Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Broadway Revivals—Forest Whitaker in "Hughie," Danny Burstein in "Fiddler on the Roof"

Written by Eugene O’Neill; directed by Michael Grandage
Performances through June 12, 2016
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Fiddler on the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein; music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; directed by Bartlett Sher
Opened December 20, 2015
Broadway Theatre, Broadway and 53rd Street, New York, NY

Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker in Hughie (photo: Mark Brenner)

Despite its brevity (55 minutes), Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie is a full-bodied character study masquerading as a monologue. On Broadway in 1996, I saw Al Pacino tackle the role of Erie Smith, a down-on-his-luck gambler returning to his fleabag hotel after a drunken five-day bender precipitated by the death of the hotel’s desk clerk Hughie.

Pacino gave a terrifically likeable performance full of vitality and not a little self-pity, which is what Forest Whitaker sometimes taps into in Michael Grandage’s sturdy but stiff staging. O’Neill composed what’s essentially a symphony for an actor who hits all the usual notes—sorrow and laughter, anger and heartbreak, resignation and defiance, all in the face of death—that the playwright returned to throughout his storied career, neatly encapsulated in his rarely-done one-acter.

Whitaker prowls Christopher Oram’s imposing set—this rundown hotel's staircase and revolving entrance doors are too grandiose, but that's what's needed on a big Broadway stage—so as not to be swallowed up in it. He also heavily relies on O’Neill’s humor; however engaging he is, however, there’s little to suggest that Erie is preoccupied with thoughts of death.

Whitaker is flawlessly complemented by Frank Wood as the clerk to whom Erie pours his heart out. While rarely speaking, Wood offers a textbook lesson in how to interact with another actor onstage. Hughie might be minor O’Neill, but even this less than ideal production provides another glimpse into his tortured mindset.

Danny Burstein (center) in Fiddler on the Roof (photo: Joan Marcus)

Beloved since its 1964 Broadway premiere, Fiddler on the Roof has had its classic status consolidated by the long-winded 1971 movie starring Topol and by several ensuing revivals, of which Bartlett Sher's grandly entertaining production, with a particularly winning Danny Burstein as Tevye, is the latest.

Notwithstanding an unnecessary prologue and epilogue in which Burstein plays a parka-wearing tourist, guidebook in hand, visiting the show's fictional town of Anatevka, Sher's fleet staging, spacious but intimate, shows off his canny ability to make over-familiar musicals seem fresh and alive, like his current King and I. Sher's first-rate production team—choreographer Hofesh Shechter, costumer Catherine Zuber, set designer Michael Yeargan, soundman Scott Lehrer and lighting designer Donald Holder—again proves adept at clarifying the perfect setting of another authentically classic American musical.

Burstein’s inspired Tevye boasts many humorous touches yet unabashedly wears heartbreak on his sleeve. This could be cloying, but it's anything but: Burstein catches the nuances of this rich character while making such touchstone songs as "Tradition" and "If I Were a Rich Man" his own. Tevye's marriageable daughters are played with spunky charm by Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell and Melanie Moore; their rendition of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" is another highlight.

This Fiddler isn't perfect: as Tevye's wife Golde, Jessica Hecht gives the same mannered, fussy performance we’ve seen from her for years. And the final images are too on the nose referencing the current Syrian refugee crisis. But Sher's production provides further proof that, when it comes to tuneful musicals with staying power, this one by songsmith Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and book writer Joseph Stein is miles ahead of anything more "modern." 

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