Short Reviews from New York: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, War Paint, Dear Evan Hansen

by Lynn on June 20, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Imperial Theatre, New York City.

Music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy
Adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Music direction by Or Matias
Set by Mimi Lien
Costumes by Paloma Young
Lighting by Bradley King
Sound by Nicholas Pope
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Cast: Brittain Ashford
Gelsey Bell
Nicholas Belton
Dené Benton
Nick Choksi
Amber Gray
Josh Grobin
Grace McLean
Paul Pinto
Lucas Steel

I never wanted to leave a show at intermission as much as I wanted to leave this one. But didn’t.

The Story. Even though the show is a slice of “War and Peace”, it’s still dense. The program gives us an idea of who is married to whom and who loves whom and who is unhappy (most of them, it is after all written by Tolstoy).

Natasha is a sweet, blushing young woman engaged to Andrey, who is off fighting in the Napoleonic War. Pierre, mournful, unhappy, is married to cold, imperious Hélène, which would explain why he is unhappy. Anatole is a slick womanizer who is the brother of Hélène. Anatole also has designs on sweet, blushing Natasha and she has a hard time saying no to him. Sonya is Natasha’s cousin and confidant. Mary is Andrey’s sister and none too happy with sweet, blushing Natasha. And they all sing about it in Dave Malloy’s clever lyrics

The Production. Set designer, Mimi Lien has transformed the large Imperial Theatre into a space of ramps, walk-ways and staircases, and made the stage unrecognizable because of the many and various people sitting there in many and various seating arrangements.

The wonderful director Rachel Chavkin has directed this epic over the course of its life in a tiny space, a tent (I believe) and now the huge Imperial. The cast charge up the aisles, over the ramps, down and up the stairs and on walkways in front of sections of the audience. I would not call that immersive as the audience sits in place while the cast does all the moving.

There is a cheeky introduction that says that because it’s Tolstoy it’s very complicated and all the info is in your program (which would mean you would have to flip through it during the show, which I don’t think is a good idea). Each character is introduced in his/her own spotlight. This can get complicated so they do repeat it about once. I think I got lost at Mary.

It is a great swirl of activity. Rachel Chavkin keeps the momentum of the movement whizzing at a great speed. There is a breathlessness to it. I got one of the boxes of perogies or whatever that was they gave us?

It’s almost all sung and Dave Malloy’s lyrics are so clever. It’s the ‘music’ that kills me. Each song is introduced by a lilting melody. Then when the song starts it’s all just so much recitative—the narrative filler in opera between arias. There is not one melody that I can hang on to, not one song I want to hear again. The result is that I want to go screaming into the night at intermission. Bombarded by cleverness but not melody. I don’t’ mean I want to hum anything. God knows Sondheim makes it difficult in his own way, but by God he DOES have melodies that are right for the characters. And Mr. Malloy does not. Twittering is what it sounds like. No thank you.

As sweet, blushing Natasha, Denée Benton has charm and a sense of innocence. As Anatole, Lucas Steele uses business for days. He plays it to the hilt with his shock of white/blond hair, his affected body language, his sashaying around the stage like a lothario. Pierre is played by the always mournful-looking Josh Groban. He has a full beard, longish hair, permanently knit-eyebrows to convey his unhappiness in his marriage and he sings about it all with a full throated baritone.

Comment. I applauded politely when it was over and then, scurried into the fresh air of the night, took a deep breath and was thankful that if I was lucky, I would never, ever have to see or hear this show again.

Presented by about a trillion producers.

Opened: Nov. 14, 2016.
Closes: open ended.
Running Time: 3 hours approx. It’s Tolstoy, sort of.

War Paint

At the Nederlander Theatre, New York City.

Book by Doug Wright
Inspired by “War Paint” by Lindy Woodhead and “The Powder and the Glory” by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman.
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli
Set by David Korins
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Kenneth Posner
Sound by Brian Ronan
Cast: John Dossett
Christine Ebersole
Patti LuPone
Douglas Sills
With a ‘chorus’ of 16.

>Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden are at the top of their game at the beginning of the show and at the end, with precious little information in the middle of how they got there. Power house performances by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole.

The Story. Helena Rubinstein was a Polish Jew who lived in Australia, London and finally New York. She created her own cosmetics and built her company into an empire, making her one of the richest women in the Unites States.

Elizabeth Arden was born in Ontario but eventually moved to New York to work. She was named Florence Nightengale Graham and changed her name for business purposes to Elizabeth Arden. She too built her own cosmetics company and gave tips on how to apply make-up etc. She too became very rich. Rubinstein and Arden were arch rivals but never actually met.

The Production. David Korins’ set is spare but rich looking. Both ladies sit at ornate and neat desks. Behind them are shelves with productions, illuminated in neon light. Elizabeth Arden’s colour was pink so everything seems to be pink.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes are lush, elegant, haute couture. Those for Helena Rubinstein look over the top with oodles of jewellery on fingers, wrists, around the neck and on lapels. And the shiny wig of tightly coiled hair is stunning. Everything about ‘the look’ makes a statement and Catherine Zuber knows how to make a statement. Elizabeth Arden is beautifully dressed as well. And both women wear hats with style.

Director Michael Greif is careful to stage this so that the two cosmetic icons just miss bumping into each other at restaurants etc. And when they are in their own worlds they still seem to be crossing into and out of the other’s space.

But I was stunned at the clunky staging of their entrances, especially Elizabeth Arden. Various customers of Elizabeth Arden’s make their entrances through a moveable red door, usually stage left.

(I remember that iconic red door at Elizabeth Arden’s on Fifth Ave. I recall watching the doorman opening the door for women going into the store. But he also seemed to know when a woman was about to leave because he just miraculously opened the door and there was the customer, leaving.)

In any case Ms Arden’s arrival is announced in a series of calls to the store to alert the staff of the boss’s arrival: “She’s just turned from 63rd Street.” “She’s a few streets away”, etc. I keep looking at the red door stage left because the focus seems to be there. Then miraculously Elizabeth Arden appears, over there, stage right, at the top of a small staircase. Great applause from the multitudes. Total confusion from me. She’s at the top of the stairs in her street clothes—still wearing her hat, gloves and outer garments. Did she fly in from a window on the second floor because that’s the only explanation that would have her UP on the TOP of a small staircase? Exhale.

There is a build up to the entrance of Helena Rubinstein and there she is on a short gangplank getting off a ship that has brought her to New York. Great fanfare and well deserved. Patti LuPone plays Helena Rubinstein.

The music by Scott Frankel and the lyrics by Michael Korie (both created the score for Grey Gardens) are nondescript to me. The first song, “Best Face Forward” does set up the whole notion of the show—about makeup, pretence, glamour etc. But one song makes me crazy. Beside the title of “If I’d Been A Man”, I carve the word “BULLSHIT” in my program. This is sung by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein as they wonder if they could have gone further if they had been a man.

Let us ponder this a while. They are two women who formed their own companies. In the case of Helena Rubinstein she was a woman on her own and could not get a bank loan. So she started her company WITH HER OWN MONEY! Both women were masters at their products, marketing, reading the public and using their smarts and wits. Both women were at the top of their game because they created this particular game. And here they are singing a stupid song wondering if they could have gone farther if they were a man. Only a man in this instance could/would write such an unperceptive song. Sorry fellahs.

Here are two iconic actresses playing two iconic women in business and doing it beautifully. Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein is a diminutive force. She has a voice like steel. I do have trouble sometimes making out what she is singing (much has been made for a long time about Ms LuPone’s penchant for not enunciating—great voice though she has). She sings that “she’s at the dop.” ??? “Dop?” Hmmm. OH, I GET IT!!! TOP! She’s at the top. Ok. Ms Rubinstein has an accent. So now Ms LuPone does not enunciate with an accent. Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden is bright, charming and formidable when making tough decisions. One of those decisions was to fire her husband, Tommy Lewis (John Dossett), who had been her right hand man who then went to work for Helena Rubinstein. By the same token, Rubinstein’s right hand man, Harry Fleming (Douglas Sills) left in a huff and went to work for Elizabeth Arden, and took Rubinstein’s secrets with him.

The two women sing of narcissism, the colour pink, being past their best by date and being women in a man’s world. Precious little of the songs or Doug Wright’s book actually tell us how these women got where they got; the details, the minutiae. We need that.

A fabricated scene at the end has both women speaking at an event for young women. As they wait to be called they ruminate together on their journey to this point in time. Then a dippy, twittery, up-speaking young woman comes to collect the two icons to speak to the audience. The dippy young woman does not seem to actually know who these women are. Is that how you really want to end your musical, with an idiot too witless to know about these two great women?

Unsatisfying all round.

Comment. Isn’t Wikipedia a great thing? All the stuff you don’t get in the musical purporting to be about these two icons, you can get in Wikipedia. It’s great to see two different powerhouses –LuPone and Ebersole—together. I just wish the vehicle was better.

Presented by David Stone and Marc Platt (Ben Platt’s father) and seven other producers.

Opened: April 6, 2017.
Closes: Open ended.
Cast: 20; 7 men, 13 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

>Dear Evan Hansen

At the Music Box Theatre

Book by Steven Levenson
Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Directed by Michael Grief
Choreography by Danny Mefford
Scenic design by David Korins
Production design by Peter Nigrini
Costumes by Emily Rebholz
Lighting by Japhy Weideman
Sound by Nevin Steinberg
Cast: Rachel Bay Jones
Laura Dreyfuss
Mike Faist
Kristolyn Lloyd
Michael Park
Ben Platt
Will Roland
Jennifer Laura Thompson

Gut-wrenching for the audience and Ben Platt who plays Evan Hansen. And it’s a musical proving beautifully that this most popular genre of theatre is perfect for dealing with uncomfortable subjects, in this case, anxiety, depression and feeling lost and alone.

The Story. Evan Hansen is a teenager who suffers from anxiety, depression and feelings of being invisible and alone. His psychiatrist tells him to write himself a letter (hence, Dear Evan Hansen) about the good things in his life. His mother, Heidi, is a single parent trying her best with Evan but feels she has failed him. The letter Evan writes is anything but uplifting. As Evan is printing the letter at school Connor Murphy, a bully with his own feelings of being lost and abandoned, takes the letter and pushes Evan. Three days later Evan is called into the principal’s office to face Connor’s parents. They have the letter Evan wrote. Connor has killed himself and his parents think that the letter addressed to Evan Hansen is Connor’s suicide note. They believe that Evan and Connor were friends and want to know more. Instead of telling them the truth, Evan lies and makes up a whole story about his secret (straight) friendship with Connor. The story explodes out of control.

The Production. The first song is sung by Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mother, and Cynthia Murphy, Connor’s Mom. They have it rough too. They try and find a way to reach their lost, wayward, angry sons and are as lost and angry as they are. This gives the show a larger focus, it’s not just about the teenaged boys, it’s also about their struggling mothers.

When Evan (Ben Platt) appears he is sitting on his bed, looking out to us, anxious, isolated, lost. The reaction of the audience is explosive. Now that Ben Platt has won the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical I assume that reaction will be electrifying.

Mr. Platt has a lot of ticks, quirky gestures, awkward body language and it all works to create this shy, awkward, lonely kid. He joins the index finger and the thumb on both hands and then brings these fingers from both hands together so that it looks like he’s playing with some string or something small. Terrific gesture. His whole performance is a raft of such stuff.

He sometimes gasps softly and up-speaks to illustrate his uncertainty. In Act II he has s song, “Words Fail,” in which he confesses the whole lie. He is shredded by his deception. He sobs while he sings. His fact is awash with tears. His nose drips. I’m sorry but I’m taken right out of the scene and the song. My failing. I am just not engaged in that soul-crushing stuff when an actor thinks he has to saw off his arm to affect the soul-shredding the character is doing. I want to yell: “Get a grip!” but of course don’t.

The performance is masterful. Mr. Platt sings beautifully and spills his guts for the whole show.

As Connor, Mike Faist is strong, wily and a bit bullying to Evan. Faist has a careless attitude when it comes to Connor, but over time there is an understanding. I can’t tell you how because that will give it away.

Rachel Bay Jones as Heidi Hansen tries to understand her troubled son but it’s hard. She works full time and also goes to school to be able to get a better job. Lovely performane.

Comment. Steven Levenson’s book is rich in complex issues about troubled youth and their parents. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics capture the angst and anxiety of all those involved. I play the CD a lot. Smart lyrics.

What a fascinating idea for a show. A show about teenaged anxiety and depression, suicide and examining the misfit. Stunning.

Produced by Stacey Minditch and about 34 others.

Opened: Dec. 2016
Closed: Open ended
Cast: 8; 4 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes approx.

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