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 HERE LIES LOVE; MURDER BALLAD; NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812,
BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS, THESE HALCYON DAYS and THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE.

Here Lies Love, Murder Ballad and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, all of which opened Off Broadway this month, have something else in common: they are all “audience immersive” musicals; that is, there is little separation between the performers and the audience. You’re right there in the midst of them, as songs and dancing swirl all around you.

Here Lies Love, at the Public Theater, is about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, wife of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Director Alex Timbers has ripped out the seats in the Public’s LuEsther Mertz Theatre, which leaves a large room in which patrons stand, amongst platforms which are moved about by stagehands. It’s a brilliant concept, but only if you don’t mind standing for the 80 minutes the show runs. It also helps if you like to boogie. The score, by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, is one terrific song after another, performed by an energetic cast led by Ruthie Ann Miles as Imelda. This has become quite a hot ticket, but the Public has just extended it another month, so you may be able to get in.

The interior of the Union Square Theatre has also been ripped out to accommodate Murder Ballad, which has transferred there from Manhattan Theatre Club. A faux bar/restaurant has been created, with tables in what used to be the orchestra and seating on what used to be the stage. The story, a love/lust triangle, involves a rather callous young woman who marries a classic Nice Guy but who pines for the Bad Boy boyfriend she left behind. Like Here Lies Love, the show is through-sung, with a score by Juliana Nash and lyrics by Julia Jordan which is wonderful. All the performers are phenomenal, and director Trip Cullman once again has demonstrated why he is one of the finest directors of his generation.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is being performed in a venue in the meat packing district, where a large tent has been erected, containing a quasi-Russian nightclub, dubbed Kazino. The audience is seated at tables, and a modest Russian meal is served before and during the performance. Also though-sung, it’s based on a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace which, like Murder Ballad, has a love triangle, this one involving a young woman who’s supposed to marry an impoverished prince; but since he’s away fighting the French she takes up with a Bad Boy, an officer, instead. Composer/lyricist Dave Malloy has essentially musicalized a play, which means yes, it’s all sung, but mostly they are singing the dialogue, which I found wearisome. The singing is OK, but not close to that in Here Lies Love or Murder Ballad, and some of the acting is too broad.

As you can see, I have written about these three shows in order of preference.

Bunty Berman Presents is yet another new musical, produced by the New Group at the Acorn Theatre. It’s about a cheesy Bollywood director/producer whose production company is on the ropes. Bunty, an Indian version of Max Bialystock has made one flop after another. His only hope is a pact with the devil, in the form of a gangster who’s willing to fund Bunty’s studio, but only if he makes his son a star. So, we’ve got elements of The Producers here, as well as Bullets Over Broadway. The problem is, Ayub Khan Din’s book is broad and rather silly, and the songs he’s written with Paul Bogaev seem like generic Broadway show tunes of a bygone era. This could all be said of The Producers, I know, but that show had two great stars and Susan Stroman to direct them. Scott Elliott is a fine director of dramas, but he’s no Susan Stroman. Bunty Berman Presents isn’t terrible, but it just isn’t good enough; and, it caps off a very weak season for the New Group, lowlighted by my personal favorite for Bomb of the Year, Clive.

These Halcyon Days, at the Irish Arts Center, is a poignant two-hander by Deirdre Kinahan set in on the porch of an old folks’ home, sort of The Gin Game without the gin. Sean, a retired actor, sits around in a wheelchair in what seems to be terminal depression, until Patricia barges in. She’s a retired schoolteacher with a liver condition which requires constant care. She misses the life she once had. Sean doesn’t much miss acting, but he does miss his “partner” of many years, who has pretty much dumped him in the home and gone off to start a new relationship. Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan and superb, under David Horan’s sensitive and non-obtrusive direction. These Halcyon Days is funny and touching, even if you’re not of the demographic of the characters. After all – you will be one day, won’t you?

Finally, CSC has ended its season with an uneven production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, in a translation by James and Tania Stern with which I was unfamiliar. I only knew the Eric Bentley version, which seems to me superior to this one, and which includes Brecht’s lyrics (there are songs interspersed throughout). Here, lyrics by W.H. Auden have been substituted, set to music by Duncan Sheik, which is unremarkable but at least it’s not Kurt Weill.

The story, in case you don’t know the play, is about a peasant woman named Grusha who saves the infant son of an aristocrat murdered during a revolution. The bad guys want to kill the baby, too, so Grusha treks across the mountains and starts up a new life. For a while, she pretty much drops out of the play as Brecht takes up the story of Azdak, the tow n drunk and reprobate who finds himself appointed judge. The stories converge when the child’s mother, a callow aristocrat who only wants her child back because he has inherited his father’s money, shows up demanding justice, which Azdak dispenses with the circle of chalk.

Brian Kulick has staged the play as if it were being presented by a ragtag group of Russian actors, who enter babbling in Russian but then switch to English. They are all terrific, most playing several roles each. My fave was Elizabeth A. Davis as Grusha. My least fave was Christopher Lloyd, who is way too over the top (and, I think, way too old) as Azdak.

HERE LIES LOVE. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
TICKETS: 212-967-7555
MURDER BALLAD. Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St.
TICKETS: 800-982-2787
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812. Kazino, 13th St. @
Washington St.
TICKETS: www.kazinonyc.com
BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS. Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: 212-244-3380
THESE HALCYON DAYS. Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St.
TICKETS: 866-811-4111
THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE. Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 13th St.
TICKETS: 212-677-4210

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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