Movies are motivation for 3 Broadway plays


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NEW YORK -- Broadway is all about the movies these days.

In three days you can see a contemporary comedy and a period drama that bash Hollywood -- one with a few well-placed jabs, the other with a battering ram -- and a musical that transforms a little British film into a splashy showpiece.

The musical: "Kinky Boots"

Girls just wanna have fun, and so do guys in girls' shows. Songwriter Cyndi Lauper, who had a hit with "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," has found success in her first foray into Broadway, "Kinky Boots," based on the charming 2005 movie. With a book by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Mitchell as director/choreographer, the musical earned a season-leading 13 Tony Award nominations -- including best actor in a musical for Pittsburgh native Billy Porter as drag queen Lola and for his co-star, Stark Sands, as Charlie Price, owner of a failing shoe factory.

When Lola and Charlie team up to save jobs and meet a market need, the factory must go from classic men's oxfords to stiletto-heeled knee-highs -- not an easy sell within the tradition-bound Northhampton shoe biz. Charlie's London-loving girlfriend isn't too pleased, either, but he is determined to carry on his father's legacy. Collaborating with Charlie brings Lola (birth name Simon) in contact with people who might otherwise avoid or harass him, but if anyone can sell a song or change an attitude, it's our Mr. Porter. He can belt Ms. Lauper's more energetic tunes or break your heart in the revealing "I'm Not My Father's Son."

Baby-faced Mr. Sands has the tough task of standing out beside his glittery co-star as Charlie mostly frets and frowns until he finally finds his groove. Along the way, he nails a British accent and gets a couple of nice showcases for his radio-ready pop sound.

The stars have ample backup from a talented cast, led by fellow Tony nominee Annaleigh Ashford in the role of a worker with eyes for the boss. Her crowd-pleasing comedic character brightens up her every scene.

The book by Mr. Fierstein, whose most recent hit was adapting "Newsies" for the stage, hews close to the "Kinky Boots" film by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth. What changes there are serve the show's theatricality; for example, when Lola makes a point about "real men" to a judgmental co-worker, it's not by arm wrestling but instead packs a boxer's punch. The cast is put through its paces on David Rockwell's nimble set, which includes conveyor belts that work for rolling out shoes and for dance-number moves, and costumer Gregg Barnes helps Mr. Porter embody Lola's pizazz with clothes in an array of sassy styles and bright colors.

Ms. Lauper makes an auspicious Broadway debut with a lively pop score that includes the act-one ender "Everybody Say Yeah" and the feel-good "Raise You Up" to send you off with a bounce in your step -- whatever kind of shoes you may be wearing.

Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.; Telecharge.com or 1-888-268-2020.

The comedy: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike'

Christopher Durang's pop-culture-laced comedy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" and Clifford Odets' circa-1940s melodrama "The Big Knife" couldn't be more different in tone, yet they share a definite disdain for Hollywood.

Mr. Durang passes judgment on Hollywood through the character of Masha, a middle-aged movie star desperately seeking a fountain of youth, in this play that will open City Theatre's 2013-14 season. Masha looks back at the idea of life in the theater with wistful regret while she wrestles with how to deal with her deadbeat siblings -- and some of the time, she does this while dressed in a Snow White costume that youngsters may fail to recognize as the 1939 Disney version.

It's a tour de force performance for the fearless Sigourney Weaver, who inexplicably is not nominated for a Tony. Her cast mates who are -- David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen in leading role categories and Billy Magnussen and Shalita Grant for their featured roles -- are uniformly a hoot, with director Nicholas Martin organizing the chaos of Mr. Durang's wacky situations. They form a near perfect ensemble in a play that is as hilarious and biting a satire as "The Big Knife" is a downer.

While referencing Chekhov works such as "Uncle Vanya" and "The Sea Gull," the language is purely present-day. For instance, narcissistic Masha's fame comes from the movie series "Sexy Killer," which has an "Alien" ring to it. Ms. Weaver has an innate elegance that shines through the craziness as she descends on the family home she supports, escorted by her young lover, airhead Spike, a would-be actor who enjoys showing off his six-pack.

Masha threatens to take the Bucks County residence away from her siblings, Mr. Pierce's deadpan Vanya and adopted sister Sonia, the marvelously daffy Ms. Nielsen. She goes from calm to crazy on a dime, and we can't wait to see which it will be next.

As their voodoo-practicing housekeeper, Ms. Grant tries to keep Vanya and Sonia on track and Masha in check during their long weekend together. The often shirtless Mr. Magnussen, meanwhile, plays dim bulb brilliantly and turns the head of ethereal next-door neighbor Nina.

The witty Mr. Durang has sprinkled Chekhovian traits and plot points like fairy dust over a familial comedy that builds to a crescendo of "You Can't Take It With You" proportions. Amid the laughs, there's still a lot to be said about sibling relationships and responsibilities.

Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.; Telecharge.com or 1-888-268-2020.

The drama: 'The Big Knife'

Odets' "Golden Boy" is among the golden plays of the season, tying "Vanya" and "Lucky Guy" with six Tony nominations. His other current offering is "The Big Knife," which has been absent from Broadway for 60 years, and no wonder. The play drips with cynicism and just seems like a whole lot of Hollywood hating by a theater elitist.

The movie industry's perceived corruption of talent, idealism -- you name it -- permeates every scene. The play crackles at times, mostly as a star vehicle for Bobby Cannavale, who played "Glengarry Glen Ross" real estate shark Ricky Roma to acclaim earlier this year.

In "The Big Knife," he portrays conflicted actor Charlie Castle, who left an idealized life in New York for movie stardom, booze and babes. On the wrong coast, his marriage is crumbling and the work is unfulfilling.

He is caught in a tug-of-war for his artistic soul, between a gangster studio head (Richard Kind, in the play's lone Tony nod) blackmailing him to re-sign a contract, and his erstwhile wife, Marion, who wants to go back east.

Marion (Marin Ireland), who has taken their son and run off to the beach with Charlie's writer friend Hank, admonishes her husband for using the word "ain't" -- a dumbing down to represent his tough-guy roles -- although he worked his way through college. The nerve!

Exploitation and betrayals abound so that the only person who seems to have genuine good will is, of all people, Charlie's agent, Nat (Chip Zien).

Everyone has a plan for Charlie, but it's hard to empathize with him. For one thing, Mr. Cannavale looks great in the fitted sportswear by costume designer Catherine Zuber as he seethes on John Lee Beatty's sophisticated, cream-colored interior set. And Charlie is a Don Draper-style cad -- he says he loves his wife, but that doesn't stop him from cheating every chance he gets.

Somewhere between Charlie feeling trapped and Hank's self-righteous declarations is a representation of Odets' own troubles -- his up-and-down career and affiliations that led to an appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

The moments when Charlie takes time out from self-loathing and self-destructive behavior and Mr. Cannavale lets loose with a testosterone-infused outburst, you may be longing for more Mamet and wishing this Odets play had been left to gather dust.

Closing June 2. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.; www.roundabouttheatre.org or 1-212-719-1300.

theaterreviews

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published May 8, 2013 4:00 AM


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