What’s hot, plus a little bit of what’s not, on Broadway at the moment.
I like to find a linking theme for each visit to Broadway. Early attempts this time included: Papal visits (The House of Blue Leaves, Sister Act), AIDS (The Normal Heart, The Book of Mormon), having the band on stage (Baby It’s You!, Catch Me If You Can) and big casts in plays (basically every play I saw).
Eventually I hit on something that stretched beyond 2-3 shows. Given the history of musical comedy as a backdrop for romance, this season features a set of shows all focused on relationships other than traditional romances:
The Book of Mormon sees mismatched Mormon missionaries, and new ‘best friends’, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham head off together to Uganda;
Catch Me If You Can features driven Agent Carl Hanratty’s pursuit of charming but lonely conman Frank Abagnale, Jr;
Sister Act pits audacious lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier against strict, old-fashioned Mother Superior;
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, although containing a traditional romance, plays up the central relationship of ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch and big boss J. B. Biggley;
Priscilla Queen of the Desert follows the up and down relationships of Tick, Felicia and Bernadette as they traverse the Australian outback.
Maybe this is the real reason why Spider-man Turn off the Dark, with its central romance between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, didn’t open in the 2010-11 season!
The Addams Family
The sets are very impressive, as is the sweet, clever puppetry, and the score is very enjoyable but the story would have barely filled an episode of the half hour sitcom. Brooke Shields may be a reasonable replacement for Bebe Neuwirth but Roger Rees is certainly no Nathan Lane. Jackie Hoffman is a hoot as Grandma. I wonder who will play these roles in Australia…
Stephen Sondheim Theatre
At the absolute height of her powers, Sutton Foster is a Broadway star who will be remembered for decades to come. It's not just her lovely looks, perfect comic timing, incredible belt and sensational dancing, it's seeing her combine all of the above with such aww shucks effortless grace. She tap dances the full "Anything Goes" number then belts the final chorus! Joel Grey's Moonface is an adorable creation, Colin Donnell is a dreamy tenor find and Jessica Walter (Arrested Development et al) is all class. Director Kathleen Marshall's major achievement, besides winning the choreography Tony, is making clear sense of the whirlwind romances of Hope and Billy (in "Easy to Love") and Reno and Evelyn (in "The Gypsy in Me").
Baby It's You
A surprise treat. Shamelessly cashing in on Boomer nostalgia, a la Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet etc, the focus this time is on the producer rather than the band. As Florence Greenberg, Tony-winning actress Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone) has the audience in her palm throughout. A non-stop cavalcade of fab costumes and classic hits keep the entertainment level high, successfully averting focus from the thin, derivative material. Audiences may not be as familiar with The Shirelles, but in the right hands this would work in Australia.
The Best Is Yet To Come- The Music of Cy Coleman
(closed 3 July 2011)
An absolute gem, this sensational revue featured an all-star cast, supported by a swinging nine-piece band, bringing Coleman’s classic songs to life. All Coleman’s hit shows are represented – Sweet Charity, Little Me, Wildcat, City of Angels and more. Music Director Billy Stritch was great on piano, Howard McGillin and Rachel York stood out in the cast but the absolute highlight was Lillias White performing “The Oldest Profession” from The Life. This would blow the roof off Chapel-off-Chapel or the like.
The Book of Mormon
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
Broadway's current white-hot ticket largely lives up to the hype. Language and concepts are crude, although they make total sense in context. Andrew Rannells is hyper-cute and Rogen-esque Josh Gad makes a unique characterisation. There is a fabulous tap number from the guys in act one but the kicker is the 'play' put on at the end, inducing tears of joy from the audience. Gorgeous sets and witty costumes enhance the hilarity. Will be a similar hit in Australia, providing enough theatregoers have watched Big Love, and assuming we can cast the Ugandans (maybe when Hairspray is over?).
Catch Me If You Can
Neil Simon Theatre
Is this Broadway or The Production Company? The band on stage on platforms with two staircases? Maybe all the money went on the cast: Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, dreamy Aaron Tveit, sensational Kerry Butler and experienced Tom Wopat are all excellent. The story is great but the songs, save for three or so, are not on par with former Shaiman/Wittman hit Hairspray. Costumes from the masterful William Ivey Long are reliably divine. This would be a cinch to stage in Australia but do we want it?
Death Takes A Holiday
Laura Pels Theatre
Big budget, high profile shows abound but this gem illustrates why you should look through all NY listings, including off-Broadway. A brand new musical from Maury Yeston, composer of two of my favourite shows, Titanic and Nine, Death is based on the classic film, also remade as Meet Joe Black. Luminous cast includes West End stars Julian Ovenden and Jill Paice, plus Rebecca Luker (The Secret Garden) and Matt Cavenaugh (West Side Story). An elegant setting, leisurely pace and truly gorgeous score mean this doesn't fit in with current Broadway but here's hoping they at least make a cast recording.
St James Theatre
In an unusual move, the US Touring production of 2009 Best Revival winner Hair has included a visit to Broadway for the summer. The cast is not as strong but it is always a pleasure to hear the vibrant score. Tony winning Director Diane Paulus’ production makes sense of the usually haphazard action and comes to a moving, but ultimately uplifting, finale.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
Music theatre gold. Director/choreographer extraordinaire Rob Ashford has the show literally dance from beginning to end. Massive geometric panels slide in and out; lit from behind, their colour coordination with each set of costumes is gorgeous. Daniel Radcliffe is utterly adorable as Finch; he nails the comedy, dances up a storm and his singing is more than fine for the role. Of the fans who have come just to see him, if even a fraction go on to see another show then it is a great day for the theatre.
The 2010 Best Musical Tony winner is still an exhilarating night at the theatre. Quirky Chad Kimball and luminous Montego Glover continue as ill-fated lovers Huey and Felicia, joined by Nancy Opel (Urinetown) as Mama. Stirring music, speccy chorry and cleverly flowing scenery enhance a dramatic story about the birth of mainstream appreciation for rhythm and blues. Fingers crossed the recently filmed Broadway performance will be screened in our cinemas.
More like a party than a performance, Priscilla is the only musical on Broadway where audiences sing and clap along all the way through. Will Swenson (Hair) is a manly, charming Tick, Nick Adams is an impossibly buff and tanned Felicia and Our Tony is in terrific form as Bernadette. The costumes are as eye popping as ever, but if you have only seen the show in Australia it is the advances in the appearance of Priscilla herself that will amaze – the outside of the bus is now a glittering LCD screen. A couple of the Aussie accents are questionable and Madonna is a disappointing substitute for Kylie but the show is in fabulous shape. Here’s hoping Priscilla makes a triumphant home voyage one day after her world tour.
In superb shape, thanks to book doctor Douglas Carter Beane and the jettisoning of some extraneous scenery, this is pure music comedy entertainment. Totally catchy songs, endearing characters, pacy story telling, dazzling costumes and scenery, this is what Broadway is all about. Will doubtless leave Australian audiences in the same state of theatrical euphoria, especially if, as she told me first hand, Patina Miller recreates her lead role on our stages.
Spider-man Turn off the Dark
Julie Taymor really shot herself in the foot getting kicked off this- all the most spectacular elements, and there are plenty, are hers but now she gets none of the glory. The flying is quite amazing, the perspective on the comic book-styled sets is superb, especially the dizzying skyscrapers, and the lighting and costumes are equally great. But then there's the over loud, unintelligible score. This would fill the Regent stage and auditorium perfectly. If you see this on Broadway, sit well back.
A Baghdad Tiger in the Bengal Zoo
Richard Rogers Theatre
(closed 10 July 2011)
Despite all my research and planning I always see one dud and this was it. Playing a dead tiger on the prowl through Baghdad (yes, you read that right) Robin Williams was actually very strong. Shame the rest of the no-name cast didn't have a chance of matching him and neither did the clunker of a play. Would provide more details but I slept through a large amount of it.
(closed 26 June 2011)
New discovery Nina Arianda glitters as ditzy starlet Billie Dawn in this gorgeously presented 1940s Washington comedy, which still has plenty to say about modern times. Jim Belushi chews everything in sight as her businessman boyfriend while Robert Sean Leonard is gently charming as the writer responsible for making over Billie, Pygmalion-style. Had Arianda won the Tony this may not have closed a month early.
The House of Blue Leaves
Walter Kerr Theatre
(closed 25 June 2011)
A black as pitch comedy with three A grade stars. Ben Stiller impresses companying himself on the piano whilst singing, Edie Falco is his delicate, mentally ill wife and Jennifer Jason Leigh is his noisy girlfriend. The second of the three acts had an explosive climax and the dramatic ending was suitably haunting. A lesson in playing comedy straight, apart from the three overacting nuns, this was overlooked by Tony and closed early.
Music Box Theatre
A towering achievement that would have easily taken out Best Play if not for that other play about a boy and his horse. Tony winner Mark Rylance gives a masterful performance as boozy, dope addled Johnny “Rooster” Byron, whose decrepit caravan in the English woods is being encroached upon by the new housing estate. The three hour play leaves audience and cast drained and exhilarated in equal measure. Mackenzie Crook (The Office UK) and John Gallagher Jr (Spring Awakening) give strong support. The realistic verdant, leafy setting is a sight.
Tyne Daly is unrecognizably transformed into the glamorous diva Maria Callas in the revival of this classic Terrence McNally play. Based on La Divina’s masterclasses at the Juilliard School in the 1970s, the story expands when music triggers reminiscences from Callas. Daly gives the tour de force performance usually associated with the role, slaying with her deadpan delivery of candid remarks and crushing putdowns. Sierra Boggess (star of The Little Mermaid, and London’s Love Never Dies) gives satisfactory support in the role that won Audra McDonald her first Tony.
The Normal Heart
John Golden Theatre
The term 'all star cast' is bandied about somewhat but when you have Joe Mantello (director of Wicked), Luke McFarlane (Brothers & Sisters), Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies), Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) and Tony winners Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey it's a fair call. A searing drama, the script would be completely unbelievable if it hadn't all really happened. Watching it on Pride March day after gay marriage was permitted in New York was unforgettable.
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Perfectly housed in the semi-circular Vivian Beaumont, War Horse trots along (sorry), slightly streamlined with cuts from the original London production. You've seen the brilliant puppets (on the Tonys) but the entire staging is amazing – a massive revelation compared to anything our national companies come up with. This will be a massive hit in Australia, as long as Steven Spielberg's movie (due this Christmas) doesn't upstage it too much. Take tissues.
Photos: Simon Parris