Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
(©Evgenia Eliseeva)

Audra McDonald doesn’t look or sound anything like Billie Holiday. So it’s a credit to the five-time Tony Award winner that she perfectly embodies the jazz singer legend in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Lanie Robertson’s musical drama receiving its Broadway premiere. This gifted performer delivers such a chameleon-like vocal turn that if you shut your eyes it’s all too easy to believe you’re listening to the real thing.

Previously seen here in a 1986 Off-Broadway production starring Lonette McKee, the show depicts a late-night set performed by Holiday and a jazz trio in a small Philadelphia bar just four months before her death in 1959 at the age of 44. In between performing some fifteen songs, the clearly booze and drug-addled singer delivers a running biographical commentary about her tragedy-filled life.

For director Lonny Price’s atmospheric staging the Circle in the Square has effectively been partially converted to a cabaret, with a small stage at one end of the playing area which is otherwise filled with small tables inhabited by lucky (and free-spending) audience members. The result is an uncommon intimacy, with McDonald frequently wandering into the crowd begging cigarettes, chatting up patrons and one point literally falling into someone’s lap.

The rambling monologue accentuates Holiday’s bitterness and dissipation. Complaining about having to perform such trademark songs as “Strange Fruit” and “all that damn shit,” she angrily snaps down her accompanist Jimmy Powers’ (Shelton Becton) piano lid when he launches into the opening notes of “God Bless the Child.” She describes past lovers and her bitterness over having lost her cabaret license after she was arrested for drugs. Stopping the show to wander over to the bar opposite the stage, she pours herself a tall glass of vodka and later departs for several minutes while her band plays on, only to return holding a small Chihuahua in her arms. (The canine, played by a rescue dog named Roxie, is a real crowd pleaser).

Although the script does a reasonably good job of conveying Holiday’s tragic essence at this late point in her life, it’s not fully satisfying on dramatic terms. But it does serve as an efficient vehicle for McDonald’s uncanny impersonation of her sweetly husky vocal style. Perfectly capturing the singer’s slurry, jazzy intonations while wringing maximum emotion from such songs as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Foolin’ Myself” and “Crazy He Calls Me,” McDonald delivers an unforgettable tour-de-force turn.

By this point, more people have probably seen theatrical facsimiles of Billie Holiday—Dee Dee Bridgewater recently played the singer in another, short-lived Off-Broadway show--than ever saw her perform live. It’s an irony that even Lady Day herself might have appreciated.

Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway. 212-239-6200.

Review: Bullets Over Broadway

Marin Mazzie in Bullets Over Broadway
(©Paul Kolnik)

Imagine a splashy Broadway musical comedy based on a beloved film, written by its original creator who once toiled for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows. It’s directed by Susan Stroman, and it’s playing at the St. James Theatre.

No, it’s not The Producers, although all of the details once applied. Rather, it’s Bullets Over Broadway, with Woody Allen having clearly learned a lesson from his former colleague Mel Brooks’ success and deciding to get in on the action.

Unfortunately, this familiar-seeming show doesn’t reach the heights of its not-so-distant predecessor. While it features the same elements of broad comedy and flashy staging, this effort adapted by Allen from his 1994 screenplay offers only mild fun instead of laugh out loud hilarity and musical bliss.

Its most distinguishing element is its score, featuring no original songs but rather tunes from the 1920’s and ‘30s ranging from the familiar (“Up a Lazy River,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”) to the obscure. In some cases featuring additional lyrics written by Glen Kelly, they fit into the vintage era storyline well enough, even if the show-closing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” is a stretch.

Allen’s book hews closely to his screenplay co-written by Douglas McGrath in its tale set in 1929 New York about struggling playwright David Shayne (Zack Braff), who finds his fortunes rising when gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos) agrees to finance his new play on the condition that a plum role be given to his girlfriend Olive (Helene Yorke). Although desperate to maintain his artistic integrity, David, at the urging of his long-suffering producer (Lenny Wolpe), agrees. The production manages to snare aging diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie) for the leading role, with David soon finding his romantic attentions divided between his star and his loyal girlfriend Ellen (Betsy Wolfe).

Nick assigns his henchman Cheech (Nick Cordero) to keep a watchful eye on his girlfriend. But the menacing hoodlum soon takes on an even more important role when he begins making such worthwhile suggestions about the play that he essentially becomes David’s co-author.

Among the other colorful characters figuring in the action are the actors appearing in David’s play: Eden (Karen Ziemba), who never lets go of her beloved Pomeranian; and compulsive eater Warner (Brooks Ashmanaskas), whose ever expanding waistline wreaks havoc on his costumes.

Allen’s trademark gift for brilliant one-liners seems to have deserted him here, with more lines producing silence than howls. When informed that his gangster banker “has got his fingers in a number of pies,” David’s less than hilarious response is to ask, “He’s a baker?” Most of the show’s laughs are holdovers from the film, such as Helen’s amusingly repeated, hushed admonition, “Don’t speak!”

Director/choreographer Stroman has applied her usual expertise to the material, keeping things at a fast-moving pace and delivering several entertaining musical numbers. But for every one that scores, such as a terrific tap dancing routine performed by a group of hunky gangsters, there’s another one that misses: the less said about the dancing hot dogs in “The Hot Dog Song,” the better.

For the most part, the lead performances fail to match those in the film. Mazzie comes closest, having an advantage over the Oscar-winning Dianne Wiest in that she’s also a terrific singer. But Braff lacks the low-key, hangdog charm that John Cusack brought to the playwright; Yorke, screeching up a storm, has been encouraged to slavishly imitate Jennifer Tilly; and Cordero lacks the sly wit with which Chazz Palminteri infused his Cheech. The supporting players, less hampered by our memories of the film, generally fare better, with Vincent Pastore a lot of fun in his game efforts to croon such numbers as “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.”

From a technical standpoint, the show is first class all the way, with Santo Loquasto’s lavish sets and William Ivey Long’s colorful period costumes making major contributions. A lot of time, energy and effort have clearly been lavished on the production. But much like the rat-a-tat opening in which the show’s title is spelled out by a tommy gun, Bullets Over Broadway mainly shoots blanks.

St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44 th St. 800-447-7400.

Review: A Raisin in the Sun

David Cromer, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, LaYTanya Richardson Jackson,
Anika Noni Rose, Denzel Washington, and Sophie Okonedo
in A Raisin in the Sun
(©Brigitte Lacombe)

If director Kenny Leon had a less than ideal leading man in Sean Combs for his 2004 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, he has no such problem this time. Denzel Washington--although arguably twenty years too old for the role--delivers a superlative performance as Walter Lee Younger in this new, beautifully staged revival featuring equally stirring performances from the entire ensemble. While yet another Broadway revival a mere decade later might have seemed premature, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic well deserves revisiting.

The play, set in Chicago’s South Side “sometime between World War II and 1960,” concerns the travails of the three-generation Younger family living together in a cramped tenement apartment. They include grandmother Lena (LaYTanya Richardson Jackson), whose beloved husband has recently died; her chauffeur son Walter Lee (Washington) and his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo), who works as a domestic; the couple’s young son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins); and Walter’s younger sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose) who plans on attending medical school.

The play's central conflict revolves around the $10,000 that the family is about to receive from their late patriarch’s life-insurance policy. Lena is intent on using the money to buy a house for the family and for her daughter’s education, while Walter is desperate to fulfill his dreams of owning a business by purchasing a liquor store with his (unseen) friend Willy.

Walter and Ruth’s marriage is clearly deeply strained because of his frustration with his lot in life. Beneatha, meanwhile, is happily juggling two suitors: George (Jason Dirden), who comes from a wealthy family; and the Nigerian-born Joseph (Sean Patrick Thomas), who disdains her desire for assimilation and regales her with paeans to his African homeland.

When the money finally arrives, Lena, without her family’s prior knowledge, makes a down payment on a modest house in the city’s all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. This naturally doesn’t sit well with Walter, but she pacifies him by giving him the rest of the money, with instructions to put half of it aside for Lena’s education. But Walter’s trust in his would-be business partner is sadly misplaced, with tragic results.

The racism permeating the era is personified in the form of Karl Lindner (famed theater director and occasional actor David Cromer), the head of the Clybourne Park homeowners’ association whose friendly demeanor during an unannounced visit masks his true intentions, which is to offer to buy back the house to prevent the African-American family from moving into the all-white neighborhood.

The beautifully constructed play, set entirely within the confines of the overcrowded apartment, expertly juggles poignant drama and sharp humor in its depiction of the family’s efforts to move up the social ladder. Each character, including the barely seen Bobo (Stephen McKinley Henderson) who shows up to give Walter the bad news about his investment, displays a complex humanity.

Director Leon’s pitch-perfect staging features not a weak link among the ensemble. Washington, one of those rare movie stars with serious theatrical chops—he won the Tony for his last Broadway turn, in Fences—superbly conveys Walter’s immature recklessness while also commanding the stage with his charismatic physicality. Okonedo, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Hotel Rwanda, is heartbreaking as the long-suffering Ruth who’s deeply in love with her husband despite his flaws; Rose is luminous as the younger woman whose innate joyfulness is expressed in her undulating dancing while wearing traditional African garb; and Jackson is both fierce and lovingly maternal as the matriarch whose indomitable strength has kept the family together.

The production elements are all first-rate, including Mark Thompson’s ultra-realistic set design, Ann Roth’s character-perfect costumes and Branford Marsalis’ selections of jazz recordings accompanying the scene changes.

Before the play begins audiences are treated to an audio recording of Hansberry discussing her work. But the author’s voice couldn’t be better represented than with this lovingly staged and acted production that fully brings the play to rich, vibrant life.

Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. 212-239-6200. Through June 15.

Review: If/Then

Idina Menzel in If/Then
(©Joan Marcus)

When a performer’s mere opening utterance of “Hello, it’s me” garners huge sustained applause, you know you’re in the presence of a star. Such is the case with Idina Menzel, playing the lead role in If/Then, the new musical by Next to Normal creators Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book & lyrics). Depicting the intertwined tales of a woman whose life seems to spin off in vastly different directions, these award-winning writers never make either one particularly interesting.

Fortunately, Menzel--or “Adele Dazeem,” if you would take John Travolta’s word for it—is on hand to both anchor the proceedings and provide significant box-office appeal for this ambitious but perplexing show. Playing Elizabeth, alternately known as Beth or Liz depending on which character arc is being presented, the talented actress delivers a terrifically appealing and sympathetic turn marked by her trademark powerhouse vocals.

She’s certainly got a daunting assignment to fill in this head-scratcher which presumably seeks to address issues of identity and the precarious balance between personal and career ambitions. Here, the options are laid out in all too schematic fashion: In one storyline, Liz finds love, marriage and motherhood with the hunky and sensitive Josh (James Snyder, Cry-Baby), a war veteran doctor from Nebraska; in the other, Beth pursues a successful career as a city planner with the help of Stephen (Jerry Dixon), her graduate school mentor. Figuring prominently in the plot—excuse me, plots—are Kate (LaChanze), her lesbian neighbor; Kate’s girlfriend Anne (Jenn Colella); and Lucas (Anthony Rapp), Elizabeth’s bi-sexual longtime friend and community organizer with whom she once had a fling.

Despite the supposed tinkering of the book since the show’s Washington, D.C. engagement, audiences will be hard pressed to keep track of the dual plotlines which recall the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring film Sliding Doors. Despite such visual cues as different lighting schemes and Menzel’s occasionally donning eyeglasses, the transitions are often confusing, with the chief distinguishing factor being that each of the character’s stories are equally banal.

Featuring one-dimensional supporting characters and the sort of arch, bitchy dialogue that passes for wit, the show panders to its audiences with low humor and frequent obscenity, most notably in Elizabeth’s plaintive number, “What the Fuck?”

The pop/rock score is superior to Kitt/Yorkey’s previous effort, featuring plenty of the sort of soaring power ballads to which Menzel lends her justifiably celebrated pipes. But with a few exceptions, such as the eleven o’ clock number “Always Starting Over,” little of it is particularly memorable.

Although director Michael Greif is unsuccessful in carefully delineating the dual plotlines in coherent fashion, he’s given the production a polished sheen that is also evident in Mark Wendland’s two-level set design representing urban fire escapes and Central Park’s verdant landscape and featuring a giant tilting mirror. Less felicitous is the uninspired choreography by Larry Kegwin which seems mostly employed to fill in the background.

Besides Menzel, who makes the most of her character’s dry humor and desperate search for identity, the supporting players deliver engaging, personality-fueled performances that go a long way towards making the proceedings bearable. But for all the considerable effort of everyone involved, the show never takes flight. It’s a particular shame since it’s one of the rare musicals on Broadway this season that’s not lazily derived from a familiar movie property. Unfortunately, ambition, as the show’s heroine would readily attest, doesn’t count for everything.

Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. 877-250-2929.

Review: Mothers and Sons

Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor, and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons
(©Joan Marcus)

There’s a distressing air of familiarity about Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, and it’s not only because it’s a sequel to his one-act play Andre’s Mother which was later adapted into an Emmy Award-winning 1990 PBS drama. That short work depicted an encounter between the lover of a young man who had died of AIDS and the victim’s mother, who remained silent throughout. In this 90-minute drama set decades later in the present day, the mother, Katharine (Tyne Daly), finally gets to speak up. Unfortunately, what she has to say isn’t very interesting.

Set in the spacious Upper West Side apartment of Andre’s ex Cal (Frederick Weller), the play, set in real time, depicts the encounter that ensues when Katherine suddenly drops by unannounced for the ostensible purpose of dropping off Andre’s journal. It soon becomes clear that what she is really seeking is a connection to her dead son via the man who loved him and who is now happily married to the much younger Will (Bobby Steggert) and the father of a six-year-old son, Bud (Grayson Taylor).

Cal is obviously nervous during the strained conversation, attempting to regale the emotionally brittle Katherine with the expansive view of Central Park from their apartment and pointing out nearby landmarks. Directing her attention to the Metropolitan Museum, he takes care to explain that while East Siders regard it as the Met, for West Siders the term refers to the Metropolitan Opera.

Katherine, who lives in Texas and who recently lost her husband to cancer, is obviously still grieving for her son, as evidenced by her discomfort upon seeing his face on a poster for a production of Hamlet in which he played the title role. It’s also obvious that she’s still uncomfortable about his sexuality and resentful about the fact that she’s lost everyone meaningful in her life while Cal has gone on to a happy new existence.

The evidence for that becomes visible when his husband and son return home, with the inquisitive little boy not shy about asking their visitor about her relationship with his parents. Myriad emotional issues are brought up, including Will’s feelings about filling the shoes of Cal’s former partner.

McNally here attempts to explore the shifting tides of gay life, when AIDS has receded into the background and marriage has become a viable option for many. At the same time, there’s been little change in the attitudes of many people, especially those of a previous generation who find it impossible to shed their prejudices.

It’s a worthy idea that isn’t developed in a particularly interesting way, with the playwright rehashing familiar themes from such previous works as Love! Valour! Compassion! and Lips Together, Teeth Apart, among others. And here his gift for naturalistic dialogue seems to have abandoned him. Endlessly talky and didactic, the exposition-filled Mothers and Sons feels less like a real-life encounter between disparate types than an opportunity for his characters to act as mouthpieces ticking off key talking points. It all feels too neat and tidy, down to the adorable little boy who represents a shining example of the virtues of gay parenthood.

As usual, Daly is superb, evoking Katherine’s emotional brittleness and sardonic humor with her sharp-edged delivery and perfect comic timing. Steggert is equally effective, coming across as effortlessly natural, while Weller, speaking in carefully rarified tones, seems even more uncomfortable than his character needs to be. Child actor Taylor is a real find, even if his high-pitched voice renders some of his dialogue unintelligible.

Director Sheryl Kaller--also treading familiar territory here after her Broadway production of Next Fall, which trafficked in similar themes—is unable to bring much life to the seemingly interminable, static proceedings. By the time Daly’s Katherine finally prepares to pack up and leave the apartment, you’ll find yourself wishing that her visit had been much briefer.

Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45 St. 212-239-6200.

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