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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Most theatergoers know the story of Joe Bonaparte the young man with a golden touch on the fiddle as well as in the boxing ring and Lorna Moon, "the dame from Newark" he falls in love with through the film that made William Holden a star. Since it's available at Netflix and Turner Network was smart enough to schedule a replay on Lincoln Center's opening night that jewel of the black and white movie days may be fresh enough in your memory for you to compare the stage and film version and see if Sher's production now at the original stage production's home, the Belasco, retained some of the especially pungent bits of dialogue.
Sher's Golden Boy makes the three hours and two intermissions go by faster than some 90-minute shows I've seen. It's grittier and with more of Odets' political sensibility courtesy of Joe Bonoparte's labor organizer brother Frank and an ending less true to the '30s movie moguls' insistence on a "they lived happily ever" fadeout. But, yes, Lorna still snaps at the gangster Fuseli's "Is this your girl? with "I'm my mother's girl" and Siggie, Joe's taxi driver wise-cracking brother-in-law still declares "You can't insult me; I'm too ignorant!"
Good as Holden and Barbara Stanwick's Joe and Lorna and everyone else in that golden oldie movie were, there's nothing like seeing this story about staying true to oneself live — especially when supported by the resources to tell that story with a big cast of 19 top drawer actors, and spectacularly inventive and effective scenery (Michael Yeargan deserves his own standing ovation! — as do Donald Holder for his wizardly lighting and Catherine Zuber for the period perfect costumes for the gorgeous Yvonne Strahovski, the Bonapartes, their friends, as well as the various strivers and hoods).
In case you're unfamiliar with the story, it begins on the eve of Joe Bonaparte's twenty-first birthday. For his father it's the occasion to give him the fine violin which he scrimped and saved to buy for his future as a musician. For Joe it means going full steam ahead to make the most of his other talent, prize fighting which represents the chance for a surer and quicker way of big time success. Naturally the boxing career wins out . After all there's no way to use a fiddle to vent his s anger at people who made him feel diminished over the years or fiddle his way into a world that moves fast and where people don't "sit around like forgotten dopes." life where people who lead what he sees as a riher life, boxing wins out. Naturally too, it means a break with his father and eventually the pursuit of glory, power and money ends up crippling his finer, more authentic self. (As John Lahr notes in an article in the Lincoln Center Theater Review, his very name symbolizes the split between Joe's good and his flawed sight — bon-a-parte, as in part good and "good apart")
As the young doubly gifted but forced to choose violinist turned boxer, Seth Numrich, the young hero of War Horse, is no look and sound alike William Holden (or Luther Adler, the original stage Joey or John Garfield, in a later production). He brings a fine scrappy persona and accident, and great physical grace and emotional depth to the role. And this production's Lorna Moon, the blonde and new to Broadway Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski, is a real knockout, both in terms of her looks and acting. Her Lorna evokes memories of Born Yesterday's Billy Dawn and she and Numrich are terrific together, especially in the scenes on a park bench when their vulnerabilities are exposed.
Despite Joe's breaking from parental influence, the loving father remains in the picture to watch out for him and Bonaparte senior is touchingly portrayed, but not with syrupy excess by Tony Shalhoub who even manages to make the heavy accent real rather than overcooked. The cast is too large to give individual praise to all, though Danny Mastrogiorgio as Tom Moody and Danny Burstein as Tokio, as Joe's empathetic trainer are standouts.
To my previous praises for the scenic, lighting and costume designers, a shout out should be added for Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg's sound design. The incidental music makes even the between scenes pauses lively and enjoyable. If you add up the cost of a ticket for three of today's fashionably short Broadway offerings, Golden Boy is not only one of the best plays currently on offer, but the best bang for your buck.
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