Film Review: “Kismet” on Blu-ray

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Watching Hollywood film adaptions of established Broadway classics can be an exasperating exercise in frustration and disappointment which often leaves lovers of the stage shaking their heads in dismay while muttering, “Well, they did it again.” I wish I could say my recent excursion through the new Blu-ray release of “Kismet” was the exception that proves the rule, but alas, no. What should have been a splendid film musical remains a mystifying example of how something so gorgeously ecstatic, bawdy, and thrilling on stage can become so ponderously deliberate and lifelessly pallid on screen. To be fair, there are moments, such as “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” and “Night of My Nights” where one gets a glimmer of what this film could have been. The former is ravishingly beautiful with Ann Blyth in fine voice and some exquisite cinematography enhancing the song while the latter bursts with an opulent explosion of pageantry worthy of director Vincente Minnelli, who seems to have inexplicably turned an indifferent eye toward the rest of this film.

Films historians tell us Minnelli never wanted anything to do with “Kismet” which he considered corny and witless, but in one of those behind closed doors Hollywood studio deals he reluctantly took on “Kismet” in exchange for a chance to direct the forthcoming Van Gogh biopic “Lust for Life” with a larger than usual budget, on-location shooting, and promises of unrestricted artistic freedom. Good for Minnelli, I suppose, but bad for lovers of “Kismet” which instead of being farcical and romantic became grim, heavy-handed, and listless. Even the presence of choreographer Jack Cole, on hand to reproduce his exotic dances from the Broadway and London productions, failed to inject any sophistication or humor into the proceedings.

The cast was mostly filled with MGM contract players and second bananas, good but by no means exceptional. Howard Keel received the plum role of The Poet/Hajj and, as usual, just played Howard Keel. Still, his scenes are at least never boring and his lustrous baritone is put to good use. Dolores Gray was ideally cast as Lalume, wife of the Wazir (who has her own romantic plans for Hajj), and she pretty much steals every voracious scene in which she appears. While her performance is treasurable and probably the best reason to endure the film, how I wish Minnelli had coaxed an earthier interpretation out of her. Her sex appeal is cautiously understated for my taste when she should absolutely scorch us from the first moment we see those gold painted gams. There’s nothing cautious about her singing though and she does wake things up by roaring through “Not Since Ninevah” and “Rhahadlakum.” Ann Blyth turns in a strangely tepid and prim Marsinah and spends most of the movie reminding us she’s the ingenue, so there’s lots of posturing, sighing and ladylike sobbing. Her rendition of “And This Is My Beloved” soars, but is robbed of much of its dramatic force by the removal of the vocal quartet which accompanies the song in the stage musical. If Miss Blyth seems a bit disinterested it’s probably because her love interest is Vic Damone, supremely miscast as the lovestruck (?) Caliph, looking uncomfortably stiff throughout and emanating about as much warmth as a cigar store Indian. Sebastian Cabot, yes Mr. French is in this too, plays the dimwitted Wazir with all the comic verve of a tree stump. I believe about halfway through the proceedings he might have been given a joke. It’s kind of hard to tell.

I think my greatest delight was discovering a heavily bronzed Jamie Farr playing a bit part as an orange vendor in an early scene. That nose remains unmistakable and sadly he is not wearing a dress.

So that’s “Kismet” on film: probably one of the weakest musicals to come from the Freed unit. Come for the score, enjoy the costumes, and be wowed by Dolores Gray, just don’t expect any magic, laughs, or romance. For that, we’ll have to wait for the next Broadway revival.

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Theater Review: “Heathers: The Musical” at New World Stages

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Whatever became of the original musical comedy? In a society plagued with ever decreasing attention spans and a fixation on the familiar, the genre seems to have joined the ranks of other once beloved theatrical formats like topical revue, social drama, or even operetta. Not surprisingly, we’ve seen an ever increasing number of film musical adaptions in recent seasons, and the 2013-2014 Broadway season certainly did not disappoint, providing a whopping five such titles. Even off-Broadway, where subscription audiences should allow for more creative breathing room, the squeeze to adapt the familiar is palpable and increasingly, authors feel the need to raid film libraries in search of appropriate titles to musicalize. I maintain there’s nothing inherently wrong in selecting films for musical adaption: they do after all, provide preexisting narrative structure and character arcs which can be a godsend for writers often flummoxed by the treachery of creating a musical from scratch. And if we’re honest, some of our greatest stage musicals have been adaptions of films (“My Fair Lady” and “The King and I” come immediately to mind, their credited source materials to the contrary notwithstanding). But naturally films are not musicals, anymore than books are screenplays, and the key to a successful creation lies in how the creators adapt and transform the material, not only for a different medium, but for a different audience (and sometimes a different generation).

So if film as a source of musicals can now be accepted as a theatrical given, I must confess that even I blinked twice last fall when I learned “Heathers” was headed for a presentation off-Broadway this spring at New World Stages. For those of you unfamiliar with the Daniel Waters film “Heathers,” it’s a 1989 ultra-black satire which served as a retort to all those sugary teen movies of the 70s and 80s (a kind of sinister apotheosis of “The Breakfast Club” or “Sixteen Candles” which paved the way for countless imitators like “Clueless” and “Mean Girls”). Without belaboring the complicated plot, the original story deals with the revenge killings of the beautiful ruling class elites of an Ohio high school which are made to appear as tragic teen suicides. This being high school and all, there are subsequent copycat suicide attempts along with healthy doses of sadistic bullying, teen sexuality, school shootings, homophobia, and even a climax in which one deranged psychopathic student attempts to blow up the entire school. The film famously tanked at the box office, although it later acquired cult status with the requisite following of diehard devotees. Still, this is not exactly breezy subject material for a musical, and in the aftermath of the Columbine and Newtown shooting tragedies, this might be material best consigned to the annals of film oddities. But as I’ve said, any source material is potentially good fodder for a musical. It all lies in the (ahem) execution. So exactly how good is the execution of “Heathers: The Musical”?

Well, it’s kind of a mixed bag. The true mark of any musical adaption is not what it retains from its source material, but what it adds. And with “Heathers: The Musical” the additions are often good. Authors Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe seem to have no problems with the first act where they provide plentiful laughs while mocking the mean girls, stupid jocks, and assorted caricatures wandering the halls of Westberg High School. Better yet they seem particularly adept at filling in many of the plot holes found in the source film. For instance, after a strong opening number “Beautiful,” the missing motivations for Veronica’s joining the mean girls (and for their taking her on) are cleverly illustrated; she’s an expert forger, you see, a technique that not only comes in handy for writing fake hall passes, but also sham suicide notes as the bodies pile up. Veronica’s culpability in those subsequent murders is also smartly diminished so we, while not exactly rooting for her, don’t entirely lose our empathy for her either. Even her deranged boyfriend J.D. is given a backstory so he has some dimension; in the film he’s little more than a charming psychopathic cypher oozing Christian Slater boyishness peppered with Jack Nicholson menace. Secondary characters who are left as mere dangling threads in the film are here neatly woven back into the plot providing a greater sense of coherence. And because it’s a musical, the song hooks are mostly carefully placed. For example, we get a very strong establishing song for J.D. (“Freeze Your Brain” — a song about much more than Slurpees), a beautiful second-act anthem for Veronica (“Seventeen”), and a bacchanalian party stomp (“Big Fun”) for the ensemble. As expected from O’Keefe, who wrote the music for “Bat Boy” and the highly underrated “Legally Blonde,” these songs are quite good, with smart lyrics occasionally pulled straight from the unique teen argot of the film. If they occasionally strain to sound young and hip, it’s forgivable. Writing compelling teen lingo is so formidable that screenwriter Daniel Waters created his own timelesslessly memorable idiom (just as Arthur Laurents did for “West Side Story”).

The troubles surface in the second act where the script additions prove less helpful. For instance, the playfully dark tone which made the first act such wicked fun oddly morphs into something decidedly more serious. Suddenly as the true motives of Veronica’s beau, J.D., become clearer, and the couple’s relationship intensifies, Murphy and O’Keefe ask that we also consider them, and their classmates — even the more despicable ones — as human beings. This effort is undercut, however, because the despicable murder victims keep returning as a sort of sarcastic Greek chorus of ghosts to sing, dance, and taunt Veronica for ending their lives before they could graduate, in effect bitching about graduation interruptus.  After all the snark and sharp black comedy, this shift into soft focus seems disingenuous. Newer numbers like “Lifeboat,” sung after a botched suicide attempt by one of the surviving Heathers and “Kindergarden Boyfriend,” sung by Martha, the school fat girl and victim of one of the evenings cruelest jokes, seem wholly out of place, almost as if they were written for a different musical. These are still wonderful songs, mind you, but completely out of synch with the gleeful bitchery and mayhem which proceeded them. I won’t reveal the specifics of the ending except to lament that the authors have soft pedaled it to such an extreme that even J.D. is redeemed. This perplexing discrepancy in tone rings false and seems like a dramatic betrayal to not only the source material, but also to all the events which lead to the disappointing anticlimax. As Veronica might say, “What’s the upchuck factor on that?”

So what went wrong? Columbine and Newtown, for starters. Those tragedies unfortunately place “Heathers: The Musical” in the unenviable position of, as Ben Brantley pointed out in his NY Times review, waxing “nostalgic for a more innocent time, when a plot about killing off high school royalty wasn’t quite so sick a sick joke.” I suspect if the authors had stuck to the bleakly satiric vision of the film, the musical would be much darker, much more satisfying, but ultimately much more risky. Unfortunately we all know which night of the week satire closes on.

The show is not helped in the least by the direction of Andy Fickman who seems positively terrified of the material and determined to soften its flinty edges with as much color and bounce as might befit an episode of “Up With People.” There’s simply no getting around the fact that, for a professional production, Mr. Fickman provides an ineptitude to challenge Hal Prince’s bumbling of the original “Merrily We Roll Along.” He simply does not know what to do with this material thematically and his management of stage traffic is deplorable. Actors lounge about in awkward clumps awaiting blackouts, then trudge offstage until the next group trudges on flinching under the incredibly unflattering lighting. Several of the song-staging concepts are so cheap they wouldn’t pass muster at the high school level — pen-lights, really? Shows can be done on the cheap while still exhibiting richness of thought and creativity. Unfortunately this show ends up looking bankrupt, both visually and artistically. How I wish Alex Timbers could have been given a crack at this material. I think he would have brought just the right balance of darkness and smartassery to make this material as savagely entertaining as it cries out to be.

Not that any of my concerns mattered to the audience with whom I saw the show. They hooted and cheered every song and movie reference as if their very lives (and social standing with the Heathers) depended on it. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Veronica’s angry response to Heather Chandler’s rant after Veronica vomited on her shoes: “Lick it up, baby. Lick it up.” And so they do, and how.

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Film Review: “Unfaithfully Yours”

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If you have a chance, do yourself a favor and screen “Unfaithfully Yours” (1948). It’s a terrific picture which combines many of my favorite things including symphonic music, screwball comedy, Preston Sturges, and Rex Harrison. It’s a sly film and really shouldn’t be funny at all, what with its cast of largely unsympathetic characters and revenge/murder fantasy sequences set to Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. And yet I find myself howling at the sheer ridiculousness of the plotting and the expertly executed physical comedy, almost balletic in its precision and complexity. The sight of Harrison sitting in a pile of rubble (created through his own exquisitely choreographed clumsiness) trying to operate a preposterously complicated recording device is one of the most joyously daffy scenes ever committed to film. The movie unfortunately tanked at the box office as Harrison became box office poison following the suicide of actress Carole Landis with whom he was having an affair. The scandal ended his contract with Fox and temporarily damaged his career, but he rebounded soon enough with that musical about the flower girl.

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A Theatrical Remembrance: “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Schoenfeld Theatre

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“The Bridges of Madison County” gives its final performance today at the Schoenfeld Theatre. I’m not in attendance, but I wish I were. I had the enormous privilege of catching this musical twice early in the run and while I’ve always been acutely aware of its flaws, I mourn the passing of this theatrical gem.

Broadway audiences usually adore the familiar. They eagerly flock to shows based on famous movie titles and television shows, especially if there’s a titillating star presence to  egg on the ticket sales. You’d think a title like “The Bridges of Madison County” would fit this bill handsomely: the 1992 novel by Robert James Waller was an enormously popular best seller and the 1995 film version did excellent business at the box office. Yet despite this popular pedigree, the Broadway “Bridges” fought a battle with public apathy beginning with under-attended previews, continuing through mixed reviews,  and culminating in today’s premature foundering in a sea of red ink. How could this have happened?

There are many possible explanations for the catastrophe, but familiarity in this case seems to have bred widespread contempt. There can be no denying the “eye rolling” factor associated with this title. The book was condemned by many critics as little more than a sentimental Hallmark card and the film incarnation, while a triumph in the annals of flawless Meryl Streep accents, was widely maligned as a syrupy, inconsequential weepy. And while the Broadway treatment is in many ways a vast improvement on the source material, this show may ultimately be remembered as an example of a title which kept a potential audience out of the theater.

I think another possible explanation for the failure of “Bridges” lies with the story itself. Simplicity is always touted as a virtue, but in the case of writing a Broadway romance, simplicity may just be the spice of death. To fill an evening of musical theater, love affairs must be complicated by plot twists or forced to overcome conflicts of class, ethnicity, or politics. Dollops of humor and colorful secondary characters often help to leaven the evening and make for engaging storytelling. The love story at the heart of “Bridges,” however, is about as simple as they come. An Iowa farm wife, left alone for four days while her husband and children are off at a state fair, meets a traveling photographer, there to take pictures of the area’s famed covered bridges. They fall in love and have an affair. She considers running off with him, but when her husband and family return, opts instead for her responsibilities as a wife and mother. End of fling. End of story. To their credit songwriter Jason Robert Brown and librettist Marsha Norman try to fill out the story in innumerable ways: each of the lovers is given a backstory (we learn about Robert Kincaid’s erstwhile wife and Francesca’s former life in Naples), Francesca’s family is given considerable stage time, and we meet some of the omnipresent, nosy Iowa community which not only adds interest, but implies discovery — thereby lending an element of danger to the affair. It’s all dramatically logical, if somewhat conventional, and yet manages to convey a sense of  theatrical stasis as the audience waits for something — anything — to happen. A brief fantasy episode in the second act provides a dizzying glimmer of how these out-of-story elements can actually supply urgency and pathos to a tale which has seemingly ended. It depicts Francesca’s final rejection of Robert — a trip to town with her husband and children, a glimpse of him across the square, a fantasized embrace and then a cold return to reality  — all in a surreal and beautiful staging by director Bartlett Sher. Would that “Bridges” displayed more of this kind of brilliant dramatic inspiration.

So if “The Bridges of Madison County” is a trifle overly familiar and perhaps too simplistic for its own theatrical good, then why is its passing such a crying shame? For that answer one need look no further than the soaring score and impeccable cast. Jason Robert Brown is one of a number of gifted post-Sondheim composers who has yet to truly make his mark on Broadway. His 1998 score for “Parade” was startlingly mature and emotionally gripping, but tied to an impossibly bleak story about the lynching of an innocent Jewish man in racially intolerant Atlanta. His score for “The Last Five Years” is widely admired, but has only been seen in off-Broadway stagings (although a film version is currently in the works). With “Bridges,” however, Mr. Brown provides Broadway with his most richly eclectic score to date, filled with soaring melody and heartfelt lyrics, at times grandly operatic and sometimes content to celebrate the simple pleasure of a country fiddle. This is music awash in lush radiance and richly complex harmony, yet always tuneful, accessible, and acutely aware of situation and character. Mr. Brown provides his own highly colorful orchestrations which are as impeccably fitting for this story as are his wonderful songs. From the throbbing cello obligato which opens the evening to the final simple piano triad, these are captivating charts — with mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, and rich strings — which not only provide ravishing sonic beauty, but also unify the stage action and add coherence to the evening. The instruments provide leitmotivs to remind us who these characters are and where they’re from (strings, classical piano, and a touch of accordion for Francesca, as befits her Italian heritage; lightly strumming guitars and mandolin for Robert to reflect his peripatetic lifestyle). This is top flight work from Mr. Brown which is deeply rewarding on repeated listenings. We can all be grateful there is a lovingly recorded cast recording which preserves the score and will ensure a future life for this opus.

As the lovers, Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale are a veritable Broadway dream team. The ages of both characters were lowered for this production, which caused some grumbling from purists, but the choice seems right because these younger characters could seemingly build a life for themselves and the stakes are thus raised. O’Hara may struggle a bit with her Italian accent and chestnut wig, but her characterization remains completely convincing and her flawlessly pure vocals once again prove she’s simply one of the best sopranos Broadway has ever known. Numbers like “To Build a Home” and “Almost Real” are virtual master classes in the art of acting a song:  impeccably sung, yes, but brimming with character and narrative. The fusion between Ms. O’Hara and  Francesca is startlingly complete and seamless; as an audience we feel her pain, her longing, her pride, and her vulnerability. To watch an actress disappear into a role is rewarding, but to witness an actress morph into a completely different, completely credible human is extraordinary and thrilling. It’s what makes theater magical, and brother, believe me when I tell you Ms. O’Hara is out-and-out, unalloyed, pure theatrical magic in this role. Mr. Pasquale makes an impressive Broadway debut as Robert Kincaid, bringing not only the masculine sensitivity the role demands,  but also an impressive set of singing pipes. All the women in the theater (and many men) fell completely in love with him, and who could blame them? I found his singing of “It All Fades Away” to be something of a personal revelation. The song’s climax makes use of vocalise, a technique in which the singer sustains an “ah” sound without articulating any words. It’s an operatic tool which is increasingly finding its way into theater writing (William Finn and Adam Guettel are inordinately fond of it). I’ve never really  understood the need for this modus on the Broadway stage, the traditional province of deft, intelligent lyricists who wouldn’t be caught dead giving in to the dramatic laziness of vocalise. But when Mr. Pasquale reaches the pinacle of “It All Fades Away” he emotes with such tortured intensity that the vocalise transforms into something far more affecting than a mere vocal technique: it becomes a mortifying howl of unspeakable pain and loss. There are truly no words to convey what this character is experiencing in that moment. It’s astonishing work from Jason Robert Brown and Mr. Pasquale alike (and how he ever sings it eight times a week I’ll never know).

And so I bid a fond farewell to “The Bridges of Madison County.” I know this is not the end, but only the beginning. I’ll be seeing you again in regional productions, college productions, and probably on a gymnasium floor some day in the future when one of my grandchildren is playing a role (or strumming a guitar in the pit). I look forward to that day, but like Francesca and Robert, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the love affair we shared at the Schoenfeld.

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Theater Review: “Of Mice And Men” at the Longacre Theatre

 

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I can think of no recent Broadway production which so sharply illustrates the perils of star casting than the current revival of “Of Mice and Men” currently gracing the stage of the Longacre Theatre. Conventional wisdom teaches that any revival of a play must employ a star performer, preferably a bankable Hollywood name, to ensure healthy box office receipts. And heaven knows we’ve had a parade of Hollywood stars trodding the boards in recent years providing audiences with a veritable Forrest Gump box of chocolates in which “you never know what you’re gonna get.” Sometimes we get the sublime: say Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman,” the excellent: say Bryan Cranston in “All the Way,” and then sometimes we get Katie Holmes in “Dead Accounts” or Fran Drescher In “Cinderella.”

Which brings me to “Of Mice and Men,” an iconic melodrama not seen on Broadway for 40 years, which features two bankable stars, James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. Of the pair I’d venture Franco is the bigger name and the one more likely to sell tickets and set the hearts of both genders aflutter. But is such casting good for the play?

In the case of O’Dowd, I’m pleased to report yes indeed. Who knew that the genial love interest from “Bridesmaids” could produce such a galvanizing Broadway debut? His Lennie is miracle of dramatic truth, filled with subtlety, nuance, and guileless charm. Portraying mentally disabled characters can be a tightrope walk between technical proficiency and bathos yet O’Dowd strikes just the appropriate balance between innocence and incipient menace. This is not a realistic portrayal of a mentally challenged adult, it’s a dramatic one – he’s a lumbering man-toddler filled simultaneously with childlike glee, rage, and yes, even sexuality. What? Lennie as a sexual being? Most assuredly. Watch O’Dowd carefully during his scene in the barn with Curley’s wife and you can see him dealing with far more than his desire to stroke something soft. It’s completely understated and played largely as subtext, but it gives O’Dowd’s performance an urgency and tragedy I’ve never seen in this role before. It’s a beautiful piece of acting.

Franco’s performance as George is more problematic. It’s the less showy of the two roles and actually the harder of the two to pull off because George must provide a credible connection between the two men, one that is not entirely evident in Steinbeck’s text. Why does George stay? We never quite find the answer in Franco’s understated and distracted performance. Don’t get me wrong, he’s actually pretty good and certainly does not embarrass himself, but he’s simply not on O’Dowd’s level and his George fails to discover the special chemistry with Lennie which is required for the piece to reach its full measure of tragedy and heartbreak. It does not help Franco that he is surrounded by a sterling supportive cast featuring stage stalwarts Jim Norton (richly moving as Candy) , Ron Cehas Jones (miserably wistful as the isolated Crooks), and Jim Parrack (about as easygoing and handsome a Slim as you’re likely to encounter). Only Leighton Meester (formerly of “Gossip Girl”) as Curley’s nameless wife seems miscast and completely at sea in her role as sexual provocateur.

I’d recommend the play to those who love Americana and Steinbeck. And to those who love their movie stars on Broadway. But please, everybody else? Go see it for Chris O’Dowd who’s providing about as fine an example of acting as you’re likely to see this season.

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Theater Review: “Irma La Douce” at Encores!

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I guess it’s time to come clean and admit I’ve become completely spoiled by New York’s “Encores! Great American Musicals In Concert” series. For season after season I’ve sat enthralled by great titles of the past put over in thrilling, ever more elaborate productions with nearly flawless casts, exhilarating production numbers, and full orchestras playing original orchestrations. As a spoiled theater goer I’ve somehow come to think such magic grows on trees and I foolishly expected each Encores! outing would only burnish the legacy of the shows which came before. Certainly this season’s “Little Me” and “The Most Happy Fella” kept me deliriously happy, but then along came “Irma La Douce” and the bubble burst.
There is nothing more painful in the theater than watching actors play comedy which falls completely flat on its face. The laughs don’t come, the hostility in the house grows, and the flop sweat appears. The tragedy is compounded when there’s abundant talent on the stage and the material should be working. So why has “Irma La Douce” become “Irma La Drab”? The lion’s share of the blame must fall to John Doyle, a director famous for his mirthless realism in serious musicals, but hardly a name one would associate with a frothy confection such as “Irma.” The verisimilitude Mr. Doyle attempts to graft onto the production proves deadly and not only quashes all the merrymaking, but also draws glaring attention to the ridiculousness of the libretto. There’s nothing wrong with a silly libretto, but what should be giddy, high spirited fun, comes across with stodgy earnestness. I mean how on earth does Mr Doyle think he is going to find the emotional veracity in the Penguin Ballet of Act 2? Worse yet, the absence of froth and caprice draws uncomfortable attention to the fact that Irma is a common whore, with the men of the cast traipsing relentlessly up and down the stairs to her boudoir. With the right staging such a heroine could be all innocent naughtiness, lighthearted even. In Doyle’s hands her story is grim, unseemly, and about as Gallic as an order of fries from MacDonalds. Who would love this tramp?
And that brings me to the second major reason this production doesn’t work: the tramp needs to be played by a first class, grade A, certifiable powerhouse star: a theatrical cyclone of gams and pulchritude whose dancing leaves men weak in the knees and promotes thoughts of abandoning home and hearth (or worse). The original “Irma La Douce” had such a secret weapon in the form of Elizabeth Seal and such was her appeal that she was able to snatch the 1961 Tony Award from the likes of Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, and Nancy Walker. Encores! features the very talented, up from the chorus (of “Matilda”) Jennifer Bowles and she gives a very competent performance, but what we need is magic and that is in very short supply in this most leaden of productions.What this show does have in its favor is leading man Rob McClure and it’s easy to see why Encores! asked him back after his triumph in “Where’s Charley?” several summers ago. McClure is a fine singing actor who excels at physical comedy (his “Chaplin” last season was superb) and practically oozes warmth and charm when on stage. How Mr Doyle must have been flummoxed by all that warmth. Alas, while McClure is quite good here, he’s overcompensating for the catastrophe swirling around him and he tends to overplay. Understandable and forgivable. Watch for him in “Honeymoon in Vegas” next season when he’ll finally be in the hit he deserves.
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Theater Review: “The Cripple of Inishmaan” at the Cort Theatre

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In thinking about my visit to Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” on Broadway this past weekend, I’m reminded that I’ve seen two award worthy Irish plays this season – the other being John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” – and while both plays deal with the well worn tropes of stage-Irishness, they couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone or spirit. “Mullingar” was a whimsically poetic love letter to Irish cliche and sentimentality, but “Cripple” is something altogether different: a darkly satiric and flinty depiction of an Irish cruelty spawned by unstinting poverty and unrelieved boredom.

The play is set in 1934 on Inishmaan, the least populated of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. The protagonist is Cripple Billy (beautifully played by Daniel Radcliffe in his third Broadway outing) a 17-year-old orphan whose left side has been mangled since birth and whose prospects consist of staring at cows and reading books while his two aunties, who have raised him since birth, worry endlessly about his future. Billy’s hopes are raised when he learns of an American film crew set to visit nearby Inishmore to film “Man of Aran.” The Americans are looking for authentic Irish characters for the film and Billy resourcefully conjures a forged letter from his doctor indicating he will be dead of tuberculosis in 3 months – this to gain sympathy and passage to Inishmore on the boat of babbyBobby who is rowing over several other film hopefuls. The lies build steadily from that point on and I won’t spoil the plot by elaborating further. Just realize these characters live to deceive one another.

The play is side-splittingly funny, laced as it is with McDonagh’s trademark gimlet-eyed humor and marvelously eccentric characters. The cast could hardly be bettered and the direction by Michael Grandage is top drawer. So why did I feel something was missing here? That’s easy, this production has no heart. McDonagh actually supplies one in his script, but it is subtextual and seems completely glossed over here. To find that heart, one would have to have seen the marvelous off-Broadway production presented in New York in 2008 by the Atlantic Theatre Company. In that incarnation, the relationship between Cripple Billy and the girl he secretly loves formed an emotional core for the play. That girl, slippyHelen, is a foulmouthed, egg tossing, hard edged tauntress who would just as soon mock Billy than go walking with him. Yet we knew she was an outcast in Inishmaan just a surely as Cripple Billy was and that bond humanized the proceedings and made the final image of Billy coughing blood into his hand ironically heartbreaking.

The current production is highly entertaining, beautifully realized, and contains some of the finest character acting you’ll see on a New York stage this season. By all means go and have a good laugh, just don’t expect to be moved.

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