Category Archives: Musical

Head Over Heels

Like one of its stars, Peppermint, Head Over Heels has a refreshing sense of self.  A blend of 16th Century verse, music by 1970s pop stars The Go-Go’s, and an ultra modern “love is love is love” message, Broadway’s newest musical eludes “pegging”.  Based loosely on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, the story follows King Basilius as he attempts to defy a prophecy delivered to him by Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. She declares four tragedies will befall his kingdom, each one signaled by a veil falling from the sky. Should all come to pass, the land is doomed. Determined to cheat fate, Basilius packs up his citizens and travels deep into the woods.  Anyone who knows their way around a Greek myth can predict how successful the well-meaning ruler’s plan will be.

The Go-Go’s repertoire —including Mad about You, Cool Jerk and Vacation — contains many catchy ear-worms, but they are hardly known for their deep meaning.  While the dialogue is often witty, characters sometimes tee-up the next production number by delivering forced lines. If hearing that what makes this kingdom distinctive is that they’ve “got the beat” makes you cringe, you should have second thoughts about purchasing tickets. On the other hand, if you find yourself going along with the playfulness, there is more where that came from.

There is none of the over amplification which dominates rock musicals and every word is clearly articulated. Many eyes will be on the aforementioned Peppermint, a fierce RuPaul Drag Race competitor and first “out” trans  actress to develop a lead of a Broadway musical. Her Pythio may be the only character to literally sparkle, but she is not alone in that quality of performance. The cast – some of whom have been with the production since its early days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – is uniformly strong and everyone seems to be having one heck of a good time. In particular, Andrew Durand steals every scene he’s in as the sweet shepherd Musidorus on his road to self discovery and empowerment. Bonnie Milligan making her Broadway debut is another standout as the difficult and vain Pamela, the older of the king’s two daughters. She ably avoids becoming a tedious “fat joke” by infusing her character with gentle confusion which elicits compassion. She is well paired with Taylor Iman Jones’s Mopsa, her several-steps-ahead admirer.

Head Over HeelsA New Musical

Taylor Iman Jones in the San Francisco Production of Head Over Heels

Director Michael Mayer has his cast members veer towards the hammy, a superfluous move with this broad book created by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder. The moments that are less heavy handed are also more visually exciting, including a seduction scene accomplished in shadows. The production design wonderfully captures the glow and fizz of The Go-Go’s heyday as well as the bejeweled styling of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Scenic designer Julian Crouch’s amusing backdrops include fake curtains and two dimensional trees in a pallet that is pure disco. Arianne Phillips picks up this mixture in her costume design in which half naked male suitors are topped with metallic ruffs, and bows are painted onto the princesses’ elaborate dresses.  Hair and makeup by Campbell Young Associates complete the look to whimsical perfection.

Familiarity with The Go-Go’s is not essential, but it adds to those moments when distinctive guitar licks foreshadow an upcoming production number. Sadly, though, something is off with Kai Harada’s sound. It is admirable that the creative team chose to use only female band members, but their output lacks sufficient depth and energy.  This becomes particularly noticeable upon exit when the original article can be heard throughout the lobby.

Perhaps because it’s a fun and flashy romp, Head Over Heels is attracting a particularly undisciplined audience to the Hudson Theater. The young woman next to me crackled her way through a large bag of gummy bears throughout the 2 hour 15 minute runtime, while the 60-something woman behind me got so drunk that by Act Two she was discussing the quality of the house wine with her friends in what can only be described as her outdoor voice. It may help you get into the proper mood by imagining yourself at the Globe with sawdust under your feet and jolly old England just outside the door. Tickets are on sale now through June 30, 2019 at https://headoverheelsthemusical.com.

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A Letter to Harvey Milk

A Letter to Harvey Milk is a slightly flawed gem of a musical, giving voice to some little seen characters. The work is based on a Lesléa Newman’s short story which follows mildly eccentric but loving Jewish characters as they discover and embrace their identities as lesbians.  In this case the seeker is Barbara, a Connecticut transplant earning a little extra money by teaching a writing class at the JCC in San Francisco.  Her unexpected partner in self exploration is Harry, a widowed retired butcher who finds himself drawn to her classroom and her energy.  What binds them is the titular letter that Harry composes as an assignment.  The honest love and sincere appreciation expressed to his activist friend pulls Barbara into Harry’s story.  She revels in the company of someone who is seemingly so comfortable with his choices.   Their developing friendship takes them both to unexpected places.

Adam Heller and Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland

Adam Heller and  Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs  in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland

The book by by Jerry James, Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern and Laura I. Kramer provides enough detail to follow both Harry’s and Barbara’s struggles with love and loneliness.  Throughout are two culturally significant threads about homosexuality and Judaism through time and in context.  There are a few small gaps in logic such as how Barbara can be making any money with only one student, but those are easy to set aside.  What doesn’t come through with sufficient clarity is the critical figure of Harvey Milk.  He is painted in such broad strokes, those unfamiliar with his ground-breaking achievements will see a badly dressed kook with terrible eating habits.  Perhaps the script suffered from too many cooks.  Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz work better to move the story along and provide atmosphere.  Music by Laura I. Kramer isn’t very memorable, but it does suit the words, particularly the Yankee Doodle Dandy treatment of some of Harvey’s most famous speeches.

Generally, the women in the cast outshine the men. Julia Knitel — who previously starred as Carole King in the touring company of Beautiful — has a soothing voice and magnificent articulation as she shapes Barbara’s story.  As Frannie, Harry’s deceased wife who is by his side for the journey, co-lyricist Cheryl Stern is the comic relief, delivering Elaine Stritch-style patter and emphasis.  And in her one big number, Aury Krebs is a dream.  Michael Bartoli captures Harvey Milk’s patterns and mannerisms, but as described earlier, he isn’t given enough to work with.  Supporting players Jeremy Greenbaum and CJ Pawlikowski do a fine job playing multiple roles.  The weak link is Adam Heller who was off key as a singer and lacked sufficient variation as an actor.  He has extensive Broadway experience, so perhaps it was just an off night.

Evan Pappas’s staging is clever, especially in the more intimate moments.  The charming set by David L. Arsenault captures the feel of the Castro district of San Francisco complete with muted colors and a big Bay window.  The orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Lodin, is perched on a balcony above so they are in view and adding to the ambiance.  The costumes by Debbie Hobson are pitch-perfect, notably Barbara’s anklets and sweater vest and Frannie’s tidy suit.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting effectively changes color palette to the match the mood of each scene.

While A Little to Harvey Milk is still at a “great potential” stage of development, it is already a genuine crowd pleaser (for the right crowd) and impressive bang for the buck.  Struggling with shame and the need for self-truth resonants even with those who are straight and/or gentile.  It runs through May 13, 2018 at the Acorn, part of Theater Row.  Tickets are $79 – $99 and can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.

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.