‘You Can’t Take It With You’ on Broadway


It’s been said that home is where the heart is. In that case, home should be the Longacre Theatre where a joyous Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You is currently playing. When the houselights came up after the preview I attended, I wanted to become one of the household. (The last time I had such a feeling in the theater was after MTC’s gorgeous 2009 revival of The Royal Family). The characters inhabiting the home of Martin Vanderhof are so beautifully drawn and so lovable, that I wanted to spend a fourth or even fifth act with them. While topical references may sail over some heads, and the play’s Depression-era escapism might seem naive for 2014 sophisticates, the Kaufman and Hart classic is still warm and funny. Dated, yes, but as a romantic comedy it’s timeless.

Grandpa, as Martin is more commonly known, decided one day that he didn’t like going to work so he just stopped. He doesn’t pay income tax, but he does like to collect snakes and listen to commencement exercises. Having gently dismissed a stressful life for 35 years, he has fostered in his entire extended family (they pick up dreamers like strays) the desire for each to do what makes him or her happy. His daughter writes plays, a granddaughter studies ballet, and his basement is a fireworks factory. Problems arise when his other granddaughter (sort of the Marilyn Munster of the family) falls in love with her boss’ son and her carefree family must soon meet her fiancé’s conservative, monied parents.

The Pulitzer Prize-winner first appeared on Broadway in 1936, starring Henry Travers (Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Grandpa. The 1938 film adaptation, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore won the Oscar for Best Picture. The play has since become a staple of high school and community theaters. This current production is the 5th Broadway revival, the first since an acclaimed all-star production in 1983.

At the heart of the play is its cast, made up of a Who’s Who of New York theatre. James Earl Jones, 83 years old and a genuine national treasure, plays Grandpa with a warm smile and an irresistible twinkle in his eye. Rose Byrne is charming in her Broadway debut as lovestruck Alice, though at the early preview I attended, she didn’t seem as comfortable as the rest. Kristine Nielsen, who is one of the best things to happen to Broadway in the last decade, follows up her Tony-nominated triumph in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike with another delectable performance. Meanwhile legends Julie Halston and Elizabeth Ashley provide some of the biggest laughs the play has to offer. Annaleigh Ashford delivers a performance that is quite literally fully choreographed (Liz Ashley’s reaction to Ashford’s greeting is worth the price of admission). Reg Rogers is delightfully over the top as a Russian dance teacher. Mark Linn-Baker, Fran Kranz, Byron Jennings, Johanna Day, Will Brill, Crystal Dickinson; they’re all superb.

The play looks beautiful. I want to spend time in the sprawling, cluttered Upper West Side living room David Rockwell created, though I don’t think it needed to be on a turntable. Jane Greenwood had a designer’s field day with the various period costumes. Jason Robert Brown provided a sensational period pastiche score, so enjoyable that my friend and I stayed around to hear the extended exit music. Scott Ellis’s production moves at a brisk pace. His direction never lets the energy flag, yet he also finds the right balance between the sheer anarchy of the play’s farcical moments and the more tender, impassioned sections of the third act.

I don’t think I stopped smiling for two and a half hours. My only qualm: the adorable kittens should have more stage time.

You Can’t Take It With You is a limited engagement through January 4, 2015.

‘The Bridges of Madison County’ on Broadway


Recently, I referred to the 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser’s lush romantic masterpiece, as a “grown-up musical for grown-ups.” Much of the current Broadway musical theatre is made up of subversive comedies, by-the-number adaptations of movies, and pre-packaged song catalogs. Sincere romantic musical plays tend to be a tougher sell these days. The most recent example I can think of is Giant with its sweeping score by Michael John LaChiusa. However, that show played a limited run off-Broadway at the Public (though it should have been on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont). Well, a new grown-up musical for grown-ups has come to Broadway and it’s Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s beautiful adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County.

Based on Robert James Waller’s best-selling novel, Bridges tells of a four day, once-in-a-lifetime affair between an Italian housewife and a National Geographic photographer in 1965 Iowa. The husband and the kids leave for the state fair, and she is planning to relax with iced tea and a novel. However, fate has something else in store for her when the photographer pulls into her driveway to ask for directions. The novel was excoriated upon its release, but sold millions of copies and became a 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

The bittersweet new musical, now playing at the Schoenfeld Theatre, may be the best incarnation of Waller’s story. Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) married an American soldier after her fiancé died in WWII to escape war-ravaged Naples. Robert (Steven Pasquale) has drifted through life as a roving photographer, never comfortable with commitment or settling down. Truth be told, their romance doesn’t feel like an affair, or for that matter even remotely adulterous. There is no true villain or antagonist; it is circumstance that brings them together and ultimately thwarts the possibility of “happily ever after.” In many ways it is reminiscent of Brief Encounter, with two ordinary people discovering an overwhelming passion that had previously eluded them.

Jason Robert Brown has written one of the most ambitious, openly romantic scores heard on Broadway since Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza. It is, I think, his best work since Parade. He serves double duty as orchestrator and creates a beautiful string-based chamber sound. Marsha Norman’s book complements Brown’s score, establishing rich characters with vivid attention to detail. It is to the credit of both that the events never feel cheap or saccharine, and even the most banal word comes from a place of infinite emotion.

Bartlett Sher’s direction is quite superb; his staging is simple and forthright, yet always tender. The show does tend to meander a bit in the first act, and too much time is spent at the state fair, but by the second act the focus becomes laser-sharp. When Bridges focuses on its central relationship, it reaches its emotional pinnacle, giving the story a depth I didn’t think possible. O’Hara is giving the performance of her career, with one of the most sensitive and vocally supple turns we’ve yet to see from her. Pasquale makes his Broadway musical debut at long last, and it this season’s gift to hear his soaring baritone. O’Hara’s heart-stopping “Almost Real” is a practically an operatic aria while he devastates with the eleven o’clock number “It All Fades Away,” which may well be the best show song of the last ten years, maybe more. Their duets are the sort of dreamy, soaring moments that are musical theatre at its finest. Their duet “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles” is a gorgeously realized musical scene, which I think compares with the legendary Bench Scene from Carousel. Their singing is matched the intensity of their onstage chemistry, which was so hot that the woman next to me started fanning herself at intermission.

The supporting cast is mostly excellent. Hunter Foster has the rather thankless role of Francesca’s somewhat oblivious husband, but he humanizes the character. Michael X. Martin and Cass Morgan provide warmly received comic relief as Francesca’s married neighbors. Morgan’s nosy Marge is played mostly in broad strokes throughout the first act, but she displays unexpected depth and surprising empathy in the second. Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena barely register as Francesca’s sparring children, but mostly because the roles are so limited. Whitney Bashor sells her one number beautifully (though I understand she also had a devastating aria which was cut).

There are many things about Bridges that remind me of the aforementioned Piazza. Both shows share Italian sensibilities, its two leading players, director, and scenic and costume designers (Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber, respectively). Brown’s finale “Always Better” evokes memories of Guettel’s “Fable.” The leading ladies of both shows even share a surname: Johnson. Piazza opened at Lincoln Center Theatre and ran for 504 performances, which I think surprised many (including the show’s ardent admirers, myself included). Bridges, on the other hand, is a commercial risk and it hasn’t been doing so well.

I’m not sure how long The Bridges of Madison County will last on Broadway, but I feel it is a show that grow in estimation through the years, especially after the original cast album is released. After all, it seems Broadway only gets a new romantic musical once a decade. We grown-ups should savor it while we can.

An Open Letter to Emma Thompson

Dear Ms. Thompson,

This past week, I had the unmitigated pleasure of witnessing you make your New York stage debut in the exciting New York Philharmonic concert of Sweeney Todd. I have long been an admirer of your work, ever since I first saw the 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing in high school. Not long afterward, I fell head-over-heels for your Oscar-winning Margaret Schlegel in Howards Endwhich I stumbled upon on Bravo one weekend, back when that station had a more artistic bent.

In the years since, I have come to admire your work as an actress, writer, humanitarian and activist. Your appearances at awards ceremonies and on talk shows show us a smart, genuine Brit with unfailing wit. You seem like you’d make a great friend as well as the best kind of drinking buddy, but that’s another matter entirely. As someone with a vested interest in musical theatre, I also became aware of your presence in the smash-hit West End revival of Me and My Girl opposite Robert Lindsay, which I acquired immediately and have enjoyed many, many times. (I have also watched a charming video of you singing and tap dancing on a giant LP).

I had seen the acclaimed London revival of Sweeney Todd only two years ago, so I wasn’t entirely bowled over by the NY Philharmonic’s initial announcement. However, when it was later announced that you were going to play Mrs. Lovett, the concert immediately jumped to the top of my must-see list, so much so that I made the early decision to see it twice.

One thing that was certain from the two performances I attended was the great love and affection pouring across the footlights in both directions. For someone who hasn’t appeared in a musical in 27 years, you seemed quite at home and at ease in the role. Mrs. Lovett is nothing if not daunting, with unforgiving musical and dramatic demands, and it was delightful to hear how you used your voice to your best advantage through some of the score’s most difficult passages. I laughed in the most unexpected places, the result of your manic energy, wit, and side-splitting physical comedy. However, you were also very careful to make Mrs. Lovett a real individual, someone who has starved, suffered and been down on her luck. I was mesmerized by you from start to finish.

While I enjoyed myself immensely, I had some quibbles with the production. If I were casting, I would have had Mr. Terfel and Mr. Quast switch roles, and would have cast Mr. Johnson as Tobias. I also missed the organ prelude and certain elements of the book and score (I never realized how much I missed the line “How many bells are there?” until it was gone!) However, it was a thrill to hear Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements so expertly played by the Philharmonic, I could hardly contain my excitement. I was so pleased at what you were able to accomplish with such limited rehearsal time that a few minor problems ultimately don’t matter. For a NY debut, I don’t think it could get more memorable than this.

I do hope that the rapturous reception of your appearance with the Philharmonic will entice you to return to the New York stage, and sooner rather than later. Play, musical, Broadway, off-Broadway; whatever you chose, it would certainly be a welcome experience. Personally, I would love to see you tackle the role of Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. I think you have the right comic sensibility, depth and voice to play her.  You and Mr. Sondheim suit each other quite well.

Please come back to us soon. In the meanwhile, I look forward to revisiting your performance on the Live from Lincoln Center broadcast.

Warmest regards,

~Kevin D. Daly
Theatre Aficionado (at Large)

“Born Yesterday”


Luminous, effervescent, captivating, staggering, astonishing, breathtaking. These are all words I have used in the past five days to describe Nina Arianda’s star-making performance as Billie Dawn in the smashing new revival of Born Yesterday. The truth is these adjectives don’t even begin to describe the magic currently happening onstage at the Cort Theatre. Ms. Arianda isn’t merely making a Broadway debut, she is effortlessly establishing herself as one of the brightest new faces in American theatre. (For the record, I missed Ms. Arianda’s off-Broadway triumph in Venus in Fur and the sound that you hear is me kicking myself).

She makes her entrance casually, gaudily dressed and entirely unimpressed with the opulent $235 a night hotel suite, her tycoon boyfriend’s braggadocio and the world of Washington politics. She quickly exits, but already an impression has been made. In the meantime other characters are talking, extolling necessary exposition that will come to impact the play’s climax and denouement. But it’s already too late for everyone else onstage. The tall, lithe blonde has merely walked across the stage and yet already captivated an entire audience. By the end of Born Yesterday, Arianda’s Billie has earned not only our love, but our respect and admiration.

Much of the credit is due to author Garson Kanin, who wrote in many interesting layers and memorable lines for the character. (When asked, “What’s Democratic?” Billie replies, “Not Republican.”) When the tycoon realizes she may become a liability in Washington circles, he hires a reporter to smooth out her rough edges. She resists these early attempts, insisting that she enjoys being dumb and that she is happy with what she has. But Billie Dawn is someone who has sacrificed her career, her relationship with her father and her dignity for a man who treats her as a business commodity, often brusquely and brutally. Knowledge is power, which the tycoon only realizes when it’s too late and she threatens his business exploits. It makes it all the more thrilling to watch her grow and become obsessed with learning, from asking questions. I haven’t felt so thrilled for a singular characterization in some time; Ms. Arianda is likely to become a sensation, not unlike the role’s originator Judy Holliday.

Jim Belushi plays Harry Brock, an uncouth junk tycoon who blusters his way through life and business, a contemptible bully. He is a mess of instant contradictions: embarrassed by Billie’s lack of social graces while raving about like an uncouth jackass. Much of his performance is pitched higher (even a reference to his yelling in the script), but Belushi provides a fantastic antagonist. Robert Sean Leonard is reporter Paul Verrall, idealistic but cynical; a man for whom integrity is important. It’s not the showiest of the roles, but Mr. Leonard plays him with utter sincerity, but could bring up the romantic spark a few notches.

Frank Wood plays Brock’s self-loathing alcoholic attorney who was once Attorney General, but is easily bought. Wood effectively portrayed these elements of the character, but there were some issues with his diction at the performance I attended. Michael McGrath lurks and menaces as Brock’s cousin and main henchman. Patricia Hodges makes a delicious cameo as a haughty senator’s wife. The cast of thirteen also includes Terry Beaver, Jennifer Regan and Danny Rutigliano in small, but memorable appearances.

While there are some creaky moments, I was most surprised by the play’s relevance. It’s a product of its time, and some of the sensibilities date. However, it was not much of a stretch from 1946 to 2011 watching a corrupt tycoon try to buy government support for his dubious business practices. Harry Brock is a larger-than-life antecedent of those CEOs and banks who brought the country to the brink of financial ruin in 2008. He’s brash, bombastic and so rich that he thinks he’s entitled to everything he wants. He will bully and abuse everyone from a bell-hop to U.S Senator. In our reality, he would most likely get his way. However, Kanin reminds us that the people are the government.

Director Doug Hughes, whose revival of The Royal Family was also a sumptuous period feast, stages Kanin’s text with a deft comic touch. These actors are playing for character and not laughs, making it a warmer experience than I even anticipated. The experience is heightened by the lavish set and costumes, with stunning period detail. John Lee Beatty’s divine navy blue and gold trimmed hotel suite earns gasps and applause as the curtain rises while Catherine Zuber’s costumes are perfection (the way she dresses Billie Dawn as she transforms is pure genius). It’s the best sort of eye candy.

Beg, borrow or steal. Do whatever you can to get to the Cort Theatre. Nina Arianda is not to be missed.

“Promises, Promises” – The New Broadway Cast Recording

When I received the new Broadway cast recording of Promises, Promises from Sony Masterworks last week, I have to confess I didn’t have high expectations. The reviews for the show were far from raves, and had been led to believe the show was a huge bomb. Much to my surprise, the cast album for this production is quite enjoyable. In fact it is one of the more spirited cast albums I’ve heard in quite some time. Full disclosure – I haven’t seen the revival so I cannot comment on the quality of the production as it plays onstage, but am aware of instances where the cast album can make a production sound better on disc than it played in the theatre.

From start to finish there is much to enjoy. Sean Hayes isn’t as distinctive as either Jerry Orbach or Tony Roberts and while his vibrato is a bit on the reedy side, he is certainly up for the inherent challenge and gives a welcome comic turn. He especially shines in “She Likes Basketball” and the title song. Kristin Chenoweth is somewhat more problematic as Fran. First off – interpolating Bacharach’s pop hits “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home” make absolutely no sense for her character to be singing. Period. Chenoweth is famed for that seemingly endless coloratura range, and her voice doesn’t translate as well to belt/mix like other sopranos. Also, making “A House is Not a Home” an emotional focal center of the production shows genuine mistrust of the material by the creative team, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Tony-winner Katie Finneran gives it her all as drunken Marge and she makes an interesting impression on “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful,” which has a fantastic dance break. Dick Latessa does well in his duet “A Young, Pretty Girl Like You.” On the other hand, “Turkey Lurkey Time” is a complete dud. You’d be better off with the original Broadway cast recording or that glorious youtube clip. Tony Goldwyn has very little to do on record as the cad boss who leads Fran on, singing “Wanting Things” and duetting with Hayes on “It’s Our Little Secret,” which features its verse on record for the first time).

The sound is crisp, there is extra music as well as the show’s finale with the famed last line  and really makes the rideouts of the songs just really hit home (it’s also easier to hear the pit singers here, too). The set is also blessed with ample liner notes, complete with the lyrics but lacking a thorough plot synopsis. Oh, and naturally there are plenty of photographs from the production.

Another thing about the score and show Promises, Promises. It’s based on the 1960 film The Apartment, but composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and librettist Neil Simon created a contemporary musical in 1968 and the music is so much of that era that it genuinely strikes me as odd that the show has been pushed back to 1962. The syncopations, the rhythms and orchestrations are all evocative of the late 60s and it ‘s absurd to try and make it otherwise. The nature of the decade was so turbulent that 1962 is a million light years removed from 1968. It makes absolutely no sense to do that, especially if it’s to capitalize on Mad Men (which is referenced in advertising for the show. Mad Men the Musical is about the last thing I would ever care to see).

So it’s not the perfect reading of the show, but it’s still quite an enjoyable listen nonetheless. The real surprise about this particular album is the way it’s recorded. I’ve felt that a lot of recent revival albums have failed to capture the vibrancy of the onstage experience (Patti’s Gypsy and South Pacific come readily to mind) or the energy of earlier counterparts. This album, warts and all, pops from the overture to finish. Almost everything about this recording is alive and quite engaging (with the exceptions noted above); so much so that though I was wary of seeing the actual show, I’m now quite interesting in going. What can I say? The power of the cast album compels me.

“The Bomb-itty of Errors” @ HVSF

Full disclosure: I don’t know all that much about the hip-hop. (Surprise, surprise). However, I was curious when I heard that the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival would be presenting a show called The Bomb-itty of Errors in its summer lineup. Based on The Comedy of Errors (also the basis for the marvelous Rodgers & Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse, as well as the not-so-marvelous Oh, Brother), the farcical plot revolves around two sets of twins separated at birth and the chaos of mistaken identity that ensues when they end up in the same town, taken from the ancient plays of Plautus. It’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and is a full-out, no holds barred low-brow slapstick comedy.

Shakespearean purists might be affronted, but the rest of the masses will undoubtedly be amused (and I like to think those in the stalls at the Globe would have been amused, too). Utilizing a cast of four, a DJ and a unit set, the high spirited, fast-paced production directed by Chris Edwards produces a fountain of laughs. If some of the shtick falls flat and it’s not as consistently strong or satisfying as last year’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (there are bound to be inevitable comparisons between the two), there is enough in Bomb-itty, which is unashamedly bombastic and ribald, to amuse and entertain. The bulk of the show’s success is due to the superlative ensemble, who each play multiple roles in a sort of rapping panto. As a sort of hip-hoperetta, the piece takes some liberties with the storyline and structure (this time both sets of twins are fraternal quadruplets. Don’t ask, just enjoy), but tells the fundamental plot using rap, rhythm and the assistance of the dee-jay.

While the text may be a bit too raw for my taste, the casting is flawless. The four actors play multiple parts, men and women (oh, the drag…) and bring the audience into the action in a way that isn’t quite possible with any other variation of this piece. All four are utterly fearless, unafraid to push the envelope of ribald comedy and completely free to throw caution to the wind. Some of the humor might be a bit too lewd for the kids, but then again it might just sail over their heads. Parents, use your own discretion.

Michael Borrelli scores the biggest laugh of the night channeling a Hasidic Phil Silvers (as jeweler Himmelberg, another creation that I don’t recall from the original), telling a three minute improvised “Yo Momma” joke the show to a crashing halt with its inspired comic brilliance. Christian Jacobs, billed as the Phantom of the Choppera (whom I’ve known since high school and whose worked I have always enjoyed), is the most at ease with the hip-hop form and is a collection of manic energy and frenzy; bold and fearless. Patrick Halley (Wintry Mix) is steadily amusing throughout, but his highlight is an inspired turn as Luciana; strident, stupid and unbelievably vapid Luciana, whose later entrances were enough to induce belly laughs. Wayne T. Carr (Black Light) plays both Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife Adriana, and is so believable and so vibrant you forget how easily he switches from one to the other. Christopher Joshua McCardle is DJ iPhool, who has very little in the way of lines, but provides important support from his sound booth and turntable.

More than any other show that I’ve seen at the festival, the sound and lighting design play a far more substantial part with the proceedings and help to give the theatre the feeling of a night at a club. I must give kudos to whomever was working behind the show’s “curtain” with the props and costume changes. There were changes so fast and so clean I couldn’t help but gasp (the same could be said for those around me). I cannot begin to imagine the frenzy of dresses, wigs and pieces that flew around in that limited backstage area.

I don’t know how artistic director Terry O’Brien feels about the musicals based on Shakespeare plays, but with the success of Bomb-itty I’d be really curious to see if the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival would tackle Your Own Thing or Galt McDermot and John Guare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. The other shows this season include Troilus and Cressida and The Taming of the Shrew. I’ll be reporting on those soon.

"Next Fall"

(Possible spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned).

There has been much hype surrounding Geoffrey Nauffts’ play Next Fall, which has become something of a critical darling in a rather ho-hum season for new plays. The play, about the contentious romantic relationship between two gay men – one Christian, one atheist/agnostic. The play literally starts with a bang – a car crash to be specific, which places one half of the couple in a coma. In a style reminiscent of Diana Son’s Stop-Kiss, the narrative unfolds in a series of scenes that switch between the present and past, alternatively unraveling the precarious and unlikely nature of the relationship.

But ultimately, Next Fall fails to deliver on its promise of profundity. Instead the audience is subjected to a lackluster play that is half sitcom, half melodrama (complete with expected hospital waiting room histrionics). The characters don’t fare much better: they lack complexity and ultimately become ciphers, allowing the playwright to get on his soapbox. There is some shading to Adam and Luke, but everyone on the periphery is flatly written. Dad is a redneck fundamentalist Christian, mom a bizarre reformed free-spirit addicted to painkillers, and there’s the obligatory Grace Adler-esque best friend. Then there’s the ex-boyfriend, but more on him later.

The relationship between Adam and Luke is represented in a perfunctory fashion. Adam is a high-strung, neurotic New York mess (think Woody Allen minus the wit). Luke is presented as a pure, naive Christian, well-meaning and ignorant. Luke’s parents are presented as narrow-minded, stereotypes of conservative Christianity. In relying on these cultural stereotypes, Nauffts’ gives himself an outlet for his worldview, but doesn’t offer anything compelling or revelatory in the process.

The strident, snarky Adam is both irritating and aggravating because of his insensitivity and unyielding narcissism. There were certain questions he asked Luke which had credence, but that was undermined by his total lack of compassion, especially in the scene where he asks Luke to love him more than God. Perhaps it’s just me, but if you really love someone you accept them for who they are, and it seemed as though Adam never did. I wanted to paraphrase The Sound of Music for them – just because Luke loves God doesn’t mean he loves Adam less. For someone who demands acceptance from others, Adam is very unwilling to offer it himself.

It’s to the play’s disservice that Luke is written and portrayed in such a simpleminded way. There’s an infinitely more interesting play to be written when the two characters are intellectual equals, or last on an even playing field. There was no one there to represent the middle-ground where ultimately most of the people I know tend to fall. One particular idea that is completely missing from the discussion are those who believe in God, or some other higher power, but not in organized religion (and there are many out there who do).

Breen does what he can with Adam’s uptight persona, but is mostly monotonous. Heusinger has similar troubles with Luke, but managed to get my sympathy (I tend to root for the underdog in a situation). Connie Ray and Cotter Smith are strong performers in search of strong material as Luke’s parents Arlene and Butch (why don’t you just hit us over the head with a hammer) but fail to register. Maddie Corman is a pretty, talented actress with charm and comic sensibility, but she seems more interesting than the character she is playing. The role of Brandon, Luke’s ex-boyfriend is cripplingly underdeveloped and given a stultifying portrayal by Sean Dugan. Even after Brandon’s big scene in the second act, there is very little to warrant his presence in the play.

Ultimately, Luke dies of his injuries at the end of the play leading into a sober denouement in which the characters slowly disperse. But after 2 1/2 hours of watching him vilified by his lover for his beliefs, it felt more like the playwright was sacrificing the character because of his faith. A first-time playwright, Nauffts needed more time to workshop and shape his text. What we are left with are talking points that are never molded into anything definitive, dialogue that wouldn’t pass muster in a second-rate sitcom and the vague outlines of character. When the houselights came up, I was left with a decidedly autumnal chill.

"Lend Me a Tenor"

Leaving the Music Box Theatre after seeing the infectious new revival of Lend Me a Tenor, I found myself unable to stop humming “La Donna è Mobile,” the famed aria from Rigoletto. No matter what I did or what song I played, it remained at the back of mind – buoyant, effervescent and melodic. The aria is heard as the house lights go down and curtain comes up on Ken Ludwig’s popular farce, instantly grabbing you and immersing you into the roller coaster ride of sidesplitting comedy about to enfold onstage. Like that aria, this new production sings out with gusto that will leave you buoyant, effervescent and smiling long after you have left the theatre.

The original production was a big hit in 1989. Starring Victor Garber, Tovah Feldshuh, and Tony-winning Phil Bosco, it ran for over a year and instantly became a staple in stock and community productions. (Its world premiere was in London in 1986). The plot in brief: the Cleveland Grand Opera is expecting a world-renowned Italian tenor for their gala. When he becomes indisposed, hijinks, misunderstandings and a hell of a lot of door slamming ensues. As a farce, the play itself is merely good, not great. Ludwig’s text as a whole feels more like a rough draft of a greater comedy that has yet to be realized. There are some missed opportunities (especially with the Bellhop, who should have more to do) and its ending seems somewhat abrupt and rushed. However, this production is so laugh out loud hilarious and features a top notch ensemble of actors, that it’s incredibly easy to both forget and forgive the shortcomings of its writing.

Anthony LaPaglia shines as Tito, the egomaniacal tenor in question whose propensity for women and booze causes most of the evening’s chaos, and is especially memorable for the fearlessness of his physicality, particularly in the scene where he gives the impressionable would-be tenor Max a lesson in voice and relaxation. It must be seen for full effect. Tony Shalhoub is in full cigar-chomping mode as the temperamental producer Sanders. Jay Klaitz is a comic revelation as the endearing Bellhop (and operaphile). Movie star Justin Bartha makes an impressive Broadway debut as the nebbishy Max, who vacillates between the sadsack producer’s assistant and confident opera diva when masquerading as Tito with considerable aplomb.

Mary Catherine Garrison winningly proves that ingenues have dirty dreams as Saunders’ daughter and Max’s girlfriend, and whose scream in the second act is one of the funniest moments I’ve seen on this or any other stage. The ever-reliable Jennifer Laura Thompson, always a welcome presence, taps into her quirky comic skills as the seductively ambitious diva Diana. Brooke Adams is far too striking to convince as a dowdy, past-her-prime matron, but the actress – mercilessly decked out like the Chrysler building – scores some big laughs.

Jan Maxwell effortlessly walks away with the entire evening as Maria, Tito’s fiery, jealous wife. Maxwell, who was last seen giving a bravura star turn in the shimmering revival of The Royal Family, hits another home run as she rages, seethes and breaks down with an exaggerated Italian accent. Whenever she is onstage she is in total command, somehow maintaining her character’s elegance in spite of her antics. She brought the first act to a crashing halt by merely hissing. After the disappointments of To Be or Not to Be and Coram Boy (which deserved to be a hit), it is especially welcoming to see Maxwell having such a banner season. Ms. Maxwell is one of the unquestionable treasures of the NY theatre scene, equally adept in both plays and musicals. If there is a God, Maxwell should be nominated for a Tony (for this and The Royal Family) – and she should win.

Then, of course, there is the director. Stanley Tucci, in his first Broadway directing gig, is as gifted a director as he is actor. His task is not an easy one; staging a successful farce is incredibly difficult as it involves laser-sharp timing from the loudest door slam to the tiniest gesture. His work here is infectious and inventive, bringing lightning pace and visual gigs, but also a certain touch of humanity that wouldn’t normally seem possible in pure farce. Tucci’s directorial touch is solid 14 karat gold. Anyone sitting center orchestra should also watch out for flying objects – all spit takes and such gags are directed out at the audience, a rather zany, inspired touch from a genius actor turned director.

John Lee Beatty’s sumptuous set captures the elegance of a posh hotel suite in the 30s, so vividly realized its as though a penthouse was cut in half and placed onstage. Martin Pakledinaz has once again outdone himself with his period costumes. His eye-popping outfits worn by his leading ladies are especially memorable (the image of Jan Maxwell casting off her fur-lined wrap is a vivid image that will aways stick with me).

Lend Me a Tenor is undoubtedly the hit comedy of the season, and the funniest thing this side of The Norman Conquests. I look forward to making another visit, especially to revel in the genius of Ms. Maxwell, but also in appreciation of Mr. Tucci’s immense achievement. Oh – and for that tour de force curtain call, which is worth the price of admission alone.

Simpler Yet Still Sublime: "Ragtime"

Some might feel it is too soon for a revival of Ragtime, but there is no time like the present for this exhilarating, moving epic musical based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. The show is well known for its opulent original production, a history pageant that spared no expense in becoming a theatrical event. That production lingers in the hearts and minds of many theatre-goers for its superb original cast, and the Tony-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. It also is remembered for the less than stellar reception it received the first time around, finding itself in competition with the critical darling The Lion King across the street, losing the Best Musical Tony and closing when Garth Drabinsky’s Livent collapsed after 834 performances and a financial loss.

Imported from the Kennedy Center, this production strips away the physical extravagance that some felt overwhelmed the first production, finding at its heart the story of three diverse families whose lives somehow intersect during the post-Gilded Age. More faithful to the source material than the film adaptation, the musical Ragtime opens with one of the most extraordinary pieces of expository writing known to musical theatre. In nine minutes, we are introduced to every major character, every theme and every thread of plot which we are to follow for the next two and a half hours.

An archetype family of affluent WASPS living in Westchester find themselves rattled from their suburban complacency by the discovery of an abandoned African American baby in their garden. The family’s lives are forever changed by this moment, by taking in the young woman and exposing themselves to much of the unjustices and darker underbelly of the American dream (as experienced by the immigrant Tateh, who also becomes intertwined in their lives in the second act). Doctorow’s original novel finds these fictional characters encountering many historical figures such as Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington. Those characters are also supplanted into the musical, where they serve as observers and commentators on the main fragments of the plot.

Comparisons with the original production are inevitable, especially given it’s been less than ten years since the original closed at the (now) Hilton Theatre. However, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in removing the opulence turns this large musical into an actor driven piece. It’s not as drastic as the family band version of Sweeney Todd from a few seasons back, but it places further emphasis on the characters, who are less stately and more realized in this production. Rather than overwhelming the audience in its history, Dodge focuses on the human connections providing great emotional intensity in her stage visuals.

Quentin Earl Darrington plays Coalhouse with an unaffected earnestness that is tragically contrasted by his grief-stricken vigilantism in the second act. Stephanie Umoh has the the inenviable task of filling Audra McDonald’s Tony award winning shoes as the ill-fated Sarah, but if she doesn’t make you forget her predecessor, she certainly rises to the occasion. Ron Bohmer finds considerable dimension in Father, a man aware of change around him but so grounded in his fastidious manner he can’t accept or adapt to it. Even more pleasantly surprising is his ability to make his character sympathetic. Rob Petkoff exudes considerable warmth and charm as the immigrant turned filmmaker Tateh. Bobby Steggert proves exceptional as Mother’s Younger Brother, simmering with angst and finding himself through activism, and later joining Coalhouse in his quest for justice.

The emotional core of the entire musical is to be found in Christiane Noll’s layered, multifaceted portrayal of Mother. The character with the most overwhelming arc, Mother emerges from docile housewife to an independent woman aware of herself and her responsibility in the world. Noll, known mostly as the woman who wasn’t Linda Eder in the original Jekyll & Hyde, comes into her own with a star making turn that is sure to be the talk of the spring’s awards season. She finds humor and pathos in the most subtle nuances of her performance, enhanced by the singing actress’ sumptuous soprano.

The intimacy of Dodge’s staging is further enhanced by the three-tier set by Derek McLane. Utilizing set pieces and lighting, the stage becomes a Ford factory, the house in New Rochelle, the Tempo Club in Harlem, Atlantic City and the Morgan Library, among other locales. The skeletal abstract nature of the design creates some striking tableau vivants, particularly those seen at the very top of the show and during “New Music.” Supporting actors are often found on a tier of the set, observing the story going on below and is ultimately a spare and effective use of the space. Santo Loquasto, costume designer of the original production, repeats the honor here. The lighting design is by Donald Holder, whose work here is the most atmospheric aspect of the scenography.

I have had the privilege of seeing this musical twice already, once on its first preview and again the other evening (where I found myself behind Ben Brantley). It’s no secret among friends and fellow bloggers that this was the musical production I’ve been looking forward to the most this season. One of the most powerful scores of the last twenty years, Flaherty’s music runs the gamut of period styles including cakewalks, rags, marches as well as soaring anthems and lingering ballads. Ahrens’ lyrics are among her best. One of the strengths of this revival is its retention of William David Brohns Tony-winning original 28 piece orchestration, complemented by exceptional singing. The only severe flaw I tend to find with the show is that it tends to wear its heart and ambition on its sleeve far more than it should, and Terrence McNally’s libretto, while an exceptional example of adapting a novel for musical theatre, fails to match the elegance of the score.

If the current revival at the Neil Simon Theatre is in every capacity less stately than the original production, it’s a stirring, overwhelmingly emotional event. Already, I am aching for the opportunity to see the show again, as I don’t know if I’ve ever been so moved by a musical production. I saw the original production of The Light in the Piazza a whopping twelve times, and that’s my personal record and I wouldn’t be surprised if this enthusing, affirming revival smashes that record. I can only hope that this time, Ragtime is welcomed to Broadway with the open arms it deserved the first time around.