Friday, June 04, 2010


Well, It’s Not Moose Murders…

By Hannah W
It is the year of the Tiger, the International year of Biodiversity, and the year of the Nurse. It is not the year of the Musical. There have been some good (but not great) musicals this season, some tolerable ones and some that do not ever need be mentioned again, let alone keep running. This season, there were two completely original new musicals; original in that every aspect of them (music, book, etc.) were created specifically for the show. Most of the musicals of the season used music originally created for a purpose other than the show or were revivals. The lack of real originality in these spectacles is astounding.

One of the most anticipated musical of the season was a huge disappointment. The Addams Family is one of the two completely original musicals this season and on paper looks great. Who wouldn’t want to see a musical based on the famously strange and kooky family, especially when led by Broadway greats Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth? Unfortunately, putting these two together musically isn’t nearly as great as one would expect. As the parents of an almost grown up Wednesday, they have many duets, and their voices do not complement each other. Combined with a weak score, a questionable book and strange direction, The Addams Family is not the show we wanted to see. It doesn’t reflect the quality of the characters that people have come to love over the years. The show does have one redeeming quality: there is some pretty amazing puppetry. Cousin Itt makes an appearance and the curtain tassel gets up and runs away, leaving audience members wishing they could do the same.

Another show that many people eagerly looked forward to was American Idiot. Since Josh R wrote such a wonderful review of that show, I’m not going to take a lot of time to discuss it here. American Idiot is the next step in the evolution of rock musical theater. It is a step beyond Spring Awakening, using Green Day’s popular album of the same title to tell a story.

Along with the new rock musical we’ve been seeing more of lately, the classic Broadway musical has made a strong appearance this season. The new revival of La Cage aux Folles is a smaller production than has been done of the show in the past, but usually just as effective. Robin De Jesús as Jacob (for those of you thinking in term of the movie The Birdcage, I’m talking about the Hank Azaria role) is the major standout. His constant costume changes, along with his dry line readings, make his performance the most enjoyable to watch. The rest of the cast is quite adequate, though no one else shines as bright as De Jesús. The Cagelles are beautiful dancers, with legs that any woman would kill to have, and the leads, Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodges, solid performers. This La Cage aux Folles revival is a good production, but is missing that special factor.

The new, somewhat dark, sparse, revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is not everything it really could be. With such strong material to work with, it is disappointing that this is the worst production of the show I’ve ever seen (and that includes a low budget college production). Though it features Broadway favorite Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt, the family matriarch, the show is darker than it normally is and lacks the joy that a comedic love story should have. I am aware that Sondheim scores are difficult to sing, but when actors forget the words, which Lansbury has done numerous times, or miss the subtleties of the songs, as is the case with Leigh Ann Larkin singing “The Miller’s Son,” the production looks amateurish. Perhaps that is why, even with the star power of Catherine Zeta-Jones as the lead, the closing date has been moved up to June 20 (though current rumors have the production extending with a new all-star cast: Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch). This A Little Night Music is scaled down, not only in design, but also in depth.

The other Sondheim show of the season is a review. Sondheim on Sondheim is not a standard review where singers walk onstage, sing a song, and leave. This production uses film clips of Sondheim himself discussing his work and his life, interspersed with his songs. One can almost consider it a Sondheim intensive, given by the composer himself. As long as you enjoy Sondheim, there is a lot of insight to be gained from the show. Of course, there are some performances that don’t live up to the standard we have for the great work of Sondheim. Tom Wopat is the biggest let down, with a terrible “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd and “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George, two of Sondheim’s most beloved songs. There also are a disproportional amount of songs from the generally disliked Passion. Don’t let that discourage you. Sondheim on Sondheim also features some great performances. Norm Lewis’ rendition of “Being Alive” from Company is worth the 2 hours and 45 minutes of the show, it’s so beautiful.

A new show with some great performances is Memphis, a surprise show that has shown it has staying power. The main conflict, race relations, specifically in the music industry, is still a topic that speaks to people, even though the show is set in the 1950s. Huey Calhoun is a young, white man who wants to play what was then exclusively black music on the radio. He wants to bring racial music to the white teenagers, and does by befriending a black club owner and his sister, Felicia. Montego Glover, who plays Felicia, and Chad Kimball, who plays Huey, are one of the strongest pairs on Broadway at the moment. It is no wonder that both of them are up for best actor/actress Tonys. And Memphis is pretty much a shoe-in for Best Original Score, as it is only one of two true musicals in the category and the other is The Addams Family. Memphis is in the style of the classic Broadway musical, but is less flashy and this classy Broadway musical should appeal to public regardless of age or race.

Memphis is not the only new musical on Broadway set in the 1950s music scene. Million Dollar Quartet takes place on a winter night in 1956 when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis famously jammed together. This jukebox musical features many of their best-known hits. Many people would rather listen to the original recording of that evening than watch impersonators re-create it, but this show does have some real heart. Each performer plays their own instruments and they have an amazing amount of energy, especially Levi Kreis, who portrays Jerry Lee Lewis. Million Dollar Quartet can make for an entertaining night of theater.

Fela is another new musical about a well-known performer, though is quite different than Million Dollar Quartet. It is definitely the most alternative musical on Broadway, as the stage is just the starting point for the action and there is a fair amount of audience participation. It centers on Fela Anikulapo Kuti, an Afrobeat musician from Nigeria who was a rebel cult leader. The entire theater is his nightclub, The Shrine, and the audience is treated as patrons of the club. Because Fela is set in Nigeria, the actors speak with very heavy accents presenting a language barrier, so subtitles are projected on the back wall of the theater. If you are not seated directly center, you will not see the subtitles and might have trouble understanding the show. Even if you are seated center, Fela is a hard character to like. One of the first things he admits to the audience is his great love of “pussy and cake.” The show portrays Fela as a strong leader, which he clearly was, but glosses over the fact that he was a polygamist who didn’t think of women as equals. This is made more ironic by the posters saying “Equality for All” plastered on the theater walls. Fela portrays a man who must have been charismatic to gain the type of following he did, but it is a weak mind who can’t see through him to see he was no more in the right than the corrupt Nigerian government.

No matter where you’re seated in the theater, Promises, Promises can’t get better. This revival was cast very poorly. The leads, Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth, are about 20 years older than the characters they’re playing. This isn’t quite as noticeable with Hayes, as one might be able to understand a man his age finally taking initiative to get a promotion and get the girl. Kristin Chenoweth, on the other hand, just can’t pull this off. The rest of the cast is also ever so slightly miscast. Only Katie Finneran, as the drunk Marge MacDougall, really pulls off her role. Unfortunately, she’s on stage for just a scene and a half.

On the other end of the scale, Sherie Rene Scott, star of Everyday Rapture, is on stage pretty much the entire 90 minutes of the show. Though not quite a one-woman show, as she does have two backup singers and a teenager join her at times, Scott is the center of the show on every level: the lead, the topic and the co-writer. Everyday Rapture is loosely based on Scott’s life, from her childhood as a Mennonite in Kansas to her current life on Broadway. She tells her exaggerated story with great joy, since, after all, it is all about her. Sometimes, that gets to be more than one has an interest for.

Movin’ Out was an extremely well-received musical in 2002. Now, Twyla Tharp has developed and choreographed the new musical Come Fly Away. This musical, set to (mostly) recordings of Frank Sinatra, is said to be about four couples who fall in and out of love in a nightclub, expressing their emotions through dance. According to Tharp, there is a book in this musical. I have seen a fair amount of dance: I saw the four couples; I saw one fall in love, one fall out of love, and some rebound relationships; I saw the nightclub. I did not see anything that resembles a book of a musical. There didn’t seem to be a linear story line. By act two, the dance steps have been repeated enough to bore. Karine Plantadit yells in French from the stage, but has no microphone. It sure looks like all the couples have sex in the same room of the nightclub. Over all, Come Fly Away is so confusing it becomes unlikable.

The 2009-2010 theater season did not give us many musicals to love. There is not a Hair or Next to Normal this year. No show has inspired quite the fanatic fan base that musicals in the past have done. The Broadway musical is not going anywhere soon, but it is in kind of a slump. Hopefully next season we’ll get some new, original shows that touch and inspire. For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with just being entertained.

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Terrific job, Hannah...and thanks for the shout-out (my ears are blushing). As far as this year's crop of Broadway musicals is concerned, American Idiot was easilly the one which impressed me the most, although I enjoyed La Cage a lot more than I thought I would. The biggest disappointment was Trevor Nunn's mirthless revival of A Little Night Music - probably the biggest disservice to Sondheim since Helena Bonham Carter's rendition of "The Worst Pies in London" - although Angie had the lines down cold by the time I saw her, and gave great value (as for Ms. Zeta-Jones...well...if nothing else, she certainly is a looker.) I did finally see Memphis, and the adjective that comes to mind is "nondescript" - it's a pleasant little show, but there's nothing very memorable about it. As is often the case this year, I was more impressed by individual performances than the shows themselves - particularly Katie Finneran, who's so shamelessly over-the-top that she makes a fireworks display at a Gay Pride Parade look like an exercise in restraint, and the wonderful Sherie Rene Scott, who had no trouble holding me for all 90 minutes. I think you called a lot of stuff correctly, and thank you for saving me a trip to Fela! - this way I can save my money for more important the vending machines at work.
Having never seen any production of A Little Night Music, I feel a little better about not being able to see this one. However, the show I've really longed to see was American Idiot since I so loved that album. Hell, the title song used to be cell phone ringtone.
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