Playhouse, A Beautiful Noise, and Leopoldstadt on the Great White Way.
The new Disney "tryout" production of Hercules received a state-of-the art
production, directed by Lear DeBressonet, but for all the glitz and energy
of the cast, left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. Alan Mencken's score with
lyrics by David Zippel is somewhat pedestrian, imitative of more serious
shows like Hadestown. The book by Robert Horn and Kwame Kwei
-Armah is targeted to an elementary school audience, and while the second
act's message that true heroism lies in finding one's humanity, compassion,
and ability to love is touching, it comes across as a bit pedantic. The device
of the five Muses as a Gospel chorus is clever, but over-used and, again
derivative of shows like Dreamgirls.
The visual production sparkles with a Hollywood glitz with sets by Dane
Laffrey and lighting by Jeff Croitier that combine a feeling of sun-drenched
Greece with modern two-dimensional cartoons. Emilio Sosa's costumes
complement this aesthetic well. And the large scale puppets by James Ortiz
are sure to appeal to a youthful audience. The cast radiates energy and
charisma, but even the obviously talented Bradley Gibson in the title role
can do little to improve the lackluster material. While there is scant doubt,
this latest Disney project will land on Broadway, one hopes there is some
serious reworking before it does.
The Neil Diamond musical, A Beautiful Noise, offered a satisfying evening
of music and theatre. Using the device of the singer in conversation with
his psychotherapist as he reviews his career and life, Anthony McCarten's
book does a credible job of telling Diamond's story. Diamond's best music
is all included and cleverly interwoven into the narrative, assigning some
songs to Diamond and others to supporting characters in the story. Michael
Mayer directs with a firm hand, and Steven Hoggett provides characterful
choreography. David Rockwell's set is relatively simple, but allows for
some big moments with the elevator platform, while Kevin Adams' lighting
keeps the clear distinction between past and present and uses just enough
concert effects for excitement.
Will Swenson does an admirable job of channeling Neil Diamond in his
heyday, inhabiting the songs and the character with charisma. Mark
Jacoby plays Diamond in the present – at first so subdued and introverted
with the therapist that when he has his big revelatory moment at the end –
and, of course, breaks into song – it is a climactic scene. Robyn Hurder
makes the most of the role of Marcia Murphey, Diamond's second wife,
singing and dancing with her signature allure.
If this version of Neil Diamond's story, sanctioned by the artist, omits some
of his darker hurdles, it is nonetheless a compelling story about the routine
struggles artists face as they shape careers as huge as Diamond's. And the
music, itself, which spans almost a half century, is a soundtrack for our
My third Broadway evening was Leopoldstadt – one of the hardest-to-get
tickets in New York. Tom Stoppard's Tony-winning play about the
discovery and embrace of his Jewish ancestry and history of Holocaust
survival is nothing short of a masterpiece. It demonstrates that at eighty
-six, Stoppard is still a cutting-edge voice in English-language theatre. The
two plus uninterrupted hours of drama are breathtaking in their intensity,
their emotional depth, their subtlety, and their indeliable impact.
Stoppard, born Tomas Straussler in what is now the Czech Republic,
survived the Holocaust by making his way first to Singapore and then India
and eventually to Britain when his widowed mother remarried a British
Army Major, who adopted him and gave him the Stoppard surname.
Educated as an Englishman, Leopoldstadt is the thinly veiled fictional
account of his rediscovering his roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of
the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As in all his plays, Stoppard's dialogue is seamless, laced with wit and
nuance, and fearless in the way it subtly explores painful subjects.
Beginning with Christmas Eve in 1899 in Vienna, the play introduces the
audience to a large Jewish family of professionals, well established in
Viennese social and cultural life, intellectuals who debate issues of
assimilation, politics, and pure mathematics and music. The false sense of
security that these Jews feel in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the day
resonates with an ominous undertone. Slowly we trace the family through
several generations, pausing in 1924 and 1938 when the Nazis annexed
Austria and began their brutal roundup of Jewish families. The play ends
in 1955 when Leo, who is a young boy when his family home was
confiscated and his relatives begin to disappear, revisits Vienna and learns
from his surviving Aunt Rosa about his ancestry, his parents' journey, and
the fate of most of his family.
Directed with subtlety and restrained tension by Patrick Marber, who
manages to keep the various narrative threads clear and compelling, the
production is elegantly realized inn visual terms with Richard Hudson's
sets evoking the half century of time, Neil Austin's lighting shrouding the
play in memory – both tender and agonizing – Brigitte Reiffenstuel's
costumes creating elegant time capsules, and Adam Cork's original music
(and sound design) adding to the cohesion of the whole.
The large thirty-eight person cast forms a cohesive ensemble, each etching
a memorable character. Standouts are Brandon Uranowitz as Ludwig,
whose intellectual devotion to mathematics is his solace as he foresees the
dark clouds brewing; David Krumholtz as Hermann, married to the Gentile
Gretl, who believes in a rosier future where assimilation and coexistence
are possible; Faye Castleow as his Christian wife Gretl, whose infidelity
turns into a route of escape for their son; Betsy Aidem as the family
matriarch Grandma Emilia, and (on the evening I attended) Michael
Deaner as young Leo (Stoppard) terrified by the Nazi home invasion.
Stoppard's newest play is a masterpiece of memory, of history – both social
and personal – and of perfectly calibrated storytelling. Taking highly
-charged subject matter with global implications, Stoppard delicately
transforms this into a personal tale whose impact is all the more
devastating because the horror of the Holocaust has a human face. Though
the audience knows from the start the tragic outcome for this family,
Stoppard is able to conjure up moments of beauty, light, humor, and even
Having been a fan of Tom Stoppard's work since the 1960s when Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead first trod the Broadway boards, it
felt like a very special coming full circle to see Leopoldstadt and to witness
an octogenarian in full and glorious possession of his artistry. An evening
such as the one spent at the Longacre Theatre with Leopoldstadt is a rare
and special experience – one that crowned the entire New York stay!