Editor’s note: Each April, Hap Erstein heads to New York to check out the current Broadway season in advance of the Tony Awards, which are broadcast June 9. Here’s his overview of the musicals:
NEW YORK — Gauged by quantity, it was an above-average season on Broadway for new musicals. As far as quality, though, there was only one standout show (Hadestown), several middling musicals and one painfully bad show (Beetlejuice). Here is a rundown of the musicals still running by season’s end:
Hadestown – The Orpheus and Eurydice legend has been the source of several films, but the sensational, sensual Hadestown is anything but the usual Broadway screen-to-stage adaptation. Begun as a concept album a decade ago by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell, the show has coalesced over time into a dark, dramatic New Orleans-set jazz musical brimming with freshness and originality. Whether or not it wins the top Tony Award, this is the season’s best musical.
Chances are you will be disarmed from the opening moments of Hadestown when Andre De Shields glides in and seduces the audience, narrating the tale of young, callow Orpheus (Reeve Carney of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark infamy), who comes to town and is quickly captivated by the more savvy Eurydice (Eva Noblezada, the title character in the recent Miss Saigon revival).
Overseeing and manipulating their union is the goddess Persephone (a saucy Amber Gray) and her ruler of the Underworld hubby Hades (booming basso Patrick Page), who soon lures Eurydice to his lair. Following the legend, however, Orpheus risks all coming to her rescue.
Mitchell’s score is an eclectic mix of jazz, blues and gospel, tied together with a Creole flavor. Harnessing the production into a unified whole is director Rachel Chavkin, who gives the evening far more storytelling clarity than in her Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Further setting itself apart from the field, Hadestown has no tidy happy ending, but the whole show will leave you with a smile on your face.
HADESTOWN, Walter Kerr Theatre; 219 W. 48th St., 877-250-2929.
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Tootsie — The reason to anticipate a stage musical of 1982’s gender-bent film comedy Tootsie was a new score by David Yazbek, whose The Band’s Visit swept the Tonys last season. But his so-so songs are far overshadowed by the book by Robert Horn (13, The Musical), which is genuinely funny in ways that catch us off guard. Horn and director Scott Ellis dust off the cobwebs from the saga of Michael Dorsey, the pain-in-the-ass actor who cannot land a role until he impersonates a woman – inventing Dorothy Michaels, acceptably assertive in this era of #MeToo. Further adding freshness to the plot is the fact that the part he/she lands is in a musical, an updated version of Romeo and Juliet, instead of the movie’s medical soap opera milieu.
With Dustin Hoffman on most of the audience’s minds, the show needs a dynamic Michael/Dorothy and it gets one in Santino Fontana (Prince Charming in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), who ping-pongs back and forth between his personas, both physically and vocally, with welcome ease. It is not his fault that he is upstaged by Sarah Stiles as Michael’s neurotic former girlfriend, who loses out to him for the role of Juliet’s Nurse, and Andy Grotelueschen as his roommate, who looks on with incredulity as Michael transforms before his eyes. Less successful is Lilli Cooper as the show-within-the-show’s star (a/k/a the Jessica Lange part), Michael’s romantic interest, a relative straight man, pardon the expression.
Director Ellis juggles the farcical elements with aplomb, and Denis Jones’s choreography is loaded with knowing winks and assaults on the funny bone. Add in cartoonish, urban scenery by David Rockwell and cleverly engineered costumes by the great William Ivey Long and you have a professional production all around. If only the score were up to the rest of the show, we wouldn’t have the nagging question of whether Tootsie really ever needed to be a musical.
TOOTSIE, Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th St. 877-250-2929.
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Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations – Ever since the mega-success of Jersey Boys, there have been plenty of shows mimicking the biographical back story model. Think of Beautiful, Summer and The Cher Show. The best of these knock-offs, however, is the latest arrival, Ain’t Too Proud, about the premier rhythm ‘n’ blues male group, The Temptations.
For starters, there’s that toe-tapping trunk of songs (“My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Just My Imagination” and the title number), plus a dramatic history of the group members dealing with drugs, alcohol, fame and internecine squabbles. Dominique Morisseau’s script is more conventional and linear than Jersey Boys, but the two productions are linked by the direction of Des McAnuff and especially the slick, synchronized choreography by Sergio Trujillo.
Adapted from the memoir of Otis Williams, an original group member and its sole surviving singer, the show puts the focus on him, as recreated by energetic, soulful Derrick Baskin. He is the constant throughout, as one-by-one the others withdraw, are replaced, fall by the wayside or simply die. Yet the close-harmony Temptations sound keeps surviving, the group’s — and the musical’s — enduring quality.
Other standouts among The Temps include deep-voiced Jawan M. Jackson and, at the other end of the vocal spectrum, Jeremy Pope. The Supremes waft through the show and capture their own distinctive sounds, thanks largely to Candice Marie Woods as an uncanny Diana Ross.
No, Ain’t Too Proud is no Jersey Boys, but it is entertaining enough and likely to become a fixture of Broadway and the road from years to come.
AIN’T TOO PROUD, Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200.
Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish) – Recent revivals of the 1964 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical, based on tales of Sholem Alecheim’s Tevye the dairyman, have demonstrated how malleable this enduring material is.
Still, if you needed a reminder of how well-constructed and emotionally potent this show is, head off-Broadway and immerse yourself in the community of Anatevka, Russia, in a simple, effective production staged by Joel Grey that happens to be performed in Yiddish. Stas Kmiec is credited with the choreography, but much of it is an hommage to Jerome Robbins’ original work, bottle dance and all.
The language change proves to be no barrier to the show’s enjoyment, thanks to unobtrusive supertitles — in English and Russian — projected on the set’s simple, effective brown butcher paper backdrop. And if like many in the audience one Thursday afternoon in April, you are fairly familiar with this story of daughters who challenge tradition in their pursuit of romance, you may not need the surtitles at all.
Add Steven Skybell to the long list of performers who have played Tevye in the past 55 years. He eschews the schtick preferred by Zero Mostel and others, while still earning plenty of character-based laughs. And he is at his best in the darker second act as family and governmental challenges take their toll on Tevye. As his put-upon wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak is a solid addition to the cast, having joined since the production moved uptown from its former home in the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Perhaps the best-known company member is Broadway veteran Jackie Hoffman, who gives a restrained but droll performance as Yente the matchmaker.
Yes, I know you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof before, but here is a rare opportunity to see it again, unadorned and focused on the text, even if the language is foreign yet flavorful.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Stage 42, 422 W. 42nd St., 212-239-6200.
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The Prom – It did not go so well for Vice President Mike Pence when he attended Hamilton on Broadway and it is a safe bet that he will not be seeing The Prom anytime soon. Feel free to take that as an endorsement.
For the prom in question takes place at a high school in Edgewater, Ind., or at least it would have if it hadn’t been canceled over student Emma’s desire to take her girlfriend to the dance. News of the closed-minded PTA’s decision reaches Broadway, where the cast of a fictional clunker, Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical, decides to leave their comfort zone and head to the Heartland to grab some publicity for their show while endorsing the lesbian duo.
The self-absorbed, egotistical theater folks – yes, thespians! – make Emma a cause célèbre and, in so doing, manage to make matters worse for her. Things get silly in Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s script before they turn slightly serious with messages promoting diversity and acceptance. Along the way, Beguelin and Matthew Sklar (the songwriting team of Elf and The Wedding Singer) provide lots of snappy meta tunes and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw demonstrates how explosively energetic young dancers can be.
Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas head the uber-vain Broadway brood, though they have hit similar comic notes elsewhere previously. Reliable Christopher Sieber plays their Juilliard graduate cohort and scores with a second act showstopper, “Love Thy Neighbor,” while Angie Schworer is all limber limbs in a faux-Fosse number, “Zazz.” But it is understated Caitlin Kinnunen who steals the show as awkward Emma, coming on strong with poise and self-assurance.
Very of-the-moment, The Prom may not have much shelf life, but it currently delivers more than a few giggles.
THE PROM, Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200.
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Beetlejuice — The last show to open this season on Broadway is also the least of them, although the annoying Beetlejuice still managed to pull in a best musical Tony nomination. Based on Tim Burton’s 1988 film, a farce about death featuring that director’s unique visual style, the material’s transition to the stage has lost whatever charms the movie had.
Curiously enough, much of the problem seems to be the expansion of the title role, a manic ghoul who arrives early in the evening to haunt and aggravate the new residents of an already haunted home.
Director Alex Timbers and screenplay adapters Scott Brown and Anthony King take an anything-for-a-laugh approach to telling the story, which has a way of draining it of any viable humor. The same goes for Alex Brightman as Beetlejuice, as heavy-handed as any performance currently on Broadway or in recent memory. He previously starred in the Jack Black role in School of Rock, and doesn’t stray far from that broad, loud character this time.
Better are the handful of supporting performers: not long for this world Barbara and Adam Maitland (Kerry Butler, Rob McClure) and the terribly hip new home owners Charles and Delia Deetz (Adam Dannheisser, Leslie Kritzer). But they can only amuse so far with the paucity of material they have been handed.
Arguably the only cast member who does rise above the chaos is diminutive Sophia Anne Caruso as the Deetz’s goth daughter Lydia, the other character whose role has been expanded for the stage show. Obsessed with death and still grieving over the demise of her birth mother, Lydia finds a kindred spirit in Beetlejuice.
The production design is awash in garish colors, special effects and oversized puppets, a representation of the unfortunate trend of Broadway as theme park. If I mention the ironically named Eddie Perfect’s music and lyrics as an afterthought, that is because they seem to be.
BEETLEJUICE, Winter Garden Theatre, 50th St. & Broadway. 212-239-6200.