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.
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.
The musical Working has always held a sort of fascination for me. Opportunities to see it staged live are somewhat rare, but it's one of those shows that, when I listen to the original cast recording, it's hard to believe it was such a flop on Broadway in 1978. There's just so much good material in the score. (My favorites are "Just a Housewife," "Fathers and Sons," and "It's an Art.")
Of course, Working the musical was originally adapted from the Studs Terkel book, Working. Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz provided the adaptation, with one Nina Faso. Schwartz also directed the Broadway production, in addition to contributing three of the show's strongest songs ("All the Livelong Day," "It's an Art," "Fathers and Sons").
But Working is one of those shows that authors and adaptors keep returning to, like Merrily We Roll Along or Mack and Mabel, shows that, very similar to Working, sound so great on their cast recordings, it's hard to believe that the shows themselves don't work.
Unfortunately, Working has never quite worked as a show, despite the superior quality of some of its songs. The show's ongoing revisions continue to be hampered by a fundamental flaw: because the show sets out to portray such a broad swath of working people and their individual stories, there's not enough time to become emotionally invested in any of these people.
The latest reworking of Working includes revisions by Gordon Greenberg and two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of In the Heights fame. This version of the show played an engagement at New York's 59E59 Theaters in 2012; I was, however, unable to catch the show during that limited run. Fortunately, Boston's Lyric Stage is currently presenting Working in its updated form (through February 1st), which thankfully gave me a chance to play a little catch-up.
The piece remains detrimentally fragmented, but Working plays best when it's celebrating the individual, the unacknowledged. There are numerous moments of great poignancy, but by the time we form a bond, it's usually time to move on to the next vignette. I did notice during this viewing of the show that there were some very apt juxtapositions of characters (a hooker and a socialite, a health-care worker and an au pair, etc.), and an admirably smooth flow from one scene to the next.
In terms of new material, the most effective new segment comes from Lin-Manuel Miranda, a touching new song called "A Very Good Day," in which the aforementioned health-care worker and au pair sing plaintively about doing what "no one [else] wants to do." Miranda's other song about a delivery boy is bland and unimpressive, but "A Very Good Day" seems to fit right into the intent of the show.
The Lyric production features a cast of local professional and semi-pro actors, and the results are almost universally strong. There was a bit of artificiality to a few of the performances, and the singing voices weren't all up to par, but for the most part these are people who wouldn't be out of place in a New York production of the show, or indeed any other show. Especially strong are the versatile Christopher Chew and the vibrant Shannon Lee Jones playing the more mature roles throughout the show.
Director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins does a fine job with the character work, but her musical staging here is somewhat amateurish. The group numbers feature unimaginative movement (step-touch, step-clap, allemande left, promenade right, etc.) giving the thankfully few ensemble moments a decided "Waiting for Guffman" feel. Also, the pacing of the show needs picking up: if you're not going to have an intermission, it's wise to keep the proceedings to about 90 minutes. This production clocks in and about 110. On the plus side, Robbins and lighting designer John Malinowski make very effective using of lighting to set the mood and emphasize transitions.
Working may never work overall as a piece, but there's plenty of pleasure to derive from the fragments, as well as the Lyric production of same. At a time when even the most well-heeled of regional theaters are falling back on safe, predictable choices, it's commendable that the Lyric would take a chance on an admittedly flawed but nonetheless fascinating show.
Two of the shows that I cover in some detail in my musical-theater history course are On Your Toes (1936) and On the Town (1944). My students often confuse the two with each other, which is understandable, partly because of the similar titles, but also because each show represents a major step forward in the integration of purposeful dance, albeit in subtly distinct ways.
On Your Toes was a genuine attempt to bring musical-theater dance to center stage. I had an opportunity to see On Your Toes during its recent Encores! revival, and it was clear to me from seeing the show that the integration process still had a long way to go. The show features two major dance interludes. The first, the "Princess Zenobia" ballet, while impressive is fairly tangential to the plot, at least in terms of the Sheherazade-like nature of the ballet's story. And the climactic "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" is only integrated inasmuch as the lead male character, Junior, needs to keep the ballet going to avoid being shot by a gangster in the audience. But the story of the ballet is entirely separate from the plot of the show. Admittedly, the title song features dance that is very integrated, with tappers and ballet dancers squaring off in an expression of the show's central theme: the classical versus the popular.
I also had a chance to see On the Town recently at the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Whereas On Your Toes was a fascinating but creaky relic, On the Town is an exuberant joy. Of course, the right director can make a world of difference in staging a classic show, and the Barrington fortunately has John Rando, who whips up a briskly paced production full of energetic staging, smooth transitions, and neon-bright characterizations. Rando is at a significant advantage here, because On the Town is a much stronger show than On Your Toes, but On the Town is by no means fool-proof, as the last two Broadway revivals have demonstrated.
On the Town was really the first time that dance became the connective tissue that held a show together, which makes perfect sense given that the show started as a 1944 Jerome Robbins ballet called Fancy Free. On the Town features dance interludes in almost every song, and the dance is far more essential to the narrative than the dance in On Your Toes. For example, the "Imaginary Coney Island" ballet not only brings us into the mind of the show's central character, Gabey (we witness his innocence and his romantic longing), it also provides a humorous transition to the final major episode in the plot (Gabey thinks Coney Island is the playground of moneyed sophisticates. We know it ain't.)
The current Barrington production doesn't use the original Jerome Robbins On the Town choreography, as the recent Encores production of On the Town did. Because Robbins was so much a part of making the original On the Town successful, bringing in a new choreographic vision doesn't always work. (Just ask Ron Field, choreographer of the 1971 Broadway revival, and Keith Young/Joey McKneely, who worked on the 1999 revival.) Thankfully, Joshua Bergasse is more than up to the job, and fills the stage with an exhilarating array of imaginative patterns, replete with some genuinely thrilling lifts. Bergasse's only Broadway credits thus far are as a performer, but he really seems to be a choreographer worth watching out for.
Other than the chance to see a seminal show, the main attraction this production of On the Town held for me was the first-rate roster of Broadway performers in the Barrington cast. The sensational Tony Yazbeck returns to the role of Gabey, which he also played at Encores. If anything, he was even more appealing on the smaller Barrington stage. What a voice. What a dancer. What a looker. (Can we please get this amazing guy back on Broadway as soon as humanly possible?) Ably assisting Yazbek are Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves as Chip and Ozzie, respectively, both of whom craft memorable, individual characterizations in parts that can easily become indistinct.
Most notable among the supporting cast was Alysha Umphress as Hildy, who puts a strong personal stamp on a role that has a long history of memorable performances from big brassy ladies (including Nancy Walker, Bernadette Peters, and Leslie Kritzer). Umphress was especially impressive in "Come up to My Place," a number whose staging was fast and fresh, without ever detracting from the comic intent of the song. Among the more mature cast members were the priceless Nancy Opel, a scenery-chewing hoot as Madame Dilly, and Tony winner Michael Rupert, who brings his forty-plus years of stage experience and a laser-sharp baritone to the relatively minor part of Pitkin W. Bridgework. (Special shout out to Boston Conservatory sophomore Jane Bernhard, making her Barrington Stage debut in the show's ensemble. Much love, doll.)
On the Town runs at the Barrington Stage through July 13th. If you're planning on going, get your tickets soon. After Ben Brantley's recent rave in the New York Times, sales are likely to be brisk. And rightly so.
Never let it be said that I won't give a show a second chance.
I was considerably at odds with both critical and public opinion on the recent American Repertory Theater production of Pippin. The crowds went crazy and the critics did, too. Me, not so much. (Read my review.)
I'm sorry, but I just found the production to be all flash and no substance. But then, that has always been the problem with Pippin, ever since Bob Fosse kicked composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Roger O. Hirson out of rehearsals and proceeded to mold the show into his nihilistic, pyrotechnical vision.
But I was open to the possibility that I might simply have been a tad dyspeptic, or perhaps out-of-sorts, on the night that I saw Pippin in Cambridge. So when I got the invite to see Pippin again, I eagerly replied in the affirmative.
The reviews for the Broadway production were no less rhapsodic, although there were a few holdouts, including Ben Brantley at the New York Times, and Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal. Well, after seeing the show again, I have to say that I still come down on the side of Ben and Terry. This Pippin is lively, bright, and loud, to be sure, but it still lacks any discernible meaning. For me, what we have here is the proverbial tale, full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing.
Again, one of the main problems with Pippin as a show is that it doesn't build, it meanders, particularly during a rather uneventful second act. Fosse hid the flaws with razzle-dazzle staging, and here director Diane Paulus and choreographer Chet Walker (working "in the style of" Fosse) pretty much just substitute their own glitz for the Fosse glitz, supplemented by some admittedly impressive acrobatics, supplied by Gipsy Snider of Les 7 doigts de le mains. But, again, what does it all amount to, besides audience-pleasing showboating? How do all the cast members bouncing around on green workout balls illuminate the meaning of "Simple Joys"? What's the point of having the two hand-balancers upstaging the action during the number "With You"? I'm as big a sucker as the next guy for whiz-bang production elements, provided, of course, they add something to the narrative.
There did seem to be some changes to the production on the road from Cambridge to Manhattan. Some sequences genuinely seemed more fluid, while others seemed to produce more of an ebb in the flow of the production, notably the number "Extraordinary." I seem to recall that at the A.R.T., this number simply featured the character Pippin climbing around the set and singing, but now we have a fully staged, overly busy, distractingly cutesy barnyard number, complete with folksy costumes and lots of focus-pulling stage business for the members of the ensemble. The number lacks focus, exacerbated by a whole lot of self-satisfied mugging on the part of the chorus. (I guess that's one of the dangers of filling your show with acrobats who can't act.)
As for the cast, I remain fully enamored of both the quirky Rachel Bay Jones, in the otherwise thankless role of Catherine, and the astonishing Andrea Martin as Berthe. Martin, quite deservedly, got a mid-show standing ovation after her masterful "No Time at All," which was somehow even more of a pleasure in New York than it was in Cambridge.
I have to say that Matthew James Thomas, in the title role, has become far more animated and sympathetic. Charlotte d'Amboise as Fastrada also seems more comfortable and self-assured, although neither performer has made the cross over into memorable. Patina Miller was out for this particular performance, but Stephanie Pope made for a more-than-adequate replacement as the Leading Player. In fact, I found Pope to have more presence and a more satisfyingly sinister bent than Miller did.
Terrence Mann as Charlemagne remains marble-mouthed and mumbly, particularly during "War Is a Science." If anything, I understood even less of what he sang this time around. In fact, Mann's take on "War Is a Science" sort of crystallized for me what's wrong with Pippin as a whole. Paulus ups the tempo for the final verse, making the last part into a patter song, and all but obliterating any meaning we could derive from the lyric.
You're not alone. I mean, I love me some G&S, but some of those shows just seem to go on and on and on, especially in inexperienced hands. There's nothing more tedious than sitting through an amateur production of The Gondoliers or H.M.S. Pinafore. (Pacing, my friends. It's all about pacing. If it can't be good, dear God, make it short.)
Well, have no fear. The Hypocrites are here, with a fresh and zippy 80-minute production of The Pirates of Penzance, which recently opened at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Call it Gilbert & Sullivan for modern attention spans. The Hypocrites is a Chicago-based theater troupe known for its distinctive re-imagining of classic works. The recent acclaimed production of Our Town, directed by David Cromer, originated with The Hypocrites in Chicago.
Here, the troupe has taken The Pirates of Penzance, cut it down (the adaptation is by Sean Graney and Kevin O'Donnell), and whipped up a frothy atmospheric production complete with beach balls, picnic tables, and plastic wading pools. The atmosphere is true to the playful spirit of the original show, while adding some lovingly ridiculous elements of the group's own devising.
In truth, "adaptation" here means little more than a significantly truncated version of the original with a few modern references and sight gags thrown in. The result is short, sweet, and relentlessly silly.
The real fun here comes from the spirited and arch direction by Sean Graney, and the lovingly over-the-top performances from a cast of Hypocrites regulars. Particularly strong among the hard-working crew of ten were a lovingly mock heroic Zeke Sulkes as the pirate apprentice Frederick, a delightfully dotty Christine Stulik as both Ruth and Mabel, and an amusingly imperious Matt Kahler as the famed Major General.
The cast members, who also serve as the show's on-stage band, mill about convivially among the audience members, many of whom are seated on the stage and on benches surrounding the playing area. I'm not one to automatically respond to immersive theater such as this, but thankfully the A.R.T. staff saw fit to provide regular seating away from the on-stage antics. (I crouch, squat, and scurry for no show.)
This particular production of The Pirates of Penzance is certainly not for G&S purists. As I said, the show and the score have been cut down rather severely, but this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. G&S have a strong tendency to repeat refrains almost incessantly, most of which the production at hand has dispensed with, as well as turning much of the recitative into spoken text.
The score has been rearranged and modernized for guitar, banjo, flute, spoons, and the occasional woodwind. The musicianship, both sung and played, was for the most part serviceable, although the apostrophic "Hail, Poetry" was simply stunning, thanks to both the sotto voce singing and sensitive lighting.
On a final note, I have to say that I'm genuinely torn over the fact that this admitted crowd-pleaser comes to us under the auspices of the A.R.T. As you may know, the A.R.T. has come under fire for its overtly commercial bent under the helm of artistic director Diane Paulus. And this production of Pirates certainly ranks among the theater's more mainstream-friendly offerings. I mean, there's a certain amount of theatrical invention involved here, but it's certainly nothing you would call challenging or deep. At least it's not pretentious like Pippin, by which I mean a pretense of meaning. Pirates doesn't try to be anything beyond what it is, which is a rollicking good time.
But is that what a major non-profit, operating within one of the most august learning institutions in the world, should be doing?
In his review of the current Broadway revival of Jekyll & Hyde, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood referred to Frank Wildhorn musicals as "the crab grass of Broadway." Some people thought that was unprofessional or unnecessarily harsh of him. I think he was being kind.
I like to think that Isherwood, in an earlier draft of the review, referred to Wildhorn musicals as a certain other unfortunate item that one tends to find on suburban lawns, particularly in neighborhoods that have lots of dogs and not-so-considerate neighbors.
Jekyll & Hyde is an affront to musical theater, and has been since the first commercial recording came out 23 years ago. After lurking around in regional theaters, the show finally opened on Broadway in 1997, ran for an astounding 1,543 performances, and yet still managed to close without earning back its investment. (I'm pretty sure that makes Jekyll & Hyde the longest-running musical flop in Broadway history.)
The only thing that Jekyll & Hyde has ever had going for it is Frank Wildhorn's not entirely unpleasant melodies, even if the songs are generic and their style bears no relation whatsoever to the time and place of the piece. Why, then, the powers that be involved in the current Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde thought it was a good idea to recast the songs with harsh, steam-punk orchestrations is a mystery. Yeah, take the show's only asset and render it moot beneath a crush of heavy-metal sound and ear-splitting amplification. Sounds like a plan.
I'm not really sure what the reasoning was behind bringing this production to Broadway at all, except perhaps to take advantage of any residual audience for the fading luster of two supposed singing stars: Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox. (The show was supposed to play through the end of June, but has since announced that it will be closing this coming weekend.) Maroulis was actually kind of charming in Rock of Ages, but here he's an unfocused mess, all surface emoting and showboating vocalizations. (Oh, and, Constantine, about that accent. Are we talking England here? Wales? Scotland? Japan?) As for Cox, well, she sounded fine (thanks in part to a whole lotta reverb), but she didn't really command the stage in a way that the part of Lucy would seem to demand.
The production is directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, and it's hard to think of him as the same Jeff Calhoun who made Newsies into such a rousing success. The staging here is lifeless, particularly for Lucy's introductory number, "Bring on the Men." Calhoun uses the notion of Spider's Web, which is the name of the club where Lucy works (which I believe was called The Red Hat in previous versions), and includes a number of bungee-cord ropes to ensnare the men in attendance, but then he doesn't really do anything interesting with the ropes. The number just kinda sits there, much like the rest of the production.
One of the many things that made the original Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde so laughable was the infamous sequence called "The Confrontation," in which the poor actor playing Jekyll (at various times in the run, Robert Cuccioli, Sebastian Bach, Jack Wagner, David Hasselhoff, and other unfortunate souls) sang a duet with himself a while indicating the change from Jekyll to Hyde and back by whipping his hair back and forth. (Willow Smith, eat your heart out.) The results, trust me, were hysterical. (Click though the link in the title above and see for yourself.) For the current production, we have another kind of unintentional joke, with Jekyll confronting a prerecorded Hyde in the form of a risible series of projections on the back wall. The results look not unlike a 1980s MTV video from a very bad hair band.
Of course, Calhoun is hampered here by a piece that is simply atrocious from the get-go, and most of the blame for that lands at feet of Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the book and lyrics. The sad thing is that Bricusse used to have talent, at least as evidenced in his collaborations with Anthony Newley (Stop the World - I Want to Get Off, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) and a number of solo efforts (including the movie musical Scrooge with Albert Finney). But Bricusse's book for Jekyll & Hyde is leaden and plodding. The setups for the songs are clumsy, when they even exist. The power ballad "This Is the Moment" has no setup at all. Supposedly, Jekyll has just made a big decision about how to proceed with his experiment, and he launches into the song. Only later do we learn that he has decided to use himself as a guinea pig. Belt first, ask questions later.
What's worse, one of the central plot elements in the show - the relationship between Jekyll and the prostitute Lucy - seems to come out of nowhere and is then taken pretty much as a given, without the benefit of on-stage development. Jekyll gives Lucy his card after meeting her at her place of employ, and then she shows up one night at the good doctor's home with an undisclosed injury. He basically cleans the wound and puts on a bandage, and then we're supposed to accept that she's now in love with him, and that, even more ridiculous, he reciprocates her feelings. Which would be fine if we saw the relationship develop from there, but we don't. The only other times Lucy is on-stage is to sing two more power ballads ("In His Eyes" and "A New Life"), and at both times, Jekyll isn't with her. Power ballads apparently justify themselves in Frank Wildhorn's world.
If Bricusse's book is bad, his lyrics are actually worse. If you were to listen to any of the cast recordings, you would have no idea what's going on in the show. I know this, because that's what happened to me when I first listened to the concept recording in 1990. The power ballads in particular are virtually interchangeable. When Bricusse's rhymes aren't puerile ("strife/life") they're either painfully awkward ("Murder, murder/Once there's one done/Can't be undone") or virtually meaningless ("When the momentum and the moment are in rhyme").
So, bad production, bad show. The night I attended was a press performances, and the audience was largely composed of voters from the various award processes for New York theater (Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, etc.) I could tell that the folks seated around me were having the same visceral reaction I was to the proceedings. Toward the end of the show, the character John, Jekyll's friend, confronts Jekyll with a sword to prevent Jekyll from harming the members of the wedding party. "Please," Jekyll says, seemingly inviting John to run him through. "Set us all
free." The section of the audience where I was sitting, as if on cue, erupted into laughter.
"Yes, please," we seemed to say.
"Put us all out of our misery."
I don't often get the chance to see Broadway shows twice. By the end of the season, I'm lucky if I have time to see things once. But I recently had the opportunity to see the current Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella very early in previews and again after it opened. This gave me a chance to see how much the show had changed during the preview process. (More on this later. In short, the changes were fairly significant.)
Why, of all shows, would I want to see Cinderella twice? In all honesty, I've never been a huge fan of the various versions of the R&H Cinderella. To me, they all seemed rather thin (e.g. the Julie Andrews and Leslie Ann Warren versions) or bloated (the Brandy/Whitney Houston version), but never particularly enchanting. The original songs, of course, are lovely, but the TV treatments have usually left me feeling I would have been better off listening to the soundtracks.
I was in New York one weekend and was having dinner with my friend Geoff and he was telling me about the Broadway Cinderella, which he had seen at one of the very first previews. He made it sound like the show needed a lot of work, and I became intrigued. Not just rubbernecking intrigued, but that was certainly part of it. I knew I would eventually be invited to see the show as a member of the Outer Critics Circle, but I had a rare night when I was in New York and didn't already have a show to see, so I sidled over to the Cinderella box office.
It turned out that the show was indeed in need of a good deal of work, particularly in pruning a rather bloated and busy second act, with disparate story elements struggling to come together. As you may know, the Broadway production sports a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, a man who's certainly proved himself as a playwright (The Little Dog Laughed, As Bees in Honey Drown), although his track record with musicals so far has been spotty (Xanadu = yay, Lysistrata Jones = boo).
I have heard many complaints about the liberties that Beane has taken with the story (making one of the stepsisters sympathetic, adding a subplot about a political upstart who wants to confront the Prince about the plight of the poor, eliminating the king and queen from the story, etc.). The changes didn't bother me. I mean, it's not as though the Cinderella story hasn't already changed considerably over time. The question is, does Beane do it well?
Well, sometimes. Beane manages to add some much-needed humor to the piece, although it sometimes crosses over into anachronistic snark. And, as I said, the show I saw in previews needed some paring down. The first time I saw it, the second act contained a significant subplot about an election for prime minister. Beane tried to weave this in with the whole trying-on-the-shoe thing, and the result was forced and confusing. The second act has since been cut to the point where the election is only really mentioned, not depicted.
The cuts were necessary, but the threads are showing. If you blink, you'll miss who actually wins the election. And the more expedient second act has apparently necessitated some lightning-fast costumes changes, as evidenced by the addition of some cheesy overlay costumes - Velcro numbers that barely conceal the costumes from the previous scene beneath - which many of the chorus members now wear during the finale.
What remains of the book is mostly workable, although there is some genuinely contrived business regarding a book that comes into Cinderella's possession during act one. In act two, the Fairy Godmother makes a big deal out of making sure Cinderella takes the book with her on her second trip to the palace. (Oh, yes, a book. That's exactly what an incipient princess needs to bring with her to a royal banquet. A book.) Upon Cinderella's arrival at the palace, there's some more forced business about the Prince suddenly remembering a chapter from the book that might just save the day. "Of course!" he cries. "Chapter two!" We never find out what's actually in chapter two, nor what the entire book is about for that matter, but I guess chapter two must have an election of some sort, because that's how the Prince suddenly gets the idea to hold the election.
To Beane's credit, he playfully points out some of the more ridiculous aspects of the original Cinderella story. At one point, Gabrielle asks Cinderella, "How did you ever dance in glass shoes?" I would love to have seen Beane more directly address the whole notion of the Prince insisting on trying the glass slipper on the foot of every young woman in the kingdom. I mean, why is it that the Prince isn't paying attention to something a bit more distinctive about these women, like, I don't know, their faces? Has he developed a sudden but temporary case of prosopagnosia?
The glorious Cinderella score has been supplemented here by some somewhat perfunctory R&H trunk songs. The first time I saw the show, there were six added numbers, including “I Have Loved and I've Learned” (a cut number from The Sound of Music, sung here by the stepmother and stepsisters) as well as “I Haven't Got a Worry in the World,” (a song R&H written for the short-lived playHappy Birthday, and sung here by the newly sympathetic stepsister, Gabrielle, and her activist beau Jean-Michel). These two numbers have since been cut from Cinderella, and rightly so.
Four additional trunk numbers have survived the preview cutting process. The Prince's first song is “Me, Who Am I?,” a number cut from Me and Juliet. The new Jean-Michel character sings the rabble-rousing “Now Is the Time,” a song cut from South Pacific. The Prince and Cinderella sing the plaintive “Loneliness of Evening,” also cut from South Pacific. And the Fairy Godmother sings “There's Music in You,” an R&H song from the movie "Main Street to Broadway." All these songs have a certain utility here, but none of them could be considered a newly discovered gem.
The post-preview version of Cinderella, at least for my money, comes closest to working of any of the various versions to the R&H Cinderella, although even this version is a bit diffuse. Production highlights include a sumptuous visual style, with sets by Anna Louizos and costumes by William Ivey Long. Long provides some especially clever pieces for the various transformations. Chief among the production's assets is the near-perfect casting, led by the always appealing Laura Osnes as Ella herself, an offbeat yet charming Santino Fontana as the Prince, and Tony winner Victoria Clark as an alternately dotty and delightful Fairy Godmother. (Oh, and a special shout-out to chorus member Kendal Hartse, one of my very first students at the Boston Conservatory. BoCo, represent!)
I get the sense that this Cinderella is going to be around for a while. At the first performance I attended, the Playbill was black-and-white. By the second performance, the Playbill had gone to full-color. That's usually a sign that a show has some cash in the coffers.
As big of a Sondheim fan as I am, I've never really warmed up to Passion, and the current production didn't succeed in changing my mind about the show. Don't get me wrong, the CSC production is extremely professional. In fact, it's about as good a production of the show as we're ever likely to see, including the original Broadway production and televised concert version with Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone.
And yet, for me, the piece remains fundamentally flawed. Yes, the show has many sublime moments, mostly because of Sondheim's rich and cohesive score. I'm particularly fond of "Loving You," "Is This What You Call Love?," "I Read," and "I Wish I Could Forget You." These are gorgeous moments, full of melodic richness, nuance, and...well, passion. But a true appreciation of the show hinges on one key development, one that I have simply never bought in any of the show's incarnations. [SPOILERS BELOW]
The director here is John Doyle, who crafts respectful, dynamic, and sensitive production, creating just the right atmosphere for the piece in terms of both the setting and the emotional feel of the show. One minor misstep on Doyle's part involved having the male ensemble members playing female roles by wrapping shawls around their heads and waists. It felt a tad ridiculous and inconsistent with the show's tone.
The creators couldn't ask for a better cast for Passion, although I did see the show without Melissa Errico, owing to her extended absence from the show due to bronchitis. (Errico's illness has also necessitated a delay in the announced PS Classics recording of this production.) Standby Amy Justman made for a more-than-serviceable Clara in Errico's absence. The productions key assets are Ryan Silverman as Giorgio and Judy Kuhn as Fosca. Silverman has a golden voice, and his acting is a damn sight more convincing than that of original leading man Jere Shea. Kuhn broke my heart upon her very entrance, and she brings a far less harsh and considerably more sympathetic tone to Fosca than Donna Murphy did.
But Silverman and Kuhn are burdened by the central flaw of the show: two characters who fail to meet the authors' intentions. The main problem with the show is that Fosca isn't written as appealing enough to justify Giorgio's change of heart at the end. It's not that Fosca is physically unattractive, it's that she has few redeeming personal qualities beyond her propensity to evoke pity. She's selfish, unreasonable, and relentless. Yes, that's the point, I know. But I simply don't see anything in Fosca that would warrant Giorgio ultimately falling in love with her, or at least claiming that he has.
Likewise, the character of Giorgio feels like little more than a collection of surface characteristics, so it's difficult to discern at the end why he makes so many seemingly erratic decisions. Why, for instance, does Giorgio not tell the truth to the Colonel with respect to his relationship and intentions toward Fosca? Why the sudden stubbornness in a character that hasn't exhibited this characteristic throughout the rest of the show? Why does he turn down the transfer that comes through for him? Why does Clara's final letter prompt him to end their relationship? Why does he consent to actually having sex with Fosca?
Feel free to speculate as to answers for these questions in the comment area below. But my ultimate point is that the show, at least from where I sit, is ultimately frustrating because it doesn't make Giorgio's emotional journey clear enough to provide a satisfying conclusion. As I once heard Sondheim say in a live talk he gave at Harvard, musical-theater writers are allowed to challenge their audience members, but not baffle them.
I'm very sorry, Mr. Sondheim, but Passion baffles me. It always has and will very likely continue to do so.
A confession: I love Annie. Yes, it's sappy. Yes, the characters are two-dimensional. Yes, there are songs that serve no purpose except to cover a costume change. And yet it gives me joy. It was the first professional production of a musical that I ever saw, more than thirty years ago. A few years later, I played Daddy Warbucks in a local production of the show, skull cap and all. So pardon me if my critical faculties take a backseat to nostalgia just this once.
That doesn't mean, however, that I automatically adore any and all productions of Annie. No, it takes a certain kind of director and choreographer to make the show work. Unfortunately, James Lapine (director) and Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer) weren't up to the job, at least as evidenced in the current Broadway revival at the Palace Theatre.
Lapine's direction certainly works during the show's heartfelt moments: that's really what Lapine excels at in general. I've honestly never seen a production of Annie that was this emotionally honest and touching. What's missing is the comedy. This may be the least funny Annie I've ever seen. Even two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran falls somewhat flat here, and she's as close to guaranteed comic gold as anyone we currently have working in the theater. Finneran was nothing less than hysterical in both Noises Off and Promises, Promises, the two shows for which she won those Tonys. But here she falls back on schtick and mannerisms to eke out what few laughs this production provides.
What's also missing from Lapine's direction is a sense of bringing the various parts of a big musical together. For this, Lapine seems to have abnegated too much of the staging work to Blankenbuehler. While I was watching the first act, I noted how lumbering and artificial the staging was for many of the numbers. I couldn't remember who the choreographer was, but at intermission when I checked my Playbill, it made perfect sense that it was Blankenbuehler. His recent work has made it all too obvious that he only really works well in the hip-hop style of In the Heights, The Wiz, or Bring It On. When he tries to craft more mainstream dance the results are either awkward or risible, as they were in 9 to 5, The People in the Picture, and now here with Annie.
Blankenbuehler doesn't seem to know what to do with old-fashioned musical comedy. His "It's a Hard Knock Life" was full of pointless business that upstaged the number's intent. "NYC" likewise was overly busy and lacked focus. And the title number was so clumsy and overly focused on intricate footwork, versus appealing stage pictures, that I thought perhaps my old friend Anthony van Laast had dropped in for a guest appearance. (And don't get me started on the tap-dancing criminals shuffling off to jail in the finale. Oy.) What's more, Blankenbuehler includes interludes of what appears to be interpretive dance during scene transitions, just as he did in The People in the Picture. And it's only slightly less laughable here.
The scenic design by David Korins comprises a series of fairly cheap-looking, flimsy set pieces that are already starting to show their wear. It looks as though the producers told Korins to design the show so that when this production closed they could take it right on the road. This was particularly evident in the Warbucks mansion, which is represented here by a sort of over-sized toddler's flip book. It made for an efficient way to walk Annie through the entire mansion in one broad sweep, but it also screamed "budget cuts."
The current cast members here are a bit of a mixed bag, although there are some genuinely strong standouts. Anthony Warlow as "Daddy" Warbucks is outstanding, with a strong voice and a commanding presence. When the part calls for bluster, he's got in in spades, but he can also turn on the charm and exude an appealing sense of warmth. In the supporting cast, we can usually count on Rooster and Lily for a little comic relief, but Clarke Thorell makes for an instantly forgettable Rooster, and J. Elaine Marcos is utterly incomprehensible as Lily. As for Lilla Crawford as Annie, she's got the pipes all right, but her New Yawk accent was forced and distracting. I got the sense that Lilla was only doing what her vocal coach told her to do, but the result is jarring and artificial: "Tsoo-morraow, tsoo-morroaw, I love youse, tsoo-morraow..." (O.K., the "youse" is an exaggeration. But you get the point.)
The revival includes some fairly minor changes to the book by Thomas Meehan, changes that Meehan himself contributed. There's a new newsreel prologue, setting the time as the Great Depression, 1933. They've cut a few of the comic bits, including the groaner about Warbucks buying the Mona Lisa and putting it in the bathroom. There's a neat new tag for act one that includes some mini reprises: a hopeful "Maybe" for Annie, and a rueful "You Won't Be and Orphan for Long" for Warbucks. The moment is staged with Grace Farrell, Warbucks' secretary, looking on lovingly between them, and it's a touching way to end the act. Thankfully there's no new number from composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin. I mean no disrespect, but this never seems to work out in these classic revivals. (See "Topsy-Turvy" from Fiddler on the Roof.)
Despite the current lackluster production, I still maintain that Annie is a solid show. It's sort of the opposite of the case with the current revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With Drood, the show doesn't really work, and yet the production does. With Annie, the show works, but the production, for the most part, doesn't.
Last week, the Off-Broadway production of the musical Bare announced that it would be closing this coming weekend after 21 previews and 65 regular performances. I wish I could say I was either disappointed or surprised, but I'm genuinely neither. (I am empathically disappointed for Boston Conservatory graduate Michael Tacconi, who is making his Off-Broadway debut in this production, but I'm confident that Mike will be going on to bigger and better things.)
Since its debut in 2000, Bare has been one of those musicals that just keeps entering the periphery of my radar. The show has developed a huge fanboy and fangirl factor, despite its relatively short New York run, not unlike the cult followings that The Last Five Yearsor Andrew Lippa's The Wild Partyhave developed over the years.
But Bare has seemed to transcend even those shows in its ability to make certain musical-theater fans go all gooey in the knees. The show went on to generate a lot of regional productions, so you certainly can't blame the creators for deciding to take another crack at the show, this time with up-and-coming director Stafford Arima.
Well, for me, Bare didn't work before and it certainly doesn't work now, despite extensive revisions. (The show has a book by Jon Hartmere, Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo, with lyrics by Hartmere and music by Intrabartolo. The new production features additional songs by Lynne Shankel and Jon Hartmere.) It's interesting that the last show that I saw that was directed by Stafford Arima was Carrie, another angsty teen tragedy with lame attempts at levity. To be fair, though, Carrie has higher highs and lower lows. Bare has always been more temperate in its mediocrity, coming off as a sort of preachy morality play cum after-school special.
It's funny, because Bare actually starts out pretty strong, at least in its current form. At the beginning of the show, the characterizations have a certain richness. The dialog sounds honest, and the relationships are complex. The songs have a hard-driving, melodic appeal, and the lyrics have a truthful feel to them and aren't self-conscious or forced, at least not at first. Act one does feature one significant misstep, when a sassy gospel-singing Virgin Mary appears to one of the leads after he eats cookies laced with marijuana. You could practically hear the book creaking under the strain of the forced comic relief.
Again, Bare starts out reasonably strong. But when the primary motor of the plot kicks in, the show descends into trite melodrama, despite some genuinely moving moments along the way. Bare is essentially about two boys at a Catholic boarding school who fall in love. One of the boys is a popular jock type, and he has significant challenges accepting himself as gay.
But what starts as a believably complex scenario with three-dimensional characters becomes a maudlin pity fest. The characters become characteristics. The lyrics become cliches ("You came and kissed my broken heart"). The scansion gets lazy ("ho-PING," "get-TING") and the syntax becomes reversed ("in you, God was very pleased"). It's almost as though the creators were focusing so hard on getting the first half of the show right that they weren't quite noticing that the rest of the show wasn't going to fix itself.
The current cast of Bare features some talented and promising performers, including Taylor Trensch as Peter, the more...er...sensitive of the central pair of lovers. Trensch has an appealing vulnerable quality, although he did exhibit a tendency to come off as whiny when the stakes were high. Jason Hite as Peter's jock boyfriend, Jason, seems like a talented young man, but the material here forces him to do too much surface emoting and screlting for his characterization to be truly effective.
Again, Bare closes this coming weekend. If you didn't get a chance to catch the show in New York, don't worry. If the show's history is any indication, you should be seeing it sometime soon at an ambitious but misguided theater near you.
Bad theater is a gift. I genuinely believe that. I know plenty of people who only go to see shows that they're already pretty sure they're going to like, or that have received strong reviews. I suppose that makes sense. But I make it a point to see every new musical and revival that opens on Broadway, and as many Off-Broadway musicals as my schedule will allow. And when you see a lot of theater, you see a lot of bad theater. That's just the way it goes. As I've said many times, quality is always the exception.
So where's the gift part? Well, I firmly believe that you need to see what's bad in order to fully appreciate what's good. So seeing bad shows helps to maximize your enjoyment of truly great shows. That's a gift, right? Sure, sometimes I get a bit testy when I'm sitting through some godawful mess of a production, but I usually just remind myself that there have always been fewer great shows than mediocre-to-bad shows. And there always will be. Sure, there used to be more musicals in general, back in the '40s and '50s, because the economics of putting on shows was very different back then. But more shows means more crap. As a percentage, great musicals are always in the vast minority.
For me, whenever I see a bad musical, I see the experience as becoming part of my continuing education in musical theater. And let's just say that
2012 gave me ample opportunity to grow in this respect, but that's
really no different from what happens in any other year. (Oh, and lest you think I'm dwelling on the negative, check out my my list of the Best Musicals of 2012.) To read my reviews, click on the names of the shows listed below.
10. Lysistrata Jones. Technically, I saw Lysistrata Jones in 2011, but I didn't include it on my 2011 Worst Musicals list because I had plenty of other candidates to write about. I include it on this year's list, partly because the show did technically play on Broadway in 2012 (albeit very briefly) and also because, the more I think about it, the more I see Lysistrata Jones as just plain bad. The book by Douglas Carter Beane is full of more one-liners than character-based humor. Beane also renders the anti-war message of Aristophanes' original Lysistrata utterly meaningless. And the score, by Beane's life partner Lewis Flinn, was just one unmemorable pop song after another. The production featured an appealing cast of fresh faces, including Patti Murin in the title role and Josh Segarra as her boyfriend. Director/choreographer Dan Knechtges created some very impressive and character-appropriate dances for the show. But, of course, those aren't the sort of things that make a show last beyond its Broadway run. I'm having a hard time seeing Lysistrata Jones catching on in regional theaters.
9. End of the Rainbow. OK, so, not technically a musical, I know. But I figured that, if I was going to include One Man, Two Guvnors on my list of the Best, I would be justified in slamming End of the Rainbow as one of the Worst. The only real reason to see End of the Rainbow was to witness Tracie Bennett's admittedly impressive, if not entirely accurate, impersonation of Judy Garland. (Although, Michael Cumpsty also had some fine moments as Garland's put-upon accompanist.) As for the play itself, by one Peter Quilter, End of the Rainbow was simply a straightforward, by-the-numbers representation of the events surrounding Garland's disastrous final concerts in London. There was no real point of view or artistry in Quilter's writing, and very little in director Terry Johnson's presentation of the play that was interesting or exciting. If you're interested in the waning years of Garland's career, you're better off watching the DVDs of "The Judy Garland Show" and reading Get Happy, Gerald Clarke's detailed and fascinating Garland biography.
6. Something's Afoot. Here's another one that sort of pains me to include on this list. I'm an ardent supporter of the Goodspeed Opera House. I've not only seen many of their shows over the years, I'll also be attending their annual Festival of New Artists this weekend, which will be my third time attending this event. They not only put on top-notch productions of historic shows, they also actively cultivate new works, and give lots of young performers their first chance to break into the business. But, for some reason I can't quite comprehend, the good folks at the Goodspeed decided to dredge up and present Something's Afoot as part of their most recent season. Now, Something's Afoot is one of the many shows that Goodspeed has helped shepherd along the way to a New York run. It played the Goodspeed in 1973, and went on to an abbreviated Broadway run in 1976. But it's bad. Very bad. The book is as creaky as the staircase in the gloomy mansion that serves as the show's setting. And the songs are tuneless, formless, and generic. I remain a fervent fan of the Goodspeed, and look forward to attending their production for many seasons to come. As long as they don't include Something's Afoot.
5. Carrie. Carrie? Bad? The devil you say. Yeah, well, go figure. One of the most legendary bad musicals of all time got a complete makeover and turned out to be...a bad musical. For years, Carrie, based on the novel by Stephen King, has stood as sort of a low watermark for musical-theater dreck. And, for years, the authors have been thinking that their show got a bad rap the first time around. So Lawrence D. Cohen (librettist), Dean Pitchford (lyricist) and Michael Gore (composer) teamed up with the MCC Theater and director Stafford Arima to the give the old girl another go. But here's the thing: they removed the stuff that made the show legendary in the first place, the hilariously miscalculated stuff that made the original Carrie so-bad-it-was-good. And they replaced it with treacle, new numbers so earnest that they were eye-rollingly dull. But, at the heart of Carrie remain a handful of songs that are genuinely strong -- "And Eve Was Weak," "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance," and "When There's No One" -- and the second time around those songs were just as out-of-place as they were the first time. The production did provide some top-notch performers a chance to shine, including the marvelous Marin Mazzie, and collectors finally got a professional cast recording to suuplement their...er...shall we say "private" recordings of the original.
4. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (with Nick Jonas). What a difference a lead makes. When I saw the recent revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe, I was charmed. (Read my review). But when I went back to catch the show again with Nick Jonas in the lead, the production seemed to have fallen apart. Apparently, director Rob Ashford had moved on to other projects, because the production had gotten really sloppy. Significant members of the original cast had taken their performances and made them broad beyond reason in an apparent attempt to curry cheap laughter from the audience of Jonas Brothers groupies and tourists. And the new cast members -- Mr. Jonas and Hollywood veteran Beau Bridges -- seemed to be leading the way, mugging up a storm, pushing for laughs, and abandoning all sense of moderation and dramatic integrity. Thankfully, the production closed shortly thereafter, sparing us all the indignity of witnessing Joey Fatone or Jonathan Knight running the production further into the ground.
3. Evita. When I saw Michael Grandage's revival of Evita in London, I genuinely enjoyed the production, and was very eager to see the show when it transferred to Broadway. Elena Roger was a veritable spitfire in the title role, and I was hoping to see her again. (Read my review of the London production.) However, I mistakenly bought a ticket for a show in which Roger's New York alternate, Christine DiCicco, played the role. Something definitely got lost in the import process, because the New York production was lifeless, despite the admittedly eye-pleasing presence of Ricky Martin in the role of Che. But Martin just smiled inanely throughout the entire show, seemingly oblivious to the meaning of the words he was singing, and the rest of the production lacked the vibrancy of the London staging. I thought perhaps it might have been the absence of Elena Roger that made the difference, but I'm told that the show played pretty much the same even when Roger was in it. The show has been playing to pretty strong houses based on Ricky Martin's presence, but the producers have opted to close the show rather than attempt to replace Martin. Again, one shudders to think of who they might have replaced Martin with, but it seems doubtful that anyone short of Mandy Patinkin himself could have raised this production out of the doldrums.
2. Scandalous. If only Scandalous had lived up to its name, it might have been at least somewhat entertaining. But it wasn't. Dear Lord, it wasn't. Other than the presence of Carolee Carmello and George Hearn in the cast, Scandalous had practically nothing going for it. First, it's hard to imagine that a musical about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson would have any drawing power. I mean, does anyone under the age of seventy five know who she is? Sure, one of the authors has some name recognition: Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the book and the lyrics. (The music was by David Pomeranz and David Friedman.) But Kathie Lee's fame wasn't sufficient to draw enough people to the theater to keep the show afloat. And the show itself was an amateurish mishmash of leaden dialog, inconsistent characterizations, and bland gospel anthems. After I published my review of the show, a reader contacted me accusing me of being overly harsh on the show because of its religious subject matter. Trust me, the subject matter had nothing to do with my reaction: the show itself was mortal sin enough.
1. Ghost. And then there's Ghost, a show that reflected everything wrong with modern musical theater: an over-reliance on technical production values; an under-reliance on quality songwriting and storytelling; the presence of pop-music dilettantes who assumed that writing popular songs is the same as writing cohesive musical theater scores; cast members forced to belt fortissimo over the over-amplified orchestra. Thankfully, Ghost didn't last very long, and didn't win any awards, which gives me hope that producers will think twice the next time they underestimate the ticket-buying public by bringing in another seemingly pre-sold brand name (here, the 1990 film "Ghost") with a high-profile but inexperienced writing team (Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame, record producer Glen Ballard, and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin), and hire an otherwise talented director (Tony-Award winner Matthew Warchus) for the thankless task of making it all work. Warchus will hopefully bounce back with the upcoming Broadway bow of Matilda. But I get the feeling that Ghost isn't going to stop producers from scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to turning safe-but-tired Hollywood properties into Broadway musicals. (See Flashdance.)
I guess we're running out of musicals worth reviving. That's what has been going through my mind recently as I've contemplated recent announcements of upcoming musical revivals on Broadway. I mean, Pump Boys and Dinettes?Is that really a show that's clamoring for another chance at the big time? And don't even get me started on the dread prospect of another Jekyll & Hyde. To paraphrase a former colleague, Oy and his famous gevalt.
And now, of course, there's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, currently enjoying a far better Broadway revival than the show itself deserves, under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company. I saw Drood during its original New York run 25 or so years ago. Even then, a mere sprite of a showtune queen, I knew that Drood was no great shakes in the quality department. Yes, it won the Tony Award for best musical, but against what competition? Song and Dance, Big Deal, and Tango Argentino. Not exactly a stellar slate of all-time greats.
What makes Drood a pleasant-enough diversion has very little to do with the actual book, music and lyrics, all by Rupert Holmes. No, whatever fun is to be had at Drood comes more from the show-within-a-show framing device, the English music hall setting, and the inspired device of having the audience vote on who the killer may have been. Holmes was presumably responsible for these devices, but his inspiration seems to have ended there.
The score comprises a series of bland, meandering ballads (e.g. "Moonfall"), rhythmic but tuneless character sketches ("A Man Could Go Quite Mad"), and generic uptempo crowd-pleasers ("Off to the Races"). And the book, which admittedly is supposed to be creaky, with cardboard characters who mimic types from the music-hall genre, accomplishes little more than setting up the scenario, introducing the suspects, and providing flimsy justification for all the various possible permutations of murderer/detective/lovers/etc. Holmes provides little in the way of credible character motivation. (Why, for instance, does Edwin take an instant dislike to Neville Landless, antagonizing Neville in a way that nothing else in Edwin's character would seem to justify?) In short, the show is long on concept, but short on delivery.
Thankfully, director Scott Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle have whipped up a lively and engaging production of a piece that admittedly was creaky from day one. The staging here is snappy, the tempi are brisk, and the audience doesn't have time to stop and notice the mediocrity of the musical itself. Ellis and Carlyle make rousing show-stoppers out of "Both Sides of the Coin" and "Don't Quit While You're Ahead," although "Settling up the Score" was uncharacteristically unfocused and lethargic. Anna Louizos (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes) give the production a warm, sumptuous, suitably Dickensian feel.
For Broadway insiders, the main draw here is likely to be the outstanding cast, which features some of the best performers currently working on Broadway. Chief among these pros is Will Chase as John Jasper. Chase has been a dependable leading man for years, particularly in his numerous gigs at Encores, but here he gets a chance to show his chops as the scene-stealing comic villain, and he's a hoot.
Likewise delightfully animated are Andy Karl as Neville Landless and the almost unrecognizable Jessie Mueller (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Into the Woods) as his sister Helena. If there's any justice in this world (and now that Obama has a second term, I'm starting to think there might be), Jessie Mueller is going to be a big, big star. And it's always a pleasure to encounter Tony winner Jim Norton on the boards. Norton plays the "the Chairman," a sort of emcee/compere role, and Norton wisely underplays the role to great comic effect. (Of course, I mean no disrespect to the late George Rose and his delightful scenery chewing in the original production. Both approaches worked just fine from where I sat.)
I was slightly disappointed in the otherwise legendary Chita Rivera as Princess Puffer and the normally reliable Stephanie J. Block as Drood. Of course, at this point in Chita's career, all she needs to do is simply show up. (I mean, she's 79, for Pete's sake. Power to her, huh?) I found our Chita just a little bit breathless and marble-mouthed during "Wages of Sin," although her "Garden Path to Hell" was chilling. And I think fierce girl Stephanie may just be the victim of a thinly written part. I seem to recall that Betty Buckley wasn't all that much more distinctive when she originated the role. And, thankfully, each of their respective renditions of "Writing on the Wall" gave me goosebumps.
So, on the whole, more than worth your while if you're in the city between now and February 10th. The show isn't much in the way of genuinely high quality musical theater, but there's plenty of fun to be had in the lively staging, the rousing sense of high spirits, and the cast that's about as good as any you'd be likely to find on Broadway. Or anywhere else.
But here's the thing about that word "classic." If a show that opened three years after I graduated college is now considered a classic, then that means that I have officially become a classic myself. Sort of a hard realization to come to, although I take solace in noting that I am extremely well-preserved.
It's really appropriate that Closer Than Ever, one of the major themes of which is facing the realities of adult life, should provide such a personal realization. The show is essentially a revue composed of trunk songs and random numbers that Maltby and Shire had written over the years, and represented a worthy and in many respects more satisfying follow-up to their earlier revue, Starting Here, Starting Now. It almost seems as though the songs for Closer Than Ever were written to be part of the same show, they fit so well together stylistically and thematically.
The themes that emerge are adult in the most fulfilling sense of the word: the complexities of mature romance, the insecurities of modern life, the minor demons that dwell just below the surface of so many seemingly high-functioning people. The result is a wonderfully rich and intelligent series of human stories, qualities that are so evident in the score to Maltby and Shire's first Broadway musical Baby, and so utterly lacking in their score to their only other Broadway show to date, Big.
For the original production of Closer Than Ever, Maltby shared director credit with one Steven Scott Smith. Here he handles the task alone, and his hand here is extremely sure but delicate. The pace is brisk but never rushed, and there's a remarkable economy to the staging. Matlby seems intent on letting the material and the performers shine, and that's exactly what happens.
Few lyricists are as deft as Richard Maltby when he's on his game. The richness of Closer Than Ever comes directly from Maltby's smart and insightful words, as well as the depth of characterization therein. But where would Maltby's lyrics be without David Shire's deceptively effortless music? Shire matches Maltby song for song with music that sets the tone and enhances the impact of Maltby's wise and clever words.
Aphorisms suffuse nearly every Maltby lyric ("Whichever choice you make, the longing is a given," "Streams of next times don't make one today."), but they rarely come off as preachy. There's also plenty of evocative imagery ("Seals are dancing in my flesh," "Only snag in all this lace"). True, there's maybe an overabundance of '70s and '80s psychobabble ("Suffused with a mystic glow"), but that's perhaps intentional on Matlby's part. These people are, after all, products of their time and place.
As big a fan as I am of Maltby, and of Closer Than Ever in particular, the show features two songs that have always felt entirely too saccharine to me, too ham-fisted in their sentimentality. One of these is "If I Sing," Maltby's homage to his father, the renown conductor. The other is "Fathers of Fathers," a treacly song rightly cut from Baby. Both songs feel overly cloying and pat in a show otherwise replete with hard-eyed wisdom and complexity.
This production of Closer than Ever features some fairly significant changes, deletions, and additions. There are a few new lyrics here and there, mostly to update the cultural references ("And so I dug out mom's Jane Fonda," "Angela's husband calls Glenn Beck a hero"). One of the characters in "March of Time" has become a lesbian, and the turgid "Like a Baby" has thankfully been cut. For new material, there's a new male solo called "I'll Get Up Tomorrow Morning," which is about resilience in the face of life's many challenges. The song meant well, but didn't really go anywhere. There's a new song called "There's Something in a Wedding" that sets up the matrimony sequence in the show, and it was fine but unmemorable.
The best new song is called "Dating Again," and features all four performers in a brisk round robin of speed dating for those who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves back on the market. The lyric is classic Maltby: marvelously wry and reflecting so much human understanding. ("Wondering if he'll call me and hoping that he won't.")
Of course, with a show this intimate, all the great material in the world isn't going to make the show work without a solid cast. The current production of Closer Than Ever boasts a thoroughly professional and appealing cast. Two of my latest theatrical pet peeves are indistinct articulation and over-singing, and the four performers here thankfully had crisp diction and controlled but intense singing styles.
The highlight for me in the cast was Jenn Colella, in the track originated by Sally Mayes. Colella is fast becoming one of my favorite performers with her humor, presence, and personality. Colella was a highlight in both High Fidelity and Lucky Guy, two otherwise unfortunate productions. (Would someone please write a book show that's worthy of this woman?) Here, she gives a delightfully restrained rendition of "Miss Byrd," and a deliciously naughty take on "Back on Base." Also strong was Christiane Noll in the Lynne Wintersteller track. Noll was one of the best parts of the underrated Broadway revival of Ragtime, and here she brings a very similar sense of intensity and honesty to "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole" and, most notably, in "Life Story."
The gentlemen in the cast, while professional, had a few more...well...snags amid the lace, as it were. Sal Viviano in the Brent Barrett role was clearly trying too hard, at least at first. He seemed to think that every line of every song needed a movement or an indication, although this became less noticeable as the show progressed. Viviano also sported a broad Vegas-y smile during the song, "What Am I Doing?," which is an odd choice considering that the song is about a stalker, one who knows that what he's doing is crazy. George Dvorsky, in the part originated by Richard Muenz, also got a bit forced and overly hand-y at times, but he more than compensated with moments of intense emotional clarity.
Closer Than Ever plays at the York through July 14th. If you can't make it, rest assured that the show will be recorded. Either way, Closer Than Ever is a refreshing respite from the overblown spectacles and underwritten movie treatments passing for entertainment on the main stem.
Fiddler is easily one of my all-time favorite musicals. I currently rank it as number 6 on my list of the 100 Best Musicals of All Time. I think part of my affection for the show comes from the fact that I played Motel the tailor in my high school production of Fiddler. Interestingly enough, it was at a Catholic, all-boys high school. (We imported the girls from our nearby sister school.)
Does the Barrington Stage production, at least in my humble estimation, do this charming and heartfelt show justice? Click here to find out.
I've been reviewing musicals and other theatrical productions on this blog for over six years now. For the most part, I've been doing it for the sheer love of theater, and musical theater in particular. I never had any illusions about actually making a living as a critic.
Well, as luck would have it, someone has deemed it appropriate and advisable to actually pay me to foist my opinions on an unsuspecting public. Go figure.
As some of you may know, I started writing for TheaterMania a few months back, mostly with the idea of covering Boston-area theater topics. My first article was about ArtsEmerson, an innovative arts-programming series that operates under the auspices of Emerson College. I'll be working on more Boston-based feature stories in the months to come.
I knew when I started with TM that there would also be the possibility of reviewing productions in Boston and New England, and my first actual review as a professional (i.e. paid) critic just went live. That review is of the latest production at the venerable Goodspeed Opera House, which is Mame. I won't be posting my TM reviews here on my blog, but I will be providing links to those reviews. To read my TM review of Mame at the Goodspeed, click here.
For those of you who are worried this might be the end of EIKILFM, fear not. (Or, for those of you who might have been relieved to think that this was the end of my blog, tough luck.) I have absolutely no intention of giving up blogging. My TM reviews will most likely be occasional at best, and will probably only focus on productions in the Boston and New England area. I'll still be covering as much of the New York musical-theater scene as I can humanly keep up with.
I also caught the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Anything Goes again, which has similarly swapped its leading player, in this case from Sutton Foster to Stephanie J. Block. But whereas H2$ was showing considerable wear, Anything Goes was fresh and crisp and, overall, a non-stop delight. Keeping a long-running production in shape usually falls on the shoulders of the production stage manager. I'm not trying to find fault with whoever is in charge of H2$: I'm sure it's a complicated process, to say the least, trying to rein in the various parties and egos involved. But whatever the cause, and whomever is to blame, H2$ just isn't holding together. Thankfully, Anything Goes is, and I say bravo to whomever is responsible for that.
I genuinely enjoyed this Anything Goes the first time around. (Read my review.) Sutton Foster, of course, was a major asset, as she almost always is, but the show remains a delight even now that she's departed. For me, it all comes down to the sure hand and keen eye of director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who with this production solidifies her place as one of the finest directors and choreographers we currently have, particularly when it comes to interpreting classic works like The Pajama Game and Wonderful Town. (Watch for my upcoming review of Marshall's latest effort, Nice Work If You Can Get It. In short, she's still got it.)
What's remarkable about Marshall is that she has a keen eye not just for dressing a stage, but also for pacing a number. Sure, she can craft thrilling showstoppers like "Blow Gabriel Blow" and the title number, but she can also take "De-Lovely," often a throwaway number, and make it into an absolute highlight by knowing exactly when to bring in the chorus members and bring the number to the next level. She performs similar wizardry on "All Through the Night," opening the number up just when, in another production, the audience's attention might start to flag. (Yeah, I'm kind of a Kathleen Marshall fan. Ya wanna make something of it?)
But, getting back to our How to Succeed/Anything Goes comparison, another aspect the productions share is that they've seen significant turnover among their respective casts. And yet, with H2$, that's a major part of the problem. With Anything Goes, it's a huge component of why the show has stayed fresh. First, let me say what a genuine pleasure it is to see the marvelous Stephanie J. Block finally land in a production worthy of her considerable talents. (The Pirate Queen? Oy. 9 to 5? Double oy.) And she's a joy here: so much personality and individual character. She smartly resists the temptation to copy Sutton Foster in any way and brings her own brand of mischievous enthusiasm to Reno Sweeney.
Original cast member Colin Donnell was delightful as Billy Crocker, and Laura Osnes was thoroughly charming as Hope Harcourt. Thankfully, their replacements are eminently up to the task themselves. Erin Mackey makes for a lovely Hope, expressive and winsome by turns. And Bill English is endearing as Billy, although he's a dead ringer for Colin Donnell, and, I'm not exactly sure why, but somehow that feels like cheating on someone's part. One significant improvement in casting is Robert Petkoff as Sir Evelyn. Yeah, Adam Godley got a Tony nod for the role, but there was something about his stuffiness and gawkish angularity that didn't quite sit with me. Petkoff is playful and disarmingly sexy as Evelyn. It reminded me of when I cover Oklahoma! in my history course, and we talk about how the show works so much better when Jud has a sort of earthy magnetism. Same here: with Petkoff, you can see why Reno would fall for this guy.
Anything Goes is currently set to run until September. The way the show's grosses are headed, it would seem unlikely that the production will see another extension. If you have a chance, I'd say catch the show, even if you already saw it with Sutton Foster. Tastes differ of course, but if my experience is any indication, there's just as much to enjoy here the second time around.
How much of a difference can one performer make? That's the question I was left to ponder while walking out of the strangely lifeless revival of Evita that's currently packing them in at the Marquis Theater in New York. I had seen this production during its London run and was generally positive about it, particularly regarding the dynamic central performance from Argentinian spitfire Elena Roger. (Read my review of the London production.)
So, I was genuinely looking forward to seeing the production again, now that it has made the trek across the pond. There was, however, a bit of a bump in my road to the Marquis, as I was originally scheduled to see one of the performances that got "rained out," as it were. As you may have heard, the producers of Evita had to cancel two performances because the "deluge curtain," part of a theater's fire protection system, was accidentally triggered, which flooded the stage, necessitating a two-day clean-up process.
Since I was already in the city to see some other shows, I hustled over to the Marquis box office to exchange my ticket for another performance. Well, in my absent-mindedness, I chose a matinee performance, momentarily forgetting that the actress who plays Eva Peron historically doesn't do matinees. Which means I didn't see Elena Roger again but rather Christine DiCicco, the Eva alternate. DiCicco was never less than professional, and at times was downright impressive in terms of her energy level and vocal prowess. What she wasn't was electrifying, which Elena Roger decidedly was when I saw the show in 2006.
The experience put me in mind of seeing the recent revival of A Little Night Music both with Catherine Zeta-Jones (read my review) and then Bernadette Peters (read my review) in the central role of Desiree Armfeldt. With Zeta-Jones, the show was presentable but uninspired. With Peters, the show came to vibrant life. The cast was otherwise almost exactly the same, as were the members of the production staff. But Peters, like the rising tide, lifted all of the boats, whereas Zeta-Jones was more like an anchor dragging the show down and keeping it from achieving its full forward speed.
I genuinely hope to get back and see this production of Evita again to see if, perhaps, it was Elena Roger who made all the difference in London. That would also give me the opportunity to more fully put Ricky Martin's somewhat spotty performance as Che, the show's sardonic narrator, into context. Don't get me wrong: Martin is by far the most entertaining part of the current production. He's animated, engaging, mischievous, and boasts a genuinely strong and resonant musical-theater-quality singing voice. But he did frequently allow his mannerisms to overshadow his sense of characterization, and he noticeably flubbed his lyrics on more than one occasion. It was almost as though he was trying to make up for the lack of energy in the production as a whole. I got the sense that, if he had just relaxed a bit more and trusted the material, he could have been outstanding. (Parenthetically, I was very glad to see that, despite the fact that Martin is clearly the draw here, the production still gives Eva the final bow during the curtain call.)
But the more I think about it, the more I have trouble ascribing the listless nature of this production to the change in the central player. Something else seems to have been lost in the translation from London to Broadway. The production as a whole lacks focus and a sense of forward motion, and those deficits must fall at the feet of director Michael Grandage. The production remains visually impressive (with sets and costumes by Christopher Oram and lighting by Neil Austin), but the scenes and characterizations lack cohesion, as though there were no sure hand at the helm. Even Rob Ashford's choreography, which I found it thrilling in London, here seemed resolutely earthbound, although thematically the movements seemed more restrained and idiomatic than some of his more recent Broadway work.
One final note: it's really interesting to have the chance to see both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita on Broadway at the same time. (Read my review of JCS here.) It's a sort of sobering reminder that, at one point in his career, Andrew Lloyd Webber actually made challenging choices and used interesting musical devices, mostly when he was paired up with lyricist Tim Rice. It makes me wonder what could happen if Sir Andrew ever teamed up again with a lyricist who actually made him think.