Intermission Talk

Can “Cher” and the “Maestro”

Find the “Choir Boy” Visiting

“The Waverly Gallery?”


What does one plus one plus another one equal?  Add in another two.  Answer:  no one can count that high.

But here are the components: a play that should be on anyone’s ‘best of the season’ list.  Careful, metered direction.  And a dream cast, with each character given a just-right combination of highs and lows when called-for.  An old adage that covers all aspects of a successful play and production proclaims “if it’s on the page, it needs to be on the stage.”   This time, it’s the latest Kenneth Lonergan play “The Waverly Gallery.” [ He was, to be fair, collecting his Oscar for best screenplay, for the riveting “Manchester by the Sea.”]  Similar to his other great theatre work, this one zooms in on a rather small story, with just a few characters.  And similar to other Lonergan gems, such as  “Lobby Hero” and “This is Our Youth,” “The Waverly Gallery” allows us to drop in on a situation that may sound not especially engaging or stoked with enough ‘basics’ to hold our attention.  Its spot-on casting perfectly weds actor to role. And the masterful direction comes from its keen, very resourceful direction by Lila Neugebauer, who extracts every bit of substance a play needs.

And that second grade arithmetic question at the top?  It refers to the kind of ensemble interplay that any playwright prays for.  Gathered together to discuss the fate of a small, modest but respected Greenwich Village art gallery are three generations of the family who have given the place its respect, even when hard times nearly called for posting a closing sign on the door.  It was carved out of a space not suited for many uses, since it extends out from the first floor of a hotel.  This time, such a sign will announce that the gallery will be shuttered in a month’s time, because it has been rented all these dozens of years by Gladys Green and her now-deceased husband.  She is now in her eighties, a factor that complicates the proceedings as much as the firm decision by the landlord to convert it into a sort of breakfast nook.  And there’s also the absence of art lovers who no longer make it a regular place to visit when hunting down new talent.

What’s not new is the combined talent of the place’s main decision-makers, Gladys [Elaine May], her daughter Ellen [Joan Allen] and her grandson Daniel, [Lucas Hedges].   This trifecta of acting talents provides “The Waverly Gallery” with one of the most engrossing ensembles on view at the Golden Theatre.  Don’t put off taking it in before it’s gone.

Elaine May, now 86 and just as sharp and biting as she was as half the legendary ‘Nichols and May’ comedy team about half a century ago.  When the duo broke up in the early sixties, Mike went forward as an award-winning stage and film director, while Elaine remained almost unseen and unheard of, in rare acting and directing gigs on screen [one of the better examples was “A New Leaf”].  As Gladys, Elaine May returns to the stage, bringing with her four score’s worth of know-how when it comes to the requirements needed to meld solid moments of laughter with the over-arching presence of pathos.  Her Gladys is almost peerless when it comes to performances that are long-remembered after the play where it’s on view closes.  Here is a woman whose back story includes service as a lawyer while managing the gallery’s business.

As her daughter Ellen, Joan Allen turns in another performance that manages to balance light moments when she tries to convince Gladys that this deadline is real, with a just the right dose of the grim inevitability that the gallery, and her mother, must now suffer through.  The situation becomes all the more critical when Ellen must glide over her own fears that she may be headed for the same double trouble that has crippled her mother – fading memory and the dwindling of her hearing. Unlike so many actors, Allen has conquered the tendency that afflicts a large number of her cohorts – telegraphing a seemingly unavoidable development waiting in the wings for the moment when her character reveals the true consequences of the eviction.  It gives her Ellen room, consciously or not, to deal with the ever-changing realities she is expected to address.  Bringing to life the bottom third of this family ‘triangle,’ she constructs the foundation on which this small-details, large-impact set of  happenings must rest.

And the youngest of the three, Ellen’s son Daniel refuses to assume what his mother has accepted as inevitable, the closing of the gallery and with it, the ‘place’ where his grandmother becomes a woman with a rich history, but no real future.  Lucas Hedges makes Daniel’s plight nearly unavoidable.  Ellen’s decision spearheads a sharp turn in her son’s future, as well as this actor’s own life’s fortunes.  This character, struggling to navigate his boulder-strewn  pathway, played out on stage eight times a week, offers a close-up look at why Hedges has skyrocketed to the A-list of actors in a space of less than two years.  His Oscar-nominated work in “Manchester by the Sea” two seasons ago came at the start of a rich bounty of roles for Hedges to show off his wide range of skills.  About the time that the Oscar role was starting to be seen, Hedges, in the off-Broadway spiky drama “Yen,” undertook the harrowing mind-set facing a teen-ager trying to keep his life free of the influences that overtook him, coming as it were from the death or absence of both parents, while minding the meltdown of his brother, in their comic book, video games and hard drugs existence.  And seemingly in the blink of an eye, Hedges tackled the gripping fate of two other movie roles of teen-agers confronting addiction, in “Boy Erased” and “Ben is Back,” either of which should give him another Oscar nomination.

Lonergan’s  playscript, helmed by Neugebauer’s directorial mastery, results in one of the best stage productions of the year, which must be seen, providing as it does with an opportunity to see again [or for the first time] the vivid character development of Elaine May, and another chance to see Joan Allen on stage, even as her Oscar nominations continue to grow.

The race race is on.  Eager to capitalize on the country’s short attention-span when it comes to serious issues, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” returns to the New York stage, having been previously presented by them off-Broadway in 2013.  Little has changed since that playscript was last produced.  Taking place in an exclusive Harlem boys prep school, it centers itself on the choir, where competition to become its coveted next lead singer leads the group into a clash of values between two camps, when the obvious candidate Phalus, whose mostly unacknowledged homosexuality provokes clashes between him and his allies, and the boys who need to enforce their own ideas about masculinity.   Pharus, the stand-out singer performed by the stand-out performance from Jeremy Pope, relies on his vocal acumen to carry him through the tough times when confrontations escalate from the verbal to the physical.  Pharus has, in his corner , his straight, tough-as-nails roommate  Anthony, the ideal supporter someone like Pharus dreams of having.  The sides are not an even match.  When Bobby [J. Quinton Johnson]  the son of the school’s headmaster [Chuck Cooper]  inserts himself into the challenge, the stakes get higher  It is decided that one way to cool down the heated atmosphere is to present seminars on ‘thinking, and to call in, out of retirement, a well-respected former teacher, named Mr. Pendleton.   The role is portrayed by the veteran actor Austin Pendleton.  As Jack Paar would have labeled this writer’s choice of names for the character –  ‘I kid you not.’], to conduct a session on ‘thinking.’  However much the well-intentioned but out-of-touch with today’s issues  he may be, his esteem has not bestowed on him the kind of influence that is hoped-for.

The gripping realities of these kinds of conflicts are only depicted in connect-the-dots plot points, that are obvious to us, but not to the headmaster.  There are great musical moments, courtesy of Jason Michael Webb [music direction, arrangements and original music] and Camille A. Brown [choreography], displaying both the character’s belief in the universality of the power of music and song to lift up a person’s spirit, and the strength of this cast, particularly Mr. Pope.  The contrast between those moments, and the all-too-obvious directing choices of director Trip Cullman, make the disparity clear.

For those who need to find a confirmation of their own anti-racism, “Choir Boy” satisfies that need in an easy-to-take outing at the Friedman Theatre.   Others would not leave the theatre with any greater understanding of, or any deeper discoveries about racism.

A unique type of challenge exists for any creative team assuming the task of bringing to the stage the life, talents and times of acknowledged icons.   In large measure the burden  lands on the shoulders of the lead performer.  Currently, two figures being canonized this way are composer/conductor Arturo Toscanini, in “Maestro” and singer/actress Cher, in “The Cher Show.”  In deference to the fact that Toscanini has passed away, we take a look first at “Maestro.”

There is an inherent, big problem facing anyone looking either to introduce, or to enhance the life of any artist, because of the private personalities many artists possess.  In the case of Toscanini, that problem is even more of an issue, because the expression of his artistry goes largely unseen.  In an odd parallel, Toscanini’s life and work mirror that of a great painter, whose final ‘product’ can be seen as it hangs on the wall of a museum, or even in its reproduction on the printed page.  Here, the central character’s contribution can be detected by the very educated few who understand the kind of undertaking Toscanini excelled at – they would be able to detect the influence a conductor has when a particular piece he has charge of is performed, and to a lesser degree, when it has been captured on a recording.

Eve Wolf’s text plays out on an intimate set consisting of a comfortable, yet traditional living room setting, constructed to give a grand piano the prominent feature.  Three Victrolas, and a few chairs ring the perimeter.  This collection of pieces takes up about three-fourths of the stage at the Duke on west 42nd street.  The remaining stage space  suggests a performing area where a recording can be captured.   Musicians who contribute live excerpts of famous compositions are violinists Mari Lee, Henry Lang and Matthew Cohen, along with Ari Evan on cello, Maximilian Morel on trumpet and at the piano, Zhenni Li. Portraying the maestro is John Noble.

Drawing from letters, newspaper and magazine articles and other writings about him, Wolf has stitched together moments of professional triumph, and personal challenge.  We do get a sense of this tortured period, when his enduring romance with pianist Aida Mainardi, during the 1930s and 1940s unfolds.  She was thirty years his junior.  To the great disappointment of someone looking to learn about and understand his intimate trials, her words are not heard or spoken.  The same can be said of his wife, to whom he was married during that entire period.

The maestro’s influence is here presented with sections of recordings, and some live performances by the above-named musicians.  Included in the playlist are sections of the works of Verdi, Finzi, Respighi, Wagner and Gershwin.

It requires a truly cultured palette to discern which meals have been prepared by a master chef, from those that have been assembled by one with fewer talents.  So too are the periods of Toscanini’s work when he did, or did not display the kind of virtuosity that the honorific ‘maestro’ has earned.

Is there another way to depict the life and times of someone who has risen to the peak of her/his world?  Sure there is, if the product is a book by Rick Elice, along with music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Daryl Waters, and choreography by Christopher Gattelli.  Face the facts.  In this case, if you are charged with creating a musical about Cher, acknowledge that she has had a few outstanding careers, depending on which part of her life you want to display.  Cher, as seen in “The Cher Show,” first came to the public’s attention while still a teenager, as the distaff half of the chart-topping pair of Sonny and Cher.  The public did not abandon her when she split, publicly and privately with Sonny Bono.  They heralded a new conquest by Cher when, in 1982, she took on a lead role in Broadway’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”  She took on other acting roles, the most famous of them in her Academy Award winning performance as best actress in “Moonstruck.”  Even more milestones were heralded, including the world-wide controversial video in the 1980s ,”If I Could Turn Back Time.”  But there was more.  Her major hit “Believe” became a must-play in the disco world, launching a three-year, worldwide tour.

How to cover all these victories in one show?  The decision?  Have the lead role of Cher played by three different women.  Broadway veteran Stephanie J. Block, buttressed by Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond, give audiences the opportunity of seeing Cher at all the high points in her seemingly never-ending career.

Jarrod Spector as Sonny Bono and Emily Skinner as Cher’s mother fill out the other major personalities in her life.  And Jason Moore’s direction provides us with the playful experience of turning back time, complete with the music that has woven itself through the decades.  Normally, few credits acknowledge the contribution of the person overseeing the costume decisions.  Here, the contributions of famed designer Bob Mackie are just as important as any of the show’s other creatives.   They also chose to insert a short nod to Cher’s welcoming advice from another true performing arts America icon, Lucille Ball.  Cher welcomed Lucy’s advice at the advent of her solo act playing Las Vegas.

Be clear about this basic fact: all these A-list people were given the challenge of dramatizing a true American icon.  In addition to numerous Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards, she took home an Oscar.  Her singular accomplishments were recognized when, in 2018, the Kennedy Center selected her as an honoree.  It’s a good thing the Pulitzer people don’t have a category that Cher could be considered for.

After Play

It was during his early days producing, writing for and directing theatre pieces  that laid the groundwork for Orson Welles to create his matchless success in the world of film, and Frank Beacham and George Demas have collaborated on a piece that explores the final days of his career.  “Maverick” will have its world premiere presented by Pam Carter and the Cliplight Theatre at the Connelly Theater, 220 east 4th street, between Avenues A and B.  Previews begin on February 6, with an opening date set for February 13, ending on March 2.  Details are available at . . . HERE [145 Sixth Avenue] plays host to the world premiere of “Between the Threads,” from January 18 through February 10, a theatre piece about Jewish women in America, exploring their relationship to their Judaism.  The work will be performed, and was co-created by Zoa Aqua, Hannah Goldman, Lea Kilisch, Luisa Muhr, Daniella Seidl and Laura Lassy Townsend.   Performance schedule and production details are available at

TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” was a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  He has written nine other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” with Misha Piatigorsky, for Anthony Rapp.  He has written other books, and numerous magazine and newspaper articles for publications, including Parade, the Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics, USA Today, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, the Whole Earth Catalog and Reader’s Digest, among others.  His work was featured in the final edition of the Whole Earth Catalog.  He has taught theatre-related courses at HB Studio, the 92nd Street Y, Columbia University’s Teachers’ College and other institutions.


CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at, the Carmel App, and 212 – 666 – 6666.




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