Sunday, May 1, 2016

Theater Reviews—Broadway Musical “Waitress”; Shakespeare in Brooklyn

Music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles; book by Jessie Nelson; directed by Diane Paulus
Performances began March 25, 2016
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Richard II & Henry IV, Part I
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Gregory Doran
Performances through May 1, 2016
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn, NY

Jessie Mueller in Waitress (photo: Joan Marcus)

A sweet-natured romantic comedy, the 2007 movie Waitress was stamped by the offbeat personality of writer-director-costar Adrienne Shelly—who was brutally murdered right before its release when she was just 40 years old—balancing rom-com ickiness with a sympathetic look at Jenna, a woman trying to emancipate herself from trying circumstances. Brightly played by the endlessly resourceful Keri Russell, the heroine in Waitress was easy to root for.

In its translation to the stage, much of what made Waitress charming has been lost, replaced by a by-the-numbers musical with forgettable music, strained jokes and a desperate attempt to make Jenna’s fellow waitresses—played amusingly in the movie by Cheryl Hines and Shelly herself—as important to the show as she is. Director Diane Paulus is merely a ringmaster guiding the proceedings from scene to scene with little originality or creativity

The plot was the weakest thing about the movie—rooting for Jenna to cheat on her dastardly husband with the town’s new gynecologist with whom she begins having an affair during her pregnancy isn’t easy—but Shelly’s temperament was geared more toward Jenna’s creations, the homemade pies that amusingly commented on her frustrating life.

The musical unfortunately doubles down on the story (Jessie Nelson wrote the awkward book) and gives her cohorts Dawn and Becky far more to do in the show than onscreen, to the detriment of Jenna and the show. It doesn’t help that Kamiko Glenn and Keala Settle play the friends with maximum campiness, and with Christopher Fitzgerald piling it on as the goofball who falls for Dawn, there are at least 30 minutes of Waitress that could have been excised.

But Jenna does remain front and center thanks to Jessie Mueller. Though she lacks Keri Russell’s natural charm, she’s a capable actress who can also sing the hell out of anything, even the flaccid tunes Sara Bareilles has composed. The show’s emotional center, “She Used to Be Mine,” is an earnest attempt at an 11 o’clock number that Mueller handles with effortless ease, nearly making it the shattering crescendo it desperately wants to be.

David Tennant in Richard II (photo: Richard Termine)

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s auspicious return to Brooklyn brings four plays under the title King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great KingsRichard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V—for a six-week long residency showing the breadth and depth of its talent, spread across 12 hours of prime Shakespeare to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death.

I saw Richard II and Henry IV, Part I and was impressed by director Gregory Doran’s ability to keep things moving cleanly and swiftly but without ignoring the needed breathing spaces that make Shakespeare singular: intimate scenes of verbal jousting that are usually superior to the physical kind, which Doran doesn’t do very well anyway, i.e., the climactic Henry IV battle.

Richard II is rarely done—the only other time I saw it was at BAM in 2000 with Ralph Fiennes essaying the title role—probably because Richard is a tricky role that’s hard to pull off. David Tennant, playing a Richard whose long, wavy hair flows behind him as eccentrically as his personality, isn’t hammy, but makes this showy role his own, eventually gaining the sympathy that Shakespeare withholds from his protagonist until the moving speech when Richard bares himself to his usurper, Bolingbroke (soon to be Henry IV). It’s a high-wire performance that calls attention to itself in the best way.

I could do without Doran’s making physical Richard’s attraction for his cousin Amerle with a pointless lingering kiss (and having Amerle wield the knife that kills Richard is also a questionable decision). But this Richard II powerfully dramatizes the tragedy of a king who gets his comeuppance.

One of Shakespeare’s towering masterpieces, Henry IV, Part I joins typically probing history with the comic world of Sir John Falstaff, one of the most original and audience-pleasing characters he ever wrote. When director Jack O’Brien trimmed both parts of Henry IV at Lincoln Center a decade ago into one play, Kevin Kline’s masterly comic portrayal of Falstaff was its anchor; here, Antony Sher is equally amusing and touching as the blowhard Falstaff, who gives free rein to the king’s precocious son Prince Hal’s inability to grow up.

Sher brilliantly doesn’t overdo Falstaff; instead, he plays this garrulous, gregarious character straight, which makes him all the more endearing. And Sher’s generous performance is balanced beautifully by Alex Hassell’s Hal who, aware of his own immaturity, slowly becomes the mature prince who will be crowned Henry V by the end of the next play.

With intelligent and inspired acting throughout both plays, director Doran smartly keeps visual flourishes to a minimum: scrims and projections are sparingly but particularly well-used, Stephen Brimson Lewis designed the ingeniously spare sets and even the floor is cleverly lit (by the talented Jim Mitchell) to illuminate the strenuous physical and psychological terrain these plays traverse. There’s no better celebration of Shakespeare’s genius in this 400th anniversary year of his death than such exciting and edifying productions of his remarkable works.

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