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both characters are colonialist leftovers that should have been more sensitively developed instead of merely being outdated stereotypes.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.