Monday, August 23, 2010

Reviews of Five Broadway Plays

In case anyone was wondering why the blog was slow last week, it is because my wife and I went to New York for five days last week. It seemed like a waste to see any movies while we were there, but she is a big fan of musicals, so we took in five plays on Broadway while we were there – four musicals and one play. It was a great time, and since I have no movie reviews to share, I thought I’d offer my take on the plays we saw instead.

Promises, Promises ***
Book By:
Neil Simon based on the film The Apartment.
Music By: Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Directed By: Rob Ashford.
Starring: Sean Hayes (Chuck), Kristen Chenoweth (Fran), Tony Goldwyn (Sheldrake), Katie Finnerman (Marge).

We started our trip with this light and frothy revival of the famed 1968 musical by Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. My wife picked this one because she is a HUGE fan of Kristen Chenoweth, and on a previous trip to New York missed seeing her in The Apple Tree, so she wanted to ensure she didn’t miss her this time. Based on one of my favorite films, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, this musical has stripped away most of the cynicism in that movie in favor of light comedy – and for the most part it works. The plot involves mild mannered accountant Chuck, wanting to move up in his company, so he allows the executives to use his apartment as their own swinging bachelor pad. Sean Hayes, from TV’s Will and Grace, makes his Broadway debut as Chuck (the Jack Lemmon role in the film), and while Hayes is not the strongest singer I have seen, he is good enough to get the job done – and he absolutely excels in the plays comedic moments (a highlight involves him trying to sit on a weird looking chair). Chenoweth is fine in the role of Fran (the Shirley Maclaine role), but I have to wonder why she wanted to take the role on. Most critics seem to think she was miscast, and it’s true that she is too old to be playing someone this naïve. Having said that, no one can match her singing ability, and she rips into a series of Bacharach’s most famous numbers – I Say a Little Prayer for You, This House is Not a Home and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again among them – like no one else could. This doesn’t challenge Chenoweth, and isn’t a great role like she had in Wicked, but I still had a blast watching her perform, so I won’t complain. Tony Goldwyn has the role that Fred Macmurray played in the original – although much like the production itself, he seems to want to channel Mad Men instead. The best in the play though is easily Tony winner Katie Finnerman, who is an absolute blast in her scene and a half as Marge – a drunken woman Chuck meets in a bar while in the depths of his depression. She is a riot from start to finish. The set design and lighting is both top notch – as I mentioned this wants to be a shinier, happier Mad Men, and in terms of the visuals at least, it succeeds.. Promises, Promises certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to musicals – but it is fun from start to finish, and what more can you ask on Broadway?

Next to Normal ****
Book By: Brian Yorkey.
Music By: Brian Yorkey & Tom Kitt.
Directed By: Michael Grief.
Starring: Marrin Muzzin (Diana), Jason Daniely (Dan), Kyle Dean Massey (Gabe), Meghann Fahey (Natalie), Adam Chanler-Berat (Henry), Louis Hobson (Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden).

Next to Normal, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize from drama (marking only the 8th time in history a musical had won the prize, and the first time since Rent in 1996) was far and away the best theater experience we had this trip – and for me, who is not exactly well versed in live theater, perhaps the best I have ever seen. It is a daring, shocking rock infused musical about a dysfunctional family. Diana (Marrin Muzzin, who has the unenviable task of taking over a Tony winning role), is a middle aged wife and mother with a history of mental illness, which is just getting worse. Her husband Dan (Jason Daniely) is trying to hold it all together, but not doing a very good job. Their overachieving daughter Natalie (Meghann Fahey) is cracking under the pressure, despite the support of her pot addled boyfriend Henry (Adam Chanler Berat). Diana goes to see two different doctors (both played by Louis Hobson), to try and deal with her problems – most notably that she sees the son Gabe (Kyle Dean Massey) who died when he was a baby everywhere – now as a teenager. She knows that he is dead, but he is so insistent that he is alive. The musical is honest and open – isn’t afraid to become incredibly dark, but also adding bits of humor to the proceedings. Personally, I thought Muzzin was great in the lead role, and Meghann Fahey was equally brilliant as the daughter. The one weakness could have been Daniely as Dan, who I don’t think is strong enough dramatically to really get into Dan’s pain and make him a stronger character. But the set – a three level house, that the cast, especially Gabe, makes use of, is brilliant as is the lighting, which at times is almost blinding, but in a good way. Brian Yorkey, who wrote the lyrics and story, isn’t afraid to leave things unresolved, and that makes the musical all the more effecting. The songs are brilliant as well. After the show, I thought that I would love to see a movie made of this material – but it would take a great director to pull off all of the complexities. If you are in New York, I urge you to see this musical above all others.

A Little Night Music *** ½
Book By: Hugh Wheeler based on the film Smiles of a Summer Night.
Music By: Stephen Sondheim.
Directed By: Trevor Nunn.
Starring: Bernadette Peters (Desiree), Elaine Strich (Mrs. Armfeldt), Alexander Hanson (Frederick), Ramona Mallory (Anne), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Henrik), Leigh Ann Larkin (Petra), Erin Davie (Countess), Aaron Lazar (Count).

Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical was first on Broadway in the early 1970s, but was brought back, first to London and then Broadway, this past year. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the musical is a witty, charming, hilarious sex comedy. We didn’t get there in time to see it with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, but Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch were so good, I find it hard to believe that the others were much better. The stage is sparsely decorated, but that doesn’t affect the emotional pull of the musical – which is about the various sexual partnerships that affect a group of adults. Frederick (Alexander Hanson) is a widowed lawyer, who has married a beautiful 18 year old, Anne (Ramona Mallory), who is still too nervous to allow herself to have sex with her husband. She flirts with Frederick’s adult son Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), who is studying to be a Pastor, and condemns his own sexual desires – that the maid Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin) tries to use. Frederick used to be with the famous actress Desiree (Peters), who wants him back, despite being the current mistress of a count (Aaron Lazar), much to the chagrin of his wife (Erin Davie). All of this culminates over the course of one night at the home of Peters rich mother (Strich). When you are talking about Sondheim, you know the music is going to be great – and it surely is here – full of witty lyrics and swelling music. Peters makes great use of the most famed number – Send in the Clowns – a rare moment of serious self reflection in a musical dominated by witty banter and sex talk. Strich is hilarious as the aging woman who doesn’t seem to care about the crap going on around her – and makes no secret of it. She delivers her one liners with wit and skill. The musical is a little hollow – I’m not sure it really means anything at all – but it is a hell of a lot of fun.

American Idiot ****
Book By: Billie Joe Armstrong & Michael Mayer.
Music By: Billie Joe Armstrong & Green Day.
Directed By: Michael Mayer.
Starring: John Gallagher Jr. (Johnny), Tony Vincent (St. Jimmy), Stark Sands (Tunny), Michael Esper (Will), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Whatsername), Christina Sajous (The Extraordinary Girl), Mary Faber (Heather).

If nothing else, American Idiot proves what I have long since thought – that the Green Day album of the same name is the best album of the last decade. If there is another album that could support a musical, I sure as hell don’t know what it is. This musical is thin on plot and characters – but makes up for it with the far and away the best set design and lighting I saw in New York (no wonder both won Tonys earlier this year), and of course the great, pulsating Rock music sung with great passion by the large cast. The characters have been expanded from the album – with Johnny being the lead character who leaves his small town with two friends, only to fall into the haze of drug addiction as everyone abandons him – one because his girlfriend is pregnant and the other because he goes off to fight in Iraq. Desperately lonely, he creates an alter ego, St. Jimmy, who gets him more and more addicted to drugs, and drives away his girlfriend, Whatsername. The entire cast is great in their roles – and that includes the large ensemble cast brought into to fill out the melodies and dancing. The show is raw, pulsating musical about futile rage of youth during Bush era America. It is loud, awe inspiring and utterly brilliant. I loved every second of it.

Race ** ½
Written & Directed By: David Mamet.
Starring: Eddie Izzard (Jack Lawson), Dennis Haysbert (Henry Brown), Afton C. Williamson (Susan), Richard Thomas (Charles Strickland).

We finished our stay in New York with the only non-musical we saw – the latest from David Mamet called Race (the performance we saw was actually the last of its Broadway run, so if you want to see it, you’re out of luck). I have long since been a fan of Mamet, although I have never seen one of his plays performed live – having to live off of the film versions of his work like Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna and American Buffalo. Unfortunately Race doesn’t live up to Mamet’s best work – and while it would be tempting to say that perhaps the original cast that including James Spader, Kerry Washington and Tony nominee David Alan Grier, along with Richard Thomas who was the only original cast member left, would have made the play better – I doubt it would have made much difference. Besides Eddie Izzard, Dennis Haysbert and Afton C. Williamson are all great in their roles – it was the writing that didn’t meet Mamet’s usual standards. The play is about a rich white man (Thomas) who comes into the law offices of Izzard and Haysbest (and their junior associate Williamson) because he has been charged with raping a black girl, become a tabloid sensation and lost his previous lawyer. The play all takes place in that law office as the lawyers, and sometimes the client himself, debate the case, whether or not take it, and how they can win it. Of course, since this play is called Race, it also hinges on questions of race – brought to the fore because Izzard is white, and Haysbert and Williamson are black. Haysbert is probably the best one in the cast (and has the best role by the way), as the most wise cracking member of the firm, who doesn’t care about race, or at least pretends not to. Williamson also tries to not, but hers is just a façade. Izzard and Williams have many of the best scenes together when they stop talking about the cast entirely, and instead start debating race. I know Mamet must have thought now was the time to put on this play, with Barack Obama as American’s newly minted President, but the whole production had a slightly warmed over feel to it. For one thing, lawyer shows are all over TV, and other than all the swearing, this wouldn’t have appeared out of place on a show like The Practice. For another, his observations about race are a little out dated – had this play been written 25 years ago, it would have been considered daring, but in 2010 not so much. Considering Mamet already did a play about race – the brilliant Edmund – this felt kind of like a do over. Having spent most of this review complaining about the play, must say that I did enjoy it – no one writes such profane, witty dialogue like Mamet does – and the entire cast was excellent. But after the highs of what I had seen before, it was just a little bit of a letdown.

And so ends my brief stint as a theater critic. I will be back with movie reviews, and more year in reviews columns later this week.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding RACE, I saw the show with both casts and the original was, in my opinion, much much better. This is said with one caveat, I preferred Afton C. Williamson's performance over Kerry Washington's. The dialogue was much crisper when performed by Spader and virtually crackled. When I saw the second cast the dialogue seemed labored and drawn out. Izzard did not command the stage the way James Spader did. Spader's Jack Lawson was definitely the lead character in the show, even though most of the humor ran through Henry Brown via David Alan Grier. The end of the second act literally had me and most of the rest of the audience holding our collective breaths when Spader told Kerry Washington to "get out of my sight" was a really intense scene. When done by Izzard it held no intensity at all...I was extremely dissapointed and felt he did not do justice to the script. There was no sexual sparks between Lawson and Susan and with the first cast there was definite flirting going on by Lawson even if he was trying not to show his knew he had them.

    I loved the play when I saw the original cast and was disappointed by the play when I saw it with the replacements for Lawson and Brown. Both Williamson and Thomas were very good...just not the lead actors. In my case...the cast really made a difference!