The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Saturday, July 23, 2016

“Hadestown” a powerful, political, jazzy retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice myth

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 5:29 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Damon Daunno as Orpheus and Nabiyah Be as Eurydice, photo Joan Marcus.

Damon Daunno as Orpheus and Nabiyah Be as Eurydice, photo Joan Marcus.

Hades of course is hell. And singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s script and music, directed by Rachel Chavkin, is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, who journeys to Hades in order to find his love, the nymph Eurydice, who has been killed by a poisonous snake.

Here Orpheus is a minstrel. His wonderful music persuades the King of the Dead to let him take Eurydice home from the under world as long as he does not turn around to look at her until they reach the upper world. They have to trust each other. But….

Chavkin is an innovative, important director (She did “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”) and this production is memorably staged — — though sometimes it is hard to follow story. And as in “Comet,” her construction of the set and theater makes the audience feel as if they are inside the show.

Amber Gray as Persephone, photo Joan Marcus.

Amber Gray as Persephone, photo Joan Marcus.

This is current time. Orpheus (Damon Daunno) lives in a black country. The music is soft rock and country, American folk and New Orleans jazz, based on Mitchell’s album. The best is the jazzy stuff with Hades (the excellent bass-voiced Patrick Page) and Chris Sullivan as Mr. Hermes. Damon Daunno is too mild as Orpheus. Amber Gray’s Persephone – the queen of the underworld and wife of Hades — is a scintillating jazz singer. Nabiyah Be is fine as Eurydice.

The Greek myth mixes heaven and hell on earth. This version adds politics. “What you gonna do when the chips are down?” sing three “Fates” in leather coats (Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, Shaina Taub). They have a cool mellow sound that reminds one of the Andrews sisters!

The Fates Jessie Shelton, Shaina Taub and Lulu Fall, above Amber Gray as Persephone and Patrick Page as Hades, photo Joan Marcus.

The Fates Jessie Shelton, Shaina Taub and Lulu Fall, above Amber Gray as Persephone and Patrick Page as Hades, photo Joan Marcus.

They ask, “Why do we build the wall? We build the wall to keep us free? How does the wall keep us free? The wall keeps out the enemy? And who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty. The wall keeps out the enemy. Because we have and they have not. Because they want what we have got!”

Suddenly there is politics. “We have work and, they have none.” There’s a prison workers song, a factory number.

Eurydice sings:  “But I don’t understand…You said this was the promise-land.”

No, hell is a world of tough labor in factories.

The Fates, Shaina Taub, Lulu Fall and Jessie Shelton, photo Joan Marcus.

The Fates, Shaina Taub, Lulu Fall and Jessie Shelton, photo Joan Marcus.

The Fates:
“You sell your soul, you get your due
That is all we promised you

Heard that mighty trumpet sound
Crossed the river to the other side
Thought you’d lay your burdens down
And rest in peace in paradise?

Well there ain’t no rest for your weary soul
Hades keeps you toiling
Shoveling coal in a big black hole
To keep his boiler boiling

A lot of souls have gotta die
To keep the rust belt rolling
A lot of spirits gotta break
To make the underworld go round

Patrick Page as Hades, photo Joan Marcus.

Patrick Page as Hades, photo Joan Marcus.

Way down Hadestown
Way down under the ground.”

So the rust belt, factory town, is Hell. Well, the people who work there already know that, don’t they?

It’s a brilliant, riveting production. It shows why the New York Theatre Workshop has its deserved reputation for adventurous, inventive theater.

Hadestown.” Written and composed by Anaïs Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York City. 212-460-5475. Opened May 23, 2016; closes July 31, 2016. 7/23/16.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

“Shuffle Along” a charming, hokey, jazzy, hot dance show with sparkling Audra McDonald

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:02 am

By Lucy Komisar

It’s charming but also hokey: the story of black producers and performers struggling in the early twenties to put a show on Broadway. It’s 1920 and they are Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, a comedy duo who meet at Fisk, the black college in Nashville.

Brandon Victor Dixon as Eubie Blake and Audra McDonald as Lotte Gee, photo Julieta Cervantes.

Audra McDonald as Lotte Gee, photo Julieta Cervantes.

They move on the King Albee circuit, playing houses for black audiences. And the play by George C. Wolfe, who also directed, incorporates the original show into a show about how it got put on. And what happened along the way. This is segregated America.

It’s full of jazz and syncopation and flapper wiggles and shimmies. And Audra McDonald’s jazzy singing and tap dancing. I loved her gospel “Aint it a shame to give up a Sunday.” She has a thrilling operatic soprano.

Mixed in is the affair between singer Lotte Gee (McDonald) and Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon). She tells him you are married and you’re a musician. I don’t need this. But, as she notes ruefully, “Smart woman surrender to lesser men.”

Adrienne Warren as Gertrude Saunders and the company doing “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” photo Julieta Cervantes.

Adrienne Warren as Gertrude Saunders and the company doing “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” photo Julieta Cervantes.

After touring, the show opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall off Broadway and ran for 504 performances. Among those in the company were Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. The group broke up over legal conflicts tied to greed, not unheard of in the business. Or any business.

The pastiche of song and dance numbers is appealing, including Lt Jim Europe, the Army’s first jazz marching band singer and swing a capella gospel. The choreography by Savion Glover is jazzy and hot. Glover is America’s best tap choreographer. And the show gave us “I’m just wild about Harry.” There’s a lot to be wild about in the show, though as a story, the shifting parts don’t quite make a whole.

Shuffle Along.” Original book by F. (Flournoy) E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, book by George C. Wolfe, music & lyrics by Noble Sissle & Eubie Blake, directed by George C. Wolfe, choreographed by Savion Glover. Music Box Theatre, 239 W 45th St, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened April 28, 2016, closes July 24, 2016. 7/9/16.

Friday, July 8, 2016

“The Crucible” a stunning parable of McCarthyism’s attack on America

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 3:26 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Arthur Miller’s brilliant parable of the Sen. Joseph McCarthy attack on American liberties, allowed by the U.S. Congress till it became too obscene for even cowardly politicians to stomach, is brilliantly staged by Ivo Van Hove, a Dutchman who understands and communicates Miller’s political message (see also his “A View From the Bridge”) in a theatrical manner that makes politics into art.

A crucible is a pot in which metals or other substances are heated to a very high temperature or melted. Miller’s story is about events that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. But it’s really about the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), America’s thought police of the early 50s, which burned through American rights and professed values.

Elizabeth Teeter as Betty, Saoirse Ronan as Abigail and Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren, photo Jan Versweyveld.

Elizabeth Teeter as Betty, Saoirse Ronan as Abigail and Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren, photo Jan Versweyveld.

Using a metaphor of real events some 260 years earlier, it tells of accusations without evidence that were used to damn the innocent. They occurred during the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1692-93.

Young girls are dancing in the forest. When they come out, Betty Parris (Elizabeth Teeter), daughter of the preacher Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner), faints. The others are hysterical. The dress, by the way, is modern.

Wealthy citizen Thomas Putnam (Tomas Jay Ryan) declares that a hurtful spirit is laying hands on these children. His wife Ann (Tina Benko) claims she is a victim, that seven of her newborn babies died. Relevant later, Putnam also has a land dispute with Giles Corey (Jim Norton), another townsman. In these things, there are always background interests.

Parris will invite Rev. John Hale, an expert in witchcraft, to investigate. But John Proctor (the excellent Ben Whishaw), a farmer and Quaker, refuses to accept the notion of witchcraft. He says Parris should have consulted with the townspeople before taking that step.

Saoirse Ronan as Abigail and Ben Whishaw as John Proctor, photo Jan Versweyveld.

Saoirse Ronan as Abigail and Ben Whishaw as John Proctor, photo Jan Versweyveld.

The back story is that one of the young girls, Abigail (Saoirse Rona), is a troublemaker and a seducer. She had an affair with John and was fired by his wife Elizabeth (a fine Sophie Okonedo), who discovered it. Abigail is the vengeful lover scorned.

Meanwhile, Rev. Parris is complaining that he hasn’t gotten the firewood promised by the congregation for his service. As a graduate of Harvard, he is not paid enough! To locate Parris even more inside the amoral corporate sensibility, this is a fellow who measures his worth by money.

Many of the characters have axes to grind, (appropriate metaphor for the times.) Proctor, our hero, declares, “Is it the Devil’s fault that a man cannot say you good morning without you clap him for defamation?”

As the investigation proceeds, Abigail claims that Tituba (Jenny Jules), a Barbadian slave, forced her to drink blood. Tituba ripostes that Abigail asked her to call up a curse. When Parris threatens Tituba with death for turning her witchcraft on the girls, she “confesses” that they have all been bewitched by the devil. And she points to the deviltry of two townswomen who Hale promptly arrests. Organized hysteria based on the girls’ charges escalates till close to 40 people are arrested for witchcraft.

Ben Whishaw as John, Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren, the family maid, and cast, photo Jan Versweyveld.

Ben Whishaw as John, Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren, the family maid, and cast, photo Jan Versweyveld.

All a lie of course, as Abigail had admitted to John. And then Elizabeth is accused. John is afraid to expose Abigail for fear his adultery will be revealed. Mary, the Proctors’ maid, tells John the girls are lying, then accused of witchcraft herself, recants. The town is ruled by fear.

Corey’s wife is arrested because he had reported that she read strange books. (In the 1600s? Transpose that to 1950s leftist texts that challenged ruling orthodoxy or power.) By then, 91 are accused. Then more than 100. Their lands are taken, some imprisoned, some executed. When John is called to testify against others to save himself, he refuses to name names. “Naming names” before HUAC meant naming people who had attended leftist meetings. The courageous refused; the cowardly did as ordered.

We see tortured figures, red on darkened faces and backs, movements that are terrific, furious.

Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth Proctor and Ben Whishaw as John, photo Jan Versweyveld.

Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth Proctor and Ben Whishaw as John, photo Jan Versweyveld.

Of course, this is a stunning morality play, of some people with ulterior motives, of others stupidly superstitious, and of victims unable to organize against the predators. Later, the charges would be acknowledged as lies, and Parris would be removed as Salem’s preacher. As  McCarthy would finally be censured by the Senate.

It’s the best play of the season.

The Crucible.” Written by Arthur Miller, directed by Ivo Van Hove. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, New York City. (877) 250-2929. Opened March 31, 2016; closes July 17, 2016. 7/8/16.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Laura Benanti is luminous as smart shop clerk in “She Loves Me”

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 6:32 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Laura Benanti as Amalia Balash, photo Joan Marcus.

Laura Benanti as Amalia Balash, photo Joan Marcus.

Laura Benanti is stunning and luminous as Amalia, a smart, assertive clerk in an upscale perfume shop in 1934 Budapest. Her trilling soprano shimmers.

The story itself is corny, schmaltzy. The slow start makes you think sit com, but it gets better. Its light fluff is underpinned by some serious commentary about the economic condition of workers and the way men treat women.

It’s based on “Parfumerie,” a play by Miklos Laszlo, that was made into “The Shop Around the Corner,” a film with James Stewart. Nora Ephron later used the story for “You’ve Got Mail.”

The shop, from video.

The shop, from video.

The social stage is set by a parade of bourgeois ladies who enter the shop and leave with ribbon-tied boxes. The colorful storybook design is a bit magical, like a dollhouse. (Set by David Rockwell.) All around are glass cases with the expensive scents and soaps the rich ladies want. As they depart, an obsequious line of clerks sings “thank you” and “please come again.”

But the back story is about the staff. They arrive in the morning.  Ilona (the excellent Jane Krakowski) has spent the night with Steven (Gavin Creel), but they show up separately, fooling no one. Creel is a good comic as the two timing phony.

Amalia and Georg (the charming baritone, Zachary Levi) have been corresponding through a lonely hearts club and don’t know it’s to each other.

Zachary Levi as Georg Nowack and Michael McGrath as Ladislav Sipos, photo Joan Marcus.

Zachary Levi as Georg Nowack and Michael McGrath as Ladislav Sipos, photo Joan Marcus.

Georg tells co-worker Ladislav (Michael McGrath), about the letters.

Ladislav has other concerns. Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings), the owner, is domineering, even nasty. Ladislav intimidated by his ire, humbly bows and scrapes. He thinks of himself as only a speck in the universe, and wonders, “Where’s my pride, deep inside where it does not show? I’m a coward with a wife and children to support.”

Laszlo knew of those problems. When his father died, the youth had to support the family at a succession of odd jobs. His play “The Happiest Man,” about a cynical, disillusioned factory worker who lives in a dream world to survive, won the Hungarian Royal Academy Award for Literature in 1934.

Gavin Creel as Steven Kodaly and Jane Krakowski as Ilona Ritter, photo Joan Marcus.

Gavin Creel as Steven Kodaly and Jane Krakowski as Ilona Ritter, photo Joan Marcus.

But with the Nazis bearing down, the Jewish playwright left for New York.

He also understood the feminist complaint about men. In a great erotic dance number, Steven tells Ilona, “I love you Ilona — Come with me Ilona.” But she resolves not to trust him. “I must be cousin to a cat. I always wind up with that rat.”

Then there’s an interesting twist. Mrs. Maraczek is involved with one of clerks. Mr. Maraczeck learns this from a private detective. And then a shot rings out.

waiter, Amalia and Georg at the Imperial Cafe, from video.

Waiter, Amalia and Georg at the Imperial Cafe, from video.

Meanwhile, the blind date of Amalia and Georg will take place at the terrific Café Imperial, a rendezvous for lovers gathered in the folds of fancy red curtains, hiding behind menus as (in a great musical number) they set up assignations and affairs. The waiter: “Good to see you again, Mr. Liszt.” Light shines on a conga line of women in black gowns and men in tuxes. (Choreography by Warren Carlyle.) But though Amalia waits at a bistro table, Georg never identifies himself.

Laura Benanti as Amalia Balash and Zachary Levi as Georg Nowack, photo Joan Marcus.

Laura Benanti as Amalia Balash and Zachary Levi as Georg Nowack, photo Joan Marcus.

My favorite bit of the play is the iconic song “Dear Friend,” which you probably know as the one that leads to a romantic gift of ice cream. “Dear Friend, I am so sorry about last night…” Georg arrives and brings her ice cream. Benanti does the number gloriously sitting on her bed in pajamas.

ICE CREAM… HE BROUGHT ME ICE CREAM…
VANILLA ICE CREAM… IMAGINE THAT!
ICE CREAM… AND FOR THE FIRST TIME
WE WERE TOGETHER  WITHOUT A SPAT!

Zachary Levi as Georg Nowack and Laura Benanti as Amalia Balash, photo Joan Marcus.

Zachary Levi as Georg Nowack and Laura Benanti as Amalia Balash, photo Joan Marcus.

Here’s where we tip hats to composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. And to a song that was intrinsic to the play and also lives in cabaret.

Well, identities are straightened out. Sparks ignite. To conclude with Georg singing, “She loves me, and to my amazement I love her….”

A somewhat hokey but very charming finish to director Scott Ellis’s delightful production. With some good social commentary along the way. (And the mystery of the shot is solved.)

She Loves Me.” Book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, based on play by Miklos Laszlo. Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York City. 212-719-1300. Opened March 17, 2016; closes July 10, 2016. 7/2/16.

 

Powered by WordPress