“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on SOUL DOCTOR, LET IT BE, FIRST DATE, LOVE’S LABOURS LOST, STORYVILLE, MURDER FOR TWO, STILL JEWISH AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, THE GREAT SOCIETY and HARBOR.

Used to be, the summer was pretty dead as far as theatrical activity went, particularly on Broadway; but that is starting to change. We have the fringe festivals and the NY Musical Festival livening things up, Off Broadway theatre companies such as Primary Stages are extending their seasons or starting them early (depending on how you look at it), and this summer we have had three new Broadway shows, Soul Doctor, Let it Be and First Date. Producers of these shows are betting that they‘ll stand a better chance opening now rather than playing the Tony Roulette in the spring. That remains to be seen.

Soul Doctor, at Circle in the Square, is a bio-musical about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who wrote and performed religious folk music in the 60s and 70s. I lived through that era, but I never heard of the guy. Robert S. Wise, who wrote the book and has directed the show, tells a compelling story, about a courageous artist who believed in the transformative power of music and tried to reach out to the rock and roll generation, at the risk of becoming a pariah in the orthodox Jewish world.

Wise takes considerable dramatic license with Carlebach’s life inventing, for instance, a mentorship and friendship with the jazz singer Nina Simone which, apparently, never happened. What carries the evening is Carlebach’s infectious music and the endearing performance of Eric Anderson as Our Hero. The audience the night I attended loved the show. I wonder, though, if it is going to be able to surmount the mostly snarky reviews to survive past the fall. We’ll see …

Let it Be, the Beatles simulation at the St. James Theatre, is this season‘s first casualty. It’s closing September 1, much before its previously announced closing as a “limited engagement.” It’s basically Rain with cast replacements. The performers are all terrific musicians (the guy who plays George stops the show with his astounding rendition of Eric Clapton’s guitar riff in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and expert Beatles impersonators; but if you saw Rain, why would you go and see Let it Be?

First Date, at the Longacre Theatre, is basically a rather lightweight musical about a couple on – you guessed it – a first date. He‘s an earnest fellow on his first date since his fiancée left him at the altar 14 months ago; she’s a rather catty woman with severe trust issues. An ensemble of 2 men and 2 women play various friends of the daters. She blows him off, but then gradually starts to give him another chance and, of course, they wind up happy-ending it.

The cast is terrific, particularly Zachary Levi as the male half of the date; but First Date just seems out of place on Broadway. Alas, there is no possibility of commercial success off Broadway anymore, so the producers are betting that a low weekly nut will give their show a shot. I doubt it. If you’re asked to pay Broadway prices, you want high-rent not low-rent.

Love’s Labours Lost has, alas, closed at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. This was a musical goof on Shakespeare’s comedy about 4 men who take a vow to abjure the world (including women) and spend three years in study. Of course, 4 hot women arrive on the scene, and the vow goes out the window. Alex Timbers adapted Shakespeare’s play and directed the show, and provided us with a lot of fun; and Michael Friedman‘s songs were hilarious pastiches of various pop rock styles (my fave was “I’m the One Who Wants To Be With You, a send up of boy band music). Loves Labours Lost deserves to resurface, but it probably won’t. Alas …

Storyville, the large cast musical York Theatre Co. has done in quite a while, has also closed. This was a show written by Ed Bullins (book) and Mildred Kayden (music and lyrics) at least 30 years ago, which only now has received its NYC premiere. The story of Storyville had to do with the old red light district in New Orleans and focuses on a young wannabe jazz musician and a lady of the night he falls for. It’s a rather conventional tale, and it’s easy to see why it never made it to Broadway, but Bullins’ book was well-constructed and several of Kayden’s tunes were quite catchy.

Murder for Two, at Second Stage Uptown (also closed), was a goofy two-actor musical with a book by Joe Kinosian and songs by Kellen Blair, wherein a young police officer arrives on the scene of the murder or a famous novelist. While he awaits the arrival of the detective in charge he takes matters into his own hands and begins interviewing suspects, all of whom are present, all of whom have good reason to kill the guy and all of whom are played by an energetic ham named Jeff Blumencranz. Both actors take turns at the onstage piano. Murder for Two, though ingenious and quite a vehicle for Blumencranz and Brett Ryback, who played the wannabe detective, but I felt it went on too long and wound up being Just Plain Silly.

Avi Hoffman’s Still Jewish After All These Years, at Stage 72 (formerly the Triad), is an energetic retrospective of Hoffman’s career wherein he recounts numerous breaks and bad breaks he had as he tried to surmount his rep in the business of show as only suitable for Jewish parts before moving to southern Florida. He sings songs from shows he was in, accompanied by an onstage pianist, and even throws in a Menasha Skulnik routine. Hoffman is charming and funny, and quite a good singer. He makes a convincing case that he should have become, if not a star then certainly a constant presence on New York stages.

Before the performance of The Great Society I attended, producer Albert Podell, a retired lawyer and sometime Broadway investor, announced from the stage of the Clurman Theatre that he had found this play by attending a reading of it, it is the best political play since A Man for All Seasons, and he was producing it as a showcase in order to iron out any kinks before taking it to Broadway. Alexander Harrington, who wrote the play, covers the length and breadth of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, in a little less than three hours, with 13 actors. The actors are excellent – particularly, Mitch Tebo who plays LBJ. Given the realities of production on Broadway, The Great Society stands no chance, even if Podell were able to come up with the money. 13 actors, no stars, almost 3 hours long; A Man for all Seasons wouldn’t stand a chance on today’s Broadway, either – even with a star of the stature of Paul Scofield. While I admire Podell’s championing of what is actually a really good play, gone are the days when a play like this could succeed on Broadway.

Finally, you can still catch Chad Beguelin’s excellent Harbor at 59 E 59, produced by Primary Stages, about a destitute mother of a teenaged daughter who arrives on the doorstep of the home her brother shares with his partner in Sag Harbor. She’s pregnant again, and she hopes her brother and his lover will take her baby. The actors are fabulous, under Mark Lamos’ touching direction. Erin Cummins, as the white trash mom and Alexis Molnar as her daughter will break your heart.

Don’t miss this one.

SOUL DOCTOR. Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
LET IT BE. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
FIRST DATE. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
LOVE LABOURS LOST. Delacorte Theatre. Alas, closed.
STORYVILLE, York Theatre Co. Alas, closed.
MURDER FOR TWO. McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Alas, closed.
TICKETS: 800-838-3006
THE GREAT SOCIETY. Clurman Theatre. Alas, closed.
HARBOR. Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.com.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

— George F. Will

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

— Theodore Roosevelt