Miss Saigon

I am not sure it will ever be possible to stage a production of Miss Saigon that is better than the revival closing on Broadway this week.  Extraordinarily well-directed by Laurence Connor (School of Rock, Les Miserables), this musical was riveting from start to finish.  I remember the original production which I saw in 1993 and liked.  The show still suffers (slightly) from the singing every line overkill typical of Broadway during this period.  But it soars so high from the glorious voices of its cast to the dramatic staging, scenery, lighting and focused commitment to storytelling.

What does extraordinarily well directed even mean?  The musical opens in Dreamland, a Saigon whorehouse in 1975 frequented by American soldiers during the Vietnam War and run by The Engineer (a superb Jon Jon Briones whose 11:00 number, The American Dream, surpassed my memory of the original). With a huge ensemble cast, every Marine and Bar Girl on stage has a reason to be there.  You can see and follow lots of individualized stories going on amidst the seedy action and tensions.  This is not a chorus standing around to fill space, these are all actors embodying the scene.  Greatness is usually in the details and this Miss Saigon has them all covered.

Eva Noblezada plays Kim, forced into The Engineer’s service after her family was murdered and meets Chris (Alistair Brammer, excellent), a soldier stationed in Saigon.  An updated version of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, what follows is a doomed romance of an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover.  Ms. Noblezada was simply astonishing.  The beauty and clarity of her voice in combination with an exceptionally dramatic face fully conveyed the anquish, hope, fear and dreams of Kim.  I loved this production.  Yes, Miss Saigon is melodrama combined with its famous helicopter scene.  But when the blades are rotating and the breezes are literally blowing, it’s Broadway magic.

www.miss-saigon.com

Once On This Island

Staged in the near perfectly suited Circle in the Square Theater, Once On This Island is back on Broadway.  Fair disclosures:  I saw the original world premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in 1990 and then attended its Opening Night on Broadway later that year.  My great childhood friend, Gerry McIntyre, was in the cast.  I know the show, love the show and was looking forward to its new incarnation.

This revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s first Broadway musical (Ragtime, Seussical) was widely praised.  I attended the show with David and Sara who both LOVED it.  To be honest, I am firmly in the LIKED it category.  The setting was fantastic.  A sandy beach, ocean water and the Islanders greet us on arrival.  A thunderstorm rolls in and “One Small Girl” is frightened.  As a distraction, the storytellers tell her about Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore, excellent).  She is a dark skinned Islander who falls for Daniel (Isaac Powell), a lighter skinned boy from the wealthier class.  With exceptional music and lyrics, the whole fable is magical.  Special kudos to Kenita R. Miller (Mama Euralie) and Alex Newell (Asaka) who were both terrific and fun to watch.

So why the LIKED it category?  I found the direction and pacing here slightly frenetic, especially in the beginning.  The staging in the round forces the cast to occasionally have their back to you and, as a result, I found the lyrics to get lost (or swallowed by the sound design which was odd given I was centrally seated in the third row).  I was reminded of the 2012 Godspell revival in the same theater in which songs also seemed aggressively “amped up” and lyrics sadly sacrificed.  Once On This Island is a beautiful show and this is a very good version.  I wished I loved it as much as my fellow theatergoers.  Perhaps I am overly familiar with the material?  In this case, I really don’t think so.

www.onceonthisisland.com

Farinelli and the King

When Mark Rylance comes to town, I get tickets.  I’ve seen most of his performances in New York, starting with his Tony winning turn in the farce Boeing Boeing as a bumbling deadpan clueless best friend from Wisconsin.  He was screamingly hilarious.  Then came another Tony for Jerusalem as a drunken-party-man living in a trailer in the woods and taking on the world in a colossus of a performance, one of my favorites ever.  Add in Broadway turns in La Bete, Twelfth Night (as Olivia) and the title role in Richard III plus Nice Fish at St. Ann’s Warehouse – so yes, I’m a huge fan.

Understandable then to be excited that he is back on stage here in Farinelli and the King playing the Spanish mad King Philippe V.  The play was written by his wife, Claire Van Kampen.  The stage is set as a grand presentation of a courtly theater with some audience members seated onstage and lit by candlelight as in “back in the day.”  So disappointing then to sit through a play in which nothing really happens other than some musings from a mad king, an underdeveloped story about his wife and a countertenor who sings arias beautifully (and arguably too often).  The singing and the jarringly odd contemporary language occasionally scattered throughout did not hide the lack of substance.

Despite the rousing standing ovation from the audience in the performance I attended, the entire evening is frankly dull and unfortunately pointless.  Was this about music as a healing force?  Art and fame?  Being a King is a bummer?  Castrated singers are hot?  Some combination of all that?  As there was no story arc to latch onto perhaps due to thin relationships between the characters, it was hard to tell.  This seems to me, therefore, to be an exercise in watching Mr. Rylance act.  He opens the play with a fishing pole in one hand and a goldfish bowl in the other.  Mad, I tell you, mad.  Farinelli and the King was a waste of time, sad to say.

www.farinelliandthekingbroadway.com

SpongeBob SquarePants

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?  I remember the first episode which aired in 1999.  Initially it was hard to believe this simplistic and bizarre tomfoolery was going to become an enormous hit.  (The episode I remember most fondly was “ripped pants.”)  It is even harder to imagine SpongeBob SquarePants as a Broadway musical.  Put down your flying carpet Aladdin with your in-your-face entertainment, there’s a new watery wonderland in town.  If you have ever desired to see a cartoon completely transformed into a spectacular visual treat, then this show is for you.

Since SpongeBob has been assembled by earnestly embracing its tone and thematic sensibility, there could be difficulty for some people who don’t know the source material.  Unfamiliarity with the TV show probably hurts one’s ability to see how phenomenally these characters have been rendered on stage.  Ethan Slater has the title role.  He is an eternally optimistic, quite bendable sponge.  A powerhouse who holds the whole show together, he is superb.  No bulky sponge costume needed, just this actor with plaid paints, a shirt and a tie.  I repeat, he is superb, nailing every moment (or is that better described as fully absorbed?)  Danny Skinner plays his BFF Patrick, the starfish with intellectual shortcomings yet a heart of gold.  His casting is also ideal.  (The males are stronger presences and performers in this show overall, as in the series.)

The show is not without a few shortcomings.  The music is sort of a jukebox collection by artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper, Aerosmith, John Legend, Lady Antebellum and They Might Be Giants.  The staging and choreography, however, are so fantastic, so inventive, so smile-inducing,  it doesn’t really matter which songs are the better ones.  Tina Landau directed this psychedelic masterpiece which is amazingly one hundred percent faithful to the spirit and tone of the series.  Christopher Gatelli brilliantly turned the whiny Squidward (Gavin Lee, awesome) into a tap dancing, show stopping octopus.  The costumes and set design by David Zinn are creative,  colorful and effortlessly cheeky. Pool noodles as undersea fauna! 

What’s the best part of this aquatic dreamscape?  I’d have to see it again to figure that out, there are so many choices to consider.    As said before, and worth repeating, the visuals are stunning.  Adding to the fun is a noise supplying sound board as part of the orchestra.  SpongeBob SquarePants is a fully realized cartoon brought magnificently to three dimensional life.  If cartoons and fun are not your cup of tea, too bad for you.  For the rest of us, it is time for “Bikini Bottom Day.”  A truly unforgettable spectacle.

www.spongebobbroadway.com

Meteor Shower

Steve Martin, playwright.  Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key, Broadway debuts.  Comedy, yes.  Laugh out loud moments, yes.  Underdeveloped play, definitely yes.

The setting is Ojai, California in 1993 where the meteor shower of the title is scheduled to occur that evening.  Corky (Schumer) and Norm (Jeremy Shamos, perfectly porous) are a California married couple about to host another couple for an evening of meteor gazing and banter.  First, they have some pre-wine (doesn’t count!) which sets the tone for them and for the audience.  We quickly learn that they are stereotypical Californians aggressively in touch with their feelings.  Who is coming over?  Gerald (Key) and Laura (Laura Benanti).  What follows is broad comedic hijinks, much of it very funny.

Everyone in the cast gets their moment to shine and make us laugh.  The role of Corky is a perfect fit for Ms. Schumer, who admirably does not break character during her meteor shower viewing scene with Laura.  The always excellent Ms. Benanti (Gypsy, She Loves Me) is sexy, devilish and hilarious.  Mr. Key’s performance is assured, confident and very big which I think is needed to keep this farce a little off-balance.

Advertised as a one act, 90 minute play, Meteor Shower barely clocks in at 1:15.  As a result, there is a sketchiness to all of this inspired lunacy rather than a fully realized piece.  Minor example:  there is a brief, funny drug scene that goes nowhere.  Like the astronomical phenomena itself, Meteor Shower is a starry, bright, fun diversion but it’s over in a flash.

www.meteoronbroadway.com

The Band’s Visit

Based on a 2007 film of the same name, The Band’s Visit was first produced by the Atlantic Theater Company last season.  Although I had already seen (and loved) this musical, I decided to revisit its uptown transfer to Broadway.  A band from Eqypt has been invited to play a concert in Israel but manages to get lost.  As a result, they wind up in Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikvah.  What’s the difference?  Upon arrival, they hear the song, “Welcome to Nowhere.”

From this point, the band and its members interact with the locals.  Rather than being an overtly political musical, The Band’s Visit is more interested in life and relationships from multiple perspectives.  The young and the not so young.  The practical and the hopelessly romantic.  And, especially, those who can hear and savor the music of life.  Like its not so distant cousin, the Tony Award winning musical Once, music is the connective tissue to drive the plot and develop characterizations in very intimate scenes.  This is a slow, quiet, funny, sad, realistic, magical, musical tour of a very ordinary town awakened by visitors.   They bring something new to cherish, if only for a moment.

Director David Cromer (The Treasurer, Tribes, Our Town, Adding Machine) sets a melancholy but beautiful mood and tempo to deliver the welcome Middle Eastern influenced music and lyrics of David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).  As the band’s leader, Tony Shalhoub (Act One) is near perfect, as usual, with the right combination of dignified and human.  Golden voiced Ari’el Stachel has one of the peak moments, singing the melodious song “Haled’s Song About Love” with Papi, one of the locals, played by Etai Benson.  However, The Band’s Visit belongs first and foremost to Katrina Lenk (Indecent) as Dina, the proprietor of the café who first greets the band.  Effortlessly sexy and seductive, bored and world-weary yet still dreaming, Ms. Lenk’s performance is equally luminous and grounded.

An excerpt from the Playbill bio from George Abud (Camal, a band member):  “I hope young Arabic kids … know there there is starting to be a place for their expression, their stories and their faces.  The Arab voice, rich in history and beautiful music, is vital in American theater.”  Indeed.

www.thebandsvisitmusical.com

Time and the Conways

“An Experiment with Time” was a widely read 1927 book by J. W. Dunne, a British soldier, aeronautical engineer and philosopher.  One of the theories he posited was that all time is happening simultaneously.  Past, present and future are one and linear time is the only way in which human consciousness is able to perceive this.  J. B. Priestly used these ideas in his plots for three “Time Plays,” including An Inspector Calls, his most famous work.

Time and the Conways takes place in both 1919 and 1937 Britain between the World Wars.  The play opens with Kay’s 21st birthday and a grand party at their home in well-to-do Manningham.  (The original Kay on Broadway in 1938 was Jessica Tandy.)  Four sisters and two sons, one of whom just returns from the war, are still living at home with their mother (Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern).  While this is certainly a family drama filled with sibling rivalries and emotional baggage, thematically it is much bigger than that.  Priestley also comments on Britain between the wars, class privilege, socialism, life choices and missed opportunities with a dash of unrequited love.  Add in a beast of a mother, a game of charades and a whiff of metaphysical time travelling.  I loved this play, its naturalistic style and its structure.

Everyone in this talent-rich cast was good and the staging by Rebecca Taichman (last year’s Tony winner for Indecent) effectively presented the mundane and the mysterious.  Particular standouts for me were Gabriel Ebert as Alan (Tony winner for Matilda), Charlotte Parry as Kay (Tony winner for The Real Thing), Matthew James Thomas as Robin (Pippin, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and Anna Baryshnikov as Carol (film debut in Manchester by the Sea).

As Ernest, Steven Boyer was just as intense as his unforgettable performance in Hand to God.  His character is an entrepreneurial climber from the lower class who desperately wants to meet the Conways.  A study in simmering physicality, perhaps Mr. Boyer’s character is Priestley’s commentary on British society.  As time passes and dreams are realized, why is there still just pent up anger and unhappiness?  Time and the Conways is rich with characters and ideas.  A rewarding piece of theater and a Broadway revival well worth seeking out.

www.roundabouttheatre.org

Anastasia

I will find some good things to say about Anastasia later, but first the sad truth.  This musical is quite bad in very many ways.  Based on both a cartoon movie and an Ingrid Bergman film, this is a musicalized tale of the execution of the Russian Romanoff family and its aftermath.  (They wear Dr. Zhivago white and parade around ghostlike when we need a visual reminder.)  Their daughter Anastasia went missing and was never found.  So, we have an amnesiac heiress named Anya who may or may not be the real deal.  Let’s get her to Paris for the reward money!  Let’s sing “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)” at the opening of the second Act!

I have not seen either movie so my only frame of reference is what I saw from my seat.  A handful of good songs out of 32 in the show.  Music and lyrics are by the often reliable Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Once on this Island, Ragtime).  Act II is significantly better than the first for two reasons:  (1) there is more dialogue so we stop getting bored by the musical monotony, and (2) the main story moves offstage and we get a little fun with Countess Lily and Vlad, played by Caroline O’Connor and John Bolton, in “Land of Yesterday” and “The Countess and the Common Man.”  Never a good sign for a musical to shine when it’s less musical and spends more time with minor characters.

The sets were bad.  The whole show is framed by a Russian palace/rotunda with screen projections that were obviously not working properly.  The creative team here was Darko Tresnjak (Director), Peggy Hickey (Choreographer), Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design) and Linda Cho (Costume Design).  That’s the team behind the Tony winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  I was not a big fan of that one either but at least it was creatively staged.  This was not.  The leads here, Christy Altomare and Derek Klena, sing nicely but could be any young, in love couple in any show.  Mary Beth Peil was nominated for a Tony for her work here as the Dowager Empress and she brought real depth and heart to her performance.  A story that you might care about was trying to emerge.  That’s the last of the good news about Anastasia.

www.anastasiabroadway.com

 

Prince of Broadway

Harold Prince has won 21 TONY Awards.  The titular Prince of Broadway has directed and/or produced some of the most significant musicals of the last sixty years including West Side Story, Cabaret, Zorba, Fiddler on the Roof, Company, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and one of my personal favorites, On the Twentieth Century.  He was involved with dozens and dozens of shows since the 1950s.  Yes, there were some admitted failures, notably Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along which closed after sixteen performances in 1981.  From that abundance of Broadway material, this retrospective has been assembled.

For fans of musical theater, this evening is a rare opportunity to celebrate some historic artistic and commercial successes, along with a few that were not.  Like all “greatest hits” compilations, one can easily find a show or a song which could be added into the mix.  When I sat down, I purposely did not peek at the Playbill so I did not know what was coming.  That’s a nice way to take this show in.  And here I will keep the details to myself.  Eight performers doing a little storytelling and highlighting memorable numbers from major works of Broadway history.  That’s all you need to know.

Also, you need to know this.  Tony Yazbek stole the first Act.  Everything he did was outstanding; the tap dancing alone guarantees a Tony nomination.  Bryonha Marie Parham’s vocals, especially right before intermission, are not to be missed.  Emily Skinner interpreted some well-known classics and nailed them down cold, while looking radiant and gorgeous.  Everyone in the cast had great moments.  Loved the costumes by William Ivey Long; so many periods to be covered.  Beowulf Boritt’s set design kept things moving with interesting and creative hints of what the show was about originally.  The cartoon panel was flawless.  Special mention to Jon Weston for his sound design in which every word was crisp and clear.  To be critical, Act II is not as strong largely due to one segment that did not compare favorably to the frequent revivals.

Yes it helps to be a huge fan of musicals to enjoy Prince of Broadway, directed by Harold Prince himself.  And if you are, it’s a must see.

www.princeofbway.com

The Play That Goes Wrong

Currently, there is a deluge of sharp political humor, for good reason.  John Oliver.  Stephen Colbert.  Samantha Bee.  Most recently Tina Fey’s sheetcake rant.  And on and on.  That’s because the target(s) are big, obvious and, well, it’s oh so easy to stick the landing.  Still, sometimes I want to laugh out loud without being reminded of the shit show that is our government.  When that time arrives (and it is now), head to the Lyceum Theater for The Play That Goes Wrong.  It is hilarious from start to finish.

A 2015 Olivier Award winner for Best New Comedy, this play was created by Mischief Theater and is still running in the West End.  Like another classic British farce, Noises Off, the hijinks are structured as a play within a play but with character development replaced by nonstop tomfoolery.  This time it’s “The Murder at Haversham Manor,”  a slightly run down English manor house with a dead body at the top of Act I.  Think Agatha Christie meets Monty Python in a bad play performed very badly.  If it can go wrong, it does.  The audience with whom I saw this play laughed hard and very, very often.

Everyone in the cast is funny with Dave Hearn’s performance as Cecil Haversham my frontrunner for best in show.  Nigel Hook deservedly won the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play.  The set not only gives the actors the platform to be hilarious, it sometimes even upstages them as if it were a character unto itself.  If you are not a fan of farce, slapstick humor or broad physical comedy, perhaps stay away.  If you are, get your tickets and have a great fun night at the theater.  Even the Playbill goes wrong.  Loved it.

www.broadwaygoeswrong.com