Category Archives: Musical

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day August Wilson TheatreAs Broadway musicals go, the small scale charmer of a flick Groundhog Day doesn’t seem the most obvious of inspiring sources.  The comedic drama relies heavily on Bill Murray’s ability to deliver a stinging blow that is somehow forgivable.  With the film’s move to the stage, that burden falls on Olivier Award winner Andy Karl as weatherman Phil Conners.  He is charismatic and a joy to watch, but his wonderful performance isn’t quite enough to balance out the slightness of the material.  The overall experience is theatrical cotton candy: ultimately sweet and instantly vanishing.

Director Matthew Marchus has done a wonderful job of bringing to life the near cartoon-like nature of the movie.  It is rare in the second paragraph of a review to call out those in tiny print such as video designer Andrzej Goulding, Finn Caldwell who created the car chase movement, and Paul Kieve who conceived the illusions.  Yet it is those behind-the-scenes team members who best exploit the story’s limitations with imaginative results that are in direct conflict with the general “wowness” one expects to see on the Great White Way.

Karl pulls off the slights of hand and other body parts with wonderful energy.  His song-styling brings out the most in the accompanying gleeful lyrics.  Unfortunately, Barrett Doss as Connor’s love interest Rita Hanson does not reach his level of skill.  Despite a number in which she recites the highlights of her story, the character remains thinly drawn.  It is simply not believable that this woman could pull this man out of his destructive cycle.  The rest of the cast is solid and there are some terrific running gags.

The lack of balance between the two main characters is one of several key points in Danny Rubin’s book that seem to rely on memories of the original (which Rubin co-wrote with Harold Ramis) to bring them to fruition.  I’m not at all sure that someone who has no familiarity with the movie would completely follow the plot.  The content is also problematic in that it is too risqué for general family viewing and it doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to be a full adult experience.  Additionally, I had a personal problem with the scenes poking fun at alcoholism.  Surely we live in a time when drinking and driving is not the stuff of lighthearted jesting.

The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are spirited, although there are a few numbers that add to the running time more than the storyline.  I was not alone in questioning the selection of “Seeing You” as the song chosen for the Tony broadcast.  I can understand not wanting to give away the funnier moments including “Stuck” (featuring some hilarious healers).   But there are other songs that reveal Phil’s slow evolution from his sarcastic womanizer beginnings that are more entertaining and well executed by the company.

Groundhog Day offers plenty of smiles and a striking lead in Andy Karl.  It’s important to remember that the movie version was a modest success that earned about $70M in its initial run.  It  has been only through the eyes of film history that it became a classic and gave rise to the term “Groundhog Day” meaning the feeling of repeating the same experience.  It should therefore not be a surprise that the show is a mild entertainment and perhaps not the best fit for $200 per ticket territory.  It is scheduled to play at the August Wilson theater through January 7, 2018.  (http://www.groundhogdaymusical.com/tickets/).

Come From Away

[4]_Jenn Colella and the cast of COME FROM AWAYWhen the air space above New York closed on 9/11, nearly 7000 passengers were diverted to Newfoundland off the coast of eastern Canada.  That airport had retained several large runways dating from a time when flights between the United States and Europe had to stop and refuel.  Suddenly inhabitants of this 43,000 square foot island had to prepare to double their population for an unknown duration.

A new musical, Come From Away, follows some of their stories, as weary and frightened travelers engage with small town residents.  There aren’t many unexpected plot twists here.  But following their emotional detour is a generally delightful experience.  Frankly in our current often divisive climate, it feels good to be reminded that even at the darkest moments strangers can find many ways to come together.  Perhaps with this in mind, the production has added a page to their website where audience members can dig deeper into the history that inspired such an unlikely Broadway offering.  (I recommend at the very least pulling up the photo of the air strip with 38 jumbo jets parked nose to tail.)

This is very much an ensemble piece.  Each actor portrays multiple characters, usually switching roles with the addition of a hat or jacket and a change of accent.  (Special acknowledgement goes to dialect coach Joel Goldes for helping the actors capture the special Newfoundlander cadence and to costume designer Toni-Leslie James for supplying the perfect wardrobe pieces.)  The entire cast is strong and it is to their credit that within a short period we feel for each and every one.  Past Obie winner Joel Hatch represents two mayors who pitch in with different styles and equal verve.  Jenn Colella takes on a pioneering airline pilot and an oft-smitten assistant principal with the same amount of compassion and insight.  It falls to Q. Smith as Hannah to carry the weight of the desperate mother who doesn’t know the whereabouts of her firefighter son.  One by one the voices of many cultures are heard.

Christopher Ashley’s staging is remarkably clever, using mostly lights and a few chairs to convey many locations from inside a plane to inside a schoolhouse.  Lovers of big musical numbers may be disappointed, however.  The work by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is more of the storytelling-set-to-tunes variety.  Dance Captain Josh Breckenridge has provided some movement, but nothing that could be called a dance number.   Lyrics do their job in moving the plot forward, but aren’t particularly clever or catchy.  Songs are nicely executed and have wonderful echoes of the Irish ancestry shared by the majority of Newfoundlanders, but there isn’t a great deal of variation.  In fact, it wasn’t until the post-bow jam session that I was able to fully appreciate the band’s talent.

Judging from the prolonged standing ovation, I’m not the only one who thinks Come From Away is a welcome addition to lineup for this season.  The show is recommended for ages 10 and over and for a change I can say that entire age range will be engaged by what they see and hear.  Running time is a compelling 100 minutes.  Tickets for the run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater are available for the remainder of 2017 at http://comefromaway.com.

Waitress

Waitress MUSICALORIGINAL BROOKS ATKINSON THEATRE 256 W. 47TH ST.The sweet story of a sorrowful originator, the soaring melodies of Sara Bareilles, and the soulful voice of Jessie Mueller blend like butter, sugar, and flour. Together they produce a tasty joy-inducing creation that was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2016. Regular readers of this column know I am not the world’s biggest fan of modern day musicals, but I honestly can’t wait to see Waitress again. And I’m not just saying that because the entire theater smells like pie.

The movie on which it is based is among my favorites.  It may not possess a philosophical depth worthy of extensive examination, but at its core is some spirited girl-power.  I was therefore quite trepidatious when I heard it was coming to Broadway at all much less in musical form. But Bareilles’s music and lyrics along with the book by Jessie Nelson have preserved all of Adrienne Shelly’s original laughs, aches and gentle twists and added an extra layer of celebration in song that — puns aside — hits all the right notes. The numbers are so genuinely stirring, it’s fitting that the cast hosts regular karaoke nights for audience members who want to take a turn singing one.  (Remembering my mishap while attempting to replicate Baby’s leap at the end of Dirty Dancing, I refrained.)

In the lead role of Jenna, the unhappy pregnant waitress who escapes into her pie recipes, is Mueller, still with a touch of Carole King in her phrasing.  Despite her radiance, the rest of the company is so terrific that she’s in constant danger of being upstaged.  Her inappropriate love interest is portrayed with endearing charm by Drew Gehling.  The perky Caitlin Houlahan and booming Charity Ang´el Dawson play her two co-workers Dawn and Becky like perfect bookends.  Each has a solo that threatens to bring down the house.  But it is Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle winner Christopher Fitzgerald as Dawn’s besotted beau Ogie that elicits the loudest round of cheers for his eccentric rhymes and original dance moves.

The team is in the mighty hands of director Diane Paulus, who also steered the Tony winning revival of Pippin.  Using Scott Pask’s welcoming diner setting as an anchor, she moves her cast fluidly through their small southern town, adding wonderful touches of physical comedy to each performance.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Jonathan Deans’ sound keep the audience focused.  (At least that’s why I think I missed seeing an entire band on stage for the first 15 minutes.)  Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes are appropriately whimsical.

The inclusion of decidedly PG-13 material causes the show to be a little awkward for some families, but the blend of playfulness indulged and lessons learned makes Waitress a generally appealing choice in these overwhelming times.  Tickets for the open-ended run are available at http://www.brooksatkinsontheater.com.

In Transit

In Transit Circle in the SquareIn Transit is a delightful bon-bon box of a musical.  A loose structure of interconnected stories holds together 11 appealing New Yorkers and 16 catchy production numbers.  A prerecorded introduction by the producers reminds us that all the sounds we hear are created by human voice.  The pieces are performed a cappella and the “orchestra” is a beatboxing whiz appropriately named Boxman.

As evidenced by the many hearty laughs and heartfelt claps, the tales told are highly relatable.  It’s not so much new ground broken as old ground covered in a fresh way.  A few of the jokes might be missed by those unfamiliar with the eccentricities of the New York subway.  But the human elements touched on are universal.

The foot-tapping melodies are filled with clever rhythmic wording. The feel-good energy comes from proven sources.  The book, music and lyrics come with a warm and friendly pedigree having been created by Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame along with James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth.   Deke Sharon who worked on Pitch Perfect — the movie that brought “aca” to a wider audience — developed the splendid vocal arrangements, which tease out all the details.

In the central part of inspiring actress Jane, is the engaging Margo Seibert.  Last seen on Broadway in Rocky, she fittingly knows when to punch a note.  As her agent, Trent, Justin Guarini brings sensitivity and thought to his every line.  James Snyder is her slightly beaten-down puppy of a love interest with the gentle tone.  Their emotionally spot-on duet “But, Ya Know” is a highlight.  Providing abundant humor and attitude is Moya Angela in her roles as a boss, a mother and a station agent.

Every other part is brought to life by a large cast gifted singers.  There is unmatched support needed when every lead is also someone else’s backup. Holding them all together is Boxman, alternately played by Chesney Snow and Steven “HeaveN” Cantor.  I saw Snow handle the immense and intense responsibility of this Greek chorus/human sound machine and can well understand why it would take at least two sets of vocal chords to cover 8 performances a week.

The production is directed and choreographed with high energy by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall.  She makes terrific use of her deep bench and the 3/4 round stage.  Donyale Werle creates myriad public and private spaces, and of course train cars, using brightly colored plastic seats, lighted stairways and a moving belt.  And costume designer Clint Ramos has provided easy looks plus a show-stopping gown of MTA cards.

If like me you are more than ready to inject a little joy in your day, In Transit is the perfect pick-me-up.  Running a lively 100 minutes, the show is a fit for many tastes and ages.  Tickets are currently available through June 25, 2017 at http://www.intransitbroadway.com/.  All seats at The Circle and the Square have terrific sightlines, so $89 will get you there.

The Golden Bride

The Yiddish musical The Golden Bride first premiered on February 9, 1923, a time when new laws were being implemented that would strongly limit the number of Eastern European Jews permitted to immigrate to America.  It is essential to keep this filter in place when experiencing the latest remounting by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.  While the lively music by Joseph Rumshinsky and fine operatic singing have weathered the test of time, much of the theme and relationships are bordering on the offensive when viewed through a modern middle-aged lens.  (I can’t begin to imagine what younger audience members would make of it.)

The piece opens like a Russian flavored Gilbert and Sullivan with a brightly colored set behind a cohesive chorus.  The orchestra led by Zalmen Mlotek can be glimpsed through a scrim center stage.  Louis Gilrod’s cute lyrics are in Yiddish with English and Russian titles projected on the top of the proscenium.  Trilling notes are hit and words well articulated by an impressive sprawling cast.

The basic set-up is presented within the first few songs.  Two young women have unexpectedly come into large sums of money and will therefore be able to make great marriages.  This storyline may have worked perfectly as a tool for helping those newly arrived from the Russian Empire to a disorienting home in the USA.  But to the ears of the uninitiated, this plot will seem worn and unwelcome leading to a tough struggle through the next two hours.  Other bits like their fumbling with the English language and the muddled-ness of a hard-of-hearing character are even more potentially wounding in 2016.

There are moments of levity that survive the journey through the years much better.  The core of the comic space is held by high-spirited Adam B. Shapiro in the clownish role of Kalmen.  The relationship between the charming Pinkhes (Bruce Rebold) and his doting wife Toybe (Lisa Fishman) sparkles in both their Russian inn and as they attempt to adapt to their perception of life as upper class Americans.  Glenn Seven Allen and Rachel Zatoff give broad but amusing performances as would-be actors Jerome and Khanele.  Tougher jobs are given to the central young lovers Misha (Cameron Johnson) and Goldele (Rachel Policar).  But despite all the unsavory talk of money and position, there is a sweetness to their bond that shines through.

To make this production happen, it truly took a village.  The program lists over 200 “supporting producers” who participated in an online fundraising campaign specifically to revive The Golden Bride.  This tells me that there is a thirst for high caliber historically insightful entertainment.   Whether or not this includes you will depend largely on your ability to alter your perspective.  You can test your cultural flexibility through August 28 by purchasing tickets at http://www.nytf.org.

 

She Loves Me

These days we can all use an injection of Utterly Charming.  So the timing couldn’t be better for this delightful revival of Harnick and Bock’s She Loves Me.  Even those who are not familiar with the play on which the work is based or the movies that sprang from it can take comfort in the title.  This is clearly not a performance that is going to leave you emotionally shattered and sleepless.

Comfort is derived from the moment David Rockwell’s appealing set is revealed.  Throughout most of the show, the rooms of the enchanting Maraczek’s Parfumerie open, close and turn in central 1934 Budapest.  The store is peopled by staff and shoppers all captivatingly clothed by Jeff Mahshie.  But it is the clever and catchy lyrics by the incomparable Sheldon Harnick that draw us most into this world in which boy meets girl, boy and girl get on each other’s nerves and boy buys girl ice cream.  At 92, Mr. Harnick is still actively engaged in the production process.  He has even added a few new lines to this incarnation of his musical originally produced in 1963.

Of course, much of the joy comes from watching this particularly lively cast at work under the direction of Scott Ellis.  Jane Krakowski appropriately thanked her hamstrings at the recent Drama Desk Awards for helping her steal every scene she is in.  Her bright energy is reinforced by the sly and slightly smarmy lover portrayed by Gavin Creel.  In the role of new girl Amalia Balash, Laura Benanti delivers the right mixture of cotton balls and steel wool.  And for this true blue Chuck fan it was a particular thrill to see the multitalented Zachary Levi throw himself into the romantic lead, Georg Nowack, with genuine exuberance and a sprinkle of Jimmy Stewart to satisfy purists.

Vital support for these headliners is provided by Byron Jennings, Tom McGowan, Peter Bartlett and high school senior (!) Nicholas Barasch.  The entire team is so good together that this piece has been chosen for the first live stream event on BroadwayHD in June and a new cast album due to be released later this year.

She Loves Me is a satisfying confection for anyone in need of some old fashioned sweetness.  The 2 1/2 hours are sure to fly by.  It is currently playing at Studio 54 with tickets are on sale through July 10 at https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/She-Loves-Me.aspx.

Hamilton

I have two pieces of advice regarding the musical Hamilton. Number one: GO!. Do whatever it takes to get yourself a seat, short of meeting a creepy guy in a Starbucks with cash in hand. Play the lottery.  Sit in a lawn-chair in front of the theater all night. Or stick a pin in an available night in 2017. Because if ever there was a piece on Broadway that deserved to be called “must see”, this is it. And that’s not Kool-Aid talking.  The music is catchy (and, praise be, memorable).  The lyrics are clever.  And the cast is off-the-charts talented.

Number two: Whatever the components of that particular performance — whatever city you are in, wherever in the house you sit, whomever you’re with, and whichever cast members are on stage — enjoy *your* experience of it. It will only be one degree away from all the other fabulous ways you can see this show.  I heard deep sighs of disappointment when some audience members noticed that the part of George Washington was being played by Austin Smith instead of Christopher Jackson. But by the time he boomed out his farewell speech, he had won over even the most ardent fan of the soundtrack album. I have heard similar stories about several of the other standbys.  There are no weak links here.  Even if, as happened to me, Lin-Manuel Miranda is resting his vocal chords, you will not be the least bit disappointed to catch the magic of Javier Munoz in the title role. In fact, my theater friends tell me it’s become the “in” thing to grab tickets for the Sunday matinee in order to guarantee seeing his interpretation.  His vocal technique brings out more of rich seductiveness of Hamilton in contrast to Miranda’s sharp edged frustration. Both are equally important aspects of this increasingly famous Founding Father.

So strong is every player that it’s hard to single out just one or two.  But in the interest of keeping this review at appropriate blog length I’ll start with Daveed Diggs.  His flashy Franglais Marquis de Lafayette in the first Act is only topped by his effected and slightly bitchy Thomas Jefferson in the second.  Leslie Odom, Jr. makes a commanding yet penitent narrator in the form of Aaron Burr.  And how could I not give special mention to the utterly delightful and hilarious Jonathan Groff as the spitting mad King George III.  My mother is tone deaf and even she can’t stop humming his theme song.

Fortunately, all this talent is in service to a truly remarkable book, music and lyrics by national treasure Lin-Manuel Miranda.  You’ve no doubt read about how, inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, he saw an immigrant story in Hamilton’s humble beginnings as an orphan on a Caribbean Island who is sent to New York at 14 to make his mark.  I can’t begin to fathom how he turned the revolutionary war and resulting establishment of our government into such dizzying entertainment.  Surely the word genius applies.  Deep appreciation goes out to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and director Thomas Kail for adding perfect movement and motion to Miranda’s work.  There isn’t a dull moment to be seen.

Best of all is the probability that Hamilton will do for theater what Harry Potter did for reading: bring in a new generation of enthusiastic participants.  There were dozens of students in the theater and their energy was thrilling.  (Special shoutout to the young man who stepped off his school bus wearing a white tuxedo jacket, black bow tie and wide smile.)

Hamilton is currently playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater.  For tickets and information visit http://www.hamiltonbroadway.com.  Sign up for email notices and/or the lottery.   And PLEASE heed the warnings about counterfeit tickets.