PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 9-15: The Bard Takes Broadway, 700 Sundays and Little Miss Sunshine Open and Rebecca Lawsuit Continues

By Robert Simonson
November 15, 2013

If you like Shakespeare and live in New York, you are an exceedingly happy camper this autumn.



More than any other season in recent memory, New York stages — on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in Brooklyn — are replete with titles by the Bard. And not just productions — great productions, brimming with invention and expertise.

Opened so far this fall is the Donmar Warehouse's all-female, prison-set Julius Caesar, which was presented by St. Ann's Warehouse; and director Julie Taymor's triumphant return to classical theatre with a visually stunning mounting of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opened Theatre For a New Audience's new Brooklyn, home. Both were given the critics' full-hearted stamp of approval. (The David Leveaux rendition of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway was not as lucky with critics; nor was Tea Alagic's version of the same play at Classic Stage Company. But, hey, it was nice to have two simultaneously playing Romeos in town anyway.)

Still to come is the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke and directed by Jack O'Brien; it is now in previews.

This week, however, saw what will likely emerge as the crowning glories of this Bard-olific season: The Shakespeare's Globe's all male, in-rep productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, starring Mark Rylance as Richard III and Olivia. The actors all played in period-correct costuming, right down to their undergarments; the musical accompaniment came courtesy of medieval instruments; the stage was a mock-up of one Queen Elizabeth might have seen; and some of the lighting was provided by six chandeliers filled with lit candles. And the critics were enchanted by it all — the across-the-board fine acting not the least.

The New York Times' Ben Brantley's reaction to Twelfth Night — "I can't remember being so ridiculously happy for the entirety of a Shakespeare performance" — pretty much summed up the critics' assessment." "It's hard to imagine six more exciting hours of vital, emotionally and intellectually engaging theater, even for those of us who have at times felt bom-Barded by Shakespeare overload," observed The Hollywood Reporter.

The Daily News pointed out that the plays' attractions went well beyond star Rylance: "It takes more than one great actor to make Shakespeare really click. Rylance is surrounded by a sublime company, who move seamlessly between the plays." And the New York Post highlighted the appeal of the repertory aspect, saying, "Twelfth Night is the better show, but seeing both productions lets you watch the actors slip into completely different roles. You're not just going to the theater — you're experiencing what makes it magic. "

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Also unveiled this week was the second Broadway go-round of stage and screen star Billy Crystal's ode to his late father, 700 Sundays, which officially opened at the Imperial Theatre Nov. 13 at 7 PM following previews that began Nov. 5.

Bernadette Peters
Photo by Joan Marcus
The varied critical reaction seemed an affirmation of the old adage, "If you like this sort of thing, this might be the sort of thing you like." AM New York called it a "heartwarming and hilarious tour de force" and declared that "one anecdote may start your waterworks flowing, even while you're doubled over in laughter," while the New York Times said "the show rambles for two-and-a-half easy-to-trim hours" and the Hollywood Reporter remarked cynically, that "It can't be said that Billy Crystal doesn't know his audience. They eat up his menu of Jews, jazz and baseball, wrapped in Catskills-inspired comedy and heartfelt Mom-and-Pop sentiment."

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A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair, a unusual collaboration between musical theatre titan Stephen Sondheim and jazz musician-composer Wynton Marsalis, began its limited engagement at New York City Center Nov. 13. Directed by John Doyle, the Encores! special event starred Bernadette Peters, Norm Lewis and Jeremy Jordan, among others.

Opinions on the success of the experiment were split. USA Today was generally pleased, saying, "Under Marsalis' guidance, and that of conductor/music supervisor David Loud, the musicians all mine the playfulness, passion and poignance of the material." But the New York Times commented that, "In general, the mission of this diverting but very awkward special Encores! production, a collaboration between Encores! at City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center, seems to be to unbutton and unbend the work of the greatest precisionist of all Broadway songwriters. And while I've heard individual cabaret performers successfully take a similar approach, this particular meeting of great talents rarely finds compelling common ground." And the New York Post called the execution "timid — even, at times, downright bland."

All the critics, however, liked the work of performer Cyrille Aimee. "As is, Aimee is the revelation," wrote The Daily News. "This French jazz singer's voice has so much character that all her songs fly — especially 'You Could Drive a Person Crazy.' At one point, she agilely scats and music director Wynton Marsalis echoes her voice with his trumpet. Two words for the moment: totally jazzed."

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Second Stage's production of Little Miss Sunshine, the new musical comedy by William Finn and James Lapine, based on the 2006 road-trip comedy film of the same name, officially opened Off-Broadway Nov. 14.

While the critiques ranged from mildly good to mixed to bad, the general attitude of the reviews was one of disappointment.

Hannah Rose Nordberg and Will Swenson
Photo by Joan Marcus
Newsday was among the most pleased: "The result may not be as deep and daring as Falsettos or as blissfully improbable as Spelling Bee. But the 100-minute chamber musical is an ingenious, jaunty, sweet but not sticky sweet invention that honors the hit movie while, unlike so many adaptations, happily justifies its life on the stage."

For others, however, the show suffered by comparison to those previous efforts. "This limp musical retread of the 2006 indie comedy about a dysfunctional family's healing road trip refuses to take us on any kind of journey," said The Hollywood Reporter. "Given that composer William Finn and writer-director James Lapine previously collaborated on such oddball delights as Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, this stubbornly charmless show is a sad letdown." The New York Times concurred: "Neither gravely disappointing nor entirely rewarding, the musical coasts along perkily as it follows a dysfunctional family on a cross-country journey of emotional renovation."

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It's been a while since we've had a new chapter in the legal morass that is the misbegotten, would-be production of the musical Rebecca. But we got one this week.

Broadway press agent Marc Thibodeau has filed a countersuit against the producers of the much-delayed musical. Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza, producers of the troubled show, filed suit against Thibodeau earlier this year for scaring off an angel investor. As previously reported, the suit states that Thibodeau sent "disturbing and malicious emails" from two email addresses that pointed the anonymous angel to published reports of fraud involving some of the investors behind the show and characterized the project as a bad investment.

Thibodeau's countersuit against Sprecher and Forlenza, filed Nov. 12, claims breach of contract, unjust enrichment and fraud. Thibodeau states that he was never paid for his work and continued to represent Rebecca on good faith.

Long Island businessman Mark Hotton, who was charged by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office with defrauding producers Sprecher and Forlenza by fraudulently floating the prospect of $4.5 million in investments, pled guilty earlier this year. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently cleared Sprecher and Forlenza of any wrongdoing in their financial dealings. A judge also dismissed Sprecher and Florenza's claims against Thibodeau of fiduciary duty. They continue to pursue their charges of defamation and breach of contract against their former press rep.

And, yes, Sprecher and Forlenza are still hoping for a fall 2014 Broadway arrival for Rebecca.