Category Archives: Broadway

“Young Frankenstein”

Hilton Theatre, New York • 20 October 2007 • 2pm [preview]
Music & Lyrics by Mel Brooks. Book by Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan. Based on the screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks for the eponymous movie.

Direction & Choreography by Susan Stroman. With Matthew LaBanca (Frederick Frankenstein [understudy]), Megan Mullally (Elizabeth), Sutton Foster (Inga), Shuler Hensley (The Monster), Andrea Martin (Frau Blucher), Fred Applegate (Hermit), Christopher Fitzgerald (Igor)…

Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ second Broadway musical. It is sometimes so reminiscent of the first one that it feels like The Producers II: Let’s Take Transylvania. The music is good old Broadway fare, though hardly original. And there are jokes aplenty, the lewder, the better. (Inga to Frederick, as she is resting against him on a hay cart: “Don’t hold that against me.” Him: “I’ll try not to.”)

What will probably make the show a success, on top of being inspired by a cult movie, is its fantastic physical production (sets, costumes, lights) and the great work of director-choreographer Susan Stroman. Although Matthew LaBanca did a very fine job, I was quite disappointed to miss Roger Bart in the title role. There are many outstanding performances in the rest of the cast, most remarkably Andrea Martin’s Frau Blucher (the object of a hilarious recurring joke) and Christopher Fitzgerald’s excellent Igor.

“Xanadu”

Helen Hayes Theatre, New York • 21 July 2007 • 2pm
Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Music & Lyrics by Jeff Lynne & John Farrar. Based on the Universal Pictures Film Screenplay.

Directed by Christopher Ashley. With Kerry Butler (Clio/Kira), Curtis Holbrook (Sonny [understudy]), Tony Roberts (Danny Maguire/Zeus), Mary Testa (Melpomene/Medusa), Jackie Hoffman (Calliope/Aphrodite)…

Some movies, however bad, can hold a special status in our minds… and that, for me, is very much the case with Xanadu, one of the very first movie musicals I saw in the early 1980s. The film is generally considered as a dud, but it marked Gene Kelly’s last appearance on the silver screen and it boasted a glorious soundtrack which quickly became my most-often played LP. Then the soundtrack was released on CD, and I thought life couldn’t possibly smile more on me. Then the movie came out on DVD, and I thought I couldn’t be luckier. Well, as it turns out, I could. Somebody came up with the crazy idea of turning Xanadu into a Broadway musical… and the outcome is a wildly enjoyable show which seems to have gotten just about everything right.

While the score is virtually intact and reproduces the excitement of the movie’s soundtrack, the book has been infused with a lot of second- and third-degree humour. The short, intermissionless, 90-minute show thus becomes a sort of loving spoof of the movie.

Kerry Butler gives a wonderful performance as Clio, the part played in the movie by Olivia Newton-John. Butler’s portrayal comes complete with a mock Australian drawl and some of Newton-John’s trademark postures. There are also two irresistibly funny performances from Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman. And it is always a treat to see Broadway veteran Tony Roberts (recreating, of course, the role originally played by Gene Kelly).

The leading male part of Sonny is officially played by James Carpinello, but he couldn’t open the show due to an injury during rehearsals. In his absence, the part of Sonny is usually played by Broadway heartthrob Cheyenne Jackson, but “due to a prior commitment,”Jackson is out of the show July 17–26, so the two understudies for the role play the part in turn. I caught Curtis Holbrook, who acquitted himself very nicely. I must admit I would have been curious to see the other understudy, André Ward, a black actor who gives one of the most outrageously outlandish performances in a series of roles that include Terpsicore and a Centaur…

“Mary Poppins”

New Amsterdam Theatre, New York • 19 July 2007 • 8pm
Based on the stories of P. L. Travers & the Walt Disney film. Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman. Book by Julian Fellowes. New Songs and Additional Music & Lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe. Co-created by Cameron Mackintosh.

Directed by Richard Eyre. Co-direction & Choreography: Matthew Bourne. With Megan Osterhaus (Mary Poppins [understudy]), Gavin Lee (Bert), Daniel Jenkins (George Banks), Rebecca Luker (Winifred Banks), Cass Morgan (Bird Woman), Janelle Anne Robinson (Mrs. Corry)…

I would be hard pressed to list all the differences between this version and the original London production, but it is obvious that the show has been made a lot less dark and a lot more cheerful… thus paradoxically making it remoter from the P. L. Travers stories.

Dark or not, I still have mixed feelings about this show, which fails to create the level of excitement that one would expect from such an ambitious venture. The score, in particular, doesn’t really convince, for a number of complex and related reasons: the new songs aren’t very inspired; the sound design struck me as unnatural and somewhat muddy… and the absence of violins (and violas) in the orchestra confirms a regrettable trend towards diminishing the number of instruments in the pits of Broadway shows, thus making the “live” sound of the theatre less and less pleasant and more and more dependant on the limited capacities of sophisticated synthesizers.

Visually, the show is quite impressive and it offers several highly enjoyable moments of theatrical wizardry. Bert’s walk around the proscenium is still a treat… as is Mary Poppins’ last flight across the auditorium (it must be quite a challenge to rush back to the stage in time to take her bow). The cast (which included quite a few understudies and swings) gives a warm performance, which strikes just the right chords and makes the overall experience pleasurable.

“Legally Blonde”

Palace Theatre, New York • 18 July 2007 • 8pm
Music & Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe & Nell Benjamin. Book by Heather Hach. Based on the novel by Amanda Brown & the MGM Motion Picture.

Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. With Laura Bell Bundy (Elle Woods), Richard H. Blake (Warner Huntington III), Christian Borle (Emmet Forrest), Orfeh (Paulette), Michael Rupert (Professor Callahan)…

Here’s a show that has no discernable music, dreadfully trite lyrics and a book that frequently embarrasses itself. I haven’t seen the movie (yet), but I’m sure there was better comedic material to work from than what emerges on stage. The whole “Gay or European” scene in the second act is simply appalling. Thank God, the show moves along quickly and the fantastic set gives something to marvel about.

“Gypsy”

City Center, New York • 17 July 2007 • 7pm
Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Directed by Arthur Laurents. Music Director: Patrick Vaccariello. With Patti LuPone (Rose), Boyd Gaines (Herbie), Laura Benanti (Louise), Leigh Ann Larkin (June), Tony Yazbeck (Tulsa), Marilyn Caskey (Electra), Alison Fraser (Tessie Tura), Nancy Opel (Miss Cratchitt/Mazeppa)…

Interesting to see Patti LuPone go from a great performance as Rose last year under Lonny Price’s guidance at the Ravinia Festival to a substandard, at times mind-bogglingly bad portrayal in this misguided production, which is supposed to be a (way) out-of-town try-out for a forthcoming London run.

The pace and delivery feel so wrong at times it looks as if Arthur Laurents took a sort of perverse pleasure in harming his own material. And some pieces of stage business — like the amount of scenes played in front of the curtain — really look amateurish.

The paradox is that some of the actors give wonderful performances: Boyd Gaines is a sensitive, heartbreaking Herbie; Laura Benanti’s transformation from shy tomboy to star stripper is sensational; Nancy Opel steals every scene she’s in as Miss Cratchitt… and the three strippers are a hoot.

But Patti LuPone looks as if she left something in the oven and is in a hurry to get back home after the performance. Many subtleties of the book and lyrics are lost to an absent-minded or rushed delivery. And her famed botched enunciation is back. Beside, she ends an otherwise fine “Rose’s Turn” on an ugly scream which must be the most tasteless thing I’ve seen on a musical theatre stage in a long time.

But the audience didn’t seem to mind. They were all on their feet after “the scream.” Go figure…

“Avenue Q”

John Golden Theatre, New York • 16 July 2007 • 8pm
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty. Based on an Original Concept by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx.

Directed by Jason Moore. With Howie Michael Smith (Princeton, Rod), Aymee Garcia (Kate Monster, Lucy et al.), David Benoit (Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bear et al.), Jennifer Barnhart (Mrs. T., Bear et al.), Evan Harrington (Brian), Ann Sanders (Christmas Eve), Haneefah Wood (Gary Coleman), Jonathan Root, Matt Schreiber.

There are shows that I could see again and again. And again. Avenue Q certainly is one of them. I already said how great I think this show is when I saw the London production four months ago. Although most of the cast has changed since I first saw the show when it opened in 2003 (except for Jennifer Barnhart), the experience is still as fresh as it was then. The score might be uneven, but there are several songs that deal with issues that had never been tackled on a Broadway stage before… and in ways that are quite ground-breaking.

The show has been running for four years now. Here’s hoping that it runs for at least four more.

“110 in the Shade”

Studio 54, New York • 14 July 2007 • 2pm
Book by N. Richard Nash, based on his play, The Rainmaker. Music by Harvey Schmidt. Lyrics by Tom Jones.

Directed by Lonny Price. Music Direction by Paul Gemignani. With Audra McDonald (Lizzie Curry), Steve Kazee (Starbuck), Christopher Innvar (File), John Cullum (H. C. Curry), Chris Butler (Noah Curry), Bobby Steggert (Jimmy Curry), Carla Duren (Snookie)…

I’d already seen a production of 110 in the Shade at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA a few years ago and I’d enjoyed it tremendously. The show has a strong book (adapted from his own play by the original author, which always bodes well) and an enchanting Schmidt & Jones score.

This production boasts two more assets: the strong directorial touch of Lonny Price and a star turn if ever there was one by the irresistible and obscenely talented Audra McDonald. Not that the rest of the cast aren’t great; everybody gives a first-class performance.

Starbuck’s “Rain Song” has always been a favourite of mine — one of those songs that I turn to when I need to be cheered up. To hear it in such ideal conditions was a superlative thrill.

“Face the Music”

City Center, New York • 31 March 2007 • 8pm
Music & lyrics by Irving Berlin. Book by Moss Hart.

Directed by John Rando. Musical director: Rob Fisher. Choreography: Randy Skinner. Starring Judy Kaye, Lee Wilkof, Jeffry Denman, Meredith Patterson, Mylinda Hull, Eddie Korbich, Felicia Finley, Chris Hoch, Timothy Shew and Walter Bobbie.

Absolute and unadulterated bliss. When Encores! does what it was intended to do, i.e. present shows that have become unjustly forgotten, the result can be mesmerising. Nobody ever quite did it as well as Irving Berlin and Moss Hart. They certainly knew how to write shows in those days. Charming songs, witty dialogue, light-hearted fun aplenty… Face the Music is the perfect feel-good musical. Who could ask for anything more? I know I’m sounding like Man in Chair from Drowsy Chaperone, but that’s exactly how I felt for the best part of two hours.

Rob Fisher, John Rando and Randy Skinner seem to have got everything just right. With a superb cast headed by the magnificent Judy Kaye, they have paid the perfect tribute to the good old days of musical comedy. The dance scenes, in particular, are a dream come true. No, really, they don’t make them like that any more. And that’s a downright shame.

“Spring Awakening”

Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York • 31 March 2007 • 2pm
Book & lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Based on the play by Frank Wedekind.

Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography by Bill T. Jones. With Jonathan Groff (Melchior), John Gallagher, Jr. (Moritz), Lea Michele (Wendla), Stephen Spinella (The Adult Men), Frances Mercati-Anthony (The Adult Women [understudy]).

“Boring and pretentious” pretty much sums up my reaction to this musical. Based on the Frank Wedekind play, the book is about kids who are going through a rather typical teen-age crisis in a German village at the end of the 19th century. Only in this case the consequences are going to be pretty extreme. So far, so good.

The show has two major problems that I couldn’t overcome. The first one is that by the end of the first act, close to nothing has happened: there’s no impeding drama, no big question mark hanging in the air. You could leave and not have to live with the unbearable burden of not knowing what happens in the second act.

The second problem is that the show is built on a conceit that just doesn’t work for me: whenever they sing about their feelings, the kids get hold of hand-held mikes and sing songs very much in the style of Rent. I’m probably showing a severe shortcoming in my ability fully to appreciate brilliant new conceptual advances, but I didn’t buy it. At least the music in Rent sounds like the music that the kids on stage probably play or listen to.

There’s more pretentiousness in the scenic design, the way members of the audience get to sit on stage, etc. A shame because there definitely is some serious talent on that stage.

“The Pirate Queen”

Hilton Theatre, New York • 30 March 2007 • 8pm (preview)
Book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Richard Maltby, Jr. Music by Schönberg. Lyrics by Boublil, Maltby, Jr. and John Dempsey.

Directed by Frank Galati. Musical Staging by Graciela Daniele. With Stephanie J. Block (Grace “Grania” O’Malley), Hadley Fraser (Tiernan), Linda Balgord (Queen Elizabeth I), William Youmans (Sir Richard Bingham), Marcus Chait (Donal O’Flaherty), Jeff McCarthy (Dubhdara)…

This is only a preview, so I don’t want to make definitive comments… but The Pirate Queen reminded me of Martin Guerre on so many levels. Big, epic, loud… with a desperately straight storyline and a few occasional flashes of grace.

The most outstanding elements of the production are Eugene Lee’s brilliant scenic design and Kenneth Posner’s magnificent lighting… which contributes to make the whole show lean more towards a big amusement park spectacular than towards legitimate musical theatre. But I have a feeling that, like Wicked, this show might become popular with audiences.

And maybe it deserves to: the sore, which leans heavily towards the Irish vernacular, definitely has its moments; the story, although cartoonish, is reminiscent of some lavish Hollywood pirate epics; and the acting is mostly good — even if I’m not quite sure what to make of Linda Balgord’s… well, strange… impersonation of Elizabeth I.

Of course, two prerequisites for enjoying the show are an interest in Irish jig (which I confess to lack) and an ability to get over appallingly trite lyrics. But it can be done.

What a surprise to see Julian Kelly in the pit! I’ve seen him musical direct more shows — especially Sondheim shows — than I can remember, mostly at the Leicester Haymarket in the UK but also in London. Going from Sondheim to Schönberg while crossing the Atlantic must be quite a change…

“Follies”

City Center, New York • 10 February 2007 • 8pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Goldman.

Part of the Encores! series. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Musical Director: Eric Stern. With Victoria Clark (Sally), Donna Murphy (Phyllis), Michael McGrath (Buddy), Victor Garber (Ben), Mimi Hines (Hattie), Jo Anne Worley (Stella), Christine Baranski (Carlotta), Yvonne Constant (Solange)…

As chance had it, another semi-staged version of Follies was scheduled in New York less than a week after the London concert version. The staging concept was pretty much the same, with the orchestra on stage and a few runways and stairs. Unlike in London, the actors in New York weren’t off book, presumably to convince Equity that this was a concert version and not a staged production.

Overall, I was less impressed by the New York version because it had a lot less dramatic tension than the London concert. The principals were good, but I failed to experience the buildup of nervous energy that should occur during the first act. The performance looked and felt more like a reading of the show.

I love Victoria Clark, but her Sally was not the lost soul I think she should be. Clark should give a go at playing Phyllis: my intuition tells me she would be fine. Donna Murphy played Phyllis a bit more softly than is customary, but it gave her character some added depth that I rather enjoyed. Her line delivery was a bit too slow to keep the dramatic flow moving, though.

Michael McGrath did what he could with Buddy, which really appeared as the least well written of the four main characters. His voice failed him a few times, but he did fine with his dances. As for Victor Garber, I wasn’t completely convinced by his Ben until “Live, Laugh, Love,” which he did superbly. His nervous breakdown wasn’t quite as spine-chilling as Philip Quast’s, but it came close.

The older parts were a mixed bag. Yvonne Constant, who appeared on Broadway in La Plume de ma Tante, was an interesting alternative to Liliane Montevecchi, but her singing left much to be desired. Mimi Hines did fine with “Broadway Baby”. I liked Christine Baranski’s Carlotta… except when I didn’t like her. There were a few times when she went too hard for laughs, by changing her voice for instance… and that didn’t really suit her character.

Overall, this performance was quite enjoyable, in no small part thanks to Musical Director Eric Stern. Musical highlights included “Who’s that Woman?” and “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” which I’ve always been partial to. We were lucky not to have to endure the official concert version of the libretto, but the dialogue was abridged, which was a shame.

I can’t wait for the next opportunity to see the show!

“Grey Gardens”

Walter Kerr Theatre, New York • 10 February 2007 • 2pm

Book by Doug Wright. Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Based on the documentary by the Maysles brothers. Directed by Michael Greif. With Christine Ebersole (Young Edith Bouvier Beale, Old “Little” Edie Beale), Mary Louise Wilson (Old Edith Bouvier Beale), Erin Davie (Young “Little” Edie Beale), John McMartin…

At last I got to see that show that I missed last time I came to New York because of a missed flight connection. Grey Gardens is based on the eponymous 1975 documentary about two relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier/Kennedy/Onassis, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little” Edie, who lived in filth and squalor in their run-down East Hampton mansion.

What the show adds is a first act about how “Little” Edie nearly got engaged to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. before everything fell through. The second act is an almost exact reproduction of the documentary. If there were a Tony for mimicking a real-life character, then Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson would hold a strong claim to it. Their performances are indeed amazingly accurate. But, even if I mildly enjoyed the show, I couldn’t help wondering if there really was a point to all that — even if I can understand why the documentary is considered as such an endless source of fascination.

The show is well written, has a strong, witty book and a solid score. However, the music sounds a bit derivative and there are several instances where the composer seems to have wanted to make it unpredictable by inserting bizarre notes or harmonies in songs that would otherwise be perfectly “square.” To be fair, I had the same feeling upon leaving The Light in the Piazza and it took me a while to recognize that it made the score better, not lesser.

The cast is good, the staging is fine, the set is quite impressive… but I quite didn’t feel the thrill that I expected. Oh well.