Bliss at Lincoln Center

In the second of my two Wall Street Journal drama columns for this week, I report on another pair of Broadway openings, The King and I and Finding Neverland. Here’s an excerpt.

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Point for point, “The King and I,” which has just been revived by Lincoln Center Theater for the first time on Broadway since 1998, is the most artistically successful of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. The book is intelligent and affecting, the score inspired, and Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the original production, which survives in its entirety, is as lovely today as it was in 1951. But “The King and I” presents any company that wants to revive it with three major problems. The palatial scenic requirements make it impossible to mount on the cheap, and Yul Brynner’s legendary star turn as the King of Siam, which was documented in the well-remembered 1956 screen version, is to this day oppressively familiar to all who dare to attempt his signature role.

No less problematic in our post-colonialist age of political correctness is the fact that Oscar Hammerstein II, impeccably liberal though he was, portrayed the King of Siam as a spoiled, willful man-child sorely in need of a stiff dose of the Western values that are spoon-fed to him by Anna, the British widow whom he imports to tutor his children. That premise, to put it mildly, is no longer in elite favor. How to make it go down smoothly?

Director Bartlett Sher’s solution to the second and third problems is to cast an Asian actor, Japan’s Ken Watanabe, in Brynner’s role while simultaneously underlining the show’s proto-feminist aspect. As for the first problem, Lincoln Center Theater has “solved” it by spending a barrel of money on this production, in which Michael Yeargan, the set designer, makes gloriously creative use of the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s deep thrust stage. The results are satisfying to the highest possible degree: I doubt I’ll see a better production of “The King and I” in my lifetime.

73Theater Review The King and IMr. Watanabe gets out from Brynner’s long shadow by giving a performance that is gleefully playful, regally commanding and wholly his own. His thick Japanese accent is something of a trial in “A Puzzlement,” but that’s the only thing slightly wrong with him, and Kelli O’Hara leaves nothing whatsoever to be desired as Anna. Firm but not priggish, touching but never sentimental, she stands up to Mr. Watanabe like a redwood to a tornado…

“Innocuous” isn’t the kind of adjective that a drama critic longs to use to describe a new musical, but there’s nothing better to be said for “Finding Neverland,” the stage version of the 2004 Johnny Depp-Kate Winslet film about the writing of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” Not only does James Graham’s too-tasteful book bleach all the strangeness out of the story of Barrie’s relationship with the children who inspired his 1904 play, but the Gary Barlow-Eliot Kennedy score is an endless string of skim-milk pop-rock anthems, and Matthew Morrison (lately of “Glee”) is insipid as Barrie….

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To read my complete review of The King and I, go here.

To read my complete review of Finding Neverland, go here.

A video montage of scenes from the Lincoln Center Theater revival of The King and I:

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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:
hand-to-god-300x199Hand to God (black comedy, X, absolutely not for children or prudish adults, many performances sold out, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, virtually all performances sold out, reviewed here)
It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, some performances sold out, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, many performances sold out, 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, nearly all performances sold out, closes July 5, contains very mild sexual content, reviewed here)

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

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

CLOSING SOON 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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Almanac: John P. Marquand on social climbers

INK BOTTLE“Dottie was always saying that she loved to entertain graciously, and by this she meant that she liked to do things with a sort of weight-throwing ostentation attributable to her simple beginnings.”

John P. Marquand, Melville Goodwin, USA

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Not since Robbins

The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra drama column today to report on two Broadway openings, An American in Paris and It Shoulda Been You. One’s a triumph, the other a clunker. Here’s an excerpt.

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BN-HT771_NYWHEE_P_20150407134924Christopher Wheeldon, the most prodigiously talented ballet choreographer of his generation, has followed in the giant footsteps of Jerome Robbins, his one-time mentor, by directing a Broadway show. “An American in Paris,” a new theatrical version of Gene Kelly’s Gershwin-themed 1951 screen musical, instantly catapults Mr. Wheeldon into the ranks of top-tier director-choreographers, by which I mean Robbins and Bob Fosse. It’s been years—decades, really—since I last saw production numbers that were infused with the kind of rich, sustained creativity that Mr. Wheeldon gives us throughout “An American in Paris.” This is what musical-comedy dance can look like when it’s made by a choreographer who knows how to do more than just stage a song. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know what you’ve been missing, and find it hard ever again to settle for less.

I should immediately add, though, that you needn’t know anything about ballet to fall for “An American in Paris,” any more than you have to be a dance critic to love the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. It’s a diamond-studded jukebox musical, a boy-meets-girl tale set to the songs of George Gershwin that has been designed to super-spectacular effect by Bob Crowley. Robert Fairchild, the New York City Ballet principal dancer who has been cast as Jerry Mulligan, the American artist played by Kelly in the film, is an unbelievable find, a virtuoso hoofer who also sings and acts with Kelly’s nonchalant flair….

paris-american-handout_custom-cf3625168523dea702c968e1ca1e79d537ea4bb5-s600-c85Craig Lucas’ book is a snout-to-tail rewrite of Alan Jay Lerner’s fluffy screenplay, to which Mr. Lucas has added a sometimes heavy-handed but mostly welcome touch of grit, resetting the show in the twilight world of collaborators and concealed Jews that was Paris in 1945. The heightened dramatic stakes of his new plot justify the heightened emotions of Mr. Wheeldon’s dance sequences, the most extraordinary of which is the climactic 13-minute title ballet. In an act of supreme imaginative daring, Mr. Wheeldon has turned Gershwin’s 1928 tone poem into a plotless neoclassical ballet in the style of George Balanchine—but one that doubles as a symbolic reenactment of the love story of Jerry and Lise. Not since “West Side Story” has dance been used to such overwhelming effect on Broadway….

“It Shoulda Been You” is a plastic statuette for the tourist trade, a nice-Jewish-girl-marries-nice-Catholic-boy musical farce that is by turns desperately unfunny and relentlessly preachy. Brian Hargrove’s been-there-done-that plot (Tyne Daly’s Jewish mom is a monster of tactlessness, Harriet Harris’ Catholic mom a boozehound) was already a cliché a half-century ago, and today its whiskery stereotypes are a millimeter away from being actively offensive. As for Barbara Anselmi’s music, it sounds like a medley of discarded theme songs from the pilots of failed ‘70s sitcoms….

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To read my complete review of An American in Paris, go here.

To read my complete review of It Shoulda Been You, go here.

The trailer for An American in Paris:

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Snapshot: Václav Talich conducts Dvořák

TV CAMERAVáclav Talich leads the Czech Philharmonic in a 1955 performance of Dvořák’s E Minor Slavonic Dance:

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

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Almanac: John P. Marquand on people in trouble

INK BOTTLE“There always came a time when you wearied of listening to the fallacies of self-justification because you learned finally the basic truth that no one in a jam was in a position to give you anything back. Such people were too busy with their own vagaries even for true gratitude. In the end they always did what they desired, and they might as well have done it from the first instead of making it a problem.”

John P. Marquand, Melville Goodwin, USA

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Welcome to the family

1981.174.2_1aI mentioned the other day that Mrs. T and I were thinking about adding a new piece to the Teachout Museum. After long and careful consideration, we decided to take the plunge and place a bid, and we are now the proud owners of a signed copy of “Pepper Jelly Lady,” a 1980 lithograph by Romare Bearden that is also part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Based on one of Bearden’s boldly colored cubist collages, “Pepper Jelly Lady” shows a West Indian woman selling homemade jelly in front of a walled estate. It was originally part of a portfolio of six prints by Bearden, Ansel Adams, Audrey Flack, Sam Francis, Robert Indiana, and Wayne Thiebaud that were created by the artists to be sold by the Democratic Committee Service Corporation to raise funds for Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential campaign. This particular lithograph exemplifies the Louis Armstrong-like optimism of Bearden’s work, in which the black experience in America is portrayed honestly but hopefully. “Even though you go through these terrible experiences, you come out feeling good,” he once said. “That’s what the blues say and that’s what I believe—life will prevail. That’s why I’ve gone back to the South and to jazz.”

artist_01_0One of Bearden’s most admired prints, “Pepper Jelly Lady” was chosen for inclusion in “A Graphic Odyssey: Romare Bearden as Printmaker,” a large-scale traveling exhibit of more than one hundred lithographs, monoprints, collagraphs, screenprints, and etchings that toured the United States in 1994 and 1995. Holland Cotter reviewed “A Graphic Odyssey” for The New York Times, and “Pepper Jelly Lady” figured in his review:

The show opens with prints based on Bearden’s childhood. In “Quilting Time”—whose composition Bearden used in a painting, a mosaic and a lithograph—two women bend over their sewing in a small house as a pink sunset sky glows outside the window. In “Pepper Jelly Lady” a figure in a dashingly patterned dress is framed by a wide border filled with drawings of Southern life: a plain wooden church, a porticoed mansion, a room with a potbellied stove….

Bearden considered himself an essentially American artist, and relished the ingredients in his own life that defined that odd collage of an identity: North Carolina and Paris; Melville and Billie Holiday; Buddhism and the Bible; Matisse and African masks. Although rarely a polemicist, he was alert to political realities. Artistically a traditionalist, his daring was to combine a wide range of traditions: traces of European, African, Asian and American cultures mingle in his prints like a rich perfume.

Mrs. T and I are delighted to be able to hang on our walls so beautiful a work by one of America’s greatest artists.

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Lookback: on getting a haircut

LOOKBACKFrom 2005:

I like Antonio’s, mostly because it reminds me of all the other barber shops I’ve visited regularly. Not the mall-type franchise stores that I patronized in college–I never liked those–but the ones in Smalltown, U.S.A., where I got my hair trimmed in the company of older men who chatted pleasantly about matters of no interest as the radio purred softly in the background. I found a place like that when I first moved to New York twenty years ago, and last year I found another one in my own neighborhood. You don’t hear much English at Antonio’s, just the soothing murmur of Spanish-language conversations whose subject matter is scarcely less intelligible to me than the talk of business and sports that I recall from my Smalltown days….

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: John P. Marquand on life during wartime

INK BOTTLE“It was no one’s fault that it was hard to keep memories of wives perpetually green in that extreme and changing environment, even with the aid of the photographs and love-gauges that one carried overseas. The European Theater of Operations was not a place where home ties fitted into a successful design for living. Memory interfered with work, and if you thought too much about past domesticity, you became a maladjusted burden. Instead it was advisable to think of home as a Never-Never Land, and of your present milieu as a region with drives and emotional values that no one at home could possibly comprehend It was just as well to believe that the things you did and said in this milieu into which you were thrust in order to keep your land safe and your loved ones secure, would have no effect whatsoever on what went on at home. Some day we would all get safely back to that Never-Never Land. Some might never return, but this would not be true of us as individuals. We would get bak, and this Great Adventure would be the tale of an idiot. If you did not have this philosophy, you would not be a useful soldier.”

John P. Marquand, Melville Goodwin, USA

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