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 GREASE, HOLIDAY INN, THE ENCOUNTER, MARIE AND ROSETTA, MAESTRO, ALL THE WAYS TO SAY I LOVE YOU and COMMUNION.

Cats is back, at the Neil Simon Theatre, in essentially the same production as the original, though a little scaled-down. I was curious as to how it would hold up after all these years. The answer is, very well.

Once again, Trevor Nunn’s production is superb, with stop-the-show turns by Tyler Hanes as the Rum Tum Tugger, Andy Huntington Jones and Shonica Gooden as Mongojerrie and Rumpleteazer and, especially, Ricky Ubeda as the magical Mr. Mistoffeles. I also enjoyed Quentin Earl Darrington and Christopher Gurr as those geezers, Old Deuteronomy and Gus the theatre cat (Gurr also has a nice turn as Bustopher Jones). British pop star Leona Lewis (Grizabella) has been criticized for, essentially, Not Being Betty Buckley, which I think is unfair. She plays Grizabella as far more decrepit than Buckley, practically collapsing before pulling herself to her feet for “Touch me,” which I found stunningly moving. Though she doesn’t quite match Buckley’s clarion powerhouse of a voice, she is after all playing a character who can barely move. At the end, which she ascends to the Heavyside Layer with Old Deuteronomy, she flies up into the wings as pure spirit, which is incredibly powerful.

What interested me the most about Cats, though, was that this time around it seems more than just about a bunch of cats singing and dancing at the Jellicle Ball. Themes of joy, terror and the transience of time emerge in a subtly moving way which is, I think, aside from the spectacular production, the real reason for the show’s timeless appeal.

Holiday Inn, at Studio 54, is a musicalization of the 1947 movie about a hoofer who decides to forsake show business for a farm in Connecticut. He’s about to lose it to foreclosure, so he decides to produce shows tailored for each holiday. He also falls in love with the woman whose family owned the farm for generations, who’s now a school marm.

This is being billed as “The New Irving Berlin Musical,” which it very much seems to be. One great Berlin song after another is inserted effortlessly into the book, by Gorden Greenberg and Chad Hodge. It’s a confectionary throwback to the Berlin era of Broadway musical comedy, cleverly and wittily constructed and wonderfully directed by Greenberg and choreographed by Denis Jones, with lovely, amusing costumes by Alejo Vietti which put me in mind of the best work of William Ivey Long.

As for the performances, they are all first rate. Bryce Pinkham, as the ex-hoofer, Jim, has an offbeat charm which takes us away from any memory of Bing Crosby, who played the role in the film, and Corbin Bleu, as his former dance partner, Ted, is terrific but nothing like Fred Astaire. Also wonderful are Lora Lee Gayer as Linda, the schoolmarm who joins Jim’s show and falls in love with him, Meghan Sikora as Lila, Jim’s ex fiancé and dance partner, and Megan Lawrence as the farm’s caretaker, Louise.

Holiday Inn is scheduled to run through January 15, but I would be surprised if it isn’t extended. It’s a thoroughly delightful old-fashioned musical comedy. Those who enjoy that kind of thing couldn’t do better.

The Encounter, at the John Golden Theatre, is one of the oddest, totally unique, pieces of theatre you will see (or hear) in your theatre-going lifetime. There is a pair of headphones on every seat. Before the story begins, you are instructed how to use them by the great British director Simon McBurney, who created the show and who is its lone performer. What commences is a harrowing tale, performed by McBurney, about a National Geographic photographer who becomes hopelessly lost in the Amazon jungle in pursuit of a primitive tribe called the Mayaruna. You hear the performance through your headphones, sometimes in front of you, sometimes beside you and sometimes in back of you. You feel as if you are immersed in the story with McBurney and his many characters in a way that the usual sort of “immersive theatre” can never do, because in that, you’re always apart, watching. It’s astounding. I turned my head around several times out of reflex, to see who was speaking, the illusion was that effective.

The Encounter runs about two hours, sans interval, as McBurney cavorts around the stage; but you’re never aware of time passing, you’re so totally engrossed in what you are hearing. Don’t miss this one.

I had never heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who, it turns out, practically invented rock ‘n roll, until I saw George Brant’s Marie and Rosetta at the Atlantic Theatre Co. We are in a funeral parlor in Mississippi, where Rosetta is staying along with a neophyte she has discovered and recruited to join her act named Marie Knight, there being no hotels for “coloreds.” The premise of the play is that Rosetta and Marie are rehearsing for a performance that evening. There’s a surprise twist ending which I found a little hard to buy, but until then what we get are one great gospel tune after another. Both women play a kick-ass piano, and then Rosetta pulls out her electric guitar, turning traditional gospel into rock, long before Chuck Berry sang of Johnny B. Goode and urged Beethoven to roll over.

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones rock out as Rosetta and Marie. This is a story that needed to be told.

I always enjoy going to 59 E 59, rarely more so than when I saw Maestro, a one-man play wherein Hershey Felder portrays Leonard Bernstein. Felder is a terrific pianist, and he even looks a little like Bernstein as he takes us from the maestro’s early years through his great successes as a composer and conductor, to his later years when he became a promiscuous gay man, even though he was married. It’s a compelling story and Felder tells it well. This is definitely a don’t-miss.

As is All the Ways to Say I Love You, a 50-minute monologue by Neil LaBute at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the always-wonderful Judith Light plays a high school teacher who tells us of her torrid love affair with a student. Why she is telling this now is never explained, but her story is a humdinger, bursting with female ecstasy. I was riveted.

I was, on the other hand, somewhat bored by Daniel MacIvor’s Communion at Urban Stages, although much of this was due to MacIvor’s exceedingly slow-paced direction, particularly in the first scene, which involves a distraught women and her therapist. Things get better in the second scene when we meet the women’s daughter, the source of her distress, and improve again in the final scene, wherein the daughter comes to the therapist after her mother’s death to ask for her help. The three actresses are fine, though – particularly Jackie Hansen as the daughter, who is the most interesting character in the play.

Communion didn’t grab me, but afterwards I talked to two women who were very moved by it. One just saw it for the second time. I have little patience for women venting about their feelings, a typical guy thing I guess.

 

CATS. Neil Simon Theatre, 252 W. 52nd St.

TICKETS: 800-653-8000

HOLIDAY INN. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

TICKETS: 212-719-1300

THE ENCOUNTER. John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

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

MARIE AND ROSETTA. Atlantic Theatre Co., 336 W. 20th St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

MAESTRO. 59 E 59, 59 E. 59th St.

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

ALL THE WAYS TO SAY I LOVE YOU. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

COMMUNION. Urban Stages. 259 W. 30th St.

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

 

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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