Kyle Riabko and Laura Dreyfuss in What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined
(©Eric Ray Davidson)
Don’t expect brassy horns or Dionne Warwick-style belting in What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, the accurately titled new musical revue celebrating the work of the legendary pop composer. This show featuring some two dozen pop classics indeed reinterprets them in startling fashion, presenting the material in a rhythmic, indie rock style a la such performers as Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens. But while the stripped-down approach to the songs is certainly original, it also has the unfortunate effect of draining the life out of most of them.
Opinions will no doubt be sharply divided on the show co-conceived by Kyle Riabko and David Lane Seltzer, with the former also serving as performer and musical arranger. Being a huge Bacharach fan myself, I’m not necessarily averse to hearing his music performed in a different style. But the seven- member ensemble deliver nearly every number in the same low-key, sincere manner that ultimately proves simply monotonous.
The beauty of the melodies of such songs as “This Guy’s in Love With You,” “The Look of Love,” “Close to You” and so many others still shines brightly, as do the lyrics by Bacharach’s longtime collaborator Hal David and several others. But the overly solemn delivery feels dirge-like, giving the staged concert the feel of a memorial service rather than a celebration. And the youthfulness of the performers and overall preciousness of the staging make it resemble a very special episode of Glee.
Riabko starts off the evening solo, with a heartfelt introduction and the playing of an inconsequential message left on his answering machine by the composer himself. Playing guitar and singing in a sweet tenor voice, he comes across as a lightweight, with the rest of the performers—Daniel Bailen, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams and Daniel Woods, many of them doubling as instrumentalists--making a similarly underwhelming impression.
The songs are often presented in mashed-up, medley form, mostly to their detriment. Verses of one number bleed into another, giving them the feel of snippets. Director Steve Hoggett (Once, American Idiot) seems intent on compensating for the lack of musical spark by employing constant bits of silly stage business. During “Walk on By,” the performers solemnly arrange chairs onto a circular platform in the center of the stage, which mainly serves to reference the opening lyrics of the next number, “A House is Not a Home” (“A chair is still a chair).” For “Make It Easy on Yourself,” the performers revolve on the spinning platform for an apparent reason whatsoever.
Adding to the overall Williamsburg hipster vibe is the extravagant set design by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis featuring large rugs and countless antique lamps. Sofas in several corners of the stage accommodate not only the performers but also several audience members who seem pleased by the close proximity. Japhy Weideman’s overly busy lighting design tries too hard to be in synch with the music, while the choreography seems all too similar to Hoggett’s work on Once.
To be fair, there are some outstanding moments, such as Lopez’ slow, soulful take on “Don’t Make Me Over” and Dreyfuss’ equally affecting “Walk on By.” In general, the solo numbers are more effective than the group ones which suffer from excessive busyness.
By the end of the 90-minute evening, the net effect is more enervating than exhilarating, not a quality one would normally associate with Bacharach’s buoyant music. The only moment of pure fun comes with the encore, “What’s New, Pussycat,” no doubt chosen because it’s virtually impossible to deliver it in serious fashion.
The endless eagerness to please is reinforced by yet another cutesy gimmick. Leaving the theater, the audience is greeted by the performers who have already rushed outside to serenade us with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Fortunately for both them and us, it was a blissfully clear night.
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. 212-279-4200. www.ticketcentral.com. Through Jan. 5.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Be sure not to rush out during the curtain calls of the new revival of Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. After taking their bows, the veteran British thespians break into a song and dance routine that seems right out of vaudeville. The cutesy moment is reflective of the lighthearted nature of director Sean Mathias’ production being performed in repertory with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.
Younger theatergoers thrilled by the prospect of seeing the stars of such screen blockbusters as the Star Trek, X-Men and Lord of the Rings series may well find themselves befuddled by these two ingeniously paired, willfully obscure classics. But if luring them in with the presence of these iconic screen stars is what it takes, so be it.
Godot is by far the more accessible of the two; no small irony considering how its meanings have been endlessly debated over the years. That’s because the production takes pains to emphasize the humor of the piece, often at the expense of its stark bleakness. Indeed, Stewart’s Vladimir and McKellen’s Estragon are here such cuddly partners in scene stealing that it’s no wonder that their escapades were greeted several times by the cry, “Oh, it’s so cute” from the young woman sitting behind me.
Her reaction, not one usually encountered while seeing this existential drama, was not inappropriate. Whether engaging in an elaborate hat switching routine with the aplomb of silent screen comedians or performing such bits of comic business as practically launching into a tap dancing routine after trying on a new pair of shoes, the actors repeatedly milk the piece for laughs both intended and not.
The theatricality of their approach is echoed by Stephen Brimson Lewis’ imaginative set design. Rather than the usual barren apocalyptic wasteland, the action is set in a decrepit old theater that is literally falling apart, with a lone tree bursting through the wooden floorboards. It’s doubtful that Beckett would have approved, but it’s certainly a memorable image.
Not surprisingly, the actors--longtime friends and screen collaborators whose onstage chemistry is palpable--handle the language beautifully. When Estragon comments that their encounter with Lucky and Pozzo certainly made the time pass, Stewart brings down the house with his perfectly timed deadpan response: “It would have passed anyway.”
But for all the actors’ undeniable technical expertise, the production never quite succeeds in mustering up the necessary nihilism, summed up by the repeated phrase, “Nothing to be done.” Even the scenes involving the menacing Pozzo (Shuler Hensley) and his hapless servant Lucky (Billy Crudup) are less chilling than usual, as if not to usurp the air of jollity on display. This Godot certainly earns laughs, but it’s hard to imagine that the play was ever intended to be a feel good experience.
Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
That’s certainly not the problem with No Man’s Land. The rarely performed 1975 work, last seen on Broadway nearly two decades ago in a production starring Jason Robards and Christopher Plummer, is one of Pinter’s more ambiguous efforts, and that’s saying something. It concerns the encounter between two elderly men, Hirst (Stewart) and Spooner (McKellen), who after meeting in a pub have retired to the former’s palatial townhouse where they drink and talk late into the night. Gradually we discern that Hirst is a distinguished man of letters, while Spooner is a failed poet who may or may not have been his former Oxford classmate.
The exact nature of their relationship remains ever mysterious, summed up by the opening line of the play in which the alcoholic Hirst, offering his companion a drink, asks “As it is?” The later appearance of his apparent servants Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley) invites further questions, as they seem more intent on leading their boss towards self-destruction than protecting him.
The oblique nature of the proceedings is alleviated by the playwright’s pungently poetic dialogue and the hugely entertaining performances by the two leads, who handle the verbal and physical demands of their roles with dazzling dexterity. Stewart seems barely in control of his body as his Hirst lurches around drunken stupor, while McKellen infuses the smallest gestures with inspired moments of comic brilliance.
What the play all adds up to is anyone’s guess. But in any case, it’s a pleasure to watch these old pros take such delight both in each other and the material. At an age where they could comfortably rest on their laurels or simply rake continue in the big bucks, they’re instead bringing new audiences to this challenging drama whose meanings remain ever elusive.
Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. 212-239-6200. www.telecharge.com. Through March 2.
Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night"
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Unlike ordinary theatergoers, critics don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing their Shakespeare productions, having to sit through every Hamlet and King Lear that comes the pike with depressing regularity. So the prospect of enduring yet another Twelfth Night and Richard III, even if they were being presented by the excellent Shakespeare’s Globe and starring the peerless Mark Rylance, felt like a chore.
So it’s a pleasure, then, to report that these sterling revivals are the finest Shakespeare productions seen on our shores in eons. Performed by an all-male cast and presented with dazzling period authenticity, they bring these oft-performed warhorses to blazing new life.
The productions directed by Tim Carroll are truly immersive, in both the physical and emotional sense. Jenny Tiramani’s unit wooden set recalls the sort of grand indoor halls in which many of the plays were first performed, with boxes on either side accommodating audience members onstage. Large chandeliers contain a multitude of candles, their wax periodically dripping onto the stage. Above the stage is a balcony in which seven musicians play instruments solely from the period, with the program notes proudly informing us that this is the first time Renaissance instruments have been performed live in a Broadway play. Even the costumes are made mainly from materials dating back the late 16th and 17th century. It’s as if one had entered a time machine.
But all that attention to detail would come to naught if the productions themselves weren’t so thrillingly vital. Both the melodramatic, violent Richard III and the deliriously silly Twelfth Night are rendered with a rare immediacy and clarity that, for novices, make the plot synopses provided in the program utterly superfluous.
If I’m partial to the Twelfth Night, it’s because so many productions of Shakespeare’s comedies are filled with broad mugging and frantic silliness. Here, director Carroll and his sterling cast mine all of the play’s rich humor without sacrificing its deep emotions. The actors portraying the female roles, most notably Rylance as Olivia and Samuel Barnett as Viola, never resort to flouncing or affectation. Wearing whiteface, they project femininity without seeming like men in drag. Just the way Rylance practically glides across the stage in his long gowns produces endless laughs.
Add to that Stephen Fry, making his long belated Broadway debut as a Malvolio thankfully devoid of caricature; Angus Wright, hilarious as the buffoonish Sir Andrew Aguecheck; and a priceless Paul Chahidi as Olivia’s loyal lady in waiting, and you have a Twelfth Night that is as riotous as it is sublime.
The Richard III is equally revelatory, thanks to Rylance’s startling interpretation of the title role. He foregoes the traditional menace, portraying the title character with a disarming buffoonery that gives him the air of a stand-up comedian: this must surely be the first time that Richard’s opening “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech has ever induced laughter. But as the play progresses and the body count increases, the character becomes all the more chilling for his disingenuousness. The climactic battle sequence is rendered almost entirely offstage, but its brutality has never been seemed so palpable.
Most Shakespeare productions seen on Broadway these days are designed as star vehicles—think Jude Law’s Hamlet and Denzel Washington’s Julius Caesar—but that’s hardly the case here despite Rylance’s dazzling turns. Rather, they are fully organic and alive, reminding us that the works of the Bard need not be wholly medicinal.
Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St. 212-239-6200. www.Telecharge.com. Through Feb. 2, 2014.
Virgil "Lil' O" Gadson, Karine Plantadit and Company in After Midnight
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)
It may be called After Midnight, but the new musical revue that’s just opened on Broadway could just have easily taken its title from Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express,” performed by a big band dubbed The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars as if their lives depended on it. This show conceived by Jack Viertel--originally presented at City Center a couple of seasons back under the title Cotton Club Parade—celebrates the glory days of that legendary Harlem nightspot with such unflagging energy and exhilaration that it’s guaranteed to send you out of the theater with a smile on your face. It’s such a potent dose of theatrical anti-depressant that a prescription should be required instead of a ticket.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle (Finian’s Rainbow, Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway), the 90-minute show pays tribute to Ellington’s years at the club during the Prohibition era. It features songs by him and such famous contemporaries as Harold Arlen, Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields and others, as well as judiciously selected text by the African-American poet Langston Hughes.
For this open-ended Broadway run, the cast has been augmented by a couple of ringers. Dule Hill--who gained television fame with The West Wing and Psych but has solid musical theater credentials including Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk and The Tap Dance Kid--is the smooth M.C. And, representing the first in a series of guest stars, American Idol winner/Broadway star (The Color Purple) Fantasia Barrino is spotlighted in several numbers including “Stormy Weather and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
The twenty-five performers and the orchestra hand-picked by JALC leader Wynton Marsalis deliver more than two dozen numbers providing the perfect mixture of songs, instrumentals and dance routines. Besides Barrino’s standout turns, the vocal highlights are provided by Adriane Lenox’s caustic renditions of “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed last Night.”
The dancers are simply sublime, from the quintet executing tight unison moves while keeping their arms ramrod stiff in “Peckin” to Julius “iGlide Chisom and Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson’s fearsome face-off in “Hottentot” to Jared Grimes’ ferocious tapping on “Tap Mathematician” to Karine Plantadit’s sultry “Black and Tan Fantasy.” The terrific orchestra is given its chance to shine on such numbers as “Braggin’ in Brass” and the finale, “Rockin’ in Rhythm.”
A genial presence, Hill is not quite up to the level of the other performers, although he delivers a charming rendition of “I’ve Got the World on a String.”
While John Lee Beatty’s set is merely serviceable, the costumes by Isabel Toledo, who designed Michelle Obama’s famous dress for her husband’s 2009 inauguration ceremony, are simply dazzling.
In the tradition of the original Cotton Club’s “Celebrity Nights,” the production is cannily presenting a series of guest stars during the run. The first, and most exciting, is k.d. lang (2/11/14-3/9/14), followed by Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds (3/18/14-3/30/14). Fortunately for them, After Midnight is so deliciously entertaining that repeat visits won’t be a problem.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. 877-250-2929. www.Ticketmaster.com
Daniel Craig in Betrayal.
(Photo ©Brigette Lacombe)
That James Bond is being cuckolded nightly onstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is the most startling aspect of the new revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal directed by Mike Nichols. One would have expected that the international sex symbol Daniel Craig would naturally play the role of Jerry, the literary agent involved in a year-long affair with Emma (Rachel Weisz), the beautiful wife of his best friend. Instead, Craig plays the hapless Robert, in a daring piece of casting made all the more piquant by the fact that his female co-star is also his real-life spouse, while British actor Rafe Spall, making a superb Broadway debut, plays the duplicitous interloper.
It would be nice to report that the production, representing a quick return to Broadway by Nichols after last year’s acclaimed Death of a Salesman, is a triumph. But this Betrayal feels curiously muted. It may be that the 1978 play, one of Pinter’s most popular and accessible works, simply hasn’t aged very well, with its famous gimmick of using reverse chronology to tell the story having worn thin through repetition (this is its third Broadway outing, not to mention the 1983 film version).
The concise 80-minute drama takes place in the course of nine scenes, beginning in 1977 and proceeding backwards through 1968. When the play begins, Robert is well of aware of his wife’s infidelity, spanning a period of five years during which she and her lover conducted their assignations in a flat rented specifically for that purpose. The ensuing scenes depict pivotal moments in the intertwined relationship, including Emma’s shocking revelation about the affair and her assurance to Robert that their child is indeed actually his. It culminates in a scene set nearly a decade earlier when an inebriated Emma and Jerry engage in their first torrid kiss during a booze-filled party.
As usual, Nichols has staged the proceedings with impeccable precision and visual handsomeness, accentuated by Ian MacNeil’s versatile sets which periodically descend from the rafters. Ann Roth’s costumes are perfectly in tune with the play’s ‘70s setting, as is Craig’s shaggy haircut, a far cry from his James Bond crew-cut.
But the play simply doesn’t pack the emotional punch here that it should. We never feel the necessary chemistry between the adulterous lovers, with Weisz in particular failing to convey the hungry passion that would explain her character’s ease in cheating on her husband for such a long period of time.
Craig, too, insufficiently portrays Robert’s rage and anguish at his betrayal at the hands of the two most important people in his life. Receiving the news that his wife has been sleeping with his best friend for half a decade, he barely reacts, maintaining an unflappable coolness. While this is partially the point, that these sorts of things are being handled with typical British reserve, we should see some hint of his pain. The actor admirably delivers a performance that reveals no trace of his Bond-style macho heroics, instead coming off as rather foppish. But there’s too little depth on display.
Instead, it’s Spall, whose father is the well-known British character actor Timothy Spall, who delivers the standout performance, displaying an arresting vivacity and emotional immediacy, especially in the climactic scene in which he wins Emma over via the sheer force of his passion.
Nichols has also added a homoerotic undercurrent to the proceedings, to negligible effect. Thanks to its star power, Betrayal is already a smash hit, with tickets nearly impossible to come by for its limited run. But audiences are likely to come away from this production feeling--if not exactly betrayed--at least confused as to what all the fuss is about.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. www.Telecharge.com. 212-239-6200. Through Jan. 5.