Things to Celebrate from 2016
BY DAVID NOH | And so, 2016 ends with both a bang (of the most unsettling proportion with the incoming POTUS’ myriad threats) and a whimper (all of us, in reaction), yet Manhattanites who have been out on the town this year had plenty to treasure in live performances that blessed this city.
Here are the top 10 on stage and in cabarets:
“The Band’s Visit”
When I heard that my favorite modern musical composer, David Yazbek, was working on a musical version of this winsome 2007 Israeli film, I got excited for, like Yazbek, I am enraptured by Middle Eastern music, and couldn’t wait to see what he’d come up with. He surpassed all expectations with this sublimely funny and true study of a culture clash between Egyptians and Jews in a miserable nowhere little burg.
The theme is really loneliness and the search for love and, as drolly book-written by Itamar Moses, brilliantly directed by David Cromer, spectacularly designed by Scott Pask, and acted by a cast you just love, each and every one of them, the adorable sad sacks, it is stirringly original, relatable, universal, and blah-blah-blah (as one of Yazbek’s ultra-terrific, at times hysterically jaded lyrics would have it).
There is real romance on the stage of the Atlantic Theater (through Jan. 8, 336 W. 20th St.; atlantictheater.org), as well as bitingly hilarious satire, and this is embodied in the New York theater’s new star of the year, Katrina Lenk. World-weary does not even begin to describe this gorgeous Israeli desert rose, adrift in a dusty Nowheresville. She lifts the production into a stratosphere of refined intelligence and sensuality.
I was never a huge fan of this Bob Fosse/ Neil Simon Broadway reduction of Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” which always struck me as misogynistic and condescending to the “lower orders” of taxi dancers and the like. How wonderful it is to report that Leigh Silverman’s reduction of the reduction works like a minimalist charm, creating a tiny, sleazy, claustrophobic world for its ever-innocent dumb-as-dirt heroine to go searching for love in all the wrong places. A stripped-down, all-girl band serves up the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields songs with amazing brio, Joshua Bergasse’s choreography really cooks in its way, divorced, as it is, from all that famed Fosse-glossy, and Clint Ramos’ costumes are genius, from the “hippie-wear” of the “Rhythm of Life” (I craved every single outfit) to the very weird but very right micro-mini dress Charity (Sutton Foster) wears much of the time.
Matching the bold fearlessness of this costume choice is the performance of Foster, her best, most emotionally deep one yet. The show is also a terrific workout for her rarely seen comic chops and, in triumphantly underlining Charity’s basic doofusness, like in the slapstick closet seduction scene, she evoked the very best of comediennes like Carol Burnett, Madeline Kahn, and Ruth Buzzi. While the very intimate Signature Theater space lends itself beautifully to Silverman’s contracted vision (Foster was often a mere five feet away from me), it also has the disadvantage of a distinctly limited number of seats (hard-to-get tickets are now going for $500). This means, especially after Ben Brantley’s asinine “meh” review in the Times, which may have killed any possibility of a Broadway transfer, that much of the world will never see Foster make this role her own. What a shame, for, in this much darker and deeper “Charity,” the devastating ending of it is simply riveting, with its heroine, alone in the dark and spotlit, staring at the possible nothingness before her and repeating the words, “You should see yourself.”
“The End of Summer”
S.N. Behrman was one of the most graceful and literate of American playwrights with a huge reputation in his day that has, sadly, not continued in our time. Why? He is simply too sophisticated, subtle, and – horror of horrors! – unironically romantic to fit today’s bang ‘em over your head obviousness and anti-intellectualism. His specialty was that trickiest of genres: the drawing room comedy with an important statement to make beneath the filigreed, witty dialogue and posh setting.
Metropolitan Playhouse did him proud with its revival of one of his best, a 1936 vehicle written for the incomparable light comedienne Ina Claire. The cast – especially Kelly Cooper, who had the charisma and suaveness of no less than Cary Grant (with something deeper about the gray matter) as a maybe-charlatan doctor bent on controlling his patients – was a top-to-bottom delight. Alexander Harrington’s direction was spot-on and rife with delicious details, like the unerringly curated 1936 songs playing as you entered the theater, setting the mood perfectly.
I confess I trudged toward this show with a heavy heart, not really in the mood for Arthur Miller’s shrieking, religiously duplicitous brats or the direction of white-hot Ivo van Hoeve, who absolutely ruined “The Little Foxes” and “View from the Bridge” for me. What a pleasant surprise, then, to rediscover this warhorse, brilliantly rethought and updated, transformed into thrillingly bravura theater, with its final, harrowing scene between the tortured central Puritan couple – Ben Whishaw (miraculously surprising here) and Sophie Okonedo (perhaps the greatest actress around today), achieving not only real, heartbreaking tragic depth, but the ever-elusive quality of redeeming, authentic spirituality to absolutely illuminate Miller’s words.
“Sunday in the Park with George” at Encores!
This benefit performance of Sondheim’s artiest show, among other things, made me finally get Jake Gyllenhaal, whom I’d always regarded as a pretty boy, blessed with more looks than talent. He came through for the first time for me with the Encores!’s “Little Shop of Horrors” – I thought, showing previously unexpected farcical chops – but as George Seurat he really blew me away with a totally unexpected, quite fine singing voice and a performance of startling sensitivity and force, every bit the equal – and a lot more vulnerably human – than Mandy Patinkin, who originated the role. Annaleigh Ashford played Dot, Seurat’s muse, and, while she couldn’t quite erase the memory of Bernadette Peters at her most entrancing (who could?), she was, nevertheless, quite delectable, bringing her own solid voice and original comic timing to the part.
Christine Ebersole at the Cafe Carlyle
I don’t think there’s a singer on this planet I’d rather hear. Her range – Broadway musical, operetta, country, pop, soul – is unlimited, and it all came together marvelously at her engagement, “After the Ball,” devoted to the experience of being an empty-nester parent. It was pure musical heaven, this magical meeting of the very best vocalist with the very best material to be found. The fact that she’s a great, ageless beauty doesn’t hurt, either, as there were visual, as well as aural, moments of splendor, like the way she sinuously, sensuously reclined her body during a spellbinding medley of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” and Jerome Moross and John La Touche’s “Lazy Afternoon.” Ebersole and her collaborators have an uncanny knack for perfect medleys, and the one which she dedicated to her three adopted children, consisting of “Wait Til You See Her” with an utterly shattering “Little Green,” Joni Mitchell’s aria about the child she gave up for adoption (and later found), was the evening’s emotional highlight.
Norbert Leo Butz at 54 Below
On the male side of things cabaret, this show was based on Greek goddesses who resembled the women in this wondrously chameleonic star’s life, and, like Ebersole’s engagement, it was educational, besides being a powerful lot of smokin’ music. Butts’ sheer joy in performing is always tonic – he’s a show-off, all right, but like Cagney, the exuberance is fully earned with the protean talent so evident at all times. Backed by the best band to be found anywhere, this was a gleeful, raunchy, down to earth, and in-your-face helluva good time, enlivened by raucous covers of pop songs done so originally and so well that, with the right marketing, one could almost see Butts deserting Broadway, getting into recording, and playing stadiums around the world. His rendition of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” mined genuine and devastating dramatic gold from that maudlin chestnut. And I never thought I would want to hear “Come on Eileen” ever again, but as pogo-performed by the electrifyingly energetic Butts, I can now see myself screaming for it the next time I catch him.
Ani DiFranco at New York Society for Ethical Culture
I caught this tireless activist/ singer/ songwriter a few very sad days after Election Night, at this highly appropriate, graciously intimate space, and don’t think I could have had a better therapist. Factor in the wonderful Lizz Winstead to comment humorously and, more importantly, angrily about everything going down now, and you had an evening that was not only funny, stirringly musical, of course, but also deeply healing. It was one of those rare New York nights when everyone really did feel like family.
Duran Duran at the Apollo
The 1980s pop power band returned to Gotham, and put on a brilliant show that also proved that cute can, indeed, age very well. With a full-scale and quite lavish staging, they performed all the songs that provided the soundtrack to the careless, partying salad days of so many. Nice to observe that they all looked in fine fettle and – thank God – still hip, with no embarrassing clinging to the trends of their youth. John Taylor still has those razor cheekbones, girls, and Simon Le Bon’s amazingly healthy voice is, if anything, even stronger and better today. He was a marvelously suave and witty host to the evening, as well, properly awed by the greats who have preceded the lily white likes of him & Co. on that hallowed stage, and I suddenly wondered why he was never cast as a singing James Bond.
Composer Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin collaborated on this ultra-vivid and soulful retelling of the Orpheus myth at the New York Theatre Workshop. Thrillingly musical, visually splendiferous, and performed by a beautiful cast, with standouts being the rapturously funky Amber Gray and uber-bear Chris Sullivan, the sexiest guy seen onstage this year.