Saturday, June 12, 2010
Theater review: Broadway season was strong in new plays, weak in musicals
By Hap Erstein
You know the drill by now. Sunday night’s Tony Awards ceremony will do its best to put a happy face on the Broadway season, but in fact, this was the worst year for musicals in a long time.
Note the Best Score category, which could only find two musicals to nominate and had to settle for singling out two plays for their incidental music. Of the four shows nominated for Best Musical, only one of them has an eligible score written specifically for the theater. Sigh.
Curiously, it was a solid season for new plays, which were supposed to be comatose on Broadway. There, at least, the nominating committee had the luxury of snubbing such worthy works as David Mamet’s Race and Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane in favor of such long-shuttered limited-run productions as Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room and Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still. What fun is throwing a party if you can’t prevent a few people from attending?
According to Variety, only four productions have recouped their investments by now this season. All four are non-musical plays and all four are headlined by movie or television stars. Broadway audiences are saying that if they are going to pay as much as $135 a ticket -- the going rate this season for the most in-demand musicals -- they had better see stellar names in them. The four shows that made it into the black so far are: Hamlet with Jude Law; Race with James Spader and Richard Thomas; A Steady Rain with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman; and A View From the Bridge with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson.
Maybe theatergoers are clamoring to see August Wilson’s first-rate play, Fences, or maybe they just want to be in the same room with Denzel Washington. The same goes for Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music. Star power is good for Broadway, and it usually repays the favor. Look for these two performers to be given Tonys on Sunday for their visits to the theater this season. In contrast, a critically acclaimed but starless revival of Ragtime closed quickly, though it later earned seven Tony Award nominations.
In any event, here are some thumbnail reviews of prominent shows from this Broadway season:
* Sondheim on Sondheim (Studio 54) – A revue of the theater songs of reigning genius Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company, Follies), featuring Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat, with state-of-the-art video commentary by the 80-year-old composer-lyricist. It has been more than 15 years since Broadway has seen a new show from Sondheim, so we might as well content ourselves with the parade of revivals, like the current A Little Night Music, and retrospective songfests like this one, conceived and directed by his occasional collaborator, James Lapine.
It was almost a given that this revue would feature the best music currently on Broadway, even if the song choices prove a bit esoteric for Sondheim beginners. The show virtually assumes an awareness of the shows from which these songs are extracted and a deep-seated interest in the creative process of their development, as we are treated to a couple of examples of how a number evolved into its final form. I found a lot of this fascinating, but could well understand the audience’s growing impatience.
This show marks the return to Broadway of Cook, a former ’50s stage ingenue and star of the legendary Follies concert from 1985. She has earned her own legendary status, but was not in great voice when I caught this show and was unsteady on her feet. Still, if the Sondheim video interviews become available, this is a revue that could have a subsequent life across the country.
* Come Fly Away (Marquis Theatre) – What exactly is the definition of a musical? This latest stage piece from director-choreographer Twyla Tharp (Movin’ Out) is really a dance concert masquerading as a musical, for it does not even pretend to have plot or characters like that earlier salute to the song library of Billy Joel did.
This show celebrates the song hits of Frank Sinatra, with the recorded voice of Ol’ Blue Eyes synched to a live orchestra, which accompanies the athletic, quirky dance steps by Tharp set at a period nightclub. The dancers are terrific, particularly the macho John Selya and the ethereal Holley Farmer, but without a story to hang this evening of Tharp’s idiosyncratic moves on, they soon reach diminishing returns.
* Fela! (Eugene O’Neill Theatre) – The drum-heavy, infectious tribal beat of Nigerian poet-performer-political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is the basis for this immersion into African culture, quite unlike anything else on Broadway. With all the retro jukebox musicals around, this feels like the only new show that is truly trying to take the genre into uncharted territory.
As Fela, Sahr Ngaujah (who alternates in the role with Kevin Mambo) turns the theater into his Lagos club with his sheer energy and perspiration, aided by the non-stop, high-stepping dances of director-choreographer Bill T. Jones. The audience gets a workout as well, as Fela gets us up on our feet, moving and swaying to his Afrobeat. It is a unique experience, one which has fortunately caught on with the usually staid Broadway crowd. It is hard to gauge what lasting effect a show like this will have on the musical theater, but if it gives Jones and Ngaujah more visibility, that might be enough.
* Promises, Promises (Broadway Theatre) – I know I sound like an old geezer when I say that to understand why this show’s fans feel so strongly about it, you had to have seen the original 1968 production. But even without that experience, the miscasting of its female lead, misguided attempt to stuff the show with irrelevant Burt Bacharach-Hal David pop hits and the clumsy direction and choreography of Rob Ashford are enough to sink this revival on its own.
The relatively inexperienced Sean Hayes (TV’s Will & Grace) is fine as spineless C.C. Baxter, who lends his apartment to libidinous executives at his insurance company, hoping to parlay his generosity into a promotion. He has a fairly musical singing voice, terrific sense of physical comedy and knows how to deliver a Neil Simon laugh line. The problem is his Broadway veteran co-star Kristin Chenoweth, far too self-assured to play his doormat romantic interest, and her added songs -- I Say a Little Prayer and A House Is Not a Home -- are mere padding.
Simon wrote a terrific supporting role of an easy virtue barfly that Katie Finneran all but steals the show with, even if that is petty larceny. Perhaps the saddest and most telling scene is the office party dance number, Turkey Lurkey Time, once an absolute show-stopper that now musters no heat at all.
* The Addams Family (Lunt-Fontanne Theatre) – Even if you avoided reading the reviews, it would be hard to miss hearing of the frantic out-of-town work to salvage this adaptation of Charles Addams beloved, macabre characters turned into a toothless, amiable musical comedy clan. Maybe relief director Jerry Zaks helped the patient, but the results are still distressingly anemic in the laughs department.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but much should go to writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise (Jersey Boys), who came up with a plot right out of La Cage aux Folles or Mame about Wednesday Addams and her strait-laced prospective in-laws. The problem is compounded by Andrew Lippa’s humor-challenged score.
Still, the show is very well-cast, with Nathan Lane pressing hard for laughs as pin-striped patriarch Gomez, but coming up short. As his sexy squeeze Morticia, Bebe Neuwirth does not have much to do until a creaky dance solo in the second act. Only Kevin Chamberlin (Uncle Fester) comes off well with a surreal production number where he floats in space and serenades the moon, a glimmer of the show this might have been.
* Red (Golden Theatre) – The art and commerce of modern art are the topic at hand as abstract painter Mark Rothko (a hot-tempered Alfred Molina) toils in his studio on a commission for New York’s then-new Four Season Restaurant, while training a new assistant in his work methods and attitudes. The result is talky, but it is thought-provoking talk about the nature of art and its intersection with commerce, in a compact, but high-impact import from London by American John Logan (screenwriter of Gladiator and The Aviator).
Molina is an angry force of nature as the underappreciated Rothko and Eddie Redmayne holds his own on stage with him as Ken, the aide, who absorbs his boss’s philosophy and eventually challenges it. As they discuss and debate, they work on the massive works of the commission, at one point furiously priming a canvass with red paint, a true coup de theatre.
* A Behanding in Spokane (Schoenfeld Theatre) – Holed up in a seedy Washington State hotel, a hard-luck schlemiel named Carmichael (Christopher Walken) bemoans the loss of his left hand decades earlier, and grows quickly impatient with two con artists who arrive, claiming to have retrieved it. It seems that mob thugs severed the hand on railroad tracks and Carmichael has been on a mission of reconnection ever since.
It is a typically dark, violent comedy by Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman), elevated by Walken’s offbeat performance. McDonagh is devoid of any themes worth pondering here, but that does not prevent this minor work from brimming with theatricality. Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan are amusing as the bickering grifters and Sam Rockwell has some loopy but satisfying monologues as the philosophical desk clerk.
* Race (Ethel Barrymore Theatre) – As a nation, we have come a long way in matters of race, right? Don’t believe it, says writer-director David Mamet, who is back to form with his crackling, heated polemic tricks, not unlike his incendiary Oleanna and triangular Speed-the-Plow, after churning out such unsatisfying trifles as Romance and November.
Race and our attitudes about each other are on trial here, even if the play never leaves the law library of a boutique firm headed by two partners, one white (James Spader) and one black (David Alan Grier). Into their offices enters a well-heeled power broker (Richard Thomas), gauging whether to have them defend him in a case where he is accused of raping a black woman. Oh, and there is a girl – isn’t there always with Mamet? – an outspoken black associate (Kerry Washington) who at various times seems naïve, then crafty beyond her years.
Some of the play feels contrived, but Race is worth going along with, for we are in the hands of a master storyteller who has a few unpleasant truths to impart.