Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Letter from the Rialto

No, not the Rialto from The  Merchant of  Venice. [Shylock:  "What's new on the Rialto?"] No, this is a letter from the New York Rialto -- Broadway.  Here are my comments from our recent play-going:

Finian’s Rainbow Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Yip Harburg, starring Jim Norton, Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson. Originally performed on Broadway in 1947, this production originated at New York City Center Encores, a treasure of a series that revives four neglected musicals every year.

Finian’s Rainbow offers one of the great Broadway scores of all time: How Are Things in Glocca Morra, Look to the Rainbow, Old Devil Moon, If This Isn’t Love, Necessity, and many others.  Sure, the plot is dated and creaky. Leprechauns, pots of gold at the end of rainbows, bigoted senators who turn from white to black to white.  But tell me the last opera you saw that didn’t have a creaky libretto? 

 The sad news I have to report is that because Finian’s Rainbow is not a rock musical, and because there’s no film star in the cast to bring in the masses, the show closes this Sunday. We’re attending the closing performance, and we’ll be shedding tears of joy and sadness as the curtain drops.

Perhaps my love of the show stems in part from the fact that Finian’s Rainbow offered me the only stage opportunity in my life.  (I exclude the trombone solo I played in our high school band concert.) In 1955, I appeared as third sharecropper in a production of the Ventura County Light Opera Association. We played the entire circuit – Oxnard, Ventura, and Ojai. In mid-run, I was promoted to second sharecropper, and given one speaking line. I decided right then to retire from show business, at the top.

A Little Night Music A revival of the Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler classic from 1973. Directed by Trevor Nunn, it stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, who not only performs admirably as Desirée but also brings in the crowds.  Also starring is octogenarian, but ever young, Angela Lansbury. She once again gives a treasure of a performance. This production originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, transferred to the West End, and is now performing to sellout crowds on Broadway. The sole holdover from the Menier production is Alexander Hanson, as Hendrik, and he’s outstanding.

But the real star of the show is, of course, Stephen Sondheim, whose music and lyrics in A Little Night Music are nonpareil.  Consider this snippet. The older Fredrik, unsuccessful thus far in consummating the marriage with his very young wife, considers strategies to get her into bed. One approach he mulls:

 “Which leaves the suggestive,
But how to proceed?
Although she gets restive,
Perhaps I could read…

“In view of her penchant
For something romantic,
De Sade is too trenchant
And Dickens too frantic,
And Stendahl would ruin
The plan of attack,
And there isn’t much blue in
The Red and the Black”

Nightingale  Lynn Redgrave starred in a one-woman show at the Manhattan Theatre Club.  For an hour and a half, she captivated the audience with a story she wrote herself about her relationship, real and imagined, with her maternal grandmother. Now that may not sound on paper like the recipe for a thrilling evening, but in the theater, with Lynn Redgrave performing, it was just that. To see a master actor perform on a bare stage by herself and to entrance the audience – that’s is a rare treat.

Hamlet  A sold-out run that starred Jude Law in the title role. Directed by Michael Grandage (artistic director of London’s  Donmar Warehouse), we thought it was a good Hamlet, but not a great one. In fact, arriving home from the theater, I ordered from Netflix two film versions of Hamlet: Kenneth Branagh’s and Laurence Olivier’s.  Watching those two brilliant, yet very different, versions of the Shakespeare classic were sublime experiences. Watching the Jude Law performance was a good night at the theater.

Next to Normal I’m sure this has happened to you: You wake up in the morning and say to yourself, I’d really love to see a musical tonight about bipolar disease and electroshock therapy. That’s actually what this musical is about. Doesn’t that sound like a hoot?

Well, Next to Normal may not be a hoot, but it’s a very good night at the theater. The show was first presented at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre (full disclosure: Donna is a board member), where it was quite good.  It’s improved further since then. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of rock musicals, but I must say this show did manage to succeed, to evoke emotion, and to entertain.

The Royal Family Written by two theater and literary giants of the last century, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, imagine my anticipation at attending this revival of a comedy about a theatrical dynasty modeled after the Barrymores.  Unfortunately, the anticipation was not rewarded. The humor of the 1927 show didn’t quite survive the eight decades to the one we saw at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

God of Carnage Yasmina Reza wrote it and Matthew Warchus directed it.    For us, it didn’t succeed. Her earlier big hit, Art, with Alan Alda, was a huge success, and I found it quite entertaining. God of Carnage is also a huge hit, even with its second cast. But the best way I can describe it is that to me it seems to take sitcom-level comedy and put it on stage.  Example: If vomiting onstage gets a big laugh the first time, be sure to vomit a second time. If throwing a vase full of tulips elicits laughs the first time, do it again. Above all, when in doubt, have the actors scream, or even better, screech.  The capacity audience loved it.  We didn’t.

The Understudy Written by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Scott Ellis, and starring Julie White.  Here’s the bottom line:  Anything Julie White is in I will enjoy, even if the script is modest (as this was). But Julie White is one of the great stage presences. Her Tony-winning role in The Little Dog Laughed was an all-time theater treat.


  1. It's fun to read these witty personal reviews of all these marvelous plays that your brother Harold and I will likely never see... How do you and Donna manage to see all these plays? Must be a New York thing. Oops, and London thing:-)

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