Theater Reviews


 its parts.
—Fern Siegel



Belle Epoque  

As the lights come up, famed French painter Henri deToulouse-Lautrec (Mark Povinelli) prepares his glass of absinthe with ritualistic attention. What follows is a hallucinogenic tour of 1890s Montmartre brothels, cafés and the famed nightclub Moulin Rouge, familiar terrain from his legendary artwork.

          "Belle Epoque," now playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is directed by theater artist Martha Clarke and written by Charles L. Mee. It brings to life the well-known characters portrayed in Lautrec's art. Though "Belle Epoque" presents him as grotesque from birth, bios suggest his small size was due to broken legs in childhood that never properly healed.

          Clearly different from his peers, Lautrec found solace in the underworld of prostitutes and cabaret performers. In this production, the French artist spends all of his time drinking and whoring. Instead, it’s the characters made famous by his drawings and posters who come to life in movement and dance.

          Formulated as a tale of Lautrec’s inner torment and self-destructive debauchery, the piece begins with an afternoon hangover and ends with his nighttime syphilitic death. The delirium produced by the intoxicating absinthe is evoked by wild can-cans and novelty dance acts. Of particular note is the astonishingly sinuous movements of Valentin, known as “The Boneless" (Robert Besserer), and the joyous choreography for Chocolat (Tomi Cousin.)  The women, so lovingly portrayed in Lautrec’s posters, are not as singular. 

          When not dancing, they are on stage kissing or catfighting. A refreshing exception is the chanteuse Yvette (Joyce Castle), who delivers period lyrics with panache and wit. Her songs are a welcome reprieve from the stilted and sometimes ridiculous dialogue. The acting between Lautrec and his mother (Honora Fergusson) is awkward. Worst yet is Ruth Maleczech’s La Goulue, who delivers a bawdy song cataloging slang names for female genitalia as if understudying Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane."

          Since the choreography, inspired lighting design (Christopher Akerlind) and period music are so evocative, the pretentious dialogue is especially unfortunate. In the case of "Belle Epoque," a picture and well-delivered song) is worth a thousand words.  - Fern Siegel   


Pacific Overtures

The price of isolation can be costly. When Commodore Matthew Perry docked on the shores of Japan in 1853, it signaled a new era in Western imperialism — and a death knell for Japanese sovereignty. As Pacific Overtures, the Stephen Sondheim revival now playing at Studio 54 makes clear, nothing stands still forever.

Sondheim has neatly captured the tensions and terrors of cross-cultural meetings in Pacific Overtures, narrated by the Reciter (B.D.Wong. For 250 years, Japan has shut itself off from the rest of the world. Social life, the class system, the Emperor’s rule, are unchanged and unquestioned. Yet behind the serenity of uniformity, danger lurks. That Sondheim manages to make it both entertaining yet unnerving is a clever theatrical trick. Pacific Overtures is an uneven production, but it does capture your imagination.

In the opening song, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea,” a line describes the decorative set screens as “more beautiful than true.” Japan holds its own philosophy sacrosanct. But confronted by an enemy with a different belief system, its world crumbles like the bamboo used to construct their homes.

And therein lies the history of late 19th-century Japan: The Americans charge in with cannons and warships and the samurai, armed only with pride and swords, cannot compete. The result? An Open Door Policy in which France, England, Russia and the U.S. divide the spoils of Japan’s riches. The Japanese, in turn, defer to Western ways in speech, dress and manner — or risk annihilation.

The musical shifts between anonymous Japanese, the machinations of the shoguns and three key characters: A young samurai, Kayama (Michael k. Lee), his wife Tamate (Yoko Fumoto) and Manjiro (Paolo Montalban), a Japanese sailor who has returned from America to warn the royal court about the approaching dangers.  As the Reciter tells the tale, the cultural contact forces each strata of society to adjust, from the rebellious shoguns to the local prostitutes. Yet the Japanese aren’t as compliant as they appear.

The shogun accepts the inevitable for now; but once Japan masters the Western art of military might, he vows vengeance on America. That's the contagion of imperialism; he promises to do to the rest of Asia what has been done to Japan. And sadly, history records his success.

 There are moments of great emotional and intellectual power in Pacific Overtures, from the graceful dance of Tamate, bidding goodbye to her husband for the last time. Otherwise, the audiences emotional investment is nil.

There are, however, some clever numbers. “A Bowler Hat,” sung by the traditional samurai Kayama, details how a samurai becomes an American-styled businessman. Similarly, the number sung by a madam (Francis Jue) “Welcome to Kanagawa” is fun, but so campy it would make a drag queen blush. 

Still, the joys of classic Sondheim are priceless. In “Chrysanthemum Tea,” a brilliant song resplendent with internal rhymes and sassy humor, the bizarre Japanese response to the Americans goes something like this: If there is no Emperor for Commodore Perry to speak to, Japan will not be bothered. Therefore, rid ourselves of the Emperor and we rid ourselves of the problem.

The high priests might believe Western threats are an illusion, but the audience knows better. Similarly, if Sondheim writes clever lyrics, poor annunciation makes them impossible to hear, and the momentum is lost. Much like the rising sun, Japan will rise again. The last song, “Next” is its final vindication: The Japanese now own Sony Pictures, the Empire State Building, their cars outsell American models, the yen is stronger than the dollar. Who won the real battle for supremacy? That’s for historians to decide. When it comes to Pacific Overtures, Im reminded of another Sondheim song, “Putting It Together.” Here, the sets are skimpy, but costumes exquisite. The songs either clever or confusing. Sondheim put “Pacific Overtures” together with a book by John Weidman, but unfortunately, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts.
—Fern Siegel


The Good Body

Eve Ensler is as good as it gets-at least when it comes to social commentary about body image, sexuality and love. The author of the wildly successful Vagina Monologues continues her exploration of the body politic in The Good Body, now playing at the Booth Theater. Good, of course, is relative. Often, it’s just ammunition in the battle between the sexes.

As Ensler sadly notes, men largely control women’s notions of sexuality, what constitutes good bodies, even what defines goodness itself. Little wonder that Ensler, ever the iconoclast, sees it as her mission to debunk silly myths and champion women’s rights. The beauty part is that she does it with humor, sass and insight. Never preachy but always spot on, Ensler embodies various characters in a hilarious, whirlwind tour that chronicles the lengths women will go to achieve physical perfection.

photo by Joan Marcus

In one instance, she becomes a Puerto Rican woman at Weight Watchers explaining her culture’s love of backsides, but disdain for the dreaded "spread." Yet with a squat and a sneer, she is transformed into a tough lesbian who dubs piercing body empowerment. Grab a scarf and she’s a middle-aged wife getting a vagina tuck to give her lackluster husband an unexpected treat.

In fact, whether Ensler is enumerating the wacky happenings at Camp Esteem, better known as a "fat farm," or revealing a Brazilian beauty’s addiction to plastic surgery, her forte is comic pathos. She manages to capture her characters’ emotional g-spot, even as she surgically applies her wit to the society that torments them.

And she doesn’t spare herself.

Her distant mother, abusive father and personal physical obsessions explain her own body sensitivity, but they don’t limit her intellect. She understands that image tyranny attacks the beautiful as well as the bland. All are vulnerable to social expectations they cannot possibly meet. Yet Ensler’s genius is holding a mirror up to the world-and to us-to demonstrate just how wacky and out of control our slice-and-dice culture-not to mention our food mania has become. That’s not to suggest she advocates body indifference or ill health. Ensler appreciates aesthetics, not insanity.

Happily, The Good Body wraps its message in a theatrical evening that’s sophisticated rather than overbearing; confrontational without being scary. That’s thanks to Ensler’s considerable talent and versatility, the clever direction of Peter Askin and Robert Brill’s spare but streamlined set. While The Good Body is a huge draw for women, it should be required viewing for all men. –Fern Siegel


’night, Mother


 Edie Falco’s name is the commercial draw, but the night belongs to Brenda Blethyn. Such is the shattering power of ’night, Mother, it will haunt audiences long after they leave the theater.

Now playing at the Royale, Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama still resonates. Time has not dulled its pathos, nor blunted its gut-wrenching sadness. An intimate, two-person dialogue between a mother, Thelma (Brenda Blethyn) and daughter Jessie (Edie Falco) takes place in a drab living room, on a Saturday night, in an ordinary town. But the anger and the unhappiness are extraordinary. ’night, Mother lays out its plot within minutes, but its message transcends time and space.

Its gigantic themes--the futility of life, the parent/child disconnect, the tragedy of family pathology, the power of shame -- are rendered in 90 uninterrupted minutes. The play is straightforward, and its honesty is disarming: Jessie is tired of life. She’s epileptic, her son is a criminal, her husband has left her. Unable to work, lonely and friendless, she decides to take charge of the one thing she can control: death. So she blithely announces to her mother, as she fills candy dishes and rattles off a list of household concerns, that once she bids her goodnight, she will commit suicide. Thelma is at first disbelieving, then shocked, then angry. Can she convince Jessie to change her mind?

God knows she tries, listing endless reasons why life is worth living, while Jessie counters her argument in a point-counterpoint fashion that is positively riveting. Amazingly, there is humor and even light moments. But neither woman can escape the inescapable truth: Life is for the living. Without any connections, however tenuous, we cannot lay claim to it.

“If I could find one thing to like, I’d change my mind,” Jessie announces. “If I liked rice pudding, that would be enough.”

 “Rice pudding is good,” agrees Thelma. Alas, neither the sensual pleasures of food, nor a mother’s love, however uneven, can sustain Jessie.

 And therein lays Thelma’s dilemma: How can she convince her daughter to wait out the bad times until good ones appear? After all, Thelma’s life has been a series of disappoints strung together. Her husband, her friends, her children, none have the power to exalt her. Yet she tenaciously refused to give up. Which is why, for all Falco’s talent, which is considerable, her performance is less modulated and in the end, less sympathetic, than Blethyn’s astounding portrayal. Falco withholds; Blethyn inhabits this lower-class woman fighting like a tiger for her cub.  

 Which is why, as badly as we feel for Jessie, our sympathies lay with her mother. She will be left to cope: with Jessie’s anger and her own sense of helplessness. And that’s Norman’s larger point: Salvation is an iffy prospect. We can kill each other with a glance, or a word, or the lack of a touch. But saving each other? That’s nigh impossible. 

   The power of ’night, Mother rests in its unrelenting refusal to spare anyone. You may leave the theater shattered, but you’ll never dismiss the ordinary again. –Fern Siegel  



Brooklyn (The Musical)

Billed as an urban fairy tale, Brooklyn derives its energy from its songs, which are preachy and loud, and derives its plot from a group of overly chirpy street people on a Brooklyn street corner.

    Brooklyn, now playing at the Plymouth Theater, owes a debt to Rent, which highlighted society’s forgotten. And like Rent, which repackaged La Boheme, Brooklyn strives for that most elusive of goals: a take-home message. Yet despite revved-up performances by Eden Espinosa and Ramona Keller, and costumes by the amazingly inventive Tobin Ost, it strains credulity. Happy endings, especially on the streets, are rare.

    True, after seeing this show, you may not have the inhumanity to dismiss a homeless person. But there is a big difference between a moment of added sympathy and creating a knockout musical. Not that co-writers Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson haven’t given their best. The music is a mix of rock and gospel. It’s got a beat and you can dance to it.

    The musical opens with Streetsinger (Cleavant Derricks) relating a sad tale: A man named Taylor (Kevin Anderson) was once in love with a Parisian girl named Faith (Karen Olivo). They swear undying love, and Taylor promises that once he returns to the U.S., he’ll send for her. Alas, it’s 1969, and Taylor, unaware that Faith is pregnant, faithfully writes ‑ but his letters fail to reach his beloved. Faith, a poster child for abandonment, becomes a renowned dancer and raises young Brooklyn, named for the borough that produced her absent father.

     Eager to find this mystery man, Brooklyn (Eden Espinosa) embarks on a fateful journey. Inheriting his musical gifts, she becomes a star in about 14 minutes. But stardom, as we’re quickly reminded, means only one thing: fame in America. So off she goes to find Daddy. But en route, and here’s where the show de-evolves into the next episode of American Idol, she meets Paradice(Ramona Keller) a street-savvy, up-from-her bootstraps bona fide star, who challenges Brooklyn to a singing duel, winner takes all. The exchanges between the two are funny and revealing and some of the high points of the show. They are also packed with enough homilies to leave you reeling.

    Not so Brooklyn. By the musical’s rousing end, she still believes in happy endings. Brooklyn is tricky. If you’re in the theater, you’re moved by the moment. On exiting, you’re relieved to discover you still have your hearing. Word to the wise: stay in Manhattan. Fern Siegel 

Above Photo:  (l-r) Ramona Keller, Eden Espinosa, Photo Credit, Joan Marcus, 2004 


          When Bram Stoker wrote "Dracula" in 1897, he got a rise out of Victorian society. Understandably. His novel addressed repression, temptation and the allure of evil. And given the era’s scourge of syphilis, the exchange of tainted bodily fluids struck home. Fast forward to 2004.           "Dracula, the Musical" opens at the Belasco Theatre to an audience that has seen every incarnation of Stoker’s vision — from serious to campy. Far from seducing us with its vision of eternal, yet damned, existence, it seems curiously dated.

          And that’s not the fault of its principals, Tom Hewitt as Dracula and Melissa Enrico as Mina, his willing victim. Both turn in solid performances, aided by an exquisitely evocative Art Nouveau set, courtesy of Heidi Ettinger, and some nifty aerial staging by Rob Besserer. 

          It may simply be an issue of overkill.  We have seen Dracula in so many incarnations, it’s hard to breathe new life, forgive the pun, into it. But in fairness, the team of Frank Wildhorn (music) and Don Black and Christopher Hampton (book and lyrics) try. Given their credentials, "Sunset Boulevard," "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" it’s fair to expect a rousing score. And while there are some touching numbers, none stand out. It may be that the story itself is so over-the-top, it’s more operatic in scope. Then again, its very eroticism, offering Broadway’s own version of Nipplegate, needs no musical introduction. The undead are a known commodity.

          The story, set in Transylvania and England, is compelling. Dracula, damned to live forever at night, needs fresh blood to survive. He meets Jonathan Harker (Darren Ritchie) and takes a fancy to him. He’s also enamoured of a picture of Mina, Harker’s fiancee, who the count believes is his soul mate. That he prefers to feed on young, attractive women, who are both repelled and attracted to him, is well, no surprise. And while he manages to sink his teeth into Harker (who mysteriously recovers), the women are less fortunate. Then again, at the turn of the century, women’s roles were changing. Once bitten, they have a degree of power ordinary mortals are denied.

          Harker of course, wants to protect Mina and her friend Lucy (Kelli O’Hara), who is equally enamoured of Dracula. Evil, after all, has its drawing power. Naughtiness being high on the list of Victorian sins. He’s aided in his efforts by a lanky Texan (Bart Shatto) and a Dr. van Helsing (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who is curiously ill-cast in the role.

          The twist in "Dracula, the Musical" is the ending, which is an unexpected surprise. The musical may not have the staying power its producers hoped, but its furniture is to die for. —Fern Siegel



 The Frogs 

            "Have you heard our leaders? Words fail them. Even simple ones." The line is from "The Frogs," a Greek play performed 2,000 years ago. Whether the writing belongs to Aristophanes, its original author, or Burt Shevelove, who adapted it, matters not. It gets a big laugh nightly at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, proving that war, stupidity and poor leadership curse every age.

            In fact, the notion of Dionysos traveling to the underworld in search of a dramatist who can restore moral fiber and philosophical purpose to the discouraged populace is wonderfully idealistic. But what idealism! To think that wit, comedy and drama can heal society's ills is a worthy notion.

            More to the point, in this version of "The Frogs," the world can only be saved, according to Dionysos, by the genius of George Bernard Shaw. And thanks to Nathan Lane, who "freely adapted" Shevelove's efforts, coupled with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and direction by Susan Stroman, of "The Producers" fame, we get a wallop of entertainment. Right? Almost.

            True, The Frogs has a lively premise, and Nathan Lane as Dionysos plays, well, Nathan Lane. He's always campy and aims for laughs; his range may be limited (or typecast) but he's fun to spend time with. And his supporting cast, Roger Bart as his slave Xanthias, Burke Moses as a studly Herakles, Peter Bartlett as the "Queer Eye" version of Pluto and Daniel Davis as George Bernard Shaw are all first-rate. As are most of Sondheim's numbers, which are often toe-tapping and witty, wordplay being the maestro's forte. Plus, the show manages to tip its toga to Fosse and the joy of theater, while sending up George Bush and the Iraq War. If this is hell, book me a one-way passage.

            What's not to like?

            As it turns out, the problems result from the sheer weight of the message. (And an unfortunate love ballad sung between Nathan Lane and his dead wife.) It also gets heavy-handed at times, and we're reminded that Sondheim's The Frogs opened at Yale in 1974. It carries the unmistakable whiff of academic earnestness. The timing of the play, to coincide with the Watergate era, when faith in the presidency was shaken, was apt. So, too, is its new rendition now, when dissent is denounced as anti-American and our leaders strike many as arrogant and out-of-touch.

            The title itself refers to The Frogs that may devour Dionysos on his journey through Hades, turning him into part of the faceless, unthinking multitude. (Though that sentiment was a bit obtuse, thanks to costumes by William Ivey Long and an ensemble of gorgeous eye candy, you'd certainly be fit and colorful in the land of ordinary indifference.)

            Frankly, at a time when intellectual debate is rare, the musical's showdown between Shaw and Shakespeare to determine who is best suited to sustain our minds and hearts, is not only refreshing, it's exhilarating. There are genuinely good intentions here. "Frogs" just needed a little more editing and a little less message.  Fern Siegel


Bombay Dreams

"Bombay Dreams," the valentine to Bollywood now playing at the Broadway Theatre, is a lively spectacle. If you’ve ever seen an Indian film — and 900 are produced yearly—you know the drill: Lots of singing, dancing, and impractical love stories. Produced in Bombay, the Hollywood of India, these films attract mega-followings, their own Academy Awards and create an inner circle of superstars.

It’s this rarified world of fame and fortune Akaash, the hero of "Bombay Dreams," desires. But Akaash (Manu Narayan) is an Untouchable who lives in a slum called Paradise. The name alone signals the class warfare about to unfold. In Paradise, Akaash is surrounded by the love of his grandmother ) Madhur Jaffrey), a kindhearted transsexual Sweetie (Sriram Ganesan) and a host of caring neighbors. Predictably, they are poor in money but rich in love.

But the devil is about to enter Paradise: shady real-estate developers. Enter Vikram (Deep Katdare), a Brahmin lawyer willing to champion their cause gratis, and his filmmaker/fiancie Priya (Anisha Nagarajan), who wants to make films about "the real India." The catch: The residents of Paradise need money to buy their slum, so Akaash gets a bright idea. He’ll become a Bollywood star! And before you can say caste system, he’s on his way, starring in—what else?—the film "Diamond in the Rough." Think of it as the Indian version of rags-to-riches.

The $14 million musical "Bombay Dreams," a theatrical remake of a Bollywood film, is the first on the Great White Way to speak directly to the South Asian culture. It also adds a dollop of commentary on political corruption, caste warfare and the price of success. En route, we’re treated to some toe-tapping musical numbers, including "Salaa’m Bombay" and "Skakalaka Baby," with zippy choreography, courtesy of Anthony van Laast and Farah Khan, and costumes that borrow liberally from the Day-Glo palette, thanks to Mark Thompson, who is also responsible for the artistic sets.

A big draw in this glitzy fare is the pop music of A.R. Rahman, whose scores for Bollywood films have sold more than $40 million albums. And to make it understandable to a non-Indian audience, Thomas Meehan, who grabbed Tonys for "Hairspray" and "The Producers, rewrote the book

Mostly, "Bombay Dreams" is a sentimental journey wrapped in a lighthearted musical. Manu Narayan is one of the bright lights on stage. He’s got charisma-plus. And he’s joined in this Bollywood romp by strong performances by his movie co-star Rani (Mueen Jahan Ahmad), Nagarajan and Ganesan, and a hardworking ensemble that dances their hearts out. —Fern Siegel


"Jumpers" lives up to its name. An intellectual tour de force that takes dazzling leapsemotionally and philosophicallyTom Stoppard’s 1974 play enjoys a worthy revival at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Stoppard, who is synonymous with clever, delicious word plays, is triumphant here.

"Jumpers," which takes on everything from religion to the nature of goodness, isn’t for the passive theatergoer. But thanks to a superb turn by Simon Russell Beale as George, a bumbling philosophy professor, coupled with strong supporting performances, especially from his wife Dotty (Essie Davis), who plays a former star of the musical stage with sexy abandon, "Jumpers" is a theatrical rarity. It addresses serious concerns, while paying homage to a melange of theatrical genres. "Jumpers," a mystery play within a moral musing, is nothing if not entertaining, but its intricacies and lunacies demand our full attention.

Of course, few plays sport acrobats and egoists in a landscape populated by moon landings and political turmoil. Then again, Dotty may not be the only one verging on madness. George’s world is topsy turvey, too. In pursuit of metaphysical truth, George is beset by academic rival (Nicky Henson), an inept police inspector (Nicholas Woodeson) and a crazy murder at his lavish Art Deco digs.

There’s a host of possible suspects, but the real fun—and pathos—is watching Beale navigate the rocky terrain of modern life, which includes marriage, in all its affection and loneliness, and the temerity of colleagues. George is fussy, professorial and achingly literate. He cannot complete a sentence without commenting on what he’s just said, parsing meaning and phrasing. Despite his verbal excesses and his marital hopelessness, Beale is quietly sympathetic, never more so than when he waxes rhapsodic about his beloved pets, a tortoise and a hare.

And don’t worry if your Plato or Bernard Russell is rusty. The zany juxtapositions of verbal gags and visual punditry is accomplished. Even when Stoppard gets verbose, David Leveaux’s direction is fluid. He keeps the action moving at a steady clip. Aided by a smart set by Vicki Mortimer and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, "Jumpers" is outrageous and stylish. It keeps pace with humanity's limitations. —Fern Siegel





 We can’t mention JFK without remembering Lee Harvey Oswald. They are joined in a perverse alliance through time. And Kennedy’s death, much like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, plunged the country into despair. The political fallout from both murders is still debated today. Addressing the historical consequences of killing a president is compelling. Wrapping a musical around their assassins is thin  — even by the conventions of the genre. So what do we make of Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim musical now playing at Studio 54? It’s a misfire. 

What it’s got is an imaginative set, amazing sound design, a clever score and a talented ensemble cast, though Michael Cerveris, Neil Patrick Harris and Mario Cantone are standouts. But what’s lacking is a cogent narrative. Here, the assassins — and their wannabes —appear as a perverse Greek chorus, bleating out the same cry: I want my 15 minutes of fame. Oswald and Booth got theirs for eternity. But how many of us know Charles Guiteau or Leon Czolgosz? For that matter, how many can name their victims — Presidents James Garfield and McKinley?  

And therein lies part of the problem.  

Historic ignorance is overcome by exposition, but casually linking assassins as they talk across time is more problematic.  All killed or maimed, save Ford’s attackers, Lynnette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, even if we don’t know their names. But an educational lapse does not a musical make. John Weidman’s book attempts to link these losers — and they are all lost, angry, disenfranchised souls — in a carnival-type setting. Kill the president and win a prize! Can we be that glib about assassination? 

What’s worse, we meet each assassin quickly — without context. Giusepppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant with a bad stomach, tried to kill FDR in 1933; he killed the mayor of Miami instead. He’s barely a historic footnote. So why have him plead with Oswald 30 years later to avenge his memory? The strange confluence of personal despair and historic timing only works if we see the repercussions of the act. Everybody’s Got the Right, the refrain throughout, is singularly disturbing. These assassins may have a dream — but it does not merit our attention. 

Assassins does remind us of the terrible power of the lone killer — but they cannot be lumped together. Booth, a nationally acclaimed actor, saw Lincoln as a tyrant and decided to avenge his beloved, ravaged South.  The rest of the rogue’s gallery is shadowy — or in the case of Oswald — suspect. They do not deserve a Broadway debut.  — Fern Siegel


Big Bill


His tennis feats were legendary. On court, Bill Tilden was king. The first American to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon in 1920, he went on to win seven U.S. Opens and Davis Cup victories respectively. Renowned for his groundbreaking swing and a reputation for integrity, Tilden should be as famous as Babe Ruth or Jesse Owens. After all, ESPN ranked him in their top 100 North American athletes of the 20th century, ahead of Pete Rose and Pete Sampras. But off court, his game was less than stellar. And it cost him dearly.

         Now playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, "Big Bill," explores the tortured back-story to Tilden’s fall from grace. One look at his flamboyant movements and fey gestures, and we get the picture. Tilden himself worried about appearing as a "sissy," but he did little to hide his inclinations. And therein lies his downfall. Bill Tilden, ace sportsman, had a passion for underage ball boys. Scandal may be banal in sports today — when isn’t someone getting arrested or in rehab? — but in the ‘30s and ‘40s, it was verboten.

          Tennis was the province of country clubs and populated by amateurs. No endorsements, no pay for play. This was a gentleman’s game. (Turning pro was deemed declasse, and the venues were less than stellar.) As playwright A.J. Gurney ironically notes, the Lawn Tennis Association made beaucoup bucks off Tilden, while he was forced to reap his rewards outside the club: writing books or acting on stage. The books remain memorable; the acting, shellacked by his inescapable narcissism, was dreadful.

          Starring John Michael Higgins as Tilden, in a nicely calibrated, even sympathetic performance, the tennis great emerges as the architect of his own demise. He not only had a taste for the high life, he refuses to be discreet. His distaste for women is as public as his sexual defiance: Despite his manager’s warnings, he touts his latest ball boy turned lover in the most visible restaurant in town.

          Gurney even forces the audience to watch his advances. In one scene, Tilden, made likeable by Higgins affable rendering, offers a young hopeful tennis tips. As he strokes the boy’s arm, pulling him into a seductive embrace, the youngster squirms. So do we. No one in the Newhouse audience objects to his sexual preference; all are uncomfortable with pederasty. Or is it?

          When Tilden is arrested, he asks the judge: Would a heterosexual man caught with a 17-year-old girl face the same charges? His question is fair, though the answer is the same. When 50-year-old men prey on underage kids, society should be appalled — equally. Because he’s a sportsman, Tilden refuses to lie about his behavior. In the end, he served 17 months on two separate convictions, losing his money, his reputation and most of his friends. Gurney leaves it deliberately vague whether Tilden or the boys were the aggressors. We’re even unsure if he actually consummates his affairs, or if, as his Freudian psychiatrist claims, he’s still a child.

          Aided by a talented ensemble, John Lee Beatty’s evocative sets and Mark Lamos’ direction, "Big Bill" is a study in paradox. Today, greedy team owners and pricey lawyers assuage an athlete’s crimes. Guilt is never admitted. Tilden may be more honest than the sport that exploited him, but both suffer from an inability to play fair. Who wins in the end? No one. The play is touching and thoughtful, but lacks gravitas. Gurney wins the first match, but the definitive look at this tennis great has yet to be played. —Fern Siegel


           Never Gonna Dance

          What do you get when you marry Jerome Kern’s music to a lighthearted comic confection? A splashy, sassy Broadway hit. Now playing at the Broadhurst Theater, "Never Gonna Dance" is like watching an Astaire-Rodgers movie on stage. It’s breezy and funny and utterly American.   The time is 1936, and the country is in the grips of the Great Depression. But does that grim news get our hero — Lucky (Noah Racey) or our heroine — Penny (Nancy Lemenager) down? Heck, no. When the going gets tough, the tough go dancing. After all, the original point of the MGM musicals was to lift the spirits of a frightened public. Times were hard, and we needed a break. Times are still hard; we still need theatrical escape. Happily, "Never Gonna Dance," with an utterly charming ensemble, two attractive leads, Robin Wagner’s sublime deco delight sets, and a glorious score, obliges. 

          The premise is simple: Lucky, a professional hoofer, wants to marry a girl back in Punxsutawney, Pa. To do so, he’s got to earn $25,000. That means heading for the bright lights, big city in search of fame and fortune. Lucky just happens to meet a dancing instructor, Penny. And before you can say Major Bowes Dance Contest, our dashing duo suddenly teams up to win a grand prize of $25,000!

          Of course, Lucky falls for Penny, but he can’t express his true feelings — he made a promise to another. Penny is equally enamoured of Lucky, but is dating over-the-top singer Ricardo Romero (David Pittu). What’s a star-crossed couple to do? They just gotta dance. And their dancing is dazzling. Two scenes are particularly stunning: A Grand Central number that celebrates the music and rhythms of ordinary life and a stunning piece atop the newly constructed Vanderventer (read Rockefeller) Center that’s joyous.

           "Never Gonna Dance" is a musical meringue that marries all the MGM conventions — love conquers all, happy endings abound, the poor can become rich — into a joyful musical comedy. When former broker turned bum (Peter Gerety) woos his beloved Mabel (Karen Ziemba) in the Horn & Hardart automat, we know that anything is possible. What’s economic despair next to a snappy score? Augmenting this funfest of aspiration and occasional intrigue (Will Lucky’s real status be revealed?) is a supporting cast, including Peter Bartlett as a deliciously fey dance school owner, that sparkles. Besides, Racey and Lemenager make it all look so easy. They play plucky like nobody’s business and together, they are magic.

          "Never Gonna Dance" is not only an homage to 1930s black-and-white musicals and the enduring elegance of art deco, but it’s a reminder, thanks to Jerry Mitchell’s exquisite choreography, that dance is a joyous art. And that while dreams don’t always come true in real life, it’s comforting to know they can on stage. —Fern Siegel


          Nothing But the Truth

          Crime and punishment, truth and reconciliation are massive subjects. They are most accessible as drama when they are personalized. Throw family secrets and sibling rivalry into the mix, and the pot reaches its boiling point. It takes a steady hand to balance such explosive material, and South African playwright John Kani has both the talent and the vision to carry it off.

          Now playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, "Nothing But the Truth" is a searing, intimate drama that personalizes the struggle of South African blacks and, at the same time, explores the divisions between them as they confronted their apartheid past.

          The year is 2000. The place is Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The players — Sipho Makhaya (John Kani), his daughter, Thando (Warona Seane), and his English niece Mandisa (Esmeralda Bihl). Sipho’s estranged brother Timbo has died, and Mandisa has brought him back to his homeland for burial. The funeral serves as a backdrop to the larger issues that confront the Makhaya family. Indeed, as the country deals with the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission — the public hearings set up by President Mandela for victims of the apartheid era), the Makhayas deal with the truth about Timbo.

          Kani says he wrote the play "to bring closure in my heart to the death of my brother, Xofile Kani." Xxofile, killed by police in 1985, is mirrored by Timbo, who fled into exile because he feared police reprisals. But Timbo, who appears as a hero to Mandisa, is a flawed, selfish man in the eyes of Sipho. And therein lies the brilliance of "Nothing But the Truth." It raises provocative questions about the nature of existence: Who is a hero? Those who stay and fight or those who flee? Do we tell the truth about ourselves? Can reconciliation ever be achieved? Is it right to grant amnesty to killers in the guise of national healing?

          An assistant chief librarian, Sipho is a soft-spoken, highly responsible man who, at 63, can still recall the pains of childhood. His was a life of service and care. Timbo encouraged others to strike, but he relied on Sipho to feed and clothe, house and educate him. Timbo is the charismatic speaker, Sipho is the ordinary man who fights the good fight - without applause. Sipho is as critical of resistance leaders who hijacked his life as he is of the white police who brutalized his people. Which makes his moment of political reckoning so powerful.

          And it comes vis-à-vis his niece, the catalyst for his awakening. Mandisa is English, modern, opinionated and demanding. Thando is quiet, accommodating, the good daughter who respects the traditions of her elders. Yet it is Thando and Sipho who garner our respect. Their quiet dignity, their love for each other, is touching. We can agree or disagree with their politics, but we are struck by the depth of their experiences.

          These three people engage in a fierce battle for truth that is at once upsetting and liberating. "Nothing But the Truth" is carefully modulated to build to a stunning crescendo. Kani is a gifted writer/actor who quietly commands our respect. He’s ably served by his co-stars. Each hits her stride, although Seane is especially adept at seizing our attention. Janice Honeyman’s direction is impassioned and fluid. Here is a drama that engages our hearts and minds, one you’ll discuss long after you leave the theater. —Fern Siegel 



          "Wicked" is wicked cool. It is one of those big, bold Broadway shows that wraps a provocative theme inside a visual treat. "Wicked," now playing at the Gershwin Theatre, is a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz." Inhabited by wizards and talking goats and magical spells, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Ironically, Kansas is still with us. The conceit of "Wicked" is that the fantasy world resembles our own - it’s filled with love and kindness, as well as jealousy, oppression and deceit. They just have better costumes.

          "Wicked" is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, better known as the nasty crone who wants to do away with poor Dorothy. The "Wizard of Oz" makes a stark contrast between good and evil; "Wicked" is more nuanced. It neatly tackles the nature vs. nurture argument and discovers that the witch (whose real name is Elphaba) got a bad rap. "Are they born wicked or do they have wicked thrust upon them?" the musical asks. In a world where spin substitutes for truth, and propaganda doubles as principle, "Wicked" is unabashedly on the side of the victim.

          The witch as victim? You bet. Elphaba (Idina Menzel) is a victim of circumstance. The eldest daughter of the governor of Munchkin Land, she has the misfortune to be born green. Shunned by parents and her peers, she relies on her sister, Nessarose (Michelle Federer), and the kindess of strangers. Sent to a school to learn sorcery, Elphaba discovers she has real talent (shades of "Harry Potter.") Madame Morrible (Carole Shelley) takes young Elphaba under her wing, much to the consternation of Glinda (Kristin Chenoweth), the perky, popular blonde. Initially snippy, Glinda and Elphaba become friends - and therein lies the first of several truths: Look beneath the surface. In fact, one of the charms of "Wicked" is the bonding between the women — a positive message about female friendship. And they stay friends, even when a dashing young man (Norbert Leo Butz), "it’s painlesss to be brainless" he croons, enters the picture. 

          But all is not happy in the land of Oz. The animals, which walk and talk, are being persecuted. The Wizard of Oz (Joel Grey), who seems so benign at first, has a scary agenda. It falls to Elphaba to oppose him. And we all know what happens to dissidents who challenge the status quo. Those who defend civil liberties are often painted as lunatics; those who cheerfully oppress are cast as pillars of society. We witnessed the wizard’s feet of clay in "The Wizard of Oz." Here, his machinations and manipulations are pronounced; his smear tactics worthy of J. Edgar Hoover.

          Kudos to Winnie Holzman who wrote the book and Gregory Macguire, author of the original novel, for mining such depth in a tale that cannot be told enough. They are aided in their efforts by Eugene Lee’s inspired, eye-popping sets, a clever blend of Victorian whimsy and machinery, Susan Hilferty’s costumes, which are endlessly theatrical, and Kenneth Posner’s exquisite lighting. Their craftsmanship highlights the considerable talents of the cast: Chenoweth and Menzel have genuine chemistry, each is exemplary in their roles; together, they are magic. Butz never puts a foot wrong, Shelley’s vocal delivery alone is a winner and Grey’s avuncular demeanor believes the evil within. The one drawback — and it’s a biggie — is the music. The talented Stephen Schwartz, who gave us "Pippin" and  "Godspell," has fashioned an unmemorable score. There are a few fun songs, but they don’t gel as a whole. A shame, because "Wicked" is a worthy production.

          If you’ve ever wondered how the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion came to be, "Wicked" is a must. It revisits a classic, but adds context. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There is no such thing as a random event. Often, the back story is the main event. 


The Boy From Oz

"I’m not the boy next store," croons Peter Allen. Not unless that boy has a passion for Hawaiian shirts, high camp and hot bods. Then again, it’s all a matter of perspective. Allen, of course, was the lauded singer/songwriter who married Liza Minnelli, won an Oscar for "Arthur’s Theme" and was the first man to dance with the Rockettes in his sold-out Radio City extravaganza. Plus, Frank Sinatra, Olivia Newton-John and Melissa Manchester parlayed his pop tunes into memorable hits.

That, you might think, would be enough for any mortal. But Peter Allen, nee Woolnough, is a talented, relentlessly upbeat guy with insatiable ambition. He wants to be a star — and his single-minded focus (and a nifty plug from Judy Garland) — deliver the goods. His rags-to-riches tale is the stuff of which dreams are made — almost. But in "The Boy From Oz," now playing at the Imperial Theatre, Allen’s story is sanitized and the emotional tensions that defined that fateful journey from Tenterfield, Australia, to New York are noticeably absent.

Which is not to say the "The Boy From Oz" doesn’t have its moments. It does. Hugh Jackman as Allen is loaded with charm, charisma and pizzazz. We like him from the moment we meet him — as a youngster in the Outback. Though his father (Michael Mulheren) is a brute, his mother (Beth Fowler) is a winner. Sure, she worries about her son, but she never fails to encourage him — or to accept his life (and lifestyle).

Indeed, young Peter is on the fast track to success in Australia when he’s done in by indiscretion. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump into a Hong Kong nightclub and providence, read: Judy Garland (Isabel Keating). Proving that timing-is-everything, Peter and Judy click. And while she warns him to "butter his ambition," she scoops him up and sets him down in glorious Gotham.

"The Boy From Oz" charts Allen’s marriage to Minnelli (Stephanie J. Bock), his career starts and stops, his triumphs and his final hubris, an over-the-top slammed musical called "Legs Diamond." Strangely, Allen, who was capable of great insight and poignancy in his songs, is emotionally distant. That gaping abyss is never confronted in "Oz"; instead, there is far too much exposition. Surface proclamations are substituted for the dramatic tension necessary to transform his story into irony. The man so anxious to escape his small town only succeeded in escaping himself. Those who loved him could never fundamentally connect with him — and when we learn why — in the show’s last 10 minutes — it’s too little, too late.

A second quibble is Robin Wagner’s sets; economical to say the least. He’s clearly saved his budget for the second, spashier act. Finally, Philip Wm. McKinley’s direction is too overwrought. Allen was a showman. He might have needed our applause, but I doubt he’d beg for it.

Still, there are plusses. Peter Allen’s music is as fresh and moving today as when it was first recorded. Keating and Block are uncanny as Garland and Minnelli. From vocals to body flourishes, these two are on target. And Jackman, aside from being handsome and endearing, is also a wonderful singer and dancer who moves like a lynx. Indeed, the entire cast is sound. "The Boy From Oz" needs more weight to lend this musical promise. I’m all for spectacle; but a little substance wouldn’t hurt. —Fern Siegel


  Little Shop of Horrors

Seymour Krelbourn has a secret. Make that two secrets. First, he is in love with Audrey, a ditzy blonde with a good heart, and second, his botanical mutation, Audrey II, has a nasty habit: She craves blood. To feed her — and to sustain the subsequent fame that results from the press coverage — mild-mannered Seymour makes a Faustian bargain. Today, a nebbish working at Mushnik’s Skid Row flower shop, tomorrow the world. 

Now playing at the Virginia Theater, "Little Shop of Horrors," a revived 21-year-old morality play with the stellar Ashman-Menken pop/rock score, pushes all the right buttons. How far will Seymour (Hunter Foster) go in search of fortune? Can you ever satisfy a greedy appetite? Apparently, not. Be it Mr. Mushnik’s (Rob Bartlett) sudden paternalism, Seymour’s passion for Audrey (Kerry Butler) or Orin (Douglas Sills), Audrey’s boyfriend’s, sadistic urges, the beast within must be must be    fed. Literally. 

Naturally, the fun of "Little Shop" —from its quirky moments and memorable musical numbers, including the theme song, "Somewhere That’s Green" and "Suddenly Seymour" — is its strangely sympathetic quality. We root for the underdog. Yet sympathy has its limits.  So does humor. Audiences have grown more sensitive to domestic violence since its debut — and jokes about abuse just aren’t funny. Moreover, human behavior — not to mention nature’s incessant whining — is anything but laudable. When not succumbing to baser instincts, we are punished for our occasional goodness. Indeed, "feed me!" — Audrey II’s battle cry — eerily echoes the White House’s ongoing postwar demands. "Little Shop" is a user-friendly cautionary tale; it is not optimistic and uplifting.

What is notable is Scott Pask’s Ashcan School-inspired sets, Jerry Zaks’ zippy direction, a slick Jim Henson Company puppet and a cast that gels. Foster and Butler, coming from acclaimed runs in "Urinetown" and "Hairspray" respectively, click, while Sills, of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," is over-the-top fun. There is even a modern-day Greek chorus —Chiffon (DeQuina Moore), Crystal (Trisha Jeffrey) and Ronnette (Carla J. Hargrove) — who keep the joint jumpin’.

The question is — does the show’s craving for a Broadway venue make sense? Sure, the lighting and sound quality have improved in the ensuring decades, but the intimacy off-Broadway’s Orpheum stage once evoked, cannot be replicated."Little Shop" has a big message, but it may best be served on a smaller scale. 

         photo by Paul Kolnik


  Nostalgia is hip. And nowhere is retro hipper than Broadway. First came “The Producers,” an homage to cynicism, then “Urinetown,” a sendup of Thirties agitprop, now comes “Hairspray,” a funny, tender, endearing musical that’s period with punch. Can you say Tony? "Hairspray" should sweep the awards – proving that behind the beehives and the pop beat is a naïve sincerity that’s downright deep. “Hairspray” is more than a staged version of John Waters’ cult classic; it’s a rousing, toe-tapping antidote to our troubled times. A reminder that sometimes, ethics are black and white.

            In “Hairspray,” now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, that notion is taken literally. The musical, the handiwork of Marc Shaiman (music) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), a gifted duo, takes place in 1962 Baltimore. Tracey Turnblad, an overweight teen, just wants to dance on Corny Collins hit show, promote racial equality and secure rights for fatties. Oh yeah, she’d like to date heartthrob Link Larkin (a play-it-to-the-hilt Matthew Morrison) and trump Amber Von Tussle (a perfect Laura Bell Bundy) her blonde nemesis, too. Tracey’s agenda seems subversive to the status quo, but her mission is so basic, so decent, you can’t help but love her. And her friends. And her parents. Tracey, a divine Marissa Jaret Winokur, should do for offbeat kids what Elvis did for the twist. And she’s aided by a cast any producer would envy – from Velma Von Tussle (Linda Hart), resident white supremacist and talented comic actress, to Seaweed (Corey Reynolds), Tracey’s first black friend, an amazing dancer and ultra-cool guy.

          Of course, integration and racial tolerance, forbidden love and the price of fame are a heady brew. “Hairspray” wraps its celebratory thesis in a ’60s musical score that hits the right genre notes, aided by standout songs. Social revolution, coupled with a rock ’n’ roll, rhythm-and-blues chaser, goes down easy. And that’s the point. The book, by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan plays it straight – and gets both the laughs and its message across. “Hairspray” is good, clean fun without being campy, adorable without being kitschy.  

Kerry Butler,  Laura Bell Bundy, Marissa Jaret Winokur
with members of the cast photo
© 2002                                                                                                                

That’s why the deft touch counts, starting with David Rockwell’s superbly evocative set, economical but playful. It’s the true supporting player to a production that captures a polarized, yet explosive time in American history. Racism was a fact of life – and the punishment for challenging authority was severe, for blacks and whites alike. “Hairspray” isn’t preachy; instead, it relies on the heartfelt Motormouth Maybelle (Mary Bond Davis), the black version of Corny Collins, to tell it like it is. And because the pacing is so sharp and Jack O’Brien’s direction so fluid, it scores with audiences.

“Hairspray” is a feel-good, stand-up-and-cheer musical that touts a serious theme. Its fashions may be dated, its casual cruelties may seem arcane, but bigotry and prejudice, of whatever sort, never go out of style. And neither do ordinary heroes. Like Tracey’s parents, Edna, her agoraphobic mom, played by Harvey Fierstein with tenderness and with his trademark panache. Wilber, her jokester dad, Dick Latessa, a quiet marvel, and Penny (Kerry Butler) dorky best friend and trailblazer and ideal counterpoint to Winokur. “Hairspray” salutes simplicity and what used to be called good old American values: hard work, fair play and common sense. Bravo. 
Above photo 
© 2002, Paul Kolnik

  Cast Glows in "Chicago."
(Note: Some cast members may have changed since review originally appeared.)

Chicago Ambassador Theatre. EN00515A.gif (1017 bytes) - 219 W. 49 St.

    "Nobody’s got no class. There’s no decency left." If you credit this sentiment as another of William Bennett’s digs at society, think again. These immortal words are uttered by a 1920s murderer and her prison warden in the sassy, brassy, Tony-award winning musical "Chicago," now playing at the Ambassador Theatre. EN00515A.gif (1017 bytes)

    When this deliciously satiric Kander and Ebb musical opened in the ’70s, it was deemed too dark and cynical for such feel-good times. A murderer as a star? A slick lawyer playing fast and loose with the truth? Audiences shuddered. Well, it’s ’90s America now, and in a post-OJ world, "Chicago" (with a new cast) is brilliantly on target.

    The plot concerns one Roxy Hart (Karen Ziemba), who took her lover’s rejection to heart. Some women would just write the bum off; Roxy prefers a good old-fashioned shootout. Luckily, her hapless husband can raise the money for a smarmy, read successful lawyer. While attorney Billy Flynn (Alan Thicke) is busy concocting an outrageous scenario to free his client, the women who keeping Roxy company in Cook County prison, namely one Velma Kelly (played by the divine Ute Lemper) and matron (Marcia Lewis), shower us with a jazzy, razzle-dazzle of sight, sound and motion.

    Staged in a Brechtian manner, complete with hard-chiseled dancers whose bodies provide all the scenery we need, "Chicago" explores the unholy alliance between crime and celebrity with sinister glee. The story is hugely entertaining, the dancing is first rate and the score is fantastic. Lemper, who plays her role with "Cabaret"-esque precision, boasts a sultry voice and singular style. Thicke is both slick and seductive as Flynn, while Ziemba, an accomplished singer and dancer, lacks thaEN00515A.gif (1017 bytes)t aggressive, in-your-face quality Ann Reinking originally brought to the role.

    Still, the ensemble, one of the hardest working on Broadway, is riveting. Sure, criminals may be the flavor of the month, but who says we can’t enjoy their antics? "Chicago" reminds us that deception is as American as apple pie. —Fern Siegel


NY Theatre                       NY Dining                       Secret  Hotels            More NY