Theatre Reviews

The Real Thing Returns

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Tom Stoppard is known for his deeply intellectual and insightful plays such as: Arcadia, Indian Ink, and The Real Thing. Stoppard has a way of forming stories and dialogue that is simultaneously intellectual and extremely gripping and moving. The current Roundabout revival of The Real Thing at the American Airlines Theater. Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Cynthia Nixon lead a truly phenomenal cast in, arguably, Stoppard’s greatest work.

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Ewan McGregor in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Photo Credit: Roundabout Theatre Company.

The Real Thing is a story of love, loss, growing up, and intellectual differences. McGregor’s Henry is deeply intellectual and, therefore, sometimes arrogant or haughty. I felt a deep connection to his character because his “superior” feelings on literature and music are some that I, myself, have dealt with in the past. An early discussion is his dilemma of having to choose eight records that he would want with him on a deserted island for an upcoming radio interview, he is a famous playwright. He feels that he should have with him “important” music, i.e. Beethoven or Mozart, but he dislikes that kind of music and prefers what he deems “guilty pleasures” of current pop music like The Everly Brothers or The Chiffons. Henry’s intellectual struggles are a major theme of the play and McGregor shows his prowess in one of the most challenging characters I’ve seen him do.

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Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing. Photo Credit: Variety.com

Gyllenhaal and Nixon were equally adept at handling their characters of Annie and Charlotte, respectfully. Ms. Nixon plays Charlotte, Henry’s soon-to-be ex-wife and mother to their daughter, Debbie, whom she played in the original production in 1984. Charlotte is much more free-spirited than Henry and their scenes are infused with a battle of the sexes that is quite refreshing. Gyllenhaal plays Annie who is Henry’s mistress and soon-to-be second wife. Annie is even more free-spirited than Charlotte and her politically liberal sensibilities link her with a political prisoner, named Brodie, whom she has accepted a play he has written to star in. Henry doesn’t approved of Brodie’s writing style and clashes with Annie as a result.

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Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Real Thing. Photo credit: Roundabout Theatre Company

Henry seems to be at battle with everyone in his life because of his “superior” beliefs. He battles with Charlotte over their daughter and her lifestyle. He battles with Annie over her beliefs and her willingness to follow a lesser playwright. Henry’s struggle is one that is first and foremost human. That is the power of Stoppard’s writing. Tom Stoppard is a master of the human spirit and The Real Thing is a masterful examination of a very human life. Those theatergoers looking for a night in the theatre that will leave you questioning and hopefully discussing. There’s no greater feeling than walking out onto the street and turning to your theatre partner in a deep conversation over what you’ve just seen and you will get that from the Roundabout production of The Real Thing, running now until January 4 ONLY.

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Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Real Thing. Photo Credit: latimes.com

On the Town: A Hellava Show

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Last night I had the privilege of seeing Leonard Bernstein and Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s classic musical On the Town at the beautiful Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street. Everything about that sentence should conjure images of the Golden Age of Broadway. The current revival of this seminal piece of musical theatre history is everything a Broadway fan could ask for and more. The first notes of The Star Spangled Banner (used in lieu of an overture) to the final curtain following the bows, the show is pure joy. It is a colorful, musical romp through New York City that reminded me why I fell in love with musicals in the first place.

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Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, & Clyde Alves as Chip, Gabey, & Ozzie in On the Town! Photo Credit: Broadway.com

The current revival of On the Town is unique because it is banking, not on star wattage, but on the power of the name recognition of the creators and the support of die-hard Broadway fans revisiting a classic.  Tony Yazbeck stars as Gabey, the ringleader of a trio of sailors who are on leave to see New York City in just 24 hours, and has been hailed as the last of the matinee idols by Playbill. Yazbeck has serious Broadway chops, most notably as Tulsa in the 2008 revival of Gypsy starring Patti LuPone, and he brings everything he’s got in this star turn. Rarely have I seen a leading man have enough charisma and talent to light up a theater the size of the Lyric. He dominates that stage from his entrance to the final note of the bows. I hope that this role will give Mr. Yazbeck the recognition he deserves and maybe even a Tony nomination! His cohorts, played by Jay Armstrong Johnson & Clyde Alves, bring old fashioned comedy and style to the roles of Chip and Ozzie. Despite the exceptionally strong performances from the three leading men, the real showstoppers are the leading ladies.

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Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, & Clyde Alves search for Miss Turnstiles in On the Town. Photo credit: Broadway.com

Throughout the course of the show, all three sailors cross paths with women who steal their hearts, through some of the most brilliant comedy musical numbers ever written for the stage. Megan Fairchild stars as Ivy Smith, aka Miss Turnstiles, in her Broadway debut. Her career has been in ballet and she brings that class and technique to her role in On the Town, particularly in the epic ballet sequences, staged by Joshua Bergasse, in his Broadway debut as a choreographer. Elizabeth Stanley stars as Claire De Loone, an anthropologist studying the “modern man” when she runs into Ozzie in the Museum of Natural History and is immediately smitten with him during the showstopper “Carried Away,” complete with a dancing tyrannosaurus rex! Rounding out the trio of leading ladies is Alysha Umphress as Hildy, a fast talking and lovesick taxi driver. Ms. Umphress not only steals Chip’s heart but the entire show. She is fortunate to be given not one, but two showstoppers in act 1. Umphress takes the classic numbers “Come Up to My Place” and “I Can Cook Too” and destroys any memory of previous performers. She has the old school, brassy style that made legends like Ethel Merman, Elaine Stritch, and Patti LuPone stars. I’m going to predict now that you will see Alysha Umphress’ name in the running for Best Featured Actress in a Musical come June.

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Jay Armstrong Johnson & Alysha Umphress get steamy in On the Town! Photo Credit: Broadway.com

There is nothing cynical or deep about On the Town. The show is simply Broadway glory at its grandest. There are lush ballets, heart stopping ballads, brassy comedy numbers (assisted by fabulous character actors Jackie Hoffman, Philip Boykin, and Michael Rupert), and love scenes to make your head spin. If you don’t leave the theatre with a smile on your face, you should have your head checked. My first thought when the show finished was, “gee, they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.” It’s true, when you think of the Golden Age of Musical Theatre you think of classics like Oklahoma!, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, AND On the Town. Thank goodness someone has the forethought to revive them in such lush style and give the next generation a little history lesson and remind us all that New York really is A HELLAVA TOWN!

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Megan Fairchild gets a lesson from Jackie Hoffman in On the Town! Photo credit: Broadway.com

 

Butterworth & Jackman Return to Broadway!

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Jez Butterworth’s new play The River will open on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre on November 16, 2014 starring Hugh Jackman. Butterworth’s newest work showcases Jackman as “The Man” in this three person drama that highlights passion and loss of love.

Jackman is remarkably subtle, compared to his roles as Wolverine in X-Men and Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz, and brings passionate nuance to a challenging script. I have always been very critical of Mr. Jackman’s previous work so I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed his performance as much as I did. Mr. Butterworth’s script is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in that it tackles large, existential topics with quiet conversation and simple staging.

The play begins with Jackman’s character bringing his new girlfriend to his favorite place, a cabin in the woods where he goes night fishing. The entire play takes place inside the cabin and is a perfectly minimalistic set design by Ultz. The action is surrealistic and takes the audience on a wild journey through time, alternating continually throughout the play’s short 85 minute run. The twists and turns continue throughout and sometimes leave the audience breathless. I think this is the hardest play I’ve ever reviewed because the show is short enough that to reveal too much would ruin the plot twists, but I cannot accurately describe the plot without giving it all away. I’m sure that Mr. Butterworth was fully aware of the ambiguity of the piece as he was writing and he was brilliant to leave it to interpretation.

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The buzz in the lobby following the show was palpable. The audience was totally immersed in the story and continued discussing it following the show. The questions that Mr. Butterworth presents vastly outnumber the answers and that is why this piece works. Butterworth muses “What is love?,” “How long does it last?,” “Can it be replicated?,” “Is it worth replicating?” The River has been billed as a dark thriller but it is that and so much more. It deals with the darkness of our hearts and souls much more than the darkness in the woods and rivers.

Those theatregoers looking for an escape from reality and the problems of their lives will not find that in Jez Butterworth’s The River, instead, you will find a slap of reality as Hugh Jackman and his fellow cast mates wallow in the darkness of their hearts and allow it to overcome them. Mr. Jackman’s brilliant performance is what will draw audiences, as it should, and will definitely find him in the running for the Tony Award come June.

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Donald Margulies’ The Country House Charms

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Donald Margulies’ new play, The Country House, opened on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on October 2, 2014. The play stars Blythe Danner as an aging Broadway star who returns to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in an attempt to fill the hole that age has placed in her career. She returns with her son, Elliot (Eric Lange), granddaughter (Sarah Steele), and son-in-law (David Rasche), along with her son-in-law’s new fiancé (Kate Jennings Grant) and a former theatre colleague fresh off of a hit TV show (Daniel Sunjata). This motley crew of theatre folk find themselves under one roof while they work in and around the theatre festival.

Danner’s portrayal of the aging star, Anna Patterson, is certainly something to see. Ms. Danner brings her subtle acting style to Mr. Margulies’ mostly sharp dialogue. Danner’s character is by far the most interesting and varied of the bunch. She undergoes a quiet transformation from the opening scene to the closing. The great cloud that looms over the country house is that Patterson’s beloved daughter has recently passed away and her loved ones have all struggled (in different ways) to cope with her death. Margulies shows his skills by painting vastly different pictures of grief in each of the aforementioned characters, though none more masterfully than in the penultimate scene in which Anna and her son, Elliot (Lange), finally clash over his paranoia about his mother’s love.

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Sarah Steele, Eric Lange, and Blythe Danner in Donald Margulies’ The Country House

The play has a beautiful, steady build to the dialogue and dutifully mixes heightened drama with witty comedy. That being said, the play has moments that feel entirely self-indulgent. Margulies allows the story to become a bit melodramatic in much of the second act (particularly between Elliot (Lange) and Walter (Rasche), culminating in an actual brawl.) Ms. Jennings Grant is also a stand out as she becomes entangled in a house full of messy emotions and past (and current) lovers. Ms. Steele makes a lovely Broadway debut as the sassy, beloved granddaughter to Danner’s Anna. Broadway vet, David Rasche, is impossibly (sometimes to a fault) charming as Walter Keegan, Anna’s former son-in-law. Daniel Sunjata is perfectly cast as the all too attractive, Michael Astor, a former theatre mate and now A-list television star. The cast plays beautifully together and their chemistry is palpable, in no small part because of Daniel Sullivan’s skillful direction. The production design at Manhattan Theatre Club is always impressive and John Lee Beatty’s set and Rita Ryack’s costumes are no different.

I applaud non-profit theatre companies like Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout Theatre Company for taking risks on new works and presenting them with the same flair as the classics. That being said, The Country House is a charming walk through the summer of a theatre crowd and nothing more. This is not Margulies’ best work, nor his worst, but it is a lovely way to spend an afternoon (as I did) and you will not be disappointed having seen Ms. Danner at the top of her game.

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Kate Jennings Grant, Daniel Sunjata, and Blythe Danner in Donald Margulies’ The Country House