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 BEAUTIFUL, LOVE AND INFORMATION, NOTHING ON EARTH CAN HOLD HOUDINI, HAND TO GOD, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF, CHARACTER MAN, STAGE KISS, THE TRIBUTE ARTIST, ODE TO JOY, ARLINGTON, MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT and LONDON WALL

Beautiful, at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, is about Carole King. Who is/was Carole King? Only one of the greatest pop songwriters of the 1960s. Those of you old enough to remember her songs will hear her Greatest Hits in this show, along with the Greatest Hits of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who are subsidiary characters here. Douglas McGrath’s fine book follows King from early success as a teenager through highs and lows of life and love, culminating in the success of her solo album “Tapestry,” an iconic album of the early 1970s, and her legendary concert at Carnegie Hall.

Jessie Mueller is giving a sensational performance as Carole King. She’s a Broadway belter, but here she manages to reproduce King’s distinctive voice without sounding annoying, much of the time accompanying herself superbly on the piano. Jake Epstein is fine as her tortured husband and songwriting partner, as are Jarrod Spektor and Anika Larsen as Mann and Weil.

Why should you care about songs and songwriters from 50 years ago? That is, if you’re not old enough to remember them when their songs were new, and when they were young? When I think of the junk that passes for pop music today, I weep. Here’s your chance to hear some great music from an era when great songs were about love, and hope, and had catchy melodies and orchestrations that didn’t sound machine-made. You can hear the greatness that once was American popular music at Beautiful, at Motown, at Jersey Boys at A Night With Janis Joplin and at After Midnight. There’s a reason why oldies stations thrive on FM radio. Here’s your chance to discover why.

Don’t miss Beautiful.

Caryl Churchill has a new “play,” Love and Information, produced by NY Theatre Workshop at the Minetta Lane Theatre. I put “play” in quotation marks because what it actually is a series of unrelated doodles, some only 3 or 4 lines long, some 3 or 4 minutes, 57 in all, lasting almost two hours sans intermission. The critics have gone nuts. I almost went nuts, in a different way, and could barely wait for it to be over. Other than that it’s a chance to see some really fine actors, Love and Information is eminently miss-able.

As is Nothing on Earth Can Stop Houdini, at the Axis Theatre, a to varying degrees incoherent play about Houdini’s obsession with exposing mediums as frauds, incoherently directed by Randall Sharp and featuring acting which ranges from the barely adequate to the execrable.

Much, much better, and one of the high points of this season, is Robert Askins’ Hand to God, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. I first saw this two years ago, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, where it was very successful. Thankfully, MCC has brought it back, and once again we get to see Stephen Boyer’s incredible performance as a teen named Jason in his Mom’s Christian puppetry workshop at her church whose puppet named Tyrone takes on a life is his/its own. Is Jason possessed or merely severely troubled; or, in fact, is Tyrone the Devil? Boyer is hilarious/scary in the dual roles of Jason and Tyrone, and Geneva Carr, as his harried Mom, is brilliant as well.

This one’s a definite don’t-miss. It may transfer for a commercial run, but maybe not so see it now just in case.

I haven’t read the novel The Bridges of Madison County, and never saw the movie, so the musical version at the Schoenfeld Theatre was, for me, like a new, original show. It’s the tale of an Italian war bride named Francesca who has wound up a farm wife in Iowa. While her husband and two teenaged kids are away at the state fair, she has a torrid affair with a photographer who has come to town to photograph the local picturesque covered bridges. He has to move on, of course, but the memory of this lost love haunts her for the rest of her life.

Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, assumes that anyone who lives in a nowhere place like Iowa , particularly if she is artistically inclined, must lead a life of quiet desperation, surrounded by narrow-minded people, so she doesn’t bother to dramatize this. What we see is a woman in a community of down-home friendly neighbors, with a kind, hardworking husband who loves her, who loses her mind over a handsome stud. I found this rather annoying.

Kelli O’Hare and Stephen Pasquale are the lovers, and both are fine, as is Hunter Foster as Francesca’s nice guy of a husband, but I found Jason Robert Brown’s score rather dull except for a few songs. The set is very bare bones, the kind you might see in a well-meaning community theatre production.

This one just didn’t grab me. Maybe it’s a guy thing – although the woman I was with wasn’t wild about it either.

I saw two one-man shows within the space of a few days – Satchmo at the Waldorf (at the Westside Theatre) and Character Man (at Urban Stages). I recommend both.

Satchmo at the Waldorf is about Louis Armstrong towards the end of his life, living and performing at the Waldorf Astoria before an audience of exclusively white people. Armstrong’s is a great story, well-told by playwright Terry Touchout. The great classical actor John Douglas Thompson is giving a phenomenal performance as Armstrong, occasionally his white manager and Miles Davis, who considers Armstrong to have become nothing but a clown. A great story, a great performance. What are you waiting for?

Character Man, written and performed by Jim Brochu, is an engaging trip down memory lane, an encomium to all the character men (and a few women) Brochu has known during the course of his career. His stories about the likes of David Burns, Jack Gilford, Jack Klugman and Zero Mostel are great stories, all about the great generosity of actors towards each other, though a little too often Brochu comes across as something of a hanger-on and name-dropper. No matter. He’s still delightful.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss, at Playwrights Horizons, is about an actress cast in a revival of a dreadful Broadway flop from the early 1930s. Why anyone would want to revive this turkey, and who, is never adequately explained. Jessica Hecht plays this artificial character artificially, an act I have seen one too many times. I have loved previous plays by Ruhl, but for me this one was a real misfire.

Primary Stages has extended Charles Busch’s hilarious The Tribute Artist, so you have until the end of the month. Busch plays a “celebrity impersonator” named Jimmy, down on his luck. He’s lost his job in Las Vegas and has come to NYC to lick his wounds and visit an eccentric old lady in whose townhouse he camps out whenever he’s in New York. She is an agoraphobic recluse. When she drops dead, Jimmy his friend, a brash but desperate real estate agent hatch a plan for Jimmy to impersonate the old bag in hopes of getting their hands on the house. Complications arise in the form of the appearance of the old lady’s niece who, the conspirators learn, actually inherits the house by the terms of the old lady’s husband’s will; and the appearance of a shady character who once was the old lady’s lover. He learns of the conspiracy and threatens to reveal all unless he gets a piece of the action. So this is one of those comedies wherein everybody is trying to con everybody else. It’s expertly constructed, if a little long, and well worth checking out. Great fun!

Craig Lucas’ Ode to Joy, produced by Rattlestick at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is a drama about the lover affair between an artist, played with quiet intensity by Kathryn Erbe, and a recently widowered cardiac surgeon (Arliss Howard). They meet in a bar, fall in love, and begin a downward spiral of alcohol and drug addiction. We follow them over the course of several years as they battle and finally break up, meeting again years later when both are in recovery. It’s strong stuff, and often rather over-written, but Lucas’ direction of his play is assured and Erbe and Howard are giving strong performances.

Vineyard Theatre has up and running a chamber opera by Polly Pen and Victor Lodato entitled Arlington, wherein a woman sings up a storm while she waits for her mother to come for a visit, and then is occasionally joined in the second half by her pianist, who becomes her husband, at war in the Middle East. The score is almost entirely comprised of recitative and is incredibly boring, even as well sung as it is by Alexandra Silber. Fortunately, the evening is blessedly brief.

Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night has been revived by Keen Co. at the Harold Clurman Theatre. It’s a drama about a middle aged Jewish clothing manufacturer who falls in love with his cute, blonde, gentile receptionist. He’s a lonely widower, she’s trapped in a frustrating marriage to a musician who doesn’t pay sufficient attention to her. Jonathan Silverstein has double cast all the roles but the two principals and has tried valiantly to make the play work in one set, an apartment, which functions as both her place and his. The concept doesn’t work, but fortunately there are fine performances, most notably by Jonathan Hadary as the manufacturer and Nicole Lowrance as his young lady love.

Finally, Mint Theatre has found another lost gem, London Wall ll live a life of wealth; but should she continue to wait for her boyfriend to get his act together?
Davis McCallum has directed a uniformly superb cast.

They don’t write ‘em like this anymore. Would that, occasionally at least, they did. The Mint Theatre’s productions are always worth checking out. This one is too.

BEAUTIFUL. Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
LOVE AND INFORMATION. Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane
TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 212-391-1239
NOTHING ON EARTH CAN HOLD HOUDINI. Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square
TICKETS: 212-391-1239
HAND TO GOD. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.
TICKETS: 212-352-3101
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
CHARACTER MAN. Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444
STAGE KISS. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral or 212-279-4200

THE TRIBUTE ARTIST. Primary Stages, 59 E 59
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral or 212-279-4200
ODE TO JOY. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.
TICKETS: 212-989-2020
ARLINGTON. Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St.
TICKETS: 212-353-0303
MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral or 212-279-4200
LONDON WALL. Mint Theatre, 311 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 866-811-4111 or www.minttheater.org

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

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