235 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 7, $69-$189
A kind of cult — er, rather large fan base — has grown up around Anastasia, Don Bluth’s 1997 animated movie about the fall of the Romanovs in Russia and the possible survival of one of the tsar’s daughters. When I went to see the new musical version, which opened last night at the Broadhurst, the theater was packed with big groups of young girls who were giddy with delight at the prospect of seeing their beloved movie brought to life on the stage; they then proceeded to shriek in unison at their favorite romantic scenes, making the experience feel like The Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles appeared. The many twentysomething women in the audience were perhaps less giddy than wistful and teary-eyed as they watched the theatricalization of a film that has meant so much to them since they first saw the animated movie back in the late 1990s, when they were the same age as the shrieking girls are now. Thus, the show appears to have a built-in, review-proof audience. They oohed and aahed during the disappointing first act, set in St. Petersburg in 1906-7, 1917, and 1927, which catered to the younger fans at the expense of the story, but the second act, set in 1927 Paris, was enchanting, taking a far more adult approach, a treat for young and old alike.
Anastasia features a book by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!) and music and lyrics by Tony winners Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the same trio that turned E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime into a hit musical in 1998; Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the score for the animated film, and six of those songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” are in the Broadway show, along with sixteen new tunes. Neither of the Fox films was completely true to the real story of the Romanovs and Anastasia, and McNally has fiddled with the truth as well, but this is not historical fiction as much as romantic fantasy. The Grand Duchess Anastasia (first played by Nicole Scimeca, then Molly Rushing and Christy Altomare as she grows up) is one of four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II (Constantine Germanacos) and Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Blackman), who live in luxury in the royal palace, shut off from the real world. Old Russia is coming to an end, but the only one who seems to realize that is the tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), who decides to spend her declining years in Paris. The seven-year-old Anastasia wants to go with her beloved grandmother, who gives her a special music box to remember her by until Anastasia can come visit her. Ten years later, the Romanovs are still awash in elegance and finery when they are attacked during the Bolshevik revolution, as the Communists take control of Russia.
Amid postrevolutionary poverty and destitution, rumors swirl that Anastasia might still be alive. Seeking a reward, Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton) try to find a girl they can train to be an impostor, then present to the Dowager Empress. Also on the hunt for Anastasia is Czekist Gleb Vaganov (Ramin Karimloo), a rising star in the Communist Party who wants to make sure all of the Romanovs are dead. He meets and offers help to a street sweeper named Anya (Altomare), but she refuses. Dmitry and Vlad soon believe that Anya, suffering from amnesia, is the right girl for their plan. As they scheme to escape to Paris in 1927 and bring Anya to the Dowager Empress, little memories come back to Anya that hint that she might actually be the real Anastasia. In creating a new telling of the true story, McNally has replaced the evil, villainous Rasputin with the significantly more human, heartthrob-handsome Gleb, while also creating the energetic and fun-loving Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor), the Dowager Empress’s lady-in-waiting and a potential love interest for Vlad. Choreographer Peggy Hickey offers numerous dances as the action moves from 1906 Russia to 1927 France, including a troika, a waltz, the Charleston, and even ballet, making excellent use of Linda Cho’s costumes, which range from spectacular ball gowns to peasant drab. Meanwhile, Aaron Rhyne’s projections, which often evoke travel, get more creative once the maps go away, enhancing Alexander Dodge’s cleverly functional set. Tony-winning director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, The Killer) can’t save the dreary sentimentality of the first act but really opens things up in the vastly more entertaining second act, which begins with “Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart),” immediately letting us know that things are going to get better. All the while, the shrieking continues, culminating in a rafters-shaking noise at the finale. Spoiler alert: Ten years ago, the real Anastasia’s bones were found, with DNA evidence confirming that she died with the rest of her family in the Bolshevik attack. Of course, McNally, et al. opt for a different ending for the musical, and you’ll be very glad they did.
The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 14, $59-$99
Kate Hamill follows up her inventive, extremely popular reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, a Bedlam production that ran at the Gym at Judson for nearly ten months, with another creative marvel, a twenty-first-century take on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, which follows two very different young English women as they graduate from an exclusive girls school and head out into proper society during the Napoleonic Wars. “There are no morals here,” the manager (Zachary Fine), a kind of ringmaster for this anything-goes circus, tells the audience. Standing in front of the six other members of the cast, who are arranged not unlike a police lineup, he adds, “This is Vanity Fair, and it is not a moral place. Nor is it often a merry one, for all of its pageantry and noise.” He then asks the cast, “What do you want?” The answers include “Honor,” “Glory,” “Redemption,” “Love,” “Respect,” and “Money” until the actress playing Becky Sharp (Hamill) declares, “Everything.” And she’s willing to do just about anything to get it. Becky is a devious orphan and “dirty little bird,” a “charity pupil” at the Pinkerton Academy for Young Ladies; meanwhile, her best friend, Emmy Sedley (Joey Parsons), has “the advantage of good birth,” Miss Pinkerton (Ryan Quinn) notes, “possessed of every requisite feminine skill.” Upon graduating, Emmy is set to marry Lt. George Osborne (Debargo Sanyal) and take her preordained prestigious place in Vanity Fair, even though it’s actually George’s best friend, Captain Dobbin (Quinn), who is madly in love with her; Becky, on the other hand, will become governess to the Crawley family, consisting of Sir Pitt Crawley (Brad Heberlee); his son, Lesser Pitt (Sanyal), who is prone to spouting Bible verses; his “better son,” proud soldier Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe); Sir Pitt’s young wife, Lady Rose (Quinn); and Sir Pitt’s wealthy sister, Miss Matilda Crawley (Fine), who is coming to visit. Determined to make something of her life, Becky sets her sights on Emmy’s dandy of a brother, Jos (Heberlee), whose brutally honest father (O’Keefe), who works on the Exchange, continuously belittles him. At the heart of all of the gossip, insinuation, intrigue, jockeying for inheritance, and love matches is Becky’s determination to improve her station. “I shall win this game or die trying,” she announces, and she means it.
Hamill, who has also adapted Pride and Prejudice for Bedlam, takes a decidedly feminist approach to Vanity Fair, which is particularly fitting in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, as discussion of the election rages on, rife with claims of sexism and misogyny and arguments over the socially acceptable character for an ambitious female. Too cold and calculating? Not likable enough? Can a woman be too . . . sharp? Hamill, who played Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, has streamlined Thackeray’s novel into a treatise on judging morality, no matter the era. She plays Becky, a role previously portrayed on film by Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, and Reese Witherspoon, as a strong-minded “Nasty Woman” who believes she is capable of anything, that simply being poor and female is not going to hold her back from taking control of her life. Parsons (The Rivals, The Misanthrope) is terrific as the demure Emmy, who sticks by her friend despite their different views about the world. The five other actors all expertly play multiple roles, both male and female, blurring gender lines while also making fun of them. Sandra Goldmark’s set design, Valérie Thérèse Bart’s costumes, and Seth Reiser’s lighting turns the Pearl Theatre into a welcoming carnival, with Fine (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Coriolanus) as a fabulous host, interacting with the audience, making sly faces at key plot points, and engaging in a separate little hat-tossing drama of his own. The night I saw the show, Fine playfully teased an older man in the front row, predicting he would be asleep in minutes. At the beginning of the second act, when it became apparent that the man and his wife weren’t coming back, Fine’s improvisation was among the funniest moments of the show, which has plenty of them, without losing focus on its central exploration of what we all want, and just how much it matters, or doesn’t, in the end.
149 West 45th St. between Broadway & Sixth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 30, $30-$139
About fifteen minutes before The Play That Goes Wrong was scheduled to begin, there was a commotion at the front of the stage involving several members of the crew. Concerned, I got close to hear what was going on. A woman who appeared to be the stage manager saw me and approached, a worried look on her face. “Have you seen Winston?” she asked me. “Winston?” I replied. “Yes, our dog. He’s missing and we need to find him,” she said, beginning a search through the aisles as the audience wandered in. Aha! The show had already started. In order for The Play That Goes Wrong to be successful, a whole lot of very intricate details and prearranged problems have to go completely right. Fortunately, they do, resulting in one of the funniest plays to hit Broadway in many a season. The Olivier Award–winning British import channels Noises Off, Fawlty Towers, Buster Keaton, and One Man, Two Guvnahs in an uproarious madcap farce that leaves no stone unturned in its wildly inventive quest to celebrate the unpredictability of live theater with superbly choreographed ineptitude. Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields of the Mischief Theatre Company and gleefully directed by Mark Bell, their former teacher at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, The Play That Goes Wrong portrays the opening night of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s ill-begotten production of the fictional Susan H. K. Bridewell’s The Murder at Haversham Manor, a traditional British mystery set in the winter of 1922. In the play within a play, Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill as Jonathan Harris) has been murdered, and the wily Inspector Carter (Shields as director Chris Bean) has arrived on the scene to interview the suspects, who include Charles’s brother, Cecil (Dave Hearn as Max Bennett); Charles’s fiancée and Cecil’s lover, Florence Colleymoore (Charlie Russell as Sandra Wilkinson); Florence’s brother, Thomas (Lewis as Robert Grove); Charles’s gardener, Arthur (Bennett); and Charles’s butler, Perkins (Sayer as Dennis Tyde). As the play, well, goes very wrong, the crew gets involved too, including sound engineer Trevor (Rob Falconer) and stage manager Annie (usually played by Nancy Zamit, but we saw the excellent Bryony Corrigan in her debut in the role).
One of the keys to the success of The Play That Goes Wrong, which boasts J. J. Abrams as one of its producers — he saw the show in London on a lark and became immediately enamored of it — is that the script is extremely tight and specific; the stage notes explain that “the actors of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are not bad actors but the victims of unfortunate circumstances. . . . In essence, it is vital everyone works to present ‘the play that goes wrong,’ not ‘the play that’s being done badly.’ As the intrigue builds, so do the company’s never-ending troubles, as doors won’t open or close, cues are missed, props are mixed up or break, words are mispronounced, pieces of Nigel Hook’s set fall apart, and characters keep getting knocked out. The humor even extends to the Playbill itself, with fake ads and bios. In addition, there is occasional audience participation — it just so happens that Bennett appreciates midscene applause, and keep a look-out for that ledger. Part of the joyous fun is trying to anticipate what might get screwed up next — as well as wondering if there are any real mistakes, made by the cast, sound designer Andy Johnson, or lighting designer Ric Mountjoy. But the immensely talented troupe, clearly game for anything, are expert improvisers and marvelously adept at physical comedy, so you might never know, but the raised platform that serves as Charles’s study is particularly precarious, apparently destined to cause some major damage. (Members of the cast have indeed suffered injuries over the years performing The Play That Goes Wrong as well as its sequel, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and The Comedy about a Bank Robbery, also by Mischief.) And as far as injuries go, you might laugh so hard you’ll hurt yourself, which is not necessarily such a bad thing.
With the current rise in hate crimes in America and around the world, particularly involving anti-Semitism, it is an excellent time to revisit one of the most famous military cases of the nineteenth century, when French artillery officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for treason and faced a court-martial that could send him to Devil’s Island, chosen primarily because he was Jewish. Manhattan-based Ensemble for the Romantic Century will be telling the famous story in its own inimitable style in The Dreyfus Affair, at BAM Fisher, combining narrative with historical music; the company was previously at BAM with 2015’s Jules Verne: From the Earth to the Moon and 2016’s Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone. Tony nominee Max von Essen (An American in Paris) stars as Alfred Dreyfus, with Peter Scolari as Émile Zola, Mark Evans as Matieu, Alfred’s older brother, Meghan Picerno as Alfred’s wife, Lucie, and Timothy McDevitt as Lieutenant Georges Picquart. The cast also features Daniel Rowan, Dee Pelletier, Mark Andrew Coffin, Mark Light-Orr, and Richard Waddingham. The score will include works by Ravel, Franck, Halévy, Rameau, and Ligeti, performed by Grace Park and Daniel Cho on violin, Chieh-Fan Yiu on viola, Nico Olarte-Hayes on cello, Jake Chabot on flute and piccolo, Parker Ramsey on organ and harpsichord, and Max Barros on piano. The show is written by Eve Wolf and directed by Donald T. Sanders, with sets and costumes by Vanessa James, lighting design by Beverly Emmons, and projection design by David Bengali.
TICKET GIVEAWAY: The Dreyfus Affair runs April 27 through May 7 at BAM Fisher, and twi-ny has three pairs of tickets to give away for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and favorite play, movie, or book about Alfred Dreyfus to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, April 21, at 12:00 midnight to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; three winners will be selected at random.
The Mezzanine Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 7, $35-$65
Richard Maxwell’s Samara is an eloquent and poetic existential Western that takes audiences on a soul-searching journey across a dark, mysterious frontier. Perhaps inspired by John O’Hara’s 1934 novel The Appointment in Samarra, ancient parables, and the Central Asian city of Samarkand, known as the Crossroads of Cultures, the play opened last night at Soho Rep.’s temporary home at the Mezzanine Theatre on West Fifty-Third St., where an intimate black box space has been constructed out of palettes of grayish-black plastic milk-crate-like blocks, evoking the muqarnas of Samarkand, formed into walls, benches, and the spare set itself. The show consists of sixteen short scenes totaling seventy-five minutes, with folk-country rocker Steve Earle reading the stage directions in front of a music stand off to one side; in opposite corners, Ivan Goff plays uilleann pipes and an Irish concert flute and Anna Wray contributes atmospheric percussion on a prepared piano. The play begins with the Messenger (fourteen-year-old Jasper Newell) demanding payment from the Supervisor (Roy Faudree) for work rendered; the Supervisor claims he can’t pay him and instead offers the Messenger an IOU for a larger debt that he can collect himself. With nowhere else to turn, the Messenger takes the paper and sets out on a treacherous sojourn to an outpost in the middle of nowhere, where he finds the Manan (Becca Blackwell), whose father owes the debt, and the Drunk (Big Dance Theater cofounder Paul Lazar). They don’t all get along, and soon the Manan is traveling back to Samara, encountering the sage Agnes (ninety-two-year-old Vinie Burrows) and her two sons, Cowboy (Modesto Flako Jiménez) and Beast (Matthew Korahais).
North Dakota native Maxwell, who usually directs his own avant-garde and experimental works (which include Good Samaritans, Neutral Hero, Isolde, and the Obie-winning House), primarily with his New York City Players company, has entrusted Samara to Obie-winning director Sarah Benson, the Soho Rep. artistic director who has helmed such plays as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon and Sarah Kane’s Blasted. (Maxwell was last at Soho Rep. in 1999 with another Western of sorts, Cowboys and Indians, about real-life Oregon Trail historian Francis Parkman.) Just as there are no standard rules in Maxwell’s plays, there are nonstandard narrative guidelines in Samara. “Back home, we knew what the rules were. Right? It was clear,” the Messenger tells the Manan. “Oh, those were some times, weren’t they! Do you even remember? I would say those were some times, and Samara was a good place. And, who knows, maybe it will be good again.” When the Drunk talks about power, the Messenger explains, “True power? Is that what you’re asking? True power, is in the mind.” Much of Samara takes place in the mind, with a kind of Buddhist/Sufi ethos in a postapocalyptic future. The play is also about debts of all kinds, real and imagined, monetary and psychological. “Oh, I wish I knew . . . I owe something, and I have to pay it back,” says the Manan, whose monicker means “thoughtfulness” in Sanskrit. Even the name Samara evokes the Sanskrit word “samsara,” which refers to the cyclic nature of life and the world itself. Maxwell and Benson provide just the right mix of abstraction and exposition, packing a whole lot into a small amount of time, following unique characters that serve as unpredictable archetypes of the Old West, men and women who would feel at home in a Coen brothers film. Gone is the trademark stilted delivery of Maxwell’s actors in past shows, although it’s hard to call the performances naturalistic, but Maxwell still provokes the audience with his penchant for revealing the staged theatricality of his presentations.
Samara also explores such concepts as responsibility, fear of death, and karma. “Damn! After fifty years, a man has got to realize that he is living on top of a fence,” the Drunk says. “He begins by thinking he knows what it all means, and what he should do. Then, he becomes sure what it all means and what he should do, and apologizes for what he thought it meant and all the things that he did do. Later on, he puts what he should do against the things he really wants to do. And now . . . It is pure fear. Fear and sound, can’t bring them together. What’s going to happen to him? What is the fence dividing? Old and new? Pleasure and duty? Life, death? Good bad? Known unknown? . . . COME DOWN OFF THE FENCE!!” he declares. Earle, who has appeared as an actor in such popular cable series as The Wire and Treme, eventually steps out from behind the stand to deliver a strangely beautiful soliloquy. Louisa Thompson’s set is sometimes slightly rearranged, as characters move around pieces of the palettes, and Annie-B Parson’s choreography and Matt Frey’s lighting form quite a one-two punch as the end nears and your discomfort rises, even if you’re sitting on one of the cushions provided to the audience. What does it all mean? What does anything mean? Samara is another superb foray into the known and the unknown by Maxwell, who perhaps is primarily telling us all to “come down off the fence.”
[There will be three special FEED events ($10) following select shows; on April 20, Blackwell will tell stories about an out-of-work Pussy Clown and take part in a Q&A; on May 4, Jiménez will perform his poetry, Oye Para mi Querido Brooklyn (Listen for My Dear Brooklyn); and on May 5, Lazar will present Cage Shuffle, consisting of one-minute stories by John Cage, choreographed by Parsons.]
145 Sixth Ave. at Dominick St.
Wednesday - Sunday through April 29, $30-$45
Since 2008, creator, director, and designer Reid Farrington has been staging wildly inventive multimedia re-creations of movies using a unique combination of live action and original footage. His past presentations include The Passion Project, based on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Gin & “It,” which went behind the scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and A Christmas Carol, which brought together dozens of adaptations of the Charles Dickens classic. Farrington and his wife, Sara, have now turned their attention to the making of one of the greatest films in Hollywood history, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. In the 1942 movie, Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner in Casablanca who encounters a former lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who is in town to meet with her husband, resistance fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), seeking letters of transit that would allow them to escape the Nazis. Written by Sara Farrington and directed by Reid Farrington, who also designed the sets and the video, CasablancaBox takes the audience in front of and behind the camera, as the actors portray the characters in the film as well as the actors playing that character, and the film is “made” before our eyes. Thus, Roger Casey plays Bogart and Rick, Catherine Gowl plays Bergman and Ilsa, and Matt McGloin portrays Henreid and Laszlo. The proceedings are intricately choreographed by Laura K. Nicoll (who was Joan in The Passion Project), as actors carry flat wooden scrims of varying sizes on which clips from Casablanca are projected; behind them, the actors either mouth the parts, so film dialogue is heard, or they speak the lines, with the film sound turned off. (Travis Wright is the sound engineer, while the black-and-white lighting design is by Laura Mroczkowski.) The Farringtons use backstage discussions to lead into the final dialogue, particularly when Peter Lorre (Rob Hille), who plays the sleazy Ugarte, is worried when he is given new lines (“I won’t be fired. I’m the only actor in Hollywood who can make murderers into lovable little teddy bears,” he convinces himself) and when Henreid’s real life as an escapee of the Nazis affects his performance in several takes of a critical scene.
Meanwhile, director Curtiz (Kevin R. Free) barks orders and gets a massage, a pair of Eastern European refugees (Gabriel Diego Hernandez and McGloin) argue about being extras and playing Nazis merely as background atmosphere, Bogart’s wife, actress Mayo Methot (Erin Treadway), stalks the set, and the four screenwriters — Lenore Coffee (Lynn Guerra), Philip Epstein (Adam Patterson), Howard Koch (Kyle Stockburger), and Julius Epstein (Jon Swain) — argue over key plot points. Trying to hold it all together is Irene (Stephanie Regina), who serves as a kind of stage manager as well as the announcer. (The real stage manager, Alex B. West, deserves kudos as well.) The show also tackles censorship issues, shares an anecdote about Errol Flynn and horses, and delves into how no one knew how the film was going to end. The cast also includes Zac Hoogendyk as Claude Rains and Captain Renault, Patterson as Conrad Veidt and Major Strasser, Stockburger as Sydney Greenstreet and Signor Ferrari, Toussaint Jeanlouis as Dooley Wilson and Sam, and Hoogendyk as Bergman’s husband, Peter Lindstrom, and her lover, Roberto Rosselini. Not all of the behind-the-scenes detail is completely factual, and a few scenes grow repetitive, but the Farringtons accomplish their stated goal to “tell the beautiful, chaotic, and sometimes accidental story of a work of artistic genius.” Inspired by the cinematic style of Robert Altman and what the Farringtons refer to as “theatricalizing the camera,” CasablancaBox is also surprisingly relevant, given the current refugee crisis and the spread of hate crimes around the world. But mostly it’s a lot of fun, a creative look at an American classic.
Ten years ago, the Transport Group presented a revival of William Inge’s last major play, and his most autobiographical, 1957’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, directed by company cofounder and artistic director Jack Cummings III. The troupe is currently revisiting two of Inge’s most popular plays, 1950’s Come Back, Little Sheba and 1953’s Picnic; the former earned the Independence, Kansas, native the title of “most promising playwright of the 1950 Broadway season,” while the latter brought him the Pulitzer Prize. The plays, both of which were turned into successful films (with nine Oscar nominations and three wins between them), are being staged in repertory at the Gym at Judson across the street from Washington Square Park, where they continue through April 23, with Cummings helming both. Come Back, Little Sheba involves a boarder shaking things up in a midwestern town; the cast consists of Hannah Elless as Marie, David Greenspan as Elmo, John Cariani as Service Men, Joseph Kolinski as Doc, Heather Mac Rae as Lola, David T. Patterson as Turk, Jennifer Piech as Mrs. Coffman, Jay Russell as Ed, and Rowan Vickers as Bruce. Picnic begins on Labor Day, when the arrival of a hunky drifter changes the dynamic in a small town; the cast features Cariani as Howard, Elless as Millie, Ginna Le Vine as Madge, Mac Rae as Mrs. Potts, Stephen Mir as Bomber, Patterson as Hal, Michele Pawk as Flo, Piech as Irma, Krystal Rowley as Christine, Emily Skinner as Rosemary, and Vickers as Alan. “Independence lies in the very heart of our country, and so maybe its people have more heart in human affairs,” Inge, who committed suicide in Hollywood in 1973 at the age of sixty, wrote. “Big people come out of small towns.”