Kevin Kline and Michael Hayden in Henry IV(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Kevin Kline and Michael Hayden in Henry IV
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
When it comes to folks who bring Shakespeare to New York stages, we are wont to say that they doth produce too much. After all, how many times do we really want to see Hamlet or another dozen or so of his plays? It's "Avon Calling" way too often. We make this comment because we wanted to place our Bard cards on the table before reporting that there are two plays currently on the boards, one by the Bard and the other about him, that we simply adore.

Lincoln Center's production of Henry IV is sumptuous and star-powered. If every Shakespeare production had this kind of talent and gloss, both the theatrical intelligentsia and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd would stand shoulder to shoulder demanding, "Bring on Timon of Athens!" As adapted by Dakin Matthews, the text of Henry IV is tight and fluid. In the hands of director Jack O'Brien, the action is as visual and visceral as it is verbal. The thrilling battle sequences in the second act are some of the most ingeniously imagined works of stagecraft we've seen in a very long time. Flags seemingly appear out of nowhere and then whip across the stage; the sense of armies clashing is palpable. From heroic set designs by Ralph Funicello to dramatic lighting effects by Brian MacDevitt, the production has a definite grandeur about it.

Of course, nothing drives a New York theatergoer to see Shakespeare more readily than the buzz that it's a tough ticket. Cast Kevin Kline, Ethan Hawke, and Audra MacDonald (just to name a few) in the same production and you won't find a discounted ticket this side of Ramapo. Kline has the gift of delivering Shakespeare's lines with the aplomb of a Brit but with the added dimension of American ease and accessibility; his Falstaff is a marvel of mirthful mendacity. Ethan Hawke as the tempestuous Hotspur doesn't sound one whit like a Brit but he brings such a fierce energy to the role that he demands your attention. None of the women have large roles, but MacDonald does get off one great speech as Lady Percy. If Michael Hayden as Hal, son of Henry IV, is somewhat bland, Richard Easton as his father captures the flawed nature of the King without ever losing the man's regal bearing. There is talk of this production being extended through mid-January; if another block of tickets becomes available, don't hesitate.

Mary Louise Wilson and Mark Harelikin The Beard of Avon
Mary Louise Wilson and Mark Harelik
in The Beard of Avon
One of the particular pleasures of Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon is that it makes fun of all things Shakespeare but it does so with a genuine love of his work. In other words, it manages to entertain folks like us who tend to feel bomBARDed by so much Shakespeare while joyfully celebrating the growth of a callow youth into a great artist.

In the most simplistic terms, The Beard of Avon is a cross between the movies Shakespeare in Love and The Front. It takes place as young Will Shakespeare (Tim Blake Nelson) leaves his wife, Anne Hathaway (Kate Kennings Grant), to run away to the theater; he wants to be an actor and he does have a gift for rhyming. A man at court, Edward De Vere (Mark Marelik), uses Will as a "beard" (a front) for his own plays. Thus, Shakespeare is given credit for De Vere's work, gaining fame but also finding his soul filled with the beauty of De Vere's poetry. His own creativity is unleashed as he learns craft from his mentor; the country bumpkin gradually develops into an artist, surpassing his teacher. Along the way, there is both merriment and meaning. This could have easily been a one-joke play but, instead, Freed has penned a work that careens from delicious silliness to poignancy, from clever gamesmanship to dramatic fervor.

Doug Hughes directs the New York Theatre Workshop production with a light and loving touch. Mark Harelik gives a comically dynamic performance as Edward de Vere, while Tim Blake Nelson somehow manages to seem both foolish and heroic at the same time; it's a brilliant performance. Among a large and talented supporting cast, Mary Louise Wilson is hilarious as Queen Elizabeth. The Beard of Avon is both the funniest and smartest new play in town.

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Andrea Marcovicci
Andrea Marcovicci
Hello, Classy!

The first words out of Andrea Marcovicci's mouth when she begins her new act at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room are "Hello, Class!" She knows that we've arrived to learn something about the Great American Songbook -- and, except for discovering sex, learning has never been so much fun. Your elective this semester at the University of Marcovicci is a course on the life and work of one of America's great composers: Marcovicci's show is titled If I Were A Bell: The Songs of Frank Loesser.

The syllabus for this course ranges from virtually unknown songs like "Doesn't That Mean Anything to You?" (Loesser/Emmerich), which the professor sings in a hilarious New York accent, to the evocatively romantic coupling of "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" and "I Wish I Didn't Love You So." Rare, indeed, is the number that doesn't score or the patter that doesn't deliver. As always, Marcovicci acts each song as if it's a mini-musical and connects with the audience so intimately that the class simply doesn't want to be dismissed.

Andrea Marcovicci built her cabaret career on the angst of broken hearts, unrequited love, and various and sundry mishaps of the heart, but followers of this delicate diva will have noted a certain mellowing over the last several years since the birth of her daughter. Ten years ago, the optimistic and playful nature of Frank Loesser's songs would have cut against her soul-suffering grain, but now she rings his tunes like so many bells. Helping her do so is musical director/pianist Shelly Markham, a perfect collaborator. For the first time in memory, Marcovicci is also employing a bass player, the talented Jared Egan.

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Sara Ramirez and Audra McDonaldin Bravo Bernstein!(Photo © Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
Sara Ramirez and Audra McDonald
in Bravo Bernstein!
(Photo © Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
Brush Up Your Bernstein

Musical Theatre Works tossed a benefit for itself and pegged its financial goals on the drawing power of Leonard Bernstein. Smart folks! Bernstein not only draws an audience of fans who love his music, he also draws talented performers who want to sing his works.

The combination of great music and great voices verged on nuclear when Audra MacDonald (she's everywhere!) performed "A Little Bit in Love" from Wonderful Town and David Miller, one of the Rodolfi in the recent Broadway production of La Bohème, performed "Maria" from West Side Story. David Hyde Pierce hosted the evening in hilarious fashion, insisting throughout that he has always wanted to play Bernardo in WSS. Lonny Price directed the show with great flair.

Talent flowed like wine as the show proceeded: Betty Buckley, Mary Testa, Judy Blazer, and Harolyn Blackwell were just some of the top-flight stars who gave of themselves for a worthy cause. Bravo Bernstein! proved once again that benefits are often the best shows that money can buy.

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[Ed. Note: Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, only one Siegel column will appear this week. Look for the next edition on Tuesday, December 2.]