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


(photo © Matthew Murphy)

Lisa Howard, Alison Luff, Paul Alexander Nolan, and Eric Petersen get wasted away again in Margaritaville (photo © Matthew Murphy)

Marquis Theatre
210 West 46th St. at Broadway
Tuesday - Sunday through November 18, $59-$169

Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley do a phenomenal job adapting Jimmy Buffet’s songs into the rousing Escape to Margaritaville, which opened tonight at the Marquis Theatre. The television veterans and first-time book writers have created a show that was well on its way toward being one of the best new musicals on Broadway — until the last half hour or so rapidly devolved into saccharine, lowest-common-denominator fluff. But up till then, it’s a tasty buffet featuring a bright young cast, astute direction by Christopher Ashley, playful choreography by Kelly Devine, and a flurry of Easter eggs that will delight laid-back Parrotheads everywhere. The plot is about as basic as it comes. Tammy (Lisa Howard) is preparing to marry the doltish, beer-swilling, sports-obsessed Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart). The week before the wedding, Tammy and her best friend, Rachel (Alison Luff), jet off on a Caribbean bachelorette vacation. While Tammy is looking forward to partying and flirting, Rachel, an environmental scientist, is more interested in getting cell service and collecting soil samples from the top of a volcano. The adorable Rachel is immediately pounced on by the love-’em-and-leave-’em Tully Mars (Paul Alexander Nolan), a Buffett-like singer-songwriter and islander who is the primary entertainment at the not-quite-luxurious Margaritaville Hotel and Bar, where work is a dirty four-letter word. Tully’s best friend, Brick (Eric Petersen), is a clueless but lovable bartender who takes an instant liking to Tammy. The hotel is owned and operated by Marley (Rema Webb), with Jamal (Andre Ward) in charge of keeping the guests happy; both characters are colonialist leftovers that should have been more sensitively developed instead of merely being outdated stereotypes. While Rachel lets down her hard-shell exterior and warms up to Tully’s incessant advances, Tammy is having such a good time with Brick that she is reconsidering her situation with Chadd. But when the volcano threatens to explode, everybody is forced to reevaluate their lives and loves.

(photo © Matthew Murphy)

Tammy (Lisa Howard) and Brick (Eric Petersen) hit it off in island paradise (photo © Matthew Murphy)

Garcia (My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope) and O’Malley (Survivor’s Remorse, Shameless) have done their homework, creating a tight book that is filled with myriad minor details that later pop up in the songs; Buffett fans might get an inkling of what’s to come, but even newbies will get a kick out of how it all comes full circle. For example, J.D. (Don Sparks), an older, one-eyed drunken pilot, is constantly misplacing the salt. When the company performs Buffett’s most famous tune, “Margaritaville,” J.D. takes the microphone when it comes time for the favorite line “Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt.” Similarly, the diet that Chadd puts Tammy on, consisting of only carrot juice and sunflower seeds, is taken from “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” And if you’re wondering why Tammy and Rachel are from Cincinnati, just listen closely to the beginning of “Fins.” The show gets just about everything right, including inventive uses of wires to show characters snorkeling, until the last handful of scenes, when it degenerates suddenly into treacly Broadway clichés, turning its back on the risky plot choices that came before; to have really shaken up the genre and been a creative whole, it actually could have ended at intermission, or at least about halfway through the second act, and avoid the approaching shipwreck. Alas, the rest was so dreadful that I almost wanted to make my escape from Margaritaville, but I stuck it out.

(photo © Matthew Murphy)

Tully Mars (Paul Alexander Nolan) keeps ’em dancing and singing at the Margaritaville Hotel (photo © Matthew Murphy)

The music, of course, is a helluva lot of fun. For the most part, Michael Utley’s orchestrations remain faithful to Buffett’s originals, only occasionally going over the top and becoming Broadway-fied; Buffett was involved in the song selection and tweaked some tunes for the show in addition to writing “Three Chords” for Tully and Rachel. Walt Spangler’s hotel set makes you feel like you’re in the Caribbean, partying with the tourists. (Yes, there are margaritas available for purchase; at an early preview the theater reportedly ran out of Triple Sec because demand was so high.) Howard (It Shoulda Been You, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) has charm and energy to boot as Tammy, while Luff (Les Misérables, Matilda) is smart and sexy as Rachel. Petersen (School of Rock, Elf) provides plenty of comic relief, but Nolan (Bright Star, Doctor Zhivago) is a bit too smarmy as Tully, even as his heart warms up to unexpected possibilities. It’s a shame that the ending is so banal, running out of creative risks the way the theater bar ran out of Triple Sec.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

The cast of SpongeBob SquarePants jumps for joy as disaster threatens in Broadway extravaganza (photo by Joan Marcus)

Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway at 47th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 2, $49-$145

When a volcano threatens to destroy the undersea community of Bikini Bottom, the motley crew of residents must come together in order to survive in the tons-of-fun Broadway extravaganza SpongeBob SquarePants. Conceived and directed by Tina Landau based on Stephen Hillenburg’s long-running tongue-in-cheek cartoon series, which debuted on Nickelodeon in 2003, the musical version is a delight for both kids and adults. Tony-winning scenic designer David Zinn (The Humans, Fun Home) has transformed the Palace Theatre into a fanciful wonderland of undersea detritus hanging from the walls and ceiling and extending off the stage, complete with two huge Rube Goldberg-like machines on either side. Zinn also designed the costumes, keeping them relatively simple, primarily humans with playful elements: SpongeBob portrayer Ethan Slater, in his stirring Broadway debut, is dressed in a yellow shirt, red tie, plaid pants, and knee-length socks, speaking and singing in the cartoon character’s squeaky high-pitched voice; Danny Skinner wears a Hawaiian shirt over a purple tee, bright shorts, and slicked-up hair as SpongeBob’s BFF, the dimwitted but lovable Patrick Star; as crooning octopus Squidward Q. Tentacles, Gavin Lee has an extra pair of legs; Brian Ray Norris as money-loving Krusty Krab owner Eugene Krabs has two giant red claws for hands; Jai’len Christine Li Josey as sperm whale Pearl is dressed like a high school cheerleader; and Lilli Cooper as the squirrel scientist Sandy Cheeks is an astronaut with an Afro. The main cast is rounded out by Wesley Taylor as the evil, eye-patch-wearing villain Sheldon J. Plankton, who wants everyone to eat at his awful Chum Bucket restaurant instead of the Krusty Krab; Stephanie Hsu as his wife, the futuristic-looking Karen the Computer; Gaelen Gilliland as the mayor, who tweets in nonsensical political double talk; Kelvin Moon Loh as television reporter Perch Perkins, who is tracking the volcano’s progress as doomsday beckons; Gary, the mewing snail, who is not played by a person; and Jon Rua as Patchy the Pirate, the president of the SpongeBob SquarePants Fan Club, whose memorabilia is on view in front of the stage on the left side. With the countdown clock ticking down, SpongeBob, Patrick, and the rest of the benthic town desperately try to come up with a plan to save Bikini Bottom before it is laid to waste.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

The devious Sheldon J. Plankton (Wesley Taylor) is up to no good in SpongeBob SquarePants (photo by Joan Marcus)

Obie-winning book writer Kyle Jarrow (The Wildness, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant) tosses in a plethora of puns and looming darkness, never passing up the chance for a good laugh, even if it’s aimed at the show itself. “A fry cook is all you’ll ever be. You’re just a simple sponge, boy,” Mr. Krabs says to his employee-of-the-month, SpongeBob, continuing, “And yet somehow you don’t seem to absorb very much.” Later, Squidward tells SpongeBob, “The world is a horrible place filled with fear, suffering, and despair. Also dashed hopes, shattered dreams, broken promises, and abject misery.” But ever the positive trooper, the Aplysina fistularis known as SpongeBob replies, “But it’s our horrible place . . . with the best abject misery.” The narrative breaks down significantly in the second act, but Christopher Gattelli’s (The King and I, War Paint) jubilant choreography keeps everything bouncy, and the music sparkles throughout, with songs written by a diverse superstar lineup that soars far above standard Broadway fare, including David Bowie and Brian Eno, Panic! at the Disco, Yolanda Adams, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Lady Antebellum, John Legend, the Plain White T’s, Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, and the Flaming Lips. Show up early to get a good look at all the crazy items around the theater — what’s with all the 1980s boomboxes? — and to get in the mood as the small band plays tropical music. Landau (Big Love, Old Hats) keeps everyone on their toes — watch out as some characters go running up and down the aisles — and smiling for more than two hours. And just to reiterate, the show is not aimed only at kids; the night we went, there were not that many children at all, the audience peppered instead with grown-ups of all ages, rolling around laughing in their seats. Like the Nickelodeon show, the Broadway musical is downright silly, but as Patrick says, “There’s nothing more fun than mindless entertainment.” Amen to that.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

John Lithgow celebrates the power of storytelling in one-man Broadway show (photo by Joan Marcus)

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 4, $49-$149

“So what the hell is this?!” John Lithgow proclaims at the beginning of his one-man Broadway show, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, a Roundabout production that opened earlier this month at the American Airlines Theatre and continues through March 4. The two-act, two-hour presentation is a celebration of family, the art and power of storytelling, and the art of acting itself, but it’s too slight to feel like a full-fledged play. A Harvard grad and Mayflower descendant who was born in Rochester and raised in Ohio, Lithgow is one of our greatest actors, supremely accomplished on stage, screen, and television, as well as being a bestselling memoirist and children’s book author. Nominated for two Oscars, four Grammys, six Tonys (winning two), and twelve Emmys (taking home six awards), the seventy-one-year-old Lithgow (The World According to Garp, Third Rock from the Sun) has been a warming figure for five decades, a kind of thoughtful everyman who is charming even when he portrays wickedly evil villains. He’s been workshopping Stories by Heart on and off for ten years around the country, a kind of intimate, whistle-stop trunk show that combines personal memories with tour-de-force performances of a pair of classic short stories, one in each act. The format is clear and concise: Lithgow wanders around John Lee Beatty’s erudite, literary set, consisting of just a few chairs, a stool, and a small table in an elegant study, first sharing moving tales about his father, Arthur, a regional theater producer, director, and actor who operated several Shakespeare festivals, and his mother, Sarah, whom John says “was like some cheerful, unflappable road manager who always made everything turn out just fine.” Every night, Arthur would robustly read John and his siblings, David, Robin, and Sarah Jane, a story from the 1939 book Tellers of Tales, which contained one hundred short stories collected by W. Somerset Maugham. Lithgow proudly displays the treasured, beaten up, and humorously repaired copy his father used.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

In John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, the master thespian pays tribute to his beloved father (photo by Joan Marcus)

In the first act, Lithgow (The Crown, Sweet Smell of Success) performs, from memory, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” as he remembers first picturing it in his head when his father read it to the kids in 1954. In dazzling style, Lithgow mimics every detail of giving a customer a shave and a haircut in a small town while relating the story of Jim Kendall, a troublemaker with a nasty sense of humor. In the second act, Lithgow talks poignantly about trying to take care of his aging father in the summer of 2002, turning the tables when he suddenly decides to offer to read his parents a story, and they chose P. G. Wodehouse’s wildly funny “Uncle Fred Flits By,” which Lithgow then performs onstage, playing every character, from Pongo Twistleton and Wilberforce Robinson to Mr. Walkinshaw and, of course, Uncle Fred. Lithgow is so skillful in telling the tale that, as with “Haircut,” you’ll think you are seeing all of the action happen before your eyes, even though it’s just one man with no props. But as good as each section of the play, expertly directed by Daniel Sullivan, is, and as sweetly captivating as Lithgow is, Stories by Heart does not quite come together as a Broadway production. As a play, it needs more of Lithgow talking about himself, his family, and his love of storytelling and less showing off his impressive acting abilities. Perhaps if I had seen it in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Austin, or Boulder or it ran at an off-Broadway house, I’d have a different reaction. But I found myself far more interested in Lithgow’s personal memories as they related to “Haircut” and “Uncle Fred Flits By” than by those short stories themselves, which take up the vast majority of Lithgow’s time onstage. Early on, Lithgow excitedly says to the audience, “I mean, look at you! You all look so eager and hopeful. What exactly are you hoping for? What do you hope will happen here tonight? What are you looking for? What do you want?” Stories by Heart is a grand and graceful public thank-you to Lithgow’s father, but I have to admit I was looking for something else, although there’s no doubt his father would have loved every second of it.


(photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Once on This Island revival should have been dead in the water (photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Friday - Wednesday through December 30, $89.50 - $189.50

Michael Arden’s revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 hit musical, Once on This Island, is a critical and popular success, blowing away audiences with a stellar cast, superb staging, lively music, and a fantastic set that takes full advantage of the small Circle in the Square Theatre. There’s only one problem, and it’s more than a minor quibble: The story is culturally insensitive, racist, colonialist, and, as far as subject matter goes, tone deaf. Nominated for eight Tonys during its 1990-91 Broadway run and winner of the 1994 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, the show takes place in the “Jewel of the Antilles,” the former French colony known as Saint-Domingue before becoming Haiti. In the prologue, various characters describe their home as “an island where the poorest of peasants labor” and “the wealthiest of grands hommes play.” One woman says, “The grands hommes, with their pale brown skins and their French ways, owners of the land and masters of their own fates,” after which a man adds, “And the peasants, black as night, eternally at the mercy of the wind and the sea.” Thus, the central dilemma is set up, class warfare based on skin shade. The poor side of the island is overseen by a quartet of gods: Papa Ge, the sly Demon of Death (Merle Dandridge), Erzulie, the beautiful Goddess of Love (Lea Salonga), Agwe, God of Water (Quentin Earl Darrington), and Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Kenita R. Miller). Following a flood, little Ti Moune (Emerson Davis) is protected by a tree near a small, close-knit village, where she is taken in and raised by Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin). Grown into a lovely young woman, Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) sees an exciting stranger in a white car racing past and asks the gods for a glimpse of the man. When he later gets into a car accident and is saved by Ti Moune, she learns that he is Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), the scion of the wealthy family that lives behind the gate on the other side of the island. As she nurses him back to health, she falls in love with him, but his family is against his having any kind of relationship with a peasant girl, ultimately leading to tragedy.

(photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge) has a surprise for Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell) in Once on This Island (photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

In Once Upon This Island, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet meets Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, with bits of Cinderella and Maid in Manhattan, only without any kind of legitimately believable romance and conflict. The narrative is told like a children’s bedtime story despite its adult themes of sex, power, class, and race. Kilgore is valiant as the older Ti Moune, Darrington is bold and strong as Agwe, and Dandridge is deliciously devilish as Papa Ge, while Dane Laffrey’s set boasts a mystical pond, a live goat, an overturned rowboat, plants, a large truck, drying clothes, and lots of sand, home to a close-knit community, the villagers dressed in Clint Ramos’s colorful costumes and moving to Camille A. Brown’s choreography. (Some of the characters also make their way into the audience.) The small band consists of Alvin Hough Jr. and Javier Diaz on percussion, Irio O’Farrill Jr. on bass, Hidayat Honari on guitar and mandolin, and Cassondra James on flute, performing Flaherty’s Caribbean-tinged music, but it’s the book and lyrics by Ahrens that are befuddling. Ti Moune is portrayed as some kind of legendary heroic figure willing to do anything for true love, but instead she’s just another victim of colonialism and racism, in this case celebrated for all the wrong reasons. Arden (Spring Awakening) and the creative team visited Haiti to get a better feel for its people and culture, even taking part in a Vodou ceremony, but what he’s delivered onstage is more like a knife in the back, particularly now that the president of the United States has offered his own take on the country. (Just wait till you see the shadow-puppet tale and the party dancing scene.) In his director’s note, Arden writes, “It is my hope that the story of Ti Moune might inspire any person, regardless of age, gender, race, ability, sexuality, or circumstance, to become a catalyst for change.” It’s my hope that more theatergoers see this sordid tale for what it really is, a perpetuation of stereotypes and genre clichés that prevent us all from moving forward and achieving real equality and sensitivity.


(photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Old friends Rose (Francesca Annis) and Hazel (Deborah Findlay) reunite in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children (photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 4, $60-$149

Amid all the splashy musicals, wacky comedies, and star-driven vehicles currently on Broadway, the British import The Children stands apart, a breath of fresh air in this winter season. Well, maybe that’s not the best way to classify this fiercely taut drama, which takes place shortly after a devastating nuclear accident on the East Coast of Britain. The fictional event appears to have even rattled the stage at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, which is severely tilted, creating a bit of an uphill or downhill climb when the characters move to the right or left. The play opens as Rose (Francesca Annis) pays a surprise afternoon visit to her old friend and colleague, Hazel (Deborah Findlay), who is living with her husband, Robin (Ron Cook), in a small cottage just outside the contaminated exclusion zone. “We heard you’d died!” Hazel announces; it’s been thirty-eight years since the two women, both nuclear engineers, last saw each other. While Hazel has settled into the domestic life of a retiree, with four children and four grandchildren, Rose has been gallivanting around the world, never settling down or getting married. When Rose asks Hazel why they haven’t moved farther away from the radiation, Hazel responds, “It’s just that little bit extra but it makes a world of difference to our peace of mind. . . . I would’ve felt like a traitor. Besides, retired people are like nuclear power stations. We like to live by the sea.” They are soon joined by Robin, who goes to their old farm every day, tending to the cows, even though it’s in the exclusion area. Where Hazel is very direct and to the point, Robin is more rambunctious and freewheeling, cracking jokes, asking Rose for a squeeze, and offering her some of his homemade wine. But when Rose reveals the reason she has returned — and secrets emerge — the trio has to reexamine their purpose in life and their future.

(photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Robin (Ron Cook), Hazel (Deborah Findlay), and Rose (Francesca Annis) remember the good old days in U.S. premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway house (photo © Joan Marcus 2017)

Originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre, The Children is brilliantly written by Olivier Award winner Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, Mosquitoes), who has created three complex characters who are genuine and unpredictable. The play takes a hard look at ageing and death, examining the responsibility the old have to the young. “How can anybody consciously moving towards death, I mean by their own design, possibly be happy? People of our age have to resist — you have to resist, Rose,” Hazel says. “If you’re not going to grow: don’t live.” It is also about blood, both literally and figuratively. When Rose first enters the house, a shocked Hazel turns defensively and hits Rose, giving her a bloody nose. One of Hazel and Robin’s children suffers from mental illness, thinking she is a bloodsucking vampire. And, of course, radiation poisons the blood. James Macdonald, who has directed numerous works by Caryl Churchill (Escaped Alone, Top Girls) and Sarah Kane (4.48 Psychosis, Blasted), among others, keeps things balanced even as the actors have to deal with Miriam Buether’s angled set, which is framed as if a tilted picture on a wall come to life. Olivier nominee Annis (Cranford, Troilus and Cressida), Olivier winner Findlay (Stanley, Coriolanus), and Olivier nominee Cook (Juno and the Paycock, Faith Healer) reprise their roles from the London production, all three delivering warm, heartfelt performances, with a special nod to Cook for having to ride a tricycle uphill despite a bad back. And Max Pappenheim’s sound design stands out as well, from a Geiger counter to church bells. Despite its title, The Children is the most adult show in New York City right now, a marvelously resonant, intelligent, and engaging play that continually defies expectations as the plot twists and turns while something threatening hangs just past the horizon.


Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original cast of In the Heights will reunite at third annual BroadwayCon (photo by Joan Marcus)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original cast of In the Heights will reunite at third annual BroadwayCon (photo by Joan Marcus)

Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
655 West 34th St. (11th Ave. between 34th & 39th Sts.)
January 26-28, $220 General Pass, $90 Day Pass

The third annual BroadwayCon returns to the Javits Center January 26-28 with a full slate of theater-related programming. The Gold Passes ($395) and Platinum Passes ($1000) are sold out, so you better hurry if you want to get a General Pass ($220) or Day Pass ($90). Among this year’s guests are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Laura Benanti, Carolee Carmello, LaChanze, Mo Rocca, Jenn Colella, Alex Brightman, Stephanie J. Block, Liz Callaway, cofounders Anthony Rapp and Melissa Anelli, Steven Levenson, Gideon Glick, Kathleen Marshall, Ruthie Ann Miles, Leigh Silverman, Bryce Pinkham, and Mauritz von Stuelpnagel, participating in photo and autograph sessions, workshops, panel discussions, show spotlights, and more. Below are only some of the highlights.

Friday, January 26
Royal Romanovs: An Anastasia Meetup, with Nia Harvey, Margo Jones Room, 10:00 am

The American Theatre Wing: 100 Years, 100 Voices, 100 Million Miracles, with Allison Considine, Dale Cendali, Heather Hitchens, and Patrick Pacheco, Vinnette Carroll Room, 11:00

The Broadway Ensemble Panel, moderated by Nikka Lanzarone and Mo Brady, Ruth Mitchell Room, 12 noon

Singalong, Hildy Parks Room, 1:00

From Stage to Screen: Going Behind the Curtain of a Broadway Production, with Bonnie Comley, Stewart F. Lane, Gio Messale, Hal Berman, and Lonny Price, Willa Kim Room, 2:00

Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About the Theatre But Were Afraid to Ask, Renee Harris Room, 3:00

The BroadwayCon 2018 Opening Ceremony, with Anthony Rapp and Melissa Anelli, MainStage, 4:30

¡Atención! In the Heights Reunites 10 Years Later, with Janet Dacal, Alex Lacamoire, Luis A. Miranda Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda, Javier Muñoz, Karen Olivo, and Olga Merediz, MainStage, 5:00

Show Spotlight: Frozen, with Robert Lopez, Greg Hildreth, and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, MainStage, 7:00

takes center stage at BroadwayCon (photo by  Ahron R. Foster)

The Band’s Visit takes center stage at BroadwayCon on Saturday (photo by Ahron R. Foster)

Saturday, January 27
Are We Living in Another Golden Age of the Broadway Musical? with William Cortez-Statham, Renee Harris Room, 10:00

Out on Broadway, with Patrick Hinds, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tyler Hanes, and Caesar Samayoa, Willa Kim Room, 11:00

The Life and Art of Erté, with Stephan, Ruth Mitchell Room, 12 noon

Cosplay Fashion Show, MainStage, 1:00

All My Revels Here Are Over: Remembering the Comet, with Harley Ann Kulp and Chelsea MacKay, Margo Jones Room, 2:00

Follies: The Original Production Reunion, with Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Steve Boockvor, Denise Pence, Ted Chapin, Mary Jane Houdina, Kurt Peterson, and Jonathan Tunick, Ruth Mitchell Room, 3:00

Being a Critic of Color, with Wei-Huan Chen, Naveen Kumar, Kelundra Smith, Karen d’Souza, Jan Simpson, and Jose Solís, Willa Kim Room, 4:00

Show Spotlight: The Band’s Visit, MainStage, 5:00

BroadwayCon Blizzard Party Line, with Melissa Anelli, Anthony Rapp, and David Alpert, MainStage, 7:00

BroadwayCon celebrates the surprise success of on Sunday (photo by Matthew Murphy)

BroadwayCon celebrates the surprise success of Come from Away on Sunday (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Sunday, January 28
Broadway, the Flops! A Singalong Spectacular, with Christian Regan and Rachel Buksbazen, Hildy Parks Room, 10:00

Playing Non-Fiction: The True Story Behind Come from Away, with Chad Kimball and Kevin Tuerff, Margo Jones Room, 11:00

Theater People Live Show! with Patrick Hinds, Willa Kim Room, 12 noon

After Anatevka, with Alexandra Silber and Ruthie Fierberg, Hildy Parks Room, 1:00

No Sex Please, We’re British: The Lord Chamberlain’s Censorship of West Side Story and a Post-War Generation, with Rachel Kwiecinski, Ruth Mitchell Room, 2:00

Spectacular! When the Golden Age of Broadway Met the Golden Age of Television, with Allan Altman, George Dansker, and Jane Klain, Willa Kim Room, 3:00

Structure! The Musical, or Everything You Need to Know About Musicals You Can Learn from Star Wars, with Sammy Buck, Willa Kim Room, 4:00

The Closing Ceremony, MainStage, 5:00


(photo © Joan Marcus)

Mark Rylance stars as a world leader teetering on the edge of sanity in Farinelli and the King (photo © Joan Marcus)

Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through March 25, $32 - $159

Over the last few years, British actor Mark Rylance has built up such an impressive resume that he now has a separate Wikipedia page just for all of his nominations and awards, which include an Oscar for Bridge of Spies, an Emmy nod for Wolf Hall, eight Olivier nominations and two wins, and four Tony nominations and three trophies (for Boeing-Boeing, Jerusalem, and Twelfth Night). He is now back on Broadway in Farinelli and the King, a showcase piece written for him by his wife, first-time playwright Claire van Kampen. Also a composer, Van Kampen made her directorial debut last year with Nice Fish, which was written by and starred her husband. Rylance was nominated for an Olivier for his performance in Farinelli as King Philippe V, the grandson of French king Louis XIV who became the Spanish monarch in 1700. The play, originally presented at Shakespeare’s Globe, is staged like the Globe productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, with some of the audience seated onstage, actors getting into costume onstage and wandering into the audience, candelabras hanging from the ceiling with real candles supplying the majority of the lighting (designed by Paul Russell), and a live band playing baroque instruments in the balcony of designer Jonathan Fensom’s lush set.

(photo © Joan Marcus)

Farinelli and the King features a lush, extravagant set by Jonathan Fensom (photo © Joan Marcus)

The show, inspired by the real story of the Spanish king and a famous castrato, takes place in 1737, when Philippe’s unhinged behavior leads his doctor, José Cervi (Huss Garbiya), and chief minister, Don Sebastian De la Cuadra (Edward Peel), to believe he has gone mad and should abdicate the throne. However, Phillippe’s second wife, Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove), is not ready for him to give up the crown. In the opening scene, Philippe is in his pajamas and goofy evening cap, in bed and fishing in a goldfish bowl. “I know I am dreaming and they do not,” he says to the fish, named Diego. “Who would fish out of a goldfish bowl except in a dream! If I were mad, as they think I am, I would be fishing at noon when the sun’s the very devil,” he adds, the first of many references to the sun, moon, and stars. Later, the king, who knows more than he is letting on, gathers together several clocks indicating different times and tells La Cuadra, “You see how time lies? . . . What have you and these clocks got in common? . . . They’re showing me different faces, and I can’t tell which one is true.” When Isabella goes to London and hears the Italian castrato Farinelli (acted by Sam Crane and sung by countertenors Iestyn Davies or James Hall), she brings him back to the Spanish court in the hopes that his magical voice will lessen the king’s ills — which is exactly what happens, angering De la Cuarda. “To hear the king laugh!” Isabella declares. “I had forgotten the sound. How can a human voice change a man’s life?”

Indeed, laughter abounds in the first act, primarily when director John Dove, who has previously collaborated with Rylance and van Kampen on several Shakespeare productions at the Globe, lets Rylance cut loose, muttering under his breath, walking on top of his bed, upping the slapstick, and seemingly ad-libbing at times as some of his fellow actors attempt to hold back giggles. The show’s primary conceit is sensational; whenever Farinelli is going to sing, Crane and the Grammy-winning Davies, whom I saw in the role, both appear onstage; Crane speaks the dialogue, and Davies does the singing, which is simply marvelous. Among the eight arias (seven by Handel, one by Porpora) that lift the spirit at the Belasco Theatre even as the play itself drags are “Se in fiorito” from Giulio Cesare and “Bel contento” from Flavio. But the second act is immediately confounding as the setting moves to the middle of the forest, where the king wants to live, and the cast suddenly recognizes the audience, believing us to be local townspeople there to watch a performance. “Who are they, Isabella?” Philippe asks. “I don’t know,” she replies. “This is turning public. Call it off,” La Cuadra demands, and he’s not wrong. The play doesn’t seem to know how to proceed, leaving the audience confused and itching for the much-swifter pace of the first act. “What are they doing, packed together like that? What do they expect?” Philippe asks Isabella, who answers, “A story. They’ve come for the story.” Philippe concludes, “Well, haven’t we all!” We did come for a story, but not such a convoluted one, which despite being based on fact ends up feeling unconvincing.