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

HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME: AN ORIGINAL MUSICAL

(photo by Joan Marcus)

New musical uses Tupac Shakur’s lyrics to tell contemporary tale of hard life (photo by Joan Marcus)

Palace Theatre
1654 Broadway at West 47th St.
Thursday - Tuesday through January 4, $67.75 - $184.25
www.hollerifyahearme.com

The new musical Holler If Ya Hear Me might be based on the songs of Tupac Shakur, but it does not tell the life story of the controversial West Coast rapper who was shot and killed in a Las Vegas drive-by in 1996 at the age of twenty-five. Instead, book writer Todd Kreidler — introduced to Shakur’s music by friend and mentor August Wilson — uses Shakur’s lyrics to share a contemporary tale about life in a ghetto in an unnamed Midwestern industrial city. As the play opens, John (Slam star Saul Williams) descends from the heavens in a jail cell, evoking Shakur’s several stints in prison, while delivering the East Harlem native’s “My Block,” soon joined by the company, setting the mood with the posthumously released song about guns, crack, black-on-black crime, unemployment, economic hardship, and racism. After his innocent brother, Benny (Donald Webber Jr.), is shot and killed, Vertus (Christopher Jackson) is determined to get even with the members of the 4-5 gang who took out Benny, angering his mother (Tonya Weston), alienating his girlfriend, Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh), and energizing young Anthony (Dyllon Burnside), who wants revenge as well. Meanwhile, the moody, humorless John is looking to go straight, getting a job working in Griffy’s (Ben Thompson) car-salvage business, where Benny used to work, planning with the white Griffy to get out of the neighborhood together. Through it all, a decrepit old man (John Earl Jelks) calls for peace by writing on walls and preaching through a megaphone.

John (Saul Williams) and Darius (Joshua Boone) get down to serious business as Anthony (Dyllon Burnside) looks on in HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME (photo by Joan Marcus)

John (Saul Williams) and Darius (Joshua Boone) get down to serious business as Anthony (Dyllon Burnside) looks on in HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME (photo by Joan Marcus)

The first act of Holler If Ya Hear Me is a mess, with a confusing narrative and point of view, a kind of mishmash of West Side Story and In the Heights, but director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Stick Fly) brings things together in act two, focusing more on the individual stories of John, Griffy, and especially Vertus, with stand-out performances by Williams, Thompson, and Jackson. Daryl Waters’s orchestrations too often emphasize Shakur’s background use of R&B elements, Broadway-fying such songs as “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” “Me Against the World,” “Dear Mama,” and “Unconditional Love”; Wayne Cilento’s (Wicked, Jersey Girls) choreography is almost nonexistent; and Edward Pierce’s set design is essentially a bare stage with stoops and a fenced-in salvage show occasionally, sometimes randomly, wheeled in, but Leon and the company still manage to pull it all off in the end while setting a new high for the use of the N-bomb on the Great White Way. The Palace Theatre itself has been transformed for the show, with stadium seating in the front of the tiny orchestra, while the rear has been turned into an interactive exhibition curated by the National Museum of Hip-Hop.

BROADWAY IN HD: THE NANCE

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Stagecast of THE NANCE starring Nathan Lane comes to Symphony Space as part of Broadway in HD series (photo by Joan Marcus)

Symphony Space, Leonard Nimoy Thalia
2537 Broadway at 95th St.
June 25 & 30, July 14 & 20, $23, 7:00
212-864-5400
www.symphonyspace.org
www.screenvision.com

Miss a big show because tickets were too expensive or too hard to get or the production took place overseas? Screenvision is now offering a second chance to check out select Broadway, Canadian, and British plays by showing them in movie theaters across the country. Earlier this month, the company, which specializes in movie-theater advertising, presented a filmed version of the Australian production of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, starring Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. Now, in conjunction with Gay Pride Week, Screenvision and Broadway on Screen have teamed up with Lincoln Center Theater to present a stagecast of last year’s Broadway hit The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane’s poignant and engaging tale of a police clampdown on gay subculture in 1930s New York City. In the play, directed by Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia, Much Ado About Nothing), Tony nominee Nathan Lane stars as Chauncey, a closeted burlesque performer who is trying to avoid getting arrested while picking up younger men in specific meeting points. The show also stars Andréa Burns, Jenni Barber, and Cady Huffman as a trio of strippers, Lewis J. Stadlen as Chauncey’s onstage partner, and Jonny Orsini as a one-night stand who turns into something more. The Nance will be screening June 25 & 30 and July 14 & 20 at 7:00 at Symphony Space as part of the Broadway in HD series, which also includes a June 24 showing of Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon, Les Misérables) in the 2008 Stratford Festival production of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra. In addition, Symphony Space will be screening the current revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business on June 26 & 29 and July 9 & 17 as part of its ongoing National Theatre Live series.

ACT ONE

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Tony Shalhoub, Andrea Martin, and Santino Fontana star in Lincoln Center adaptation of Moss Hart’s ACT ONE memoir (photo by Joan Marcus)

Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Saturday through June 15, $77-$137
212-362-7600
www.lct.org

“These annals are not for those unsentimental about the theatre or untouched by its idiocies as well as its glories,” Moss Hart wrote in his beloved, highly influential 1959 memoir, Act One. “The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection.” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-director James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) has adoringly adapted the theatrical bible into a superb new play, running through June 15 at the Vivian Beaumont. The play looks back at Hart’s theatrical education as the older Moss (Tony Shalhoub, in one of three roles) watches earlier versions of himself (Matthew Schechter as a boy, Santino Fontana as a naive young man) as his love of theater develops. When Hart was a child, he would sneak off to shows with his aunt Kate (Andrea Martin), much to the chagrin of his English-immigrant father (Shalhoub), who found it a waste of time and money, especially as the family struggled to pay the rent. Hart’s fascination continues through his teenage years, when he gets a job working for jaded old theatrical manager Augustus Pitou (Will LeBow).

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Aunt Kate (Andrea Martin) helps foster her nephew’s love of the theater (photo by Joan Marcus)

Following a series of coincidences and luck, Hart is soon collaborating with the famous Broadway playwright and director George S. Kaufman (Shalhoub), writing Once in a Lifetime upstairs in Kaufman’s ritzy home, where the literati come to celebrate themselves. While Hart is a bundle of nerves, worried that his good fortune could come crashing down at any moment, Kaufman is a whole different kind of bundle of nerves, an obsessive-compulsive man who is afraid of germs, washes his hands constantly, and lies on his back on the floor to think. These scenes between Hart and Kaufman are simply rapturous, the heart of the play — and they are also not from the book. Lapine tracked down the first draft of Once in a Lifetime, compared it to the produced version, and imagined what Hart and Kaufman’s collaboration might have been like. The relationship is handled masterfully as their creative process unfurls, continuing with an out-of-town tryout prior to the highly anticipated Broadway opening, fear of failure hovering over their every move.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

George S. Kaufman (Tony Shalhoub) and Moss Hart (Santino Fontana) collaborate on their first play together, ONCE IN A LIFETIME (photo by Joan Marcus)

Shalhoub (Golden Boy, Conversations with My Father) is ever stalwart in his multiple roles, transforming from the overheated Barnett Hart to the dapper Kaufman to the mature Moss with simplicity and grace. Fontana (Cinderella, Sons of the Prophet) has the appropriate stars-in-his-eyes look as Moss tries to establish the career of his dreams, sharing his news with such theater friends as Dore Schary (Will Brill) — who would go on to direct the all-star 1963 film adaptation starring George Hamilton as Hart and Jason Robards as Kaufman. Beowulf Boritt’s breathtaking, airy, multilevel rotating set seemingly has a life of its own as it travels from 1914 to 1930, depicting poverty and wealth, success and disappointment. Just as Hart’s memoir was a love letter to the theater, so is this estimable Lincoln Center adaptation, a warmhearted production that steers well clear of the kind of sentimentality that Hart and Kaufman so consciously avoided. “It is hard to realize now in these days of television, movies, radio, and organized play groups what all this meant to a child of those days,” Hart wrote in his memoir, which was always meant to be a single volume despite its title. “It was not only the one available source of pleasure and wonder, it was all of them rolled into one.” Such is the joy of this stage version of Act One as well.

LES MISÉRABLES

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Javert (Will Swenson) is obsessed with Jean Valjean (Ramin Karimloo) in LES MISÉRABLES (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 19, $57-$285
www.lesmis.com/broadway

Let me preface this by publicly admitting that I have never read Victor Hugo’s massive 1820 novel, nor have I seen Richard Boleslawski’s 1935 film (starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton) or any previous stage production, many of which were met by tepid reviews at best. (The show debuted on Broadway in 1987, running for sixteen years, then was revived briefly in 2006.) My introduction to the world of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, Cosette and Éponine was via Tom Hooper’s tedious, overblown, yet Oscar-nominated 2012 movie. So my expectations were pretty low when I entered the Imperial Theatre to see this reboot of Cameron Mackintosh’s Broadway phenomenon. I can now understand the mania that surrounds the lavish musical, though I’m not quite part of the cult yet. Les Miz follows the endless pain and anguish of Valjean (Ramin Karimloo), prisoner 24601, who is released after spending nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to help feed his sister’s family. As he tries to make something of his life in early-nineteenth-century France, he is hounded by Javert (Will Swenson), who wants him back behind bars. Over the course of seventeen years (1815-32), Valjean meets Fantine (Caissie Levy), a young woman forced into prostitution; raises her daughter, Cosette (Angeli Negron or McKayla Twiggs as a girl, Samantha Hill as a grown woman); and allies himself with a group of revolutionaries that include Éponine (Nikki M. James), Marius (Andy Mientus), Enjoiras (Kyle Scatliffe), and the brave boy Gavroche (Joshua Colley or Gaten Matarazzo).

makes another triumphant return to the Great White Way (photo by Matthew Murphy)

LES MISÉRABLES makes another triumphant return to the Great White Way (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Directors James Powell and Laurence Connor have subdued the staging somewhat while including fabulous projections that enhance several scenes, replacing the famed rotating set with a series of dark, wood-based constructions (designed by Matt Kinley) that put the performers front and center. Indeed, as each one takes the stage, the audience cheers the character, who then breaks into familiar songs under the spotlight. There’s more a feeling of competition than usual with musical revivals as the crowd waits with bated breath to see how this new cast handles the beloved score, written by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. (The book is by Alain Boublil.) Karimloo makes an impressive Broadway debut as Valjean, establishing his admirable chops with his early “Soliloquy” and later nailing the epic “Bring Him Home.” (The role is played by Aaron Walpole or Nathaniel Hackmann on Thursdays so Karimloo can rest his voice.) Swenson (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair) plays Javert with just the right boldness, making him a great foil for Valjean. Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle have the requisite amount of fun as the Thénardiers, chewing the scenery with “Master of the House,” Tony winner Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon) gives a heartfelt performance as Éponine, leading the second act with a stirring “On My Own,” and Andy Mientus offers up a fine “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” as Marius. Is this Les Misérables still over the top, at times bombastic, with treacly religious sentiment and sappy melodrama? Absolutely. But that’s also part of the charm, which it has in abundance.

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (photo © Johan Persson)

Cripple Billy (Daniel Radcliffe) and Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene) both dream of becoming Hollywood stars in THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (photo © Johan Persson)

Cort Theatre
138 West 48th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 14, $27 - $142
www.crippleofinishmaan.com

Daniel Radcliffe continues to show his range and distance himself from Harry Potter — if that’s really possible — in the Broadway premiere of Martin McDonagh’s splendid little comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan. Radcliffe, who previously on the Great White Way had a thing for a horse (Equus) and sang and danced his way up the corporate ladder (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying), stars in McDonagh’s 1996 play as Cripple Billy, an unfortunate orphan with a twisted arm and a near-debilitating limp who spends an inordinate amount of his time looking at cows on the close-knit Irish island of Inishmaan. When gossipmonger Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) arrives at Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate’s (Ingrid Craigie) food shop with news about Hollywood coming to the nearby island of Inishmore, where Robert Flaherty is filming Man of Aran, Billy instantly wants to go and be part of the movie, seeing it as his opportunity to get away from all the abuse heaped upon him and make something of his life. But first he must convince boat owner Babbybobby (Pádraic Delaney) to take him across the water. Also desperate to get out is tough-talking flirtatious redhead Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene), who is sure she will become a star as soon as Hollywood sets its eyes on her. Of course, nothing goes quite as planned in this bittersweet tale.

the cripple of inishmaan 3

A production of the new Michael Grandage Company led by Tony-winning director Michael Grandage (Frost/Nixon, King Lear), The Cripple of Inishmaan is a wickedly delightful slice of Irish life, complete with eccentric characters, poetic dialogue, and wacky situations that are firmly entrenched in the tradition of Irish storytelling. Hanna and Craigie are a hoot as the aunties who raised Billy after his parents drowned, Shortt is a riot as the town crier who shares news for food and just might be poisoning his alcoholic mother (June Watson), and Conor MacNeill does a fine turn as Bartley McCormick, Helen’s brother who is obsessed with sweets and telescopes. Greene is sensational as Helen, fiery and sexy whether insulting others or smashing eggs over their head, nearly stealing the show from Radcliffe, who plays Billy with a heartwarming and endearing sensitivity. At its heart, The Cripple of Inishmaan is about overcoming the obstacles one is born with, rising above setbacks while finding one’s place in life, and in a way that applies to Radcliffe’s career as well. At intermission, the security guards start putting up the barricades as fans already begin lining up at the stage door, preparing to wait another hour and a half to get his autograph and snap his picture; it would be a shame if they do so without actually having seen The Cripple of Inishmaan, which will have many saying, “Harry who?”

CABARET

Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming star in return of CABARET to Studio 54 (photo by Joan Marcus)

Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming star in return of CABARET to Studio 54 (photo by Joan Marcus)

Studio 54
254 West 54th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 4, $47-$352
212-719-1300
www.cabaretmusical.com

The Roundabout has brought back its exciting 1998 Tony-winning revival of Cabaret, once again turning Studio 54 into the lasciviously decadent Kit Kat Klub in pre-WWII Berlin, where a debauched Emcee (Alan Cumming) hosts an evening of naughty nightclub fun during the rise of the Third Reich. The audience sits at small, round tables in the orchestra section (and regular seats in the mezzanine) as the Emcee introduces music and dance and hovers in the background as the narrative plays out onstage. Michelle Williams makes a strong Broadway debut as Sally Bowles, a British ex-pat who performs at the Kit Kat Klub and takes an instant liking to American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck). In order to make money, Cliff teaches English to Ernst (Aaron Krohn) and others and also does favors for him. Meanwhile, Sally moves in with Cliff, who lives in a boardinghouse run by the spinsterish Fraulein Schneider (Linda Emond), who is being subtly courted by successful fruitier Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein). When Ernst proudly reveals he is a member of the Nazi party, the relationships among the characters go through a swift and sudden change, setting in motion one of the greatest second acts in Broadway history.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein) and Fraulein Schneider (Linda Emond) consider a dangerous love in CABARET (photo by Joan Marcus)

Adapted from John van Druten’s 1951 play, I Am a Camera, which itself was based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, this version of Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, the Bridge Project) and codirected and choreographed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods), uses elements of both Harold Prince’s original 1966 show as well as Bob Fosse’s Oscar-nominated 1972 film to craft a new way to experience this ultimately heart-wrenching sociopolitical tale, which features a marvelous score by John Kander and Fred Ebb and a powerful book by Joe Masteroff. Robert Brill’s two-level set features the scantily clad Kit Kat Girls, Kit Kat Boys (the daring costumes are by William Ivey Long), and musical director (Patrick Vaccariello) upstairs, often seen behind a large, tilted frame that hangs from the ceiling, surrounded by bulbs that slowly go out over the course of the evening. Meanwhile, the story plays out on the main floor, as relationships develop and fall apart. Heck (The Orphans’ Home Cycle) is relatively bland as Cliff, but the rest of the cast is excellent: Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine) more than holds her own in a role made famous by Liza Minnelli and also played by such stars as Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Deborah Gibson, and Brooke Shields, among others, nailing such familiar songs as “Mein Herr,” “Maybe This Time,” and the title song. Burstein (Talley’s Folly, Golden Boy) and Emond (Death of a Salesman, 1776) give added depth to their touching characters, who are caught in the middle of what is happening in Germany, while Cumming (Macbeth, The Good Wife) has a blast reprising his Tony-winning role, offering a very different take from Oscar and Tony winner Joel Grey as he makes his playfully raunchy way through such classics as “Willkommen,” “Money,” and “If You Could See Her.” It all leads to one of the most striking and harrowing final images you’ll ever see onstage.

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Robert (Steven Pasquale) and Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) contemplate just what they’re getting themselves into in stage adaptation of hit book and movie (photo by Joan Marcus)

Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Through May 18, $59-$141
www.bridgesofmadisoncountymusical.com

During the first act of the musical version of The Bridges of Madison County, it looks like this sentimental story of a married woman who has a brief tryst with a traveling photographer in 1965 will successfully pull off the triple play, going from wildly successful book to hit movie to smash Broadway musical. But then comes the second act. The mushy melodrama was first told in Robert James Waller’s critically maligned 1992 novel, which has sold more than fifty millions copies worldwide, then in Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film, starring an Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep and Eastwood, which earned more than $180 million at the box office. For the Broadway musical, which has just posted its early closing notice of May 18, director Bartlett Sher (The Light in the Piazza, Awake and Sing!), Pulitzer Prize-winning book writer Marsha Norman (’Night, Mother; The Color Purple), and composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years) have significantly tweaked the narrative, abandoning any framing story and lowering the ages of the protagonists, making things that much hotter — even throwing in a surprise flash of nudity. But none of that can help change the seriously flawed main focus, a suburban wife’s pie-in-the-sky fantasy, the same kind of thing that has brought Fifty Shades of Grey mainstream success.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Bud (Hunter Foster) notices something different about his wife in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (photo by Joan Marcus)

Just after her husband (Hunter Foster) and teenage kids (Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena) take off for a few days to present their prize steer at a state fair, bored Italian housewife Francesca Johnson (Kelli O’Hara) is instantly drawn to National Geographic photographer and crunchy loner Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale), who has come to Winterset, Iowa, to shoot a series on the covered bridges in Madison County. Francesca and Robert consider pursuing their magnetic attraction even as nosy neighbor Marge (Cass Morgan) can’t stop sharing gossip with her unconcerned husband, Charlie (Michael X. Martin), and soon find themselves caught in the searing heat of the moment, consequences be damned. But then comes the second act, when everything that had been built up so well — from the supporting characters to the simmering passion of the protagonists to Michael Yeargan’s imaginative moving sets (the minimalist bridge design was inspired by Lars von Trier’s Dogville) — starts falling apart in a flurry of sappy, maudlin scenes that trap the creative team, resulting in a long, needless tacked-on ending that goes on and on (and on). O’Hara and Pasquale are excellent in their roles, singing with sweet operetta-like flourishes, but the later material, which ranges from the repetitive to the nonsensical, fails them as the story gets mired in its rather insulting fantasia, which really is a shame, because with a bit more tweaking, this might not be closing on Broadway so quickly and hitting the road for a national tour in 2015, which is likely to be a bigger success away from the Great White Way.