1564 Broadway at 47th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 25, $79-$199
In 1995, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning seven, including Best Musical, Best Original Score (Andrew Lloyd Webber), Best Book (Don Black and Christopher Hampton), and Best Leading Actress (Glenn Close). Two decades later, Close, now sixty-nine, is back in Lonny Price’s mediocre revival of the musical based on Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film noir, which was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning three. Despite this glorious history, it’s worth remembering that 1995 was an extremely weak year for Broadway musicals; no other show was up for score and book, while only Smokey Joe’s Café was also in the running for Best Musical, and Close’s only competition was Rebecca Luker for Show Boat. The night we attended this new revival, running at the Palace through June 25, much of the crowd was distracted by the presence of a radiant Hillary Clinton, but they were still familiar with the story: Trying to evade a pair of tough repo men, struggling Hollywood writer Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) pulls into a hidden-away, fading mansion, where he meets bald manservant Max von Meyerling (Fred Johanson) and former silent-screen superstar Norma Desmond (Close), an aging, delusional woman who still moves and speaks like a silent-movie queen. Plotting a return to glory via Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler), she takes on Gillis as cowriter and boy toy; meanwhile, smart, bespectacled studio script editor Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon), the fiancée of Gillis’s friend and colleague, Artie Green (Preston Truman Boyd), shows an interest in more than Gillis’s writing. It all leads to one of the greatest closing lines in film and theater history.
This updated version of the 1995 hit features a record-breaking forty-piece orchestra, conducted by Kristen Blodgette, taking up most of the center of the stage; the action occurs in the narrow space in front of it and on a series of ladders and platforms above and around it, rendering Stephen Mear’s choreography nearly nonexistent. While it’s lovely to hear and see such a grand orchestra, the audience is constantly looking around to find where the actors are, and David Cullen and Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations and arrangements are so mundane that a smaller band might have sufficed. Close (The Real Thing, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs), playing the role made famous in the film by the glorious Gloria Swanson (and also played onstage by Rita Moreno, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Diahann Carroll, and Petula Clark), is fine as Norma but sometimes gets caught between playing it serious and camping it up; however, her costumes, again by Anthony Powell, are spectacular. Xavier (Love Story, Into the Woods), who is rather hunky in a bathing suit, plays the William Holden part with a sly grin, while Johanson (Aladdin, Jesus Christ Superstar) excels in the role performed in the film by Erich von Stroheim. The book by Black (Aspects of Love) and Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), who later collaborated on Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula, the Musical, follows the film almost too closely without much stagecraft, save for having a car onstage, which can so often be tacky, and black-and-white projections. The catchphrase of the music and text, extolling Hollywood as a place that creates “new ways to dream,” is repeated ad nauseam. The show opens with a life-size dummy of the deceased Gillis lifted out of an unseen pool (the story is told by the character in flashback), but for some reason it is left hanging above the stage the entire night, like a creepy ghost watching over everything, much as the ghost of the classic film hovers over the proceedings onstage, hoping the musical will get better, but except for too few shining moments, it never does.
August Wilson’s Jitney, the first play he wrote in the American Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, is the last of the ten plays to reach Broadway, and all one can ask is, What took so long? Jitney is another masterpiece from the Pittsburgh-born playwright, whose cycle comprises ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, capturing the black experience in America over one hundred years with grace, honesty, dignity, humor, and a soul-searching reality. Coincidentally, the film version of Wilson’s second play to hit Broadway, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, was released in December; the first movie based on a Wilson play, Fences garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (director Denzel Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Wilson). A Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Jitney takes place in a ramshackle car service office in 1977 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where taxis won’t go. The gypsy cab company is run by the soft-spoken, straightforward Becker (John Douglas Thompson). His motley group of drivers consists of Turnbo (Michael Potts), a confrontational gossip who can’t stay out of other people’s business; YoungBlood (André Holland), an angry Vietnam vet trying to provide for his wife, Rena (Carra Patterson), and baby; Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), an aging, stumbling alcoholic who’s been separated from his wife for twenty-two years; and the practical, sensible Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), who is a kind of den father, keeping the peace while spouting such sage phrases as “Time go along and it come around.” Stopping by often is the sharply attired Shealy (Harvy Blanks), who takes phone calls at the station for his numbers racket, and Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), a regular customer who drinks himself into oblivion and then needs a ride home. Tensions rise when Becker eventually lets everyone know that the city will be tearing down the building soon, leaving them all jobless, and Becker’s son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), arrives after spending twenty years in prison, desperate to reestablish a relationship with his estranged father.
The Olivier Award-winning Jitney is a glorious play, a spectacular blending of poetic, incisive dialogue, powerful, soaring performances, and intimate, seamless staging by director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony for his role in Wilson’s Seven Guitars, later directed that work as well as the recent Signature revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson (starring Dirden), and was Wilson’s personal choice to portray him in the playwright’s autobiographical one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned. As with virtually every Wilson play, the cast is exceptional, bringing the beautifully developed characters to life in ways that make them feel like they’re your friends or acquaintances. Most of the actors have appeared in previous Wilson shows, including Thomas, who played Becker in Jitney at the Cincinnati Playhouse, and Chisholm, who has been playing Fielding since 1996 and once toured the Hill District with Wilson, who died in 2005 at the age of sixty. So every Wilson show has a welcoming family aspect surrounding it, and Jitney is no exception. When the play ended, I felt a tinge of sadness, wanting to spend more time with every one of these characters. The appropriately musty, messy set, by Tony-winning designer David Gallo (Wilson’s King Headley III, Gem of the Ocean, Radio Golf, 2000 production of Jitney at Second Stage), features ratty chairs and couches, newspaper clippings of Pittsburgh sports teams, an old pot-bellied stove, and large windows across the back of the stage that tantalizingly reveal who’s coming into the station next. Originally written in 1979 and rewritten in 1996, Jitney is very much about taking control of one’s life and being part of something bigger, regardless of the odds. At one point, Doub questions why Becker took so long to tell him about the station being torn down. “That ain’t what I mean, Becker,” Doub says. “It’s like you just a shadow of yourself. The station done gone downhill. Some people overcharge. Some people don’t haul. Fielding stay drunk. I just watch you and you don’t do nothing.” “What’s to be done?” Becker responds, adding “I just do the best I can do,” to which Doub boldly replies, “Sometime your best ain’t enough.” Like the rest of the dialogue, those words hit hard, resonating loud and clear in this stunning triumph.
243 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday (and some Mondays) through March 19, $59 - $159
The Present brings us quite a gift, the Broadway debut of Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett, who is absolutely captivating in an uneven black comedy that can go from penetrating to tiresome in the blink of an eye. “An eclectic mix,” Yegor (David Downer) says about the guests at Anna’s (Blanchett) explosive fortieth birthday party, but he also could be speaking about the play itself. Adapted for the Sydney Theatre Company by Andrew Upton from Anton Chekhov’s first major play, sometimes known as Platonov, which remained unperformed in Chekhov’s lifetime, The Present is a three-hour look at lust, the aging aristocracy, personal and professional failure, and fear of death. Upton, who is married to Blanchett, transports the story to 1990s Russia, where the Clash and Joy Division dominate the soundtrack. Anna is considering remarrying following the death of her beloved husband, a much older man called the General, at least in part to maintain control of her late husband’s vast holdings. Among those interested in Anna, either as a bride, a one-night stand, or a business partner are Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), a doctor and Anna’s stepbrother, who has brought hot young student Maria (Anna Bamford) as his date; the practical Yegor, an older businessman who has come with his bland son, Dimitri (Brandon McClelland); Kirill (Eamon Farren), a snarky DJ who is the son of retired lawyer Alexi (Martin Jacobs); and Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), the General’s best friend who is married to Sasha (Susan Prior), the daughter of retired colonel Ivan (Marshall Napier) and the sister of Nikolai. Also at the party are Sergei (Chris Ryan), Anna’s stepson, who is married to Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), and former KGB operative Osip (Andrew Buchanan). “Birthdays are always lively. Balancing the past and the present is tricky at the best of times,” Yegor pronounces. “But that’s Russia these days, isn’t it, Alexi?” Alexi responds, “Russia? I couldn’t tell you.” Anna holds court as her guests drink heavily, argue over politics and socioeconomic conditions, and flirt with one another, risking their friendships, marriages, and reputations in one misguided night of debauchery. “It’s so hard to do what you really, really desperately want in life,” Anna says. “It’s so much easier to do shit you don’t care either way about.”
Chekhov’s play has previously been adapted by the likes of Michael Frayn, Lev Dodin, Trevor Griffiths, and David Hare, with such actors as Rex Harrison, James McArdle, and Stephen Rea playing Mikhail Platonov. Roxburgh (Rake, Hacksaw Ridge), who has been performing with Blanchett for more than twenty years — the duo has played Trigorin and Nina in The Seagull, Vanya and Yelena in Uncle Vanya, and Hamlet and Ophelia in Hamlet — is dynamic when he and Blanchett are together onstage, but it’s difficult to understand why all the other women are so enamored of him. Upton (The Maids, The Cherry Orchard) has made Mikhail, a disgruntled, disappointed schoolteacher who wanted to be a famous writer, and Anna much older than in Chekhov’s original, which works well for the parts of the play dealing with aging and death but leaves much to be desired regarding sexual chemistry and several far-fetched plot twists. The smoke-filled scene in which various women state their love for Mikhail is quite a sight but doesn’t make narrative sense. And while some elements of the anarchic narrative are exciting, particularly those involving Anna’s revolutionary spirit, the table-dancing scene is a bit ludicrous. The play is sort of Chekhov light, with aspects of Don Juan and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy tossed in. Director John Crowley (Brooklyn, A Behanding in Spokane) can’t gain control of the overall chaos, although many individual scenes crackle and, figuratively and literally, explode. Over the course of the too-long three-hour show, you can’t take your eyes off two-time Oscar winner Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, Hedda Gabler), who wears three awesome outfits by Alice Babidge, who also designed the sets; even when Blanchett is in the background, her every movement is mesmerizing, lit beautifully by Nick Schlieper. When she is offstage, the play suffers, but when she is front and center, armed and dangerous, downing drinks, trying to nail down her future, The Present is a rather fine offering.
BROADWAY WEEK: 2-for-1 Tickets
January 17 - February 5, buy one ticket, get one free
Tickets are on sale for the winter edition of Broadway Week, which runs January 29 to February 5 and offers theater lovers a chance to get two-for-one tickets in advance to see new and long-running shows on the Great White Way. Nineteen shows are participating, but two are already sold out — Dear Evan Hansen and Oh, Hello — so you need to act fast. You can still grab seats, however, for Aladdin, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, A Bronx Tale, Cats, Chicago, Cirque du Soleil Paramour, The Front Page, In Transit, Jitney, Kinky Boots, The Lion King, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, The Phantom of the Opera, School of Rock, and Waitress. You can also get $20 upgrades by using the code BWAYUP.
LIVE FROM BARNES & NOBLE: JOSH GROBAN, DENÉE BARTON, DAVE MALLOY, AND CAST MEMBERS FROM THE GREAT COMET…
Who: Josh Groban, Denée Barton, Dave Malloy, Steve Suskin, more
What: Live performance and book signing
Where: Barnes & Noble, 150 East 86th St. at Lexington Ave., 212-369-2180
When: Friday, January 13, free, 4:00 (priority seating with book purchase at B&N Upper East Side starting at 9:00 am)
Why: Steven Suskin’s new book, The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway (Sterling, November 2016, $40), takes theater fans behind the scenes of the remarkable story of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, an electropop opera based on a seventy-page section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that began life in the eighty-seven-seat house Ars Nova in 2012, only to find itself a smash hit at the 1,200-capacity Imperial on Broadway four years later. The book includes a five-song CD (with three songs from the off-Broadway production and two from the Broadway edition) as well as a foreword by Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. On January 13 at 4:00, Suskin will be at the Upper East Side B&N on Eighty-Sixth St. to sign copies of the book, joined by Denée Barton, who is exquisite as Natasha, Josh Groban, who has earned raves as Pierre, and Dave Malloy, the show’s creator, composer, librettist, orchestrator, music director, and original Pierre. The B&N event will include live performances along with a signing; the participants will only be signing copies of the new book that were purchased that day, starting at 9:00, at the store, which also gets you priority seating; no other memorabilia will be autographed.
Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 25, $89-$159
In the fall of 2010, Primary Stages premiered the a cappella In Transit at 59E59, nabbing a special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble and earning a nomination for Outstanding Musical, losing out to a little show called The Book of Mormon. A new production of In Transit has now pulled into the Circle in the Square, where it has its ups and downs, stops and starts, just like the New York City subway system. The show is set in an imaginary train station watched over by Boxman (Chesney Snow and Steven “HeaveN” Cantor alternate in the role), a subway beatboxer with a speaker and a microphone who serves as a kind of Greek chorus / narrator, dishing out advice as well as beats. “Really, how you gonna get where you’re going if you don’t know how to be where you are?” he asks. Over the course of ninety-five minutes and sixteen a cappella songs — there are no instruments used; every sound is made by the human voice — various straphangers take stock of their lives while in transit or at their destinations, their stories rooted in genre clichés that seem tailored more for tourists than New Yorkers yet delivered with energetic charm by a very likable cast. Jane (Margo Seibert) is working as a temp while going on auditions, looking for her big acting break. At a bar, she hits it off with Nate (James Snyder), who recently lost his job because of a major “reply all” faux pas. Nate’s sister, Ali (Erin Mackey), has just taken up running to deal with her breakup with Dave (David Abeles), the doctor she moved cross-country to join in New York. Trent (Justin Guarini) and Steven (usually played by Telly Leung, but we saw understudy Arbender Robinson), are planning their wedding, but Steven insists that Trent must stop hiding his sexual orientation from his Bible-thumping mother (Moya Angela) in Texas. The excellent cast also includes Gerianne Pérez, Mariand Torres, and Nicholas Ward; all of the actors except for Snow play multiple roles.
Directed and choreographed by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall (The Pajama Game, Anything Goes), In Transit works best when it is taking place in the subway, on Donyale Werle’s set, which features familiar train seats and platform and a clever conveyer belt that suggests subway car movement while the characters share classic subway thoughts: “I should’ve hailed a cab.” “This aroma’s unique.” “Is that lady pregnant or fat?” “Crap, why is the seat all wet where I just sat?” “Did I just miss my stop?” When the location moves to Texas, to a bar, and to Jane’s office, it’s like someone pulled the emergency cord on the train and we did indeed get off on the wrong stop. The cast displays an endearing chemistry not only in the major storylines but in the playful subplot involving Trent and angry token clerk Althea (Angela). Overseeing it all like a mythological god is Snow, the only actor from the original 2010 production; the sounds that come out of his mouth are hard to believe, like a full band accompanying the rest of the cast’s lovely, soaring voices. The problem, however, is in the writing, which does not feel adult enough, unwilling to take any real risks, so it is not surprising that the book, music, and lyrics were written by a quartet — Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth — whose resumes include Frozen, Finding Nemo: The Musical, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie & Other Story Books, and the NYC Children’s Theatre’s Dear Albert Einstein. It could have been a much-loved express train, but instead it’s merely a likable local.