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All In The Timing, The Mark of Zorro

Review of All in the Timing  -- David Ives' clever homage to wordplay off-Broadway play
In the timing-is-everything category, don't miss All in the Timing, David Ives' clever homage to wordplay, now at 59E59. Primary Stages has wisely celebrated his six one-act comedies with a 20th anniversary production.

Ives, who wrote the provocative hits Venus in Fur and New Jerusalem, is a gifted craftsman with an ear for language and its musicality. Add the inspired direction of John Rando and an amazingly versatile cast - Carson Elrod, Jenn Harris, Liv Rooth, Matthew Saldivar - and All in the Timing approaches theatrical perfection.

Each actor takes on various roles with dexterity; Elrod is noteworthy for his ease with physical comedy, but all are excellent. The reason? The stylized comedies are hugely entertaining and wicked smart. Sure Thing posits a man and woman, strangers in a café. They talk and each time they say the wrong thing, a bell goes off -- and they start anew. It takes time until they get the wording and the rhythm just right.

Words, Words, Words is a spoof on the theory that if you give monkeys a typewriter, they'll eventually produce Hamlet. Three apes, aptly named Milton, Swift and Kafka, turn the tables on their lab master, ranting, often in Shakespearean couplets, about everything from exploited workers to literary achievement. "kkkkkkkkk, I worry I'm repeating myself," muses Kafka.

Such lines are a perfect intro to Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, a pitch-perfect parody of Philip Glass' operas. Short, repetitive phrases spoken in a bakery, with an ingenious bit of physical parody, makes this a particular standout. It's all about the timing, and the verbal replays create a music and hilarity all its own.

So does The Universal Language, which is a fun exercise in gibberish. An instructor attempts to teach a shy stutterer a new international language: Unamunda.

As he strings together disparate words and sounds, they produce a kind of wacky logic all their own. And as his student catches his fanciful drift, a sweet engagement ensues.

This is Ives' forte - the beauty of language, which underscores our extraordinary need for communication and connection. All in the Timing is a salute to the poetry of meaning and the joy of farce. Accompanied by Beowulf Boritt's colorfully skewed set and Jason Lyons lighting, it works like a charm.


The Mark of Zorro at the New Victory Theater has its own brand of memorable theater. Scottish company Visible Fictions has turned the classic swashbuckling adventure into a fun lesson for children about justice and heroism. Based on Johnston McCulley's 1919  short story The Curse of Capistrano, it's better known, after many film and TV adaptions, under the Zorro title.

In this incarnation, the troupe's tale of a masked avenger in 1809 Spanish-ruled California is delivered via simple, but inventive aesthetics. If actors need a horse, they hold a cardboard drawing of a horse's head and trot off.

Written by Davey Anderson, the story revolves around young Diego de la Vega, who witnesses the murder of his father. Despite tragedy, he adheres to his wise teaching: "Don't fight for vengeance. Fight only for justice."

Time passes and now Esteban, a powerful captain, allows his soldiers to rob the peasants. Enraged by this injustice, Diego dons a black mask and avenges all wrongdoing. In his wake, he leaves a single Z, the mark of Zorro! He not only helps the tormented, but he attracts the attentions of highborn Isabella. Equally outspoken; she's as verbally feisty as Zorro is saber savvy.

Zippy direction from Douglas Irvine, music by David Trouton and Robin Peoples' endearing designs serve the saga well. Three talented actors, Tim Settle, Denise Hoey and Neil Thomas, skillfully play myriad roles, evoking the theatricality of an Old West road show. Zorro lives "to outsmart the bullies and the villains and the cheats." Let's hope the young audiences take his message to heart.  —Fern Siegel

Photo: All in the Timing/James Leynse


The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Circus Oz

2012-12-07-HPDrood.jpgCharles Dickens died in 1870, midway through his last novel, and its unfinished ending has been a creative lure to stage and screen ever since. The current Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Studio 54 is a worthy addition to the canon. A fun, tongue-in-cheek musical comedy, the Roundabout Company's version combines an interactive theatrical experience with a top-notch production.

Set in a Victorian music hall, the show within a show is overseen by Mr. Cartwright (an excellent Jim Norton). The acting troupe, which specializes in broad innuendo and gleeful mugging for the audience, is performing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The plot focuses on choirmaster John Jasper (a super Will Chase) and his nephew Edwin Drood (Stephanie J. Block). Jasper lusts after Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe), Drood's fiancé. Jasper, no stranger to the opium den of Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera), isn't the only one smitten with Rosa.

So is hot-tempered Neville Landless (Andy Karl) from Ceylon, who, with his twin sister Helena (a standout Jesse Mueller), is mentored by Rev. Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman). But Drood and Landless hate each other — and when Drood disappears on a dark and stormy night, Landless is accused of his murder.
Of course, it's tough to prove murder without a body. So the role of murderer is left to the audience —which happily picks a different one each night. Tony-winner Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the 1985 show, has been well served by this crisply paced revival.

Both the set design by Anna Louizos and costumes by William Ivey Long are beautiful, complemented by perfect lighting and choreography. The sheer exuberance of the first-rate cast, led by Chase and Norton, is a plus; all are at the top of their game. Block is terrific in multiple roles; even smaller roles like the drunken Durdles (Robert Creighton) are a delight.

The show is "suggested by the unfinished novel," but all the Dickens' hallmarks — dark secrets, dual identities, narrative twists — are here. Its spot-on score is augmented by Holmes' cleverness: He's written a scenario, however unlikely, for every credible character. His inventiveness, coupled with Scott Ellis' smart, lively direction, makes Drood a winner.

2012-12-07-HuffPoCircusOz.jpgSo is Australia's answer to hipster circus. Trapeze artists, jugglers and musicians that double as acrobats keep the comedy and the excitement fast and furious. Circus Oz, From the Group Up, now at New York's New Victory Theater through December 30, is recommended for ages five and up, but it will make every member of the family stand up and cheer.
That's thanks to clever theatrics; the eclectic cast is skillful — using ladders and rings, skateboards and instruments in novel and inventive ways. The high-energy Australian troupe defies logic — with a skyscraper-style act loaded with irreverent in-your-face-fun.

It is all accompanied by music director Carl Polke's jazzy, techno score that rocks the house. Director Mike Finch has produced an eclectic marriage — traditional circus meets rock 'n' roll — aided by 14 multi-talented circus performers that combine hilarity and irreverence with amazing feats.

Finch says Circus Oz likes "formality to be subverted, mocked and sent up" — and he's gotten his wish. This artistic anarchy is carefully timed and beautifully orchestrated. —Fern Siegel

Edwin Drood photo: Joan Marcus
Circus Oz photo: Rob Blackburn


Detro Review

There is big trouble in America — a slow-growing economy, worries about jobs and the imploded housing market. And while there are signs of optimism, some cities have been decimated by the country’s shift from a manufacturing powerhouse. Nowhere is that more evident than Detroit.

So it is strangely fitting that Lisa D’Amour’s new work is named Detroit. While there is no reference to the city’s extraordinary woes, the Motor City doubles as the most graphic decay of the American dream.

In her darkly entertaining play at Playwrights Horizons, D’Amour has moved into the city’s suburbs to make her point: The middle class is in freefall and its once proud neighborhoods are spiraling out of control.

She paints a sad portrait in a tight drama about two couples. Mary (Amy Ryan), a paralegal, and Ben (David Schwimmer), a loan officer, have invited the new neighbors over for a barbecue. They are hosting Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) and Kenny (Darren Pettie), who scream trouble. Underemployed and newly sober, there is an air of menace and uncertainty to the neighbors. At the same time, Sharon waxes rhapsodic about the past, when neighbors stuck together and formed a community.

But community, like the economy, isn’t what it used to be.
D’Amour drives that theme home via address: The couples live in Bright Houses, model homes built in the prosperous 1960s. Ironically, they live on Sunshine Street. They are, however, enveloped in hopelessness and fear.

The generational shift from tight-knit suburban neighbors to wailing remnants — the once-happy middle class and the nasty underclass — is eulogized in the final scene by the man (John Cullum) who owns Sharon’s house. He, too, reminisces about the past; it’s the one politicians are fond of extolling, though they usually omit the main reason for its demise: shipping jobs and industries abroad.

Detroit doesn’t point fingers; it’s a moving exposition not an indictment. Its able ensemble expertly illustrates those caught in the existential angst of dreams deferred. —Debra Griboff
Photo by: Jeremy Daniel

   Forbidden Broadway

Forbidden Broadway


Where would Broadway be without Forbidden Broadway?
The brainchild of award-winning Gerald Alessandrini, the acid-laced, hysterically funny spoof is back. Currently at the 47th Street Theater, Forbidden Broadway – Alive and Kicking is a wild and crazy send-up of Broadway musicals. It manages to be both a valentine to the theater and an affectionate swipe at its wackier aspects.

Since 1982, Forbidden Broadway has been a much-anticipated staple. Three years ago, Alessandrini called it quits. To the delight of New York theatergoers, he changed his mind and unleashed his satire.

This incarnation, he lampoons 20 productions — from Into the Woods to Newsies, Porgy and Bess to Spider-Man. His versatile cast — Natalie Charlé Ellis, Jenny Lee Stern, Scott Richard Foster and Marcus Stevens — deftly express his genius.

Be it the cloddish Matthew Broderick in Nice Work If You Can Get It, the nonmusical musical Once or the over-the-top glee in Newsies, Alessandrini never misses. He lampoons the smile-crazed Ricky Martin in Evita and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ paltry musical chops in A Little Night Music with laser-like precision.

Of course, that’s his specialty, finding the quirkier aspects of performances — then exploiting their deeply humorous side.

Even if you haven’t actually seen the shows, you’ll get the jokes, alongside his commentary on the state of musical theater, delivered with wit and panache. Forbidden Broadway – Alive and Kicking is cause for celebration. —Debra Griboff

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Pulp Shakespeare

Pulp Shakespeare theater reviewShakespeare’s plays are frequently staged in contemporary dress to bridge the gap for modern audiences. Pulp Shakespeare keeps period garb and enlists his distinct style of language to cleverly restage Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Now at the Cherry Lane Theater, the show, part of the NYC Fringe Festival, calls on two murderers, a boxer, a brutal lord and his alluring wife to tell the convoluted tales of betrayal and redemption.

Her Majesty’s Secret Players utilize blank verse and prose, throwing in a few of the Bard’s famous lines en route, to show similarities in tone and plot line to the Oscar-winning screenplay.

Both Tarantino and Shakespeare, per the play’s director, have a “fondness for incorporating violence and sexual tension into their stories.” It’s entertaining, but if audiences aren’t devotees of the film, the production’s dark humor may elude them.

Pulp Shakespeare recreates the film’s set pieces — the diner dancing, pocket watch story and resuscitation scene — with flair. The touted discussions, such as the sexual overtones of massaging a woman’s foot, work beautifully in the metaphor-rich language of the Elizabethan stage.

Aaron Lyons as Vincent de la Vega and Dan White as Julius are nicely paired; the cast in general, Mia (Hannah Beck), Butch (Christian Levatino), Roger/Zed (David Lautman), Marcellus (Nathan Freeman), clicked.

Issues of divine intervention, revenge and loyalty are approached with both menace and black humor intact. Pulp Fiction fans will love it. —Fern Siegel

Bring It On: The Musical

"Bring It On" Review The latest movie turned Broadway show, Bring It On: The Musical is a high-energy production that turns cheerleading — and all its bitchy, backstabbing elements — into a winning-isn't-everything life lesson.

Now at the St. James Theater, Bring It On, loosely based on the 2000 teen comedy, has a good-natured sassiness, thanks to Jeff Whitty's script and director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler's impressive dance routines. The last Broadway show to take on high-school rivalries, Lysistrata Jones, was sharper in its parody; Bring It On is all about fierce face, pumping high-octane gymnastics into its melodious numbers, set to a hip hop meets top 40 score.

The focus is lily-white Campbell (Taylor Louderman) of Truman High, obsessed with prepping for the upcoming varsity finals. When redistricting sends Campbell to Jackson High, a tough, inner-city school without cheerleaders, she meets Danielle (Adrienne Warren), whose crew dance only for themselves.

The multicultural clashes — and Campbell's drive to reclaim her status — begin in earnest when she discovers that scheming Eva (Elle McLemore), her former friend, has done her wrong. Now it's Jackson versus Truman, and all bets are off.

Cheerleaders, their rivalries and inevitable clichés, get old fast. What saves Bring It On are the soaring musical numbers accompanied by feel-good friendships, strong leads in Louderman and Warren, and a kick-ass supporting cast: Gregory Haney as La Cienega, a transgendered member of Danielle's dance crew, and Bridget, the nobody at Truman (Ryann Redmond) who finds her self-esteem and voice at Jackson.

Cheerleading may seem an odd focus for Tony-winning composers Tom Kitt (Next To Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In The Heights) who co-wrote the music, with Amanda Green and Miranda on lyrics, but there is charm in message lite, especially when it meets taut athleticism. Designed to tour, Bring It On: The Musical speaks to high-school kids everywhere. —Fern Siegel

Photo by: Joan Marcus






Victory: Choices in Reaction

Now at the Atlantic Stage 2, the Howard Barker play, Victory: Choices in Reaction takes place in 1660 after the hedonistic court of Charles II have ousted the Puritans.  The outrageously ribald Charles II (David Barlow) is surrounded by sycophants, mistresses and pragmatic bankers. His supporters have dug up the corpse of the Puritan ringleader, John Bradshaw, who was hung for the murder of Charles’ father.  

Now, Bradshaw’s widow, the always-masterful Jan Maxwell, is on a mission to collect his remains and bury them.  Accompanied by Scrope (Steven Dykes), a loyal Puritan, she soldiers forth, facing hunger and violence; ultimately, she comes to treasure survival. While Maxwell, a four-time Tony nominee, has meaty scenes, it’s unfortunate we don’t see more of her.

Instead, audiences are treated to an eyeful of the wayward monarch (a terrific David Barlow) who steps right out of a Restoration comedy, a genre celebrated during Charles’ reign. The former tyranny of the Puritans’ religious harshness is juxtaposed with the sexual excesses of the monarchy -- both are oppressive for ordinary Britons. Victory is a perfect example of why countries need to govern from the middle: practical concerns should trump individual obsessions.

While Barker gets in some good lines about the nature of war, government and the baseness of human nature, it’s hard to tell whether he is being ironic or instructive. At nearly three hours, without a clear narrative, the play is tiring. Still, there are impressive moments. Many in the cast were or are students at Middlebury College. A recent grad (Michaela Lieberman) does a strong turn as Devonshire, the king’s mistress. A capable ensemble joins her -- and all perform their roles well.

Director Richard Romagnoli has chosen to punctuate scene changes with punk rock played at deafening volume. Tyranny comes in all forms, not the least of which is aural.

–Debra Griboff  


Turn off The Dark

 Spider Man -- Turn Off The Dark




In an interview with French director François Truffaut, Hitchcock shared his formula for a successful movie: “the better the villain, the better the picture.” Spider-Man Turn off The Dark, now at the Foxwoods Theater, has embraced his advice. One of the best elements in the $70 million Broadway show, aside from its zippy aerials stunts, is the Green Goblin (Patrick Page).

Say what you will about special effects, but when an actor can embody a cartoonish villain and make him real — and funny — it ups the entertainment ante. And when that same super villain, out to destroy New York City, is felled by an automated phone system, it gives the much-maligned musical the kiss of life. His Liberace-esque version of  “I’ll Take Manhattan” seals the deal.

Spider-Man, which finally opened after a long preview period, has, like its superhero, high-school science geek Peter Parker (Reeve Carney), highs and lows. The story revolves around the bullied Parker. On a visit to a state-of-the-art lab, a genetically altered spider bites him. Suddenly, blessed with superior strength, flexibility and the power to fly, Peter is transformed into Spider-Man. That’s handy, because New York City is under attack by the Green Goblin and his gang, the Sinister Six.

The first act, where we meet Peter and girlfriend Mary Jane (Jennifer Damiano), is all exposition — and it drags. But by act two, Spider-Man swings into high gear. On the upside, the sheer spectacle was fantastic. George Tsypin’s sets make great use of computer graphics and sleek 1930s architecture. The set, sound and lighting work well together, and the publicized aerials add to the entertainment.

What didn’t score was the general choreography, which was atrocious. People running around screaming, interrupted by the occasional break dance, is not typical Broadway musical fare. Similarly, the costumes lacked consistency, though the villains enjoy inspired couture. Parker’s classmates are curiously punk, while his newsroom editor walked out of the Fifties. Adding to the confusion are references to blogging and the Internet.

What’s apparent is that the show is a patchwork quilt, art-wise.  There is a dash of Julie Taymor, the Tony-winning director of The Lion King, who was fired in the spring, and a splash of creative consultant Philip W. McKinley, who directed seven editions of Barnum & Bailey’s The Greatest Show on Earth.  Similarly, Bono’s music is adequate rather than soaring. One big exception is the sweet ballad “If the World Should End” between Parker and MJ.

Spider-Man is a big budget show — and its production values are on display. Carney is adorable as Peter, Damiano is a versatile actress (Tony-nominated for her moving performance in Next to Normal) and a strong supporting cast backs them. The show’s price tag could probably have paid for a genetically altered Spider-Man in real life. But for those who prefer flying men in tights, Spider-Man will suffice.

—Debra Griboff





The Addams Family

There are many genuinely crowd-pleasing moments in The Addams Family, now at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater; the performances and the theater craft are notable. Co-designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch produced a spot-on set, enhanced by Natasha Katz’s artistic lighting —but that’s not enough to make the $16 million production work.

The blame is twofold: a sappy plot and staid lyrics. The characters are familiar to legions of fans who love the twisted sense of humor. Rather than showcase the famed Addams’ perversity, the musical is saddled with a silly story. Teenage Wednesday Addams (a notable Krysta Rodriguez) is in love with Lucas (Wesley Taylor), burdened by two straight-arrow parents (Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello) from Ohio. Wednesday proposes both families meet — and they do.

The “Where Did We Go Wrong” and “One Normal Night” numbers are an opportunity to send up all parents’ frustration with adolescent rebellion — whatever your political stripe. However, the show’s comic possibilities aren’t sufficiently mined. Nathan Lane as Gomez and Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia are terrific, but even these top-notch headliners can’t overcome the dopey construct.

The second concern is Andrew Lippa’s lyrics. He apparently got hold of a rhyming dictionary and wouldn’t let go. How else to explain pairing “waiting” with  “lactating.” The big problem, though, is the second act, in which each major performer gets a number. It is closer in spirit to a musical revue than a Broadway blockbuster. For example, Uncle Fester’s (a well-played Kevin Chamberlin) second-act song, a paean to his love for the moon, is delightfully staged. And though its off-beat sweetness seems closer to the Addams’ spirit, it has nothing to do with the plot.

Similarly, the finale’s “Tango de Amour” should allow Morticia and Gomez to let loose with passion, but doesn’t. Bebe Neuwirth, whose torso fairly bursts with energy against the rigid corset of the costume, gets one opportunity to strut her stuff, but is constrained by Lane’s dance weakness and the distracting movements of the background dancers. (The Addams Ancestors, a singing-dancing chorus, are as haunting as soap bubbles.) There is sizeable talent and genuine fun onstage — from the leads to Jackie Hoffman’s Woodstock-era Grandma — but this Addams lacks bite.  —Debra Griboff

Photo credit: Joan Marcus


Zero Hour

Oversized humor was a Zero Mostel trademark. The big man, boasting a big personality, was known for his Broadway turn in Fiddler on the Roof and the film The Producers.  In 1943, Life magazine called him “just about the funniest American now living.” But despite numerous successes, the road was paved with heartache. Jim Brochu stars as the volatile Mostel in Zero Hour, a one-man show at the DR2 Theater.

Mostel got his break in the 1940s as a successful comic at Café Society, a Manhattan nightclub; he became an actor by happenstance. Accompanying his wife to her acting class, zERO hOURMostel was prompted by the teacher to improvise. That fortuitous encounter led to an extraordinary career—spanning the absurdist play Rhinoceros to the seminal Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (which earned him a Tony) to film and TV work. While talented, he had a reputation for dominating any production.

The play opens in 1977, a few months before Mostel’s death. He has taken refuge in his favorite place, his painting studio, aptly designed by Josh Iacovelli. Interrupted by an unseen, unheard reporter, Mostel churlishly agrees to an interview. “I act in order to keep myself in paint,” he explains. 

Brochu’s performance is a credit to both him and Mostel. He looks, sounds and moves like Zero Mostel. He captures his gestures, the sweep of his passions and swings of emotion. The meat of the show is Mostel relating the persecution of writers and actors in the early 1950s by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee.  Most appalling, his old friend Jerome Robbins was a cooperative witness. Mostel, named by another informant, was blacklisted. Ironically, he was forced to work with Robbins years later on Broadway.  —Debra Griboff

Photo credit: Michael Lamont

South Pacific


 South Pacific, hasn’t seen a revival on the Great White Way for 60 years. The current, near-perfect incarnation at Lincoln Center is as upbeat as Gypsy is dark. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical takes place on a South Pacific island during World War II. While South Pacific, staged in 1949, has a decidedly post-war optimism, it also makes a plea for racial tolerance.

When nurse Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) falls for Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot), a French planter who has fathered two children by a native woman, she’s forced to confront her own prejudices. Similarly, when handsome Marine lieutenant Joe Cable (Matthew Morrison) falls for a Polynesian girl (Li Jun Li), he laments that he cannot bring her home. In the moving “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” Rodgers and Hammerstein address the issue of bigotry head-on, a daring move at the time.

At heart, South Pacific is a glorious paean to romance. Can anyone hear the lush “Some Enchanted Evening” without being seduced by the promise of destiny? Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot have real chemistry, though her emotional ambivalence is beautifully rendered. Bartlett Sher’s direction is lively and sensitive, and the music sublime. And the exquisite lighting by Donald Holder makes us all long for Bali Ha’i. –Fern Siegel 

The 39 Steps

For Hitchcock fans, The 39 Steps was an early thriller – and introduced one of the director’s favorite themes: The innocent man trapped by circumstance. In the hugely entertaining 1935 film, Robert Donat, wrongly accused of murder, races from London to Scotland to stop an international spy ring – and clear his name. En route, he meets an icy but pretty blonde. The twists and turns, the droll humor, even the The 39 Stepshandcuffs, are vintage Hitchcock. In the Broadway incarnation, direct from the West End, The 39 Steps is played for laughs, rather than dramatic highpoints, though it adheres to the original script. In the current rendition at the American Airlines Theater, the show is a salute to inspired staging and wonderfully versatile actors.

In short, three of its four cast members play a dizzying array of parts. The 39 Steps is inventive and entertaining, but its cast would be greatly aided by eliminating the intermission, which stops the action cold. For all its craftsmanship – and there’s plenty to trumpet – The 39 Steps is lightweight fare.  At least by Broadway standards. 

It would be better-suited to an extended run at a prominent off-Broadway theater. If you know the film well, and it’s a fair guess many theatergoers do, the added bonus is The 39 Steps’ homage to Hitchcock’s film canon. It cleverly pays verbal and visual homage to Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds, et. al. The sets and costumes are by Peter McKintosh and direction by Maria Aitken, both fans of modernism. They make the most of a few props. The use of doors and windows is a minimalist delight. Every cliché is sent up; every moment is mined for humor.

That The 39 Steps works as a comedy whodunit is thanks, in no small part, to the film’s ageless charm. As Richard Hannay, the wronged man, Charles Edwards (the one cast member from England), is perfect for his role as a Thirties goodhearted chap.

The real stars are Jennifer Ferrin, who plays several different women so well it’s hard to believe it’s the same actress, and Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, who don endless roles with lightning speed and agility.

The 39 Steps, for all its ingenuity, is a theatrical trifle. But it is a reminder that sometimes, less is more. –Fern Siegel


Mary Poppins

If you think you know Mary Poppins, think again. Disney made her famous in the 1964 movie, and children—and adults everywhere—secretly wish that they, too, could live, for even a few moments, at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London—at least, while the indomitable Poppins is in residence. Mystical and magical, she is, again, happily in our midst.  

Mary Poppins, the musical, now playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre, is a marvel of invention and ingenuity. Based on the novels of P.T. Travers, the current rendition of Mary Poppins is darker and more insightful than the Disney incarnation. The Australian-born Travers, who wrote the first of eight Poppins novels in 1934, set it in the Depression. Hollywood moved it to the Edwardian era, and there it stays—with a catch.

 The musical, an English import, is hugely entertaining, brilliantly staged and mythical. Like the archetypal hero, Mary (a pitch-perfect Ashley Brown) mysteriously appears from the outside to fix a dysfunctional family. The Banks household—father, mother and two naughty children, Jane and Michael (a noteworthy Matthew Gumley)—is unhappy. Rather than function as a loving unit, they each inhabit their own sad worlds. They need to be made whole—individually and collectively—and that is Mary’s genius. 

The book by Julian Fellowes, coupled with the original score and wonderful new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, delves into the nasty recesses of the English soul. Here, Bert the chimney sweep (a remarkable Gavin Lee), is the core. He neatly narrates the tale, underlining the difference between external appearances (feigned upper-class solidity) and internal anxiety (the Banks’ emotional lives). Indeed, Mary Poppins is a strong indictment of Edwardian child-rearing and the horrors of emotional repression. Before something can be fixed, we need to acknowledge it’s broken.

Cue Mary, who enters from on high (the allusion is obvious) to restore order out of chaos. Equal parts discipline, gruff cheer and a refusal to submit to conventional wisdom, ensure her success. En route, however, she takes us, and the Banks family, on a whirlwind journey through London—both real and imagined. The sets are clever and extraordinary, the score a delight. Richard Eyre’s direction and Matthew Bourne’s choreography define entertainment; Mary Poppins is a site for the eyes and a salve for the heart. A thoughtful, joyous musical with top-of-the-line actors, effects and music, Mary Poppins is a triumph.    Fern Siegel



25 Questions for a Jewish Mother

I laughed. I cried. I thought Judy Gold, a stand-up comic who won two Emmys for writing for The Rosie O’Donnell Show, had something to say. The big surprise was that the comic who hosts HBO’s At the Multiplex With Judy Gold is also a talented actress.

Now playing at the St. Luke’s Theatre, 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, intertwines Gold’s own story with Jewish women she interviewed nationwide as part of a five-year project. What begins as a simple questionnaire blossoms into a moving chronicle of women’s lives. From secular to Orthodox, Holocaust survivors to a Chinese convert, 25 Questions explores the nature of belief and observance in the 21st century.

The catch is—Gold, in a one-woman show, portrays each of the women she interviews. It’s a simple, but engaging format. She breaks from her hilarious standup routine at the mike, where we learn how she came out to her mother, the omnipresent Ruth Gold, her struggles with her girlfriend, and subsequent birth of her two sons: Henry and Ben. She then walks stage right, sits in a chair, and assumes the identity of the women she is interviewing.

It’s a clever device. First, it allows us to meet the women as they are, with strength, fragility, passion and uncertainty intact. Second, it showcases Gold’s gift for accents, memory and moment. The women are exceedingly honest—and their stories are occasionally heartbreaking.

The funniest bits, however, are the ongoing battles between Gold and her mother. Their relationship is loving, but fraught with anxiety. When the 8-year-old Judy is late coming home one day, she arrives to find the police in her kitchen—and her mother serving them rugelah. Ruth’s over-protectiveness is comic to us, but stifling to her daughter, who believes her real mother, Barbra Streisand, will one day rescue her from her middle-class New Jersey existence.  It’s not until the grown-up Judy discovers the secret behind her mother’s fears that she understands what drives her—and in that moment, the open wound begins to heal.

In truth, both Gold and her mother are natural narcissists. Each fights for center stage. That Gold can turn her tale into a successful play (and award-winning career) is to her credit. She’s has a gift for understanding the crazy ironies in daily life and her honesty is stunning. 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother is the like theatrical therapy. It’s filled with laugher and sadness, but this is one emotional ride, but you’ll be glad to take.  –Fern Siegel 



Jersey Boys

It’s a long journey from singing on the mean streets of New Jersey to the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame, but Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons did it. One of the most successful vocal groups of the 1960s, The Four Seasons scored a series of smash hit singles between 1962 and 1967, featuring the piercing falsetto voice of Frankie Valli). But the boys weren’t a one-note wonder. During their 40-year career, the group sold more than 100 million records. (Thanks to Bob Gaudio, one of the quartet and the songwriting genius behind their success.) Now playing at the August Wilson Theatre, “Jersey Boys” chronicles their story—and this super-entertaining musical roller coaster doesn’t miss a beat. 

“Jersey Boys” is, first and foremost, a showcase for their music. From “Sherry” to “Walk Like a Man,” the songs, dance steps and sleek suits defiantly capture an era and a mind-set. Frankie Valli (born Frankie Castelluccio) is a young Italian guy who, like his friends, sees two options in life: the Mob or singing. It is, after all, 1950s Newark, New Jersey, and “Jersey Boys” makes clear The Four Seasons never wholly escape their roots, personally or professionally. Their music speaks to working-class people. The intellectuals, Gaudio notes, listen to The Beatles. No matter. In 2005, the entire audience is riveted to the story, a rags-to-riches saga that could only happen in America. “Jersey Boys” examines the corruption of the music business and the personal toil success takes with unflinching honesty. At heart, “Jersey Boys” is a cautionary tale about friendship and fame. The music endures, but the price is high.

Of course, the back story is what gives the production emotional texture. It’s the performances–and you’d swear John Lloyd Young, who plays Valli, is channeling him. Ditto for the other three Seasons: Christian Hoff as Tommy DeVito, Daniel Reichard as Gaudio and J. Robert Spencer as Nick Massi. If you missed the original act, these four do a superb job of recreating the sass and sizzle. Thanks to Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, which is dazzling, and Des McAnuff’s direction, which is pitch perfect, “Jersey Boys” sets the standard for tribute musicals. Like “Beatlemania,” it feels as if you're  watching the real thing. Since we can’t, “Jersey Boys” is the next best thing.  –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. 


  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




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