Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 10, $97 - $252
Watching — nay, experiencing — the astonishing Audra MacDonald inhabit Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, one might think that the show was created specifically for the five-time Tony winner. In fact, it’s been around since 1986, and earlier off-Broadway and out-of-town versions have featured such stars as Lonette McKee, Eartha Kitt, S. Epatha Merkerson, Loretta Divine, and Jackée Harry. Inspired by one of Holiday’s final performances, at a small club in South Philadelphia a few months before her death in 1959 at the age of forty-four, Lanie Robertson’s (Nasty Little Secrets) ninety-minute show focuses on a brittle but still immensely talented Holiday as she performs classic songs while sharing tales from her difficult life, which was riddled with physical and sexual abuse, failed marriages, rape, prostitution, and drug and alcohol addiction. Backed by Shelton Becton as pianist Jimmy Powers, George Farmer on bass, and Clayton Craddock on drums (get there early, as the trio starts performing well before curtain time), McDonald nails Holiday’s unique phrasing and thrilling voice on such numbers as “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and “Easy Living” as well as “God Bless the Child,” which she cowrote, “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and “Strange Fruit,” giving them added emotional resonance in relation to Lady Day’s tragic downfall. The audience sits around the thrust stage on three sides, with a “Circle Club” section in the middle, where patrons sit at tables and drink during the show and Holiday occasionally stumbles through, slurring her words, needing help just to stay upright. Directed by Lonny Price, who previously worked with McDonald on 110 in the Shade, Lady Day is a poignant, passionate look at one of the greatest singers who ever lived, magnificently portrayed by one of Broadway’s very best.
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 28, $52 - $152
In 2001, director-choreographer Susan Stroman struck gold collaborating with Mel Brooks on the musical adaptation of his 1968 comedy, The Producers, about a pair of schlemiels looking to finance a Broadway flop. The show itself was no flop, running for six years at the St. James Theatre and winning twelve Tonys. Unfortunately, Stroman’s current collaboration with another comedy genius, Woody Allen, also at the St. James and also about trying to get a show produced, ends up shooting mostly blanks. Allen wrote the book and Stroman serves as director and choreographer for Bullets over Broadway, the musical version of Allen’s hit 1994 film, which earned him and cowriter Douglas McGrath an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. (The film earned seven Oscar nominations in all, with Dianne Weist winning for Best Supporting Actress.) The play is set in 1929, as serious playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff in his Broadway debut) is offered a chance to get his latest work produced on the Great White Way — but only if he casts mobster Nick Valenti’s (Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore) girlfriend, Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke), in a major role. Shayne’s agent, Julian Marx (Lenny Wolpe), convinces him to take the deal, but when they quickly discover how talentless, annoying, and just plain dumb Olive is, they have their work cut out for them, especially after building an otherwise impressive cast that includes the dapper but always hungry Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas), the dependable Eden Brent (Karen Ziemba), and fading diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie). Valenti has assigned one of his goons, Cheech (Nick Cordero), to watch after Olive, but soon he is spending most of his time rewriting Shayne’s play — and making it much better, which excites, confuses, and terrifies Shayne as opening night approaches.
Cordero is excellent as Cheech, a role played in the film by Chazz Palminteri, but the rest of the cast never quite reaches the levels necessary to make this story of art and ethics, love and money, and the business of show rise above the mundane. Allen’s jokes, so potent in the film, continually fall flat onstage, and the songs, which primarily consist of old-time classics adapted and with additional lyrics by Glen Kelly, are often repetitive (how many brief reprises can one take?), unnecessary, and unmemorable, with a few exceptions: Cheech’s “Up a Lazy River,” is fun, and Warner and Olive have a ball with “Let’s Misbehave,” which was the theme song of Allen’s ”Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask.” In addition, the Atta-Girls, who sing and dance at Nick’s club and play various background roles, are always welcome, as are William Ivey Long’s glamorous period costumes. Ultimately, Bullets over Broadway is about how far a person will go for their art; in the case of this musical, the answer is not far enough.
138 West 48th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Extended through March 30, $40 - $147
For the past five months, British thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have been having a blast in New York, as they perform two existential masterpieces in repertory on Broadway and travel all over the city in their bowler hats, posting fabulous pictures on their twitter sites. Sir Ian and Sir Pat are now entering the last week of two marvelous productions, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, running at the Cort Theatre through March 30. The two men, who have previously starred opposite each other as frenemies in the X-Men movies, first teamed up for Godot in London in 2009; they had such a good time, they decided to bring it to Broadway. It was director Sean Mathias’s idea to add Pinter’s 1975 drawing-room romp, and the two plays work extremely well together, like a pair of old friends enjoying each other’s company. In Waiting for Godot — the last word of which you will forever pronounce with the accent on the second syllable after seeing this show — McKellen is Estragon (Gogo) and Stewart is Vladimir (Didi), two homeless men who are expecting a man named Godot to arrive. In between Gogo’s concern for his boots and Didi’s frequent trips to relieve himself, the drifters engage in such surreal dialogue as E: “He should be here.” V: “He didn’t say for sure he’d come.” E: “And if he doesn’t come?” V: “We’ll come back tomorrow.” E: “And then the day after tomorrow.” V: “Possibly.” E: “And so on.” V: “The point is —” E: “Until he comes.” V: “You’re merciless.” E: “We came here yesterday.” V: “Ah no, there you’re mistaken.” E: “What did we do yesterday?” V: “What did we do yesterday?” E: “Yes.” V: “Why . . . Nothing is certain when you’re about.” Indeed, nothing is certain in the two-and-a-half-hour, two-act play, even when the pompous Pozzo (Shuler Hensley) arrives, led by his apparent human slave, Lucky (Billy Crudup). What’s it all about? That’s something that theatergoers and critics have been contemplating and arguing about for some fifty years, getting little help from Beckett himself. The beauty of Godot is that it is about everything and nothing, perhaps the most entertaining and perplexing Rorschach test ever conceived. It’s really about whatever you want it to be, including, very simply, exceptional theater.
Much is left up to the audience to figure out in the absurdist black comedy No Man’s Land as well. After meeting in a pub, the wealthy, impeccably dressed Hirst (Stewart, wearing a wonderful pair of bright blue socks and a fashionable toupee) brings home the somewhat less erudite but scholarly Spooner (McKellen) for further conversation and top-shelf liquor. The two men discuss life and love, aging and infidelity, poetry and memory, occasionally joined by Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley), who may or may not be Hirst’s sons or servants. (The four characters are named after great cricketers — not that that lends insight into who they are or what they actually represent, other than that Pinter is playing yet more games with his story.) Stewart and McKellen, in roles originated by a pair of other sirs, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, respectively, are utterly delightful as the two gents. Are they old college friends? Romantic competitors? Two halves of the same person? As in Waiting for Godot, the significantly more acerbic No Man’s Land is open for vast interpretation as well, although it provides far more clues. Both plays are splendidly directed by Mathias (Bent), who honors the spirit of each play without getting overly fancy or dramatic, and feature exemplary sets and costumes designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis that evoke heaven, hell, and the way station in between. Over the past dozen years or so, McKellen (King Lear, Dance of Death) and Stewart (A Christmas Carol, Macbeth) have appeared on the New York stage separately, but there’s nothing quite like seeing them together on Broadway, in a pair of stellar productions that allow them to have just as much fun as the audience.
Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 2, $67 - $137
Earlier this week, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced over Facebook that he will be hanging up his cleats following the 2014 season. It’s a pity it wasn’t the new Broadway show Bronx Bombers — which features a fictional version of the pinstripes captain — calling it quits instead, immediately. Eric Simonson’s play, which transferred to Circle in the Square after fall training at the Duke on 42nd St., is nearly inconceivably dull and pointless, coming off more like an MLB-sponsored advertorial than an intuitive, intelligent look at baseball’s most storied franchise. The first act focuses on manager Billy Martin’s removal of Reggie Jackson from the outfield in the middle of an inning after Jackson loafed after a Jim Rice fly ball at Fenway Park on June 18, 1977. Yankees coach Yogi Berra (Peter Scolari) calls together captain Thurman Munson (Bill Dawes), Martin (Keith Nobbs), and Jackson (Francois Battiste) in a Boston hotel room to try to get the manager and the hot-dogging superstar to kiss and make up, but that’s not about to happen anytime soon. In the second act, Berra is caught up in a dreamlike fantasy in which he and his wife, Carmen (Tracy Shayne, who is married to Scolari in real life), host a dinner party with the greatest players in Yankees history, supposedly showing up to help Berra solve the Martin-Jackson dilemma and save the Yankees’ reputation and season. But not even the arrival of Lou Gehrig (John Wernke), Joe DiMaggio (Chris Henry Coffey), Elston Howard (Battiste), Babe Ruth (C. J. Wilson), Mickey Mantle (Bill Dawes), and Jeter (Christopher Jackson) can help playwright-director Simonson’s minor-league tale rise out of the cellar (as most of the sets do). Aside from Dawes, who captures the Mick’s wild personality, and Battiste, who nails Jackson’s braggadocio, none of the other actors turn in all-star performances, never embodying the famous, and familiar, athletes they are portraying. Simonson, the man behind such other sports-related Broadway productions as Lombardi and Magic/Bird, muddles the relationships among the players, with some dressed in uniform, others in suits, some in the prime of their careers, others nearing death, for no apparent dramaturgical reason. And in a 2008 coda, he includes no mention of Berra’s fourteen-year feud with owner George Steinbrenner, making Bronx Bombers feel even more like a promotional piece. Indeed, merchandise authorized by Major League Baseball is available for sale in the lobby, as are collectibles from an officially licensed memorabilia company. Unfortunately, the only souvenir worthy of this Broadway bomb is a Bronx cheer.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through August 31, $60-$147
Initially conceived for New York City Center’s Encores! by series artistic director Jack Viertel, After Midnight is now lighting up Broadway, bringing Harlem to the Great White Way in a dazzling display of music and dance. The Brooks Atkinson Theatre has been transformed into the famed jazz clubs of the Golden Age, the Savoy, the Cotton Club, and the Sugar Cane, as a talented cast of more than two dozen singers and dancers shimmy the night away to the tunes of Duke Ellington. The show is hosted by Dulé Hill (Stick Fly, Psych), who is first seen in a too-cool white suit, leaning against a lamppost, poetically introducing the audience to a Harlem night to remember. Backed by the sixteen-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, the performers strut their stuff for ninety glorious, uninterrupted minutes, playing directly to the audience as if in an intimate nightclub. Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, and Bryonha Marie Parham are caught “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” Adriane Lenox warns that “Women Be Wise” and later declares “Go Back to Where You Stayed Last Night,” and Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson slide their way through “Hottentot Tot.” Hill carries a red balloon in “I’ve Got the World on a String,” while he joins Daye, Cedric Neal, Monroe Kent III, and T. Oliver Reid for “Ain’t It de Truth?” highlighted by playful vertical and horizontal group shuffles.
Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle (Chaplin, Finian’s Rainbow) channels Alvin Ailey’s classic “Night Creature” throughout the evening, the moves and grooves often made bigger than life with Isabel Toledo’s stunning costumes. Among the standout dancers are Karine Plantadit (Come Fly Away), who solos on “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and Phillip Attmore and Daniel J. Watts, who have a heated tap-off. The show features several spots for a special guest; through February 9, Fantasia Barrino (American Idol, The Color Purple) makes a star turn singing such sultry numbers as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Stormy Weather,” with k. d. lang taking over February 11 and Babyface and Toni Braxton on March 18. While other current Broadway jukebox musicals — Beautiful, Motown, and A Night with Janis Joplin — struggle when they focus on the narrative, the story of After Midnight is the grandeur of the music itself, resulting in hot evening of jumping, jiving, and wailing, Harlem style.
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through September 7, $35-$137
Not even a ridiculously loud family sitting behind us, crunching on candy and talking throughout the first act, could dampen our thorough enjoyment of the wonderful new Broadway musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. The show follows the trials and travails of one Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), who is in prison, writing his memoirs. The story then turns back to Monty’s mother’s funeral, where chatty Miss Shingle (Jane Carr) tells him that his mother was disowned by the noble D’Ysquith family when she married a man her relatives disapproved of. When Monty discovers that he is eighth in the line of succession to become earl, those men and women in between him suddenly start dropping like flies, each one played with a hearty wink and a nod by Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife, Blood and Gifts) in ever-more-clever set-ups, from various lords and ladies to a dentally challenged reverend. Meanwhile, Monty can’t let go of the woman he adores, the spectacularly beautiful, self-centered, and manipulative Sibella Hallward (Lisa O’Hare), who is engaged to marry the never-seen Lionel Holland. Social mores of Edwardian England come tumbling down as Monty nears his vengeful goal. (If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because Gentleman’s Guide is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, the inspiration for Robert Hamer’s classic 1949 British black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Alec Guinness plays eight members of the D’Ascoyne family.)
Robert L. Freedman (books and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), with director Darko Tresnjak and scenic designer Alexander Dodge, have created a lovely little tale, part The Mystery of Edwin Drood, part Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, with some Monty Python flourishes added for good measure. Pinkham (Ghost, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) has devilish fun as Navarro, thinking up new ways to do away with his potential victims, while Mays — well, it’s often hard to figure out just how he changes from character to character so quickly, not only in wardrobe but in accent and style, a mind-boggling tour de force. Most of the action takes place on a stage within the stage, with red curtains and faces that occasionally come alive. Intentionally cheesy backdrops and playful video projection add to the fun of such numbers as “You’re a D’Ysquith,” “Poison in My Pocket,” and “The Last One You’d Expect,” while riotous slapstick propels a marvelous scene in which Monty is with Sibella but Phoebe D’Ysquith (Lauren Worsham) unexpectedly arrives, her sights also set on Monty, who does his best trying to keep each woman from finding out about the other. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a delicious mélange of music and mayhem, with plot twists that hold surprises even for those who adore Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 16, $67-$135
Ten years ago, Manhattan Theatre Club presented Bronx-born playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, starring Brían F. O’Byrne, directed by Doug Hughes, and with scenic design by John Lee Beatty. That group has teamed up again for the world premiere of Outside Mullinger, a charming little tale that opened last week at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. A dark romantic comedy, Outside Mullingar takes place in County Westmeath in the home of Tony Reilly (a wonderful Peter Maloney) and his ne’er-do-well son, Anthony (five-time Tony nominee O’Byrne). An elderly widower, Tony tells his neighbor, Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy), that he is considering selling his farm to his nephew in America rather than leave it to Anthony. Aoife, who has just buried her husband, Christopher, can’t believe Tony would do that to his son, who is distressed when he is told of the possibility that he might not get the family land he has worked on his whole life. Discussion also turns to a forty-meter strip of land on the Reilly property that is actually owned by the Muldoons because of an old loan. The strip divides the front of the Reilly home so Tony and Anthony have to walk through a pair of gates to get from the road to their front door. Now that Christopher Muldoon has died, the Reillys believe they can get that narrow bit of land back, but Muldoon’s daughter, Rosemary (Debra Messing), is not about to hand it over, as it holds a very special memory for her. As the two families bicker both playfully and seriously, attention soon turns to Anthony and Rosemary, two lonely, difficult people who clearly don’t know what’s best for them.
Shanley, who won a Tony and a Pulitzer for Doubt and an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonstruck, keeps things simple in Outside Mullingar, which works as a timeless character study, performed by an engaging cast. Maloney (To Be or Not to Be, Judgment at Nuremberg) nearly steals the show as the crotchety old man, while Molloy (Dancing at Lughnasa, The Cripple of Inishmaan) is stalwart as the widow dressed in black. One of the genuine treasures of the New York stage, O’Byrne (Frozen, The Beauty Queen of Leenane) plays the unpredictable Tony with just the right mix of ambiguity and crazy. And in her Broadway debut — although she has performed often off Broadway, including as Mary Louise Parker’s understudy in Shanley’s Four Dogs and a Bone — Emmy Award winner Messing (Will & Grace, Smash) is a delight, employing an Irish brogue as she battles with Tony both in his house and outdoors in a gentle rainstorm. Here’s hoping it’s not another ten years before this talented team works together again.