Saturday, June 11, 2011

Theater feature: The Broadway season in review, and Hap's Tony predictions

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in The Book of Mormon.

By Hap Erstein

Recession‭? ‬What recession‭? ‬If the economy was in the doldrums this year,‭ ‬Broadway sure didn’t know about it.‭

For the commercial theater season in New York that ended‭ ‬May‭ ‬29,‭ ‬Broadway shows drew‭ ‬$1.08‭ ‬billion in ticket sales,‭ ‬up‭ ‬5.9‭ ‬percent from last season to post record-breaking grosses.‭

Of course ticket prices also set record highs,‭ ‬reaching a top of‭ ‬$140‭ ‬for‭ ‬--‭ ‬you guessed it‭ ‬--‭ ‬Spider-Man:‭ ‬Turn Off the Dark,‭ ‬the non-opener of the season that sucked up much of the business as well as the media coverage,‭ ‬while garnering some of the most brutal reviews ever bestowed on a musical,‭ ‬especially one that has not even opened yet.‭ ‬That happens this Tuesday evening‭ ‬--‭ ‬unless the show’s producers postpone the premiere yet again‭ ‬--‭ ‬and if it remains impervious to critical bashing and settles in for a long,‭ ‬lucrative run,‭ ‬expect another increase in ticket prices.‭ ‬Why the show is even bothering to declare an official opening is anyone’s guess.

Since it did not open this season,‭ ‬it was not eligible for Tony Award nominations,‭ ‬though‭ ‬Spider-Man is likely to be the butt of many jokes on the telecast this Sunday evening‭ (‬8-10‭ ‬p.m.,‭ ‬on CBS‭‭)‬.‭ ‬Which will surely generate more ticket sales and keep the show running far longer than it deserves to.

To be fair,‭ ‬I have not yet seen‭ ‬Spider-Man.‭ ‬I did go to Broadway to sample the season,‭ ‬but was able to dodge the‭ ‬Spider-Man bullet because it was on a three-week hiatus undergoing major surgery and rehearsals.‭ ‬Timing truly is everything.‭

Spider-Man aside,‭ ‬it was a pretty good season on Broadway,‭ ‬which is to say a new unexpected smash hit musical arrived on the scene‭ (‬The Book of Mormon‭) ‬and several worthy new plays‭ (‬Good People,‭ ‬Jerusalem,‭ ‬War Horse and the one whose title you will surely not hear pronounced on the Tonyscast,‭ ‬The Motherf‭**‬ker with‭ ‬the Hat‭)‬.

Expect‭ ‬The Book of Mormon to score a major win at the Tonys,‭ ‬picking up perhaps as many as‭ ‬10‭ ‬awards‭ (‬out of its‭ ‬14‭ ‬nominations‭)‬.‭ ‬Not bad for a couple of Broadway neophytes,‭ ‬Trey Parker and Matt Stone,‭ ‬who were not unfamiliar with the mechanics of musicals,‭ ‬thanks to their long-running snarky hit TV show,‭ ‬South Park,‭ ‬and its‭ ‬1999‭ ‬feature film spinoff.‭

Parker and Stone kept their show carefully under wraps before performances began in February,‭ ‬resulting in a sleeper success with critics and audiences alike.‭ ‬Also gaining unexpectedly enthusiastic reviews was Stephen Adly Guirgis’s‭ ‬Motherf‭**‬ker with the Hat,‭ ‬about‭ ‬“love,‭ ‬fidelity and misplaced haberdashery,‭”‬ which could not even advertise itself in mainstream newspapers until an acceptable way of expurgating its title was arrived at.‭

A scene from War Horse. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

If it all but‭ ‬sneaked onto Broadway,‭ ‬the two Tony-nominated British imports‭ ‬--‭ ‬Jerusalem and‭ ‬War Horse‭ ‬--‭ ‬arrived with considerable hype and towering expectations,‭ ‬which both managed to live up to.‭ ‬While‭ ‬The Book of Mormon is a prohibitive favorite to win for Best Musical,‭ ‬the Best Play race looks to be a photo finish.

War Horse is probably not the best play on paper,‭ ‬but it is surely the best production of the season,‭ ‬and that may be enough to earn it the Tony.‭ ‬Based on a children’s book turned into an imaginative puppet epic,‭ ‬its script weaknesses are more than trumped by its theatricality,‭ ‬which leaves grown theatergoers brushing away tears and grown reviewers hunting for superlatives.

Jerusalem has nothing at all to do with the Middle East,‭ ‬but is rather about a provincial British drug-dealing,‭ ‬convention-flaunting scalawag holed up in a trailer in the Wiltshire woods.‭ ‬The three-hour play has its merits,‭ ‬though it could use further editing.‭ ‬But it is the central performance by the remarkable Mark Rylance that puts this one in the must-see category.‭

Although business was bullish on Broadway this season,‭ ‬only five new productions managed to turn a profit so far,‭ ‬according to‭ ‬Variety’s figures,‭ ‬and they are not the shows you would expect to reach black ink.‭ ‬They are:‭ ‬Driving Miss Daisy,‭ ‬The Merchant of Venice,‭ ‬The Pee-Wee Herman Show,‭ ‬Rain and‭ ‬That Championship Season.‭ ‬Of them,‭ ‬only‭ ‬Rain,‭ ‬a faux-Beatles concert show,‭ ‬is still running.‭

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.

The season had its extravagant flops‭ (‬Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,‭ ‬Wonderland‭)‬,‭ ‬its admired off-Broadway shows that unwisely transferred to Broadway where they fizzled out‭ (‬The Scottsboro Boys,‭ ‬Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson‭) ‬and its what-could-they-have-been-thinking duds‭ (‬Elling,‭ ‬High,‭ ‬A Free Man of Color‭)‬,‭ ‬but on balance it was not a bad year on Broadway,‭ ‬with enough standouts to justify a theater trip to New York.

Here is my take on some of the major shows of the season:

* ‬The Book of Mormon‭ (‬Eugene O’Neill Thr.,‭ ‬(212‭) ‬239-6200‭) ‬--‭ ‬Fans of‭ ‬South Park should not be surprised that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are steeped in musical theater lore,‭ ‬and now they have arrived on Broadway with a profane,‭ ‬but endearing example of the genre.‭ ‬Collaborating with‭ ‬Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez and‭ ‬Drowsy Chaperone director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw,‭ ‬they have come up with an affectionate skewering of the Church of Latter-Day Saints that also satirizes major musicals.

Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad are the Laurel and Hardy of Mormon missionaries,‭ ‬send to proselytize in AIDS-ravaged Uganda,‭ ‬which has little in common with‭ ‬The Lion King,‭ ‬as the upbeat number‭ ‬Hasa Diga Eebowai‭ (‬a send-up of‭ ‬Hakuna Matata‭) ‬makes clear.‭ ‬The result is wicked fun that even open-minded Mormons can embrace.‭

* War Horse‭ (‬Vivian Beaumont Thr.,‭ ‬(212‭) ‬239-6200‭) ‬--‭ ‬Sure,‭ ‬Avenue Q and‭ ‬The Lion King have done much to legitimize stage puppetry,‭ ‬but their strides are nothing compared to the emotional effect of full-size horses come to life in this highly theatrical rendering of Michael Morpurgo’s‭ ‬1982‭ ‬children’s novel.‭ ‬Add stunning animated projections and this production beats the movies at their own game,‭ ‬a feat likely to be achieved again this Christmas when Steven Spielberg brings out his necessarily literal-minded,‭ ‬film version of‭ ‬War Horse.

The story is both simple and universal,‭ ‬a depiction of the horrors of war as seen through a teenage boy and his hand-me-down horse,‭ ‬who both go off to fight in World War I,‭ ‬amid mustard gas,‭ ‬barbed wire coils and other perils.‭ ‬Co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris mobilize a cast of three dozen on the vast Lincoln Center stage,‭ ‬but it is the magic of the puppetry that makes this experience so memorable.

* ‬Jerusalem‭ (‬Music Box Thr.,‭ ‬(212‭) ‬239-6200,‭ ‬through Aug.‭ ‬21‭) ‬--‭ ‬One time in your life you must see Mark Rylance onstage.‭ ‬Earlier this season he stunned audiences with a‭ ‬30-minute monologue in rhymed couplets in‭ ‬La Bete,‭ ‬and three years ago he walked off with a Tony for his part in an inconsequential comedy,‭ ‬Boeing-Boeing.‭ ‬Now he is center stage in Jez Butterworth’s marathon fable about a rascally,‭ ‬drug-dealing womanizer holed up in a trailer in rural England,‭ ‬and nothing about these three performances have the least bit in common.‭ ‬If you appreciate chameleon-like acting,‭ ‬Rylance manages it as well as anyone in the theater today,‭ ‬but you probably need to see him twice to fully appreciate his skill.

Here he plays Johnny‭ “‬Rooster‭” ‬Byron,‭ ‬a pot-bellied,‭ ‬tattooed Pied Piper who leads a band of younger blokes,‭ ‬drawing them to his non-conformist ways.‭ ‬Chances are the play’s political resonances speak more to the Brits,‭ ‬but even over here,‭ ‬with a script that could use some paring down,‭ ‬it is a worthy character study as well as a great opportunity for Rylance to show his stuff.‭

* The Normal Heart‭ (‬Golden Thr.,‭ ‬(800‭) ‬432-7250,‭ ‬through July‭ ‬10‭) ‬--‭ ‬Twenty-six years ago,‭ ‬gay activist-author-professional loudmouth Larry Kramer wrote an angry screed against governmental and institutional indifference towards a mysterious new medical condition afflicting the homosexual community.‭ ‬What the play lacked in neatness,‭ ‬it more than made up for in heat,‭ ‬and now‭ ‬--‭ ‬as AIDS remains uncured,‭ ‬without the urgency of a crisis‭ ‬--‭ ‬this semi-autobiographical history of the early‭ ‬1980s plague years in New York has been revived with its power very much intact.

Joe Mantello‭ (‬Angels in America‭) ‬makes a brilliant return to Broadway as hothead Ned Weeks‭ ‬--‭ ‬the Kramer character‭ ‬--‭ ‬in tandem with John Benjamin Hickey as the paranoid‭ ‬New York Times reporter who becomes his lover.‭ ‬Only theater neophyte Ellen Barkin errs as a wheelchair-bound doctor,‭ ‬showing her fervency by shouting her big impassioned monologue.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬the collective effect is seismic,‭ ‬and perhaps this limited run will spawn other productions around the country.‭

Robert Sean Leonard,‭ ‬Nina Arianda,‭ ‬and Jim Belushi in Born Yesterday.

* ‬Born Yesterday‭ (‬Cort Thr.,‭ ‬(800‭) ‬432-7250,‭ ‬through July‭ ‬31‭) ‬--‭ ‬There is more than one way to make a political point on stage and,‭ ‬in‭ ‬1946,‭ ‬Garson Kanin chose comedy to warn of Washington bullies who play fast and loose with the Constitution.‭ ‬If you think that is a message that needs delivering again today,‭ ‬so did director Doug Hughes‭ (‬Doubt‭) ‬who mounts a revival of the tale of a chorus cutie whose climb up the learning curve thwarts a greedy scheme by her junkyard magnate boy friend.

Looming over any revival,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬is the classic comic performance of Judy Holliday,‭ ‬the original Billie Dawn,‭ ‬and Oscar winner for the role four years later.‭ ‬Undaunted is young,‭ ‬nasal-voiced kewpie Nina Arianda,‭ ‬making the kind of Broadway debut that will be talked about with admiration for a long time to come.‭ ‬Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard provide crucial support as the New Joisey wheeler-dealer and the reporter he hires to smarten up Billie.‭ ‬But it is Arianda who makes this production a must-see.‭

* Catch Me If You Can‭ (‬Simon Thr.,‭ ‬(800‭) ‬755-4000‭) ‬--‭ ‬When a musical goes wrong,‭ ‬the conclusion is usually that the source material was a bad choice to be told in song and dance.‭ ‬That is not the case with this‭ ‬2002‭ ‬charming con man flick from the ubiquitous Spielberg,‭ ‬whose imposter-pilot-doctor main character seems tailor-made for musical comedy.‭ ‬The problem is that the veteran creative team‭ ‬--‭ ‬songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman,‭ ‬director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell‭ ‬--‭ ‬the folks who struck gold with‭ ‬Hairspray,‭ ‬stub their collective toes with the transfer.

Instead of a straightforward rendering,‭ ‬the story is told with a conceptual overlay of a live TV variety show of the period.‭ ‬That gives hard-working Norbert Leo Butz as pursuing FBI agent Carl Hanratty‭ (‬a/k/a the Tom Hanks part‭) ‬the opportunity for a showstopping dance number‭ (‬Don’t Break the Rules‭)‬,‭ ‬but it flattens the score into a dull,‭ ‬easy-listening pastiche.‭ ‬Aaron Tveit‭ (‬Next to Normal‭) ‬is devilishly charming as Frank Abagnale,‭ ‬Jr.,‭ ‬but he lacks Butz’s star power and the show loses its focus as a result.‭

Aaron Tveit in Catch Me If You Can.‭ 

Hap’s Fearless Tony Predictions

Quick,‭ ‬call up your bookie,‭ ‬start up an office pool,‭ ‬place a bet at the Hard Rock Casino.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬thanks to my amazing analytical skills and powers of prognostication,‭ ‬are the winners of this year’s Tony Awards.‭ ‬No,‭ ‬really.

‭* ‬Best Play:‭ ‬War Horse
‭* ‬Best Musical:‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Book,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Score:‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Revival,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬The Normal Heart
‭* ‬Best Revival,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Anything Goes
‭* ‬Best Actor,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬Mark Rylance,‭ ‬Jerusalem
‭* ‬Best Actress,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬Frances McDormand,‭ ‬Good People
‭* ‬Best Actor,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Norbert Leo Butz,‭ ‬Catch Me If You Can
‭* ‬Best Actress,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Sutton Foster,‭ ‬Anything Goes
‭* ‬Best Featured Actor,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬John Benjamin Hickey,‭ ‬The Normal Heart
‭* ‬Best Featured Actress,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬Ellen Barkin,‭ ‬The Normal Heart
‭* ‬Best Featured Actor,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Rory O’Malley,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Featured Actress,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Nikki M.‭ ‬James,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Scenic Design,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬Rae Smith,‭ ‬War Horse
‭* ‬Best Scenic Design,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Scott Pask,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Costume Design,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬Jess Goldstein,‭ ‬The Merchant of Venice
‭* ‬Best Costume Design,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Tim Chappel‭ ‬and Lizzy Gardiner,‭ ‬Priscilla Queen of the Desert
‭* ‬Best Lighting Design,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬Paule Constable,‭ ‬War Horse
‭* ‬Best Lighting Design,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Brian MacDevitt,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Sound Design,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬Christopher Shutt,‭ ‬War Horse
‭* ‬Best Sound Design,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Brian Ronan,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Direction,‭ ‬Play:‭ ‬Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris,‭ ‬War Horse
‭* ‬Best Direction,‭ ‬Musical:‭ ‬Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon
‭* ‬Best Choreography:‭ ‬Kathleen Marshall,‭ ‬Anything Goes‭
* Best Orchestrations:‭ ‬Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon

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