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 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.
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.
My delay in catching Death wasn't from any lack of interest on my part. Trust me, I'm the biggest Maury Yeston fan going. Nine is one of my favorite shows of all time, despite the execrable movie version. Yeston's score to Titanic is among the finest theater scores of the past twenty years, and his work on Grand Hotel raised that otherwise middling property out of the doldrums and into something resembling art.
So I was rather eagerly anticipating Death Takes a Holiday. But these days I have to wait until the press agents invite me to see the shows, and as I'm not exactly Ben Brantley, I usually don't get to attend until shortly after opening night. Well, as you may know, Julien Ovenden, who was originally playing the title character in Death Takes a Holiday, developed laryngitis and had to miss opening night. I was slated to see the show shortly after, but the press people called me and said that Ovenden was still out, and that they would need to reschedule for a time after Ovenden returned.
Well, Ovenden didn't return. In fact, he left the production entirely, so I wound up seeing Death Takes a Holiday with understudy and permanent replacement Kevin Earley in the role of Death/Prince Nikolai Sirki, the ultimate unwanted house. On the whole, I really wish I'd seen the show with Ovenden, a dashingly handsome man who was by all accounts dangerously charming in the role. Earley has a fine voice, more than fine in fact, and he really seemed to be making an effort to imbue the character with both playfulness and menace. But at numerous times in the script characters refer to Sirki's extraordinary beauty, and Earley, while certainly not unattractive, is not what I would call handsome. That may seem superficial, but such concerns are really no different from those of any other show in terms of casting requirements. Hedy Larue in How to Succeed needs to be a bombshell. Sirki needs to be handsome.
As for the show itself, I was rather disheartened at the critical reception, and went in with decidedly measured expectations. But I wound up being pleasantly surprised. In fact, I thought it was glorious, although I did have some minor issues. The show is decidedly old-fashioned, both in conception and execution, and act one was far stronger than act two. But overall the music is thrilling, and contains all the hallmarks of a Yeston score: the lush, soaring melodies, the somber tones amid the unashamed romanticism. Some of the lyrics were a bit more awkward than I'm used to in Yeston's work: there were a few incidents of poor scansion and multiple uses of reversed syntax. But the act one finale, "Alone Here With You," was absolutely gorgeous, with a heartbreaking conceit and plaintive melody to match. It's among the most stirring songs that Yeston has written, and it literally brought tears to my eyes with its sheer beauty and simplicity.
The show's chief liability is the book, although not in terms of its structure. The libretto features a good deal of what is clearly intended to be comedy, but very little of it was landing at the show I saw. I can certainly understand the impetus to lighten the proceedings in a musical about Death, but the jokes seemed rather lame. And yet in terms of the story, the book is sound and dramatically efficient. I could be wrong here, but to me the strong structure of the book bore the mark of the late Peter Stone (1776), while the forced humor seemed drawn with the hand of Thomas Meehan (Hairspray).
For those unfamiliar with the film "Death Takes a Holiday," or the 1998 remake "Meet Joe Black," the story of the musical is essentially this: The Grim Reaper, while carrying out his duties, falls in love with one of his intended victims, and takes a two-day vacation to get to know her better. He drops in rather unceremoniously at the young woman's family villa in Italy, and causes what could reasonably called a stir. While he's in human form, however, no one on earth will die. The libretto starts with this compelling story line and adds in some heartfelt characterizations, although Death Takes a Holiday does fall into the same trap as Titanic, Yeston's previous show, in that there are too many characters to keep track of, or care about.
That said, Death is certainly populated with a good number of people we do actually care about, although the stellar cast clearly aids greatly in this regard. Jill Paice is simply lovely as Grazia, the object of Death's affections, bringing to the role the same disarming presence that made her such a joy to watch in Curtains. As Grazia's mother, Rebecca Luker embodies the kind of heartfelt sturdiness that makes her one of the most dependable performers of my generation. Her showpiece number in the second act, "Roberto," about the son that she lost in World War I, is a stunning combination of a soaring song and a laser-sharp rendition. Michael Siberry gives a wonderfully animated performance, brimming with urgency, as Grazia's father, the only one who's supposed to know Death's true identity.
Director Doug Hughes wisely approaches Death Takes a Holiday for the willful throwback that it is, and doesn't try to modernize the proceedings with any anachronistic production concept or ironic winks. The set design by Derek McLane has an understated elegance, but the cramped spiral staircases framing the proscenium force most cast members to crouch inelegantly to climb the stairs without hitting their heads. Sorry, dude, that's like design 101.
Death Takes a Holiday runs through September 4th at the Laura Pels Theatre. I recommend it to any fans of Maury Yeston, and to anyone who wants to witness what a really lush, romantic score can sound like in person. The story is strong, and the supporting cast is top-notch. I get the feeling that there are plenty of people out there who will disagree with me on this one, but overall I was enchanted by this show. However, I'm genuinely interested in hearing any reasoned responses from those of you who felt otherwise.
After the final curtain for The People in the Picture, the couple seated next to me saw that I had been taking notes and asked if I was a critic. I said yes, but that they might not like reading what I had to say about the show. I told them: "I wish the authors had the talent to do the story justice."
The People in the Picture is about a group of performers with a Jewish theater and film company in Warsaw, Poland during World War II. Subject matter doesn't get more noble than that, but as I sat watching the show, I found myself increasingly frustrated that it was so weak.
I felt like a schmuck. Especially since Mr. Butler was wiping his eyes as I spoke, and had gone out of his way to introduce me to a Holocaust survivor who was seated in front of us, whose young granddaughter is a member of the cast.
But, here's the thing: shows with noble subject matter don't get a critical pass. We've seen many plays, musicals, movies, books, and other works based on the events of the Holocaust, and just because artists set out with honorable intentions, that doesn't mean their works are off-limits for critical analysis. (I do have to wonder, though, about a ticketing procedure that allows critics to be seated next to authors.)
To be honest, although The People in the Picture received pretty scathing reviews, I felt that almost everything in the production was working quite well - except the book and the lyrics. Yeah, that's a fairly major liability. But the story is a promising one, ripe with potential for pathos. Also, the show employs what could have been an effective flashback device, with deceased characters coming to life to help the story alternate between the war and the 1970s, which is essentially the "present day" in the context of the show.
But somehow all that promise gets lost in the woefully maladroit efforts of librettist/lyricist Iris Rainer Dart, whose most notable work to date is the novel Beaches, upon which that treacly, sappy, shudder-inducing Bette Midler movie is based.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the show's central twist in the paragraphs below.]
For starters, the show is chockablock with the hoariest of yuk-yuk jokes. One character, referring to the "ch" sound that's common in the Yiddish tongue, states that "you have to clear your throat so much, they should call it Flemish." The lyrics are either lazy (rhyming "see us" with "ideas"), bromidic ("Loving life was our way to fight"), or cringe-worthy. (One song about Jews in Hollywood warns that the folks out west might try to reinstate one's foreskin.)
What's more, the show hinges on one supposedly shameful secret that the central character, Raisal, is hiding from her granddaughter. But the "secret," once revealed, is actually hiding in plain sight, and the revelation doesn't merit the concomitant hand-wringing. During the war, Raisal asks a Christian couple to raise her young daughter, to prevent the child from starving. Years later, she goes back to reclaim the girl as her own, and somehow this causes a rift between Raisal and her daughter. But it's not entirely clear why she would keep this a secret, nor why it would be a point of familial contention. Raisal acted to save her daughter's life; I saw no potential for shame, which made the show's denouement a dramatic letdown.
Even more damning, Rainer Dart's libretto is full of what she clearly intended to be portentous and dramatic developments, but the events often arise without development. At one point, Raisal turns to her daughter's nanny and says, "You've been so good to us" and we've only just met her in this particular scene. Raisal announces "I love you so much" to the man who is supposedly the love of her life, but the romance comes out of nowhere. This robs the show's one memorable song of its full impact. In the middle of act two, Raisal sings a stirring ballad called "Selective Memory," which essentially creates a parallel between the current-day Raisal, who is experiencing the onset of dementia, and the flashback Raisal, who feels robbed of the full potential of this romance because of the circumstances of war. Because we have no emotional investment in this relationship, it's hard to feel the full impact of the loss.
Director Leonard Foglia imbues the piece with lots of fluid staging, but he's immeasurably hampered in this effort by the show's choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he crafted the wonderfully dynamic dance sequences for In the Heights, which he unfortunately recycled for 9 to 5, to anachronistic and unintentionally hilarious effect. His work here is closer to the latter than the former, at times awkward, at other times laughably inappropriate. The dance serves little obvious dramatic function, merely distracting from rather than adding to the presentation. At times, this is not entirely Blankenbuehler's fault, for example, during the head-shakingly misconceived tap-dancing-rabbi number, "The Dybbuk." Other instances would seem to fall directly in his lap, as in the opening sequence to act two, in which dancers quizzically mime the process of creating time capsules for the oppressed members of the Warsaw ghetto.
Also lost amid the dreck are such stalwart professionals as Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien, who deserve major kudos for saying their often leaden lines with straight faces. Among the relative newcomers is Nicole Parker, one of my favorite cast members for the unfortunately departed "Mad TV." Parker is saddled with some of the worst lyrics in the show, and I'm really hoping that this show won't hurt her career. She's a genuinely talented comedian, singer, and actress, not that this show ever gives her a full chance to demonstrate those skills.
So, my deepest apologies, Mr. Butler, for my social faux pas. But I think we both are owed an apology from whoever thought it was a good idea to seat you among the critics.
Things haven't been going all that well for the Roundabout Theatre Company over the past few seasons, particularly when it comes to musical theater. Two seasons back, Pal Joey was a thoroughly dismal affair. And Bye Bye Birdie last season was an utter abomination before all man- and woman-kind.
But the Roundabout seems to have rebounded quite handily with Anything Goes, a joyous revival of the Cole Porter favorite. Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall and her staff seem to have stuck pretty close to the script from the 1988 revival with Patti LuPone, which is sort of symbolic of the entire production: there's nothing entirely new on view at The Stephen Sondheim Theater, but the entire enterprise is thoroughly professional, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Anything Goes occupies a unique position in musical-theater history: it's really the only show from the old style of musicals before Oklahoma that has lasted, albeit with significant changes upon each reincarnation. As I tell my students, this is fairly fitting, since the original show was a bit of a rush job. The original book was by the "Princess" pair P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and was supposed to be about a shipwreck, but a large passenger ship sank off the coast of New Jersey shortly before the show was to open. As this would have been somewhat akin to a musical version of "The Towering Inferno" opening just after 9/11, the creative team panicked. Wodehouse and Bolton were in London, so the show's director, Howard Lindsay, teamed up with press agent Russell Crouse to throw together a quick re-write, which actually became the start of a successful writing team.
The 1963 Off-Broadway version of Anything Goesfeatured a revised book by Guy Bolton, and interpolated many of the Cole Porter numbers that we often associate with the show, but in fact were written for other Porter shows. These numbers include "It's De-Lovely" (from Red, Hot and Blue) and "Friendship" (from Dubarry Was a Lady). It's a testament to the non-integrated nature of Porter's songs that they are so easily transported from show to show. Porter was decidedly old school with respect to song-smithing, and wrote songs that were meant to be hits, not to fit a particular context within his shows. I mention this not as criticism merely observation: the same could be said of most of the output of George and Ira Gershwin, and we're talking some pretty glorious songs here.
But even the songs that were actually written for Anything Goes represented some questionable integration. When Cole Porter wrote "I Get a Kick Out of You," he knew it was going to a hit, but because the song occurred at the top of the show, he knew that his society friends, who always arrived fashionably late, would probably miss the song. So, he put in a reprise in Act 2 to make sure his influential friends would be exposed to the song and help make it a hit. I always use this example in my course as a point of contrast when I'm discussing the origin of the "dramatic reprise" (e.g. "Make Believe" from Show Boat, "If I Loved You" from Carousel).
OK, enough with the history lesson. The current production starts off a bit slow, but eventually act one builds to an effervescent crescendo. And Marshall's rousing take on the show's title number puts an energetic tag on the first act that excuses a multitude of plotting and pacing sins. Marshall has a knack for creating fluid old-fashioned choreography that also features quirky touches of modern inspiration. She also know how to dress a stage, and makes effective use of Derek McLane's multi-tiered set.
But, with all due respect to Marshall, this production's key asset is its absolutely top-notch cast. Sutton Foster is a marvel in anything she does, and in another age would have been the kind of performer that they created shows like Anything Goes especially for. Marshall makes effective use of Foster's many talents, to the point of re-conceiving "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" as a dance number. It's almost as though the show itself is saying, "Good Lord, a Reno Sweeney who can dance! Let's show her off." Even the sleepy blue-hairs at the Wednesday matinee that I attended woke up and took notice, and the number genuinely stopped the show.
Capably framing Foster is a talented complement of the best of Broadway, both past and present. From the old guard, we have the spry and adorable Joel Grey as Moonface Martin, and the masterfully comic John McMartin hamming it up swimmingly as Elisha Whitney. From the younger set, we have the charming Colin Donnell as Billy Crocker, a handsome and talented young man who almost made Johnny Baseball at the A.R.T. bearable. And a significant surprise for me was the winsome and sparkling Laura Osnes as Hope Harcourt. Say what you want about reality TV and the most recent revival of Grease, it provided a springboard for the eminently worthy Ms. Osnes. After winning her way onto Broadway, Osnes has since established herself as a dependable leading lady, both here and in taking Kelli O'Hara's place in South Pacific. And if Anything Goes is any indication, she should be around for many seasons to come.
The Roundabout recently announced that Anything Goes, which was originally supposed to run until July, has been extended to January 2012. I recommend taking it in, to witness both the best of what Broadway once was, and the best that it still can be.
I've had a love affair with The Importance of Being Earnestsince I was in college and appeared in a student-directed production of Ernest in Love, a flawed but charming musical based on Oscar Wilde's delightful send-up of Victorian societal conventions. For me, the show has always held an irresistible fascination, representing a perfect little world of genuinely clueless people, who nonetheless firmly believe every last utterance that issues forth from their convention-addled little brains.
Pulling off the feat of creating Wilde's ridiculous world requires a firm directorial hand. Such direction was sorely lacking from the most recent film version of Earnest, and somewhat uneven in the recent Off-Broadway revival of Ernest in Love.
Alas, the same can be said for the current Broadway revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, although I do get the sense that I'm in the minority here. The production truly comes alive whenever Brian Bedford is on stage. Bedford gives a truly virtuoso comic performance here as that fabulous Gorgon, Lady Bracknell. He embodies her heart and soul, bringing to the role a delightful sense of pomposity, wringing humor from even the most seemingly mundane of Wilde's rejoinders.
But, as often happens when actors helm productions in which they star, Bedford the director hasn't fully succeeded in bringing all of his fellow actors into the same Wildean world. The cast is sublimely talented to a person, but they all seem to be acting in different productions. Truthfully, each of those productions would likely be a delight to witness, but somehow those worlds don't combine into the heady and intoxicating concoction that the play has the potential to be.
The disparate styles present in the three central scene partnerships in the show embody a good deal of what's missing from the show. In the central role of Algernon, Santino Fontana is full of puckish charm and impish delight. It makes me sort of sad I missed him in last season's short-lived Brighton Beach Memoirs. But David Furr as Jack Worthing, seems to be in a completely different world from that of Fontana, which throws off the rhythm of their many scenes together. Furr is forced when Fontana is effortless, and it robs their scenes of comedic momentum.
Likewise mismatched are Charlotte Parry as Cecily Cardew and Sara Topham as Gwendolyn Fairfax. Again, we have Topham's twinkling, easy charm with Parry's more studied vacuousness which produces a very similar plodding nature to scenes that should ideally brim with effervescence.
As if on cue, we have yet another discordant couple in Dana Ivey as Miss Prism and Paxton Whitehead as Reverend Chasuble. Ivey would seem to be perfect for the role, but here eschews her more typical intense underplaying for a melodramatic style that would seem more at home in a Restoration comedy. Whitehead's style seems a bit more appropriate to the piece at hand, giving Chasuble an arch yet restrained countenance that the rest of the cast could have greatly benefited from.
Again, I would seem to be alone in finding fault with this production, because just today we heard the announcement that the show has been extended a whopping 17 weeks, through July 3rd. (A move that has prompted the Roundabout to shift its upcoming production of the intriguing new musical The People in the Picture, starring the marvelous Donna Murphy, to the Studio 54.) Despite my quibbles, the production is well worth seeing. I just really wish it had been more enchanting, and less of a slog.