Broadway was “fully committed” this week, just like the restaurant in the play by that name—which was one of the five openings that occurred on the Great White Way, as the theatre community hurtled toward the Tony Awards consideration cutoff date.
First up, and arguably the most anticipated, was Waitress, the new musical based upon the 2007 motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly that opened April 24 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The musical stars Tony Award winner and current Broadway sweetheart Jessie Mueller and has a score by five-time Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. The all-female crew is headed by the redoubtable Diane Paulus. Those who remember the reviews of Beautiful, the show that got Mueller a Tony, will recognize the pattern in the notices here: show good, star better.
“Ms. Mueller’s talent often outstrips the material she’s given here. So, incidentally, do the gifts of her supporting cast, who provide brightly colored, vibrantly sung performances,” wrote the Times. “The book by Jessie Nelson, based on the movie written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, tends to flatten most of the characters into comic cartoons.”
“The material is anchored at every step by Bareilles' melodious pop score and Mueller’s supremely natural performance as Jenna,” said Variety. “While the stock characters that surround her may be familiar, they're a winsome bunch played by sterling performers.”
Time Out liked the material better than some, calling it “an expertly constructed and emotionally satisfying tale of self-liberation in the face of limited options.” But overall, the best words were saved for Mueller, whom the Chicago Tribune said, “surely there is no singing actress of Mueller’s generation better able to play a woman of low power and self-esteem.”
The Broadway bow of Becky Mode’s Off-Broadway hit of 15 years ago, Fully Committed, was next, opening April 25 at the Lyceum. The raison d'être of this enterprise is TV star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, last seen on Broadway in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and now famous owing to serial Emmy winner “Modern Family.”
Ferguson plays more than 40 characters in the solo show, including a harried reservations clerk at an in-demand eatery, the restaurant chef and a series of guests clamoring for a table.
Nearly every review described Ferguson as immensely likable, and many dropped the term tour de force. Yet, the reviews as a whole were restrained in their enthusiasm, the critics feeling undernourished by both the play and the production.
“Mr. Ferguson…brings such warmth and variety to his performance that you may not notice that in the more than 15 years since the play opened Off-Broadway, it has acquired a slightly sour aftertaste,” wrote the Times. The Wall Street Journal opined, “Mr. Ferguson doesn’t quite have the vocal flexibility necessary to impersonate so widely varied a gallery of characters, and so the tour-de-force aspect of Fully Committed isn't fully realized. Even so, his acting crackles with physical energy and comic life, and it won't take long for you to shelve your doubts and buy into his performance.”
Entertainment Weekly, perhaps, put it most succinctly: “Fully Committed is full of laughs, but leaves you wanting more.”
Next came Tuck Everlasting, the new musical about a love that could live literally forever, which opened April 26 at the Broadhurst Theatre. The show features a book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, based on Natalie Babbitt’s best-selling 1975 novel of the same name. Music is by Chris Miller, and lyrics are by Nathan Tysen. The show’s stars include Carolee Carmello, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Terrence Mann. But the biggest name by far connected with the show is golden-boy director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw.
Did the critics hope it would go on forever? On the whole, the reviews were surprisingly sanguine for a show that hasn’t garnered much attention since arriving in town. Nicholaw’s work, in particular, was praised.
“Family-friendly musicals on Broadway generally come in just one flavor: flashy. Enter Tuck Everlasting, a warm-spirited and piercingly touching musical that has nothing flashy or splashy about it...Mr. Nicholaw…evinces a natural feel for the tender emotional core of the material and even its layers of mildly dark philosophical inquiry.”
“The show that opened Tuesday at the Broadhurst Theatre is wonderfully crafted, a Nicholaw hallmark,” wrote AP. “Poignancy mixes well with humor, the songs are fresh and sweet, the set is blissful and the performances honest. It has a polished feel. All of the parts work smartly.”
“From the small world of unexpected pleasures comes Tuck Everlasting,” echoed Newsday, “a gentle but hardly lightweight fantasy musical about an 11-year-old girl and the prospect of eternal life… This touching low-tech show is for an underserved niche audience—families who want to be thoughtfully charmed for a few hours after being hyper-entertained.”
Not everyone was won over. A number of critics found the tale overly sweet and safe. Deadline said it was “so treacly you may leave the Broadhurst Theatre wanting to kick a puppy. This is mildly surprising because the team behind the show is not known for overdosing on corn syrup.”
The heavyweight dramatic arrival of the week was the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day's Journey Into Night, opening April 27 at the American Airlines Theatre. Directed by Jonathan Kent, the show stars Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone, Gabriel Byrne as James Tyrone, Michael Shannon as James Tyrone, Jr. and John Gallagher Jr. as Edmund Tyrone.
Many of the reviews centered on the performance of Lange, which most approved of.
“The temptation is to talk all day and into the night about Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night,” said Newsday. “It's hard not to dwell on the layers of hard-lived experience that appear and reappear, like a collage of time-lapsed photography, on her handsome face.”
“The heat-seeking center of the production is Lange’s morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone,” wrote Hollywood Reporter. “An edge-of-insanity electrical current runs through much of Lange’s work...It's that attraction to madness that gives this performance such mesmerizing authority.”
The Times, however, was not mesmerized, saying, “Ms. Lange is often acting beautifully, but she is also often palpably acting. And her final soliloquy is stretched self-indulgently thin.”
But overall the notices were good. “As staged by British director Jonathan Kent and acted by a cast that also includes Michael Shannon,” offered Variety, “the Roundabout Theater Company’s outstanding revival has a lighter tone and softer edges that, paradoxically, impart a deeper sorrow onto this classic domestic tragedy.
The final Broadway opening of the week was Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which was unveiled April 28 at the Music Box Theatre. The musical—which tells the backstage story of the landmark all-black Broadway musical of the title— stars Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, plus Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry.
Director George C. Wolfe also wrote the book with Savion Glover creating the choreography. The show represents the first collaboration between Wolfe and tap master Glover since their Tony-winning Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk in 1996.
Some critics complained that the show didn’t seem settled on what it wanted to be. “So just what is it, this tart and sweet, bubbly and flat, intoxicating and sobering concoction being dispensed from the stage of the Music Box Theater?” asked the Times.
“Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed is, like its title suggests, a genre-jumping show, something not comfortable in one box. It’s not a review or revival,” concurred AP. “It’s more like a history lesson that will blow you away.”
But other reviews said, so what? “The project’s strengths far outweigh its flaws,” argued Hollywood Reporter. “The cast is magnificent. It goes without saying at this point that there’s nothing the superhuman McDonald can’t do onstage, but rarely do we get to see her cut loose in exuberant comedic mode to the extent she does here...Even beyond her numbers, McDonald kills it with her timing—every word, look or gesture smacks its target.”
“The first half is sensational; the second is difficult, in terms of our heroes' postsuccess fates and how engagingly their narratives play out,” wrote Time Out. “But with a cast this incandescent (I haven't even mentioned Audra McDonald's tender, guarded brilliance as diva Lottie Gee) and Wolfe staging a constant flow of miracles, there’s an overflow of joy and style that smooths over stylistic rough edges and knotty stitching of history to myth.”