Category Archives: Musical

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.

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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.

L’amant Anonyme

It is truly impressive that the compact theater in which I recently saw Dead Dog Park could be used to house an opera.  Granted, this one was produced by the appropriately name “little Opera theater of ny” and there are some obvious shortcomings.  Nonetheless, the effort is to be admired and, judging by the smiles around me, the outcome is enjoyable at its own level.

What adaptor/director Philip Shneidman has done is wrap a short comedic opera, L’amant Anonyme, within the true story of its groundbreaking composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.  (It should be noted that in the opera world “comedic” means that no one is lying dead centerstage when the curtain comes down.)  Chevalier de Saint-George, the mullato son of a French plantation owner and his slave, is best known as the first classical composer of African ancestry.  Scholars have long thought that L’amant Anonyme was inspired by his personal dilemma of being able to love but not marry any of the many white European women in his circle.  This production strengthens the parallel between fact and fiction by having the same actor play St George and his leading man, Valcour.  The script incorporates documented biographical material including the composer’s imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, his exceptional fencing skills and reaction of the Caucasian opera community when it was proposed that he be named director of the Académie royale de musique.  These sections are separated from those taken from the libretto by having the actors announce the act and scene numbers to the audience.

The music, played by the accomplished New Vintage Baroque Chamber Ensemble under the director of Elliot Figg, is pleasant.  If you like Haydn, you’ll be nodding your head here.  That they managed to squeeze eight instrumentalists onto this stage at all is miraculous, so they can be forgiven for having to retune partway through the piece.  The singing is handled by two alternating casts.  I saw the “Red Team”: Everett Suttle, Jennifer Moore, Jesse Malgieri, Marie Masters, Anthony Webb, and Aude Cardona.  At times they were what “Idol” judges would call “pitchy”, but I can only begin to image the challenges of hearing oneself in those deadening acoustics.

The creative team’s effort to support the intertwined stories has mixed results.  The lack of sets — typically an opera staple — allows for clean and clear projection of supertitles produced by Chadwick Creative Arts.  Thomas Schall should be applauded for managing to stage a fencing class in a space the size of a Manhattan galley kitchen.  Completely baffling, though, are Matsy Stinson’s costumes, which bear a strong resemblance to bedspreads.  Presumably for convenience, they are sometimes left in place when shifting from one storyline to the other, which I found confusing.

Whatever its imperfections, at $35 L’amant Anonyme makes for a lively evening and a gentle introduction to what may seem an intimating art form.  It is running at 59E59th Street Theater through March 20, 2016.  For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=235.

The Color Purple

The audience attending The Color Purple represented the New York I want to live in.  It encompassed a dazzling variety of ages, races and temperaments all sharing the experience of Broadway musical theater.  They held back tears, clapped with joy and on a few occasions rose to their feet.  In my view, that factor alone makes this production a triumph, even though I was personally left a little chilly.

I’ve never been a fan of this Pulitzer Prize winning work.  Intellectually I know it should be moving, but it’s never touched my heart.  I found Spielberg’s film version overcooked and never got through the book.  This leap to the stage doesn’t fare much better in part because the dialogue is delivered almost as an aside.  Plot points are swallowed and it’s easy to get lost if you aren’t already familiar with the material.

There’s no denying the vocal talent that fills the theater between these wasted lines.  British import Cynthia Erivo is positively darling as Celie, the central character of the story.  It’s hard to believe her tiny body can contain such a rich sound.  Despite her voice, Jennifer Hudson is a disappointment as Shug Avery.  While she can certainly belt out a tune, her movements are awkward and uncomfortable, as if her neck and arms belong to another body entirely.   It’s a particularly poor casting choice given that Shug is supposed to be sultry, sexy and earthy.  Danielle Brooks’s Sophia on the other hand is a revelation.  The Orange is the New Black actress has pipes and attitude to spare.  Here’s hoping Taystee is given a jazzy jailhouse number in season 4.

The rest of the company — most particularly the three “swings” who act as a type of Greek chorus — display a terrific range of style.  If only the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray were stronger.  By the time I got to the subway, I couldn’t remember a single phrase.  (Meanwhile, I’m still humming “Musical” from Something Rotten.)

Many reviewers have praised John Doyle for stripping down this production.  I did not see the previous incarnation, but certainly found the general motion of the piece to be clean and well paced.  However, I was baffled by his set design, which included dozens of chairs scattered about the stage and hung along the walls.  They were like four-legged cigarettes, often providing “business” for the actors, but if there was metaphorical meaning to their presence it was lost on me.

The Color Purple is currently playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.  For tickets and information visit http://colorpurple.com.  Clearly the more-than-twenty producers of this project hope it has a good long run.  For the sake of those who were swept away, I do too.

Fun Home

Fun Home is the Little Engine That Surprised the Heck Out of Everyone.  Despite its lack of star power or big dance numbers, it beat out more likely contenders including Something Rotten and American in Paris to take home this year’s Tony for Best Musical.  More startling, the book is based on an autobiographical graphic novel about a woman coming to terms with her sexuality as well as that of her father.  Not exactly the most obvious source material for show tunes.   Consequently, I arrived at the performance ready to be blown out of the water.  Instead I was mildly splashed.  To be sure, the piece is thought provoking, but there’s also something remarkably flat about the experience.

The structure of Fun Home is extremely inventive.  The main character, Alison Bechdel, is portrayed by three profoundly talented actresses.  Beth Malone plays modern Alison and is our guide, drawing and telling her story throughout.  Emily Skeggs brings to life college-age Alison, who goes from struggling with her homosexuality to embracing it as a critical part of her identity.  Most thrilling is Sydney Lucas as young Alison.  She’s one of those almost-scary kids with a huge set of pipes and a presence to match.

The staging by uber talented Sam Gold is ingenious, moving the story through time while nodding in the direction of the source material.   Gold also makes the most of the in-the-round venue, sometimes swirling the characters through the space.

The piece is written as an operetta; think Gilbert and Sullivan.  While I am delighted that Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron are the first all-female team to win a Tony for writing a musical, this is not my favorite form (unless it is actually Gilbert and Sullivan).  I’m simply distracted by heart to heart dialogue delivered in singsong.  But the real buzz kill for me happened early on when the adult Alison summed up the entire plot to come in one sentence.  From that point on there was little at stake.  I became increasingly passive and wondered why I wasn’t trusted to follow a more engaging evolution of the story.  That would have been a spectacular journey to take.

Fun Home is currently playing at the Circle in the Square Theater.  For tickets and information, visit http://funhomebroadway.com/tickets.php.

Something Rotten

While I tap my toes to many classic musicals and once sang “Godspell” in French, that world lost me somewhere around dancing cats and warbling beggars.  My ambivalence towards the modern day musical makes me the perfect audience member for Something Rotten.

The plot revolves around the invention of the musical as a new entertainment form that just might knock Will Shakespeare from his perch as the most popular dramatist of the Renaissance.  The clever lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick manage to simultaneous praise and make fun of the genre.  And their music borrows no more than seven seconds of no less than 15 other famous scores.  It’s a veritable aural Where’s Waldo for the initiated.

There is no doubt I was further seduced by the delightful performances of the two leads.  Brain d’Arcy James, painfully wasted as the spurned husband in NBC’s Smash, is put to great use as the sweet, ambitious and misguided Nick Bottom, desperate to secure a comfortable life for his family by making a decent living as a playwright.  And two time Tony Award winner Christian Borle — channeling Tim Curry — takes on The Bard as 16th Century Rock Star.  The two bring out the best in each other and their performances are further elevated by a staggeringly talented group of supporting and ensemble actors.

Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography keep the action moving at a swift pace and allow the cast members to move breezily from one beat to the next.  He even makes a potentially tedious kick-line work to advantage.

I could certainly make my usual complaints that most of the tunes were forgettable and the characters broke out into song at annoying intervals.  But since these criticisms are supplied by the show’s own book, instead I can report that I laughed at just about everything.  Yes, it’s all over-the-top and ridiculous, but I appreciated the self-awareness of the piece.  In fact my only disappointment is that my own chuckles and snorts got in the way of my hearing every line.

Something Rotten is currently playing at the St. James Theatre.  For tickets and information visit http://rottenbroadway.com.