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YO, ADRIAN!

Ready for a fight to remember? Alex Timbers, known for his offbeat work with Les Freres Corbusier and the Tony-nominated rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, now brings his downtown sensibilities to Rocky on Broadway. Want to be ringside? Every day, a lottery for 20 Golden Circle seats opens two hours before showtime. If you win, you’ll get to sit in the bleachers onstage for the final match.

Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: Feb. 11. Continues through Aug. 17, 2014

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Love’s Labour’s Lost: Higher Education

Four ladies, four dudes, some wacky clowns, and lots of wordplay—sounds like a foolproof formula for Shakespearean comedy, right? In the case of Love’s Labour’s Lost, though, it’s not that simple: On its surface, the play is a love-fest celebrating youthful freedom and skewering self-righteous pedantry; underneath, it’s also quite self-conscious and dark. Characters are obsessed with their own character types, intricacies of language inspire lengthy digressions, and the ending veers abruptly away from the quadruple-wedding bonanza we’re led to expect. Too often, directors ignore the play’s minor key, trying to turn Love’s Labour’s Lost into the predictable rom-com it isn’t.

So it’s a delight that the Public’s new musical version—adapted and directed by Alex Timbers, with charming songs by Michael Friedman—engineers a true match between Shakespearean comedy and musical theater, without smothering the play’s pricklier parts. On the patio of a Poconos-style resort, the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker) holds a solemn ceremony with his best buddies Berowne (Colin Donnell), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham), and Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe). They’ve come to the country to fulfill a vow of scholarly self-denial, abstaining from romance, booze, and culinary indulgence, the better to bury themselves in books. But no sooner have they relinquished their Bud Lights than temptation comes traipsing up the lawn, in the form of four old flames: the Princess (Patti Murin) and her lovely sidekicks (Maria Thayer, Kimiko Glenn, and Audrey Lynn Weston). Will the boys maintain their studious remove, or surrender to hormonal thrills? More importantly, are love and intellect as incompatible as they seem?

Setting these high jinks at an elite college reunion—think Gossip Girl goes camping—provides endless opportunities for lampooning cushy dorm life, where academia battles hedonistic temptation. Adorno and Kierkegaard, cafeteria waffle stations, late nights, and unlimited supplies of pot are all entertainingly mocked. Two oblivious professor types, spewing unintelligible jargon on the sidelines of the plot, are hilarious, their convoluted chatter clashing with other characters’ modern speech (and their academic-regalia nightgowns are not to be missed). A frank romance between Spanish interloper Don Armado (Caesar Samayoa) and barmaid Jaquenetta (Rebecca Naomi Jones) contrasts poignantly with the upper class’s guarded flirtations—especially when Jaquenetta sings the evening’s darkest song, a brooding ballad titled “Love’s a Gun.”

Timbers weaves modern dialogue with Shakespeare’s original, steering us succinctly from one exuberant song to the next. Delicious group numbers illustrate the boys’ defections from scholarship to courtship, as they compose desperate love poems to their previously spurned maidens. Dumaine woos in Elizabethan garb, while Longaville’s passion finds form in a tap-dance spectacular. The girls are delightfully defiant, careening around in a golf cart armed with Slurpees to battle their ex-beaux. Best of all, musical theater’s embrace of the unsubtle allows for the theatrical self-consciousness that makes this play so smart. Rosaline, the Princess’s BFF, muses on the perils of always playing snarky sidekick—never romantic lead—while the whole cast reminds us that real-life stories don’t wrap up as tidily as plays.

Such total adaptation has its perils: Timbers slashes so much Shakespeare that it’s a joy when the actors actually speak it, and a reminder of the rich poetry we’re missing out on. Still, Friedman and Timbers gracefully capture the play’s important ideas—that intellect and passion aren’t enemies but mutually necessary—in highly enjoyable form, an all-inclusive theatrical vacation I’d happily take again.

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FINE ROMANCE

’Tis the season of class reunions, and the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is giving you a seat at a royal one. For this contemporary musical adaptation by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers (the team behind the rockin’ show Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), the action starts at the five-year college reunion of the king and his best friends, who make a pact to avoid the temptations of women. But whenfour pretty ladies from their past show up, all bets are off.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: July 23. Continues through Aug. 18, 2013

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ONCE IN A LIFETIME

If the shoe-obsessed Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos were able to attend David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s new musical about her life titled Here Lies Love, she’d probably wear fancy high heels for the occasion. But, for the rest of us, comfortable footwear will be more practical as the Public will be transformed into a dance club, where you will move with the actors as they play out the action in a 360-degree scenic and video environment. Big Dance Theater founder Annie-B Parson choreographs; Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) directs the party.

Mondays-Sundays. Starts: April 2. Continues through May 19, 2013

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Peter and the Starcatcher

Most boys have to grow up and most Broadway shows have to close. But just as Peter Pan managed to maintain eternal youth, this play, a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s story, has found a way to continue on, just down the block from Broadway at New World Stages. Alex Timbers and Roger Rees remount their inventive fairy tale.

Mondays, Wednesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: March 18. Continues through June 30, 2013

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NEVER GROW UP

How did Peter Pan learn to fly? How did Captain Hook lose his hand? Find out the answers when Obie winner Alex Timbers (director of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and actor-director-writer Roger Rees co-direct the prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic story Peter and the Starcatcher. Adapted from the book by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry, the story takes you on an adventure with Peter Pan and his wily gang of orphans as they gather something called “starstuff.” Though Disney is known for its grand musical productions, this is the first time the company is doing a stripped-down play with little scenery and a dozen actors playing roughly 50 characters. After all, bigger does not always mean better (ahem, Spider-Man).

Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m.; Tuesdays, 7 p.m. Starts: Feb. 18. Continues through April 3, 2011

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The Pee-Wee Herman Show and Elf Slide Onto Broadway

A TV show with a reputation besmirched by scandal has now been resurrected as a Broadway spectacle, The Pee-Wee Herman Show, whose titular manboy and cohorts closely reprise the tube version. The kitschy set dazzles the senses—actors pop from viaducts atop the proscenium, bejeweled boxes open and shut, marionettes descend from the flys. A turquoise chair with female eyes coquettishly waves its armrests, expressing pleasure at being sat upon.

Clad in his signature gray suit and bow tie, Paul Reubens’s Pee-Wee exudes puerile sarcasm, and the reiteration of famous quips—”I know you are but what am I?”—doubles our nostalgia, recalling both real childhood memories and remembrances of Pee-Wee Herman vehicles past.

Like its progenitor, this extravaganza, directed by Alex Timbers, is organized around episodes involving the inhabitants of “Puppetland,” though in this case, a faint throughline develops. The multicultural utopians with whom Pee-Wee interacts include a Latino electrician (Jesse Garcia) and an African-American cowboy (Phil LaMarr) with a white female love interest (Lynne Marie Stewart), who’s styled in a bouffant redolent of 1950s repression. Amid more random occurrences, like a disastrous attempt to deep-fry onion rings, Pee-Wee sacrifices his own dream of flight to ensure the happiness of this interracial relationship.

Reubens’s history provides subtext, priming viewers for masturbation humor. Jambi, a genie heretofore known as a disembodied head, mail-orders a set of hands, confessing, “There’s something I’ve always wanted to do!” Intriguingly, the risqué humor nods at the sensibility of the franchise’s original adult-oriented cable-TV incarnation. The baklava you could make from the bewildering layers of unreality at play in The Pee-Wee Herman Show could resurrect Baudrillard.

If Pee-Wee makes him too dizzy, take Baudrillard across Times Square for another jolt, the musical Elf—a similarly repurposed product, based on the 2003 Will Ferrell film.

This seasonal narrative also concerns an immature man, Buddy the Elf (Sebastian Arcelus, who, in keeping with the rest of the show, bursts with brazen enthusiasm). To call Buddy an elf is a misnomer, though; his excessive height stems from his human heritage. As a baby, he’s left in Santa’s sleigh after his mother passes away, and the elves of “Christmastown” raise him with an unbearably sunny disposition. Immediately upon learning the name of his birth father, Buddy seeks him out in New York. But his dad and stepfolks are Santa skeptics, lacking in “Christmas spirit,” who mistake his joie de vivre for insanity. Combined with the romantic subplot, the story promotes Christianity, heterosexual marriage, and procreation by suggesting that these things ultimately define happiness. In this case, “Christmas spirit” begins to sound like “family values,” and Elf ignores and disrespects both the mosaic of beliefs and the healthy skepticism that define New York City.

After his dad rejects him, Buddy saves his father’s job at a publishing house by rushing into a meeting and successfully pitching his own story as a bestseller. Pop returns the favor by quitting. Buddy’s stepmother and brother convert to Santa-ism after witnessing St. Nick’s arrival, when his sleigh breaks down in Central Park. The only original turns Elf takes are in suggesting that Santa (a charming George Wendt) is an anti-materialist who can grant intimacy, and that his sled no longer unfairly employs reindeer, but runs, like a religion, on faith.

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Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, La Bete, and A Life in the Theatre–Second Helpings on 45th Street

Broadway, these days, is all last year’s news and old scripts recycled with stars. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Jacobs Theatre), the show that thinks it’s cute to shoot history in the neck, has moved uptown from its noisily acclaimed Public Theater run last spring. This traditional path for bringing new blood into the mainstream no longer works so well because, in the theater as in our society at large, the mainstream has crumbled, while most new impulses are played out. Until the next great movement in musical theater comes along, the public, increasingly uncultivated and unnurtured, has no clue as to what it will want to see.

The clueless public is relevant here, since Bloody/Jackson is, or at least wants to be, political in substance. It presents its title character (Benjamin Walker) as a schmuck-hero, leading a populist movement to “take this country back,” with guns if necessary, from the “elite,” who think about things but never get anything done. As presented in Alex Timbers’s script and Michael Friedman’s songs, Jackson’s populism looks a lot like the Tea Party: angry, greedy ignoramuses, petty and vicious toward anyone different, who view any attempt to deal with democracy’s complex realities as an elitist conspiracy against the ordinary folk for whom they mistake themselves.

That satirical stance would be fine if the show were built on it. Unhappily, Timbers has zero sense of satire. Faced with dramatic conflict, politics, or history, he retreats into infantility. So a tantrummy, teen-idol Jackson becomes the show’s hero as well as its villain, and all ideas drown in its welter of rock-show attitudinizing and comedy-sketch triviality. We’re stuck at an evening hosted by an obnoxious, self-justifying adolescent, never knowing why we should bother about him.

This is almost as unfair to us as it is to Walker, an extremely gifted and appealing young actor who has to work really, really hard all evening long, trying simultaneously to market the attitude in which the authors have trapped Jackson, and to deepen it into something resembling a role. A great score would help, but Friedman, whose resourcefully tailored incidental music has graced many shows, here provides only a string of pleasantly varied pastiche-sounding songs—pretty much what a resourceful composer of incidental music might cobble together.

Timbers’s direction has tidied up some of the show’s scruffiness for Broadway, and clarified some of its tonal confusions. This, plus the need to fill a larger performance space, has made some of the show’s bright spots downtown seem paler here. The slapstick caricatures are less funny, the gross-out moments of pain both less painful and less gross. Replacing the eerily earnest Colleen Werthmann with the knowingly comic Kristine Nielsen, as the historian who gets it in the neck, completes the taming process. Only Donyale Werle’s whorehouse-red extravaganza of a set profits from the increased space.

The many intellectual provocations crammed in the dense wordage of David Hirson’s 1991 play La Bête (Music Box Theatre) include a warning of the danger of revivals: A play seen for a second time may seem less good. La Bête itself, luckily, defies the notion. Its problems, mainly structural, remain just what they were when it first turned up, for a too-brief Broadway run, in Richard Jones’s unforgettable, dazzlingly eccentric production. Matthew Warchus’s slightly squarer but decidedly funnier new rendering cannily mines Hirson’s evening-long cascade of rhymed couplets for ambiguities, enriching the characters and playing to the script’s strength, its verbal wit.

Warchus has another advantage: a real star, Mark Rylance, with a star’s power over audiences abetting his immense comic technique. Tom McGowan, the understudy who back in ’91 stepped into the taxing role at the last minute, brought tremendous skill and energy, but nothing like Rylance’s magnetism or finesse. The latter word may seem misplaced: Valere (Rylance) is an egomaniacal nonstop babbler, a street entertainer whom a princess (Joanna Lumley) has discovered and pitted against Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), the brilliant but cerebral leader of the theater troupe she subsidizes. The anagram for “Molière” in the latter’s name, like the rhymed couplets and the 17th-century trappings, is only a mask (the play’s first flaw) for a peculiarly modern division of the theater into artistic versus vulgar. The real-life Molière, who wrote himself many roles like Valere, made no such distinction.

Hirson’s artistic argument gets lost (second flaw) because he overloads it, however brilliant his couplets, by displaying Valere’s personal loathsomeness in an entrance monologue so lengthy that it outweighs the entire rest of the play. Even Rylance’s charm and Warchus’s inventiveness can’t stop diminishing returns from setting in. Clearly no artist could collaborate with this crass, oblivious idiot. Yet Valere, despite Elomire’s disdain, is clearly an idiot savant, whose talk, though not his playwriting, constantly reveals an astute mind at work.

Even the sample we get of his scripts, in Warchus’s version, seems more a harmless misfire than the hideous offense for which Elomire takes it. (Jones’s production gave it a jaw-dropping moronic coarseness.) Because Valere, although unbearable, embodies both high and low sensibilities, a production, like this one, with a truly charismatic Valere leaves Elomire no leg to stand on. It’s extremely high praise for Hyde Pierce’s performance that he can hold his own, and even steal a few laughs, when his opponent has all the lines. Less gaudily surreal than the original, Warchus’s staging makes a strong case for Hirson’s writing, but can’t hide his dramaturgic flaws.

Spoof plays and verbal ping-pong also fill David Mamet’s 1976 comedy, A Life in the Theatre (Schoenfeld Theatre), but Mamet has built something deeper underneath this chronicle of an older actor (Patrick Stewart) heading downhill and his young colleague (T.R. Knight) on the rise: a dryly abstract yet compassionate parable of bonding and competitiveness, of youth learning from and inevitably supplanting age. Regrettably, Neil Pepe’s production fuses no such feelings into the backstage fun. His actors, both accomplished individually, make no emotional connection; Santo Loquasto’s settings make the rep theater they work in seem as vast and anonymous as the Met.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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Les Freres Corbusier Give Old Hickory the Stick

Few plays have commemorated the life of Andrew Jackson, our seventh president. And none, surely, have simultaneously sent up emo rock, packed in bigamy and you’re-so-gay gay jokes, and climaxed with chorus numbers about America’s genocidal delusions. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: The Concert Version tackles all this and more in an original musical revue depicting the life of Jackson—who was either a visionary populist or “an American Hitler,” depending on your point of view. (Like, if he murdered your ancestors and forcibly resettled half your race.)

This history pageant, a reverse-tribute spiked with sour ironies, is the latest creation of Les Freres Corbusier, a/k/a writer-director Alex Timbers, who stands at the front of the growing line of young downtown theater-makers commenting on American history through pastiche. Previous Les Freres shows have “celebrated” Benjamin Franklin, scientologist L. Ron Hubbard, urban planner Robert Moses, and the Shakers.

As the title indicates, Bloody Bloody does not strive for a nuanced view of Jackson’s homicidal land-grabs and rising political fortunes. On moral grounds, of course, nothing more sympathetic is called for. But Jackson’s one-track bluster and bravado present a dramatic problem: The first two-thirds of the comedy come off as blunt amplifications of dull-minded characters, in numbers like “Populism, Yeah Yeah.” Earlier Les Freres shows reveled in diabolical and unpredictable wit, supported by free beers at alternative venues. Here, in the more staid Public Theater, that offbeat humor has been supplanted by an overabundance of don’t-shoot-the-piano-player gags, confining the comedy to a well-worn Mad magazine shtick that it struggles to break from.

Michael Friedman’s resourceful score helps improve things, cleverly inviting us to both like and loathe the Broadway and emotional-hardcore styles his songs quote; these sentimental forms offer the perfect vehicle for America’s irrational state of mind along the campaign trail. But Bloody Bloody’s most original and surprising moments are the darker ones introduced in the last third of the show. When Jackson assesses his legacy at a university commencement, Benjamin Walker (solid in the title role) taps a righteous rage, showing us the murderous emotions powering the commander-in-chief’s territorial expansion program. In those chilling moments, the chasm between historical truth and our American fantasies opens wide; the revelation comes late, but better than never.

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Les Freres Corbusier Concoct Dance Dance Revolution, An Odd (And Big!) New Show

“I’m such a bad dancer. I so respect people who can dance,” groans Alex Timbers. Luckily, the 30-year-old artistic director and chief impresario of Les Freres Corbusier has rounded up 53 other people to bust their moves for Dance Dance Revolution—the downtown theater group’s latest genre-bending show.

Despite the name, Les Freres are not French and not related. Previous projects have included Ibsen with robots (Heddatron), a musical fantasia about urban planner Robert Moses (Boozy), and a kids’ tribute to L. Ron Hubbard (A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant). Hell House (2006), the group’s most recent New York production, was based on a didactic script used by fundamentalist churches.

Dance Dance Revolution, which begins December 3 at the Ohio Theatre, was faintly inspired by the try-it-at-home dance game of the same name. “There are these arrows on the ground—it really feels like that American Idol/Guitar Hero kind of thing,” says Timbers, who has never actually stepped on the foot pad but found the name amusing. “You are the star.”

Observing Hollywood’s film versions of other games, Timbers realized he wanted to expand the genre to the stage—no matter what. “The idea of trying to emulate the quality of a video game in a theater seemed like something that was completely ready to fail,” he says. “I found that interesting and kind of funny.”

Although this new live comedy reproduces some dance choreography from the game, the ensemble has devised a completely original storyline, alluding to West Side Story and Footloose, among other “let-the-kids-dance” musicals. Dance Dance Revolution follows the plight of street toughs (think: The Warriors) in a dystopian future state, in which dance has been outlawed. A magical alien named Moonbeam Funk beams into town, blossoms as a dance prophet, and leads the charge against the no-dancing government—which brands him a charlatan.

“The show culminates with this Thunderdome sequence, like, Mad Max–style,” Timbers adds, laughing at a comic narrative he calls deliberately sophomoric. “There are people climbing all these walls around you, and it’s like this death-sport Rollerball thing. And there’s a trampoline dance-off between the dancers and the police.” To realize this quixotic vision, Les Freres hunkered down in a Brooklyn warehouse, where they prepared layers of plastic sheeting to help convert the Ohio into a 60-foot-deep “fully immersive, bombed-out discotheque environment.”

Don’t expect to settle into a chair and leaf through the program. The audience gets wristbands and beer, and everyone perches on scaffolding.

And then there’s the music. There will be three original songs by Gary Adler (Altar Boyz) and Phoebe Kreutz, nodding to Ziggy Stardust, Pippin, and other ’70s influences. But the show’s thumping pulse comes from the Japanese rave music sometimes used in the game as a plug-in. “This music, I swear to you, it’s like so insane,” Timbers says. “It’s rave music for small children. Imagine a baby CD of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ but with, like, rave remix.”

With approximately 20 production numbers, from call-and-response to riot sequences, it’s clear that Les Freres does not subscribe to the less-is-more school of dramaturgy. The director reflects: “When you have 53 people dancing in unison, it’s a thin line between being horrible and overwhelming, and being visceral and electric and exciting and joyful. And it has to be the second. It can’t be the first.”

Unsure exactly of what they’ve put together, for the moment Timbers and company are just sticking to the beat.