As long as the lady is paying…

In the last of three season-wrapping drama columns that appeared in The Wall Street Journal this week, I review the Broadway transfers of The Visit and Airline Highway Here’s an excerpt.

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the-visit-3_650Fourteen years after it was set to open on Broadway, “The Visit,” the final John Kander-Fred Ebb musical, has gotten there at last, extensively reworked along the way by Mr. Kander, the composer, and Terrence McNally, who wrote the book. (Ebb, who wrote the lyrics, died in 2004.) This production, previously seen last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, was worth the wait. Directed by John Doyle, the master of miniaturized musicals, and starring Chita Rivera, who made her Broadway debut 62 years ago and still has what it takes, “The Visit” is a cynical tragicomedy whose score is as gorgeous as its heart is hard. If that’s your cup of arsenic, you’ve come to the right apothecary.

Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play, “The Visit” is the story of Claire (Ms. Rivera), a rich old crone who pays a long-delayed visit to Brachen, her decaying home town, whose impoverished citizens need help and trust she’ll give it to them. And so she will—but only if they’ll be so kind as to first do her the favor of murdering Anton (Roger Rees), a well-liked shopkeeper who jilted her long ago and on whom she now means to have her revenge….

visit-chitaMr. Kander’s soaring, waltz-scented love songs are harmonized in an off-center manner subtly suggestive of dirty work at the crossroads. (Imagine a carton of cream that’s a day away from curdling and you’ll get the idea.) As for Ms. Rivera, who sounds like a cross between Hermione Gingold and Rex Harrison and is made up to resemble a walking mummy, she’s all too terrifyingly believable as Claire. When she assures Anton that “I’ve waited a lifetime for this moment,” you’ll feel your insides shriveling.

Mr. Rees, by contrast, is rather too ingratiating, and Mr. McNally’s jokey book softens the impact of the play. In addition, the Broadway version of “The Visit” has been cut down to 90 minutes, doubtless to render Dürrenmatt’s harsh parable even more accessible to Broadway audiences. As a result, the show is now too fast on its feet. (The good folk of Brachen shouldn’t take Claire’s bait that quickly.) But “The Visit” is horrifically potent in every other way…

It’s so uncommon for up-and-coming playwrights to make it to Broadway nowadays that Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway” is of interest for that reason alone. After its premiere last year by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, it has transferred to Broadway mostly intact, and Joe Mantello’s production, in which set designer Scott Pask has put a good-sized chunk of a seedy New Orleans motel onstage, is a young author’s dream.

I wish the play were as good, but it’s a wholly derivative piece of work that has been knocked together from refurbished spare theatrical parts. Ms. D’Amour might just as well have called it “The Hot L New Orleans, or, An Iceman Named Saroyan.” The formula is just that: We get to know a gaggle of beautiful losers who’ve ended up at the Humming Bird Motel, there to face their variously hopeless fates in the manner of—yes, you guessed it—a family. All are straight out of Central Casting…

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To read my complete review of The Visit, go here.

To read my complete review of Airline Highway, go here.

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The man who loved Shakespeare

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I write about Henry Folger, who amassed the collection that became the Folger Shakespeare Library, and about art collectors in general. Might they perhaps all be slightly loony? Here’s an excerpt.

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When I started buying fine-art prints, a critic told me, “You won’t be a real art collector until you own more pieces than you have room to hang.” Sure enough, there comes a point in the lives of many collectors when the urge to accumulate overwhelms the passion to appreciate. That’s what happened to Henry Folger, the founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library, whose passion for Shakespeare is chronicled in Andrea Mays’ “The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio,” which will be published in May by Simon & Schuster.

Folger was a self-made millionaire who in his youth became fascinated by Shakespeare’s plays. Working in tandem with his wife Emily, he started collecting early editions of Shakespeare’s writings in 1889, when he was still a salaried executive who didn’t make enough money to fling it around. But he spent lavishly anyway, and by the time he died in 1930, the Folgers had assembled a huge collection that included 79 copies of the “First Folio,” the earliest published edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and were building a museum to house it in Washington, D.C.

64a33b0ab883f31df8da10f0b25fbe07Even after Henry became rich, the Folgers lived simply in a rented Brooklyn house. Instead of trying to buy their way into society, they sank their money into the collection and, later, the building where it can now be viewed by the public. As a result, Ms. Mays writes, they were never able to fully appreciate their holdings: “Once Henry and Emily had stuffed the rooms and closets of their modest home full of Shakespeariana, they had to banish the bulk of their treasures to warehouses, perhaps never to be seen by them again.”

That’s a symptom of Collector’s Mania, one of the most mysterious diseases known to man. Its best-known victim was Charles Foster Kane, the fictional anti-hero of “Citizen Kane,” who amassed what the film describes as “a collection of everything so big it can never be catalogued or appraised, enough for 10 museums.” By the end of his life, Kane was buying sculptures without bothering to take them out of their shipping crates. Many real-life gilded-age American millionaires who collected art in bulk, like William Randolph Hearst (Kane’s model) and J.P. Morgan, did so in the same obsessive and puzzling way….

Absent the ulterior motives of personal glory or pecuniary profit, why would anyone who claims to love art buy expensive works of art, then put them in storage? What kind of love is that? The only good reason I can think of to buy a sculpture is to be able to look at it every day….

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Read the whole thing here.

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The doctor is out

In the second of three season-wrapping drama columns that will appear in The Wall Street Journal this week, I review two new musicals, Doctor Zhivago and Something Rotten! Here’s an excerpt.

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At least one of the musicals that I see on Broadway each season leaves me shaking my head and muttering “What were they thinking?” on the way out of the theater. “Doctor Zhivago,” which purports to be adapted from Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel of Russian life before and after the October Revolution but in fact appears to be based on David Lean’s 1965 film version of the book, is the worst kind of case in point. No doubt the creators thought it more respectable to claim direct descent from the book, but when you bill such a show as “one of the most romantic stories of all time,” you’re probably not much concerned with suggesting the tone and texture of a serious novel, least of all one that no less a critical heavyweight than Edmund Wilson declared to be “one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.” Not so the stage version of “Doctor Zhivago,” a slow-paced commodity musical suitable only for consumption by tone-deaf tweenagers.

Dr_Zhivago_3Even in its present etiolated form, “Doctor Zhivago” is a tale told on the grandest possible scale, the kind to which the word “epic” is for once correctly applied. Such stories demand full operatic treatment, or at the bare minimum a pseudo-operatic score à la “Les Misérables.” Lucy Simon, best known as Carly’s sister and for “The Secret Garden,” simply doesn’t have that kind of equipment in her musical toolbox. Maurice Jarré’s “Somewhere, My Love,” the whiny theme song from the movie, has been interpolated into the first act, presumably so that the audience will know what show it’s seeing, but the other tunes are by Ms. Simon, and they are generically gooey in a way that will appeal to anyone who finds Andrew Lloyd Webber challenging….

Worst of all, though, is Michael Weller’s book, in which “Doctor Zhivago” is rewritten in the action-packed manner of a Classics Illustrated comic….

“Something Rotten!” is a Mel Brooks-style Elizabethan-era backstage spoof in which Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James), a failed playwright, tries to get the drop on Will Shakespeare (Christian Borle) by paying a cracked soothsayer (Brad Oscar) to prophesy the Bard’s biggest unwritten success. Alas, the signals from the future are garbled, and the result is “Omelette: The Musical.” That’s not a bad premise for an old-fashioned variety-show sketch of the sort that Mr. Brooks used to write for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, but Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick have blown it up to two and a half hours by inserting 15 mostly comic songs, none of whose lyrics is sharp enough to penetrate its target…

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To read my complete review of Doctor Zhivago, go here.

To read my complete review of Something Rotten!, go here.

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

BROADWAY:
An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, most performances sold out, reviewed here)
Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, virtually all performances sold reviewed here)
Hand to God (black comedy, X, absolutely not for children or prudish adults, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
73Theater Review The King and IThe King and I (musical, G, perfect for children with well-developed attention spans, all performances sold out, reviewed here)
It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)
On the Twentieth Century (musical, G/PG-13, virtually all performances sold out, closes July 5, contains very mild sexual content, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, ideal for bright children, remounting of Broadway production, original production reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN BALTIMORE:
After the Revolution (drama, G/PG-13, unsuitable for children, closes May 17, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEKEND OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, closes May 3, reviewed here)
Hamilton (historical musical, PG-13, closes May 3, moves to Broadway Aug. 6, reviewed here)
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, PG-13, two different stagings of the same play performed by the same cast in rotating repertory, closes May 2, reviewed here)

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Bigger and better

In the first of three season-wrapping drama columns that will appear in The Wall Street Journal this week, I review the Broadway transfers of Fun Home and Living on Love. Here’s an excerpt.

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“Fun Home,” the Lisa Kron-Jeanine Tesori musical version of Alison Bechdel’s gripping 2006 “family tragicomic” about her uneasy relationship with her troubled father, has transferred to Broadway after a spectacularly and deservedly successful run at the Public Theater. Sam Gold, the director, has done a most impressive job of transforming a chamber musical into a Broadway-sized show—albeit one on the smallish side. It helps that he’s chosen to stage it in the round, thereby bringing the players even closer to the audience.

fun_home_0450_sydney_lucas__michael_cerveris_-_photo_credit_joan_marcus_custom-332bb70c8457a52bc7a2fd6bf72b821af3b2c4dd-s1100-c15All that said, “Fun Home” is still the same musical that I saw downtown in 2013. While the performances are bigger in scale and more emotionally intense, the show remains essentially untouched: It’s a sentimentalization of a book that was noteworthy for the chilly detachment with which Ms. Bechdel portrayed Bruce, her father (Michael Cerveris), a closeted gay small-town high-school teacher who runs a funeral home on the side. He becomes sexually involved with several of his male students, then kills himself by jumping in front of a truck shortly after his daughter (played at different ages by Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas and Emily Skeggs) tells him that she’s a lesbian….

I wanted more out of “Fun Home” when I first saw it, and I still do. If you haven’t read the book, though, you won’t know or regret what’s missing from the stage version: The songs are engaging, the production ideal, and the cast is even better on Broadway than it was downtown, with Mr. Cerveris and Judy Kuhn (who plays his long-suffering wife) once again outdoing themselves. Mr. Cerveris might just be the best musical-theater performer we have…

Renée Fleming, the star of “Living on Love,” is a world-famous opera singer who’s never acted in a play. Joe DiPietro, the author, is a musical-comedy specialist (he wrote the book for “Memphis”) who is new to straight plays. So is Kathleen Marshall, one of Broadway’s top director-choreographers (her last musical was “Nice Work if You Can Get It”). All three, in other words, are far out of their comfort zones—and it shows. “Living on Love,” Mr. DiPietro’s rewrite of “Peccadillo,” a 1985 play by Garson Kanin that never made it to New York, is a sentimental farce that might recall one of the lesser efforts of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were it not for one minor problem: It isn’t funny. Not even slightly so. Indeed, it’s so unfunny as to make the viewer despair of ever laughing again, much as a starving man might despair of ever eating again….

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To read my complete review of Fun Home, go here.

To read my complete review of Living on Love, go here.

A montage of scenes from the original 2013 Public Theater production of Fun Home:

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Snapshot: Bert Lahr and Ricardo Montalban in The Fantasticks

TV CAMERAA rare kinescope of an abridged TV adaptation of The Fantasticks, originally telecast on NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1964. The production was directed by George Schaefer and the cast includes John Davidson, Bert Lahr, Stanley Holloway, and Ricardo Montalban:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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In the open

I love my job, but I don’t much care for April, the last month of the Broadway season, when I have to spend nearly every night on the aisle seeing shows, some of them wonderful and others appalling beyond belief. The problem, though, is not the bad shows but the fact that I get so little time off. I don’t know about you, but there is an upper limit to the number of consecutive evenings I can spend on the town without starting to get a little bit weird, and I reached it…well, let’s just say a few days ago.

CDFI4khUgAA2HSVThus it was with much relief that I looked at my calendar yesterday and saw that I didn’t have to go anywhere until Tuesday. Nor did I, not even to the grocery store. To be sure, I had to get a fair amount of work done during the day, but it was finished by late afternoon, right around the time that the doorbell rang and a smiling UPS man presented me with a big cardboard box containing the signed copy of Romare Bearden’s “Pepper Jelly Lady” on which my wife and I had successfully bid a couple of weeks ago.

It happens that Mrs. T is up in Connecticut this week, having come to the not-unreasonable conclusion that I would be less than perfectly companionable until the theater season was over. She left me with firm instructions not to drive any nails into the walls of our apartment in her absence, but I decided to try hanging “Pepper Jelly Lady” in the spot in the dining room where Kenneth Noland’s “Circle I (II-3)” is normally to be found. Unlike the Noland, which is quiet and delicate almost to a fault, the Bearden all but explodes off the wall. It completely changes the balance of the apartment, to my mind for the better, though Mrs. T will, as always, make the final call.

CDFICedUgAA24KDBy the time the Bearden was hung, the sun had set and the streets of our neighborhood were foggy. I opened the living-room window so that I could feel the cool and humid air on my skin. Then I popped Matchbook, a 1974 album by Gary Burton and Ralph Towner, into the CD player and curled up on the nearby couch. The cool, tranquil sounds of vibraharp and acoustic guitar trickled into the room, and all at once Emily Webb’s anguished question from the last act of Our Town popped unexpectedly into my head. “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” I do, I thought with surprise. Right now, right this moment, I am present—and I am blessed.

My mind flicked over a few other shining hours from the recent past. I dismissed them, knowing that this was not a time for memories. Instead I let the beautiful music wash over me and looked at the beautiful art on the walls around me, and remembered to be grateful for the good fortune that lets me hear and see such things, and know them for what they are.

John Lukacs said it: “Out of what is darkness to our imperfect minds, for sixty or seventy or eighty years we are living in the light, in the open.” That was where I was last night: in the open.

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Ralph Towner and Gary Burton play Towner’s “Icarus”:

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