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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Theater diaries: Prince of Broadway, Government Inspector, and more

Government Inspector, photo @Carol Rossegg
Over the past week for whatever reason I've seen 5 shows. Two were revisits (The Great Comet, closing on September 3, and Groundhog Day) and three were new to me: The Play that Goes Wrong, Government Inspector, and Prince of Broadway.

Of all the shows by far the biggest highlight was Government Inspector. It's playing in the off-Broadway New World Stages theater. GO SEE IT BEFORE IT CLOSES ON AUGUST 20. Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's famous play had a synergy of great casting, direction, and production values. The whole evening had the audience in stitches. Gogol's satirical play has lost none of its bite and relevance -- the snobbery, ignorance, selfishness, and corruption of the public officials in the play could be transplanted to modern times without any adjustments.

Urie and Burton, photo @Carol Rossegg
Plaudits have to go to the entire 14-person cast, many of whom had to double or triple up in roles. Michael Urie as the wastrel Ivan Hlestakov who is mistaken for a government inspector was brilliant -- shallow, a total dandy, but charming and funny enough so that we could watch him for 2 hours and still like him at the end. He's first seen trying to kill himself but not before getting his poofy hair just so. He has two huge set-piece scenes -- in the first, he drunkenly brags that he ghost-wrote Alexander Pushkin's novels, for starters. In the second, he shakes each corrupt official for rubles with increasinly efficiency and seduces the mayor's sullen daughter Marya (Talene Monahan).

Steven DeRosa as the corrupt, pompous mayor of a tiny Russian village matched Urie scene for scene, laugh for laugh. His officiousness and cowardice are covered up by a bland good-guy persona. Mary Testa as the mayor's horny wife and Arnie Burton were the other standouts. Burton doubled both as the nosy postmaster who reads every letter that comes through the mail and Ivan's cynical servant. When he caught Ivan trying to kill himself again his response was a nonchalant "We do this everyday."

Alexis Distler's clever two-tiered set perfectly captured the cheesy bourgeoisie tastes of the Mayor as well as the seedy ramshackle inn. Tilly Grimes' costumes also capture the feel of people who don't have much money but spend their lives pretending to have more money than they actually have. Director Jesse Berger's directions ensures that the laughs are almost constant, even if those laughs are often icky and uncomfortable.

Play That Goes Wrong cast, photo @ Jeremy Daniel
Henry Lewis's The Play That Goes Wrong also got almost constant laughs from the audience but in this case, the source of the humor wasn't political satire but a good old-fashioned British farce (it transferred to New York after winning the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in London). The premise is simple: Conley University Drama Society is presenting a creaky murder mystery play called "The Murder at Havisham Manor." Of course everything that can  go wrong does go wrong -- the "corpse" refuses to act dead, the leading lady is knocked out with a concussion, there are constant set and wardrobe malfunctions, one young actor Max Bennett (a hilarious Dave Hearn) can't help but ad-lib and mug constantly for the audience, and the "lighting and sound operator" Trevor (Rob Falconer) only cares about his Duran Duran cd. Is it really a deep and meaningful play? No, but it is a lot of fun, and the set design (by Nigel Hook) is amazing. There are so many times when the set has to fall apart just so and it always does. The players also throw themselves completely into the pratfalls of the play, so much so that I worried they'd actually hurt themselves.

Yazbeck in "The Right Girl"
There's not much to say about Prince of Broadway -- it's an old-fashioned revue of some of Hal Prince's most legendary productions. As you might expect the small cast, tiny orchestra, lack of an ensemble and barebones sets negates a lot of what made Prince the King of Broadway. The small cast means we got some truly grade-A talent (Tony Yazbeck tap-dancing up a storm in "The Right Girl" from Follies and singing some beautiful excerpts from West Side Story, Brandon Uranowitz as a surprisingly creepy Emcee from Cabaret) to the very good (Emily Skinner in two Sondheim classics "Send in the Clowns" and "Ladies Who Lunch", Bryona Marie Parham in selections from Show Boat and Cabaret) with the odd (Chuck Cooper doing a decidedly unorthodox rendition of "If I Had a Rich Man") with the appalling (Janet Dacal trying to sing Evita and failing miserably, Michael Xavier giving the thinnest, wimpiest rendition of Phantom ever). It was worth it to see once just for Yazbeck's tap number of rage. Hal Prince is 95 and except for Phantom which is still running on Broadway all his productions will eventually fade from memory but the evening proved that you can't put on a great show without great talent.

View from the banquet. The set is by far the greatest I've ever seen
I revisted The Great Comet and Groundhog Day because both shows are due to close soon. The Great Comet's box office took a dive after Josh Groban departed, and audiences never warmed to his replacement Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan. The show then fired Oak in favor of Mandy Patinkin, which caused a twitter uproar, then Mandy withdrew, and without a new Pierre and any advance sales the show will play its final performance September 3. You can read all about it here.

The Great Comet I saw on August 13, the last day for both Oak and Ingrid Michaelson (Sonya). It was a very cool experience because this time I sat onstage in the right banquet, and the performers were sometimes inches away from me. Many of the characters enter through the back staircase right where I was sitting. I caught a pierogie, they gave us shakers, and I almost got a torn page of War and Peace. And the show remains a creative, wild, uneven, theatrical experience. It also has one of the best opening numbers ever -- a total earworm. I still have "Anatole is hot/Marya is Old-School/Sonya is Good/Natasha is young/And Andrey isn't here" stuck in my head. Props go out to this amazing cast and ensemble. Of the original cast, I thought Denée Benton (Natasha) sounded weaker than she did in February, Amber Gray is still funny as the "slut" Helene and she also has one of the strongest alto voices in the business (she knocked "Charming" out of the park), Nick Choski (Dolokhov) is still a twinkly eyed trouble-maker, Lucas Steele (Anatole) was still the force of nature -- a singing, dancing punk rock dynamo that rightfully steals every scene he's in. In the huge second act production number "Balaga" I was fortunate to sit close to Lucas Steele and the effort and energy he put into that one number was astonishing. He was heaving and sweating bullets towards the end. As for the new cast members, Ingrid Michaelson was actually a disappointment. I love her music, but her slender pop voice sounded overwhelmed and she didn't bring much emotion to "Sonya Alone.". And how was Oak? He was pretty great. His voice isn't as mellifluous as Josh Groban's but he was dramatically convincing as homely, alcoholic Pierre and the final number ("The Great Comet of 1812") was gorgeous. There was another new member: Courtney Bassett (Princess Mary) I actually liked more than Gelsey Bell. It's a crying shame this beautiful inventive show is closing September 3. Go see it before Labor Day!

The two Phils: Bill Murray and Andy Karl. Murray saw the show twice 
Groundhog Day is also closing on September 17. This show never caught fire with the general public, and didn't have the consistency in quality of Dear Evan Hansen or The Great Comet. Not even a visit by Bill Murray could increase buzz for this show. Nevertheless it was a wonderful, entertaining, touching musical and Andy Karl's performance on August 15 was even funnier and more charming than when I saw him in May. It's very hard to walk that line between "asshole" and "lovable" without tipping the balance too much to one side, but Karl does it. His dry sense of humor and deadpan delivery made me laugh with him when he made yet another patented snide "Phil" remark. Barrett Doss has also grown in the part of Rita. One of the flaws of the original film was that Andie McDowell was simply too bland to go toe-to-toe with Bill Murray. Doss is feistier, with more of a personality. This show also has an ingenious set that alternated between loud blaring reality (the "small-town USA" Groundhog Day festival) and surreal (the drunken driving car chase) that reinforced the idea that "February 2" is really a metaphor for finally Getting Things Right. It's a shame Groundhog Day had to close so soon. I hope we see Andy Karl again, SOON.

UPDATE: I went to see Great Comet again on 8/22 and saw my third Pierre, Scott Stangland. I was seated front row mezzanine -- probably the best seats in the house. Scott's voice is a gruff but powerful baritenor and he was very believable and moving as Pierre. The ending is quietly beautiful: the "comet" of 1812 is represented by a large chandelier that gradually fades until there's only one night and finally the stage darkens completely. Denée Benton was in great voice last night, and from the front row mezzanine you really see more of her facial expressions. It was nice to see Gelsey Bell (Mary/Opera Singer) and Brittain Ashford (Sonya) return to their roles.


MORE UPDATES :I went AGAIN on 8/29 for the fourth time to see the show's creator/composer Dave Malloy as Pierre. As far as voice goes his voice is not as mellifluous as Scott Stangland or Josh Groban. But there's something special about seeing a composer interpret his own music, and so it was last night. At one point I saw Dave in "Pierre's tavern" absolutely immersed playing the piano. The audience was so enthusiastic. Maybe too much so -- they started applauding before the final light goes out in the "great comet" finale, and thus I couldn't hear the beautiful, quiet ending to this amazing score. I am so sad to see this beautiful show go.