Just because there were a lot of musicals this season on Broadway does not mean they were all on sufficient quality. Consider the following, a star-driven disappointment, a couple of anemic film adaptations and an impressive revival:
War Paint – Stardom is a double-edged commodity. It can drive ticket sales as theatergoers clamor to see such bona fide divas as Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. But the show they are currently in, War Paint, will necessarily have a limited run because replacing these two stellar performers is all but unthinkable.
Of course, it would help if there were more there there in this musical biographical rivalry. It comes off as a vehicle for these two two-time Tony Award winners instead of a story in which we can become emotionally involved. That would have made for a better evening, but settle instead for material that composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and – to a far lesser extent – book writer Doug Wright have created for these stage goddesses to belt out of the park, or at least out of the Nederlander Theatre.
As you undoubtedly already know, LuPone plays Helena Rubenstein and Ebersole is Elizabeth Arden, lifelong competitors in the cosmetics industry, ahead of their time as corporate heads. And while their attitudes on beauty and how to market it one bottle at a time is interesting, it seems more suited to a business school case study than a piece of musical theater.
Nor does it help matters that Rubenstein and Arden never actually met one another, a drawback that reduces the show to parallel solos and duets without interaction. Wright does invent a meeting between them late in War Paint as they wait to be honored for their life’s work, but the nose-to-nose confrontation cannot – or at least does not – live up to our delayed expectations.
Still, that is LuPone and Ebersole up there, conducting a textbook course in what it means to be a star. Their time in the spotlight has been carefully parceled out and each of them gets a take-no-prisoners solo, back-to-back – “Pink” for Ebersole, followed by “Forever Beautiful” for LuPone. If Ebersole comes off somewhat better, that could be because the writers and director Michael Greif are the team that learned how to showcase her so well on Grey Gardens. Or maybe it is that LuPone’s legendary diction challenges are not helped by her attempt at a Polish accent.
WAR PAINT, Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., $69 – $169. 877-250-2929.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl’s subversive children’s novel about a creepy chocolatier and the greedy youngsters who win a tour of his shop is no kid’s stuff. Nor is the sublime, anti-child 1971 movie adaptation starring Gene Wilder or, to a lesser extent, the Johnny Depp-Tim Burton version from 2005.
The new stage musical’s take on the tale does appear to be aimed at tots, who better have long attention spans. They will have to slog through an extended first act to arrive at the factory only after intermission. There the disappointing score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Witttman – Did they really write Hairspray? – comes alive briefly with a patter song for Willy Wonka called “Strike That, Reverse It.” Otherwise the scores highlights come from the earlier movie (“Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination”), inserted after the show’s London run so theatergoers would have something to hum as they leave.
The usually reliable Christian Borle is way too subdued as Wonka and Mark Thompson’s scenic design is a couple of quarts low on spectacle. Wasted in support are John Rubinstein as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe and Jackie Hoffman as the mom of a television-obsessed brat. Surely they will drop this credit from their bios soon.
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., $79 – $150. 877-250-2929.
Amélie – When a show adapts material from another medium unsuccessfully, the tendency is to say it was a bad idea to bring it to the stage. Little works in the musical version of the whimsical 2001 French film about a shy Parisian who is determined to do good deeds anonymously, but that doesn’t mean it should never have been attempted.
The cult favorite from quirky filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet is full of visual tricks and self-conscious cinematic touches. Adapter Craig Lucas and director Pam MacKinnon must have been trying for theatrical equivalents, but the results are simply disjointed, bordering on incoherence. It is hard to fathom what an audience member unfamiliar with the movie would make of what is onstage.
The production’s only saving grace is Phillipa Soo (Amélie), recently in both Hamilton and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. She has a lovely singing voice and charm to spare, but she gets little help from composer/co-lyricist Daniel Messe’s score, which has no French flavor whatsoever. Go rent the film.
Amélie closed on May 21.
Miss Saigon – Almost unnoticed in a Broadway season brimming with new musicals is the fact that this was also a good year for revivals, with the return of such popular hit shows as Hello, Dolly!, Sunset Boulevard, Sunday in the Park with George and that 1991 war-torn update of Madama Butterfly, Miss Saigon.
When it first arrived on our shores, this saga of the conflicted GI and the Asian bar girl he impregnated during the final days of the Vietnam War was almost as controversial as the war itself. I have always admired the show, but with additional distance of time and with an epic, cut-no-corners production like it is now receiving, the work’s dramatic impact seems all the more evident.
Original producer Cameron Mackintosh has been recycling his megamusicals – Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, now Miss Saigon – usually entrusting them to director Laurence Connor, who imparts a new physical look but is otherwise reverent to the values that made these shows connect so strongly with audiences.
Drafted to musicalize this tale of romance, East-West betrayal and its tragic consequences is the Les Misérables team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, whose jazzy counterpoint to Puccini produced a score of aching beauty and occasional brash cynicism.
Kim, the naïve bar newbie, is a star-making role – originally for Lea Salonga and now perhaps for full-voiced Eva Noblezada in her Broadway debut. Inevitably, though, the show belongs to Filipino Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer, the money-grubbing pimp desperate to come to the United States. Impressive throughout the evening, his 11 o’clock number, “The American Dream,” is a bracing slap of bad taste.
Still to come perhaps is a musical synthesis of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Until then, Miss Saigon will suffice, helicopter and all.
MISS SAIGON, Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, $35-$165, 212-239-6200.