview seats until police lights—but no impolite sirens—would flash them away. This, too, seemed a natural part of the show, one in keeping with the production’s desire to get all of New York City into the theater and onto the stage.

While, as always with Public Works, I was moved by the heart and humanity of the show, as we filed out of the theater, I felt dissatisfied with the handling of the original source material. Between the chorus’s promise to explore “What it is to be a hero” and Meg wondering, “What would I do in a world without men?,” the latter question seems more urgent and radical, but the former gets all the attention. This is particularly frustrating when the show’s answer to “What makes a hero?” is so familiar—that is, more than just strength. (The play does countenance the idea that real heroism would involve economic justice, but only passingly.)

If Hercules has a future beyond the Delacorte Theater’s stage, and I hope that it does, it would be great to see the independence that Meg sings about early in the show explored in a meaningful way. While she may be more than, as Phil says in the film, “your basic D.I.D.” (read: damsel in distress), Meg gets rescued in the show’s climax—the too-brief descent into the underworld—and ends up in the arms of the male hero. If we’re going to update Hercules for 2019, let’s take Meg’s dreams of independence seriously.

Hercules runs through September 8.

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Review: Moulin Rouge! Is a Great American Musical for the TikTok Generation

This production’s pacing is more deliberate than that of the film, leaving the characters with more room to breathe.

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Moulin Rouge!
Photo: Matthew Murphy

With an updated set of musical mash-ups and medleys courtesy of arranger and orchestrator Justin Levine, Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! makes a good case for itself as the Great American Musical for the TikTok generation. Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, at least in terms of plot, plays much the same on the stage. It still tells the familiar tale of a performer, Satine (Karen Olivo), who’s dragged herself out of poverty only to find herself torn between true love with a poor musician, Christian (Aaron Tveit), and financial security with a cruelly possessive aristo, the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu). This production’s pacing is more deliberate than that of the film, leaving the characters with more room to breathe.

This isn’t to say that the show, directed by Alex Timbers, shifts away from the extravagance of Luhrmann’s film. Here, Christian doesn’t merely establish his bona fides to his bohemian partners, director Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Argentinian dancer Santiago (Ricky Rojas), by singing a few stirring lines from “The Hills Are Alive.” The talented musician also whips out lyrics from Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait.” And Satine’s big entrance is no longer heralded simply by “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” as it now also incorporates “Diamonds Are Forever,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and even the Commodores’s “Brick House.”

This production approximates the film’s opulent depiction of the Moulin Rouge with the tiniest of details, on and off the stage. It’s in the letters “M” and “R” dotting the doors of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre and the gilded railings featuring figures of cherubs and windmills. And set designer Derek McLane transforms the stage itself into a sort of amusement park, beginning with the Tunnel-of-Love archways and extending to the miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower, Satine’s elephant-shaped dressing room, and, of course, the Moulin Rouge’s trademark red windmill façade. All the while, Catherine Zuber’s colorful period costuming helps to vibrantly fill the void left by the stage version’s necessarily reduced ensemble, a sort of illusory insinuation that’s fitting for a bunch of can-can dancers.

The show also makes effective use of the immediacy of its space. The first few rows of the audience are pocketed between the E-shaped stage, which dramatically extends into the auditorium. There’s much to look at on stage at any given moment, but Timbers knows how to direct our attention. Two sword-swallowing seductresses open this Moulin Rouge! with a performance made more riveting by the knowledge that something could go terribly wrong at any moment. And the show’s ferocious mix of danger and eroticism is amplified by Sonya Tayeh’s muscular choreography, which is bawdy yet precise but also violently sexy, insistent that you ogle every move. Big medleys like the one thematically clustered around Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” ooze the artistic ideals of the bohemians: “Truth! Beauty! Freedom! Love!”

Throughout, the performers sell the riskiest of choices. The Duke is meant to represent the antithesis of art, having funded the Moulin Rouge not because he enjoys the music that plays there, but because it gives him access to Satine. But the conventions of a Broadway musical now require him to sing, which is at odds with his character. Mutu gets around this by playing the role with a blistering self-awareness. He sings, sure, but in a way that subverts the lyrics to every rearranged pop song. When he sings the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” we’re very much aware of how un-Jagger-like he is, plodding as opposed to strutting across the stage, without a seductive, rebellious bone in his body. His performance of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” comes across as nasty and possessive, and his version of Madonna’s “Material Girl” is rearranged with an industrial timber so as to sound absolutely chilling.

There is, though, no way for the show to get around Tveit’s emotionally disconnected performance. His goofy charms and top-notch singing work well enough early on for the scenes in which Christian’s lightly wooing Satine with silly love songs. Elsewhere, though, he glides over the weighted words that the other actors intentionally struggle with, especially the standout Olivo, who has to find a way to sing through her character’s consumptive fit. Christian comes to believes that Satine has abandoned him in favor of the Duke, and is meant to rage at the thought of his lover sleeping with another man. This revelation is designed for maximum effect, set to “Roxanne” and accompanied by a brutal Argentinian tango, yet Tveit’s recitation lacks emotional range. Likewise, when Christian’s thoughts turn to suicide—he loads a gun while singing “Crazy”—there’s not even a hint of despair in his tone.

Moulin Rouge! is already a commercially appealing juggernaut of a musical, with an upbeat, lovestruck first act that sublimely distills the rich essences of all your favorite love songs into a heady, artistically satisfying experience. Sadly, one actor’s disconnect is enough to make the second act feel emotionally off-key. As a result, the show ultimately fails to uphold the bohemian ideal of love and art being fused in truthful fashion.

Moulin Rouge! is now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

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Interview: Kate Burton on Coriolanus in Central Park and Her Path to Success

The actress discusses her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and more.

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Kate Burton
Photo: Joan Marcus

Kate Burton is no diva. Despite her illustrious theatrical lineage, the actress is warm and down to earth. Daughter of international movie star Richard Burton, she certainly had a fabled childhood, surrounded constantly by showbiz luminaries. Growing up, if she wasn’t spending summers with her famously tempestuous Welsh actor father and glamorous stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, she was mixing with celebrities at Arthur, the popular 1960s New York disco hangout owned by her mother, Sybil Christopher.

However, avoiding the pitfalls of inherited celebrity, Burton, a three-time Tony and Emmy nominee, has carefully forged her own path, balancing her lauded acting career with a stable family life for more than three decades. She’s currently playing the role of Volumnia in Coriolanus in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. I recently chatted with Burton about the production, her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and her path to success.

What is Coriolanus about to you?

It’s the story of an extraordinary warrior, a soldier who’s thrust into a highly political and governance-related situation—areas where he isn’t comfortable being. He loves war, combat, and the military world. He doesn’t love what a leader has to do in order to get the people to love him. And, of course, the juxtaposition of this with the fascinating time that we are living in—it does give you pause. That’s what makes Shakespeare so unbelievably enduring and so relevant, no matter which play you do and when you do it.

And what’s Volumnia’s function within the play?

She’s definitely the most powerful influence on her son. She’s the woman behind the throne. She saves Rome. Coriolanus is such a complicated character. He doesn’t respond like a normal son would in a lot of ways. It takes quite a lot of coaxing and pleading to get him to do what she wants him to do. It’s true that Jonathan Cake, who plays Coriolanus, and I are only 10 years apart in age, so I said to him that my interpretation is that he’s about five years younger, and I’m a little older. Volumnia was a single mother—no father is mentioned in the play—and she had him when she was young. So, she’s a lioness, a tigress, about her child. I’ve heard that Denzel Washington has a great quote about mothers and sons, something about the son being the last great love of a mother’s life, and the mother being the first great love of his.

So, what’s at the core of the relationship between this mother and son in the play?

There’s a fascinating dynamic between them. Shakespeare didn’t have tons of mothers and sons in his plays. Gertrude and Hamlet come to mind—another fascinating, very complicated relationship. With fathers and daughters it’s different because, of course, Shakespeare was so devoted to one of his own daughters. In the plays written in the Jacobean period—like Coriolanus—there’s a different dynamic than in [the plays written] in the Elizabethan period. I happen to have done a lot of Shakespeare plays from this same Jacobean period: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. You know, the monarch on the throne in that period was James and his mother was Mary Queen of Scots—kind of a fascinating mother! Doing this role is great for me because in my real life as a mother I’ve raised two wonderful children and I totally get it. Although I’m very cherishing, nurturing, I always play these kind of growling women. These are the characters I’m comfortable playing because it takes something completely different from me. For instance, my character in Grey’s Anatomy is a very hard woman, tough on her child, exacting, incredibly ambitions. Also, quite honestly, this is a perfect role for an older actress. It’s taxing but it doesn’t wipe you out. It is just six scenes.

I understand you also have some family history with Coriolanus.

My father had been a very famous Coriolanus, before I was born. And now that I know the play, I can totally see it: complicated, driving everybody nuts, yeah! We’re so lucky to have Jonathan playing the role. Not only is he such a talented actor, he has also played the part before. And, you know, with these big Shakespeare roles, it’s great if you can get a couple under your belt, because it takes time to digest it and get it into your bones. Kevin Kline played Hamlet twice, my father played Hamlet twice. And I’m looking to do the The Tempest again.

Speaking of which, what was it like to play Prospero, the lead male character in The Tempest? How did that come about?

It happened very organically four years ago when I did Cymbeline. Daniel Sullivan said he wanted me to play the Queen, and then he said he also wanted me to play the role of Belarius. I thought it was some spear carrier—two scenes, funny hat. But it was a huge role, and he wanted me to play it as a man. That was my first time playing a male role. Then I was all set to do something else last summer when I got an email with the subject line “Prospero.” It was from my great friend [director] Joe Dowling. I just replied, “Yes!” We talked about whether I should play it as a man, but this is one of those Shakespearean roles than can translate to a female playing the part as female. And, of course, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have done it. When I worked on it [at the Old Globe in San Diego] I realized that this role can really work naturally as a woman—the relationships with Miranda and Ariel and Caliban. So, now playing Prospero is something I would like to have another go at. I’m actually talking to a few people about it right now. Volumnia, to be honest, is a very masculine woman—just in the way she approaches things. She’s not some sweet little mom. The first thing that Shakespeare has her say in Corolianus is how pleased she is to send her son into war. I wanted him to seek danger because it created more spine, gave him more honor. So, I’m glad I’ve played a couple of male Shakespearean roles because it really helps me with Volumnia.

Is it true that acting wasn’t your first choice of profession?

I went to the United Nations International School here in New York City, and I was planning to be a diplomat. It wasn’t until my senior year at Brown University that I took an acting class. I had a professor who just loved the arts and he saw me in the plays that I did as extracurricular activity and he said that I have this gift and that I was squashing it down. My father at that time was so incredibly well known, but it wasn’t just that. It’s that I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue this mad life. It can be fantastic, but it can also be really challenging, because, you know, you’re an itinerant worker. I’d seen everything—my father, my step-mother, my step-father were all in show business. My mother had been an actress when she married my father, when she was extremely young. But she just didn’t love performing, although she loved rehearsing and she loved being backstage. Then she became an artistic director [founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor]. So, I came into acting with my eyes wide open. I’m also married to Michael Ritchie, who’s the artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but he’s not an actor. We have a son who’s an actor, who also loves writing, but our daughter is interested in other things.

And your mother supported your choice to become an actress?

Oh, yes, she saw me in everything. She almost never said anything negative. I think if you have a child who’s an actor, you just have to be unconditionally supportive. It’s going to be their journey no matter what. The only disagreement that my dad and I had about any of it was that he wanted me to train. He never trained, by the way. I just want to point that out! He wanted me to train in England because I was offered an opportunity to go to Central School of Speech and Drama in London. I chose instead to go to the Yale School of Drama because I was American. I said to him, “I’m your daughter so let me find my own path.” I’ve met a few children of luminary types who are now graduating from school and I just say to them it’s all about you finding your own voice, you don’t want to be just considered the daughter of blah blah blah. So, as long as you find your own voice, that’s the most important thing.

How do you feel about the time it took for you to establish a name for yourself?

You know, I kind of had the right trajectory. I first worked in the theater. I did tons of plays in New York and a few out of town. I started in TV when I was a bit into my 20s and moved into more TV and film in my 30s. Then everything sort of happened with Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man, and that was in my early 40s. And then in my mid-40s, on TV, I got Grey’s Anatomy and then, five years later, Scandal. So, Hedda Gabler put me on the map in one way and Grey’s Anatomy in a completely different way. It all worked out nicely and then I moved to Los Angeles. I love L.A. and I get to do theater there as well. I’ve done two projects for my husband at the Taper and also The Tempest at the Old Globe.

So, here you are back in New York, doing theater in Central Park. What are you looking forward to this time?

I love coming back to New York, it’s my hometown. And this worked out perfectly. I like to do a play once a year and to be in New York ideally every couple of years. So, two years ago I did Present Laughter on Broadway and The Dead 1904 off-Broadway. This is my second time in the Park. I did Cymbeline there in 2015. That production was fantastic and challenging because it was multiple characters, as I was involved in all the fight scenes. And let us remember that we are outside and it’s hot and steamy. Now I’m playing a single character and I’m not in any of the fight scenes so I’m very happy! What I’m excited about is that the audience is going to discover this play that hasn’t been done in the Park since 1979. It’s so virulent and so vital. There’s a primal aspect to it. And, then, I mean, free Shakespeare in the Park. New York on a summer night! It doesn’t get any better than that.

Coriolanus runs through August 11.

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