PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 9-15: War Horse, Mother With the Hat, a Return for Hair

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 9-15: War Horse, Mother With the Hat, a Return for Hair
 
Lincoln Center Theater opened this week what one reviewer called "the most intense and epic children's entertainment ever mounted on Broadway." That would be War Horse, The National Theatre of Great Britain production that has been such a success for the London theatre that it could be retitled Cash Cow.

Seth Numrich
Seth Numrich Photo by Paul Kolnik

War Horse began performances in October 2007 at the National's Olivier Theatre where it continued in repertory for a sold-out run through March 2009. The production transferred to the West End's New London Theatre March 28, 2009, where it continues to run today. And just to ensure the show culls even more publicity, Steven Spielberg is at work on a film of the novel, which will arrive in late 2011.

LCT has a long and cozy relationship with the National, and is a theatre of great resources, so it was no surprise that, when the expensive War Horse came over, the Beaumont Theatre was its home. (LCT aligned with Bob Boyett on the import.) The show is about the bond between a young man and his horse set against the backdrop of the first World War. The production, meanwhile, is about the eye-popping spectacle of a series of life-sized equestrian puppets (created by Handspring Puppet Company and Basil Jones) which have the capability of strikingly lifelike movement. An on-stage crew of three puppeteers gives life to a horse named Joey, as he grows from a skittish foal into a full-grown horse.

Shortly after the show opened on April 14, it was announced that War Horse had graduated to an open run. That, however, doesn't mean the reception amounted to a clutch of out-and-out raves. Reviewers carped that the lines of the simple plot were very much on a children's level, a "bit silly," rather soppy, and never in doubt. Also, that the puppet horses, particularly Joey, were more complete characters than the actors around them. But they applauded the puppeteers that made that situation so. And they embraced the "theatrical magic" and "pure spectacle" of the piece.

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Chris Rock in Motherf**ker with the Hat.
photo by Joan Marcus

The other big Broadway opening of the week was the latest work of Stephen Adly Guirgis, the bad boy downtown playwright who thought (and somehow convinced his producers) that a title with a profanity in it was the best choice for his Broadway debut. There has been much talk in theatre circles over the past few weeks about how that title, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, was tying the hands of publicists and journalists, and crippling the show's fortunes.There may have been some truth to that talk — though not to the suppositions of a certain tabloid that it would close the Sunday after it opened. But it all dissipated the day after a raft of soaring reviews came out. (I recently heard a report on NPR that referred to it as The Mother With the Hat, a gentle title which makes it sound like a forgotten work by Horton Foote.)

Guirgis himself told Playbill.com's Harry Haun on opening night, "I think it's the right title for the play, but, if I could have helped with the marketing — if they had said to me, 'Listen, we can't get the word out unless you change the title' — yeah, I would have been fine calling it something else."

Judging by the critics' reaction, Hat is Guirgis' best play yet; in fact the Times said as much: "This is by far the most accomplished and affecting work from the gifted Mr. Guirgis." Another critic called the tale of three addicts, some sober, some not, "a slice of hard life that's as provocative as it is absorbing." Those who weren't as won over by the words cheered the cast. People were split on box-office draw Chris Rock. He either gave a solid Broadway debut, or was miscast and in over his head. But co-stars Bobby Cannavale and Elizabeth Rodriguez were dynamite. Particularly Cannavale, who was called "outstanding" and "blazingly good" as a man doing his best to keep off the booze while in a combustive relationship with a unapologetic user.

There was also praise for director Anna D. Shapiro, who after this and August: Osage County, is looking like a very dependable choice for hard-hitting, Broadway drama.

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The smash hit of last week, the new Roundabout Theatre Company production of Cole Porter's (and six, count 'em, six librettists') Anything Goes, which was launched as a limited run through July, announced it would cruise longer than expected — to January 2012.

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Samuel L. Jackson is the latest movie star to book his Broadway debut. This fall, he will portray none other than the late Dr. Martin Luther King in Katori Hall's Olivier Award-winning The Mountaintop, directed by Kenny Leon (Fences, A Raisin in the Sun), a man who has shown himself skilled in guiding film actors through their Broadway forays.

Performances will begin Sept. 22 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Although it had been rumored that Halle Berry would also star in the production, she will be unable to do so because of — and here's a reason you don't hear every day — "child custody issues," according to a press statement. The play takes place on April 3, 1968, the night before Dr. King's assassination. The role of Camae, a mysterious maid at the Lorraine Motel, will be announced shortly.

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Summer 2011 will be another Summer of Love for New York's Public Theater. The Tony-winning revival of Hair, which has been on a national tour, will return to Broadway for a short stay, July 5-Sept. 10 at the St. James Theatre.

Following its limited summer engagement, the tour will continue across the country.

Annabella Sciorra, Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Yul Vazquez and Chris Rock
Annabella Sciorra, Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Yul Vazquez and Chris Rock
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