MUSINGS ON THE MUSICALS: A LOOK BACK & AHEAD
By Jeannie Lieberman
Amidst a morass of dark productions like Spring Awakening, The Pirate Queen, Lovemusik and the gray Grey Gardens, light musicals shine brighter in the gloom.
Even the elitists look with begrudging favor upon bouncy baubles like Mary Poppins, Legally Blonde and Curtains.
A string of revivals came lumbering in this year: the sparkly Chorus Line, tinny Company, barely noticed Les Miserables and hokey The Apple Tree (lifted intact from City Center's Encores! concerts)., and two off Broadway winners, Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening developed the legs to climb to the Big Time. There actually were new musicals, the mostly disastrous Mimi Le Duck and Times They Are A Changin', the unfairly critically killed High Fidelity with only Mary Poppins an automatic success (gotta have something for the children to sleep through).
Spring Awakening, darling of the critics, is the coming-of-age musical based on German Frank Wedekind's banned 1891 play about teenage angst in general and sexual obsession in particular in a buttoned up school and the tragic results of sexual innocence/ignorance in this repressed society. Most impressive is Bill T. Jones minimal/modern hormone driven choreography to the rock score by Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater. Its subject matter, which includes mental abuse by teachers/parents, incest, lots of masturbation, illegal botched abortion and suicide, is tailored for grown up teenagers (not kids) who love intergenerational war and not the three middle aged women who lasted longer than their neighbors declaring it "boring" and " incessantly grim".
Eugene O'Neill Theater, 230 W 49 St, 212 239-6200
photo by George Holz
Mary Poppins, the Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's London stage musical is filled with the magic of Bob Crowley's breathtaking sets and costumes aided by David Benken's technical direction: Mary Poppins flies in and out on her umbrella, people pop out of chimneys, toys become human, birds fly around the theater, and statues break their poses and move. The Banks' house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London, is a giant Victorian doll house come to life and Gavin Lee, delightful as Bert, rivals Fred Astaire when he dances up the walls and across the proscenium upside down!!!.
New Amsterdam Theatre, Broadway at 42nd St,212-307-4747
photo by Joan Marcus
Chrjstine Ebersole in Grey Gardens delivers dynamic dual performances as both the thrillingly trilling self centered opera singing Edith Bouvier Beale and her adult daughter 'Little' Edie, the deliciously eccentric (and real-life) aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who were once among the brightest names in the pre-Camelot social register, but became East Hampton's most notorious recluses. Its two musicals in one so odds of pleasing are either doubled or halved: a witty, elegant period piece/a grim, bizarre attention getter.
Walter Kerr Theater 219 West 48th Street, 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250
Jill Paice and David Hyde Pierce
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Curtains Kander & Ebb's long awaited last musical with book by Rupert Holmes (based on the original book and concept by Peter Stone), ia whodunnit about the murder of a Broadway producer, is a good old fashioned musical, with great song and dance numbers, quickly paced, each memorable. David Hyde Pierce is perfect as the musically inclined detective and Debra Monk brings the house down with some show biz savvy numbers. Singer/dancer Noah Racey is always a pleasure to watch and Karen Ziemba is a beloved staple. See this as it may be the last of its genre.
Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 W 45 St
Laura Bell Bundy as Elle Woods and cast
(photo credit: Paul Kolnik)
Legally Blonde, The Musical is as shiny as Laura Bell Bundy's spirit as heroine Elle Woods, the "Malibu Barbie" who follows her ex-boy friend to Harvard Law School to get him back. A big, bright, clever musical comedy, directed by choreographer Jerry Mitchell, girls will delight in the fashionista's colorful wardrobe and frequent hairstyle changes. I can't imagine why this undervalued show was slighted by the Tonys but I am confident the same audiences that supported Wicked despite its reviews will keep this running a long lovely time. It was a blast!
Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway
L to R: Elizabeth Stanley,
Kelly Jeanne Grant, Angel Desai
(Photo: Paul Kolnick)
Company Its primary innovation is having the actors address the score by playing their own instruments. Company continues to resonate with a musical savvy that is uniquely Sondheim. The book purposefully and without apology sours the marital experience, watching a despairing 35 year-old bachelor in pursuit of his own happiness while remaining a lap dog for his closest friends - five unhappily married couples. The taste that we are meant to savor, geared the sensibilities of "sophisticated" New Yorkers, clearly fixated on the denigration of marriage, specifically the female half of it. The musical is still caustic, but also in the light of current attitudes, more self-consciously nasty toward that venerable institution.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street 212 - 239 - 6200
photo by Paul Kolnick
The Color Purple has had a much needed infusion by dipping into the pop culture and plopping in Fantasia, a brilliant move, renewing interest and inviting audiences back to see this revitalized ambitious musical. Her very lack of acting skills may be the reason her performance works so well. What comes across is raw, honest and emotionally deep; qualities she brings naturally to her singing and qualities that work perfectly for the character of Celie.
Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, between 52nd and 53rd St. 212-239-6200
In The Heights Good news - this dynamic, innovative Latino musical that creates its own heat wave for this story of a July 4th weekend in upper Manhattan's Latino community ios scheduled to open on Broadway soon. Lin-Manuel Miranda's score pulses with salsa, hip-hop and merengue rhythms telling multiple stories of immigrants of Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and South American extraction in a recognizable Washington Heights.
Grease Revival of the 1972 musical is scheduled to open August 19 after much fanfare casting Laura Osnes (Sandy) and Max Crumm (Danny) from a TV competition. Its a marketing device that dismays theater professionals who have to climb through the ranks of auditions, etc, by going outside the box and awarding plumb lead roles to unknowns. What is the message here? Can they cut it? We'll soon find out!
Brooks Atkinson Theater, 246 West 47 St 22 840-3890
Jeanne Lieberman is editor of Theaterscene.net