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Theatre in Review: Broadway and the Bard (Theatre Row)

Len Cariou. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The other night at Theatre Row -- quite unexpectedly -- I fell into a time warp. It happened when Len Cariou began to sing "There's Always One You Can't Forget." He had introduced the number -- music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner -- in the musical Dance a Little Closer, which opened and closed on the same night in 1983. (During its brief run, it was known to Shubert Alley wags as Close a Little Faster.) In truth, it was indescribable -- ask me sometime about the ice-skating gay airline pilots -- but it had a score of some quality, with some genuine beauties. "There's Always One You Can't Forget" is one of them, and, although I have long enjoyed the cast album, I never, ever imagined that I would hear Cariou reprise it; for a minute, the years vanished as the actor once again invested Lerner's words with a devastating sense of loss and yearning. Even if among the millions who never saw Dance a Little Closer, I'm betting that you'll feel the magic.

If the rest of Broadway and the Bard were of this quality, I'd be busy rustling up superlatives, but much of the time this is one of the season's odder entertainments. Playing to his two great strengths, as a classical actor and a musical theatre star (Applause, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd), Cariou and his collaborators, Barry Kleinbort and Mark Janas, have devised an evening that pairs famous passages from Shakespeare with Broadway show tunes. To everyone's credit (with one or two exceptions), the obvious is avoided, skipping over shows overtly drawn from Shakespeare; still, this doesn't begin to explain a program that consists of so many apples-and-oranges pairings. What does Henry V's big Act III speech ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends") have to do with the title tune from Applause? ("What is it that we're living for? Applause, Applause!") Why is one of Lear's rages at his treacherous, tiger-like daughters ("Reason not the need") paired with "Reviewing the Situation," Fagin's comic Act II showstopper from Oliver!? "There's Always One You Can't Forget" is part of a medley that follows Marc Antony's funeral oration. The others are "Sometimes a Day Goes By" from Woman of the Year and, of all things, "Something Wonderful" from The King and I. Truly, it's a puzzlement.

On the other hand, one of Petruchio's speeches from The Taming of the Shrew is imaginatively followed by "How to Handle a Woman," from Camelot. Cariou and company surely must know that the obvious choice is "Where is the Life That Late I Led?" from Kiss Me, Kate; it's a neat case of expectations subverted. And the combination of Jacques' "Seven Ages of Man" speech and Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "September Song" provides one of the evening's real grace notes. Cariou's readings of the Shakespeare passages are unfailingly lucid; unsurprisingly, perhaps, the septuagenarian actor is at his best in the more autumnal passages, especially Prospero abjuring "this rough magic" near the end of The Tempest. He also tells a funny story about the director Michael Langham informing him it was time to start taking on character roles, such as Lear -- Cariou was 35 at the time -- but his reading of Lear's speech startlingly evokes the terrors of the earth.

There is a significant problem, however, that can't be wished away. Cariou's voice, which once generated spinal shivers when scaling the near-operatic heights of Sweeney Todd, is seriously diminished and he spends much of the evening pushing it to places it has no business going. As long as he sticks to his middle and lower ranges and relies on his marvelous interpretive abilities, he's fine, but when he heads too far up the scale or tries for big, belting finales, the results are often painful. More than once, at the performance I attended, he went blatantly off pitch. And, at least once, he wasn't totally on top of the lyrics: this was in "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," from Kiss Me, Kate, a number that proves to be a surprisingly unsuitable fit with the rest of the program. I don't think I've ever seen a performer get so little comic zest out of Cole Porter's supremely risqué lyrics.

Kleinbort, who also directed, provides fluent piano accompaniment. The rest of the production is solid. Josh Iocavelli's simple, attractive backstage set is just right and Matt Berman provides fine lighting (including some sinister uplighting looks for Iago) and sound design. At nearly 77, Cariou remains one busy actor, regularly appearing in the CBS series Blue Bloods and also offering a sharply etched cameo as Cardinal Bernard Law in the Oscar-nominated film Spotlight, so we're unlikely to get him in anything but this sort of briefly running special-material revue. So, I suppose, we must take our pleasures where we can. Broadway and the Bard certainly has its pleasures, but not nearly as many as I had hoped for. -- David Barbour

(5 February 2016)

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