Bill Murray’s “New Worlds”

Otsego Lake

Otsego Lake; photo: Corey Seeman, creative commons license

Comedian and actor Bill Murray brought his “New Worlds” show, created in partnership with master cellist Jan Vogler, to Princeton last week. It’s an unusual, interesting, and often thrilling hour and three-quarters (trailer).

Murray reads excerpts from authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and James Thurber, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, accompanied by Vogler, Mira Wang on violin, and Vanessa Perez, piano. Murray sings, too—movingly on “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and comically in selections from West Side Story. He dances with Wang in a tango by Argentinean composer Astor Piazzola. Throughout, the music is sublime.

Murray and Vogler have created juxtapositions of text and music that are full of unexpected resonances. When Murray reads a lyrical passage about the beauty of Otsego Lake from The Deerslayer, the last of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, Vogler plays Schubert. Both Cooper and Schubert loved nature, but that coincidence is amplified by the revelation that Schubert was reading the Leatherstocking tales on his deathbed.

Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” accompanied an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn in which Huck and Jim are on the raft, floating down the river at night, anticipating sight of the lights of Cairo, Illinois, where Jim will be free. There’s a startling coordination of images of moon, river, the shore lights that are not Cairo, and “two drifters off to see the world”—and, certainly, “my huckleberry friend.”

The audience exercises its lungs in George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by Murray to a musical arrangement by, of all the unexpected people,  Jascha Heifetz. That irreverent selection is counterbalanced later in the program by a powerfully moving version of Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.”

Reviewer John von Rhein in Murray’s home-town newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, says the actor has again reinvented himself “in a rather wonderful new species of performance art few others would have dreamed up or could have brought off so beautifully.” This unique and unforgettable show has many forthcoming dates around the country—and the world. See it if you can. And, if you can’t, Amazon will let you stream it.

On Stage: A Loverly New “My Fair Lady”

my-fair-lady-poster2This spring Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre is presenting the first new production of Lerner and Loewe’s irresistible musical My Fair Lady in a quarter-century. Opening night for this production, directed by Bartlett Sher, is April 19. We were lucky to get good seats for a preview performance and enjoyed it tremendously.

Lauren Ambrose (Claire in Six Feet Under) plays the redoubtable Eliza Doolittle, with spirit and a knock-your-socks-off singing voice. It turns out she had classical voice training, but this is the first time since high school she’s had a role that let her use it.

Ambrose’s Eliza is more than Higgins’s life-sized doll, as she’s transformed from cockney flower girl to elegant lady. In a New York Times interview, she said, “I’m fighting for the dignity of the character.” This helps counter some of the show’s ideas that are uncomfortably dated, though Henry Higgins remains a deliciously irredeemable throwback. His “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” is right out of a time capsule. Yet the play as a whole overcomes that successfully in this #MeToo moment.

You’ll recognize Harry Hadden-Paton, who plays Professor Higgins, from numerous roles on British television, most recently in The Crown. Unlike Rex Harrison, he can actually sing. The cast-member who is our sentimental favorite is Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering. We met him when he played Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express at McCarter Theatre, and seeing Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins was a delicious treat!

Any actor playing Alfred P. Doolittle has the gift of two rousing numbers—“A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and Norbert Leo Butz plays them for all they’re worth, supported by his two semi-sober pals. He has everything he needs to bring the house down, and, boy, does he. Great support from the huge (29 members!) and hugely talented ensemble.

Michael Yeargan’s main set is on a revolving turntable, and the rest is designed for quick scene changes and continuous movement. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are loverly, especially for the scenes at the Ascot races—a golden opportunity for the costume designer to pull all the stops. The red taffeta coat Eliza wears to the Embassy Ball is a brave and dramatic choice for the red-haired Ambrose. That’s a scene where her dress has to be up to the drama of the moment: “She is a princess,” after all. But I’m still trying to figure out what color that dress was.

I especially appreciated that the orchestra—part of which appears on stage for the ballroom scene—did not drown out the singing.

MFL is often considered “the perfect musical.” If you’ve never seen the show, or if you haven’t seen it in years, it will leave a big smile on your face. “What in all of heaven can have prompted you to go?” The promise of a terrific evening at the theater!

On Stage: Crowns

Crowns

photo: © T Charles Erickson Photography

Fifteen years ago, McCarter Theatre premiered Regina Taylor’s original Crowns, which has become one of the country’s most-produced musicals. Currently on stage at McCarter until April 1 is an entirely new version of Crowns, again written and directed by Regina Taylor.

Although, as McCarter artistic director Emily Mann says, Crowns is “a joyful, brilliant expression of the past and present lives of African-American women,” the emotional subtext of the story is universal, and the production offers a rousing, end-of-winter uplift. If you recall the original Crowns, you’ll remember the title refers to the extravagant hats worn by African-American women, especially to church, and you’ll appreciate Caite Hevner’s set design that imaginatively incorporates hats by the dozen.

Much more than a tale about headgear, Crowns remains a story about attitude and about asserting individuality when society wants you to be invisible. The hats are a touchstone for memory too, enabling their wearers to reconnect with past experiences, good and bad, with failures and triumphs. Taylor has said that “hats reveal and they conceal,” and in her play, they do both.

Taylor has brought the play into the present by combining the hip-hop of a 17-year-old Chicago girl, Yolanda (played by Gabrielle Beckford), with the gospel of her South Carolina grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison). Yolanda is sent to stay with her grandmother after her brother is murdered in a drug deal gone bad. However, she’s impervious to the support and love offered by her granny and the women of the community, the Hat Queens. “Talk about it,” they sing, but Yolanda won’t, can’t.

Loosely structured around the elements of a church service, the women cast members (Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, and Danielle K. Thomas) are lively story-tellers and singers, and Crawford brings down the house with her rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Any of them could teach a master class in movement. The one male cast-member (Lawrence Clayton) plays multiple roles, donning different personalities as easily as his different hats.

Providing the propulsive energy for the almost non-stop music, much of it original for this production, are Jaret Landon on keyboards and trumpet and David Pleasant on percussion. Alas, on opening night, the “accompaniment” sometimes overpowered the singers. The production makes fine use of projections, which transform the single set from Chicago’s streets, to Mother Shaw’s church, to a South Carolina high school, and much more. Parts of Yolanda’s raps are projected in chalk letters too.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.

The Band’s Visit

The Band's VisitIf you saw the award-winning 2007 Israeli movie The Band’s Visit, you’ll recall what a charming story lies behind this new musical, directed by David Cromer, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (video clip).

The eight-man Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, is invited to Israel to play at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva. Due to a language mix-up, the band members end up in the desolate, nothing-happening-here desert town of Beit Hatikva.

There is no hotel, only a tiny restaurant, and no transportation to their correct destination until for another day. With varying degrees of wariness and acceptance, the townspeople take them in and, suffice it to say, everyone learns something. The leading roles are played by Tony Shalhoub as the band leader and Karina Lenk as the bored restaurant owner, with a large and accomplished supporting cast of actors and actor-musicians.

As it’s a musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses, there are the requisite singing numbers, as well as numerous opportunities for one or two or three of the band members to play in background, often a folk-derived tune. Those are especially nice.

The production is receiving much positive attention and already considered a shoo-in for several Tony awards, perhaps partly because of its heartwarming message, as well as some endearing performances. The movie was funnier, though, and at times the background music overpowered the singing, so I couldn’t catch the lyrics. Lenk sits awkwardly and undulates a little too much a little too often in some scenes (is she feeling the music?). The contrast between her sensuality and the stiffly upright band leader is evident without that.

This is one of the new 90-minute, no intermission entertainments that are increasingly popular and a good-hearted, pleasing hour and half it is. But you say you’re not in New York? Watch for the touring production already booked in major cities around the country, starting next year.

Stones in His Pockets

Stones in His Pockets

Garrett Lombard & Aaron Monaghan – photo: T Charles Erickson

When a Hollywood film crew descends on a small County Kerry village, the locals are brought on as extras, a seemingly glamorous job that turns them into observers of their own lives. McCarter Theatre Center is presenting this Olivier Award-winning comedy by Belfast-based playwright Marie Jones through February 11. British Director Lindsay Posner puts the two-person cast through physically sophisticated and antic changes, as they portray 15 characters, never missing a beat.

The two principal characters, Charlie Conlon (played by Garrett Lombard) and Jake Quinn (Aaron Monaghan) are a bit down on their luck and skeptical of Hollywood, yet the allure it holds for them is almost tangible. In addition, they portray numerous townspeople, including the hyperactive, drugged-out Sean who comes to a tragic end—walking into the deep water with stones in his pockets, a literary whiff of Virginia Woolf—and Michael, whose claim to fame is that he’s the last surviving extra from the filming of John Wayne’s The Quiet Man. They also play several of the Americans—the movie’s director Clem, his effervescent assistant Ashley, and the big-time movie star Caroline, whose Irish accent needs serious work, but who manages to dazzle Jake and Charlie anyway.

Charlie, not unexpectedly, has a movie script in his back pocket and is ever-alert for opportunities to show it to members of the cast and crew, with the expected yawning reception. Jake recently returned from New York, with precious little to show for it. Increasingly, they become aware of the falsity of the portrayal of their town and their lives—a brazen example of cultural appropriation—but there’s nothing they can do about it. The bloom is really off the rose with the key conflict of the play: whether the film director will give the townspeople time off to attend Sean’s funeral.

The elegantly simple set by Beowulf Boritt is piled with trunks from which Charlie and Jake grab an occasional bit of costume, but these changes are lightning fast and often in service of what the extras themselves are asked to do. The principal way the audience distinguishes among the many characters is through the considerable skill and talent of the two actors.

It’s a story about community—a community of locals and a community of outsiders, and the actors, who trained at The Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin, make both these discordant communities come alive remarkably well.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance, Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance as the King

What a treat to see Mark Rylance in this new play, written by his wife Claire Van Kampen, playing at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Rylance is one of those superb actors who can communicate a galaxy of information with a raised eyebrow or a stutter. (Rylance was unforgettable as Thomas Cromwell in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall and as the preternaturally calm Soviet spy in the movie Bridge of Spies).

This play is based on the maladies of Spain’s French King Philippe V (Rylance), who lived from 1683 to 1746. He stayed in power for nearly 50 years, despite crippling depression and delusions, and his psychic demons could be tamed only by the soothing sounds of music—specifically, the angelic, ethereal, and genderless voice of castrato singer Farinelli (Sam Crane)—a sound, thankfully, now lost to us. In the play, Farinelli is lured to the court by the king’s Italian wife Isabella (Melody Grove—now there’s an appropriate name!). His courtiers, not surprisingly, would far rather he abdicate. But he does not.

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

The actual singing is performed by countertenor Iestyn Davis (read more here), in New York after a season at the Met. He appears behind or alongside Crane in an identical costume, as a sort of corporeal alter ego, a device that works fine. It is theater, after all.

In addition to Rylance, Grove, and Crane, we enjoyed seeing Simon Jones again, a blustery Col. Pickering in McCarter Theatre Center’s My Fair Lady a few seasons back.

The play opens with the king fishing for a goldfish in a bowl. No wonder his ministers have their doubts! Isabella is devoted to him, but her devotion is constantly tested and found to have limits. The preoccupations and imaginings of the king are sometimes brilliantly on point, sometimes hilarious, sometimes clear only to himself. He seems genuinely to want to do right, but has lost the capacity to know how.

This sad and antic drama plays out in a rich setting, filled with period music. Adding to the intimate feel, a number of audience members have on-stage box seats, and the players interact a bit with audience members in the aisles. The audience plays its own part too, as the audience for a Farinelli concert. In addition to the play itself and the music, the beauty of the staging, the costumes, and the exquisite set design, with candles!, all contribute to a truly “theatrical” experience.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Last year, McCarter Theatre Center’s revamped its annual production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the first time in almost two decades. This season is the second with the update, and the new version is really coming into its own. Director Adam Immerwahr has achieved a solid Victorian England vibe for this sparkling production, which runs through December 31.

Immerwahr’s intent is to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.” He has filled it with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era.” Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play.”

The show manages to be both different with fresh sets and staging and familiar, retaining the adaptation by award-winning  playwright David Thompson. Ebenezer Scrooge (played to perfection by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider) never more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, never more lively. Dickens’s work is stuffed with memorable characters, giving special mention of Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jin Song), Solicitor David/Mr. Fezziwig (Thom Sesma), Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford), and Mrs. Fezziwig/Lady Char/Laundress (Anne L. Nathan). Though many parts amount to a cameo, all were quite up to snuff.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there, how the Ghost of Christmas Past (Adeline Edwards) reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi B. Francis) shows him how others, especially the Cratchits live now; and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Christopher Livingston, who also plays young Marley) lays out a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Michael Genet) has my favorite line from the story, the sententious “I wear the chains I forged in life.” The dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a new man.

The cast is augmented by a 36-member community and youth ensemble, whose members greet theater-goers, sing carols, ring bells, and dance exuberantly! The entire audience becomes involved, with the singing of a carol at the beginning and end of the performance.

Production credits to Daniel Ostling (set design); Michael Friedman (composer); Charles Sundquist (musical direction); Darron L. West (sound design); Lorin Latarro (choreography); Linda Cho (costumes); Lap Chi Chu (lighting); Jeremy Chernick (special effects); and Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach).

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

The Craftsman

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665

The world premiere of Bruce Graham’s play The Craftsman, held over until December 17 at the Lantern Theater Company in Center City Philadelphia, explores a thought-provoking dilemma from the fine art world.

You may remember the post-World War II scandal created by an exceedingly minor Dutch artist (Han van Meegeren) charged with high treason for stealing his country’s cultural heritage. He’d sold hitherto undiscovered paintings by Johannes Vermeer out of the country, one of them to German Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The crime was the more heinous because of the very small number of Vermeer’s works. Only 34 of his confirmed paintings survive.

At his trial, Van Meegeren mounted an unexpected and now-famous defense that shook the art worlds in The Netherlands and beyond. He claimed he painted the “Vermeers” he sold himself. The critics who’d authenticated the works wouldn’t back down, making the trial a legendary showdown.

The Craftsman, directed by M. Craig Getting, covers the arrest of van Meegeren (played expertly by Anthony Lawton) by former Dutch Resistance officer, Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes), flashbacks of the scathing criticism of van Meegeren’s own work by noted art critic Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolan), and the trial.

In this small theater, a clever L-shaped set, designed by Meghan Jones, effectively works as van Meegeren’s cell, Pillel’s office, and the courtroom. Janelle Kauffman designed projections of Vermeer’s paintings and the disputed works that turn the walls into an art gallery, enabling the audience to consider for itself the controversies the case raises.

If you saw the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, you will recall that Vermeer’s characteristic style, as the “master of light,” has engendered admiration for hundreds of years, and special exhibitions of Vermeer’s paintings draw record crowds.

By exploring the van Meegeren episode, The Craftsman asks a series of interesting questions: “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?”; what are the limits of connoisseurship (a timely question, given the recent $450 million sale of a painting that may or may not be by Leonardo da Vinci); and, for that matter, how is the value of any creative work established?

Can’t Get to Philly?

The Art of Forgery, by Noah Charney, profiles van Meegeren’s escapade, and many other famous forgeries throughout history, reviewed here.

Tim’s Vermeer, an entertaining documentary about how a non-artist used a camera obscura in an attempt to duplicate Johannes Vermeer’s technique, reviewed here.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel, by Tracy Chevalier, a romance about Vermeer’s most famous painting; made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson.

It’s a Wonderful Life

It's A Wonderful Life

John Keabler & Elizabeth Colwell. Photo: Jerry Dalia

For many Americans, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a repeat viewing of the Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. You can also see this heart-warmer, on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Opening night was December 9, and the production directed by Doug West, will be playing through December 31.

In Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation presented here, the story is staged as a live 1940s radio play, and the audience is, well, the studio audience. (In real life, the film was adapted for radio several times.) This stage version offers the opportunity for cast members to interact, not just as the radio-play’s characters, but also as actors in a radio studio. Other delightful touches include the “Applause” light that flashes above the stage manager’s glass booth, the advertisements for hair tonic and soap presented Andrews Sisters style, the presence on stage of the sound effects man (foley artist Warren Pace), whose activities are endlessly entertaining (and effective!), and the live piano playing of cast members, especially Russell Sperberg, who plays hero George Bailey’s younger brother and wrote original music for the production.

Lest you fear all this peripheral activity detracts from the story of George Bailey’s (played by John Keabler) discovery of the importance of his life, it does not. The actors, placed mostly in front of standing mikes, create believable relationships, and the one between George and his wife Mary (Susan Maris) is especially strong. Angel Clarence Oddbody (Andy Paterson) watches over the unfolding story, just as expected. All secondary actors play multiple parts, with vocal changes that, if you closed your eyes, would work perfectly for radio.

There’s one set (the studio) and one basic costume, embellished with hats and vests and aprons to distinguish among the characters. These quick-change artists include John Ahlin (who plays evil Mr. Potter and others), Elizabeth Colwell (Violet, as well as George’s daughter Zuzu), Leavell Javon Johnson (the announcer, Horace, and others), James Michael Reilly (Billy Bailey and others), the aforementioned Russell Sperberg (Harry Bailey and others), and Tina Stafford (George’s mother and others). All the acting is totally up to this fast-paced production. My only reservation is that Keabler’s portrayal of George relies less on his own individual characterization and a bit too much on Jimmy Stewart’s, while I suspect Keabler is well capable of developing George in his own way.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!