Here is Part Two of my survey of the current Broadway season in New York:
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical – There were surely biographical jukebox musicals before 2005’s Jersey Boys, which celebrated the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. But it was the enormous success of that show that begat Beautiful about Carole King’s life, next season’s Cher musical and this year’s example of this limited, but entertaining genre – Summer, about the personal life and public career of disco diva Donna Summer.
Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who jointly crafted Jersey Boys, set Summer in motion. They are content in the knowledge that they are not making art, but they are satisfying Summer’s legions of fans who yearn to hear that thumping, insistent disco beat of the 1970s bounce around a Broadway theater.
McAnuff, along with Colman Domingo and Robert Cary, are credited with the script, which subdivides Summer into three characters at different times in her life. Narrating and booming out some of Summer’s biggest hits is the remarkable LaChanze, designated as Diva Donna. Then there is seductive Ariana DeBose, a bundle of belting energy as Disco Donna, and Storm Lever, endearingly awkward as Duckling Donna and later Summer’s daughter Mimi. They each, as the song puts it, “word hard for the money,” and occasionally stand back and observe themselves at different times in their lives.
All dressed up by Paul Tazewell, who winks at the excesses of ’70s fashions, Summer understands the value of visual flash, well supplied by Robert Brill’s sets and Sean Nieuwenhuis’s projections.
The show sprints through Summer’s successes and setbacks. There’s childhood abuse from the local preacher, bouts of depression and drug addiction, all on the way to female empowerment. But the storyline is never more than surface deep, eager to get out of the way of the avalanche of songs, from “Love to Love You Baby” to “Bad Girls,” mere preface to an explosive finale of “Hot Stuff” and (what else?) “Last Dance.”
Judging from the rest of the audience, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Like so many musicals this season, Summer may not be particularly well crafted, but it knows what its target ticket buyers want and shamelessly gives it to them.
SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St. 877-250-2929.
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Travesties – If Summer invites us to check our brains at the door and boogie, Tom Stoppard’s 1973 cerebral farce Travesties is a mental exercise on the graduate school level. Political and literary references fly by at warp speed, along with quips and puns. And while you may occasionally yearn for a pause button to allow you to savor a bon mot or two, it is bracing to encounter a play that demands more of you rather than less.
Set in a Zurich library reading room in 1917, as Europe teeters on the brink of World War I, Travesties brings together a trio of revolutionaries – Bolshevik rabble-rouser Vladimir Lenin, Irish wordsmith James Joyce and Dadaist art pioneer Tristan Tzara. But such is Stoppard’s puckish humor that he makes these giants take a back seat to an obscure, though real-life minor British clerk, Henry Carr, whose main claim to notoriety was suing Joyce over the cost of a pair of pants.
With Carr narrating the evening and monopolizing the stage, Travesties considers the intersection of warfare and the arts, often expressed in Joycean limericks and cleverly crafted epigrams reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. Wilde is never seen in the play, but his presence is felt when Stoppard offers him an hommage in a winking excerpt from The Importance of Being Earnest, the play that Carr appeared in and led to the legal skirmish over his pants.
Heading the cast as Carr is Brit Tom Hollander, reprising his Olivier Award-nominated performance at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, again under Patrick Marber’s fast-paced, yet precise direction. Underplaying the role as befits the cipher that is Carr, Hollander is a wily eye of the storm around whom the madcap others revolve. Initially old and doddering, Carr recalls for us the war years in flashback, though he often loses his train of thought or is otherwise derailed from his recollections.
As Tzara and Joyce, Seth Numrich and Peter McDonald are living embodiments of their revolutionary art forms, and Dan Butler skulks around under a dark cloud as a brooding Lenin. And speaking of Lenin, do not be surprised if the theatrical hijinks bring to mind Marx – as in the Brothers.
The library clutter amassed by scenic designer Tim Hatley is a visual representation of the debris collected in Carr’s mind. Hatley also contributes the natty period wardrobe, which varies from realism to a heightened theatricality of Earnest costumes. A best play Tony Award winner 43 years ago, this is the first Broadway revival of Travesties since then, well worth taking on its challenge, even if some of its intricacies may prove elusive.
TRAVESTIES, Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., through Sunday, June 17. 212-719-1300.
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Once on This Island – This 1990 Caribbean-flavored folk tale musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Anastasia) takes place on an unspecified island in the French Antilles. But in the joyous new production directed by Michael Arden, the locale clearly appears to be Haiti, the poverty-stricken land that has been devastated by recent hurricanes.
For there is Circle in the Square’s lozenge-shaped stage, covered with beach sand and pools of brackish water, anchored at one end by an emergency supplies truck. Against the walls are clothes lines of laundry, colorful T-shirts and shorts hung up to dry. Roaming about prior to the first downbeat of music are various residents of the island, one of whom blithely holds a tethered live goat, a pet or perhaps tomorrow’s dinner.
The scenic design by Dane Laffrey is apt for this tale of the power of love and transformation, based on Rosa Guy’s novel “My Love, My Love,” which in turn has roots in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” It concerns a young peasant girl named Ti Moune, orphaned and stranded in a tree by a mighty storm. Adopted into a nurturing, though impoverished family, the girl is taught that their island consists of “two different worlds never meant to meet.”
But meet they do, when the native deities – Goddess of Love Erzulie, God of Water Agwe, Mother of the Earth Asaka, and Demon of Death Papa Ge – mischievously meddle in her life, crashing the sports car of Daniel, an affluent white man from the other side of the island. When Ti Moune nurses him back to health, they profess their love for each other – in song, of course – but a lasting relationship between them seems unlikely.
Once on This Island is a simple, albeit heart-tugging fable, elevated to musical theater bliss by Flaherty’s rhythmic abandon and the steel drum percussive orchestrations credited to Annamarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin. As one of Ahrens’ lyrics puts it, “To the music of the gods, we dance,” and choreographer Camille A. Brown takes that cue to put her cast in near-constant motion with lively abandon.
As Ti Moune, swan-like Hailey Kilgore makes her Broadway debut memorable. If her character sings of “Waiting for Life (to Begin),” the performer’s career has received a persuasive jump start. The most recognizable name in the cast is surely Miss Saigon’s Lea Salonga in the supporting role of Erzulie, which affords her a standout solo on “The Human Heart.” Just try and sit still when Alex Newell lifts his voice with the calypso-crossed-with-Broadway tune, “Mama Will Provide.” It can’t be done.
Some of this season’s best musicals come in small packages, which certainly applies to this spirited, reconceived revival, a breath of fresh island air.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St. 212-239-6200.
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A Letter to Harvey Milk – Leslea Newman’s short story about a San Francisco widower who comes to grips with his past through a creative writing course seems an unlikely source for a musical, but Ellen M. Schwartz, Laura I. Kramer and others have adapted it to the stage and turned it into an understated, affecting off-Broadway theater piece.
Those who recall Milk may be drawn to this show and those unaware of the first gay elected official in San Francisco – assassinated in City Hall in 1978 – could use the history lesson. Despite the title, however, this musical is not primarily about Milk, but about loss, starting over and forging human connections. Modest in production values, yet brimming with emotions, this is a show that should grab anyone open to its gentle offbeat charms.
Long in development, Harvey Milk first surfaced at the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Now, it could well be a showcase for a promising songwriting team, but Schwartz has since died without seeing her labors acclaimed. The fact that the musical collaboration has had an untimely end only adds to the bittersweet impact of the show.
The musical centers on Harry Weinberg, a retired kosher butcher who decides to take a creative writing course at the local senior center, an attempt to start living again after the death of his beloved wife, Frannie. His teacher is a young lesbian named Barbara who emphasizes exploring personal details in what one writes, but Harry is resistant because of the dark secrets we eventually learn he harbors.
Given an assignment to write to someone he knew who is now deceased, rather than choose his wife, Harry pens a letter to Milk, who used to patronize his shop. Barbara, an admirer of Milk’s from an historical perspective, is moved by Harry’s letter, and she and Harry begin to explore their own similarities. Both are Jewish, for example, but Barbara knows little of her religion or its culture. Frannie, who hovers over Harry’s shoulder, becomes jealous of his new friendship, even though she is no longer alive. Oy.
The score is rich in character, skillfully structured and grows increasingly dark as the show takes a melodramatic left turn at the 11th hour. You can understand Schwartz and Kramer’s desire for some comic relief, but a number set in a delicatessen, as Harry introduces Barbara to its culinary wonders, seems strained and silly.
Much of the cast has been involved with the show over its evolution and it shows. As Harry, Adam Heller fleshes out the role ably, endearing us to him while he conveys a wary lost soul. Julia Knitel’s Barbara is more open – too much so according to Harry, who worries about her frankness about her sexual orientation. His attitude seems odd for San Francisco in the mid-’80s, but it plays into the musical’s ultimate reveal. Among their multiple roles, Michael Bartoli and CJ Pawlikowski impersonate Milk and his assassin Dan White believably, and Cheryl Stern – credited with writing additional lyrics – get some of the show’s best punch lines as Frannie, albeit a sterotypical character.
A Letter to Harvey Milk is compact enough that it should receive subsequent productions around the country. It deserves to be discovered and enjoyed, as an unassuming, human-scale musical, neither loud nor bombastic.
A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK, Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. Through Sat., June 30. 212-239-6200.
Hamilton – So what am I doing reviewing a show that has now been running on Broadway almost three years? It pains me to admit that the press agent for Hamilton has ignored me all this time, concluding perhaps – OK, correctly – that he does not need my opinion on the most acclaimed, in-demand musical of this century.
Fortunately, a New York cousin – shout-out to Josh Schiffrin – has better connections than I do and was able to score tickets for which others are offering their first-born. And yes, after all the hype, the 11 Tony Awards, the Grammy for the cast album plus the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it is a relief to report that this tale of the first Treasury secretary and other Founding Fathers really is as revolutionary as you may have already heard.
Lin-Manuel Miranda follows up his award-winning 2008 hip-hop musical In the Heights, extending that show’s lyric-dense, playfully rhymed musical vocabulary to tell the history of that dude on the 10-dollar bill. Chances are you know he was on the losing end of a duel with Aaron Burr, but did you know he was also a Caribbean immigrant who rose to become George Washington’s right-hand man, a major author of the Federalist Papers and architect of our financial system?
It is all there in the musical, but you will have to lean in and listen hard, because a lot of the historical details fly by at a breakneck pace. Not that all the score is rap, for in his efforts to change the sound of Broadway, Miranda also demonstrates an awareness and admiration for the traditions of the musical theater genre.
If he gives our Founding Fathers a new form of expression, Miranda and his frequent collaborator, director Thomas Kail, also give them a new look. The show is cast largely with African-American and Hispanic performers – a tip of the wig to the melting pot that the nation will become – a conscious choice that continues as the Broadway company at the Richard Rodgers Theatre has almost entirely been recast over time.
Now playing Hamilton is Michael Luwoye, a verbally nimble firebrand who easily woos the audience to his side against Burr (Daniel Breaker), the Iago to Hamilton’s Othello. Fresh from his Tony-winning turn in Aladdin, hefty James Monroe Iglehart makes the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson his own, notably in the second-act opener, “What’d I Miss?”
In case you assumed that the intersection of sex and politics is a recent happenstance, Miranda details how Hamilton is drawn to both Eliza Schuyler (Lexi Lawson) and her sister Angelica (Mandy Gonzalez), marrying the former but still attracted to the latter. Yet he still has time for an affair with Maria Reynolds (Joanna A. Jones), a costly transgression both politically and financially.
And as the token white character, Euan Morton has a trio of brief, but sly scene-stealing appearances as Britain’s King George, sneering at these upstart colonists and their impudent rebellion (“You’ll Be Back”) and later at the risible notion of John Adams trying to fill Washington’s presidential shoes.
Miranda packs a lot of history in this remarkable evening of theater and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler sets it in motion all over David Korin’s rough-hewn wooden set. Within legal bounds, do what you have to do to see Hamilton.
HAMILTON, Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., 877-250-2929.