Thursday, April 30, 2009

New York postcard No. 2: 'Godot,' '9 to 5' may be big box office

Nathan Lane, John Goodman and Bill Irwin
in Waiting for Godot.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)


Editor's note: Palm Beach ArtsPaper's Hap Erstein is on assignment in New York.

By Hap Erstein

NEW YORK -- Never let it be said that this Broadway season does not have range.

I saw two shows today on their final previews -- a star-studded revival of Samuel Beckett's existential theater-of-the-absurd classic, Waiting for Godot, and a big commercial musical adapation of the female empowerment office comedy, 9 to 5, with a twangy score by Dolly Parton.

Beckett is not usually box office, but that may change over the next couple of months, with Broadway's reigning comic Nathan Lane and New-Vaudevillian-turned-Tony-winning-actor Bill Irwin as Estragon and Vladimir, the two forelorn tramps standing around, filling time waiting for the arrival of Godot (pronounced here "GOD-oh," perhaps to appease those who insist that Beckett is talking about the Deity).

Casting Lane brought with it the worry that his Estragon would be a close cousin to The Producers' Max Bialystock, but he proves too smart to fall into that trap. His performance is genuinely funny, without resorting to schtick and with plenty of compensating fear and dread. Even better is Irwin as the (slightly more) optimistic Vladimir, a more subtle take on Beckett with sublime moments of physical agility.

Also impressive are a mountainous John Goodman as the slave-master Pozzo and a mournful John Glover as his subjugated sidekick. At the performance I caught (spoiler alert!), Godot failed to show.

This production is not as overtly comic as the one two decades ago starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin (and Irwin as slave Lucky), but it is far more faithful to Beckett's intentions.

* * *

Stephanie J. Block, Allison Janney and Megan Hilty in 9 to 5.

There is no new ground covered by 9 to 5, yet another movie injected with songs and slapped onstage, but from the way the audience went wild for it Wednesday night, expect to to be a big hit.

Patricia Resnick adapted her own screenplay very closely, plus some easy jokes about looking back on the '70s from today's perspective. Dolly Parton tries her hand at writing a theater score in her signature country-western style, even though that only makes sense for one character, buxom, big-haired Doralee Rhodes (played in full Dolly-clone fashion by Megan Hilty).

Allison Janney gamely makes her musical comedy debut with a thin, though musical, voice playing Violet Newstead (the Lily Tomlin role). She shows her mettle with the savvy opening number of the second act, One of the Boys, which you'd swear was written and choreographed for Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year.

Stephanie J. Block applies her laser-lunged voice to Judy Bernly (a/k/a the Jane Fonda part), particularly in her 11 o'clock number, Get Out and Stay Out, and South Florida's Marc Kudisch is aptly unctuous as the dreaded chauvinistic boss who gets his comeuppance.

Director Joe Mantello has learned a great deal about staging a musical since Wicked, because 9 to 5 moves with great energy and well choreographed set pieces, thanks in part to attractive projections by Peter Nigrini and Peggy Eisenhauer. Still, it's the retro-feminist message that puts the show across.

It's not a likely Tony winner, but an undeniable audience-pleaser.

* * *

Speaking of audience shows, I interviewed Marsha Norman, book writer of the musical The Color Purple, on Wednesday morning, in preparation for its arrival at the Broward Center next season.

The musical got lukewarm reviews initially, but theatergoers flocked to it nevertheless and it ran for three years on Broadway. Norman, a Pulitzer Prize winner for 'night, Mother, won the same year that novelist Alice Walker won for The Color Purple and the two women quickly bonded.

Norman was called to the West Coast to take a meeting with Steven Spielberg about writing the screenplay, but they apparently saw the material very differently. When the idea of a musical version came up, Norman elbowed her way into landing the assignment.

I didn't much care for the musical the only time I saw it, but listening to Norman talk about it makes me curious to give it another try.

Next up: A screening of the Jennifer Aniston comedy Management and the stage musical Billy Elliot.

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