New York Notebook: Only a few sparks in the fall theater season


Patti Murin, Liz Mikel, Josh Segarra, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, and Alex Wyse in “Lysistrata Jones." (Joan Marcus)
December 26, 2011

Although the power stayed on all through the topsy-turvy weather patterns of the fall, the city’s theater district has found a key ingredient in the making of plays and musicals in perilously short supply this season: electricity.

Only in the guise of a crowd-drawing Aussie star and his giddy show-tune revue, “Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway,” has there been any genuine megawatt surge on the stages of this town. A few other nights among the ones I sampled over the past few months have set off some sparks: the Kennedy Center’s revival of “Follies,” finishing up a run at the Marquis Theatre as an odds-on Tony nominee; Jon Robin Baitz’s smashingly composed political family dust-up, “Other Desert Cities,” at the Booth; actors Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy, cavorting ably and mischievously in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s staging of David Ives’s theater game “Venus in Fur” (a version of which was produced at Studio Theatre last spring).

The best of the rest will be enlarged upon below. Far more often, however, the bevy of new productions, arriving by way of off-Broadway or London or stages around the country, simply failed to generate the excitement that might be achieved when inspiration and execution are in alignment. It was, in other words, an autumn of eh.

No bona fide disasters, mind you — unless you count the imprisonment of Harry Connick Jr. in a disastrously ill-
handled renovation of the melodic 1965 musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” Visually off-putting and disconcertingly miscast, the revival diluted the fun in an awkward transformation of a major character from kooky woman to less kooky gay man. As a result, the whole thing wobbled all evening barely an inch off the ground, as if it were an underinflated parade balloon.

The middling results included a limp revival of “Private Lives,” with an overmatched Kim Cattrall; the underwhelming new plays “The Mountaintop,” “Chinglish” and “Seminar,” the last with the major consolation, at least, of a lupine Alan Rickman portraying a toxic writing coach.

The fall slot for least plausible subject for a musical was filled by “Bonnie and Clyde,” a lackluster attempt by composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Don Black to link the Depression-era mythologizing of a homicidal bank robber and his girlfriend to the economy-driven class resentments of today. (“Sweeney Todd” it ain’t.)

Off-Broadway was not immune, either. A mess of a “King Lear” at the Public Theater, with Sam Waterston playing the title character in one grievously laborious dimension, was the disappointing classical centerpiece event.

The misfires, though, were offset by a few intriguing fall entries. These shows earned praise from critics and pretty strong word of mouth, but did not achieve the virtually uniform huzzahs accompanying the hits of last season, such as “The Book of Mormon,” “War Horse” or even “The [Expletive] With the Hat.” Still, they are productions I’d gladly see again, and if you’re planning a crawl of Times Square and its environs, they may be shows you want to consider, too:

Once”: Lifting its Irish love story and affectingly romantic score from the cult 2006 movie of the same title, the stage version receives a charmingly offbeat treatment by John Tiffany of “Black Watch” fame, and a crackerjack creative team including choreographer Steven Hoggett and designers Bob Crowley on sets and costumes and Natasha Katz on lighting.

The story, of a young Czech woman (the beguiling Cristin Milioti) and her mystical belief in the talent of a street singer (an excellent Steve Kazee), evinces a sweetness that’s rendered as absolute freshness in Tiffany’s staging. With the help of Hoggett’s evocative movement, the director locates a stage equivalent for the film’s eccentric take on devotion. The environment he creates translates for us into a warmly satisfying entertainment.

The show runs off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop through mid-January, and transfers on Feb. 28 to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.

“An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin”: There’s no vet like an old vet, and these two intense and gifted war horses of the stage, who met as Evita Peron and Che Guevara in the original Broadway production of “Evita,” have a lovingly soothing effect on each other in this first-rate revue, filled with the music of Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, Alan Menken and others.

One of the delightful conceits of this show, craftily directed by the idiosyncratic Patinkin, is the idea of how theater songs truly are conversations. Happily, LuPone and Patinkin have banished the artificial banter between songs that can force these evenings to the edge of self-parody. They simply allow the lyrics to do the talking, both in extended cycles from musicals such as “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Carousel,” and in whimsical pairings of other songs with no seeming connections.

The assured accompaniment on the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre from Paul Ford on piano and John Beal on bass adds to the air of intimacy and consummate professionalism.

“Lysistrata Jones”: This ultra-light musical spoof by book writer Douglas Carter Beane (“Xanadu”) and composer Lewis Flinn, staged last season in a Greenwich Village gym, has launched a debate among critics and audiences about whether it’s Broadway-worthy, with its recent move to the Walter Kerr Theatre. For the most part, I come down on the side of those who consider this sexy college romp a campy confection. The dancing, guided by direc­tor-choreographer Dan Knechtges, is the snappiest, adrenaline-driven gyrating this side of “Glee,” and the cast, led by Patti Murin, Josh Segarra, Lindsay Nicole Chambers and, best of all, Jason Tam, take the material as the joyful silliness it's meant to be.

Based very loosely on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” the tale of a woman who persuades the women of Greece to withhold sex from their soldier-husbands in an effort to stop the Peloponnesian War, “Lysistrata Jones” is about a cheerleader who tries the same tactic to get Athens University’s apathetic basketball team to win a game. Though the early sequences belabor the abstinence joke, the musical ultimately becomes a show about opposites attracting and, winningly, acquires a heart.

Once

Music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, book by Enda Walsh. Directed by John Tiffany. Through Jan. 15 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St.; moves to Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway Feb. 28.

An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin

Directed by Patinkin. About 2 hours. Through Jan. 13 at Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

Lysistrata Jones

Book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn. Directed and choreographed by Dan Knechtges. About 2 hours. At Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. For tickets to all three, visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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