Noises Off (American Airlines Theatre – NYC)

Andrea Martin is a pistol. Of course I remember her from “SCTV” and many supporting roles in films going back to being a sorority sister (and murder victim) in Black Christmas (1974); it was her Tony Award-winning performance in the 2013 Pippin revival that renewed my interest in her. And now here she is in Roundabout Theatre’s Noises Off, a revival of the 1982 Michael Frayn farce about a troupe of actors attempting to put on a show where mishaps abound. Ms. Martin was my reason for wanting to see this production, but she is but one piece of the puzzle that makes this Noises Off so winning and jaw-droppingly funny.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
 
Noises Off premiered in London in 1982 in a production that would end up running for five years; it premiered on Broadway in 1983 and ran a year and a half; Peter Bogdanovich directed a starry 1992 film version starring Carol Burnett and Michael Caine that was rather half baked; and a 2001 Broadway revival starring Patti LuPone ran for nearly a year. The piece is presented in three acts with an intermission between the first two. For the first hour we see the final tech/dress rehearsal of Nothing On, the play within the play, important for letting us see how the piece should be played while also helping us get acquainted with the characters; the second act has the set turned around so we can witness a perilous matinee performance backstage when a lover’s quarrel in the cast causes all kind of havoc; the final act shows us the piece as the audience is experiencing it at the end of the tour where it has degenerated into an all-out mess. The play runs over two and a half hours, but its overlength can easily be forgiven because of how the time it takes to set everything up is necessary and pays off with big laughs.

Andrea Martin plays Dotty Otley, the older television star who has invested in Nothing On; she is a terrific highlight, as to be expected, playing a British actress who in turn is playing the slummy part of the maid Mrs. Clackett in Nothing On, the switch from her thick cockney speech as the maid to her refined and austere British accent as Dotty quite jarring and funny. Campbell Scott is Lloyd, her stern director; Mr. Scott has the unenviable job as the straight man to his gang of players, the quite serious director fed up with the shenanigans going on around him; it is all the more funny to see him be silly and look foolish when he is brought into the act by the end of the play because of how much he has resisted it. David Furr is Garry, Dotty’s on-again, off-again lover; Mr. Furr is particularly delightful as Garry, the pretentious actor who says a lot of words without really saying anything when he isn’t performing his part in the play. Megan Hilty is Brooke Ashton, a young blonde theatre novice in her first speaking role; Ms. Hilty appears to be having a ball playing Brooke as a bad actress, posing awkwardly, walking with her feet wide apart like a lumberjack, and mouthing the words of her co-stars; she appears to be a perky, pretty blonde, but she sticks strictly to her script even when everything around her falls apart and she should be adjusting to what is going on. Tracee Chimo is enjoyable fragile as Poppy, the harried assistant stage manager and sometime girlfriend of the director; Kate Jennings Grant is Belinda, a team player trying to keep the cast together; Jeremy Shamos is Frederick, a rather dim and slow actor who has spontaneous nosebleeds whenever he is around violence; Rob McClure is Tim, the company and stage manager (as well as electrician, standby, and assuming a host of other duties); and Daniel Davis is Selsdon, the aging and unreliable alcoholic whom everyone tries to keep away from booze.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
 
A humorous touch is the inclusion of a program for Nothing On, the fictitious play being performed within Noises Off, as an insert in the Playbill. Biographies are provided for all of the actors as well as author “Robin Housemonger,” sharing space with a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the bedroom farce genre as well as fun facts about realtors and sardines. So much insight about the characters can be gleaned from these bios, though it isn’t necessary to read them before the show; I read them afterwards and laughed, thinking back to moments in the play.

Director Jeremy Herrin puts his actors through their paces to be sure with a speed that only escalates during the second and third acts. There are so many moments that succeed or fail based on precise timing that I would think the show could be a nightmare to direct; during a post-show talkback Ms. Hilty mentioned that they rehearsed the piece slowly, building up speed as they went along to get to the fever pitch at which they are now performing. With no many slamming doors and props that must find themselves in so many different places, Mr. Herrin and his cast are to be commended for pulling it all off without a hitch; not effortlessly, mind you, as it looks like everyone is working very hard with tremendous focus.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
 
This revival of Noises Off is frighteningly engaging, so much so that I found myself wincing and ducking as characters slipped, narrowly missed being attacked by an ax, and doors were slammed in their faces. This kind of slapstick, comic violence makes me extremely anxious (it brings to mind the 1985 Tom Hanks/Shelly Long film The Money Pit as well as The Three Stooges, neither my cup of tea), but I can recognize the supreme timing and talent it takes to pull off this kind of farce. It’s unfortunate that this Roundabout show is a limited run as I can’t imagine a more lively and gripping production as the dangerously funny one bestowed upon us here.

**** out of ****

Noises Off continues through to March 13th in the American Airlines Theatre at 227 W. 42nd St. (between 7th & 8th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/

 

Spring Awakening (Brooks Atkinson Theatre – NYC)

Everything old, at some point, is new again. Take for example Spring Awakening, which premiered on Broadway in 2006 and made a big splash; it’s a musical adaptation of a 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind about repressed teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality (among other things), with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. Even though the original play was set more than a hundred years ago in Germany, the journey about the loss of innocence that occurs when growing into young adulthood is universal and still very much relevant; sex, abortion, homosexuality, suicide, depression – these issues have not gone away and never will. The score is full of punkish-sounding songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F***ed,” while also containing soulful, moody pieces like “The World of Your Body,” “Touch Me,” and “I Believe.” It’s rock inspiration can be traced to Rent as it has a similar type of sound while also standing out as being wholly original.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus

Spring Awakening ran for over two years on Broadway, won eight Tony Awards, toured, and then became a popular title licensed to non-professional groups. And now, less than seven years since it closed, it is back on Broadway produced by Deaf West Theatre and directed by Michael Arden incorporating American Sign Language (ASL) as well as deaf actors to tell this story in an entirely new way in a format accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
I was skeptical when I heard that Spring Awakening was coming to Broadway as I didn’t feel that the initial production had been gone long enough for us to miss it; I have seen two local productions in my area alone over the past year, so the material was very familiar to me. However, I vividly remember the Deaf West revival of Big River from 2003, so I conceded that perhaps there was a different approach that could be taken with the material. Several friends told me that they preferred this production over the original; while I wouldn’t go that far, I still enjoyed this revival and found many aspects of it worth recommending.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
Standouts in the cast are Austin P. McKenzie playing Melchior, the bright student who has all the answers about sex, the details that the adults want to keep hidden; Sandra Mae Frank is Wendla, the naive girl who succumbs to Melchior’s charms; and Daniel N Durant is Moritz, Melchior’s friend who is suffering as a student and plagued by wet dreams. Mr. McKenzie is cute and appears too cool for school and stylish wearing the same uniform that looks drab on everyone else; his presence is magnetic, and it’s easy to see why is a leader. Ms. Frank and Mr. Durant are deaf and perform their roles using sign language with vocal and guitar accompaniment provided by actors trailing behind them in the shadows. At my performance, Lizzy Cuesta (listed as a swing in the Playbill) spoke and sang for Ms. Frank, and Alex Boniello did the same for Mr. Durant; both Ms. Cuesta and Mr. Boniello are talented performers on their own, and yet here they are proficient in underplaying their presence to remain half of a performance, supporting their deaf co-stars beautifully.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
Ms. Frank and Mr. Durant have a few moments where they speak for themselves that are incredibly effective, their voices full of emotion and raw. An early scene where Mr. Durant is called on to speak and is then ridiculed in class by his professor is especially biting and effective showing the callousness of his teacher. Ms. Frank’s cries at her mother and during her intimate scene with Mr. McKenzie are similarly heartbreaking, bringing the drama of Spring Awakening to another level; their teenage angst and isolation seems like small potatoes when compared with what it must be like to be deaf.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
While I’m glad that this production has sign language and occasional projected subtitles for the deaf, I had issues where I was seated in the front left of the mezzanine with visibility. There are some sequences that are only acted with sign language, and titles are presented for the dialogue; however, the projected words were often partially obscured by elements of the set, and it took me out of the play whenever the mode of communication shifted. I know that isn’t going to be a popular opinion, as I’m pleased that the deaf have a Broadway show accessible to them, but it is sometimes to the detriment of the hearing audience. For scenes with the headmaster, who doesn’t sign, the titles for his dialogue were often ahead of his delivery, a timing mishap that I hope was only at the performance I attended. I don’t recall having such issues with Deaf West’s Big River. If the entire show was open captioned with words visible from every seat (and timed properly) then the shift to sign language only wouldn’t be so jarring.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
One aspect of this production that I found superior to the original is how Hänschen’s (Andy Mientus) seduction of Ernst (Joshua Castille) is handled; in the original production it was played comically for laughs, but here it is sincere. It’s interesting to note that there were some audible guffaws from the audience when the two young men kiss when I saw the original production on tour in Columbus back in 2009; the same sequence, this time played quite earnestly, elicited no such response. Is it that times have changed so much in the past six years that two men kissing onstage is more palatable, or the shift to a straightforward telling of the gay storyline, or the difference in audiences between New York and Columbus that is the reason for the different response? I think it’s a combination of all three factors, but color me pleased with the change.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus
I’m glad to have seen this revival of Spring Awakening, but it doesn’t surpass or even meet the merits of the original for me. It’s still good and entertaining, but some of the accessibility alterations inhibited my enjoyment of the show from where I was seated. Perhaps my experience would’ve been better had I been seated elsewhere; our tickets were not marked as being “partial view” but that is essentially what I would call them. A show enhanced for accessibility should consider the vantage point for all of the seats to ensure that pertinent and important elements are not missed. Again, I still enjoyed the show, but with that notable reservation.

*** out of ****

Spring Awakening continues through to January 24th in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre at 256 W. 47th St. (at 8th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.springawakeningthemusical.com/

The King and I (Vivian Beaumont Theatre – NYC)

The first show I saw on this trip was the Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. I know the 1956 film version very well and really like a lot of the score, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a stage production of the show. I had heard that it was a good production, and I expected nothing less from Lincoln Center after their excellent 2008 revival of R&H’s South Pacific.

The show began with the stirring though altered overture, and then the salmon/gold velvet curtain parted to real the head of a ship that, with the aid of a moving platform that extended out over the orchestra pit, forges out over the heads of the first few rows of the center orchestra. Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) and her son Louis (Jake Lewis) are on their way to Siam so that Anna can teach English to the King’s children and wives – or at least the ones in his favor. The King (Ken Watanabe) had over sixty children and was used to everything being his way, and… Oh, I feel silly summarizing the plot when most people reading this surely know it already. Suffice it to say that the score includes such gems as “Getting to Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Shall We Dance,” “I Have Dreamed,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Something Wonderful.”

The stage has incredible depth by using the forward thrusting platform and a series of decorative pillars and background projections, with pieces of furniture and props spaced about the various scenes to suggest locations rather than have big, lumbering sets. It works wonderfully well, even if it may come off as a little less produced than one may expect of a classic show of this caliber. The sound design is particularly clear and strong without sounding amplified. O’Hara’s voice is overpowered slightly in a few numbers by the orchestra, but only slightly, and overall I thought she did a clean job of portraying Anna.

I wasn’t thinking of Deborah Kerr from the film while seeing the show, but there were times, especially at the beginning, where I was recalling Yul Brennar and his diction in the role of King of Siam. Ken Watanabe, an Oscar nominee and stage performer in Japan, ingratiated himself to the audience throughout the show, but his voice did surprise me at the beginning. He sounded like someone was pinching his nose shut, and some of his dialogue was rendered unintelligible. His diction improves throughout, but it is odd that this King is no where near as proficient in English as his help.

Ruthie Ann Miles is a standout as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, even if her line readings during her first scene are strangely stilted and timed. She brings emotion to the song “Something Wonderful” that is rendered more subtly in the film, and her more heartfelt rendering took me by surprise.

The kids, twelve of the sixty plus, are all adorable and sweet, and they seem to have genuine affection and chemistry with O’Hara and even Watanabe, who is a warmer King than Brennar and less imposing. The audience was engaged throughout, breaking into applause at the beginning of “Shall We Dance,” and even the chatty older women around me were gasping and responding though they knew the show already. “Oh, I love this one,” I heard them sometimes remark as a particular tune would start. The remarks of recognition for the songs would change, but the general affection the audience felt for the show was ever present.

***/ out of ****

On The Town (Lyric Theatre – NYC)

I was on my way to the TKTS booth this past Sunday prepared to get a half price ticket to On The Town for around $75 when I received this notification on my phone:

Color me thrilled! The show was one of the reasons I made the February trip to NYC as I had read that it wasn’t selling well but got great reviews, and now I was going to get to see it for only $20! I went with a friend, Phuong Anh, and she is from Vietnam. The show began with a giant flag and “The Pledge of Allegiance,” and I stood and put my right hand over my heart just like in elementary school. Phuong Anh was a bit bewildered at first, but she got the idea when she looked around at everyone else standing and quickly followed suit. We had very nice right box seats, and from there I noticed that the rear of the orchestra and most of the mezzanine was empty while the balcony was oddly full. If this was as packed as it was gonna get on a Sunday matinee, I’d hate to think what kind of house they play to on Tuesday evenings.

Now, my prior experience with On The Town was minimal. I’d seen the 1949 film and knew a few of the songs (only three songs were retained for the stage to screen transition), and I knew that the original show was highly regarded and had music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Comden & Green. I thought the film was only “okay” (I know that it is highly regarded in its own right), so I was excited to see what the stage original had to offer. I was not disappointed.

The Lyric Theatre is one of the biggest house on Broadway, and this revival fully utilizes its large stage with set pieces that are arranged for maximum depth. Everything about this production feels and looks big and full, from the lush sound of the orchestra to the ballets that expand beautifully to fill the space. The plot is incredibly thin (three sailors get to spend a day in New York and set out to find the girl crowned “Miss Turnstiles” on a poster for their buddy who is smitten), but the cast is so lively and the show so boisterous that it doesn’t seem to matter.

I wasn’t prepared for the long stretches of ballet used to tell the story or expand upon situations. They were impeccably staged and skillfully executed, a notable one involving “Miss Turnstiles” walking across the palms of some dancers’ hands as they stood with their arms raised above their heads. I’m probably not describing it well, but I held my breath through it. For dance disciples, this show is incredible! For the rest of us, it’s very good though overlong.

This would be a perfect production to record for broadcast on PBS and for video release, though I know of no plans to make that happen at this time. It looks and feels expensive, and perhaps picking such a large Broadway house wasn’t the best choice considering the age and type of the material and its prospective audience. My friend and I both enjoyed it, though we agreed that the dancing was a bit much for our tastes. ***/****, though I can understand other people giving it **** if they are big into dance and the show itself. I couldn’t find a single fault with the cast or production.

On the Twentieth Century (American Airlines Theatre – NYC)

I knew going in that I wasn’t going to see Peter Gallagher as Oscar Jaffee in the play as he has been  ill and out of the show for a week now. I didn’t mind that, just so long as I got to see Kristin Chenoweth and the show in general. The CD of the original Broadway cast is one I’ve had in my collection for a long time and not listened to, but I have several friends who have praised the show and score to me over the years. What I saw at today’s matinee was a mixed bag, and I was disappointed.

The show started off sprightly enough with some tap dancing porters (the woman next to me remarked that they were the best part of the show), but much of what the ensemble was saying during the opening number was lost, drowned out by the sound of the orchestra and not well amplified. The sound didn’t improve much throughout, though only the ensemble numbers caused a real problem for me with comprehension.

Kristin has a funny entrance as a mousy accompaniest and a startling costume transformation right in front of the audience, but it sure looks like she’s working hard at it. When she finds the time to relax a bit, as she does in the second act, she’s better, but she often comes off as too intelligent for the material and lacking in whimsy. A few line readings sound distinctly Madeline Kahn-esque, which is unnecessary. Kristin is talented in her own right and shouldn’t feel the need to try to play it as Kahn may have, which is how it all came off as to me. I refrain from saying that she is miscast, but I do think that once she feels more comfortable in the role that she will relax a bit and not come off quite as forced.

James Moye went on for his sixth performance in Gallagher’s part, and he never appears comfortable on stage. He knows his lines and blocking, but I don’t buy him as a conniving producer. He also comes off as forced, like Kristin, and the two have zero chemistry.

Andy Karl plays Kristin’s boyfriend, and he seems to be one of the few people in the play who knows what play he is in! Having seen him in Rocky last year, I knew he was talented, but I was surprised how well he took to the slapstick of this part! He’s handsome, quick, over-the-top in exactly the right way, and understands the tone of the piece. I wonder if Mr. Karl is a glutton for punishment as he has gone from being hit in the boxing ring in Rocky to having his face and body continually attacked by slamming doors in this play! I would be surprised if he doesn’t get a supporting actor Tony nomination for this one.

Mary Louise Wilson plays the dotty Letitia Peabody Primrose with glee and looks like she’s having a great time. She gets a lot of the best laughs as well. Another standout was understudy Ben Crawford playing the small role of the agent Max Jacobs, going on for James Moye (otherwise occupied covering for Peter Gallagher). Ben looks the part with slicked back hair and a cocky grin, and he comes off as completely at ease.

My performance was stopped for an impromptu intermission for about fifteen minutes during the second act number, “She’s a Nut!” The snafu occurred after Mary Louise Wildon rode a miniature train offstage. The stage was dark with no activity, but the music continued. Kristin and Andy ran out to do their part in the song, sang a bit, and then quickly returned to the wings. The music came to an abrupt stop, and we all knew there was a problem. An announcement was made that there was a technical issue and the show would resume shortly. The house lights came on, and a few minutes later the large title screen was brought down, presumably to check whatever element was malfunctioning.

When the show resumed it was with the part in the song with Mary Louise once again riding the miniature train, but this time a large screen came down with lights and moving parts showing the path of the train with the destination constantly changing. Andy and Kristin returned to do their part, with Kristin ad libbing, “I feel like I’ve done this before…” The audience cheered. The rest of the play seemed livelier after that, as if everyone was on high alert and ready for anything. The elaborate “Babette” number was quite well done, but not good enough to redeem the rest of the performance.

I stayed for a brief post-show discussion with the cast (sans Andy Karl and Kristin Chenoweth) and they elaborated on the technical glitch that stopped the show. Apparently the computer that runs the different moving pieces locked up and needed to be restarted, but they were quick to say that at least it wasn’t anything mechanical that broke down. The facilitator of the discussion also pointed out how technically complex the show was and that was one of the reasons it has been so long before being revived. I dunno… The moving train was nice and all, but it was hardly what I would call complex, especially after seeing all of the moving parts in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Honeymoon in Vegas.

**/****