From a whirlwind Broadway trip in which I saw 12 shows in eight days, here are my views on what to head to New York to see, what to look forward to catching on tour and what to avoid at all costs:
Other Desert Cities (A) ― The consistently intelligent Jon Robin Baitz (TV’s Brothers & Sisters) has often trod dysfunctional family territory, but rarely with as much dramatic impact and genuine humor as this look at the prodigal daughter of right-wing, retired show business parents living in Palm Springs affluence. At Christmastime 2004 — yup, just after George W.’s re-election — the couple’s novelist daughter arrives from the East with a holiday present, a soon-to-be-published memoir that will make public a long-held family secret about her sibling who was implicated in a radical bombing with political overtones.
Joe Mantello directs a stellar cast, headed by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach as the thrown-off-balance parents, and Judith Light in scene-stealing support as Channing’s acerbic, liberal sister, just out of drug rehab and shooting from the hip with some hip comic lines. Baitz has written meaty roles all around, including for Elizabeth Marvel as the daughter and Thomas Sadowski as a TV sham court show producer, in the kind of well-made play of substance that seemed a thing of the past. (OTHER DESERT CITIES, Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., $56.50-$126.50.)
One Man, Two Guvnors (A-) ― Far less substantial, but riotously funny, is this British import from London’s National Theatre, a Benny Hill-style farce with a high-brow pedigree, based as it is — albeit very loosely — on Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century commedia dell’arte knockabout classic, The Servant of Two Masters.
Updated to 1963’s Brighton by playwright Richard Bean, it remains the tale of a long-suffering underling, Francis Henshall (a Harlequin type), who tries to juggle two employers at once. Tubby James Corden (The History Boys) is the ringmaster of this comic circus, shamelessly resorting to low, though inspired, comedy, particularly some uproarious audience participation bits, both real and rigged.
Glib, quick-thinking Corden improvises his way through a complex plot about murder, impersonation, mistaken identity and reunited lovers, directed with casual precision by Nicholas Hytner. While Corden remains the center of attention throughout, Tom Edden earns his Tony nomination as an elderly waiter perpetually on the verge of calamity. And although it often feels like padding, a period rock band called The Craze offers musical transitions between scenes. (ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., $66.50-$126.50.)
Peter and the Starcatcher (B+) ― About the only story more familiar to a general audience than Peter Pan is The Wizard of Oz, and it already has a stage prequel. So with plenty of whimsy and verbal gymnastics, Rick Elice (co-author of Jersey Boys) reveals the previously unknown or misunderstood origins of J.M. Barrie’s boy who never grew up, based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. In an exceedingly imaginative staging by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, we learn how Peter got his name, how the pirate captain really lost his hand and how the band of boys came to be lost, all conveyed in a wry, low-tech Story Theater narrative style.
Aiding the theatrical spell is the energetic cast, led by Smash’s Christian Borle as a Groucho Marxist pirate called Black Stache (a/k/a Hook), petite, delicate Celia Keenan-Bolger as Molly (a/k/a Wendy’s mom) and Adam Chanler-Berat as Boy (a/k/a Peter). Disney is one of the show’s producers, yet the play is all about a revisionist view of one of the corporate giant’s prime properties, which could give it a fresh new life. Stylistically, the production is quite sophisticated, yet the play could be a terrific introduction to the theater for youngsters. (PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. $59-$161.)
Venus in Fur (B+) ― On the other hand, if you do not happen to have youngsters in tow, perhaps you would like something more on the steamy side, like David Ives’s sensuous tug-of-war between a neophyte director and a surprisingly wily actress who auditions for him. The role she is trying out for happens to be dominatrix, and she arrives at the humble rehearsal space dressed for the part, ready to take control of the situation before the director quite knows what hit him.
Over the course of the play’s 100 minutes, the two characters engage in a power struggle-cum-seduction, with the audition serving as a tidy metaphor for sexual supremacy. The play is a major step forward for Ives, who was previously known for clever sketch comedy (All in the Timing). Still, the production belongs to Broadway’s latest “it” girl, Nina Arianda, who deftly ricochets between the seemingly airheaded actress and the throaty vamp of the play within a play. Hugh Dancy is fine as her director/prey, barely keeping up with the force of nature intruder, but it is Arianda who makes the experience memorable.
Walter Bobbie (Chicago) stages this pas de deux for maximum heat, turning the audience into voyeurs, allowing up a glimpse of backstage life as we long suspected it must occasionally be like. (VENUS IN FUR, Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., $33-$141.50.)
The Columnist (C) ― It is an understatement to say that this is not a prosperous time for print journalism or journalists. Perhaps that it why David Auburn (Pulitzer Prize winner for Proof) wanted to reflect back on the heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, a time when a syndicated columnist such as Joseph Alsop could be a genuine power broker, gaining the ear of presidents and influencing foreign policy.
The play spans much of the Vietnam era and while Alsop would describe himself as a left-leaning Democrat, he was also staunchly anti-Communist and a fervent supporter of the Vietnam War. Oh, and a closeted homosexual.
So there were many potential themes that Auburn could have imposed on Alsop’s life and career. He could have contrasted our attitudes about sexual orientation, then and now. That seems to be a major point, judging from the opening Moscow hotel room scene between Alsop and a blackmail-minded Soviet embassy operative, but that idea recedes into the background. It could have contrasted press and public attitudes to Vietnam with contemporary views of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Auburn loses interest in that thread, too.
Ultimately, The Columnist is a conventional biography of Alsop, well performed ― particularly by an owlish, effete, hot-tempered John Lithgow ― and efficiently staged by Daniel Sullivan. Boyd Gaines offers solid support as Alsop’s younger brother and occasional writing partner Stewart, as does Margaret Colin as Joe’s frustrated wife Susan. But overall Auburn never makes a persuasive case for why we should care enough about his subject to spend an evening with him. (THE COLUMNIST, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., $67-$121.)
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Newsies (B) ― With rare exceptions, the Disney organization has focused on its film library for the source material for its musicals. Most of its stage successes have come from animated hits, but now it reaches back to 1992 for a live-action song-and-dance flop that has since gained cult admiration. Based loosely on fact, Newsies is the saga of a group of entrepreneurial orphan news hawkers, circa 1899, industrious ragamuffins who object to a price increase imposed upon them and decide to strike against publishing mogul Joseph Pulitzer.
The stage show ― like the film― feels aimed at youngsters, but adaptor Harvey Fierstein has made some savvy adjustments to the plot to give it more emotional weight. Director Jeff Calhoun (Bonnie and Clyde) has staged it bluntly for maximum impact and choreographer Christopher Gattelli has come up with several gymnastic production numbers that bring to mind Oliver! on steroids. And as Jack Kelly, the brains ― well, comparatively speaking ― of the newsies, the charismatic Jeremy Jordan stakes his claim to a Broadway career.
Composer Alan Menken (Sister Act, Leap of Faith) augments his movie score with a few numbers that deepen the story line slightly. With some Disney marketing savvy, this could be the next go-to family show for years to come. And who knows, maybe pint-sized theatergoers will grow up remembering the show’s pro-union message. (NEWSIES, David T. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., $93-$137.)
Porgy and Bess (A) ― In 1935, the renowned New York composer-and-lyricist brothers George and Ira brought to the stage DuBose Heyward’s fictional account of the poor denizens of Catfish Row, Charleston, S.C., turning it onto an American folk opera classic. Because of the size of the cast and orchestra though, the work eventually became the domain of major opera companies. Until now.
With the aid of adapter Suzan-Lori Parks, director Diane Paulus (Hair) has reclaimed the towering musical theater piece for Broadway, a process that has been steeped in controversy from its start. Changes have been made to the narrative, the score and orchestrations have been reduced, but the show remains an overwhelming experience, an impression that only staunch purists can deny.
Its power is cemented by the title performances of Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, two superb actor-singers who breathe life into the roles of a drug-addicted harlot and a crippled beggar. She moves in with him, much to the dismay of others in their tight-knit community, like drug dealer Sportin’ Life (David Alan Grier), who urges her to leave Porgy and head north.
Early out-of-town efforts to tack on a happier ending have long since been rejected, but for the audience — particularly those who have never seen Porgy and Bess before — this is a still deeply satisfying work produced on a Broadway scale.(THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS, Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., $74.50-$146.75.)
Nice Work If You Can Get It (B) ― When the Gershwins were not reaching for high art like Porgy and Bess, they were churning out song-filled entertainments such as 1926’s Oh, Kay! a chipper little show that is the inspiration for this “new” jukebox musical, much in the manner of My One and Only and Crazy for You, also assembled long after their deaths. As befits the era, this is an empty-headed, romantic tale, something about a ne’er-do-well playboy (Matthew Broderick) who falls in love with a tomboy bootlegger (Kelli O’Hara), but really an excuse to play some great songs.
It manages to shoehorn in plenty of pop standards (Fascinatin’ Rhythm, ’S Wonderful, Lady Be Good) as well as a few lesser known gems (By Strauss, Demon Rum, Treat Me Rough), all woven into a madcap plot with groan-worthy one-liners by Joe DiPietro.
Kathleen Marshall directs and choreographs it with a knowing nod to the period, including lots of tap and most notably on an Astaire-Rodgers-like dance that would be more of a showstopper if Broderick weren’t so obviously counting each step and looking at his feet. Among the cast’s winning second bananas is Judy Kaye as a temperance advocate who eventually succumbs to booze, Michael McGrath and West Palm Beach native Terry Beaver. (NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. $46.50-$146.50.)
Once (C-) ― The woman sitting next to me at the Jacobs Theatre was sniffing back tears throughout most of this show and all I could muster were yawns. The charms of the 2007 low-budget cinematic love story between an Irish street musician and a fish-out-of-water Czech waif were lost on me, and they remain elusive in the musical tale’s transfer to the stage. Still, the show earned 11 Tony nominations, and it is considered to be the only thing standing in the way of a victory for Newsies.
The show’s two principals, identified merely as Guy (Steve Kazee) and Girl (Cristin Milioti), meet on the streets of Dublin, drawn together because she has a broken vacuum cleaner and he fixes them in his day job. No, there is no song about Hoover repair, but then few of the musical numbers are plot-advancing book songs. You see, he pens songs and she plays piano, so they collaborate on a score of presentational tunes and, haltingly, they move towards making beautiful music together.
Where the film took advantage of the urban landscape of Dublin, the stage show is set inside an Irish pub, which provides atmosphere, drinks for audience members who arrive early and it serves as the story’s various locales. Book writer Edna Walsh opens up the film by putting additional emphasis on the characters surrounding the central couple ― Guy’s family, Girl’s Czech neighbors, the owner of the music shop that will double as their recording studio, etc. ― all of whom play instruments to serve as the show’s accompaniment. Eventually, the show arrives at Falling Slowly, the Oscar-winning song from the movie, but that is a long way to go for such a minor payoff. (ONCE, Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., $59.50-$136.50.)
TOMORROW: Hap’s fearless Tony picks.