Friday, February 11, 2022

Reviews: Lynn Nottage's Excellent "Intimate" Opera; Joshua Harmon's "Prayer" is His Most Ambitious Play; "The Tap Dance Kid" Lacks Rhythm

Theater Reviews: Intimate Apparel, Prayer for the French Republic, The Tap Dance Kid 

Intimate Apparel (c) T. Charles Erickson and Julieta Cervantes

Theater: Intimate Apparel 
At Lincoln Center Theater 

Once you try to pigeonhole playwright Lynn Nottage, she goes in a totally different direction. Her latest show is a chamber opera, adapted from her successful play of the same name (which starred a young Viola Davis in its 2004 premiere) with composer Ricky Ian Gordon. The result is an engrossing and dramatic re-interpretation of the story that centers around a not-so-young-anymore seamstress named Esther (a wonderful Kearstin Piper Brown) who lives in a boarding house for colored women in 1905, saving her money to open her own beauty parlor, with or without a husband. The supporting characters are all interesting archetypes, from the rich, bored, white wife who hires Esther (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) to make her sexy outfits to wear for her husband to the protective mother figure who runs the boarding house (a powerful Adrienne Danrich) to the Jewish fabric salesman (a sympathetic Arnold Livingston Geis) who may be the only bright light in Esther’s life, despite always wearing black. One day, Esther gets a letter from a stranger (Justin Austin) working in Cuba. He wants to be her pen pal – and maybe more. This is a lot of plot for such a delicate opera, but director Bartlett Sher moves the action quickly on Michael Yeargan’s turntable set. Sher, who is also represented at Lincoln Center with the Met Opera’s current production of “Don Giovanni,” proves he can do large- and small-scale shows with equal care. Instead of a full Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, “Intimate Apparel” has only two pianos, which gives the many emotions expressed a sort of sameness. Maybe a string instrument would have livened up the songs. But that’s just a minor quibble for an exquisite production that gives a strong voice to a class of women we rarely hear from. Don’t miss. 

Prayer for the French Republic (c) Matthew Murphy

Theater: Prayer for the French Republic 
At Manhattan Theatre Club 

I’ve seen all of the plays of Joshua Harmon, from the squabbling cousins of “Bad Jews” to the group of single friends who yearn for more in “Significant Others” to the wealthy family whose patriarch is going through a midlife crisis in “Skintight” to the dean of a private school who has deal with diversity issues in “Admission.” The thing that binds these plays is the humor, as well as a couple of lengthy monologues that are intelligently biting in their anger. The major monologue in “Prayer for the French Republic,” Harmon’s most mature work to date, belongs to Elodie (Francis Benhamou, so good here as she was earlier this season in “Selling Kabul”), the daughter of a successful Jewish family living in Paris, which in 2015, is dealing with a rash of anti-Semitic hate crimes. Elodie is monologuing to a distant, American cousin (Molly Ranson), who is dating her suddenly “more observant” brother (Yair Ben-Dor), about the ramifications of being “too Jewish” in Paris. This family’s solution to the violence is moving to Israel, even though they have lived in Paris all their lives, which Harmon contrasts with a parallel storyline from 1945 of Elodie’s great-grandparents, who hid from the fascists in their Paris apartment during the war. All of this is ambitious and laudable as Harmon gives us a compelling dual storyline of a family at two historical points of uncertainty. The smart dialogue can expertly flip from hysterical to compelling to heartbreaking in a course of a couple of sentences. Except for an unnecessarily didactic, late discussion of the root of anti-Semitism, which seems to be there just in case the audience missed the point, the three-hour running time flew by, and the finale is emotionally satisfying. Bravo to director David Cromer and the talented ensemble. 

The Tap Dance Kid (c) Joan Marcus

The Tap Dance Kid 
At Encores (closed) 

Encores’ opens its first post-Covid concert presentation (it’s essentially a full production with only the barebone outlines of a set giving us any concert vibes) with “The Tap Dance Kid,” a 1983 musical that is perfect for the Encores! mandate: present musicals that have been neglected or forgotten after its initial Broadway production. But why then have a new book-writer (in this case, the talented Lydia Diamond) change the show to make it more relevant? Instead of the Sheridans being an upper-middle class family in the 80s, they’re in the mid-1950s? It poses a lot of plot questions for the audience to sort out. The eponymous character is Willie (brought to life by a star-in-the-making Alexander Bello), a 10-year-old with tap-dancing talent, according to his show-biz Uncle Dipsey (Trevor Jackson), but his lawyer father (the mostly wasted Joshua Henry) wants him to give up these arty dreams and concentrate on school, even though he has a daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph) who is happily doing just that. Dipsey is directing an industrial production for a shoe company that might lead to a Broadway musical and he wants Willie to star. The production is sparsely directed by Kenny Leon, in which there are way too many long stretches of nothing happening. The songs by Henry Krieger and Robert Lorick have a pleasant, AM radio quality to them, which are at odds with the new 50s setting, but the infectious choreography of Jared Grimes’ makes the show’s most famous song “Fabulous Feet” the showstopper that it will always be. The only bright spot is Bello. His dancing skills are amazing, but he also gets the biggest laugh with a throwaway line: “We flew on an airplane!” Sign that kid up.

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