Sunday, March 25, 2018

Babette’s Feast--More Like a Famine

By Joseph Cervelli

In the program of the new play “Babette’s Feast” at the Theatre at St. Clement’s it is noted twice that the work written by Rose Courtney is based on the short story by Isak Dinesen and not the film. While I never read the book, but have seen the film many times and consider it a masterpiece covering so many topics, it is still difficult for me to think that Dinesen’s story would lack the beauty and contain the silly humor that is inherent in this greatly inferior interpretation. And that inferiority is evident in both writing and most of the performances. 

Directed more as a comedy by Karin Coonrod in a film adapted from the book it contained  subtle comedic moments that are now missing.

The book unlike the film which took place in Denmark is set in a small village in Norway in the 19th Century. The townspeople are very pious and luxury of any kind is looked down upon as an affront to their religious beliefs. Simplicity in life whether in their clothing or cooking is a necessity. The story centres around two sisters Martine (Abigail Killeen) and Philippa (Juliana Francis Kelly) who live together with their father until his passing  is a Protestant pastor. Through too much exposition from fellow cast members we learn about their youthful days (would have been more authentic if both young actresses were made to look a bit older when the play begins) when Martine is wooed by the dashing cavalry office Lowenhielm (Jeorge Bennett Watson) but marriage is out of the question knowing  her duty is to remain at home with her sister and father. Philippa with her beautiful voice could have been a famed opera star and is encouraged by the famed French opera singer Papin (Steven Skybell) to consider what could be an illustrious career. She, too, out of propinquity declines. 

The gist of the story is when a once famous chef from a renowned French restaurant  Babette (Michelle Hurst) becomes a refugee after her family is killed in a French counter revolution and she makes her way to Norway where she works for them free as a housekeeper and cook..While staying with them for many years she wins a lottery before and before considering back to France decides to make them the dinner she was famous for when she was the chef. 

The essence of what makes the story so appealing is how it transforms people and their beliefs over a period of time. I am sure the book and most definitely the film's filled with moments of humor and beauty combining kindness and harshness of life.  It delved into dedication and  devotion to what they believe to be their course in life. 

Sadly, the play conjures up none of that. Courtney has incorporated absurdly inane  moments with male actors overacting as females. Tender scenes especially when Babette receives the lottery ticket  should have be treated as a euphoric moment but is done in such a foolish manner with neighbours looking through their windows at her. 

Except for Kelly and Killeen who are quite good despite the poor adaptation,  the other performances are weirdly out of place. Not sure what Coonrod was thinking having them adapt such bizarre accents. Playing a multitude of roles one  actor sounds like someone from the deep south, another who isa mail carrier sounds  like he is from “Our Town”  and Watson speaking beautifully as the officer one moment and then in a crudely stereotypical less educated African-American accent as one of the village’s inhabitants proves almost offensive.  

Worst of all is the poorly conceived Babette as woefully played by a dour and expressionless Michelle Hurst. Babette is a shy woman who is uncertain of  new environment but has a firm but quiet dignity. There is a distance between her and the two sisters that eventually changes ever so slightly. Yet, here there is no connection between the three women. Hurst plays Babette with no emotion and even the scenes where she is preparing the food (only the elaborate set table is shown) should be done with such delicacy and exuberance  but that is non existent in this production. When the pivotal moment in the play should be the radiant expression of giving that she bestows on the two sisters when the food preparation is completed is all but lost so is the play. 

The entire production is misconceived which will bring  those who love “Babette’s Feast” to a state of anguish. 

Photos: Carol Rosegg

Tickets are available at The Theatre at St. Clement's 423 West 46th Street or by calling 212.239.6200. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Good For Otto--Superlative Performances

By Joseph Cervelli

While David Rabe’s  latest play “Good For Otto” presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center is very well written and, at times, quite affecting,  the major reason to see it is the superlative cast. The actors are so accomplished in their roles that it is one of the best ensembles I have seen this season. 

While the play which takes place in an out patient mental health facility near the Berkshire Mountains is absorbing and should keep your full attention for the nearly three hours, the problem is that it never really develops into a full fledged play mainly because there is no interconnection between the characters. This is especially the case at the end of the first act when you may find yourself asking, “Where’s the play?” In all fairness the second half while never fully coalescing is better. There are two or three scenes where the patients are all parading around singing which is gimmicky and you are not quite sure if this is actually taking place.  However,  by the play’s conclusion I felt the point was that there was hope for all of them and that some positive results will occur from their individual therapy sessions. 

Therapy sessions is what really rules this play. The always excellent Ed Harris portrays Dr. Michaels one of the therapists while the other is Amy Madigan as Evangeline. It is hard to get a good grasp on Evangeline. She is caring although at some pivotal movements during sessions tells patients rather abruptly that time is over. Yet, Michaels is suffering from his own demons besides having to help patients on the throes of  sorrow, despair and destruction.  At age nine he discovered his mentally ill mother who just  committed suicide. Throughout the play his deceased mom (Charlotte Hope) has conversations with him.  While bringing back the deceased works in some plays here I found it  to be a rather unnecessary contrivance. What makes less sense is when a young girl named Frannie of about 12 who is seeking help for being a cutter converses with Mom. She is brilliantly portrayed by Rileigh McDonald who gives one of the best performances I have seen, thus far, this season. Her searing emotions and frightening screams are incredibly realistic. Equally good is Rhea Perlman who is her foster mom at a loss how to help her.

It is a pleasure to see F. Murray Abraham in any show and he is terrific as Bernard an older man who had refused to get out of be bed for a long period of time. He speaks about his early childhood and how it has affected him today. Rabe under Scott Elliott’s caring and thoughtful direction has carefully dissected this character even more than the others. 

Another standout is Malik Pancholy as Alex a young gay man who is trying desperately to find love even if making up stories about meeting someone in a bar.

There is also Jerome (a fine Kenny Mellman) who shares a house with his mother and to keep from living on his own in the basement apartment keeps accumulating boxes of various items which he says won’t fit. A not very good excuse. 

Mark Linn-Baker is perfect as the socially inept Timothy who wants to make friends but unintentionally proves too pushy and becomes creepy in his approach although he is as gentle as his unseen hamster who has to undergo surgery. I never thought I would be so concerned  about a hamster but Linn-Baker is so adept in his beautifully conceived performance that you are rooting for this rodent to make a speedy recovery. 

There is also a strong indictment against insurance companies and the bureaucracy doctors have to go through to get the necessary  help between for their patients. There is a realistically upsetting interplay between Michaels and Marcy (Nancy Giles) who works for the insurance company involved and is only concerned with the cost to her company. 

While all the individual sessions are wonderfully told, not having even a few of the characters come together (I am confounded as to why Rabe did not have, at least, one or two group sessions) lessens the effect of this play. 

Derek McLane designed a large and antiseptic community room which works quite well.

Despite my reservations, the performances are of such a high  believable caliber it is most definitely worth a trip.

Tickets are available at the The Pershing Square Signature Centre 480 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.279.4200.

PHOTOS: Monique Carboni

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Hello, Dolly!--Bernadette Peters Brings New Dimensions to the Iconic Role

By Joseph Cervelli

Let’s face it. When Bette Midler appeared in “Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theater last season she was the show. Actually, they could have, as many did, called it “Hello, Bette!” She was most definitely fun even with her constant mugging.   She was having a ball and so were we. She did not try to upstage any of the other performers but when she was off the stage you secretly waited for her return which brought back memories of her “Divine Miss M” shows. In “Dolly” she sang adequately, danced adequately and acted fair enough. But she had a presence and you went with it. The one thing she really was not and c’mon you know you have to admit it--was Dolly Gallagher Levi. I have seen other actresses portraying the role including Carol Channing and they all had their own style but were Mrs. Levi. Midler went through the motions but never captured Dolly.   

Now, we are truly back in musical comedy heaven with Bernadette Peters starring in the lead role. From seeing Peters in more shows than I can recall I wondered how but never doubted that she could pull off the comedic components as that incomparable matchmaker. We know that she can sing and still does quite well and can dance very well but she brings this quintessential charm and humor that feel  so innate. Of course, few of her many other roles required that, but she is hilarious here whether speaking in a slightly squeaky voice or making pinched faces without stepping out of character. She is accomplished enough knowing exactly when to pull in those reins and let the other actors get their share of laughter.  When she is off the stage you miss her but are in full engagement with those other characters. 

Let’s just take a look at what makes Peters shine as well as she does. Is it the comedic turns in physical humor, such as, her chomping away on a turkey leg? Yes. Is it when she crouches down in feigned pain when being insulted by the curmudgeon Horace Vandergelder whom she wants to marry? Yes. But what I found in her multi-textured performance (never thought I would use that term in describing Dolly) are the quiet moments. She touches the heart just before she sings the show stopping “Before the Parade Passes By” when she speaks to her late husband telling him she will be joining the human race again.  You have heard that line so many times in previous actresses delivery but hers is said with moments of reflection. And even more touching was a scene I don’t even recall but it is Peters who makes  it more than it really is. She visits her old neighbourhood and  late husband’s store and without speaking just stares evoking wonderful memories.  She need not say anything for her posture and facial expression are visually striking. Even when she speaks to a woman whom she used to know it is done with heartfelt emotion. 

We come to appreciate the show even more now in other ways. Foremost is that we remember how marvelous the musical “Dolly” really is. The Michael Stewart book is witty and winning  while  the Jerry Herman tunes throughout epitomize what a musical should be. There are few songs in any show that are as ingratiating and uplifting as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.” It has been over fifty years since I have first heard that song and I still get chills at the first chord (a big thanks to orchestrator Larry Hochman.) 

Besides the gorgeously saturated pastel colors of Santo Loquasto costumes and his eye popping sets there are some surprises with other cast members. Kate Baldwin as millinery shop owner Irene Molloy has really come into her own. We know from previous musicals what a mellifluous voice she has yet now her “Ribbons Down My Back” sounds even more vibrantly alive. While I always liked the song she gives more meaning it than on first viewing. 

There are several new additions. First and foremost is the always welcome Victor Garber as the malcontent Horace. I was not  particularly taken with David Hyde Pierce’s wooden and stuffy take on the role, but Garber is a joy. Horace may be a sourpuss but there is that spark when  reflecting on his youth that which Garber captures. 

And a real dynamo is British star Charlie Stemp as a worker in Vandergelder’s  shop. His bubbly personality matches his fanciful dancing and high kicks. Stemp starred in the London revival of the delightful “Half a Sixpence” that catapulted the career of Tommy Steele and was a hit on Broadway in the 60’s. Love to see him recreate that role on Broadway.

Gavin Creel whom I originally saw and was a standout as Cornelius Hackl, the other unhappy worker for the miserly Vandergelder, is on sick leave. Christian Dante White has taken over and while White has a sparkling personality and golden singing voice,  he tends  to push a bit too hard. Taking it down a notch would have helped his performance. 

Molly Griggs who portrays the very funny Minnie Fay (Molly’s shop assistant) is good but I do miss that extra zip Beanie Feldstein gave to the role. Feldstein made more of that character than another other Fay I have seen
Everything in this new production just glistens and with the consummate Broadway performer Bernadette Peters one can again say it is “Nice to have you back where you belong!”

Tickets are available at the Shubert Theater 225 West 45th Street or by calling 212.239.6200.