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Three shows — three very different experiences
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
War Horse is, quite simply, a theatrical masterpiece. Adapted from a fairly conventional young people’s novel at times a little long on sentiment, the result is one of the most stirring and affecting theatrical achievements of this — or any recent — season.
It is the story of a boy who loves a horse. And when the boy’s greedy father sells the horse to the army as England is entering World War I, the boy enlists to find his horse and bring him home. It is a story of dedication, loyalty, and, above all, the triumph of the human spirit.
It is also a stirring and visceral exploration of the ravages of war as Joyce, the horse, touches many lives on his epic journey. In fact, this is a classic epic tale, and it’s no wonder Stephen Spielberg will be coming out with the movie. Think “Saving Private Ryan,” but with a horse.
The accessibility and direct storytelling in the adaptation by Nick Stafford is only the starting point. When the simple and familiar story is brought to life under the brilliant direction of Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris with the Handspring Puppets Company, what unfolds is a spectacular world that is staggering for its theatricality and has a scope that has seldom been seen on stage.
From the first moments, when the foal Joey becomes Albert Narracott’s horse, to the last moments, when the journey finally ends, one’s heart is constantly engaged. That a scene with two puppets alone on the stage can have an audience on the edge of its seats speaks not only to the skill and artistry of the performers but also to the power of theater to move and engage.
The cast members are all outstanding, but the real stars of this show are the designers — Rae Smith (sets), Paul Constable (lights), and Christopher Shutt (sound). With music by Adrian Sutton and songs by John Tams, this is a total theatrical triumph you will never forget.
What’s it worth to you to see a movie star on stage? That’s really the question if you’re considering ponying up a C-Note, or more, to see the revival of “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Seeing Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, is the marketing hook for this production, which — amazing sets (Derek McLane), lighting (Howell Binkley), and costumes (Catherine Zuber) aside — is a workmanlike, if enthusiastic, remounting of the 1961 musical, which for some reason I can’t fathom won the Pulitzer.
Radcliffe sings, dances, and acts with inarguable earnestness, but little else. His portrayal of J. Pierrepont Finch falls flat; he certainly has the insinuating charm of a young striver, but it is plain vanilla without any complexity. He shows off none of the Machiavellian impulses that add texture and tension to the character and could make an audience find him irresistible even as he does creepy and underhanded things on his climb from window-washer to boardroom.
Nor does Radcliffe have the vocal technique to put over the songs, and his dancing hits the marks but is mechanical.
Still, for teenyboppers, of any age, who want to scream in the presence of a pop icon, screen star power, even if it doesn’t radiate over the footlights, this, apparently, is sufficient. Radcliffe, who is very young and was exceptional in “Equus,” may yet find the song-and-dance man inside him.
Given the muted central character, the rest of the production flagged, with nothing to create palpable conflict. Rosemary, the young woman who sets her cap for Finch because she sees he’s going places, becomes a lovesick teenager swooning over a cute boy. Rose Hemingway does a nice job with the part, but robbed of her darker motivations, the role makes little sense.
Bud Frump, the boss’s nephew, trying to use his connections to get ahead, is Finch’s foil, but here is reduced to being silly and clownish. The very talented Christopher J. Hanke is completely wasted in a performance that’s beneath him.
Director and choreographer Rob Ashford gets credit for the big, bright, and exuberant production, but he’s done the show a disservice by robbing it of its dramatic tension or developing the characters in any but the most superficial ways.
To be blunt, Ashford has taken the sex out of it on every level and given us the kind of pretty but bland show one would more expect to see targeting kids on the Disney Channel. That’s not the show written by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert,
Mike Birbiglia has to be one of the most charming and appealing young comedians working today. His new show, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” is an absolute treat — sweet, hilarious, and endearing — as he chronicles his bumpy romantic road. Well, not so much bumpy as scrambled. One of the central stories in the show is the description of a high school date replete with junk food that ended on a ride called the Scrambler, with predictable results. Birbiglia not only tells the story, he acts it out in a way that has one howling and a little queasy.
Birbiglia’s timing is perfect, his writing sensitive, and his trials as a sometimes hapless but always-hopeful romantic are universal. As with his previous show “Sleepwalk with Me,” which chronicled his bouts with insomnia, Birbiglia speaks to anyone who has battled with the baffling and insane trials of life, but keeps coming back for more.
Vivan Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 W. 45th St.
Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri., Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.
MY GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow St., btwn. Seventh Ave. S. & W. Fourth St.
Through May 15
Wed.-Sun. at 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun. at 4 p.m.