Because of my travel plans, I had to schedule my spring Broadway splurge earlier than usual. So I was too early to see Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, Bad Cinderella, Shucked and others. But as you will see below, there were plenty of worthy shows that I caught in what is turning out to be a better-than-expected Broadway season.
& Juliet (Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St.) — History does not record how much effect Anne Hathaway had on her husband, Will Shakespeare’s, plays. But if you buy the supposition of this sprightly, high-energy, British import jukebox musical, she had him rewrite Romeo and Juliet to give it a more upbeat ending. And along the way — surely Anne’s influence again — & Juliet delivers an anachronistic message of female empowerment.
Yes, Juliet lives instead of committing suicide, but she learns that her beau Romeo had been two- and three-timing her. So Juliet (played by appealing song-belter Lorna Courtney) heads to Paris, where she soon acquires a new boyfriend. Little awareness of the Bard’s original play is required, but book writer David West Read (Schitt’s Creek) clearly knows the canon as he cleverly steers the show’s plot towards comedy, with multiple couples matching up and getting hitched by the final curtain.
In addition to Courtney, standout performers include Melanie La Barrie of the show’s original London cast as Juliet’s nurse, Justin David Sullivan as her gay sidekick and Betsy Wolfe as Anne Hathaway, emerging from under Shakespeare’s shadow.
The show’s one negative is that it decided to go the jukebox musical route, featuring songs produced and written by pop composer Max Martin instead of commissioning an original score. Still, the two dozen or so numbers fit the narrative better than most shows that shoehorn in existing tunes and their familiarity helps to rev up the young audience.
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Parade (Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.) Anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise in America, but if you needed reminding that such ethnic hatred is nothing new over here there is the musical Parade, now receiving a full-throttle revival on Broadway following an acclaimed Encores! series concert.
The show lays out the dark history of Leo Frank, a Jewish Brooklynite who, in 1913, becomes a gefilte fish out of water when he relocates to Marietta, Georgia, for a job as superintendent of a pencil factory there. Soon he is accused and convicted on circumstantial evidence of murdering a 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. His death sentence is eventually commuted to life in prison, thanks to the tireless efforts of his wife, Lucille, But outraged, bigoted Georgians break into the prison, drag out Frank and lynch him.
The original 1998 production brought Tony Awards to book writer Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and composer Jason Robert Brown, the latter making his Broadway debut. Nevertheless, the subject matter proved challenging to theatergoers and the show lasted just a few months.
This revival deserves a better fate, largely due to the compelling performances of Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) as Leo and Micaela Diamond (The Cher Show) as Lucille.
Michael Arden stages Parade largely on a raised central platform that becomes variously the factory, the courtroom and Frank’s cell. The simple scenic design of Dane Laffrey is complemented by Sven Ortel’s projections, which give the production a documentary tone.
Highlights of the varied, often ironic and melodic score include Leo’s opening statement of his situation (“How Can I Call This Home?”), the testimony of Mary’s mother (“My Child Will Forgive Me”) and especially the climactic love duet between the Franks, “All the Wasted Time.”
Parade’s original production may have been ahead of its time, but this revival demonstrates how its theme is, unfortunately, timeless.
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Some Like It Hot (Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.) — Billy Wilder’s 1959 film comedy Some Like It Hot is so classic that it has inspired not one, but two stage musical versions. The first, 1972’s Jule Styne-Bob Merrill-Peter Stone adaptation, was a satisfying, faithful rendering, but songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), abetted by book writers Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, saw the opportunity to layer the familiar bygone-era narrative with contemporary sensibilities.
Rest assured that it is still the tale of two itinerant musicians, Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) and Joe (Christian Borle), who witness a mob shootout, forcing them to flee Chicago hiding in drag and join a traveling all-girl band. Yes, if you’re counting, this makes the third recent show centered on guys disguised as women — after Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire — but Some Like It Hot is so loaded with old-fashioned entertainment values that it should far outrun those earlier efforts.
In the Jack Lemmon role, Ghee is positively giddy to take on the persona of Daphne, liberated by giving in to his female side. And the fact that he is Black allows the show to explore issues of race as well as gender. Similarly, the casting of Adrianna Hicks (last seen as one of Henry VIII’s doomed wives in Six) as Sugar Kane, the band’s sultry lead singer, helps get our minds off of her indelible movie predecessor, Marilyn Monroe.
Plus-sized in girth and talent, NaTasha Yvette Williams — also Black — devours the expanded role of band leader Sweet Sue. And Kevin Del Aguila is a genuine scene stealer as Daphne’s crush, root beer tycoon Osgood Fielding III, whose newly minted Mexican heritage allows for a splashy tangent south of the border.
Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s super-charged staging is marred only by a wheezy second-act chase scene that feels like a writing lapse that never got addressed in previews. Otherwise, when you factor in Scott Pask’s eye-popping sets, Gregg Barnes’ splashy costumes and Natasha Katz’s dazzling lighting, you’ll see that Some Like It Hot is a scorching good show.
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Kimberly Akimbo (Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.) — Not since Dear Evan Hansen has there been such a touching look at teenage angst as Kimberly Akimbo, about a New Jersey girl on the verge of 16, the age of her life expectancy due to a rare disease that causes her to grow older far beyond her chronological years.
Yes, it is another improbable topic for a musical, but one that proves endearing, quirky, more than a little sad and ultimately upbeat and winning. That emotional roller coaster is provided by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapts his own play from 2001 and provides simple, heartbreaking and funny lyrics to charming, if low-key, music by Jeanine Tesori.
While constantly cognizant of her imminent mortality, Kimberly Levaco (played by the inestimable Victoria Clark) reaches out to connect with another high school misfit, Seth (adorable Justin Cooley in a remarkable Broadway debut). An unapologetic nerd with a penchant for anagrams and puzzles, Seth not only willingly becomes Kim’s first boyfriend but he jumps in with both feet when her larcenous aunt Debra (a hilarious Bonnie Milligan) enlists them, and four other teens, in a complex check-forging scheme.
And then there’s the rest of Kimberly’s dysfunctional family — her irresponsible, alcoholic dad (Steven Boyer) and her hypochondriac, pregnant mom (Alli Mauzey), both way over their heads dealing with Kimberly’s needs.
As you can imagine, getting the shifting tone right is crucial for a show like this, but that is exactly what director Jessica Stone manages in her transfer of the production from off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company. Seeing this improbable, joyous show makes one wonder which other of Lindsay-Abaire’s offbeat plays could be turned into musicals.
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Leopoldstadt (Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.) — In the same way that Steven Spielberg focuses on his family to create his most personal film, The Fabelmans, playwright Tom Stoppard, at the age of 84, comes to grips with his own ancestors and their history in Leopoldstadt, an epic yet intimate work named for the Jewish ghetto of Vienna in the first half of the 20th century.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard (né Sträussler) and his family fled that nation when he was a small boy as the Nazis were coming to power. They turned their backs on their Jewish roots so successfully that he claims not to be aware of his ethnic heritage until he was an adult, nor that all four of his grandparents were killed in the Terezin concentration camp.
That is the story that he now tells in Leopoldstadt as only Stoppard can, though without his usual densely packed puckish wordplay. It begins in 1899, in the well-appointed Viennese apartment of the Merz family, led by Hermann (David Krumholtz), a successful businessman married to a Catholic woman (Faye Castelow), as intermarriage begins the clan’s assimilation.
On the verge of a new century, the assembled sprawling cast of characters voice an optimism that we cannot share from our vantage point of hindsight knowing the brutality that lies ahead for them.
Leopoldstadt moves forward in time in five distinct snapshots, eventually arriving at 1955, when the few survivors of the Holocaust tick off the fates and the camps where their relatives were exterminated,
Director Patrick Marber orchestrates a huge ensemble cast. Frankly, it takes some effort to keep them straight from one another as they age and are replaced by other actors. But one of the theater’s great joys has long been trying mentally to keep up with Stoppard, as much here as he pours out his genealogy and survivor’s guilt as his arcane journeys into metaphysics in past plays.