“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 THE LAST SHIP, ON THE TOWN, LENNON: THOUGH A GLASS ONION, SIDE SHOW, ALLEGRO, MAJOR BARBARA, DISGRACED, STICKS AND BONES, THE REAL THING, INDIAN INK and the BIG APPLE CIRCUS.

The Last Ship, at the Neil Simon Theatre, has a score by the guy who calls himself “Sting,” and has, therefore been eagerly anticipated by fans of Mr. Sting’s music. The woman sitting next to me had travelled up from Virginia just to see the show. She loves Mr. Sting. She fell asleep about 20 minutes into the show and awoke periodically to applaud wildly after each song. Then, zzzzzz …

The Last Ship deals with the closing of a shipyard, and a conflict between two men over a woman. One of the guys went off to sea 15 years ago. Then he returns. He wants to start up with her again, but she’s involved with this other bloke, a former shipyard worked who has sold out and now works for the company which closed the yard. The workers decide to take over the yard and build one last ship, with the help of church funds provided to them by a supportive priest. Howsat? What are they going to build, a dinghy? Anyway, that’s basically the plot.

The attraction is, of course, Mr. Sting’s music, which is about the only thing the critics have praised about the show. The Ish, in the NY Times, says it’s the best score by a rocker ever. Well, no, Mr. Ish, that would be Chess, followed closely by Kinky Boots and Here Lies Love. I found the songs dull and somewhat repetitive, for the most part lacking in theatrical vitality. The visual look of the show is an eyesore, and the actors can carry a tune, but that’s about it. The choreography is negligible and Joe Mantello, the director, hasn’t come up with much to make the show interesting.

Far better is On the Town, at the Lyric Theatre. Unlike The Last Ship, this revival of the Bernstein/Comden/Green musical about three sailors ashore in the Big Apple for one day was not eagerly anticipated. The last time it was around, fifteen years ago or so, it flopped, even with good reviews. Well, it turns out this revival is hilarious, brilliantly staged by the king of comedy direction, John Rando, and with amazing choreography by Joshua Bergasse, who has resurrected the Agnes DeMillean dream ballet to music from Bernstein’s original ballet suites which inspired the show. I have never seen better dancing in a Broadway musical. The show is brimming with great bits of comic staging, and the performers are just wonderful, particularly Alyssha Umphree as that man-hungry taxi driver, Hildy, and Jackie Hoffman in a variety of roles.

I think this production is going to be a multiple award-winner in the spring. Don’t miss it.

I must confess, I had my doubts about Lennon: Through A Glass Onion, playing at the Union Square Theatre. It sounded to me to be exploitive of John Lennon and his music. Here’s what it is: John R. Waters, a lanky old guy with short hair, is Lennon – as he might have been had he lived. He talks about his life and then sings his songs, many of which are post-Beatles. I never had much appreciation for John’s songs after the Beatles broke up until now, as sung full-bore by this wonderful performer, accompanied on piano by Stewart Arrietta, who also contributes vocal harmonies. Waters does sound like Lennon, in spite of what you’ve heard; but that’s not the most important thing, which is that he embodies the man as he was and might have become.

Side Show, at the St. James Theatre, is a reconceived version of the Bill Russell (book) and Henry Krieger (music) musical (additional book material by the director, Bill Condon), which flopped the first time around even with, as I recall, pretty good reviews. It was felt at the time that the show was just too dark for the Broadway audience, with its ubiquitous side show freaks and, of course, the Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins who became vaudeville stars in the 1930s. This time around, it really connects. It remains to be seen if this will be enough to give it a substantial run.

The score is fabulous, and Condon has done a wonderful job of directing. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, as Our Heroines the Hilton Sisters, are very compelling, and Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik provide terrific support as the man who discovers them,  the man who teaches them how to be stars, and their love interests.

Go. For once, it’s not a rip-off of a movie. It’s a beautiful original story which will break your heart.

Allegro, at the Classic Stage Co., is also a reconceived version of an old musical, this one by Rodgers and Hammerstein which, like Side Show, was a financial flop the first time around (1947). Whereas, R & H’s first two shows, Oklahoma and Carousel, were based on plays, Allegro had an original plot and a structure which most have seemed confusingly experimental to the Broadway audience of its time, what with its allegorical depiction of the life of a man from his birth until he becomes a successful (but at what price?) doctor in his 30s and it’s Greek-style chorus. The original production had 78 performers and an orchestra of 35. This time around, director John Doyle has pared it down to 90 minutes, with 12 performers on a bare stage, some playing multiple roles, all of them playing musical instruments, Doyle’s signature staging, so there’s no separate orchestra.

Claybourne Elder is Joseph Taylor, Jr., the son of a small town doctor, who falls in love with a local girl, Jenny, who wants him to go into her father’s business so they won’t have to wait until he finishes medical school to get married. He does go to med school and then he’s faced with a choice: does he join his father’s practice and lead a modest middle class life or does he accept a position with a posh hospital in Chicago which will lead to wealth?

Doyle’s ensemble is uniformly strong. Elder is terrific as the young doctor, as is Elizabeth A. Davis as Jenny. You can’t take your eyes off her, and she sings and plays the violin beautifully.

Allegro had to wait 67 years for John Doyle to come along to be revealed as the masterpiece it is. It should move to Broadway but it probably won’t as Big Ben’s review wasn’t favorable enough. Don’t miss it.

Pearl Theatre Co., is presenting an adaptation (unacknowledged, of course) of Shaw’s Major Barbara, in partnership with the Gingold Theatrical Group, whose Artistic Director, David Staller is the director. Gingold is devoted to promoting Shaw’s plays, and Staller is something of a Shaw scholar. He should stick to scholarship. As a director, he’s clueless.

Staller has rearranged some of the text, starting the evening with a rant by Barbara to us, the audience, as various actors mill about making brief comments on what she‘s saying.

Then, the lights come up on a black lacquered unit set with gold trim, with staircases on each side of the stage, which looks like the Vestibule of Hell. There are various straight backed chairs positioned around this set. What this design concept means is anybody’s guess (if anyone would want to) but it has the effect of sucking all the humor out of the play like a Hoover sucks up dirt. I never saw a less funny production of a Shavian play.

The actors struggle valiantly. Two, Hannah Cabell as Barbara and Dan Daily as Undershaft, would have been terrific in a production of the play done by someone who knows what he’s doing. This Major Barbara has rocketed to the top of my Bomb of the Year list.

Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, has reopened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre. It’s about a lapsed Muslim attorney named Amir, married to an caucasian artist, who thinks he can escape his Muslim upbringing, even as his wife embraces Islamic art, which inspires her work. During a dinner party at which the guests are the wife’s dealer and his black wife (an attorney who works at Amir’s firm) the sparks fly and revelations surface, leading to violence.

This is one of the strongest Pulitzer-winners in recent years, superbly directed by Kimberley Senior and featuring terrific performances throughout, especially from Hari Dillon, as Amir. It’s a don’t-miss.

Simon Stephens Punk Rock, produced by MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is about English teens at a private (i.e., public) school. It’s about bullying and the inevitable violence which ensues. It’s very powerful, if you don’t mind the upsetting subject matter, and it’s brilliantly directed by Trip Cullman, whose failure, still, to get a Broadway shot continues to mystify me. Cullman’s ensemble is brilliant, with special kudus to Douglas Smith as an extremely troubled youth, Will Pullen as the scary bully and Noah Robbins as a science nerd.

Punk Rock rocks.

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to score a pair of tickets to the opening night of a revival playing at the Morosco Theatre, down the street from the hotel where my wife and I were staying, tourists on our first trip to New York. This turned out to be the famous revival of O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, directed by José Quintero and starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, which took a forgotten American classic and brought it back into our permanent national dramatic repertoire. Scott Elliott’s superb production of David Rabe’s Stick and Bones at the Signature Center, where the New Group is ensconced this season, gave me the same feeling as when I saw A Moon for the Misbegotten all those years ago; this is an American classic.

The original production transferred from the Public Theater to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award, and then disappeared from our consciousness even as the Vietnam War receded into unhappy memory. It couldn’t be more timely, dealing as it does with the homecoming of a wounded warrior. Rabe makes his American family archetypal by giving them the names of the characters in a famous sitcom. The mom and dad are Ozzie and Harriet, whose sons are David and Ricky. David returns from Vietnam blind and tormented, and Ozzie and Harriet are at their wits end trying to help him get back to being their David. Ricky, on the other hand, is pretty much oblivious, his constant companion a guitar which he plays from time to time. Even the family priest, in a nice turn by Richard Chamberlain, can’t do anything with the hostile and angry David.

Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter are phenomenal as Ozzie and Harriet, and Ben Schnetzer is scarily good as David. This is a great production of a great American play. Don’t miss it.

Roundabout has two Tom Stoppard plays on the boards – Indian Ink at their off Broadway space, the Laura Pels, and The Real Thing on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre. Indian Ink, which is receiving its New York premiere almost 20 years after it was first done in London, is beautifully-written and wonderfully staged by Carey Perloff. It takes place in two time frames, the 1930s and the 1980s. In the latter, a scholar is interviewing Eleanor, an elderly woman, about her sister Flora, a famous poet who died when she was a young woman. The scholar is editing a book of Flora’s letters, and he has many unanswered questions about various references in them. We then go back in time to the 1930’s, to India, where Flora has gone to try to recover her health. There, she meets am artist, who paints her picture. One of the unanswered questions pertains to him.

Romola Garai and Rosemary Harris are magnificent as Eleanor and Flora, and Firdous Bamji is touching as the artist.

This is a beautiful production of a beautiful play.

The Real Thing has gotten some rather negative reviews, which amazes me because this is a really fine production, directed by Sam Gold, of Stoppard’s classic about love and infidelity, featuring terrific performances by Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal. McGregor plays playwright Henry Boot and Gillenhal is Annie, first Henry’s lover and later his wife.

While I could have done without the sing-alongs Gold has inserted at the start of each act, overall his direction is first-rate. This one, like Indian Ink, is a don’t-miss.

The Big Apple Circus has pitched its tent in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park and it’s great fun. It’s got a Cirque de Soleil-esque meaningless title, “Matamorphosis,” which annoyed me a little bit, and there’s a clown who does a bunch of unfunny things, occasionally dragging members of the audience into the ring to do more unfunny things, but this is a minor quibble, as you can go out for more popcorn when he comes on. The acts, consisting of jugglers, contortionists, quick-change artists and a spectacular trapeze act, are amazing.

THE LAST SHIP. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

ON THE TOWN. Lyric Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000

LENNON: THROUGH A GLASS ONION. Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St.

TICKETS: 800-982-2787

SIDE SHOW. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

ALLEGRO. Classic  Stage Co. 136 E. 13th St.

TICKETS: 212-352-3101

MAJOR BARBARA. :Pearl Theatre Co., 555 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: 212-563-9261

DISGRACED. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

PUNK ROCK. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

TICKETS: 212-352-3101

STICKS AND BONES. The New Group at Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200

THE REAL THING. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300

INDIAN INK. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.

TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300

BIG APPLE CIRCUS. Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center

TICKETS: www.bigapplecircus.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