There are standout exceptions, but this was largely a disappointing season on Broadway, with the nominating committee challenged to fill all the Tony Award categories. In general, the revivals were better than the new work, in both plays and musicals. Here is my report from a week in New York, where I saw 14 shows in 10 days (Oh, the things I put myself through for you readers).
Angels in America – Tony Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” first arrived on Broadway in 1993 – 25 years ago – in a stunning production that won two Tony Awards for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize. Although it looked back at the Reagan era and the beginnings of a mysterious disease that would become known as AIDS, the two-part work has lost none of its gut-punch impact in a very different time, politically and medically.
It would be hard for the play not to be emotionally moving, but much credit also goes to director Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), whose London-import staging generates an intimacy without sacrificing any of epic qualities of Kushner’s complex canvas. OK, I did miss the angel’s Spielbergian crash through the ceiling of Prior Walter’s apartment at the conclusion of Part One (Millenium Approaches), but otherwise this revival is the equal of George C. Wolfe’s production, which is no easy feat.
Heading the cast is Nathan Lane as the venal Roy Cohn, who delivers the character’s self-loathing ferocity, while also mining the comedy that always lurked in the role. It is a challenge, but Andrew Garfield manages to pull the focus to AIDS-afflicted Prior, cementing his stage creds. These two stars may be the box office lures, but they are well-matched by James McArdle (as Prior’s cowardly partner), Lee Pace (as closeted Mormon lawyer Joseph Pitt) and Denise Gough (as his drug-addicted wife Harper).
Angels in America earned 11 Tony nominations, the most of any play ever, not just because of the weak field of competitors.
ANGELS IN AMERICA, Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. 877-250-2929.
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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – The best thing about the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling’s series about a young student wizard and his battle with evil, is that they encouraged an entire generation of children to read. And perhaps the epic, two-part stage play imported from England – where it won more Olivier Awards than any previous production – could turn a similar trick, drawing youngsters to live theater.
Having given her renowned, endearing characters a closure of sorts after seven novels (and eight movie adaptations). Rowling was persuaded to go to that popular and lucrative well one more time with this extended coda, in which Harry is now 40-ish, gainfully employed by the Ministry of Magic and happily married to the adoring Ginny Weasley, with whom he has three sons. His middle son, Albus Severus, is heading off to study at Hogwarts, inevitably under the shadow of his celebrated dad.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child draws on the accumulated history of the saga, which is quickly evident when Albus meets and befriends Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco and perhaps the bastard child of the Dark Lord, Voldemort. The script by Jack Thorne – based on a detailed road map by Rowling – does what it can to bring theatergoers new to the Potter mythology up to speed, but the play is clearly aimed at those well-steeped in Hogwarts lore. I have listened to a couple of the books recorded on disc and seen all the movies, but concede that the occasional plot point in Cursed Child that elicited gasps from some audience members left me mystified.
Still, there is plenty of entertainment value in the production, thanks to the illusions and magic credited to Jamie Harrison and his team. There are pyrotechnics, apparitions, floating objects and other gravity-defying effects to enchant us. True, they owe a great deal to Neil Austin’s lighting and the black-toned scenic design by Christine Jones, but if you are like me, you will stop trying to figure out how these effects are generated and relax and enjoy them. Less magic-based but still wondrous is the direction of John Tiffany (and movement direction of Steven Hoggett), which features simple, effective repurposing of luggage and choreographed, though manually shifted, staircases.
In the large cast – many of whom come from the original London company – standouts include tow-headed Anthony Boyle as the wily Scorpius, Noma Dumezweni as the grown Hermione Granger and Byron Jennings in a trio of roles, not the least of which is Lord Voldemort. Most of the casting follows the physical types from the films, with Hermione being a notable exception.
Not all of the storytelling is as elegant as hoped for and Part One is exposition-heavy, but there is no doubt that The Cursed Child will cop the Best Play Tony Award, vying against three long-since-closed productions. But awards of not, this looks to be a crowd-pleasing theater event that should be in residence at the spruced-up Lyric Theatre for years to come.
HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, PARTS ONE AND TWO, Lyric Theatre, 214 W. 43rd St. 877-250-2929.
Frozen – Never bet against the Disney marketing machine or the built-in appeal of its animated film library. So it seems likely that the stage version of Frozen – the most commercially successful animated feature of all time – will be a long-running, lucrative hit for the Mouse Factory, even though little of the emotional impact or transporting magic of the film has survived the transfer to Broadway.
This Disneyfied version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” is now hyper-familiar to any tot with access to a DVD player. Its tale of two princesses of Arendelle, Elsa and Anna – the former plagued with a hard-to-control ability to turn her village to ice and the latter shut out of any contact with her sister in order to protect her – has not changed much in its reportedly bumpy road to the St. James Theatre. Yes, the husband and wife team of Kristen-Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez have written a handful of new songs for the show, but most are redundant restatements of what is already known.
Disney certainly lavished an A-list team on its property’s retooling – director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford, as well as designers Christopher Oram (sets and costumes) and Natasha Katz (lighting) – but none of them has been able to give the all-important freezing effect much of a wow factor. Regardless of how much money was poured into this production, too much of it looks cheesy and cheap.
Fortunately, Grandage has the services of a couple of very appealing performers in the leading roles, Caissie Levy (Elsa) and Patti Murin (Anna). Neither is a household name, but Levy belts out The Big Song, a/k/a “Let It Go,” with chilling authority and Murin is endearing and adorable as her intrepid younger sister. As in the movie, the darkness is offset by goofy snowman Olaf, represented as a life-size puppet manipulated and voiced by Greg Hildreth in a style reminiscent of Avenue Q.
John Riddle plays Prince Hans, with whom Anna is instantly smitten, but he comes across as needlessly bland, even when – spoiler alert! – he turns out to be a baddie. Also leaving little impression is Jelani Alladin as ice peddler Kristoff. Perhaps such lack of distinction is intentional, to allow for ease of cast changes in future years.
Frozen will undoubtedly become a Broadway fixture for seasons to come, despite its shortcomings. It is neither as innovative as The Lion King, nor as embarrassing as Tarzan, but a middle-of-the-pack Disney musical. It plays safe with the beloved animated film and will probably satisfy its undiscerning target audience.
FROZEN, St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. 866-870-2717.
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Mean Girls – Tina Fey’s deliciously snarky high school hell movie from 2004 seems like ideal material for a stage musical, very much in the vein of Legally Blonde and Heathers. And like those two screen-to-stage adaptations, there is little new here to attract all but the most ardent fans of the film. In other words, Mean Girls is another so-so show that should draw its intended audience and stay around for quite a while.
Fey’s script does not stray far from her screenplay. It remains the saga of a teen named Cady, home-schooled in Kenya of all places, who has to negotiate the various unwelcoming cliques of high school when her family returns stateside, eventually gaining popularity and a few life lessons. Fey does update the story, bringing in social media and a little bit of current politics, but the show’s dialogue seems more intent on quoting from its movie source.
Still, Fey’s book is far better than the undistinguished musical score, which happens to be written by her husband, Jeff Richmond, with zinger-rich lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde). Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw does keep the show moving along, aided by a young, energetic cast that never lets on it is performing second-rate material.
Eager to fit in, Cady (sunny Erika Henningsen) is torn between a couple of welcoming misfits (Grey Henson and Barrett Wilbert Weed, the narrators of this “cautionary tale”) and the nasty, big-haired Plastics (Taylor Louderman, Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell), a trio of venomous alpha females. Henson is a standout as brazenly gay Damian, as is Park as an insecure satellite of queen bee Louderman. The always enjoyable Kerry Butler scores with three parental roles, notably math teacher Ms. Norbury, a dead-on impersonation of Fey.
Scott Pask’s scenic design takes a back seat to the video projections by Finn Ross and Adam Young, and Gregg Barnes’s costumes are devilishly character-defining, attractive if you happen to like pink.
From the whoops and hollers of the audience at lines they already know from the movie, Fey and her creative team are clearly satisfying those who arrive as staunch Mean Girls fans. What they haven’t done is generate a very good musical, but that probably will not matter.
MEAN GIRLS, August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St. 800-745-3000.
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My Fair Lady – Has there ever been a more politically incorrect or more glorious musical than My Fair Lady, the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe Cinderella-ish adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s class-conscious comedy, Pygmalion?
Lincoln Center Theater’s Bartlett Sher adds another sumptuous revival feather to his crowded cap, tinkering a bit with the classic 1956 show to bring it more in line with contemporary sensibilities, while at the same time luxuriating in its crisp, literate lyrics and script, along with its transcendent, lush score. Although this material is good enough to work on a bare stage, Sher enlists his frequent design team – Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Donald Holder (lights) – to create a production as visually striking as it is smart.
As valuable as all that is, the show succeeds or fails on the strength of its two leading performers, and Sher has a couple of winners. Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose is a golden-throated, headstrong Eliza Doolittle, the flower-hawking guttersnipe transformed into a lady through better bearing, manners and language skills.
Her Svengali is self-absorbed linguistics professor Henry Higgins, played with privileged obstinacy by matinee idol suave Harry Hadden-Patton. Both are first-rate, but Ambrose has the upper hand throughout the evening, just as Eliza is frequently one step ahead of Higgins. Still, Norbert Leo Butz threatens to steal the show as Eliza’s dad, Alfie, the dustman philosopher. His second-act number, “Get Me to The Church on Time,” is a rouser, thanks in part to choreographer Christopher Gattelli, even if its drift into La Cage aux Folles territory is somewhat dubious. And while she has little to do as Higgins’ dowager mother, Dame Diana Rigg is another touch of class in this revival.
In 1956, the use of a revolving stage for scenery changes was – pardon the pun – revolutionary. Today, designer Yeargan takes the notion much further, putting his mammoth set for Higgins’ home on a revolve and sending it spinning, as Eliza goes from room to room mid-song. A stunning staging touch.
This would be a near-perfect Fair Lady if Sher were not so uncomfortable with the romanticized ending that Lerner wrote, overruling Shaw and returning Eliza to curmudgeonly Higgins. Sher prefers a more ambiguous, Pygmalion-esque resolution, which robs us of the more fitting musical comedy ending.
While that is no small quibble, it does not negate the bliss of the three hours prior to that final moment.
MY FAIR LADY, Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St. 212-239-6200.
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The Band’s Visit – Surely you have noticed how so many new musicals are loud, energetic and empty. (Yes, I am looking at you, Frozen and Mean Girls.) Loud and energetic are probably what most theatergoers want, but then they rarely are offered the opposite – a low-key, deliberately paced, intimate little miracle like The Band’s Visit.
It, too, is based on a movie, a small independent foreign-language film from 2007 that relatively few people saw. And just in case your expectations for incidents or significance are pitched too high, they will be adjusted by the opening statement projected on the stage’s back wall: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
As unimportant as, say, human connection and cross-cultural understanding. For this is a fable about a handful of Egyptian musicians, collectively known as the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, who arrive in the sleepy Negev Desert village of Bet Hatikvah. Dressed in their snazzy, if silly, baby blue faux-military uniforms, they are ready to perform at the Arab Cultural Center the following day.
The problem is the concert is in Petah Tikvah. The band bought the wrong bus tickets because of a communication snafu, and now they are stuck in this drab town until they can be rerouted the next day. Think of it as Come From Away, about the 9/11 airline passengers stranded in Canada, but on a much smaller scale.
In a similar way, though, the Egyptians are taken into the modest homes of the Israelis, where language barriers slowly dissolve and surprising similarities are discovered. Nothing earth-shattering, but reassuring nonetheless.
The deadpan script is by Itamar Moses, who cribs much of it from the film. More unexpected is the affecting minor-key music score by David Yazbek, which has little in common with the bombastic music and lyrics he wrote for The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. From the scene-setting “Welcome to Nowhere” to café owner Dina’s tribute to her nation’s cultural icon, “Omar Sharif,” to the finale – a taste of the band’s concert – the languorous, flavorful song cycle is rich with emotional depth.
As band leader Tewfiq Zakaria, Dariush Kashani (Oslo) has assumed the role originated by Tony Shalhoub and invests it will disarming discomfort. Even more compelling is Katrina Lenk (Indecent) as the alluring Dina, whose spirit is revitalized by the presence of the police band. Ari’el Stachel is a standout as the ladies’ man of the band with a musical affection for Chet Baker, as is Adam Kantor as a young local who spends his time hovering near a pay phone for a call from his girl friend.
Director David Cromer strikes exactly the right understated tone, drawing us into this modest world, as realistic as any musical has ever mustered. The Band’s Visit is the only new adult musical this season, as the Tony Awards should surely recognize.
THE BAND’S VISIT, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200.