Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Playing Catch-up

By Josh R
Here he is, boys….here he is, world….after an ungodly absence of damn near a year, Mr. Broadway is back on the beat. While an unrelenting schedule has prevented me from contributing many major theater pieces since the 2008-2009 season began (did I say many? read: any), it fortunately hasn’t curbed my theatergoing to a significant degree. Faced with the daunting prospect of trying to bring Copeland’s readers up to speed, I’ve decided to do a sort of overview piece addressing many of the shows I’ve seen in brief — I’d love to be able to devote more attention to the things that deserve it, but with the Tony Awards looming on the not-too-distant horizon, it’s probably better to face the beast and discuss everything that needs to covered here and now. With respect to the many wonderful off-Broadway productions I’ve seen this year, I’ve decided to limit myself to the main stem entries, so as to provide you awards junkies out with your annual fix without too much digression. Toward this end, the overview will consist of two installments. First up, The Musicals.

The story of the season — in showbiz and in real life — can be summed up in three words: Recession, Recession, Recession. Still reeling from what has come to be know as Black Sunday…a day in which a record nine Broadway shows simultaneously shuttered …the theater industry takes no small degree of comfort and encouragement from the arrival of a genuine monster hit — even it is does make things tougher from the other productions that will languish in its shadow.

To that end, Billy Elliot must feel like manna from heaven to all those anxious bean-counters in the front office wondering if a sickly economy can allow for the birth of a blockbuster. When I first read the rave reviews pouring out of London upon the occasion of the show’s West End premiere — including one from the notoriously cranky New York Times critic Ben Brantley — I was a bit taken aback (when I hear the name Elton John, I naturally assume the worst). Now that the toe-shoe toting tot has made it to these shores, I am willing to concede that the bulk of the praise has been earned. I don’t think Billy Elliot is a masterpiece, but it’s a solidly crafted, eminently entertaining piece of show business hokum, with enough in the way of actual substance to satisfy those who feared that it would exist as little more than empty spectacle set to cruddy pop music. The reason I think Billy succeeds where so many screen-to-stage adaptations fall is short is that it isn’t merely trying to re-create the experience of the movie. The creative team is the same — namely, screenwriter Lee Hall, who penned the show’s libretto, and director Stephen Daldry. Because they have a more instinctive feel for the material than someone who would have been afraid to tamper with a winning formula, they feel free to take liberties — which they do, without in any way violating the spirit of the original. Rather than feeling reigned in by the source material, or the feeling to adopt an overly reverential stance toward it, they use the film as a jumping off place to create something different — Billy Elliot, The Musical, has a look and feel all its own. While faithful in many respects, enough has been tweaked, re-imagined and re-interpreted that the end product feels like a separate and distinct entity from the film on which it’s based. It’s a smart approach, and an effective one — measuring it against the film is almost a nonissue, because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

That said, the show is not without its flaws. The score, by Elton John, is not an asset — it says something about the soundness of the production as a whole that this doesn’t seem to matter very much (and if your only exposure to the show was the original cast recording, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a piece of shit). On the credit side, it makes more sense for an audience to be hearing banal '80s-inflected pop tunes in a show that is set precisely in the era of banal '80s pop — it seems more fitting and natural in this context than it would in a show set, say, in the animal kingdom, ancient Egypt, or the plushly appointed salons of 19th century French vampires. While the production features many breathtaking set pieces — Billy’s pas de deux with his older self in a fantasy sequence has to be one of the most magical, ingeniously staged dance sequences in recent memory — the proliferation of eye-popping, show-stopping numbers does begin to feel like overkill after you’ve seen three or four of them in succession. I was also none too fond of Haydn Gwynne’s sharp, aggressively sweet-and-sour turn as Billy’s mentor — the remainder of the cast, which includes Gregory Jbara and Carole Shelley as Billy’s father and grandmother, is very solid. The title role is being performed in rotation by three young actors — understandable, given that the part involves some of the most ambitious and exacting choreography ever assigned to a child performer (and there’s a lot of it…ballet, tap, gymnastic tumbling passes….). On the night I saw it, the role was played by the freakishly talented David Alvarez, who carried the 500 pound gorilla of a production as easily as if it were a bunch of balloons.

Just as overproduced, if nowhere near as satisfying, is the musical adaptation of the high-grossing animated film Shrek — whose presence on Broadway constitutes Dreamworks Studios’ maiden attempt to claim a piece of the Disney market. Unlike Billy Elliot, Shrek isn’t really trying to be different — the production design (sets, costumes, everything) is so faithfully reproduced that it occasionally feels as though you’re watching the film in 3D. There’s nothing horrifically wrong with Shrek — in some ways, its complete lack of creative ambition lends it a refreshing sense of modesty —
but beyond a delightful lead performance by Sutton Foster and a hysterical supporting one by Christopher Sieber, who spends the entire show on his knees as the diminutive, unctuous Prince Fahrquar, there’s nothing particularly memorable about it either.

The titular ogre is played by Broadway stalwart Brian D’Arcy James, who does as much as he can whilst buried under several pounds of green latex. Had Mr. James known that an off-Broadway production he appeared in last year would be making the big move to the beltway, I doubt he would have been so eager to sign on for his current gig. Next to Normal, with a score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is a show that I find difficult to approach with any objectivity, since I had the opportunity to work on it (albeit in a very limited way) during its off-Broadway engagement last winter. An examination of a family in crisis — the mother suffers from bipolar disorder, and eventually embarks on a course of electroshock therapy with life-altering consequences — it is the kind of small-scale, serious-minded show that may have difficulty connecting with a mainstream audience. Having seen the show probably about 14 times or so, I became very fond of it — there are those who find the show too dark while others feel it’s not dark enough, but the majority of those I’ve spoken to find it to be a uniquely moving experience.

Many changes have gone into effect since the show has come to Broadway — among other things, Kitt and Yorkey have done much to streamline the narrative and clarify the tone of a work that once seemed uncertainly poised between straight-laced drama and a satire of an over-analyzed, over-medicated psychopharmacological culture. What remains unaltered is richness of its pop-rock score and the power of its central performance. As the shellshocked Diana, Alice Ripley delivers a deeply felt, beautifully measured star turn which skillfully navigates the character’s hairpin transitions from bouts of defiant, uncomprehending madness to moments of grief-stricken, heartrending clarity. As impressive as that is, it’s her ability to bring flashes of subversive humor to even the most harrowing of situations that keep the character from existing as a tragic, doomed soul in a movie-of-the-week. “I ain’t no Frances Farmer,” she sings, and she’s right — she has too much spirit and character to exist as a mere victim. It’s a brilliant performance — no, better than that — and one that will hopefully guarantee Next to Normal an extended life. The rest of the cast is not always as strong, although Aaron Tveit has star presence to burn and some hair-raising moments as the angry son determined to make his presence felt in his parents’ life, one way or another.

Sadly, not many new musicals have shown much sticking power this year. Part of this can be attributed to the economy — it’s also because the shows have been nothing to write home about. The largely well-received title of show — a musical about four people writing a musical, performed by the four people who wrote the musical — was perhaps a bit too self-referential for its own good, and closed up shop after about three months of performances. While I was more amused than impressed by title of show’s uneven blend of self-mocking humor and heart-on-sleeve earnestness, it’s easy to see why the show accumulated such a devoted following, particularly among theater insiders; a stronger economy might have insured it a longer run. Equally short-lived was Jason Robert Brown’s 13, a gentle look at the ups and downs, fears and dreams, foibles and frolics of the junior high set. While the score was a beaut and the pre-teen cast was downright adorable, the substance never fully materialized. A show by Richard Maltby Jr. called The Story of My Life died so quickly that only one person I know had the chance to see it — and only because she happened to be a friend of Richard Maltby Jr.

On the revival front, the results have been equally mixed. Joe Mantello’s heavy-handed reworking of Pal Joey had some welcome flashes of wry, brittle humor courtesy of Stockard Channing’s martini-swilling socialite…would that she had managed to hit a note during the singing portion of her performance. Would also that the man charged with leaving her “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” had been charismatic enough to merit that degree of fascination. On a happier note, the production did furnish a marvelous showcase for the heretofore unsuspected musical talents of Martha Plimpton, outstanding as a hardbitten floozy straight out of vintage Warner Brothers gangster flicks — her rendition of the strip-tease parody “Zip” easily qualified as the evening’s high point. Less successful — if not quite as dreary — was Des McAnuff’s decidedly bland recapitulation of Guys and Dolls, with talented performers such as Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham (of Gilmore Girls fame) failing conspicuously in roles that required more in the way of outsize personality-driven comedy than their talents could comfortably accommodate. Musical comedy demands an element of shamelessness; one can only imagine what the effect might have been with performers more suited to the assignment — say, Norbert Leo Butz and Kristin Chenoweth. As the slick high roller and his starchy mission doll, Craig Bierko and Kate Jennings Grant are somewhat more appropriately cast, if just as personality-deficient.

Two other Broadway revivals fared markedly better, although only one qualified as an outright triumph. Hair is one of those shows that has always seemed like a such an artifact of the tie-die era that expecting it to retain its potency so many years after The Summer of Love seemed about as reasonable as hoping to get a smooth high off a 40-year old joint. That high — as smooth as you please — kicked in right away in Diane Paulus’ exuberant Central Park staging for The Public Theatre, and was beautifully sustained by the energetic and talented ensemble for the duration of its fleet-footed 2½ hour running time. Newly ensconsed at The Hirschfeld Theatre, with most of the outdoor cast intact (original lead Jonathan Groff has been replaced by the equally fine — and ladies, I mean FINE — Gavin Creel), it continues to prove that while Hair may not exactly qualify as a truly timeless work of musical theatre, it still has enough juice to make for a celebratory, and occasionally sobering, feat of entertainment. As I say, the show itself is not a classic; the production feels so vibrant and vital that it transcends whatever limitations the material may have.

Somewhat surprisingly, that venerated warhorse West Side Story, regstaged by origininal librettist Arthur Laurents, shows the wear of age a bit more conspicuously than the show with all the hippies. While its depiction of tough street life in the 1950s feels curiously quaint from a modern standpoint, the Bernstein-Sondheim score is as gorgeous as ever, Jerome Robbins choreography remains a wonder to behold, and beguiling Argentine newcomer Josefina Scaglione delivers a beautifully sung and acted performance as Maria (she brings much more depth and shading to a one-dimensional character than her co-star, Matt Cavenaugh, is able to do). Top performance honors, however, must be conferred upon the sultry firecracker Karen Olivo, very good in In the Heights but even more thoroughly in her element here — a triple threat in the truest sense of the word, she scores one knockout punch after another with her dynamic turn as Anita. I never imagined anyone could make me forget the Oscar-winning performance of Rita Moreno, but Ms. Olivo’s electrifying interpretation comes astonishingly close. Individual triumphs like these aside, this West Side Story lacks something in terms of danger and excitement — it’s a faithful, reverential staging that doesn’t reveal anything new about the show itself, or solve the problem of a heavy-handed book that strains for Shakespearean grandeur and lyricism and inevitably falls short.

So what’s left on the horizon? Dolly Parton’s multimillion-dollar musicalization of her film hit 9 to 5 hits the Marquis Theatre in matter of weeks — advance word is not great, although the prospect of Allison Janney stepping into Lily Tomlin’s secretarial pumps is initially intriguing. As it is, I think Billy Elliot has already won best musical and is poised to crush nearly everyone and everything in its path come Tony time…but hey, they said the same thing about Wicked.

So I tried to be brief. It didn’t work out so well, but I tried. I get points for effort, right? Next up, The Plays — which is terrifying, considering how many more of them there are. I may have to do this in three installments…stay tuned…..

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Josh, it's nice to have you back-- I always enjoy your B'way coverage, so I liked this piece a lot. Interesting to hear that BILLY ELLIOT is better than I might have expected. Can't wait to read your coverage of the plays.
I just saw Next to Normal, and loved it. I wasn't familiar with Alice Ripley previously. Her raw, very brave performance as the mother is astonishing, and she'll deserve any awards that come her way - - I was in tears by the end of the night.
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