I Saw 16 Shows on/off Broadway (in 10 Days!) and Promised to Write About Them

May 17, 2017

 

The Golden Apple

 

Saw it Sunday night, loved it with reservations. Act 1 beats Act 2, everyone sounded great (but in the very high operatic soprano pieces it was impossible for me to discern the actual words), and some dialogue to break up the score would be great (Sondheim figured this out early, refusing to write what he called opera). Dialogue helps give some respite, and it can flesh out characterization more easily, and it's more intelligible.

Act 1 is basically the set-up to the Iliad ... then Act 2 scene 1 is the rest of the Iliad, and then the rest of Act 2 is the Odyssey--which is a fairly episodic, picaresque tale, that doesn't suit theatricalization. The smaller compass dealt with in Act 1 worked much better. (But I'm a huge fan of the Goona Goona Lagoon, so it's not like Act 2 has no value, it's just less-well-thought out dramatically). The other issue is that Act 1 carries the conceptualization of Homer in early 20th century Washington, while Act 2 carries both that concept and an additional concept of people standing in for monsters standing in for virtues. It's a bit bewildering. I have no idea what was supposed to be happening during those scenes, or why they took 10 years when they seemed to take 20 minutes, plus travel time.

Still, I flew in for this one, and wasn't disappointed--I don't think I'll ever get another chance to hear it live sounding so good.

 

 

 

Pacific Overtures

 

You know how Japanese food is clean, precise, often cold (my mind goes to sushi, rather than ramen, say), and beautiful? Sondheim has composed a clean, precise, often cold musical. (Maybe cold isn't fair. Dry?) It's smart. I know, I know, it's a cliche to use it on Sondheim, but as I sat, I was thinking about how clever and perfect the score was, and what a shame that 40 years later it still sounds so smart, so daring, so different, compared to most of what's new and on stage now. And I think "Someone in a Tree" is in my top 10 of theatre songs, period, and it sounded great.

But I didn't get involved emotionally. As masterful as the songwriting is, in this case, it didn't grab me the way that the poppier, less lyrically-genius-level Dear Evan Hansen did, say. (And I'm by no means saying Sondheim's too smart to write moving music, my God, most of the rest of his oeuvre is proof against that!) Just this one show. So, a very good match to the subject matter, really, as Japanese value omote, the importance of presentation and appearance in public, rather than ura, which is private informal behaviour, not for show. 

I had no issue with the direction or the contemporary costumes plus occasional additions. If it keeps the budget down so the work can be shown, then great. (I would LOVE to see it some day in full spectacle--perhaps whoever did those gorgeous costumes for Pericles recently might take this on).

 

 

 

War Paint

 

If you think you will like this one, you will probably like this one, which is not always the case.

I liked it more than I thought I would, as I thought it was gorgeous (the costumes!) with some occasionally terrific songs sung by two amazing actresses. And I'm actually interested in the subject matter, and wished there had been even more songs about face cream, I'm fine with that. The two best songs were in the second act, incidentally. 

But nothing happens. Aside from a bit of domestic and business re-shuffling (which apparently happened, I googled it), there's really very little story. It's The Sound of Music without Nazis or an attraction to the Captain, it's just a postulant teaching kids to sing, or it's Anastasia where nobody got shot and no revolution happened, they just hang out in St. Petersburg and dance from time to time, or Fun Home if she didn't become a lesbian and he didn't take his life, he just redecorated the house. This is seriously the least amount of plot I've ever seen in a Broadway show. (Maybe Glory Days? I left early).

I still liked it--I don't require plot. They had character, for sure, and I'm a big fan of character. I'm jjust warning those of you who expect high stakes and derring-do that this one's more derring-don't.

But if LuPone and Ebersole singing about cosmetics (and art, and colours) while looking awesome sounds like a treat, well, you like me are probably the target market.

P.S. The Nederlander has a low, very forward mezzanine, so terrific seats are to be had there. If you sit further back in the orchestra you can't see the whole set, but it's not like Andrea Martin's doing an aerial act, so you don't miss too much.

 

 

 

Bandstand

 

This was a surprisingly interesting musical that didn't quite succeed, for me. I felt there were at least two musicals in there, engaged in an epic battle to the death. One was the feel-good tale of plucky underdogs forming a band so as to win a contest (e.g. a post-WWII School of Rock, essentially), another was a more hard-sell conceptual piece about war and PTSD and survivor guild, where the ghosts of fallen comrades would accompany the main characters in a Brechtian way (some sort of The Visit or Follies or Scottsboro Boys mash-up). These two shows, one light and fluffy, the other deadly serious and a bit off-putting, constantly phased in and out of each other all evening, sometime in the same number.

Most of the supporting cast was in the musical comedy, whereas a good deal of the direction (or was it the choreography--same fellow, so moot point) belonged to the second musical. The set design (in Act One, and the first third of Act Two) was for the second musical, but the set design for the rest of Act One was for the first musical. Lighting was definitely leaning toward second musical most of the time. Most of the songs belonged to a third musical, which was an attempt to write show tunes that evoked both that era, and the sound of actual jazz (the kind I don't like, with seemingly random notes being played at the same time, but that Ryan Gosling's La La Land character goes all gooey for. And at last these musicals finally smashed into each other in a unified way for the penultimate song, but by then it was a bit too late. 

Andy Blankenbuehler, the director, also seems to me to be two people. Sometimes he's the brilliant choreographer who made Hamilton's constant movement so much a part of its success. Other times he's the dreadful choreographer whose busy-busy-busy unnecessary movement destroys pieces like 9 to 5. I feel we got Mr. Hyde on this show, unfortunately. At one point, for example, in what is ostensibly a diagetic number, two chorus boys upend the leading lady so she can sing into a microphone while inverted, then they put her back and move on to dance with chorus girls. What, huh? Why? 

The supporting cast are distinguished by one, possibly two character traits, and unlike Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 they don't have a humorous song about it from the start.

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes are lovely and sound like gold, and Beth Leavel makes the most of her smallish part and then some.

But I do feel like the show needed to decide which kind of show it was going to be and then stick to it. It's schizo, IMO, but at least it's never boring or pedestrian. I'd rather see this than missed opportunity Anastasia or the waaaaaaaay off the mark Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (see below).

 

 

 

Anastasia

 

It's okay. And in this season of great musicals, okay isn't good enough. It never sings (despite all the singing--too much singing--too many songs!), it never soars, it never takes flight. Immediately after seeing it I was racking my brain for one moment, a bit of dance, some stagecraft, something that made me go "Wow!", and I just couldn't come up with one. The cast does a lovely job, the sets are pretty (if often too magenta), some of the songs are nice, and it does get marginally more effective in the second act, thanks to Caroline O'Connor, really. 

The audience ate it up. The family beside me were also beside themselves, muttering "wonderful," and "aren't they terrific," at intervals when nobody, to my eyes, was doing anything worthy of notice beyond behaving professionally and delivering dialogue and songs as written. 

The plot is Very Weak. I suppose minimal spoilers are in store, but since I'm going to reveal the equivalent of "Dolly wants Horace for herself," or "Only some of the actors will get cast in the Chorus Line," I bet you can handle it. The plot is that some no-goodniks decide to create a fake Anastasia to win a reward, and of All the Women in Russia, who do they find? Accidentally? Why, it's Anastasia herself.

Now that's just silly. That's like Herbie turning out to be Mr. Orpheum and able to make all Rose's dreams true, or a sexy single screenwriter, in need of money, coincidentally parks his car in the driveway of a wealthy faded silent movie siren, in need of a sexy single screenwriter. Wait a minute ...

And the ending was ridiculous (although despite the ridiculousness--or maybe because of it--I did wonder what happened next. Maybe they should have led with Anastasia, Part 2 instead. And this ridiculousness is basically a costuming decision. 

Anyway, if you think you'll like it, go see it. It's not terrible. It's barely okay. But if you're on a limited budget, I'd see almost everything else first (besides Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which was not okay, see below.)

 

 

 

Hello Dolly

 

I was up in the cheap seats (not that cheap!), D2 in the Balcony (not even the Mezzanine), but I could see everything--compared to the Palace, where the Balcony felt miles away. So score one for the Shubert Theatre before the show even opened!

Confession: despite being a composer/lyricist/director/playwright and huge musical fan, I've (cough cough) never seen Hello Dolly before. Sure, I knew the basic premise, and approximately five big numbers from it, but that's it. So it was exhilarating being able to discover it as a new musical, by and large, rather than revisiting it as so many must be doing.

Big thumbs up, and if Ms. Milder has had some off nights in the past (according to chat-room posters) there was no evidence of that tonight. David Hyde Pierce was also terrific, sinking into the role as if it were quicksand and he were Princess Buttercup (i.e. fully and completely). It looked a treat, just gorgeous. The orchestra, the chorus, the sound, marvelous. 

I have no quibbles with anything except bits of the plot, which I imagine (if it were an original musical debuting this season) people would nitpick to death--why isn't Irene upset to find out Cornelius was lying to her, the authors just slid right over that, there are no repercussions, yada yada yada--check out anyone online griping about Dear Evan Hansen and you can imagine the treatment Hello Dolly would get. But since I'm in the camp that despairs of revisals (it's my first time, I want to know what the show was/is, not what someone decided it should be this outing), I'm happy to take the original plot, incredibly tiny warts and all.

And yes, the whole layer of us being happy Bette Midler's back where she belongs (in a Musical, not smoking pot on a couch) adds to the experience.

Who should play Dolly next? I like the idea of Dolly Parton, and I'm going to float Bebe Neuwirth (who's more likeable I think than people give her credit for) and Cyndi Lauper. And (perhaps because I think she can do anything) I'd love to see Bernadette Peters try it. And what's Cher up to these days? I'm looking forward to a parade of replacements as long as the original list. Dolly must never go away again!

 

 

 

Come From Away

 

This was essentially flawless. I was even more moved by Dear Evan Hansen, which wasn't perfect, but even Gypsy had that eggroll song, so there. But Come From Away pretty much perfectly executes what it was trying to do. As a writer/director myself, I can't help it, I'm always "on," enjoying the show but slightly editing it as I go along--"I wouldn't have put that song there," "this scene should be snappier," "why did they cast someone so cold in a part that calls for warmth?" etc. 

Well, not this night. I just sat back and let it wash over me. It was an hour and forty minutes of flow, with gorgeous music, vivid characters, a lot of comedy (sensitively handled), pathos in the right place, and some wonderful chair wrangling (believe me, as a director, I know chair wrangling.) These people moved their chairs around constantly and I didn't even notice it, I'd just suddenly realise they were all in a new position. Very deft.

The form is rather documentary, as if someone had decided to musicalize a talking-head doc about Gander on 911 and keep roughly the same structure, and it worked very well, despite its novelty. (Novel for me, at least--I'm not quite sure what form earlier shows like Working, for example, may have had). And I didn't think it was sentimental at all (in the presumably pejorative sense of sugary or overemotional), if anything it steered to the other side of the lane from that.

And not to compare personal tragedies, but let's just say that the events of 911 have personally affected me, and I have yet to be able to watch, say, a documentary on any aspect of the subject, and I had to leave the museum (I tried, but I couldn't) ... but I was able to enjoy this show. So if you're worried it will strike too close to home, I think it very likely won't, for the most part.

 

 

 

Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

 

Much like the divisive The Play That Goes Wrong, this production has the potential to polarize. There are those that will be drawn to its athletic staging, gorgeous lighting design, and inventive, unusual songs--then there will likely be as many who are put off by its quasi-operatic structure, lack of dialogue, meager plot, and lyrics that double as stage directions.

If the audience is divided into those two pots, then I'm in the pro-pot. It's a spectacle, and it's a spectacular spectacle. It's rather (appropriately, given Russia's 19th century predilection for the place) French in style, like the epic Les Miserables before it was made more intelligible for an English audience who were used to a different kind of musical. This is an exuberantly staged sort-of concert-like thing, and it's wonderful, but it's so far removed from your average musical as to appear to be something else entirely. 

So your mileage may vary, as they say.

I saw it Off-Broadway and it seems substantially the same, but heightened. I loved the additions, the amped-up production values, it's just a glorious riot of colour, and there's so much more dance than before--remarkable, given that the entire playing space consists of walkways and ramps, there's no large central open area at all.

(I sat in BA11, I think, the Stage Right aisle seat on the first row of the banquette. While it seemed like every seat was a good one--what an achievement!--this one seemed particularly good, and I'm glad I cheaped out on some other tickets so I could splurge on this one).

 

 

 

The Play That Goes Wrong

 

Let's be real: I won't be returning to this one again and again in my thoughts--it's not remotely emotionally engaging, I didn't particular root for any of the characters, and I don't think there's a rich undercurrent of systematic symbology to be dissected by future academics. But it is what it is, a mostly madcap attempt to wring as much laughter out of their particular premise as possible, and I suspect I laughed, chuckled, or at least smiled at about 90% of the attempts, and as for the remaining 10%--well, others with a slightly different sense of humour seemed to enjoy those moments (that's how I knew they were supposed to be funny!)

Three young women (maybe more, that's all I saw) walked out at intermission, claiming it was too Monty Python. I don't think it seemed Monty Python at all, unless everything with a British accent is immediately Pythonesque. It is, however, very British. The dogged determination to keep a stiff upper lip and carry on at all costs is essentially a British characteristic, and without it, the play wouldn't work. An American company, faced with these problems, would admit them to the audience with a shrug, a "that's live theatre, folks," and then continue as best as possible. The British actors, by contrast, go out of their way to attempt to contrive ways to make the play work smoothly in the face of all possible obstacles (I was about to say "short of fire" but then remembered there was indeed some fire). 

Perhaps the three departed women thought this stubborn determination was absurd, hence Pythonesque, but it's pretty much a national character trait (i.e. stereotype) in the same way that Canadians are perceived to be polite, Americans pushy, French rude, Germans efficient, Italians passionate, and Australians laid back. The Brits keep calm and carry on (actual WWII poster slogan). So it's no more absurd than Come From Away (polite Canadians), Hamilton (pushy Americans), etc.

 

 

 

Miss Saigon

 

I still, I still believe!  I saw this in Chicago, before I ever made it to Broadway (the year of Rent!), back when it was about the second musical I'd seen with actual Broadway production values, rather than a community theatre version (A Chorus Line, in London, was first). And I loved it, of course. Back-to-back showstoppers of glorious power ballads, what's not to love?

 

So I rather dreaded my return Monday night, expecting to mock my youthful naievete and what I once thought was good theatre. But you know what? It still worked. And it worked for me without Eva Noblezada, because she wasn't there, and someone else played Kim. And she was lovely, and the show was moving, and I cried, and I liked all those power ballads, and it made me happy. Sure, it's of its time (we'd have even more comic relief now, I bet, if it were mounted today for the first time), but so's any Golden Age musical, dream ballets and all. What wonderful songs. Yes, the lyrics are fortune cookie-ish (which never troubled me, I'm assuming Chris uses simple words, English is Kim's second language and she can't be much good at it, she's from a village). And the performances were excellent--what a tremendous Engineer.

 

So I'm relieved I don't have to chide my younger self for his foolish love. (And I vastly prefer it to Les Miserables. There, I said it!)

 

 

 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

 

They used to throw Christians to the lions (well, some say not, but let's go with it), and now they're throwing children to squirrels, and that's just as depressing.

I saw it Sunday night (thanks for having an off-normal-schedule performance, guys!) and it was exactly as described, if you read enough posts on forums and then average them out. Not as awful as some have said, but gee, not good, not at all.

Sort of positives:

The lack of impressive sets seems a misguided design choice, not a reflection of cheapskates in the producer's office, and at least Jackie Hoffman comments on it.

The new songs are occasionally fun, if not catchy or memorable.

Christian Borle is giving it his all.

The Oompa Loompas were mildly delightful.

It's nice to see John Rubinstein.

Much of the audience seems to like it.

Negatives:

Um, the action is mainly from Charlie's viewpoint in Act One, but he is ill-defined and not particularly interesting--I liked book Charlie a lot better. Book Charlie seemed on the verge of death, with a small desperate hope keeping him alive. Last night's Charlie was robust and cheerful. Regardless, we lose him in Act Two until the end.

(I missed the book a lot, actually. I missed the sense of amazing mystery surrounding the factory--it was matter of fact in the show, but creepy and compelling in the book. When Charlie found the ticket in the book I was so excited I could hardly breathe--but as played in the musical, ho hum).

Act Two is all about Willy Wonka, who apparently murders children without remorse. I know it's played for laughs, but that doesn't make it any better for me. (I'd even be fine with the occasional comic death of tots if we weren't supposed to like the murderer--but apparently Wonka is a fine fellow, and so long as he doesn't kill you, don't take it personally. I just--I can't.) They tried to soften the blow with Veruca (the Oompas are apparently good at gluing people back together), but Violet is just dead, with no mention of how she might be reassembled. Spoiler alert: she explodes all over her father.  Bits of gory dead Violet covering her traumatized Dad.  That's not funny. I found it disturbing.

The sound (don't want to be that guy, but here goes) is not good--it's one of two shows this trip that I couldn't understand lyrics much of the time.

The pace is weird. Act One is long (or feels long) except when golden tickets are being won. This might have been much better as a one Act, with everyone at the gates by 45 minutes in at the latest, then another 45 minutes at the factory, then over. 

The scenes are home are not exaggerated enough to be funny, and they're awfully static what with 4 grandparents who can't move, and a child who doesn't, and a mother who will, but only when everyone's sleeping, in a sort of dream ballet that nobody wanted.

A lot of failed opportunities, IMO. 

But at the close it seemed to have won over the easily-pleased crowd, so we'll see what word-of-mouth does. It would be great if lots of shows found their audience, even if their audience is not me, and I can always snicker about their taste level behind their backs.

 

 

 

Groundhog Day

 

I could see it again and again! I'd heard Groundhog Day described variously as slow, unmoving, repetitive (necessarily so, but still), lacking in good songs, but with a dynamic central performance, so I expected that. Instead I saw a profoundly moving show, whip-smart, with some unexpectedly great numbers (can't wait to have the Chorus  perform "Stuck," among others), and it had me in tears by the end. It was beautiful.

 

I'm still rooting for Dear Evan Hansen (which I saw last season off-broadway before it transferred), but any season in which something as good as GD is considered an also-ran is a remarkable season.

 

I thought last year was very meh--there was Hamilton, and of course Cynthia Erivo was terrific--but everything else was for the most part a minor or major disappointment). Not this season! What a treat it has turned out to be. 

 

 

 

The Little Foxes

 

Was at the matinee performance, with Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie (and as good as Linney was, my God, Nixon's Birdie was so powerful and moving). Lovely set, lovely costumes, it felt very alive and not set in amber, the supporting cast gave it their all (especially Caroline Stefanie Clay, as others have noted, as the maid Addie), and it was worth every penny. I'm a musical junkie, so I feel plays have to work awfully hard to hold my interest without anyone breaking into song every five minutes, but this was electric, interesting throughout, and tense (in the best way) for most of it. 

Nothing they can do about it, but I felt the play could have ended 5 minutes earlier--I think if it were written now, that would have been an acceptable ending--but this is from the era of one foot on the floor, so I get it. (Spoiler: there's the suggestion at the very end that the villain may have misgivings, but I'd prefer villainy triumphant, it's more powerful and realistic, IMO).

 

 

 

Sunset Boulevard

 

I don't think Sunset Boulevard is a great show that will still be part of the canon years from now, but am thrilled to have had the chance to see Ms. Close' iconic performance. (Maybe this is my equivalent of when older folks claim Applause was worth it for Lauren Bacall). When the spotlight swivelled to illuminate her, and everyone stopped, and turned--that was a perfect moment--but there were not enough of them for me to fully rave about the material. It doesn't matter, it was a wonderful, moving night in the theatre, and she was everything people said she would be, including a less-than-perfect voice that was nonetheless perfect for the part. Love it.

Special shout-out to the staff who made the night truly special for me. I was apparently in a frugal mood the day I purchased tickets, and ended up in the balcony, which in the Palace felt like watching the show from Ellis Island. I asked around if they had opera glasses (they don't), and ran across the street to see if a souvenir shop might carry them (they didn't)--ended up buying some for $25 the next day, and will treasure them forever! 

 

On my return from across the street I noticed that standing room was available at the back of the orchestra--and I'm fit and happy to stand, so I asked if I could swap (or pay extra) for a chance to stand and actually see facial expressions and the like. The usher (or house manager, perhaps) said yes, so already I'm doing my happy dance, but then she added that they saved seats in case people came with wheelchairs and didn't tell them--so when the curtain fell, she moved me to an unused wheelchair spot in a comfy chair with armrests just a few rows from the stage. I teared up. That was so kind, and so unnecessarily kind, and I'm so so grateful. And Close was very close.

 

 

 

Vanity Fair

 

Saw Vanity Fair off-broadway, and while I enjoyed myself, it wasn't the slam-dunk experience that Sense and Sensibility had been--despite the fact that Vanity Fair is actually my second-favourite novel. I think that the plot works better as a novel--for when the characters are live and in front of you, you want to empathize, and it's impossible ... but it didn't matter in the book. All did a fine job, including the understudy for Jos (though wildly too good-looking for the part!), but the direction wasn't as gonzo as the prior work had been, and some of the flourishes were confusing rather than enhancing.

Definitely worth seeing, despite my quibbles, and it's possible my attachment to the novel is an impediment to enjoyment rather than the reverse.

 

 

 

Cagney

 

Saw Cagney off-broadway, and it was most fun and diverting, but the songs seemed completely inconsequential--I could barely remember them while they were being performed in front of me at the time--so thumbs up to a talented cast of hoofers, but I can't really recommend this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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