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

THE KING AND I

Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe get to know each other in Bartlett Sher’s wonderful revival at Lincoln Center (photo by Paul Kolnik)

Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe get to know each other in Bartlett Sher’s wonderful revival at Lincoln Center (photo by Paul Kolnik)

Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through January 3, $97-$172
212-362-7600
www.lct.org

In December 1977, my parents took the whole family to Broadway to see a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, with Yul Brynner returning as King Mongkut of Siam and Constance Towers playing Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher hired by the royal leader to teach English and Western culture to his children as he tries to modernize his country, later known as Thailand. It was my introduction to the Broadway musical in person, not a bad way to begin. So it was with fond memories that I entered Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater recently to see this latest revival, and I’m happy to report that everything you’ve heard about it is correct; it’s a memorable experience from start to finish, a delightful staging loaded with charm and elegance. Based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, a fictionalized version of actual events, the musical gets under way with a lovely overture; the small orchestra, under the direction of Ted Sperling, is in the pit, visible below long wooden slats stretching out in front of the stage. But at the end of the fanfare, the stage floor extends over the musicians, the curtain opens, and a nearly impossibly large, spectacular ship approaches the audience, carrying Anna (six-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara) and her young son, Louis (Jake Lucas), as they pull into Bangkok. Captain Orton (Murphy Guyer) warns Anna not to anger Kralahome (Paul Nakauchi), the king’s prime minister, but the widow immediately shows that she is not afraid of anything, speaking her mind when she learns that she and Louis will be staying at the palace instead of the separate house she was promised. And upon meeting the king (Ken Watanabe), who has a vast number of wives and children, she quickly demonstrates that she is a strong, fearless woman, not about to tolerate treatment as a second-class citizen. In addition to giving lessons to the kids, including the crown prince, Chulalongkorn (Jon Viktor Corpuz), Anna is soon teaching the king a thing or two as well as he seeks to make tiny Siam a major player in the modern world. Meanwhile, the newest member of his harem, Tuptim (Ashley Park), a gift from the king of Burma, is secretly in love with Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora), a clandestine romance that could get them both killed.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I dazzles in every way at the Vivian Beaumont (photo by Paul Kolnik)

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I dazzles in every way at the Vivian Beaumont (photo by Paul Kolnik)

Director Bartlett Sher, who helmed Lincoln Center’s celebrated 2008 production of South Pacific — which earned seven Tonys, including Best Director of a Musical and Best Revival of a Musical, as well as a nomination for O’Hara’s featured performance as Nellie Forbush — has done another sparkling job with The King and I, inviting the audience to bask in the glow of Richard Rodgers’s glorious music and Oscar Hammerstein III’s exquisite book and lyrics. Once the ship departs, Michael Yeargan’s sets are much more spare yet graceful, allowing Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes to shine. The songs are, well, as wonderful as ever, from “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Shall We Dance?” to “Getting to Know You,” “A Puzzlement,” and, natch, “Something Wonderful.” “The March of Siamese Children,” in which the king’s progeny from his favorite wives bow to him, one at a time, then greet Anna, as their mothers watch closely, hoping their children don’t do anything to hurt their status, is particularly effective, not only in its stellar execution but in displaying the old-fashioned ways of the king, which he must overcome if Siam is to thrive internationally. The issue of slavery is raised quite specifically in the second-act ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a special presentation, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for an important British diplomat (Edward Baker-Duly) who is interested in Anna. The show manages to sidestep issues of colonialism and ethnocentricity as Anna criticizes many of Siam’s traditions and her relationship with the king grows more intimate.

Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles) and Anna Leonewens (Kelli OHara) come together despite living very different lives (photo by Paul Kolnik)

Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles) and Anna Leonewens (Kelli O’Hara) come together despite living very different lives (photo by Paul Kolnik)

O’Hara (The Light in the Piazza, Nice Work If You Can Get It) is enchanting as Anna, a role previously played by the likes of Celeste Holm, Hayley Mills, Faith Prince, Maureen McGovern, and Marie Osmond, giving her a fierce, determined edge while letting her vocal cords soar. (Irene Dunne played Anna in John Cromwell’s 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam, which also starred Rex Harrison as the king and Lee J. Cobb as Kralahome.) Watanabe (Letters from Iwo Jima, Inception) is a certifiable triumph in a role that might be associated with one actor more than any other role — Brynner played the part more than 4,600 times onstage over the course of thirty-four years, winning two Tonys, while also earning an Oscar for the 1956 film and starring in the 1972 television series Anna and the King with Samantha Eggar. Bare-chested and with a shaven head, Watanabe is utterly engaging as the king, his choppy English adding a nice touch to his depiction of the complex ruler, whether declaring that life is a puzzlement, gleefully exclaiming, “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” or sweeping across the floor with Anna. (Just for the record, among the other actors who have portrayed the king in various incarnations, both musical and not, are Farley Granger, Lou Diamond Phillips, Zachary Scott, Herbert Lom, Darren McGavin, and Rudolf Nureyev.) Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, based on Jerome Robbins’s original, keeps things flowing beautifully, accompanying Robert Russell Bennett’s lush orchestrations. The original production won all five of the Tony Awards it was nominated for back in 1952 — Brynner as Best Featured Actor, Gertrude Lawrence for Best Leading Actress as Anna, Best Costume Design, Best Scenic Design, and Best Musical — while the revival I saw as a kid earned Drama Desk nominations for Brynner, Angela Lansbury as Anna, and Outstanding Musical. Lincoln Center’s revival is another runaway hit, garnering nine Tony nominations and two Drama Desk nods. It’s an absolute treat getting to know The King and I all over again.

FINDING NEVERLAND

(photo © Carol Rosegg)

Lord Cannan (Tyley Ross), Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer), and Mary Barrie (Teal Wicks) toast J. M. Barrie (Michael Morrison) in FINDING NEVERLAND (photo © Carol Rosegg)

Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
205 West 46th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Through December 20, $72-$147
findingneverlandthemusical.com

After nearly four years of heavy out-of-town tinkering, Finding Neverland has at last landed on Broadway, but it’s still lost, in desperate need of finding itself. Produced by a very hands-on Harvey Weinstein, whose Miramax company released the 2004 Oscar-nominated film starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, and Julie Christie, the stage musical has gone through major cast, director, and composer changes before settling on the current Great White Way team: director Diane Paulus, Matthew Morrison as J. M. Barrie, music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, book by Jerry Graham, and choreography by Mia Michaels. Based on Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the show follows Barrie, a successful playwright dealing with his first flop, as he teeters between two worlds: the high-society lifestyle preferred by his wife, Mary (Teal Wicks), and the more down-home, simple existence lived by the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her four sons, Peter, Jack, George, and Michael (played in various configurations by Alex Dreier, Hayden Signoretti, Noah Hinsdale, Aidan Gemme, Christopher Paul Richards, Sawyer Nunes, and Jackson Demott Hill). His producer, Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer), an American, needs him to write a hit, and ideas start percolating as Barrie spends more time with the Davies clan, discovering his inner child with an infectious glee. Little events become fodder for his work, the eventual Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. But while Peter Pan is built around magic, Finding Neverland lacks any real spark.

(photo © Carol Rosegg)

J. M. Barrie (Michael Morrison) turns his experiences with the Davies family into PETER PAN in Broadway musical (photo © Carol Rosegg)

Whenever you see a show, you want to be completely invested in it, lured in by its magic, whether a comedy, a drama, or a glitzy musical. Early in the second act, when Frohman’s acting troupe is drinking together in a pub, its crabby erstwhile star, Mr. Henshaw (Paul Slade Smith), turns to Frohman and asks, “Do they say ‘cheers’ where you come from, mate?” The completely unnecessary reference to the television series that made Grammer famous brings Finding Neverland to a screeching halt; sure, many people in the audience explode in laughter — much as they do when Larry David throws in a gratuitous catchphrase from Curb Your Enthusiasm into the disappointing Fish in the Dark — but it takes you right out of the fantasy, which is what Peter Pan is all about, and the show never recovers. The ballads are drippy, the acting often goes too far over the top — Smith, Josh Lamon as his cohort Mr. Cromer, Tyley Ross as Lord Cannan, and Carolee Carmello as Mary’s mother are particularly annoying — and the way Paulus (Pippin, Hair) and Michaels (So You Think You Can Dance) depict flying is a supreme letdown. It does have its moments — there is a sweet energy between Morrison (The Light in the Piazza, Glee) and Kelly (Mary Poppins, Peter Pan), Grammer has several funny bits, and some of the staging is clever — but it’s all frustratingly inconsistent. Finding Neverland tries way too hard to be a feel-good experience but instead never takes flight.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

(photo © 2015 Matthew Murphy)

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS smells sweet in Broadway premiere (photo by Angela Sterling)

Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway at 47th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 22, $57-$147
www.anamericaninparisbroadway.com

Tony nominee and Pulitzer Prize finalist Craig Lucas and Royal Ballet artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon don’t merely translate Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 Oscar-winning film, An American in Paris, to the stage, they transform it. This first-ever theatrical production of the Gershwin musical is set in Paris at the end of WWII, as former GI Jerry Mulligan (New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchild) decides to stay in France and explore his art — as well as Lise Dassin (Royal Ballet dancer Leanne Cope), a shy young woman who works in a parfumerie but dreams of becoming a ballerina. Jerry soon finds a friend in Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), a sarcastic composer and pianist who is training Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) for a cabaret act, a secret Henri keeps from his stern German parents (Veanne Cox and Scott Willis). Meanwhile, wealthy arts patron Milo Davenport (Jill Paice) has taken Jerry under her wing, introducing him to high society — and perhaps into her boudoir. But Jerry has fallen head-over-heels for Lise, who has some secrets of her own — and is also being wooed at the same time by Adam and Henri.

Ballet dancers Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope dazzle in their Broadway debuts (photo © 2015 Matthew Murphy)

Ballet dancers Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope dazzle in their Broadway debuts (photo by Marie-Noëlle Robert)

Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Light in the Piazza) has cleverly expanded on Alan Jay Lerner’s original screenplay, not only making Lise a ballerina but adding references to Nazism and anti-Semitism, while Wheeldon (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Winter’s Tale) does a spectacular job bringing ballet to Broadway, creating scintillating ballet numbers that are fresh and vibrant. The score, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira, features such memorable treats as “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful,” “But Not for Me,” “The Man I Love,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” in addition to the instrumentals “Concerto in F” and “Second Prelude,” all adapted and arranged beautifully by Rob Fisher. Two of the film’s highlights, the dreamlike “American in Paris” sequence and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” get the deluxe treatment, showing off Natasha Katz’s lighting and Bob Crowley’s gorgeous costumes and dazzling sets, which were inspired by Mondrian and the moving mirrors from the film. Fairchild and Cope are excellent in their Broadway debuts, dancing, singing, and acting with equal aplomb. And Lucas even leaves in Lerner’s Oscar Levant joke. Sure, “Fidgety Feet” is frivolous and the discussions of artistic integrity unnecessary, but everything else about An American in Paris on Broadway is, well, magnifique.

SOMETHING ROTTEN!

Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) predicts a musical future for Nick Bottom in SOMETHING ROTTEN! (photo © 2015 Joan Marcus)

Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) predicts a musical future for Nick Bottom in SOMETHING ROTTEN! (photo © 2015 Joan Marcus)

St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 3, $37 - $177
rottenbroadway.com

Nearly five hundred years after William Shakespeare’s death, the author is still challenging modern dramatists around the world for theater space while influencing story lines and inspiring alternate takes on his thirty-six works. In their first stage production, brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick anachronistically take audiences back to the Renaissance in Something Rotten!, a rousing musical farce that pays tribute to the Bard and Broadway by playfully skewering both. Two-time Tony nominee Brian d’Arcy James stars as Nick Bottom, who runs a local theater troupe with his brother, Nigel (John Cariani), that can’t escape Shakespeare’s (Christian Borle) shadow. Desperate to beat the Bard at his own game — and determined to show his feminist wife, Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff), that he can be the family’s main breadwinner — Nick takes advice from a vagrant soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), leading him to attempt the first-ever full-fledged musical, Omelette. But Nigel wants to write something more meaningful than a show about breakfast, while also becoming interested in Portia (Kate Reinders), the chaste daughter of Puritan leader Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmanskas). Meanwhile, Shakespeare prances about like a rock star, prepared to take on all comers to his literary throne, ready, willing, and able to do whatever it takes to preserve his lofty status. “Yo! — He’s the bomb, the soul of the age / The wiz of the Elizabethan stage,” the crowd sings about Shakespeare in the opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” continuing, “He’s incredible, unforgettable / He’s just so freakin’ awesome!”

Shakespeare (Christian Borle) rocks out to his adoring fans in the park in SOMETHING ROTTEN! (Christian Borle)

Shakespeare (Christian Borle) rocks out to his adoring fans in the park in SOMETHING ROTTEN! (photo © 2015 Joan Marcus)

Karey, who cowrote the book with British novelist and script writer John O’Farrell (the two previously collaborated on the hit animated film Chicken Run), and Wayne, with whom Karey cowrote the music and lyrics, fill Something Rotten! with an endless array of references to Shakespeare and the Great White Way, from direct quotes, character names, and Gregg Barnes’s (Follies, The Drowsy Chaperone) costumes to Scott Pask’s (The Book of Mormon, The Coast of Utopia) high-school-like painted-cardboard sets and director Casey Nicholaw’s (The Book of Mormon, Spamalot) choreography. Part of the fun of Something Rotten! is trying to recognize all the references (be on the lookout for homages to Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago, A Chorus Line, The Lion King, Hair, The Book of Mormon, The Producers, Gypsy, and countless others), which also saves you from not getting too caught up in the silly plot twists and several of the numbers that are precisely what is being made fun of. “Who talks like this?” Nick asks, referring to Shakespeare’s use of Olde English and iambic pentameter. “Nigel, why can’t we just write like we speak?” Among the most effective production numbers are “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” led by Nick and Nigel (Nick: “That little turd, he / has no sense about the audience / He makes them feel so dumb / The bastard doesn’t care / that my poor ass is getting numb”) and Nick and Nostradamus’s “A Musical” (Nick: “Well, that is the stupidest thing that I have ever heard / You’re doing a play, got something to say / so you sing it? It’s absurd / Who on earth is going to sit there / while an actor breaks into song / What possible thought can the audience think / other than this is horribly — wrong?”), while “Right Hand Man” is standard fluff, and “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard” are overplayed and repetitive. But it’s all still great fun, with particularly fine turns by d’Arcy James (Shrek the Musical, Sweet Smell of Success), the Kristen Chenoweth-like Reinders (Wicked, Into the Woods), and Ashmanskas (Bullets over Broadway, Present Laughter), but Oscar (The Producers, Spamalot) steals the show as the clairvoyant bum who sums up what a musical is quite succinctly: “It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops and the plot is conveyed through song.” And in this case, it’s a celebration of the art form that will leave you giddy with delight, whether you are a lover or hater of Shakespeare — and Broadway musicals.

HAND TO GOD

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) looks on as his church’s Christcateers rehearse in HAND TO GOD (photo by Joan Marcus)

Booth Theatre
222 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 4, $59 - $137
handtogodbroadway.com
www.shubert.nyc

Robert Askins’s Hand to God is one of the most outrageously hysterical and devilishly strange shows to come to Broadway in a long time. Originally presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011 and then by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel in early 2014, Hand to God features a sensational central performance by Steven Boyer, who has been with the play since the beginning; it’s the kind of all-in exhibition you cannot imagine any other actor being able to even approach, so infused with a near-frightening level of skill and intelligence — and an obsessive quality that translates well to his character. Boyer (Modern Terrorism, Trevor) stars as Jason, a severely repressed teen dealing rather poorly with the recent death of his father. Jason is part of a small church group in Texas preparing to put on a moralistic puppet show for the congregation. The troupe is led by Jason’s mother, Margery (Geneva Carr), and also includes two other kids, the shy, practical, geek-chic Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and the tough-talking rebel Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer). They get together in the church basement, where they are occasionally visited by Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), who has his own ideas about how to help the widowed Margery through her newfound loneliness. Oh, and there’s one more character: Tyrone, Jason’s sock puppet and alter ego, who doesn’t take kindly to Jason’s attempt to destroy him, leading to no-holds-barred shenanigans that combine the sexiness of Avenue Q and the chills of The Exorcist with the lovable grossness of Ben Stiller’s Skank and the raunch of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Tyrone comes between Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and Jason (Steven Boyer) in Tony-nominated demonic comedy (photo by Joan Marcus)

In Hand to God, Askins, whose latest work, Permission, is currently at MCC Theater, explores the conflux of the id, the ego, and the super-ego, examining where people turn to in times of trouble. While some may see it as blasphemous, it is not so much about religion as it is about personal demons and inner oppression. It’s also damn funny. “You’re so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia,” Jessica tells Timothy early on. All five of the characters are flawed, but it’s Jason who responds to reality in the most dangerous way. “I think it’s doing bad things to me,” he says about Tyrone in the first act, but in the second act he says, “I don’t want to be bad,” perhaps recognizing that Tyrone is part of himself. Then again, judging by the awesomely satanic set change by Beowulf Boritt (Act One, The Scottsboro Boys) following intermission, and the rapturous skill with which Boyer deviates between Jason and Tyrone, whether re-creating Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine or leering at Jessica’s sock puppet, Jolene, maybe Tyrone is a possessed being all its own after all. The diabolical doings are handled with a thrilling chaos by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Verité, Trevor) and the excellent cast; you might not know what’s going to happen next, but you can be sure it will be extremely bizarre, potentially violent, and an absolute riot.

IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Jenny Steinberg (Lisa Howard) and her mother, Judy (Tyne Daly), discuss paninis in flat Broadway musical (photo by Joan Marcus)

Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 13, $35-$142
877-250-2929
www.itshouldabeenyou.com
www.brooksatkinsontheater.com

It Shoulda Been You? You should be thankful it wasn’t. This ever-so-slight musical premiered in the fall of 2011 at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick with some of the same cast, and although it’s been trimmed from two hours and two acts to an intermissionless hundred minutes, the panini-thin tale is still way too long. The show takes place at the fashionable St. George Hotel, where Rebecca Steinberg (Sierra Boggess) and Brian Howard (David Burtka) are getting married. Rebecca’s father, Murray (Chip Zien), is a mensch, but her mother, Judy (Tyne Daly), is opinionated, judgmental, and domineering, especially when it comes to her older daughter, the single and overweight Jenny (Lisa Howard). Brian’s parents, George (Michael X. Martin) and Georgette (Harriet Harris), are cold WASPs who aren’t exactly celebrating the union of their son with the very Jewish Steinberg clan. A wrinkle is thrown in when Rebecca’s old boyfriend, Marty Kaufman (Josh Grisetti), arrives uninvited, seeking to stop the proceedings. Meanwhile, all-knowing wedding planner extraordinaire Albert (Edward Hibbert) is prepared for just about anything and everything, except for a grand finale that is seriously outdated and embarrassingly offensive, wasting a dazzling, eye-opening performance by Drama Desk Award winner Howard (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, 9 to 5).

(photo by Joan Marcus)

IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU tramples on such concepts as diversity, individuality, and personal freedom (photo by Joan Marcus)

It Shoulda Been You opens with Jenny singing “I Never Wanted This,” and she might as well be speaking for the audience as well. Barbara Anselmi’s music, Brian Hargrove’s book and lyrics, Lawrence Yurman’s arrangements, and David Hyde Pierce’s direction are as standard as can be, flat and boring. The story is laden with plot holes, and the jokes, if you could call them that, are lame and repetitive; if someone mentioned a panini station one more time, well, I couldn’t be responsible for my actions. Just because you know your characters and situations are stereotypical retreads doesn’t give you the right to exploit them so shamelessly. And the ending, which purports to tell all of us that we should be who we want to be, to feel good about who we are, that it’s okay to be different, is actually a giant slap in the face not only to the audience but to anyone who has truly had to fight convention, tradition, and society in order to just be themselves. About midway through the show, Georgette asks, “Where Did I Go Wrong.” Where do you want me to begin? It Shoulda Been You gives even the worst of the Borsch Belt a bad name.

AIRLINE HIGHWAY

(photo © 2015 Joan Marcus)

The residents of the down-on-its-luck Hummingbird Motel prepare for a funeral party in AIRLINE HIGHWAY (photo © 2015 Joan Marcus)

Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 14, $50-$130
airlinehighwaybroadway.com
www.manhattantheatreclub.com

Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D’Amour (Detroit) channels her inner Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill in Airline Highway, a rapturous tale about a group of lovable luckless losers coexisting in the run-down, dilapidated Hummingbird Motel on a slowly gentrifying Airline Highway in modern-day, post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s the spring of 2014, and the sad-sack denizens of the seedy motel are preparing for a funeral party in honor of their matriarch, Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), a local burlesque legend who is on her deathbed but wants a big send-off while she’s still alive. Tanya (Julie White), an aging hooker with a heart of gold, is organizing the festivities, getting help from the loud, fun-loving transgender Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), moody stripper Krista (Caroline Neff), hippie leftover Francis (Ken Marks), jack of all trades, master of none Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), and longtime motel manager and primary ne’er-do-well Wayne (Scott Jaeck). They all share a familial sense of camaraderie, ribbing one another about their sorry-ass lives, but only to show they really do care. “Why do we gotta wait until we’re in the coffin for people to say nice things about us?” Francis asks. “Yeah, like maybe if those people said those things earlier, we’d live longer,” Wayne adds, to which Krista responds, “Who wants to live longer.” Trouble soon shows up in the form of Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), an old Hummingbird resident who got out three years earlier and is trying to make a new life for himself, moving in with a cougar and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver), in Atlanta. Bait Boy — whose nickname has numerous debated derivations — had been in a long-term relationship with Krista, who is none too happy to see him again, especially since he has brought his stepdaughter; Zoe keeps asking everyone personal questions as part of a sociology paper she is doing for school. “I’m supposed to interview at least three people from the same subculture,” she explains. “Meaning, you live in a ‘culture,’ and you are coming down to us,” Sissy Na Na points out. Bait Boy’s return and Zoe’s presence set things in motion as the past comes back to haunt them all.

(photo © 2015 Joan Marcus)

Tanya (Julie White) isn’t so quick to accept advice from Wayne (Scott Jaeck) in Lisa D’Amour’s New Orleans–set drama (photo © 2015 Joan Marcus)

Two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello (Assassins, Take Me Out) directs this Steppenwolf production, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, with an infectious giddiness that is echoed in David Zinn’s spot-on costumes and Scott Pask’s fab set, which turns the drab parking lot of the dilapidated, depressing Hummingbird into a space bursting with life despite the universal lack of hope displayed by the characters, all damaged goods who seem resigned to their fate. But that’s not going to stop them from dressing up and throwing one helluva party. The ensemble is superb, led by Tony winner White (The Little Dog Laughed,), who has been nominated for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her lovely, understated performance as Tanya, a street-smart woman who expected more out of life but is making due with the lot she’s been cast. Tony nominee Freeman (The Song of Jacob Zulu) is up for a Tony and Drama Desk Award for his poignant portrayal of Sissy, a caring soul who speaks her mind and loves to have a good time. In her Broadway debut, Neff (A Brief History of Helen of Troy) gives a beautiful, heartbreaking edge to Krista, who is ashamed of what’s become of her, while Rhoze is a riot as Terry, a layabout who should have done more with his life. The play is alive with the energy of New Orleans, as well as its music, highlighted by Fitz Patton’s original score, a fiery take on Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” and overlapping dialogue bursting with an intoxicating rhythm. Two late soliloquies are entirely unnecessary, overemphasizing what the story has already shown us about these very believable forgotten men and women living by their wits on the fringes of society. The play takes place during Jazz Fest, but only Francis has ever been to the annual New Orleans celebration, and he doesn’t even go to the main part. “The real fest is on the edges,” he says, just like their existence. There are various Native American legends about the hummingbird, a positive symbol that can represent peace, love, and happiness as well as beauty, harmony, and integrity. Airline Highway has all that and more.