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Theatre Reviews

 

 

Derren Brown: Secret
 The Lucky One

 

Derren Brown, reviewed by Fern Siegel in travelersusanotebook.com

Why bother with endless FBI and Congressional investigations? Just call in Derren Brown. The British mentalist has an uncanny ability to determine if someone is telling the truth — and he’s big on the wow factor.

Early in “Derren Brown: Secret,” he admits to mining the “quirkier areas of psychology and the power of the perfectly placed lie.” He is skillful at illusion, but this isn’t traditional magic or sleight of hand.

What defines Brown is his dexterity and charm in mind reading. And he employs both to great effect.

Dapper in a brown three-piece suit — and later tie and tails — the polished, confident Brown is making his American debut off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theater. He nails his clairvoyance — and is so quick as a hypnotist — he keeps the audience in the palm of his hand.
By keeping his patter neatly paced, he takes us on a magical journey. But most unusual, he dismisses any psychic ability. Brown is not divulging his secrets, aside from the fact he’s a smooth entertainer.

One of the more memorable moments is his locked-box number, complete with a touching backstory. Another is the recreation of the oracle routine, made famous in the 1930s. He explains that several magicians who did the act went insane, which only builds excitement.

In short, it isn’t simply that Brown reveals audience thoughts or details — it’s the specificity that seduces the crowd. The script, written by Brown, Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor, both noted as directors, is smart, engaging and, at times, stunning.

"Secret" is a ticket to amazement that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.

Less amazing is “The Lucky One,” the 1924 play by A.A. Milne, revived by the Mint Theater and now at the Beckett on Theater Row. Most Americans know Milne as the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, but he also had a successful career as a playwright.

Here, the story addresses a well-to-do family and two sons. Gerald (Robert David Grant), a whiz in the Foreign Office and engaged to Pamela (Paton Ashbrook), and younger brother Bob (Ari Brand), drowning in an ill-suited financial career.

Throw in Tommy (Andrew Fallaize), a family friend, the kind of good-natured goof who populated P.G. Wodehouse’s Drone’s Club, and his equally ditzy girlfriend Letty (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw), and you get the picture.

The underlying thrust — that people aren’t always what they seem — is a solid premise. It’s also the ironic title; good cheer can hide a multitude of grievances. British men of a certain era specialized in hiding their emotional selves, so the dramatic revelation has to ring true.

A light touch can sustain a serious point, but there is a difference between light and slight. The second act is stronger, but the overall brittleness remains. That’s no fault of the cast, who uniformly delivers, including Cynthia Harris as the intuitive great-aunt.In this particular instance, however, slight trumps all. The breezy dialogue, reminiscent of the era, seems to upend Milne’s larger message.  —Fern Siegel

 

Bandstand, Anastasia

 The title suggests an homage to the swing era, but the new Broadway musical "Bandstand" at the Bernard Jacobs is more nuanced. It addresses the pain of returning WWII vets in 1945.

It underscores, much like "The Best Years Of Our Lives" film, that the public doesn’t fully comprehend what these men endured or the horrors they witnessed.

And that’s a worthy subject.

"Bandstand" is seemingly two stories: post-war realities and present-day necessities, wrapped in the seductive sounds of swing.

These former soldiers are also musicians eager to establish themselves. Led by Danny Novitski (a strong Corey Cott), whose ambition and upbeat attitude is a poster for can-do Americanism, he puts together a band of vets.

He also copes with his own demons, which force him to visit Julia (Laura Osnes), the widow of his best friend, who died in action in the Pacific. Indeed, each band member wrestles with emotional and physical wounds: Davy on bass (Brandon J. Ellis), Johnny on drums (Joe Carroll), Nick on trumpet (Alex Bender), Wayne on trombone (Geoff Packard) and Jimmy on sax (James Nathan Hopkins).

In our era, where veteran acknowledgement is relegated to a quick “thanks for your service,” the men of "Bandstand" are a stark reminder of harsher truths.

Eager to move forward, Danny has a single goal — propel his band to the top. Julia, who happens to be a nifty poet/lyricist with powerful singing chops, wants only to be left alone. This being a musical, they will join forces for some fantastic music, thanks to Broadway newcomers Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor, and electric dance numbers by director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who won the Tony for Hamilton.

In fact, "Bandstand" makes a strong argument for the healing power of music.
Osnos and Cott deliver appealing and engaging performances. The story is touching, but cutting 10-15 minutes would tighten the pace and excise some of the cheaper bits, like the play on Julia’s last name, Trojan.

There is a dark undertow here that could be a show all its own. But like the musicals of the Forties, the kinetic "Bandstand" ends on a high note.

"Anastasia" at the Broadhurst also pushes for a happy ending, but from a mythical plane. The Broadway musical is inspired by the 1997 animated film and the 1956 Hollywood movie. So suspend belief and make room for some exquisite projection designs from Aaron Rhyne and costumes from Linda Cho.

The often-sumptuous "Anastasia" is an eye-popper. The politics are another story.

The plot is well-known: The Bolsheviks slaughtered Czar Nicholas II’s family when seizing power in 1917. But because not all the bodies were recovered, a story arose — for decades — that young Anastasia escaped with the help of a sympathetic guard.

Fast-forward to 1927. A handsome street hustler Dmitry (Derek Klena) and aristocratic imposter Vlad (John Bolton) hatch a plan, common during the era. They will transform street urchin Anya (Christy Altomare) into Anastasia, the lost Romanov princess.
Once styled, they flee to Paris, hoping to convince the royal grandmother (Mary Beth Peil) that Anya is the real deal. That is, if they can escape Gleb (a nuanced Ramin Karimloo), the Bolshevik hot on Anya’s trail. The Soviets want to eradicate any reminder of imperial glory threatening their new order.

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens adapted their movie score to the stage. New pop melodies have been added to the Terrance McNally book, which mixes adventure and nostalgia in equal measure.

 

Altomare is excellent as the beautiful and independent Anya, a young girl surviving a tumultuous world. Klena and Bolton are ideal comrades in this romance/history tale slickly directed by Darko Tresnjak, who won a Tony for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

In fairness, however, imperial rule should not be heralded or mourned. One brief aside — the Czar left his people with nothing — is the only acknowledgement of Romanov brutality. Anastasia is a lovely musical that magically eliminates any White Russian unpleasantness, focusing on the assumed fraud — or is it? — of Anya’s identity.

The story, like the politics, is simplistic. But as fairy tale, the songs and entertaining performances click.

—Fern Siegel

War PaintWar Paint starring Ebersole and Lupone, reviewed by Fern Siegfel  


Beauty is serious business.

“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” decreed the remarkable Helena Rubinstein, played with elegance and moxie by the formidable Patti Lupone.

Rubinstein, who pioneered the science of beauty, as well as brand marketing, commands all eyes in the new Broadway musical War Paint, which details her rivalry with fellow cosmetics titan Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole).

While the premise might sound like a classy catfight, in truth, the rivalry fuels their competitive edge. Corporate espionage is child’s play to these two. They endure betrayals, social change, shifting demographics and loneliness with practiced élan.

In fairness, War Paint, now at the Nederlander, is more reportage than theatrics, biography rather than drama. The production is written by Doug Wright for two talented divas — each owns dual Tonys. So while the show lacks dramatic tension — it’s still a pleasure to watch these Broadway giants on stage, who refuse to refer to each other by name.

They are accompanied by the music/lyrics of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. (Frankel and Wright were Tony-nominated for Grey Gardens, with lyrics by Korie.)

Both women are self-creations — Arden is far more antiseptic and brittle, casual with her anti-Semitism and class snobbery. Of Estee Lauder, she sneers: “Esther from Queens!” Her pink packaging covers her world in gauze of hyper-femininity, but it can’t disguise the disquiet of WASP exclusion.

Conversely, Rubinstein, the first self-made female millionaire, is acutely aware of the anti-Jewish sentiment of New York’s upper-crust. A collector of modern art and a noted philanthropist, she escaped a dreary life in Kracow, Poland, to build an empire. Her business rival prefers racehorses.

(Madam C.J. Walker, who built a beauty and hair-care empire for African-American women, was credited with being wealthiest African American woman in the U.S. on her death in 1919.)

The play casually mentions Rubinstein’s study in Europe, but she studied with experts to learn about skin treatments and dietary practices. Proficient in herbal preparations, using lanolin in Australia, where she began her ascent, she parlayed that knowledge and clever marketing into “A Day of Beauty” at the Helena Rubinstein salons, which became popular worldwide.

Arden, real name Florence Graham, was credited with making makeup socially acceptable; she was noted for handing out red lipstick to suffragettes. (Previously, only actresses or prostitutes used it.)

Together, they dominated the beauty business. En route, they contend with oily Charles Revson (Erik Liberman), Arden’s husband Tommy (John Dossett) and Rubinstein’s associate Harry (Douglas Sills.) While the men are capricious, the women keep their eyes on the prize.

Zipping through a 30-year period from the 1930s to the 1960s, War Paint offers eye-popping costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lupone’s Rubinstein, who adored hats and big jewelry, is a standout every time she steps on stage. David Korin’s sets maintain a luxe edge.The versatile leads deliver the goods, replicating the rivalry and bitterness between the powerhouses with sass and sensibility. The chic War Paint proves beauty carries a high price — in all realms. But the joy is watching Lupone and Ebersole, representing such notable women, put their best face forward. 

 —Fern Siegel

Miss Saigon 

Miss Saigon review by Fern Siegel in travelersusanotebook.com

It’s back – and it’s as brassy as ever. 

The revival of Miss Saigon, now at the Broadway Theater, centers on prostitution and the exploitation of women to underscore its thematic concerns. War is hell — and women are often the eternal victims of political fallout. 

It’s been more than 16 years since Cameron Mackintosh’s Miss Saigon was in New York — and audiences who loved the operatic elements will be enticed anew by this production. And yes, its famed helicopter is a high point.  

The musical opens in Saigon in 1975, in the last days of the Vietnam War.  

Life is cheap. The American GIs treat women like dirt, as does the half-French, half-Vietnamese Engineer (an excellent Jon Jon Briones), who owns the nightclub patronized by the U.S. Army. Sleazy and violent, the Engineer caters to anything the young soldiers desire. 

Yet amid turmoil, Chris (Alistair Brammer) and Kim (Eva Noblezada) fall passionately in love. Their on-stage chemistry is explosive, an apt backdrop to underscore the insanity that engulfs them. That includes the ominous Thuy (Devin Ilaw), Kim’s cousin, who comes to Saigon to claim her. 

Despite the best-laid plans, Chris is forced to abandon Kim — setting in motion an onslaught of guilt, terror and violence that will haunt them both. 
This incarnation boasts a solid cast; they fully capture the heartbreak and horror of those caught in the crosshairs of war.  

Briones, who starred in the recent London revival, has nailed the oily, conniving hustler, notably in his big number “The American Dream,” while Noblezada’s debut is impressive. Bob Avian’s musical staging is raw and engaging, and the Boubil/Schonberg score remains as entertaining as ever.  —Fern Siegel 

 

Cirque du Soleil's Paramour

Cirque du Soleil's "paramour on Broadway, reviewed in travelersusanotebook.com by Fern Siegel

Paramour at the Lyric Theater is a departure for Cirque du Soleil: The acrobatic brilliance remains, but it’s coupled with the Broadway musical genre, set in Hollywood’s golden age.

The story is a love triangle — Hollywood director A.J. (Jeremy Kushnier) plucks Indigo (Ruby Lewis) from obscurity to turn her into a star. Her composer partner beau Joey (Ryan Vona), isn’t amused.

In between the predictable plot lines, the $25 million production offers inventive stage acts. At a speakeasy, waiters perform nifty turns. There’s always some Cirque-style business mixed with various scenes, like the stunning high-wire act from the Atherton twins. Most of the visual elements, coupled with an ample use of video projects, are dazzling.

Director-conceiver Philippe Decoufle keeps the action flowing, and every now and then, the stage performances and the romance connect. One of the best moments is the “Love Triangle,” where a trio of dancers recreate the emotional tug-of-war in mid-air. There’s even a comic-book-style finale chase scene that’s terrific to watch — and a bit reminiscent of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which also played the Lyric.

The twist, and the downside, is the story itself, which is banal. That doesn’t mean the show isn’t entertaining — or the leads don’t deliver. Just that as Broadway musicals go, it’s more Las Vegas than Great White Way.

-Fern Siegel  

Dead Poets Society

 "Dead Poets Society," rview by Fern Siegel in travelersusanotebook.com

It’s 1959 Eisenhower America, a fancy prep school in New England. The headmaster is smug, the kids range between privileged and awkward — and authority rules.

Then a small miracle happens.

English teacher Mr. Keating (a wonderful Jason Sudelkis) arrives, proof that words elevate and ideas can change the world. He reminds the boys to “gather ye rose-buds while ye may,” captivating them with the power and passion of poetry.

And suddenly, the spark ignites.

Dead Poets Society, now off-Broadway at CSC, is a beautifully rendered production, deftly directed with elegance — and without sentimentality — by John Doyle. The boys come alive — and despite their adolescent angst — discover beauty and depth.
Which sounds ideal — if their world wasn’t run by pompous, authoritarian figures. Culture and sensibility are anathema to them. And a clash is inevitable.

Keating pushes the boys to open their minds and hearts in an era when conformity and anti-intellectualism rule. Oscar winner Tom Schulman adapted his screenplay, and it has added resonance in such an intimate setting. We feel the boys’ longings, much as we absorb the larger ethos: That the humanities can enhance your life is a valuable message; one that seems critically importance today.
Doyle keeps his production lean, using books for desks and getting excellent performances from a strong ensemble cast that doesn’t miss a beat: Zane Pais, Thomas Mann, Cody Kostro, William Hochman, Yaron Lotan, Bubba Weiler, David Garrison, Stephen Barker Turner and Francesca Carpanini.

In Trump-era America, the play is a timely reminder of how dangerous rigidity and insensitivity can be. But Dead Poets Society is also a battle cry, encouraging us to embrace the words of Tennyson: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

-Fern Siegel