Sunday, May 24, 2009

ArtsBuzz: The Broadway season, considered

George Akram and Karen Olivo in West Side Story.

By Hap Erstein

Despite the bad economy, which meant that several anticipated shows never got capitalized and were grounded, Broadway had a pretty solid season.

Total box office was up, helped by spiraling ticket prices ($136.50 for the orchestra at Billy Elliot.) Stars headed to the stage, including Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, Katie Holmes, Susan Sarandon, Joan Allen and Kristin Scott-Thomas, and that’s just the women. And while plenty of sub-par shows folded quickly, there was definite quality among the survivors.

Here is a critical look at the season:


* Billy Elliot: The Broadway season’s big hit musical, a London transfer adapted from the 2000 movie, all rests on the tiny shoulders of the lad playing the title role of the coal miner’s son who prefers ballet to boxing. Make that lads, for the part of Billy Elliot is shared by four high proficient dancing dynamos who rotate in the role.

I happened to see David Alvarez, a Cuban-American 15-year-old who is remarkably adept at tap, hip-hop, modern dance and ballet, as required by Peter Darling’s choreography. While dance has been de-emphasized in musicals lately, Billy Elliot celebrates it and uses it as the driving force of the storyline.

As in the film, which screenwriter Lee Hall expands and deepens, Billy’s father is among the striking miners eking out a life in the face of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s attempt to break the union. It is a dead-end existence that Billy might be able to escape through dance, a world completely alien to his father (a gruff, but eventually sympathetic Greg Jbara). Hall’s script does not shortchange the economic conflict, while improving on the film with a more realistic ending that still provides plenty of emotional uplift.

Elton John‘s score is alternately dramatic and lighthearted, easily his most theatrical songs yet. Among the highlights are Electricity, Billy’s description of what it feels like when he dances; Dear Billy, a lump-in-the-throat letter from the boy’s dead mother and the rollicking Expressing Yourself, about the value of being different, sung by a young friend of Billy’s who happens to like dressing in women’s clothes.

Billy Elliot is a bit manipulative, but thanks to deft direction by Stephen Daldry, audiences should be rooting for Billy to succeed at realizing his dreams for a long time to come. It goes into the Tony Awards with 15 nominations, and if it fails to win for best musical there should be a federal investigation. (Imperial Theatre, $41.50 - $136.50, (800) 432-7250)

* 9 to 5: As the creators of Legally Blonde can attest, your show does not need to be very good so long as it pleases its target audience. That sums up the stage musical of the 1980 film comedy, 9 to 5, a revenge tale of three female office workers done wrong by their male chauvinist boss. If that plot summary sounds like it would prompt a few country-western songs, you have the picture, for the score is by Dolly Parton, film co-star and composer of its title tune, who puts her twangy sound in all three women’s mouths, even if only one of the characters is the least bit countrified.

Fresh from TV’s The West Wing, Allison Janney is the biggest name in the cast, playing Violet Newstead, hyper-efficient but passed over for promotions (a/k/a the movie’s Lily Tomlin role). Game enough to make her musical debut without actually much singing or dancing talent, Janney is well showcased in a number called One of the Boys, surrounded by a male chorus that does the heavy lifting, bringing to mind Lauren Bacall’s star turn in Woman of the Year.

Better cast are Megan Hilty as big-haired, big-chested Doralee Rhodes (yup, the Parton part), who gets a well-tailored intro in Backwoods Barbie, and Wicked veteran Stephanie J. Block as Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda), the naïve newcomer who belts an 11 o’clock number of defiance, Get Out and Stay Out.

In Patricia Resnick’s script based on her own screenplay, the trio teams up to kidnap and truss up the boss (an aptly smarmy Marc Kudisch), then prove that they can run the office better than he can. It is a slim plot that does not diverge much from the movie, which should not bother those women looking for a bonding girls-night-out (pardon the expression).

Wicked director Joe Mantello has a better handle on musical staging this time around, relying on slick animated visuals by Peter Nigrini and kinetic sets that are as choreographed as Andy Blankenbuehler’s dances. The whole package is professionally assembled, just not the least bit inspired. (Marquis Theatre, $66.50 - $126.50, (800) 432-7250)

* Next to Normal: The musical theater has come a long way from off-Broadway’s The Fantasticks and its entreaty, “Please, God, don’t let me be normal!,” to this new dysfunctional family show in which the most one could hope for is normalcy. Musicals do not get much darker than this tale of a suburban housewife with bipolar disorder whose hallucinations keep her so removed from reality that the eventual treatment for her is electroshock therapy.

Yes, we are not in The Fantasticks anymore.

Composer Tom Kitt (previously on Broadway with the short-lived High Fidelity) delivers a hard-edged rock score, well matched by Brian Yorkey’s cut-to-the-bone lyrics. Without sacrificing their story’s dark tones, they manage to inject some humor into the Goodman family’s search for medical relief for mom.

Diana Goodman, haunted by ghosts from her past, is played brilliantly by Alice Ripley, whose grasp for sanity or merely a life preserver is all exposed nerves with underlying sweetness. J. Robert Spencer is comparatively understated as her caring, but clueless husband and Aaron Tveit is electric as Diana’s son Gabe, who rattles around inside her head with the insistent I’m Alive.

Michael Greif, who staged Rent, puts a similar raw directorial spin on Next to Normal, on a multi-tiered, metallic set by Mark Wendland. Still to be determined is whether a sufficient Broadway audience will be drawn to this painful material, but its creators certainly show themselves to be talents to reckon with. (Booth Theatre, $36.50-$116.50. (800) 432-7250)

* West Side Story: This classic transformation of Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of 1950s New York is surely one of the top handful of great musicals of all time. And because Jerome Robbins’ original staging was so on-target, there really has never been a major revival that veered far from his original vision.

Nor does the current production, in which Joey McKneely reproduces Robbins’ iconic choreography -- the turf-claiming Prologue, the cultural conflict of Dance at the Gym, the angular angst of Cool, and on and on. The most radical notion of director Arthur Laurents (whose original script remains urgent and searing) is to have the immigrant Shark gang often spouting Spanish, a touch of authenticity and further proof of the gulf between them and the less-recent immigrants, the Jets.

That should work well enough, since the show and its Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim songs are so emblazoned on our memories. But the decision of when to translate seems so arbitrary. I Feel Pretty, sung among Maria (the lovely, lyrical Josefina Scaglione) and the shopgirls is trilled in Spanish, but America (led by the sizzling Karen Olivo as cynical Anita) is not.

Nevertheless, the show retains its potency, Laurents brings it to life with an emotional wallop -- stubbing his toe only on an oddly wan Gee, Officer Krupke -- and its message of hope is always welcome, even if the gang warfare continues unabated. (Palace Theatre, $46,50-$121.50, (800) 755-4000)

Marin Ireland and Thomas Sadoski in reasons to be pretty.


* The Norman Conquests: There is a good reason why television sitcoms come in 30-minute segments. Sustaining comedy for longer periods of time can be exceedingly difficult, but you would never know that from Brit Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy of interlocking, yet independent romantic farces which, taken all together, span more than seven hours.

Expertly directed by Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage) with a nimble cast of six that represents the best ensemble currently on Broadway, The Norman Conquests is layered comedy that gets funnier with each successive installment that you see.

While the title suggests a heavy slog through a history lesson, in fact these plays are about a fuzzy-headed British librarian named Norman, on the prowl for sexual conquests one weekend at the country house of his sister-in-law. The three plays take place roughly concurrently, in the dining room, living room and garden of the house, where an exit from one play is likely to become an entrance into another.

The wildly prolific Ayckbourn has never been particularly successful in the States, where we treat him like England’s answer to Neil Simon, but there is usually a streak of melancholy running through his plays. That is certainly the case with The Norman Conquests, where the extended family members each are yearning for something, though not as libidinously as Norman (sublimely selfish Stephen Mangan). In a cast of no weak links, he stands out, as does put-upon Annie (Jessica Hynes), with whom he schemes to run off for a naughty weekend.

Circle in the Square has been converted into theater-in-the-round for this production, with a clever stage design by Rob Howell, topped by a relief map of the estate that situates the action before and after each act. (Circle in the Square, $107-$112; $255 for three-play trilogy, (800) 432-7250, through July 25)

* Waiting for Godot: Leave it to Samuel Beckett to illustrate the bleakness of life with a pair of vaudevillians. The play, of course, is considered one of the most influential works of the 20th century and his two dutiful attendants have long been cast with expert clowns (beginning with a bewildered Bert Lahr in the 1956 American premiere). Now, in what is the play’s only Broadway revival in 53 years, Vladimir and Estragon, the existential Abbott and Costello, are played by Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin.

With Lane in particular, that conjures up ambivalent feelings of anticipation and dread. The potential for Lane to make Vladimir a schtick-laden first cousin to The Producers’ Max Bialystock loomed large. Instead, under the firm hand of director Anthony Page, Lane and Irwin (a natural New Age clown) are quite funny, but completely faithful to Beckett’s vision of hopelessness.

So they wait (spoiler alert!) without success for the arrival of Godot -- pronounced here “GOD-oh,” perhaps to link the unseen being with the deity -- whiling away the time with stories, songs and pranks. The closest the play gets to an event is the entrance of a master-and-slave duo, Pozzo (a mountainous John Goodman) and the tethered Lucky (John Glover). The latter is usually silent until he explodes with a stream-of-consciousness torrent of words.

Ask your English teacher what it all means, but in this surprisingly involving production, despair has never been so entertaining. (Studio 54, $36.50-$116.50, (212) 719-1300, through July 12.)

* reasons to be pretty: Although not as interrelated as the plays of The Norman Conquests, dramatist Neil LaBute has been writing a trilogy of his own on the nature of physical beauty and society’s response to it -- The Shape of Things, Fat Pig, and now, reasons to be pretty.

LaBute is a facile writer who knows how to push buttons and draw an audience into his web. His latest, which also happens to mark his Broadway debut, manages to entice us and sustain our interest, but do not be surprised if you leave the Lyceum Theatre feeling that you have heard before what LaBute has to say on the impossibility of coexistence between the sexes.

It begins with a full-throttle shouting match between Steph (a fierce Marin Ireland) and her fiance Greg (Thomas Sadoski, a deer caught in the headlights). It seems that Greg made an offhanded slighting remark about Steph’s looks to someone at their warehouse job site, the remark made its way back to Steph, and she now wants Greg’s head on a platter.

The remark ends their relationship, but Greg is hardly the male pig that Steph makes him out to be, at least compared to his buddy Kent (Steven Pasquale), who cannot open his mouth without maligning someone. Eventually, as is often the case with LaBute’s well-structured scripts, Greg’s attitude gets sorely tested and comes full circle, thanks to Kent’s wife Carly (Piper Perabo), a security guard at the warehouse.

Although reasons to be pretty is probably best received by those uninitiated into LaBute’s dark recesses, it is directed with a visceral glee by Terry Kinney and will surely make a rabbit punch of a film. (Lyceum Theatre, $31.50-$111.50, (800) 432-7250)

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