Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Theater Roundup: Sondheim's 'Merrily We Roll Along'; McKinley's 'CQ/CX'; Fugard's 'Blood Knot'

Merrily We Roll Along
Starring Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Elizabeth Stanley, Betsy Wolfe
Book by George Furth; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by James Lapine
Performances February 8-19, 2012
City Center, 151 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Starring Larry Bryggman, Peter Jay Fernandez, Tim Hopper, Arliss Howard, Kobi Libii, David Pittu, Steve Rosen, Sheila Tapia
Written by Gabe McKinley; directed by David Leveaux
Previews began January 25, 2012; opened February 15; closes March 11
The New Group @ the Acorn Theatre, 261 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Blood Knot
Starring Colman Domingo, Scott Shepherd
Written and directed by Athol Fugard
Previews began January 31, 2012; opened February 16; closed March 11
Signature Theater, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Colin Donnell and Elizabeth Stanley in Merrily We Roll Along (photo by Joan Marcus)

The 1981 Broadway flop Merrily We Roll Along, a huge failure for Stephen Sondheim after a string of hits like Follies, Company and Sweeney Todd, got an agreeably merry Encores! staging. The storyline--which follows composer Frank Shepard’s troubled relationships with his lyricist partner Charley Kringas and their needy writer friend Mary Flynn backward 20 years until their first meeting in 1957--is the main reason why the musical never caught on with audiences.

At Encores!, James Lapine’s zippy directing--bolstered by Wendall K. Harrington’s savvy projections, giving a sense of the eras the show spans--streamlined some (not all) plot holes; the gimmicky reverse timeline is far from inspired, and the musical theater world is too jokily handled in George Furth’s book. Sondheim’s songs, while not his best, include such gems as “Old Friends,” “Not a Day Goes By” and the patter classic “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” Unfortunately, they all appear in the first act, making Merry much lopsided (“Day” returns in Act II).

Rob Berman’s Encores! Orchestra’s splendid playing gave a full, lush sound to Jonathan Tunick’s excellent orchestrations. Colin Donnell’s charming Frank, Celia Keenan-Bolger’s irritant Mary and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s caustic Charley are the satisfying leads; a famously bumpy ride, this Merrily eventually does roll along.

David Pittu and Arliss Howard in CQ/CX (photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia)

CQ/CX, titled after newspaper editors’ terms for fact checking and correction, is Gabe McKinley’s thinly veiled fiction of the Jayson Blair plagiarism case, which embarrassed the New York Times several years ago.

The play, though intelligent and well-paced, tries to do too much: it shows Jay Bennett at his job as a Times intern (later reporter), spending leisure time with fellow interns Jacob and Monica, dealing with his increasingly skeptical editor Ben and Times elder statesman Frank and being mentored by Gerald, long-time Times editor who’s the right-hand man of new editor-in-chief Hal Martin, whose regime and the paper’s reputation are destroyed when Jay’s plagiarism comes to light.

McKinley writes precisely about the culture that enabled Jay’s plagiarism, but for those who remember the real case’s details--and who in New York doesn’t?--there’s little that’s new or fresh. Still, under David Leveaux’s fast-paced direction--greatly helped by David Rockwell’s dazzling sets and Ben Stanton’s shrewd lighting, which slyly evoke the Times’ workplace--a persuasive ensemble of eight is led by Arliss Howard’s smart, scenery-chewing Hal and Tim Hopper’s professionally leery Ben.

Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd in Blood Knot (photo by Joan Marcus)

There’s no doubting the sincerity of Athol Fugard’s plays, which dramatize how the evils of South Africa’s racist Apartheid system affected the citizens of his beloved country. In his 1961 two-hander Blood Knot (which had its New York premiere three years later), two brothers--one light-skinned, one much darker--deal with the ramifications of their mixed blood and their dissimilar physical appearance.

In his adept staging at the Signature Theatre’s new three-theater complex, Fugard channels Beckett’s Endgame as the brothers constantly banter on a post-nuclear apocalyptic set (by Christopher H. Barreca) that stands in for their shack in “colored” section of Port Elizabeth. With their lives stuck in neutral, Morris offers to write a letter to Zachariah’s new pen pal--who turns out to be an 18-year-old white girl who wants to meet him--and the impossibility of happiness for the brothers is thrown into sharp relief.

Exceedingly pale Scott Shepherd and dark-skinned Colman Domingo don’t physically convince as brothers with different fathers, but Shepherd’s strong, sturdy Morris complements Domingo’s shrill Zachariah. The actors click convincingly in the final scenes, when the brothers’ fantasy role-playing comes to a powerfully racially-charged head, giving Fugard’s character study a much needed catharsis.

No comments: