All Things Entertaining and Cultural
AS YOU LIKE IT, Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia, through Sunday, April 17 —Ultimately entertaining, Charles McMahon’s production of Shakespeare’s wise comedy is a hodge-podge that not only hits and misses between and during scenes but has high points and low points within individual performances. Diction and tone are the usual culprits when matters go awry. Dialogue is spoken fast and often with no sense of purpose or tone. I like Shakespeare to sound conversational, but even good performers such as Jake Blouch (Orlando) and Liz Filios (Rosalind) garble the wit and substance of the Bard’s thoughts on love, family politics, and the difference between bucolic and sophisticated life. The actors obviously understand all they are saying, but they often put speed and an air of naturalness above having their lines hit home as comedy, philosophy, or exposition. Pointedness is missing…and missed. Several performers seem to be on their own page rather than following a careful thematic plan that blends text and production style. J Hernandez manages to be autonomous in terms of ad libbling and giving trick voices to Touchstone while always keeping within the pace and purpose of a scene. His delivery, even when suited as much to character as to text, can serve as a model to castmates for clarity and how to keep all amusing while being informative and giving Shakespeare his due. Another model is Adam Altman, who plays three relatively minor characters (Oliver de Boys, LeBeau, and one of Duke Senior’s courtiers in Arden) and finds the right pitch and tone for all three in a way that stabilizes McMahon’s production when he joins a scene. Altman’s contribution is particularly important when he appears early and late in the play as Oliver. In opening scenes, he gives Blouch’s Orlando an auditor that sharpens his readings while answering Orlando in a way that establishes texture and builds intensity that was lacking when Orlando, before Oliver arrives, bewails his fate and position as the youngest son whose brother, keeper of their father’s estate by primogeniture, denies him his social and financial birthright. Also promoting constancy in McMahon’s “As You Like It” is Frank X, who incites you to share his humiliation and anger when Oliver refers to him as an “old dog” and does remarkable work as a listener and commentator as Jaques. X not only accentuates the poetry and supposed extemporaneity of the “Seven Ages of Man” sonnet but creates an atmosphere of intensity as he listen to both Orlando, whom he has berated for marring Arden’s pristine trees with doggerel, and Rosalind as they speak about love, worldliness and melancholy. X’s attentiveness makes the Lantern audience pay more attention. Meghan Winch makes an impression as the two country wenches, Audrey, the randy and ready woman Touchstone dabbles with, and Phebe, the scold who tortures the man who adores her and is smitten with Rosalind’s male counterfeit, Ganymede. In shows at Villanova and Hedgerow, Winch has shown her knack for keeping characters on a human scale while giving them appropriate and well-considered personality. This is a young actress to watch. Just as Chris Anthony is a young actor who should receive more roles such as the one he played in Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s “Two Noble Kinsmen” in 2013. He shows robust swagger as Charles the wrestler and a sweet, resigned ardor as Phebe’s abused suitor, Silvius. Ruby Wolf is among those who can be pedestrian one moment and impressive the next, especially in her fine collection of facial takes and physical reactions. Kirk Wendell Brown does best as the old shepherd, William. Without a solid core, this “As You Like It” does not play fluidly but in fits and starts. There’s enough cohesion for us to follow all of the activity and appreciate Shakespeare’s thoughts about romance and life choices; the leads, Blouch and Filios, are handsome enough even when they readings are muddy or rushed; and Hernandez, Winch, Altman, and X provide liveliness and consistency, but you can never settle into the production and relax with it as one piece. In the long run, the energy and spirit of the actors overcomes the choppiness of the staging. You also key into individual speeches when they don’t seem to be breaking records for words spoken per second. Grade: C+
THE MOUSETRAP, McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J., through Sunday, March 27 — Adam Immerwahr and a wonderful cast including Jessica Bedford and Richard Gallagher, make this piece that’s been running as long in London as Queen Elizabeth II alive with energy that denies the Agatha Christie classic’s age and makes a favorite old chestnut into something new and glorious. It would be hard to imagine a better, or more thoughtfully conceived staging of this play. Immerwahr keeps all suspenseful, and I mean edge-of-your-seat, I-know-who-did-it-and-I remain-nervous-and-enthralled suspenseful, while eking scads of legitimate laughs from the mystery and allowing characters to develop so they seem big and individual, yet everyday and authentic. This “Mousetrap” is a high theatrical achievement that is to be savored and will be remembered as a production that rejuvenates the old and shows why theater is such a remarkable art. In typical Christie style, a group of people arrive at an English country site, in this case a guest house opening to its first round of residents, on an occasion when exit is impossible (a blinding, road-closing snowstorm) and murder is planned, the murdered blending invisibly among the assembled. Immerwahr’s gift is making all seem so natural and nonchalant, even after a murder takes place and the murderer is easily associated with a killing in London. People who may seem extreme on the surface prove to be less bizarre as “The Mousetrap” proceeds, and each of the denizens of Monkswell Manor, the drawing room of which is beautifully and interestingly designed by Alexander Dodge, is a potential suspect and potential victim. Immerwahr has fun with Christie’s inspired notion to have a police detective (Gallagher) ski in to Monkswell to begin an investigation tying to the London murder. Just as characters talk excitedly about seeing a man with skis go by, Gallagher passes the drawing room windows the audience can see and gives a friendly, enthusiastic wave to the Monkswell guests also looking at him. Red herrings about, and Immerwahr and company make each of them count, and each of them fun. As with any smart production of a mystery, you look back at past scenes from the perspective of knowing what comes next and marvel at how well future incidents were foreshadowed or at least hinted at. Pace and personality add to Immerwahr’s staging. Time seems to glide by naturally. Tension always hovers over the Monkswell setting while characters attempt to be as routine as they can with a detective nosing about. None of Christie’s clues, or jokes, is missed. Even the description of the London culprit becomes funny beyond its desert in this excellent, cunningly crafted production that has so much seem mundane when nothing is mundane, and all is fraught with danger. Jessica Bedford is superb as the guest host owner who attempts to please her tenants, cook meals, and tend to the detective as she worries visibly about whom the murdered might be. Especially when clues make it clear the murderer might be looking for people involved in a specific incident from decades earlier.
Andy Phelan is fun as a sensitive guest who can be more openly gay, as Immerwahr chooses him to be, in 2016 than in 1952 when he would have had to remain more subdued and less flamboyant. Phelan is quite entertaining with his fey approach to his character, an architect who calls himself Christopher Wren. His performance contrasts well with Emily Young’s as a young woman who has recently returned to England after living on Majorca for more than a decade and displays definite Lesbian tendencies, especially when she gives the once-over to Bedford’s concierge in early scenes. Sandra Shipley is beyond excellent as a demanding, exacting, and meticulous former judge who criticizes Bedford’s character’s housekeeping and oversights as a first-time landlord and who has some disapproving words for everyone at Monkswell. Shipley is particularly good in the scene in which she discusses a judge’s habits and responsibilities. Her Mrs. Boyle is a woman of high British standards, complete with tweeds and a penchant for complaining and offering advice. Shipley is delicious in the role. Meanwhile, Adam Green, who has made a name playing antic roles in “The Figaro Plays” and “Baskerville,” is fine at being ordinary and serious as the easily irritated co-owner (with Bedford, his wife) of the guest home. Green, like Phelan and Thom Sesma as the mysterious and somewhat oily Paravicini, draw a lot of suspicion in their direction, and it’s wonderful to see how they are all drop clues and respond to the idea someone might believe they are guilty. Sesma makes Paravicini unreserved in every sense of the word. He delights as he teases Richard Gallagher’s skiing detective by practically laughing in his face every time he tries a new gambit for foiling the murderer. Gallagher is superb. In keeping with 1950s behavior and 21st century coolness, he never loses his calm, businesslike demeanor. He is witty as he goes about his police business, countering anything any suspect, i.e. all of the guests, can say and warning the Monkswell residents to take him and the possibility of being murdered seriously. Christie gives her detective , Sgt. Trotter, who bristles when one calls him “Inspector,” a gift for logic and for cutting through excuses and potential alibis. She also makes him direct about his pursuit. Gallagher gives a shrewd performance that doesn’t waste any of the gifts Christie, or Immerwahr, gives him and adds to the bounty with his own cunning. Graeme Malcolm, McCarter’s sturdy Scrooge for the past several seasons of “A Christmas Carol,” is solid and, once again, natural as a retired military officer who plans to settle at Monkswell, where he can find lodging 30 miles by train from London at seven pounds a week. Immerwahr excitingly satisfies all requirements in terms of mystery, suspense, comedy, entertainment, and plain old theater with this production. It defines what theater is about and how marvelous, amusing, and worthy is can be. He is abetted cleverly by Alexander Dodge whose drawing room walls converge towards upstage on both side so the parlor looks trapezoidal, whose ceiling with set with what looks like plaster, or cement, dreidels suspended without purpose from the ceiling and a marvelous window that is used so handily, and not only to witness Gallagher’s Trotter skiing to duty. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are equally appropriate, boyish flamboyant clothes for Wren, boyish tailored clothes for Young’s Miss Casewell, and perfect suits for the other men. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting can show the brightness of the home Bedford and Green are trying to advance as a guest residence while becoming ominous and threatening when necessary. Blackouts are particularly effective. Nick Kourtidas sound design also goes between the mundane and the portentous. Immerwahr’s production is a gem. Like Act II’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” it shows how a play that seems familiar and perhaps old-hat, can be vibrant, immediate, and oh so exhilarating. Grade: A+
NUREYEV’S EYES, Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street (by the Christina River), Wilmington, Del., through Sunday, March 20 — Michael Mastro’s production invigorates David Rush’s play so effectively, you almost don’t notice that each of Rush’s scenes have the same paradigm and general outcome. Part of the luster, and avoidance of tedium, comes from hearing artist Jamie Wyeth and danceur noble, Rudolf Nureyev, talk about their individual arts and the training that led each to greatness, Wyeth’s being loving and painstaking while Nureyev’s was strict, harsh, and mechanical. Part comes from the byplay between two deft and versatile performers, William Connell and Bill Dawes, each of whom makes a strong impression, and the imaginative way Mastro combines the crafts of set designer Alexis Distler and lighting designer Christopher J. Bailey to make some of Wyeth’s studies of Nureyev visible to the Delaware Theatre Company audience. (Eight or so actual paintings of Nureyev by Wyeth are hanging in the third floor gallery of the Wyeth-oriented Brandywine River Museum and worth the visit.) Rush contrasts artistic temperament with artistic patience, and the method of performing artist with that of a plastic artist, in a series of scenes in which Nureyev comes to sit for portraits Wyeth has been commissioned to paint, Nureyev always becoming peckish, taunting, and difficult while Wyeth delays his painting until he can capture the brilliant dancer in a way that will reflect what an audience sees when he performs. (Several of Wyeth’s works were completed after Nureyev’s death in 1993.) Both men reveal personal details of their lives but dwell more on the professional than on the personal side. Nureyev, for instance, brushingly refers to his famous defection from the Soviet Union in 1961 but talks a lot about wanting to be the ballet master of the New York City Ballet. Famous names are dropped, like Nureyev’s on-stage partner, Margot Fonteyn, off-stage partner and predecessor as the world’s most lauded dancer, Erik Bruhn, George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, and of course, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, and all Jamie’s aunts and uncles, primarily Carolyn Wyeth, who taught him to paint. The conversation remains interesting from several points of view, but it never soars, so Rush’s play engages and mildly enlightens more than it impresses. It nowhere near touches the nuance and texture of “Red,” John Logan’s play featuring Mark Rothko, recently at the Walnut Independence Studio. It’s too regular in its habits and takes it for granted the audience will be content with facts that don’t graduate into feelings or deep insights about anything. Rudi’s impulsiveness and daring is compared to Jamie’s care and reticence, but each shows the way art and artists are made. “Nureyev’s Eyes’s” best moments, the few when it leaves the diverting but pedestrian behind to do something special, are the instances when Dawes dances as Nureyev. It’s then, more than in any talking, parrying, or bonding, that excitement is found. Distler’s set in a fine representation of an artist’s studio with a moveable’s draftsman’s table, an easel, and loads of the cardboard on which Wyeth painted. (You can see the ribs in the board in one of the paintings at the Brandywine.) Esther Arroyo has fun dressing Rudi in the chic of the day while being smart enough to keep Wyeth in a plain blue work shirt and jeans. Grade: B-
THE SOUND OF MUSIC, National Tour at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, through Sunday, March 20 — Another in the “Mousetrap”-“Miss Daisy” category, a warhorse that has been brushed and festooned in ways that belie its age, familiarity, and expectation. The fear is always “The Sound of Music” will be sappy and forgo all of the elements that might give it texture to become a songfest featuring children. Jack O’Brien does not fall into that trap, no surprise to anyone who has seen his sterling work over the past 40 years, from the Houston Opera “Porgy and Bess” to Kevin Kline’s “Henry IV,” to “Hairspray.” O’Brien weaves the children neatly into a total show that gives proper attention to the 1938 Anschluss that is about to turn neutral Austria into a Third Reich annex, a move that involves the resistant, repulsed Captain von Trapp, and propels his family of seven children into world politics. Rather than go with the 1965 movie script so beloved to so many, O’Brien illuminates Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse’s original Broadway text, leaving songs where Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lindsay, and Crouse intended them and keeping “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive”” in place to vary and sophisticate the score. (O’Brien does choose “Something Good” in lieu of “An Ordinary Couple,” a good choice among two unusually mediocre compositions.) Because O’Brien has been all inclusive and careful about presenting all that is “The Sound of Music,” the Nazi threat informs the production from the beginning when Herr Zeller comes to inquire why the von Trapp home is not flying the red Swastika flag. O’Brien supplies entertainment with texture. The children become more important when they are integral participants in an entirely established world instead of being the center of it. They are welcome when they appear and unmissed when they are absent because significant matter, whether concerning politics or life lessons, is being shown on stage. O’Brien’s tone is serious while offering the sweep and diversion of musical theater. This is a marvelous “Sound of Music” because it provides all that has made this Rodgers and Hammerstein piece a favorite while endowing it with weight and texture. The touring cast helps markedly in this, especially Ben Davis, who is a pillar of rectitude as von Trapp but also a man who can relax in his home among his guests, learn to accept his children without resenting the death of their mother, respond with both surprise and good nature at his feelings for Maria, and deal with the Reich powers in a a forthright and resigned manner. Davis’s rich baritone voice enlivens and gives texture to every number in which he’s included, but the Captain’s is not primarily a singing role. It is the variety and excellence Davis displays as an actor that gives O’Brien’s ideas their core. This is a man of the world, an able commander and a person of principle. Also a person of charm. Davis is wonderful at showing how disciplined, poised, and gracious von Trapp is in all company, except for when he is initially with his children. He is a man of purpose who lets you see he is confronted with difficult times and difficult decisions. He is also a man on human scale who can become confused by his affections, for the two women who are part of his life and for his children who he, with Maria’s help, begins to see more and more as individuals throughout the production. The laendler Davis’s Georg does with Maria not only shows the perceptive, candid Brigitta is right about whom the Captain is in love but his attention to Kurt, who he cuts in on but is there to instruct before he, like Brigitta, realizes the result his tutelage will have. Davis is what the theater needs right now, a strong leading man who can brighten and give facets to musical after musical. He hearkens back to the Alfred Drakes and John Raitts and Richard Kileys that established musical theater as an American favorite. Of course, the focal character is “The Sound of Music,” is Maria. Hers is the star role that will forever be associated with the actress who played it so beautifully in the movie, Julie Andrews. Kerstin Anderson is a different kind of Maria. Her take on the role in just as legitimate and accurate, but Anderson emphasizes more of Maria’s youth and greenness. She is a competent yet awkward Maria who has common sense and a knack for diverting children but who obviously has not grown fully into her adult self. She is the “girl” Sister Margaretta sings about to her peers and the Reverend Mother. There’s a lack of assurance and absence of proper etiquette Anderson gives Maria that freshens the part. Anderson particularly comes alive when she sings. She has a thrilling, expressive voice that lets you know a lot about Maria every time it’s raised in song. While “thrilling voices” are the subject, it’s time to mention Melody Betts, who can affect you viscerally and emotionally as she uses her arresting and moving contralto to sing “Climb Every Mountain.” Betts’s voice more than makes us for her flat, unconvincing line readings as an actress. Just when I was wishing someone else had been cast in the role, someone who could sing and act with equal aplomb, such as Audra McDonald or Victoria Clark, Betts exploded any complaint I had by filling the Academy of Music with the sound Maria sings about in Hammerstein’s poetic title lyric and inspires one to follow that rainbow and get on with that dream. She truly blesses our hearts with her gripping sonority. It’s enough to make you religious. In supporting roles, reliable Merwin Foard comes through blazing again as a droll, opportunistic Max Detweiler while Teri Hansen conveys the CEO side of Elsa, a woman whose competence for once outweighs her elegance. Because O’Brien has put equal emphasis on the political side of “The Sound of Music,” characters that are barely noticed in most productions have more to do and must give fuller performances. Darren Matthias, as the von Trapp butler, is quite good as doing his job with efficiency and diplomacy while indicating his cooperation with or resignation towards the Reich sympathizers in Nürnberg. Donna Garner enhances the strong impression she made a few seasons back in “Once” by giving Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper, an integral part in the von Trapp household and O’Brien’s staging. Garner gives Schmidt an indifference about the Nazis. She does not seem as ardent as Franz and will go along with whatever happens for convenience, or until, as Max says, all blows over, while doing her job for the von Trapps. Garner’s is a clever performance with just enough nuance to give Frau Schmidt an interesting character while not impinging farther than the role could stand. All of the children in this touring production have merit. Two stand out, Quinn Erickson as Kurt, who is so intent on being a gentleman and who has a voice that impresses in ensemble, and Svea Elizabeth Johnson, who makes her mark as a pesky and wise Brigitta. Paige Silvester is lovely as Liesl. She and the estimable Dan Tracy make a nice change-of-pace motif of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” while O’Brien shrewdly has Maria walk past the cavorting Liesl and Rolf in a way that influences the governess’s relationship with the senior among the von Trapp children. Liesl’s romance with Rolf is played down to make room for other matters in this production. O’Brien’s choice on this point strengthens the overall production and impression of “The Sound of Music.” Douglas W. Schmidt’s set in alternatively gorgeous and utilitarian. The ubiquitous Alp in the background seems simultaneously treacherous and inviting. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are as expected, but she chose a particularly outlandish curtain pattern for the children’s playclothes. Natasha Katz’s lighting presents excellent contrast between the dark convent interior that has one stream of light coming through and the opulent patio with the view of the Alps on the von Trapp estate. Grade: A