Leopoldstadt *****

By: David Sheward

January 8, 2023: The cast list to Tom Stoppard’s latest work, Leopoldstadt, is certainly intimidating. Multiple generations of a Jewish Viennese family, played by a small army of actors, sprawl across two pages. “How will I ever keep all these characters straight,?” I mused as scanned the program. Yes, the relationships and plotlines are incredibly intricate and difficult to follow, but that doesn’t matter. Stoppard, one of the greatest playwrights of the English-speaking theater, creates a narrative so powerful, intimate and touching that it’s okay if you don’t remember who is related or married to whom. In two intermissionless hours, Stoppard and director Patrick Marber take us on a harrowing journey from 1899 to 1955, paralleling the author’s own history of fleeing Hitler as a child, having the good fortune of his widowed mother marrying an Englishman, and then growing up in Great Britain. Stoppard, who was born in the Czech Republic, became more British than the Brits and had little connection with his Jewish heritage

By: David Sheward

January 8, 2023: The cast list to Tom Stoppard’s latest work, Leopoldstadt, is certainly intimidating. Multiple generations of a Jewish Viennese family, played by a small army of actors, sprawl across two pages. “How will I ever keep all these characters straight,?” I mused as scanned the program. Yes, the relationships and plotlines are incredibly intricate and difficult to follow, but that doesn’t matter. Stoppard, one of the greatest playwrights of the English-speaking theater, creates a narrative so powerful, intimate and touching that it’s okay if you don’t remember who is related or married to whom. In two intermissionless hours, Stoppard and director Patrick Marber take us on a harrowing journey from 1899 to 1955, paralleling the author’s own history of fleeing Hitler as a child, having the good fortune of his widowed mother marrying an Englishman, and then growing up in Great Britain. Stoppard, who was born in the Czech Republic, became more British than the Brits and had little connection with his Jewish heritage.

The Cast of Leopoldstadt.

That is until he reconnected with distant relatives, chronicled in Hermione Lee’s excellent biography. Leopoldstadt, named for the Jewish Ghetto section of the Austrian capital, is the dramatic result of Stoppard’s examination of his roots. As he did with the emotionally intense The Real Thing, Stoppard proves he can do more than put together intellectual theatrical puzzles like Jumpers and Travesties. His broad historical canvas is vividly alive with sorrow and anguish.

The thread that weaves through the decades-long story is the Merz family’s place in European society from grudging but limited acceptance to the horrors of the Holocaust to its traumatic after effects. When we first meet the expansive Merz clan, they are ironically celebrating a secular Christmas just as the 19th century is ending. Several members have converted or married Catholics, thinking this assimilation will protect them from Gentile discrimination. Richard Hudson’s elegant set and Brigitte Reifenstuel’s detailed costumes recreate the various periods with subtle suggestiveness. As the years fly by and the German dictator rises to power, the family’s apartment becomes sparer and dingier as economic and social restrictions against Jews increase. 

Eden Epstein (Hermine) and Calvin James Davis (Hein).

Marber’s smooth direction perfectly balances Stoppard’s comic moments (such as a farcical scene about circumcision) with the terrifying (a Gestapo official addressing the family like animals as he cruelly delivers orders for their relocation to the titular ghetto.)  It’s difficult to single out any one of the large, outstanding ensemble which is so seamlessly integrated that no single performance stands out. Many play double roles and blend into the characters so effortlessly that it’s difficult to believe it’s the same actor. 

Brandon Uranowitz is delightfully distracted as an absent-minded mathematician and devastatingly bitter as one of the few Merz survivors of the Nazi terrors. Seth Numrich captures the alienation of a maimed World War I vet and the compassion of a British journalist who marries into the family. Faye Castelow resembles a young Billie Burke as Gretl, a flighty wife whose indiscretions almost cause catastrophic scandal. David Krumholtz is brilliantly controlled as Gretl’s husband Hermann as he musters as much dignity as he can against the haughty bigotry of a smug officer who is Gretl’s secret lover (bristlingly nasty Arty Froushan). In a crafty piece of double casting, Froushan also plays Leo, the Stoppard stand-in, at first oblivious to his family’s destruction and then wracked with guilt by it. There’s also valuable contributions from Jenna Augen’s flinty Rosa who escapes to America, Aaron Neil’s practical and stoic Ernst, Tedra Millan’s brave resistance worker Nellie, Eden Epstein’s bubbly Hermine whose marriage to a Gentile banker (attractive Japheth Balaban) doesn’t save her from deportation to the camps; and Corey Brill’s barbaric Nazi.

Brandon Uranowitz (Nathan) and  Arty Froushan  (Leo).

Leopoldstadt is not just a career-capping work to Stoppard’s stunning oeuvre, ranking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, The Real Thing, and The Coast of Utopia, but it’s essential viewing for all lovers of theater, history and humanity.

Leopoldstadt *****
Oct. 2, 2022—July 2, 2023 Longacre Theater, 220 W. 48th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and ten mins. with no intermission. www.telecharge.com.
Photography: Joan Marcus

Corey Brill (Civilian) and Anthony Rosenthal (Young Nathan).

Jesus Christ Superstar

Ted Neeley, Cast Members, Celebrate 50th Anniversary of Film Adaptation of Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar ~ January 14

By: Ellis Nassour

January 7, 2023 – Co-star Ted Neeley and members of the cast of Norman Jewison’s production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the film January 14 at the beautiful state-of-the art theatre of Trenton, NJ’s Villa Victoria Academy Performing Arts Center (376 W Upper Ferry Road, Ewing Township, NJ).

Ted Neeley, Cast Members, Celebrate 50th Anniversary of Film Adaptation of Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar ~ January 14 

By: Ellis Nassour

January 7, 2023 – Co-star Ted Neeley and members of the cast of Norman Jewison’s production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the film January 14 at the beautiful state-of-the art theatre of Trenton, NJ’s Villa Victoria Academy Performing Arts Center (376 W Upper Ferry Road, Ewing Township, NJ).

Guests will enjoy a widescreen showing of Jewison’s breathtaking and sweeping production, starring Neeley, the late Carl Anderson (Jesus, and who played the role in the Summer 1972 Los Angeles engagement outdoors at Universal Studios), Yvonne Elliman (Mary, and who did the role on the 1971 Rice/Lloyd Webber rock opera, the pre-Broadway national tour, and on Broadway), the late Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate, who co-starred in the role on Broadway), and Josh Mostel (King Herod).

Attending from the numerous cast of Broadway actors who were featured in the film will be   Larry Marshall, Bob Bingham, and Kurt Yaghjian.

Frank Munoz, co-producer and director of Superstars – The Documentary, will introduce the cast members on hand and the film, which was shot in HD Todd-A-O and Technicolor in the scorching heat of Israel’s Negev and Judean deserts.

There will also be a tribute to director Jewison and the late Tom O’Horgan, who directed the 1972 spectacular Broadway production.

Following the screening there will be photo opts, autographs, and merchandise for sale (including the film soundtrack) and Bingham and Yaghjian Superstar-inspired jewelry. 

To avoid comparisons to any stage productions, Jewison conceived a documentary-within-the-film of a hippie acting troupe going to the Holy Land to present a passion play. He   took his huge cast and crew to Israel, filming on location along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Bell Caves, Avdat Roman ruins, the Herodium Fortress, and the Dead Sea – using only natural light. He also chose the controversial addition of contemporary touches, such as military tanks (the Six Day War was in progress), weaponry, uniformed Israeli soldiers, and production crew and props. Off duty soldiers appear in crowd sequences. The tanks were used in a harrowing sequence in pursuit of Anderson (Judas).

Neeley and (the late) Anderson described shooting on location as “absolute amazement.” Neeley said it was incredible to be filming “in the footpaths of Jesus Christ.”

In a location interview at the Herodium Fortress, Jewison said, “It would be difficult to make the story of Jesus Christ on the streets of Amsterdam or on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Historically, this is where the events took place … The reason I came to Israel was to put my cast, crew, and myself in the right mood, atmosphere, and environment.”

As with the stage productions, the film is sung-through.

Limited seating is available for the 50th Anniversary screening and meet & greet. There are $20 and can be purchased at www.showtix4u.com/event-details/67939

H.M.S. Pinafore *****

By: Paulanne Simmons

January 9, 2023: Tired of the busy, complicated life of the 21st century? Step into the colorful, Victorian world of Gilbert and Sullivan, where men are true, women are beautiful and virtuous, and love triumphs. This season The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players are presenting one of G&S’s most beloved operas, H.M.S. Pinafore, and the production is pure delight.

By: Paulanne Simmons

January 9, 2023: Tired of the busy, complicated life of the 21st century? Step into the colorful, Victorian world of Gilbert and Sullivan, where men are true, women are beautiful and virtuous, and love triumphs. This season The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players are presenting one of G&S’s most beloved operas, H.M.S. Pinafore, and the production is pure delight.

Albert Bergeret directs a cast that seems born to play Gilbert and Sullivan’s charming, flamboyant and sometimes ridiculous characters. Michelle Seipel is Josephine, the Pinafore Captain Corcoran’s winsome daughter, and Cameron Smith is the able seaman who has fallen in love with her. 

Cameron Smith and Michelle Seipe.

Despite their beautiful voices, their love is doomed because Captain Corcoran (David Auxier) has promised his daughter to Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty (James Mills). However, Little Buttercup (Angela Christine Smith), a dockside vendor who sells trifles to the sailors, hints there are dark secrets that may mean “things are seldom what they seem.”

Mills has perfected the Admiral’s pompous foolishness, and his “When I Was a Lad” is the showstopper it should be. Auxier easily embodies English classism but is also a kindly father. Mills and Auxier’s scenes together are comic masterpieces.

Sailors and Sisters, Cousins and Aunts.

The ensemble, which always plays such an important role in Gilbert and Sullivan operas, creates standout characters among the sailors onboard the ship and the large entourage that surrounds the Admiral (his sisters and his cousins and his aunts). Their singing and dancing certainly make the Pinafore’s quarterdeck rock.

Although Bergeret occasionally lets current events peak into the show, with references to Covid testing and Kevin McCarthy’s difficulties in becoming speaker of the House, this production is true to the spirit and style of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Victorian stage. 

David Auxier, James Mills and Victoria Devany.

Gilbert and Sullivan were well aware of the flaws in a society that put class distinction over personal ability and connections over experience. They used melodrama and music to make their point. Although many of the details have changed, human nature has not. For those willing to step into the past, H.M.S. Pinafore provides a gloriously glimpse into the foibles of humanity.

H.M.S. Pinafore ran Dec. 30, 2022 through Jan. 8, 2023 at Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, 68 Street between Park and Lexington avenues. Photo Credit: Danny Bristoll 

Broadway Babe

Broadway Babe’s Viewing finds include a BBC Stephen Sondheim concert from 2022 featuring a dazzling cast of stars from both sides of the pond.

January 8, 2023: Broadway Babe Randie Levine-Miller has unearthed some fun viewing finds….Broadway’s “42nd Street”; a recent BBC Stephen Sondheim concert; the press reel of the Tony Award winning, “City of Angels”; and an old “This Is Your Life” TV show, honoring Dinah Shore.

Broadway Babe’s Viewing finds include a BBC Stephen Sondheim concert from 2022 featuring a dazzling cast of stars from both sides of the pond.

January 8, 2023: Broadway Babe Randie Levine-Miller has unearthed some fun viewing finds….Broadway’s “42nd Street”; a recent BBC Stephen Sondheim concert; the press reel of the Tony Award winning, “City of Angels”; and an old “This Is Your Life” TV show, honoring Dinah Shore.

Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends

From May, 2022, this is a magnificent British concert, starring theater performers from both sides of the pond. The show starts off with the titles and overture to the1962 movie version of “West Side Story”, with that incredibly luscious Leonard Bernstein score. Cameron Mackintosh produced and conceived this historic event which aired on the BBC, and he is a wonderful host. 

This amazing cast includes: Bernadette Peters, Michael Ball, Helena Bonham Carter, Petula Clark (looking beautiful and sounding great at 90!), Judy Dench, Imelda Staunton, Jenna Russell, Maria Friedman, Bonnie Langford, Julian Ovenden and and Julia McKenzie. Some highlights: Imelda Staunton who starred in the London revival of “Gypsy”, singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”; Petula Clark singing “I’m Still Here”; Bernadette Peters singing “Losing My Mind”, which she sang in the “Follies” Broadway revival. There’s also a video interlude with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim at the piano paying tribute to Cameron Macintosh that is so charming.  The entire concert is so exciting and Sondheim fans will definitely get teary eyed and gooseflesh! 
Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends Photo: David M Benett/Getty Images

City of Angels

This is the press reel of the 1990 Tony Award winning Broadway musical, “City of Angels” by Cy Coleman and David Zippel; Book by Larry Gelbart.  Starring: James Naughton, Gregg Edelman, Randy Graff, Dee Hoty, Kay McClelland, and Rene Auberjonois, who all give excellent performances. The show is a musical homage to film noir. So many friends comment that this show should be revived and I am in total agreement. The score is quite fabulous, and so is the book… This is one of legendary composer’s Cy Coleman’s best; and David Zippel is one of the theater’s wittiest lyricists.  You’ll see and hear most of the numbers performed on this promo press reel, which has a part 2, that I’m also posting.  

Sidebar:  David Zippel did the lyrics to “Bad Cinderella” with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was quite successful in London, and is scheduled to open on Broadway this coming March.

42nd Street

From 1986, the Tony Award winning musical, “42nd Street” plays Japan — a totally delicious musical comedy experience, guaranteed to make you smile!. Some of the best dancing to ever grace the stage.  The only negative is that during the dialog, there are Japanese subtitles! Other than that, it’s a very enjoyable professionally shot video.  David Merrick’s company brought a lot of the Broadway cast over for this production, most notably, great friend, Broadway’s favorite song and dance man, Lee Roy Reams who stars as Billy Lawlor, the role he originated on Broadway, and which won him a Tony nomination. Also starring: Clare Leach, Jamie Ross, Elizabeth Allen, Carole Cook (who just turned 100 years old!), Joseph Bova. It features the original sets, costumes, choreography. It’s a huge undertaking, and it’s absolutely incredible. This is a true musical comedy treasure! 


This Is Your Life, Dinah Shore

From 1953, “This Is Your Life, Dinah Shore” with host, Ralph Edwards. Dinah Shore is truly surprised as she thinks she’s in the studio to surprise Eddie Cantor!  But in fact, Cantor is in the audience knowing they will honor the lovely, gracious, somewhat shy, humble Dinah.  She is a reticent subject at first, but then becomes more relaxed. 

She was born in 1917, so at this point in her life, she was 36 years old.  Eddie Cantor pays tribute to her, as she was the featured vocalist on his radio show, which was her big break.  Her then husband, George Montgomery also appears.  There’s something about him, that reminds me of her later love, Burt Reynolds — there’s a resemblance there. This Nashville native graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1938. She was a real lady with a wonderful reputation both professionally and personally.  She enjoyed great success in the 1970’s with her daily talk/variety show.  She died in 1994 of ovarian cancer at 76.

Between Riverside and Crazy ****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 4, 2023: Sometimes there is an unplanned, serendipitous confluence between real-life events and a play, usually having nothing to do with a playwright’s intentions. I’m thinking of the relationship between Stephen Adly Guirgis’s passionate yet humorous Between Riverside and Crazy, about an intransigent man who refuses to compromise, and a passage in today’s Times describing the current political spectacle in which an ornery band of rightwing Republican Party congressmen and women is blocking the election of a Speaker of the House of Representatives.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 4, 2023: Sometimes there is an unplanned, serendipitous confluence between real-life events and a play, usually having nothing to do with a playwright’s intentions. I’m thinking of the relationship between Stephen Adly Guirgis’s passionate yet humorous Between Riverside and Crazy, about an intransigent man who refuses to compromise, and a passage in today’s Times describing the current political spectacle in which an ornery band of rightwing Republican Party congressmen and women is blocking the election of a Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

“No matter the concessions made to some of those on the far right, they simply will not relent and join their colleagues even if it is for the greater good of their party, and perhaps the nation. They consider themselves conservative purists who cannot be placated unless all their demands are met — and maybe not even then”. 

I’ll return to this later.

Mr. Guirgis’s riveting play, which premiered to rave reviews in the summer of 2014 at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, has finally reached Broadway in a 2nd Stage production at the Hayes Theater that is very much like the original. It even has five members of its first seven-actor cast. One, thankfully, is Stephen McKinley Henderson, repeating his towering, award-worthy performance as the stubborn old goat, Walter “Pops” Washington. The others are Victor Almanzar as Oswaldo, Rosal Colón as Lulu, Elizabeth Canavan as Detective Audrey O’Connor, and Michael Rispoli as Walter’s chief foil, Lt. Dave Caro. (Mr. Rispoli’s understudy, J. Anthony Crane, played the part—outstandingly—the night I went.) 

Common and Rosal Colon.

Between Riverside and Crazy deserves considerable attention for the quality of its writing and the all-around excellence of its production, once again beautifully directed by Austin Pendleton; aside from the new actors, it seems little changed from the show of eight and a half years ago, which I reviewed on another site. (Some of the following is adapted from that review.) 

The first thing that happens is that the expansive Riverside Drive apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, one room of which we’ve been staring at since taking our seats, begins to slowly revolve, revealing Walt Spangler’s intricately designed set of high-walled, interlocking rooms, with a balcony-like extension, warmly lit by Keith Parham. It provides an instant impression of why this “palatial” abode, despite its rundown condition, is so desirable and why it is, in essence, as much a character as any of the people in the play. When it stops moving, we see the eat-in kitchen, at whose table the overweight, bathrobe-clad, booze-loving, recently widowed Walter, a retired African American cop and military veteran, is seated in a wheelchair and conversing with a much younger Latino, Oswaldo. Oswaldo, the ex-con friend of Walter’s ex-con son, Junior, is staying here rent-free while he tries to get his act together. The middle-aged Junior (rapper-actor-activist Common, in his Broadway debut) also lives here, as does his sexpot girlfriend, Lulu.

Rosal Colon

Despite the wheelchair, which he uses for comfort, not mobility, Walter is perfectly ambulatory; this is just one of many things in the play that show how what we often assume to be one thing turn out to be the other. As Lulu says to Walter: “I may look how I look—but that don’t mean I AM how I look!”

The apartment, in which Walter has lived since 1978, is rent-controlled; while Walter pays only $1,500 a month rent for it, the landlord can get ten times that amount if he finds a way to remove its tenant. Eight years earlier, Walter, while off duty in a sleazy bar during the wee hours of the morning, was shot six times by a white rookie cop. His injuries forced him to retire, and he’s been suing the city ever since, refusing any settlement, insisting, with some dubiety, that the shooting was racially motivated and that the shooter had called him a “nigger,” although no eyewitness corroborated his assertion. Despite his bitterly professed certainty, ambiguities about the incident persist. 

 Stephen McKinley Henderson and Elizabeth Canavan.

Of the play’s several plot threads, the principal one concerns the very real possibility that Walter will lose his apartment unless he settles. This becomes especially clear when he has over for dinner his ex-partner, Detective O’Connor, who professes enormous admiration for Walter, and her fiancé, the plain-spoken Lt. Dave Caro. Caro, his white officer’s shirt covered in ribbons and brass, is ambitious and has his eye on higher places; if he can convince the obstinate Walter to end his eternal lawsuit, he’ll make a major impression on the powers that be.

As the play wends its way toward the resolution of the apartment problem, it offers a cornucopia of dramatic riches, distinctively comic and fervently serious, with an assortment of complexly detailed and highly colorful characters; each makes a lasting impression based on how he or she interacts with Walter. Oswaldo, a recovering drug addict with father issues, is so fond of Walter he calls him Dad, although Walter’s wary of the guy’s shady past and acquaintances. 

Father issues, in fact, make up a significant part of the play’s thematic structure, as we see in the problematic give and take between not only Walter and Oswaldo, but between Walter and Junior, Walter and Lulu, and even Walter and his former partner, O’Connor, who plans for Walter to walk her down the aisle at her forthcoming wedding. Lt. Caro’s depiction of his own father plays its part, and Lulu’s alleged pregnancy (presumably, if not conclusively, via Junior) occupies stage time, bringing Walter’s potential grandfather-hood into play.

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Victor Almanzar.

Oswaldo has an endearing quality, but in this play you have to be careful about people you trust. As he sits at the breakfast table with Walter, Oswaldo speaks in his lively street patois about the importance of eating the right food (almonds and health water for breakfast), because comfort food, like pie, which Walter is eating, gives you “Emotionalisms.” The cynical Walter counters that whatever the so-called experts say is one day going to be reversed: “Almonds: don’t be surprised if we learn sometime in the future that almonds cause cancer.”

Next we meet the skimpily dressed (Alexis Forte did the naturalistic costumes), physically ample Lulu, who also calls Walter Dad; from where he sits, Lulu has nothing but air between her ears. Told she’s an accounting student, Walter, nobody’s fool, wonders why, if that’s so, she moves her lips when reading her horoscope. One of her responsibilities is to walk the family dog, given to Walter as a companion after his wife died, but which Walter considers a pest, and which offers opportunities for several funny wisecracks.

Walter treats Junior, who sells hot merchandise out of his room, with authoritative disdain, although Junior responds with genuine affection and concern for his father’s well-being, begging him to settle his lawsuit and stop paying his “shyster” lawyers, Lubenthal and Lubenthal, a partnership whose name the playwright exploits with hilarious verbal dexterity. Any advice about ending the case, though, is like lighting a bomb in the old man’s heart, especially when it comes from his son.

When it comes from the two cops, O’Connor and Caro, though, Walter’s pride, stubbornness, and anger know no bounds. Caro works hard at being as friendly, reasonable, and persuasive as possible, even with his admittedly selfish motives. However, the more he presses Walter the more intransigent the ex-cop becomes, and the more Caro is forced to show his true colors. Both Walter and Caro are poker players; this informs their confrontations, and the conclusion to their debate is essentially one of who’s the better bluffer. Ultimately, Walter raises the stakes dramatically. 

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Rosal Colon.

What he asks before he’ll accept the city’s final offer originally made me feel considerable distaste for him. I nevertheless was able to agree that, in his moral universe, his request, egregious as it is, is perfectly appropriate. Seeing it again disturbed me far more seriously, especially as the playwright seems to approve of Walter’s stance, one I sensed the audience also supported, for reasons I won’t venture to rationalize. The parallel with those hard-right Republicans as described by the Times can’t be ignored, though; just as Walter won’t give in even though it might harm his son (Caro, who has the goods on Junior, threatens to arrest him), those politicians—happily, of course, to the delight of progressives—would rather torch their own party than go along with any kind of compromise.

Still, given what we’ve seen of Walter’s unbending character, his actions are more plausible than what happens in the final scene, which deflates the play on a disappointing note of sentimentality that feels out of keeping with what’s come before. 

In Mr. Pendleton’s crafty hands, the pacing, energy, and tonal balance keep the perfectly chosen ensemble humming; freshness, conviction, and vigor, combined with authentic character objectives inform one memorable performance after the other. These actors hold you enthralled from the very first words spoken. In a production of universally fine acting, the most memorable stems from Mr. Henderson and Mr. Crane, the latter every bit as good as I remember Mr. Rispoli to have been. Walter’s rage against all that he’s gone through has Lear-like power, while Mr. Crane’s ability to suggest mounting but repressed frustration while presenting counterargument after counterargument in response to Walter’s defiance is impressive. It makes Lt. Caro, for all his unabashed ambition in hoping to strike a deal, far more sympathetic than his demanding opponent. 

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Common.

Between Riverside and Crazy is filled with dramatic and comedic surprises and twists, like the vivid scene in which a visiting church woman (a terrific Maria-Christina Oliveras, although Liza Colón-Zayas’s name is on the show’s homepage) manages to combine the highly sexual with the intensely spiritual in her ministration to Walter of God’s love. Mr. Guirgis’s vibrant dialogue has a salty quality that sounds like it comes : from the streets, but is loaded with offbeat phrases and expressions that may sound accidental but that only a master word chef could cook up. 

At the moment, there’s only a handful of straight dramas, mostly revivals, on Broadway, which is dominated by musicals. Competition in the new play category for potential Tony Awards barely exists. Between Riverside and Crazy could as easily be considered a revival as a new play, so it will be interesting to see how it’s categorized. If the spring season fails to bring a sufficient number of new plays to the Great White Way it will demonstrate as never before the need to reconsider the viability of adding Off-Broadway plays to the competition. However things play out, though, Between Riverside and Crazy deserves to be somewhere in the mix.

Between Riverside and Crazy
The Hayes Theater
240 W. 44th Street, NYC
Through February 12, 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus

Merrily We Roll Along ***1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 1, 2023: No song has ever captured the feeling of sheer, outrageous, ebullient joy at having created a successful Broadway show as vividly as the late Stephen Sondheim’s “It’s a Hit!,” from Merrily We Roll Along, his 1981 musical, which, for years, was itself anything but. With a book based by George Furth on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which garnered only a modest 155 performances, the musical has long been a cult favorite of Sondheimaniacs.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 1, 2023: No song has ever captured the feeling of sheer, outrageous, ebullient joy at having created a successful Broadway show as vividly as the late Stephen Sondheim’s “It’s a Hit!,” from Merrily We Roll Along, his 1981 musical, which, for years, was itself anything but. With a book based by George Furth on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which garnered only a modest 155 performances, the musical has long been a cult favorite of Sondheimaniacs. 

Despite the 16-performance failure of its original Broadway version (directed by Hal Prince), theatre makers have been searching for a key to make it a commercial success ever since. That includes two Off-Broadway revivals in 1994 and 2019, an Encores production in 2012, and multiple versions elsewhere, during which the show underwent considerable revisions in search of an El Dorado of popular appeal. The answer seems to have been found in London in 2012, when Merrily We Roll Along finally justified that optimistic song title and everything was thought to have merrily rolled into place.

That hit production, directed by Maria Friedman at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is the source of the current staging at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, an instant sellout generating nearly universal raves and so much theatregoing excitement that it was rapidly decided to move it to Broadway with the leading players intact. That formidable group includes audience magnets Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, and Daniel Radcliffe at the top, with Krystal Joy Brown, Reg Rogers, and Katie Rose Clarke in support. It was raining lightly when I attended the matinee on the last day of 2022, but the line waiting in the drizzle for cancellations was the longest I’d seen for an Off-Broadway show in quite a while. 

Katie Rose Clarke, Jonathan Groff, Krystal Joy Brown, Jacob Keith Watson and Talia Robinson.

For all that, and I know I’m going to get whacked for this, I never found myself swept up in the euphoria one typically feels when in the presence of a genuine smash. There’s no doubt that Ms. Friedman’s staging is exuberantly dynamic, that the roles are notably well cast, that the ensemble is gifted, and that Sondheim’s songs display his typical genius for kaleidoscopic word play, complex choral effects, and novel melodic qualities. Yet, given our long familiarity with the Sondheim playlist, even if (like me) you recognize only a small number in this particular score, there are few musical surprises. In other words, you need to hear only one or two songs to know immediately who wrote them. Which is not to diminish the thoughtful power of first-rate numbers like “Old Friends,” or several others, “Not a Day Goes By” perhaps being the most familiar; it just seems, especially after the recent revival of Company—to which it bears distinct resemblances—to have a bit too much of a been there, done that vibe.

When the original play was produced, its use of reverse chronology to tell the story of how its playwright hero’s youthful idealism becomes tarnished—as his work becomes increasingly meretricious and his goals more materialistic—was considered revolutionary. This technique, now probably best known from Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, certainly helps to make its point by moving backward in time to illuminate the characters’ present day dilemmas. However, it takes two and a half hours to do so, gradually losing its punch the closer we get to the end (or the beginning). Because of the premise, covering 20 years (backwards from 1976 to 1957), there’s also too much dialogue and incident, the characters tend toward superficiality, the devices can border on cliché (those TV journalists!), and the acting frequently favors obviousness over subtlety. Much as Merrily We Roll Along is packed with highlight moments of staging, singing, and reflection, it occasionally drags. Given the current difficulties of drawing and maintaining an audience on Broadway, I can’t help but have doubts about this show’s viability there.

Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff and Daniel Radcliffe.

The plot, for which Kaufman and Hart’s character names have been changed, follows the reverse career trajectory of Hollywood film producer Franklin Shepard (Mr. Groff), originally a songwriter, by first showing him in 1976, celebrating his 40th birthday amid his fancy Hollywood friends and coworkers at his upscale LA home. We meet his old friend, Mary Flynn (Ms. Mendez), an acerbic, alcoholic theatre critic—Kaufman and Hart’s original, Julia Glenn, was thought to have been inspired by Dorothy Parker—distraught that Frank has shifted his priorities from music to making commercial movies. Horrors! On the other hand, Frank’s one-time lyricist, Charles Kringas (Mr. Radcliffe), has maintained his artistic integrity and become a Pulitzer-winning dramatist. Noble! 

We also meet Frank’s ultra-glamorous wife, Gussie Carnegie (Ms. Brown), once a Broadway star and now a movie actress, angry at losing a part in Frank’s latest picture to a younger actress with whom Frank is carrying on. Before the party ends in an act of jealous violence, Frank has begun to acknowledge the loss of his youthful idealism, a process on which the show now focuses, bit by bit, going back in time.

Subsequent scenes move back to 1973, 1968, 1966, 1964, 1962, 1960, 1959, and 1957. We watch the friendship of Mary, Frank, and Charlie begin, grow, crack, and dissolve, along with professional, artistic, sexual, romantic, and marital developments, as their careers and relationships evolve following success writing hit Broadway musicals. In the final scene, we share the warm optimism of the young characters as they watch for Sputnik in the sky, their hopeful attitude toward the world before them, in which anything is possible, tainted by our bittersweet foreknowledge of what the future actually holds in store. 

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, Reg Rogers and Krystal Joy Brown.

Soutra Gilmour’s set of a swanky home, expertly lit by Amith Chandrashaker, serves nicely, with minor alterations, for multiple other locales. I suspect it will become more elaborate on Broadway. Her costumes satisfactorily capture the changing years, with a few standouts, like those that help make the already gorgeous Ms. Brown even more so. She chooses to keep Mr. Groff in black slacks and white shirt throughout, while Mr. Radcliffe, looking decidedly seedy, has to wear spectacles, an unattractive, V-necked sweater, and shabby old sneakers that make him look like a 1930s newsie. Cookie Jordan’s wig designs are also very helpful, and Tim Jackson’s choreography—more musical movement than dance—adds just the right kick.

Messrs. Groff (Little Shop of Horrors) and Radcliffe (The Cripple of Inishmaan)once again demonstrate why they are among the most admired and versatile young actors in New York, each of them meeting their dramatic and musical responsibilities with technical and emotional panache. Radcliffe, by the way, stops the show with his rendition of the technically challenging “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” Ms. Mendez (Carousel) delivers another magnificent display of her vocal and histrionic gifts. Ms. Brown (Hamilton) is not only stunning, she can belt with the best of them, as in “Act Two Opening,” while Mr. Rogers does well as Broadway producer Joe Josephson. Finally Ms. Clarke is refreshingly good as Franklin’s faithful first wife, Beth, rendering the classic “Not a Day Goes By” with all the feeling it requires.

Book writer George Furth made many changes when adapting Kaufman and Hart’s original, among them turning the Franklin Shepard role, a playwright originally called Richard Niles, into a composer. With that in mind, I can’t resist closing with this comment by Herman Mankiewicz, on why some had trouble with the play: “Here’s this playwright who writes a play and it’s a big success. Then he writes another play and it’s a big hit, too. All his plays are big successes. All the actresses in them are in love with him, and he has a yacht and beautiful home in the country. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and he makes a million dollars. Now the problem the play propounds is this: How did the poor son of a bitch get in this jam?”

Merrily We Roll Along
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. Fourth Street, NYC
Through January 22, 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus

Patti LuPone @ 54 Below

Streaming tonight! Patti LuPone: Songs From a Hat LIVE from 54 Below

January 1, 2023: 54 Below will LIVE stream Patti LuPone’s New Year’s Day show at 8pm from the supper club on 54th Street. This is a chance to see Patti up close and unscripted. Her appearances at the intimate supper club have become legendary. The three-time Tony Award winning Icon will pull songs from a hat. There are some 45 songs or more in the hat, but there is no telling what will come out. The evening promises to be inspired improvisational artistry and much more. Tune in live from 54 Below for a never to be forgotten experience.

Streaming tonight! Patti LuPone: Songs From a Hat LIVE from 54 Below

January 1, 2023: 54 Below will LIVE stream Patti LuPone’s New Year’s Day show at 8pm from the supper club on 54th Street.  This is a chance to see Patti up close and unscripted. Her appearances at the intimate supper club have become legendary. The three-time Tony Award winning Icon will pull songs from a hat. There are some 45 songs or more in the hat, but there is no telling what will come out. The evening promises to be inspired improvisational artistry and much more. Tune in live from 54 Below for a never to be forgotten experience. 

To Purchase Tickets Click Here.

Downstate *****

By: David Sheward

December 31, 2022: Bruce Norris has already won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Clybourne Park, his clever contemporary twist on race derived from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. He is in line for more accolades for his latest searing and insightful play, Downstate, now at Playwrights Horizons after runs at London’s National Theater and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company. The subject matter is off-putting and challenging to say the least. But this skilled dramatist finds displays incredible compassion for his deeply troubled characters.

By: David Sheward

December 31, 2022: Bruce Norris has already won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Clybourne Park, his clever contemporary twist on race derived from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. He is in line for more accolades for his latest searing and insightful play, Downstate, now at Playwrights Horizons after runs at London’s National Theater and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company. The subject matter is off-putting and challenging to say the least. But this skilled dramatist finds displays incredible compassion for his deeply troubled characters. 

The setting (Todd Rosenthal created the realistic, detailed set) is a group home for sex offenders. The four residents have each committed a cringeworthy crime involving minors, but Norris endows each of them with depth and humanity. There’s elderly Fred (subtle Francis Guinan), attempting to salvage his sanity with music and confined to a wheelchair after his back was broken by a fellow inmate when he was in prison. Dee (sharp, vibrant K. Todd Freeman), copes with his demons with humor and DVDs of classic films. Gio (energetic Glenn Davis) plans to escape his stigma with grandiose entrepreneurial schemes as he punches a clock at Staples. Felix (heart-wrenching Eddie Torres) studies the Bible as he plots to reunite with his daughter whom he sexually assaulted. 

Eddie Torres and K. Todd Freeman.

Character development and exposition is deftly delivered in a long scene with the men and their tough-as-nails parole officer Ivy (steely Susanna Guzman). Norris artfully blends mundane details with earth-shattering restrictions to fully convey the residents’ impossible situation. One minute Fred is asking Ivy if her family was able to take a weekend trip and the next Ivy is informing her charges they can no longer shop at the nearest supermarket because it’s been judged too near a school and it would potentially place them in contact with children. Never mind that an eight-land highway separates the school and the store. That’s the new law, Ivy dispassionately states, deal with it.

The plot is set in motion when Fred receives a visit from his long-ago victim, Andy, now a grown-up nervous wreck, seeking closure and atonement from Fred. Understudy Matthew J. Harris subbing for Brian Hutchinson, gives a shattering depiction of Andy’s simmering stew of rage and shame. Sally Murphy is equally intense as Andy’s jittery wife Em. Andy’s arrival is the match that lights a powder keg of emotion and violence. 

Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzmán and Eddie Torres.

In this potentially dismal milieu, Norris finds humor and humanity, giving full weight to each character—including Gio’s hyper-active co-worker Effie (a very funny Gabi Samels). The playwright explores themes of guilt and responsibility, never making anyone onstage into a total victim or villain, but exposing their complex motivations and the inadequacy of the justice system to deal with them.

Pam MacKinnon’s invisible direction perfectly balances the lighter and darker moments so that Downstate is a frighteningly real play which will stick with you long after the final shattering moments.

Nov. 15—Jan. 7. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42 St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 35 mins. inlacing one intermission. www. paywrightshorizons.org.
Photography: Joan Marcus

 K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzmán and Eddie Torres.

Death Of A Salesman *****

By: David Sheward

December 30, 2022: In its last Broadway incarnation in 2012, Death of a Salesman was so close to the 1949 original that director Mike Nichols employed the same skeletal set design by Jo Mielziner. Willy Loman’s middle-class tragedy was as powerful as ever, proving the steely endurability of Arthur Miller’s timeless rendering of the hollow American Dream. Willy has nothing but illusions of fame and wealth as he ends his selling career with no savings and an uncrossable emotional gulf between him and his alienated sons Biff and Happy. At the time it seemed as if nothing more could be added to or wrung from Miller’s classic. But Miranda Cromwell’s vital staging led by a mostly African-American cast and now playing at the Hudson after a smash London run, finds new shocks and depths in a familiar favorite, highlighted by powerhouse performances by the stunning Wendell Pierce and the intense Sharon D Clarke.

By: David Sheward

December 30, 2022: In its last Broadway incarnation in 2012, Death of a Salesman was so close to the 1949 original that director Mike Nichols employed the same skeletal set design by Jo Mielziner. Willy Loman’s middle-class tragedy was as powerful as ever, proving the steely endurability of Arthur Miller’s timeless rendering of the hollow American Dream. Willy has nothing but illusions of fame and wealth as he ends his selling career with no savings and an uncrossable emotional gulf between him and his alienated sons Biff and Happy. At the time it seemed as if nothing more could be added to or wrung from Miller’s classic. But Miranda Cromwell’s vital staging led by a mostly African-American cast and now playing at the Hudson after a smash London run, finds new shocks and depths in a familiar favorite, highlighted by powerhouse performances by the stunning Wendell Pierce and the intense Sharon D Clarke.

In a program note, Arminda Thomas contextualizes the production by explaining there was an independent black community in Brooklyn called Weeksville which later morphed into the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. This transformation fits in with Miller’s storyline of the Loman’s small house becoming dominated by gigantic apartment houses. In addition, racial undertones are introduced into certain scenes, making Willy’s illusions about the fairness of the American system all the more devastating. The unspoken “n” word is substituted for “walrus” as an insult hurled at Willy, an epitaph that cracks his salesman’s smiling veneer. 

Sharon D Clarke plays Linda, Wendell Pierce plays Willy, and André De Shields plays Ben.

Willy’s relationship with his uncaring boss Howard (played by a white actor) becomes a case study in oppression in a single telling piece of staging. As he is about to fire Willy, Howard drops a cigarette lighter. He glances at Willy, who knows he must pick it up and then light his employer’s smoke. In the restaurant scene, Willy and his sons Biff and Happy are seated in an outdoor garden with no other diners so their confrontation can be played without onlookers. Here, their separation is a sign of segregation, prevalent even in relatively liberal 1940s New York.

In addition to the racial subtext, Cromwell adds dream-like presentationalism to her staging. With the aide of Anna Fleischle’s scattered, jigsaw-puzzle set and Jen Schriever’s spooky, unsettling lighting, Willy’s reveries into his past become an unsettling nightmare. His recollections of Biff and Happy’s high-school triumphs are posed like a series of flash photographs, exposing them as exaggerated figments of Willy’s success-at-all-costs fantasies. Willy’s mysterious brother Ben (a disturbingly spectral Andre De Shields) becomes an elusive ghost symbolizing Willy’s dreams of riches, accompanied by clouds of fog and dressed in a white suit studded with glittering diamonds (the character-defining costumes are by Fleischle and Sarita Fellows). These flashback are sometimes accompanied by blinding lights, disorienting the audience, just as they disorient Willy.

McKinley Belcher III plays Happy, Wendell Pierce plays Willy, and Khris Davis plays Biff.

Pierce gives the performance of a lifetime as the defeated drummer, ripped apart by delusions of business success and crushed by his own illusions and the very real scourge of racism. He lends amazing physical life to Willy’s breakdown as he struggles to keep a facade of joviality despite his financial and emotional ruin. Verbally, Pierce is equally adept at demonstrating Willy’s unraveling. He bolts through Willy’s pep-talk speeches and sales pitches as if racing to reassure himself of the lies of a bright future before the truth catches up with him. (Side note: At the performance attended, Pierce proved his professionalism by dealing with a disruptive audience member with grace and dignity.)

While Pierce skillfully depicts Willy’s disintegration, Sharon D Clarke as his wife Linda is a rock of resolve. Linda is usually played as a helpless onlooker to her spouse’s trauma, but Clarke displays steely strength in a battle to keep Willy from totally losing all control. Her famous “attention must be paid” speech is a firm declaration of devotion rather than a pitiable cry for help. Khris Davis as Biff comes across as stiff and artificial in his early scenes but gradually builds to a credible portrayal of a lost man coming to terms with his limitations. The racial element adds to Biff’s conflict. During the play’s climactic confrontation, he states he could rise his average wage above a dollar an hour, the implication of implacable institutional discrimination is clear. McKinley Belcher III feelingly conveys Happy’s desperate need to be accepted, not only by his father (who clearly favors Biff) but also by the white-dominated business world.

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke

Casting white actors in supporting roles adds to the tension and contributes additional subtext. Willy’s neighbor Charley (Delaney Williams plays the role as a jovial pal) offers him a job and Willy’s pride will not let him accept charity from a white man. (Interestingly, in the 1975 revival George C. Scott cast Charley with a black actor, reversing the racial dynamic.) Willy’s dalliance with a Boston secretary (Lynn Hawley makes her a guffawing clown) now has a forbidden tinge. Blake DeLong ably limns the smug attitude of Howard, Willy’s boss, and the waiter Stanley. There are also valuable contributions from Stephen Stocking as Bernard, Charley’s son who succeeds where Biff has failed, Chelsea Lee Williams and Grace Porter in this walloping revival of an American classic, given new life by a magnificent cast and director.

Oct. 9—Jan. 15. Hudson Theater, 141 W. 44th St., NYC. Running time three hours and ten mins. including intermission. www.salesmanonbroadway.com.
Photography: Joan Marcus

Park West Galleries

Park West Galleries opens in Soho with a 4,000 square foot space at 411 West Broadway.

December 22, 2022: Park West Galleries, one of the world’s largest art dealer, celebrated the opening of its new 4,000 square foot flagship gallery in SoHo at 411 West Broadway! Park West Gallery – Soho, the “art gallery for the people” opened with an eclectic cast of attendees, including artist Walter Robinson, art historian Carlo McCormick, and indie pop-star Madeline Follin from Cults. City Councilperson Eric Bottcher was there too!

Park West Galleries opens in Soho with a 4,000 square foot space at 411 West Broadway.

December 27, 2022: Park West Galleries, one of the world’s largest art dealer, celebrated the opening of its new 4,000 square foot flagship gallery in SoHo at 411 West Broadway on Thursday December 22.  Park West Gallery – Soho, the “art gallery for the people” opened with an eclectic cast of attendees, including artist Walter Robinson, art historian Carlo McCormick, and indie pop-star Madeline Follin from Cults. City Councilperson Eric Bottcher was there too!  

The councilman is planting 1,000 trees in Manhattan with the help of many donations, including gifts from artist Mark Kostabi and Park West Gallery. Kostabi said, “I would prefer one million new trees in New York City but one thousand is a good start. If Eric Bottcher and Park West Galleries are willing to go for more, count my money in! Root for trees!” Said Kostabi, who says he has “zero interest in personal gain” and is dedicated to “improving the world for all humans.”

City Councilman Erik Bottcher with Mark Kostabi.

Park West Gallery holds art auctions all over the world. Their headquarters and the Park West Museum are both located in Southfield, Michigan. There are additional museums and gallery locations in Las Vegas and Hawaii.

Vanessa Williams @ 54 Below

“54 Below “Diamond Series” featured Vanessa Williams in December.

December 16, 2022: The one and only Vanessa William, a recording artist with numerous hit songs and albums, was a luminous star at 54 Below as part of their “Diamond Series, December 13th-18th. The performer, who has also worked extensively in film, tv and even on Broadway frequently through her four-decade career took the stage, looking fit and glamorous, in an aquamarine sequined and feathered gown that matched her stunning eyes perfectly. The slit in her evening gown revealed sparkling spiked heels and a touch of leg. She was in excellent voice and her show, a robust mash of Holiday hits, with her dance hits, and songs from her albums and Broadway outings, was a constant delight. The songs are terrific, and her stories enhance her connection with the audience as she recreated memorable highlights from her illustrious four-decade career. She closed out the evening with one of her big hits, “Save the Best for Last.”

“54 Below “Diamond Series” featured Vanessa Williams in December.

December 16, 2022: The one and only Vanessa William, a recording artist with numerous hit songs and albums, was a luminous star at 54 Below as part of their “Diamond Series, December 13th-18th. The performer, who has also worked extensively in film, tv and even on Broadway frequently through her four-decade career took the stage, looking fit and glamorous, in an aquamarine sequined and feathered gown that matched her stunning eyes perfectly. The slit in her evening gown revealed sparkling spiked heels and a touch of leg. She was in excellent voice and her show, a robust mash of Holiday hits, with her dance hits, and songs from her albums and Broadway outings, was a constant delight. The songs are terrific, and her stories enhance her connection with the audience as she recreated memorable highlights from her illustrious four-decade career. She closed out the evening with one of her big hits, “Save the Best for Last.”

Photography: Barry Gordin

Showstopper Divas Benefits Urban Stages

Broadway Babe, Randie Levine Miller, hosted Showstopper Divas, an Urban Stages Benefit, featuring “Tomatoes Got Talent” winners.

December 24, 2022:  On Saturday, December 17 Urban Stages Winter Rhythms Annual Series presented Randie Levine-Miller’s Showstopper Divas, a benefit for Urban States Outreach Program. The show, produced and hosted by Levine- Miller, featured winners and competitors from the annual “Tomatoes Got Talent” contest for women past 40. These women, once in show business, are over 40 and have transitioned to successful careers in other areas. However, their talents and desire to perform have not diminished as they demonstrated last Saturday. Paul Chamlin was musical director.

Broadway Babe, Randie Levine Miller, hosted Showstopper Divas, an Urban Stages Benefit, featuring “Tomatoes Got Talent” winners. 

December 24, 2022:  On Saturday, December 17 Urban Stages Winter Rhythms Annual Series presented Randie Levine-Miller’s Showstopper Divas, a benefit for Urban States Outreach Program. The show, produced and hosted by Levine- Miller, featured winners and competitors from the annual “Tomatoes Got Talent” contest for women past 40. These women, once in show business, are over 40 and have transitioned to successful careers in other areas. However, their talents and desire to perform have not diminished as they demonstrated last Saturday. Paul Chamlin was musical director.

Levine-Miller co-produces the annual Tomatoes Got Talent contest with Cheryl Benton, editor and publisher of  thethreetomatoes.com a newsletter for “women who aren’t kids,” which features her bi-weekly column for the newsletter, called Broadway Babe.  Check it out on Theaterlife.com.
Photos: Magda Katz

The Far Country **1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

December 21, 2022: California’s mid-19th-century gold rush sucked thousands of needy but adventurous foreign fortune seekers—Mexicans and Chileans, Australians, Frenchmen, and Chinese—into its gold mining maw, most of them welcomed at first. But the Americans soon turned xenophobic, denying the outsiders equal rights, with especially harsh reactions being visited upon the Chinese. They had to turn to other ways of survival, including laundry, cooking, and railroad labor, the latter especially evident in the great feat of joining the Central Pacific to the Union Pacific.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

December 21, 2022: California’s mid-19th-century gold rush sucked thousands of needy but adventurous foreign fortune seekers—Mexicans and Chileans, Australians, Frenchmen, and Chinese—into its gold mining maw, most of them welcomed at first. But the Americans soon turned xenophobic, denying the outsiders equal rights, with especially harsh reactions being visited upon the Chinese. They had to turn to other ways of survival, including laundry, cooking, and railroad labor, the latter especially evident in the great feat of joining the Central Pacific to the Union Pacific. 

Before long, however, barriers arose between Chinese labor and American employers, perhaps because the former, at first, often treated their employment as a temporary sojourn meant to provide for a better future back home, partly demonstrated by the dominance of prostitutes among the Chinese women in America. When Chinese persons died, they typically had their bodies returned to China for burial. And their presence in San Francisco’s Chinatown proved troublesome to the white authorities. Racial stereotyping and anti-Chinese activity coalesced in 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the free immigration of Chinese.

Eric Yang (Moon Gyet) and Amy Kim Waschke (Low).

Thus, if you were a Chinese in America in 1909, circumstances would likely have taught you the skills necessary for survival, and how even to game the system to your advantage. This is the situation in The Far Country,Lloyd Suh’s historically interesting, acceptably acted, but ultimately disappointing attempt to dramatize a workaround designed by clever contemporary Chinese to circumvent the immigration laws and, in the process, make a profit by it. If the play is meant to celebrate the resilience of the Chinese under these oppressive circumstances, I’m not sure that’s the message it conveys.

When the audience enters the Linda Gross Theater’s auditorium, a pigtailed man in Chinese garb and cap (costumes by Junghyun Georgie Lee) sits motionless, facing upstage on Clint Ramos’s essentially bare, but elegantly clever, set (tastefully lit by Jiyoun Chang) of a transparent, glasslike rear wall, furnished with a table and chairs. At curtain time, after such long, statue-like immobility, he moves an arm slowly, almost dancer-like, and it morphs into the opening scene. 

Jinn S. Kim (Gee) and  Amy Kim Waschke (Low).

His name is Gee (Jinn S. Kim), he runs a laundry business, and he’s in a San Francisco interrogation room where we will soon watch him respond to the intense questioning of two no-nonsense immigration officials (Ben Chase and Christophe Liam Moore) . Gee’s dialogue is mingled with that of an interpreter (Whit K. Lee), often overlapping with it during rapid exchanges. His English is fine when he’s meant to be speaking Chinese to the interpreter, but shaky and heavily accented when he’s speaking English.

Gee is charming in the stereotypically ingratiating way associated with servile stage and screen Asians as he seeks permission, under the strict rules, to return to China to visit the family he has not seen in years. Possibly, he will return with one of them. But he must first convince the unsmiling officials that he’s American born, a goal made a bit easier by his pointing to the loss of all pertinent records in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. 

When he succeeds in convincing the authorities of his authenticity, he goes to China, where we discover that he’s nothing like the comically bumbling applicant we saw being interrogated. Instead, he’s a cunning manipulator, seeking to bring back with him a young farmer, Moon Gyet (Eric Yang), whose family will go into debt to pay for his passage to “Gold Mountain.” There, he will give up his name to pass as Gee’s son and work for Gee’s laundry as an indentured laborer until the debt is paid off. No matter what the risks, or how harsh the conditions, going to America is considered better than the life before him in China, a decided difference from the attitude of earlier Chinese, who never intended to stay in the first place.

Eric Yang (Moon Gyet) and  Amy Kim Waschke (Low).

In America, he must live at Angel Island, a detention center for immigrants waiting for approval. After seventeen months of one legal setback after another, he’s finally permitted (thanks to bribes that only increase his debt) to live and slave for Gee. Eventually, Moon returns to China where he reunites with his mother (Amy Kim Waschke) before carrying out his mission to pull off the same profitable ploy that got him to America by bringing back a young peasant girl, Yuen (Shannon Tyo), as his bride.

Mr. Suh’s premise is provocative and historically compelling. At first, he holds our interest tightly with his unusually detailed interrogations, where the questions are designed to trip up the person being questioned should they say something that might betray an untruth, like the number of steps at a specific dwelling. But, aided by the direction of Eric Ting, the performance shifts away from heightened realism to stylized, even ritualistic, with rhythmic line deliveries and considerable repetition, enhanced by Fan Zhang’s musical underscoring, that becomes more soporific than terrific as the act rolls to its conclusion. Following the intermission, an increase in empty seats hinted that a few spectators had taken a slow boat somewhere else.

The eternal difficulty of creating believable English dialogue for people supposedly speaking in another language is another stumbling block to credibility. Rather than have such characters speak in colloquial English, playwrights, like Mr. Suh, who wish to avoid foreign accents, often provide them with stiff sentences that use a minimum of conjunctions and make everyone, no matter how poorly educated, sound linguistically stilted. This is particularly annoying in the second act, when Moon—formerly a peasant farmer, now a laundry worker—speaks to his similarly uneducated mother, or to the farm girl Yuen; not only syntactically but in their vocabulary and use of images and ideas, makes them sound like graduate sociology students. An egregious, yet not atypical, example comes in this exchange:   

Eric Yang (Moon Gyet) and Amy Kim Waschke (Low).

YUEN

My parents would perhaps be more confident in sending me, for they know I’m not so weak as he, but they might also be alarmed at the idea of my being in America as a woman; this has not been a common practice thus far, yes? Please explain.

MOON GYET

Ah. Yes, well. There have naturally been changes. . . in the patterns of. Um, there are increasing numbers of Chinese men in California, you see, but fewer and fewer jobs in the fields, on the fruit farms of Stockton for example—you know, this is perhaps not pertinent.

YUEN

I would think it’s all very pertinent. 

MOON GYET 

I wouldn’t think you’d be interested in discussing trends in labor practice, demographic shifts of transnational migration.

YUEN 

On the contrary I am very interested, please continue. 

MOON GYET 

Ah. Well. Then—immigrants have often performed the tasks that white Americans have been unwilling to perform, so. 

YUEN 

I know this part. 

MOON GYET 

Then in brief, we are being pushed into urban centers. Driven from spreading too far afield; we are more and more concentrated into Chinatown.

Later, when Gee, old and ill, is being cared for by Yuen, she launches into a rhetorical discourse on memory and truth, but it’s so out of keeping with her background and the circumstances that she clearly is little more than a voice for the playwright himself to wax poetic on his themes, themes that only now come into play as a way of wrapping things up. 

Like the immigrant stories of any group, those of the Chinese are of great value on many levels, from the simply human and emotional to the socially scientific to the political. I learned from The Far Country how and why some Chinese immigrants made it to America on false premises, inspired by official restrictions on their coming. Aside from that, however, I neither learned much else about the Chinese diaspora nor believed deeply in those who have been created to serve as exemplars of the experience. 

The Far Country
Linda Gross Theater/Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th Street, NYC
Through January 1, 2023
The Far Country runs 2 hours including one 10 minute intermission.
Photography: Ahron R. Foster

Shannon Tyo (Yuen), and Jinn S. Kim (Gee).

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Maverick theatre group, Ruth Stage, announced the return engagement of their hit Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with TV star Courtney Henggler making her NYC stage debut as “Maggie the Cat” in the Williams classic starting February 24, 2023.

December 17, 2022:  Ruth Stage announced their provocative and controversial modern staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will return to New York City in early 2023, with TV star Courtney Henggler as “Maggie the Cat in the Tennessee Williams classic. The restaging with Henggeler will be the actress’ Off-Broadway and New York City stage debut.

Maverick theatre group, Ruth Stage, announced the return engagement of their hit Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with TV star Courtney Henggler making her NYC stage debut as “Maggie the Cat” in the Williams classic starting February 24, 2023.

December 17, 2022:  Ruth Stage announced their provocative and controversial modern staging of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will return to New York City in early 2023, with TV star Courtney Henggler as “Maggie the Cat in the Tennessee Williams classic. The restaging with Henggeler will be the actress’ Off-Broadway and New York City stage debut.

Directed by Joe Rosario, the Off-Broadway premiere of the group’s staging of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece, ened its run on August the 14th playing to sold out audiences and standing ovations. On the heels of the show’s success, the Tennessee Williams estate has issued an unprecedented re-engagement license to the maverick theatre group. Ruth Stage’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will return to the Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 W 46th St.) and play for 42 performances with previews beginning on Friday February 24th2023. Opening night is scheduled for Sunday March 5th, 2023. The production will close on Friday night March 31st, 2023.

Tennessee Williams’ sultry, southern storm of a play about greed, deceit, self-delusion, sexual desire and repression, homophobia, sexism, and the looming specter of death won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. Ruth Stage’s modern and haunting interpretation is set in an estate in the Mississippi Delta of Big Daddy Pollitt, a wealthy cotton tycoon. The play examines the relationships among members of Big Daddy’s highly dysfunctional family, primarily between his son Brick and Maggie the Cat, Brick’s wife.

Courtney Henggeler (Maggie the Cat)

Henggeler is a series regular on the global hit Netflix series, Cobra Kai, portraying ‘Amanda LaRusso’, opposite Ralph Macchio’s ‘Daniel LaRusso’, in the Emmy-nominated television sequel to the iconic Karate Kid films, which recently aired its fifth season. The Long Island native will next star opposite Joel Edgerton in George Clooney’s upcoming directorial effort, The Boys in the Boat, a feature film based on the best-selling book which tells the true story of the University of Washington men’s rowing team, who stunned the world by competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Henggeler is represented by Gersh, Teitelbaum Artists Group and ID PR.

Henggeler joins Matt de Rogatis who will reprise his critically acclaimed role as “Brick” in the new Ruth Stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Matt Imhoff will be returning as the production’s set designer and Christian Specht has been added to the design team as the production’s lighting designer.

Further casting and design team announcements will be made in the coming weeks. Tickets, priced between $39 and $125, are on sale now and can be purchased at either www.ruthstage.org/cat or www.telecharge.com.
Photos: Miles Skalli & Kevin Scanlon