Saturday, July 16, 2011

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway

Review and summary of our
2011 NYC trip
Here we are again with our annual summary of our NYC/Broadway theatre visit. This year, 14 shows in 9 days! Not bad for two old guys. The quality of the productions this year has been outstanding, in our opinion; and the really good news: musicals with ORIGINAL music scores dominate (versus jukebox musicals that have been showing up in the past few years). Yeah!!

So good are the shows that ranking them seems almost wrong. But, we do what we have to do. But, because several things we saw have already closed or will close in the next few days (all due to pre-planned, relatively short runs), I will first rank and talk about the shows, which are at this point "Open End" runs. Please note, some shows that closed would actually be ranked above some of these; but these are also real winners all.

THE MUST-SEES (Ranked in my order of preference, but all are really good; and if you are going to NYC, any and all are a sure-bet, in my opinion.):

1) "Anything Goes" (Cole Porter's musical at the Stephen Sondheim Theater): Upfront admission: "Anything Goes " has been one of my Top 5 all-time musicals for 25 years. I have seen 3 full productions before this one, but this one shines better, brassier, funnier, and more spectacular than ever. My feet have hardly stopped tapping a week later, and my grin is still halving my face into two parts as I think back on every minute of this brilliant production. The Tony's got it right this year! Tony Award winner Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney is really funny; she is a great singer; and wow ... Can those long legs of hers dance!! And Joel Grey as Moonface Martin almost steals the show time and again. Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall directs and choreographs. The show-stopping title number with a stage full of tap dancers is my all-time favorite chorus production number. While I know "Anything Goes" will be revived again and again, this revival is really worth the trip to New York to see.


2) "Jerusalem" by Jez Butterworth would have been my vote for Best Play 2011. This biting, dark comedy that touches some of Wagner's 'Ring' themes: the death of our idealized gods/heroes, the end of believing Valhalla/heaven is part of our world, rebirth through self-sacrifice. (Can you tell that we had just seen San Francisco Opera’s outstanding “American” Ring Cycle a couple weeks before? It is still stuck in our psyche.) Magnificent acting abounds, especially from Tony winner Mark Rylance in the lead role of Johnny 'Rooster' Byron. This is a play that should work 20 years hence (unlike the play that won "Best Play" this year ... but more on that later). This play begins in the first act as totally hilarious, becomes a bit darker in Act 2, and then just slaps the audience in the face time and again in Act 3 as Rooster's world created on stage crumbles around him and us. This is not a play for the light-hearted. But, I believe it is an important play that will be studied and revered for a long, long time.

3) ‎"War Horse" (adapted by Nick Stafford and the Handspring Puppet Company at Lincoln Center) is an eye-popping, deeply moving play whose main source of amazement is definitely in the puppetry. I totally forgot at times that there were not live horses on stage. The beauty, strength, and agony of these 'horses' is felt by every person in the audience, with people actually oohing and gasping audibly at various points during the performance. The entire production is so creative and excels in visually capturing the brutal, useless story of WWI. However, the story and its outcome is much too predictable from the beginning, and the fact that the cruelty to humans takes such a back seat to the cruelty to animals in this story about WWI is a bit disturbing (to me at least). But in the end, the story takes back seat to the overall, magnificent, creative and eye-popping production in this must-see Tony-named "Best Play 2011." (Coming to SF in 2012.)


4) "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying" (Frank Loesser, music & score) not only succeeds, it exceeds & excels. Kudos go to Daniel Radcliffe, who evidently has grown into the part since the initial, average reviews of his performance when the show opened. He is a terrific J. Pierrepont Finch. The "Harry Potter"/"Equus" star shines in his dancing, comical antics, and facial expressions that beam to the rafters. While on a solo ballad he is not Cheyenne Jackson (and then who is?), on the more bombastic, fun numbers, he is superb. And he is the perfect match (at what seems about barely 5.5 feet tall) to the towering, 2011 Tony Award Best Actor in a Musical, John Larroquette. The two together are almost Laurel & Hardy like at times. The near-finale number, 'Brotherhood of Man,' is probably the 2nd biggest and best chorus number currently on B'Way (behind the 10-minute tap dancing number 'Anything Goes') and brought many in the audience to their feet in applause. This show is in many ways dated in its view of 'secretaries' and the men's world/club of a large company. But this production actually updates itself quite well by making it very clear it is set in those long ago, early days of the 1960's with the mores and views of that period. I loved the show years ago with Matthew Broderick in the title role. I loved it as much or more this time.


5) "The Book of Mormon" (Trey Parker, Matt Stone (of TV’s South Park) & Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater). No doubt, "The Book of Mormon" is hilarious, big, and musically appealing. In the end, the musical is not just about satirizing Mormons & religion (although it certainly does a lot of that in ways that will make some people squirm big-time). It is at the core really about heart, caring, & dedication to doing good. I think the Tony Best New Musical for 2011 makes sense. I don't think the bandwagon of 9 Tonys means it is a musical we'll see revived in 50 years -- or even 5. And, without family appeal, it may not last that long on B'Way, my guess (beyond the next year or two). It is worth seeing, but I rank it lower in my list because I think the above musicals are overall much more the complete thing. (I also think the next two are VERY close to "BOM" in terms of overall quality, appeal, and fun -- if not nearly so shocking).


6) "Sister Act" (music & score by 8-time Oscar and 10-time Grammy winning Alan Menkin at the Broadway Theater) has the type of music (real 70s disco) that the world premiere 'Tales of the City' in SF should have. Alan Menkin got it right for this show (as opposed to the Scissor Sisters team, Jake Shears and John Garden, in writing the music for "Tales.') This is a fun musical that re-creates itself from the movie by changing the music and the decade when it takes place. I was skeptical going in (although I had read lots of good reviews and audience comments), but I was totally surprised and blown away by the music, the sets, the great lighting, and just the energy and heart of it all. The cast overall shines with heavenly appeal. I think it would be impossible to leave the theater not thanking the One Above for live theater and original music for the theater. Amen!


7) "Catch Me If You Can" (Terrance McNally book and music by Marc Shaiman & Scott Whitman) is fun, fun, fun. (This was another one I walked in with lots of doubt about. I tend not to like that much musicals from movies, but I was once again proven wrong.) Tony Best Actor Norbert Leo Butz totally proves why he won as the real life FBI agent Carl Hanratty; but how could cute, talented, charismatic Aaron Tveit not have even been nominated for his truly outstanding musical, dancing, and acting in the lead role of the con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr.? His high tenor notes are pure as they can be. (Perhaps, this is one of those performers who have gotten much better since the original reviews as he has grown into the role.) Sitting front row center was a hoot!! I totally enjoyed the story, the music, and the overall production.


8) "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (Palace Theater) is like stepping onto a magic bus ride across Australia. Matter of fact, the real star of this show is the bus itself as it changes complexion and functions all through the production. We laughed with delight throughout the evening at the lyrics, the antics, the dances. But what makes this show really worth seeing in the end: the costumes and the overall staging. The music is contagious; the voices, belting; & the bodies, oh my!! Fun, fun, fun. This show did not garner much Tony attention but it does offer up an evening of glitzy, giddy, rollicking good time fun.


Unfortunately, everything else we saw has already closed or is closing in the next week or so. These are mostly plays, and plays usually have shorter runs on Broadway than the big musicals, which all dream of running for years. However, many of these plays will show up again locally around the country in regional theaters; and a couple will probably tour. Here is my ranked listing of the rest of what we saw. The first two would be ranked (by me at least) above everything we saw this year, including all the ones listed above.)

1. "The Normal Heart" (now closed) won Best Revival Play this year. It was an amazing production. We saw the closing performance. Here was what I wrote a few minutes after walking out: "I am drained & wordless to describe tonight's final performance of 'The Normal Heart.’ After playwright Larry Kramer's curtain call speech (he was standing 3 feet from me), we all cried; and the packed audience left silently (except for sniffs and lots of hugging of once strangers, now members of a special community created by this moving play). Thank you, Larry Kramer for your anger & your love." As many know, this play describes the first years of the AIDs crisis, 1981-84. It was written and performed on Broadway soon after this awful disease was given a name and long before there was any sign of hope. As it ran on Broadway, scores were dying each week in New York and all over the country. Here is what one of my friends says about attending that first production: "I first saw it in NYC in the 1980s, when the drama depicted in the play was playing live all around us. Back then, it was so very emotional to me as I had too many friends that were sick and dying. There were people that left at intermission, because it was too overwhelming. That theatrical experience for me was the strongest I have ever experienced."

2. "Unnatural Acts" tells a horrendous, homophobic 'witch hunt' performed by Harvard University in the 1920s and kept secret for 80 years until a sophomore in 2002 relentlessly pursued the lies and denials to reveal how the hallowed halls rid itself of 10 gay men. The play is as powerful as any I've ever seen. The final question we hear: 'How many times must this happen? My question I was left with: How much longer must we have to ask this question? This play is a short-run until late July, but I expect it will show up in the next year or two on some San Francisco stage. If so, I urge everyone to go see it.

3. "Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo" by Rajiv Joseph (with Robin Williams on the now-closed Broadway stage) as a ghost tiger is a haunting questioning of how can there be a G-d who allows war. Everyone in play is a victim, and everyone is a perpetrator, including G-d. This production is slated to make a worldwide tour. I am not sure about the rest of the U.S. It is very difficult to watch at times, but it is all-so powerful. Ed and I talked and talked about it the entire evening and next day after seeing it.

4. Being in the 1st-ever audience at the preview of a world-premiere musical is thrilling, maybe even more than opening night. Roundabout Theatre's time-limited run of the new Maury Yeston musical "Death Takes a Holiday" is the real thing. Like a light opera, it leaves you humming its tunes and swimming in its story of love. (I think it would be perfect production for TheatreWorks to mount.) This off-Broadway play runs for a couple more weeks.


5. "The Motherf**ker with the Hat" by Stephen Adly Guirgis: Screaming the f-word in rapid fire progressions as discoveries are made of real and supposed sexual betrayals is one way to sum up 'The Mother-F**ker with the Hat." Another way is to say it's a tour-de-force about how hard it is to trust enough to love and to assume good rather than foul intent. Both are true for me in this funny, sad, powerhouse. And Chris Rock rocks in this show that will close July 17. Look for it in to reappear in the more edgy, daring stages across the land.

I can neither recommend nor not recommend "Sleep No More" (Punchdrunk's off-off-Broadway production from London at the McKittrick Hotel through Sept. 5). Is it a prolonged nightmare? An adult haunted house? Shakespeare for the 21st Century? After 3 hours of frantically following the frolics and frenzy over 5 floors of an old hotel (& a 2-level, cavernous basement) for a no-words, mostly mime & dance production of a film-noir-like "Macbeth," I walked away not sure what we had seen exactly. It is a sold-out hit right now, attended by many, many younger sorts. Audience members roam in masks, silent, with no guidance. Sometimes I ran into lots of dance and action. Other times, I was either roaming through one of the 100 rooms or in a forest or a graveyard by myself or I found myself locked in a room with a woman packing a suitcase for 15 minutes. Some scenes were familiar from "Macbeth." Others, I had no idea how they related to the original play. In the end, it was interesting (for the first hour at least), but it is not the kind of evening I would once again automatically buy a ticket to.

We purposely chose not to see “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” despite it being the most talked about show on Broadway. Everything we have read and heard about the show is that it is a disaster and sub-standard. Why waste our time and money on a production that crowds are paying top dollar to attend just to see if a performer gets hurt.

As always, while in New York we took a couple of Big Onion walking tours. This year we explored with excellent guides two neighborhoods: Chelsea and then Union Square/Gramercy Park. Both two-hour tours were extremely interesting in enlightening us about buildings and statues we pass every day while in New York but have no idea the great stories underlying their histories.

We played the night fantastic at our favorite bars: Monster (where we met two, new friends we are going to meet in Palm Springs later this year), the Gym, G Lounge, XES, and Industry. We ate at wonderful old friends (Nisos, Pomaire, Lasagna) and tried new ones (Barbetta, Blue Fin, Sangria 46). We spent wonderful time with our friends David & Mark and with our cousins Stefano & Scott as well as connected with two Bay Area best buddies, Lisa & Kaila. We also had a great time with post-show drinks with our producer friend Randy. We saw the pet adaption/charity event “Broadway Barks” on Shubert Alley with Mary Tyler Moore, Bernadette Peters, John Larroquette and Joel Grey. We spent an afternoon roaming the modern art galleries in the Meat Packing district, and of course we shopped the men's stores in Chelsea (and bought). And, our dear friend of many, many years, Phyllis, joined us once again from D.C. to attend plays and to eat & drink with us the first weekend.

New York is now an old friend of ours. We feel so at home there. We love the streets, the people, the stages. But, in the end, we also love even more our "City by the Bay!"
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...