As I mentioned a while back, I picked up a new gig writing for About.com as the Musical and Theater Expert. I was hoping that the gig wouldn't interfere with my blogging, and so far that has actually been the case. As to whether this will continue as the school year starts up, well, stay tuned.
I'll still be publishing most of my reviews here on my blog, while at About.com I'll be posting more evergreen stuff about theatergoing in general. One review that I decided to post on About.com was for my recent revisit to The Phantom of the Opera with its new stars, Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess. Here's a link to that review, as well as to the rest of my About.com postings for August.
Now, the good folks at PS Classics have seen fit to release a live, two-CD set of the the entire show. I just got mine, and I can't wait to settle down a give 'er a listen.
But I also have a copy to give away, and as I periodically do on this blog, I've come up with a series of trivia questions about Audra, Billie Holiday, and whatnot to make things a little interesting. If you'd like to enter the contest, please answer the trivia questions in the comment section below. (Don't worry: I won't publish your answers until the contest is over.) I'll select a random winner from all of the correct entries.
(The contest ended Friday, July 18th, 2014 - The winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered. -C.C.)
All right, folks. Ready, set, Audra.
For what show, and for which role, did Audra McDonald win her first Tony Award? [ANSWER: Carrie Pipperidge, Carousel]
With her most recent Tony win, Audra not only won a record-breaking sixth Tony Award, the most of any actor of either gender, she also gained a certain unprecedented Tony distinction. What was that distinction? [ANSWER: She's the first actress to win in all four acting categories]
Lonny Price, the director of the current production of Lady Day, in his earlier days created a significant role in a Stephen Sondheim musical. What was the musical and the role? [ANSWER: Charley Kringas, Merrily We Roll Along]
One of Holiday's most iconic songs was "Strange Fruit." What does the title refer to? [ANSWER: It refers to the lynching of African American men]
Which performer received an Academy Award nomination for portraying Billie Holiday, and in which movie? [ANSWER: Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues]
TIE-BREAKER: In the play Lady Day, Billie Holiday tells a story about confronting a racist restaurant hostess. What action does Holiday take at the end of this confrontation? [ANSWER: The restaurant hostess refuses to let Billie Holiday use the bathroom, so Holiday proceeds to urinate on the floor.]
Here's a roundup of my latest posts on About.com (theater.about.com). I'm supposed to post at least twice a week, which is a bit more frequent than I've been used to in my blogging, but so far, coming up with ideas hasn't been a problem. (I mean, I'm getting paid for writing about theater. Where's the downside there?)
If you have any ideas about articles you'd like to see me pursue, please feel free to give me a shout. I'm going to try to confine most of my reviews to the blog, but if you have any ideas about how-to type articles, or fun lists, or insider info you'd like to know about, by all means give me a holler.
I'm sure that some of you, like me, greeted the news of a prospective Tupac Shakur musical with at the very least a raised eyebrow. I think this is a vestige of our propensity of limiting our conception of musical-theater music to the familiar, the comfortable, the what-we-know.
However, some of my most enjoyable nights in the theater came from shows that stretched the genre, bringing in musical influences previously confined to the 20th Century concert hall (Adding Machine) or the downtown club (Passing Strange). Even if recent attempts to bring punk rock (American Idiot), afrobeat (Fela), and emo (Spring Awakening) to the Broadway stage weren't entirely successful overall, in toto they represent a vital and long-overdue effort to bring Broadway music out of the Stone Age.
I had had no previous experience with Shakur's work, but a number of people had told me I might be pleasantly surprised, that his work was a lot more than just angry and profane, which in truth had always been my (admittedly ignorant) perception of rap music. Still, I went into Holler If Ya Hear Me with what I think was an open mind.
My impressions of the production essentially came down to this: Tupac Shakur left us a profoundly moving body of work that deserves to be heard, but Holler If Ya Hear Me doesn't begin to do the man and his work full justice. Out of some misguided rush to bring the show to Broadway, presumably because of the availability of the Palace, a prime Broadway house, the creators and producers of Holler If Ya Hear Me missed out on an opportunity to better shape what could have been an immensely powerful show. Upon my first exposure to Shakur, it seems that he was an artist whose work elevated and trenscended the rap genre. Shakur's lyrics have power, pathos, outrage, but also a strong sense of community, and most of all hope.
Unfortunately, there's very little hope at the box office for Holler If Ya Hear Me. The show has been playing to fairly decent size houses -- about 2/3 capacity -- but the average ticket price has been a painful $27, and the weekly grosses topped out at about $170,000. (In other words, the producers have been papering the house big time.) There's no way they're making money with that meager a take. To make matters worse, someone had the bright idea of replacing the orchestra section of the theater with stadium seating, which reaches from the lip of the stage to the mezzanine overhang, effectively cutting off more that half of the most expensive seats. (My theater companion remarked, "Did nobody here know how to use and Excel spreadsheet?") Word has is that the construction for this questionable arrangement alone topped $200,000.
What's more, the show only had two weeks of previews, about half of normal preview period. Which leads to a whole laundry list of "whys" about this production: Why only two weeks? Why the rush to bring the show to Broadway in the first place? Why did the show open after the Tony cutoff? Why would anyone bring a big show like this to Broadway and make a series of decisions that would seem to preclude its success?
The biggest "why" of all, however, is "Why did anyone think this show, in its current form, was ready for Broadway?" Because here's the real heart-breaker: Holler If Ya Hear Me could have been good. I mean, really really good. There's plenty of worthy material in Tupac's songs, and the scenario that book writer Todd Kreidler is, at least in outline form, fairly compelling. However, the show begins with almost insurmountable dramaturgy issues. For the first ten to fifteen minutes of the show, it wasn't clear where the show was taking place, who any of these characters were, what their relationship to each other would be, as well as which of the characters would emerge as protagonists. A scene early in the show features a song with a lyric asking "What's going on?" repeatedly. I turned to my theatergoing companion and said, "Yeah, I'd love to know what's going on."
Eventually, we learn that the story takes place in a present-day African-American ghetto in some midwestern city, and that the plot will involve the young men from the neighborhood banding together to seek revenge for the shooting death of one of their own. Here's where the problems begin: the pathos of the death is unearned because we don't recall ever meeting this character before, nor do we really know what relationship he has with the others until much later. In retrospect, he must have been somewhere in the undifferentiated morass of the first fiteen minutes of the show. But since we don't really have a chance to get to know the character and his affiliations, the power of the loss is lost. Along the way we encounter some unclear and seemingly shifting romantic alliances among the people who wind up being the major characters.
Kreidler's dialogue has an authentic sound to it, and although his storytelling skills need quite a bit of work, he definitely shows promise. The show can get a bit preachy and forced at times, but for the most part, Kreidler allows the proceedings to embody the message rather than relying on speechifying dilagoue. It all makes me wonder what Holler If Ya Hear Me could have been with a few more readings, workshops, and tryout productions.
One of the major tricks with songbook musicals is making the musical numbers mesh with the book. For Holler If Ya Hear Me, most of the numbers actually feel organic, although there were numerous times in the first act when I couldn't understand the lyrics and had to orient myself by the feel of the music. Best of all was the show's title number, which creates a quite thrilling, and dramatically motivated, punch to the end of act one.
The only number that feels forced in is "California Love," which by the audience reaction I'm assuming was one of Tupac's biggest hits. However, the high-spirited and infectious number feels out of place right before the tragic denouement, and robs the second act of forward motion. (cough cough..."The Miller's Son"...cough, cough) The number should perhaps have come at the beginning of the show, or earlier in act two.
In a switch from the norm with struggling musicals, act two of Holler If Ya Hear Me is actually stronger than act one. Act two does have a problem with pacing, as the urgency tends to come and go, rather than build. Although the story and characters are clearer, there's a significant loss of momentum. Still, clearly we know as we watch the show that someone major's going to go down at the end, and I found the denouement very dramatically satisfying. Kreidler wisely places the "Sharks," as it were, off-stage. This not only creates tension, it also allows him the opportunity to make the resolution completely consistent with a leitmotif in Shakur's songs, the notion that one great tragedy of poor African Americans is that they tend to make each other the enemy, rather than addressing and fighting what's really keeping them oppressed.
Holler If Ya Hear Me features sympathetic direction by Tony winner Kenny Leon, although Leon really should have worked with Kreidler more closely in focusing and clarifying the start of the show. The show is choreographed with idiomatic realism by Wayne Cilento.
As is often the case with recent unsucessful musicals, it's really hard to blame the cast of Holler If Ya Hear Me, which features a passionate ensemble of talented performers, who remain committed to material despite what must have been a difficult tryout period. Chief among these are Saul Williams and Christopher Jackson as childhood friends who've grown apart as each has fallen into various nefarious activities in order to survive. Tony winner Tonya Pinkins is sort of wasted here as Jackson's mother, but Saycon Sengbloh has a few powerhouse moments as the woman that Williams and Jackson are both, off-and-on, involved with romantically. The most moving character in the show is a ragged street preacher played by Tony nominee John Earl Elks, who is postitively heart-wrenching in his interactions with the Saul Williams character, whom we eventually learn is the preacher's son.
I sort of wish I was reviewing Holler If Ya Hear Me at a new-works festival or during a regional tryout. Then, perhaps, the show might have gotten the work that it needed to do full justice to Tupac Shakur and this remarkable cast. Tupac deserved better.
So, the Tonys are over, and another season has come and gone. I've caught up (mostly) on my reviews, but I wanted to alert y'all out there in EIKILFM land that I've picked up a companion writing gig, and that I'll be migrating some of my posts over to this new platform. Don't worry: I'll still be reviewing all the new musicals on Broadway and many of those from Off-Broadway, as well as shows at my regular regional haunts. I'm hoping that, rather than replace any of my efforts here on the blog, the new gig will act as a complement.
The new gig is at About.com. I'll be their new "musicals and theater" experts. (Yeah, I know. Musicals are theater too. But the folks at about think that emphasizing "musicals" will lead to greater traffic.) If you'd like to bookmark my homepage, it's at http://theater.about.com. I've posted three articles so far, all about the Tony Awards. Here they are:
As you can probably tell by the titles, my About.com posts will proabably be more "evergreen" items, as opposed to posts about particular shows and people. But there seems to be plenty of room for attitude, which for me has never been in short supply.
I'll be posting links to my About.com posts here on EIKILFM, so if you're interested you can just click through. Or not. (But I hope you do.)
OK, I admit it. I was skeptical when the Roundabout Theatre Companyannounced its plans to bring its acclaimed 1998 revival of Cabaret back to Studio 54. It seemed like a cynical attempt to resurrect a cash cow for an organization that has been struggling under the weight of its own ever-widening girth.
Well, all of that may still be true, but there's no question that this revival of a revival still packs an artistic and emotional wallop. This Cabaret should always be welcome on Broadway.
As I sat watching the current production, I was continually reminded of the importance of Cabaret, both in terms of its artistry and its signifcance in the development of musical theater. When I cover Cabaret in my musical-theater history course, I emphasize the rise of modernism in musical theater, the solidification of the concept show, and the break from traditional storytelling structure. Cabaret also has a message that remains all too timely. At every turn, the show seems to be saying: this could happen here.
When co-directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall brought Cabaret back to Broadway in 1998, the show had been revised considerably from its original form in 1966, and even its first Broadway revival in 1987, and the changes took what was a sensational piece to begin with and made it even better. Cabaret is, of course, based on the play I Am a Cameraby John Van Druten, which was in turn adapted from Christopher Isherwood's book, The Berlin Stories. I often say that the 1998 revival fulfilled the show's promise as a dramatic work, but it also made the show more historically accurate. The revisions not only bring greater efficiency and power to the show, they also bring it more in line with the atmosphere of Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s that Isherwood describes so vividly in his work.
One of the most significant changes was restoring the full impact of the song, "If You Could See Her." Anyone who's seen the 1972 movie or the 1998 version of the show knows that the song ends with a real punch in the gut. The Emcee sings comedically about his love for a gorilla, which ends with the line, "If you could see her through my eyes...she wouldn't look Jewish at all." Unfortunately, this line was mistaken by audience members of the '60s production as a direct insult to Jews. Original director Hal Prince decided to change the line (to "she isn't a meeskite at all," a Yiddish word for someone with an ugly face), figuring that the show was taking enough chances to begin with, and couldn't risk alienating a core demographic. The movie version restored the original lyric, and it has remained with the stage version ever since.
Cabaret has also evolved over time in its portraying of homosexuality. Cliff, the show's male lead, is a proxy for author Christopher Isherwood, and Isherwood was decidedly gay. The original Cabaret bowdlerized Cliff's sexuality, and even included two offensively stereotypical queens in the opening number, as if to more fully distance itself from the truth. The 1972 film portrays Cliff as bisexual, and it wasn't until the 1998 Cabaret that Cliff became fully gay. Cliff does, however, have sex with Sally, enough for them to wonder whether Cliff is the father of Sally's baby. The current portrayal of Cliff is not only truer to the source, it's also truer to the spirit of the times, with its free and fluid sense of pansexuality, one of the very things, in fact, that Hitler was able to successfully demonize and persecute in his rise to power.
The current production, as far as I can recall, is pretty much an exact copy of the 1998 show, which is just fine with me.
Back are the cabaret tables with drink and food service. But more important is the overall production concept, the at-times brutal staging, and the brilliant directorial touches,
with the deft use a cigar here or a lipstick there. Alan Cumming is mesmerizing as ever as the Emcee, and Hollywood import Michelle Williams makes a strong impression in her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles. Ther's been a lot of grumbling about Williams in reviews and online, but I found her adorable and captivating.
For me, the true stars of this revival are Danny Bursteinand Linda Emond as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, respectively. Burstein is captivating as always, bringing a searing sense of pathos to his portrayal. (Will someone give this guy a Tony, already?) I've only seen Emond before in non-musicals, and she's a bit of a revelation here, moving and restrained, with strong, haunting singing voice. Burstein and Emond's duet, "It Couldn't Please Me More," was a charming highlight in what is already a production with an embarrassment of riches.
Regular readers will recall that I occasionally attend "straight" plays. (I prefer to call them "non-musicals.) My attendance at these belting-deprived affairs is usually contingent on the presence of some intriguing crossover from the world of musicals. Some of the actors perhaps, or members of the creative staff, might be slumming in between musical gigs.
The recently-ended season presented a fairly decent stock plays with musical-theater resonance. In preparation for the Tony Awards this evening, I'll be engaging in a little desk-clearing with this post, hoping to bring you up to speed on some of the "legitimate" offerings from the spring. (Musicals, as you know, are illegitimate, spawned disgracefully out of the holy bonds of wedlock)
Truth be told, I actually enjoy non-musicals a great deal. I try to focus my trips to New York City on seeing as many of the Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals as I can, but there's often time to add a play here or a dance performance there.
But don't worry, dear reader: my heart remains where it likely will always remain, firmly ensconced in the thoracic cavity of musical theater. (How's that for an overly specific metaphor?)
Casa Valentina has quite few ties with the musical-theater world, starting with author Harvey Fierstein, presenting his first non-musical in more than 20 years. Also present are director Joe Mantello, and a cast that features Patrick Page and John Cullum, certainly no strangers to the musical stage. The play concerns one weekend at a country getaway for heterosexual men who nonetheless like to dress in female clothing. Secrets and shame lurk behind every bush, as it were, and we eventually learn that the titular Casa Valentina is just shy of foreclosure, and desperately needs to form a seemingly unholy alliance just to stay afloat. As is typical in Fierstein's recent work, things get preachy as all hell, and there's a lot of expository speechifying. Nonetheless, Fierstein creates some vivid characterizations and crafts a setup that wrings compelling drama from the scenario. But then, at the end, he drops the ball with a denouement that is both forced and inscrutable. The show is worth seeing mainly because of two standout performances in the otherwise ensemble cast: Mare Winningham as the seemingly understanding wife of one of the men, and genial hostess for the weekend. Winningham really shows her stripes toward the end as the fabric of their little dreamworld begins to unravel. Tony nominee Reed Birney crafts a searing performance as the honored guest who knows everybody's secrets and is not above using them to her advantage.
The women who received Tony nods for Best Actress in a Musical this year can thank the fact that Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grillis technically a play, not a musical, although it does contain a full complement of Billie Holiday classics. Otherwise, Audra would have picked up her sixth Tony Award in a category with mostly strong competition this season. (Mary Bridget Davies? Puh-Leez.) It almost isn't fair how stunning Audra is onstage, and how versatile she is. So far, her Tonys are in three categories: Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Best actress in a Musical, and Best featured Actress in a Play. If she wins tonight, as I think and hope she will, she will have won in all four acting categories. (Perhaps then, we should take a tip from sports and retire her number, as it were.) Audra crafts a flawless rendition of Billie Holliday, but unlike Davies with her Janis Joplin impersonation, delves deeply into the character to show us her state of mind and spiral downward. The play takes place just months before Holliday's death, and Billie has seen better days. So we see her right before the end, and yet unlike End of the Rainbow, which dredged up a squalid and pathetic Judy Garland, Lady Day allows Holliday her last shreds of dignity.
I had heard mixed reactions going into Act One. Tedious and bloated, some said. Overly long and flat, said others. I, however, was thoroughly charmed, even captivated by author/director James Lapine's loving tribute to Moss Hart, based on Hart's own Act One, considered by many (myself included) to be the finest theatrical memoir ever written. The book and the play concern Hart's early rise into the world of show business, focusing primarily on his impoverished childhood, desperate need to work in the theater, and big break landing George S. Kaufman as a collaborating on his first big hit, Once in a Lifetime. Along the way we meet many colorful characters (many of them played by the always delicious Andrea Martin). I was predisposed to falling in love with these people, partly because I'm such a fan of the book, but also because I consider Moss Hart to be one of the unsung founders of musical theater. Sure, we hear about his Kaufman collaborations, but Hart was also instrumental in bringing greater cohesion, ambition, and social conscience to the American musical, including the shows he wrote himself (Lady in the Dark, As Thousands Cheer, Face the Music) as well as the ones he directed (My Fair Lady, Camelot). Central to making Act One the joy that it is are the two central performers, Santino Fontana as Hart as a young adult (three actors play Hart at various ages) and Tony Shalhoub, who plays Kaufman, among others. These remarkably appealing performers create the emotional center of the production, and Shalhoub is a riot when wrapping his teeth around Kaufman's legendary and infuriating mannerisms.
Of course, another key factor in bringing such potentially challenging fare to Broadway is the numerous nonprofit theaters that operate regularly within its confines, including the Roundabout Theatre Company, which is responsible for bringing both Violet and Cabaret to the Main Stem this season.
One might argue that Cabaret would sell regardless of any nonprofit sponsorship or star presence. But I can't imagine we'd have seen either Violet or Hedwig this season were it not for the nonprofit/star combo for the former, or the megastar factor for the latter. From where I sit, this is all for the good, because all three of these productions are outstanding in their own ways. (See my Hedwig review here. I'll be reviewing Cabaret in my next post.)
I saw Violet last July at City Center as part of the Encores! Off-Center Series, and was instantly reminded both of my admiration for the piece itself and of my ardent appreciation of the numerous and varied charms of Sutton Foster. Violet is based on the short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, and relates the story of a young woman who was horribly disfigured as a child (her father accidentally struck her in the face with an axe) and her journey to meet up with a faith-healing preacher in the hope of healing the wound.
Violet frequently makes an appearance when my students write their "Most Underrated Musical" papers, and I have always been apt to agree with that designation. The score, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Brian Crawley, is an outstanding mix of idiomatic bluegrass, revelatory character numbers, and complex musical sequences that provide a wealth of dramatic information in an entertaining and efficient fashion.
My personal favorite among these sequences is "The Luck of the Draw," a remarkable song that joins past (as Violet's father teaches her to play poker) and present (as Violet demonstrates her skill to her male traveling companions) in a way that amply illuminates both. Tesori and Crawley also make stunningly effective use of leitmotif, particularly in "Look at Me," which includes a climactic callback to Violet's quite literal wanting song, "All to Pieces." It's a stirring juxtaposition of the moment we understand the depth of her desire and the moment she discovers that she's not going to get it.
This has really been a great year for Jeanine Tesori, what with a Broadway resurrection of Violet and an acclaimed and extended run of her absolutely shattering Fun Home at the Public. Tesori's career thus far has been a fairly startling mix of the ambitious (Violet, Caroline or Change, Fun Home) and the populist (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek). I've defended Tesori's blatant attempts at making some money on numerous occasions, and my defense essentially comes down to this: people need to make a living. And if doing shows like Shrek and Millie gives Tesori the financial wherewithal to produce more challenging works, then I say let the woman make some money already.
Brian Crawley's book for Violet was revised for the Encores! concert, and shortened considerably from two acts to one. The script for the Broadway production restores some of the cut material, but the Broadway version feels less urgent, and the production goes on for about 15 minutes longer than is probably wise. Particularly quizzical is a restored dream sequence for Violet that includes some rather inscrutable business with three singing cowboys and some uncharacteristically awkward staging. Still, the show remains strong, particularly in crafting complex portraits of three edgy, layered, and believable characters: Violet and her two traveling companions, Flick and Monty.
Sutton Foster remains one of my favorite Broadway actors currently working. Foster is remarkably appealing in whatever she does, and that appeal comes in handy for her performance as Violet, given the character's frayed edges and defensiveness. I know there are some Sutton haters out there, but I've enjoyed every performance I've seen her in, even if the show itself wasn't worthy of her talents (Young Frankenstein? Blech.)
Alongside Foster are and intense and bright-eyed Joshua Henry as Flick and Colin Donnell as Monty. I've seen productions of Violet in which Monty sort of fades into the woodwork, but Donnell puts his own charming and distinctive spin on a character that could potentially come off as callous. No doubt much of these nuances are the work of director Leigh Silverman, who crafts a heartfelt and dynamic production, with able assistance from rising directorial star and Boston Conservatory graduate Ilana Ransom Toeplitz. (Full disclosure: Ilana is one of my former students, so you'll forgive me if I gush.)
Violet is currently scheduled to play through August 10th. The Roundabout has two shows scheduled to follow Violet in the American Airlines Theatre (The Real Thing and On the 20th Century), so there doesn't seem to be much likelihood of an extension. So, check it out. I think you'll be glad you made the journey.
I went into the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fully expecting to enjoy myself. What I didn't expect was that I would be so blown away, both by the power of the piece, and by Neil Patrick Harris's electrifying performance.
Harris has emerged in recent years as one of the most charming, appealing, and downright likable performers we have in the theater. Of course, he hasn't been on Broadway in 10 years, but he's ingratiated himself to no end during his numerous stints hosting the Tony Awards broadcasts.
Also, I love me some Hedwig. I include the show in my musical-theater history course as part of my discussion of the evolution of the portrayal of LGBTQ characters, and for the past few years have had my students watch the film version. The context: when you can start portraying the decidedly fringe elements of a societal subgroup, you know that, to a certain extent, that subgroup has arrived.
Beyond its historic significance, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a riotous, affecting portrait of one of the most indelible characters in musical theater. Hedwig the character, as crafted by John Cameron Mitchell, both author and original performer, is by turns sardonic, poignant, and, yes, angry as all hell. The score by Stephen Trask is both hard-driving and melodic, although Trask's lyrics too frequently exhibit poor scansion. For instance, the song "Wicked Little Town" features the lyric "You know you can follow my voice," which places the emphasis on the second syllable of "follow." Despite these occasional missteps, the score is strong and memorable, particularly "Wig in a Box," one of my favorite showtunes of the past 20 years.
As you may have heard, Mitchell has updated the text to Hedwig to include references to the show's move to a Broadway venue, specifically the Belasco Theatre. Most of the updates are in the first 20 minutes or so of the show, and they include a running bit about the ghost of David Belasco, who legend has it haunts the theater that bears his name.
Also, if you've seen the show, you know that Hedwig is essentially following his former lover, the glam-rock star Tommy Gnosis, around the country playing gigs adjacent to Tommy's arena shows. In the Broadway version, Tommy is playing a public concert in Times Square, which gives Hedwig the opportunity to open the back door and vent his frustration in Tommy's direction.
Mitchell justifies the show's move to Broadway by including new back story about how the theater suddenly became available upon the closure of a fictitious musical version of The Hurt Locker. Hedwig proceeds to perform his "one-night only" concert on the Hurt Locker set. Attendees at early performances of Hedwig even received mock Hurt Locker Playbills, which you can read here (click forward to page 11), and I was fortunate enough to snag one that someone had left behind. Let's just say that whoever created the text for this faux Playbill must have had a really good time putting it together. It's a frickin' hoot.
Even without all the changes, Hedwig more than warrants her Broadway transfer with a briskly paced, sharply staged production from director Michael Mayer, and a remarkable cast, including of course the aforementioned Mr. Harris, who displays not only a very facile stage presence, but also tremendous depth in characterization and a fairly kick-ass high baritone. Alongside Harris is Tony nominee Lena Hall as a smartly underplayed Yitzak, who nevertheless can bust out a penetrating rock wail when the occasion calls.
Hedwigand the Angry Inch is currently scheduled to run through August 17th, and ticket sales have indeed been brisk. But if there's any production on Broadway this season that fully justifies its steep ticket prize, it's Hedwig.
If I had to sum up musical-theater history in just one word, that word would be "integration," which I define for my Boston Conservatory students as the extent to which a song or dance contributes to the dramatic purpose of the show. An integrated song or dance can serve one or more of the following purposes:
1. Progressing the plot 2. Revealing character 3. Establishing time and place
Over the past 150 years or so, musical theater has moved, sometimes painfully slowly, toward greater integration. Songs and dances used to be pasted onto a show, often with little or no relevance to what was going on in the show. Sometimes the songs were interpolated from outside sources, but even the songs that were actually written for the shows in question often had scant relationship to the proceedings at hand.
Then came such pioneers as Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, George S. Kaufman, and Moss Hart, who worked strenuously toward a more organic form of musical theater, one in which the songs and dances emerged naturally from dramatic necessity.
So, what does this have to do with Bullets Over Broadway? Lots. I knew there was going to be trouble when I heard that Bullets would not be receiving an original score, but would instead be populated by standards from the American Songbook from the 1920s and 1930s. Did we learn nothing from Big Deal? If Bob Fosse, with decades of musical-theater expertise behind him, wasn't able to make it work with that show, what made Woody Allen think he could do it with almost no musical-theater experience? I mean, yeah, he did Everyone Says I Love You, but part of the charm of that film was how utterly ridiculous it was that these people were singing. (If you can call that singing.)
If we've learned one thing from the dreaded jukebox musical, it's this: It's extremely difficult (but not impossible) to successfully interpolate an entire score-ful of previously existing songs effectively. Bullets musical supervisor Glen Kelly has adapted the songs and written additional lyrics for such classics as "'T'ain't Nobody's Bus'ness," "Running Wild," and "Let's Misbehave," but almost all of the songs and dances feel wedged in. It feels as though the decisions about where to put musicals numbers were made because of timing, as in "We haven't had a number for a while. Who can we have sing this time?" Everything about Bullets Over Broadway feels labored, as though the creators are forcing the piece to become a musical against its will, and the piece isn't very happy about it.
For instance, one of the show's intended showstoppers is the aforesaid "'T'ain't Nobody's Bus'ness," which turns into a rousing tap number for Tony nominee Nick Cordero and the male ensemble. It's a great number, at least as staged by Susan Stroman, but there isn't really a reason for the Cheech character to dance, nor for his fellow gangsters to join him. Later, at the end of the show, we have the entire cast singing "Yes, We Have No Bananas," which sort of feels like the entire show in microcosm. The song has no relevance whatsoever to what's happening at the end of the show, as though Allen and Stroman are throwing up their hands and saying, "Yeah, we got nothing."
In truth, some of the musical numbers aren't bad as numbers per se. It's just that when the book kicks back in, the show tends to grind to a halt. Allen's dialogue is clunky and overly expository, and his characters, so rich in the movie, here feel paper thin. You'd think at least that a Woody Allen musical would be funny. Not so much. The night I saw the show, much of the intended humor was landing with a thud. This is the guy who wrote Sleeper, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and other comedy classics. But here we get such tired interchanges as the following:
Character 1: "He's got his finger in a number of pies." Character 2: "What is he, a baker?"
Really, Woody? Really?
Many of the members of the cast are fairly game. Zach Braff is suitably affable in the John Cusack role. Nick Cordero certainly makes a strong impression as Cheech, played by Chazz Palminteri in the film, although I'm not sure Cordero's performance is Tony-worthy. The marvelous Marin Mazzie certainly gives it the old college try as Helen Sinclair, but honestly, how could anyone ever live up to Dianne Wiest?
Despite some moderately effective musical numbers, some solid performances, and the occasionally transportive comic set piece, the parts of Bullets Over Broadway never coalesce into a real show. It's a shame. Bullets could have made a great musical, but with someone with more extensive musical-theater experience writing the libretto and with an original score. (You know. Little things like that.)
I saw quite a few shows this spring, both on Broadway and off, but so far have only had a chance to blog about a handful of them. Now that school is officially out, I have some time to make my way through the backlog.
Let's start with the regrettable If/Then, which should really be called Wait/What?. As you may have heard, the show involves two separate story lines, both based on a seemingly innocuous decision that the lead character makes one day in the park. As the show progresses, the two stories intertwine, but rarely did I have any idea which story was developing when. By the end, I had given up trying to keep track. Worse yet, I didn't care, and really didn't see the point. Was one choice supposed to be better than the other? What are we to take away from this tale of The Road She Didn't Take But Maybe She Did?
I guess this is what happens when a writing team (Lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt) wins Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for their freshman musical effort. Apparently they get carte blanche and the people surrounding them don't feel they have the authority to point out what isn't working. Either that, or there was a rush to get the show to Broadway to accommodate Idina Menzel's schedule.
Whatever the reason, If/Then simply wasn't ready for Broadway. After Next to Normal premiered in NYC at the Second Stage, the show went out of town for much-needed and ultimately successful revisions. Although If/Then had a tryout of sorts in DC, the show clearly could have benefited from another non-profit run or two to work out the kinks, of which there are many. Without the imprimatur of the staff, I can't imagine If/Then would have made it past a workshop, at least not in its current form. The show feels like a semi-promising but nonetheless inchoate NYMF production.
I will give Yorkey and Kitt points for trying something original, something ambitious. But If/Then comes off as a show not so much about people as ideas: chance versus fate, integrity versus selling out, gentrification versus displacement. It's more an intellectual exercise than an engaging musical, despite occasional flashes of humor and humanity. Part of the problem is that there are way too many characters, and each character has two separate story lines to embody, which attenuates the development even further.
Things get a bit better in the second act: the characterizations become more credible, and the story becomes more emotionally engaging. I still couldn't tell who was who and when, but I at least believed they were real people. By the middle of the second act, things once again become rushed and thin, with plot elements appearing seemingly out of nowhere, including a rather quizzical and fraught flight to London for the Idina Menzel character. Next to Normal had very similar problems during its original Off-Broadway run, but subsequent regional productions helped the creators streamline the show and make it more consistent. (I still have my philosophical problems with Next to Normal, but I will accede the essential quality of the show itself.)
But here's the thing: even if I had been able to keep track of which character was in which story and at what time, and even if the characters had been more fully and richly developed, I still can't figure out what it was all supposed to mean. What are we to learn from witnessing the different outcomes from that fateful day in the park? Are we simply meant to ponder how choices lead us in different, but not necessarily more efficacious, directions? Again, I don't get it.
As for the score, it didn't really stick with me, other than a reasonably effective duet in the second act for a gay couple. For the most part, the songs felt generic, with lots of anthemic singing and park-and-bark belting, as one might expect from a vehicle for Idina Menzel. The would-be hip choreography by Larry Keigwin was risible and pointless, as though it was part of a failed effort to make the show feel more contemporary and happening. Director Michael Greif keeps the action moving fairly swiftly, although the elaborate glass and steel set felt like more of a distraction from Greiff's efforts than an enhancement.
If/Then appears to be selling very well, thanks mostly to the star power of Ms. Menzel. Surrounding Idina is a cast of appealing stage professionals, including LaChanze, James Snyder, Anthony Rapp, Jenn Colella, Jerry Dixon, and Jason Tam, although, as I mention, the show might have been far better off with fewer characters but more meaningful development of each. If you'd like to see a show that has terrific performers, rich characterizations, and a soaring, memorable score, go see The Bridges of Madison County before it closes this weekend. If only Idina had chosen that show as her Broadway comeback vehicle. She may not be right for the part, but at least it would have run.
I've seen a lot of boxing puns in the reviews of the new Broadway musical Rocky, based on the 1976 film of the same name. Rocky is a "contender," some contend. Others say Rocky "goes the distance" or that the show is an "uncontested winner."
Oh, I beg to contest. If I may also borrow from pugilistic parlance, Rocky has a glass jaw. Rocky should throw in the towel. Rocky loses by technical knockout.
The last of these is perhaps particularly appropriate, because among the many, many, many things wrong with Rocky is the grim, pointlessly complicated scenic design by Christopher Barreca. Each scene change seems to feature an oppressive series of death-gray walls and monolithic platforms that threaten to obliterate all who cross their path. The suffocating production design sets a tone for the rest of the show: slow, lumbering, and colorless.
Before I saw Rocky, I kept hearing from people that the last twenty minutes were the best part. Yeah, sorry. Even the last twenty minutes, which of course feature the climactic fight scene, didn't pack a punch. As you may have heard, the boxing ring rolls out over the first twelve rows of the orchestra, and the folks in those seats are relocated to bleachers on the stage, creating a sort of in-the-round experience. Whatever. Along the way, we're subjected to lame dialogue to cover the seemingly endless set change, complete with bored stagehands and surly ushers, just in case you weren't already removed from the drama. I'd call it a cheap gimmick, but I would imagine that such an effect was anything but cheap. It also wasn't quality musical theater.
But that, of course, can be said of the rest of Rocky as well. Physical production aside, Rocky the musical is a by-the-numbers pander-fest, and unimaginative retread of the the movie, and yet utterly lacking in the original's emotional engagement. It seems as though director Alex Timbers and the creative staff were handed a checklist by producer/librettist Sylvester Stallone, and there wasn't much they could all do except comply. The original Rocky theme featured prominently throughout the show in the orchestrations? Check. Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and raising his fists in the air? Check. Training montage to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger"? Check. The turtles, the raw eggs, the plaintive cry of "Adrian"? Check, check, check. Pander, pander, pander.
For me, the really heartbreaking thing is that Rocky has (only temporarily, I hope) besmirched the names of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyrcist Lynn Ahrens. I'm going to have to assume that these marvelous, talented people were hamstrung by the dictates of producer Sly Stallone. How else to explain the utter lack of inspiration? Not a single one of these songs makes any kind of impression, and they certainly don't add much to the drama. The song motivations here are lame at best, risible at worst. Rocky gets a painful "I Want" song called "My Nose Ain't Broken," which is bad enough, only to be followed by a rather ridiculous reprise, which was apparently intended for Rocky to communicate something meaningful to Adrian, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what.
In defense of Flaherty and Ahrens, I have to say that they were probably a bad fit for the material from the beginning. I often tout Flaherty and Ahrens to my students as the masters of the opening number, creating extended musical sequences that welcome the viewer into the world of the show. Think of the opening numbers to Ragtime, My Favorite Year, Once on This Island, Seussical, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, etc. All masterful. What we get at the beginning of Rocky is a tuneless series of interjections from random characters, no atmosphere, no nuance, and no apparent melody. The score never recovers.
Even worse is the plodding, pedestrian book by Stallone and Thomas Meehan, which features a plot with no sense of build. That's a major liability in a show that's all about the final scene. The story simply meanders from one event to the next, without much development or resolution. For instance, Adrian's brother Paulie gets drunk on Christmas, busts in on Rocky and Adrian, and destroys their Christmas tree with a baseball bat. This prompts Adrian to sing a song about wanting to be free of her brother's oppression, none of which we have borne witness to. All we've really seen of Paulie is how he wanted to set up Rocky and Adrian in the first place, and the fact that he wants to profit from Rocky's fame. We never see any abusive behavior, nor do we discover why Paulie would be resentful of Rocky and Adrian. And the next time we see Paulie, all is forgiven and forgotten.
Stallone's characters, so distinct and iconic in the 1976 movie, are rendered here with almost no depth. Why does Rocky feel like such a loser? Why is Adrian so resistant to Rocky's advances? Why does Apollo Creed even consent to fight Rocky in the first place? We never find out. Along the way, we're subjected to the hoariest of attempts at humor, most of which landed with a thud the night I saw the show. One female character says, of Adrian, "Say, what got into her?" Another replies, "Rocky Balboa." One of the same female characters later tells another, while they're in Adrian's pet shop, "You need a parakeet like these fish need a bicycle." This quip is a paraphrase of a quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem (although she denies authorship), but the point is, it isn't original, and in the context of the show, it just isn't funny.
On the plus side, it was great to see the inside of the Winter Garden Theater again. I will say this about Rocky: he did us all a favor by forcing Mamma Mia to relocate to the Broadhurst. A few years back, I reluctantly revisited Mamma Mia for the sole purpose of crossing the Winter Garden off my list of Broadway theaters in which I had seen shows. It was the only theater I had never been in at that time. I'm sort of pissed that I had to sit through Mamma Mia again for nothing. But based on Rocky's ticket sales, I get the sense that we're all going to have a chance to see the inside of the Winter Garden again rather soon.
The Walt Disney Company continues to comb its catalog for stage-musical candidates. You can hardly blame them: The Lion King has become a license to print money, Newsies is still going strong after two years, and New York audiences continue to demonstrate that they will indeed pay top dollar (or at least discounted dollar) to take their kids to the theater.
Of course, Disney has fumbled in the past. The Little Mermaid was a bloated disappointment, and the less said about Tarzan, the better, really. But hopes were high, and word from out-of-town tryouts was decent, for Aladdin, the latest Disney property hoping to capture the minds of the young and the wallets of their parents.
From where I sat, Aladdin was diverting, to be sure, but ultimately uninspired. Say what you will about the book and the songs to The Lion King, the production itself is dazzling, thanks to Julie Taymor's jaw-dropping visuals. (Hmm, whatever happened to Taymor?)
Aladdin feels like a passable summer-stock production with a Broadway budget. The look is lush and colorful, but the production itself is sluggish and pedestrian. At least Disney has learned from The Little Mermaid not to overwhelm the show with lumbering and expensive set pieces. With Mermaid, the glitz overwhelmed what is in fact a strong score, at least with respect to the original movie songs.
The big disappointment with Aladdin is director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who until now was looking like the Next Big Thing. Nicholaw did a masterful job with The Drowsy Chaperone, imbuing the production with an infectious sense of fun and a ton of imaginative staging. And The Book of Mormon surely owes no small debt to Nicholaw for its non-stop hilarity and inventiveness. Nicholaw even made Anyone Can Whistle whiz along joyously during its recent stint at Encores, no small feat with the that show's preachy, fragmented book.
Nicholaw's work on Aladdin feels utterly ordinary, with production numbers lumbering along with no apparent point or sense of build. "One Jump Ahead" felt particularly plodding and artificial. (You could tell the bad guys were deliberately holding back in order to not catch Aladdin.) Nicholaw manages to whip up the occasional show-stopper, as he does with "Friend Like Me." Even so, that number felt poorly paced, not giving the otherwise masterful James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie a chance to stop and catch his breath. (C'mon, Casey, even Victor/Victoria knew when to bring on the chorus and give Julie a rest.)
As is usually the case with these stage adaptations, Aladdin features an array of new songs and a revamped book. The new script is by Chad Beguelin, one of the authors of the fun and underrated The Wedding Singer, but Beguelin's attempts to punch up the proceedings with hoary humor more often than not fall flat. Particularly tiresome is a series of labored puns about Middle Eastern food, including hummus, baba ganoush, and falafel. (As in "Oh, I falafel about it...")
For some reason, someone thought it necessary to add a bunch of irrelevant nonsense about Aladdin's three buddies, the newly minted Omar, Babkak and Kassim. These sidekick wannabes usually only take up stage time, serving to populate pointless production numbers that only seem to move the story from one venue to the next.
The original songs with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice are supplemented here by new songs by Menken nd Beguelin, but none of these new songs makes a lasting impression. It was nice to hear the song "Proud of Your Boy," which was written for the 1992 movie but cut during the development process. Aladdin sings the song to his now-deceased parents, but the song fails to provide the intended emotional resonance, at least as presented here.
One thing I will say for Aladdin: the magic carpet is sensational. I'll be damned if I can figure out how they did it. I couldn't see any wires and there didn't seem to be a cherry picker in evidence. Genuinely magical. If only that sense of magic had pervaded the rest of the production, Aladdin might have been one for the ages. Instead, it's pleasant but forgettable.
I somehow made it through the '90s, the '00s, and nearly half of the '10s without reading The Bridges of Madison County. Nor have I seen the 1995 film of the same name, despite an abiding passion for all things Streep. I must confess, however, that I was prejudiced against the musical, based on an admittedly second-hand impression of the original property. Treacly, I thought. Replete with soppy sentimentality.
Whether that impression is fair or no, I can tell you one thing about the musical The Bridges of Madison County: I frickin' loved it. So much so that I went back and saw it a second time just to savor once more in the soaring music, the sensitive staging, the simple yet nuanced storytelling, and the restrained yet heartrending performances.
The ravishing score is by Jason Robert Brown, both music and lyrics, and the smart and economical book is by Marsha Norman. Both deserve commendation for taking a piece that could very easily have come off as precious, or melodramatic, and infused it with believable characters, palpable drama, and a strong sense of build throughout.
For the uninitiated, Bridges is essentially about a four-day love affair between an Iowa housewife, an émigré from Italy after World War II, and an itinerant magazine photographer. Composer/lyricist Brown has crafted one of his finest scores to date. There are few folks currently working who can shape an effective character number like JRB. He somehow manages to create lyrics that are plain, honest and idiomatic, while assiduously avoiding cliché. It's really quite a feat. (Brown's The Last Five Years is further testament to this skill)
Brown also makes deft use of harmonization and orchestration to complement this firm sense of character. Francesca, the housewife, gets a wonderfully expansive opening number describing her journey to America, while the underscoring evokes both the classical, arpeggiated feel of her Italian heritage, and forward drive of the cello accompaniment that draws her ineluctably toward her future.
Meanwhile, Brown gives Robert Kincaid, Francesca's lover, a rambling musical feel that evokes the peripatetic nature of the character and his profession. As the story progresses, the music of these characters comes closer and closer, all while maintaining an undercurrent of foreboding and missed opportunity. As I sat listening to the score, I kept jotting down adjectives: supple, ravishing, captivating, thrilling. Brown has, in my humble opinion, crafted one of the most beautiful scores I've heard in years. Decades, even.
What's more, Brown and Norman have worked in tandem to create songs for the supporting characters that do far more than give the rest of the the cast a chance to shine. Kincaid's erstwhile wife, a would-be singer/songwriter, gets a gorgeous diegetic number ("Another Life") that she sings as Kincaid reveals his past to Franscesca. The show is full of these moments, both nuanced and efficient: Francesca's next-door neighbor, Marge, performs a song ("Get Closer") that is supposed to be on the radio. The song that not only provides commentary on the developing relationship between Francesca and Robert, but also reflects Marge's warmth as Francesca's confidante.
One of the main attractions of this production is, of course, the cast. The talented and protean Kelli O'Hara plays Francesca, opposite a smoldering Steven Pasquale as Robert Kincaid. The always reliable Hunter Foster plays Bud, Francesca's husband, and the delightful Cass Morgan plays Marge. Almost all of the players (with a few unfortunate exceptions in the supporting cast) bring not only humanity but also restraint to their performances. Although the show is really about Francesca and Robert, the creators have taken great care to give everyone a backstory, perhaps just a tad too much in the the case of Bud.
Director Bartlett Sher coaxes layered, honest performances from this talented crew, while providing fluid staging that provides continual flow between multiple locations, as well as the past and the present. The show is deliberately paced, but is never lagging, never static, always with a sense of purpose and forward motion. Some of the applause breaks felt unnecessary, as the story could benefit from a more slightly more seamless presentation. The epilogue felt a tad protracted, but eventually the piece builds to a ravishing final moment that is as simple as it is devastating.
In short, I urge you all to rush at your earliest opportunity to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre to experience this exquisite show -- which, by the look of the show's grosses, may not be around that much longer. Hopefully, business will pick up for Bridges, because it really deserves a chance to run.
1. Jukebox musicals don't automatically have to be atrocious 2. Pandering to baby boomers isn't necessarily a bad thing 3. Jessie Mueller can do no wrong
Regarding the first two of these, we've certainly seen our share of jukebox tuners taking a stab at the Great White Way over the past 15 years or so. And, essentially, what we've learned is that they can occasionally be done well (Jersey Boys and...well, that's about it), but far more often they wind up being execrable, at least artistically (Mamma Mia, Good Vibrations, The Times They Are a-'Changin', Lennon, Baby It's You, Motown - the Musical).
Well, I can thankfully report that Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has joined the heretofore lonely ranks of Jersey Boys as a songbook show that actually demonstrates both solid storytelling and genuine stagecraft. Oh, and don't think I've forgotten about Jessie Mueller. Mueller would make this show worth attending even it weren't as genuinely enjoyable as it is.
Not surprisingly, Beautiful tells the story of Carole King and her journey from a songwriter in the famed Brill Building, working for record producer Don Kirshner, to her eventual rise as a solo recording artist. Here's what A Night With Janis Joplin could have been with some real talent behind it: a story that digs deeper into the conflict that made these artists who they are.
Why does Beautiful succeed where so many others have failed? Well, you really have to start with the woman herself, as Carole King was responsible for some of the best songs to come out of the sixties and seventies. First there are the songs that King wrote on her own and with her prodigal husband, Gerry Goffin, including "So Far Away," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," "A Natural Woman," and "It's Too Late." Also, the creators have made the rather canny choice of weaving in the story of songwriters, and eventually married couple, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, with whom Carole and Gerry shared a friendly rivalry in writing for Kirshner. This also means that the creators got to dip into the Mann/Weil songbook, which includes such hits as "On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
On the production side, Beautiful is slick and fast-paced, thanks to the ministrations of director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince. But what really makes a jukebox show rise or fall is the book. I've read a lot of sniping about Douglas McGrath's supposedly superficial libretto, but for me it worked splendidly. No, it's not an especially original story, but the characters feel real, the dialogue sounds authentic, and McGrath really succeeded in making me care. Again, the inclusion of Mann and Weil gives the book some dimension, and the story a good deal of humor. Yeah, there are some really cheesy touches, like when Carole's erstwhile husband, Gerry, visits her backstage right before her Carnegie Hall debut. Cheesy, yes, but every now and then I love me some cheese.
Plus, McGrath actually goes through the effort of making the mostly diegetic songs contextual, or at least provide some personal resonance in the lives of the characters. At the start of act 2, Goffin sings "Locked Up in Chains," as he chafes at the ties of marriage. Once the marriage is clearly on the rocks, we get Carole singing "It's Too Late, Baby," a stunningly simple but effective choice, and I, for one, was eating it up.
OK, now back to Jessie Mueller as Carole King. God, I love this woman. She makes me want to gush like one of my freshmen musical-theater majors. ("Oh...my...God! Have you seen Beautiful? Jessie Mueller is, like, totally fierce!") I've seen Jessie shore up productions that were unworthy of her prodigious talent (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and the Central Park Into the Woods). I've seen her take on the thankless task of replacing Kelli O'Hara in Nice Work If You Can Get It (Her costar, Matthew Broderick, wasn't doing her any favors, as a year into the run he was totally phoning it in.) And I've seen her disappear into an astonishingly sharp and vivid characterization as Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If the woman has a flaw, I have yet to discover it.
Mueller is ably abetted by her cast mates, including the wiry but sympathetic Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Anika Larsen as a spitfire Cynthia Weil, and the always adorable Jarrod Spector giving every last bit of nebbishy neurosis to Barry Mann.
Beautiful has so far been grossing around $750,000 a week, which is solid, especially since we're in the cold grey months of winter, during which Broadway shows all tend to feel an economic chill. I'm thinking that, given the boomer appeal, and a bit of warm weather, Broadway may very well have another hit on its hands. And, in this particular case, I'm just fine with that.
As I pointed out in my recent post of The Best Musicals of 2013, it was a darned good year for musicals, but it was also a doozy for not-so-great musicals. Try as I might, I just couldn't get the list of the bad down to 10 shows. I mean, it's an arbitrary number anyway, and in truth, there's always more bad than good when it comes to art and entertainment. Quality is always the exception.
Most of the shows I've listed here won't be all that surprising. The lion's share received mixed to negative reviews and have since closed. But there are three shows here that received strong reviews and sold or are selling extremely well as of this writing: Pippin, Here Lies Love, and Kinky Boots. I hereby acknowledge that I am in the decided minority in disliking these shows, but they're essentially the reason that this list swelled to number 13. It would have been very easy to leave them off the list and just let the whole thing slide, but I decided that I didn't want to end the year without one last jab. Am I saying that I'm right and the world is wrong? Not at all. I'm saying that, in my estimation, the shows weren't all that and a bag of chips. See below for why.
Click on the show titles below for my original reviews.
13. Pippin - Nobody can say I didn't try. I saw Pippin both at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, as well as on Broadway. And, on the whole, not so much. All over my Facebook feed, people were kvelling over this show, saying it was the Best. Thing. Ever. Sorry, I just don't see it. There are certainly individual moments in the show, particularly Andrea Martin's show-stopping rendition of "No Time at All," that made attending more than worth my time. But I found the whole circus theme distracting rather than additive, and I still, try as I may, can't quite figure out what the show wants to be about. There's a sinister undercurrent, which I know was intentional on Bob Fosse's part, but the current production feels like it's trying to cover up the menace. Apparently, the effort has been successful, because people come out of the piece with a sense of life-affirming awe, which was exactly the opposite of what Fosse had in mind. So, it's a combination of the piece itself as well as the Diane Paulus treatment of the show that really leaves me scratching my head. I just don't see any there there.
12. Here Lies Love - Here's another production that had people going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, and I just don't get it. Some folks suggested that I didn't enjoy the production because I sat in the gallery above the action rather than participating in the immersive experience down on the dance floor, but I call BS on that. A good show is going to demonstrate its inherent quality no matter where I'm sitting. There was really only one sequence in the whole of Here Lies Love that I found captivating, which was the assassination and funeral procession for Benigno Aquino. Otherwise, Here Lies Love felt like EvitaLite, but without Tim Rice's clever lyrics and deeply cynical point of view, or Andrew Lloyd Webber's apt use of leitmotif. (Yes, Lloyd Webber sometimes gets it right, in my estimation, although it's been a good 30-plus years since last he did.) Continual talk of finding another venue for Here Lies Love to give it a chance at an extended commercial run has so far not come to fuition. I can't say I'm terribly distraught.
11. Hands on a Hardbody - This show wasn't so much bad as bland. An endurance contest to win a truck may seem an unlikely subject for a musical, to be sure, but essentially the same dramatic potential as A Chorus Line: it's not so much about who wins as what we learn about these people along the way. And that's where Hands on a Hardbody failed: it didn't make me care. There were some really strong performances in the show, particularly from Hunter Foster and Kaela Settle, and director Neil Pepe found ways to keep the action from becoming static. There were quite a few stirring songs from composer Trey Anastasio and lyricist Amanda Green, including a terrific 11 o'clock number for Foster. But the success of the show really hinged on making these characters into real people, and that just didn't happen. Ghostlight Records released a cast recording, and there have been announcements of certain regional theaters including the show in their upcoming seasons, but I have a hard time imagining that the show is going to really catch on. Hands on a Hardbody shows every sign of becoming last season's High Fidelity: gone and almost entirely forgotten.
10. Annie - I like Annie. I really do. No, it's no masterpiece, but it's really good fluff. It tugs at the old heart strings and has plenty of fun and good humor along the way. But the most recent Broadway revival, which closed shortly after the new year, was a mess. Director James Lapine seemed to have no idea how to handle the humor in the piece, because most of it fell flat. What's more, the production numbers just kinda sat there. Overall, there was no lift to the production, no effervescence. The culprits here are Lapine and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, both eminently talented men when they're working on the right project. This wasn't a good fit for either. Lapine did succeed at bringing out the warmth of the piece, but left the comedy and the pacing high and dry. And Blankenbuehler only seems to work out on projects that involve a more contemporary style. As was true for 9 to 5, Blankenbuehler's decidedly street-wise choreographic style seemed woefully out of place in Annie.
9. Kinky Boots - Now, I'm not just bitter that Kinky Boots won the Best Musical over Matilda. (I am bitter, but it's not just that.) Kinky Boots is bad, folks. Really bad. The book is preachy, the characters are two-dimensional, the lyrics don't rhyme, the set is depressing. I could go on. Also, as a director/choreographer, Jerry Mitchell is in no danger of challenging the legacy of Jerome Robbins. Now, it's certainly great to see Billy Porter finally get some recognition, and Cindi Lauper still has a populist touch with her tuneful music. Also, regarding the controversy over the show's appearance on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast, I say bring on the drag queens. The higher the heels, the closer to God. So I support the intentions of the show, and of the authors. I'm glad so many people are enjoying this show, because it really does have a message that needs propagating. I just don't think the show itself is very good. As I say to my students every year when they write a paper about their choice for the Most Underrated Musical, bad shows can have good messages. It's all about execution. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm hoping to find a reasonably priced ticket to see Matilda for the third time.
8. Big Fish - A real heartbreaker. Of all the shows on this list, Big Fish is really the one that pains me the most to include. Talk about your appealing cast. Do we have any folks currently working who are more talented, likable, and reliable than Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, and Bobby Steggart? Plus, Susan Stroman may just be the best director/choreographer we have. The original novel and movie of Big Fish would seem to lend themselves quite handily to the musical treatment. However, composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa and book writer John August weren't able to create a piece that did the solid story and compelling characters justice. I even went back to see the show a second time to see if perhaps I was just in a mood when I first attended, but the second viewing only served to solidify my view. There just wasn't enough magic, which is quite a liability in a show that's purportedly about the magic of storytelling. The second act seemed designed to lead up to a big dramatic reveal that was actually rather anticlimactic. The last ten minutes of the piece were extremely affecting, and almost made the previous two hours or so worth the journey. Almost, but not quite.
7. Love's Labour's Lost - Fogettable and forgotten. Expectations were high for Alex Timbers' new musical, based of course on the original Shakespeare play. Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman previously created Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which despite its short Broadway run has become a rather prominent feather in these gentlemen's respective caps. But whereas Bloody Bloody had a unified vision and a snarky sense of fun, LLL was a mishmosh of styles, a jumble of underdeveloped plot lines, and at the end quite the downer of a show. The problem seemed to be that Timbers retained too many of the characters from the Shakespeare, and remained too slavish to its structure. Friedman's songs were replete with lines with too many syllables for the melody, and weren't nearly as funny as they seemed to think they should be. The show had a fabulous cast, including Colin Donnell, Daniel Breaker, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Bryce Pinkham, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, and many more of New York's finest. Unfortunately, Timbers and Friedman gave these fine performers a show that was detrminetally fragmented, and characters that were too thin to really do anything with.
6. The Jungle Book - Here's my sole regional entry on this year's list. After director Mary Zimmerman's absolutely stunning production of Candide, produced a few seasons back at Boston's Huntington Theater, I had very high hopes for The Jungle Book, which ran at the Huntington last fall. What a tremendous disappointment. Whereas Candide amounted to nothing less than a theatrical tour de force, a fundamental rethinking of the piece, and a stunning reinvigoration of Bernstein's admired/maligned original, The Jungle Book was aimless, lifeless, and joyless. The show simply meandered from episode to episode without any sense of build, and the production numbers just kinda sat there on stage. My understanding is that Disney kept a very watchful eye on the production hoping to develop the piece as a commercial property. Although the production was financially successful, in fact becoming the Huntington's all-time best seller, I can't imagine the folks at Disney were all that pleased with the artistic result. Short of a complete rethinking of the piece, I'm not expecting to see a New York production any time soon. (But, hey, what do I know, right?)
5. Motown - I've been thinking about it, and it's actually rather rare for a show to come along that's absolutely critic-proof. Mamma Mia is certainly one, as no amount of reasoned analysis would seem to impede that juggernaut. And you might argue that Cats, Phantom, and Les Miserables to a certain extent fit the bill, although the last two received their share of decent reviews along with the quibbles and brickbats. Now there's Motown - the Musical, an amateurish embarrassment, at least in terms of libretto writing. But the show has defied all critical analysis and become one of the best-selling shows in recent memory. Hey, sure, the songs are great, the cast members are exceptional, and the staging is at times quite thrilling. But I will never quite be able to erase from memory the sheer pain of hearing such ham-fisted dialogue as, "Mr. Berry Gordy, you built a legacy of love." I suppose it's foolish to expect Gordy to create a show that took a hard-eyed look at his true legacy, fraught as it allegedly is with questionable business practices. I just have a hard time accepting the ticket-buying public so wholeheartedly embracing one man's love letter to himself.
4. Bare - I never saw the original version of Bare, although I have heard the cast recording. But if the recent Off-Broadway revival of the show was supposed to be an improved version, I can't imagine how bad the former must have been. Truth be told, there was a certain amount of decent writing in the first half of the new Bare, but by the time the show got around to the sturm und drang of the piece, the show really seemed to fall apart. You certainly couldn't blame the talented cast of youngsters who gave it their all. And I certainly have no intention of dancing on the grave of composer Damon Intrabartolo, who passed away last August at the age of 39. But Bare as a show doesn't begin to justify to the vociferous cult following the show has developed over the years. Here's another case of extremely good intentions without the actual craft and quality to do the message justice.
3. A Night With Janis Joplin - Oh, the pain. What an excruciatingly loud musical. I can't recall being in such agony at a Broadway show before. Now, clearly I am to blame for forgetting to bring earplugs, but should I really need to in a legitimate house? Physical discomfort aside, the show itself is no great shakes. A reader contacted me after I posted my review and urged me to reconsider the show on its own terms. True, the piece doesn't delve into Joplin's tortured soul, content to merely skate along the surface. But does every show need to be a cathartic experience? Well, no. Is there no merit in simply celebrating the woman's musical accomplishments? I think there is merit in such a goal, but I didn't feel A Night With Janis worked on this level either. For me, the show represents a tremendous missed opportunity in terms of bringing out the pain behind the music. We're not talking Perry Como or Tony Bennett here. This is Janis Joplin, the woman who died at the age of 27 from a heroin and alcohol overdose. To focus on the power of her music and ignore the torture behind the rasp, at least for me, does this amazingly talented women a disservice.
2. Soul Doctor - Oy gevalt. Yeah, I know, not the most inspired lead, but certainly an appropriate one. If good intentions were all that determined a show's success, the Soul Doctor would have run for years. As with A Night With Janis Joplin, Soul Doctor sought to celebrate the life and music of one particular person, in this case Shlomo Carlebach, the so-called rockstar rabbi. But Soul Doctor made a fairly common mistake with bio tuners: it tried to cover too much. By the time the show got around the celebrating Carlebach's music, there had been so much leaden exposition of his life that it was really hard to care. Along the way we got some fairly strong performances, particularly from Amber Iman as Nina Simo and Eric Anderson as the soul doctor himself, but there really wasn't enough good material for these fine actors to make a difference. (Oh, and after this show and The People in the Picture, there should really be some regulatory oversight on the part of the state of New York with respect to dancing rabbis and rabbinical students. I'm not saying it can never happen, but people should at the very least have to apply for a permit.)
1. Jekyll and Hyde - How do you make the worst musical to hit Broadway in 30 years even worse? You negate the one thing that the show has ever had going for it - Frank Wildhorn's not-unpleasant melodies. For the short-lived revival of Jekyll & Hyde, the admittedly generic charms of Wildhorn's music were crushed beneath the squelch of harsh steampunk orchestrations. Take that away, and what you're left with is a plodding book with more holes than wheel of Swiss cheese, and a set of puerile, non-specific lyrics. Lyricist/librettist Leslie Bricusse used to be an extremely talented man, back when he worked with Anthony Newly, but even on his own solo projects, like the movie Scrooge. Wha' happen? Director Jeff Calhoun replaced the laughable staging elements from the original Broadway production with elements that were even more risible, such as the appallingly ridiculous confrontation sequence between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Perhaps the failure of this revival, combined with the failure of every other Wildhorn show that has ever made it to Broadway, will make producers think twice about the fiduciary wisdom of funding same.
Hey, you know what? The year 2013 was a pretty good one for musicals. And I'm not even talking about the crowd-pleasers that seemed to please everyone in the crowd except me (Kinky Boots, Here Lies Love, and Pippin, all of which are conspicuously -- and deliberately -- absent from this list). Nor am I discussing the critic- and reason-proof blockbuster that is Motown - the Musical.
No, I'm talking about musical shows of genuine craft and quality. I'm sure, as always, people will take issue with some of my selections. Far From Heaven?The Last Five Years? Hey, what can I say? I like what I like, and don't like what I don't like. I look for credible drama, rich characterizations, evocative music, well-crafted lyrics, solid performances, and that certain ineffable frisson that arises when the elements merge into a moment of transcendence. The following shows each produced those synergistic moments of theatrical magic.
Now someone might look at this list and be able to find a show that violates one of my previously espoused quality indicators. For instance, well crafted-lyrics should actually rhyme, should scan well with the music, and shouldn't require extra syllables to make a lyric fit. Matilda violates each of these criteria at various points throughout its score. But the reason I was able to overlook the lazy lyrics in Matilda -- and not in, say, Kinky Boots -- was that Matilda was giving me so much of the other criteria listed above that somehow the lyrical indiscretions faded into the background.
Click on the show titles below to read my reviews. And be on the lookout for my list of the Worst Musicals of 2013. (Gee, I wonder which award-winning show will feature prominently on that list...)
10. On the Town - I like to include at least one regional entry on my Best and Worst lists, and the Barrington Stage revival of On the Town was easily the best thing I saw outside of New York last year. The folks at Barrington opted to put on the show without the original Jerome Robbins choreography (or perhaps it wasn't available), but choreographer Joshua Bergasse proved more than up to the task of creating his own, albeit based on Robbins' blueprint. Also on hand was director John Rando, who kept the pacing at a fever pitch, which is just where it needs to be for that show. There was talk of the production moving to Broadway this season, but I haven't heard anything beyond the initial announcement. I've given up trying to predict if such moves are fiscally prudent, but I wouldn't mind another chance to see this production, hopefully with a large portion of the Barrington cast intact. (Particularly Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves as the three central sailors.)
9. Violet - It's not often I get a chance to see those one-night-only events in New York City, but thankfully I was able to snag a ticket to see the redoubtable Sutton Foster in the concert staging of Violet as part of the new Encores! Off-Center summer program. I never had a chance to write up reviews of the three shows that inaugurated that series. (The other two were The Cradle Will Rock, which felt disappointingly rushed and slipshod, and I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, which was quite a revelation. What a remarkably moving, albeit dated, show.) But Violet was by far the strongest of the three productions. It reminded me of how strong a show Violet is, in particular Jeanine Tesori's glorious score. Sutton was, of course, glorious in the title role, with more-than-capable back-up from Joshua Henry as Flick. So, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear that the Roundabout Theatre would be hosting a limited run of the show on Broadway as part of its spring 2014 season. If you didn't have a chance to see the concert, I would highly recommend catching it on Broadway.
8. After Midnight - What a joy. I wasn't really expecting much from After Midnight, and perhaps my lack of expectations added to my enjoyment. But I like to think I would have been bowled over anyway by the sheer energy, jubilation, and professionalism on stage at the Brooks Atkinson. After Midnight is essentially a homage to The Cotton Club, that fabled Harlem night spot in the '20s and '30s. There's no book per se to After Midnight, it being a revue and all, but what holds the show together is a unified vision from director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, as well as a more than able cast of top-notch performers. As much as I enjoyed Fantasia Barrino in the star spot, I wouldn't mind going back when Barrino leaves and K.D. Lang takes her place in March. I'm not so sure that Toni Braxton and Babyface, who follow Lang in a rotating slate of headliners, will be my cup of hooch, but then I wasn't expecting much from Fantasia, and was quite pleasantly surprised. (One never knows, do one?)
7. Far From Heaven - When I saw Far From Heaven, I sat transfixed by the quiet beauty and subtle shades of the score, the book, and the performances. Far From Heaven is the latest show from composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, the gentlemen who brought us the lovely Grey Gardens, and for some reason Far From Heaven failed to enchant either the critics or the theatre cognoscenti. In fact, things got rather nasty. I'll never quite understand all the hate that developed for this show on the Interwebs. People seemed downright livid about Far From Heaven, as though it were a personal affront against their very humanity. I found the show haunting and the score exquisite, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to revisit the show continually on CD. Is the show slow? I prefer the phrase "deliberately paced." Is it to everyone's taste? Clearly not. But it's a well-crafted show, as was wonderfully performed by Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, and a passel of talented supporting cast members. I'm hoping to see Far From Heaven catch on with some of the more adventurous regional theaters.
6. Murder for Two - Another pleasant little surprise of a show. Murder for Two is a two-hander in which the two actors not only portray all of the characters (actually, one actor portrays all of the characters bar one) but also provide the piano accompaniment for each other, sometimes simultaneously. The novelty of the virtuoso character changes and self-accompaniment might be enough to make the show a winner, but the show also has a tuneful and clever score (from newcomers Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair), plus crack comic direction from Scott Schwartz. I caught the show at the Second Stage's uptown theater, as well as when it moved to a commercial run at the New World Stages. Even knowing whodunit ahead of time didn't spoil my enjoyment of the show the second time around. Actually, truth be told, the denouement is the least satisfying part of the show, but the journey more than makes up for the somewhat disappointing destination.
5. The Last Five Years - After I published my review of The Last Five Years at the Second Stage, a couple readers contacted me to say that they were disappointed that I liked the show. "I was looking forward to you tearing it apart," one said. "I usually can count on you to tell the truth," said another. Well, I was telling the truth. I genuinely like L5Y, and I particularly enjoyed this production of the show. I respectfully submit to these readers that their desire to see me trash L5Y likely says more about them than it does about me. Why would I devote so much of my life to musical theater if I didn't like at least some of it? I think Jason Robert Brown is one of the most talented composer/lyricists we currently have working, and his direction for the Second Stage production was spot-on. He kept the staging and production elements to a minimum and let the complex characterizations carry the day. Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe brought warmth, humor, and just the right amount of neurosis to their performances. Will the upcoming movie with Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick do the show justice? You know I'll be among the first to weigh in.
4. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - An utter delight. As an inveterate Anglophile, I was predisposed to love this show. It's sort of a mixture of Monty Python and Gosford Park, with a little Gilbert & Sullivan thrown in for good measure. Gentleman's Guide is easily the best musical to open this season on Broadway, at least so far. Much like Murder for Two, Gentleman's Guide is the product of a fresh new writing team (librettist/lyricist Robert L. Freedman and composer/lyricist Steven Lutvak), and has a resolution that's slightly inscrutable, and yet there's so much pleasure to be had along the journey, it hardly seems to matter. The sterling cast includes Bryce Pinkham, Jefferson Mays, Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham, all pitch-perfect in their roles. There was some concern among cast-album aficionados that no recording had yet been announced, but earlier this week we heard that Ghostlight Records would indeed be recording the show. (And all is well with the world.)
3. Matilda - Kinky Boots? Best Musical? I think not. I'm not sure what crawled up the collective ass of the theater community during awards season, but to so honor Kinky Boots, a middling show at best, over Matilda, an admittedly flawed but nonetheless delightful show, is simply ludicrous. I mean, it's not even a close contest. Matilda more than makes up for any flaws with rich characterizations, honest emotion, and songs that a far more specific to their context than those of Kinky Boots. Thankfully, Matilda is selling extremely well, which doesn't always happen with shows that lose the Best Musical Tony. Matilda seems to be around for the long haul, which will give the ticket-buying public a chance to decide for themselves. I've already seen Matilda twice an I eagerly anticipate seeing it again and again. I can't imagine ever wanting to see Kinky Boots again. (And have to sit through that preachy second act and those painfully generic songs again? I shudder at the very thought.)
2. Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 - An unusual title, an unusual show. But Natasha Pierre was one of the most captivating and moving shows to come to New York in many a season. Who would have thought that a musical based on War and Peace of all things would make for such a lively and compelling piece of musical theater? In my defense, I'm no stranger to the 19th-century Russian novel, having taken an in-depth seminar in same my junior year of college. So I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised that the tremendous passion and drama of that distinctive genre would yield such a rich theatrical result. I say it all the time: There's no such thing as a bad idea for a musical, only poor execution. Natasha Pierre is executed with great passion and care by its sole author, Dave Malloy. I'll be very interested to see if the show catches on regionally. It certainly lends itself to a variety of staging possibilities, beyond the immersive, cabaret-style presentation the show enjoyed Off-Broadway.
1. Fun Home - Oh. My. God. What a show. What an experience. Fun Home comes from an even more unlikely source than Natasha Pierre does: a graphic novel about a lesbian cartoonist who grows up in a funeral home with a closeted gay father. It's a tribute to composer Jeanine Tesori (making her second appearance on this list) and librettist/lyricist Lisa Kron that they've taken on such a challenging topic and created something genuinely sublime. Fun Home is extraordinarily powerful, bringing out the quiet dignity and desperation of its characters, while also providing strong dose of tongue-in-cheek entertainment as well. The performances were staggering, particularly those of Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn as the father and mother, respectively. Kron and Tesori also make the risky but ultimately successful choice of splitting the daughter character among three different actresses. I say "risky" because it could have been confusing, or precious, or pretentious. But it works, and splendidly so. Fun Home ends with a series of shattering solos for each of the three main characters, and the one-two-three punch is almost too much to bear, and yet somehow exhilarating at the same time. Fun Home easily ranks as one of my favorite musicals, not just of this year, but of all time. It's really that good.
Every few seasons or so, a musical comes to Broadway that just warms the cockles of my heart. (And as Woody Allen says in Love and Death, "Nothing like hot cockles.") Avenue Q was one. Spelling Bee, Grey Gardens, and The Drowsy Chaperone were a few others.
This season, the show that has captured my heart is A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, an ingenious little tuner that's as refreshing as a tall glass of Pimm's and ginger ale (with a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint, if you would be so kind).
The show played the Hartford Stage a few seasons back, and I'm really sorry now that I wasn't able to get down there during the run. I would love to have seen how the show changed in the development process. As it stands, it's a delightfully clever and tuneful little jewel box of a show (with a few minor blemishes, as we shall see).
One of the most remarkable things about Gentleman's Guide is that practically everyone on the creative staff is making his or her Broadway debut, including librettist/lyricistRobert L. Freedman, composer/lyricist Steven Lutvak, director Darko Tresnjak; and choreographer Peggy Hickey. May this be the first of many for all involved.
The plot to Gentleman's Guide will sound familiar to anyone who's seen the 1949 film "Kind Hearts and Coronets," starring Alec Guinness. Our humble antihero, Monty Navarro, discovers one day that he is ninth in line in the succession to the Earl of Something-or-other. It turns out that the family disinherited Monty's beloved and recently deceased mother, so Monty takes it upon himself to, well, prune the family tree, as it were. With each elimination, Monty finds himself rising through society, although we do know from the show's framing device, which has Monty narrating the story from his prison cell, that he doesn't get away with it. (Or does he?)
The production is certainly mannered, even a tad twee at times, but as an inveterate Anglophile, I ate it up, both times I saw the show. The production values are charmingly precious, calling to mind the intimacy of the fabled Princess musicals, or perhaps the the Music Box revues. Director Tresnjack demonstrates a sure hand with the swift pacing, and a sharp eye with abundant visual gags, as well as the more-than-occasional wink to the audience
Primary among the show's pleasures are the cast members, led by Bryce Pinkham, who's absolutely perfect for the part of Monty: charming, handsome, but with a definite wild-eyed edge, making Monty both sympathetic and wicked at the same time. Alongside Pinkham, we have Tony winner Jefferson Mays who gives a downright Herculean performance, changing with breakneck speed from portraying one victim to the next. (Sort of the reverse of Murder for Two, in which one actor plays all of the suspects.) As the women in Monty's life, both Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham bring exactly the right distinctive, idiomatic touches to their respective characterizations, and possess impeccable singing voices to boot.
Freedman and Lutvak, in addition to crafting a deliciously entertaining book, have matched it with clever lyrics with apt turns of phrase aplenty, and a jaunty, frolicsome score reminiscent of English music hall and Gilbert and Sullivan, with a little Victor Herbert thrown in for good measure. Each number seems to bring its own sense of delicious fun to the proceedings. Even when you think you're in for a straightforward ballad, the authors through us a curve to make it all the more enjoyable.
The only minor blemish for me came during the denouement, which I shan't ruin here and spoil the fun for you. Both times I saw the show, I didn't quite follow the logic of how the final turn of events came about, who was doing what and with whom, and why events transpire as they do. It's a tribute to the quality of the rest of the show that the slightly confusing plot resolution did nothing to deter my immense enjoyment of the piece as a whole.
If any of you happened to be in the Times Square area on the night of Saturday, December 14th, 2013, you may have heard some blood-curdling screams emanating from the Lyceum Theatre. But it wasn't coming from Mary Bridget Davies, now appearing at that august venue in the title role of A Night With Janis Joplin. No those wails of pain were coming from me as I sat in agony enduring the ear-splitting volume of the sound system.
Are baby boomers that deaf?
Yeah, my main problem with A Night With Janis Joplin had to do with sheer decibel level, but there's a lot more that's wrong with the show, at least from a musical-theater perspective. A Night With Janis Joplin amounts to, at least for me, an excruciating scream-fest without any compensatory human drama or theatrical invention.
The show is written and directed by one Randy Johnson, a man who appears to specialize in tribute shows and Vegas acts. And that's pretty much what we get with A Night With Janis Joplin: a superficial celebration of a music icon that belongs in Las Vegas or London or any other place that has a higher tolerance for schlock.
A Night With Janis Joplin essentially comprises a concert of Joplin's greatest hits, combined with a series of cameo appearances by some of Joplin's supposed musical influences, including Etta James, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Odetta, and Bessie Smith. (Ironically, Nina Simone comes off far better in the otherwise execrable Soul Doctor from earlier earlier this season.) Along the way, we get a rather cursory history of Joplin's growing interest in performing and with singing the blues.
The whole enterprise strikes me as a tremendous missed opportunity. I mean, we're talking about a fascinating and tortured woman here. Surely there was more drama to mine in Joplin's story than simply "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues." I'm certainly no expert when it comes to Janis Joplin, but I can't imagine that anyone who dies at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose was particularly happy. Writer Johnson seems uninterested in plumbing the depths of Joplin's tortured soul, content instead to mold a superficial hagiography. All we really learn about Joplin here is that she loved singing the blues and listening to black women singing. Johnson seems content to gloss over Joplin's pain with a series of platitudes: "Nobody feels the blues like a woman," and "When I'm singing it's the only time I don't feel lonely" being two notable examples.
As far as I can tell, Mary Bridget Davies gives a pretty spot-on impersonation of Janis Joplin, in particular in capturing her plaintive wail and ferocious rasp. The female singing ensemble is likewise impeccable. So there's not lack of talent on display. But the show has "fans only" written all over it, although I will admit that my ears did prick up for "Piece of My Heart" and "Me and Bobby McGee." The act one finale with Joplin making a guest appearance at an Aretha Franklin concert was pretty kick-ass. (I did feel the need to resist the performers' exhortations to the audience to stand up and get into the music. Yeah, ain't gonna happen, folks.)
I must say that many audience members were clearly having a ball traveling back in time, albeit in a non-threatening fashion: no pesky truths to sully their admiration. These people were mostly a few years my senior (I'm a very late boomer or a very early Gen-X-er, depending on whose definition you go by) and thus more of Joplin's time than I. Clearly, there's an audience for this show, although I'm not exactly sure how big that audience is. (The show played to about 2/3 capacity even during Christmas week, traditionally one of the two busiest periods of the year for Broadway, the other being Thanksgiving weekend.)
But it ain't good theater, people. Even showbiz tribute shows can manage to muster some sense of drama and stagecraft, for instance, Jersey Boys. A Night With Janis Joplin amounts to a reasonably slick and efficient tribute concert along the lines of Rain or Let It Be. It's fine for those who hope to recapture, however vicariously, the spark of Joplin's genius, but it never crosses over into compelling theater. It never even comes close.
One of the great unexpected pleasures of the new Broadway season is After Midnight, an effervescent tribute to the joys and spirit of Harlem in the 1920s and '30s, in particular the fabled Cotton Club. Bottom line: You're unlikely to find a more buoyant, sassy, and downright infectious time at the theater anywhere else in New York City right now.
After Midnight is a gussied-up version of Cotton Club Parade, the well-received 2011 Encores production. I didn't get a chance to see Cotton Club Parade, but if it's anything like After Midnight, then I think I must have missed out on something rather special.
Revues can be really tricky to pull off. I mean, they're fairly easy to throw together, if you don't particularly care about dramatic cohesion or flow. But that's just the thing: revues that have no sense of unity or continuity wind up being just an uninspired slog through song after song after song.
Fortunately, After Midnight comes with a built-in framing device: a typical Cotton Club revue. More important, After Midnight has director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, who whips the production up into an exhilarating froth, keeping the action moving inexorably forward, right through to two separate, and equally satisfying, finales.
For the uninitiated, The Cotton Club was a popular New York nightspot during the '20s and '30s. Although the club was in Harlem, it was nonetheless a whites-only establishment, at least when it came to the audience. The stage featured many of the best black entertainers of the time, including Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, The Nicholas Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ethel Waters. I've heard some carps from other critics that After Midnight doesn't delve at all into the social history of The Cotton Club, but that's not really what After Midnight is about. The point here seems to be to recreate the excitement of The Cotton Club, and to pay homage to the talent and legacy of the great entertainers who made those shows so electrifying.
After Midnight has some pretty electrifying performers of its own, including Fantasia Barrino, the first of a series of planned rotating guests stars. (In February, K.D. Lang joins the show, followed by Toni Braxton and Babyface.) I must admit, Fantasia was a pleasant surprise here. I'm somewhat (and by intention) ignorant of popular music, but I do know that Fantasia won "American Idol" a few seasons back. I was sort of expecting the showboating vocals and Mariah Carey melisma that seem all too typical of these televised singing competitions, but Fantasia was restrained and idiomatic in her smoky renditions of such standards as "Stormy Weather" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."
Sharing the stage with Fantasia is Dulé Hill, who as it turns out is a Broadway veteran, having among other stage gigs understudied Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid. Hill's smooth charm and pleasant singing voice raise him far above the dismissive charge of stunt-casting. (For those of you who, like me, don't watch television, Hill was featured on "The West Wing" and currently stars in "Psych.") Another major highlight of show in Tony winner Adriane Lenox (Doubt), essentially playing the lighter side of Ethel Waters with the delightfully sassy numbers "Don't Advertise Your Man" and "Where You Stayed Last Night."
Another delight from After Midnight comes in the form of the on-stage orchestra, the astounding Jazz At Lincoln Center All-Stars, conducted here by Daryl Waters. (Artistic director, Wynton Marsalis) Carlyle and company go out of their way to showcase the various members of the band, to the point where the orchestra even gets the final bow. What a pleasure it is to go to a show in New York in which the orchestra is more than just a supporting character. Here, they shine individually and as a whole, with numerous moments throughout the show to show their respective talents.
A good portion of the authenticity of After Midnight comes from the lushly orchestrated and lovingly performed music, much of which comes from the catalogues of Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, and the various collaborations bewteen Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, all of whom contributed extensively to Cotton Club revues during their careers.
What really gives After Midnight its effervescent tang are Carlyle's plentiful and high-octane dance numbers, including everything from swing to tap to novelty numbers. The tap here is sensational, particularly when dynamo Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards is on-stage. There's even a high-sprited homage to the marvelous Nicholas Brothers, featuring Daniel J. Watts and Phillip Attmore. (If you've never seen The Nicholas Brothers in the movie Stormy Weather, you haven't truly lived. Fred Astaire called this the best dance number ever to appear on film.) One minor misstep came in the form of a rather bizarre interpretive dance that had the otherwise arresting Karine Plantadit rising form the dead and dancing around her funeral procession. Plantadit is terrific, and the dance is sharp, but the moment is decidedly odd.
But in general, After Midnight is all about having a grand old time. Hey, if you're looking for social history, try Francis Ford Coppolla's underrated 1984 film, "The Cotton Club." But if you're looking to have a fabulous time watching great performers and immersing yourself into the delights of a bygone era, you might just want to give After Midnight a try.