Here’s our New York critic’s take on two limited run shows now playing in the Big Apple.
A turtle earns a laugh as it makes its way slowly from the wings to the other side of the stage. There is no hurry as our eyes need time to take in the dense and very green jungle foliage framed by a pair of massive twisted tree trunks, the work of scenic designer Jon Craine. I won’t give away the comic prologue that sets the stage that soon welcomes exotic flying birds, strutting giraffes, fluttering butterflies, crawling caterpillars, and growling and prowling tigers unlike any you have seen before. There is magic in the air. These creatures have all been artistically re-imagined by a Mother Nature with a flair for the fabulous. But more importantly they are an extraordinarily gifted company of circus performers of international fame and repute.
A spectacularly costumed, cleverly conceived, and splendidly executed family-friendly, circus-styled entertainment has found a home for the next eight weeks on Broadway. Designed as a touring show, it is sure to please as many tourists as it will regular theatergoers willing to temporarily suspend their need for more sophisticated diversions during the hot summer months ahead.
Although there are some similarities to Cirque du Soleil’s fantastical style of presentation, this show can stand on its own distinctive merits. Here is a terrifically varied array of circus acts performed with skill and bravado. No need for real animals, as the company of 28 artists that include aerialists, acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, tumblers, dancers, musicians, and singers are consigned for transmogrification into the animal and insect kingdoms through the artistry of costume designers Lenora Taylor and Santiago Rojo.
The show’s creator-director, Neil Goldberg, hasn’t necessarily devised a plot, but there is a through-line in which a young adventurer (Marcello Balestracci) is whisked into a dream-like jungle and gradually becomes an exceedingly eager participant in the various disciplines he sees being performed. This adds an amusing touch to many of the acts. Among the more astounding is Ruslan Dmytruk, who appears to be the most talented frog of them all as he bounces a dozen or more balls while standing on a toad stool surrounded by a bevy of croakers. A quartet of slithering lizards become intricately entwined in huge hoops, and a pair of romantically inclined butterflies with beautifully-hued wings (Sergey Parshin and Naomi Sampson) soar in breathtaking configurations.
Day becomes night in Act II, as the costumes take on a phosphorescent glow under the lighting artistry of Kate Johnston. Bumblebees, flowers, and plants become a part of the choreographed pageantry (by Tara Jeanne Valee). Vladimir Dovgan and Anatoliy Yeniy prove that giraffes are quite the experts on the teeter board and six muscular Russian “tigers” do some astounding balancing. Of questionable artistic merit is the strident singing by Jill Diane of some rather icky songs by Jill Winters. And a somewhat overcommitted violinist (Jared Burnett) screeches away in Slavic style apparently unable to unnerve or distract any of the brilliant artists.
Apparently a lawsuit initiated by Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil to restrain Cirque Productions from using Cirque in their title failed. The court deemed the word cirque was generic. Otherwise, there is nothing that could be called generic about this delightful and dazzling show.***
“Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy,” through August 24, Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway. $25 to $95. 212-239-6200.
A Catered Affair
It is virtually impossible to predict what material from another medium does or does not have the potential for transference to the stage. In most cases, musical film classics such as “Gigi,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” couldn’t duplicate the magic on the stage. Recently a truly awful film musical, “Xanadu,” was given a miraculous overhaul that resulted in a delightful stage musical. But what about breathing theatrical life into a lauded dramatic film or vintage TV drama? Paddy Chayefsky’s “A Catered Affair” was first seen on TV in 1955. The following year Gore Vidal adapted it for the screen starring Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, and Debbie Reynolds. It was barely noticed. It is now a stage musical with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by John Bucchino. I suspect that it will barely be noticed, but not because its qualities aren’t worthy of appreciation.
Fierstein, whose presence in the musical appears as more of an intrusion than it should be, has, nevertheless, written a graceful, heartfelt book. Cabaret, pop, and theater artists have long been fans of Bucchino’s gifts as a songwriter. His musical intrusion is more notably commendable as it completely sustains and supports the gentle, modest, understated resonance of the story. Mostly sung-through, “A Catered Affair” makes few noticeable allowances for stand alone songs although the score is melodically insistent and at times even rapturous.
David Gallo’s set evokes a block in a tenement neighborhood in the Bronx. Pale sepia-tinted projections are employed in a production (enhanced by Brian MacDevitt’s skilled lighting design) that harbors no pretentious illusions. Despite its musical underpinnings, a sense of reality, sadness, and honesty hovers over the action and defines the performances, under the delicate hand of director John Boyle. Audiences willing to gamble on a show that refuses to compromise the characters’ feelings of regret and self-effacing hope will be rewarded. Be assured that the prospect of a happy conclusion keeps us committed.
Faith Prince is superb as Aggie, the stoic, matronly housewife who struggles to stretch the meager earnings of Tom (excellently played by Tom Wopat), her morose husband. Tom’s remoteness and lack of affection is, in part, due to harboring the death of their son in the Korean War. But they have another hurdle to overcome when Aggie wants to use the bereavement check to pay for an extravagant wedding for their daughter, Janey (Leslie Kritzer). Tom, however, wants to use the money to purchase, in partnership with a friend, his own taxi. Of course, Janey and her fiance, Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh), want a simple wedding service. In the midst of this conflict is Aggie’s gay live-in brother, Winston (Fierstein), a significantly altered character from the film. Winston’s opinions get intermittent time, as do his appearances as an infectious narrator.
“A Catered Affair” is not exactly a fun time, but it is about a family time in an era, not so very different from our own, when deciding when, how, and where to spend our income can easily bring to the surface deep-seated hurts and long-repressed feelings.**
“A Catered Affair,” through Sunday, July 17, Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street. $29.50 to $119.50. Visit acateredaffaironbroadway.com or call 800-432-7250.