Phylicia Rashad and company in Bernarda Alba
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Phylicia Rashad and company in Bernarda Alba
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Where Michael John LaChiusa goes, controversy follows. More than any other of today's musical theater composers, he's a love-him-or-hate him kind of guy -- and, strangely, his work tends to drive people back and forth between those two camps. This season, we're in the "love him" camp. We found LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See at The Public Theater to be bold and wonderfully theatrical. Now, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, he has enthralled us with Bernarda Alba, based on the classic play by Federico García Lorca.

While both shows deal with repressed passions exploding into violence, LaChiusa expresses himself through entirely different musical forms in each. See What I Wanna See is filtered through a fusion of Japanese motifs and film noir blues, while Bernard Alba pulsates with Spanish rhythms and flamenco fire. The latter musical also is notable for the signature stylishness of Graciela Daniele's fluid direction and choreography, Michael Starobin's brilliant orchestrations, Toni-Leslie James' stunning black costumes (her variations are sensational in their subtlety), Stephen Strawbridge's chiaroscuro lighting design, and Scott Stauffer's delicately understated sound design.

Best of all, there are the contributions of the 10 women who enact the story. If Phylicia Rashad is at times a little jarring as the repressive matriarch of the family, she nonetheless holds the center of the piece with her personal presence. The actresses playing the five daughters are each standouts. Nikki M. James is exciting as the rebellious youngest daughter. Sally Murphy looks just as Irish in this Spanish family as she did in Tevye's Jewish family on Broadway, but her crystalline soprano is innocence personified. Daphne Rubin-Vega (believe it or not, cast as the "ugly" daughter) is gripping. You can't take your eyes off Judith Blazer as the knowing, world-weary girl in the family. Saundra Santiago is heartbreaking as the oldest, in love with a man who wants her for her money.

Bernarda Alba does not have a score that you will hum when you leave the theater. It's an uncompromising dramatic piece that clearly divides both critics and audiences into two camps. But it will always have its devoted following.

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Lynn Cohen, Margot White, and Quincy Confoy in The Traveling Lady
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Lynn Cohen, Margot White,
and Quincy Confoy in
The Traveling Lady
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Traveling Right

Horton Foote's 1954 play The Traveling Lady was among the first works to put this now legendary playwright on the map. Now, it is being revived for the first time in New York at EST in a simple but sterling production that closes this weekend.

As always with Foote, the story is told in the silences between the lines. Indeed, there is little more than a simple plot with plainspoken folks. A young woman and her little daughter arrive in a small town. She's the devoted wife of a troubled young man, who is scheduled to be released from prison; while she waits for him, she is befriended by an older woman and her younger brother. Over the course of the evening, their lives change and unfold before our eyes.

The play is directed with appropriate simplicity by Marion Castleberry, and it features a luminous performance by Margot White as the play's lead character. Other standouts in the uniformly strong cast include Stan Denman as the decent and caring Slim, Lynn Cohen as the senile neighbor, and Frank Girardeau as the judge. This is a lovely, humanistic play -- and one worth catching if you can find the time.

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Robert Carlyle and Marisa Tomei in Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School
(Photo © Samuel Goldwyn Pictures)
Robert Carlyle and Marisa Tomei in
Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School
(Photo © Samuel Goldwyn Pictures)
Make Room for Ballroom

How could a film with the ridiculously unwieldy title of Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School fail to go unnoticed? Indeed, this new movie from Samuel Goldwyn Films, which is scheduled to open on March 31, won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. But it wins accolades from us because it is salted and peppered with great theater actors, including Marisa Tomei, John Goodman, Adam Arkin, Mary Steenburgen, and Camryn Manheim.

The movie tells the story of Frank (Robert Carlyle), who chances upon a car wreck on an open stretch of mountain highway. In the car, badly injured, is Steve (Goodman), who was on his way to see Lisa (Manheim), a woman he hasn't seen in 40 years. As kids they had agreed to meet on this night at Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School where they first fell in love. Steve gives Frank his ticket and tells him to go tell Lisa (Manheim) that he had tried to make it but couldn't. Isolated and alone since the death of his own wife, Frank agrees to go. And it's at the goofy and glorious school that he meets Meredith (Tomei) and comes to life again.

Discussing the film with Peter Goldwyn, Samuel Goldwyn Films' vice president of acquisition, we learned that this movie is based on an award-winning short film of the same name made in 1990 by the same writer/director, Randall Miller -- and that the original short is edited into the new feature film. In addition, you'll be pleased to know that there is plenty of ballroom dancing in the movie -- as well as lots of charm.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]