Reviews for Encores at NY City Center 2008


Encores! at NY City Center - February 2008

Reviewed by John Kenrick

I have always been amazed at the determined coterie of people who catch concert stagings at Encores or elsewhere at the dress rehearsal or the very first night, only to fly to their keyboards and religiously post negative reviews on the web. Such creatures pre-date the internet. In Alan Jay Lerner's autobiography The Street Where I Live, he tells of people who used to come to the first out of town preview performance of a new show, pretending to be supportive when all they really wanted to do was see your show at its very worst, then head back to New York and tell everyone you had a flop on your hands. Lerner referred to these individuals as the "dear shits." Mind you, every theatergoer is entitled to state an opinion, but formally reviewing a show at its dress rehearsal is just plain sadistic -- no show deserves it.

That is why I make a point of catching Encores on Sundays, after the cast and crew have had a chance to pull things together. A lot of people who saw the Encores production of Applause at the start of its four day run were unhappy -- in part because beloved diva Christine Ebersole was performing through a whopping case of the flu, but also because other production elements were still coming together. Well, by the final night, Ebersole was in much stronger voice and the production was quite smooth -- a genuine pleasure to behold.

Has Applause aged well? Frankly, some parts of it are holding up better than others. The music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams were a contemporary attempt to capture the spirit of 1970, and capture it they did. If that sound is not your thing, you may well think it dated -- I found it as enjoyable to hear as ever. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's libretto took their plot and less than a dozen lines of dialogue from the film All About Eve, reshaped and even replaced a few key characters, and poured in plenty of their patented wise-cracking dialogue. If that kind of humor is not your thing, you may well think it dated -- but frankly, it's what I look for in a well-built musical.

The wonderful Kathleen Marshall directed with a less than consistent hand this time around, with some scenes far less well served than others. Her decision to insert post-1970 shows in a parody sequence was designed to please the Encores core audience, and many liked it -- I found it an embarrassing anachronism, in part because I have come to expect nothing but the best from Marshall and the Encores team. Scenic consultant John Lee Beatty is a treasure, but it is time someone warned him that staged concerts can be weighed down by too many set elements. Rob Berman conducted with a flawless sense of period sound -- what a joy to hear those Philip J. Lang orchestrations in their full glory!

Christine Ebersole is not exactly the sort of star the role of Margo Channing was conceived for, but she pulled off the challenge with tons of brio and a cartload of style. That she did so despite the flu merely confirms that old-style theatrical professionalism is not quite a thing of the past. However, I still question the wisdom of reviving Applause without compelling casting in the lead. There are many roles the divine Ebersole ought to be seen doing -- forgive me, but this was not one of them.

The supporting cast was surprisingly uneven. The talented Erin Davie was merely alright as the manipulative Eve Harrington, and handsome Michael Park set off no sparks as Margo's lover-director Bill Sampson. Tom Hewitt is one of the most talented leading men on Broadway today, but the minimal role of Margo's producer gave him almost no chance to prove it. On the plus side, Chip Zien and Kate Burton were exactly right as the playwright and his faithful wife, and Mario Cantone was sexy and hilarious as Margo's gay hairdresser. Megan Sikora did a nifty job as Bonnie, the high-kicking dancer who leads her fellow "gypsies" in the show's giddy title song.

Last year was one of the best ever for Encores, with three solid hit productions of vintage revue material. That is a tough act to follow, and Applause left audiences cheering despite all sorts of challenges. Perfect? No -- but damned good entertainment. It certainly made fools out of the grousing "dear shits" -- who ultimately prove nothing but their own small mindedness.


Encores! at NY City Center - March 2008

Reviewed by John Kenrick

Marc Blitzstein was a first-class ass. Yes, he did some significant work, from creating the pretentious yawner The Cradle Will Rock to his landmark adaptation of The Threepenny Opera. But anyone who would compose a Broadway musical for a major star like Shirley Booth and not bother to give her a “star” moment rates as . . .well, as an ass. And that's exactly what happened with Juno – a well-intentioned but ultimately unsatisfying musicalization of Sean O’Casey’s hard-hitting play Juno and the Paycock that has inspired much print over the years, but has not been seen by New York audiences since its two week run in 1959.

The folks at Encores remedied that in a well-intentioned but ultimately unsatisfying concert production starring the always impressive Victoria Clark. Just as with original star Shirley Booth four decades ago, Ms. Clark lavished considerable charm, talent and technique on the title role, but the material left this reviewer wondering why such a gifted actress would bother. Clark spent a great deal of time exuding strength while suffering life latest travails, but never got the moment of dramatic magic both she and her audience deserved.

The fault lies squarely with the material itself. Joseph Stein’s libretto moved the action of O’Casey’s play back a bit to the final days of the Irish revolution in 1921, but the central story of a family collapsing under a series of private and public tragedies makes for singularly depressing entertainment. Blitzstein sprinkled his score with echoes of Irish folk music and more than a few sweet songs, but he was a strange choice to compose a decidedly strange project.

This Encores staging might have profited from a director with some experience in handling musicals. As it was, Garry Hynes gave this production plenty of harsh, authentic atmosphere without ever creating the sense of flow this particular production desperately needed. (The stirring and all-important opening number “We’re Alive” was damn near a dramatic dud here.) Certain key roles were hopelessly miscast, most notably leading man John Shuck and his sidekick Dermot Crowley – both capable pros stuck in the wrong roles and seemingly flailing about without the assistance of a sensible directorial hand.

However, there were treasures to enjoy. Aside from the always compelling work of Ms. Clark, there was Celia Keenan-Bolger as the self-absorbed teenager dreaming of romance, and the golden-voiced Michael Arden as the suitor she foolishly spurns. Tyler Haynes played the son who lost an arm in the fight for Irish independence, and who now faces the consequences of ratting out his best friend to the British authorities – his nightmare ballet in the second act was easily the emotional and artistic highlight of the evening. Special kudos to choreographer Warren Carlyle for pulling together such a powerful number in so short a rehearsal time. The entire demanding score profited mightily from the always deft hand of music director Eric Stern.

Encores gave Juno a more than respectable effort. I’m not sure there is any cast that could make this uneven, ill-focused musical a winning experience. Top-notch Irish performers are not thick on the ground in musical theatre today. Someone like Milo O’Shea would have made far more sense in the male lead – but even the most “Darlin’ Man” imaginable could only do so much with so little. And with the composer dead for some 35 years, there is no way to provide the leading lady with the kind of second act heart-stopper this “almost” show fatally lacks.

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