Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Me and My Girl - A Musical From Yesterday Comes Roaring To Life

 Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In this world of message musicals and important themes, it’s nice to know that every so often a vehicle comes along whose only purpose is to offer a good time. The 1937 tuner Me and My Girl, which was recently resurrected for an engagement as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center, is such a work.

With a storyline paper thin; musical numbers that have often have nothing to do with advancing the plot; dusty jokes which were old when the musical was first new; and songs inserted where a few lines of dialogue will do; this production was, from the first moment to the last, nothing less than sheer perfection. 

In 1930s England, the place to be during the summer, for anybody who is anybody, is Hareford Hall. A massive manor house with grounds that include tennis courts, a golf course, and a cricket field. Though with the recent death of the Earl of Hareford, the race is on to find a male heir. One who can continue the same sensible and conservative traditions that have been part of the Hareford family for generations.

It's not long before the heir is indeed found. However, the gentlemen in question, one Bill Snibson (Christian Borle), the product of a brief marriage between the late Earl and a woman from a somewhat lower class, turns out to be a good-natured cockney fellow from the Lambeth district of London. A man perfectly at home in the pubs and dance halls, but completely out of his depth when it comes to high society.

While the Hareford elites are somewhat perturbed, to say the least, Maria (Harriet Harris), the Duchess of Dene and the late Earl’s sister, is determined the family legacy will continue; and sets out to mold Bill into a "proper" English gentlemen. Although Bill quickly comes to enjoy his new surroundings, there is one major stumbling block to the Duchess' plans. That being Bill's undying love for his "girl" Sally Smith (Laura Michelle Kelly), from whom he refuses to be parted. As the Duchess envisions Bill eventually marrying someone suitable to his new station in life, she wants Sally gone as soon as possible. So too does Lady Jaqueline Carstone (Lisa O'Hare), the closest thing this show has to a villain, who sees a life of financial security were she to marry Bill. This to the consternation of Gerald Bolingbroke (Mark Evans), who loves Jaqueline and would marry her in an instant, were he not drowning in debt.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, and not wanting to hurt Bill's chances for a new life, Sally tries to point out to Bill how unsuited the two now are for each other, and makes plans to return to Lambeth alone.

Christian Borle and Laura Michelle Kelly in Me and My Girl at Encores! at New York City Center. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus 

With book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, the show first became a smash in London in 1937; repeating its success on Broadway two years later. In 1984, the shows book was heavily revised by Stephen Fry, with contributions by Mike Ockrent, to become a hit all over again on both sides of the Atlantic. Watching the musical play out on the City Center stage, it’s easy to see why. The story is sweet and light, and the tunes by Noel Gay are completely infectious. Most being nothing more than a chance for the cast to break into song and dance. As is the case with the absolutely delightful “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”, which opens act two; and the famous “Lambeth Walk”, which started a dance craze when first introduced in England

That’s not to say the musical doesn’t have some poignant moments as well. Among them, the wistfully mournful “Leaning on a Lamp-Post”, sung by Bill when he thinks he’s lost Sally, and Sally’s solo number in a similar vein, "Once You Lose Your Heart". Also present in the score are comedic numbers for just about every one of the main and supporting cast. Where else for example, can you find a song all about the family solicitor? Don Stephenson doing a great job in that particular role.

Yes, there are issues of class consciousness present, but it’s all played almost totally for laughs, with the audience rooting for Bill and Sally from start to finish. There’s even an implied reference to one Henry Higgins tossed in. Along with a scene that shows Borle to be channeling Gene Kelly more than a bit.

The entire cast is excellent. Borle is prefect in the role of Bill. He movements so limber, they remind one of a young Dick Van Dyke. In a refreshing twist for shows of this type, Bill never becomes so seduced by his new life as to try to forget Sally in the arms of someone else. His comic number with O’Hare (“You Would if You Could”), a nice testament to that effect.

Kelly makes a great Sally. A salt-of-the-earth type, yet lacking Bill’s “come hell or high water” attitude, she’s never able to feel as if she belongs among the Harefords or their ilk. Chuck Cooper is great fun as Sir John Tremayne, the co-executor of the Hareford estate, who quickly becomes Bill’s ally. Cooper also perfectly delivering one of the funniest lines in the show (having to do with tea and a steamroller). Harris is great as the no-nonsense Duchess, who refuses to let the Hareford tradition die. Nor do the Hareford ancestors, as Bill learns after a few drinks.

The musical direction under the baton of Rob Berman is excellent. The show so involving, one forgets at times the orchestra is on stage throughout. Also essential to the musical running on all cylinders is the exquisite direction and choreographic work of Warren Carlyle. The various numbers coming off so well, it looks like the cast rehearsed for months beforehand. Best of all, this incarnation of the show never once feels dated or out-of-touch. Everything registering as immediate and alive. Also deserving of mention are the costumes by Emilio Sosa, which are all very well done. 

Message musicals certainly have an important place in the theatrical pantheon. But at the same time, it’s a real joy to see a show where the only objective is a simple, unadulterated fun. Welcome back, Me and My Girl, you have been sorely missed. Broadway revival anyone?

Featuring: Lisa O'Hare (Lady Jaqueline Carstone), Mark Evans (The Hon. Gerald Bolingbroke), Simon Jones (Lord Battersby), Suzanne Douglas (Lady Battersby), Don Stephenson (Douglas Herbert Parchester), John Horton (Sir Jasper Tring), Harriet Harris (Maria, Duchess of Dene), Chuck Cooper (Sir John Tremayne), Bill Buell (Charles Hethersett, The Butler), Christian Borle (Bill Snibson), Lara Michelle Kelly (Sally Smith), Kevin Worley (Pub Pianist/Ensemble), Sam Bolen (Footman/Ensemble), David Scott Purdy (Barman/Ensemble), Jessica Wockenfuss (Mrs. Worthington-Worthington/ensemble), Christine DiGallonardo (Lady Diss/Ensemble), Lizzie Klemperer (Lady Brighton/Ensemble), Price Waldman (Bob Barking/Ensemble), Florrie Bagel (Mrs. Brown/Ensemble), Timothy McDevitt (Constable/Ensemble), Maddy Apple, Alex Aquilino, Phillip Attmore, Abby Church, Jake Corcoran, Ta'nika Gibson, Jordan Grubb, Brittany Rose Hammond, Eloise Kropp, Mariah Reshea Reives, Chaz Wolcott (Ensemble)

Me and My Girl
Book and Lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber
Book Revised by Stephen Fry, with Contributions by Mike Ockrent
Music by Noel Gay

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Concert Adaptation: John Weidman
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Chris Walker
Production Stage Manager: Nancy Pittelman
Casting by: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, CSA, Justin Bohon
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle

Presented by Encores! at New York City Center
121 West 55th Street
Running Time: Two Hours, Twenty Minutes, with one intermission
Closed: May 13, 2018

Long Day's Journey Into Night - One family's fall from grace

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Like an immense series of interlocking puzzle pieces, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night inexorably charts the downfall of a family which has literally collapsed in upon itself through decades of inner rot. The current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and originally seen at the Bristol Old Vic, offering quite the spellbinding journey.

The story takes place over the course of a single day at the Connecticut home of the Tyrone family during the summer of 1912. Stage actor James Tyrone (Jeremy Irons) and his wife Mary (Lesley Manville) following their annual pattern of hunkering down for a brief respite after yet another season on the road. A life, as Mary often notes, of endless “cheap hotels”. Mary also forced to deal with continual bouts of terrible loneliness during the periods James is busy performing or out with his fellow thespians.

Joining James and Mary in Connecticut this year are their two adult sons. James Tyrone Jr. (Rory Keenan), a.k.a. "Jamie", an actor in his own right, as well as a drunk and a woman chaser; and Edmund (Matthew Beard). The baby of the family, and Mary's favorite, Edmund has recently returned home after working his way across the globe by ship, and recently embarked on a writing career. Edmund, whose health has never been the best, may also be suffering from consumption, a condition that killed Mary's father years earlier.

Mary is also heavily addicted to morphine. A condition she developed due to complications in the aftermath of a very difficult pregnancy. James not helping the situation by refusing to take his wife to a more competent (and thus more expensive) physician; rather than the one he ultimately selected. As quickly becomes apparent, James is a notorious tightwad due to a continual fear of poverty, one stemming from childhood. This is also why James is continually conned into buying worthless parcels of land. He feeling that land, which will always be there, is a much safer investment than stocks and bonds, or putting his money into banks, all of which can fail.

Despite the family's hope they might be able to enjoy their time together this summer, every one of the four is on edge. Mary has just returned from her latest stay at the sanitarium, with the men constantly observing and dissecting her every movement, looking for signs she has returned to the needle. This constant scrutiny causing Mary to feel something akin to a fly under a microscope and only serving to add to the emotional pressure she feels as she struggles to stay clean.

Jeremy Irons and Leslie Manville in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Directed by Richard Eyre. Photo Credit: Richard Termine

A major irony in the story is how James believes all that’s needed to break any cycle of addition, is one's own will power. Yet James himself is unable to walk away from his refusal to spend one penny more than necessary, for anything. Be it not getting the best help possible for Mary, or later Edmund, or not wanting more than one light bulb to burn downstairs in their home at night. His irrationality over money coloring everything he has done in life.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night could be called O’Neill’s very personal requiem. A semi-autobiographical story, the play was completed in 1941, yet not published until 1953, three years after his death. What makes the story so compelling is that O’Neill takes the time to thoroughly examine the roots of each of the four main characters, while also showing the circumstances which have brought them to where they are today. Not to mention also bringing forth the self-destructive streak in each. From James' harrowing experiences as a child, to why Mary both loves and hates each of her children, (albeit for different reasons), the text never stops at the surface of any issue discussed. Particularly resonating in this regard is Jamie’s drunken warning to Edmund about how he will do his best to destroy his younger brother, in spite of how much he loves him.

Irons is perfect as James. The character continually projecting an attitude of superiority, coupled with a frequent sneer of disgust. Also part of his makeup is an air of terrible resignation regarding events of which he is helpless to do anything about. At times, James does half-heartedly acknowledge his own shortcomings, but, like everyone else in this family, is either unable or unwilling to save himself from what he has become.

Manville gives an absolutely dynamic performance as Mary. A woman walking the finest of lines, she desperately wants to be cured from the poison that rules her soul, but her life has become so full of painful memories, that existing in a drug-induced haze continually looks more and more attractive to her. While Manville shows Mary to be quite the pitiful figure, she also brings forth the character's deeper feelings of bitterness in regards to all she has suffered over the years. Each member of her family, at least in Mary's eyes, partially to blame for the way she is now.

Keenan is good as Jamie, a young reprobate already well on the road to ruin. Though underneath his anger is a desperate need for someone to show him that life doesn’t have to be this way. It's also interesting to note that while Jamie hates his father with a passion - the feeling often mutual - in actuality, he is more like his namesake than he's willing to admit.

Beard is fine as Edmund. A stand-in for O’Neill, and a bit of a dreamer, he wants nothing more than to simply get well. However, upon his return home, he too becomes enmeshed in the family dynamics once again, receiving mixed signals of love, hate and disgust from all sides. He also doesn’t make it easy on himself by succumbing to temptation a little too regularly. Such as continually drinking alcoholic beverages when it’s clearly not good for his health.

Jessica Regan does well as the family serving maid Cathleen. She nicely playing off Manville in their scenes together.

Direction by Richard Eyre is very strong, allowing the story to move at its own pace as, bit by bit, the truth about what the audience is seeing moves front and center. Eyre also does a nice job in seamlessly melding the nostalgic and occasional comedic moments with the more dramatic ones.

The set by Rob Howell is nicely eclectic, showing pretty much what an actor of James Tyrone's ilk would have in his home. Though some parts of the house seem a bit too modern, or fit the era depicted. Peter Mumford's lighting is very good, especially in the final act. John Leonard's sound design also adds an important element to the tale. It nicely calling up the sounds of the wind and sea birds to help place the story properly. There are, however some problems in being able to hear the cast in act one, along with the habit the actors had of stepping on each other’s lines more than once.

Offering an unflinching look at one family's ultimate "heart of darkness", this production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, other than a few small issues here and there, is quite the wonder to behold.

Featuring: Jeremy Irons (James Tyrone), Lesley Manville (Mary Tyrone), Matthew Beard (Edmund Tyrone), Rory Keenan (James Tyrone, Jr.), Jessica Regan (Cathleen)

Long Day's Journey Into Night
Bristol Old Vic
by Eugene O'Neill
Set and Costume Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: John Leonard
Directed by Sir Richard Eyre

Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 40 minutes, one intermission
Closes: May 27, 2018

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Summer and Smoke - More Than 90% There

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One can't be helped out of a bad situation unless they are first willing to help themselves. A tenet for anyone suffering from substance abuse, and also when it comes to matters of the heart. The latter point brilliantly made clear in Tennessee Williams' 1948 drama, Summer and Smoke. Presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group, the work shows how fine a line there can be between sympathy and pity.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) is the somewhat repressed daughter of the town reverend (T. Ryder Smith). She teaches music, hosts weekly literary gatherings and generally tries to set a proper example for others. She also refuses to condemn one person for the actions of another. Such as her friendship with Nellie Ewell (Hannah Elless), daughter of a woman who personally welcomes many of the traveling salesmen who pass through town. Alma has also been forced to sacrifice much of her childhood to take care of her mother (Barbara Walsh). A woman who, since having a nervous breakdown, can be quite verbally abusive.

One Fourth of July, Alma has a chance encounter with John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow), the ne’er-do-well son of the town physician (Phillip Clark). John however, has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. He preferring a life of liquor, gambling and female companionship. He's also often seen in the company of Rosa Gonzalez (Elena Hurst). A woman whose uncle owns the Moon Lake Casino; a place which offers the very pursuits John enjoys.

When Alma and John meet, there's an instant attraction. One not only filled with sexual tension, but also a meeting of kindred souls. Both people possessing an inner torment, and each fighting a future that has been seemingly predetermined. John seeing in Alma a woman who can save him from his inner demons, yet mostly content to admire her from afar. Alma meanwhile, seeks someone to show her the passion and beauty she has never experienced first-hand, but can only watch helplessly as John continuously fails to measure up to the man she wants him to be.

Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow in Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams at Classic Stage Company. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Williams' strongest plays deal with human nature, and Summer and Smoke is no exception. The story makes it clear that Alma and John are not so much in love as looking for a lifeline. Yet one can’t help but feel that should these two actually get together, it will end in tragedy. Each desperately seeking an idealized version of what they believe a happy existence should entail.

Ireland and Darrow are brilliant together, each deftly bringing their character’s pain vividly to life. Ireland is the standout, a woman simply worn out from coping with the stress at home and the pressure of who she’s supposed to be. Alma must also often deal with the latest news from the town gossips; John frequently the subject of their revelations.

Darrow is fine as John, the harder role to pull off. He having to present a totally cynical worldview, yet still make his character sympathetic to the audience. John can be best described as someone searching for, and hiding from, himself in any way possible.

The rest of the cast is quite good. Elless is fine as Nellie, a musical student with no talent whatsoever, but who eventually finds her own place in the scheme of things. Smith is okay, if a little stereotypical, as Reverend Winemiller. Walsh does an excellent job as Alma's tormented and hurtful mother. Someone who just may have a bit more sense of awareness than she lets on.

John Doyle’s direction is sure-handed, allowing the various characters, and particularly the two leads, to play off each other perfectly. He mixing in several pregnant pauses when the two are together, while helping to bring forth the inner feelings of each. Probably the most lasting impression of all is the air of defeat and resignation Alma and John often carry with them.

While this production has all the makings of a perfect offering, there is one glaring misstep. That being the quite minimalist (and almost non-existent) sets by Dane Laffrey. It’s a practice that can work in many instances, (such as CSC’s excellent revival of Pacific Overtures last summer), but not in this case. Summer and Smoke is set in a specific era and screams for the proper atmosphere. One projecting an aura of a faded Southern gentility in conflict with the changing times. Grounding the production thus would have made the work feel so much more immediate. Even the name of the town suggests a place slowly cracking under the weight of its own history; and just having a painting to indicate a statue, or making a reference to a veil which isn’t there, only serves to abruptly pull the audience out of a specific moment rather than immersing them in it.

Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are well done, especially the well-tailored suits Darrow wears. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting works nicely, as does Walter Trabach’s sound design. The latter often used in an attempt to counter the minuscule offerings of the set.

Summer and Smoke is a compelling tale of two lonely people. The CSC/Transport Group's production of which is quite good indeed. However, if it did not suffer from the problem mentioned above, the show could have been so much better.

Featuring: Glenna Brucken (Rosemary), Phillip Clark (Dr. John Buchanan, Sr.), Nathan Darrow (John Buchanan), Hannah Elless (Nellie Ewell), Elena Hurst (Rosa Gonzalez), Marin Ireland, (Alma Winemiller), Tina Johnson (Mrs. Bassett), Gerardo Rodriguez (Papa Gonzales), T. Ryder Smith (Reverend Winemiller), Ryan Spahn (Archie Kramer), Jonathan Spivey (Roger Doremus), Barbara Walsh (Mrs. Winemiller)

Summer and Smoke
By Tennessee Williams

Set Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Kathryn Rohe
Lighting Design: R. Lee Kennedy
Sound Design: Walter Trarbach
Original Music: Michael John LaChuisa
Casting: Nora Brennan Casting
Associate Director: Francesca James
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Production Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Assistant Stage Manager: Heather Englander

Directed by Jack Cummings III

Presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group
136 East 13th Street (CSC)
Tickets: 212-352-3101, 966-811-4111 or www.classicstage.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes one intermission
Closes: May 25, 2018