This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Dani Franco (Kelli Barrett) and Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis) look back at the best day of their life in Gettin’ the Band Back Together (photo by Joan Marcus)

Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through July 14, $49.50 - $169.50
gettinthebandbacktogether.com

This summer, two new musicals have been undeservingly anchored at the bottom of the Broadway box office, and just by coincidence, they are next-door neighbors on West Forty-Fourth St. One is Head Over Heels at the Hudson Theatre, the sensational reimagining of Sir Philip Sidney’s 1590 Elizabethan drama with Go-Go’s songs and a very funny LGBTQ sensibility. The other, at the Belasco, is the silly but fun, goofy yet charming Gettin’ the Band Back Together. Written by Tony-winning producer Ken Davenport (Kinky Boots, Groundhog Day) and the improv group the Grundleshotz and with music and lyrics by Mark Allen in his Broadway debut, the show might be too long and repetitive and overly self-deprecating, but it’s also a real crowd pleaser about second chances. To stir up enthusiasm, Davenport even takes the stage at the beginning, explaining that the show is based on real-life experiences, including his own time in a high school band. After being fired from his Wall Street broker job, forty-year-old Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis) returns home to Sayreville, New Jersey, moving back in with his hot-MILF mother, Sharon (Marilu Henner). He encounters his former arch-nemesis, Tygen Billows (Brandon Williams), whose Mouthfeel lost to Mitch’s Juggernauts two decades before in the Battle of the Bands but has won the title every year since. Tygen has also gone on to own seventy-three percent of the local real estate, happily foreclosing on longtime residents while riding around in his sporty Pontiac Solstice and showing off his impressive chest hair. Tygen is even dating Mitch’s high school sweetheart, Dani Franco (Kelli Barrett).

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Sharon (Marilu Henner) is ready to rock out with help from Michael “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Whitty) and Ricky Bling (Sawyer Nunes) in new musical at the Belasco (photo by Joan Marcus)

When Tygen threatens to foreclose on Sharon, Mitch decides that he is going to put the group back together to challenge Mouthfeel in the upcoming Battle of the Bands. So he rounds up bass player and high school math teacher Bart Vickers (Jay Klaitz), who sucks at math; keyboardist and dermatologist Dr. Rummesh “Robbie” Patel (Manu Narayan), whose parents have arranged for him to marry a woman he has never met; and drummer and cop Michael “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Whitty), who is studying for his detective exam and is unable to admit his affection for fellow cop Roxanne Velasco (Tamika Lawrence). “This can’t be my life,” they declare in unison. After adding high school guitarist/rapper Ricky Bling (Sawyer Nunes), they hit the garage and start practicing for the big day while also taking stock of who they are and what the future holds for them. “’Cause dreams don’t matter / when the rent is coming due / You play it safe / and let the fantasy slip through,” Mitch sings, determined to change his path.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Bart Vickers (Jay Klaitz) shares his unusual philosophy of life with Mitch Papadopoulos (Mitchell Jarvis) in Gettin’ the Band Back Together (photo by Joan Marcus)

Gleefully directed by Tony winner John Rando (On the Town, Urinetown) and playfully choreographed by Chris Bailey (Jerry Springer — the Opera, The Entertainer) on Derek McLane’s emphatically cheesy sets, Gettin’ the Band Back Together recalls the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, and in fact numerous Band cast members are veterans of that show. Jarvis (Rock of Ages, The Threepenny Opera) is relatively tame as Mitch, playing him more as a regular guy instead of a wannabe rock star, with mixed results, as he can’t really belt it out, and he can’t quite generate enough heat with Barrett (Rock of Ages, Wicked). But that is more than made up for by Williams, who in his Broadway bow chews everything up and spits it out with relish, reveling in Tygen’s supposed success, knowingly glancing at the audience, and participating in hysterical rapport with his right-hand man, Ritchie Lorenzo (Garth Kravits), who has a habit of saying too much about Tygen’s father when it comes to words of wisdom. “It’s like my dad used to say,” Tygen begins, with Ritchie continuing, “‘If you’re facing twenty to life, it’s OK to squeal,’” to which Tygen responds, “Yes. No. ‘There are two kinds of people in the world,’” leaving it at that. Whitty (Once, Amélie) is engaging as the doofy Sully, Klaitz (Rock of Ages, High Fidelity) is a riot as the shlubby Bart, who has had a crush on Mitch’s mom forever, and Henner (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Chicago) is effective as the band’s main cheerleader. The cast also includes Noa Solorio as Dani’s teenage daughter, Billie; Becca Kötte (Rock of Ages) as Tawney Truebody, a Canadian who is new in town; Rob Marnell as the town drunk; and Ryan Duncan (Shrek, Bring It On) as Nick Styler, a lounge singer at the Peterpank Diner who brings down the house with the saddest, most pathetic and depressing song ever. “Baby, I’m beggin’ you for second chances / The kids all miss you too / So please forgive me and please don’t sue me,” he opines. Gettin’ the Band Back Together is not going to change your life, but it will remind you of those long-ago glory days when the things that mattered, what you thought would always matter, were very different.

HEAD OVER HEELS

Head Over Heels

Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia has been reimagined as the Go-Go’s musical Head Over Heels on Broadway (photo by Joan Marcus)

Hudson Theatre
139-141 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 17, $35 - $274
855-801-5876
www.thehudsonbroadway.com

Sir Philip Sidney’s 1590 drama The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia has been transformed into the giddy get-up-and-go musical Head Over Heels, running through next February at the Hudson Theatre. James Magruder has adapted the Shakespeare-like Elizabethan prose work, about forbidden love, patriarchal society, mistaken identity, and prophecy, into a bawdy, ribald tale, a modern-day celebration of gay and transgender culture that is neither didactic nor facetious. Oh, and it’s all set to classic songs and deep cuts by the Go-Go’s — Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey — whose tunes fit right into the story, with nary a word needing to be changed. In the land of Arcadia, King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and Queen Gynecia (Rachel York) are leading the annual festivities paying tribute to “the beat,” their divine legacy that brings order to their lives. “We heed its rhythm and follow its form,” Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), the king’s older daughter, says. “It keeps us in line and dictates the norm,” adds Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), the king’s viceroy. Shortly before a tournament in which eligible bachelors will parade for Pamela’s hand, Gynecia zeroes in on younger daughter Philoclea’s (Alexandra Socha) increasing closeness with the Eclogue-speaking shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand). The queen forbids her daughter from marrying the peasant, explaining, “Too many turns of the hourglass make / Us forget the unscripted pleasures of / Free-feeling youth and doth render us all / Conservative in thought and policy.” That conservative thinking is about to be upended when Pamela is wooed by Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), her maiden and Dametas’s daughter; Musidorus disguises himself as a female Amazon called Cleophila, attracting Basilius and Gynecia; and Pythio (Peppermint), the Oracle of Delphi who identifies as “a nonbinary plural,” warns the king and Dametas that “Arcadia is in peril,” delivering a four-part prophecy about the royal family and the future of the crown. As the riddle-like predictions start coming true, chaos threatens the kingdom amid an epidemic of 1960s-era free love.

Head Over Heels

Peppermint stars as the nonbinary plural Oracle of Delphi in Head Over Heels at the Hudson (photo by Joan Marcus)

Tony-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) infuses Tony winner Jeff Whitty’s (Bring It On: The Musical, Avenue Q) splendid book with genuine heart and soul as the well-developed characters proceed to their fates. Pulitzer and Tony winner Tom Kitt’s (Next to Normal, American Idiot) orchestrations are at times so faithful to the Go-Go’s songs that it occasionally sounds like the actors are singing to the original recordings, but they are in fact played live by conductor and musical director Kimberly Grigsby on keyboards, Ann Klein and Bess Rogers on guitars, Catherine Popper on bass, and Dena Tauriello on drums. Emmy nominee Spencer Liff’s (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) playful choreography doesn’t overdo things, while Julian Crouch’s set design is fun and imaginative, with painted moving cardboard backdrops and a giant python’s heavenly descent. And the superb cast looks great in Arianne Phillips’s exuberant, eye-catching period costumes as the actors recite lines in verse and then belt out such Go-Go’s hits as “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation,” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” and Carlisle’s “Mad About You,” which becomes the show’s musical theme. In addition, at many a sudden romantic twist, a lightning-quick snippet of “Skidmarks on My Heart” comes and goes.Head Over Heels never gets bogged down in its welcoming message of diversity and the need for people to “reveal their authentic selves,” although neither is it shy about making its points. “Please ventilate the belfry of thy mind,” Pamela says to Mopsa. “How is gender germane to the discussion?” Pythio asks Basilius. It all comes together beautifully in a sensational production that is no mere jukebox musical but so much more. Curiously, Head Over Heels is having trouble selling tickets; hopefully it will find an audience, so get thee haste to the Hudson, where a fabulous time is to be had by all.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN

(photo by Joan Marcus 2018)

Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer, and Paul Schneider are the title characters in Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men (photo by Joan Marcus 2018)

The Hayes Theater
240 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 9, $69 - $149
2st.com/shows

Through brilliant bits of added stagecraft, Young Jean Lee and director Anna D. Shapiro have taken Lee’s 2014 Public Theater presentation, Straight White Men, to the next level, transforming it into a more relevant, much funnier Broadway success. The first Asian-American woman to have a play on the Great White Way, Lee, who has previously explored such issues as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and body size and image, chooses the setup of an all-straight, all-white, all-male family gathering to celebrate Christmas together — but this time around she has some key twists. As you enter 2nd Stage’s Hayes Theater, which features a glittering shimmer curtain lit by many colors that instantly makes you question what you’re about to see, two flashily dressed people are walking through the crowd, stopping to talk to audience members, asking them whether they like the loud, female rap music or whether it is making them feel uncomfortable. They are known in the script as Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2, played, respectively, by Kate Bornstein and Ty DeFoe. “In case you were wondering, neither of us is a straight white man,” Bornstein, who identifies as a nonbinary Jew from the Jersey Shore, says. DeFoe explains, “I’m from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations. My gender identity is Niizhi Manitouwug, which means ‘transcending gender’ in the Ojibwe language.” Bornstein and DeFoe form a great comic duo playfully raising issues of comfort and privilege. “Tonight Kate and I are here to try something a little tricky,” DeFoe says. “As foreign as they are to us, we’re gonna try to find some understanding for straight white men. That’s what we wish everyone would do for us.” Lee is not out to skewer straight white men, which has become easy target practice these days, but nor is she out to praise or defend them.

(photo by Joan Marcus 2018

Kate Bornstein and Ty DeFeo are the people in charge of Straight White Men at the Hayes Theater (photo by Joan Marcus 2018)

The shimmer curtain parts to reveal a cozy living room with a couch, a small bar, wall-to-wall carpeting, and other standard elements, nothing fancy. Todd Rosenthal’s set is encased in a large frame, at the bottom of which is a gold plaque that reads: “STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.” It’s as if we’re looking at a human environment in a zoo or a modern historical painting. The inhabitants of this residence are widowed patriarch Ed (Stephen Payne) and his oldest son, Matt (Paul Schneider), a Harvard grad now doing part-time office work for a small charitable organization. Joining them for the holiday are sons Jake (Josh Charles), a divorced banker with kids, and Drew (Armie Hammer), a novelist and teacher who flits about from relationship to relationship. Boys will be boys, so they spend much of the ninety-minute intermissionless production acting out childhood rituals, good-naturedly razzing and annoying one another, and playing a board game called Privilege, adapted by their mother from Monopoly to teach them liberal values. When Jake draws an “Excuses” card, he reads, “‘What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking.’ Pay fifty dollars to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.” Drew next picks up a “Denial” card, reading, “‘I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist.’ Get stopped by the police for no reason and go directly to jail.” All four men later sing Matt’s high school adaptation of the title song from Oklahoma!, which includes such KKK-related lines as “Where we sure look sweet, in white bed sheets / with our pointy masks upon our heads!” The song is delightfully choreographed by Faye Driscoll, who has proved she can energize an audience in such works of her own as the Thank You for Coming trilogy and There is so much mad in me as well as Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show and We’re Gonna Die.

(photo by Joan Marcus 2018

Brothers Drew (Armie Hammer) and Matt (Paul Schneider) face off while their father (Stephen Payne) looks on in Straight White Men (photo by Joan Marcus 2018)

The narrative makes a sharp turn when Matt suddenly starts crying as the men eat their Chinese-food dinner. His brothers and father debate why the prodigal son has broken down, whether it’s because he is depressed about his personal situation, the state of the world, or something else. Matt even refers to himself as a “loser,” that most Trumpian of words. At the heart of the discussion is whether Matt has failed to live up to his potential, whether he has not taken advantage of everything white privilege had to offer him, although that phrase is not used specifically. Knowing that Broadway audiences are primarily white, Tony winner Shapiro (August: Osage County, This Is Our Youth) and two-time Obie winner Lee (The Shipment, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven) don’t skewer the title characters, nor do they ask for any judgment. They just lay it all out there, although the motto for Lee’s theater company (2003-16) was “Destroy the audience.” The manipulations that have been added for the Broadway run are meant to make attendees feel on edge. If an audience member expresses to Bornstein (Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger) or DeFoe (Masculinity Max, Clouds Are Pillows for the Moon) that the entrance music is too loud or offensive, for example, one of the options for them is to be led out to the lobby until the show starts; the music is not going to be changed or lowered for anyone.

In addition, at the start of each of the three acts, Bornstein and DeFoe guide some of the actors onto the stage and put them into place, as if carefully re-creating the past, when white men were at the top of the chain. But now the people in charge are nonbinary, gender fluid, able to identify themselves however they want. It’s almost as if the four white men are pawns in their hands, the power dynamic completely reversed; it might come as no surprise that Lee has been a dollhouse maven since she was a lonely Korean-American child, unable to make friends. The Broadway stage has become her dollhouse, where she can design her own world, word by word, character by character, scene by scene. In their Broadway debuts, Charles (The Antipodes, The Distance from Here), Schneider (Bright Star, Goodbye to All That), and Hammer (Call Me by Your Name, Sorry to Bother You) are fully believable as the siblings, whether goofing around or getting serious, never feeling like stereotypes onstage just to make a sociopolitical point. Payne (Superior Donuts, August: Osage County) is about a half beat behind the others, and the role-playing scene is still awkward. But this iteration of Straight White Men feels right at home on the Great White Way, tenderly looking at how things were, how they are, and perhaps how they will be.

FREE SUMMER EVENTS: JULY 22-29

Hal Willner

Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota is part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival on July 27

The free summer arts & culture season is under way, with dance, theater, music, art, film, and other special outdoor programs all across the city. Every week we will be recommending a handful of events. Keep watching twi-ny for more detailed highlights as well.

Sunday, July 22
SummerStage: Ginuwine, the Ladies of Pink Diamond, and DJ Stacks, Corporal Thompson Park, Staten Island, 5:00

Monday, July 23
The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness: Intolerable Whiteness by Seung-Min Lee, the Kitchen, waitlist only, 7:00

Tuesday, July 24
Movies Under the Stars: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017), Wingate Park, Brooklyn, 8:45

Wednesday, July 25
Hudson RiverFlicks — Big Hit Wednesdays: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan, 2017), Hudson River Park, Pier 63, 8:30

Thursday, July 26
Broadway in Bryant Park: songs from VITALY: An Evening of Wonders, Come from Away, Kinky Boots, The Band’s Visit, and Wicked, cohosted by Bob Bronson, Christine Nagy, and the cast of The Play That Goes Wrong, Bryant Park Lawn, 12:30

Friday, July 27
Lincoln Center Out of Doors: Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota, featuring music from the first two Godfather films and the tribute album Amarcord Nino Rota (I Remember Nino Rota), with multiple performers, Damrosch Park Bandshell, 7:30

Guelaguetza Festival New York City takes place at Socrates Sculpture Park on July 28

Guelaguetza Festival New York City takes place at Socrates Sculpture Park on July 29

Saturday, July 28
BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival:Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1985), screening preceded by live performance by Kaki King featuring Treya Lam, Prospect Park Bandshell, 7:30

Sunday, July 29
Ballet Folklórico Mexicano de Nueva York’s Guelaguetza Festival, Socrates Sculpture Park, 2:00

ANGELS IN AMERICA

(photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Roy M. Cohn (Nathan Lane) is not ready to accept his diagnosis from his longtime doctor (Susan Brown) in Millennium Approaches (photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Neil Simon Theater
250 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Wednesday - Sunday through July 15, $49-$169
angelsbroadway.com

I remember sitting in the Walter Kerr Theatre nearly twenty-five years ago, on back-to-back nights, watching Tony Kushner’s landmark two-part Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, a shattering, eye-opening experience that destroyed and reconstructed the limits of the very art form itself. The Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations were over, but known deaths from AIDS in the United States were still rising — more than forty thousand in 1993 and more than thirty thousand in 1994 (to be followed by nearly fifty thousand in 1995 before a major corner in the treatment battle was turned). New York playwright Kushner brilliantly captured the wide-ranging horrors of the HIV/AIDS crisis from a sociopolitical, deeply personal angle in Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, nearly eight hours of intensely emotional theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Angels is now back on Broadway, in a staggering, Olivier-winning Royal National Theatre production at the Neil Simon Theatre through July 15. Marianne Elliott, who won Tonys for her endlessly inventive direction of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and War Horse (the latter with codirector Tom Morris), has reimagined Angels for the modern age.

Millennium Approaches takes place in late 1985, with three interconnected stories moving between three changing, rotating sets cleverly designed by Ian MacNeil and beautifully lit by Paule Constable. Closeted attorney Roy M. Cohn (Nathan Lane), Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings, is a fast-paced, foul-mouthed wheeler dealer who, when told by his doctor (Susan Brown) that he has AIDS, insists, “No, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” Cohn is pulling strings to get law clerk Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) an important position in the Justice Department in Washington, but Joe doesn’t think the move will be good for his agoraphobic, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Denise Gough). Meanwhile, when Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) explains to his boyfriend, legal word processor Louis Ironson (James McArdle), that he has Kaposi’s sarcoma and is going to die, Louis can’t handle it and leaves him. The three plots intersect and weave together powerfully as Kushner and Elliott explore the characters’ unwillingness to face some difficult truths about themselves regarding sexual identity, honesty, and responsibility; the only one who accepts his fate is Prior, who begins hearing voices and then is visited by an angel (Amanda Lawrence, or Beth Malone on Wednesdays) who declares him to be a prophet.

(photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Harper (Denise Gough) and Joe Pitt (Lee Pace) face their demons in stunning revival of Tony Kushner epic (photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

At the beginning of Perestroika, the world’s oldest Bolshevik, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (Brown), is standing at a podium in the Kremlin, announcing, “The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time? And we all desire that Change will come.” Those theories are addressed as Joe’s Mormon mother (Lawrence/Malone) comes to New York to save him from sin; Prior’s ex-boyfriend, a nurse named Belize (Nathan Steward-Jarrett), is assigned to take care of the hospitalized Cohn, who is being haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Lawrence/Malone); Joe and Louis grow closer; and Prior’s health continues to worsen even as he believes he might very well be a prophet, ordered by the Angel to “Submit to the will of Heaven!” Perestroika is staged very differently from Millennium Approaches; the revolving sets are gone, replaced by an often empty space in which individual elements are either wheeled in by mysterious Angel Shadows (Rowan Ian Seamus Magee, Matty Oaks, Jane Pfitsch, Ron Todorowski, Silvia Vrskova, and Lucy York), rise from beneath, or descend from above. “Perhaps it can be said that Millennium is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion,” Kushner explained in a note on an earlier version of the script. (He has revised Perestroika over the years for previous revivals.) “The plays benefit from a pared-down style of presentation, with scenery kept to an evocative and informative minimum. . . . I recommend rapid scene shifts (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands in shifting the scene. This must be an actor-driven event.”

(photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

An angel (Amanda Lawrence) descends from Heaven to declare a new prophet in Angels in America (photo by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Angels is indeed an actor-driven event, with sensational performances from the cast of eight, each playing multiple parts. Brown (Husbands & Sons, Playing with Fire), Lawrence/Malone (Here We Go, Tristan and Yseult / Fun Home, Ring of Fire), and Stewart-Jarrett (Wig Out, The History Boys) are particularly busy, taking on more than a dozen roles among them. Lane (The Iceman Cometh, It’s Only a Play) gobbles up Cohn, words flowing out in a fury. Gough (People, Places & Things, Desire under the Elms) brings an endearing tenderness to Harper, Pace (The Normal Heart, Small Tragedy) is strong and firm as Joe wrestles with his demons, and McArdle (Platonov, A Month in the Country) plays Louis with a sensitivity that belies his often-questionable actions. But Garfield (Death of a Salesman, The Amazing Spider-Man) soars above them all, fully embodying Prior, who is the show’s heart and soul. His physical and psychological ailing is palpable as he fights his disease while trying to find his place in a world that is getting away from him, his fears, though, somewhat offset by his unending hope. Elliott ably balances major dramatic scenes, such as when Prior gets into a fierce confrontation with the Angel, whose wings are operated by the Angel Shadows, with intimate moments like when Harper hallucinates, along with a large dose of comedy amid the heartbreak. Millennium might be three and a half hours and Perestroika four, each with two intermissions, but it doesn’t feel that long; they smoothly flow across time, and don’t be surprised if you make friends with those around you, especially if you’re seeing both shows the same day in the same seats. Kushner (Homebody/Kabul, Caroline, or Change) wrote, “I believe that, once engaged, audiences rediscover the rewards of patience and effort and the pleasures of an epic journey. An epic play should be a little fatiguing; a rich, heady, hard-earned fatigue is among a long journey’s pleasures and rewards.” Twenty-five years after their Broadway debut, on a planet where one million people die annually from AIDS and tens of thousands of Americans still contract HIV every year, this epic journey is more than worthy of rediscovery, in a stunning revival that hits just as hard today as it did a quarter century ago.

MY FAIR LADY

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Lauren Ambrose excels in iconic role of Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady (photo by Joan Marcus)

Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through January 6, $97-$199
212-362-7600
www.lct.org

Revivals don’t get much better than Bartlett Sher’s absolutely loverly version of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Sher, who previously helmed widely acclaimed productions of South Pacific and The King and I at Lincoln Center, has created an inspiring My Fair Lady for the twenty-first century, honoring the original while bringing the female-empowerment aspect of the story to the fore. The musical adaptation of (George) Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, itself inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, had thwarted Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter until Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe reunited after a brief separation and took on the tale. Outside the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 1912, Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose) is selling violets. Dirty and shabbily dressed, she is nearly knocked over by the fashionable Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jordan Donica), and her flood of Cockney outrage earns her a harangue from Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton), a linguistics expert who is so offended by the way she talks that he declares, “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere — no right to live. . . . Your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.” The next day, Eliza arrives at Higgins’s fancy Wimpole St. home, demanding vocal lessons to make her “more genteel.” Higgins, who has been joined by Col. Pickering (Allan Corduner), treats Eliza harshly, referring to her as “baggage,” but when Pickering offers to pay for her lessons as part of a bet that Higgins can turn her into a lady in time for the Embassy Ball in six months, the professor agrees to take her on. “She’s so deliciously low — so horribly dirty!” Higgins proclaims right in front of her. “I’ll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe!”

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) and Col. Pickering (Allan Corduner) celebrate with Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose) in My Fair Lady at the Vivian Beaumont (photo by Joan Marcus)

It seems like an impossible task for Higgins, a misogynist of the first order. “I’m an ordinary man; / who desires nothing more / than just the ordinary chance / to live exactly as he likes / and do precisely what he wants,” he sings. “But let a woman in your life / and you are plunging in a knife! / Let the others of my sex / tie the knot — around their necks; / I’d prefer a new edition / of the Spanish Inquisition / than to ever let a woman in my life!” Before she is making any real progress, her drunkard of a father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Norbert Leo Butz), shows up at Higgins’s home, asking for money in exchange for Eliza, assuming there is something more than just speech lessons going on. “Have you no morals, man?” Pickering asks. “No, I can’t afford ’em, Governor. Neither could you if you was as poor as me,” Doolittle replies. They eventually come to an agreement, and Higgins gets back to work preparing Eliza for proper society. From the horse races at Ascot to the Embassy Ball and beyond, the relationship between Eliza and Henry further develops, taking both of them by surprise, especially the professor, who loses control over his creation. Meanwhile, Freddy begins courting Eliza, Alfred wants more money, and Higgins’s elegant mother (Diana Rigg) finds the whole thing rather funny.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Diana Rigg has earned her fourth Tony nomination (winning one) for playing Mrs. Higgins in Bartlett Sher’s outstanding production (photo by Joan Marcus)

My Fair Lady has featured such Eliza/Henry pairings as Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison (the 1956 Broadway original, directed by Moss Hart), Audrey Hepburn and Harrison (the 1964 film, which won eight Oscars), Christine Andreas and Ian Richardson (1978), Melissa Errico and Richard Chamberlain (1993), Martine McCutcheon and Jonathan Pryce (2001), and Errico and John Lithgow (2003), the difference in age between the man and the woman generally being twenty-five years or more. However, Ambrose (Six Feet Under, Exit the King) is actually three years older than Hadden-Paton (The Importance of Being Earnest, Downton Abbey), so Sher has them on more equal footing from the very start. Ambrose plays Eliza as a strong-willed, self-protective, astute woman who is determined to better herself, but on her own terms. Meanwhile, Hadden-Paton’s Henry has cracks in his armor that show up early, particularly as Eliza gains pride and power, right up through the gripping finale. Corduner is superb as the eminently likable Pickering (Titanic, Taken at Midnight), while Tony and Emmy winner Rigg (Medea, The Avengers) nearly steals the show as Mrs. Higgins, looking ever-so-chic in Catherine Zuber’s elaborate gowns and Tom Watson’s sophisticated coiffures. (How often does an actress who doesn’t sing a word get nominated for a Tony in a musical?)

Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli and Tony-winning music director Ted Sperling, who both collaborated on Sher’s South Pacific and The King and I, do fabulous jobs here too, particularly in the “Ascot Gavotte” and “Embassy Waltz” scenes but also during wonderful interpretations of “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “You Did It,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “The Rain in Spain.” Michael Yeargan’s dramatic sets further the class division prevalent in 1912 London as well as today. Higgins’s ornate yet refined home slides toward the audience from backstage, revolving from the elegant study to the front hall to the bath and other rooms. When Wimpole St. recedes backstage, the ensemble wheels in rickety DIY-style fences, light poles, and storefront facades. In 1908, Oscar Straus adapted Shaw’s Arms and the Man into The Chocolate Soldier; in 1939, when Shaw was asked about letting Kurt Weill adapt The Devil’s Disciple, he responded, “Nothing will ever induce me to allow any other play of mine to be degraded into an operetta or set to any music except its own.” Shaw died in 1950 at the age of ninety-four; My Fair Lady, with book and lyrics by Lerner and music by Loewe, premiered six years later. We’ll never know what Shaw would have thought of it, but the rest of us can now delight in Sher’s magical 2018 production, which is a smashing success, a classic musical with a fresh, bright take on class and gender issues that is just right for these crazy times.

THE BOYS IN THE BAND

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Emory (Robin De Jesús), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), Larry (Andrew Rannells), and Michael (Jim Parsons) dance at birthday party that is about to become rather intense (photo by Joan Marcus)

Booth Theatre
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through August 11, $69-$199
boysintheband.com

There’s quite a party going on eight times a week at the Booth Theatre, but along with all the drinking and dancing is a whole lot of internalized fear and self-loathing. Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking, controversial play, The Boys in the Band, is making its Broadway debut in a raucous fiftieth-anniversary adaptation lavishly directed by Joe Mantello. Originally presented in 1968, when it ran downtown for more than two years (totaling a thousand and one performances), the revival opened tonight at the Booth Theatre, not showing a bit of its age — aside from its rotary phones. Much has happened in the intervening half century, from the Stonewall Riots to the AIDS crisis to the legalization of same-sex marriage, but The Boys in the Band — the title comes from a line in the 1954 Judy Garland / James Mason film A Star Is Born — still is compelling, a bitter, searing look at the inner struggle many gay men experience in their life, both staying in and coming out of the closet. Over the years, the play has been accused of being hateful and mean-spirited, of spreading gay stereotypes, promoting offensive language, and hindering the advancement of homosexuals in society at large; it has also been praised for helping men come to terms with their sexual identity and to join the fight for gay rights. Frighteningly, several original cast members died of AIDS. But now, for the first time in the show’s history, every member of the cast is gay and out, in addition to Crowley, Mantello, and one of the producers, which is cause for joy all on its own, on various levels. It also helps that the show is still tantalizing and involving and packs a punch, literally as well as figuratively.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Fiftieth-anniversary production of The Boys in the Band is reason to celebrate at the Booth Theatre (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Boys in the Band takes place more or less in real time in Michael’s (Jim Parsons) lovely duplex in the East Fifties, decorated with fancy mirrors, glass walls, a central staircase, and comfy chairs and couches. (The set and costumes are by the always innovative David Zinn, with splendid lighting by Hugh Vanstone.) Michael, who is worried about his receding hairline and has recently stopped drinking, is hosting a birthday party for his best friend, the acerbic Harold (Zachary Quinto), who is turning thirty-two. Before the fête, Donald asks Michael who is coming. “I think you know everybody anyway — they’re the same old tired fairies you’ve seen around since day one. Actually, there’ll be seven, counting Harold and you and me,” Michael says. “Are you calling me a screaming queen or a tired fairy?” Donald replies. “Oh, I beg your pardon — six tired, screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer,” Michael shoots back. That language, now considered “hate speech” by millennials and others, sets the tone of much of the discourse that follows; it’s also not nearly as shocking now as it was in 1968. The invited guests are Michael’s part-time lover, the ruggedly handsome Donald (Matt Bomer); flaming queen Emory (Robin De Jesús); Michael’s good friend Larry (Andrew Rannells) and his new beau, Hank (Tuc Watkins), who has left his wife and children; and the respectable, dignified Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington). Michael’s straight college roommate, Alan (Brian Hutchison), arrives unexpectedly from Washington, bringing his own set of heterosexual problems; also joining in the festivities is Cowboy (Charlie Carver), an adorable, if not very bright, male prostitute who is one of Harold’s gifts. As the alcohol flows and the music swirls, there’s plenty of needling and not-too-subtle flirting, but when Michael insists they all play a telephone game, things get quickly out of hand as the barbs become much more pointed and hurtful, led by Michael’s vicious mean streak. “Sounds like there’s, how you say, trouble in paradise,” Michael says about a lover’s quarrel. “If there isn’t, I think you’ll be able to stir up some,” Harold offers.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Party swiftly changes upon arrival of the straight, uninvited Alan (Brian Hutchison) (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Boys in the Band is viciously funny as it takes on gay stereotypes without exploiting them. In 2018 the effect is somewhat different from 1968 (it was also made into a film in 1970 by William Friedkin and was previously revived in New York in 1996 and 2010) in that the audience now sees characters who are gay, not gay characters, a paradigm shift in the widespread acceptance of gay culture throughout much of America, revolutionized by the gay community’s response to the vice squad raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969, which essentially set the gay pride movement in motion. As mounted by two-time Tony winner Mantello (The Humans, Love! Valour! Compassion!) — who played Louis in the original Broadway production of Angels in America in 1993-94, the seminal “Gay Fantasia” that is currently being spectacularly revived at the Neil Simon Theatre — the show focuses on individual identity. What matters is what’s going on at the party itself, not what might be occurring outside in a world that today is more sensitive to the LGBTQ community. Instead of being stereotypes, the characters now feel more real, genuine examples of the diversity among gay men while honoring that difference. “Everybody’s just a little bit homosexual, whether they like it or not,” Allen Ginsberg sang. In The Boys in the Band, that might even extend to Alan, who is married with two kids but seems instantly attracted to Hank — perhaps primarily because he sees so much of himself in Larry’s lover.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Phone-call game offers surprises galore in The Boys in the Band (photo by Joan Marcus)

All these years later, it is evident that Crowley, who wrote a sequel, The Men from the Boys, in 2002, captured more than just a moment in time; he was embracing individuality as well as the very zeitgeist of homosexuality, even as the party devolves amid the onslaught of personal demons coming to the fore. Crowley also touches on racism and anti-Semitism in addition to homophobia. When Michael is upset that Bernard allows Emory to use the N-word but not him, Bernard, the only black character, explains, “He can do it, Michael. I can do it. But you can’t do it.” That warning also serves as a clever way to take back the oft-criticized gay language in the show, telling the audience who can say what when, that gays own a specific vocabulary just as blacks do. The ensemble cast is outstanding, and judging from all the publicity the actors and crew members have been doing, they seem to be having tons of fun performing the 110-minute intermissionless play. Parsons (An Act of God, Harvey) and Hutchison (La Cage aux Folles, Mamma Mia!) are particularly effective, as their characters change the most during the party. It all might not be as radical or subversive as it once was, but this version is extremely effective in making all of us, gay or straight or trans, etc., consider how far we’ve come as a society while understanding how much more we still have to accomplish. Perhaps The Boys in the Band will be more of a dusty time-capsule piece in 2068, when it turns one hundred.