Monday, November 3, 2014

New York Theater Reviews—"On the Town," "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," "The Belle of Amherst"

On the Town
Music by Leonard Bernstein; book & lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green; directed by John Rando
Opened October 16, 2014
Lyric Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Lips Together, Teeth Apart
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Peter Dubois
Performances through November 23, 2014
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

The Belle of Amherst
Written by William Luce; directed by Steve Cosson
Performances through January 25, 2015
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Johnson, Yazbeck and Alves in On the Town (photo: Joan Marcus)
The fizzily entertaining On the Town earns the sobriquet "old-fashioned musical," thanks to Leonard Bernstein's gloriously hummable songs (like the immortal "New York, New York" and "Lonely Town"), book writers Comden & Green's witty lyrics, and the perfect (if overfamiliar) plot for a feel-good musical: three sailors on leave have 24 hours in the big city to frolic with their newly acquired gals.

Director John Rando, a master of comic pacing, pushes this revival to the giddiest of heights. The ace orchestra, led by James Moore, plays Bernstein's timeless songs with a plushness that's welcome on Broadway. Beowulf Boritt's tongue-in-cheek set design and projections make for an appropriately cartoonish Manhattan. Jess Goldstein's zesty costumes, Jason Lyons' luminous lighting and Joshau Bergasse's colorful choreography (with a nod to Jerome Robbins' original ballet) round out the savory physical trappings.

The cast is mostly top-notch, led by three sailors—Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson and especially Tony Yazbeck—who act, sing and dance up a storm as they prowl the city looking for companionship. As their women, Alysha Umphress and Elizabeth Stanley are riotous without excess campiness, and New York City Ballet's Megan Fairchild makes Miss Turnstiles the pure idealization of innocent girlishness, with her chirpy voice and impossibly slender frame twirling, spinning and pirouetting her way into her man's (and the audience's) heart.

If only Rando didn't let Jackie Hoffman mug mercilessly (and, for the most part, unfunnily) in four parts, the undeserving beneficiary of coarse book updates by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins, which unsurprisingly—but sadly—get the biggest audience reactions. So this On the Town is only four-fifths of a classic musical, as if the city itself had one of its boroughs cut off.

Lysy, Chernus, Chimo and Ferrera in Lips Together, Teeth Apart 
(photo: Joan Marcus)
When Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart premiered in 1991, the AIDS epidemic was in full rage, and the playwright's anger over the unfathomable loss of so many was palpable. However, the play now comes off as an historical artifact, at least in Peter Dubois' misguidedly staged and cast production that's disjointed and off-kilter throughout; whether it's the direction or writing is difficult to say: likely an unfelicitous combination of both.

Two straight couples—Sally and Sam Truman, and Sam's sister Chloe and John Haddock—spend July 4th weekend at Sally's brother's beach house on Fire Island (the gorgeously appointed set is by Alexander Dodge), which he left to her after dying of AIDS. Their cozy bonhomie is only a facade, since Sally and John (the latter of whom, it is also revealed, has cancer) are having an affair, while Chloe's relentless chirpiness starts to grate on everyone, even Sam. Their conversations, and especially the awkwardly inserted soliloquies, expose their homophobia, sexism and racism in all their incoherence; but neither playwright nor director provides a realistic grounding for the characters' seemingly arbitrary contradictions.

Similarly, many details ring false, like Chloe peppering her conversation with elementary French or her improbably deep knowledge of Broadway musicals, except when she thinks the famous Gypsy overture is actually from Annie. And that none of these people will jump into the beach house's beautiful in-ground pool because there's a worry that the water might be tainted with HIV doesn't work on any level: this heavily metaphoric bit of homophobic behavior comes at a time when people were far less frightened by the hysterical pronouncements about how one could catch the deadly disease. 

America Ferrera's Sally is pleasantly bland, Michael Chernus' Sam and Austin Lysy's John are even larger blanks, while Tracee Chimo—fresh off her overpraised romp in Bad Jews—goes so far over the top as Chloe that she seems to be in a door-slamming farce that McNally did not write. Maybe she can join the cast of McNally's farce It's Only a Play when this closes.

Joely Richardson in The Belle of Amherst (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Even for those of us who never saw it originally, The Belle of Amherst—William Luce's one-woman play about poet Emily Dickinson—is associated with actress Julie Harris, who turned it into a cottage industry and walked off with the Best Actress Tony in 1976. In Steve Cosson's lucid new staging, Dickinson becomes more coyly coquettish, even mischievous, in the capable hands of Joely Richardson.

If the real Dickinson was somewhere in between the two interpretations, this is, after all, a fictionalization of her life, and she may have been as charming as Richardson's shrewd performance shows her as. There's never an anachronistic sense of making her a proto-feminist, and Richardson—who also recites several of Dickinson's poems in an graceful but conversational manner—is nothing less than commanding throughout her piquant two-hour monologue.

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