Sunday, May 19, 2019

High Button Shoes - Not Reaching Nearly High Enough

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Pretty much relegated to the dustbin of history, the Broadway musical High Button Shoes is mainly remembered by theatre lovers and historians for its “Bathing Beauty Ballet”. A classic piece of choreography by Jerome Robbins which opens act two. The show itself not seen on Broadway since its initial run 1947, where it notched an impressive string of 747 performances. Sadly, a recent revival by Encores! at New York City Center showed why this work is unlikely to again grace the stage anytime soon.

Set in 1913, High Button Shoes tells the story of perennial confidence man Harrison Floy (Michael Urie) and his partner/shill, Mr. Pontdue (Kevin Chamberlain). After several close brushes with the law, the two head for Harrison’s boyhood home of New Brunswick, New Jersey. Once there, Harrison passes himself off as a salesman extraordinaire, and re-ingratiates himself with the well-to-do Longstreet family - whom he used to work for years earlier. In short order, Harrison ensnares the entire town in a real estate scam. His plan being to fleece as many folks as possible before he and Pontdue hop a train out of town.

(L-R) Kevin Chamberlin and Michael Urie in the Encores! presentation of High Button Shoes
Photo by Joan Marcus

Harrison also finds himself part of a love triangle. He supposedly courting the very eligible and beautiful Fran Longstreet (Carla Duren); daughter of Sarah Longstreet (Betsey Wolfe). Fran however, is in love with Hubert Ogglethorpe, a.k.a. Oggle (Marc Koeck), a member of the Rutgers football team. Though Harrison’s promises of the bright lights of Paris soon threaten to sweep the unsuspecting Fran off her feet. It doesn’t hurt that Sarah is also firmly in Harrison’s corner. The elder Longstreet trusting Harrison on just about everything. A loyalty which soon stokes the fires of jealously in Sarah’s husband (Chester Gregory).

At the heart of High Button Shoes are several themes with a clear and simplistic moral tone. Such as a warning not to take advantage of others, even when it would be clearly quite lucrative to do so; and how true love will eventually win out. Yet while there certainly is potential in the material, in the Encores! production, it all pretty much falls flat. Stephen Longstreet’s book feels tired and clunky, with almost no character development, and precious little else to hold one’s interest. John Rando’s directorial efforts are also rather lackluster. Particularly in being unable to inject any element of nostalgia into the proceedings. Something one assumes was a big selling point to 1947 audiences. The sets by Allen Moyer and costumes by Ann Hould-Ward also never really rise above the mediocre.

The biggest problem of all is with the character of Harrison. While Urie has previously proven himself quite accomplished in both dramatic and comedic roles, in High Button Shoes, he seems completely out of his depth. He also channels Phil Slivers, as evident in the character's speech and movements. Silvers playing Harrison in the 1947 production. Unfortunately, none of Urie's efforts yield any of the roughish charm or caustic wit which might have made his interpretation at least somewhat appealing. His efforts instead coming off as annoying and vapid. Not a good thing when said character is at the center of the story.

                                        The High Button Shoes Ensemble.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Other characterization problems in the show include a complete lack of chemistry between Harrison, Fran and Oggle; as well as no explanation of why Sarah demonstrates a complete trust in Harrison from the very beginning. The latter issue running counter to the character's otherwise cautious and level-headed nature.

The music by Jule Styne is pleasant enough but unmemorable, as are the lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Not surprisingly, the highlight of this production are the different numbers which feature the Robbins choreography, as excellently staged here by Sarah O’Gleby.

Quite amusing indeed was the “Bathing Beauty Ballet” - a roughly 10-minute piece done in a frenetic Keystone Cops style. The sequence following Harrison, Pontdue and Fran as they descend on Atlantic City, only to be pursued by the police and some of the people from Longstreet. Though without the audience being given a chance to connect with the various characters, and thus start to care about them, the piece loses much of its charm. Far more effective was the gentle duet “I Still Get Jealous”, where Sara and her husband recall how much they still care for one another after many years of marriage. It must also be said that the Encores! Orchestra, under the very capable hands of music director and conductor Rob Berman, is never anything less than superb.

High Button Shoes may have been a hit once upon a time, but it needs a complete overhaul to make it anything more than a passing interest today. An interest which is forgotten almost as soon as the final curtain comes down.

Featuring: Michael Urie (Harrison Floy), Kevin Chamberlin (Mr. Pontdue), Matt Loehr (Uncle Willy), Chester Gregory (Papa Longstreet), Aidan Alberto (Stevie), Carla Duren (Fran), Betsy Wolfe (Sara Longstreet (Mama)), Marc Koeck (Oggle), Mylinda Hull (Nancy), Jennifer Allen (Shirley Simpkins), Wayne Pretlow (Elmer Simpkins).

Ensemble: Ward Billenisen, Sam Bolen, Colin Cunliffe, Nicholas Cunningham, Taeler Elyse Cyrus, Christine DiGallonardo, Michael Everett, Ta'Nika Gibson, Berklea Going, Marc A. Heitzman, Lea Horowitz, Cajai Fellows Johnson, Robin Masella, Skye Mattox, Kaitlin Mesh, Justin Packard, Nathan Andrew Riley, Blakely Slaybaugh, George Slotin, Madison Stratton, Shaun-Avery Williams

High Button Shoes
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Sammy Cahn
Book by Stephen Longstreet
Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins
"Bathing Beauty Ballet" and "I Still Get Jealous" choreographed by Jerome Robbins and staged by Sarah O'Gleby

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Philip Lang
Concert Adaptation: Jack Viertel
Production Stage Manager: Peter Lawrence
Casting: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, CSA, Justin Bohon, CSA
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Choreographed by Sarah O'Gleby
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed by John Rando

Encores! at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Performed: May 8-12, 2019

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus - A Missed Opportunity

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

No one involved in the theatre sets out to present a bad play; producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom notwithstanding. However sometimes one gets so enamored of what they're trying to say, the message of the show can become lost. Case in point, Taylor Mac’s glorious misfire that is Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, now running at the Booth Theatre on Broadway.

In ancient Rome, the years of war and bloodshed may finally be over, but the aftereffects are still being felt. The streets littered with the bodies of the dead. In an effort to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, hundreds of corpses have been moved out of public sight to a grand ballroom in a sumptuous hotel. Assigned to clean up the remains, a process which entails draining the bodies of blood and other internal matter, are Janice (Kristine Nielsen), a maid, and a second-rate clown named Gary (Nathan Lane).

                                  Nathan Lane in GARY. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Things do not start off well as the two get down to the gritty business at hand. Janice, a long-time veteran of this kind of process, is all business. She also knowing that they need to be finished by the next morning - the room scheduled to be the site of an elaborate inauguration. Gary meanwhile, is more interested in making jokes in regards to the carnage in front of them, as well as honking the horn he always carries. He is also delighted with himself for having escaped the hangman’s noose. This being the character’s fate in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Though in this case, some fast-talking and the need for people to assist in the clean-up process, helped to spare his life.

In the midst of taking care of the bodies, Gary suddenly makes a decision. He announcing he will no longer be simply a clown; a profession he's actually always hated. Rather, he will now be a fool. Specifically, a fool of Shakespearian ilk. One of those characters used by the Bard in his plays as an everyman voice of common sense. Gary believing that, with these attributes, he save the world and thus make things better for everyone. Or at least he can now get enough people to listen to him so they can help him to change things.

With Gary, Taylor Mac has come up with a satirical tale containing more than a hint of topicality. One showing hope rising from the ashes of despair, and where the seeds for a new society are sewn amidst the devastation caused by the present one. These possibilities leading to some heated discussions between the characters. As when Gary takes Janice to task for burying her head in the sand and ignoring what’s been going on around them, instead of trying to find some way to stop it. Janice coming right back at him saying how someone needs to be around to clean up after the battle is over – this being far from her first massacre. She also making clear that she has long understood how the world works, and how important it is for those who survive to make sure things return to normal. Even if the normalcy is only a cosmetic change, with the underlying problems remaining the same, no matter who's in charge. Adding another perspective is the midwife Carol (Julie White); a traumatized victim of what has occurred, who is desperately trying to find something important she has lost.

                          Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen in GARY_Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Gary is billed as “a new comedy” and there is certainly a lot of humor in the piece. More than 90% of it delivered by Lane - look for a funny bit regarding the position of the sun. At least some of which fulfills Mac’s purpose of getting the audience laugh at the most inopportune moments. Unfortunately, all too often, things devolve into half-hearted campiness, continual mugging, and the using of anatomically correct corpses as props. All of which gets very old, very fast.

When doing a so-called sequel, it’s also best to quickly establish any connection to the relevant source material, and then start building a new story from there. Past successful stage examples of this include A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter which also spotlights initially minor characters in a Shakespearian work.

Here however, the exposition takes the form of a far too-lengthy monologue by Lane. As well as frequents asides and references to the characters in Titus and what happened to them – all of which only serves to bog down the play with unneeded information. While one could argue that Titus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, it would have been far better if the show simply used any past events as a springboard to a new story, rather than repeatedly explaining what has come before.

There is also a problem with George C. Wolfe’s direction. The play at times feeling more aimless than engaging; with a story often wandering about in search of a through line. As a result, any message the play purports to have is buried in a sea of excess verbiage and eventually collapsing under its own weight.

The ironic thing is that beneath all the pontificating, one finds a powerful mortality tale with an important message to impart. However, as things stand now, Gary is basically a 30-minute masterwork trapped in a bloated exercise more than three times that length.

Featuring: Julie White (Carol), Nathan Lane (Gary), Kristine Nielsen (Janice.)

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
By Taylor Mac

Scenic Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Ann Roth
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Hair and Wig Design: Campbell Young Associates
Casting: Telsey & Company
Press Representative: DKC/O&M
Production Stage Manager: William Joseph Barnes
Company Manager: Jessica Fried
Production Manager: Aurora Productions
Associate Producer: Jillian Robbins
Movement by Bill Irwin
Original Music by Danny Elfman

The Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: One Hour, 40 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: August 4, 2019

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Lady in the Dark - An Enlightening Journey

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The one thing most people will tell you when it comes to dreams is that they often don't make sense. Either literally or chronologically. Different people from various aspects of one’s life coming together in ways not possible in the waking world, but making perfect sense in the context of the dream. As for what it all means, that's a matter for psychoanalytic study. It’s also the premise Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin used as a starting point for the 1941 Broadway musical Lady in the Dark. The original production running 467 performances, though it has rarely been revived in New York since. MasterVoices happily deciding to return the show to the Big Apple stage with a recent, and all-to-brief run at New York City’s Center.

Lady in the Dark tells the story of Liza Elliott (Victoria Clark). The hard driving, buttoned-down editor of the fashion magazine “Allure”. A well-regarded industry trendsetter in telling women what to wear, how to look and what to do in order to feel good about themselves. Always on top of her game, Liza is one of those folks who is married to her job. Something Charlie Johnson (Christopher Innvar), the publication's head of advertising, points out.

Lately however, Liza has been having some unsettling dreams. Ones she can recall in vivid detail. These episodes are starting to interfere with her work and causing her to begin to doubt her professional abilities. She is also unable to make up her mind about certain decisions - ones both work-related and personal. Her 10 year-relationship with the married Kendall Nesbitt (Ron Raines) about to change, now that his wife has finally agreed to give him a divorce.

        Victoria Clark and MasterVoices Company in the Circus Dream. Photo by Richard Termine.

At her wit’s end and with nowhere else to turn, Liza goes to see Dr. Brooks (Amy Irving), someone who specializes in psychoanalysis. A field Liza initially has little faith in; though at this point, she is willing to try anything. This turning out to be a wise decision on her part. For, as Liza begins to describe her dreams, ones where she is the center of attention, reveling in the adoration she receives from others, it is Dr. Brooks who points out how Liza’s dream persona is completely the opposite of how she is in real life. It’s through the descriptions of these dreams – ones which are acted out on stage – that Liza’s turmoil starts to become clear.

What the show's creators are saying with Lady in the Dark – the title itself an indication of how Clark’s character increasingly finds herself – is the importance of getting in touch with one’s feelings. The show also taking pains to point out how painful childhood memories can have a lasting effect on a person’s psyche. Even if the original cause of any such trauma may have been completely unintended. While the analysis sessions are rather oversimplified (something noted in the show program), all involved - including Christopher Hampton and Kim Kowalke, who worked on the script adaptation for this production - treat the subject matter with a genuine respect. They meaning to show Liza’s journey to be only the starting point for the work she has to do in order to continue to grow.

A brilliant move was to have all of the musical sequences take place only within the confines of the dreams. This allowing for the use of different motifs and styles without violating the overall premise of the story. Various members of the company performing different roles during these sequences. Roles which ranged from high society types at a nightclub to members of a circus troupe.

The score is enjoyable, if not altogether memorable. The two major exceptions to this being "The Tschaikowsky", a humorous ditty that's expertly delivered by David Pittu; and “The Saga of Jenny”, as brilliantly sung by Clark. The latter, a rather nonsensical song when one listens to the narrative, but one which works perfectly in the confines of the circus dream sequence. Offering excellent musical background work when required were the MasterVoices ensemble. The orchestra, conducted by MasterVoices Artistic Director Ted Sperling, ably helping to set the tone for the various sections; although the music and chorus voices did make it hard to hear the lyrics at points. Especially during the early portion of the story.

        Victoria Clark and Doug Varone Dancers in the Glamour Dream. Photo by Richard Termine.

Sperling also does a good job as the show's director, he nicely handling the character development and overall progression of the story. Particularly during the transitional moments when the tale shifts from dreams to reality. The appropriate actions exaggerated or toned down as required. Tracey Christensen's costumes are excellent, particularly the different outfits Clark wore in the dream sequences, as well as the garments used by the different characters in the circus section. Also very nicely done is Doug Varone's choreography - both with the slow, ballet-like numbers and the more energetic comedic pieces.

Clark shines throughout and offers a strong stage presence as Liza; whether trying to understand why her life is suddenly coming apart, or as part of a dream that may hold key to what ails her. Raines is nicely dependable in the pretty much thankless roles of Nesbitt. Pittu does an excellent comic turn as Russell Paxton, a staff photographer at the magazine, milking his lines for all they're worth. He also garnering laughs as a rather over the top circus ringmaster.

Innvar works well as Charlie, and makes a very good caustic foil for Liza. The chemistry clearly visible between the two characters, with each showing an underlying respect for the other. Ben Davis does quite well as Hollywood star Randy Curtis. A man who seemingly has it all, yet is perhaps in need of his own time on the couch. Irving does a good job is the subdued but pivotal role of Dr. Brooks.

Lady in the Dark offers a strong example of the Broadway musical coming of age and not afraid to tackle subjects outside the norm. The recent offering by MasterVoices proving to be, while not completely perfect, a fine offering indeed.

Featuring: Victoria Clark (Liza Elliott), Amy Irving (Dr. Brooks), Ashley Park (Miss Foster/Sutton), Montego Glover (Maggie Grant), David Pittu (Russell Paxton/Beekman/Ringmaster), Christopher Innvar (Charley Johnson/Marine), Ben Davis (Randy Curtis), Ron Raines (Kendall Nesbitt/Pierre), Ruby Sperling Waxman (Young Liza), Bradley Beakes (Ben), Emma Hart (Barbara).

Doug Varone Dancers: Courtney Barth, Hollis Bartlett, Bradley Beakes, Jake Bone, Whitney Dufrene, Madeline Irmen, DeQuan Lewis, Ashley Merker, Aya Wilson, Ryan Yamauchi.

Chamber Chorus: Miriam Baron (Mrs. Bennett), Colton Beach, Jennifer Bell (Liza’s Mother), Jessica Bobadilla, Nicole Coffaro, Takira Cross, Mark Filatov, Joan Harris (Guest), Nina Hennessey (Schoolteacher), Taylor Hopkins (Schoolboy Announcer), Laura Kroh, Luisa Lyons, Reina Muniz, Sheikh Muhtade, Cindy Ohanian-Aledjian, Mikhail Pontenila, Bob Reichstein (Guest), Edsel Romero (Liza’s Father), Jim Roume-les, John Sabatos (Charles), Ronny Viggiani, Erin Winchester.

Lady in the Dark
Music by Kurt Weill
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Moss Hart
Script Adaptation by Christopher Hart & Kim Kowalke
Ted Sperling, Conductor and Director
Doug Varone: Choreographer
Doug Fitch: Scenic Designer
Tracy Christensen: Costume Designer
James F. Ingalls: Lighting Designer
Scott Lehrer: Sound Designer
Dave Bova; Wig and Hair Designer

Performed at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Performed April 25-27, 2019