In Case You Missed It: March 19-25

Week in Review   In Case You Missed It: March 19-25
 
Bright Star opened on Broadway; New York is getting a new Front Page; and Hamilton announces open casting calls.
Michael Pearce, Bennett Sullivan, Rob Berman, and Martha McDonnell in <i>Bright Star</i>
Michael Pearce, Bennett Sullivan, Rob Berman, and Martha McDonnell in Bright Star Nick Stokes

Bright Star, the original new musical with music and book by the Broadway newbie team of actor-comedian Steve Martin and pop singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, officially opened March 24 at the Cort Theatre.

The story, inspired by a real event, is set in the American South in the 1920s and '40s. The leading figures are literary editor Alice Murphy and a young soldier just home from World War II, who awakens Alice’s longing for the child she once lost.

The show, directed by Broadway vet Walter Bobbie, hasn’t been getting much in the way of attention or crowds since beginning previews, despite the recognition value of the two creators’ names. (The rule of thumb around Broadway is ticket buyers show up if a star is in a show, not if a star wrote, produced or directed a show.) So, a lot depended on the reviews.

The Times was guardedly positive, saying, “The musical is gentle-spirited, not gaudy, and moves with an easygoing grace where others prance and strut. And it tells a sentiment-spritzed story.” The good news was that Carmen Cusack, who plays the protagonist Alice Murphy, was “making a simply gorgeous Broadway debut”—an opinion shared by other critics. “While the story certainly skirts (if not embraces) sentimentality and the overripeness of melodrama,” the review continued, “the production's soft-hued style—and the sometimes wry tone of Mr. Martin's book—keeps it from curdling into treacle.”

AP was not nearly as enthusiastic. The service called the show “a cliche-ridden, foot-pounding, over-eager Southern Gothic romance that ill serves a wonderful Broadway debut in Carmen Cusack. The show that opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre never hits an honest note and seems to have been written by two people who adore classic Broadway musicals but who have intentionally decided to make a third-rate version. The music, with a few exceptions, is weak...The book and lyrics are even more feeble, with graceless lines...and weird characters.” (“Weird characters” is a criticism? Has the AP critic not attended a Broadway musical during the last 25 years?)

Variety thought Bobbie’s showbiz-slick approach did the material no favors, saying, “the sheer scale of the package overwhelms this sweet but slender homespun material.”

Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, was having none of it: “Steve Martin is, among many other things, a good banjo player who writes not-so-great plays. Now he’s branched out by writing a really bad bluegrass-pop musical.” Ouch.

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John Lithgow in <i>The Front Page</i>, 1986.
John Lithgow in The Front Page, 1986.

Call it the Spotlight effect.

Journalism will be back on Broadway this fall in the form of a new revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 comedy masterpiece The Front Page. Jack O’Brien will direct.

The play, which is set in a bustling Chicago press room, is scheduled to begin rehearsals in August prior to a first performance on or about September 20. Scott Rudin Productions is producing.

A June 2011 reading of Front Page was helmed by Daniel Sullivan and featured Nathan Lane as hard-charging editor Walter Burns and Billy Crudup as ambivalent ace reporter Hildy Johnson.

The 1928 play was last seen on Broadway in 1986 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in a famous and well-received production directed by Jerry Zaks and starring John Lithgow. The play has been adapted for screen many times, most famously as the Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell comedy His Girl Friday in 1940, in which the sex of the Johnson character was switched to female, making her the love interest of Burns.

***

Writing team Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey certainly have a métier, and that is writing musicals about adult women in extraordinary existential crisis.

The authors of Next to Normal and If/Then are next going to musicalize the oft-filmed story of Freaky Friday, based on the celebrated Mary Rodgers novel and popular Disney films.

Christopher Ashley will direct the production, which will be staged by the Signature Theatre Company in Virginia. Performances are scheduled to run October 4-November 20.

***

Dick Gregory
Dick Gregory Elvert Barnes

John Legend and Mike Jackson, in association with Get Lifted Film Company, have announced that they will present Turn Me Loose Off-Broadway, a new comedic drama by Gretchen Law about the life of comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory.

Gregory is considered to be the first successful black comedian to make jokes about bigotry, and at age 83, he continues to make an impact today. In a recent interview President Obama called him one of his two favorite comics ever. Joe Morton is tapped to play the comedian in the production, which will play the Westside Theatre beginning May 3.

Turn Me Loose is the second show this year that singer Legend is helping produce. He was behind the recent production of 3 Mics, Neal Brennan’s solo show at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre.

When asked what attracted him to this new project, Legend said in a statement: “People like Dick Gregory, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone show me what the definition of an artist is—it isn’t just to make art but to speak truth to what’s happening, speak beauty into the world, speak love into the world and also… get involved.”

***

If you can’t get tickets to the Broadway blockbuster Hamilton, maybe you stand a better chance seeing the show by becoming a member of the cast instead.

The show has announced that it will hold “open auditions for singers who rap” in New York City May 3 for replacements for the New York production and cast members for upcoming national tours.

An “open call” means you do not have to already be a member of Actors’ Equity in order to audition. Such a wide-net approach to casting has been used by unorthodox musicals in the past, most famously Rent, which pioneered the process.

According to an audition notice from Telsey & Co., producers are seeking "non-white men and women, ages 20s to 30s, for Broadway and upcoming tours! No prior theatre experience necessary."

A separate notice says that open calls will also be held in Los Angeles and San Francisco in mid-April for “amazing singers, rappers, and dancers for the upcoming touring and Chicago companies and for future replacements in the Broadway production of Hamilton. Equity and non-Equity performers of all ethnicities encouraged to submit.”

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