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 November 4, 2011

What’s Good?

It’s the question that every theater critic gets asked by most every theatergoer he meets.

It’s often a hard question to answer. After all, I usually don’t know the taste of the person asking it of me. They might as well be asking me, “What’s good in hockey?”

Actually, I have an answer to that question: what’s good is that the Winnipeg Jets are once again part of the National Hockey League. From 1972 to 1996, there had been a Winnipeg Jets team – until it moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes. Recently the Atlanta Thrashers left the Georgia capital in favor of the Manitoba capital and reclaimed the name of the Winnipeg Jets.

And why is this good? There’s an NHL team in San Jose called the Sharks, so we’ll once again have the Jets battling the Sharks.

Speaking of West Side Story, you know what else is good? My eyesight. While watching the film a few weeks ago, I noticed that near the end of “Quintet” -- when Tony is passing a wall of ruined posters -- one of them is the three-sheet for the 1960 Broadway musical Christine. Take a look and see if you agree.

What was good? The tribute to producer Philip (A Raisin in the Sun) Rose and actress Doris (Tootsie) Belack at the Ambassador Theatre on Oct. 17. The spouses of more than six decades died within 18 weeks of each other -- possibly because Belack found life too hard to live without Rose. On the cover of the program, Rose’s lifespan was listed as “July 4, 1921-May 31, 2011,” but Belack’s was February 26, 19XX-October 4, 2011.” Yes, “19XX” – because, as more than one attendee noted, “Doris hated for anyone to know her age.”

What’s gorgeous? You might answer, “The song that Barbara Harris sings in The Apple Tree.” Or “The name of the character in The Sisters Rosensweig that won Madeline Kahn a Tony.” Yes to both, but this year the word “gorgeous” comes to mind when we hear Maury Yeston’s score to Death Takes a Holiday. The new original cast album reminds us that he’s one of the few theater composers around who knows how to make music soar. The score is beautifully written, beautifully sung and a definite answer to “What’s good?”

What else is good? Love’s Labor’s Lost at The Public Theater. Not Love’s Labour’s Lost, mind you; the powers-that-be at the Public use the American spelling of “theater,” so perhaps they decided to eschew the British spelling of “Labour’s,” too.

This should really be a one-act play. Soon after four young men vow to give up women, four attractive young women come on the scene. Is there any doubt what has to happen? Maybe this is the play that Shakespeare should have called Much Ado about Nothing.

Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 film version endured much criticism, but I say that he streamlined the story very well. However, I too wish that he hadn’t made the play into a ‘30s musical with famous songs of the period. Hey, I must be in the top percentile of people who adore “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I Get a Kick out of You” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” But why do people switch from Shakespearean language to early 20th century vernacular and back again?

Some may counter that it’s a modern (or at least modern-ish) dress production. I know that’s an accepted convention, but I always enjoy Shakespeare more in period. That gets me in trouble with many, many directors, most of whom – have you noticed? – think that Edwardian is the way to go.

So the songs in Labour’s movie distanced me the way that Spring Awakening’s songs did. What that show opened and I didn’t rave along with everyone else, many muttered, “Oh, you just don’t like rock musicals.” Not true – at least not necessarily. I like music to fit the period, and Spring Awakening’s score wasn’t 1890-ish. If the script had been updated to today, I would have had no problem with Duncan Sheik’s music.

Look: if Arthur in Camelot wore a Nehru jacket or if Sally Bowles was seen playing a video game, you’d immediately point and say, “Ooops, they didn’t have that then!” Well, why are anachronisms limited to such items as clothing or gadgets? “Anachronistic” is an adjective that also can and should be applied to music whenever it’s wrong for the period.

In this Love’s Labor’s Lost, director Karin Coonrod adds The 1812 Overture, a Beyonce song and even adds a line from 42nd Street to Shakespeare’s language. She plays the high comedy scenes a little lower than usual, which means that the low comedy ones must be broader still. Coonrod even includes a time-honored, sure-fire laugh getter. For after Steven Skybell, Francis Jue and Robert Stanton finish a wildly funny scene (as Holofernes, Sir Nathan and Anthony Dull), the crowd just has to give them all enthusiastic exit applause. And as Nick Westrate’s Berowne comes on, he acts as if he assumes the ovation is for him and modestly waves it down.

Nevertheless, Coonrod makes a solid adjustment when matters get sincere near play’s end. So I can answer “Love’s Labor’s Lost” to the question “What’s good?” I just wouldn’t be able to mention it if the question were “What’s great?”

The answer to that one, however, is Dancing at Lughnasa at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Hard to believe that 20 full years have passed since we first saw Brian Friel’s masterpiece. Charlotte Moore has given a terrific production to the story of Michael – whom Ciarán O’Reilly has brought beautifully to life.

Michael is now an adult looking back on growing up with his single mother and his four equally single aunts. (Can you imagine?!) Oh, Uncle Jack (the effective Michael Countryman) does return from missionary work in Africa, but he’s not a good male role model; in the ensuing years, he’s gone somewhat daffy.

Kate (the magnificent Orlagh Cassidy) is the toughest aunt of the bunch, always worried what the neighbors will think. Of course, the family did take a hit when Christina (the poignant Annabel Hagg) had Michael out of wedlock. So Kate’s not taking any chances from now on. Thus, when her four sisters desperately want to attend the annual the harvest dance which they haven’t been to in years, Kate does everything but sing “And I am telling you, we are not going.”

Later, however, Maggie (the earthy Jo Kinsella) turns on the radio, is moved by what she hears and begins dancing. One by one, the sisters exuberantly join her, although Kate just watches – until she can no longer help herself. What’s good and astonishing is how marvelously Kate dances. Our hearts break because she’s easily the best of the bunch, and now we know that she’s been denying herself something that obviously brings her a lot of pleasure.

Does Orlagh Cassidy have formal Irish dance training? She couldn’t have picked this up after just a few weeks’ rehearsals, could she have?

The dance ends abruptly, when the radio stops working. After a frenetic and fabulous dance such as this, the audience members usually applaud wildly. At Saturday’s matinee, they didn’t. It’s not that they weren’t impressed; I’m sure they were. But because the drama of the dance had been so palpable, the artificiality of applause would have been wrong for the reality – and the theatergoers knew it.

This wild dance reminded me that in 1991-1992, this play received a Best Choreography nomination. Crazy for You, Jelly’s Last Jam and Guys and Dolls got the other three. But nominating a play with one dance? The Tony committee members must have been desperate and frantically asking themselves, “What’s good?” from the season’s other musicals. What would you have done? Picked Nick & Nora? Metro? Andre Heller’s Wonderhouse?

Perhaps this year the Tony committee will choose Ch’inglish for Best Choreography. Oh, no one dances a step in David Henry Hwang’s comedy, but David Korins’ set moves as well as Astaire and Rogers. Although the play takes place in China, the set is like a Russian Faberge egg -- in that one set contains another inside, and still another inside that.

The play does have some amusing moments: the Chinese are lukewarm about American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh – until they hear he was involved with the Enron scandal. Then it’s as if he’s Moonface Martin on the S.S. American, who’s suddenly moving up 12 notches on the Public Enemy list.

But much as I’d like to give Ch’inglish as the answer to “What’s good?” I cannot. And don’t sit in the second balcony: there are almost as many subtitles as you’ll find at the Met, and they can’t be easy to read from way up high.

You know what I really think is really great? That Bruce Kimmel and Kritzerland are giving me a new forum here each and every Friday. I hope that I’ll do well enough that you’ll have a new reason to say “T.G.I.F.!” Do drop in!

                                                                                                                                                — Peter Filichia




You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at His book Broadway Musical MVPs 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available at

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