‘The Nance’ On Broadway, A Review

"The Nance" is playing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York.

Broadway used to be awash in larger than life comic talent – Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, Zero Mostel, the list goes on. Today we have Nathan Lane and we should be grateful we do.

Mr. Lane’s considerable talents are being lavished on “The Nance” at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. A fascinating if ultimately disappointing tale of the waning days of burlesque in New York City in the late 1930s, the play is set against the background of a rather nasty brand of homophobia that, alas, didn’t wane until much later.

Chauncey Miles (Mr. Lane) is the “nance” at a seedy burlesque house in what is now one of Gotham’s prime neighborhoods. A nance was an effeminate or sexually ambiguous stock character (think commedia dell’arte) used for double entendre sexual humor. The part was often played by a straight male (not to be confused with a straight man), but in Chauncey’s case, life imitates art.

The play, then, opens a door into two worlds: the raunchy, tawdry, low-brow burlesque milieu, at once quite funny and rather sad, and the gay demimonde that Chauncey navigates with one eye cocked for the cops. These guardians of public morals have a disturbing penchant for harassing homosexuals and raiding their meeting places, even those as seemingly innocent as the Automat.

Of the two, the world of burlesque is the far more entertaining. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane has clearly done his research and I have no reason to believe that the comic routines he has recreated (or perhaps exhumed) are not completely authentic. Mr. Lane and the superb Lewis J. Stadlen, as the theatre’s top banana, pull them off with great style and verve. Many of them are truly funny.

The girls of burlesque, the well-cast trio of Jenni Barber, Andréa Burns, and Cady Huffman, are not glamorized but presented as salt-of-the earth working girls, in the best sense of that term. Their tacky burlesque costumes, provided by Ann Roth, are spot on, as is Joey Pizzi’s choreography. Ms. Huffman, by the way, played the blonde bombshell Ulla in “The Producers” opposite Mr. Lane’s Max Bialystock; both of them got Tonys. Here she is commendably beefier and less idealized.

Also enjoyable in these scenes is the easy-going camaraderie of the company. However clichéd it may be, it lets us believe that there are indeed no people like show people.

We also learn less heartwarming things about this world, such as the fact that gay men frequent the theatre’s balcony hoping to service straight men aroused by the girls on stage. No wonder the prudes got their knickers in a knot!

Which brings us to the flip side of “The Nance,” the closeted world of gay New York in the 1930s and the campaign against burlesque. Here Mr. Beane is less successful, although it must be said he is never less than heartfelt.

Like the depiction of burlesque, this side of “The Nance” is something of a history lesson. We learn of the strained codes and rituals with which gay men were forced to court (if, indeed, that is the right word) in a hostile world all too willing to imprison them on the flimsiest of charges. No wonder the rather improbable (and unsought after) romance Chauncey enters into with the handsome Ned is so fraught. Ned is smitten and seeks the kind of long-term relationship that is becoming so common today. Chauncey is horrified and holds up the brief and sometimes brutal liaisons with which he is familiar as a kind of badge of honor.

Beane has stacked the dramatic deck a bit too tidily to make some ironic points. Chauncey is a staunch conservative Republican who maintains that Mayor LaGuardia’s crusade against “filth” in general and burlesque in particular is simple campaign posturing, which will evaporate after the election. Then, when the crackdown lands Chauncey in the dock, he unconvincingly morphs from below-the-radar queen to poster child for the cause.

In the end, with burlesque banned in New York, Chauncey can’t join his fellow troupers as they flee to the less restrictive New Jersey because he is a convicted “pervert,” condemned by the terms of his parole to stay in Manhattan. Not only that, but he throws away Ned, his best hope for happiness, to embrace the demeaning and dangerous world of anonymous encounters.

If this sounds a bit like soap opera, it is. And the play’s startling final image, while rather effective, is not earned by the script.

John Lee Beatty has contributed a large and ingenious revolving set that takes us from the stage of the burly-Q to backstage, to Chauncey’s semi-subterranean apartment and back again, with the occasional detour to the Automat. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the set underscores the fact that the world it depicts seems so under-inhabited.

I found myself wishing that Mr. Beane enjoyed the luxury of a larger cast so he could introduce us to more of the denizens of both worlds. But Broadway economics being what they are, that was probably never an option. The piece might have been more effective in a smaller Off-Broadway space on a smaller budget, but then could we have had top-flight performers like Mssrs. Lane and Stadlen and Ms. Huffman?

Small though the cast may be they perform admirably under the steady hand of triple Tony Award winner Jack O’Brien. And if ultimately Mr. Beane’s script is less than perfect, it is packed with funny lines and endearing moments, and it is clearly written from the heart. Then, of course, there is Nathan Lane.

I quite enjoyed myself.

‘The Best Brothers’ and ‘Hirsch’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

I am fond of saying there is a Poutine Curtain that prevents Canadian culture from penetrating south of the border. So

"The Best Brothers" and "Hirsch" are playing at the Studio Theatre.

one of the pleasures of visiting the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is the chance to see the work of Canadian playwrights who otherwise might have gone unnoticed. Most often, these plays are presented in the small black box space of the Studio Theatre.

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‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

Beatrice and Benedick are the fun couple of the Shakespeare canon. As seemingly incompatible as oil and water they are nonetheless fated for each other and the pathetic fallacy of their inevitable coming together, engineered with a clever trick by their friends, is what makes them so indelible in our memories and makes Much Ado a perennial favorite.

It’s a special treat when we get to see the parts played by a real-life married couple and in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s delightful production at the Festival Theatre the couple in question is Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson, both Festival stalwarts. It’s an interesting choice.

Perhaps because neither of them are in, shall we say, the first bloom of youth, director Christopher Newton seems to have chosen to emphasize their age. So Beatrice becomes a sort of old-maid-in-training, all flutters and dithery indecision. I found it a bit distracting, especially since Ms. Hay is more than capable of turning in a far more sophisticated portrait.

Still, one can’t fault her comic timing and a pratfall on the curving staircase that dominates Santo Loquasto’s set is sheer brilliance. Once I got past my initial misgivings, I found her performance quite enjoyable.

Ben Carlson gave his usual solid performance, but the fact that it seemed barely indistinguishable from the one he gave in last season’s Misanthrope was vaguely disconcerting. His delivery tends to be precise and emphatic giving his sparring with Beatrice something of a donnish quality.

If one can quibble with the central performances, the rest of the cast is above reproach. As the young lovers torn asunder by a vicious slander, Hero and Claudio, Bethany Jillard and Tyrone Savage are near ideal. Savage even makes Claudio almost sympathetic, a feat many feel is impossible. Juan Chioran as Don Pedro and James Blendick as Leonato are impeccable and, under Newton’s deft direction, they turn the scene in which they make an eavesdropping Benedick believe Beatrice is madly in love with him into comic bliss. And Timothy D. Stickney manages to stand out in the small role of Friar Francis.

For reasons that remain opaque to me, Newton chose to set his production in early twentieth century Brazil, but at least it doesn’t distract from the goings on and it allowed Loquasto to create some spiffing military uniforms.

This production of Much Ado may not be the best the Festival ever mounts but for now ‘twill serve.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Festival Theatre though October 27, 2012.
For more information visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.

‘A Word Or Two’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

By his own admission, Christopher Plummer was quite the heartbreaker in his youth. Today, just shy of his 83rd birthday, he’s still at it. At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Avon Theatre he is sweeping audiences off their feet and leaving them begging for more as he strolls jauntily into the night.

A Word Or Two is a one-man show that Plummer has been doing for some time in aid of various fundraisers and charity events. I never saw any of its earlier incarnations but it seems safe to say that under the gentle guidance of director Des McAnuff it has reached its ideal form. [Read more…]

‘The Matchmaker’ at Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

The Matchmaker is playing at the Festival Theatre through October 27.

Thornton Wilder’s farce The Matchmaker is perhaps best known, to the extent it is known at all these days, as the progenitor of the musical smash Hello Dolly. It would be nice if the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s current production changes all that.

Here is a production that is every bit as worthy of a New York transfer as the Stratford musicals that usually make the trip. That might not make much sense to the money people, but New York audiences would be grateful and American theatre might rediscover one of its great treasures.
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‘Henry V’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

Festival Theatre

I suppose there’s no escaping that Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V is the Henry of our age, even twenty odd years later. So any new production, let alone one that carries the imprimatur of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, has to be prepared for comparisons to a masterpiece. Leaving the Festival Theatre after Des McAnuff’s new production, I heard several such comparisons, none of them favorable.

In a way, that’s unfair because McAnuff has presented a thoughtful and well thought through rendition of the play, one that emphasizes the hell in war rather than the glory. For starters, he has not shied away from including Henry’s blood-curdling threat to the townspeople of Harfleur or the grisly slaughter of his French prisoners to free more men for the battlefield, details that are often excised from more jingoistic productions. [Read more…]

‘Wanderlust’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

Robert Service is Canada’s most famous poet and one of the most financially successful bards of all time. His tall tales and sentimental verse of the Yukon territory, penned at the turn of the last century, didn’t win many critical kudos from the literati, but regular folks were drawn to their steady rhythms and accessible messages and made Service very rich. [Read more…]

’42nd Street’ at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 2012

42nd Street is one of 14 productions featured at this year's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which runs through Oct. 29.

Perhaps the highlight of the “naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty” revival of 42ndStreet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Festival Theatre is the first appearance of beloved leading lady Cynthia Dale since Des McAnuff took over as artistic director. (Cue the conspiracy theorists.) [Read more…]

‘Pirates of Penzance’ at Stratford Shakespeare Festival (2012)

As part of the 2012 Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Pirates of Penzance is playing at the Avon Theatre until October 27.

Gilbert and Sullivan, once Stratford Festival regulars, are back! And the delightful production of Pirates of Penzance at the Avon Theatre makes you wonder what took them so long.

Pirates tells the unbelievably silly tale of Frederic a young man with a pathological sense of duty who, thanks to a mix up on the part of his nursemaid was apprenticed to a pirate instead of to a pilot. Having fulfilled his commitment to learn the pirate trade, he has now come of age and is determine to do what every right-thinking Englishman would do and wipe the pirate scourge from Britain’s shores.

Not that this band of pirates is particularly fearsome. They are notoriously soft of heart, refusing for example to take advantage of orphans. Word has gotten around and thus everyone they accost claims to be parentless leaving them rather bereft of booty.

When they happen upon a bevy of girls who are all the wards of Major General Stanley the attraction is as mutual as it is instantaneous. The fact that a middle-aged man had managed to amass such a superfluity of nubile wards might make a modern observer wonder what the old dog was up to but never mind, G & S wrote in a simpler age.

From this wisp of plot, Gilbert and Sullivan extracted an entire evening’s worth of unabashed silliness and fun and, naturally, all ends happily thanks to a plot device every bit as goofy as the basic premise.

American director Ethan McSweeney has set the play in a nineteenth century playhouse as seen from back stage and he and his energetic cast make the most of the theatre within a theatre’s wooden scaffolding and stage machinery.

As Frederic, Kyle Blair is pretty much perfect. With his golden hair, baby-faced good looks and clarion tenor, when the chorus of wards sings of “his beauty” it makes perfect sense. He’s sort of a Victorian Justin Bieber. Equally dishy, but appealing to a slightly different taste, is Sean Arbuckle as the dashing but just too sweet-to-be evil Pirate King, who swashbuckles with the best of them and wears his black and gold pirate duds with panache. As Mabel, the gooey bauble of a maiden who falls for Frederic (and vice versa), Amy Wallis has the vocal chops to make the most of the warbling solos Sullivan gives her and the dewy eyes to match.

There has been some carping from Festival regulars about this production, most of which seem to revolve around the fact that it wasn’t directed by the beloved Brian Macdonald, whose Festival productions of Gilbert and Sullivan in the 1980s have become legendary. The G & S expert with whom I saw the show pointed out that while the Broadway vocal styles employed here were very good indeed, Sullivan’s music benefits from a more operatic approach. And the cameo appearance by Queen Victoria at play’s end is a modern interpolation that does not appear in the original and would have been scandalous if it had.

But those who can enter the Avon without preconceived notions of what they should see will find nothing to complain about. Indeed, I suspect that theatergoers coming to Gilbert and Sullivan afresh will leave the Avon looking forward to the Festival’s next foray into to G & S repertoire, which let us hope will not be too long in coming.

Pirates of Penzance continue through October 27, 2012, at the Avon Theatre.
For more information: www.stratfordfestival.ca.

‘Cymbeline’ at Stratford Shakespeare Festival (2012)

Cymbeline is being performed at the Tom Patterson Theatre as part of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

If you’ve never seen Shakespeare’s Cymbeline there’s a good reason for that. The play is devilishly difficult to do. Start with a large, sprawling cast filled with roles that would challenge even the best actors. Then add a complex, intricate and, to modern tastes, sometimes ludicrous plot. Top it all off with some daunting stage effects (the script calls for a severed head followed closely by the torso from which it was lopped and a deus ex machine that’s a real doozy) and you begin to understand why most theatre companies and directors shy away from this “problem” play as it is sometimes labeled. [Read more…]