Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 2, $89-$179
Daniel Sullivan’s Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 drawing-room classic, The Little Foxes, is exquisitely rendered in every detail in this gorgeous Manhattan Theatre Club production, continuing through July 2 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. It’s an intricate tale of the business of family, and the family business, in the South in the spring of 1900, but it never feels old-fashioned or dated; instead it highlights the play’s freshness and relevance to today’s world. The conniving Hubbard clan — older brother Ben (Michael McKean), younger brother Oscar (Darren Goldstein), and sister Regina (portrayed alternately by Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon) — are wining and dining Mr. Marshall (David Alford), a wealthy Chicago industrialist about to partner with Hubbard Sons in a cotton mill deal. “It’s very remarkable how you Southern aristocrats have kept together. Kept together and kept what belonged to you,” Mr. Marshall says. “You misunderstand, sir. Southern aristocrats have not kept together and have not kept what belonged to them,” Ben points out. “You don’t call this keeping what belongs to you?” Mr. Marshall asks, looking around the impressive room. “But we are not aristocrats. Our brother’s wife is the only one of us who belongs to the Southern aristocracy,” Ben explains, referring to Oscar’s wife, Birdie (alternately Nixon or Linney). In a classic new money/old money transaction, Oscar married the soft-spoken, timid Birdie for her bloodline and the family plantation, her beloved Lionnet. Once Lionnet and Birdie were both Hubbard property, he began beating and mistreating her, leading her to retreat into a haze of alcohol. Meanwhile, Oscar is grooming their bumbling, would-be-playboy son, Leo (Michael Benz), to join Hubbard Sons and to marry his first cousin, Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), the teenage daughter of Regina and Horace (Richard Thomas). But to secure the deal with Mr. Marshall, Ben and Oscar need Horace, a seriously ill banker who has spent the past five months at Johns Hopkins, to contribute his share in the partnership; otherwise, they will have to bring in a stranger, something they are loathe to do. But Regina proves herself to be another shrewd Hubbard when she starts negotiating for her absent husband. Unable to execute the necessary partnership investment herself, Regina sends Alexandra to Maryland to bring back Horace, setting up an intense battle of wills over Union Pacific bonds owned by Horace, who just happens to be Leo’s boss at the bank. Watching everything unfold are the Hubbards’ servants, Addie (Caroline Stefanie Clay) and Cal (Charles Turner), who understand exactly what is going on as the post-Reconstruction South moves from its plantation slave agriculture economy to a mill-based industrial one — all the while keeping up its brutal foundation of labor exploitation. It all culminates in a spectacularly grand finale that is as wickedly funny as it is unpredictable.
A magnet for big stars, The Little Foxes was first presented on Broadway in 1939, with Tallulah Bankhead as Regina and Frank Conroy as Horace. William Wyler’s Oscar-nominated 1941 film starred Bette Davis as Regina, Herbert Marshall as Horace, and Teresa Wright as Alexandra. It was previously revived on Broadway in 1967 by Mike Nichols (with Anne Bancroft, Richard A. Dysart, E. G. Marshall, and George C. Scott), in 1981 by Austin Pendleton (with Elizabeth Taylor, Maureen Stapleton, and Anthony Zerbe), and in 1997 by Jack O’Brien (with Stockard Channing, Frances Conroy, and Brian Murray). The cast for the 2017 revival is simply brilliant: McKean (All the Way, Superior Donuts) is devilishly regal as the cigar-smoking, full-bearded Ben; Goldstein (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Abigail’s Party) is deliciously devious as Oscar, the least well mannered of the siblings; and Thomas (Incident at Vichy, You Can’t Take It with You) is explosive as Regina’s ailing, henpecked husband who has some tricks up his sleeve. But the play’s real power lays in the roles of Regina and Birdie, two very different women, each with their own strengths and flaws, representative of both the past and the future of their gender. At Linney’s suggestion, she and Nixon alternate playing Regina and Birdie; I saw it with four-time Emmy winner, three-time Oscar nominee, and four-time Tony nominee Linney (Time Stands Still, Sight Unseen) as Regina and Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winner Nixon (Rabbit Hole, Wit) as Birdie. The two women are magical together, Linney strong and determined as the duplicitous, calculating Regina, who wants a better life for herself no matter how it impacts the others, while Nixon is delightful as the unassuming, fragile, abused Birdie, who knows more than she is letting on. Scott Pask’s set is divine, with lovely period furniture, a Hazelton Brothers piano, lush drapery, and a shadowy, ominous staircase in the back, while Jane Greenwood’s costumes are utterly transcendent, the men’s tuxes bold and impressive, the women’s dresses luxuriously elegant and revealing of their inner being. Tony winner Sullivan (Rabbit Hole, Proof) directs with impeccable attention to detail; nary the smallest matter is overlooked, and the pacing is wonderful, with two well-timed intermissions over two and a half hours. “I could wait until next week. But I can’t wait until next week,” Ben says at one point, referring to Horace’s delay in contributing his share of the investment, but he just as well could be talking to those who are still contemplating whether to see the show. “I could but I can’t. Could and can’t. Well, I must go now,” he concludes. The Little Foxes must go on July 2; don’t miss it.
Tickets are still available for the sixty-second annual Drama Desk Awards, honoring the best of theater June 4 at the Town Hall. Founded in 1949, the Drama Desk (of which I am a voting member) does not differentiate between Broadway, off Broadway, and off off Broadway; all shows that meet the minimum requirements are eligible. Thus, splashy, celebrity-driven productions can find themselves nominated against experimental shows that took place in an East Village gymnasium or a military armory. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of star power at the awards presentation. Among the nominees this year are Daniel Craig (Othello), Cate Blanchett (The Present,) Amy Ryan (Love, Love, Love), David Hyde Pierce (Hello, Dolly!), Laura Linney (The Little Foxes), Kevin Kline (Present Laughter), Cynthia Nixon (The Little Foxes), Nathan Lane (The Front Page), Bobby Cannavale (The Hairy Ape), and Bette Midler (Hello, Dolly!). Up for Outstanding Musical are Anastasia, The Band’s Visit, Come from Away, Hadestown, and The Lightning Thief, while vying for Outstanding Play are If I Forget, Indecent, A Life, Oslo, and Sweat. The Outstanding Revival of a Play nominees are The Front Page, The Hairy Ape, Jitney, The Little Foxes, “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys, and Picnic, while battling it out for Outstanding Revival of a Musical are Falsettos, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweet Charity, Tick, Tick . . . BOOM!, and Hello, Dolly! The awards will be hosted again by Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer & Cellar), who is currently starring in the Red Bull Theater production of The Government Inspector, and will feature stripped-down, intimate performances from some nominated shows. Tickets start at $64 for the event; however, the $325 package, which gets you into the after-party, where you can mingle with the nominees, winners, and other stars, is sold out.
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 7, $39 - $147
It’s the most famous door slam in theatrical history and a symbolic touchstone of the women’s rights movement. At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer declares her freedom and walks out on her banker husband, Torvald, and their three young children, in order to figure out who she is and what she wants out of life. In his book From Ibsen’s Workshop: Notes, Scenarios, and Drafts of the Modern Plays, Ibsen wrote of A Doll’s House: “A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.” Playwright Lucas Hnath delves deeper into those rules of conduct between men and women in his audacious, decidedly contemporary follow-up, A Doll’s House, Part 2. It’s also extremely intelligent and very, very funny, more than worthy of its title. Hnath and director Sam Gold attack the story with relish, beginning with Miriam Beuther’s set, a large room with two high walls that meet at the back, while the front corner angles into the first few added rows; the feet of the audience members in the first row can actually reach under the stage. To the left is the door, big and brown and austere; a few chairs and a table are arranged around the room sparsely but neatly. A glowing yellow neon sign hangs from the ceiling, boldly announcing the name of the play, rising up and out of view shortly after the show starts, with a knock on the door; Nora (Laurie Metcalf) has returned. “Nora, I can’t believe it’s you!” proclaims an excited Ann Marie (Jane Houdyshell), the nanny who first raised Nora, then Nora’s children. “It’s good to see you,” Nora responds calmly, but she can’t wait to tell Ann Marie what she’s been up to these last fifteen years, during which she has had no contact whatsoever with anyone in the house. She proudly informs Ann Marie that she’s become a successful writer, using a pseudonym, publishing controversial books that argue against the institution of marriage and monogamy, which she calls “self-torture.” When Torvald (Chris Cooper) unexpectedly arrives, he doesn’t even recognize Nora. “Who’s your friend?” he asks Ann Marie before looking a little closer. “Are you . . . You aren’t . . . You are,” he says. “I am,” Nora responds. “I have to go to the bathroom,” Torvald declares, and leaves the room. It’s a scintillating exchange, 15 years in the making in the play itself, but 138 years since Ibsen first wrote Nora’s exit.
The reason why Nora has returned is brilliant; she has not come back to explain herself to Torvald or to see how her children are doing. Avoiding all sentimentality, Nora explains that Torvald never filed the divorce papers, so she desperately needs him to finally sign them, which will at last legally set her free of all attachments, allow her to sign contracts on her own behalf, and save her reputation as an anti-marriage crusader — all the dilemmas that ensue from women’s lack of the rights that men enjoy. “I think it’s to be expected that a person would think that after I left this house and my husband and my children that I’d have a very difficult time,” she tells Ann Marie, who says, “The world is a hard place.” Nora adds, “So we’re trained to think. I mean, I think there’s something in our time and place and culture that teaches us to expect and even want for women who leave their families to be punished.” It’s a statement that wittily comments on the audience’s own expectations, displaying how inequality remains very much in force today; Nora might be flaunting her independence and her career triumphs, but she has not yet broken free of society’s rules, many of which have continued into the twenty-first century. Over the course of the swiftly moving ninety-minute play, Nora goes one-on-one with each character, the next bout announced by a projection of that character’s name on the wall in huge sans-serif block letters by Peter Nigrini. The interactions are superbly staged, as Ann Marie gives Nora a piece of her mind, Torvald is not keen on granting her the divorce, and Emmy shows she has matured into a fine, albeit traditional, young woman. The dialogue in each scene is razor-sharp and unpredictable, as Hnath (Red Speedo, The Christians) explores the age-old battle of the sexes with surprisingly modern language. In researching the project, Hnath sought advice from numerous feminist scholars, including Carol Gilligan, Elaine Showalter, Toril Moi, Susan Brantly, and Caroline Light, resulting in a play that never is condescending or didactic and instead is illuminating and wholly believable.
The cast is divinely exquisite, all four earning Tony nods. Four-time Tony nominee Metcalf (The Other Place, Domesticated) is sensational as Nora, following in the door-slamming footsteps of Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Jane Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, and Joan Crawford. Wearing a gorgeous art nouveau shirtwaist and ladies’ suit by costume designer David Zinn, she’s utterly magnetic as she moves around the stage, completely unafraid to face the realities of Nora’s situation, many of which she did not expect. Oscar winner and Tony and Emmy nominee Cooper (My House in Umbria, Adaptation.), last seen on Broadway in the short-lived 1980 drama Of the Fields, Lately, is gentle and understated as Torvald, who is not sure how to react when he abruptly has to confront something he has tried to put past him. Three-time Tony nominee Rashad (The Trip to Bountiful, Stick Fly) is adorably charming as Emmy, a confident woman who holds no grudges and has an infectiously positive view of life. And Tony and Obie winner Houdyshell (The Humans, Follies), who played the nurse to Rashad’s Juliet in David Leveaux’s 2013 Broadway version of Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom, is, as always, a marvelous delight, holding nothing back as Ann Marie defends the choices she made and delivers the funniest, most direct, and totally un-Ibsen-like line of the play. Tony winner Gold (Fun Home, John) again proves he is one of the theater’s most inventive directors, allowing Hnath’s sparkling words to shine on a sparse but powerful set. One door closes; one door opens. Entrances and exits are the way of life, and the way of theater, and they come together beautifully in this electrifying and masterful production.
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and other locations in all five boroughs
Pier 86, 12th Ave. & 46th St.
May 24–29, pier activities free unless otherwise noted
The U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard will be pouring into New York City for Fleet Week, which takes place May 24-29 at the Intrepid and other locations. The annual celebration, which began in 1982, leads into Memorial Day weekend, reminding everyone that the holiday is not just about barbecues and beaches. Below are only some of the highlights; all pier events are free and open to the public. Admission to the museum is $17-$33 but free for all U.S. military and veterans.
Wednesday, May 24
Parade of Ships, New York Harbor, 8:15 am - 1:00 pm
Fort Wadsworth Fleet Week and National Park Centennial Celebration, Fort Wadsworth Overlook, Staten Island, 9:00 - 11:30 am
U.S. Navy Divers, New York Aquarium, 10:00 am - 3:00 pm
Thursday, May 25
U.S. Coast Guard Silent Drill Team Performance, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 11:00 am
U.S. Coast Guard Silent Drill Team Performance, 9/11 Memorial Plaza, 1:00
Thursday, May 25
Friday, May 26
Public Tours of Visiting Ship Research Vessel Neil Armstrong, end of pier 86, 10:00 am – 12:30 pm
Thursday, May 25
Friday, May 26
Saturday, May 27
U.S. Navy Dive Tank in Times Square, plaza between 43rd & 44th Sts., 10:00 am - 5:00 pm
Thursday, May 25
Monday, May 29
General Public Ship Tours, Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, Homeport Pier in Staten Island, Pier 92 in Manhattan, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
Friday, May 26
Movie on the Flight Deck: Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986), introduced by former NASA astronaut and T-38 pilot Gregory C. Johnson, 7:00
Navy Band Concert, with Navy Band Northeast Rhode Island Sound, Military Island, Times Square, 8:00
Friday, May 26
Monday, May 29
Giant Leaps Planetarium Show, Intrepid, Hangar 3, Rotunda, 12:15 – 3:15
Saturday, May 27
Marine Day, with a formation run, military static displays, demonstrations, and a performance by the USMC Battle Color Detachment, 8:00 am - 4:00 pm
Broadway Showcase: Cats, Kinky Boots, School of Rock, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, The Imbible: A Spirited History of Drinking, and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, emceed by The Play That Goes Wrong, Pier 86, Main Stage, 12 noon
U.S. Coast Guard Search & Rescue Demo, Homeport Pier, Staten Island, 12 noon
CAMMO Voices of Service, Pier 86, Main Stage, 1:30 & 4:30
American Military Spouses Choir, Pier 86, Main Stage, 3:30 & 5:00
Navy Band Concert, with Navy Band Northeast Rhode Island Sound, Military Island, Times Square, 6:00
Battle of the Big Bands, with Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, Glenn Crytzer Orchestra with guest vocalist Hannah Gill, Gunhild Carling with the Swingadelic Big Band, Jason Prover and the Sneak Thievery Orchestra, swing dancing lessons, the Bathtub Ginnys, the Intrepid Swing Dance Brigade, contests, MC Dandy Wellington, DJ VaVa Voom and Odysseus Bailer, Flight Deck, $55-$95, 7:00 pm – 1:00 am
U.S. Marine Corps Battle Color Detachment Performance, Father Duffy Square, Times Square, 8:00
Saturday, May 27
Sunday, May 28
Activities, displays, demonstrations, tours, and more, including “Dive into Density,” U.S. Coast Guard Silent Drill Team, SeaPerch Pool Demonstrations, antique military vehicles, “Signal Flags,” CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation’s STEM activity, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers North Atlantic Division, “Catch a Cable,” 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Saturday, May 27
Sunday, May 28
Monday, May 29
Explosive Ordnance Disposal Navy Divers, New York Aquarium, Coney Island, $11.95 - $14.95
Meet the Author: Julia Maki, My Mom Hunts Submarines, Hangar 2, Stage, 11:00 am, 12 noon, 1:00
Sunday, May 28
Performance by Tap Life, Pier 86, Main Stage, 12:30
Performance by America’s Sweethearts, Pier 86, Main Stage, 1:00 & 3:00
Performance by Deployed: A New Musical, Pier 86, Main Stage, 1:30 & 4:30
Performance by the 78th Army Band, Pier 86, Main Stage, 2:00
Performance by Exit 12 Dance Company, Pier 86, Main Stage, 3:30
Navy Band Concert, with Navy Band Northeast Rhode Island Sound, Military Island, Times Square, 4:00
Monday, May 29
Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Day Observance, commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Midway, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Riverside Dr. & 89th St., 10:00 am
Activities, displays, demonstrations, tours, and more, including Minus 5 Ice Sculpting Experience, CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation’s STEM activity, FDNY Fire Safety Experience, Dina Parise Racing 3,000HP Fallen Heroes Cadillac and Porta Tree display, Veterans Vision Project and Arizona State University, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, Veteran Artist Program, Hudson Valley Paws for a Cause, Intrepid former crew members, “Dive into Density,” SeaPerch Pool Demonstrations, “Signal Flags,” “Catch a Cable,” “What Floats Your Boat?,” Pier 86, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Memorial Day Ceremony, Pier 86, 11:00 am
Search & Rescue Demonstration by the U.S. Coast Guard, end of Pier 86, 2:00
Bubble Garden by the Gazillion Bubble Show, Pier 86, 2:00 – 6:00
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 2, $59 - $199
In the latest Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s WWII-era comedy Present Laughter, two-time Tony winner and Oscar recipient Kevin Kline gets to put his stamp on Garry Essendine, one of the great characters of twentieth-century British theater, and he does so with devilishly wicked delight. He ferociously devours the scenery, following in the footsteps of such previous ferocious scenery devourers as Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Peter O’Toole, Frank Langella, Ian McKellen, Clifton Webb, and the original Essendine, Coward, who based the role on himself; other characters and incidents were inspired by real people and events as well, lending the show an intimate charm with plenty of knowing winks and nods. Essendine is a master thespian preparing for a tour of Africa, but not in peace and quiet — his apartment becomes a carnival of friends, colleagues, staff, lovers, and an oddball stranger. Late one morning, upon learning that Daphne Stillington (Tedra Millan), a young woman he apparently brought home the night before, is in the guest room, Essendine complains to his longtime assistant and confidante, Monica Reed (Kristine Nielsen), “Why didn’t you tell her to dress quietly like a mouse and go home? You know perfectly well it’s agony here in the morning with everybody banging about.” Also turning his impressive London flat (designed by David Zinn) into Victoria Station over the course of the play are Essendine’s ex-wife, Liz (Kate Burton); his manager, Morris Dixon (Reg Rogers); his producer, Henry Lyppiatt (Peter Francis James); Henry’s hot-to-trot wife, Joanna (Cobie Smulders); Daphne’s mother, Lady Saltburn (Sandra Shipley); would-be playwright Roland Maule (Bhavesh Patel); and Essendine’s irrepressible, good-natured valet, Fred (Matt Bittner), and rather strange housekeeper, Miss Erikson (Ellen Harvey). Essendine has built a kind of extended family around himself, one that he might not be able to hold together as things start falling apart, in classically British ways.
Kline (The Pirates of Penzance, On the Twentieth Century) is masterful as Essendine, his every gesture and utterance beautifully overplayed to the hilt, as if the character can’t tell the difference between the stage and real life, always acting, be it Shakespeare or vaudeville. Kline shows a flair for slapstick comedy reminiscent of Monty Python’s John Cleese — Kline won his Oscar for his supporting role in A Fish Called Wanda, which was written by Cleese and starred fellow Python Michael Palin — whether he’s falling down stairs or trying not to be seduced. The women in the show, which takes its name from a line from the Bard’s Twelfth Night — “Present mirth hath present laughter” — are terrific, led by the stalwart Burton, who played Daphne in Scott’s 1982 production; her Liz is not about to take any garbage from Garry while getting a kick out of all the crazy shenanigans going on around him. The always excellent Nielsen (Betty’s Summer Vacation, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) who turns Monica into a den mother with a wry sense of humor about her boss’s philandering, and Harvey (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Mary Poppins) is nearly unrecognizable as the dour Miss Erikson, who is not the most caring of housekeepers. Smulders (How I Met Your Mother; Love, Loss, and What I Wore), in her Broadway debut, is sexy and elegant as the manipulative Joanna, while Millan, in her Broadway debut, follows up her success in The Wolves with another strong performance as the overexcited, high-pitched Daphne, determined to get what she wants. The men, however, do not fare as well; Bittner has fun with Fred, but James (Stuff Happens, Hamlet with Kline) and Rogers (Holiday, Privacy) can’t keep up with Kline, looking lost at times, and Patel (War Horse, Indian Ink) is so over the top as Roland that he seems to be in the wrong play. But director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Important Hats of the Twentieth Century) is able to keep reeling it in whenever it threatens to go a little bit off track, with the help of Kline, who has such an impressive command of the stage and the character that there’s never a doubt that you will presently be laughing; even the way he checks his hair several times in a mirror almost as an aside is an absolute treat, capturing the essence of Garry, and Kevin, with just a few scant motions.
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 7, $79.50 - $169
“Hoping for an early spring? Well, tomorrow is Groundhog Day, and the good folks in Punxsutawney are already gathering in a snowy field waiting for the dawn. Why? Because they’re morons,” meteorologist Phil Connors (Andy Karl) declares at the beginning of Groundhog Day, the fabulous musical adaptation of the popular 1993 comedy. The arrogant, condescending, misogynistic Connors, who hosts the television program Good Weather with Phil Connors — “Thanks for watching,” he patronizingly says whenever recognized by a gushing fan — has been sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, with excited associate producer Rita (Barrett Doss) and quiet cameraman Larry (Vishal Vaidya), but he doesn’t care one iota about whether the rodent sees its shadow or whether there will be six more weeks of winter. “Small towns, tiny minds / Big mouths, small ideas / Shallow talk, deep snow / Cold fronts, big rears,” he sings about the local populace and eager tourists who have flooded the community, many who have come in costume to celebrate the aptly named Phil the groundhog. “There’s nothing more depressing than small town USA / And small don’t come much smaller than Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day,” he adds. Connors might care only about himself, unwilling to find the charm that is the core of America, but he’s about to get one very unusual comeuppance because of his snarky, superior attitude. Every morning, he wakes up to discover that it is still Groundhog Day — he is stuck in a loop in which he keeps meeting such corny, down-home characters as the Chubby Man (Michael Fatica), bed-and-breakfast owner Mrs. Lancaster (Heather Ayers), groundhog fans Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland, nerdy marching band sweethearts Fred and Debbie (Gerard Canonico and Katy Geraghty), the bumbling sheriff (Sean Montgomery), and high school acquaintance and insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (John Sanders), who all annoy him no end, especially when they want to talk about the weather. He’s trapped in a nightmare of his own making, perhaps incapable of figuring a way out.
Three-time Tony nominee Karl (On the Twentieth Century, Rocky) is a phenomenon as Connors, a role immortalized by Bill Murray in the film; he is bursting with an infectious charisma and bewitching energy that envelops the audience from the very start and never lets go; it’s an unforgettable, bravura, career-making performance by a rising star. He even has fun showing off the brace he has to wear after having torn his ACL during previews. But he’s helped tremendously by an outstanding book that really understands the heart and soul of the film, which is not a shock, as the book is written by Danny Rubin, who cowrote the movie with director Harold Ramis. Thus, the characters and the plot come first, with plenty of spoken dialogue leading into the superb music and lyrics by Australian comedian, musician, writer, director, and actor Tim Minchin, who also wrote the music and lyrics for Matilda the Musical, earning him a Tony nomination for Best Original Score. (He also played crazed rock star Atticus Fetch on Californication.) The songs flow seamlessly into the story, with some brilliant surprises. Rebecca Faulkenberry (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Rock of Ages) brings down the house as Nancy Taylor, a conquest of Phil’s who opens the second act with “Playing Nancy,” lamenting her fate both as the character and the actress playing the character. “Well, here I am again the pretty but naive one / the perky breasted, giggly, one-night-stand / Is it my destiny to be a brief diversion / just a detour on the journey of some man?” she asks, wanting to be more than she is. Later, Sanders (Matilda, Peter and the Starcatcher) delivers the beautiful ballad “Night Will Come,” about life’s inevitabilities.
Minchin and Rubin don’t sugarcoat anything, instead focusing on the bittersweet nature of human existence. Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus (Matilda, God of Carnage) never allows the show to get boring, despite so much repetition, while Peter Darling and Ellen Kane’s playful choreography weaves its way through Rob Howell’s fast-changing sets amid Christopher Nightingale’s smart orchestrations. (Howell also designed the fun costumes.) And during “Hope,” magician Paul Kieve (Ghost, Matilda) adds some very cool illusions as Phil contemplates the end. There’s a reason the Old Vic production garnered eight Olivier nominations (winning Best Actor and Best Director) and the Broadway version is up for seven Tonys (Best Musical, Best Book, Best Actor, Best Direction, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, and Best Scenic Design): The cast and crew are just that good, from top to bottom, led by Karl, all coming together to create a show to remember, one that, yes, audiences are likely to want to see over and over again and one that, despite its British roots, is profoundly American.
208 West 41st St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 3, $65-$179
War Paint is everything it should be and more. Inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s 2004 book and Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman’s 2009 documentary, The Powder & the Glory, this knockout Broadway musical pits not only fashion doyenne Helena Rubinstein against Elizabeth Arden but Tony-winning divas Patti LuPone, as the former, against Christine Ebersole, as the latter. And everyone wins, especially the audience. Rubinstein (1872-1965) and Arden (1878-1966) were fierce rivals in the cosmetics industry, bringing a new conception of feminine beauty to America while also breaking barriers for women entrepreneurs. The show, which takes place between the late 1930s and the early 1960s, focuses on how sharply different each was from the other, although they both sought the same things: power in a man’s world, as a woman. Rubinstein was a tough, gruff Jewish immigrant from a Polish shtetl, while the blonde Arden hailed from an impoverished Canadian farm. While Rubinstein made such proclamations as “There are no ugly women; only lazy ones,” Arden made such demure statements as “Remember, girls! Every woman has a God-given right to loveliness!” In the show, they battle over new products, secret ingredients, location, Senate investigations, and even sales managers; at one point, Elizabeth’s husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), feeling neglected, jumps ship to work with Helena, so Helena’s right-hand man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills), is quickly snatched up by Elizabeth. David Korins’s darkly bold changing sets include a wall of glowing cosmetic bottles, a movable red door representing Arden’s lush salon, portraits of Rubenstein done by famous artists, and a restaurant where both women dine and where they reveal many of their fears. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are exuberant, as are David Brian Brown’s wigs and Angelina Avallone’s makeup, while Christopher Gattelli’s choreography has ravishing moments of razzle-dazzle; all of those elements come together for a terrific number about Helena and Elizabeth’s involvement in the war effort (“Necessity Is the Mother of Invention”) as well as such other fun songs as “Behind the Red Door” and “Back on Top,” featuring the talented ensemble, who all play multiple roles, including such standouts as Mary Ernster as the Society Doyenne, Joanna Glushak as Magda, Barbara Marineau as the Grand Dame, Angel Reda as the Heiress, Mary Claire King as Miss Beam, and Erik Liberman as Charles Revson.
The book, by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Hands on a Hardbody), does an excellent job of condensing the story into a fast-paced two and a half hours, giving equal time to each side of the conflict. The music, by Scott Frankel, and lyrics, by Michael Korie, who previously collaborated on such shows as Far from Heaven, Doll, and Happiness and teamed up with Wright on Grey Gardens, are fanciful and exhilarating, propelling the story while allowing the stars to shine, and shine they do; LuPone (Gypsy, Evita), Ebersole (Grey Gardens, 42nd Street), Dossett (Gypsy, Giant), and Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Little Shop of Horrors) are the fiercest foursome on Broadway today, chewing up the colorful scenery and spitting it out with verve and style, although the show, of course, belongs to the women. Early on, Harry suggests to Helena, “Perhaps this time you’ll drop by the Red Door and introduce yourself? Maybe even make nice?” to which Helena responds, “The Ford should meet the Studebaker? The Macy’s should take tea with the Gimbel’s?” In real life, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden actually never met; thank goodness this show brings them together for posterity.