James Naughton Interviews Laura Linney at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts

Laura Linney

Here’s a disturbing thought: Laura Linney almost didn’t become an actress. “I fought against it for a long time; I felt I had to earn it,” she explained in an interview with actor/director James Naughton at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium on March 6. Growing up backstage with her father, playwright Romulus Linney, she so revered the theatre that initially, she was “afraid to become a part of it.” Fortunately for her many fans, Linney did eventually embrace the craft, enrolling at Julliard for her training.

The inspiring and entertaining discussion between Linney and Naughton was the latest in an excellent series presented by The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women. Betty Corwin, Pat Addiss, and Sophia Romma produced the event.

Radiant in a simple all-black ensemble—skinny leather pants, knit top, and hip, spikey shoes—Linney looked decades younger than her 53 years. Her acting DNA predates her playwright father:  her grandmother was an actress manqué. In homage to her, Linney proudly displayed the gold sunburst pendant she wore—grandma’s long-ago won elocution medal.

Hailed as one of the best actresses of her generation, Laura Linney continues to captivate audiences with her work in film, television, and theatre. She is a three-time Oscar nominee, three-time Tony nominee, four-time Emmy winner, and two-time Golden Globe winner.

Throughout the hour-long interview, Linney and Naughton covered a lot of creative ground, discussing her childhood, her experience at Juilliard (where she now mentors fourth-year acting students), working with Clint Eastwood, parenthood (Linney gave birth to her son Bennett just before her 50th birthday), and how she manages to overcome her deep dislike of cameras. Throughout, Linney remained forthright, insightful, charming, and completely accessible.

Linney attributes much of her career success to the training she received at Juilliard. She is unstinting in her praise for the school, telling Naughton, “When people ask me, ‘What was your big break?’ I say it was going to Julliard. It’s a tough school, but it for me it was like water in the desert.” She continued, “Once it became clear to me that I could no longer be a ‘closet actress,’ that I was serious about acting, I knew I had to get trained. Juilliard was the right school for me.” She then sighed, lamenting, “I miss my time at Juilliard.”

The actress credited fellow actor Kevin Kline for helping her prepare for her film work with director Clint Eastwood (Eastwood directed her in Absolute Power, Mystic River, and, most recently, Sully): “Kevin told me, ‘Film acting is all about relaxation.’ Clint does one take and no rehearsal. So I learned how to ‘simmer’ all day, to save my energy. I learned how to surrender.” Linney also shared that she does a huge amount of preparation for every role: “Not feeling prepared makes me nervous. I do a lot of work before I get there, which puts my own self-doubt to rest.” When Naughton queried her about her disdain for cameras—ironic for an actress who works in film—she replied, “I don’t like having my picture taken, so I’ve learned to connect with the person behind the camera. I especially love the focus pullers. Generally the camera people look down at the floor between takes, to avoid betraying their feelings. But the focus pullers, I can tell what they’re thinking by their body language. They humanize it for me.”

Naughton and Linney talked about Linney’s work as executive producer and actress on Showtime’s well-received series The Big C, about a suburban wife and mother coping with the disease. Linney won a Golden Globe for the show, which ran for four seasons. The discussion took a personal turn for both Naughton (whose wife died of pancreatic cancer in 2013) and Linney, who was raised by a single-parent mother who worked as a nurse at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Linney shared that she was aware of the disease from a very young age, as she got to know her mother’s grateful patients. She recalled being taken to meet one of her mother’s more famous patients, composer Richard Rodgers. “He hugged her in a way that really made an impression on me, showing how much her care meant to him,” she said.” Linney’s playwright father died of cancer during the filming of The Big C, imbuing the series with a particularly personal resonance. “Comedy is a survival technique,” explained Linney about the show. “We use comedy to find the truth through the chaos.”

In closing, Linney told the audience, “The only career decision I ever made is to cast the net wide, to not say ‘no’.” She outlined what she needs to effectively practice her craft: “Sleep, quiet, and good coffee.” Let’s hope the universe provides all three in great abundance, for many years to come.

Broadway audiences can next catch Laura Linney in April when she will co-star with Cynthia Nixon in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Lillian Hellman’s legendary play The Little Foxes. (In an interesting twist, Linney and Nixon will alternate the lead roles of Regina and Birdie). Other upcoming projects include the film The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman, with Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, and Rebecca Hall and Ozark, a Netflix original series where she plays opposite Jason Bateman and Julia Garner.

The Best Places to Hobnob with Broadway Stars

Everyone knows the stars come out at night. But where do they go after the curtain comes down? Here are 5 places where you can mingle with your favorite actors as they unwind from their 8 performances a week.

Sardi’s: 234 West 44th St.

The quintessential theatre hangout, Sardi’s has been the toast of Broadway for 90 years. Founded by “Vincent” Sardi, Sr. and his wife Jenny in 1947, it continues to provide a neighborhood oasis for those in the theatrical community. The restaurant is distinctive for two reasons: it’s the birthplace of the Tony Award (theatrical producer and director Brock Pemberton came up with the idea while eating lunch at Sardi’s) and for its extensive collection of original caricatures of Broadway luminaries. Like many of the theatres in the neighborhood, Sardi’s goes dark on Mondays.

sardis

Joe Allen: 326 W. 46th St.

While Broadway folk love Joe Allen’s delicious bistro-type delicacies (try the burger or Caesar salad), not one of them wants to see their show’s poster anywhere on the premises. Here’s why: In 1965, soon after Joe Allen opened the restaurant that bears his name, the cast of the show Kelly presented him with their show’s poster. Kelly closed after just one performance—and since then it has been a Broadway tradition for Broadway’s famous and infamous flops to adorn its walls.

joe-allens

Schnippers Quality Kitchen: 620 8th Avenue (40th/41st)

Because of its location and quality fast-ish food menu, Schnippers is the perfect place for a working actor to grab a bite between or after shows. There’s something for everyone—salads and veggie burgers for the ingénue who’s watching her weight; sloppy joes and mac ‘n cheese for the stage crew. And with Aladdin and The Cherry Orchard playing just around the corner, you just might run into the Genie or Joel Grey.

schnippers

Schmackary’s: 362 W. 45th St.

Billing itself as “Generation Y’s answer to the old American bake shop,” this Hell’s Kitchen outpost of all that is sinfully sweet and gooey became an instant Broadway favorite when Zachary “Schmackary” Schmahl first opened his storefront in 2012. You never know who you might see at one of the tables or even behind the counter—Tony winners have worked the counter as part of an ongoing fundraising effort for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Broadway darling Kristin Chenowith is a fan of Schmackary’s “funfetti” cookies and Schmackary’s delish delights can often be found backstage or in performers’ dressing rooms.

schmackarys

Drama Book Shop: 250 W. 40th St.

If it’s printed material relating to the theatre—librettos, scripts, textbooks, criticism, etc.—you’ll find it in this 100-year-old theatre district treasure trove. Here’s what Tony winner Lin Manuel Miranda has to say about it: “The Drama Book Shop is our greatest resource—it’s been here since 1918 [and] I wrote most of In The Heights in the basement.” When the shop suffered extreme water damage due to a burst pipe earlier this year, Miranda launched the hashtag #BuyABook, raising the shop’s profile and revenue enough to allow it to weather the storm.

Drama Book Shop.jpg

 

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed on Broadway

Eclipsed

Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s seering play about 4 women living in captivity during Liberia’s second civil war, is ultimately about power: those who have it, those who don’t, and those who will do anything to get it. It’s a brilliantly written and acted ensemble production that shines a light on important international human rights issues—well worth checking out before it ends its Broadway run on June 19 at the Golden Theatre on 45th Street. The 5-woman cast, performing together in productions both Off-and on Broadway, are a seamless unit of talent, power, and grace.

When the play begins we find 2 women living in squalor in a barely furnished, bullet-riddled hut. We learn they have been kept in captivity, as sexual and domestic slaves, for so long that the maternal older woman known simply as “Wife #1” (Saycon Sengbloh), has no idea how long she’s been there or exactly how old she is. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand), heavily pregnant, is clearly the second banana in this circumscribed world—the less powerful among the powerless. Then, a surprise: a third woman (understudy Ayesha Jordan, at the performance I saw, in for the Tony-nominated, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o) appears from under a large wash tub. She is a gangly 15-year-old girl, kept hidden by the other women to prevent her from falling victim to their fate of sexual servitude to the (offstage) man they refer to as the “C.O.” However, their efforts prove futile: once the girl steps outside the safety of the hut to urinate, she is immediately grabbed and raped by the C.O., becoming Wife #4. The Girl, who grew up in the city, is different from the other women. She has had the benefit of an education and knows how to read and write. Having been forced from her home only recently, she is still able to dream of a life as a constitutional lawyer.

Anyone paying attention will wonder what became of Wife #2. Where is she? Wife #1 speaks of her scornfully. Wife #3 defends her as much as she dares. Our questions are answered when Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) shows up at the hut with an offering: a huge bag of rice for the women. Despite Wife #3’s entreaties, Wife #1 wants no part of either Wife #2 or the rice. We learn that Wife #2 has chosen the only available route out of her sexual enslavement: she has become a fighter in the rebel army. Taut, jittery, and wiry, dressed in fashionable jeans, a machine gun slung across her body, she is all swagger and tough-girl posturing.

As the action unfolds, we see that each character has her own definition of power. For Wife #1, power means being top dog in the small compound, where she rules the roost (or at least Wife #3). Wife #3 gains power by being the C.O.’s favorite sexual plaything and by carrying his unborn child. Wife #2, who now uses the fighter name “Disgruntled,” finds her power by acting like the brutal men who captured and abused her. She convinces The Girl to reclaim her own power by joining her in battle. The Girl realizes too late that to avoid being a victim, she must now become the victimizer, capturing other young girls for the rebel men to use and abuse. Wife #2 rationalizes the brutality, telling her: “The men are beasts and beasts demand to be fed. It’s either you or them.” At the play’s end, The Girl stands frozen, bearing two radically different symbols of power: a gun in one hand, a book in the other. Which will she choose?

A fifth woman, Rita (Akosua Busia), makes occasional visits to the rebel compound. She is a cultured, educated women dressed all in white who is part of a group of women peace activists dedicated to ending the violence. In one of the play’s most heartbreaking scenes, Rita tries to convince Wife #1 that a better life awaits her. She asks Wife #1 about her past, but the memories of her previous life are too painful for Wife #1 to contemplate; she cannot bear even to speak her real name aloud. After much prodding, she finally whispers it to Rita, who shows the illiterate Wife #1 how to spell it out using a stick in the dirt. “Think about what you can be,” she urges. Wife #1 responds despairingly: “I don’t know who I am.” The contrast between the 2 women is striking: Rita’s power lies in her ability to envision a better future through her peacekeeping work, while Wife #1 believes her only power lies in her place within the compound hierarchy.

During her time as a soldier, The Girl takes the name “Mother’s Blessing,” in memory of her own mother—ironic since she is now responsible for wrenching daughters away from their mothers, condemning them to live under unspeakable tyranny. The significance and importance of one’s name is a recurring theme in Eclipsed. As Rita tells Wife #1: “You must never lose your name.” To illustrate the power of names, the cast dedicates each performance to the abducted schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria and to all abducted girls around the world (#knowhername). At the end of the show cast members (and sometimes guests, who have included Nancy Pelosi and Gloria Steinem) announce the names of 2 missing girls and ask the audience to repeat the names out loud. It is a powerful and chilling moment that brings home the reality that the events depicted in Eclipsed continue today, even as the audience sits comfortably in their seats at the Golden Theatre. It is a prime example of how theatre can not only entertain, but be a call to action.

Zimbabwean playwright (Familiar, In the Continuum) and actress (known for her role on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) Gurira developed Eclipsed at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. The play was later staged at New York’s Public Theater in 2015 before moving to Broadway. The production will move to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, California for a limited engagement in Spring 2017. With powerful direction by award-winning South African Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed is the first Broadway production with an all-female cast, director, writer, and production team (except for set & costume designer Clint Ramos).

Eclipsed was nominated for 6 Tony Awards, including Best Play. On June 12, 2016, Clint Ramos won the Tony for Best Costume Design for his work on the play.

Eclipsed continues at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St. through June 19.
Opening night: March 6, 2016; first preview: February 23, 2016.

For more information: http://www.eclipsedbroadway.com/

Backstage after the show!

Eclipsed & Shari

Theatre Review: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw

Crucible Playbill

It’s said that when The Crucible was first performed on Broadway, in late January 1953 at the Martin Beck Theater, Arthur Miller deemed the production “too stylized and cold.” One wonders what the playwright would make of his work’s newest incarnation, now in a limited run at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Directed by the much-lauded Dutch theatre/opera director Ivo Van Hove (who also helmed the recent hit Broadway revival of Miller’s A View from the Bridge) this stark and stripped down Crucible is certainly stylized—Jan Versweyveld’s sparse set represents no specific place or time—and perhaps a bit cold as well. But the realistic, bone-chilling performances, underscored by Philip Glass’s ominous original score, create an unforgettably powerful and disturbing theatrical experience. Miller’s cautionary tale of evildoing in the guise of piety remains as potent and relevant today as when The Crucible made its debut over 60 years ago (especially given the current presidential election cycle, where talk of “bringing America back” and fear of immigrants and religious minorities dominates the debates).

The curtain rises on a prelude of sorts: a group of schoolgirls, dressed in matching uniforms, sit in a classroom, their backs to the audience. We hear children’s voices singing. The curtain closes on this glimpse of normalcy, then quickly rises again to reveal a different scene, where young Betty Parris (Elizabeth Teeter) lies ill and immobile. We learn that another girl, Ruth Putnam, is similarly afflicted. From this point on, the normal, rational world no longer exists. Betty’s father, the local Reverend (Jason Butler Harner) is worried. He came upon Betty and some other girls dancing (a sin) in the woods (perhaps naked, an even greater sin) and he fears witchcraft may be to blame. He has summoned another preacher, John Hale (an excellent Bill Camp), an expert in demonic possession, to help make a proper diagnosis. A voice of reason, the elderly, highly respected Rebecca Nurse (a heart-breakingly effective Brenda Wehle), tries to rein in his fears, before things get out of hand, warning Reverend Parris, “There is prodigious danger in the seeking of loose spirits. I fear it, I fear it. Let us rather blame ourselves.” But it’s too late: the game’s afoot; the witch hunt is irrevocably under way.

As the ringleader of the girls, Parriss’s niece Abigail Williams, Saoirse Ronan is a terrifying piece of work. Slender, blonde, and pretty, she is a prime example of the perils of judging a book by its cover: this outwardly sweet young thing is the embodiment of a persuasive, sinister evil. The truth is that Abigail had the girls accompany her to the woods, along with the Barbadian servant Tituba (Jenny Jules) to participate in a ceremony that she hoped would bring about the death of Elizabeth Proctor (the brilliant Sophie Okonedo, who last graced Broadway in her Tony-winning performance in the terrific revival of A Raisin in the Sun). Young Abigail had a brief affair with Elizabeth’s husband John (British star Ben Whishaw, in an impressive Broadway debut) while working in their home, and in true “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” fashion, Abigail is determined to take Elizabeth’s place. Lest any of the girls consider divulging the truth, Abigail bullies them into silence, threatening Mercy Lewis (Erin Wilhelmi) and Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson, a terrific young actress last seen on Broadway in This Is Our Youth): “Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!”

What makes this production of The Crucible so affecting is the cast—all top-notch. While the whip-thin Whishaw is not the robust physical type usually cast in the role of John Proctor, the choice seems especially apt in the final scene, when Proctor appears after having spent months in prison. He is filthy, abused, and starved. His scrawny bare back is bloody from torture. As he huddles with his beloved wife, (also filthy; also quite thin), he is a stand in for the ultimate man, Christ, headed toward his martyrdom. Whishaw is a fine, nuanced actor, best known in the UK for his West End stage appearances and in the U.S. for his roles in the James Bond film “Spectre” and TV’s “Criminal Justice.” The scenes between him and the luminous Okonedo are especially poignant. Special mention must also go to Ciarán Hinds’s frighteningly and self-righteously deluded Deputy Governor Danforth (truly chilling), Bill Camp’s evolving turn as the Reverend John Hale, who too late realizes his error in sanctioning the proceedings, and Tavi Gevinson’s wispy, mousy, ill at ease Mary Warren, a downtrodden lass who tries to stand up to the authorities and to Abigail, only to realize that she is no match for any of them.

Although The Crucible is based on real-life characters and events that took place during the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Miller wrote the play as a commentary on a more recent—but no less abominable—American witch hunt (one which he personally experienced), the anti-communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Like the actors, writers, and others accused of anti-American activity under McCarthyism, the characters in The Crucible are at the mercy of their accusers. Any person may find himself suddenly accused. And anyone who refuses to “name names” is summarily condemned. Ironically, the only means of survival in the play is to admit one’s “sin” (even though innocent) and to accuse others. In both cases—Salem and the Red Scare—we see a world gone mad, driven by an irrational mob mentality and a perversion of morality as an excuse for barbarism.

In truth, the accusatory characters in The Crucible are driven by base, rather than pious, motives. Abigail lusts after John Proctor and will commit murder to have him. Ann Putnam (Tina Benko) accuses Rebecca Nurse, an upright pillar of the community, of witchcraft because she envies her many healthy children and grandchildren. And Ann’s husband, Thomas (Thomas Jay Ryan) wants Rebecca Nurse’s husband (veteran actor Jim Norton) out of the way so that he can take his land. Lust, envy, and greed—all in the name of piety!

In the final moments of The Crucible, Miller sends a powerful message via John Proctor. Just before he is to be pointlessly put to death, Proctor rails at the imperious judge who has condemned him, along with so many other innocents: “I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth!” As Miller reminds us, the Devil has always walked among us; he’s still here. And he looks a lot like us.

The Crucible plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre through July 17.
For more information.

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.

Academy Award-Winner Forest Whitaker Stars in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie

Hughie 2

It’s only fitting that Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie is set in a hotel lobby: the acclaimed playwright was born in a hotel—the Barrett House on Broadway and 43rd Street—a stone’s throw from the Booth Theatre, where his one act, two-hander now plays.

When the audience enters the theatre, an actor (Tony and Drama League Award winner Frank Wood) is already on stage. The character billed simply as “Night Clerk” sits, dreamlike and immobile, at the reception desk in the lobby of a faded New York City hotel. It is the wee hours of a morning in summer, 1928. The richly detailed set (by Tony and Olivier Award-winning designer Christopher Oram), looks like a vintage sepia print photo. A barely readable “out of order” sign hangs on the ornate, long idle, elevator. A neon “Hotel” sign is partially visible through the window. Muffled traffic sounds and subdued lighting add to the mood of quiet, otherworldly unease. In sum, as one character describes it, the place is “as homey as a morgue.”

Eventually, a man trudges through the hotel’s revolving door. He is Erie Smith (Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker) a small-time gambler and big-time drinker who has been out on a weeks-long bender mourning the death of his friend, the recently deceased former desk clerk, Hughie. Like the hotel, Erie’s best days are behind him. He tells Night Clerk that he hasn’t won a bet since Hughie first went into the hospital, lamenting, “When I lost Hughie, I lost my luck.” Erie restlessly circles the hotel lobby like a dog sniffing out a safe place to lie down. He’s stuck between two equally distasteful alternatives—creditors lurking somewhere outside waiting to rough him up, and his lonely hotel room upstairs.

Most of Hughie’s 60-minute running time comprises Erie’s monologue about his glory days, which he desperately wants to reclaim, delivered to the mostly disinterested Night Clerk. Oddly, we learn that the new clerk’s name is, like his predecessor’s, Hughes. Erie tells him, “Yeah, you’ve got that old look like Hughie had.” Or at least, that’s what Erie would like to believe, because Hughie served a vital function for Erie: he was Erie’s mirror. By repeatedly relating self-aggrandizing stories about his successes with gambling and women to Hughie, Erie created a persona that reflected his personal version of the American Dream. When Hughie died, Erie’s self-important vision died along with him. “I lost my confidence,” he tells Night Clerk. “He gave me my confidence.” Now, with Hughie gone, Erie worries that he may be washed up, or even worse, that he, like Hughie, may cease to exist. Without the gullible Hughie as a sounding board, Erie’s illusions (and his courage to go on) may simply crumble into dust.

Because of its short length, Hughie is not staged often. The current production at the Booth is well worth seeing, thanks to its extremely talented, multiple award-winning cast and creative team. It is a definite star vehicle that provides an opportunity for Whitaker to transfer his formidable cinematic talents to the New York stage. Whitaker, who won Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Awards for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland, has also received acclaim for roles in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Crying Game, and other hit films. In Hughie, the actor uses his large, rangy frame to embody a man who, despite his insistent bravado, is now a shrunken version of his former self. His dandyish three-piece suit seems to hang on his body. And despite his quick smile, he is nervous, ill at ease, and terrified of the future. Whitaker has a natural warmth and charm that serve his character well. His Erie is both believable and touching; as sympathetic as he is pathetic.

Frank Wood, a wonderful New York actor who won Tony and Drama League Awards for his role in Side Man and was last seen on Broadway in Clybourne Park, makes the most of a minor role. His character exists as an audience for Erie—a would-be replacement for his old confidant. As reflected in his presence on stage before the action begins, Night Clerk is more a part of the set than a flesh and blood character.

For Hughie, director Michael Grandage reunites with his Tony-winning design team from the hit play Red. Christopher Oram’s gorgeous set is so detailed and evocative, it almost becomes a third character in the drama. Adam Cork’s brooding original music and sound design and Neil Austin’s muted and affecting lighting design also play a huge part in the play’s success, creating a pervasive, ominous sense of dread and foreboding.

Is O’Neill’s hotel lobby actually Purgatory, a layover between life (the world outside the hotel’s revolving doors) and death (Erie’s room upstairs)? The set prominently features what could easily be regarded as a “stairway to heaven.” And the lead character is named “Erie,” an apt homonym for the play’s “eerie” ambiance. One wonders if Night Clerk is even real. Played with deadpan bemusement by the always excellent Frank Wood, is he perhaps the angel of death, come for Erie? Or just an illusion Erie has created in Hughie’s image in a desperate attempt to survive? Why else would Charlie the Night Clerk share a surname with the departed Hughie of the title? And why, after nearly an hour of polite, almost somnambulant disinterest, does Charlie spring to life, suddenly wildly fascinated (à la Hughie) with Erie’s possible connection to a particular big-time gambler? Only O’Neill can answer these questions, and he passed away in 1953, several years before Hughie’s debut. (He penned Hughie in 1941).

Although Hughie is a slender O’Neill work, compared to his much-lauded epics like Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and Desire Under the Elms, its hotel setting is of particular interest. O’Neill was not only born in a hotel; he also died in one. His own final curtain fell at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, where his last words were reportedly: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.”

Hughie continues at the Booth Theatre through March 27. For information

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle

Broadway Musical Recommendations Tailored Just for YOU

Broadway Musicals 2015

Wondering what show you should see tonight (or next week)? Here’s Shari on the Aisle’s guide to help you decide which Broadway musical(s) to see right now, based on your personal preferences. Read the “YOU” descriptions below, choose the one that best represents you, then go see a show!

Keep in mind: this list is far from exhaustive. With the Broadway Spring season well under way, there are abundant choices for both the occasional and frequent theatregoer. The following suggestions are culled from some of the newest shows. You should also consider productions that have been around for a while—those oldies but goodies like “Matilda,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Aladdin,” and “Kinky Boots.” (Also keep in mind that Shari on the Aisle hasn’t yet seen all of the new shows, including “Finding Neverland” and “An American in Paris.”

(Stay tuned: I will provide personalized play recommendations in my next post).

YOU: “I want to see a show that has me whistling a happy tune when I leave the theatre.”
GO SEE: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” (Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont). Nobody does musicals better than Rodgers & Hammerstein—or Lincoln Center Theatre. Under the sure direction of Bartlett Sher, LCT knows how to put on a classy, glossy, top notch show. While “The King and I” isn’t on a par with say, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” (Lincoln Center presented that show, also directed by Mr. Sher and also starring the ebullient Kelli O’Hara, a few years ago and it was sheer perfection), you’ll happily hum along with “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance.” This production is big and gorgeous. Sure, the book is a bit weak and Ken Watanabe’s accent renders some of the dialogue and lyrics indecipherable. But Ms. O’Hara’s glorious voice and radiant presence, along with the sumptuous costumes and stunning sets, more than make up for these shortcomings. And yes, you will leave the theatre whistling a happy tune and with a song in your heart.

King and I

YOU: I’d rather see a dark, thought-provoking show than a cute piece of fluff. (And I’d make a mad dash to see anything starring the legendary Chita Rivera).
GO SEE: “The Visit” (Lyceum Theatre). A musical that explores the darkness of men’s souls? Yes, and it’s terrific. “The Visit” is a work created by theatre royalty. It’s the last collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical geniuses behind “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and many other award-winning shows. The book is by Theater Hall of Famer Terrence McNally. And Chita? She’s a national treasure. The plot centers on Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, and her return to the small town where she spent a miserable childhood. The town has fallen on hard times, and the villagers who once taunted and reviled her believe she has come back to save them. Claire offers to do just that, but with a chilling twist. At 90 minutes with no intermission, “The Visit” is riveting, intelligent theatre. Some of the songs are reminiscent of “Cabaret,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. And Chita’s haunting performance of “Love and Love Alone,” sung while performing a pas de deux with her younger self (Michelle Veintimilla) is well worth the price of admission. You won’t leave this show humming a happy tune, but rather with the satisfying feeling of having experienced brilliance live on stage.
Watch a video from the show.

YOU: “I want to see something that will tickle my funny bone—the sillier the better.”
GO SEE: “Something Rotten” (St. James Theatre, in previews; opening April 22). Did you love “The Book of Mormon” and “Spamalot?” This original new show, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (“Book of Mormon”) stars Brian d’Arcy James (“Next to Normal,” “Shrek the Musical”) and Christian Borle (Tony-award winner, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” TV’s “Smash”) as rival playwrights Nick Bottom and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the 1590’s equivalent of a rock star, and Nick and his younger brother Nigel are desperate to come up with a strategy to compete. They turn to soothsayer Nostradamus (a show-stopping Brad Oscar) who encourages them to create the very first musical: “Oohs, aahs, big applause, and a standing ovation. The future is bright, if you can just write a musical!” The first three musical numbers in the show—“Welcome to the Renaissance,” “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” and “A Musical”—are absolutely hysterical, brilliant crowd pleasers. While nothing in Act 2 equals the perfection of those first few songs—and the preview performance I saw went on a bit too long—this show is tons of fun and will be a huge hit. So go back in time around 400 years or so to the Renaissance, “Where everything is new.” You’re guaranteed to have a great time.
Watch a video from the show.

YOU: “I want to see an old-fashioned, beautiful, romantic show.” OR: “I have a tweenage daughter who geeks out over “High School Musical.’”
GO SEE: “Gigi” (Neil Simon Theatre). You’re probably familiar with the Oscar-winning1958 film version of “Gigi” starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jordan. This “re-launched” (according to the Playbill) Broadway version stars Vanessa Hudgens, the talented young star of Disney’s “High School Musical” films, along with an excellent cast of Broadway veterans (Tony-award winner Victoria Clark, Tony nominees Dee Hoty and Howard McGillin). The new “Gigi” has been sanitized to make it more “G-rated” than the film. For example, the famous song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung by the Chevalier’s aging roué character in the film, is now sung by two women, Gigi’s grandmother and her aunt. And the fact that 15-year-old Gigi (now 18 in the Broadway musical) is being groomed to be a courtesan is never discussed. So no worries, parents: you can feel at ease taking your impressionable tweens and teens to this charming show. Musical highlights include the exuberant Act 1 closing number, “The Night They Invented Champagne” and the tender title song, wistfully sung by Corey Cott, the former “Newsies” star. The costumes and sets are lovely and Hudgens, who has been a performer since the age of 8, is delightful. At the preview performance I attended, teenage girls in the audience repeatedly shrieked with joy (and not just over Hudgens). Adults who like their musicals squeaky clean and romantic will also enjoy this 2-1/2 hour escape to a somewhat mythical La Belle Epoque, where Ms. Hudgens sparkles like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Gigi

For ticket information, see the shows’ websites as listed above, or visit:
Playbill.com

TDF Discount Theatre Booths

Broadway Helper

BROADWAY SPRING PREVIEW: Plays

Heidi Chronicles

Baby, it’s cold outside! But here’s a happy thought to warm a theatre lover’s heart: Milder weather and the new Spring Broadway season are only a few weeks away, with some shows beginning previews in February.

Here are a few plays that are coming up soon. (Keep in mind that dates are subject to change). As usual, there will be a mix of new works and revivals, musicals and plays, both serious and comic. (Stay tuned for my Broadway Spring Preview Part II: Musicals—coming up in my next post).

Fish in the Dark First Preview: February 2; Opening: March 5

Theatre: Cort, 138 W. 48th St.

Attention, “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fans: Larry David has written a play. The television star will make his Broadway debut—as an actor and writer—When David returns to the stage “for the first time since eighth grade” (according to the show’s Website).

In Fish in the Dark David plays Norman Drexel, a character he describes as, “very similar to Larry David—it might even be Larry David with a different name.” The story was inspired by the death of a friend’s father. David told David Letterman recently that he never intended to play the role himself: “I imagined anyone but me as the star. I’m not an actor.” (Although one imagines playing himself won’t be too much of a stretch).

David will take the stage supported by a cast of theatre veterans, including Rita Wilson, Rosie Perez, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Jayne Houdeyshell (a wonderful Tony-nominated stage actress who is a personal favorite of mine). Anna D. Shapiro (This Is Our Youth, Of Mice and Men, August, Osage County) directs.

Will Larry David become a big fish on Broadway? With advance ticket sales of over $11 million so far, it’s looking “pretty, pretty good.”

The Heidi Chronicles First Preview: February 23; Opening: March 19

Theatre: Music Box, 239 W. 45th St.

The original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s landmark 1988 play won the dramatic Triple Crown: the Tony, the Pulitzer Prize, and the New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Play. The 2015 revival has a promising cast: Elisabeth Moss (HBO’s “Mad Men”) stars as Heidi, along with Bryce Pinkham (Tony nominee for A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder) and Jason Biggs (“American Pie” films, “Orange is the New Black”), along with another of my favorite New York actresses, Tracee Chimo (Bad Jews, Harvey, “Orange is the New Black”). Pam McKinnon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance) will direct.

The play explores “big” subjects: feminism, work, love, and motherhood, viewed via 20 years in the life of art historian Heidi Holland, from the 1960s through the 1980s, from her high school days through her career and desire for a child.

The Heidi Chronicles is an important American play, with themes that are as relevant today as they were 27 years ago. Hopefully the revival’s popular young actors will attract a new generation of theatre goers who will continue the conversation Wasserstein began in 1988. (Wasserstein’s other notable plays include Uncommon Women and Others, The Sisters Rosensweig, and Isn’t it Romantic. She died in 2006 at age 55).

Skylight First Preview: March 16; Opening: April 2

Theatre: Golden, 252 W. 45th St.

There is already lots of pre-Broadway transfer buzz around this new production of Skylight, thanks to its recent acclaimed, sold-out run in London’s West End. The drama, a 1995 work by British playwright/screenwriter David Hare (Plenty, The Vertical Hour), stars British actors Carey Mulligan (best known for her work in the films “An Education,” “Drive,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Bill Nighy (“Love, Actually,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”). Interestingly, Nighy reprises the role he played in a 1997 London production of Skylight.

Skylight is a relationship piece that explores issues of class and capitalism that is, some say, based on events in the life of British designer/retailer Terence Conran. Mulligan and Nighy play former lovers Kyra (a schoolteacher in a tough school) and Tom (a wealthy businessman), who are separated by large gaps in social class, age, and world view. The entire play takes place in Kyra’s run-down flat when Tom pays a visit. The two have not seen each other in several years (since Tom’s wife found out about their affair). Two-time Tony award winner Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) directs.

Note: Ms. Mulligan’s character cooks up a pot of spaghetti on stage. So, word to the wise: if you’re in the first few rows, don’t go to the theatre hungry!

The show is scheduled for a 13-week run.

Also coming up, more Brits on Broadway:

The Audience. Helen Mirren stars (once again) as Queen Elizabeth II in a new play by Peter Morgan. Billed as “Sixty years, 12 Prime Ministers, one Queen,” the play imagines the dialogue between the Queen and her Prime Ministers in their private weekly meetings, throughout the 60 years of her reign.

First Preview: February 14; Opening: March 8; Schoenfeld Theatre

Wolf Hall Parts I and II. Direct from a hit run in London, these two plays are based on Hilary Mantel’s popular novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, tales of intrigue in the court of Henry VIII. They will be performed in repertory, with a limited run.

First Preview: March 20; Opening: April 9; Winter Garden Theatre