Tuesday, May 9, 2017

At Opposite Ends Of B'Way, Two Great, Shining Star Turns!

On opposite ends of Broadway two leading men are giving standout performances that have the Great White Way reaching for superlatives.
One is a relative Broadway newcomer while the other is a veteran of the stage and screen; one stars in a musical while the other dominates the stage in a play and one creates a characterization in a new production while the other recreates a striking personality in a sparkling new revival of a beloved comedy.
Let's start with the younger performer and the new musical first.

Would you believe we knew nothing about Groundhog Day before we went to see the new musical concocted by most of the team surrounding Matilda and starring Andy Karl? That's right, we never saw the movie with Bill Murray (now a cult classic) and knew nothing about the story except that it involved Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
It wasn't very long into the show before we could see that the musical's biggest challenge was how to repeat the same scenes and lines over and over and over again as Karl's character (TV weatherguy Phil Connors) relives the same day, moment-for-moment endlessly.
In a movie, this is a simple matter of good, quick editing. But the stage is a far different beast. Doesn't it get monotonous, you might ask? Isn't it boring and/or tedious? And the answer, thanks to Karl and the entire Groundhog Day team is no, no, no, and no. That's because Karl makes Connors' growing frustration not only palpable but remarkably believable. What he gives us is a three-dimensional portrait of Connors that is more vulnerable, less acerbic, more reachable and more worthy of our concern. Karl doesn't play the role merely for laughs or use the characterization just to be snarky. He's no paper thin wise guy. Instead, he gives us a full-blown, more complex character -- a guy we might want to know better or even become friends with. And, because we can understand Connors' frustration with daily life, we connect with the story in new and more meaningful ways.
We'll be honest with you. When we heard that this production was cooked up at Britain's Old Vic by the director, orchestrator and lighting designer for Matilda, we feared the show might be dark, brooding, menacing and shrill. Matilda was certainly not a favorite of ours.
But while Groundhog Day has some edgy, slightly scary and even philosophical moments it avoids the almost gothic impulses and morbid curiosities of Matilda. And that's all to the better because this show manages to ask meaningful questions about what really does make one day significantly different from another and how we can truly live in and take joy in the moment and some of the "ordinary" people we share it with. It all comes together when Karl sings the beautiful Seeing You with costar (and love interest) Barrett Doss and the memorable If I Had My Time Again, which is a question we've all faced somewhere along life's journey.
Still, don't expect lush orchestrations here or a classic Broadway sound as the music borrows from several genres (including country) and can seem over amplified and even tinny at times. But the show overcomes all that.
In addition to the young, energetic and spot-on cast, much of Groundhog Day's appeal stems from its staging which is clever without being distracting and tongue-in-cheek without being overly cutesy. Kudos to director director Matthew Warchus, choreographer Peter Darling, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and scenic designer Rob Howell.
But it is Andy Karl who makes Groundhog Day an irresistible hit again and again and again. Karl is simply a charming performer and to see him live and witness the joy he takes in his craft is one of the great pleasure of this or any other season.

At the other end of Broadway, the venerable Kevin Kline (an Oscar and Tony Award winner) has taken on the role of Garry Essendine in Noel Coward's classic Present Laughter. This is one of the most demanding and coveted roles in the Coward galaxy and the portrayal was originated by Coward himself in 1942. In subsequent productions, it was played by Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen, Tom Conti, Frank Langella, George C. Scott and Victor Garber, among others.
So, anybody who takes on the challenge of playing the overly-dramatic, over-the-top Essendine had better be damned good, which Kline certainly is.
The play's title comes from a song in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which urges carpe diem ("present mirth hath present laughter"), and so the word present in the title should be pronounced as the adjective and not the verb.
The plot follows a few days in the life of the successful and self-obsessed light comedy actor Essendine as he prepares to travel for a touring commitment in Africa. Amid a series of events bordering on farce, Garry has to deal with women who want to seduce him, placate both his long-suffering secretary and his estranged wife, cope with a crazed young playwright, and overcome his impending mid-life crisis (since he has recently turned forty). The story was described by Coward as "a series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics".
Well, obviously Kline (who will be 70 later this year) can hardly pass for 40 so, in this production we're led to believe that he's just turned 50 or 60 or whatever. It hardly matters since all these years later (and in the age of Viagra) 70 is the new 40, right?
Anyway, Kline is on stage practically the whole time in an old-fashioned three-act play that's condensed to two acts with two one-minute pauses within each act. Fortunately he's superbly supported by Kate Burton as his all-knowing former wife and Kristine Nielsen as his ever-loyal secretary. You'll find many other Broadway favorites dotted among this fine cast and they'll all marvelous, in part because they're perfectly directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel.
The timing in this fast-paced production will take your breath away and the comic turns and clever lines zing (and sting!) as if they were written yesterday. 
Just as an example, here are some lines from the show:

Garry: You ought never to have joined the Athenaeum Club, Henry: it was disastrous.
Henry: I really don’t see why.
Garry: It’s made you pompous.
Henry: It can’t have. I’ve always been too frightened to go into it.

Garry: Beryl Willard is extremely competent. Beryl Willard has been extremely competent, man and boy, for forty years. In addition to her extreme competence, she has contrived, with uncanny skill, to sustain a spotless reputation for being the most paralysing, epoch-making, monumental, world-shattering, God-awful bore that ever drew breath...I will explain one thing further - it is this. No prayer, no bribe, no threat, no power, human or divine, would induce me to go to Africa with Beryl Willard. I wouldn't go as far as Wimbledon with Beryl Willard.
Liz: What he's trying to say is that he doesn't care for Beryl Willard.

Morris: I'll never speak to you again until the day I die!
Garry: Well, we can have a nice little chat then, can't we?

As you can see, Garry (Kline) has almost all of the great zingers and he delivers them deftly (and with a perfectly effete British accent) in a manner that will keep your ear cocked for the next round and laughing all the way. 
But don't let this lead you to believe that the show is just a bunch of punch-lines delivered like some round of standup. Far from it. This is the story of a man who sees his life passing by and is wildly conniving to squeeze every drop out of it. He delights in the moment and in drink and women and every bit of carnal pleasure he can still find. He doesn't want to care what others think of him but he's an actor, so he's vain and self-absorbed and overly conscious of his every word, thought and action. And therein lie not just the nature of the human condition in all too many situations but the seed of great comedy as well.
Present laughter, indeed!

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