Seen on Broadway:

Hugh Jackman is The Boy From Oz and his producers must be thanking their lucky stars. Cast in this subpar bio-musical as the late cabaret singer Peter Allen, Jackman (better known in the US for his X-Men pictures) is a mega-watt presence with a powerful singing voice and sterling acting skills. (Only if you’ve seen Jackman as Curley in the Royal National Theatre revival of Oklahoma! can you appreciate his skillful performance as the flamboyantly gay Allen.). That’s the end of the good news: Martin Sherman’s book is a scrapbook of scenes from Allen’s life; he never creates a convincing character for Jackman to play. Many others pass through, to little dramatic effect. Judy Garland (Isabel Keating) appears to camp it up, belt a few tunes, and fly into rages. Liza Minnelli (Stephanie J. Block) takes part in some excruciating scenes of marital drama. Allen’s male lover, Greg Connell (Jarrod Emick) calls Allen, with his onstage camping, a gay Uncle Tom—then gives up his career in advertising to stage Allen’s campy shows! He quickly dies, then returns from the dead to sing “I Honestly Love You”—as happens all night long, the lyrics of the song don’t fit the dramatic situation. And so it goes, with Philip Wm McKinley’s listless staging and Joey McKneely’s derivative choreography.

Give a boy a break: Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz.
Photo: Joan Marcus.

The design is notably uninspired: Robin Wagner’s drab scenery mostly consists of photorealistic backdrops and interior sets on wagons; his bigger moments, including the use of mirrored periaktoi for a number at Radio City Music Hall, and the finale, which features a staircase made of piano keys, don’t really work. William Ivey Long’s costumes are oddly restrained; you can almost feel his relief when he gets to the big finish, “I Go to Rio,” when he can run riot with bit puffy sleeves, headgear and Carnivale costumes. Weirdly, he dresses Garland and Minnell as if they never take off their iconic stage costumes—didn’t they ever wear casual clothes? The sound by Acme Sound Partners never really finds an ideal balance between the voices and Michael Gibson’s orchestrations. Donald Holder’s lighting, with its scorching colors and onstage mini-lighting rig, at least adds some show-business oomph. Nevertheless, Jackman is a real phenomenon. A friend comments that you have to go back to Katharine Hepbun in the 1969 musical Coco to find a magnetic, world-class star coping with such dicey material. Let’s hope Jackman sticks around long enough for the producers to recoup.--David Barbour

Seen in Princeton: If you haven’t gotten tickets for Anna In The Tropics, which opens on Broadway in November, hurry to the box office. The 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz is coming directly from the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, where it was the inaugural production in the new Roger S. Berlind Theatre. Designed by architect Hugh Hardy, with Fisher Dachs Associates as theatre consultants, the 360-seat proscenium theatre is intimate, with a palette of red, blue, green, and purple for the upholstery and lobby carpet. The theatre has a slightly industrial look, with exposed ductwork and catwalks that curve right down to the balcony level. The decor for Anna in the Tropics, by Robert Brill, represents a cigar factory in Ybor City, Florida, in 1929. The factory is owned by a Cuban family and we first meet them as a new “lector," or "reader” is getting off a ship from the homeland (it was traditional, in the days before radios, for cigar factory workers to hire someone to read books and newspapers to them). The setting resembles an old, sepia-toned photograph, with warm, tobacco-color slatted walls, simple wooden furniture, and overhead fans whirring slowly. Toward the end, a large banner, resembling a cigar box label, is hung to announce the creation of a new cigar. Anita Yavich’s costumes dress the women in white and beige dresses with pastel trim or stripes, with tan aprons added for the workaday scenes. The men wear suits ranging from white to brown and green. This rather limited palette is extended in the Act II party scene, where the stage is festooned with paper lanterns and the party frocks range from black velvet to bright tropical shades--such as a green paisley dress with a brilliant orange lining, worn with blue shoes. Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski adds to the hot, dusty ambiance of the play with effects that suggest rays from the sun filtering through slatted shutters, creating patterns on the floor and walls. Smoke curling in a square of light on the upstage wall adds to the factory environment. This is a beautiful, sensitive production of the kind of play you wish would get produced on Broadway more often. --Ellen Lampert-Greaux

The cigar factory in Anna in the Tropics.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Seen in Brooklyn: This year’s top-notch Next Wave Festival, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was one of the stops on choreographer Merce Cunningham’s 50th anniversary tour. Cunningham, at age 84, came out at the top of the evening to supervise the rolling of dice to decide the order of things in Split Sides, the second piece on the program. The piece is performed in two 20-minute sections with any one of 32 permutations of decor, costumes, music, and lighting decided by the roll of the dice. The decor includes abstract drops by photographers Robert C. Heishman and Catherine Yass--one in black and white, one in color (soft pastels, like a cityscape under water), while the costumes by James Hall are pattered unitards, one set in black and white, one set in color. The musical selections are by Radiohead and Sigur Rós, and the two lighting schemes (called the 200s and 300s) are by James F. Ingalls. The program opened with Fluid Canvas in which the dancers wear metallic costumes in gray or purple, also designed by James Hall, with a backdrop of pulsating images that resemble stars, or the milky way, or white bouncing droplets, and a small crescent moon that elongates. The decor was created by Mark Downie, Shelly Eshkar, and Paul Kaiser with soft lighting again by Ingalls. It’s great to see that Cunningham is still rolling along and as creative as ever, a great piece of luck for his fans.

Merce Cunningham, still taking chances.

Photo: Jack Vartoogian

Seen in Manhattan: New York City Opera’s production of Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera is a charming romp directed by Mark Lamos with sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Candace Donnelly, and lighting by Robert Wierzel. The action has been updated to the present and takes place in a sanatarium for the lovelorn. It’s Mozart, so, of course, there are mistaken identities, criss-crossed lovers, and a bit of mayhem and madness. The set is a rather unfortunately unappealing gray room with a domed ceiling (a challenge to Wierzel, I’ll bet), and the fabric of the dome was a bit baggy the night I attended (the victim of quick changeovers, perhaps). At the end, one of the gray walls opens to reveal a large window with a tree behind it. The section of the wall that drops down forms the lawn of the garden with green carpeting, and multifarious faux flowers. This shift makes the set more appealing at the end. The opera is directed and costumed in a very fun way; I think they should have had more fun with the set, as well. The majority of the furniture is an assortment of chairs, a bathtub, and two white hospital-style beds. The costumes are wild, however, as each character, believing he or she is someone else, eventually changes from the costume of his or her assumed identity (i.e. a garden maid, a French maid, a bride) into a commedia del’ arte-inspired costume. Wierzel’s lighting introduces some texture to the drabness of the set, mainly indicating time-of-day changes or adding shadows. At the end of the day, the lovers have sorted themselves out and might very well live happily ever after (hopefully, someplace more attractive than the set).--ELG

A Mozartian madhouse: La Finta Giardiniera. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Seen Off Broadway: The play of the week, or the month, or maybe the year, is the British drama Iron, now at Manhattan Theatre Club. That most underrated of actresses, Lisa Emery, stars as Fay, who’s in prison for having murdered her husband. Josie, Fay’s 20-something yuppie daughter, seeks out the mother she hasn’t seen in 15 years. The play is really little more than a series of encounters between them—but what encounters! Every exchange between them is fraught with drama: Fay is tough, overbearing, needy, seductive, and always on the edge of a volcanic rage. Josie comes across as professional and well-educated, but she’s a deeply solitary woman who can’t remember anything before the age of 11. Their relationship alters line by line as Fay manipulates Josie and Josie tries to wheedle the truth of the murder out of Fay. The truth finally comes, in a scorching, 11th-hour monologue, that reveals how violence is as nearly destructive to the perpetrator as to the victim. Emery is a shocking presence—tense, emaciated, burning with resentment--and Dundas subtly underplays against her to highly dramatic effect. Playwright Rona Munro is a real find, as is director Anna D. Shapiro; this is a startlingly assured piece of work. Mark Wendland’s metallic, forbidding setting, depicting the prison’s meeting area, is dominated by a series of metal tables; there’s also a transparent Plexiglas® cube that represent’s Fay’s cell (his costumes are also well-done). Kevin Adams’ clinical lighting transforms the space into an operating arena where souls are dissected. Bruce Ellman’s sound design fills the air with ambient noises suggestive of prison life. Like the metal of the title, Iron is hard, blunt, and wielded for maximum impact.

Mother and child reunion in Iron. Photo: Joan Marcus.

William Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen is rarely produced, and you’ll know why in the new production at the Public Theatre. Written with John Fletcher, it’s a late-career work, and no candidate for the classics shelf. Onstage at the Public, it seems more revelatory of the heavily plotted potboilers of the 17th century against which Shakespeare’s best work stands in such contrast. Based on Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” and set during a war between Athens and Thebes, it consists of a series of arbitrary plot reversals—the title characters are cousins, whose deep mutual devotion vanishes in an instant when they both fall in love with the same woman. Inconveniently, they’re prisoners of war, but the jailer’s daughter loves one of them and so……From there, it’s a twist a minute: there are jailbreaks, mad scenes, rapes, denunciations, duels, reconciliations, and cameo appearances by several Greek deities. A brilliant director, taking a boldly stylized approach, might make something of this; Darko Tresnjak’s production, however, is a mechanical affair, filled with actors who declaim energetically but rarely supply any emotional conviction. Nevertheless, the design is most handsome: The Public’s Martinson Hall has been reconfigured, with the audience placed on both sides of a copper-colored triangular thrust stage, which is backed by a wall that parts to reveal a three-sided prison; it’s a fine piece of work by David Gordon. Robert Wierzel’s lighting is distinguished by a series of back-lit color washes, which proves an effective way of changing scenes. Linda Cho has dressed the cast in flatteringly cut brown tunics, with lots of accessories; it’s a sensible, attractive approach. Michael Creason’s sound design includes plenty of martial music, plus some atmospheric effects. I’m very glad that the Public did The Two Noble Kinsmen—I had to see it sometime--but I’m equally glad I never have to see it again.

Love divides The Two Noble Kinsmen. Photo: Michal Daniel.

The Colleen Bawn, now at the Irish Repertory Theatre, begins with Hadress Cregan, an impoverished aristocrat who’s engaged to his wealthy cousin Anne Chute. Anne is really in love with Kyrle Daly, a seaman; Hardress is secretly married to Eily O’Connor, the colleen bawn of the title, but if he doesn’t marry Anne, his mother will have to marry Mr. Corrigan, who holds the mortgage over their home. And this is the just the first ten minutes! It’s all the handiwork of Dion Boucicault, who ground out a couple hundred of these potboilers in the 19th century. If you’re going to do one of these plot-heavy epics today, you need a fresh point of view. Here, director Charlotte Moore seems to be going for an affectionate sendup, but the necessary humor and style are largely missing. Furthermore, there’s no romantic spark between any of the multidinous romantic leads, so there’s little to do but sit there watch the complex plot grind on. On the plus side, Moore has conceived the production as an outdoor presentation by a touring company, an idea that is charmingly realized by set designer James Morgan: the stage is transformed into a leafy forest grove with a little flip-up stage, on which backdrops are hung like shower curtains, allowing for fast, witty transitions between scenes. Morgan, aided by lighting designer Brian Nason, even manages a cleverly-done version of the play’s “sensation scene,” an attempted murder in a boat at night. Linda Fisher’s costumes are extensively detailed and beautifully realized; this is one of her finest recent accomplishments. Zachary Williamson’s sound cues are well-executed, particularly some thunderclaps. The designers’ work is the most pleasurable part of The Colleen Bawn.

When colleens collide: The Colleen Bawn. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

In Smashing, produced by The Play Company at Intar 53, Brooke Berman finds a fresh spin on the old plot about the sexy bestseller that embarrasses its subjects: Abby is a spoiled Columbia student, the daughter of a Norman Mailer-ish novelist who discovers, to her horror, that Jason, her ex-boyfriend, has immortalized her in his first novel (to preserve Abby’s privacy, he names the character “Addy”) For most of the first-act, Berman gets plenty of malicious laughs out of the situation. Abby is a real piece of work, cruelly honest, supremely self-involved. Defending her affair, she says, “I didn’t know anyone from Iowa! It was exotic!” As she notes, chief among the humiliations of being portrayed as a thumb-sucking, sexually predatory Lolita is is that “actresses you don’t even like are considering doing the movie.” However, once Abby heads to London in search of revenge, the fun withers away; most of the second act marks time with a subplot featuring Addy’s best friend, Clea, who worships Madonna as a symbol of female empowerment. The big event of Act II, a major falling-out between Abby and Clea, is much less amusing. Still, Trip Cullman’s well-paced direction is very helpful, and there’s good work from Katharine Powell and Merrit Wever as Abby and Clea. David Barlow is equally good as slippery, lust-addled Jason, particularly when he reinvents himself as a Brit along the lines of Martin Amis. Erik Flatmo’s minimalist setting cleverly uses a single wall to suggest locations on both sides of the ocean and Paul Whitaker’s lighting provides colorful, lightning-fast transitions. Michael Krass’ costumes are amusingly observant and Scott Myers’ sound design is thoroughly professional. Smashing closes this weekend but I feel we’ll be hearing from Brooke Berman again.

I don’t have much to say about Listen to My Heart: The Songs of David Friedman, now at Upstairs at Studio 54. Friedman has written a number of attractively sentimental tunes over the years (including the title number) and “Help Is On the Way.”), several of which were recorded by the late, great cabaret singer Nancy Lamott. Put a couple of dozen together, however, and they sound disconcertingly similar; it’s the world’s longest medley of inspirational ballads. For that matter, the lyrics, by Friedman and others, are rather overripe with poetic allusions--to trusting the wind, opening your eyes to love, letting down your guard, etc. etc. The singers, including Friedman himself, Allison Briner, Joe Cassidy, Michael Hunsaker, and Anne Runolfsson, are perfectly lovely, and that brassy comic siren Alix Korey has a good time with the one funny number, “A Simple Wish.” I must report that all around me, eyes were misting up, but, for me, a little bit of Freidman’s work goes a long, long way. Michael Anania’s set is simple and functional, as are Markas Henry’s costumes. Matt Berman knows everything there is to no about cabaret lighting, and he does fine work here, although, at my performance, there were one or two glitches in his sound design.--DB

Seen at the Movies: Jane Campion’s In the Cut, based on Susanna Moore’s arty pulp novel, is a mess of implausibility, lame plotting, and calculated sadomasochistic heat. Yet the director’s powers are such that the film is difficult to dismiss. Campion’s goal is to represent not reality, but the subjective state of her heroine, New York poetry teacher Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan). Frannie seems to have twin competing fixations—on the romantic myth of her parents’ meeting, and on the sexual license embodied by her wild sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and by the sorts of Village dives in which she conducts student-teacher conferences. When women start turning up “disarticulated” in Frannie’s vicinity, a studly detective (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to investigate. Both Frannie and the viewer must wonder, as with all the movie’s male characters: Can he be trusted? Is his apparent dark side even darker than meets the eye?

In the Cut, which features graphic violence and nude lovemaking that stretch the bounds of its R rating, earns no points on a story level, particularly as relates to the ho-hum whodunit plot. (When the solution arrives, it’s so arbitrary as to seem committee-designated.) And despite a rigorous job of de-cute-ification on Ryan’s part, the character of Frannie remains opaque, a blank; perhaps a more powerful actress could have filled in the empty spaces. Ruffalo, even saddled with an ugly moustache, fares better with the cop’s simpler display of male potency. With all its flaws, the movie is hard to shake. Even if she can’t nail Frannie’s consciousness, Campion, along with her gifted DP Dion Beebe and production designer David Brisbin, create a stylized vision of the enthralling, threatening city, complete with seedy yet exotically decorated apartments, and an expressively blurry photographic style. What the director conveys is something like an authorial consciousness, which one only wishes would be employed on superior material.

I don’t recall Frannie expressing any opinion on the poetry of Sylvia Plath, but it seems like she might be a fan. As reiterated in the biopic Sylvia, Plath (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) knew a thing or two about father fixations. This perfectly respectable film by New Zealander Christine Jeffs doesn’t furnish much in the way of new insight about the troubled poet who gassed herself to death in 1963, and it sticks to a scrupulously even-handed account of her stormy marriage to future British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes (played by Daniel Craig). With her New England patrician bearing and cool intelligence, Paltrow seems born to play Plath, and she gives an admirable star performance, never shying away from the poet’s ugly, possessive side. Yet absent the transforming power of art, the movie feels grimly redundant. It does look very handsome, courtesy of John Toon’s cinematography, while Maria Djurkovic’s production design captures the perfect note of academic shabbiness in Hughes and Plath’s various flats. Costume designer Sandy Powell does her usual brilliant work with Plath’s preppy skirts and sweater sets and her only half-successful attempts at a more sophisticated wardrobe.

Mad love: Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia. Photo: Focus Features.

Veronica Guerin, the “true” story of the Irish journalist who was murdered while crusading against Dublin drug dealers, is by far the weakest of this week’s female star vehicles. Cate Blanchett plays the title role in game fashion, but the combined efforts of director Joel Schumacher and producer Jerry Bruckheimer render all her talents for naught. Though it’s shot on location, this is the slick, one-note Hollywood version of Guerin’s story, so lacking in nuance and character detail as to perversely make its heroine come across as a reckless harridan. There are effective supporting performances by Ciaran Hinds and Gerard McSorley, but even the participation of an Irish DP (Brendan Galvin) and costume designer (Joan Bergin), as well as British production designer Nathan Crowley, can’t erase the illusion of a Burbank backlot hovering over the Dublin locations.--John Calhoun

Cate Blanchett crusades against drug dealers Veronica Guerin. Photo: Touchstone Pictures.