I don’t Impulse shop like I once did, but when it was announced that Bette Midler was doing Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, it became a must-do.  For me, a visit to New York is always determined by what’s playing at the Met as well. I booked tickets for Hello, Dolly! and Les Contes d’ Hoffman, knowing the rest would fall into place. (More on these two later).

Visits to Manhattan include spending time with friends, and I try to see at least one new museum per visit. This time it was the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. The Astoria Kaufman Studios are where Paramount Pictures started. The Marx Brothers shot both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers here. More recently, it’s been used for television series set in New York.

The Museum attached to it features a complete exhibit on Jim Henson, including the original Kermit, Miss Piggy in her wedding dress as well as costumes from The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Covers from magazines like Photoplay; costumes from Chicago, Annie Hall and Mrs. Doubtfire andwigs from Bride of Frankenstein, Jezebel and Cleopatra are all on display. It’s a movie fan’s dream!

Depending on your energy level, it’s not difficult to see 8 or 9 shows in a week, either. TDF.org ($30/yr.) and TKTS offer discounts. Even with 12 theaters dark, there are plenty of Off and Off Off-Broadway productions, too.

 

Riotous Comedy

Following a most filling lunch at Carmine’s on W. 44th Street with a colleague and his son, the three of us walked over to the Lyceum for The Play That Goes Wrong, advertising itself currently as Broadway’s longest-running play. (There are only three plays onstage now, and two of them are limited engagements). An import from the UK, the script was created by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields of Mischief Theater Company. A cross between Noises Off and The Real Inspector Hound, this is a play within a play. The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is presenting The Murder at Haversham Manor. Members of the production staff are setting up for the performance, but everything from a missing dog to replacing stage whisky with paint thinner, falling set decorations and out of commission actors make this ensemble show a brilliantly staged, laugh filled afternoon’s entertainment. Standout performances by Ashley Bryant, Clifton Duncan, Jonathan Fielding and Amelia McClain should keep audiences in stitches for some time to come. My guess is that it will tour and years from now, this will become a popular community theater staple, too.

 

Off Broadway

With performance spaces all over the city, thriving theater companies are doing fine work. Housed in a remodeled firehouse, one such space is the Davenport Theater. Their present offering is Afterglow by gay playwright/director S. Asher Gelman. This extended one-act is played on a mirrored arena stage. The center mechanism is used, at times, as a bed, a shower, a rooftop and a balcony. The play centers on Josh, a theater director (Brandon Haagenson) and Alex, a researcher (Joe Chisholm) who are married, but have an open relationship. They’re planning on completing their family with a surrogates’ delivery of their daughter.

We find the two of them naked in bed with Darius (Taylor Wright), a massage therapist. With Alex’ blessing, Darius and Josh embark on an affair that will eventually change things. Afterglow is a refreshing approach to the situation, and Gelman has created superb character and plot developments, however, for me the play was a little too close to home. The energetic cast made it a pleasant evening of theater, nonetheless.

 

Back Where She Belongs

I’ve always loved Hello, Dolly!  I think it’s one of the most entertaining musicals of all time, and it has quite a pedigree. In 1835, John Oxenford’s play A Day Well Spent was presented. German playwright Johann Nestroy revised it as He Will Go on a Spree, or He’ll Have a Good Time. In 1942, Thornton Wilder adapted it as The Merchant of Yonkers and again in 1955 as The Matchmaker. The plot follows Dolly Levi, hired by the merchant of Yonkers Horace Vandergelder to serve as his matchmaker. Dolly plans to marry him herself. Meanwhile Vandergelder’s niece and his two clerks want adventure, so they go to New York City for a day well spent. David Merrick produced Tyrone Guthrie’s Broadway production starring Ruth Gordon.

He also thought it had potential as a musical for Ethel Merman, who turned it down. Michael Stewart was hired to write the libretto and Jerry Herman composed the score. Carol Channing was cast as Dolly, with Gower Champion in charge of the production. While in Detroit, the show was in trouble and went through massive changes. Its original title, Dolly, a Damned Exasperating Woman was changed and a new first act finale: “Before the Parade Passes By” was added. Hello, Dolly! became the hit of the year, winning ten Tony Awards.

I first saw it at the Melody Top Theater in Milwaukee with Dorothy Lamour who gave an illustrious performance.  A few years later, I saw Carol Channing phone it in, while Eddie Bracken channeled Walter Matthau as Horace.  Sally Struthers opened the new Bloomington Performing Arts Center as Dolly (although she could have used another week’s rehearsal) Until I saw Bette Midler, at Broadway’s Shubert, Lamour was the best of all these Dollys, and I even defend the movie version!

Jerry Zaks’ sparkling new production is everything Hello, Dolly! should be! Santo Loquasto has created beautiful, colorful sets and costumes, Warren Carlyle recreated Champion’s choreography and it’s a lively, fast moving production.

While Midler, is, of course, the reason to see the show (Bernadette Peters takes over in January, she’s surrounded by the best ensemble on Broadway. David Hyde Pierce as Vandergelder is, in every way, her match. Zaks added "Penny in my Pocket," (cut in Detroit), as the second act curtain raiser and this number helps define Vandergelder’s past. Gavin Creel’s Cornelius, Taylor Trensch’s Barnaby, Kate Baldwin’s Irene and Amanda LaMotte’s Minnie Fay bring youth and energy to the show and their rendition of “Elegance” is especially delightful.

This production of Hello, Dolly! Is sure to delight audiences again for years to come. There’s no word yet as to who will lead its touring company, but should Midler bring it to the Twin Cities, it should top your must-see list!

 

Roundabout Theater Company

Half a century ago, I was involved with a short-lived community theater and one of the plays I read for consideration was J. B. Priestley’s beautiful drama, Time and the Conways, which was produced once (1938) in the United States. Revivals by the Roundabout Theater Company are hit or miss. For every success like Cabaret, there are ill-conceived revivals of Streetcar or Pal Joey. Time and the Conways is among their successes.

The play examines one family from 1919 to 1937. In the first act, Mrs. Conway and her six children (Hazel, Carol, Alan, Madge, Kay and Robin) are celebrating both the homecoming of Robin, whose stint in the army has ended, and Kay’s 21st birthday. They’re making plans for the future, when in the midst of good feelings, their new neighbor, Ernest, a solicitor with a sinister repellant nature, is introduced, taking the positive energy out of the air.

Act Two, set in 1937, shows how things have progressed. Carol has passed on, although her ghost lingers; Kay, now 40, has accepted her lot in life and instead of novels, the novelist writes a gossip column; Robin, a traveling salesman is sinking into alcoholism; Madge retains her political views, but her activism has been shelved to focus on her career as headmistress of a girl’s school; now wealthy, Ernest has married Hazel who looks sensational, but underneath is abused, both physically and emotionally, which concerns the family. The Conway fortune is gone due to bad investments and the house is to be sold for less than it’s worth.

Act 3 returns us to 1919 and in this extension of Act I we learn how the best laid plans can fail even as promises to the contrary are made.  

Under Rebecca Taichman’s sure-fired direction, this production breathes new life into this minor classic, returning it to an ever-growing repertory of scripts in need of further revival. Played against Neil Patal’s masterful set (he also did the Guthrie’s Watch on the Rhine) and wearing Paloma Young’s costumes, the ensemble at the American Airlines (Selwyn) Theater is outstanding.  Elizabeth McGovern, fresh from her success on Downton Abbey is radiant as Mrs. Conway. Brooke Bloom’s Madge is haunting, while Charlotte Parry’s Kay shows the characters flexibility as she grows; Matthew James Thomas is exceptional as Robin, while Anna Baryshnikov’s Carol is incandescent. I look forward to this play joining local theater playbills in future.

 

The Met

For me, no visit to the Big Apple is complete without going to the Metropolitan Opera. As hard as the theater tries to bring spectacle to its environs, no one does spectacle like the Met!  I always sit in the Family Circle, because you see things up there not visible in the Orchestra seats. Furthermore, the sound is amazing as those incredible voices soar to these heights.

Jacques Offenbach’s Le Contes d’ Hoffman (Tales of Hoffman) is an opera fantastique, wherein three stories by E. T. A. Hoffman (Swan Lake) are told. Hoffman drinks with some students, as he entertains them with stories of three past loves, being watched over by his Muse, disguised as his friend Nicklausse. In Act 1, his love, Olympia, is a mechanical doll that keeps breaking down; In Act 2, Antonia is an unhinged singer, mourning her mother.  Mystic visions play through her head until her death.

Opening with the opera’s most famous melody, Act 3, Giuletta is a courtesan who introduces Hoffman to her current lover, while Nicklausse warns him against her charms, which leads to tragedy. We return to the tavern where Hoffman explains that these three women are aspects of the same woman, Stella. The Muse reveals herself, insisting that Hoffman use his experiences in his writing.

Sadly, Offenbach died before the opera premiered. The Met first presented it in 1913. Bartlett Sher’s current production enhances the darkness of the stories. Of the performances Laurent Naouri’s evil nemises (four characters), Tara Erraught’s Muse, and Vittorio’s Gringolo brilliantly lead the ensemble, while Erin Morley (from The Guthrie’s Sunday in the Park with George) as Olympia and Oksana Vokova’s Guilietta lend magnificent support.

Le Contes d’ Hoffman isn’t the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Met. Franco Zefferelli’s Turandot and John Dexter’s Dialogues des Carmelites top this, but, vocally, this is a remarkable presentation.

 

Big Brother is Watching...All Over the Place! On Broadway...

 It wasn’t planned, but my next two theatre ventures were both set in futuristic societies. The Ambassador Theater Group has opened Broadway’s Hudson Theatre after 49 years, and its most recent tenant (since closed) is Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. Icke and MacMillan also directed. As skillfully assembled and superbly acted, this is one of the most excruciating evenings of theater I’ve been through. Seated in the center of a full row, I’ve never before felt so claustrophobic, trapped with no escape.

The intense technical production is, at times overwhelming, as is Tom Sturridge’s extraordinary performance as Winston, who’s led down a path of destruction by the attractive but vicious Julia (Olivia Wilde in her Broadway debut), all under the watchful O’Brien (Reed Birney).  1984 isn’t exactly a classically entertaining evening, but this material has a purpose, which it more than effectively fulfills. Of course, that’s topical at this point in time.

 

And Off...

The same thing can be said about Suzan-Lori Parks’ shattering play, F**cking A. at the Signature Theater’s Romulus Linney (Laura’s father) Theater. Part of the playwright’s Red Letter Plays (In the Blood is the other piece), it’s a riff on one of America’s greatest novels, The Scarlet Letter. In this variation, Hester Smith is an abortionist, tattooed with a Scarlet A and forced into the job by the Mayor’s wife after her son is sent to prison as a child for stealing food. Her best friend, a prostitute named Canary Mary and she speak an alternative language called Talk. Hester keeps hoping she can buy some time with her son, whom she hasn’t seen in decades.  Unbeknownst to her, he’s escaped from prison and now known as “Monster” he’s terrorizing the countryside.

Parks’ script is enhanced by songs (with instruments played by members of the cast) that are remnant of Bertolt Brecht. Under Jo Bonney’s inventive direction, F**king A is a riveting play, at times humorous, strong and always powerful.

While the entire ensemble excels, Christine Lahti’s Hester, Joaquina Kalukango’s Canary Mary, Mark Kudisch’s Mayor, Raphael Nash Thompson’s Butcher and Brandon Victor Dixon’s Monster deliver remarkable performances. Afternoons such as this are a pleasure in New York theater.

 

Another Movie Onstage

While I’m not a fan of putting movies onstage, it’s a genre we can’t seem to get away from. Fortunately, librettist Jessie Nelson and composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles have written a beautiful, faithful musical based on Adrienne Shelly’s film, Waitress, now at the Brooks Atkinson Theater and on its way to Minneapolis’ Orpheum.

Waitress is a very special musical because it has something of a tragic past. Shortly before it was announced that the film had been selected for the Sundance Film Festival, Shelly was found by her husband, murdered in her apartment. The killer was arrested, tried and imprisoned. Waitress was well-reviewed, but it’s a little-known work. Keri Russell played the lead and it’s one of Andy Griffith’s last films. Bareilles’ score was released first as the album What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress.

The story is simple. Jenna Hunterson is a waitress who supports her ne’er-do-well husband, Earl. When Jenna becomes pregnant, she has an affair with her (married) gynecologist. A gifted pie-maker, she plans a pie contest and using the money to get out of her marriage and start a new life for herself and her child.

Directed by Diane Paulus, with Lorin Latarro as choreographer, Waitress is a lovely show. Real pies are part of the production process and pieces are on sale in the lobby at intermission. What makes this show so special, however, is its cast. Betsy Wolfe is a superb Jenna. Before she’s finished pouring her first scoops of butter, flour and sugar into a bowl, mixes it together with a few more ingredients and spooning it into a pie crust, she has drawn us into her story.

Wolfe is backed up with remarkable performances from Caitlin Houlahan as Dawn, Will Swenson as Earl, Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter, Maia Nkenge Wilson’s Becky and especially Christopher Fitzgerald’s scene-stealing Ogie. Together this ensemble is what makes Waitress that very special musical.  That... and the pies!

If I could, I’d do it all again (probably not 1984), but the rest of it.